Saturday morning found Jack Wetherley all a-tingle. It was another bright day and that pleased him. There was no need for Aunt Rose to wake him up, as she often had to do. She placed a breakfast of bread and dripping in front of him, together with the tea, stewed in a way that only she could produce.
“You seem far away, lad.”
Jack nodded, she was right, he was far away. Ever since Rascal’s pleasing trial on Thursday his brain had teemed with thoughts of the race. Only Becky could impinge on that thinking. Strong in his mind was that image of her, the sweep of her raven hair, the promise in her sensuous glances, her touch, the perfume of her.
All of it, along with the excitement and surprise at the way she had come on to him when he was bedevilled by thoughts of social restriction. Then there was the hunger in their brief final kisses that threatened more than distraction from the race and promised the mysterious ‘more’.
Nevertheless, the prospect of the race still held him in its thrall. On previous fayre days, although the local upper crust
had mixed with the villagers, Jack feared he had little prospect of getting near Becky.
About an hour before lunch, he and Alf rode slowly down to the rear of the houses to the special paddock. Jack knew that Aunt Rose was being given a lift on Joe and Helen Barker’s cart. Horses and other transport were banned from the main street on this special day.
The village elders played a big part in the organisation. Beyond the chapel grounds, the special paddock had been fenced in a shady area for horses that would be racing. A field next to that was where other horses could be grazed.
Having unsaddled Rascal and hung the saddle where it was handy for later, Jack turned and viewed the hustle and bustle of the main street. Merevale was usually a quiet little village. Quite a contrast to when this annual event took place.
Late morning, and already the main street was packed with people from near and far. Mainly farm-folk, spending their meagre, hard-earned cash, enjoying the sights and sounds around them. At one point, two fiddlers played while young girls performed what, to Jack, looked like an elaborate dance.
The race would be mid-afternoon, and before moving up the street, Jack hoped to catch sight of Becky on the green, but all the gentry had not arrived yet, although he saw Sir Oswald, resplendent in his red military uniform, which he only wore on such occasions.
He stood alongside Lady Brandling, each sipping a drink. She was wearing a vivid yellow gown which made her appear bigger and more buxom than ever.
Seeing the uniform, Alf had said, “The major only wears it to let people know what he used to be.” He chuckled as he added, “Bet he’ll swear ‘bloody Yorktown’ to somebody.”
That was a reference to a lost battle in the Americas which had, in time, led to his disgruntled retirement from armed
Up the street, there were stalls that sold home-made jam or pickled vegetables in earthenware jars. Frying sausages at one stall had stomachs rumbling and drew a crowd, which gave a grubby urchin the opportunity to dart his hand between two bodies, clutch a sausage, before disappearing triumphant into the throng.
“I’ll bet you used to be like that,” Alf said smiling, as he bit on a current bun.
“I was a good lad,” Jack told him. “Cake good?”
“Aye, but you must starve yourself. Don’t want Rascal carrying too much weight.”
Much happy banter was evident outside the Sheaf and Bull, but Jack took a few snacks, before wandering back to gaze over the landowner’s awning, where more gentry were seated now
Popping corks sounded frequently and Jack wondered how much of the drink Sir Oswald had supplied. As that thought struck, Becky appeared from the shadows. She wore a slender green gown on which the neckline was loosened, and he wondered if Lady Brandling had relented. She was looking the other way and the temptation to wave was overpowering but dangerous.
If she would only turn, but someone must have called to her from inside as she turned back under the awning. Disappointed, Jack thought about going back up the street, but at that moment he heard the faint call from that direction and knew exactly what it was.
A caller was wandering down the main street, yelling, “Riders! To horse!”
Jack was relieved. At last, the race was due. Now he would find out just how good Rascal might be. He moved quickly to the paddock, where Rascal seemed pleased to see him, as he trotted to him, giving a light snuffle of greeting.
In all, there were fifteen horses taking part in the race. As he saddled Rascal, Jack saw John Cleese, who he knew from the previous year, move to his horse. He gave a wave, and John waved back and called, “Fancy your chances?”
“We’re about to find out,” he called back,
“And you.” There had been no hard feelings after last year’s race, and it was good to know that the rivalry was friendly.
As the horses filed out towards the starting point midway along the edge of the green, Jack noticed that some of the fancier dressed ladies and gentlemen had emerged from the champagne cover. He couldn’t see Becky among them. Just as well, he thought with a wry smile, she would surely distract him. Oh, such a distraction.
All in a rough starting line-up, Jack saw the pure white horse belonging to Sidney Sowerby. Definitely well named as Snowy. It was being ridden by a rather dour-looking young man.
