The Four-acre Field was full of the sporting world of Kirkminster. Tom Yellowley, the hunting publican, was there, so was Jack Harris, horse doctor and coper (Jack wrote R.V.C.S. after his name, and was as big a scoundrel as any wearing spurs); Larry O’Snaffle, the sporting doctor, mounted on his trim little grey cob, was ready for the fray; Cleaver, the butcher, scanned the horses with a knowing eye, and hearing that the “Major” rode, instantly put a five-pound note upon “Ladybird, by Chanticleer, out of a Boko mare,” as the stud-book called her.
While the horses are saddling, let us take a look round the course.
In the flat, numberless blue coats moved to and fro, and with them the bright ribbons of the pottery girls, who turned out in great force to see the “sojers ride.” The little brush-covered booths were doing a good trade. Sergeant Overalls tossed off his pot with Trooper Collarpoint, and wished “good luck” to the major. Corporal Bridoon walked up and down the course, offering “pots of heavy” on the success of Carnifex, and making unpleasant though guarded remarks upon the method in which Cornet Toodles managed his steed. The rustics were standing about in little knots, and staring, open-mouthed, at the swaggering moustached dragoons; while such happy fellows as could claim acquaintance with a trooper, paraded, arm in arm, with him, and “stood” unlimited beer for his delectation.
The course ran as we have stated. The last jump was a stiff post-and-rail fence about half-way down the straight running, and a little further on, a temporary grand-stand had been erected, and there the “fank and rashion” of Kirkminster (as the major termed them) were collected.
It was a pretty sight enough. The rich autumn tints of the trees gave colour to the landscape, the brilliant flags that marked the course waved gaily in the light breeze, and the sun shone brightly down upon the moving motley crowd.
The stand was not much patronised, at least by the magnates of the land. These preferred the privacy of their carriages. The two fat greys of Sir Thomas Blunderbore of the Beeches stood stolidly in front of the heavy chariot wherein the Blunderborian family (a mother and two unusually ugly daughters) reclined. The Rev. Horace Markham, the foxhunting rector, reined up his blood-mare to chat with Mrs. Eversley, the pretty widow of a late squire of his acquaintance. The Champignons of Kirkminster came out with overpowering splendour. Adelaide Champignon (rising thirty-three and somewhat faded) wearing a bonnet that seemed intended for a microscopic slide, so small was it; and Augustus, the only son of the family, carrying collars and scarf of such portentous dimensions that he looked like a perambulating Niagara of silk and linen.
The non-riding portion of the —th occupied a huge drag, the front seat of which was filled by no less a person than the Colonel himself. Black Brentwood, of the —th, was a man of note. His life, if written, would have made the admirer of sensation novels stare. Men told more stories of Black Brentwood than of any other man in the British army. His name was mixed up with nearly every scandal of the clubs, but he still held his head erect, and walked bravely in noonday. His fame at the War Office was notorious; but it is said that the chief himself, on being asked by some eager reformer to amend the error of Brentwood’s ways, replied, “Sir, the Colonel of the —th is a Soldier. Good morning!”
He looks quiet enough now though, as he leans over the high seat, talking in subdued tones to Rupert Dacre of the Foreign Office, who being on a visit to Matcham, has come over to see the race.
As Mr. Rupert Dacre plays a somewhat prominent part in the history which follows, I will tell you all I know about him.
