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The Oxus In Winter (Part One)

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“Get over.” Adam Cleverton shoved the big hunter with his shoulder, and the horse obligingly swung around in the stable—giving Adam a clear view of the half door, where a boy could now be seen leaning on it, his chin on his folded arms.

He smiled. “Hello, Maurice.”

The dark-haired boy grinned back. “Hello, Mr Cleverton.”

“Down for the holidays, Maurice?”

“Yes, Sir; I noticed Grey Owl and Goosefeather down in the paddock,” Maurice continued, “but there doesn’t seem to be anybody at the house.”

“There wouldn’t be.” Adam reached for his saddle and swung it onto the horse’s back. “I’ve been abandoned by my own children.” He noticed Maurice’s look of confusion. “Peter and Jennifer have gone to spend Christmas with their grandparents, my late wife’s parents. They’re here from America, and wanted to spend some time with the children,” he explained.

“Oh.” Maurice’s face fell. “Peter never said...and I only had a letter from him last week.”

Adam threaded the leather girth through the buckles and hauled, jabbing a sharp elbow in the horse’s side before he had time to puff out. “It was rather sudden.” He dropped the saddle flap over the buckles and patted the horse’s neck, then he looked back at Maurice.

“Aren’t those other children around that you used to play with, then?”

“The Hunterlys? No, they’re out in Kenya.” Maurice’s dejected expression gave Adam a clear indication of the boy’s state of mind.

“Oh, yes, of course, John did mention….” Adam trailed off. “Look,” he said, taking pity on the miserable boy, “it’ll probably be a frightful bore for you, but you’re welcome to come out with me, if you’d like to?”

Maurice’s face brightened in an instant. “Can I? Oh, yes please…and I’m sure it won’t be at all boring,” he added politely.

Adam quelled an urge to laugh at Maurice’s ingenuous remark. “Well, I shall endeavour to be as entertaining as possible.”

Maurice opened the stable door for Adam to lead out his horse, and then followed him out into the yard. Dragonfly was waiting patiently, tied to a rail, and Ellita was nosing about with Sam, Adam’s spaniel.

“Just stick the dogs in the kitchen, would you, Maurice? They can keep each other company.”

Maurice ran to obey, and soon the two dogs were curled up in front of the Aga.

As Maurice pulled the kitchen door shut behind him, Adam called to him, “Best lock it, Maurice. Don’t want anyone making off with the family silver! Just stick the key under that stone there.”

Maurice did as he was told, then hurried to mount his pony. “But where is everyone?” he asked, once he had reached where Adam was waiting for him at the yard gate.

“In a moment of madness, which I am already regretting, I gave all the staff two weeks holiday. I thought they might like to visit their families for Christmas, and as I was here on my own…it took me fifteen minutes to find the tea,” he added ruefully. “Quite pathetic of me, really. There’s only Andrew knocking about the place: he comes at some ungodly hour of the morning to muck out, as there is nothing for him to do in the garden.”

The two horses clattered down the drive, and out onto the road. Half a mile further on, Adam swung off the tarmac and through a gateway. He turned to grin at Maurice. “Ready for a bit of speed?”

Maurice beamed back, and a second later the two horses leapt away, turf and mud flying.

 

Maurice became a constant companion on Adam’s rides, to the extent that Adam began to wait for the boy at the end of the track that led to Maurice’s home. More often than not, though, Maurice was already in the yard at Siestan when Adam emerged from his breakfast.

He was surprised at how much he enjoyed the boy’s company. He had rather expected him to be the usual tongue-tied, awkward teen, but Maurice, after a very short time, had relaxed, and he chatted away to Adam as if they had been friends for a long time. Although reticent about his home life—which Adam could quite understand, being fully aware of the boy’s circumstances—Maurice was articulate and intelligent. He had a wicked sense of humour, and had amused Adam on several occasions with his observations of life.

On the Tuesday when they rode out, Adam asked if Maurice was intending to go out with the local hunt later that week. The new owners of Larkbarrow Hall had invited the Master to meet there, and it was thought that Thursday was going to be a fine day.

