Short Story: Defying Prim and Proper

Joseph Howard and Adeline Rose, identical twins and the youngest children of the Earl and Countess of Bronsbury, the Lord Conrad Henry Clifford and Lady Margaret Marie Clifford, were seldom seen apart. Everything they did, they did together. They shared a room, they shared lessons, and when all their responsibilities had been met, they spent their time playing together. Being only ten—too young to worry about propriety—they often were called “charming”.

Joseph and Adeline didn’t much care for being “charming”. In fact, both of them dramatically preferred playing on the Bronsbury Estate grounds and generally being “rambunctious”, “dirty”, and altogether, “very un-proper”. Occasionally, when the stars aligned perfectly, they could even get their older sisters Grace Ann and Ella Louise to join in. At twelve and thirteen, they could still be persuaded. But their eldest sister, Margaret, at a prim and proper sixteen years of age, felt it beneath her dignity, and so spent the time outside sniffing disdainfully at their antics from behind a French silk fan.

Today was one such day. The twins had managed to coax Grace Ann and Ella Louise to play hide-and-seek with them.

“No hiding in the grove!” Ella Louise said as they established borders. With such large grounds, it was necessary. “There are too many rivers and I don’t want to ruin my dress!”

Adeline shot a glance at Joseph who stared back at her with a much put upon expression. She supposed there was something to be said about Ella Louise’s comment. Mother always said that children had to keep themselves clean and neat at all times. But that was no fun! She herself had faced the strap for it more than once. But she and Joseph wore their most worn out clothing to play while Ella Louise and Grace Ann had gone for pale primrose pink dresses with white trimmings.

In a game with Joseph, pride rested in every decision!

Adeline rolled her eyes at Joseph but nodded.

“Very well,” he moaned with a sigh. “No grove.”

“And no tree climbing!” Grace Ann added with a firm nod. “We’re not monkeys!”

At this, Joseph audibly groaned.

“Well, if you would like us to play, then you have to accept our rules!” Grace Ann put her hands on her hips in an imitation of their governess, Nellie.

“If we can’t use trees or the grove, then the field of play is from the manor all the way past the stables to the wall!” Adeline demanded and Joseph perked up while Grace Ann bit her lip and looked to Ella Louise. The expanse Adeline had named was vast but flat, with bushes, statues, gazebos, and the stable to hide in. There were lots of places to hide but none that required getting dirty or climbing if it wasn’t desired.

“Alright,” Ella Louise agreed at last.

“I’ll count first!” Joseph volunteered instantly, unwilling to lose any more time to negotiations. Adeline grinned at him.

Joseph ran to the chairs next to where Margaret was lounging on a lawn chair. While she wouldn’t play, she would make sure there was no cheating. Crouching down beside her, Joseph began to count to sixty loudly.


Adeline whirled around and raced away toward the stables. Grace Ann and Ella Louise ran together toward the manor to hide amongst the many verandas. Adeline knew that was where Joseph would look first so, of course, was not the best hiding spot. And in a game with Joseph, pride rested in every decision!

She ran past the pretty pathway lined with mayten trees and chrysanthemum, ignoring the weeping fronds, and past the gazebo overlooking a quaint pond where a few gardeners were pruning and clipping. Instead, she followed a smaller path decorated with peonies and barberry. The path led deeper through the ground until eventually it opened up into the stables.

The stables were very pretty and surrounded a stone flagged courtyard. Big double doors on the right took up one full side and opened onto the gleaming, polished carriages in the carriage house. The other two sides of the stables were the outer doors of eight equally spaced loose boxes, interrupted by another pair of double doors that led into the barn aisle, tack room, and feed room. There were no tie in stalls as Lord Bronsbury believed that the freedom of a loose box helped horses recover from work and kept them happier. Very few things were more important to the Earl than keeping his horses happy.

The stall doors were divided into two sections with the top door usually opened, and now, as Adeline raced into the stable yard, some of the horses peeked their heads outside. She paused for a moment. Joseph would have finished counting by now and was likely searching the house instead of coming toward the stables. She had a few moments to say hello.

There was General, a big dark bay hack stallion her father used as a hunting and riding mount. Harry and Alice, two chestnut Chapman cobs, one gelding and one mare, who looked like twins and served mainly as a carriage team, but also as hunting mounts when there was a need. Silver, a dainty gray Arabian mare for her mother to ride. Quickfeet, whom everyone called Legs, was next, a white moor pony that was Ella Louise’s mount. Adeline’s own Oliver Roy, a bay that was in between pony and horse. Bluebird, a dark gray pony of questionable breeding but the kindest soul ever found, that served as Joseph’s mount. He and Adeline had begged their father to buy Bluebird when a groom had ridden about the noble estates, showing him off for sale.

As Adeline gave an extra pat to Bluebird, she looked around for Auster, who was not in his stall. He was the newest horse and served as Margret’s steed. A black Spanish horse, he was high spirited but had a sure foot and required only a gentle touch, making him a suitable ladies horse. His door was wide open but his halter was not hanging on its hook, so no one was out riding. The doors to the carriage house were open and she peeked inside.

Horses were all good and fun, but it fell to the grooms to clean and keep them happy and healthy.

