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Chapter 1 - Ponies For The Priory


‘WHAT do you say that idiotic boy’s name is?’ asked Sally.

Her mother was engaged in the tricky task of making neat corners to a patch on the seat of Danny’s trousers and answered almost automatically, ‘Bunkle, darling.’ Then, as the whole of her daughter’s sentence sank in, she looked up from her work and said, ‘That’s only his nickname, you know. And why call him idiotic when you’ve never met him?’

Sally shrugged her shoulders and going to the window stared out of it with a discontented expression on her face.

‘He must be idiotic to have a name like that,’ she mumbled indistinctly.

But her mother heard her and bending her head over her sewing again said firmly, ‘You’re being rather stupid, darling. You mustn’t get into the habit of making sweeping statements about people you don’t know. Billy de Salis was nicknamed Bunkle when he was quite a little boy, because his elder brother and sister used to say he talked such a lot of bunk, but that doesn’t mean he’s silly or talks nonsense now.’

Mr. Corben looked up from the local paper with a smile.

‘I seem to have heard the words bosh and bunk applied by an elder sister to a certain small boy in this household!’ he remarked. ‘You might apply the parable about the mote and the beam to yourself occasionally, Sally darling. Do you really think Danny is idiotic?’

Sally looked round at her father and grinned unwillingly.

‘I don’t think Danny’s exactly idiotic,’ she said. ‘But do think he’s a perfect nuisance. The mote and the beam doesn’t really apply though, Daddy, because . . .’

‘By the way, where is Danny?’ broke in her mother. ‘Now I come to think of it there seems to be a deathly hush over everything at the moment, and I don’t trust him when he’s too quiet. You might go and see what he’s up to, Sally. He was in the sand-pit a little while ago.’

‘Oh, all right,’ said Sally and putting a hand on the low window-sill she vaulted out into the garden and sauntered across the untidy lawn in the direction of the sand-pit.

Mrs. Corben put the final touches to her patch and then held up the small pair of sky-blue trousers and looked at them.

‘I think they’ll just last the summer,’ she said. ‘Really, I don’t know how we’re going to manage to clothe Danny when he grows too big for me to make his things for him. Boys are so much more difficult to clothe than girls. One can’t just run up the odd little cotton frock of an evening.’

The vicar looked across at his wife and smiled cheerfully.

‘Oh, we’ll manage,’ he said. ‘And I haven’t noticed Sally being very addicted to the wearing of the said little cotton frocks lately, my dear. She never seems to be in anything but those disreputable old jodhpurs except on Sundays.’

Mrs. Corben sighed.

‘No,’ she agreed. ‘She does rather live in them these days. Sometimes I wonder if we were wise to let her have Cinders. One didn’t want her to feel out of things here, where everyone rides, but I don’t want her to grow up thinking of nothing but horses, for she’ll have to earn her living and it’s most unlikely that she’ll be able to do it anywhere where she can ride as well.’

The vicar looked thoughtful.

‘At the present moment I gather her idea is to become a stable-girl,’ he remarked. ‘But perhaps having some young people at the Priory will give her some fresh ideas. How many young folk will there be?’

‘Four,’ replied his wife. ‘Billy de Salis and three of his Scottish cousins called Graham. Boys of about seventeen and thirteen and a girl of about fifteen, I think. I don’t know if Mary’s other two will be down here at all or not. I should rather think not, because Robin’s in the Army and Jill is married, you know, and has a young baby and lives in the Orkneys. I must say Mary de Salis looks absurdly young to be a grandmother.’

‘Let me see, where was it you first met her?’ asked the vicar, but before his wife could answer Sally appeared at the window flushed and breathless.

‘Mother, you must come!’ she exclaimed. ‘Daniel is making omelettes in the sand-pit. He’s got some real eggs from somewhere and he’s mixed them all up with sand and water and you’ve never seen such a mess! He’s simply clarted with egg. I tried to make him come in, but he said the omelette wasn’t cooked, and when I scolded him for using real eggs he said, ‘But you can’t make an omelette without eggs,’ and stuck his under-lip out a mile. He really is awful, Mother! I’d rather look after ten ponies for a year than Danny for a month.’

Mrs. Corben got up hurriedly.

