There were five horses in the stables, and I shall never forget the scene as we tried to look them over. They seemed to have gone mad. They reared and screamed and nearly tore up their pickets; they sweated and shivered and lathered and were distraught with fear. Strickland’s horses used to know him as well as his dogs; which made the matter more curious. We left the stable for fear of the brutes throwing themselves in their panic. Then Strickland turned back and called me. The horses were still frightened, but they let us ‘gentle’ and make much of them, and put their heads in our bosoms.
‘They aren’t afraid of us,’ said Strickland. ‘D’ you know, I’d give three months’ pay if Outrage here could talk.’
But Outrage was dumb, and could only cuddle up to his master and blow out his nostrils, as is the custom of horses when they wish to explain things but can’t. Fleete came up when we were in the stalls, and as soon as the horses saw him, their fright broke out afresh. It was all that we could do to escape from the place unkicked. Strickland said, ‘They don’t seem to love you, Fleete.’
‘Nonsense, said Fleete; ‘my mare will follow me like a dog.’ He went to her; she was in a loose-box; but as he slipped the bars she plunged, knocked him down, and broke away into the garden. I laughed, but Strickland was not amused. He took his moustache in both fists and pulled at it till it nearly came out. Fleete, instead of going off to chase his property, yawned, saying that he felt sleepy. He went to the house to lie down, which was a foolish way of spending New Year’s Day.
Strickland sat with me in the stables and asked if I had noticed anything peculiar in Fleete’s manner. I said that he ate his food like a beast; but that this might have been the result of living alone in the hills out of the reach of society as refined and elevating as ours for instance. Strickland was not amused. I do not think that he listened to me, for his next sentence referred to the mark on Fleete’s breast, and I said that it might have been caused by blister-flies, or that it was possibly a birth-mark newly born and now visible for the first time. We both agreed that it was unpleasant to look at, and Strickland found occasion to say that I was a fool.
‘I can’t tell you what I think now,’ said he, ‘because you would call me a madman; but you must stay with me for the next few days, if you can. I want you to watch Fleete, but don’t tell me what you think till I have made up my mind.’
‘But I am dining out to-night,’ I said.
‘So am I,’ said Strickland, ‘and so is Fleete. At least if he doesn’t change his mind.’
We walked about the garden smoking, but saying nothing—because we were friends, and talking spoils good tobacco—till our pipes were out. Then we went to wake up Fleete. He was wide awake and fidgeting about his room.
‘I say, I want some more chops,’ he said. ‘Can I get them?’
We laughed and said, ‘Go and change. The ponies will be round in a minute.’
‘All right,’ said Fleete. ‘I’ll go when I get the chops—underdone ones, mind.’
He seemed to be quite in earnest. It was four o’clock, and we had had breakfast at one; still, for a long time, he demanded those underdone chops. Then he changed into riding clothes and went out into the verandah. His pony—the mare had not been caught—would not let him come near. All three horses were unmanageable—mad with fear—and finally Fleete said that he would stay at home and get something to eat. Strickland and I rode out wondering. As we passed the temple of Hanuman the Silver Man came out and mewed at us.
‘He is not one of the regular priests of the temple,’ said Strickland. ‘I think I should peculiarly like to lay my hands on him.’
There was no spring in our gallop on the racecourse that evening. The horses were stale, and moved as though they had been ridden out.
‘The fright after breakfast has been too much for them,’ said Strickland.
That was the only remark he made through the remainder of the ride. Once or twice, I think, he swore to himself; but that did not count.
We came back in the dark at seven o’clock, and saw that there were no lights in the bungalow. ‘Careless ruffians my servants are!’ said Strickland.
My horse reared at something on the carriage drive, and Fleete stood up under its nose.
‘What are you doing, grovelling about the garden?’ said Strickland.
But both horses bolted and nearly threw us. We dismounted by the stables and returned to Fleete, who was on his hands and knees under the orange-bushes.
‘What the devil’s wrong with you?’ said Strickland.
‘Nothing, nothing in the world,’ said Fleete, speaking very quickly and thickly. ‘I’ve been gardening—botanising, you know. The smell of the earth is delightful. I think I’m going for a walk—a long walk—all night.’
Then I saw that there was something excessively out of order somewhere, and I said to Strickland, ‘I am not dining out.’
‘Bless you!’ said Strickland. ‘Here, Fleete, get up. You’ll catch fever there. Come in to dinner and let’s have the lamps lit. We’ll all dine at home.’
Fleete stood up unwillingly, and said, ‘No lamps—no lamps. It’s much nicer here. Let’s dine outside and have some more chops—lots of ’em and underdone—bloody ones with gristle.’
Now a December evening in Northern India is bitterly cold, and Fleete’s suggestion was that of a maniac.
‘Come in,’ said Strickland sternly. ‘Come in at once.’
Fleete came, and when the lamps were brought, we saw that he was literally plastered with dirt from head to foot. He must have been rolling in the garden. He shrank from the light and went to his room. His eyes were horrible to look at. There was a green light behind them, not in them, if you understand, and the man’s lower lip hung down.
Strickland said, ‘There is going to be trouble—big trouble—to-night. Don’t you change your riding-things.’