Chapter XVI

Lord Verschoyle’s “Cracks”

Ravenscroft House, the family seat of the Verschoyles, was about three miles from Holberry Down Farm. It was a big, old mansion of the Georgian period, when architects seemed to care nothing for beauty and everything for space. Ravenscroft House could not be said to be a picturesque structure. It was a somewhat squat building of two storeys, built of stone, and with an enormous frontage. Its pretensions to ornament were in the debased Italian style then affected.

Standing on a hill, this big white mansion, especially when the sun shone on it, could be seen for miles around. You caught glimpses of it between the trees in the summer, while in the winter it stood out bleak, bare, and gaunt.

While critics of to-day might denounce the taste of the age which could produce such a house, all agreed that it stood in the most charming of parks. The beeches of Ravenscroft House were landmarks, and the spot was a favourite one for picnickers when permission could be obtained​—​which wasn’t often​—​from the owner of the property.

Lord Verschoyle had the military mind and the military manner. Before he came into his title he was a captain in the Guards and had retired after some years of service. When the war broke out he joined up and went through the arduous campaign with distinction.

He was really a good sort of fellow once you got below, the crust of militaryism. He was nearer forty than thirty, and his hair and moustache, ebony black in his youth, had gone snow white. Certainly a distinguished looking man, if not blessed with superfluity of brains.

He had just got through a generous breakfast when Gleeson, his head groom, was announced. It was part of the daily routine. Gleeson had to make his appearance at nine o’clock exactly every morning to report as to the horses and dogs.

Lord Verschoyle had the same views about punctuality as had the old Duke of Wellington. It did not consist in coming five minutes before the time appointed, and certainly not five minutes later. It had to be on the tick of the clock. Gleeson, who had had experience of his lordship’s irascibility, was very careful to observe the law laid down.

“Well, Gleeson, what are we going to do over the Derby?” said his lordship, plunging at once into business.

“Well, m’lord, your lordship’s got three ’osses entered and two of ’em’s in the Two Thousand. It’s this way​—​”

“I know all about that. We needn’t go into it again,” interrupted the noble lord impatiently. “I want to know how the horses are going on and which is the best one to fancy. Have you heard anything from Peter Gumley?”

“No, sir, not since the day before yesterday. I reported yesterday what he said.”

“Well, what’s your opinion?” said the noble lord, after a pause.

“Well, m’lord, I’m rather sweet on Quicksand, but Peter fancies Killarney.”

“So do I. But there’s not much to choose between them. I wonder whether it was good policy entering Quicksand in the name of John Smith. I did it on Peter’s advice.”

“Quite right, m’lord. It’ll make a lot o’ difference in the odds. You can’t win with both.”

“I suppose not,” rejoined his lordship, with a short laugh. “But if I elect to bet on Killarney for the winner, there’s nothing to prevent me backing Quicksand both ways.”

“Nothing at all, m’lord.”

“And what about Laverock?”

“I should leave her alone. She won’t stay the Derby course.”

“Well, we’ll talk about her later on. It’s the Two Thousand we’ve got to think about. Gleeson, after lunch let us ride over to Peter Gumley’s and have a talk with him about the cracks.”

“Right, sir. What will you ride? Polly?”

“Yes, the mare suits me the best. She is the quietest nag I’ve got.”

“Very good, sir; I’ll be round with her in ten minutes.”

And in ten minutes, Gleeson, mounted on a stout cob, appeared leading a beautiful chestnut mare, which one would have said, at first sight, was scarcely up to Lord Verschoyle’s weight. It was her perfect symmetry, however, which made her deceptive. She was really a very powerful animal, and had the temper of an angel.

His lordship and the stud groom rode along without talking very much. Gleeson knew his master, and did not speak unless he was spoken to. To-day, his lordship was not in a talkative mood, and so from a conversational point of view the ride was a dull one.

At last the scattered buildings of Holberry Down Farm came in view, and the two riders must have been seen from afar off, for Mrs. Gumley met them at the garden gate.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Gumley,” said my lord. “Husband in?”

