― 172 ―

Chapter XVIII

THE sun beat brazenly down on the crowd besieging the tote and the bookmakers, and swarming like ants round the stand. The continuous hum of a thousand voices rose and fell, but was never silent, and through it obtruded the hoarse barking of the layers of odds.

The horses had gone to the post for the second race, caps and colours mingling gaily down the course, when Elaine arrived. She was with a party—a fashionably-dressed woman with a decided, purposeful manner, a thin brunette with a roving, sophisticated eye, and two men—both young. One was patently a city youth, slim and elegant, with an incipient moustache spaced between a long nose and a receding chin; the other was heavily built and sun-tanned, with the forceful characteristics of the elder woman that suggested blood relationship.

Elaine, looking fresh and cool in white silk with a touch of jade at the waist and neck and a shady green hat, chatted with them for what appeared an interminable time to the impatient Bill. As they moved into the stand the starting bell rang, and in the confusion and rush for vantage points, the party separated. The tote was deserted except for one lone figure with a keen, appreciative smile for the girl in white moving in his direction.

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“Hallo, Lancelot! How many races have I missed?”

“This is only the second. I lost on the first and this looks like …” He broke off to peer at the horses battling out the finish to a roar of mingled encouragement and despair. “Fourth again! I hope our luck changes from now on.”

“So do I. I'm relying on you to restore the family fortunes. Which race do we concentrate on?”

“The fourth, but you can have a mild bet on the next if you like.” He pencilled a mark in her race-book.

“Mr R. West's Georgina B. What do you know about Georgina? Is she to be trusted?”

“No more than any other female, but her owner is fairly reliable. We'll go down to the rails and see what he thinks of his chances.”

They found a place near the saddling-paddock gate and Elaine's attention oscillated from her race-book to the parading horses and their numbered saddle-cloths till she identified Georgina B. She glanced critically over the brown mare fidgeting and champing at the bit, then moved close to the man leaning his elbows on the fence. “Honestly, Lancelot, I'm not impressed with your choice. In fact, I would like to bet she couldn't have caught me this morning!”

Her companion's drooping eyelids quivered. “You would lose that bet!”

“How do you know?”

“Well, she's been tried out against both of them.”

“Oh.” Elaine subsided into silence. The horses started to file on to the course. She watched the brown mare sidling toward the gate with the sun glinting on her arched neck, then her eyes focused on the rider. He

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sat easily on the reefing, anxious mare, his sharp eyes idly scanning the crowd along the rails. As he came close to them, his roving glance rested a moment on the man at her side and she would have sworn to a flicker in the dark eyes—nothing more. Then he looked at Elaine and sat up quickly in the saddle. He seemed to battle for a second with a desire to exchange a further glance with her escort but discretion carried him on to the course, apparently inspecting the tips of the brown mare's ears.

They moved back to the betting-ring and she waited amusedly while Lancelot selected a stout, red-faced bookmaker with a raucous voice. “What price Georgina B?”

“Evens to you!”

He looked his disgust at the man on the box. “If I ever hear you offering decent odds on any race, I'll have a decent bet.”

The red-faced one laughed hoarsely. “How much d'you want?”

“Fiver this time … Georgina B.”

The bookmaker scribbled something unintelligible on a ticket and as he thrust it at Bill, his other hand went up to the side of his mouth, megaphone fashion, and the odds blared out over their heads. Elaine bought a tote ticket on number 5, then they moved to a spot where they could see the finish. They tacitly avoided the stand.

Elaine peered forward as the field got off to a good start. It was impossible to distinguish any particular horse as they raced with what seemed to her maddening slowness round the back of the track. They were coming

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round toward the turn, a chestnut in front, the rest of the field bunched behind. At the turn, the chestnut swung out from the rails and a dark head showed behind him, creeping steadily up till they were abreast. A bay raced up on the outside challenging the pair of them, then almost on the post it seemed to the excited girl, the brown nose just poked out in front and she clutched joyfully at the arm of the man near. “We've won! We've won!”

Bill grinned happily. “Dick nearly left it too late. Are you going to collect now?”

“I really ought to join my party.”

“Wait till after the next race!”

“Is that our race?”

He nodded with a hint of mystery under the drooping eyelid.

“Are you going to put on a lot?”

“All I can beg, borrow, or get credit for!”

Her eyes opened wide. “Do you think I might risk five pounds?”

“Wait till you've seen the horse! You'll probably refuse to back it at all, but I think your fiver will be safe. At the worst, it will only go with mine to buy diamond rings for the poor starving bookmakers' wives.”

As the minutes passed in inaction, Elaine worked herself into a fever of impatience and she fretted visibly at her companion's apparent lethargy. Not even when the horses had left the saddling-paddock and were filing past the stand for the preliminary canter did he indicate the horse he intended to back. Instead, he invited her to pick any three she fancied. Elaine watched them

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carefully and nominated a big chestnut, a bay horse and a brown mare—a slim, satin-skinned animal.

“Which one is ours?” she demanded.

He grinned tantalizingly. “Neither! Which horse do you think will run last?”

Elaine bit her lip with annoyance. Time was fleeing; the horses were on their way to the post, and they still had to get their bets on. She pointed to the last rider moving sedately in the wake of the field. “That one … the little black horse with the hairy legs.” She glanced quickly at her book. “Here it is … Number 3 … Mr T. Brannigan's black filly, ‘Desolated Cokernut.’ What an awful name!”

