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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesUnder Two Flags - Chapter II. THE LOOSE BOX, AND THE TABAGIE
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Under Two Flags - Chapter II. THE LOOSE BOX, AND THE TABAGIE Post by :rlee48 Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :3328

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Under Two Flags - Chapter II. THE LOOSE BOX, AND THE TABAGIE

"How long before the French can come up?" asked Wellington, hearing of the pursuit that was thundering close on his rear in the most critical hours of the short, sultry Spanish night. "Half an hour, at least," was the answer. "Very well, then I will turn in and get some sleep," said the Commander-in-Chief, rolling himself in a cloak, and lying down in a ditch to rest as soundly for the single half hour as any tired drummer-boy.

Serenely as Wellington, another hero slept profoundly, on the eve of a great event--of a great contest to be met when the day should break--of a critical victory, depending on him alone to save the Guards of England from defeat and shame; their honor and their hopes rested on his solitary head; by him they would be lost or saved; but, unharassed by the magnitude of the stake at issue, unhaunted by the past, unfretted by the future, he slumbered the slumber of the just.

Not Sir Tristram, Sir Caledore, Sir Launcelot--no, nor Arthur himself--was ever truer knight, was ever gentler, braver, bolder, more stanch of heart, more loyal of soul, than he to whom the glory of the Brigades was trusted now; never was there spirit more dauntless and fiery in the field; never temper kindlier and more generous with friends and foes. Miles of the ridge and furrow, stiff fences of terrible blackthorn, double posts and rails, yawners and croppers both, tough as Shire and Stewards could make them, awaited him on the morrow; on his beautiful lean head capfuls of money were piled by the Service and the Talent; and in his stride all the fame of the Household would be centered on the morrow; but he took his rest like the cracker he was--standing as though he were on guard, and steady as a rock, a hero every inch of him. For he was Forest King, the great steeple-chaser, on whom the Guards had laid all their money for the Grand Military--the Soldiers' Blue Ribbon.

His quarters were a loose box; his camp-bed a litter of straw fresh shaken down; his clothing a very handsome rug, hood, and quarter-piece buckled on and marked "B. C."; above the manger and the door was lettered his own name in gold. "Forest King"; and in the panels of the latter were miniatures of his sire and of his dam: Lord of the Isles, one of the greatest hunters that the grass countries ever saw sent across them; and Bayadere, a wild-pigeon-blue mare of Circassia. How, furthermore, he stretched up his long line of ancestry by the Sovereign, out of Queen of Roses; by Belted Earl, out of Fallen Star; by Marmion, out of Court Coquette, and straight up to the White Cockade blood, etc., etc., etc.--is it not written in the mighty and immortal chronicle, previous as the Koran, patrician as the Peerage, known and beloved to mortals as the "Stud Book"?

Not an immensely large, or unusually powerful horse, but with race in every line of him; steel-gray in color, darkening well at all points, shining and soft as satin, with the firm muscles quivering beneath at the first touch of excitement to the high mettle and finely-strung organization; the head small, lean, racer-like, "blood" all over; with the delicate taper ears, almost transparent in full light; well ribbed-up, fine shoulders, admirable girth and loins; legs clean, slender, firm, promising splendid knee action; sixteen hands high, and up to thirteen stone; clever enough for anything, trained to close and open country, a perfect brook jumper, a clipper at fencing; taking a great deal of riding, as anyone could tell by the set-on of his neck, but docile as a child to a well-known hand--such was Forest King with his English and Eastern strains, winner at Chertsey, Croydon, the National, the Granby, the Belvoir Castle, the Curragh, and all the gentleman-rider steeple-chases and military sweepstakes in the kingdom, and entered now, with tremendous bets on him, for the Gilt Vase.

