To order your copy of The Far Distant Oxus see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.
“THE ponies!” shouted Bridget, pulling back the stable door and gazing with adoring eyes at the long line of flickering tails.
“May we choose our own?” asked Frances, the youngest of the family, who was striding along amicably with Mr. Fradd, the farmer.
“Certainly,” he assured her. “I arranged with your mother that you should ride whenever you liked, so choose the ponies that you want, because I hire out the others.”
Anthony, the only boy, younger than Bridget and older than Frances, who had been helping Mrs. Fradd to carry their suitcases up the rickety farm staircase to their rooms, now ran across the yard to the stable.
“How many ponies have you got, Mr. Fradd?” he asked.
“Ten here in the stable, but out on the moor I have a herd wandering about somewhere.”’
“A whole herd?”
Bridget was already in the first stall, patting the pony and fondling his matted mane. All the way down in the train she had been thinking of this moment. She had imagined a hundred times the fresh smell of clean straw and the warm feel of a pony’s neck under her hand. Now she was actually here, her imaginings were happening at this very moment, Frances ran down the stable, patting each pony and trying to choose the one she would like for the holidays. In the last stall a tiny shaggy Dartmoor butted her with his head, whinnying sorrowfully when she started to go away.
“You silly old thing,” she said, “I’d like to have you, but you’re much too small.”
She handed him a lump of sugar and called Mr. Fradd. The farmer hobbled up. He was a small, rather bent man, with a face that shone, when it caught the light, like a newly fallen conker. His short bow-legs reminded the children of Jeremy Fisher.
“What is this pony’s name?” she asked. “I think he’s awfully sweet.”
“That little one? He’s Toby. Nearly every one who sees him thinks the same, but take him out with the hounds, and the devil himself wouldn’t stop that bag of fireworks.”
“Does he bolt?”
“The moment he hears hound music, right away over the hills, on and on till he drops exhausted. Then the rider has to walk home with him, thirty miles or so.”
“Little beast,” said Frances, and moved on to the next stall, where Anthony was examining a dark-brown Exmoor with a trailing tail and a shaggy mane that fell on both sides of his neck.
“That’s Timothy,” said Mr. Fradd, “and a fine little pony too; one of the neatest jumpers I’ve seen.”
Anthony looked up eagerly. He had been privately making friends with Timothy, and, now that Mr. Fradd praised the pony, he was determined to choose him as his own.
“May we try them in the meadow?” he asked; “the one up behind the stables.”
“Why, certainly. The bridles are here and the saddles down in the harness-room.”
Anthony assured the farmer that he could ride bareback, and started to bridle Timothy. His was an ordinary snaffle bridle and the well-kept leather was soft and pliable.
“Always put your bridle away clean,” instructed the farmer, “then it will be clean when you next need it.”
Bridget was torn between the first pony she had seen, Tinker, and another, Talisman, a slightly larger dark chestnut. Mr. Fradd decided her choice by informing her that Talisman had once led the herd on the Porlock hills, and could gallop like “the wind on Dunkery Beacon.” As Bridget had a passion for speed, she did not hesitate. Talisman’s bridle was fitted with what Mr. Fradd called “an Exmoor bit.” Actually it was a double bit, snaffle, and curb.
“You’ll find him fresh at first,” he warned her, “but he’s well mannered and very willing.”
“I love fresh ponies,” Bridget assured him, now ecstatically happy with the bridle in her hands and her arm over Talisman’s chestnut neck.
Frances took a long time to choose, while the others waited, making helpful suggestions.
“That black one looks a beautiful mover,” said Bridget.
“Try the grey, or is it too big?” suggested Anthony.
“That little dun there, that’s Treacle; he once won a pony race over Dunster way,” put in the farmer; “good little goer he is, to be sure.”
That seemed to clinch the matter for the moment anyway, because Frances began to bridle Treacle, though all the time she reassured the black and grey by promising to try them afterwards.
The three led their ponies to the meadow, where Mr. Fradd held open the gate.
“You haven’t got long,” he warned as they passed through; “supper at seven-fifteen, and my wife has no patience with folk who are late for meals.”
They promised to hurry and, urging their ponies into a canter, for trotting bareback is no joke, raced up the field.
Bridget dug her knees into Talisman’s well-groomed flanks. She could see his muscles moving in his shoulders so that the light slid up and down on them, and was filled with the joy of being able to ride this animal, whose strength must equal at least ten times hers.
At the top of the meadow they paused. Frances, who had almost lost her balance in the last mad rush, hoisted herself into the middle of Treacle’s back, and sat up panting. Anthony leant forward to pat Timothy’s neck. “Wonderful pony,” he whispered.
Behind them the whitewashed farm-house and outbuildings lay huddled in a wide hollow, with a lane leading away to join the high road beyond the hills. In front another led down to the stream where the ponies and other animals were watered. In this valley a tiny brook wandered on, and round it clustered wide fans of stunted oaks and hawthorns. From their high position they could look across the valley to a ridge of moor, and beyond that to another and another, stretching like a great purple eiderdown strewed with grey books.
