F. Anstey.

The talking horse and other tales online

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[_All rights reserved_]


These stories originally appeared in 'Macmillan's,' 'Longman's,'
'Atalanta,' 'The Cornhill,' 'The Graphic,' 'Aunt Judy's,' 'The
Reflector,' and Unwin's 'Christmas Annual,' respectively.

F. A.













It was on the way to Sandown Park that I met him first, on that horribly
wet July afternoon when Bendigo won the Eclipse Stakes. He sat opposite
to me in the train going down, and my attention was first attracted to
him by the marked contrast between his appearance and his attire: he had
not thought fit to adopt the regulation costume for such occasions, and
I think I never saw a man who had made himself more aggressively horsey.
The mark of the beast was sprinkled over his linen: he wore snaffle
sleeve-links, a hard hunting-hat, a Newmarket coat, and extremely tight
trousers. And with all this, he fell as far short of the genuine
sportsman as any stage super who ever wore his spurs upside down in a
hunting-chorus. His expression was mild and inoffensive, and his watery
pale eyes and receding chin gave one the idea that he was hardly to be
trusted astride anything more spirited than a gold-headed cane. And yet,
somehow, he aroused compassion rather than any sense of the ludicrous:
he had that look of shrinking self-effacement which comes of a recent
humiliation, and, in spite of all extravagances, he was obviously a
gentleman; while something in his manner indicated that his natural
tendency would, once at all events, have been to avoid any kind of

He puzzled and interested me so much that I did my best to enter into
conversation with him, only to be baffled by the jerky embarrassment
with which he met all advances, and when we got out at Esher, curiosity
led me to keep him still in view.

Evidently he had not come with any intention of making money. He avoided
the grand stand, with the bookmakers huddling in couples, like hoarse
lovebirds; he kept away from the members' inclosure, where the Guards'
band was endeavouring to defy the elements which emptied their vials
into the brazen instruments; he drifted listlessly about the course till
the clearing-bell rang, and it seemed as if he was searching for some
one whom he only wished to discover in order to avoid.

Sandown, it must be admitted, was not as gay as usual that day, with its
'deluged park' and 'unsummer'd sky,' its waterproofed toilettes and
massed umbrellas, whose sides gleamed livid as they caught the
light - but there was a general determination to ignore the unseasonable
dampness as far as possible, and an excitement over the main event of
the day which no downpour could quench.

The Ten Thousand was run: ladies with marvellously confected bonnets
lowered their umbrellas without a murmur, and smart men on drags shook
hands effusively as, amidst a frantic roar of delight, Bendigo strode
past the post. The moment after, I looked round for my incongruous
stranger, and saw him engaged in a well-meant attempt to press a currant
bun upon a carriage-horse tethered to one of the trees - a feat of
abstraction which, at such a time, was only surpassed by that of
Archimedes at the sack of Syracuse.

After that I could no longer control my curiosity - I felt I must speak
to him again, and I made an opportunity later, as we stood alone on a
stand which commanded the finish of one of the shorter courses, by
suggesting that he should share my umbrella.

Before accepting he glanced suspiciously at me through the rills that
streamed from his unprotected hat-brim. 'I'm afraid,' I said, 'it is
rather like shutting the stable-door after the steed is stolen.'

He started. 'He _was_ stolen, then,' he cried; 'so you have heard?'

I explained that I had only used an old proverb which I thought might
appeal to him, and he sighed heavily.

'I was misled for the moment,' he said: 'you have guessed, then, that I
have been accustomed to horses?'

'You have hardly made any great secret of it.'

'The fact is,' he said, instantly understanding this allusion to his
costume, 'I - I put on these things so as not to lose the habit of
riding altogether - I have not been on horseback lately. At one time I
used to ride constantly - constantly. I was a regular attendant in Rotten
Row - until something occurred which shook my nerve, and I am only
waiting now for the shock to subside.'

I did not like to ask any questions, and we walked back to the station,
and travelled up to Waterloo in company, without any further reference
to the subject.

As we were parting, however, he said, 'I wonder if you would care to
hear my full story some day? I cannot help thinking it would interest
you, and it would be a relief to me.'

