Authors: The Dream Hunter
The Dream Hunter
Copyright © 1994, 2013 Hedgehog Inc
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
Equine cover photo by Nancy Pierce.
“What do you suppose they did to the poor devil?”
“Beheaded him, I expect,” Viscount Winter said indifferently. “If the mob didn’t stone him to death.”
“Good God.” Sir John Cottle gazed with distracted anguish at the viscount, who sat beneath a stately row of ceiling-high windows, his long legs stretched out at ease and a decanter of sherry at his side. In what reading light was available in the cheerless fog of a December afternoon, Lord Winter’s face had an elegant severity, the unyielding, impenetrable look common among men to whom sun and distance are familiar companions. The austerity of his expression was accentuated by a pair of very dark and diabolic eyebrows, high cheekbones and an uncompromising set to the mouth and jaw. A number of books from the club’s fine collection were piled about him on the table and the floor.
Sir John cast an unseeing glance over such titles as
Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.S.
on the Arctic Shores; Voyages Dans L’Amerique Sud;
Around Cape Horn: Scenes, Incidents and Adventures of the Passage from the Journal of Captain W. M. Alexander.
His mind was not in the club library, or on books, but full of barbaric and violent scenes of the East. He turned in distress toward his sporting companion Lord Gresham. “I feel responsible. He was a Christian, even if he did come from Naples. Perhaps we oughtn’t to pursue the thing, Gresham.”
“Nonsense.” Lord Gresham’s thin cheeks were flushed with high color. “The Italian claimed he could pass himself off as a Mohammedan. We paid him a king’s ransom—if he didn’t know his business, there you are! We lost our money, he lost his life.”
“Beheaded, for God’s sake! I just don’t know if—”
“You want the horse, don’t you?” Lord Gresham fixed Sir John with a determined stare.
“Yes! God, yes.” Sir John chewed his mustache, his pale blue eyes troubled. “But to send a second man to his death—” He looked to the viscount, who had already turned his attention back to his books, evidently more interested in taking notes than in following the conversation. “What do you think, Winter?”
The viscount did not raise his eyes from his writing. “If he didn’t know what the stakes were, your Italian was a fool,” he remarked.
“But can it be done at all?” Sir John demanded. “The fellow had been in the East for years.”
“He spoke Arabic like a native,” Lord Gresham added, “and God knows he looked like one.”
Lord Winter glanced up from his book, a slight smile curling the corner of his mouth. “How do you know?”
Both men gazed at him. “Well,” Sir John said, “he put on all his Bedouin gear to show us. A turban, and so on.”
“A turban!” Viscount Winter lifted one eyebrow, shook his head, and turned back to his notes.
Sir John sent a fulminating glare at Lord Gresham. “I told you we should have consulted Winter in the first place!” he exclaimed, his savagery at odds with his plump, pleasant face. “How should we be able to judge whether the man really knew what he was about?”
“Well, we’re consulting him now,” Lord Gresham said tightly. “That’s the devil of the thing, Winter. We need better direction. Someone in Cairo, or Damascus, to hunt down the proper agent to go into the desert for us and get hold of the animal. But the consuls are determined to put any stupid obstacle in our way. We hoped you might recommend a name.”
Lord Winter raised his eyes. Their deep cobalt blue made a startling effect against his black lashes and suntanned skin. “You’re wasting your time and money, gentlemen. I very much doubt this horse exists.”
“We have a paper—” Sir John began.
“From your ill-fated Italian?” the viscount interposed. “A pedigree, perhaps? Unbroken line back to the stables of Solomon, the truth attested by white-haired sheiks—that sort of thing?”
“Well, yes. Rather that sort of thing.”
“May I sell you a flying carpet?” Lord Winter asked politely.
Sir John made an inarticulate protest. Lord Gresham said, “If you would read it—”
“Oh, I have no doubt it is a very pretty fairy tale. No Bedui in the desert will lie about a horse’s bloodline, because they all know every horse as they know their own mothers—but for your consumption, gentlemen, they will enthusiastically perjure themselves in high poetry on paper: signed, sealed and thrice blessed by Allah. How much did you pay the Italian?”
“A thousand,” Lord Gresham said frankly. “Yes, yes, I know you take us for nincompoops, Winter, but the thing is, the paper didn’t come from the Italian.” He lowered his voice. “I got it from my brother-in-law at the Foreign Office. It came in a packet intercepted at Jeddah, mixed up with some secret documents or other.” He waved his hand vaguely. “Turks and Egyptians, troop movements, you know the sort of thing. Palmerston’s interested in ‘em, God bless the poor devil. But he don’t care about horses, and after they got it translated, and decided it wasn’t some sort of code, he told Harry he could throw the paper on the fire if he pleased.”
The disinterested expression in Lord Winter’s eyes vanished; he looked keenly at the two avid sportsmen who sought him out. “Where is this paper?”
