Sean Kelly pulled on to the narrow two lane road and drove along the wooded fringes of the estate to Ashridge. He could see the village sitting in a cove with a rocky cliff to one side and a green quilted pasture to the other. Ashridge was a postcard village, much like those of County Down in Northern Ireland where Sean was from.
He looked for a place to park under flapping banners that welcomed people to Ashridge’s Annual Cider and Perry Festival. On the crowded street, local vendors sold everything from crafts to jarred honey to visiting townies eager to pay the inflated prices. The little parish had obviously once had its heyday but now was no more than a wide spot in the road, appreciated mostly by the faithful residents that chose the quiet, simpler life it had to offer.
Nestled in what the locals fittingly called the silent valley, the ancient hamlet was first
established as Kympton and seemed to possess a restrained whisper of another time. On the highroad, a waterwheel, which looked as if it hadn’t turned since the Great War, loomed motionless. Nearby, the village train station sat empty and closed up, no longer bustling with passengers off to London. Kympton Way, the main street that ran through the center of town, was lined with old stone storefronts that had traded their goods for generations. The romance of eras past was at every turn, haunting the soul and enchanting the heart.
Tractors occupied most of the parking spots, but near the end of Kympton Way, Sean finally found a space and pulled his relic of a Land Rover in between two muddy JCBs. This would be his home for the next six weeks, and it was probably for the best. What else could he and his father say that hadn’t already been said? He hadn’t meant to disappoint the man. Hopefully his mother was right; maybe some time apart would put things right between them again. Exhaling a reluctant but accepting sigh, Sean grabbed his guitar from the back seat and shut the door.
As he looked up and down the main street, the familiar reek of plowed fields and manure flooded his nostrils, a comforting whiff of home to a lad raised on a horse farm. Behind the earthy smells were the sharper scents of cider and perry, intensifying his thirst and persuading him into the throng of people in search of drink, his guitar slung over his back.
A few blocks up, Sean stopped in front of the Green Man Inn and Pub, Ashridge’s only hotel. The lunch specials were written on a small chalkboard, held in place by a foliate rendition of the inn’s mythical namesake, but it was the sound of a well-played fiddle rather than the promise of a meat pie that persuaded Sean inside. Music always was a good icebreaker, and he hoped to meet a few of the locals. Although he was only in England for the summer, he might was well make the best of his temporary exile from Ireland, be damned his father’s bloody Irish pride.
As Sean stepped up to the bar, the bartender, a stout man wearing old-fashioned half-moon spectacles on the tip of his nose, took notice of his guitar and frowned at Sean. He pointed to a sign that read No singin’ for yer cider. “Sorry, mate,” he said.
“A half-pint, please,” Sean replied, tossing a pound on the bar.
“Oh, come on, Bobby,” the young fiddle player called out across the pub. He looked to be in his early twenties, a few years older than Sean. “Let my good mate, er… what’s your name, mate?”
The question caused a spatter of laughter from the audience and Sean had to yell over the rumble to answer. “It’s Sean!”
“Jolly good name, Sean! How ’bout it, Bobby? Let my good mate Sean sing us a tune.”
The crowd cheered in support of the fiddle player’s request as Bobby sat a pint of cider on the bar. “I asked for a half.” Sean said and pushed the glass back.
“A quid buys a full pint,” Bobby countered, pushing the glass back once more. “Sing a fair chantey for the crowd and the next one will be on the Green Man.”
“Thanks.” Sean smiled and lifted his glass to Bobby. “Cheers.”
The crowd hooted and banged their tables as he crossed the room to the slightly raised stage. There was a jukebox in the corner, but the festival and too many rounds of cider had them lively and in want of traditional music such as old sea chanteys and pub songs. Sitting in clusters around small tables, Sean saw only the faces of strangers but felt at ease. He had been singing in pubs since…well, since he could sing. When he was a little boy, his dad would stand him and one or two of his brothers on a barstool in one of the pubs back home and have them sing for his ale. The memory caused a slight tightening in Sean’s chest, but he swallowed it away and introduced himself to the fiddle
player, “Name’s Sean Kelly.”
“An Irishman!” the fiddle player said, looking scandalized for the sake of the crowd.
“Aye.” Sean grinned and played along. “But me mother’s English!”
