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Topper Takes A Trip
SIX WELL FIXED RACES
AT the races the next day Mr Topper found himself very much alone. From the alacrity with which his companions left him to his own devices Topper suspected the worst. He parked the car in front of the Casino with the quiet observation that in case of any slight misunderstanding giving rise to hot words and violence all hands were to rally round this spot with no loss of time. After locking the car he carefully secreted the keys in an inside pocket as a provision against possible double-crossing. Topper had no desire to be left alone with an infuriated race track. With promises that before the day was done the entire party would be self-supporting, the Colonel, with Oscar and the ladies, departed to make arrangements, of the exact nature of which Topper decided he would be more comfortable to remain in ignorance. However, he could not keep from wondering why they went to such elaborate trouble to acquire wealth when they could so easily loot a bank, pick well-lined pockets, or pillage the villas of the rich. Too tame, he decided. The Colonel enjoyed casting a thin veil of honesty over his nefarious transactions. The man was so tortuously crooked that he took pleasure in burlesquing honesty.
Some time later Mr Topper came face to face with the group of acquaintances that had witnessed his peculiar conduct at the English Bar. It was not an easy meeting on either side. Vividly recalling his meteoric departure from the place on the last occasion, these charming people were far from indifferent to the complications inherent in this present encounter. For all they could tell, this retired American banker might take it into his head to go swooping round the race track in hot pursuit of the horses. Or he might be seized by a violent attack of bouncing brought on by the excitement of the races. However, their fear of the strange potentialities of the man prompted them to mask their true emotions. He was cordially absorbed into the party and presently borne away to the club house, from the veranda of which he later saw not all, but nearly all, of what there was to be seen.
Owing to the undefinable nature of their activities it would be a far better thing to deal as briefly as possible with the Colonel and his companions rather than to enter into the details of how they set about eliminating the element of risk from six races. Suffice it to say that their plans had been carefully laid and most eventualities anticipated.
The ladies, gowned exquisitely and provided with all necessary credentials by a thorough and thoughtful Topper, by making promises of a most lurid character, succeeded in enticing a well-established bookmaker into a private room of the club house. Here the disillusioned man met with a reception far different from the one he had been given every reason to expect. In other words, he was the one to be disrobed, but first he was knocked both down and out. The Colonel thereupon appeared, and with his deft assistance the unfortunate gambler was stripped of his sportive outer garments, disclosing under ones of an even more sportive hue. After this he was bound, gagged, and dragged out of harm's way. The ladies then abandoned their own garments while making a concession to modesty by disappearing themselves. On the other hand, the Colonel, now suitably attired in the ravished outfit of the unconscious gambler, returned to the location frequented by that person, and thereupon began to lure, provoke, and browbeat large chunks of francs from members of the general public. All of the Colonel's betting arrangements, with a few exceptions, were strictly cash transactions, but as he quoted unusually favourable odds, that is, apparently favourable odds, and because of his impressive voice and eloquent gestures, he was soon virtually pauperizing a steady string of clients no less avaricious than himself but far more trustful. The fact that his trousers were a trifle short and his coat a shade over-styled slightly disturbed the fastidious sensibilities of this ex-army exquisite. Otherwise he was in his element. He even wondered regretfully why the idea had not occurred to him before.
Mr Topper, in the course of a short stroll, inadvertently came across the Colonel in full cry. Topper was considerably impressed and no little alarmed by the tremendous business the Colonel was doing.
'God help all the favourites,' he murmured as he turned away from the brilliant scene, speculating idly on the possible activities of Marion, Mrs Hart, and Oscar.
Had he been aware of the true nature of their activities his prayer would have been even more fervent. His heart would have gone out not only to the favourite for the first race, but also to entry number seven, contemptuously referred to by the French populace as an 'ootsaidaire', a term which Mr Topper later discovered simply meant an outsider — a horse far removed from the money.
Amalek, the favourite for the first race, and the horse upon which the hopes of many of the Colonel's victims were centred, was speedily found in his stall by the unobtrusively investigating ladies. According to the Colonel's instructions they began to work on this horse after first having concealed Oscar's rump beneath a pile of straw, a situation from which the curious creature seemed to derive some faint amusement, especially when he was able to make his colleagues scramble frantically with the straw when he thrust his tail through. A queer dog, Oscar, taking him all in all, which was difficult to do because he was seldom that way.
