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You must find a husband and set up your own establishment, Miss Winbolt. Marriage is the only answer. Nothing else will serve.'
Emily put her cup down very carefully. 'Mrs Gos-worth, I feel this is hardly a matter '
'I feel for you, my dear,' her hostess continued. 'Your brother's marriage must have made life very difficult. After years of being in charge at Shearings yourself, it must be galling to have to hand over the reins to his new wife.'
Annoyed as Emily was, she had to laugh at this. 'Nothing could be further from the truth, I assure you. Rosa and I are the best of friends and we deal very well together. I'm sorry, ma'am, but you are quite wrong to suggest'
Mrs Gosworth was not about to abandon a topic she found so enjoyable. 'Your sister-in-law would say nothing to upset you, of course. But the servants at Shearings are accustomed to receive orders from you. How will the new Mrs Winbolt establish herself as their mistress, while you are still in the house? Such a dear, sweet, biddable girl is sure to find it difficult, if not impossible. You are so decided in your opinions, Miss Winbolt, that there must be a risk that your brother's wife will become a cipher in her own home!'
'My dear ma'am, you are quite mistaken about Rosa's character,' Emily said, still smiling. 'She is far from being the spineless creature you represent. Her manner is gentle, but she is perfectly capable of asserting her authority wherever and whenever it is needed. As indeed she does.'
'Dear me! Two women of character in the same house? You are bound to fall out.'
'I doubt very much'
'Perhaps you could set up house on your own? But, no! Your brother would never permit it. And what would the rest of the county say if he did? They would blame his wife, of course. No, marriage is the only answer. You must find a decent man and secure him without delay.'
Emily's resolve to hold on to her temper was beginning to wear thin. She called on her sense of humour and confessed with a deceptive air of meekness that she knew of no one and asked if Mrs Gosworth had a suitable candidate in mind. Humour, along with refinement or concern for others, played no part in Mrs Gosworth's makeup. Yellowing teeth showed in a triumphant smile as she said, 'Not at the moment, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone. It's a pity that your looks are no more than passable. Your brother is a very handsome man and no one in the neighbourhood could match his wife for beauty, but you.' She shook her head. 'It is a real pity. However, the case is not a hopeless one. Running Shearings has given you experience in household management and that would appeal to some menespecially one looking for a wife endowed with as handsome a fortune as yours.'
At that point Emily very nearly walked out. But, determined not to give this woman the satisfaction of seeing how very angry she was, she shook her head mournfully and said, 'Alas, it looks as though I shall remain single, after all. I have no desire for such a husband.' She got up. 'Thank you for inviting me today, ma'am. It has been an altogether delightful visit. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm afraid I must go. I have an appointment elsewhere.' Then she curtsied and added, 'You are very kind to be so concerned about how I deal with my brother and his wife. But pray let me set your mind at rest on one point at least. If I ever do decide to set up my own establishment, I shall not be leaving Shearings because of any difficulty in my relationship with my sister-in-law, I assure you. Good day, ma'am.'
Berating herself for her stupidity, Emily made her way back to Shearings. She knew that Mrs Gosworth was an embittered old woman with a desire to make mischief wherever she could, but she visited the old lady partly out of pity and partly out of curiosity to see what she would say next. But this time it had been too much. Now, as she went through the gate leading into Three Acre field, she asked herself why she had taken the risk. Mrs Gosworth's malice might have missed its mark by a wide margin, but it had raised a question that had been haunting Emily for some timethe question of her future. Bitter experience had taught her that a fortune-seeking husband was the last thing she wanted, but how else could she reasonably find a home of her own without causing distress to Philip and, more particularly still, to Rosa? As she shut the gate behind her and set off across the field, this thought was still plaguing her. Much as she loved her brother and sister-in-law, she felt a growing need for independence. But how was she to achieve it without seriously upsetting them? She walked on, absorbed in her thoughts, and it was not until she was about halfway across the field that she became conscious of the black shape over to the left.
When she looked round and saw what it was, Rosa, Philip, Mrs Gosworth's malice, her own doubts and painful memories, and everything else were wiped clean from her mind. Pritchard's bull, large, black and powerful, was standing not twenty yards away, regarding her with a malevolent eye. Her heart missed a beat as stories about this animal flashed through her mind. Will Darby came to Shearings with a fresh tale every day, each one more gruesome than the last. Black Samson was as wicked as he was handsome. He had already savagely gored and killed a couple of stray dogs that had dared to come too near. Quite without provocation he had attacked and tossed Job Diment, one of Pritchard's farm workers, and the man was still laid up with a badly mauled arm. There were others who had escaped even worse injury only by the skin of their teeth..
For a second she was frozen to the spot before an instinct for self-preservation took charge. She looked round the field. Black Samson would catch her long before she got to the gate on the other side. She must find a refuge somewhere else. Where, where? The giant oak over on the right was nearer. It might serve. She took another quick glance at the bull and saw that he had apparently given up interest in her for the moment. The temptation to run was strong, but it would undoubtedly be better to walk as unobtrusively as possible towards the tree and hope that he would continue to ignore her. She took a few nervous steps, but couldn't resist the temptation to look back again. When she saw that Black Samson had raised his head and was now advancing purposefully in her direction, she lost her nerve. Without any idea what she would do when she got there she gave a little scream, took to her heels and fled towards the tree. It was the worst possible thing she could have done. Made lazy by the heat of the afternoon the bull had only been slightly curious, but this was too much of a challenge! Roused by flying feet and fluttering skirts, he lowered his head, horns at the ready, and took up the chase.
