Not only had he married her; he had left to her all his disposable estate: freeholds in London, factories in the Midlands, coal-mines, and a successful stud of thoroughbreds. Lady Seawood (as she preferred to be called, having an aversion to the name of Fysshe) had been the idol of the halls for ten years or so, and was a personality to be feared if not respected. She was a peroxide blonde, with the face of a Roman emperor. Her broad sloping shoulders topped a chest like that of a coal-heaver; her hips and legs, originally like those of an Epstein statue, had been further developed by years of dancing; her voice, when she chose to let it go, could outroar a bos’n’s mate.
Perilously near the age of forty, she had kept herself in perfect physical trim by constant exercise and rigid abstention from all that she most desired in the way of eating and drinking.
When the Oronia, with Sensation and his entourage on board, pulled into Colombo, a thrill ran through the ship as soon as it was known that among the passengers to join her at that port were Lady Seawood and her companion Miss Fysshe. And the ship had hardly got under way again when Her Ladyship made her appearance in the saloon.
“’Ere, Frogmouth,” she said—addressing a steward who certainly was a bit down in the gills—“’ere, Frogmouth, go and find me the chief stooard. Tell him Lady Seawood wants ’im. At the double.”
Though he did not exactly come at the double, the chief steward lost no time in making his appearance and started on some commonplace about having the honour. But Her Ladyship cut him short with an imperious “Sit down, old Fishface, and lissen to me.
“There’s a man on board,” she went on, “I want to meet. Name of Carstairs. ’E owns this racehorse you’ve got up forrard. What sort of a proposition is he? Who’s with him? Where does he sit? I want you to put me at his table. Savvy? No captain’s table for me. All the old tabbies on the ship will be at that table, and if I cut loose I might make some of ’em jump overboard.”
The chief steward was by no means rattled. He had paid many a shilling to see Her Ladyship’s legs in the old days, and he had carried music-hall stars on previous voyages.
“There’s a party of them with that horse,” he said. “They got on at Sydney, but they’re not all Australians. I put them at a table by themselves, because I had to keep room at the captain’s table in case any real swells came on with the Indian passengers. There’s the Honourable Captain Salter, aide-de-camp to the Governor of New South Wales, and an old Irish gentleman and his daughter, and this Mr Carstairs that owns the horse, and his secretary, a Mr Fitzroy.”
“Right-oh,” said Her Ladyship. “Now we’ve got the cast give us the scenario. What part does this Carstairs play? Does he keep the ’orse or does the ’orse keep him? Is he a rich juggins, or could he walk down Threadneedle Street without somebody selling ’im the Bank of England?”
“Well, he’s a very quiet man, Your Ladyship. Hardly says anything. I heard him say he’d been a shearer, but I believe he’s a very wealthy man.”
“Ha, the mysterious stranger lurking in the wings! What time do they carry round the slush—tea and bovril and that—on this hooker? Eleven o’clock? Well, you give ’im my compliments, Lady Seawood’s compliments, and I’d be glad if he would join me and Fishy at the eleven o’clock swill. By the time I’ve drunk a cup of concentrated ox with ’im, I’ll know more about ’im than you know—and you’ve ’ad three weeks’ start on me.”
At eleven o’clock the awkward and shambling figure of Red Fred bore down on the corner of the deck where Her Ladyship and Miss Fysshe were waiting for him.
“Sit down and rest your legs,” said Her Ladyship, eyeing the freckled and weather-beaten countenance of her visitor. “I ’ear you’re taking an ’orse to England. Well, I’ve got the best ’orse in England an’ I want to know wot you’ve fixed up. ’Ave you got a trainer? I think my trainer’s a bit of a thief, but there’s some worse than ’im. I can get you a straight trainer if you ’aven’t got one.”
Any other person than Red Fred might have questioned the bona fides of such an unlikely lady of title, but he had seen her name in the passenger’s list. For all he knew, the whole British aristocracy might be addicted to slang and to making friends with perfect strangers. Anyway, she seemed a most friendly sort of person, and he managed to drink half a cup of soup without his hand shaking.
“We’ve done nothin’ yet,” he said. “We had to clear this horse out of Australia quick and lively because a Chinaman was tryin’ to shoot him. Would have shot me too, if I’d have gave him the chance.”
“Gosh!” said Her Ladyship. “Sounds like a movie. What do you think of it, Fysshe?”
Miss Fysshe, a distant relative of the late earl, was a great contrast to her employer; while one was built on the lines of a barge the other was a racing skiff. Of any age from twenty-five to thirty-five, Miss Fysshe was a trimly built little woman, tightly buttoned up in a beautifully-cut tailor-made suit. A certain American lady tennis-player has been described as “little poker face.” She had nothing on Miss Fysshe. The only sign of expression that that lady allowed herself was an occasional flicker of her little black eyes. In many ways she was more sophisticated than her patroness, for she was bred in the purple and had the entree to circles which Connie Seaweed, as she was familiarly called, had no chance of entering.
“I think they’ve been pulling his leg,” said Miss Fysshe, whose conversation was as sparse as her appearance.