“Are you going to go?” Maurice asked.

“I thought I might. There is little point in having my horses eating their heads off if they don’t earn their keep! Do you want to ride up with me?”

Maurice nodded, his eyes gleaming. “If you’re sure that’s all right?”

“Why on earth wouldn’t it be?” Adam laughed.

 

Thursday did indeed dawn bright and fair. The temperature had been dropping all week and the ground was frozen hard, the ice sparkling in the cold winter sunshine. When Adam emerged from his breakfast, Maurice was waiting for him; he was smartly attired in creamy-white jodhpurs and black boots, a white shirt beneath a black jacket, with a snowy white stock tied at his throat.

Adam tacked up Ghost, his big grey hunter, and then pulled on his red jacket from where he had hung it on a hook behind the stable door.

The ride down to Larkbarrow Hall took Maurice and Adam half an hour’s easy riding. By the time they arrived, the gravelled driveway before the house was teeming with horses and riders. Hounds wound between legs, their noses already testing the morning air.

On arrival they were halloed by two men who, dismounted, were lounging against a stone balustrade that ran along the front of the building. One was tall and lithe, his black hair wild and rakish; the other was equally tall but of broader build, his hair a deep chestnut.

Waiters in long white aprons were circulating with silver trays bearing glasses of champagne, and the two men seemed to have appropriated a full tray and were making inroads upon the wine.

“Adam! Adam, old chap...over here!”

Adam dismounted, and began leading his horse towards the pair; he glanced back when he noticed Maurice’s hesitation.

“Come on, Maurice, you know Jack Howarth.”

Maurice dismounted too, and began to follow Adam, who had now come up to his two friends.

The brown-haired man’s eyes went past Adam to where Maurice was attempting to wade through a crowd of hounds. “Not one of yours, surely?” the man asked.

Maurice made it to the group of men just as Adam laughed. “No, not one of mine. Clive, may I introduce Maurice St Claire? One of the best little riders you’ll see. Maurice, this is Clive Mayberry, an old friend of mine.”

Maurice shyly took hold of the hand that was offered to him. “Pleased to meet you, Sir.”

Clive beamed at him, brown eyes twinkling. “Pleased to meet you too, Maurice. Here, lad, get this down you!” He passed a flute of champagne to Maurice, who cast a quick questioning look at Adam, before taking it and holding it awkwardly.

“You already know Mr Howarth, Maurice.”

Maurice nodded. The black-haired Jack Howarth was the local vet and equine expert; he held out a hand to Maurice in a friendly fashion. “Still got that fine pony of yours, I see, Maurice.” Maurice shook the proffered hand and grinned, before taking a daring swig of his champagne. “So, Adam,” Jack turned to his friend, “where are your two imps?”

Adam took a sip from his glass. “Up in York with Melissa’s parents. They’re over from America and wanted to spend some time with the children, so I’ve been deserted for Christmas.”

“Surely Maurice here is keeping you company?” Clive’s eyes turned speculatively in Maurice’s direction.

Adam smiled, and turned to look at Maurice. “Indeed he is: my constant companion.”

Further conversation was halted by the blowing of horns, and those riders who had dismounted began to swing themselves up on their horses. Jack Howarth rode a rangy black horse that rivalled even Dragonfly for having not a speck of white on him; Mayberry’s horse was a solid-looking liver chestnut.

Maurice rode by Adam’s side, until the hounds scented a fox and were away, their belling cry echoing back off the roundabout hills, then he fell behind, Adam surging away on his bigger mount, flanked by his two friends.

 

The field paused for lunch at an inn high on the moor. Jack had somehow secured a table, and the three men were swigging pints of beer and finishing off the last of some very creditable steak pies. Jack noticed his friend’s eye straying around the crowded room.

“Lost your little friend?” he enquired, raising an eyebrow in Clive’s direction.

“Hmm?” Adam turned to Jack. “What’s that? Oh, you mean Maurice? I’m sure he’s fine...well able to look after himself, that one.”

