“I think I’m going to be sick,” Ruth said, when she and Brat were left alone in the stand.
“I don’t wonder,” said Brat.
“Why?” she was surprised into saying, this being not at all the reaction she expected.
“Three ices on top of dressed crab.”
“It is not anything I ate,” she said, repressive. “It’s that I have a delicate nervous system. Excitement makes me feel ill. I get sick with it.”
“I should go and get it over,” Brat advised.
“Be sick, you mean!”
“Yes. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
“If I sit very still I may feel better,” Ruth said, giving up.
Ruth was feeling her lack of importance to-day. She avoided horses too consistently for the rest of the year to claim any right to exhibit any on this one day at Bures, so she sat in the stand in her neat grey flannel and looked on. It was to her credit that she did not grudge her twin her well-earned place in the sun, and was passionately anxious that Jane should come first in her class.
“There’s Roger Clint with Eleanor.”
Brat looked for the couple and found them.
“Who is Roger Clint?”
“He has a big farm near here.”
Roger Clint was a black-browed young man, and he was being old-friendly with Eleanor.
“He’s in love with Eleanor,” said Ruth, having failed with one try for drama.
“A very good person to be in love with,” Brat said, but his heart contracted.
“It would be a very good thing if she married him. He has lots of money and a lovely big house and simply scads of horses.”
Against his will Brat asked if Eleanor were thinking of it.
Ruth considered the pros and cons or this as they fitted into her dramatic framework.
“She is making him serve his seven years for her. You know: like Jacob. He is simply frantic about it, poor Roger, but she is La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
La Belle Dame Sans Merci bade Mr. Clint a temporary farewell and came up to join them in the stands as the Novices under Ten filed into the ring.
“Do you know that Tony scraped into this by the skin of his teeth,” she said, sitting down by Brat. “He is going to be ten the day after to-morrow.”
There were eleven novices, the youngest being a fat child of four in a black velvet jockey cap, who bounced about on a solid pony of which she had no control whatever.
“Well, at least Tony never looked as awful as that, even in his bad days,” Eleanor said.
“Tony looks wonderful,” Ruth said, and Tony did indeed look wonderful. As Eleanor had said on an earlier occasion, Tony had the root of the matter in him.
The novices walked, and trotted, and cantered, under the lenient eye of the judges, and presently the seeding began. Even from the stand the fanatic determination in Tony’s snail-black eyes was plain to see. He was going to be in the money or die in the attempt. From being six possibles they were narrowed down to four, but these four kept the judges puzzled. Again and again they were sent out to canter and brought back for inspection, and sent out to canter again. There were only three prizes and one must go.
It was at this stage that Tony played what he evidently considered his ace. As he cantered along in front of the stand he got to his knees in the saddle and with a slight scramble stood up in it, straight and proud.
“Oh, God,” said Eleanor reverently and with feeling.
A ripple of laughter went through the stand. But Tony had another shot in his locker. He slipped to his knees, grabbed the front edge of the saddle, and stood on his head, his thin spider-legs waving rather uncertainly in the air.
At that a gale of laughter and applause broke out, and Tony, much gratified, resumed his seat and urged his astonished pony, who had slowed to a trot, into a canter again.
That of course settled the matter very nicely for the judges, and Tony had the mortification of seeing the three rosettes handed to his rivals. But his mortification was nothing to the mortification he had already inflicted on his preceptress.
“I hope I don’t see that child until I cool off,” she said, “or I am liable to take an axe to him.”
But Tony, having handed his pony over to Arthur, came blithely to the stands to find her.
“Tony, you little idiot,” she said, “what made you do a thing like that?”
“I wanted to show how I could ride, Eleanor.”
“And where did you learn to do those circus tricks?”
“I practised on the pony that mows the lawn. At school, you know. He has a much broader back than Muffet, and that’s why I wasn’t so steady to-day. I don’t think these people appreciate good riding,” he added, nodding his head at the offending judges.
Eleanor was speechless.
Brat presented him with a coin and told him to go and buy himself an ice.
“If I didn’t want to see Jane ride,” Eleanor said, “I would go and bury my shame in the ladies’ room. I’m curdled with humiliation.”
Jane, on Rajah, in her best riding things, was a pleasant sight. Brat had never seen her in anything but the shabby jodhpurs and shapeless jersey that she wore at home, and was surprised by this trim little figure.
