Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 3.

The Soldiers’ Blue Ribbon.

“Take the Field bar one.” “Two to one on Forest King.” “Two to one on Bay Regent.” “Fourteen to seven on Wild Geranium.” “Seven to two against Brother to Fairy.” “Three to five on Pas de Charge.” “Nineteen to six on Day Star.” “Take the Field bar one,” rose above the hoarse tumultuous roar of the ring on the clear, crisp, sunny morning that was shining on the Shires on the day of the famous steeple-chase.

The talent had come in great muster from London; the great bookmakers were there with their stentor lungs and their quiet, quick entry of thousands; and the din and the turmoil, at the tiptop of their height, were more like a gathering on the Heath or before the Red House, than the local throngs that usually mark steeple-chase meetings, even when they be the Grand Military or the Grand National. There were keen excitement and heavy stakes on the present event; the betting had never stood still a second in Town or the Shires; and even the “knowing ones,” the worshipers of the “flat” alone, the professionals who ran down gentlemen races and the hypercritics who affirmed that there is not such a thing as a steeple-chaser to be found on earth (since, to be a fencer, a water-jumper, and a racer were to attain an equine perfection impossible on earth, whatever it may be in “happy hunting ground” of immortality)— even these, one and all of them, came eager to see the running for the Gilt Vase.

For it was known very well that the Guards had backed their horse tremendously, and the county laid most of its money on him, and the bookmakers were shy of laying off much against one of the first cross-country riders of the Service, who had landed his mount at the Grand National Handicap, the Billesdon Coplow, the Ealing, the Curragh, the Prix du Donjon, the Rastatt, and almost every other for which he had entered. Yet, despite this, the “Fancy” took most to Bay Regent; they thought he would cut the work out; his sire had won the Champion Stakes at Doncaster, and the Drawing-room at “glorious Goodwood,” and that racing strain through the White Lily blood, coupled with a magnificent reputation which he brought from Leicestershire as a fencer, found him chief favor among the fraternity.

His jockey, Jimmy Delmar, too, with his bronzed, muscular, sinewy frame, his low stature, his light weight, his sunburnt, acute face, and a way of carrying his hands as he rode that was precisely like Aldcroft’s, looked a hundred times more professional than the brilliance of “Beauty,” and the reckless dash of his well-known way of “sending the horse along with all he had in him,” which was undeniably much more like a fast kill over the Melton country, than like a weight-for-age race anywhere. “You see the Service in his stirrups,” said an old nobbler who had watched many a trial spin, lying hidden in a ditch or a drain; and indisputably you did: Bertie’s riding was superb, but it was still the riding of a cavalryman, not of a jockey. The mere turn of the foot in the stirrups told it, as the old man had the shrewdness to know.

So the King went down at one time two points in the morning betting.

“Know them flash cracks of the Household,” said Tim Varnet, as sharp a little Leg as ever “got on” a dark thing, and “went halves” with a jock who consented to rope a favorite at the Ducal. “Them swells, ye see, they give any money for blood. They just go by Godolphin heads, and little feet, and winners’ strains, and all the rest of it; and so long as they get pedigree never look at substance; and their bone comes no bigger than a deer’s. Now, it’s force as well as pace that tells over a bit of plow; a critter that would win the Derby on the flat would knock up over the first spin over the clods; and that King’s legs are too light for my fancy, ‘andsome as ’tis ondeniable he looks — for a little ’un, as one may say.”

And Tim Varnet exactly expressed the dominant mistrust of the talent; despite all his race and all his exploits, the King was not popular in the Ring, because he was like his backers —“a swell.” They thought him “showy — very showy,” “a picture to frame,” “a luster to look at”; but they disbelieved in him, almost to a man, as a stayer, and they trusted him scarcely at all with their money.

“It’s plain that he’s ‘meant,’ though,” thought little Tim, who was so used to the “shady” in stable matters that he could hardly persuade himself that even the Grand Military could be run fair, and would have thought a Guardsman or a Hussar only exercised his just privilege as a jockey in “roping” after selling the race, if so it suited his book. “He’s ‘meant,’ that’s clear, ‘cause the swells have put all their pots on him — but if the pots don’t bile over, strike me a loser!” a contingency he knew he might very well invoke; his investments being invariably so matchlessly arranged that, let what would be “bowled over,” Tim Varnet never could be.

Whatever the King might prove, however, the Guards, the Flower of the Service, must stand or fall by him; they had not Seraph, they put in “Beauty” and his gray. But there was no doubt as to the tremendousness of the struggle lying before him. The running ground covered four miles and a half, and had forty-two jumps in it, exclusive of the famous Brixworth: half was grassland, and half ridge and furrow; a lane with very awkward double fences laced in and in with the memorable blackthorn, a laid hedge with thick growers in it and many another “teaser,” coupled with the yawning water, made the course a severe one; while thirty-two starters of unusual excellence gave a good field and promised a close race. Every fine bit of steeple-chase blood that was to be found in their studs, the Service had brought together for the great event; and if the question could ever be solved, whether it is possible to find a strain that shall combine pace over the flat with the heart to stay over an inclosed country, the speed to race with the bottom to fence and the force to clear water, it seemed likely to be settled now. The Service and the Stable had done their uttermost to reach its solution.

