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Authors: Ngaio Marsh

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BOOK: Last Ditch
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Syd Jones slid out of the tack-room door, and with a sidelong scowl at Ricky, approached the loose-boxes.

Julia advanced upon him with extended hand. She explained to Mr Harkness that she and Syd were old friends. It would be difficult to say which of the two men was the more embarrassed.

Syd led out the first horse, a sixteen-hand bay, and Mr Harkness said he would give Jasper a handsome ride. Jasper mounted, collecting the bay and walking it round the yard. The others followed, Julia on a nice-looking grey mare. It was clear to Ricky that the Pharamonds were accomplished horse people. He himself was given an aged chestnut gelding who, Mr Harkness said, still had plenty of go in him if handled sympathetically. Ricky walked and then jogged him round the yard in what he trusted was a sympathetic manner.

Bruno was mounted on a lively, fidgeting sorrel mare and was told she would carry twelve stone very prettily over the sticks. ‘You asked for a lively ride,’ Mr Harkness said to Bruno, ‘and you’ll get it. Think you’ll be up to her?’

Bruno said with dignity that he did think so. Clearly not averse to showing-off a little, he rode out into the horse-paddock where three
hurdles had been set up. He put the sorrel at them and flew over very elegantly. Ricky, with misgivings, felt his mount tittuping under him. ‘You shut up,’ he muttered to it. Julia, who had come alongside, leant towards him, her face alive with entertainment.

‘Ricky!’ she said. ‘Are you feeling precarious?’

‘Precarious!’ he shouted. ‘I’m terror-stricken. And now you’re going to laugh at me,’ he added, hearing the preliminary splutter.

‘If you fall off, I’ll try not to. But you’re sitting him like a rock.’

‘Not true, alas.’

‘Nearly true. Good God! He’s at it again!’

Mr Harkness had broken out into the familiar roar but this time his target was Bruno. The horse-paddock sloped down-hill towards a field from which it was separated by a dense and pretty high blackthorn hedge. Bruno had turned the sorrel to face a gap in the hedge and the creature, Ricky saw, was going through the mettlesome antics that manifest an equine desire to jump over something.

‘No, stop! You can’t! Here! Come back!’ Mr Harkness roared. And to Jasper: ‘Call that kid back. He’ll break his neck. He’ll ruin the mare. Stop him!’

The Pharamonds shouted but Bruno dug in his heels and put the sorrel at the gap. It rose, its quarters flashed up, it was gone and there was no time, or a lifetime, before they heard an earthy thump and a diminishing thud of hooves.

Mr Harkness was running down the horse-paddock. Jasper had ridden past him when, on the slope beyond the hedge, Bruno appeared, checking his dancing mount. Farther away, on the hillside, a solitary horse reared, plunged and galloped idiotically up and down a distant hedge. Ricky thought he recognized the wall-eyed Mungo.

Bruno waved vaingloriously.

Julia had ridden alongside Ricky. ‘Horrid, showing-off little brute,’ said Julia. ‘Wait till I get at him.’ And she began shakily to laugh.

Mr Harkness bawled infuriated directions to Bruno about how to rejoin them by way of gates and a lane. The Pharamonds collected round Julia and Ricky.

‘I am ashamed of Bruno,’ said Jasper.

‘What’s it like,’ Carlotta asked, ‘on the other side?’

‘A sheer drop to an extremely deep and impossibly wide ditch. The mare’s all Harkness said she was to clear it.’

‘Bruno’s good, though,’ said Julia.

‘He’s given you a fright and he’s shown like a mountebank.’

Julia said: ‘Never mind!’ and leant along her horse’s neck to touch her husband’s hand. Ricky suddenly felt quite desolate.

The Pharamonds waited ominously for the return of the errant Bruno while Mr Harkness enlarged upon the prowess of Sorrel Lass which was the stable name of the talented mare. He also issued a number of dark hints as to what steps he would have taken if she had broken a leg and had to be destroyed.

In the middle of all this and just as Bruno, smiling uneasily, rode his mount into the stable-yard, Miss Harkness, forgotten by all, burst into eloquence.

She was ‘discovered’ leering over the lower half-door of an empty loose-box. With the riding crop, from which she appeared never to be parted, she beat on the half-door and screamed in triumph.

‘Yar! Yar! Yar!’ Miss Harkness screamed, ‘Old bloody Unk! She’s bloody done it, so sucks boo to rotten old you.’

Her uncle glared upon her but made no reply. Jasper, Carlotta and Louis were administering a severe if inaudible wigging to Bruno, who had unwillingly dismounted. Syd Jones had disappeared.

Julia said to Ricky: ‘We ought to bring Bruno and Dulcie together; they seem to have something in common, don’t you feel? What have you lot been saying to him?’ she asked her husband who had come across to her.

‘I’ve asked for another mount for him.’

‘Darling!’