The late August sun that had blazed over the rugged moors all day now slid slowly behind the highest peak of the range which towered out of the heathered desert to the rear of Cloud Farm. Bridget turned Talisman downhill.
“Come on,” she said, “we shall be late for supper.”
Far away in another valley a boy lay on a rock, basking in the warmth of the setting sun. He was tall and dark, his long limbs bronzed to the colour of polished walnut, and by his side a black Labrador sat, snapping at flies and waiting expectantly.
The sun slid behind the highest peak, and the boy stood up.
“Sun’s going, Ellita,” he said; “better start making supper. Where’s Dragonfly?”
He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled; from behind a clump of elderberries a black pony, beautifully proportioned, trotted to his master. The boy jumped off the rock and put his hand on the pony’s neck. He was about to leap on his back, when he paused; he had noticed something else.
A cloud had covered the sun, which was still behind the peak, and all its light was cut out except for a great orange shaft that shot straight upwards.
The boy gazed, fascinated, then, mounting his pony and whistling his dog to follow, he stopped to stare again.
“Mount Elbruz on fire,” he muttered. “Something must be going to happen.”
Bridget, Frances, and Anthony sat round the long deal table in the farm kitchen with Mr. and Mrs. Fradd. The meal of poached eggs and stewed plums was nearly over, and now Mr. Fradd was helping them to large hunks of cheese.
This farm kitchen was almost exactly similar to many others in cottages all over Exmoor. It was a low room with white, clean-looking walls, and a wide-open fireplace containing the cooking-range. On the mantelpiece and lofty dresser that dominated one corner of the room were arranged a varied collection of old pewter pots and Devon crockery.
“Are there many children who live round here?” Bridget asked suddenly, having finished a large mouthful of biscuit and cheese. Mr. Fradd scratched his head.
“I wouldn’t say that there are many,” he said, “but there’s some.”
“The Clevertons in the large house on the opposite side of the valley,” put in his wife.
“Yes, and a few others in the town you arrived at. Also there’s a boy with a black pony that I’ve seen round here once or twice, but I couldn’t say where he lives.”
The farmer looked out of the window and, seeing that it was dusk on the hills, pushed back his chair, making a scraping sound on the old tiles.
“I must go and shut up the chickens,” he said. “These long evenings they won’t go into their houses till the light goes.”
“May we come and help you?” asked Frances.
“There is nothing to do save shutting the doors of the fowl-houses and rounding up a few odd ducks that may not have gone in, but you may come if you like.”
Mrs. Fradd warned her husband not to keep them out too long as they were sure to be tired after the train journey, and then retreated upstairs to unpack their suitcases.
Mr. Fradd led the children across the yard. It was much lighter outside than in the farm kitchen, and the air was warm. Rusty, the sheepdog, bounded up to his master and barked with delight. He had been lying outside the kitchen door on a stone slab, basking in the last rays of sunshine, waiting for the farmer to set out on his nightly round.
“Where does he sleep?” Frances asked.
“Always out here. He has done for four years now.”
“Whatever the weather?” asked Anthony.
“Not snow nor sleet will move him from outside the kitchen door, though to be sure the barn is always left open for him.”
“Faithful dog!” Bridget said.
They wandered down the lane to the valley and turned off into a meadow full of chicken-houses. There were no birds about, for they had all retired with the setting sun. As they shut each door the inhabitants fluttered and squawked with fright, in spite of the fact that this same process had been gone through every day of their lives.
“That’s where chickens are so silly,” Mr. Fradd explained; “no fox would rob a hen-house if it wasn’t for the welcoming flutter that the fowls give him. If they all kept quiet he’d slink away afraid.”
Anthony looked inside the next house before he bolted the door. The hens were huddled together in groups on their perches, their heads raised in alarm. A few fluttered on to the ground and tried to escape through his feet, but he slammed the door in their faces. Looking through the window, he saw them peck once or twice moodily at the floor and then flutter lazily back to the perches.
Frances found an egg in one of the houses, laid after they had been collected at tea-time. She had been looking hopefully in all the nesting-boxes, but up to now they had contained nothing but a few handfuls of hay and a sprinkling of rotten feathers. Now she had discovered this warm, smooth, brown egg. It was like finding a pearl in an oyster.
“I shall have it for breakfast,” she announced as they stumbled back up the lane.
“Not if you put it in your pocket,” warned Mr. Fradd, who had seen what she was trying to do.
“Goat,” said Bridget.
The ducks were routed out of one corner of the yard, where they had chosen to sleep among the muddy straw, and with many pitiful quacks shooed to their house.
“May we say good night to the ponies?” said Bridget.
“Why, yes,” answered Mr. Fradd, slightly puzzled by this strange request. “But don’t be long; the missus will be waiting for you.”
The three children disappeared into the stable. It was dark, but Mr. Fradd lit a lantern and hung it in the doorway, so that they could see to move about. Then he leant against the wall to watch and wait for them.
