Whether or not the character of Englishmen in general is based on chalk, it is undeniably present in the systems of our jockeys and trainers. Living for the most part on Downs, drinking a good deal of water, and concerned with the joints of horses, they are almost professionally calcareous, and at times distinguished by bony noses and chins.
The chin of Greenwater, the retired jockey in charge of Val Dartie’s stable, projected, as if in years of race-riding it had been bent on prolonging the efforts of his mounts and catching the judge’s eye. His thin, commanding nose dominated a mask of brown skin and bone, his narrow brown eyes glowed slightly, his dark hair was smooth and brushed back; he was five feet seven inches in height, and long seasons, during which he had been afraid to eat, had laid a look of austerity over such natural liveliness, as may be observed in-say — a water-wagtail. A married man with two children, he was endeared to his family by the taciturnity of one who had been intimate with horses for thirty-five years. In his leisure hours he played the piccolo. No one in England was more reliable.
Val, who had picked him up on his retirement from the pig-skin in 1921, thought him an even better judge of men than of horses, incapable of trusting them further than he could see them, and that not very far. Just now it was particularly necessary to trust no one, for there was in the stable a two-year-old colt, Rondavel, by Kaffir out of Sleeping Dove, of whom so much was expected, that nothing whatever had been said about him. On the Monday of Ascot week Val was the more surprised, then, to hear his trainer remark:
“Mr. Dartie, there was a son of a gun watching the gallop this morning.”
“The deuce there was!”
“Someone’s been talking. When they come watching a little stable like this — something’s up. If you take my advice, you’ll send the colt to Ascot and let him run his chance on Thursday — won’t do him any harm to smell a racecourse. We can ease him after, and bring him again for Goodwood.”
Aware of his trainer’s conviction that the English race-horse, no less than the English man, liked a light preparation nowadays, Val answered:
“Afraid of overdoing him?”
“Well, he’s fit now, and that’s a fact. I had Sinnet shake him up this morning, and he just left ’em all standing. Fit to run for his life, he is; wish you’d been there.”
“Oho!” said Val, unlatching the door of the box. “Well, my beauty?”
The Sleeping Dove colt turned his head, regarding his owner with a certain lustrous philosophy. A dark grey, with one white heel and a star, he stood glistening from his morning toilet. A good one! The straight hocks and ranginess of St. Simon crosses in his background! Scope, and a rare shoulder for coming down a hill. Not exactly what you’d call a ‘picture’— his lines didn’t quite ‘flow,’ but great character. Intelligent as a dog, and game as an otter! Val looked back at his trainer’s intent face.
“All right, Greenwater. I’ll tell the missus — we’ll go in force. Who can you get to ride at such short notice?”
“Ah!” said Val, with a grin; “you’ve got it all cut and dried, I see.”
Only on his way back to the house did he recollect a possible ‘hole in the ballot’ of secrecy. . . . Three days after the General Strike collapsed, before Holly and young Jon and his wife had returned, he had been smoking a second pipe over his accounts, when the maid had announced:
“A gentleman to see you, sir.”
Checking the impulse to say, “And you left him in the hall!” Val passed hurriedly into that part of the house.
His old college pal was contemplating a piece of plate over the stone hearth.
“Hallo!” said Val.
His unemotional visitor turned round.
Less threadbare than in Green Street, as if something had restored his credit, his face had the same crow’s-footed, contemptuous calm.
“Ah, Dartie!” he said. “Joe Lightson, the bookie, told me you had a stable down here. I thought I’d look you up on my way to Brighton. How has your Sleeping Dove yearling turned out?”
“So-so,” said Val.
“When are you going to run him? I thought, perhaps, you’d like me to work your commission. I could do it much better than the professionals.”
Really, the fellow’s impudence was sublime!
“Thanks very much; but I hardly bet at all.”
“Is that possible? I say, Dartie, I didn’t mean to bother you again, but if you could let me have a ‘pony,’ it would be a great boon.”
“Sorry, but I don’t keep ‘ponies’ about me down here.”
“A cheque —”
Cheque — not if he knew it!
“No,” said Val firmly. “Have a drink?”
“Thanks very much!”
Pouring out the drink at the sideboard in the dining-room, with one eye on the stilly figure of his guest, Val took a resolution.
“Look here, Stainford —” he began, then his heart failed him. “How did you get here?”
“By car, from Horsham. And that reminds me. I haven’t a sou with me to pay for it.”
Val winced. There was something ineffably wretched about the whole thing.
“Well,” he said, “here’s a fiver, if that’s any use to you; but really I’m not game for any more.” And, with a sudden outburst, he added: “I’ve never forgotten, you know, that I once lent you all I had at Oxford when I was deuced hard pressed myself, and you never paid it back, though you came into shekels that very term.”
The well-shaped hand closed on the fiver; a bitter smile opened the thin lips.
“Oxford! Another life! Well, good-bye, Dartie — I’ll get on; and thanks! Hope you’ll have a good season.”
He did not hold out his hand. Val watched his back, languid and slim, till it was out of sight . . . .
