What care I for your goosefeather bed
with the sheets turned down so bravely
When I may sleep on cold,
hard ground along with Black Jack Davy?
Title: Black Jack Davy part 3
It was apparent from the way that the stable boys ran across the yard that Mr Ford was known here. Kit slithered down to the cobbled yard and stood, watching the boys take Bally and the cob. Mr Ford's orders were crisp and the tone of a man used to being obeyed.
"Have two fresh horses rested and ready to leave in an hour. These two are to be rested, then the cob returned to the White Rose at Galwick."
"And Bally to Mayfield, Mr Alford?" the groom said matter of factly. Mr Ford nodded.
"When she's fit to be walked. And if you've the skill to make her any easier Tom, you'll be well paid for it."
"Few hot mashes and she'll be as sweet going as a Derby winner." The groom nodded at the cob. "If you'll excuse me asking sir..?"
"Hired." Ford said briefly. "Two good horses, one hour."
Baffled, Kit followed his mentor into the inn.
"What is your name?" he asked cautiously when they were seated by the hearth and breakfast in large amounts was being delivered at high speed to their table.
Mr Ford gave him a brief look over the rim of a tankard.
"Ford is the name I use when travelling. Particularly within this location. The full name tends to arouse too much interest. Jack Alford."
"Alford?" Kit said innocently. Jack was about to relax, realising the brat neither knew nor cared, then his eyes widened.
"Alford like Lord Alford?"
"I'm his brother."
Kit blinked at him. "What's a flash cove like you doing at the White Rose!"
Jack winced on the slang and put his tankard down. "Do not use that expression again in my hearing. I prefer the local inns, especially when I'm travelling and do not want to be bothered with maintaining the standards expected of an Alford in this area."
Kit sat back and swallowed on that for a moment or two. Jack leaned over and tapped the plate in front of him. "Eat. It's a long way to London."
"I'm not hungry." Kit said dismissively. Jack's eyebrows rose. Whoever had had the raising of this brat had clearly not paid much attention to the manners befitting a well bred schoolboy.
"Thank you for that most interesting observation. Now eat your breakfast."
Kit opened his mouth and saw his host's eyes suddenly sharpen to the look he had seen that night by the horse trough. There was no water around here but Kit found he had no doubt that it would impede Jack for long. He bent his head and his mouth closed again. Jack put several slices of cold beef and cheese on his plate, added a large piece of bread and sat back to finish his own ale.
Kit rose from the table, far fuller than he was used to feeling. Jack spoke briefly to the inkeeper's wife and gained a sheet of paper and a rather spluttery pen with ink, which he offered to his ward.
"You can write?"
"Of course!" Kit said indignantly.
"Then tell your mother you're with me and under my protection, you will be staying in London from where you will contact her again, and I will bring you back to her when it is safe to do so."
"Where are we going?" Kit said curiously. Jack glanced at him, taking several bills from his pocket.
"To my parents' house."
Kit paled a little. "But-"
"Write the letter." Jack handed the bills to the innkeeper's wife. "I'll have a letter to go to the White Rose at Galwick along with the cob in the yard."
"Your father's the Earl ain't he?" Kit asked, looking up from his letter.
"Won't he mind you bringing a-" Kit caught Jack's eye and realised his language would be less than popular. "Me - to the house?"
Jack's rather hard face cracked to a sudden smile. "They would welcome with open arms anyone or anything who brought me near to London."
Kit looked at him curiously, but went on writing his letter. Jack moved discreetly to see the writing and raised his eyebrows. Mrs Kennet may not have done much for the child's manners, but she had clearly seen well to his education. Which was surprising in a woman supposedly a village wife.
It was a fresh morning and Jack held his horse down to a walk with some effort, resisting the urge to canter out over the rough moors that edged the London road. At a steady pace they would reach the town by mid evening. Kit rode with him, with a seat that drew Jack's attention. The brat had light hands on the rein and he sat well, without effort or concentration. He had a natural grace that went with his fine face and slight body, a grace that Mrs Kennet lacked and no farmer would have taught his son. He chattered too, incessantly. Jack bore it as best he could over the first miles, wishing the child at the devil for there were few men in the country whose conversation he found of interest for long. But at the first gruff snub he gave to the boy to stop the prattling, the child's eyes turned up to his with such shock and hurt that Jack found himself hurrying to smooth down the ruffled feathers and to prompt him to continue, making appropriate hmm and hah noises whenever the brat paused to draw breath. And somewhere, near to noon, he realised the brat had succeeded in drawing him in to such an extent that he, Jack Alford, was listening with close attention to a story relating to some totally unknown villager and his five hens. Young Mr Kennet had a fine eye for detail and a charm to his manner that many young women currently husband hunting in London, would have given a great deal to learn. Caroline ought to meet this child, Jack reflected. She would be captivated by him.