“He wouldn’t be Isobel St Claire’s brat, would he?” Clive asked, settling back in his seat and lighting a cigar.

It was Jack who answered him. “Indeed he is, poor boy.”

He was about to go on when Adam suddenly exclaimed, with a note of relief in his voice, “There he is!”

Now, indeed, a very glum-looking Maurice could be seen weaving through the throng of people, obviously searching for someone.

“All right, Maurice?”

Maurice’s face brightened on catching sight of Adam, but then the frown came back. “It’s Dragonfly...I think he’s pulled something, he’s favouring his near-fore.”

Jack was suddenly all business. He rose from his seat, and placed a hand on Maurice’s shoulder. “Lead the way, Maurice, my boy. Let’s take a look at this nag of yours.”

The other two men followed them outside, and a little way into a nearby field, to where Maurice had tethered Dragonfly. The pony had his head hung and looked listless. Jack ran a practiced hand over the pony’s shoulder and down his leg. “Hmm, there’s a bit of heat in his shoulder...could just be a strain. Best walk him back home and let him rest it a couple of days. If he’s not better by the middle of next week, give me a call and I’ll come over.”

“Thank you, Sir. I’d already decided to walk him home, but I’ll let you know if he’s no better.” Maurice began to untie his pony.

“I’ll walk back with you,” Adam offered.

There was a flash in Maurice’s eyes, which was immediately quelled. He shook his head. “It’s all right, Mr Cleverton. I know the way. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m sure you do, and I’m sure you will. However, it’s a long walk on your own, and I brought you, so I’m taking you home...no arguments,” he added, seeing that Maurice was about to protest again.

A look of relief showed briefly on Maurice’s face and he smiled up at Adam. “Well then, thank you.”

“Come on, let me get Ghost, and then we’d better get off.”

****

 

Clive and Jack watched the two figures as they walked off down the road, Maurice swapping to lead his pony from the right hand side so he could walk next to Adam.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Lucky dog?” Jack hazarded.

“Mmm, I wouldn’t mind a bite of that particular cherry myself.”

“Thing is,” Jack said slowly, “I don’t think Adam has the faintest idea.”

“What?” Clive turned an incredulous eye on his friend. “How can he not? The boy is practically drooling on him.”

Jack shrugged. “I think he just sees someone who is a friend of his children.”

“Ah, instead of a rather delectable young man who is begging Adam with every look to take him to bed?”

“Precisely.” Jack’s eyes were still fixed on the receding figures of Adam and Maurice. He grinned. “I think I’ll give Adam a week to figure it out, then I might just go and see how that pony is doing. A fruit that ripe needs plucking.”

Clive laughed. “Are you sure ‘plucking’ is the word you’re looking for, old chap?”

****

 

Late that evening, Adam, already dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown, had just settled into his favourite chair by the fire in his study when there was a sudden pounding on the back door. He threw his book onto the small side table, and rushed to see what was amiss.

Maurice stood outside, holding a very dejected looking Dragonfly. The pony was shivering, and appeared to be wearing an old, grey sleeping bag. Maurice himself looked in little better shape, his face a stricken mask of worry.

Adam summed up the situation in an instant. “Get him into a stable, give him a rubdown, and then fling one of Ghost’s blankets on him; I’ll call Jack.”

By the time he had called the vet, dragged on a long Macintosh over his pyjamas and made his way out to the stable, Maurice had installed Dragonfly in the end stable, and the pony was standing miserably under one of Ghost’s rugs. Maurice made a hasty swipe at his cheeks, but it was clear that he had been crying. He turned a beseeching look at Adam.

“I tried to keep him warm, but he wouldn’t stop shivering...I didn’t know what else to do...I’m sorry.” The boy’s voice choked off, and he buried his face in the blanket covering Dragonfly’s neck, his shoulders shaking.

