Fast as the Wind - Nat Gould - ebook

Nathaniel Gould (21 December 1857 – 25 July 1919), always known as Nat Gould, was a British novelist.

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Nat Gould

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Fast as the Wind

Nat Gould



A small but splendidly built yacht steamed slowly into Torbay, passed Brixham and Paignton, and came to anchor in the outer harbor at Torquay. It was a glorious spring morning, early, and the sun shone on the water with a myriad of dancing reflections; it bathed in light the beautiful town, the scores of villas nestling on the heights surrounding it, the palms on the terrace walk, on the mass of greenery clothing foot to summit, on the inner harbor, and on the rocky coast stretching out towards Anstey's Cove and Babbacombe Beach. It was a magnificent sight, the arts of man and nature mingled together, for once harmonizing, for Torquay has not been spoilt by builders, at least as seen from the bay. Behind, Brixham way, the red sails of the fishing boats flapped lazily in an idle breeze. Four men-of-war lay still in the bay, guardians of the peace, comforting, reassuring, a hint of what lay behind. How peaceful these monsters of the deep looked. Slumbering surely were they. What was that? A puff of white smoke, then a solemn sound, which sped across the bay, and echoed over the hills. One of the monsters had spoken, just to show it was wide awake.

It had a curious effect on the man leaning over the side of the Sea-mew, the yacht that had just come to anchor. It startled him from his reverie, from his contemplation of all that was so beautiful around him.

For a moment he looked across at the warships, and saw the smoke drifting away, then he turned and looked over the town and its heights, and his thoughts went far and landed on Dartmoor.

Another gun boomed out. This time it seemed more natural. Again the echo ran over the hills, and again he turned and looked towards that vast moor which lay behind.

"Supposing it were true," he muttered. "Would to God it were, and that he were safe on board my yacht. All for a woman, and such a woman!"

He clenched his fist and struck the rail.

Picton Woodridge, owner of the Sea-mew, was a man of about thirty, tall, good looking, genial, popular, but lonely, if a popular man can be described as lonely, and there are such men. He was rich, a sportsman. His stable at Haverton contained good horses: a Derby winner in prospect, one of the best stayers in England, and above all Tearaway, a black filly, three years old, described by her trainer, Brant Blackett, as "a beauty, a real gem, and fast as the wind."

He ought to have been a happy man. To all outward appearances he was, but behind a smiling face there is sometimes a heavy heart. It was not exactly so in his case, yet there was something of it. There was one black shadow cast over his gilded path, and the echo of the gun from the man-of-war had deepened it.

"Why the deuce did I come here?" he muttered. "Why did I promise Dick I'd ride for him at Torquay races?"

He sighed; he knew why he had promised Dick Langford to ride for him; he would do a good deal more than this for Dick, for the sake of his sister Rita. He had no other companion on the yacht than Ben Bruce, captain of the Sea-mew, who stood towards him in the light of his best friend.

Ben Bruce was a character in his way. He had been in the Navy, on the same ship with Picton's father, and Admiral Woodridge and the young officer had esteem and affection for each other. Lieutenant Bruce often came to Haverton in the Admiral's time and was always a welcome guest. He had known Picton from a boy, and shared the Admiral's fondness for the somewhat lonely child, whose mother died at his birth, and whose elder brother was generally away from home, training for the Army. Bruce remembered the elder boy, Hector, but had not seen so much of him, or become so attached to him as to Picton. Hector was of a different disposition, hasty, headstrong, willful, and yet the brothers were much attached, and when at home together, were seldom apart. There were ten years between them; consequently Hector regarded himself in the light of a protector to Picton.

The Admiral loved them and endeavored to treat them equally in his affection, but it was not difficult to see the younger had the stronger hold over him. Hector saw it and smiled. He was not at all jealous; he felt if it came to choosing, and one of them had to be relied upon, his father would select him. And such would probably have been the case had occasion occurred, but it did not, and everything went on the even tenor of its way until the fatal day when a terrible thing happened and Hector became, so Picton was positively certain, the victim of a woman's wiles. What this happening was we shall learn. Sufficient to say, it caused the Admiral to retire. He never got over the shock, and died soon after he left the Navy. The bulk of his fortune was left to Picton, who was determined, when the time came, to surrender to Hector his proper share. Captain Ben Bruce left the service soon after the Admiral he had loved and served. He was, so to speak, a poor man, and when he came to Haverton, to his old chief's funeral, Picton begged him to stay with him for a few months to relieve his loneliness. This he readily consented to do. The months extended, and Picton would not let him go; he relied on the stronger man, who had carved his way upward by his own exertions. Ben Bruce protested, all to no purpose.

