CHAPTER ONEThe mingled smells of hot horse and cold river mist filled my nostrils. I could hear only the swish and thud of galloping hooves and the occasional sharp click of horseshoes striking against each other. Behind me, strung out, rode a group of men dressed like myself in white silk breeches and harlequin jerseys, and in front, his body vividly red and green against the pale curtain of fog, one solitary rider steadied his horse to jump the birch fence stretching blackly across his path.
All, in fact, was going as expected. Bill Davidson was about to win his ninety-seventh steeplechase. Admiral, his chestnut horse, was amply proving he was still the best hunter ’chaser in the kingdom, and I, as often before, had been admiring their combined back view for several minutes.
Ahead of me the powerful chestnut hindquarters bunched, tensed, sprang: Admiral cleared the fence with the effortlessness of the really good performer. And he’d gained another two lengths, I saw, as I followed him over. We were down at the far end of Maidenhead racecourse with more than half a mile to go to the winning post. I hadn’t a hope of catching him.
The February fog was getting denser. It was now impossible to see much farther than from one fence to the next, and the silent surrounding whiteness seemed to shut us, an isolated string of riders, into a private lonely limbo. Speed was the only reality. Winning post, crowds, stands, and stewards, left behind in the mist, lay again invisibly ahead, but on the long deserted mile and a half circuit it was quite difficult to believe they were really there.
It was an eerie, severed world in which anything might happen. And something did.
We rounded the first part of the bend at the bottom of the racecourse and straightened to jump the next fence. Bill was a good ten lengths in front of me and the other horses, and hadn’t exerted himself. He seldom needed to.
The attendant at the next fence strolled across the course from the outside to the inside, patting the top of the birch as he went, and ducked under the rails. Bill glanced back over his shoulder and I saw the flash of his teeth as he smiled with satisfaction to see me so far behind. Then he turned his head towards the fence and measured his distance.
Admiral met the fence perfectly. He rose to it as if flight were not only for the birds.
And he fell.
Aghast, I saw the flurry of chestnut legs threshing the air as the horse pitched over in a somersault. I had a glimpse of Bill’s bright-clad figure hurtling head downwards from the highest point of his trajectory, and I heard the crash of Admiral landing upside down after him.
Automatically I swerved over to the right and kicked my horse into the fence. In mid-air, as I crossed it, I looked down at Bill. He lay loosely on the ground with one arm outstretched. His eyes were shut. Admiral had fallen solidly, back downwards, across Bill’s unprotected abdomen, and he was rolling backwards and forwards in a frantic effort to stand up again.
I had a brief impression that something lay beneath them. Something incongruous, which ought not to be there. But I was going too fast to see properly.
As my horse pressed on away from the fence, I felt as sick as if I’d been kicked in the stomach myself. There had been a quality about that fall which put it straight into the killing class.
I looked over my shoulder. Admiral succeeded in getting to his feet and cantered off loose, and the attendants stepped forward and bent over Bill, who still lay motionless on the ground. I turned back to attend to the race. I had been left in front and I ought to stay there. At the side of the course a black-suited, white-sashed First-Aid man was running towards and past me.
He had been standing at the fence I was now approaching, and was on his way to help Bill.
I booted my horse into the next three fences, but my heart was no longer in it, and when I emerged as the winner into the full view of the crowded stands, the mixed gasp and groan which greeted me seemed an apt enough welcome. I passed the winning post, patted my mount’s neck, and looked at the stands. Most heads were still turned towards the last fence, searching the impenetrable mist for Admiral, the odds-on certainty who had lost his first race for two years.
Even the pleasant middle-aged woman whose horse I was riding met me with the question ‘What happened to Admiral?’
‘He fell,’ I said.
‘How lucky,’ said Mrs Mervyn, laughing happily.
She took hold of the bridle and led her horse into the winner’s unsaddling enclosure. I slid off and undid the girth buckles with fingers clumsy from shock. She patted the horse and chattered on about how delighted she was to have won, and how unexpected it was, and how fortunate that Admiral had tripped up for a change, though a great pity in another way, of course.
