Chapter IV

On the A.P. Course

It took Violetta quite a day to get over the unlucky encounter at the Café Nice. “Gentleman George” was about the last man she wanted to see. She disliked the man in the old days, she positively hated him now. She remembered him as one of the most objectionable of the crowd known as “The Boys.” His manner was presumptuous and he had a tendency to patronise her which always roused her wrath. She had snubbed him as she had never snubbed the rest who were vulgar and were rude because they were ignorant. But George Godfree knew better or ought to have known better.

She was intensely angry with herself that she had yielded to an impulse to go to the Café Nice just because she had known it. She might just as well have selected another.

The episode of Gentleman George had upset her more than she would have thought possible. She wanted to forget her father’s club, its habituées and all that belonged to it, yet her very first day in London had brought it all back as though it were but yesterday!

But had Violetta thought for a moment she must have realised that her recollections of the turf would be revived if she were to carry out the plans which were floating in her mind. Though fortunes had been lost at horse racing, fortunes had, on the other hand, been won. It was the cool, level-headed bookmaker who was most successful. She did not suppose she would ever earn the title of a lady “leviathan” of the turf, but there was something very fascinating in the idea. Anyhow, whatever might be the outcome of her efforts, capital must be the starting point. She had some £200. It might be increased if she were lucky.

That was the crux of the whole matter​—​luck. Judgment, experience, could do much, but after all the winning of a race depended upon a score of little things impossible to be foreseen. “Dead certs” had times out of number proved illusory. “Dark horses” had always had a chance in the gamble, and anybody who went in for betting must be prepared to take a risk. Calculations and “systems” were not to be depended upon. Even skilful “hedging” sometimes broke down.

Violetta had seen so much of the vicissitudes of racing that she had come to regard luck as the most potent factor. And this opinion had been backed up by her experience at Monte Carlo and by her ventures when she was the “cantineer” of her father’s sporting club. But she had never had a free hand. Her father disliked her backing horses and as for making a “book” he would not hear of it.

The question of luck closely concerned her. She often wondered whether there was a mystic influence behind which determined its goodness or badness as applied to the person affected. Her strange power at Monte Carlo puzzled her as much as it impressed those who witnessed it. If she could be so successful as mascotte at rouge et noir, why not at racing? She did not think it would work out the same way, for the reason she had given the man who had halved his winnings with her, but as she had never tested the thing who could say?

“It’s all nonsense,” she at last exclaimed impatiently. “I’d better come down from the clouds and fix myself on something practical.”

Violetta had arrived in London on the Saturday after Good Friday, too late to think about the Kempton Park Spring meeting, which on Easter Monday opened the racing season. The next fixture was Alexandra Park, four days later. She was rather inclined towards the minor races. There was less chance of horses being scratched.

As she sauntered from Piccadilly Circus to Arundel Street, where her hotel was, she purchased all the sporting papers she was able to procure, and even invested a few shillings in the “special” tips sent out by the “prophets.” It wasn’t that she believed in the prophets but she liked to compare the various selections. Then she retired to her bedroom and studied the list of entries and the predictions.

“I hardly know one of the horses,” she muttered. “I haven’t followed English racing since poor dad’s death. I guess I’ll have to go to school again.”

But the names of some of the jockeys and of the owners were familiar, and so also were the pedigrees of a few of the horses, and she turned to the latest bettings. Prince Edward, the favourite, was evidently looked upon as a safe winner, the odds, 3 to 2, were so short. The majority of the prophets gave “Prince Edward,” and she found that he had advanced rapidly in favour, as in a trial with a stable companion, supposed to be a faster animal, he had beaten the latter by a couple of lengths. But at 3 to 2, he was not worth backing.

Nor was the second favourite “Marcus” a much better spec. Of the outsiders she rather fancied “Daughter of the Mist” chiefly because the filly was one of the progeny of the famous “Stockwell.” But only one of the papers mentioned her. She was quite ignored by all the professional tipsters. Another horse, “Belphegor,” was spoken well of if he could be depended upon, but he had the reputation of being most uncertain in his temper. The odds on “Daughter of the Mist” were quoted at 30 to 1, and “Belphegor” at 10 to 1.

Violetta determined not to make a leap in the dark but to wait until she was on the course and had the opportunity of seeing the animals, and she consumed her soul in patience until the day of the fixture.

