The jolly story of an equine comedian, a too-trusting girl, and a rather nice villain
IT’S a nice day.”
“Been nice all this week.”
“Is that an overreach on your off foreleg?”
"No. He cut it on a piece of filthy tin in your long meadow. It’s practically healed.”
“Oh, sorry. About the tin, I mean. It’s a nice day.” “Beautiful. I’m late for lunch. Good-by.”
Susan turned Taffy abruptly and trotted off smartly down the lower road, and that was that.
She did not look back at the young man who was so long that he seemed to fit into his small open car with difficulty, but she w-as sufficiently feminine to hope that he noticed how flat her shoulders were under her new hacking coat.
When she was certain she had heard the car turn the comer onto the Tipton Road, she relaxed considerably and permitted Taffy to drop into the leisurely trot he liked best.
Susan was resolutely against heart searchings. Her attitude toward Phil Birlingstone was, she reflected, cold, impersonal, and a trifle worldly. He could break his neck for all she cared. No; perhaps not actually his neck, but his leg or an arm. Or, anyway, he could shake himself up a bit and lose some of his annoying superiority. Courage like his was all very well, in Susan’s opinion. If a man has been born in the saddle—well, practically so—it’s perfectly natural for him to feel more at home on a horse than on his own two enormous feet. But even if he is so incredibly brave and does take jumps in the hunting field that make one go cold inside, and does ride a notoriously nappy sixyear-old to victory in the point-to-point, leaving the Army
struggling like bogged goats at the seventh fence, is there any reason why he should go all condescending to a girl on a very good pony when he finds her scrambling through a patch of furze in an undignified attempt to avoid a threefoot hedge with a ditch on the other side?
The incident had taken place at the final meet of the season. Susan had been getting on very nicely, with Taffy nosing his way like a pointer among the furze and cautiously feeling every step with his little round hoofs before he trusted their combined weight on the spongy clay, when Phil Birlingstone had left the hunt to come after her and, with a face as scarlet as his coat, had bellowed ungallantly:
“Look out ! Look out, you little idiot ! There’s a mass of rabbit holes in there. You’ll kill yourself or your poor beast.”
That in itself had been insulting enough. But when Geraldine Partington-Drew had joined him on her magnificent bay (“only three-fifty, my dear; they positively gave her to me because I could manage her”) Susan had tasted mud. They sat towering over her on their great mounts and actually laughed, or at least Geraldine had laughed. Phil had merely scowled until Susan backed the protesting Taffy into the open meadow again. Then Geraldine had ridden off, calling to Phil to follow her; actually, of course, to make them watch her take the jump as cleanly and clearly as a cat.
Phil had followed her, but not before he had added the final straw. Susan blushed with righteous rage whenever she remembered his words, and that meant she blushed on an average tw-ice a day.
“I ll go first." he had said. "You won’t want me to stand and watch you. w ill you?”
Susan glowered when she remembered it. The impudence, the conceit, the insufferable superiority of the man, were incredible.
She dug her heels into Taffy’s fat sides and startled that old gentleman into a canter to relieve her feelings.
When they were both in peace and comfort again, her indignation settled into calm contempt once more.
ERALDINE would marry Phil eventually; everybody 'k-7r saw that coming. In her more worldly moments (and when one is twenty-four one can feel worldly with the assurance that one know's what one is about) Susan w-as inclined to approve of the match. They w’ere both w-ealthy, Phil had a title, and Geraldine had thousands and thousands of pounds to make up for a father like PartingtonDrew. They were both horse-crazy, both exquisite riders, both utterly fearless, and, even if Geraldine had reached the advanced age of twenty-nine and did look a little like her owm mare, especially about the nose, she had heaps of money for clothes and things, and often appeared quite remarkably handsome in the saddle.
When she was very frank with herself, Susan considered that her own dislike of Miss Partington-Drew was perfectly natural and excusable. In a way it was jealousy. Susan was prepared to admit that and even to condone it.
Before the Partington-Drew's had bought the Old Rectory and turned that white elephant of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners into a glittering palace of hot-water taps, central heating and marble baths, Susan and Taffy
had been the ix-ts of the village and the white hope of the horse-loving farmers round about.