He saw the red-clad figure of Sir Oswald easing between two stalls. He was clutching a plain blue flag in his hand. Tall, and still an imposing figure, he cast his eyes along the line of horses, and was that an imperceptible nod as he reached Jack?
“Welcome, gentlemen,” he said in his deep stentorian voice. “I will raise this flag, and when I drop it, you are on your way. Good luck to you all.” And the flag was up over his head.
Jack fixed his eyes on that blue piece of cloth, concentrating for the moment it dropped. A good start was essential. He didn’t want to get mixed up in a ruck of slow horses.
Then his line of sight moved beyond the blue flag and Becky was standing there on the green, a gentle, warm smile on her face. Her wide eyes on him. The flag dropped, and his reaction was retarded.
It was the surge forward of Snowy that brought him back from staring at the vision that was Becky. He dug his knees into Rascal’s flank, and called, “Go, Rascal!”
Being the good horse he was, Rascal went. But they were trapped in the pack and ahead of them, he could see Snowy, Brigand and another horse making for the first bend. It was no time to panic. Jack’s worry was that slower horses might impede him.
However, when they were running the long straight ground behind the village, he was able to steer Rascal through gaps between horses, until, by the time they reached the turn back onto the top of the main street, there were only four horses in front of him. As they straightened, Jack saw them move to the inside.
Thinking ahead, Jack was recalling how tight it might be when they took the bend out of the village for the second time. Consequently, unlike the leading four, he guided Rascal onto the outer side of the street. From the sound of hooves, he knew that many had followed his example.
Rascal was easily keeping pace with the leaders, and Jack leaned over to urge his horse on.
Up ahead he saw the beginnings of the Green. No looking for his favourite distraction. Concentration was essential. Next time they came this way, this would be the winning post. And his confidence in Rascal was rising.
Suddenly a tiny figure darted out into the road directly in front of him. No time to swerve. Jack hauled on Rascal’s reins, as the little tot fell in front of them. A woman’s scream was echoed by others.
That scream made Rascal veer to his left as Jack’s heaving on the reins stopped his eager gallop. Below him, the little figure was crying just as loudly as the screaming women. Jack held Rascal tight so that he stood at right angles across the street, shielding the fallen child from other horses, which galloped on past. The whole incident had taken less than ten seconds.
A woman raced out, snatched up the youngster, and looked up at Jack with worried eyes, “Oh, God bless you. I’m sorry.”
Jack nodded, seeing the last of the horses disappearing around the last house. The leaders would be well into Brandling land by now. As he urged Rascal into a gallop, a voice called out, “Bravo!” There were other similar calls and a smattering of clapping hands. Then he was leaning over Rascal’s neck, “Hard work now, lad. Now we’ll find what you can do.”
Heading away from the village, Jack judged that the straggling horses were catchable. And Rascal’s pace soon proved that. By the time they reached the lake, they had overtaken six horses. Jack’s worry now was knowing what sustainable pace he could fairly keep Rascal doing.
But he had to admit that his wonderful horse was showing all the enthusiasm needed for this chase, and by the time they entered the Cleese stretch of land, four more horses had been accounted for. Jack let Rascal take it on, as he worked out that there were now five horses in front of them, and two of them were Brigand and Snowy.
When they reached the stretch leading close to the Bascombe hills, they passed a grey horse that had pulled up. The rider sat disconsolately, patting the horse's head. As Jack drew alongside, he called, “Fetlock gone. Good luck.”
That saddened Jack. There was a horse that wouldn’t see the end of the day. God, if that happened to Rascal. Feeling the power of the animal beneath him lifted his spirits. If there was any justice in this world, Rascal would be a winner.
Turning onto the long trail to the village, Jack’s heart lifted when he saw up ahead of him four horses, all stretched out in full gallop. The two closest were neck and neck, and further down the trail, one dark horse, Brigand, and one white, Snowy. At last, the targets were in sight.
But were they catchable? By the time he had reached the point where the grain swayed, he had overtaken the first pair. He leaned close to Rascal’s neck, urging extra effort. “Come on.”
He felt the surge of the precious animal under him as Rascal responded. When they passed the small, wooded area close to the village, he saw that Brigand had edged ahead of Snowy, who was palpably slowing.
Out onto the main street, the final stretch, Rascal simply stormed past Snowy. Yes, yes, surely now, Brigand was reachable.
But the Cleese mount looked powerful. Suddenly, Jack became aware of the high-pitched cheering from the wildly waving spectators lining both sides of the street.
