Because it was Simon who would show Timber and jump him, Brat left his schooling entirely to him, and shared his attentions between the other horses. But there were days, especially now that Simon absented himself more and more, when someone else had to exercise Timber, and Brat looked forward to those days more than he acknowledged even to himself. He liked most of the Latchetts horses, despised a few, and had an affection for the lively Chevron, the kind, sensible Scapa, and Eleanor’s aged hack, Buster: a disillusioned but lovable old gentleman. But Timber was something else again. Timber was challenge, and excitement, and satisfaction; Timber was question and glory.
He planned to cure Timber of brushing people off his back, but he would do nothing yet a while. It was important, if he was going to be jumped at Bures, that nothing should be done to damage his self-confidence. Some day, if Brat had anything to do with it, Timber was going to feel very small indeed, but meanwhile let Simon have at his command every jot of that lordly assurance. So Brat exercised him mildly, and as he rode round the countryside kept his eyes open for a likely curing-place for Timber when the time came. The beeches on Tanbitches had no branches low enough for his purpose, and there was no room on that hill-top to get up the necessary speed. He wanted some open country with isolated or bunched trees with their lowest branches the right height from the ground to tempt Timber to his undoing. He remembered that Timber’s most spectacular exploit had been in Lerridge Park and over there was Clare Park, with its surrounding stretch of turf and trees.
“Do the Clare Park people mind if we ride through the park?” he asked Eleanor one day when there was still seven days before the Bures Show.
Eleanor said no, provided they kept away from the playing fields. “They don’t play anything because organised games are dreadful unless they are organised by Russians in Russia, but they keep the playing fields because they look well in the prospectus.”
So Brat took Timber to the other side of the valley, and cantered him gently on the centuries-old turf of Clare Park, keeping well away from the trees. Then he walked him round the various clumps, gauging the height of the lowest limbs from the ground. The manoeuvre was received by Timber with a puzzled but passionate interest. One could almost see him trying to work it out. What was this for? What did the man come and look at large trees for? With a horse’s abnormal memory, he was well aware that large trees were associated with private delights of his own, but, being a horse, he was also incapable of drawing any reasonable deduction from his rider’s interest in the same kind of trees.
He walked up to each clump with a mannerly grace, until they approached the large oak which had been for five hundred years the pride of Clare Park. As they came within its flung shadow Timber propped himself suddenly on his forelegs and snorted with fright. Brat was puzzled. What did he remember about the oak that would cause a reaction as strong as that? He looked at the ears that were sticking up as stiff as horns. Perhaps it wasn’t a memory. Perhaps there was something in the grass.
“Do you always sneak up on girls under trees?” said a voice from the shadows, and from the grass there emerged the seal-like form of Miss Parslow. She propped herself on an elbow and surveyed the pair. Brat was a little surprised that she was alone. “Don’t you ever ride anything but that black brute?”
Brat said that he did, quite often.
“I suppose it would be too much to expect that you were looking for me when you came over to the park to ride?”
Brat said that he was looking for a place to teach Timber manners.
“What’s the matter with his manners?”
“He has a habit of diving suddenly under a tree so that he scrapes his rider off.”
Miss Parslow propped herself a little farther up and looked with new interest at the horse. “You don’t say! I never thought the brutes had that much sense. How are you going to stop him?”
“I’m going to make riding under trees a painful experience for him.”
“You mean you’ll beat him when he tries to do it?”
“Oh, no. That wouldn’t do much good.”
“After he has actually done it, then?”
“No. He mightn’t associate the beating with a tree at all.” He rubbed his whip up Timber’s dark crest, and Timber bowed. “You’d be surprised at the odd things they associate.”
“Nothing would surprise me to any extent about horses. How are you going to do it then?”
“Let him go full bat near a nice tempting tree, and when he swerves under it give him a cut on the belly that he’ll remember all his life.”
“Oh, no, that’s too bad. The poor brute.”
“It will be just too bad if I don’t time my slip sideways on the saddle properly,” Brat said dryly.
“And will that cure him?”