Then it had been only natural for the daughter of Captain Mavis, K.N., of the Grange, to trot in and out of the stableyard at the Hall whenever Taffy’s minor ailments required the attentions of Lady Birlingstone’s elderly groom, the faithful and beloved Henry Branch, who had patently been a horse himself in some previous incarnation, so surely did he divine the slightest equine trouble.
When Phil had returned from abroad to take up his duties as head of the house on his father’s death, his eye had quite naturally rested with interest upon the trim little figure on the chestnut pony. There was nothing in that. Most eyes rested on Susan with interest. She was so used to it that it had become ordinary.
They had got on very well together and Phil had seemed to share the village’s interest in her riding. He was about to acquire a couple of hunters, and old Lady Birlingstone, who was the sweetest, silliest old darling in “Debrett,” had thought of asking her son-in-law, Tony March, who knew about thoroughbreds and had a very fine stable of his own away in the north of the county, if he could not pick up a little blood mare which Susan might care to ride sometimes.
At this period there were discreet bets in the Queen’s Head on the chances of a popular wedding at Easter in the following year, and everything had looked very exciting for the first time in Susan’s young life, when, only three months after Phil’s return home, the Partington-Drews had arrived and with them Geraldine.
Geraldine had not achieved her present position immediately, but it had not taken her long, for she treated men as she treated horses; that is to say, with a firm, light hand and indomitable will and tremendous personal courage.
The village was inclined to jeer at her at first, but her stable of four expensive hunters and a prize-winning show jumper had impressed it in spite of itself, and when she had won the Ladies’ Race in three out of the four adjacent point-to-points and had hinted that she was taking the jumfx;r to Olympia, it sighed and capitulated.
Old Henry Branch alone was faithful. When he had first set eyes on Susan and Taffy he had described the ensemble as "the prettiest sight I ever set*,” and had remained obstinately of that opinion ever since.
A little question concerning the confusion of "sprain” and “farcy” had settled him with Geraldine forever. Geraldine had disdained his advice and stmt for the vet., and had not apologized on finding herself in the wrong. From that time forward he admitted Geraldine could ride but considered her "a proper bouncy lady.”
Of late Mr. Branch had been worried. He had set his heart on Miss Susan coming to be the lady of the Hall, and at one time had been prepared to bet on the eventuality at the rate of three pints to one. but. as the days passed and Miss Geraldine displayed more ingenuity in devising excuses for absorbing all Sir Phil’s spare time than Branch had thought to exist in the whole plaguey world of women put together, his spirits sank.
Miss Susan was evidently not going to make a fight for it, and Branch, while respecting her maidenly restraint, regretted the ruthless determination of her rival. Of Sir Phil himself, since he was his employer, Branch did not presume to think at all.
'“THERE were other people besides Henry Branch who
were appalled by the seemingly inevitable trend of events, and they were not so discreet.
Old Lady Birlingstone opened her heart to her daughter Jean who now was Mrs. Tony March.
"It’s not that 1 mind the girl Geraldine,” she said pathetically, rubbing her ear with her gardening glove. "She’s quite a nice creature, no doubt, even if she is so masterful and has such a distressing voice. But no woman likes to see her son roped like a like a—”
“Steer, mother,” said Jean, who was practical and not unmasterful herself.
“Steer, is it?” repeated Lady Birlingstone vaguely. "Well, anyway, I don’t like to see him rushed. He’s slow. His father was. Susan is so pretty, Jean. I thought she was beginning to care for him. He had a snapshot of her on Taffy. I found it in a suit I sent to the jumble sale. I took it out, of course. Villagers do jump to conclusions so quickly. I put the snapshot on Phil’s dressing table, as a little hint, you know, but the next morning it was in the grate, all torn up. I was so sorry. ”
"Is he now carting round a snap of the acquisitive Geraldine?” enquired the forthright Jean, standing with her hands in her jodhpur pockets.