“Come on, Rascal. Take him.” Came the cry. As though he understood, Rascal’s neck stretched, and his nose moved alongside Brigand’s flank. Then level with the saddle, two more paces and with the Green very close, Jack glanced sideways.
John Cleese’s nod showed his acknowledgement that he knew Rascal had the beating of his mount. With unprecedented joy in his heart, Jack, with roars and cheers filling his ears, urged his ever-eager horse past the waving blue flag.
As he eased his brave mount to a halt, Jack was surprised to feel the tears on his cheeks. They had won. He slid down from the saddle and moved to Rascal’s head, hugged the dear animal that was panting in his ear. Then wiping the tears away, he took Rascal’s lead and walked him towards the crowds of people rushing to greet him.
The next hour was to live forever in Jack’s memory. There was much back-slapping, hand-shaking, and warm female kisses on his cheeks. The mother of the runaway toddler hugged him and tearfully expressed her undying gratitude.
Alf came with a huge smile on his face, “How the hell did you miss that little ‘un? I feared my cash was lost. Marvellous, Jack, just marvellous.” And the elderly man unashamedly hugged Jack like a long-lost son.
He took the reins from Jack, “You’ve got much to see here. I’ll take your lovely Rascal and give him a good cooling down.”
Jack gave Rascal another neck hug before Alf led him away. In front of him, there was a stern, “Excuse me,” the crowds parted, and Sir Oswald marched toward him, smiling broadly, with a small entourage behind him.
He stood in front of Jack and held out a white envelope, “Congratulations, young man. I’m so very proud. Proud of Rascal and your skill, your horsemanship and gallantry. This prize has never been so deserved.” He held out the envelope which Jack took and placed in his left hand as Sir Oswald held his large hand out for a handshake.
Jack slid the envelope inside his shirt as other gentry stepped up to congratulate or commend his avoidance of the youngster. This was almost too much, being praised by the upper classes.
All of that was forgotten in the next seconds as there, standing in front of him, an eager smile on her gorgeous face, was Becky. Before he could catch his breath, she had wrapped her arms tightly around him, calling out loudly, “Oh, so very brave.”
Then, as though kissing him on the cheek, she put her lips close to his ear and whispered, “I can’t wait. The batch of trees top end of the village. Soon as possible. It’s time for ‘more’ I’m feeling.”
She stepped away and initially half stunned, by the promise in her words, Jack, to his sudden dismay, saw Sir Oswald watching them with a deep scowl on his face. Oh, hell, that could be it. Could he now dare to go through with Becky’s suggested assignation?
The crowds of admirers were beginning to disperse as Aunt Rose came up to him. Her reddened eyes and flushed cheeks, emphasised by her slightly slurred speech when she spoke, told Jack she’d been drinking. Jack stooped to receive her embrace.
“Ooh, Jack, I had to shelebrate. My nephew doing that. Your father would have been sho proud.” As Jack felt a slight pang at her words, she reached up for another hug, before staggering up the street, muttering, “Now where did I leave the Barkers?” Jack watched her stagger away. God, she deserved a happy break in her lonely life.
Becky, are you waiting? He tried to hurry up the street. Individuals stopped him often to add their good wishes. Jack realised he would be much delayed if he walked to the end of the village.
On an impulse, he cut down the side of the Sheaf and Bull, and out behind the village, towards the trees where the horses had made that final turn. Would Becky be here yet? But, oh, there were far too many people around, most making their way home. He could not dare approach Becky here.
It wasn’t a large wood, gloomy and cool. He noticed the smart dresses of the occasional gentry. Finding her wouldn’t be difficult. And it wasn’t.
“I’m over here,” her welcome tones came from his left, and through the trees, he saw her leaning against a tree. Beautiful, wonderful, yet so untouchable.
“Your uncle saw you,” Jack hissed, in a half whisper, as he stood some ten yards back from her.
Becky laughed as she leaned back against the tree, “He scolded me for it. And I ran away, pretending to be upset. So, here I am. Jack, I’m so excited by—”
That was the moment that a small group of ladies and gentlemen walked past. One of the ladies declared loudly, “You’re Sir Oswald’s niece, Rebecca, aren’t you?”
Becky’s sickened glance in Jack’s direction showed there was no escape for her.
“Out here alone?” One of the gentlemen said.
“To cool off,” Becky told them, but Jack could see that what had been a brilliant day was crumbling into near-disaster.
With a final shrug in her direction, as she was surrounded by the group, he moved away. Heavy-hearted, disappointed and worried, as he recalled that deep frown on Sir Oswald’s face. Was this to be a tragic, unrequited end for their relationship?