It began with a cable sent to me at the Towers by his portliness the Prince of Wales. “squire,” he instructs, “perdita is lost stop make haste to marsh at egerton newmarket stop do your damnedest stop national importance stop pow”.
I related the content to my Fanny (Lady Frances – Ed.).
“It is most terse”, says she, “One might have thought that his Highness would be more explicit.”
“You are quite right, my dear,” I replied, “he could have sprung the extra five bob for another couple of lines. It’s not as if he is short of a quid, after all. I know that perdita is Latin and that she or it is lost, but I’m quite sure there aren’t any marshes round Newmarket. National importance? What can he be on about?”
John, my loyal valet, still clutching the salver, hem-hemmed.
“I suggest, Sir, that his Highness is referring to his mare Perdita, who is stabled at the yard of a Mr Marsh at Egerton House in Newmarket. The mare was the progenitor of his Highness’ colt Persimmon who has not been without success on the Turf, Sir.”
“Ye mean Persimmon that won the Derby last year, John?” says I.
“Not just the Derby, Sir. He also won the St Leger and left the field for dead in the Gold Cup only last month.”
“You seem to know a good deal about this nag, John. You don’t follow the Turf do you?”
“The colt has been hard to overlook, Sir. There has been much interest in the popular papers.”
“You have not, I trust, been gambling, John?” snapped Fanny. The factotum hem-hemmed some more and muttered something about the occasional flutter.
“The horse is much fancied for The Eclipse Stakes next month,” he concluded.
“Well then, John,” says I, “you’d better pack my traps and get me over to Newmarket.”
The master criminal
Thus it was that I found myself the following day following Dick Marsh into his study at the Egerton House racing yard in Newmarket.
Marsh gave me the essentials as we walked from the gig. The Prince’s mare Perdita, dam of the famous colt Persimmon, had been spirited from her stall in Marsh’s yard. A groom had been left unconscious in the raid and a note pinned to the stable door which he handed to me:
“If Persimmon runs the Eclipse the mare will be returned to his Highness in pieces. You have been warned.”
“Is that it?” I asked once I had swallowed the alarm that the missive caused to rise in my throat.
“No ransom? No demand?”
“There’s no need,” says Marsh, “Persimmon is 12/100 on for the Eclipse. Second favourite is Velasquez at 50/1; the rest of the field, and there are only two, are 66/1. Word from the Silver Ring is that some very heavy money has been put on Velasquez. At those odds if we pull Persimmon someone is going to make a small fortune.”
“Correction,” interjects another voice, “someone is going to make a large fortune.”
I looked round. Present, besides myself and Marsh, were three other chaps. Two of whom I recognised at once. The first with some horror. Slouched in a chair was my old nemesis, Mannion, the top spook from the Foreign & Colonial Office, who has embroiled me in more than one ghastly adventure before now, and who responded to my squawk of alarm with the growled assertion that, beyond the money, national security might well be at stake in the affair.
“And, more importantly, royal security,” he added. “It is her majesty’s Diamond Jubilee after all, and a strike against the Prince of Wales could have ramifications for the Queen. And if this is the work of the man I fear might be involved, anything is possible.”
“And who is that?” I asked.
“His name is Worth. He’s been out of circulation for a while doing a five stretch in Ostend but until they nabbed him over there he ran most of the crime in London. And Paris, as a matter of fact. And New York come to that.”
“Does he steal horses?”
“It’s not his usual style but there is precious little he hasn’t nicked or, more especially, arranged for others to nick. But his gangs have mostly broken up since he’s been away so he may be more hands-on than usual. We know he’s pulled a couple of jobs since he’s been back but this sort of high-profile caper is right up his alley.”
“Is he known to be violent by any chance?” I enquired.
“Not as a rule,” says Mannion, “but a Belgian gaol is no walk in St. James’, Squire Fortesque, and he usually has some muscle along. I doubt he’d have managed the mare alone, anyhow.”
A prince in a tight spot
“She’s skittish at the best of times, she’ll be next to unmanageable just now, I shouldn’t wonder,” said the second cove, whom I recognised as Billy Bower, vet to HRH the PoW at Sandringham. He’d treated some of my hunters at home – and the odd dog – in the past. Until he was recruited to the Sandringham payroll, that is. I couldn’t afford his fees after that. Billy did himself very nicely thank you these days, but for all he was looking strained right now.
“Hello there, Billy,” I says, “what makes you say that?”
The question was answered by the third fellow – a little chap with a cracking black eye and a matching lump on his brow, whom Marsh introduced as one Tom Evans, the groom who had been responsible for the mare and who had been coshed by the raiders.
“Well, Squire Fortesque,” says Evans, “she be’n a ‘andful at the best o’ times, she be among strangers now, so she’s afear’t. An’, obviously, she’s expectin’.”
“The horse is in foal!” I goggled. “She’s gone missing and she’s in pup to boot? How far along?”
