Only the Mare by Alfred E. T. Watson

When one opens a suspicious-looking envelope and finds something about "Mr Shopley's respectful compliments" on the inside of the flap, the chances are that Mr Shopley is hungering for what we have Ovid's authority for terming irritamenta malorum. Not wishing to have my appetite for breakfast spoiled, I did not pursue my researches into a communication of this sort which was amongst my letters on a certain morning in November; but turned over the pile until the familiar caligraphy of Bertie Peyton caught my eye: for Bertie was Nellie's brother, and Nellie Peyton, it had been decided, would shortly cease to be Nellie Peyton; a transformation for which I was the person chiefly responsible. Bertie's communication was therefore seized with avidity. It ran as follows:—

"The Lodge, Holmesdale.

"My dear Charlie,

"I sincerely hope that you have no important engagements just at present, as I want you down here most particularly.

"You know that there was a small race-meeting at Bibury the other day. I rode over on Little Lady, and found a lot of the 14th Dragoons there; that conceited young person Blankney amongst the number. Now, although Blankley has a very considerable personal knowledge of the habits and manners of the ass, he doesn't know much about the horse; and for that reason he saw fit to read us a lecture on breeding and training, pointing his moral and adorning his tale with a reference to my mare—whose pedigree, you know, is above suspicion. After, however, he had kindly informed us what a thoroughbred horse ought to be, he looked at Little Lady and said, 'Now I shouldn't think that thing was thoroughbred!' It ended by my matching her against that great raw-boned chestnut of his: three and a half miles over the steeplechase course, to be run at the Holmesdale Meeting, on the 5th December.

"As you may guess, I didn't want to win or lose a lot of money, and when he asked what the match should be for, I suggested '£20 a-side.' 'Hardly worth while making a fuss for £20!' he said, rather sneeringly. '£120, if you like!' I answered, rather angrily, hardly meaning what I said; but he pounced on the offer. Of course I couldn't retract, and so very stupidly, I plunged deeper into the mire, and made several bets with the fellows who were round us. They laid me 3 to 1 against the mare, but I stand to lose nearly £500.

"You see now what I want. I ride quite 12 stone, as you know; the mare is to carry 11 stone, and you can just manage that nicely. I know you'll come if you can, and if you telegraph I'll meet you.

"Your's ever,

Bertie Peyton.

"P.S.—Nellie sends love, and hopes to see you soon. No one is here, but the aunt is coming shortly."

I was naturally anxious to oblige him, and luckily had nothing to keep me in town; so that afternoon saw me rapidly speeding southwards, and the evening, comfortably domiciled at The Lodge.

Bertie, who resided there with his sister, was not a rich man. £500 was a good deal more than he could afford to lose, and poor little Nellie was in a great flutter of anxiety and excitement in consequence of her brother's rashness. As for the mare, she could gallop and jump; and though we had no means of ascertaining the abilities of Blankney's chestnut, we had sufficient faith in our Little Lady to enable us to "come up to the scratch smiling;" and great hopes that we should be enabled to laugh at the result in strict accordance with the permission given in the old adage, "Let those laugh who win."

It was not very pleasant to rise at an abnormal hour every morning, and arrayed in great-coats and comforters sufficient for six people, to rush rapidly about the country; but it was necessary. I was a little too heavy, and we could not afford to throw away any weight, nor did I wish to have my saddle reduced to the size of a cheese-plate, as would have been my fate had I been unable to reduce myself. Breakfast, presided over by Nellie, compensated for all matutinal discomforts; and then she came round to the stables to give the mare an encouraging pat and a few words of advice and endearment which I verily believe the gallant little mare understood, for it rubbed its nose against her shoulder as though it would say, "Just you leave it in my hands—or, rather, to my feet—and I'll make it all right!" Then we started for our gallop, Bertie riding a steady old iron-grey hunter.

The fourth of December arrived, and the mare's condition was splendid. "As fit as a fiddle," was the verdict of Smithers, a veterinary surgeon who had done a good deal of training in his time, and who superintended our champion's preparation; and though we were ignorant of the precise degree of fitness to which fiddles usually attain, he seemed pleased, and so, consequently, were we. Unfortunately on this morning Bertie's old hunter proved to be very lame, so I was forced to take my last gallop by myself; and with visions of success on the morrow, I passed rapidly through the keen air over the now familiar way; for the course was within a couple of miles of the house, and so we had the great advantage of being able to accustom the mare to the very journey she would have to take.

