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That same fair summer's day, Sham was lying in his stall at the Red Lion. He no longer needed to be shackled. No one feared him anymore. He was too weak to kick and charge.
For weeks he had lived in a kind of daze, willing to lie on his bed of straw and let the world go on about him. Over the half door of his stall he could hear the rattle of pewter cups in the inn and listen to the comings and goings of horses and journeymen. He caught the mingled smell of dust and sweat when the horses came in. He caught the rain smells and heard the first drops beat out a mournful medley on the roof over his head. He snuffed the winds. But he was no longer a part of the smells and the sounds.
Mister Williams shook his head sadly every time he passed Sham's stall. "That there 'orse, 'e's got a gnawin' pull inside 'im. 'E's missin' that boy."
On this summer's afternoon the sound made by Mistress Williams banging her pots and pans was suddenly muffled by the thunder of hooves and the rumble of wheels.
Lying half-awake, half-asleep, Sham heard the other horses in their stalls neigh a greeting to the newcomers. He heard the high, scrabbling voice of Mistress Williams. Then a silence broken by many footsteps and the low laughter of a gentle woman.
The next thing he knew the door of his stall was thrown open, a feather-light creature was by his side, and a boy's slim brown fingers were stroking his neck.
Sham touched Agba's cheek with his feelers, as if to make sure of him. Then an excited whicker escaped him. He lipped the boy. He swiped his cheek with a great pink tongue. He tasted the warm, salty tears. Then he neighed his happiness to the whole wide world.
Thrusting his forefeet in front of him, he struggled to his feet. Lying down was no way to greet friends! He shuddered the straw from his coat as if to apologize for his lack of grooming.
A change came over him. He snorted at the half-circle of people about him, at the handsome gentleman in wine-colored velvet, at the lady in silk and gold lace, at the innkeeper and his wife standing at a respectful distance.
His eyes came back to Agba. "Let us be off!" he seemed to say. "Somewhere. Anywhere!"
The Earl of Godolphin laughed in agreement. Then he exchanged a few quiet words with Mister Williams and the arrangements to buy Sham were quickly made. In no time at all Agba and Grimalkin were mounted on Sham, while a gathering of all the chance droppers-in at the Red Lion gawped curiously at the coach-and-six, and at the hooded boy and the tiger cat who sat a well-mannered bay horse.
Mister Williams' eyebrows were traveling up and down at a great rate. "Split my windpipe!" he said to a journeyman who had once been tossed off by Sham, "it hain't the same beast, I tell ye! 'E hain't stubborn nor vicious at all. 'E and the boy are all of one color, and all of one mind. They can't wait to go! D'you know," he exclaimed, slapping the man on the back, "that 'orse-'e's got brains!"
The Earl leaned his head out of the coach window. "We will lead the way up to Gog Magog," he called to Agba. "Our pace will be slow to accommodate the weakened condition of your mount." And he smiled a little smile of encouragement.
If the road to the hills of Gog Magog had been the road to the garden of heaven, the three silent creatures could not have been happier. It seemed as if the green meadows and the woodlands and clear streams had been created for them alone. The sun warmed their backs. The wind blew for their pleasure. They sucked it deep into their lungs. It washed them free.
Agba was almost sorry when the driver of the coach pulled to a stop before a gate surmounted by the crest of a dolphin. He wished the ride could go on forever.
The Duchess, however, seemed glad the journey was over.
"I declare, my lad," she sighed, leaning her head wearily against the gilded frame of the coach window, " you and your mount and your kitling appear fresher than when you started."
Now the gate was opened by two men in livery, and the coach-and-six led the way over a bridge and up a gentle hill between yews and hawthorn trees to the stables of the Earl of Godolphin.
Agba could not believe his eyes. It was the stable, not the house, that crowned the hill, and there was a stream encircling the hill where mares and their foals were drinking. He jumped to his bare feet. The turf was soft and springy. The green grass tickled up between his toes. He touched Sham's white spot with his toe. The white spot! The white spot! Here, at last, Sham could fulfill the promise it held.
Grimalkin, who had settled into the saddle in great dignity, now cuffed Agba with his paw, as much as to say, " Mind your manners, the Earl is headed this way."
