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Chapter 1 - I Meet Rapide


"HERE is Rapide," said Mrs. Penberthy, briskly leading out a bay pony. "Look, he has taken to your little girl at once!"

From my point of view there were several things wrong with these remarks. In the first place, Rapide is a silly name for a pony unless it is going to be in a circus; in the second place, I think it is insulting to refer to a person of fourteen as though she were six; and in the third place, Rapide far from taking to me at once had given me a very dirty look out of his rather disagreeable eyes. The fact was, I didn't like Mrs. Penberthy, I didn't like Rapide, and I didn't know what I was going to do about it. I was worried, because Mummy would be so upset if she knew, after going to all that trouble to get me a show jumper.

Those of you who have read my previous book, A Stable for Jill, will remember that by devious ways I had amassed the sum of forty pounds to buy myself a second pony, and that Mummy had met some people on the boat coming from America who had just the very pony for me that they wanted to sell because their daughter had grown out of him. I was naturally excited about this pony because he was said to have done awfully well for the Penberthy girl, and for nights before we went to Little Grazings, which was the peculiar name of the Penberthys' house, I dreamed about a pony beautiful to look at and wonderful in action.

So in the end Mummy fixed a Saturday with Mrs. Penberthy and we went down by train, which took about an hour and a half. Mummy read a book in the train as calmly as if we were going to do some mere shopping - I don't know how grown-ups can be like that - and I fidgeted about and pulled at my gloves and felt like rushing madly up and down the corridor to work off some of my pent-up emotion, and Mummy kept giving me a look which said as plainly as anything, need you let everybody in the carriage think you are completely bats?

I then began to feel sorry for the rest of the people in our carriage because they were obviously not on their way to buy show jumpers but were just having to make this journey for some horribly mere purposes. I hope you will not mind me using the word ‘mere' again so soon, but it is such a grey sort of word that I think it expresses all the dreary things that grown-up people do all the time, like seeing lawyers and having treatments and meeting people for lunch that they used to know about forty years ago.

There was a woman opposite me who was probably going to meet somebody for lunch, and the man next to me looked as if he was to have a treatment, and the younger man next to Mummy was obviously going to see a lawyer because he kept turning over a lot of type-written papers and gnawing his thumb nail. I thought I was getting quite detective-ish, and then just for fun I started picturing those people mounted on ponies and it was so funny I gave a snort - like you do when you try not to giggle - and Mummy gave me more of a look than ever, so I went very quiet and stared out of the window giving myself marks for fields that had horses in them and taking off marks for empty fields or just cows.

So from this you will have an idea what I felt like all the way to the Penberthys', and how worked up I was when we got there and Mrs. Penberthy opened the loose box and the pony was actually before my eyes.

Now you had better go back to the beginning of this book and read the first bit again. I looked at Rapide and Rapide looked at me, and we just didn't register at all. I felt like you do when you miss the vaulting horse at gym and land on the mat sitting down and the form giggles and you have got a crush on the gym mistress and want her to think you are marvellous.

I couldn't say a word, of course, because it seemed so rude and ungrateful, and Mrs. Penberthy had been so nice - until she made the silly remark I have recorded - and had given us coffee.

So I thought I would put it all into my face like they do on the films. I put it all into my face and looked at Mummy hard, hoping she would understand, but I can't be very good at expressions, as she told me afterwards that how I looked was as if I had been struck dumb with joy.

When she had looked at me she looked at Mrs. Penberthy who was hanging on to Rapide's halter as if she thought he would go up in the air, and said, "I can see that Jill is quite overcome with excitement, Mrs. Penberthy. He does look an awfully nice pony and so well groomed. But what we are interested in is his jumping. Do you think we could see him in action?"

"Oh, of course," said Mrs. Penberthy. "I'm sure you'll be delighted with him. Joan has been riding him in the under-sixteens for two seasons and has taken so many prizes and cups we hardly know where to put them. She wouldn't think of parting with Rapide except that now she is seventeen she's out of the pony classes. We are going to get her a hunter for Christmas. But she adores Rapide and I'm sure she'll be heart-broken when he goes."

