Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 13

Groom and cob — Strength and symmetry — Where’s the saddle? — The first ride — No more fatigue — Love for horses — Pursuit of words — Philologist and Pegasus — The smith — What more, agrah? — Sassannach tenpence.

And it came to pass that, as I was standing by the door of the barrack stable, one of the grooms came out to me, saying, ‘I say, young gentleman, I wish you would give the cob a breathing this fine morning.’

‘Why do you wish me to mount him?’ said I; ‘you know he is dangerous. I saw him fling you off his back only a few days ago.’

‘Why, that’s the very thing, master. I’d rather see anybody on his back than myself; he does not like me; but, to them he does, he can be as gentle as a lamb.’

‘But suppose,’ said I, ‘that he should not like me?’

‘We shall soon see that, master,’ said the groom; ‘and, if so be he shows temper, I will be the first to tell you to get down. But there’s no fear of that; you have never angered or insulted him, and to such as you, I say again, he’ll be as gentle as a lamb.’

‘And how came you to insult him,’ said I, ‘knowing his temper as you do?’

‘Merely through forgetfulness, master: I was riding him about a month ago, and having a stick in my hand, I struck him, thinking I was on another horse, or rather thinking of nothing at all. He has never forgiven me, though before that time he was the only friend I had in the world; I should like to see you on him, master.’

‘I should soon be off him; I can’t ride.’

‘Then you are all right, master; there’s no fear. Trust him for not hurting a young gentleman, an officer’s son, who can’t ride. If you were a blackguard dragoon, indeed, with long spurs, ’twere another thing; as it is, he’ll treat you as if he were the elder brother that loves you. Ride! He’ll soon teach you to ride if you leave the matter with him. He’s the best riding-master in all Ireland, and the gentlest.’

The cob was led forth; what a tremendous creature! I had frequently seen him before, and wondered at him; he was barely fifteen hands, but he had the girth of a metropolitan dray-horse; his head was small in comparison with his immense neck, which curved down nobly to his wide back: his chest was broad and fine, and his shoulders models of symmetry and strength; he stood well and powerfully upon his legs, which were somewhat short. In a word, he was a gallant specimen of the genuine Irish cob, a species at one time not uncommon, but at the present day nearly extinct.

‘There!’ said the groom, as he looked at him, half admiringly, half sorrowfully, ‘with sixteen stone on his back, he’ll trot fourteen miles in one hour, with your nine stone, some two and a half more ay, and clear a six-foot wall at the end of it.’

‘I’m half afraid,’ said I; ‘I had rather you would ride him.’

‘I’d rather so, too, if he would let me; but he remembers the blow. Now, don’t be afraid, young master, he’s longing to go out himself. He’s been trampling with his feet these three days, and I know what that means; he’ll let anybody ride him but myself, and thank them; but to me he says, “No! you struck me.”’

‘But,’ said I, ‘where’s the saddle?’

‘Never mind the saddle; if you are ever to be a frank rider, you must begin without a saddle; besides, if he felt a saddle, he would think you don’t trust him, and leave you to yourself. Now, before you mount, make his acquaintance — see there, how he kisses you and licks your face, and see how he lifts his foot, that’s to shake hands. You may trust him — now you are on his back at last; mind how you hold the bridle — gently, gently! It’s not four pair of hands like yours can hold him if he wishes to be off. Mind what I tell you — leave it all to him.’

Off went the cob at a slow and gentle trot, too fast and rough, however, for so inexperienced a rider. I soon felt myself sliding off, the animal perceived it too, and instantly stood stone still till I had righted myself; and now the groom came up: ‘When you feel yourself going,’ said he, ‘don’t lay hold of the mane, that’s no use; mane never yet saved man from falling, no more than straw from drowning; it’s his sides you must cling to with your calves and feet, till you learn to balance yourself. That’s it, now abroad with you; I’ll bet my comrade a pot of beer that you’ll be a regular rough-rider by the time you come back.’

And so it proved; I followed the directions of the groom, and the cob gave me every assistance. How easy is riding, after the first timidity is got over, to supple and youthful limbs; and there is no second fear. The creature soon found that the nerves of his rider were in proper tone. Turning his head half round, he made a kind of whining noise, flung out a little foam, and set off.

In less than two hours I had made the circuit of the Devil’s Mountain, and was returning along the road, bathed with perspiration, but screaming with delight; the cob laughing in his equine way, scattering foam and pebbles to the left and right, and trotting at the rate of sixteen miles an hour.

Oh, that ride! that first ride! — most truly it was an epoch in my existence; and I still look back to it with feelings of longing and regret. People may talk of first love — it is a very agreeable event, I daresay — but give me the flush, and triumph, and glorious sweat of a first ride, like mine on the mighty cob! My whole frame was shaken, it is true; and during one long week I could hardly move foot or hand; but what of that? By that one trial I had become free, as I may say, of the whole equine species. No more fatigue, no more stiffness of joints, after that first ride round the Devil’s Hill on the cob.

Oh, that cob! that Irish cob! — may the sod lie lightly over the bones of the strongest, speediest, and most gallant of its kind! Oh! the days when, issuing from the barrack-gate of Templemore, we commenced our hurry-skurry just as inclination led — now across the fields — direct over stone walls and running brooks — mere pastime for the cob! — sometimes along the road to Thurles and Holy Cross, even to distant Cahir! — what was distance to the cob?

