The call that Jack had been dreading arrived the next morning. He and Alf were going through the Sunday morning routine of letting the horses out graze. A lazy morning. Until Vincent, the Brandling family butler arrived, dressed in button-up black jacket and gaiters, and his instructions had Jack’s heart beating madly.
“Sir Oswald,” he said, with the pompous tone of someone who thought himself one of the upper set, “Sir Oswald demands to see Mr Jack Wetherley without delay.”
“Not sooner than that?” asked Alf, whimsically. Jack knew that Alf could not stand the airs that Vincent put on.
“Immediately,” Vincent snapped and stalked away.
“Thank you, messenger boy,” Alf called after him. Laughing, he turned to Jack, “Now what can that be about?”
Jack shrugged, his insides churning.
“Maybe he wants to give you a medal,” Alf said with a grin.
But Jack, recalling once again the angry look on Sir Oswald’s face, just knew it was going to be something much more life-shattering than that. Standing at the back door of Brandling Manor, he could not recall a time when he had felt so uneasy.
The previous day had been set to be the greatest day of his life. On his horse, Rascal, he had won the Merevale village race and been lauded by, not only farm folk, but knights of the realm, and their ladies.
Oh, why had Becky, Sir Oswald’s orphaned niece, thrown her arms so eagerly around his neck and kissed his cheek so avidly? They had been so aware that what was developing between them, was frowned upon by society. And that thunderous look on Sir Oswald’s face had haunted him all night.
Jack knew for sure that Becky’s impetuous hug would now be the focus of any actions Sir Oswald took against him. Sacking and maybe worse would be the result, but being separated from Becky was the worst factor in all the trouble that might ensue.
Now, that trouble was right here, as he heard the butler’s voice, from inside, “I’ll get that.” The door opened and there was Vincent glaring down his nose at him, cold dark eyes scanned Jack disdainfully, “Filthy boots off.”
Jack was annoyed at that. He had deliberately cleaned his boots with a bunch of hay before coming down. He eyed Vincent questioningly.
“Leave them down here. Can’t have you marking Sir Oswald’s carpet.”
As Jack bent to unfasten and remove his boots, he was glad that the socks Aunt Rose had handed him that morning, were free of any holes.
Jack followed the stiff, broad back up a short flight of stairs, through a doorway, and Jack found himself in a large hall, with chandelier overhead. A wide staircase curved up the right-hand wall. He had only been inside the manor once before when he had been introduced to Sir Oswald, but still found it impressive.
Vincent continued his imperious walk across the tiled floor. Under Jack’s stockinged feet, as he followed, the tiles felt relevantly chilled.
Vincent knocked at a large white door, and gave a mannered wave of his hand, to get Jack to stay where he was. Then he pushed the door open. Jack’s knees trembled. Retribution was at hand.
“The apprentice ostler is here, sir,” Vincent intoned, stressing the word
“Show him in, Vincent.”
Vincent waved him inside with a curt gesture,
Sir Oswald gave Jack a sweeping glance before demanding, “Where is this man’s
“I got him to leave his boots downstairs, sir,” Vincent told him, his face reddening.
Sir Oswald’s face showed his displeasure at the butler. “Get those boots here without delay. I will not embarrass my guests by having them in stockinged feet.”
Vincent was now plum-coloured. “But they were filthy, sir.”
“Then clean them. Just get them here.”
Vincent’s face was a mix of shock, dismay, deference, and when he looked at Jack, pure dislike. Jack, despite his own uncertain future, loved the moment, as the butler hurried away.
Sir Oswald was standing by the window, a cigar smoking in his hand, he nodded at Jack. “Thank you for coming so promptly,” he said, extinguishing the cigar in an ashtray.
Jack was already surprised by the lightness of tone his master was adopting. Just being in these imposing surroundings, with the massive desk, the maroon covered chairs, and the library of books filling the opposite wall, added to his fears rendering him speechless.
Sir Oswald was dressed in grey pants and, what Jack in his limited experience, guessed would be called a smoking jacket, maroon and quilted. Very high-class.
His master leaned forward with both hands on his desk. “I have to start with the subject of my niece Rebecca.”
Oh, God, here it comes.
“I know you met her on her first horse ride. Alf told me about her use of the whip, and how you had talked her out of that.”
Jack was surprised that he knew of that.
“But what happened yesterday, well, it put something of a blight on what was a wonderful day.” The tone of voice had 2only become slightly more severe.
This whole situation was beyond everything that Jack had feared, and what Sir Oswald said next totally stunned him.
“I was horrified to see her throw her arms around you in that unladylike fashion, and in front of all my friends. I could see how embarrassed you were, so I must apologise on her behalf.”
Sir Oswald was apologising to him! Jack was weak with relief but found the voice to say, “Everyone was very excited.”
“I agree. But there has to be an element of control which, I fear, my niece finds difficult.” He paused and walked around the table, “Anyway, I gave her a good hard talking to and she went off looking very woebegone.”