I nodded and smiled at her and didn’t answer, because what I would have said would have been savage and unkind. Let her enjoy her win, I thought. They come seldom enough. And Bill might, after all, be all right.
I tugged the saddle off the horse and, leaving a beaming Mrs Mervyn receiving congratulations from all around, pressed through the crowd into the weighing room. I sat on the scales, was passed as correct, walked into the changing room, and put my gear down on the bench.
Clem, the racecourse valet who looked after my stuff, came over. He was a small elderly man, very spry and tidy, with a weatherbeaten face and wrists whose tendons stood out like tight strung cords.
He picked up my saddle and ran his hand caressingly over the leather. It was a habit he had grown into, I imagined, from long years of caring for fine-grained skins. He stroked a saddle as another man would a pretty girl’s cheek, savouring the suppleness, the bloom.
‘Well done, sir,’ he said; but he didn’t look overjoyed.
I didn’t want to be congratulated. I said abruptly, ‘Admiral should have won.’
‘Did he fall?’ asked Clem anxiously.
‘Yes,’ I said. I couldn’t understand it, thinking about it.
‘Is Major Davidson all right, sir?’ asked Clem. He valeted Bill too and, I knew, looked upon him as a sort of minor god.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. But the hard saddle-tree had hit him plumb in the belly with the weight of a big horse falling at thirty miles an hour behind it. What chance has he got, poor beggar, I thought.
I shrugged my arms into my sheepskin coat and went along to the First-Aid room. Bill’s wife, Scilla, was standing outside the door there, pale and shaking and doing her best not to be frightened. Her small neat figure was dressed gaily in scarlet, and a mink hat sat provocatively on top of her cloudy dark curls. They were clothes for success, not sorrow.
‘Alan,’ she said, with relief, when she saw me. ‘The doctor’s looking at him and asked me to wait here. What do you think? Is he bad?’ She was pleading, and I hadn’t much comfort to give her. I put my arm round her shoulders.
She asked me if I had seen Bill fall, and I told her he had dived on to his head and might be slightly con-cussed.
The door opened, and a tall slim well-groomed man came out. The doctor.
‘Are you Mrs Davidson?’ he said to Scilla. She nodded.
‘I’m afraid your husband will have to go along to the hospital,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be sensible to send him home without an X-ray.’ He smiled reassuringly, and I felt some of the tension go out of Scilla’s body.
‘Can I go in and see him?’ she said.
The doctor hesitated. ‘Yes,’ he said finally, ‘but he’s almost unconscious. He had a bit of a bang on the head. Don’t try to wake him.’
When I started to follow Scilla into the First-Aid room the doctor put his hand on my arm to stop me.
‘You’re Mr York, aren’t you?’ he asked. He had given me a regulation check after an easy fall I’d had the day before.
‘Do you know these people well?’
‘Yes. I live with them most of the time.’
The doctor closed his lips, tight, thinking. Then he said, ‘It’s not good. The concussion’s not much, but he’s bleeding internally, possibly from a ruptured spleen. I’ve telephoned the hospital to take him in as an emergency case as soon as we can get him there.’
As he spoke, one of the racecourse ambulances backed up towards us. The men jumped out, opened the rear doors, took out a big stretcher and carried it into the First-Aid room. The doctor went in after them. Soon they all reappeared with Bill on the stretcher. Scilla followed, the anxiety plain on her face, deep and well-founded.
Bill’s firm brown humorous face now lolled flaccid, bluish-white, and covered with fine beads of sweat. He was gasping slightly through his open mouth, and his hands were restlessly pulling at the blanket which covered him. He was still wearing his green and red checked racing colours, the most ominous sign of all.
Scilla said to me, ‘I’m going with him in the ambulance. Can you come?’
‘I’ve a ride in the last race,’ I said. ‘I’ll come along to the hospital straight after that. Don’t worry, he’ll be all right.’ But I didn’t believe it, and nor did she.