“Come on now, Maurice, old chap. Everything will be fine, you’ll see. It’s probably just a bit of a chill, and Jack will be here shortly, you know how good he is.” Adam tried to be bracing, tentatively placing an arm around Maurice’s shoulders. He didn’t expect the boy to suddenly turn and press himself to Adam’s chest, his face pushing against Adam’s shoulder. Awkwardly, Adam wrapped his arms around the boy and held him close, shocked to feel how cold Maurice was. Although the nights had been getting increasingly bitter, and tonight had been the coldest yet, surely the boy shouldn’t have got this cold on the mile walk from his home to Adam’s? It was then that a sudden thought made Adam’s stomach lurch, but before he had time to question Maurice, there was the scrunch of a car pulling up on the gravel outside.

He released Maurice quickly, and hurried out to greet his friend, giving time for Maurice to compose himself, knowing that the boy would probably be mortified for anyone else to know he had been crying. By the time the two men entered the stable, Maurice had scrubbed the traces of tears from his cheeks and regained a degree of composure.

Jack gave Dragonfly a thorough going over, then prescribed warmth, rest and hot bran mashes for a week and gave Adam a bottle of tonic for the horse to take. He ruffled Maurice’s hair on the way out of the stable.

“Panic not, little one, Dragonfly will be just fine. It’s just that touch of Arab in him that makes him a bit more susceptible to catching colds and chills than his pure Exmoor cousins. I’ll be back in a few days to check up on him, but if you need me, don’t hesitate to call me.”

Adam followed Jack out into the freezing night. “Thanks for coming out so quickly, Jack. Will you send the bill to me?”

Jack gave his friend a strange look as he put his bag into the car. “What I can’t understand is how that pony got so cold. Surely the horse has been stabled?”

“I have my suspicions,” Adam said slowly. “But nothing definite yet.”

Seeing that his friend was not going to be more forthcoming, Jack glanced at Adam’s attire. “Ready for bed, I see?” He reached for Adam, and pulled the blond man against him. “I could always stay,” he added quietly, his lips already homing in on Adam’s. For a long moment they kissed, then Adam pulled away.

“As tempting as that offer is, Jack, I need to sort Maurice out, and if my suspicions are correct, he will probably be staying the night.”

Jack smiled ruefully, ducked to kiss his friend one last time, then got into his car.

Adam watched Jack drive off down the road, then, a shiver running through him, he went back into the stable.

Maurice was standing forlornly by Dragonfly’s head, making a fuss of the black pony and whispering to his pet. “Right,” Adam said with authority. “That’s Dragonfly sorted. Now for you. Let’s have you inside and into a hot bath...then I think you have some explaining to do.”

Maurice raised his head. “But I thought I would just stay here with Dragonfly.”

“Then you thought wrong. Inside, now!”

Maurice looked as if he might be about to argue, then he took true notice of the uncompromising expression on Adam’s face and, giving his horse one last pat, trailed from the stable in Adam’s wake.

 

An hour later Maurice was ensconced by the Aga in the kitchen, wearing a pair of Adam’s pyjamas—with the legs and sleeves rolled up—and a dressing gown; his feet were buried beneath Ellita’s heavy warmth, and his fingers were curled around a large mug of hot cocoa. Opposite to him sat Adam, a stern look on his face.

The older man broke the silence. “Now, supposing you tell me just what you are up to, Maurice?”

Maurice stared into his cocoa, a flush reddening his cheeks. “W...what do you mean?”

“Don’t play games with me, Maurice,” Adam ordered firmly. “I want the truth...tell me you haven’t being living in that den of yours in the woods, when it’s been as cold as it has?”

Maurice sniffled, and nodded his head, refusing to meet Adam’s eyes.

“What the hell! It’s been well below freezing on at least two nights this week, and far colder tonight. Why on earth haven’t you been at home?”

“There’s no one there.” Maurice spoke so quietly that Adam had difficulty hearing him.

“What? There’s no one there? How can there be no one there? It’s Christmas Day on Tuesday!”

