Long Odds

Chapter XXXI

In which the Major gets a Little “Information.”

Marcus Clarke

A GREY MORNING, cold and drizzly. The trees by the roadside looked haggard and unkempt—as though they had been up all night, and did not feel any the better for it. The clouds were low in the sky, and hung sulkily about the hedge-rows and bushes; even the wind appeared to have arisen in a bad humour, for it moaned and groaned, and indulged in little sniffs and gusts and fretful puffings, as though it had not quite made up its mind on the subject of blowing. It was not the sort of morning to entice a lazy man from his bed, and the “pike-keeper,” on the west road, grumbled as he swung back the heavy white gates, to permit the four-in-hand drag to pass.

The six men who sat behind Mr. Calverly’s four greys, appeared to care little about weather. Swathed in the thickest of great coats, and smoking the thickest of cigars, Jack Ponsonby defied the world. The little Major was in the highest of spirits. He had come up to town on a visit to his agents—which visit had produced satisfactory results, and meeting Welterwate and Pierrepoint at an advanced hour in the morning, had heard of the approaching trial, and in order to be present at it sat up and played whist with Miniver and two men in the Blues. It being his boast, however, that he was always in “training,” he scorned to show any symptoms of weariness, and assuming a preternatural liveliness, drove Welterwate to the verge of ill humour by repeatedly accusing him of somnolence.

“What sleepy beggars you are!” cried the Honourable John. “Why, you are half asleep now, Welter! Why don’t you go in for exercise, and that sort of thing? Look at me! Hard as iron, sir! Ride for my life to-morrow! You are all killing yourselves, you young men. There’s Algy nodding like a mandarin, and even Dacre looks sulky.”

“I was up rather late last night,” says Dacre. “It is all very well for you idle fellows, but poor men like me must work, you know. There’s that business of Nantwich bothering me.”

“Rupert always affects a preposterous amount of work,” said Algy Pierrepoint, who was not quite deficient in comprehension.

“Ah, you fellows don’t know what hard work means.”

“What do you call ‘early parade’?” grumbled Welterwate.

“Early parade!” cries the Major, contemptuously; “listen to that from a ‘defender of his country!’ There will be no muscle at all in England shortly, I verily believe.”

“We’ll send it all to Australia, eh, Bob?”

Bob smiled dimly, but did not reply. They had reached Thames Ditton by this time, and to his anxiety about the Cardinal, was added the task of keeping the four greys successfully in the middle of the straggling narrow street.

“Poor Bob! The cares of horseflesh are upon him! See how grim he looks!”

“Oh, that mine enemy would buy a racehorse!” says Dacre.

“Don’t laugh,” returned Bob. “The race hasn’t been run yet. We’ll see how the nag looks this morning.”

“There they are!” cried Ponsonby, whose sharp eyes had espied a group of black objects clustered under the lee of the low stabling that ran at the back of Mr. Docketer’s house. “We shall see them again at the back of the road.”

“We must be late,” said Bob; “and as I didn’t tell Docketer that I was coming, he may start without us. St-t-t! Go on, lads!”

The group at the stables consisted of four persons. Mr. Docketer—whose attire seemed to consist principally of great coat and corduroys—little Jemmy Seabright the jockey, Isaac the weazened groom, and no less a personage than Mr. Charles Ryle himself.

Notwithstanding the early hour, Mr. Ryle was faultlessly dressed. His thick overcoat was creaseless, his boots were spotless, his dog-skin gloves apparently just put on, and his face ruddy and shining with good health. Although he had driven the long-backed trotting mare twelve miles before his hurried breakfast with Docketer, he looked as though it was twelve o’clock on High Change, and he was going to complete a bargain which would put £10,000 into his pocket. Docketer was leaning against the half-door of the loose box, chewing his customary straw, and little Jemmy Seabright stood reverentially by the side of Isaac, who was in charge of the sheeted form of the renowned Cardinal.

“A minute and a half, Docketer!” says Ryle. “Are you sure?”

“Quite, sir,” returned that honest fellow. “It started me; it did, I can tell you; but there, you câ-ant tell wot’s in a ’oss. It’s disgustin’, I call it.”

“Disgusting?” says Ryle, with something very like an oath. “I won’t believe it unless I see it with my own eyes.”

“Well, you can easily do that. Jim, go and get out Boadicea, and look sharp about it.”

“How came you never to find it out before, you fool?” asks Ryle.

“Blessed if I know!” says Docketer, savagely taking in more straw. “It came all of a sudden like. The mare she was a doin’ her best, when the boy gives the old bullock a cut with the whip and yells out at him, and he jest slipped past her like anythink! I know I never could get no go out of him when I had him; but that lad was brought up in old Snuff-box’s stable, and knows how to work him, I suppose.”