When the boy eventually did hush, Jack's immediate response was relief. But within ten minutes the quiet made him glance sharply at the small face and silently curse himself. He was well used to boys from the regiment who could ride hard ground from dawn to dusk and have energy to spare for a battle at the end of it- this child had a slight and delicate frame and the stamina to match. He leaned over to catch the boy's rein and drew him to a halt.
"Get down a minute, it's high time we rested. Hungry?"
The boy gave him a brief shake of the red head and dropped to the ground, white faced and with his wide eyes already beginning to look drawn. Jack searched his saddle bag and found the flask of wine, dropping to the ground beside him.
Kit took it, assuming it was the water, and choked as he gulped on the strong wine. Mr Alford's hand did not let him push the flask away and when Kit tried to retreat, he found the other hand on his shoulder, holding him firmly still.
"More, you silly child. You'll be fainting on the road, why didn't you say you were tired?"
"I'm not." Kit said defiantly.
"No, not much. Just enough for your knees to shake and for you to look whiter than a ghost. Another swallow, brat. Come along, don't keep me waiting!"
That growl, while cheerful enough, had its effect. Kit gulped and choked on the wine, giving his mentor a boding look. Mr Alford paid it no heed, returning the flask to his saddle bag.
"We're not far from Watford, we'll rack up there for the night."
"You said we could do it in a day!" Kit accused, beginning to look indignant. Mr Alford swung back up onto his horse and waited, tugging it's head back to still it as it fidgeted.
"Now I say two. Up you get, we're barely fifteen minutes ride away."
"You're slowing down because of me!" Kit said hotly. "I can ride as long as you can, we'll carry on to London!"
"We will be resting at Watford, just as I said." Mr Alford said aimiably. "And you will travel far more comfortably if you do not use that tone to me my child. Up you get, don't make me ask you again!"
"Or what?" Kit demanded, standing his ground, eyes flashing.
This child lacked for neither temper, pride or ill judgement. Jack had expected the mutiny to come eventually and was not unprepared for it, nor unused to dealing with the restless and over courageous. Although young Mr Kennet reminded him rather more of a puppy than of his subalterns.
"Or," he said calmly, dismounting, "I'll be forced to insist that you do as I ask."
The child squared up to him and froze, staring with absolute outrage as Jack took his arm and swatted him sharply and accurately across the seat of his breeches, leaving a smart behind that his mother had never once managed in eighteen years. The second swat made him move, hurriedly in the direction he was being led, and the third made him seat himself in his saddle before there was any risk of a fourth finding it's target. Blinking on tears and total indignation, Kit evaded Mr Alford's eye as he remounted.
"You will find," he commented, waving Kit ahead of him, "That it will be far pleasanter for you to do as you are told immediately. Repetition is a dead bore, I don't suffer it gladly."
He did not suffer sulking gladly either, but as the child's brooding was likely to occupy his mind better than weariness and saddle sores, he forebore to interrupt it.
Watford was busy at the afternoon hour. Seeing the boy's eyes widen at the sight of the traffic and the fashionable carriages and phaetons on the streets, Mr Alford hemmed him in, riding close with a hand ready to catch his rein if needed. A busy market cluttered the square in the centre of the town, noisy with animals and stalls, and the big posting inn stood just off the street from him, it's wide gates open. Jack led the boy past it, tugging him past the fascinating spectacle of grooms running, horses being changed to the impatient blast of a horn and the waiting of a large man in a many caped driving coat, sitting on the box of a carriage.
"Not there. The George. Far quieter and without traffic all the night."
"I want to SEE!" Kit said peering at the inn gates and trying to draw his horse back. "Did you see that carriage!"
"Yes, Randolph's. Still badly balanced and cow handedly driven, he's had more new wheels put to it over good roads than half the baggage trains taken over Talavera." Jack said without looking.
"You know him?" Kit said in wonderment. "Can't we stay there? Please! I want to see!"
Jack put a hand on his rein and drew him along out of the way of a high phaeton being put along at a high pace beside them. "I know it well, you'd be at the window all night watching the comings and going. The George."
The George was a much quieter place on the road out of town. A groom came to take their horses with a nod to Mr Alford, and Kit let himself be steered into the inn, listening to Mr Alford's quick orders to the landlord for two rooms, a private parlour, a meal to be sent up instantly and hot coffee. Then he found himself pushed through the chatter and people in the taproom to the quiet and far less interesting space of a parlour with a fire in the grate and several comfortable chairs as well as a dining table. Mr Alford put him down into one of the deeper armchairs and pulled off his gloves and jacket, putting his hands out towards the fire. A woman brought in a tray of coffee, dropping a quick curtsey to Mr Alford and left, leaving him to pour a large cupful and take it to his charge. He was about to hand it over, but what he saw in the little face made him seat himself instead on the arm of the chair and hold the cup for him, tousling the brat's soft hair.