It was a crisp, cold night outside; starry, wintry, but open weather, and clear; the ground would be just right on the morrow, neither hard as the slate of a billiard-table, nor wet as the slush of a quagmire. Forest King slept steadily on in his warm and spacious box, dreaming doubtless of days of victory, cub-hunting in the reedy October woods and pastures, of the ringing notes of the horn, and the sweet music of the pack, and the glorious quick burst up-wind, breasting the icy cold water, and showing the way over fence and bullfinch. Dozing and dreaming pleasantly; but alert for all that; for he awoke suddenly, shook himself, had a hilarious roll in the straw, and stood "at attention."

Awake only, could you tell the generous and gallant promise of his perfect temper; for there are no eyes that speak more truly, none on earth that are so beautiful, as the eyes of a horse. Forest King's were dark as a gazelle's, soft as a woman's, brilliant as stars, a little dreamy and mournful, and as infinitely caressing when he looked at what he loved, as they could blaze full of light and fire when danger was near and rivalry against him. How loyally such eyes have looked at me over the paddock fence, as a wild, happy gallop was suddenly broken for a gentle head to be softly pushed against my hand with the gentlest of welcomes! They sadly put to shame the million human eyes that so fast learn the lie of the world, and utter it as falsely as the lips.

The steeple-chaser stood alert, every fiber of his body strung to pleasurable excitation; the door opened, a hand held him some sugar, and the voice he loved best said fondly, "All right, old boy?"

Forest King devoured the beloved dainty with true equine unction, rubbed his forehead against his master's shoulder, and pushed his nose into the nearest pocket in search for more of his sweetmeat.

"You'd eat a sugar-loaf, you dear old rascal. Put the gas up, George," said his owner, while he turned up the body clothing to feel the firm, cool skin, loosened one of the bandages, passed his hand from thigh to fetlock, and glanced round the box to be sure the horse had been well suppered and littered down.

"Think we shall win, Rake?"

Rake, with a stable lantern in his hand and a forage cap on one side of his head, standing a little in advance of a group of grooms and helpers, took a bit of straw out of his mouth, and smiled a smile of sublime scorn and security. "Win, sir? I should be glad to know as when was that ere King ever beat yet; or you either, sir, for that matter?"

Bertie Cecil laughed a little languidly.

"Well, we take a good deal of beating, I think, and there are not very many who can give it us; are there, old fellow?" he said to the horse, as he passed his palm over the withers; "but there are some crushers in the lot to-morrow; you'll have to do all you know."

Forest King caught the manger with his teeth, and kicked in a bit of play and ate some more sugar, with much licking of his lips to express the nonchalance with which he viewed his share in the contest, and his tranquil certainty of being first past the flags. His master looked at him once more and sauntered out of the box.

"He's in first-rate form, Rake, and right as a trivet."

"Course he is, sir; nobody ever laid leg over such cattle as all that White Cockade blood, and he's the very best of the strain," said Rake, as he held up his lantern across the stable-yard, that looked doubly dark in the February night after the bright gas glare of the box.

"So he need be," thought Cecil, as a bull terrier, three or four Gordon setters, an Alpine mastiff, and two wiry Skyes dashed at their chains, giving tongue in frantic delight at the sound of his step, while the hounds echoed the welcome from their more distant kennels, and he went slowly across the great stone yard, with the end of a huge cheroot glimmering through the gloom. "So he need be, to pull me through. The Ducal and the October let me in for it enough; I never was closer in my life. The deuce! If I don't do the distance to-morrow I shan't have sovereigns enough to play pound-points at night! I don't know what a man's to do; if he's put into this life, he must go the pace of it. Why did Royal send me into the Guards, if he meant to keep the screw on in this way? He'd better have drafted me into a marching regiment at once, if he wanted me to live upon nothing."

Nothing meant anything under 60,000 pounds a year with Cecil, as the minimum of monetary necessities in this world, and a look of genuine annoyance and trouble, most unusual there, was on his face, the picture of carelessness and gentle indifference habitually, though shadowed now as he crossed the courtyard after his after-midnight visit to his steeple-chaser. He had backed Forest King heavily, and stood to win or lose a cracker on his own riding on the morrow; and, though he had found sufficient to bring him into the Shires, he had barely enough lying on his dressing-table, up in the bachelor suite within, to pay his groom's book, or a notion where to get more, if the King should find his match over the ridge and furrow in the morning!

