Read Mount! Online

Authors: Jilly Cooper

Mount! (3 page)

Leaves blew into the horses’ faces and lay in a treacherous carpet over arthritic roots, fallen twigs, Cotswold stones, rabbit holes and badger setts. Not to mention the sinister coils of Old Man’s Beard hanging from overhead branches, waiting to garrotte a passing rider. As the track grew narrower from being little used, James Northfield cursed himself for not walking the course.

The bellow of the impatient crowd rose to a deafening climax, then turned to a groan as a horse and rider eventually emerged from the woods, parting the thick grey curtain of mist and splashing back across the water meadows. Both were so coated with dark-brown mud, they were assumed to be James Northfield
and Spartan. But as they galloped up the straight, the groan became a thunderous cheer again, as the mob distinguished the flying gold curls of a rider, almost too big for his gallant little mare. Instantly the jubilant mounted spectators peeled off to follow the pair up the course to the winning post.

But as time ticked away there was no sign of the Honourable James.

‘I lost him about two miles back, just above Walker’s Mill,’ Rupert told the stewards as he removed his saddle to weigh in.

Sweet Azure stood desperately panting with drooping head, steam pouring out of inflated red nostrils. From the wheals on her quarters and her bleeding flanks, it was clear that neither whip nor spur had been spared. Rufus Northfield, overjoyed because he’d backed his friend very heavily, ordered Rupert’s groom to cover the damage with a rug.

Then everyone waited and waited for James Northfield and Spartan, until Seeker the mastiff broke away from Hibbert the groom and plunged back into the dark in search of his master. No one else left. The crowd had closed round the betting posts to stop any bookmaker doing a runner. Then over the shouting and celebration came the unearthly howl of a dog.

It took time to light torches, then stumbling and sliding through the darkening woods, a party of mounted stewards set out. After two miles, they at last identified the ghostly white form of Seeker, still howling on the side of the track. As the distraught animal refused to let anyone closer, he had to be shot before Spartan’s body was discovered slumped at the bottom of a fifty-foot ravine. Beneath the horse, his back and neck broken, lay James Northfield.

Next day the fog cleared, but rumour writhed round more thickly and darkly, particularly when, by the ravine, two sets of hoof-prints were discovered side by side, accompanied by much skidding. Only the smaller set of footprints passed onwards.

But as Rupert Black, refusing to admit he had blue blood on his hands, pointed out, he and Sweet Azure must have passed the spot a good ten minutes before James and Spartan – and
both riders must have taken an identical route to avoid a big sycamore branch that had fallen across the track.

Darker rumours suggested that Rupert could have been egged on by Rufus, whose extravagant tastes were hampered by the enforced poverty of a younger son. Any suggestions of foul play, however, were quashed by the Northfield family, who owned the racecourse and probably the local constabulary. Refusing to blame Rupert, they honourably paid him the four thousand guineas. This, added to his winnings from the vast sum he had wagered on himself and Sweet Azure, enabled him to complete the payments on Third Leopard.

Did the Northfields feel a secret relief? James had always been a difficult, introspective son. Rufus, particularly when guided by his sensible new wife, would run the estate far better. Privately, Lord Northfield had never forgiven James for stealing from him the fair Gisela, on whom he too had had designs. After a few weeks, nemesis struck and his Lordship was punished by a fatal heart attack.

The timid, heartbroken Gisela was speedily paid off and sent packing back to Holland. Although she wrote occasionally to Mrs Jenkins the cook, by the time she gave birth, the title had already passed to Rufus.

Gisela, who had never ceased to mourn James, sank into despair and took her own life. No one in Rutminster bothered to find out if she had given birth to a daughter or a son.

Meanwhile, Third Leopard, who was both a direct descendant of the Darley Arabian and grandson of the mighty Eclipse, was trained by Rupert Black into a great horse, winning numerous races including the oldest classic, the St Leger, which had been established in 1776.

At stud, Third Leopard was even more successful, siring 400 sons and daughters, who in turn won many classics, notching up 822 victories. This for several years made the stallion the country’s Leading Sire, during which time his master Rupert was able to charge a massive stud fee of fifty guineas. With riches pouring in, Rupert Black became a grand gentleman, marrying, like Rufus Northfield, a rich, well-born beauty, a
Miss Campbell, whose ancestors had fought bravely for the Royalists in the Civil War, and who joined her name with his. The Campbell-Blacks bought a beautiful house in Penscombe overlooking a wooded Gloucestershire valley, where horses have thrived ever since.

