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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter XXII. The Corinthian Cup. Game Till Death

Chapter XXII. The Corinthian Cup. Game Till Death.

The machinations of the champion horse-trainer of the States—the astute and shrewd trainer of the valiant Moss Rose—did not culminate in the victory of the Coronation Plate. This was not the only object which the long-headed Billy Fox had in view. The win had been a most meritorious one for the little horse, and the win of the trainer-king himself had amounted to nearly five thousand dollars. He bought the hotel, in the name of his wife. Mrs. Fox was a native of British Guiana, and she was almost as competent in horse-training as old Billy himself. By meretricious schemes and patient cunning he had succeeded in reducing the weight which the horse had to carry from eight stone twelve to eight stone, in six months, page 148and though he had been deliberately prevented from winning a single race during this period, the moneys paid over through the medium of the bookmaker by the doctor paid handsomely for his keep and the assiduous care bestowed upon the racehorse by his son Roland. He felt disgusted with the poetical ideas of the doctor, who wanted the horse to win every race he could. To relieve himself of this distasteful phantasy he determined to do all he could to relieve Whitworth of the worries of ownership. With a great snow of dissembling horsey talk, that he had not been a red cent to the good by the recent win of the Coronation Plate, he urged that the horse was taking money out of his pocket, and that it was impossible for Moss Rose ever to win another race in his life. The charge which he proposed to make of fifteen dollars per week for his keep and training Whitworth thought only fair, and would gladly have paid twice as much, even if he never won again; but the journeys to the training stables and the races were beginning to tell their tale upon his practice, and were a continual source of embitterment with Marvel. The old pangs of jealousy and the words of the malicious telegram—"Not horse, woman"—still hovered around her thoughts and filled her mind with self-tortures, and her husband's life with worry and unrest.

Ever since the birth of the roseate Pearly he had taken a waning interest in the absent Moss Rose. He had not cared about betting and gambling at any time, and felt happy in the company of his children at home. The only thought to mar his contentment was the constant dread of an outburst of passionate jealousy from his wife, and as a sequel, her running away to Edenhall. When one morning in the city the trainer proposed that he should sell the racehorse, he listened to the proposals and promised to favourably consider them.

"There's four hundred owing upon him for part keep and training and losses at backing him, but I'll feel the market and let you know what offer I can get for him, as I have no money to buy him myself," said the artful William.

Soon after an offer came by letter from a bookmaker, a brother of the man who had with the trainer entered into so many conspiracies against the owner. The offer was two thousand four hundred dollars.

About a day after came a letter from the trainer himself, saying his wife had fallen in love with the race-horse and that she would through him submit an offer of two thousand four hundred dollars, on the understanding that the vendor should always be informed beforehand when the horse was expected to win.

The letter fell out of the doctor's pocket and quickly it was read, marked, learnt off by rote and inwardly digested, by the bird of Heaven. Thereupon, wafted itself through the higher regions of the light ether into the brain of the bird of the sun the idea of going away for an ostensible visit of a couple of days with the children to Edenhall—once there, never to return until her husband had parted with the race-horse and given up racing altogether. This little scheme she carried out with the forethought page 149and far-reaching mind of a Marshal Von Moltke. She seemed so earnest in her promise to return that her husband thought the change would do the children a world of good, and no suspicion crossed his mind whatsoever. Accordingly the wanton and wayward Marvel migrated with the children to Edenhall the following week. A month elapsed, and he had written her several letters, asking—nay, begging—her to return with the children to The Elms; but at the end of the month she sent a peremptory reply, to the effect that she had consulted with her friends and had fully made up her mind to stay where she was until such time as he gave up racing and sold the race-horse.

The old sentiment and the desire for peace prevailed, and Moss Rose became the property of Mrs. Billy Fox, presumably, insomuch she had signed the cheque for two thousand dollars, the amount owing, four hundred dollars, having been deducted from his price. She had forwarded the cheque herself to the doctor. The following week Marvel and the children returned to the shady groves of Paradise. For several months all was amity and quietude in The Elms, and the growth, health and vigour of his children were the chief of Eugene's joys.