Marion and Mrs Hart then proceeded to disturb, dumbfound and infuriate Amalek — upon whose evenness of temper much money depended — into a condition bordering on homicidal irresponsibility. This was not difficult to accomplish. Such a trick as suddenly pulling out the horse's tongue and blowing on it immediately changed the animal's mental outlook. The unexpected repetition of this indignity just when the horse was beginning to believe that that was over, at any rate, served only to heighten his bitter resentment. It is bad enough to have one's tongue pulled out and blown on under the most favourable circumstances, but to have it pulled out by unseen hands and blown on by unseen lips is very much more disagreeable. At least, Amalek seemed to figure it out that way. The horse hated it. He was not only embarrassed but also alarmed. No one can say positively exactly what thoughts passed through his mind while his tongue was being pulled out, but it is probable he feared he was being attacked by some rare equine disease such as seizure of the tongue, or the latter half of that foot and mouth trouble he had heard so much about. Other arts and dodges were practised on Amalek, things that made him forget entirely about racing and think only of revenge. When Marion suddenly chattered in his ear like a demented squirrel Amalek was fit to be tied. For the safety of France he should have been tied. Amalek should have been securely tied to the post instead of started from it. A thumb tack gently tucked under his saddle completed the business of unseating the creature's reason. He broke into a cold sweat while still endeavouring to conceal his murderous purpose behind his wicked eyes. That thousands of francs had been wagered on his winning this race meant little or nothing to Amalek. If anything, the knowledge gave him a certain ironical satisfaction. The more fools his backers. Amalek intended to show the world that a race horse in good standing could not be subjected to the indignities he had suffered without swift and terrible retaliation. His hand was turned against man and beast alike. He would do things and go places.
With growing amazement Mr Topper's friends followed from the club-house veranda the impassioned reprisals of the horse. Topper was unamazed. Had he seen Amalek dragged bodily from the track and hurled into the bushes he would not have been amazed. He knew from past experiences how ruthless his absent companions could be once their interests had become involved.
But when Amalek left the track he did so of his own free will. Before his departure, however, he threw consternation into the ranks of the competing horses. Every living thing within reach he attacked with his teeth and heels. The only horse to escape his wrath was already so far behind in the race as to escape the attention of the general public. This was the Colonel's horse — his hand-picked favourite, number seven, lucky number seven, ironically known as Le Plongeur, or, in a reasonable language, the Diver.
Topper had been mysteriously advised to bet his francs on this tattered shred of horseflesh. He had done so. And because of the weird proclivities his friends attributed to him they also had wagered heavily on the seemingly impossible success of this ruined 'ootsaidaire'.
Upon the shoulders of Marion and Mrs Hart and the rump of Oscar devolved the responsibility of seeing to it that Amalek and the Diver reversed the logical order of march. It was a heavy responsibility and one that involved no little activity. In fact, all hands were exceedingly busy.
While Amalek employed himself in the line of unseating jockeys with his teeth, deflecting honest horses from their courses with his feet and making a menace of himself in general, Marion, with the rear end of Oscar, hurried to the same end of the shambling Diver and incited the dog to attack. At the first sharp nip at his fetlocks Le Plongeur, or lucky number seven, stopped effortlessly in his tracks and looked back to see what new affliction his God had seen fit to punish him with for not having run faster in the days of his youth. Marion, standing well out of the way of the horse's hoofs, eyed his reactions with professional interest. She figured out that even the slowest horse, if bitten by the rump of a dog, would feel inclined to move a trifle faster. She was right. Le Plongeur blinked several times very rapidly as if to clear his eyes of the familiar dust of other horses, then he bent his gaze more intently upon the semi-detached rump of Oscar. Once more the Diver blinked, this time to clear them of a vision far more disturbing than dust. As realization slowly dawned upon the dim mind behind the eyes, an expression of horror overspread the poor animal's face and continued on until his entire body was held in the clutch of fear. Here was an object to be avoided at all costs. Here at last was a cause that justified real honest-to-God leg work. It was then that the Diver started into a run such as neither he nor any other horse had ever run before. The inspired speed of his mount was even more of a surprise to the jockey than it was to the horse itself. Gamely he stuck to various sections of the flying beast and hoped that his luck would last. Even had Amalek not involved his fellow horses together with their riders in a hand-to-hand combat for survival itself, the Colonel's choice would have won by several convulsive lengths.
