Ronald Welch, Escape From France | Slightly Foxed Cubs

Escape from France | The news from Paris was brief and startling . . .

Share this

I
Cambridge

Richard Carey leant back against the panelled wall and yawned. The sun that streamed through the long windows made him drowsy, and the deep, booming voice of Dr Emmanuel Walker expounding the development of the Greek city states was a soothing sound.

Richard yawned again and tried to fight the pleasant sense of sleepiness that was drifting over him. Through half-closed eyes he inspected the huge portrait of King Henry the Eighth that hung over the dais and above the white head of Dr Walker, a stout and dignified figure in black coat and breeches, one plump hand fluttering gracefully in the air to illustrate some point in his lecture.

Richard’s sleepy glance moved down the hall, over the dark, polished tables and the bent heads of undergraduates, and came to rest on his cousin, Jeffery Standish. Richard half smiled, for Jeffery was scribbling busily, one hand ruffling his fair hair, his forehead crinkled in thought. Richard’s smile broadened; he would bet quite a large sum that Jeffery was not making a careful note of the politics of Pericles; he was probably trying to work out the runners for the races at Newmarket that afternoon.

Richard wriggled himself into a more comfortable position and turned his head to watch Bellamy, sitting at the end of the table. Bellamy was at Richard’s college, a small, thin young man with a pallid, bony face, and a high forehead over which fell his black, untidy hair. He was listening intently to the lecture, one hand moving steadily across the page of his notebook in neat lines of precise writing.

Richard shifted again, and this time he closed his eyes. Cambridge, he decided, was becoming an extremely boring place.

A hand shook his shoulder. ‘Wake up, Richard! Old Walker’s just finished.’

Richard sat up hurriedly and closed his notebook. ‘Hello, Jeffery,’ he said. ‘I must have gone to sleep.’

‘You’ve been snoring for the last half-hour. Come and have a drink in my rooms before we go.’ Richard nodded and pushed his way unceremoniously through the men standing outside the buttery hatches, and out on to the steps and the broad expanse of Trinity Great Court. He was hailed there by a young man in a pea-green coat, very tight breeches and Hessian boots.

‘Hello, Carey. Going to Newmarket?’

‘Yes, Murray. I’m taking Standish,’ Richard said curtly, and eyeing Sir John Murray without much enthusiasm.

‘I say, Carey,’ Murray said, mouthing and broadening his vowels in the fashionable London accent of the day, ‘my stableman tells me that Percival is a good outside bet for the Langley Stakes. Know anything about him, eh?’

‘Ask Standish, he’s the expert,’ Richard said, and he walked on, until he stopped irritably as he felt a hesitant hand touch the sleeve of his coat. He sighed and looked down into the white face of Mr Bellamy.

‘I beg your pardon, Mr Carey,’ and Bellamy smiled nervously, his brown eyes as pleading as those of any spaniel. ‘But I noticed that you had fallen asleep during the lecture. Dr Walker was particularly interesting about the development of the Athenian constitution. Particularly interesting.’

Richard nodded and put on his tall beaver hat, ready to move on. But Bellamy, despite his nervousness, was a persistent young man, and he was accustomed to snubs.

‘I took very full notes, Mr Carey. Very full,’ he said. ‘If they would be of any assistance to you, I would be honoured if you would borrow them. Honoured.’

Richard opened his mouth to deliver one of those biting snubs for which he was notorious in Cambridge. But Bellamy hurried on.

‘Or perhaps I can leave them in your rooms, Mr Carey. Yes, in your rooms.’ There was a loud crack, and Richard glanced down. Bellamy was tugging at the big joints of his fingers, and with each twitch there came another crack.

Richard tried again. ‘If you will excuse me, Bellamy, but I . . .’

‘Going to Newmarket, I expect, Mr Carey? In your new curricle? A beautiful vehicle! Beautiful!’ Another series of cracks, and Bellamy beamed up nervously.

Richard wondered what irritated him most, the little man’s nervous persistence, his infuriating habit of repetition at the end of each sentence, or those nauseating cracks from his finger-joints. Perhaps a swift retreat was the best solution, so he bowed stiffly, and turned away.

