Read A Horse Called Hero Online
Authors: Sam Angus
Samuel tested the door again.
‘They’re strong,’ he said, ‘strong enough to break through that.’
‘Aye,’ said Ned. ‘Keep the yard gate shut too. That way, if they get out o’ the shippon, you’ll keep ’em in the yard.’
It was heavy work dragging hay over to the ponies and shovelling snow to keep the way clear but the beech tunnel kept off the worst of the snow and made it easier to reach the shippon.
School remained closed. On the third day a stinging wind got up, whipping up the snow and rearranging it, building it up to the eaves of Lilycombe. Branches bent and broke,
snapping like gunshot. Snowdrifts, eight foot high, rose over the gates and filled every hollow. You could walk over the hedges not knowing they were there.
In bed, hearing the roof creak under its burden of snow, Wolfie thought of Hero in the shippon and was happy to think he was there with the ponies, warm and safe.
The first drops of rain fell on the fourth night, an eerie drip, drip, drip, splattering and dimpling the snow. By morning it was swingeing and black.
There was a letter downstairs, from Pa, the first delivery since the snow had blocked the lanes. Something called a ‘Commission of Inquiry’ was being opened by the Warwicks. Things
were going Pa’s way, the newspapers busy uncovering evidence bit by bit of what had happened at Wormhout.
Pa no longer added special notes for Wolfie. Dodo had written to him about Scout and probably because of that Pa no longer mentioned horses.
There was another letter, this one from Spud, on paper headed ‘26th (London) Anti-Aircraft Brigade’. Wolfie padded around the kitchen, jam on his cheeks, a slice of bread in his
hands, as Dodo read.
A Doodlebug – a flying bomb – had hit Number 25 Addison Avenue. It must have been a while ago because Dora was growing beans where it used to stand. Everything had gone, even the
joists of it had been taken for firewood. Spud hadn’t been able to save anything, but she’d found, in the front garden, a shortbread tin with Wolfie’s cavalry inside. She said
that the Doodlebugs looked like comets with trailing fire, that the roar and the rush of them could lift even her off her feet, and that she’d always known that the Captain could never have
done what they’d said he’d done.
Wolfie, after nearly five years in North Devon, could barely remember Number 25 Addison Avenue.
The rain continued all morning, driving and relentless, washing away the white curves.
The door opened and Hettie stood there, white faced, her tweed cape sodden.
‘Hurry, help me. They’re not there. Gone, all of them – Hero, the ponies . . .’
Wolfie held two fists to his mouth as though to stifle a scream. Dodo, deathly pale, walked like one already dead, towards the door.
The lane was running with water, the trees black and dripping. Pennywater howled down the little valley. The string to the shippon gate was gone, the bolt undone. The yard, a
foot or so under water, was awash with mud, broken twigs and sodden leaves. The two gates on the drang, the sodden wood of them, already corrupt, was breached in the middle. Numb with grief and
fear, they gazed at the splintered wood, gazed questioning into each other’s faces.
‘The rain – there’s no way of telling what happened . . .’ whispered Hettie.
They walked up beech tunnel and out on to the track that led up to the moor. The bushes there were trampled, impossible to tell now by what or by whom, but each sensed uneasily that there was or
that there had been someone here. At the top, the gate to the moor was open, tied back in a secure and tidy knot.
‘That was no pony,’ said Hettie, weighing the knot in her hand.
‘Even Hero couldn’t do that,’ said Dodo.
Hour after hour, they searched on foot, the hills and the valleys, numb with grief and fear, hoarse with calling out across the black and sodden grass. To each other they said
nothing, each haunted by the spectre of dark, crowded cattle trucks, the thought of what might have, must have, happened, too terrible to voice.
In the afternoon, Samuel joined them. Until it grew dark they searched. When they turned for home there was no Wolfie.
Samuel found him at dawn, shivering in the hollow of a gorse bush, and carried him back. He’d fallen from exhaustion, limp and broken hearted.
Never break faith with a horse, Wolfie
Day after day Wolfie sat at the window, a lanky, thirteen-year-old boy, holding the small lead figure he’d treasured since the day his Father had gone to France to fight for his country a
second time. The flesh and blood horse that was the embodiment of his own deepest dream was gone.
