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  ― 114 ―

Stockings—The Story of a Mare.

From the moment that she was knocked down to him in the Scrubby Flat pound-yard, for the sum of £2 12s 6d, Mr. Peter Jeffs had doubts as to the wisdom of his purchase. Certainly, the mare was in low condition, and ought to improve, but at the same time it was undeniable that there was great room for improvement. Her rough, staring coat was a dark liver chestnut, with great white stockings that came up well over her knees, and a large blaze that straggled over her Roman nose and half the side of her face. But, in spite of the thick, ungainly shoulders and great ragged hips, the legs beneath were clean and sinewy, and there was a hidden something that peeped forth now and then from the mild brown eyes, to give the lie to the rest of her personal appearance. Mr. Jeffs slipped an old greenhide halter over the mare's head, whistled to his heeler, and, climbing on to his old hack, started off on his seven-mile ride home, the new purchase jogging docilely behind.

For the next four months Stockings—for this was the name the ugly chestnut acquired with her new master—enjoyed a rather varied and changeful existence. She was turned out at first in a small paddock adjoining the homestead, in company with a stunted yearling pony and half a dozen head of poddy calves, but through she contrived every day to get through her allowance of “cockie's chaff,” the condition that Mr. Jeffs fondly hoped to see adorning her gaunt frame seemed as far off as ever. In the meanwhile all attempts at making her useful were doomed to failure, for she proved worse than a bad hack, inclined to buck, while her career in harness only lasted just as long as it took her to kick Mr. Jeffs's best sulky into fragments of various sizes and shapes. Even the turf was tried, but, alas! there, too, Stockings failed ignominiously, for she ran unplaced in the Scrubby Flat Handicap, of fifteen shillings (the second horse to receive half a crown from the stake), though she had the services of Mr. Jeffs' eldest in the saddle. This was the last straw on the patient camel's back, and the mare was returned to the company of the poddies, where in all probability she would have remained to this day if fate, in the person of Jimmy, the lad driver of the Rocky Dam mail, had not deposited a buyer at Mr. Jeffs' feet.

“This bloke,” said Jimmy, whose words were mostly few and to the point, “was wire inspectin' for old Clark, and got the sack for gettin' on the beer. He wants a crock to go home on. Think you can fix him up? You mostly have one or two for sale, so that's why I laid him on.” A look passed between the speaker and Mr. Jeffs as the latter replied: “Think so; he ought to be able to pick something to suit him out of my lot.”




  ― 115 ―

The stranger, who had hung his head rather sheepishly while Jimmy was describing his needs, now descended from the coach, dragging out after him an old and much-battered hunting saddle, with a small swag tied clumsily in front. He might, perhaps, have been 25, slightly below the middle height, but so extraordinarily thin that one was surprised at not hearing his bones creak as he walked. The driver received his fare, and the coach moved on, the two lean horses having apparently come to the conclusion that it would be less painful to put their much-wrung shoulders into the collars again than to stand any more flogging, a matter which usually took them some little time to decide.

Mr. Jeffs turned to the stranger.

“Better come and have a drink of tea,” said he, cheerfully, “and then we'll have a look through the horses. Bill”—this to his son and heir, who was standing with his mouth open, staring at the stranger as though he were a new variety of his species—“run them horses up, not forgettin' the chestnut mare and the pony in the calf paddock.”

But when they stood in the stockyard the stranger proved harder to please than Mr. Jeffs had hoped.

“Them would never do,” he said of the two first shown him.

“They're a sight too wild for me. I can't ride much, you know. But what about the chestnut mare?” pointing to Stockings, who, like the Arab steed in the poem, “was standing meekly by.” “She seems quiet, and”—plaintively—“my missus that's dead had a great fancy for a chestnut. What'll you take for her, now?”

Mr. Jeffs considered for a moment.

“Well,” he said, “I was askin' twelve quid, but seein' as you're stuck” (he would have despoiled an angel of its tail feathers had he found it entangled in one of his barbed wire fences) “I'll say a tenner, and we'll call it a deal.”

It was a deal. Ten minutes later the stranger had climbed heavily on the ugly chestnut's back, and was riding through the rails with a receipt in his pocket in place of ten golden sovereigns. But he had hardly gone a hundred yards when he wheeled the mare round and shouted: “What do you call her?”

