Authors: Donna Lea Simpson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Cozy, #Historical, #Supernatural, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery, #Romantic Suspense, #werewolf, #paranormal romance, #cozy series, #Lady Anne, #Britain, #gothic romance
The Harecross property was largely committed to the crop, and even her scholarly father spent time conferring with his farm manager, Mr. Riggle, on new methods of growing and harvesting the tricky crop. So far, no better method had been found than stringing the hop bines on tripods of poles, and having the workers remove the poles at harvest time in September.
They left the hop fields behind and approached a sloping grassy meadow close to a wooded glade. The gypsy camp was within sight. Anne was suffocated once more by the memory of Tony, Lord Darkefell. He was never far from her thoughts. Was his proposal still valid, or had that last stormy scene on a cliff in Cornwall revoked it?
She now doubted the man she had seen so many days before, talking to the gypsies, could possibly be Darkefell. Why would he do such an unlikely thing as consort with the gypsies? Tony was the most direct man she had ever met, and was far more likely, if breaking her injunction against visiting her, to walk right up to the front door of Harecross Hall and demand an audience. He would surely not skulk around her home like a thief.
Those at Darkefell Castle and Ivy Lodge would have gotten her accusatory letters the day before, and so she would soon know the whole truth. If she had been imagining a similarity between the marquess and some fine-looking gypsy fellow—though that did not seem likely, for she was not
imaginative—then those at the castle and lodge would think her a lunatic.
the man, the Lord Anthony Darkefell’s look-alike?
She tried to put that all out of her thoughts; the problem at hand was far more pressing. Anne had visited the encampment many times without accompaniment, but the problems with the villagers and Mary’s run-in with the gypsies had her a trifle uneasy. Sanderson carried a large basket full of vegetables, eggs, and a bottle of milk from Harecross Hall’s dairy. “I will ask to speak to Madam Kizzy. That’s who supposedly cursed poor Robbie. I don’t believe in gypsy curses, but Mary seems to, and I need to comfort her on that head. Look around, if you can, and see if there is anything amiss, any tainted food, anyone at all ill. At the same time keep your eyes open for the lunatic who is running about with a gun. I don’t want to be taken unaware again.”
The gloomy driver grunted his acquiescence.
She wondered, as she slowly entered the clearing, with its motley assortment of bendy tents, lean-tos and other makeshift dwellings, if they evicted this group and the gypsies never came back, how would the hops be planted and harvested without the seasonal influx of willing workers? Gypsy men worked hard and then moved on. The workers Harecross Hall had hired from London had never been as effective, as abstemious, nor as willing to just move on once the work was done.
Every able-bodied man, most of the women and the older children were even now helping with the harvest of the first vegetables, peas, haricot beans, spinach, as well as luscious strawberries, the first fruit of summer at Wroth Farm, the earldom’s home farm. The earl was not the only one to employ them, though, and in the fall all of the local farmers depended upon gypsies to help with the hops harvest, then pears and apples, and finally ground crops, carrots and feed vegetables for the livestock to winter on, potatoes, cabbages and turnips. Local workers could not possibly do so much as was required.
This year had been different from the start, Anne had heard when she returned from her spring sojourn in Yorkshire and Cornwall. There was an uneasiness in the village due to a rise in property destruction of a particularly malicious kind, all blamed on the gypsies. Villagers reported mischievous laughter as windows were broken and gardens trampled. Gypsy children, the villagers complained.
Eyed uneasily by the few women still in the encampment—they were shy of the earl’s daughter, even in their own environment—Anne strolled to the gypsy mother’s cart. It was a simple farm cart fitted with a canvas tent and awning. She went to the draped scarf that served as a kind of door, knowing the old woman would still be abed this early. “Mother, will you see me? It is I, Lady Anne of the Hall.”
Florrie popped her head out, put one finger to her lips, then crept from the cart and motioned Anne to come with her. Anne followed, noting that Sanderson was speaking with one of the few men too old to work; the fellow was gratefully eating a husk of fresh bread, dipping it in a tin cup to soften it.
“Mother is not well,” the dark-eyed woman said, twisting a lock of her long hair in her strong, callused hands.
Anne felt a spurt of fear. “Not well? In what way?”
