"His foot's upon his native heath, His name's--Val Dartie."
With some such feeling did Val Dartie, in the fortieth year of his age, set out that same Thursday morning very early from the old manor-house he had taken on the north side of the Sussex Downs. His destination was Newmarket, and he had not been there since the autumn of 1899, when he stole over from Oxford for the Cambridgeshire. He paused at the door to give his wife a kiss, and put a flask of port into his pocket.
"Don't overtire your leg, Val, and don't bet too much."
With the pressure of her chest against his own, and her eyes looking into his, Val felt both leg and pocket safe. He should be moderate; Holly was always right--she had a natural aptitude. It did not seem so remarkable to him, perhaps, as it might to others, that--half Dartie as he was--he should have been perfectly faithful to his young first cousin during the twenty years since he married her romantically out in the Boer War; and faithful without any feeling of sacrifice or boredom--she was so quick, so slyly always a little in front of his mood. Being first cousins they had decided, rather needlessly, to have no children; and, though a little sallower, she had kept her looks, her slimness, and the colour of her dark hair. Val particularly admired the life of her own she carried on, besides carrying on his, and riding better every year. She kept up her music, she read an awful lot--novels, poetry, all sorts of stuff. Out on their farm in Cape colony she had looked after all the "nigger" babies and women in a miraculous manner. She was, in fact, clever; yet made no fuss about it, and had no "side." Though not remarkable for humility, Val had come to have the feeling that she was his superior, and he did not grudge it--a great tribute. It might be noted that he never looked at Holly without her knowing of it, but that she looked at him sometimes unawares.
He had kissed her in the porch because he should not be doing so on the platform, though she was going to the station with him, to drive the car back. Tanned and wrinkled by Colonial weather and the wiles inseparable from horses, and handicapped by the leg which, weakened in the Boer War, had probably saved his life in the War just past, Val was still much as he had been in the days of his courtship; his smile as wide and charming, his eyelashes, if anything, thicker and darker, his eyes screwed up under them, as bright a grey, his freckles rather deeper, his hair a little grizzled at the sides. He gave the impression of one who has lived actively with horses in a sunny climate.
Twisting the car sharp round at the gate, he said:
"When is young Jon coming?"
"Is there anything you want for him? I could bring it down on Saturday."
"No; but you might come by the same train as Fleur--one-forty."
Val gave the Ford full rein; he still drove like a man in a new country on bad roads, who refuses to compromise, and expects heaven at every hole.
"That's a young woman who knows her way about," he said. "I say, has it struck you?"
"Yes," said Holly.
"Uncle Soames and your Dad--bit awkward, isn't it?"
"She won't know, and he won't know, and nothing must be said, of course. It's only for five days, Val."
"Stable secret! Righto!" If Holly thought it safe, it was. Glancing slyly round at him, she said: "Did you notice how beautifully she asked herself?"
"Well, she did. What do you think of her, Val?"
"Pretty and clever; but she might run out at any corner if she got her monkey up, I should say."
"I'm wondering," Holly murmured, "whether she is the modern young woman. One feels at sea coming home into all this."
"You? You get the hang of things so quick."
Holly slid her hand into his coat-pocket.
"You keep one in the know," said Val encouraged. "What do you think of that Belgian fellow, Profond?"
"I think he's rather 'a good devil.'"
"He seems to me a queer fish for a friend of our family. In fact, our family is in pretty queer waters, with Uncle Soames marrying a Frenchwoman, and your Dad marrying Soames's first. Our grandfathers would have had fits!"
"So would anybody's, my dear."
"This car," Val said suddenly, "wants rousing; she doesn't get her hind legs under her uphill. I shall have to give her her head on the slope if I'm to catch that train."
There was that about horses which had prevented him from ever really sympathising with a car, and the running of the Ford under his guidance compared with its running under that of Holly was always noticeable. He caught the train.
"Take care going home; she'll throw you down if she can. Good-bye, darling."
"Good-bye," called Holly, and kissed her hand.
In the train, after quarter of an hour's indecision between thoughts of Holly, his morning paper, the look of the bright day, and his dim memory of Newmarket, Val plunged into the recesses of a small square book, all names, pedigrees, tap-roots, and notes about the make and shape of horses. The Forsyte in him was bent on the acquisition of a certain strain of blood, and he was subduing resolutely as yet the Dartie hankering for a Nutter. On getting back to England, after the profitable sale of his South African farm and stud, and observing that the sun seldom shone, Val had said to himself: "I've absolutely got to have an interest in life, or this country will give me the blues. Hunting's not enough, I'll breed and I'll train." With just that extra pinch of shrewdness and decision imparted by long residence in a new country, Val had seen the weak point of modern breeding. They were all hypnotised by fashion and high price. He should buy for looks, and let names go hang! And here he was already, hypnotised by the prestige of a certain strain of blood! Half-consciously, he thought: 'There's something in this damned climate which makes one go round in a ring. All the same, I must have a strain of Mayfly blood.'