“Stockin's,” roared Mr. Jeffs, “ 'count of her laigs.” This appeared to satisfy the stranger, for he rode on without comment.

“Well, of all the fools I ever seen,” said Mr. Jeffs to his better half, who had watched the proceedings from afar, and now came up to view the spoils of battle, “he beats the lot. He give me a tenner for the chestnut mare without as much as looking in her mouth or trying to beat me down a sixpence, an' now on the top of it all he stops and asks me what I call her. I suppose he thinks she'll come when he calls her. Regular balmy, that's what he is.”

“Don't be too sure of that, Pete,” answered his spouse. “That chap wasn't quite what he seemed. I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he had got the better of the deal now.”

Mr. Jeffs turned away angrily, muttering something uncomplimentary to wives in general and his own in particular; but had he been able to see some


  ― 116 ―
couple of miles down the dusty road he might perhaps have been led to view the matter in a new light. The stranger had dismounted, and was lying on his back on the grass by the roadside, rolling in convulsions of laughter, while the mare stood by, eyeing her master with mild surprise. When he had sufficiently recovered himself he stood up, kissed the mare on the point of her pink nose, then, gathering up his reins, he swung himself into the saddle with all the ease of a practised horseman, and with a cheery “Come on, old girl!” started off at a steady trot down the road.

Even on an off day a city racecourse is as pleasant a place as can be found to spend a few spare hours and a little spare cash. But Mr. Jeffs was not thinking of these advantages as he paid his modest shilling and boldly invaded the flat. He had heard that they carried on racing better in the metropolis than at Scrubby Flat, and though he doubted he had come to see.

He climbed on to one of the steeple fences opposite the grandstand, and seated himself comfortably just as the bell was ringing for the first hurdie race, and the field—a string of glossy thoroughbreds and gally-clad riders—filed out on to the course. His right-hand neighbour, a rather genteel-looking personage, was speaking to a friend in the tightly-packed crowd below.

“They're all 'ere, Biff,” he said, viewing the competitors with a critical eye. “No, Ellis's mare ain't out yet. I'd 'a' backed 'er, but I couldn't get better than fours. She ought to be a 'undred to one chance, the outsider of the lot, comin' down from the country without a performance; but they always rush anything Ellis rides. Look, there she is!”

Mr. Jeffs' eyes involuntarily followed the direction in which the speaker pointed, and were at once rivetted on a sight which held him rigid with amazement, for not twenty yards away, trotting leisurely down the straight, was Stockings, the mare that he had sold not six months ago in his own stockyard for ten pounds, with the man to whom he had sold her sitting firmly on her back. Mr. Jeffs kicked the solid timber beneath him to make sure he was not asleep, and looked again; but there was no mistake, though now the mare's coat shone like polished copper over the swelling muscles. Her rider was unchanged, except, perhaps, that he looked even leaner than before, but his racing kit fitted him to a nicety, and he sat his mount in a manner that showed this was not his maiden ride over the battens. Mr. Jeffs took thought unto himself, and though he did not visibly increase in height, he churned over the events of the past in his mind, and saw the chance of a coup-de-main. He alone of all that vast crowd knew that the mare was worthless. “If she couldn't win at Scrubby Flat, it's not to be expected that she'll win here,” reasoned he, “and though that chap can ride a bit better than I thought, I'll bet a bit he can't give my Bill much start. An' a jumpin' race, too! Why, Bill couldn't get the old crock over a middle rail. I'll have a bit out of these Sydney blokes, cunnin' as they think they are.”

Then the man on his right spoke again.

“No, I won't let her run against me. Hamerchure or no, 'e's the best man we've got over the sticks, an' anything he rides is good enough for me


  ― 117 ―
to back. I've got a flver 'ere that I scored on Flyaway las' Saturday, an' I'm going to do the lot in on 'er. Can I still get fours, Bill?”

“No, you can't,” replied his friend. “They're rushin' 'er like free drinks. It'll be take six to four in 'alf a shake.”

Mr. Jeffs had made up his mind. Here was the chance he had been waiting for. He turned to his neighbour and said in a loud whisper: “I'll lay you twenty quid to a fiver if that's all you want.”

The genteel one and his friend turned and surveyed this daring layer of odds with interest. Evidently the survey did not altogether please them, for the former answered with some little asperity: “Don't get too funny, old rooster; it ain't good for the 'ealth.”

