A SAJV divertimento (not yet a fanfic)

Chapter One

In which horses are discussed

The watery afternoon sun was disappearing fast under a cover of gray clouds, and the birds had hushed up, feeling that there was rain to come. Spring or no spring, better find a way out of the rain, they seemed to realize, and dived for shelter in the lovely English countryside. All in all, it was a peaceful moment, and one could almost picture the sweet tears of Mother Nature raining softly on the dark, rich soil, there to nurture and give life to plants and trees in the deep silence of-

"Don't give her her head, dammit, rein her in!"

In the almost total silence of the-

"I'm not giving her anything, and besides, she already has a head!"

In the relative peace of the afternoon, barely disturbed by-

"And draw your elbows in. In, Verne, in, this is not the Far West, if I may remind you, don't flap your arms about like that!"

Oh, dash it all.

"Just keep calm, Jules, hold on with your knees," said a sweet feminine voice, raising over the two angry male voices.

"Come on, Verne. Do not use the heels, toes up, kidneys in, and sit straight!" the first voice said, rather harshly, though a keen listener might have noticed the edge of amusement in it. Some birds were craning their necks to see what all the noise was about.

"Heels, knees, sit," mumbled a deep, young voice, "There are just too many damn things to think about here..."

"Now, now, language, Jules, language."

"You fine ladylike delicacy is being offended, Rebecca?", said the first voice, sardonically.

"Oh, shut up, Phileas," said the feminine voice, rather less sweetly now.

A merry clip clop of hooves could be heard from behind a curve in the country road. The owners of the voices seemed to be the riders, and a patch of sunlight was kind enough to fall on them as they turned the curve and approached the stately English manor that was waiting for them at the foot of a smooth slope.

The first one was, undoubtably, a gentleman. He was correctly dressed in riding costume, with a top hat worn at a dashing angle, immaculate white breeches and an extremely handsome tweed jacket that fell most naturally from straight, wide shoulders. He was riding a tall chestnut gelding with all the easy elegance of a centaur, an elegance somewhat diminished by the fact that he was half turning in the saddle to direct some remark to one of his companions.

On the other side of the road, a lady was riding, also with consummate skill, a handsome bay that tried to canter sideways and was checked firmly by her gloved hands. She was also in riding costume, wearing breeches and a maroon jacket. Her demeanor was at the same time graceful and proud, with a hint of mischief. She took her beautiful mount a step closer to the third member of the group.

He was a young man in his early twenties, dressed in an ill-fitting red jacket and oversized boots. He was currently trying very hard not to slide off to the ground, clinging desperately to the reins with one hand and to the saddle with the other. His mount, a small but very spirited grey mare, was trotting and jumping with the obvious intent of getting rid of the burden on her back.

"For God's sake, Verne, sit up!" the gentleman said, making a neat half turn and taking the mare's bridle in one gloved hand, while restraining deftly his own horse's attempts to bolt. The youth straightened more or less on the saddle and tried to recover his breath and what was left of his dignity.

"She started it," he murmured sulkily, grasping the reins as a lifeline.

"Yes, and you finished it," was the sarcastic answer. "I told you not to give her her head."

"I don't understand what you are saying half the time, Fogg, so, don't bother telling me these things," the young man said. The lady chuckled.

"Oh, Phileas, do be reasonable, he did very well most of the time, and you have to admit that Boadicea is not the most amiable of mounts."

"She is a mean-spirited, half-crazed, bone-jarring excuse of a mare," Fogg conceded, "but she is also the mildest of the horses we have now at the stables". As if to prove this point, his horse jumped and tried to bolt again, and only the swift pressure of knee and hand restrained him. Fogg gave the horse a couple of paces ahead and reined him in firmly again.

"See what I mean, Rebecca?" he said, plaintively. "You have to spend half the time teaching the damned beasts how to keep to the road and the other half fighting them."

"You have a point there, yes," the woman said, patting the neck of her horse and barely avoiding a bite. "The stables of Shillingworth are far from their old standards of excellency."

"You can hardly blame me for that," was the answer. "Father never bothered himself much with horses."

"Well, you don't seem to do much about it either, Phileas," she retorted dryly. "Dover here," she said, patting her horse again, "is not all that bad, but he doesn't have much stamina and is a coward to boot. He startled Boadicea in the first place, when he saw that cat."

"Verne startled Boadicea from the start, the way he rides," Fogg said, watching the mare chomp the bit and roll her eyes. "Tighten up, Verne, let her feel your seat."