“Yes, my lord. He half expected you to-day. He’s in the paddock. Jock,” she called out to a curly-headed stable boy, who was peeping through the door leading from the garden to the stalls, “come and take these horses.”

The boy ran forward, and Lord Verschoyle and the groom dismounted.

“Will you come through the house? It’s the nearest way to the paddock.”

“Very well.”

Mrs. Gumley preceded them, and they followed her her along the passage, crossing a spacious kitchen, and, leaving a dairy of spotless appearance on the left, went through a kind of poultry-yard into the paddock beyond.

“Eh, what’s Belphegor out for?” exclaimed Gleeson. “Surely Peter’s not going to run him for the Derby?”

“Not likely, Mr. Gleeson. Peter isn’t such a fool. He knows better than run a cross-grained brute like Belphegor.”

“I know; but what’s he being trotted out this afternoon for?”

“Oh, nothing much. Only to see what a new boy can do.”

“Rather a stiff trial, isn’t it, ma’am? I mean for the boy.”

“Yes; but Peter knows best.”

“I’ll be bound he does.”

Belphegor had been back about a week. His arrival as well as the return of Tim Hollis, had been kept a profound secret. It so happened he was being exercised at the time of Lord Verschoyle’s visit, and Mrs. Gumley was a little embarrassed how to account for his appearance in the paddock.

Lord Verschoyle did not matter much. He knew very little about the horse and the little jockey, and had no curiosity concerning them. It was different, however, with Gleeson. The latter was bound to gossip about it, both in the Ravenscroft House stables and at the Barley Mow. Before long there wouldn’t be any secret about the matter.

But the thing was done, and all the trainer’s wife could do was to make the best of it. So she put on an air of indifference.

Just then Peter Gumley caught sight of his visitors and came forward to greet his lordship and the stud groom.

“Well, Gumley,” said his lordship, “and how are the youngsters going on?”

“The whole three are in prime condition, my lord. The best lot turned out from Ravenscroft House for many a long day.”

“Are you still bent upon making Killarney the Derby winner?”

“I see nothing to alter my decision. It all depends on the Two Thousand, and whether we have luck and a good jockey.”

“Ah, that’s what I want to speak to you about. Gleeson tells me you think of putting up one of the stable boys. Is that so?”

“Well, it was so, sir; but I’ve had to alter my mind since then.”

“I’m glad of it. A stable boy would never win a race like the Two Thousand, let alone the Derby.”

“I’m not so sure of that.”

“Now I should like to see those three horses of mine run, Gumley.”

“Well, sir, it isn’t the best time of the day. If I’d known you were coming, I would have had them ready. Can’t you come over to-morrow and see them do a gallop?”

“No, I can’t. I’ve come here now on purpose. It can’t make any difference to you.”

“Oh, not to me; but it makes a difference to the horses. However, sir, have your own way.”

And with a shrug of his shoulders, as much as to say “It’s no use contradicting this martinet,” Peter turned away and gave some orders to one of the lads, who forthwith disappeared.

In about twenty minutes the three shapely beauties​—​Killarney, Laverock and Quicksand​—​appeared, looking round with their big eyes, as much as to say, “What are we brought out at this time of the day for?”

Of the three, Killarney was the handsomest. He was a dark chestnut, with a broad chest and powerful thighs. He looked fit to run for a king’s ransom. Laverock was a black filly, with clean and flat forelegs, and by comparison with Killarney was almost narrow. Still, there was undeniably the look of a racer about her.

Quicksand, on the other hand, was a grey​—​a very unusual colour for a racer. He was the least attractive of the three. He was a big horse, with a somewhat lean head, and his frame a little clumsily built. In looks he could not compare with Killarney.

“Johnson, you will ride Killarney; Jock, you’re on Laverock; and who shall I put on Quicksand?”

While the trainer’s eye was wandering round, and he was debating the point within himself, his glance fell on Tim Hollis, who on Belphegor was at the far end of the paddock.

“There’s nobody else handy. It’ll be a bit of practice for the lad,” he thought.

So he sent for Tim, and after Belphegor was stabled the boy presented himself.