"Oh, no. She gave him a big photograph.” Lady
'T'ONY MARCH was not altogether unworthy of his mother-in-law’s trust. At least he was always prepared to do something, and, if his ideas were occasionally a t ri fie schoolboyish, he certainly carried them out with devotion and a strict attention to detail. Aided by his enthusiastic young wife, he gave his earnest attention to the matter of helping Susan win Sir Philip Birlingstone.
Meanwhile, Susan went on her proud and worldly way, mercifully unconscious of the forces gathering to her assistance.
She did not hear about Sweetandlow until Geraldine met her in the dentist’s waiting-room nearly a month after Lady Birlingstone’s appeal to her married daughter.
It was not the best time to talk horses to anyone, but Geraldine was never tactful.
“Hello,” she said as Susan came in, treading resolutely, her mind on local anesthetics. "I haven’t seen you for years. What have you been doing? Hiding?”
"No,” said Susan, trying not to be pleased that Miss Partington-Drew still looked very raw about the nose and cheekbones, although hunting was long since over. "Just living.”
“I know.” Geraldine had a loud, resonant voice and a tendency to accentuate the operative word. “My dear, one does nothing, absolutely nothing, except ride. I don’t see a soul save Phil.”
Susan winced and could have kicked herself. She had an insane temptation to say "Phil who?” but, since even Geraldine could not be expected to be quite obtuse, she saved her face in time.
"I’m taking Bitter Aloes, my Olympia mare, to Minstree
Birlingstone rubbed the mud off her ear with her handkerchief and looked worried. "He can’t carry that about. It’s meant to be framed. He’s put it in his .shirt drawer, right at the bottom. I don’t know if he’s hiding it from us or from himself. She’ll get him, Jean, I know it. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. It’s not that men are exactly weak, but they are lazy and they don’t like to be rude, and what with one thing and another they get pushed this way and that, and are hustled and bothered until they can’t see any way out of the difficulty except to—to—■”
"Gather up their heels and pop over the fence,” supplemented Jean thoughtfully. "I know. I’ve seen Geraldine do that in the hunting field. Well, darling, we must see what can be done. I’ll talk to Tony.”
Talking to her husband was Jean’s favorite expedient when in doubt, and Lady Birlingstone gave her blessing brightly.
"I wish you would, dear.” she said. She had great faith in her son-in-law.
Show on the nineteenth,” said Geraldine, who was apparently as nonchalant before the dentist’s chair as she was in the hunting field. “It’s a first-class rehearsal. All the intelligent people use it. There are some nice Irish horses coming over.”
Susan, who had ridden in the pony class at the Minstree Show until she had been superannuated at the age of fourteen, nodded wisely.
"The jumping there’s pretty hot, nearly up to Olympia standard,” she murmured.
Miss Partington-Drew laughed.
"Still, I think we may pull it off,” she said, and was doubly irritating because she was probably perfectly right. “Bitter Aloes is very good, you know. Of course, I haven’t the faintest idea what Phil has up his sleeve.”
Susan pricked up her ears. It was distressing to hear news from the Hall in this roundabout way. In the old days a new horse would have called forth a celebration at which her presence would have been indispensable.
Geraldine was sufficiently feminine to sense a hit.
"Didn’t you know?” she said. “I thought everyone heard everything in villages. Tony March has bought a new show jumper, Sweetandlow. They say he’s marvellous. Phil is to ride him at Minstree, and as far as I can hear we shall fight it out between us. It ought to be tremendous fun. Phil is going to stay with the Marchs at Benley. Their place is only six or seven miles from Minstree.”
“I know,” said Susan, who had known the house since childhood. “I shall be there.” she added primly.
“Will you? What with? Your little pony?” Geraldine did not exactly sneer, Susan had to admit that, but she did laugh a little and Susan blushed.
“Yes,” she said. “My little cousin rides him in the Under Fourteen Hands.”
“How amusing! How are you getting him there? I shall box Bitter Aloes, of course, or I’d lend you mine.”
“I always stay at my aunt’s at Finchingtree and hack the three miles over.” For all her sophistication, Susan could have wept.
