Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 22

The Steeple-Chase.

After considerable discussion, it was settled that Laura Dunbar’s wedding should take place upon the 7th of November. It was to be a very quiet wedding. The banker had especially impressed that condition upon his daughter. His health was entirely broken, and he would assist in no splendid ceremonial to which half the county would be invited. If Laura wanted bridesmaids, she might have Dora Macmahon and any particular friend who lived in the neighbourhood. There was to be no fuss, no publicity. Marriage was a very solemn business, Mr. Dunbar said, and it would be as well for his daughter to be undisturbed by any pomp or gaiety on her wedding-day. So the marriage was appointed to take place on the 7th, and the arrangements were to be as simple as the circumstances of the bride would admit. Sir Philip was quite willing that it should be so. He was much too happy to take objection to any such small matters. He only wanted the sacred words to be spoken which made Laura Dunbar his own for ever and for ever. He wanted to take her away to the southern regions, where he had travelled so gaily in his careless bachelor days, where he would be so supremely happy now with his bright young bride by his side. Fortune, who certainly spoils some of her children, had been especially beneficent to this young man. She had given him so many of her best gifts, and had bestowed upon him, over and above, the power to enjoy her favours.

It happened that the 6th of November was a day which, some time since, Philip Jocelyn would have considered the most important, if not the happiest, day of the year. It was the date of the Shorncliffe steeple-chases, and the baronet had engaged himself early in the preceding spring to ride his thorough-bred mare Guinevere, for a certain silver cup, subscribed for by the officers stationed at the Shorncliffe barracks.

Philip Jocelyn looked forward to this race with a peculiar interest, for it was to be the last he would ever ride — the very last: he had given this solemn promise to Laura, who had in vain tried to persuade him against even this race. She was brave enough upon ordinary occasions; but she loved her betrothed husband too dearly to be brave on this.

“I know it’s very foolish of me, Philip,” she said, “but I can’t help being frightened. I can’t help thinking of all the accidents I’ve ever heard of, or read of. I’ve dreamt of the race ever so many times, Philip. Oh, if you would only give it up for my sake!”

“My darling, my pet, is there anything I would not do for your sake that I could do in honour? But I can’t do this, Laura dearest. You see I’m all right myself, and the mare’s in splendid condition; — well, you saw her take her trial gallop the other morning, and you must know she’s a flyer, so I won’t talk about her. My name was entered for this race six months ago, you know, dear; and there are lots of small farmers and country people who have speculated their money on me; and they’d all lose, poor fellows, if I hung back at the last. You don’t know what play-or-pay bets are, Laura dear. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for your sake; but my backers are poor people, and I can’t put them in a hole. I must ride, Laura, and ride to win, too.”

Miss Dunbar knew what this last phrase meant, and she conjured up the image of her lover flying across country on that fiery chestnut mare, whose reputation was familiar to almost every man, woman, and child in Warwickshire: but whatever her fears might be, she was obliged to be satisfied with her lover’s promise that this should be his last steeple-chase.

The day came at last, a pale November day, mild but not sunny. The sky was all of one equal grey tint, and seemed to hang only a little way above the earth. The caps and jackets of the gentleman riders made spots of colour against that uniform grey sky; and the dresses of the ladies in the humble wooden structure which did duty as a grand stand, brightened the level landscape.

The course formed a long oval, and extended over three or four meadows, and crossed a country lane. It was a tolerably flat course; but the leaps, though roughly constructed, were rather formidable. Laura had been over all the ground with her lover on the previous day, and had looked fearfully at the high ragged hedges, and the broad ditches of muddy water. But Philip only made light of her fears, and told her the leaps were nothing, scarcely worthy of the chestnut mare’s powers.

The course was not crowded, but there was a considerable sprinkling of spectators on each side of the rope — soldiers from the Shorncliffe barracks, country people, and loiterers of all kinds. There were a couple of drags, crowded with the officers and their friends, who clustered in all manner of perilous positions on the roof, and consumed unlimited champagne, bitter beer, and lobster-salad, in the pauses between the races. A single line of carriages extended for some little distance opposite the grand stand. The scene was gay and pleasant, as a race-ground always must be, even though it were in the wildest regions of the New World; but it was very quiet as compared to Epsom Downs or the open heath at Ascot.

Conspicuous amongst the vehicles there was a close carriage drawn by a pair of magnificent bays — an equipage which was only splendid in the perfection of its appointments. It was a clarence, with dark subdued-looking panels, only ornamented by a vermilion crest. The liveries of the servants were almost the simplest upon the course; but the powdered heads of the men, and an indescribable something in their style, distinguished them from the country-bred coachmen and hobbledehoy pages in attendance on the other carriages.

