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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter XIV. The Alabama Races. Moss Rose! Moss Rose! Moss Rose!

Chapter XIV. The Alabama Races. Moss Rose! Moss Rose! Moss Rose!

The two letters—the one from Marvel to her aunt, the other from Eugene to Marvel's father—crossed each other, and on the Friday she was on her page 82way back to the asthmatical auntie at Sunnyside. To auntie she related the magnificent offer which she had received from the doctor. The good news melted away the animosities of the past few days, and made the afflicted auntie's sun to shine. The tidings were like the incense of fragrant cascarilla1 bark burnt before her to sweeten and perfume the air she breathed as in gaping long breaths she inhaled the honeyed words of the celestial paradisal voice. It was a great victory for herself she felt, for had she not encouraged him to her cottage, and aided and abetted Marvel in the great undertaking, and was it not she herself that had christened Marvel "the Bird of Paradise?"—a name sufficient to charm the heart of the vilest misogynist that ever lived.

"I must call Augustus and tell him the good news, my dear," and with the better lung of the two she screamed out—"Ah—gus—tus!" It sounded, in the first part, like the screech of the peacock on the roof, when the blundering booby approached with a can full of wheat under his arm and his mouth open.

"Marvel has got the doct—arr; got the doct—arr. Marvel has got the doct—arr," she shouted, and stood glowering, as if to say, "Augustus, I did it alone." Acting a sort of tableau vivant2 on the verandah, "I told you a week ago, you know," she said, "that I was (long breath) sure he was falling in love with Marvel, and it was all I could do to cheer her up all the (long breath) week he stayed away, for what reason I don't know."

"Oh! I know," said Augustus, trying to set in a word edgeways during a long breath. "He bought a––"

Suddenly he had to shut his mouth, for the old jubilant auntie continued—"Excuse me, Augustus; as I was going to say (long breath), the trial took up three days, and I recollect he had to attend the parade one day."

"That's just somewhere—"

He had to shut his mouth again, as the old heroine was not going to be interrupted, and recovering breath she went on—"Excuse me, Augustus; you don't know him as well as I do, and as I told Marvel it could not be that he was forgetful of her (long breath), and I think you ought to congratulate—"

"I was just—"

It was no use, he had to shut his mouth again as snivelling Mag cut the long breath short and fired away—"Excuse me. Augustus; ought to congratulate her on the bright prospects of the wife of a distinguished (long breath), highly distinguished young gentleman with a handsome income and the high social (long breath) standing of a successful doctor." After the grand finale, Augustus concluded that it was something grand for them all; tableau vivants by the three were executed on the verandah; the peacock screeched from the roof, and all the ducks around the verandah, noticing the jubilation of Augustus, joined all together in the chorus—Io triumphe3—quack-quack-quack, quack-quack-quack-quack.

On the Thursday afternoon the important missive to the great and mighty Gould had been duly posted by the doctor himself. He expected page 83a reply early the following week, as he thought ordinary courtesy might reasonably ensure a reply to a letter of less importance than it was within that time. The following week had dragged its slow length along, but no reply had come.

His brother Dolly wrote a letter to him saying that somebody from Maconville had been visiting Galveston, and that he appeared to be very inquisitive about the social standing of the Whitworths; that he had noticed a big, flabby, lubberly, carrot-headed, broken-winded man, with an enormous verandah-like moustache, and that he had felt half inclined when he saw him ear-wigging one of the customs-house officials on the wharf to approach him with a tap on the jaw and then ask him what he wanted.

The letter which he had written to Marvel still remained unposted, and when the week had elapsed he sent it to her father's house. This letter too remained unanswered. He began to suspect something wrong had happened to his letters, and indeed, as it was subsequently discovered, this letter never reached Marvel, but had been purloined, opened, read, and burnt by her mother. Under the impression that his fiancée was in her father's house near Maconville, he never went near Sunnyside, and devoting his spare time to the training of the race-horse he omitted his attendance on parade that week.

The races were to take place the following week, and the little unknown black horse was a rank outsider. Odds of twenty-five to one could be obtained in scores of places to any amount, and the only friends the little fellow had were Eugene himself and Paddy. Seven stone ten was the weight allotted him for a mile, and eight stone for a six-furlong flash near the bottom of the card. The whole of Paddy's attention was given to the petted race-horse. He was with him body and soul. His leg had gone down, he was doing well in the stable, and wiping the eyes of all the hacks in the district who essayed to bring him home in his trial gallops. But to meet some of the best blood in the district—the races being confined to horses belonging to the combined districts of the Alabama River—was a very different thing from pacing alongside of hacks. So thought the few who watched him in his matutinal4 trials, and they never backed him for a cent.

Attending to his hospital duties, superintending the training and care of the horse, and watching every mail for the eagerly-expected letter, absorbed Eugene's time and patience till the day of the race-meeting arrived.

