The great clouds sailed up and past, the sunlight flickered and ran, the uncertain soft wind edged in and out of the junipers and made soft scufflings in the grass. Timber made small sounds with his bit, and cropped turf in a tentative and superior fashion. Brat sank into a daze of pleasure and ceased altogether from conscious thought.
He was roused by the swift fling-up of Timber’s head, and almost at the same moment a female voice behind him said, as if it were a chant and rhymed:
Shut your eyes
And guess who.”
It was a slightly Cockney voice, and it dripped with archness.
Like anyone else in the circumstances Brat disobeyed the injunction automatically. He looked round into the face of a girl of sixteen or so. She was a large, plumpish girl, with bright auburn hair and prominent blue eyes. The eyes were remarkable in that they managed to be at once avid and sleepy. As they met Brat’s they almost popped out altogether.
“Oh!” said the girl, in a half-shriek. “I thought you were Simon. You’re not!”
“No,” agreed Brat, beginning to get to his feet.
But before he could move she had dropped to the grass beside him.
“My, you gave me a shock. I bet I know who you are. You’re the long-lost brother, aren’t you? You must be; you’re so like Simon. That’s who you are, isn’t it?”
Brat said that it was.
“You even wear the same kind of clothes.”
Brat said that they were Simon’s clothes. “You know Simon?”
“Of course I know Simon. I’m Sheila Parslow. I’m a boarder at Clare Park.”
“Oh.” The school for dodgers, Eleanor had called it. The place where no one had to learn the nine-times.
“I’m doing my best to have an affaire with Simon, but it’s uphill work.”
Brat did not know the correct rejoinder to this, but she did not need conversational encouragement.
“I have to do something to put some pep into life at Clare Park. You can’t imagine the screaming boredom of it. You simply can’t imagine. There is nothing, but I mean nothing, that you are forbidden to do. I once got so desperate I took off all my clothes and walked into Cedric’s office — Cedric is our Leader, he doesn’t like being called the Head, but that’s what he is, of course — I walked in with nothing on, not a stitch, and all he said was: ‘Have you ever thought of going on a diet, Sheila dear?’ Just took a look at me and said: ‘Have you ever thought of going on a diet?’ and then went on with looking up Who’s Who. He’s always looking up Who’s Who. You don’t really stand much of a chance of fetching up at Clare Park unless your father is in Who’s Who. Or your mother, of course. My father’s not in it, but he has millions, my father, and that makes a very good substitute. Millions are a very good introduction, aren’t they?”
Brat said that he supposed they were.
“I flapped Father’s millions in front of Simon; Simon has a great respect for a good investment and I hoped it would weight my charms, so to speak; but he’s a frightful snob, Simon, isn’t he?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I’ve only met him to-day.”
“Oh, of course. You’ve just come back. How exciting for you. I can understand Simon not being overjoyed, of course, but it must be exciting for you to put his nose out of joint.”
Brat wondered if she, too, pulled the wings off flies.
“I may have more chance with Simon now that you’ve taken his fortune from him. I’ll have to waylay him somewhere and see. I thought I was waylaying him now, when I saw Timber. He often comes up here because it’s his favourite place for exercising the horses. He hates Tanbitches.” She jerked her chin at the opposite side of the valley. “And this is a good place for getting him alone. So I came up here on spec, and then I saw that black brute, and I thought I had him cold. But it was only you.”
“I’m sorry,” Brat said meekly.
She considered him.
“I suppose it’s no good my trying to seduce you instead?” she said.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Is it that I’m not your type, or is it not your line?”
“Not much in my line, I’m afraid.”
“No, I suppose not,” she said, agreeing with him. “You have a face like a monk. Funny you should look so like Simon and yet look so different. Simon’s no monk; as that Gates girl over at Wigsell could tell you. I make images of that Gates girl and stick pins in them, but it doesn’t do any good. She goes on blooming like a blasted peony and fascinating him like fly-paper.”
She was rather like a well-blown peony herself, he thought, looking at her wet red mouth and the buttons straining the cloth across her ample bust. A rather drooping and disappointed peony at the moment.
“Does Simon know that you are fond of him?” Brat asked.
“Fond of him? I’m not fond of him. I don’t think I like him at all. I just want to have an affaire with him to brighten up the term a bit. Until I can leave this boring place.”
“If you can do anything you like, why can’t you leave now?” Brat asked reasonably.
“Well, I don’t want to look too much of a fool, you know. I went to school at Ling Abbey, you see, and I made the place a hell so that my people would take me away and send me here. I thought I was going to have the time of my life here, with no lessons and no timetable and no rules or anything. I had no idea it would be so boring. I could weep with boredom.”
“Isn’t there anyone at Clare Park you could substitute for Simon? I mean, someone who would be more — accommodating?”
