WHEN the work on the Central Park had fairly commenced, in the spring of 1858, I found — or I fancied— that proper attention to my scattered duties made it necessary that I should have a saddle-horse.
How easily, by the way, the arguments that convince us of these pleasant necessities find their way to the understanding.
Yet, how to subsist a horse after buying one, and how to buy ? The memory of a well-bred and keen-eyed gray, dating back to the earliest days of my boyhood, and forming the chief feature of my recollection of play-time for years ; an idle propensity, not a whit dulled yet, to linger over Leech’s long-necked hunters, and Herring’s field scenes ; an almost superstitious faith in the different analyses of the bones of the racer and of the carthorse ; a firm belief in Frank Forrester’s teachings of the value of “blood,” —all these conspired to narrow my range of selection, and, unfortunately, to confine it to a very expensive class of horses.
Unfortunately, again, the commissioners of the Park had extremely inconvenient ideas of economy and evidently did not consider, in fixing their schedule of salaries, how much more satisfactory our positions would have been with more generous emolument.
How a man with only a Park salary, and with a family to support, could set up a saddle-horse, — and not ride to the dogs, — was a question that exercised not a little of my engineering talent for weeks; and many an odd corner of plans and estimates was figured over with calculations of the cost of forage and shoeing.
Stable-room was plenty and free in the condemned buildings of the former occupants, and a little “over time” of one of the men would suffice for the grooming.
I finally concluded that, by giving up cigars, and devoting my energies to the pipe in their stead, I could save enough to pay for my horse’s keep; and so, the ways and means having, in this somewhat vague manner, been provided, the next step was to buy a horse. To tell of the days passed at auction sales in the hope (never there realized) of finding goodness and cheapness combined, — of the stationery wasted in answering advertisements based on every conceivable form of false pretence; to describe the numberless broken-kneed, brokenwinded, and broken-down brutes that came under inspection, — would be tedious and cruel.
Good horses there were, of course, though very few good saddle-horses (America is not productive in this direction), — and the possible animals were held at impossible prices.
Those who rode over the new Park lands usually rode anything but good saddle-horses. Fast trotters, stout ponies, tolerable carriage-horses, capital cart-horses there were in plenty. But the clean-cut, thin-crested, bright-eyed, fine-eared, steel-limbed saddle-horse, the saddle-horse par excellence, — may I say the only saddle-horse? — rarely came under observation ; and when, by exception, such a one did appear, he was usually so ridden that his light was sadly dimmed. It was hard to recognize an elastic step under such an unelastic seat.
Finally, in the days of my despair, a kind saddler,—kept to his daily awl by a too keen eye for sport, and still, I believe, a victim to his propensity for laying his money on the horse that ought to win but don’t,— hearing of my ambition (to him the most laudable of all ambitions), came to put me on the long-sought path.
He knew a mare, or he had known one, that would exactly suit me. She was in a bad way now, and a good deal run down, but he always thought she “ had it in her,” and that some gentleman ought to keep her for the saddle, — “ which, in my mind, sir, she be the finest bit of ’orse-flesh that was hever imported, sir.” That was enough. “ Imported ” decided my case, and I listened eagerly to the enthusiastic story, — a story to which this man’s life was bound with threads of hard-earned silver, and not less by a real honest love for a fine animal. He had never been much given to saving, but he was a good workman, and the little he had saved had been blown away in the dust that clouded his favorite at the tail of the race.
Still, he attached himself to her person, and followed her in her disgrace. “ She were n't quite quick enough for the turf, sir, but she be a good ’un for a gentleman’s ’ack.”
He had watched her for years, and scraped acquaintance with her different owners as fast as she had changed them, and finally, when she was far gone with pneumonia, he had accepted her as a gift, and, by careful nursing, had cured her. Then, for a time, he rode her himself, and his eye brightened as he told of her leaps and her stride. Of course he rode her to the races, and — one luckless day — when he had lost everything, and his passion had got the better of his prudence, he staked the mare herself on a perfectly sure thing in twomile-heats. Like most of the “ sure things ” of life, this venture went to the bad, and the mare was lost, — lost to a Bull’s Head dealer in single driving horses. “ I see her in his stable ahfter that, sir ; and, forbieten she were twelve year old, sir, and ’ad ’ad a ’ard life of it, she were the youngest and likeliest of the lot, — you’d swore she were a three-year-old, sir.”