A silent tear slid down Maurice’s cheek, and he took a hasty swig of his drink. “I was supposed to be with Mother for the holidays,” he began, before having to take a deep breath. “When I got home from school there was a note: she’s had to go to New York for some film premier, and so there was nobody there. I was supposed to go back to stay with Dad, but I knew he’d already left to go skiing with his new girlfriend...and besides, I wanted to ride, and I thought Jen and Peter would be here.” He paused to take another sip of his cocoa. “I knew that if someone realised I was at the house on my own, they would be bound to tell on me.”

Adam finished the story for him. “So to avoid detection you decamped to your den in the woods? Prepared to spend Christmas on your own?”

“You were.”

Adam frowned. “I was what?”

“Prepared to spend Christmas on your own.”

“I am not a sixteen year old boy!”

“I’m nearly seventeen.”

“Sixteen, seventeen...it doesn’t make a lot of difference, really, does it Maurice?” Adam demanded, his anger at Maurice’s parents for abandoning their son transferring itself to Maurice. Suddenly aware that he was being rather hard on the boy, Adam sighed. “I’m sorry, Maurice. Look, let’s go and get you tucked up in bed, we’ll talk about this again in the morning.” He gave Maurice a hard look. “And no thinking you can creep off in the night to your horse, either. You have to pass my bedroom door on the way out, and I’ll have you know I’m a very light sleeper!”

Maurice drained his cup of hot chocolate and rose; Ellita opened one sleepy eye as his master was ushered out of the room, but he made no move to follow, content to curl up with Sam and bask in the warmth from the Aga.

 

By half past ten the following morning, Adam was angrier than he thought he had ever been before. He and Maurice had sorted out the horses—the boy pleased to see that although Dragonfly was still feeling sorry for himself, he looked slightly less miserable.

They had breakfasted on bacon and eggs, and then Adam had wrapped Maurice in an old overcoat of his own, and pushed the boy out of the door with the two dogs, insisting he take them for a long walk: he didn’t want Maurice around for what he already thought might be a difficult time. It had snowed during the night and there was a deep blanket of it covering the ground. The two dogs had frolicked off, Maurice trailing, slightly reluctantly, behind them.

Ensconcing himself in his study, Adam set about trying to get hold of Maurice’s parents. Knowing that he would have little chance of success getting through to Isobel St Claire, surrounded as she was by film agents, secretaries and general hangers-on, he had tried to trace Robert St Claire, Maurice’s father. He and Robert had several friends in common, but it took eight phone calls before he finally managed to reach the man on a number in Switzerland.

Robert St Claire flatly refused to come home, or even to arrange for Maurice to join him at his ski resort. “He’s Isobel’s responsibility,” he had informed Adam bluntly. “It’s her turn to have him for the holidays—get her to deal with it.” Then the line had gone dead, and Adam had only just restrained himself from hurling the telephone through the window of his study. How a man could be so unfeeling about his own offspring was beyond Adam, and it wasn’t as if Maurice was an unpleasant child; on the contrary, he was intelligent, funny, had good manners.... Adam shook his head, and set about trying to get in touch with Maurice’s mother.

He was equally unsuccessful. He eventually got through to Ms St Claire’s personal secretary, who regretfully informed him that Ms St Claire was completely booked up that day, and was then flying to Aspen to spend Christmas and New Year with some friends. It was impossible for her to return to England, and equally impossible for her to have Maurice with her—there were important film deals going on. She was sure Adam could see that it was best for Maurice to stay where he was.

This time Adam did fling the phone off the desk. After a minute of fluid cursing, he picked up the abused telephone off the floor and replaced it in its customary place on his desk. Damn it all to hell and back! He swung his feet up onto the low windowsill by his desk, and lit a cigar. Through the cloud of perfumed blue smoke, he watched as Maurice and the two dogs approached the house over the snow-covered garden.

It didn’t much matter to him if Christmas Day was like every other day, but if Maurice was going to be his guest—because he was damned if he was going to shove the boy into some hotel, as Ms St Claire’s secretary had suggested—then he would have to put some thought into making it a special day. He smiled as Maurice began to throw snowballs for Ellita; the dog would race after them, tracking the white balls as they flew through the air, then as soon as they were within his reach, the dog would leap up and ‘clomp’ them out of the sky. Of course the snowballs smashed into flakes in the dog’s mouth, but from the gleeful way the dog’s tail was wagging, Ellita seemed to thoroughly enjoy the game.

