Chapter XII

Violetta, the Horse Tamer

Peter led the way through the house. The back door opened upon the stable yard, spick and span, almost painfully clean. He called to a groom and the man walked behind his master and supplemented when necessary the description given by Peter to the visitor of the pedigree and capabilities of each horse.

Violetta was at once on good terms with the animals. She patted and caressed them, gave them sugar and allowed them to touch her with their noses and satisfy themselves that she was really their friend. Violetta knew well enough how important to horses is the sense of smell.

But the question of buying one, the owner of which might be willing to part with, was a different matter. The lowest price was £500 for a black mare, and Violetta told Peter contemptuously she wouldn’t have her at a gift.

“I dunno but what you’re right,” said the trainer. “She might be the mother of a good horse, but she’s no good herself. I’m afeared, Miss Violetta, we can’t strike a bargain.”

“I’ll have to look out for a cab horse of good blood and fast, but with a little vice which I should have to cure him of,” returned Violetta jestingly.

“I’ve heard of such wonders, but never see one. Well, I suppose we’d better return to the house.”

“What’s in that farther stable? Sounds like a kicker.”

At that moment came a violent thud against the woodwork.

“Kicker’s right. He’s a beast. Can’t do nothing with him. If I could there wouldn’t be a horse in the stables as ’ud beat him.”

“May I look at the brute?”

The stable was the last of a series. The door was the usual half one, and Violetta looked through the upper open portion.

“Don’t go too near, Miss,” warned Peter. “There’s no knowing what he’ll do when he’s in a bad temper. How’s Belphegor been behaving this morning, Simmons?”

“A bit ratty, sir. Misses the boy, I reckon.”

“That lad you think of taking on, Miss Vaughan, was the only one in the place as could do anything with him.”

“Really? What are you going to do now the boy’s gone?”

“That’s a bit of a puzzle. He hasn’t been rubbed down since yesterday morning, has he, Simmons?”

“No, sir. Not any of us dursn’t go nigh him. Hasn’t been out neither. We thought as there might be a bother to get him in again. Sometimes he won’t look at his stable. Tim allays had to coax him and sometimes it took him an hour.”

Violetta stood silently watching the animal and taking in his points. He was a light chestnut with a white streak down his nose, a combination which gave him a vicious aspect, which was probably added to by the furtive look in his big eyes. He was not a handsome horse, but was enormously developed in all the muscles which make for speed and strength.

“He ought to be a good stayer,” said Violetta.

“That’s right, miss; but who’s to tell? He’s never yet been fully extended. We did have one trial with young Hollis on his back, and none of the others had a look in. Even then he didn’t show what he could do when put to it.”

Belphegor clearly didn’t like the little crowd staring at him. His ears were laid back, and his fore feet firmly planted. Then he gave an impatient stamp, pawed the ground, two or three times and wheeled round with a nervous switching of the tail.

“Lend me your crop, Simmons,” said Violetta.

The groom was holding a hunting crop, which he handed over hesitatingly and with a glance at the trainer.

“What are you going to do, Miss Vaughan?” cried Peter, as Violetta laid her hand on the bolt of the half door and shot it back.

“Going into the stable,” said she, smilingly.

“Not with my consent. I tell you straight you’re running a terrible risk. You don’t know what the beast is like.”

“Exactly. I want to satisfy myself. It’s a woman’s nature to be curious.”

“That may be, and she sometimes suffers for it. What about Bluebeard’s wives?”

“Bluebeard’s wives don’t concern me. I’m nobody’s wife.”

By this time the bolt was drawn back, and before Peter Gumley could prevent her, she was a couple of feet inside the stable. The trainer and the groom were about to follow her, but Violetta imperiously waved them back.

“If you don’t want me to come to harm you’ll leave me alone and stay outside.”

“Mercy on us, you don’t seem to care,” cried the trainer, adding to himself, “but she’s right after all. Well, well, good luck go with her.”

So they waited wonderingly while Violetta advanced another couple of paces, calling out softly to Simmons as she did so to shut the door behind her and to keep out of view. She strongly suspected that the horse had his reasons for disliking the groom.

Violetta advanced no further, but stood still as a statue while feeling in her pocket for sugar. She knew quite well that whether with animals or birds it is movement on the part of a human being which startles them and excites their distrust. She had tested the accuracy of this belief, so far as birds and squirrels were concerned, many times in Fontainebleu forest and in the woods at Nice.