Bertie was in a field at the back of the stables when I neared home again. "Come on!" he shouted, pointing to a nasty hog-backed stile, which separated us. I gave Little Lady her head, and she cantered up to it, lighting on the other side like a very bird! Bertie didn't speak as I trotted up to him, but he looked up into my face with a triumphant smile more eloquent than words.

"You've given her enough, haven't you?" he remarked, patting her neck, as I dismounted in the yard.

"You've given her enough," usually signifies "you've given her too much." But I opined not, and we walked round to the house tolerably well convinced that the approaching banking transactions would be on the right side of the book.

Despite a walk with Nellie, and the arrival of a pile of music from town, the afternoon passed rather slowly; perhaps we were too anxious to be cheerful. To make matters worse, dinner was to be postponed till past eight, for the aunt was coming, and Nellie was afraid the visitor would be offended if they did not wait for her.

"You look very bored and tired, sir!" said Nellie pouting prettily; "I believe you'd yawn if it wasn't rude!"

I assured her that I could not, under any circumstances, be guilty of such an enormity.

"It's just a quarter past seven. We'll go and meet the carriage, and then perhaps you'll be able to keep awake until dinner-time!" and so with a look of dignity which would have been very effective if the merry smile in her eyes had been less apparent, the little lady swept out of the room; to return shortly arrayed in furs, and a most coquettish-looking hat, and the smallest and neatest possible pair of boots, which in their efforts to appear strong and sturdy only made their extreme delicacy more decided.

"Come, sleepy boy!" said she, holding out a grey-gloved hand. I rose submissively, and followed her out of the snug drawing-room to the open air.

Bertie was outside, smoking.

"We are going to meet the aunt, dear," explained Nellie. "I'm afraid she'll be cross, because it's so cold."

"She's not quite so inconsequent as that, I should fancy; but it is cold, and isn't the ground hard!" I said.

"It is hard!" cried Bertie, stamping vigorously. "By Jove! I hope it's not going to freeze!" and afflicted by the notion—for a hard frost would have rendered it necessary to postpone the races—he hurried off to the stables, to consult one of the men who was weather-wise.

Some stone steps led from the terrace in front of the house to the lawn; at either end of the top-step was a large globe of stone, and on to one of these thoughtless little Nellie climbed. I stretched out my hand, fearing that the weather had made it slippery, but before I could reach her she slipped and fell.

"You rash little person!" I said, expecting that she would spring up lightly.

"Oh! my foot!" she moaned; and gave a little shriek of pain as she put it to the ground.

I took her in my arms, and summoning her maid, carried her to the drawing-room.

"Take off her boot," I said to the girl, but Nellie could not bear to have her foot touched, and feebly moaned that her arm hurt her.

"Oh! pray send for a doctor, sir!" implored the maid, while Nellie only breathed heavily, with half-closed eyes; and horribly frightened, I rushed off, hardly waiting to say a word to the poor little sufferer.

"Whatever is the matter?" Bertie cried, as I burst into the harness-room.

"Where's the doctor?" I replied, hastily. "Nellie's hurt herself—sprained her ankle, and hurt her arm—broken it, perhaps!"

"How? When?" he asked.

"There's no time to explain. She slipped down. Where's the doctor?"

"Our doctor is ill, and has no substitute. There's no one nearer than Lawson, at Oakley, and that's twelve miles, very nearly."

"Then I must ride at once," I reply.

"Saddle my horse as quickly as possible," said Bertie to the groom.

"He's lame, sir, can't move!" the man replied, and I remembered that it was so.

"Put a saddle on one of the carriage horses—anything so long as there's no delay."

"They're out, sir! Gone to the station. There's nothing in the stable—only the mare; and to gallop her to Oakley over the ground as it is to-night, will pretty well do for her chance to-morrow—to say nothing of the twelve miles back again. The carriage will be home in less than an hour, sir," the man remonstrated.

"It may be, you don't know, the trains are so horridly unpunctual. Saddle the mare, Jarvis, as quickly as you can—every minute may be of the utmost value!" As Bertie spoke the faintest look of regret showed itself on his face for a second; for of course he knew that such a journey would very materially affect, if it did not entirely destroy, the mare's chance.