It was not pleasant: a cynical, savage, world-disgusted Timon derives on the whole a good amount of satisfaction from his break-down in the fine philippics against his contemporaries that it is certain to afford, and the magnificent grievances with which it furnishes him; but when life is very pleasant to a man, and the world very fond of him; when existence is perfectly smooth,--bar that single pressure of money,--and is an incessantly changing kaleidoscope of London seasons, Paris winters, ducal houses in the hunting months, dinners at the Pall Mall Clubs, dinners at the Star and Garter, dinners irreproachable everywhere; cottage for Ascot week, yachting with the R. V. Y. Club, Derby handicaps at Hornsey, pretty chorus-singers set up in Bijou villas, dashing rosieres taken over to Baden, warm corners in Belvoir, Savernake, and Longeat battues, and all the rest of the general programme, with no drawback to it, except the duties at the Palace, the heat of a review, or the extravagance of a pampered lionne--then to be pulled up in that easy, swinging gallop for sheer want of a golden shoe, as one may say, is abominably bitter, and requires far more philosophy to endure than Timon would ever manage to master. It is a bore, an unmitigated bore; a harsh, hateful, unrelieved martyrdom that the world does not see, and that the world would not pity if it did.

"Never mind! Things will come right. Forest King never failed me yet; he is as full of running as a Derby winner, and he'll go over the yawners like a bird," thought Cecil, who never confronted his troubles with more than sixty seconds' thought, and who was of that light, impassible, half-levity, half-languor of temperament that both throws off worry easily and shirks it persistently. "Sufficient for the day," etc., was the essence of his creed; and if he had enough to lay a fiver at night on the rubber, he was quite able to forget for the time that he wanted five hundred for settling-day in the morning, and had not an idea how to get it. There was not a trace of anxiety on him when he opened a low arched door, passed down a corridor, and entered the warm, full light of that chamber of liberty, that sanctuary of the persecuted, that temple of refuge, thrice blessed in all its forms throughout the land, that consecrated Mecca of every true believer in the divinity of the meerschaum, and the paradise of the nargile--the smoking-room.

A spacious, easy chamber, too; lined with the laziest of divans, seen just now through a fog of smoke, and tenanted by nearly a score of men in every imaginable loose velvet costume, and with faces as well known in the Park at six o'clock in May, and on the Heath in October; in Paris in January, and on the Solent in August; in Pratt's of a summer's night, and on the Moors in an autumn morning, as though they were features that came round as regularly as the "July" or the Waterloo Cup. Some were puffing away in calm, meditative comfort, in silence that they would not have broken for any earthly consideration; others were talking hard and fast, and through the air heavily weighted with the varieties of tobacco, from tiny cigarettes to giant cheroots, from rough bowls full of cavendish to sybaritic rose-water hookahs, a Babel of sentences rose together: "Gave him too much riding, the idiot." "Take the field, bar one." "Nothing so good for the mare as a little niter and antimony in her mash." "Not at all! The Regent and Rake cross in the old strain, always was black-tan with a white frill." "The Earl's as good a fellow as Lady Flora; always give you a mount." "Nothing like a Kate Terry though, on a bright day, for salmon." "Faster thing I never knew; found at twenty minutes past eleven, and killed just beyond Longdown Water at ten to twelve." All these various phrases were rushing in among each other, and tossed across the eddies of smoke in the conflicting tongues loosened in the tabagie and made eloquent, though slightly inarticulate, by pipe-stems; while a tall, fair man, with the limbs of a Hercules, the chest of a prize-fighter, and the face of a Raphael Angel, known in the Household as Seraph, was in the full blood of a story of whist played under difficulties in the Doncaster express.

"I wanted a monkey; I wanted monkeys awfully," he was stating as Forest King's owner came into the smoking-room.