Hettie never mentioned the ponies again.
On the ninth of the next month, the wireless announced the bombing of Tokyo, a hundred thousand people killed. Hettie collected her coat from the hall and left the house, not
coming back till nightfall.
By May war in Europe was over, Hitler dead, but Pa remained in prison. Wolfie watched as Hettie dragged two huge old flags from the attic, last used for the Coronation, she thought. Dodo helped
drape them from the first-floor windows.
The newspapers alleged, out of the blue, that an SS officer named Mohnke had committed a terrible massacre at Wormhout. Weeks later they said that a man named Otto Senf was responsible for
ordering the massacre. Nothing could be proven because Senf could not be found. Once again Pa was in the papers, this time in connection with his statement. The papers whipped up a frenzy of anger
and horror over the actions of the SS at Wormhout and a storm of indignation at the treatment meted out by the army to Pa.
In July, around a conference table in Potsdam, plans for the prompt and utter destruction of Japan were made. Hettie said she was glad her father could not hear such things.
That month they learned that Hettie was to lose her home, that in September a new rector would take the living. Numb at so much grief, all heaped together, Dodo thought only of Hettie when she
asked, ‘Where will you go?’
Bravely Hettie told her that she’d go to her cousins in County Durham, that her uncle had always promised her a post at the village school there, that Dodo and Wolfie must come with her.
She’d organized a post for Dodo as art tutor to her young cousins and Wolfie would attend her new school.
Wolfie, staring out at the empty box in the yard, did not look up.
Hettie and Dodo watched the haunted boy, their own eyes haunted by his grief. For Wolfie, as time went on, the loss had become harder to bear, the pain of it unassuageable. First, unbelieving,
he’d searched all day, day after day, for the tall grey horse. As it grew certain that Hero, that the ponies, had gone, and gone forever, he was inconsolable. When once he’d begun to
talk about Hero, about the ponies, about what might have happened to them all, he’d vomited with the horror of it. Now he never spoke of Hero, rarely spoke at all.
He’d broken faith with Hero. Hero had trusted Wolfie to look after him and Wolfie had failed.
He must know you’ll never let him down. Never, never break trust with a horse
Wolfie told Dodo later that he’d never leave Lilycombe, that he couldn’t go till he knew what had happened to Hero.
‘We’ve no choice, Wolfie,’ Dodo told him.
Lilycombe was never the same to them again. When Hero went, when the ponies went, they’d taken the spirit of the place with them, torn Lilycombe up by its roots. Wolfie’s heart had
been ripped out of him, his dream stolen, washed downriver with the rain.
Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows . . . Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle.
Robert F. Kennedy, 1966
Wolfie waited at a crossing, as one coal wagon passed, then another. Two men stood outside the pub, cloth caps low over their heads, mufflers on their hands, faces dusted with
fine black dust. Wolfie crossed and ran along the far side of the street to Wynyard.
He waited by the stately iron gates. Beyond the gates lay the stern gravel walk, the vast house, the gentle hills and mountains. Behind him stood a single row of houses in an importunate line,
then the mining village, beyond that the tall chimneys and dark smoke. Below the mine lay the cliffs and harbour. Behind Wolfie, two women stood, waiting, on their doorsteps, their faces drawn and
tight, anxious for their men’s payday homecoming. Rationing had taken an iron hold of the country, stronger than it had ever been during the war.
As Wolfie waited for Dodo, he fingered the letter in his pocket, finally taking it out and rereading it.
15 May 1946
So many birthdays have passed since I last saw you, so many years I can never make up to you. The small boy I once knew is now a young man. Fourteen years old, Wolfie. You are now so used to jogging along
without a father that you’ll have no need of me when I get out. I don’t mind my sentence on any account other than the waste of the years I could have spent with you. I have to
guess what you have both become. At times I could tear the prison bars apart with my bare hands to be with you.
I count the days to the end of my sentence when I will see you both.
