Living By The Land – Episode 16

THE chicken arrived beneath David’s arm and Aunt Helena fell on it and made a huge, rich broth. They all had a little – the boys devouring it with an eagerness that made Louisa realise just how well off she was at Lower Meadow – but the majority was saved for the patient. Betsy managed a few sips and Louisa thought her cheeks looked brighter by the end of the day, though maybe it was her desperate imagination.

It was a wrench to leave Home Farm when evening fell and she waited as long as she dared, but in the end her father forced her to mount Blackie, not wanting her out after dusk.

“You will let me know how Betsy is?” she pleaded.

“I’ll send David over later in the week.”

“Or sooner, if . . .”

“That won’t happen, Louisa. Betsy’s fighting and the broth will help.”

“I hope so.”

“Off you go then, lass, and make us some more cheese, eh?”

Louisa nodded, trying to respond to his cheerful tone for the boys’ sake, if nothing else.

“I’m trying one with chives,” she offered.

“That’s good. And nettles, eh? Nettles was always a good one. Devil to pick, mind you!”

“There are good gloves at Lower Meadow.”

“I bet there are. Best of everything there. You make the most of it, lass. Don’t go fretting about us. Promise?”

Louisa shook her head. It wasn’t a promise she could make and her father knew that, but she kissed them all and tried to leave with a smile.

The journey home felt long. There was too much time to think with only grass and birds and the steady clop of Blackie’s firm hooves to keep her company. It was quite a relief when, through the gathering gloom, she saw the lights of Lower Meadow at last, and she was surprised – and a little guilty – at how much like home it already felt.

Blackie, sensing her pleasure, or perhaps just the oat bag that would await him in his stable, picked up his old feet and took her down the drive at quite a trot. The farmyard, however, was deserted with not even a stablehand around, and Louisa had to take him into his stall herself. She made the old pony comfortable and then pulled the stable door closed.

What now? Should she go to bed? She glanced up at the dormitory but there were no lights on so she turned to the farmhouse and tugged uncertainly on the big kitchen door. It opened easily and Louisa was startled to hear angry voices inside.

She sidled in to find every man and woman employed on the farm inside, standing stiff-backed before a red-faced Farmer Robert.

Spotting Amelia, she slid in at her side.

“What’s happened?” she whispered.

Amelia glanced at their boss but they were largely obscured from his direct look by Ambrose’s broad back.

“Someone let the ram into the sheep field,” she whispered back.

Louisa blinked.

“But it’s . . .”

“Still nearly a month off tupping time. I know. Farmer Robert’s furious! It’s put his breeding programme right out. He’s been ranting for . . .” she glanced at the big kitchen clock “. . . over an hour now.”

No wonder everyone looked so tense. Robert’s sheep-breeding programme was the highlight of his animal husbandry and the main reason for the King’s interest in Lower Meadow. He was working hard to crossbreed his stock to create a hardier, meatier animal, but to do that the tupping needed to be very carefully controlled.

Alison Cook