“Old Snuff-box” was the nickname by which Ronald, sixth Earl of Lundyfoot, Marquess of Mull and Cantire, Baron Rappee in Ireland, and feudal lord over the broad moors of Strathsneezin, was known on the democratic Turf.

Ryle whistled.

“Oh, that’s it, is it? Well, we must do the best we can. Do you think the brute can win?”

“No, I don’t say that, Muster Ryle, but his chance aint half so bad as we thort it were.”

Ryle ran his eye over the tremendous quarters of the big horse as Isaac tenderly tightened the surcingle under the clothes and prepared to hoist the lad to his saddle.

“Come here, Seabright! you’ve ridden this horse before, havn’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” says the lad, “I rode him the only time he won a race.”

“Ah! I remember. Yes, astonished everybody. How was it he never won anything else, eh?”

“Don’t know, sir; unless it was that they didn’t know how to handle him. You see, sir, I’d been with him ever since he was foaled a’most, and the horse ‘knows me.’”

“Why didn’t you ride again, then?” put in Docketer.

“Got a bad fall, larkin’ sir, and got the sack for throwing down a hoss.”

“Oh; sarve yer right, yer young scamp!”

“Well, sur, I don’t say but what it did; but I wor very bad, I wor; hurt my back, somehow. In fact, if Major Ponsonby hadn’t given me a little light work about his stable, I should ha’ starved, I expect.”

“Um!” says Ryle. “Well, you do as you’re told, and you won’t starve here. Get up and give the horse a spin now with the mare.”

“There’s horses’ feet on the road!” says Docketer. “Bless’d if it aint Mr. Calverly and a lot of swells in a fower-in-’and! Confound it, we can’t run ’em this morning then.”

“Here, I won’t be seen about. I’ll just slip round by the back of the house. Don’t you tell him, Docketer.”

“All right,” says the Man-who-could-be-trusted-with-untold-gold; “I won’t tell him, Muster Ryle.”

In another moment the ringing of the gate bell, and the clashing of gravel, announced the arrival of the visitors.

“Hold on a bit, Isaac,” says Docketer; “we’ll have to wait now, I suppose. And you, you young beggar,” he added, turning to the lad, “none o’ your yellings this mornin’, mind. You take it easy, and never mind if Boadicea beats yer on the post. Do yer understand?”

Jemmy grinned. To a boy who was born at Newmarket, and bred in a racing stable, such a question was superfluous.

“Good mornin’ gentlemen, good mornin’. Didn’t expect you this mornin’, Mr. Calverly. How do you do, Mr. Dacre?”

“Well, Docketer, how is the world with you?” said Ponsonby, who boasted that he knew everybody who had ever owned a racehorse. “Oh, sur, I can’t complain. Trade’s pretty good, and ground’s pretty soft.”

“How is the horse?” asked Bob.

“Fit as a fiddle, sur. Walk him over here, my lad!” The boy obeyed, and, when he saw Ponsonby, seemed inclined to speak, but, catching the Major’s impassible eye, and seeing no recognition there, contented himself with jerking his head at Bob.

“Who’s this, Docketer?” said Bob.

“He’s a new lad, Muster Calverly. T’other one couldn’t be trusted. This ’ere boy is smart enough, and knows his work, so I h’engaged him. Don’t yer saw his mouth, yer young vagabond. Woho, boy, then! Steady! Feel his legs, Major. H’iron, aint ’em? I’m a going to give him a spin with Boadicea this mornin’.”

“Well, you’d better look sharp,” says Welterwate, “it’s six o’clock now.”

“Get up, Isaac, then, and take ’em twice round.”

Both the horses seemed pretty well matched. The mare kept close alongside the Cardinal for all his tremendous strides, and, as they went past the little group of spectators for the first time, the Major said,

“He’s an awfully slow mover, Docketer; those strides of his are tremendous, but he takes half an hour to do ’em in.”

“Bless you, Major Ponsonby, he’s only a playin’ now; see him by an’ by, when the lad lets him out.”

“He looks as if he could ‘stay,’” says Pierrepoint.

“Stay! Yes, till the day after to-morrow,” returned Docketer, a little contemptuously.

“Now they’re letting ’em out. See! By Jove, he brings his legs under him well, though. The mare can move along, too.”

“Once more, and then run for it!” shouted Docketer, as the two horses dashed past.

They were close together still, but, at last, Boadicea began to draw ahead, and improved her distance with every stride.

“It’s very strange,” said Bob. “I never saw her beat him before.”

“He’s coming up, now, though,” cried Dacre. “Good! By Jove, there’s pace enough!” The boy was standing in his stirrups, and with the Cardinal well in hand, was coming up every moment. Old Isaac and the mare, however, were not to be beaten. The big horse passed them once, and Bob’s heart began to beat quicker, but, despite all apparent struggling, Boadicea gained by inches, and finally passed the white post, against which Docketer leant, a good half length before the ‘crack’ that was to retrieve the young Australian’s fortunes.

