It was Petty Sessions day in Skebawn, a cold, grey day of February. A case of trespass had dragged its burden of cross summonses and cross swearing far into the afternoon, and when I left the bench my head was singing from the bellowings of the attorneys, and the smell of their clients was heavy upon my palate.
The streets still testified to the fact that it was market day, and I evaded with difficulty the sinuous course of carts full of soddenly screwed people, and steered an equally devious one for myself among the groups anchored round the doors of the public-houses. Skebawn possesses, among its legion of public-houses, one establishment which timorously, and almost imperceptibly, proffers tea to the thirsty. I turned in there, as was my custom on court days, and found the little dingy den, known as the Ladies’ Coffee-Room, in the occupancy of my friend Mr. Florence McCarthy Knox, who was drinking strong tea and eating buns with serious simplicity. It was a first and quite unexpected glimpse of that domesticity that has now become a marked feature in his character.
“You’re the very man I wanted to see,” I said as I sat down beside him at the oilcloth-covered table; “a man I know in England who is not much of a judge of character has asked me to buy him a four-year-old down here, and as I should rather be stuck by a friend than a dealer, I wish you’d take over the job.”
Flurry poured himself out another cup of tea, and dropped three lumps of sugar into it in silence.
Finally he said, “There isn’t a four-year-old in this country that I’d be seen dead with at a pig fair.”
This was discouraging, from the premier authority on horse-flesh in the district.
“But it isn’t six weeks since you told me you had the finest filly in your stables that was ever foaled in the County Cork,” I protested: “what’s wrong with her?”
“Oh, is it that filly?” said Mr. Knox with a lenient smile; “she’s gone these three weeks from me. I swapped her and £6 for a three-year-old Ironmonger colt, and after that I swapped the colt and £19 for that Bandon horse I rode last week at your place, and after that again I sold the Bandon horse for £75 to old Welply, and I had to give him back a couple of sovereigns luck-money. You see I did pretty well with the filly after all.”
“Yes, yes — oh rather,” I assented, as one dizzily accepts the propositions of a bimetallist; “and you don’t know of anything else ——?”
The room in which we were seated was closely screened from the shop by a door with a muslin-curtained window in it; several of the panes were broken, and at this juncture two voices that had for some time carried on a discussion forced themselves upon our attention.
“Begging your pardon for contradicting you, ma’am,” said the voice of Mrs. McDonald, proprietress of the tea-shop, and a leading light in Skebawn Dissenting circles, shrilly tremulous with indignation, “if the servants I recommend you won’t stop with you, it’s no fault of mine. If respectable young girls are set picking grass out of your gravel, in place of their proper work, certainly they will give warning!”
The voice that replied struck me as being a notable one, well-bred and imperious.
“When I take a barefooted slut out of a cabin, I don’t expect her to dictate to me what her duties are!”
Flurry jerked up his chin in a noiseless laugh. “It’s my grandmother!” he whispered. “I bet you Mrs. McDonald don’t get much change out of her!”
“If I set her to clean the pig-sty I expect her to obey me,” continued the voice in accents that would have made me clean forty pig-sties had she desired me to do so.
“Very well, ma’am,” retorted Mrs. McDonald, “if that’s the way you treat your servants, you needn’t come here again looking for them. I consider your conduct is neither that of a lady nor a Christian!”
“Don’t you, indeed?” replied Flurry’s grandmother. “Well, your opinion doesn’t greatly distress me, for, to tell you the truth, I don’t think you’re much of a judge.”
“Didn’t I tell you she’d score?” murmured Flurry, who was by this time applying his eye to a hole in the muslin curtain. “She’s off,” he went on, returning to his tea. “She’s a great character! She’s eighty-three if she’s a day, and she’s as sound on her legs as a three-year-old! Did you see that old shandrydan of hers in the street a while ago, and a fellow on the box with a red beard on him like Robinson Crusoe? That old mare that was on the near side — Trinket her name is — is mighty near clean bred. I can tell you her foals are worth a bit of money.”
I had heard of old Mrs. Knox of Aussolas; indeed, I had seldom dined out in the neighbourhood without hearing some new story of her and her remarkable ménage, but it had not yet been my privilege to meet her.