Alabama Park, which contained the racecourse, lay a few miles out of Augusta. It was a perfect jungle of overgrown scrub and interlocking pine-trees, the course having been fashioned out in the middle of it by grubbing5 the trees with forest-devils6 and clearing it for a diameter of half-a-mile. It consisted of a mile and a-half in circumference, it was connected by telegraph with Augusta, and it comprised a judge's box, stewards' room, jockeys' dressing-rooms, and a paddock lined with stalls as a bird-page 84cage for the horses. Although only a country course it was largely patronised by people from New Orleans.

Early that July morning, which the gods had specially provided for the race-meeting, straggled in from the city and the neighbouring towns tramps, pedlars, magsmen7, tricksters, orange and lemonade men, bad cigar vendors, and all the riff-raff and scum of Georgia. Special trains poured in their promiscuous cosmopolitan cargoes, with bookmakers of the ring and bookmakers out of the ring, trainers, spielers8, and cardsharpers thickly intersprinkling the excited assemblage; vehicles from anear and afar were brought up outside the park fence or admitted to the outside of the racing enclosure by ticket. Fully five thousand onlookers surveyed that rabbling scene as Eugene riding the mare came up to the fence among the carriages. "She may be here," he thought—"sure to be here," he soliloquised, "for her father's horse Thunderbolt is in the same race for the Cup. He might have answered my letter, and it will be some satisfaction if we only take Thunderbolt down."

So also thought Paddy as he came from the bird-cage towards the doctor and said in an Irishman's whisper, "What will I be afther tellin' the bye?"

Leaning down over the saddle he replied, "Tell him I'll lay him two hundred dollars to nothing, and to hold him and sit still till he reaches the turn, and then hit him with the spur and let him go."

Away went the devoted Paddy, trembling from head to foot with excitement. In ten minutes the saddling-bell rang, and the candidates came one by one into the field. The white and primrose silks of Whitworth, after a dozen had appeared in the straight, could nowhere be seen, and there was barely five minutes before the starting-bell would ring, when Moss Rose walked into the straight as if he trod on springs in the turf. Leaning forward and standing up in the stirrups, his jockey-boy sent him a furlong or so on the buffalo-grass track, and for a while he caracoled9 before the grandees10.

"What's that?" said a young lady to her sister in the grand stand. "Those are the colours—look at the card- There is his name—Dr. Whitworth's Moss Rose, number ten. What a lovely action! what a pretty galloper he is! I hope I get him in the sweep. I like him better than that big Thunderbolt. He ought to carry Moss Rose on his back." Out of her father's hat she drew Moss Rose, number ten.

Moving about on the sward like a mermaid through the smooth green waves, he played and snorted, when ting-a-lingle-lingle rang the starting-bell, and the starter, on a white thick-set rocking-horse-shaped pony, with a red flag in his hand, marshalled the field at the starting-post. Fifteen horses faced the starter, the sheen of their glossy coats and the glistening silks and satins of the jockeys finishing the brilliant sunshine scene of the landscape. The white and primrose of Moss Rose looked quite meek beside the gaudy tartan of Thunderbolt.

"They're off!" cried a voice. "No! back again; false start," as the page 85starter waved them back again with his flag, and, master that he was of the knack of the starter, dropped it the instant they got into line. Gliding along in a heap altogether for half a-mile, "He's in a good position," said Paddy—"he was off at the start like a deer;" as a backer cried in dismal tones, "There's that old fraud Thunderbolt throwing it up already!" Then the field seemed to divide into two parts. "One down!" said Paddy—"crimson; I think it's Bonnie Doon." At the turn they came seven horses abreast, held as with bars of steel, and Eugene watched the boy, true to his colours, move on the little black horse and touch him with the spur, "Moss Rose! Moss Rose! Moss Rose!" roared the crowd; "three to one Moss Rose!—two to one Moss Rose!" roared the hoarse throats of the ring. Challenged by a black mare—Adoration, the heroine of scores of battles—as "up to his quarters and on still the boy brought her, and up to his girth, to his breastplate, she drew,"11 and a brown horse—Lucullus—swung round at his side. Bumped by the black mare, he quickly recovered, and at the distance the lead of Moss Rose was as good as ever, while the brown and the black were in trouble. Strong as a lion and full of running, his rider never moved again, and the Cup was Eugene's—won by two lengths.

"What did you get?" he asked Paddy.

"I got on forty at twenty-five to four," said Paddy, with the green cap in his hand.

"I took fifty at threes when I saw him at the turn. Are you going to stay here?" said Marmaduke, who had just come up to the fence.

"No, I'm just going round with Paddy to the scale; better come and have a look at the Cup winner," said Eugene, and they adjourned to the paddock—Paddy to see the boy weighed in, and Eugene to take over the horse that could bring out all his emotional nature and fill his eyes with rapture as he stroked his neck and caressed him.

