Miss Mercy Baggington was not well-trained in the female art of conversation. Her father had preferred her silent and biddable. Now she found herself ill-equipped for polite conversation, both from her own introversion and from the general isolation in which the Baggington daughters had been raised. Mercy felt more inclined to sit in a pleasurable silence than boisterous chatter. Once again, she thought that Simon ought to have brought the twins. They were lively and talkative. Perhaps they might be better at finding a common ground with General Bradley.
“You are going to worry your lip right off if you do not stop,” Simon teased as they bumped along the road. Mercy realized that she had been nibbling her lower lip and ceased the offensive action at once. “You get on just fine with me,” her brother said in a soothing tone, “Edmund is not so different.”
“I thought that you said he was quite outgoing,” she recalled. “He was,” Simon nodded, “and he will be again. For now, however, he is just getting back into the swing of things.” Mercy wondered what he meant by such a statement and when she asked, Simon only muttered something about how she would see soon enough.
A moment later they pulled up in front of the house. Mercy thought it beautiful, even though the intermittent rain and snow had left its mark. She could see where there would be a pleasant little vegetable garden off to the side and there was even a pen around the back where animals might be kept. She thought she heard the clucking of hens but could not say for certain. It would have been rude to explore the grounds before knocking on the door and making their introduction.
The painted white door was opened to reveal the happiest grin that Mercy had seen in ages. “Mr. Baggington!” the old woman cried as she saw Simon. She ushered the siblings inside before the threat of rain might begin to fall. “What a pleasure! And who might this be?” she offered a wink, “Your beautiful wife?”
“No,” Simon laughed. “Mrs. Smith, I would like you to meet my sister, Miss Mercy Baggington.”
Mrs. Smith clucked her tongue, not unlike the chickens out of doors, as if she thought Simon ought to be wed by now. Still, she turned to Mercy with a welcome smile and declared her a breath of fresh air in this world of men.
Mercy soon learned that Mrs. Anne Smith was General Bradley’s housekeeper though Mercy suspected that her role was more as a mothering figure than anything else. She did seem quite affectionate and spoke nothing but praise of the man.
“Call me Annie, please,” the woman begged. “You’ll meet my husband if you are ever about the grounds and neither of us care to stand on formality. Annie and Barry will do just fine. Now, follow me, the General is just in from the stables, and I am sure he could use a bit of cheering up. Mornings have been cross around here, as you well know, Mr. Baggington.” Mercy felt slightly alarmed that they might be stepping in upon a cross gentleman.
Her father being cross had meant that all of his children were like to make themselves scarce in order to prevent falling prey to one of his violent rages. Cross might mean that the General did not want visitors. When she said as much, Simon shook his head and followed Mrs. Smith.
Mercy had nothing else to do but trudge along behind, all the while wondering if they ought to have come at all. The sitting room was well lit as it was positioned in such a way that allowed for a roaring fire on one wall and two full opposing walls covered with windows. It was pleasant and inviting. Mercy felt at once at home.
“General Bradley,” the housekeeper announced. “You have guests.” Mercy bristled as she saw movement on the far side of the room.
From her vantage point she could see the back of a tall wing-backed chair in front of the fire. The figure behind it made a slow effort to rise. She anticipated being met with a scowl or glare but the General’s face seemed at first filled with determined concentration. Then, once he looked up, it broke into an uneven grin as he greeted his friend and waved them into the room.
At first Mercy had not noticed his use of a cane. At least, not until he rounded the chair with some difficulty.
“I apologize,” General Bradley laughed in a self-depreciating manner, “I am a bit sore and slow moving this morning.”
“Still no success?” Simon asked. He moved further into the room so that the General might not have to move so far.
“No,” the General shook his head. “I have landed on my …” He paused with the sight of Mercy, and rephrased for her feminine ears. “I have been unseated more times than I care to count. At this point, I am not sure that it is worth attempting any further. Perhaps my physician is right after all. I should just sit in my chair and thank my stars I am alive at all.”
“Nonsense,” Simon waved away the comment. “It is for that reason that I have brought my sister.”
Mercy’s eyes opened wide as her brother gestured her way. She had no idea what he was talking about and from the look upon his face he was well aware that she would have declined if he had given her any advance information as to what he was up to. It seemed that this was to be more than just a single amicable visit.
She threw Simon a look that would have withered him when he was younger, but he only grinned back at her.