Maurice, as if suddenly aware he was being watched, glanced up at the study window; Adam raised his hand, and Maurice began to make his way over to the house. Adam took his feet off the windowsill, and opened the casement. Maurice was grinning by the time he reached Adam.

“I took them for a long walk, just like you said.” He turned an affectionate eye on the two dogs who were now chasing each other around the garden. “Ellita loves the snow—he acts like a puppy again—so does Sam.” He turned back to Adam, looking up at the older man with shinning eyes. His cheeks were flushed with cold and exercise, and it suddenly occurred to Adam that Maurice had grown up into a very good-looking young man, with his summer tan faded to a honey colour and his eyes an intense slate blue, his dark hair thick and shining. He took another drag from his cigar, blowing the smoke out into the garden.

Maurice sniffed appreciatively. “Mmm, I love the smell of cigar smoke. Father smokes them occasionally.” At mention of his father, Maurice’s face fell and Adam became angry all over again.

“Speaking of your parents, Maurice....”

Maurice’s face became a picture of worry. “Oh please...you didn’t try to phone them, did you?” he asked anxiously.

“Maurice, I had to.”

Maurice’s eyes dropped to the snowy ground. “I suppose I have to go back to London now, do I?”

Adam regarded the miserable boy before him, and decided a few white lies were in order. “Actually no, I asked if it would be all right for you to stay here with me—bearing in mind that I am on my own, and that you are naturally concerned about Dragonfly’s wellbeing. And, of course, if you don’t mind and there is nowhere else you’d rather be?”

It was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. Maurice’s face cleared in an instant, and his eyes shone with happiness as he looked up at Adam. “Really? I can stay with you? Of course I don’t mind, I love being with you, and there is nowhere else I want to be either,” he added, and then blushed. “But are you sure you don’t mind having me?” Maurice went on, a note of worry in his voice.

Adam smiled. “Of course I don’t mind; I was feeling rather abandoned before you turned up, and now I shall have the pleasure of your company for Christmas. We shall have a splendid time, just you wait and see. We’ll make those brats of mine wish they’d never deserted me when they hear of the fun we had!”

“There are...can I...only there are....”

“Spit it out, Maurice, or, better still, come inside and spit it out, it’s freezing with this window open.”

“I’ll come in, just a minute.” Maurice hurried off round the side of the house, whistling the two dogs as he went. Adam shut the window, and went and threw another log on the fire he had lit earlier, then he seated himself in the big, wing-backed armchair. By the time Maurice came in, the fire was burning merrily, and the boy held his hands out to it before sitting down on the rug at Adam’s feet. The two dogs had followed Maurice into the study, and they too settled on the thick rug, sighing with contentment.

“Now, what were you about to say?” Adam asked.

“My things,” Maurice answered, looking up at the older man. “Can I go and get my things from Peran-Wisa, and bring them here?”

“Peran-Wisa? Oh, your hut, yes, of course you can. We’ll trot down after lunch. Then I think we must make a foray into the attics.”

Maurice frowned in puzzlement.

Adam smiled. “Decorations! We can’t have a proper Christmas without decorations.”

“Oh please, there is no need to go to any trouble on my account,” Maurice said anxiously.

“Are you trying to spoil my fun?” Adam teased.

“No, only you wouldn’t have bothered if I wasn’t here.”

“True, but I would have been very dull, and besides, you are here.”

Adam reached out a hand and ruffled Maurice’s hair, unconsciously sliding his fingers into the thick, silky locks.

“Now,” he went on. “I have a couple of phone calls to make—how about you go and put the kettle on and we’ll have an early lunch, then get on with our jobs?”

Maurice jumped to his feet and once he had left the room Adam picked up the telephone again and made a call to Harrods department store.