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IT was seven o'clock on one of the brightest mornings of all that year. The scene was Waterloo Station, where the Earl of Amberley, Lord Orpington, and the Marquis of Laverstock were pacing up and down the main line departure platform, gazing anxiously about them. It was evident, from the way they scrutinised every person who approached them, that they were on the look-out for some one. This some one ultimately proved to be Simon Carne, who, when he appeared, greeted them with considerable cordiality, at the same time apologising for his lateness in joining them.
"I think this must be our train," he said, pointing to the carriages drawn up beside the platform on which they stood. "At any rate, here is my man. By dint of study he has turned himself into a sort of walking Bradshaw, and he will certainly be able to inform us."
The inimitable Belton deferentially insinuated that his master was right in his conjecture, and then led the way towards a Pullman car, which had been attached to the train for the convenience of Carne and his guests. They took their seats, and a few moments later the train moved slowly out of the station. Carne was in the best of spirits, and the fact that he was taking his friends down to the stables of his trainer, William Bent, in order that they might witness a trial of his candidate for the Derby, seemed to give him the greatest possible pleasure.
On reaching Merford, the little wayside station nearest the village in which the training stables were situated, they discovered a comfortable four-wheeled conveyance drawn up to receive them. The driver touched his hat, and stated that his master was awaiting them on the Downs; this proved to be the case, for when they left the high road and turned on to the soft turf they saw before them a string of thoroughbreds, and the trainer himself mounted upon his well-known white pony, Columbine.
"Good-morning, Bent," said Carne, as the latter rode up and lifted his hat to himself and friends. "You see we have kept our promise, and are here to witness the trial you said you had arranged for us."
"I am glad to see you, sir," Bent replied. "And I only hope that what I am about to show you will prove of service to you. The horse is as fit as mortal hands can make him, and if he don't do his best for you next week there will be one person surprised in England, and that one will be myself. As you know, sir, the only horse I dread is Vulcanite, and the fact cannot be denied that he's a real clinker."
"Well," said Carne, "when we have seen our animal gallop we shall know better how much trust we are to place in him. For my own part I'm not afraid. Vulcanite, as you say, is a good horse, but, if I'm not mistaken, Knight of Malta is a better. Surely this is he coming towards us."
"That's him," said the trainer, with a fine disregard for grammar. "There's no mistaking him, is there? And now, if you'd care to stroll across we'll see them saddle."
The party accordingly descended from the carriage, and walked across the turf to the spot where the four thoroughbreds were being divested of their sheets. They made a pretty group; but even the most inexperienced critic could scarcely have failed to pick out Knight of Malta as the best among them. He was a tall, shapely bay, with black points, a trifle light of flesh perhaps, but with clean, flat legs, and low, greyhound-like thighs, sure evidence of the enormous propelling power he was known to possess. His head was perfection itself, though a wee bit too lop-eared if anything. Taken altogether, he looked, what he was, thoroughbred every inch of him. The others of the party were Gasometer, Hydrogen, and Young Romeo, the last named being the particular trial horse of the party. It was a favourite boast of the trainer that the last named was so reliable in his habits, his condition, and his pace, that you would not be far wrong if you were to set your watch by him.
"By the way, Bent," said Carne, as the boys were lifted into their saddles, "what weights are the horses carrying?"
"Well, sir, Young Romeo carries 8 st. 9 lb.; Gasometer, 7 st. 8 lb.; Hydrogen, 7 st. 1 lb.; and the Knight, 9 st. 11 lb. The distance will be the Epsom course, one mile and a half, and the best horse to win. Now, sir, if you're ready we'll get to work."
He turned to the lad who was to ride Hydrogen.
"Once you are off you will make the running, and bring them along at your best pace to the dip, where Gasometer will, if possible, take it up. After that I leave it to you other boys to make the best race of it you can. You, Blunt," calling up his head lad, "go down with them to the post, and get them off to as good a start as possible."
The horses departed, and Simon Carne and his friends accompanied the trainer to a spot where they would see the finish to the best advantage. Five minutes later an ejaculation from Lord Orpington told them that the horses had started. Each man accordingly clapped his glasses to his eyes, and watched the race before them. Faithful to his instructions, the lad on Hydrogen came straight to the front, and led them a cracker until they descended into the slight dip which marked the end of the first half-mile.
Then he retired to the rear, hopelessly done for, and Gasometer took up the running, with Knight of Malta close alongside him, and Young Romeo only half a length away. As they passed the mile post Young Romeo shot to the front, but it soon became evident he had not come to stay. Good horse as he was, there was a better catching him hand over fist. The pace was all that could be desired, and when Knight of Malta swept past the group, winner of the trial by more than his own length, the congratulations Simon Carne received were as cordial as he could possibly desire.
"What did I tell you, sir?" said Bent, with a smile of satisfaction upon his face. "You see what a good horse he is. There's no mistake about that."
"Well, let us hope he will do as well a week hence," Carne replied simply, as he replaced his glasses in their case.
"Amen to that," remarked Lord Orpington.
