Long Odds

Chapter L

The Chester Cup

Marcus Clarke

THE EVENTFUL DAY dawned at last. Heavy with clouds and fierce with raging wind. The good people of Chester, who had looked forward to the Cup day with immense delight for the last six months, grumbled as they drew aside their curtains and saw what a raw cold day it was. Many of them—honest burghers and what not—had not gone on the first day, preferring to wait for the great event of the year, and these were proportionately disgusted. The racing and betting fraternity established in various inns about the city, set to work doggedly hedging against the favourite, and by eleven o’clock, Automaton had nearly advanced to par. There was a gleam of bright sunshine about noon which deceived many, and carriages began to be seen here and there, and many a sober burgher yielded to his daughter’s prayer, and took his chance of a ducking. The trains poured in their crowds of eager turfites. From London, Manchester, Birmingham, they thronged to the old grey city.

In Manchester and Liverpool the sun was shining brilliantly, and many hard, blunt, money-making faces grew harder and more coarse as they were protruded from the windows of the “1.50 down,” or the “12.30 up.” The wild hosts of the Ring, the Pariahs of London Arabia, poured into the town. Wonderfully waistcoated, ravishingly ringed, with beribbanded hats, with wild expanses of shirt-front, and stupendous exaggerations of fashionable attire, the billiard-markers, the Jew speculators, the ‘fast’ blackguards, the swell-mobsmen, the card-sharpers and skittle-players, spread themselves out over the course.

Sporting Jewry—puffy-lipped, fat-eyed, greasy, and infamous—betted, and shrieked, and cursed, and was alternately coarsely impudent and disgustingly subservient, now licking the mud off the boots of a lord, and now shaking a dirty fist in the face of some broken down “stag,” as is the fashion of that particular class of Hebrew. From north, south, east and west, the land sent forth her spies. Few dainty women, fewer resplendent parties of giggling girls and pleasure-seekers. This was a matter of business, a matter of trial, a matter of serious earnest. The bookmakers, clean-shaven and silent, bearded and garrulous, short and fat, tall and thin, in wide-awakes and bell-toppers, broad brims and narrow brims, with veils and without veils, all looked upon the coming race as a serious and awful circumstance. It would decide in a great measure the probable issue of the next Derby, and it behoved them to be careful and attentive.

All the sporting world was at Chester, but its wife was for the most part at home. The wives and daughters of Chesterian magnates in the grand stand! the wives and daughters of Chesterian burghers on the Castle-hill! the wives and daughters of Chesterian lower orders scattered about promiscuously! but few absolute strangers. Sporting nobility in great force. Sporting nobility of all species, from the Marquis of Croxton, pale, upright, grey-whiskered, and gentlemanlike, down to the young Earl of Sydenham, beardless, blue-eyed, and baby-faced, who taps his retreating chin incessantly with the silver ferule of his riding-cane, and cannot spell, and was at Oxford, and is “on the Turf,” spending his fortune as hard as he can in the company of legs, and lorettes, and fighting-men, and bullies, and swindlers, and birds of prey of all sorts. His mother, Lady Croydon, who is the leader of the Low Church Party, refuses to let him enter her doors—and his uncle, the Bishop of Blunderbury, says he is a “brand,” and will not hear his name mentioned in his presence.

The stand is crowded with half the blue blood in England. Presently, the rain begins to sprinkle again, and coat-collars are turned up, and at last it comes down finely, but steadily; and Automaton goes up to par in less than ten minutes. Sporting nobility defies rain, and walks about calmly; and Royalty, in a white mackintosh, and smoking a cigar, walks about also.

The saddling-bell has rung, and the horses take preliminary leg-stretchers through the drizzle.

“There goes Fly-by-night!” cries Miniver.

“Too light for this weather—ground like a ploughed field,” groans Fitz-Frederick.

“What about Automaton?” says Figleaf, emitting a volume of smoke,—as the raking chestnut, reaching madly at his bit, cantered down in the wake of the Favourite.

“Do you stand to win on him?” asked the other.

“About even, in any case,” says the cautious nouveau riche.

“Where’s Calverly’s horse?” asked Welterwate, with his glass at his eyes. “He is a big brute—he ought to stick through the mud.”

“Don’t see him,” says Miniver, looking round. “Oh yes—here he comes!”

Jemmy Seabright walked Lord Lundyfoot’s destroyer slowly up the course, Bob and the Major standing watching, regardless of the fast falling rain.

As the horse broke into his swinging canter, and Ponsonby marked his easy stride, and watched the play of his powerful limbs, his heart rose, and he struck the young Australian on the shoulder.

“I wouldn’t lay long odds against him now!” he said.