Jack recalled that Becky, at their all-too-brief meeting, had been anything but woebegone. Oswald had moved from the window as he said, “Anyway I trust being confined to her room today will be punishment enough.”
Jack could just imagine how Becky would be taking that. Sir Oswald had moved to stand behind his wide desk, before waving towards a chair on the other side, “Please, take a seat there,” before sitting down himself.
Feeling very self-conscious, Jack sat down. This was not at all what he’d expected. When they were settled and facing each other across the wide desk, the landowner said: “Jack, I have something important I want to talk to you about.”
Jack was just a little overwhelmed. Something more important than Becky? He had arrived believing that their liaison was the reason for him being ordered here. So, what was to come? He sat with his hands clenched nervously on his knee.
“I have promoted that village race for a number of years now, and despite Alf’s best efforts I’ve never produced a winner. The manner in which you handled the horse, avoiding that youngster and then going on to win was most impressive. And something of a coincidence.”
“Jack, I don’t suppose you know what a thoroughbred horse is.”
Jack did know, and was keen to reveal what he knew, “It’s a horse, stallion or filly, whose bloodline leads back to the eastern stock horses, Arab or, I believe, Turkish.”
Sir Oswald’s eyes had widened in surprise, “How on earth do you know that?”
“I was in the city last year, and couldn’t resist buying a book called, ‘The History of the Horse.’ There was a section on thoroughbreds.”
“You read that well?” The note of admiration in the voice thrilled Jack, and he told of his father’s influence.
“Your father sounds like he was a remarkable man.”
“He was, sir.” That tightness was in his chest at such times.
“He would have been proud of you yesterday,” Sir Oswald said, the dark eyes were very firmly on Jack’s face. “Well, if what Alf tells me is true, there will be the scope for him to have been even prouder.”
Jack‘s face must have shown his puzzlement, and Sir Oswald laughed, before saying, “I have to tell you, Alf thinks what I’ve done is thrilling, and he believes you are well ready to be given the chance.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t—
“Yes, I’m being long-winded. Partly because I am also excited.” A slight pause, as he drew in a breath, “You see, Jack, I have just laid out a considerable sum of money for a thoroughbred two-year-old stallion, which I intend to race.”
At that moment, there was a knock at the door and Vincent entered holding Jack’s boots at arms-length. His eyes on Jack were daggers, as Sir Oswald said, “Put them down there.”
Jack could see the desire for Vincent to throw them at his head. But the boots were placed at his feet and with a slight bow towards Sir Oswald he left.
Jack’s hand was trembling so much as he fastened up his boots. Was Sir Oswald really intending to risk him with what had to be a very expensive animal? But, oh, the prospect of that chance.
Sir Oswald wore a half-smile, as he asked, “That worries you?”
“Enthralls me. A thoroughbred.”
“You ever been to a race meeting?”
Jack shook his head, “Never.”
“Well,” Sir Oswald said getting to his feet, “the nearest decent track is Exhampton. We’ll have to take a trip out there, just to get you familiar with the atmosphere.”
“How old is this horse, sir?”
“He’s just a yearling at the moment. By the time we get him, he’ll be a two-year-old. And ready to be prepared for racing. I’ve seen his Jockey Club papers. The sire was bred from Arabian stock and the mare had won some top-grade races up to one mile. That gives him a fast pedigree.”
Jack nodded, his insides all alight. “My book says that the Arabian line tends to have light bones and breeding with a good mare adds strength to the line.”
Sir Oswald came around his desk and Jack stood up, “You’re going to have to get your head into that book, so you’re really tuned up by the time we get the horse from the stud.”
He went to the door, “I’ve taken enough of your time, but it has been a very fruitful, and I must say, informative session.”
Jack found that he was being led to the front door. That made him feel rather important. As they walked, Sir Oswald talked over all the things they were going to need to consider.
A name for the horse, the coloured silks he would decide on, finding the right jockey. He gave Jack a pat on the back, “Rascal didn’t mind your weight. But our jockey needs to be around eight stone.”
“I’m a long way from that, sir,” Jack said lightly.
Sir Oswald opened the large front door, “Think about how he’ll be stabled. And reread that book. I’ll let Alf know when there are any further developments. Good morning now.”
As Jack said his farewell and started down the steps Sir Oswald called, “Oh, Jack, I meant to tell you. My niece has been ordered to apologise personally next time you encounter her.”
Jack didn’t know how to respond to that. Inside his head, thoughts were galloping ahead as he nodded and walked away. His next encounter with his niece should be on the following morning when Sir Oswald and Alf took their ride. It was to be their first liaison in that special hour.
Glad at heart, Jack hurried across the grass to the stables. Alf was near the trough giving one of the drays a brush down.
“You sly devil,” Jack called, as he approached the older man, “You knew all the time.”.
Alf stepped back from his work, a wide grin on his face, “Thought you’d enjoy the surprise.”