"And now, gentlemen," said the trainer, "if you will allow me, I will drive you over to my place to breakfast."
They took their places in the carriage once more, and, Bent having taken the reins, in a few moments they were bowling along the high road towards a neat modern residence standing on a slight eminence on the edge of the Downs. This was the trainer's own place of abode, the stables containing his many precious charges lying a hundred yards or so to the rear.
They were received on the threshold by the trainer's wife, who welcomed them most heartily to Merford. The keen air of the Downs had sharpened their appetites, and when they sat down to table they found they were able to do full justice to the excellent fare provided, for them. The meal at an end, they inspected the stables, once more carefully examining the Derby candidate, who seemed none the worse for his morning's exertion, and then Carne left his guests in the big yard to the enjoyment of their cigars, while he accompanied his trainer into the house for a few moments' chat.
"And now sit down, sir," said Bent, when they reached his own sanctum, a cosy apartment, half sitting-room and half office, bearing upon its walls innumerable mementoes of circumstances connected with the owner's lengthy turf experiences. "I hope you are satisfied with what you saw this morning?"
"Perfectly satisfied," said Carne, "but I should like to hear exactly what you think about the race itself."
"Well, sir, as you may imagine, I have been thinking a good deal about it lately, and this is the conclusion I have come to. If this were an ordinary year, I should say that we possess out and away the best horse in the race; but we must remember that this is not by any means an ordinary year—there's Vulcanite, who they tell me is in the very pink of condition, and who has beaten our horse each time they have met; there's the Mandarin, who won the Two Thousand this week, and who will be certain to come into greater favour as the time shortens, and The Filibuster, who won the Biennial Stakes at the Craven Meeting, a nice enough horse, though I must say I don't fancy him over much myself."
"I take it, then, that the only horse you really fear is Vulcanite?"
"That's so, sir. If he were not in the list, I should feel as certain of seeing you leading your horse back a winner as any man could well be."
On looking at his watch Carne discovered that it was time for him to rejoin his friends and be off to the railway station if they desired to catch the train which they had arranged should convey them back to town. So bidding the trainer and his wife good-bye, they took their places in the carriage once more, and were driven away.
Arriving at Waterloo, they drove to Lord Orpington's club to lunch.
"Do you know you're a very lucky fellow, Carne?" said the Earl of Amberley as they stood on the steps of that institution afterwards, before separating in pursuit of the pleasures of the afternoon. "You have health, wealth, fame, good looks, one of the finest houses in London, and now one of the prospective winners of the Derby. In fact, you only want one thing to make your existence perfect."
"And what is that?" asked Carne.
"A wife," replied Lord Amberley. "I wonder the girls have let you escape so long."
"I am not a marrying man," said Carne; "how could a fellow like myself, who is here to-day and gone to-morrow, expect any woman to link her lot with his? Do you remember our first meeting?"
"Perfectly, "replied Lord Amberley. "When I close my eyes I can see that beautiful marble palace, set in its frame of blue water, as plainly as if it were but yesterday I breakfasted with you there."
"That was a very fortunate morning for me," said the other. "And now here is my cab. I must be off. Good-bye."
"Good-bye," cried his friends, as he went down the steps and entered the vehicle. "Don't forget to let us know if anything further turns up."
"I will be sure to do so," said Simon Carne, and then, as he laid himself back on the soft cushions and was driven by way of Waterloo Place to Piccadilly, he added to himself, "Yes, if I can bring off the little scheme I have in my mind, and one or two others which I am preparing, and can manage to get out of England without any one suspecting that I am the burglar who has outwitted all London, I shall have good cause to say that was a very fortunate day for me when I first met his lordship."
That evening he dined alone. He seemed pre-occupied, and it was evident that he was disappointed about something. Several times on hearing noises in the street outside he questioned his servants as to the cause. At last, however, when Ram Gafur entered the room carrying a telegram upon a salver, his feelings found vent in a sigh of satisfaction. With eager fingers he broke open the envelope, withdrew the contents, and read the message it contained:
"Seven Stars Music Hall—Whitechapel Road. Ten o'clock."
There was no signature, but that fact did not seem to trouble him very much. He placed it in his pocket-book, and afterwards continued his meal in better spirits. When the servants had left the room he poured himself out a glass of port, and taking a pencil proceeded to make certain calculations upon the back of an envelope. For nearly ten minutes he occupied himself in this way, then he tore the paper into tiny pieces, replaced his pencil in his pocket, and sipped his wine with a satisfaction that was the outcome of perfected arrangements.
"The public excitement," he said to himself, not without a small touch of pride, "has as yet scarcely cooled down from the robbery of the famous Wiltshire jewels. Lord Orpington has not as yet discovered the whereabouts of the gold and silver plate which disappeared from his house so mysteriously a week or two ago, while several other people have done their best to catch a gang of burglars who would seem to have set all London at defiance. But if I bring off this new coup, they'll forget all their grievances in consideration of the latest and greatest scandal. There'll be scarcely a man in England who won't have something to say upon the subject. By the way, let me see how he stands in the betting to-night."