Belphegor condescended to look at her. Neither his demeanour nor his attitude was quite so hostile. He stamped his foot once or twice, but he did not bring his hoof down so savagely as before.

“Come along, old chap” said Violetta, softly and caressingly.

The horse was still suspicious, but he was, at the same time, curious. He wanted to decide whether she was a friend or an enemy. Had she moved, the spell she had begun to exercise would have been broken. She was in no hurry, and did not attempt to do more than talk to the horse softly and soothingly. In about a quarter of an hour Belphegor, his ears perfectly normal, advanced slowly towards her. She waited quietly. He rubbed his nose against her arm, and she patted his neck and stroked his crest. It was a sort of massage and evidently to Belphegor’s taste.

Violetta did not believe in whispering some kind of shibboleth in the horse’s ear​—​a performance which some horse trainers used to go through, but in which there is really nothing, so far as the shibboleth is concerned. She whispered, it is true, but what she said was much the same as before, just a few petting words, and she breathed in his nose. Then came the sugar. This completed the conquest.

Just to show she had quite won the affections of the horse, she went on to coax him into the stall to which she had been told he had at times a strong objection, and of which a proof was pretty plain in the shattered boards on one side. This she effected by rubbing his side and flank with the handle end of a hunting crop. He moved under the feel and pressure of the crop in the direction she wanted, and at length she had the satisfaction of seeing him in his stall quite quiet and contented. He even allowed her to tie him up. Then she returned to the door, the horse looking after her. The whole operation had occupied about an hour.

“By the lord, Miss Violetta, if you bean’t a wonder,” cried the trainer. “What do you think o’ that, Simmons?”

“I dunno what to think, master. If I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t ha’ believed it. What about giving him a rub down now he’s in a good temper?”

“Don’t do anything of the kind,” Violetta cut in imperatively. “I wouldn’t answer for his behaviour with anybody but myself or with the lad you’ve got rid of. Leave him alone for a bit. Mr. Gumley, I’d like to have a talk with you about Belphegor.”

“It’s just this,” said she, when they were alone. “I’ve a fancy for buying that horse. He’s no good to the owner as he is. None of your men can be trusted to touch him, and he’s only eating his head off. What do you think would be a fair sum?”

“I daresay I could get him for £150.”

“Too much. A hundred’s my figure.”

“An’ he stood me in at £550. Fact is, Miss Vaughan, the brute’s mine. He comes from a good stock​—​Mountebank, out o’ Cutty Sark, and I bought him a thinking as I could break him in. An’ so I should ha’ done if that urchin Tim hadn’t played me false. Tell ye what, miss, you shall have him for £100 and you give me 20 per cent, on all his winnings for the next three years.”

“Done, Mr. Gumley. Draw out a little memorandum and I’ll take away Belphegor at once.”

“The devil you will. How are you going to do it?”

“On his back, of course.”

“Then I hope as your life’s insured. I may tell ’ee it’s all a job to saddle him.”

“I expect so. Anyhow, I’ll tackle it.”

Peter wrote out a memorandum of the sale and its conditions. Violetta, who had made up her mind that she was going to buy something and had come prepared, gave him a cheque and the transaction was completed.

“Before we go any further, Mr. Gumley, just tell me the real reason why you got rid of Tim Hollis and what you mean by saying that he played you false?”

“On the strict q.t., then, miss, I feel satisfied he’s been got at by a gang. Perhaps you don’t know I’ve the favourites for the Two Thou, and Derby in hand, an’ knowing what I do know, I’ve got to guard ’em like the apple of my eye.”

“Who’s the leader of the gang​—​George Godfree?”

“Aye. You’ve hit it fust go.”

“I’ve heard that Godfree was at the bottom of Sir John Norman’s losses. But wasn’t there someone else behind him?”

“That’s so. You know a lot, so I may as well speak out. The man who pulled the wires was Dan Westoby. I don’t ’xactly know the rights of the story, but it seems as Sir John Norman and Westoby quarrelled, years ago. Sir John got the best of it, whatever it was and Westoby swore to get his own back an’ I guess he did it. It’s him as owns Normanhurst now.”

“I understand,” said Violetta drily. “I’m glad you’ve told me this. By the way, don’t let anybody know you’ve sold Belphegor to me. Just for the time being I shall lie low and watch the horse. No one will suspect what I’m doing at the Owl’s Nest. It’s about the last place in the world, I suppose, where one would train a racer.”

“You’re right there. You may trust me and Simmons too. You’ve made up your mind then to take on young Tim?”