Yes! That memory explained it! Stainford must have picked up some gossip in the village — not likely that they would let a ‘Sleeping Dove’ lie! It didn’t much matter; since Holly would hardly let him bet at all. But Greenwater must look sharp after the colt. Plenty of straight men racing; but a lot of blackguards hanging about the sport. Queer how horses collected blackguards — most beautiful creatures God ever made! But beauty was like that — look at the blackguards hanging round pretty women! Well, he must let Holly know. They could stay, as usual, at old Warmson’s Inn, on the river; from there it was only a fifteen-mile drive to the course . . . .
The ‘Pouter Pigeon’ stood back a little from the river Thames, on the Berkshire side, above an old-fashioned garden of roses, stocks, gillyflowers, poppies, phlox drummondi, and sweet-williams. In the warm June weather the scents from that garden and from sweetbriar round the windows drifted into an old brick house painted cream-colour. Late Victorian service in Park Lane under James Forsyte, confirmed by a later marriage with Emily’s maid Fifine, had induced in Warmson, indeed, such complete knowledge of what was what, that no river inn had greater attractions for those whose taste had survived modernity. Spotless linen, double beds warmed with copper pans, even in summer; cider, homemade from a large orchard, and matured in rum casks — the inn was a veritable feather-bed to all the senses. Prints of “Mariage a la Mode,” “Rake’s Progress,” “The Nightshirt Steeplechase,” “Run with the Quorn,” and large functional groupings of Victorian celebrities with their names attached to blank faces on a key chart, decorated the walls. Its sanitation and its port were excellent. Pot-pourri lay in every bedroom, old pewter round the coffee room, clean napkins at every meal. And a poor welcome was assured to earwigs, spiders, and the wrong sort of guest . . . Warmson, one of those self-contained men who spread when they take inns, pervaded the house, with a red face set in small, grey whiskers, like a sun of just sufficient warmth.
To young Anne Forsyte all was “just too lovely.” Never in her short life, confined to a large country, had she come across such defiant cosiness — the lush peace of the river, the songs of birds, the scents of flowers, the rustic arbour, the drifting lazy sky, now blue, now white, the friendly fat spaniel, and the feeling that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow would for ever be the same as yesterday.
“It’s a poem, Jon.”
“Slightly comic. When everything’s slightly comic, you don’t tire.”
“I’d certainly never tire of this.”
“We don’t grow tragedy in England, Anne.”
“Well, tragedy’s extreme; and we don’t like extremes. Tragedy’s dry and England’s damp.”
She was leaning her elbows on the wall at the bottom of the garden, and, turning her chin a little in her hand, she looked round and up at him.
“Fleur Mont’s father lives on the river, doesn’t he? Is that far from here?”
“Mapledurham? I should think about ten miles.”
“I wonder if we shall see her at Ascot. I think she’s lovely.”
“Yes,” said Jon.
“I wonder you didn’t fall in love with her, Jon.”
“We were kids when I knew her.”
“I think she fell in love with you.”
“By the way she looks at you. . . . She isn’t in love with Mr. Mont; she just likes him.”
“Oh!” said Jon.
Since in the coppice at Robin Hill Fleur had said “Jon!” in so strange a voice, he had known queer moments. There was that in him which could have caught her, balanced there on the log with her hands on his shoulders, and gone straight back into the past with her. There was that in him which abhorred the notion. There was that in him which sat apart and made a song about them both, and that in him which said: Get to work and drop all these silly feelings! He was, in fact, confused. The past, it seemed, did not die, as he had thought, but lived on beside the present, and sometimes, perhaps, became the future. Did one live for what one had not got? There was a wrinkling in his soul, and feverish draughts crept about within him. The whole thing was on his conscience — for if Jon had anything, he had a conscience.
“When we get our place,” he said, “we’ll have all these old-fashioned flowers. They’re much the sweetest!”
“Ah! Yes, do let’s get a home, Jon. Only are you sure you want one? Wouldn’t you like to travel and write poetry?”
“It’s not a job. Besides, my verse isn’t good enough. You want the mood of Hatteras J. Hopkins:
“‘Now, severed from my kind by my contempt,
I live apart and beat my lonely drum.’”
“I wish you weren’t modest, Jon.”
“It’s not modesty, Anne; it’s a sense of the comic.”
“Couldn’t we get a swim before dinner? It would be fine.”
“I don’t know what the regulations are here.”
“Let’s bathe first and find out afterwards.”
“All right. You go and change. I’ll get this gate open.”
A fish splashed, a long white cloud brushed the poplar tops beyond the water. Just such an evening, six years ago, he had walked the towing-path with Fleur, had separated from her, waited to see her look back and wave her hand. He could see her still — that special grace, which gave her movements a lingering solidity within the memory. And now — it was Anne! And Anne in water was a dream! . . .
Above the ‘Pouter Pigeon’ the sky was darkening; cars in their garages were still; no boats passed, only the water moved, and the river wind talked vaguely in the rushes and among the leaves. All within was cosy. On their backs lay Warmson and his Fifine, singing a little through their noses. By a bedside light Holly read ‘The Worst Journey in the World,’ and beside her Val dreamed that he was trying to stroke a horse’s nose, shortening under his hand to the size of a leopard’s. And Anne slept with her eyes hidden against Jon’s shoulder, and Jon lay staring at the crannies through which the moonlight eddied.
And in his stable at Ascot the son of Sleeping Dove, from home for the first time, pondered on the mutability of equine affairs, closing and opening his eyes, and breathing without sound in the strawy dark, above the black cat he had brought to bear him company.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50