That evening after supper, Richard tapped at the door of John's room, again, telling himself that he was making a mistake but tapping nevertheless.
The door opened and the stable boy wordlessly gestured to him to enter, and closed the door behind him. Without waiting to be invited he sat at the table, and John sat on his bed as before. Neither man broke the silence. The time that passed was probably 30 seconds but it felt like minutes, hanging like a fog between them. Eventually it was John who spoke:
“What can I do for you, sir?”
Richard found himself tongue-tied. He did have a reason for coming, and an excuse, but he wasn't ready to square up to admit his motivation to himself, let alone to the young man sat just over an arm's length away from him, his hairy chest in full view since he was naked from the waist up, and calling an invitation to Richard's fingers which he dared not accept.
“Would you like to return to collect Victor with me the day after tomorrow?”
“That would hardly be necessary, sir, you can instruct Mr James to arrange it and he'll probably send me and Carter, or if he's short-handed one of us could go on our own.”
“Yes, I know. But I want to go and I'm inviting you to come with me. Would you like to come?”
“No, thank-you, if it's all the same to you.”
“You don't wish to come with me?”
“Why? You were keen to come before!”
Harris frowned and paused, considering his response, before replying:
“I prefer not to be subjected to such attention again, sir.”
“I found your demand that I strip and bathe, in public, in the open, humiliating, sir.”
“It was hardly public, no-one was around – no-one saw you!”
“YOU saw me – you didn't choose to look away, either.”
“Yes that's true.” Richard reddened. What should he say? Apologising to a servant was out of the question. His father would never do such a thing. But, he reflected, his father would never have got himself into such a mess. He needed to consult Jasper. Jasper would know how to handle it. Jasper always knew what to do for the best.
He fled from the room with its background aroma of old body odour, without taking his leave, and returned to the big house, feeling like a small boy running into the protective arms of his nursemaid.
The next morning, Jasper woke him with a cup of chocolate, and went around the room opening the curtains at the floor-to-ceiling windows, letting the June sunshine flood the room. It was not possible to be pessimistic about the day as he sat leaning against the headboard of the big four-poster bed sipping chocolate and watching his manservant carry out his morning routine.
“Jasper, I have got myself into a fix and I need your advice. Can you give me some time?”
“As always, sir, my time is yours.”
“Good, thank-you. Then I would like you to go back down to the kitchens and return with two more cups of chocolate.”
One eyebrow twitched, the only indication from Jasper that this was an unusual request. “Certainly, sir.”
Richard waited patiently. He did not move from his comfortable bed, and he took his time drinking the luxurious chocolate drink, newly fashionable among those wealthy enough to afford the expensive import. Richard's demand for three cups would be thought an extravagance even for a member of one of the wealthiest families in the land. However he had another matter on his mind which was causing him considerable unease. He was not sufficiently relaxed to be enjoying either his bed or his chocolate as he waited for his faithful adviser and servant to return, and wondered how he was going to explain it all to Jasper.
When the elderly manservant pushed open the bedroom door and entered carrying a tray with two cups and a plate of sweetmeats, Richard pointed him to the little ornate card table that stood under one of the windows. Jasper put the tray down on the table, and then drew the table up to the edge of the bed within Richard's reach.
“Jasper, pull up a chair and sit down. One of the cups is for you. I need your help.”
Clearly intrigued, Jasper did as he was bidden. He took a sip of chocolate, bitter and sweet, a rare treat, though he had tasted it before – domestic servants generally found ways to sample the rich fare intended for their masters.
Richard loved Jasper like a father. He knew if there was one person in the world to whom he could bare his soul and admit to things he was hardly prepared to admit to himself, it was Jasper. He had always told him everything. He'd told him when he carved his name into the leg of one of the Hepplewhite chairs in the hallway outside the nursery. He'd told him when he'd discovered masturbation. Jasper always listened without judgement, always fought for him even against his father. No-one else could get away with that but Jasper could and did, on occasion. So he found he could talk to him this time.
“Jasper, have you noticed the new stable boy?”
“Hardly, sir. I know Carter is no longer the junior and is making the most of his promotion!”
