UNDER TWO FLAGS
by Ouida [Louise de la Ramee]
TO COLONEL POULETT CAMERON whose family has given so many brilliant soldiers to the armies of France and England and made the battle-fields of Europe ring with "The War-Cry of Lochiel" this story of a soldier's life is dedicated in sincere friendship.
AVIS AU LECTEUR.
This Story was originally written for a military periodical. It has been fortunate enough to receive much commendation from military men, and for them it is now specially issued in its present form. For the general public it may be as well to add that, where translations are appended to the French phrases, those translations usually follow the idiomatic and particular meaning attached to these expressions in the argot of the Army of Algeria, and not the correct or literal one given to such words or sentences in ordinary grammatical parlance.
UNDER TWO FLAGS.
"BEAUTY OF THE BRIGADES."
"I don't say but what he's difficult to please with his Tops," said Mr. Rake, factotum to the Hon. Bertie Cecil, of the 1st Life Guards, with that article of hunting toggery suspended in his right hand as he paused, before going upstairs, to deliver his opinions with characteristic weight and vivacity to the stud-groom, "he is uncommon particular about 'em; and if his leathers aint as white as snow he'll never touch 'em, tho' as soon as the pack come nigh him at Royallieu, the leathers might just as well never have been cleaned, them hounds jump about him so; old Champion's at his saddle before you can say Davy Jones. Tops are trials, I aint denying that, specially when you've jacks, and moccasins, and moor boots, and Russia-leather crickets, and turf backs, and Hythe boots, and waterproofs, and all manner of varnish things for dress, that none of the boys will do right unless you look after 'em yourself. But is it likely that he should know what a worry a Top's complexion is, and how hard it is to come right with all the Fast Brown polishing in the world? How should he guess what a piece of work it is to get 'em all of a color, and how like they are to come mottled, and how a'most sure they'll ten to one go off dark just as they're growing yellow, and put you to shame, let you do what you will to make 'em cut a shine over the country? How should he know? I don't complain of that; bless you, he never thinks. It's 'do this, Rake,' 'do that'; and he never remembers 'tisn't done by magic. But he's a true gentleman, Mr. Cecil; never grudge a guinea, or a fiver to you; never out of temper either, always have a kind word for you if you want, thoro'bred every inch of him; see him bring down a rocketer, or lift his horse over the Broad Water! He's a gentleman—not like your snobs that have nothing sound about 'em but their cash, and swept out their shops before they bought their fine feathers!—and I'll be d——d if I care what I do for him."
With which peroration to his born enemy the stud-groom, with whom he waged a perpetual and most lively feud, Rake flourished the tops that had been under discussion, and triumphant, as he invariably was, ran up the back stairs of his master's lodgings in Piccadilly, opposite the Green Park, and with a rap on the panels entered his master's bedroom.
A Guardsman at home is always, if anything, rather more luxuriously accommodated than a young Duchess, and Bertie Cecil was never behind his fellows in anything; besides, he was one of the cracks of the Household, and women sent him pretty things enough to fill the Palais Royal. The dressing-table was littered with Bohemian glass and gold-stoppered bottles, and all the perfumes of Araby represented by Breidenback and Rimmel. The dressing-case was of silver, with the name studded on the lid in turquoises; the brushes, bootjack, boot-trees, whip-stands, were of ivory and tortoiseshell; a couple of tiger skins were on the hearth with a retriever and blue greyhound in possession; above the mantel-piece were crossed swords in all the varieties of gilt, gold, silver, ivory, aluminum, chiseled and embossed hilts; and on the walls were a few perfect French pictures, with the portraits of a greyhound drawn by Landseer, of a steeple-chaser by Harry Hall, one or two of Herring's hunters, and two or three fair women in crayons. The hangings of the room were silken and rose-colored, and a delicious confusion prevailed through it pell-mell; box-spurs, hunting-stirrups, cartridge cases, curb-chains, muzzle-loaders, hunting flasks, and white gauntlets, being mixed up with Paris novels, pink notes, point-lace ties, bracelets, and bouquets to be dispatched to various destinations, and velvet and silk bags for banknotes, cigars, or vesuvians, embroidered by feminine fingers and as useless as those pretty fingers themselves. On the softest of sofas, half dressed, and having half an hour before splashed like a waterdog out of the bath, as big as a small pond, in the dressing-chamber beyond was the Hon. Bertie himself, second son of Viscount Royallieu, known generally in the Brigades as "Beauty." The appellative, gained at Eton, was in no way undeserved; when the smoke cleared away that was circling round him out of a great meerschaum bowl, it showed a face of as much delicacy and brilliancy as a woman's; handsome, thoroughbred, languid, nonchalant, with a certain latent recklessness under the impressive calm of habit, and a singular softness given to the large, dark hazel eyes by the unusual length of the lashes over them. His features were exceedingly fair—fair as the fairest girl's; his hair was of the softest, silkiest, brightest chestnut; his mouth very beautifully shaped; on the whole, with a certain gentle, mournful love-me look that his eyes had with them, it was no wonder that great ladies and gay lionnes alike gave him the palm as the handsomest man in all the Household Regiments—not even excepting that splendid golden-haired Colossus, his oldest friend and closest comrade, known as "the Seraph."
He looked at the new tops that Rake swung in his hand, and shook his head.
"Better, Rake; but not right yet. Can't you get that tawny color in the tiger's skin there? You go so much to brown."
Rake shook his head in turn, as he set down the incorrigible tops beside six pairs of their fellows, and six times six of every other sort of boots that the covert side, the heather, the flat, or the sweet shady side of "Pall Mall" ever knew.
"Do my best, sir; but Polish don't come nigh Nature, Mr. Cecil."
"Goes beyond it, the ladies say; and to do them justice they favor it much the most," laughed Cecil to himself, floating fresh clouds of Turkish about him. "Willon up?"
"Yes, sir. Come in this minute for orders."
"How'd Forest King stand the train?"
"Bright as a bird, sir; he never mind nothing. Mother o' Pearl she worreted a little, he says; she always do, along of the engine noise, but the King walked in and out just as if the station were his own stable-yard."
"He gave them gruel and chilled water after the shaking before he let them go to their corn?"
"He says he did, sir."
Rake would by no means take upon himself to warrant the veracity of his sworn foe, the stud-groom; unremitting feud was between them; Rake considered that he knew more about horses than any other man living, and the other functionary proportionately resented back his knowledge and his interference, as utterly out of place in a body-servant.
"Tell him I'll look in at the stable after duty and see the screws are all right; and that he's to be ready to go down with them by my train to-morrow—noon, you know. Send that note there, and the bracelets, to St. John's Wood: and that white bouquet to Mrs. Delamaine. Bid Willon get some Banbury bits; I prefer the revolving mouths, and some of Wood's double mouths and Nelson gags; we want new ones. Mind that lever-snap breech-loader comes home in time. Look in at the Commission stables, and if you see a likely black charger as good as Black Douglas, tell me. Write about the stud fox-terrier, and buy the blue Dandy Dinmont; Lady Guinevere wants him. I'll take him down with me, but first put me into harness, Rake; it's getting late."
Murmuring which multiplicity of directions, for Rake to catch as he could, in the softest and sleepiest of tones, Bertie Cecil drank a glass of Curacoa, put his tall, lithe limbs indolently off his sofa, and surrendered himself to the martyrdom of cuirass and gorget, standing six feet one without his spurred jacks, but light-built and full of grace as a deer, or his weight would not have been what it was in gentleman-rider races from the Hunt steeple-chase at La Marche to the Grand National in the Shires.
"As if Parliament couldn't meet without dragging us through the dust! The idiots write about 'the swells in the Guards,' as if we had all fun and no work, and knew nothing of the rough of the Service. I should like to learn what they call sitting motionless in your saddle through half a day, while a London mob goes mad round you, and lost dogs snap at your charger's nose, and dirty little beggars squeeze against your legs, and the sun broils you, or the fog soaks you, and you sit sentinel over a gingerbread coach till you're deaf with the noise, and blind with the dust, and sick with the crowd, and half dead for want of sodas and brandies, and from going a whole morning without one cigarette! Not to mention the inevitable apple-woman who invariably entangles herself between your horse's legs, and the certainty of your riding down somebody and having a summons about it the next day! If all that isn't the rough of the Service, I should like to know what is. Why the hottest day in the batteries, or the sharpest rush into Ghoorkhas or Bhoteahs, would be light work, compared!" murmured Cecil with the most plaintive pity for the hardships of life in the Household, while Rake, with the rapid proficiency of long habit, braced, and buckled and buttoned, knotted the sash with the knack of professional genius, girt on the brightest of all glittering polished silver steel "Cut-and-Thrusts," with its rich gild mountings, and contemplated with flattering self-complacency leathers white as snow, jacks brilliant as black varnish could make them, and silver spurs of glittering radiance, until his master stood full harnessed, at length, as gallant a Life Guardsman as ever did duty at the Palace by making love to the handsomest lady-in-waiting.
"To sit wedged in with one's troop for five hours, and in a drizzle too! Houses oughtn't to meet until the day's fine; I'm sure they are in no hurry," said Cecil to himself, as he pocketed a dainty, filmy handkerchief, all perfume, point, and embroidery, with the interlaced B. C., and the crest on the corner, while he looked hopelessly out of the window. He was perfectly happy, drenched to the skin on the moors after a royal, or in a fast thing with the Melton men from Thorpe Trussels to Ranksborough; but three drops of rain when on duty were a totally different matter, to be resented with any amount of dandy's lamentations and epicurean diatribes.
"Ah, young one, how are you? Is the day very bad?" he asked with languid wistfulness as the door opened.
But indifferent and weary—on account of the weather—as the tone was, his eyes rested with a kindly, cordial light on the newcomer, a young fellow of scarcely twenty, like himself in feature, though much smaller and slighter in build; a graceful boy enough, with no fault in his face, except a certain weakness in the mouth, just shadowed only, as yet, with down.
