Just after sunrise Bennet, Wickham and Piper stood just outside the main barns waiting for their horses. A young man appeared leading three unsaddled steeds.
“I say, it seems something is missing here. Darcy’s staff is becoming sloppy;” Wickham snatched the reins from the groom. His narrow eyes bore into the young groom until he shrank back and looked away.
“Dontcha be so quick to judge the master.” Piper snapped. He took the reins of the remaining two geldings and patted the groom’s back. Leaning in close, he whispered something to the boy and sent him to the barn.
Bennet cleared his throat and crossed his arms. “It was on my instruction, Mr. Wickham.” He stroked his horse’s neck. “I wish to see how you saddle your mount.”
“Excuse me?” Wickham pulled back and jerked his head.
“You heard ‘im.” Piper stepped very close to Wickham, a low rumbling in his throat.
Wickham edged back. “I am merely confused as to what this has to do with plans for today. I was under the impression you needed a steward, not a groom.” He laughed, but the sound had the taste of cheap wine, watered down.
Bennet ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth and smacked his lips. “You are correct, I am seeking a steward.” He turned his back on Wickham to take a saddle from the returning groom and place it on the horse. He did not look back at Wickham but busied himself in fastening it.
The groom returned with two more saddles. Piper took one and readied him mount. Wickham stood back and allowed the groom to put the saddle on his horse but shouldered him aside to fasten the straps all the while muttering something undistinguishable under his breath.
Bennet stood back and watched him fumble with the tack. He shared an aggrieved look with Piper. “Are you ready?” He tapped his foot into the soft dirt, annoyed that the sound did not carry. A man, any man hired or not, should be competent in all the skills required to take care of business, whether or not a servant might be had to accomplish them.
“One cannot be too careful about one’s mount.” Wickham swung himself up into his saddle.
“Too true,” Bennet muttered, trying to force his voice into something less critical than he felt.
Bennet and Piper mounted and urged the horses into motion.
As they rode, Wickham regaled them with tales of the country side. Each hill and grove and trail had its characters and drama. Volumes could have been filled with the stories Wickham wove. More interesting still, Bennet found himself drawn to listen to the young man, who was an accomplished storyteller.
Bennet glanced at Wickham. “You have a remarkable memory for people and events, Mr. Wickham.”
“Thank you, sir. I am blessed with strong memory for such things. When I close my eyes, I can see it all as though no time has passed.” Wickham shrugged. “I have always been this way. I believe I have never forgotten a conversation I have had. Used to drive poor Darcy to the edge of madness with my recollection of details.” He chuckled.
“I ‘spect that was of great assistance to studying the law and like.” Piper urged his horse closer to Wickham’s.
He started at Piper. “It was. Examinations came easily for me, much to the chagrin of my comrades. I am greatly blessed.”
Bennet stopped his horse and pointed to untended fields to his right and left. “So you know the history of all these fields?”
“Some of them, but if you have any records from the previous steward, I can learn them in a thrice.”
Bennet nodded. “As you can see, these fields are as yet unplanted, despite what I was assured by the solicitor. What would you suggest to make the most out of this land this year?” The solicitor’s duplicity came as no surprise to Bennet and was not enough to turn him off his purchase. It was bloody inconvenient, though, and added one more complication to his plans.
“I see clover, ryegrass, a few turnips—it is quite a mess there. If you can hire several men and persuade Darcy to loan—or rent—you his seed drill, you may just have time to plow it all under and drill some wheat, then get the fields on a proper Norfolk four course system.” Wickham shaded his eyes and peered over the fields.
“What would you plant next year?”
“Turnips without a doubt. That will allow you to manage the weeds and perhaps the number of animals you can overwinter.”
“Sheep or cattle?”
“Sheep to start. They are a cheaper investment and easier to manage for now. Add the cattle in slowly. I imagine there are a few in the dairy barn. You will have new calves next spring and you can cut your teeth on cattle raising then.”
Bennet glanced back at Piper who grunted. At least Wickham did know something about managing the land. “Now, I have a tenant farm I wish to hear your opinion upon. This way.” He steered his mount around to a small trail on the left.
From the corner of his eye, Bennet studied Wickham. The man was not a horseman by any means. He seat was awkward and his rapport with the horse was anything but easy. He was accustomed to being driven, or did he drive himself—no, not likely. His hands were too unblemished for that. Was it a flaw of character or training? That was the more important issue. Despite Darcy’s assurances, the lack of reference from his previous employer troubled Bennet. He had no reason to question Darcy’s recommendation and yet he was still not entirely easy.
