THE DEFEAT OF THE FAVOURITE
SUCH a vast mass of moving heads and flashing streaks of colour. Such an elbowing and pushing and shifting in and out of fluctuating multitudes! Such a driving about and waving of hats and lorgnetting with field-glasses! Such a Babel of tongues and popping of ginger-beer bottles and shouting of bagmen and firing of pea-shooters! Such a confusion of “‘Ere you are!” “Six to four!” “Ten to one!” “Outside at any price!” “Lady Elizabeth!” “Rosicrucian!” “Paul Jones!” and the like, interspersed with noisy irrepressible proffers of fusees, ginger-pop, and oranges. For this was nothing less than Epsom Downs during the celebration of one of those national yearly Festivals, to which it is customary for the leader of the House of Commons to allude upon the eve of a Derby, as the “Isthmian Games,” presumably for the purpose of convincing a sceptical Opposition that whatever it may be disposed to think of his integrity as a Premier, or of his pretensions to “educate his party,” he is, at least, well up in his classics, and has not forgotten some important things he learnt at school.
It was a splendid day. People who went to see Blue Gown first past the judge’s chair on that particular twenty-seventh of May, will recollect how brilliantly the sun shone upon the innings of the plucky winner and the favourite’s defeat, and what a goodly muster of sight-seers assembled along the course and about the Grand Stand on the memorable occasion in question. Almost everybody has seen the Derby at some time or other, and to those who have not enjoyed that felicity, newspaper reporters have year by year rendered the whole affair so trite and familiar, that a farther description of the Great Race and its accompaniments would not only be needless here, but wearisome. There was the usual amount of swearing and drinking and dust, the average number of cadgers and
pickpockets, and a fair proportion of gentlemen belonging respectively, if not respectably, to the “Greek,” “Welsh,” and “Hebrew” persuasions.
Just opposite the Grand Stand, among sundry and divers vehicles of “sorts”, was drawn up a certain well-appointed drag, heavily stocked with hampers and blue-veiled carnivalists, but conspicuous chiefly, even there, for the presence of a remarkably piquant feminine figure upon the box-seat, a dainty little gossamer-clad figure with very pink cheeks and very sunny hair – a bewitching creature of the Titania type, all tulle and sparkle and sprightliness – in a word, no less a charmer than Mrs. Archibald Bell herself.
About a week before the appointed Derby-Day, Cora had indited a pretty, affectionate epistle to her “darling Archie,” setting forth the fact that an old friend, who was a literary acquaintance of hers – a man of absurdly sedate and ancient years, had offered to take her down in a very quiet manner to witness the Epsom festivities, and that she, having long cherished an immense desire to get some idea of a racecourse, not from hearsay, but from actual experience, as such knowledge might one day be of considerable use to her, hoped that her Pet wouldn’t mind her accepting the old gentleman’s invitation. Archie might be sure they would go to a very quiet part of the ground, out of all the bustle and noise of the crowd, and she should be as safe as though she were with her own father.
Upon receipt of this emphatic document, the Reverend Mr. Archibald, who was not a University man, and who knew rather less about the Derby and Derby doings than an Indian Fakir, rumpled his curly head, mended his pen, and dispatched in reply a loving letter of consent, which Cora triumphantly displayed to her London friends as she sat at breakfast with them on the morning of the twenty-sixth. Of course, as the wayward lady had her husband’s permission for the expedition, and as the gentleman to whose care she was to be relegated, was so old and severe, there was nothing to be said, and Cora started accordingly for the place of rendezvous, mounted the drag in question and drove to the Downs behind four high-stepping greys, under the immediate chaperonage and
protection of Messieurs Vane Vaurien, Dick Rankin, Carew, Captain Somers, and two or three more masculine specimen’s of convivial and sociable inclination.
Vaurien, although he had made a heavy book this year, was clever at hedging, and stood to win a considerable sum in any event, so that the hilarity of his spirits was not restrained by any inordinate anxiety, and the other half-dozen men, being quite as genially disposed, vied among themselves in their attentions to the charming parsoness, who consequently drank in the course of the day rather more “fiz” than was quite good for so delicate a constitution as hers.
