But it was not to be, at least not for a bit: I found Michael in my room waiting for me to come back, and he looked so fresh and innocent asleep on top of the covers, half-unwrapped from his dressing-gown, that I pounced on him like a Regency buck on a hapless milkmaid, pulling him onto the floor and ravishing him in front of the fireplace with my boots on.
"Wow," he gasped out when I let him up for air, "That was worth waiting around for."
"How long have you been up here?" I panted, tired but exhilarated.
"Oh, ages and ages," he said dreamily, "My stupid girth broke, I fell off my horse before we reached the third covert, and had to come back."
"That's too bad, you missed a fantastic chase."
"Don't tell me that," he punched me lightly in the ribs, "Let me pretend you've all been traipsing disconsolately around the park without finding, then I won't mind missing it quite so much."
"I really need a bath, now," I pulled away from him and sniffed at my arm.
"Wait, not yet, you smell wonderful," he hugged me close and breathed deeply.
"I smell like a combination stables and molly-house."
"Exactly," he agreed.
"You're a very odd boy," I shook my head and suffered myself to be sniffed a little while longer, until Pond knocked on the door to tell me that my bathwater was going to get cold if I didn't hurry. If I'd been allotted a big bathroom like Rupert's, I would have taken him with me (Michael, I mean, not Pond), but instead I sent him off on his way while I got into the blissful tub and had a really good soak and scrub.
"What's all this?" I asked Pond when I came out of the bath and found him in the bedroom, tidying over four sets of evening-clothes that he'd laid out on the bed side-by-side.
"I volunteered your lordship's bedroom and bath, and my own services, for some of the young men who are staying to change for the ball."
"That's very white of you," I raised an appreciative brow.
"All of the valets and ladies' maids have volunteered to assist the hunt guests this evening," he replied, "I could not in good conscience refuse to take part on your lordship's behalf."
"Naturally. Which of these is mine?"
"Your lordship's clothes are laid out in the dressing-room," he turned and gave me one of his microscopically offended looks, as if I'd accused him of treating me less regally than the hoi polloi, "Along with Lord Rupert's clothes. His lordship's rooms have been given over to the use of four young ladies for this evening."
"You locked the connecting door, I trust," I glanced over to the doorway when I got to the dressing-room, strangely disturbed by the idea of a gaggle of girls so nearby while I was dressing.
"And blocked the hole, with the key on our side, my lord," he smiled at me.
"Well, let's fall to, shall we, before the rush?" I would have preferred to have a nap first, I was uncomfortably sleepy after so much exercise, but I didn't want to be loafing around waiting to be dressed with a bunch of other blokes--I'd much rather be dressed already so I could watch them change.
Rupert turned up and had a quick splash in the bathroom while I was being dressed, then came and lounged distractingly on the daybed waiting his turn; the other young men arrived in due course, and Rupert showed them where things were so Pond could keep working. And when I was done, I sat and watched Rupert being dressed, which was extremely entertaining.
I was just about to go into the bedroom and get chummy with my temporary guests, but there was a knock on the door--the outer door to the corridor, not the dressing-room door into the little passage that connected my three rooms--and I answered it to discover Dotty standing outside looking distressed.
"Oh, Foxy, I don't know what to do," she pulled me out into the corridor, hissing like a steam-kettle in an attempt to whisper. She was dressed already, and perfectly stunning in gold satin the same colour as her hair with an awful lot of diamonds studded about her person, "Jingo hasn't come in yet, and I'm worried."
"I'm sure he's just still at tea," I said soothingly, wondering why she'd come to me.
"No, I sent Massingale down to fetch him, and he's not in the house," she wrenched at the large chiffon handkerchief she'd been wringing in her hands, "I don't think he came in from the hunt."
"Oh, he must have done," I frowned, "Lord Levondale or the Master would have noticed if he hadn't come back with us."
"That's why I'm worried," she said, her voice cracking a little, "He can't have simply disappeared in between the stables and the house, something must be wrong."
"Well, really, Dotty," I felt a little exasperated, "You know what Jingo's like. He's probably somewhere around the stables with someone."
"I thought of that, you idiot," she punched my arm, "Otherwise I would have started worrying an hour and a half ago."
"Well, what do you want me to do?" I rubbed my arm gingerly; the handkerchief twisted around her fist hadn't softened the blow at all.
"I know I've got an awful rind, asking you for help after everything we've done," she said, her tone changing to one of pleading, which infected me with more of her fear than her hissing and hand-wringing had done, "But I honestly can't think of anyone more capable of finding him than you."
"Well, alright," I replied, mollified, "I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you, Foxy," she threw her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, wiped her lip-rouge off me with the wrecked handkerchief, and scurried back down the corridor to her own room. And though the corridor was quite long and her door at the opposite end from mine, I heard very distinctly the key turning in the lock when she got there.
I stood there in the corridor for a bit, trying to think what to do. I couldn't pull Pond away from his labours, but I also couldn't go to the servants or to Lord Levondale and start searching for Jingo--after all, it would be very awkward for everyone involved if I raised the hue and cry, then found him romping about in the stables or a folly somewhere. But if he was trapped or hurt somewhere at a distance from the house, I couldn't hope to find him on my own.