"I can't do without you," said Picton. "You were my father's friend, he had every confidence in you; you are one of the executors, you are the proper man to remain here and run the show."

Ben Bruce laughed.

"Run the show!" he said. "Not much chance of that even if I wished it. You've a good head on your shoulders, and one quite capable of managing your affairs. If I stay, mind I say if, it will not be on that account."

"It doesn't matter to me on what account you stay so long as you consent to remain," said Picton. "There's so much to do here; I am short of a companion you know I don't take to everyone. There's another thing although you're a sailor you are fond of horses, and a good rider, and I say, Ben, I've a proposition to make."

Again Ben Bruce laughed.

"You've got a fresh proposition almost every week, and it's nearly always something in my favor."

"This will be to your liking, as well as, if you think so, in your favor."

"What is it?"

"Take charge of the Haverton horses be my manager."

"What about Blackett?"

"He'll not mind; in fact he'll like it. I put it to him; he seemed rather enamored of the prospect of being closely connected with Captain Bruce, the friend of his adored Admiral. There wasn't a man living Blackett loved more than my father; I think it was the combination of the sea and the stable appealed to him. Blackett always had an idea, so he told me, until he became acquainted with the Admiral, that sailors were duffers where horses were concerned. 'But I soon found out the difference,' he said; 'the Admiral knew pretty near as much about a horse as I did. Of course I taught him a thing or two, but he was a good judge, he knew the points of a horse pretty near as well as he did the parts of a battleship.' That's Blackett's opinion, and he has an idea Captain Bruce has leanings in the same direction as the Admiral, so you can't raise any objections on that score."

It did not take much persuasion to induce Captain Bruce to consent, and he became manager of Haverton Stables and, as a natural consequence, remained with Picton Woodridge.

At the same time Picton said to him, with a serious face: "There's something else, far more important than anything I have mentioned. You've to help me to clear Hector; you believe him innocent, don't you, Ben, you can't do otherwise?"

Ben Bruce was silent for a moment Picton watched him anxiously then said, "Yes, I am sure he is innocent. He couldn't have done that, not to secure any woman for himself; but it's a mystery, Picton, a grave mystery, and it will take a far cleverer man than myself to unravel it. I'll help you, I'll stick at nothing to help you and Hector."

"Thanks, old friend, thanks a thousand times. With your help there is no telling what may be accomplished. There must be some way out of it; such a terrible injustice cannot be allowed to go on for ever," said Picton.

And so Captain Ben, as he was called, became the constant friend and companion of Picton Woodridge. When the Sea-mew was purchased it was Captain Ben who clinched the deal, and was appointed "skipper."

"So I'm your stud manager and captain of your yacht, that's a queer combination," said Ben.

"And you're as good in one capacity as the other," said Picton.

"I think I'm safer on deck than on a horse," said Ben.

It was Captain Ben Bruce who came quietly along the deck of the Sea-mew and looked at Picton Woodridge as he gazed over Torquay bay. A kindly look was in his eyes, which were always bright and merry, for he was a cheerful man, not given to look on the dark side of things. His affection for Picton was that of a father for a son, in addition to being a companion and a friend. He noticed the sad far-away look on Picton's face, and wondered what it was that caused the shadow on this beautiful April morning.

"I'll leave him to his meditations," he thought; "he'll be down for breakfast, and I'll ask him then."

He was about to turn away when Picton looked round and said with a smile: "Something told me you were there."

"Telepathy," said Ben.

"Sympathy," said Picton. "Do you know what I was thinking about?"

"No; I saw you were pensive. I'd have asked you at breakfast, you looked so serious."

"I was serious."

"What caused the passing cloud on such a glorious morning?" asked Ben.

Picton took him by the arm, his grip tightened; with the other hand he pointed to the battleship.

