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How to improve a farm, or your life

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Nell had already decided that Holkham, for all its intimidating Palladian glory, still managed to be a comfortable house. Despite that, she walked past the drawing room door and went instead out to the terrace. The Clippings attracted a full house of ardent agriculturalists, and their wives. She wasn't yet used to so much polite conversation in beautiful rooms, despite the thoughtfulness of Miss Coke and the kindness of the other ladies; Nell couldn't help but feel on edge, six months of marriage not yet having cured years of being the Squire or given her a ladylike polish. Perhaps the knot gardens would be less crowded, and she might be able to walk through the park and into the home farm, since the men were all off in the far fields today. Jack's description of the farm had ignited in her a desire to see the way they organised their yard, and particularly the pigsties. They sounded wonderful, though she knew that to demonstrate too much enthusiasm for agriculture was not polite or ladylike. She couldn't help it; she'd spent too long managing her grandfather's estate, and she'd discovered a genuine interest in husbandry, and some talent as well.

As she made her way across the terrace, she saw, with hastily concealed dismay, a small, plump figure also making her way towards the steps down to the park. She saw the other woman pause as she saw Nell, clearly having had a very similar thought of escape.

"Hello," said Nell. "I thought it might be a lovely day for a stroll through the park." She gestured to the vast, boring, swathes of grass, and not towards the bustling farmyard she knew lay in the other direction.

The other woman's face lit in sudden amusement, and Nell realised she probably hadn't sounded particularly convincing. She really must learn some polite skills, like dissembling about any number of boring things.

"That does sound lovely," the other woman said, "but I was actually planning to go to the home farm. Do you care to join me? I'm Lady Lynton, you know."

"Mrs Staple," said Nell, "and I would dearly love, as you have guessed, to go to the home farm."

"Very good," said Lady Lynton. "I shall be pleased for the company. My husband told me about the interesting system they have for milking, and I wanted to see it for myself. Men, however good at agriculture, do not always think of the practicalities of sitting to actually do the work."

"Very true," said Nell. She followed Lady Lynton down the steps and across the lawn. For a short woman, she moved briskly and with purpose, and Nell didn't have to abate her pace much. "My husband gave me a glowing report of the pigsties," she added.

"Ah, well, Lynton has never been particularly fond of pigs," said Lady Lynton, "but I must confess that I think our set-up antiquated. I will be interested to hear your opinion. Is this your first time at the Clippings?" Nell was a little startled to think that her opinion would be wanted, or that this Lady would have an interest in the workings of the farmyard.

"Yes," said Nell, "and I wasn't quite prepared for the size of it." Jack had presented it, with his usual optimism, as a gathering of farming cronies, and, while it was certainly friendly, it was rather more overwhelming than Nell had been prepared for. She found herself enjoying this adventure though; Lady Lynton certainly didn't seem concerned about Nell's ignorance of polite society.

"No one ever is," said Lady Lynton, sympathetically. "This is my third visit. The first time I came, I got lost several times, but Mr Coke is a thoughtful host, and Miss Coke, of course, has been doing the actual household work of running these for many years. No one minds a bit if you slip off to wander around, and several of the ladies are alarmingly well-informed about all aspects of pastoral life. Indeed, while I found my initial conversation with Mrs Ashcroft quite alarming, I must admit it did improve my understanding of chickens and I was able to put several improvements in place on my return to Fontley."

"Oh?" asked Nell, rapidly changing her ideas about the composition of this house party. She'd been so fearful of letting slip that she wasn't really a pattern card of ladylike decorum that it hadn't occurred to her that some of the agricultural enthusiasts would be found amongst the women. "I would be interested in hearing more about the improvements to the chickens. There has been quite a shocking rate of predation this year, and no one seems to be able to decide if it's weasels or simply rats."

"Where are you situated? We're in the fens, and it's been a regular bad year for rats."

"Hertfordshire," said Nell, "though I'm from Derbyshire, myself, and still not used to the land there." She momentarily missed the uncompromising landscape she'd left behind, and firmly squashed any thought of missing her freedom as the Squire.

They reached the entrance to the farmyard, and Nell unlatched the small side gate, admiring the way it had been made to swing in an arc between two posts, so that a person, or perhaps two, could get in or out without allowing animals through.

