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Authors: K.M. Grant

HartsLove (21 page)

BOOK: HartsLove
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The One's head was poking from his top door. Skelton came out of his house when he heard the chatter. ‘Is he all right?' Daisy called as she unfastened the stable bolt.

Skelton was taken aback by Daisy's alarm. He was on his guard at once.

‘We've really come to thank you,' said Lily quickly. She thought his feelings might be hurt by Daisy's question, which did, after all, imply some criticism. ‘It was so clever of you to think of the whitewash. I mean, we thought of the statues, but a whole horse! We're so grateful. It must have taken a while to wash the stuff off.' She was beaming at him, and a beam from Lily was quite a beam.

Up in the loft, Snipe scratched his lice and watched. that Lily's beam was directed at Skelton did not bother him one bit. He knew it was his due, and took it as such.

Skelton, who had only seen Clover and Columbine taking Tinker to the castle the day before, began slowly to understood why The One had been curiously damp when he had fed him earlier. He had thought the stable roof must be leaking, though he was not aware there had been any rain. He had looked about a bit but had not gone into the shed where the whitewash was kept. Had he done so, he might have been surprised to find a number of things not as he left them. As it was, he returned Lily's beam and searched her face for more clues. ‘It was a good idea,' he said in a tone that invited her to disclose a little more about what he was being thanked for doing.

‘You looked different all in black,' Daisy said as she put The One's head-collar on. ‘And how did you appear from the kitchen range and get The One painted and out at the front all at the same time? You must have had some help, and I can't believe it was Mrs Snips.'

Skelton, his face blank but his mind working furiously, tapped his nose. ‘Old Skelton has friends, you know,' he said evasively.

‘What friends?' Garth asked.

‘Garth!' reproached Lily.

Garth and Skelton scrutinised each other. Skelton pointed in the vague direction of the church. ‘Some friends are silent friends, if you get my meaning,' he said.

‘Of course!' said Lily. ‘Father Nameless.'

Skelton grinned at her. ‘Let's say no more about it, eh?'

The One stepped daintily into the yard and shook himself. In the sunlight, a few dried whitewash spots were still visible. Daisy flicked them off and ran her hands down his legs. They were cool and smooth. She felt his knee last. It was flat and only naturally warm. No damage – at least none that was visible.

‘I just can't see Father Nameless helping Skelton,' murmured Garth to Rose as they watched Clover or Columbine trot the horse across the yard, wanting to make up for their giggling.

‘Why not?' said Rose. ‘After all, he's going to lose his home too.'

Garth did a series of slow cartwheels. The dead robin fell out of his pocket. Lily picked it up. ‘We must bury it with due honours,' she said. ‘It died a hero's death.'

‘It probably died of old age.' Garth took the bird from Lily. ‘But let's give it a funeral anyway.'

The One stretched his legs. The night's excursion had not upset him. He liked the foxy-featured man who had come for him out of the shadows. He also liked the whitewash, which had been delicious to lick. He did not like the wobbling boy, but he had not lasted long. The One smelled Snipe in the loft and stiffened, ears pricked, hopeful of further excitements.

‘He looks more like a racehorse today, missy,' Skelton said.

‘He should rest, shouldn't he? He shouldn't work again so soon after his first gallop?' Daisy found it hard to believe that one mishap with a rope could result in devastation but a mad caper in the dark result in nothing at all. Clover or Columbine did a great deal of running before she allowed herself to believe that all was well.

‘Quite right, missy,' Skelton agreed. He could not imagine who had used The One, and right under his nose too. He was not angry, however. Whoever it was had done Skelton a favour. He pressed his advantage. ‘You know, I'd not have risked a gallop if I hadn't thought the leg would stand up to it. But I was sure it would, and I want to do my bit for this old place.' He coughed. ‘Training begins again tomorrow? The horse needs more fast work.'

Daisy nodded. She did not feel she could do much else. She turned to Garth. ‘Do you think we could take down the “for sale” sign? Last night was all very well, but The One must never be used like that again.'

‘If you take the sign down, your father's creditors'll come running,' said Skelton, wanting to demonstrate just how helpful he could be. ‘I'll just shift it. It'll be harder to see if a tree's in the way.' He winked at Lily.

‘You've been so obliging,' Lily said.