A celebrity, the Zu-Zu, the last coryphee whom Bertie had translated from a sphere of garret bread-and-cheese to a sphere of villa champagne and chicken (and who, of course, in proportion to the previous scarcity of her bread-and-cheese, grew immediately intolerant of any wine less than 90s the dozen), said the Cecil cared for nothing longer than a fortnight, unless it was his horse, Forest King. It was very ungrateful in the Zu-Zu, since he cared for her at the least a whole quarter, paying for his fidelity at the tune of a hundred a month; and, also, it was not true, for, besides Forest King, he loved his young brother Berkeley—which, however, she neither knew nor guessed.
"Beastly!" replied the young gentleman, in reference to the weather, which was indeed pretty tolerable for an English morning in February. "I say, Bertie—are you in a hurry?"
"The very deuce of a hurry, little one; why?" Bertie never was in a hurry, however, and he said this as lazily as possible, shaking the white horsehair over his helmet, and drawing in deep draughts of Turkish Latakia previous to parting with his pipe for the whole of four or five hours.
"Because I am in a hole—no end of a hole—and I thought you'd help me," murmured the boy, half penitently, half caressingly; he was very girlish in his face and his ways. On which confession Rake retired into the bathroom; he could hear just as well there, and a sense of decorum made him withdraw, though his presence would have been wholly forgotten by them. In something the same spirit as the French countess accounted for her employing her valet to bring her her chocolate in bed—"Est ce que vous appelez cette chose-la un homme?"—Bertie had, on occasion, so wholly regarded servants as necessary furniture that he had gone through a love scene, with that handsome coquette Lady Regalia, totally oblivious of the presence of the groom of the chambers, and the possibility of that person's appearance in the witness-box of the Divorce Court. It was in no way his passion that blinded him—he did not put the steam on like that, and never went in for any disturbing emotion—it was simply habit, and forgetfulness that those functionaries were not born mute, deaf, and sightless.
He tossed some essence over his hands, and drew on his gauntlets.
"What's up Berk?"
The boy hung his head, and played a little uneasily with an ormolu terrier-pot, upsetting half the tobacco in it; he was trained to his brother's nonchalant, impenetrable school, and used to his brother's set; a cool, listless, reckless, thoroughbred, and impassive set, whose first canon was that you must lose your last thousand in the world without giving a sign that you winced, and must win half a million without showing that you were gratified; but he had something of girlish weakness in his nature, and a reserve in his temperament that was with difficulty conquered.
Bertie looked at him, and laid his hand gently on the young one's shoulder.
"Come, my boy; out with it! It's nothing very bad, I'll be bound!"
"I want some more money; a couple of ponies," said the boy a little huskily; he did not meet his brother's eyes that were looking straight down on him.
Cecil gave a long, low whistle, and drew a meditative whiff from his meerschaum.
"Tres cher, you're always wanting money. So am I. So is everybody. The normal state of man is to want money. Two ponies. What's it for?"
"I lost it at chicken-hazard last night. Poulteney lent it me, and I told him I would send it him in the morning. The ponies were gone before I thought of it, Bertie, and I haven't a notion where to get them to pay him again."
"Heavy stakes, young one, for you," murmured Cecil, while his hand dropped from the boy's shoulder, and a shadow of gravity passed over his face; money was very scarce with himself. Berkeley gave him a hurried, appealing glance. He was used to shift all his anxieties on to his elder brother, and to be helped by him under any difficulty. Cecil never allotted two seconds' thought to his own embarrassments, but he would multiply them tenfold by taking other people's on him as well, with an unremitting and thoughtless good nature.
"I couldn't help it," pleaded the lad, with coaxing and almost piteous apology. "I backed Grosvenor's play, and you know he's always the most wonderful luck in the world. I couldn't tell he'd go a crowner and have such cards as he had. How shall I get the money, Bertie? I daren't ask the governor; and besides I told Poulteney he should have it this morning. What do you think if I sold the mare? But then I couldn't sell her in a minute——"
Cecil laughed a little, but his eyes, as they rested on the lad's young, fair, womanish face, were very gentle under the long shade of their lashes.
"Sell the mare! Nonsense! How should anybody live without a hack? I can pull you through, I dare say. Ah! by George, there's the quarters chiming. I shall be too late, as I live."
Not hurried still, however; even by that near prospect, he sauntered to his dressing-table, took up one of the pretty velvet and gold-filigreed absurdities, and shook out all the banknotes there were in it. There were fives and tens enough to count up 45 pounds. He reached over and caught up a five from a little heap lying loose on a novel of Du Terrail's, and tossed the whole across the room to the boy.
"There you are, young one! But don't borrow of any but your own people again, Berk. We don't do that. No, no!—no thanks! Shut up all that. If ever you get in a hole, I'll take you out if I can. Good-by—will you go to the Lords? Better not—nothing to see, and still less to hear. All stale. That's the only comfort for us—we are outside!" he said, with something that almost approached hurry in the utterance; so great was his terror of anything approaching a scene, and so eager was he to escape his brother's gratitude. The boy had taken the notes with delighted thanks indeed, but with that tranquil and unprotesting readiness with which spoiled childishness or unhesitating selfishness accepts gifts and sacrifices from another's generosity, which have been so general that they have ceased to have magnitude. As his brother passed him, however, he caught his hand a second, and looked up with a mist before his eyes, and a flush half of shame, half of gratitude, on his face.
"What a trump you are!—how good you are, Bertie!"
Cecil laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"First time I ever heard it, my dear boy," he answered, as he lounged down the staircase, his chains clashing and jingling; while, pressing his helmet on to his forehead and pulling the chin scale over his mustaches, he sauntered out into the street where his charger was waiting.
"The deuce!" he thought, as he settled himself in his stirrups, while the raw morning wind tossed his white plume hither and thither. "I never remembered!—I don't believe I've left myself money enough to take Willon and Rake and the cattle down to the Shires to-morrow. If I shouldn't have kept enough to take my own ticket with!—that would be no end of a sell. On my word I don't know how much there's left on the dressing-table. Well! I can't help it; Poulteney had to be paid; I can't have Berk's name show in anything that looks shady."
The 50 pounds had been the last remnant of a bill, done under great difficulties with a sagacious Jew, and Cecil had no more certainty of possessing any more money until next pay-day should come round than he had of possessing the moon; lack of ready money, moreover, is a serious inconvenience when you belong to clubs where "pounds and fives" are the lowest points, and live with men who take the odds on most events in thousands; but the thing was done; he would not have undone it at the boy's loss, if he could; and Cecil, who never was worried by the loss of the most stupendous "crusher," and who made it a rule never to think of disagreeable inevitabilities two minutes together, shook his charger's bridle and cantered down Piccadilly toward the barracks, while Black Douglas reared, curveted, made as if he would kick, and finally ended by "passaging" down half the length of the road, to the imminent peril of all passers-by, and looking eminently glossy, handsome, stalwart, and foam-flecked, while he thus expressed his disapprobation of forming part of the escort from Palace to Parliament.
"Home Secretary should see about it; it's abominable! If we must come among them, they ought to be made a little odoriferous first. A couple of fire-engines now, playing on them continuously with rose-water and bouquet d'Ess for an hour before we come up, might do a little good. I'll get some men to speak about it in the house; call it 'Bill for the Purifying of the Unwashed, and Prevention of their Suffocating Her Majesty's Brigades,'" murmured Cecil to the Earl of Broceliande, next him, as they sat down in their saddles with the rest of the "First Life," in front of St. Stephen's, with a hazy fog steaming round them, and a London mob crushing against their chargers' flanks, while Black Douglas stood like a rock, though a butcher's tray was pressed against his withers, a mongrel was snapping at his hocks, and the inevitable apple-woman, of Cecil's prophetic horror, was wildly plunging between his legs, as the hydra-headed rushed down in insane, headlong haste to stare at, and crush on to, that superb body of Guards.
"I would give a kingdom for a soda and brandy. Bah! ye gods! What a smell of fish and fustian," signed Bertie, with a yawn of utter famine for want of something to drink and something to smoke, were it only a glass of brown sherry and a little papelito, while he glanced down at the snow-white and jet-black masterpieces of Rake's genius, all smirched, and splashed, and smeared.
He had given fifty pounds away, and scarcely knew whether he should have enough to take his ticket next day into the Shires, and he owed fifty hundred without having the slightest grounds for supposing he should ever be able to pay it, and he cared no more about either of these things than he cared about the Zu-Zu's throwing the half-guinea peaches into the river after a Richmond dinner, in the effort to hit dragon-flies with them; but to be half a day without a cigarette, and to have a disagreeable odor of apples and corduroys wafted up to him, was a calamity that made him insupportably depressed and unhappy.
Well, why not? It is the trifles of life that are its bores, after all. Most men can meet ruin calmly, for instance, or laugh when they lie in a ditch with their own knee-joint and their hunter's spine broken over the double post and rails: it is the mud that has choked up your horn just when you wanted to rally the pack; it's the whip who carries you off to a division just when you've sat down to your turbot; it's the ten seconds by which you miss the train; it's the dust that gets in your eyes as you go down to Epsom; it's the pretty little rose note that went by accident to your house instead of your club, and raised a storm from madame; it's the dog that always will run wild into the birds; it's the cook who always will season the white soup wrong—it is these that are the bores of life, and that try the temper of your philosophy.
An acquaintance of mine told me the other day of having lost heavy sums through a swindler, with as placid an indifference as if he had lost a toothpick; but he swore like a trooper because a thief had stolen the steel-mounted hoof of a dead pet hunter.
"Insufferable!" murmured Cecil, hiding another yawn behind his gauntlet; "the Line's nothing half so bad as this; one day in a London mob beats a year's campaigning; what's charging a pah to charging an oyster-stall, or a parapet of fascines to a bristling row of umbrellas?"
