Today's Reading

So instead of continuing west out of Reading and thus to Raventhorne Abbey, on reaching Reading, Rand had taken the Wantage road. He'd stopped at an inn in Pangbourne for lunch, and his groom, Shields, had consulted with the ostlers. Armed with the information Shields had gained, Rand had elected to drive on to Basildon before turning off the highway onto the narrower country lanes and steering his horses first to the west, then the southwest. He'd passed through Ashampstead some time ago. According to the signposts, the village of Hampstead Norreys lay just a mile or so on.

Rand held his bays to a steady trot. After calling on Throgmorton and reviewing his progress and receiving the assurances Rand and his investors required, Rand would have plenty of time to drive on to the Abbey. With any luck, he would arrive before his eldest nephew and his niece had been put to bed. His youngest nephew was just two years old; Rand wasn't sure what time he would be tucked in.

Rand had discovered he enjoyed being an uncle; he and his two younger brothers, Christopher—Kit—and Godfrey, openly vied for the title of favorite uncle to Ryder and Mary's three offspring. Rand grinned to himself; he was looking forward to spending the next few days—perhaps the next week—with Ryder, Mary, and their noisy brood.

An arched gray-stone bridge appeared along the lane; Rand slowed his horses and let them walk up and over. A small sign at the crest of the bridge informed him he was crossing the Pang, presumably the upper reaches of the same river he'd earlier crossed at Pangbourne.

"Looks like the village we want just ahead," Shields said from his perch behind Rand. "Seems it stretches away to the right."
 
Rand nodded and shook the reins. The horses picked up their pace, and the curricle bowled smoothly on.

To the left, the lane was bordered by trees, with more trees behind them—a thick forest of oaks and beeches, much like the old outliers of the Savernake that still lingered near Raventhorne.

The trees thinned to the right, where the village stretched parallel to the stream; Rand glimpsed roofs of thatch and lead through breaks in the canopies.

A sign by the road declared they'd reached the village of Hampstead Norreys. As Shields had predicted, the village street lay to the right, stretching northward, with shops and houses on either side. An inn—the Norreys Arms—squatted at the nearest corner.

Rand drew up in the lane opposite the inn. The lane led on, heading west through an avenue of trees before curving to the left—to the southwest.

Shields dropped to the lane. "I'll go and ask."

Rand merely nodded. He watched as Shields strode into the inn yard and spoke with the stable lad sweeping the cobbles by the inn's side door.

Then Shields passed the boy a coin and hurried back. The curricle tipped as he clambered up behind Rand. "We follow the lane on," Shields reported. "Apparently, the drive to the Hall lies just around that curve ahead, and there's no way we'll miss it. There are stone gateposts with eagles atop, but no gate."

Rand dipped his head in acknowledgment and gave his pair the office. They obediently stepped out, and he guided them on.

Sure enough, just yards around the curve to the southwest, a pair of stone gateposts marked the entrance to a well-tended drive. Rand slowed the horses and turned them onto the smooth, beaten earth. As the carriage bowled along, he glanced around, taking in the cool shade cast by the surrounding trees and the shafts of sunlight that filtered through, dispelling the gloom. The drive was bordered by woodland—primarily beech and oak, but with occasional poplars with their shimmering leaves randomly interspersed here and there. After the warmth of the summer day, the tree-lined drive formed a pleasant avenue; indeed, all he'd seen of the area suggested it was one of those pockets of quietly contented, lush and green, rural
countryside that could still be found dotted about southern England.

No house or building had been visible from the lane. Eventually, the drive emerged from the woodland into a large clearing in which Throgmorton Hall stood front and center, dominating the space between the trees.

The Hall was a three-storied block clad in the local pale-gray stone. Rand suspected the house's Palladian façade had been added to an older building, yet the remodeling had been well done; Throgmorton Hall projected the image of a comfortable gentleman's residence. The house faced west, and the long-paned white-framed windows of the lower two stories and the dormer windows of the upper story overlooked a wide swath of lawn. More lawn ran away to the south, dotted with several large old trees and ultimately bordered by the woodlands, which, as far as Rand could see, completely encircled the house.

He'd slowed the horses to a walk. As they drew nearer the house, to his left, he spotted a shrubbery backing into the woodland, with a decent-sized stable tucked tidily beyond it.
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