“Yes. The new man is John Harris. He's younger than Carter, about my age. He's wonderful with horses, he can calm them when Carter can't.”
“Yes, sir?” Jasper knew to say just enough to encourage Richard to keep going, not enough to interrupt his flow.
“This man Harris has made a big impression on me, Jasper. I find him....” Richard struggled for the word.
Jasper took pity on him and played a game they both remembered from Richard's childhood. He offered words to end the sentence: “...rude? ...shy? ...arrogant? ...funny? ...missing?”
“...beautiful.” supplied Richard and dropped his head a little like a naughty boy, looking out through his eyelashes for Jasper's reaction.
As ever, the old man accepted what he'd been told without judgement, although he must have known that Richard was breaking a powerful taboo with that statement, one which would not be tolerated by his father should he ever hear of it.
“Are you going to do anything about it?”
“I want to. I need to. But I don't know how to, and I think I've blundered and maybe made it impossible.”
He told his old friend about riding with Harris, and about the bathing, and about Harris's refusal to ride with him again, and the reason he gave. By the time he had finished, he was crying quietly. Jasper was also the only person in front of whom he could cry without embarrassment.
“So Harris is refusing to ride with you because he feels you've been treating him with less dignity than he's entitled to?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Well, Master Richard,” Jasper used the address that he used to use when Richard was a child, and Richard saw the significance of it. “I have some tough advice for you. He's right.”
“But, what does he have to complain about? I had to bathe in front of other boys at Eton and at Cambridge and no-one thought anything of it. It isn't as if he's got anything I haven't seen plenty of times before!”
“No, Richard, you're wrong. Firstly he's not used to being naked in front of others. And actually he does have something you haven't seen before, as far as I can see: beauty – a beauty that has held you captive! -And he knows it. He saw you looking at him. He knows his beauty has an effect on you. I don't know how he feels about that, but it should be his choice whether to display his body to you, not yours! Don't you see that?”
Richard looked stricken, beginning to understand his error. He didn't speak.
“Harris is a paid servant. He is not a slave. Your father pays him for his labour and his skills with horses. He has agreed that those services are at your disposal, in exchange for his salary. His beautiful body is not part of that contract. If it was, he would have to consider himself a prostitute. Would you want that?”
Richard shook his head numbly.
“Richard, I want you to be happy. More than anything. You know that. You're the nearest thing to a son I will ever have, and you're the best son I could wish for and I love you more than anyone in the world. But I think you have a difficult lesson to learn. Have you fallen in love with this man?”
Richard's voice was cracked and weak as he spoke through his tears. “I don't know. I think so. What am I going to do, Jasper?”
“You've got to find a way to apologise to him, haven't you?
“Yes. Yes I do. But I don't know how to. How do I speak to him?”
“You've offended him by taking advantage of the master and servant relationship. You must avoid doing that again. Don't visit him in his room – he's obviously uncomfortable with that. Perhaps it would be best to wait until you see him in the stable yard, and then approach him and ask him to saddle Bucephalus for you. Then while he's doing that you can talk to him. You'll need to try and choose a time when there's no-one else around.”
“Thank you, dear Jasper, I'll do it. Wish me luck!”
“With all my heart, sir.”
So Richard watched the comings and goings in the stable yard from the window in his dressing room from which he'd first caught sight of John Harris. Early in the day he saw Carter sent away on horseback on some errand, and John remaining in and around the stables cleaning, tidying, being busy with small tasks. But James the head groom was around too and Richard judged that Harris would not want to talk to him with James lurking. So it was a pleasant surprise when he saw his own father, the Earl himself, ride into the yard, leave his horse with Harris, and accompany James into his little office where Richard expected they would be closeted together for a half hour at least. This was his moment.
He sped down the stairs and out into the stable yard just in time to see John reappear after stabling his fathers big roan.
“John, would you fetch me Bucephalus, and saddle him up, please?” he called in as normal a voice as he could manage, his stomach knotting with nerves.
“Yes, sir.” John turned to obey with an expressionless face.
