By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 12, 1936.
“If we are going abroad,” said Jimmie Frise, “we ought to get evening clothes.”
“Dress suits?” I asked.
“Tails,” said Jim. “And even a frock coat for afternoon occasions.”
“It’s all very well for people with long legs like you,” I protested. “But you can have no idea of the way we short people feel about things like that. Tails. And frock coats. I can wear a tuxedo without being mistaken for a waiter more than two or three times in an evening. But in tails, or even a frock coat, I always look as if I were standing in mud up to my knees.”
“You can get away with a tuxedo in Canada,” said Jim, “but not in England. Suppose we get invited to Buckingham Palace?”
“Jimmie,” I said, “I am sorry I cannot wear tails.”
“Then,” stated Jim, “your future is restricted to the semi-formal. You can never become really great or famous. You are doomed for life to the fringe of things. You are forever an almost.”
“Do you mean to say,” I demanded, “that no matter how great I may become, even if I went into politics and in time became prime minister, that my refusal to wear certain kinds of monkey clothes would handicap me?”
“All I say is,” said Jim, “that if we go to England and get invited around to meet really big people, you can’t go without tails.”
“What if I went in tweeds?” I insisted. “Suppose I acted the part of an eccentric genius. You know, landed at the function in baggy tweeds, and smoking a pipe?”
“The butler would not let you in,” said Jim. “If you were a famous labor leader or a world famous portrait painter or poet, maybe yes. Maybe the butler would have special instructions. But remember, we’re just a couple of guys from Canada.”
“Well, then,” I said bitterly, “I guess I won’t be going abroad. That’s all.”
“Ah,” smiled Jim, “leave the big social functions to me. You can have plenty of fun looking in the windows of shops on the Strand and that sort of thing. You can spend your evenings sitting in the back seats of galleries of theatres. You’ll have a swell time. I’ll attend to the social end. If anyone asks for you, I’ll say you are unfortunately indisposed.”
“Indisposed to make a monkey of myself,” I declared. “What’s more, there are plenty of things in England besides standing about in self-conscious attitudes in drawing rooms. Some of the greatest fly fishers in the world are in England and Scotland. Suppose I get invited to go fishing on the Test or the Itchen? Will I need monkey suits there? Not me. My good old Canadian tweeds are plenty good enough. I’ve got a fishing coat or two that will make even an English duke sit up.”
“There is one thing about it,” said Jim, “you can meet the most important people in England in lots of places besides full dress functions. The races for example.”
“I don’t care for races,” I reminded him.
“Or,” said Jim, “at the tennis matches at Wimbledon. You don’t need to dress up for that. In fact, from pictures I’ve seen of the swells in the English society magazines, you look exactly like them. Kind of moth-eaten, as if you had slept outside the free pass gate all night.”
“Funny,” I agreed, “how the English all look like tramps at four p.m. and by eight p.m. they all look like the nobility.”
“We’d Be in Like a Duck”
“Or polo,” said Jim suddenly, “Hurlingham and polo! We can pretend to be big polo enthusiasts. And if anybody in the middle classes over there wishes to entertain us and asks us how, we can say we are nuts about polo. And after five or six visits, to Ranelagh or some of the swell polo grounds, we are sure to meet the upper classes. The English aren’t hard to meet after five or six tries.”
“Polo,” I said, “Polo. That’s the game you play with mallets on horseback, banging a ball around.”
“Listen,” said Jim. “you’re an old mounted rifles officer. I’m an old artillery gunner. We both know horses. I wonder how long it would take us to learn the rudiments of polo?”
“Jimmie,” I warned.
“Listen,” cried Jim, standing up so as to think easier. “I’ve got an idea. There are several guys I know around Toronto who play polo, sort of Suppose we get a half dozen lessons in polo? Don’t you see? In England, if you play polo, you are in. Like a duck.”
“Jimmie,” I warned him again.
“Why, it’s a cinch,” shouted Jim. “All we have to do is buy a polo outfit, the white britches and shirts, the helmet, boots and so forth. Far cheaper than a dress suit. And when anybody wants to entertain us, all we have to do is say we’d like a spot of polo, see? A couple of chukkers.”
“Chukkers?” I asked.
“It’s a polo term,” said Jim. “Like a hole of golf. Or a set of tennis. Or a period in hockey. Why my dear boy, this is brain wave. You know as well as I do that the English are simply nutty about polo. It is played only by the cream de la cream. I’ll call you major. You’d look magnificent in a polo kit.”