“I say, Vau,” said Dick Rankin, turning his head aside to light a cheroot, ”there’s Brabazon just gone by outside that roan cob of his. Here he comes again – this way – doesn’t see us. Sing out to him!”
Vaurien flourished his whip. “Hallo, Brabazon!” cried he as the baronet slowly approached the drag. “Glorious day, eh? How are you?” Hearing which familiar salutation, Vivian could not avoid a moment’s pause by the box, and after a word of common-place with Vaurien, to whom he was not particularly attached, would have passed on; but Cora, who sat on the box-seat beside Vane, and was dying for an acquaintance with the athletic aristocrat, saw her opportunity and whispered a hurried petition in the ear of her cher ami. Vaurien, though not remarkably pleased at the request, was exceptionally good-humoured to day, nevertheless, and generously inclined to indulge his fair divinity to the utmost degree. So he laughed, shook his head rebukefully, pinched Cora’s ear, and checked the baronet as he was in the act of turning his horse’s head in another direction. “Stay and have some clicquot with us, Brabazon, eh? You can’t get a better place than this. Allow me, – Sir Vivian Brabazon, – Mrs. Bell.”
Cora’s point was gained. Vivian lifted his hat with all possible politeness. And Mrs. Archibald favoured him with her most enchanting smile, but a certain dubious annoyed expression dawned suspiciously in the corners of the Brabazonian eye, that did not escape the observation of the fast little parsoness. But she was not going to throw up her cards
now that she had such a King of Hearts (and Diamonds) in her hand. She was all gush and vivacity. “This is my first visit to a race-course, you must know, Sir Vivian,” she began with silvery naïveté. “Mr. Vaurien offered to bring me, but I had no idea there would be such a dreadful crowd! However, he says I’m quite safe up here, only they do make such a noise, these terrible people. But it’s really most delicious isn’t it? Of course you are quite used to it!”
“Yes,” returned Brabazon quietly, “I generally come. But it is more a matter of habit than of pleasure with me. I should not imagine there was much here to interest ladies.”
“Oh!” cried Cora, opening her round eyes in a state of dainty indignation (indignation was becoming to her and she knew it). "That is quite too bad of you, Sir Vivian! You gentlemen always want to keep all the good things to yourselves! It is all right and proper of course, that you should have your races, and your fêtes, and your dinners, and enjoy them as much as you please; but we – oh, dear no! We are to stay at home and wait till our husbands or brothers choose to return to us, and then we must never scold or look angry! If we do, we are dreadful creatures!”
“I don’t think you treat the matter quite fairly, Mrs. Bell,” responded the baronet with some touch of weariness, for this was a vexed question with him and he did not care to argue it; “it is our respect for the ladies that forbids us, usually” – he glanced at Vaurien – “to take them where their dignity would be liable to suffer in any degree. And as regards your second accusation, I can only reply for myself that I am a brother, but I am not aware that I ever keep my sister waiting for me in the manner you describe.”
“There! Now I’ve offended you!” cried Cora, piteously. “What an unfortunate being I am! Always saying something I ought not to say and hurting somebody’s feelings! Dear! dear!”
“Mine are not hurt, I assure you, Mrs. Bell,” observed Vivian, smiling; “I am not so easily moved. Permit me.”
For she was holding a goblet to Dick Rankin for some champagne, and making a graceful pretence that the glass was too large or heavy for her delicate
grasp. With a bend of her gauzy head, designed to be the most bewitching gesture possible, Cora resigned her burden to Vivian’s hand, and as he returned it to her, contrived to rest her tiny lemon glove for an instant upon his, and to meet his eyes coquettishly with her own. “How forgiving you are, Sir Vivian! Just now I was abusing the gentlemen, and now, here you are assisting a lady!” “Am I?” returned he, absently adjusting the sight of his fieldglass to a distant object, but acutely reminiscent of the look and the pressure; “I am afraid, Mrs. Bell, that you form your opinions of people too highly sometimes.”
The answer was singularly dubious in its application, and Mrs. Archibald, fearful that Vane might have overheard it, became suddenly and intensely interested in some confusion at the foot of the Grand Stand opposite.
