Although the public were not told of it at the time — had they been they would probably only have laughed, for people were very sceptical with regard to the supernatural in those days—the Grand National was once won by a ghost. And this is how it happened…
Jim Sumborne and I were best pals. We were at Clifton together, and on leaving the school we went to the same Army crammer, and were both plucked for Sandhurst. It was then Jim proposed we should try the turf. “Look here, Charlie,” he said, “if we are duffers at everything else, you and I can ride a bit, and, being on the lean side, with careful training we could easily trim down to the requisite weight. A gentleman jock’s life is far preferable to emigrating to Canada or the States. What say you?”
Of course, I agreed. I always did when Jim proposed anything, and the following week we made a fresh start, working morning, noon, and night in the riding school and gymnasium. This time success attended us. We had only just become fairly proficient, when we fell in with an old Cliftonian who kept a racing stud in Ireland, and, as he was then looking out for a couple of jockeys, he took us both on, the result being that, within the year, we had each won our first race. The following year we did even better, and the year after we repeated our successes at Goodwood, Doncaster, Kempton, and Newmarket, establishing a record that made us both prime favourites for the National.
So far everything had gone swimmingly. Then, quite suddenly, our luck changed. I had a nasty tumble when riding Firefly in the City and Suburban; and Jim married. Of course had Jim married a different sort of girl all might have been well; but, from what I was told—for Fate willed it that, just about the time Jim first met his future wife, I was taken to the hospital half-dead, and did not see her till some time after the marriage, not indeed until after the incident I am about to relate had taken place — he could not have made a more unsuitable match. When I was convalescent, Tom Barnes, a friend we had in common, came to see me.
“Charlie,” he said, “between you and me I don’t think things are going too smoothly with your pal, Jim.”
“Not going too smoothly with Jim?” I replied, sitting bolt upright with a vigour that made me wince. “Why ever not? What do you mean?”
“Now, don’t get excited, mate, ” he said (Tom was a kind chap, a rough diamond of the old school of jockeys, but a diamond, all the same), “and I’ll tell you all about it. It’s that wife of his. She’s jealous, and not ordinary jealous, but jealous in a queer sort of way. She envies Jim his popularity. I found it all out through my missus. She said that when she went to call on Mrs. Sumborne the other day she showed her Jim’s portrait in the paper, and, instead of being pleased, she was furious, and didn’t half swear either, and look vicious about the eyes and mouth.”
“Well, I never!” I exclaimed, ” very peculiar.”
“And there’s more—” Tom stammered, looking a trifle uncomfortable. “You know Harry Nash?”
“Lord Clanburn’s jockey, the one that rode Whitebait .Yes, what of him?”
“Some people say he’s —how shall I put it? — well, he’s nice-looking,” Tom replied, “but although he’s well-bred and educated like you and Jim, he’s got a way with women I don’t like. He’s been courting your pal’s missus, and folk say——”
“Well, what do they say?” I said fiercely.
“Why,” Tom blurted out, “they say that Mrs. Sumborne is head over heels in love with Nash, and that, unless Jim acts mighty smart, he’ll find one fine morning the stable door open and the mare gone.”
“So, it’s common property that Jim’s wife intends to elope with Nash eh?” I said.
“Well, what can I do? What can anyone do in a matter between husband and wife?”
“You can warn him, Charlie,” Tom replied.”You are his chum, and he’ll take notice of what you say. Listen. It’s the National as you know, in three day’s time. Well, someone overheard Mrs. Sumborne telling young Nash that if he won—you know Grasshopper, the horse he’s riding stands a pretty fair chance—or, at any rate, beat Jim, she would run off with him then and there.”
“The cad!” I cried.
“Aye, that he is,” Tom echoed, “we can’t let Jim’s old winner get beaten by this Grasshopper. You must tell Jim to ride on Thursday as he’s never ridden before. You must put him on his guard, too, make sure he isn’t nobbled.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “You think it’s likely?”
“I don’t mean to say nothing. Only accidents do occasionally happen before races, especially when there is something pretty big—not always money, mind you—at stake.”
“I see,” I said, “I’ll do my best, Tom. You may rest assured of that.”
Well, I did. I tried to get out of hospital that very evening; but it was no go, and it was not until the eve of the great race that I managed to elude doctor and nurse and escape to my digs in Windsor. By the time I reached home, however, I ached all over and longed for bed. But somehow I couldn’t rest. I kept thinking of Jim, and for the thousandth time I was wishing I could get in touch with him, when the slow and solemn striking of a clock in the hall informed me it was midnight. Making a supreme effort, I got up, lighted a candle and dragged myself upstairs to my room. I had put the candle on the dressing-table, and was proceeding to divest myself of my tie and collar, when a feeling of faintness suddenly overcame me, and I sank helplessly back in my chair. How long I remained in that state I cannot say; but on opening my eyes, the first thing I saw was the reflection of something white in the mirror confronting me. At first I was startled, and then, as the truth slowly dawned on me, I laughed. It was, of course, only the reflection of my own face. I tried to remove my gaze from it and go on undressing, but I found I could not. A strange, compelling influence held me in its grip. And then a curious thing happened. The reflection of my own face and my own room faded away, and I found myself gazing at a strange room, in the centre of which was a table, and seated at it Jim. It was not, however, quite the same Jim. There was something different about him, though what I could not at first determine. Then I suddenly realised it was his expression. He was no longer young and debonnair; he seemed oddly old and care-worn. A bottle of brandy and a tumbler stood by him on the table, and he was about to raise the tumbler to his lips, when something, apparently, made him lower the glass and look sharply round. As he did so a hand, obviously a woman’s, suddenly appeared and emptied the contents of a packet into the tumbler. The whole picture then faded away, and I found myself staring at my own white and terror-stricken countenance. I got up, and, hastily undressing blew out the candle and scrambled into bed. But I kept on seeing Jim, Jim and the hand which fascinated and repelled me. There was something about it, something in the long, abnormally long, and very white fingers, with their curiously club-shaped tips and crimson, over-manicured nails, that were so indescribably cruel and wicked that I felt I should recognise its material counterpart anywhere, and that I could pick it out, even from among a million. Awake and asleep, I kept seeing it all through the night, and in the morning I determined to set off, as soon as possible, to see Jim and put him on his guard. But again Fate intervened. I missed the early morning train, and it was close on eleven before I got there. Jim occupied an unpretentious villa close to the railway station, and, in answer to my inquiry for him, I was shown by the maid into the drawing-room. Concluding that he was in, and congratulating myself on having caught him, presumably in the very nick of time, I was turning over in my mind what to say, when the door opened, and a tall, fair, and very handsomely gowned woman sailed into the room. “I am sorry, Mr. Jones,” she said, holding out her hand, “but Jim has just gone out. You have missed him by about — Why, what’s
I could not reply. I stood spellbound, staring at her outstretched hand, at her long, abnormally long fingers, ablaze with rings, and at her crimson, over-manicured, spatulate nails. “Are you Jim’s wife?” I stuttered, forcing my glance upwards.