"The old man's Thunderbolt boiled over again," remarked Marmaduke.

"Is he here?" said the doctor, as he talked to the winner.

"Oh! rather," replied Payne; "he swears he will chuck up the game and content himself with sweeps; his daughter and niece are in the grandstand with him. I was with them when one of the girls drew Moss Rose in a one-dollar sweep; Mrs. Hornblower is there too. Guinevere is there with Madame Pompadour; better come up and speak to them. But Eugene felt more inclined to stay with the horse, and watch the other races, promising that he might call at night.

Two minor races had been run before the Cup race, and after it was over, the Flying Stakes, a hurdle race and two handicaps brought in the Alabama Stakes about three hours after the Cup, when Eugene resumed his old position outside the course, to watch the race again. Seven out of eighteen horses had accepted, and seven came into the field. Thunderbolt, at a short price for a six furlong flash, tried his luck again, and Moss Rose, with a seven pound penalty incurred by the Cup win, carried eight stone seven. The brilliant victory in the Cup race enlisted in his favour hosts page 86of admiring friends and backers, but even money could only be obtained, and the bookmakers seemed reluctant to lay at all. Some of the more knowing ones among Eugene's friends tried hard to persuade him to strike the horse out from the race, telling him that it would only send up his weight and that it would be better to keep him for something big at New Orleans.

"He is not at all distressed," said Eugene: "I like to see him win all he can."

"Take a fool's advice," said Hallam, "and run him stiff; you don't know what you've got hold of in that horse; there might be a fortune in him if you manage his racing judiciously."

So there would have been, but Eugene was not the man to take it out of him. Honest as steel, game as an eagle, with a great turn of speed and a calibre of wrought iron, properly trained, any owner who knew the modus operandi of manipulating the races and working him in the market could have relied upon the little black horse for untold gold. Eugene could not bear to see him beaten, even if he was beaten with some ulterior object in view, and he always wanted and expected him to win. "I don't want to have anything to do with their swindling and bamboozling ways." he said on a subsequent occasion; "if ever he races, he races to win if he can." With this mistaken but indomitable principle he threw his chance of a fortune away. Not given to gambling, he put very little money on the horse, and what Paddy did put on for him went, when he won the race, into the pockets of the jockeys and himself. The stakes went where everything else year after year had been going: over the waving prairies to feed and make merry the ribald friends of his bother in Chicago. The distingui dentist appeared to be gifted with a wondrous power of telepathic prophecy. Brosie could predict a win, although he had never seen the horse, all the way from Apricot Street. About a day or so before any meeting at which Moss Rose was to race, a telegram from the young gentleman at large would arrive with a ravenous request to get him out of some scrape, or for the purchase of new instruments. The horse would win, the draft would be sent to Chicago, and Brosie would send back a message by telegraph that it had just arrived in the nick of time.

Tingle-a-lingle-lingie from the starting bell again, and the seven horses champed at their bits in a line. The red flag fell and they were off, Moss Rose shooting out like a rocket from the start, followed all the way home by the emulous six, and walking in, as the turf phrase goes, his mouth wide open, and a big grey horse, Moonlyong, three lengths away, second: Thunderbolt a bad last. It was only a six furlong scamper, but it was won with such ridiculous ease that during the remainder of that brave little black horse's career, albeit be was the lightest and smallest horse in the field, his weights in all his classical races were put on a par with the weights allotted to some of the best blood of the land.

Scarcely speaking after the Cup race was over, sullen and disconsolate, page 87with a peculiar foreboding that her perfervid hopes were not to be fulfilled, sat Marvel through the rest of the race-meeting, with her father and her cousin by her side. "Why on earth does he not come here?" she thought to herself: "he loves me, and still he holds aloof from me to-day; why did he not write to me too, as I asked him to do? Would to Heaven that father would write to him, and ask him to come and see him! I'm sure he would not stand in my way." She saw him walk slowly away, by the side of Moss Rose, riding his mare, and knew their carriage was to follow in the same direction. She rejoiced when it came, and they were seated and ready to start for home; but her father was drinking whisky in the booth, and seemed inclined to stay there. Her cousin was in the secret now, for it had been openly discussed at home when her father had read the letter, and Sukey was almost as much enamoured of the proposed marriage as Marvel herself. She looked upon the doctor as a decided prize in the matrimonial market. Her brother, who was also an offspring of the asthmatical auntie by a former marriage, had instituted inquiries about the Whitworths, and found everything satisfactory in spite of the Flying Dutchman.

