Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828
Reuben Smith is the groom placed in charge of the stables when Mr. York left for London. He is knowledgeable, faithful, and valuable, and he is gentle and clever when he manages the horses. He had lived several years with a veterinary surgeon and can treat animals almost as well as a doctor. Smith is also a skilled driver and a good scholar, a handsome man who is well liked. With so much to recommend him, it is surprising that he is not in a position as head coachman. That is because he has one great weakness: his love of drink.
Unlike some men, Reuben Smith is not a daily drinker. He often stays steady for weeks or months at a time; however, when he has what York calls a “bout,” he is a disgrace to himself, a nuisance to everyone around him, and a terror to his wife. York had covered up Smith’s problem because he is such a valuable and skilled worker, but one night Smith was too drunk to drive a party home from a ball. One of the gentlemen was forced to drive the ladies home. The Earl found out, of course, and Smith was summarily dismissed. He and his family had to leave the premises immediately. This incident happened quite a while in the past, and shortly before the new horses arrived, Smith had been re-hired. York had pleaded on the man’s behalf; Smith had promised never to drink as long as he lived at the estate. The groom had kept his promise so well that York had felt no hesitation in leaving Smith in charge while he was away.
In April, before the family was to return the following month, Colonel Blantyre had to leave Earlshall to return to his military post. Since the smaller carriage was in need of refurbishing, a plan was made. Taking a saddle with him, Smith would drive Blantyre into town, leave the carriage to be "fresh done up," and then ride Black Auster back home. When they arrive in town, Colonel Blantyre gives the groom some money for driving him; he tells Smith to take care of Lady Anne and to keep other riders away from the black horse, for he is her special mount. Smith says good-bye to Blantyre, drops off the carriage, and then rides to the White Lion, where he orders the hostler to care for Black Auster. Later, the hostler notices a loose nail in one of the horse’s shoes. When Smith returns to the yard at five o’clock, the hostler asks if he should have the shoe fixed; Smith says he has met some friends and will be back for the horse at six o’clock. The nail will be fine until they get home, he says. The groom's voice is quite loud, and it is rather unlike him to neglect his horse’s care.
Reuben Smith does not return to the stable until nine o’clock (three hours later than promised), and his voice is rough as he expresses displeasure with the hostler. When the landlord of the White Lion cautions Smith to “have a care,” Smith merely swears at the man. Riding home, the groom pushes Black Auster to a gallop almost immediately and frequently cuts at him with his whip, though the horse is going at full speed. The stones on the road cause the loose horseshoe to become looser; finally the shoe comes off near the turnpike gate. In his right mind, Smith would have recognized the problem; in his current condition, he is unable to discern that anything is amiss.
The road past the turnpike has recently been laid with new stones, and galloping over them at full speed is dangerous for any horse. With an exposed foot, Black Auster suffers tremendous pain and damage. His hoof is broken, split down to the quick, and the inside is terribly cut from the sharp stones. No animal could keep going under such circumstances. The pain is so intense that Black Auster finally falls violently to his knees; his rider is thrown forcefully to the ground a few yards ahead of him. When the horse recovers a bit, he limps to the side of the road. In the moonlight, he sees Smith make one slight effort to rise before groaning and falling back down. Then the man remains motionless.
Black Auster suffers silently. He listens for the sound of a horse or wheels or footsteps, but he hears nothing. The road is not well traveled, especially at this time of night, and the horse knows they might be stranded for hours. The only sound he hears is the low singing of a nightingale, and the only movement he sees is an owl flitting over a hedge. This makes Black Auster think of the summer nights long ago when he used to lie next to his mother in Farmer Grey’s pleasant meadow.