Which question as to the relative hardships of the two Arms was a question of military interest never answered, as Cecil scattered the umbrellas right and left, and dashed from the Houses of Parliament full trot with the rest of the escort on the return to the Palace; the afternoon sun breaking out with a brightened gleam from the clouds, and flashing off the drawn swords, the streaming plumes, the glittering breastplates, the gold embroideries, and the fretting chargers.
But a mere sun-gleam just when the thing was over, and the escort was pacing back to Hyde Park barracks, could not console Cecil for fog, wind, mud, oyster-vendors, bad odors, and the uproar and riff-raff of the streets; specially when his throat was as dry as a lime-kiln, and his longing for the sight of a cheroot approaching desperation. Unlimited sodas, three pipes smoked silently over Delphine Demirep's last novel, a bath well dashed with eau de cologne, and some glasses of Anisette after the fatigue-duty of unharnessing, restored him a little; but he was still weary and depressed into gentler languor than ever through all the courses at a dinner party at the Austrian Embassy, and did not recover his dejection at a reception of the Duchess of Lydiard-Tregoze, where the prettiest French Countess of her time asked him if anything was the matter.
"Yes!" said Bertie with a sigh, and a profound melancholy in what the woman called his handsome Spanish eyes, "I have had a great misfortune; we have been on duty all day!"
He did not thoroughly recover tone, light and careless though his temper was, till the Zu-Zu, in her diamond-edition of a villa, prescribed Creme de Bouzy and Parfait Amour in succession, with a considerable amount of pine-apple ice at three o'clock in the morning, which restorative prescription succeeded.
Indeed, it took something as tremendous as divorce from all forms of smoking for five hours to make an impression on Bertie. He had the most serene insouciance that ever a man was blessed with; in worry he did not believe—he never let it come near him; and beyond a little difficulty sometimes in separating too many entangled rose-chins caught round him at the same time, and the annoyance of a miscalculation on the flat, or the ridge-and-furrow, when a Maldon or Danebury favorite came nowhere, or his book was wrong for the Grand National, Cecil had no cares of any sort or description.
True, the Royallieu Peerage, one of the most ancient and almost one of the most impoverished in the kingdom, could ill afford to maintain its sons in the expensive career on which it had launched them, and the chief there was to spare usually went between the eldest son, a Secretary of Legation in that costly and charming City of Vienna, and the young one, Berkeley, through the old Viscount's partiality; so that, had Bertie ever gone so far as to study his actual position, he would have probably confessed that it was, to say the least, awkward; but then he never did this, certainly never did it thoroughly. Sometimes he felt himself near the wind when settling-day came, or the Jews appeared utterly impracticable; but, as a rule, things had always trimmed somehow, and though his debts were considerable, and he was literally as penniless as a man can be to stay in the Guards at all, he had never in any shape realized the want of money. He might not be able to raise a guinea to go toward that long-standing account, his army tailor's bill, and post obits had long ago forestalled the few hundred a year that, under his mother's settlements, would come to him at the Viscount's death; but Cecil had never known in his life what it was not to have a first-rate stud, not to live as luxuriously as a duke, not to order the costliest dinners at the clubs, and be among the first to lead all the splendid entertainments and extravagances of the Household; he had never been without his Highland shooting, his Baden gaming, his prize-winning schooner among the R. V. Y. Squadron, his September battues, his Pytchley hunting, his pretty expensive Zu-Zus and other toys, his drag for Epsom and his trap and hack for the Park, his crowd of engagements through the season, and his bevy of fair leaders of the fashion to smile on him, and shower their invitation-cards on him, like a rain of rose-leaves, as one of the "best men."
"Best," that is, in the sense of fashion, flirting, waltzing, and general social distinction; in no other sense, for the newest of debutantes knew well that "Beauty," though the most perfect of flirts, would never be "serious," and had nothing to be serious with; on which understanding he was allowed by the sex to have the run of their boudoirs and drawing-rooms, much as if he were a little lion-dog; they counted him quite "safe." He made love to the married women, to be sure; but he was quite certain not to run away with the marriageable daughters.
Hence, Bertie had never felt the want of all that is bought by and represents money, and imbibed a vague, indistinct impression that all these things that made life pleasant came by Nature, and were the natural inheritance and concomitants of anybody born in a decent station, and endowed with a tolerable tact; such a matter-of-fact difficulty as not having gold enough to pay for his own and his stud's transit to the Shires had very rarely stared him in the face, and when it did he trusted to chance to lift him safely over such a social "yawner," and rarely trusted in vain.
According to all the canons of his Order he was never excited, never disappointed, never exhilarated, never disturbed; and also, of course, never by any chance embarrassed. "Votre imperturbabilite," as the Prince de Ligne used to designate La Grande Catherine, would have been an admirable designation for Cecil; he was imperturbable under everything; even when an heiress, with feet as colossal as her fortune, made him a proposal of marriage, and he had to retreat from all the offered honors and threatened horrors, he courteously, but steadily declined them. Nor in more interesting adventures was he less happy in his coolness. When my Lord Regalia, who never knew when he was not wanted, came in inopportunely in a very tender scene of the young Guardsman's (then but a Cornet) with his handsome Countess, Cecil lifted his long lashes lazily, turning to him a face of the most plait-il? and innocent demureness—or consummate impudence, whichever you like. "We're playing Solitaire. Interesting game. Queer fix, though, the ball's in that's left all alone in the middle, don't you think?" Lord Regalia felt his own similarity to the "ball in a fix" too keenly to appreciate the interesting character of the amusement, or the coolness of the chief performer in it; but "Beauty's Solitaire" became a synonym thenceforth among the Household to typify any very tender passages "sotto quartr' occhi."
This made his reputation on the town; the ladies called it very wicked, but were charmed by the Richelieu-like impudence all the same, and petted the sinner; and from then till now he had held his own with them; dashing through life very fast, as became the first riding man in the Brigades, but enjoying it very fully, smoothly, and softly; liking the world and being liked by it.
To be sure, in the background there was always that ogre of money, and the beast had a knack of growing bigger and darker every year; but then, on the other hand, Cecil never looked at him—never thought about him—knew, too, that he stood just as much behind the chairs of men whom the world accredited as millionaires, and whenever the ogre gave him a cold grip, that there was for the moment no escaping, washed away the touch of it in a warm, fresh draft of pleasure.
THE LOOSE BOX, AND THE TABAGIE.
"How long before the French can come up?" asked Wellington, hearing of the pursuit that was thundering close on his rear in the most critical hours of the short, sultry Spanish night. "Half an hour, at least," was the answer. "Very well, then I will turn in and get some sleep," said the Commander-in-Chief, rolling himself in a cloak, and lying down in a ditch to rest as soundly for the single half hour as any tired drummer-boy.
Serenely as Wellington, another hero slept profoundly, on the eve of a great event—of a great contest to be met when the day should break—of a critical victory, depending on him alone to save the Guards of England from defeat and shame; their honor and their hopes rested on his solitary head; by him they would be lost or saved; but, unharassed by the magnitude of the stake at issue, unhaunted by the past, unfretted by the future, he slumbered the slumber of the just.
Not Sir Tristram, Sir Caledore, Sir Launcelot—no, nor Arthur himself—was ever truer knight, was ever gentler, braver, bolder, more stanch of heart, more loyal of soul, than he to whom the glory of the Brigades was trusted now; never was there spirit more dauntless and fiery in the field; never temper kindlier and more generous with friends and foes. Miles of the ridge and furrow, stiff fences of terrible blackthorn, double posts and rails, yawners and croppers both, tough as Shire and Stewards could make them, awaited him on the morrow; on his beautiful lean head capfuls of money were piled by the Service and the Talent; and in his stride all the fame of the Household would be centered on the morrow; but he took his rest like the cracker he was—standing as though he were on guard, and steady as a rock, a hero every inch of him. For he was Forest King, the great steeple-chaser, on whom the Guards had laid all their money for the Grand Military—the Soldiers' Blue Ribbon.
His quarters were a loose box; his camp-bed a litter of straw fresh shaken down; his clothing a very handsome rug, hood, and quarter-piece buckled on and marked "B. C."; above the manger and the door was lettered his own name in gold. "Forest King"; and in the panels of the latter were miniatures of his sire and of his dam: Lord of the Isles, one of the greatest hunters that the grass countries ever saw sent across them; and Bayadere, a wild-pigeon-blue mare of Circassia. How, furthermore, he stretched up his long line of ancestry by the Sovereign, out of Queen of Roses; by Belted Earl, out of Fallen Star; by Marmion, out of Court Coquette, and straight up to the White Cockade blood, etc., etc., etc.—is it not written in the mighty and immortal chronicle, previous as the Koran, patrician as the Peerage, known and beloved to mortals as the "Stud Book"?
Not an immensely large, or unusually powerful horse, but with race in every line of him; steel-gray in color, darkening well at all points, shining and soft as satin, with the firm muscles quivering beneath at the first touch of excitement to the high mettle and finely-strung organization; the head small, lean, racer-like, "blood" all over; with the delicate taper ears, almost transparent in full light; well ribbed-up, fine shoulders, admirable girth and loins; legs clean, slender, firm, promising splendid knee action; sixteen hands high, and up to thirteen stone; clever enough for anything, trained to close and open country, a perfect brook jumper, a clipper at fencing; taking a great deal of riding, as anyone could tell by the set-on of his neck, but docile as a child to a well-known hand—such was Forest King with his English and Eastern strains, winner at Chertsey, Croydon, the National, the Granby, the Belvoir Castle, the Curragh, and all the gentleman-rider steeple-chases and military sweepstakes in the kingdom, and entered now, with tremendous bets on him, for the Gilt Vase.
