A Winter Idyll: a story about coming home

The lawyer’s office was stuffy, a blazing fire heating the room. It had been a relief at first, after the freezing air of the street outside, but after ten minutes, Colonel Johnny Wheeler was beginning to feel as though he was quietly roasting. His host, sitting across the table with an impressive array of papers set out before him, seemed unaffected.

“Very good to see you looking so well, Colonel,” Mr Langley said. Johnny found himself smiling inwardly at the words, since Langley’s cadaverous face and gloomy tones gave the impression that Johnny’s well-being depressed him.

“Thank you, I’m recovering well. I probably won’t need this for much longer.” Johnny touched the sturdy cane which he had been using, since a serious leg wound at San Munoz several months ago had left him close to death during the miserable retreat from Burgos. “I was surprised to receive your letter, Mr Langley, but it came at a good time, since we’re in winter quarters so I’m not needed.”

“Indeed. I believe it is a long time since you were in England, Colonel?”

“Four years, I suppose,” Johnny said, thinking about it. “I came out in 1808, went back briefly at the end of that year, and then returned with Wellington – Wellesley as he was then – the following year. There’s little leave granted and I’ve not applied, since apart from my uncle, I’ve no family to visit. The last time I saw him was the Christmas before I left, and he was already very frail. I’ve written from time to time but he stopped replying a couple of years ago. To be honest, I wondered if he’d died and nobody knew to inform me.”

“Surely you realised that your cousin would have written?” Langley said, somewhat repressively.

“I hope she would have, sir, but there’s no real obligation. I’ve not seen Susan since I joined the army and we were never close. I was very sorry to hear of her death, though, she was so young.”

“It was very quick and very unexpected – a fever epidemic which swept through a number of towns and cities. Both Mrs Fletcher and her husband died within a week of each other. I think the shock probably hastened your uncle’s death.”

“How old is the child now?” Johnny asked. “I’m ashamed to say I’ve no idea.”

Langley peered at him blankly over the top of his spectacles. “Child?” he asked. “Colonel Wheeler, there is no child.”

Johnny stared back, bewildered. “What do you mean? I remember my uncle writing to me to tell me how happy he was. A grandson.”

“Mrs Fletcher’s son died in infancy, Colonel, and she had no others, although I know your uncle hoped that she would. I’m sorry, I thought you understood from my letter, when I explained that there were business matters to attend to.”

Johnny reflected that the lawyer’s letter had been so verbose and full of over-elaborate periods that he had never given it a second reading. He wondered if Mr Langley had failed to be clear or if he had simply skipped the boring parts.

“I rather assumed that you were telling me that I was going to be appointed guardian and trustee for my nephew,” Johnny said.

“Not at all, Colonel. You are in fact, your uncle’s heir.”

Johnny sat still, thinking about Charles Wheeler. He had always liked his uncle, although he had not seen him regularly since joining the army. Charles had taken a kindly interest in his early career and had funded both his first commission and his promotion to lieutenant, since Johnny’s father had not been able to afford either. When Charles’ only daughter grew old enough to be presented, he had focused his energy and his money on seeing her well-established, and Johnny had not expected more and been grateful for his generosity. He realised now that he had missed their desultory correspondence since it died away, more than he had realised.

“Where is he buried?” he asked. “My uncle.”

“In the churchyard at Aberly. Your cousin and her husband are buried with their son in Derby.”

“And there’s no other heir?”

“No,” Langley said. “Forgive me, Colonel, but I had expected that this would be good tidings for you. I am aware that you have risen in your profession, but Limm Abbey is a fine property. A little neglected in recent years, but I am told that the tenancies are in good order.”

“It’s a shock to be honest,” Johnny said bluntly. “I thought I was coming home for a few weeks to settle my uncle’s affairs and to make the acquaintance of my nephew. This rather feels like a lot more work than that, and it bothers me, because I can’t stay for too long.”

Langley made a sound which sounded suspiciously like a snort. “I rather assumed that you would choose to sell out, Colonel. With your recent wound, nobody would think worse of you, and you have responsibilities here…”

“I have responsibilities there as well, Mr Langley, and while this war continues, they come first,” Johnny said inexorably. “I imagine my uncle must have had an agent?”

“He did, but you will not wish to continue with him,” Langley said, somewhat shortly. “He is elderly, and I would not place the whole care of the estate on a man of his age. I suggest…”

“It’s good of you, Mr Langley, but I think I need to speak to him myself, and to have a look around, to find out how things stand. If I need to find a new agent, may I write to you for help with that? As I said, I’ve limited time.”

“Of course,” Langley said stiffly. “Will you be going directly to Aberly?”

“Yes, I’ll arrange to post up.”

“Where are you staying in town?”

“In Curzon Street, with the family of my commanding officer. I’ll make the travel arrangements. In the meantime, perhaps you could take me through the rest of the paperwork. As far as I’m aware, Limm Abbey was the only property.”

“It was. There is some money, however, and some investments, mostly in government bonds. I have a copy of your uncle’s will here and a list of all his assets.” Langley passed several sheets of paper over to Johnny. “His bankers will want to see you before you leave town, I imagine. It isn’t a vast fortune, Colonel, but it’s a comfortable living.”

Johnny stared at the lawyer for some moments. “A comfortable living,” he said softly. “Jesus, what in God’s name am I going to do with that.”