"Come along, get this down and you'll soon be feeling far warmer. As soon as you've eaten you can seek your bed, you look more than ready for it."
The tactless remark had the effect of stirring the boy out of his half doze. Kit jerked upright and took the cup, favouring Mr Alford with a glare.
"I'm NOT tired thankyou and I don't need to rest!"
"Do you mean that you freely give way to that spoilt child tone when you are NOT tired?" Mr Alford inquired with interest.
Kit's glower redoubled. "At least I've never been this far from the village before! I won't go to bed until I've seen the town!"
"Won't?" Mr Alford repeated gently.
"NO, I WON'T." Kit affirmed, unplacated and unwarned by the softness of his new guardian's tone. "I'm NOT a child and you CAN'T tell me what to do!"
"My dear child, until this tantrum is quite finished, you may take it to the corner and enjoy it in peace. I have no wish to listen to it." Mr Alford said with what sounded like mild amusement. The hand that hoisted Kit out of the chair was as implaccable as it was powerful. Kit found himself planted in a chair beside one corner of the fire, it's high back turned to the rest of the room, and his coffee cup once more placed in his hand.
"Drink that please. And I have no wish to hear another word from you until dinner arrives and you are able to talk civilly." Mr Alford informed him, and returned to his own coffee.
Kit flung himself out of his chair instantly, incensed.
"SIT." Mr Alford commanded, without looking around.
That tone had intimidated men much harder than Mr Kennet. Kit dropped back into the chair and sat there, tears stinging his eyes, feeling thoroughly squashed and still more thoroughly disliked. His tempers had led him into some scenes he had found very frightening in the past; people had responded angrily, reproachfully, even aggressively, but never had he been met by this amused detachment, as if he were no more than a tiresome child. Face burning, he tucked his legs under him, gulped a few times with all the strength he could to do it quietly, and swallowed coffee.
Mr Alford, glancing across at what he could see of the drooping red-gold head, stifled a smile of amusement and not a little pity. They sat in silence for a while, until the landlord carried in a large tray and set the table with several steaming dishes and a large jug of ale, collecting the coffee jug as he finished.
"Will there be anything else sir?"
"No, I don't think so thankyou." Mr Alford handed him the coffee cups and pulled out two chairs at the table, waiting until the door was closed before he called to his charge.
"Come along and sit down Christopher. It actually looks hot which is rare enough in an inn."
Mr Kennet didn't respond for a moment. Wondering at first if the child was asleep, or more likely too deeply into the sullens to respond, Mr Alford waited, lifting his voice a little.
Mr Kennet rose in a hurry, flushing slightly. "I heard, I'm sorry."
"Come and take a seat." Mr Alford recommended, taking a plate and serving onto it a healthy portion of the pie, stew and cauliflowers. Mr Kennet sat where directed, but accepted the plate without visible enthusiasm. He didn't however protest that he wasn't hungry. Mr Alford, applying himself with all the commitment of an active and hungry man, was exasperated to find that the child picked abominably at his food even when presented with no less than five dishes to choose from.
"It's no wonder you turn faint by the middle of the day." He commented when Mr Kennet laid down his fork. "You cannot possibly ride anywhere tomorrow on a piece of bread and half a cutlet. Eat the rest of that please."
"I don't like it." Mr Kennet said softly, still looking at his plate. The child still looked flushed and Mr Alford found himself wondering if it was with embarrassment as much as weariness and the proximity of the fire. The boy was clearly very unused to being corrected in any way, shape or form. Softening his tone, he spooned more of the beef onto the child's plate.
"Try that, it's merely roasted meat, it's perfectly plain. If you'd served where I have, you'd be grateful for any real food you could get on the road! I remember eating the most bizarre of dishes in Spain when we got up into the mountains."
"What did you eat?" In spite of himself the boy looked up, interested. Mr Alford smiled at him.
"Panella. Bread. And stews which I believe held whatever we found or shot- birds, rabbits, all in one pot which never emptied. And don't look like that! Believe me after a day's march the most finicky of my troops was merely grateful to eat at all!"
"Were you really at Talavera?"
Mr Alford tapped the boy's plate. "Eat and I'll tell you."
The boy pulled a face but made the effort to swallow down another piece of beef. Mr Alford nodded again at his plate when he was finished.
"The rest of the beef and the cauliflower and that will do."
"I really don't like it." Kit confessed. Mr Alford shook his head, unsympathetic.