It was a crisp, cold night outside; starry, wintry, but open weather, and clear; the ground would be just right on the morrow, neither hard as the slate of a billiard-table, nor wet as the slush of a quagmire. Forest King slept steadily on in his warm and spacious box, dreaming doubtless of days of victory, cub-hunting in the reedy October woods and pastures, of the ringing notes of the horn, and the sweet music of the pack, and the glorious quick burst up-wind, breasting the icy cold water, and showing the way over fence and bullfinch. Dozing and dreaming pleasantly; but alert for all that; for he awoke suddenly, shook himself, had a hilarious roll in the straw, and stood "at attention."
Awake only, could you tell the generous and gallant promise of his perfect temper; for there are no eyes that speak more truly, none on earth that are so beautiful, as the eyes of a horse. Forest King's were dark as a gazelle's, soft as a woman's, brilliant as stars, a little dreamy and mournful, and as infinitely caressing when he looked at what he loved, as they could blaze full of light and fire when danger was near and rivalry against him. How loyally such eyes have looked at me over the paddock fence, as a wild, happy gallop was suddenly broken for a gentle head to be softly pushed against my hand with the gentlest of welcomes! They sadly put to shame the million human eyes that so fast learn the lie of the world, and utter it as falsely as the lips.
The steeple-chaser stood alert, every fiber of his body strung to pleasurable excitation; the door opened, a hand held him some sugar, and the voice he loved best said fondly, "All right, old boy?"
Forest King devoured the beloved dainty with true equine unction, rubbed his forehead against his master's shoulder, and pushed his nose into the nearest pocket in search for more of his sweetmeat.
"You'd eat a sugar-loaf, you dear old rascal. Put the gas up, George," said his owner, while he turned up the body clothing to feel the firm, cool skin, loosened one of the bandages, passed his hand from thigh to fetlock, and glanced round the box to be sure the horse had been well suppered and littered down.
"Think we shall win, Rake?"
Rake, with a stable lantern in his hand and a forage cap on one side of his head, standing a little in advance of a group of grooms and helpers, took a bit of straw out of his mouth, and smiled a smile of sublime scorn and security. "Win, sir? I should be glad to know as when was that ere King ever beat yet; or you either, sir, for that matter?"
Bertie Cecil laughed a little languidly.
"Well, we take a good deal of beating, I think, and there are not very many who can give it us; are there, old fellow?" he said to the horse, as he passed his palm over the withers; "but there are some crushers in the lot to-morrow; you'll have to do all you know."
Forest King caught the manger with his teeth, and kicked in a bit of play and ate some more sugar, with much licking of his lips to express the nonchalance with which he viewed his share in the contest, and his tranquil certainty of being first past the flags. His master looked at him once more and sauntered out of the box.
"He's in first-rate form, Rake, and right as a trivet."
"Course he is, sir; nobody ever laid leg over such cattle as all that White Cockade blood, and he's the very best of the strain," said Rake, as he held up his lantern across the stable-yard, that looked doubly dark in the February night after the bright gas glare of the box.
"So he need be," thought Cecil, as a bull terrier, three or four Gordon setters, an Alpine mastiff, and two wiry Skyes dashed at their chains, giving tongue in frantic delight at the sound of his step, while the hounds echoed the welcome from their more distant kennels, and he went slowly across the great stone yard, with the end of a huge cheroot glimmering through the gloom. "So he need be, to pull me through. The Ducal and the October let me in for it enough; I never was closer in my life. The deuce! If I don't do the distance to-morrow I shan't have sovereigns enough to play pound-points at night! I don't know what a man's to do; if he's put into this life, he must go the pace of it. Why did Royal send me into the Guards, if he meant to keep the screw on in this way? He'd better have drafted me into a marching regiment at once, if he wanted me to live upon nothing."
Nothing meant anything under 60,000 pounds a year with Cecil, as the minimum of monetary necessities in this world, and a look of genuine annoyance and trouble, most unusual there, was on his face, the picture of carelessness and gentle indifference habitually, though shadowed now as he crossed the courtyard after his after-midnight visit to his steeple-chaser. He had backed Forest King heavily, and stood to win or lose a cracker on his own riding on the morrow; and, though he had found sufficient to bring him into the Shires, he had barely enough lying on his dressing-table, up in the bachelor suite within, to pay his groom's book, or a notion where to get more, if the King should find his match over the ridge and furrow in the morning!
It was not pleasant: a cynical, savage, world-disgusted Timon derives on the whole a good amount of satisfaction from his break-down in the fine philippics against his contemporaries that it is certain to afford, and the magnificent grievances with which it furnishes him; but when life is very pleasant to a man, and the world very fond of him; when existence is perfectly smooth,—bar that single pressure of money,—and is an incessantly changing kaleidoscope of London seasons, Paris winters, ducal houses in the hunting months, dinners at the Pall Mall Clubs, dinners at the Star and Garter, dinners irreproachable everywhere; cottage for Ascot week, yachting with the R. V. Y. Club, Derby handicaps at Hornsey, pretty chorus-singers set up in Bijou villas, dashing rosieres taken over to Baden, warm corners in Belvoir, Savernake, and Longeat battues, and all the rest of the general programme, with no drawback to it, except the duties at the Palace, the heat of a review, or the extravagance of a pampered lionne—then to be pulled up in that easy, swinging gallop for sheer want of a golden shoe, as one may say, is abominably bitter, and requires far more philosophy to endure than Timon would ever manage to master. It is a bore, an unmitigated bore; a harsh, hateful, unrelieved martyrdom that the world does not see, and that the world would not pity if it did.
"Never mind! Things will come right. Forest King never failed me yet; he is as full of running as a Derby winner, and he'll go over the yawners like a bird," thought Cecil, who never confronted his troubles with more than sixty seconds' thought, and who was of that light, impassible, half-levity, half-languor of temperament that both throws off worry easily and shirks it persistently. "Sufficient for the day," etc., was the essence of his creed; and if he had enough to lay a fiver at night on the rubber, he was quite able to forget for the time that he wanted five hundred for settling-day in the morning, and had not an idea how to get it. There was not a trace of anxiety on him when he opened a low arched door, passed down a corridor, and entered the warm, full light of that chamber of liberty, that sanctuary of the persecuted, that temple of refuge, thrice blessed in all its forms throughout the land, that consecrated Mecca of every true believer in the divinity of the meerschaum, and the paradise of the nargile—the smoking-room.
A spacious, easy chamber, too; lined with the laziest of divans, seen just now through a fog of smoke, and tenanted by nearly a score of men in every imaginable loose velvet costume, and with faces as well known in the Park at six o'clock in May, and on the Heath in October; in Paris in January, and on the Solent in August; in Pratt's of a summer's night, and on the Moors in an autumn morning, as though they were features that came round as regularly as the "July" or the Waterloo Cup. Some were puffing away in calm, meditative comfort, in silence that they would not have broken for any earthly consideration; others were talking hard and fast, and through the air heavily weighted with the varieties of tobacco, from tiny cigarettes to giant cheroots, from rough bowls full of cavendish to sybaritic rose-water hookahs, a Babel of sentences rose together: "Gave him too much riding, the idiot." "Take the field, bar one." "Nothing so good for the mare as a little niter and antimony in her mash." "Not at all! The Regent and Rake cross in the old strain, always was black-tan with a white frill." "The Earl's as good a fellow as Lady Flora; always give you a mount." "Nothing like a Kate Terry though, on a bright day, for salmon." "Faster thing I never knew; found at twenty minutes past eleven, and killed just beyond Longdown Water at ten to twelve." All these various phrases were rushing in among each other, and tossed across the eddies of smoke in the conflicting tongues loosened in the tabagie and made eloquent, though slightly inarticulate, by pipe-stems; while a tall, fair man, with the limbs of a Hercules, the chest of a prize-fighter, and the face of a Raphael Angel, known in the Household as Seraph, was in the full blood of a story of whist played under difficulties in the Doncaster express.
"I wanted a monkey; I wanted monkeys awfully," he was stating as Forest King's owner came into the smoking-room.
"Did you, Seraph? The 'Zoo' or the Clubs could supply you with apes fully developed to any amount," said Bertie, as he threw himself down.
"You be hanged!" laughed the Seraph, known to the rest of the world as the Marquis of Rockingham, son of the Duke of Lyonnesse. "I wished monkeys, but the others wished ponies and hundreds, so I gave in; Vandebur and I won two rubbers, and we'd just begun the third when the train stopped with a crash; none of us dropped the cards though, but the tricks and the scores all went down with the shaking. 'Can't play in that row,' said Charlie, for the women were shrieking like mad, and the engine was roaring like my mare Philippa—I'm afraid she'll never be cured, poor thing!—so I put my head out and asked what was up? We'd run into a cattle train. Anybody hurt? No, nobody hurt; but we were to get out. 'I'll be shot if I get out,' I told 'em, 'till I've finished the rubber.' 'But you must get out,' said the guard; 'carriages must be moved.' 'Nobody says "must" to him,' said Van (he'd drank more Perles du Rhin than was good for him in Doncaster); 'don't you know the Seraph?' Man stared. 'Yes, sir; know the Seraph, sir; leastways, did, sir, afore he died; see him once at Moulsey Mill, sir; his "one two" was amazin'. Waters soon threw up the sponge.' We were all dying with laughter, and I tossed him a tenner. 'There, my good fellow,' said I, 'shunt the carriage and let us finish the game. If another train comes up, give it Lord Rockingham's compliments and say he'll thank it to stop, because collisions shake his trumps together.' Man thought us mad; took tenner though, shunted us to one side out of the noise, and we played two rubbers more before they'd repaired the damage and sent us on to town."
And the Seraph took a long-drawn whiff from his silver meerschaum, and then a deep draught of soda and brandy to refresh himself after the narrative—biggest, best-tempered, and wildest of men in or out of the Service, despite the angelic character of his fair-haired head, and blue eyes that looked as clear and as innocent as those of a six-year-old child.
