“Would you like to learn?’
“Not particularly,” Dreyfus said, wondering how the conversation had gone from — how was breakfast to him on the back of 1,000 pounds of four-legged fury. Actually, he knew. The Lady Perry-Turner had a vast knowledge of local history and geography and her family’s place in it; plus, she liked to talk. The original question was “Why do you eat breakfast in that big room?” So, as they walked along, Emily, waddling liked a padded-up tan panda (Ms. Miller insisted) and Dreyfus, carefully stepping in his too-big boots (borrowed) he got a quick peek into
Victorian architecture —
“They put the dining rooms as far away from the kitchens as possible. They didn’t like the smell.”
Fox hunting —
“Hunting season is autumn and winter, so one of my great-great-something-or-others put the Hunt Room closer to the kitchen so breakfast wouldn’t be cold.”
“We hunted here right up until Daddy got too sick to ride. But, you know, funny thing, we never kept a kennel. Odd!”
“But we always had horses. Lots of them. The stables are huge. You’ll see. That’s where I put the distillery.
And riding them —
“They were built by my great grandmother Vera. She was a massive enthusiast. Never missed a hunt.” Emily paused, “And they say, when she was younger, did steeplechase and jumped fences. Side-saddle! When I get better,” Emily shook her mittened hand, “We can go riding.”
“I don’t know how to ride a horse.”
“Would you like to learn?’
The stables were big. Two long, wide, white stone buildings, side by side. And while Emily attended to her Duchess duties, Dreyfus strayed over to the other building. He opened the big oak door and stepped in. It was warmer than outside, but not by much. On the left were racks of tools, carefully arranged, and on his right, two neat rows of barrels stacked floor to ceiling, each on its own cradle, the length of the wall. And in front of him … a group of workmen, sitting in their coats and hats at a round table. One of them stood up.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning – uh – I hope I’m not intruding?”
“Not a bit of it, sir. What can we do for you?”
Obviously, these men knew who he was.
“Nothing really. I was just having a look around – uh — brandy?” Dreyfus waved his hand.
“Far as the eye can see.”
There was an awkward pause.
“Would you care for a taste, sir? Warm dram on a cold morning?”
Dreyfus shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind, but I don’t like to drink alone. Would you fellows join me?”
That seemed like an excellent idea, and even though they hadn’t thought of it, there were six glasses ready. One of the younger men took the glasses over to a wooden barrel suspended on a cross-cradle, turned a wooden spigot and filled each glass about a third full. Healthy dram for mid-morning. Dreyfus found a place at the table.
“Your health,” he said, raising his glass. They all drank. The sip was pure fire, but Dreyfus didn’t let it show. He pursed his lips and nodded but decided to leave the glass on the table for a minute. There was a thick, short silence.
‘So you’re a pilot then, sir,” One of the younger men said. “Must be exciting.”
“No, actually – uh – insurance. The helicopters were …”
There was a trace of disappointed but one of the older men spoke. “In the City, though, that must keep you boiling — especially these days.” There was a nod and a “Good steady work” and a general acceptance that if you weren’t going to be a pilot, insurance was a reasonable alternative.
“What about you men? These barrels?” Dreyfus moved his hand towards them.
“No, no. We’re Tree Men, sir.” There was pride in the voice. “Out with the owls, marking the rows, checking the frost. Night work in the autumn, ‘til pruning time.”
Dreyfus had no idea what he was talking about. “Difficult work in the dark, I imagine?”
“No, not so much if you know your trees. But you need to keep on top of it. It’s where it all starts, you see. Healthy trees. Without that, there wouldn’t be any of the rest of it.” The man waved at the barrels.
“Well,” Dreyfus said trying to figure out a way to leave the rest of the firewater on the table. “I won’t keep you from it.”
“No, not to worry. It’s just one more go for us and we’re home to our beds.”
A shaft of light and there was Lady Perry-Turner. The men stood up.
“I see Mr. Sinclair found the sample keg.”
There was a general chuckle. “We thought we’d give him a taste, ma’am. Let him see what all the fuss is about.”
Emily smiled, stopped and looked puzzled. “Where’s Randeep?”
“His little one has the colic, ma’am. We shifted around him. Just for today. He wasn’t missed.”
Emily nodded. “Any other problems, Carlton?”
“No, all banked up and tucked in. We’ll be ready to measure right after Christmas.”
“Good. So, we’ll see you all at the dinner, then.”
Oh, yes, they’d all be there!
“What about you, ma’am? We heard …”
“On the mend, Carlton, on the mend.” Emily said removing her right mitten. She stepped forward to the table and reached for Dreyfus’ brandy. “Wind at your back, gentlemen.” Raised the glass and drained it.
“Aye, and to you ma’am.” And the men emptied their glasses.
“Alright, Sinclair! Let’s go and let these fellows do their job.” Emily turned for the door as Dreyfus stood up. She stopped and turned back around.
“Any sign of our badger?”
“No, ma’am. We’re too far away. He’s still up after Argus’ chickens.”
“Not for long,” Emily said to no one in particular and turned back to the door.
You can read more about Dreyfus and Emily’s Christmas adventure here.