A mere formality.
When Anna awoke later the next morning (so she had managed to drop back to sleep), she could not remember anything unpleasant marring her sleep, other than finding that it had only been a dream, and try as she would, she could not get back into it.
She was surprised at how advanced the hour must be, with the sun climbing higher in the sky.
Hetty soon brought hot water for her, knocking at her mostly-open door until Anna invited her in. She'd never hesitated before.
“I overslept, Hetty. I did not mean to do that.” She could not tell Hetty about her dream. She would not understand. Or she might understand.
“Your parents left just a half hour ago, Miss. They decided not to wake you. Your brothers went at first light.”
That was a relief. She would not have to deal with their many questions again.
“You should not wait on me, Hetty.”
“Why not? We all need a bit if pampering once in a while, you, especially after going missing as you did. You deserve to sleep a little longer after last night. Besides, you have a busy day, as I told you, once Mr. Crabtree gets here.”
“You will be in our meeting too, Hetty. You have as much interest, and as much say as I do in the affairs of this estate.”
Anna clambered from her bed and threw a wrap, around herself, as Hetty outlined what the day held for them.
“There is still the last of the hay to bring in, later than ever we hayed before, so Mr. Frith said, but they managed to get a second crop off some of the early cut fields. With haying, tapering off, the workers are getting on with some needed repairs on the outer barns, and there are potato and turnip clamps to prepare and more cold-room space to add in the hillside.
Hetty re-made the bed. “You should rest, today, and get yourself ready for this meeting or I shall be annoyed with you. You got no sleep until well after two o’clock this morning. I heard you wandering after we got back in, and the dog’s nails on the floor as he followed you.
Anna had not recalled wandering anywhere.
“Mr. Frith will meet with you later on this morning, whenever you are ready. He says the estate was never this busy or ready for winter, since ’97 or ’98, and never so many workers around either, and all of ’em fully employed one way or another. He says that Mr. Crabtree will be impressed with the work you’ve done.”
Anna had forgotten about him.
“That WE, have done, Hetty.” Anna emphasized that word. Hetty did not give herself enough credit, nor Mr. Frith either.
“Mr. Frith hired three new men from the village, and we brought two new girls into the house. You’ll meet them today. We have more mouths to feed, and bodies to clothe, and it’s also getting to that time when we will be thinning out the pigs and getting the hams cured, and making black pudding, and sausages.”
Thought of slaughtering pigs was not something Anna wanted to dwell upon. It was a messy and a noisy business, with blood everywhere, and she was still squeamish that way, but Hetty did not mind getting involved with that, while Anna did not mind the breeding and birthing part of it, though it was generally regarded as not... something a woman should get involved with.
“There’ll be a breakfast waiting for you when you come down, Miss.”
After Hetty had gone, Anna stripped off and stood in front of her mirror, with the light from the window shining full upon her body as she once more, uncharacteristically, looked herself over, pulling herself around and inspecting herself again, as she never had, before yesterday. This; her curiosity and what she was learning of her own body, was all new to her. She smoothed her hand over that area between her legs, feeling some excitement doing that, but also feeling some roughness of growing stubble.
She saw herself through new eyes; did not even know her own body, if it really was hers. It was!
She put her tongue out at herself in her mirror; at the cheeky, shameless wench that looked back at her; liking what she saw and what she felt of herself.
That dream had been real! She remembered nearly everything of that dream, so she hadn’t lost those memories by waking up.
There had been a man paying attention to her in a personal way, right there—she touched herself in various places as he had touched her, and she had not objected as he had done that to her. He had touched her everywhere, between her legs, smoothed his hand over her there, had held her breasts, kissed her everywhere too, and had done so much more that she would have liked to have known more about, but some of the more intimate details still escaped her without even closer examination, but she would need to be sitting in a bath to do that, or brazenly sitting in the window with her legs wide apart, as she had seen one or two of the farm girls doing as they inspected themselves in the sunlight, to see what damage they had suffered after.... They had been giggling too. Especially if they were being helped.
Anna did remember, however, that what had happened between her and the man that she loved, had been exciting enough that she had met him half-way, and had not retreated or hesitated for one second when it was obvious what he wanted to have happen. She'd wanted it to happen too.
She resolved that she would try and get back into that dream again tonight, but today was already spoken for. She’d better get downstairs, or Hetty would come up to see what was keeping her if she was too long.