“Well, now,” went on Flurry in his slow voice, “I’ll tell you a thing that’s just come into my head. My grandmother promised me a foal of Trinket’s the day I was one-and-twenty, and that’s five years ago, and deuce a one I’ve got from her yet. You never were at Aussolas? No, you were not. Well, I tell you the place there is like a circus with horses. She has a couple of score of them running wild in the woods, like deer.”
“Oh, come,” I said, “I’m a bit of a liar myself —”
“Well, she has a dozen of them anyhow, rattling good colts too, some of them, but they might as well be donkeys for all the good they are to me or any one. It’s not once in three years she sells one, and there she has them walking after her for bits of sugar, like a lot of dirty lapdogs,” ended Flurry with disgust.
“Well, what’s your plan? Do you want me to make her a bid for one of the lapdogs?”
“I was thinking,” replied Flurry, with great deliberation, “that my birthday’s this week, and maybe I could work a four-year-old colt of Trinket’s she has out of her in honour of the occasion.”
“And sell your grandmother’s birthday present to me?”
“Just that, I suppose,” answered Flurry with a slow wink.
A few days afterwards a letter from Mr. Knox informed me that he had “squared the old lady, and it would be all right about the colt.” He further told me that Mrs. Knox had been good enough to offer me, with him, a day’s snipe shooting on the celebrated Aussolas bogs, and he proposed to drive me there the following Monday, if convenient. Most people found it convenient to shoot the Aussolas snipe bog when they got the chance. Eight o’clock on the following Monday morning saw Flurry, myself, and a groom packed into a dogcart, with portmanteaus, gun-cases, and two rampant red setters.
It was a long drive, twelve miles at least, and a very cold one. We passed through long tracts of pasture country, fraught, for Flurry, with memories of runs, which were recorded for me, fence by fence, in every one of which the biggest dog-fox in the country had gone to ground, with not two feet — measured accurately on the handle of the whip — between him and the leading hound; through bogs that imperceptibly melted into lakes, and finally down and down into a valley, where the fir-trees of Aussolas clustered darkly round a glittering lake, and all but hid the grey roofs and pointed gables of Aussolas Castle.
“There’s a nice stretch of a demesne for you,” remarked Flurry, pointing downwards with the whip, “and one little old woman holding it all in the heel of her fist. Well able to hold it she is, too, and always was, and she’ll live twenty years yet, if it’s only to spite the whole lot of us, and when all’s said and done goodness knows how she’ll leave it!”
“It strikes me you were lucky to keep her up to her promise about the colt,” I said.
Flurry administered a composing kick to the ceaseless strivings of the red setters under the seat.
“I used to be rather a pet with her,” he said, after a pause; “but mind you, I haven’t got him yet, and if she gets any notion I want to sell him I’ll never get him, so say nothing about the business to her.”
The tall gates of Aussolas shrieked on their hinges as they admitted us, and shut with a clang behind us, in the faces of an old mare and a couple of young horses, who, foiled in their break for the excitements of the outer world, turned and galloped defiantly on either side of us. Flurry’s admirable cob hammered on, regardless of all things save his duty.
“He’s the only one I have that I’d trust myself here with,” said his master, flicking him approvingly with the whip; “there are plenty of people afraid to come here at all, and when my grandmother goes out driving she has a boy on the box with a basket full of stones to peg at them. Talk of the dickens, here she is herself!”
A short, upright old woman was approaching, preceded by a white woolly dog with sore eyes and a bark like a tin trumpet; we both got out of the trap and advanced to meet the lady of the manor.
I may summarise her attire by saying that she looked as if she had robbed a scarecrow; her face was small and incongruously refined, the skinny hand that she extended to me had the grubby tan that bespoke the professional gardener, and was decorated with a magnificent diamond ring. On her head was a massive purple velvet bonnet.
“I am very glad to meet you, Major Yeates,” she said with an old-fashioned precision of utterance; “your grandfather was a dancing partner of mine in old days at the Castle, when he was a handsome young aide-de-camp there, and I was —— you may judge for yourself what I was.”
She ended with a startling little hoot of laughter, and I was aware that she quite realised the world’s opinion of her, and was indifferent to it.
