Sitting on top of his large black stallion, the cool spring breeze caresses his face. From his high viewpoint on a circular hill, he casts his gaze over the expanse of Oakwood Estate. The turrets of Oakwood Castle protrude upwards from the mass of mature trees encircling the building. It lies in the centre of the estate next to a large lake that is home to an abundant population of wild ducks and swans. The estate is vast, split between grasslands and mature woodlands developed and designed for hunting. The sound of the bugle breaks the morning silence and he moves his eyes in the direction of the sounds. The dogs have been quiet. Their barks and yelps rise again with the bugle and their excitement spreads out across the land. His stallion paws the ground and shakes its head knowing it is time to rejoin the hunt. Pulling on the reigns, he turns the animal and allows it to gallop down the sloping hill towards the trees to join its comrades in the hunt. He broke formation to spy their target - a cunning grey-tailed red fox that had outmanoeuvred them at every turn and slipped past the hounds. Its slippery trail had led to confusion among the dogs.
Galloping into the woodlands, he spies the group of horsemen surrounded by frantic dogs encircling a large earthen mound. The enemy has been cornered, but experience tells him it is not going to be the end of the fox today, and it would provide another morning of joyous pursuit.
The black stallion canters into the courtyard of Oakwood Castle leading the group of hunters and dogs. The large horse-drawn wagon of Hogan Suppliers & Co. is pulling out of the court yard after dropping off a delivery. Oakwood estate is a busy place and has a constant flow of traffic throughout the day. Earl Southwell dismounts from his horse and passes the reigns to the stable boy who rushes to his side. At thirty-two years of age, he manages and owns Oakwood Castle following the death of his father Lord Southwell three years earlier. The estate has not been his complete interest, and after completing his studies, he climbed the ranks quickly to fill position of Chief Inspector of the law offices at Riverdale City.
His mother, Lady Amelia, enjoys her privileged position as lady of the castle, and she manages it as she has always done, even when her husband was alive. Earl does not interfere in her affairs or management of the castle, only in the overseeing of the estate. Lord and Lady Southwell were granted Oakwood Castle thirty-five years earlier, and Earl and his sister Isabella were both born on the estate. Isabella Southwell married five years previously to William Camwell, son of the magistrate for Riverdale City legal affairs. Earl’s parents, especially his mother Amelia, were adamant that he marry from a selection of suitable suitors, and yet he declines. He is against the idea of marrying someone because it is arranged and suitable for all concerned. It may not be suitable for him. He currently enjoys his freedom of life to carry out the pursuits that interest him. It will be his decision one day whom he will marry and he thinks his mother is accepting this notion.
After seeing that all his guests are being cared for and enjoying a splendid spread his mother has organised, he seeks out the message that was delivered to him while out hunting. Opening the seal, he sits himself into a large chair in the castle library. The message is from his superior requesting his visit to the offices at the city hall early the following morning for an urgent meeting.
The rain pours heavily the following morning as Earl Southwell’s carriage rolls to the front door of the city hall. The city of Riverdale is an ancient city with many of its old walls still intact, fortified almost a thousand years earlier by the Norse settlers. It is a bustling city full of traders and rich merchants and boasts a big port. Situated in the older quarter of the city with cobbled streets, city hall stands dominant over the surrounding buildings. All official duties are carried out from it, including the offices of law. Earl climbs the steps to the front entrance and removes his hat once he enters. His appointment is with Sir Ale, Chief Magistrate, who extends his hand on his entrance to his office. Earl returns the gesture taking a seat at the side of the large oak desk. Sir Ale’s office is large and darkly furnished with a blazing fire throwing much welcomed heat filling the room with the aroma of burning peat. Earl accepts the cigar offered to him. It is only on occasions when meeting with Sir Ale that he enjoys a fine cigar. He has tried not to make it a habit.
“Nasty morning out there today,” Sir Ale begins, seating himself in his high back chair making himself comfortable. “I hope your mother Lady Amelia is keeping well? It has been a few months since I was out to visit the Castle.”
“Yes, she is very well, thank you. You’re most welcome at any time. I know my mother enjoys your company, so it would be a treat for her,” Earl replies soaking up the flavours of his cigar allowing its aroma to blend with the smells of the room.
“A case file has been brought to my attention, and as you know, if it has been brought before me, it must be important. This is quite a complex and sensitive one involving our elite aristocratic classes. I will let you review the file, but I must tell you Earl, I am not sure what we can do, if anything. There is currently a court case pending, and we have been asked to investigate a death that took place almost a year and a half ago.”
“Do we have much detail?”
“A lot of gaps can be found, and the information we may require is being held by the legal profession, who as you know, will not readily hand it over to us. Take it as a challenge; I know you will enjoy the task. Financial issues are not a problem. We have been given full authority to turn over every rock to find the truth. The outcome of this case for the lady in question is quite substantial.” Sir Ale passes the file to Earl.
“I will review and see what I can come up with. We are against the clock; so I will start working on it straight away,” Earl answers rising and taking the file with him.
Throwing the pencil on the desk, he rubs his eyes. After studying the document several times, he places it on the table in front of him. His admiration for the lady Susanna Westby is growing even though he has not met her. She holds his interest after reading in detail the case file, and he will need to meet with her very soon. Her strength and defiance against the odds are admirable, and yet, she is fighting blindly against her brother Sam Villiers.
The city of Riverdale is some seventy miles by road from her estate. Earl will arrange to take a steam boat from Riverdale to Kilbrack and have a carriage collect him to bring him onto Point Pleasant Estate. He studies the other variables of the case again. The area has five main estate houses with large holdings that supply employment and produce to the locality. These families are wealthy and powerful with considerable influence in the locality. Construction of schools and town developments are dependent on them. Two of the houses are allocated a political seat in parliament decided by local electorate elections. The only local town of any size is Kilbrack, a busy market town. He prepares some questions before gathering his papers into his bag and readies himself for the journey to Kilbrack.
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