"That's unfortunate but you do need to eat something if you intend travelling any further tomorrow."
"I don't eat things I don't like." Kit said rather hesitantly. Mr Alford's eyebrow rose. Kit flushed again and looked back down at his plate.
"It makes me sick."
"The rest of the beef and the cauliflower please." Mr Alford said more firmly.
"I told you I would be sick." Mr Kennet said unhappily, trying to keep his teeth from chattering on the edge of the glass. Mr Alford pulled the nightshirt over his head and steadied his hand, merely saying firmly,
"Swallow that please, that most certainly will NOT make you sick."
The child gulped and choked, but the port didn't seem to cause him any worse ill effects. He still looked green more than white. Mr Alford laid him down and pulled the blankets over him, glad for the forethought of their landlady who had rushed to their rescue not only with a warmed bed but with surprising sympathy and understanding once she laid eyes on Kit. Having his hands very full with his extremely upset and horrendously sick young charge, Mr Alford by then had been very grateful for all the help he could muster. It was pure nerves and imagination of course: the wretched child had any amount of either. There was nothing whatever in the food to have upset him so badly, but Mr Alford had no trouble in realising the child was no more able to control his stomach than he was able to keep back the tears or his obvious distress and humiliation now. He ran a hand over the child's soft hair once more, still concerned by the lack of colour in his face.
"Awful." Kit confessed, trying not to shiver. "I'm sorry, I tried to tell you-"
"And I most certainly should have listened. Not a mistake I will make again." Mr Alford said wryly. "No, stay where you are and get warm brat. Don't fret yourself, if anyone is to blame at all it's me. Try to sleep."
"Where are you going?" Kit demanded anxiously. Jack paused in the doorway with reassuring exasperation.
"Exactly three feet from your door. My room is next to yours and if you need me you only need to knock on the wall or to call me. Will that do?"
Kit nodded a little. Mr Alford pulled the door softly shut behind him and listening, Kit could hear him moving around in the room next door. Turning over and trying to curl up around his still aching stomach, Kit shut his eyes and let himself fall asleep.
It was dark when he woke again, but the sounds from the street outside suggested that the hour wasn't as late as it might have been. He felt a good deal better- just considerably hungry and now extremely wide awake. Sliding to the floor, he padded across and pushed the drapes back from the window. Two curricles were in sight at the end of the long road into town, both moving at high speed, one with it's four horses a nose ahead of the other four. Kit opened the window and hung out, watching the two rigs race past the inn, clearly heading for the town and the large posting inn further down the road. A small crowd cheered from the gateway of their inn as they passed, and several of the men jogged down the road in the wake of the carriages, clearly intending to watch the change of horses at the next inn. Fascinated beyond measure, Kit grabbed for his own boots and breeches, hauling them on over his nightshirt and catching up his jacket as he ran down the dark stairs and into the tap room. It took him a moment or two to locate the main door and unbar it, but once it was open he left it ajar and there was sufficient moonlight for him to race over the rough and potholed lane towards Watford town square.
He narrowly missed turning an ankle several times on the uneven road, but years of running around his own village had made him used to rough ground, even in this bad light. He arrived at the town square in time to hear the clatter of hooves in the posting inn yard as fresh horses were brought out, and as he shouldered through the crowd to the front, he saw two men, muddied and bolting food from trays that servants from the inn were holding, while fresh horses were backed into their carriages and the tired and foam flecked teams were led away to stabling. The Tiger from the slightly smaller of the two rigs leaped to fasten the harness of the new team, his hands moving with the speed of the long practised, and he swung up on the box as his master threw a handful of coins on to the tray and another coin towards the two grooms, turned his leaders and shot the rig out through the wide gateway, the team already breaking into a canter as they reached the road. Kit dodged back through the crowd and chased him for a way, watching the four fresh horses get into their stride through the now deserted Watford high street. He was standing there, out of breath and watching the rig disappear into the distance when he heard the clatter of hooves behind him and a strong hand grasped the scruff of his neck, yanking him out of the way with more speed than ceremony. The second rig shot past, the driver urging his team into full gallop, just inches away from them. Kit stared, enthralled by the speed and the dexterity of the driving, coughing slightly on the dust the carriage threw up as it disappeared out on the Luton road. Then the hand on his collar reached him and he looked up into the unamused face of Mr Alford.
"I heard them go by," he explained as Mr Alford steered him back over the uneven road towards their own inn. "It must have been a race! Were they running from London? Would it be London to Buckingham?"
Mr Alford kept a hand on his elbow and steadied him as he nearly slipped into another pothole.
"I would imagine London to Northampton, since Robard's estate is there."
"You KNEW them?"
"I know them. They're every bit as foolhardy as you, racing around in darkness and keeping people from their beds."
