The Horses, by James Stephens

He was tall and she was short. He was bulky, promising to be fat. She was thin, and, with a paring here and there, would have been skinny. His face was sternly resolute, solemn indeed, hers was prim, and primness is the most everlasting, indestructible trait of humanity. It can outface the Sphinx. It is destructible only by death. Whoever has married a prim woman must hand over his breeches and his purse, he will collect postage stamps in his old age, he will twiddle his thumbs and smile when the visitor asks him a question, he will grow to dislike beer, and will admit and assert that a man's place is the home—these things come to pass as surely as the procession of the seasons.

It may be asked why he had married her, and it would be difficult to find an answer to that question. The same query might be put to almost any couple, for (and it is possibly right that it should be so) we do not marry by mathematics, but by some extraordinary attraction which is neither entirely sexual nor mental. Something other than these, something as yet uncharted by psychology, is the determining factor. It may be that the universal, strange chemistry of nature, planning granite and twig, ant and onion, is also ordering us more imperatively and more secretly than we are aware.

He had always been a hasty creature. He never had any brains, and had never felt the lack of them. He was one of those men who are called "strong," because of their imperfect control over themselves. His appetites and his mental states ruled him. He was impatient of any restraint; whatever he wanted to do he wanted urgently to do and would touch no alternatives. He had the robust good humour which will cheerfully forgive you to-morrow for the wrongs he has done you to-day. He bore no malice to any one on earth except those who took their medicine badly. Meek people got on very well with him because they behaved themselves, but he did not like them to believe they would inherit the earth.

Some people marry because other people have done so. It is in the air, like clothing and art and not eating with a knife. He, of course, got married because he wanted to, and the singular part of it was that he did not mate with a meek woman. Perhaps he thought she was meek, for before marriage there is a habit of deference on both sides which is misleading and sometimes troublesome.

From the beginning of their marriage he had fought against his wife with steadiness and even ferocity. Scarcely had they been wed when her gently-repressive hand was laid upon him, and, like a startled horse, he bounded at the touch into freedom—that is, as far as the limits of the matrimonial rope would permit. Of course he came back again—there was the rope, and the unfailing, untiring hand easing him to the way he was wanted to go.

There was no fighting against that. Or, at least, it did not seem that fighting was any use. One may punch a bag, but the bag does not mind, and at last one grows weary of unproductive quarrelling. One shrugs one's shoulders, settles to the collar, and accepts whatever destiny the gods, in their wisdom, have ordained. Is life the anvil upon which the gods beat out their will? It is not so. The anvil is matter, the will of the gods is life itself, urging through whatever torment to some identity which it can only surmise or hope for; and the one order to life is that it shall not cease to rebel until it has ceased to live; when, perhaps, it can take up the shaping struggle in some other form or some other place.

But he had almost given in. Practically he had bowed to the new order. Domestic habits were settling about him thick as cobwebs, and as clinging. His feet were wiped on the mat when he came in. His hat was hung on the orthodox projection. His kiss was given at the stated time, and lasted for the regulation period. The chimney-corner claimed him and got him. The window was his outlook on life. Beyond the hall door were foreign lands inhabited by people who were no longer of his kind. The cat and the canary, these were his familiars, and his wife was rapidly becoming his friend.

Once a day he trod solemnly forth on the designated walk—

"Be back before one o'clock," said the voice of kind authority, "lunch will be ready."

"Won't you be back before two?" said that voice, "the lawn has to be rolled."

"Don't stay out after three," the voice entreated, "we are going to visit Aunt Kate."

And at one and two and three o'clock he paced urgently wifeward. He ate the lunch that was punctually ready. He rolled the inevitable lawn. He trod sturdily to meet the Aunt Kate and did not quail, and then he went home again. One climbed to bed at ten o'clock, one was gently spoken to until eleven o'clock, and then one went to sleep.

On a day she entrusted him with a sum of money, and requested that he should go down to the town and pay at certain shops certain bills, the details whereof she furnished to him on paper.

"Be back before three o'clock," said the good lady, "for the Fegans are coming to tea. You need not take your umbrella, it won't rain, and you ought to leave your pipe behind, it doesn't look nice. Bring some cigarettes instead, and your walking-stick if you like, and be sure to be back before three."

He pressed his pipe into a thing on the wall which was meant for pipes, put his cigarette-case into his pocket, and took his walking-stick in his hand.

"You did not kiss me good-bye," said she gently.

So he returned and did that, and then he went out.

It was a delicious day. The sun was shining with all its might. One could see that it liked shining, and hoped everybody enjoyed its art. If there were birds about anywhere it is certain they were singing. In this suburb, however, there were only sparrows, but they hopped and flew, and flew and hopped, and cocked their heads sideways and chirped something cheerful, but possibly rude, as one passed. They were busy to the full extent of their beings, playing innocent games with happy little flies, and there was not one worry among a thousand of them.

There was a cat lying on a hot window-ledge. She was looking drowsily at the sparrows, and any one could see that she loved them and wished them well.

There was a dog stretched across a doorway. He was very quiet, but he was not in the least bored. He was taking a sun-bath, and he was watching the cat. So steadily did he observe her that one discerned at a glance he was her friend, and would protect her at any cost.

There was a small boy who held in his left hand a tin can and a piece of string. With his right hand he was making affectionate gestures to the dog. He loved playing with animals, and he always rewarded their trust in him.

Our traveller paced slowly onwards, looking at his feet as he went. He noticed with a little dismay that he could not see as much of his legs as he thought he should see. There was a slight but nicely-shaped curve between him and his past—

"I am getting fat," said he to himself, and the reflection carried him back to the morning mirror—

"I am getting a bit bald, too," said he, and a quiet sadness took possession of him.