The clock of the course pointed to half-past one; the saddling bell would ring at a quarter to two, for the days were short and darkened early; the Stewards were all arrived, except the Marquis of Rockingham, and the Ring was in the full rush of excitement; some “getting on” hurriedly to make up for lost time; some “peppering” one or other of the favorites hotly; some laying off their moneys in a cold fit of caution; some putting capfuls on the King, or Bay Regent, or Pas de Charge, from the great commission stables, the local betting man, the shrewd wiseacres from the Ridings, all the rest of the brotherhood of the Turf were crowding together with the deafening shouting common to them which sounds so tumultuous, so insane, and so unintelligible to outsiders. Amid them half the titled heads of England, all the great names known on the flat, and men in the Guards, men in the Rifles, men in the Light Cavalry, men in the Heavies, men in the Scots Greys, men in the Horse Artillery, men in all the Arms and all the Regiments that had sent their first riders to try for the Blue Ribbon, were backing their horses with crackers, and jotting down figure after figure, with jeweled pencils, in dainty books, taking long odds with the fields. Carriages were standing in long lines along the course, the stands were filled with almost as bright a bevy of fashionable loveliness as the Ducal brings together under the park trees of Goodwood; the horses were being led into the inclosure for saddling, a brilliant sun shone for the nonce on the freshest of February noons; beautiful women were fluttering out of their barouches in furs and velvets, wearing the colors of the jockey they favored, and more predominant than any were Cecil’s scarlet and white, only rivaled in prominence by the azure of the Heavy Cavalry champion, Sir Eyre Montacute. A drag with four bays — with fine hunting points about them — had dashed up, late of course; the Seraph had swung himself from the roller-bolt into the saddle of his hack (one of these few rare hacks that are perfect, and combine every excellence of pace, bone, and action, under their modest appellative), and had cantered off to join the Stewards; while Cecil had gone up to a group of ladies in the Grand Stand, as if he had no more to do with the morning’s business than they. Right in front of that Stand was an artificial bullfinch that promised to treat most of the field to a “purler,” a deep ditch dug and filled with water, with two towering blackthorn fences on either side of it, as awkward a leap as the most cramped country ever showed; some were complaining of it; it was too severe, it was unfair, it would break the back of very horse sent at it. The other Stewards were not unwilling to have it tamed down a little, but he Seraph, generally the easiest of all sweet-tempered creatures, refused resolutely to let it be touched.

“Look here,” said he confidentially, as he wheeled his hack round to the Stand and beckoned Cecil down, “look here, Beauty; they’re wanting to alter that teaser, make it less awkward, you know; but I wouldn’t because I thought it would look as if I lessened it for you, you know. Still it is a cracker and no mistake; Brixworth itself is nothing to it, and if you’d like it toned down I’ll let them do it —”

“My dear Seraph, not for worlds! You were quite right not to have a thorn taken down. Why, that’s where I shall thrash Bay Regent,” said Bertie serenely, as if the winning of the stakes had been forecast in his horoscope.

The Seraph whistled, stroking his mustaches. “Between ourselves, Cecil, that fellow is going up no end. The Talent fancy him so —”

“Let them,” said Cecil placidly, with a great cheroot in his mouth, lounging into the center of the Ring to hear how the betting went on his own mount; perfectly regardless that he would keep them waiting at the weights while he dressed. Everybody there knew him by name and sight; and eager glances followed the tall form of the Guards’ champion as he moved through the press, in a loose brown sealskin coat, with a little strip of scarlet ribbon round his throat, nodding to this peer, taking evens with that, exchanging a whisper with a Duke, and squaring his book with a Jew. Murmurs followed about him as if he were the horse himself —“looks in racing form”—“looks used up to me”—“too little hands surely to hold in long in a spin”—“too much length in the limbs for a light weight; bone’s always awfully heavy”—“dark under the eye, been going too fast for training”—“a swell all over, but rides no end,” with other innumerable contradictory phrases, according as the speaker was “on” him or against him, buzzed about him from the riff-raff of the Ring, in no way disturbing his serene equanimity.

One man, a big fellow, “‘ossy” all over, with the genuine sporting cut-away coat, and a superabundance of showy necktie and bad jewelry, eyed him curiously, and slightly turned so that his back was toward Bertie, as the latter was entering a bet with another Guardsman well known on the turf, and he himself was taking long odds with little Berk Cecil, the boy having betted on his brother’s riding, as though he had the Bank of England at his back. Indeed, save that the lad had the hereditary Royallieu instinct of extravagance, and, with a half thoughtless, half willful improvidence, piled debts and difficulties on this rather brainless and boyish head, he had much more to depend on than his elder; old Lord Royallieu doted on him, spoilt him, and denied him nothing, though himself a stern, austere, passionate man, made irascible by ill health, and, in his fits of anger, a very terrible personage indeed — no more to be conciliated by persuasion than iron is to be bent by the hand; so terrible that even his pet dreaded him mortally, and came to Bertie to get his imprudences and peccadilloes covered from the Viscount’s sight.

