I looked up at Ann, and honestly, you would have thought I’d been struck dumb. Well, I had, as I couldn’t get a word out. Ann bit her lip and looked at me. “Is it really bad, Jill?” she asked.
I couldn’t say a thing. I handed Ann the letter. She read it.
“Oh, Jill,” she said. “I don’t believe it. How could it have happened?”
This is what the rest of the letter said:
“… a university in America wants me to go there for a year, almost immediately, and lecture on creative writing for children. It’s a great opportunity for me, as I’ve always felt that in America my work is truly appreciated. I’ve arranged for you to come over to America when you finish your course in the summer, but air travel’s awfully expensive, and unfortunately it won’t be possible for you to come over sooner.
You’re not to worry about looking after the cottage, because I’ve been able to rent it out to an artist who wants somewhere quiet to work on her paintings. Aunt Primrose has offered to have you during your holidays, so you will have somewhere to go.
I know of course that you will be worrying about how you will see the ponies, and I’m afraid I have some very bad news. Mrs Darcy had to go to hospital and her sister came to look after the stables. Mrs Darcy has now recovered, but she’d left instructions for her sister to send some of the ponies to market. The sister misunderstood what was said, and Rapide and Black Boy were sent to the Ryechester Sales and were sold.
The very worst thing, and I am more sorry about this than I can say, is that Mrs Darcy’s sister did try and check with me whether or not the ponies were to be sold. Mrs Crosby took the message and left it for me in my study, on the little desk where she always leaves messages. By a terrible stroke of luck I put the manuscript of my latest book on top of it and found the message when it was too late – I never normally put anything on that desk, as you know, so that I don’t miss messages, but my bank manager had just called, and I can only think that, having spoken to him, I was too upset and distracted to concentrate on what I was doing. I am so very sorry.
When I found the message, I rang and tried to stop the sale, but I was too late. I did check where the ponies had gone, and they have both gone to very good homes.
We must face the fact that we would have had to make a decision about the ponies’ future once you have a job, which will probably not be in Chatton if you want to pursue your ambition of working at the House of Commons, but this is the last way I would have wanted the decision to be made.
The money from the ponies’ sale has been put into a savings account for you, and it will help you when you start off your working life.
I know how terrible about this you are going to feel, but you must be brave. I do know how fond of them you are, and what a part of your life they’ve been, but you’re grown up now and you’re out in the world starting to make your way, and you remember what Captain Cholly-Sawcutt said about keeping your riding as a hobby.
That is probably very cold comfort, for I know you will miss them terribly. I am so sorry for the part I played in it,
With much love
Ann looked at me and I looked at Ann and I howled.
After a bit, I stopped howling, and just sort of gulped, and the rest of the girls, who’d gathered round me and Ann wandered back off now there was nothing more to see.
“It’s absolutely rotten,” said Ann, handing me a cup of tea and a bun. I couldn’t face the bun – you needed to be strong to face the college buns, which are usually a bit stale and not at all the lovely luscious sort you see in bakeries, but the tea was good.
“Jill, I must go out for a while, but I’ll be back soon. Will you be all right?”
I nodded, and sniffed. Ann handed me her handkerchief and took off up the basement stairs. I can’t remember when I’ve felt worse. It was pretty awful when Daddy died, of course, but I was little and I didn’t really understand what had gone on until I was a bit older and Mummy explained.
The thing was, I could see what Mummy meant about the ponies. I’d gone off to college, and somehow, I’d thought that Black Boy and Rapide would always be there. I hadn’t thought about what would happen when I’d got some sort of secretarial qualification, and had a job, particularly if that job was in London. Chatton is too far away from London for me to live there and travel in to work. Keeping the ponies at Mrs Darcy’s would be all right for a few months, but a lot of ponies get fed up with life as a riding school pony after a bit, and I must admit I thought Rapide would be one of them. But I just couldn’t imagine them not being there, of going back to Chatton and there being no black and bay heads looking over the stable doors. And I’d far rather have my ponies than any number of savings accounts.
Ann clattered back down the basement stairs.