A thunderstorm​—​an unusual thing at Easter time​—​broke over London the morning of the race day. This, with the clayey, heavy soil of the A. P. course would make the running a little difficult. It was on the cards that a slow horse, if a stayer, would have a good chance.

“I was right in waiting till I saw the horses,” thought Violetta.

She mingled with the crowd that hurried from the train, and plodded through the yellow mud churned up to the consistency of thick cream to the entrance. Outside was the usual gathering of peripatetic vendors of refreshments. Small “bookies,” itinerant tipsters, touts and what not gathered round the stewed eel stalls and swallowed the steaming dainty with great gusto. The fondness of horsey men for stewed eels has yet to be explained. There is always a big demand outside Aldridges on the occasion of a horse sale, and the consumers are just as avid for the delicacy as they are on a race day. Maybe it gives a greater relish to the beer which follows​—​when it can be got. Jellied eels, Violetta noticed, on this particular morning were slow of sale, and cold fried fish an absolute drug in the market. Possibly the keen air of the Northern Heights following the storm made the hot fish stew more comforting.

Violetta paid the entrance money and passed through the turnstile. The mud of the road leading to the course was worse than that of the public thoroughfares. It was glutinous in some parts, slushy in others, but no one cared. The string of motor cars was never ending, and did their best to distribute the yellow sticky mixture over the foot passengers. In these days of short skirts the women were much better off than in Victorian times, and Violetta trudged along not much the worse save for the mud on her boots and gaiters.

A man came up to her selling racing cards. She bought one and glanced at the vendor. He was a red-nosed, watery-eyed, loose lipped individual of middle age, shabbily dressed but with something about his manner which did not suggest the ordinary turf hanger-on.

“Isn’t your name Alf Bartlett? It was ‘Doctor’ some four years ago, if I remember rightly,” said Violetta.

“Alf Bartlett it is. Not much of the ‘Doctor’ about me left, I reckon. I seem to know you.” He stared at her fixedly. “By the lord! Miss Vaughan!” he exclaimed. “And you’re not too proud to speak to me?”

“Why should I be?”

“Because I’m right down on the bedrock. You can see it for yourself.”

Violetta remembered Alf Bartlett as one of the smartest of the club members. He had been educated for a doctor, had walked the hospitals, gained his diploma, but had never practised. Coming into some money had been his ruin. He had taken to betting, and when he had run through his little fortune, he took to drinking.

“I’m sorry,” said she. “Why don’t you try to pull yourself round? You’re not old, you know.”

“Too old to alter. May I hope that things have gone well with you? You look as if they had.”

“As well as I deserve, I suppose. Anyhow, well enough for this​—​if it’s any good to you.”

She had drawn out a ten shilling note and pressed it upon him.

“I don’t like taking it,” said he brokenly. “I guess it’ll go where the rest went.”

“I hope you won’t be such a fool. Better put it on a horse than down your throat.”

The man’s dull bleary eyes flashed momentarily.

“You’re right, Miss Vaughan. You used to be a witch at spotting a winner. Do you know anything?”

“No. I’m an outsider just for the moment. I rather fancy ‘Daughter of the Mist’ for the Welter Handicap, but I’ve nothing on.”

“None of the tipsters give her as any class.”

“Oh, it’s only a sporting chance. At 30 to 1 there’s not much one need risk. The running’ll be heavy after the rain. That’s against her.”

“So it is, but the course is short, only five furlongs. If she gets in front at the start and can hold on to the last, she may cover the short course before the heavy horses catch her. I wouldn’t say what might happen if she had to go the long course​—​a mile and one hundred and fifty yards. What makes you fancy her?”

“She’s one of the ‘Stockwell’ blood, that’s all.”

“H’m. I thought perhaps it might have been because she’s in a way your namesake.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we used to call you the ‘Cantineer’ in the old Beak Street Club days, didn’t we? It so happens that ‘Daughter of the Mist’ was first known as ‘Cantineer.’ She won a selling race and the man who bought her changed her name.”

“Who owned her originally?”

“Sir John Norman, but she was run by a nominee, George Godfree. Maybe you remember him at the club.”

What a small world it suddenly seemed! Fate was apparently destined to run her up against Godfree. She wondered if this proximity would end here. But what about Sir John Norman? Was he also destined to play a part in her life?

“Yes,” said she, “I recollect Mr. Godfree very well. What had he to do with Sir John Norman?”