It had been some years since Johnny had visited his uncle’s home at Limm Abbey, on the edge of the Derbyshire village of Aberly. Arriving in the chill of a January afternoon, he was grateful to find that Mr Langley’s letter had reached the house ahead of him, and the housekeeper was ready to welcome him with a roaring fire and a hot meal.

The original buildings at Limm Abbey dated from a twelfth century Benedictine foundation, and as a boy, Johnny had loved playing among the graceful ruins. The current house had been part of the Abbey great hall, extended and rebuilt over the centuries to form an attractive manor house built in mellow local stone, set in the middle of well laid out gardens and surrounded by a home farm and half a dozen tenant farms. There was no lake, but a river ran through the grounds and as his hired chaise rattled over the old monks’ bridge and up the short driveway to the house, Johnny could remember his uncle teaching him to fish off the bridge.

He knew none of the staff. His uncle had been an invalid for several years and had kept only a minimal number of servants; a housekeeper, a cook, a parlour maid and kitchen maid, one manservant and a groom to manage his uncle’s horses.

“We’ve not needed more, sir, with the master not entertaining,” Mrs Green said, as she showed Johnny to the master bedroom.  “Especially after Miss Susan died. He never really got over it.”

“I’m not surprised, he adored her,” Johnny said, looking around the room. He could not remember ever coming up here, but it was not hard to imagine his uncle’s last days in this dark panelled room. The windows were long, hung with faded green drapes, and Johnny walked over and threw them open to let in the weak winter sunlight, noticing the absence of dust and the sparkling panes. He looked around. “You’ve worked hard,” he commented, and the housekeeper, a trim woman of about his own age, blushed slightly.

“I had some of the women up from the village when we knew you were coming, sir. It just needed a good turning out, we’d not wanted to disturb the master in those last months.”

“Thank you, I’m grateful. I’m afraid I’m likely to prove a very absentee master for a year or two; I’ve already explained to Mr Langley that I’ve no intention of abandoning my career in the army just yet, I’ve men who rely on me. To be honest, Mrs Green, I need to spend a few weeks setting my affairs and then I’ll be relying on you to keep the house in order while I’m away.”

The housekeeper bobbed a curtsey. “Of course, sir.”

“I’d like to speak to all the staff before dinner, to introduce myself; will you arrange it, please? And I need to see Mr Ludlow, the agent. I understand he doesn’t live here?”

“No, sir, he has a small house at the edge of the village. I can send Hanson with a message.”

“No, don’t worry. I’ll visit him tomorrow. I’ve not looked at the stables, but I understand my uncle kept a couple of horses?”

“Three, sir. The carriage horses are both elderly, they can pull the small barouche if needed, but not that far and not that fast. Star is in better condition; Hanson keeps her exercised.”

“Excellent, I’ll ride over then.”

“I’ll send your man up to unpack for you, sir.”

The village of Aberly was a mile from Limm, a picturesque Derbyshire village set around a small grass square. There were two inns on opposite sides of the village green and on the fourth side was the imposing tower of St Peter’s Church. Johnny stabled his horse at the Plough and walked first over to the churchyard in search of information about his uncle’s grave. He found the parson who led him to the newly erected stone, the turf still raw about it. Johnny stood for a long time, looking down at the name of the man who had allowed him to be where he was. He had always been conscious, through his long years in the army, of how much he owed Charles Wheeler, but he had never expected to step into his shoes and it brought a new closeness to the man as well as a pang of sorrow that he had not managed to see him before he died. He made his apologies silently, knowing that Charles would have understood that duty came first.

Afterwards he followed the parson’s directions uphill through the village to the old mill house at the far end. The mill was long disused, although Johnny could see the remains of the old wooden wheel against the side of the crumbling mill building. But the cottage beside it, set in a well tended garden, was trim and neat and Johnny went through the wooden gate and knocked on the door.

It was opened by a maid in a dark dress, who conducted him through to a dim parlour. The girl lit several lamps and stoked up the fire then disappeared. After only a moment, the door opened and a young woman came in.

“Colonel Wheeler? My apologies, sir, we were not expecting you today. My father will be with you shortly. A winter cough has him laid up, but he will want to see you.”

“I am sorry, I should have sent a message first,” Johnny said, studying the girl. She was probably in her mid-twenties, perhaps a little more, dressed with propriety rather than elegance in a long sleeved green gown. It suited her colouring; she had bright red hair which could not have been called anything other than ginger, confined firmly under a lacy cap.

“Miss Ludlow?” Johnny guessed. The girl blushed a little and curtseyed politely.

“Yes, sir, I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself first. We aren’t accustomed to many visitors; I am out of the habit of society.”

“I’ve just come from an army camp, ma’am, you’re not going to get much in the way of grand manners from me,” Johnny said gravely, and surprised a laugh out of her. The smile transformed her; she had the pointed face of a woodland elf, with cat green eyes and too many freckles to be considered pretty, but when she smiled she lit up the room and Johnny was conscious of a surprising wish to see her do it again.

“I suppose not,” she said. “There is no sign of it so far, though, Colonel. Please sit down, I will ask Mary to bring you some refreshment. Some wine, perhaps?”

“I’d prefer tea,” Johnny said, and she looked surprised and slightly relieved.

“Certainly. I’ll check on my father and be with you shortly.”