The words slipped out before Mr Alford really had a chance to hear what he was saying: it reminded him somewhat pointedly that he himself had many a time enjoyed the peace and quiet of such a night with Bally and the open roads. However, as he reminded himself, he was not a child not yet twenty, wandering around a strange town when he was tired from one day's travel and barely fit for the next. He pushed the boy ahead of him into the yard of their own inn and through the door he'd shut as softly as possible behind him. He'd been woken by the race himself: after his years of service in Spain he woke to the slightest noise, and he'd heard the child's exit down the stairs a bare few moments later. The boy was clearly fascinated by the evidence of life and activities he could only have heard of in the dead-and-alive village he'd been raised in, it was natural enough he should be curious, but he gave way to his impulses without thought or awareness of danger, and with the same ease he gave way to his temper. He barred the door softly behind them and pushed the brat up the stairs, taking him into his own room and again shutting the door before he lit a candle and fixed the excited boy with a quelling glare.
"WHAT did I tell you about boys who put me to the trouble of chasing them?"
Kit looked back at him bright eyed and clearly paying him no attention whatever.
"How long will it take them to reach Northampton? How many times will they change again? Were those racing curricles?"
"Christopher, I have NO interest in the race whatsoever!"
Mr Alford saw the child's flinch at his tone, and the large eyes grow still larger. However, since he now had Mr Kennet's complete attention, he forbore to take the sternness from his tone, much as he dropped the volume.
"You may NOT at any time leave my company without telling me precisely where you mean to go, and without my permission! You may certainly NOT run around at night on bad roads in a town you know nothing of. You might well have broken an ankle tonight."
"I wanted to see the race," Kit pointed out, resisting the urge to twist his fingers as his own doubts grew in his mind. Unsure whether he was indignant or in awe, he tried the more winning tone that usually worked on his mother. "I would have come straight back! I didn't have time to wake you and ask- and I wouldn't have wanted to disturb you anyway!"
"While I am responsible for you," Mr Alford said very sternly, "You may not leave my company at any time without my express permission. Is that clear?"
"It wouldn't have taken long!" Kit protested. Mr Alford folded his arms and in his expression Kit read the same warnings he'd perceived before he received those few and extremely stringent swats on the road into Watford. His tone was very soft but no less meaningful.
"Christopher. I asked you a question."
Kit swallowed and answered promptly. "Yes sir."
"Very good. Take yourself back to bed Christopher. Immediately. And if I find you out of it again tonight, you will not care for the consequences."
Kit hurriedly got out of his clothes, somewhat prudently moving out Mr Alford's reach, and scrambled into bed. Mr Alford blew out the candle and headed for the door.
"How long will it take them to reach Northampton?"
The child was incorrigible. Mr Alford stopped in the doorway, torn between an urge to laugh and to wring the boy's slender neck.
"They are racing curricles. They will change again most likely at Woburn. And it will take them perhaps an hour and a half."
"Which was the better team?"
Mr Alford shook his head and shut the door. "GoodNIGHT Christopher."
The almighty noise of a herd of geese being driven past the inn on the road into town was the next disturbance to sleep. Mr Alford turned over and opened his watch. It was approaching seven am. Raising himself out of bed, he poured water from the washstand into the bowl and unpacked his shaving kit. Washing and shaving in cold water was no hardship to a soldier, with luck he and young Mr Kennet could be in London by mid day. Where it would be possible to get the wretched child decently dressed, with a haircut that meant his eyes were visible, and hopefully fed with something he was actually able to stomach. And then, Mr Alford had every intention of making some inquiries about his ward. He was wiping the last of the soap from his face when he heard the racket of a herd of sheep moving down the lane and leaned from the window to watch. It was clearly Watford's market day. The inn door shut as he watched and the Landlady crossed the yard towards her pen of chickens, calling something to someone behind her. The red headed, slight figure who waved back was all too familiar. Mr Alford, for the second time in less than twelve hours, watched his charge race across the yard and down the road with a growing sense of irritation. Throwing his towel aside, he pulled on his shirt and reached for his boots.
He had no real fears that the child had any idea of running away. When he glanced into the boy's room, several of his belongings remained there, and he had made no effort to leave discreetly or at an unseen hour. Most likely the brat had made the same realisation about market day and his appalling curiosity had overwhelmed any of the orders he had been given last night.
If any of them had ever registered on his attention to begin with.
"Will you be wanting breakfast sir?" the landlady said cheerfully at the foot of the stairs. Mr Alford paused in the doorway to smile as civilly as he felt able to.
"Thankyou, at nine."