‘He’s got to learn, sweetie. And in any case Harkness doesn’t like the idea of him riding her. After that performance.’

‘But he rode her beautifully, we must admit.’

‘He was told not to put her at the hedge.’

Syd Jones came out and led away the sorrel. Presently he re-appeared with something that looked like an elderly polo pony, upon which Bruno gazed with evident disgust.

The scene petered out. Miss Harkness emerged from the loose-box, strode past her uncle, shook hands violently with sulking Bruno and continued into the house, banging the door behind her.

Mr Harkness said: ‘Dulcie gets a bit excitable.’

Julia said: ‘She’s a high-spirited girl, isn’t she? Carlotta, darling, don’t you think we ought to hit the trail? Come along, boys. We’re off.’

There was, however, one more surprise to come. Mr Harkness approached Julia with a curious, almost a sheepish smile, and handed up an envelope.

‘Just a little thing of my own,’ he said. ‘See you this evening. Have a good day.’

When they reached the end of the drive Julia said, ‘What can it be?’

‘Not the bill,’ Carlotta said. ‘Not when he introduced it like that.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. The bill, after all, would be a little thing of his own.’

Julia had drawn what appeared to be a pamphlet from the envelope. She began to read. ‘Not true!’ she said, and looked up, wideeyed, at her audience. ‘Not true,’ she repeated.

‘What isn’t?’ Carlotta asked crossly. ‘Don’t go on like that, Julia.’

Julia handed the pamphlet to Ricky. ‘You read it,’ she said. ‘Aloud.’

‘DO YOU KNOW,’ Ricky read, ‘that you are in danger of HELLFIRE?’

‘DO YOU KNOW, that the DAY of JUDGEMENT
is AT HAND?

‘WOE! WOE! WOE!!! cries the Prophet –’

‘Obviously,’ Julia interrupted, ‘Mr Harkness is the author.’

‘Why?’

‘Such very horsy language. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” ’

‘He seems to run on in the same vein for a long time,’ Ricky said, turning the page. ‘It’s all about the last trump and one’s sins lying bitter in one’s belly. Wait a bit. Listen.’

‘What?’

‘Regular gatherings of the Inner Brethren at Leathers on Sunday evenings at seven-thirty to which you are Cordially Invited. Bro. Cuthbert (“Cuth”) Harkness will lead. Discourse and Discussion. Light Supper. Gents fifty p. Ladies a basket. All welcome.’

‘Well,’ said Jasper after a pause, ‘that explains everything. Or does it?’

‘I
suppose
it does,’ said Julia doubtfully. ‘Mr Harkness, whom we must learn to call Cuth, even if it sounds as if one had lost a tooth –’

‘How do you mean, Julia?’

‘Don’t interrupt. “Cuspid”,’ Julia said hurriedly. ‘Clearly, he’s a religious fanatic and that’s why he’s taken Miss Harkness’s pregnancy so hard.’

‘Of course. Evidently they’re extremely strict,’ Jasper agreed.

‘I wonder what they do at their parties. Would it be fun –’

‘No, Julia,’ said Louis, ‘it would not be fun; ladies a basket, or no.’

Carlotta said, ‘Do let’s go. We can discuss Mr Harkness later. There’s a perfect green lane round the corner.’

So all the Pharamonds and Ricky rode up the hill. They showed for some moments on the skyline, elegant against important clouds. Then the lane dipped into a valley and they followed it and disappeared.

III

They lunched at a little pub in Bon Accord on the extreme northern tip of the island. It was called the Fisherman’s Rest and was indeed full of guernseys, gumboots and the smell of fish. The landlord turned out to be a cousin of Bob Maistre at the Cod-and-Bottle.

Jasper stood drinks all round and Julia captivated the men by asking about the finer points of deep-sea fishing. From here she led the conversation to Mr Harkness, evoking a good deal of what Louis afterwards referred to as bucolic merriment.

‘Cuth Harkness,’ the landlord said, ‘was a sensible enough chap when he first came. A riding instructor or some such in the army, he were. Then he took queer with religion.’

‘He were all right till he got cranky-holy,’ someone said. ‘Druv himself silly brooding on hell-fire, I reckon.’

‘Is Miss Harkness a member of the group?’ Louis asked, and Ricky saw that mention of Miss Harkness evoked loose-mouthed grins and sidelong looks.

‘Dulce?’ somebody blurted out as if the name itself was explicit. ‘Her?’ and there was a general outbreak of smothered laughter.

‘Reckon her’s got better things to do,’ the landlord said. This evoked a further round of stifled merriment.

‘Quite a girl, our Dulcie, isn’t she?’ Louis said easily. He passed a white hand over the back of his patent-leather head. ‘Mind you,’ he added, ‘I wouldn’t know.’

Carlotta and Julia walked out into the fresh air where Ricky joined them.

‘I wish he wouldn’t,’ Carlotta said.

