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   Chapter 9 A MAD WORLD, MY MASTERS.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 24386

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Master, master, wake up! What ails you? Have you forgot the day, and what has to be done?"

Dick, with an expression of uneasiness and determination upon his face, was shaking Grey somewhat vehemently by the shoulder. The latter seemed to find it hard to wake; and when his eyes opened at last, there was a lack-lustre expression in them that was strange and unnatural. Dick's honest face clouded over yet more.

"I was certain there was some devilry afoot when they all came here last night. I have never seen my master in such a mad mood of merriment," he muttered half aloud, as he turned away to get a brimming glass of pure cold water from the table. "What has come over them, I don't know. But I like not the change. I liked not the look in Lord Sandford's eyes. He is a great man, I doubt it not; but I wish my master had chanced upon another as a friend and comrade in this great Babylon of a city. There is more going on here than I well understand."

"What are you grumbling over there to yourself, Dicon?" asked Grey from his bed, and his voice sounded more natural and quiet than his servant had heard it yet; "and where am I? For sure this room is strange to mine eyes, nor have I any recollection of it overnight; and how come you to be here, for that matter, honest Dicon? Methought you were at Hampstead, watching over Don Carlos, that he might be ready for Saturday's race."

"Yes, master, and so I am; and this is the hostelry at Hampstead where I have taken up my quarters with the horse; and hither it was that you came yestere'en, with Lord Sandford and his friends, to be ready for the match to-day. But beshrew me if I did think yesterday you would be fit for the saddle to-day! Is it strange I should mutter and grumble to myself when such things happen?"

"Nay now, what things, good Dicon? I pray you tell me," spoke Grey, as he drained at one draught the ice-cold water, and drew a long breath of relief. "I feel like a man waking from a strange and fevered dream; for, in sooth, I know but little of what has been passing these last days. Some strange madness seems to have possessed me. I had meant to say farewell to Lord Sandford and his world, and seek mine own fortunes in some other field. Yet methinks I have not made the break. I have visions of wild orgies and furious gaming-such as I held aloof from before. Dicon, I fear me I have made a desperate fool of myself, and of my fortunes too. Tell me, what money have I with me now?"

"Not much, master. I took what you had-a matter of some twenty guineas perhaps. I have it safe in a bag. But surely that is not all. You had won a fortune, you did tell me-"

"Ay, and now I have lost it. I can recollect how the guineas flew, and how the stakes were doubled, and how I lost again and yet again. I take it I am a ruined man, good Dicon. These twenty guineas saved from the wreck are all the fortune I possess, and belike it is better so-better so."

"Better!" echoed the dismayed Dick; "nay, my master. But you will win it back again. The luck cannot always be against you. Think how it was at the first!"

"Yes, Dicon, and perchance it had been better had the luck been worse. I love not such gains as these. Besides, there is somewhat in this beyond my ken. Lord Sandford desired my friendship and company then, and luck was with me. Now that he desires it no more, the luck has changed, and that so strangely and desperately that one might almost say there was magic in it."

Dick's jaw dropped; he longed to know more, but feared to intrude too much upon his master's secrets. Grey, however, knew how faithful and attached was his stanch henchman, and as he went through his morning toilet he told him a little of the events of the past three days, in as far as he himself could remember them.

"I have offended Lord Sandford doubly," he said, "though he will not openly admit it. But I know-I feel the change. I trow that he is my enemy. Nay, Dicon, look not so aghast; it will matter little in the future, since to-day I take my leave of him, and most like in this great whirling world our paths will not again cross, either for weal or woe."

"But how?-what? He did seem to love you well."

