Brat’s tendency to be patronising about spit and polish died painlessly and permanently somewhere between the fourth and fifth boxes. The pampered darlings that he had been prepared to find in these boxes did not exist. Thoroughbred, half-bred, cob, or pony, the shine on their coats came from condition and grooming and not from coddling in warm stables; Brat had lived long enough with horses to recognise that. The only ribbons that had ever been tied on these animals were rosettes of red or blue or yellow; and the rosettes were quite properly in the saddle room.
Bee did the honours, with Gregg as assistant; but since it is not possible for four horsemen to consider any given horse without entering into a discussion, the occasion soon lost the slight formality of its beginnings and degenerated into a friendly free-for-all. And presently Brat, always a little detached from his surroundings, noticed that Bee was leaving the discussion more and more to Simon. That it was Simon instead of Bee who said: “This is a throwout from a racing stable that Eleanor is schooling into a hack,” or, “Do you remember old Thora? This is a son of hers by Cold Steel.” That Bee was quite deliberately edging herself out.
The twins had soon grown tired and evaporated; Ruth because horses bored her, and Jane because she knew all that was to be known about the horses and did not like the thought that they belonged to a person she did not know. And Gregg, congenitally taciturn, fell more and more into the background with Bee. So that in no time at all it was Simon’s occasion; Simon’s and Brat’s.
Simon behaved as if he had not a care in the world. As if this were just another afternoon and Brat just another visitor. A rather privileged and knowledgeable visitor; unquestionably welcome. Brat, coming to the surface every now and then from his beguilement with the horses, would listen to the light drawl discussing pedigree, conformation, character, or prospects; would watch the cool untroubled profile, and wonder. “A bit light in front,” the cool voice would be saying, and the untroubled eyes would be running over the animal as if no more important matter clouded the sun. “Nice, though, don’t you think?” or “This one should really be turned out: he’s been hunted all the winter; but I’m going pot-hunting on him this summer. And anyhow Bee’s awfully stingy with her pasture.”
And Bee would put in her tuppenceworth and fade out again.
It was Bee who “ran” Latchetts, but the various interests involved were divided between the three Ashbys. Eleanor’s chief concerns were the hacks and hunters, Simon’s were hunters and show jumpers, and Bee’s were the mares and the Shetland ponies. During Bill Ashby’s lifetime, when Latchetts was purely a breeding establishment, the hacks and hunters in the stables had been there for family use and amusement. Occasionally, when there happened to be an extra-good horse in the stable, Bee, who was a better horsewoman than her brother, would come down from London for a week or two to school it and afterwards show it for him. It was good advertisement for Latchetts; not because Latchetts ever dealt in made horses but because the simple repetition of a name is of value in the commercial world, as the writers of advertisements have discovered. Nowadays the younger Ashbys, under Bee’s supervision, had turned the stables into a profitable rival to the brood mares.
“Mr. Gates is asking if he can speak to you, sir,” said the stable-man to Gregg. And Gregg excused himself and went back to the saddle room.
Fourposter came to the door of his box, stared coldly at Brat for a moment, and then nudged him jocosely with his Roman nose.
“Has he always been Jane’s?” Brat asked.
“No,” Bee said, “he was bought for Simon’s fourteenth birthday. But Simon grew so fast that in a year or so he had outgrown him, and Jane at four was already clamouring to ride a ‘real’ horse instead of a Shetland. So she fell heir to him. If he ever had any manners he has forgotten them, but he and Jane seem to understand each other.”
Gregg came back to say that it was Miss Ashby that Gates wanted to see. It was about the fencing.
“All right, I’ll come,” Bee said. And as Gregg went away: “What he really wants to see is Brat, but he’ll just wait till to-morrow like the rest of the countryside. It’s so like Gates to try to steal a march. Opportunism is his middle name. If you two go trying out any of the horses, do be back for tea. I want to go round the paddocks with Brat before it gets dark.”
“Do you remember Gates?” Simon asked, opening the door of another box.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“He’s the tenant of Wigsell.”
“What became of Vidler, then?”
“He died. This man was married to his daughter and had a small farm the other side of Bures.”
Well, Simon had dealt him the cards he needed that time. He looked at Simon to see how he had taken it, but Simon’s whole interest seemed to be in the horse he was leading out of the box.
“These last three boxes are all new acquisitions, bought with an eye on the show ring. But this is the pick of the bunch. He’s a four-year-old by High Wood out of a mare called Shout Aloud. His name is Timber.”
Timber was a black without a brown hair in him. He had a rudimentary white star, and a ring of white on each coronet; and he was quite the handsomest thing in horseflesh that Brat had ever been at close quarters with. He came out of his box with an air of benevolent condescension, as if aware of his good looks and pleased that they should be the subject of tribute. There was something oddly demure about him, Brat thought, watching him. Perhaps it was just the way he was standing, with his forefeet close together. Whatever it was it didn’t go with the self-confident, considering eye.
