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Break-Neck Hill by Esther Forbes

 

Down Holly Street the tide had set in for church. It was a proper, dilatory tide. Every silk-hat glistened, every shoe was blacked, the flowers on the women's hats were as fresh as the daffodils against the house fronts. Few met face to face, now and then a faster walker would catch up with acquaintances and join them or, with a flash of raised hat, bow, and pass on down the stream.

Then the current met an obstacle. A man, young and graceful and very much preoccupied, walked through the church-goers, faced in the opposite direction. His riding breeches and boots showed in spite of the loose overcoat worn to cover them. He bowed continually, like royalty from a landau, almost as mechanically, and answered the remarks that greeted him.

“Hello, Geth.”

“Hello.”

“Good morning, Mr. Gething. Not going to church this morning.” This from a friend of his mother.

“Good morning. No, not this morning.” He met a chum.

“Good riding day, eh?”

“Great.”

“Well, Geth, don't break your neck.”

“You bet not.”

“I'll put a P.S. on the prayer for you,” said the wag.

“Thanks a lot.” The wag was always late—even to church on Easter morning. So Gething knew the tail of the deluge was reached and past. He had the street almost to himself. It was noticeable that the man had not once called an acquaintance by name or made the first remark. His answers had been as reflex as his walking. Geth was thinking, and in the sombre eyes was the dumb look of a pain that would not be told—perhaps he considered it too slight.

He left Holly Street and turned into Holly Park. Here from the grass that bristled so freshly, so ferociously green, the tree trunks rose black and damp. Brown pools of water reflected a blue radiant sky through blossoming branches. Gething subsided on a bench well removed from the children and nurse maids. First he glanced at the corner of Holly Street and the Boulevard where a man from his father's racing stable would meet him with his horse. His face, his figure, his alert bearing, even his clothes promised a horse-man. The way his stirrups had worn his boots would class him as a rider. He rode with his foot “through” as the hunter, steeple chaser, and polo-player do—not on the ball of his foot in park fashion.

He pulled off his hat and ran his hand over his close-cropped head. Evidently he was still thinking. Across his face the look of pain ebbed and returned, then he grew impatient. His wrist-watch showed him his horse was late and he was in a hurry to be started, for what must be done had best be done quickly. Done quickly and forgotten, then he could give his attention to the other horses. There was Happiness—an hysterical child, and Goblin, who needed training over water jumps, and Sans Souci, whose lame leg should be cocained to locate the trouble—all of his father's stable of great thoroughbreds needed something except Cuddy, who waited only for the bullet. Gething's square brown hand went to his breeches pocket, settled on something that was cold as ice and drew it out—the revolver. The horse he had raced so many times at Piping Rock, Brookline, Saratoga had earned the right to die by this hand which had guided him. Cuddy's high-bred face came vividly before his eyes and the white star would be the mark. He thrust the revolver back in his pocket hastily for a child had stopped to look at him, then slowly rose and fell to pacing the gravel walk. A jay screamed overhead, “Jay, jay, jay!”

“You fool,” Geth called to him and then muttered to himself. “Fool, fool—oh, Geth——” From the boulevard a voice called him.

“Mr. Gething—if you please, sir——!” It was Willet the trainer.

“All right, Willet.” The trainer was mounted holding a lean greyhound of a horse. Gething pulled down the stirrups.

“I meant to tell you to bring Cuddy for me to ride, last time, you know.”

“Not that devil. I could never lead him in. Frenchman, here, is well behaved in cities.”

Gething swung up. He sat very relaxed upon a horse. There was a lifetime of practice behind that graceful seat and manner with the reins. The horse started a low shuffling gait that would take them rapidly out of the city to the Gething country place and stables.

“You know,” Geth broke silence, “Cuddy's got his—going to be shot.”

“Not one of us, sir,” said Willet, “but will sing Hallelujah! He kicked a hole in Muggins yesterday. None of the boys dare touch him, so he hasn't been groomed proper since your father said he was to go. It's more dangerous wipin' him off than to steeplechase the others.” Geth agreed. “I know it isn't right to keep a brute like that.”

“No, sir. When he was young and winning stakes it seemed different. I tell you what, we'll all pay a dollar a cake for soap made out 'er old Cuddy.”

“There'll be no soap made out of old Cuddy,” Gething interrupted him, “I'll ride him out—up to the top of Break-Neck Hill and shoot him there. You'd better begin the trench by noon. When it's dug I'll take him to the top and——”

“But nobody's been on his back since your father said it was useless to try to make him over. Too old for steeplechasing and too much the racer for anything else, and too much the devil to keep for a suvnor.”