If that dealer had had a soul above trotting-wagons, my story would never have been written ; but all was fish that came to his net, and this thorough-bred racer, this beautiful creature who had never worn harness in her life, must be shown to a purchaser who was seeking something to drive. She was always quick to decide, and her actions followed close on the heels of her thought. She did not complicate matters by waiting for the gentleman to get into the wagon, but then and there— on the instant — kicked it to kindlings. This ended the story. She had been shown at a high figure, and was subsequently sold for a song, — he could tell me no more. She had passed to the lower sphere of equine life and usefulness, — he had heard of a fish-wagon, but he knew nothing about it. What he did know was, that the dealer was a dreadful jockey, and that it would never do to ask him. Now, here was something to live for, — a sort of princess in disgrace, whom it would be an honor to rescue, and my horse-hunting acquired a new interest.
By easy stages, I cultivated the friendship of the youth who, in those days, did the morning’s sweeping-out at the Bull’s Head Hotel. He had grown up in the alluring shades of the horse-market, and his daily communion from childhood had been with that “ noble animal.” To him horses were the individuals of the world, — men their necessary attendants, and of only attendant importance. Of course he knew of this black she-devil ; and he thought that “a boss that could trot like she could on the halter ” must be crazy not to go in harness.
However, he thought she had got her deserts now, for he had seen her, only a few weeks before, “a-draggin’ clams for a feller in the Tenth Avener.” Here was a clew at last, — clams and the Tenth Avenue. For several days the scent grew cold. The people of the Licensed Vender part of this street seemed to have little interest in their neighbors’ horses; but I found one man, an Irish grocer, who had been bred a stable-boy to the Marquis of Waterford, and who did know of a “ poor old screw of a black mare ” that had a good head, and might be the one I was looking for; but, if she was, he thought I might as well give it up, for she was all broken down, and would never be good for anything again.
Taking the address, I went to a stable-yard, in what was then the very edge of the town, and here I found a knowing young man, who devoted his time to peddling clams and potatoes between New York and Sing Sing. Clams up, and potatoes down, — twice every week, — distance thirty miles; road hilly ; and that was the wagon he did it with, — a heavy wagon with a heavy arched top, and room for a heavy load, and only shafts for a single horse. In reply to my question, he said he changed horses pretty often, because the work broke them down ; but he had a mare now that had been at it for three months, and he thought she would last some time longer. “ She’s pretty thin, but you ought to see her trot with that wagon.” With an air of idle curiosity, I asked to see her, — I had gone shabbily dressed, not to excite suspicion; for men of the class I had to treat with are usually sharp horse-traders, — and this fellow, clam-peddler though he was, showed an enthusiastic alacrity in taking me to her stall. She had won even his dull heart, and he spoke of her gently, as he made the most of her good points, and glossed over her wretched condition.
Poor Vixen (that had been her name in her better days, and it was to be her name again), she had found it hard kicking against the pricks! Clam-carts are stronger than trotting-wagons, and even her efforts had been vain. She had succumbed to dire necessity, and earned her ignoble oats with dogged fidelity. She had a little warm corner in her driver’s affections, — as she always had in the affections of all who came to know her well, — but her lot was a very hard one. Worn to a skeleton, with sore galls wherever the harness had pressed her, her pasterns bruised by clumsy shoes, her silky coat burned brown by the sun, and her neck curved upward, it would have needed more than my knowledge of anatomy to see anything good in her but for her wonderful head. This was the perfection of a horse’s head, — small, bony, and of perfect shape, with keen, deer-like eyes, and thin, active ears; it told the whole story of her virtues, and showed no trace of her sufferings. Her royal blood shone out from her face, and kept it beautiful.
My mind was made up, and Vixen must be mine at any cost. Still, it was important to me to buy as cheaply as I could, and desirable, above all, not to be jockeyed in a horse-trade ; so it required some diplomacy (an account of which would not be edifying here) to bring the transaction to its successful close. The pendulum which swung between offer and demand finally rested at seventy-five dollars.
She was brought to me at the Park on a bright moonlight evening in June, and we were called out to see her. I think she knew that her harness days were over, and she danced off to her new quarters as gay as a colt in training. That night my wakefulness would have done credit to a boy of sixteen; and I was up with the dawn, and bound for a ride ; but when I examined poor Vix again in her stable, it seemed almost cruel to think of using her at all for a month. She was so thin, so worn, so bruised, that I determined to give her a long rest and good care, — only I must try her once, just to get a leg over her for five minutes, and then she should come back and be cared for until really well. It was a weak thing to do, and I confess it with all needful humiliation, but I mounted her at once ; and, although I had been a rider all my days, this was the first time I had ever really ridden. For the first time in my life I felt as though I had four whalebone legs of my own, worked by steel muscles in accordance with my will, but without even a conscious effort of will.
