by H.H. Munro (SAKI)
“Starling Chatter and Oakhill have both dropped back in the betting,” said Bertie van Tahn, throwing the morning paper across the breakfast table.
“That leaves Nursery Tea practically favourite,” said Odo Finsberry.
“Nursery Tea and Pipeclay are at the top of the betting at present,” said Bertie, “but that French horse, Le Five O’Clock, seems to be fancied as much as anything. Then there is Whitebait, and the Polish horse with a name like some one trying to stifle a sneeze in church; they both seem to have a lot of support.”
“It’s the most open Derby there’s been for years,” said Odo.
“It’s simply no good trying to pick the winner on form,” said Bertie; “one must just trust to luck and inspiration.”
“The question is whether to trust to one’s own inspiration, or somebody else’s. Sporting Swank gives Count Palatine to win, and Le Five O’Clock for a place.”
“Count Palatine–that adds another to our list of perplexities. Good morning, Sir Lulworth; have you a fancy for the Derby by any chance?”
“I don’t usually take much interest in turf matters,” said Sir Lulworth, who had just made his appearance, “but I always like to have a bet on the Guineas and the Derby. This year, I confess, it’s rather difficult to pick out anything that seems markedly better than anything else. What do you think of Snow Bunting?”
“Snow Bunting?” said Odo, with a groan, “there’s another of them. Surely, Snow Bunting has no earthly chance?”
“My housekeeper’s nephew, who is a shoeing-smith in the mounted section of the Church Lads’ Brigade, and an authority on horseflesh, expects him to be among the first three.”
“The nephews of housekeepers are invariably optimists,” said Bertie; “it’s a kind of natural reaction against the professional pessimism of their aunts.”
“We don’t seem to get much further in our search for the probable winner,” said Mrs. de Claux; “the more I listen to you experts the more hopelessly befogged I get.”
“It’s all very well to blame us,” said Bertie to his hostess; “you haven’t produced anything in the way of an inspiration.”
“My inspiration consisted in asking you down for Derby week,” retorted Mrs. de Claux; “I thought you and Odo between you might throw some light on the question of the moment.”
Further recriminations were cut short by the arrival of Lola Pevensey, who floated into the room with an air of gracious apology.
“So sorry to be so late,” she observed, making a rapid tour of inspection of the breakfast dishes.
“Did you have a good night?” asked her hostess with perfunctory solicitude.
“Quite, thank you,” said Lola; “I dreamt a most remarkable dream.”
A flutter, indicative of general boredom; went round the table. Other people’s dreams are about as universally interesting as accounts of other people’s gardens, or chickens, or children.
“I dreamt about the winner of the Derby,” said Lola.
A swift reaction of attentive interest set in.
“Do tell us what you dreamt,” came in a chorus.
“The really remarkable thing about it is that I’ve dreamt it two nights running,” said Lola, finally deciding between the allurements of sausages and kedgeree; “that is why I thought it worth mentioning. You know, when I dream things two or three nights in succession, it always means something; I have special powers in that way. For instance, I once dreamed three times that a winged lion was flying through the sky and one of his wings dropped off, and he came to the ground with a crash; just afterwards the Campanile at Venice fell down. The winged lion is the symbol of Venice, you know,” she added for the enlightenment of those who might not be versed in Italian heraldry. “Then,” she continued, “just before the murder of the King and Queen of Servia I had a vivid dream of two crowned figures walking into a slaughter-house by the banks of a big river, which I took to be the Danube; and only the other day–”
“Do tell us what you’ve dreamt about the Derby,” interrupted Odo impatiently.
“Well, I saw the finish of the race as clearly as anything; and one horse won easily, almost in a canter, and everybody cried out ‘Bread and Butter wins! Good old Bread and Butter.’ I heard the name distinctly, and I’ve had the same dream two nights running.”
“Bread and Butter,” said Mrs. de Claux, “now, whatever horse can that point to? Why–of course; Nursery Tea!”
She looked round with the triumphant smile of a successful unraveller of mystery.
“How about Le Five O’Clock?” interposed Sir Lulworth.
“It would fit either of them equally well,” said Odo; “can you remember any details about the jockey’s colours? That might help us.”
“I seem to remember a glimpse of lemon sleeves or cap, but I can’t be sure,” said Lola, after due reflection.