Johnny had been prepared for an elderly man, but he was slightly shocked at how frail Arthur Ludlow seemed to be. He was neatly dressed in a dark suit, his sparse white hair tidy and his linen clean, but he came into the room on the arm of his daughter looking like a very sick man. Johnny rose and shook his hand, making civil enquiries about his health.

“Just a cold. A winter cold. The place is draughty,” Ludlow said, sinking gratefully into the chair. “Is that tea, m’dear? I’ll take a cup, thank you.” He looked at Johnny. “You’ve met my daughter, Mary, haven’t you?”

“Miss Ludlow introduced herself when I arrived,” Johnny said. “I am sorry to arrive like this, Mr Ludlow, especially since you are unwell. Did you receive Mr Langley’s letter explaining the circumstances?”

Ludlow did not immediately reply and Johnny wondered if he had not heard him. Before he could repeat himself, Miss Ludlow said:

“You told me that it arrived last week, Father. Before your cough got so much worse.”

“Yes. Yes, of course. Of course.”

“If I had more time, we could delay this. And I’m absolutely not willing to keep you from your bed too long today. I’m wondering about the estate books. I could see no sign of them up in the estate office, at least not the recent ones. Do you…?”

“They’re all here, Colonel,” Miss Ludlow said. “My father asked them to be brought down so that he could continue to work. When he heard you were coming, he made extensive notes for you. In case he was not well enough to see you.”

“Thank you, that’s very good of you,” Johnny said. He was aware of a sudden tingling sense that something was slightly amiss. There was nothing but warm welcome and co-operation from these people, and he had no intention of forcing Ludlow into a lengthy session with the books given his obvious state of ill-health, but he had a strong sense that there was something he did not know. “I’d like to take them back with me today, if I may. If the weather holds, I’ll do a tour of the estate over the next few days and meet the tenants. I hope by the end of the week to have a much better sense of what I’ll need to do before I have to return to Portugal. As you’ll not be well enough yourself, sir, I’ll get the groom to show me around.”

“I can do it,” Miss Ludlow said. Johnny stared at her and she flushed slightly. “I mean…if you would like, sir. I grew up here, I know the estate as well as Hanson. And I might be able to help with any questions. My father has been accustomed to talk to me about his work.”

“Thank you, I’d be delighted,” Johnny said pleasantly. “I’m concerned that I’m keeping you up and around when you shouldn’t be, Mr Ludlow. If you can tell me where the books are…”

“I’ll bring them for you,” Miss Ludlow said, getting up. “I know where my father keeps them.”

The library at Limm Abbey had a faintly musty smell about it, as though it had been little used, but like the rest of the house it was spotlessly clean. Johnny asked for a fire to be lit and as the early winter darkness drew in, he sat with the ledgers and files Miss Ludlow had given him and pored over them. Molly, the housemaid, brought candles and lit the oil lamps and Johnny moved one of them onto the big table he was using as a desk and continued to read. He was frankly astonished at Ludlow’s meticulous book-keeping and copious explanatory notes. The running of the estate was laid out before him in more detail than he could have hoped, and he was beginning to think that he had completely misjudged the agent. He was obviously currently very unwell, and must be approaching seventy, but clearly he still had a razor sharp brain and was a good organiser.

The thought was confirmed during the following week, as Johnny rode his lands beside Mary Ludlow and inspected farms, met tenants and looked at drainage and fencing and cottages. Johnny did not come from a landowning family and had no experience of running an estate. He had considerable experience, however, of running a regiment, and he could see that Limm Abbey and its lands were not neglected. Nor could he see any sign of dishonesty or peculation in the accounts, and he was beginning to think that he had imagined the slight sense of something wrong that he had felt in the company of the agent.

He did not see Ludlow again. Mary was his connection to her father. She left him each day with a list of questions and would return the following morning with detailed answers. Johnny was concerned that his irritating persistence would tire the older man, but he had so much to do and so little time.

“I hope your father is a little better?” he said, setting out to inspect the home farm flock, which already had one or two early lambs in their winter pens. “I’m afraid I’ve been a good deal of trouble to him this week.”

“No, he does not mind at all,” Mary said. “I promise you, he is very glad to see the estate has passed into such capable hands. He will be well again in the spring, it is the cold and damp that makes this hard to shake off.”

“I can see that he’s managed to stay on top of his work, his ledgers are immaculate. But, forgive me, Miss Ludlow, I am a little concerned about him being able to continue to ride about the lands. May I be frank with you?”

“Please do,” Mary said, and her tone was slightly cooler.

“Mr Langley, the lawyer in London, has advised me to look about for a new agent, given your father’s age and the state of his health. I came here prepared to find the estate in some disarray, but it isn’t. It’s clear he’s been doing his job, and doing it well, but I’m worried that it’s running him into the ground. If I were here full-time, I think it would work very well. I could undertake some of the work and he could teach me what I need to know without exhausting himself too much. But I cannot do it. We’re in winter quarters just now, but I need to get back before spring.”

“I thought you were wounded.”

“I was, but it’s healed very well, apart from this limp. And that will go. I have to go back and I have no idea when I can return. In the meantime, I need to be very sure that the man I leave in charge is capable. And fit enough to do the job.”

Mary Ludlow turned cat eyes towards him. “Are you dismissing him, Colonel Wheeler?”

“Of course I’m not dismissing him,” Johnny said, slightly irritably. “Aside from the ingratitude of it, after his excellent service, I’d have to be a fool to dismiss a man who knows the estate as he does. I need him here. But I’m wondering if I should appoint an assistant.”