‘Oh, dear,’ she said, half laughing, half dismayed. ‘His dungarees were only clean on this morning. Why couldn’t he have elected to make an omelette yesterday, when it was warm and he was in his sun-suit which I could have washed out in a moment? Where on earth can he have got the eggs from? We used the fresh ones for breakfast and the pickled ones are all locked up in the store-cupboard.’

She hurried from the room and presently the vicar heard her talking to their five-year-old son in the cloakroom where she was evidently trying to remove the worst of the mess before taking him upstairs to change.

‘There are lots of different kinds of omelettes, you know,’ she was saying. ‘It would be better really to make sand-omelettes in the garden and then one day later on to make a proper egg omelette with me in the kitchen.’

‘But I was making a proper omelette,’ came Danny’s aggrieved voice. ‘It was cooking nicely and I was just going to eat it when you came. I was going to keep a bit for you,’ he added magnanimously, but I wasn’t going to give Sally any. She’s so silly. She can’t think of anything but that stupid old pony.’

The voices died away and the vicar, smiling to himself, returned to the paper.

Meanwhile Sally had slipped away down to the orchard and was sitting on top of the post-and-rails fence which divided it from the garden and staring moodily at the mealy-mouthed Exmoor pony which was grazing among the apple-trees.

‘You’re getting hog fat,’ she addressed it aloud. ‘How on earth you managed to go and get lame just by yourself in the orchard beats me! And if you had to do it, why didn’t you do it in term-time instead of waiting until the beginning of the holidays?’

The pony lifted its head for a moment, but then, seeing that there was no bread to be had, turned away and resumed its grazing. Sally watched it and thought that just walking quietly her pony’s lameness did not show at all. ‘Perhaps just another day’s rest will put her right again,’ she thought, ‘and I’ll still have time to get her schooled for the gymkhana. Not that I’ve any dance of winning anything! She’s too fat, always living just on grass and hay. If only we could afford to grow a few oats for her!’

She turned half round and looked thoughtfully at the good piece of arable ground that belonged to the glebe and ran alongside the orchard. At present it was being used by the neighbouring farmer for potatoes and cow-cabbage and in return he gave Mrs. Corben tail-corn for her chickens, but Sally now in her mind’s eye envisaged it cropped with oats. She imagined them whitening ripe for harvest and being thrashed out at the farm and filling sack after sack to be tipped later into the empty corn-bins in the stable. She saw herself giving her beloved Cinders wonderful meals of crushed oats and chopped mangolds, and then going round all the Shows with her winning prizes left and right.

‘I’d give Mummy all the tail-corn for the hens,’ she thought. ‘I’m sure they’d lay just as well on oats as on dredge, and then when Cinders was known all over the place I’d let her have a foal by an Arab stallion and it would be the most perfect foal anyone ever saw and I’d sell it for a lot of money and . . .’

At this point in her day-dreaming Jan Rawle came along from the kitchen-garden in which he worked for the vicar two days a week. Jan had once been a hunt groom and really cared more about horses than about anything else, but a tendency to have bad bouts of rheumatism had compelled him to give up having long days in the saddle in all weathers, and he now spent his time doing odd jobs of gardening and farm work and having a finger in every pie in the village.

Seeing Sally sitting on the fence he turned off the path and came up to her.

‘How’s the pony?’ he asked. ‘Seems to me she’m moving pretty free again today.’

‘She’s all right until she starts trotting,’ said Sally. ‘Then she still seems to drop just the least little bit on the turn. Come and have a look at her, Jan. I don’t think there’s any swelling left now.’

Jan put a hand on the top rail of the fence and vaulted lightly over it into the orchard. Except when a go of rheumatism afflicted him he was very athletic and could still put a horse over jumps as well as anyone. He was always ready to ride anything when he got the chance, and he even got up on Cinders one day. Sitting the pony bare-back, with his long legs almost touching the ground, he galloped her up and down the field, showing Sally how to manage a sack stuffed with straw for a V. C. race. Cinders had turned and stopped and started far better than she ever did for Sally, seeming quite unworried by the extra weight on her back, for, though small, Exmoor ponies are tremendously strong and wiry.

Now, as the ex-groom went across to her, she stopped grazing and stood looking at him with a quiet kind eye, never moving or fidgeting as he ran a hand over her shoulder and along her back and then down her quarter to her leg, finally feeling round the fetlock with gently exploratory fingers.