“I hope so. Next time he sees a likely tree he’ll remember that it hurt like the blazes last time he tried it.”
“But he’ll hate you.”
Brat smiled. “I’d be very surprised if he associated me with the business at all. I’d be surprised if he even associated it with the whip. Horses don’t think like humans.”
“What will he think hurt him, then?”
“The tree, more than likely.”
“I always thought they were awfully silly animals.”
It occurred to Brat that she had not made one of those riding parties on which he had accompanied Eleanor. Nor had he seen her about the stables lately. He asked how her riding was getting on.
“I’ve given it up.”
“But you were getting on well, weren’t you? Eleanor said you had learned to bump.”
“It was a very slithery bump, and it hurt me far more than it hurt the horse.” She pulled a long grass and began to chew it, eyeing him with a sly amusement. “I don’t have to hang around the stables any more. If I want to see Simon I know where to find him nowadays.”
“Where?” said Brat before he could stop himself.
“The upstairs bar at the Angel.”
“In Westover? But are you allowed to go to Westover when you like?”
“I’m attending a Westover dentist.” She giggled. “Or rather, I was. The school made the first appointment for me, of course, but after that I just told them when I had to go next. I’ve reckoned that I have about thirty teeth, which should last me till the end of term quite nicely.” She opened her red mouth wide and laughed. They were excellent teeth. “That’s what I’m doing at the moment. Putting off time till the Westover bus is due. I could have gone with the earlier one but there is a very good-looking conductor on this one. He’s got the length of asking me to the pictures one night next week. If Simon was going on the way he has been all those months, not knowing I’m alive, I’d maybe have done something about the conductor boy — he has lashes about an inch long — but now that Simon has stopped looking down his nose I think I’ll give the conductor boy a miss.” She chewed the stalk provocatively. “Got quite matey, Simon has.”
“Have you been seducing the Gates girl from him, like I suggested?”
“I have not.”
“That’s funny. He’s distinctly off her. And he’s not awfully enamoured of you, if it comes to that. So I thought you’d been cutting him out with that Peggy woman. But I suppose it’s just that you cut him out of Latchetts.”
“You’re going to miss your bus, aren’t you?”
“You can be just as squashing as Simon, in your own way.”
“I was only pointing out that the bus is almost at the smithy. It will be at the Park gates in ——”
“What!” she shrieked, exploding to her feet in one enormous convulsion, so that Timber whirled in alarm from the wild eruption. “Oh, great heavens! Oh, for the love of . . .! Oh! Oh!”
She fled down the park to the avenue gates, screaming her distress as she went. Brat watched the green bus skim along the road past the white gates of Latchetts and slow down as it came to the gates of Clare Park. She was going to catch it after all, and her day would not be wasted. She would find Simon. At the Angel. In the upstairs bar.
That Simon should spend his time in Westover in the Angel bar was distressing but not, in the circumstances, surprising. What was surprising was the emergence of a Simon who was “matey” with Sheila Parslow. In Simon’s eyes the Parslow girl had always been something beneath contempt; a lower form of life. He dismissed her with a gibe when her name was mentioned and in her presence was, as she had said herself, unaware that she was alive. What had happened to Simon that he was not only resigned to her companionship, but was “matey”? The girl was not lying about it. If her glowing self-satisfaction was not sufficient evidence, there was the obvious fact that Simon could avoid her by changing his drinking place. There was no lack of pubs in Westover; most of them more exclusively masculine haunts than the very social and female-ridden Angel.
Brat tried to imagine Simon with Sheila Parslow and failed.
What had come over Simon — the fastidious, critical Simon — that he found it possible to endure her? To spend hours in her company?
Was it a sort of “laming” his family for the disappointment he had been caused? A sort of you-don’t-like-me-therefore-I’ll-take-up-with-Sheila–Parslow? A sorry-when-I’m-dead reaction? There was a very childish side to Simon.
There was also, Brat thought from all he had heard, a very practical side and Sheila Parslow had money, and Simon needed it. But somehow Brat could not believe that Simon, even in his most deplorable moments, would ever consider pawning his life to a nymphomaniacal moron.