The marriage was successful. If Mrs Campbell-Black corrected her husband Rupert’s pronunciation a little too often, he could always find solace in the adulation of the neighbouring belles.

Such was his hubris, he and Third Leopard were even painted by Stubbs in a country landscape with a pale-gold house peering out of dark-green trees, with olive-green lawns flowing down to a lake on which floated swans.

Normally Stubbs immortalized legendary racehorses held by grooms identified by name. But Rupert Black insisted on aping the Prince Regent. Like Prinny he was dressed in tight white breeches and brown topped boots, with a wide-brimmed hat tipped over his Greek nose and flaxen curls flowing over the collar of a long, brass-buttoned riding coat, which emphasized his strong, lithe body. A frilled white shirt showed off the perfect jawline and a passionate but ruthless mouth. Rupert Black was also portrayed like Prinny, trotting past with a triumphant wave of his whip: ‘Haven’t I and this great horse done well.’

And yet to this day, no one – least of all Rupert Black’s descendants – likes to ride or walk in Rutminster woods at dusk. There have been too many sightings of pale riders on dark horses and howling white mastiffs. Even hounds in full cry on late winter afternoons have always turned away, whimpering, if a fox has run into the woods.

1

On a stiflingly hot June evening, some 225 years later, Rupert Campbell-Black, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Rupert Black, looked out of his office in the west wing of the same pale-gold Queen Anne house at Penscombe.

The same lake still glittered as sweetly azure as his ancestor’s blue roan mare in the June sun, but to the right of the olive-green lawns and down the valley sprawled a giant complex of a racing yard, entitled Rupert Campbell-Black Racing. This was surrounded by a tangle of gallops for all weathers and distances, a stud farm, Penscombe Stud, helicopter pad, hangar, lorry park, staff cottages, and lush paddocks, with plenty of shade to safeguard every kind of racehorse: stallions, visiting mares, mares in foal or with foal, yearlings and horses in training.

But Rupert Black’s descendant didn’t feel any great pride as he scrolled through the emails still congratulating him on his three-thousandth win, or his Grand National victory with a mare called Mrs Wilkinson back in April or the 2000 Guineas back in May. He was merely irritated not to have won the Derby earlier in the month.

Nor did he bother to read more emails pouring in to congratulate him on the speech he’d made at Billy Lloyd-Foxe’s memorial service yesterday, a task he’d found harder than winning an Olympic Gold in Los Angeles with a trapped nerve years ago. He had never dreamed how wiped out he would be
by Billy’s death. Billy, his inseparable companion of fifty years, joined at the hip, finishing each other’s jokes, rejoicing in every success.

Rupert looked down at his speech.

‘This was the noblest rider of them all,’ he had told a packed Rutminster Cathedral congregation which had spilled out over the water meadows. Then he had regaled them with stories about his and Billy’s antics at prep school and Harrow, hell-raising on the showjumping circuit, fighting for a television franchise, moving on to Billy’s career as equine correspondent for the BBC.

‘Nothing in Billy’s life became him like the leaving of it,’ he had ended. ‘He bore pain and illness with equal fortitude, but the happiest moment of his life came at the end, when his daughter Amber won the Grand National on a little one-eyed mare called Mrs Wilkinson.

‘Billy had an equally marvellous little horse called The Bull on whom he’d won a silver medal. “I hope I see The Bull again,” were his last words. I’m sure Billy’s riding The Bull across the clouds. Lucky heaven, to have both of them.’ Bloody mawkish that, Rupert thought wryly.

The party afterwards, most of which he’d paid for, resulted in him having a blazing row with Billy’s widow Janey, who’d made a drunken and soppy speech, repeatedly quoting the line: ‘That’s the way for Billy and me’, while boasting of the over 3,019 letters of sympathy she had received. She was furious Rupert hadn’t praised her as a wonderful wife.

‘You were a fucking awful wife,’ Rupert had snarled back. ‘Billy’d be alive today if he hadn’t been permanently stressed by you squandering his money and fucking other men.’

This had also resulted in a rare screaming match between Rupert and his wife Taggie, who’d ticked him off before rushing away to comfort Janey.

