Living By The Land – Episode 10

LOUISA leaned her head against the cow’s soft, warm flank and let the peaceful sounds of the milking shed wash over her, easing the tension from her body. It hadn’t been the best week of her young life. Amelia had reported the evil “gift” in Louisa’s bed to Martha at first light and Martha’s response had been swift and decisive. She’d torn off the blood-smeared sheets, wrapped the mouse in one of the dairy’s muslins, and had demanded an immediate audience with Farmer Robert to discuss it.

The boss had been equally outraged and had called Louisa in for an embarrassing apology on behalf of the farm. Louisa had stuttered that it was quite all right and that it was only a mouse, but Farmer Robert had insisted on taking the incident very seriously.

“This isn’t just a mouse, Louisa,” he’d told her, pacing in front of the big oak fireplace in his private sitting-room. “This is an act of spite and an intrusion on your privacy and I shall get to the bottom of it.”

Louisa had gasped her gratitude, horribly aware of her rough maid’s clothing in this more formal part of the house. At the time, she’d just wanted to escape to the safety of the dairy, but when she’d had time to reflect later she’d been secretly glad of the farmer’s attitude. Yes, it had been a petty act, reminiscent of one of her brothers’ pranks back home, but there had been an underlying malice that had scared her and she’d been jumpy ever since.

Everyone had been very kind but at least one of them had to be play-acting. At least one of them had wanted to upset her, to frighten her, even, and she hated knowing that – especially as they’d succeeded.

She’d returned to her own bed the following night, playing the incident down in front of Amelia and the others. But it had taken all her country girl’s courage not to imagine the mouse’s blood still there between her shoulderblades, and sleep had not come easily. As a result she knew she’d been fractious these last few days, but here at last, with the air rich with the grassy breath of the cows, the soft rush of milk through her fingers, and the gentle sounds of the others talking and laughing around her, she felt safe again.

Patting her now emptied cow away, she glanced up to welcome the next one in. Catching sight of Amelia nearby, she smiled for what felt like the first time in days. Tiernan had come into the barn, ostensibly to check on the cattle, but his eyes were not on the cows, and Louisa couldn’t blame him.

Amelia had hitched her skirts up into her waistband, as many milkmaids did, though few with Amelia’s style or daring. Why, you could see the whole of her calf! Her hair was mussed and escaping from her cap in a way that suggested hours of work, but which Louisa knew was artfully created in front of the mirror every morning. She’d bitten her lips red and her eyes were at their widest as she gazed up at the northern farmer.

“Such lovely milk at this time of year,” she was saying, all innocence. “The grass must be very sweet.”

“It’s all the sunshine,” Louisa heard Tiernan agree, his voice a little hoarse.

“I don’t get to see it much, being stuck in here all day.” A pause, and then, “Maybe we could take a stroll out to the upper pastures, if you have a moment?”

Louisa bit her own lip, not to redden it but to stop herself laughing.

Tiernan, however, was totally under Amelia’s spell.

Alison Cook