Chapter XVII

Violetta takes Lord Verschoyle in Hand

Peter Gumley’s face changed. He did not know whether he was sorry or pleased to see the mistress of the Owl’s Nest. Anyhow, her arrival gave him a chance to leave his lordship for a brief space and enable him to chew the cud of his reflections.

So with an apology to Lord Verschoyle, he hastened to meet Violetta knowing that if he stayed to talk over the point in dispute with his lordship a quarrel might end the business.

“I’m glad to see you, Miss Violetta,” said Gumley, touching his hat. “But you ought to ha’ been here ten minutes ago an’ you’d ha’ seen a trial of the pick of Lord Verschoyle’s stables.”

“I did see it. Mrs. Gumley and I watched the spin from the dairy window. Tell me”​—​she went on a little excitedly​—​“who was up on the grey? Mrs. Gumley said she was sure it was Tim Hollis, but I could hardly believe it after what you said about him.”

“Well, it was the young rascal.”

“Then you’ve made it up with the boy.”

“Oh, I don’t bear no malice. Maybe I was a bit hasty, an’ p’raps I forgot I’d been a boy meself an’ sometimes kicked over the traces.”

“I’ll be bound you did, Peter,” said Violetta beamingly. “Anyhow, I’m glad you’ve taken Tim into favour again. He’s certain to do great things for you sooner or later.”

“So Lord Verschoyle says.”

“Is that Lord Verschoyle?”

Violetta’s eyes wandered in the direction of the well set up soldierly man who was pacing slowly up and down, now and again tapping his riding boot with his whip as though the action helped him to settle some doubt in his mind.

“Yes, that’s his lordship. He’s a real gentleman, but he’s got a bit of a temper.”

“A man’s none the worse for that.”

“May be not, but there’s tempers and tempers. My lord’s temper won’t let him listen to reason. That’s where he makes a mistake.”

Violetta laughed.

“What’s amusin’ you, Miss?”

“Why, my dear man, all tempers are like that. You must give them time to simmer down.”

“There’s a lot of sense in what you say, Miss Violetta,” returned Gumley, scratching his head. “I’ll go bail you could soothe a man’s temper as well as you can soothe a horse’s. Now if you’d only take Lord Verschoyle in hand——”

“Good Heavens, Peter, you don’t want me to whisper in the man’s ear, and stroke his neck,” broke in Violetta with another burst of merriment.

“No, not quite that​—​though I’ll bet that ’ud put him in a good humour in two twos. It would me,” and Peter’s eyes twinkled.

“I dare say, but it would put Mrs. Gumley into a bad one. But what is it you want​—​I mean about Lord Verschoyle?”

“It’s just this. His lordship, a little time ago, had a bit of a row with Tom Allworth, and Tom swore he’d never put his legs across one of the Verschoyle string again.”

“Did Tom say that to Lord Verschoyle?”

“No. He said it to Gleeson, Lord Verschoyle’s stud groom, and of course the blundering blockhead carried Tom’s words to his master. That’s how mischief’s made​—​people’s stupid tongues. It put his lordship’s back up and he now swears he won’t have Tom ride Killarney. All I’ve got to say is that if he doesn’t go back on his word, he’ll come a cropper. Killarney, bar accidents, can’t win if Quicksand runs his best.”

“And will he?”

“Well, I’m going to put Tim up, and you saw how the boy handled the grey.”

“Yes, but why doesn’t Lord Verschoyle back Quicksand?”

“He will to a certain extent, but he’s too deep in with Killarney to make anything. If he gets his money back supposing Quicksand wins, it’ll be as much as he will, and he’d rather the chestnut won, even though he didn’t clear a penny.”

“I understand. I might feel that way myself over Belphegor.”

“Belphegor​—​h’m.”

An uneasy look crept over the trainer’s face.

“Well, what about Belphegor?”

“It’s the deuce of a bit of bad luck that the brute should be in the paddock when Lord Verschoyle and Gleeson came. Gleeson’s bound to spot him.”

“What of that? No one knows that you sold him to me, and that he’s been at the Owl’s Nest until a week or so since.”

“No one know? Parsons knew. He saw you work your magic on the horse, and he was in the stables when you rode him away.”

“Yes, but he doesn’t know that Belphegor’s mine.”

“No, he doesn’t know that. No one does.”

“Well, why shouldn’t I have taken the horse to the Owl’s Nest to complete the training process. I’ve returned him to you now that I’m satisfied. Can’t you see how it works out?”