"We will go without him," said Sukey, "and wait for him outside the park," and straightway they drove off in the same direction as Eugene and the horses had gone. Overtaking him as he walked alongside the cup-winner, they stopped, when Marvel summoning all her petite charming faculties and with the most enchanting of smiles, said—"Eugene! I had him in the Cup sweep and won thirteen dollars; isn't he a darling? I knew he would win, and beat that horrid old Thunderbolt. I was at auntie's last week, and I am going again to-morrow. Will you come tomorrow evening? Father said he was going to write, and let me bring the letter with me."

"I am grateful to think he accords it an answer," replied Eugene: "I was beginning to despair of getting a reply, I hope it's a favourable reply, but I can wait till you bring it to-morrow night to Sunnyside."

Sukey invited him to wait till the great man came up; but Eugene walked on raising his hat by the side of his thoroughbred conquering hero home-ward bound. Home he was led as fresh as when he left the gates in the morning, to lounge on a bed of knee-deep hay; while Paddy and some of the old cripples sneaked out to the nearest inn—The Spink's Nest—and celebrated the victory, more hibernico12. "I'll back that harse to give Thunderbolt half the distance in a mile, and bate him by tin lingths before his nose sees the post," declared Paddy; and so he would have done, hut not one of the cripples had any money to lay against Moss Rose or or any other Rose.

The following morning Eugene was called before the house committee, about that time given to sticking their noses into the hospital kitchen, prying under the beds and into the cupboards. They requested some explanation from the resident surgeon as to how it could have been that four of the inmates of the hospital had found their way out at night page 88through the gates after hours, and had to be brought back, two of them at least blind drunk, by the police.

He endeavoured to meet the charge by ridiculing it, and stumbled over a plea that one of them was an old woman blind with cataract, which he intented to extract by an operation, and that she must have been leading the others astray into the ditch of the adjoining tavern. One member of the committee in particular, an exceedingly cantankerous, querulous, officious and diminutive snub-nosed green-grocer, not satisfied with this jesting way of evading the question, wished to probe the matter to its depths, and tabled a motion that a special meeting be called to enquire into the matter, and report to the house committee, the house committee to the general committe, and the general committee to the annual meeting of the subscribers. He also remarked, qualifying the remark with some deference, that horse-racing was scarcely consonant with the noble and self-denying duties of a medical practitioner; to which the resident surgeon replied that it was only for half-an-hour about five o'clock in the morning, when all the patients were asleep, and at such times as the great bulk of the inhabitants attended the races that he relinquished his duties at the institution for horse-racing, as the member of the house committee called it. He pointed out that a far more reprehensible practice was the habit of the green-grocer himself—calling regularly every morning for a glass of the hospital porter and sending his children there for billy-cansful of linseed-meal and castor oil; whereupon the indignant member withdrew his motion. Lilliecrap wrote an article to the papers about the porter, the castor oil, and the linseed-meal, and as most of the other members of of the committee were dabbling racing-men, and looked for tips from the surgeon to put their "bits" on, the affair came to an ephemeral end.

The Friday evening came, and he proceeded to the little cottage at Sunnyside; but be could not determine upon any fixed idea as to what answer the little missive Marvel had brought would bring. He met her at the gate waiting and watching for him, with the all-important letter in the bosom of her dress.

"Well Marvel, what is it be?" he smiling said, as she handed him the note. Hastily breaking the blue-dragon seal of the great and mighty Gould, written in a frail thready and unsteady hand, he read, word for word out to Marvel—"Dear dochther, I am agreable to what you intend to do. I should have wrote before, but to tell ye the truth I've been on the tank. Take care of her and she'll take care of you.—Your father-in-law, Julian Jasper Gould."

Fixing him with her keen black flashing eyes, "I suppose you mean what you said on Friday evening," she said with some show of haughtiness.

"I always try to mean what I say," he returned, and suiting the action to the word he kissed her blushing cheeks as an emblem and a seal of his love. He placed a ring on her finger as a symbol of her betrothal, and saying that it was impossible for him to remain away from the hospital page 89that night, he invited her to come up to the house in the morning. He bade her adieu: the sight of her waving handkerchief faded from his backward turned eyes, and the barque of Eugene's life was launched upon the uncertain seas of matrimony.

1 Bark of the Croton eleuteria tree of the West Indies. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 A silent and motionless group of poeple arranged to represent a scene. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

3 Hurrah, O Triumphe!

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

4 Early morning. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

5 To clear ground of roots and stumps. OED Online, vbl.n.1, sense 1.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

6 A device to pull down a tree by mechanical advantage, sometimes with a winch, as a method of clearing trees from land. (Source informal.)

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

7 A street swindler; a confidence trickster. Partridge 1972.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

8 A gambler, esp. a card-sharper; a professional swindler.Partridge 1972.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

9 Loosely, to caper about. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

10 Persons of high rank or eminence. OED Online, sense 1b.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

11 How we Beat the Favourite: A Lay of the Loamshire Hunt Cup. Adam Lindsay Gordon.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

12 In the Irish manner.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]