"I think your young brother went up to see the market," the landlady went on comfortably. "It's the best time to see it, early in the morning. I'll be up myself in a while to get the bread and see-"
As politely as possible Mr Alford left her and made his own way across the yard. He supposed it was natural people would assume that Kit was his brother- the boy looked younger than he was and it was interesting that the landlady too had seen the breeding in his face and in his nature. If not in his manners.
It was not at all difficult to pick out the red head amongst the few tradesmen setting up in the town square. Animals were being penned and fed, and stalls laid out. Mr Kennet, hands dug deep in his pockets, was watching a candle maker with deep interest, oblivious to the curious stares of the stall holders who weren't used to being observed with such obvious fascination at this hour of the morning. It wouldn't be long before one of them grew sufficiently uncomfortable to challenge him- as Mr Alford reached the square he heard the voice of the candlemaker rise and realised with resignation that it had already happened.
"- whether you're from Bow street or anywhere else, I've got a right to be here same as anyone else!"
"I was only looking!" Kit's voice sounded indignant.
"That's as maybe, you go and look somewhere else and not at me, and take your questions with you!"
"I've got a right to STAND where I want if you can sell where you want!"
"Are you buying?" the stallholder demanded. "Then let's see your money. Otherwise-"
The flood of Anglo saxon made it very clear what he would like Kit to do. And Mr Alford winced, quickening his stride as Kit's voice replied with equal venom and with a spirited attempt to outcurse. The Candlemaker, not taking happily to some of his suggestions, leaned over the stall and Mr Alford saw Kit's eyes blaze. He wasn't quick enough to reach the boy in time, or to stop the two small hands which gripped the edge of the stall and overturned it on it's owner. He WAS in time to catch his charge by the shoulder and yank him clear before the other stallholders reached him, raising his voice and allowing his usually stifled accent full rein.
"Christopher what the devil is going on here?"
It made young Mr Kennet look at him with very little favour, but the mood of the stallholders promptly changed from ugly to complaining, and when the candlemaker had been raised to his feet, dusted off and Mr Alford had very generously reimbursed him for both loss and inconvenience, no one but Kit seemed inclined to take things any further. Mr Alford, who had stopped Kit's flow of invective with an extremely sharp,
took the arm of his charge and walked him away from the market square without anything further than nods from the stallholders as they passed. Kit shook him off once they reached the main street, eyes still furious.
"I didn't DO anything! HE started a quarrel with me-"
"There are village people, it's barely breakfast time and they are NOT used to being interrogated!" Mr Alford retrieved Kit's arm, steering him back towards the inn. "Which I would have been happy to have informed you of, HAD you troubled to share with me your intentions and destination this morning."
"I hardly asked him anything!" Kit said hotly.
Knowing his capability for questioning, Mr Alford frankly doubted that. Seeing he was not about to get an answer and too angry to follow his rescuer any further, Kit dug both heels into the road and pried his arm free.
"I DIDN'T do anything!"
"My dear child, I am not about to debate that or anything else with you in the middle of the road, in public, or before breakfast." Jack gave the brat a solid stare that quelled some of the fury in the boy's eyes. Kit folded his arms and sat down abruptly on a rock at the side of the road. Mr Alford, stifling a sudden urge to smile, simply turned on his heel and continued to walk towards the inn.
In his experience, hotheaded young things in mid tantrum and in search of attention, tended to quickly come around when that attention was withdrawn.
However his attention was still very much on the small figure perched on the rock, despite having his eyes fixed apparently on the horizon, and he was well aware by the time he reached the bend in the road that the boy had neither moved nor looked after him. Mr Alford hesitated. Then against all experience, turned and walked back to his acquired ward.
The red gold head was down over the tightly folded arms and the face was not visible. However Mr Alford realised from the tension in the slender shoulders- which as he now realised were shivering under their thin jacket- told him the boy was only controlling tears by exercising his pride to the very utmost. Reaching into the huddle of tightly folded arms, Mr Alford acquired one of the boy's hands and drew on it.
"Christopher get up please."
The hand pulled hard to escape his and the head did not lift, nor did its owner reply. Mr Alford acquired a firmer grip and this time the pull brought the boy to his feet willing or not.
"Christopher. Its entirely too cold to discuss anything out here and we are not going to."
"You think it's all my fault!" Kit said bitterly, trying to wrench his hand free. Mr Alford shook his head, walking briskly towards the inn and towing him along.
"Not talking, but walking please."
Infuriated beyond the point of mature reflection, Kit, with some difficulty, sat down in the road. He expected that to have an effect. It failed his expectations rather considerably. Mr Alford, pausing and hoisting him to his feet without effort merely swatted him hard enough to seriously discourage him from repeating the attempt, and walked him onwards. Kit, struggling to keep the pace and to deal with his own outraged feelings, found himself being steered through the inn doorway before he'd fully realised where they were, and took the seat Mr Alford put him down on by the fire. Mr Alford closed the door behind them and with a few dexterous pokes at the fire, raised the blaze enough to quickly stop Kit's shivering. It did nothing to ease his temper.
