The owner of the “Boko mare” was a sturdy, red-faced man, of middle age, whose face was tanned and reddened by all sorts of weather and liquor. Jack Ponsonby—or, to speak by the card, the Hon. John Ponsonby—was a younger son of the Earl of Desborough, and came of a sporting family. The Ponsonbys were renowned for their turf achievements, and the Hon. John had not hitherto belied his race. His sturdy little legs, red, good-humoured countenance, bushy whiskers, and clear blue eyes, were known at most race meetings and hunting counties in England. He was accounted “the hardest rider in the Shires”—no mean fame—and there were few “sporting men” who would like to try weight of metal with the major of the —th.
“I’ll take you, Fred, old fellow!” he cried out. “I believe in that little mare.” As soon as the old hound had given tongue the pack took up the cry.
“I’m in with you, Major!”
“Done with you, Chatteris!”
“I don’t mind a mild fifty!”
“Five to three in ponies!”
“Don’t be so fast, my friends,” says the owner of Carnifex (he was languid in his manner, and given to drawling and clipping his words). “I won’t ride unless there’s a field.”
“That’s easily got,” said Haughton, pulling his moustache. “The regiment is like a training stables.”
“I’ll put in Jemmy Jessamy, if you won’t over-weight him,” says little Toodles (he was the son of a distinguished drysalter in the city).
“Catch weights, of course,” responded the Major, taking out his red betting-book, and calmly booking his bets.
“And Smasher can go too,” said Tom Hethrington, who proverbially rode the worst tempered horses in England. “He’s taken to eating his groom, and wants exercise.”
“By Jove!” cries the Major, “we’ll make a field-day of it. All the ‘fank and rashion’ of Kirkminster. Of course, all your people will come from Matcham, Chatteris?”
Fred Chatteris nodded, and proceeded to note up the field of horses.
“Where shall we have the course?” said he.
“There’s a good line by the race-course. Start from the four-acre field at Dingley, across the turf to Chalker’s Gap, then over the ploughed land, by Patchley Brook, jump the timber fence into the course, then home up the straight, and finish at the stand. Lots of stiff hurdles, a good big water jump, and plenty of stout timber,” returned the “hardest, etc.” with glee.
“As you please,” said Fred, carelessly. “Carnifex is a glutton at timber.”
“Are we to have three weeks?” asked Toodles.
“Oh, no, run the thing to-morrow!” cries Hethrington, who was anxious about his man-eater.
“Well, Monday then.”
“If you fellows are agreeable, I’ll run on Wednesday,” says the Major. “Wednesday, by all means,” drawled Fred Chatteris, “and we’ll all ride our own horses.”
Kirkminster was all agog at the news of the steeplechase. There were races once a year—“The Kirkminster Handicap,” when the “cracks” came down, and no little money changed hands.
The garrison races, too, took place in the autumn, and perhaps caused more real fun than the “legitimate business,” as the Major called it, for Kirkminster was not much given to sporting. Sir Valentine Yoicks’ hounds met three times a week at Great Ringston or thereabouts, and were sturdily followed by the garrison and the farmers. Loamshire was not a good hunting country, and, had it not been for the garrison, I doubt if even Sir Val’s pack would have flourished. Sir Valentine Yoicks was a jovial fellow. He drank good wine, rode good horses, and gave liberally to charities. His nephew, Robert Calverly, or, as he was called, “young Squire Calverly,” was a nephew worthy his uncle. He was not too intellectual either, but, as his friends declared, “his heart was in the right place, and he rode as straight as a crow.” He was a tall, sunburnt, English-looking fellow, too, and an immense favourite with all his lady friends. He was as playfully kind as a young elephant, was Bob Calverly, and would waltz (in utter disregard of time or tune) for hours with the plainest girl in the room, if he thought he would please her by so doing.
I fear, though, that the young squire was not fully at home in ladies’ society. He felt shy, awkward, and ill at ease, when some of the London belles who visited at Matcham attacked him after dinner. He could sing a good song among his friends, but was utterly ignorant of the respective merits of Verdi and Gounod. He never read sensation novels, and was not as well “up” in the Roman question as could be wished. He did not know Millais from Tenniel; but he could pick you out any bullock in a herd—ay, and remember him too. He was not a good hand at croquet playing, but he could shear one hundred sheep a day, and shear them clean, which is a matter of difficulty, I can tell you. He had no taste for water-colour drawings; but he could sit a buckjumper, and drive four horses down a sidling in a Gipps Land range with any man in Australia.
In point of fact, “Squire Calverly” was not Squire Calverly at all. He was born in Australia, and had come to England to visit his uncle, old Yoicks, of the Hall, and to see a little English life before he went back again. When Valentine Yoicks was twenty-two, his sister married a farmer on her brother’s estate. Yoicks père, who was alive at that time, was highly indignant at this; and, considering the honour of the Yoicks family sullied by the alliance, made the place so hot for poor Calverly, that the honest yeoman used to declare, almost with tears in his eyes, “He’s a bitter, hard man, the squire is; but maybe it’ll come back to him again.”
