The true story behind the famous poem by Robert Browning…
Good evening. My name is Guus. If I may, I will tell you an anecdote. I am an ancient and somewhat crumbling gent, and it might be thought that I would have a veritable storehouse of anecdotage to draw upon, but there is only one tale I am called upon to tell, so that is the one I shall repeat this evening. There has been the odd occasion in the past when I have had a bash at telling a different anecdote, but I get howled down and beseeched to tell, yet again, the one I shall tell you now. It is the story of how I brought the good news from Ghent to Aix, on horseback.
The horse upon whose back I brought the good news from Ghent to Aix was called Roland. Unlike me, he is long dead. He ended up, pitiably, in the knackers yard in the town of Knackers, which was not one of the towns between Ghent and Aix we sped through. Roland ended his days in Knackers because he died while I was upon another mission, one which nobody ever wants to hear about. If there were any demand for the anecdote, I would probably dub it “How I Brought The Faintly Dispiriting News From Ghent To Knackers”. Though it is unlikely that horses go to heaven, I did take the trouble to erect a little cross in memory of Roland at the roadside leading in to Knackers. Shortly thereafter I learned it had been uprooted and chopped up for firewood by cold peasants. Rule one : never trust a Knackers peasant.
But we must go back a few years, to when Roland was still hale and hearty, in a horse sense, and I was slumped in a tavern with my pals Joris and Dirck. You may wish to be given potted biographies of them both. Well, dream on!, as the young persons say. This is all about me, me and my horse Roland, the late lamented. Granted, both Joris and Dirck played their parts in bringing the good news from Ghent to Aix, parts I have always acknowledged. I have not tried to airbrush them from history, to make of them unpersons, as if I were Starling, or do I mean Stalin? At the same time, let us not pretend that the good news would have failed to reach Aix had Joris and Dirck not set out with me from Ghent. I would have made it to Aix in any case, mounted on Roland.
Roland, being a horse, was not with us in the tavern. He was tied up outside, feeding from a nosebag, alongside Dirck’s horse, which for some unfathomable reason he called Roos, and Joris’s, a roan to which he had not even bothered to give a name. Within, Dirck and Joris and I were glugging from tankards of foaming grog, in the throes of carousal. I cannot remember what we were carousing about, perhaps it was simply that we were Ghentpersons, or Ghentniks, having a lark.
Anyway, late in the evening an official from the post office came crashing through the door. He was sweaty and frantic.
“O calamity! and O disaster!” he cried, “The post office hot air balloon has suffered a puncture! How, now, shall I send the good news to Aix?”
“Leave it to me,” I said, resolute and determined and utterly fab, “My horse Roland is tied up outside feeding from a nosebag. I shall mount my steed and gallop like the wind.”
The post office person fell to his knees and kissed my boots in gratitude. I mussed his filthy hair, and then he ceased to grovel and whispered the good news into my ear. Meanwhile, Joris and Dirck were looking at one another, and at me, casting significant glances.
“You will need us as backup,” said Joris.
I did not think I did, but I could see no harm in allowing them to join me. If I left them behind they might plot against me, or at the very least spread unwelcome gossip.
And so we untied our horses and galloped off, at moonset. Roland, in a weird psychic presentiment of his future fate, headed in the direction of Knackers, but I yanked him round and, in mid-gallop, I turn’d in my saddle and made its girths tight. Then I shorten’d each stirrup, set the pique right, rebuckled the cheek-strap, and chain’d slacker the bit. If one is a skilled horseman, one can make such adjustments while galloping at great speed. Jealous of my expertise – insanely jealous, actually – both Dirck, on Roos, and Joris, on his nameless roan, tried to shorten and set and rebuckle and slacken. Had I been paying attention, I would have laughed at their cack-handed nincompoopery. As it was, they somehow managed to keep pace with me all night, as we passed through Lokeren, Boom, and Duffeld, then Mechelm and Aershot, where up leap’d of a sudden the sun. In the mist, I was amused to note that the cows all looked black, like silhouettes. I reminded myself to practise my cow shadow puppetry when I got back to Ghent. It is always a hit at children’s parties.
By the time we reached Hasselt, Dirck was no longer able to spur Roos on. I had never had much faith in a steed with such a foolish name, and it came as no surprise to me when I heard the quick wheeze of her chest, saw the stretch’d neck and staggering knees, and sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank, as down on her haunches she shudder’d and sank. As Joris and I sped on, I shouted back at Dirck, telling him to get a nosebag of hay for his horse and to take it to the Hasselt Horse Hospital, of which I had heard good report. This was a lie. I did not even know if there was a horse hospital in Hasselt. My fibs were meant, I think, for Roos rather than Dirck. When I can, I like to spout encouraging words to beasts of burden. It’s a Ghent thing.
Joris must have said something to his roan, because to my surprise it kept going, past Looz and Tongres. It was only when we got to Dalhem, with Aix in sight, that the horse suddenly keeled over, dead as a stone. Whether or not Dalhem had a horse hospital mattered not a jot. The roan was beyond all help and had passed into whatever realm horses pass into when they are no longer of this mortal world.
“At least give the damned horse a name before you bury it!”, I shouted at Joris, as Roland and I galloped ever onward. I never did find out if he named the horse, nor even if he had it buried. I never saw hide nor hair of Joris again. The last I heard of him, he was wandering the puddle-pitted streets of Dalhem, raving, and not in a good way. By all accounts it was madcap raving, the unbearable raving of the horseless. Such raving afflicted me, in Knackers, when Roland neighed his last. But that is another story, an anecdote nobody seems to want to hear.
Roland and I made it to Aix eventually, bringing the good news. No sooner had I imparted it to the burgesses, and poured a celebratory glass of wine down Roland’s throat, than up in the sky the post office hot air balloon, its puncture repaired, hove into view. Shortly afterwards, it bumped down to land in a cow-strewn field on the outskirts of Aix, and postie clambered out of the balloon basket and came running with a wax-sealed parchment, and I learned that I had misheard the whispered news from the post office person in the din of carousal in the tavern in Ghent. The news was not good after all. It was faintly dispiriting.