'Will someone more familiar than I with the finer nuances of racing kindly explain to me what the hell Amalek thinks he's doing with himself and all these other horses?' Millie Coit inquired in a hushed voice.
'That seems fairly obvious,' Blynn Nelson replied. 'After having either murdered or mutilated all other competitors in the race save one he is now trying to climb the fence in order to attack the judges' stand in the rear.'
'I can count at least four jockeys struggling in agony on the track,' vouchsafed Harold Gay. 'And just a moment ago I fancied I caught a glimpse of a dog that was not all there. Of course I must be wrong.' Mr Gay removed his field-glasses from his eyes and looked suggestively at Mr Topper. 'What little I saw of the dog,' the speaker added slowly, 'looked startlingly familiar. Would you care to look, Mr Topper?'
'Heaven forbid,' replied Mr Topper hastily. 'I'm seeing too much as it is with my naked eyes.'
Oscar, having seen the Diver off to a good start, concealed his invaluable rump in a flower bed and awaited further demands upon his peculiar talents. By this time the stands were quite naturally in an uproar. The judges were trying to throw their hands away while discharging streams of inquiries and objections in the general direction of God. The once proud owner of Amalek was sneaking down a side street and seriously entertaining ideas of assuming a disguise. His horse, his magnificent Amalek, he now considered an unclean reptile. Little did that matter to the reptile himself. Having tossed his jockey to the winds, he had succeeded in putting the fence between himself and the track. Here, in the centre of the field, he was now defying man, beast, and God to get together and try to do something about all the horrid things he had done.
While the other demoralized horses were casting about for their jockeys, the Diver, with stark terror in his eyes, tore along the track in an earnest effort to remove himself as far as possible from the thing he refused even to think about. It was a neat display of concentrated space-eating speed. In spite of the fact that the Diver's success would be their loss, the spectators began to cheer.
Hunt Davis, who had been born and bred in blue-grass regions, rubbed his eyes in bewilderment.
'Damn me,' he observed in an admiring voice, 'if I ever saw a horse run any faster than that in all my born days. Looks like he's downright scared about something. Maybe he'll kill his fool self.'
'Not before he wins, I hope,' said Millie Coit. 'That's our own little private favourite, that rocket out there. After he's made it a race he can die a thousand deaths, and may God rest his soul each time.'
'Then Topper was right about betting on him,' advanced Waddles. 'I wonder how he knew?'
'One wonders no end of things about dear Mr Topper,' observed Mrs Blake Willard insinuatingly. 'For example, how does the man contrive to play such an astonishing game of tennis?'
'Isn't there enough to wonder about?' Mr Topper mildly interposed. 'Both Amalek and our Diver there are more astonishing than I am.'
'So long as he makes me a rich woman,' Millie Coit declared, 'I don't give a rap how he goes about it.'
While this casual discussion was going on, so was the Diver. Lucky number seven was going on and on and on. Even now it is not definitely known whether he ever stopped. When he found himself face to face with the finishing line he was seen to hesitate for the first time in the course of his mad progress. Now the Diver knew nothing at all about finishing lines. He may have heard of such things, but the crowd had never waited long enough to let him complete a race. Before the tragic eyes of the judges and in the presence of the hooting multitude the horse felt out of place and alone. Should he go on with this new venture? He looked back fearfully, then the memory of that terrible nipping rump bounding so jauntily about the track overcame the horse's embarrassment. Emulating his name he plunged past the post. If he did not win the race he might lose his life. This was no time to stand on ceremony. As fresh as if the race had just begun, the Diver kept on going.
'We'll have to send a wireless to that horse's jockey to let the beggar know he won,' Commander Becket remarked in a disgusted voice. 'I've seen horses run in all parts of the world, but this is about the raggedest race in my recollection.'
However, the retired naval officer was destined to witness even raggeder races than this one before the day was done. From the first race to the last, things went from bad to worse. Horses grew more restive and jockeys less sure of their seats — less sure of anything, for that matter. The concerted efforts of Marion, Mrs Hart, and Oscar succeeded so well in unnerving the horses for the second and third races that only a few of them were able to appear in public, the heavy-money horses invariably losing to the most unexpected entries. Apparently the goddess of chance was at last taking pity on physical wrecks in the line of horseflesh.
