Horses tended, all ten stable stalls, swept and cleaned, and the resultant manure loaded onto the wagon, Jack Wetherley, apprentice stable manager on the Brandling estate, considered that a decent Monday morning’s work done.
Jack blinked in the bright noonday sun. Heat from that same sun, and the heavy work just completed, had his shirt clinging to his sweated body. Without delay, he pulled the rough garment over his head, heaved one-handed at the pump handle on the trough.
He stuck his head under the chill flow that poured from the spout. His body jerked involuntarily, as cold water splashed on his head, neck and ran down his back. Standing up, black curled hair plastered over his brow, he rubbed water-laden hands over his chest.
Refreshed, he sat on the bench outside the stable door, knowing the sun would dry him off in no time. Sitting there, he enjoyed watching the eight horses earlier released into the fenced field behind the stable. Six riding horses and two draft horses. He had warm affection for them all.
As usual for the hour pre-lunch, old Alf Winters, chief ostler, was away, riding alongside the major, Sir Oswald Brandling, who had requested Alf accompany him after a heavy fall a year earlier had shaken his confidence.
Sir Oswald, military life behind him, was now a wealthy wine merchant who owned Brandling Manor, the magnificent building, blocked from view by the stables. Jack, on his first visit, had been stunned by the sheer grandeur of the place.
Jack loved his situation here. It had completely turned his life around. And he had Alf Winters, the old ostler nearing retirement, to thank for that. Jack had been working for two years as joint stable hand in the Highway Inn where carriages, phaetons and curricles, with their various sized horses, stopped off at regular intervals.
Alf had observed Jack over several weeks, being totally impressed by his care and obvious love of horses. “So many folks mistreat their animals,” he’d told Jack. “But I could tell you actually loved the steeds you tended.”
Jack was delighted to accept this new role, only troubled by the memory that his father had wanted him to aim for greater heights, because of his academic promise. But Jack’s love of horses prevailed, although where it all started was actually because of his father.
Mercifully, as a familiar sorrow built in his chest, Jack heard the welcome hoofbeats signalling Alf’s return. Jack pulled on his almost dry shirt and tucked it into his breeches. He watched the approach of the upright figure of Alf Winter, comfortably sitting astride his horse while leading Sir Oswald’s mount.
Jack couldn’t help thinking that Alf, at seventy-six years of age, always looked more confident on horseback, these days, than he did standing on the ground.
Most of the heavy work was already falling to Jack.
Alf, his long grey hair flying in the breeze, slid off the chestnut mare, and Jack grabbed the lead on Charger, the impressive black stallion, which was Sir Oswald’s exclusive mount, named to remind him of his military days.
“See you’ve got the clearing-up done.”
“Aye, hot work today. Sir Oswald all right?”
“Aye, but the Major’s got a new worry.” (Alf was the only one allowed to call him Major.)
While they allowed the two horses to drink before brushing them down, Alf went on, “You know about the Major’s brother, Sir Arthur and his wife being lost in that storm in Biscay a year ago.”
“I remember.” Jack also recalled the tragic irony in that sinking.
Alf nodded. “Well, that now has the Major torn between a peaceful old age and family loyalty.”
Puzzled, Jack turned to look at Alf’s wrinkled profile. “How?” he asked.
“There’s a daughter, the name’s Rebecca, who the Major’s brother once referred to as a wild one.”
“No, just unladylike.” Alf gave a chuckle, “Major’s worried now about just how unladylike.”
Sir Oswald had told Alf that his brother had been determined to see his daughter married into upper society. Even in his Will, he indicated that Rebecca be housed in a nunnery until she was twenty-one and would receive not a penny unless she married a man who was, at least, level in social status.
Alf shook his head before going on. “The nunnery contacted the solicitor. Couldn’t cope with the girl’s ill-discipline. Was there not a next of kin?”
“Which has to be Sir Oswald?”2
“Exactly. Plenty of space, he admits, but her reputation. That bothers him.”
“When’s she due?”
“She’s here already.” Alf told Jack of a crane neck phaeton that arrived just as he was riding away.
A slender young lady had climbed down from the phaeton alongside an accompanying nun. Alf couldn’t see her face which was hidden by the fringe of a bonnet.