Mercy remembered her manners and smiled at the General regardless to her ire at her brother. Introductions were made and the General offered the siblings seats by the fire. Simon chose a second wingback chair and Mercy seated herself on a covered stool at her brother’s side. Both she and General Bradley eagerly waited for Simon’s explanation.
“Mercy is an avid rider,” he said finally, and Mercy raised an eyebrow. Whatever was Simon on about? “She is the most skilled I have ever seen, even more than any man,” Simon explained.
If he thought flattery was going to soften her towards him he was wrong, Mercy thought as he continued. “If there is anyone who can help you learn to ride again it would be she.”
Mercy shook her head. “I have never given lessons,” she protested. “Really, Simon, this is not my skill. I only ride for my own pleasure.”
“Edmund knows how to ride,” Simon replied. “He just needs to figure out a way to manage with a leg on only one side of the horse.”
Mercy was confused and her expression must have revealed as much. With a sigh, General Bradley pulled up the leg of his trouser to reveal a false limb. Having been attached to a shoe at the base, it had gone quite unnoticed by Mercy in the few moments that the gentleman had been standing. Now she understood why it was that he used a cane. She had known he was injured for he was far too young to need the use of a cane for any other purpose, but she had not known he was missing his leg.
She estimated that he was perhaps a decade older than herself, but found that he still had a youthfulness about him. It was no wonder that he had developed a friendship with her younger brothers. In fact, she thought with a blush, he was quite attractive. Had he not been missing a limb, Mercy would assume that he would have had flocks of ladies swarming for his attention. She shook such thoughts from her mind. It did not matter whether or not the gentleman was attractive, even though he was, she had no knowledge of how to teach a man with one leg to ride, and Simon had no right to assume that she would do so.
She threw her brother another scowl behind the General’s notice.
General Bradley seemed to have the keen ability to sense her hesitation. “It is only off just above the knee,” he explained with an embarrassed grimace. “That’s the rub. If I could have kept it to below, I think I would have it. I just can’t seem to hang on.”
“I am sorry for your plight, truly,” she explained and then turned to her brother, “but I do not see how I can be of service.”
“We have got to be missing something,” Simon said.
“Yes,” General Bradley laughed, “my leg!”
Mercy had been steeled in her refusal until the moment of the General’s comment. At his words her mouth dropped open in shock and it took everything in her power not to laugh. It would have been rude, except that he had been the one to make the joke, so as she looked upon his chuckling form she could not help herself. Both the gentlemen were laughing. Mercy succumbed to soft hiccups which made them both laugh even harder when she could not stop.
“Oh dear,” she covered her mouth with her hand, and the General, with some curtesy called for Mrs. Smith to bring her a drink of water.
Once Mercy had her breath again, Simon persisted in his urging. “Give it a go, Mercy,” Simon begged. “If you fail we are no worse off than before… but if you succeed, it would be a miracle.”
“I would give anything to sit a horse again without making a fool of myself,” General Bradley explained. “If I could sit a horse they might even give me my command again.”
“General…” Simon began.
“Is that what you want?” Mercy asked unaccustomedly interrupting Simon. It seemed to her that if she had been so grievously injured in battle on horseback, the back of a horse would be the last place that she would wish to return.
“The war is over,” the General shrugged, “at least it is for me. I have no intention of returning to the field to fight, but it would be something to be able to consult on tactics now and then. To do so, I would need to be able to make the ride to the regiment camps and then back out again. You can’t take a carriage to war.”
Mercy nodded. That made sense. Still, if the gentleman had been attempting to ride already and had been unable to hold his seat, she was not certain that she could be of any service. “What if you injure yourself further?” she asked. Did he not see that this dream was reckless? Would it not be safer to just live out his days in the comfort of his home surrounded by friends? Why would he want to, quite literally, get back on the horse?
The General’s brow furrowed as if to say that the answer was obvious. “Is the possibility of injury worth giving up the chance to ride again?” he asked. “You say you are an avid rider, Miss Baggington. Would you give it up forever?” He paused. “Even if I only ride for pleasure, is that not worth the risk?”
Mercy could not imagine what her life would be without the freedom that she felt when she raced through the fields upon her faithful steed. To be denied even that small freedom would have broken her, especially if she had lost a limb. She could see that same look in General Bradley’s eyes. He may be able to walk and move about, but he had lost the freedom of speed. Indeed, he had been bound to the ground for far too long, feeling trapped by his infirmity, and the inability to control his body as he wished. She understood feeling trapped.