After they had gone I walked along beside the weighing room building and down through the car park until I came to the bank of the river. Swollen from the recently melted snow, the Thames was flowing fast, sandy brown and grey with froths of white. The water swirled out of a mist a hundred yards to my right, churned round the bend where I stood and disappeared again into the fog. Troubled, confused, not seeing a clear course ahead. Just like me.
For there was something wrong about Bill’s accident.
Back in Bulawayo where I got my schooling, the mathematics master spent hours (too many, I thought in my youth) teaching us to draw correct inferences from a few known facts. But deduction was his hobby as well as his job, and occasionally we had been able to side-track him from problems of geometry or algebra to those of Sherlock Holmes. He produced class after class of boys keenly observant of well-worn toe-caps on charwomen and vicars and calluses on the finger tips of harpists; and the mathematics standard of the school was exceptionally high.
Now, thousands of miles and seven years away from the sunbaked schoolroom, standing in an English fog and growing very cold, I remembered my master and took out my facts, and had a look at them.
Known facts... Admiral, a superb jumper, had fallen abruptly in full flight for no apparent reason. The racecourse attendant had walked across the course behind the fence as Bill and I rode towards it, but this was not at all unusual. And as I had cleared the fence, and while I was looking down at Bill, somewhere on the edge of my vision there had been a dull damp gleam from something grey and metallic. I thought about these things for a long time.
The inference was there all right, but unbelievable. I had to find out if it was the correct one.
I went back into the weighing room to collect my kit and weigh out for the last race, but as I packed the flat lead pieces into my weight cloth to bring my weight up to that set by the handicapper, the loudspeakers were turned on and it was announced that owing to the thickening fog the last race had been abandoned.
There was a rush then in the changing room and the tea and fruit-cake disappeared at a quickened tempo. It was a long time since breakfast, and I stuffed a couple of beef sandwiches into my mouth while I changed. I arranged with Clem for my kit to go to Plumpton, where I was due to ride four days later, and set off on an uninviting walk. I wanted to have a close look at the place where Bill had fallen.
It is a long way on foot from the stands to the far end of Maidenhead racecourse, and by the time I got there my shoes, socks, and trouser legs were wet through from the long sodden grass. It was very cold, very foggy. There was no one about.
I reached the fence, the harmless, softish, easy-to-jump fence, made of black birch twigs standing upright. Three feet thick at the bottom slanting to half that size at the top, four feet six inches tall, about ten yards wide. Ordinary, easy.
I looked carefully along the landing side of the fence. There was nothing unusual. Round I went to the takeoff side. Nothing. I poked around the wing which guides the horses into the fence, the one on the inside of the course, the side Bill had been when he fell. Still nothing.
It was down underneath the wing on the outside of the course that I found what I was looking for. There it lay in the long grass, half hidden, beaded with drops of mist, coiled and deadly.
There was a good deal of it, a pale silver grey, wound into a ring about a foot across, and weighted down with a piece of wood. One end of it led up the main side post of the wing and was fastened round it two feet above the level of the top of the birch. Fastened, I saw, very securely indeed. I could not untwist it with my fingers.
I went back to the inside wing and had a look at the post. Two feet above the fence there was a groove in the wood. This post had once been painted white, and the mark showed clearly.
It was clear to me that only one person could have fixed the wire in place. The attendant. The man whom I myself had seen walk across from one side of the course to the other. The man, I thought bitterly, whom I had left to help Bill.
In a three mile ’chase at Maidenhead one rode twice round the course. On the first circuit there had been no trouble at this fence. Nine horses had jumped it safely, with Admiral lying third and biding his time, and me riding alongside telling Bill I didn’t think much of the English climate.
Second time round, Admiral was lengths out in front. As soon as the attendant had seen him land over the fence before this one, he must have walked over holding the free end of the wire and wound it round the opposite post so that it stretched there taut in the air, almost invisible, two feet above the birch. At that height it would catch the high-leaping Admiral straight across the shoulders.