Alf chuckled, “A wild one, all right. That bonnet was snatched off and thrown to one side, before she was up the steps. Long black hair tumbled down her back.”
Shaking his head, he went on, “Beats me how nuns can afford a two-horse bloody phaeton.”
Alf pointed at the grazing horses, “Oh, apparently, she rides, so he’s asked for a suitable mount for her. Something docile.”
“How old is she?”
“Not sure. Somewhere nineteen or twenty.”
Jack pointed to the fine black mare grazing nearby. “None more docile than Ebony.”
Alf nodded. “As long as the lady is kept happy.”
As Jack closed the gate, after freeing the two mounts, Rascal trotted across, put his nose over the gate for Jack to rub affectionately. Rascal was a seven-year-old roan, grey on most of his sturdy body but with a black face, fetlock and pastern.
“Will you be running him again at the village fayre on Saturday?”
“If you let me.”
“Oh, hell,” Alf snorted, “he’s practically your horse. I don’t think I’ve ever got as close to an animal.”
Alf’s words gave Jack a spasm of pleasure. His love for Rascal was mutual.
~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~
The following day was another blessed by bright sunshine. Alf returned from his morning ride with Sir Oswald, and he was all fired up with information about this new arrival.
A fussy eater, she wouldn’t always take what was placed in front of her. Wanted to explore the estate on foot on her own. Wore clothes that distressed Lady Brandling and dismayed Sir Oswald. Nothing seemed right.
“And here’s the big surprise,” Alf said, with a touch of disgust in his voice. “She’s insisted she have a horse for today.”
Jack could only ask, “For this afternoon?”
Alf’s head was already shaking as he replied, “The major says best I take a suitable mount immediately. He was clearly annoyed but anxious to please her.”
Jack immediately moved towards the grazing field. “I’ll get Ebony saddled up right away.”
At this point came the real shocker. “No side-saddle. Wants a standard one.”
“But high-class ladies always—”
Alf nodded. “Apparently, her father used to let her be astride a horse even without a saddle.”
“Some farm lasses ride bare-back.”
“But ladies?” Alf shook his head, “Aye, best get Ebony ready.”
Jack quickly led in both Ebony and Rascal and in no time had them saddled and ready. He had intended to give Rascal a good fast run-out in preparing him for the village fayre race.
Alf mounted up on Ebony, all ready to show the young niece how to handle the horse. “Now. I’ll get to see this firebrand young lady. I’ll just stroll back.”
The stable had once adjoined the rear of the house. Then the major invested in a stock of horses, and Lady Brandling had insisted that any larger stable, because of odours, be built at least a furlong from the rear of the mansion.
The next twenty minutes were spent fulfilling Jack’s usual tasks. The tethered Rascal was in the shade ready for his run, when he heard the first call of his name in Alf’s croaky voice. As he reached the side of the stable, he saw Alf struggling to hurry across the grass, calling his name again.
Worried for Alf’s well-being, Jack raced to meet him. Alf, seeing Jack’s approach, stopped, bent to catch his breath, and as Jack came near, he gasped, through pockets of broken breath, “Bloody madam. Would listen to nothing.”
As Alf bent again to regain his breath, Jack asked, “How? What’s she done?”
Alf grabbed Jack’s arm. “I’m feared she’ll harm Ebony. Get on Rascal and find her.”
The older man, still panting, struggled to say more. “She comes out, not dressed for riding. A wide-skirted long dress, for God’s sake, tight over her bubbies.”
Alf had more. “As soon as I was off the horse, she grabbed the rein, short whip in her hand, and, easy as you like, swung herself up into the saddle.” He shook his head. “Leg out wide so her skirt swung out. I could see her knee and everything.” He shuddered as he patted his chest. “Bloody heart can’t stand that kind of sight.”
He placed a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I tried to point her to the long flat stretch by the lake. Best stretch for a canter.”
“Even a slow gallop,” Jack added, concerned at Alf’s worried look.
“But, no, she was off—In the bloody opposite direction.”
Jack expressed his surprise, “There’s only the high fence and hedging. She can only follow it round and—”
Alf was recovering his composure. “Aye, she can only end up through that copse of trees and onto the very stretch I told her about.” His watery eyes looked up at Jack. “You hurry on. Take Rascal along the high ridge.”