‘I say, Carey,’ came Murray’s high-pitched drawl, ‘who’s that odd-looking fellow? Not a friend of yours, surely?’ He made no attempt to lower his voice, even though the unfortunate Bellamy was still standing a few feet away.

‘His name is Bellamy,’ Richard said furiously, still walking quickly. ‘His father is an attorney and handles all our family affairs.’

He turned abruptly, dived through a doorway and clattered up the bare wooden stairs that led to Jeffery’s rooms. Five minutes with Bellamy were tedious enough, but a conversation with a brainless fool like Sir John Murray was more than he could stomach in his present mood.

There were several other men in Jeffery’s room, drinking and talking, but Richard ignored their nods and greetings with crashing rudeness, picked up a filled glass and a newspaper, and crossed to the windows overlooking the court.

The paper would be a week old, if he knew anything of Jeffery, and he looked at the date before he turned to the inside pages: 21 June 1791. Two days old, he thought, as he ran his eye down the paragraphs dealing with foreign affairs.

The news from Paris was brief and startling. King Louis, the Queen and all the Royal family had escaped from Paris and were believed to be making for the German frontier. Already a petition had been submitted to the Assembly for the proclamation of a Republic.

Richard whistled softly. He might sleep through lectures on the constitution of Athens, though he had read far more widely on that subject than many of his friends suspected, but he followed the politics of Europe with an intelligent and well-informed interest.

Well, this would put the cat among the pigeons, he thought. If Louis got clean away, then the extremists in the Assembly would have a free hand, and a wonderful chance to seize power for themselves. And the King, safely over the frontier, would bombard the Powers for help to recover his throne. Austria, for one, would help, and perhaps Prussia too. That would mean war, and England would find it difficult to remain aloof.

Richard pulled out his fob-watch. Time to leave for Newmarket. He wished he could hear his father’s opinion on the news, for Lord Aubigny, with a post in the Government, could have given him a shrewd forecast of what might happen in the next few months.

Anyway, Paris would be in an uproar, Richard thought, as he looked down at the peaceful scene in the court below, the strolling undergraduates, the group of dons chatting by the Porter’s lodge, and the general atmosphere of leisure and tranquillity. Richard tried to remember Paris as he had last seen it, ten years ago as a boy, visiting his French relations. They would be in Normandy probably, unless the Marquis de Vernaye had already emigrated with many of his friends. Richard finished his glass of wine. He was never quite clear about his exact relationship with the Assailly family, for there had been no marriages between them and the Careys for several generations. But the connection was scrupulously maintained, and Richard had a faint suspicion that he was intended by both sides to draw the relationship closer; there had been mutters of cousin Louise, but Richard could barely remember what she looked like, beyond a vague recollection of a dark-haired child who never opened her mouth.

He pushed his watch back in the tight little pocket in his breeches, and called out peremptorily, ‘Come on, Jeffery; time we went!’

He did not wait for any answer but strode through the door. Jeffery shrugged his shoulders, grimaced apologetically to his guests and hurried after his cousin. The other men grinned; they were accustomed to Richard’s manners, which alternated abruptly between downright rudeness and arrogance, and sudden spasms of charm and friendliness.

Ronald Welch, Escape From France | Slightly Foxed Cubs

Richard’s new curricle, the object of Bellamy’s respectful comment, was waiting outside the gates of Trinity. Two undergraduates were admiring it, and Richard ignored them. He did not know them, but they knew him by sight, and he was fully aware of that fact.

The curricle was indeed a beautiful vehicle, the work of a London coachbuilder, with its two wheels, high body and highly polished woodwork, over which Richard ran his eye. A curricle was no vehicle for a beginner to drive, for with its height and speed it would overturn only too easily.

Richard drew on a pair of thin gloves, and climbed up beside Jeffery. ‘Let ’em go, Tom,’ he said curtly to his groom.

The horses leapt forward, and the curricle swayed and jolted over the cobbles; then they were clip-clopping down Trinity Street, while Richard picked his way through the carts and wagons. His irritation had vanished, and he whistled soundlessly as he inserted the curricle between a coach and a phaeton standing by the pavement, slid through the gap with a few inches to spare, and smiled at the startled face of the coachman.