"I think he did; but a mischance befell. He did not tell me of his troth-plight to a fair lady-a lady of surpassing beauty, and of a virtue and purity which make her like a bright particular star amid the painted dames and mincing damsels of this giddy London town. Twice or thrice did I meet her and pay homage to her wondrous beauty and goodness. It was words she spoke to me that decided me, ere ever any ill-blood had been aroused, to leave off from this life of pleasure-seeking and distraction, and seek a nobler career than that of the butterfly dandy fluttering round the town. But Lord Sandford thought that there was somewhat more than this betwixt us. Of that I am assured. A flame of jealousy swept over him; and when I told him of my resolution, I trow that his suspicions received confirmation. I did not see it then, but I see it now. He thought I left him to pursue my ends alone, and, perchance, to seek to win the lady of his choice. But he spoke nothing of this-only insisted that for this week my engagements should be kept, and that after to-day's race I might go my own way, an I was so resolved. He was not unkindly; yet there was something strange and stern in his bearing and language, and you have seen how his imperious temper and will sweep all before them. I myself was strangely dazed and something sorrowful. I scarce do know why my heart was so heavy within me. I let him have his way; and you behold what that way has been. I am a ruined man, beggared of all my winnings; and methinks my Lord Sandford has plotted for this very thing."

"It is a shame! Would I could take my horsewhip to him-"

"Nay, nay, good Dicon; be not so wroth," spoke Grey calmly and quietly. "In sooth, I know not that I owe him aught but thanks. When all is said and done, it was but ill-gotten gain. I would sooner face life with none of it upon me. I had a few guineas to start with-well, it was more than a few; yet had I spent my time in London, I should have had but little left by now. I have learned many lessons, and I shall start clear of debt, and without my pockets filled with other men's gold."

Dick was scarce moralist enough to understand or appreciate his master's scruples-scruples new, indeed, to Grey himself-but the faithful fellow was ready to accept any verdict and any decision made by the man he loved and served; and as he put the finishing touches to the workmanlike riding toilet which he had in readiness, he remarked with a short laugh,-

"Faith, master, you and I betwixt us, with Don Carlos and my good nag for company, and a few guineas in our pockets, need not fear the future; and I trow it will be well for you to be quit for ever of my Lord Sandford's company. I liked him not greatly for your friend; I hate him with a goodly hatred since he shows himself your foe. Shall we turn our backs upon him and upon London town, and seek our fortunes with the army over the water, where his Grace of Marlborough will give you welcome?"

"I scarce know what the future will bring for me, Dicon," was the reply, spoken gravely, yet with a certain listless indifference not lost upon the servant; "I have made no plans as yet. Let us see what this day brings forth first."

"I wager it will fill our pockets anew with gold!"

"I will not touch their gold!" spoke Grey with eyes that suddenly flashed fire. "I have cancelled all my wagers. I will take nothing at their hands. I will ride Don Carlos and ride my best for mine own honour and that of the good steed I shall bestride; but their money will I not touch. I have done with all that. Nay, stare not in such amaze, good Dicon. I have not taken leave of my senses; rather, I trow, I have come to my better mind. Now get me somewhat to eat here, and then we will to the stables to see my beauty. This match once over, we turn a new page in our life's story. Who knows what the next will be?"

It was not much that Grey could eat. The three days which had passed since he and Lord Sandford had come to an understanding, which was well-nigh a rupture, had left a mark upon him. Moreover there was a weary ache at his heart which he did not fully understand, and which was harder to bear than aught beside. Dimly he knew that it had some connection with the Lady Geraldine Adair; but he feared to search too deeply into that matter. She was as far removed from him as the moon in the heavens, and he believed her plighted to another, and that one a man who had stood his friend, even though suspicion, jealousy, and an imperious temper had changed friendship into something very like enmity. Grey never for a moment dreamed of regarding himself as an aspirant for that fair hand; but he knew that the motive which was urging him to change the manner of his life and become a worthier and a better man was the hope that she might watch his career, and hear a whisper of his fame or his success; or that he might win some laurels in the fields of literature, art, or politics, which he might perchance in some sort lay at her feet.

