Richard stood idly, enjoying a moment of quiet, and looked down through the open window of his dressing room at the activity in the stable yard below. One of his father's carriages was in one corner of the yard, glossy black and with the family crest on the door. One axle was propped up on a wooden trestle and a couple of carpenters were working on the wheel which his father had damaged on one of his reckless night-time rides through the countryside. As far as he could see there were some spokes missing. One of these days, he thought, the Earl is going to injure himself – or someone else.
In the centre of the yard, the grooms were working with some of the horses. James, the head groom, was strutting around barking orders at the stable boys as they struggled to get a big black stallion under control. The powerful horse was nervous, shying at shadows, and one of the men was straining at his bridle, while the horse bucked and reared. This man, Carter, was familiar to Richard. He knew him to be a shrewd judge of horseflesh and a man his father trusted, always taking him along when he bought at the markets. But Richard thought him cruel, having seen him mistreating animals, both horses and dogs, using a short crop viciously to assert his authority.
Another man stepped up to lend a hand. Richard had never seen him before. He knew James had taken on additional staff because he'd heard him clear it with his father a few weeks previously. This new man apparently had come from another estate and was skilled with horses. Nothing Richard saw as he observed from above led him to doubt that. The man seemed to know just how to deal with the skittish stallion and soon had him calm. He didn't see from his viewpoint just how this neat trick was achieved, certainly there was no riding crop involved.
“Jasper?” Richard called for his personal manservant.
“My Lord?” Jasper appeared at the doorway.
“Jasper, I will go riding this morning. Please tell James I want to ride the new black stallion. I will require the new stable boy to accompany me on Bucephalus. Ask him to have the horses ready in half an hour.”
Jasper took a moment to absorb this instruction. He stepped forward, about to speak, changed his mind and bowed slightly. “My Lord.” He turned and left to run his errand.
Dear Jasper, thought Richard. He had been the major influence through Richard's youth and continued to be his adviser and confidant. He knew, but would never have admitted to anyone, that Jasper was his best friend. He had been his father's Equerry in his youth, and when the Earl married had been re-assigned as assistant to the Earl's butler, and then on Richard's seventh birthday his father had decided his son no longer needed a Nanny and Jasper took over the role of the boy's upbringing. Richard couldn't imagine being without Jasper and although he was now twenty-five years old and Jasper must have been in his late sixties the two were still a team.
Five minutes later Richard was still watching the activity in the stable yard when Jasper entered with his riding clothes and boots.
Richard strode into the stable yard, impressive in his immaculate riding gear and highly polished brown knee boots. At an inch under six foot and assisted by an extra inch provided by the heels on his boots, and with broad shoulders shown to their best effect by the skill of the best tailor in London, he looked well enough to satisfy even George Brummell – but like Mr Brummell, he gave every indication of being unaware of his good looks.
James saw him and approached. “My Lord, if I may make a suggestion...”
“What is it, James?”
“The new horse is flighty, sir, and needs careful handling. You might enjoy your ride better on your own Bucephalus, or perhaps on one of your father's Bay mares?”
“Are you suggesting I can't handle the stallion?”
“Oh, no, sir, your horsemanship is first rate. But I thought you might enjoy your exercise more on a better mount.”
“For my purpose, James, the stallion is the horse I choose to ride. See that he's ready in five minutes.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Richard did not enjoy the little trials of strength that he had to put up with occasionally from James. The old head groom ruled his little kingdom despotically and liked everyone, including the son of his master, to concede to his authority in everything related to horses. Only the Earl was immune from this tyranny, but Richard was learning to fight it and today he was determined.
In less than five minutes the two horses appeared. Bucephalus recognised his master and Richard gave his muzzle a pat and stroked his flanks just to say Hello. The new stallion stood and fidgeted, clearly still nervous. Richard walked around Bucephalus to mount the stallion, but stopped when he realised that it was Carter who was holding the heads of the two horses, waiting for him to mount.
“James!” called Richard with a little of his annoyance showing in his voice.
“My Lord?” James scuttled across the yard.
“I am taking the new stable boy who will ride Bucephalus. Is that not the message you were given?”
