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HOME > Classical Novels > White Motley > CHAPTER II A DARK HORSE GOES DOWN
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The morning of the following day surpassed the expectation even of those who wrote the story of Andana for the English newspapers. People who were out of the hotel by nine o'clock returned to tell their friends that the sun was broiling. Others went to the little bazaar for blue glasses at one franc fifty.

There had been mist in the Rhone valley at dawn and wisps of it still hung about the entrance to the Simplon. Weather prophets detected a good omen here, and stood before the porch of the hotel to peer down into that unsurpassable ravine and to say that the cluster of black dots immediately below them stood for the church and streets of Sierre. To the right and left were the great clefts of the mighty chasm, a vast pit digged by the waters that flowed before man was, and were now sown with towns and villages and the iron links of civilisation.

The hotel at Andana stands upon the brink of the valley at a height of five thousand feet. Immediately facing it upon the farther side are the twin peaks of the Weisshorn with its sheer and glistening precipices, and a little to the right of that, the Rothhorn and the shining glaciers which are the windows to that supreme escarpment. Look farther to the right across the vast abyss, and you have Sion in the hollow and for your heights the Becs de Bosson—or farther yet, the Aiguilles Rouges and all their story of hazard and achievement. These stand up amid countless peaks, while from the lesser mountains of the Simplon upon the one hand, right away to Mont Blanc upon the other, the eye is spellbound both by the number and the grandeur of these dominating summits.

Deep in the valley lies the Rhone, but a thread of silver to those upon the heights. Andana stands high above its right bank, and the mountains behind it, lacking something in variety, are yet incomparable in the delights they afford to the winter sportsman. Here the climber seeks the wider fields of untrodden snows, the gentler valleys and the vanquished summits. And here in the woods there is a solitude of winter whose charm is not readily to be forgotten.

The "little widow" had slept well after her long journey, and she awoke to the delights of this unfamiliar scene just when the clocks were striking nine. Lying a little while to speculate upon the events of the long journey from Egypt and to wonder if any in the hotel would know her, presently her ears became aware of an unusual clatter below her window. When she looked out she discovered a party on skis about to set out for a paper chase, and announcing the fact with the boisterous spirit of the mountains.

There they were, fathers of families and their sons; generals who had cast off the shackles of Whitehall; colonels from India; merchants waxed fat; boys from the universities—all dressed in the once-white sweaters, the short knee-breeches and the regulation boots. Troops of girls and of ladies of uncertain age accompanied them—gliding, sliding, staggering upon the ungainly runners; and thus, in splendid disorder, the motley march began.

When they were gone, the two young gentlemen who had come up with the party from Sierre yesterday appeared upon the plateau with Miss Bessie Bethune, and having bestowed upon her the gift of a few buckets of snow applied chiefly to the nape of her neck, began to ask ironically when the "show" would begin.

"Rivers said nine o'clock. I put my three-and-six-penny watch down the back of the customs' man at Pontarlier, so I don't know, but I'll bet it's nearly ten. Beastly shame to keep the cracks waiting. Snagg ought to ask a question in Parliament about it."

To which Dick Fenton replied that Rivers was certainly "a nut" and that they had better go up and crack him—which suggestion, adopted nem. con., left Miss Bessie to herself for an instant and then to a duologue with the "little widow," whom she espied at the window.

"Aren't you coming down to see the races, Mrs. Kennaird?"

"Oh, I hope so; what time do they begin?"

"That's what I want to know. If they don't come down soon, I shall race by myself, and then they'll have to give me a prize. Do come and help me. I'm in a dreadful minority."

"Then I must certainly come to your assistance. Is Mr. Clavering down yet?"

"I haven't seen him; but, of course, we don't want the Church until Sunday. There's no one on the run at all but Benny, and he doesn't count. Have you seen Benny? Then it's a thing to dream about. He lives all by himself in the chalet up there—such a wonderful man, and always going about as though he were looking for his own soul. You'll see him in a minute, for he's just gone up—but I don't suppose he'll come down on the luge—I really can't believe that Benny would be faithful to anything for more than five minutes. And, oh! here's Mr. Kavanagh—I would like to introduce you, for he is such a dear!"

A tall, fair-haired man emerged from the hotel door at the moment, and Miss Bessie immediately took possession of him, to his apparent satisfaction, for they were gossiping like two old women when next the "little widow" saw them. Immediately afterwards, someone shouted "Achtung!" and a figure came flying down the ice-run which finishes at the very door of the hotel. Roughly clad in a grey sweater and check breeches, wearing no hat, and showing a thick crop of black hair, Mr. Benjamin Benson, for it was he, clung to his toboggan wildly, his teeth set and his eyes staring. When at last it flung him violently to the snow, he got up with the smile of a child, and looked at it for many minutes almost reproachfully. Then, patiently and laboriously he set out to climb the hill again to have another try.

When he had gone, the "little widow" dressed herself without further delay, and by a quarter to ten she also joined the throng before the hotel door, and was immediately recognised by Harry Clavering, who told her that the races were about to begin.

