Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 9.

The Painted Bit.

Baden was at its brightest. The Victoria, the Badischer Hof, the Stephanie Bauer were crowded. The Kurliste had a dazzling string of names. Imperial grandeur sauntered in slippers; chiefs, used to be saluted with “Ave Caesar Imperator,” smoked a papelito in peace over “Galignani.” Emperors gave a good-day to ministers who made their thrones beds of thorns, and little kings elbowed great capitalists who could have bought them all up in a morning’s work in the money market. Statecraft was in its slippers and diplomacy in its dressing-gown. Statesmen who had just been outwitting each other at the hazard of European politics laughed good-humoredly as they laid their gold down on the color. Rivals who had lately been quarreling over the knotty points of national frontiers now only vied for a twenty-franc rosebud from the bouquetiere. Knights of the Garter and Knights of the Golden Fleece, who had hated each other to deadliest rancor with the length of the Continent between them, got friends over a mutually good book on the Rastadt or Foret Noir. Brains that were the powder depot of one-half of the universe let themselves be lulled to tranquil amusement by a fair idiot’s coquetry. And lips that, with a whisper, could loosen the coursing slips of the wild hell-dogs of war, murmured love to a princess, led the laugh at a supper at five in the morning, or smiled over their own caricatures done by Tenniel or Cham.

Baden was full. The supreme empires of demi-monde sent their sovereigns, diamond-crowned and resistless, to outshine all other principalities and powers, while in breadth of marvelous skirts, in costliness of cobweb laces, in unapproachability of Indian shawls and gold embroideries, and mad fantasies and Cleopatra extravagances, and jewels fit for a Maharajah, the Zu–Zu was distanced by none.

Among the kings and heroes and celebrities who gathered under the pleasant shadow of the pine-crowned hills, there was not one in his way greater than the steeple-chaser, Forest King — certes, there was not one half so honest.

The Guards’ Crack was entered for the Prix de Dames, the sole representative of England. There were two or three good things out of French stables — specially a killing little boy, L’Etoile — and there was an Irish sorrel, the property of an Austrian of rank, of which fair things were whispered; but it was scarcely possible that anything could stand against the King and that wonderful stride of his which spread-eagled his field like magic, and his countrymen were well content to leave their honor and their old renown to “Beauty” and his six-year-old.

Beauty himself, with a characteristic philosophy, had a sort of conviction that the German race would set everything square. He stood either to make a very good thing on it or to be very heavily bit. There could be no medium. He never hedged in his life; and as it was almost a practical impossibility that anything the foreign stables could get together would even be able to land within half a dozen lengths of the King. Cecil, always willing to console himself, and invariably too careless to take the chance of adverse accident into account, had come to Baden, and was amusing himself there dropping a Friedrich d’Or on the rouge, flirting in the shady alleys of the Lichtenthal, waltzing Lady Guenevere down the ballroom, playing ecarte with some Serene Highness, supping with the Zu–Zu and her set, and occupying rooms that a Russian Prince had had before him, with all the serenity of a millionaire, as far as memory of money went; with much more than the serenity in other matters of most millionaires, who, finding themselves uncommonly ill at ease in the pot-pourri of monarchs and ministers, of beau-monde and demi-monde, would have given half their newly turned thousands to get rid of the odor of Capel Court and the Bourse, and to attain the calm, negligent assurance, the easy, tranquil insolence, the nonchalance with Princes, and the supremacy among the Free Lances, which they saw and coveted in the indolent Guardsman.

Bertie amused himself. He might be within a day of his ruin, but that was no reason why he should not sip his iced sherbet and laugh with a pretty French actress to-night. His epicurean formulary was the same as old Herrick’s, and he would have paraphrased this poet’s famous quatrain into

Drink a pure claret while you may,

Your “stiff” is still a-flying;

And he who dines so well today

To-morrow may be lying,

Pounced down upon by Jews tout net,

Or outlawed in a French guinguette!