“Difficult to fault, isn’t he?” Simon said.
Brat, lost in admiration of his physical conformation, was still puzzled by what he thought of as the butter-wouldn’t-melt air.
“He has one of the best-looking heads I’ve ever seen on a horse,” Simon said. “And just look at the bone.” He led the horse round. “And a sweet mover, too,” he said.
Brat went on looking in silence, admiring and puzzled.
“Well?” Simon said, waiting for Brat’s comment.
“Isn’t he conceited!” said Brat.
“Yes, I suppose he is. But not without cause.”
“No. He’s a good-looker all right.”
“He is more than that. He’s a lovely ride. And he can jump anything you can see the sky over.”
Brat moved forward to the horse and made friendly overtures. Timber accepted the gesture without responding. He looked gratified but faintly bored.
“He should have been a tenor,” Brat said.
“A tenor?” Simon said. “Oh, I see. The conceit.” He considered the horse afresh. “I suppose he is rather pleased with himself. I hadn’t thought about it before. Would you like to try him out, by the way?”
“I certainly would.”
“He ought to have some exercise to-day and he hasn’t had it so far.” He hailed a stable-man. “Arthur, bring a saddle for Timber.”
“Yes, sir. A double bridle, sir?”
“No; a snaffle.” And, as the man went, to Brat: “He has a mouth like a glove.”
Brat wondered if he was merely reluctant to submit that tender mouth to the ham hands of a Westerner with a curb rein at his disposal.
While Timber was being saddled they inspected the two remaining “acquisitions.” They were a long-backed bay mare with a good head and quarters (“Two good ends make up for a middle,” as Simon said) who was called Scapa; and Chevron, a bright chestnut of great quality with a nervous eye.
“What are you riding?” Brat asked, as Simon led Chevron back to his box.
Simon bolted the half-door and turned to face him.
“I thought you might like to have a look round by yourself,” he said. And as Brat, surprised by this piece of luck, was momentarily wordless: “Don’t let him get lit-up too much, will you, or he’ll break out again when he has been dried.”
“No, I’ll bring him back cool,” Brat said; and flung his leg across his first English horse.
He took one of the two whips that Arthur was holding out for his choosing, and turned the horse to the inner end of the yard.
“Where are you going?” Simon asked, as if surprised.
“Up to the down, I think,” Brat said, as if Simon’s question had applied to his choice of a place to ride in.
If that gate at the north-west corner of the yard didn’t still lead to the short-cut to the downs, then Simon would have to tell him. If it still did lead there, Simon would have one more item to worry about.
“You haven’t chosen a very good whip for shutting gates with,” Simon said smoothly. “Or are you going to jump everything you come to?” You rodeo artist, the tone said.
“I’ll shut the gates,” Brat said equably.
He began to walk Timber to the corner of the yard.
“He has his tricks, so look out for him,” Simon said, as an afterthought.
“I’ll look out for him,” Brat said, and rode away to the inner gate which Arthur was waiting to open for him.
Arthur grinned at him in a friendly fashion and said admiringly: “He’s a fly one, that, sir.”
As he turned to his right into the little lane he considered the implication of that very English adjective. It was a long time since he had heard anything called fly. “Fly” was “cute”— in the English sense, not in the American. Fly was something on the side. A fly cup. Something sly with a hint of cleverness in it.
A fly one, Timber was.
The fly one walked composedly up the track between the green banks netted with violets, his ears erect in anticipation of the turf ahead of them. As they came in sight of the gate at the far end he danced a little. “No,” said Brat’s hands, and he desisted at once. Someone had left the gate open, but since there was a notice saying PLEASE SHUT THE GAT neatly painted in the middle of it, Brat manoeuvred Timber into the appropriate position for closing it. Timber seemed as well acquainted with gates and their uses as a cow pony was with a rope, but never before had Brat had so delicate and so well-oiled a mechanism under him. Timber obeyed the slightest indication of hand or heel with a lack of questioning and a confidence that was new in Brat’s experience. Surprised and delighted, Brat experimented with this new adaptability. And Timber, even with the turf in front of him, with the turf practically under his feet, moved sweetly and obediently under his hands.
“You wonder!” said Brat softly.
The ears flicked at him.
“You perishing marvel,” he said, and closed his knees as he turned to face the down. Timber broke into a slow canter, headed for the clumps of gorse and juniper bushes that marked the skyline.
So this was what riding a good English horse was like, he thought. This communion, this being one half of a whole. This effortlessness. This magic.
The close, fine turf slipped by under them, and it was odd to see no little spurt of dust coming up as the shoes struck. England, England, England, said the shoes as they struck. A soft drum on the English turf.
I don’t care, he thought, I don’t care. I’m a criminal, and a heel, but I’ve got what I wanted, and it’s worth it. By God, it’s worth it. If I died to-morrow, it’s worth it.