There stood Auster calmly in the rope cross ties, one hind foot cocked in relaxation. The head groomsman, Mr. Thomas Crogan, whom they all called Mr. Crogan, was using a hay wisp to clean Auster’s coat. He was speaking to a young boy, Arthur, standing next to him with rapt attention.

“There’s nothing better for cleaning than a hay wisp,” he was saying. “Soften it with a bit of water and it gets rid of dust, soothes the skin, and smoothes the hair.”

“Yes sir!” Arthur replied. Both he and Mr. Crogan wore work clothes of browns and reds, but the boy also wore a bright blue handkerchief round his neck.

“Dirtiness is utterly inexcusable,” Mr. Crogan said firmly, patting Auster and looking at the boy with a stern and severe expression. “Summer or winter, muddy or dry. In the morning after the horses are fed, we clean them all. If I catch you shirking this task, you’ll be out on your ear, Arthur, and I won’t let you back until you prove to me you are trustworthy enough to return.”

“I understand, Father.” Arthur nodded and stood taller. Mr. Crogan’s face softened and he smiled at his son.

“You’re a good lad and you’ve a hand for horses. You’ll do the family proud. What do you say we start your lessons with learning how to make a hay wisp?” And he clapped Arthur on the shoulder. The Crogan family had served the Lord of Bronsbury for generations as grooms and horse handlers. Adeline decided then and there that hide-and-seek didn’t matter and if there was any teaching of horse handling about, she wanted to be involved!

“Good morning, Mr. Crogan!” She announced as she stepped into the carriage house fully. Mr. Crogan turned and smiled at her.

“Good morning, Miss Adeline,” he responded and tipped his hat at her. “Are you here to ride Oliver Roy?”

She shook her head. “We were playing hide and seek but I overheard you say you’re going to be teaching Arthur how to make a hay wisp.” Anxiousness overcame her then, “Please won’t you let me learn too? I promise I’ll pay attention!”

Mr. Crogan and Arthur looked surprised at her request.

“You won’t ever have to clean a horse, Miss Adeline,” Mr. Crogan said slowly. “It’d be poor manners to make a lady dirty her hands.”

Adeline felt her heart sink. “But it looks like the horses enjoy it so! It would be ever so lovely to be able to make them feel so nice.”

“But you’re a lady!” Arthur exclaimed, looking woefully confused.

This reinvigorated Adeline’s temper.

“So?” She retorted hotly, putting her hands on her hips. “That doesn’t mean I can’t do anything. And Mother always says a lady is supposed to make sure her guests and family are always comfortable and are never lacking. Don’t horses count? And how am I supposed to know if they’re lacking if I don’t know what they need?”

“Miss Adeline has a point,” Mr. Crogan said slowly. “If the Lord and Lady Bronsbury have no protest, I suppose we can teach you what your horse guests need.”

Elation filled Adeline and she almost squealed with delight. “Can we start right now? Oh please, Mr. Crogan!”

Again Mr. Crogan looked surprised but recovered quickly. With a shake of his head and a grin, he handed Adeline his hay wisp.

“Very well. You use this one and I’ll show you and Arthur how to make a wisp.”

Adeline felt a little sorry for Mr. Crogan. Proper young ladies and gentlemen weren’t supposed to play in the stables. A lord might give instructions for horse care and both a lord and lady should know how to carry themselves around the stable. Horses were all good and fun, but it fell to the grooms to clean and keep them happy and healthy.

Just as Mr. Crogan was now teaching Arthur, Mr. Crogan had learned how to care for the Bronsbury horses from his father, who had learned from his father, and so on. They lived above the stables in a quaint, wide apartment with Mrs. Crogan and Arthur’s little sister, Mabel, along with the barn cats. Adeline knew that Mr. Crogan fed the horses before he himself breakfasted and after cleaning the stalls, could be found in the tack room or carriage house, polished everything until it looked brand new.

Mr. Crogan began to explain how to groom Auster and Adeline watched as he ran the hay wisp along the horse’s back in the direction of the fur, ending each stroke with a firm slap. He explained to them that “strapping” helped the horse’s muscles grow stronger by making them contract and release any tension or stress the horses held in. He showed them how to clean Auster’s feet with a pick and how to run an ointment of resin and sweet oil over the hoof to keep it from cracking.

Just then, there was a shout from outside and they all turned to see Joseph standing at the doorway.

“I found you!” He cried wildly. “I say, Adeline, you’re not very good at hiding.”

“I’m learning how to groom a horse instead,” she said proudly. “Mr. Crogan is going to teach me and Arthur.” Intrigued, Joseph walked forward until he was next her.

“That sounds curious,” he murmured and ran a hand over the wisp she held in her hand. It was twice the size of her palm and made of hay rope twisted through two loops until it was the shape of a brush. All the flyaways had been cut off and it had been wet slightly with water. It was one of the softest things Adeline had ever touched. “Can I learn too?”

Image Credits:
Cover: Henry Barraud, Children with Horse and Dog, 1836, oil on canvas, Google Art Project, Yale Center for British Art
John Frederick Herring, Grey Carriage Horses in the Coachyard at Putteridge Bury, Hertfordshire, 1838, oil on canvas, Google Art Project, Yale Center for British Art
John Frederick Herring, Negotiator, a Bay Horse in a Landscape, 1826, oil on canvas, Denver Art Museum; Berger Collection