Rupert Dacre is the only son of Harcourt Dacre, late Secretary for Colonial Affairs. Harcourt Dacre was a self-made man; that is to say, he went into Parliament at an early age, and fought his way by sheer hard work, not unmixed with a little judicious humbug, to the upper ranks of political life. It was said of him that he never forgot a friend, or made an enemy. Clever, careful, and well versed in all the sterner details of redtapeism, he made a position for himself, and died comparatively wealthy, and reasonably famous. His son followed in his footsteps. Rupert Dacre was essentially a man of his age. Cool, quiet, sarcastic, and prudent; he had marked out a course for himself, and steadily pursued it. The authorities believed in Rupert Dacre. He never blundered, and had a happy knack of turning the errors of others to account. Morally, he was without principle, but socially and politically he was a “safe” man. No esclandre had ever happened to the cautious Rupert. Without being a whit better than his fellows, he had the prudence to conceal his vices, and acting always upon the broad principle of being “all things to all men” (especially to those in power), he bore the reputation of a man of talent. Connected—by report at all events—with the leading journals of the day, he was to a certain extent a power in his own world. He was just brilliant enough to please, just sarcastic enough to be feared, and just rich enough not to be envied. He never said the wrong thing in the wrong place, or did the right thing at the wrong time. His personal appearance was in his favour. He had just escaped being handsome, and, save for a pair of bright, sharp eyes, you could not point to any particularly distinctive feature in his face. He was the essence of refined commonplace, an artist’s proof of the ordinary modern Englishman. Too clever to be a cipher, and too cautious to be eccentric, he was outwardly the impersonation of mediocrity; and it was only after you had talked with him that you found out he was no common specimen of his class. He was a looking-glass to every man’s opinions, and every clever man deemed himself the first to discover and appreciate his talents. If asked to name the two cleverest men of the day, each diplomatist would—if speaking honestly—have said “myself and Rupert Dacre.” He kept his claws sheathed, in order that he might strike the more securely. He did not hide his talent in a napkin; he lodged it safely, in order that it might bear interest a hundred-fold.
Saville Chatteris was one of Rupert’s many irons, and he had come to Matcham to keep him as hot as possible.
With this view he strolled over to the Matcham barouche. Saville Chatteris was in more affable mood than usual. His eldest and favourite son was to ride the finest horse on the ground, and had every prospect of winning. Vanity being a weak point in the ex-diplomat’s character, he was pleased at this, and looked forward, with subdued delight, to the reflected honour which would fall upon him as the father of the hero of the day. He was standing up in the barouche with race-glass directed to the white spot that marked the starting post.
“They’re getting ready, Kate,” said he.
“Can you see Fred, uncle?”
“No—yes—I think I can. Orange and black, isn’t he?”
“What is it, aunty? You have the card.”
Lady Loughborough, who was leaning back in aristocratic beatitude, languidly lifted her double-rimmed gold eyeglass to her aged nose, and perused the “c’rect card” (issued by the Major in the fulness of his heart), supplied by the ragged Kirkminster Bedouin a few minutes before.
“I can’t find it, child,” said she, pettishly, at length.
“Permit me! Ah! Lieutenant Frederick Chatteris, orange and black.”
It was Rupert who spoke.
“Oh! Mr. Dacre, you have found your way here again!”
“Yes. I have undergone the social penalty of having friends, and have said all the agreeable things I could invent on short notice. There is a large assemblage;” and he looked round carelessly.
Lady Loughborough shrugged her shoulders.
“Yes, everybody seems to be here. I saw the banker’s people just now, with a hamper behind the carriage. There are the Champignons, too. I cannot think of whom that eldest girl reminds me.”
“She is not unlike Miss Meutriere, the novelist,” says Dacre, putting up his eyeglass.
“Oh! that terrible woman I met at a conversazione last season.” And Lady Loughborough made a little moue. “She talked geology all the time.”
“She is considered a handsome girl, though.”
“Do you think so?”
“No, I don’t think so. Her face is as highly-coloured as her novels; and both display the same amount of artistic skill.”
“Fie!” said Lady Loughborough, with a pleased smile.
Dacre had made his point, and was too good an actor not to make his exit while his audience was in good humour. He turned to Kate.
“May I lose a pair of gloves, Miss Ffrench?”
“Twenty pairs if you like,” returned Kate, who did not admire him.
“You back Carnifex, of course?”
“The honour of the house, you know.”
“I am afraid you will lose,” said he. “Ladybird was a good goer when I sold her to Cy——”
He stopped suddenly, as if he had suddenly entered on forbidden ground, and eyed the girl narrowly.
Kate had flushed crimson from neck to forehead, and the little hand that rested on the carriage door clenched itself involuntarily. Her eyes turned towards Mr. Saville Chatteris, who was still gazing intently into the distance.
Rupert dropped his voice.
“Pardon me, I had forgotten.”
Kate did not speak. There was a murmur around.
“They’re off!” cried the Master of Matcham, and handed his glass to his niece.