The fondness for Moss Rose was not alone a guiding trait in the doctor's character—it was the ruling passion in the hearts of the whole household of the Foxes, old and young. It was Moss Rose that bought the Old White Horse Hotel in which they lived and all that it contained, and it was Moss Rose alone that kept his vagabond son at home. If he was cared for when he was the pet belonging of the doctor, he lolled in the lap of luxury when he became the property of Mrs. Billy Fox. Every agency, too, for the increase of his speed and stamina the great trainer brought to bear upon the black horse with all his might and main. During the three months he had been in their possession the old trainer had finessed him with consummate judgment—never letting him get a place in any of the smaller races in which he was entered and had accepted, and yet escaping the vigilance of the stipendiary steward and the handicapper. He played a puddling game with the ring. Wherever he wandered and in whatever company he chanced to be, he would pull a long-fiddle face and give lugubrious expressions of regret that his wife had ever bought the beast, and declare to his most trusting friends that the horse had foundered and gone off for evermore after the terrible struggle in the Coronation Plate, and that none but a madman could ever expect him to race again. In this studied way he brought the weight from nine stone for six furlongs down to eight stone for a mile, and entered him for the Corinthian Cup at New Orleans, to be run in three months from the date of the sale. Not a hair grew on that equine skin but what was brushed and polished ten times a day; not a grain of oats but what had been fastidiously sieved; not a drop of water but what had been distilled ever crossed his lips; his recreation on the hay-grass paddock half-an-hour every day was timed to the fraction of a second, and the jealous Roland shifted his bed into the room adjoining the loose-box to hear every sound he uttered during the night. At day-page 150break he had been placed on his trial with standard celebrities of his class and a hidden heavier weight on his back morning after morning, before chanticleer1 called upon the day-god to illuminate the spring fields or night had withdrawn her sable mantle from the sky. Before the blathering turf-prophets could throw their flash-lights upon the flying Moss Rose, or record his unbroken victories over all-comers, the certainty of the Corinthian Cup victory was revealed to the trainer-king alone.

"Roland," said the old man, "we must not give him too much, or he may boil over and break down; he is just wound up to a turn—better ease him off a bit in his gallops for a week."

"All right, father," said Roland: "one gallop at the end of the week will do I suppose." He never obeyed that order from his father. Slily he piled upon the little fellow the full complement of his ordinary work, and thus surreptitiously took the management into his own hands at the most critical time.

The intensity of the high-strung excitement in the old trainer's brain brought on a form of intractable insomnia, and for weeks he had not slept a wink. He mortgaged the hotel which he had purchased in his wife's name, and put every dollar he received upon Moss Rose at a fairly good price. Every dollar which his ostensible owner and her children could scrape together was entrusted to Moss Rose, and the whole fortune for good or evil of that old man's household and horse-loving family was deposited on that honest little black horse's chance in the race.

The sun-bright fourth of July, ere the fields were ripe with the mellowing maize, and while the frowsy hum of the wild upborne bees could be heard, like distant music high above the tassels of the canary island pines, in the midst of the great Commemoration festivals of the anniversary of the declaration of American Independence, brought together one of the most important meetings of the Louisiana Jockey Club at New Orleans. Among shiploads of horses, representing all the sister and neighbouring dominions, came on foot the mustang on whose chances hinged the fortunes of hundreds of families—the popular, the well-beloved, the sensational, the romantic Moss Rose.

The vast crowd, as seen from afar, again blackened the bracken-clothed hill, the grand-stand, the lawn, the flat and the bird-cage; while, important among the multi-coloured throng on the lawn, came Marvel, the bird of the sun, and the hurrying, cherry-cheeked Pearly. Nearly three years old now, among the élégantes she looked quite pretty and petite, tripping along among the pink pimpernel and the snowdrops on the variegated sward. Her little heart full of gladsome excitement, chattering she held on to her father's hand, dressed in white eau de Nil silk with loops of primrose ribbon, and a big fluffy cream lace sun-bonnet—a perfect little symphony in pink and white. Above lay "trailing clouds of glory" melting from saffron to rose-pink and amber in a sky of the tenderest blue, while far away in the more distant cloudland the most delicate tints in the choice colour-box of Nature page 151were blended in divine and supernal harmony over a varying circle of human destinies moving beneath the solemn loveliness of Nature. Strolling about the many-flowered lawn they watched two races, and heard the bell tinkle for the Corinthian Cup, the third race on the card. The Corinthian Cup brought out a field of thirteen horses, but the favorite well-known colours of Moss Rose were changed for a blue-green cap and a tartan jacket. The old trainer, with his cumbersome wife and family, when the field had all appeared and he had given his final instructions to the jockey, stood in the same spot as Marvel had chosen on the day of the Coronation Plate, while Eugene, his wife and little Pearly sat near the box of the Louisiana State governor: Marvel again conspicuous in glacé2 of the shade called gorge de pigeon3, with a blouse bodice4 of Liberty5 satin in dark green, and a brown Tuscan hat trimmed with lace, yellow and pink flowers and foliage.