I was ready enough to hear whatever he chose to tell me; and persuaded
him to dine with me at my rooms that evening, and unbosom himself
afterwards, which he did to an extent for which I confess I was

That he himself implicitly believed in his own story, I could not doubt;
and he told it throughout with the oddest mixture of vanity and modesty,
and an obvious struggle between a dim perception of his own absurdity
and the determination to spare himself in no single particular, which,
though it did not overcome my scepticism, could not fail to enlist
sympathy. But for all that, by the time he entered upon the more
sensational part of his case, I was driven to form conclusions
respecting it which, as they will probably force themselves upon the
reader's own mind, I need not anticipate here.

I give the story, as far as possible, in the words of its author; and
have only to add that it would never have been published here without
his full consent and approval.

'My name,' said he, 'is Gustavus Pulvertoft. I have no occupation, and
six hundred a year. I lived a quiet and contented bachelor until I was
twenty-eight, and then I met Diana Chetwynd for the first time. We were
spending Christmas at the same country-house, and it did not take me
long to become the most devoted of her many adorers. She was one of the
most variously accomplished girls I had ever met. She was a skilled
musician, a brilliant amateur actress; she could give most men thirty
out of a hundred at billiards, and her judgment and daring across the
most difficult country had won her the warm admiration of all
hunting-men. And she was neither fast nor horsey, seeming to find but
little pleasure in the society of mere sportsmen, to whose conversation
she infinitely preferred that of persons who, like myself, were rather
agreeable than athletic. I was not at that time, whatever I may be now,
without my share of good looks, and for some reason it pleased Miss
Chetwynd to show me a degree of favour which she accorded to no other
member of the house-party.

It was annoying to feel that my unfamiliarity with the open-air sports
in which she delighted debarred me from her company to so great an
extent; for it often happened that I scarcely saw her until the evening,
when I sometimes had the bliss of sitting next to her at dinner; but on
these occasions I could not help seeing that she found some pleasure in
my society.

I don't think I have mentioned that, besides being exquisitely lovely,
Diana was an heiress, and it was not without a sense of my own
presumption that I allowed myself to entertain the hope of winning her
at some future day. Still, I was not absolutely penniless, and she was
her own mistress, and I had some cause, as I have said, for believing
that she was, at least, not ill-disposed towards me. It seemed a
favourable sign, for instance, when she asked me one day why it was I
never rode. I replied that I had not ridden for years - though I did not
add that the exact number of those years was twenty-eight.

'Oh, but you must take it up again!' she said, with the prettiest air of
imperiousness. 'You ought to ride in the Row next season.'

'If I did,' I said, 'would you let me ride with you sometimes?'

'We should meet, of course,' she said; 'and it is such a pity not to
keep up your riding - you lose so much by not doing so.'

Was I wrong in taking this as an intimation that, by following her
advice, I should not lose my reward? If you had seen her face as she
spoke, you would have thought as I did then - as I do now.

And so, with this incentive, I overcame any private misgivings, and soon
after my return to town attended a fashionable riding-school near Hyde
Park, with the fixed determination to acquire the whole art and mystery
of horsemanship.

That I found learning a pleasure I cannot conscientiously declare. I
have passed happier hours than those I spent in cantering round four
bare whitewashed walls on a snorting horse, with my interdicted stirrups
crossed upon the saddle. The riding-master informed me from time to time
that I was getting on, and I knew instinctively when I was coming off;
but I must have made some progress, for my instructor became more
encouraging. 'Why, when you come here first, Mr. Pulvertoft, sir, you
were like a pair o' tongs on a wall, as they say; whereas now - well, you
can tell yourself how you are,' he would say; though, even then, I
occasionally had reason to regret that I was _not_ on a wall. However, I
persevered, inspired by the thought that each fresh horse I crossed (and
some were very fresh indeed) represented one more barrier surmounted
between myself and Diana, and encouraged by the discovery, after
repeated experiments, that tan was rather soothing to fall upon than

When I walked in the Row, where a few horsemen were performing as
harbingers of spring, I criticised their riding, which I thought
indifferent, as they neglected nearly all the rules. I began to
anticipate a day when I should exhibit a purer and more classic style of
equestrianism. And one morning I saw Diana, who pulled up her dancing
mare to ask me if I had remembered her advice, and I felt proudly able
to reply that I should certainly make my appearance in the Row before
very long.