They came to the level top of the down and faced the double row of bushes that made a rough natural avenue, about fifty yards wide, along the crest. This was something that Alec Loding had forgotten to tell him about, and something that had not appeared on a map. Even the Ordnance Survey can hardly take note of juniper growths. He pulled up to consider it. But Timber was in no considering mood. Timber knew all about that level stretch of down between the rows of bushes.
“All right,” said Brat, “let’s see what you can do,” and let him go.
Brat had ridden flyers before. Dozens of them. He had ridden sprinters and won money with them. He had been bolted with at the speed of jet propulsion. Mere speed no longer surprised him. What surprised him was the smoothness of the progress. It was like being carried through the air on a horse suspended to a merry-go-round.
The soft air parted round his face and tickled his ears and fled away behind them, smelling of grass with the sun on it and leather and gorse. Who cares, who cares, who cares! said the galloping feet. Who cares, who cares, who cares! said the blood in Brat’s veins.
If he died to-morrow it was all the same to him.
As they came to the end of the stretch Timber began to pull up of his own accord, but it was against Brat’s instincts to let a horse make the decisions, so he kept him going, turned him round the south end of the green corridor, and cantered him gently to a walk, and Timber responded without question.
“Brother,” said Brat, running his fingers up the dark crest, “are there more like you in England, or do you rate special?”
Timber bent his head to the caress, still with the air of one receiving his due.
But as they walked back on the south side of the irregular green hedge Brat’s attention and interest went to the countryside spread below them. Except that he was looking at it upside down, as it were — from the north, instead of from the south as one looks normally at a map — this was Clare as he had first become acquainted with it. All laid out below his eye in Ordnance Survey clarity and precision.
Down below him, a little to his left, were the crimson roofs of Latchetts, set in the neat squares of paddock. Farther to the left was the church, on its own small rise; and left of it again, the village of Clare, a huddle of roofs in pale green trees. Where the land sloped up from the village to make the south side of the small valley stood Clare Park, a long white house sheltered from the south-west Channel gales by the slope behind it.
Directly opposite him that slope rose into a smaller and tamer version of the down he was sitting on; a low green hill called Tanbitches. It was an open stretch of grazing, marked half-way up with the green scar of an old quarry, and crowned by the beeches that had given it its name. There were only seven beeches now instead of ten, but the clump made a decorative and satisfying climax to the southern side of the valley.
The other side of the Tanbitches hill, as he knew from the maps, ran away in a gentle slope for a mile and a half to the cliffs. To the cliffs where Patrick Ashby had put an end to his life. Behind the lower rise of the valley, on the reverse slope of Clare Park, were farms that merged imperceptibly in a mile or two into the suburbs of Westover. In the slight hollow that marked the Clare Park slope from Tanbitches hill was a path that led to the coast. The path that Patrick Ashby had taken on that day eight years ago.
It was suddenly more real to him than it had ever been so far: this tragedy which he was using to his advantage. More real even than it had been in the rooms that Patrick had lived in. In the house there had been other associations besides Patrick: associations more present and alive. There had been the distractions of human intercourse and of his own need to be constantly wary. Out here in the open and alone it had a reality that it had never had before. Up that straggling path on the other side of the valley a boy had gone, so loaded with misery that this neat green English world had meant nothing to him. He had had horses like Timber, and friends and family, and a belonging-place, and it had all meant nothing to him.
For the first time in his detached existence Brat was personally aware of another’s tragedy. When Loding had first told him the story, in that London pub, he had had nothing but contempt for the boy who had had so much and could not do without that little extra. A poor thing, he had thought. Then Loding had brought those photographs to Kew, and had shown him Patrick, and he had had that odd feeling of identification, of partisanship.
“That is Pat Ashby. He was about eleven there,” Loding had said, his feet propped comfortably on the railings of the park, and had passed him the piece of paper. It was a snapshot taken with a Brownie 2A, and Brat had accepted it with a curiosity that was active but not urgent.
But Pat Ashby had not been the anonymous “poor thing” that he had so far held in his mind. He had been a real person. A likeable real person. A person who would have been, Brat felt, very much his cup of tea. From being vaguely anti-Patrick he had become Patrick’s champion.
It was not, however, until this moment of quiet above Latchetts that he had been moved to sorrow for him.
Clink — clink! came the faint sound from the valley; and Brat’s eyes travelled down from Tanbitches to the cottage at its foot. The blacksmith’s, that was. A quarter of a mile west of the village. A tiny black square by the roadside it had been on the map; now it was a small building with a black chimney and an occupant who made musical sounds with a hammer.
The whole scene was very like the picture from which he had acquired his first-year French. Voilà le forgeron. It needed only a curé coming from the church. And a postman on a bicycle between the forge and the village.
Brat slid from Timber’s back, from long habit loosened the girths as if he saddled up hours ago, and sat down with his back to the gorse and juniper to feast his eyes on this primer of the English countryside.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01