But he reassured himself. One does get fat. "Every one gets fat," said he, "after he gets married." He reviewed his friends and acquaintances, and found that this was true, and he bowed before an immutable decree.

"One does get bald," quoth he. "Everybody gets bald. The wisest people in the world lose their hair. Kings and generals, rich people and poor people, they are all bald! It is not a disgrace," said he; and he trod soberly forward in the sunshine.

A young man caught up on him from behind, and strode past. He was whistling. His coat-tails were lifted and his hands were thrust in his pockets. His elbows jerked to left and right as he marched.

"A fellow oughtn't to swagger about like that," said our traveller. "What does he want to tuck up his coat for, anyhow? It's not decent," said he in a low voice. "It makes people laugh," said he.

A girl came out of a shop near by and paced down in their direction. She looked at the young man as they passed, and then she turned again, a glance, no more, and looked after him without stopping her pace. She came on. She had no pockets to stick her hands in, but she also was swaggering. There was a left and right movement of her shoulders, an impetus and retreat of her hips. Something very strong and yet reticent about her surging body. She passed the traveller and went down the road.

"She did not look at me," said he, and his mind folded its hand across its stomach, and sat down, while he went forward in the sunlight to do his errands.

He stopped to light a cigarette, and stood for a few minutes watching the blue smoke drifting and thinning away on the air. While he stood a man drove up with a horse and car. The car was laden with groceries—packets of somebody's tea, boxes of somebody's chocolate, bottles of beer and of mineral water, tins of boot blacking, and parcels of soap; confectionery, and tinned fish, cheese, macaroni, and jam.

The man was beating the horse as he approached, and the traveller looked at them both through a wreath of smoke.

"I wonder," said he, "why that man beats his horse?"

The driver was sitting at ease. He was not angry. He was not impatient. There was nothing the matter with him at all. But he was steadily beating the horse; not harshly, gently in truth. He beat the horse without ill-will, almost without knowing he was doing it. It was a sort of wrist exercise. A quick, delicate twitch of the whip that caught the animal under the belly, always in the same place. It was very skilful, but the driver was so proficient in his art that one wondered why he had to practice at it any longer. And the horse did not make any objection! Not even with his ears; they lay back to his mane as he jogged steadily forward in the sunlight. His hooves were shod with iron, but they moved with an unfaltering, humble regularity. His mouth was filled with great, yellow teeth, but he kept his mouth shut, and one could not see them. He did not increase or diminish his pace under the lash; he jogged onwards, and did not seem to mind it.

The reins were jerked suddenly, and the horse turned into the path and stopped, and when he stood he was not any quieter than when he had been moving. He did not raise his head or whisk his tail. He did not move his ears to the sounds behind and on either side of him. He did not paw and fumble with his feet. There was a swarm of flies about his head; they moved along from the point of his nose to the top of his forehead, but mostly they clustered in black, obscene patches about his eyes, and through these patches his eyes looked out with a strange patience, a strange mildness. He was stating a fact over and over to himself, and he could not think of anything else—

"There are no longer any meadows in the world," said he. "They came in the night and took away the green meadows, and the horses do not know what to do." . . . Horse! Horse! Little horse! . . . You do not believe me. There are those who have no whips. There are children who would love to lift you in their arms and stroke your head. . . .

The driver came again, he mounted to his seat, and the horse turned carefully and trotted away.

The man with the cigarette looked after them for a few minutes, and then he also turned carefully, to do his errands.

He reached the Railway Station and peered in at the clock. There were some men in uniform striding busily about. Three or four people were moving up the steps towards the ticket office. A raggedy man shook a newspaper in his face, paused for half a second, and fled away bawling his news. A red-faced woman pushed hastily past him. She was carrying a big basket and a big baby. She was terribly engrossed by both, and he wondered if she had to drop one which of them it would be. A short, stout, elderly man was hoisting himself and a great leather portmanteau by easy stages up the steps. He was very determined. He bristled at everybody as at an enemy. He regarded inanimate nature as if he was daring it to move. It would not be easy to make that man miss a train. A young lady trod softly up the steps. She draped snowy garments about her, but her ankles rebelled: whoever looked quickly saw them once, and then she spoke very severely to them, and they hid themselves. It was plain that she could scarcely control them, and that they would escape again when she wasn't looking. A young man bounded up the steps; he was too late to see them, and he looked as if he knew it. He stared angrily at the girl, but she lifted her chin slightly and refused to admit that he was alive. A very small boy was trying to push a large india-rubber ball into his mouth, but his mouth was not big enough to hold it, and he wept because of his limitations. He was towed along by his sister, a girl so tall that one might say her legs reached to heaven, and maybe they did.

He looked again at the hour. It was one minute to two o'clock; and then something happened. The whole white world became red. The oldest seas in the world went suddenly lashing into storm. An ocean of blood thundered into his head, and the noise of that primitive flood, roaring from what prehistoric gulfs, deafened him at an instant. The waves whirled his feet from under him. He went foaming up the steps, was swept violently into the ticket office, and was swirled away like a bobbing cork into the train. A guard tried to stop him, for the train was already taking its pace, but one cannot keep out the tide with a ticket-puncher. The guard was overwhelmed, caught in the backwash, and swirled somewhere, anywhere, out of sight and knowledge. The train gathered speed, went flying out of the station into the blazing sunlight, picked up its heels and ran, and ran, and ran; the wind leaped by the carriage window, shrieking with laughter; the wide fields danced with each other, shouting aloud

"The horses are coming again to the green meadows. Make way, make way for the great, wild horses!"

And the trees went leaping from horizon to horizon shrieking and shrieking the news.