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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter53)

2006-08-28 16:17

  Chapter LIII. In Which Shall Be Found Some Account of the Gentleman's Steeplechase

  Truly it is a great day for "The Terror," hitherto known as "Four-legs," and well he knows it.

  Behold him as he stands, with his velvet muzzle upon old Martin's shoulder, the while the under-grooms, his two-legged slaves, hover solicitously about him! Behold the proud arch of his powerful neck, the knowing gleam of his rolling eye, the satiny sheen of his velvet coat! See how he flings up his shapely head to snuff the balmy air of morning, the while he paws the green earth with a round, bepolished hoof.

  Yes, indeed, it is a great day for "The Terror," and well he knows it.

  "He looks very well, Martin!" says Barnabas.

  "And 'e's better than 'e looks, sir!" nods Martin. "And they're laying thirty to one ag'in you, sir!"

  "So much, Martin?"

  "Ah, but it'll be backed down a bit afore you get to the post, I reckon, so I got my fifty guineas down on you a good hour ago."

  "Why, Martin, do you mean you actually backed me——to win——for fifty guineas?"

  "Why, y'see sir," said Martin apologetically, "fifty guineas is all I've got, sir!"

  Now at this moment, Barnabas became aware of a very shiny glazed hat, which bobbed along, among other hats of all sorts and shapes, now hidden, now rising again——very like a cock-boat in a heavy sea; and, presently, sure enough, the Bo'sun hove into view, and bringing himself to an anchor, made a leg, touched the brim of his hat, and gripped the hand Barnabas extended.

  "Mr. Beverley, sir," said he, "I first of all begs leave to say as, arter Master Horatio his Lordship, it's you as I'd be j'yful to see come into port first, or——as you might say——win this 'ere race. Therefore and wherefore I have laid five guineas on you, sir, by reason o' you being you, and the odds so long. Secondly, sir, I were to give you this here, sir, naming no names, but she says as you'd understand."

  Hereupon the Bo'sun took off the glazed hat, inserted a hairy paw, and brought forth a single, red rose.

  So Barnabas took the rose, and bowed his head above it, and straightway forgot the throng and bustle about him, and all things else, yea even the great race itself until, feeling a touch upon his arm, he turned to find the Earl of Bamborough beside him.

  "He is very pale, Mr. Beverley!" said his Lordship, and, glancing whither he looked, Barnabas saw the Viscount who was already mounted upon his bay horse "Moonraker."

  "Can you tell me, sir," pursued the Earl, "how serious his hurt really is?"

  "I know that he was shot, my Lord," Barnabas answered, "and that he received a violent blow upon his wounded arm this morning, but he is very reticent."

  Here the Viscount chanced to catch sight of them, and, with his groom at "Moonraker's" head, paced up to them.

  "Viscount," said his Lordship, looking up at his son with wise, dark eyes, "your arm is troubling you, I see."

  "Indeed, sir, it might be——a great deal worse."

  "Still, you will be under a disadvantage, for it will be a punishing race for horse and man."

  "Yes, sir."

  "And——you will do your best, of course, Horatio?"

  "Of course, sir."

  "But——Horace, may I ask you to remember——that your father has——only one son?"

  "Yes, sir,——and, father, may I tell you that——that thoughtless though he may be, he never forgets that——he is your son!" Saying which the Viscount leaned down from his saddle, with his hand stretched out impulsively, and, this time, his father's clasp was very light and gentle. So the Earl bowed, and turning, walked away.

  "He's——deuced Roman, of course, Bev," said the Viscount, staring hard after his father's upright figure, "but there are times when he's——rather more——than human!" And sighing, the Viscount nodded and rode off.

  "Only ten minutes more, sir!" said Martin.

  "Well, I'm ready, Martin," answered Barnabas, and, setting the rose in his breast very securely, he swung himself lightly into the saddle, and with the old groom at "The Terror's" head, paced slowly out of the paddock towards the starting post.

  Here a great pavilion had been set up, an ornate contrivance of silk and gold cords, and gay with flags and bunting, above which floated the Royal Standard of England, and beneath which was seated no less ornate a personage than the First Gentleman in Europe——His Royal Highness the Prince Regent himself, surrounded by all that was fairest and bravest in the Fashionable and Sporting World. Before this pavilion the riders were being marshalled in line, a gallant sight in their scarlet coats, and, each and every, mounted upon a fiery animal every whit as high-bred as himself; which fact they manifested in many and divers ways, as——in rearing and plunging, in tossing of heads, in lashing of heels, in quivering, and snorting, and stamping——and all for no apparent reason, yet which is the prerogative of your thoroughbred all the world over.

