Flowering Wilderness, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 13

‘The Briery,’ Jack Muskham’s residence at Royston, was old-fashioned and low, unpretentious without, comfortable within. It was lined with the effigies of race-horses and sporting prints. Only in one room, seldom used, was any sign of a previous existence. ‘Here,’ as an American newspaper man put it, when he came to interview the ‘last of the dandies’ on the subject of bloodstock, ‘here were evidences of this aristocrat’s early life in our glorious South West. Here were specimens of Navaho rugs and silver work; the plaited horsehair from El Paso; the great cowboy hats; and a set of Mexican harness dripping with silver. I questioned my host about this phase in his career. “Oh! that,” he said, in his Britisher’s drawl, “I had five years cow-punchin’ when I was a youngster. You see, I had only one thought — horses, and my father thought that might be better for me than ridin’ steeplechases here.”

‘“Can I put a date to that?” I asked this long, lean patrician with the watchful eyes and the languid manner.

‘“Why, yes, I came back in 1901, and except for the war I’ve been breedin’ bloodstock ever since.”

‘“And in the war?” I queried.

‘“Oh!” he answered; and I seemed to sense that I was intruding on him: “The usual thing. Yeomanry, cavalry, trenches, and that.”

‘“Tell me, Mr. Muskham,” I said: “Did you enjoy your life over with us out there?”

‘“Enjoy?” he said: “Rather, don’t you know.”’

The interview, produced in a Western paper, was baptised with the heading:

“ENJOYED LIFE IN SOUTHLAND,
SAYS BRITISH DANDY.”

The stud farm was fully a mile from Royston village, and at precisely a quarter to ten every day, when not away at races, bloodstock sales, or what not, Jack Muskham mounted his potter pony and ambled off to what the journalist had termed his “equine nursery.” He was accustomed to point to this potter pony as an example of what horses become if never spoken to in any but a gentle voice. She was an intelligent little three-year-old, three-quarter-bred, with a fine mouse-coloured coat over which someone seemed to have thrown a bottle of ink and then imperfectly removed the splashes. Beyond a slightly ragged crescent on her forehead, she had no white at all; her mane was hogged, and her long tail banged just below her hocks. Her eyes were quiet and bright, and — for a horse — her teeth were pearly. She moved with a daisy-clipping action, quickly recovering from any stumble. Ridden with a single rein applied to her neck, her mouth was never touched. She was but fourteen-two, and Jack Muskham’s legs, he using long stirrup leathers, came down very far. Riding her, as he said, was like sitting in a very easy chair. Besides himself, only one boy, chosen for the quietness of his voice, hands, nerves, and temper, was allowed to handle her.

Dismounting from this animal at the gate of the quadrangular yard which formed the stables, Jack Muskham would enter, smoking one of his special cigarettes in a short amber holder, and be joined on the central grass by his stud groom. He would then put out his cigarette, and they would go round the boxes — where the foals would be with their mothers, and the yearlings — and have this and that one out to be led round the tan track which adjoined the boxes round the yard. After this inspection, they would pass under the archway opposite the entrance and go to the paddocks to see the mares, foals, and yearlings at grass. Discipline in his ‘equine nursery’ was perfect; to all seeming his employees were as quiet, as clean, as well-behaved as the horses they had charge of. From the moment of his entrance to the moment when he emerged and remounted his potter pony, his talk would be of horses — sparing and to the point. And, daily, there were so many little things to see and say that he was rarely back at the house till one o’clock. He never discussed breeding on its scientific side with his stud groom, in spite of that functionary’s considerable knowledge, because, to Jack Muskham, the subject was as much a matter of high politics as the foreign relations of his country are to a Secretary for Foreign Affairs. His mating decisions were made in privacy, following the conclusions of close study welded to what he would have termed his ‘flair’ and others might have called his prejudices. Stars might come loose, Prime Ministers be knighted, Archdukes restored, towns swallowed up by earthquakes, together with all other forms of catastrophe, so long as Jack Muskham could blend St. Simon on Speculum with the right dashes of Hampton and Bend Or; or, in accordance with a more original theory of his own, could get old Herod through Le Sancy at the extreme top and extreme bottom of a pedigree which had Carbine and Barcaldine blood in between. He was, in fact, an idealist. To breed the perfect horse was his ideal, as little realisable, perhaps, as the ideals of other men, and far more absorbing — in his view. Not that he ever mentioned it — one did not use such a word! Nor did he bet, so that he was never deflected in his judgments by earthly desires. Tall, in his cigar-brown overcoat, specially lined with camel’s hair, and his fawn-coloured buckskin shoes and fawn-coloured face, he was probably the most familiar figure at Newmarket; nor was there any member of the Jockey Club, with the exception of three, whose dicta were more respected. He was in fact an outstanding example of the eminence in his walk of life that can be attained by a man who serves a single end with complete and silent fidelity. In truth, behind this ideal of the ‘perfect horse’ lay the shape of his own soul. Jack Muskham was a formalist, one of the few survivors in a form-shattering age; and that his formalism had pitched on the horse for its conspicuous expression was due in part to the completeness with which the race-horse was tied to the stud book, in part to the essential symmetry of that animal, and in part to the refuge the cult of it afforded from the whirr, untidiness, glare, blare, unending scepticism, and intrusive blatancy of what he termed “this mongrel age.”