It was thus that the passion for the equine race was first awakened within me — a passion which, up to the present time, has been rather on the increase than diminishing. It is no blind passion; the horse being a noble and generous creature, intended by the All–Wise to be the helper and friend of man, to whom he stands next in the order of creation. On many occasions of my life I have been much indebted to the horse, and have found in him a friend and coadjutor, when human help and sympathy were not to be obtained. It is therefore natural enough that I should love the horse; but the love which I entertain for him has always been blended with respect; for I soon perceived that, though disposed to be the friend and helper of man, he is by no means inclined to be his slave; in which respect he differs from the dog, who will crouch when beaten; whereas the horse spurns, for he is aware of his own worth and that he carries death within the horn of his heel. If, therefore, I found it easy to love the horse, I found it equally natural to respect him.

I much question whether philology, or the passion for languages, requires so little of an apology as the love for horses. It has been said, I believe, that the more languages a man speaks, the more a man is he; which is very true, provided he acquires languages as a medium for becoming acquainted with the thoughts and feelings of the various sections into which the human race is divided; but, in that case, he should rather be termed a philosopher than a philologist — between which two the difference is wide indeed! An individual may speak and read a dozen languages, and yet be an exceedingly poor creature, scarcely half a man; and the pursuit of tongues for their own sake, and the mere satisfaction of acquiring them, surely argues an intellect of a very low order; a mind disposed to be satisfied with mean and grovelling things; taking more pleasure in the trumpery casket than in the precious treasure which it contains; in the pursuit of words, than in the acquisition of ideas.

I cannot help thinking that it was fortunate for myself, who am, to a certain extent, a philologist, that with me the pursuit of languages has been always modified by the love of horses; for scarcely had I turned my mind to the former, when I also mounted the wild cob, and hurried forth in the direction of the Devil’s Hill, scattering dust and flint-stones on every side; that ride, amongst other things, taught me that a lad with thews and sinews was intended by nature for something better than mere word-culling; and if I have accomplished anything in after life worthy of mentioning, I believe it may partly be attributed to the ideas which that ride, by setting my blood in a glow, infused into my brain. I might, otherwise, have become a mere philologist; one of those beings who toil night and day in culling useless words for some opus magnum which Murray will never publish, and nobody ever read; beings without enthusiasm, who, having never mounted a generous steed, cannot detect a good point in Pegasus himself; like a certain philologist, who, though acquainted with the exact value of every word in the Greek and Latin languages, could observe no particular beauty in one of the most glorious of Homer’s rhapsodies. What knew he of Pegasus? he had never mounted a generous steed; the merest jockey, had the strain been interpreted to him, would have called it a brave song! — I return to the brave cob.

On a certain day I had been out on an excursion. In a cross-road, at some distance from the Satanic hill, the animal which I rode cast a shoe. By good luck a small village was at hand, at the entrance of which was a large shed, from which proceeded a most furious noise of hammering. Leading the cob by the bridle, I entered boldly. ‘Shoe this horse, and do it quickly, a gough,’ said I to a wild grimy figure of a man, whom I found alone, fashioning a piece of iron.

‘Arrigod yuit?’ said the fellow, desisting from his work, and staring at me.

‘Oh yes, I have money,’ said I, ‘and of the best’; and I pulled out an English shilling.

‘Tabhair chugam?’ said the smith, stretching out his grimy hand.

‘No, I shan’t,’ said I; ‘some people are glad to get their money when their work is done.’

The fellow hammered a little longer, and then proceeded to shoe the cob, after having first surveyed it with attention. He performed his job rather roughly, and more than once appeared to give the animal unnecessary pain, frequently making use of loud and boisterous words. By the time the work was done, the creature was in a state of high excitement, and plunged and tore. The smith stood at a short distance, seeming to enjoy the irritation of the animal, and showing, in a remarkable manner, a huge fang, which projected from the under jaw of a very wry mouth.

‘You deserve better handling,’ said I, as I went up to the cob and fondled it; whereupon it whinnied, and attempted to touch my face with its nose.

‘Are ye not afraid of that beast?’ said the smith, showing his fang. ‘Arrah, it’s vicious that he looks!’

‘It’s at you, then! — I don’t fear him’; and thereupon I passed under the horse, between its hind legs.

‘And is that all you can do, agrah?’ said the smith.

‘No,’ said I, ‘I can ride him.’

‘Ye can ride him, and what else, agrah?’

‘I can leap him over a six-foot wall,’ said I.

‘Over a wall, and what more, agrah?’

‘Nothing more,’ said I; ‘what more would you have?’

‘Can you do this, agrah?’ said the smith; and he uttered a word which I had never heard before, in a sharp pungent tone. The effect upon myself was somewhat extraordinary, a strange thrill ran through me; but with regard to the cob it was terrible; the animal forthwith became like one mad, and reared and kicked with the utmost desperation.

‘Can you do that, agrah?’ said the smith.

‘What is it?’ said I, retreating, ‘I never saw the horse so before.’

‘Go between his legs, agrah,’ said the smith, ‘his hinder legs’; and he again showed his fang.

‘I dare not,’ said I, ‘he would kill me.’

‘He would kill ye! and how do ye know that, agrah?’

‘I feel he would,’ said I, ‘something tells me so.’

‘And it tells ye truth, agrah; but it’s a fine beast, and it’s a pity to see him in such a state: Is agam an’t leigeas’ — and here he uttered another word in a voice singularly modified, but sweet and almost plaintive; the effect of it was as instantaneous as that of the other, but how different! — the animal lost all its fury, and became at once calm and gentle. The smith went up to it, coaxed and patted it, making use of various sounds of equine endearment; then turning to me, and holding out once more the grimy hand, he said, ‘And now ye will be giving me the Sassannach tenpence, agrah?’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32