Twelve Years Later
The letter from England, addressed to Captain Christopher Meredith of the 4th Dragoons, Somewhere on the Peninsula, had taken five months to find its way to the proper hands. How it managed to track him to a lonely hacienda on the side of a sparsely populated Spanish hill he was never to discover. But it arrived at a most opportune moment. Kit Meredith, erstwhile captain of the 4th Dragoons, was now an unemployed, bored, almost destitute civilian, and very tired of licking his wounds. He was more than ready for a change.
On this particular day, the day that was to bring him the change he so desired, he was desultorily digging out stones from the dry earth on the south side of the Spanish house, vainly hoping he could turn the small arid area into something resembling an English kitchen garden. While he worked, his mind dwelt upon his grim prospects. He wondered, as he always did these days, how he could possibly manage to improve the state of his finances, at least enough to get back to England.
He'd been badly mauled at Salamanca, where he'd taken bullets in his chest and upper right arm and had his left leg crushed by his horse when it had been shot from under him. For two years he'd been recuperating in this tiny hacienda in the hills east of Bejar. Thanks to the hospitality of the elderly Spanish couple who'd taken him in (in return, of course, for a generous monthly stipend), and the devoted ministrations of his batman, Morris Mickley, he'd almost completely recovered.
But two years on a desolate hillside of a foreign land--years spent, at first, contending with excruciating pain and later with the struggle to regain the use of his limbs--had taken their toll. He was often subject to feelings of irritability, or depression, or hopelessness. These moods were exacerbated by the constant uproar created by his host and hostess, whose dreadful harangues in loud, rapid, incomprehensible Spanish assailed his ears daily. The noise of their bickering, cutting through the somnolent, hot Spanish air, made him long for the quiet, cool green of England.
Only two things had kept him sane. The first was his batman, an utterly loyal, sensible, ingenious fellow whose companionship was food for a lonely soul and whose rich cockney humor was, to Kit, a cheery reminder of England. The second was his satisfaction at having managed to acquire, during these difficult months, four beautiful Spanish horses. The trouble was that he had no funds left with which to transport them--or his batman or even himself--back to England.
Now that his leg (the slowest of his wounded parts to heal) was finally strong enough to allow him to move about with a barely noticeable limp, he yearned to return home. But the recovery had cost him dearly. Every penny he'd managed to save of his captain's pay and the small legacy his father had left him were almost gone. As were two years of what should have been his prime. At twenty-nine, he believed, he should have more to show for his life than four horses, a limp, and empty pockets.
Pausing in his labors to wipe his brow, he saw his batman, Mickley, come strolling round the corner of the house, the letter in his hand. "What have you there?" he asked.
"Dunno 'ow this ever found ye, Cap'n," the batman answered, holding it out to him. "It's been everywhere from Vimiero to Ciudad Rodrigo."
Kit took the letter and studied it with mild curiosity, noting that the seal had somehow remained miraculously intact. "Can't be anything important," he muttered, seating himself on the stone wall that surrounded the hacienda. "Now that I've sold out, there's no reason for anyone to contact me."
Mickley watched as Kit broke the seal. His captain was finally beginning to look well. The Spanish sun had darkened his invalidish pallor, and in the past couple of months he'd at last added some weight to his tall, lanky frame. The batman was about to say something about it when a glance at the captain's expression stilled his tongue. The man looked stunned.
Kit had taken only one quick look at the letter, but that look caused his back to stiffen, his brows to lift in surprise, and the fingers of both hands to tighten on the single sheet. "What...?" the batman began to ask.
But Kit held up a hand for silence. His eyes gleamed with excitment as he read the letter for the second time--much more carefully now. "Good God!" he exclaimed at last.
The batman eyed him curiously. "Whut's it say?"
"My uncle's dead," Kit said gleefully.
Mickley snorted. "That don't sound like somethin' to cheer the soul."
"Well, it cheers mine. I'm his heir."
The batman looked mildly surprised. "Is 'at a fact? Well, it seems to me that ye should give the poor dead bloke a passin' sigh afore ye start countin' yer gains."
"I hardly knew him," Kit explained, his eyes fixed on the letter. "He and my father never got on. I haven't seen him since I was a child."
"Then why'd the fellow make ye 'is heir?"
"He had no offspring. Neither did his two sisters. My father was the only one of the four Merediths of that generation to have a son. So you see, I'm the next male in the line." He looked up at his batman and grinned. "Can you believe it? I've become the Viscount Crittenden! From now on you'll have to call me Your Lordship."
"Huh! That'll be the day," the batman sneered. "I 'ope ye came into somethin' more substantial than a title."
Kit glanced down at the paper still clutched in his hands. "I think I have. This letter suggests that there's a sizable estate."
"Estate, eh? Well, that's somethin' like!" Mickley tried not to show how impressed he was, but he couldn't help adding, "Sorta like winnin' a lottery, ain't it?"
"Yes," Kit said, somewhat numbed by the surprise of it all, "I suppose it is."
"What sorta estate?"
"The letter doesn't give details. But I know there's a manor house. My father used to talk about it. It's called the Grange. Crittenden Grange. It's in Shropshire." Kit's eyes took on a faraway look as he tried to picture the green hills of Shropshire and the ancestral lands that were now his.
Suddenly, the full import of the news burst upon him. He jumped to his feet, grasped his batman by the shoulders, and whirled him about in a wild burst of exuberance, stirring up a cloud of dust from the sun-dried earth. "Mick, you clodcrusher, smile!" he shouted ecstatically. "We're going home!"