Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 6.

The End of a Ringing Run.

“Tally-ho! is the word, clap spurs and let’s follow. The world has no charm like a rattling view-halloa!”

Is hardly to be denied by anybody in this land of fast bursts and gallant M. F. H.‘s, whether they “ride to hunt,” or “hunt to ride,” in the immortal distinction of Assheton Smith’s old whip; the latter class, by the bye, becoming far and away the larger, in these days of rattling gallops and desperate breathers. Who cares to patter after a sly old dog fox, that, fat and wary, leads the pack a tedious, interminable wind, in and out through gorse and spinney, bricks himself up in a drain, and takes an hour to be dug out, dodges about till twilight, and makes the hounds pick the scent slowly and wretchedly over marsh and through water? Who would not give fifty guineas a second for the glorious thirty minutes of racing that show steam and steel over fence and fallow in a clipping rush, without a check from find to finish? So be it ever! The riding that graces the Shires, that makes Tedworth and Pytchley, the Duke’s and the Fitzwilliam’s, household words and “names beloved”— that fills Melton and Market Harborough, and makes the best flirts of the ballroom gallop fifteen miles to covert, careless of hail or rain, mire or slush, mist or cold, so long as it is a fine scenting wind — is the same riding that sent the Six Hundred down in to the blaze of the Muscovite guns; that in our fathers’ days gave to Grant’s Hussars their swoop, like eagles, on to the rearguard at Morales, and that, in the grand old East and the rich trackless West, makes exiled campaigners with high English names seek and win an aristeia of their own at the head of their wild Irregular Horse, who would charge hell itself at their bidding.

Now in all the service there was not a man who loved hunting better than Bertie. Though he was incorrigibly lazy, and inconceivably effeminate in every one of his habits; though he suggested a portable lounging-chair as an improvement at battues, so that you might shoot sitting; drove to every breakfast and garden party in the season in his brougham with the blinds down lest a grain of dust should touch him; thought a waltz too exhaustive, and a saunter down Pall Mall too tiring, and asked to have the end of a novel told him in the clubs, because it was too much trouble to read on a warm day; though he was more indolent than any spoiled Creole —“Beauty” never failed to head the first flight, and adored a hard day cross country, with an east wind in his eyes and the sleet in his teeth. The only trouble was to make him get up in time for it.

“Mr. Cecil, sir; if you please, the drag will be round in ten minutes,” said Rake, with a dash of desperation for the seventh time into his chamber, one fine scenting morning.

“I don’t please,” answered Cecil sleepily, finishing his cup of coffee, and reading a novel of La Demirep’s.

“The other gentlemen are all down, sir, and you will be too late.”

“Not a bit. They must wait for me,” yawned Bertie.

Crash came the Seraph’s thunder on the panels of the door, and a strong volume of Turkish through the keyhole: “Beauty, Beauty, are you dead?”

“Now, what an inconsequent question!” expostulated Cecil, with appealing rebuke. “If a fellow were dead, how the devil could he say he was? Do be logical, Seraph.”

“Get up!” cried the Seraph with a deafening rataplan, and a final dash of his colossal stature into the chamber. “We’ve all done breakfast; the traps are coming round; you’ll be an hour behind time at the meet.”

Bertie lifted his eyes with plaintive resignation from the Demirep’s yellow-papered romance.

“I’m really in an interesting chapter: Aglae has just had a marquis kill his son, and two brothers kill each other in the Bois, about her, and is on the point of discovering a man she’s in love with to be her own grandfather; the complication is absolutely thrilling,” murmured Beauty, whom nothing could ever “thrill”— not even plunging down the Matterhorn, losing “long odds in thou’” over the Oaks, or being sunned in the eyes of the fairest woman of Europe.

The Seraph laughed, and tossed the volume straight to the other end of the chamber.

“Confound you, Beauty; get up!”

“Never swear, Seraph; not ever so mildly,” yawned Cecil, “it’s gone out, you know; only the cads and the clergy can damn one nowadays; it’s such bad style to be so impulsive. Look! You have broken the back of my Demirep!”

“You deserve to break the King’s back over the first cropper,” laughed the Seraph. “Do get up!”

