The Man in Ratcatcher - H.C. McNeile - ebook

The Man in Ratcatcher ebook

H. C. Mcneile



The Man in Ratcatcher – an exciting collection of short stories. The story about the veterans of the First World War. As well as the story of the redemption, about what little is written about in the history books. A lot of interesting story, but frightening as well.

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Liczba stron: 344

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§ I

“‘E ain’t much ter look at, Major, but ‘e’s a ‘andy little ‘orse.”

A groom, chewing the inevitable straw, gave a final polish to the saddle, and then stood at the animal’s head, waiting for the tall, spare man with the bronzed, weather-beaten face, who was slowly drawing on his gloves in the yard, to mount. Idly the groom wondered if the would-be sportsman knew which side of a horse it was customary to get into the saddle from; in fact one Nimrod recently–a gentleman clothed in spotless pink–had so far excelled himself as to come to rest facing his horse’s tail. But what could you expect these times, reflected the groom, when most of the men who could ride in days gone by, would ride no more: and a crowd of galloping tinkers, with rank cigars and ranker manners, had taken their places? When he thought of the men who came now–and the women, too–to Boddington’s Livery Stable, renowned for fifty years and with a reputation second to none, and contrasted them with their predecessors, he was wont to spit, mentally and literally. And the quods–Strewth! It was a fair disgrace to turn out such ‘orses from Boddington’s. Only the crowd wot rode ‘em didn’t know no better: the ‘orses was quite good enough–aye! too good–for the likes o’ them.

“Let out that throat-lash a couple of holes.”

The groom looked at the speaker dazedly for a moment; a bloke that knew the name of a single bit of saddlery on a horse’s back was a rare customer these days.

“And take that ironmonger’s shop out of the poor brute’s mouth. I’ll ride him on a snaffle.”

“‘E pulls a bit when ‘e’s fresh, Major,” said the groom, dubiously.

The tall, spare man laughed “I think I’ll risk it,” he answered. “Where did you pick him up–at a jumble sale?”

“‘E ain’t much ter lock at, I knows. Major,” said the groom, carrying out his instructions. “But if yer ‘andle ‘im easy, and nurse ‘im a bit, ‘e’ll give yer some sport.”

“I can quite believe it,” remarked the other, swinging into the saddle. “Ring the bell, will you? That will give him his cue to start.”

With a grin on his face the groom watched the melancholy steed amble sedately out of the yard and down the road.

Before he had gone fifty yards the horse’s head had come up a little, he was walking more collectedly–looking as if he had regained some of the spring of former days. For there was a man on his back–a man born and bred to horses and their ways–and it would be hard to say which of the two, the groom or the animal, realised it first Which was why the grin so quickly effaced itself. The groom’s old pride in Boddington’s felt outraged at having to offer such a mount to such a man. He turned as a two-seated racing car pulled up in the yard, and a young man stepped out. He nodded to the groom as he removed his coat, and the latter touched his cap.

“Grand day, Mr. Dawson,” he remarked. “Scent should be good.”

The newcomer grunted indifferently, and adjusted his already faultless stock, while another groom led out a magnificent blood chestnut from a loose-box.

“Who was the fellah in ratcatcher I passed, ridin’ that awful old quod of yours?” he asked.

To such a sartorial exquisite a bowler hat and a short coat was almost a crime.

“I dunno, sir,” said the groom. “Ain’t never seen ‘im before to the best of me knowledge. But you’ll see ‘im at the finish.”

The other regarded his chestnut complacently.

“He won’t live half a mile if we get goin’,” he remarked. “You want a horse if hounds find in Spinner’s Copse: not a prehistoric bone-bag.” He glanced at the old groom’s expressionless face, and gave a short laugh in which there was more than a hint of self-satisfaction. “And you can’t get a horse without money these days, George, and dam’ big money at that.” He carefully adjusted his pink coat as he sat in the saddle. “Have the grey taken to Merton crossroads: and you can take the car there, too,” he continued, turning to the chauffeur.