Emily ran for her life, and soon she was sobbing and gasping for breath. The tree was too far, she would never reach it in time! The bull was gaining ground fastshe could almost feel the animal's breath on her back. She stumbled just as she reached her goal and for one paralysing moment was sure she had breathed her last. But with a final desperate effort she threw herself at the tree and grabbed at its lower branches. Her foot was still dangling when the bull reached her, but the tip of his horn caught her bonnet, which had been hanging by a single ribbon down her back. He paused to shake it clear and this gave Emily the all-important moment to scramble to safety. One branch, two She didn't care about her dress, paid no heed to nails and fingers. All she saw was the haven of the branches above her. At last she reached one broad enough to shelter her. She lay sprawled uncomfortably across it, lungs bursting and heart racingbut safely out of the bull's reach.
She stayed there for some minutes, exhausted and almost afraid to move, till after a while she recovered enough to sit up and edge along the branch so that her back was resting against the trunk of the tree. She was trembling all over as she took stock of her situation. Her legs were scratched and smarting and felt as if they would never hold her up again. Her stockings were in shreds round her ankles and she removed them and put her shoes back on. It was a painful process, for her fingernails, where she had scrabbled frantically up the trunk of the tree, were broken and the tips were bleeding. But when she looked round she saw that at least she was safe! This oak was broad, and as long as she took care there was no danger of falling. She looked down at the bull and was shocked to see what had happened to her bonnet. It was lying torn and tattered in the dust and the bull, shaking his head in angry frustration, was slashing at the poor remains. Emily felt sick as she watched. How could she have been so stupid as to forget about Pritchard's bull? She, not the bonnet, could have been lying there underneath Black Samson's hoof.
Turning her eyes away with a shudder, she tried to pull herself together and think what to do next. One thing was certainshe wasn't going to go anywhere near that bull again. She had been unbelievably lucky to escape. The village were already muttering about the beast and Farmer Pritchard was under pressure to get rid of it. Now, too late, she remembered that Will Darby had told her yesterday that Pritchard had moved the bull to Three Acre field because it was further away from the village and protected by stouter fences and hedges. But the field was on the route to Shearings, and after her conversation with Mrs Gosworth she had wanted to walk off her temper before she saw Rosa. She had sent her groom and the carriage back ahead of her and set off alone across the fields. Between her fury at Mrs Gosworth and preoccupation with her own major problem, she had not given the bull a thought. What an idiot she had been!
Though she was hardly able to move a muscle, she tried to regain some of her usual calm good sense. It would be more useful to stop blaming herself for what had happened and to plan instead what she should do now. How could she get away without climbing back down into the field? Looking round her, she saw that the branches of the oak overhung a thick hedge, which bordered the field. On the other side was a grassy pasture, which sloped down to a stream. She knew the area. It shouldn't be too difficult to drop down from her branch into the pasture, and so on to the footpath that ran alongside the stream towards the back entrance to Shearings. She was really not too far from safety. Encouraged, she edged slowly far enough along the branch to be able to see over the hedge. But the slope was steeper than she had remembered, and the drop from the tree much too great. She couldn't possibly get down without help.
Severely disappointed, Emily was tempted to give way to tears, but she told herself sharply not to be so poor-spirited. Anyone might be a little worn by such a frantic dash through the field and the hasty scramble up the tree, but that was no excuse for despair. Nor were her various aches and pains. The footpath was not much frequented, but if she could just hold on a little longer Will Darby was bound to pass by on his way home from Shearings. A treacherous little voice inside told her that it might actually be a good while longerit was still early in the evening, and Will was never in a hurry to get homebut she refused to listen to it. She must keep up her spirits. Meanwhile, she could try to make herself more comfortable But the branch creaked ominously as she wriggled along it, so she gave up the idea and prepared herself for an uncomfortable wait.
Time passed very slowly and before long she was beginning to feel dizzy from the strain of holding herself upright. Then, just as the pain was becoming unbearable, she saw someone walking along the path in the direction of the village. The relief was enormous. Will must have decided to come home early for once!
'Will!' she shouted. 'Will, help me!' He hadn't heard herhe wasn't going to stop! 'Will!' she shouted again. 'I'm so glad to see you. I'm over here! This way! Stop, please stop! Are you deaf? For heaven's sake, man, don't be such a fool! I've been stuck in this tree for hours and I need your help!'
To her relief Will Darby stopped, looked around till he saw her in the tree, and climbed up the slope. But when he stood below her she could see that he wasn't Will Darby, after all. He was a complete stranger.
'Well, well, well,' he said. 'A damsel in distress, by heaven. Calling me by name, too! I don't know you, do I?'
The stranger was no farm servant. He was dressed somewhat carel essly, with his coat unbuttoned and his shirt open at the neck. But his boots and breeches, though dusty, were of good quality, and his accent was that of a gentleman. 'No,' said poor Emily, conscious in spite of her distress that her hair was tangled, her dress was torn and that she was exposing a shocking length of bare leg. 'I. I'm afraid.'
'Then how did you know my name?'
'I. I th-thought you someone else,' she said.
'I see,' he said. 'What the devil are you doing up there?'
Emily was tired and sore and she had no time for stupid questions. 'What do you think I'm doing?' she said with something like a snap. 'I'm stuck. I can't get down!'