"The boom of a gun," he said; and Ben Bruce understood.



"Row me to the Sea-mew," said Dick Langford, and old Brackish touched his cap and replied, "Yes, sir; she's a beauty, she is. Hear the news, sir?"

"No; anything startling?"

"Nothin' out o' the common, at least not in these parts, but it's summat different to most."

"You're always long-winded, Brackish Yorkshireman, I suppose," said Dick impatiently.

Brackish was a Yorkshire boatman, hailing from Scarborough; he came to Torquay because his mother, nearly ninety, could not stand the cold blasts of the North East coast, and the old salt had a heart. "Brack" had a rough red face, eyebrows lapped over a pair of blue eyes; his throat and chest were always bared, tanned the color of leather; black hair covered his chest; his hands were hard, a deeper brown than his chest, the hands of a son of toil, and a boatman. Brack had been popular at Scarborough; he was well known in Torbay as a brave hardy seaman, whom no weather daunted. At first he had joined the Brixham fishing fleet, but soon tired of it, and when he saved enough money he bought a couple of boats, and made a decent living in Torquay harbor.

Brack was fond of gossip, and on this particular morning he was eager for a talk; it was his intention to have it out with Dick before he put foot in the boat, so he stood looking at the young man, barring his entrance to the craft he was eager to put his foot in. The old boatman was a sturdy figure in his rough seaman's clothes as he eyed Dick Langford, and, although impatient, Dick could not help smiling at him. He liked Brack, and the sailor returned the feeling.

"Let me get in and you can tell me about the news as we row to the yacht," said Dick.

"All right, sir; no hurry, you're here early. It's Mr. Woodridge's yacht, ain't it?"

"Of course it is; you know the Sea-mew as well as I do."

"Nice gentleman, Mr. Woodridge," said Brack.

"If you don't let me get into the boat I'll take another," said Dick.

Brack grinned.

"You'll not be doin' that, I'm thinking, after all I've done for yer."

"What have you done?" asked Dick surprised.

Brack looked indignant.

"Yer don't recollect? Well I'm blessed! Fancy forgettin' things like that!"

"Out with it," said Dick.

"I give yer the winner of the Leger three year runnin', and it's forgotten. Lor' bless us, what memories young gents has!" growled Brack.

Dick laughed heartily as he said: "So you did, old man. You're a real good tipster for the Yorkshire race."

"So I ought'er be. Don't I hail from there? I can always scent a Leger winner, smell 'em like I can the salt from the sea, comes natural somehow," said Brack, as he moved away and allowed Dick to step in. He pulled with long steady strokes and was soon out of the inner harbor, making for the yacht.

"By jove, this is a lovely morning!" said Dick, looking at the glorious hills he knew so well.

"Nowt like Yorkshire," growled Brack.

Dick laughed as he said: "You're a lucky man to be at Torquay, all the same; much warmer, fine climate."

"Hot as ," said Brack with a grunt.

"You haven't told me your news," said Dick.

"It'll keep," said Brack.

"Bet you a shilling you let it out before you reach the Sea-mew," said Dick.

"I don't bet," said Brack.

"You mean you dare not in this case, or you would lose."

"Very like I should, because I see yer burstin' to hear it, and I wouldn't like to disappoint yer," said Brack, as he ceased rowing and leaned on his oars.

"Tired?" said Dick.

"With that bit of a pull," said Brack, disgusted; "I should think not!"

"Then what are you resting for?"

"I baint restin', I'm easin' my oars."

"Oh, that's it: the oars are tired," said Dick.

"No more tired than I am, but when I gives 'em a spell for a few minutes they seems to work better," said Brack. "What's more, I talks better when I leans on 'em, sort o' gives me composure, and time to think; I'm a beggar to think."

Dick was amused; he wanted to reach the Sea-mew, but on this sunny morning it was good to sit in the boat on the blue smooth water and listen to old Brack for a few minutes.

"You must have done a lot of thinking in your time," said Dick, falling into his humor.

"I'm thinking now," said Brack.

"What about?"

"That poor devil who escaped from Dartmoor five days ago."

Dick smiled.

"Is that your news?"


"There have been several escapes lately."

"But they've all been caught in no time; this chap ain't, and by gum, lad, if he come'd my way I'd help him out. I don't believe they'll get him; at least I hopes not."