“Come on the stand!” says Bob, nervously; “they will start in a minute.” Some delay; some flag-waving, and shifting of colours; then a shout, and then a momentary hush, with the voices of confident bookmakers down in the ring heard distinctly.

They’re off!

Tambourine leads, with Automaton and Andromeda close behind. The savage chestnut bores to the front; Andromeda changes her leg, and Sanderson (Karateff’s jockey) drives Lemon-peel level with her in an instant. Penelope, a vicious light-weighted filly, is leading the field; but the pace is too good, and in five strides the crimson colours of the Favourite slide out of the ruck, and a savage roar goes up from the Ring. Tambourine is shutting up at every stride; Automaton goes past him like a thunderbolt, with Lemon-peel hard on his quarter. The ruck lengthens out; and Bob’s heart gives a great jump as he sees the paleblue jacket of Jemmy Seabright emerge out of the mass of colour.

The ground is beginning to tell. Careful Beresford eases the chestnut; but confident in the Barberini blood, Beamish forces Fly-by-night past Lemon-peel, and pushes for the lead. Tambourine falls away hopelessly; Penelope is going lame. The Cardinal sweeps past them both in three tremendous strides. Little Jemmy sets his teeth, and draws a long breath, as he sees Andromeda fade away on his left, and feels the black and orange back of Sanderson coming nearer and nearer.

“I say, Welter,” says Berry, dropping his glass, “isn’t that Bob’s horse?”

“He’s forcing the running awfully,” says Welter. “He can never stay at that pace.”

But the Beeswing blood was not given to shirking, and the son of Manxman and Grand-Duchesse never shortened his stride for an instant. Fly-by-night labours, and Automaton creeps up again.

“Curse the rain!” cries Windermere, between his set teeth.

Cynical Raikesmere, at his elbow, laughs grimly. “You breed ’em too light,” he says,—“like every thing else now-a-days!”

The Cardinal is neck and neck with Lemon-peel. Sanderson lifts his arm once, twice, thrice; but the ground is softer than ever, and the big brown horse leaves poor Karateff’s colt a length behind.

Mr. Ryle in the top of the stand smiles contentedly, and Mikhailoffsky rises fifty per cent. in the estimation of the Croesus of Israel.

“He’s gaining, Jack—he’s gaining!” says Bob in a nervous whisper.

Round the level sweep they come, mud flying in sullen black showers.

“Automaton wins!—Automaton!—I’ll lay agin Fly-by-night!—Automaton!—Automaton!”

Little Figleaf jumped up in his excitement.—He was going to win a ‘pot’ after all!

Jemmy Seabright drives in his spurs, and the brave old Beeswing blood reddens his boot-heels.

There is a roar from the Ring! Automaton twenty strides from the winning-post slackens his pace, and the crimson jacket is level once more; but, hard behind, a tower of strength, his mighty chest blackened by the mud from the heels of the Favourite, thunders the despised Cardinal.

The Major bit his lips till the blood started.

“What’s that horse?—Blue jacket!—Blue jacket!—Automaton wins!— No!—No!—Fly-by-night!—Fly-by-night! Fifty to one!—Sixty to one! The blue jacket has it!—The blue jacket!—The Cardinal!—The Cardinal!—H-a-a-a-a-ah!—S-s-s-s-s-sh—Fly-by-Night!—Automaton!—The Cardinal!—The Cardinal!”

Neck-and-neck. Whips cracking like pistol shots. The lean head of the Favourite, with nostrils wide and quivering, passes Beresford’s elbow. An effort—another—shouting—yelling—grassland slipping away under the feet, like a dirty green riband—all the faces spinning round in one blurred white mass. The Favourite drops behind; and then Beresford flings back a cautious glance. A broad muzzle—a savage white-rimmed eye, and then a big brown neck, gliding past him, with Jemmy Seabright’s little white face above it. His whip rises and falls; he feels Automaton’s convulsive leaps; he hears dimly the savage shouts of the crowd; two more strides and all will be over!—the brown neck seems stationary—the winning-post flashes white on his left!

“Automaton wins! No—the Cardinal! The Cardinal! THE CARDINAL!”

“Snatched out of the fire, by G—d!” cries the Major, striking his gloved hand on the wooden rail in front of him; and Bob Calverly, dizzy, sick, and trembling with excitement, turned round to the crowd of enthusiastic faces, heard the running fire of congratulations that met him on all sides, and awoke to the consciousness that he had won the biggest stake he had ever played for, and banished his monetary troubles at once and for ever.

Yes—thanks to Jemmy Seabright’s riding, the heavy ground, and what not—the despised Cardinal, plastered with mud, reeking with sweat, bloody with spurring, won by a neck; Automaton second; the Favourite a good third; and poor Karateff’s four-year-old nowhere.

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter LI - The Other End of the Chain

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