“She’s due any day,” says Billy Bower, “hard to say exactly. May even be over. That’s why I was here. I foaled Persimmon and the Prince himself sent me down to see to this one too. If it’s anything like its brother it could be another winner.”
“So they’ve got two for the price of one,” says Mannion.
“What if the Prince pulls Persimmon from the Stakes?” I asked.
“If the colt is pulled there will be a riot. Well odds-on he may be but that colt has the public’s money on his back and they want to see him run. If the Prince won’t scratch, our boys will be out of pocket in a big way and then we’ll get the ransom demand I expect. It’ll be bigger, I’m guessing, but it’ll come.”
“And if the Prince pays up?” I suggest.
“He can’t,” says Mannion, “it’s bound to get out. Royalty dealing with criminals? Scandal would be unmanageable. No, Squire, I’m afraid we must get the mare back in one piece – and quick – or the Prince gets her back slowly and in several. And we’d never see the foal. Worth will have that away before we can blink and probably have it winning the Triple himself in a couple of years.”
“And where will he have taken the mare, Mannion, do ye think?”
Mannion thought for a moment. “I doubt, Squire Fortesque, that he’ll take her far. In fact, I doubt they’ll even leave the area. Where better to hide a horse than right here in town? It will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. I fear he’s got all the cards.”
“And what do we have?” I croaked.
“Why, Squire Fortesque,” says Billy Bower, clapping his hands, “we have you!”
A damned poor liar
I did not, I admit, share his confidence. I needed time to think. “We need some sort of pointer as to where they have taken the mare. Perhaps Evans here can show me the stable?”
We left the others and as Evans led me across the yard I asked him to relate his memories of the attack. “I never saw ‘ought, Squire. They mus’ ‘ave crep’ up on me from be’ind. An’ when I comes to, well, the mare is gawn.” I looked at him and a thought struck me.
As we reached the stall I grabbed the man’s collar and forced him up against the door. “You’re a liar, Evans,” says I, “and a damned poor one. Now tell me what is really going on and be quick about it or you’ll be facing the Prince’s wrath on your tod.”
“Honest, Squire,” squeaks he, “I was watchin’ ‘er real close an’ I never saw nuttin’ after they puts me lights out.”
“If they crept up on you from behind, Evans, how come you have a black eye and a bruised brow? Either you saw them coming in which case you know more than you are telling or, as I suspect, you are in cahoots with them and – after helping them get the mare away – you bashed your own head into the wall for effect. So what is it to be? Where’s the mare? Cough up, man, or I’ll turn you over to Mannion and he won’t ask nicely like I do.”
It was a wild guess, I grant you, but in my limited experience horse thieves do tend to bash chaps from behind whereas a chap bashing his own head against a brick wall will do it forwards. Don’t ask me why. They just do.
Evans went limp in my fists and there were tears running down his face as he spilled the beans.
“They got my sister Betty, Squire. They snatched ‘er from the cottage we share across the yard.” He pointed to an apartment above the coach house in the mews behind Egerton House.
“They’s holdin’ ‘er an’ all. Told me they’d do for ‘er if’n I didn’t ‘elp ‘em. I ‘ad no choice, Squire! I ‘ad to ‘elp ‘em or they were goin’ to do in my Betty. I don’ know where they have her. Or the mare.”
I let him go and he slumped against the wall snivelling some more and pawing at his tears. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Criminal masterminds, as Mannion had described this Worth as being, tend to have more of a plan than smash and grab; and a man on the inside – and under duress – tends to give the raiders an edge. And, of course, a hostage into the bargain when it comes to any confrontation.
On the other hand, holding a woman as well as the mare might just have given us a chance of finding both. I turned back to Evans who was blowing his nose and wiping his face with his sleeve. I took a gentler tone.
Hunting with the best pointers in the land
“Meet me back here as soon as you can, Tom, and bring me something of your sister’s. A ‘kerchief or a scarf. Something she has worn recently. And bring me any scent she wears too. Quickly now.”
“Why do you want Betty’s things, Squire? I don’t…..”
“Don’t argue, man.” I snapped, “Just do as I say. Snap to it!”
I returned to the house where Mannion, Marsh and Billy Bower were waiting and gave them the news.
“So, gentlemen, we are no longer looking for a horse but a woman. Mr Marsh, you are a sporting man, I presume, who keeps the best dogs in the district? I said we needed a pointer but a brace will do better.”
Mannion was looking confused – just like a townie – but Billy and Marsh caught my drift in a nonce. “Why, Squire, you’re a marvel,” cries Marsh. “My own dogs are the best in the county. They’ll point a partridge in a field of neeps from a hundred paces, on my honour, and follow a scent to hell itself.”
“Well, break ‘em out, Mr Marsh, break ‘em out! And saddle us some mounts! Come, gentlemen, the game’s afoot! Tally-ho!!”
