Sleipner, late Thurinda

by Rudyard Kipling

[a short tale]

There are men, both good and wise,
who hold that in a future state

Dumb creatures we have cherished here below
Will give us joyous welcome
as we pass the Golden Gate.

Is it folly if I hope it may be so?
(The Place Where the Old Horse Died)

IF there were any explanation available here, I should be the first person to offer it. Unfortunately, there is not, and I am compelled to confine myself to the facts of the case as vouched for by Hordene and confirmed by “Guj,” who is the last man in the world to throw away a valuable horse for nothing.

Jale came up with Thurinda to the Shayid Spring meeting; and besides Thurinda his string included Divorce, Meg’s Diversions and Benoni—ponies of sorts. He won the Officers’ Scurry—five furlongs—with Benoni on the first day, and that sent up the price of the stable in the evening lotteries; for Benoni was the worst-looking of the three, being a pigeontoed, split-chested dâk horse, with a wonderful gift of blundering in on his shoulders—ridden out to the last ounce—but first. Next day Jale was riding Divorce in the Wattle and Dab Stakes—around the jump course; and she turned over at the on-and-off course when she was leading and managed to break her neck. She never stirred from the place where she dropped, and Jale did not move either till he was carried off the ground to his tent close to the big shamiana where the lotteries were held. He had ricked his back, and everything below the hips was as dead as timber. Otherwise he was perfectly well. The doctor said that the stiffness would spread and that he would die before the next morning. Jale insisted upon knowing the worst, and when he heard it sent a pencil note to the Honorary Secretary, saying that they were not to stop the races or do anything foolish of that kind. If he hung on till the next day the nominations for the third day’s racing would not be void, and he would settle up all claims before he threw up his hand. This relieved the Honorary Secretary, because most of the horses had come from a long distance, and, under any circumstance, even had the Judge dropped dead in the box, it would have been impossible to have postponed the racing. There was a great deal of money on the third day, and five or six of the owners were gentlemen who would make even one day’s delay an excuse. Well, settling would not be easy. No one knew much about Jale. He was an outsider from down country, but every one hoped that, since he was doomed, he would live through the third day and save trouble.

Jale lay on his charpoy in the tent and asked the doctor and the man who catered to the refreshments—he was the nearest at the time— to witness his will. “I don’t know how long my arms will be workable,” said Jale, “and we’d better get this business over.” The private arrangements of the will concern nobody but Jale’s friends; but there was one clause that was rather curious. “Who was that man with the brindled hair who put me up for a night util the tent was ready? The man who rode down to pick me up when I was smashed. Nice sort of fellow he seemed.” “Hordene?” said the doctor. “Yes, Hordene. Good chap, Hordene. He keeps Bull whisky. Write down that I give this Johnnie Hordene Thurinda for his own, if he can sell the other ponies. Thurinda’s a good mare. He can enter her— post-entry—for the All Horse Sweep if he likes—on the last day. Have you got that down? I suppose the Stewards’ll recognise the gift?” “No trouble about that,” said the doctor. “All right. Give him the other two ponies to sell. They’re entered for the last day, but I shall be dead then. Tell him to send the money to——” Here he gave an address. “Now I’ll sign and you sign, and that’s all. This deadness is coming up between my shoulders.”

Jale lived, dying very slowly, till the third day’s racing, and up till the time of the lotteries on the fourth day’s racing. The doctor was rather surprised. Hordene came in to thank him for his gift, and to suggest it would be much better to sell Thurinda with the others. She was the best of them all, and would have fetched twelve hundred on her looking-over merits only. “Don’t you bother,” said Jale. “You take her. I rather liked you. I’ve got no people, and that Bull whisky was firstclass stuff. I’m pegging out now, I think.”