Jack nodded. “Don’t worry, Alf. I’ll find her. You just take it easy.”
He dashed to where Rascal stood patiently and within ten seconds was setting the horse a quick trot around the edge of the grazing field. Where the trail split, he took the higher one onto the ridge that Alf had mentioned, too uneven for any steady horse riding. The lower track led to the flats, where he usually exercised individual horses.
The scattering of tall trees enabled Jack to scan the stretch below. No sign of Ebony and her wayward rider. With nothing obvious in view, he kept Rascal to a slow saunter along the ridge.
Almost without warning, although there had been a low thudding and crackling of twigs, horse and rider suddenly burst from the trees. Ebony was galloping wildly, neck craned forward, hooves beating a rapid rhythm on the turf.
Astride the saddle a young lady was leaning backwards, black hair streaming behind her, loose skirt billowing upwards and outwards.
Jack’s immediate reading of the situation was of a runaway horse and rider. For some reason, Ebony had taken fright and had bolted out of control. So unusual for a normally placid animal. Quickly, and skilfully, Jack guided Rascal between the trees, down the steep bank.
By the time, Rascal’s hooves were on the level green, Ebony had galloped ahead. Jack had no worries about that. Rascal was faster than Ebony. But the black mare needed to be stopped. Traversing the ground at an angle brought him just behind the lady with flowing hair.
“Don’t worry!” he yelled, still puzzled at why the usually docile horse should have bolted. The lady’s response was lost in the beat of hooves and the general rush of movement. Was that a cry for help?
With an extra dig with his knees, Jack had Rascal pull alongside Ebony. “Whoa, Ebony!” he called, glancing quickly at the lady. Scared? Not a bit. The hair falling back into place could not hide the sheer anger twisting her face.
Jack knew Ebony’s dash had faltered and he reached out to grasp the mare’s harness near her mouth. That was when he felt a sharp blow on his shoulder, and glancing back he saw the whip raised again, and now he heard her, “Let go, you scoundrel.”
Scoundrel? Jack had leaned away to avoid the second blow. Ebony, responding to his voice, and the restraint he was applying, had almost come to a stop.
“How dare you?” The voice was high-pitched, but the look of rage had gone. And the result caught Jack’s breath. Long black hair framed such a lovely face, with full lips, high cheekbones, and fiery brown eyes. More than that, the lady’s skirts had blown high up her bare, lean and cream-coloured thighs.
Something gripped in the pit of his stomach, as seeing the direction of his eyes, she managed to pull her skirt down.
“You are quite rude. Do you know who I am?”
“I believe you are Sir Oswald’s niece, m’lady.” He had been well-trained in addressing the gentry.
“And who in hell are you?”
“My name is Jack. I’m deputy ostler for Sir Oswald,” Jack told her, as he noticed what Alf had said about the pull of her dress across her bosom.
“Deputy ostler, is it? Deputy ogler, more like,” she said contemptuously, and Jack couldn’t help feeling pleased that she’d noticed the direction of his eyes. Never had Jack felt a greater urge to be disrespectful to the upper classes. This lady was beyond anyone he had experienced.
He had pulled his shirt from his shoulder to see the red stripe left by her whip. “You strike hard, m’lady.”
She seemed to be calmer now. “My name is Rebecca and I’m not a ‘m’lady’. And I’m sorry about that,” she said, indicating his shoulder. “I thought you were a hooligan.”
Jack entranced by her face and her apology had to look away and eye the three stripes on Ebony’s rump. “No need to whip her,” he said, quietly. “Just a couple of grips with your knees will urge her on.” The lewd thought that accompanied that, he had to quickly suppress.
She gathered up Ebony’s reins, and gave Jack a wary smile, as she said, “Well, I intended to ride the lake perimeter to explore further.” Her eyes were on his as she added, with just a shade of sarcasm in her tone, “Perhaps you would ride alongside me to make sure I don’t do anything else naughty.”
Jack could not read how serious she was, but liked the lighter tone in her voice as she went on, with greater intent, “I really would appreciate being shown anything you consider special.”
With such a change in her demeanor, spending more time with her was suddenly, unexpectedly captivating. A chance too good to miss. “I’d be happy to do that, m'lady."