“Come on and we'll see what odds they're offering.” He led the way to the ring, grinning cheerfully while Elaine stared at him in perplexity. She certainly did not feel inclined to risk five perfectly good notes on that rough-looking thing.

The bookmaker broke off his hoarse chant as they halted before him, and Bill queried calmly. “Any decent odds on this race? I'll give you a chance to get this fiver back.”

“Take yer pick! 2 to 1 bar one. … Evens Tripedes. … 'Ere y'are… Desperated Cokernut 5 to 1.”

“Is that the best you can do? Thirty pounds to five?”

Elaine was almost frantic. Her ears strained for the sound of the starting bell; all around her, the inferno of shouted odds rose to a crescendo, and here was Lancelot calmly arguing.

The bookmaker shook his head. “25 to 5 the Cokernut.”

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“You've got a tenner of mine. Can you take that?”

“Double it if you like!”

“Right! 100 to 20 … and a fiver for the lady! Cash!”

He handed over the notes and received the tickets. A momentary lull had fallen on the ring till a voice took up the chant on a new theme. “2 to 1 bar one … Dissipated Cokernut 2 to 1.”

In the silence that followed the announcement, came the sharp dong of the starting bell, and a chorus of anguished howls went up. Above the turmoil sounded one hoarse, desperate voice. “Even money Methylated Cokernut!”

Elaine dragged impatiently at her partner's arm “Quick! They're off!” The field was bunched together on the far side of the course, and they strained their eyes to pick the black filly and her pink-sleeved rider.

“Why on earth were you so long in betting?” Elaine demanded indignantly, her eyes on the field.

The man at her side chuckled hugely. “Even if we don't win the race we've tricked the books!”

“What do you mean? Oh, look at that chestnut coming up! Oh, go back! Where's our horse?”

“I had to place the money with all the books at the same time to get the odds.”

“What do you mean? Did you bet more than twenty pounds?”

“I had people backing the filly with every bookmaker who would take it. Didn't you hear the odds jump from 5 to 1 to evens?”

Elaine gasped. The fate of her five pounds faded to

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insignificance. “O-oh look at that chestnut! He's getting far too far in front!” Although she was shivering with excitement another question clamoured for an answer. “But why couldn't you all have done your betting earlier?”

The man was leaning forward, an eager glint in his eyes, his lips drawn tight across the set teeth, and he answered her almost unconsciously without removing his eyes from the field. “We had to get the jockeys out of the way first … in case of dirty work. They don't know yet that the filly is equal favourite. Look at her coming up! Go on, you little beauty!” He started suddenly and ripped off his hat. “Hell! Get back there! Get out, you mongrel!” The crowd had risen in a body, yelling fierce oaths and brandishing impotent fists at a dog that had darted out at the horses. The rails were in pandemonium. The dog hurtled on like an arrow straight at the horse in the lead … the black filly! Someone whistled shrilly. Every man on the course put his fingers to his teeth and the air quivered with the concerted blast. A roar of relief went up. “He's gone!” The dog had missed its mark, faltered a second at the thunder of hoofs, then cringing, went down among them.

The black filly was out in front, coming up the straight with a length to spare, and the crowd grew strangely silent. The chestnut made another run, crept up on the quarter of the filly and the crowd shrieked again. The whips were out, falling in desperate staccato strokes, but the filly maintained her lead, drew gradually away, and flashed past the post a length ahead of the field.

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For the last few yards Elaine felt that her heart had left her. It was out there with the black filly … urging it … goading it on. She was quite unconscious of the man at her side twisting a perfectly new hat between his hands into a shapeless thing. When the race was won they turned, laughing hysterically, and hugged one another till suddenly conscious of the stares of the people around. Then they dived hurriedly through the crowd, still hand in hand, and laughing joyously.

They pulled up in a quiet corner to repair the external damage wrought in the excitement. Elaine felt weak with the reaction and clung to Bill's sleeve. At last she faced him with a tinge of regret in her eyes. “Lancelot, it has been a perfectly gorgeous day, but I'll have to go back to my party or they'll report me to the police as lost. By the by, when will I return Percy's clothes? No. No. Stop,” she interrupted him. “No names … no addresses. Remember our bargain! Anyhow, who is Percy?”

“He was on the black filly!”

“Heavens!” She stared at the smiling enigmatic features with a question burning its way to her lips. “And T. Brannigan? … Was it his whisky we carried last night?”

“He's my cook … alias the Desolated Cokernut!”

“One more question, Lancelot. Who is the real owner of the black filly?”

He looked at her with a modest grin. “A fellow about my size!”

She contemplated him seriously for a little while, then said slowly, “I'm afraid I'll have to revise my opinion

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of drovers!” She held out her hand. “Well, good-bye, Lancelot!”

He took the hand and stared at her with a puzzled frown. “You're not going yet …?”

She nodded. “We're going on to-morrow.”

“What are you doing to-night?”

“Someone's giving us a party. I forget their name.”

“Must you go?”

She nodded firmly but her eyes were kind. “I'll leave Percy's things at the hotel office addressed to … let me see … to ‘Mr Lance.’ ”

He acquiesced abstractedly. All the exhilaration and intoxication of the day seemed to have suddenly ebbed, leaving him painfully sober. “When are you leaving, Elaine?”

“Sometime to-morrow.”

“If I bring the horses round, will you come for a ride before breakfast?”

She hesitated, her eyes gleaming as she considered the invitation, then she turned quickly. “Right oh, Lancelot! But not too early. Say about nine! Cheerio!” She raised a slim gloved hand in farewell, then disappeared in the crowd.