Open main menu

In Bad Company, and other Stories/Old Time Thoroughbreds

< In Bad Company, and other Stories


When the sons of Woden are admitted into Valhalla, it will be an incomplete Elysium for some of us, maugre the perennial flow of ale and the æsthetic fancy of the goblets, unless the good steed Hengst, whom we have so loved on earth, be permitted resurrection. Alick and Jimmy Hunter would miss Romeo. Could Cornborough be excluded from any realm of bliss which contained 'Dolly' Goldsmith? How superior were those grand horses, not to mention The Premier and Rory O'More, in all their attributes to the average human individual, about whose title to such noble immortality there is no question. I cannot believe that they are doomed to extinction, to eternal oblivion. They are dead and gone, doubtless. But lest any reader of these memories should lack future opportunity of feasting his eyes upon those wondrous equine shapes, I essay faintly to recall their leading characteristics.

Romeo, son of Sir Hercules and Pasta, was a golden chestnut, with a narrow blaze and white hind legs. Originally imported to Tasmania from England, he was in 1842 located at Miamamaluke Station on the 'Devil's River' in Victoria, then the property of the Messrs. Hunter. He died in my possession some years later, and, as I used to look at him for at least half an hour every day for the first few months of ownership, I may, without presumption, attempt a pen-and-ink portrait.

Not a large horse—he might almost be classified as small, indeed, compared with modern fashionable families, but of superb symmetry and superfine quality. 'A head light and lean,' though scarcely equal to The Premier's, his neck was of moderate length, with a delicately-marked crest. But his shoulder! Never have I seen mortal horse with such another. It was a study. So oblique was it; so graceful and elastic was the fore-action in consequence, that you wondered how horses of less perfect mechanism got on at all. His back was short, his croup high. The finely formed, silken-haired tail, which after his death hung in my room, was set on like that of an Arab. He might easily have been ridden without a girth to the saddle. Though his back appeared to be hardly the length of one, he stood over more ground than horses that looked bigger in every way. His barrel was rounded and well ribbed up. Below the knee and hock the legs were admirably clean and flat-boned, with pasterns just long enough to give the elastic motion which so peculiarly distinguishes the thoroughbred.

In those days (I was young, to be sure) I occasionally relieved my pent-up feelings by the perpetration of verse. In an old scrap-book are traced certain 'Lines to a Thoroughbred' which must have been inspired by Romeo. They commence—

Is he not glorious, in the high beauty proud,
Which from his desert-spurning Arab sires
To him was given? Mark the frontlet broad!
The delicate, pointed ear, and silken mane,
Scarce coarser than the locks which Delia boasts,
Attest his stainless race, etc.

Allusion was also made, if I mistake not, to a problematic ancestor, the well-ridden steed of the poets, who after

Children's voices greet the rescued sire,

became 'a cherished playmate, loving and beloved.' Though high-tempered enough, Romeo was a good-humoured horse in the main, but the companionship of grooms and stable-boys had partly rubbed off the inherited gentillesse of the desert. Notably in one particular.

Whether he had been in some way teased or troubled, or that some mischievous groom had been at the pains to each him the specific trick, I cannot say; but the fact was notorious that if any one—in or near the stable—made a noise with the mouth, like the drawing of a cork, the old horse fell into a paroxysm of rage and went open-mouthed at all and sundry being within reach at the time.

The knowledge of this peculiarity was turned to account more than once as a practical joke, sometimes with results more or less unpleasant to the unsuspecting bystander. But the joke occasionally recoiled. I happen to know of one instance. A well-known veterinary surgeon of those days, one Mr. Robertson—afterwards drowned in the Goulburn, poor fellow!—happened to be paying a visit of inspection, when a thoughtless friend made the cork-drawing signal. It was Romeo versus Robertson, with a vengeance. Like a wild horse of the prairies, he charged the astonished vet, a resolute active man, who had all he could do to protect himself with a heavy, cutting whip which he fortunately carried at the time. He got out of the box unharmed, but seriously ruffled and demoralised.

