‘Any sign of civilisation, Benson?’
‘It seems not, Sir.’
Alfred scowled out at the miserable grey drizzle. Typical misfortune. First the car spluttered out its death throes in the middle of the wilderness. Then slogging through an ankle-deep mire to this crumbling barn with its leaky roof, already drenched to the bone. Darkness falling. The rain showed no signs of abating. And now his stomach was rumbling. Marvellous.
Beside him, Benson rummaged through their travel bags. He paused.
‘Pardon me, Sir, but…this article appears to have found its way into our luggage.’
He held up a fox-fur coat. Alfred scoffed. ‘Very funny, Benson. That’s brand new!’
Benson’s arched eyebrow was the only crack in his deadpan mask of politeness. ‘Hm. I assumed it’d gotten into your wardrobe by mistake, Sir…or else been maliciously placed there by your enemies.’
Alfred flushed. ‘I’ll have you know that I bought this in Cannes!’
Benson’s face was blank beneath his bowler. ‘…And wore it, Sir?’
‘Every night at the casino! As I passed by, all eyes turned.’
‘And I daresay, quite a few stomachs.’ Benson refolded a pair of trousers and tucked them away with meticulous care. ‘I can only hope the poor animal died a peaceful death, Sir.’ He paused again. ‘You’ll pardon me for mentioning it, Sir, but…’ he lifted out a straw boater with the delicately strained grimace of someone handling a bag of dog faeces. ‘I can only assume a tradesman left this behind.’
Alfred snatched it from Benson and jammed it on his head. ‘This is known among the fashionable elite as a 42nd Street Skimmer, Benson. I told the boys at Bates it was essential, and they delivered the goods.’
Benson’s eyebrows rose. ‘So no mention was made of a carnival, or…fancy dress occasion, Sir?’
Alfred rolled his eyes. ‘Benson, it’s perfectly good headwear!’
Benson sighed. ‘Gentlemen do not wear straw hats in the metropolis, Sir.’
‘Nonsense, Benson!’ Alfred trudged to the entrance, gazing out into the miserable haze. ‘Stiff upper lip, then? Carry on regardless?’
‘Come, Benson!’ Alfred strained his eyes, squinting into the gloomy distance. ‘I think…yes! I see a light!’
‘It’s merely the rain playing tricks, Sir.’
‘Pish-posh. I’d bet my hat that’s a cottage, well supplied with tea, ham sandwiches and a roaring fire.’
Benson turned his head, eyed the boater with a spark of barely-suppressed glee. ‘Bet your hat, Sir?’
‘Not really, Benson!’ Alfred jammed the hat down firmly, hoping to prevent the wind – or overeager valets – whisking it away. ‘It’s rather essential in the current conditions.’
Benson inclined his head; water poured off his bowler in a graceful waterfall. ‘That, I am willing to concede, Sir.’
‘A truce, then!’ Alfred grinned, scrambling over a drystone wall towards the hoped-for light. ‘Between you and my hat, at least until we can get out of this bally rain.’
Benson vaulted the wall with his usual grace as Alfred surveyed the boggy field he was sinking to the knees into. A twisted tree close by, with a rather menacing brown horse sheltering beneath it. Alfred shivered with apprehension – one thing to admire the equine species hurtling around a track when yours truly safely placed bets behind a sturdy fence, quite another for a face-to-face encounter in a dark muddy field.
‘We will walk past him, Sir,’ Benson soothed. ‘He will not bother us.’
‘I don’t know, Benson. He looks rather…morose.’
‘I am sure that he is simply wet and cold, much like ourselves, Sir.’
The horse barely looked up as they picked their way through the mud to the middle of the field. It was only as they drew level with the tree that the creature caught an unfamiliar whiff and trotted over sharply. Alfred screwed his eyes shut, bracing himself for the inevitable trampling.
‘He is not threatening us, Sir.’
A reassuring touch to his arm encouraged him to open his eyes, but then a blast of warm, horsy breath on his face, and the lids were firmly shut once more. ‘What does the dashed beast want, then?’
‘I think he may be a trifle hungry, Sir. Perhaps we could- oh dear.’
Alfred paled. ‘What?’ Benson’s voice had risen a few octaves – Benson scarcely ever pronounced the words ‘oh dear’ without good cause. At the same moment, Alfred became aware of the cold patter of rain on his all-too-bare head. ‘Benson?’
‘I am afraid that…he has eaten your hat, Sir.’
The blighter had, with no way of getting it back – once the boater vanished into the equine maw, even Benson seemed uneasy about trying to extract it. An alarming number of large chomping yellow teeth, the shredded remains of straw rapidly vanishing between them.
‘Come, Sir,’ Benson tugged on his arm, Alfred staring in dismay as the last scraps of the boater were devoured. ‘I believe you were right – there is a light after all.’
He squinted, and…Yes! There was a twinkling glow at the end of the field, shining like an warm welcoming beacon.
‘I did like that hat,’ Alfred sulked as Benson steered him towards the far gate. His hair was now soaked through. ‘And even if you didn’t, Benson, you have to admit it did a bally good job of keeping the rain off.’
As he approached the wall and prepared to throw a leg over it, he felt something settle on his head. The rain stopped.
‘You may borrow my bowler, Sir. We are nearly there.’
Benson’s bowler was far too big for him – his head not nearly the same measure as the brainy Bensonian cranium – but it kept the rain off as well as the boater. Of course, the top of Benson’s head was now as soaked as the rest of him, whilst Alfred’s own hair was still soggy underneath the bowler. But it was the thought that counted, and offered the young master a new reserve of comfort as they attacked the last hundred metres of mire together.
‘Thank you, Benson.’
He couldn’t make out Benson’s face out through the rain, but Alfred knew that he’d be allowing himself a small smile, most especially because he knew Alfred couldn’t see it. A valet has to keep up appearances after all.
‘Not at all, Sir.’
© 2020 | Tom Burton