There was little for him to do once they had left Cambridge behind and were rolling smoothly down the straight road to Newmarket. He looked up at the blue sky and the snowy white clouds, and then over the flat countryside around them. He missed the mountains of his native Wales, for he had an eye for beautiful scenery, though he would never have admitted the fact to any of his Cambridge acquaintances. But then there was a great deal that Cambridge did not know about Richard.

Jeffery heard the soft whistling and smiled. He knew his cousin better than most people, and was fond of him too. A pity, he was thinking, that Richard did not show the pleasanter side of his character more often; to his acquaintances – and that was all they were, rather than friends – Richard was arrogant, rude and intolerant of stupidity. But he was respected and men deferred to him; after all, he was Lord Aubigny’s heir, a dangerous man with his hands and weapons, and his searing snubs and biting tongue were feared.

Richard was suddenly conscious that his cousin was silent, a rare state of affairs, for Jeffery was usually extremely talkative. Richard glanced to his side, and his forehead crinkled slightly, for Jeffery’s face was an easy one to read.

‘What’s the trouble, Jeffery?’

Jeffery hesitated; his hands were clenched, the fingers working uneasily. ‘I’ve backed Lyonesse for the Langley Stakes,’ he said.

‘What of it?’ Richard said casually. ‘How much?’

‘Five hundred,’ Jeffery said defiantly.

The horses threw up their heads as Richard’s hand tightened on the reins. He grunted and swung out to pass a well-loaded coach.

‘Where in the devil’s name did you get five hundred pounds from?’ he demanded.

‘I sold out from the Funds.’

Richard nodded. At the age of twenty-one Jeffery had been given control of his share; his father had done so deliberately on the theory that the sooner Jeffery learnt how to handle money the better.

‘But why so much, Jeffery?’

‘I was given odds of ten to one.’

Richard was startled. ‘You stand to win five thousand!’ he said. ‘You must be pretty desperate, Jeffery.’

‘Who said I was desperate?’ Jeffery said. ‘Wouldn’t you pick up five thousand if you had the chance?’

‘If I wanted it badly enough. I think you do. Don’t you?’

He watched his cousin’s hands. Hands could reveal a great deal, he thought.

‘Yes, I’ve got to win this afternoon, Richard.’

Richard saw a narrow lane just ahead on the right, and he swung the curricle across the road and pulled up with a jerk beneath a huge tree.

‘I think it’s time you told me what sort of mess you’ve landed yourself in,’ he said.

Jeffery laughed shrilly. ‘If Lyonesse loses I’m finished,’ he said.

Richard snorted. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ he said sharply. ‘What do you mean, finished? What have you been up to, Jeffery?’

The coach they had just passed rattled by; the outside passengers were singing cheerfully at the prospect of a good day’s racing at Newmarket. Jeffery turned to watch them enviously, and stuffed his shaking hands deep into the pockets of his fawn breeches.

‘It started eighteen months ago,’ he said. ‘In London. I met a Captain Walton at Father’s club. D’you know him, Richard?’

‘Yes, I do. He’s a shark.’

Jeffery nodded gloomily. ‘He’s a pretty hungry one. He took me to a place called Naylor’s. I suppose you’ve heard of it?’

‘I have. You fool! Go on!’

‘Well, I won that night,’ Jeffery said indignantly. ‘Of course you did! They always let the pigeon win at first. And then you lost regularly.’

‘Not every night. They were pretty clever.’

‘Oh, yes, they’re clever,’ Richard said angrily. ‘It’s their profession, after all, and you need some wits if you have to live by them. But you were under twenty-one then, Jeffery. Where did you find the money? Moneylenders?’

‘Yes. Walton introduced me to one. Very accommodating he was, too,’ Jeffery said ruefully. ‘I explained that I wasn’t of age but that I would come into something in a year’s time. They seemed to know that.’

Richard sighed. He was the same age as his cousin, but Jeffery’s pitiful little tale made him feel many years older.