“No, I had a look at them first. Skinny and hairy and intellectual. Have you ever noticed how the intellect runs to hair? Some people get a kick out of disgust, but not me. I like them good-looking. And you have to admit Simon is very good-looking. There was an under-gardener at Ling Abbey that was almost as handsome, but he hadn’t that lovely God-damn-you look that Simon has.”
“Didn’t the under-gardener keep you at the Abbey place?”
“Oh, no, they sacked him. It was easier than expelling me and having a scandal. But they had to expel me in any case, so they might as well have kept poor Albert. He was much better with his lobelias than he was with girls. But of course they couldn’t be expected to know that. I suppose you wouldn’t put in a good word for me with Simon? It would be such a pity to waste all the agony I’ve gone through trying to interest him.”
“You don’t suppose I endure hours on those horrible quadrupeds just for fun, do you? With that cold stick of a sister of his looking down her nose at me. Oh, I forgot: she’s your sister too, isn’t she? But perhaps you’ve been away so long that you don’t think of her the way a boy thinks of his sister.”
“I certainly don’t,” Brat said; but she was not listening.
“I suppose you’ve ridden horses since you could crawl, so you have no idea what it is like to be bumped about on a great shapeless mountain of a thing that’s far too high from the ground and has nothing to hold on to. It looks so easy when Simon does it. The horse looks so nice and narrow when you’re standing on the ground. You think you could ride it the way you ride a bicycle. It’s only when you get up you find that its back is simply acres across and you can make no impression on it at all. You just sit there and are bumped about, and your legs slip backwards and forwards instead of staying still like Simon’s, and you get large blisters and can’t sit down in the bath for weeks. You don’t look quite so like a monk when you smile a bit.”
Brat suggested that surely there were better ways of attracting favourable notice than being a tyro at something that the object of one’s pursuit already did to perfection.
“Oh, I didn’t think that I’d attract him that way. It just gave me an excuse for being round the stables. That sister of — your sister doesn’t stand any hanging round if you haven’t got business.”
“Your sister,” he thought, and liked the sound of it.
He had three sisters now, and at least two of them were the kind he would have indented for. Presently he must go down and make their further acquaintance.
“I’m afraid I must go,” he said, getting up and putting the reins over Timber’s head.
“I wish you didn’t have to,” she said, watching him tighten the girth. “You are quite the nicest person I have talked to since I came to Clare. It’s a pity you aren’t interested in women. You might cut Simon out with the Gates girl, and then I’d have more chance. Do you know the Gates girl?”
“No,” Brat said, getting up on Timber.
“Well, have a look at her. She’s very pretty.”
“I’ll do that,” Brat said.
“Now that you’re home, I’ll be running across you in the stables, I suppose.”
“I expect so.”
“You wouldn’t like to give me one of my lessons instead of your sister, would you?”
“I’m afraid that’s not my department.”
“Oh, well.” She sounded resigned. “You look very nice on that brute. I suppose his back is acres across too. They all are. It’s a conspiracy.”
“Good-bye,” said Brat.
“Do you know, I don’t know your name. Someone told me, of course, but I forget. What is it?”
And as he said the word his mind went back to the path across the valley, and he forgot Miss Parslow almost instantly. He cantered back along the top of the down until he came level with Latchetts, and then began to walk Timber down. Below him, a green ride led through the paddocks to the west of the house and so to the sweep of gravel in front of it. It was by that way that Jane had come this morning, when she had become mixed up with his reception at the front door. The gate to the ride stood open, the gate lying flat against the stout paddock rails that bordered the ride. Brat rode down until the steepness of the down gave way to a gentle slope and then pressed Timber into a canter. The green tunnel of the ride with its soft floor was open before them, and he was not going to spoil it by stopping to shut another gate that someone else had left open.
It was due to no good riding on Brat’s part that his left leg was still whole five seconds later. It was due entirely to the years of rough-riding that had made his physical reactions quicker than conscious thought. The swerve was so sudden and so wholehearted that the white rail was scraping along the saddle where his leg should have been before he realised that his leg was not there. That he had taken it away before he had had time to think about it.
As Timber came away from the rails he settled back into the saddle and pulled the horse to a stop. Timber stopped obediently.
“Whew!” said Brat, expelling his pent breath. He looked down at Timber standing innocent and demure in the exact centre of the ride.
“You ornery thing, you,” he said, amused.
Timber went on looking demure but the ears listened to him. A trifle apprehensively, Brat thought.
“I know men who’d beat the bejasus out of you for that,” Brat said, and turned the horse’s nose to the down again. Timber retraced his steps obediently, but was obviously not easy in his mind. When he was far enough away from the gate Brat took him into a canter once more and down to the opening. He had neither spurs nor curb but he was curious to see what Timber would do this time. Timber, as he had expected, swept good-manneredly into the ride, bisecting the distance from either rail with mathematical precision.
“What, me!” he seemed to be saying. “Do a thing like that on purpose? Me, with my perfect manners? Of course not. I just lost my balance for a moment, coming into the ride there. It can happen to the best of us.”