“Jane has the best seat of all the Ashbys,” Eleanor said affectionately, watching the serious and efficient Jane making Rajah change his leg to order. “That is her only rival: that tall girl on the grey.”
The tall girl was fifteen and the grey very handsome, but the judges preferred Jane and Rajah. Jane might have lost for all the emotion she showed, but Ruth was rapturous.
“Good old Jane,” Simon said, appearing beside them. “A veteran at nine.”
“Oh, Simon, did you see!” Eleanor said, in agony again as she remembered.
“Cheer up, Nell,” he said, dropping a commiserating hand on her shoulder. “It might have been worse.”
“How could it be worse?”
“He didn’t yodel,” Simon said.
At that she began to laugh, and went on laughing. “Oh, I suppose it is very funny,” she said, wiping her eyes, “and I expect I shall laugh over it for years, but at the moment I just wish I could be in Australia for the rest of the afternoon.”
“Come on, Nell,” he said. “It’s time to collect the horses,” and they went away together as Jane came to sit in the stand.
“This is the exciting class coming now. It isn’t very much to win a Fifteen and Under,” was her answer to Brat’s congratulations. “Some day I’ll be down there with them. With Aunt Bee, and Eleanor, and Simon, and Peggy, and Roger Clint, and all of them.”
Yes, there was Roger Clint. Eleanor was riding the long-backed bay mare Scapa, and Roger Clint was standing next to her on a chestnut with four of the longest and whitest stockings Brat had ever seen. While the judges walked down the row he and Eleanor talked quietly together.
“Who do you think will be first?” Jane asked.
Brat took his eyes from Eleanor and Clint and forced himself to consider the entry. The judge had sent Bee out to canter Chevron, the chestnut he was going to race this afternoon, and she was coming down in front of the stands now. He had never seen Bee in formal riding clothes, and was surprised again, as he had been with Jane. It was a new, serious, rather intimidating Bee.
“Who do you think, Brat?” Jane said again.
“Timber, of course.”
“Not Peggy’s horse? The one Dick Pope had?”
“Riding Light? No. He may win the jumping, but not this.”
And he was right. This was the judges’ first sight of Timber and they were too much impressed to be seduced even by the looks and reputation of Riding Light.
And it was a popular verdict. As Simon cantered Timber down in front of the stands after accepting the rosette the applause broke into cheering.
“Isn’t that the brute that killed old Felix?” a voice behind said. “They ought to shoot it instead of giving it prizes.”
Second was Peggy on Riding Light, looking flushed and pleased; her father’s extravagance had been justified. Third, rather unexpectedly, was Bee on Chevron.
“The Ashbys cleaning up as usual,” the voice said, and was instantly shushed, and the proximity of the Ashbys presumably indicated.
It was when the Open Jumping Class began that the real excitement of the day was reached, and Bee came to sit in the stand and share it with them.
“Number One, please,” said the loud-speaker, and Eleanor came into the ring on Scapa. Scapa was a careful and unemotional jumper, but could never be persuaded into standing away from her fences. By dint of patient schooling with a guard rail, Eleanor hoped that she had now persuaded her into better ways. And for half a round it worked, until Scapa noticed that there was no plaguey obstruction to beware of at the foot of these jumps, and began to go close in again, with the inevitable result. Nothing Eleanor could do would make her take off in time. She jumped “fit to hit the moon,” but came down in the wrong place, and the little battens of white-painted wood came down with her.
“Poor Nell,” said Bee. “After all her schooling.”
Number Two and Number Three did not appear to have been schooled at all.
“Number Four, please,” said the loud-speaker, and Riding Light appeared. Peggy’s “new outfit” consisted of a dark snuff-coloured coat a little too tight in the waist, and a pair of buff breeches a little too pale in the buff, but she looked well on the brown horse and handled him beautifully. Or rather, she sat still and let Riding Light do his stuff. He was a finished jumper who took the obstacles in his stride, propelling himself into the air in a long effortless curve and tucking his hind feet after him like a cat. He went out having done a perfect round.
“Number Five, please,” said the loud-speaker.
Number Five was Roger Clint’s mount with the long white stockings. “Do you know what he calls it?” Bee said. “Operation Stockings.”
“It’s very ugly,” Brat said. “Looks as if he had walked through a trough of whitewash.”
“He can jump, though.”
He could certainly jump, but he had phobia about water.
“Poor Roger,” laughed Bee, watching Stockings refuse the water. “He has been jumping him backwards and forwards across the duck pond at home in the hope of curing him, and now he does this!”