Mary did not reply for a long time. Eventually, she said in a colourless voice:

“You must do as you think best, Colonel. It is your estate. Come and see the newborns.”

Johnny did not speak of it again. Back at the house, he returned to his desk and once more ran through the notes Ludlow had left for him. He sensed that Mary was worried that her father would be hurt if a junior agent was appointed, and Johnny understood. The man seemed to have devoted his life to the estate.

Johnny went to his solitary dinner, wondering if the girl was worried about the Mill House. The cottage was part of the estate, and it occurred to him that she might be afraid of losing their home. Johnny had no intention of evicting the Ludlows; they had earned the right to stay. A new, younger agent could occupy rooms in the house while Johnny was in Spain, and Ludlow could enjoy an honourable and comfortable semi-retirement, training up the new man. There was money for a pension for him and he could recover his health without having to shoulder the entire burden of responsibility alone.

Johnny decided that he would write to Langley, asking him to look about for a junior who might be suitable for the post, and would talk to the Ludlows. Mary might be upset, but he hoped that he could reassure her, and he wondered if it might be a relief to her father.

He woke the following morning to a curious light shining through the chink in the long curtains. Getting up, he went to the window to look out and found his suspicions confirmed. It must have snowed all night to blanket the lawns and gardens so thoroughly, and it was snowing still, great heavy flakes swirling so thickly that he could barely see the trees at the end of the back lawn. Johnny shivered and went to find his robe. He rang for his orderly to bring hot water and found Private Thompson in gloomy mood.

“Cold this morning, Thompson.”

“Bleeding freezing, sir. Can’t wait to get back to Portugal.”

Johnny turned to stare at his orderly. “Thompson, where did you get that wound to your shoulder?”

“San Munoz, sir, same as you.”

“I was just checking your memory, I thought you might have had a blow to the head at the same time. My memories of the sheer misery of staggering through freezing rain in November with no food and no chance of getting dry and warm are very clear. You’re living in luxury here. Stop moaning or I’ll bring somebody else next time. Or nobody, I can manage perfectly well without a valet, I’ve done it for years.”

Thompson grinned. “Yes, sir. Want me to shave you?”

“If it’s not too much trouble, Thompson, I wouldn’t want to put you out,” Johnny said gravely, and the other man laughed aloud.

“You sound like the colonel, sir.”

“That’s bad. I need to improve.” Johnny smiled. “Missing your mates, Thompson?”

“Yes, sir. Dead quiet here, it is. I’ve not slept without Jonesy and Wickes snoring in my ear for about ten years, I can’t get a wink without it.”

Johnny laughed aloud. “I’m missing it too,” he said. “What’s wrong with us?”

“Army men, sir, through and through. Mind, I don’t think we’ll be travelling far for a few days, do you?”

Johnny looked out of the window. “Not if I can help it. I only march in the snow when Lord Wellington says I have to. I’m staying by the fire and catching up on some letter writing today, trust me. Although it looks as though someone is out and about. Is that Miss Ludlow I can see? Where the devil is she off to in this weather?”

Thompson came to stand beside him. “Not sure, sir. The home farm, maybe, it’s out that way.”

“Well she bloody shouldn’t be,” Johnny said, exasperated. “What is it with females, Thompson, they’ve no sense at times? The likes of you and I, know the sense of staying home and staying warm on a day like this. Look, forget the shave, get my boots, will you? I want to find out what’s going on.”

Thompson moved away, grinning. “D’you know, sir, I’ve never heard you speak of women that way before, in all the years you’ve served under Colonel van Daan. Wonder why that is?”

“Because his wife would hit me with a blunt instrument if I did, Thompson, and I am terrified of her. And she, let me tell you, is a prime example of a woman who can’t sit still for five minutes. But don’t tell her I said that either.”

Wrapped warmly in his shabby army great coat, his hat pulled firmly down, Johnny ploughed his way up the drive and followed Mary’s footprints across the lawn. He cut down behind a small row of tenants’ cottages, most of them with smoke curling from the chimneys. He could see her now, with three men dressed in working clothes, surveying the wreckage of the fence surrounding one of the sheep paddocks. Johnny went to join them.

“Morning, Colonel.” Webster, who ran the home farm, was so wrapped up in scarves and coat that only his nose and eyes were visible and his voice was muffled. “Must have been windy last night, lost this section of the fence.”

“Did we lose many?”

“A few, but we’ve got most of them back. Miss Ludlow says there’s enough wood in the lumber shed back at the Mill to patch this up until we can do a proper job so I’ve sent two of the men over to get it, along with the tool bag. We’re putting them in the barn anyway today, they can’t be out in this.”

“No. This came out of nowhere.”

“Often does up here, sir.”

“How many still missing?” Johnny asked.

“Four. But one’s a lamb, he’ll not survive this, need to find him. Just about to spread out and look. They can’t have made it far.”

“No. Get the rest of the men out, then, but tell them to stay in pairs. If someone goes over in a rabbit hole they can’t see, we’ll be searching for them as well. Meet back at the barn when you’ve found them – or at noon, if you’ve not. And don’t get too cold. I don’t want to lose a sheep, but I’ve more value for a man.”

Johnny had spoken without thinking, as if to a man of his regiment. As he turned to begin the descent down the hill towards the river, the men moved away and Mary Ludlow fell in beside him.