“Carter is the senior stable boy, sir, it is more fitting...”
Richard interrupted. “I know who is who around here. I am riding this morning with the new boy. For a reason. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, sir. I will arrange it. Right away, sir.”
Richard knew the politics of the matter. With the new lad out riding, Carter would have to carry out all the menial tasks that would otherwise have fallen to the younger man. He would feel demeaned and James would feel that his authority had been challenged. There would be bad feeling all around the stables for days as a result. And possibly the new boy would be made to suffer for it. Richard knew all this but had been taught not to be much concerned with the servants and their problems.
The sound of running footsteps on the cobbles echoed around the yard and the new stable boy appeared from behind the stable block, slowing to a brisk walk. He took over the reins of the two horses from Carter who shot him a sneer before slouching off to James' little office beside the stables. Richard for the first time looked the new boy over, appraising his lean but muscled torso, clearly delineated through the thin tunic he wore, his long legs, his powerful arms, and his face, high cheek-bones chiselled nose and chin, luminous brown eyes, framed by dark brown hair cut long and unruly over his forehead. Richard was shocked by his own reaction to this vision. Beauty was a word confined to the female sex. A man could be handsome though few other men would notice or acknowledge it. But only a woman could be beautiful. Nevertheless, beauty was the word that Richard's mind insisted on associating with this man that he was having difficulty tearing his eyes away from.
The beautiful man held the reins for Richard as he mounted the black stallion. He noticed that the horse was still and quiet, in marked contrast to its nervous fidgeting in the hands of Carter just moments earlier. Richard set off under the arch which led out of the stable yard to the ride south from the house for half a mile of manicured lawn, lined with ornamental beech trees. He didn't wait for the stable boy to catch up, he wasn't riding fast. The horse under him was behaving well, responding to his guidance and showing no signs of the nerves he'd seen earlier.
He reined in the horse and turned to wait for the stable boy to catch up, and was surprised to find him on Bucephalus right behind him.
“What's your name, boy?” There was nothing incongruous to Richard in referring to a man his own age as 'boy' – he was a servant.
“Harris, my Lord. John Harris.”
“Well, John, what do you think of this new acquisition of my father's?”
“The stallion, sir? He's a fine animal. I think perhaps he's been ill-treated, but with care he'll make a wonderful rider's horse.”
“You know about horses?”
“Horses is probably all I do know about, sir. My father was head groom to Sir Charles Hardwick. He taught me everything, sir. He wanted me to take the job over, sir.”
“So why are you working for us, now?”
John's head dropped a little as he replied:
“My father died, sir, and Sir Charles gave the job to the senior stable boy. He's five years older than me, sir.”
“And you didn't just stay on there as stable boy?”
“The new head groom didn't like me, sir. He let me go.”
“Well, their loss is our gain, it seems. How did you come here?”
“Well, sir, your Mr James knew my Dad and when he heard I was out of work he put in a good word for me. I'm very grateful, sir.”
“I see. I'm sorry about your father, John. Do you like working here?”
“I think so, sir. I'm just glad to have work, really. It's hard with one wage instead of two and when I lost my job I didn't know what I'd do. There's my mother to look after, you see.”
“Let's keep going.” Richard turned his horse and set off at a gentle canter down the ride and John rode alongside.
“Do you like Mr James?”
“Oh, yes, sir, he's like my Dad. He really knows about horses. And he's a fair master. I couldn't ask for a better.”
There was a delay before the answer came: “I think he knows a lot about horses, too, sir.”
Richard wondered if this was an evasive answer.
“But do you like him?”
“I'm sorry, sir, I – I just don't want to say bad about him. I don't know him well yet.”
“I want to know if you like him – so far?”
Quietly and clearly reluctantly, Harris answered: “I think he's a bully, sir, and I think he doesn't know how to handle animals. He knows about them but he's never got to know them. No, I don't like him. Sorry, sir.”
“Don't apologise to me for that. I asked you your opinion. You gave it.”
They rode on in silence.
“What's the name of this horse?”
“Victor? Funny name for a horse. Well, John, in your opinion, is Victor a suitable mount for a lady?”