Regardless of all others, Eugene's gaze was fixed upon the nimble movements of the quickly ambulating, jet-black mustang. Little Pearly herself drew him in a sweep out of her father's hat.

"Where is my gee-gee, puppa?" tugging at her father's arm.

"There he is, Pearly; see him running along with the boy in the pretty coat," said Eugene while Pearly looked along his finger.

"Oh! yes: can Pearly have him if he wins, puppa? Pearly would feed him and give him to Vallie when he gets a big boy."

"Wait till he wins, Pearly, and papa will see if you can get him."

"Oh! he'll win, puppa; Pearly knows he'll win. Vallie hasn't got a gee-gee, has he puppa? only an old wood wockle-horse. Puppa! I saw him giving it some of your chaff and a drink out of a bockle. Pearly's gee-gee win. I know, I know; Pearly take him home to Vallie in a big ship:" prattling away and jumping up every minute in childish glee with a thrill of delight.

Listening to the rippling exuberance of the prophesying cherub, the ting-a-lingle-lingle of the bell came again, and the field was off from the starting-post. For a moment he forgot, and strained his eyes for primrose and white, till somebody sitting near said—"Peacock blue and tartan: bad start, but he's coming." Before them near the judge's box stood every member of the household of the old trainer, each with a pair of field-glasses to his eyes, and the face of the old man deadly pale, his lips, as of old, moving with every stride of Moss Rose. On they came, looking in the far distance like a pack of wolves, and Whitworth was not at all surprised to see with his field-glass the tartan well forward. Four horses full of running and rushing with all the fury of tigers lay before the black, but he was beating them down stride by stride at the distance, when the jockey moved upon him and cut him with the whip. As if three of the leaders stood still the little mustang whisked past them and came up girth to girth with Waterfall. One furlong left to the pair—for Gloriation came down behind, and Merry Hampton with Harpagon rolled over him—"Waterfall!" roared the crowd; but the echo reverberated with the sound page 152of "Moss Rose!" Then began a desperate, ding-dong neck-and-neck struggle with Waterfall, whose jockey in yellow and black was lashing him in all directions with the whip and chopping him raw with the spurs till he began to show signs of distress, while other horses in the rear, whose jockeys had been looking down at their boots and waiting far a gallery finish, came behind him like a raging storm; but the shooting Moss Rose, whose jockey had adopted the "butcher-boy" style of riding—as fast and as far as he could—passed the withers of Waterfall and in the last few lengths snatched the race away from the champion-winner by a head, and the uproar of the thirty thousand race-goers deadened all other sound.

"Puppa, my gee-gee can't win now, puppa;" and the tears welled into her bright violet eyes and trickled over the apple-bloom cheeks of Pearly.

"Oh! yes, Pearly's gee-gee won the big race," as her father dried the tears away with his handkerchief.

"Oh! no, no, puppa, Pearly gee-gee can't win. Pearly gee-gee fell down. See there," pointing with one tiny finger to a scene of excitement.

Seeing, as he looked from the little child, a gathering and swarming crowd quickly collecting in advance of the winning-post, jumping in hot haste the dividing-fences, and ignoring all rules of the course, he suspected that something had happened. He left little Pearly with her mother, and elbowed his way through the surging crowd to the spot where, with all his blushing honours thick upon him, lay—while the blood streamed through his widely-dilated nostrils—the non-pareil pet of his earlier days—the horse who had padded his pockets with gold and his home with anxiety and trouble—the gallant and hot-blooded Moss Rose, pawing with one foot the air as he lay in agony, his long, glossy sable satin neck stretched out straight on the sward, his fire-flashing eye looking up at his trainer. The extra stress of the training which young Roland Fox had piled upon him unknown to his father had produced dilatation of his heart just before the race, and a blood-vessel had burst in his lungs during the terrible strain of the fast-run mile. The time was one forty-one. Beside him stood the trainer-king, his eyes suffused with grief.