"Perhaps you would like to go up with me," he suggested a little nervously. "I am time-keeper to-day, and I can show you just how it is done. Everyone toboggans here, and you will like to begin as soon as possible. Shall we go now?"

She offered no objection, and they set out at once, climbing steep steps cut in the snow to a little bridge above the final straight of the course. To his question whether she had discovered any friends at Andana, she replied in the negative; but added that Mrs. Allwater and her daughter Pansy were coming on from Caux in a few days' time—"and they," she said, "are very old friends of mine."

When they arrived at the bridge they found quite a concourse of people, that very self-conscious person, Ian Kavanagh, among the number. Hardly had he set eyes on the "little widow" when he begged the parson to introduce him.

"Do you do this sort of thing, Mrs. Kennaird?" he asked her, as he took his stand near by. She answered with a smile that she was quite unaccomplished on the ice.

"Prefer hunting, I suppose? Well, so do I, though what my twenty nags are doing just now I won't ask. Eating their heads off, I suppose. Let me get you a seat; this sun takes it out of one, and some of the girls are staggering. You'll want all your courage, I can tell you."

He brought a cane chair, and set it upon the high bank so that she could see the toboggans as they passed under the little bridge. Harry Clavering watched all this ceremony with some impatience, and hastened to cut in before the thing went any farther.

"I think they are wanting you, Mr. Kavanagh, at the starting-post," he said with a smile of entreaty. "There's no flag there, and we must have one. Would you very much object?"

"I should indeed, but, of course, if you command—" And the man, with a look at the "little widow" which he meant to be unutterable, set out for the unwelcome duty. Then the parson spoke.

"I don't understand Kavanagh," he said; "no energy at all—so listless—and he is only twenty-seven, I believe. They say he has a large fortune; it really is a great pity if it is true. Young men with much money are dreadfully handicapped in the race for happiness—but there, it is not my business after all, and I have no right to mention it. Can you see quite well, Mrs. Kennaird?—the start is up there, you know, by the little white cottage. I take the time directly the red flag is lowered, and the man at the finish signals to me with his flag when the course is finished. This is what we call an ice-run. They flood the surface every night, and that makes it very fast. These high banks are to guard the corners. If it were flat, they could not get round at all. Some of them are very clever—Mr. Rivers, for instance. He is standing over there, just by Lady Coral-Smith—the thin man in the sweater with our Trinity colours."

He babbled on as though she had been a child; nor could her ignorance quarrel with the lesson. Not for many a month had she felt so much alive as out here upon the mountain-side, with the valley at her feet and the whited woods above. The sense of vast space and dominion delighted her—the merry people; the skaters upon the rink to the right of her; the curlers upon the rink to the left; the sunshine, the feeling that all the men and women in the world had suddenly become children and were at play, combined to suggest an ecstasy of repose and forgetfulness.

"Tell me, for I am very ignorant," she said, "do two people come down the slide together?"

Harry Clavering was startled.

"We don't call it a slide—an 'ice-run' is the proper name," he said almost apologetically. "There is only room for one runner at a time, as you will see presently. They go so very fast. Why, it's more than a mile from the cottage up there to the door of the hotel, and they do it in a minute and a half! You must watch them as they take the corners; that's the real fun—that's where they generally fall off."

"So we are here to support their miseries. How very noble of us! And the man with the red flag up on the hillside?"

"He is the starter. Now see, there is young Bob Otway just about to come down."

He was very excited, and watched the starting-box with restless eyes, while she tried to follow him and to trace the serpentine course of the run which might have been just a wide stretch of the ice extending from the pine-woods above to the door of the hotel upon the plateau. Half-way down, the track swept suddenly to the right, and then to the left again—and here were the high banks of snow to ease the corners and make them possible at high speeds. The "little widow" had just fallen to a memory of her own girlhood and of the joy such a game would have afforded her before the dark days, when Harry Clavering waved his red flag violently and there was a general shout:

"He's off!"

"Only Bob Otway," said some kindly friend in the crowd who was an optimist. "He's sure to take a toss." And it was a true saying, for Master Bob came at the corner like a bull and was clean up and over it before many realised that he started at all.

"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" exclaimed the old parson, quite as excited as any boy about it. "He should not have taken the bank so high. Poor boy, I hope he has not hurt himself." A comment which provoked a muttered "D——d fool!" from a choleric colonel, who had seen the thing done in Canada, and did not believe it possible to do it better in Switzerland. Then a second competitor, Dick Fenton, started, and he came down prettily enough, riding low at the banks and getting a splendid course in the final straight. It was quite thrilling to see him, the "little widow" declared; and when Harry Clavering announced the time as one minute thirty-one seconds, she believed that Fenton must have won. Not so the others. "Wait until Rivers has been down," they said. That splendid personage obviously was their pièce de resistance.