He took a paper from the table in the window, and glanced down the sporting column. Vulcanite was evidently the public's choice, Knight of Malta being only second favourite, with The Mandarin a strong third.
"What a hubbub there will be when it becomes known," said Carne, as he placed the paper on the table again. "I shall have to take especial care, or some of the storm may blow back on me. I fancy I can hear the newsboys shouting: 'Latest news of the turf scandal. The Derby favourite stolen. Vulcanite missing. An attempt made to get at Knight of Malta.' Why! It will be twenty years before old England will forget the sensation I am about to give her."
With a grim chuckle at the idea, he went upstairs to his dressing-room and locked the door. It must have been well after nine o'clock when he emerged again, and, clad in a long ulster, left the house in his private hansom. Passing down Park Lane he drove along Piccadilly, then by way of the Haymarket, Strand, Ludgate Hill, and Fenchurch Street to the Whitechapel Road. Reaching the corner of Leman Street, he signalled to his man to stop, and jumped out.
His appearance was now entirely changed. Instead of the deformed, scholar-like figure he usually presented, he now resembled a common-place, farmerish individual, with iron grey hair, a somewhat crafty face, ornamented with bushy eyebrows and a quantity of fluffy whiskers. How he had managed it as he drove along goodness only knows, but that he had effected the change was certain.
Having watched his cab drive away, he strolled along the street until he arrived at a building, the flaring lights of which proclaimed it the Seven Stars Music Hall. He paid his money at the box office, and then walked inside to find a fair-sized building, upon the floor of which were placed possibly a hundred small tables. On the stage at the further end a young lady, boasting a minimum of clothing and a maximum of self-assurance, was explaining, to the dashing accompaniment of the orchestra, the adventures she had experienced "When Billy and me was courting."
Acting up to his appearance, Carne called for a "two of Scotch cold," and, having lit a meerschaum pipe which he took from his waistcoat pocket, prepared to make himself at home. As ten o'clock struck he turned his chair a little, in order that he might have a better view of the door, and waited.
Five minutes must have elapsed before his patience was rewarded. Then two men came in together, and immediately he saw them he turned his face in an opposite direction, and seemed to be taking an absorbing interest in what was happening upon the stage.
One of the men who had entered, and whom he had seemed to recognise—a cadaverous-looking individual in a suit of clothes a size too small for him, a velvet waistcoat at least three sizes too large, a check tie, in which was stuck an enormous horseshoe pin composed of palpably imitation diamonds, boasting no shirt as far as could be seen, and wearing upon his head a top hat of a shape that had been fashionable in the early sixties—stopped, and placed his hand upon his shoulder.
"Mr. Blenkins, or I'm a d'isy," he said. "Well, who'd ha' thought of seeing you here of all places? Why, it was only this afternoon as me and my friend, Mr. Brown here, was a-speaking of you. To think as how you should ha' come up to London just this very time, and be at the Seven Stars Music Hall, of all other places! It's like what the noos-papers call a go-insidence, drat me if it ain't. 'Ow are yer, old pal?"
He extended his hand, which Mr. Blenkins took, and shook with considerable cordiality. After that, Mr. Brown, who from outward appearances was by far the most respectable of the trio, was introduced in the capacity of a gentleman from America, a citizenship that became more apparent when he opened his mouth to speak.
"And what was'ee speaking of I about?" asked Mr. Blenkins, when the trio were comfortably seated at table.
This the diffident Mr. Jones, for by that commonplace appellative the seedy gentleman with the magnificent diamonds chose to be called, declined to state. It would appear that he was willing to discuss the news of the day, the price of forage, the prospects of war, the programme proceeding upon the stage, in fact, anything rather than declare the subject of his conversation with Mr. Brown that afternoon.
It was not until Mr. Brown happened to ask Mr. Blenkins what horse he fancied for the Derby that Mr. Jones in any degree recovered his self-possession. Then an animated discussion on the forthcoming race was entered upon. How long it would have lasted had not Mr. Jones presently declared that the music of the orchestra was too much for him, I cannot say.
Thereupon Mr. Brown suggested that they should leave the Hall and proceed to a place of which he knew in a neighbouring street. This they accordingly did, and when they were safely installed in a small room off the bar, Mr. Jones, having made certain that there was no one near enough to overhear, unlocked his powers of conversation with whisky and water, and proceeded to speak his mind.
For upwards of an hour they remained closeted in the room together, conversing in an undertone. Then the meeting broke up, Mr. Blenkins bidding his friends "good-night" before they left the house.
From the outward appearances of the party, if in these days of seedy millionaires and overdressed bankrupts one may venture to judge by them, he would have been a speculative individual who would have given a five pound note for the worldly wealth of the trio. Yet, had you taken so much trouble, you might have followed Mr. Blenkins and have seen him picked up by a smart private hansom at the corner of Leman Street. You might then have gone back to the "Hen and Feathers," and have followed Mr. Brown as far as Osborn Street, and have seen him enter a neat brougham, which was evidently his own private property. Another hansom, also a private one, met Mr. Jones in the same thoroughfare, and an hour later two of the number were in Park Lane, while the third was discussing a bottle of Heidsieck in a gorgeous private sitting-room on the second floor of the Langham Hotel.
