About the Author
The daughter of an English army officer, Enid Bagnold (1889–1981) grew up in Jamaica, attended schools in England and France, and served with the British women's services during World War I. After her marriage to Sir Roderick Jones, the millionaire head of Reuters, she became a society hostess and mother of four. Bagnold is the author of several novels and plays, including The Chalk Garden.
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UNEARTHLY humps of land curved into the darkening sky like the backs of browsing pigs, like the rumps of elephants. At night when the stars rose over them they looked like a starlit herd of divine pigs. The villagers called them Hullocks.
The valleys were full of soft and windblown vegetation. The sea rolled at the foot of all as though God had brought his herd down to water.
The Hullocks were blackening as Velvet cantered down the chalk road to the village. She ran on her own slender legs, making horse-noises and chirrups and occasionally striking her thigh with a switch, holding at the same time something very small before her as she ran. The light on the chalk road was the last thing to gleam and die. The flints slipped and flashed under her feet. Her cotton dress and her cottony hair blew out, and her lips were parted for breath in a sweet metallic smile. She had the look of a sapling-Dante as she ran through the darkness downhill.
At the entrance to the village the sea was pounding up the sewer with a spring gale behind it. She passed to the third cottage, stopped at the door, opened it, let a gush of light on to the pavement, closed it and carried her tender object inside.
Edwina, Malvolia, and Meredith sat in their father's, Mr. Brown's, sitting-room just before supper time. It was dark outside and hot inside, and outside in the darkness the Hullocks went up in great hoops above the village. There was an oil stove in the corner of the sitting-room and lesson books on the table. The ceiling was low and sagged. An Albert lamp with a green glass shade lit the table. There was no electric light. Donald, the boy of four, was asleep upstairs.
Edwina, Malvolia, and Meredith were all exactly alike, like golden grayhounds. Their golden hair was sleek, their fine faces like antelopes, their shoulders still and steady like Zulu women carrying water, and their bodies beneath the shoulders rippled when they moved. They were seventeen, sixteen, and fifteen. Velvet was fourteen. Velvet had short pale hair, large, protruding teeth, a sweet smile, and a mouthful of metal.
Mr. Brown was swilling down the slaughter-house, as Mi Taylor was away for the day. The sound of the hose swished at the wooden partition which separated the slaughter house from the sitting-room.
"He went beautifully!" said Velvet, and laying down a tiny paper horse on the table she wrenched at the gold band that bound her teeth back and laid it beside the horse.
"Father'll be in in a minute," said Edwina warningly.
"It's going in again directly I hear a sound," said Velvet and sitting down she swept the plate into her lap.
"Look at him," she said lovingly, taking up the paper horse. "I must unsaddle him and rub him down." The heads were bent on the lesson books again and Velvet took a tiny bridle of cotton threads from the horse. Then going to a shell-box on the sideboard she brought it to the table.
"It's just supper," said Mally. "You'll have to clear."
Velvet opened the box and took out a stable rubber two inches square, a portion of her handkerchief, hemmed round. Laying the little horse flat on the table she rubbed him with delicacy in circular motions, after having taken a paper saddle from his back.
The horse was a racer cut from the Bystander. He stood three inches high and had a raking neck and a keen, veined face. By dint of much rubbing the paper had given off a kind of coat, and now as Velvet rubbed there came a suede-like sheen on the horse's paper body. He was dark, most carefully cut out, and pasted upon cardboard. The bridle was made by the fingers of a fairy, noseband, chin-strap and all, in black cotton.
"He has a high action," said Velvet. "A lovely show canter, but a difficult trot. I didn't jump him today as he needs to settle down."
In the shell-box other horses lay.
"There's a marvelous picture of mares on the back of the Times today, but you can't cut a single one clear. They're all mixed up with the foals."
"I saw it," said Velvet. "I called at the Post Office. But it was no good."