John thought about this. “Well that would depend, sir. He's a big powerful horse, so she'd have to know what she was doing – begging your pardon, sir, but your sister could ride him, I reckon. She's a grand rider – I've seen her. But if you want my opinion, it would be best to let him settle down a few weeks. Like I said, I think he's been treated bad at some time, and he's nervous. He gets spooked easy. If I could have him for two weeks I reckon I could cure him of that though, and then I'd trust him with a lady if she's a good rider.”
“Bravo, John, that's what I hoped you'd say. He's not my horse, he's my father's, but Rachel wants a horse and I'm thinking of suggesting it to the old man. Uh, the Earl” - he corrected himself.
They arrived at the end of the ride and Richard wheeled right onto the dirt road which led to a small market town five miles away.
“When is James expecting you back?” he called over his shoulder to John.
“Oh, he would never set a time, because your Lordship called for me. But, begging your pardon sir, it would be better for me if I was back well before dark.”
“If I'm back in time to do some work around the stables, Carter won't be able to accuse me of shirking all day.”
“Oh, I see. Do these horses need exercise?”
“Oh, yes, I should say so, sir!”
“Let's get to it, then. If you get to Larston before me, I'll buy you a pint at the Nag's Head!”
It didn't escape Richard's attention that John held Bucephalus back until he had spurred Victor into a gallop. Once he'd settled into a comfortable rhythm on the big black stallion, Richard glanced behind him and saw John on Bucephalus only a length away, crouching in the stirrups, the wind blowing his hair behind him and a big grin all over his face.
Richard did not expect to win the race. His own considerable knowledge of horses was enough to tell him that Bucephalus was the strongest and fastest horse in his father's stable, and it didn't take a genius to tell that John's skills as a rider were considerable. So his challenge had really been intended as a way of buying his servant a drink without brazenly breaking the rules of propriety. However he was taken by surprise by Victor's speed. Given his head, he charged forward with no apparent effort, sure-footed despite the ruts in the road, going like the wind. And Richard found he was enjoying himself immensely. He forgot his intention to allow John to win and abandoned himself to the ride, loving the speed, the feeling of immense controlled power as the big horse thundered along. It seemed like no time had passed before he reached the brow of the hill that overlooked Larston and began the final sweep down into the valley. Victor was still going strong, no sign of flagging yet. He'd almost forgotten about the stable boy until he was shocked to see John appear at his shoulder, and then barrel on ahead. Bucephalus looked better than he'd ever seen him, moving with a grace that belied the enormous speed, with John crouching low over his neck and calling encouragement into his ear.
Suddenly Victor stumbled. He recovered quickly, but continued more slowly, and Richard reined him in and dismounted, wanting to check him over to see if he could see what was wrong. It was the work of a moment: he'd thrown a shoe. His left hind hoof was bleeding slightly from the pad, perhaps the shoe had come adrift before finally falling off, and maybe a nail had stuck into the soft pad in the centre of the hoof. In either case the horse would need attention. Fortunately there was a blacksmith's in Larston and Richard took the reins and walked the horse down the hill towards the town. John rode up, having realised he was no longer being raced.
“My Lord? Are you hurt?”
“No, John, Victor has thrown a shoe. His left hind hoof is bleeding a little. The Larston Blacksmith will sort him out.”
“Then I shall walk Victor, sir. You ride Bucephalus.”
“Very well. I will ride ahead and talk to the blacksmith. You deliver Victor there, and then meet me at the Nag's Head.”
They exchanged horses and Richard cantered off. He found the smithy on the road into town and explained to the smith that his horse would need re-shoeing and the wound treating. He would stable Victor at the smithy for a few days until the wound was properly healed before sending him back to the manor. Satisfied, Richard rode on to the town's main hostelry, visible ahead in the central square. He dismounted and tethered Bucephalus by the water trough where the horse immediately bent to drink. Then he went in and called for the landlord. He ordered two pints of porter to be brought out to the grassy bank of the river that ran past the back of the inn. He sprawled on the grass and sighed with contentment. Life was good.
