Friday, July 06, 2007

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse

The people of the village of Wall in ----shire are celebrated for their independent spirit. It is not their way to bow down before great men. An aristocratic title makes no impression upon them and anything in the nature of pride and haughtiness they detest.

In 1819 the proudest man in all of England was, without a doubt, the Duke of Wellington. This was not particularly surprising; when a man has twice defeated the armies of the wicked French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, it is only natural that he should have a rather high opinion of himself.

In late September of that year the Duke happened to spend one night at The Seventh Magpie in Wall and, though it was only one night, Duke and village soon quarrelled. It began with a general dissatisfaction on both sides at the other side's insolent behaviour, but it soon resolved itself into a skirmish over Mrs Pumphrey's embroidery scissors.

The Duke's visit occurred when Mr Bromios was away from Wall. He had gone somewhere to buy wine, as he did from time to time. Some people said that when he came back from one of these expeditions he smelt faintly of the sea, but other people said it was more like aniseed. Mr Bromios had left The Seventh Magpie in the care of Mr and Mrs Pumphrey.

Mrs Pumphrey sent her husband to fetch her scissors from the upstairs parlour where the Duke was at dinner, but the Duke sent Mr Pumphrey away again because he did not like to be disturbed while he was eating. Consequently when Mrs Pumphrey took in the roast pork she banged it upon the table and gave the Duke a look to show him what she thought of him. This so enraged the Duke that he hid her scissors in his breeches pocket (though he fully intended to return them in the morning when he left).

That night a poor clergyman called Duzamour arrived at the inn. At first Mr Pumphrey told him that they had no room but, on discovering that Mr Duzamour had a horse, Mr Pumphrey changed his mind, for he thought he saw a way to vent some of his anger against the Duke. He told John Cockcroft, the stableman, to remove the Duke's noble chestnut stallion from the warm, comfortable stable and install Mr Duzamour's ancient grey mare in his place.

"But what shall I do with the Duke's horse?" asked John.

"Oh!" said Mr Pumphrey spitefully, "There is a perfectly good meadow over the road with not so much as a goat grazing in it. Put it there!"


The next morning the Duke rose and looked out of the window. He saw his favourite horse, Copenhagen, contentedly eating grass in a large green meadow. After breakfast the Duke took a stroll in that direction to give Copenhagen a bit of white bread. For some reason two men with cudgels stood, one upon either side of the entrance to the meadow. One of them spoke to the Duke, but the Duke had no attention to spare for whatever the fellow might be saying (it was something about a bull), because at that precise moment he saw Copenhagen walk between the trees on the far side of the meadow and disappear from view. The Duke looked round and discovered that one of the men had raised his staff as though intending to strike him!

The Duke stared at him in amazement.

The man hesitated, as though asking himself if he really intended to strike the Duke who was, after all, Europe's Defender and the Nation's Hero. It was only a moment's hesitation, but it was enough: the Duke strode forward into Faerie in pursuit of Copenhagen.

Beyond the trees the Duke found himself upon a little white path in a pleasant country of round, plump hills. Scattered among the hills were ancient woods of oak and ash which were so overgrown with ivy, dog-roses and honeysuckle that each wood was a solid mass of greenery.

The Duke had only gone a mile or so when he came to a stone house surrounded by a dark moat. The moat was spanned by a bridge so thick with moss that it appeared to have been built out of green velvet cushions. The stone-tiled roof of the house was supported by crumbling stone giants who were bowed and bent by its weight.

Thinking that one of the inhabitants of the house might have seen Copenhagen, the Duke went up to the door and knocked. He waited a while and then began to look in at all the windows. The rooms were bare. The sunlight made golden stripes upon their dusty floors. One room contained a battered pewter goblet but that seemed to be the full stretch of the house's furnishings until, that is, the Duke came to the last window.


In the last room a young woman in a gown of deepest garnet-red was seated upon a wooden stool with her back to the window. She was sewing. Spread out around her was a vast and magnificent piece of embroidery. Reflections of its rich hues danced upon the walls and ceiling. If she had held a molten stained-glass window in her lap the effect could not have been more wonderful.

The room contained only one other thing: a shabby birdcage that hung from the ceiling with a sad-looking bird inside it.

"I wonder, my dear," said the Duke leaning in through the open window, "if you might have seen my charger?"

"No," said the young lady, continuing to sew.

"A pity," said the Duke, "Poor Copenhagen. He was with me at Waterloo and I shall be sorry to lose him. I hope whoever finds him is kind to him. Poor fellow."

There was a silence while the Duke contemplated the elegant curve of the young lady's white neck.

"My dear," he said, "Might I come in and have a few moments' conversation with you?"

"As you wish," said the young lady.

Inside the Duke was pleased to find that the young lady was every bit as good-looking as his first glimpse of her had suggested. "This is a remarkably pretty spot, my dear," he said, "although it seems a little lonely. If you have no objection I shall keep you company for an hour or two."