‘I don’t think there’s much amiss now,’ he said after a moment or two. ‘That slight puffiness has gone, and there’s no heat left at all. She just strained the tendon a bit some way, but you should be riding her again tomorrow, Miss Sally, provided you take her easy for a bit. No racing about on her with them youngsters as is coming to the Priory, though.’

‘Why,’ cried Sally excitedly, ‘do they ride? What fun! Are they bringing their own ponies with them? How do you know about them?’

Jan gave Cinders a friendly slap on the rump and as he watched her move away he said with a smile, ‘Yes, they be all going to ride, seemingly. Though whether it’s riding-stables stuff they’m used to we’ll not know till they’m here.’

Jan had a great contempt for what he called ‘riding-stables stuff,’ by which he did not mean proper training in a good riding-school but the acquisition of just enough knowledge to be able to sit on a dead-quiet horse and get taken for an easy ride on smooth down-land or in a London park; a very different matter from riding over the rough stony moorland or up and down the steep and stony hill tracks of Devon and Somerset.

‘They’ve not got ponies of their own,’ he went on. ‘But the old gentleman has hired three of Mrs. Benson’s and Tom Dyer’s cob for all the time they’m to be here, and I’m to go up to the Priory and muck out stables every day.’

Sally stared at him.

‘Do you mean to say that they’re going to keep the ponies in?’ she asked incredulously. ‘Where are they getting the oats from?’

Jan smiled, knowing that oats were a sore subject with Sally.

‘They’m not likely to get many oats,’ he assured her. ‘Mrs. Benson do know better than to let her ponies get corned up, with strange children riding them, but they be clipped out, you see, for she’s had they in all winter, and it’s too early to leave a clipped pony out at night yet, so they’ll be in the seven-acre field by day if it’s fine, I reckon, and Mrs. Benson do be sending over her own hay for them. Her would not want for they to get to blown up on spring grass with the pony-club gymkhana coming on. I’ll tell you what, Miss Sally, if you’m thinking of entering Cinders, and if the youngsters up along bain’t too good on a pony, why don’t you make up to they and see if one of them would ride your pony and let you ride one of theirs? I believe they do be going to have Grey Dawn for one, and I’m thinking Mrs. Benson’ll be none too happy about having her rode by foreigners, but seemingly she do ’ve promised the old gentleman to let him have three ponies up there for sure, and one she’d meant to send is coughing, so she’s only got Grey Dawn to spare.’

Sally’s eyes widened.

‘Grey Dawn?’ she breathed. ‘You don’t mean that absolutely smashing pony with a lot of Arab in her? You don’t mean her?’

Jan nodded.

‘Gosh!’ said Sally. ‘Gosh!’ and stared dreamily in front of her.

Then she came back to earth again.

‘She wasn’t entered in our summer gymkhana, was she, Jan?’ she asked.

Jan shook his head.

‘No! Her was down to Exeter then,’ he replied. ‘But I believe Mrs. Benson would be glad to have her shown up here this year. Tom Ellis was at the Committee meeting t’other evening and he says there’s a lot of good entries, some coming from a fair ways away.’

Sally’s eyes grew dreamy again.

‘Grey Dawn,’ she said softly, lingeringly. ‘Grey Dawn.’ Then her tone changed and she asked briskly, ‘When are they due to arrive at the Priory?’

‘I don’t exactly know,’ Jan replied. ‘I axed Jim Snape if there is a taxi ordered for the station, but he says they be coming by car.’

Sally giggled.

‘I meant the ponies, not the people!’ she said.

Jan vaulted back over the fence and started to walk away up the garden path.

‘Mrs. Benson’s bringing all three along tonight,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘Round about seven, Harry Cobleigh said I was to be up along. She’ll need to come slow and steady with two to lead, and it’ll take her a bit of time. Must be the best part of eight miles over from her place.’

Sally was not tall enough to do a side-vault over the fence so she did a gate-vault instead, and started to pursue Jan.

Then suddenly she stopped, thought for a moment, and turning, raced towards the house. When she got near it she stopped running and sauntered casually towards the french-window of the drawing-room, but looking in and seeing that her mother was not there she turned right handed and rounding the corner of the house put her head in at the kitchen window instead.

Mrs. Corben was cutting up rhubarb at the sink and Daniel in a clean set of dungarees and with a dish cloth tied round his waist and pinned up to his front was happily rolling out a piece of rather grey-looking dough.

