THE TWO PONIES
When I was fourteen years old, I went as under nursery-maid to the Hall to look after her Ladyship’s two little children. Beautiful little children, Miss Ailsa and Master Ian were, with yellow curls, and pink cheeks.
The nurse was Mrs Sinclair, who’d come from the North of Scotland with her Ladyship when she married. She was very severe, but kind with it. She was my mother-in-law later on, and I loved her as much as my own mother.
Her son Donald, who was to be my dear husband, was, like me, then just fourteen, and an under-groom. Her Ladyship’s mother sent the children a pair of tiny ponies, all the way from the Shetland Islands, dear, friendly little pets, with heavy coats that mustn’t be clipped. And Donald Sinclair had the sole care of them, and hours and horus of brushing their coats and long tails and manes did he put in, and even the Head Groom, Mr Wooton, allowed they looked a picture.
Then, one day when the little children had been led up and down the garden paths (for they had to be held, they were so small, and Donald had Master Ian, and I had Miss Ailsa, and those dear good ponies knew how to walk on and where to go without being led), my Donald said to me, “Lizzie, how can I get a word to her Ladyship?”
It wasn’t to be heard of, of course, and it must have been very important, for Donald looked frighted at the very daring of it.
“Won’t Mr Wooton do?” I said. “He is Head Groom, and the proper one to be told.”
Donald shook his head.
“Or your mother?” I said.
“He wouldn’t believe me, and give me a guid clout, and ma mither, she’d be all in a terrible fright for the bairns. Oh, what will I do?” says poor Donald, and the tears stood in his eyes. “They’ve tellt me to turn the ponies graze (they were never stable-kept) in yon field fornenst the Oak Wood.”
Well, I’d heard Mrs Sinclair myself, and what she thought of the Oak Wood, and I was never to go near it with Miss Ailsa and Master Ian. She believed there was a wicked band of fairises there, black-hearted, and all in black, and they stole pretty little children right away for ever—especially if they had yellow hair. And I took great pains to mind, for I was frighted myself.
Her Ladyship was away, and the next morning I slipped down to the stable yard, where I was not supposed to go, unless I had a message, and I got there to say to Mr Wooton that the ponies were not to be used that day.
Mr Wooton was giving my poor Donald half a dozen with a leather belt, because their coats were tangled and dirty, and the ponies were worn out.
“D’ye call that grooming?” says Mr Wooton, and Donald had been brushing for hours.
“I was at the brushing an scraping and strapping for three hours the morn. They’re soaked wi’ sweat,” says my Donald.
I was almost crying, too, but remember I mustn’t.
“They’re sweating still, you idle good-for-nought,” says Mr Wooton, giving Donald another cut. “I’ll make a good groom of you yet!”
Now Mr Wooton was really very proud of my Donald, and had trusted him over the heads of other grooms to look after the children and ponies, for a steady, trustworthy boy, as he was. So he lost his temper, and what would have happened I don’t know—perhaps Donald would be turned away from the Hall, but old Mr Venn, the head gardener, came by for water, and he took one look at the ponies, and says straight out, “Did ‘ee tell the lad to graze by Oak Wood? You ought to know better than that. Look at ‘Their’ (fairises’) stirrups in their manes, and the burrs ‘They’ve’ throuned to spoil their tails, and been hard-ridden all night I don’t wonder. You listen to me for once, and ask others why the Oak Wood Pasture is never used.”
Donald and me felt much better to find Mr Venn wasn’t blaming him at all, and then they both told him to take the ponies to the lower lawn, where there were apple trees, and sweet grass, and would be under their eyes too—and so could we see them from the nursery window, and the little children liked that.
The ponies weren’t ridden that day, but left to dry off in the sun, nd rest, while Donald kept watch and was able to give them a brush-down before dark, and pull the burrs from their manes and tails, and untangle the fairises’ stirrup knots.
Next morning, when I looked out, I couldn’t see the little ponies quiet and happy on the lawn, but after breakfast I saw them, and somehow they looked bad—quite different like. Her Ladyship had come the night before, and came out on the terrace to see the ponies was safe and well, and wanted to know why they were there. I had brought the little children down to ride, but the ponies weren’t even saddled yet, and Mrs Sinclair couldn’t think what ailed Donald to be so late, and come to tell her Ladyship so. Now, when she saw the ponies, she caught hold of Miss and Master tight, and tried to stop Donald putting a hand on those fierce, pretty creatures, but her Ladyship was looking too, with a white face, and cried out to him to come to her at once.”I nearly caught them, ma’am,” says Donald, very upset, but she says, “Stay here!” and she steps forward and calls in a clear, brave voice. “There are no bairns here for you to carry away,” and Mrs Sinclair stood by her, and called too, “Tangye! Shoopiltee! I’m naming names! Off with ye, back! Gang awa’ tae the North, noo!” And the fierce, wild ponies were not there any more. Then her Ladyship took my hand, and said, “We need three who love the bairns to call.” And then they called, and I tried, too, and while Donald held the little children, we cried, “Leave Oak Wood, and go—in the Holy name.”
And Mr Venn told us later, the keepers saw the great crowd of black weasels running away to the north, and they couldn’t shoot one, but they brought our own poor, lame, over-ridden little ponies back from the wood.
The story dates from 1832. Written down during various visits by a district visitor, and told by a bedridden old housekeeper, aged 85 (verbatim). She was a Mrs Donald Sinclair, but was Warwickshire born. The tale was sent to Miss Tongue’s uncle at Streetley. “The Shetland water-horses appear strangely in an English oak-wood. They seem to have been imported by the lady and the nurse.”
Forgotten Folk-Tales of the English Counties, Ruth L. Tongue
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does not really understand the Oriental system of naming years after animals and, after all, in England every year is the Year of the Horse. But if one must celebrate, the British thing to do is to tell a story about children and their ponies. Since most ponies are evil little creatures, bent on nothing short of murdering their small riders, the malign characterisation of the ponies in the story above seems appropriate. Miss Tongue [1898-1981] was an associate of folklorist Katharine Briggs, but questions have arisen about her accuracy in collecting and transcribing stories unnoticed by any other folklorists. This particular story was said to have been collected from the narrator, the elderly Mrs Donald Sinclair, at an unspecified date.
See here for a post over at the Haunted Ohio site, on a ghostly horse and its ghastly rider.
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