Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627
A few days after the police arrested Filcher, Alfred Smirk becomes Black Auster’s new groom. He is a tall, good-looking fellow, but he is a “humbug.” He is never unkind to the horse; in fact, when the master is around the man does much patting and stroking of the horse. The rest of the time, however, he is not thorough. He always brushes the horse’s mane and tail with water and his hoofs with oil before the master arrives, so the horse looks shiny and well groomed. The reality is that Smirk never cleans the horse’s feet or takes care of his shoes, and he never grooms him thoroughly. The horse’s bit is allowed to stay rusty, his saddle is always damp, and his crupper is stiff and unyielding.
In contrast, the groom is quite fastidious about his own appearance, and he spends much time in front of the mirror fussing with his hair, whiskers, and necktie. The man is polite and deferential to Barry, and everyone thinks Smirk is a very nice young man whom the master is fortunate to have hired. Black Auster knows the man is selfish and conceited. It is true the horse is not being particularly mistreated; however, a horse wants more than that. He wants to be treated well.
Black Auster has a loose box and should have been quite comfortable, but the groom is too lazy to clean it out regularly. Instead he simply puts new hay over the old, smelly hay, causing the smells to rise and inflame the horse’s eyes and then causing him to lose his appetite for his food. One day the master notices the smell and calls it to the groom’s attention, telling him he should thoroughly scrub the stall. Smirk says he can do that, but it is quite dangerous for horses to have water in their stalls because they are likely to catch cold. Barry does not want his horse to catch a cold, of course, and wonders if the drains are working properly. The groom is quick to agree the smell is probably due to faulty drains.
A bricklayer comes and finds nothing wrong with the drains, so he just puts down some lime and charges the master an exorbitant fee. The smell is still strong, and now the horse’s feet are growing tender and unhealthy because his straw is damp. Barry only knows that his horse is not as sure-footed as he once was, and the groom says he has noticed the same thing when he exercises the horse. In fact, Smirk rarely takes Black Auster out for any exercise. Often days go by when he is not even taken out of his stall to stretch his legs.
The groom is still feeding the horse as if he were active, though, and often Black Auster is sluggish, heavy, and dull. Much of the time he is feverish and restless. Smirk never even notices the fever, for he is as ignorant as he is conceited. The horse feels ill and uncomfortable much of the time. When the master takes his horse for a drive one day, Black Auster is not surefooted makes two serious stumbles. Barry takes him to a farrier who explains that the horse has a condition called “thrush,” which is often the result of dirty stables where the unclean hay has not been properly removed. He treats the horse (an unpleasant business for the animal) and Barry orders the stall to be cleaned properly every day. Black Auster is fed properly for his condition and soon he is feeling healthy and strong again. His master, however, is so disgusted at being deceived by two grooms that he sells the horse.