04 Birtwick Park
At this time I used to stand in the stable and my coat was brushed every day till it shone like a rook’s wing. It was early in May, when there came a man from Squire Gordon’s, who took me away to the hall. My master said, “Good-by, Darkie; be a good horse, and always do your best.” I could not say “good-by”, so I put my nose into his hand; he patted me kindly, and I left my first home. As I lived some years with Squire Gordon, I may as well tell something about the place.
Squire Gordon’s park skirted the village of Birtwick. It was entered by a large iron gate, at which stood the first lodge, and then you trotted along on a smooth road between clumps of large old trees; then another lodge and another gate, which brought you to the house and the gardens. Beyond this lay the home paddock, the old orchard, and the stables. There was accommodation for many horses and carriages; but I need only describe the stable into which I was taken; this was very roomy, with four good stalls; a large swinging window opened into the yard, which made it pleasant and airy.
The first stall was a large square one, shut in behind with a wooden gate; the others were common stalls, good stalls, but not nearly so large; it had a low rack for hay and a low manger for corn; it was called a loose box, because the horse that was put into it was not tied up, but left loose, to do as he liked. It is a great thing to have a loose box.
Into this fine box the groom put me; it was clean, sweet, and airy. I never was in a better box than that, and the sides were not so high but that I could see all that went on through the iron rails that were at the top.
He gave me some very nice oats, he patted me, spoke kindly, and then went away.
When I had eaten my corn I looked round. In the stall next to mine stood a little fat gray pony, with a thick mane and tail, a very pretty head, and a pert little nose.
I put my head up to the iron rails at the top of my box, and said, “How do you do? What is your name?”
He turned round as far as his halter would allow, held up his head, and said, “My name is Merrylegs. I am very handsome; I carry the young ladies on my back, and sometimes I take our mistress out in the low chair. They think a great deal of me, and so does James. Are you going to live next door to me in the box?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Well, then,” he said, “I hope you are good-tempered; I do not like any one next door who bites.”
Just then a horse’s head looked over from the stall beyond; the ears were laid back, and the eye looked rather ill-tempered. This was a tall chestnut mare, with a long handsome neck. She looked across to me and said:
“So it is you who have turned me out of my box; it is a very strange thing for a colt like you to come and turn a lady out of her own home.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said, “I have turned no one out; the man who brought me put me here, and I had nothing to do with it; and as to my being a colt, I am turned four years old and am a grown-up horse. I never had words yet with horse or mare, and it is my wish to live at peace.”
“Well,” she said, “we shall see. Of course, I do not want to have words with a young thing like you.” I said no more.
In the afternoon, when she went out, Merrylegs told me all about it.
“The thing is this,” said Merrylegs. “Ginger has a bad habit of biting and snapping; that is why they call her Ginger, and when she was in the loose box she used to snap very much. One day she bit James in the arm and made it bleed, and so Miss Flora and Miss Jessie, who are very fond of me, were afraid to come into the stable. They used to bring me nice things to eat, an apple or a carrot, or a piece of bread, but after Ginger stood in that box they dared not come, and I missed them very much. I hope they will now come again, if you do not bite or snap.”
I told him I never bit anything but grass, hay, and corn, and could not think what pleasure Ginger found it.
“Well, I don’t think she does find pleasure,” says Merrylegs; “it is just a bad habit; she says no one was ever kind to her, and why should she not bite? Of course, it is a very bad habit; but I am sure, if all she says be true, she must have been very ill-used before she came here. John does all he can to please her, and James does all he can, and our master never uses a whip if a horse acts right; so I think she might be good-tempered here. You see,” he said, with a wise look, “I am twelve years old; I know a great deal, and I can tell you there is not a better place for a horse all round the country than this. John is the best groom that ever was; he has been here fourteen years; and you never saw such a kind boy as James is; so that it is all Ginger’s own fault that she did not stay in that box.”