The first thing which occurred to him, however, on banging the door of the loose-box behind him, was to lay his whip with hearty good-will and emphasis across the shoulders of the humourist. Robertson was a burly Scot of more than average physique. His blood was up, and I do not recall the fact of the author of this unusually keen jest making effective resistance. He probably was cured of that particular form of joking, and learned practically that horseplay is one of the games in which two can engage. I never knew the old horse to commit unprovoked assaults, and think that some unusual experience must have led to the tendency described.

Though ordinarily well-behaved, it will be noted that there was a savour of dangerous dealing when aroused, and, as might be expected, a few of his progeny were not famous for the mildness of their tempers. They were, however, handsome and distinguished-looking, good in every relation of equine life. They supplied for many years a regular contingent to all the races in Victoria, and, indeed, within a widely extended radius round Kalangadoo and beyond the South Australian border. Few indeed were the meets, metropolitan or provincial, in which a Romeo colt or filly did not figure in the first flight. Latterly he became the property of Mr. Hector Norman Simson, from whose stud the celebrated Flying Doe and other cracks were evolved.

Young Romeo, Baroness, Countess, and Clinker had all won reputations on the Flemington racecourse—which then presented a somewhat different appearance—before 1842. Young Romeo, a handsome, upstanding, dark chestnut horse, then the property of Captain Brunswick Smyth of the 5oth Regiment, was raffled, in 1843, I think for a hundred and fifty guineas. We took a five-guinea ticket, but my drawing, innocently young as I then was, did not carry the proverbial gambler's luck. Oberon, a sweet little white-faced chestnut that Dr. David Thomas used to drive somewhat unprofessionally as tandem leader about Melbourne in 1851, was one of the later offspring. The worthy doctor, ever ready for a lark, delighted in getting Oberon's head over the shoulders of stout old gentlemen in the street before they were aware of him or his chariot.

It was somewhere near the end of the 'forties,' those pioneering years paving the way to the golden era which set in for Australia shortly after their decease. I happened to be in Melbourne upon a cattle speculation. At Kirk's Bazaar after breakfast I saw my ideal steed in a loose-box, apparently for sale. After feasting my eyes upon him for a reasonable period, I interviewed Mr. Dalmahoy Campbell, and sought particulars.

The old horse by this time had grown hollow-backed, and was evidently on his last legs. Still at a moderate price he would not be unprofitable, and the value of his blood distributed amid my stud could hardly, I thought, be over-estimated. The main thing to be considered by a prudent young pastoralist (I really was one in those days) was the price. This turned out to be under £50. Money was not abundant in that particular year. Stock were ludicrously cheap. For some reason his owners had decided to sell the dear old horse. His age and growing infirmities were against him. Still here was a chance I might never get again. I had just made a largish offer for the store cattle referred to. There was no use talking, however. I felt like a man who had been offered the Godolphin Arabian by a sheik hard-pushed for a ransom. I must have the horse; that was all about it.

There was another slight difficulty. I had not ten £5 notes in my pocket. Far otherwise. I stated facts in the office. I can see old 'Dai's' kind face as he said, 'We'll take your bill at three months, my boy; that will give you time to turn round.' I gratefully assented, and Romeo—intoxicating thought—was mine. That was my first bill. Never before did I write 'Rolf Boldrewood' across the face or back or below any of those insidious substitutes for ready money. Would that the negotiable instrument had been my last. Well impressed on my mind was the look of the worthy gentleman who managed the financial department of the firm which had the privilege of 'keeping my account' when I exultingly informed him of my transaction. He had grown grey in commerce, not altogether successfully. Doubtless memory carried him back for a moment over years of high hope, guarded enterprise, succeeded by wearing anxiety and dull despair. Looking into my youthful, sanguine countenance, he said, 'Take my advice, and never sign another. I wish I had never seen one.'

I did not take his advice, it is hardly necessary to say. It was many a year before the application came in. Such is the general course of events. But if every future acceptance had been as anxiously considered, as punctually paid, and as profitably contracted as Number One aforesaid, no great harm would have been done.

I rode proudly out of Melbourne next day, leading my valued purchase, duly muzzled and sheeted, along the western road. Travelling by easy stages, only varied by a swim across the Leigh River, 'where ford there was none,' I got on well. It was an anxious moment for me, though, when the strong current swept my precious steed round in midstream; but he fought gallantly for a landing, which we finally gained. A slip, a stagger, and we were safely over. At Dunmore he received the admiration which was his due, while I was congratulated on my enterprise and good fortune.