As he walked Timber home he considered yet once more the general oddity of Simon, but as usual came to no conclusion.
He handed Timber over to Arthur to be rubbed down, and went down with Eleanor to inspect Regina’s new foal.
“She’s an old marvel, isn’t she,” Eleanor said, watching the new arrival stagger about on its out-of-proportion legs. “It’s another good one. Not much wonder that she looks complacent. People have been coming to admire her foals for practically a lifetime, the old duchess. I think foals to her are just a means of achieving this annual homage. She doesn’t care a rap about the foal.”
“It’s not any better than Honey’s,” Brat said, looking at the foal without enthusiasm.
“You and your Honey!”
“And you wait and see what Honey will produce next year with this new mating. A foal that will make history.”
“Your enthusiasm for Honey borders on the indecent.”
“You heard Bee say that.”
“How do you know?”
“I heard her too.”
They laughed a little, and she said: “It’s so nice to have you here, Brat.” He noticed that she did not say: It is so nice to have you back, Patrick; but he realised that she herself was unaware of any oddity in the form she used.
“Is that doctor chap going over to Bures for the show?”
“I shouldn’t think so. He’s much too busy. What made you think of him?”
Brat did not know.
They pottered round the paddocks for so long that they came in for tea very late, and had it by themselves. Jane was pounding her way through a Chopin valse with conscientious accuracy, and stopped with undisguised relief when they came in.
“Could I say twenty-five minutes was half an hour, Eleanor?” she asked. “It’s twenty-five-and-a-half minutes, really.”
“You can say anything you like as long as we don’t have to listen to that valse while we eat.”
So Jane slid off the piano-stool, removed the glasses that gave her such an owl-like look, pushed them into her breeches pocket, and disappeared thankfully into the out-of-doors.
“Ruth puts in all the tiddley bits and the expression and doesn’t mind how many wrong notes she strikes, but with Jane it is accuracy or nothing. I don’t know which Chopin would have hated more,” Eleanor said, folding bread and butter into a thickness that would match her appetite.
Brat watched her pour the tea with a delight in her clean unhurried movements. Some day the foundation of the life he was living here would give way; Simon would achieve the plan he was devising to undo him, or some incautious word of his own would bring the whole structure crashing down; and then there would be no more Eleanor.
It was not the least of his fears for the future.
They ate in a friendly silence, dropping unrelated remarks into the quiet as they happened to occur to them.
Presently Eleanor said: “Did you ask Bee about colours for the race next week?”
Brat said that he had forgotten.
“Let’s go and look them out now. They are in that locker in the saddle room.”
So they went back to the stables. The saddle room was empty; Gregg had gone home to his supper; but Eleanor knew where the key was.
“They are practically in ribbons, they are so old,” she said as she spread the colours on the table. “They were actually made for Father, and then they were taken in a bit for Simon to wear at point-to-points when he was narrower than he is now. And then let out again when he grew. So they are just hanging together. Perhaps now we’ll be able to afford ——” She pulled herself up.
“Yes. We’ll have a new set.”
“I think violet and primrose are nice colours, don’t you; but they do fade an unattractive shade. Simon goes blue with cold in the winter, and he says the colours were designed to tone with his face.”
They rummaged in the chest, turning up souvenirs of old races. They moved round the saddle room studying the long row of ribbon rosettes, each with its tab under it telling where and how it had been won.
At last Eleanor shut the chest, saying: “It is time we got ready for dinner.” She locked the chest and hung up the key. “We’ll take the colours with us. I expect they’ll fit you all right, since Simon was the last to wear them. But they’ll have to be pressed.”
She took the colours in her arms, and together they walked out of the saddle-room door and came face to face with Simon.
“Oh, you’re back, Simon,” Eleanor was beginning, when she caught sight of his face.
“Who had Timber out?” he said, furious.
“I had,” Brat said.
“Timber is my business and you have no right to have him out when my back is turned.”
“Someone had to exercise him to-day,” Brat said mildly.
“No one exercises Timber but me. No one. If I’m going to be responsible for jumping him, then I say when he is to be exercised, and I do the exercising.”