‘Hullo,’ he said, looking up with a wide smile. ‘I’ve decided I’m going to be a chef when I grow up.’

He picked up the dough and pulled it out like a piece of elastic, then twisted it up again and, with hot sticky hands, rolled it into a ball.

‘Are you?’ said Sally. ‘I thought you were going to be a hairdresser?’

‘Well, I don’t exactly know which,’ said Daniel, pausing for a moment and looking thoughtfully at his mother whose dark glossy hair was wound in two plaits round her head. ‘I do like doing people’s hair almost as much as cooking. I do wish mother would leave hers like I do it in bed for her in the morning.’

Sally shook her own dark pigtails back over her shoulders and laughed, ‘Well, you aren’t going to be my hairdresser, Danny, I can tell you that! As soon as I’m old enough to do what I like I shall have my hair cut short, as much like a boy’s as possible. Pigtails are a most awful bore, always flapping about when one’s riding.’ She leant against the window-sill and went on in a casual sort of voice, ‘Mother, didn’t you say you wanted some more machine twist for my pyjamas? Cinders isn’t quite right yet, and Jan says I oughtn’t to ride her until tomorrow, so I could go into Williton by bus for you, if you like, and then if I took an apple and a sandwich with me I could go on and see Elizabeth.’

Her mother shot a quick glance at her.

‘It’s quite a nice lunch today,’ she said. ‘Liver and bacon. It’s the first liver we’ve had for ages.’

Sally hesitated for a moment. Then she said in a voice that was still elaborately casual, ‘I think I’d better go this morning. Elizabeth often rests in the afternoon. Bread and cheese and a bit of chocolate will do, Mother. It’s all I have when I go hunting.’

Mrs. Corben took the pan of rhubarb across to the Rayburn cooker and set it on the hot plate.

‘Well, I had thought of taking the bus in myself this afternoon,’ she said. ‘But I’d be quite glad not to have to go. I can get on with some gardening instead. Now, let me think. What else was it that I wanted? Oh yes, a couple of pounds of rice and two packets of Bonios for Toby dog, and if there are any nice oranges you might bring half a dozen of them as well.’

Sally’s jaw dropped.

‘Oh, Mother!’ she exclaimed. ‘I didn’t know you wanted a whole heap of shopping done. It’ll weigh a ton carrying all those things over the cliff path to Mincombe.’

‘But you needn’t take them with you to Elizabeth’s,’ said her mother innocently. ‘You can pick them up on the way back and then you’ll only have to carry them from Elliot’s stores to the bus-stop which is no distance.’

Sally hesitated.

‘But,’ she began, and then changed her mind. ‘Yes, of course I could do that,’ she agreed. ‘The only thing is just supposing the Brethertons were thinking of having a picnic or anything and asked me to stay for the afternoon I mightn’t get back before Elliot’s closed.’

Her mother turned away to hide a smile, wondering what plan her daughter was hatching now, for, although Elizabeth Bretherton was a nice child, she was allergic to horse-hair and so could never have anything to do with ponies, for which reason Sally was usually anything but ready to have much to do with her, so there was evidently more in this projected visit than met the eye.

‘I’m sure Mrs. Copp would let you leave the things in her porch, dear,’ she said. ‘It’s the cottage that has the Busy Lizzie plant in the window. You can get the cheese from the larder, if you like, now, and I’ll cut your sandwiches before Danny and I go out to feed the little chickens.’

Sally withdrew her head from the window and a moment or two later appeared in the kitchen bearing a plate with a small portion of rationed mousetrap cheese on it.

‘Is this the only cheese we’ve got?’ she asked, observing the unpalatable morsel with extreme disfavour. ‘It looks just like a piece of scrubbing soap!’

‘I expect it tastes like it, too,’ replied her mother placidly. ‘But if you want to take a picnic I’m afraid it’s all we’ve got. I know it’s rather stale, but the rations don’t come until tomorrow, and I can’t afford to buy too much unrationed cheese, it’s so horribly expensive.’

Haven’t we any Swiss Gruyere portions left?’ asked Sally.

‘Only two, and I’m keeping them for father tonight,’ replied her mother firmly. ‘He’s got a Boys’ Club meeting and won’t be in till about ten. That’s why we’re having the liver for lunch. Why don’t you wait and go in the afternoon? It wouldn’t break your heart if you did happen not to be able to see Elizabeth, would it?’