When I reached home the illustrious stranger was treated with deserved attention. A roomy loose-box was specially dedicated to his use. Boiled food, ground corn, every delicacy of the season was lavished upon him. A revival of constitution apparently took place. But he only lived a year, leaving behind him, however, at Dunmore the beautiful, graceful Pasta, half-sister to St. George, and also to The Margravine and Track-Deer; and at Squattlesea Mere, Bonnie Dundee, Ben Bolt, Fairy, and a few other notable nags. 'He owed me nothing,' as his groom said when I sorrowfully attended his burial in the capacity of chief mourner. He lies under a black-wood tree on an 'island' in the mere, where the close-spreading clover blossoms climb and struggle amid the tussock grass of the marshes. He was accorded respectful interment, and my grief was more sincere than that which accompanies more ostentatious funerals. He had not perhaps the opportunity which another year would have furnished of leaving an illustrious progeny in the Port Fairy district, but some of his offspring made their mark.

Dundee, being my principal hackney and stock horse, was a wonderful performer. An admixture of Clifton blood gave him height and 'scope.' He had the sloped Romeo shoulder, with propelling machinery of unusual power. He was fortunately just short of racing speed. But he was a grand 'camp horse'; could be ridden without flinching right into the shoulder of the worst outlaw of the herd, carrying a fourteen-stone weight over any three-railed fence, and stay for a week. He lived to make a trans-Murray reputation, and still the wild riders of the mallee remember the powerful chestnut that was so well to the front with Sylvester Browne and the brothers Beveridge in more than one 'moonlighting' foray.

Ben Bolt, his half-brother, was a bright chestnut, with four white legs, a broad blaze, and a considerable quantity of white in the corners of his eyes, with which he had an uncanny way of regarding his rider. He was truly illustrious in more ways than one. There is no record of any white man (or black one either) having seen him tired. At the end of the longest day, or the most terrific 'cutting-out' work, Ben's head was up, his clear eyes watchful, his uneasy tail, switching slowly from side to side, like a leopard not fully agitated. He had been known to leave Melbourne after a trip with fat cattle (his rider had a young wife on the station certainly), and late on the second day the marshes of the Eumeralla were in sight. A hundred and eighty miles—winter weather too! I can state from personal experience that as a hackney he was deliciously easy, fast, and free. But the luxurious sensation of being so charmingly carried was modified by the ever-present thought that he could 'buck you into a tree-top' whenever it so pleased him; and at what minute the fit might take him no one had ever been able to foretell.

Sprung from a daughter of the Traveller line, Ben inherited the dire resolution of that potent blood, with a fervent intensity peculiar to the descendants of Romeo. The 'nick' was therefore only a partial success. If one had required, as do certain Indian rajahs, a horse warranted to distinguish himself in combat with a tiger, Ben Bolt was the very animal. Once let him get his heels into position and no living tiger would have had a show. He might as well spring at a mitrailleuse. But under saddle he was distinctly unreliable.

I used to break my own colts in those days, and in the course of events Ben was duly haltered and enticed into the stable. Though sensitive certainly, he was not overtly rebellious until the third day, when he kicked at me in what I held to be an unfair and treacherous manner. I gave him a tap in requital with the butt-end of a hay-fork, upon which he deliberately kicked down the partition between his and the next loose-box. He hardly left a slab standing, and generally conducted himself as if he was not sure whether he would not smash the whole building while he was about it.

I avoided contention after this, and in every way applied myself to calm his fears and inspire confidence. It was all in vain. When approached he would contract every muscle till his flesh felt like a board, glaring the while at you with his strangely bright, white-rimmed eyes, in a blood-curdling homicidal way. However, at the end of a week I backed him, looking to every strap and girth, and picking a good soft spot to fall on. He was led, as was the fashion then, along by the side of another horse, and, to every one's surprise, walked away like an old stager. No irregularity took place the next day or the one following. His mouth was good; he held his head up. I was charmed, and rode him proudly about by myself. Next morning he was queer and sullen, and in the middle of the day, for no earthly reason apparently, reared, plunged, bolted, and commenced to buck like a demon. I 'stuck to him' until he gradually got way on, and being apparently temporarily insane, ran into a paling fence, against which he fell down. I came off, of course, but remounted, when he did nothing further.