The fourth race was perhaps the most ridiculously futile of all. It was won by a deaf horse. And the deaf horse won this race solely because she was a deaf horse and consequently unable to hear the disconcerting and objectionable sounds Marion Kerby and Mrs Hart cleverly created the impression the other horses were making. No brain other than that of a woman could have conceived a device so embarrassing both to the horses and to their jockeys. Even the starter was involved in the misunderstanding arising from what the poor chap had every reason to believe to be a group of talking, cursing, and vulgarly offensive horses. The only horse that appeared to retain both her poise and her self-respect was named La Sorcière. And La Sorcière was deaf. Stone-deaf.
As the already nervous animals were busily engaged in lining up at the starting barrier, Marion Kerby, placing herself close to the mouth of one of them, suddenly smote the air with a wild, unnatural scream. The horse, greatly upset, strove to give the impression that such a desperate, unhorselike sound could not have issued from him. He turned his head and looked accusingly at his neighbour, who in turn looked severely at the horse next to him. And this kept up until finally all the horses were looking frowningly at each other. To see a number of horses suspiciously inspecting each other's faces is an unusual thing. Very. At any rate, the starter seemed to think so. He, too, looked suspiciously at all the horses, his scrutiny including their jockeys. When Mrs Hart contrived to place a truly dreadful sound in the mouth of still another horse the starter started himself. He was moved to words.
'Gentlemen,' he said, addressing the jockeys of the two offending horses, 'is it that your mounts are in pain? Such noises sound far from well. They are, truly, altogether new to me, those sounds.'
The two accused jockeys stoutly denied the imputation that their horses were anything other than the healthiest and most well bred of beasts. Monsieur the starter must be thinking of a couple of other horses.
A burst of ironical and defiant jeers interrupted these protestations. La Sorcière alone, of all the horses, retained her poise.
'A thousand thunders!' exclaimed the starter. 'You must do something about all this. Your horses, they are unbecomingly boisterous. Quiet them, if you please.'
'One thousand and one thunders!' shouted a horse in a reckless voice. 'No more nor no less.'
The starter looked pained at being out-thundered by a mere horse. He looked even more so when an especially offensive noise issued from a horse standing in the centre of the group. Even the horse's jockey looked a trifle dismayed. It was such a sound as crude persons employ when giving another person the raspberry in almost any language. The starter had his own ideas about being given the raspberry in French. He looked angrily at the jockey.
'Your horse,' he demanded, 'did you make him to push that distressing noise?'
'M'sieu,' protested the jockey, 'is it that you fancy I would encourage my little cabbage to give issue to a sound so unrefined as that?'
The starter had his doubts about this. The jockey's reputation was none too savoury. His mount had a mean eye — far from one of refinement. The starter intimated as much. Marion tugged the horse over to the starter and by a series of irritating pinches made the frightened and bewildered creature endeavour to deposit his front feet heavily upon the starter's chest. The starter climbed up on the fence and disqualified both horse and rider. High-pitched neighs of derision now became general among the horses. Marion and Mrs Hart were in full tongue. Surprisingly effeminate shrieks and catcalls fell from the lips of the perturbed jockeys. In the midst of this hubbub one jockey was distinctly heard to allude suspiciously to the sex of another jockey. The upshot of this was an exchange of blows and several new disqualifications. By this time it was a toss-up between the horses and the starter as to which would be disqualified first. It was obvious that the horses were as unfit to start as the official was to start them. He was brought to a full realization of his ridiculous position when he heard La Sorcière announce in a bored but ladylike voice:
'Monsieur the starter, one grows fatigued on one's feet. Me, I am prepared to march.'
This public rebuke by the least favoured of animals on four legs was just a little too much for Monsieur the starter. He released the few remaining qualified horses and departed in search of a substitute to take his place. Under the circumstances the horses ran as well as could be expected, but it was plain to see that their thoughts were on other matters. They could not be disturbed by mere racing. La Sorcière, anxious to retire from the public eye to the comfort and seclusion of her stall, hurried right along. As a result of the indifference of her competitors the Colonel had the satisfaction of seeing still another of his favourites jounce home a winner. It is doubtful if La Sorcière even realized she had actually won a race, and as no one could tell her about it she probably never found out.
For the fifth race the Colonel radically altered his method of procedure. Instead of picking a favourite, his instructions were merely that at all costs John Bull and Coquette should be prevented from placing.