Richard waited, standing on one foot and then the other, restraining himself from jumping up and down with nervous excitement. And quickly Harris was back, leading his magnificent animal. While John began the process of preparing the horse to be ridden, lugging the heavy saddle from the tack room, fixing and adjusting the strap under his belly that would keep the saddle – and rider – in place on the journey, and harnessing him with bridle and bit, Richard approached and spoke to him.
“John, I have to say how sorry I am about last night. What you said was right and you made me realise I've treated you very badly. I'm truly sorry – can we start again? I want to be your friend.”
“Lord Richard, sir, I've a sickly mother to support and so I need this job and can't just leave if things don't suit me. All the same, I'll risk my job to tell you that you're dead right – you've been treating me very badly and I don't take kindly to it. A man's got a right to some dignity and you treat your horse better than me. That's not right, and no amount of apologising from you is going to make it right. So I'm sorry, sir, but I'll just stick where I belong and I'll thank you to stick where you belong too.”
“I deserve all that you've said and you're right to be angry but I've learned that I need to change my attitude and I will. I am. And I would never cause you to lose your job for speaking your mind about something outside the bounds of work. You can trust me about that.”
“I guess so, sir, and I know you mean well. But friends? You and me? It wouldn't work, sir. No good can come of it, mark my words.”
“All right, John, but please take some time to re-consider. I really would like to be your friend.”
Bucephalus was fully kitted out now, and the stable boy held the horse steady while the aristocrat mounted, and then passed the reins up to his employer's only son who looked him pleadingly in the eye for a moment, and rode off. He had no particular journey to make so just rode the big horse at a gallop up the ride and back a few times. By the time he returned the horse to the stables, both James and Carter were very much in evidence and Richard made no attempt to make further contact with John. He just handed his horse to Carter and strode off, back to the big house.
By the time he had climbed the stairs to his own suite of rooms and found Jasper, he was in despair. He had tried a reconciliation just as Jasper had recommended and been rebuffed. What more could he do? Well, he could consult with Jasper again, for a start.
And Jasper told him: “Don't get despondent so quickly; this was just your first attempt. Now you need to make opportunities for him to be in your company whenever possible. At some point it will be possible for you to speak to him again.”
So Richard exercised Bucephalus twice as much as usual, taking him out for short rides, having John Harris bring him out wherever possible and returning him to John Harris to be rubbed down. But he found no opportunity to speak to him and Harris clearly showed no willingness to make such an opportunity.
By the end of a week Richard was despondent. And then his sister Rachel came to his rescue.
She rode in one morning on one of her husband's hacks and sailed in to find her brother. He was in the Orangery, reading letters just arrived, and enjoying the warmth as the sun poured in.
“Richard, we're going to the theatre tonight!”
“That's nice for you, what are you going to see?”
“The Beggar's Opera – but I'm not going with Andrew, I'm going with you!”
“Me? What makes you think I would want to go? And why doesn't Andrew go?”
“He was going but he's been called away. And I've got two tickets and I really don't want to miss this – I've been looking forward to it for months – and Andy won't let me go alone.”
“I should think not. Anything could happen. You wouldn't go on your own, would you?”
“No, I suppose not. I'm no chicken but there are limits. So that's why you're coming. Andrew says I can go if you will chaperone me. Please say you'll come!”
Richard for the first time considered going to the theatre with his sister. Mr John Gay's revolutionary ballad opera was the talk of London and he was curious to see it himself. And he thought of the necessary coach journey of twenty miles and the need to take a coach driver and without further thought he knew he would go.
“Alright my feline sister, you get your way as always. Where are we going and when do we need to be there?”
“It's the Lincolns Inn Fields theatre and it starts at seven in the evening.”
“Alright, kitten, I'll clear it with father, and bring a coach round to you and pick you up at about four.”
“Oh, Thank you Dicky, you're very good to me and I love you to bits! We'll have a grand time and I'll make Andrew regret he went off to do his tedious business! I can hardly wait. Now, what is your news?”