"Did you, Seraph? The 'Zoo' or the Clubs could supply you with apes fully developed to any amount," said Bertie, as he threw himself down.

"You be hanged!" laughed the Seraph, known to the rest of the world as the Marquis of Rockingham, son of the Duke of Lyonnesse. "I wished monkeys, but the others wished ponies and hundreds, so I gave in; Vandebur and I won two rubbers, and we'd just begun the third when the train stopped with a crash; none of us dropped the cards though, but the tricks and the scores all went down with the shaking. 'Can't play in that row,' said Charlie, for the women were shrieking like mad, and the engine was roaring like my mare Philippa--I'm afraid she'll never be cured, poor thing!--so I put my head out and asked what was up? We'd run into a cattle train. Anybody hurt? No, nobody hurt; but we were to get out. 'I'll be shot if I get out,' I told 'em, 'till I've finished the rubber.' 'But you must get out,' said the guard; 'carriages must be moved.' 'Nobody says "must" to him,' said Van (he'd drank more Perles du Rhin than was good for him in Doncaster); 'don't you know the Seraph?' Man stared. 'Yes, sir; know the Seraph, sir; leastways, did, sir, afore he died; see him once at Moulsey Mill, sir; his "one two" was amazin'. Waters soon threw up the sponge.' We were all dying with laughter, and I tossed him a tenner. 'There, my good fellow,' said I, 'shunt the carriage and let us finish the game. If another train comes up, give it Lord Rockingham's compliments and say he'll thank it to stop, because collisions shake his trumps together.' Man thought us mad; took tenner though, shunted us to one side out of the noise, and we played two rubbers more before they'd repaired the damage and sent us on to town."

And the Seraph took a long-drawn whiff from his silver meerschaum, and then a deep draught of soda and brandy to refresh himself after the narrative--biggest, best-tempered, and wildest of men in or out of the Service, despite the angelic character of his fair-haired head, and blue eyes that looked as clear and as innocent as those of a six-year-old child.

"Not the first time by a good many that you've 'shunted off the straight,' Seraph?" laughed Cecil, substituting an amber mouth-piece for his half-finished cheroot. "I've been having a good-night look at the King. He'll stay."

"Of course he will," chorused half a dozen voices.

"With all our pots on him," added the Seraph. "He's too much of a gentleman to put us all up a tree; he knows he carries the honor of the Household."

"There are some good mounts, there's no denying that," said Chesterfield of the Blues (who was called Tom for no other reason than that it was entirely unlike his real name of Adolphus), where he was curled up almost invisible, except for the movement of the jasmine stick of his chibouque. "That brute, Day Star, is a splendid fencer, and for a brook jumper, it would be heard to best Wild Geranium, though her shoulders are not quite what they ought to be. Montacute, too, can ride a good thing, and he's got one in Pas de Charge."

"I'm not much afraid of Monti, he makes too wild a burst first; he never saves on atom," yawned Cecil, with the coils of his hookah bubbling among the rose-water; "the man I'm afraid of is that fellow from the Tenth; he's as light as a feather and as hard as steel. I watched him yesterday going over the water, and the horse he'll ride for Trelawney is good enough to beat even the King if he's properly piloted."

"You haven't kept yourself in condition, Beauty," growled "Tom," with the chibouque in his mouth, "else nothing could give you the go-by. It's tempting Providence to go in for the Gilt Vase after such a December and January as you spent in Paris. Even the week you've been in the Shires you haven't trained a bit; you've been waltzing or playing baccarat till five in the morning, and taking no end of sodas after to bring you right for the meet at nine. If a man will drink champagnes and burgundies as you do, and spend his time after women, I should like to know how he's to be in hard riding condition, unless he expects a miracle."