That that anatomy of a horse should so easily, so playfully, handle my heavy weight was a mystery, and is a mystery still. She carried me in the same high, long-reaching, elastic trot that we sometimes see a young horse strike when first turned into a field. A low fence was near by, and I turned her toward it. She cleared it with a bound that sent all my blood thrilling through my veins, and trotted on again as though nothing had occurred. The five minutes’ turn was taken with so much ease, with such evident delight, that I made it a virtue to indulge her with a longer course and a longer stride. We went to the far corners of the Park, and tried all our paces ; all were marvellous for the power so easily exerted and the evident power in reserve.
Yes, Frank Forester was right, blood horses are made of finer stuff than others. My intention of giving the poor old mare a month’s rest was never carried out, because each return to her old recreation — it was never work — made it more evident that the simple change in her life was all she needed; and, although in constant use from the first, she soon put on the flesh and form of a sound horse. Her minor bruises were obliterated, and her more grievous ones grew into permanent scars, — blemishes, but only skin deep ; for every fibre of every muscle, and every tendon and bone in her whole body, was as strong and supple as spring steel.
The Park afforded good leaping in those days. Some of the fences were still standing around the abandoned gardens, and new ditches and old brooks were plenty. Vixen gave me lessons in fencing which a few years later, in time of graver need, stood me in good stead. She weighed less than four times the weight that she carried ; yet she cleared a four-foot fence with apparent ease, and once, in a moment of excitement, she carried me over a brook, with a clear leap of twenty-six feet, measured from the taking-off to the landing.
Her feats of endurance were equal to her feats of strength. I once rode her from Yorkville to Rye (twenty-one miles) in an hour and forty-five minutes, including a rest of twenty minutes at Pelham Bridge, and I frequently rode twentyfive miles out in the morning and back in the afternoon. When put to her work, her steady road gallop (mostly on the grassy sides) was fifteen miles an hour.
Of course these were extreme cases ; but she never showed fatigue from them, and she did good service nearly every day, winter and summer, from her twelfth to her fifteenth year, keeping always in good condition, though thin as a racer, and looking like a colt at the end of the time. Horsemen never guessed her age at more than half of what it actually was.
Beyond the average of even the most intelligent horses, she showed some almost human traits. Above all was she fond of children, and would quiet down from her wildest moods to allow a child to be carried on the pommel. When engaged in this serious duty, it was difficult to excite her, or to urge her out of a slow and measured pace, although usually ready for any extravagance. Not the least marked of her peculiarities was her inordinate vanity. On a country road, or among the workmen of the Park, she was as staid and business-like as a parson’s cob; but let a carriage or a party of visitors come in sight, and she would give herself the prancing airs of a circus horse, seeming to watch as eagerly for some sign of approval, and to be made as happy by it, as though she only lived to be admired. Many a time have I heard the exclamation, “ What a beautiful horse ! ” and Vix seemed to hear it too, and to appreciate it quite as keenly as I did. A trip down the Fifth Avenue in the afternoon was an immense excitement to her, and she was more fatigued by it than by a twenty-mile gallop. However slowly she travelled, it was always with the high springing action of a fast trot, or with that long-stepping, sidelong action that the French call à deux pistes ; few people allowed us to pass without admiring notice.
Her most satisfactory trait was her fondness for her master; she was as good company as a dog, — better, perhaps, because she seemed more really a part of one s self; and she seemed always to respond to my changing moods. I have sometimes, when unable to sleep, got up in the night and saddled for a ride, usually ending in a long walk home, with the bridle over my arm, and the old mare’s kind face close beside my own, in something akin to human sympathy ; she had a way of sighing, when things were especially sad, that made her very comforting to have about. So we went on for three years, always together, and always very much to each other. We had our little unhappy episodes, when she was pettish and I was harsh, —sometimes her feminine freaks were the cause, sometimes my masculine blundering,—but we always made it up, and were soon good friends again, and, on the whole, we were both better for the friendship. I am sure that I was, and some of my more grateful recollections are connected with this dumb companion.
The spring of 1861 opened a new life for both of us, —a sad and a short one for poor Vix.
I never knew just how much influence she had in getting my commission, but, judging by the conduct of the other field officers of the regiment, she was evidently regarded as the better half of the new acquisition. The pomp and circumstance of glorious war suited her temper exactly, and it was ludicrous to see her satisfaction in first wearing her gorgeous red-bordered shabrack ; for a long time she carried her head on one side to see it. She conceived a new affection for me from the moment when she saw me bedecked with the dazzling bloom that preceded the serious fruitage of the early New York volunteer organizations.