“But my dear boy,” I pointed out, “we’d have to play. And that would be the end of it.”
“Now, now,” said Jim. “Polo, like everything else, consists mostly of standing about the clubhouse verandas and lawns. We can laughingly assure everybody that we are dreadful dubs. You know the way. Laughingly. And then if we are dubs we can the rules are different in the part of Canada we come from. Anyway, we can ride furiously around the field on borrowed ponies.”
“Ponies?” I said. “Ah, that’s different.”
“They call the horses ponies,” said Jim. They’re pretty nearly full-sized horses. But the main thing is in our polo outfits. We would meet everybody, lords, dukes, bishops and everything. We’d be in. Like a duck. They wouldn’t expect a couple of colonials like us to be able to play really. But they would admire in us the ambition, anyway. It’s a swell idea.”
“I don’t like it,” I demurred. “I’d rather stick to fishing or the Kensington Museum and the Tower of London, and so forth.”
“Just like any tourist,” sneered Jim. “I thought you were a man of ambition. Little did I think that a few imaginary social barriers would beat a man of your radical mind. How on earth did you ever get to be a major in the war?”
“By all the tall officers getting killed,” I explained.
“You can choose,” said Jim, “between evening dress with tails or polo kit. One or the other. Otherwise you can resign yourself to the high spot of your trip being the London Zoo.”
Two Gentlemen From Canada
So he kept at it. Each day he would renew the attack. He even arranged to borrow a couple of riding horses. He even got friend to lend us a field on his farm. So finally, I submitted.
“It won’t do any harm,” I agreed, “to try it out. You may be night. Maybe there is the makings of a real polo player in me. I have been looking over these English society magazines the last few days and I see a lot of small men in the polo teams. And middle-aged men like me too. Majory looking little men. Maybe I’ve got it in me.”
“My boy,” said Jim, “I knew you had it in you. Instead of this trip abroad being a case of a couple of tourists trying to keep track of their laundry, you may be the means of getting us into the finest society. By George, we might even get our pictures in the society magazines. Two gentlemen from Canada who have been performing well at Ranelagh this season. You know the sort of thing?”
“Smiling haughtily,” I agreed. “Holding our helmets in the crook of our arms, right leg bent with foot turned out.”
“Right,” cried Jim.
Whereupon we took the afternoon off and went up beyond Summit to the farm of one of Jimmie’s race track friends. We took with us our old army breeches and a polo shirt, they call it, borrowed from our children, and also those sun helmets they wear. Jim had arranged with an acquaintance who belongs to the Hunt Club to borrow a couple of polo sticks, but when he went to borrow them they were locked up. So Jim brought a couple of croquet mallets which, he said, would do as well for practice purposes. And on our arrival at the farm, the handyman led us to the stable where two large horses were stalled.
“I thought you said ponies,” I accused Jim.
“Make the best of it,” said Jim. “I’ll take the larger one.”
But they were both large horses, and after examining them carefully, I took the one with the kindest expression. The handyman saddled them up and shortened the stirrups to the last hole for me, and we mounted.
“Here’s your mallet,” said Jim, handing me up the pretty thing.
“I can’t touch the ground with it,” I showed him, “even when I hang right out of the saddle.”
“Wait until we get into the excitement of the game,” counselled Jim.
We joggled and bumped down the lane to the field where the handyman opened a gate. Jim gave me one end of the field and he took the other.
“We’ll start in the middle,” he said, “and whoever hits the other’s fence first, wins the chukker.”
Riding Off Your Opponent
He tossed a rubber ball to the ground.
“Shoot,” he said, and swinging low, hit the ball a bang towards my fence. I geed my horse and playfully it see-sawed after Jimmie, but Jim, with the greatest of ease, beat me to the ball and with about six bangs, sent the ball against my fence and so took the first chukker.
“Now” said Jim, “put a little more vim into it. Get after me. The big thing in polo is to ride your opponent of the ball. When you see me with the ball, ride at me, put the shoulder of your horse at me, and push me aside, so as to get a fair swing at the ball.”
“Wait,” I said, “until I get my sea legs on this horse. It’s too high. I ought to have a longer mallet.”
“Go on,” scorned Jim. “Lean down. You can hit a ball that size.”
“Toss it in,” I said, we having teetered back to midfield.