"I called in too," said Mally. "They said in the Post Office that one of us looking at the Times was enough. We'd better take turns."
"Yes," said Velvet. "You can't think how lovely it was galloping up there. It was nearly dark. He never put a foot wrong. Somehow you can trust a horse like that."
"It's blood that counts," said Mally darkly.
"I haven't got the racing saddle cut right," went on Velvet.
"I wish I could find a picture of one. I ride short when I ride this horse and with this saddle the knees come right off on to his shoulder."
"You need kneeflaps," said Edwina.
"I suppose there's not time," said Velvet, "to take the chestnut down for a stand in the pond? His hocks are still puffy."
"It's not you to lay tonight," said Mally. "You've got ten minutes. Don't let father see. ... Mind your plate! It's fallen!" Velvet dived under the table, picked it up, and examined it anxiously. Opening her mouth she worked it painfully in with both hands.
"S'bent a bit," she gasped. "It's a hell plate ..."
"It's no good. Don't go on! Get on down to the pond."
Velvet packed the racer in the shell-box and carefully abstracted a smaller horse, a colored picture of a polo pony cut from the Tatler. Putting the box away she slipped through the door with the chestnut and was gone.
A door at the other end of the sitting-room opened and Mrs. Brown came in. She stood and looked at the daughters for a moment — an enormous woman who had once swum the Channel. Now she had become muscle-bound.
Towering over the Albert lamp she threw her shadow across the books and up the wall.
She said: "Lay supper." And went out.
"Meredith," said Edwina mechanically without looking up. Meredith got up and began to collect the books. When all the books were gone the two sisters sat tilting their chairs back so that Meredith could get the white cloth over the edge of the table past their knees. When this was done all their chairs came forward again. Kneeling by the Victorian sideboard Meredith pulled out plates, bread-knife, platter, sugar, knives and forks, and salts and peppers.
The street door opened and Velvet stood on the mat. She had her shoes in her hand and her bare ankles were green with slime. Mrs. Brown who had come in glanced at her and took a duster from the sideboard. "Wipe them up," she said and threw the duster on to the mat. Velvet mopped her slimy ankles, whispering to Mally, pointing with her finger toward the door — "Stars like Christmas trees. Terrible stuff in the pond. Spawn. I stood five minutes."
"We ought to get some," said Mally. "I'll get a bottle after supper."
"Any spawn," said Mrs. Brown without looking up, "goes on a tin tray."
"Larder," said Mrs. Brown.
Velvet put her shoes in the corner and the horse in the shell-box and disappeared. The others sat in silence till she came back with the tray.
Cold ham, jam, butter were placed on the table, and a dish of radishes.
Mr. Brown came in by the slaughter-house door, gumboots drawn to his thighs, his sleeves rolled up, his hands wet from the hose. He passed through the room on his way to wash for supper. Velvet and the three golden grayhounds sat on in brooding silence. A smell of liver and bacon stole in from the kitchen.
The two doors, that on the street and that on the kitchen, opened suddenly together. Out of the black hole of the street came Mi Taylor, brushed up for supper. Mrs. Brown came in from the kitchen carrying the liver and bacon.
The room filled with smells. Mr. Brown came in putting on his coat. Everyone sat down, Mi last of all, pulling up his chair gingerly.
"Well ...," said Mr. Brown, and helped the liver round.
Meredith went out and fetched in the jugs of coffee and milk.
"Bin over to Worthing?" said Mr. Brown.
"I have," said Mi.
"Got that freezing-machine catalog for me?"
"Shops shut again."
"Good God!" said Mr. Brown exasperated. "Don't you ever learn the shut-shop day in Worthing? Whadyer do then?"
"Had three teeth out. Dentist was all there was open."
"Oh, Mi, where?" said Velvet.
Mi opened his jaw and pointed to a bloody wound.
"Oughter eat pap for it," said Mr. Brown. "It's pulpy."
"S'got to learn to harden," said Mi.