At last the thrilling day came. Broadway was alive from end to end with flags and white cambric and sad faces. Another thousand were going to the war. With Swiss bugle-march and chanted Marseillaise, we made our solemn way through the grave and anxious throng. To us it was naturally a day of sore trial; but with brilliant, happy Vixen it was far different; she was leaving no friends behind, was going to meet no unknown peril. She was showing her royal, stylish beauty to an admiring crowd, and she acted as though she took to her own especial behoof every cheer that rang from Union Square to Cortlandt Street. It was the glorious day of her life, and, as we dismounted at the Jersey ferry, she was trembling still with the delightful excitement.
At Washington we were encamped east of the Capitol, and for a month were busy in getting settled in the new harness, Mr. Lincoln used to drive out sometimes to our evening drill, and he always had a pleasant word — as he always had for every one, and as every one had for her—for my charming thorough-bred, who had made herself perfectly at home with the troops, and enjoyed every display of the marvellous raiment of the regiment.
On the 4th of July we crossed the Potomac and went below Alexandria, where we lay in idle preparation for the coming disaster. On the 16th we marched, in Blenker’s brigade of Miles’s division, and we passed the night in a hay-field, with a confusion of horses’ feed and riders’ bed, that brought Vix and me very closely together. On the 18th we reached the valley this side of Centreville, while the skirmish of Blackburn’s Ford was going on, — a skirmish now, but a battle then. For three nights and two days we lay in the bushes, waiting for rations and orders. On Sunday morning McDowell’s army moved out; — we all know the rest. Miles’s thirteen thousand fresh troops lay within sight and sound of the lost battle-field, — he drunk and unable, even if not unwilling, to take them to the rescue, — and all we did was, late in the evening, to turn back a few troopers of the Black Horse Cavalry, the moral effect of whose unseen terrors was driving our herds, panting, back to the Potomac. Late in the night we turned our backs on our idle field, and brought up the rear of the sad retreat. Our regiment was the Last to move out, and Vix and I were with the rear-guard. Wet, cold, tired, hungry, unpursued, we crept slowly through the scattered débris of the broken-up camp equipage, and dismally crossed the Long Bridge in a pitiless rain, as Monday’s evening was closing in. O, the dreadful days that followed, when a dozen resolute men might have taken Washington, and have driven the army across the Chesapeake, when everything was filled with gloom and rain and grave uncertainty!
Again the old mare came to my aid. My regiment was not a pleasant one to be with, for its excellent material did not redeem its very bad commander, and I longed for service with the cavalry. Frémont was going to St. Louis, and his chief of staff was looking for cavalry officers. He had long known Vixen, and was kind enough to tell me that he wanted her for the new organization, and (as I was her necessary appendage) he procured my transfer, and we set out for the West. It was not flattering to me to be taken on these grounds ; but it was flattering to Vixen, and that was quite as pleasant.
Arrived at St, Louis, we set about the organization of the enthusiastic thousands who rushed to serve under Fremont. Whatever there was of ostentatious display, Vixen and I took part in, but this was not much. Once we turned out in great state to receive Prince Plon-Plon, but that was in the night, and he did n’t come after all. Once again there was a review of all the troops, and that was magnificent. This was all. There was no coach and four, nor anything else, but downright hard work from early morning till late bed-time, from Sunday morning till Saturday night. For six weeks, while my regiment of German horsemen was fitting up and drilling at the Abbey Race-track, I rode a cart-horse, and kept the mare in training for the hard work ahead.
At last, we were off, going up the Missouri, sticking in its mud, poling over its shoals, and being bored generally. At Jefferson City Vixen made her last appearance in ladies’ society, as by the twilight fires of the General’s camp she went through her graceful paces before Mrs. Frémont and her daughter. I pass over the eventful pursuit of Price’s army, because the subject of my story played only a passive part in it. At Springfield I tried her nerve by jumping her over the dead horses on brave Zagonyi’s bloody field ; and, although distastefully, she did my bidding without flinching, when she found it must be done. The camp-life at Springfield was full of excitement and earnestness ; Price, with his army, was near at hand (or we believed that he was, which was the same thing). Our work in the cavalry was very active, and Vix had hard service on insufficient food, — she seemed to be sustained by sheer nervous strength.