And Richard began to tell his sister a string of little unimportant snippets about life in the big house and his father's latest projects around the estate. As always Rachel listened with interest and interrupted with opinions and suggestions. Not for the first time Richard thought that she would make a superb estates manager. She knew the running of the property and the situation of the tenants better than anybody and she could get the best from the staff without causing resentment. She was wasted as the decorative wife of a minor aristocrat, hosting polite tea-parties in their town house and making ever-so-slightly racy conversation with the guests when he hosted hunting parties on their estate.
Richard carried most of the load of estates management now that his father had begun to trust him with it more, and since his father had always refused to employ a manager. And Richard knew to consult his sister when he faced a problem, just as he knew to consult Jasper about more personal problems. He knew himself to be blessed with good, wise and kind counsellors and friends, and gave himself a reminder not for the first time that he should be sure to show them his appreciation.
And he had another opportunity to spend time with Harris. He would instruct James that he would need a carriage and that he would use Harris to drive it. James would want to drive the carriage himself, or to assign Carter to do it, but Richard would insist and James would back down. He might complain to the Earl but Richard would already have cleared the use of the carriage with his father and he felt sure the Earl would not listen to James' bellyaching. Life began to look better. Bless Rachel!
In the event he didn't need to clear it with his father – the old man was home at the time and Rachel mentioned it to him when she went to see him in his library. He readily consented to the use of the carriage as Richard knew he would – his sister could always get what she wanted from the Earl. While she spent a happy hour prattling to her father, Richard bounded out to the stables to find James and told him the plan. As expected James baulked at allowing Harris to drive, but Richard was able to quote his father's authority, not mentioning his father knew nothing about the identity of the driver, and James backed down immediately. A little subterfuge goes a long way, thought Richard.
He chased Rachel away at noon, knowing that she would need several hours to prepare herself for the theatre trip. He himself sprawled on his bed and slept for an hour. Jasper woke him in good time and he dressed in a deep bottle-green silk, more showy than his preference, but he thought it would go well in the darkened theatre.
In the stable yard one of his father's elegant coaches stood, ready harnessed to a pair of big bay horses and with Harris up on the box looking impressive in the Earl's livery, scarlet coat over white pantaloons and stockings and black polished boots.
Richard climbed up onto the box and Harris took the reins and snapped them against the horses' backs and the carriage moved off. Richard watched John controlling the horses with a practised wrist action and the occasional call. He steered the coach perfectly between the big wrought iron gates at the foot of the drive and out onto the public road. Richard had seldom seen such skilful driving. John's concentration was focussed and Richard could see him noticing everything about the way the horses moved, using small tugs on the reins to correct any small deviation from the path he wanted them to follow. Every so often John looked across the box to Richard with a quizzical expression, just for a moment, before turning back to his task.
“You're a fine driver, John. Did your father teach you this as well?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Do you enjoy driving a coach?”
“There's not much to beat it, sir, I reckon. It's all about controlling a lot of power. See these horses? They could rip a man apart if he was tethered to them. But it's the man who gets to wield that power. It's a wonderful feeling.”
“It's good to see you so obviously enjoying yourself. I'm better at riding than at driving, myself.”
John looked across at Richard again. Uncertainty passed over his face, just for a moment, and then a decision was made. He reined the horses in and the carriage came to a stop. Richard looked a question at John.
“Take the reins from me, sir. I want to see you do it.”
“You say you're not good at driving. I'll teach you.”
Richard took over the reins and snapped his wrists, causing a ripple to run along the reins which clipped the backs of the horses as it passed – and the horses moved off.
John watched and commented as Richard did his best to keep the horses moving in the right direction and at the right speed. He struggled to get them working together and John shifted across the box, coming to a halt with his thigh against Richard's, and covered Richard's hands with his own, showing him how to tweak the reins just a tiny amount to give the horses the needed guidance. Richard was momentarily distracted as he felt a tingle through the backs of his hands at the touch of the other man.
John patiently guided Richard, showing him how to get the best out of the horses and how to steer accurately. He commended him where he saw fit and criticised him when he got it wrong. There was none of the subservience Richard might have expected and Richard revelled in the knowledge that John was now treating him as an equal. He was happy, happier than he could remember ever being before, sitting on the box next to John and doing this together.