Then with a final hitch at his coat, he too went out of the yard. For a while the old groom watched him dispassionately, until a bend in the road hid him from sight. Then he turned to one of his underlings and delivered himself of one of his usual cryptic utterances.

“‘Ave yer ever seen a monkey, Joe, sittin’ on the branch of a tree, ‘uggin’ a waxwork doll?”

“Can’t say as ‘ow I ‘ave, G’arge,” returned the other, after profound cogitation.

“Well, yer don’t need to. That monkey’d be the same shape ‘as ‘im on a ‘orse.”

§ II

The meet of the South Leicesters at Spinner’s Copse generally produced a field even larger than the normal huge crowd which followed that well-known pack. It was near the centre of their country, and if Fate was kind, and the fox took the direction of Hangman’s Bottom, the line was unsurpassed in any country in the world.

It was a quarter to eleven when the tall, spare man, having walked the three-quarters of a mile from Boddington’s, dismounted by the side of the road, and thoughtfully lit a cigarette. His eyes took in every detail of the old familiar scene; and, in spite of himself, his mind went back to the last time he had been there. He smiled a little bitterly: he had been a fool to come, and open old wounds. This game wasn’t for him any more: his hunting days were over. If things had been different: if only–He drew back as a blood chestnut, fretting and irritable under a pair of heavy hands, came dancing by, spattering mud in all directions. If only–well! he might have been riding that chestnut instead of the heated clothes-peg on his back now. He looked with a kind of weary cynicism at his own mount, mournfully nibbling grass: then he laid a kindly hand on the animal’s neck.

“‘Tain’t your fault, old son, is it?” he muttered. “But to think of Spinner’s Copse–and you. Oh! ye gods!”

“Hounds, gentlemen, please.” The man looked up quickly with a sudden gleam in his eyes as hounds came slowly past. A new second whip they’d got; he remembered now, Wilson had been killed at Givenchy. But the huntsman, Mathers, was the same–a little greyer perhaps–but still the same shrewd, kindly sportsman. He caught his eye at that moment, and looked away quickly. He felt certain no one would recognise him, but he wanted to run no risks. There weren’t likely to be many of the old crowd out to-day, and he’d altered almost beyond recognition–but it was as well to be on the safe side. And Mathers, he remembered of old, had an eye like a hawk.

He pretended to fumble with his girths, turning his back on the huntsman. It was perhaps as well that he did so for his own peace of mind; for Joe Mathers, with his jaw slowly opening, was staring fascinated at the stooping figure. He was dreaming, of course; it couldn’t be him–not possibly. The man whom this stranger was like was dead–killed on the Somme. Entirely imagination. But still the huntsman stared, until a sudden raising of hats all round announced the arrival of the Master.

It was the moment that the tall, quiet man, standing a little aloof on the outskirts of the crowd, had been dreading. He had told himself frequently that he had forgotten the girl who stepped out of the car with her father; he had told himself even more frequently that she had long since forgotten him. But, now, as he saw once more the girl’s glowing face and her slender, upright figure, showed off to perfection by her habit, he stifled a groan, and cursed himself more bitterly than ever for having been such a fool as to come. If only–once again those two bitter words mocked him. He had not forgotten; he never would forget; and it was not the least part of the price he had to pay for the criminal negligence of his late father.

He glanced covertly at the girl; she was talking vivaciously to the man whom he had designated as a heated clothes-peg. He noticed the youth bending towards her with an air of possession which infuriated him; then he laughed and swung himself into the saddle. What had it got to do with him?

Then on a sudden impulse he turned to a farmer next him.

“Who is that youngster talking to the Master’s daughter?” he asked.

The farmer looked at him in mild surprise. “You’m a stranger to these parts, mister, evidently,” he said. “That be young Mr. Dawson; and folks do say he be engaged to Miss Gollanfield.”