"They'll have him right enough," said Dick. "A convict at large is a danger to all on the moor."

"This one ain't," said Brack. "'Sides, he may be innocent."

"Innocent men don't get into Princetown," said Dick.

"That's just where yer wrong," said Brack. "I've a brother in there now, and he's innocent, I'll swear it."

Dick maintained a diplomatic silence.

"Of course you'll not believe it, but it'll come out some day. He was on a man-o-warsman, and they lagged him for knocking a petty officer overboard; the chap was drowned, but Bill swore he never had a hand in it, and I believes him. At the trial it came out Bill had a down on the man; and no wonder he was a brute, and a good riddance."

"Do you know who knocked him over?"

"No, but it's my firm belief Bill does, and that he's sufferin' for another, won't give him away."

Dick smiled.

"You don't know Bill; I does," said Brack emphatically.

"But what about this man who escaped? Why do you think he'll get away?"

"'Cause he's a good plucked 'un, a fighter, a brave man," said Brack.

"In what way?"

"They put bloodhounds on his track. One brute got away, they didn't find him for three days, when they did ," Brack hesitated; he wished to rouse his listener's attention. He succeeded.

"Go on," said Dick eagerly.

"The trackers found the hound dead, and alongside him was a suit of convict clothes nice well marked suits, ain't they; you can't mistake 'em," said Brack.

"You don't mean to say the fellow killed the hound, and left his clothes beside it!" exclaimed Dick.

"That's just what I have said, mister. Clever, weren't it? When the other hound found his mate, he found the clothes, and he lost the scent."


"'Cause the man must have fled stark naked, and the hound only had the scent of his clothes; must have been that, 'cause he couldn't follow him. He'll get off right enough you see if he don't. I wish Bill could do the same."

"How did he kill the hound?" asked Dick. "And where did you hear all this?"

"Strangled it. He's a good 'un he is; I'd like to have seen it. As for how I come to know by it, one of the men from the prison was here. He questioned me," said Brack with a grin. "Asked me if I'd seen a man like the one he gave a description of."

"What did you say?" asked Dick.

"Kept him talking for half an hour or more, gave 'im heaps of information. I filled him up, never you fear."

"But you didn't see the man?" said Dick.

"Lor' no! Wish I had, and that he was stowed away somewhere. I told the fellow I'd seen just such a man as he described, with his hands bound up in bandages, and a cloth round his neck. Said he'd a suit of old sailor's togs on, and that he went out in a boat with a lot of rowdy fellers to a 'tramp' in the Bay, and he didn't come back," chuckled Brack.

"And what was the result of your false information?" asked Dick.

"I'll tell you what the result will be. It will put 'em off the scent; they'll think he's gone off on the 'tramp' to London, and they'll give him a rest on the moor for a bit," said Brack.

"You think the man is still on the moor?"

"'Course; where else should he be?"

"Then he's sure to be caught."

"Wait a bit a man who can tackle a bloodhound and choke the life out of him is pretty determined," said Brack.

Dick acknowledged as much and said the circumstances were out of the common. He was interested in the old sailor's tale. He did not know whether to admire what Brack had done or to condemn it; he put himself in his place, wondering how he would have acted under similar circumstances.

Brack watched him, a peculiar smile on his face.

"Goin' to give me away?" he asked.

Dick laughed as he answered: "I was thinking whether you were right or wrong."

"Guessed as much. I was right to give such a man another chance. He's no coward, not he, and guilty men are all cowards," said Brack.

"Who is the man?"

"Don't know; he wouldn't tell me, but he said he was a lifer. He didn't seem very keen about his capture."

"You mean he seemed glad the man had escaped?" said Dick, surprised.

"I guessed as much from his face," said Brack, "and I reckon there's worse judges than me of human nature that's what makes me think he's innocent like Bill."

"It's all very interesting, but pull to the Sea-mew," said Dick.

"About time," said Brack, as he started rowing again. They were soon alongside the yacht.

Picton had just come on deck again from the saloon. He hailed Dick cheerfully.

"Well, early bird, what's brought you here at this time?" he said, smiling.

"Wished to welcome you, most mighty rider of winners," laughed Dick as he got out of the boat and stood on the steps of the gangway. "Here you are, Brack, and thanks for your story; it was thrilling."

