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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Steeple-Chase
By Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée) (1839–1908)
 
From ‘Under Two Flags’

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 sang froid of a superb gentleman, amid the clamor raging round him, one delicate ear laid back now and then, 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.  1
  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 him, 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 in 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 to anything. 1 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 Grays, and to be ridden by his owner,—a handsome flea-bitten gray sixteen-hander, with ragged hips, and action that looked a trifle stringhalty, 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.  2
  Thirty-two starters were hoisted up on the telegraph board, and as the field got at last under way, 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 the 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 of the field. The Household is usually safe to win the suffrages of the sex.  3
  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 fat legs, bless him! than in all the round thick mile-posts of your half-breeds, 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.  4
  The thoroughbreds pulled and fretted and swerved in their impatience; one or two over-contumacious 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.  5
  All eyes were on that throng of the first mounts in the Service; brilliant glances by the hundred gleamed down behind hot-house 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 mourned mournfully to his cheroot, “That chestnut’s no end fit,” strong as his faith was in the champion of the Brigades.  6
  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.  7
  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 grass-land 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.  8
  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 done up by the terrible work on the clods.  9
  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 each other.  10
  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!"  11
  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.  12
  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 men. 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.  13
  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 in 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.  14
  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 dark line, shimmering there in the sunlight,—the test that all must pass who go in for the Soldiers’ Blue Ribbon. Forest King scented the 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.  15
  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 hind quarters in the water, and his back 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.  16
  Not knowing or looking or heeding what happened behind, the trio tore on over the meadow and the plowed land; 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,” “Violet’s passed him,” “Scarlet recovers,” “Scarlet beats,” “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!”  17
  Were they?  18
  As the shout rose, Cecil’s left stirrup-leather snapped and gave way; at the pace they were going, most men, ay, 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 changed. 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 grass-lands 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 blasts 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 closer 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.  19
  For that instant’s pause, when the stirrup broke, threatened to lose him the race.  20
  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!  21
  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. “O 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!”  22
  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 further yet with lightning spontaneity, every fibre 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-to-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.  23
  Louder and wilder the shrieked tumult rose: “The chestnut beats!” “The gray beats!” “Scarlet’s ahead!” “Bay Regent’s caught him!” “Violet’s winning, Violet’s winning!” “The King’s neck by neck!” “The King’s beating!” “The Guards will get it!” “The Guards’ crack has it!” “Not yet, not yet!” “Violet will thrash him at the jump!” “Now for it!” “The Guards, the Guards, the Guards!” “Scarlet will win!” “The King has the finish!” “No, no, no, no!”  24
  Sent along at a pace that Epsom flat never eclipsed, sweeping by the Grand Stand like the flash of electric flame, they ran side to side one moment more, their foam flung on each other’s withers, their breath hot in each other’s nostrils, while the dark earth flew beneath their stride. The blackthorn was in front, behind five bars of solid oak, the water yawning on its further side, black and deep, and fenced, twelve feet wide if it was an inch, with the same thorn wall beyond it; a leap no horse should have been given, no Steward should have set. Cecil pressed his knees closer and closer, and worked the gallant hero for the test; the surging roar of the throng, though so close, was dull on his ear; he heard nothing, knew nothing, saw nothing but that lean chestnut head beside him, the dull thud on the turf of the flying gallop, and the black wall that reared in his face. Forest King had done so much, could he have stay and strength for this?  25
  Cecil’s hands clinched unconsciously on the bridle, and his face was very pale—pale with excitation—as his foot, where the stirrup was broken, crushed closer and harder against the gray’s flanks.  26
  “O my darling, my beauty—now!”  27
  One touch of the spur—the first—and Forest King rose at the leap, all the life and power there were in him gathered for one superhuman and crowning effort: a flash of time not half a second in duration, and he was lifted in the air higher, and higher, and higher, in the cold, fresh, wild winter wind; stakes and rails, and thorn and water, lay beneath him black and gaunt and shapeless, yawning like a grave; one bound even in mid-air, one last convulsive impulse of the gathered limbs, and Forest King was over!  28
  And as he galloped up the straight run-in, he was alone.  29
  Bay Regent had refused the leap.  30
  As the gray swept to the judge’s chair, the air was rent with deafening cheers that seemed to reel like drunken shouts from the multitude. “The Guards win, the Guards win!” and when his rider pulled up at the distance, with the full sun shining on the scarlet and white, with the gold glisten of the embroidered “Cœur Vaillant se fait Royaume,” Forest King stood in all his glory, winner of the Soldiers’ Blue Ribbon, by a feat without its parallel in all the annals of the Gold Vase.  31
  But as the crowd surged about him, and the mad cheering crowned his victory, and the Household in the splendor of their triumph and the fullness of their gratitude rushed from the drags and the stands to cluster to his saddle, Bertie looked as serenely and listlessly nonchalant as of old, while he nodded to the Seraph with a gentle smile.  32
  “Rather a close finish, eh? Have you any Moselle Cup going there? I’m a little thirsty.”  33
  Outsiders would much sooner have thought him defeated than triumphant; no one who had not known him could possibly have imagined that he had been successful; an ordinary spectator would have concluded that, judging by the resigned weariness of his features, he had won the race greatly against his own will, and to his own infinite ennui. No one could have dreamed that he was thinking in his heart of hearts how passionately he loved the gallant beast that had been victor with him, and that if he had followed out the momentary impulse in him, he could have put his arms round the noble-bowed neck and kissed the horse like a woman!  34
 
Note 1. 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 eat her corn and tares afterward as if nothing happened. She is six years old. [back]
 
 
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