Bertie was a great believer — if the words are not too sonorous and too earnest to be applied to his very inconsequent views upon any and everything — in the philosophy of happy accident. Far as it was in him to have a conviction at all — which was a thorough-going, serious sort of thing not by any means his “form,”— he had a conviction that the doctrine of “Eat, drink, and enjoy, for tomorrow we die” was a universal panacea. He was reckless to the uttermost stretch of recklessness, all serene and quiet though his pococurantism and his daily manner were; and while subdued to the undeviating monotone and languor of his peculiar set in all his temper and habits, the natural dare-devil in him took out its inborn instincts in a wildly careless and gamester-like imprudence with that most touchy tempered and inconsistent of all coquettes — Fortune.

Things, he thought, could not well be worse with him than they were now. So he piled all on one coup, and stood to be sunk or saved by the Prix de Dames. Meanwhile, all the same, he murmured Mussetism to the Guenevere under the ruins of the Alte Schloss, lost or won a rouleau at the roulette-wheel, gave a banknote to the famous Isabel for a tea-rose, drove the Zu–Zu four in hand to see the Flat races, took his guinea tickets for the Concerts, dined with Princes, lounged arm-inarm with Grand Dukes, gave an Emperor a hint as to the best cigars, and charmed a Monarch by unfolding the secret of the aroma of a Guards’ Punch, sacred to the Household.

Bertie who believed in bivalves but not in heroics, thought it best to take the oysters first and eschew the despair entirely.

He had one unchangeable quality — insouciance; and he had, moreover, one unchangeable faith — the King. Lady Guenevere had reached home unnoticed after the accident of their moonlight stag-hunt. His brother, meeting him a day or two after their interview, had nodded affirmatively, though sulkily, in answer to his inquiries, and had murmured that it was “all square now.” The Jews and the tradesmen had let him leave for Baden without more serious measures than a menace, more or less insolently worded. In the same fashion he trusted that the King’s running at the Bad, with the moneys he had on it, would set all things right for a little while; when, if his family interest, which was great, would get him his step in the First Life, he thought, desperate as things were, they might come round again smoothly, without a notorious crash.

“You are sure the King will ‘stay,’ Bertie?” asked Lady Guenevere, who had some hundreds in gloves (and even under the rose “sported a pony” or so more seriously) on the event.

“Certain! But if he don’t I promise you as pretty a tableau as your Asnieres one; for your sake, I’ll make the finish as picturesque as possible. Wouldn’t it be well to give me a lock of hair in readiness?”

Her ladyship laughed and shook her head; if a man killed himself, she did not desire that her gracious name should be entangled with the folly.

“No; I don’t do those things,” she said, with captivating waywardness. “Besides, though the Oos looks cool and pleasant, I greatly doubt that under any pressure you would trouble it; suicides are too pronounced for your style, Bertie.”

“At all events, a little morphia in one’s own rooms would be quieter, and better taste,” said Cecil, while he caught himself listlessly wondering, as he had wondered at Richmond, if this badinage were to turn into serious fact — how much would she care.

“May your sins be forgiven you!” cried Chesterfield, the apostle of training, as he and the Seraph came up to the table where Cecil and Cos Wentworth were breakfasting in the garden of the Stephanien on the race-day itself. “Liqueurs, truffles, and every devilment under the sun? — cold beef, and nothing to drink, Beauty, if you’ve any conscience left!”

“Never had a grain, dear boy, since I can remember,” murmured Bertie apologetically. “You took all the rawness off me at Eton.”

“And you’ve been taking coffee in bed, I’ll swear!” pursued the cross-examiner.

“What if he have? Beauty’s condition can’t be upset by a little mocha, nor mine either,” said his universal defender; and the Seraph shook his splendid limbs with a very pardonable vanity.

“Ruteroth trains; Ruteroth trains awfully,” put in Cos Wentworth, looking up out of a great silver flagon of Badminton, with which he was ending his breakfast; and referring to that Austrian who was to ride the Paris favorite. “Remember him at La Marche last year, and the racing at Vincennes — didn’t take a thing that could make flesh — muscles like iron, you know — never touched a soda even ——”

“I’ve trained, too,” said Bertie submissively; “look how I’ve been waltzing! There isn’t harder work than that for any fellow. A deuxtemps with the Duchess takes it out of you like any spin over the flat.”