As he entered his dressing-room on his return to Porchester House, Simon Carne glanced at his watch. It was exactly twelve o'clock.
"I hope Belton will not be long," he said to himself. "Give him a quarter of an hour to rid himself of the other fellow, and say half an hour to get home. In that case he should be here within the next few minutes."
The thought had scarcely passed through his brain before there was a deferential knock at the door, and next moment Belton, clad in a long great coat, entered the room.
"You're back sooner than I expected," said Carne. "You could not have stayed very long with our friend?"
"I left him soon after you did, sir," said Belton. "He was in a hurry to get home, and as there was nothing more to settle I did not attempt to prevent him. I trust you are satisfied, sir, with the result of our adventure."
"Perfectly satisfied," said Carne. "Tomorrow I'll make sure that he's good for the money, and then we'll get to work. In the meantime you had better see about a van and the furniture of which I spoke to you, and also engage a man upon whom you can rely."
"But what about Merford, sir, and the attempt upon Knight of Malta?"
"I'll see about that on Monday. I have promised Bent to spend the night there."
"You'll excuse my saying so, sir, I hope," said Belton, as he poured out his master's hot water and laid his dressing-gown upon the back of a chair, ready for him to put on, "but it's a terrible risky business. If we don't bring it off, there'll be such a noise in England as has never been heard before. You might murder the Prime Minister, I believe, and it wouldn't count for so much with the people generally as an attempt to steal the Derby favourite."
"But we shall not fail," said Carne confidently. "By this time you ought to know me better than to suppose that. No, no, never fear, Belton; I've got all my plans cut and dried, and even if we fail to get possession of Vulcanite, the odds are a thousand to one against our being suspected of any complicity in the matter. Now you can go to bed. Good-night."
"Good-night, sir," said Belton respectfully, and left the room.
It was one of Simon Carne's peculiarities always to fulfil his engagements in spite of any inconvenience they might cause himself. Accordingly the four o'clock train from Waterloo, on the Monday following the meeting at the Music Hall just narrated, carried him to Merford in pursuance of the promise he had given his trainer.
Reaching the little wayside station on the edge of the Downs, he alighted, to find himself welcomed by his trainer, who lifted his hat respectfully, and wished him good afternoon.
During the drive, Carne spoke of the impending race, and among other things of a letter he had that morning received, warning him of an attempt that would probably be made to obtain possession of his horse. The trainer laughed good humouredly.
"Bless you, sir," he said, "that's nothing. You should just see some of the letters I've got pasted into my scrap book. Most of 'em comes a week or fortnight before a big race. Some of 'em warns me that if I don't prevent the horse from starting, I'm as good as a dead man; others ask me what price I will take to let him finish outside the first three; while more still tell me that if I don't put 'im out of the way altogether, I'll find my house and my wife and family flying up to the clouds under a full charge of dynamite within three days of the race being run. Don't you pay any attention to the letters you receive. I'll look after the horse, and you may be very sure I'll take good care that nothing happens to him."
"I know that, of course," said Carne, "but I thought I'd tell you. You see, I'm only a novice at racing, and perhaps I place more importance just now upon a threat of that kind than I shall do a couple of years hence."
"Of course," replied the trainer. "I understand exactly how you feel, sir. It's quite natural. And now here we are, with the missis standing on the steps to help me give you a hearty welcome."
They drove up to the door, and when Carne had alighted he was received by the trainer's wife as her lord and master had predicted. His bedroom he discovered, on being conducted to it to prepare for dinner, was at the back of the house, overlooking the stable-yard, and possessed a lovely view, extending across the gardens and village towards where the Downs ended and the woods of Herberford began.
"A pretty room," he said to Belton, as the latter laid out his things upon the bed, "and very convenient for our purpose. Have you discovered where you are located?"
"Next door, sir."
"I am glad of that; and what room is beneath us?"
"The kitchen and pantry, sir. With the exception of one at the top of the house, there are no other bedrooms on this side."
"That is excellent news. Now get me ready as soon as you can."
During dinner that evening Simon Carne made himself as pleasant as possible to his host and hostess. So affable, indeed, was he that when they retired to rest they confessed to each other that they had never entertained a more charming guest. It was arranged that he should be called at five o'clock on the morning following, in order that he might accompany the trainer to the Downs to see his horse at his exercise.
It was close upon eleven o'clock when he dismissed his valet and threw himself upon his bed with a novel. For upwards of two hours he amused himself with his book; then he rose and dressed himself in the rough suit which his man had put out for him. Having done so, he took a strong rope ladder from his bag, blew out his light, and opened his window. To attach the hooks at the end of the ropes to the inside of the window sill, and to throw the rest outside was the work of a moment. Then, having ascertained that his door was securely locked, he crawled out and descended to the ground. Once there, he waited until he saw Belton's light disappear, and heard his window softly open. Next moment a small black bag was lowered, and following it, by means of another ladder, came the servant himself.