“There isn’t a lemon jacket or cap in the race,” said Bertie, referring to a list of starters and jockeys; “can’t you remember anything about the appearance of the horse? If it were a thick-set animal, this bread and butter would typify Nursery Tea; and if it were thin, of course, it would mean Le Five O’Clock.”
“That seems sound enough,” said Mrs. de Claux; “do think, Lola dear, whether the horse in your dream was thin or stoutly built.”
“I can’t remember that it was one or the other,” said Lola; “one wouldn’t notice such a detail in the excitement of a finish.”
“But this was a symbolic animal,” said Sir Lulworth; “if it were to typify thick or thin bread and butter surely it ought to have been either as bulky and tubby as a shire cart-horse; or as thin as a heraldic leopard.”
“I’m afraid you are rather a careless dreamer,” said Bertie resentfully.
“Of course, at the moment of dreaming I thought I was witnessing a real race, not the portent of one,” said Lola; “otherwise I should have particularly noticed all helpful details.”
“The Derby isn’t run till to-morrow,” said Mrs. de Claux; “do you think you are likely to have the same dream again to-night? If so; you can fix your attention on the important detail of the animal’s appearance.”
“I’m afraid I shan’t sleep at all to-night,” said Lola pathetically; “every fifth night I suffer from insomnia, and it’s due to-night.”
“It’s most provoking,” said Bertie; “of course, we can back both horses, but it would be much more satisfactory to have all our money on the winner. Can’t you take a sleeping-draught, or something?”
“Oakleaves, soaked in warm water and put under the bed, are recommended by some,” said Mrs. de Claux.
“A glass of Benedictine, with a drop of eau-de-Cologne–” said Sir Lulworth.
“I have tried every known remedy,” said Lola, with dignity; “I’ve been a martyr to insomnia for years.”
“But now we are being martyrs to it,” said Odo sulkily; “I particularly want to land a big coup over this race.”
“I don’t have insomnia for my own amusement,” snapped Lola.
“Let us hope for the best,” said Mrs. de Claux soothingly; “to-night may prove an exception to the fifth-night rule.”
But when breakfast time came round again Lola reported a blank night as far as visions were concerned.
“I don’t suppose I had as much as ten minutes’ sleep, and, certainly, no dreams.”
“I’m so sorry, for your sake in the first place, and ours as well,” said her hostess; “do you think you could induce a short nap after breakfast? It would be so good for you–and you might dream something. There would still be time for us to get our bets on.”
“I’ll try if you like,” said Lola; “it sounds rather like a small child being sent to bed in disgrace.”
“I’ll come and read the Encyclopaedia Britannica to you if you think it will make you sleep any sooner,” said Bertie obligingly.
Rain was falling too steadily to permit of outdoor amusement, and the party suffered considerably during the next two hours from the absolute quiet that was enforced all over the house in order to give Lola every chance of achieving slumber. Even the click of billiard balls was considered a possible factor of disturbance, and the canaries were carried down to the gardener’s lodge, while the cuckoo clock in the hall was muffled under several layers of rugs. A notice, “Please do not Knock or Ring,” was posted on the front door at Bertie’s suggestion, and guests and servants spoke in tragic whispers as though the dread presence of death or sickness had invaded the house. The precautions proved of no avail: Lola added a sleepless morning to a wakeful night, and the bets of the party had to be impartially divided between Nursery Tea and the French Colt.
“So provoking to have to split out bets,” said Mrs. de Claux, as her guests gathered in the hall later in the day, waiting for the result of the race.
“I did my best for you,” said Lola, feeling that she was not getting her due share of gratitude; “I told you what I had seen in my dreams, a brown horse, called Bread and Butter, winning easily from all the rest.”
“What?” screamed Bertie, jumping up from his sea, “a brown horse! Miserable woman, you never said a word about it’s being a brown horse.”
“Didn’t I?” faltered Lola; “I thought I told you it was a brown horse. It was certainly brown in both dreams. But I don’t see what the colour has got to do with it. Nursery Tea and Le Five O’Clock are both chestnuts.”
“Merciful Heaven! Doesn’t brown bread and butter with a sprinkling of lemon in the colours suggest anything to you?” raged Bertie.
A slow, cumulative groan broke from the assembly as the meaning of his words gradually dawned on his hearers.
For the second time that day Lola retired to the seclusion of her room; she could not face the universal looks of reproach directed at her when Whitebait was announced winner at the comfortable price of fourteen to one.