Half an hour later, Richard was asleep on the grass when John approached timidly, eyeing the tankards, one still full of beer, on a tray beside his Lordship, but unwilling to take it without permission. He walked right up to Richard but then found himself unable to act. He didn't know if he should wake the master, or how to do that. He didn't know if he was entitled to drink his ale though he was by now very thirsty and sorely tempted. He looked down at the sleeping form. He looked long and intently.
Lord Richard de Montfort, son and heir of the Earl of Hereford, was quite a sight. His long body, stretched out on the grass, limbs spread out untidily, broad shoulders flat on the ground, retained boyish good looks befitting one at least five years younger than his twenty-five. His yellow hair, falling straight across his forehead, mostly hid his incongruous soft black eyebrows and lashes, and his broad forehead above a clear, symmetrical triangular face ending in a sharp chin with a dimple in the centre. He wore a short, neatly-trimmed goatee beard and moustache.
Servants learned not to be seen looking at the gentry but they also learned to sate their curiosity whenever they could do so without being caught looking. And John looked. He was already strongly attracted to this man who treated him so well and sought his opinion and raced him on horseback and bought him ale, and he looked at him asleep, and kept looking, and he thought him wonderful.
Eventually Richard opened his eyes, causing him to start guiltily, and squinted up at him. “Is that you, John? Your drink is there. Come and sit down here with me.”
John did as he was told. By the time he was sitting on the grass, his tankard was half empty and his thirst assuaged. He wondered that his life had taken this unexpected turn. Sitting in the sunshine with a mug of beer in his hand, in company with a young member of the ruling class in the middle of the working day was not what he had ever expected to be doing when he took his new job.
“Did the blacksmith take Victor from you?”
“Yes sir, he says the horse will need to stay there three days at least, until the hoof is fit to walk on.”
“Yes, the man says he can deliver him back when he has recovered. I might have a word with James about sending you or someone over to check his progress tomorrow or the next day.”
“I would like that, sir.”
“Yes, I thought you might. You care for these animals, do you not?”
“Well, yes of course, sir. They are in our charge and denied the freedom to care for themselves so we have to be sure to care for them properly. That is what my father taught me, sir.”
“I would have liked to have known your father. Mine has never taught me anything, as far as I can remember!”
John smiled at that and met Richard's returning smile and twinkling eyes.
They drank their beer in silence. When Richard emptied his glass and looked across and saw John had finished his, he said:
“Now, how are we going to get home?”
John assumed the question was rhetorical.
Richard stood up, brushed himself off and walked back to the horse trough where Bucephalus still stood, peacefully waiting. He untethered the horse and climbed into the saddle. John in the meantime had gathered their empty tankards and took them back to the bar. When he appeared again, stooping to avoid banging his head on the lintel in the low doorway, Richard reached out a hand and told him:
“Climb up behind me.”
John looked around him like a guilty child checking to see if he'll be caught, and then took Richard's hand in a firm grip and vaulted up onto Bucephalus' broad haunches.
“You will have to hold around my waist if we are to make any speed and you are not to fall off the back!”
John gingerly snaked his arms around Richards waist and clasped his hands in Richards lap. They moved off and Richard spurred Bucephalus to a steady canter. John struggled to find a sustainable position. Between the need to maintain his grip around Richards waist and the desire to keep his balls away from the back of Richards saddle as he bounced on Bucephalus' haunches, he was fully occupied keeping his position. So when they arrived, half an hour later, riding through the archway into the stable yard, John was glad. He slipped off the back of the horse and quickly moved away in case the horse took offence at the indignity and kicked out at him. In Bucephalus' case he thought it most unlikely, but it was force of habit.
Richard dismounted, handed John the reins and marched off into the house. John attended to the horse and went back to work.
Richard ate with Jasper that evening. His father was in London, staying at the town house in Cadogan Square for a few days while he attended to his affairs there. The Earl never knew that Richard chose to have his meals served in Jasper's little sitting room and to share them with his manservant. Whenever his father was in residence, meals were always served in the big cold dining room, the two men facing each other from opposite ends of the enormous polished dining table beneath the high vaulted ceiling and the ancient banners mounted high on the walls all around them. It was his father's choice and Richard had no objection, but he couldn't face eating on his own in that room, and enjoyed Jasper's company – and the excuse to pamper Jasper with a share of his own food. It did not occur to him that he was invading the privacy of the older man, or that he might not be welcome in Jasper's private sanctum.
