Read The Dark Horse Online

Authors: Rumer Godden

The Dark Horse

BOOK: The Dark Horse
9.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Rumer Godden (1907–98) was the acclaimed author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction for adults and children. Born in England, she and her siblings grew up in Narayanganj, India, and she later spent many years living in Calcutta and Kashmir. In 1949 she returned permanently to Britain, and spent the last twenty years of her life in Scotland. Several of her novels were made into films, including
Black Narcissus
in an Academy Award-winning adaption by Powell and Pressburger,
The Greengage Summer
The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
The River
, which was filmed by Jean Renoir. She was appointed OBE in 1993.

The Lady and the Unicorn

Black Narcissus

Breakfast with the Nikolides

A Fugue in Time

The River

Kingfishers Catch Fire

An Episode of Sparrows

China Court

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

In this House of Brede

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy

The Dark Horse

Cromartie v. the God Shiva

Listen to the Nightingale

Thursday's Children



Published by Virago




All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Copyright © The Rumer Godden Literary Trust 1981


The moral right of the author has been asserted.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.


The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.



Little, Brown Book Group

100 Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DY

The Dark Horse

This novel is based on a version by Sir Owain Jenkins and aided and abetted by him

He was born in Ireland in the early thirties, a big foal even longer-legged than usual, legs that were slender but strong, already showing incipient power. His eyes, as with all foals, looked over-large in his narrow fine-boned face; his nostrils were large too. At birth he was black with the usual lighter ridge of mane and pampas flock of tail. His dam was Black Tulip, he was sired by Bold Crusader and so was registered as Dark Invader but, for two days of his life, he was to be known as Beauty.

As a yearling, Dark Invader was seen and bought by the rich and spoiled young owner, Captain the Honourable Peter Hay, on the advice of his trainer Michael Traherne. It was a hefty price, but it was a well-bred colt and, ‘Having come to Dublin, Peter was going to buy something anyhow,' Michael told his wife, Annette, ‘and this seemed a likely one.'

The big youngster was shipped to the Traherne stables at Dilbury on the Berkshire downs where, lucky horse, he came under the care of that gnome of a stable lad, Ted Mullins. At the end of their career it was difficult to think of one without the other.

Every early morning of each racing season Mother Morag, Reverend Mother of the Sisters of Poverty, saw the string go by, a long line of horses, brown, dark bay, bay: chestnuts – worst of all colours in the heat: now and again a roan, or a blue roan: a grey, dappled or flea-bitten. Mother Morag not only saw them, she deliberately came up to her cell to watch them – her window overlooked the road – but this was not Dilbury or England, not the mists and freshness of the Downs where, in the wooded valley down below, the village stood among trees, an uneven tumble of roofs and chimneys round the grey church tower; there, the first sound was the bird chorus, especially larks; here, the first sound was the cawing of crows. In the cold weather there was mist, but it swirled above arid dust, because this was Calcutta in India and the ‘string' was not Michael Traherne's – Michael, friend of royalty and other famous owners – it was John Quillan's, he who had defiantly chosen to drop out. When Mother Morag had first seen them in 1923 there were just seven horses; now, ten years later, there were nearer forty. Yes, John Quillan has made his way, thought Mother Morag, simply because he's so good.

Racing news was relayed to her by the Convent's Gurkha gatekeeper, Dil Bahadur – Valiant Heart. ‘He has earned that name,' Mother Morag often said. ‘Dil Bahadur has been through the War, fought in France and on the Frontier. Have you seen his scars and medals?' and she may have added, ‘Have you seen his kukri?', the wicked, curved, flat-bladed cutlass of the Gurkhas. Dil Bahadur shared Mother Morag's passion for horses. It was he who told her John Quillan's name. ‘John Quillan Sahib – was Captain Sahib, but not now,' said Dil Bahadur.

Mother Morag had picked John Quillan out long before that. He always led his cavalcade down to the racecourse riding the stable ‘steady', a bay mare that she guessed was his own. Mother Morag had noticed the grace with which his long leanness sat in the saddle, the quietness of his hands and voice – she never heard him shout at horse or groom or riding boy. She knew the old felt hat he wore where everyone else had topees; the, she discovered afterwards, deliberate shabbiness of his clothes; she even noted the signet ring on his little finger. A splendid pair of Great Danes, amber-coloured, loped each side of him. They struck terror into people but looked neither to right nor left and always sat by the side of the road until he gave the whistle to cross. ‘I wish I had your authority,' Mother Morag was eventually to tell him.

‘I wish I had yours.' That had been open, friendly, and she told him how she watched his string and repeated, ‘You're so good.'

‘Good? Perhaps a little less disastrous than the other shockers.' Then the ‘shutter', as she was to call it, came down over his face. ‘Most of them though are ex-jockeys. I'm not and in this town that counts against me.'

‘Why?' Mother Morag's ‘Why?'s were always direct.

‘People know where they are with them; with me they don't, which is awkward for them.'

‘And for you?'

‘For me?' He shrugged. ‘I'm as thick-skinned as a rhinoceros and I have ceased to care.'