“Well, I'll ride him once again.”

“But, Mr. Geth, he's just been standing in his box or the paddock for four weeks now. We've been waiting for you to say when he was to be shot. He's in a sweet temper and d' y'er know, I think, I do——”

“What do you think?” Willet blushed purple.

“I think Cuddy's got something in his head, some plan if he gets out. I think he wants to kill some one before he dies. Yes, sir, kill him. And you know if he gets the start of you there is no stopping the dirty devil.”

“Yes, he does tear a bit,” Geth admitted. “But I never was on a surer jumper. Lord! How the old horse can lift you!” Gething dropped into a disconsolate silence, interrupted before long by Willet.

“Happiness will get Cuddy's box—she's in a stall. Cuddy was always mean to her—used to go out of his way to kick her—and she, sweet as a kitten.”

“So you'll give her his box in revenge?”

“Revenge? Oh, no sir. Just common sense.” Any thought of a sentimental revenge was distasteful to the trainer, but he was glad that good Happiness should get his box and disappointed about the soap. It would have lent relish to his somewhat perfunctory washings to say to himself, “Doubtless this here bit of soap is a piece of old Cuddy.”

“How long will the trench take?”

“A good bit of time, sir. Cuddy isn't no kitten we're laying by. I'll put them gardeners on the job—with your permission—and they know how to shovel. You'll want an old saddle on him?”

“No, no, the one I've raced him in, number twelve, and his old bridle with the chain bit.”

“Well, well,” said Willet rubbing his veiny nose.

He considered the horse unworthy of any distinction, but in his desire to please Geth, took pains to prepare Cuddy for his death and burial. Gething was still at the big house although it was four o'clock and the men on Break-Neck Hill were busy with their digging. Willet called them the sextons.

“And we, Joey,” he addressed a stable boy, “we're the undertakers. Handsome corpse, what?” Cuddy stood in the centre of the barn floor fastened to be groomed. He was handsome, built on the cleanest lines of speed and strength, lean as an anatomical study, perfect for his type. The depth of chest made his legs, neck, and head look fragile. His face was unusually beautiful—the white-starred face which had been before Geth's eyes as he had sat in Holly Park. His pricked ears strained to hear, his eyes to see. The men working over him were beneath his notice.

“Look at him,” complained Joey, “he pays no more attention to us than as if we weren't here.” Cuddy usually kicked during grooming, but his present indifference was more insulting.

“Huh!” said Willet. “he knows them sextons went to Break-Neck to dig the grave for him. Don't yer, Devil? Say, Joey, look at him listening like he was counting the number of spadefuls it takes to make a horse's grave. He's thinking, old Cuddy is, and scheming what he'd like to do. I wouldn't ride him from here to Break-Neck, not for a thousand dollars.” He began rapidly with the body brush on Cuddy's powerful haunch, then burst out:

“He thinks he'll be good and we'll think he's hit the sawdust trail, or perhaps he wants to look pretty in his coffin. Huh! Give me that curry. You wash off his face a bit.” Cuddy turned his aristocratic face away from the wet cloth and blew tremulously. Joey tapped the blazing star on his forehead.

“Right there,” he explained to Willet, “but anyhow he's begun to show his age.” He pointed the muzzle which had the run forward look of an old horse and to the pits above the eyes. The grooming was finished but neither Gething came to the stable from the big house nor the trench diggers from Break-Neck to say that their work was done.

“Say, Joey,” suggested Willet, “I'll do up his mane in red and yellow worsteds, like he was going to be exhibited. Red and yellow look well on a bay. You get to the paddock and see Frenchman hasn't slipped his blanket while I fetch the worsteds from the office.”

Cuddy left alone, stopped his listening and began pulling at his halter. It held him firm. From the brown dusk of their box-stalls two lines of expectant horses' faces watched him. The pretty chestnut, Happiness, already had been transferred to his old box, her white striped face was barely visible. Farther down, on the same side, Goblin stood staring stupidly and beyond were the heads of the three brothers, Sans Pareil, Sans Peur and the famous Sans Souci who could clear seven feet of timber (and now was lame.) Opposite stood Bohemia, cold blood in her veins as a certain thickness about the throat testified, and little Martini, the flat racer. On either side of him were Hotspur and Meteor and there were a dozen others as famous. Above each stall was hung the brass plate giving the name and pedigree and above that up to the roof the hay was piled sweet and dusty-smelling. The barn swallows twittered by an open window in the loft. In front of Cuddy the great double doors were open to the fields and pastures, the gray hills and the radiant sky. Cuddy reared abruptly striking out with his front legs, crouched and sprang against his halter again, but it held him fast. Willet, on returning with his worsted, found him as he had left him, motionless as a bronze horse on a black marble clock.