“How amusing!” said Geraldine again, and Susan was saved from making a bitter and revealing reply by the
beaming nurse who came to summon her to the torture chamber.
For practically the first time in her life she found the ghoulish leer of old Doctor Fortnum almost welcome, but as she leaned back in the chair she caught a glimpse of the Partington-Drew limousine parked in the High Street outside, and there was rage in her heart. Things had come to a pretty pass if a girl couldn’t go to the dentist’s in peace.
LAN THE morning of the Minstree Show, Tony March sat on the end of his wife’s bed, his round, ingenuous face wearing an expression of secret guile. He was both happy and excited, but, being a comparatively practical man, was carefully going over the plan of campaign which he and Jean had mapped out on behalf of Susan.
“It all depends on you, old dear,” he said, regarding his wife fondly. “You must put up a good show or Phil will smell a rat, and that would be absolutely fatal. I rather thought he was getting wind of something fishy last night.”
“Last night?” protested Jean. “But he couldn’t! We haven’t done anything yet.”
Tony shook his round head.
“Phil’s a funny chap,” he announced. “It’s hard to get out of him what’s on his mind.”
“If he hasn’t said anything, I don’t see how you can suppose he’s noticed something fishy,” declared Jean cheerfully.
“Oh, but he has,” Tony persisted. “Last night he said. ‘That’s a funny horse you’ve got, old boy.’ ”
“Yes, and then what?”
“He didn’t say any more. I thought it odd he should have said so much. I wouldn’t have our plan go wrong for anything.”
Jean sniffed and stretched her long arms over her head.
“I shouldn’t worry about Phil,” she said. “When I saw he’d brought Branch over yesterday I felt a bit nervous. Branch is an entirely different proposition. Still, he hasn’t seen the brute at work, and after all Sweetandlow can jump.”
“Oh yes,” said Tony earnestly, “he can jump. Jump!
Oh lord, yes! He can jump. Gosh! Yes. Jump?”
He sat murmuring to himself on the same theme for some time. Jean giggled.
“Phil was right,” she said. “Sweetandlow is a funny horse.”
There was a moment of silence between the two conspirators before Tony left the initial danger point and went on to the next.
“I’ll just run through it once more,” he began cheerfully. “Keep your mind on it, sweetheart. First Phil and I get old Branch off with Sweetandlow. Then the three of us fool about and manage to be very late starting. Finally, when we’re actually on the road, you fall ill and we stop near an inn with a telephone. You make a frightful fuss and Phil and I both have to stay with you, or rush off to get a doctor or something. Then Phil says, ‘What about the show?’ and I say ‘Forget the show! Think of my wife . . . ’ ”
Jean frowned. “Don’t overdo that bit,” she murmured. “I mean, don’t declaim it. or anything.”
Tony was hurt. “You leave it to me,” he said. “I’ll sound convincing. After a bit I'll have an idea. I’ll phone the ground, get hold of Branch, and tell him to ask Miss Partington-Drew if she’ll take Sweetandlow round as a special favor to Sir Philip. She’ll leap at the invitation. Meanwhile you’ll start recovering and we’ll go on, arriving at Minstree just after Geraldine has been round on Sweetandlow. Phil will trot up. smiling, and ask her how she got on. The horse will have behaved dreadfully, of course, and Geraldine will be so angry about it that she’ll never speak to Phil again. He will be furious at her injustice, and the rebound will send him scuttling off to young Susan. This is the whole point of the scheme. Hang it, you thought of half of it yourself.”
“I know, but I’m getting nervous.” Jean shivered happily. “Geraldine is very determined, darling. She may make a good showing on Sweetandlow in spite of everything.”
“My dearest child,” Tony expostulated, “think of that show ring! Think of the crowd that will be thereeveryone Geraldine’s ever met or hopes to meet. They’ve all heard her talk about herself. She won’t cling to Phil after our horse has disgraced her. We shall have to get him away before she beats him up.”
Jean lay back among the pillows.
“I still insist that Geraldine may win on Sweetandlow,” she murmured.
Tony’s bucolic face became bland and childlike.
