#saturdayscenes, in which we realise that all is not well in the romantic camp of one Thankful Russell and his somewhat clumsy courtship.
And the real Battle of Cheriton did not take place in 1665. Hollie Babbitt, after the Restoration, breeds horses on his farm in Essex. It is a standing joke that all his horses are named after Parliamentarian battles of the Civil War… hence Cheriton is the name of the nervous colt.
My first foray into romantic fiction!
The bay colt stopped ten yards away with his sea-horse head flung up, white-eyed and trembling. Thomazine gave a deep sigh. “He won’t, will he?”
Hollie Babbitt put the hand holding the halter behind his back. “That lad’s not daft, Zee. He knows you’ve got something he wants -” and she smiled wryly, and set the pan holding the last of the oats on top of the gatepost, “- but he’s scared stiff of putting his head in a halter.”
She clasped her hands around the oat-pan. “He’s not going to come to me this time, though, is he?”
It wasn’t a question, and Hollie wasn’t supposed to answer it, but he did anyway, carefully. “If he thinks you’re going to hurt him – no. No, he won’t. He was half way to trusting us, and we scared him off. He’s nervous. He’s unused to being around people, that one.” Wilfully misunderstanding the pronoun, because his daughter wasn’t talking about handling the bay colt, any more than Hollie had been strictly referring to halter-breaking the wary yearling.
Thomazine gave another deep sigh, and the wind lifted her modest plain linen collar, flicking it into the air. The colt jerked back onto his quarters, stiff with panic at the sight of that innocent fluttering corner of white fabric. “I begin to think he is unmanageable,” she said, and she still wasn’t talking about the yearling.
Hollie shrugged, watching the colt’s flickering ears. Anxious, and afraid, and wanting to know what the hell was going on here, and what he was missing out on, and what all the fuss was about, and yet too shy to take those three strides across the spring mud and stick his quivering velvet muzzle in Thomazine’s oat-pan.
Actually, that was not a metaphor he chose to dwell on, given the tenuous nature of the relationship between his innocent young daughter and his former lieutenant of his younger days in the New Model Army.
And actually, she was twenty, and more than of marriageable age should she choose to be, and his erstwhile lieutenant had been a Major under General Monck these ten years and more.
Even so. If Hapless bloody Russell had had his marred nose in Thomazine’s oat-pan, he was going to get taken round the back of the barn and given the hiding of his life –
They’re betrothed, Hollie. Russell might be forty-two, forty-three now, almost. She might be twenty and about as interested in lads as that colt is in learning to dance. She’s only ever been interested in onelad, and well you know it, since she was toddling. And she’s promised to him. What if they have – anticipated matters? You did. Twice, you degenerate ruffian. And you lived in sin with your first wife for many a month, before she finally consented to make it lawful.
The colt was still watching them, wide-eyed. Braced ready to bolt, but screwing his courage to the sticking-post. “Daddy,” Thomazine said, in a small voice, and turned to him.
He had half-expected that she would be crying, and tears had never made Thomazine lovely. Her sister, yes. Joyeux had the knack of dropping her lashes so that tears sparkled on them like dew on long grass, and letting her voice break prettily. Thomazine’s nose turned pink – Thomazine’s nose was pure Babbitt, like her father’s, long and straight and undeniably prominent. It was a very much beloved nose, and if that bloody Russell had done something more than usually stupid to have it turning pink, then the lad was going to unleash the wrath of God on his sorry carcass –
She wasn’t crying. She looked very white and very woeful, and she looked as if she had been crying, not so long ago, but her eyes were quite dry. “Daddy,” she said again, and reached into her bodice and took something out.
It was rolled, and somewhat worn looking, as if someone had been deeply attached to whatever it was, and had unrolled it as often as possible. It wasn’t especially pristine, but that might have been because it had been stuffed untimely down the front of Thomazine’s workaday gown.
She held it out to Hollie.
She held it out very carefully, because it was torn down the middle. Quite neatly, and quite precisely, but torn. He recognised his own handwriting, or part of it at least.
“A bargaine of hand
Russell, and Thomassyn
and as may apeare
howse at Fowre Ashes in -“
“Zee,” he said, carefully. “Zee, lass, that’s your – that’s your betrothal lines. What’s – how come you’ve got them?”
“I told Thankful we should not suit,” she said in a small voice.
“And he tore it up? The -“
“No, daddy.” The corner of her mouth turned up. “I did.”
“Oh dear,” Hollie said feebly. He could think of little else to say. The colt swung his head and looked from one to the other of them.
“I wish I hadn’t.”
“Oh dear,” he said again. She took a step closer to him, and he sighed. He’d have made it better, if he could. He’d always wanted to make it better for his girls. He’d never managed it, for any but this one. Too big, and too clumsy, and he wasn’t deft with making or mending: the least he had been able to manage for his children was bedtime stories of the glory days of the Army, and spit-on handkerchiefs for bloody knees and scraped palms. Thomazine was his firstborn and he’d loved her, with an absolute, astonishing, unconditional wonder, from the first moment he’d set eyes on her comically-cross little face. He’d always been able to make it better for Zee.
And now he couldn’t, because she had chosen her own path, and he might not like it, but it was hers, and he couldn’t walk it for her, any more than he could have guided her first fumbling footsteps across the parlour.
The which he hadn’t done anyway, because she had learned to walk proper holding Thankful Russell’s hands. Russell had been there, and Hollie had not.
He puffed his cheeks out, and the bay colt tossed his head nervously again. He could not put things right between his daughter and Russell. That was hers to mend. Between Zee’s red-haired temper and Russell’s tendency to brood on imagined slights, it would want a deal of mending, if they were to deal together as happily as Hollie had dealt with his Het these last twenty years.
“Bit o’ paste will set all to rights, lass,” he said comfortingly. “Your mother’s skilled with such things. Come on. The lad won’t melt, if we leave him to his own devices another night.”