Meanwhile, there were "heats" for the ladies, and these found the men a little nearer to the edge of the bank and frankly enjoying themselves. Some of the girls rode very well—and, significantly, Marjory Rider, whose name suggested proficiency, acquitted herself with hardly less aplomb than her sister Nellie. Tall girls, and excessively thin, it remained for an artist in the background to suggest that they never would have got their living as "models." But they flashed down the ice-run with a bravado that was incontestable, and their corners were, in Bob Otway's words, "divine." They were followed by a pretty little girl with a superb figure, who considerately parted company with her toboggan on the second bank and went half-way down the straight with her face to the heights and her back toward the winning post. Even this, however, was capped by a mature lady of forty-three, who rolled over and over at the first turn and had to be helped up the slope with a curler's besom. In no way daunted, she set out immediately for the summit to repeat a performance so diverting to the company.

The "little widow" found all this new enough to be pleasing, and there was a curious fascination in watching this whirring from the heights; while the prone figures, the drone of the runners, the leap at the corners, the hard set faces, suggested that conquest of space and time which never fails to be exciting. When they told her that Keith Rivers was about to perform, she craned forward in her chair to see that dashing youth, with his curly brown hair and his frank open face and his contempt of other rivals. He had just left Eton and was going into the army, they told her. And none at Andana could keep pace with him, whether upon skis or skates. To be sure, he rode magnificently, taking the corners with unerring judgment, and making a sweep into the straight which dazzled the company. When the time was announced—one minute twenty-nine seconds—it seemed that there was nothing for his friends to do but to throw their caps into the air and claim the stakes. None was left in now but Benny, and to think of Mr. Benjamin Benson as the winner of the Grand Prix at Andana was too ridiculous.

Benny had just gone up to the starting-post, a well-made figure of a man enough, with the kindliest eyes in all Switzerland. He walked with the lurch of the sailor ashore; and the chaff that followed him was like hail upon a pent-house roof. To Bess Bethune, who asked him if he were going to beat record, he shouted back over his shoulder that he meant to try. It was evident that he had little skill in repartee; and when anyone wished him luck he took the words as he found them and missed the irony. To Bob Otway, who recommended him to tie himself on with a rope, he retorted that he would be the better for the loan of a monkey's tail; and quite satisfied with the shot, he went plodding on up the hill to the amusement of every superior person in the company.

There was a little delay at the post, for Benny would fall off his toboggan before he got on to it, as the starter declared; and when they did get him going, he leaped high into the air and fell with such a thud upon the cushion of the machine that any other man's bones would have been broken. From that moment his performance became entirely astonishing. No one at Andana had ever taken the earlier bends of the course so fast and so furiously, and it seemed quite impossible that he could remain upon the course at all. Benny, however, was a sticker. "Where I drop, there I lie," was one of the maxims of his life, and so he lay very close to his toboggan, hugging it as though it were a pretty girl, and never lifting his eyes from a form so attractive. Approaching the corner he began to attain a speed which delighted the cognoscenti. Uproarious applause mingled with mocking laughter. All said and done, the world likes a butt—and what other role could such a man have filled?

"Stick to it, old chap!" "Hang on, Benjamin!" "Give him his head!" "Now we're jumping!" "Benny's a nut!" "Oh, my hat, see that!" "Hard to starboard, Benjamin!"—such were the cries that were to be heard above the din as the rider approached the corner. Here, surely, the gallery believed that this meteoric display must terminate. The leap from the second bank to a long straight run carried Benny to the first of the monstrous corners, and here he must be unshipped. As the flash of a blackbird against a curtain of the snow, he rushed the straight and struck the great mound which defended the bend. People saw him shoot high into the air, then fall again with hands gripping the bars of the runners, and eyes which stared from his head. A great "Oh!" went up, a murmur of wonder and amazement. Someone said that he was round the second bank, but no one believed it until a cry from the final straight turned all eyes thither, and Benny was espied leaping to the goal. Then the red flag fell. The race was over—and more wonderful to tell, Benny had won it!

No one believed the thing at first. Even Harry Clavering felt very dubious about it, and looked at his watch a good many times before daring to announce the result. "One minute twenty-seven and four-fifth seconds," the chronograph said, and, to be sure, it was no good disputing that. So the kindly little man admitted almost apologetically at last that he really believed Mr. Benson had won. Upon which a curious, half-mocking silence fell upon the company. In a way its pride of judgment was hurt, and it had not the manliness to say so. That the Grand Prix, the race of the year, should be won by a half-savage sailor-man, who knew no more of the science of the game than a heathen Chinee, was surely an insult to the elect of Andana! And then all the fine talk on the part of men like Ian Kavanagh and Keith Rivers, the attitudes and devotions of the Rider girls, were those to count for nothing? An unspoken resentment against the dark horse, who certainly had gone down, left Benny without a cheer. There was only one person in the crowd who spoke an honest word to him, and she was the "little widow."

"I'm so glad you won," she said, meeting him in the veranda of the hotel, and quite regardless of the formalities. Benny's eyes lighted up like lamps when he heard her.

"Do you really mean that, Mrs. Kennaird?"

"I mean every word of it. Pride has had many falls to-day. I am not at all sorry."

"Thank you very much," he said; and then, as simply as a boy, he added: "I knew I should do it if I could stick on."

"That's why you won," she rejoined; "because you knew you would," and with a smile that he would never forget she passed on into the hall.

The "little widow" had awarded Benny his prize. He fell there and then to wondering if it were the last he would ever win from her.

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