"I suspected it, doctor," he sobbed. "I was afraid we were taking too much out of him in the training. I told Roland to ease him off, but he didn't obey me. I had rather he had never been entered at all than win that race and fall—I can't bear it," kneeling down, and smoothing the dying hero's neck—"I can't bear it—my poor boy, my pet—my pretty boy." He fell prone on his neck in a passionate flood of tears, kissing and caressing the brave conqueror conquered at last, whose name was a household word in America, and the very tocsin of the old man's soul. The sudden grief, acting upon the prolonged insomnia, brought him into a state of acute melancholia, and when the constable came with a revolver he got up and maniacally implored him—"For God's sake, constable, don't shoot him!—don't shoot him! let my little darling die in peace—my poor bay—my poor little boy—my little sweet Moss Rose!"

Bang! banged the revolver, and bang! it banged again. "He's out of page 153pain now," said the constable—and so he was, as his glorious life ebbed away with a coup de grace of two bullets buried in his head. The unruly concourse soon disappeared before the charge of two mounted constables, and Eugene, full of the sorrow of sentiment and romance, moved slowly back to his little child in the grand-stand.

"Poor gee-gee gone away, Pearly - poor gee-gee dead," he said in genuine sadness; "never mind, papa get Pearly another gee-gee."

"Don't put such absurd notions into the child's head," said the cynical Marvel; "it's very wrong," as she snapped her false teeth together.

They did not stay for any more races. Neither did the family of the trainer or old Billy himself. Meeting the doctor as they all walked away towards the cab-stand, the woe-begone trainer seemed to be perfectly oblivious of his big win, and harped upon the one string—"my poor boy, my poor boy,"—all the time they stood waiting for the waggonette. All getting into the same conveyance, they journeyed into the city—Mrs. Fox during the journey prevailing upon Marvel to bring Pearly down with her for the night to Houston—while opposite Eugene sat the bereaved trainer himself. All the way into town—a distance of a few miles—the doctor kept talking to the trainer trying to cheer him, but the old man vouchsafed no reply. In the train he sat with his sunken downcast eyes fixed like glass spheres in their sockets, gaping at the passing plains, and took no heed of anything in the carriage. He had received a felling blow, and together with the weeks of insomnia it had unhinged his mind. To the doctor at least the prospect of melancholia was black. In the city he would eat nothing, drink nothing; in the cab from the train to his hotel he sat as before—stolid, silent, and pre-possessed—while Marvel and Mrs. Fox chatted together in the same conveyance. Although Moss Rose was supposed to be her own property her sorrow was unnoticeable beside the profound anguish of her husband.

Upon arriving at the Old White Horse hotel they all entered the house together, and Mrs. Fox politely marshalled Marvel upstairs to take off her hat while the doctor sat with the old man in the private parlour. In a short time the servant announced the dinner, and Eugene, after washing his hands upstairs, came down again; but the trainer, whom he had left in the little parlour, was gone.

Going into the dining-room, "I thought Mr. Fox was here before me," he said.

"I saw him going through into the bar," said the trainer's wife—"I suppose he has gone to get a drink." The dinner was begun without him.

"I am afraid he is taking the misfortune too much to heart," said the doctor.

"Yes," she replied; "he never sleeps, and indeed he has given up going to bed this fortnight. I do wish, Dr. Whitworth, you could give him something. Roland, go and tell father that dinner is waiting, and the doctor is asking for him."

The eldest son went out to seek his father in the bar. Not finding him page 154there, he wandered around the house and towards the few winking lights of the little town, into the hotels and over the bridge, fossicking about everywhere for his father. Coming back alone, the gravest suspicions entered the mind of Eugene; but, afraid to upset the feelings of the old man's wife, he rose from the table and offered to go out in order to search for him, whereupon Mrs. Fox followed, saying—"Why, there is his hat on the seat outside the bar; he can't be far away."