“I want you to have a go on the grey. Mind, now, he’s a lazy brute, but there’s plenty of speed in him if you know how to get it out,” said Gumley.

Tim looked at Quicksand, but said nothing. After a minute or two he went up to the animal, patted its neck, and talked to it, as if to introduce himself and get its good will.

The cloths were stripped off the animals, and the boys mounted and cantered across the paddock to the gate which led on to the downs.

It was a breezy April afternoon, and, on the whole, not a bad day for a spin. Peter Gumley looked a little anxiously across the Downs, as if fearing to see Barney Moss or any of his kidney about. But as far as the eye could reach there was not a soul in sight.

“There’ll be no harm done after all,” muttered the trainer. “No one would expect a trial to be made this afternoon, and so we shall be pretty safe from the attentions of the spies.”

“Well, Gleeson, what do you think now?” asked Lord Verschoyle, as they followed the horses across the paddock and criticised the action of each.

“There’s no doubt, sir, that Killarney’s a grand colt. We know what he’s made of. He’s got a splendid chance for the Two Thousand, but for all that I fancy Quicksand. Of course, everything depends upon the riding.”

“Look here, Gleeson, we must have Tom Allworth to ride him.”

“You must talk to Mr. Gumley about that, m’lord,” said the groom, with a shrug of the shoulders.

His lordship did ask Gumley.

“You seem to forget, m’lord, that you quarrelled with Allworth just before the Epsom Spring Meeting. He rode Tomtit because he was engaged to do so, but he swore he’d never ride another horse of yours, and I don’t suppose he will. Tom’s a man of his word.”

Lord Verschoyle bit his lips and said no more. He remembered the incident perfectly well. He had been in an unusually bad humour that morning, and, attempting to dictate to Tom Allworth what he should do, the distinguished jockey had virtually, if not in so many words, told him to mind his own business. Allworth went dead against his lordship’s instructions and won the race with Tomtit.

There was some little delay before Gumley got the horses off. Killarney was apparently restive, and every now and then his ears went back in a decidedly vicious fashion; but at last a good start was made, and away the three cracks went, skimming the ground like swallows, Killarney quite a length and a half in front of Laverock, Quicksand plodding away a length behind the second horse.

“Why, it’s a foregone conclusion,” exclaimed Lord Verschoyle. “Killarney’s first and the rest are nowhere.”

“Wait a minute, sir,” said the trainer gravely. “Johnson hasn’t done what I told him. He was to keep him well in hand the first half of the course. Instead of that he’s let the brute have his head. We shall see the result.”

“Eh, look there!” cried Gleeson. “Quicksand’s coming along hand over hand. He’s headed Laverock. Laverock’s beaten. See how he’s creeping up. Why, he’s close to Killarney’s heels​—​he’s up to his shoulders​—​he’s beaten him by George.”

“By a couple of lengths, too,” said the trainer, quietly.

Lord Verschoyle put down his glasses, and turned sharply round to the latter.

“What does this mean, Gumley? You led me to understand that Killarney was the best horse in the stable, and that Quicksand was simply intended to make the running, and now this horse, which was supposed to have no chance, beats its companion. How do you account for it?”

“Well, sir, horses are very like men. They can’t be the same every day of their lives. But in this case I should say it’s the riding that did it. That boy got every ounce of speed out of the grey, and he used no whip either. How he managed it I can’t think.”

The trial had upset all Lord Verschoyle’s calculations. He had backed Killarney for a large amount to win, and if the horses showed their true form that day, it looked as if he stood a good chance to lose his money. It was clear that to make himself safe he must back Quicksand. Fortunately, the grey was a very long way down in the betting, and unless the news of the running that day got wind, his owner would be able easily to hedge, and without much risk.

The horses came back at an easy walk to the paddock, and while the cloths were being put on, Gumley favoured Johnson with a jacketing for disobeying his instructions.

“I did keep him in hand, sir; but the others kept theirs in hand too.”

“If that was so, how was it that you couldn’t bring him up to the scratch when he was wanted?”