Glancing round at this moment as he stood in the ring, Cecil saw the betting man with whom Berkeley was taking long odds on the race; he raised his eyebrows, and his face darkened for a second, though resuming its habitual listless serenity almost immediately.

“You remember that case of welshing after the Ebor St. Leger, Con?” he said in a low tone to the Earl of Constantia, with whom he was talking. The Earl nodded assent; everyone had heard of it, and a very flagrant case it was.

“There’s the fellow,” said Cecil laconically, and strode toward him with his long, lounging cavalry swing. The man turned pallid under his florid skin, and tried to edge imperceptibly away; but the density of the throng prevented his moving quickly enough to evade Cecil, who stooped his head, and said a word in his ear. It was briefly:

“Leave the ring.”

The rascal, half bully, half coward, rallied from the startled fear into which his first recognition by the Guardsman (who had been the chief witness against him in a very scandalous matter at York, and who had warned him that if he ever saw him again in the Ring he would have him turned out of it) had thrown him, and, relying on insolence and the numbers of his fraternity to back him out of it, stood his ground.

“I’ve as much right here as you swells,” he said, with a hoarse laugh. “Are you the whole Jockey Club, that you come it to a honest gentleman like that?”

Cecil looked down on him slightly amused, immeasurably disgusted — of all earth’s terrors, there was not one so great for him as a scene, and the eager bloodshot eyes of the Ring were turning on them by the thousand, and the loud shouting of the bookmakers was thundering out, “What’s up?”

“My ‘honest gentleman,’” he said wearily, “leave this. I tell you; do you hear?”

“Make me!” retorted the “welsher,” defiant in his stout-built square strength, and ready to brazen the matter out. “Make me, my cock o’ fine feathers! Put me out of the ring if you can, Mr. Dainty Limbs! I’ve as much business here as you.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth before, light as a deer and close as steel, Cecil’s hand was on his collar, and without any seeming effort, without the slightest passion, he calmly lifted him off the ground, as though he were a terrier, and thrust him through the throng; Ben Davis, as the welsher was named, meantime being so amazed at such unlooked-for might in the grasp of the gentlest, idlest, most gracefully made, and indolently tempered of his born foes and prey, “the swells,” that he let himself be forced along backward in sheer passive paralysis of astonishment, while Bertie, profoundly insensible to the tumult that began to rise and roar about him, from those who were not too absorbed in the business of the morning to note what took place, thrust him along in the single clasp of his right hand outward to where the running ground swept past the Stand, and threw him lightly, easily, just as one may throw a lap-dog to take his bath, into the artificial ditch filled with water that the Seraph had pointed out as “a teaser.” The man fell unhurt, unbruised, so gently was he dropped on his back among the muddy, chilly water, and the overhanging brambles; and, as he rose from the ducking, a shudder of ferocious and filthy oaths poured from his lips, increased tenfold by the uproarious laughter of the crowd, who knew him as “a welsher,” and thought him only too well served.

Policemen rushed in at all points, rural and metropolitan, breathless, austere, and, of course, too late. Bertie turned to them, with a slight wave of his hand, to sign them away.

“Don’t trouble yourselves! It’s nothing you could interfere in; take care that person doesn’t come into the betting ring again, that’s all.”

The Seraph, Lord Constantia, Wentworth, and may others of his set, catching sight of the turmoil and of “Beauty,” with the great square-set figure of Ben Davis pressed before him through the mob, forced their way up as quickly as they could; but before they reached the spot Cecil was sauntering back to meet them, cool and listless, and a little bored with so much exertion; his cheroot in his mouth, and his ear serenely deaf to the clamor about the ditch.

He looked apologetically at the Seraph and the others; he felt some apology was required for having so far wandered from all the canons of his Order as to have approached “a row,” and run the risk of a scene.

“Turf must be cleared of these scamps, you see,” he said, with a half sigh. “Law can’t do anything. Fellow was trying to ‘get on’ with the young one, too. Don’t bet with those riff-raff, Berk. The great bookmakers will make you dead money, and the little Legs will do worse to you.”

The boy hung his head, but looked sulky rather than thankful for his brother’s interference with himself and the welsher.

“You have done the Turf a service, Beauty — a very great service; there’s no doubt about that,” said the Seraph. “Law can’t do anything, as you say; opinion must clear the ring of such rascals; a welsher ought not to dare to show his face here; but, at the same time, you oughtn’t to have gone unsteadying your muscle, and risking the firmness of your hand at such a minute as this, with pitching that fellow over. Why couldn’t you wait till afterward? or have let me do it?”

“My dear Seraph,” murmured Bertie languidly, “I’ve gone in today for exertion; a little more or less is nothing. Besides, welshers are slippery dogs, you know.”

He did not add that it was having seen Ben Davis taking odds with his young brother which had spurred him to such instantaneous action with that disreputable personage; who, beyond doubt, only received a tithe part of his deserts, and merited to be double-thonged off every course in the kingdom.