"There is no time to be lost," said Carne, as soon as they were together. "You must set to work on the big gates, while I do the other business. The men are all asleep; nevertheless, be careful that you make no noise."
Having given his instructions, he left his servant and made his way across the yard towards the box where Knight of Malta was confined. When he reached it he unfastened the bag he had brought with him, and took from it a brace and a peculiar shaped bit, resembling a pair of compasses. Uniting these, he oiled the points and applied them to the door, a little above the lock. What he desired to do did not occupy him for more than a minute.
Then he went quietly along the yard to the further boundary, where he had that afternoon noticed a short ladder. By means of this he mounted to the top of the wall, then lifted it up after him and lowered it on the other side, still without making any noise. Instead of dismounting by it, however, he seated himself for a moment astride of it, while he drew on a pair of clumsy boots he had brought with him, suspended round his neck. Then, having chosen his place, he jumped. His weight caused him to leave a good mark on the soft ground on the other side.
He then walked heavily for perhaps fifty yards, until he reached the high road. Here he divested himself of the boots, put on his list slippers once more, and returned as speedily as possible to the ladder, which he mounted and drew up after him. Having descended on the other side, he left it standing against the wall, and hastened across the yard towards the gates, where he found Belton just finishing the work he had set him to do.
With the aid of a brace and bit similar to that used by Carne upon the stable door, the lock had been entirely removed and the gate stood open. Belton was evidently satisfied with his work; Carne, however, was not so pleased. He picked up the circle of wood and showed it to his servant. Then, taking the bit, he inserted the screw on the reverse side and gave it two or three turns.
"You might have ruined everything," he whispered, "by omitting that. The first carpenter who looked at it would be able to tell that the work was done from the inside. But, thank goodness, I know a trick that will set that right. Now then, give me the pads, and I'll drop them by the door. Then we can return to our rooms."
Four large blanket pads were handed to him, and he went quietly across and dropped them by the stable door. After that he rejoined Belton, and they made their way, with the assistance of the ladders, back to their own rooms once more.
Half an hour later Carne was wrapped in a sweet slumber from which he did not wake until he was aroused by a tapping at his chamber door. It was the trainer.
"Mr. Carne," cried Bent, in what were plainly agitated tones, "if you could make it convenient I should be glad to speak to you as soon as possible."
In something under twenty minutes he was dressed and downstairs. He found the trainer awaiting him in the hall, wearing a very serious face.
"If you will stroll with me as far as the yard, I should like to show you something," he said.
Carne accordingly took up his hat and followed him out of the house.
"You look unusually serious," said the latter, as they crossed the garden.
"An attempt has been made to get possession of your horse."
Carne stopped short in his walk and faced the other.
"What did I tell you yesterday?" he remarked. "I was certain that that letter was more than an idle warning. But how do you know that an attempt has been made?"
"Come, sir, and see for yourself," said Bent. "I am sorry to say there is no gainsaying the fact."
A moment later they had reached the entrance to the stable- yard.
"See, sir," said Bent, pointing to a circular hole which now existed where previously the lock had been. "The rascals cut out the lock, and thus gained an entry to the yard."
He picked up the round piece of wood with the lock still attached to it, and showed it to his employer.
"One thing is very certain, the man who cut this hole is a master of his trade, and is also the possessor of fine implements."
"So it would appear," said Carne grimly. "Now what else is there for me to hear? Is the horse much hurt?"
"Not a bit the worse, sir," answered Bent. "They didn't get in at him, you see. Something must have frightened them before they could complete their task. Step this way, sir, if you please, and examine the door of the box for yourself. I have given strict orders that nothing shall be touched until you have seen it."
They crossed the yard together, and approached the box in question. On the woodwork the commencement of a circle similar to that which had been completed on the yard gates could be plainly distinguished, while on the ground below lay four curious shaped pads, one of which Carne picked up.
"What on earth are these things," he asked innocently enough.
"Their use is easily explained, sir," answered the trainer. "They are intended for tying over the horse's feet, so that when he is led out of his box his plates may make no noise upon the stones. I'd like to have been behind 'em with a whip when they got him out, that's all. The double-dyed rascals to try such a trick upon a horse in my charge!"
"I can understand your indignation," said Carne. "It seems to me we have had a narrow escape."
"Narrow escape, or no narrow escape, I'd have had 'em safely locked up in Merford Police Station by this time," replied Bent vindictively. "And now, sir, let me show you how they got out. As far as I can see they must have imagined they heard somebody coming from the house, otherwise they would have left by the gates instead of by this ladder."
He pointed to the ladder, which was still standing where Carne had placed it, and then led him by a side door round to the other side of the wall. Here he pointed to some heavy footmarks upon the turf. Carne examined them closely.
"If the size of his foot is any criterion of his build," he said, "he must have been a precious big fellow. Let me see how mine compares with it."
He placed his neat shoe in one of the imprints before him, and smiled as he noticed how the other overlapped it.
They then made their way to the box, where they found the animal at his breakfast. He lifted his head and glanced round at them, bit at the iron of the manger, and then gave a little playful kick with one of his hind legs.