“Yes​—​but​—​well nothing can be done. Belphegor’s entered for the Derby, and I want him to win for your sake. I know and you know what he can do, but no one else must, or our pitch’ll be queered​—​I mean so far as our bets are concerned.”

“I thought you never betted, Peter.”

“I’m going to break my rule. I’m in with you Miss, you know. But I must get back to his lordship. I can see he’s fidgeting. Do come with me, Miss Violetta, and put in a word for Tom Allworth.”

“All right. But we must be artful. His lordship may bolt when the subject’s introduced.”

“Not with you, Miss, a guiding him.”

“Well, we’ll see.”

And the two marched across the paddock to where his lordship was impatiently awaiting them.

“Confound it, Gumley, I was beginning to think you’d——”

And then his eyes fell on Violetta’s winsome face, and he came at once under the spell of her smile. He raised his hat.

“I excuse you, Gumley. You had every reason for delaying.”

He fixed his eyes upon Violetta and his features relaxed pleasantly.

“A neighbour of yours, my lord,” said Peter. “Miss Violetta Vaughan of the Owl’s Nest.”

“I congratulate myself on my good luck,” said Lord Verschoyle, and he held out his hand, which Violetta took.

“Miss Vaughan is one of the best judges of a horse that I know,” went on the trainer. “She saw the trial spin just now and she’ll give you her opinion.”

“If you care to have it,” said Violetta frankly.

“Care? of course I care. I’d sooner have a woman’s opinion than a man’s on anything in this world. It’s marvellous, Miss Vaughan, how keen your sex is in going straight to the point.”

“Not always,” laughed Violetta. “When the matter concerns us personally, we are frightfully biassed.”

“Well, in this case, I hope you’ll be impartial.”

“I’ll try to be. What would you like me to say?”

“My dear young lady, is that your idea of impartiality? Gad, it isn’t what I like, but what you like. Don’t be afraid to say what’s in your mind. You saw how the grey, which was supposed to be an inferior horse to the chestnut, turned out the faster.”

“Yes, I saw that, yet I should think with proper riding the chestnut should have won.”

“There, my lord, what did I tell you?” said Gumley turning to the nobleman.

“Oh, I know,” said Verschoyle playfully. “When you experts agree, your unanimity, like that of people on the stage, is wonderful. But your reasons, please.”

“No, you must accept my judgment if you accept anything. If I gave you my reasons, they might be worthless.”

“Well, anyhow, I suppose I may take it that with such jockeying as to-day, Killarney wouldn’t pull off the Two Thousand.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t, especially if Tom Allworth had a good mount against him. I’m told that Tom is considering an offer.”

“The devil he is. Did you know that Peter?”

“I’ve heard something of the kind,” said the trainer stolidly. “What I do know is that he’s not fixed up.”

“I’d give anything to see Tom Allworth on that lovely chestnut. What did you say his name was, Lord Verschoyle?”

“Killarney.”

“That settles it. He must belong to dear old Ireland​—​like myself. My mother was Irish.”

“She must have been a very beautiful woman.”

“If you talk like that, Lord Verschoyle, I shall believe that you also have Irish blood in you. You have quite the Blarney touch,” said Violetta saucily.

“Have I? It must have come on since I’ve been talking to you.”

Peter Gumley chuckled to himself.

“Wheedled him into a good humour,” he muttered. “I knew she would.”

“Well, we needn’t discuss Ireland. It’s a forbidden subject to most English people. The point is Tom Allworth and Killarney. Who are you putting on my dear Irish horse?”

“Well, we’ve not decided.”

“Oh, that’s splendid,” exclaimed Violetta clapping her hands. “Then you must engage Tom Allworth. It would be a real treat to see him romp in a couple of lengths ahead.”

“H’m​—​h’m​—​”

“What does that mean?” asked Violetta with a mocking smile. “I take back what I said just now about your lordship’s possible Irish origin. I believe you’re from north of the Tweed. H’m​—​h’m​—​is Scottish for everything, isn’t it?”

“You’re a witch, Miss Vaughan. My grandmother was Scottish. So you’d like to see Tom Allworth in Killarney’s saddle?”

“I should love it.”

“Then by jove you shall. Peter, Miss Vaughan’s talked me over. I can’t resist her. See Tom and make the best arrangements you can with him.”

Then wheeling round to Violetta, he said with an air of gallantry, which sat well upon him, after a rapid glance at her semi-masculine riding costume, and at the whip in her hand.