"I have no objection," said the lady, "but you must promise not disturb me at my work."

"And for whom are you doing such a monstrous quantity of embroidery, my dear?"

The lady smiled ever so slightly. "Why, for you, of course!" she said.

The Duke was surprised to hear this. "And might I be permitted to look?" he asked.

"Certainly," said the lady.

The Duke went round and peered over her shoulder at her work. It consisted of thousands upon thousands of the most exquisite embroidered pictures, some of which seemed very odd and some of which seemed quite familiar.

Three in particular struck the Duke as extraordinary. Here was a chesnut horse, remarkably like Copenhagen, running in a meadow with the village of Wall behind him; then came a picture of the Duke himself walking along a little white path among round green hills; and then came a picture of the Duke here in this very room, looking down over the lady's shoulder at the embroidery! It was complete in every detail - even the sad-looking bird in the cage was there.

At that moment a large brindled rat ran out a hole in the wainscotting and began to gnaw on a corner of the embroidery. It happened to be the part which depicted the birdcage. But what was most extraordinary was that the instant the stitches were broken, the cage in the room disappeared. With a joyous burst of song the bird flew out of the window.

'Well, that is very odd to be sure!' thought the Duke. 'But now that I come to think of it, she could not possibly have worked those pictures since I arrived. She must have embroidered those scenes before the events happened! It seems that whatever this lady sews into her pictures is sure to come to pass. What comes next, I wonder?'

He looked again.

The next picture was of a knight in silver armour arriving at the house. The one after that showed the Duke and the knight engaged in a violent quarrel and the last picture (which the lady was just finishing) showed the knight plunging his sword into the Duke.

"But this is most unfair!" he cried indignantly, "This fellow has a sword, a spear, a dagger and a what-you-may-call-it with a spiked ball on the end of a chain! Whereas I have no weapon whatsoever!"

The lady shrugged as if that were no concern of hers.

"But could you not embroider me a little sword? Or a pistol perhaps?" asked the Duke.

"No," said the lady. She finished her sewing and, securing the last thread with a stout knot, she rose and left the room.

The Duke looked out of the window and saw upon the brow of the hill a sparkle, such as might be produced by sunlight striking silver armour, and a dancing speck of brilliant colour, which might have been a scarlet feather on top of a helmet.

The Duke made a rapid search through the house for some sort of weapon, but found nothing but the battered pewter cup. He returned to the room which contained the embroidery.

"I have it!" He was suddenly struck with a most original idea. "I will not quarrel with him! Then he will not kill me!" He looked down at the embroidery. "Oh, but he has such a conceited expression! Who could help but quarrel with such a ninny!"

Gloomily the Duke plunged his hands into his breeches pocket and found something cold and metallic: Mrs Pumphrey's needlework scissors.

"A weapon at last, by God! Oh! But what is the use? I doubt very much that he will be so obliging as to stand still while I poke these little blades through the chinks in his armour."

The knight in silver armour was crossing the moss-covered bridge. The clatter of his horse's hooves and the clank-clank-clank of his armour sounded throughout the house. His scarlet plume passed by the window.

"Wait!" cried the Duke. "I do believe that this is not a military problem at all. It is a problem of needlework!"

He took Mrs Pumphrey's scissors and snipped all the threads in the pictures which showed the knight arriving at the house; their quarrel; and his own death. When he had finished he looked out of the window; the knight was nowhere to be seen.

"Excellent!" he cried. "Now, for the rest!"

With a great deal of concentration, muttering and pricking of his fingers he added some pictures of his own to the lady's embroidery, all in the largest, ugliest stitches imaginable. The Duke's first picture showed a stick figure (himself) leaving the house, the next was of his joyful reunion with a stick horse (Copenhagen) and the third and last showed their safe return through the gap in the wall.

He would have liked to embroider some horrible disaster befalling the village of Wall. Indeed he got so far as to pick out some violent-coloured red and orange silks for the purpose, but in the end he was obliged to give it up, his skills in embroidery being in no way equal to the task.

He picked up his hat and walked out of the ancient stone house. Outside he found Copenhagen waiting for him - precisely where his large stitches had shown the horse would be - and great was their rejoicing at the sight of one another. Then the Duke of Wellington mounted upon his horse's back and rode back to Wall.

The Duke believed that he had suffered no ill effects from his short sojourn in the moated house. In later life he was at different times a Diplomat, a Statesman and Prime Minister of Great Britain, but he came more and more to believe that all his exertions were in vain. He told Mrs Arbuthnot (a close friend) that: "On the battlefields of Europe I was master of my own destiny, but as a politician there are so many other people I must please, so many compromises I must make, that I am at best a stick figure."

Mrs Arbuthnot wondered why the Duke suddenly looked so alarmed and turned pale.

- Susanna Clarke, 2004

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