'How will we do that?' Mrs Hart inquired. 'Do you expect us to wrestle with a couple of infuriated horses?'
The Colonel shrugged indifferently.
'That's your end of the game,' he replied. 'Don't bother me. Why not hang on to the beggars' tails?'
'That's our end of the game,' said Mrs Hart.
'Not a bad end either,' replied Marion. 'We need a little diversion.'
Accordingly, when the fifth race started, Marion and Mrs Hart, clinging gamely to the tails of John Bull and Coquette respectively, found themselves being hurtled through space amid a great clattering of hoofs.
'Gord!' gasped Mrs Hart. 'I might be invisible to the eye, but I still retain some feelings.'
'These fool horses aren't giving us a tumble,' complained Marion. 'Might just as well not be here at all.'
'Do you find the motion soothing?' asked Mrs Hart.
'A little hard to breathe,' admitted Marion.
'Hang on for the first turn!' cried Mrs Hart.
'Oh, why did we ever take up racing?' asked Marion. 'This is no place for a lady.'
'Not even for a kite,' said Mrs Hart. 'Port your helm.'
After they had weathered the perils of the first turn the conversation was resumed.
'I'm a grand old flag and I'm tied to a nag,' Marion sang out.
'I'd like to give Coquette a piece of my mind,' said Mrs Hart. 'The old girl has a wicked wobble.'
It was only to be expected that this steady flow of conversation between the two ladies should arouse some interest on the part of the jockeys. The need to know just who was doing all this talking right behind their backs became so urgent that both of them turned round in their saddles in an attempt to discover its source. This manoeuvre caused them to sacrifice much valuable ground.
'At whom are you looking, my old?' Marion asked nastily in French.
'What a repulsive face mine has,' observed Mrs Hart.
'From where I am I'm not getting a noble view of horseflesh,' Marion announced.
'Far from it,' replied Mrs Hart. 'In fact, I'm getting a very low opinion of horses in general.'
'If John looks as bad in front as he does behind,' commented Marion, 'I'd hate to meet him face to face.'
'It couldn't be worse than the face of my jockey,' declared Mrs Hart in plain but painful French.
The jockeys were getting mad. They were burning up. The intensely personal remarks of the ladies had deeply wounded their impressionable French natures. No man likes to have such insinuations made about his face. The insulted jockeys found themselves unable to concentrate on the important business at hand. Their mounts began to lag farther and farther behind. They were growing weary of the pace.
Meanwhile the two ladies were considering what next to try to discourage John Bull and Coquette and to humiliate their jockeys. The last turn lay close ahead. The animals might be holding back for the home stretch.
'I'm going to twist this devil's tail,' announced Marion. 'I'll try it on mine, too,' said Mrs Hart. 'Clean off.'
Upon the putting of this crude suggestion to the test it was the horses that looked back this time. With large, inquiring eyes they inspected their twisted tails. What was going on back there, they wondered. Why should anyone want to do that to them? There was something sinister about all this. The interest of the horses in their tails was fatal to their heads. Speeding blindly as they were in a semicircular position, they suddenly became entangled and fell in a large, untidy heap from which their jockeys, more indignant than injured, presently emerged with a couple of stories to tell that no one ever believed. Once more the Colonel's will had been done.
'That makes us all the richer,' said Mrs Hart as the two ladies returned to the starter's barrier in search of Oscar, whose services would be needed in the last race.
'In experience as well as francs,' remarked Marion. 'No more horsefly tactics for me.'
'I felt like a sneeze in an earthquake,' Mrs Hart declared.
'Neatly turned,' said Marion.
For the sixth race the Colonel had perversely set his heart on a veteran of many decades, Voiturette, a name which at the time of the animal's christening had meant little carriage because in those remote days motors were still unknown in the provinces. In all of France there was not a follower of the track who expected this horse to do anything other than to occupy her customary position to the rear. In this the Colonel, Mr Topper, and his friends were the lucky exceptions, Topper having been previously advised to place all his winnings on her success. Voiturette had been playing anchor horse for so many years that she had become a well loved national institution.
In the bushes near the starting barrier Marion and Mrs Hart were having a desperate time with Oscar. For the sake of originality they had set their hearts on making the dog utilize his head in order to gain their ends. Oscar could not understand.