"It's the details like this that make the difference with a place like Holkham," said Lady Lynton, as she made her way through. "I'm sure you've seen the shouting and confusion when the main gate is opened at quite the wrong moment and the pigs slip out."

Nell, who had participated many times in the shouting and confusion, as errant pigs were rounded up, nodded. She had not thought there was anything to be nostalgic about those days, but she found she even missed the vexation of the pigs having to be extracted from the orchard. At least then, she'd been busy and purposeful. She followed Lady Lynton through.

"Good morning," said Lady Lynton to the very respectable looking man coming across the yard. "Mrs Staples, may I introduce Mr Sutton, who I believe has been given the unenviable task of showing round such ladies as may wish to visit the home farm or the farmyard itself."

"Good morning," said Mrs Staples.

"Good morning," said Mr Sutton. "And ordinarily I would show you around, but we're about to bring in a new bull, not expected for another week, so I must ask you to accept young James here as an escort." He waved to a very bashful looking boy in his late teens who blushed and stammered something inarticulate, before sweeping a very ungainly bow.

"Thank you," said Lady Lynton very briskly. "We'd like to see the pigsties first, if you please, James." Her matter-of-fact tone had its intended effect on James, whose colour returned to normal and who led the way across the yard without showing any more loss of composure.

James managed a creditable explanation of the particular elements of drainage which made the new pigsties such an improvement, and how farrowing was managed in a more natural environment found to reduce infant piglet mortality. Nell was impressed.

"So, is this local stone that you've shaped and laid specifically for this drainage?" she asked, running the sole of her boot over the surface. "And the grate in the culvert is removable? Now that's a good idea. Nothing is more disgusting than having the culvert block."

"No, ma'am," said James, with the fervent voice of one who had done this revolting duty. "The grate latches at the back, and can be lifted to another position, so if there do happen to be piglets, they can't escape from the drain, nor be stuck there."

Nell nodded thoughtfully as she led the way out of the enclosure. "A very good improvement," she said. "It seems slight, but the practicality would add up in small moments every day."

"That is my favourite kind of improvement," said Lady Lynton. "We'd like to see the dairy next, if you please."

As they turned, raised voices and frantic barking from outside the yard attracted their attention, and they turned to see the promised new bull turn side-on to Mr Sutton and the other farmhands. Nell drew her breath as she took in the lowered head and curve of spine. The men all recognised it too, as all took a slow step back, and a hush fell amongst them in response to Mr Sutton's sharp gesture. Somewhere past them, though, the commotion continued, and the bull shook his head sharply. One of the workers reached the fence and scrambled over, and Nell saw him take off, presumably to quell whatever the disturbance was. At his sudden movement, right in the periphery of the bull's vision, he sidled again, one hoof scraping on the stones. The noise abated, and Nell breathed easier for a moment, before a child, no more than six, pursued by a dog, burst through an unseen entrance and pelted across the yard. Nell didn't see exactly what happened next, but there was a blur of movement, ending with Mr Sutton on the ground being hastily dragged toward the fence, with the bull, still enraged, circling again.

Nell ran forward, James just ahead of her, and reached over the fence. She took Mr Sutton under the arm and she and James heaved him over the top rail. The other worker scrambled over, leaving the bull in the main yard. The child and dog were nowhere to be seen.

Nell dropped to her knees next to Mr Sutton, seeing a huge rent in his trousers and the bright seep of blood.

"James, go you and fetch the doctor," Nell heard Lady Lynton instructing from above her. A small pair of scissors was passed over her shoulder and pressed into her hand. Nell set to with a will, cutting open the leg of the trousers to better see the wound. "You, clean water, thank you. We'll take some from the well for now, but go to the house and get hot water there if you have to."

Mr Sutton moaned faintly as he came round, and Nell realised he must have hit his head as he fell. She glanced up to see Lady Lynton kneel next to him, and their eyes met for a moment.

"Lie still, Mr Sutton," Lady Lynton commanded. "The child is gone, and no harm done to him, and the bull seems to be placidly enjoying his victory alone."

"Not seemly," muttered Mr Sutton, trying to push Nell's hands away.