Rupert was sure Janey would take the opportunity to solicit an invitation to move back into Lime Tree Cottage, the little seventeenth-century house in Rupert’s woods nearby, which she and Billy had lived in rent-free when they were first married. If Janey returned, Rupert knew she’d be hanging round, playing the
grieving widow, reminding him of Billy for the rest of his life.

Last night’s row with Taggie had ended up with her sleeping in the spare room and their not speaking all day. He was tempted to ring her in the kitchen and make it up. Instead he poured himself another glass of whisky.

On the wall opposite were monitors on which he could watch his own horses and the progeny of his stallions and brood mares winning races all over the world. On the left wall, flanked by framed photographs of victorious horses, hung the Stubbs of Rupert Black and Third Leopard, winner of the St Leger and for five years Leading Sire.

Today there were two ways a horse could become Leading Sire: either if he were the stallion whose offspring had clocked up the most wins in a year, or, more importantly, if those offspring had earned the most prize money. Verdi’s Requiem, a dark-brown Irish Triple Crown winner, had topped the Leading Sire charts for Great Britain and Europe for fifteen years but now, aged twenty-five, his reign must be drawing to a close.

Opening the
Racing Post
, Rupert noted Bloodstock News had predicted a bloody battle to topple Verdi’s Requiem between Rupert Campbell-Black’s Love Rat and Isa Lovell’s Roberto’s Revenge. Rupert ground his teeth. Isa Lovell, ex-champion jockey and ex-son-in-law, had worked uneasily for Rupert for ten years, learning everything he could about training and breeding before defecting to start his own yard directly in competition with Rupert.

Even worse, Isa had joined forces with Cosmo Rannaldini, the fiendish little son of Rupert’s arch enemy, the late, great conductor Roberto Rannaldini. Married to Rupert’s first wife Helen, Roberto had not only tried to rape Rupert’s daughter Tabitha, but had managed to batter to death Taggie’s little mongrel Gertrude when she tried to protect Tabitha. In the Campbell-Black canon, it was arguable which was the greater crime.

Cosmo and Isa were proving maddeningly successful with the progeny of Roberto’s Revenge, particularly with a colt called Feud for Thought, which had just beaten Rupert’s colt Dardanius in the Derby. Cosmo had inherited a great deal of money from
his father, but he and Isa were spending such a fortune on yearlings and two-year-olds that someone must be bankrolling them. Rupert would kill to stop them beating him to Leading Sire. Love Rat
must
topple Verdi’s Requiem.

In the still-baking evening, out in the fields he could see foals lying flat and motionless except for their frantically waving tails. Rupert’s four dogs: Jack Russells, Cuthbert and Gilchrist, a brindle greyhound called Forester and a black Labrador called Banquo, panted in their baskets.

Up on a monitor, evening racing had started at the Curragh, Ireland’s greatest racecourse. Rupert hoped one of Love Rat’s progeny, Promiscuous, would win a later race there.

Promiscuous had been trained by Rupert’s old stable jockey, the also lascivious Bluey Charteris, who’d married an Irish trainer’s daughter, and managed to stay faithful enough to take over his father-in-law’s yard. Bluey and Isa Lovell doing so well made Rupert feel old. Overwhelmed with sadness and restlessness, he rang Valent Edwards, who had just married Etta Bancroft, the owner of Grand National-winning Mrs Wilkinson, and who was now back from their honeymoon.

‘We ought to discuss Mrs Wilkinson,’ he said. ‘Come over and have a drink.’

The moment he rang off, the telephone rang again: ‘No, you can’t have a discount on three mares,’ said Rupert tersely, and poured himself another glass of whisky.

There was a knock on the door and a very pretty blonde, with an utterly deceptive air of innocence, walked in. Dora Belvedon was the eighteen-year-old daughter of Rupert’s late friend, Raymond Belvedon, and his much younger second wife, Anthea. A gold-digger and an absolute bitch, Anthea had never given Dora enough pocket money. As a result, Dora had supported herself, her dog Cadbury and her pony Loofah by flogging stories to the tabloids.

For the past two years, as well as acting sporadically as Rupert’s press officer, she had been ghosting his contentious, highly successful column in the
Racing Post
. She also wrote a column supposedly by Mrs Wilkinson’s stable companion, a goat called Chisolm, in the
Daily Mirror
.

Missing her sweet father desperately, an itinerant Dora found comfort spending time at Penscombe, where she could always grab a bed if needs be. In addition, she often stayed in Willowwood, in the cottage of Miss Painswick, the former secretary of her old boarding school.

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