'Oscar,' Marion was pleading, 'this is a serious matter. Won't you forget your rump for a moment and be just a head — a terrible head with lots of teeth and a leer, perhaps?'
'Yes,' chimed in Mrs Hart sweetly. 'Show all the bad horses your pretty teeth, old kid. Snap from a tail to a head.'
'Come on, Oscar,' urged Marion. 'It's heads we win, tails we lose. How about it?'
Oscar's rump was quivering nervously. He seemed to realize that something good — something extra special — was expected of him. And although he did not know exactly what this was he was trying his best to please. Crouched down in the bushes he concentrated on the business until the sweat dripped from his almost invisible body. Part after part of himself he materialized in the hope that one of his offerings would give satisfaction. Because he was using his head so furiously he completely forgot to display it.
'He doesn't seem to know he has a head,' Mrs Hart complained in a low voice. 'All those parts he's been showing us might do — God knows they're awful enough — but for the last race of the day they don't seem sufficiently spectacular.'
'We haven't much time left,' muttered Marion. 'If Oscar doesn't do a head soon we'll lose our pants. Don't be a duffer, Oscar, old dear. Make a nice head for the ladies — a nice, awful head.'
This odd entreaty gave inspiration to Mrs Hart.
'Be a mad dog, Oscar,' she suddenly commanded.
In Oscar's confused mind these words struck sparks of intelligence. Certainly he would be a mad dog for the ladies. He knew all about playing mad dog. It was one of his favourite games. Why hadn't they asked him the first time? Suddenly and grippingly Oscar's rump gave place to a head. Both ladies instinctively edged away. Even when one expected the worst of Oscar it was no laughing matter to get used to him. His mouth was flecked with foam, his eyes rolled insanely, he did revolting things with his tongue, and his dripping fangs could not be long endured by human eyes, much less by those of a high-strung horse.
'For the love of God,' breathed Marion, 'he's about the maddest damned mad dog I ever did see.'
'He's cute,' said Mrs Hart a little nervously. 'But the Colonel should do things like this. After all, Oscar's his dog. I hope the beast doesn't take this business too seriously. One sight of him will kill most of those poor horses.'
'Yes,' reflected Marion. 'It would take years and years of the closest intimacy for any horse to get used to that head. Nevertheless, better a few dead horses than a financially crippled Colonel. Guess we ought to congratulate the poor idiot.'
'Isn't he cunning?' exclaimed Mrs Hart in a false voice, gazing with difficulty upon the horrible head. 'Don't bite me, mad dog — ugh, you're just too awful for words!'
Pleased by this tribute, Oscar made a few playful practice snaps in the general direction of the ladies, who huddled together in space.
'I don't think he's ever been quite so mad as all that,' murmured Mrs Hart. 'Do you think he's really just playing?'
'Well,' replied Marion with conviction, 'I'm not going to show a scrap of my body to find out.'
'If he isn't in earnest,' said Mrs Hart, 'he certainly has a slap-stick sense of humour.'
'He's all right,' answered Marion. 'After all, slapstick humour is merely the laughter its critics wish they could have created themselves. It's close to the hearts of the gods. The pie has not yet been thrown that I can't laugh at.'
'It's mighty hard to get a laugh out of Oscar,' Mrs Hart observed. 'He's the most frightful display of ectoplasm I've ever had the unhappiness to meet.'
'We've got to snap to it,' said Marion as the horses began to arrive at the barrier. 'Take that around to the first turn where there aren't any close observers. When the main body of horses come along, turn it loose about fifteen yards in front of them and tell him to go plumb crazy. I'll hold Little Carriage well in the rear until that dog has had his day.'
With her enthusiastically mad dog, Mrs Hart departed through the bushes that luckily hid him from view. Marion drifted over to the head of Little Carriage and unobtrusively placed her hand on the grand old mud hen's bridle. All was now in readiness for the final race of the day.
'Good!' exclaimed Commander Becket as the horses broke evenly from the barrier. 'Looks as if we were going to have a real race this time.'
'They're off to a good start, at last,' agreed Millie Coit. 'All except our horse. There's only one way I can't stand being ruined, and that is financially.'
Be calm, my dear,' said Mr Topper knowingly. 'Voiturette can't lose this race. They've been saving her for years.'
'Looks mighty like she's still being saved,' remarked Harold Gay.
