Текст книги

George Henty
The Queen's Cup

The Queen's Cup
George Henty

G. A. Henty

The Queen's Cup

Chapter 1

A large party were assembled in the drawing room of Greendale, Sir John Greendale's picturesque old mansion house. It was early in September. The men had returned from shooting, and the guests were gathered in the drawing room; in the pleasant half hour of dusk when the lamps have not yet been lighted, though it is already too dark to read. The conversation was general, and from the latest news from India had drifted into the subject of the Italian belief in the Mal Occhio.

"Do you believe in it, Captain Mallett?" asked Bertha, Sir John's only child, a girl of sixteen; who was nestled in an easy chair next to that in which the man she addressed was sitting.

"I don't know, Bertha."

He had known her from childhood, and she had not yet reached an age when the formal "Miss Greendale" was incumbent upon her acquaintances.

"I do not believe in the Italian superstition to anything like the extent they carry it. I don't think I should believe it at all if it were not that one man has always been unlucky to me."

"How unlucky, Captain Mallett?"

"Well, I don't know that unlucky is the proper word, but he has always stood between me and success; at least, he always did, for it is some years since our paths have crossed."

"Tell me about it."

"Well, I have no objection, but there is not a great deal to tell.

"I was at school with—I won't mention his name. We were about the same age. He was a bully. I interfered with him, we had a fight, and I scored my first and only success over him. It was a very tough fight—by far the toughest I ever had. I was stronger than he, but he was the more active. I fancied that it would not be very difficult to thrash him, but found that I had made a great mistake. It was a long fight, and it was only because I was in better condition that I won at last.

"Well, you know when boys fight at school, in most cases they become better friends afterwards; but it was not so here. He refused to shake hands with me, and muttered something about its being his turn next time. Till then he had not been considered a first-rate hand at anything; he was one of those fellows who saunter through school, get up just enough lessons to rub along comfortably, never take any prominent part in games, but have a little set of their own, and hold themselves aloof from school in general.

"Once or twice when we had played cricket he had done so excellently that it was a grievance that he would not play regularly, and there was a sort of general idea that if he chose he could do most things well. After that fight he changed altogether. He took to cricket in downright earnest, and was soon acknowledged to be the best bat and best bowler in the school. Before that it had been regarded as certain that when the captain left I should be elected, but when the time came he got a majority of votes. I should not have minded that, for I recognised that he was a better player than I, but I fancied that he had not done it fairly, for many fellows whom I regarded as certain to support me turned round at the last moment.

"We were in the same form at school. He had been always near the bottom; I stood fairly up in it, and was generally second or third. He took to reading, and in six weeks after the fight won his way to the top of the class and remained there; and not only so, but he soon showed himself so far superior to the rest of us that he got his remove to the form above.

"Then there was a competition in Latin verses open to both forms. Latin verse was the one thing in which I was strong. There is a sort of knack, you know, in stringing them together. A fellow may be a duffer generally and yet turn out Latin verse better than fellows who are vastly superior to him on other points. It was regarded as certain that I should gain that. No one had intended to go in against me, but at the last moment he put his name down, and, to the astonishment of everyone, won in a canter.

"We left about the same time, and went up to Oxford together, but to different Colleges. I rowed in my College Eight, he in his. We were above them on the river, but they made a bump every night until they got behind us, and then bumped us. He was stroke of his boat, and everyone said that success was due to his rowing, and I believe it was. I did not so much mind that, for my line was chiefly sculling. I had won in my own College, and entered for Henley, where it was generally thought that I had a fair chance of winning the Diamonds. However, I heard a fortnight before the entries closed that he was out on the river every morning sculling. I knew what it was going to be, and was not surprised when his name appeared next to mine in the entries.

"We were drawn together, and he romped in six lengths ahead of me, though curiously enough he was badly beaten in the final heat. He stroked the University afterwards. Though I was tried I did not even get a seat in the eight, contrary to general expectation, but I know that it was his influence that kept me out of it.

"We had only one more tussle, and again I was worsted. I went in for the Newdigate–that is the English poetry prize, you know. I had always been fond of stringing verses together, and the friends to whom I showed my poem before sending it in all thought that I had a very good chance. I felt hopeful myself, for I had not heard that he was thinking of competing, and, indeed, did not remember that he had ever written a line of verse when at school. However, when the winner was declared, there was his name again.

"I believe that it was the disgust I felt at his superiority to me in everything that led me to ask my father to get me a commission at once, for it seemed to me that I should never succeed in anything if he were my rival. Since then our lives have been altogether apart, although I have met him occasionally. Of course we speak, for there has never been any quarrel between us since that fight, but I know that he has never forgiven me, and I have a sort of uneasy conviction that some day or other we shall come into contact again.

"I am sure that if we meet again he will do me a bad turn if possible. I regard him as being in some sort of way my evil genius. I own that it is foolish and absurd, but I cannot get over the feeling."

"Oh, it is absurd, Captain Mallett," the girl said. "He may have beaten you in little things, but you won the Victoria Cross in the Crimea, and everyone knows that you are one of the best shots in the country, and that before you went away you were always in the first flight with the hounds."

"Ah, you are an enthusiast, Bertha. I don't say that I cannot hold my own with most men at a good many things where not brains, but brute strength and a quick eye are the only requisites, but I am quite convinced that if that fellow had been in the Redan that day, he would have got the Victoria Cross, and I should not. There is no doubt about his pluck, and if it had only been to put me in the shade he would have performed some brilliant action or other that would have got it for him. He is a better rider than I am, at any rate a more reckless one, and he is a better shot, too. He is incomparably more clever."