From that day I was perpetually questioning my riding-master as to when
he considered I should be ripe enough for Rotten Row. He was dubious,
but not actually dissuasive. 'It's like this, you see, sir,' he
explained, 'if you get hold of a quiet, steady horse - why, you won't
come to no harm; but if you go out on an animal that will take advantage
of you, Mr. Pulvertoft, why, you'll be all no-how on him, sir.'

They would have mounted me at the school; but I knew most of the stud
there, and none of them quite came up to my ideal of a 'quiet, steady
horse;' so I went to a neighbouring job-master, from whom I had
occasionally hired a brougham, and asked to be shown an animal he could
recommend to one who had not had much practice lately. He admitted
candidly enough that most of his horses 'took a deal of riding,' but
added that it so happened that he had one just then which would suit me
'down to the ground' - a phrase which grated unpleasantly on my nerves,
though I consented to see the horse. His aspect impressed me most
favourably. He was a chestnut of noble proportions, with a hogged mane;
but what reassured me was the expression of his eye, indicating as it
did a self-respect and sagacity which one would hardly expect for seven
and sixpence an hour.

'You won't get a showier Park 'ack than what he is, not to be so quiet,'
said his owner. 'He's what you may call a kind 'oss, and as gentle - you
could ride him on a packthread.'

I considered reins safer, but I was powerfully drawn towards the horse:
he seemed to me to be sensible that he had a character to lose, and to
possess too high an intelligence wilfully to forfeit his testimonials.
With hardly a second thought, I engaged him for the following afternoon.

I mounted at the stables, with just a passing qualm, perhaps, while my
stirrup-leathers were being adjusted, and a little awkwardness in taking
up my reins, which were more twisted than I could have wished; however,
at length, I found myself embarked on the stream of traffic on the back
of the chestnut - whose name, by the way, was Brutus.

Shall I ever forget the pride and ecstasy of finding that I had my steed
under perfect control, that we threaded the maze of carriages with
absolute security? I turned him into the Park, and clucked my tongue: he
broke into a canter, and how shall I describe my delight at the
discovery that it was not uncomfortable? I said 'Woa,' and he stopped,
so gradually that my equilibrium was not seriously disturbed; he
trotted, and still I accommodated myself to his movements without any
positive inconvenience. I could have embraced him for gratitude: never
before had I been upon a beast whose paces were so easy, whose behaviour
was so considerate. I could ride at last! or, which amounted to the same
thing, I could ride the horse I was on, and I would 'use no other.' I
was about to meet Diana Chetwynd, and need not fear even to encounter
her critical eyes.

We had crossed the Serpentine bridge, and were just turning in upon the
Ride, when - and here I am only too conscious that what I am about to say
may strike you as almost incredible - when I heard an unfamiliar voice
addressing me with, 'I say - you!' and the moment afterwards realised
that it proceeded from my own horse!

I am not ashamed to own that I was as nearly off as possible; for a more
practised rider than I could pretend to be might have a difficulty in
preserving his equanimity in this all but unparalleled situation. I was
too much engaged in feeling for my left stirrup to make any reply, and
presently the horse spoke once more. 'I say,' he inquired, and I failed
to discern the slightest trace of respect in his tone - 'do you think you
can ride?' You can judge for yourself how disconcerting the inquiry must
have been from such lips: I felt rooted to the saddle - a sensation
which, with me, was sufficiently rare. I looked round in helpless
bewilderment, at the shimmering Serpentine, and the white houses in Park
Lane gleaming out of a lilac haze, at the cocoa-coloured Row, and the
flash of distant carriage-wheels in the sunlight: all looked as
usual - and yet, there was I on the back of a horse which had just
inquired 'whether I thought I could ride'!

'I have had two dozen lessons at a riding-school,' I said at last, with
rather a flabby dignity.

'I should hardly have suspected it,' was his brutal retort. 'You are
evidently one of the hopeless cases.'