I try to imagine from your letters with what you fill your days. Dodo is a better letter writer now than you are. I miss your letters, Wolfgang, they were meat and
bread to me. There’s nothing I can ever give you that will make up for Hero, and certainly nothing I can send you from this place. The only offering I have is to say that my case will be
appealed. I hope to be released early and for the shadow over my name, over your name too, to go. Vickers is of course released now, and both he and Box have made statements on my behalf,
we’ve enough evidence for the appeal. The Warwicks too, are collecting proof of the massacres. Unfortunately Mohnke is missing somewhere in the Balkans and Otto Senf is in hospital with
tuberculosis, too ill to speak but since the SS make a vow of silence, a vow never to betray each other, I doubt he’d ever speak. Only when the bodies of my men are found will my
statement finally be proved.
Dodo says that you help with the horses after school. I know you find some comfort there. The presence of a horse is soothing and healing.
I can’t be at your side, but I am always, always, in my heart, with you.
‘What’ll you do, Miss Revel, won’t you come to tea with Father too?’
Dodo smiled and shook her head as she untied Cecily’s art smock, adjusted Meriel’s ribbons and kissed the top of their candyfloss heads. ‘It’s Wolfie’s
birthday,’ she answered, replacing their palettes on the trolley, wheeling their easels to the side of the gallery. ‘Your father said I might take him to the stables tomorrow. Will it
make him sadder or will it make him happier, do you think?’ She smiled. ‘Hurry. Your father doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
The girls skipped down the gallery, ribboning like butterflies in and out of the marble statuary. Dodo untied her own apron and regarded, with a critical eye, the work of her charges. She sighed
a slow sigh and turned to their subject, a bird of prey carved from marble. Guarded and wary, it gazed, stonily, back at her, all claw and beak, talons clenching its veined perch as though to
pierce blood from the marble of it.
Dodo picked up a brush and corrected the claws, her hand moving confidently over Meriel’s more hesitant marks. Glimpsing the time, she put down her brush and ran to the door. She walked
down the corridor, breaking into a tiptoe run where there was carpet, thinking, as she always did, that it took longer to get from one end of this house to the other than it did to cross the
At the gate she hugged Wolfie, feeling in his rigid arms, the numbness in the centre of him.
‘We’ll soon be home, Wolfie, we’ll all be together.’
‘I know . . .’
Dodo took the letter Wolfie handed her. She read it and looked up and saw the longing in his haunted eyes. Her heart twisted with pain. How large Hero was still in Wolfie’s heart, how very
much he’d meant. Hettie said that he cried out in his sleep, that he screamed of trains, whiplashes, the press and crush of horseflesh in dark wagons. She said he’d asked once, when
she’d woken him, if they’d been given water on their journey, if you gave water to a horse that would be butchered. Later she’d come to his room again to stop his screams and
he’d asked how the thing had been done. With a gun? With a knife?
Hettie had answered Wolfie that the police statement had read: ‘
Stolen. Loaded at Dulverton. Transported by train
.’ That was all they’d ever know.
There was nothing Hettie or Dodo could give Wolfie, the darkness in him so heavy, so solid.
Dodo was taking his hand. Wolfie shook himself with an effort to be cheerful for Dodo, who was being cheerful for him. Together, brother and sister walked the short distance to the modest
terraced house that Wolfie and Hettie shared, the house that came with Hettie’s post as assistant head to the village school.
Hettie was waiting in the kitchen. She hugged Wolfie. An iced cake stood on the table. Dodo put the kettle on the range. Captain, the small lead horse, stood in the window just
behind the kettle. Dodo picked him up and held him, remembering Wolfie once, so small then, and so fierce. ‘
He will be brave and he will have a silver tip to his tail
he’d said as he’d lined up his cavalry on the table at Addison Avenue.
‘And how is life at the Park? Does their drawing improve?’ Hettie asked Dodo, who laughed by way of answer. Hettie joined them at the table and said, ‘Your pa’s on a
crusade – you know, for the miners – even now, even in prison, . . . he seems to be drawn to difficult causes.’
‘Sometimes I think he writes more to you than he does to us,’ said Dodo, smiling.