The lottery-tent outside was beginning to fill, and Jale heard the click of the dice. “That’s all right,” said he. “I wish I was there, but—I’m—going to the drawer.” Then he died quietly. Hordene went into the lottery-tent, after calling the doctor. “How’s Jale?” said the Honorary Secretary. “Gone to the drawer,” said Hordene, settling into a chair and reaching out for a lottery paper, “Poor beggar!” said the Honorary Secretary. “’Twasn’t the fault of our on-and-off, though. The mare blundered. Gentlemen! gentlemen! Nine hundred and eighty rupees in the lottery, and River of Years for sale!” The lottery lasted far into the night, and there was a supplementary lottery on the All Horse Sweep, where Thurinda sold for a song, and was not bought by her owner. , “It’s not lucky,” said Hordene, and the rest of the men agreed with him. “I ride her myself, but I don’t know anything about her and I wish to goodness I hadn’t taken her,” said he. “Oh, bosh I Never refuse a horse or a drink, however you come by them. No one objects, do they? Not going to refer this matter to Calcutta, are we? Here, somebody, bid! Eleven hundred and fifty rupees in the lottery, and Thurinda—absolutely imknown, acquired under the most romantic circumstances from about the toughest man it has ever been my good fortune to meet—for sale. Hullo, Nurji, is that you? Gentlemen, where a Pagan bids shall enlightened Christians hang back? Ten! Going, going, gone!” “You want ha-af, sar?” said the battered native trainer to Hordene. “No, thanks—not a bit of her for me.”

The All Horse Sweep was run, and won by Thurinda by about a street and three-quarters, to be very accurate, amid derisive cheers, which Hordene, who flattered himself that he knew something about riding, could not uderstand. On pulling up he looked over his shoulder and saw that the second horse was only just passing the box. “Now, how did I make such a fool of myself?” he said as he returned to weigh out. His friends gathered round him and asked tenderly whether this was the first time that he had got up, and whether it was absolutely necessary that the winning horse should be ridden out when the field were hopelessly pumped, a quarter of a mile behind, etc., etc. “I—I—thought River of Years was pressing me,” explained Hordene. “River of Years was wallowing, absolutely wallowing,” said a man, “before you turned into the straight. You rode like a—hang it—like a Militia subaltern!”

The Shayid Spring meeting broke up and the sportsmen turned their steps towards the next carcase—the Ghoriah Spring. With them went Thurinda’s owner, the happy possessor of an almost perfect animal. “’She’s as easy as a Pullman car and about twice as fast,” he was wont to say in moments of confidence to his intimates. “For all her bulk, she’s as handy as a polo-pony; a child might ride her, and when she’s at the post she’s as cute—she’s as cute as the bally starter himself.” Many times had Hordene said this, till at last one imsympathetic friend answered with: “When a man bukhs too much about his wife or his horse, it’s a sure sign he’s trying to make himself like ’em. I mistrust your Thurinda. She’s too good, or else——“ “Or else what?” “You’re trying to believe you like her.” “Like her! I love her! I trust that darling as I’m shot if I’d trust you. I’d hack her for tuppence.” “Hack away, then. I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I don’t hack my stable myself, but some horses go better for it. Come and peacock at the band-stand this evening.” To the band-stand accordingly Hordene came, and the lovely Thurinda comported herself with all the gravity and decorum that might have been expected. Hordene rode home with the scoffer, through the dusk, discoursing on matters indifferent. “Hold up a minute,” said his friend, “there’s Gagley riding behind us.” Then, raising his voice: “Come along, Gagley! I want to speak to you about the Race Ball.” But no Gagley came; and the couple went forward at a trot. “Hang it! There’s that man behind us still.” Hordene listened and could clearly hear the sound of a horse trotting, apparently just behind them. “Come on, Gagley! Don’t play bo-peep in that ridiculous way,” shouted the friend. Again no Gagley. Twenty yards farther there was a crash and a stumble as the friend’s horse came down over an unseen rat-hole. “How much damaged?” asked Hordene. “Sprained my wrist,” was the dolorous answer, “and there is something wrong with my knee-cap. There’ goes my mount to-morrow, and this gee is cut like a cab-horse.”

On the first day of the Ghoriah meeting Thurinda was hopelessly ridden out by a native jockey, to whose care Hordene had at the last moment been compelled to confide her. “You forsaken idiot!” said he, “what made you begin riding as soon as you were clear? She had everything safe, if you’d only left her alone. You rode her out before the home turn, you hogl” “What could I do?” said the jockey sullenly. “I was pressed by another horse.” “Whose ‘other horse’? There were twenty yards of daylight between you and the ruck. If you’d kept her there even then ’twouldn’t ha’ mattered. But you rode her out—you rode her out!” “There was another horse and he pressed me to the end, and when I looked round he was no longer there.” Let us, in charity, draw a veil over Hordene’s language at this point. “Goodness knows whether she’ll be fit to pull out again for the last event. D—n you and your other horses! I wish I’d broken your neck before letting you get up!” Thurinda was done to a turn, and it seemed a cruelty to ask her to run again in the last race of the day. Hordene rode this time, and was careful to keep the mare within herself at the outset. Once more Thurinda left her field—with one exception—a grey horse that hung upon her flanks and could not be shaken off. The mare was done, and refused to answer the call upon her. She tried hopelessly in the straight and was caught and passed by her old enemy, River of Years—the chestnut of Kumaul. “You rode well—like a native, Hordene,” was the unflattering comment, “The mare was ridden out before River of Years,” “But the grey,” began Hordene, and then ceased, for he knew that there was no grey in the race. Blue Point and Diamond Dust, the only greys at the meeting, were running in the Arab Handicap.

