The English lady sat relaxed in the front of the boat. Her eyes focused on the dense green foliage along the bank. She held the rim of her large straw hat with one hand and with the other pointed to a primate swinging through the canopy of trees above their heads.
“And just what is that?”
The young chap interrupted his stroke from the back of the long native canoe and looked where the lady was pointing.
“It must be a monkey.”
Using both hands, the lady lifted her veil for a better look. “No, it is too large for a monkey.”
“Then it must be a baboon.”
She held her hands loosely on the rim of the canoe, turned her head and glared at him. She had to challenge his assertion. “And how would you know about these things?”
He rolled his eyes and shrugged. “I read books. And I go to museums.”
“How very noble,” she said. She turned back around, lowered her veil, and once again, placed her hands on the rim of the boat.
The current was steadily flowing, and they paddled at a leisurely pace.
The lady started to fidget on her seat. “How do you stop this thing?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I guess I would paddle to the bank and park it.”
She took in a sharp breath and snorted. “You guess? Your books and museums do not tell you that for certain?”
“Well, the native guide suggested that.” He chuckled.
The young man felt the pull of his paddling slowly increase as the water became swifter.
The Lady squinted her eyes and her nostrils flared like a raging bull. “And tell me again why, in God’s name, we did not bring him along to steer this… toy boat?”
“We came on this trip for an adventure and we wanted to experience life in Africa for ourselves as much as possible.”
He was exerting more energy as he paddled harder in deeper water and faster current. He was panting. Under his hat, sweat dribbled down his neck and along his spine. The once-loose and dry linen shirt was now soaked and stuck to his back.
The river was becoming swifter and water was beginning to slosh over the sides of the canoe. He struggled to maintain control and attempted to maneuver the boat through the narrowing.
“This just might be a little more African life than I anticipated or desired,” she said now becoming panicky.
Her breath quickened. Her knuckles were whitening as she tightened her grasp on the sides of the boat. “I think you had better paddle us to any shore immediately.”
They heard the roar of falling water up ahead.
“I am trying to,” the young man said.
He tightened his grip on the paddle, desperately trying to steer the boat toward the bank, but to no avail. The muscles in his arms and shoulders were cramping. His chest rose and fell with rapid breaths.
The boat was now pitching and rocking as the previously placid river was quickly flowing into a series of rapids.
He was breathing harder now.
However hard the young man paddled, the canoe continued to careen down the center of the river. He felt his grip on the paddle slipping. His fingers were cold and numb.
The lady now had a death grip on the rim of the canoe. She noticed the caps of the water whiten and the waves rise and crash fiercely on each other. She narrowed her eyes and raised her voice.
“And just where is the next bend in the river?”
He breathed in fire; his lungs burned with each inhale. The young man answered as they heard a thundering roar.
“I hate to say this, but I do not believe there is a bend in the river.
The paddle tore from his grip and flew in the air. His hat took off in the spiraling wind.
He yelled. “I believe we are about to encounter a waterfall.”
His eyes widened, and he felt the sting of the crashing waves slam into his face.
The lady bowed her head, and tightly closed her eyes. Her cries drowned in the spray as the force of the raging water swallowed them up.
* * *
“I got one,” Harry exclaimed to his friend, Percy, as he gave a swift yank on the rod and began reeling in the large trout. Percy reached for the net and prepared to capture the fish, as Harry brought it close to the bank of the stream, although the fish bucked and struggled.
“Damn, that is a nice one,” Percy said, as he held up the net with the snagged fish for Harry’s examination. “What fly are you using?”
“One I made myself.” Harry unhooked the fish and showed Percy what he had made—a hook tied with an assortment of brightly colored feathers.
Harry Buxton, the Earl of Creassey, was a handsome young man of seven-and-twenty, with dark hair that was prematurely graying at the temples. But his youthful face with dark eyes, a generous smile, and a strongly defined face was what attracted admiring glances from both ladies and gentlemen. And, as he was an active manager of his estate, he was not shy when it came to doing the hard work required. As a result, he had broad shoulders, strong arms and legs, and his skin was tanned by constant exposure to the sun.
“You are a much more dedicated fly fisherman than I am,” Percy said. “I would not have the patience to construct my own flies.”
“It relaxes me. Working on the estate all day, I like to have some quiet time to reflect and think and working on my flies does that for me.”
Percy Garvey was the youngest son of the Duke of Crauford, who held the neighboring estate of Billingsford. But the young Percy seemed to have no direction, and after a few years at Cambridge University was sent down for misbehaving and never returned.
The young Percy and Harry had been friends since childhood and often spent time together for fun and sport and confided in each other over any personal matters that might be troubling them.
Percy was nearly the same age as his friend, at four-and-twenty. But he was slight of build, shorter and with blond hair, a fair complexion and no sign that he ever contemplated hard work let alone did any. His family despaired for his future, but so far, Percy had no discernable direction for his life other than enjoying it however he could.
But the two young men’s friendship overrode any reservations Harry might have about Percy’s lazy character.
“Do you want to take any of the fish with you?” Harry laughed. “Even though you caught only one. Maria does not like trout, so it is just Mother and I who shall dine on it this evening.”
