It had been a bewildering and exciting morning. The journey in the trailer had been bad enough, then a strange place, and strange people and a strange Rider. Then many, many horses - and dogs - dogs everywhere - running between his legs and - horrifyingly - getting under his feet. The only constant had been Mare who’d been close to his side from the start and who had swiftly become his herd mother on this strangest of strange days. He’d been allowed to gallop - a lot - which had been terrific fun. Long way galloping - fields and fields and more fields. And jumping in between - walls and fences and hedges, which had been even more super fun.
Just as he was starting to get used to it all, he’d been told to go away from all the others, and that was alarming, only it turned out that Mare was coming too, so that was all right. He tried to lean closer into her side, but that made Rider’s legs squeeze him harder and he jittered at the steel against his belly. Rider and Mare’s Rider whinnied. But gosh, he was tired. He’d run a very long way today. All of a sudden he surprised himself by letting an awful lot of air out of his nose all at once. He felt Rider’s cool hand on his hot neck, very steady and calm. It would be a lot easier, come to think of it, to just put his head down and not toss it around so much. He really was very tired.
“At least his eyes aren’t out on stalks any more,” said Ronnie.
“I should think he’s exhausted, poor lamb,” Rowan replied. She had thought it best to head for home at the point where the Hunt had checked. Ronnie had offered to hack home with her to keep Hot Chestnut company, a gallant excuse to end his own day early. The young horse had been reluctant to leave, and had swerved all over the place trying to jink back, but had settled down when Mrs Merrick’s old mare took the lead. They rode in silence, single file along a headland until they came to a gate into the lane.
“Goodness, I’m glad that’s over,” said Ronnie candidly.
“Don’t you enjoy it much?” asked Rowan, surprised. She’d been expecting Ronnie to be the type who, once the hazards of the day were safely behind them, told exaggerated tales about the height of fences jumped and the odds of tumbles that hadn’t happened.
Ronnie smiled a touch sheepishly, as if he’d given away more than he’d meant to. But smoothing it over with exaggerated deprecation, he explained, “I’ve never been that hot on it since the days when I had Buster. That pony spoiled me. It’s just not the same on any other nag.” He grinned, looking suddenly boyish. “There was nothing that pony wouldn’t jump when hounds were running.”
“Still isn’t,” observed Rowan, who had seen Buster and Nicola from time to time during the day, usually as a glimpse of black tail leading the Field over yet another hairy obstacle.
“He never waited for orders either. That’s the sort of chap I need - I’m no good at all that seeing strides and making their minds up for them. If it’s a five-barred gate coming at me I want them to make my mind up for me.”
“So do most people, I should think,” said Rowan.
“Not you, though?”
“Depends. Prisca has been known to tell me where to get off.”
“The grey cob my brother was riding. Jon’s old mare.”
“Ah yes. Jon was out on her last winter.” He hesitated. “I was awfully sorry to hear about Jon. It was a bloody shame - going like that, I mean. When he’d come through the war -” He stopped..
“I didn’t know him very well, really,” said Rowan, saving him from awkwardness. “We were down for our first holiday in years when it happened.”
“Grim for you. And afterwards, you pulling the short straw to run the farm.”
Usually when people made remarks of that sort to Rowan, she did her best to convince them that that was the very opposite of the way she thought about it. But Ronnie had been honest with her about how he felt about hunting.
“It was the only obvious solution,” she said crisply.
“Bit rough on you though,” he said.
Rowan saw all at once that Ronnie wasn’t being especially intuitive or empathetic, just saying what everybody like him would think. What most of her old acquaintances from school would say, even the ones who hadn’t liked her much. She’d thought she was confiding her secret feelings to Nicola that night in the kitchen - dull as ditchwater, she’d said - but of course, it was nothing special to reveal. Just exactly what everyone thought it would be.
Goodness knows what she might say if she started to answer him in the same vein. So she said instead, briskly, “Oh, it has its advantages.”
“Like what?” he asked.
Like what indeed? “Well, today was fun. I should think I’ll get at least half a day out every week till the end of the season.”
Ronnie obediently took his cue. “You might get extra days if the Major keeps lending you this fella? Though I’m not sure who’s doing who the favour in his case.”
“He did ask if I’d like to take him out again next week - but he also mentioned a daughter who might want him later in the season.”
“Yes, when you’ve got him settled and going nicely! You have to watch out for these old rogues who get mugs to school their horses for free - “ Horrified, he fell over his own words - “I mean, not that anyone would take you for a mug - not at all - far from it!”
She laughed. “Oh, I am - lots of the time. At least, I expect some of the farm hands think so.”
“I’m sure they don’t,” he said gallantly.
“Some of them have been working there forty years nearly. And here I am, a wet-behind-the-ears chit of a girl supposed to be telling them what to do!”
“I’m sure they don’t think that,” he said politely, and then with more genuine assurance - “And if they do, it won’t be long before they learn better!”