“I see you have ridden here. May I have the honour of escorting you part of the way to the Owl’s Nest​—​that is if you’re going there?”

“Yes. Thank you very much.”

Lord Verschoyle liked the simplicity and directness of her manner. There was nothing of the coy maiden about her, and he wondered what her age was.

“She doesn’t look a day older than twenty-one. But hang it, who can tell what a woman’s age is nowadays,” was his thought.

He admired also the frank way with which she accepted his assistance to mount her pony, though he was quite sure she did not need it.

Soon they were side by side, Violetta considerately walking her pony. She was rather taken by the bluff, stand-no-nonsense manner of the military nobleman, and she had not the slightest objection to a chat with him. It was so long since she had talked to a gentleman, and she knew one when she saw one​—​no woman better.

“That’s a pretty pony of yours. Nice easy action. And if I may make so personal a remark you sit your saddle to perfection. I don’t mean to compliment you​—​it’s a simple fact.”

“I suppose it is as I’ve been told the same thing before. But its nothing extraordinary seeing I’ve been accustomed to riding ever since I can remember anything.”

“The deuce you have. Well I envy you. I don’t think I straddled a horse before I left Eton. Ever hunt?”

“Yes, a little.”

“In this part of the country?”

Violetta paused for a moment. She wondered if it would be prudent to mention that she had ridden with Sir John Norman’s hounds. She decided she would keep silence.

“I can’t quite remember. I hunted a little in France.”

“Ah, that’s interesting. A bit of difference, I guess, between French and English hunting.”

Violetta admitted that there was, and as soon as possible changed the subject in which she was assisted by a fit of playful rebellion on the part of Bruce, her pony.

Bruce was more than usually restive. He reared, he threw back his head with an impatient jerk, he moved when he so condescended, at awkward angles, he went through a performance as if he was treading on hot plates.

Lord Verschoyle was at first prompted to go to her assistance, but he saw that the young horsewoman was perfectly cool and collected, and he contented himself with watching her. Soon she had the pony quite gentle and subdued. She had never once lost her control over him.

“By jove,” called out his lordship, “you know something. Bravo! And you never once used the whip.”

“I never do, I don’t believe in it”

“Well, you may be right, but​—​well that isn’t my way with a stubborn and tricky brute like that.”

“You’re not stubborn and you’re not tricky are you, dear?”

She bent on Bruce’s neck and stroked his mane.

“Well, if he isn’t, he’s uncommonly near being both. Take care he doesn’t get you unawares some day and throw you.”

“I’m not a bit afraid of that. He’s really only got one real fault.”

“Oh, you admit that, do you? And what may that fault be?”

“Well, he has an unpleasant habit of stopping at every public house he comes to,” said Violetta gravely.

Lord Verschoyle burst into a Homeric fit of laughter.

“Of course. Its a sign of his intelligence,” she went on gravely.

“How’s that?”

“Well, you see, his last owner was a butcher, and I suspect the butcher’s man got him into the habit. As I don’t happen to be in the butchering trade, the habit’s somewhat embarrassing, but I hope to cure him of it.”

“And I don’t doubt you’ll succeed. I don’t mind betting a ‘monkey’ that you’d succeed in anything you’d a mind to.”

“Well, I should try, of course.”

Once more the horses were walking quietly enough, and the talk and interchange of rallies went on gaily.

Then they came to the steep path leading up to the Owl’s Nest.

“I’ll bid you good day here, please,” said Violetta.

“Mayn’t I come up the hill with you?”

“No. Your horse isn’t used to it, and my pony is. Besides, I’ve taken you a sufficient distance out of your way.”

“That doesn’t matter a bit. I’d ride any number of miles for the sake of your company.”

“I’m not going to test your endurance. I should bore you to death.”

“By the lord——”

The nobleman stopped. Some foolishness was on the tip of his tongue. Though he had escaped the chains of matrimony, he had had his love affairs, serious and flimsy, and though arrived at middle age, he was not averse to a flirtation.

Possibly Violetta read his thoughts. She shot him an enigmatical smile and set her pony at a canter up the ascent.

“Would it be a liberty if some day I called at the Owl’s Nest?” he shouted after her.

She turned her head towards him, but whether she shook it or nodded he could not quite determine. At any rate, she gave him no answer.

“Provoking, bewitching hussy,” was his lordship’s comment as he rode away.