He caught his native jockey. “What horse, d’you say, pressed you?” “I don’t know. It was a grey with nutmeg tickings behind the saddle.” That evening Hordene sought the great Major Blare-Tyndar, who knew personally the father, mother and ancestors of almost every horse, brought from ekka or ship, that had ever set foot on an Indian race-course. “Say, Major, what is a grey horse with nutmeg tickings behind the saddle?” “A curiosity. Wendell Holmes is a grey, with nutmeg on the near shoulder, but there is no horse marked your way, now. Then, after a pause: “No, I’m wrong—you ought to know. The pony that got you Thurinda was grey and nutmeg.” “How much?” “Divorce, of course. The mare that broke her neck at the Shayid meeting and killed Jale. A big thirteen-three she was. I recollect when she was hacking old Snuffy Beans to office. He bought her from a dealer, who had her left on his hands as a rejection when the Pink Hussars were buying team up country and then—— Hullo! The man’s gone!” Hordene had departed on receipt of information which he already knew. He only demanded extra confirmation. Then he began to argue with himself, bearing in mind that he himself was a sane man, neither gluttonous nor a wine-bibber, with an unimpaired digestion, and that Thurinda was to all appearance a horse of ordinary flesh and exceedingly good blood. Arrived at these satisfactory conclusions, he reargued the whole matter.

Being by nature intensely superstitious, he decided upon scratching Thurinda and facing the howl of indignation that would follow. He also decided to leave the Ghoriah meet and change his luck. But it would have been sinful—positively wicked—to have left without waiting for the polo-match that was to conclude the festivities. At the last moment before the match, one of the leading players of the Ghoriah team and Hordene’s host discovered that, through the kindly foresight of his head sais, every single pony had been taken down to the ground. “Lend me a hack, old man,” he shouted to Hordene as he was changing. “Take Thurinda” was the reply. “She’ll bring you down in ten minutes.’” And Thurinda was accordingly saddled for Marish’s benefit. “I’ll go down with you,” said Hordene. The two rode off together at a hand canter. “By Jove! Somebody’s sais ’ll get kicked for this!” said Marish, looking round. “Look there! He’s coming for the mare! Pull out into the middle of the road.” “What on earth d’you mean?” “Well, if you can take a strayed horse so calmly, I can’t. Didn’t you see what a lather that grey was in?” “What grey?” “The grey that just passed us— saddle and all, He’s got away from the ground, I suppose. Now he’s turned the corner; but you can hear his hoofs. Listen!” There was a furious gallop of shod horses, gradually dying into silence. “Come along,” said Hordene. “We’re late as it is. We shall know all about it on the groimd.” “Anybody lost a tat?” asked Marish cheerily as they reached the ground. “No, we’ve lost you. Double up. You’re late enough as it is. Get up and go in. The teams are waiting.” Marish mounted his polo-pony and cantered across. Hordene watched the game idly for a few moments. There was a scrimmage, a cloud of dust, and a cessation of play, and a shouting for saises. The umpire clattered forward and returned. “What has happened?” “Marish! Neck broken! Nobody’s fault. Pony crossed its legs and came down. Game’s stopped. Thank God, he hasn’t got a wife!” Again Hordene pondered as he sat on his horse’s back. “Under any circumstances it was written that he was to be killed. I had no interest in his death, and he had his warning, I suppose. I can’t make out the system that this infernal mare runs under. Why him? Anyway, I’ll shoot her.” He looked at Thurinda, the calm-eyed, the beautiful, and repented. “No! I’ll sell her.”

“What in the world has happened to Thurinda that Hordene is so keen on getting rid of her?” was the general question. “I want money,” said Hordene unblushingly, and the few who knew how his accounts stood saw that this was a varnished lie. But they held their peace because of the great love and trust that exists among the ancient and honourable fraternity of sportsmen.

