War Horse by Michael Morpurgo


  Each day as I progressed and we began to plough more as a team, Albert used the whip less and less and spoke more gently to me again, until finally at the end of the week I was sure I had all but regained his affection. Then one afternoon after we had finished the headland around Long Close, he unhitched the plough and put an arm around each of us. ‘It’s all right now, you’ve done it my beauties. You’ve done it,’ he said. ‘I didn’t tell you, ’cos I didn’t want to put you off, but Father and Farmer Easton have been watching us from the house this afternoon.’ He scratched us behind the ears and smoothed our noses. ‘Father’s won his bet and he told me at breakfast that if we finished the field today he’d forget all about the incident, and that you could stay on, Joey. So you’ve done it my beauty and I’m so proud of you I could kiss you, you old silly, but I won’t do that, not with them watching. He’ll let you stay now, I’m sure he will. He’s a man of his word is my father, you can be sure of that – long as he’s sober.’

  It was some months later, on the way back from cutting the hay in Great Meadow along the sunken leafy lane that led up into the farmyard that Albert first talked to us of the war. His whistling stopped in midtune. ‘Mother says there’s likely to be a war,’ he said sadly. ‘I don’t know what it’s about, something about some old Duke that’s been shot at somewhere. Can’t think why that should matter to anyone, but she says we’ll be in it all the same. But it won’t affect us, not down here. We’ll go on just the same. At fifteen I’m too young to go anyway – well that’s what she said. But I tell you Joey, if there is a war I’d want to go. I think I’d make a good soldier, don’t you? Look fine in a uniform, wouldn’t I? And I’ve always wanted to march to the beat of a band. Can you imagine that, Joey? Come to that, you’d make a good war horse yourself, wouldn’t you, if you ride as well as you pull, and I know you will. We’d make quite a pair. God help the Germans if they ever have to fight the two of us.’


  One hot summer evening, after a long and dusty day in the fields, I was deep into my mash and oats, with Albert still rubbing me down with straw and talking on about the abundance of good straw they’d have for the winter months, and about how good the wheat straw would be for the thatching they would be doing, when I heard his father’s heavy steps coming across the yard towards us. He was calling out as he came. ‘Mother,’ he shouted. ‘Mother, come out Mother.’ It was his sane voice, his sober voice and was a voice that held no fear for me. ‘It’s war, Mother. I’ve just heard it in the village. Postman came in this afternoon with the news. The devils have marched into Belgium. It’s certain for sure now. We declared war yesterday at eleven o’clock. We’re at war with the Germans. We’ll give them such a hiding as they won’t ever raise their fists again to anyone. Be over in a few months. It’s always been the same. Just because the British lion’s sleeping they think he’s dead. We’ll teach them a thing or two, Mother – we’ll teach them a lesson they’ll never forget.’

  Albert had stopped brushing me and dropped the straw on the ground. We moved over towards the stable door. His mother was standing on the steps by the door of the farmhouse. She had her hand to her mouth. ‘Oh dear God,’ she said softly. ‘Oh dear God.’

  CHAPTER 3

  GRADUALLY DURING THAT last summer on the farm, so gradually that I had hardly noticed it, Albert had begun riding me out over the farm to check the sheep. Old Zoey would follow along behind and I would stop every now and then to be sure she was still with us. I do not even remember the first time he put a saddle on me, but at some time he must have done so for by the time war was declared that summer Albert was riding me out to the sheep each morning and almost every evening after his work. I came to know every lane in the parish, every whispering oak tree and every banging gate. We would splash through the stream under Innocent’s Copse and thunder up Ferny Piece beyond. With Albert riding me there was no hanging on the reins, no jerking on the bit in my mouth, but always a gentle squeeze with the knees and a touch with his heels was enough to tell me what he wanted of me. I think he could have ridden me even without that so well did we come to understand each other. Whenever he was not talking to me, he would whistle or sing all the time, and that seemed somehow to reassure me.