Willet stood on a stool the better to work on the horse's neck. His practised fingers twisted and knotted the mane and worsted, then cut the ends into hard tassels. The horse's withers were reached and the tassels bobbing rakishly gave a hilarious look to the condemned animal.

Four men, very sweaty, carrying spades entered.

“It's done,” said the first, nodding, “and it's a big grave. Glad pet horses don't die oftener.”

“This ain't a pet,” snapped Willet. “He's just that much property and being of no more use is thrown away—just like an old tin can. No more sense in burying one than the other. If I had my way about it I'd——” But Geth entered. With his coat off he gave an impression of greater size, like Cuddy his lines were graceful enough to minimize his weight.

“Hole dug? Well, let's saddle up and start out.” He did not go up to Cuddy to speak to him as he usually would have done, but as if trying to avoid him, he fell to patting Happiness's striped face. She was fretful in her new quarters. “Perhaps,” thought Willet, “she knows it's old Cuddy and he's gone out for good.” All the horses seemed nervous and unhappy. It was as if they knew that one of their number was to be taken out to an inglorious death—not the fortune to die on the turf track as a steeple-chaser might wish, but ignominiously, on a hill top, after a soft canter through spring meadows.

Cuddy stood saddled and bridled and then Willet turned in last appeal to his master's son.

“Mr. Geth, I wouldn't ride him—not even if I rode as well as you, which I don't. That horse has grown worse and worse these last months. He wants to kill some one, that's what he wants.” Geth shook his head.

“No use, Willet, trying to scare me. I know what I'm doing, eh Cuddy?” He went to the horse and rubbed the base of his ears. The satin head dropped forward on to the man's chest, a rare response from Cuddy. Gething led him out of the stable, Willet held his head as the man mounted.

As he thrust his foot in the stirrup Cuddy lunged at Willet, his savage yellow teeth crushed into his shoulder. The rider pulled him off striking him with his heavy hunting whip. The horse squealed, arched himself in the air and sidled down the driveway. He did not try to run or buck, but seemed intent on twisting himself into curves and figures. The two went past the big house with its gables and numberless chimneys and down to the end of the driveway.

There is a four foot masonry wall around the Gething country-place (“farm” they call it). The horse saw it and began jerking at his bit and dancing, for ever since colt-hood walls had had but one meaning for him.

“Well, at it old man,” laughed Gething. At a signal Cuddy flew at it, rose into the air with magnificent strength and landed like thistle-down.

“Cuddy,” cried the man, “there never was a jumper like you. Break-Neck will keep, we'll find some more walls first.” He crossed the road and entered a rough pasture. It was a day of such abounding life one could pity the worm the robin pulled. For on such a day everything seemed to have the right to live and be happy. The crows sauntered across the sky, care free as hoboes. Under foot the meadow turf oozed water, the shad-bush petals fell like confetti before the rough assault of horse and rider. Gething liked this day of wind and sunshine. In the city there had been the smell of oiled streets to show that spring had come, here was the smell of damp earth, pollen, and burnt brush. Suddenly he realized that Cuddy, too, was pleased and contented for he was going quietly now, occasionally he threw up his head and blew “Heh, heh!” through his nostrils. Strange that Willet had thought Cuddy wanted to kill some one—all he really wanted was a bit of a canter.

A brook was reached. It was wide, marshy, edged with cowslips. It would take a long jump to clear it. Gething felt the back gather beneath him, the tense body flung into the air, the flight through space, then the landing well upon the firm bank.

“Bravo, Cuddy!” the horse plunged and whipped his head between his forelegs, trying to get the reins from the rider's hands. Gething let himself be jerked forward until his face almost rested on the veiny neck.

“Old tricks, Cuddy. I knew that one before you wore your first shoes.” He still had easy control and began to really let him out. There was a succession of walls and fences and mad racing through fields when the horse plunged in his gait and frightened birds fluttered from the thicket and Gething hissed between his teeth as he always did when he felt a horse going strong beneath him.

Then they came to a hill that rose out of green meadows. It was covered with dingy pine trees except the top that was bared like a tonsure. A trail ran through the woods; a trail singularly morose and unattractive. The pines looked shabby and black in comparison to the sun on the spring meadows. This was Break-Neck Hill. Perhaps Cuddy felt his rider stiffen in the saddle for he refused passionately to take the path. He set his will against Gething's and fought, bucking and rearing. When a horse is capable of a six foot jump into the air his great strength and agility make his bucking terrible. The broncho is a child in size and strength compared to Cuddy's race of super-horse. Twice Geth went loose in his flat saddle and once Cuddy almost threw himself. The chain bit had torn the edges of his mouth and blood coloured his froth. Suddenly he acquiesced and quiet again, he took the sombre path. Geth thrust his right hand into his pocket, the revolver was still there. His hand left it and rested on the bobbing, tasseled mane.