“I dunno, sir, unless he ain’t as good a horse as Quicksand, or else there was some secret in that chap’s riding. I don’t believe it was, though. It was all a fluke, after all.”

“Fluke be bothered,” exclaimed Mr. Gumley, irritably. “You thought Hollis couldn’t ride and you didn’t bother yourself.”

“I don’t suppose he can ride any better than me,” said the boy, sullenly.

Bob Johnson was ignominiously sent off with the proverbial “flea in his ear,” and Peter Gumley turned to Lord Verschoyle.

“I guess, my lord, you can see what I think by my hauling that disobedient young rascal over the coals,” said he.

“You mean that you consider Killarney the better horse.”

“I do​—​if properly mounted. He didn’t have a fair chance just now.”

“Who was up on Quicksand?”

“A boy who’s not had much experience. I wanted to see what sort of stuff he was made of. That’s why I put him on Quicksand. As a matter of fact I’d no one else available. Most of the lads get an hour or two off about this time o’ day,” returned Gumley carelessly.

“Well, Gumley, if I know anything of horses and riding I should say you’ve got a find in that youngster. If he goes on as he’s doing some day he’ll be at the top of the tree.”

“You think so, my lord?”

“Think? I’m sure of it. The way he handled Quicksand was splendid.”

“It was pretty good. I will say that; but with a better jockey on Killarney it ’ud be a different thing.”

“May be; but as matters look now, if that boy rides Quicksand in the Two Thousand as well as he did to-day, and Killarney runs no better, it will upset the apple cart. I’ve too much at stake on Killarney to afford to lose. I’ve told all my friends to back him, and they’ve done so pretty heavily. Unless there’s a change in the situation it would be better to scratch Quicksand.”

Gumley’s face fell.

“It’ll have a bad effect,” said he. “The public won’t like it.”

“What does that matter?” rejoined his lordship brusquely. “The public have never sacrificed themselves for me. Why should I sacrifice myself for the public?”

“That’s true. At the same time you can’t prevent people talking. Your lordship’s name’s A.1. Everybody knows you wouldn’t do anything that’s unsportsmanlike.”

“I don’t follow you, Gumley,” said the nobleman frowningly, and tapping his riding boot with his hunting crop.

“ Well, you know that when a horse is scratched the bookies benefit. The backers lose their money. That’s a bad start to begin with, isn’t it? But what do most of ’em​—​I mean the backers​—​say when a horse is scratched? Unless its an undoubted fact that the horse isn’t fit to run, the scratching of it’s put down to a dodge on the part of the owner or of those who are advising him. That’s the po-sition my lord.”

An uneasy look crept over Lord Verschoyle’s face. He prided himself on being the soul of honour, as indeed he was. He had always played the game, and always would.

“Hang it, Gumley,” he broke out. “I believe you’re right. Anyhow, we’ve got to guard against loss in the event of Quicksand winning. What do you advise? Back it both ways?”

“That’s the best thing. It’s a dead cert that unless Tom Allworth rides Killarney——”

“I won’t have Tom Allworth,” interposed his lordship angrily.

Peter Gumley shrugged his shoulders and pursed up his mouth as much as to say, “Then you must go to the devil your own way, my lord.”

“Isn’t there any other jockey you can put up?”

“No one that I’d care to see on Killarney. All the best lads have their engagements, and they can’t break ’em. It’s a bit o’ luck that Tom Allworth’s free. But it won’t be for long, and I spoke to him yesterday about Killarney, and he’s quite willing​—​that is, if your lordship’s willing.”

“You oughtn’t to have taken the matter into your own hands. You ought to have consulted me first,” growled his lordship.

“Pardon me,” retorted the trainer bluntly. “If I’m fit to be trusted with your lordship’s horses, I’m fit to be trusted to select the lads best suited to ride ’em.”

But Lord Verschoyle would not give way, though he knew very well Peter Gumley was in the right. His lordship hated climbing down, and when he did he liked to have a good excuse for it. Quite unexpectedly the excuse was forthcoming.

At that moment the trim figure of a lady irreproachably dressed was seen coming across the paddock towards them.