“You’ll be a good landlord.”

Johnny glanced at her, surprised. “Why?”

“A man above a valuable sheep? There’s a few around here would disagree.”

“Don’t tell me who they are, I’ve no wish to be at outs with my neighbours. You shouldn’t be here, Miss Ludlow. Why did they come to the Mill instead of to me?”

The girl smiled. “Habit, I expect. They always come to me. Or my father, of course, when he’s well.”

“Well while I’m here, I expect them to come to me. But we’ll talk of it later. Since you’re here, where are you taking me?”

“There’s a copse of trees further down, which will be sheltered. I’m guessing this ewe wandered with her lamb before the snow really took hold. They’re not wholly stupid, she’ll be looking for somewhere to hide.”

“She has my sympathy,” Johnny said, pulling his hat further down to shield his face better.

Mary turned to study him. “Should you be doing this, with your leg? I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

“I’ll be fine, I’ve abandoned the cane now. Although if I’m not, I warn you, it will be your job to scramble back up and get help for me. I’m not that much of a hero.”

The girl studied him from those interesting green eyes. “I’d heard that you were,” she said, in matter of fact tones.

“Really? From whom?”

“Your uncle. I used to go up most days, when he was failing, to spend some time with him. He liked me to read to him, and to talk. Listen, really. He talked of his daughter and of you, a good deal. I think he missed both of you. He told me a lot about your career. He always wished he had managed to do more for you, but he was so proud of what you’d achieved on your own.”

Johnny felt a rush of emotion, and with it, a passionate gratitude to this woman. “I’m so glad you were here for him,” he said. “I feel terrible not knowing how ill he was, I’d have come home no matter what, to see him.”

“You shouldn’t feel bad; it was what he wanted. He used to say that it had been his privilege to get you started and it wasn’t his job to hold you back now. He didn’t want you told. I feel guilty though, I should have overridden him and written to you. I didn’t know you then, or I’d have done so. Some men would have been angry at a woman taking such a thing upon herself, but I don’t think you would.”

“What about…” Johnny stopped suddenly and put his hand on her shoulder. “Wait, what’s that?”

“I hear it.” The bleating was loud and persistent.

“I think we’ve found our strays. This way.”

It was a scramble through a thick drift down to the edge of the trees and Johnny took her hand to steady her, thinking not for the first time how frustrating it must be to be a woman and have to manage through difficult conditions in skirts. She managed well, though, and they made it through the drift to find two bedraggled creatures huddled under the trees. Mary went towards them, making soothing noises and Johnny stayed back, recognising an expert when he saw one. The woman ran her hands over their legs and looked back over her shoulder.

“They’re both well, but very cold. We need to get the men down here, there’s a wooden sledge we use for this, we’ll never get her back up that hill through those drifts. I can go back up…”

“I’ll go,” Johnny said firmly. “Livestock is not my forte, they’ll stay still with you. But you’re going to freeze in that cloak. Here, put this on, I’ll move faster without it.”

Mary hesitated and then allowed him to help her into his heavy army great coat. Johnny draped her cloak over the top of it and then set off grimly back up the hill.

Johnny’s leg was aching and he did not return with the men but watched from a window as they towed the ewe and her lamb back up the hill to the warmth of the barns. He went down to the library where a roaring fire was burning in the grate, and poured a glass of wine, reflecting with sudden amusement, that he was beginning to get used to the life of a country gentleman, and that he should probably get himself back where he belonged before it made him soft.

There was a tap at the door, and it opened.

“Miss Ludlow to see you, sir.”

“Come in, Miss Ludlow.” Johnny came forward quickly. “Christ, you’re soaked. And freezing. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left you down there. Here.”

He removed both cloak and coat and turned to Molly. “Molly, do you think…”

“I’ll take them to the kitchen, sir, we’ll get them dry there.”

“Thank you. Come and sit down by the fire, Miss Ludlow, and have some wine. I’ve just about thawed out myself.”

Mary Ludlow accepted the glass tentatively and sipped it. Johnny sat in the opposite chair and studied her. “Would you forgive me if I asked a very impertinent question, ma’am?”

“That depends on what it is, Colonel.”

“How old are you? I’ve been trying to guess.”

Mary smiled. “I’m twenty-seven,” she said.

“Why haven’t you married?”

The pointed chin lifted a little. “Nobody has offered for me, Colonel. Why haven’t you?”

Johnny laughed aloud. “Touché. That was two impertinent questions. I am ten years older than you, and I’ve not married because for most of my career I couldn’t afford to. And also, I had no time.”

Unexpectedly, Mary’s face softened into her lovely smile. “I’m sorry, I’ve no reason to be snappish. I’m not unhappy on the shelf. I take care of my father and have one or two friends locally, who kindly invite me to supper sometimes. There is no money for a dowry and I am not pretty enough for a man to overlook the lack.”

Johnny wanted to argue with her, but he realised suddenly that it would sound condescending, so he said nothing. After a moment, she looked up with a sudden and completely unexpected imp of mischief dancing in her eyes.

“I am sorry about that, Colonel. How very awkward for you. I truly wasn’t fishing for compliments. But you managed it beautifully.”

Johnny grinned. “I’m glad you think so, I couldn’t decide. I think you’re wrong, mind. You have glorious hair and very lovely eyes, and when you smile it makes me feel immediately happy. Is it the freckles that bother you?”