“There’s nothing wrong with her,” explained Hordene. “Try her as much as you like, but let her stay in my stable until you’ve made up your mind one way or the other. Nine hundred’s my price.”

“I’ll take her at that,” quoth a red-haired subaltern, nicknamed Carrots, later Gaja, and then, for brevity’s sake, Guj. “Let me have her out this afternoon. I want her more for hacking than anything else.”

Guj tried Thurinda exhaustively and had no fault to find with her. “She’s all right,” he said briefly. “I’ll take her. It’s a cash deal.” “Virtuous Guj!” said Hordene, pocketing the cheque. “If you go on like this you’ll be loved and respected by all who know you.”

A week later Guj insisted that Hordene should accompany him on a ride. They cantered merrily for a time. Then said the subaltern: “Listen to the mare’s beat a minute, will you? Seems to me that you’ve sold me two horses.”

Behind the mare was plainly audible the cadence of a swiftly trotting horse. “D’you hear anything?” said Guj. “No—nothing but the regular triplet,” said Hordene; and he lied when he answered. Guj looked at him keenly and said nothing. Two or three months passed and Hordene was perplexed to see his old property running, and running well. under the curious title of “Sldpner—late Thurinda.” He consulted the Great Major, who said: “I don’t know a horse called Sleipner, but I know of one. He was a northern bred, and belonged to Odin.” “A mythologicalbeast?” “Exactly. Like Bucephalus and the rest of ’em. He was a great horse. I wish I had some of his get in my stable.” “Why?” “Because he had eight legs. When he had used up one set, he let down the other four to come up the straight on. Stewards were lenient in those days. Now it’s all you can do to get a crock with three sound legs.”

Hordene cursed the red-haired Guj in his heart for finding out the mare’s peculiarity. Then he cursed the dead man Jale for his ridiculous interference with a free gift. “If it was given—it was given,” said Hordene, “and he has no right to come messing about after it.” When Guj and he next met, he enquired tenderly after Thurinda. The red-haired subaltern, impassive as usual, answered: “I’ve shot her.” “Well—you know your own affairs best,” said Hordene. “You’ve given yourself away,” said Guj. “What makes you think I shot a sound horse? She might have been bitten by a mad dog, or lamed.” “You didn’t say that.” “No, I didn’t, because I’ve a notion that you knew what was wrong with her.” “Wrong with her! She was as sound as a bell “ “I know that. Don’t pretend to misunderstand. You’ll believe me, and I’ll believe you in this show; but no one else will believe us. That mare was a bally nightmare.” “Go on,” said Hordene. “I stuck the noise of the other horse as long as I could, and called her Sleipner on the strength of it. Sleipner was a stallion, but that’s a detail. When it got to interfering with every race I rode it was more than I could stick. I took her off racing, and, on my honour, since that time I’ve been nearly driven out of my mind by a grey and nutmeg pony. It used to trot round my quarters at night, fool about the Mall, and graze about the compound. You know that pony. It isn’t a pony to catch or ride or hit, is it?” “No,” said Hordene; “I’ve seen it.” “So I shot Thurinda; that was a thousand rupees out of my pocket. And old Stiffer, who’s got his new crematoriima in full blast, cremated her. I say, what was the matter with the mare? Was she bewitched?”

Hordene told the story of the gift, which Guj heard out to the end. “Now, that’s a nice sort of yarn to tell in a messroom, isn’t it? They’d call it junps or insanity,” said Guj. “There’s no reason in it. It doesn’t lead up to anything. It only killed poor Marish and made you stick me with the mare; and yet it’s true. Are you mad or drunk, or am I? That’s the only explanation.” “Can’t be drunk for nine months on end, and madness would show in that time,” said Hordene.

“All right,” said Guj recklessly, going to the window. “I’ll lay that ghost.” He leaned out into the night and shouted: “Jale! Jalel Jale! Wherever you are.” There was a pause and then up the compoimd-drive came the clatter of a horse’s feet. The red-haired subaltern blanched under his freckles to the colour of glycerine soap. “Thurinda’s dead,” he muttered, “and—and all bets are off. Go back to your grave again.”

Hordene was watching him open-mouthed.

“Now bring me a strait-jacket or a glass of brandy,” said Guj. “That’s enough to turn a man’s hair white. What did the poor wretch mean by knocking about the earth?”

“Don’t know,” whispered Hordene hoarsely. “Let’s get over to the Club. I’m feeling a bit shaky.”