“If she rides as well as she says she docs, she will,” he said sweetly. “That’s the beauty of the whole idea. It’s so fair.”
nPHE Machiavellian activities of young Mr. and Mrs. ■*“ March met with singular success, at least in their earlier stages.
Jean’s seizure in the car just outside the Farrowfield Plough Inn was so realistic that even her husband, who was expecting it, was temporarily deceived and so far forgot his role as to pat her shoulder with an anxious if somewhat violent hand, and to demand helplessly if she couldn’t pull herself together until they reached the town.
Jean’s natural indignation at (his lack of support almost wrecked the project at the outset, but it was Phil himself who unwittingly saved the situation by exhibiting a wholly unsuspected solicitude for his sister.
It was Phil who saw her safely ensconced in the private room at the back of The Plough, Phil who conferred with the startled landlady who, not unnaturally, was bewildered by the astonishing assortment of symptoms developed by the mendacious Jean, Phil who gallantly declared the show was of no importance, and Phil who sat chafing his sister’s hand with doglike devotion and incomjx-tence.
Since there was nothing left for the arch-conspirator to do but to get on with his conspiracy, Tony rang up the show ground, got hold of Branch, and gave the message he had so carefully rehearsed.
Until this point the disgraceful machinations of Mr. and Mrs. March had met with more success than they deserved. Phil had played into their hands with a stupidity and a lack of penetration unworthy of him, and no doctor had yet arrived to regard Jean with a cold professional eye.
It is hardly conceivable that their well-meaning but impractical efforts could have resulted in anything approaching the abject they desired had they been allowed to take their course uninterrupted, but. as it happened, not Fate but an equally unaccountable deity step¡x>d in to defeat them. The spoke in the wheel was the soft human heart of I lenry Branch.
As the old groom came back from the committee’s office, whence he had been summoned to the telephone to receive Tony’s message, he observed a trim little figure in suffices kit standing somewhat forlornly by a resplendent pony. Susan attended to her own tack and her own grooming, ar.d Taffy did her credit. The red rosette which he wore as third prizewinner in his class suited him admirably.
Branch admired them both and, as his eye lighted on Susan’s yellow head and dejected expression, a rebellious and unfortunate thought entered his mind.
Miss Geraldine Partington-Drew could ride, but so could Miss Susan. Seemingly Sir Phil had lost sight of that. Branch had taken to Sweetandlow from the first. He liked his full, intelligent eyes, his pricked ears, and the friendly, almost confidential, way he hummered at him. In Branch’s opinion. Sweetandlow was a kind horse. If he had not been so sure of that, he would never have thought of using his proverbial deafness and notorious distrust of telephones as an excuse for what was, in reality, sheer disobedience.
A little farther.along the paddock behind the double row of cars round the ring, he saw Miss Geraldine on Bitter Aloes. She was ready early and was sitting, proud and supremely confident, waiting for her opportunity to shine.
Branch disliked her. He disliked the way she shouted at her grooms, he disliked her father’s glittering limousine, he thought her mare tixj good for her, and he dreaded the day when she should bring back Sir Phil from church on a halter.
He glanced at Susan again. In his mind’s eye saw her, flushed and triumphant, finishing a clean round on Sweetandlow; and he set out with a happy grin on his tightskinned face to interview her.
Susan heard the false message with astonishment and an unexpected thrill which she attributed quite erroneously
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to her interest in show jumping generally.
“Sir Phil’s compliments, and would you do him the very great favor of taking Sweetandlow over the jumps? Those were his words, miss.” Branch thought it best to omit Tony’s presence on the telephone for the sake of clarity. “He’s held up hisself on the road,” he added.
“He’s not hurt?” Susan blushed at her own anxiety and felt annoyed.
“No no, miss. It’s Mrs. Jean. She’s been took faint.”
“Jean faint? How extraordinary !”
Afterward Susan realized that she should have suspected the whole beastly business from that one illogical and unlikely circumstance. but at the time she was excited. She thought Phil was a supercilious and conceited oaf, but she was glad to know that even he recognized that her riding was good. The chance of challenging Geraldine on her own ground was inviting also.