She glanced at him side-long, amused, and wondered what she could have said or done earlier in the day to impress him so. She cast her mind back over the small talk they’d exchanged hacking to the meet and at the various draws - abstracted by pre-hunting nerves on his part, getting sillier as the Jumping Powder took effect. He’d been quite good company after that had worn off. Or maybe it was just that it was the first time in ages she’d any conversation with someone who wasn’t at least forty in the shade.
It was Ronnie who dragged the talk back to Hot Chestnut. “Of course, if you did keep hunting him, he’d be a top sort for the Member’s Race.”
This meant nothing to Rowan, but on enquiry, Ronnie explained. “The Hunt organise a point-to-point in the spring. I’ve been to stay with Uncle Anthony before when it’s been on - the weekend before Mayday as far as I remember. Jolly good fun you know. Members of ‘our’ Hunt can enter the Member’s Race. Your lad there would beat the others into a cocked hat when he’s fully fit.”
“That does sound fun,” said Rowan. “What’s the course like?”
They talked racing and pointing and horses some more. It seemed that Ronnie, while not being the most enthusiastic of participants, was a knowledgeable spectator. Mrs Merrick’s old mare, recognising the road home to her stables, strode on eagerly, not much minding her rider. Nor did she mind when Hot Chestnut, so weary that his legs were wobbly, bumped into her side from time to time.. Although Rowan endeavoured to keep him straight between leg and hand, for a stride or two hers and Ronnie’s knees were squeezed together. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
The sun, low in the winter sky, traced the clouds with amber and rose. Rooks gathered to roost, their caws carrying raucous through the cold air, looking bigger and blacker in the bare branches of the trees than they ever did in summer. A pheasant rustled in the dead leaves of the ditch beside them, then got up cuck-cuck-cucking almost under their noses. Both horses jolted, half spun and snorted, but with home ahead of them and the day behind, their hearts weren’t in it.
“That wasn’t worth the bother, was it?” Rowan said, cheerfully patting the chestnut’s neck.
Ronnie took up where they’d left off - “If he wins the Member’s Race this year, next year he could even run in the Open - “
“Maybe. Though the Major did say something about sending him into training next year, if he stays sound out hunting,” Rowan replied. Ronnie felt slightly dashed. Rowan was so matter of fact. He realised his vision of Hot Chestnut’s future had included himself as a leading figure in the cheering crowd who lifted the victorious Rowan off her horse - and maybe a celebration dinner to follow - just the two of them.
She was a good looking girl, naturally, but there was more to her than that. A damn fine rider of course - much better than he was. And she wasn’t the soothing sort - not the way she’d teased him when that horse had planted all its weight on his foot and refused to move - he wouldn’t be surprised if his toe was broken - it had been throbbing quietly out of sight all day.
He’d been to a good many parties and balls so far that winter. All good fun if you liked dancing and being introduced to pretty girls - both of which Ronnie did. But at the back of his mind always was his mother saying once; don’t fall for some young flibbertigibbert. Life’s not much fun for an Army wife, you want a girl with a bit of bottom to her. Being younger then, and embarrassed by talk of girlfriends, he’d made rather a school-boyish joke about preferring a nice-looking bottom. But he knew what his mother meant.
It wasn’t much fun for Army mothers either. An older cousin - his mother’s sister’s son - had gone missing in the waters off Dunkirk when the ship taking him off had been torpedoed. He’d only been a kid at the time - still small enough to ride Buster - and he’d ridden out alone all day, wondering if the war would still be going when he was old enough, and how he’d make out if it was.
Goodness, but he was sore. When he’d been offered the unexpected day’s hunting, he hadn’t liked to turn it down. But it was ages since he’d ridden much, and he was going to be feeling the ache in his bones for days …
The end was in sight now, the last bit of lane winding round to the stableyard gate, and Rowan wondering aloud if the Major would have sent his groom to collect his horse. And that question was answered for them, the trailer stood in the yard, and the groom emerged from the lit tack room where he and Sellars had been gossiping and drinking tea.
The men were at the horses’ heads as he and Rowan dismounted, leading them away to where buckets of warm water waited. Their proprietary briskness said quite clearly that his and Rowan’s help was not wanted, would even be unwelcome.
He and Rowan stretched their aching limbs, grinning rather ruefully at each other.
“Is someone coming down to fetch you?” he asked, wondering if he could borrow the Merrick’s car to run her back.
“I shouldn’t think so. It’s only a short walk.”
“I’ll walk with you. If I may?”
She shrugged, but didn’t actually tell him not to. He took that as permission and they set off together.
“It’s only across a couple of fields,” she explained. “Nicola runs up and down several times a day - my sister, who was on Buster - At least, she did. She kept her pet hawk down here.”
“Another legacy of Jon’s?”