'Indeed it does,' put in Blynn Nelson. 'If they don't begin to draw a little interest soon I'll have to sell a fleet of motor boats to break even with my obscure little wine dealer.'
Running low and well in a flying wedge the horses were nearing the first turn. Proceeding leisurely from the barrier came Little Carriage, nervously trying to free her bridle from the disturbing grasp of an unseen hand. Little Carriage did not mind trotting slowly through a race, but she did not exactly fancy walking through one. In a few years, perhaps, but —
Then Oscar, suddenly pushed by Mrs Hart, made his cataclysmic appearance. His immediate vicinity seemed to be composed entirely of jaws and teeth, both working with a will. The day was done for the horses so far as racing was concerned. If a horse breathed that was so anxious to win a race as to pass that head, he or she could have all three places for the asking. The flying wedge put on the emergency and skidded. For a moment it looked at Oscar's working face, then wheeled about and sped back in the direction whence it had come.
'What's this?' demanded the Commander indignantly. 'It's a rout, by God, not a race. A shameful retreat. I'd rather lose all my money than all my wits.'
The majority of the spectators seemed to be of the same opinion. A great clamour arose. This last race was just a little too steep for the best natured of crowds.
As the horses passed Voiturette plodding along in the opposite direction no greetings were exchanged. The poor creature looked wistfully after her friends as they rushed by on either side. Reluctantly she yielded to the unseen but not unheard tugging at her bridle. Marion was cursing steadily. An unpremeditated glimpse of Oscar's head peering drippingly through the bushes caused Little Carriage to sit down with a gasp of dismay. This is perhaps the first time on record that a body of racing enthusiasts has ever been treated to the spectacle of a solitary horse sitting in the middle of a race track while the main body of competitors were doing their best to get themselves off it as speedily as possible. Philosophically the jockey belonging to Voiturette clung to the grotesquely squatting horse and contented himself with hoping that the animal would not lie down entirely and die so far from home and friends.
It was at this point that Marion lost her temper. She not only took the bit but also the teeth of the sitting horse, and endeavoured to pull them out of her head. Failing this, she rushed to the rear of the horse and kicked her vigorously. And all the while she maintained a steady stream of indecent language. The jockey, who could only understand English when it was cursed, understood a lot of it now. Finally her efforts were rewarded. Voiturette, growing weary of being kicked, rose and plodded off down the track, Marion tugging her furiously by the bridle.
'That animal gives me the impression that someone is pulling it along,' said Clyde Jones. 'See how its neck stretches out and jerks back sort of protestingly.'
'Looks as if our horse is going to win in a walk,' observed Commander Becket. 'First time I ever saw a race won in a walk.'
'You'll see this one won in a creep,' replied Millie.
As Little Carriage came into the home stretch the demonstration swelled to a terrific outburst. Voiturette's squatting act had restored the crowd to good-humour. What with kicking, swearing, and pulling, Marion Kerby was nearly winded. Entering into the spirit of the occasion the jockey bowed ironically in the direction of the stands. Slowly and painfully the old horse approached both her own and the race's finish. Step by step her stiff joints cut down the few remaining yards. From the crowd in the paddock boomed the deep voice of the Colonel.
'Speed, Little Motor!' he shouted.
'Mind your own damn business,' came back the bitter voice of an unseen woman. 'Keep your stolen shirt on. I'm practically carrying her as it is.'
Far off on the brow of a gently rising hill the brave steeds that had so gallantly started the race were ingloriously tearing up turf in their anxiety to obliterate for all time the memory of the horror their eyes had looked on that day. Unseated and disgruntled jockeys were limpingly returning from all points of the compass. When Voiturette dragged her exhausted body across the finishing line the amazed and delighted French multitude — for once forgetting its love of francs — tore loose and gave the old girl a new thrill. Within the space of her own length from the line she let go her legs and hit the track with a grunt. From that spot she refused either to budge or to be budged. Little Carriage was through. She had won her first and last race.
Marion brushed the palms of her hands together and drew a deep breath. It had been a tough race for her, and she felt tough.
'If I ever see another horse again during the remainder of my supernatural days,' she muttered, 'I'll choke its blooming tongue out.'
Snatching a hip flask from the pocket of the nearest bystander, she hurried across the field, guzzling as she went. When she picked up Oscar and Mrs Hart she was feeling decidedly better.
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