At ‘The Briery’ two men did all the work except scrubbing, for which a woman came in daily. But for that, there was no sign in all the house that women existed in this world. It was monastic as a club which has not succumbed to female service, and as much more comfortable as it was smaller. The rooms were low, and two wide staircases reached the only upper floor, where the rooms were lower still. The books, apart from endless volumes relating to the race-horse, were either works of travel or of history, or detective novels; other fiction, with its scepticism, slangy diction, descriptions, sentiment, and sensation, was absent, if an exception be made of complete sets of Surtees, Whyte-Melville, and Thackeray.

As, in the pursuit by men of their ideals, there is almost always some saving element of irony, so in the case of Jack Muskham. He, whose aim in life was the production of the perfect thoroughbred, was actually engaged in an attempt to cast the thoroughbred, as hitherto conceived, from muzzle to crupper, on to the scrap-heap, and substitute for it an animal with a cross of blood not as yet in the Stud Book!

Unconscious of this discrepancy, he was seated at lunch with Telfourd Yule, still discussing the transportation of Arab mares, when Sir Lawrence Mont was announced.

“Lunch, Lawrence?”

“I have lunched, Jack. But coffee would be the very thing; also some brandy.”

“Then let’s go into the other room.”

“You have here,” said Sir Lawrence, “what I never thought to see again, the bachelor’s box of my youth. Jack is very remarkable, Mr. Yule. A man who can afford to date in these days is a genius. Do I see Surtees and Whyte-Melville entire? Mr. Yule, what did Mr. Waffles say in Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour when they were holding Caingey up by the heels to let the water run out of his pockets and boots?”

Yule’s humorous mug expanded, but he was silent.

“Exactly!” said Sir Lawrence: “No one knows nowadays. He said: ‘Why, Caingey, old boy, you look like a boiled porpoise with parsley sauce.’ Yes, and what did Mr. Sawyer answer in Market Harboro, when the Honourable Crasher drove at the turnpike gate, saying: ‘It’s open, I think’?”

Yule’s face, as of indiarubber, expanded further, and he was still more silent.

“Dear, dear! Jack?”

“He said: ‘I think not’.”

“Good!” Sir Lawrence sank into a chair. “And was it? No. Well! Have you arranged to steal that mare? Fine! And when you get her over?”

“I shall put her to the most suitable sire standing. I shall mate the result with the most suitable sire or mare I can find. Then I shall match the result of that mating privately against the best of our present thoroughbreds of the same age. If I’m proved right I ought to be able to get my Arab mares entered in the Stud Book. I’m trying to get three mares, by the way.”

“How old are you, Jack?”

“Rising fifty-three.”

“I’m sorry. This is good coffee.”

After that the three sat silent, awaiting the real purpose of this visit.

“I’ve come, Mr. Yule,” said Sir Lawrence, suddenly, “about that affair of young Desert’s.”

“Not true, I hope?”

“Unfortunately, yes. He makes no bones about it.” And, turning his monocle on Jack Muskham’s face, he saw there exactly what he had expected.

“A man,” said Muskham slowly, “ought to keep his form better than that, even if he IS a poet.”

“We won’t go into the rights and wrongs, Jack. Let it go at what you say. All the same”— and Sir Lawrence’s manner acquired strange gravity —“I want you two to keep mum. If it comes out, it can’t be helped, but I beg that you’ll neither of you say anything.”

“I don’t like the look of the fellow,” said Muskham shortly.

