A little wind of evening crept inquisitively into Tattles’ stable. It pushed a wisp of hay over the worn, brick floor, then, as if shocked at its own daring, it slipped out again and met Jenny running across the yard with a paper bag in her hand.
The very last wink of the sun shone faintly on the face of the building, and the open door and the small, high window were black shapes on the wall. Jenny went through the door with a smile and crackling the paper bag.
The darkness of Tattles’ stable was a kind, comfortable darkness. It smelt of pony and of hay and of leather and a little of mice, and it let you see things just enough to stop you bumping into them. Fat, untidy trusses of straw leaned against the wall, and prim trusses of hay stood in an upright pile like slabs of short-cake.
Tattles’ part of the stable was divided off by railings, and by a low door which squeaked when it was opened and squawked when it was shut again. Over the door hung a white shape, poised like a bird in the darkness. As Jenny came in the white shape moved and a grunt of great satisfaction came from Tattles’ side of the railing.
“Squeak, squawk!” went Tattles’ door as Jenny opened it and shut it again behind her. Tattles’ lip touched her on the arm, and the whiteness, which was the marking on his forehead, came close to her cheek. Jenny dodged by and, climbing on the manger, sat there with her back against the cold wall. The straw on the floor rustled as Tattles swung round to face her, and his breath blew warmly on her bare knees.
“Tattles,” said Jenny, “there might only be soap in this bag.”
Tattles grunted again, scornfully.
Jenny’s eyes were getting used to the half light. Against the sunset beyond the doorway, Tattles’ ears were pricked like small horns. Five stiff inches of mane stood up like a crest along his neck. It was three and a half months since Mr. Pymmington had last trimmed it.
Tattles’ backbone sagged with old age like a chair that has been too much sat in. He had pulled Mr. Pymmington’s carrier cart for fifteen years, trundling along with boxes and parcels and crates of fowls and pieces of furniture and all the other odd things which fall to the lot of a carrier’s cart. The collar had raised lumps on his shoulders, and the hard roads had gradually caused windgalls to come on his legs; and the frosting of white hairs over his liver-coloured coat told the wisdom of his years.
Jenny thought Tattles was the wisest creature she knew, for he had lived nearly three times as long as she had, and there were little hollows over his eyes such as only the truly wise people ever have.
“As a matter of fact it isn’t soap in this bag,” said Jenny. “It might be flour, or eggs, or nuts, or tapioca, or any of the things you don’t like, but it isn’t. It’s apple peeling and carrot tops and tails.”
Of course, Tattles had known this all along; Tattles would know a thing like that.
Jenny opened the bag and fed him from it, a little at a time. The carrot tops and tails scrunched loudly, the apple peeling made a softer, more juicy sound. Tattles’ breath smelt of carrots and apples against a background of hay.
When the last had been eaten, Tattles lifted up his nose and wrinkled back his lips in a grin, letting his yellow teeth and coral gums shine in the dusk. Then he dropped his nose again and rested it on Jenny’s knee. Slowly his ears drooped backwards into a sleepy position and his eyes half closed.
“Dear Tattles,” said Jenny, “how soft your nose is. I wish you were mine. I wish any pony were mine. Daddy says I’m too young to have a pony of my own and that we haven’t anywhere to keep one. But I do want a pony. I want to trot and gallop and jump and go rushing with the wind.”
Jenny raised her voice and one of Tattles’ ears rose also. Then it sank back as Jenny lowered her voice again.
“I want a pony I can go and see whenever I like. As I do you, Tattles, only any minute of the day instead of just in the evening. Mr. Pymmington doesn’t mind me coming to see you, but he wouldn’t let me groom you or put your harness on or take you out for walks.
“If I had a pony of my own I’d saddle him and bridle him myself, and groom him and comb out his tail with one of those thick grey combs. I’d clean his hoofs out too, and plait his mane if he had a long one. Then we’d start off. We’d walk along the main road because of the cars. Then we’d trot, trot, trot down the little lane and up the hill and through the wood, and make the old cock pheasants scuttle out of the way. And when we came to the path across the field we’d gallop, and we’d jump the little gate at the end and go into the wood again where the pine trees are, and the pine needles would be nice and soft for his feet.”
Jenny stroked Tattles’ cheek whilst, with eyes fixed on the dimming square of daylight, she thought on about her dream pony.
“Of course, I should have to learn to ride first,” she said. “I asked Daddy if I could have lessons at Mr. Kelley’s riding school, but he said it would be too expensive and that anyhow I should want lots and lots of lessons before I learnt enough. And, besides, I don’t like Mr. Kelley much. He’s got a red face and a loud voice and skinny legs. And I hear him shouting most angrily at his groom people. And his ponies are rather thin and tired-looking. I’d like to learn on a fat, shiny pony with a nice, cheerful face. I must ride, soon, Tattles. I must!”
Jenny’s last words rang out in the little stable. When they had died away the stable seemed very quiet for a while.
“Through the Dark Corner, and the password is Silver Snaffles.”
The words had come from Tattles. Jenny stared at him, her surprise making her sit bolt upright on the uncomfortable edge of the manger. Tattles had opened his eyes, but there was a far-away look about them as if he were dreaming. Jenny would have been frightened anywhere else, but you could not feel frightened in Tattles’ stable with Tattles.
“Did — did you really say that?” Jenny’s own voice sounded small and shaky in the dusk.
“Through the Dark Corner, and the password is Silver Snaffles,” repeated Tattles.
His voice was not like a human voice. It was the sound of hoofs thudding on the turf, of bits jingling and saddles creaking and of a horse nickering to his friend, all mixed into one and making words.
Holding her breath, Jenny slipped off the manger and on to the straw. The darkest corner was the one on her right. It was so dark that you could not see right into it even in the daytime. Jenny went towards it with hands stretched forward, and the darkness began to cover her. She looked back at Tattles, standing quite still and apparently asleep again. Then she looked into the Dark Corner.
“Silver Snaffles,” she said in a small, firm voice and walked on.