This, however, lurked in the background of his thoughts. He scarcely owned to himself that he expected ever to look upon that fair face again; hence the sensation of heart sickness which had rendered him well-nigh desperate for a few days, and had helped him to squander without a qualm the hoard which his previous successes had accumulated. And now the end of this mad life of gay folly had come. He had drained the cup to the dregs, and found it bitter to the taste. He had neither liking nor respect for the companions with whom he had associated. Towards Lord Sandford his feelings were very mixed. The power of the man was too great to be shaken off entirely, nor could he despise or dislike him. But the tie of friendship had snapped asunder. A chasm had opened between them, and he felt that he was regarded, if not as a foe, yet as something akin, and it needed not Dick's words of warning to tell him that the less he saw of this man in the future the better it would be for himself.

Sounds of laughter and revelry greeted his ears as he slipped quietly out towards the paddock and shed where his horse had been stabled these past weeks, tended and exercised by Dick, and ready for whatever demand might be made upon him. He greeted his master with a neigh of recognition, dropped his nose in the extended hand, and stood tranquil and content under Grey's quiet caresses. The glossy coat was satin smooth, the delicate tracery of veins could be distinctly seen, and each muscle stood out hard and taut; there was no superfluous flesh, but a firmness and excellence of condition that brought a smile of satisfaction to Grey's face. He turned with a smile to Dick, who stood by beaming.

"Not much fear of him to-day, eh, Dicon?"

"He would jump the moon, master, if you asked it of him," was the proud and confident answer.

"How do the others look? Have you seen them?"

"Pretty bits of horseflesh every one; and there is a black stallion of Mr. Artheret's that will take some beating. But he's too heavy for some of the jumps. He don't take off fast enough. And he's a nasty temper too. There's a gray Arab with pace; but he falls away behind, as they all do. I don't think Don Carlos will be troubled long by him. None of the others will take much beating. Pretty to look at, but not trained for what they've got to do. Lord Sandford was here yesterday early, looking at the jumps, and he had several of them made stiffer; but there's nothing Don Carlos cannot sail over like a bird!"

"Let us go and see," said Grey. "I will take a canter on the turf to warm myself to the saddle. Soh, boy, soh!" as he lightly vaulted to his seat, and the horse curveted beneath him. "We will take a look at these obstructions. The stiffer they are, the better you and I will be pleased-eh, my beauty?"

Dick mounted his nag, and rode beside his master to the course, where the horses were to be matched against each other when Lord Sa

ndford and his friends should have finished their merry meal, and be ready to witness the exhibition. It was a fine stretch of ground which had been chosen-nearly a mile in length, and with several natural obstacles, which had been increased in some cases artificially, to test better the strength and skill of horse and rider. A stream of water with rather awkward banks ran across the course in one place, and in another was a dip in the ground filled with gorse bushes-a nasty place to get entangled in, if the horse could not be persuaded to clear the whole thing with a flying leap. A broken stone wall with a ditch in front was another obstacle; and the last was a barrier entirely artificial, made of hurdles and bushes high enough to tax the mettle of any horse, though not absolutely insurmountable. Still it was a formidable object enough, and Grey looked at it critically, walking Don Carlos up and down, to let the creature take his own observations with regard to the leap he was to make.

"It was here they were busy yesterday, but I could not see all they did. I was afraid to leave Don Carlos with so many strangers about. Some of the grooms with the other horses looked up to mischief. But I heard them say afterwards that Lord Sandford had not been satisfied with the field as it was. He said they must have something that really would be a test, or the black stallion and Don Carlos were like to come in together."

But now a horn blew gaily, and horsemen were seen approaching from many quarters. In the neighbourhood of the inn all was bustle and excitement, whilst from all sides there appeared streams of people converging to this spot. Some fine carriages had been driven out from London, with bedecked ladies eager to witness the contest. Others had stayed the night in the neighbourhood to be ready; and all the natives of the place who could get a holiday had come to gape at the fine folks, and see the grand gentlemen racing their own horses.