“Bother!” sighed the victim, raising himself with reluctance, while the Seraph disappeared in a cloud of Turkish.

Neither Bertie’s indolence nor his insouciance was assumed; utter carelessness was his nature, utter impassability was his habit, and he was truly for the moment loath to leave his bed, his coffee, and his novel; he must have his leg over the saddle, and feel the strain on his arms of that “pulling” pace with which the King always went when once he settled into his stride, before he would really think about winning.

The hunting breakfasts of our forefathers and of our present squires found no favor with Bertie; a slice of game and a glass of Curacoa were all he kept the drag waiting to swallow; and the four bays going at a pelting pace, he and the rest of the Household who were gathered at Royallieu were by good luck in time for the throw-off of the Quorn, where the hero o’ the Blue Ribbon was dancing impatiently under Willon’s hand, scenting the fresh, keen, sunny air, and knowing as well what all those bits of scarlet straying in through field and lane, gate and gap, meant, as well as though the merry notes of the master’s horn were winding over the gorse. The meet was brilliant and very large; showing such a gathering as only the Melton country can; and foremost among the crowd of carriages, hacks, and hunters, were the beautiful roan mare Vivandiere of the Lady Guenevere, mounted by that exquisite peeress in her violet habit and her tiny velvet hat; and the pony equipage of the Zu–Zu, all glittering with azure and silver, leopard rugs, and snowy reins: the breadth of half an acre of grassland was between them, but the groups of men about them were tolerably equal for number and for rank.

“Take Zu–Zu off my hands for this morning, Seraph; there’s a good fellow,” murmured Cecil, as he swung himself into saddle. The Seraph gave a leonine growl, sighed, and acquiesced. He detested women in the hunting-field, but that sweetest tempered giant of the Brigades never refused anything to anybody — much less to “Beauty.”

To an uninitiated mind it would have seemed marvelous and beautiful in its combination of simplicity and intricacy, to have noted the delicate tactics with which Bertie conducted himself between his two claimants — bending to his Countess with a reverent devotion that assuaged whatever of incensed perception of her unacknowledged rival might be silently lurking in her proud heart; wheeling up to the pony-trap under cover of speaking to the men from Egerton Lodge, and restoring the Zu–Zu from sulkiness, by a propitiatory offer of a little gold sherry-flash, studded with turquoises, just ordered for her from Regent Street, which, however, she ungraciously contemned, because she thought it had only cost twenty guineas; anchoring the victimized Seraph beside her by an adroit “Ah! by the way, Rock, give Zu–Zu one of your rose-scented papelitos; she’s been wild to smoke them”; and leaving the Zu–Zu content at securing a future Duke, was free to canter back and flirt on the offside of Vivandiere, till the “signal,” the “cast,” made with consummate craft, the waving of the white sterns among the brushwood, the tightening of girths, the throwing away of cigars, the challenge, the whimper, and the “stole away!” sent the field headlong down the course after as fine a long-legged greyhound fox as ever carried a brush.

Away he went in a rattling spin, breaking straight at once for the open, the hounds on the scent like mad: with a tally-ho that thundered through the cloudless, crisp, cold, glittering noon, the field dashed off pell-mell; the violet habit of her ladyship, and the azure skirts of the Zu–Zu foremost of all in the rush through the spinneys while Cecil on the King, and the Seraph on a magnificent white weight-carrier, as thoroughbred and colossal as himself, led the way with them. The scent was hot as death in the spinneys, and the pack raced till nothing but a good one could live with them; few but good ones, however, were to be found with the Quorn, and the field held together superbly over the first fence, and on across the grassland, the game old fox giving no sign of going to covert, but running straight as a crow flies, while the pace grew terrific.

“Beats cock-fighting!” cried the Zu–Zu, while her blue skirts fluttered in the wind, as she lifted Cecil’s brown mare, very cleverly, over a bilberry hedge, and set her little white teeth with a will on the Seraph’s attar-of-rose cigarette. Lady Guenevere heard the words as Vivandiere rose in the air with the light bound of a roe, and a slight superb dash of scorn came into her haughty eyes for the moment; she never seemed to know that “that person” in the azure habit even existed, but the contempt awoke in her, and shone in her glance, while she rode on as that fair leader of the Belvoir and Pytchley alone could ride over the fallows.

