Today's Reading

Early October 1815—Douro Valley, Portugal

It was the same as his memories, yet different as a dream. The river, tricky, pretending to be benign, ran wide here, below the
gorges that lurked lethally upstream. The sky was blue, dotted with clouds, a roof over the valley with its tiers of intricate ancient terraces rising on either side. The harvest was over, the grapes stripped away, the leaves hinting at a change to the gold and crimson of autumn.

There were no sounds of shots or cannon fire, no victims of the fighting clogged the swirling brown waters. From the bushes on the bank a bird sang clear and pure and the scorching heat of summer was turning to something kinder.

The tranquillity was unsettling, dangerous. This was when the enemy struck, when you were lulled into relaxation, distracted by a moment's peace, a glimpse of beauty. Gray gave himself a mental shake. There was no enemy. He was no longer Colonel Nathaniel Graystone and the war was over. Twice over, with Bonaparte finally defeated scarcely four months ago on the bloody plains of Belgium.

Portugal was free from invaders and had been so for four years now. There were no ambushes here, no snipers behind rocks, no cavalry troops to lead into a hell of gunfire and smoke and blood. He was the Earl of Leybourne and he was a civilian now. And he was here on an inconvenient errand, the kind that assuming the title and the headship of his family seemed to involve.
The two men handling the rabelo shouted something in Portuguese as the sail flapped and Gray translated without having to think about it. He ducked low among the empty barrels as the boom swung over, then tossed a line to the man at the prow.

Doubtless it was beneath his new dignity to approach the Quinta do Falcao by working boat. He should have creaked for almost a hundred miles along the hilltop road from Porto to Pinhao in one of the lumbering old-fashioned carriages to be hired in the city, then held on to his nerve, his dignity and his hat as it negotiated the hairpin bends of the track leading down to the river.

But this was the fast, efficient way to make the journey and twenty months had still not instilled in him the attitudes expected of a
peer of the realm. At least, not according to his godmother, Lady Orford.

It was she, and his own uncomfortable sense of duty, that Gray could blame for his present situation. He was up to his ankles in bilge water and facing a situation that, in his opinion, called for either the skills of a diplomat or those of a kidnapper. And he was neither. It did very little for his mood and even less for the condition of his new boots.

The man managing the great steering paddle shouted something and jerked his head towards the bank. There were trees and a wide flat area about ten feet above the waterline and through the foliage he could see glimpses of red- tiled rooftops and the whitewashed walls of a low, sprawling house. As the boat steered nearer, fighting against the current, he saw gardens, then a landing stage.

"E aquele Quinta do Falcao?" he called.

"Sim, senhor."

The house, the heart of the quinta or winemaking estate, came fully into sight. It was charming, he thought, something of his edgy mood softening. It was gracious, beautifully kept, radiating prosperity. A pleasant surprise, not the down-at-heel place hanging on by a thread that he had feared from his godmother's agitation. The boat angled closer, the boatmen struggling to find slack water nearer the bank. Through a grove of trees Gray glimpsed what looked like gravestones and a woman rising from her knees in the midst of them, a flurry of garnet-red skirts against the green. It was like a fashionable sentimental picture, he thought fancifully. Beauty amidst the Sorrows or some such nonsense.

Then, with a sudden swoop, the boat was alongside the long wooden dock. One man jumped ashore, looped a rope around a bollard and gestured to Gray to throw across his baggage. Three valises hit the dock, then Gray vaulted over beside them as the boatman freed the line and was back on board with the boat slipping fast into the current.

Gray waved and they waved back, gap-toothed smiles splitting their faces under the broad-brimmed black hats they both wore.

"You may well grin", he thought. "The amount I paid you." But money was not the issue. Speed was.

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