"Donald asleep?" said Mally.
"This hour gone," said Mrs. Brown.
They ate, sleek girls' heads bent under the lamp, Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown square and full and steady, Mi silent and dexterous with his red hair boiling up in curls on his skull.
Jacob went grinning round the table from sister to sister.
"Nobody feeds him," ordered Mi under his breath.
His red hair boiled up on his skull fiercer than ever at Jacob's presumption.
The yard spaniels remained in the street on the doorstep through meals. They lay and leant against the front door, grouped on the step, so that the door creaked and groaned under their pressed bodies. When the door was opened from the inside they fell in. When this happened Mi sent them out again with a roar.
Jacob had been allowed in all his life. His fox terrier body, growing stout in middle age, still vibrated to a look. His lips curled and he grinned at the blink of a human eyelash. His tail ached with wagging, and even his hips waggled as he moved. But under cover of these virtues he was watchful for his benefit, watchful for human weakness, affected, a ready liar, disobedient, boastful, a sucker-up, and had a lifelong battle with Mi. Mi adored him, but seldom said a kind word to him. Jacob adored Mi, and there was no one whom he would not sooner deceive. At meals Jacob wriggled and grinned from sister to sister, making a circle round Mi, whose leg was scooping for him.
Just outside the slaughter-house was a black barking dog on the end of a string. This dog had a name but no character. It barked without ceasing day and night. Nobody heard it. The Browns slept and lived and ate beside its barking. The spaniels never opened their mouths. They pressed against doors and knee and furniture. They lived for love and never got it. They were herded indiscriminately together and none knew their characteristics but Mi. The sisters felt for them what they felt for the fowls in the fowlyard. Mi fed them.
But Jacob's weaknesses and affectations and dubious sincerities were thrust upon everyone's notice. When Velvet came in at the front door, and pressing back the leaning spaniels, closed it, Jacob would rise, wriggle his hips at her, bow and grin.
"How exquisite, how condescending, how flattering!" said he, bowing lower and lower, with his front legs slid out on the floor and his back legs stiff. But if asked to go for a walk not a step would he come outside unless he had business of his own with the ashbin, or wanted to taunt the chained and raging dog with the spine of a herring dragged in the dust.
The chained dog chiefly barked. But sometimes he stopped rending the unheeding air and lay silent. Then he would whirl out on his chain like a fury and fall flat, half choked. And Jacob would stand without flinching, banking on the strength of the chain, and think, "You poor one-thoughted fool...."
The Browns loved Jacob as they loved each other, deeply, from the back of the soul, with intolerance in daily life.
As the girls ate a private dream floated in Velvet's mind. ... It was a little horse, slender and perfect, rising divinely at a jump, fore-feet tucked up neatly, intelligence and delight in its eager eye, and on its back, glued lightly and easily to the saddle ... she, Velvet ... Gymkhana Velvet. As she took the visionary jump in dream her living hand stole to her mouth. She pulled out the torturing plate and hid it in her lap. Mi's eyes were on her in a flash, he who never missed anything.
"Be windy for the Fair Thursday," said Mrs. Brown.
"It's coming in wild from the southwest," said Mr. Brown.
"Always does when it comes in at all," said Mrs. Brown. "Three-day gale."
All the trees in the dark village outside attested this. They were blown like fans set on one side. The rooks shuffled and slept in them, waving up and down among the breaking twigs. The village street was white with rook-droppings.
"Put that in again, Velvet," commanded Mrs. Brown.
"She got it out again?" asked Mr. Brown, looking up sharply.
"It aches me an' aches when I eat," said Velvet.
"Ache or no, argue or no, that plate cost me four pound ten and it's solid gold an' it goes in," said Mr. Brown. "I'm not going to have a child like a rabbit if I can help it. You girls have got your faces for your fortunes and none other. I've told you often enough."
The three golden grayhounds sat up straighter than ever and Velvet fumbled with her teeth.