“I own,” she said presently, sinking her voice as Vivian lowered his lorgnon, “that forgiveness is not usually a masculine attribute. I spoke satirically.”
“I thought you did,” said he, in a tone of easy confidence. “I understood it so, of course.”
Cora was really indignant now. The blood rose so hotly to her cheeks that she flushed scarlet under the rouge and the pearl powder, and there is no knowing what angry retort the baronet’s assurance might have evoked, had not Carew, just at that sublime instant, unconsciously arrested the stream of her wrath by exclaiming excitedly, that the horses were off. Which in truth they actually were, as the yells and roarings of the mob speedily testified, and the hostilities between Vivian and Cora were forthwith suspended in the anxiety of watching the running for the Derby stakes. The history of that running itself is well known, Lady Elizabeth showed some very unladylike temper, and lost the day, a result that Vaurien, for some reason only known to himself, had absolutely anticipated. Then came the customary tumult and cheering, and wild excitement in the betting-ring; and one or two men who had laid heavy ”pots” upon the favourite, and had not hedged their bets, dropped down fainting here and there, and were borne off through the crowd to the outer boundaries
of the course. But nobody minded them, nor was likely to mind, except of course, the wives and children of these men, whose living had that day been tossed away so madly; and the hampers were unpacked on every side, the rattle of knives and forks began to predominate over the Babel of general noises, and corks and jokes flew deliriously in every conceivable and incontinent direction.
Cora Bell was overpowered by a miserable sense of having exhibited herself at a disadvantage in the eyes of Vane. And she was uneasily inquisitive to learn whether or not he was really cognizant of the signal snubbing to which the baronet had subjected her. Could anything be more mortifying if Vaurien did know it? To have allowed him to perceive that she had coveted the acquaintance of this aristocratic colosse, and then to be pounded small in the presence of her admirers, by that very giant whom she had challenged in so much confidence of her own prevailing power! Was it possible that she was destined to defeat in this new campaign, that the reprisal she contemplated against Vaurien was to prove abortive? For Cora had been bitterly piqued by Vane’s open admiration for the new prima-donna, and the vengeance she meditated was no less than a repayment in kind of the slight that had so deeply wounded her own vanity, and to the virulent sting of which she shrewdly divined that Vane would be equally vulnerable. But to attempt the accomplishment of such a magnificent revenge, and to fail at the very outset – what an intolerable vexation! It was not to be endured, and Cora summoned all the wit and resolution she possessed to turn the fortunes of the day in her own favour. To attain this desirable consummation she lavished an immense amount of sweetness upon the hardy senses of the baronet, but his natural acridity was proof against all her honeyed compliments and delicate manœuvres, and he took less notice of her and her wiles than he would probably have done of the feline blandishments of any strange grimalkin who might have chosen to comport itself fondly with regard to his boots. And, indeed, the great event of the day was hardly well over, than Vivian took his leave of the party, notwithstanding either the soft allurements of Mrs. Bell, who designed presently to succumb to the heat
of the weather, and to faint in the arms of her unimpressionable giant; or the repeated invitations to Moët and cold chicken cordially proffered by Vaurien, who would fain have heard something by-and-by concerning the adorable Fräulein Stern. With ever so cold a bow and ever so careless a glance at the languishing graces of poor mortified Cora, Vivian rode off from the drag and was soon lost to sight among the lines of vehicles and heterogeneous groups of itinerant acrobats, thimbleriggers, and hungry loiterers of all sorts.
“Abominably rude I call that fellow,” observed Dick Rankin, apostophizing the departing Hercules through Vaurien’s fieldglass. “Cut you awfully short, Mrs. Bell!”
“Awfully,” assented Carry. “Wouldn’t have stood it m’self. Lobster salad, please, Charlie! Deuced good pie, this! You were much too kind to him, Mrs. Bell.”
Cora actually ground her little white irregular teeth. Everyone of them had noticed her defeat! But she laughed as affably as possible, in spite of her annoyance. And shook her tinselled tufty head in gay denial.
“Oh, no! I disliked him immensely, Mr. Carew! You are quite mistaken, I assure you! Indeed, if the weather had been a little cooler I am certain I should positively have quarrelled with him!”
