The Apprentice and the Beekeeper


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FOUR

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The next morning, Steed went downstairs into a silent house. It was still fairly early, so he assumed his mother was probably still sleeping. Hughes didn’t seem to be anywhere about, either. Steed went into the kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee. He gazed out the window towards the stables as he drank it, wondering whether his parents had kept any of the horses and dogs that had been such a part of family life while he was growing up. He finished the coffee, and decided to go and see for himself.

Steed jammed his hands into his trousers pockets as he strode the path to the stables. He was glad of his thick jumper, but wished he had also put on his jacket: the autumn morning was crisply cold, and a light frost dusted the grass. As he approached the stables, he heard a woman’s voice. Although he couldn’t hear the words, he could tell that she was speaking in low, kindly tones. He went into the stables to find his mother, dressed in an old, well-worn hacking jacket  and corduroy trousers, a pair of Wellington boots on her feet, as she curried a chestnut mare. A grey gelding watched from his box nearby, while an elderly Scottish deerhound lounged in front of the door of an empty box on the other side of the aisle.

“Good morning, Mother,” said Steed, who knelt to scratch the ears of the deerhound that had lurched to its feet and padded over to him.

Mrs Steed stopped brushing the horse and stooped to give her son a quick kiss. “Good morning, John,” she replied, “Did you sleep well?”

“I did indeed, thank you. You’re up early,” said Steed, who finished petting the dog and stood up to greet the mare. “Do you do this every morning?”

“I do, although your father pitches in when he can. But I’m afraid you’ll find the stables and kennels rather deserted these days,” she said with a regretful gesture at the empty stalls. “We sold most of the animals when the stablehands were called up for duty, and anyway we felt we couldn’t justify the extravagance of a full establishment while a war was on. But we couldn’t part with old Fergus, there,” she said, indicating the hound, “and we decided we could handle two horses by ourselves without much trouble.”

Mrs Steed returned to brushing the mare, who whuffled softly into Steed’s hand as he stroked her velvet-soft nose. “We kept Tenso and his lady Joc Partit, here. They’re both staid and reliable, so it’s not a chore taking care of them. We hire some of the young lads from the village for the mucking-out and other heavy work. Gives them something to do after school, and makes them feel like they’re contributing in wartime. And some of the families need that extra income, with the men away. Right, that’s both of you done,” she said, patting the mare’s shoulder. “Time for rugs, and out you go.”

Steed helped his mother put rugs on the horses and lead them out into the paddock, old Fergus at their heels. Once the horses had trotted out onto the frosty grass, the deerhound slipped through the open gate and into a large doghouse that had been built near the fence a few yards away, where he lay looking regally out onto the paddock with his front paws draped over the sill.

“Fergus prefers to be with the horses,” Steed’s mother explained. “The three of them are inseparable, really; your father had the doghouse built so Fergus could stay out here with them during the day, and he has a box of his own to sleep in in the stables.”

Steed returned to the house with his mother to find Hughes in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. “I’ve taken the liberty of lighting a fire in the breakfast room, madam,” said the butler, “and everything will be ready very shortly.”

Once Steed’s mother had changed into clean clothes and the both of them had washed their hands, they settled into breakfast, which was hot tea and toast with butter and honey. Hughes had apologized for the relative simplicity of the meal, which had been forced by rationing, but both Steed and his mother told him not to worry about it, and proceeded to enjoy their meal.

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“Aha!” cried Emma. “The famous Holmesian honey at last!”

“Yes,” said Steed. “Although even then I didn’t know that it came from his bees. There was no label on the jar, and I didn’t think to ask where it came from at the time.”

Mrs Peel made an exasperated noise.

“All, right,” said Steed with a chuckle. “I’ll get to the good bit. But perhaps I could tell it on the way back to the hotel?”

“Oh, no,” said Emma, “the drive is too short for you to finish this tale, and I insist on hearing it in full before the night is over. It’s a beautiful evening; why don’t we take a stroll before heading back?”

Steed agreed, and after settling their bill, the two of them walked arm in arm down the lane that led away from the pub and towards the beach, exchanging cheerful greetings with the couples and groups of young people who were heading to the pub for their own dinners and drinks. Once they had a bit more privacy, Steed resumed his tale.

“So that was the Saturday, when I helped Mother with the horses. The rest of that day passed uneventfully. It was in the wee hours next morning that all the excitement began….”

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A large dog’s gruff barking cut into Steed’s sleep. Steed sat up in bed, listening. The barking was coming from the stables. Steed went to the window and pulled aside the blackout curtain. The waxing moon was still young and it was several hours before dawn, so there wasn’t much light to see by, but nothing seemed to be stirring in the stableyard, and yet the barking continued. Steed dressed hastily and headed down the stairs, only to find his mother there already, also dressed and apparently on the same mission.

“What’s going on?” said Steed.

“I don’t know, but it’s unlike Fergus to bark at all, never mind to do it in the middle of the night.”

The two of them hastened through the dark down the path to the stables, where they saw the large doors wide open. With the wartime blackout in effect, they didn’t dare risk a light, but crept quietly into the stable, Steed’s mother on one side and Steed on the other, moving by touch with fingers brushing the box doors. Steed arrived at Fergus’ box to find the huge dog standing on his hind legs with his paws on the top of the box door, still frantically barking.

“What is it, old man?” said Steed, fondling the dog’s ears and trying to get the animal to calm down. “What’s the matter?”

From across the aisle, his mother answered the question.

“Joc Partit is missing.”
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« return to chapter 3

A quick note on the horses’ names: both are taken from genres of medieval troubadour poetry that take the form of debates.

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