They arrived at the empty farmhouse. The roof sagged like the back of a broken down mare. Shutters hung at precarious angles. Cobblestones in the front path turned up on edge whilst the door did not quite shut. Bennet sighed. There was a reason Alston’s price was so appealing. With or without Wickham, this was going to be a very busy year.
Bennet traded glances with Piper.
Piper rolled his eyes. Poor man, he was a sailor at heart. He hated leaving the Navy, but his injuries were too much for him to stay. Adjusting to life on the land again was proving difficult. But he was a sturdy one. Piper would succeed.
“So, Mr. Wickham, this tenant farm extends from the far hill to the creek. You see the house before you. What do you suggest?” Bennet said.
Wickham chuckled. “You are getting a free day’s labor from me and making the most of it, are you not? I hope you do not intend to make a habit of it.”
Piper growled and sidled his horse in close to Wickham’s. “Do you mean to say the master is taking advantage of you—that he is not able to make such decisions, that your qualifications do not need to be tested and approved?”
Wickham blinked several times, but held his ground. He was either a fool, unable to understand the threat Piper could present, overconfident in his own abilities or worse still, accustomed to dealing with men like Piper. None of these options pleased Bennet.
“Have you no sense of humor, friend? I am merely trying to relieve the heaviness of the circumstances we see before us.” Wickham looked over his shoulder at Bennet. “For this is indeed troublesome.”
“I agree.” Bennet nodded. He guided his horse nearer to Piper and Wickham. If Wickham did not mind his manners, Bennet would have to keep Piper away from him.
“The house needs repair and the fields need planting. There is still a little time to get profitable use of this land, depending on the conditions of the fields. I need to see those before I can make any recommendation.” Wickham rode off toward the fields.
He was trying to get away from Piper. That showed good sense, at least. Bennet followed with Piper trailing them both.
The fields bloomed with overgrown clover, probably two years’ worth of growth. Some peas wound around the fence and in one corner beans poked through the clover.
Wickham stopped at the fence. “As I see it, sir, the best you can do with this field is turn it over to the sheep this year, then next start back with wheat or barley. The house will be hard to rent in the state it is right now. I imagine, though, you may not be anxious to incur the expense of fixing.”
“It does not take a great imagination to come to that conclusion,” Piper mumbled under his breath, crossing his arms over his waist.
“I know two brothers, one of whom is engaged to be married. Offer them the farm on very easy terms, with the understanding that the garden and house must be improved to your specification and the fences and fields tended to prepare them for planting next year. Give them charge of the flock that grazes here as well. Provide them material to accomplish the repairs. I know they are skilled enough to do so. Then if you are satisfied with the results this year, allow them to take the farm next year so that the elder brother may marry.” Wickham cocked his head and smiled.
“You can provide reference of some kind for these brothers?” Bennet stroked his chin.
“Indeed I can sir.” Wickham’s right eye twitched.
Bennet stroked his chin. “Very good. Now to the barns.”
The party did not leave Alston until well into the afternoon. Wickham broke from them at the fork in the road claiming business in Lambton. Bennet and Piper rode on to Pemberley.
“So what do you think Piper?” Bennet mopped his brow with his sleeve.
Piper shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Balderdash! I have never known you to be without an opinion and I will not accept such an excuse now. Out with it.”
Piper snorted. “He seems neither here nor there. I cannot say I would trust him, but I cannot say I would not. He is hiding things no doubt, that.”
“What man has not something to hide?” Bennet raked sweating hair from his eyes. “The question is what does he conceal?”
“He has not the fortitude of a violent man. The look in his eye—he would run sooner than fight.”
“So you would not sail with him.”
“Never, but you ain’t looking for a sailor neither, sir.” Piper’s lips folded into a peculiar half frown half smile.
“You would trust him around Jane and Elizabeth?”
Piper barked out a coarse laugh. “Nay. I do not trust any man where beauty and fortune occupy the same space.” Piper coked what was left of his eyebrow. “But he has not the spleen to do them any real harm.”
“On that we both agree.”
“You thinking of giving him a chance, sir?”
Bennet pursed his lips. “I am. What is your opinion?”
“He is no sure thing, but I will stand with you sir and keep watch as needs be.”
“Very well then.” Bennet flicked his reins. “I will break the news to Lizzy.”