THE sun was bright overhead as they set off on Saturday, the horse heaving his weight into the shafts, his big hooves clopping on the greasy cobblestones of the town, the splodgy red-roan rump showing more grey than Emma cared to see.
When she was a child she had prayed every night for God to keep Barney safe. Now, in her twentieth summer, she was more realistic, but made the request all the same.
Emma had taken pains with her appearance so as to complement Hamilton’s outfit of broadcloth, immaculate linen and tall hat, this being Aunt Maisie’s instruction.
Or so Emma told herself. She had not missed the approving glance the horse-dealer had given her high-crowned straw bonnet, and she made sure she was wearing it today. She had washed her hair in rosemary water and brushed it till it gleamed.
Her gown of sunny yellow matched the colour of the wayside dandelions, some of which were turning to seed that drifted in gossamer fairy-clocks on the breeze.
They were out of the town now, heading along the Old Coach Road, a rutted highway that led eventually into the market town of Whitchurch.
“We turn left at the Feathers Inn,” Hamilton said, shaking the reins to wake the horse up. “It will be several miles yet. Did you not bring a parasol?’’
“No. I never thought to.”
“Alice would fear the sun playing havoc with her complexion.”
“Oh, phooey!” Emma said. “Who cares about a few freckles? How do you know what Alice thinks, anyway?”
“I met her walking her dog and stopped to talk.” He darted a smile. “Why, I do believe you’re jealous.”
“Of course I’m not.”
She squeezed his arm affectionately and sat back in the plush-covered cushions of the passenger seat. One gloved hand clutched the rail-guard against the bounce and sway of the four-wheeled gig, the other shielded her eyes against the sun’s glare.
Leys of sprouting corn and lush red clover went rolling by, and grassy meadows in which sleek cattle browsed. The air was fresh and sweet, so different from the smoky fug of the city; Emma felt her spirits lift accordingly.
In due course they came to the turning and began the steady uphill haul along twisting lanes frothing with cow parsley. Sun-shadows chased across rugged slopes dotted with flares of golden gorse.
Hedgerows throbbed with birdsong and overhead a skylark trilled and trilled as if it wanted the entire world to share its joy of living.
“Oh!” Emma turned to Hamilton in open wonder. “It’s so lovely here.”
“Yes, it is,” he agreed affably. “Though I dread to think what it’s like in winter. We’re better off in the town.”
“I just love the quiet. It’s hard to believe there are brigands here. I wonder where their hide-out is. There must be caves somewhere.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
“You’re right. It’s far too pleasant a day for that.” All the same, Emma looked more searchingly around her. “Have you the direction? We mustn’t get lost.”
“Never fear, Emma. We’ll be there shortly. Uncle said to watch out for the milestone to Larkton and turn on to a track. It’s steep. It’s to be hoped Barney copes with the pull.”
Soon afterwards the horse drew to a sweating stop in the stable yard. Emma looked about her with interest and a good deal of surprise.
Far from the ramshackle place of her expectations, this yard was neat and orderly.
The roof of the stone-built stabling did not lack any slates and someone had recently been busy with the tar-brush, for the woodwork gleamed blackly in the sunlight.
The heavy double doors were open to the air and in the stalls the rumps that could be seen, hind hooves resting contentedly, were glossy and muscled.
There was no lack of care here and Emma, whilst willing herself not to be cajoled by a pair of deep-blue eyes, felt a rush of regard for the owner.