Our way to the bogs took us across Mrs. Knox’s home farm, and through a large field in which several young horses were grazing.
“There now, that’s my fellow,” said Flurry, pointing to a fine-looking colt, “the chestnut with the white diamond on his forehead. He’ll run into three figures before he’s done, but we’ll not tell that to the old lady!”
The famous Aussolas bogs were as full of snipe as usual, and a good deal fuller of water than any bogs I had ever shot before. I was on my day, and Flurry was not, and as he is ordinarily an infinitely better snipe shot than I, I felt at peace with the world and all men as we walked back, wet through, at five o’clock.
The sunset had waned, and a big white moon was making the eastern tower of Aussolas look like a thing in a fairy tale or a play when we arrived at the hall door. An individual, whom I recognised as the Robinson Crusoe coachman, admitted us to a hall, the like of which one does not often see. The walls were panelled with dark oak up to the gallery that ran round three sides of it, the balusters of the wide staircase were heavily carved, and blackened portraits of Flurry’s ancestors on the spindle side stared sourly down on their descendant as he tramped upstairs with the bog mould on his hobnailed boots.
We had just changed into dry clothes when Robinson Crusoe shoved his red beard round the corner of the door, with the information that the mistress said we were to stay for dinner. My heart sank. It was then barely half-past five. I said something about having no evening clothes and having to get home early.
“Sure the dinner’ll be in another half-hour,” said Robinson Crusoe, joining hospitably in the conversation; “and as for evening clothes —— God bless ye!”
The door closed behind him.
“Never mind,” said Flurry, “I dare say you’ll be glad enough to eat another dinner by the time you get home.” He laughed. “Poor Slipper!” he added inconsequently, and only laughed again when I asked for an explanation.
Old Mrs. Knox received us in the library, where she was seated by a roaring turf fire, which lit the room a good deal more effectively than the pair of candles that stood beside her in tall silver candlesticks. Ceaseless and implacable growls from under her chair indicated the presence of the woolly dog. She talked with confounding culture of the books that rose all round her to the ceiling; her evening dress was accomplished by means of an additional white shawl, rather dirtier than its congeners; as I took her in to dinner she quoted Virgil to me, and in the same breath screeched an objurgation at a being whose matted head rose suddenly into view from behind an ancient Chinese screen, as I have seen the head of a Zulu woman peer over a bush.
Dinner was as incongruous as everything else. Detestable soup in a splendid old silver tureen that was nearly as dark in hue as Robinson Crusoe’s thumb; a perfect salmon, perfectly cooked, on a chipped kitchen dish; such cut glass as is not easy to find nowadays; sherry that, as Flurry subsequently remarked, would burn the shell off an egg; and a bottle of port, draped in immemorial cobwebs, wan with age, and probably priceless. Throughout the vicissitudes of the meal Mrs. Knox’s conversation flowed on undismayed, directed sometimes at me — she had installed me in the position of friend of her youth, and talked to me as if I were my own grandfather — sometimes at Crusoe, with whom she had several heated arguments, and sometimes she would make a statement of remarkable frankness on the subject of her horse-farming affairs to Flurry, who, very much on his best behaviour, agreed with all she said, and risked no original remark. As I listened to them both, I remembered with infinite amusement how he had told me once that “a pet name she had for him was ‘Tony Lumpkin,’ and no one but herself knew what she meant by it.” It seemed strange that she made no allusion to Trinket’s colt or to Flurry’s birthday, but, mindful of my instructions, I held my peace.
As, at about half-past eight, we drove away in the moonlight, Flurry congratulated me solemnly on my success with his grandmother. He was good enough to tell me that she would marry me to-morrow if I asked her, and he wished I would, even if it was only to see what a nice grandson he’d be for me. A sympathetic giggle behind me told me that Michael, on the back seat, had heard and relished the jest.
We had left the gates of Aussolas about half a mile behind when, at the corner of a by-road, Flurry pulled up. A short squat figure arose from the black shadow of a furze bush and came out into the moonlight, swinging its arms like a cabman and cursing audibly.
“Oh murdher, oh murdher, Misther Flurry! What kept ye at all? ’Twould perish the crows to be waiting here the way I am these two hours ——”
“Ah, shut your mouth, Slipper!” said Flurry, who, to my surprise, had turned back the rug and was taking off his driving coat, “I couldn’t help it. Come on, Yeates, we’ve got to get out here.”
