Miss de Hyde is making her first visit to Squire Charlesworth’s farm.
The Squire pressed me to come up to the farmhouse, as the labourers would still be at their work. In the house’s large kitchen, I encountered a striking young man, bent over the range. Digby Charlesworth was the squire’s son, and he greeted me with a shy and charming smile, and waved me to a chair at the large oak table. Over a cup of tea, the Squire and Digby regaled me with tales of their rustic farm life. I ventured that the house must be quite old. The Squire suggested to Digby that he show me over the house’s more antiquarian features, but excused himself as having to attend to some livestock. “We have a priest-hole”, said Digby, “would you like to see it?”. I murmured that I would be most intrigued, and he led me upstairs to a large bedroom. He brought me to a corner, where stood a wardrobe. He flung back the doors, and, reaching inside, pulled the rear panelling of the wardrobe to one side. Digby indicated a dim cavity: “It’s said that two could hide in here at once”, and taking my hand, led me into the priest-hole, which proved indeed to accommodate two, albeit rather snugly.
After some three-quarters of an hour, I smoothed my dress down, re-arranged my hair and went out into the farmyard. Digby remained behind, preferring to doze on the four-poster bed, clutching some piece of fabric in his hand. In the yard, the Squire’s retriever came and nuzzled me again, and after ten minutes I pushed it away, feeling slightly flushed, and remembered where I’d left my britches. I quickly dashed back to the room with the priest-hole to find Digby rousing himself. “I think these are yours”, he said, showing again that shy, charming smile. Nearly thirty more minutes passed, before I was able to extricate myself and go in search of the farm workers, reminding myself of the object of my visit. “You seem quite at ease, my dear”, said the Squire, startling me so, that I ceased my blithe humming in surprise. “My state of relaxation is brought about by your quiet rural circumstance, sir. Would it be opportune for me to accost your workers, and enquire of their bucolic music?”. “Most opportune, my dear, they have but a few moments ago laid down their implements and begun to break their fast. But, I pray you, do not detain them past their hour, for the hours after noon seems to pass more swiftly, and nightfall hastens on, and they must provoke themselves to their labours. You’ll find them even now behind the large hayrick yonder”. Promising in accordance, I ventured forth to the hayrick, where I found three or four yokels in smocks and gaiters, sitting on the ground near the rick, with bread, cheese and beer set out on a chequered cloth. As I approached, they started to their feet, touching their forelocks, or caps, but I enjoined them to refrain from such ceremony. As I explained the purpose of my interrupting their repast, they made a space for me on a mound of hay, which I found most comfortable. They pressed me to share their humble meal, of which I took but little on account of the noonday heat, but gladly quenched my thirst, of which I had been up to then unaware, on their cider and beer, which eased my discomfort and lightened my mood, and theirs. These young men with their ruddy faces and strong, muscular arms, with the sun reflecting in their bright, blue eyes became quite jocular, and suggested we play a game common in those rural parts, which they called ‘hunt the vole’. I found the rules to say the least confusing, and I cannot remember clearly what transpired, but at the end, they declared that each of us had won, and that it had been a most satisfactory game. As they withdrew to their appointed tasks in the fields, I stretched out on the hay and fell blissfully asleep, the sun warm on my thighs, my having lost my britches on account of one of the game’s quaint, but inexplicable, rules.
(to be continued)