‘I don't believe you. In fact, I think you care about your work as much as we care about ours.'

‘Touché,' and, for a moment, he smiled. Then, with sudden seriousness, he had said, ‘We can't compare. I just play with rich men's toys unfortunately – or fortunately' – the mocking tone had come back – ‘Nabobs don't mind what they spend on their toys. The only rub is they want a sure return – of course. They're box-wallahs.' A box-wallah is a businessman and Mother Morag felt sure that if she had not been there he would have said, ‘Bloody box-wallahs.' ‘Horses can't be made to fit a ledger,' said John Quillan.

Mother Morag had first met John when he, like others, had come to see her about the Convent's site.

Not all John's owners were box-wallahs; he had the Nawab of Barasol's horses and three of Lady Mehta's, that capricious owner and wife of the Parsi millionaire from Bombay who was always called Sir Readymoney Mehta because he let his exquisite Meena buy where and what she liked, ‘Unhappily,' said John. She had given him many a headache. He also had two Australians who, like many Australians, shipped horses every autumn to Calcutta's Remount Depot from their own stations in New South Wales; they also shipped their polo ponies and stayed for the polo season, selling the best afterwards, and John's two friends brought in four or five racehorses as well – or potential racehorses – which they left at the Quillan stables, but it was true that most of John's owners were businessmen of whom the British were the élite, ‘Or think they are,' said John.

Calcutta has been a city of traders since the first small trading posts were set up on the swampy banks of the Hooghly, that great river up which, from the Bay of Bengal, first sailing clippers, then liners, paddle-steamers from inland tributaries, barges, and the age-old native country boats, unwieldy, wooden, with their tattered and patched sail or sails, and huge steering paddle would come, day in, day out, night in, night out – Calcutta never went to sleep – to deliver and load the cargoes that made those merchants so fabulously rich.

It was for those ‘nabobs' – the men who so astutely dealt in jute – or tea – once upon a time in opium, or in hides, shellac, coal, jewels – that Indian landlords built mansions in ornate Palladian styles with porticos, vast rooms, deep verandahs, floors and stairways of imported marble. Each had lines of stables, coach houses, servants' quarters and courts, gardens like parks, and ignored the teeming slums which had grown up round them. A row of these great houses edged the L made by the Esplanade and Chowringhee, Calcutta's widest street; they fronted the Maidan, the central space of open green, as the houses of London's Park Lane – once, too, belonging to magnates – front Hyde Park. Some spread into the streets that ran back from Chowringhee; others were built along the shaded roads that led to the rich suburbs of Alipore and Ballygunj and it was in one of these roads that, left to them by a long-ago plutocratic patron, the Sisters of Our Lady of Poverty had their convent and old people's home.

‘What a waste,' most people said. ‘What a waste!' ‘Which is why they so often came to see me,' said Mother Morag.

It was certainly a favoured site, among the most pleasant of that unpleasant city. The Maidan was wide; it held the old British Fort, built isolated so that, if attacked, its cannon balls could rake the enemy on every side. Now, more peaceably, the Maidan held, not enemies, but the Football Club, hockey fields, two polo grounds and, divided from them by a road, the Victoria Memorial with its white marble domes and marble paved gardens where Calcutta's more prosperous citizens liked to walk in the cool of the evening. The Maidan had great tanks or pools, refreshing to sit by; several roads, yet there was still room to hold enormous political or religious meetings, and room for goats and the lean sinewy cattle to graze, for children to play, for beggars or pilgrims to camp; at night their insignificant twinkling fires shone far across its darkness. It had room still for riders and, most importantly, there was the racecourse with its stands, two courses and an inner circuit for work. Most important of all in that arid crowded city, there were trees, grass, above all space. On its far side the Maidan was bounded by the river, so that if there were any breeze, it was fresh.

‘Such an expensive site,' said the lawyers who were continually sent by their clients, most of them racehorse trainers, to see Reverend Mother Morag. ‘You're not four hundred yards up Lower Circular Road.' Lower Circular Road, which led up to Ballygunj, abutted on Circular Road proper which ran past the racecourse. ‘The horses would only have to cross the road!' and it was not only the position; the Convent had many outbuildings which could be converted to stables. ‘Surely you don't need all those,' and, too, there was the garden. ‘You can't need so much ground,' and, ‘Think what you could sell it for!' they told her. ‘Think what you could do with the money!' Mother Morag was unmoved but they persisted in ‘pestering', she said.

John Quillan had only asked her once, though for him it would have been even more ideal than for the others; his own stables were just up the road and he badly needed to expand. The plan seemed sensible on both sides. ‘You could move further out,' he told her – John had come himself and not sent a lawyer. ‘Move where land is cheaper so you could build just what you want,' and he had asked, ‘Does it really matter where your Sisters live?'

‘Of course it matters. Think.' That took him back. ‘You'll have to mind your ps and qs,' Bhijai, the young Maharajah of Malwa, had told John – oddly enough that unreliable but charming playboy was a friend of Mother Morag's, as he was of John's, one of his few friends. ‘My father, the late Maharajah, knew her father,' Bunny told him – Bhijai, like other young Indian fashionables, had adopted an English nickname. ‘When she came out here, her father asked my father to look after her. He died and so it fell to me, but as a matter of fact, Mother Morag looks after me. I often ask her advice,' said Bunny. ‘I love her but she awes me.'