“Old man,” he addressed the horse, “I know you don't know where you're going and I know you don't remember much, but you must remember Saratoga and how we beat them all. And Cuddy, you'd understand—if you could—how it's all over now and why I want to do it for you myself.”

The woods were cleared. It was good to leave their muffled dampness for the pure sunshine of the crest. On the very top of the hill clean-cut against the sky stood a great wind-misshaped pine. At the foot of this pine was a bank of fresh earth and Gething knew that beyond the bank was the trench. He bent in his saddle and pressed his forehead against the warm neck. Before his eyes was the past they had been together, the sweep of the turf course, the grandstand a-flutter, grooms with blankets, jockeys and gentlemen in silk, owners' wives with cameras, then the race that always seemed so short—a rush of horses, the stretching over the jumps, and the purse or not, it did not matter.

He straightened up with a grim set to his jaw and gathered the loosened reins. Cuddy went into a canter and so approached the earth bank. Suddenly he refused to advance and again the two wills fought, but not so furiously. Cuddy was shaking with fear. The bank was a strange thing, a fearsome thing, and the trench beyond, ghastly. His neck stretched forward. “Heh, heh!” he blew through his nostrils.

“Six steps nearer, Cuddy.” Geth struck him lightly with his spurs. The horse paused by the bank and began rocking slightly.

“Sist! be quiet,” for they were on the spot Gething wished. The horse gathered himself, started to rear, then sprang into the air, cleared earth-mound and trench and bounded down the hill. The tremendous buck-jump he had so unexpectedly taken, combined with his frantic descent, gave Gething no chance to get control until the level was reached. Then, with the first pull on the bridle, he realized it was too late. For a while at least Cuddy was in command. Gething tried all his tricks with the reins, the horse dashed on like a furious gust of wind, he whirled through the valley, across a ploughed field, over a fence and into more pastures. Gething, never cooler, fought for the control. The froth blown back against his white shirt was rosy with blood. Cuddy was beyond realizing his bit. Then Gething relaxed a little and let him go. He could guide him to a certain extent. Stop him he could not.

The horse was now running flatly and rapidly. He made no attempt to throw his rider. What jumps were in his way he took precisely. Unlike the crazed runaway of the city streets Cuddy never took better care of himself. It seemed that he was running for some purpose and Gething thought of Willet's often repeated remark, “Look at 'im—old Cuddy, he's thinking.” Two miles had been covered and the gait had become business-like. Gething, guiding always to the left, was turning him in a huge circle. The horse reeked with sweat. “Now,” thought Gething, “he's had enough,” but at the first pressure on the bit Cuddy increased his speed. His breath caught in his throat. There was another mile and the wonderful run grew slower. The man felt the great horse trip and recover himself. He was tired out. Again the fight between master and horse began. Cuddy resisted weakly, then threw up his beautiful, white-starred face as if in entreaty.

“Oh, I'm——” muttered Gething and let the reins lie loose on his neck, “your own way, Cuddy. Your way is better than mine. Old friend, I'll not try to stop you again.” For he knew if he tried he could now gain control. The early dusk of spring had begun to settle on the surface of the fields in a hazy radiance, a marvelous light that seemed to breathe out from the earth and stream through the sky. A mile to the east upon a hill was a farm house. The orange light from the sunset found every window, blinded them and left them blank oblongs of orange. The horse and rider passed closer to this farm. Two collies rushed forward, then stopped to bark and jump. The light enveloped them and gave each a golden halo.

Again Gething turned still keeping toward the left. A hill began to rise before them and up it the horse sped, his breath whirring and rattling in his throat, but his strength still unspent. To the very top he made his way and paused dazed. “Oh, Cuddy,” cried Gething, “this is Break-Neck.” For there was the wind-warped pine, the bank of earth, the trench. The horse came to a shivering standstill. The bank looked strange to him. He stood sobbing, his body rocking slightly, rocking gently, then with a sigh, came slowly down on to the turf. Gething was on his feet, his hand on the dripping neck.

“You always were a bad horse and I always loved you,” he whispered, “and that was a great ride, and now——” He rose abruptly and turned away as he realized himself alone in the soft twilight. The horse was dead. Then he returned to the tense body, so strangely thin and wet, and removed saddle and bridle. With these hung on his arm he took the sombre path through the pines for home.