When Anna Rothschild rode into the stable yard, there was a sudden exodus from the house and barn to greet her.
The way they rushed out of the house left her at a loss. She’d only been gone a few hours.
Her heart was still beating fast from the excitement of her ride, and both the horse and dog were breathing heavily from their demanding exercise of the last few hours as she’d ridden back from the river; slowing down often to give the big dog chance to catch up, and to lope along beside them.
She’d slowed for the last half mile or so to give both horse and dog, chance to recover their wind.
She could see that everyone had been busy in the few hours she’d been gone; the hay had even been put into the barn; but then, nothing ever did stay the same for long on a thriving farm.
The way they approached her, suggested that they were full of news.
Her heart fell. The sudden flurry of activity suggested that something was wrong, but what could have happened so suddenly? She had not been gone long enough for the world to have ended.
Jarvis said nothing, bottling up his words, taking the reins and bridle of her horse as she dismounted without his help, by swinging her leg off the horse as a man would. She did not want, and would not have appreciated his help. It was not his place to criticize his mistress for anything she chose to do. He could easily forgive those little things after what she’d done for them all.
He smiled to himself at the shocking way she had been riding... astride, (something a lady would never dare to do if she wished to escape censure and gossip in their society), but it was not his place to point that out to Miss Anna. However, others would, if they had seen her.
“I’ll see to the horse, Miss.”
“Thank you.” She straightened her dress, smoothing it down upon her body.
“Is everyone alright, Jarvis? No accident while I was away?”
He was taken aback by her questions, leaving his hand on the strange horse’s neck as it caught the various scents on his clothing; smelling other horses, hearing a calming voice and feeling a kind touch.
“No, Miss. Nothing like that, but….”
She interrupted him before he could go any further.
“Good. Though I can see that you have been busy. How did you manage to get all of that hay from the home-field into the barn so quickly? I didn’t think it was that dry and hot when I left, or that there was so much of it, and those more distant fields are even cleared. I never expected it to dry so well today, nor even this week.”
Before he could say anything, she picked up again.
“Those Maskells are building fences again where they shouldn’t. I blundered over them and took them off guard. We’d better get the horses out, to pull up their posts and burn them. They’ll be gone by now, of course, scurrying back to their burrows.”
He knew it was not as she'd assumed. With old man Maskell dying some weeks earlier, his son and grandsons were out, undoing, and correcting so much that the older man had tried to achieve behind their backs, claiming property that was not his, building fences, antagonizing neighbors. They would have their work cut out for them, but they were making a good start.
He saw Hetty rushing over, and decided that it was more Miss Hetty’s place to deal with all of this.
Jarvis led the horse around the yard after loosening the girth, discovering, to his relief, that the big horse followed him docilely enough and was not about to try and kill him, though the dog had been ready to dispute him approaching his mistress. He’d never seen either this horse or the dog before, and there was a tale to be told here.
He would have to be patient. He would find out more, later.
She spoke after him. “We rode for a long time, so take care he does not drink, Jarvis. Give him an hour to settle before you give him any oats, and then only sparingly. He had some strenuous exercise. I will come and see him later.”
He kept his thoughts to himself as he learned about the horse, letting the animal smell him as he stroked its neck and spoke to it, detecting that the horse had not been so hard-pushed as Miss Anna thought.
Hetty surprised Anna when she rushed over to embrace her, throwing her arms around her, greeting her as if she were a long-lost prodigal daughter.
Samson growled at her until Anna spoke sharply to him.
“Down, Samson! No! Have some manners, you silly dog. This is Hetty.”
He dutifully backed off, seeing that his mistress was not being threatened.
“Oh, Missy, where have you been? We have had search parties out looking for you ever since you left.”
Anna paused in brushing off her dress, laughing in disbelief, as she settled her dress about her. “Surely I cannot be that late for dinner.”
Hetty seemed upset with her and might even be crying. Anna put a comforting hand on her arm, but Hetty was not easily consoled.
“Not that late for dinner indeed! How can you be so flippant about it? Where have you been? We feared for your life and safety after you rode off as you did, and did not return. The whole house descended into depression with worry for you. You should have sent us word where you were, and how long you would be staying away.”
Anna was confused by both their words and their looks, showing such concern, as though she had been absent for far too long.