"He doesn't seem any the worse for his adventure," said Carne, as the trainer went up to him and ran his hand over his legs.
"Not a bit," answered the other. "He's a wonderfully even- tempered horse, and it takes a lot to put him out. If his nerves had been at all upset he wouldn't have licked up his food as clean as he has done."
Having given another look at him, they left him in charge of his lad, and returned to the house.
The gallop after breakfast confirmed their conclusion that there was nothing the matter, and Simon Carne returned to town ostensibly comforted by Bent's solemn assurance to that effect. That afternoon Lord Calingforth, the owner of Vulcanite, called upon him. They had met repeatedly, and consequently were on the most intimate terms.
"Good afternoon, Carne," he said as he entered the room. "I have come to condole with you upon your misfortune, and to offer you my warmest sympathy."
"Why, what on earth has happened?" asked Carne, as he offered his visitor a cigar.
"God bless my soul, my dear fellow! Haven't you seen the afternoon's paper? Why, it reports the startling news that your stables were broken into last night, and that my rival, Knight of Malta, was missing this morning."
"I wonder what they'll say next," he said quietly. "But don't let me appear to deceive you. It is perfectly true that the stables were broken into last night, but the thieves were disturbed, and decamped just as they were forcing the lock of The Knight's box."
"In that case I congratulate you. What rascally inventions some of these sporting papers do get hold of to be sure. I'm indeed glad to hear that it is not true. The race would have lost half its interest if your horse were out of it. By the way, I suppose you are still as confident as ever?"
"Would you like to test it?"
"Very much, if you feel inclined for a bet."
"Then I'll have a level thousand pounds with you that my horse beats yours. Both to start or the wager is off. Do you agree?"
"With pleasure. I'll make a note of it."
The noble Earl jotted the bet down in his book, and then changed the subject by inquiring whether Carne had ever had any transactions with his next door neighbour, Klimo.
"Only on one occasion," the other replied. "I consulted him on behalf of the Duke of Wiltshire at the time his wife's diamonds were stolen. To tell the truth, I was half thinking of calling him in to see if he could find the fellow who broke into the stables last night, but on second thoughts I determined not to do so. I did not want to make any more fuss about it than I could help. But what makes you ask about Klimo?"
"Well, to put the matter in a nutshell, there has been a good deal of small pilfering down at my trainer's place lately, and I want to get it stopped."
"If I were you I should wait till after the race, and then have him down. If one excites public curiosity just now, one never knows what will happen."
"I think you are right. Anyhow, I'll act on your advice. Now what do you say to coming along to the Rooms with me to see how our horses stand in the market? Your presence there would do more than any number of paper denials towards showing the fallacy of this stupid report. Will you come?"
"With pleasure," said Carne, and in less than five minutes he was sitting beside the noble Earl in his mail phaeton, driving towards the rooms in question.
When he got there, he found Lord Calingforth had stated the case very correctly. The report that Knight of Malta had been stolen had been widely circulated, and Carne discovered that the animal was, for the moment, almost a dead letter in the market. The presence of his owner, however, was sufficient to stay the panic, and when he had snapped up two or three long bets, which a few moments before had been going begging, the horse began steadily to rise towards his old position.
That night, when Belton waited upon his master at bedtime, he found him, if possible, more silent than usual. It was not until his work was well-nigh completed that the other spoke.
"It's a strange thing, Belton," he said, "and you may hardly believe it, but if there were not certain reasons to prevent me from being so magnanimous, I would give this matter up, and let the race be run on its merits. I don't know that I ever took a scheme in hand with a worse grace. However, as it can't be helped, I suppose I must go through with it. Is the van prepared?"
"It is quite ready, sir."
"All the furniture arranged as I directed?"
"It is exactly as you wished, sir. I have attended to it myself."
"And what about the man?"
"I have engaged the young fellow, sir, who assisted me before. I know he's quick, and I can stake my life that he's trustworthy."
"I am glad to hear it. He will have need to be. Now for my arrangements. I shall make the attempt on Friday morning next, that is to say, two days from now. You and the man you have just mentioned will take the van and horses to Market Stopford, travelling by the goods train which, I have discovered, reaches the town between four and five in the morning. As soon as you are out of the station, you will start straight away along the high road towards Exbridge, reaching the village between five and six. I shall meet you in the road alongside the third milestone on the other side, made up for the part I am to play. Do you understand?"
"That will do then. I shall go down to the village to-morrow evening, and you will not hear from me again until you meet me at the place I have named. Good-night."
Now, it is a well-known fact that if you wish to excite the anger of the inhabitants of Exbridge village, and more particularly of any member of the Pitman Training Establishment, you have but to ask for information concerning a certain blind beggar who put in an appearance there towards sunset on the Thursday preceding the Derby of 18— and you will do so. When that mysterious individual first came in sight he was creeping along the dusty high road that winds across the Downs from Market Stop ford to Beaton Junction, dolorously quavering a ballad that was intended to be, though few would have recognised it, "The Wearing of the Green."