With which Chesterfield, who weighed fourteen stone himself, and was, therefore, out of all but welter-races, and wanted a weight-carrier of tremendous power even for them, subsided under a heap of velvet and cashmere, and Cecil laughed; lying on a divan just under one of the gas branches, the light fell full on his handsome face, with its fair hue and its gentle languor on which there was not a single trace of the outrecuidance attributed to him. Both he and the Seraph could lead the wildest life of any men in Europe without looking one shadow more worn than the brightest beauty of the season, and could hold wassail in riotous rivalry till the sun rose, and then throw themselves into saddle as fresh as if they had been sound asleep all night; to keep up with the pack the whole day in a fast burst or on a cold scent, or in whatever sport Fortune and the coverts gave them, till their second horses wound their way homeward through muddy, leafless lanes, when the stars had risen.

"Beauty don't believe in training. No more do I. Never would train for anything," said the Seraph now, pulling the long blond mustaches that were not altogether in character with his seraphic cognomen. "If a man can ride, let him. If he's born to the pigskin he'll be in at the distance safe enough, whether he smokes or don't smoke, drink or don't drink. As for training on raw chops, giving up wine, living like the very deuce and all, as if you were in a monastery, and changing yourself into a mere bag of bones--it's utter bosh. You might as well be in purgatory; besides, it's no more credit to win then than if you were a professional."

"But you must have trained at Christ Church, Rock, for the Eight?" asked another Guardsman, Sir Vere Bellingham; "Severe," as he was christened, chiefly because he was the easiest-going giant in existence.

"Did I! men came to me; wanted me to join the Eight; coxswain came, awful strict little fellow, docked his men of all their fun--took plenty himself though! Coxswain said I must begin to train, do as all his crew did. I threw up my sleeve and showed him my arm;" and the Seraph stretched out an arm magnificent enough for a statue of Milo. "I said, 'there, sir, I'll help you thrash Cambridge, if you like, but train I won't for you or for all the University. I've been Captain of the Eton Eight; but I didn't keep my crew on tea and toast. I fattened 'em regularly three times a week on venison and champagne at Christopher's. Very happy to feed yours, too, if you like; game comes down to me every Friday from the Duke's moors; they look uncommonly as if they wanted it!' You should have seen his face!--fatten the Eight! He didn't let me do that, of course; but he was very glad of my oar in his rowlocks, and I helped him beat Cambridge without training an hour myself, except so far as rowing hard went."

And the Marquis of Rockingham, made thirsty by the recollection, dipped his fair mustaches into a foaming seltzer.

"Quite right, Seraph!" said Cecil; "when a man comes up to the weights, looking like a homunculus, after he's been getting every atom of flesh off him like a jockey, he ought to be struck out for the stakes, to my mind. 'Tisn't a question of riding, then, nor yet of pluck, or of management; it's nothing but a question of pounds, and of who can stand the tamest life the longest."

"Well, beneficial for one's morals, at any rate," suggested Sir Vere.

"Morals be hanged!" said Bertie, very immorally. "I'm glad you remind us of them, Vere; you're such a quintessence of decorum and respectability yourself! I say--anybody know anything of this fellow of the Tenth that's to ride Trelawney's chestnut?"

"Jimmy Delmar! Oh, yes; I know Jimmy," answered Lord Cosmo Wentworth, of the Scots Fusileers, from the far depths of an arm-chair. "Knew him at Aldershot. Fine rider; give you a good bit of trouble, Beauty. Hasn't been in England for years; troop been such a while at Calcutta. The Fancy take to him rather; offering very freely on him this morning in the village; and he's got a rare good thing in the chestnut."

"Not a doubt of it. The White Lily blood, out of that Irish mare D'Orleans Diamonds, too."

"Never mind! Tenth won't beat us. The Household will win safe enough, unless Forest King goes and breaks his back over Brixworth--eh, Beauty?" said the Seraph, who believed devoutly in his comrade, with all the loving loyalty characteristic of the House of Lyonnesse, that to monarchs and to friends had often cost it very dear.

"You put your faith in the wrong quarter, Rock; I may fail you, he never will," said Cecil, with ever so slight a dash of sadness in his words; the thought crossed him of how boldly, how straightly, how gallantly the horse always breasted and conquered his difficulties--did he himself deal half so well with his own?