  Amidst this confusion of tossing heads and manes, Barnabas caught a momentary glimpse of the Viscount, some way down the line, his face frowning and pale; saw the Marquis alternately bowing gracefully towards the great, gaudy pavilion, soothing his plunging horse, and re-settling his cravat; caught a more distant view of Captain Slingsby, sitting his kicking sorrel like a centaur; and finally, was aware that Sir Mortimer Carnaby had ridden up beside him, who, handsome and debonair, bestrode his powerful gray with a certain air of easy assurance, and laughed softly as he talked with his other neighbor, a thinnish, youngish gentleman in sandy whiskers, who giggled frequently.

  "……very mysterious person," Sir Mortimer was saying, "nobody knows him, devilish odd, eh, Tressider? Tufton Green dubbed him the 'Galloping Countryman,'——what do you think of the name?"

  "Could have suggested a better, curse me if I couldn't, yes, Carnaby, oh damme! Why not 'the Prancing Ploughman,' or 'the Cantering Clodhopper'?" Here Sir Mortimer laughed loudly, and the thinnish, youngish gentleman giggled again.

  Barnabas frowned, but looking down at the red rose upon his breast, he smiled instead, a little grimly, as he settled his feet in the stirrups, and shortening his reins, sat waiting, very patiently. Not so "The Terror." Patient, forsooth! He backed and sidled and tossed his head, he fidgeted with his bit, he glared viciously this way and that, and so became aware of other four-legged creatures like himself, notably of Sir Mortimer's powerful gray near by, and in his heart he scorned them, one and all, proud of his strength and might, and sure of himself because of the hand upon his bridle. Therefore he snuffed the air with quivering nostril, and pawed the earth with an impatient hoof,——eager for the fray.

  Now all at once Sir Mortimer laughed again, louder than before, and in that same moment his gray swerved and cannoned lightly against "The Terror," and——reared back only just in time to avoid the vicious snap of two rows of gleaming teeth.

  "Damnation!" cried Sir Mortimer, very nearly unseated, "can't you manage that brute of yours!" and he struck savagely at "The Terror" with his whip. But Barnabas parried the blow, and now——even as they stared and frowned upon each other, so did their horses, the black and the gray, glare at each other with bared teeth.

  But, here, a sudden shout arose that spread and spread, and swelled into a roar; the swaying line of horsemen surges forward, bends, splits into plunging groups, and man and horse are off and away——the great Steeplechase has begun.

  Half a length behind Carnaby's gray gallops "The Terror," fire in his eye, rage in his heart, for there are horses ahead of him, and that must not be. Therefore he strains upon the bit, and would fain lengthen his stride, but the hand upon his bridle is strong and compelling.

  On sweeps the race, across the level and up the slope; twice Sir Mortimer glances over his shoulder, and twice he increases his pace, yet, as they top the rise, "The Terror" still gallops half a length behind.

  Far in advance races Tressider, the thinnish, youngish gentleman in sandy whiskers, hotly pressed by the Marquis, and with eight or nine others hard in their rear; behind these again, rides the Viscount, while to the right of Barnabas races Slingsby on his long-legged sorrel, with the rest thundering on behind. And now before them is the first jump——a hedge with the gleam of water beyond; and the hedge is high, and the water broad. Nearer it looms, and nearer——half a mile away! a quarter! less! Tressider's horse rises to it, and is well over, with the Marquis hard on his heels. But now shouts are heard, and vicious cries, as several horses, refusing, swerve violently; there is a crash! a muffled cry——some one is down. Then, as Barnabas watches, anxious-eyed, mindful of the Viscount's injured arm——"Moonraker" shoots forward and has cleared it gallantly.

  And now it is that "The Terror" feels the restraining bit relax and thereupon, with his fierce eyes ever upon the gray flanks of his chosen foe, he tosses his great head, lengthens his stride, and with a snort of defiance sweeps past Carnaby's gray, on and on, with thundering hoofs and ears laid back, while Barnabas, eyeing the hedge with frowning brows, gauges his distance,——a hundred yards! fifty! twenty-five! steadies "The Terror" in his stride and sends him at it——feels the spring and sway of the powerful loins,——a rush of wind, and is over and away, with a foot to spare. But behind him is the sound of a floundering splash,——another! and another! The air is full of shouts and cries quickly lost in the rush of wind and the drumming of galloping hoofs, and, in a while, turning his head, he sees Slingsby's "Rascal" racing close behind.