‘How do you think money-lenders live?’ he asked. ‘Well, you borrowed, and then you began to sell when you were of age. Didn’t you clear yourself?’

‘No, Walton egged me on, and last summer, when you were down at Llanstephan, I lost night after night. I’m not a very good gambler, you know, Richard.’

‘You aren’t,’ Richard said bluntly. ‘Have you got anything left?’

‘Not a penny.’

Richard turned to his cousin. ‘But why didn’t you tell me?’ he asked.

‘You’re not the easiest of people to confide in, Richard, are you?’ Jeffery said quietly.

Richard opened his mouth to protest. Then he paused, and began to turn the curricle. ‘No, I suppose I’m not,’ he said. For a moment he had seen himself as he appeared to others, and the picture was not a pleasant one.

‘Well, I want some food before the races start,’ he said. ‘Uncle Robert doesn’t know anything of this, of course?’

‘No. Father doesn’t know.’

‘Well, I can’t help you,’ Richard said. ‘I’ve no capital of my own yet, but I can let you have something from my allowance.’

‘That won’t go far,’ Jeffery said. ‘Anyway, Lyonesse will win.’

‘He’ll have to,’ Richard said grimly. ‘Here’s Newmarket, at last.’

They drove slowly down the long main street of the little town, crowded already with carriages and horses, and Richard manoeuvred his curricle into the yard of the White Hart, three-quarters filled with chaises, curricles, phaetons and every conceivable variety of carriage.

Richard hailed an ostler, who recognized him as a frequent visitor.

‘Take my horses, Will.’

‘In a minute, Mr Carey.’ ‘Now,’ Richard said, ‘or it’s the last tip you get from me.’

‘But these are Lord Dawnay’s horses I’m looking after, Mr Carey!’

‘I don’t care if they belong to the Sultan of Turkey,’ Richard said. He jumped down, thrust the reins into the ostler’s hands and marched into the inn. The ostler scratched his head, but as Jeffery looked back from the door he saw the man backing Richard’s curricle into a vacant place.

A clatter of dishes and a smell of cooking greeted them inside the inn, and the landlord hurried up as he saw Richard.

‘Good morning, Mr Carey. The coffee-room is full at the moment. A glass of wine while you wait?’

Richard pulled out his watch. ‘I sent my man over last week to reserve me a table at one o’clock,’ he said. ‘It’s one now, and there’s an empty table by the door. Mr Standish and I will take that, Plowden.’

Plowden rubbed his hands together uneasily. ‘But I have just given that table to two other gentlemen, Mr Carey.’

‘Then they’ll have to wait, won’t they?’ Richard said, pulling back one of the chairs. ‘Two tankards of beer, please, Plowden, and some of that beef.’

A hand fell on Richard’s shoulder and twisted him round.

‘And who the devil do you think you are?’ a voice demanded. ‘That’s my table, and Major Morlock of the 52nd doesn’t take a back seat to a couple of young sprigs from Cambridge.’

Richard caught the hand on his shoulder and pulled it down slowly and without any apparent effort. But the other winced and rubbed his wrist. He was a florid-faced man, very well dressed – perhaps a trifle too well dressed to Richard’s critical eye, who wondered if this fellow had ever really seen the inside of the officers’ mess of the 52nd. Morlock hesitated for a moment as he inspected Richard with the practised skill of a man who makes his living by summing up young men of Richard’s type. He noticed the cut of the coat and breeches, the powerful shoulders, the chilly grey eyes that were watching him, and the general attitude of arrogance and self-confidence. But he had been drinking, and he was in no mood for caution.

‘Look here . . .’ he began, when another man caught his elbow and pulled him away hastily.

‘There’s an empty place over there, Morlock,’ he said. ‘Come and have a drink while the waiter lays the table.’ As they went out of the room, Jeffery caught the end of their conversation. ‘Don’t you know young Carey, Morlock? Aubigny’s son. He’s no pigeon. Tanner had an argument with him last month and finished with a broken nose. Damn your eyes and take that, is . . .’

Jeffery smiled ruefully as he watched Richard eating. His cousin took all this so much for granted. One day he would find himself in trouble, and that, Jeffery thought, might be no bad thing.