Brack touched his cap as he said: "And it's true, and there's heaps of things thrilling that ain't true," and he pulled away.

"Brack been spinning yarns?" said Picton, who knew the old man.

"A real shocker this time."

"What about?"

"A fellow escaped from Dartmoor the other day. It's worth hearing; I'll tell you all about it later on," said Dick.

Picton Woodridge staggered backwards. At first Dick thought he was about to fall. He looked at him in astonishment.

"What's the matter, Pic?" he asked.

"Curious fit of faintness came over me; I'm all right now," said Picton, but Dick thought he didn't look it.



Dick Langford told Brack's story to Picton Woodridge and Captain Ben. Both listened attentively: it was immensely interesting to them. From time to time Ben looked at his friend to see how he took it. Dick, absorbed in his tale, did not notice the look of strained attention on their faces. They were silent when he finished.

"Not bad for Brack, eh?" said Dick.

The simple question made them start.

"You fellows seem all nerves this morning," said Dick. "When I told Pic on deck, he staggered; I thought he was going to faint. You're not afraid the fellow will board the yacht, are you?"

Ben laughed as he said: "No, I don't think we're afraid, not of one man, even if he be an escaped convict."

"You'll want all your nerve to-morrow," said Dick to Picton. "There's three of my horses to ride, and two of 'em are brutes."

"Thanks," said Picton, smiling; "a pleasant prospect. Worth coming all these miles for, isn't it, Ben?"

"Depends upon what Langford calls a brute," replied Ben.

"Pitcher's not so bad; he's what I call a humorous horse, full of pranks and no vice about him. He's number one. Now we come to the first brute, Planet, a gelding with a temper; as likely as not he'll try and pitch you into the crowd."

"Then he ought to have been named Pitcher," said Picton.

"We don't all get our right names, I mean names that fit; we're saddled with 'em by unthinking parents. Sis has a maid, Evangeline Mamie; now that's what I call a big handicap for the girl," said Dick.

They laughed, and Picton asked him to pass on to number two brute.

"The Rascal," said Dick; "he's a terror. He's lamed a couple of my chaps, and Pete's right when you're in the saddle, but it's a deuce of a job to get there. He rises on his hind legs, and conducts an imaginary band with his fore legs, but he's got a rare turn of speed, and he ought to win the West of England Handicap Steeplechase to-morrow, and the Torbay and South Devon Steeplechase the next day."

"Then you expect to bring off the double with him?" said Picton.

"Yes, and if you do not, Sis says she'll never speak to you again."

"Then I'll do it if I die in the attempt," said Picton.

"Don't be heroic, no one wants you to die. You can kill The Rascal if you like, but promise me to come off unscathed," said Dick, laughing.

"I'll try," said Picton.

"Pitcher ought to win the Maiden Hurdle Race, and Planet the St. Marychurch Hurdle Race. Now you have a nice little program mapped out for you, and I fancy you'll win the four events. If you do, it will be a day for rejoicing at Torwood, and the wearer of the pink jacket will be an honored guest if he cares to desert the Sea-mew for my humble abode."

"Dick, you're incorrigible," said Picton, laughing. "You really expect to win four races?"

"I do; Gordon won the lot at a meeting not far away on one occasion."

"That's quite possible he's a good rider."

"So are you."

"He is," said Ben; "few better."

"What are you doing to-day?" asked Dick.

"Nothing in particular; basking in the sunshine in your glorious bay."

"Then you like Torquay?" said Dick.

"Who could help liking it? And what a county lies behind it! I envy you the Devonshire lanes, Dick."

"Then come and live among them. I can pick you an ideal spot, and it shall be well within your means, Mr. Millionaire."

Picton laughed.

"No millions here a few thousands," he said; "just sufficient to keep my head above water."

"And the Sea-mew afloat," said Dick.

"I'll manage that," said Ben.

"Will you come ashore and have a look at Pitcher and the two brutes?" said Dick.

"What do you say, Ben? Shall we?" asked Picton.

Ben knew he wished to go Rita was at Torwood it was not the horses so much, although they were an attraction.

"Yes," said Ben promptly, and the matter was settled.