The steam was on at full pressure, the hounds held close to his brush — heads up, sterns down — running still straight as an arrow over the open, past coppice and covert, through gorse and spinney, without a sign of the fox making for shelter. Fence and double, hedge and brook, soon scattered the field; straying off far and wide, and coming to grief with lots of “downers,” it grew select, and few but the crack men could keep the hounds in view. “Catch ’em who can,” was the one mot d’ordre, for they were literally racing; the line-hunters never losing the scent a second, as the fox, taking to dodging, made all the trouble he could for them through the rides of the woods. Their working was magnificent, and, heading him, they ran him round and round in a ring, viewed him for a second, and drove him out of covert once more into the pastures, while they laid on at a hotter scent and flew after him like staghounds.

Only half a dozen were up with them now; the pace was tremendous, though all over grass; here a flight of posts and rails tried the muscle of the boldest; there a bullfinch yawned behind the blackthorn; here a big fence towered; there a brook rushed angrily among its rushes; while the keen, easterly wind blew over the meadows, and the pack streamed along like the white trail of a plume. Cecil “showed the way” with the self-same stride and the self-same fencing as had won him the Vase. Lady Guenevere and the Seraph were running almost even with him; three of the Household farther down; the Zu–Zu and some Melton men two meadows off; the rest of the field, nowhere. Fifty-two minutes had gone by in that splendid running, without a single check, while the fox raced as gamely and as fast as at the find; the speed was like lightning past the brown woods, the dark-green pine plantations, the hedges, bright with scarlet berries; through the green low-lying grasslands, and the winding drives of coverts, and the boles of ash-hued beech trunks, whose roots the violets were just purpling with their blossom; while far away stretched the blue haze of the distance, and above-head a flight of rooks cawed merrily in the bright air, soon left far off as the pack swept onward in the most brilliant thing of the hunting year.

“Water! Take care!” cried Cecil, with a warning wave of his hand as the hounds, with a splash like a torrent, dashed up to their necks in a broad, brawling brook that Reynard had swam in first-rate style, and struggled as best they could after him. It was an awkward bit, with bad taking-off and a villainous mud-bank for landing; and the water, thickened and swollen with recent rains, had made all the land that sloped to it miry and soft as sponge. It was the risk of life and limb to try it; but all who still viewed the hounds, catching Bertie’s shout of warning, worked their horses up for it, and charged toward it as hotly as troops charge a square. Forest King was over like a bird; the winner of the Grand Military was not to be daunted by all the puny streams of the Shires; the artistic riding of the Countess landed Vivandiere, with a beautiful clear spring, after him by a couple of lengths: the Seraph’s handsome white hunter, brought up at a headlong gallop with characteristic careless dash and fine science mingled, cleared it; but, falling with a mighty crash, gave him a purler on the opposite side, and was within an inch of striking him dead with his hoof in frantic struggles to recover. The Seraph, however, was on his legs with a rapidity marvelous in a six-foot-three son of Anak, picked up the horse, threw himself into saddle, and dashed off again quick as lightning, with his scarlet stained all over, and his long fair mustaches floating in the wind. The Zu–Zu turned Mother of Pearl back with a fiery French oath; she hated to be “cut down,” but she liked still less to risk her neck; and two of the Household were already treated to “crackers” that disabled them for the day, while one Melton man was pitched head foremost into the brook, and another was sitting dolorously on the bank with his horse’s head in his lap, and the poor brute’s spine broken. There were only three of the first riders in England now alone with the hounds, who, with a cold scent as the fox led them through the angular corner of a thick pheasant covert, stuck like wax to the line, and working him out, viewed him once more, for one wild, breathless, tantalizing second; and through the straggling street of a little hamlet, and got him out again on the level pasture and across a fine line of hunting country, with the leafless woods and the low gates of a park far away to their westward.