On reaching the stables he tapped along the wall with his stick, until he came to the gate. Then, when he was asked his business by the head lad, who had been called up by one of the stable boys, he stated that he was starving, and, with peculiar arts of his own, induced them to provide him with a meal. For upwards of an hour he remained talking with the lads, and then wended his way down the hill towards the village, where he further managed to induce the rector to permit him to occupy one of his outhouses for the night.
After tea he went out and sat on the green, but towards eight o'clock he crossed the stream at the ford, and made his way up to a little copse, which ornamented a slight eminence, on the opposite side of the village to that upon which the training stables were situated.
How he found his way, considering his infirmity, it is difficult to say, but that he did find it was proved by his presence there. It might also have been noticed that when he was once under cover of the bushes, he gave up tapping the earth with his stick, and walked straight enough, and without apparent hesitation, to the stump of a tree, upon which he seated himself.
For some time he enjoyed the beauty of the evening undisturbed by the presence of any other human being. Then he heard a step behind him, and next moment a smart-looking stable lad parted the bushes and came into view.
"Hullo," said the new-comer. "So you managed to get here first?"
"So I have," said the old rascal, "and it's wonderful when you come to think of it, considering my age, and what a poor old blind chap I be. But I'm glad to find ye've managed to get away, my lad. Now what have ye got to say for yourself?"
"I don't know that I've got anything to say," replied the boy. "But this much is certain, what you want can't be done."
"And a fine young cockerel you are to be sure, to crow so loud that it can't be done," said the old fellow, with an evil chuckle. "How do you know it can't?"
"Because I don't see my way," replied the other. "It's too dangerous by a long sight. Why, if the Guv'nor was to get wind of what you want me to do, England itself wouldn't be big enough to hold us both. You don't know 'im as well as I do."
"I know him well enough for all practical purposes," replied the beggar. "Now, if you've got any more objections to raise, be quick about it. If you haven't, then I'll talk to you. You haven't? Very good then. Now, just hold your jaw, open your ears, and listen to what I've got to say. What time do you go to exercise to-morrow morning?"
"Very good then. You go down on to the Downs, and the Boss sends you off with Vulcanite for a canter. What do you do? Why, you go steadily enough as long as he can see you, but directly you're round on the other side of the hill you stick in your heels, and nip into the wood that runs along on your right hand, just as if your horse was bolting with you. Once in there, you go through for half a mile until you come to the stream, ford that, and then cut into the next wood, riding as if the devil himself were after you, until you reach the path above Hangman's Hollow. Do you know the place?"
"I reckon I ought to."
"Well, then, you just make tracks for it. When you get there you'll find me waiting for you. After that I'll take over command, and get both you and the horse out of England in such a way that nobody will ever suspect. Then there'll be five hundred pounds for your trouble, a safe passage with the horse to South America, and another five hundred the day the nag is set ashore. There's not as much risk as you could take between your finger and thumb, and a lad with a spirit like yours could make a fortune with a thousand pounds on the other side. What have you to say now?"
"It's all very well," replied the lad, "but how am I to know that you'll play straight with me?"
"What do you take me for?" said the beggar indignantly, at the same time putting his hand in his coat pocket and producing what looked like a crumpled piece of paper. "If you doubt me, there's something that may help to convince you. But don't go showing it around to-night, or you'll be giving yourself away, and that'll mean the Stone Jug for you, and 'Amen' to all your hopes of a fortune. You'll do as I wish now, I suppose?"
"I'll do it," said the lad sullenly, as he crumpled the bank- note up and put it in his pocket. "But now I must be off. Since there's been this fuss about Knight of Malta, the Guv'nor has us all in before eight o'clock, and keeps the horse under lock and key, with the head lad sleeping in the box with him."
"Well, good-night to you, and don't you forget about to-morrow morning; niggle the horse about a bit just to make him impatient like, and drop a hint that he's a bit fresh. That will make his bolting look more feasible. Don't leave the track while there's any one near you, but, as soon as you do, ride like thunder to the place I told you of. I'll see that they're put off the scent as to the way you've gone."
"All right," said the lad. "I don't like it, but I suppose I'm in too deep now to draw back. Good-night."
"Good-night, and good luck to you."
Once he had got rid of the youth, Carne (for it was he) returned by another route to the rector's out-building, where he laid himself down on the straw, and was soon fast asleep. His slumbers lasted till nearly daybreak, when he rose and made his way across country to the small copse above Hangman's Hollow, on the road from Exbridge to Beaton Junction. Here he discovered a large van drawn up, apparently laden with furniture both inside and out. The horses were feeding beneath a tree, and a couple of men were eating their breakfast beside them. On seeing Carne, the taller of the pair—a respectable-looking workman, with a big brown beard—rose and touched his hat. The other looked with astonishment at the disreputable beggar standing before them.
"So you arrived here safely," said Carne. "If anything you're a little before your time. Boil me a cup of tea, and give me something to eat as quickly as possible, for I am nearly famished. When you have done that, get out the clothes I told you to bring with you, and let me change into them. It wouldn't do for any of the people from the village back yonder to be able to say afterwards that they saw me talking with you in this rig out."