Stockings continued to refuse, and Clint had to take him out, in a burst of sympathetic applause.
Numbers Six and Seven had one fault each.
Number Eight was Simon on Timber.
The black horse came into the ring exactly as he had come out of his box on the day Brat first saw him, pleased with himself and ready for homage. His excited, flickering ears pricked into attention as he caught sight of the jumps. Simon took him into a canter and moved down to the first one. Even from where he was sitting, Brat could feel the smoothness of that action. The smoothness that had astonished him that first day at Latchetts when he had ridden on the top of the down. Smoothly the black horse rose into the air and came down on the far side of the jump, and a murmur of admiration came from the crowd at the almost feline beauty of it. Brat, with the most wholehearted respect, watched Simon’s body swing with the black horse’s rise and fall as though he were part of it. It was right that Simon should ride it. He would never attain that perfection if he lived to be a hundred. A great silence settled on the crowd as one by one the jumps fled away behind Timber. It would be monstrous if this beauty were to fail or be faulted. It was so quiet when he faced the water jump that the voice of a paper-seller far away at the main gate was the only sound to be heard. And when he landed smoothly and neatly on the far bank, a great sigh went up from them. They had seen a perfect thing. They had not been cheated of it after all.
So moved were they that Simon was almost out of the ring before the applause broke out.
The last three entries had been scratched, and Simon was the final performer, so the second round began as soon as he had left.
Eleanor came back on Scapa, and by dint of voice and spur managed to make the unwilling mare take off at the proper place, and so did something to retrieve her self-respect. The crowd, appreciating what had been wrong in the first place and what she had now succeeded in doing, gave her credit for it.
Number Two did a wild but lucky round, and Number Three a wild and unlucky one; and then came Peggy again, still flushed from the pleasure of her perfect round.
Again she had the sense to sit still while Riding Light heaved her into the air with the thrust of his tremendous quarters, sailed over the jump, and made for the next one with his ears erect and confident. It seemed that there was nothing to hinder the brown horse doing this all day. There was an air of routine about the business that somehow detracted from his performance; he made it look too easy. There seemed little doubt that he would do another perfect round. His judgement of distance was faultless. He never had to stop and put in a short one to bring him to the proper taking-off point; he arrived at the taking-off point by some computing of his own, taking the jumps in his stride as if they were hurdles. He was coming up to the wall now, and they waited to see if he would treat that, too, like a hurdle.
“Thump! Thump! Thump!” said the drum of the Bures Silver Band, as the preliminary to Colonel Bogey and their entry into the front gate of the show for their afternoon performance. Riding Light’s ears flickered in question, in doubt. His mind was distracted from that rapidly nearing wall. His ears shot forward again in alarm as he saw it almost upon him. He shortened his stride, trying to fit it into the remaining space, but he had misjudged it. He rose at it with determination and landed on the other side, flinging his quarters upwards in a successful effort to avoid hitting the fence that was now too close under him. But the shoe of his near fore had touched the wall as he rose to it, and a billet slid out of place, wavered a moment on the edge, and then dropped to the ground.
“A-a-ah!” said the crowd in quick sympathy, and Peggy looked back to see what had happened. She saw the little gap in the top of the wall, but it did not rattle her. She collected Riding Light, patted him encouragingly on the neck, and headed him for the next.
“Good girl, Peggy!” murmured Bee.
The distant band was now playing Colonel Bogey, and Riding Light took no further notice of it; he knew all about bands. Bands had been the accompaniment to some of his best performances. He settled down again to his routine, and finished by taking the water jump with a margin that made the crowd gasp.
“Simon will never beat that,” Bee said. “That perfect round of Timber’s was a miracle in the first place.”
The four long stockings of Roger Clint’s mount flashed round the ring in a brisk and willing fashion until they came to the water. Faced with the long distance to the last jump, Stockings stopped and pondered. Clint argued amiably with him, but Stockings would have none of it. “I know what is behind that hedge quite well, and I don’t like it!” he seemed to be saying. And then, with that perennial unreasonableness of horses, he decided to have a go at it. Of his own accord he turned towards the jump and began to canter. Roger sat down and drove him at it, and Stockings went flying down to it with purpose in every line of him. In the last half-second he changed his mind just as suddenly as he had made it up, stuck both toes in hard, and skidded to a stop up against the fence.