They were off in good sooth—the usual steeplechase start. The dapper little man who acted as starter dropped his flag. Ladybird, held in the light but firm grasp of the “hardest rider in the shires,” sailed away with a lead. Carnifex, with a leer of his vicious eye, a shake of his vicious head, and a plunge that tried the arms of Fred Chatteris, dashed off in his wake. The “man-eater,” who had been taking suspicious backward sniffs at the gallant captain’s boots, at last consented to go, and Hethrington laid himself along little Toodles, determined to cut him down at all events.
Poor Toodles was a picture. Jemmy Jessamy was making terrific play. Lashing out his long legs, whisking his long tail, and boring down with his huge head, he was causing the dry-salter’s son to fly up out of the pigskin every three seconds.
“What shall I do at the fence?” asked Toodles, mentally “What a fool I am!”
Haughton and his gallant little grey were going steadily on the right, while Bob Calverly—his knees too high for elegance, but with his hands well down and his body well back—forced Stockrider out of the ruck with a wisdom beyond his years. Behind, came the fag end of the field, whipping and spurring to make up for lost time; while—there being no clerk of the course, or other judicious official—the whole of sporting Kirkminster was maddening in the rear.
Tom Yellowley and Jack Harris hurried their spavined horses along, shouting for their respective favourites; and Dr. O’Snaffle, with a sharp look around him, gave the little cob his head, and shot off like an arrow.
A bit of grass land led up to the first fence, giving the horses an opportunity of getting well into their stride. At it they came, Ladybird slipping over like water; and Jemmy Jessamy, to Toodles’ great surprise, taking the bit in his teeth, cleared the four-foot rail with a bound that effectually disposed of his wind for the remainder of the day. Carnifex was, as Fred termed him, “a glutton at timber,” and he nearly took the fence in his stride. The rest followed safely, for the maneater, crashing bodily through the rails, had nearly fractured Hethrington’s kneecap, and made room enough for a squadron. They were all well down to their work by this time, the Major leading, Haughton creeping up on the grey with calm disregard of everybody. Toodles felt his heart sink as they came to the next jump. It was a terrific hedge and ditch—so big a ditch that it was called in the rustic vernacular “Chalker’s Gap”—(Chalker being a defunct farmer, who perished there one fine hunting morning). At Chalker’s Gap, then, the knowing ones were stationed.
“This ’ll show ’em up,” said Cleaver the butcher, as he rested his chin on his ugly hunting crop. “Bravo—good!” he suddenly cried.
Ladybird cleared it beautifully, but, with a cruel cut of the whip, Fred laid Carnifex alongside, and as Jack Ponsonby dropped into the furrows, he saw the open nostrils of the dark chestnut close to his saddle-flap. Hethrington came a “crumpler” into the field, but, with a vicious dig of the spur, set his horse on his legs again, and caught Haughton in three strides.
“I’ll lay five to two on the Major!” cries a sporting squire.
As he spoke, the blue jacket of Bob Calverly rose and fell with even motion, as Stockrider, going within himself, cleared the “Gap.”
“I’ll take yer!” roared Cleaver, smacking his brawny thigh. “Blowed if the Horstralian won’t give ’em trouble yet!”
Here Jemmy Jessamy parted company with his rider; Toodles’ gallant steed rose just high enough to stick in the hedge, and the unhappy cornet lit on his head in the ploughed land, presenting an artistically foreshortened view of the soles of his boots to the admiring spectators.
Carnifex now took the lead—Ladybird, carefully piloted by the cool Major, close on his quarter; Bob Calverly third, evidently biding his time. Haughton and Hethrington were well on together, the man-eater enlivening the monotony of the course by playful endeavours to take a bonne-bouche from the neck of the grey. Two or three fences were negotiated without accident, and the five horses between whom it was evident that the race now lay, neared a stiff wall of loose stones, about three feet broad at the top. Carnifex cleared it in his stride. The mare topped the wall like a greyhound, but in doing so lost ground, and Stockrider, with a tremendous rush, and a bound that would have almost cleared Kirkminster steeple, landed half a length before the mare. Bob now called on the colt, and Fred, who knew the powers of his horse, gave a supercilious smile as the Australian, with a cheery laugh, passed him and took up the running.