"Perhaps he went down to the stable," suggested the doctor, when the muffled crack of a pistol could be heard from within the stable door. Rushing down to the stable, followed by the terror-stricken wife, he threw open the door of the dead winner's box, where, in its last spasmodic throes on the broad of his back on the hay bed prepared for the lost Moss Rose, his right arm outstretched supine, and a revolver clutched in the rigor mortis of his hand, with a bullet in his brain, fluttered away the life of William Wood Fox, the king of horse-trainers of the United States, the well-known sportsman and the life-long disciple of the turf. His clothes were dripping wet, his big, red handkerchief tied tightly around his neck. His coat was off. His hat was gone. There on the couch of his beloved benefactor lay in its last long sleep that paragon trainer of a horse, a peaceful calm almost a smile on his dark, rigid face, as if he were smiling on the form of "his poor little boy"—a tiny trickling streak of blood and a small hole in his right temple, calm, motionless, and locked for ever in a slumber for which the world has no key.

"Great God! Great God!" cried the widow, and fell beside him, holding his head in her arms and covering his face with kisses, while Whitworth stood stock-still, for he saw at a glance that the trainer was dead. His heart was full. He uttered no sound, but thought what a horse was Moss Rose. Raising the stricken woman from the hay, he conducted her into the little parlour of the hotel.

"Oh, My God! My God!" she cried aloud to Marvel: "and he bought those colours from your father for that race; he said they would change his bad luck. What will I do?—whatever will I do?" but the cold-blooded Marvel stood by, drinking tea in the parlour and sneering.

The career of Thunderbolt had been so bad and fraudulent that the great and mighty man had sold him at an enormous loss, and had put up the rest of his stable, saddles, bridles, rugs, clothing and colours to auction about the same time as the doctor had sold Moss Rose to the widow.

Assuaging her anguish as best he could, while Marvel put little Pearly to bed, he waited with her till the eldest son returned. Some hours afterwards, he wandered with him down to the swamp at the back of the hotel, between the hotel and the foreshore of the harbour. There upon the bank lay the old trainer's coat, and it soon became manifest that he had attempted to drown himself in one of the miasmatic Mississippi swamps—a swamp matted with confervæ6 and swarming with dab-chicks and moorhens. Next morning the daily papers regretted to announce the suicide of the father of Louisiana horse-trainers. His funeral took place the following day, page 155all the racing community following the flower-strewn coffin. He was buried in the local cemetery, Whitworth being one of the pall-bearers.

With a fair competence of winnings, the family that mourned—in combination with the few distant relations who had quarrelled with but now knew the patriarch of the turf no more—redeemed the mortgage on the Old White Horse hotel and leased it in the widow's name. They gave up horse-racing on their own account altogether, and made a good living by it as a race-meeting resort, the name being changed to the Moss Rose hotel. Bringing the dead body of the horse away from the racecourse, it was carted to the precincts of his old home at Houston. Within ear-shot of the North Atlantic breakers as they dash against the javelined rocks to change again and for ever again into the back-borne spray and drift upon the long snow-white foreshore, in the presence of the bereaved Patrick Flynn—who for the solemn occasion departed from his custom and put on a borrowed black coat, and whose valuable services were still retained by the family—sobbing aloud a wakeful death-wail—"Oh, wirra, wirra! me honey, me purty boy, me darlin'"—the remains of the ill-fated race-horse, the beloved flying steed of Eugene, were consigned by him to their sandy grave — the marvellous Moss Rose to his long home by the sounding sea. Gone like a brilliant and fallen star the horse whose memory haunted his lovers in life-long dreams, and whose wondrous career was a story among children. They planted on his grave the white moss rose and the sweetbriar, and as the roses bloomed and the years rolled slowly away a sorrowful man was often seen at the grave. It was Eugene—with tears in his eyes, it was Eugene.

1 Chanticleer was the rooster hero of the Nun's Priest's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 Of cloth or leather: having a smooth surface with high polish or lustre; lacé silk or glacé leather. OED Online,a.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

3 Throat-of-pigeon; iridescent

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

4 A loosely fitting bodice usually tucked inside the skirt at the waist. OED Online. See 'blouse', sense 3.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

5 Used of any material or style characteristic of London drapers Messrs Liberty. [Earliest citation 1888]. OED Online. See 'Liberty', n.2.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

6 A genus of fresh-water algae composed of simple many-celled filaments. OED Online. See 'conferva'.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]