  "Bit of a rasper, that, b'gad!" bellows the Captain, radiant of face. "Thinned 'em out a bit, ye know, Beverley. Six of 'em——down and out of it b'gad! Carnaby's behind, too,——foot short at the water. Told you it would be——a good race, and b'gad——so it is!"

  Inch by inch the great, black horse and the raking sorrel creep up nearer the leaders, and, closing in with the Viscount, Barnabas wonders to see the ghastly pallor of his cheek and the grim set of mouth and jaw, till, glancing at the sleeve of his whip-arm, he sees there a dark stain, and wonders no more. And the race is but begun!

  "Dick!" he cried.

  "That you, Bev?"

  "Your arm, Dick,——keep your hand up!"

  "Arm, Bev——right as a trivet!"

  And to prove his words, the Viscount flourished his whip in the air.

  "Deuce take me! but Jerningham's setting a devilish hot pace," he cried. "Means to weed out the unlikely ones right away. Gad! there's riding for you!——Tressider's 'Pilot''s blown already——Marquis hasn't turned a hair!"

  And indeed the Marquis, it would seem, has at last ceased to worry over his cravat, and has taken the lead, and now, stooped low in the saddle, gallops a good twelve yards in front of Tressider.

  "Come on Bev!" cries the Viscount and, uttering a loud "view hallo," flourishes his whip. "Moonraker" leaps forward, lengthens his stride, and away he goes fast and furious, filling the air with flying clods, on and on,——is level with Tressider,——is past, and galloping neck and neck with the Marquis.

  Onward sweeps the race, over fallow and plough, over hedge and ditch and fence, until, afar off, Barnabas sees again the gleam of water——a jump full thirty feet across. Now, as he rides with "The Terror" well in hand, Barnahas is aware of a gray head with flaring nostrils, of a neck outstretched, of a powerful shoulder, a heaving flank, and Carnaby goes by. "The Terror" sees this too and, snorting, bores savagely upon the bit——but in front of him gallops Tressider's chestnut, and beside him races the Captain's sorrel. So, foot by foot, and yard by yard, the gray wins by. Over a hedge——across a ditch, they race together till, as they approach the water-jump, behold! once more "The Terror" gallops half a length behind Sir Mortimer's gray.

  The Marquis and the Viscount, racing knee and knee, have increased their twelve yards by half, and now, as Barnabas watches, down go their heads, in go their spurs, and away go chestnut and bay, fast and faster, take off almost together, land fairly, and are steadied down again to a rolling gallop.

  And now, away races Carnaby, with Barnabas hard upon his left, the pace quickens to a stretching gallop,——the earth flies beneath them. Barnabas marks his take-off and rides for it——touches "The Terror" with his spur and——in that moment, Carnaby's gray swerves. Barnabas sees the danger and, clenching his teeth, swings "The Terror" aside, just in time; who, thus balked, yet makes a brave attempt,——leaps, is short, and goes down with a floundering splash, flinging Barnabas clear.

  Half-stunned, half-blinded, plastered with mud and ooze, Barnabas staggers up to his feet, is aware in a dazed manner that horses are galloping down upon him, thundering past and well-nigh over him; is conscious also that "The Terror" is scrambling up and, even as he gets upon his legs, has caught the reins, vaulted into the saddle, and strikes in his spurs,——whereat "The Terror" snorts, rears and sets off after the others. And a mighty joy fills his heart, for now the hand upon his bridle restrains him no longer——nay, rather urges him forward; and far in the distance gallop others of his kind, others whom he scorns, one and all——notably a certain gray. Therefore as he spurns the earth beneath him faster and faster, the heart of "The Terror" is uplifted and full of rejoicing.