‘Louis?’ Julia asked.

‘Yes,’ said Carlotta. ‘That’s right. Louis. My husband, you know. Shouldn’t we be moving on?’ She smiled at Ricky. ‘But we’re an ever-so-jolly family, of course,’ she said. ‘Aren’t we, Julia?’

‘Come on,’ Julia said. ‘Let’s get the fiery steeds. Where’s Bruno?’

‘With them, I expect. Still a bit huffy.’

But Bruno left off being huffy when they all rode a fine race across a stretch of open turf. Ricky’s blood tingled in his ears and his bottom began to be sore.

When they had pulled up Louis gave a cry. He dismounted and hopped about on his elegant left foot.

‘Cramp?’ asked Jasper.

‘What do you suppose it is, love, hopscotch? Blast and hell, I’ll have to get this boot off,’ groaned Louis. ‘Here. Bruno!’

Bruno very efficiently pulled off the boot. Louis wrenched at his foot, hissing with pain. He stood up, stamped and limped.

‘It’s no good,’ he said. ‘I’ll have to go back.’

‘I’ll come with you, darling,’ his wife offered.

‘No, you won’t, damn it,’ he said. He mounted, holding the boot in his right hand. He flexed his right foot, keeping it out of the iron and checking his horse’s obvious desire to break away.

‘Will you be OK?’ asked Jasper.

‘I will if you’ll all be good enough to move off,’ he said. He turned his horse and began to walk it back along the turf.

‘Leave it,’ Carlotta said. ‘He’ll be cross if we don’t. He knows what he’s doing.’

In spite of a marked increase in his saddle-soreness, Ricky enjoyed the rest of the day’s outing. They took roundabout lanes back to the Cove and the sun was far in the west when, over a rise in the road, L’Esperance came unexpectedly into view, a romantic silhouette, distant and very lonely against a glowing sky.

‘Look at our lovely house!’ cried Julia. She began to sing a Spanish song and the other Pharamonds joined in. They sang, off and on, all the way to Leathers and up the drive.

‘Will Louis have taken the car or is he waiting for us?’ Bruno wondered.

‘It’d be a hell of a long wait,’ said Jasper.

‘I fancy he’ll be walking home,’ Carlotta said. ‘It’s good for his cramp to walk.’

As they turned the corner of the house into the stable yard, they saw the car where Louis had left it. It was unoccupied.

‘Yes, he’s walking,’ said Jasper. ‘We’ll catch up with him.’

There was nobody about in the yard. Everything seemed very quiet.

‘I’ll dig someone up,’ Jasper said. He turned his hack into a loose-box and walked off.

Bruno, who had recovered from the effects of his wigging and showed signs of wanting to brag about his exploit, said: ‘Julia, come down and look at my jump. Ricky, will you come? Carlotta, come and look. Come on.’

‘If we do, it doesn’t mean to say we approve,’ Julia said sternly. ‘Shall we?’ she asked Ricky and Carlotta. ‘I’d rather like to.’

They rode their bored horses into the paddock and down the hill. A long shadow from the blackthorn hedge reached towards them and the air struck cold as they entered it.

Ricky felt his horse’s barrel expand between his knees. It lifted its head, neighed and reared on its hind legs.

‘Here!’ he exclaimed. ‘What’s all this!’ It dropped back on its forefeet and danced. From far beyond the hedge, on the distant hillside, there came an answering scream.

Julia crammed her own now agitated mount up to the gap in the hedge where Bruno had jumped. Ricky watched her bring the horse round and heard it snort. It stood and trembled. Julia leant forward in the saddle and patted its neck. She looked over the gap and down. Ricky saw her gloved hand clench. For a moment she was perfectly still. Then she turned towards him and he thought he had never seen absolute pallor in a face until now.

Behind him Carlotta said: ‘What’s possessing the animals?’ and then: ‘Julia, what is it?’

‘Ricky,’ Julia said in somebody else’s voice, ‘let Bruno take your horse and come here. Bruno, take Carlotta and the horses back to the yard and stay there. Do what I tell you, Carlotta. Do it at once. And find Jasper. Send him down here.’

They did what she told them. Ricky walked down the slope to Julia, who dismounted.

‘You’d better look,’ she said. ‘Down there. Down.’

Ricky looked through the gap. Water glinted below in the shadows. Trampled mud stank and glistened. Deep scars and slides ploughed the bank. Everything was dead still down there. Particularly the interloper, who lay smashed and discarded, face upwards, in the puddled ditch, her limbs all higgledy-piggledy at impossible angles, her mouth awash with muddy water, and her foolish eyes wide open and staring at nothing at all. On the hillside the sorrel mare, saddled, bridled and dead lame, limped here and there, snatching inconsequently at the short grass. Sometimes she threw up her head and whinnied. She was answered from the hilltop by Mungo, the wall-eyed bay.

BOOK: Last Ditch
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