It was the eve of the great race, and scarcely a member of Lady Susan’s house-party had as yet a single bet on. It was one of those unsatisfactory years when one horse held a commanding market position, not by reason of any general belief in its crushing superiority, but because it was extremely difficult to pitch on any other candidate to whom to pin ones faith. Peradventure II was the favourite, not in the sense of being a popular fancy, but by virtue of a lack of confidence in any one of his rather undistinguished rivals. The brains of clubland were much exercised in seeking out possible merit where none was very obvious to the naked intelligence, and the house-party at Lady Susan’s was possessed by the same uncertainty and irresolution that infected wider circles.
“It is just the time for bringing off a good coup,” said Bertie van Tahn.
“Undoubtedly. But with what?” demanded Clovis for the twentieth time.
The women of the party were just as keenly interested in the matter, and just as helplessly perplexed; even the mother of Clovis, who usually got good racing information from her dressmaker, confessed herself fancy free on this occasion. Colonel Drake, who was professor of military history at a minor cramming establishment, was the only person who had a definite selection for the event, but as his choice varied every three hours he was worse than useless as an inspired guide. The crowning difficulty of the problem was that it could only be fitfully and furtively discussed. Lady Susan disapproved of racing. She disapproved of many things; some people went as far as to say that she disapproved of most things. Disapproval was to her what neuralgia and fancy needlework are to many other women. She disapproved of early morning tea and auction bridge, of ski-ing and the two-step, of the Russian ballet and the Chelsea Arts Club ball, of the French policy in Morocco and the British policy everywhere. It was not that she was particularly strict or narrow in her views of life, but she had been the eldest sister of a large family of self-indulgent children, and her particular form of indulgence had consisted in openly disapproving of the foibles of the others. Unfortunately the hobby had grown up with her. As she was rich, influential, and very, very kind, most people were content to count their early tea as well lost on her behalf. Still, the necessity for hurriedly dropping the discussion of an enthralling topic, and suppressing all mention of it during her presence on the scene, was an affliction at a moment like the present, when time was slipping away and indecision was the prevailing note.
After a lunch-time of rather strangled and uneasy conversation, Clovis managed to get most of the party together at the further end of the kitchen gardens, on the pretext of admiring the Himalayan pheasants. He had made an important discovery. Motkin, the butler, who (as Clovis expressed it) had grown prematurely grey in Lady Susan’s service, added to his other excellent qualities an intelligent interest in matters connected with the Turf. On the subject of the forthcoming race he was not illuminating, except in so far that he shared the prevailing unwillingness to see a winner in Peradventure II. But where he outshone all the members of the house-party was in the fact that he had a second cousin who was head stable-lad at a neighbouring racing establishment, and usually gifted with much inside information as to private form and possibilities. Only the fact of her ladyship having taken it into her head to invite a house-party for the last week of May had prevented Mr. Motkin from paying a visit of consultation to his relative with respect to the big race; there was still time to cycle over if he could get leave of absence for the afternoon on some specious excuse.
“Let’s jolly well hope he does,” said Bertie van Tahn; “under the circumstances a second cousin is almost as useful as second sight.”
“That stable ought to know something, if knowledge is to be found anywhere,” said Mrs. Packletide hopefully.
“I expect you’ll find he’ll echo my fancy for Motorboat,” said Colonel Drake.
At this moment the subject had to be hastily dropped. Lady Susan bore down upon them, leaning on the arm of Clovis’s mother, to whom she was confiding the fact that she disapproved of the craze for Pekingese spaniels. It was the third thing she had found time to disapprove of since lunch, without counting her silent and permanent disapproval of the way Clovis’s mother did her hair.
“We have been admiring the Himalayan pheasants,” said Mrs. Packletide suavely.
“They went off to a bird-show at Nottingham early this morning,” said Lady Susan, with the air of one who disapproves of hasty and ill-considered lying.
“Their house, I mean; such perfect roosting arrangements, and all so clean,” resumed Mrs. Packletide, with an increased glow of enthusiasm. The odious Bertie van Tahn was murmuring audible prayers for Mrs. Packletide’s ultimate estrangement from the paths of falsehood.
“I hope you don’t mind dinner being a quarter of an hour late to-night,” said Lady Susan; “Motkin has had an urgent summons to go and see a sick relative this afternoon. He wanted to bicycle there, but I am sending him in the motor.”
“How very kind of you! Of course we don’t mind dinner being put off.” The assurances came with unanimous and hearty sincerity.
At the dinner-table that night an undercurrent of furtive curiosity directed itself towards Motkin’s impassive countenance. One or two of the guests almost expected to find a slip of paper concealed in their napkins, bearing the name of the second cousin’s selection. They had not long to wait. As the butler went round with the murmured question, “Sherry?” he added in an even lower tone the cryptic words, “Better not.” Mrs. Packletide gave a start of alarm, and refused the sherry; there seemed some sinister suggestion in the butler’s warning, as though her hostess had suddenly become addicted to the Borgia habit. A moment later the explanation flashed on her that “Better Not” was the name of one of the runners in the big race. Clovis was already pencilling it on his cuff, and Colonel Drake, in his turn, was signalling to every one in hoarse whispers and dumb-show the fact that he had all along fancied “B.N.”
Early next morning a sheaf of telegrams went Townward, representing the market commands of the house-party and servants’ hall.
It was a wet afternoon, and most of Lady Susan’s guests hung about the hall, waiting apparently for the appearance of tea, though it was scarcely yet due. The advent of a telegram quickened every one into a flutter of expectancy; the page who brought the telegram to Clovis waited with unusual alertness to know if there might be an answer.
Clovis read the message and gave an exclamation of annoyance.
“No bad news, I hope,” said Lady Susan. Every one else knew that the news was not good.
“It’s only the result of the Derby,” he blurted out; “Sadowa won; an utter outsider.”
“Sadowa!” exclaimed Lady Susan; “you don’t say so! How remarkable! It’s the first time I’ve ever backed a horse; in fact I disapprove of horse-racing, but just for once in a way I put money on this horse, and it’s gone and won.”
“May I ask,” said Mrs. Packletide, amid the general silence, “why you put your money on this particular horse. None of the sporting prophets mentioned it as having an outside chance.”
“Well,” said Lady Susan, “you may laugh at me, but it was the name that attracted me. You see, I was always mixed up with the Franco-German war; I was married on the day that the war was declared, and my eldest child was born the day that peace was signed, so anything connected with the war has always interested me. And when I saw there was a horse running in the Derby called after one of the battles in the Franco-German war, I said I MUST put some money on it, for once in a way, though I disapprove of racing. And it’s actually won.”
There was a general groan. No one groaned more deeply than the professor of military history.