"Not the first time by a good many that you've 'shunted off the straight,' Seraph?" laughed Cecil, substituting an amber mouth-piece for his half-finished cheroot. "I've been having a good-night look at the King. He'll stay."
"Of course he will," chorused half a dozen voices.
"With all our pots on him," added the Seraph. "He's too much of a gentleman to put us all up a tree; he knows he carries the honor of the Household."
"There are some good mounts, there's no denying that," said Chesterfield of the Blues (who was called Tom for no other reason than that it was entirely unlike his real name of Adolphus), where he was curled up almost invisible, except for the movement of the jasmine stick of his chibouque. "That brute, Day Star, is a splendid fencer, and for a brook jumper, it would be heard to best Wild Geranium, though her shoulders are not quite what they ought to be. Montacute, too, can ride a good thing, and he's got one in Pas de Charge."
"I'm not much afraid of Monti, he makes too wild a burst first; he never saves on atom," yawned Cecil, with the coils of his hookah bubbling among the rose-water; "the man I'm afraid of is that fellow from the Tenth; he's as light as a feather and as hard as steel. I watched him yesterday going over the water, and the horse he'll ride for Trelawney is good enough to beat even the King if he's properly piloted."
"You haven't kept yourself in condition, Beauty," growled "Tom," with the chibouque in his mouth, "else nothing could give you the go-by. It's tempting Providence to go in for the Gilt Vase after such a December and January as you spent in Paris. Even the week you've been in the Shires you haven't trained a bit; you've been waltzing or playing baccarat till five in the morning, and taking no end of sodas after to bring you right for the meet at nine. If a man will drink champagnes and burgundies as you do, and spend his time after women, I should like to know how he's to be in hard riding condition, unless he expects a miracle."
With which Chesterfield, who weighed fourteen stone himself, and was, therefore, out of all but welter-races, and wanted a weight-carrier of tremendous power even for them, subsided under a heap of velvet and cashmere, and Cecil laughed; lying on a divan just under one of the gas branches, the light fell full on his handsome face, with its fair hue and its gentle languor on which there was not a single trace of the outrecuidance attributed to him. Both he and the Seraph could lead the wildest life of any men in Europe without looking one shadow more worn than the brightest beauty of the season, and could hold wassail in riotous rivalry till the sun rose, and then throw themselves into saddle as fresh as if they had been sound asleep all night; to keep up with the pack the whole day in a fast burst or on a cold scent, or in whatever sport Fortune and the coverts gave them, till their second horses wound their way homeward through muddy, leafless lanes, when the stars had risen.
"Beauty don't believe in training. No more do I. Never would train for anything," said the Seraph now, pulling the long blond mustaches that were not altogether in character with his seraphic cognomen. "If a man can ride, let him. If he's born to the pigskin he'll be in at the distance safe enough, whether he smokes or don't smoke, drink or don't drink. As for training on raw chops, giving up wine, living like the very deuce and all, as if you were in a monastery, and changing yourself into a mere bag of bones—it's utter bosh. You might as well be in purgatory; besides, it's no more credit to win then than if you were a professional."
"But you must have trained at Christ Church, Rock, for the Eight?" asked another Guardsman, Sir Vere Bellingham; "Severe," as he was christened, chiefly because he was the easiest-going giant in existence.
"Did I! men came to me; wanted me to join the Eight; coxswain came, awful strict little fellow, docked his men of all their fun—took plenty himself though! Coxswain said I must begin to train, do as all his crew did. I threw up my sleeve and showed him my arm;" and the Seraph stretched out an arm magnificent enough for a statue of Milo. "I said, 'there, sir, I'll help you thrash Cambridge, if you like, but train I won't for you or for all the University. I've been Captain of the Eton Eight; but I didn't keep my crew on tea and toast. I fattened 'em regularly three times a week on venison and champagne at Christopher's. Very happy to feed yours, too, if you like; game comes down to me every Friday from the Duke's moors; they look uncommonly as if they wanted it!' You should have seen his face!—fatten the Eight! He didn't let me do that, of course; but he was very glad of my oar in his rowlocks, and I helped him beat Cambridge without training an hour myself, except so far as rowing hard went."
And the Marquis of Rockingham, made thirsty by the recollection, dipped his fair mustaches into a foaming seltzer.
"Quite right, Seraph!" said Cecil; "when a man comes up to the weights, looking like a homunculus, after he's been getting every atom of flesh off him like a jockey, he ought to be struck out for the stakes, to my mind. 'Tisn't a question of riding, then, nor yet of pluck, or of management; it's nothing but a question of pounds, and of who can stand the tamest life the longest."
"Well, beneficial for one's morals, at any rate," suggested Sir Vere.
"Morals be hanged!" said Bertie, very immorally. "I'm glad you remind us of them, Vere; you're such a quintessence of decorum and respectability yourself! I say—anybody know anything of this fellow of the Tenth that's to ride Trelawney's chestnut?"
"Jimmy Delmar! Oh, yes; I know Jimmy," answered Lord Cosmo Wentworth, of the Scots Fusileers, from the far depths of an arm-chair. "Knew him at Aldershot. Fine rider; give you a good bit of trouble, Beauty. Hasn't been in England for years; troop been such a while at Calcutta. The Fancy take to him rather; offering very freely on him this morning in the village; and he's got a rare good thing in the chestnut."
"Not a doubt of it. The White Lily blood, out of that Irish mare D'Orleans Diamonds, too."
"Never mind! Tenth won't beat us. The Household will win safe enough, unless Forest King goes and breaks his back over Brixworth—eh, Beauty?" said the Seraph, who believed devoutly in his comrade, with all the loving loyalty characteristic of the House of Lyonnesse, that to monarchs and to friends had often cost it very dear.
"You put your faith in the wrong quarter, Rock; I may fail you, he never will," said Cecil, with ever so slight a dash of sadness in his words; the thought crossed him of how boldly, how straightly, how gallantly the horse always breasted and conquered his difficulties—did he himself deal half so well with his own?
"Well! you both of you carry all our money and all our credit; so for the fair fame of the Household do 'all you know.' I haven't hedged a shilling, not laid off a farthing, Bertie; I stand on you and the King, and nothing else—see what a sublime faith I have in you."
"I don't think you're wise then, Seraph; the field will be very strong," said Cecil languidly. The answer was indifferent, and certainly thankless; but under his drooped lids a glance, frank and warm, rested for the moment on the Seraph's leonine strength and Raphaelesque head; it was not his way to say it, or to show it, or even much to think it; but in his heart he loved his old friend wonderfully well.
And they talked on of little else than of the great steeple-chase of the Service, for the next hour in the Tabak-Parliament, while the great clouds of scented smoke circled heavily round; making a halo of Turkish above the gold locks of the Titanic Seraph, steeping Chesterfield's velvets in strong odors of Cavendish, and drifting a light rose-scented mist over Bertie's long, lithe limbs, light enough and skilled enough to disdain all "training for the weights."
"That's not the way to be in condition," growled "Tom," getting up with a great shake as the clock clanged the strokes of five; they had only returned from a ball three miles off, when Cecil had paid his visit to the loose box. Bertie laughed; his laugh was like himself—rather languid, but very light-hearted, very silvery, very engaging.
"Sit and smoke till breakfast time if you like, Tom; it won't make any difference to me."
But the Smoke Parliament wouldn't hear of the champion of the Household over the ridge and furrow risking the steadiness of his wrist and the keenness of his eye by any such additional tempting of Providence, and went off itself in various directions, with good-night iced drinks, yawning considerably like most other parliaments after a sitting.
It was the old family place of the Royallieu House in which he had congregated half the Guardsmen in the Service for the great event, and consequently the bachelor chambers in it were of the utmost comfort and spaciousness, and when Cecil sauntered into his old quarters, familiar from boyhood, he could not have been better off in his own luxurious haunts in Piccadilly. Moreover, the first thing that caught his eye was a dainty scarlet silk riding jacket broidered in gold and silver, with the motto of his house, "Coeur Vaillant se fait Royaume," all circled with oak and laurel leaves on the collar.
It was the work of very fair hands, of very aristocratic hands, and he looked at it with a smile. "Ah, my lady, my lady!" he thought half aloud, "do you really love me? Do I really love you?"
There was a laugh in his eyes as he asked himself what might be termed an interesting question; then something more earnest came over his face, and he stood a second with the pretty costly embroideries in his hand, with a smile that was almost tender, though it was still much more amused. "I suppose we do," he concluded at last; "at least quite as much as is ever worth while. Passions don't do for the drawing-room, as somebody says in 'Coningsby'; besides—I would not feel a strong emotion for the universe. Bad style always, and more detrimental to 'condition,' as Tom would say, than three bottles of brandy!"
He was so little near what he dreaded, at present at least, that the scarlet jacket was tossed down again, and gave him no dreams of his fair and titled embroideress. He looked out, the last thing, at some ominous clouds drifting heavily up before the dawn, and the state of the weather, and the chance of its being rainy, filled his thoughts, to the utter exclusion of the donor of that bright gold-laden dainty gift. "I hope to goodness there won't be any drenching shower. Forest King can stand ground as hard as a slate, but if there's one thing he's weak in it's slush!" was Bertie's last conscious thought, as he stretched his limbs out and fell sound asleep.
THE SOLDIERS' BLUE RIBBON.
"Take the Field bar one." "Two to one on Forest King." "Two to one on Bay Regent." "Fourteen to seven on Wild Geranium." "Seven to two against Brother to Fairy." "Three to five on Pas de Charge." "Nineteen to six on Day Star." "Take the Field bar one," rose above the hoarse tumultuous roar of the ring on the clear, crisp, sunny morning that was shining on the Shires on the day of the famous steeple-chase.