Rake at that instant darted, panting like a hot retriever, out of the throng. “Mr. Cecil, sir, will you please come to the weights — the saddling bell’s a-going to ring, and —”

“Tell them to wait for me; I shall only be twenty minutes dressing,” said Cecil quietly, regardless that the time at which the horses should have been at the starting-post was then clanging from the clock within the Grand Stand. Did you ever go to a gentleman-rider race where the jocks were not at least an hour behind time, and considered themselves, on the whole, very tolerably punctual? At last, however, he sauntered into the dressing-shed, and was aided by Rake into tops that had at length achieved a spotless triumph, and the scarlet gold-embroidered jacket of his fair friend’s art, with white hoops and the “Coeur Vaillant se fait Royaume” on the collar, and the white, gleaming sash to be worn across it, fringed by the same fair hands with silver.

Meanwhile the “welsher,” driven off the course by a hooting and indignant crowd, shaking the water from his clothes, with bitter oaths, and livid with a deadly passion at his exile from the harvest-field of his lawless gleanings, went his way, with a savage vow of vengeance against the “d —— d dandy,” the “Guards’ swell,” who had shown him up before the world as the scoundrel he was.

The bell was clanging and clashing passionately, as Cecil at last went down to the weights, all his friends of the Household about him, and all standing “crushers” on their champion, for their stringent esprit de corps was involved, and the Guards are never backward in putting their gold down, as all the world knows. In the inclosure, the cynosure of devouring eyes, stood the King, with the sangfroid of a superb gentleman, amid the clamor raging round him, one delicate ear laid back now and them, but otherwise indifferent to the din; with his coat glistening like satin, the beautiful tracery of vein and muscle, like the veins of vine-leaves, standing out on the glossy, clear-carved neck that had the arch of Circassia, and his dark, antelope eyes gazing with a gentle, pensive earnestness on the shouting crowd.

His rivals, too, were beyond par in fitness and in condition, and there were magnificent animals among them. Bay Regent was a huge raking chestnut, upward of sixteen hands, and enormously powerful, with very fine shoulders, and an all-over-like-going head; he belonged to a Colonel in the Rifles, but was to be ridden by Jimmy Delmar of the 10th Lancers, whose colors were violet with orange hoops. Montacute’s horse, Pas de Charge, which carried all the money of the Heavy Cavalry — Montacute himself being in the Dragoon Guards — was of much the same order; a black hunter with racing-blood in his loins and withers that assured any amount of force, and no fault but that of a rather coarse head, traceable to a slur on his ‘scutcheon on the distaff side from a plebeian great-grandmother, who had been a cart mare, the only stain on his otherwise faultless pedigree. However, she had given him her massive shoulders, so that he was in some sense a gainer by her, after all. Wild Geranium was a beautiful creature enough: a bright bay Irish mare, with that rich red gloss that is like the glow of a horse chestnut; very perfect in shape, though a trifle light perhaps, and with not quite strength enough in neck or barrel; she would jump the fences of her own paddock half a dozen times a day for sheer amusement, and was game for anything1. She was entered by Cartouche of the Enniskillens, to be ridden by “Baby Grafton,” of the same corps, a feather-weight, and quite a boy, but with plenty of science in him. These were the three favorites. Day Star ran them close, the property of Durham Vavassour, of the Scots Greys, and to be ridden by his owner; a handsome, flea-bitten, gray sixteen-hander, with ragged hips, and action that looked a trifle string-halty, but noble shoulders, and great force in the loins and withers; the rest of the field, though unusually excellent, did not find so many “sweet voices” for them, and were not so much to be feared; each starter was, of course, much backed by his party, but the betting was tolerably even on these four — all famous steeple-chasers — the King at one time, and Bay Regent at another, slightly leading in the Ring.

1 The portrait of this lady is that of a very esteemed young Irish beauty of my acquaintance; she this season did seventy-six miles on a warm June day, and ate her corn and tares afterward as if nothing had happened. She is six years old.

Thirty-two starters were hoisted up on the telegraph board, and as the field got at last underway, uncommonly handsome they looked, while the silk jackets of all the colors of the rainbow glittered in the bright noon-sun. As Forest King closed in, perfectly tranquil still, but beginning to glow and quiver all over with excitement, knowing as well as his rider the work that was before him, and longing for it in every muscle and every limb, while his eyes flashed fire as he pulled at the curb and tossed his head aloft, there went up a general shout of “Favorite!” His beauty told on the populace, and even somewhat on the professionals, though his legs kept a strong business prejudice against the working powers of “the Guards’ Crack.” The ladies began to lay dozens in gloves on him; not altogether for his points, which, perhaps, they hardly appreciated, but for his owner and rider, who, in the scarlet and gold, with the white sash across his chest, and a look of serene indifference on his face, they considered the handsomest man in the field. The Household is usually safe to win the suffrages of the sex.