"I cannot believe it, Captain Mallett."

"It is quite true, Bertha, and to add to it all, he is a remarkably handsome fellow, a first-rate talker, and when he pleases can make himself wonderfully popular."

"He must be a perfect Crichton, Captain Mallett."

"The worst of it is, Bertha, although I am ashamed of myself for thinking so, I have never been able to divest myself of the idea that he did not play fair. There were two or three queer things that happened at school in which he was always suspected of having had a hand, though it was never proved. I was always convinced that he used cribs, and partly owed his place to them. I was jealous enough to believe that the Latin verses he sent in were written for him by Rigby, who was one of the monitors, and a great dab at verses. Rigby was a great chum of his, for he was a mean fellow, and my rival was always well supplied with money, and to do him justice, liberal with it.

"Then, just before we left school, he carried off the prize in swimming. He was a good swimmer, but I was a better. I thought myself for once certain to beat him, but an hour before the race I got frightful cramps, a thing that I never had before or since, and I could hardly make a fight at all. I thought at the time, and I have thought since, that I must have taken something at breakfast that disagreed with me horribly, and that he somehow put it in my tea.

"Then again in that matter of the Sculls at Henley. I never felt my boat row so heavily as it did then. When it was taken out of the water it was found that a piece of curved iron hoop was fixed to the bottom by a nail that had been pushed through the thin skin. It certainly was not there when it was on the rack, but it was there when I rowed back to the boathouse, and it could only have got there by being put on as the boat was being lowered into the water. There were three or four men helping to lower her down—two of them friends of mine, two of them fellows employed at the boathouse. While it lay in the water, before I got in and took my place, anyone stooping over it might unobserved have passed his hand under it and have pushed the nail through.

"I never said anything about it. I had been beaten; there was no use making a row and a scandal over it, especially as I had not a shadow of proof against anyone; but I was certain that he was not so fast as I was, for during practice my time had been as nearly as possible the same as that of the man who beat him with the greatest ease, and I am convinced that for once I should have got the better of him had it not been for foul play."

"That was shameful, Captain Mallett," Bertha said, indignantly. "I wonder you did not take some steps to expose him."

"I had nothing to go upon, Bertha. It was a case of suspicion only, and you have no idea what a horrible row there would have been if I had said anything about it. Committees would have sat upon it, and the thing would have got into the papers. Fellows would have taken sides, and I should have been blackguarded by one party for hinting that a well-known University man had been guilty of foul practices.

"Altogether it would have been a horrible nuisance; it was much better to keep quiet and say nothing about it."

"I am sure I could not have done that, Captain."

"No, but then you see women are much more impetuous than men. I am certain that after you had once set the ball rolling, you would have been sorry that you had not bided your time and waited for another contest in which you might have turned the tables fairly and squarely."

"He must be hateful," the girl said.

"He is not considered hateful, I can assure you. He conceived a grudge against me, and has taken immense pains to pay me out, and I only trust that our paths will never cross again. If so, I have no doubt that I shall again get the worst of it. At any rate, you see I was not without justification when I said that though I did not believe in the Mal Occhio, I had reason for having some little superstition about it."

"I prophesy, Captain Mallett, that if ever you meet him in the future you will turn the tables on him. Such a man as that can never win in the long run."

"Well, I hope that your prophecy will come true. At any rate I shall try, and I hope that your good wishes will counterbalance his power, and that you will be a sort of Mascotte."

"How tiresome!" the girl broke off, as there was a movement among the ladies. "It is time for us to go up to dress for dinner, and though I shan't take half the time that some of them will do, I suppose I must go."

Captain Mallett had six months previously succeeded, at the death of his father, to an estate five miles from that of Sir John Greendale. His elder brother had been killed in the hunting field a few months before, and Frank Mallett, who was fond of his profession, and had never looked for anything beyond it save a younger son's portion, had thus come in for a very fine estate.

Two months after his father's death he most reluctantly sent in his papers, considering it his duty to settle down on the estate; but ten days later came the news of the outbreak of the Sepoys of Barrackpoor, and he at once telegraphed to the War Office, asking to be allowed to cancel his application for leave to sell out.

So far the cloud was a very small one, but rumours of trouble had been current for some little time, and the affair at least gave him an excuse for delaying his retirement.

Very rapidly the little cloud spread until it overshadowed India from Calcutta to the Afghan frontier. His regiment stood some distance down on the rota for Indian service, but as the news grew worse regiment after regiment was hurried off, and it now stood very near the head of the list. All leave had not yet been stopped, but officers away were ordered to leave addresses, so that they could be summoned to join at an hour's notice.

When he had left home that morning for a day's shooting with Sir John, he had ordered a horse to be kept saddled, so that if a telegram came it could be brought to him without a moment's delay. He was burning to be off. There had at first been keen disappointment in the regiment that they were not likely to take part in the fierce struggle; but the feeling had changed into one of eager expectation, when, as the contest widened and it was evident that it would be necessary to make the greatest efforts to save India, the prospect of their employment in the work grew.

For the last fortnight expectation had been at its height. Orders had been received for the regiment to hold itself in readiness for embarkation, men had been called back from furlough, the heavy baggage had been packed; and all was ready for a start at twenty-four hours' notice. Many of the officers obtained a few days' leave to say goodbye to their friends or settle business matters, and Frank Mallett was among them.

"So I suppose you may go at any moment, Mallett?" said the host at the dinner table that evening.

"Yes, Sir John, my shooting today has been execrable; for I have known that at any moment my fellow might ride up with the order for me to return at once, and we are all in such a fever of impatience, that I am surprised I brought down a bird at all."