YES, MY SWEET SIEBELE, YOU are very brave . . . very brave. And it wasn’t so bad after all, was it? . . . There . . . good Siebele . . . brave . . . brave.”
The milk-white mare listened attentively, her small delicate ears pointed. Her dark Juno-eyes watched the face of the stableboy as if she understood every word. Her name really was Sibyl; it was very distinctly lettered on the outside of her stall. But the youth entrusted with her care had called her “Siebele” from the very first. He could not do otherwise. If he tried to pronounce the name correctly before a superior, his tongue was sure to stumble over the hurdle of the foreign y and grow rigid due to his unconscious awe of the aristocratic sounding word, “Sibyl.”
“He is beautiful, your little son. . . . You don’t know yet how beautiful, Siebele,” he murmured. “A true prince . . . as it had to be.”
The mare shuddered a little, bowed her head and wiggled her ears. She sensed the kindness in the human voice, sensed that she was being praised, and was pleased.
Only three short hours ago Sibyl had given birth to the colt, the young man attending her. There had been no need of outside help, for all had gone quickly and smoothly. Now the tiny foal lay quivering in the warm straw at the feet of the mother, looking rather helpless. But the lad, glad that the difficult hour had passed so easily, was thrilled by the sight of the pitiful little creature. For three years he had watched over Sibyl. He had grown inseparable from the high-born mare. Every now and then he talked to her as he was doing now. His hand caressed her gracefully curved neck and bathed in the living warmth of her skin which gleamed and felt like silk. His knobby peasant brow pressed against her smooth forehead. And thus standing awhile, Sibyl contentedly permitted his hand to roam along her mane from poll to withers.
“You were fine, Siebele . . . you were brave. Brave Siebele . . . good Siebele.”
Sibyl recovered from her first exhaustion rapidly. She knew her child needed rest; and she herself, under the spell of the soothing words, the quieting pressure of the friendly hand, the man’s familiar scent, began to feel a comfortable drowsiness creep over her.
The morning sun shimmered in the stable. All the other stalls were empty, their occupants already out browsing and gamboling over the meadows of Lipizza.
“Well, Anton!” a voice sounded from the door.
The youth came to attention. “Herr Rittmeister!”
The officer approached. “Is it true, then?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Anton replied, “a healthy colt.”
Captain von Neustift hurried toward the stall. “By jove,” he said laughingly as he bent over, “excellent!” He rubbed his hands together. “Excellent. And what a handsome little fellow.”
He attempted to enter the box but Anton stepped in his way. “Please, Herr Rittmeister, not yet . . . Siebele will get restless.”
“When did it happen?” the captain wanted to know.
“At two this morning.”
“And nobody present?”
“With your permission, Herr Rittmeister, nobody but me.”
“But you should have called the stud-master. Didn’t you know that?”
“Yes, Herr Rittmeister.” Anton smiled proudly. “But everything went so well. . . . So what for? Let the officers sleep. An hour ago I sent Franz over to fetch the stud-master and the doctor. They haven’t come yet.”
Sibyl turned her head and fixed her large dark eyes on the two men trustingly. Instantly Anton was at her side. “It’s all right, Siebele,” he soothed her. “Nobody is going to do anything to you. Nor to Florian. You’re both nice horses . . . very nice.”
His hand glided up along her shoulder and back, over the sleek and shining white pelt through which her skin shone pink. Every time he touched this big, pungent, powerful body he felt, in the thrill of the contact, an intoxicating affinity with its dormant strength, as if he shared it with the animal; and felt, too, indistinctly but none the less rapturously, all the enchantment of equine existence. He had known the joy of husbandry in the growth and flowering of the creature entrusted to his care, a joy that had to do with motherly feelings and the mysteries of creation. Anton knew nothing of all this, of course, nor did he attempt to know. He loved Sibyl, admired her. Yet he could not have explained this, even if someone had asked him. He rubbed his hand lightly against the damp velvet of Sibyl’s upper lip. “Herr Rittmeister . . . if you please . . . isn’t he pretty, our Florian?” And Anton pointed to the shivering foal in the straw.
Captain von Neustift grinned. “Yes . . . a fine little fellow. But—why on earth Florian?”