In the throng on the course Rake instantly bonneted an audacious dealer who had ventured to consider that Forest King was “light and curby in the ‘ock.” “You’re a wise ’un, you are!” retorted the wrathful and ever-eloquent Rake; “there’s more strength in his clean flat legs, bless him! than in all the round, thick, mill-posts of your halfbreds, that have no more tendon than a bit of wood, and are just as flabby as a sponge!” Which hit the dealer home just as his hat was hit over his eyes; Rake’s arguments being unquestionable in their force.

The thoroughbreds pulled and fretted and swerved in their impatience; one or two overcontumacious bolted incontinently, others put their heads between their knees in the endeavor to draw their riders over their withers; Wild Geranium reared straight upright, fidgeted all over with longing to be off, passaged with the prettiest, wickedest grace in the world, and would have given the world to neigh if she had dared, but she knew it would be very bad style, so, like an aristocrat as she was, restrained herself; Bay Regent almost sawed Jimmy Delmar’s arms off, looking like a Titan Bucephalus; while Forest King, with his nostrils dilated till the scarlet tinge on them glowed in the sun, his muscles quivering with excitement as intense as the little Irish mare’s, and all his Eastern and English blood on fire for the fray, stood steady as a statue for all that, under the curb of a hand light as a woman’s, but firm as iron to control, and used to guide him by the slightest touch.

All eyes were on that throng of the first mounts in the Service; brilliant glances by the hundred gleamed down behind hothouse bouquets of their chosen color, eager ones by the thousand stared thirstily from the crowded course, the roar of the Ring subsided for a second, a breathless attention and suspense succeeded it; the Guardsmen sat on their drags, or lounged near the ladies with their race-glasses ready, and their habitual expression of gentle and resigned weariness in nowise altered because the Household, all in all, had from sixty to seventy thousand on the event; and the Seraph murmured mournfully to his cheroot, “that chestnut’s no end fit,” strong as his faith was in the champion of the Brigades.

A moment’s good start was caught — the flag dropped — off they went sweeping out for the first second like a line of Cavalry about to charge.

Another moment and they were scattered over the first field. Forest King, Wild Geranium, and Bay Regent leading for two lengths, when Montacute, with his habitual “fast burst,” sent Pas de Charge past them like lightning. The Irish mare gave a rush and got alongside of him; the King would have done the same, but Cecil checked him and kept him in that cool, swinging canter which covered the grassland so lightly; Bay Regent’s vast thundering stride was Olympian, but Jimmy Delmar saw his worst foe in the “Guards’ Crack,” and waited on him warily, riding superbly himself.

The first fence disposed of half the field; they crossed the second in the same order, Wild Geranium racing neck to neck with Pas de Charge; the King was all athirst to join the duello, but his owner kept him gently back, saving his pace and lifting him over the jumps as easily as a lapwing. The second fence proved a cropper to several, some awkward falls took place over it, and tailing commenced; after the third field, which was heavy plow, all knocked off but eight, and the real struggle began in sharp earnest: a good dozen, who had shown a splendid stride over the grass, being down up by the terrible work on the clods.

The five favorites had it all to themselves; Day Star pounding onward at tremendous speed, Pas de Charge giving slight symptoms of distress owing to the madness of his first burst, the Irish mare literally flying ahead of him, Forest King and the chestnut waiting on one another.

In the Grand Stand the Seraph’s eyes strained after the Scarlet and White, and he muttered in his mustaches, “Ye gods, what’s up! The world’s coming to an end! — Beauty’s turned cautious!”

Cautious, indeed — with that giant of Pytchley fame running neck to neck by him; cautious — with two-thirds of the course unrun, and all the yawners yet to come; cautious — with the blood of Forest King lashing to boiling heat, and the wondrous greyhound stride stretching out faster and faster beneath him, ready at a touch to break away and take the lead; but he would be reckless enough by and by; reckless, as his nature was, under the indolent serenity of habit.

Two more fences came, laced high and stiff with the Shire thorn, and with scarce twenty feet between them, the heavy plowed land leading to them, clotted, and black, and hard, with the fresh earthy scent steaming up as the hoofs struck the clods with a dull thunder — Pas de Charge rose to the first: distressed too early, his hind feet caught in the thorn, and he came down, rolling clear of his rider; Montacute picked him up with true science, but the day was lost to the Heavy Cavalry man. Forest King went in and out over both like a bird and led for the first time; the chestnut was not to be beat at fencing and ran even with him; Wild Geranium flew still as fleet as a deer — true to her sex, she would not bear rivalry; but little Grafton, though he rode like a professional, was but a young one, and went too wildly; her spirit wanted cooler curb.

And now only Cecil loosened the King to his full will and his full speed. Now only the beautiful Arab head was stretched like a racer’s in the run-in for the Derby, and the grand stride swept out till the hoofs seemed never to touch the dark earth they skimmed over; neither whip nor spur was needed, Bertie had only to leave the gallant temper and the generous fire that were roused in their might to go their way and hold their own. His hands were low, his head a little back, his face very calm; the eyes only had a daring, eager, resolute will lighting them; Brixworth lay before him. He knew well what Forest King could do; but he did not know how great the chestnut Regent’s powers might be.