“Come and see the horse, miss,” Branch persisted, anxious to get her in the saddle before his conscience got him down.
When Sweetandlow stepped daintily out of his box Susan laughed openly, because a strawberry roan with a white diamond over one eye is a comic spectacle. It may be supposed that Sweetandlow laughed too, for a private reason of his own.
“He’s got a mind of his own,” said Branch. “Powerful lot of character in those ears.”
Sweetandlow took Susan’s hat off and stood holding it foolishly in his soft muzzle. Susan’s heart was touched.
“He’s a darling, Branch,” she said, laughing. “A darling. Not a bit nappy either.”
“Nappy?” Branch laid a hand on the sleek withers. “He don’t know the meaning of the word. I’d let a baby crawl round his feet.”
When Susan slid into the saddle and gathered up her reins, she felt supremely happy.
Sweetandlow had the motion of an angel. His clownish face was more than offset by the magnificent dignity of his carriage, and he seemed to like her hands for he did not fidget with her. When she turned him away from the crowds and down to the long meadow behind the boxes, where a last-minute practice jump
had been erected by a thoughtful owner, he went without demur.
She set him at the jump and he took it as if he knew he was on trial, although there was only Branch to watch; and as Susan experienced the exquisite freedom of that smooth and lovely flight, her last qualms deserted her. She put him at it again, but he did not seem to need her guidance or encouragement. He jumped obligingly and lightheartedly. Branch was admiringly profane about him.
They spent so long playing with him that they almost missed their turn, and came up to join the others at the gate just as the first rider muffed the wall and rode off to the exit on the opposite side of the ring, disqualified.
Geraldine was fourth on the list, but she found time to sidle over to Susan. Her eyes were bright and suspicious.
“Whose horse is that?” she demanded brusquely, the briefness of the moment robbing her of even the semblance of courtesy.
Susan sighed. Her heart was warm.
“Phil Birlingstone’s,” she said. “He asked me if I’d take him round as a special favor. Isn’t he sweet? The—the horse, I mean.”
“Naturally,” said Geraldine sharply, and her expression was dangerous. “The horse seems all right. Phil is a little trusting, isn’t he?”
She turned and rode away, but Susan was not even momentarily annoyed. She was very very happy.
BITTER ALOES entered the ring on her toes. She was proud and black and beautiful. On her back rode Geraldine, firm and capable, and looking in her intense irritation rather magnificent.
The first two brushwood fences were taken without a fault. Bitter Aloes danced up to them, paused, took off like a rocket, and landed gracefully on the other side.
The gate, too, in all its frightening whiteness, was negotiated with style and distinction. So was the wall with the unpleasant loose bricks on top.
The crowd at the grandstand murmured its approval. Only once, at the penultimate jump, did the wand fall. The flying hoofs
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passed a fraction too near the pole, and the wand, lying loose upon it, fluttered to the ground behind them. Geraldine looked round, saw it, and said something short and spiteful. Bitter Aloes seemed to feel her failure and made a special effort at the final jump. She took off like a bird, cleared the water and the sand, and landed sweetly on the turf, to trot off to the exit with only half a mark against her.
Susan was still marvelling at the grace of that performance when she heard her own number called. Branch led her to the gates.
“Good luck, miss. A clean round and you’ll do it,’’ he murmured.
The steward motioned her forward, and they came out alone into the great ring with the formidable array of obstacles around it. She touched the roan gently with her heels.
“Now, darling,’’ she whispered.
And then, of course, it happened. Sweetandlow became aware of the crow’ds and the shining motor cars midway between the entrance and the first jump. He stopped dead, throwing Susan up his neck, and surveyed them, not with fear but with tremendous satisfaction.
After chivalrously waiting for her to I wriggle back into the saddle, he gave a ! little squeal and a buck of sheer pleasure I and set off for the first jump like an express train.
He took it so high that Susan felt they must never come down and steeled herself to steady him. But he did not need or notice her ministrations.
Having accomplished what he had set out to do, he looked back at the fence with so natural a movement that a spontaneous burst of laughter ran round the ring. Unfortunately, the sound was music in his ears.
