Barely an hour later, Robert turned the horses into his own driveway. He drove past the gateposts where his carriage had lost a wheel, ten years earlier. He still remembered that time as though it had just happened. What wouldn’t he give to go back in time to that moment? Or would he? No. He wouldn’t, unless he could see that everything went in a different direction. A guilty conscience was a torment that never faded. He felt two competing feelings pulling at him; guilt, and this obligation that had been unexpectedly thrust upon him. He submerged all but consideration of the latter.
He had left the trouble on the highway behind him, for the moment, but now he was about to learn of a more personal situation. As he progressed up the long drive, winding through the woodlands alongside the river and through open fields from which hay had been recently scythed, he noticed that everything looked well-tended and even prosperous. The cattle he could see grazing peacefully were all well-fed, and there were many of them, but then his brother and his wife had both been astute managers of the business of the estate.
A few things had changed. One large oak tree that he and his brother had played in as children was gone. Further into the property he saw other changes. The market gardens had been expanded, and he could hear the distant sounds of livestock, a rooster, and pigs. There was also a line of succession houses with large glassed-in walls and roofs. His brother had mentioned how he had made many changes in the operation of the estate, mostly at the behest of his wife, who seemed to have a head for business, and had put the finances back onto a firmer footing than when his father had been alive. As he approached the house he could see that the ivy had taken over more of the front than he remembered, or would tolerate, but it was at least neatly trimmed back from the windows, and the entire property showed signs of being well managed, even better than when his father had been alive.
The servant who came out to greet him and to learn who this visitor might be and his business, was certainly surprised to see him. He was speechless for all of five seconds, and what thoughts must have gone through his head, seeing a man identical in every way to the Master he had just seen buried, though dressed differently. He was not tongue-tied for long.
“Master Robert! My Lord! Thank god you have arrived! We did not expect you for weeks.” He paused and identified himself. “Benson, sir. You must have just got my letter. I was not sure when you might get any of your letters after you were given up for dead some months ago, though we did not believe such news. It was only last week that we learned that you had arrived in Gibraltar and might be expected in London once you had made repairs. However, this is unexpected! We did not believe that you might arrive so soon. Not even this year, in the normal course of events, and then not at all, until they ran that correction a short time ago! With this tragedy, however, even the admiralty must bend a little.”
At least Benson remembered him and greeted him with obvious pleasure, even if he did chatter on, taken off-guard and not knowing what to expect. They had known each other as boys, and there was little of the rigid formality that his father had demanded between them. The rest of the house might not be so welcoming.
Robert packed his guns away. He dismounted from the carriage, as a youth appeared on a run around the corner of the house. That young man paused in surprise for a moment when he saw the gentleman driving the most bang up set of greys he had ever laid eyes on. A dead man, driving back onto the estate? So the stories of re-incarnation were true!
Then the youth recollected that this could not be the Lord Penfield he had known, but must be Master Robert, his brother. This was the famous Captain Penfield that filled the newspapers and was spoken of with admiration in every tavern from here... and the man that all of the female staff had been chattering and gossiping about for the last few days. They had agonized endlessly over his coming, and what it would mean for them when he did. He put those thoughts aside as he walked to the heads of the horses to see to them.
He looked his Lordship over without attracting attention to himself. He was the spitting image of his brother, and no telling which, was which, except for that other one being dead. But this one was bloody, too, on his sleeve. He must surely know about that.
Robert turned and spoke to the lad. “Go over them carefully. I thought I detected a loose shoe. See them cooled down before you water them and take good care of them. I’ll come and see them later.” He even sounded like his late Lordship! It was eerie.
The lad recovered his wits and acknowledged the orders. He had never seen such horseflesh but knew his business. “Yes, sir.”
His Lordship continued speaking to him. “When convenient you, or someone else, can put the trunks inside the door. I am sure Benson will know where to put them.” Robert picked up his portmanteau and his scabbard, and then recovered his pistol case and saber from the front of the carriage. He turned to the house, finding that Benson had recovered the portmanteau and his pistol case from him, and was leading the way across to the front door.