The water gleamed before them, brown and swollen, and deepened with the meltings of winter snows a month before; the brook that has brought so many to grief over its famous banks since cavaliers leaped it with their falcon on their wrist, or the mellow note of the horn rang over the woods in the hunting days of Stuart reigns. They knew it well, that long line, shimmering there in the sunlight, the test that all must pass who go in for the Soldiers’ Blue Ribbon. Forest King scented water, and went on with his ears pointed, and his greyhound stride lengthening, quickening, gathering up all its force and its impetus for the leap that was before — then, like the rise and the swoop of a heron, he spanned the water, and, landing clear, launched forward with the lunge of a spear darted through air. Brixworth was passed — the Scarlet and White, a mere gleam of bright color, a mere speck in the landscape, to the breathless crowds in the stand, sped on over the brown and level grassland; two and a quarter miles done in four minutes and twenty seconds. Bay Regent was scarcely behind him; the chestnut abhorred the water, but a finer trained hunter was never sent over the Shires, and Jimmy Delmar rode like Grimshaw himself. The giant took the leap in magnificent style, and thundered on neck and neck with the “Guards’ Crack.” The Irish mare followed, and with miraculous gameness, landed safely; but her hind legs slipped on the bank, a moment was lost, and “Baby” Grafton scarce knew enough to recover it, though he scoured on, nothing daunted.

Pas de Charge, much behind, refused the yawner; his strength was not more than his courage, but both had been strained too severely at first. Montacute struck the spurs into him with a savage blow over the head; the madness was its own punishment; the poor brute rose blindly to the jump, and missed the bank with a reel and a crash; Sir Eyre was hurled out into the brook, and the hope of the Heavies lay there with his breast and forelegs resting on the ground, his hindquarters in the water, and his neck broken. Pas de Charge would never again see the starting flag waved, or hear the music of the hounds, or feel the gallant life throb and glow through him at the rallying notes of the horn. His race was run.

Not knowing, or looking, or heeding what happened behind, the trio tore on over the meadow and the plowed; the two favorites neck by neck, the game little mare hopelessly behind through that one fatal moment over Brixworth. The turning-flags were passed; from the crowds on the course a great hoarse roar came louder and louder, and the shouts rang, changing every second: “Forest King wins!” “Bay Regent wins!” “Scarlet and White’s ahead!” “Violet’s up with him!” “A cracker on the King!” “Ten to one on the Regent!” “Guards are over the fence first!” “Guards are winning!” “Guards are losing!” “Guards are beat!”

Were they?

As the shout rose, Cecil’s left stirrup-leather snapped and gave way; at the pace they were going most men, aye, and good riders too, would have been hurled out of their saddle by the shock; he scarcely swerved; a moment to ease the King and to recover his equilibrium, then he took the pace up again as though nothing had chanced. And his comrades of the Household, when they saw this through their race-glasses, broke through their serenity and burst into a cheer that echoed over the grasslands and the coppices like a clarion, the grand rich voice of the Seraph leading foremost and loudest — a cheer that rolled mellow and triumphant down the cold, bright air like the blast of trumpets, and thrilled on Bertie’s ear where he came down the course, a mile away. It made his heart beat quicker with a victorious, headlong delight, as his knees pressed close into Forest King’s flanks, and, half stirrupless like the Arabs, he thundered forward to the greatest riding feat of his life. His face was very calm still, but his blood was in tumult, the delirium of pace had got on him, a minute of life like this was worth a year, and he knew that he would win or die for it, as the land seemed to fly like a black sheet under him, and, in that killing speed, fence and hedge and double and water all went by him like a dream; whirling underneath him as the gray stretched, stomach to earth, over the level, and rose to leap after leap.

For that instant’s pause, when the stirrup broke, threatened to lose him the race.

He was more than a length behind the Regent, whose hoofs as they dashed the ground up sounded like thunder, and for whose herculean strength the plow had no terrors; it was more than the lead to keep now, there was ground to cover — and the King was losing like Wild Geranium. Cecil felt drunk with that strong, keen west wind that blew so strongly in his teeth, a passionate excitation was in him, every breath of winter air that rushed in its bracing currents round him seemed to lash him like a stripe — the Household to look on and see him beaten!

Certain wild blood, that lay latent in Cecil under the tranquil gentleness of temper and of custom, woke and had the mastery; he set his teeth hard, and his hands clinched like steel on the bridle. “Oh, my beauty, my beauty!” he cried, all unconsciously half aloud, as they cleared the thirty-sixth fence. “Kill me if you like, but don’t fail me!”

As though Forest King heard the prayer and answered it with all his hero’s heart, the splendid form launched faster out, the stretching stride stretched farther yet with lightning spontaneity, every fiber strained, every nerve struggled; with a magnificent bound like an antelope the gray recovered the ground he had lost, and passed Bay Regent by a quarter-length. It was a neck-and-neck race once more, across the three meadows with the last and lower fences that were between them and the final leap of all; that ditch of artificial water with the towering double hedge of oak rails and of blackthorn, that was reared black and grim and well-nigh hopeless just in front of the Grand Stand. A roar like the roar of the sea broke up from the thronged course as the crowd hung breathless on the even race; ten thousand shouts rang as thrice ten thousand eyes watched the closing contest, as superb a sight as the Shires ever saw; while the two ran together — the gigantic chestnut, with every massive sinew swelled and strained to tension, side by side with the marvelous grace, the shining flanks, and the Arabian-like head of the Guards’ horse.

