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2: Sunstar’s Derby

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Author Topic: 2: Sunstar’s Derby  (Read 30 times)
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« on: April 10, 2023, 08:47:29 am »

THERE it was again!

Above the babel of sound, the low roar of voices, soft and sorrowful, now heard, now lost, a vagrant thread of gold caught in the drab woof of shoddy life gleaming and vanishing. . . . Gilbert Standerton sat tensely straining to locate the sound.

It was the “Melody in F” that the unseen musician played.

“There’s going to be a storm.”

Gilbert did not hear the voice. He sat on the box-seat of the coach, clasping his knees, the perspiration streaming from his face.

There was something tragic, something a little terrifying in his pose. The profile turned to his exasperated friend was a perfect one---forehead high and well-shaped, the nose a little long, perhaps, the chin strong and resolute.

Leslie Frankfort, looking up at the unconscious dreamer, was reminded of the Dante of convention, though Dante never wore a top-hat or found a Derby Day crowd so entirely absorbing.

“There’s going to be a storm.”

Leslie climbed up the short step-ladder, and swung himself into the seat by Gilbert’s side.

The other awoke from his reverie with a start.

“Is there?” he asked, and wiped his forehead.

Yet as he looked around it was not the murky clouds banking up over Banstead that held his eye; it was this packed mass of men and women, these gay placards extolling loudly the honesty and the establishment of “the old firm,” the booths on the hill, the long succession of canvas screens which had been erected to advertise somebody’s whisky, the flimsy-looking stands on the far side of the course, the bustle, the pandemonium and the vitality of that vast, uncountable throng made such things as June thunderstorms of little importance.

“If you only knew how the low-brows are pitying you,” said Leslie Frankfort, with good-natured annoyance, “you would not be posing for a picture of ‘The Ruined Gambler.’ My dear chap, you look for all the world, sitting up here with your long, ugly mug adroop, like a model for the coloured plate to be issued with the Christmas Number of the Anti-Gambling Gazette. I suppose they have a gazette.”

Gilbert laughed a little.

“These people interest me,” he said, rousing himself to speak. “Don’t you realise what they all mean? Every one of them with a separate and distinct individuality, every one with a hope or a fear hugged tight in his bosom, every one with the capacity for love, or hate, or sorrow. Look at that man!” he said, and pointed with his long, nervous finger.

The man he indicated stood in a little oasis of green. Hereabouts the people on the course had so directed their movements as to leave an open space, and in the centre stood a man of medium height, a black bowler on the back of his head, a long, thin cigar between his white, even teeth. He was too far away for Leslie to distinguish these particulars, but Gilbert Standerton’s imagination filled in the deficiencies of vision, for he had seen this man before.

As if conscious of the scrutiny, the man turned and came slowly towards the rails where the coach stood. He took the cigar from his mouth and smiled as he recognised the occupant of the box-seat.

“How do you do, sir?”

His voice sounded shrill and faint, as if an immeasurable distance separated them, but he was evidently shouting to raise his voice above the growling voices of the crowd. Gilbert waved his hand with a smile, and the man turned with a raise of his hat, and was swallowed up in a detachment of the crowd which came eddying about him.

“A thief,” said Gilbert, “on a fairly large scale---his name is Wallis; there are many Wallises here. A crowd is a terrible spectacle to the man who thinks,” he said half to himself.

The other glanced at him keenly.

“They’re terrible things to get through in a thunderstorm,” he said, practically. “I vote we go along and claim the car.”

Gilbert nodded.

He rose stiffly, like a man with cramp, and stepped slowly down the little ladder to the ground. They passed through the barrier and crossed the course, penetrated the little unsaddling enclosure, through the long passages where press-men, jockeys and stewards jostled one another every moment of race days, to the roadway without.

In the roped garage they found their car, and, more remarkable, their chauffeur.

The first flicker of blue lightning had stabbed twice to the Downs, and the heralding crash of thunder had reverberated through the charged air, when the car began to thread the traffic toward London. The storm, which had been brewing all the afternoon, broke with terrific fury over Epsom. The lightning was incessant, the rain streamed down in an almost solid wall of water, crash after crash of thunder deafened them.

The great throng upon the hill was dissolving as though it was something soluble; its edges frayed into long black streamers of hurrying people moving toward the three railway stations. It required more than ordinary agility to extricate the car from the chaos of charabancs and motor-cabs in which it found itself.

Standerton had taken his seat by the driver’s side, though the car was a closed one. He was a man quick to observe, and on the second flash he had seen the chauffeur’s face grow white and his lips twitching. A darkness almost as of night covered the heavens. The horizon about was rimmed with a dull, angry orange haze; so terrifying a storm had not been witnessed in England for many years.

The rain was coming down in sheets, but the young man by the chauffeur’s side paid no heed. He was watching the nervous hands of the man twist this way and that as the car made detour after detour to avoid the congested road.