Robert looked up at each of the windows to see who might be curious about his arrival. The curtains were drawn in mourning—it was depressing to see that—though one set was fluttering after being moved.
“So, you are still here, Benson, but then of course you would be. It was your letter that found me this morning and brought me here. But Butler now, and not Brew-master. You have risen in the world.” He resisted asking about what he most needed to know. About Selena. A few more minutes would not make much difference after five days. The troubles left behind on the road had slipped from consideration almost as soon as he had seen the house.
“I was lucky to get your letter. Another week or two and it would have missed me for a devil’s age, perhaps forever the way things have gone for me in the last few months, and I might not have learned of any of this.” He paused and turned to him. “It is good to see you, Benson, despite the circumstance that got me here. How long has it been?” He answered his own question.
“Almost ten years. Ten years, but for a few days. Who else might I know here? What am I walking into?” He did not expect an answer. He would find out soon enough. “Or, more to the point, who might still know me?”
“Very few new faces, sir. A half-dozen new maidservants you would not know.” Penfield flashed a look at Benson’s face, and saw that he had not meant anything awkward by that statement.
“They help see to the children mostly, and there are some new kitchen staff. There is a new under gardener or two. Lady Penfield extended the gardens and added to the succession houses, and there have been numerous laborers taken on to see to them, and to keep produce flowing to market. There is also a new stable hand, as you saw, and we did substantially add to the stables and other outbuildings. We made many other changes too. There are forty tenant farmers now.”
“It sounds like a lot of additions and changes.”
“Yes, sir. Her ladyship was instrumental in most of them.” Now that a suitable opening had been presented with Benson mentioning her, Robert could ask what had been burning him up all the way from London.
“And how is her ladyship? Still with us?” It might seem like a question asked almost in passing, but there was more riding on the answer than Benson might ever know. It had occupied Robert’s every thought, in some way, on the entire ride from the city, just as she had for the ten years before that. Because of his distraction thinking about her, he had almost got himself shot just an hour earlier.
“Yes, sir. She is. Jessop was not optimistic for her recovery from her injuries, but she is hanging on against all odds, but the outlook is not good.” His voice broke. It did not sound promising. Robert wanted to rush into the house and determine for himself, how badly she was injured, but knew that he must not. He should not appear to be as concerned, or as impatient to see her as he certainly was.
“Can you tell me what happened to her, and my brother, and what injuries she has? Your letter told me nothing other than that Charles was dead, and that Lady Penfield was gravely injured. I don’t even know when it happened, other than a date.”
“It happened five days ago, sir, Tuesday last, at three in the afternoon, as near as we can make out. Your brother and her ladyship were returning from the village when an axle broke as they were coming down Padget’s hill, and they were both thrown off. Your brother seems to have died immediately from a broken neck, but her ladyship was pinned under the wheel; or so the family that came upon them first, said, and the other wheel was still turning a little, so it must have just happened, though the horses were long gone, back to the stable.
“She has a broken leg, and perhaps ribs broken too, from the wheel hub landing on her chest and…doing damage. There was a lot of blood. We were very careful bringing her in. Jessop tended to her at first. Terrible bruising, he said. As bad as he had ever seen. He said he’d be back, but he was laid flat himself that same day in another accident, and we have not seen him since. We buried your brother two days ago, sir, and everything is still in a terrible state.
Robert listened. He could sense the feeling of everyone being totally overwhelmed by what had happened. Benson seemed more relieved than he might admit to, now that his Master had arrived. Robert could take over from here.
“Not exactly a fitting welcome for you, sir, to be greeted by such dreadful news, but I am relieved to see you.” He sounded it. “The whole house is run ragged with uncertainty and needs you to bring some order to it.” He watched as the captain stood still for a few moments and ran his eyes over the façade of the building, liking what he saw. He had been wrong about the ivy. He would do something about the curtains, later.