Louder and wilder the shrieked tumult rose: “The chestnut beats!” “The gray beats!” “Scarlet’s ahead!” “Bay Regent’s caught him!” “Violet’s winning, Violet’s wining!” “The King’s neck by neck!” “The King’s beating!” “The Guards will get it!” “The Guard’s crack has it!” “Not yet, not yet!” “Violet will thrash him at the jump!” “Now for it!” “The Guards, the Guards, the Guards!” “Scarlet will win!” “The King has the finish!” “No, no, no, no!”

Sent along at a pace that Epsom flat never eclipsed, sweeping by the Grand Stand like the flash of electric flame, they ran side to side one moment more; their foam flung on each other’s withers, their breath hot in each other’s nostrils, while the dark earth flew beneath their stride. The blackthorn was in front behind five bars of solid oak; the water yawning on its farther side, black and deep and fenced, twelve feet wide if it were an inch, with the same thorn wall beyond it; a leap no horse should have been given, no Steward should have set. Cecil pressed his knees closer and closer, and worked the gallant hero for the test; the surging roar of the throng, though so close, was dull on his ear; he heard nothing, knew nothing, saw nothing but that lean chestnut head beside him, the dull thud on the turf of the flying gallop, and the black wall that reared in his face. Forest King had done so much, could he have stay and strength for this?

Cecil’s hands clinched unconsciously on the bridle, and his face was very pale — pale with excitation — as his foot, where the stirrup was broken, crushed closer and harder against the gray’s flanks.

“Oh, my darling, my beauty — now!”

One touch of the spur — the first — and Forest King rose at the leap, all the life and power there were in him gathered for one superhuman and crowning effort; a flash of time, not half a second in duration, and he was lifted in the air higher, and higher, and higher in the cold, fresh, wild winter wind, stakes and rails, and thorn and water lay beneath him black and gaunt and shapeless, yawning like a grave; one bound, even in mid-air, one last convulsive impulse of the gathered limbs, and Forest King was over!

And as he galloped up the straight run-in, he was alone.

Bay Regent had refused the leap.

As the gray swept to the Judge’s chair, the air was rent with deafening cheers that seemed to reel like drunken shouts from the multitude. “The Guards win, the Guards win!” and when his rider pulled up at the distance with the full sun shining on the scarlet and white, with the gold glisten of the embroidered “Coeur Vaillant se fait Royaume,” Forest King stood in all his glory, winner of the Soldiers’ Blue Ribbon, by a feat without its parallel in all the annals of the Gold Vase.

But, as the crowd surged about him, and the mad cheering crowned his victory, and the Household in the splendor of their triumph and the fullness of their gratitude rushed from the drags and the stands to cluster to his saddle, Bertie looked as serenely and listlessly nonchalant as of old, while he nodded to the Seraph with a gentle smile.

“Rather a close finish, eh? Have you any Moselle Cup going there? I’m a little thirsty.”

Outsiders would much sooner have thought him defeated than triumphant; no one, who had not known him, could possibly have imagined that he had been successful; an ordinary spectator would have concluded that, judging by the resigned weariness of his features, he had won the race greatly against his own will, and to his own infinite ennui. No one could have dreamt that he was thinking in his heart of hearts how passionately he loved the gallant beast that had been victor with him, and that, if he had followed out the momentary impulse in him, he could have put his arms round the noble bowed neck and kissed the horse like a woman!

The Moselle Cup was brought to refresh the tired champion, and before he drank it Bertie glanced at a certain place in the Grand Stand and bent his head as the cup touched his lips: it was a dedication of his victory to the Queen of Beauty. Then he threw himself lightly out of saddle, and, as Forest King was led away for the after-ceremony of bottling, rubbing, and clothing, his rider, regardless of the roar and hubbub of the course, and of the tumultuous cheers that welcomed both him and his horse from the men who pressed round him, into whose pockets he had put thousands upon thousands, and whose ringing hurrahs greeted the “Guards’ Crack,” passed straight up toward Jimmy Delmar and held out his hand.

“You gave me a close thing, Major Delmar. The Vase is as much yours as mine; if your chestnut had been as good a water jumper as he is a fencer, we should have been neck to neck at the finish.”

The browned Indian-sunned face of the Lancer broke up into a cordial smile, and he shook the hand held out to him warmly; defeat and disappointment had cut him to the core, for Jimmy was the first riding man of the Light Cavalry; but he would not have been the frank campaigner that he was if he had not responded to the graceful and generous overture of his rival and conqueror.