“What for?” I asked, in not unnatural bewilderment.
“It’s all right. I’ll tell you as we go along,” replied my companion, who was already turning to follow Slipper up the by-road. “Take the trap on, Michael, and wait at the River’s Cross.” He waited for me to come up with him, and then put his hand on my arm. “You see, Major, this is the way it is. My grandmother’s given me that colt right enough, but if I waited for her to send him over to me I’d never see a hair of his tail. So I just thought that as we were over here we might as well take him back with us, and maybe you’ll give us a help with him; he’ll not be altogether too handy for a first go off.”
I was staggered. An infant in arms could scarcely have failed to discern the fishiness of the transaction, and I begged Mr. Knox not to put himself to this trouble on my account, as I had no doubt I could find a horse for my friend elsewhere. Mr. Knox assured me that it was no trouble at all, quite the contrary, and that, since his grandmother had given him the colt, he saw no reason why he should not take him when he wanted him; also, that if I didn’t want him he’d be glad enough to keep him himself; and finally, that I wasn’t the chap to go back on a friend, but I was welcome to drive back to Shreelane with Michael this minute if I liked.
Of course I yielded in the end. I told Flurry I should lose my job over the business, and he said I could then marry his grandmother, and the discussion was abruptly closed by the necessity of following Slipper over a locked five-barred gate.
Our pioneer took us over about half a mile of country, knocking down stone gaps where practicable and scrambling over tall banks in the deceptive moonlight. We found ourselves at length in a field with a shed in one corner of it; in a dim group of farm buildings a little way off a light was shining.
“Wait here,” said Flurry to me in a whisper; “the less noise the better. It’s an open shed, and we’ll just slip in and coax him out.”
Slipper unwound from his waist a halter, and my colleagues glided like spectres into the shadow of the shed, leaving me to meditate on my duties as Resident Magistrate, and on the questions that would be asked in the House by our local member when Slipper had given away the adventure in his cups.
In less than a minute three shadows emerged from the shed, where two had gone in. They had got the colt.
“He came out as quiet as a calf when he winded the sugar,” said Flurry; “it was well for me I filled my pockets from grandmamma’s sugar basin.”
He and Slipper had a rope from each side of the colt’s head; they took him quickly across a field towards a gate. The colt stepped daintily between them over the moonlit grass; he snorted occasionally, but appeared on the whole amenable.
The trouble began later, and was due, as trouble often is, to the beguilements of a short cut. Against the maturer judgment of Slipper, Flurry insisted on following a route that he assured us he knew as well as his own pocket, and the consequence was that in about five minutes I found myself standing on top of a bank hanging on to a rope, on the other end of which the colt dangled and danced, while Flurry, with the other rope, lay prone in the ditch, and Slipper administered to the bewildered colt’s hindquarters such chastisement as could be ventured on.
I have no space to narrate in detail the atrocious difficulties and disasters of the short cut. How the colt set to work to buck, and went away across a field, dragging the faithful Slipper, literally ventre-à-terre, after him, while I picked myself in ignominy out of a briar patch, and Flurry cursed himself black in the face. How we were attacked by ferocious cur dogs, and I lost my eyeglass; and how, as we neared the River’s Cross, Flurry espied the police patrol on the road, and we all hid behind a rick of turf, while I realised in fulness what an exceptional ass I was, to have been beguiled into an enterprise that involved hiding with Slipper from the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Let it suffice to say that Trinket’s infernal offspring was finally handed over on the high-road to Michael and Slipper, and Flurry drove me home in a state of mental and physical overthrow.
I saw nothing of my friend Mr. Knox for the next couple of days, by the end of which time I had worked up a high polish on my misgivings, and had determined to tell him that under no circumstances would I have anything to say to his grandmother’s birthday present. It was like my usual luck that, instead of writing a note to this effect, I thought it would be good for my liver to walk across the hills to Tory Cottage and tell Flurry so in person.