They went ashore. Dick Langford's dog-cart was at the Queen's and thither they adjourned. In a quarter of an hour they were going at an easy pace to Torwood, which lay about midway between Torquay and Newton Abbot.

How fresh everything looked! The trees were just budding, tingeing the almost bare branches with tips of green. The air was cool and soft; there were no motors about only an odd one or two, the tourist season had not commenced but there would be plenty of people at the races on the following days.

"Wonder what that fellow's up to!" exclaimed Dick, as he saw a man push through the hedge and disappear down the hill and across the meadow.

"Probably belongs to the place," said Picton.

"Then what the deuce did he get through the hedge for? Why didn't he go to the gate?" said Dick.

"Short cut, perhaps," said Picton.

"Wonder if he's that chap from Dartmoor?" laughed Dick, and he felt Picton start.

"The man's got on your nerves," he said. "I'll say no more about him."

Picton was looking at him as he went rapidly across the meadow; something about the figure appeared familiar, so did the long stride; he wondered if Ben noticed it, but the Captain was otherwise occupied. The incident was forgotten, and when they came in sight of Torwood, Picton became animated. He saw a figure on the lawn, and knew who it was. She recognized them and waved her handkerchief. This met with a quick response.

Torwood was a typical Devonshire home, not large, but a commodious, comfortable, well-appointed house, standing on the hillside; trees at the back, a terrace, then a level stretch of lawn, then a sweep down to the road; a small lodge and gate at the drive entrance; a steep incline to the house. On the right were the stables, half a dozen loose boxes, and a three-stall building. Dick Langford was far from being a rich man, but he was happy and contented, with his sister. He was a partner in a firm of auctioneers at Newton Abbot, and was accounted a ready salesman; there was always laughter in front when he wielded the hammer; quick at repartee, there were many people prompt to draw him out, but he got his prices, and that paid the firm and the customers.

Rita Langford was like her brother, of a bright and cheerful disposition, was popular in the neighborhood, and Torwood was a favorite house.

"So glad to see you, Mr. Woodridge, and you too, Captain Bruce. When did you arrive in the bay?"

"In the morning, yesterday; it was beautiful. How grand the country looks, and Torwood even prettier than ever!" said Picton.

"I induced him to leave his floating palace, and visit our humble abode, by asking him to inspect the horses he is to ride," said Dick with a wink at Ben.

"That is so, but there was a far greater inducement," said Picton, looking at Rita.

"Must I take that to mean me?" she said, laughing.

"Please," said Picton, thinking how charming she was.

They had a quiet luncheon, then went to the stables. Dick engaged no regular trainer, but he had a man named Arnold Brent, who was a first-rate hand with horses, and at the same time an expert gardener; the combination was fortunate for the owner of Torwood. The horses were trained in the neighborhood, where Dick had the privilege of using some good galloping land, with natural fences an up and down country, but excellent for the purpose. He had two lads who rode most of the work; sometimes he had a mount, and occasionally Brent. Altogether they did very well, and the Torwood horses generally secured a win or two at the local meetings. Dick Langford's favorite battle-grounds were Torquay and Newton Abbot. At the show at the latter place he often took prizes for dogs, poultry and garden produce; the money generally went into Brent's pocket. Brent knew both Picton and the Captain, and admired the former because he knew he was a first-class gentleman rider, although he had not seen him in the saddle. It was Brent who suggested to his master that Mr. Woodridge should ride at the local meeting for them.

"Not a big enough thing for him," said Dick doubtfully. "He rides at some of the swell meetings."

"You try him, sir," said Brent, adding, as he caught sight of Rita, "I'll bet he accepts."

"I hear a terrible account of these horses I am to ride," said Picton, smiling.

Brent smiled.

"I expect Mr. Langford's been pulling your leg, sir," he said.

"Isn't The Rascal a brute, isn't Planet another; and Pitcher was described as harmless, I think?" said Picton.

"The Rascal's all right if you humor him," said Brent. "He's bitten a lad, and crushed another against the wall, but he's not half a bad sort, and he'll win the double easily enough in your hands, sir."

"If I can mount him," laughed Picton.

"I'll see to that; he'll stand steady enough with me at his head. That's him the chestnut with the white face."

Picton looked the horse over.