After dinner, Richard took Bucephalus from his stable, not wishing to call James out in the evening. He saddled him and fitted his bridle, then rode off down the ride and back, just to get some air in his lungs and for the joy of riding his horse. He took the saddle and bridle back to the tack room and guided the big horse back into the stable, ensuring that he had hay and water. Then on a whim he decided to go and find John Harris. In the middle of the stable yard he looked up to the windows above the stables where the staff had their quarters. Only one window showed a light. He took the stone stairs two at a time and strode along the corridor to the door of the room he judged to be the source of the light. And he knocked. He heard the sound of a chair dragged across a wooden floor and a moment later the door opened. John Harris stood there with an expression of utter confusion. He wore only a threadbare nightshirt coming down to his knees and clasped the two sides of the open neck together to preserve his modesty as he stood there, blushing furiously.
Richard found himself echoing John's blush. He was already regretting this. He knew that venturing into the servants' quarters was trespassing in another world, one to which he was not entitled. But he had trespassed there earlier in the day by sharing a drink and then a horse with John.
“Um, er, may I come in?”
“Certainly, sir. Won't you sit down?” John gestured to the only chair, by the only table, on which was the only candle.
Richard sat down. John closed the door and moved to the bed and sat on it.
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you.”
“Didn't you, sir?”
Richard frowned a little at this, realising the absurdity of what he had said. How could he expect that a stable boy would not be disturbed by an unexpected evening visit from his lord and master – in his private lodging?
“No, I didn't. But I did want to find out whether you got into any trouble over our expedition together.”
“Nothing to concern yourself over, sir.”
Richard realised he was being given the cold shoulder. “Should I leave?”
“It might help, sir, if you told me why you're here.”
“Yes, yes of course. I really do want to know if you got into any trouble, because I want you to come with me again the day after tomorrow when I go back to check on Victor's progress.”
“Well, Mr James was annoyed with me for riding back with you. He says it wasn't fitting. And Carter was bellyaching about all the extra work he had to do but Mr James shut him up. Apparently he didn't do most of it.”
“Would you prefer not to come with me next time?”
“Well, sir, if you will clear it with Mr James then I would very much like to come, please.”
“I will clear it with James. Don't worry.”
Richard stood up to leave. “I'll see you in two days' time. Thank you for your time. I'll go now. By the way, there's a real bad smell in here. What is it?”
John coloured. “I – I don't know, sir. It might be me. I don't get to wash much. Sorry, sir.”
“Is there a bathroom for your use?”
“A what? A bathroom? No, sir. We have to use the pump in the yard, sir.”
“Hmm.” Richard turned and walked off down the corridor and down the stairs, thinking that his father's arrangements for the staff were unsatisfactory, if only for the sake of his nose.
The following day Richard sought out James and told him he intended to visit Victor at Larston, and that he wished to have Harris ride with him. So Harris was ready for him early the morning after, with Bucephalus and a grey mare belonging to his father. An inferior mount, according to Richard's expert eye, but appropriate in James's eyes for a stable boy to ride.
They rode off together and Richard took them a detour so that they would travel much of the journey on a bridleway beside the river bank. A picturesque ride, but Richard had another motive. A little way along the river he pulled up at a secluded spot where the river curved and the flow had created a deep pool on the bend. He dismounted and took the reins of both horses and wound them around a nearby tree branch.
“Off you get, John. Get in the water there and give yourself a good wash. We're not in a hurry and you can take your time.”
Wide-eyed, John stepped down to the riverbank and climbed down into the water, initially standing knee-deep, and wading towards the deeper water.
“Not with your clothes on, idiot! You'll need them dry to wear again when you come out.”
So Harris stripped off his clothes and laid them on the bank in the sun. Richard watched without a care for his modesty and found himself appreciative of the line of his back, the muscle movement across his shoulders. He admired John's shape – his broad shoulders, narrow waist, tight buttocks, long furry legs and narrow ankles. He found himself hoping he too looked like that from the rear view.
