Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, March 30, 2021


 "The Bagman's Pony" by E. OE. Somerville & "Martin Ross" (Violet Martin) [from All Along the Irish Shore:  Irish Sketches, 1903)

Our narrator is an Irishman living in Delhi; because he is Irish, he is known as Paddy by the British stationed there.  He receives a message from a friend, asking him to put up a "bagman" for a week while visiting Delhi.  A bagman is "a globe-trotting fellow that knocks about from one place to another, and takes all the fun he can out of it at other people's expense."  This particular bagman was bringing a horse to run at the Delhi races.  Paddy asks the bagman to stop in with him for the week because that's the sort of thing that was done.

The horse, a roan, was called the "Doctor," and was not as good a steed as the bagman made out.  By the end of a week of races, the bagman had lost a lot of money on his horse.  A lot of money.  He borrowed funds to pay off most of his debts, but he did not have enough money to pay what he had lost to Paddy, so he asked Paddy if he would take n IOU from him.  Because the man was a guest in his house, Paddy agreed.

The next morning, the bagman had fled, taking the Doctor with him, but leaving behind his grass-cutter (a native who spoke little or no English) and his pony.  The pony, alas, was a sorry thing to look at.  It was a kattiawa tattoo (a common mountain pony) and a gareeb kuch kam ki nahan ('a miserable beast, in the  most intensified form).  Just for the fun of it, Paddy had the grass-cutter mount the pony to see how the beast could trot.  And trot he did -- the ugly beast went like a flash of lighting and did the same when he galloped.

That night Paddy hosted the 112th for dinner and the men were ragging him about losing out on the IOU and about the "worthless" pony.  Paddy had a few drinks too many and began taking bets on the pony.  The next morning, a little worse for wear, Paddy realized the he had bet a thousand pounds on the bagman's pony.  He was a little concerned because of the size of his bets, but felt he had a fair chance of winning.  He took the pony out for a run and the stubborn creature refused to move at all, despite threats, lickings, and the use of spurs.  Paddy felt betrayed but, remembering the pony's speed when the grass-cutter rode him, asked his man to bring the grass-cutter to him.  But the grass-cutter had taken off in the early, dark hours of the morning; he had tried to take his pony, but the animal was locked up securely.  So Paddy was left with an immovable pony and the possible loss of a thousand pounds.

Paddy then had a dog cart hitched to the pony and the pony responded with all the speed that he had before.  Feeling relieved, Paddy spent the next few days training the pony.  

By the time came to run the pony for the bet, most of Delhi had become excited.  Bets were made one way or the other and a large crowds of whites and natives showed up to see the outcome.  Paddy did not get off to a good start.  The starter's gun startled the pony and it reared and fell back.  Once on the way, many of Paddy's friends followed him on horseback to cheer him on, several coming up next to Paddy and the pony.  The pony got frightened and began to run -- something that is not allowed in trotter racing.  According to the rules, Paddy had to stop the pony and could not continue his run until the dog cart's wheels had gone in reverse, taking more precious time.  Some people had set up a small bar along the course and Paddy, for some reason I can't comprehend, stopped there, took a couple of large gulps of liquor, stuck brandy in the pony's nostrils, and forced some brandy down its throat before taking off again.  That whole speedy exercise cost Paddy twenty seconds he could ill afford to spare.

I don't want to spoil the story by telling you whether Paddy won his bets, although he did -- by thirteen seconds.  The bagman was never seen again.

Edith Somerville (1858-1949) was an Irish novelist whose interests were in riding and painting.  She was a domineering woman who was once Masters of the West Carbury Hounds, as well as an active suffragist and Irish Nationalist.  She met her cousin Violet Martin in 1886 and the two soon became literary partners (and, it is likely, romantic and sexual partners).  Their first book was published in 1889.  They published fourteen books together before Violet died in 1915.  Somerville added Violet's name to some of her later solo works, claiming that they kept in contact via seances.  When Somerville died at age 91, she was buried next to Violet

The most popular books the two wrote together were The Real Charlotte (1894) and Some Experiences of an Irish R. M. (1908).  The latter, and its two sequels, was adapted for The Irish R. M., a popular television series that ran for three seasons from 1983 to 1985, and starring Peter Bowles.

All on the Irish Shore:  Irish Sketches is available to read online.  In addition to "The Bagman's Pony," it contains ten other entertaining stories.

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