“She is not well,” the girl repeated and shrugged. She rubbed her belly, the bulge round, straining the draped skirts of her dress. “She sickened in the night.”
Anne felt a twisting in her gut. “I must see her.”
The gypsy woman shook her head, but Anne ignored her and climbed up into the dark fetid cart. Herbs burned in a little metal firepot, and the air was smoky, dim, dank, but nothing could defeat the familiar smell of illness.
“Madam, what is wrong?” Anne murmured, crouching by the woman’s bed, a pallet with multiple colorful scarves and blankets, cushions and pillows about her.
But there was no answer. The normally robust woman was sunk into unconsciousness. The younger woman whispered that she had been like that for hours. Anne sat for a long moment, observing, thinking of how similar her case was to Robbie’s. Nothing connected them but the argument between Mary and her, and her telling Robbie’s fortune. But what about the broth?
Anne asked Florrie about it. The young woman shook her head. No one else was sick, she said, and all ate the same food. With her being unconscious, Anne could not even ask the woman if she and Robbie had shared anything that no one else had eaten.
She climbed down from the cart. “Are you sure no one else is ill?” she asked Florrie.
The young woman shook her head. “No, madam, not a one. And we all eat the same.”
One older gypsy woman, strong, and of about fifty or so years, came forward shaking her fist in Anne’s face. “That woman, that Mary, she cursed our Mother. She said she would bring down the wrath of God upon the Mother. Go to her, tell her,” the woman shrieked, pointing a long bony finger. “Go, make her take it back. Maybe then her son will recover.”
Superstition; even God’s name could be used in its service. “I will do what I can,” Anne said, slowly, unwilling to call their beliefs foolish with so much at stake. “But the doctor cannot find out what is making Robbie sick. Can you tell me, was there anything at all that you know of, any herb that the mother and the boy may have shared?”
The woman saw what must have seemed a trap, an intent to blame the gypsies for Robbie’s illness. First fear, then watchfulness clouded her eyes. Glances were exchanged between she and Florrie. They would say no more.
“May I send my doctor to see Madam Kizzy?” Anne asked, desperation welling up in her stomach. “I only wish her to recover, you
believe me. Have I not been a friend to you all?”
A hoot of distant laughter made them all look back to the woods. What was that? But the break had given the gypsies all the time they needed to think.
The old man had ambled over and was the first to speak. “No, lady, no,” he said, clutching his tin cup. “We want none of your doctoring. If your doctor cannot help the Robbie child, then why should he look at our mother? No. We will give her the old medicine, for it is still best.”
Anne knew they would not give an inch on this, not now at least. She glanced at Sanderson, who had been searching the encampment while she spoke to the mother and the other gypsies. He shook his head.
“Accompany me to see my brother, Sanderson. There has been so much to do that I have only visited him once since my return, and wish to go see him now.”
“Aye, milady,” the coachman said, with a glowering look back at the gypsies.
She and Sanderson walked out of the shadowy glade into the sunshine, then set off down the dusty lane and through a meadow, the long grass glowing green in the mid-June sunshine. Twenty minutes later they approached Farfield Farm, a single-story cottage with mellow red brick and ragstone walls covered in climbing roses and ivy. It was encroached by several trees overgrowing it, and a low stone wall surrounded its garden and several fruit trees.
Anne felt the familiar tug of anxiety mingled with sadness as they drew near. She always had mixed feelings about visiting her brother, Jamey. Though she cherished her only sibling, she still felt an awful weight of guilt, for she was the reason he had been banished from Harecross Hall many years before. She paused at the top of the rise overlooking the farm.
From that vantage point she could see the oast houses of Wroth Farm in the distance, where most of the work was done after the hops harvest. An oast house was essentially the kiln for drying the freshly picked hops, a square tall building that was the actual kiln, with a long low addition for cooling and bagging the dried hops. Harecross and Wroth Farm had, combined, five oast houses built in the last several years to handle the burgeoning hops-growing industry. No, actually there were six oast houses, she recalled. The first one, built long before she was born, was a shoddy affair and poorly placed, so it was abandoned.
But her mind returned to Jamey as they approached Farfield Farm. The cottage appeared small but was larger than it looked from the outside, because of modifications that had been done to fit it up for Jamey. There was an old coach house, unused for anything but storage nowadays, and a long, low stable beyond, where the horses and a carriage were kept. The stable ended in a lean-to where a couple of goats and several sheep were housed in bad weather.