“No thank you,” Percy said, as he untethered his horse from a nearby tree. “I do not much care for fish of any kind. I just fish to accompany you mostly.”
“What a heathen you are, Percy. You have no taste or refinement.”
Percy punched Harry in the arm and assumed a boxing stance. “I challenge you on that point, Harry. There is no one more refined than I am. Ask all the ladies. They will tell you.”
Harry scoffed. “Yes, I have seen some of the ladies with whom you keep company. I hardly think they are the arbiters of the best taste. I do not see, what you see in those tavern wenches, my friend.”
“Just a dalliance from time to time. Nothing serious. Papa will arrange the perfect bride for me. One with great beauty and with a great deal of money.”
“You are a scoundrel, my friend, but I love you nonetheless.”
Percy mounted his horse, tipped his hat to Harry and said, “Give my best to your dear sister… and your mother, of course. But you can give Maria a kiss for me.”
“I am certain my sister will be delighted with that, as she hardly pays you any attention at all.”
“Liar. She adores me,” he added, and then he rode off.
* * *
Creassey Manor was set at the far end of a fertile valley that comprised the Earl’s estate near Aldbourne in Wiltshire. The manor house was surrounded by low wooded hills and spread out, before the sixteenth century house, were lush formal gardens, hidden secret gardens, and expansive walks through woods and fields where Maria, Harry’s sister, loved to walk, book in hand, or with her dearest friend, Anna Hoskins, the daughter of a near neighbor, the Viscount Repington.
Harry’s mother, Leah—the Lady Creassey—always waited to have afternoon tea until Harry and Maria were present. It was a family tradition that had been observed ever since her husband had passed away five years ago. But while Maria was always punctual, Harry was often late or did not show at all—his excuse being, that the duties of managing the estate would not often yield to his mother’s rigid schedule.
Maria was just a few years younger than her brother, with the same coloring and familial features. It was clear they were brother and sister. But she had a beauty that was delicate and pleasing, even though she worked hard at co-managing their estate. Thinking this was one of the afternoons when Harry would not be present for tea, Maria had just poured her mother’s tea and was handing her the cup when the parlor door opened.
“Mother, as you can see I made it this afternoon,” Harry announced, as he came into the yellow parlor, favored by his mother for tea service.
“We have some particularly lovely cucumber sandwiches, just the way you like them, Harry,” his mother said. “Come sit with us.” She then looked at her son’s boots. “And you are tracking mud all over our lovely Persian carpet. Do try to be more careful.”
“Sorry Mother,” he said going to the fireplace and knocking his boots against the dormant fire grate.
“Percy sends you both a greeting, and you Maria, a kiss,” Harry said with a teasing smile to his sister.
“Cheeky devil,” Maria said, blushing slightly, as she poured the tea.
Harry went to sit at the tea table and shook out his napkin and placed it on his lap as Maria handed him his cup and a small plate of cucumber sandwiches.
Lady Leah Creassey was a severe looking woman. Perhaps she had been beautiful at one point in her life, but she was now an invalid. She had been injured in the same accident that had killed her husband, when their carriage tipped over on a narrow road and tumbled into a ravine.
She wore her graying hair tight around her face and pulled back into a bun at the back of her head. Leah always wore black, sat stoically upright in her wheelchair, and was always in pain.
“Dear Brother, have any of the pregnant cows calved yet?” Maria asked. “I know you were expecting the first birth this morning.”
“Actually, the first came last night and Daniels discovered the calf this morning when he was putting out the feed.”
“And it is all right?”
“It is. Healthy and suckling.”
“How many more are there waiting to give birth?” Mother asked.
“We actually have two-and-thirty this year,” Harry answered. “Five more than last year.”
“I am so happy we do not slaughter our cattle. It is so much better to raise breeding cattle.” Maria said, pouring another cup of tea for her mother.
“And raising prize winning Kerry cattle is a great deal more profitable, as well. We will be showing again at the Winchester fair this year. It has been so profitable for us the past three years.”
“Did you catch your supper?” Maria asked. “Cook was asking as I was passing through the kitchen.”
“I did.” He turned to his mother. “I have a nice fat one for you, Mother.”
She smiled tightly. “Lemons are so difficult to come by in Wiltshire, how will it be served?”
“I can ask cook to do a nice béarnaise sauce using white wine vinegar instead of lemon,” Maria said.
“That will do.”
The butler, Daniels, appeared with a pot of hot water. “Refresh your teapot Miss Buxton?” he asked Maria.
“More tea, anyone?” Maria asked. No one responded. “I think we are done, Daniels.”
“Lady Buxton, are you ready to be taken to your rooms for your nap?” Daniels asked.
Leah sighed. “If you would, please.”
“Carter is standing by and will assist you.”
Nurse Carter came into the parlor, adjusted Leah’s lap rug, and wheeled her out of the room.
As Mother left, Maria lowered her eyes and softly asked Harry, “How is Percy?”
Harry laughed, “The same rascal as ever, but a charming one.”
Maria sighed, “Yes that he is. But it is my contention he just needs a good woman to tame him.”
“I am not certain he is quite ready to be tamed just yet.”
Maria put her hands together in her lap, affected a smile, and asked, “Now then, when is the Winchester Fair and will you take me with you this year?”
“It is in August, and I do not see why you should not come along.”