The boy groaned as he made for the nearest tree to shelter from the approaching storm. Sinking into a pile of leaves, he tried to pull his rough brown coat around his frail body and tucked his blistered feet under him. Huddled into his clothes and trying to dredge some warmth from their meagre layers, a rasping cough hacked at his emaciated form. His coat, still damp from a previous shower, offered as little protection from the elements as his sodden shoes.
“What’s this?” exclaimed Tom Briggs, the gamekeeper of the Brightmoor Estate, when Bridie, his black Labrador, unearthed what appeared to be a pile of old rags. “Well, blow me, if it isn’t a child. What a sorry sight, to be sure!”
He looked around to check if the child was alone and, as there was no one else in sight, he picked him up and carried him the short distance to The Grange, Bridie yelping alongside him.
He pushed open the door of the large kitchen to find Nellie, the housekeeper, sitting at the table enjoying a snatched cup of tea with Freda. The cook was rather homely, but Nellie was dressed immaculately as usual in her black uniform, not a hair daring to peep from under her cap.
“What’ve you got there?” Putting down her cup she got up and went across to see what he was holding.
“It’s a scrap of a child I found down by the roadside. He seems in a bad way.”
“Give him here.”
Tom gently placed the murmuring boy in her arms.
“We need to get these wet clothes off him or he’ll catch his death of cold.” Freda hastily unbuttoned the child’s clothes and enfolded him in a warm blanket. “Poor little mite. I wonder who he is? I’ve never seen him before, have you?”
“Can’t say that I have.” Nellie peered at the child’s face. “I can’t see much beneath all that grime, but he doesn’t look familiar.” She turned to Tom. “Wasn’t there anybody with him?”
“No, I couldn’t see anyone.”
They all stood staring at the whimpering child, now swaddled like a new-born baby in the soft blanket.
“Let’s get him into a bed. We can use the yellow bedroom. Nobody ever goes in there nowadays,” the housekeeper suggested.
Tom opened the door for her and she carried the boy out.
“What do you make of that then? Where can he be from?” Tom took his pipe out of his pocket and placed it between his lips. “And, more to the point, what are you going to do with him?” He put some tobacco into the pipe before striking a match on the hearth and lighting it.
The cook chopped up a block of salt on the table. “I’m not sure, but Nellie will know what to do. We’ll leave it in her capable hands.” She scooped the salt into an enamel bin. “Would you like a cup of tea to warm you up before you go back on your rounds?”
“I wouldn’t say no, and I don’t suppose there’s any of your fabulous seed cake to mop it up with? You know how partial I am to it.”
The cook’s round face beamed. “You’re lucky, there’s just one piece left.” After washing her salty hands, she disappeared into the pantry to fetch the cake.
As she re-emerged, Nellie’s voice could be heard through the cloud of grey smoke erupting from Tom’s pipe. “You can put that smelly thing out,” the housekeeper sputtered as she wafted the smoke away from her face.
“Sorry, I’m trying a new brand of baccy and it’s stronger than my usual one.” He tipped his pipe out onto the hearth. “How was the boy?”
“His breathing was easier when I tucked him up, and he’s sleeping now, so we’ll have to see how he is later, see if he can tell us anything.”
He stood up and brushed the crumbs from his coat. “Well, I’d better be off. It wouldn’t do for the master to catch me sitting here chatting. Do you think we should tell him about…?” He gestured with his head towards the ceiling.
“I don’t think so, not yet a while. Wait to see what we find out first,” replied Nellie. “He’s still not over losing young Freddy like that, so I don’t know what his reaction would be.”
“Yes, I agree. Even though it happened two years ago, he’s still grieving.” Freda came out of the pantry with her arms full of vegetables. “But we can’t keep him here indefinitely, can we?”
Nellie began to fold the clean clothes that had been drying on the overhead racks. “Perhaps he’ll be able to tell us something when he wakes up. We’ll let him have a good sleep first.”
Tom nodded as he put his cap back on and went out, whistling for Bridie who, having lapped up a bowlful of water, had found a hedgehog to annoy. “Come on, girl, leave that flea-ridden creature alone. Let’s get back to work.”
* * * *
“Ruby, do watch what you’re doing,” Freda admonished the plain-faced parlour maid who had tripped and almost fallen over whilst making up the master’s breakfast tray the following morning. “You’ve spilt half of that tea!”
“I’m sorry,” cried the maid miserably. “It was my shoe lace.” She bent down to tie it up. “I’ll make a fresh pot.”
“Well, hurry up about it. You know the master likes his breakfast on time.”