He began to dance a little, not nervously or angrily but with a deliberate and wicked attempt to show off.
With her cheeks burning with shame and embarrassment, Susan tried to control him, but that soft responsive mouth which had seemed so sympathetic in the meadow was now made of solidified rubber. He was utterly unaware of her. His eyes were on the delighted and partially derisive crowd, and his ears were strained toward them.
I le took the next hedge sideways. It was ¡ a miraculous performance because he did j not break it. He actually cleared it. landj ing broadside on with a neigh that startled I every other horse on the ground.
This time the laughter became a little I hysterical, and Sweetandlow lost his head.
I He stood in the fairway, neighing, until the J judge’s megaphone bellowed to Susan to complete her round. She was almost in tears. 11er crop made no impression on the roan. 1 le was drunk with the sense of his own cleverness and had no mind for anyj thing else in the world.
She was wondering if she ought to get down and try to lead him out when he seemed to sense that he was losing his audience. He put down his head, saw the gate, disliked it. and bolted round it, flipping it neatly over with his heels as he passed.
The wall he charged.
SUSAN was terrified. In the split second before the crash, she saw herself lying in the heap of debris beneath him. But she had reckoned without his peculiar dramatic sense. He came to rest with his forelegs on the top of the wall and. after he had heard the laughter, he beat it down systematically and picked his way over the remaining board or two as daintily as if he were coming down the gangway of his box.
The next jump he cleared as gracefully and stylishly as Bitter Aloes had done, but without displacing the wand.
Susan was deaf and blind with misery. The crowd was a swimming mass of spitefulness, and the creature beneath her a fiend in equine shape.
She set him at the water jump and he played his last card. He unseated her. He did it quite deliberately in a neat calculating fashion that was positively insulting.
He stopped to pitch her up his neck just before the take-off and then soared into the air, putting in a diabolical wriggle under the saddle which shot her squarely into the water. He landed gracefully, shook himself, and had the effrontery to come back and watch her clambering out.
Susan grasped his bridle amid general laughter, handclapping, and hysterical badinage from the grooms.
Sweetandlow walked placidly beside her wet and bedraggled little figure. Just before they reached the exit he threw up his head and emitted one last paralyzing neigh.
They were all waiting for her as she came through the gates — a smiling Geraldine, a Phil who was not smiling, a grey-faced Branch, Tony and Jean, Jean in tears, and little Bill, Susan’s small cousin, clutching Taffy.
Susan only saw Phil. She led Sweetandlow up to him. She was shaken, humiliated, and as angry as it is possible for a young woman to be.
“Here’s your horse,” she said. “I won’t tell you what I think of either of you. You’re both clowns, filthy, cruel, not at all funny clowns, and I hope you both laugh yourselves to death.”
“Susan, I didn’t know—” Phil’s voice began, but Geraldine’s clear, ringing voice drowned the latter part of his sentence.
“Wildly amusing,” she said.
Susan ignored her. She felt her face was muddy and her clothes were clinging to her. She looked Phil full in the eyes.
“You did know,” she said, and, swinging herself onto Taffy’s back, rode out of the ground amid ribald enquiries and commiserations from the hangers-on.
They were trotting smartly down the Finchingtree Road, and Susan was permitting the tears to run freely down her muddy cheeks, when Sweetandlow overtook them.
He came bounding along happily, his ears forward and his white eye-patch glistening rakishly in the sun.
Susan was so surprised to see his leering head come up beside her that she forgot to wipe her tears away before glancing at his rider.
PHIL was very grave and a trifle pale. He was also breathless and wore no hat. “This beast is mad.” he said abruptly as Sweetandlow dropped into step beside Taffy and made a sly but unsuccessful attempt to tweak the red rosette from the pony’s headband. “He’s just jumped the bonnet of a car.”
“Where?” demanded Susan stupidly, startled out of her fury by the sensational news.
“Coming out of the ground. Thank heaven it was stationary.” Phil was breathing heavily. “I've lost my hat and my crop and my nerve. I say, Susan ...” Susan looked away. She felt deeply disillusioned, elderly and cynical.