Almost every one on the course knew that crest of an armed hand clasping a battle-axe, and knew that it belonged to Henry Dunbar. The banker appeared so very seldom in public that there was always a kind of curiosity about him when he did show himself; and between the races, people who were strolling upon the ground contrived to approach very near the carriage in which the master of Maudesley Abbey sat, wrapped in Cashmere shawls, and half-hidden under a great fur rug, in legitimate Indian fashion.

He had consented to appear upon the racecourse in compliance with his daughter’s most urgent entreaties. She wanted him to be near her. She had some vague idea that he might be useful in the event of any accident happening to Philip Jocelyn. He might help her. It would be some consolation, some support to have him with her. He might be able to do something. Her father had yielded to her entreaties with a very tolerable grace, and he was here; but having conceded so much, he seemed to have done all that his frigid nature was capable of doing. He took no interest in the business of the day, but lounged far back in the carriage, and complained very much of the cold.

The vehicle had been drawn close up to the boundary of the course, and Laura sat at the open window, pale and anxious, straining her eyes towards the weighing-house and the paddock, the little bit of enclosed ground where the horses were saddled. She could see the gentleman riders going in and out, and the one rider on whose safety her happiness depended, muffled in his greatcoat, and very busy and animated amongst his grooms and helpers. Everybody knew who Miss Dunbar was, and that she was going to be married to the young baronet; and people looked with interest at that pale face, keeping such anxious watch at the carriage-window. I am speaking now of the simple country people, for whom a race meant a day’s pleasure. There were people on the other side of the course who cared very little for Miss Dunbar or her anxiety; who would have cared as little if the handsome young baronet had rolled upon the sward, crushed to death under the weight of his chestnut mare, so long as they themselves were winners by the event. In the little enclosure below the grand stand the betting men — that strange fraternity which appears on every racecourse from Berwick-on-Tweed to the Land’s-End, from the banks of the Shannon to the smooth meads of pleasant Normandy — were gathered thick, and the talk was loud about Sir Philip and his competitors.

Among the men who were ready to lay against anything, and were most unpleasantly vociferous in the declaration of their readiness, there was one man who was well known to the humbler class of bookmen with whom he associated, who was known to speculate upon very small capital, but who had never been known as a defaulter. The knowing ones declared this man worthy to rank high amongst the best of them; but no one knew where he lived, or what he was. He was rarely known to miss a race; and he was conspicuous amongst the crowd in those mysterious purlieus where the plebeian bookmen, who are unworthy to enter the sacred precincts of Tattersall’s, mostly do congregate, in utter defiance of the police. No one had ever heard the name of this man; but in default of any more particular cognomen, they had christened him the Major; because in his curt manners, his closely buttoned-up coat, tightly-strapped trousers, and heavy moustache, there was a certain military flavour, which had given rise to the rumour that the unknown had in some remote period been one of the defenders of his country. Whether he had enlisted as a private, and had been bought-off by his friends; whether he had borne the rank of an officer, and had sold his commission, or had been cashiered, or had deserted, or had been drummed-out of his regiment — no one pretended to say. People called him the Major; and wherever he appeared, the Major made himself conspicuous by means of a very tall white hat, with a broad black crape band round it.

He was tall himself, and the hat made him seem taller. His clothes were very shabby, with that peculiar shiny shabbiness which makes a man look as if he had been oiled all over, and then rubbed into a high state of polish. He wore a greenish-brown greatcoat with a poodle collar, and was supposed to have worn the same for the last ten years. Round his neck, be the weather ever so sultry, he wore a comforter of rusty worsted that had once been scarlet, and above this comforter appeared his nose, which was a prominent aquiline. Nobody ever saw much more of the Major than his nose and his moustache. His hat came low down over his forehead, which was itself low, and a pair of beetle brows, of a dense purple-black, were faintly visible in the shadow of the brim. He never took off his hat in the presence of his fellow-men; and as he never encountered the fair sex, except in the person of the barmaid at a sporting public, he was not called upon to unbonnet himself in ceremonious obeisance to lovely woman. He was eminently a mysterious man, and seemed to enjoy himself in the midst of the cloud of mystery which surrounded him.

The Major had inspected the starters for the great event of the day, and had sharply scrutinized the gentleman riders as they went in and out of the paddock. He was so well satisfied with the look of Sir Philip Jocelyn, and the chestnut mare Guinevere, that he contented himself with laying the odds against all the other horses, and allowed the baronet and the chestnut to run for him. He asked a few questions presently about Sir Philip, who had taken off his greatcoat by this time, and appeared in all the glory of a scarlet satin jacket and a black velvet cap. A Warwickshire farmer, who had found his way in among the knowing ones, informed the Major that Sir Philip Jocelyn was going to be married to Miss Dunbar, only daughter and sole heiress of the great Mr. Dunbar.

