Brat surveyed himself in the small cracked mirror of the Gent’s Temporary Dressing-room and decided that primrose and violet did not become him any better than they became Simon. It would take Roger Clint’s dark face to do justice to those springtime glories. Roger Clint would probably look dashing in them. He was in no mood to look favourably on Roger Clint. Whenever he had caught sight of Eleanor this afternoon it seemed that she was in the company of Mr. Clint, and what is more, seemed to be enjoying the company.
Brat tugged the yellow visor a little farther over his eyes. A sick misery burned in him; a spiritual heartburn.
“What’s it got to do with you?” said a voice in him. “You’re her brother: remember?”
“Can’t have your cake and eat it, you know.”
He walked out of the almost deserted dressing-room and went to find Chevron. The serious business of the day was over and there was an air of relaxation. In the shade of the trees competitors who had taken part in the sober events were now walking ponies and coffeehousing while they waited for the bending race. Alone for the moment, on a solid dun pony, was Peggy Gates, her eyes roving over the crowd in search of someone. She looked tired and discouraged. As Brat came level with her he paused and said:
“That was very bad luck.”
“Oh, hullo, Mr. Ashby! What was?”
“The big drum.”
“Oh, that!” she said, and smiled at him. “Oh, that was just one of those things.”
She sounded quite philosophical about it, and yet Brat could have sworn that when he came up she had tears in her eyes.
“Good luck to the race,” she said.
Brat thanked her and was moving away when she said: “Mr. Ashby, have I done anything to offend Simon, do you know?”
Brat said no, not that he knew.
“Oh. It’s just that he seems to be avoiding me lately, and I’m not aware of having done anything — anything that he wouldn’t ——”
There were undoubted tears in her eyes now.
“Oh, you know,” she said, tried a smile, didn’t manage it very well, and moved away with a wave of her hand.
So it had not been a desire to be mistress of Latchetts that had moved pretty Peggy; it was devotion to Simon. Poor Peggy. Simon would never forgive her for Riding Light.
Eleanor was waiting under the trees on Buster, but stirrup to stirrup with her was Roger Clint, who had also found a pony for the bending race. Roger was pouring out a long story and Eleanor was nodding sympathetically; Brat gave them a wide berth and betook himself to the stables. In the stables he found Bee and Gregg. Gregg saw him weighed out and saddled Chevron, who was nervous and unhappy.
“It’s the sound of the crowd that worries her,” Gregg said. “Something she hears and can’t understand. If I were you, Mr. Patrick, sir, I’d take her out and walk her. Take her out and show her the crowds and she’ll be so interested she’ll forget her nerves.”
So Brat took the dithering chestnut out into the park, and she became gradually quieter, as Gregg had known she would. Presently Simon found him and suggested that it was time to be going down to the start.
“Did you remember to sign the book?” he asked.
“Book?” said Brat. “Sign for what?”
“To show that you consent to your horse running.”
“I never heard of anyone signing a book. The horse was entered, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but in previous years they had trouble with gate-crashers. Some bright sparks who took out horses that didn’t belong to them, when their owners didn’t intend to run them. Had a free jaunt on them, and in at least one case broke the already tired horse down.”
“All right. Where is the book?”
“In the weighing-room place. I’ll look after Chevron till you come back. No need to take her into that mêlée.”
In the little office, sitting behind the desk, was Colonel Smollett.
“Well, young Ashby, your family has been doing very well to-day, eh? Three firsts, no less. Are you going to add a fourth? Book? What book? Oh, the paper. Yes, yes. Here it is.”
Brat, signing the single sheet of paper that was presented to him, said that he had never heard of this procedure.
“Probably not. Never heard of it myself. But it does insure the show against loss to a certain extent. That fellow whose horse was ridden unbeknownst to him last year, he sued the Show for damages. Very nearly got them, too. So your brother suggested this method of insurance.”
“My brother? Simon suggested it?”
“Yes. Got a head on him, Simon. Now no one can say that his horse was pulled out without his permission.”
He went back and retrieved Chevron from Arthur’s custody.
“Mr. Simon said he couldn’t wait, Mr. Patrick, but he said to wish you luck. He’s gone back to the stands with the rest of the family to watch the finish.”
“All right, Arthur; thanks.”
“Would you like me to come to the start with you, sir?”
“Oh, no, thanks.”
“In that case, I’ll go and see about getting myself a place to see from. Good luck, sir. We’re betting on you.”
And he hurried off through the crowd.
Brat put the reins over Chevron’s head and was just about to mount when he thought that he would take one more look at the girth. He had already tightened it, but perhaps he had made it too tight.
But someone had loosened the girth.
