Horsetales

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/January, 1912

THE race of horses looked down, from a high peak, into two deep valleys at this last and greatest of Madison Square Garden horse shows. Down the slope of one valley stretched the generations dead and gone—generations leading back, by a hundred conquered blemishes and faults, to the barbarous Adam of the species, the forgotten stammvater of horses, with his three toes, his vulgar gait and his black innocence of currycombs. And down the slope of the other valley stretched the generations to come—perhaps distressingly few, certainly not many —with the ultimate, residual horse at the bottom, mounted absurdly upon his museum wires and gas pipes, his glass eyes pathetic and immovable, his atrophied muscles represented by laths and plaster, his hold filled with the awful garbage of upholstery. On the peak the horse of today—a perfect but a transitory animal—the tragedian of the brute creation—his doom sounded at the very moment of his supreme triumph.

How long will the horse last? Not long, you may be sure. How long did the falcon last after the blunderbuss set up shop in Falcon Street? Perhaps a century; perhaps less. We may well imagine some ancient falconer or other clinging sentimentally to the bird amid all the new barking of the guns. We may imagine him transmitting his hunkerous fanaticism to one of his sons and that son handing it on to his son. But here imagination halts. Soon there came a time of few falcons, and then a time of an odd and rare falcon here and there, a relic out of forgotten days, gaped at by the curious—and then, finally, a day of no falcons at all. Today, if you would learn about falcons, you must go to books. The bird itself is no more. Nor the wolf hound, save as a lonesome and archaic marvel, wifeless and sonless; nor the lion dog of the Babylonian kings; nor the staghound of the German barons; nor, for that matter, the spotted coach dog of day before yesterday.

But with the past and future of the horse let us have done. He enjoys today his regal present—a present of exquisite perfection—the last glorious statement of the horse theme before the coda begins. Never in all the world has any other animal climbed such giddy peaks of fitness, of efficiency, of razor-edged fineness—certainly not man! If anything was plain at the Garden, that thing was plain.

Came, for example, a superb pair in tandem. Real horses, or romantic dream visions of horses, the ideal become miraculously real? Here was the horse triumphant and impeccable. In gait, in temper, in line, in color, in the very sheen of their backs, these horses were perfect horses. They met the conditions of life in their world, the demands made upon them by that fate which weighs horses, not approximately, as we men do, but precisely, exactly.

The roving eye wandered to the boxes. Here, also, were creatures bred deliberately to a spectacular business—the business, to wit, of being beautiful, of filling the world with exquisite color and form. Let us not lie about them: a few were really beautiful—approximately, in spots! This one had an ear like a seashell—and a nose like a clam set on end! This one had eyes like violets—and hair like wire! What was that one doing with a wrist like a longshoreman’s? What need had the one behind her for two chins—or was it three? And the one beyond, the one in purple silk, with her daughter beside her in pink —why the mustache, why that startling suggestion of goatee? Beauties, perhaps, regnant or retired—but imperfect beauties. A palpable falling short of the ideal.

Well, well, all in due season. We humans have tackled the horse first, and left our own race for a less busy day. We have produced, by our arts, a troop of highly differentiated and exquisitely perfect horses—horses which bring to some narrow specialty of the horse business—jumping or high stepping or mere standing still —a marvelous efficiency. The thing can go no further, and therefore, perhaps, it is well that it should cease. Let gasoline do its worst! We have shown what we ourselves can do. We have made the horse a god, not only in mere credit, but also in actual quality. We have done a thousand times better than nature herself has ever done. Not even the protozoon in the sea ooze shows a more accurate adaptation of means to end, of form and habit to destiny. And now, having done all this with the horse, and the day for doing it being done, we may turn, perhaps, to other and even more astounding feats. The horseless future will not be without its own marvels. Casting their shadows before them—still mere rumors, but to be hoped for and expected —are the perfect beauty, the honest politician, the Christian Christian, the actor who can act, the bartender who remembers, the barber who really knows how to shave.

Meanwhile the horse prepares for his doom. Time was when the idea of utility was insistent in the Garden show, but that time is no more. In the lingering twilight of the horse, his old, purely motor function disappears. The tandem high stepper, after all, is a visible symbol of equigenic virtuosity—a purely theoretical, bravura horse—sublime on the tanbark, but already half absurd on the asphalt. No sane man of today, desiring to proceed through space from A to B, would think of making the journey in a crazy cart, driving tandem. Men still do it, of course —but only enthusiasts, idealists, artists in locomotion, with the artist’s inevitable touch of madness in them. The entirely sane man goes by motor car, or, failing that, by trolley or airship. And so the horse bred for tandem is a horse bred for Nirvana. Brought at last to perfection, he is now ready for the ultimate glory and dignity of nothingness.

The way lies open before him. His brothers of yesterday have marked it out. If the carriage horse survives at all, in any of his once numerous species, it is as a lingerer after the curtain’s fall. The landau grows as rare on our streets as the hansom, and both races of propulsive cobs, the aristocrat and the plebeian, vanish into the mists. The hunting horse follows after them. The world grows too small for such a creature of the open. Bricks and mortar have ex terminated the fox; in his present in carnation he is a bag of anise. The hunter chasing that fraudulent fox may be fraudulent himself tomorrow—a forty horsepower hunting runabout, with tires resistant to stubble and a steel kangaroo’s tail to help it over bars.

Such the vision; there remains the actual picture —the horse show in full blast, the boxes gay with dye stuffs, the band playing, the redcoats throwing open the gates, horses prancing into the ring. The wits have it that the horses are really spectators :that the big show is actually in the boxes. Don’t believe it! The crowd, of course, may gape at a duchess, or at some vast wife of a billionaire, her sleek facade a waterfall of jewels—but not when the jumpers take the hurdles, not even when the saddle mares do their pretty round! The horse is the big show: the stray duchess is only the side show. Perfection is not so common in the world that it can be put aside so lightly. There is tension in the air, a smell of drama. It is not only that a combat is going on, but that a great endeavor, stretching over long years, heavy with its disappointments, its false starts, its patient strivings, is coming at last to glorious fruit. The lights are on the horse.

His last day? No doubt. But also his greatest day!

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?view=plaintext;size=100;id=njp.32101076380466;page=root;seq=19;num=iii)

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