"Now." Mr Alford said, taking a seat beside the fire. "Perhaps you'd explain to me why you disregarded the instruction I gave you last night?"
"I was only TALKING to him!" Kit said furiously. "HE swore at me-"
"And I heard the response you made to him." Mr Alford said calmly. "I would NOT advise you to use language like that again anywhere in my hearing."
"You HEARD what he said then!"
"I heard him make several rather impolite but hardly practical suggestions to you." Mr Alford agreed. "I also observed your response. But I asked you Christopher, why it was that you chose to overlook the instruction I gave you last night?"
Kit glared at him. Mr Alford waited, raising an eyebrow.
"Do you not remember our conversation last night at all? No? Then I think you could profitably spend the time between now and breakfast endeavouring to bring it to mind."
The boy was too surprised to resist when he was drawn out of the chair and led across to the corner nearest to the fire. Only when he reached the embrasure did he realise what was intended and do his best to remove his hand from his mentor's, voice rising.
"NO! This isn't FAIR-"
"When I become interested in your definition of fair, I will be sure to ask you." Mr Alford reassured him, turning him to face the corner. And forestalling Kit's immediate re emergence with another, and very sound swat. "Stand there and stand quietly please."
Kit spun, mouth open, eyes furious. Mr Alford looked back at him. Calmly, but extremely determinedly. It took a moment, but eventually Kit returned his gaze to the corner, arms tightly folded once more.
Mr Alford counted precisely seven minutes before the arms relaxed, losing their defiance, and Kit began to fidget. The brat was expressive in body and movement as he was in face. Fury dissipated into uncertainty and then into pathos. When the pathos looked in danger of becoming outright distress, Mr Alford relented.
"Very well Christopher, come here."
Kit turned slowly. Mr Alford gestured to a chair, waiting until the boy sank into it, looking very less sure of himself and still less happy.
"Well? Do you remember at all what I told you last night?"
"Not to go anywhere without your permission." Kit said softly but promptly. Mr Alford nodded.
"Indeed. What explanation do you have for disobeying that?"
His tone was neither gruff nor unkind, but Kit felt himself flushing uncomfortably. Mr Alford waited, adding only,
"Christopher? If you insist on disobedience I do expect at least a reason why."
"I wanted to see the market." Kit admitted unwillingly.
"I see." Mr Alford said wryly. "And you're a child that you must instantly do as you want without thought? And give way to your temper when provoked without thought?"
Kit shook his head, flushing still darker.
Mr Alford surveyed him, wondering just how much of his temperament was inherited and how much was lack of training. The second he intended to rectify very quickly: no grown man could safely give free rein to his temper and impulse as this child did.
"I believe," he said mildly, "That we discussed before that actions have consequences, and while you are my responsibility, so are those consequences. I will not tolerate disobedience and I will not tolerate temper tantrums."
"The stall man insulted ME!" Kit protested. Mr Alford shook his head.
"He may do as he pleases. In you, I should call that behaviour destructive, ill bred and childish, and I expect much better of you. Do you understand that? I have no interest in who that man is or who he may become. I DO have that interest in you."
Kit looked at him, too curious for a moment to be resentful. Mr Alford leaned across the space between them, took his hand and drew him to his feet.
"For that reason I am going to spank you-"
"You are not!" Kit said in shock.
"I most certainly am." Mr Alford said calmly, unmoved. "Take your breeches down please."
Kit stared at him like a stranded fish, outraged, mildly frightened and yet also perfectly well believing his mentor was entirely capable of doing exactly as he threatened. Kit had been threatened on far more occasions than he remembered by a number of men in his experience- he'd been slapped by his mother on the occasions when he exhausted her patience when small- but no one had ever matter of factly stated their intent in this way. And not for some unlikely, exaggerated threat of removing their belt or taking down a horsewhip, but of simply intending to spank as with any misbehaving child. And the man spoke calmly, practically, making no threats and no gesture of anger. Simply stating a fact in the same way he commented on everything- and Kit had had uncomfortably clear proof in the last 48 hours that Mr Alford was neither a usual man, nor given to idle comments.
"I'm sorry," he said carefully, trying to think of some appropriate response without following Mr Alford's direct instruction. That was too alarming to even consider. "I won't do it again, I promise. Really I promise."
"Thankyou." Mr Alford said gravely. "I would be glad of that. But that doesn't negate the facts as they stand."
"But I AM sorry!" Kit protested, somewhat shaken. Mr Alford nodded.
"And I appreciate that fact."