The crowd laughed, and so did Roger Clint. He hauled himself back into the saddle from his position round his mount’s neck. He took Stockings round to the other side of the fence and showed him the water. He took him up to it and let him inspect it at close quarters. He walked him round it and let him look at the other edge. And then he took him back to the far end of the ring and turned him to the jump. With an air of “Oh, well, let’s get this thing over with” Stockings jumped off his haunches, tore down the ring, and fled over the water with a yard or two to spare.
The crowd laughed delightedly, and the white teeth showed in Clint’s brown face. He lifted his hat to the applause without looking at them, as a cricketer lifts his cap, and rode out of the ring, well satisfied to have ignored the judge’s disqualifying eye long enough to have induced Stockings to cross the hated obstacle.
Number Six had two faults. Number Seven two-and-a-half.
“Number Eight, please,” said the loud-speaker, and Jane shivered and put her hand in Bee’s. For once Ruth did not have to manufacture drama to suit her; her mouth was open with suspense and she was entirely oblivious of Ruth Ashby.
Timber had neither the experience nor the machine-like power of Riding Light. He had to be ridden. It rested as much on Simon’s judgement as on Timber’s powers whether they could beat the almost faultless performance of Peggy Gates’s horse. Brat thought that Simon looked very white about the mouth. There was more in this for Simon than winning a cup at a small country show. He had to take that prize from the girl who had tried to be upsides with him by introducing a made winner to beat his own untried horses.
Timber came in looking puzzled. It was as if he said: “I’ve done this.” His ears pricked at the sight of the jumps and then flickered in question. There was no eagerness to go at them as there had been when it was a new experience. But he went good-manneredly down to the first and cleared it in his effortless fluid fashion. Brat thought that he could hear the Ashby hearts thumping alongside him. He could certainly hear his own; it was making a noise like the Bures Silver Band’s drum. Simon was half-way round. Ruth had shut her mouth and her eyes and looked as if she were praying. She opened her eyes in time to see Timber clear the gate; a smooth river of black pouring over the white barrier. “Oh, thank you, God,” said Ruth. There was only the wall and the water left.
As Timber turned at the far end of the ring to come back to the wall a gust of wind lifted Simon’s hat from his head and sent it bowling along the ground behind him. Brat was of the opinion that Simon was not even aware of it. Not even Tony Toselli had shown a concentration like Simon’s. For Simon there quite patently existed nothing in this world but himself, the black horse, and the jumps. No one, no one, was going to come between Simon Ashby and the sun and get away with it.
Everything that Simon knew of riding, everything he had learned since he first sat on a pony at the age of two, was devoted to getting Timber safely over the wall. Timber did not like hard bare obstacles.
He had started his canter to the wall when a shrieking white terrier shot out from the stand in pursuit of the distant hat, streaking across in front of the advancing Timber like a hard-kicked ball, and yelling its excitement as only a terrier can.
Timber swerved from this terror and broke into a sweat.
Ruth shut her eyes again and resorted to further prayer. Simon soothed Timber patiently, cantering him round and making much of him while someone retrieved the dog and brought it back to its owner. (Who said: “Poor darling Scottie, he might have been killed!”) Patiently, while the unforgiving seconds ticked on, Simon worked to reassure Timber. He must know that time was running out, that the dog incident was now officially over and each additional second’s delay piling up against him.
Brat had marvelled often at Simon’s powers of self-control, but he had never seen a more remarkable sample of it. The temptation to take Timber to the jump as he was must be enormous. But Simon was taking no chances with Timber. He was pawning time to gain a little better odds for Timber.
And then, having apparently calculated his time to the nearest possible margin, he brought Timber, still sweating but collected, to the wall again. Just before he came to the fence Timber hesitated a little.
And Simon sat still.
If it had been possible for Brat to like Simon Ashby he would have liked him at that moment.
The horse, undistracted from the task in front of him, gathered himself together and catapulted himself over the hated obstacle. And then, relieved to have it behind him, he raced on delightedly to the water and rocketed across it like a blackbird.
Simon had done it.
Jane took her hand out of Bee’s, and wiped her palms on a screwed-up ball of handkerchief.
Bee slipped her arm through Brat’s and squeezed it.
The great burst of cheering made speech inaudible.
In the quiet that succeeded it Ruth said, as one remembering an awkward engagement: “Oh, dear! I’ve pawned my month’s allowance.”
“To whom?” asked her aunt.
“God,” said Ruth.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14