"Lie still," said Nell. "You won't be the first such wound I've patched up." She tore the trousers open further from the work done by the scissors. "And luckily for you, this just looks long and ugly, but not deep."

"Take my shawl," said Lady Lynton. She pressed it into Nell's resisting hands, as if she realised Nell thought it was rather too nice to be bloodied. "Use it; you've just been telling Mr Sutton not to be delicate."

"The stupid gatekeeper's dog," said Mr Sutton, quite apropos, but then Nell realised that must have been the source of the barking that startled the bull in the first place.

"I daresay," said Lady Lynton. "Our gatekeeper has the most ridiculous terrier that appears incapable of catching rats and rather too fond of leaping on one with muddy paws."

As Lady Lynton continued to speak lightly, Nell cleaned the wound briskly. She'd spoken rightly; this would need stitches, but there was none of the gushing or spurting that indicated anything deeply ruptured. She pressed the shawl into place as James returned, stripping off his shirt to be a makeshift bandage. Nell surrendered her place as the other two farm workers arrived, clearly ready to remove Mr Sutton to a more comfortable, and hopefully more hygienic, location to await the doctor. And one, she realised, where he would avoid the shocking solecism of being tended to by lady guests of the House.

She turned to find Lady Lynton being helped to her feet. "Your poor dress," she said, aghast at the mud over it.

"You'll never be able to get the blood out of yours," said Lady Lynton, not sounding at all concerned.

Mr Sutton was tenderly carried out the side gate, leaving Nell and Lady Lynton to be shepherded by James, who was now acutely mindful of his undress and showed them to the gate with alacrity, bowing them out in a state of abject embarrassment. Not all their combined pragmatic manner could help; James ran as soon as they were safely on the path back to the house.

"Your shawl!" said Nell, suddenly remembering. "My apologies Lady Lynton, I can't imagine what I was thinking!"

"Don't fret about the shawl," said Lady Lynton. "A gift from my mother-in-law; I never liked it above half. And I think you really should call me Jenny, after an adventure like that."

"Very well, if you will call me Nell. I feel we should sneak through the back door, don't you?"

"Indeed," said Jenny, "though that will just give my maid longer to scold me, as I'm harried up the back stairs."

"Oh dear, I trust my maid shall not leave my service! I already fear that I disappoint her with my lack of polish."

"Understanding how to manage a farm is better than polish," said Jenny decisively. "I'll introduce you to Mrs Peterson later; I believe she has a successful enterprise with Oxford Sandy and Black pigs."

Nell didn't have a chance to reply, a shriek heralding their arrival at the servant's quarters, and the two of them were whisked inside to their separate rooms. Nell could hear Jenny's maid indeed scolding her, and could only imagine what Rose would have had to say - probably pretty similar - and compare it sadly to the shocked forbearance of her own new maid. It was coming to something, she laughed inwardly, when she missed being reproached like a child, but she had a fierce pang of missing Rose. Still, she'd made a friend, and learned rather a lot about pigsty improvement, and perhaps, just maybe, her experience as the Squire would be an asset here, not an unfortunate blemish on the ideal of ladylike behaviour she was trying to achieve.

>>>>

Nell went down to afternoon tea with more confidence, greeting Miss Coke and taking the seat indicated on the next sofa without fearing she was about to be interrogated on what an odd sort of female she was. I made her smile a little to think that all it had taken was the destruction of one of her walking dresses and the sort of agricultural adventure she'd considered commonplace not so long ago.

"We've all heard about your shocking adventure this morning," said Miss Coke, who didn't sound at all shocked, but instead rather approving. "Quick thinking on your part to help haul him over the fence, I must say. Very practical. The housekeeper tells me the doctor says it's a nice, clean tear, and he should heal well."

"That's good to hear," said Nell, "and I must commend James, who not only showed us around and explained the pigsties thoroughly, but also showed admirable presence of mind during the whole event."

"Excellent. A promising young man, James," said Miss Coke. "The bull is a more vexing issue, of course. One simply cannot have a bull of known bad temper, even if it is a rather nice looking Lincoln Red that one has acquired for a small experimental herd."

"No, indeed," said Nell. She'd had to put up with a bull of uncertain temper for a season once, and, despite the marked improvement in the herd's offspring that year, it had not been worth the constant vigilance and near misses on the part of the farm workers. "An introduction to a new place is a considerable stress, of course," she said, "and I understand that the gatekeeper's dog was implicated."