‘Which takes a bit of doing,' John had teased him but, face to face with her, he understood the awe. He found that Mother Morag, though she seemed young to be a Reverend Mother, had surprising dignity. She was tall, almost as tall as he, though far too thin. He liked her poise, the clear bones of her face and the hazel eyes set off by the close white coif she wore. Her habit was white too and immaculately clean, though it was patched. There was another surprise; her eyes had lit almost with mischief when he mentioned Bunny and John saw why the two of them were cronies, but now she looked directly, almost sternly, at him and, ‘Not matter where we live? Think,' said Mother Morag.

John knew, in part, what she meant. For most foreigners, whether they came from the West or Japan, Calcutta was a city of sojourn, where they made their pile, or did their service, government or military, then went ‘Home'. ‘But not for us,' Mother Morag said. ‘We are usually here for life.' She could have added, ‘And I can guess, not for you.' ‘Of course, it's by our own choice,' she said aloud, ‘but remember nuns have no holidays, no “leaves” and so, to keep ourselves healthy – and sane,' she gave him a quick smile, ‘we need our haven.' She did not tell him that they shared the haven with some two hundred others; it was reward enough to know that these old men and women, after their hard-working or starved neglected lives, could end their days in what seemed to them incomparable comfort and beauty, and Mother Morag smiled again as her eyes rested on the sight of the convent trees, gol-mohrs – peacock trees – and acacias, mangoes, jacarandas, that in spring and summer brought a wealth of flowers and fruit and where bright green red-beaked parakeets flew and played. ‘Also, has it occurred to you,' she asked John, ‘that here we are near our work?'

That was true. The Sisters did not stay in their haven – they were to be found in the narrow lanes, alleys and gullies of the slums that made an intricate congested and evil web, inconveniently close behind Calcutta's elegant façade. If any flowering or fruit trees had been planted in those gutter streets, goats and bulls would immediately have eaten them; the bulls wilfully – plump, with hides like velvet, their humps capped with beaded coverings, lovingly embroidered, they ate what they chose, because to the Hindus they were sacred and must not be forbidden, ‘One of the endless taboos which make our work so difficult,' said the Sisters. The goats ate because they were hungry, but not as hungry as the swarm of men, women and children.

In an Indian village, though people go hungry, they seldom starve; it is a virtue to feed the poor but in a city that virtue is quickly lost. ‘There are just too many of them,' said Mother Morag. ‘We feed perhaps a thousand a day but it's a drop in the ocean. Still, it's a drop.'

‘I don't know how you manage it,' said John.

‘Nor do we, but we have our life-lines,' said Mother Morag.


A necessary life-line of the Sisters of Poverty was Solomon, their horse. ‘If you can call him a horse,' said Mother Morag. Sister Mary Fanny, the pretty little Eurasian, did not understand. ‘Is Reverend Mother trying to provoke us? I thought we all loved Solomon.' Mother Morag relented. ‘Of course we do. I was only joking. He's so sturdy and reliable and more than that,' she added.

Everyone knew Solomon; he was a cob – bright bay with white points, solid as if he were stuffed, ‘which he is,' said Mother Morag. ‘All those tidbits.'

Gulab, his old Hindu syce, groomed him until the coarse coat almost shone and polished the brass and leather of his harness so that no-one could have guessed how old it was; but it was not only his looks or that Solomon worked so hard in the cause of charity which made everyone love him; it was his expression, gentle and benign; the way he would let even the dirtiest gutter child pat him, the manners with which he accepted any kind of offering and, though he was slow, his dignified gait; he still moved with the arched neck and high-flung fore feet that showed he had been well trained to a carriage, ‘though I could never have believed a pair of hooves could have stayed in the air so long without being brought down by the law of gravity,' said Mother Morag.

The convent had two conveyances – they could not be called carriages; one was a high shuttered box on four wheels, the same as the tikka gharries – carriages for hire – of every Indian city but, being under Gulab's charge, better kept than they. It went out every afternoon, sometimes taking the Sisters in pairs to the business houses to gather in subscriptions and donations. For this Mother Morag sent younger nuns, Sister Bridget, plump and jolly, who could always make a joke, or Sister Joanna, the young English nun of strength and distinction but whose brown eyes, even when she did not say anything, could glow with indignation or be tender or laughing. The Sisters usually caught the men at their desks and, ‘It's hardly fair,' said Sister Joanna. ‘Particularly the young ones, poor lambs. They don't know how to say “no” to a nun.'

BOOK: The Dark Horse
9.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

War of the World Records by Matthew Ward
The Dalwich Desecration by Gregory Harris
Malevolent Hall 1666AD by Rosemary Lynch
All Light Will Fall by Almney King
Flat Lake in Winter by Joseph T. Klempner
Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson
Azazeel by Ziedan, Youssef