The people looked at them all the more because Seaman was still prancing, but without unseating his mistress, who held him at any gait or any degree of swiftness that pleased her.
“What a good seat you have!” said Henri.
“That is the first real compliment you ever have paid me. I shall appropriate it immediately, before you have time to retract it,” Zibeline replied.
At the circle of Melezes, Henri proposed to turn to the right, in order to reach Longchamp.
“A flat race! You are joking!” Zibeline cried, turning to the left, toward the road of La Vierge,
“You don’t intend that we shall run a steeplechase, I hope.”
“On the contrary, that is exactly my intention! You are not afraid to try it, are you?”
“Not on my own account, but on yours.”
“You know very well that I never am daunted by any obstacle.”
“Figuratively, yes; but in riding a horse it is another matter.”
“All the more reason why I should not be daunted now,” Zibeline insisted.
When they arrived at the public square of the Cascades, in front of the Auteuil hippodrome, she paused a moment between the two lakes, uncertain which course to take.
It was Thursday, the day of the races. The vast ground, enclosed on all sides by a fence, had been cleared, since early morning, of the boards covering the paths reserved for pedestrians on days when there was no racing; but it was only eleven o’clock, and the place was not yet open to the paying public. Several workmen, in white blouses, went along the track, placing litters beside the obstacles where falls occurred most frequently.
“Do you think the gatekeeper will allow us to enter at this hour?” Zibeline asked.
“I hope not!” Henri replied.
“Well, then, I shall enter without his permission! You are free to declare me the winner. I shall be left to make a walkover, I see!” And setting off at a gallop along the bridle-path, which was obstructed a little farther on by the fence itself, she struck her horse resolutely, and with one audacious bound sprang over the entrance gate. She was now on the steeplechase track.
“You are mad!” cried the General, who, as much concerned for her safety as for his own pride, urged on his mare, and, clearing the fence, landed beside Zibeline on the other side.
“All right!” she cried, in English, dropping her whip, as the starter drops the flag at the beginning of a race.
The die was cast. Henri bent over Aida’s neck, leaning his hands upon her withers in an attitude with which experience had made him familiar, and followed the Amazon, determined to win at all hazards.
Zibeline’s groom, an Englishman, formerly a professional jockey, had already jumped the fence, in spite of the cries of the guard, who ran to prevent him, and coolly galloped after his mistress, keeping at his usual distance.