“I intend to do what I can, Benson. Undoubtedly, I shall set everyone’s backs up against me as I always did. I am the last one they ever expected to see back here. Or wanted to see.” Benson rushed to reassure him that it was not true.
“Not in my book, sir, and they know better than to spread their gossip or tales where I might hear them.” It sounded as though he meant it. Robert looked at Benson and spoke.
“Is there anything I need to know before I begin to throw my weight around where it might be needed? I have been out of touch for too long, and I have heard almost nothing important about the estate for ten years, other than what Charles told me in his letters, about half a dozen each year. However, he was more faithful in writing to me than I was in answering him.”
“He wrote more than that, sir. There must have been some lost in transit, and still trying to catch up to you. Your brother did write at least every month or so. I remember, as I was the one who saw to them being sent off.”
“Did he? That many? Most of them are probably still out there somewhere, following me about. Or at the bottom. I take it I have various distant relatives alive? One set, anyway.”
“No changes there that I am aware of, sir, but we saw little to nothing of your uncle since you left, or his son. He was never welcome here and knew it. They have not yet learned of this latest loss, and never will if I have my way. I have not written to inform them, with it being none of their business, though they did appear for your father’s funeral some years ago. They were not welcome then, either, but they seemed determined to be here for that.”
“Never mind them. Tell me more of her ladyship and this accident.”
“Yes, sir. I think I mentioned that her ladyship has not recovered consciousness since the accident, though she is delirious from time to time, and has taken liquid, so I heard.” He watched as the new Lord Penfield turned and studied what he could see of the grounds, from the front of the house.
“Go on, Benson, I am still listening.”
“It may have been a broken shaft, or a broken axle. Difficult to tell which happened first, after the horses broke free. We don’t know whether the horses took off before, or after it all happened, but they showed little sign of injury when we finally got to them.
“When Jessop came, he did what he could, and said he would be back the next day when he would be able to get a better idea of her outlook after she had been cleaned up, but he never did appear again.
“She came too for a few moments this morning, but made no sense; delirious, and she was spitting up blood some of the night. Not exactly what you need to hear, sir, but better you should hear it from me, rather than from Nurse or the others. They are caught up in it all so deeply they can scarce talk about it and make sense before they go off again into tears, for they love her, as we all do.” Benson was distracted for a few moments at the sound of childrens’ voices echoing from another wing of the house.
“When Jessop first examined her, he seemed to want to prepare everyone for the worst and told us that she was unlikely to survive. And even if she did, she might not walk again. However, she seems to be holding her own, considering she survived the last few days, so perhaps the outlook is not so very bad, except everyone is run off their feet. Thank god for mistress Sophia.” At the look on Robert’s face, he explained further.
“Her ladyship’s much younger sister, sir.” He could see that the words ‘much younger’, were not lost on his Lordship. Robert remembered her at the wedding. She had been only about nine years old at that time. She would be nineteen now.
“So, Jessop attended her. Pity. However, if he was kept away because of an accident himself, then that may have been why she still lives. When might I be able to see her?” He hoped he did not sound too eager.
“Her younger sister is with her now. She is the one you should approach. She has been with her night and day, since she arrived two or three days ago. She’s too young to be faced with this, but she’s a plucky one, and full of backbone for one so young, if you don’t mind me being so outspoken, sir.”
“I value it, Benson. I always did, so don’t stop, now.” There were those voices again from deep in the house. The voices of children.
“There are children now. Three, if I recall correctly.” He saw Benson nodding. “I received a letter from Charles telling me of the birth of each one, and news of the progress of the others, so I did get those letters at least.”
“Yes sir. Three girls. They lost their son. But, of course, you knew of that. This is a dreadful time for them, but Miss Sophia is wonderful with them too, and her barely out of her teens. Too much on her young shoulders, but plucky and determined. She arrived the day before yesterday, or was it the day before that, even? From somewhere to the west, wherever the family lived. A property called, Ridgeway.” Robert vaguely remembered that name.
“Excuse me, sir. There is something else. Something of greater urgency I would say, and I am shocked that I did not notice it until now.”
“What’s that, Benson?”