“I humbly report, Herr Rittmeister . . . today is the fourth of May. . . . And if you please . . . the fourth of May is the day of Saint Florian.”
“Oh, I see. . . . That’s why.”
“Yes, sir . . . that’s why.”
The broad, kind peasant face took on a trace of stubbornness.
“My dear Anton,” said the captain, and in his voice, despite its friendliness, still lay the vast gulf between the nobleman-officer and the humble stableboy, “my dear Anton, that won’t help you any. The stud-master doesn’t care a rap about your calendar saints.”
Anton grew rigid with fright.
“No,” von Neustift proceeded, “the stud-master will give him an entirely different name. I’m afraid you’ll be out of luck.”
“But his name’s got to be Florian!” Anton’s stubbornness showed in the growl of his voice, showed in the contraction of his brows over his light blue eyes. “He’s got to . . . if you please, sir,” he repeated. “Florian. . . . Nothing else.”
“You tell that to the stud-master.” Neustift smiled. “Go ahead, tell him . . . if you’ve got the courage.”
It was Anton’s turn to smile. “Not I, Herr Rittmeister,” he answered. “I haven’t got the courage.” He winked slyly at Neustift. “But somebody else is going to tell him. . . .”
The captain approached Sibyl who received him with a haughty upraised head. “Don’t be foolish, Anton. . . . I wouldn’t think of making any suggestions.”
“And why not?” Anton insisted.
“There, Sibyl,” Neustift whispered to the mare. “There, Sibyl, be nice. I simply want to congratulate you.” He ran his fingers through her mane, patted her neck in a comradely manner, stroked her broad beautiful breast. “Fine work, Sibyl. A male foal, fine work.”
“Why not?” Anton pressed.
Von Neustift turned around to him. They stood very close to each other. “Because it’s none of my business . . . don’t you understand, Anton?”
But Anton contradicted him. “It is your business . . . for sure . . . because . . . because . . .” he broke off, stammering.
“I am really curious to know why,” von Neustift rejoined, continuing to fondle Sibyl. He, too, could not resist touching the magnificent body.
“Because you are the first one to see Florian,” Anton explained. “Because you were the first one to come to Florian.” And so saying, he again put his hand on Sibyl, stroking her croup.
Here in the cramped quarters of the box, close to the upstanding mare, close to each other, enveloped in the pungent odor of horses which both the captain and the peasant loved—here the difference in the station of the two well-nigh disappeared. Neustift lost his masterful air, and Anton, as though sensing that, became bolder.
“Will you do me the favor, Herr Rittmeister?” he blurted out, and lowered his voice. “I would be so grateful to you . . . please say a good word for Florian. . . . It’s got to be his name, Herr Rittmeister. . . . I believe in signs . . . and so do you.”
“Oho!” Neustift laughed shortly.
Anton insisted: “Surely you believe in them. Aren’t you of the cavalry . . . a Dragoon? . . . as I was a Dragoon? He is born on Saint Florian’s day, and an officer of the Dragoons is the first one to visit him. . . . He’s got to be called Florian . . . otherwise it won’t turn out right for him . . . and it’s got to go right with him . . . it’s got to. . . . Just look at him!”
They both bent over the colt snuggling in the straw. Sibyl craned her neck, eying the two, and snorted briefly. Anton, finding her ram’s-nose and big dark eyes so close to him that her breath moistened his cheek, whispered: “Yes, yes, Siebele, your son is beautiful . . . you just be quiet, we won’t harm him.”
Sibyl nodded her proud head, as if to indicate her assent.
Both Neustift and Anton had bent their knees slightly like men who are about to sit down, and rested their hands on their thighs.
As often before, when spending his furlough at his small estate in southern Styria, Neustift had come to look over the nearby stud-farm in Lipizza.
He worshiped horses. The extraordinary care they received here gave him keen pleasure. And the picture the animals made on the vast open meadows or between the trees—tableaux in flux—thrilled him. The grace of their movements, the heroic gestures of their gallop, the carefreeness of their humor, the gentleness of their instincts rejuvenated his spirits.