“That applies to at least nine-tenths of the people we see about; the reason is not adequate.”

“He’s one of those bitter, sceptical young moderns, with no real knowledge of the world and no reverence for anything.”

“I know you hold a brief for the past, Jack, but don’t bring it into this.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I didn’t want to mention it, but he’s engaged to my favourite niece, Dinny Cherrell.”

“That nice girl!”

“Yes. We none of us like it, except my boy Michael, who still swears by Desert. But Dinny has got her teeth into it, and I don’t think anything will budge her.”

“She can’t be allowed to marry a man who’s bound for Coventry the moment this comes out.”

“The more he’s taboo, the closer she’ll stick to him.”

“I like THAT,” said Muskham. “What do you say, Yule?”

“It’s no affair of mine. If Sir Lawrence wants me to say nothing, I shall say nothing.”

“Of course it’s no affair of ours; all the same, if making it known would stop your niece, I’d do it. I call it a damned shame!”

“It would have just the opposite effect, Jack. Mr. Yule, you know a lot about the Press. Suppose this story leaks into the Press, as it well may; what then?”

Yule’s eyes snapped.

“First they’ll tell it vaguely of a certain English traveller; then they’ll find out whether it’s denied by Desert; then they’ll tell it of him, with a good many details wrong, but not so wrong as all that. If he admits it, he can’t object. The Press is pretty fair, and damned inaccurate.”

Sir Lawrence nodded. “If I knew anyone going in for journalism, I should say: ‘Be strictly accurate, and you will be unique.’ I have not read any absolutely accurate personal paragraphs in the papers since the war.”

“That’s their dodge,” said Yule; “they get a double shot — first the inaccurate report and then the correction.”

“I loathe the Press,” said Muskham. “I had an American press-man here. There he sat, and short of kicking him out — I don’t know what on earth he made of me.”

“Yes, you date, Jack. To you Marconi and Edison are the world’s two greatest malefactors. Is it agreed, then, about young Desert?”

“Yes,” said Yule; and Muskham nodded.

Sir Lawrence passed swiftly from the subject.

“Nice country about here. Are you staying long, Mr. Yule?”

“I go back to Town this afternoon.”

“Let me take you.”

“Willingly.”

Half an hour later they had started.

“My cousin Jack,” said Sir Lawrence, “ought to be left to the nation. In Washington there’s a museum with groups of the early Americans under glass smoking the communal pipe, holding tomahawks over each other, and that sort of thing. One might have Jack —” Sir Lawrence paused: “That’s the trouble! How could one have Jack preserved? It’s so difficult to perpetuate the unemphatic. You can catch anything that jumps around; but when there’s no attitude except a watchful languor — and yet a man with a God of his own.”

“Form, and Muskham is its prophet.”

“He might, of course,” murmured Sir Lawrence, “be preserved in the act of fighting a duel. That’s perhaps the only human activity formal enough.”

“Form’s doomed,” said Yule.

“H’m! Nothing so hard to kill as the sense of shape. For what IS life but the sense of shape, Mr. Yule? Reduce everything to dead similarity, and still shape will ‘out’.’

“Yes,” said Yule, “but ‘form’ is shape brought to perfection-point and standardised; and perfection bores our bright young things.”

“That nice expression. But do they exist outside books, Mr. Yule?”

“Don’t they! And yawn-making — as they’d call it! I’d sooner attend City dinners for the rest of my life than spend a week-end in the company of those bright young things.”

“I doubt,” said Sir Lawrence, “whether I’ve come across them.”

“You should thank God. They never stop talking day or night, not even in their couplings.”

“You don’t seem to like them.”

“Well,” said Yule, looking like a gargoyle, “they can’t stand me any more than I can stand them. A boring little crowd, but, luckily, of no importance.”

“I hope,” said Sir Lawrence, “that Jack is not making the mistake of thinking young Desert is one.”

“Muskham’s never met a bright young thing. No; what gets his goat about Desert is the look of his face. It’s a deuced strange face.”

“Lost angel,” said Sir Lawrence. “‘Spiritual pride, my buck!’ Something fine about it.”

Yule nodded. “I don’t mind it myself; and his verse is good. But all revolt’s anathema to Muskham. He likes mentality clipped, with its mane plaited, stepping delicately to the snaffle.”

“I don’t know,” murmured Sir Lawrence, “I think those two might like each other, if they could shoot each other first. Queer people, we English!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37