I felt like saying, far be it from me to break the heart of even Joan Penberthy, but Mrs. Penberthy went on, "How old are you, Jill?"

"Fourteen," I said.

"Ah, a lovely age for riding," she went on. "You still have two years in the children's classes. I'm sure Joan wishes she was fourteen again."

I thought Joan must be a very funny person if she did, as it was the dream of my life to be seventeen and have a hunter, but I didn't say anything because as you go through life you find some people have the weirdest ideas and think them quite right and Joan might be one of those.

All this time Rapide was looking at me with the greatest disdain as if I wasn't a bit what he had expected, and I was trying not to look at him at all only I was sort of fascinated like they say rabbits are by snakes. I wish I knew if this is true.

"We'll have to wait till Joan comes in," said Mrs. Penberthy. "She's gone down to the post office on her bike."

She pushed Rapide back into the loose box as if she was putting a lawn-mower away, and Mummy stood smiling as much as to say, "How marvellous everything is," and I just stood. I think Mrs. Penberthy thought I was a bit dim, and I was surprised that Mummy didn't notice I hadn't much to say because I usually talk like mad all the time, only of course she had got the impression I was dumb with bliss.

I noticed that the Penberthys had a lovely big yard and four loose boxes. It was just the sort of place I should have liked for myself.

"Oh, here she is at last!" cried Mrs. Penberthy and Joan came round the corner of the house pushing her bike. She was a very large, meek-looking girl with spots and sticking-out teeth - I have noticed that people with sticking-out teeth are often good at jumping - and she was dressed in a Land Girlish way in breeches and stockings with turnover tops and a fawn pullover and a shirt with rolled up sleeves and a green tie, and she had very short straight hair fastened out of her eyes with a kirbigrip. I took a dislike to her.

"Come and speak to Mrs. Crewe and Jill, dear," said her mother. "They've come about Rapide."

Joan came and shook hands and said, "Hullo" and then pulled a khaki handkerchief out of her breeches' pocket and started twiddling it about as if she didn't know what to do next, I knew just how she felt, as I would have felt the same.

"Don't stand there, dear," said Mrs. Penberthy. "Get Rapide saddled and show Jill what he can do."

I must say Joan was very good with Rapide, and when he was saddled he looked very nice, only I couldn't make myself take to him however hard I tried, and he just glanced at me in the most contemptuous way as much as to say, "Who on earth do you think you are?"

"I'm miles too big for him," said Joan, and when she was mounted her feet could have practically met round his girths, if you know what I mean, but she had a nice seat in spite of being so large and bulgy, and we went into a paddock next to the yard and Joan walked, trotted, cantered, and finally galloped Rapide for us to see.

Rapide was obviously a very efficient pony with no nonsense about him. In the paddock were six professional-looking jumps and I was very envious and wished I had them at home.

"Could we see him jump," I managed to say huskily, and Mrs. Penberthy nearly leapt out of her skin at hearing me come out of my trance, so to speak.

"Of course, dear," she said delightedly. "Joan, put him round the jumps. Now you're going to see something," she added, only I wasn't listening because I think people who call you dear the first time they meet you are the very depths.

So Joan on Rapide went round the jumps: a clear round. The jumps were three foot, three foot six, and four foot six.

Mrs. Penberthy beamed and said, "There!" Mummy didn't say anything but she looked very impressed, and I just thought that Rapide had the weirdest action I ever saw in a pony.

He got over the jumps all right, but he did it in such a funny way. First he dashed at the jump, then checked completely for all the world as though he was going to refuse, then he made his mind up, popped up his forelegs, bucked up his middle, popped up his hind-legs, and he was over. He looked exactly like a rocking horse, and quite frankly I thought he looked awful and like a very cheap, ungraceful rocking-horse. At the very idea of myself popping over the jumps at Chatton Show on Rapide I went cold in my middle. But of course I was bound to admit that he did it. He got over, and to people like Mrs. Penberthy and Mummy who didn't really know anything about equitation, and to Joan who seemed to be a person who didn't care what she looked like anyway, he was probably marvellous. And as Mrs. Penberthy said, he had won cartloads of prizes and cups, though I hope I will never have such a mere mind as to make that my main object in riding.