The man-eater’s chance was gone, for he rolled heavily over his rider, who had the satisfaction of seeing the splashed girths of the grey fly over him as that gallant little nag landed safely over his fifth fence.
The “three” were close together, but as yet the gazers on the hill could see little change in the pace. Two more fences were successfully passed, and a murmur ran from mouth to mouth as the orange and black drew out to the front, and neared that terror of the Loamshire hunt, Patchly Brook. Patchly Brook is not a pleasant thing to be taken fasting on a raw hunting morning, and even the insouciant Fred felt his heart beat quicker as he caught the first glimpse of its dark swirling waters, its rotten banks, and its bad “take off.” At it he went, however, hardening his heart, and, obedient to the sounding lash of the whip, Carnifex, with a snort and a bound, flew over the brook, merely wetting his hind hoofs as he landed on the high bank beyond. Loud cheers burst from the crowd, who now felt certain that the Loamshire man would win. Bob Calverly was not a length behind the chestnut, but as he neared the water he could feel Stockrider slackening his pace, and involuntarily prepared for the expected “prop” that would follow. The colt had never seen water before, and, despite the example of the chestnut, he would evidently refuse to jump. Bob turned his head and saw the calm face of the immovable major close on his quarter. No time was to be lost. With memories of old “cutting out” days thick upon him, the young Australian seized the colt by the head, and wheeling him on so small a space, that, as Ponsonby afterwards declared “a sixpence would have covered it,” he brought him close alongside Ladybird as she rose for the leap. One cut of the whip—and the astonished Stockrider obeying the natural instincts of his race, followed the mare and found himself on the other side of Patchly Brook—a good third, and one fence from the winning post. Here ended, alas! the fortunes of the gallant grey. That plucky little nag was baked at last, and his rider might have been seen for a moment standing in his stirrups and gazing despairingly at the gurgling stream that rushed past the obstinately-planted forelegs of the best cover-hack in Loamshire. The excitement was now at its height; and as the horses neared the last fence the cheers were deafening.
Down the straight they came, Carnifex leading, in full view of the stand, and the fashionables on the hill.
The last fence was a stiff one—a strong bramble hedge with two stout rails in the middle of it. Fred never quailed, but, with his eyes fixed, came steadily on. The cheers were louder as he neared the jump.
“I’ll lay on Carnifex!”
“Hurrah for the regiment!”
“The Major! the Major!”
The horse—his huge shoulders working, his head down, his eyes starting—thundered down the course.
“Too fast—too fast!” cried Larry O’Snaffle, who had forced his cob into the crowd. “Steady, lad—steady!”
But Fred heard not, or if he had he could not have attended. Maddened by the shouts, and the last “punisher” at the brook, Carnifex had taken the bit between his teeth, and, with a vicious shake of his ugly head, had fairly bolted. Fred, exhausted by his previous endeavours, could do nothing but keep him straight, and, amid a sudden cry from the crowd, the huge brute rushed into the fence. There was no answering crash of timber, the rails were too strong, and turning fairly over, Carnifex fell with a dull thud upon his rider.
Before the crowd could rush in, Bob Calverly had dashed to the front, topped the fence, closely followed by the mare, and prepared to run for home. The race was now between two. Those at the other end of the course were in confusion. Had the chestnut fallen? Where was orange and black? Those on the hill had seen too plainly.
As the horses flew past, Bob caught a momentary vision of a white eager face. It was Kate. Unable to resist the temptation, he turned his head, and the impassible Major seizing the moment, dashed spurs into Ladybird, and landed the game little mare, who had run straight as a crow from end to end, a winner by a length.
Down on the course confusion reigned. The crowd hurried like a swarm of bees to one spot—the last fence. Alas! the riding of the gay lieutenant of dragoons was over for ever. There was a horrible confused heap of orange and black and crimson. They pulled the dying horse off him, and Larry O’Snaffle knelt down by his side.
“Has he fainted?” asked Mr. Saville Chatteris, his white lips quivering.
“He is dead!” said the little doctor, dropping the hand that still clutched the jewelled whip convulsively.
Mr. Rupert Dacre, standing a little back from the group, and stroking his long moustache meditatively, murmured,
“Dead, is he? Hum! It can’t do me much harm if I telegraph to Cyril.”