The talent had come in great muster from London; the great bookmakers were there with their stentor lungs and their quiet, quick entry of thousands; and the din and the turmoil, at the tiptop of their height, were more like a gathering on the Heath or before the Red House, than the local throngs that usually mark steeple-chase meetings, even when they be the Grand Military or the Grand National. There were keen excitement and heavy stakes on the present event; the betting had never stood still a second in Town or the Shires; and even the "knowing ones," the worshipers of the "flat" alone, the professionals who ran down gentlemen races and the hypercritics who affirmed that there is not such a thing as a steeple-chaser to be found on earth (since, to be a fencer, a water-jumper, and a racer were to attain an equine perfection impossible on earth, whatever it may be in "happy hunting ground" of immortality)—even these, one and all of them, came eager to see the running for the Gilt Vase.
For it was known very well that the Guards had backed their horse tremendously, and the county laid most of its money on him, and the bookmakers were shy of laying off much against one of the first cross-country riders of the Service, who had landed his mount at the Grand National Handicap, the Billesdon Coplow, the Ealing, the Curragh, the Prix du Donjon, the Rastatt, and almost every other for which he had entered. Yet, despite this, the "Fancy" took most to Bay Regent; they thought he would cut the work out; his sire had won the Champion Stakes at Doncaster, and the Drawing-room at "glorious Goodwood," and that racing strain through the White Lily blood, coupled with a magnificent reputation which he brought from Leicestershire as a fencer, found him chief favor among the fraternity.
His jockey, Jimmy Delmar, too, with his bronzed, muscular, sinewy frame, his low stature, his light weight, his sunburnt, acute face, and a way of carrying his hands as he rode that was precisely like Aldcroft's, looked a hundred times more professional than the brilliance of "Beauty," and the reckless dash of his well-known way of "sending the horse along with all he had in him," which was undeniably much more like a fast kill over the Melton country, than like a weight-for-age race anywhere. "You see the Service in his stirrups," said an old nobbler who had watched many a trial spin, lying hidden in a ditch or a drain; and indisputably you did: Bertie's riding was superb, but it was still the riding of a cavalryman, not of a jockey. The mere turn of the foot in the stirrups told it, as the old man had the shrewdness to know.
So the King went down at one time two points in the morning betting.
"Know them flash cracks of the Household," said Tim Varnet, as sharp a little Leg as ever "got on" a dark thing, and "went halves" with a jock who consented to rope a favorite at the Ducal. "Them swells, ye see, they give any money for blood. They just go by Godolphin heads, and little feet, and winners' strains, and all the rest of it; and so long as they get pedigree never look at substance; and their bone comes no bigger than a deer's. Now, it's force as well as pace that tells over a bit of plow; a critter that would win the Derby on the flat would knock up over the first spin over the clods; and that King's legs are too light for my fancy, 'andsome as 'tis ondeniable he looks—for a little 'un, as one may say."
And Tim Varnet exactly expressed the dominant mistrust of the talent; despite all his race and all his exploits, the King was not popular in the Ring, because he was like his backers—"a swell." They thought him "showy—very showy," "a picture to frame," "a luster to look at"; but they disbelieved in him, almost to a man, as a stayer, and they trusted him scarcely at all with their money.
"It's plain that he's 'meant,' though," thought little Tim, who was so used to the "shady" in stable matters that he could hardly persuade himself that even the Grand Military could be run fair, and would have thought a Guardsman or a Hussar only exercised his just privilege as a jockey in "roping" after selling the race, if so it suited his book. "He's 'meant,' that's clear, 'cause the swells have put all their pots on him—but if the pots don't bile over, strike me a loser!" a contingency he knew he might very well invoke; his investments being invariably so matchlessly arranged that, let what would be "bowled over," Tim Varnet never could be.
Whatever the King might prove, however, the Guards, the Flower of the Service, must stand or fall by him; they had not Seraph, they put in "Beauty" and his gray. But there was no doubt as to the tremendousness of the struggle lying before him. The running ground covered four miles and a half, and had forty-two jumps in it, exclusive of the famous Brixworth: half was grassland, and half ridge and furrow; a lane with very awkward double fences laced in and in with the memorable blackthorn, a laid hedge with thick growers in it and many another "teaser," coupled with the yawning water, made the course a severe one; while thirty-two starters of unusual excellence gave a good field and promised a close race. Every fine bit of steeple-chase blood that was to be found in their studs, the Service had brought together for the great event; and if the question could ever be solved, whether it is possible to find a strain that shall combine pace over the flat with the heart to stay over an inclosed country, the speed to race with the bottom to fence and the force to clear water, it seemed likely to be settled now. The Service and the Stable had done their uttermost to reach its solution.
The clock of the course pointed to half-past one; the saddling bell would ring at a quarter to two, for the days were short and darkened early; the Stewards were all arrived, except the Marquis of Rockingham, and the Ring was in the full rush of excitement; some "getting on" hurriedly to make up for lost time; some "peppering" one or other of the favorites hotly; some laying off their moneys in a cold fit of caution; some putting capfuls on the King, or Bay Regent, or Pas de Charge, from the great commission stables, the local betting man, the shrewd wiseacres from the Ridings, all the rest of the brotherhood of the Turf were crowding together with the deafening shouting common to them which sounds so tumultuous, so insane, and so unintelligible to outsiders. Amid them half the titled heads of England, all the great names known on the flat, and men in the Guards, men in the Rifles, men in the Light Cavalry, men in the Heavies, men in the Scots Greys, men in the Horse Artillery, men in all the Arms and all the Regiments that had sent their first riders to try for the Blue Ribbon, were backing their horses with crackers, and jotting down figure after figure, with jeweled pencils, in dainty books, taking long odds with the fields. Carriages were standing in long lines along the course, the stands were filled with almost as bright a bevy of fashionable loveliness as the Ducal brings together under the park trees of Goodwood; the horses were being led into the inclosure for saddling, a brilliant sun shone for the nonce on the freshest of February noons; beautiful women were fluttering out of their barouches in furs and velvets, wearing the colors of the jockey they favored, and more predominant than any were Cecil's scarlet and white, only rivaled in prominence by the azure of the Heavy Cavalry champion, Sir Eyre Montacute. A drag with four bays—with fine hunting points about them—had dashed up, late of course; the Seraph had swung himself from the roller-bolt into the saddle of his hack (one of these few rare hacks that are perfect, and combine every excellence of pace, bone, and action, under their modest appellative), and had cantered off to join the Stewards; while Cecil had gone up to a group of ladies in the Grand Stand, as if he had no more to do with the morning's business than they. Right in front of that Stand was an artificial bullfinch that promised to treat most of the field to a "purler," a deep ditch dug and filled with water, with two towering blackthorn fences on either side of it, as awkward a leap as the most cramped country ever showed; some were complaining of it; it was too severe, it was unfair, it would break the back of very horse sent at it. The other Stewards were not unwilling to have it tamed down a little, but he Seraph, generally the easiest of all sweet-tempered creatures, refused resolutely to let it be touched.
"Look here," said he confidentially, as he wheeled his hack round to the Stand and beckoned Cecil down, "look here, Beauty; they're wanting to alter that teaser, make it less awkward, you know; but I wouldn't because I thought it would look as if I lessened it for you, you know. Still it is a cracker and no mistake; Brixworth itself is nothing to it, and if you'd like it toned down I'll let them do it—"
"My dear Seraph, not for worlds! You were quite right not to have a thorn taken down. Why, that's where I shall thrash Bay Regent," said Bertie serenely, as if the winning of the stakes had been forecast in his horoscope.
The Seraph whistled, stroking his mustaches. "Between ourselves, Cecil, that fellow is going up no end. The Talent fancy him so—"
"Let them," said Cecil placidly, with a great cheroot in his mouth, lounging into the center of the Ring to hear how the betting went on his own mount; perfectly regardless that he would keep them waiting at the weights while he dressed. Everybody there knew him by name and sight; and eager glances followed the tall form of the Guards' champion as he moved through the press, in a loose brown sealskin coat, with a little strip of scarlet ribbon round his throat, nodding to this peer, taking evens with that, exchanging a whisper with a Duke, and squaring his book with a Jew. Murmurs followed about him as if he were the horse himself—"looks in racing form"—"looks used up to me"—"too little hands surely to hold in long in a spin"—"too much length in the limbs for a light weight; bone's always awfully heavy"—"dark under the eye, been going too fast for training"—"a swell all over, but rides no end," with other innumerable contradictory phrases, according as the speaker was "on" him or against him, buzzed about him from the riff-raff of the Ring, in no way disturbing his serene equanimity.
One man, a big fellow, "'ossy" all over, with the genuine sporting cut-away coat, and a superabundance of showy necktie and bad jewelry, eyed him curiously, and slightly turned so that his back was toward Bertie, as the latter was entering a bet with another Guardsman well known on the turf, and he himself was taking long odds with little Berk Cecil, the boy having betted on his brother's riding, as though he had the Bank of England at his back. Indeed, save that the lad had the hereditary Royallieu instinct of extravagance, and, with a half thoughtless, half willful improvidence, piled debts and difficulties on this rather brainless and boyish head, he had much more to depend on than his elder; old Lord Royallieu doted on him, spoilt him, and denied him nothing, though himself a stern, austere, passionate man, made irascible by ill health, and, in his fits of anger, a very terrible personage indeed—no more to be conciliated by persuasion than iron is to be bent by the hand; so terrible that even his pet dreaded him mortally, and came to Bertie to get his imprudences and peccadilloes covered from the Viscount's sight.
Glancing round at this moment as he stood in the ring, Cecil saw the betting man with whom Berkeley was taking long odds on the race; he raised his eyebrows, and his face darkened for a second, though resuming its habitual listless serenity almost immediately.
"You remember that case of welshing after the Ebor St. Leger, Con?" he said in a low tone to the Earl of Constantia, with whom he was talking. The Earl nodded assent; everyone had heard of it, and a very flagrant case it was.