‘Always a pleasure, missy,' he replied. ‘As I say, we've got to stick up for the place.'

By mid-morning, the sun was blazing properly for the first time that year and the valley almost purred. The children buried the robin and spent the rest of the day at the Resting Place. Clover and Columbine, still very repentant, read aloud funny bits from obituaries. The One idled beside them. Daisy held the horse at first, but as the sun grew hotter and he settled, eyes half shut, in the lumpy shade of the chestnut tree, she unclipped the rope and went to lie on the flat gravestone. Lily sat beside her, and Garth, who climbed into the chestnut tree, observed them both as he juggled. They talked amongst themselves about the night before, filling in each other's gaps. Clover and Columbine apologised again for laughing. A stranger might have thought them very relaxed, not being able to see how their ears were straining all the time for carriage wheels. The Entwhistles would most likely not return but on a lovely day like this other intruders were a distinct possibility.

By mid-afternoon, however, when nobody had come and Skelton had hidden the ‘for sale' sign under the
branches of an oak tree, the tension eased. After dinner that night, they all filed into Daisy's room and sat under the cobweb. ‘All will be well,' Daisy said. ‘All manner of things will be well.' Nobody replied. They did not disbelieve her; they did not believe her either.

19

With only two weeks left until the Two Thousand Guineas, Daisy no longer slept. All would not be well. Though she urged The One to gallop when loose in the field, she knew he needed to gallop with a proper jockey. She was also beginning to realise that the horse's arbitrary obedience, so charming to her, meant that he might not gallop the very second the starter shouted ‘off', thus losing valuable seconds. When she spoke to him firmly he listened, but Daisy was not silly enough to believe that he actually understood. Yet what else could she do? Since the Entwhistle haunting, Daisy felt it should have been easier to consult Skelton. Rose and Lily certainly liked him better. Lily had even insisted that they invite him to tea to thank him properly. Yet The One still disliked the groom, and Daisy sided with the horse. She would not consult Skelton. She would just hope that the riderless gallops sufficed as preparation.

Garth had marked out a curving racetrack amid the bumps and tussocks of the moor. According to Charles's racing books, the Two Thousand Guineas course was straight whilst the Derby course ran left-handed. Daisy concentrated on the curve of the Derby course. The One must get used to galloping round left-handed corners. She did not want to admit that this was a waste of time since The One seldom ran true in any direction. Sometimes he ran to the left and sometimes to the right. Sometimes he ran straight. Occasionally, he turned right round and galloped back the way he had come. Daisy could not stop him and she doubted she would ever be able to.

To practise a racing start, Garth requisitioned one of the old Hartslove standards. Standing on a small heap of stones, he raised the flag and dropped it as he imagined the starter would do. Sometimes The One responded instantly because the flag gave him a fright. Other times he would watch the flag with interest and canter at a time that suited him better. There were even times when he did not bother to canter at all. None of this was any good.

Then there was the question of actually getting the horse to Newmarket for the Two Thousand Guineas, and from Newmarket to Epsom for the Derby. Even amidst her worries, Daisy would not admit that The One might fail in the Two Thousand Guineas and never qualify for the Derby at all. She concentrated only on the practicalities. In the rare moments when Charles was fit to speak, she
tried to ask him about travel arrangements. He stood still. He murmured. Then he drifted away without answering. If she pursued him, he would stumble into a run. Finally, Daisy asked Rose to ask Arthur. Rose was shocked. ‘I can't ask him. He's helped us already, Daisy. Besides, you know what'll happen if I do. He'll pay the travel expenses himself. You know he will.' Daisy did know. She did not really want Rose to ask Arthur. She was just putting off the inevitable.

Skelton had been waiting for this moment. ‘The horse will go on the train,' he said at once. ‘We'll rent space in a van. You've been galloping, I hope? You've got the horse to do a proper racing start? Not much point taking The One south if he's going to show you up now, is there? Shall I list Master Garth as jockey?' He fixed Daisy with a look from under a new cap.

Daisy did not pretend. What was the point? Skelton already knew the answers to his own questions. ‘You know Garth's not riding. We'll need a jockey,' she said.

Skelton could not resist. ‘Really, Miss Daisy? Never mind. I expect Master Garth's too brave for a flat race. He'll be waiting to jump those great big fences on a Grand National horse. I'm told that even men who've fought in wars quail when they see Becher's Brook, but I expect Master Garth, with all his acrobatics, would relish the challenge.'