They rounded the final corner before turning into the drive up through Andrew's small estate to the house. John had shifted closer to Richard in order to guide his hands, and now shifted away again. Richard looked across at him.
“Thank you, John.”
“My pleasure, sir.”
Richard drove up the drive to his sister's home with a silly grin plastered all over his face that he couldn't and wouldn't erase.
Rachel was as good as her word and bowled out of the house as the carriage drew up at the foot of the steps, looking like finest porcelain in a big flouncy pale blue dress. Richard climbed down from the box and embraced his sister, and then helped her up into the interior and climbed in with her. John, once again in charge of the reins, set the coach in motion, and the rest of the journey was uneventful. John's driving was almost miraculous, the coach travelling smoothly and without drama, but covering ground with amazing speed. Rachel thought they were going too slowly but he got them to the West End of London in record time.
When they pulled up outside the theatre, Richard climbed out first and had a word with Harris.
“This will probably last three hours. Get yourself something to eat. And I don't want you to get cold, so by all means shelter in the inn across the road, there, if you like. If we come out and I don't see you with the coach, that's where I'll look for you.”
He put a handful of coins into the other man's hand.
John's eyes widened. It was unheard of for a master to be so considerate of a servant. Other grooms would be waiting shivering all evening by their coaches, and if their masters found them to have deserted their posts they would be severely punished.
“Yes, sir, thank you sir.”
“You're welcome. And, John, thank you for your help earlier. I really appreciate it.”
It was John's turn to sport an idiot grin he couldn't erase.
Richard helped his sister out of the carriage and they stepped gingerly, avoiding the piles of horse droppings scattered all around the theatre as best they could. Inside there was the usual pandemonium. Richard gave Andrew's name and they were shown to their box, and they were pleased to note they had a good view of the stage. Richard pondered about the next few hours. Would he enjoy the comic opera he'd heard so much about? Would he enjoy being in company with his sister without the encumbrance of her rather boring husband? He couldn't get the thought out of his mind that he really wanted to invite John in to share the experience with him. It was John he wanted to share it with. He smiled as he tried to imagine how Rachel would react if he brought his groom into the theatre.
The play was everything he expected and more – a biting satire on the politics, morals, society of the day, executed with wit and charm and humour and great music. By the end of the evening Richard and Rachel left the theatre singing the songs and whistling the tunes, chatting nineteen to the dozen about the way certain leading politicians were lampooned and ridiculed. Scurrilous and hilarious.
John did not have to be searched for, he was on the box waiting for them. Richard stood close and asked quietly:
“Did you eat?”
“Yes, sir, an excellent meat pie they serve in the inn. Thank you sir.”
“Good. I hope you haven't been out here in the cold ever since.”
“No, sir, I have enjoyed the evening by the fire in the snug with a tankard of beer.”
John passed his master the change from his meal and drink.
“Good, that's what I hoped.”
Richard gave his attention to his sister. It wouldn't do to have her think his relationship with his groom was out of the ordinary. He handed her up into the carriage and followed her in. John urged the horses on and the carriage moved off.
Rachel chatted about the performance, speaking a little louder than her normal quiet tone to overcome the rumble of the wheels. She needed little encouragement from her brother though he was happy to provide it at intervals as necessary. It had been a MOST enjoyable night. Richard's mind wandered as his sister prattled on. Despite the brilliance of the play, his best memory of the evening would be the touch of John's hands over his own.
He looked out of the window. London was behind them, lights in windows in the far distance now. All around was deep darkness, an occasional farm showing a light as they passed it. Quite suddenly the carriage slowed and stopped. John was using the brake so something must be up. Richard partly opened the door and stuck his head out. Ahead of them was a shadowy form which eventually he made out. A man on horseback, pointing a pistol directly at him. His heart sank. It was not a surprise when a voice called out: “Stand and Deliver!”
Rachel yelped and Richard turned to shush her. “Don't do anything stupid!” he whispered. “Sit tight and we'll see if we can get through this!”