Engaged! To that young blighter! With hands like pot-hooks, and a seat like an elephant! And then, quite suddenly, he produced his handkerchief, and proceeded most unnecessarily to blow his nose. For Mathers was talking excitedly to Sir Hubert Gollanfield and Major Dawlish, the hunt secretary; and the eyes of all three men were fixed on him.

“I thought it was before, sir, and then I saw him mount, and I know,” said Mathers, positively.

“It can’t be. He was killed in France,” answered the Master. “Wasn’t he, David?”

“I’ve always heard so,” said Dawlish. “I’ll go and cap him now and have a closer look.”

“Anyway, Joe, not a word at present.” The Master turned to Mathers. “We’d better draw the spinney first.”

Through the crowd, as it slowly moved off, the secretary threaded his way towards the vaguely familiar figure ahead. It couldn’t be; it was out of the question. And yet, as he watched him, more and more did he begin to believe that the huntsman was right. Little movements; an odd, indefinable hitch of the shoulders; the set of the stranger’s head. And then, with almost a catch in his breath, he saw that the man he was following had left the crowd, and was unostentatiously edging for a certain gap, which to the uninitiated appeared almost a cul-de-sac. Of course, it might be just chance; on the other hand, that gap was the closely-guarded preserve–as far as such things may be guarded–of the chosen few who really rode; the first-fighters–the men who took their own line, and wanted that invaluable hundred yards’ start to get them clear of the mob.

Slightly quickening his pace, the secretary followed his quarry. He overtook him just as he had joined the bare dozen, who, with hats rammed down, sat waiting for the first whimper. They were regarding the newcomer with a certain curiosity as the secretary came up; almost with that faint hostility which is an Englishman’s special prerogative on the entrance of a second person to his otherwise empty railway carriage. Who was this fellow in ratcatcher mounted on a hopeless screw? And what the devil was he doing here, anyway?

“Mornin’, David.” A chorus of greeting hailed the advent of the popular secretary, but, save for a brief nod and smile, he took no notice. His eyes were fixed on the stranger, who was carefully adjusting one of his leathers.

“Excuse me, sir.” Major Dawlish walked his horse up to him, and then sat staring and motionless. “My God, it can’t be–” He spoke under his breath, and the stranger apparently failed to hear.

“What is the cap?” he asked, courteously. “A fiver this season, I believe.”

“Danny!” The secretary was visibly agitated. “You’re Danny Drayton! And we thought you were dead!”

“I fear, sir, that there is some mistake,” returned the other. “My name is John Marston.”

In silence the two men looked at one another, and then Major Dawlish bowed.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Marston,” he said, gravely. “But you bear a strange resemblance to a certain very dear friend of mine, whom we all believed had been killed at Flers in 1916. He combined two outstanding qualities,” continued the secretary, deliberately, “did that friend of mine: quixotic chivalry to the point of idiocy, and the most wonderful horsemanship.”

Once more the eyes of the two men met, and then John Marston looked away, staring over the wonderful bit of country lying below them.

“I am sorry,” he remarked, quietly, “that you should have lost your friend.”

“Ah, but have I, Mr. Marston; have I?” interrupted David Dawlish, quickly.

“You tell me he died at Flers,” returned the other. “And very few mistakes were made in such matters, which have not been rectified since.”

“He disappeared a year or two before the war,” said the secretary, “suddenly–without leaving a trace. We heard he had gone to New Zealand; but we could get no confirmation. Do you ever go to the Grand National, Mr. Marston?” he continued, with apparent irrelevance.

The stranger stiffened in his saddle. “I have been,” he answered, abruptly. Merciful heavens! wouldn’t some hound own to scent soon?

“Do you remember that year when a certain gentleman rider was booed on the course?” went on the secretary, reminiscently. “It was the year John Drayton and Son went smash for half a million: and it was the son who was booed.”

“I don’t wonder,” returned the stranger. “He was a fool to ride.”

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