I was deeply hurt, the more so because I could not deny that he had some
claim to be a judge. 'I - I thought we were getting on so nicely
together,' I faltered, and all he said in reply to that was, '_Did_

'Do you know,' I began, striving to be conversational, 'I never was on a
horse that talked before.'

'You are enough to make any horse talk,' he answered; 'but I suppose I
_am_ an exception.'

'I think you must be,' said I. 'The only horses I ever heard of as
possessing the gift of speech were the Houyhnhnms.'

'How do you know I am not one of them?' he replied.

'If you are, you will understand that I took the liberty of mounting you
under a very pardonable mistake; and if you will have the goodness to
stand still, I will no longer detain you.'

'Not so fast,' said he: 'I want to know something more about you first.
I should say now you were a man with plenty of oats.'

'I am - well off,' I said. How I wished I was!

'I have long been looking out for a proprietor who would not overwork
me: now, of course, I don't know, but you scarcely strike me as a _hard_

'I do not think I could be fairly accused of that,' I answered, with all
the consciousness of innocence.

'Just so - then buy me.'

'No,' I gasped: 'after the extremely candid opinion you were good enough
to express of my riding, I'm surprised that you should even suggest such
a thing.'

'Oh, I will put up with that - you will suit me well enough, I dare say.'

'You must excuse me. I prefer to keep my spare cash for worthier
objects; and, with your permission, I will spend the remainder of the
afternoon on foot.'

'You will do nothing of the sort,' said he.

'If you won't stop, and let me get off properly,' I said with firmness,
'I shall _roll_ off.' There were some promenaders within easy hail; but
how was I to word a call for help, how explain such a dilemma as mine?

'You will only reduce me to the painful necessity of rolling on you,' he
replied. 'You must see that you are to a certain extent in my power.
Suppose it occurred to me to leap those rails and take you into the
Serpentine, or to run away and upset a mounted policeman with you - do
you think you could offer much opposition?'

I could not honestly assert that I did. 'You were introduced to me,' I
said reproachfully, 'as a _kind_ horse!'

'And so I am - apart from matters of business. Come, will you buy, or be
bolted with? I hate indecision!'

'Buy!' I said, with commercial promptness. 'If you will take me back, I
will arrange about it at once.'

It is needless to say that my one idea was to get safely off his back:
after which, neither honour nor law could require me to execute a
contract extorted from me by threats. But, as we were going down the
mews, he said reflectively, 'I've been thinking - it will be better for
all parties, if you make your offer to my proprietor _before_ you
dismount.' I was too vexed to speak: this animal's infernal intelligence
had foreseen my manoeuvre - he meant to foil it, if he could.

And then we clattered in under the glass-roofed yard of the livery
stables; and the job-master, who was alone there, cast his eyes up at
the sickly-faced clock, as if he were comparing its pallor with my own.
'Why, you _are_ home early, sir,' he said. 'You didn't find the 'orse
too much for you, did you?' He said this without any suspicion of the
real truth; and, indeed, I may say, once for all, that this weird
horse - Houyhnhnm, or whatever else he might be - admitted no one but
myself into the secret of his marvellous gifts, and in all his
conversations with me, managed (though how, I cannot pretend to say) to
avoid being overheard.

'Oh, dear no,' I protested, 'he carried me admirably - admirably!' and I
made an attempt to slip off.

No such thing: Brutus instantly jogged my memory, and me, by the
slightest suggestion of a 'buck.'

'He's a grand 'orse, sir, isn't he?' said the job-master complacently.

'M - magnificent!' I agreed, with a jerk. 'Will you go to his head,

But the horse backed into the centre of the yard, where he plunged with
a quiet obstinacy. 'I like him so much,' I called out, as I clung to the
saddle, 'that I want to know if you're at all inclined to part with
him?' Here Brutus became calm and attentive.

'Would you be inclined to make me a orfer for him, sir?'

'Yes,' I said faintly. 'About how much would he be?'

'You step into my orfice here, sir,' said he, 'and we'll talk it over.'

I should have been only too willing, for there was no room there for the
horse, but the suspicious animal would not hear of it: he began to
revolve immediately.