It was a bright, blustery morning, after a muggy day. The feeling of spring was in the air, the daffodils were already in bud, and crocuses showed purple in the grass on either side of the avenue. It was only a couple of miles to Tory Cottage by the way across the hills; I walked fast, and it was barely twelve o’clock when I saw its pink walls and clumps of evergreens below me. As I looked down at it the chiming of Flurry’s hounds in the kennels came to me on the wind; I stood still to listen, and could almost have sworn that I was hearing again the clash of Magdalen bells, hard at work on May morning.
The path that I was following led downwards through a larch plantation to Flurry’s back gate. Hot wafts from some hideous caldron at the other side of a wall apprised me of the vicinity of the kennels and their cuisine, and the fir-trees round were hung with gruesome and unknown joints. I thanked Heaven that I was not a master of hounds, and passed on as quickly as might be to the hall door.
I rang two or three times without response; then the door opened a couple of inches and was instantly slammed in my face. I heard the hurried paddling of bare feet on oilcloth, and a voice, “Hurry, Bridgie, hurry! There’s quality at the door!”
Bridgie, holding a dirty cap on with one hand, presently arrived and informed me that she believed Mr. Knox was out about the place. She seemed perturbed, and she cast scared glances down the drive while speaking to me.
I knew enough of Flurry’s habits to shape a tolerably direct course for his whereabouts. He was, as I had expected, in the training paddock, a field behind the stable-yard, in which he had put up practice jumps for his horses. It was a good-sized field with clumps of furze in it, and Flurry was standing near one of these with his hands in his pockets, singularly unoccupied. I supposed that he was prospecting for a place to put up another jump. He did not see me coming, and turned with a start as I spoke to him. There was a queer expression of mingled guilt and what I can only describe as divilment in his grey eyes as he greeted me. In my dealings with Flurry Knox, I have since formed the habit of sitting tight, in a general way, when I see that expression.
“Well, who’s coming next, I wonder!” he said, as he shook hands with me; “it’s not ten minutes since I had two of your d — d peelers here searching the whole place for my grandmother’s colt!”
“What!” I exclaimed, feeling cold all down my back; “do you mean the police have got hold of it?”
“They haven’t got hold of the colt anyway,” said Flurry, looking sideways at me from under the peak of his cap, with the glint of the sun in his eye. “I got word in time before they came.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded; “where is he? For Heaven’s sake don’t tell me you’ve sent the brute over to my place!”
“It’s a good job for you I didn’t,” replied Flurry, “as the police are on their way to Shreelane this minute to consult you about it. You!” He gave utterance to one of his short diabolical fits of laughter. “He’s where they’ll not find him, anyhow. Ho! ho! It’s the funniest hand I ever played!”
“Oh yes, it’s devilish funny, I’ve no doubt,” I retorted, beginning to lose my temper, as is the manner of many people when they are frightened; “but I give you fair warning that if Mrs. Knox asks me any questions about it, I shall tell her the whole story.”
“All right,” responded Flurry; “and when you do, don’t forget to tell her how you flogged the colt out on to the road over her own bounds ditch.”
“Very well,” I said hotly, “I may as well go home and send in my papers. They’ll break me over this ——”
“Ah, hold on, Major,” said Flurry soothingly, “it’ll be all right. No one knows anything. It’s only on spec the old lady sent the bobbies here. It you’ll keep quiet it’ll all blow over.”
“I don’t care,” I said, struggling hopelessly in the toils; “if I meet your grandmother, and she asks me about it, I shall tell her all I know.”
“Please God you’ll not meet her! After all, it’s not once in a blue moon that she —” began Flurry. Even as he said the words his face changed. “Holy fly!” he ejaculated, “isn’t that her dog coming into the field? Look at her bonnet over the wall! Hide, hide for your life!” He caught me by the shoulder and shoved me down among the furze bushes before I realised what had happened.
“Get in there! I’ll talk to her.”
I may as well confess that at the mere sight of Mrs. Knox’s purple bonnet my heart had turned to water. In that moment I knew what it would be like to tell her how I, having eaten her salmon, and capped her quotations, and drunk her best port, had gone forth and helped to steal her horse. I abandoned my dignity, my sense of honour; I took the furze prickles to my breast and wallowed in them.