As soon as his hunger was appeased he disappeared into the wood, and dressed himself in his new attire. Another suit of clothes, and an apron such as might be worn by a furniture remover's foreman, a grey wig, a short grey beard and moustache, and a bowler hat, changed his identity completely; indeed, when his rags had been hidden in the hollow of a tree, it would have been a difficult matter to have traced any resemblance between the respectable-looking workman eating his breakfast and the disreputable beggar of half an hour before.
It was close upon nine o'clock by this time, and as soon as he realized this Carne gave the order to put the horses to. This done, they turned their attention to the back of the van, and then a strange thing became apparent. Though to all appearances, viewed from the open doors at the end, the inside of this giant receptacle was filled to its utmost holding capacity with chests of drawers, chairs, bedsteads, carpets, and other articles of household furniture, yet by pulling a pair of handles it was possible for two men easily to withdraw what looked like half the contents of the van.
The poorest observer would then have noticed that in almost every particular these articles were dummies, affixed to a screen, capable of being removed at a moment's notice. The remainder of the van was fitted after the fashion of a stable, with a manger at the end and a pair of slings dependent from the roof.
The nervous tension produced by the waiting soon became almost more than the men could bear. Minute after minute went slowly by, and still the eagerly expected horse did not put in an appearance. Then Belton, whom Carne had placed on the look-out, came flying towards them with the report that he could hear a sound of galloping hoofs in the wood. A few seconds later the noise could be plainly heard at the van, and almost before they had time to comment upon it, a magnificent thoroughbred, ridden by the stable boy who had talked to the blind beggar on the previous evening, dashed into view, and pulled up beside the van.
"Jump off," cried Carne, catching at the horse's head, "and remove the saddle. Now be quick with those cloths; we must rub him down or he'll catch cold."
When the horse was comparatively dry he was led into the van, which was to be his stable for the next few hours, and, in spite of his protests, slung in such a fashion that his feet did not touch the floor. This business completed, Carne bade the frightened boy get in with him, and take care that he did not, on any account, neigh.
After that the mask of furniture was replaced, and the doors closed and locked. The men mounted to their places on the box and roof, and the van continued its journey along the high road towards the Junction. But satisfactory as their attempt had so far proved, the danger was by no means over. Scarcely had they proceeded three miles on their way before Carne distinguished the sound of hoofs upon the road behind him. A moment later a young man, mounted on a well-bred horse, came into view, rode up alongside, and signalled to the driver to stop.
"What's the matter?" inquired the latter, as he brought his horses to a standstill. "Have we dropped anything?"
"Have you seen anything of a boy on a horse?" asked the man, who was so much out of breath that he could scarcely get his words out.
"What sort of a boy, and what sort of a horse?" asked the man on the van.
"A youngish boy," was the reply, "seven stone weight, with sandy hair, on a thoroughbred."
"No: we ain't seen no boy with sandy 'air, ridin' of a thoroughbred 'orse seven stone weight," said Carne. "What's 'e been an' done?"
"The horse has bolted with him off the Downs, back yonder," answered the man. "The Guv'nor has sent us out in all directions to look for him."
"Sorry we can't oblige you," said the driver as he prepared to start his team again. "Good day to you."
"Much obliged," said the horseman, and, when he had turned off into a side road, the van continued its journey till it reached the railway station. A quarter of an hour later it caught the eleven o'clock goods train and set off for the small seaside town of Barworth, on the south coast, where it was shipped on board a steamer which had arrived that morning from London.
Once it was safely transferred from the railway truck to the deck, Carne was accosted by a tall, swarthy individual, who, from his importance, seemed to be both the owner and the skipper of the vessel. They went down into the saloon together, and a few moments later an observer, had one been there, might have seen a cheque for a considerable sum of money change hands.
An hour later the Jessie Branker was steaming out to sea, and a military-looking individual, not at all to be compared with the industrious mechanic, who had shipped the furniture van on board the vessel bound for Spain, stood on the platform of the station waiting for the express train to London. On reaching the metropolis he discovered it surging beneath the weight of a great excitement. The streets re-echoed with the raucous cries of the news-vendors:
"The Derby favourite stolen—Vulcanite missing from his stable!"
Next morning an advertisement appeared in every paper of consequence, offering "A reward of Five Hundred Pounds for any information which might lead to the conviction of the person or persons who on the morning of May 28th had stolen, or caused to be stolen, from the Pitman Training Stables, the Derby favourite, Vulcanite, the property of the Right Honourable the Earl of Calingforth."
The week following, Knight of Malta, owned by Simon Carne, Esq., of Porchester House, Park Lane, won the Derby by a neck, in a scene of intense excitement. The Mandarin being second, and The Filibuster third. It is a strange fact that to this day not a member of the racing world has been able to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of one of the greatest horses that ever set foot on an English racecourse.
To-day, if Simon Carne thinks of that momentous occasion, when, amid the shouting crowd of Epsom he led his horse back a winner, he smiles softly to himself, and murmurs beneath his breath:
"Valued at twenty thousand pounds, and beaten in the Derby by a furniture van."