Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
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.
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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 from the logic-dominated repression of science and the conformity of his educated class. The story itself chronicles how they make the journey, and for what conscious and unconscious motives.
The story’s opening scene in the dining room emphasizes the family dynamics of the four children still present in the dead horse dealer’s home; there is a Cinderella-like quality to Mabel’s life—true poverty now, and the solitude of a decade of scrubwork, of holding things together, of living with a stepmother’s indifference and without a mother’s love. Her brothers, too, have ignored her, except to tease or criticize. That crude life has written its message as an “impassive fixity” on Mabel’s face. However, her “steady, dangerous eyes” have an unsettling effect on Fergusson, and there are abundant hints of strong emotion under her facade. She manages by means of a dumb endurance: “She thought of nobody, not even of herself.” Emotionally, she is already dead, and thus feels herself coming closer to her mother.
Fergusson, with his active mental role, dominates the crucial, central part of the story. In the strictest sense, however, his intellect is largely misleading: He tells himself that he hates the “hellish hole” he lives in, but the people there, “rough, inarticulate, powerfully emotional,” excite him. The intense emotion of his witnessing Mabel’s suicide attempt, and of his saving her from the pond, forces him out of the comfort of allowing thinking to dominate.
His entering the pond, in fact, is a kind of baptism: In his desperate grab to reach her, “he lost his balance and went under. . . . After what seemed an eternity” he reenters the world, and faces, though reluctantly, the passion that a revived Mabel intuits in him and reveals in herself. She reads events symbolically, from the primitive, unconscious wisdom to which fairy tales speak: On a logical level, her seeing love in the fact that he undressed her is preposterous, but Fergusson’s “soul seemed to melt” when she speaks the thought. He fights the realization of his love, his intellect throwing obstacles before it: “his whole will was against his yielding”; to love her would be “a violation of his professional honour” as a doctor. This voice of a conformist society cannot withstand the force of passion; his decision to love seems to be the first nonrational choice of his life.
Finally, Mabel’s and Fergusson’s awareness of what they have promised each other inspires the confusion and shyness of the last pages, and the adjustment of roles: Fergusson takes the lead by ridiculing Mabel’s self-reproaches and by reassuring her of his desire (“We’re going to be married, quickly”), and she takes on a subtle and manipulative manner (“’Kiss me,’ she said wistfully,” and “I don’t like you in those [her brothers’] clothes”). Passion might be blind, and is so described even in the final paragraph, but they must live with a knowledge of love, and that will not be simple.