"There's the fellow," said Cecil laconically, and strode toward him with his long, lounging cavalry swing. The man turned pallid under his florid skin, and tried to edge imperceptibly away; but the density of the throng prevented his moving quickly enough to evade Cecil, who stooped his head, and said a word in his ear. It was briefly:
"Leave the ring."
The rascal, half bully, half coward, rallied from the startled fear into which his first recognition by the Guardsman (who had been the chief witness against him in a very scandalous matter at York, and who had warned him that if he ever saw him again in the Ring he would have him turned out of it) had thrown him, and, relying on insolence and the numbers of his fraternity to back him out of it, stood his ground.
"I've as much right here as you swells," he said, with a hoarse laugh. "Are you the whole Jockey Club, that you come it to a honest gentleman like that?"
Cecil looked down on him slightly amused, immeasurably disgusted—of all earth's terrors, there was not one so great for him as a scene, and the eager bloodshot eyes of the Ring were turning on them by the thousand, and the loud shouting of the bookmakers was thundering out, "What's up?"
"My 'honest gentleman,'" he said wearily, "leave this. I tell you; do you hear?"
"Make me!" retorted the "welsher," defiant in his stout-built square strength, and ready to brazen the matter out. "Make me, my cock o' fine feathers! Put me out of the ring if you can, Mr. Dainty Limbs! I've as much business here as you."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before, light as a deer and close as steel, Cecil's hand was on his collar, and without any seeming effort, without the slightest passion, he calmly lifted him off the ground, as though he were a terrier, and thrust him through the throng; Ben Davis, as the welsher was named, meantime being so amazed at such unlooked-for might in the grasp of the gentlest, idlest, most gracefully made, and indolently tempered of his born foes and prey, "the swells," that he let himself be forced along backward in sheer passive paralysis of astonishment, while Bertie, profoundly insensible to the tumult that began to rise and roar about him, from those who were not too absorbed in the business of the morning to note what took place, thrust him along in the single clasp of his right hand outward to where the running ground swept past the Stand, and threw him lightly, easily, just as one may throw a lap-dog to take his bath, into the artificial ditch filled with water that the Seraph had pointed out as "a teaser." The man fell unhurt, unbruised, so gently was he dropped on his back among the muddy, chilly water, and the overhanging brambles; and, as he rose from the ducking, a shudder of ferocious and filthy oaths poured from his lips, increased tenfold by the uproarious laughter of the crowd, who knew him as "a welsher," and thought him only too well served.
Policemen rushed in at all points, rural and metropolitan, breathless, austere, and, of course, too late. Bertie turned to them, with a slight wave of his hand, to sign them away.
"Don't trouble yourselves! It's nothing you could interfere in; take care that person doesn't come into the betting ring again, that's all."
The Seraph, Lord Constantia, Wentworth, and may others of his set, catching sight of the turmoil and of "Beauty," with the great square-set figure of Ben Davis pressed before him through the mob, forced their way up as quickly as they could; but before they reached the spot Cecil was sauntering back to meet them, cool and listless, and a little bored with so much exertion; his cheroot in his mouth, and his ear serenely deaf to the clamor about the ditch.
He looked apologetically at the Seraph and the others; he felt some apology was required for having so far wandered from all the canons of his Order as to have approached "a row," and run the risk of a scene.
"Turf must be cleared of these scamps, you see," he said, with a half sigh. "Law can't do anything. Fellow was trying to 'get on' with the young one, too. Don't bet with those riff-raff, Berk. The great bookmakers will make you dead money, and the little Legs will do worse to you."
The boy hung his head, but looked sulky rather than thankful for his brother's interference with himself and the welsher.
"You have done the Turf a service, Beauty—a very great service; there's no doubt about that," said the Seraph. "Law can't do anything, as you say; opinion must clear the ring of such rascals; a welsher ought not to dare to show his face here; but, at the same time, you oughtn't to have gone unsteadying your muscle, and risking the firmness of your hand at such a minute as this, with pitching that fellow over. Why couldn't you wait till afterward? or have let me do it?"
"My dear Seraph," murmured Bertie languidly, "I've gone in to-day for exertion; a little more or less is nothing. Besides, welshers are slippery dogs, you know."
He did not add that it was having seen Ben Davis taking odds with his young brother which had spurred him to such instantaneous action with that disreputable personage; who, beyond doubt, only received a tithe part of his deserts, and merited to be double-thonged off every course in the kingdom.
Rake at that instant darted, panting like a hot retriever, out of the throng. "Mr. Cecil, sir, will you please come to the weights—the saddling bell's a-going to ring, and—"
"Tell them to wait for me; I shall only be twenty minutes dressing," said Cecil quietly, regardless that the time at which the horses should have been at the starting-post was then clanging from the clock within the Grand Stand. Did you ever go to a gentleman-rider race where the jocks were not at least an hour behind time, and considered themselves, on the whole, very tolerably punctual? At last, however, he sauntered into the dressing-shed, and was aided by Rake into tops that had at length achieved a spotless triumph, and the scarlet gold-embroidered jacket of his fair friend's art, with white hoops and the "Coeur Vaillant se fait Royaume" on the collar, and the white, gleaming sash to be worn across it, fringed by the same fair hands with silver.
Meanwhile the "welsher," driven off the course by a hooting and indignant crowd, shaking the water from his clothes, with bitter oaths, and livid with a deadly passion at his exile from the harvest-field of his lawless gleanings, went his way, with a savage vow of vengeance against the "d——d dandy," the "Guards' swell," who had shown him up before the world as the scoundrel he was.
The bell was clanging and clashing passionately, as Cecil at last went down to the weights, all his friends of the Household about him, and all standing "crushers" on their champion, for their stringent esprit de corps was involved, and the Guards are never backward in putting their gold down, as all the world knows. In the inclosure, the cynosure of devouring eyes, stood the King, with the sangfroid of a superb gentleman, amid the clamor raging round him, one delicate ear laid back now and them, but otherwise indifferent to the din; with his coat glistening like satin, the beautiful tracery of vein and muscle, like the veins of vine-leaves, standing out on the glossy, clear-carved neck that had the arch of Circassia, and his dark, antelope eyes gazing with a gentle, pensive earnestness on the shouting crowd.
His rivals, too, were beyond par in fitness and in condition, and there were magnificent animals among them. Bay Regent was a huge raking chestnut, upward of sixteen hands, and enormously powerful, with very fine shoulders, and an all-over-like-going head; he belonged to a Colonel in the Rifles, but was to be ridden by Jimmy Delmar of the 10th Lancers, whose colors were violet with orange hoops. Montacute's horse, Pas de Charge, which carried all the money of the Heavy Cavalry,—Montacute himself being in the Dragoon Guards,—was of much the same order; a black hunter with racing-blood in his loins and withers that assured any amount of force, and no fault but that of a rather coarse head, traceable to a slur on his 'scutcheon on the distaff side from a plebeian great-grandmother, who had been a cart mare, the only stain on his otherwise faultless pedigree. However, she had given him her massive shoulders, so that he was in some sense a gainer by her, after all. Wild Geranium was a beautiful creature enough: a bright bay Irish mare, with that rich red gloss that is like the glow of a horse chestnut; very perfect in shape, though a trifle light perhaps, and with not quite strength enough in neck or barrel; she would jump the fences of her own paddock half a dozen times a day for sheer amusement, and was game for anything[*]. She was entered by Cartouche of the Enniskillens, to be ridden by "Baby Grafton," of the same corps, a feather-weight, and quite a boy, but with plenty of science in him. These were the three favorites. Day Star ran them close, the property of Durham Vavassour, of the Scots Greys, and to be ridden by his owner; a handsome, flea-bitten, gray sixteen-hander, with ragged hips, and action that looked a trifle string-halty, but noble shoulders, and great force in the loins and withers; the rest of the field, though unusually excellent, did not find so many "sweet voices" for them, and were not so much to be feared; each starter was, of course, much backed by his party, but the betting was tolerably even on these four—all famous steeple-chasers—the King at one time, and Bay Regent at another, slightly leading in the Ring.
[*] The portrait of this lady is that of a very esteemed young Irish beauty of my acquaintance; she this season did seventy-six miles on a warm June day, and ate her corn and tares afterward as if nothing had happened. She is six years old.
Thirty-two starters were hoisted up on the telegraph board, and as the field got at last underway, uncommonly handsome they looked, while the silk jackets of all the colors of the rainbow glittered in the bright noon-sun. As Forest King closed in, perfectly tranquil still, but beginning to glow and quiver all over with excitement, knowing as well as his rider the work that was before him, and longing for it in every muscle and every limb, while his eyes flashed fire as he pulled at the curb and tossed his head aloft, there went up a general shout of "Favorite!" His beauty told on the populace, and even somewhat on the professionals, though his legs kept a strong business prejudice against the working powers of "the Guards' Crack." The ladies began to lay dozens in gloves on him; not altogether for his points, which, perhaps, they hardly appreciated, but for his owner and rider, who, in the scarlet and gold, with the white sash across his chest, and a look of serene indifference on his face, they considered the handsomest man in the field. The Household is usually safe to win the suffrages of the sex.
In the throng on the course Rake instantly bonneted an audacious dealer who had ventured to consider that Forest King was "light and curby in the 'ock." "You're a wise 'un, you are!" retorted the wrathful and ever-eloquent Rake; "there's more strength in his clean flat legs, bless him! than in all the round, thick, mill-posts of your halfbreds, that have no more tendon than a bit of wood, and are just as flabby as a sponge!" Which hit the dealer home just as his hat was hit over his eyes; Rake's arguments being unquestionable in their force.