“How long have you known?”
“Only since yesterday. Fancy handling a thoroughbred?”
“I’ve read about them.”
“That impress the major?”
“Surprised him, I think.”
Alf nodded, “You’ll have gone up even further in his estimation.”
“Only if I get it right.”
Alf continued his brushing, “We’ll have some time to decide how we organise things. But it is something to look forward to.”
~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~
What was equally exciting for Jack was waking up on the following morning. A Monday morning was usually no different than any other day, but this one, he hoped, was going to be. Today was due to see the first day of his plan with Becky for a brief, but regular, coming together.
Arriving early at the stables he was pleased to see that the large doors were unopened, so Alf was not down from his lodge above the stables. Alf’s wife Maisie had died three years before Jack had met him, and Jack had always found his chief fiercely independent.
Jack opened the stable doors as quietly as possible and was soon doling out feed at each of the stalls. He reached the last stall which belonged to his favourite, now village champion, Rascal, and was just giving the feeding animal a loving fondle when Alf appeared and expressed his surprise at seeing Jack there so early.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he told Alf.
“Still looking forward to the prospect?” Alf asked, walking along each stall, checking the well-being of the feeding animals.
“Prospect?” There was only one prospect on Jack’s mind this morning.
“Getting the thoroughbred. What other prospects are there?”
Jack gave a nod, a shrug and pointed to one of the unused stalls near the door, “That one for the newcomer when he arrives?”
Alf looked surprised, “You have been thinking 2ahead.” Adding without rancour, “And I know that the Major sees the training of this thoroughbred as your responsibility.”
“I’ll need help though, Alf. Your all-round knowledge of horses will be invaluable.”
At last, mid-morning, Alf began saddling up his own mount while Jack prepared Ebony, who would soon be carrying Becky. Then it was on to readying Charger, Sir Oswald’s horse.
Jack stood and watched Alf ride towards the front of the house, leading both Ebony and Charger behind him. Jack knew Alf would wait for his ride with Sir Oswald until Becky returned with Ebony.
Not long now, he was telling himself, as he swept up the stable floor, and smiling to himself, plumped up the large mound of fresh hay stacked in a special recess inside the stable to the left of the main doors. It looked suitably cosy on this particular morning.
Jack had just picked up a displaced saddle and was reaching up to hook it on the rack when a pair of sweet smelling, incredibly smooth hands closed over his eyes. A quick waft of delicate perfume was followed by Becky’s delightfully delicate voice, close to his ear, “I have been ordered to offer you an apology.”
His heart thumping, Jack whipped around, his arms wide to quickly enfold her and draw her close. Her lovely face was smiling up into his as she added, “Do you want this apology to be formal or a little more informal?”
Jack had no reply other than to press his eager lips to hers. Becky’s response was equally desperate. When they broke, she said, “We have so much to talk about.”
Jack nodded, “And only an hour to fit it all in.”
“But you’ll manage it, won’t you?” she giggled, her fingers tousling his hair. “It has seemed an age since Saturday.”
Jack gestured towards the piled hay in the corner.
Her eyes glanced towards the hay, turned bright and shining, back to Jack, and then with a squeal of delight, she ran towards it. Jack’s breath shuddered in his throat,
Was it safety or modesty that had him pull the doors closed? Then, almost overcome with the passionate promise of her open arms he flung himself into the hay beside her, and for the very first time, they explored exactly what their ‘more’ had really meant.
Later, as they lay quietly, Becky whispered, “Hay makes a superb bed.”
“You are just too lovely to be true,” Jack said fervently and sat up to look down at her.
“If only—” she began, touching his cheek with gentle fingers, “—we could be open about it.”
“Society wouldn’t like that.”
“Damn society.” Her voice had been briefly angry, but now she asked lightly, “If my uncle asked you if my apology was acceptable. What will you say?”
“I’ll say—” And he couldn’t maintain his seriousness as he chuckled, “—I’m afraid she’ll have to do it again. I wasn’t satisfied.”
“Oh, you.” And she drove an elbow at his ribs. “He was very impressed that you could read.”
Aware of how long they had been lying there, Jack whispered, “Alf will be back soon.”
They were quickly sitting out in the sun, and Becky asked, “Were you pleased with the news from my uncle?”
“I thought he was going to sack me because of that hug you gave me.”
She laughed, “No, I took the blame for that. So, what about this special stallion he’s bought? Are you pleased?”
“Your uncle was keen for me to read up on thoroughbreds.”
They sat there talking about their chances for a future and arranged that Becky, on days her aunt demanded her company, would put a red scarf in a particularly high window. Then, a final warm kiss, and Becky hurried back to the house.
For the next two months, their arrangement worked without too many problems. On just three occasions the red scarf was necessary, but against that, they managed three lakeside sessions which were much more extended, and vigorous, than their morning assignations.
Then the event that was eventually to trigger a major change in their time together took place. The thoroughbred arrived.