  The war hardly touched us on the farm to start with. With more straw still to turn and stack for the winter, old Zoey and I were led out every morning early into the fields to work. To our great relief, Albert had now taken over most of the horse work on the farm, leaving his father to see to the pigs and the bullocks, to check the sheep, and to mend fences and dig the ditches around the farm, so that we scarcely saw him for more than a few minutes each day. Yet in spite of the normality of the routine, there was a growing tension on the farm, and I began to feel an acute sense of foreboding. There would be long and heated exchanges in the yard, sometimes between Albert’s father and mother, but more often, strangely enough, between Albert and his mother.

  ‘You mustn’t blame him, Albert,’ she said one morning, turning on him angrily outside the stable door. ‘He did it all for you, you know. When Lord Denton offered to sell him the farm ten years ago he took out the mortgage so that you’d have a farm of your own when you grow up. And it’s the mortgage that worries him sick and makes him drink. So if he isn’t himself from time to time you’ve no call to keep on about him. He’s not as well as he used to be and be can’t put in the work on the farm like he used. He’s over fifty, you know – children don’t think of their fathers as being old or young. And it’s the war too. The war worries him Albert. He’s worried prices will be falling back, and I think in his heart of hearts he feels he should be soldiering in France – but he’s too old for that. You’ve got to try to understand him, Albert. He deserves that much.’

  ‘You don’t drink, Mother,’ Albert replied vehemently. ‘And you’ve got worries just like he has, and anyway if you did drink you wouldn’t get at me as he does. I do all the work I can, and more, and still he never stops complaining that this isn’t done and that isn’t done. He complains every time I take Joey out in the evening. He doesn’t even want me to go off bell-ringing once a week. It’s not reasonable, Mother.’

  ‘I know that, Albert,’ his mother said more gently now, taking his hand in both of hers. ‘But you must try to see the good in him. He’s a good man – he really is. You remember him that way too, don’t you?’

  ‘Yes Mother, I remember him like that,’ Albert acknowledged, ‘but if only he wouldn’t keep on about Joey as he does. After all, Joey works for his living now and he has to have time off to enjoy himself, just as I do.’

  ‘Of course dear,’ she said, taking his elbow and walking him up towards the farmhouse, ‘but you know how he feels about Joey, don’t you? He bought him in a fit of pique and has regretted it ever since. As he says, we really only need one horse for the farmwork, and that horse of yours eats money. That’s what worries him. Farmers and horses, it’s always the same. My father was like it too. But he’ll come round if you’re kind with him – I know he will.’

  But Albert and his father scarcely spoke to each other any more these days, and Albert’s mother was used more and more by both as a go-between, as a negotiator. It was on a Wednesday morning with the war but a few weeks old, that Albert’s mother was again arbitrating between them in the yard outside. As usual Albert’s father had come home drunk from the market the night before. He said he had forgotten to take back the Saddleback boar they had borrowed to serve the sows and gilts. He had told Albert to do it, but Albert had objected strongly and an argument was brewing. Albert’s father said that he ‘had business to attend to’ and Albert maintained he had the stables to clean out.

  ‘Won’t take you but half an hour, dear, to drive the boar back down the valley to Fursden,’ Albert’s mother said swiftly, trying to soften the inevitable.

  ‘All right then,’ Albert conceded, as he always did when his mother intervened, for he hated to upset her. ‘I’ll do it for you, Mother. But only on condition I can take Joey out this
evening. I want to hunt him this winter and I have to get him fit.’ Albert’s father stayed silent and thin lipped, and I noticed then that he was looking straight at me. Albert turned, patted me gently on the nose, picked up a stick from the pile of lightings up against the woodshed, and made his way down towards the piggery. A few minutes later I saw him driving the great black and white boar out down the farm track towards the lane. I called out after him but he did not turn round.