Had Daisy had anybody else to turn to, she would have walked away. There was nobody. ‘We'll need the entry fee as well as money to pay for the train,' she said.

Skelton took off his cap and scratched his head. ‘You asking me to stump up for everything?'

Daisy bit her cheek. He was going to make her beg, and for The One's sake, and for Hartslove's, she was going to have to oblige him. ‘Yes,' she said, ‘I'm asking you for the money. We'll pay you back from the winnings.'

Skelton replaced his cap. ‘I'm sure you will,' he said. ‘I'm sure you will. You've left it very late, you know. Very late. I didn't like to interfere.' Daisy looked at her feet. ‘Luckily for you,' Skelton continued, ‘I've been a bit clever. I've already sent the entry – fifty sovereigns.' Daisy gasped. ‘Yes,' said Skelton, ‘fifty whole sovereigns. You see why I'm anxious. We'll just have to hope we'll get a place in a van. There's a lot of horses wanting transportation these days. I can only do my best. You remember, missy, that if we miss the race, it won't be my fault.' Daisy swallowed. How hopeless she was! She should have arranged all this weeks ago. And fifty sovereigns! She'd had no idea the entry would be so much.

Skelton was enjoying himself. ‘Mind, even if we do manage the travel, the horse'll hardly have time to get over the journey before the race, and we'll be lucky to find a jockey down there who's actually willing to take the ride. But you leave that to me, Miss Daisy. I'll do what I can.' He waited.

‘Thank you, Mr Skelton,' Daisy said.

It was worth fifty sovereigns to him to hear her say it so meekly, and what made it even more enjoyable was the fact
that Skelton had already booked a place for The One on a train from Manchester and had already been in touch with a very particular jockey. Now he was properly in charge, things would go as he wanted them to.

When Daisy showed Rose and Lily her ticket, they were dismayed. ‘Where will you stop the nights? How will you manage on your own?' they asked in turn. ‘You should have asked Skelton if one of us could go with you. Will you come home between the Two Thousand Guineas and the Derby?'

‘I couldn't ask Skelton to buy two tickets for us,' Daisy said, her stomach churning now that everything seemed to be speeding up. ‘And no, I won't be back between the races because there's no time.'

‘We want to be there,' said Lily.

‘We
must
be there,' Rose corrected. She did not add ‘to comfort you when it all goes wrong', though that was what she was thinking.

Garth seemed less dismayed than Rose. Indeed, he fingered the ticket with excitement. Daisy was glad. She did not want Garth to feel badly. Clover and Columbine, deeply immersed in one of their newspapers, wished her luck.

On the day of departure itself, the most upsetting goodbye was to Charles. He looked amazed. ‘Where are you going?' he asked.

‘To Newmarket, then to Epsom.'

‘But why?'

‘He's The One, Pa,' Daisy said. ‘We're going to win the Derby.'

Through a brandy-filled fog, a small alarm sounded. Charles scuffed his feet. ‘Where's Skelton?'

‘In the courtyard. We're walking The One to Manchester. I'll go in the cart. Then we're going on a train.'

Charles put an unsteady hand on Daisy's shoulder. ‘Coming out,' he said. They walked slowly together, Charles leaning heavily so that Daisy's limp was more pronounced than ever. ‘Sorry,' Charles said.

‘Doesn't matter, Pa.'

In the courtyard, Charles shuffled over to Skelton. ‘What's all this?' He flapped one hand at Tinker and the cart, and the other at The One, who was being held by Garth. ‘Useless. You said.'

Skelton took Charles's elbow and steered him out of hearing. ‘Absolutely useless, Sir Charles,' he said, ‘but we must humour the little lady. She's determined the horse should run, and I don't want to disappoint her.' He patted Charles's arm. ‘I'm paying. Glad to. Anything to keep Miss Daisy happy.'

‘But he won't win.'

‘Win?' Skelton guffawed. ‘Didn't I tell you what that vet said? The horse couldn't win an old crock's race! His leg's all to pieces.' He leaned in. ‘The horse only canters now. It's all he can do. Miss Daisy thinks he's fast only because she's never seen a real racehorse.'

BOOK: HartsLove
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