“A guinea to a shilling that we kill him,” cried the flute-voice of her brilliant ladyship, as she ran a moment side by side with Forest King, and flashed her rich eyes on his rider; she had scorned the Zu–Zu, but on occasion she would use betting slang and racing slang with the daintiest grace in the world herself, without their polluting her lips. As though the old fox heard the wager, he swept in a bend round toward the woods on the right; making, with all the craft and speed there were in him, for the deep shelter of the boxwood and laurel. “After him, my beauties, my beauties — if he run there he’ll go to ground and save his brush!” thundered the Seraph, as though he were hunting his own hounds at Lyonnesse, who knew every tone of his rich clarion notes as well as they knew every wind of his horn. But the young ones of the pack saw Reynard’s move and his meaning as quickly as he did; having run fast before, they flew now; the pace was terrific. Two fences were crossed as though they were paper; the meadows raced with lightning speed, a ha-ha leaped, a gate cleared with a crashing jump, and in all the furious excitement of “view,” they tore down the mile-long length of an avenue, dashed into a flower garden, and smashing through a gay trellis-work of scarlet creeper, plunged into the home-paddock and killed with as loud a shout ringing over the country in the bright, sunny day as ever was echoed by the ringing cheers of the Shire; Cecil, the Seraph, and her victorious ladyship alone coming in for the glories of the “finish.”

“Never had a faster seventy minutes up-wind,” said Lady Guenevere, looking at the tiny jeweled watch, the size of a sixpence, that was set in the handle of her whip, as the brush, with all the compliments customary, was handed to her. She had won twenty before.

The park so unceremoniously entered belonged to a baronet, who, though he hunted little himself, honored the sport and scorned a vulpecide, he came out naturally and begged them to lunch. Lady Guenevere refused to dismount, but consented to take a biscuit and a little Lafitte, while clarets, liqueurs, and ales, with anything else they wanted, were brought to her companions. The stragglers strayed in; the M. F. H. came up just too late; the men, getting down, gathered about the Countess or lounged on the gray stone steps of the Elizabethan house. The sun shone brightly on the oriole casements, the antique gables, the twisted chimneys, all covered with crimson parasites and trailing ivy; the horses, the scarlet, the pack in the paddock adjacent, the shrubberies of laurel and araucaria, the sun-tinted terraces, made a bright and picturesque grouping. Bertie, with his hand on Vivandiere’s pommel, after taking a deep draught of sparkling Rhenish, looked on at it all with a pleasant sigh of amusement.

“By Jove!” he murmured softly, with a contented smile about his lips, “that was a ringing run!”

At that very moment, as the words were spoken, a groom approached him hastily; his young brother, whom he had scarcely seen since the find, had been thrown and taken home on a hurdle; the injuries were rumored to be serious.

Bertie’s smile faded, he looked very grave; world-spoiled as he was, reckless in everything, and egotist though he had long been by profession, he loved the lad.

When he entered the darkened room, with its faint chloroform odor, the boy lay like one dead, his bright hair scattered on the pillow, his chest bare, and his right arm broken and splintered. The deathlike coma was but the result of the chloroform; but Cecil never stayed to ask or remember that; he was by the couch in a single stride, and dropped down by it, his head bent on his arms.

“It was my fault. I should have looked to him.”

The words were very low; he hated that any should see he could still be such a fool as to feel. A minute, and he conquered himself; he rose, and with his hand on the boy’s fair tumbled curls, turned calmly to the medical men who, attached to the household, had been on the spot at once.

“What is the matter?”

“Fractured arm, contusion; nothing serious, nothing at all, at his age,” replied the surgeon. “When he wakes out of the lethargy he will tell you so himself, Mr. Cecil.”

“You are certain?”— do what he would his voice shook a little; his hand had not shaken, two days before, when nothing less than ruin or ransom had hung on his losing or winning the race.

“Perfectly certain,” answered the surgeon cheerfully. “He is not overstrong, to be sure, but the contusions are slight; he will be out of that bed in a fortnight.”

“How did he fall?”

But while they told him he scarcely heard; he was looking at the handsome Antinous-like form of the lad as it lay stretched helpless and stricken before him; and he was remembering the death-bed of their mother, when the only voice he had ever reverenced had whispered, as she pointed to the little child of three summers: “When you are a man take care of him, Bertie.” How had he fulfilled the injunction? Into how much brilliantly tinted evil had he not led him — by example, at least?