She dressed in one of her better dresses. She could change after that meeting, and could then pitch in to help the kitchen staff with the afternoon and evening meals. Mr. Crabtree had not scorned to eat with the staff any more than Mr. Frith did. All, were valued equally here.
After breakfast, she and Hetty met with Mr. Frith, in preparation to meeting with Mr. Crabtree.
Anna was no longer as nervous about that meeting as she had been, before this change in her life, but seemed as confident as Mr. Frith, that they had done all the preparations they could, and had more than met all of the stipulations that had been laid out for them to follow and abide by.
She decided to leave that ring on her finger.
If either Mr. Frith or Mr. Crabtree asked her about it, she was not sure what she would say, but would explain that it was as necessary to her comfort as Samson was, who would also be with them, and for whose presence she also had no rational explanation.
There was nothing else she would need to explain.
Mr. Frith put both of the ladies at ease as soon as they joined him in the study. He was pleased to notice that they both looked relaxed and were not too nervous.
“I suppose I can tell you that this meeting with Mr. Crabtree, is all just formality, so there is nothing that needs to concern you. You met all of the requirements after the second year and were given a free hand even then, though we had to stick to the letter of that contract in principle, if not in deed."
Anna had been given much more of a free hand after her first year, but she always discussed changes with Mr. Frith, and encouraged him to be as open with her.
“Mr. Crabtree is visiting relatives in the area, and is calling in on us only to get your signatures to pass over the estate into your hands. He doesn’t need to do anything else.”
Anna and Hetty were both surprised, pleasantly so. “I thought he would be going over the books with us.”
Mr. Frith smiled. “No. He has no need. He plans on being here for no more than an hour or two, and said how he was looking forward to a bowl of that soup that Miss Langford knows so well how to prepare. He and I have been in frequent contact and exchanged detailed letters once each month concerning the estate, and he knows what is going on just as well as anyone else.
“I know the official sign-off, was after three years, and it will be, but all of the conditions were dropped after the second year, and you have been your own mistresses now for the last year anyway. I am sorry I was not able to tell you, but I am sure you noticed how much more of a free hand you were given.”
That, was all a great relief to hear.
“So how do we go forward from here, Mr, Frith? I cannot imagine that anything needs to change in the way we are doing things."
“That is up to you, Miss. Lady De Merchant does not really need me with her in Spain, and I feel I can be more useful here. We've achieved a lot in the last three years.”
“We cannot imagine you not being here. We would like you to stay on as the estate manager. I cannot imagine us succeeding quite as well as we have without your invariably wise council. We will always need your services, you are every bit, a part of this estate as ever.
"Besides, who else is there who can deal so well with the more, tricky affairs of the estate. Too many men are uncomfortable discussing or engaging in business dealings with a woman.”
He inclined his head. “Thank you.”
Anna did have another suggestion.
“I wondered if we shouldn’t get everyone involved in the running of the farm and sharing in its prosperity. I thought we could apportion shares in this estate, with you, Hetty and I, each getting twenty-five shares, and the workers, each year, sharing in the remaining twenty-five. The expenses and proceeds would also be apportioned from, and to those shares, but I would like to know what you think of that.”
She had obviously given it some thought.
“Very progressive, Miss. That is exactly what many shipping ventures do, with their partnerships. You should raise that with Mr. Crabtree. It is exactly the kind of thing he can set in motion, but I am well paid anyway, so I don’t think I deserve quite that large of a share.”
“You do. I know that you turned everything you were paid, back, to benefit the estate.” Anna smiled at him.
He had been found out. He inclined his head in acknowledgment. "I needed us all to succeed. But how did you know?"
"Hetty also does the books, remember?
"We will make a formidable partnership, and it is the way that I would like to see it done, Mr. Frith, so that I know that your efforts will be rewarded as you have long-deserved, though my motive is selfish. I want to hold you here.”
He wanted to be held here too. He was courting a neighbor's daughter, and his plans could now go forward in that direction too.
He chuckled. “Mr. Crabtree was impressed with you long before you came here, Miss, and when he learns of this, he will be even more impressed, and so will her ladyship.”
He looked at her for a moment. "If I may speak freely, Miss?"
Anna nodded her head.
"Best not to tell Mr. Crabtree you went missing for two weeks, or about the horse and dog coming back with you. Nor about that wedding ring on your finger; though he won't ask if you don't volunteer it."
Anna blanched. How much did he know?