The callousness of it awoke a slow deep anger which, though I did not then know it, was to remain with me as a spur for many weeks to come.
Whether the horse had snapped the wire when he hit it, or pulled it off the post, I could not be sure. But as I could find no separate pieces, and the coil by the outer wing was all one length, I thought it likely that the falling horse had jerked the less secure end down with him. None of the seven horses following me had been brought down. Like me, they must have jumped clear over the remains of the trap.
Unless the attendant was a lunatic, which could by no means be ruled out, it was a deliberate attack on a particular horse and rider. Bill on Admiral had normally reached the front by this stage in a race, often having opened up a lead of twenty lengths, and his red and green colours, even on a misty day, were easy to see.
At this point, greatly disturbed, I began to walk back. It was already growing dark. I had been longer at the fence than I had realized, and when I at length reached the weighing room, intending to tell the Clerk of the Course about the wire, I found everyone except the caretaker had gone.
The caretaker, who was old and bad-tempered, and incessantly sucking his teeth, told me he did not know where the Clerk of the Course could be found. He said the racecourse manager had driven off towards the town five minutes earlier. He did not know where the manager had been going, nor when he would be back; and with a grumbling tale that he had five separate stoves besides the central boiler to see to, and that the fog was bad for his bronchitis, the caretaker shuffled purposefully off towards the dim murky bulk of the grandstand.
Undecided, I watched him go. I ought, I knew, to tell someone in authority about the wire. But who? The Stewards who had been at the meeting were all on their way home, creeping wearily through the fog, unreachable. The manager was gone; the Clerk of the Course’s office, I discovered, was locked. It would take me a long time to locate any of them, persuade them to return to the racecourse and get them to drive down the course over the rough ground in the dark; and after that there would be discussion, repetition, statements. It would be hours before I could get away.
Meanwhile Bill was fighting for his life in Maidenhead hospital, and I wanted profoundly to know if he were winning. Scilla faced racking hours of anxiety and I had promised to be with her as soon as I could. Already I had delayed too long. The wire, fogbound and firmly twisted round the post, would keep until tomorrow, I thought; but Bill might not.
Bill’s Jaguar was alone in the car park. I climbed in, switched on the side lights and the fog lights and drove off. I turned left at the gates, went gingerly along the road for two miles, turned left again over the river, twisted through Maidenhead’s one way streets, and finally arrived at the hospital.
There was no sign of Scilla in the brightly lit busy hall. I asked the porter.
‘Mrs Davidson? Husband a jockey? That’s right, she’s down there in the waiting room. Fourth door on the left.’
I found her. Her dark eyes looked enormous, shadowed with grey smudges beneath them. All other colour had gone from her sad strained face, and she had taken off her frivolous hat.
‘How is he?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. They just tell me not to worry.’ She was very close to tears.
I sat down beside her and held her hand.
‘You’re a comfort, Alan,’ she said.
Presently the door opened and a fair young doctor came in, stethoscope dangling.
‘Mrs Davidson, I think...’ he paused, ‘I think you should come and sit with your husband.’
‘How is he?’
‘Not... very well. We are doing all we can.’ Turning to me he said, ‘Are you a relative?’
‘A friend. I am going to drive Mrs Davidson home.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘Will you wait, or come back for her? Later this evening.’ There was meaning in his careful voice, his neutral words. I looked closely into his face, and I knew that Bill was dying.
I waited for four hours, getting to know intimately the pattern of the curtains and the cracks in the brown linoleum. Mostly, I thought about wire.
At last a nurse came, serious, young, pretty.
‘I am so sorry... Major Davidson is dead.’
Mrs Davidson would like me to go and see him, she said, if I would follow her. She took me down the long corridors, and into a white room, not very big, where Scilla sat beside the single bed.
Scilla looked up at me. She couldn’t speak.
Bill lay there, grey and quiet, finished. The best friend a man could wish for.