The three Pervin brothers, left destitute by their late father, sit smoking and talking around the breakfast table in the family ranch house. They badger their sister, Mabel, whom they call “bull-dog,” asking what she intends to do with her life now that they all must leave the ranch; she answers them as always, with stony silence. Dr. Jack Fergusson, a physician and friend of the brothers, calls. As he sits talking with them, he becomes intrigued by the gloomy, proud, and strangely detached sister.
Later, while walking about making his rounds, Fergusson sees Mabel in the cemetery, where, clad in black, she is tending her mother’s grave. He follows her to a pond and, with continuing fascination, watches her walk into and finally disappear under the murky water. He runs after her, drags her out of the pond, and takes her home. There, he undresses her, rubs her skin dry, and warms her next to the hearth fire.
Mabel awakens in a daze, recognizes the doctor, and asks him what she has done. Realizing her nakedness beneath the swaddling blankets, she asks him, “Do you love me, then?” and becomes certain of the answer herself: “You love me. . . . I know you love me, I know.” The doctor, who “had, really, no intention of loving her,” is horrified at her words and her kisses, yet he feels overwhelmed and must embrace her and admit that her words are really true. Mabel’s joyful assurance of his love soon passes, however, and she sobs, “I feel I’m horrible to you.” “’No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.”
The title, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” suggests that the protagonist is Mabel, but actually she shares the center with Fergusson. At the crucial moment, however, this strange love story, recounting the emergence into passion of both these characters, gives the lead to Mabel. She and Fergusson come to their union from opposite directions, Mabel from the “animal pride” of the Pervins, Fergusson...
(The entire section is 856 words.)