“But, Simon,” Eleanor said, “that is absurd. There are ——”
“Shut up!” he said, through his teeth.
“I will not shut up! The horses are Brat’s, and if anyone says who does what, and when, then it is ——”
“Shut up, I tell you. I won’t have a ham-handed lout from the backwoods ruining a good piece of horseflesh like Timber.”
“Coming from nowhere and interfering in the stables as if he had lived here all his life!”
“You must be drunk, Simon, to talk like that about your own brother.”
“My brother! That! Why, you poor little fool, he isn’t even an Ashby. God knows what he is. Somebody’s groom, I have no doubt. And that is what he should be doing. Sweeping out stables. Not lording it round the countryside on my best horses. After this, you damned little upstart, you leave the horses I intend to ride in their stable unless I say they are to be taken out, and if I say they are to be taken out it is not you who will ride them. We have plenty of other stablemen.”
His chin was sticking out about two feet from Brat’s face, and Brat could have brought one from the ground that would have lifted him half over the saddle room. He longed to do it, but not with Eleanor there. And not now, perhaps. Better not do anything that he could not foresee the consequences of.
“Well? Did you hear me?” shouted Simon, maddened by his silence.
“I heard you,” Brat said.
“Well, see that you remember what I said. Timber is my business, and you don’t put a leg across him again until I say so.”
And he flung away from them towards the house.
Eleanor looked stricken.
“Oh, Brat, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He had that mad notion about your not being Patrick before he ever saw you, and now that he has been drinking I suppose it came from the back of his mind and he said it because he was angry. He always did say a lot of things he didn’t mean when he was in a temper, you know.”
It was Brat’s experience that, on the contrary, it was only when a person was in a temper that they said exactly what they did mean. But he refrained from telling Eleanor that.
“He has been drinking, you know,” she went on. “I know he doesn’t look as if he has, but I can tell from his eyes. And he would never have behaved like that when he was sober, even in a temper. I do apologise for him.”
Brat said that everyone made a fool of themselves some time or other when they had “drink taken,” and she was not to bother about it.
They followed Simon to the house soberly, the happiness of their long afternoon together vanished as if it had not been.
As he changed into what he still thought of as “his good suit” Brat thought that if the cracks that were showing in Simon widened sufficiently he might one day show his hand, and he would find out what Simon’s plans for him were. He wondered if Simon would be sober enough to behave normally at dinner.
But there was no Simon at dinner, and when Eleanor asked where he was, Bee said that he had gone over to the pub at Guessgate to meet a friend who was staying there. Someone had telephoned just before dinner, it appeared.
Bee looked equable, and Brat decided that Simon had seemed normal to her and that she had believed his story of the friend staying the night at the Guessgate inn.
And in the morning Simon came down to breakfast his usual sunny self.
“I’m afraid I was tight last night,” he said. “And very objectionable, I’m afraid. I apologise unreservedly.”
He regarded Brat and Eleanor, the only other people at the table, with friendly confidence. “I ought never to drink gin,” he said. “It obscures the judgement and destroys the soul.”
“You were quite horrible,” Eleanor said coldly.
But the atmosphere cleared, and the day was just another day. Bee came in from out-of-doors for her second cup of coffee; Jane arrived clutching to her stomach the bowl of porridge which she had fetched from the kitchen for herself, according to Latchetts routine; Ruth came flying in very late with a “diamond” clasp in her hair and was sent back to take the thing off.
“Where did she get that loathsome object,” Bee said, when Ruth had disappeared with wild cries that Bee was going to make her late for lessons.
“She bought it at Woolworth’s last time we were in Westover,” Jane said. “They’re not real diamonds, you know, but it seemed a bargain for one-and-sixpence.”
“Why didn’t you buy one then, Jane?” Bee asked, looking at the aged kirby-grip that kept Jane’s hair off her face.
“Oh, I don’t think I’m the diamond type,” Jane said.
So the Ashby household settled back to its normal placidity, and to its preparations for that day at Bures that was to alter all their lives.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14