Suddenly a jagged streak of light flicked before the car, and Standerton was deafened by an explosion more terrifying than any of the previous peals.

The chauffeur instinctively shrank back, his face white and drawn; his trembling hands left the wheel, and his foot released the pedal. The car would have come to a standstill, but for the fact that they were at the top of a declivity.

“My God!” he whimpered, “it’s awful. I can’t go on, sir.”

Gilbert Standerton’s hand was on the wheel, his neatly-booted foot had closed on the brake pedal.

“Get out of it!” he muttered. “Get over here, quick!”

The man obeyed. He moved shivering to his master’s place, his hands before his face, and Standerton slipped into the driver’s seat and threw in the clutch.

It was fortunate that he was a driver of extraordinary ability, but he needed every scrap of knowledge as he put the car to the slope which led to the lumpy Downs. As they jolted forward the downpour increased, the ground was running with water as though it had been recently flooded. The wheels of the car slipped and skidded over the greasy surface, but the man at the steering-wheel kept his head, and by and by he brought the big car slithering down a little slope on to the main way again. The road was sprinkled with hurrying, tramping people. He moved forward slowly, his horn sounding all the time, and then of a sudden the car stopped with a jerk.

“What is it?”

Leslie Frankfort had opened the window which separated the driver’s seat from the occupants of the car.

“There’s an old chap there,” said Gilbert, speaking over his shoulder, “would you mind taking him into the car? I’ll tell you why after.”

He pointed to two woe-begone figures that stood on the side of the road. They were of an old man and a girl; Leslie could not see their faces distinctly. They stood with their backs to the storm, one thin coat spread about them both.

Gilbert shouted something, and at his voice the old man turned. He had a beautiful face, thin, refined, intellectual; it was the face of an artist. His grey hair straggled over his collar, and under the cloak he clutched something, the care of which seemed to concern him more than his protection from the merciless downpour.

The girl at his side might have been seventeen, a solemn child, with great fearless eyes that surveyed the occupants of the car gravely. The old man hesitated at Gilbert’s invitation, but as he beckoned impatiently he brought the girl down to the road and Leslie opened the door.

“Jump in quickly,” he said. “My word, you’re wet!”

He slammed the door behind them, and they seated themselves facing him.

They were in a pitiable condition; the girl’s dress was soaked, her face was wet as though she had come straight from a bath.

“Take that cloak off,” said Leslie brusquely. “I’ve a couple of dry handkerchiefs, though I’m afraid you’ll want a bath towel.”

She smiled.

“It’s very kind of you,” she said. “We shall ruin your car.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Leslie cheerfully. “It’s not my car. Anyway,” he added, “when Mr. Standerton comes in he will make it much worse.”

He was wondering in his mind by what freakish inclination Standerton had called these two people to the refuge of his Limousine.

The old man smiled as he spoke, and his first words were an explanation.

“Mr. Standerton has always been very good to me,” he said gently, almost humbly.

He had a soft, well-modulated voice. Leslie Frankfort recognised that it was the voice of an educated man. He smiled. He was too used to meeting Standerton’s friends to be surprised at this storm-soddened street musician, for such he judged him to be by the neck of the violin which protruded from the soaked coat.

“You know him, do you?”

The old man nodded.

“I know him very well,” he said.

He took from under his coat the thing he had been carrying, and Leslie Frankfort saw that it was an old violin. The old man examined it anxiously, then with a sigh of relief he laid it across his knees.

“It’s not damaged, I hope?” asked Leslie.

“No, sir,” said the other; “I was greatly afraid that it was going to be an unfortunate ending to what has been a prosperous day.”

They had been playing on the Downs, and had reaped a profitable harvest.

“My grand-daughter also plays,” said the old man. “We do not as a rule care for these great crowds, but it invariably means money”---he smiled---“and we are not in a position to reject any opportunity which offers.”

They were now drawing clear of the storm. They had passed through Sutton, and had reached a place where the roads were as yet dry, when Gilbert stopped the car and handed the wheel to the shame-faced chauffeur.

“I’m very sorry, sir,” the man began.

“Oh, don’t bother,” smiled his employer, “one is never to be blamed for funking a storm. I used to be as bad until I got over it . . . there are worse things,” he added, half to himself.

The man thanked him with a muttered word, and Gilbert opened the door of the car and entered. He nodded to the old man and gave a quick smile to the girl.

“I thought I recognised you,” he said. “This is Mr. Springs,” he said, turning to Leslie. “He’s quite an old friend of mine. I’m sure when you have dined at St. John’s Wood you must have heard Springs’ violin under the dining-room window. It used to be a standing order, didn’t it, Mr. Springs?” he said. “By the way,” he asked suddenly, “were you playing----”

He stopped, and the old man, misunderstanding the purport of the question, nodded.