“Oh, no, lady,” said Red Fred. “It’s all right. They had two shots at him. With a gun. They sent me a letter that they’d do me in.”
Lady Seawood shook her head.
“Beats me,” she said. “But you can tell me the story of your life another time. Now, lissen ’ere. There’s nothin’ like puttin’ your cards on the table, especially when you’ve got an ace up your sleeve. You own the best racehorse in Australia. I own the best racehorse in England, and the best in France belongs to a pal of mine. We can get the best horse in America if we make it worth his while to come. Do you get that?”
Red Fred was puzzled as to what all this portended, but he signified that he understood the situation up to a certain point.
Then Her Ladyship abruptly changed the subject and embarked on an entirely new tack.
“You wouldn’t think to look at me,” she said, “that I’m a Yid. But that’s what I am—a Whitechapel Jewess. I used to work in a rag factory for ten bob a week.”
Here, by way of enlivening the dialogue she covered her nose with her hand and exclaimed in dramatic tones: “Mother, vot am I?”
“I used to work in a rag factory,” she repeated, “for ten bob a week. And now look where I am. These old fossils that run everything in England, they think I’m only a noise, and a nasty noise at that. They wouldn’t let me into the enclosures at the big meetin’s. So now I’m going to take ’em on. Me and a few of my pals, we reckon that London wants livenin’ up. So we formed a syndikit and bought a racecourse just a few miles out of town. We bought more land and put up good stands, and now the place’ll hold a hundred and fifty thousand people. We’re going to start off our first meetin’ with a bang. We want to get the best horses in the world to come and run each other at a three days’ meetin’, two Saturdays and a Wensday. What distances did you say they ought to run, Fishy?”
“Six furlongs first day. Mile and a quarter second day. Two miles third day,” said Miss Fysshe.
“Fishy knows all about it,” the Countess said. “She does in all her money bettin’. Now, we want you to come in with us. The syndikit is mostly Yids, but you’ll get a square deal with the Yids, and they are the best show people in the world. I sometimes go to the board-meetin’ just to see their beaks hangin’ over the table like pelicans at feedin’ time. Of course we’ll have to have a lord or two on the board, but they’re cheap these days. We’ll pay good appearance money for real first-class horses, like yours, and we won’t let any second-raters run in the big races. Only the best ’orse from each country. What’s your ’orse, short distance, long distance, or no distance?”
“He’s won at six furlongs and he’s won at two miles,” said Red Fred who was quite relieved to find that he was to be a person of considerable importance, right straight away as soon as he landed. More than that, he had had some very disquieting news from Australia by wireless, and was just in the frame of mind to do anything that anybody told him.
“That was out in the sticks,” said Miss Fysshe—“out in Australia where they time ’em with a kitchen clock. I’ll bet even money he don’t win any of the three races over here. Let’s go and see him.”
They went up forrard where Sensation was accommodated in a double loose-box with padded sides and floored with heavy coir mats. It was in an exposed position where it got all the wind and occasional splashes of spray, but Bill the Gunner, who had made trips to India with horses, had insisted on this position; the more air a horse got the better he travelled, he said. Red Fred had really wanted to put Sensation down in the ’tween decks where it was nice and warm; but as usual he had shirked fighting a battle with Bill the Gunner on the subject.
A coir matting led from the loose-box to the forehatch and strips of matting laid on the deck round the hatchway formed a safe exercise ground in fine weather. There was also a small sand-yard where the horse had just finished his roll and was pacing round the hatchway, the picture of health and contentment.
“Hello,” said Miss Fysshe, “he’s some horse. I’ll bet even money that he does win one race out of the three.”
This pleased Lady Seawood very much. She had great reliance on the judgment of the lady companion and had been wondering how she would face her co-religionists if she brought them what is known in certain financial circles as a “stumer.”
“You think ’e’s all right, Fishy, eh? ’Ere, Lord Nelson,” she went on, addressing Bill the Gunner, who was leading the horse round, looking neither to the right nor to the left and taking not the slightest notice of his employer or anybody else. “’Ere, Lord Nelson, ’ow do you think ’e’ll get on in England?”
“He’ll lob in,” said Bill the Gunner, and moved off with the horse as though any further conversation were out of the question. Waiting till he came round again Her Ladyship had another shot at him:
“What’s his best distance?”
“Any distance,” said Bill the Gunner, never pausing for a moment in his solemn walk.
“Come on,” said Her Ladyship. “That feller gets my goat. If I stop ’ere I’ll ’ave to take ’im to pieces just to see what makes him so chatty. Come and interduce me to your friends. They’ll be lappin’ up the tea somewhere down aft. There they are now, the Rajah of Bhong, the leading lady, and the two extras”— meaning thereby Mr Delahunty, his daughter, and the two young Englishmen.
Introductions were effected and after half an hour’s chat Her Ladyship, like an expert bridge player, knew not only what cards they all held but what cash they had in their pockets. Realizing that all four of them came out of what she would have called the top drawer, she was guarded in her speech and behaviour. She left most of the general conversation to Miss Fysshe, for she wished to make a good impression and knew that Miss Fysshe was born with the instinct to do and say the right thing; while she herself, when following her own instincts, had done and said things that set all London talking.