"Well! you both of you carry all our money and all our credit; so for the fair fame of the Household do 'all you know.' I haven't hedged a shilling, not laid off a farthing, Bertie; I stand on you and the King, and nothing else--see what a sublime faith I have in you."

"I don't think you're wise then, Seraph; the field will be very strong," said Cecil languidly. The answer was indifferent, and certainly thankless; but under his drooped lids a glance, frank and warm, rested for the moment on the Seraph's leonine strength and Raphaelesque head; it was not his way to say it, or to show it, or even much to think it; but in his heart he loved his old friend wonderfully well.

And they talked on of little else than of the great steeple-chase of the Service, for the next hour in the Tabak-Parliament, while the great clouds of scented smoke circled heavily round; making a halo of Turkish above the gold locks of the Titanic Seraph, steeping Chesterfield's velvets in strong odors of Cavendish, and drifting a light rose-scented mist over Bertie's long, lithe limbs, light enough and skilled enough to disdain all "training for the weights."

"That's not the way to be in condition," growled "Tom," getting up with a great shake as the clock clanged the strokes of five; they had only returned from a ball three miles off, when Cecil had paid his visit to the loose box. Bertie laughed; his laugh was like himself--rather languid, but very light-hearted, very silvery, very engaging.

"Sit and smoke till breakfast time if you like, Tom; it won't make any difference to me."

But the Smoke Parliament wouldn't hear of the champion of the Household over the ridge and furrow risking the steadiness of his wrist and the keenness of his eye by any such additional tempting of Providence, and went off itself in various directions, with good-night iced drinks, yawning considerably like most other parliaments after a sitting.

It was the old family place of the Royallieu House in which he had congregated half the Guardsmen in the Service for the great event, and consequently the bachelor chambers in it were of the utmost comfort and spaciousness, and when Cecil sauntered into his old quarters, familiar from boyhood, he could not have been better off in his own luxurious haunts in Piccadilly. Moreover, the first thing that caught his eye was a dainty scarlet silk riding jacket broidered in gold and silver, with the motto of his house, "Coeur Vaillant se fait Royaume," all circled with oak and laurel leaves on the collar.

It was the work of very fair hands, of very aristocratic hands, and he looked at it with a smile. "Ah, my lady, my lady!" he thought half aloud, "do you really love me? Do I really love you?"

There was a laugh in his eyes as he asked himself what might be termed an interesting question; then something more earnest came over his face, and he stood a second with the pretty costly embroideries in his hand, with a smile that was almost tender, though it was still much more amused. "I suppose we do," he concluded at last; "at least quite as much as is ever worth while. Passions don't do for the drawing-room, as somebody says in 'Coningsby'; besides--I would not feel a strong emotion for the universe. Bad style always, and more detrimental to 'condition,' as Tom would say, than three bottles of brandy!"

He was so little near what he dreaded, at present at least, that the scarlet jacket was tossed down again, and gave him no dreams of his fair and titled embroideress. He looked out, the last thing, at some ominous clouds drifting heavily up before the dawn, and the state of the weather, and the chance of its being rainy, filled his thoughts, to the utter exclusion of the donor of that bright gold-laden dainty gift. "I hope to goodness there won't be any drenching shower. Forest King can stand ground as hard as a slate, but if there's one thing he's weak in it's slush!" was Bertie's last conscious thought, as he stretched his limbs out and fell sound asleep.

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"I don't say but what he's difficult to please with his Tops," said Mr. Rake, factotum to the Hon. Bertie Cecil, of the 1st Life Guards, with that article of hunting toggery suspended in his right hand as he paused, before going upstairs, to deliver his opinions with characteristic weight and vivacity to the stud-groom, "he is uncommon particular about 'em; and if his leathers aint as white as snow he'll never touch 'em, tho' as soon as the pack come nigh him at Royallieu, the leathers might just as well never have been cleaned, them hounds jump about him so;