Brat stood holding up the flap with his hand and stared. Someone had loosened it since he left the mare with Simon. He put his hand under the girth and tested its degree of slackness. He reckoned that it would have got him out of the park into the country and would have lasted perhaps another two fences. After that, the saddle would have slipped round on the highly excitable Chevron and she would have gone crazy.
Arthur? No, not Arthur. Simon almost certainly.
He tightened the girth and made for the start. As he arrived he was overtaken by Roger Clint in white and scarlet on Operation Stockings.
“You’re Patrick Ashby, aren’t you?” he said. “My name is Roger Clint.” He leaned over and shook hands. “Very nice to have you at Bures again.”
“Who won the bending race?” Brat asked.
“I did. By a short head from Nell.”
“She won it last year on Buster, so it is just as well that the thing should go round. And I wanted a silver cup, anyway.”
Brat had no time to ask why he had this longing for a silver cup. They were lining up, and he was Number Five, and Roger Clint was away on the outside. There were fourteen runners and a considerable amount of jostling. There was no gate, of course, the start being by flag.
Brat was in no hurry at the start. He let the others lead him so that he could gauge the opposition. At least five, he decided, were horses that had been ridden so much to-day that they were of no consequence and were merely cluttering up the course and spoiling things for their betters. Three more he had seen jumped in a junior competition, and had no belief that they would ever get round the course. That left five possibles, and of these three were dangerous: a bay charger ridden by his officer owner; a great raking brown youngster ridden by a young farmer; and Roger Clint’s mount.
They took the hurdles at a tearing pace, and two of the overworked lot, fighting for position, struck into each other and rolled into a third. One of the “junior” jumpers came a frightful purler over the first fence going into the country, and brought down the other two over-tired animals. Which cleared the field very happily.
Chevron liked seeing her horses in front of her, and was patently enjoying herself. She loved jumping and was taking her fences with an off-handed confidence. One could almost hear her humming. She watched the other two “junior” jumpers fail to get over a blind fence and flicked her heels in their faces.
The field was thinning out very nicely.
Brat began to move up.
He passed the fifth of the possibles without effort. The fourth was making a noise like a pipe band but seemed good for a little yet. In front of him at the farthest point of the course were the soldier on the bay charger, the farmer on the big young brown horse, and Roger Clint on the chestnut with the white stockings. Apart from his own Chevron, Clint’s was probably the best quality horse in the race, but like the soldier was riding like a veteran, and the farmer like someone who has no respect for his neck.
It was a right-handed course, and the farmer’s young horse jumped consistently to the right, so that no one could with any safety come up on the inside of him as long as he hugged the turns tightly. And since no one wanted to go wider than they need at the turns they dallied a little behind the big brown until they could come into the straight and pass him without disadvantage. It was going to be a race when they came back to that last half-mile of park.
Gradually the pipe band that had been so long at his left ear faded backwards into the distance, and when they came back to the park there were only four of them in it: the soldier, the farmer, Clint, and himself. He didn’t mind about the other two, but he wanted very much to beat Roger Clint.
Clint had a look round as they left the country behind, and flashed a friendly smile to him. After that there was no time for courtesies. The pace was turned on with the suddenness of a tap, and the four of them pounded down the green avenue between the fluttering red flags as if classic honours were waiting for them at the other end. The big young brown horse began to sprawl; and the charger, though steady as a rock and apparently tireless, seemed to have no turn of speed to finish with. Brat decided to keep Chevron’s nose level with the chestnut’s quarters and see what transpired. Together they forged ahead of the bay and the brown. The farmer was using his whip and his horse sprawled more at every lift of it. The soldier was sitting still on the bay and evidently hoping that stamina would tell in the end.
Brat had a good look at Stockings and decided that he was tiring rapidly and that Clint, from the careful way he was riding him, knew it. There were two hurdles to go. He had no idea how much speed or stamina Chevron might have left, so he decided that the safest method was to try to trick Clint out of it. He shook Chevron up and took her up level with Stockings as if he were making his effort. Clint increased his speed to match, and together they crossed the last two obstacles, Brat still by his own choice a little in the rear, and therefore out of Clint’s vision. Then Brat eased the pressure momentarily, and Clint, taking it for granted that a falling back so near the post argued failing stamina, was glad that he would not have to ask his mount for the last ounce and relaxed a little. Brat gathered Chevron together with all his strength and came like a rocket from behind him. Clint looked, startled, and set Stockings alight again, but it was too late. They were far too near the post for that, as Brat had reckoned. He had stolen the race.
“Of all the ‘old soldier’ tricks to fall for!” laughed Clint, as they walked their horses together to the weighing-room. “I ought to have my head examined.”
And Brat felt that whether Eleanor was going to marry him or not he really did like Roger Clint quite a lot.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55