Evans had returned by the time we had mustered horses and hounds and brought with him a silk scarf and a scent bottle. I sniffed the scarf and caught a waft. Nice, actually – the perfume had an elegance to it. Not the daub of a cheap trollop, that’s for sure. The bottle matched. Marsh called the dogs – a fine brace of English pointers – across to the coach house door. I dabbed the scarf with scent and waved it under their muzzles.
“Seek ‘er out then, boys,” says Marsh, “Hai lorst!”
The dogs paused for a moment, casting about, first one and then t’other slapped their noses to the cobbles and dashed off. We sprang to the saddle like Yorick and clattered after them.
Mannion had been right. The rustlers had not taken Perdita very far. If the best place to hide a horse is a town full of horses, the last place you expect to look for a stolen horse in a town full of horses is scarce three streets away. Then again, if you are leading a stolen horse about the place in the middle of the night, I imagine you don’t want to go far, do you?
Thus it was that no more than a few minutes away Marsh, Mannion, Billy Bower and I reined up behind two pointers who were locked solid, paws aloft and tails straight before a tall, closed gate. Mannion was out of the saddle calling to Marsh and Billy to hold the animals and in an instant had his back against the upright, spying through the hinge.
“Squire!!” he hisses, “There’s a light in the barn across the way. Take this. Now give me your boot.”
He cupped his hands and a moment later I found myself astride the top of the gate, with a rent in my britches, my tackle in a tangle and a revolver in my fist. I reached down and felt his steely grip on my wrist. I heaved and the upshot was that the pair of us ended up in a heap in the yard. Mannion with a grunt and me with another great rending of tweed. We crawled across to the window and peered in.
Bound and gagged
By the glow of the lantern within we could see the great mare Perdita in a stall stamping and tossing. At her head was a great brute of a man holding her bridle and trying to quiet the horse.
Sat on a stool at some remove was a dapper little chap, about my own age I should venture, but my attention was inevitably drawn to the party of the fourth part, bound and gagged as she was on a chair by the wall. Betty Evans was obviously something of a thoroughbred herself. From the raven hair that cascaded behind her to the flashing eyes above the gag and the curves that were only accentuated by the ropes about her person, it was manifest that she was an odds-on filly and clearly the bookies’ favourite.
“Squire,” whispers Mannion, “you take care of the ugly. I want Worth.”
“Worth would be the big chap then?” croaks I, in reply.
Mannion’s response was to take two steps back and put his shoulder to the door which gave with a great crash. He went in like a terrier after rats dodging round the big fellow even as Worth slid out through a side door. Which left me and Goliath. I pointed the pistol but he simply swatted it away and sent it rattling into a corner. Then he grasped my throat and began to shake me very thoroughly, strangling the while. “Led-be-do-or-id-ill-ee-de-wuss-or-u-u-arse-tud!” was all I could manage as the world began to spin and the lights began to go out. Then the horse took a hand. Or more properly a hoof. Or two hoofs. A pair of iron size nines came out of the plug’s left field and caught him smack in the ribs and he simply disappeared from view. One second he was there throttling the life out of me and the next he was in a heap by the wall clutching a handful of broken ribs and retching into the straw. I retrieved the pistol and it was the work of a moment then to free the girl and send her to open the gate and fetch Billy Bower to see to the horse while I covered Goliath – and gave him a good boot while she was gone to keep him quiet. The mare was still tossing and stamping and whinnying fit to raise the roof.
A royal delivery
Mannion returned with a face like thunder and was shaking his head to indicate that Worth had made good his escape when Bower came through the shattered door and yelled, “The foal! Great heavens! The foal is coming!”
And that, readers dear, is the tale of the tumultuous birth of the Prince of Wales’ other famous colt, Diamond Jubilee, who went on to win the Triple Crown and the Derby and more besides. He was a noted kicker – probably got that from his mother – and had a notorious distrust of strangers, which makes you wonder if the chap Darwin mayn’t have a point. Oh, and his big brother Persimmon romped home in the Eclipse, by the by.
I went to see the foal the next day at Egerton House. He was lying in a stall beside his mother and Betty Evans was stroking his velvety nose. She looked up as I approached.
“Squire,” says she, “you truly are the sportingest man in England. You saved the mare and her little one. You saved the Prince’s reputation and freed my brother from suspicion of complicity in this ghastly affair.”
I harrumphed a bit and said something about it all being in a day’s work or some such nonsense. She took my hand and led me towards the hay store.
“But most of all, Squire,” she continues, “you saved me. From who knows what fate at the hands of those rascals. How can I ever thank you?”
I harrumphed some more as her hand slid to my neck. I caught a whiff of that scent again. Elegant and alluring.
“I am merely glad that your ordeal is finished, dear lady,” I said. And I felt her lips brush mine.
“Rumour has it, Squire Fortesque,” she whispered as she pulled me down among the fragrant strands, “that you are also a very strong finisher.”