Jim tossed the ball and with a quick swoop, I landed a neat crack, sending the ball through my horse’s legs towards Jim’s fence. We swung the steeds and galloped neck and neck thirty feet after the ball. Jim getting there first and hitting the ball back, I got my horse turned and beat Jim to it, but he charged his horse at mine, and shouldered us aside, stealing the shot, and making a terrific slam that carried the ball bounding down again towards my fence.
I felt my horse stiffen under me at this attack. He snorted and pawed the sod like a bull for a moment before I could get him under way again. So that Jim beat me easily to the ball, and scored another goal. But my horse was going beautifully by the time I neared Jim, and as Jim swung down to poke the ball under the rail fence, where it had stuck, my horse, whirling on its feet as we drew alongside, turned and lashed out a beautiful kick, which caught Jim’s horse in the ribs.
“Hey,” yelled Jim, as he struggled to recover his balance. His horse curvetted and danced angrily.
“I didn’t do it,” I called to him. “My horse did.”
“Cut that stuff out,” cried Jim. “Keep your horse in hand.”
“How did I know what he was going to do?” I demanded. “You butted us. So I suppose he thinks this is a free for all.”
“Keep him in hand,” commanded Jim, tapping the ball back to mid-field to start a third round.
I could see a nasty look on Jim’s horse’s face, however, as we curved around in mid-field for a fresh start. And when he called “go,” I felt my horse go all rubbery under me, and it sprang toward Jim. And Jim’s came, head down, toward us. And as we met, with mallets upswung for the stroke, both horses suddenly wheeled on their bunched feet and lashed at each other.
“Hey, hey,” we both yelled, rearing tight and kicking our heels into them.
Horses Are Militaristic
A horse, however, is a horse. And a polo pony probably takes years to learn that polo is a game for gentlemen, both two-legged and four-legged. And these two horses were just plain cross-country riders. Circling warily, with tails and heads up and snorting and neighing and blowing their noses violently like pugilists, they suddenly bunched themselves and charged again. Again Jim and I swung back our mallets for the ball. But again the horses whirled their hind ends to each other and lashed violently.
“Hey, hey,” we both roared again, jerking the reins and kicking their ribs and speaking horse words to them.
“Ride yours down the field away,” yelled Jim, “and we’ll quiet them.”
So I went to one end of the field and Jim to the other and we talked soothingly to them and slapped their necks comfortingly, and after a few minutes, we had them gentled and I called:
“O.K. now. Jim.”
So we rode quietly toward middle field where the ball still lay, and we watched each other’s horse warily. Their ears were twitching. Their necks arched. Their eyes shining with the effort to understand.
“Go,” said Jim, uplifting his mallet,
And with a squeal, the two horses crouched, leaped, whirled and kicked, and I felt a loud grunt as my horse landed a doozer on the ribs of Jim’s. Jim’s – its name was Nettie – screamed and as quick as a cat, turned with bared yellow teeth and, narrowly missing my knee, took a good fat hold of my horse’s hide. I could hear her teeth click.
“Wah, hah, hah,” roared my horse in an agonized bellow and broke away in a dreadful series of bucks and kicks and hump backs, punctuating each wild jump with a short squeal of fury.
“Ride away,” I heard Jim cry.
And seeing Nettie coming with neck outstretched. I kicked mine in the ribs, shook out the reins and let him run. Around and around the field we raced, Jim dragging on Nettie’s bit and I giving my horse all the encouragement of heel and hand and tongue I would muster.
Whenever we paused, Nettie would make a sudden furious charge, cutting corners, until the handyman came running down the lane.
“What is it?” he bellowed. “The battle of Waterloo?”
“Open the gate,” commanded Jim, in the best Ranelagh manner. And I rode my horse to safety.
In a moment, the handyman had me on shore. He led my horse to the stable. Jim then rode Nettie, all slathered with foam and furious of eye, down the lane and the handyman held her head while Jim slid off and sprang aside.
“I didn’t think they’d stand for polo,” said the handyman apologetically.
“I never understood cavalry before,” said Jim. “Now I can see what the charge of the Light Brigade meant. Or the battle of Agincourt. I always thought it was only the men that fought.”
“Ah,” said the handyman, “a horse is a militaristic beast.”
“You see, though,” said Jim to me, “what a thrilling game polo could be?”
“How much,” I asked, “is a dress suit with tails?”
Editor’s Notes: This story takes place just before they leave for Britain and France, for the Vimy pilgrimage. This was the trip taken by many veterans of WWI to the dedication of the Vimy memorial in France. Greg and Jim were sent with other Toronto Star veterans to cover it, and their next 4 stories would take place in England and France.