“Why ever would I do that? I only rode to the river in the next valley over, and I did not delay anywhere, before I returned. I rode away just a few hours ago…” She paused when she saw the look on Hetty’s face.
“What is the matter? I have not been away that long; barely three hours, or maybe it was four. Certainly not more than four. Was I? Oh, dear. I know it was my first time riding out alone, but…” She smiled at the ridiculousness of it all and their concern for her.
Then Hetty took into her again. Her agitation was obvious. “Three hours, maybe four, you say. It is just like you to lose track of time with your head immersed in some matter, but never to lose track of it this badly.” Hetty took Anna into her arms again, ignoring the dog.
He growled again, until Anna spoke to him curtly.
“Down, Samson. Lie down. Don’t you know Hetty by now?”
It seemed that he didn’t, but he obeyed the sharply-uttered command and dropped to the ground while keeping a close eye on everything.
“Thank the lord you are home, Anna. I was not sure how to handle it, and now….” Hetty was crying and seemed to be at her wits end. She did look unusually drawn, and with more lines on her face than Anna remembered from just after lunch.
She took Anna’s arm and walked slowly with her to the house as the dog followed.
“What is this about, Hetty, to have you so upset? This is not like you. You are always a steady rock, around this place. Jarvis seemed to be tongue-tied about something too, and could tell me nothing. It is not my father or my mother, is it?”
Bad news always travelled fast.
Hetty shook her head.
“Nor one of my brothers, or my nephews, or nieces? Did a barn burn down? But no, I would have seen the smoke from that. I can also see that the house is still standing. Did someone fall off the roof or have an accident? Get kicked by a horse?” Everyone seemed unable to say anything. “Not worse than any of that, surely? What is it?”
Hetty was just as flustered as Jarvis seemed to be when he had first taken her horse’s bridle.
“But Miss. I told you we’ve had search parties out.”
“Yes, you did, but who for?”
“For you, of course!”
Anna hesitated and seemed not to understand what they were talking about.
“What on earth for? I told you, I only went for a short ride; as far as the river, and then I turned around and came back home. I saw no one. I know I may have been out longer than I intended, and longer than anyone may have expected, but I am back now.” She had a sudden thought. “But you cannot have been searching for me. I wasn’t lost or missing.”
Anna saw the expressions on the faces around her, as though she wasn’t making any sense, but she wan't letting them tell her anything.
“Come now, Hetty. I was gone barely long enough to get hungry after that lunch I had, but not enough to have everyone in such confusion. Tell me honestly, and don’t hold me in such suspense, who, or what are you searching for? Or am I supposed to guess?”
“We really have been out, searching for you, Miss!”
Anna chuckled, but then saw that everyone was serious. No one was joking.
“This is preposterous, Hetty! Please explain.”
“I will, as soon as my nerves settle down.” She seemed close to tears and did not want to let go of her.
“Your mother and father are here too, and two of your brothers.”
That would explain it.
Anna leapt in with another assumption.
“Oh Lord. They paid a sudden visit and they were annoyed that I was not here to greet them so insisted that I be looked for?
“Surely, they know me better than that. Why did they not send news that they were coming first? We are not so very far out of London. They always have before. Or did they send a message, but I missed it?”
Anna frowned. She seemed to be getting it wrong again, and there was something else Hetty had said, that nagged at her.
“But why are my brothers here too? How could they have got up here so soon? It is a four-hour ride from London; three, on a fast horse if you push it and change horses. There has not been enough time to do anything like that.”
None of it made sense, and it was confusing.
“They are all looking for you, Miss, but you don’t seem to understand any of it. We were afraid you had been waylaid or abducted. You wouldn’t be the first young woman to disappear clean off the face of the earth, never to be seen again. There are some very disreputable people wandering the countryside after that war ended.”
Anna was becoming impatient, not understanding anything they were saying.
“I don’t understand anything you are telling me, Hetty. I go out riding for a few hours and come back to find you all in this turmoil. I don’t understand it. Has everyone gone mad around me? Come now, tell me what is upsetting you.”
“Yes, Miss. Upset and mad. Mad with worry. And what do you mean you went out for only a few hours? You’ve been gone for more than two weeks, not just a few hours!”