He looked out through the partially open door of the carriage and faced the highwayman advancing slowly on his horse. The gun was trained on him and he held his breath in fear. The highwayman called out:
“Don't move a muscle or I shoot!”
- and Richard had no trouble obeying.
The brigand guided his horse past the pair of horses harnessed to the carriage, the animal stepping carefully to avoid stumbling on the rutted roadway. His eyes bore into Richard's and his aim never faltered as he closed on him. As he drew level with the box, John launched himself through the air and tackled the highwayman, knocking him sideways off his horse and the two of them landed on the ground, John on top of the outlaw.
Richard leapt out of the carriage towards the tangle of bodies on the ground. At that moment, the pistol went off and a howl rent the air. Richard faltered but kept going. John was rolling away from the highwayman, his face distorted in pain, clutching his thigh. The other man, still lying on the ground, had discarded the spent pistol and was struggling with the folds of his cloak, searching perhaps for a second weapon. Richard dived on top of him and, feeling the solid shape of a gun beneath him, lunged for it and took it before its owner could. The highwayman felt the gun pulled from his waistband and froze. Richard stood up, panting, cocked the pistol and pointed it at the criminal on the ground in front of him. It took him some moments to catch his breath.
What should he do now? John continued to writhe in agony. Just six feet to the left, the highwayman lay, his eyes glued to the gun in Richard's hand. If Richard allowed his attention to drift to John's plight, the criminal would certainly make a run for it. He made his decision.
“Get up, get on your horse and go!” he growled, and gestured with the gun in support of his statement. The unsuccessful robber stared at him for a moment, weighing up what he'd heard. Then he scrabbled to his feet, vaulted onto his horse which was grazing nearby unconcerned, and rode off at a gallop.
Immediately, Richard was crouched beside John asking about his injury.
“How bad is it? Show me!” he ground out.
John moved his hands away from a spot midway down his left thigh. Hands covered in blood. In the bright moonlight it was clear to see that the white pantaloons were scarlet and brown with blood and there was a pool forming on the ground below him. Richard took the material of the clothing and ripped it up to John's groin, then tucked it away and to the side so that he could see the wound. A round hole in the top of the leg seeped blood, black and gelatinous. Another in the side allowed a little river of blood to run around the leg and drip to the ground. Richard realised he must act quickly. He looked to John's face. He saw fear mixed with the pain.
“You're going to be all right. Just trust me. You have to be all right. I need you to be all right. Stay with me, please!”
“I'm going to get something to bind your wound. Don't move.”
Richard ran to the carriage where Rachel was still sitting shrunk in the corner away from the door.
“Give me your petticoats. I need something to bind John's wound!”
She acted quickly, reaching under her skirts to untie the fastening, tugging the material down her legs and stepping out of it.
“Thank you!” He grabbed the bundle from the floor of the carriage and began tearing strips from it as he ran back to the wounded man. He fashioned a pad from a folded strip, and placed it over one hole in the leg. Then made another pad and placed it over the other. He got John to hold the two in place and then began winding a bandage around the leg, holding both pads tightly against the wounds. He knew the wounds would need cleaning but could do nothing about that there, and he only hoped the presence of the second hole meant that the ball had gone right through the leg and out the other side. Otherwise it would need to be removed and he didn't know if he had the stomach for that.
“Now, John, do you think you can walk?”
In the dark Richard couldn't see John's face well but he felt his forehead which was cold and clammy. Not a good sign, he thought. John replied:
“I – I don't know, sir. Will you support me?”
“Yes. Come – I'll help you up.” He leaned over and took John under the arms, before pulling him upright as he stood up. John fainted away and Richard crooked one arm under his bottom and lifted him bodily, and carried him to the carriage. He couldn't lift him directly into the carriage because the doorway was too narrow so he slid him in and along the floor, shoulders first, then folded his legs with the wound uppermost.
“Rachel, make him as comfortable as you can. I'm going to drive.”