"It's got hooked up."
"Unhook it, then," said Mr. Brown. He sat back, satisfied, commanding and comfortable, and pulled the radishes toward him. Then he passed the dish around.
"Take a radish, Velvet."
"Couldn't bite a radish!"
"Go without then," said Mr. Brown happily, and leant back to light his pipe.
All the Browns tilted their chairs. Nobody ever told them it would hurt the carpet. They ate, ruminated, and tilted. Only Mrs. Brown sat solid and silent. She did not talk much, but managed the till down at the shop in the street. She knew all about courage and endurance, to the last ounce of strength, from the first swallow of overcome timidity. She valued and appraised each daughter, she knew what each daughter could do. She was glad too that her daughters were not boys because she could not understand the courage of men, but only the courage of women. Mr. Brown was with dignity the head of the family. But Mrs. Brown was the standard of the family. When Velvet had fallen off the pier at the age of six her mother went in thirty feet after her, sixteen stone, royal-blue afternoon dress. A straight dive, like the dive of an aging mammoth. The reporter from the West Worthing News came to make a story of it and said to Edwina, "Your mother swum the Channel, didn't she?" Edwina nodded toward her mother. "Better ask her." "What's past's past, young man," said Mrs. Brown heavily and shut her mouth and her door.
Mi Taylor's father had trained Mrs. Brown for her swim, trained her when she had been a great girl of nineteen, neckless, clumsy, and incredibly enduring. Mi himself had been a flyweight boxer, killed his man, because the wretched creature was in status lymphaticus, got exonerated and yet somehow disqualified, tramped the country, held horses, cleaned stables and drifted nearer and nearer to the racing world, till he knew all about it except the feel of a horse's back. Arriving somehow in the ebb of Lewes races he had been taken on by Mr. Brown for the slaughter-house, for running errands, and lately even for negotiating for stock.
Mrs. Brown stared at him when he came with a look of strange pleasure in her hooded eyes. Mi Taylor, the son of Father Taylor! He knew all about her, Taylor did. The only one who ever did. He knew what she was made of. He'd had the last ounce out of her. He and the doctor at her five confinements, those men knew. Nobody else, ever. Mi was his son. Mi was welcome. He could stay. Henceforth he ate with the family and lodged in the extra loose box. And Araminty Brown, embedded in fat, her keen, hooded eyes hardly lifting the rolls above them, cooked admirably, ran the accounts, watched the shop, looked after the till, spoke seldom, interfered hardly ever, sighed sometimes (because it would have taken a war on her home soil, the birth of a colony, or a great cataclysm to have dug from her what she was born for), moved about the house, brought up her four taut daughters under her heavy eye, and thought of death occasionally with a kind of sardonic shrug. Nobody could have said exactly whether she had a dull brain or no. Ed and Mally and Meredith behaved themselves at the wink of one of her heavy eyes. Velvet would have laid down her stringy life for her.
"Yer ma," said Mi, " 'sworth a bellyful. Pity she weighs what she does."
"Why?" said Mally.
"Binds her up," said Mi. And it was not constipation he was thinking of.
"Mi," said Mally to her mother, "thinks you ought to be riding in Lewes races."
Mrs. Brown made a noise in her nose.
"What?" said Mally.
"That's all right," said Mrs. Brown.
"You can never tell what mother's thinking," said Mally to Velvet.
"She doesn't think where we do," said Velvet. "She thinks at the back."
In the sitting-room at the close of supper Mrs. Brown stretched out an arm and turned the Albert lamp lower.
"Box," said Mr. Brown, indicating the sideboard. Edwina rose and brought him his small cigar.
The shadows whirled.
"Monday," said Mrs. Brown.
"Driving night," said Velvet.
"What I was thinking," said Mrs. Brown. "Get on off!"
"First?" said Velvet.
"First," said Mrs. Brown.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "National Velvet"
Copyright © 1962 Enid Bagnold Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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