And it clearly didn't make any difference whatever. Kit swallowed on an increasingly dry mouth with no idea what to do next. Mr Alford solved the problem for him by drawing him closer, voice reassuringly calm.
"Breeches please, come along Christopher."
Neither his tone nor manner could have been less sinister or more matter of fact. And that one thread of reassurance was in obeying him. Without really understanding why, Kit put his hands on his buttons and actually found himself unfastening them. There he stopped with no idea what to do next and reaching the edge of panic. Mr Alford took his arm and drew him forward, tipping him down over his lap and holding him there, stiff and extremely scared while he pushed down both the loosened breeches and undershorts, the tail of Kit's shirt held under the firmly restraining hand on his back. Kit stared at the floor, scarlet faced and near to tears of pure shock and mortification. Mr Alford didn't give him the time or the room for instinct to kick in and for him to begin to struggle. Without hesitation he swatted sharply and briskly, covering the bare and small bottom upturned over his lap from hips to thighs with handprints which rapidly glowed red on the pale white skin. Kit jumped hard at the first slap, rearing back against his restraining hand with shock at how much it hurt, but his weight and strength was no match for Mr Alford's and he didn't succeed in moving more than a few inches. A few of those vigorous swats later he began to struggle in earnest, at first to pull away from that restraining arm, and then to do anything he possibly could to escape the hard hand covering his vulnerable backside, but he was held firmly and the smarting of each individual slap quickly merged until his bottom was stinging so hotly and the smart accumulating at such a rate that his eyes involuntarily began to water. Despite all his attempts to hold his breath and to swallow down both emotion and extreme discomfort, Kit felt it rise in a wave and before very much longer, the wave crashed over him, inexorable and powerful. To his utter shame, he found himself crying helplessly and aloud, and pleading like a child for his mentor to stop. Mr Alford completed his third circuit over the small bottom, holding Kit easily over his lap, every inch of the pale skin now glowing red and his penitent now lying limply, tearful and seriously repentant.
"What is it" he said gently, "That you're most certainly NOT going to do again?"
"Lose my temper!" Kit said piteously and immediately, willing to try anything at this point to end this awful experience. Mr Alford's hand rubbed the small of his back, just once or twice but with surprising comfort.
"- go-" Kit thought wildly, trying to organise a very disarrayed mind. "Go without telling you?"
"That's exactly right." Mr Alford said calmly. "Anywhere without permission or without telling me first."
"Yes sir!" Kit said with all the emphasis he was capable of, and broke into fresh tears as Mr Alford began to swat again, just as hard, but it was only three or four more sharp smacks and then he reached to reorganise Kit's disordered clothing, voice just as steady.
"Then we're finished. We don't need to mention this again."
Capable of no more coherent thought than OW, Kit struggled a little, wanting nothing more than to be out of this dreadful position. Mr Alford held him where he was until he'd replaced his clothes, then lifted him down to his knees a lot more gently than Kit was prepared for. Tearstained and sobbing and thoroughly embarrassed, he tried not to sit on his heels and tried further without success to stop so obviously crying. Mr Alford's arm closed around his shoulders and without paying the slightest attention to his struggling, drew him against his knee, this time providing a resting place for his head and holding him firmly. With no other option available, Kit relaxed against him and cried hard for a moment, with humiliation as much as discomfort. The arm around his shoulders held him inarguably still and the other hand Kit felt on his hair, as gentle as a moment ago it had been hard. It was a while before he had himself anything like in hand enough to lift his head. And when he did, his mentor's face was uncritical and still perfectly matter of fact.
"We need to see about getting you a coat, it's too cold to be riding in that jacket."
Kit blinked at him, confused, miserable and almost frightened to try answering. Mr Alford's arm around him tightened, lifting him to his feet without any trace of roughness or dismissal.
"Wash your face brat. I'll order breakfast and we can be in London by this afternoon."
"You don't have to take me to London-" Kit said with a serious effort. "You don't have to take me anywhere-"
Mr Alford paused, saw the misery in the small face and did what he'd do with any unhappy young thing in his care, or so he told himself. Kit, startled by the strength and the gentleness of the hug, found his eyes flooding with tears once more, but unhappiness won over dignity. His hands closed on Mr Alford's coat and clung there. Jack rubbed his back slowly, feeling him shudder for a while and then gradually relax. Such a child. In his curiosity, in his moods, in his impulses, in his vulnerabilities.
"Wash your face." He said again in the firm and easy tone he'd use to a child and the boy responded, moving slowly but more confidently to the washstand in the corner. Mr Alford rang for the landlady, and began to apply himself to the second challenge of the day in finding something his ward would actually consent to eat. They had a good two hours' ride ahead of them yet before they reached London.
To be continued....