“I don’t want to hear the joke explained,” she said briefly. “In fact, I may be quite without humor, but I don’t want to speak to you again, ever. Keep that brute away from Taffy! He's got his mane now.”
There was a scuffle beside her and she dug her heels into the pony’s sides. He trotted on obligingly, but started and kicked out as a strawberry muzzle playfully nipped his plump quarter as he passed. Susan’s anger blazed. She swung round, her face flushed and her eyes dangerously bright.
“Keep him away!” she exploded. “Haven’t you done enough without persecuting us? Keep him away !”
She caught a glimpse of Phil’s lean face as he struggled with that mouth of iron. It was long and somehow faintly pathetic.
“I can’t, woman ! Can’t you see I can’t?” he said with sudden and uncharacteristic helplessness. “Oh. Susan, have a heart.” Susan reined Taffy and sat staring up at
Sweetandlow’s rider. Sweetandlow himself was now blowing ingratiatingly at the pony, who showed signs of being beguiled.
“You knew what was going to happen,” she said accusingly. “You knew this beast was a rogue . . . No, not a rogue, perhaps, but a clown anyway. You knew it !”
Phil nodded gravely. “I guessed. He played the fool with me over at Tony’s place. Some schoolchildren climbed on the paddock rails and as soon as he saw them he began to behave like a lunatic. That was why I wriggled out of riding him. I’m terrified of him ! He’s possessed.”
“Then why thrust him onto me?” Susan was quivering.
“I didn’t, darling, I didn’t.” Phil was evidently unaware of the endearment. “I had no idea. I thought Tony had found out I was scared stiff of the creature. I dropped him a broad hint last night. I thought he was trying to let me down lightly so that he could get Geraldine to take the beast round. That’s why I played up when Jean put over a heart attack that wouldn’t have fooled a convocation of lay readers.”
Susan’s eyes snapped.
“Do you think Geraldine could have got him over those jumps this afternoon?”
Phil shrugged his shoulders. He looked wretched.
“No. But it wouldn’t have hurt her to try. She likes difficult horses. She’s so fearless and all that.”
Susan forgot herself.
“I hate fearless women,” she declared.
“So do I,” echoed Phil fervently. “I loathe them. They terrify me.”
SUSAN was gaping at him, but he went on doggedly.
“I’m going to make a confession to you. I never told this to another soul because I’m naturally pretty ashamed of it, but I must tell you, because if it hadn’t been true I’d never have let you in for that filthy experience this afternoon. I’m a horse funk. That’s why I stick to them. I hate being afraid. Every time I take a dirty jump my stomach turns over. That point-to-point I won frightened me out of my wits. When I saw you among those rabbit holes that day I yelled at you in pure terror, and you were naturally livid with me. So, when I suspected what this creature was capable of, I felt I’d rather crawl under the car and die than take him into the ring. I thought either Geraldine would master him and enjoy it, or he’d master her and enjoy it. I didn’t care which way it went. But when I got out of the car and saw you up, I nearly passed out. I’m sorry, Susan.”
Susan looked at Sweetandlow. He had now achieved Taffy’s rosette and was eating it thoughtfully.
“You got up on him to come after me?” she remarked.
Phil stared unhappily. He looked the most dejected object on earth.
“I had to tell you,” he said. “I had to explain. It’s bad enough to have you snubbing me every time you see me without knowing that you think I'm a louse as well.”
Susan was suddenly wildly and unreasonably happy. Her worldliness dropped from her shoulders, leaving her with a slightly irresponsible feeling of childlike satisfaction. With true feminine illogicalness, she discovered a violent sympathy with the villain of the piece.
“He’s not a bad horse,” she said, rubbing a small muddy hand over the roan’s white eye. “Rather sweet.”
“And low.” said Phil feelingly.
“I like him,” Susan persisted obstinately. “Would Tony sell him?”
Phil took her hand and looked at it for a long time.
“He might part up with him as a wedding present,” he said with unconvincing casualness. “Shall we put it up to him?” Susan looked up.
And then of course both horses started, but no one could blame them. It is a timehonored signal.
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