“That’s all right, mate. My name’s Rick Meriwether.” He pulled the bow across his fiddle with a screeching mock. “And me mother’s Irish!” The audience laughed heartily at their banter. Like him, Sean thought, Rick Meriwether had probably been raised in the country around small village pubs and amongst the country folk that patronized them. Pulling his guitar strap over his shoulder, he nodded to Rick, and the two settled into a quick easy harmony, singing the songs they had learned as boys. Charmed by the familiar tunes, the rowdy village audience joined in, clapping and singing along to words they knew by heart.
Several songs later, the low ceilinged room had begun to grow warm as Sean and Rick bowed to applause and set their instruments aside. They had earned their drink and after the singing were suddenly in need of it. In one smooth gulp, Sean swallowed the last of his cider and set his empty glass in front of the bartender. “My wages if you please, Bobby,” he said to the bartender with a smile.
“You’ve a way with the crowd,” Bobby said as he poured two fresh ciders from the tap. “Are you going to be in Ashridge for long?”
“Yeah, six weeks,” Sean replied as he slid onto a barstool. “I’ve a summer job at Pemberley Estate.”
“Working for the Darcys, eh?” Rick asked, nodding a thank you to Bobby for the drinks.
“Aye.” Sean took a long pull on his mug. “Know them?”
“Know them?” Rick repeated. “Everyone in Ashridge knows the Darcys. Bennet Darcy bloody well owns just about everything you see looking left to right.”
“Oh.” Sean took a more cautious sip now. “A Scrooge of a landlord, is he?”
Shaking his head, Rick chuckled. “Hardly. The rents are barely more than they were when his grandfather took the place over after World War II.”
“Took the place over?” Sean questioned. “I thought Pemberley was the seat for the Darcy family.”
“It was…is…you know how these old manors go from hand to hand. Chap
named Howell married a Darcy and ran Pemberley for awhile. Ran it right into
the ground according to my grandfather, but that was before my day. Granddad
says Ashridge was fortunate the Darcys got hold of the estate again. Ben
Darcy’s a good man.”
“Really?” Sean’s eyebrows lifted disbelievingly. He had met Bennet Darcy just this morning and found him to be somewhat unfriendly, to say the least.
“Met him, have you?” Rick asked, reading Sean’s expression.
Sean nodded and set his half-empty mug down on the bar. Being new in town, he didn’t need the cider to go to his head.
“A bit reserved, was he?” Rick continued with an obvious understanding.
“Don’t worry, mate.” Rick clapped a hand on Sean’s shoulder. “He’s a good chap, just the silent type. Some say it’s the reason Ashridge lies in what’s known as the silent valley. The Darcys of Pemberley own most of it and they have always been a quiet lot. Very…private-like.” Rick looked past Sean and pointed to the door with his chin. “There’s one of them now.”
Sean turned and stared at the teenage girl that stepped into the pub.She was beautiful but her beauty was cool and removed, like an exquisite sculpture at the National Gallery. You could look but weren’t allowed touch. It was like there were brass posts and red velvet ropes around her. She was right in front of them, yet completely separate. The low murmur of conversation fell to a hush when she closed the door behind her. Wearing a pair of crisply pressed khaki trousers and an argyle cardigan, she wasn’t one of them and knew it, casting a guarded glance over their faces but never meeting anyone’s eye.
“Two Cokes please, Bobby,” she said, and sat down at an empty table near the door.
“Coming up, Miss Catie,” Bobby said and whispered into Sean’s ear. “Close your mouth, lad. She’s out of your league.”
“Catie Darcy?” Sean asked incredulously, blushing faintly at Bobby’s observation. Not only was Catie Darcy beautiful, she wasn’t at all what he had expected. “But…I thought she was just a kid.”
“Not any longer.” Rick shook his head. “She’s near seventeen now, grown into quite a prize with those looks and a fortune to match.”
Sean turned to his new friend’s smiling face and tried to regain his composure. “It’s just. Well, to be honest, I was expecting braces, plaits, and freckles. You know…a little girl. Not…not…”
“Don’t be drawn in by the pretty face, mate.” Rick took a drink and glanced cautiously at the girl. “The little miss has a reputation. Word is, when she was a tyke she made her nannies cry and frightened away piano teachers. People say she only got worse after that daddy of hers died.”