“Yes. I can’t do without him. What about saddling Belphegor?”

“You’d better have a snack o’ lunch first. It may take you an hour or more to saddle him, and you’ll want summat to work on.”

Violetta agreed that the idea wasn’t a bad one, and shortly after she was sitting down with the trainer and his wife before a cold Surrey chicken and a prime Yorkshire ham. When the meal was finished, she went back with Peter to the stables. She stipulated that she was to be left to herself, and the trainer agreed. He brought her a side saddle at which she laughed.

“That’s no good. I wouldn’t trust myself in a woman’s saddle on the back of a horse like Belphegor.”

“What! D’ye want a man’s saddle?”

“Certainly. Haven’t I dressed myself for the part?”

Peter Gumley was a little old-fashioned in his notions. He knew perfectly well that riding straddle-legged was coming into favour with horsewomen, but he did not countenance it. However, he was not going to contradict Violetta, who he could see was bound to do as she liked, and with a shake of the head he brought her a man’s saddle, with which she went into the stable.

Belphegor looked round at the sound of the door opening, and at first showed signs of uneasiness, but he must have recognised Violetta, for he let her come quite close to him. She patted and rubbed his neck and let him see the saddle and touch it with his nose and smell it. She was not in the slightest hurry, and every step to familiarise the animal with the saddle was done with the greatest deliberation. Then she patted his back, and in a way went through a form of massage just where the saddle would rest, and in due time when she judged the opportunity had come she gently placed the saddle upon him. He did not show the slightest objection, and cautiously she fastened and tightened the girth but only by degrees.

Saddling had to be followed by putting on the bridle, and this also was done without much trouble. The next thing was to get the horse accustomed to the new feeling, and with her arm resting on the saddle she walked him slowly about the stable. It was over an hour before she was sufficiently satisfied it was safe to mount him, and the stable being of considerable height, she was able to do this inside.

Then she called out to Peter to open the door, and she rode out looking as gallant a horsewoman as one could wish to see. The trainer was forced to express his admiration.

“But lor, miss, there’s some o’ you women as looks a picture, no matter what you do or wear, and I’m danged if you’re not one of ’em.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gumley. You’ll let me come and see you again, won’t you?”

“Whenever you like, Miss Violetta. You’ll always be welcome. Besides, I shall be anxious to know how Belphegor’s behaving. If you goes on with him as you’ve begun, I may make a bit of money. Who knows?”

“I hope so. But you’ll have to come to the Owl’s Nest. I shall want to consult you.”

“Right y’are. Only too pleased.”

Violetta raised the whip she had borrowed in token of farewell, and rode away at a gentle canter. The horse moved with a delightfully easy free action, and she could even fancy that he was pleased to get away from the trainer’s quarters. It was probable this was so, for Violetta learned afterwards that nearly all the men at the stables had had a go at taming Belphegor, and the notions of the majority were based on cruelty and fatigue to break the horse’s spirit. These attempts had been hopeless failures.

The journey to the Owl’s Nest, not excepting the broken winding ascending road to the house, was covered without any mishap. The way was lonely, and out of the beaten track, and nothing like a car or a motor cycle was encountered. Despite her success, Violetta was glad when she had Belphegor safely in the stable she had had prepared for her first purchase. The horse was still highly nervous, and she wanted him to get thoroughly used to her before she would trust him anywhere.

Violetta had a long rest, for her work with Belphegor had been very exhausting. She was lying down in the evening thinking over things when Mrs. Stubbles, the brawny poultry maid, housemaid and cook, and “general utility” domestic announced the arrival of a lad.

“Says, miss, as you told him to call.”

“Quite right, Stubbles. Show him in here.”

Directly she was alone, Violetta rose and placed a chair near the standard floor lamp, so that the light from the latter should fall upon it, and resumed her recumbent position on the couch.

Tim Hollis shuffled into the room in a shy, shambling fashion, and stood awkwardly, cap in hand, his eyes lost in wonder at the vision of beauty on the couch. He hadn’t ceased to think about her ever since she spoke to him in the road. Provokingly charming as she was in her semi-masculine attire, she was still more so, though in a different way, now that she had gone back to her woman’s dress.

It amused Violetta and flattered her to see the lad’s confusion.

“Sit down, Tim,” said she, pointing to the chair under the lamp.

He obeyed, his freckled face reddening to the roots of his hair. Where he was sitting she could study his expression and tell whether he was speaking the truth.