Jarvis, who I think had been speculating, very reluctantly took down the saddle and bridle from their pegs, but I snatched them from his arms, and assisted by Bertie, was leading her out of the stable in a very few seconds.

"Hurry on! Never mind the mare—good thing she's in condition," said Bertie, who only thought now of his sister. "I'll go and see the girl."

"I can cut across the fields, can't I, by the cross roads?" I asked, settling in the saddle.

"No! no! Keep to the highway; it's safer at night. Go on!" I heard him call as I went at a gallop down the cruelly hard road.

The ground rang under the mare's feet, and in spite of all my anxiety for Nellie I could not help feeling one pang of regret for Little Lady, whose free, bounding action, augured well for what her chances would have been on the morrow—chances which I felt were rapidly dying out; for if this journey didn't lame her nothing would. Stones had just been put down as a matter of course; but there was no time for picking the way, and taking tight hold of her head we sped on.

About a mile from the Lodge I came to the crossroads. Before me was a long vista of stone—regular rocks, so imperfectly were they broken: to the right was the smoother and softer pathway over the fields—perfect going in comparison to the road. Just over this fence, a hedge, and with hardly another jump I should come again into the highway, saving quite two miles by the cut. Bertie had said "Don't," but probably he had spoken thoughtlessly, and it was evidently the best thing to do, for the time I saved might be of the greatest value to poor little suffering Nellie! I pulled up, and drew the mare back to the opposite hedge. She knew her work thoroughly. Three bounds took her across the road: she rose—the next moment I was on my back, shot some distance into the field, and she was struggling up from the ground. There had been a post and rail whose existence I had not suspected, placed some six feet from the hedge on the landing side. She sprang up, no legs were broken; and I, a good deal shaken and confused, rose to my feet, wondering what to do next. I had not had time to collect my thoughts when I heard the rattle of a trap on the road; it speedily approached, and the moonlight revealed the jolly features of old Tom Heathfield, a friendly farmer.

"Accident, sir?" he asked, pulling up. "What! Mr Vaughan!" as he caught sight of my face. "What's the—— why! that ain't the mare, sure-lie?"

All the neighbourhood was in a ferment of excitement about the races, and the sight of Little Lady in such a place at such a time struck horror to the honest old farmer.

"Yes, it is—I'm sorry to say. Miss Peyton has met with an accident. I was going for the doctor, and unfortunately there was nothing else in the stable."

"You was going to Oakley, I s'pose, sir? It'll be ruination to the mare. Miss Peyton hurt herself! I'll bowl over, sir; it won't take long; this little horse o' mine can trot a good 'un; and I can bring the doctor with me. The fences, there, is mended with wire. You'd cut the mare to pieces."

"I can't say how obliged to you I am——"

"Glad of the opportunity of obliging Miss Peyton, sir; she's a real lady!" He was just starting when he checked himself. "There's a little public house about a hundred yards further on; if you don't mind waiting there I'll send Smithers to look at the mare. I pass his house. All right, sir."

His rough little cob started off at a pace for which I had not given it credit; and I slowly followed, leading the mare towards the glimmering light which Heathfield had pointed out. My charge stepped out well, and I didn't think that there was anything wrong, though glad, of course, to have a professional opinion.

A man was hanging about the entrance to the public-house, and with his assistance the mare was bestowed in a kind of shed, half cow-house, half stable; and as the inside of the establishment did not look by any means inviting, I lit a cigar and lounged about outside, awaiting the advent of Smithers.

He didn't arrive; and in the course of wandering to and fro I found myself against a window. Restlessly I was just moving away when a voice inside the room repeated the name of Blankney. I started, and turning round, looked in.

It was a small apartment, with a sanded floor, and two persons were seated on chairs before the fire conversing earnestly. One of them was a middle-aged man, clad in a brown great-coat with a profusion of fur-collar and cuffs which it would scarcely be libel to term "mangy." He was the owner of an unwholesome-looking face, decorated as to the chin with a straggling crop of bristles which he would have probably termed an imperial.

"Wust year I ever 'ad!" he exclaimed (and a broken pane in the window enabled me to hear distinctly). "The Two Thousand 'orse didn't run; got in deep over the Derby; Hascot was hawful; and though I had a moral for the Leger, it went down."