  Now if Albert’s father came into the stable at all, it was always to lead out old Zoey. He left me alone these days. He would throw a saddle onto Zoey out in the yard and ride out onto the hills above the farmhouse to check the sheep. So it was nothing special when he came into the stable that morning and led Zoey out. But when he came back into the stable afterwards and began to sweet-talk me and held out a bucket of sweet-smelling oats, I was immediately suspicious. But the oats and my own inquisitiveness overcame my better judgement and he was able to slip a halter over my head before I could pull away. His voice however was unusually gentle and kind as he tightened the halter and reached out slowly to stroke my neck. ‘You’ll be all right, old son,’ he said softly. ‘You’ll be all right. They’ll look after you, promised they would. And I need the money, Joey, I need the money bad.’

  CHAPTER 4

  TYING A LONG rope to the halter he walked me out of the stable. I went with him because Zoey was out there looking back over her shoulder at me and I was always happy to go anywhere and with anyone as long as she was with me. All the while I noticed that Albert’s father was speaking in a hushed voice and looking around him like a thief.

  He must have known that I would follow old Zoey, for he roped me up to her saddle and led us both quietly out of the yard down the track and over the bridge. Once in the lane he mounted Zoey swiftly and we trotted up the hill and into the village. He never spoke a word to either of us. I knew the road well enough of course for I had been there often enough with Albert, and indeed I loved going there because there were always other horses to meet and people to see. It was in the village only a short time before that I had met my first motor-car outside the Post Office and had stiffened with fear as it rattled past, but I had stood steady and I remember that Albert had made a great fuss of me after that. But now as we neared the village I could see that several motor-cars were parked up around the green and there was a greater gathering of men and horses than I had ever seen. Excited as I was, I remember that a sense of deep apprehension came over me as we trotted up into the village.

  There were men in khaki uniforms everywhere; and then as Albert’s father dismounted and led us up past the church towards the green a military band struck up a rousing, pounding march. The pulse of the great bass drum beat out through the village and there were children everywhere, some marching up and down with broomsticks over their shoulders and some leaning out of windows waving flags.

  As we approached the flagpole in the centre of the green where the Union Jack hung limp in the sun against the white pole, an officer pushed through the crowd towards us. He was tall and elegant in his jodhpurs and Sam Brown belt, with a silver sword at his side. He shook Albert’s father by the hand. ‘I told you I’d come, Captain Nicholls, sir,’ said Albert’s father. ‘It’s because I need the money, you understand. Wouldn’t part with a horse like this ’less I had to.’

  ‘Well farmer,’ said the officer, nodding his appreciation as he looked me over. ‘I’d thought you’d be exaggerating when we talked in The George last evening. “Finest horse in the parish” you said, but then everyone says that. But this one is different – I can see that.’ And he smoothed my neck gently and scratched me behind my ears. Both his hand and his voice were kind and I did not shrink away from him. ‘You’re right, farmer, he’d make a fine mount for any regiment and we’d be proud to have him – I wouldn’t mind using him myself. No, I wouldn’t mind at all. If he turns out to be all he looks, then he’d suit me well enough. Fine looking animal, no question about it.’

  ‘Forty pounds you’ll pay me, Captain Nicholls, like you promised yesterday?’ Albert’s father said in a voice that was unnaturally low, almost as if he did not want to be heard by anyone else. ‘I can’t let him go for a penny less. Man’s got to live.’

  ‘That’s what I promised you last evening, farmer,’ Captain Nicholls said, opening my mouth and examining my teeth. ‘He’s a fine young horse, strong neck, sloping shoulder, straight fetlocks. Done much work has he? Hunted him out yet, have you?’

  ‘My son rides him out every day,’ said Albert’s father. ‘Goes like a racer, jumps like a hunter he tells me.’

  ‘Well,’ said the officer, ‘as long as our vet passes him as fit and sound in wind and limb, you’ll have your forty pounds, as we agreed.’

  ‘I can’t be long, sir,’ Albert’s father said, glancing back over his shoulder. ‘I have to get back. I have my work to see to.’