“They don’t bother me at all, Colonel, but they bother other people. I once heard a very fashionable young gentleman at a public assembly say loudly that he could see why I hadn’t a partner as it would be like dancing with a milkmaid.”

“Clearly the youth had very limited life experience, ma’am. During my time in the army, I have danced with a varied collection of females, including several milkmaids, and they often dance very well. I’m sorry he was so rude to you; men often are when nobody has beaten the manners into them.”

She was smiling broadly. “And who beat the manners into you, Colonel Wheeler? Somebody did a very good job of it, I’ve never come across a man with such excellent address. Literally nothing throws you off. Your servants are already devoted to you, and I am told that at least two local ladies with hopeful daughters are trying to work out how to manage an introduction so that they can invite you to dinner. You have made no calls on the neighbours, you know.”

“Dear God, I’d forgotten about all these rules. Which is a good thing on this occasion, since I’ve such a short time here and so much to do, I don’t have time to be social.”

“Do you think you will settle here?” Mary asked unexpectedly.

“Yes,” Johnny said. He had not thought about it at all, but the answer came very easily. “If I survive this war, I’d like to come back here and live. I’ve never allowed myself to look ahead that much. Over the years I’ve saved what prize money I could. I suppose one day I hoped to be able to marry and have a family. But I’d no home to come to. This…I can’t believe this is mine.”

“You could sell out,” Mary said. “Nobody would think ill of you. You’ve responsibilities here now.”

Johnny thought about it. He tried to imagine himself out of uniform, going about the daily chores of a landowner. He would get to know the neighbours and attend social events and join the local hunt. The picture was surprisingly appealing. Perhaps, one day, he might even meet a woman who would drive the smiling ghost of Caroline Longford from his heart, although Johnny was not sure he even wanted that to happen. While Caroline lived, even though she was married to another man, he suspected he would never feel free to offer his hand or heart to another woman. Still, a man could live here very happily alone.

The voice in his head was not Caroline’s, but that of his brigade commander. “Just do it, Johnny. You’ve bloody earned it, you almost died last year. You’ve served all your adult life; you don’t owe the army anything. I’ll promote Carl. Get on with it.”

Johnny sipped his wine and wished that Paul van Daan was sitting on the opposite side of this fire with him. He realised how much he was already missing his friends in the regiment and the brigade. He knew them safe in winter quarters at present, but within a few months they would be marching again, and he could not contemplate allowing them to do so without him.

“I don’t belong here,” Johnny said. “Not yet. I belong with my men. But I like the idea that one day I can come back here. Although I suppose I ought to think about making a will before I leave. I’ve never had anything to worry about before. God knows who I’d leave it to, I should ask Mr Langley who the heir would have been if I’d got myself killed last month.”

Unexpectedly the woman shivered. “I hope you don’t.”

“So do I, it would be a waste now. Let’s talk of something else, I’m giving you the horrors here. While I have you, would you mind going over a few things with me, to take back to your father if he’s well enough? I’ve been looking over the cottages, and there are some repairs I’d like to set in motion before I leave. I made a list somewhere.”

They moved to the table with their wine, and he read out the list he had made then handed it to her. Mary skimmed through it quickly, nodding. Johnny wondered what she would do when her father finally died and she was left alone without an income. He supposed she could apply for a post as a teacher or a governess, or perhaps as companion to some elderly lady. He found the thought vaguely depressing, and thought again how difficult it must be for a woman, with so few respectable ways of supporting themselves.

He was still thinking about it as she reached for a sheet of paper. “I’ll send Hanson over with a note to the thatcher, he can come out when the weather lifts. Our men can manage most of the rest of these, but we’ll need more timber properly cut for the fences, and the carpenter from Eyam should really see to those windows in Granby’s cottage.”

Johnny watched the quill flying across the paper and finally understood. He could not believe he had not worked it out before. His commander’s wife would have scoffed at him for missing the obvious, but then she was a woman very accustomed to taking on work which was not rightfully hers and would have understood Miss Mary Ludlow very well.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” he said quietly.

Mary stopped, the pen poised above the paper. She stared down at her own handwriting for a long frozen moment and then over at the open ledger nearby. The hand was identical.

“No,” she said quickly. “Oh no. Only, my father gets rheumatism, his hands aren’t good, sometimes he dictates to me…”

“Stop it,” Johnny said firmly, removing the quill from her hand and setting it down. “What is wrong with him, Mary? Other than a winter chest.”

Suddenly he was horrified to see tears in the green eyes. “He gets confused,” she whispered. “Forgets things. Can’t add up the figures. It’s been coming on for a year or more, but it’s getting worse. He doesn’t always realise it, but when he does, it upsets him so. Sometimes he doesn’t even seem to know it’s me, he calls me by my mother’s name.”

Johnny stared at her in silence for a long time. “I already have a junior land agent, don’t I, Mary?” he asked quietly.

“Yes,” the woman said baldly. “But I can’t be. We both know that. It has to be a man. They know, most of them. The workers. But I’ve been going out with him around the lands all my life. I know the farms and the stock and the people. I can do everything he did, just as well.”

“That’s why they went to the Mill House first today, about the fences down. Not to see your father, but to see you.”

“Yes. And I’ve told them that while you’re here…” Mary broke off and folded her hands very neatly into her lap. “Are you going to dismiss us?” she asked.