His own morals, judging from his appearance and conversation, appeared to have followed the example of that for the Leger.

"I can't follow your plans about this race down here, though," said his companion, a younger man, who seemed to hold the first speaker in great awe despite his confessions of failure. "Don't you say that this young Blankney's horse can't get the distance?"

"I do. He never was much good, I 'ear; never won nothing, though he's run in two or three hurdle-races; and since Phil Kelly's been preparing of 'im for this race he's near about broke down. His legs swell up like bolsters after his gallops; and he can't get three miles at all, I don't believe, without he's pulled up and let lean agin something on the journey to rest hisself."

"And yet you're backing him?"

"And yet I'm backing of him."

"This young Peyton's mare can't be worse?" said the younger man, interrogatively.

"That mare, it's my belief, would be fancied for the Grand National if she was entered, and some of the swells saw 'er. She's a real good 'un!" replied the man with the collar.

"I see. You've got at her jockey. You're an artful one, you are."

As the jockey to whom they alluded, I was naturally much interested.

"No, I ain't done that, neither. He's a gentleman, and it's no use talkin' to such as 'im. They ain't got the sense to take up a good thing when they see it—though, for the matter o' that, most of the perfessionals is as bad as the gentlemen. All's fair in love and war," says I; "and this 'ere's war."

"Does Blankney know how bad his horse is?"

"No, bless yer! That ain't Phil Kelly's game." (Kelly was, I knew, the man who had charge of my opponent's horse.)

"Well, then, just explain, will you; for I can't see."

From the recesses of his garment the elder man pulled out a short stick about fifteen inches in length, at the end of which was a loop of string; and from another pocket he produced a small paper parcel.

"D'yer know what that is? That's a 'twitch.' D'yer know what that is? That's medicine. I love this 'ere young feller's mare so much I'm a-goin' to give it some nicey med'cine myself; and this is the right stuff. I've been up to the 'ouse to-day, and can find my way into the stable to-night when it's all quiet. Just slip this loop over 'er lip, and she'll open 'er mouth. Down goes the pill, and as it goes down the money goes into my pocket. Them officer fellers and their friends have been backing Blankney's 'orse; but Phil Kelly will take care that they hear at the last moment that he's no good. Then they'll rush to lay odds on the mare—and the mare won't win."

They laughed, and nudged each other in the side, and I felt a mighty temptation to rush into the room and nudge their heads with my fist. Little Lady's delicate lips, which Nelly had so often petted, to be desecrated by the touch of such villains as these!

While struggling to restrain myself a hand was laid on my shoulders, and, turning round, I saw Smithers. We proceeded to the stable; and I hastily recounted to him what had happened, and what I had heard, as he examined the mare by the aid of a bull's-eye lantern. He passed his hand very carefully over her, whilst I looked on with anxious eyes.

"She's knocked a bit of skin off here, you see." He pointed to a place a little below her knee, and drawing a small box from his pocket, anointed the leg. "But she's all right. All right, ain't you, old lady?" he said, patting her; and his cheerful tone convinced me that he was satisfied. "We'll lead her home. I'll go with you, sir; and it's easy to take means to prevent any games to-night."

When we reached home the doctor was there, and pronounced that, with the exception of a sprained ankle, Nelly had sustained no injury.

Rejoicing exceedingly, we proceeded to the stable; Heathfield, who heard my story, and who was delighted at the prospect of some fun, asking permission to accompany us.

"Collars" had doubtless surveyed the premises carefully, for he arrived about eleven o'clock, and clambered quietly and skilfully into the hayloft above the stable, after convincing himself that all was quiet inside. He opened the trap-door, and down came a foot and leg, feeling about to find a resting-place on the partition which divided Little Lady's loose box from the other stalls. Bertie and I took hold of the leg, and assisted him down, to his intense astonishment; while Heathfield and a groom gave chase to, and ultimately captured his friend, the watcher on the threshold.

"If I'm well enough to do anything I'm well enough to lie on the sofa; and there's really no difference between a sofa and an easy-chair—if my foot is resting—and I'm sure the carriage is easier than any chair; and it can't matter about my foot being an inch or two higher or lower—and as for shaking, that's all nonsense. It's very unkind indeed of you not to want to take me; and if you won't, directly you've gone I'll get up, and walk about, and stamp!"