A large henhouse and vegetable garden made the farm almost self-sufficient. The gardens were mostly tended by Jamey, for he was a dedicated student of the natural world, with an understanding that equaled in depth most of the practitioners of the new specialty of agricultural science. His “servants”—the couple employed to keep Jamey happy and healthy, as well as busy and safe—were Mr. and Mrs. Jackson.
It seemed quiet today, no signs of life. She strolled down the lane, then turned to Sanderson and said, “Would you check to see if the stables need any work? In fact, check all of the outbuildings to make sure the roofs are in repair. I can never trust Father to remember this, and Mr. Riggle deliberately ignores Farfield Farm. I’m going in to visit Jamey.”
Mr. Riggle, her father’s farm manager, was a mean-tempered man, but proficient at his work. His lack of care for Farfield Farm was his only lapse, for he was far more interested in the profitable hops farming of Wroth Farm and Harecross Hall. Anne made up the deficiency in care for Farfield, and didn’t complain. If any work needed doing, she would order it herself.
Sanderson took the turn to the lane that circled to the back of the Farfield Farm cottage, as Anne entered through the gate in the stone wall and approached from the front. “Mrs. Jackson,” she called out as she tapped at the door. No answer except for the hushed sound of voices inside. “Mr. Jackson? Jamey?” she called, then pushed the latch.
The door creaked open. She entered to disarray, an unusual untidiness and air of neglect. Mr. Jackson was at the hearth in the kitchen, which, in the oddly cut-up farmhouse, renovated to Jamey and the Jacksons’ use, was in the front. He straightened from a streaming pot over the fire and stared at her in dismay. He bowed and said, “You do not find us at our best today, milady.”
Jamey was shouting from another room, “My lens … where is my lens? Where is it?”
“Where is Mrs. Jackson, sir?” she asked, pulling off her gloves and setting them aside. Jamey was still shouting about his lens.
The man looked close to tears. “I can’t wake her, milady. She took to ’er bed yesterday in the middle of the day. Never seen her do that, not even when we lost little ’uns,” he said, referring to the many miscarriages they had suffered in their childless marriage.
Anne felt a piercing wave of fear. “Is she pale and still? Unconscious, even? And has she found it impossible to keep food down?”
He nodded to it all.
“May I see her?”
“Yes, milady, of course.”
“Has he been like this all morning?” she asked, with a motion of her head toward the room used by her brother.
Mr. Jackson nodded. “You know what Master James is like, milady. My wife is the only one ’oo can calm him when he gets like this.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” She walked down the dark hall to her brother’s sunny suite, a set of rooms created to satisfy all his quite specific needs. “Jamey,” she called. “It’s Annie.”
There was silence.
She paused outside his door. “Jamey, it’s Annie,” she repeated. “May I come in?”
Silence, then the scuttling sound of things rapidly being shifted.
“Jamey? May I come in and look at your specimens?” She would need to be extra careful, because if Mrs. Jackson was ill, then his routine was sufficiently upset that he would require reassurance.
“Annie? Sister?” he said.
The door swung open, and she was engulfed in a powerful hug that took her breath away. “Jamey, dearest, do let go,” she said breathlessly. He squeezed harder. “Jamey, let go,
!” she gasped.
He released her and stood back. Many years before, when they were both still quite young, he had been just this boisterous, or perhaps much more so. In horseplay, pure fun on his part, he had thrown her from the second-floor gallery at Harecross Hall. He hadn’t meant to hurt her, and indeed, had not been able to comprehend that he could or would.
She had been hurt rather badly, though, then had come down with a lung complaint, one that persisted, leaving her breathless upon exertion. She was quite healthy, though, and never let it keep her from physical activity. Anne’s mother, in hysterics, had banished Jamey from the house, and there was a tumultuous time before they fitted up Farfield Farm and found the Jacksons, a childless older couple, to look after him.
But it was fortunate that they seemed to have hit on the ideal solution, for he was wildly happy at Farfield Farm and had been for many years, ten at least. But the Jacksons were getting on. Should she and her father be thinking of retiring the couple and finding new keepers for her brother? Tears pricked at the back of her eyes, but she swallowed hard and pasted a smile on her face.