“Yes,” she said, coldly, withdrawing her hand, “I am. Jim is not well. He has not been well for some time, and I was anxious he should not race today; but he insisted on doing so, and I’ve worried about him a good deal.”
“But, what’s wrong with him?” I faltered, my gaze wandering involuntarily to her hands again.
“Heart trouble,” was the reply.
“Heart trouble!” I cried. “Impossible! Jim’s heart was as sound as a rock only a short time ago.” I looked her right in the eyes as I spoke, and I fancied she had some difficulty in returning my gaze.
“Well, his heart’s affected now,” she said, “and he won’t have a doctor. But do sit down.” I shook my head. There was something about the woman that repelled me horribly. I felt instinctively she was capable of anything once her animosity and innate passion were aroused, and I hated, loathed, and abominated her hands.
“Thank you; no,” I said. “I’m in a tearing hurry. I have some important business to attend to.”
Pretending not to see the hand she proffered me, I bowed myself out, and was soon speeding on my way to the course. Arriving there as the great race was about to start, I was elbowing my way through the crowd, when I collided with Tom Barnes. His broad, good-natured face beamed. “I think it’s all right about Jim,” he whispered. ” He gave me a bit of a fright when I saw him early this morning, all shaken and hurrying, he looked so white and distressed. I asked what ailed him, and he said, ‘Spasms; If they come on again before the race I’m done’; but I met him about a hour ago, looking more like himself, and he assured me he was all right. I haven’t seen him since.” Tom then moved off.
As it was now near the time for the race, and it seemed no longer imperative that I should see Jim before the start, I looked around for the best point of vantage, and presently, espying someone I knew on the roof of a coach close to the judge’s stand, I scrambled up to join him, with as much celerity as my crippled limbs would allow. I watched with the keenest excitement for Jim, and a thrill ran through me as I at length saw him in his green and mauve colours come riding over the course. He was the last to leave the paddock, and I fancied Harry Nash gave a start in his saddle as his eyes fell on him.
“Great Scot!” my friend on the box exclaimed. “If that isn’t Jim Sumborne! Why, I heard only a few minutes ago that he wasn’t riding. He had been taken suddenly ill, or something.”
“Damn!” a well-dressed woman at our rear exclaimed, with great emphasis. “That
means I’ve lost. Grasshopper won’t stand a chance now.”
The next moment there was a loud huzza, and the race started. Grasshopper led. To my intense surprise and grief Lightning Flash was behaving like a novice. She kicked and plunged and reared, and seemed to have thoroughly made up her mind not to run at all. Then, while half the crowd were booing and hissing, she suddenly came to herself again, and, giving a mighty spring forward, was off after the rest of the horses. Grasshopper still led. At the turn she was several lengths in front, and it looked a dead certainty she would come in first. Being as fond of Jim as I was, I can tell you I almost wept. A few seconds later, however, when there seemed absolutely no hope, Lightning Flash pulled up, as I have never seen a horse pull up, either before or since, and when she had overtaken and passed one after the other of the racers, till there was not one left between her and her rival, for the second time the unlooked-for happened. She was getting closer and closer to Grasshopper, and had actually come to within a head of her, when suddenly Nash looked round. I saw him deliberately turn in his saddle, and as he looked, with a white and startled face at Jim, Grasshopper stumbled and threw him, and Lightning Flash came in a clear winner by at least a dozen lengths. As soon as it was all over I made my way to the paddock and looked everywhere for Jim, but there was no sign of him. Someone suggested that he might be in one of the dressing-rooms, and thither I immediately wended my way, and at length found him. He was seated in a chair, leaning far back, and the sunlight, as it struggled in through the dust-begrimed skylight overhead, made him appear a sickly, ghastly white. A man in a black frock-coat and tall silk hat was standing by his side holding his hand and gazing with a very queer expression, so I thought, into his face.
“What’s the matter?” I inquired. “Is he ill?”
“No,” was the reply. “He is not ill. He is dead.”
“Dead!” I gasped. “Jim dead! I don’t believe it. Why, it is only a few minutes ago since he—he won the race.”
“So you may think,” the man in black said solemnly, “but I can assure you, as a professional man of many years’ experience, that Mr. Sumborne is dead. He has been dead for at least one hour.”