After a while Miss Fysshe and Captain Salter, both ardent horse-lovers, went forward to have another look at Sensation; Mr Delahunty asked to be excused as he had to write some letters; and Lady Seawood was left with Red Fred and his secretary. On the principle that if you are going to do a thing you had better do it now, she decided to clinch the matter about Red Fred’s horse.
“About this ’ere syndikit,” she said, “we want you to come into it. We want you to sign an agreement not to race your ’orse anywhere else until you’ve raced him with us. And we want you to take some shares. We’ll float a company later on and you must get in early on the ground floor. It’ll be a gold-mine. The shares will go up out of sight. The Yids all over the world will fight to get into it, when they see the names we’ve got.”
The mere thought of money seemed to throw her into a state of exaltation, for she came of a breed that had parted with their teeth rather than make a bad investment by lending their gold to bankrupt kings. Her powerful personality dominated Red Fred; he had no more chance against her than a rabbit caught in the open by an eagle-hawk.
“Of course, I’ll come in with you,” he said. “But I don’t know how many shares I can take. I’ve just got a wireless from Australia. Run down, Fitz, and get that book that tells you what them things mean.”
While Fitzroy was away, Red Fred unfolded a telegraphic slip which read “Exalts daybreak humidity ashpan,” and a reference to the code showed that these words meant as follows:
Daybreak: Daybreak mine.
Humidity: The mine is flooded with water.
Ashpan: Considerable expense necessary before resumption.
“There you are,” said Red Fred. “I was gettin’ thirty thousand a year out of that mine and now I might have to spend fifty thousand to put it right. The stations are payin’ real good, but if there came a drought and I had to feed—well, when you start feedin’ you never know when you’ll stop. I paid ten thousand for the horse, and if I spend too much money the Empire Pastoral might buck.”
Here his natural instinct for compromise asserted itself and he hastened to make terms with the invader.
“I’d like to put in five thousand,” he went on—“if it’d be all right to wait and see if there was no fuss with the cheque. I thought I’d better tell yer all this, lady, ’cos you know these things better’n I do.”
Like a conjurer, Lady Seawood produced a type-written agreement from some hidden pocket in her jacket.
“Sign right ’ere,” she aaid. “That’s the way I like to hear a man talk. Most of ’em are all talk and no money. I’ll post your cheque back from the next wharf, and if there’s any fuss, I’ll put old Manasses on to it. Give ’im a bit o’ paper with one wrong un’s name on the foot of it, and another wrong un’s name on the back, and he’d buy you the Tower of London. There’s the luncheon gong. Come along an’ let me look at the grub, even if I daren’t eat it.”
This financial deal appeared to give satisfaction to everybody except Fitzroy. For some time he had felt that things were too good to last. He knew that if the Empire Pastoral had to cut down on Red Fred’s expenditure the money spent on his’ (Fitzroy’s) salary would be about the first to go. Moira Delahunty was constantly in his thoughts, and he felt that he would be a poor specimen of humanity if he allowed any tenderness to grow up between them, and then found himself out of a job in England. It would not be fair to the girl.
There was a ship’s dance that night. Any doubts that Fitzroy might have felt as to whether he should ask Moira or the Countess for the first dance, were settled for him when Lady Seawood seized him by the arm and said:
“Come on, Rudolph Valentino, let’s give ’em a treat. If you step on my feet I’ll crack you on the jaw.”
With this prospect before him, he kept his feet to himself and they got along very well. Her Ladyship wrapped herself round him in a sort of grape-vine hug that was not so bad when one got used to it. Just then two stewards in fancy dress started to do a comic turn on the deck, and Fitzroy and his partner found themselves at the back of the crowd. It would never do that Connie Galbraith (to use her stage name) should be in obscurity, while the wretched amateur stewards were getting all the limelight.
“I can’t see, I can’t see,” she roared in a voice that nearly drowned the band. Just by way of a joke, Fitzroy picked up her twelve stone of humanity on one arm, lifted her to his shoulder and carried her a couple of steps up a companion-way. As he did so, the electrician turned the spotlight on them and a yell of recognition went up from cabin and steerage passengers alike.
“Connie! It’s good old Connie! Give us a high kick Connie! Gee, that bloke must be strong!” The disgruntled stewards stopped their act, and Connie, after kissing her hand to the crowd, jumped down alongside Fitzroy and posed there for just the correct number of seconds. Then, to round off the turn properly, she threw her arms round him and kissed him; then the spotlight was shut off. Everybody had seen it, including Moira.
The rest of the voyage was much like other voyages—perpetual meals, perpetual sleep, perpetual gossip and perpetual bridge. Moira was very dignified and distant in her conversations with Fitzroy, and devoted herself to enslaving the Honourable Captain Salter; while the Countess treated Fitzroy much as a child treats a puppy, rumpling his hair in public, planting his hat, and playing other music-hall tricks on him—all with the idea of getting what she called “a rise” out of Moira. As for the others, those who were not bridge players sometimes envied Bill the Gunner who really had some work to do. He must have covered fifty miles in his constant pacing round the hatchway with the big horse following contentedly behind him.