It never did “come back” though, for Sir Percival Yoicks died with great complacency at the age of seventy-two, and was buried with exceeding pomp and glory in the family vault at Ringston.
Calverly went to Australia, and, after some exceedingly rough living, invested his capital in stock, and (like many another brave fellow before him) hewed a fortune out of the Australian bush.
With him, however, it concerns us not now. He was wealthy and respected, had a fine house, and was a power in the State. His sterling good sense had served him in lieu of more brilliant qualities; and “Old Calverly” was as well known in Melbourne and Sydney for an honest man and a warm friend, as his late father-in-law had been in Loamshire for a crusty, hard-riding, godless old reprobate.
Sir Valentine had always liked his brother-in-law, and when a letter came from Australia, stating that Mr. Bob Calverly (with a draft for £3000 in his writing-case) was en route for England, Sir Val opened his heart and doors right willingly.
Robert Calverly had been home for about six months, and as yet had had no cause to complain. He was welcome everywhere. At the barracks, at the county houses, and at the cottages. He was “hail fellow well met” with everybody. The Major slapped Bob’s brawny back, and vowed he was a “flyer all over.” Mr. Frederick Chatteris used to say that he liked “that Australian fellow, he was such a good natured cub.” The young ladies in Kirkminster declared that he was a “dear good fellow, and had such nice brown eyes;” while the old ones whispered that he was rich beyond measure, and “a most desirable match for Fanny,” or Laura, or Jenny, as the case might be.
But Mr. Bob Calverly, late of Ballara Plains, now of the Hall, Loamshire, was not to be caught easily. He had in good truth a slight tendresse already. One day Fred Chatteris drove the young Australian over to his father’s at Matcham. Matcham Park was the finest in Loamshire; Saville Chatteris, Esquire, whilome chargé d’ affaires at Krummelhoff, the proudest old diplomat that ever represented the policy of England; and his sister, Lady Loughborough, the most enchanting mauvaise langue in Europe.
Young Calverly, however, did not appreciate these things. He thought the Park small, Saville Chatteris an oily old humbug, and Lady Loughborough a scandalous old woman. So much for the effects of English civilisation on an Australian. But an Australian can appreciate beauty of another kind as well as any man I know, and when the door opened after luncheon, and Miss Kate Ffrench walked in, and greeting her cousin with a mock curtsey, extended to the new comer a small firm hand, saying—“Mr. Calverly, I suppose; how do you do? I have heard a great deal about you,”—our Australian blushed to the tips of his sunburnt ears, and thought he had met the “queen of gods and men” face to face.
Kate Ffrench was the daughter of Laura Chatteris and “Mad Dick Ffrench of the Blues.” Dick Ffrench, who, of course, could not do anything like anybody else, must needs run away with Miss Laura from Madame Aramanthe Lacajole’s academy, and marry her by stealth. Had he asked permission, he could have married her in St. George’s, Hanover-square, with twenty bridesmaids, in broad noonday, for Dick Ffrench was a rich man then; but he took some foolish idea into his handsome bullet-head concerning the displeasure of Laura’s family, and made a runaway match of it. One of the consequences of this rash act was, that Miss Laura’s father, being at that time Secretary to the Waste-paper Department of the F.O., and owner of Matcham, considered himself personally insulted, and refused to see his daughter again.
Captain Richard Ffrench being in the habit of spending about seven times his income, and borrowing at any rate of interest, speedily came to grief, and exchanging with curious rapidity into the Line, went out to India, and was shot there. His widow coming home again, and dying in a plaintive but noiseless manner in a little lodging-house, near Kennington Common, the stern parent relented, and adopting little Kate—then four years old—sent her down to Matcham, where she had lived ever since. It was to this young lady (seventeen now, and straight as an arrow) that Bob Calverly had lost his heart.
When Fred told him about the forthcoming steeplechase, he felt an inward twinge of regret that he had not a horse to enter, for if he prided himself upon anything in particular, it was his horsemanship.
“I wish I had known before about it,” said he, “I would have put ‘Stockrider’ into it.”
“Stockrider” was a colt that Bob had bought in Kirkminster, and named, it would seem, in fond remembrance of past times at Ballara.
“Oh, it’s all right,” says the nonchalant Fred. “I’ll speak to the major about it. If you want to go in, you can, of course, but it comes off tomorrow, you know.”
“‘Stockrider’ is as hard as a nut,” says Bob, with a pardonable colonialism. “I’ll run him.”
“Just as you like, my boy!” says Fred, admiring his boots. “Half-past one to-morrow is the time, you know, and we start from the Four-acre Field at Dingley.”