  ‘Well, we’re busy recruiting in the village as well as buying,’ said the officer. ‘But we’ll be as quick as we can for you. True, there’s a lot more good men volunteers than there are good horses in these parts, and the vet doesn’t have to examine the men, does he? You wait here, I’ll only be a few minutes.’

  Captain Nicholls led me away through the archway opposite the public house and into a large garden beyond where there were men in white coats and a uniformed clerk sitting down at a table taking notes. I thought I heard old Zoey calling after me, so I shouted back to reassure her for I felt no fear at this moment. I was too interested in what was going on around me. The officer talked to me gently as we walked away, so I went along almost eagerly. The vet, a small, bustling man with a bushy black moustache, prodded me all over, lifted each of my feet to examine them – which I objected to – and then peered into my eyes and my mouth, sniffing at my breath. Then I was trotted round and round the garden before he pronounced me a perfect specimen. ‘Sound as a bell. Fit for anything, cavalry or artillery,’ were the words he used. ‘No splints, no curbs, good feet and teeth. Buy him, Captain,’ he said. ‘He’s a good one.’

  I was led back to Albert’s father who took the offered notes from Captain Nicholls, stuffing them quickly into his trouser pocket. ‘You’ll look after him, sir?’ he said. ‘You’ll see he comes to no harm? My son’s very fond of him you see.’ He reached out and brushed my nose with his hand. There were tears filling his eyes. At that moment he became almost a likeable man for me. ‘You’ll be all right, old son,’ he whispered to me. ‘You won’t understand and neither will Albert, but unless I sell you I can’t keep up with the mortgage and we’ll lose the farm. I’ve treated you bad – I’ve treated everyone bad. I know it and I’m sorry for it.’ And he walked away from me leading Zoey behind him. His head was lowered and he looked suddenly a shrunken man.

  It was then that I fully realised I was being abandoned and I began to neigh, a high-pitched cry of pain and anxiety that shrieked out through the village. Even old Zoey, obedient and placid as she always was, stopped and would not be moved on no matter how hard Albert’s father pulled her. She turned, tossed up her head and shouted her farewell. But her cries became weaker and she was finally dragged away and out of my sight. Kind hands tried to contain me and to console me, but I was unconsolable.

  I had just about given up all hope, when I saw my Albert running up towards me through the crowd, his face red with exertion. The band had stopped playing and the entire village looked on as he came up to me and put his arms around my neck.

  ‘He’s sold him, hasn’t he?’ he said quietly, looking up at Captain Nicholls who was holding me. ‘Joey is my horse. He’s my horse and he always will be, no matter who buys him. I can’t stop my father from selling him, but if Joey goes with you, I go. I want to join up and stay with him.’

  ‘You’ve the right spirit for a soldier, young man,’ said the officer, taking off his peaked cap and wiping his brow with the back of his hand. He had black curly hair and a kind, open look on his face. ‘You’ve the spirit but y
ou haven’t the years. You’re too young and you know it. Seventeen’s the youngest we take. Come back in a year or so and then we’ll see.’

  ‘I look seventeen,’ Albert said, almost pleading. ‘I’m bigger than most seventeen year olds.’ But even as he spoke he could see he was getting nowhere. ‘You won’t take me then, sir? Not even as a stable boy? I’ll do anything, anything.’

  ‘What’s your name, young man?’ Captain Nicholls asked.

  ‘Narracott, sir. Albert Narracott.’

  ‘Well, Mr Narracott. I’m sorry I can’t help you.’ The officer shook his head and replaced his cap. ‘I’m sorry, young man, regulations. But don’t you worry about your Joey. I shall take good care of him until you’re ready to join us. You’ve done a fine job on him. You should be proud of him – he’s a fine, fine horse, but your father needed the money for the farm, and a farm won’t run without money. You must know that. I like your spirit, so when you’re old enough you must come and join the Yeomanry. We shall need men like you, and it will be a long war I fear, longer than people think. Mention my name. I’m Captain Nicholls, and I’d be proud to have you with us.’

 
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