In this mood he reached the Mecca of his hopes. It was one of those quiet meetings favourable to such as wish to look into horses, rather than into the mouths of bookmakers; and Val clung to the paddock. His twenty years of Colonial life, divesting him of the dandyism in which he had been bred, had left him the essential neatness of the horseman, and given him a queer and rather blighting eye over what he called "the silly haw-haw" of some Englishmen, the "flapping cockatoory" of some English-women--Holly had none of that and Holly was his model. Observant, quick, resourceful, Val went straight to the heart of a transaction, a horse, a drink; and he was on his way to the heart of a Mayfly filly, when a slow voice said at his elbow:
"Mr. Val Dartie? How's Mrs. Val Dartie? She's well, I hope." And he saw beside him the Belgian he had met at his sister Imogen's.
"Prosper Profond--I met you at lunch," said the voice.
"How are you?" murmured Val.
"I'm very well," replied Monsieur Profond, smiling with a certain inimitable slowness. "A good devil," Holly had called him. Well! He looked a little like a devil, with his dark, clipped, pointed beard; a sleepy one though, and good-humoured, with fine eyes, unexpectedly intelligent.
"Here's a gentleman wants to know you--cousin of yours--Mr. George Forsyde."
Val saw a large form, and a face clean-shaven, bull-like, a little lowering, with sardonic humour bubbling behind a full grey eye; he remembered it dimly from old days when he would dine with his father at the Iseeum Club.
"I used to go racing with your father," George was saying: "How's the stud? Like to buy one of my screws?"
Val grinned, to hide the sudden feeling that the bottom had fallen out of breeding. They believed in nothing over here, not even in horses. George Forsyte, Prosper Profond! The devil himself was not more disillusioned than those two.
"Didn't know you were a racing man," he said to Monsieur Profond.
"I'm not. I don't care for it. I'm a yachtin' man. I don't care for yachtin' either, but I like to see my friends. I've got some lunch, Mr. Val Dartie, just a small lunch, if you'd like to 'ave some; not much--just a small one--in my car."
"Thanks," said Val; "very good of you. I'll come along in about quarter of an hour."
"Over there. Mr. Forsyde's comin'," and Monsieur Profond "poinded" with a yellow-gloved finger; "small car, with a small lunch"; he moved on, groomed, sleepy, and remote, George Forsyte following, neat, huge, and with his jesting air.
Val remained gazing at the Mayfly filly. George Forsyte, of course, was an old chap, but this Profond might be about his own age; Val felt extremely young, as if the Mayfly filly were a toy at which those two had laughed. The animal had lost reality.
"That 'small' mare"--he seemed to hear the voice of Monsieur Profond- -"what do you see in her?--we must all die!"
And George Forsyte, crony of his father, racing still! The Mayfly strain--was it any better than any other? He might just as well have a flutter with his money instead.
"No, by gum!" he muttered suddenly, "if it's no good breeding horses, it's no good doing anything. What did I come for? I'll buy her."
He stood back and watched the ebb of the paddock visitors toward the stand. Natty old chips, shrewd portly fellows, Jews, trainers looking as if they had never been guilty of seeing a horse in their lives; tall, flapping, languid women, or brisk, loud-voiced women; young men with an air as if trying to take it seriously--two or three of them with only one arm.
'Life over here's a game!' thought Val. 'Muffin bell rings, horses run, money changes hands; ring again, run again, money changes back.'
But, alarmed at his own philosophy, he went to the paddock gate to watch the Mayfly filly canter down. She moved well; and he made his way over to the "small" car. The "small" lunch was the sort a man dreams of but seldom gets; and when it was concluded Monsieur Profond walked back with him to the paddock.
"Your wife's a nice woman," was his surprising remark.
"Nicest woman I know," returned Val dryly.
"Yes," said Monsieur Profond; "she has a nice face. I admire nice women."
Val looked at him suspiciously, but something kindly and direct in the heavy diabolism of his companion disarmed him for the moment.
"Any time you like to come on my yacht, I'll give her a small cruise."
"Thanks," said Val, in arms again, "she hates the sea."
"So do I," said Monsieur Profond.
"Then why do you yacht?"
The Belgian's eyes smiled. "Oh! I don't know. I've done everything; it's the last thing I'm doin'."
"It must be d-d expensive. I should want more reason than that."
Monsieur Prosper Profond raised his eyebrows, and puffed out a heavy lower lip.
"I'm an easy-goin' man," he said.
"Were you in the War?" asked Val.
"Ye-es. I've done that too. I was gassed; it was a small bit unpleasant." He smiled with a deep and sleepy air of prosperity, as if he had caught it from his name.
Whether his saying "small" when he ought to have said "little" was genuine mistake or affectation Val could not decide; the fellow was evidently capable of anything.
Among the ring of buyers round the Mayfly filly who had won her race, Monsieur Profond said:
"You goin' to bid?"