The flickering rays of the lantern flashed on Bridget’s long legs and arms as she climbed into the stall. Her straight black hair fell forward like a curtain on each side of her head, but when she shook it back her face showed surprisingly white.
“She’ll soon get tanned up here,” thought the old man to himself as he felt for his pipe.
“Good night, pony,” said Frances to Treacle; “sleep well and be fresh to-morrow.”
Then she stumped down the stable to Mr. Fradd, her thick brogues clattering on the stone floor. He was struck by the likeness between the two sisters. Frances was a smaller reproduction of Bridget save for the brown in her hair and the colour in her cheeks.
Anthony gave Timothy a lump of sugar and joined the others at the door.
“We must hurry in,” said Bridget. “Good night, Mr. Fradd, and thank you very much.”
“Good night, miss,” said the farmer, and he wandered off, followed by the faithful Rusty, to continue his round of the farm.
Mrs. Fradd was waiting for them in the kitchen.
“No baths to-night,” she said; “you must go straight to bed.”
She led the way up a winding little staircase to a dark landing, where a case of stuffed fish and a grandfather clock loomed out of the shadows. Bridget had a room of her own, which led straight into that shared by her brother and sister.
“Candles out in thirty minutes,” said Mrs. Fradd as she closed the door.
Anthony and Frances jumped on to their beds and bounced about.
“Quite soft,” said Anthony, endeavouring to perch on the rail at the end as a hen would have done.
“Funny sort of person, isn’t she?” said Bridget, collecting a few of her belongings that had been packed in Frances’ case.
“Who? Mrs. Fradd?” she asked.
“She is a bit queer, but quite nice.”
“Better than I expected,” Anthony sang out.
They lit the candles and Bridget went into her own room to get undressed. Frances and Anthony put the lights on the tables by their beds and surveyed the room. It was fairly large and looked even bigger because of the absence of much furniture. The walls were covered with pink rosebuds trailing round and up silver trellises, so that it produced the effect of a gigantic birthday card. The two brass bedsteads stood on each side of the door into Bridget’s room. Above Anthony’s bed was a framed text, “Thy Peace in Heaven.” A madonna lily formed the “T” and a bunch of holly was twined round the “H.” Frances gazed at it and wondered how anyone could ever have thought it beautiful. Anthony was surprised that anyone could be such an ass as to mix summer and winter in one picture. Over the other bed hung a brown and white print, “Evening in Verona.” Two ladies in muslin were struggling to attract attention by playing Orpheus’ lute. Behind them a bird sat on a branch silhouetted against the moon. Anthony wondered if the bird was meant to be a nightingale, because it certainly did not look like one. Bare boards spread over the floor, except for three rush mats that slid about, rather as if they were floating islands, every time they were stepped on.
Anthony and Frances put on their pyjamas and leaned out of the window. It was very warm. A mist had crawled up from the valley like the attack of a crumpled army, so that they could see nothing beyond the farmyard.
Presently Bridget burst in to demand her sponge-bag, and sat on the end of a bed twiddling the brass nobs and watching her brother and sister.
“Do you like this place?” she asked at last.
“Rather,” they both assented.
“Moors and ponies and streams! It’ll be marvellous,” said Anthony.
But Bridget was not thinking of that. She was the eldest of the family, and, always being the best at everything, she was inclined to be left out by Anthony and Frances in their plans. She did not mind, as she usually had plenty of her own, but the careless mention of a boy on a black pony had roused her curiosity and imagination.
“That boy Mr. Fradd was talking about,” she said. “I hope we meet him.”
“Yes,” said Anthony.
“We shall have fun here, all right,” Frances declared conclusively.
“Fun!” Bridget stood on the bed in her excitement. “We shall have that all right; but this isn’t a place for fun only. It’s a place for travel, discovery, adventure. How do we know that there are not hundreds of hidden valleys, dozens of unscalable peaks, heaps of unrideable rides; all waiting to be found, climbed, and accomplished by us? Oh, we shall have fun here all right — but more as well, much more.”
After which spirited speech she added a hasty good night and, seizing her sponge-bag, barged back into her room. Anthony and Frances looked at each other.
“It’s all true what she said,” he declared.
“Umn. We must do it all too.”
“Let’s go to bed so that we wake up early.”
“Right — after you with that basin. Hurry up.”
After ten minutes the splashings in the tin wash-basin ceased and the two curled up in their big old bedsteads. The candle-stump that Mrs. Fradd had given them was almost burnt out, so Frances suggested that they should lie awake and watch it till it died out. Anthony agreed, but the length of candle was deceiving, and outlasted them. Long after they had both slid deeper into their beds and fallen fast asleep, the little flame flickered perilously, making the shadows leap about. They jumped from the rickety wash-stand to the gloss of the text, from the brass nobs of the bedsteads to the lock of Anthony’s suitcase.
Beyond the window the mist lay over the valley. A breeze slid in and out once or twice, rustling the curtains. The candle flickered, spluttered, darted up for a last effort — then sank back silently into the pool of melted wax.
To order your copy of The Far Distant Oxus see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.