“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.
The first two hedges, which were insignificant obstacles for such horses, were crossed without effort.
“Not the brook, I beg of you!” cried Henri, seeing that, instead of running past the grand-stand, Zibeline apparently intended to attempt this dangerous feat.
“Come on! Seaman would never forgive me if I balk at it!” she cried, riding fearlessly down the slope,
The good horse gathered up his four feet on the brink, took one vigorous leap, appearing for a second to hover over the water; then he fell lightly on the other side of the stream, with a seesaw movement, to which the intrepid Amazon accommodated herself by leaning far back. The rebound threw her forward a little, but she straightened herself quickly and went on.
The General, who had slackened his pace that he might not interfere with her leap, gave vent to a sigh of relief. He pressed Aida’s flanks firmly, and the big Irish mare jumped after her competitor, with the majestic dignity of her race.
Reassured by the ‘savoir-faire’ of his companion, the former winner of the military steeplechase felt revive within himself all his ardor for the conflict, and he hastened to make up the distance he had lost.
The two horses, now on the west side of the racetrack, were almost neck-and-neck, and it would have been difficult to prognosticate which had the better chance of victory. Zibeline’s light weight gave Seaman the advantage, but Aida gained a little ground every time she leaped an obstacle; so that, after passing the hurdles and the third hedge, the champions arrived simultaneously at the summit of the hill, from which point the track extends in a straight line, parallel with the Allee des Fortifications.
Feeling himself urged on still harder, the English horse began to lay back his ears and pull so violently on the rein that his rider had all she could do to hold him, and lacked sufficient strength to direct his course. Seeing Zibeline’s danger, Henri hastened to slacken his horse’s pace, but it was too late: the almost perpendicular declivity of the other side of the hill added fresh impetus to the ungovernable rush of Seaman, who suddenly became wild and reckless.