Indeed the hour for the contest had well-nigh come. Grey could see that the other horses were assembling, their riders decked in every colour of the rainbow, quite eclipsing the quiet and workmanlike suit of buff which he wore. But Grey's taste had always disinclined him to gaudy colours. The soft leather, finely chased and stamped in gold, pleased his eye more than rich-hued cloths or velvets. His breeches were of white buckskin cut by Lord Sandford's own tailor, and he wore long boots fitted with silver spurs, albeit he scarcely ever had need of the latter when he bestrode Don Carlos. His scarf was of white silk fringed with gold, and his only adornment was a cravat of fine lace, fastened with a diamond clasp. His cocked hat matched his buff coat, and was adorned with a white plume. Altogether, as he rode forward to his place, it would have been hard to find a fault with his dress or person; and the ladies behind their fans audibly praised his elegant figure, graceful seat, and distinguished and handsome face.

Grey, all unconscious of the favour bestowed upon him, rode up and saluted courteously the gentlemen who were to meet him and each other in rivalry. Lord Sandford, splendidly mounted, was to act as judge at the winning post. Another of his friends was to be starter; and gentlemen were posted at various points along the course to see that all the rules laid down were observed, and that no rider deviated from the well-pegged-out route prescribed for all. The spectators scattered hither and thither, taking up stations wherever their fancy prompted. The course seemed marked out by a glittering border extending down both sides. The sun shone brilliantly in the sky, and all nature seemed in gladsome mood.

Grey cast a keen look at the seven rival steeds as they were brought into line for the start. He picked out in a moment the two of whom Dicon had spoken, and saw that he had judged well. Then he gave his whole mind to the task in hand, checked with hand and voice the prancing of the excited Don Carlos, and brought him up to his appointed place docile and motionless.

The word was given, but the black stallion had bounded off a few seconds too soon, and had to be recalled. A second start was spoiled by two other competitors, who suddenly reared at each other, and strove to fight. One iron hoof, indeed, inflicted such a wound upon the shoulder of his neighbour that that horse had to be taken away limping and bleeding.

It was trying to all, horses and riders alike; but at the third start all got off, though Grey saw that again the black stallion had made his bound a second too soon. This gave him a few yards the advantage, which, as his rider pressed him hard from the first, and his temper was evidently up, he increased in the next minute to more than a length. The Arab and Don Carlos were neck and neck, and sailed over the first easy jump side by side, the stallion having cleared it with a tremendous bound a couple of seconds earlier.

The water jump was next, and it was obvious that one spot offered greater advantages to the horse than any other. The stallion made for this spot with a rush, took off and bounded clear over, just as Don Carlos and the Arab came rushing up neck and neck, each rider desirous of the advantage of the sound bank. Grey set his teeth and glanced at his adversary. A collision at the leap might be fatal to one or both, so far as the race went. His rival would not budge an inch-that he saw. With a muttered oath between his teeth, he pulled his left rein, and used his knees. Don Carlos felt, and instantly understood: swerving slightly, he gathered himself together, and rose magnificently where the water was wider and the bank less safe; but he landed safely, and with a hardly perceptible scramble found his feet again, and amid the plaudits of the people raced on after the Arab, who, having got a momentary advantage, was now slightly in advance.

The black stallion had just reached the downward dip leading to the deep ditch filled with gorse bushes. His rider had had perforce to pull him up somewhat, lest he should slip and fall, for the ground was sandy and treacherous. But Don Carlos had been born and bred to this sort of wild work, and dashing onwards and downwards with the agility of a deer, came neck and neck with his rival, and having passed the Arab, cleared with a bound the treacherous gully, landing true and safe upon the opposite side. The Arab followed in his tracks, his rider taking advantage of the lead given; but the black stallion slipped and snorted, could not be made to try the leap till another of the horses came up and took it, after which he sprang across with a vicious energy which tried the horsemanship of his rider, and tore like a wild thing after the leading pair.

These had cleared one after the other the wall and ditch; but the Arab was showing signs of distress, whilst Don Carlos looked fresh and eager as at the start. There now remained only a quarter of a mile of smooth sward, and then the last critical jump; and Grey, knowing himself first, and not knowing what had betided his rivals, sailed happily onward, secure of victory, though he heard behind him the thud of flying horse hoofs, and knew that the black stallion was not beaten yet. It was he who snorted with such excitement and fury, and seemed to awaken thunders with his iron-shod hoofs.