John stepped back into the water and waded to the deep pool where he dipped his head under the water and rubbed his hair vigorously. He swung his head back above the surface, spraying a stream of water in a big arc over the river, and began working on rubbing the dirt off his body. He had only his hands to work with but made a thorough job nevertheless, paying extra attention to his pits, his groin, lifting one leg to give himself better access there, and his feet which he worked on hopping on one leg and losing his balance several times as the river current tipped him over. Richard watched, spellbound.
John strode out to the bank of the river, rising further out of the water with each step. In a few steps his torso and thighs were out of the water and Richard gasped. A vision of masculine beauty walked towards him, water running off his hairy chest, drawing the hairs together to make lines tracing the path of the water. There was a broad patch of hair across his upper chest, narrowing to a line extending to his navel and then broadening again towards the small but thick bush surrounding the base of the penis which, though presumably shrunken by the cold water, was still swinging across the front of the well-filled scrotum below. A pair of muscular thighs powered this vision of loveliness through the water and he quickly arrived at the river bank and stepped onto dry land, his calves and feet becoming visible for the first time. He strode toward his clothes but Richard stopped him.
“Dry off a little before putting those on or you'll be walking around in wet clothes the rest of the day. Lie out in the sun, you'll soon dry.”
John rubbed himself down a little, wiping water off his body. Then he lay down on the grassy bank of the river and stretched out, causing Richard an involuntary sigh.
They remained like that in companionable silence for some minutes. The commoner, naked on the ground, his eyes closed, and the aristocrat sitting close by, his arms hugging his knees, his chin resting on them as he gazed at the shape of the man next to him. He looked at the sinews in the other's neck where they disappeared into his shoulders and the little cup indentations beside them. He imagined himself probing these hollows with his fingers, or with his tongue. He looked at his knees, admiring the small knee-caps and the way the muscles which bulked out his thighs narrowed as they ran down to the knees, and below the knees the swell of the calf muscles narrowed gracefully and the covering of hair thinned, to elegant ankles which looked altogether too delicate to support the weight and force loaded onto them by the mass of man above them. All of this power and dynamism was at rest, the big chest rising and falling slowly as John enjoyed the rare treat of a break in the working day.
All too soon for either of them, the sound of a horse and cart became audible and John jumped up to don his clothes, firstly easing his pantaloons over still damp legs. Richard picked up his tunic and put it to his nose before passing it to the stable boy. His nose wrinkled and he realised the body odour would not cease to be a problem because John had washed – he needed to get his clothes washed too.
They continued their journey and arrived at Larston around noon. The blacksmith had been as good as his word and they found Victor well cared for and re-shod, his wounded pad healing well. Another two days, the smith thought, and he'd be fit to go back to work.
As they re-mounted for the journey home, the blacksmith asked:
“If you don't mind me asking, my Lord, who shoed him last?”
Richard didn't know, and told him so.
“Well you won't mind me telling you, sir, it was a poor job. It's a wonder they lasted as long as they did. Weren't properly nailed on, and the nails all higgledy-piggledy like they'd been used before. Terrible work if you ask me. The animal could have come to a lot more harm than he did. But I've fitted him with a full new set of shoes he'll not get rid of in a hurry. He's a fine horse and I'm glad to have been of service my Lord.”
“Thank you. I noticed it was a neat job. What's your name?”
“Higgins, sir, Josh Higgins. Everyone around here knows me.”
“I'll tell my head groom about your work, Higgins, and he may be able to put some more work your way from the House.”
“Well, thank-you, sir. Thank-you very much!”
They rode off and made good time back home, without, this time, turning the journey into a race. And Richard found himself remembering with a guilty pleasure the last ride home from Larston, with John riding behind him, with his arms around his waist and his hands clasped in his lap where they bounced against his groin as he rode, causing an unbidden reaction there. His cheeks reddened. Perhaps he could put it down to the exercise in the bracing air. Or perhaps not.
© Bruin Fisher February 2007