“They were close pals for a time. Sir John didn’t get any good out of Gentleman George, you may bet your life. He ought to have bought in Cantineer, but I’m told Godfree talked him out of it. Had his own game to play, I’ll swear.”

“Who bought ‘Cantineer’?”

“A chap who knows a good horse when he sees one​—​Dan Westoby. Of course, I don’t know for certain, but it’s my impression Westoby made it all right with Godfree for persuading Sir John to sell the filly.”

“How is it she’s at such long odds to-day?”

“The deuce only knows. It’s got whispered about there’s something wrong about her. All I can say is I managed to get sight of her at a trial about three weeks ago and she seemed to me as right as rain. It’s a funny thing as she should have gone back in the betting ever since.”

Violetta turned the matter over in her mind. Alf Bartlett had no object in deceiving her and she knew that he had the whole gamut of racing dodges at his finger ends.

“Look here, doctor. I’ll have a look at ‘Daughter of the Mist,’ but in any case I shall put a bit on her. I believe I’m a little superstitious. There might be something lucky in her name ‘Cantineer.’”

“Then hanged if I don’t follow your lead, Miss Vaughan. It’s your ten bob, you know. You were always lucky for other people. I’d better get on before I alter my mind. If I lose the lot I shan’t be worse off than I was. And if I win​—​well, with fifteen quid in my pocket I shall feel like a millionaire. Same time, if I was to follow my own judgment, I’d have a bit on ‘Belphegor’ in spite of his beast of a temper. Anyhow, thank you heartily.”

“I hope it’ll come off, and if it does, don’t make a fool of yourself.”

The man put out a somewhat grimy hand, and Violetta, blinding herself to its dirt, grasped it. Then the “Doctor” rushed off to invest his ten shillings and Violetta continued on her way towards the enclosure.

The crowd outside the ropes was not particularly attractive. Not many had come for the love of sport or of horses. All that was in their minds was money making. A good many were of the same type, with narrow, pallid faces, long noses, eyes devoid of expression save for a certain restless expectancy, wide thin-lipped mouths. In an odd way they were strangely suggestive of horses. Some were itinerant bookies, and in these cases their eyes were never for a moment still. They came, most of them armed with portable stands on which they placed placards with the names of the horses and their respective odds. These men bawled one against the other, but beyond this there did not seem any outward show of rivalry.

The “prophets” were of a different class. They set out to be absolutely certain of everything they asserted, but with a cunning dash of cautiousness thrown in which made their assurance more impressive. The main point, however, was to get together as large a crowd as possible to listen to their patter. One of these gentlemen started by spreading his overcoat on the grass. Then he produced with a great flourish a bundle of what purported to be five pound notes. After this came a score of golden sovereigns​—​at least they looked like sovereigns​—​and the money was solemnly counted and deposited on the overcoat.

It wasn’t quite clear what this performance had to do with prophecy, but somehow it conveyed the notion that the prophet was no hard-up catchpenny adventurer, but was a man of substance, able to pay for “correct” information and therefore likely to be “in the know.” The sight of the money and especially the jingle of the sovereigns, whetted curiosity, and never failed to make the hurrying public pause and listen.

The aim of the prophet was to appear perfectly fair and impartial. He hadn’t a word to say against the favourite. “Prince Edward” was a good horse, there wasn’t a doubt about it, but and here the prophet became very serious in tone and manner​—​“you’ve got to be vurry, vurry careful. I don’t say ‘Prince Edward’ won’t win, but there is a horse that’ll give him some trouble. I know what the stable thinks about him and I know what he’s done in his trial spins. You do as you like, but if you want a pretty safe spec. at long odds, you’ll——” At this point the patter became rather hazy, the only definite declaration being that you had but to put down half-a-crown and you would get a slip giving you the name of this dark and mysterious prodigy.

Violetta was highly interested in the man’s gab. She knew quite well that anyone with sufficient assurance could pose as a “prophet.” Stable “information” was as likely to be wrong as right. Whatever a horse might accomplish beforehand, no one could say what he would do on the day of the race. To her it was amazing how many of the crowd threw down their half-crowns and walked away hugging the little piece of paper to plank their money on the “prophet’s” tip.

She did not waste time listening to any of the other tipsters, and hurried towards the enclosure, paid the admission money, and mingled among the groups of “bookies” and backers. She wondered if among the former there were any of the old “crowd.”

She felt a slight tap on her shoulder. She turned. A stout farmer-like man, with a smile broadening his cheery face was beaming at her.