“Sorry Jill,” she said. “I had to find a phone box and ring Mummy to make sure she doesn’t get any ideas about Spot. If your mother was thinking about what would happen to the ponies once you got a job, sure as eggs are eggs, mine was too. I was only just in time. I had to promise to let Pam ride Spot. I bet he bucks her off,” she said, gloomily. “Pam’s idea of a collected trot certainly isn’t Spot’s. And if he bucks her off, you know what Mummy will do.”
I nodded. I knew all right. Mrs Derry had tried to sell Ann’s first pony, Seraphine, when Ann’s little sister Pam had fallen off her. When Ann and I had left school and gone off to do a succession of jobs with ponies, Mrs Derry had sold George after Ann’s other little sister, Brenda, had fallen off him. Spot was George’s replacement. I’d put Mrs Derry down as one of those difficult and panicky mothers when I first met her, and she’s just the same now. It was a miracle she’d ever let Ann leave and go to London. Ann sat down and we looked at each other.
“I just can’t believe it,” Ann said. “Oh, I nearly forgot. Miss Dodds gave me this when I came back in.”
She handed me Diana’s letter. I looked at it for a moment, hoping this letter didn’t have any more bolts from the blue. Well, I’ve never been one for putting things off, so I opened it.
“What does she say?” asked Ann.
“Hang on,” I said. “I haven’t got beyond ‘Dear Jill’ yet.”
Gosh, I hope this gets to you before your mother’s letter does. You could have knocked me down with a feather when James and I saw Rapide at the sale. We’ve bought him. He pulled such horrible faces that no one else would look at him. He’s quite safe, and having a splendid time chasing the cows round the paddock. Did you know he chased cows? We didn’t. James says he’s sure it’ll do the cows good to be kept fit. Dad’s not quite so sure.
Buying Rapide didn’t go down terribly well with Dad, because as you know, farming is going through another of its difficult spells at the moment and Dad says every spare blade of grass is needed for the productive livestock, and if we buy anything else, he’ll disown us. But I think Rapide might have another career in front of him as a cattle tamer as the cattle are certainly much easier to handle after he’s been in with them. Wendy’s still living at the farm next to ours, and she says, can they borrow Rapide? Because their bull’s being bolshy and they think Rapide’s just what he needs to sort him out.
We’re thinking about it.
It’s not such good news about Black Boy, I’m afraid. He’d already been sold by the time we got there. James bribed the auction clerk with a box of Milk Tray, and she told us where Black Boy had gone, which is to the Park Lane Mews Riding Stables in London. At least you’re in the same city.
Must finish now as I have to go and persuade our cowman that Rapide isn’t going to eat him.
P.S. Do you mind if I ride Rapide at Chatton Show? Only it was always so funny watching you, and I always longed to have a go.”
“Well, that’s some good news at least,” said Ann, who had been reading Diana’s letter over my shoulder. “Rapide’ll be happy as Larry at the Bush’s, and I bet James rides him at the show, not Diana. You know what James is like.”
I swallowed rather hard at the thought. It had taken me a long time until Rapide and I understood each other, but we did, and it made me feel rather shaky to think that someone else was going to be getting to know all his funny little ways, and the way he tittuped up to a fence, and then came almost to a stop before he sort of hoiked himself up in the middle and got over.
“Look,” said Ann. “You’ve had a horrible shock, but at least we know where Rapide is. We’ve got a typing lesson in a mo., but after that let’s get out the A–Z of London and find out where this Park Lane Mews Place is. It’s probably frightfully smart, and Black Boy’s being pampered to within an inch of his life.”
How anyone could think of anything as sordid and mere as typing lessons I don’t know, but we managed to get through. I always used to borrow Mummy’s typewriter when she wasn’t using it so I could write my own books, and so I wasn’t too bad at typing. It was quite soothing at first, in a funny sort of way, because the noise of all those clattering keys reminded me of Pool Cottage, and Mummy typing away in her room. Of course thinking of Pool Cottage made me think of Black Boy again, and then I had to work hard to keep myself under control. At last Miss Beech freed us from the slavery of wretched machines (something I got from one of Mummy’s library books) and then we were free.
Chapter 3 will follow shortly.