Anton had been born to humble peasants in Styria. His father owned a horse and three cows; chickens and geese, too, and a meager parcel of land. Peasant children didn’t learn much in school: reading, writing, arithmetic, and of course, the catechism. Everything they knew—and that wasn’t as little as it might seem—life and labor taught them. And life, grim and hard and unrelenting, started early for the peasant. Even as a small boy of eight, Anton had been busy in the fields and in the stable. He made friends with the cows, staying up whole nights to help them when they calved, and they trusted and obeyed him. If a calf was sold away from its mother, or if, in the course of the years, one of the cows had to follow the butcher, Anton would stand at the fence of his father’s farm for an hour or two and stare into the blue sky, and afterward go back to his work quite resignedly . . . save that he didn’t sing on days like that. However, eventually he became scarcely conscious of the faint sadness which was sure to overcome him on those occasions. He accepted the natural course of events against which it was useless to struggle or rail or cry, and didn’t give in to sentimental notions; in fact, he never had any. He had loved the old worked-out jade, Hansl, a brown bony Wallachian beast, like a true friend, a fellow worker and a chum. Saddleless he had ridden Hansl, seated on the somewhat curved-in back, and intuitively at first, and more definitely later on, had learned to understand the breathing of the big steaming body between his legs, learned to read every movement of the horse’s neck and head and ears, learned to interpret every sign the animal gave him, no matter how imperceptible. At first he had held on to the shaggy mane, but he had soon learned to ride sitting upright. He had instinctively discovered how to guide the horse and change its pace by the pressure of his legs, by the knocking of his heels against its belly. And thus he had guided Hansl with neither reins nor bridle.
This came in handy as a subsidiary education when he went to serve his three obligatory years with the Dragoons. Not only did he know horses intimately; he belonged to them as completely as anybody belongs to his life’s work. He led an exemplary life; didn’t drink, didn’t run after girls too much, avoided quarrels, was even-tempered, cheerful and willing. While he was in the Army, his father, a widower, had married again; with Anton gone for at least three years the old man had been alone and in need of help, and a wife was cheaper in the long run than a farmhand or a servant girl. Anton did not particularly long for home. He owed to the commander of his regiment his job as a stable-hand on the stud-farm in Lipizza. “I doubt that you could find a better man in the entire Army,” the colonel had written to the head of Lipizza after Anton had served his time. “Corporal Anton Pointner is cracked about horses, and as honest and industrious a man as you can find.” The colonel’s praise had got Anton the job over many applicants.
He had come to Lipizza as fatedly as a pious soul finds its way into Heaven. He had already passed three years among the aristocratic animals, sharing their sylvan existence with all his heart, so that there was no room in it for anything else.
Neustift straightened out, smoothed the blouse of his uniform and smiled. “All right, Anton. The little one shall be called Florian.” He patted Sibyl’s neck. “Don’t say any more . . .” he added. “Of course the name does not fit the son of Berengar and Sibyl at all . . . but all right . . . say no more. I’ll do what I can.”
Anton was silent. Not even a “Thank you” escaped his lips. His face shining, he stood at attention, and raised his hand to his temple in salute. And this said all and more than he could have expressed in mere words.
From far away, wafting softly through the air and yet clearly audible, came the solemn strains of the national anthem. A military band was playing. “Gott erhalte, Gott beschütze. . . .”
Neustift stiffened. “That’s his Imperial Highness,” he said. “He is inspecting the troops.”
But Anton had eyes only for Florian. He thought: Just as they play the Emperor’s hymn the rascal lifts his head for the first time. . . . A good sign.
Florian had indeed raised his small fawn-like head, somewhat befuddled and still trembling. The thin neck shook, uncertain of this first movement. The long narrow face was piteously unfinished, and just because of that was as touching as the face of a baby. The eyes had as yet taken in too little light and were without luster. As they looked vacantly around, helpless surprise welled up in their dark pools, a surprise that quivered through the body which, recently flung from its accustomed warm dark home into the cool void of existence, was still shaken by the mystery of its transition.
Stretching her neck, Sibyl neighed melodiously, the sound mingling with the closing strains of the anthem.
“Signs . . .” Anton thought. But he remained silent.