Thus Nelly, in answer to advice that she should remain at home. How it ended may easily be guessed; and though we tried to be dignified, as we drove along, to punish her for her wilfulness, her pathetic little expressions of sorrow that she should "fall down, and hurt herself, and be such a trouble to everybody," and child-like assurances that she would "not do it again," soon made us smile, and forget our half-pretended displeasure. So with the aunt to take care of her, in case Bertie and I were insufficient, we reached the course.

The first three races were run and then the card said:—

3·15 Match, £120 a side, over the Steeple-chase Course, about three miles and a half.

1. Mr Blankney, 14th Dragoons, ch. h. Jibboom, 5 years, 11 st. 7 lb., rose, black and gold cap.

2. Mr Peyton, b. m. Little Lady, 6 years, 11 st., sky-blue, white cap.

Blankney was sitting on the regimental drag, arrayed in immaculate boots and breeches, and, after the necessary weighing ceremony had been gone through he mounted the great Jibboom, which Phil Kelly had been leading about: the latter gentleman had a rather anxious look on his face; but Blankney evidently thought he was on a good one, and nodded confidently to his friends on the drag as he lurched down the course.

Little Lady was brought up to me, Smithers being in close attendance.

"I shall be so glad, if you win," Nellie found opportunity to whisper.

"What will you give me?" I greedily inquire.

"Anything you ask me," is the reply; and my heart beats high as, having thrown off my light wrapper and mounted, Little Lady bounds down the course, and glides easily over the hurdle in front of the stand.

Bertie and Smithers were waiting at the starting-post; and, having shaken hands with Blankney, to whom Bertie introduced me, I went apart to exchange the last few sentences with my friends.

Bertie is a trifle pale, but confident; and Smithers seems to have a large supply of the latter quality. In however high esteem we hold our own opinions, we are glad of professional advice when it comes to the push; and I seek instructions.

"No, sir, don't you wait on him. Go away as hard as you can directly the flag drops. I don't like the look of that chestnut's legs—or, rather, I do like the look of them for our sakes. Go away as hard as ever you can; but take it easy at the fences; and, excuse me, sir, but just let the mare have her head when she jumps, and she'll be all right. People talk about 'lifting horses at their fences:' I only knew one man who could do it, and he made mistakes."

I nod; smiling as cheerfully as anxiety will permit me. The flag falls, and Little Lady skims over the ground, the heavy chestnut thundering away behind.

Over the first fence—a hedge—and then across a ploughed field; rather hard going, but not nearly so bad as I expected it would have been: the mare moving beautifully. Just as I reach the second fence a boy rushes across the course, baulking us; and before I can set her going again Jibboom has come up level, and is over into the grass beyond a second before us; but I shoot past and again take up the running. Before us are some posts and rails—rather nasty ones; the mare tops them, and the chestnut hits them hard with all four legs. Over more grass; and in front, flanked on either side by a crowd of white faces, is the water-jump. I catch hold of her head and steady her; and then, she rises, flies through the air, and lands lightly on the other side. A few seconds after I hear a heavy splash; but when, after jumping the hurdle into the course, I glance over my shoulder, the chestnut is still pounding away behind. As I skim along past the stand the first time round and the line of carriages opposite, I catch sight of a waving white handkerchief: it is Nellie; and my confused glimpse imperfectly reveals Bertie and Smithers standing on the box of the carriage.

I had seen visions of a finish, in which a certain person clad in a light-blue jacket had shot ahead just in the nick of time, and landed the race by consummate jockeyship after a neck-and-neck struggle for the last quarter of a mile. This did not happen, however, for, as I afterwards learned, the chestnut refused a fence before he had gone very far, and, having at last been got over, came to grief at the posts and rails the second time round. Little Lady cantered in alone; Blankney strolling up some time afterwards.

There is no need to make record of Bertie's delight at the success. We dined next day at the mess of the 14th, Blankney and his brethren were excessively friendly, and seemed pleased and satisfied; as most assuredly were we. Blankney opines that he went rather too fast at the timber; but a conviction seemed to be gaining ground towards the close of the evening that he had not gone fast enough at any period of the race.

And for Nellie? She kept her promise, and granted my request; and very soon after the ankle was well we required the services of other horses—grey ones!