Ruby wiped up the spilt tea before putting some more tealeaves into the pot, and pouring boiling water over them, with Freda’s voice barely registering. She had heard it so many times before that she could almost repeat it word for word. ‘I don’t know how you come to be so clumsy. Not like your sister, she was the best maid we ever had. You wouldn’t have found her with untied laces. It was such a pity what happened to her…’
After making sure the master had everything he needed for his breakfast, Ruby continued her morning chores, her plain face creased into its usual frown. She would never be able to live up to her sister’s reputation.
She cleaned out the grate in the drawing room and laid the kindling, her melancholy diminishing as she set a match to the paper. The flames flickered, and within seconds were ablaze, so she set some logs on top and watched as a myriad of sparks cascaded down. She never ceased to get pleasure from this spectacle, no matter how many times she saw it, or how often she was chastised for taking too long about her chore, so she sat back on her haunches, spellbound.
Finally, deciding that she had enjoyed herself long enough for one day, she went back to the kitchen, where she bumped into Sam, the groom, and dropped the utensils she was carrying. As they both bent down to pick them up they banged heads.
“Sorry,” Sam apologised, his cheeky face breaking into a grin.
“It’s no laughing matter!” she cried petulantly, but he continued to grin.
“I can’t help it, you’ve got black smuts all over your face.” He took out his handkerchief and proceeded to wipe the soot off her cheeks. “Been making the fires?”
“Obviously!” She tried to wriggle away. “Anyway, what do you want?”
“So gracious, isn’t she?” He turned to Freda who was plaiting the leavened dough she had kneaded earlier. The cook merely shook her head.
“Actually, I’ve come to see about the young waif Tom told me that he’d brought in last night.”
“Yes, how is he?” Ruby asked, still wiping her face.
Nellie came in as she spoke and turned to the cook. “The poor lad, he thought I was his mother when I went in. His forehead’s burning. Do you think we should call Doctor Abrahams?”
“Not yet. I’ll prepare a poultice and try to reduce his temperature,” replied Freda.
“Meanwhile, is that boiler ready, Ruby? There’s a mountain of washing to be done.”
* * * *
David Dalton wheeled Starlight round the small copse and pulled up, his breathing coming in short rasps, his handsome face glowing. He could always dispel his seemingly everyday feelings of malcontent and unhappiness by riding hard and forgetting the desperation he experienced ever since that fateful day over two years ago when the open carriage had overturned and his beloved wife, Elizabeth, and son, Frederick, had been catapulted out. The memory of his son’s lifeless body lying in the dust still brought an unbearable pain to his chest and the only time he could put it to the back of his mind was when out riding.
Stroking Starlight’s neck, he made soothing noises, although the strong, faithful steed was now used to the daily workout.
“Come on, my trusty friend, I suppose we’d better be getting back,” he reluctantly decreed as he turned towards home at a more leisurely pace, his dark, brooding blue eyes scanning the surrounding countryside.
His lean frame fitted perfectly into the saddle, having been taught to ride before he could barely walk. He still remembered his first pony. He had loved and cherished her, but she had been taken from him, and the knowledge that she was very old scarcely diminished the sense of loss when she had died unexpectedly on his ninth birthday.
After handing the reins to the groom, he walked into the main hall, the centre of the great house, tapping his whip against his riding boots, and met Nellie, on her way upstairs with a bowl of hot broth.
“Who is that for?” He looked puzzled. “I wasn’t aware that we had guests.”
Nellie explained the situation, finishing with, “and we had no choice but to put the poor lad to bed overnight until he’s well enough to tell us anything.”
David paced up and down the hall, deep in thought. “Well, he can’t possibly stay.” He stopped pacing. “For a start, we don’t have any facilities for a young child, and furthermore he must belong to someone. I don’t want some irate farmer hammering on my door, accusing me of kidnapping his son.”
“Tom’s already making enquiries in the village, sir, so we should soon find out who he is. We can’t turn him out, sir. He’s such a pathetic little chap. I beg you to let him stay. We’ll make sure he doesn’t get in your way. You won’t know he’s here.”
“Well…only because I know I can trust your judgement. I cannot recall any occasion when you’ve let me down, but make sure he goes as soon as possible.”
Nellie carried on up the stairs as David entered his study, closing the door behind him. Leaning against it, his anguished face betrayed the remembered pain.
Why had this boy turned up now, just as he was beginning to control his grief? Perhaps he had been too hasty in allowing the boy to stay. Walking over to the decanter on the sideboard, he poured himself a brandy. It was rather early in the day for a drink but without hesitation he downed it in one gulp and then poured another, sighing deeply. The golden liquid shimmered in the sunlight as he twisted the glass between his shaking fingers.
Would this feeling of guilt ever leave him? If he hadn’t been driving so fast they wouldn’t have hit the boulder. Heaven knows how it got there in the middle of the road!