She knew better than to complain. The tone of his voice she knew from their childhood – it would brook no argument. But she did wonder. She knew Richard as a kindly man, good at acting charitably so she wasn't surprised that he would look after the wounded man this way. But the agitation on his face showed her that he was struggling with powerful emotion. She looked down at the man on the floor at her feet with interest.
The coach moved off and Rachel could feel the change of driver. The pace may have been faster but the style was much rougher and she was thrown about in the carriage such that she had to hold tight to the dowager straps to avoid tumbling from the seat on top of Harris.
In no time at all they arrived through the archway at the side of the big house and into the stable yard. Richard was calling out “James! James!” even before the carriage came to rest, and despite the late hour, both James and Carter appeared, in night shirts and carrying candles. Richard explained the situation and between them they carried the young man up to his own room. Carter fetched a bowl of hot water and some cloths while James undid Richard's dressings.
“You did a good job here, my Lord. You've maybe saved his life – he'd have lost a lot more blood without this bandage in place.”
James continued to work on the wound. Once the dressing was removed, he washed the wound with plenty of the water. Then he poured a little brandy into the wound, which made John convulse. Once he was satisfied that the wound was adequately cleaned he bound up the leg in much the same way as Richard had done, but with fresh strips of material. The pieces of Rachel's petticoat were discarded – and Richard remembered that she was still out in the carriage.
“James, as soon as you can spare him, could I have Carter to drive my sister and me to her home and back? I think she should get home as soon as possible. I'll go with her but I'd prefer not to drive.”
“Certainly, sir, he can go with you now. I can manage here on my own.”
Richard moved up close to John on his bed, looking pale and drawn, but conscious and alert. He smiled at the prone man and squeezed his shoulder.
“May I come back to see you tomorrow?” he asked.
John just smiled and nodded. Satisfied, Richard left, with Carter following behind.
Rachel discovered that Carter was not such a skilled coachman as Harris. She also discovered something about her brother that she'd never realised before. She noticed soon after Richard climbed back into the coach with her that he was distracted – he was quiet, and unresponsive when she tried to start conversation. But once the first light of dawn began to creep over the horizon and she could see his face, she was staggered. He was staring blankly at the wall of the coach with a foolish grin all over his face.
She knew better than to question him about it, but thought she might visit him in a day or two and talk to him. She could use concern for the wounded groom as an excuse. She watched her brother and suddenly it hit her: she knew that look. Richard had fallen in love! But when? He hadn't had that look on the way to the theatre, nor when they set off homewards after the play. So during the journey or after it. Who could Richard possibly have fallen for, dramatically if his expression was anything to go by, in that period?
Rachel bent her considerable intellect to solving the problem. She realised she was the only woman Richard had had contact with, so he was in love with a man – which took a leap of lateral thinking to contemplate, but she found it to be within her ability. She discounted the highwayman – that was ridiculous. Which left James, Carter and Harris. There was no reason why Richard should feel differently about James or Carter than a week or a year earlier. So that left... Harris the stable boy.
Richard knew that he hadn't been much responsive to his sister's attempts to draw him out on the short journey back to her husband's estate. But nevertheless he was surprised that she gave up the attempts – that was not like her. She could usually talk the hind leg off a donkey and needed no encouragement to sustain a conversation with a brick wall – like himself, he realised, at the moment. But now she was staring vacantly into space much as he had been doing. Very curious.
The coach pulled up at the foot of the steps in front of Rachel's home and they both alighted. Rachel turned to her brother and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him into a hug which he realised was more than a cursory good-bye from his sister. This had a ferocious emotional intensity about it. His eyebrows raised, but he returned the hug. She stood on tiptoes to bring her mouth close to his ear and said:
“Be careful, my Richard. Just be careful!”
- and she pulled away from his embrace and raced up the steps and was gone. He climbed back into the coach, pondering her enigmatic words, and allowed Carter to drive him home.
Back in his own suite of rooms, Richard collapsed onto his bed and fell asleep, fully clothed, and stayed there until after noon. Jasper of course heard the gossip from the kitchens – one of the stable staff had fought off a highwayman to protect the young master and mistress, and was wounded. So he chose not to wake Richard, leaving him to sleep.
© Bruin Fisher February 2007