“If all ladies showed their dislikes in such a pleasant manner,” quoth Vaurien in her ear, “what a glorious world we should have, ma mie!”
Poor Cora! Poor Lady Elizabeth!
The drag spun home from Epsom as merrily as the casualities and crowd of the road would permit, but the gossamer fairy upon the box seat had lost her gaiété de cœur, and Vaurien’s jests and bons mots had no pungency for her injured ears. Nevertheless she was too much of a woman and of a diplomatist to make any exhibition of her chagrin, and though she sat behind the greys revolving schemes of awful vengeance and plotting the dire overthrow and confusion of two such illustrious offenders as Brabazon and Vaurien, she laughed as arily and flirted as determinedly as she had ever done on the maddest day of all her mad
little life. Yet she was hard hit, for Cora’s ruling passion was Vanity, and the contempt with which Vaurien had treated her charms and her enchantments, was no mean stab to her sensitive heart. She had but one aim in her daily existence, and no idea beyond it; the greatest care and toil of which her inconsequent nature was capable was expended in the endeavour to attract and monopolize masculine admiration, and when she failed, the failure was as proportionately bitter to her tiny comprehension, as defeat would be to the mind of a military chief, baffled in his designs for reducing a hostile garrison.
Cora believed that men were her slaves, but in truth she was theirs, for she never ceased from her labours to please their fancies; all her delights and troubles had their source in the varying circumstances of this abject bondage, and the very summum bonum of her butterfly career was attained in a successful “affaire.” And yet, beneath so much frivolous effervescence of feminine conceit, there was evidence of some strong brew in Mrs. Bell’s composition, an unmistakeable flavour of something stiff, – a firmness of purpose and self-command that might have done high credit to a nobler life than hers.
Even now, the impress of that better power was shining in her eyes, and curling her painted lips, – the power of asserting her will above her emotions, the power of strong repression and resolve. Not the resolve of a man but of a woman, for the trick is distinctively a feminine one. Maclise has given it finely in his picture of the play scene from Hamlet, where the king, unable to face the public reproduction of his guilt, turns his eyes away from the stage in a visible agony of shame and fury, but the partner of his wrong-doing, the misconducted queen, looks steadfastly on at the progress of the tableau, unmoved in feature, sublime in the supremacy of womanly fortitude over the pangs of human conscience.
So too, – and the comparison is not so hugely disproportionate as it may appear, – Cora Bell, insulted and rebuked in the immediate audience of these among whom she was most accustomed to act the sovereign possessed the same power of self-control, and betrayed no more of the
passion and uneasiness that were distracting her outraged senses than the great Academician’s Gertrude.
“Petite,” said Vaurien, softly, bending towards his laughing companion, and flicking the ears of the leaders with his long whip, “what are you going to do with yourself on Saturday, eh? There’s a concert at St, James’s in the morning, begins at half-past two. Shall we go, eh?”
‘Who sings?” asked Cora abruptly, checking herself in the midst of a lively interchange of repartee with Dick.
“Oh, most of the opera swells, first-rate display! I shall go, certainly. Won’t you come?”
“Fräulein Stern?” said Cora interrogatively.
“Of course. Nothing without her now.”
Mrs. Bell hesitated the least possible moment. If Adelheid were to sing, it was probable, she thought, that Vivian would be among the audience, and she might get an opportunity of retrieving the mistake she had that day committed, and of establishing her supremecy over the intractable heart of the baronet. At any rate, Vane was resolved to go for the sake of Fräulein Stern, and under such circumstances, Cora was more inclined to indulge him with the restraining influence of her presence, than to pass a domestically virtuous morning with the cousins at Brompton, and endure the knowledge that her recalcitrant cher ami was casting sheep’s eyes at a talented and beautiful rival. So she assented to the scheme of dissipation proposed, and it was noted further that Mrs Bell should call for Vane at the Grenville Club, Pall-mall, on the Saturday in question, a quarter of an hour before the time fixed for the commencement of the concert; upon the ratification of which arrangement Cora forthwith relapsed into silence, and held sacred commune with herself concerning the style of coiffure and the tint of complexion to be adopted on the momentous occasion. Ah, yes! Pitiful, no doubt! But that was the story of Cora’s life from day to day.