‘Come on, eat up,’ Richard said briskly. ‘Do you good!’

‘I feel as sick as a dog,’ Jeffery confessed.

‘You’ll feel worse if Lyonesse loses.’ Richard put down his tankard. ‘What will you do?’

‘Run for it.’

‘Don’t be a fool. Tell Uncle Robert.’

‘Would you?’ Jeffery asked.

Richard grunted. Jeffery was probably right. Sir Robert Standish was a kindly and affectionate father, but he would be furious when he heard how Jeffery had squandered his money. And he was a rigid Churchman with a horror of gambling; his icy rage could be frightening, and Richard could guess the effect on Jeffery, with his obstinacy and quick temper. He was quite capable of running for it, and goodness knows where he might finish.

They reached the Heath with an hour to spare before the start of the Langley Stakes, and Richard found a man to look after his horses, brushed the dust from his boots, adjusted his cravat and tried not to feel uneasy. Jeffery’s strained face, the nervous clenching and unclenching of his hands were having their effect on his cousin, too.

‘Let’s have a look at Lyonesse,’ Jeffery said, and he pushed his way through the crowd towards the enclosure.

‘Looks fit enough, doesn’t he?’ Jeffery asked.

Richard inspected the big grey and nodded, his spirits rising slightly. Perhaps Jeffery had picked a winner, after all.

‘Backing him, Carey?’ a voice asked.

Richard turned and bowed respectfully as he saw Lord Surridge, a friend of his father and a noted and successful breeder of bloodstock.

‘What do you think of him, sir?’ he asked, and Jeffery, despite his anxiety, smiled broadly at the note in his cousin’s voice. For Richard did possess one virtue: he was invariably polite to his elders.

The old gentleman rubbed his nose reflectively. ‘Well bred,’ he said slowly. ‘In beautiful condition. But will he stay the distance, eh?’ and he nodded to Richard and strolled away.

‘He’ll stay all right,’ Jeffery said, but there was a tinge of doubt in his voice.

‘Sure to,’ Richard said encouragingly, though he had never felt less certain of anything. Lord Surridge was too much of an expert on horses for his liking.

They found a place in the stand from where they could see the finish, and Jeffery shifted restlessly from one foot to the other as the horses went down to the start.

‘The odds have shortened,’ he said. ‘Lyonesse is the favourite. They usually know, Richard.’

‘They certainly do,’ Richard said heartily, wondering how often a heavily backed favourite had failed to win. Both races that afternoon had been won by long-priced horses.

‘They’re off!’ Jeffery said.

‘No,’ Richard murmured, and there was another wait in the distance as the horses circled and gradually formed up into a line.

‘Doesn’t that starter know his business?’ Jeffery said. ‘There’s Lyonesse on the left. Lucky he’s a grey. We can see him all the way.’

A roar went up from the crowd, and the line of horses swept forward.

‘Can’t see him,’ Jeffery muttered. ‘Boxed in, isn’t he?’

‘I don’t know,’ Richard said. ‘And don’t twist my arm off, Jeffery.’

The horses were bunched into one small group now as they came up the long straight, still so far away that they seemed to be trotting, so slowly did they approach.

‘There he is,’ Jeffery whispered into Richard’s ear. ‘Lying third.’

The pace seemed to quicken as the horses neared the stands, and the crowd began to bellow.

‘Three furlongs to go,’ Jeffery said, and his voice rose to a shrill scream as the grey shot to the front, and began to draw away. Richard was pushed aside, and only by standing on tiptoe could he see the race, while Jeffery jumped and waved his hat, his mouth wide open, his face red with excitement and the effort of shouting his horse home.

The roar of the crowd suddenly died down, and a single stentorian voice could be heard, yelling, ‘Percival wins! Percival wins!’

Richard felt his mouth go dry, and he was quite unaware of Jeffery’s hand clutching his wrist as a black horse crept past Lyonesse, gaining at every stride, until the grey disappeared in the group of horses behind.

Extract from Escape from France © Ronald Welch 1960
Illustrations © William Stobbs 1960


Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Distraction-free
reading mode