Bolt - Dick Francis

ONE

Bitter February, within and without. Mood to match the weather; raw and overcast, near to freezing. I walked from the weighing room to the parade ring at Newbury races trying not to search for the face that wouldn’t be there, the intimately known face of Danielle de Brescou, to whom I was formally engaged, diamond ring and all.

Winning the lady, back in November, had been unexpected, an awakening, deeply exciting … happy. Keeping her, in the frosts before spring, was proving the merry devil. My much loved dark haired young woman seemed frighteningly to be switching her gaze from a steeplechase jockey (myself) to an older richer sophisticate of superior lineage (he was a prince) who hadn’t even the decency to be bad looking.

Unmoved as I might try to appear on the surface, I was finding the frustration erupting instead in the races themselves, sending me hurtling over the fences without prudence, recklessly embracing peril like a drug to blot out rejection. It might not be sensible to do a risky job with a mind two hundred miles from one’s fingertips, but tranquillisers could come in many forms.

Princess Casilia, unaccompanied by Danielle, her husband’s niece, was waiting as usual in the parade ring, watching her runner, Cascade, walk round. I went across to her, shook the offered hand, made the small bow, acknowledging her rank.

‘A cold day,’ she said in greeting, the consonants faintly thick, vowels pure and clear, the accent only distantly reminiscent of her European homeland.

‘Yes. Cold,’ I said.

Danielle hadn’t come. Of course she hadn’t. Stupid of me to hope. She’d said cheerfully on the telephone that she wouldn’t be coming to stay this weekend, she would be going to a fabulous Florentine gathering in a hotel in the Lake District with the prince and some of his friends, where they would listen to lectures on the Italian Renaissance given by the Keeper of the Italian paintings in the Louvre, and various other things of that sort. It was such a great and unique opportunity, she was sure I’d understand.

It would be the third weekend in a row she’d been sure I would understand.

The princess looked distinguished as always, middle-aged, slender, intensely feminine, warm inside a supple sable coat swinging from narrow shoulders. Normally bareheaded, dark smooth hair piled high, she wore on that day a tall Russian-type fur hat with a huge up-turning fur brim, and I thought fleetingly that few could have carried it with more style. I had ridden her string of twenty or so horses for more than ten years and I tended to know her racegoing clothes well. The hat was new.

She noted the direction of my glance and the admiration that went with it, but said merely, ‘Too cold for Cascade, do you think?’

‘He won’t mind it,’ I said. ‘He’ll loosen up going down to the start.’

She wouldn’t mention Danielle’s absence, if I didn’t. Always reticent, sheltering her thoughts behind long eyelashes, the princess clung to civilised manners as if to a shield against the world’s worst onslaughts, and I’d been in her company enough not to undervalue her chosen social façades. She could calm tempests with politeness, defuse lightning with steadfast chitchat and disarm the most pugnacious adversaries by expecting them to behave well. I knew she would prefer me to keep my woes to myself, and would feel awkward if I didn’t.

She did, on the other hand, understand my present predicament perfectly well. Not only was Danielle her husband’s niece, but Litsi, the prince currently diverting Danielle to a fifteenth-century junket, was her own nephew.

Litsi, her nephew, and Danielle, her husband’s