“Oh, I can take a beating!” he said good-humoredly; “at any rate, I am beat by the Guards; and it is very little humiliation to lose against such riding as yours and such a magnificent brute as your King. I congratulate you most heartily, most sincerely.”

And he meant it, too. Jimmy never canted, nor did he ever throw the blame, with paltry, savage vindictiveness, on the horse he had ridden. Some men there are — their name is legion — who never allow that it is their fault when they are “nowhere”— oh, no! it is the “cursed screw” always, according to them. But a very good rider will not tell you that.

Cecil, while he talked, was glancing up at the Grand Stand, and when the others dispersed to look over the horses, and he had put himself out of his shell into his sealskin in the dressing-shed, he went up thither without a moment’s loss of time.

He knew them all; those dainty beauties with their delicate cheeks just brightened by the western winterly wind, and their rich furs and laces glowing among the colors of their respective heroes; he was the pet of them all; “Beauty” had the suffrages of the sex without exception; he was received with bright smiles and graceful congratulations, even from those who had espoused Eyre Montacute’s cause, and still fluttered their losing azure, though the poor hunter lay dead, with his back broken, and a pistol-ball mercifully sent through his brains — the martyr to a man’s hot haste, as the dumb things have ever been since creation began.

Cecil passed them as rapidly as he could for one so well received by them, and made his way to the center of the Stand, to the same spot at which he had glanced when he had drunk the Moselle.

A lady turned to him; she looked like a rose camellia in her floating scarlet and white, just toned down and made perfect by a shower of Spanish lace; a beautiful brunette, dashing, yet delicate; a little fast, yet intensely thoroughbred; a coquette who would smoke a cigarette, yet a peeress who would never lose her dignity.

“Au coeur vaillant rien d’impossible!” she said, with an envoi of her lorgnon, and a smile that should have intoxicated him — a smile that might have rewarded a Richepanse for a Hohenlinden. “Superbly ridden! I absolutely trembled for you as you lifted the King to that last leap. It was terrible!”

It was terrible; and a woman, to say nothing of a woman who was in love with him, might well have felt a heart-sick fear at sight of that yawning water, and those towering walls of blackthorn, where one touch of the hoofs on the topmost bough, one spring too short of the gathered limbs, must have been death to both horse and rider. But, as she said it, she was smiling, radiant, full of easy calm and racing interest, as became her ladyship who had had “bets at even” before now on Goodwood fillies, and could lead the first flight over the Belvoir and the Quorn countries. It was possible that her ladyship was too thoroughbred not to see a man killed over the oak-rails without deviating into unseemly emotion, or being capable of such bad style as to be agitated.

Bertie, however, in answer, threw the tenderest eloquence into his eyes; very learned in such eloquence.

“If I could not have been victorious while you looked on, I would at least not have lived to meet you here!”

She laughed a little, so did he; they were used to exchange these passages in an admirably artistic masquerade, but it was always a little droll to each of them to see the other wear the domino of sentiment, and neither had much credence in the other.

“What a preux chevalier!” cried his Queen of Beauty. “You would have died in a ditch out of homage to me. Who shall say that chivalry is past! Tell me, Bertie; is it very delightful, that desperate effort to break your neck? It looks pleasant, to judge by its effects. It is the only thing in the world that amuses you!”

“Well — there is a great deal to be said for it,” replied Bertie musingly. “You see, until one has broken one’s neck, the excitement of the thing isn’t totally worn out; can’t be, naturally, because the — what-do-you-call-it? — consummation isn’t attained till then. The worst of it is, it’s getting commonplace, getting vulgar; such a number break their necks, doing Alps and that sort of thing, that we shall have nothing at all left to ourselves soon.”

“Not even the monopoly of sporting suicide! Very hard,” said her ladyship, with the lowest, most languid laugh in the world, very like “Beauty’s” own, save that it had a considerable indication of studied affectation, of which he, however much of a dandy he was, was wholly guiltless. “Well! you won magnificently; that little black man, who is he? Lancers, somebody said? — ran you so fearfully close. I really thought at one time that the Guards had lost.”

“Do you suppose that a man happy enough to wear Lady Guenevere’s colors could lose? An embroidered scarf given by such hands has been a gage of victory ever since the days of tournaments!” murmured Cecil with the softest tenderness, but just enough laziness in the tone and laughter in the eye to make it highly doubtful whether he was not laughing both at her and at himself, and was wondering why the deuce a fellow had to talk such nonsense. Yet she was Lady Guenevere, with whom he had been in love ever since they stayed together at Belvoir for the Croxton Park week the autumn previous; and who was beautiful enough to make their “friendship” as enchanting as a page out of the “Decamerone.” And while he bent over her, flirting in the fashion that made him the darling of the drawing-rooms, and looking down into her superb Velasquez eyes, he did not know, and if he had known would have been careless of it, that afar off, while with rage, and with his gaze straining on to the course through his race-glass, Ben Davis, “the welsher,” who had watched the finish — watched the “Guards’ Crack” landed at the distance — muttered, with a mastiff’s savage growl:

“He wins, does he? Curse him! The d —— d swell — he shan’t win long.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter3.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06