His censurers laughed, but did not give in their point.

“You’ve run shocking risks, Beauty,” said Chesterfield; “the King’s in fine running-form; don’t say he isn’t; but you’ve said scores of times what a deal of riding he takes. Now, can you tell us yourself that you’re in as hard condition as you were when you won the Military, eh?”

Cecil shook his head with a sigh.

“I don’t think I am; I’ve had things to try me, you see. There was that Verschoyle’s proposal. I did absolutely think at one time she’d marry me before I could protest against it! Then there was that shock to one’s whole nervous system, when that indigo man, who took Lady Laura’s house, asked us to dinner, and actually thought we should go! — and there was a scene, you know, of all earthly horrors, when Mrs. Gervase was so near eloping with me, and Gervase cut up rough, instead of pitying me; and then the field-days were so many, and so late into the season; and I exhausted myself so at the Belvoir theatricals at Easter; and I toiled so atrociously playing ‘Almaviva’ at your place, Seraph — a private opera’s galley slave’s work! — and, altogether, I’ve had a good many things to pull me down since the winter,” concluded Bertie, with a plaintive self-condolence over his truffles.

The rest of his condemning judges laughed, and passed the plea of sympathy; the Coldstreamer alone remained censorious and untouched.

“Pull you down! You’ll never pull off the race if you sit drinking liqueurs all the morning!” growled that censor. “Look at that!”

Bertie glanced at the London telegram tossed across to him, sent from a private and confidential agent.

“Betting here — two to one on L’Etoile; Irish Roan offered and taken freely. Slight decline in closing prices for the King; getting on French bay rather heavily at midnight. Fancy there’s a commission out against the King. Looks suspicious.” Cecil shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows a little.

“All the better for us. Take all they’ll lay against me. It’s as good as our having a ‘Commission out’; and if any cads get one against us it can’t mean mischief, as it would with professional jocks.”

“Are you so sure of yourself, Beauty?”

Beauty shook his head repudiatingly.

“Never am sure of anything, much less of myself. I’m a chameleon, a perfect chameleon!”

“Are you so sure of the King, then?”

“My dear fellow, no! I ask you in reason, how can I be sure of what isn’t proved? I’m like that country fellow the old story tells of; he believed in fifteen shillings because he’d once had it in his hand; others, he’d heard, believed in a pound; but, for his part, he didn’t, because he’d never seen it. Now that was a man who’d never commit himself; he might had had the Exchequer! I’m the same; I believe the King can win at a good many things because I’ve seen him do ’em; but I can’t possibly tell whether he can get this, because I’ve never ridden him for it. I shall be able to tell you at three o’clock — but that you don’t care for ——”

And Bertie, exhausted with making such a lengthened exposition — the speeches he preferred were monosyllabic — completed his sins against training with a long draught of claret-cup.

“Then what the devil do you mean by telling us to pile our pots on you?” asked the outraged Coldstreamer, with natural wrath.

“Faith is a beautiful sight!” said Bertie, with solemnity.

“Offered on the altar of the Jews!” laughed the Seraph, as he turned him away from the breakfast table by the shoulders. “Thanks, Beauty; I’ve ‘four figures’ on you, and you’ll be good enough to win them for me. Let’s have a look at the King. They are just going to walk him over.”

Cecil complied; while he lounged away with the others to the stables, with a face of the most calm, gentle, weary indifference in the world, the thought crossed him for a second of how very near he was to the wind. The figures in his betting-book were to the tune of several thousands, one way or another. If he won this morning it would be all right, of course; if he lost — even Beauty, odd mixture of devil-may-care and languor though he was, felt his lips grow, for the moment, hot and cold by turns as he thought of that possible contingency.

The King looked in splendid condition; he knew well enough what was up again, knew what was meant by that extra sedulous dressing-down, that setting muzzle that had been buckled on him some nights previous, the limitation put to his drink, the careful trial spins in the gray of the mornings, the conclusive examination of his plates by a skillful hand; he knew what was required of him, and a horse in nobler condition never stepped out in body clothing, as he was ridden slowly down on to the plains of Iffesheim. The Austrian Dragoon, a Count and a Chamberlain likewise, who was to ride his only possible rival, the French horse L’Etoile, pulled his tawny silken mustaches as he saw the great English hero come up the course, and muttered to himself, “L’affaire est finie.” L’Etoile was a brilliant enough bay in his fashion, but Count Ruteroth knew the measure of his pace and powers too thoroughly to expect him to live against the strides of the Guards’ gray.