"Well, he'll have to get rid of it," said Miss Coke. She thought for a moment. "The dog, at least. We'll have to see how the bull settles, but we're not inclined to keeping dangerous animals. The constant risk shouldn't be thought of."

Nell had to agree. She'd been impressed by the careful concern evidenced towards the workers on the home farm, and the wider consideration of the tenant farmers, that she'd seen so far. It seemed to her that Holkham was the model of a benevolent centre of endeavour for its community, and wondered if Jack wanted that for Mildenhurst. He'd never spoken of it with her, and she wondered if, with this example, she might be able to broach the subject herself.

Lady Lynton entered and made her brisk way towards them, accepting a seat next to Nell and a cup of tea with thanks.

"And did your maid immediately quit your service in shock?" Jenny asked Nell, as Miss Coke turned away to greet another guest.

"Not yet, but I feel I should behave very circumspectly for the rest of my visit," Nell replied.

"Oh, but I was hoping to solicit your advice on the dairy, assuming we can go back tomorrow and haven't been banned from the farmyard," said Jenny. "I could see that you knew what you were about with the pigsties, far more so than me, and that sort of thoughtful, practical experience is very valuable."

"In that case, I shall risk her displeasure," said Nell. She warmed at the thought that her odd past was valuable here. It had been a poor thing and all struggle, Kellands, but her own, and her work on it her own too. Perhaps she didn't need to bury that so far in her new position. "I own, I should be grateful indeed to find that my experience is useful, and not like to ruin my reputation."

"Then we should none of us be ladies," said Jenny, clearly referring to herself alongside many of the other women gathered in the drawing room. Now that Nell could see more clearly, the polite hum of talk was not gossip and fripperies, as she had assumed, but the work of women for their households and their lands.. "My mother-in-law, of the shawl, will hold that the still room should be the preserve of indigent relations and paid servants only, but I find that each woman here has a store of knowledge, wider than one might think from afternoon tea. There is only good to be found in that."

"My mother-in-law, it must be said, has been extremely gracious," said Nell forcing herself to speak lightly, "but I rather fancy she had different plans for her son, and they didn't include such knowledge of husbandry." She had never said so, of course, but the welcome she had received was rather cooler than Jack's optimistic report had been. The older Mrs Staple discharged her duties as was proper, but she was a firm believer in women keeping their proper sphere, and had made no secret of it. Jack's eccentricities might be tolerated, but it was clear that she'd been hoping for a daughter-in-law likely to settle her son into a respectable pattern.

"Ah, yes, but there's never the least bit of use in making plans for men," said Jenny. "And I rather think there should be fewer plans for women too. We'd all be rather happier if we could pursue what we're best at, and if you're best at farming, then go forth."

Nell paused a moment, tea cup held to her lips, as she considered this simple view. She was best at farming. Better, in some ways, than Jack, who was rather impatient of the everyday toil and would rather be off doing something different each day. But Nell loved that slow, predictable seasonal change, with the random fluctuations of the day.

"Yes," she said. "If only it was as easy to do as to say."

Jenny was quiet, selecting a macaroon from a plate with a sweet, almost nostalgic smile. She bit into it and chewed it thoughtfully as Nell took another mouthful of her tea.

"Indeed, I did not find it at all easy to make my own way," said Jenny at last. "For there were many people who thought they knew best what I wanted. And I can see that you, perhaps, are finding it difficult also. Forgive me, I do not mean to pry."

"You do not," said Nell. "You have just illuminated the very thing I have been struggling with. I shall need to make the improvements that add up each day." And first, that would necessitate talking with Jack. After all, what man would better understand that feeling of restlessness, and of wanting to do more than one was supposed to do, than Jack, who had been wrestling with it his whole life?

"In life as well as in farming," said Jenny. "And now I perceive that Mrs Peterson is unoccupied, and would probably rather enjoy explaining her pig-rearing enterprise to someone who can truly understand the nuance." She signalled to the other woman and made the introductions with a warm smile.

As Mrs Peterson took Jenny's place and politely inquired about Nell's situation, Nell was ready to be herself, for the first time in a long while.