"He does look good," said Mummy. "Now do you think Jill might try him?"

Here was the moment I dreaded. Of course I had come in my jodhpurs all ready for the fray, so Joan got down and I got up, conscious that Rapide was tightening every muscle with loathing at contact with my hated form. (I expect this was all imagination, but anyway I did imagine it and it didn't make me very happy.)

I rode him round the paddock and at least he responded to my aids. He had been well schooled.

"Now try the jumps, Jill," cried Mummy, and I went cold all over as I could tell from her voice that she meant, "Just show these people how good you are." I have found from talking to my friends that I am not alone in having a mother who does this sort of thing to one. If you are a person whose mother thinks you are the world's wonder because you have got a first in the Musical Chairs for under-fourteens, and gives you a sort of boiled look of pride from the rails that makes your blood run cold, then you will know what I mean. Because the great thing about riding is that you must never, never think you're marvellous, because there is always much more for you to learn, and anyway your riding is only a little bit of all the good horsemanship throughout the world, which should make you humble.

If you have read my previous books you will have heard about a girl called Susan Pyke who thought she was terrific on a pony, and of some of the things that happened to her, and you will doubtless be hearing of her again before I have finished writing this book because she is always cropping up in my life.

However, I couldn't say anything but okay to Mummy, and shutting my eyes and setting my teeth I gathered up the reins, gripped Rapide with my heels to show him that I knew what I was doing, and set him at the first of Joan Penberthy's jumps. He refused it. Three times.

He must have done that round of jumps dozens of times. He could have done it blindfolded. But to make a long story short, with me up, the jumps he didn't refuse he walked right through. It was too awful for words. I sat there thinking of all the terrible fates that I could bring myself to wish for Rapide, like pulling a cross old lady along the front at Eastbourne in a beastly little chair, or being sold to Susan Pyke who had been ordered out of the ring several times for using the whip too much.

I couldn't sit there for ever, so I rode slowly up to where Mummy and the two Penberthys were waiting and for a minute there was a deathly hush. Mummy was obviously mortified - for which I felt sorry but I couldn't help it - and Mrs. Penberthy and Joan just as obviously thought I had never tried to jump before.

"You'll soon get into it," said Joan kindly. "I expect you'll be having some lessons soon."

Mummy looked at me in reproachful silence beyond words, and Mrs. Penberthy said briskly, "Well, Jill has seen what the pony can do and I wouldn't be surprised if she's as good as Joan by the time the Pony Shows come round."

She said it as if she would be very surprised indeed, and at that moment I made up my mind that I was going to buy Rapide if only to let him see that he couldn't beat me. I suppose it was silly, but if you have read my previous books you will know that most of the things I do are silly but often turn out all right.

Mummy suddenly gulped and found her tongue, and said, "Well - wh-wh-what about it, Jill?"

"I'm going to have him," I said.

Mummy went red with relief and Mrs. Penberthy and Joan started beaming and telling me that Rapide would never let me down and I'd make a rider yet, and they could have got far more than forty pounds for him if they'd sent him to Tattersalls but all they cared about was knowing the home he was going to, and far from looking broken-hearted Joan began to whistle "Lavender Blue" and we all went in the house and Mummy wrote out the cheque.

Mrs. Penberthy said, "Won't you stay and have lunch?" but you can always tell by the way people say this whether they really want you to or not, and Mrs. Penberthy obviously didn't want us to but was only being polite. So Mummy said, "Oh no, but thank you very much," and after we had made arrangements for Rapide to be sent in a horse-box to Chatton station we all shook hands, and the Penberthys went out of my life for ever.

To order your copy of Jill Has Two Ponies see our online shop, or one of our Stockists.