“My beauty, won’t you cut those German fellows down!” muttered Rake, the enthusiast, in the saddling inclosure. “As for those fools what go agin you, you’ll put them in a hole, and no mistake. French horse, indeed! Why, you’ll spread-eagle all them Mossoos’ and Meinherrs’ cattle in a brace of seconds —”

Rake’s foe, the head groom, caught him up savagely.

“Won’t you never learn decent breeding? When we wins we wins on the quiet, and when we loses we loses as if we liked it; all that braying, and flaunting, and boasting is only fit for cads. The ‘oss is in tip-top condition; let him show what he can do over furren ground.”

“Lucky for him, then, that he hasn’t got you across the pigskin; you’d rope him, I believe, as soon as look at him, if it was made worth your while,” retorted Rake, in caustic wrath; his science of repartee chiefly lay in a successful “plant,” and he was here uncomfortably conscious that his opponent was in the right of the argument, as he started through the throng to put his master into the “shell” of the Shire-famous scarlet and white.

“Tip-top condition, my boy — tip-top, and no mistake,” murmured Mr. Willon for the edification of those around them as the saddle-girths were buckled on, and the Guards’ Crack stood the cynosure of every eye at Iffesheim.

Then, in his capacity as head attendant on the hero, he directed the exercise bridle to be taken off, and with his own hands adjusted a new and handsome one, slung across his arm.

“’Tis a’most a pity. ’Tis a’most a pity,” thought the worthy, as he put the curb on the King; “but I shouldn’t have been haggravated with that hinsolent soldiering chap. There, my boy! if you’ll win with a painted quid, I’m a Dutchman.”

Forest King champed his bit between his teeth a little; it tasted bitter; he tossed his head and licked it with his tongue impatiently; the taste had got down his throat and he did not like its flavor; he turned his deep, lustrous eyes with a gentle patience on the crowd about him, as though asking them what was the matter with him. No one moved his bit; the only person who could have had such authority was busily giving the last polish to his coat with a fine handkerchief — that glossy neck which had been so dusted many a time with the cobweb coronet-broidered handkerchiefs of great ladies — and his instincts, glorious as they were, were not wise enough to tell him to kick his head groom down, then and there, with one mortal blow, as his poisoner and betrayer.

The King chafed under the taste of that “painted quid”; he felt a nausea as he swallowed, and he turned his handsome head with a strange, pathetic astonishment in his glance. At that moment a familiar hand stroked his mane, a familiar foot was put into his stirrup, Bertie threw himself into saddle; the lightest weight that ever gentleman-rider rode, despite his six-foot length of limb. The King, at the well-known touch, the well-loved voice, pricked his delicate ears, quivered in all his frame with eager excitation, snuffed the air restlessly through his distended nostrils, and felt every vein under his satin skin thrill and swell with pleasure; he was all impatience, all power, all longing, vivid intensity of life. If only that nausea would go! He felt a restless sickliness stealing on him that his young and gallant strength had never known since he was foaled. But it was not in the King to yield to a little; he flung his head up, champing angrily at the bit, then walked down to the starting-post with his old calm, collected grace; and Cecil, looking at the glossy bow of the neck, and feeling the width of the magnificent ribs beneath him, stooped from his saddle a second as he rode out of the inclosure and bent to the Seraph.

“Look at him, Rock! The thing’s as good as won.”

The day was very warm and brilliant; all Baden had come down to the race-course; continuous strings of carriages, with their four or six horses and postilions, held the line far down over the plains; mob there was none, save of women in matchless toilets, and men with the highest names in the “Almanac de Gotha”; the sun shone cloudlessly on the broad, green plateau of Iffesheim, on the white amphitheater of chalk hills, and on the glittering, silken folds of the flags of England, France, Prussia, and of the Grand Duchy itself, that floated from the summits of the Grand Stand, Pavilion, and Jockey Club.