“What have you been doing since I saw you?” said she.

“Nothing, miss.”

“That’s no answer. How have you been passing the time?”

“Walking about over the downs.”

“Have you come across any of your friends​—​I don’t mean any of Gumley’s men. Friends from London. Do you understand?”

Tim did understand. He saw that the beautiful lady knew something and was not to be taken in. His colour fled, and he fingered the buttons on his jacket nervously.

“I ain’t got any friends in London,” he mumbled.

“Look here, Tim, whether I take you on depends upon you speaking the truth.”

“It is the truth, miss, I’m a telling you, s’elp me. I do know one or two chaps as live in London, but I don’t call ’em friends.”

“They’ve given you money, haven’t they?”

“Just a bob or two.”

“What for?”

“Only for talking a bit.”

“About Peter Gumley’s horses?”

“They was allays asking questions an’ a bothering me.”

“You needn’t have answered. You could have told them to go to Jericho. Why did you give away your master’s secrets? It wasn’t playing the game.”

“I know it warn’t. Anyhow, I didn’t tell ’em much.”

“You oughtn’t to have told anything. What was your grudge against Mr Gumley?”

Tim did not answer for a few seconds. Then he burst out:

“He wouldn’t let me have a chance with Belphegor. I told him as the horse was the best two-year-old going, but he wouldn’t trust me on him. He put Jack Parsons up once and Jack was throwed like a shuttlecock and broke his leg, and Jack’s the best rider in the stables. For all that, Jack rode him at the A.P. Spring Meeting an’ nigh pulled it off. I love that horse, miss. We’re like two pals, an’ I wanted him at the top of the tree. When I see as Peter was dead set against him I s’pose I did have a drop now and again, an’ it was then that Barney Moss got at me. You can’t drink for nothing nowadays. P’raps Peter didn’t tell you as he give me the sack about two months ago and took me on again?”

“No, he didn’t. How was that?”

“It was this way. I’d been a lifting the right arm too much​—​was a bit boozed, you know​—​an’ he said he’d have no more of it an’ off I went. Well, I got worritted over Belphegor. I knew as he wouldn’t get his food property. None of the others durst go nigh him, and so the next night I climbs over the fence to look after him. He knowed me fast enough, and he made a noise that woke up Simmons and afore I could do a bunk I was collared, an’​—​what d’ye think?​—​accused of burgling!”

“But surely you explained why were you in the stables?”

“Ra-ther. Then Simmons, as hates me like pi-son, shifted his ground. He swore that if it wasn’t burglary I was getting at it was something worse​—​tampering with some of the horses. Old Peter wouldn’t believe it, of me, and when the missus stuck up for me and said I’d done the right thing by Belphegor, he took me back. But the rest of the stable was all against me. Things went from bad to worse, and then I got kicked out for good. I don’t care so much about that. What’s bothering me is what’ll become of Belphegor.”

“I think I can help you there, Tim,” said Violetta, rising from the couch. “Come with me.”

She was fully convinced that Tim had spoken the truth, and she came to the conclusion that it was a wonderful stroke of luck which had caused her to encounter him at the right moment.

Leading the way to the outbuildings she unhooked a lantern, lighted it, and softly opened the stable door.

No sooner did Tim set eyes on the horse than he shook from head to foot.

“T’aint him,” Violetta heard him mutter. “Can’t be. Yet t’aint his ghost either. I dunno——”

Belphegor had turned his head and had made a little snorting sound that Tim knew well enough. The next moment he was by the horse, his arms round its neck and Belphegor was rubbing his nose against the lad’s sleeve.

Violetta never uttered a word. She understood Tim’s feelings and respected his emotion. Under similar circumstances she would have acted in much the same manner​—​shed a tear or two.

“He knows me, he do. See, Miss?” burst out Tim. “But it beats me to find him here.”

“I’ve bought Belphegor, Tim, and you can stay and look after him so long as you behave yourself and are true to me.”

“True to you, miss. I’d fight for you to the last drop o’ my blood,” said Tim, amid his blubbering.

“That’s enough, Tim, I believe you. After you’ve said all you want to say to Belphegor go to Mrs. Stubbles. She’ll look after you and give you some supper. Be nice to her. She’s one of the best. Perhaps you’d like to have a shake down in the stable along with your pet.”

“That I should, miss.”

“Good. Then you know what to do.”

And Violetta tripped away, leaving Tim in a state of mind best described by his not knowing whether he was on his head or his heels.