Bob dashed his glass to the ground.

“He can’t be fit, Docketer!” he cried.

“He gives two stone you know, Mister Calverly, and he’s a ’orful ’oss to keep in condition. Blessed if I know what to do with him. Now, yesterday, for eggsample, he went like clock-work.”

Ponsonby had been looking attentively at the “boy,” who having dismounted, was leading the horse to and fro. He lounged toward the pair. “I’ve seen you ride before somewhere,” he said.

Master James Seabright looked askance.

“Don’t you remember Jemmy Seabright, who you took in down at Leamington, sir, when the —th were quartered there?”

“Oh!” said the major—“Yes, I do. Now look here, my lad,” and he glanced back at the group, “tell me why you didn’t pass the mare.”

Jem shifted his feet. “I couldn’t,” he said.

“Oh yes, you could, but you wouldn’t.”

“’Pon my sivvy, I couldn’t; there!” cries the boy with sudden energy. “I did what I knew, major, s’elp me; but she’s werry quick on her feet is that mare, and it ain’t no good with the weight I carry.”

The Honourable John looked hard at the shifting blue eyes of the jockey, but could read nothing there.

“You are an ungrateful little hound,” he said, “and a little liar into the bargain. I saw you pull that horse distinctly, as you turned by the white gate.”

Jem flushed, and seemed about to reply, but Docketer, ever watchful, stepped up and invited the major to come and “’ave a snack,” which effectually prevented any further conversation.

During breakfast poor Bob was rather cast down, and his spirits were not raised by the wisdom which circulated around him.

“I always told you, old fellow, that the horse was not the flyer you took him for,” says Welterwate, eager to be also among the prophets.

“I hope you have not got very much on him,” says the sympathising Pierrepoint, who had himself given 15 to 1 (or 5 points below the market price) the day before.

“You have been ‘plunging’ a little, Bob, I believe,” said Dacre, who was breakfasting with his usual equanimity. “Now, the best thing you can do is to hedge for your life when you go back to town.”

Bob looked moody. He was terribly disappointed; for, despite Mr. Docketer’s pleasant allusions to weight and condition, he saw, or thought he saw, that the horse had been easily beaten, and fairly ridden. As I have said, Robert Calverly prided himself upon his knowledge of horses and horse-flesh, and it went sorely to his heart to confess that he had made a mistake. He had half a mind to throw up the whole thing, scratch the horse, and “retire from the turf.” He had not quite decided, however, when a shock-headed animal, who was half stable-helper, half body-servant, announced that the “drag was waitin’.”

“Good-bye, Docketer,” says Bob, as the party went out. “I’ll send you a note in a day or two, and tell you what to do with the horse. I am afraid that it is not much use letting him start.”

This did not suit Mr. Docketer’s “book” at all.

“Not let him start, Muster Calverly! You’re joking. Why, we’ve got all our money on him. The ’oss ain’t up to his work now,—but he do take a lot of trainin’, he do. He’ll be right enough come next month, sur—trust me.”

“Well,” said Bob, “if he don’t get better, I shan’t let him start,” and he turned away.

Meanwhile the party had established themselves comfortably in their seats, and looked round for Bob.

“What’s keeping the fellow, I wonder,” said the major, somewhat sulkily. He had been out of temper all the morning.

As he spoke he felt something pull the skirt of his coat, and looking down, saw the slender form of “the boy.”

Master James Seabright had mounted upon the high wheel of the phaeton, and putting his cunning little face close to Ponsonby’s coat collar, delivered himself hurriedly as follows:

“Beg parding, sur, but hearin’ inside as how you had money on it, sur, and remembring wot a kind friend you’d been to me, I jist slipped round to tell you. You’re right, sur, about the pulling. I rode to orders this morning, and let the mare beat me. It’s all right, sur. You tell Mr. Calverly to keep his spirits up. If I ride the Cardinal, Major Ponsonby, I’ll win with him if they only gives me fair play.”

After which he nodded twice to the Honourable, who was somewhat astonished at the sudden apparition, and seeing Mr. Docketer emerge from the low doorway of his cottage, jumped from the wheel and was lost to view.

Ponsonby said nothing until they reached Long’s, and then, as he shook Bob’s hand at parting, he said, “Don’t you be afraid about your horse, old fellow. I didn’t say anything before those fellows—but he was pulled this morning; the boy told me so. Docketer is trying to work one of his ‘little games,’ I expect—and we must watch him. You put your money on, old fellow. If you haven’t got a flyer, you’ve got a horse that’s worth a lot more than people think.”

“How did you find out about Docketer?” asked Bob, breathlessly.

“Can’t stop to tell you now. Come and dine with me to-night at the ‘Rag,’ and we’ll hold council over the matter.”

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter XXXII - A Losing Game

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