Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 33.

The Derby.

The morning of the Derby day dawned auspiciously. The weather-cocks, the sky, and every other prognostic portended a fine cloudless day, and many an eye peeped early from bed-room window to read these signs, rejoicing.

“Ascot would have been more in our way,” said Lady May, glancing at Alice, when the time arrived for taking their places in the carriage. “But the time answered, and we shall see a great many people we know there. So you must not think I have led you into a very fast expedition.”

Richard Arden took the reins. The footmen were behind, in charge of hampers from Fortnum and Mason’s, and inside, opposite to Alice, sat Lord Wynderbroke; and Lady May’s vis-à-vis was Vivian Darnley. Soon they had got into the double stream of carriages of all sorts. There are closed carriages with pairs or fours, gigs, hansom cabs fitted with gauze curtains, dog-carts, open carriages with hampers lashed to the foot-boards, dandy drags, bright and polished, with crests; vans, cabs, and indescribable contrivances. There are horses worth a hundred and fifty guineas a-piece, and there are others that look as if the knacker should have them. There are all sorts of raws, and sand-cracks, and broken knees. There are kickers and roarers, and bolters and jibbers, such a crush and medley in that densely packed double line, that jogs and crushes along you can hardly tell how.

Sometimes one line passes the other, and then sustains a momentary check, while the other darts forward; and now and then a panel is smashed, with the usual altercation, and dust unspeakable eddying and floating everywhere in the sun; all sorts of chaff exchanged, mail-coach horns blowing, and general impudence and hilarity; gentlemen with veils on, and ladies with light hoods over their bonnets, and all sorts of gauzy defences against the dust. The utter novelty of all these sights and sounds highly amuses Alice, to whom they are absolutely strange.

“I am so amused,” she said, “at the gravity you all seem to take these wonderful doings with. I could not have fancied anything like it. Isn’t that Borrowdale?”

“So it is,” said Lady May. “I thought he was in France. He doesn’t see us, I think.”

He did see them, but it was just as he was cracking a personal joke with a busman, in which the latter had decidedly the best of it, and he did not care to recognise his lady acquaintances at disadvantage.

“What a fright that man is!” said Lord Wynderbroke.

“But his team is the prettiest in England, except Longcluse’s,” said Darnley; “and, by Jove, there’s Longcluse’s drag!”

“Those are very nice horses,” said Lord Wynderbroke looking at Longcluse’s team, as if he had not heard Darnley’s observation. “They are worth looking at, Miss Arden.”

Longcluse was seated on the box, with a veil on, through which his white smile was indistinctly visible.

“And what a fright he is, also! He looks like a picture of Death I once saw, with a cloth half over his face; or the Veiled Prophet. By Jove, a curious thing that the two most hideous men in England should have between them the two prettiest teams on earth!”

Lord Wynderbroke looks at Darnley with raised brows, vaguely. He has been talking more than his lordship perhaps thinks he has any business to talk, especially to Alice.

“You will be more diverted still when we have got upon the course,” interposes Lord Wynderbroke. “The variety of strange people there — gipsies, you know, and all that — mountebanks, and thimble-riggers, and beggars, and musicians — you’ll wonder how such hordes could be collected in all England, or where they come from.”

“And although they make something of a day like this, how on earth they contrive to exist all the other days of the year, when people are sober, and minding their own business,” added Darnley.

“To me the pleasantest thing about the drive is our finding ourselves in the open country. Look out of the window there — trees and farm-steads — it is so rural, and such an odd change!” said Lady May.

“And the young corn, I’m glad to see, is looking very well,” said Lord Wynderbroke, who claimed to be something of an agriculturist.

“And the oddest thing about it is our being surrounded, in the midst of all this rural simplicity, with the population of London,” threw in Vivian Darnley.

“Remember, Miss Arden, our wager,” said Lord Wynderbroke; “you have backed May Queen.”

“May! she should be a cousin of mine,” said good Lady May, firing off her little pun, which was received very kindly by her audience.

“Ha, ha! I did not think of that; she should certainly be the most popular name on the card,” said Lord Wynderbroke. “I hope I have not made a great mistake, Miss Arden, in betting against so — so auspicious a name.”

“I sha’n’t let you off, though. I’m told I’m very likely to win — isn’t it so?” she asked Vivian.

“Yes, the odds are in favour of May Queen now; you might make a capital hedge.”

“You don’t know what a hedge is, I daresay, Miss Arden; ladies don’t always quite understand our turf language,” said Lord Wynderbroke, with a consideration which he hoped that very forward young man, on whom he fancied Miss Arden looked good-naturedly, felt as he ought. “It is called a hedge, by betting men, when ——” and he expounded the meaning of the term.

The road had now become more free, as they approached the course, and Dick Arden took advantage of the circumstance to pass the omnibuses, and other lumbering vehicles, which he soon left far behind. The grand stand now rose in view — and now they were on the course. The first race had not yet come off, and young Arden found a good place among the triple line of carriages. Off go the horses! Miss Arden is assisted to a cushion on the roof; Lord Wynderbroke and Vivian take places beside her. The sun is growing rather hot, and the parasol is up. Good-natured Lady May is a little too stout for climbing, but won’t hear of anyone’s staying to keep her company. Perhaps when Richard Arden, who is taking a walk by the ropes, and wants to see the horses which are showing, returns, she may have a little talk with him at the window. In the meantime, all the curious groups of figures, and a hundred more, which Lord Wynderbroke promised — the monotonous challenges of the fellows with games of all sorts, the whine of the beggar for a little penny, the guitarring, singing, barrel-organing, and the gipsy inviting Miss Arden to try her lucky sixpence — all make a curious and merry Babel about her.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49