“Funny, eh?” said Mr. Jeffs sourly, and producing a roll of notes. “I s'pose my money's as good as yours.” There was no denying this, and it appeared to put a new complexion on the matter.

“Good enough! Keep yer 'air on,” said the would-be backer of the mare. “If you mean biz, I'm 'avin' it. Oo'll 'old the stuff? Bill will, won't you, Bill?”

“No, Bill won't,” said the cautious Mr. Jeffs. “You don't know me, an' I don't know you. Let each 'ang to his own.” Saying this, he selected two crisp new ten-pound notes and carefully replaced the remainder where they had come from, while his opponent displayed five sovereigns in a somewhat dirty palm.

“All hands is witness to this,” said Mr. Jeffs solemnly. This was an unnecessary question. Wagers of this kind were about as common as earthquakes on the flat, and people were crowding round to see what was going on. Whisperers, three card trick men, and the artists with the straps lost their followings for the moment.

“Seven pound seven and sixpence I made over the deal, an' a fiver as good as in my pocket. I didn't do so bad after all out of the old mare. I wonder what the missus'll think,” soliloquised Mr. Jeffs, as he stood up on the fence the better to watch the coming race, though he kept the corner of an eye on the sporting gentlemen beside him. The mare had by this time finished her preliminary trot and canter, and was swallowed up amongst the other horses facing the starter. The whole course was humming like one vast beehive. Then there was a cry from all sides of “They're off!” and the next moment the as yet unbroken line was charging the first hurdle. Another and another, and they were up with the one opposite the fence on which Mr. Jeffs was standing. The field was more strung out now as the various horses got into their places, and he noticed with inward satisfaction that Stockings occupied a back position, and was on the extreme outside, though the way she cleared the obstacle which brought down one of the leaders sent a cold shiver down his back. Could he have been wrong? Could he have been mistaken as to the mare's capabilities? No, he put such fancies away from him as absurd. But the rest of the race was like a bad dream to him. He heard shouts of “Grasshopper's down!” “What a fall!” “Firecracker's beat!” “The Gull's bringing them along!” He had lost sight of the mare, but something told him she was still on her feet somewhere in that cloud of dust.




  ― 118 ―

Then silence reigned for an instant as the horses swept, almost in Indian file, round the last turn, only to be broken by shouts from paddock, leger, and flat together, “The mare's coming through!” “The mare wins!” “The mare on her lonesome!” “The mare walks in!” He could see plainly enough now. Every whip in the field was busy save that in the hand of the rider in lilac and green on the despised Stockings, three clear lengths in front of everything. As he watched he saw her fly the last jump like a swallow, and, gradually increasing her lead, run in the easiest of winners, her beaten and dispirited opponents toiling hopelessly in the rear. Mr. Jeffs turned to the man beside him, handed over the notes in silence, and, deaf to all offers of liquid refreshments, dropped from his perch and walked slowly off the course. He had had enough racing for that day. As he passed out of the gate the clerk of the course was leading in the winner, amidst tremendous cheering. “By gum! the old woman was right, after all,” said Mr. Peter Jeffs.

When Mr. John Ellis, the noted gentleman rider, had weighed in, had a bath, and resumed the garb of civilisation, he invited a few of his intimate friends to a nice little champagne lunch in one corner of the big room beneath the stand. The frock-coated men and fashionably-dressed ladies congratulated their host and incidentally themselves as they gathered round the little table. And then —

“Oh! Mr. Ellis,” said one lady, “isn't there some romance attached to your mare? I heard the Thompsons talking about it last night at the theatre.”

“Well, not much of a romance,” said Mr. Ellis, looking up from his task of dismembering a turkey, “but I had her up at Tarbaroo schooling her, and she got out of the horse paddock at night. The station hands and I searched for her for weeks, but at last I had to give it up as a bad job. Then I got word from the mail-driver that she had found her way into the local pound, and had been bought by an old fossil who had no idea what he had got hold of. I posted up and got the mare for ten pounds”—here Mr. Ellis smiled with apparently no reason—“and I sent the mailman as much more. I think you know the rest. But she's just about as good as they're made, even if she does try to hide her light under a bushel. Now, ladies and gentlemen, what do you say? Shall we drink her health?”

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