Her taut misery wrung Johnny’s heart. “I was never going to dismiss you, lass, what do you think I am, to throw aside all those years of good service to my uncle? He’s due a pension and the house is yours for as long as you need it. That was always the case.”

She lifted startled green eyes to his face, her pale skin streaked with tears. “Truly?”

“Yes, I was going to come over to speak to him about it. I do need to employ somebody else; he’s clearly not fit enough to be going out and about.”

“I am,” Mary said quickly. “I can do it, Colonel, I swear it. It’s so good of you to say that we can stay, but I’ve no wish to take charity.”

“Mary, I cannot employ you as my land agent. It wouldn’t reflect well on either of us, and you know it. Although I wish I could, you’re very good at it.”

“Then continue to employ him,” Mary said. Johnny could hear, beneath the calm reason of her tone, how desperate she was. “If you bring in another agent now, it will finish him. He can’t give the training he should be able to and no man is going to take instruction from a woman. My father will see it happening and it will kill him. And with him gone, I have no place here.”

It was what Johnny had been thinking. He sat looking at her, deeply troubled. After just over a week of being in her company every day, he realised how much he had come to like this self-effacing young woman and he could not bear the thought of her out in the world alone. She had spent all her life on this land, had given it her time and energy and devotion, and by an accident of birth she could have no place here once her father died. Even if he gave instructions that she was to be allowed to remain in the cottage, there would be gossip about a young woman living alone; it was simply not done. He supposed that he could help her to find a post somewhere as a companion or governess, but he suspected she would be miserable so far from home and he knew that employers were often not kind to such women.

There was another danger that Johnny was very well aware of. Mary Ludlow spoke dismissively of her lack of beauty, as though a plain woman need have no concern in a world of predatory men, but Johnny had been out in the world all his life and had seen and heard of things he wished he could forget. Any young woman without a male relative to protect her and lend her respectability was vulnerable, and Johnny was under no illusion that she would not find herself prey to impertinence and embarrassment at best and a good deal worse.

And she was not plain. Johnny’s enduring devotion to a woman he could not have, did not blind him to Miss Ludlow’s very good figure and glorious hair. She had the shy charm of some woodland creature, disguised in her mundane setting but with a hint of pure beauty in her pointed face and glorious green eyes. As for the pale freckled skin, it might have drawn the scorn of some jumped-up dandy at a country ball, but Johnny could very easily imagine a set of circumstances in which it could seem very attractive indeed and he was sure he would not be the only man to find himself imagining how lovely that face might look framed by loose hair around bare shoulders and breasts.

Johnny caught himself and dragged his mind back to the problem with an effort. She had found a handkerchief and was drying her tears.

“Let’s not jump so far ahead, lass,” he said very gently. “Your father will probably recover well enough from his cough, although I want to add some work to the Mill House to that list of yours; it’s too cold for him there and I want the chimney looked at, it smokes. I also think that you need a housekeeper.”

The pointed chin lifted. “I can manage with a maid, sir. I’m used to…”

“Don’t be dense, Mary, it isn’t like you. This is going to get worse, I’ve seen it before. It happened to a friend of my father’s. He developed a tendency to wander off. You can’t spend your life watching him. I’m going to find a nice motherly woman who can tend the house, and take care of your father. Her wages will come off the estate, your father has earned it after all that he’s done. And it will free you to continue to take care of my lands for me, since you do it so well.”

“Sir?”

“I can’t pay you as my land agent, but I can continue to pay him for as long as he lives. It might be for years; I hope it is. If I survive the war and come home to Limm Abbey – and I really hope I do – we’ll talk again about your future. If something happens to him in the meantime, you will have a home, and his pension will continue to be paid to you, with all the expenses of your servants coming off the estate. I’ll set it up before I leave. That way, you’ll have a respectable woman living with you, which should silence any gossip about you living alone.”

“You can’t do this,” Mary said.

“I can do whatever I like, I’m your employer. Stop arguing with me, it’s a bad habit and I’m a very conventional man. I like a girl to look pretty and agree with me.”

“No, you don’t. I have never come across a man so outrageous.”

“Believe me, lass, beside my commanding officer, I am a pattern card of rectitude. Although I’ve realised over the years that I am far less staid than I used to be; I think he’s been a bad influence. If I’m killed…”

“You won’t be.”

“I might be. It happens. If I die out there, the Mill House and a small annuity will keep you safe and comfortable. I hope I don’t. I’d like to come back and see you again.”

“I’d like that too,” Mary said.

Johnny was aware, suddenly, that the atmosphere between them had changed. He sat thinking about it, looking at her, and he wanted suddenly to tell her the truth.

“I’m not free,” he said quietly.

“Are you betrothed?”

“No. And I’m not likely to be. I fell in love, very unsuitably, with another man’s wife. Fool of a thing to do, but I couldn’t help it. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over loving her and I’m not sure I want to try.”

Mary’s eyes met his and held them. “Why did you tell me that, Colonel?”

“Because I really needed you to know, lass. Just in case I forget myself and do something stupid here. It’s time I got you home, it’ll be dark soon. I’ll walk you back. Wait here and I’ll send Molly for your cloak.”