“After all,” said Gilbert, with a sudden change of manner, “it wouldn’t be humane to leave my private band to drown on Epsom Downs, to say nothing of the chance of his being struck by lightning.”

“Was there any danger?” asked Leslie in surprise.

Gilbert nodded.

“I saw one poor chap struck as I cleared the Downs,” he said; “there were a lot of people near him, so I didn’t trouble to stop. It was a terrifying experience.”

He looked back out of the little oval window behind.

“We shall have it again in London to-night,” he said, “but storms do not feel so dangerous in town as they do in the country. They’re not so alarming. Housetops are very merciful to the nervous.”

They took farewell of the old man and his grand-daughter at Balham, and then, as the car continued, Leslie turned with a puzzled look to his companion.

“You’re a wonderful man, Gilbert,” he said; “I can’t understand you. You described yourself only this morning as being a nervous wreck----”

“Did I say that?” asked the other dryly.

“Well, you didn’t admit it,” said Leslie, with an aggrieved air, “but it was a description which most obviously fitted you. And yet in the face of this storm, which I confess curled me up pretty considerably, you take the seat of your chauffeur and you push the car through it. Moreover, you are sufficiently collected to pick up an old man, when you had every excuse to leave him to his dismal fate.”

For a moment Gilbert made no reply; then he laughed a little bitterly.

“There are a dozen ways of being nervous,” he said, “and that doesn’t happen to be one of mine. The old man is an important factor in my life, though he does not know it---the very instrument of fate.”

He dropped his voice almost solemnly. Then he seemed to remember that the curious gaze of the other was upon him.

“I don’t know where you got the impression that I was a nervous wreck,” he said briefly. “It’s hardly the ideal condition for a man who is to be married this week.”

“That may be the cause, my dear chap,” said the other reflectively. “I know a lot of people who are monstrously upset at the prospect. There was Tuppy Jones who absolutely ran away---lost his memory, or some such newspaper trick.”

Gilbert smiled.

“I did the next worst thing to running away,” he said a little moodily. “I wanted the wedding postponed.”

“But why?” demanded the other. “I was going to ask you that this morning coming down, only it slipped my memory. Mrs. Cathcart told me she wouldn’t hear of it.”

Gilbert gave him no encouragement to continue the subject, but the voluble young man went on----

“Take what the gods give you, my son,” he said. “Here you are with a Foreign Office appointment, an Under-Secretaryship looming in the near future, a most charming and beautiful bride in prospect, rich----”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that,” said Gilbert sharply. “The idea is abroad all over London. Beyond my pay I have no money whatever. This car,” he said, as he saw the other’s questioning face, “is certainly mine---at least, it was a present from my uncle, and I don’t suppose he’ll want it returned before I sell it. Thank God it makes no difference to you,” he went on with that note of hardness still in his voice, “but I am half inclined to think that two-thirds of the friendships I have, and all the kindness which is from time to time shown to me, is based upon that delusion of riches. People think that I am my uncle’s heir.”

“But aren’t you?” gasped the other.

Gilbert shook his head.

“My uncle has recently expressed his intention of leaving the whole of his fortune to that admirable institution which is rendering such excellent service to the canine world---the Battersea Dogs’ Home.”

Leslie Frankfort’s jovial face bore an expression of tragic bewilderment.

“Have you told Mrs. Cathcart this?” he asked.

“Mrs. Cathcart!” replied the other in surprise. “No, I haven’t told her. I don’t think it’s necessary. After all,” he said with a smile, “Edith isn’t marrying me for money, she is pretty rich herself, isn’t she? Not that it matters,” he said hastily, “whether she’s rich or whether she’s poor.”

Neither of the two men spoke again for the rest of the journey, and at the corner of St. James’s Street Gilbert put his friend down.

He continued his way to the little house which he had taken furnished a year before, when marriage had only seemed the remotest of possibilities, when his worldly prospects had seemed much brighter than they were at present.

Gilbert Standerton was a member of one of those peculiar families which seem to be made up entirely of nephews. His uncle, the eccentric old Anglo-Indian, had charged himself with the boy’s future, and he had been mainly responsible for securing the post which Gilbert now held. More than this, he had made him his heir, and since he was a man who did nothing in secret, and was rather inclined to garrulity, the news of Gilbert’s good fortune was spread from one end of England to the other.

Then, a month before this story opens, had come like a bombshell a curt notification from his relative that he had deemed it advisable to alter the terms of his will, and that Gilbert might look for no more than the thousand pounds to which, in common with innumerable other nephews, he was entitled.

It was not a shock to Gilbert except that he was a little grieved with the fear that in some manner he had offended his fiery uncle. He had a too lively appreciation of the old man’s goodness to him to resent the eccentricity which would make him a comparatively poor man.

It would have considerably altered the course of his life if he had notified at least one person of the change in his prospects.

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