'Let us settle it now - here,' I said, 'I can't wait.'

The job-master stroked away a grin. No doubt there _was_ something
unbusinesslike and unpractical in such precipitation, especially as
combined with my appearance at the time.

'Well, you _'ave_ took a voilent fancy to the 'orse and no mistake,
sir,' he remarked.

'I never crossed a handsomer creature,' I said; which was hardly a
prudent remark for an intending purchaser, but then, there was the
animal himself to be conciliated.

'I don't know, really, as I can do without him just at this time of
year,' said the man. 'I'm under-'orsed as it is for the work I've got to

A sweet relief stole over me: I had done all that could be expected of
me. 'I'm very sorry to hear that,' I said, preparing to dismount. 'That
_is_ a disappointment; but if you can't there's an end of it.'

'Don't you be afraid,' said Brutus, '_he'll_ sell me readily enough:
make him an offer, quick!'

'I'll give you thirty guineas for him, come!' I said, knowing well
enough that he would not take twice the money.

'I thought a gentleman like you would have had more insight into the
value of a 'orse,' he said: 'why, his action alone is worth that, sir.'

'You couldn't let me have the action without the horse, I suppose?' I
said, and I must have intended some joke.

It is unnecessary to prolong a painful scene. Brutus ran me up steadily
from sum to sum, until his owner said at last: 'Well, we won't 'aggle,
sir, call it a hundred.'

I had to call it a hundred, and what is more, it _was_ a hundred. I took
him without a warranty, without even a veterinary opinion. I could have
been induced to take my purchase away then and there, as if I had been
buying a canary, so unaccustomed was I to transactions of this kind, and
I am afraid the job-master considered me little better than a fool.

So I found myself the involuntary possessor of a Houyhnhnm, or something
even worse, and I walked back to my rooms in Park Street in a state of
stupor. What was I to do with him? To ride an animal so brutally
plainspoken would be a continual penance; and yet, I should have to keep
him, for I knew he was cunning enough to outwit any attempt to dispose
of him. And to this, Love and Ambition had led me! I could not, after
all I had said, approach Diana with any confidence as a mere pedestrian:
the fact that I was in possession of a healthy horse which I never rode,
would be sure to leak out in time, and how was I to account for it? I
could see no way, and I groaned under an embarrassment which I dared not
confide to the friendliest ear. I hated the monster that had saddled
himself upon me, and looked in vain for any mode of escape.

I had to provide Brutus with stabling in another part of the town, for
he proved exceedingly difficult to please: he found fault with
everything, and I only wonder he did not demand that his stable should
be fitted up with blue china and mezzotints. In his new quarters I left
him for some days to his own devices: a course which I was glad to find,
on visiting him again, had considerably reduced his arrogance. He wanted
to go in the Row and see the other horses, and it did not at all meet
his views to be exercised there by a stableman at unfashionable hours.
So he proposed a compromise. If I would only consent to mount him, he
engaged to treat me with forbearance, and pointed out that he could give
me, as he expressed it, various 'tips' which would improve my seat. I
was not blind to the advantages of such an arrangement. It is not every
one who secures a riding-master in the person of his own horse; the
horse is essentially a generous animal, and I felt that I might trust to
Brutus's honour. And to do him justice, he observed the compact with
strict good faith. Some of his 'tips,' it is true, very nearly tipped me
off, but their result was to bring us closer together; our relations
were less strained; it seemed to me that I gained more mastery over him
every day, and was less stiff afterwards.

But I was not allowed to enjoy this illusion long. One day when I
innocently asked him if he found my hands improving, he turned upon me
his off sardonic eye. 'You'll _never_ improve, old sack-of-beans' (for
he had come to address me with a freedom I burned to resent); 'hands!
why, you're sawing my mouth off all the time. And your feet "home," and
tickling me under my shoulders at every stride - why, I'm half ashamed to
be seen about with you.'

I was deeply hurt. 'I will spare you for the future,' I said coldly;
'this is my last appearance.'

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Online LibraryF. AnsteyThe talking horse and other tales → online text (page 1 of 18)