One glance over his shoulder, and Grey passed his whip very lightly across the neck of Don Carlos. The gallant animal sprang forward like an arrow from a bow, showing how well within himself he had been travelling so far. The sound of other beating hoofs was fainter now. Grey looked keenly at the great obstacle looming up in his path, and measured the height at various places, deciding where the leap could best be taken.

He felt the tension of the muscles beneath him. Don Carlos was gathering himself together for the leap. He would not fail, falter, or refuse. The great mass seemed rushing up against him. He felt the slackening with which Don Carlos faced his task, the motion of his flanks as he took off and rose. Then what was it happened? The sound of a click, sharp and clear-a sickening sensation of falling, sinking, struggling, plunging. Grey felt for a moment as though the end had come. He and his horse seemed falling into the very bowels of the earth. A black shadow almost overhead showed him that the stallion had cleared the barrier, and the air was full of shouts, screams, cheers, and cries.

Next moment he felt strong hands lifting and dragging him upwards. Dick's white face looked into his own, and the first words he heard were hissed in his ear by his faithful henchman.

"Foul play, foul play, my master. That ditch was dug and concealed-ay, and more than concealed; it has been an old well at some time, and it will open with a spring. You have been grossly tricked and cozened. It has been a trap cleverly laid and baited. But let me only get at them-my Lord Sandford-"

Dick almost choked in his fury; but Grey was now on his feet, and his one thought was for the good horse, who had dropped downwards into this unseen, unsuspected pit, and was gasping in affright, but might possibly have escaped serious injury. He himself felt little ill effects, having had a marvellous escape. But his soul was stirred within him, and in getting out the horse he saw plainly that Dick had been right, and that some sort of old trap-door concealed an opening into the ground which might have been at one time a well, but was now silted up with sand. By luring the foremost rider to this particular spot to take the leap, any astute enemy aware of the nature of the ground could almost certainly ensure his overthrow and defeat; and Grey had his suspicions that Lord Sandford had hoped that he might then and there break his neck-a thing which might very well have happened.

There was a crowd round the spot now, and great horror was expressed by many at sight of the unsuspected well, no voice being louder than Lord Sandford's in proclaiming astonishment and indignation. But Grey took no notice of the clamour, only busying himself about his horse; and presently, with some difficulty, the sagacious and docile creature was got out, and it appeared that no limb was broken, though one hock was deeply cut, and one shoulder badly strained.

Grey stood in silent thought awhile, his hand upon the neck of his favourite, who stood with drooping head and dejected mien, as though wondering whether he would ever be whole and sound again. Dick was binding up the wound, his face like a thunder-cloud. A knot of persons of all ranks stood watching at a little distance; but Grey had courteously waved away all proffers of help, and indicated that he desired no attentions.

"Dicon," he said in a low tone, "we must now part for a while. Don Carlos will need you more than I. He is now my sole fortune, and must be respected as such. Take him and your own nag, and walk them both by easy stages to Hartsbourne. There are paddocks enough and to spare, and I surely have the right to pasture my horse in one; but if the thing should come to my kinsman's ears, give him what is due in money, and I will repay you. Old Jock Jarvis will be your friend. He will rejoice in your company and give you house-room with him, and it is not so far but that I can get news of you from time to time. Your good horse will bring you to London in three hours or less any day you have a mind to come; and you can watch for me what goes on yonder, and bring me word again."

It was a grief to Dick to part from his master; but he saw the need, and he loved the horse only second to Grey himself.

"I will do your behest, master. Nay, I want no money; I have plenty for all my needs. I too have made some modest wealth here in this great city. Only tell me where I may find you, and I will be gone, and do what can be done for the poor beast."

"You shall always get news of me at Wills' Coffee House, good Dicon," was the answer. "Where I go and how I live, I know not yet; but I will leave word there for you. So now, farewell. I turn a new page in my life from this day forth."

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