Lord Gresham immediately produced a well-worn document, bound in rough cord, from his inner pocket. Wordlessly he handed it to the viscount.
Lord Winter scanned the flowing Arabic script. The club library was silent while the other two men leaned forward, waiting. He finished the document, rolled it and handed it back, his face expressionless. “Once again, I strongly suggest that you save your money and your time.”
“You think it’s a farrago?” Lord Gresham asked.
“No, I think it’s true.” The viscount’s mouth hardened. “That is a message to a man named Abbas Pasha. He’s a nephew of the Viceroy of Egypt, and desert horses are his passion. He is a young prince who conducts himself very much in the tradition of Genghis Khan—anyone who deceived him on the subject of horses could expect to find hot irons promptly applied to the soles of his feet.”
“Then this mare called the String of Pearls does exist! And she’s lost somewhere in the Arabian peninsula. There must be a suitable agent who could undertake to search her out. If you could just advise us as to what sort of man we need and where to find him.”
“That letter says a faster horse has never lived, Winter!” Sir John said, all in a glow. “You’ll have heard that Gresh and I bought Nightwind last year. He’s lightning! By Jove, he’s trounced every horse he’s raced—and he’s hot-blooded too, just three generations from this same Eastern line. There’s not a thoroughbred mare in the country can measure up to him, but if we can obtain this String of Pearls and breed back to the desert blood, I know we’ll have a cross the like of which the world has never seen.”
“We’ll spare nothing to locate her,” Lord Gresham declared.
“There is not the remotest hope that you can locate her,” the viscount said with finality, leaning back in his chair and reopening his book. “Believe me.”
“But if you say it must be true, that letter—”
Sir John looked up, his voice breaking off quickly as an elegant gentleman paused at Lord Winter’s chair. “Naturally I would find you here,” the man said coldly.
Viscount Winter’s face did not visibly change, but he put aside his book and rose, not requiring to look behind him to identify his father. “It is merely the Travellers’ Club,” he said, offering his hand to the Earl Belmaine. “Hardly a brothel.”
The earl ignored the greeting and gave Lord Winter’s companions a curt nod. He looked remarkably like his son, but for the well-bred whiteness of his face and hands, and the thinner build of a man who made far fewer demands on his physical strength. His lip curled in disgust as he inspected the volumes scattered about the viscount’s chair. “May I have the honor of a private word?”
“As you please,” Lord Winter said.
“A nauseating place,” the earl said, leading his son to a secluded corner of the library.
“Resign,” Lord Winter suggested cordially.
“And lose my last means of holding converse with my cherished heir? I daresay I should forget what you looked like. I believe your mother already has.”
“No such luck,” his cherished heir remarked. “She managed to bag me neatly in Piccadilly just last week, with one of her singularly tedious debutantes in tow.”
“I collect that she is reduced to meeting you in the street,” the earl snapped, “as you have not seen fit to call on her at home!”
“Alas, my courage fails me.” Lord Winter gave his father a dry glance. “It’s not as if we should have anything to talk about, after all. I am not interested in what she served at her last ball supper, or which girl she particularly desires me to marry, and she is not interested in anything about me but my defects. A topic which is too well-worn, you may be sure, to require further discussion.”
“I should think that the natural affection of a son for his mother—”
“Yes, we are all agreed, long ago, that I am an entirely unnatural son!” the viscount interposed with an edge of impatience. “I’ll have my profile taken in silhouette. She may hang it in her parlor, and point it out to her acquaintance in proof of my existence,”
“Very attentive of you,” the earl said ironically. “But I’ve not sought you out to compliment you on your celebrated courtesy to your mother. I’ve just come from the board room of the Royal Geographical Society.” He reached inside his coat. “You will be pleased to be the first to see the names listed for Captain Ross’s expedition to the Antarctic.”
Viscount Winter’s expression changed subtly. He stood looking at his father. The earl tossed two folded pages onto a table between them.
They lay half open. H.M.S.
one was headed; H.M.S.
the other, with a list of names beneath each. Lord Winter had no need to read them. His name would not be on either.
“I believe I recall that today is your birthday,” the earl said. “My gift to you.”
Still Lord Winter said nothing. A remote, blank aspect had come into his face, a look of bitter reserve.
His father was goaded into further speech. “I calculate that you must be thirty-one today. If I had a grandson, he would be ten years old.”
Lord Winter’s mouth tightened. His dark lashes lowered.
“If I had my grandson,” the earl said softly, “you might have made your grave in the ice of Antarctica with my blessing. Or in the sands of your precious Arabian desert, or in some stinking jungle—any barbaric place you may care to kill yourself.”
With deliberate leisure, Viscount Winter lifted the expedition lists from the table. He held them in his hand with an alarming gentleness. There were several other club members scattered in the far corners of the library. They glanced up, and then lowered their heads zealously over their books. Sir John and Lord Gresham diligently engaged themselves in a dispute over the quality of the club sherry.