The men had been out for most of the day with spades and there was a clear path through the drifts down to the village. The snow had stopped finally although looking at the sky, Johnny suspected that more might fall tonight. He would need to put off all intention of travelling until this had cleared. Curiously, he was glad of it, it would give him time to get his affairs in order so that the people who had unexpectedly become his responsibility with this inheritance would be taken care of if he were to die.

It was a walk of a mile or so to the Mill House. The village was quiet, with people staying warm within doors, and as they approached, Johnny reached out and took her hand. He had no idea why he did it; he had wanted to see how it would feel. She did not pull away and they walked hand in hand past the village green to her door.

They stopped and she turned to look up at him. “Thank you,” she said simply, and he knew that she was not referring to his escort home, although if he chose, he could easily pretend that she was and she would not mind. It was what she did best, managing herself and any difficulties quietly and without demands on other people and he realised unexpectedly how much he valued that.

Johnny knew that he should go, but he was conscious suddenly of a warmth of feeling and he wondered if she felt it too. Still holding her hand, he stepped closer to her and put his other hand under her chin, tilting her face up towards his. She did not flinch away although he saw the green eyes widen in surprise. He had not really thought before about how tall she was; he only had to bend a little to kiss her.

She leaned towards him, and Johnny let go of her hand and put his arm about her, drawing her closer very gently. He could tell how nervous she was, and he was not surprised; nothing in Mary Ludlow’s sheltered life suggested that she had been kissed before. He found her shyness oddly endearing and was deliberately gentle, not wanting to frighten her.

Eventually, after a long time, Johnny raised his head. Mary looked up at him, wide-eyed and startled as a young doe, and Johnny felt a sudden surge of desire, so strong that it shocked him a little. He wanted, for one insane moment, to pick her up and carry her into the house, and he took a deep breath and brought himself firmly under control. After all his careful concern about her future, he had no intention of hurting her so badly.

“Why did you do that?” Mary asked.

Johnny cupped her cheek with his hand and kissed her again, very lightly, just a brush of his lips to hers. “Because I wanted to, and I really hoped you did too. I’m sorry. I should…”

“I did want you to. And I do understand, Colonel, what you told me earlier. But I’m glad you did it anyway. It was nice.”

It was not a word Johnny would have used for that kiss, but he was not going to tell her so. “It was. Go on, get yourself inside before you freeze. Have you time tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“Will you come up early? I need some lessons in farming, Webster has been talking seed drills and crop rotation until my brain dribbles out of my ears, and I’ve no idea what he’s talking about, but I suspect you have. I’ll write to Langley to set everything in order tomorrow as well. I’m not attempting to travel in this weather. And they can manage without me for a few weeks anyway, it’ll do them good. Miss Ludlow…”

“Mary. You cannot change back now, no matter how unsuitable it is.”

“Mary – would you be very shocked if I asked you to dine with me tomorrow? Country hours, I swear I’ll have you home early.”

Mary regarded him steadily. “It would be very improper, Colonel, as I am sure you know. And the servants would talk.”

“You’re probably right.”

“However, if we are to spend the day working in the library, it would not be at all improper for me to invite you to dine here, with my father and I. And we have no live-in servants, so nobody will have any idea if my father makes it to the dinner table or not. I think it’s unlikely he will, he sleeps a good deal at the moment.”

Johnny felt an unaccustomed lift of his heart. “I would love to dine with you and your father,” he said seriously.

“I shall make a steak and kidney pudding then. I am a very good cook, if you like plain food.”

Johnny stared at her for a long moment. “I cannot remember the last time I ate a steak and kidney pudding, and that does not count as plain food,” he said. “If you saw what I live on sometimes on campaign…”

“I’d like to ask you about your service, but I wasn’t sure if it was my place. May I?”

Johnny nodded. “You may ask me anything you wish. Once I have mastered crop rotation. Did you hear anything just then?”

Mary shook her head. “No.”

“No, you wouldn’t. I think I just heard the sound of my commanding officer laughing inside my head. Good night, Mary, I’ll see you tomorrow. Come early and have breakfast with me.”

She was laughing now. “Breakfast is even more unsuitable than dinner. I will be with you just after. Good night, Colonel Wheeler.”

Johnny stood watching her as she picked her way carefully up the slippery path to her door and went inside, flashing him that smile over her shoulder. He turned and walked back up to the Abbey, not really noticing the cold. He found himself thinking about Caroline, seeing her golden loveliness as though she was walking beside him, but she was smiling at him, and there was no hint of anger in the smile. Johnny reflected that he might well continue to love her until the end of his days, but for some reason there was no sadness in him tonight. Turning at the top of the street, he looked back down towards the Mill House, its bulk outlined against a darkening sky.

Snow was beginning to fall again, and Johnny pulled up the collar of his coat and quickened his step, eager to be home. Lights were already burning and he could almost feel the warmth reaching out and drawing him in. Despite the cold, he stopped for a moment to look at the house, appreciating it. He thought of Charles Wheeler with immense gratitude, for giving him so much; a start in life, a career he loved and now a home to come back to. Suddenly he felt very close to the old man, and could hear his voice clearly in his head for the first time since arriving at the Abbey, the familiar Derbyshire accent making Johnny smile.

“Aye, lad, and if you’d the sense you were born with you’d get inside and enjoy it before you freeze to death out here.”

Acting on excellent advice from beyond the grave, Johnny walked up the front steps and into the brightly lit hallway, allowing the house to welcome him into comfort and familiarity and an unexpected promise of a very different future.

 

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