I rode him daily afterwards, until he passed into the second stage of breaking, being comparatively handy and pleasanter than many older horses, but we never seemed to get nearer to confidential relations. He took me unawares again ('underhand,' as Mr. Paterson's native young man hath it) while out on the run, and kicked savagely at me while falling. I began to think—having certain responsibilities—that it was hardly worth while to run such risk of life and limb only for the sake, too, of twenty or thirty pounds, and the strictly local reputation of 'being able to ride anything.'

So I relinquished the task of Ben's education to Frank Lawrence, my stud groom, than whom no better rough-rider ever sat in saddle. Plucky, patient, and a fine horseman generally, he gradually brought the rebel round. The reformation was apparently complete. Kept in regular work, he ceased to be fractious, and acquired a decent character in the neighbourhood. He even carried the black boy without protest.

Months passed. The stock-riders were mustering up for the morning's work neighbours—and station hands. Frank was sitting carelessly on Ben Bolt, now regularly 'made' and recognised as a stock-horse. Suddenly, without a moment's warning he 'exploded'—there is no other word for it. Before any one could offer a remark, Frank was catapulted on to the crown of his head, and Ben was tearing down the paddock, kicking at his bridle-reins and trying to send the saddle after the man. Frank arose slowly, and after a careful examination of his neck had convinced him that it was not really broken, as might have been surmised, said, 'I believe Ben means to finish me yet.'

'I would shoot him now if I thought that, Frank,' I answered; 'the treacherous brute. Better take another horse to-day.'

Frank, of course, would not hear of this, and remounted the ungrateful one, led up as he was in a few minutes, with eyes like burning coals and nostrils quivering in anything but a reassuring manner. He made no sign, however, and came in, after about fourteen hours' galloping and camp work, as fresh as a daisy.

When the station changed hands I passed our mutual friend over to Frank, who sold him at a profit. Our paths lay thenceforward apart. Years afterwards, my brother and I walked into the stables of Cobb and Co. at Hamilton, by candlelight, while awaiting a start in the mail. The team which interested us stood harnessed and ready.

'Did you ever see that chestnut leader before?' I queried.

'Great Jove! there he stands—white legs and all—the dear old tiger. To think that we should ever come to sit behind Ben Bolt!'

'Looks like it.'

'Nice horse that chestnut with the white hind legs, ostler.'

'Pretty fair, sir. Depends on 'ow 'e's 'andled, in a manner of speakin'.'

'So I should think. How did you get him?'

'Well, he chucked Mr. Jones sky-high; broke his back-ribs, like; so he took and swapped him to the Company.'

'How does he go?'

'Well, he goes right enough when you get him in, but we drives him a double stage every day, just to stiddy him. He's been a year on this piece, and we don't care how soon we get shut on 'im.'

As the day broke, the cry of 'all aboard' was sounded; the passengers took their seats in the coach as the horses were led out. The leaders were not 'hitched' till the last moment; Ben Bolt having a second helper told off to him as he came out with head up and waving tail, the old fashion. Very quickly and noiselessly was he attached, and as the driver drew his reins tight the coach moved on, without a word or whip-touch, Ben demonstrating by the way in which he went into his collar that he was ready and willing to undertake the whole contract. At the end of our stage of twenty-two miles, done in quick time, three horses only were taken out. Ben Bolt, after having run true and level for every yard of the distance, and never once having slackened his pace, was treated to another twenty miles in the company of the fresh team.

'Good horse, that near-side leader,' I remarked to the driver tentatively.

'He's the devil on four legs, if you want to know,' gruffly answered that official; 'takes me all my time to watch him. He'll smash some of us yet, if he don't kill himself first.'

I returned a year after to find the prediction verified. Ben Bolt was no more. True to his name and reputation, he had broken away from the helper while being put to, and after a headlong gallop was discovered to have injured himself beyond hope of recovery. He died a soldier's death. But for the 'accidents and offences' resulting from his demoniac temper, I shall always hold his maternal ancestor, Traveller, mainly responsible.