Val nodded. With this sleepy Satan at his elbow, he felt in need of faith. Though placed above the ultimate blows of Providence by the forethought of a grand-father who had tied him up a thousand a year to which was added the thousand a year tied up for Holly by her grand-father, Val was not flush of capital that he could touch, having spent most of what he had realised from his South African farm on his establishment in Sussex. And very soon he was thinking: 'Dash it! she's going beyond me!' His limit-six hundred-was exceeded; he dropped out of the bidding. The Mayfly filly passed under the hammer at seven hundred and fifty guineas. He was turning away vexed when the slow voice of Monsieur Profond said in his ear:
"Well, I've bought that small filly, but I don't want her; you take her and give her to your wife."
Val looked at the fellow with renewed suspicion, but the good humour in his eyes was such that he really could not take offence.
"I made a small lot of money in the War," began Monsieur Profond in answer to that look. "I 'ad armament shares. I like to give it away. I'm always makin' money. I want very small lot myself. I like my friends to 'ave it."
"I'll buy her of you at the price you gave," said Val with sudden resolution.
"No," said Monsieur Profond. "You take her. I don' want her."
"Hang it! one doesn't--"
"Why not?" smiled Monsieur Profond. "I'm a friend of your family."
"Seven hundred and fifty guineas is not a box of cigars," said Val impatiently.
"All right; you keep her for me till I want her, and do what you like with her."
"So long as she's yours," said Val. "I don't mind that."
"That's all right," murmured Monsieur Profond, and moved away.
Val watched; he might be "a good devil," but then again he might not. He saw him rejoin George Forsyte, and thereafter saw him no more.
He spent those nights after racing at his mother's house in Green Street.
Winifred Dartie at sixty-two was marvellously preserved, considering the three-and-thirty years during which she had put up with Montague Dartie, till almost happily released by a French staircase. It was to her a vehement satisfaction to have her favourite son back from South Africa after all this time, to feel him so little changed, and to have taken a fancy to his wife. Winifred, who in the late seventies, before her marriage, had been in the vanguard of freedom, pleasure, and fashion, confessed her youth outclassed by the donzellas of the day. They seemed, for instance, to regard marriage as an incident, and Winifred sometimes regretted that she had not done the same; a second, third, fourth incident might have secured her a partner of less dazzling inebriety; though, after all, he had left her Val, Imogen, Maud, Benedict (almost a colonel and unharmed by the War)--none of whom had been divorced as yet. The steadiness of her children often amazed one who remembered their father; but, as she was fond of believing, they were really all Forsytes, favouring herself, with the exception, perhaps, of Imogen. Her brother's "little girl" Fleur frankly puzzled Winifred. The child was as restless as any of these modern young women--"She's a small flame in a draught," Prosper Profond had said one day after dinner--but she did not flop, or talk at the top of her voice. The steady Forsyteism in Winifred's own character instinctively resented the feeling in the air, the modern girl's habits and her motto: "All's much of a muchness! Spend, to-morrow we shall be poor!" She found it a saving grace in Fleur that, having set her heart on a thing, she had no change of heart until she got it--though--what happened after, Fleur was, of course, too young to have made evident. The child was a "very pretty little thing," too, and quite a credit to take about, with her mother's French taste and gift for wearing clothes; everybody turned to look at Fleur--great consideration to Winifred, a lover of the style and distinction which had so cruelly deceived her in the case of Montague Dartie.
In discussing her with Val, at breakfast on Saturday morning, Winifred dwelt on the family skeleton.
"That little affair of your father-in-law and your Aunt Irene, Val-- it's old as the hills, of course, Fleur need know nothing about it-- making a fuss. Your Uncle Soames is very particular about that. So you'll be careful."
"Yes! But it's dashed awkward--Holly's young half-brother is coming to live with us while he learns farming. He's there already."
"Oh!" said Winifred. "That is a gaff! What is he like?"
"Only saw him once--at Robin Hill, when we were home in 1909; he was naked and painted blue and yellow in stripes--a jolly little chap."
Winifred thought that "rather nice," and added comfortably: "Well, Holly's sensible; she'll know how to deal with it. I shan't tell your uncle. It'll only bother him. It's a great comfort to have you back, my dear boy, now that I'm getting on."
"Getting on! Why! you're as young as ever. That chap Profond, Mother, is he all right?"
"Prosper Profond! Oh! the most amusing man I know."
Val grunted, and recounted the story of the Mayfly filly.
"That's so like him," murmured Winifred. "He does all sorts of things."
"Well," said Val shrewdly, "our family haven't been too lucky with that kind of cattle; they're too light-hearted for us."
It was true, and Winifred's blue study lasted a full minute before she answered:
"Oh! well! He's a foreigner, Val; one must make allowances."
"All right, I'll use his filly and make it up to him, somehow."
And soon after he gave her his blessing, received a kiss, and left her for his bookmaker's, the Iseeum Club, and Victoria station.
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