The surgeon touched his arm apologetically, after a lengthened silence:

“Your brother will be best unexcited when he comes to himself, sir; look — his eyes are unclosing now. Could you do me the favor to go to his lordship? His grief made him perfectly wild — so dangerous to his life at his age. We could only persuade him to retire, a few minutes ago, on the plea of Mr. Berkeley’s safety. If you could see him ——”

Cecil went, mechanically almost, and with a grave, weary depression on him; he was so unaccustomed to think at all, so utterly unaccustomed to think painfully, that he scarcely knew what ailed him. Had he had his old tact about him, he would have known how worse than useless it would be for him to seek his father in such a moment.

Lord Royallieu was lying back exhausted as Cecil opened the door of his private apartments, heavily darkened and heavily perfumed; at the turn of the lock he started up eagerly.

“What news of him?”

“Good news, I hope,” said Cecil gently, as he came forward. “The injuries are not grave, they tell me. I am so sorry that I never watched his fencing, but —”

The old man had not recognized him till he heard his voice, and he waved him off with a fierce, contemptuous gesture; the grief for his favorite’s danger, the wild terrors that his fears had conjured up, his almost frantic agony at the sight of the accident, had lashed him into passion well-nigh delirious.

“Out of my sight, sir,” he said fiercely, his mellow tones quivering with rage. “I wish to God you had been dead in a ditch before a hair of my boy’s had been touched. You live, and he lies dying there!”

Cecil bowed in silence; the brutality of the words wounded, but they did not offend him, for he knew his father was in that moment scarce better than a maniac, and he was touched with the haggard misery upon the old Peer’s face.

“Out of my sight, sir,” reechoed Lord Royallieu as he strode forward, passion lending vigor to his emaciated frame, while the dignity of his grand carriage blent with the furious force of his infuriated blindness. “If you had had the heart of a man, you would have saved such a child as that from his peril; warned him, watched him, succored him at least when he fell. Instead of that, you ride on and leave him to die, if death comes to him! You are safe, you are always safe. You try to kill yourself with every vice under heaven, and only get more strength, more grace, more pleasure from it — you are always safe because I hate you. Yes! I hate you, sir!”

No words can give the force, the malignity, the concentrated meaning with which the words were hurled out, as the majestic form of the old Lord towered in the shadow, with his hands outstretched as if in imprecation.

Cecil heard him in silence, doubting if he could hear aright, while the bitter phrases scathed and cut like scourges, but he bowed once more with the manner that was as inseparable from him as his nature.

“Hate is so exhausting; I regret I give you the trouble of it. May I ask why you favor me with it?”

“You may!” thundered his father, while his hawk’s eyes flashed their glittering fire. “You are like the man I cursed living and curse dead. You look at me with Alan Bertie’s eyes, you speak to me with Alan Bertie’s voice; I loved your mother, I worshiped her; but — you are his son, not mine!”

The secret doubt, treasured so long, was told at last. The blood flushed Bertie’s face a deep and burning scarlet; he started with an irrepressible tremor, like a man struck with a shot; he felt like one suddenly stabbed in the dark by a sure and a cruel hand. The insult and the amazement of the words seemed to paralyze him for the moment, the next he recovered himself, and lifted his head with as haughty a gesture as his father’s, his features perfectly composed again, and sterner than in all his careless, easy life they ever yet had looked.

“You lie, and you know you lie. My mother was pure as the angels. Henceforth you can be only to me a slanderer who has dared to taint the one name holy in my sight.”

And without another word, he turned and went out of the chamber. Yet, as the door closed, old habit was so strong on him that, even in his hot and bitter pain, and his bewildered sense of sudden outrage, he almost smiled at himself. “It is a mania; he does not know what he says,” he thought. “How could I be so melodramatic? We were like two men at the Porte St. Martin. Inflated language is such bad form!”

But the cruel stroke had not struck the less closely home, and gentle though his nature was, beyond all forgiveness from him was the dishonor of his mother’s memory.

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