The King saw that blaze of light and color over course and stands that he knew so well by this time; he felt the pressure round him of his foreign rivals as they reared and pulled and fretted and passaged; the old longing quivered in all his eager limbs, the old fire wakened in all his dauntless blood; like the charger at sound of the trumpet-call, he lived in his past victories, and was athirst for more. But yet—between him and the sunny morning there seemed a dim, hazy screen; on his delicate ear the familiar clangor smote with something dulled and strange; there seemed a numbness stealing down his frame; he shook his head in an unusual and irritated impatience; he did not know what ailed him. The hand he loved so loyally told him the work that was wanted of him; but he felt its guidance dully too, and the dry, hard, hot earth, as he struck it with his hoof, seemed to sway and heave beneath him; the opiate had stolen into his veins and was creeping stealthily and surely to the sagacious brain, and over the clear, bright senses.
The signal for the start was given; the first mad headlong rush broke away with the force of a pent-up torrent suddenly loosened; every instinct of race and custom, and of that obedience which rendered him flexible as silk to his rider’s will, sent him forward with that stride which made the Guards’ Crack a household word in all the Shires. For a moment he shook himself clear of all the horses, and led off in the old grand sweeping canter before the French bay, three lengths in the one single effort.
Then into his eyes a terrible look of anguish came; the numb and sickly nausea was upon him, his legs trembled, before his sight was a blurred, whirling mist; all the strength and force and mighty life within him felt ebbing out, yet he struggled bravely. He strained, he panted, he heard the thundering thud of the first flight gaining nearer and nearer upon him; he felt his rivals closing hotter and harder in on him; he felt the steam of his opponent’s smoking, foam-dashed withers burn on his own flanks and shoulders; he felt the maddening pressure of a neck-to-neck struggle; he felt what in all his victorious life he had never known—the paralysis of defeat.
The glittering throngs spreading over the plains gazed at him in the sheer stupor of amazement; they saw that the famous English hero was dead-beat as any used-up knacker.
One second more he strove to wrench himself through the throng of the horses, through the headlong crushing press, through—worst foe of all!—the misty darkness curtaining his sight! One second more he tried to wrestle back the old life into his limbs, the unworn power and freshness into nerve and sinew. Then the darkness fell utterly; the mighty heart failed; he could do no more—and his rider’s hand slackened and turned him gently backward; his rider’s voice sounded very low and quiet to those who, seeing that every effort was hopeless, surged and clustered round his saddle.