‘N-no,’ admitted her daughter. ‘No, I’m not exactly set on seeing her, but I sort of planned to go this morning and I think I’d rather stick to it. Is there any Marmite, mother? I’d like that better, really.’

Mrs. Corben got the loaf out of the bread bin and started cutting sandwiches. ‘Quite definitely there is something up,’ she thought. But aloud she said, ‘Yes, you can have Marmite if you’d rather.’

‘Good-oh!’ said Sally happily. ‘I’ll just go and get a bit tidier. I’m looking rather messy at the moment.’

Her mother paused in her bread cutting and watched her daughter shoot out of the kitchen. ‘Sally thinking of getting herself tidy without being told,’ she reflected. ‘Wonders will never cease!’ But at that moment her attention was drawn to Daniel who was pointing to a grimy layer of dough adhering stickily to the pastry-board.

‘I should think it’s ready for the oven now, wouldn’t you?’ he asked.

‘Quite ready,’ agreed Mrs. Corben, and the grey leaden mass was transferred to a baking-sheet and duly put in the oven.

‘Run out and ask Jan to give you a lettuce, Danny,’ she said, and as the small boy obediently trotted off she hurriedly withdrew the baking-sheet from the oven and scraping the grey dough off it into the hen-pot replaced her son’s effort with a small piece of her own pastry which she had kept hidden underneath a kitchen cloth.

‘It’s so disappointing to try so hard to do something when you’re really not old enough to do it,’ she had once said to her husband when he had caught her in a similar small act of deception. ‘Even Toby wouldn’t want to eat Dan’s efforts at present. I know I shall have to own up sometime, but meanwhile it makes him always ready to cook and keeps him quiet for hours.’

Upstairs in her bedroom Sally was hurrying into her jodhpurs and a clean high-necked yellow jersey. ‘Mrs. Benson will see that I know what’s the right thing to wear, anyhow,’ she thought. ‘And I’m sure I can wheedle the bus-conductor into dropping the things at the bottom of the lane here.’

Four hours later she was sauntering carelessly along the main road about six miles away, all ears to catch the first sound of horse’s hooves coming along the road behind her. Presently she heard them and, when she judged that they were near enough, she stopped and looked round, to see, as she had hoped, a tall boyish-looking woman riding along on a grey pony and leading a brown pony on one side of her and a bay on the other. She did not know Mrs. Benson very well, but she had just come across her once or twice at Pony Club rallies, so she had no hesitation in raising an arm in greeting. Luckily the road had a wide verge at this particular point and Mrs. Benson drew the ponies off on to it and stopped.

‘Hullo,’ she said. ‘You’re Sally Corben, aren’t you? What are you doing footing it along the hard high road?’

‘Hoping for the bus,’ replied Sally unblushingly. I’ve been seeing Elizabeth Bretherton. I was going to ride over and leave Cinders at Williton and walk out by the cliff path and across the fields, because Elizabeth gets asthma if she has a horse within half a mile of her, poor pooh, but Cinders is lame so I had to bus it instead.’

‘Lame, is she? That’s bad luck. What’s happened?’ asked Mrs. Benson, leaning forward and patting her pony’s neck as she spoke.

‘Oh, I don’t think it’s anything much. She’s just strained a tendon a bit, I think,’ Sally replied. ‘Jan Rawle says he thinks she’ll be all right by tomorrow, but I’ll probably have to take things easy with her for a bit.’

‘Well, if Jan Rawle says so, she probably will be,’ said Mrs. Benson. ‘I’d take his opinion on a horse as soon as any vet’s. But you’ve missed the bus, Sally, I’m afraid. There isn’t another for an hour or so on this road. Were you going straight home? If so, would you like to ride Joe? I’m taking this lot over your way, and to tell you the truth I don’t much care about leading two of them on this road. It’s so narrow, and those milk lorries practically take your ears off sometimes.’

‘Oh, Mrs. Benson, I’d adore to!’ cried Sally eagerly. ‘What luck for me that I have just missed the bus! I’d far rather ride back with you.’

A few minutes later she was jogging along on Joe. ‘So far, so good,’ she thought complacently. ‘Now, the next thing is how to get Mrs. Benson to suggest that I’d be the best person to ride Grey Dawn in the Pony Club gymkhana?’

To order your copy of Bunkle Scents A Clue see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.