The stables seemed like the place to start, and I figured that if I didn't find him there, I'd at least find out if his horse had been returned with the rest of them or if he'd come back early like Michael and any others who'd been unhorsed along the way; and then, only if it turned out he hadn't come back yet, I'd worry about who I could trust to take me looking for him.
The stable-yard was brightly lit and festive: though some of the horses were still being tended, most had already been stabled or put back in their horse-boxes; the grooms were starting their own little party in the coach-house, with a long trestle-table laden with food and drink and a Victrola playing some snazzy tunes that some of the boys were singing along with. I asked after the Verevale stablemaster and was directed to the tack room in the corner of the stable block.
Daughtry, a great strapping sunburned chap who I knew Pond had a bit of a crush on, informed me that Lord Faringdon's horse hadn't returned early, but he hadn't checked to see if it had arrived when the rest of the hunt did--with seventy horses coming in at once, one horse more or less wouldn't be noticed, and they wouldn't inventory the tack until all the animals were settled. But he took me down the rows and we discovered that Sirocco, the big black Arabian that had been assigned to Jingo, was not in his stall.
"I'll get some lads together and we'll start a search, my lord," he said when we'd ascertained that Sirocco wasn't still in the yard and hadn't been put in the wrong stall.
"Oh, don't do that, I'd hate to interrupt their party," I objected lamely, unable to think of a really good reason to keep the grooms out of it, but still not wanting more people aware of Jingo's absence than could be avoided, "If you can help me saddle a horse, and find me a torch, I'll go out myself."
"Certainly, but please allow me to accompany you, my lord," he frowned thoughtfully, appearing to get my real meaning and willing to play along with my ridiculous request, "If Lord Faringdon is injured, you'll need someone to help you give first aid and carry him back."
"Oh, of course, thank you," I was immensely relieved to not have to explain myself further.
With very little help from me, Daughtry had a pair of sturdy-looking chestnuts saddled, got me into a spare pair of boots and an old coachman's cloak (it was a bit cold to be larking about in white tie), and filled two large carriage lanterns to light our way; we mounted and went out quietly onto the drive.
We rode on the lawn instead of the drive, since motorcars were coming up for the ball and the headlamps annoyed the horses, then turned at the unpaved path and followed the course of the hunt toward the first covert. It was slow going in the dark, and so took a good deal longer than it had in the morning, though not near as long as it would have taken on foot.
"I remember seeing Jingo...Lord Faringdon, I mean, after we left the first covert, so I don't think he's in there," I said as we trotted along outside the trees, poking our lights through the branches and seeing nothing but more dark trees.
"If his lordship dropped out of the field further on, he still may have come this way returning to the stable, my lord," Daughtry pointed out intelligently, "If your lordship will follow the tracks of the hunt along the outside, I'll go up the stream path and search there, and meet you at the other end of the covert."
We went even slower as we examined the covert, and it felt rather eerie being out on horseback at night by myself, even though I could see Daughtry's lantern flashing occasional inside the copse. I got to the end of the covert before he did, and started getting rather lonely before the stablemaster finally emerged.
A high gibbous moon broke through the clouds, and shed a good deal more light as we trotted along the open ground, so we reached the the second covert a bit more quickly. But it was even more dense than the first covert, and our lanterns didn't penetrate at all. We slowed practically to a crawl, and Daughtry made little forays into the wood when it loosened enough to allow a horse to enter.
"Here's a stirrup on the ground," he said, pulling up and dismounting about halfway along the edge of the wood, not yet in sight of the bridge we'd gone over twice during the hunt and again on the way back.
"Did you hear that?" I asked when a snickery kind of noise caught my ear, barely audible among the usual night noises.
"There's a horse in the wood," Daughtry replied after listening carefully for a moment, dropping the stirrup back where he'd found it, then remounted and led the way in between the trees in the direction of the sound.
We rode in silence for a bit, penetrating deeper by a rather circuitous route, not really a path so much as a trail of broken underbrush, where it looked like a large animal had gone plunging through it, taking no particular direction, perhaps a boar crashing through trying to escape hunters coming from different sides--but there wasn't a forest for miles around that was big enough to contain a boar. Leaning down from my mount, I examined the ground in the beam of the lantern, and saw that it was mostly clear of leaves and free of any tracks besides those of Daughtry's horse, as if it had been carefully swept.
After a few minutes of this maze-like ramble, we came out onto a fairly large clearing, with the river two hundred yards away lightly screened by a loose line of willows on its bank, and more dense woods beyond it. A big black horse was tethered to one of the willows, its saddle sitting beside it and its blanket gone, complaining gently and snuffing around for more of the grass it had already cleared from around the length of its reins.
"That's Sirocco," Daughtry rode over to the horse and dismounted again, soothing the beast and checking him by lantern-light for injuries.
"What's he doing so far into this wood?" I wondered, playing my lantern's beam around the clearing, looking for clues.
"The reins are hitched to the branch, not just caught," the stableman replied, "Lord Faringdon must have brought him in here for some reason."
"Is that the horse-blanket?" my beam crossed a reddish tartan something-or-other strewn with leaves at the opposite edge of the clearing from the horse. I slid down from the saddle and went to investigate.
It was the horse-blanket, but under the horse-blanket was Jingo with a knife sticking out of his chest, quite dead.
31,990 Total Words