Part Eight of the Christmas Story - Eight Maids a Milking
Charlotte's anxiety was increasing and she was unsure how much longer she could hold on to her unconscious brother. Desperation was lending her increased strength but his sodden clothing was adding to his weight and she simply could not drag his inert form clear of the water. Her only hope now was that someone had heard her scream and would come to her aid.
'Jack, can you hear me?' she cried, shaking his shoulder as she struggled to hold his head above the water, ignoring the protests from her rapidly weakening arms as she did so. 'You must wake up and help me. I cannot ...'
The door burst open and Charlotte's sister Hester, stood before her.
'I was walking in the garden and heard you scream, Charlotte. Are you all right?'
'Hester, thank God! Quick, there is not a moment to loose. Help me!'
Hester, asking no questions for once, knelt beside her sister and grasped Jack's other arm. Between them the girls managed, agonisingly slowly, to pull him to safety.
'He lives!' cried Charlotte in relief as Jack coughed up a quantity of water and blinked his eyes. 'And all thanks to you, Hester. A moment or two more and it would have been too late. He hit his head on a brick pier when he fell into the water and lost consciousness. I could never have pulled him free on my own.'
'Who is he?'
At that moment he moved his head and groaned: as did Hester.
'Jack?' she asked in disbelief. 'What, I ...'
'Hello, Hetty,' he said, convulsing with shivers but still managing to flash his sisters a reassuring grin.
'Quick, Hester,' said Charlotte, taking control again. 'Get some blankets from the boat and see if there is anything I can use to staunch this flow of blood.'
Hester was obviously bursting with curiosity but, surprisingly compliant, did as Charlotte requested.
'You must care for him whilst I run for help,' Charlotte told her sister. 'It is too dangerous for Jack to stay here now. Someone else might have heard my scream.'
'Let me go, Lottie.'
'No, better if I do it. I will keep a weather eye out for the excise men, never fear, Jack.'
'Excise men? Charlotte, what is our brother involved in?'
'I will explain all later. But now I must run to the house and find Lord Winchester.'
'He is not in the house. I saw him heading towards the stables just before you screamed.'
'Better still. No one will see me approach him there. Hester, take my place here, keep Jack's head in your lap and hold that compress on his wound.'
'Take care, Lottie,' cautioned Jack, speaking for the first time. 'And make sure to avoid Lord Waverley.'
Charlotte sped towards the stables as quickly as her heavy skirts would permit. Imaginging that she could hear the sound of tramping feet some distance away she felt dizzy with fear on her brother's behalf, praying it was not the excise men coming for him already. She followed fresh footprints in the snow, which led not to the stables but to the barn in which afternoon milking was underway; nine girls attending to the task with quiet efficiency. No, not nine. As she walked the length of the stalls she observed that the ninth stool was empty. There were only eight maids a-milking this afternoon.
Following the sound of a rumbling voice she turned a corner and was confronted by a broad male back. She also discovered the whereabouts of the ninth milk-maid, who was trapped against the wall, smiling saucily up at Ryder. Shocked that he could consider a dalliance with this girl when she had supposed him to be in love with her, but too preoccupied to dwell upon his disturbing lack of constancy, Charlotte cleared her throat and tapped him on the shoulder.
'Forgive the intrusion, Ryder, but I have urgent need of your assistance in the bo ...'
Even before the gentleman turned to face her, Charlotte had realised her mistake. He was clothed in a driving coat of many capes: too many capes for a gentleman of Lord Winchester's ilk. Only a recognised Corinthian could lay claim to such a garment.
'Miss Kingston.' With a sardonic smile playing about his lips Lord Waverley made her an exaggerated bow. 'I am, as always, entirely at your service.'
Fear tingling down her spine as she recalled Jack's dire warnings, Charlotte took an instinctive step backwards. Colliding with a pail of milk she let out a cry of alarm as she tumbled to the ground, landing in a puddle of cream at the panther's approaching feet.