  But,——bruised, bleeding and torn, all mud from heel to head, and with a numbness in his brain Barnabas rides, stooped low in the saddle, for he is sick and very faint. His hat is gone, and the cool wind in his hair revives him somewhat, but the numbness remains. Yet it is as one in a dream that he finds his stirrups, and is vaguely conscious of voices about him——a thudding of hoofs and the creak of leather. As one in a dream he lifts "The Terror" to a fence that vanishes and gives place to a hedge which in turn is gone, or is magically transfigured into an ugly wall. And, still as one in a dream, he is thereafter aware of cries and shouting, and knows that horses are galloping beside him——riderless. But on and ever on races the great, black horse——head stretched out, ears laid back, iron hoofs pounding——on and on, over hedge and ditch and wall——over fence and brook——past blown and weary stragglers——his long stride unfaltering over ploughland and fallowland, tireless, indomitable——on and ever on until Barnabas can distinguish, at last, the horsemen in front.

  Therefore, still as one in a dream, he begins to count them to himself, over and over again. Yet, count how he will, can make them no more than seven all told, and he wonders dully where the rest may be.

  Well in advance of the survivors the Viscount is going strong, with Slingsby and the Marquis knee and knee behind; next rides Carnaby with two others, while Tressider, the thinnish, youngish gentleman, brings up the rear. Inch by inch Barnabas gains upon him, draws level and is past, and so "The Terror" once more sees before him Sir Mortimer's galloping gray.

  But now——something is wrong in front,——there is a warning yell from the Marquis——up flashes the Captain's long arm, for "Moonraker" has swerved suddenly, unaccountably,——loses his stride, and falls back until he is neck and neck with "The Terror." Thus, still as one in a dream, Barnabas is aware, little by little, that the Viscount's hat and whip are gone, and that he is swaying oddly in the saddle with "Moonraker's" every stride——catches a momentary glimpse of a pale, agonized face, and hears the Viscount speaking:

  "No go, Bev!" he pants. "Oh, Bev, I'm done! 'Moonraker's' game, but——I'm——done, Bev——arm, y'know——devilish shame, y'know——"

  And Barnabas sees that the Viscount's sleeve is all blood from the elbow down. And in that moment Barnabas casts off the numbness, and his brain clears again.

  "Hold on, Dick!" he cries.

  "Can't Bev,——I——I'm done. Tried my best——but——I——" Barnabas reaches out suddenly——but is too far off——the Viscount lurches forward, loses his stirrups, sways——and "Moonraker" gallops——riderless. But help is at hand, for Barnabas sees divers rustic onlookers who run forward to lift the Viscount's inanimate form. Therefore he turns him back to the race, and bends all his energies upon this, the last and grimmest part of the struggle; as for "The Terror," he vents a snort of joyful defiance, for now he is galloping again in full view of Sir Mortimer Carnaby's foam-flecked gray.

  And now——it's hey! for the rush and tear of wind through the hair! for the muffled thunder of galloping hoofs! for the long, racing stride, the creak of leather! Hey! for the sob and pant and strain of the conflict!

  Inch by inch the great, black horse creeps up, but Carnaby sees him coming, and the gray leaps forward under his goading heels,——is up level with Slingsby and the Marquis,——but with "The Terror" always close behind.

  Over a hedge,——across a ditch,——and down a slope they race together, ——knees in, heads low,——to where, at the bottom, is a wall. An ancient, mossy wall it is, yet hideous for all that, an almost impossible jump, except in one place, a gap so narrow that but one may take it at a time. And who shall be first? The Marquis is losing ground rapidly——a foot——a yard——six! and losing still, races now a yard behind Barnabas. Thus, two by two, they thunder down upon the gap that is but wide enough for one. Slingsby is plying his whip, Carnaby is rowelling savagely, yet, neck and neck, the sorrel and the gray race for the jump, with Barnabas and the Marquis behind.

  "Give way, Slingsby!" shouts Sir Mortimer.

  "Be damned if I do!" roars the Captain, and in go his spurs.

  "Pull over, Slingsby!" shouts Sir Mortimer.

  "No, b'gad! Pull over yourself," roars the Captain. "Give way, Carnaby——I have you by a head!"

  An exultant yell from Slingsby,——a savage shout from Sir Mortimer——a sudden, crunching thud, and the gallant sorrel is lying a twisted, kicking heap, with Captain Slingsby pinned beneath.

  "What, Beverley!" he cries, coming weakly to his elbow, "well ridden, b'gad! After him! The 'Rascal' 's done for, poor devil! So am I, ——it's you or Carnaby now——ride, Beverley, ride!" And so, as Barnabas flashes past and over him, Captain Slingsby of the Guards sinks back, and lies very white and still.