The thoroughbreds pulled and fretted and swerved in their impatience; one or two overcontumacious bolted incontinently, others put their heads between their knees in the endeavor to draw their riders over their withers; Wild Geranium reared straight upright, fidgeted all over with longing to be off, passaged with the prettiest, wickedest grace in the world, and would have given the world to neigh if she had dared, but she knew it would be very bad style, so, like an aristocrat as she was, restrained herself; Bay Regent almost sawed Jimmy Delmar's arms off, looking like a Titan Bucephalus; while Forest King, with his nostrils dilated till the scarlet tinge on them glowed in the sun, his muscles quivering with excitement as intense as the little Irish mare's, and all his Eastern and English blood on fire for the fray, stood steady as a statue for all that, under the curb of a hand light as a woman's, but firm as iron to control, and used to guide him by the slightest touch.
All eyes were on that throng of the first mounts in the Service; brilliant glances by the hundred gleamed down behind hothouse bouquets of their chosen color, eager ones by the thousand stared thirstily from the crowded course, the roar of the Ring subsided for a second, a breathless attention and suspense succeeded it; the Guardsmen sat on their drags, or lounged near the ladies with their race-glasses ready, and their habitual expression of gentle and resigned weariness in nowise altered because the Household, all in all, had from sixty to seventy thousand on the event; and the Seraph murmured mournfully to his cheroot, "that chestnut's no end fit," strong as his faith was in the champion of the Brigades.
A moment's good start was caught—the flag dropped—off they went sweeping out for the first second like a line of Cavalry about to charge.
Another moment and they were scattered over the first field. Forest King, Wild Geranium, and Bay Regent leading for two lengths, when Montacute, with his habitual "fast burst," sent Pas de Charge past them like lightning. The Irish mare gave a rush and got alongside of him; the King would have done the same, but Cecil checked him and kept him in that cool, swinging canter which covered the grassland so lightly; Bay Regent's vast thundering stride was Olympian, but Jimmy Delmar saw his worst foe in the "Guards' Crack," and waited on him warily, riding superbly himself.
The first fence disposed of half the field; they crossed the second in the same order, Wild Geranium racing neck to neck with Pas de Charge; the King was all athirst to join the duello, but his owner kept him gently back, saving his pace and lifting him over the jumps as easily as a lapwing. The second fence proved a cropper to several, some awkward falls took place over it, and tailing commenced; after the third field, which was heavy plow, all knocked off but eight, and the real struggle began in sharp earnest: a good dozen, who had shown a splendid stride over the grass, being down up by the terrible work on the clods.
The five favorites had it all to themselves; Day Star pounding onward at tremendous speed, Pas de Charge giving slight symptoms of distress owing to the madness of his first burst, the Irish mare literally flying ahead of him, Forest King and the chestnut waiting on one another.
In the Grand Stand the Seraph's eyes strained after the Scarlet and White, and he muttered in his mustaches, "Ye gods, what's up! The world's coming to an end!—Beauty's turned cautious!"
Cautious, indeed—with that giant of Pytchley fame running neck to neck by him; cautious—with two-thirds of the course unrun, and all the yawners yet to come; cautious—with the blood of Forest King lashing to boiling heat, and the wondrous greyhound stride stretching out faster and faster beneath him, ready at a touch to break away and take the lead; but he would be reckless enough by and by; reckless, as his nature was, under the indolent serenity of habit.
Two more fences came, laced high and stiff with the Shire thorn, and with scarce twenty feet between them, the heavy plowed land leading to them, clotted, and black, and hard, with the fresh earthy scent steaming up as the hoofs struck the clods with a dull thunder—Pas de Charge rose to the first: distressed too early, his hind feet caught in the thorn, and he came down, rolling clear of his rider; Montacute picked him up with true science, but the day was lost to the Heavy Cavalry man. Forest King went in and out over both like a bird and led for the first time; the chestnut was not to be beat at fencing and ran even with him; Wild Geranium flew still as fleet as a deer—true to her sex, she would not bear rivalry; but little Grafton, though he rode like a professional, was but a young one, and went too wildly; her spirit wanted cooler curb.
And now only Cecil loosened the King to his full will and his full speed. Now only the beautiful Arab head was stretched like a racer's in the run-in for the Derby, and the grand stride swept out till the hoofs seemed never to touch the dark earth they skimmed over; neither whip nor spur was needed, Bertie had only to leave the gallant temper and the generous fire that were roused in their might to go their way and hold their own. His hands were low, his head a little back, his face very calm; the eyes only had a daring, eager, resolute will lighting them; Brixworth lay before him. He knew well what Forest King could do; but he did not know how great the chestnut Regent's powers might be.
The water gleamed before them, brown and swollen, and deepened with the meltings of winter snows a month before; the brook that has brought so many to grief over its famous banks since cavaliers leaped it with their falcon on their wrist, or the mellow note of the horn rang over the woods in the hunting days of Stuart reigns. They knew it well, that long line, shimmering there in the sunlight, the test that all must pass who go in for the Soldiers' Blue Ribbon. Forest King scented water, and went on with his ears pointed, and his greyhound stride lengthening, quickening, gathering up all its force and its impetus for the leap that was before—then, like the rise and the swoop of a heron, he spanned the water, and, landing clear, launched forward with the lunge of a spear darted through air. Brixworth was passed—the Scarlet and White, a mere gleam of bright color, a mere speck in the landscape, to the breathless crowds in the stand, sped on over the brown and level grassland; two and a quarter miles done in four minutes and twenty seconds. Bay Regent was scarcely behind him; the chestnut abhorred the water, but a finer trained hunter was never sent over the Shires, and Jimmy Delmar rode like Grimshaw himself. The giant took the leap in magnificent style, and thundered on neck and neck with the "Guards' Crack." The Irish mare followed, and with miraculous gameness, landed safely; but her hind legs slipped on the bank, a moment was lost, and "Baby" Grafton scarce knew enough to recover it, though he scoured on, nothing daunted.
Pas de Charge, much behind, refused the yawner; his strength was not more than his courage, but both had been strained too severely at first. Montacute struck the spurs into him with a savage blow over the head; the madness was its own punishment; the poor brute rose blindly to the jump, and missed the bank with a reel and a crash; Sir Eyre was hurled out into the brook, and the hope of the Heavies lay there with his breast and forelegs resting on the ground, his hindquarters in the water, and his neck broken. Pas de Charge would never again see the starting flag waved, or hear the music of the hounds, or feel the gallant life throb and glow through him at the rallying notes of the horn. His race was run.
Not knowing, or looking, or heeding what happened behind, the trio tore on over the meadow and the plowed; the two favorites neck by neck, the game little mare hopelessly behind through that one fatal moment over Brixworth. The turning-flags were passed; from the crowds on the course a great hoarse roar came louder and louder, and the shouts rang, changing every second: "Forest King wins!" "Bay Regent wins!" "Scarlet and White's ahead!" "Violet's up with him!" "A cracker on the King!" "Ten to one on the Regent!" "Guards are over the fence first!" "Guards are winning!" "Guards are losing!" "Guards are beat!"
As the shout rose, Cecil's left stirrup-leather snapped and gave way; at the pace they were going most men, aye, and good riders too, would have been hurled out of their saddle by the shock; he scarcely swerved; a moment to ease the King and to recover his equilibrium, then he took the pace up again as though nothing had chanced. And his comrades of the Household, when they saw this through their race-glasses, broke through their serenity and burst into a cheer that echoed over the grasslands and the coppices like a clarion, the grand rich voice of the Seraph leading foremost and loudest—a cheer that rolled mellow and triumphant down the cold, bright air like the blast of trumpets, and thrilled on Bertie's ear where he came down the course, a mile away. It made his heart beat quicker with a victorious, headlong delight, as his knees pressed close into Forest King's flanks, and, half stirrupless like the Arabs, he thundered forward to the greatest riding feat of his life. His face was very calm still, but his blood was in tumult, the delirium of pace had got on him, a minute of life like this was worth a year, and he knew that he would win or die for it, as the land seemed to fly like a black sheet under him, and, in that killing speed, fence and hedge and double and water all went by him like a dream; whirling underneath him as the gray stretched, stomach to earth, over the level, and rose to leap after leap.
For that instant's pause, when the stirrup broke, threatened to lose him the race.
He was more than a length behind the Regent, whose hoofs as they dashed the ground up sounded like thunder, and for whose herculean strength the plow had no terrors; it was more than the lead to keep now, there was ground to cover—and the King was losing like Wild Geranium. Cecil felt drunk with that strong, keen west wind that blew so strongly in his teeth, a passionate excitation was in him, every breath of winter air that rushed in its bracing currents round him seemed to lash him like a stripe—the Household to look on and see him beaten!
Certain wild blood, that lay latent in Cecil under the tranquil gentleness of temper and of custom, woke and had the mastery; he set his teeth hard, and his hands clinched like steel on the bridle. "Oh, my beauty, my beauty!" he cried, all unconsciously half aloud, as they cleared the thirty-sixth fence. "Kill me if you like, but don't fail me!"
As though Forest King heard the prayer and answered it with all his hero's heart, the splendid form launched faster out, the stretching stride stretched farther yet with lightning spontaneity, every fiber strained, every nerve struggled; with a magnificent bound like an antelope the gray recovered the ground he had lost, and passed Bay Regent by a quarter-length. It was a neck-and-neck race once more, across the three meadows with the last and lower fences that were between them and the final leap of all; that ditch of artificial water with the towering double hedge of oak rails and of blackthorn, that was reared black and grim and well-nigh hopeless just in front of the Grand Stand. A roar like the roar of the sea broke up from the thronged course as the crowd hung breathless on the even race; ten thousand shouts rang as thrice ten thousand eyes watched the closing contest, as superb a sight as the Shires ever saw; while the two ran together—the gigantic chestnut, with every massive sinew swelled and strained to tension, side by side with the marvelous grace, the shining flanks, and the Arabian-like head of the Guards' horse.