"Easy for you to say," Verne muttered, as the mare suddenly put down her head to explore some interesting flowers by the road and almost wrenched the young man's arms from the shoulders. "I think she's hungry."

"She's tired and she knows that she can do whatever she wants with her rider," Fogg said, putting his own Palomides to a trot. "Come on, let us all go back to Shillingworth and have some dinner. It's going to rain soon."

"Things just keep getting better and better," Verne murmured under his breath, tugging at the reins and feeling every bone in his body being jarred by the mare's jumpy, uncomfortable trot.

The horses were still the matter of discussion that evening as they all gathered around a delicious dinner put together by Passepartout. After dinner they all went to the study. Verne sat on an armchair, looking grumpy, while Fogg waved about some pieces of paper.

"Pedigrees, genealogies," he was saying, miffed. "They're not worth a jot. I don't care if you can trace their ancestors to Canut's days, all the horses in this house would make a better job as plow horses than anything else."

"Is it really that bad?" his wife enquired mildly, peering at some of the papers. "God, this looks like the Royal House's genealogy."

"Father knew all about genealogy and not a bit about horses," Fogg said. "I've been waiting to do something about it for years, but what with one thing and another..."

"You've been postponing it because our horses keep uninvited guests away. Nobody has shown up for a decent hunting in years."

"With our neighbours, my dear, you must agree that it is more a blessing than anything else."

"Are you saying that we have the lousiest horses in this part of England so that you are not forced to invite dear Mrs. Finchberry-Smythe to a riding party?" his wife asked, opening her eyes wide in mock surprise. Fogg's eyes narrowed at her.

"Dear Mrs. Finchberry-Smythe would bore you to tears in a heartbeat, Rebecca. Or, as you so aptly put it once, she is the reason why this country should forbid tea parties. And let us not wander from the point. Which was horses."

Rebecca put a thoughtful finger to her cheek.

"Having the advantage of Mrs. Finchberry-Smythe's acquaintance, I protest that we have not wandered from the point at all."

Fogg laughed, and even Verne let out a small chuckle that hurt his sore ribs. This brought Rebecca's attention to him.

"You've been awfully quiet, Jules," she said. "Are you well?"

"Yes, Rebecca, thank you. The ride left me a bit tired, that's all."

"Yes, I must admit I'm a bit stiff myself," she said, arching her long neck. "I shall retire early today, Phileas. Remember, I have to be in London tomorrow and I want to make an early start."

"Ah, yes. Your meeting with Chatsworth," he said, not looking up from the sheets of paper. "What is it about?"

"A real mission, I hope", she said, looking like she was ready to chomp the bit like Boadicea herself. "My last three assignments were little more than errands, and boring ones at that."

Fogg looked at her briefly. It was one of the few sore points that hung unresolved in their relationship. However, he decided not to press the point at the moment. Verne was his friend, and Passepartout was practically family, but Fogg was not inclined to address marital issues in their presence.

"You can hardly expect the man to stage an international crisis for you to solve and escape the boredom of country life," he said mildly.

"No, but I would expect the man to go on treating me like an agent and not like something that has to be put in the mantelpiece and looked at from a distance. Everytime I walk into his office I feel like I'm about to be dusted a bit, for appearances, and put back on the shelf."

"I have no doubt that Chatsworth would come to his senses soon enough, if only to stop you from escaping and single-handedly defeating an army of anarchists to prove that marriage has not blunted your edge, my dear."

Rebecca shot him a quick glance and Fogg cursed silently. Perhaps a little bitterness had crept into his voice. He smiled at her and she relaxed.

"We'll see tomorrow," she said pleasantly, and rose up to give him a chaste kiss on one cheek. "Good night, Phileas. Don't worry much about the horses; they are, after all, a good training."

"If one wants to train one's patience and pain endurance."

"Hear hear," Verne muttered, still lost in his brown study. Rebecca smiled at him and the young writer felt his face relax and respond to the smile. It was impossible not to.

"Poor Jules," she said, "You came here to rest and here we are, inflicting our horses on you. I am sure you had a more comfortable time chasing Quantrill's men across America.

"I won't deny it," Verne said, "except for the part when we got shot at."

"Give us time to organize a proper English hunting party with all our myopic neighbours and you will change your mind about that too," she replied, chuckling, and disappeared upstairs, followed by Fogg's and Verne's glance. After a moment or two, Fogg exhaled and turned back to his pedigrees, while Verne pondered whether his decision to visit the Foggs at Shillingworth was more likely to cause him pain than pleasure.

End of Chapter One

Adela / Daurmith