The ladies, descending from the carriages, swept up and down on the green course that was so free from “cads” and “legs”; their magnificent skirts trailing along without the risk of a grain of dust; their costly laces side by side with the Austrian uniforms of the military men from Rastadt. The betting was but slight, in odd contrast with the hubbub and striking clamor of English betting rings; the only approach to anything like “real business” being transacted between the members of the Household and those of the Jockey Clubs. Iffesheim was pure pleasure, like every other item of Baden existence, and all aristocratic, sparkling, rich, amusement-seeking Europe seemed gathered there under the sunny skies, and on everyone’s lips in the titled throng was but one name — Forest King’s. Even the coquettish bouquet-sellers, who remembered the dresses of his own colors which Cecil had given them last year when he had won the Rastadt, would sell nothing except little twin scarlet and white moss rosebuds; of which thousands were gathered and died that morning in honor of the English Guards’ champion.

A slender event usually, the presence of the renowned crack of the Household Cavalry made the Prix de Dames the most eagerly watched-for entry on the card; and the rest of the field were scarcely noticed as the well-known gold-embroidered jacket came up at the starting-post.

The King saw that blaze of light and color over course and stands that he knew so well by this time; he felt the pressure round him of his foreign rivals as they reared and pulled and fretted and passaged; the old longing quivered in all his eager limbs, the old fire wakened in all his dauntless blood; like the charger at sound of the trumpet-call, he lived in his past victories, and was athirst for more. But yet — between him and the sunny morning there seemed a dim, hazy screen; on his delicate ear the familiar clangor smote with something dulled and strange; there seemed a numbness stealing down his frame; he shook his head in an unusual and irritated impatience; he did not know what ailed him. The hand he loved so loyally told him the work that was wanted of him; but he felt its guidance dully too, and the dry, hard, hot earth, as he struck it with his hoof, seemed to sway and heave beneath him; the opiate had stolen into his veins and was creeping stealthily and surely to the sagacious brain, and over the clear, bright senses.

The signal for the start was given; the first mad headlong rush broke away with the force of a pent-up torrent suddenly loosened; every instinct of race and custom, and of that obedience which rendered him flexible as silk to his rider’s will, sent him forward with that stride which made the Guards’ Crack a household word in all the Shires. For a moment he shook himself clear of all the horses, and led off in the old grand sweeping canter before the French bay, three lengths in the one single effort.

Then into his eyes a terrible look of anguish came; the numb and sickly nausea was upon him, his legs trembled, before his sight was a blurred, whirling mist; all the strength and force and mighty life within him felt ebbing out, yet he struggled bravely. He strained, he panted, he heard the thundering thud of the first flight gaining nearer and nearer upon him; he felt his rivals closing hotter and harder in on him; he felt the steam of his opponent’s smoking, foam-dashed withers burn on his own flanks and shoulders; he felt the maddening pressure of a neck-to-neck struggle; he felt what in all his victorious life he had never known — the paralysis of defeat.

The glittering throngs spreading over the plains gazed at him in the sheer stupor of amazement; they saw that the famous English hero was dead-beat as any used-up knacker.

One second more he strove to wrench himself through the throng of the horses, through the headlong crushing press, through — worst foe of all! — the misty darkness curtaining his sight! One second more he tried to wrestle back the old life into his limbs, the unworn power and freshness into nerve and sinew. Then the darkness fell utterly; the mighty heart failed; he could do no more — and his rider’s hand slackened and turned him gently backward; his rider’s voice sounded very low and quiet to those who, seeing that every effort was hopeless, surged and clustered round his saddle.

“Something ails the King,” said Cecil calmly; “he is fairly knocked off his legs. Some Vet must look to him; ridden a yard farther he will fall.”

Words so gently spoken! — yet in the single minute that alone had passed since they had left the Starter’s Chair, a lifetime seemed to have been centered, alike to Forest King and to his owner.

The field swept on with a rush, without the favorite; and the Prix de Dames was won by the French bay L’Etoile.

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