Mrs. Knox had advanced with vengeful speed; already she was in high altercation with Flurry at no great distance from where I lay; varying sounds of battle reached me, and I gathered that Flurry was not — to put it mildly — shrinking from that economy of truth that the situation required.
“Is it that curby, long-backed brute? You promised him to me long ago, but I wouldn’t be bothered with him!”
The old lady uttered a laugh of shrill derision. “Is it likely I’d promise you my best colt? And still more, is it likely that you’d refuse him if I did?”
“Very well, ma’am.” Flurry’s voice was admirably indignant. “Then I suppose I’m a liar and a thief.”
“I’d be more obliged to you for the information if I hadn’t known it before,” responded his grandmother with lightning speed; “if you swore to me on a stack of Bibles you knew nothing about my colt I wouldn’t believe you! I shall go straight to Major Yeates and ask his advice. I believe him to be a gentleman, in spite of the company he keeps!”
I writhed deeper into the furze bushes, and thereby discovered a sandy rabbit run, along which I crawled, with my cap well over my eyes, and the furze needles stabbing me through my stockings. The ground shelved a little, promising profounder concealment, but the bushes were very thick, and I laid hold of the bare stem of one to help my progress. It lifted out of the ground in my hand, revealing a freshly-cut stump. Something snorted, not a yard away; I glared through the opening, and was confronted by the long, horrified face of Mrs. Knox’s colt, mysteriously on a level with my own.
Even without the white diamond on his forehead I should have divined the truth; but how in the name of wonder had Flurry persuaded him to couch like a woodcock in the heart of a furze brake? For a full minute I lay as still as death for fear of frightening him, while the voices of Flurry and his grandmother raged on alarmingly close to me. The colt snorted, and blew long breaths through his wide nostrils, but he did not move. I crawled an inch or two nearer, and after a few seconds of cautious peering I grasped the position. They had buried him.
A small sandpit among the furze had been utilised as a grave; they had filled him in up to his withers with sand, and a few furze bushes, artistically disposed round the pit, had done the rest. As the depth of Flurry’s guile was revealed, laughter came upon me like a flood; I gurgled and shook apoplectically, and the colt gazed at me with serious surprise, until a sudden outburst of barking close to my elbow administered a fresh shock to my tottering nerves.
Mrs. Knox’s woolly dog had tracked me into the furze, and was now baying the colt and me with mingled terror and indignation. I addressed him in a whisper, with perfidious endearments, advancing a crafty hand towards him the while, made a snatch for the back of his neck, missed it badly, and got him by the ragged fleece of his hind-quarters as he tried to flee. If I had flayed him alive he could hardly have uttered a more deafening series of yells, but, like a fool, instead of letting him go, I dragged him towards me, and tried to stifle the noise by holding his muzzle. The tussle lasted engrossingly for a few seconds, and then the climax of the nightmare arrived.
Mrs. Knox’s voice, close behind me, said, “Let go my dog this instant, sir! Who are you ——”
Her voice faded away, and I knew that she also had seen the colt’s head.
I positively felt sorry for her. At her age there was no knowing what effect the shock might have on her. I scrambled to my feet and confronted her.
“Major Yeates!” she said. There was a deathly pause. “Will you kindly tell me,” said Mrs. Knox slowly, “am I in Bedlam, or are you? And what is that?”
She pointed to the colt, and that unfortunate animal, recognising the voice of his mistress, uttered a hoarse and lamentable whinny. Mrs. Knox felt around her for support, found only furze prickles, gazed speechlessly at me, and then, to her eternal honour, fell into wild cackles of laughter.
So, I may say, did Flurry and I. I embarked on my explanation and broke down; Flurry followed suit and broke down too. Overwhelming laughter held us all three, disintegrating our very souls. Mrs. Knox pulled herself together first.
“I acquit you, Major Yeates, I acquit you, though appearances are against you. It’s clear enough to me you’ve fallen among thieves.” She stopped and glowered at Flurry. Her purple bonnet was over one eye. “I’ll thank you, sir,” she said, “to dig out that horse before I leave this place. And when you’ve dug him out you may keep him. I’ll be no receiver of stolen goods!”
She broke off and shook her fist at him. “Upon my conscience, Tony, I’d give a guinea to have thought of it myself!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13