“Sort of. She’s friends with Patrick who kept the falconry up after Jon -”
“Ah. But the girl on the grey pony, riding with him today? Is that another sister?”
“Yes, that one’s Ginty,” said Rowan, frowning slightly.
Rowan ran through which sister was which, but in truth, Ronnie wasn’t really attending, other than as an excuse to keep turning to look at her profile as she talked. Like an angel on a Christmas card, he thought. Attractive but stern looking. Or a figure head on a ship staring out to sea. He rather wished the walk could be longer; but he could already see the dark outline of the house, the glow of windows from lamps already lit, and the dark spinney beyond. The colours of day had bled out of the sky, leaving it pale and shining, waiting for moon rise.
“Today was good fun,” he said, as they tramped across the rough grass of Brendan’s Pale, already crisping with frost as the light faded.
“I thought you didn’t like hunting?” said Rowan.
“Well, it was rather jolly seeing Buster out again. But mainly I meant I enjoyed the company,” he said meaningly.
“The - oh, I see.”
He was encouraged -and touched - to see that she was surprised, that there was even the faintest of blushes rising in her cheeks. Taking courage from this he pressed on. “I wonder, would it be possible, I mean, would you like to meet up again some time? I’d like to take you out - to dinner maybe?”
“I don’t think that would be very practical really,” she said.
Rather dashed - perhaps he’d only imagined the blush after all - he persisted gamely. “I visit Uncle Antony and Aunt Helena pretty often. And I’m not so far away, I could come down quite easily. I’ll be down for the point-to-point.”
He thought her face had a considering look, and he played what he hoped might be his best card. “ You might fancy talking to someone apart from the local yokels once in a while? I could come in the car and we could run up to town for an evening?”
Afterwards, he was sure she’d been going to agree. He even thought he might have tried his luck for a goodnight kiss before they parted. But as they came through the gate in front of the house they found a scene of confusion before them. Two tired, muddy horses, one grey and one brown, stood before the entrance, both loosely held by Mrs Marlow, still resplendent in riding habit but with an exasperated expression on her face. Slumped on the steps before her was Peter. Ronnie recognised, with annoyed sympathy, the aftermath of a fall - dried mud plastered over his face, the useless arm tucked between the buttons of his hunting jacket. Mrs Marlow, he thought, wore the same look on her face as his own mother always had when he came home with yet another scrape or bump, as of ‘here-we-go-again’ or ‘what now?’
Light poured from the open doorway, and as Ronnie and Rowan approached, the sister whom Ronnie vaguely remembered seeing in the car that morning, came out with a length of white material.
“That’s not one of our best tablecloths, is it?” asked Mrs Marlow.
“No, it’s from my first aid kit. I’ll do the best sling I can,” she told Peter. “To keep you more comfortable on the way to hospital.”
Mrs Marlow caught sight of Ronnie and Rowan. “Oh thank goodness you’re back, Ro,” she said. “Peter’s done his collarbone again, and we’ll have to run him into the hospital.”
“I’ll take him,” said Rowan instantly. “I’ll just grab the car keys.”
“Oh, would you?” said Mrs Marlow in obvious relief. “I was going to, only I will have to change out of all this before I drive anywhere… and Ginty and Nicola still aren’t back.”
“Nonsense, I’ll go. I only have to swap my boots for some shoes...”
Ronnie, in an attempt to make himself useful, took the horses’ reins from Mrs Marlow. “Shall I -” he murmured.
“Oh, Ronnie, thank you. Just follow the driveway that way round the house, you’ll see the stables at the end.”
Reluctantly, without even the chance of a quick word to Rowan, who had already rushed into the house, he led the horses away in the direction Mrs Marlow had absently waved towards. The Marlows' stable hand, hearing the crunch of hooves on gravel, was already hurrying to meet him. But by the time he had answered Fred’s anxious enquiries as to who had come off (he seemed mainly concerned that it wasn’t Mrs Marlow that had come to harm, and was cheerily relieved that it was just one of the young ones with a bust shoulder again,) and handed over charge of the horses, the tail lights of the estate car containing Rowan and Peter were disappearing along the drive.
There was nothing left to do but exchange a few desultory comments with Mrs Marlow, refuse her polite but not seriously meant offer to come in for a drink, and walk back to Marriot Chase, thinking dark thoughts about the objectionableness of younger brothers who got in the way with their broken bones. Next time - if there ever was a next time - next time he’d make sure they were nowhere near her blasted family - and on top of that - his own foot bloody hurt - that toe was definitely broken.
He could drop her a line maybe, though writing wasn’t really his thing. Or telephone, though he didn’t know how persuasive he could be on the phone, especially if she just said a flat no. Which was why, later that evening, in front of a roaring fire in the Merrick’s sitting room, and after several of Antony’s special double measure post-hunting hot toddies, he found himself saying that yes, he’d absolutely love to come down for another day out, the very next time he had leave on a hunting day....