Agba stood at attention, but he could not keep his shining eyes from gathering in the whole scene: the long range of box stalls opened to the south sun, the shady paddock, the park for a training ground. Why, there were no walls anywhere! Only green hedges afar off, where the meadows came to an end. And rows of elm trees brushing the clouds. And willows trailing their fingers in the stream.
An exercise boy came into the yard with a string of running horses. Their haunches gleamed in the sun.
Agba drew a quick breath. Soon Sham's coat would be sleek and shining, too. Soon Sham would be the wind beneath the sun. Soon he would be showing his gratitude to the Earl -- winning races, bringing honor to Gog Magog.
Agba's thoughts were cut short. A spidery man with a waggish air about him was presenting himself to the Earl of Godolphin.
"A very g-g-good morning, your lordship," he stuttered. And as he bowed he took an appraising look at the underfed horse, the strangely dressed boy, and the tiger cat sitting the horse with a superior grin.
The Earl of Godolphin followed his glance.
"Twickerham," he said, " I have brought you a new horse-boy, and this is his little bay stallion. Ill luck has dogged their footsteps. They have traveled a hard road and a long one. From henceforward they will be in your charge."
For only an instant a cloud darkened the groom's face. "Very g-good, your lordship," he said.
The Earl dismissed the coach and turned to Agba. "I once read a novel laid in Morocco," he said. "The characters had curious names, curious to me, of course. There was El Hayanie and Hamed 0 Bryhim and one was Agba. Since I have to call you by some name I shall choose the shortest one: Agba. I desire you to give me your opinion of this name by the strength of your handclasp."
With his head groom standing by in open-mouthed amazement, the Earl of Godolphin, son of the Lord Treasurer of England, held out his hand to Agba. The small brown hand and the long-fingered white one met, and there was such a wringing clasp between them that the Earl's face broke into a great smile. Agba smiled, too. If only the Earl knew! He had chosen the name that was already the boy's own.
"Agba," he said, "you will be in the care of my head groom, Mister Titus Twickerham. He is breeder and trainer for the Gog Magog stables. I hope and pray that you will be happy."
Agba bowed first to the Earl and then to the groom, blinking hard to keep away the tears of happiness.
The Earl of Godolphin now cleared his throat and fingered his neck cloth a trifle uneasily. "Twickerham," he hesitated, "what think you of the merits of the stallion?"
The groom searched the Earl's face, trying to read his feelings there. Seeing only an open countenance, he rocked back and forth on his heels in importance. Then he approached Sham's head. Instantly Sham nosed the sky. Mister Twickerham reached for the bridle. He tried to force Sham's head down, but it was only with Agba's help that he could look into the horse's mouth. He tried to lift a hoof, but Sham's legs were pillars driven into the earth. Yet with only a feather touch, Agba lifted a foot as easily as if it were Grimalkin's paw.
Red of face, Titus Twickerham stepped back. He measured the horse with his eyes. From withers to hoof. From withers to tail. Again and again he measured. He noted the scars on the horse's knees. Then he pursed his lips.
"Your I-lordship," he began, "this-here beast would be the laughing stock at the race-c-c-course. He's not lusty enough to endure the distances. With the b-best care in the kingdom he'd still be a broken-kneed cob. And!" here Mister Twickerham pointed a thin forefinger, while his face gave out the faintest suggestion of a sneer, "If your lordship will k-kindly note the height of the crest, he will see 'tis almost a deformity.
"To my mind," he concluded, enjoying the importance of the moment, "this ain't a running horse, and d-d-don't let nobody tell your lordship that he'd make a good sire, either. Colts with him for a father would be violent tempered and weedy as c-c-cattails."
The Earl of Godolphin did not change expression. For long seconds he stood perfectly still. "If this be true," he said at last, "feed him until he loses his gaunt look. Then we'll see what's to be done with him. Perhaps he can work the machine that pumps water into the fish pond."
Agba looked at the Earl aghast. Was Sham, the pride of the Sultan's royal stables, never to have a chance to prove himself? Was he always to be a work horse?