“Great,” Sean groaned more to himself than Rick. The news made him reconsider his cider, and he swallowed another healthy gulp. His Aunt Rose hadn’t mentioned crying nannies or frightened piano teachers, and furthermore, she spoke of Catie Darcy as if she was a child. Of course to Aunt Rose she would be. He was nineteen and the woman still referred to him as her sister’s boy. He was no longer a boy, however, and Catie Darcy was certainly not a child.
Warily, Sean looked at her once more. It was a pretty face, prettier than any he had encountered thus far. The last one, Patricia, a graduate student who wore more makeup than his mother liked, had taken his virginity and left him smoldering in the remnants of a lust that shamed him when came home late and met his mother’s eyes over her knitting. Her disapproving looks didn’t stop him though…Patricia did. She found another inexperienced undergrad plaything and shooed him away like a bothersome fly. But he had learned from it. As to what he had learned from it, well, he was still figuring that out.
Swallowing slowly, he looked at Catie Darcy again. It was a good job, and the wages would easily see him through next term. He would ignore the pretty face and make the most of Catie Darcy’s infamous temperament. He’d been around horses all of his life and had dealt with his fair share of spoiled high-spirited fillies before. Granted those were of the equine variety, but surely there couldn’t be much difference. All he had to do was to stay focused on his job, keep charge of the situation, and try not to get kicked in the head. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder who the other Coke was for.
Alone at the table, Catie Darcy sipped at her Coke while she waited for her best friend Audrey, who was now officially late. She had probably stopped to chat with every other person on the street, Catie thought resentfully as her solitude grew more and more uncomfortable. The daughter of a politician, Audrey Tillman was naturally friendly and extremely talkative. She was popular at school and, like her councilman father, well-liked in Ashridge.
The door clanged open, and Catie breathed a sigh of relief. “What’s the matter?” Audrey asked as she sat down. “There’s a festival going on outside and you look like you’re at a funeral.”
“I would’ve been at yours had you been any later,” Catie snipped. “Did you see my brother out there anywhere?”
“He and Sarah and the twins were heading this way when I came in. Why?”
“Good.” Catie looked thankful. “I’m bored and ready to go home.”
“Home!” Audrey exclaimed. “But the festival goes on all day!”
“Like I said, I’m bored. Plus, I didn’t get home from school until late yesterday evening and still have unpacking to do.”
“Only you, Catie Darcy, would leave a village festival to unpack.” As Audrey spoke, someone across the room gained her attention. “Who’s the dark-headed dreamboat at the bar?”
Catie’s eyes followed Audrey’s just in time to see the dreamboat turn away. “I don’t know, probably a tourist in town for the festival.”
“He was looking at you.” Audrey nudged her friend with a teasing smile.
“Everyone looks at me. Ashridge should charge a fee to gawk at Pemberley’s rich orphan. Maybe the village could raise enough money to replace that crumbling war memorial they’re always talking about.”
“God, Catie stop being such a killjoy. Maybe he likes your looks.”
Before Catie could respond, her brother and his wife came into the Green Man, holding the hands of their five year-old twins.
“Welcome, Mr. Darcy!” Bobby suddenly became animated. It was a long standing tradition for the master of Pemberley House to pop in at the Green Man on the day of any festival and buy a round of drinks for everyone. Clearly, Bobby was happy to have a packed house when Bennet Darcy arrived. “What’ll you have, sir?”
“A cider for me and Mrs. Darcy and something a little less concentrated for my boys.”
“A wee nip of the valley’s cider will put hair on the lads’ chests!” a patron called out from the other side of the pub.
“They’re Derbyshire lads, man!” Mr. Darcy called back enthusiastically. “They were born with hair on their chests!” This statement generated a loud racket of clanging glasses and shouts of approval. “A round of cider on Pemberley Estate, Bobby!” he shouted over the din. “And be warned…I don’t count the five hundred heads you billed me for last year!”
Laughing with his customers, Bobby waved off the gibe. The more hubbub, the more drinks he sold. He and Mr. Darcy gave each other a friendly nod as waitresses passed out the free cider, stirring a series of boisterous toasts and cheers.
“Thought you said this was called the silent valley,” Sean said, smiling into his mug.
“It is, mate.” His new friend laughed. “It is.”
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