“Well, well,” thought Brat, pulling him to a walk. “Think you’re smart, don’t you,” he said aloud, walking him down the ride. “Far smarter horses than you have tried to brush me off, take it from me. I’ve been brushed off horses that would make you look like five-cents worth of candy.”
The black ears flickered, listening to him, analysing the sound of his voice, its tone; puzzled.
The mares came to the rails to watch them pass, pleased with this small event in their placid lives; and the foals ran round and round in a self-induced excitement. But Timber took no notice of them. He had lost any active interest in mares at a very early age, and just now his whole interest seemed to be in the fact that he had been outwitted, and that the outwitting one made sounds which he did not understand. His ears, which should have been pricked at the thought of his nearing stable, were restless and enquiring.
Brat rode round the front of the house, as Jane had that morning, but he saw no one. He went on to the stables and found Eleanor just riding in with a led horse, having given Tony his lesson and left him at Clare Park.
“Hullo!” she said, “have you been out on Timber?” She sounded a little surprised. “I hope Simon warned you about him.”
“Yes, thank you, he warned me.”
“One of my bad buys,” she said ruefully, eyeing Timber as they rode side by side towards the yard.
“Yours?” he said.
“Yes. Didn’t Simon tell you about that?”
“That was nice of him. I expect he didn’t want you to find out too soon what a fool of a sister you have.” She smiled a little at him, as if she were glad to be his sister. “I bought him at the Lerridge Hunt sale. It was Timber who killed old Felix. Old Felix Hunstanton, the Master, you know. Did Simon tell you?”
“No. No, he just told me about his tricks.”
“Old Felix had some good horses, and when they were being sold I went over to see what I could pick up. None of the Lerridge Hunt regulars was bidding for Timber, but I thought it was because of sentiment, perhaps. I thought they probably didn’t want to own the horse the Master was killed on. As if there was ever any sentiment about horse-dealing! I oughtn’t to be let out alone. Even so, I ought to have wondered why I was getting him so cheap; with his looks and his breeding and his performance. It was only afterwards that we found that he had done the same thing to the huntsman a few days later, only the branches were small and broke, instead of braining him or sweeping him off.”
“I see,” said Brat, who was beginning to.
“Not that anyone needed convincing, apparently. No one who was there when Felix was killed believed it was an accident. It was a Lerridge Castle meet, and they had found in one of the Lerridge woods and gone away over the park. Good open galloping country with the trees isolated. And yet Timber took Felix under an oak, going an awful bat, and he was dead before he hit the ground. But of course we heard about all that later. All I knew when I was bidding for him was that Felix had hit his head on a branch during the hunt. Which is something that has been happening to people ever since William Rufus.”
“Did anyone actually see it happen?”
“No, I don’t think so. Everyone just knew that with the whole park to choose from Felix wouldn’t have ridden under the oak. And when he tried the same thing on Samms, the huntsman, there was no doubt. So he is put into the sale with the rest of the lot and all the Lerridge regulars sit around in silence and watch Eleanor Ashby from over Clare way buying a pup.”
“He’s a very elegant pup, there’s no denying,” Brat said, rubbing Timber’s neck.
“He’s beautiful,” Eleanor said. “And a faultless jumper. Did you jump him at all to-day? No? You must next time. He is safest jumping because his mind is distracted. He hasn’t time to think up mischief. It’s odd, isn’t it; he doesn’t look untrustworthy,” she added, still eyeing her bad bargain with a puzzled eye.
She caught the tone and said: “You don’t sound too sure.”
“Well, I must allow he is the most conceited animal I’ve ever met.”
This seemed to be as new an idea to Eleanor as it had been to Simon.
“Vain, is he? Yes, I suppose he is. I expect I’d be conceited if I were a horse and I had been clever enough to kill a man. Did he try any tricks to-day?”
“He swerved at the entrance to the ride, but that was all.” He did not say: He took advantage of the first good stout piece of timber to mash my leg against. That was something between the horse and himself. He and Timber had a long acquaintanceship in front of them, and a lot to say to each other.
“He behaves like an angel most of the time,” Eleanor said. “That is what is so lethal about him. We have all ridden him; Simon and Gregg and Arthur and me, and he has only twice played up. Once with Simon and once with Arthur. But of course,” she added with a grin, “we have always given trees a wide berth.”
“He’d be a great success in the desert. Not a rail or a limb in a day’s journey.”
Eleanor looked sadly at the black horse as Brat drew up to let her precede him into the yard. “He’d think up something else, I expect.”
And Brat, thinking it over, agreed with her. Timber was that rare thing in horses: a deliberate and intelligent rogue. Balked of his normal fun, he would think up something new. There was nothing small-time about Timber.
Nor was Simon exactly small-time. Simon had sent him out on a notorious rogue, with a light remark about the horse “having its tricks.” As neat a piece of vicarious manslaughter as anyone ever thought up.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14