At last the order to advance was given, and we were to move out at daybreak ; then came a countermanding order ; and then, late in the evening, Frémont’s farewell. He had been relieved. There was genuine and universal grief. Good or bad, competent or incompetent, — this is not the place to argue that, — he was the life and the soul of his army, and it was cruelly wronged in his removal. Spiritless and full of disappointment, we again turned back from our aim ; — then would have been Price’s opportunity.
It was the loveliest Indian-summer weather, and the wonderful opal atmosphere of the Ozark Mountains was redolent with the freshness of a second spring. As had always been my habit in dreamy or unhappy moods, I rode my poor tired mare for companionship’s sake, — I ought not to have done it, — I would give much not to have done it, for I never rode her again. The march was long, and the noonday sun was oppressive. She, who had never faltered before grew nervous and shaky now, and once, after fording the Pommede-Terre in deep water, she behaved wildly; but when I talked to her, called her a good girl, and combed her silken mane with my fingers, she came back to her old way, and went on nicely. Still she perspired unnaturally, and I felt uneasy about her when I dismounted and gave her rein to Rudolf, my orderly.
Late in the night, when the moon was in mid-heaven, he came to my tent, and told me that something was the matter with Vixen. My adjutant and I rushed out, and there we beheld her in the agony of a brain fever. She was the most painfully magnificent animal I ever saw. Crouched on the ground, with her fore legs stretched out and wide apart, she was swaying to and fro, with hard and stertorous breath, — every vein swollen and throbbing in the moonlight. De Grandèle, our quiet veterinary surgeon, had been called while it was yet time to apply the lancet. As the hot stream spurted from her neck she grew easier; her eye recovered its gentleness, and she laid her head against my breast with the old sigh, and seemed to know and to return all my love for her. I sat with her until the first gray of dawn, when she had grown quite calm, and then I left her with De Grandèle and Rudolf while I went to my duties. We must march at five o’clock, and poor Vixen could not be moved. The thought of leaving her was very bitter, but I feared it must be done, and I asked De Grandèle how he could best end her sufferings, — or was there still some hope ? He shook his head mournfully, like a kind-hearted doctor as he was, and said that he feared not; but still, as I was so fond of her, it I would leave him six men, he would do his best to bring her on, and, if he could not, he would not leave her alive. I have had few harder duties than to march that morning. Four days after De Grandèle sent a message to me at our station near Rolla, that he was coming on nicely, and hoped to be in at nightfall. “Vixen seems to be better and stronger.” At nightfall they came, the poor old creature stepping slowly and timidly over the rough road, all the old fire and force gone out ot her, and with only a feeble whinny as she saw me walking to meet her. We built for her the best quarters we could under the mountain-side, and spread her a soft bed of leaves. There was now hope that she would recover sufficiently to be sent to St. Louis to be nursed.
That night, an infernal brute of a troop horse that had already killed Ludlow’s charger, led by some fiendish spirit, broke into Vixen’s enclosure, and with one kick laid open her hock joint.
In vain they told me that she was incurable. I could not let her die now, when she was just restored to me; and I forced from De Grandèle the confession that she might be slung up and so bound that the wound would heal, although the joint must be stiff. She could never carry me again, but she could be my pet; and I would send her home, and make her happy for many a long year yet. We moved camp two miles, to the edge of the town, and she followed, painfully and slowly, the injured limb dragging behind her; I could not give her up. She was picketed near my tent, and for some days grew no worse.
Finally, one lovely Sunday morning, I found her sitting on her haunches like a dog, patient and gentle, and wondering at her pain. She remained in this position all day, refusing food. I stroked her velvet crest, and coaxed her with sugar. She rubbed her nose against my arm, and was evidently thankful for my caresses, but she showed no disposition to rise. The adjutant led me into my tent as he would have led me from the bedside of a dying friend. I turned to look back at poor Vixen, and she gave me a little neigh of farewell.
They told me then, and they told it very tenderly, that there was no possibility that she could get well in camp, and that they wanted me to give her over to them. The adjutant sat by me, and talked of the old days when I had had her at home, and when he had known her well. We brought back all of her pleasant ways, and agreed that her trouble Ought to be ended.
As we talked, a single shot was fired, and all was over. The setting sun was shining through the bare November branches, and lay warm in my open tent-front. The band, which had been brought out for the only funeral ceremony, breathed softly Kreutzer’s touching “ Die Capelle,” and the sun went down on one of the very sad days of my life.
The next morning I carved deeply in the bark of a great oak-tree, at the side of the Pacific Railroad, beneath which they had buried my lovely mare, a simple VIX ; and some day I shall go to scrape the moss from the inscription.