The great Mr. Dunbar! The Major, usually so imperturbable, gave a little start at the mention of the banker’s name.

“What Mr. Dunbar?” he asked.

“The banker. Him as come home from the Indies last August.”

The Major gave a long low whistle; but he asked no further question of the farmer. He had a memorandum-book in his hand — a greasy and grimy-looking little volume, whose pages he was wont to study profoundly from time to time, and in which he jotted down all manner of queer hieroglyphics with half an inch of fat lead-pencil. He relapsed into the contemplation of this book now; but he muttered to himself ever and anon in undertones, and his mutterings had relation to Henry Dunbar.

“It’s him,” he muttered; “that’s lucky. I read all about that Winchester business in the Sunday papers. I’ve got it all at my fingers’-ends, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t make a trifle out of it. I don’t see why I shouldn’t win a little money upon Henry Dunbar. I’ll have a look at my gentleman presently, when the race is over.”

The bell rang, and the seven starters went off with a rush; four abreast, and three behind. Sir Philip was among the four foremost riders, keeping the chestnut well in hand, and biding his time very quietly. This was his last race, and he had set his heart upon winning. Laura leaned out of the carriage-window, pale and breathless, with a powerful race-glass in her hand. She watched the riders as they swept round the curve in the course. Then they disappeared, and the few minutes during which they were out of sight seemed an age to that anxious watcher. The people run away to see them take the double leap in the lane, and then come trooping back again, panting and eager, as three of the riders appear again round another bend of the course.

The scarlet leads this time. The honest country people hurrah for the master of Jocelyn’s Rock. Have they not put their money upon him, and are they not proud of him? — proud of his handsome face, which, amid all its easy good-nature, has a certain dash of hauteur that befits one who has a sprinkling of the blood of Saxon kings in his veins; proud of his generous heart, which beats with a thousand kindly impulses towards his fellow-men. They shout aloud as he flies past them, the long stride of the chestnut skimming over the ground, and spattering fragments of torn grass and ploughed-up earth about him as he goes. Laura sees the scarlet jacket rise for a moment against the low grey sky, and then fly onward, and that is about all she sees of the dreaded leap which she had looked at in fear and trembling the day before. Her heart is still beating with a strange vague terror, when her lover rides quietly past the stand, and the people about her cry out that the race has been nobly won. The other riders come in very slowly, and are oppressed by that indescribable air of sheepishness which is peculiar to gentleman jockeys when they do not win.

The girl’s eyes fill suddenly with tears, and she leans back in the carriage, glad to hide her happy face from the crowd.

Ten minutes afterwards Sir Philip Jocelyn came across the course with a great silver-gilt cup in his arms, and surrounded by an admiring throng, amongst whom he had just emptied his purse.

“I’ve brought you the cup, Laura; and I want you to be pleased with my victory. It’s the last triumph of my bachelor days, you know, darling.”

“Three cheers for Miss Dunbar!” shouted some adventurous spirit among the crowd about the baronet.

In the next moment the cry was taken up, and two or three hundred voices joined in a loud hurrah for the banker’s daughter. The poor girl drew back into the carriage, blushing and frightened.

“Don’t mind them, Laura dear,” Sir Philip said; “they mean well, you know, and they look upon me as public property. Hadn’t you better give them a bow, Mr. Dunbar?” he added, in an undertone to the banker. “It’ll please them, I know.”

Mr. Dunbar frowned, but he bent forward for a moment, and, leaning his head a little way out of the window, made a stately acknowledgment of the people’s enthusiasm. As he did so, his eyes met those of the Major, who had crossed the course with Sir Philip and his admirers, and who was staring straight before him at the banker’s carriage. Henry Dunbar drew back immediately after making that very brief salute to the populace. “Tell them to drive home, Sir Philip,” he said. “The people mean well, I dare say; but I hate these popular demonstrations. There’s something to be done about the settlements, by-the-bye; you’d better dine at the Abbey this evening. John Lovell will be there to meet you.”

The carriage drove away; and though the Major pushed his way through the crowd pretty rapidly, he was too late to witness its departure. He was in a very good temper, however, for he had won what his companions called a hatful of money on the steeple-chase, and he stood to win on other races that were to come off that afternoon. During the interval that elapsed before the next race, he talked to a sociable bystander about Sir Philip Jocelyn, and the young lady he was going to marry. He ascertained that the wedding was to take place the next morning, and at Lisford church.

“In that case,” thought the Major, as he went back to the ring, “I shall sleep at Lisford to-night; I shall make Lisford my quarters for the present, and I shall follow up Henry Dunbar.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31