“Very well,” she said with a nod. “I shall try. When do we begin?”
“Not until tomorrow,” the General laughed and groaned at the same time. “I think that I have spent my chances for this day. That is,” he amended, “if you do not have prior commitments.”
“I never have commitments,” Mercy said breezily before she could stop herself. She was mortified and stammered to clarify her response. “What I mean is that I do not have any commitments that cannot be adjusted.”
Both gentlemen allowed her blunder to slip by without comment, but she could see that they were amused. Simon, of course, knew that Mercy had no gentlemen callers with prior engagements. That did not mean that she needed to go parading that knowledge around to anyone who asked. She chastised herself for her lack of social prowess. Of course, she would make a fool of herself straight away.
“We shall begin tomorrow,” the General confirmed. “Until then, would you care for some tea?”
Mercy wanted nothing more than to return home and resume the visit tomorrow. Tea meant she would have to talk to the gentleman, but it seemed that Simon was true to his word in holding the conversation. Mercy remained silent, lost in her own thoughts, as the men shared tales of their daring adventures.
She could see now that Simon had tricked her into not one, but potentially many, future visits on behalf of his friend. How long might it take them to be successful in the attempt? There was one thing that she was thankful for, that Simon was not attempting to secure any sort of romantic match between the pair as she had first suspected. Her brother was well aware of her thoughts and feelings on the matter although the subject of why she felt this way, was scrupulously avoided.
Furthermore, Simon had written to her of the General’s sad tale. Mercy did not know the full story, only that he had been jilted. Certainly then, he too would have reservations about such prospects in the future. That knowledge made Mercy more comfortable for she could not stop her mind from drifting back to the praise of his pleasant features, missing leg notwithstanding.
Blast it, she thought. Such schoolgirl thoughts were unlike Mercy, who assured herself that they had only come to mind because she had had rare occasion to find herself in the company of a man who was not her brother. Still there was a calm strength to General Bradley that was apparent in his manner that somehow put Mercy at ease.
The visit was over before she knew it and Mercy was surprised to find that she did not find the afternoon unpleasant. She had not been made to participate too much in the way of polite conversation, only making the barest of comments here and there while General Bradley and Simon conversed. Yet she did not feel her contribution had been lacking.
Mrs. Smith led the Baggington siblings to the door and waved them off with a promise to provide hot scones the following day.
When the door closed behind them Mercy offered her brother a scowl. “You would have said no,” he argued though she had not yet said a word. “Of course I would have,” she laughed. “I have no way of teaching a man how to sit a horse!” “His injury can be overcome,” Simon protested.
“Perhaps,” she agreed, “but I have no knowledge as to that end. You cannot give him false hope, Simon. Such is the nature of these types of injuries. It is called crippling for a reason.”
“Edmund refuses to be crippled by it, and why should he? He has mastered all manner of tasks in the past year that he had been told he could never do again. My goodness, Mercy, he ought to be bound to a chair. His determination has gotten him this far and I will not see him denied if a solution can be found.”
“That is very optimistic,” she said with a sigh. “He is my friend.” “That does not solve the problem of how he expects to sit a horse when he cannot grasp with his legs.” “You ladies ride sidesaddle and cannot grasp,” he countered.
“Are you suggesting that I ask the gentleman to switch to a lady’s saddle?”
“You know that I am not,” he said in a huff. “I only thought that you might have a better understanding of the balance of such since you do ride with both of your legs to only one side.”
Mercy blushed. “Such talk,” she murmured, for she had never heard any of her brothers refer to any part of a lady’s body.
“I am sorry for my frank language, Mercy, but surely it is the same.”
“It is not the same,” she murmured.
The carriage fell into silence but neither of the siblings were cross. Rather, they were trapped by their own musings as they each considered the impossibilities that lay ahead.
Mercy was not one for optimism. Life had taught her too soon that all roses have thorns and clouds were more likely than sunshine. All that is beautiful can be snatched away in an instant.
Surely the General knew this, since he had lost his leg at war, no doubt he was whole one moment and damaged the next.
Was it not the same with her? One morning she was an innocent child, and the next she was not. She could not change her own fate, but perhaps she could help General Bradley change his. It seemed that the General had not faltered in his outlook on life. He was hopeful and for that she would hope as well. Mercy would give him her best.
Thorne, Isabella. The Healing Heart: Mercy (The Nettlefold Chronicals Book 5) . Mikita Associates. Kindle Edition.