  A stake-fence, a hedge, a ditch, and beyond that a clear stretch to the winning-post.

  At the fence, Carnaby sees "The Terror's" black head some six yards behind; at the hedge, Barnabas has lessened the six to three; and at the ditch once again the great, black horse gallops half a length behind the powerful gray. And now, louder and louder, shouts come down the wind!

  "The gray! It's Carnaby's gray! Carnaby's 'Clasher' wins! 'Clasher'! 'Clasher'!"

  But, slowly and by degrees, the cries sink to a murmur, to a buzzing drone. For, what great, black horse is this which, despite Carnaby's flailing whip and cruel, rowelling spur, is slowly, surely creeping up with the laboring gray? Who is this, a wild, bare-headed figure, grim and bloody, stained with mud, rent and torn, upon whose miry coat yet hangs a crushed and fading rose?

  Down the stretch they race, the black and the gray, panting, sobbing, spattered with foam, nearer and nearer, while the crowd rocks and sways about the great pavilion, and buzzes with surprise and uncertainty.

  Then all at once, above this sound, a single voice is heard, a mighty voice, a roaring bellow, such, surely, as only a mariner could possess.

  "It's Mr. Beverley, sir!" roars the voice. "Beverley! Beverley——hurrah!"

  Little by little the crowd takes up the cry until the air rings with it, for now the great, black horse gallops half a length ahead of the sobbing gray, and increases his lead with every stride, by inches——by feet! On and on until his bridle is caught and held, and he is brought to a stand. Then, looking round, Barnabas sees the Marquis rein up beside him, breathless he is still, and splashed with mud and foam, but smiling and debonair as he reaches out his hand.

  "Congratulations, Beverley!" he pants. "Grand race!——I caught Carnaby——at the post. Now, if it hadn't been for——my cravat——" But here the numbness comes upon Barnabas again, and, as one in a dream, he is aware that his horse is being led through the crowd——that he is bowing to some one in the gaudy pavilion, a handsome, tall, and chubby gentleman remarkable for waistcoat and whiskers.

  "Well ridden, sir!" says the gentleman. "Couldn't have done it better myself, no, by Gad I couldn't——could I, Sherry?"

  "No, George, by George you couldn't!" answered a voice.

  "Must take a run down to Brighton, Mr.——Mr.——ah, yes——Beverley. Show you some sport at Brighton, sir. A magnificent race, ——congratulate you, sir. Must see more of you!"

  Then, still as one in a dream, Barnabas bows again, sees Martin at "The Terror's" bridle, and is led back, through a pushing, jostling throng all eager to behold the winner, and thus, presently finds himself once more in the quiet of the paddock behind the "White Hart" inn.

  Stiffly and painfully he descends from the saddle, hears a feeble voice call his name and turning, beholds a hurdle set in the shade of a tree, and upon the hurdle the long, limp form of Captain Slingsby, with three or four strangers kneeling beside him.

  "Ah, Beverley!" said he faintly. "Glad you beat Carnaby, he——crowded me a bit——at the wall, y' know. Poor old 'Rascal' 's gone, b'gad——and I'm going, but prefer to——go——out of doors,——seems more room for it somehow——give me the sky to look at. Told you it would be a grand race, and——b'gad, so it was! Best I——ever rode——or ever shall. Eh——what, Beverley? No, no——mustn't take it——so hard, dear fellow. B'gad it——might be worse, y' know. I——might have lost, and——lived——been deeper in Gaunt's clutches than ever,——then. As it is, I'm going beyond——beyond his reach——for good and all. Which is the purest——bit of luck I ever had. Lift me up a little——will you, Beverley? Deuced fine day, b'gad! And how green the grass is——never saw it so green before——probably because——never troubled to look though, was always so——deuced busy, b'gad!——The poor old 'Rascal' broke his back, Beverley——so did I. They——shot 'The Rascal,' but——"

  Here the Captain sighed, and closed his eyes wearily, but after a moment opened them again.

  "A fine race, gentlemen!" said he, addressing the silent group, "a fine race well ridden——and won by——my friend, Beverley. I'll warrant him a——true-blue, gentlemen. Beverley, I——I congratulate——"

  Once more he closed his eyes, sighed deeply and, with the sigh, Captain Slingsby of the Guards had paid his debts——for good and all.

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