The Horse DancerJojo Moyes
Also by Jojo Moyes
THE PEACOCK EMPORIUM
THE SHIP OF BRIDES
THE HORSE DANCER
First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Hodder & Stoughton An Hachette Livre UK Company
Copyright (c) Jojo Moyes 2009
The right of Jojo Moyes to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library Epub ISBN 978 1 848 94745 0
ISBN 978 0 34096 159 9
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
An Hachette Livre UK Company
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London NWl 3BH
To C, S, H and L
And to Mecca Harris
The Horse Dancer
Also by Jojo Moyes
About the Author
Show me your horse and I will tell you what you are
Old English proverb
He saw her yellow dress before he saw her, glowing in the fading light; a beacon at the far end of the stables. He stopped for a moment, unsure that he could trust his eyes. Then her pale arm reached up, Gerontius's elegant head dipping over the door to take whatever treat she offered, and he was walking briskly, half running, the metal tips of his boots clicking on the wet cobbles.
'You are here!'
His arms were around her as she turned; he kissed her, dipped his head to inhale the glorious scent of her hair. The breath that escaped him seemed to come from somewhere in his boots.
'We got here this afternoon,' she said, into his shoulder. 'I've barely had time to change. I must look awful . . . but I was in the audience and glimpsed you through the curtain. I had to come to wish you luck.'
Her words had become jumbled, but he could barely hear her anyway. He was shocked by the girl's sheer presence; the feel of her in his arms after so many months' absence. 'And just look at you!' She took a step back, allowing her gaze to travel from his black peaked cap all the way down his immaculate uniform, then reached up to brush an imaginary fleck from one of his gold epaulettes. He noted, with gratitude, the reluctance with which she withdrew her fingers. There was no awkwardness, he marvelled, even after so many months. No coquettishness. She was utterly guileless; the girl of his imagination made flesh again.
'You look wonderful,' she said.
'I . . . cannot stay,' he said. 'We ride in ten minutes.'
'I know . . . Le Carrousel is so exciting. We've been watching the motorcyclists, and the parade of tanks,' she said. 'But you, Henri, you and the horses are definitely the big draw.' She glanced behind her towards the arena. 'I think the whole of France is here to see you.'
'You . . . get les billets?'
They frowned at each other. Language was still a problem, despite their best efforts.
'Billets. . .' He shook his head, irritated with himself. 'Ticket. Tickets. Best tickets.'
She beamed, and his brief dissatisfaction evaporated. 'Oh, yes. Edith, her mother and I are in the front row. They simply can't wait to see you ride. I've told them everything about you. We're staying at the Chateau de Verrieres.' Her voice dropped to a whisper, even though no one was near. 'It's very grand. The Wilkinsons have an awful lot of money. Much more than we have. It was very kind of them to bring me.'
He watched her talk - distracted by the Cupid's bow of her upper lip. She was here. His hands, in their white kid gloves, cradled her face. 'Florence . . .' He breathed, kissing her again. The scent of the sun infused her skin, even though dusk had fallen. It was intoxicating, as if she had been created to radiate warmth. 'Every day I miss you. Before, there is nothing but Le Cadre Noir. Now . . . nothing is good without you.'
'Henri . . .' She stroked his cheek, her body against his. He felt almost giddy.
He whipped round. Didier Picart stood at the head of his horse, a groom at his side preparing his saddle. He was pulling on his gloves. 'Perhaps if you think about your riding as much as your English whore we can achieve something, eh?'
Florence did not know enough French to understand but she caught the look that flickered across Picart's face, and Heari saw she had guessed that whatever the other Frenchman had said it was not complimentary.
The familiar anger rose, and he set his jaw against it. He shook his head at Florence, trying to convey to her Picart's stupidity, his irrelevance. Picart had been like this - insulting, provocative - since the trip to England when she and Henri had met. English girls had no class, Picart had exclaimed, in the mess afterwards; Henri knew that it had been aimed directly at him. They did not know how to dress. They ate like pigs at a trough. They would lie down with anyone for a few francs, or the equivalent of a pint of that foul beer.
It had taken him weeks to work out that Picart's bile had little to do with Florence, and everything to do with his fury at having been usurped within Le Cadre Noir, jostled aside by the son of a farmer. Not that that made it easier to hear it.
Picart's voice echoed down the yard: 'I hear there are rooms near the quai Lucien Gautier. A little more fitting than a stableyard, n'est-ce pas?'
Henri's hand tightened around Florence's. He tried to keep his voice calm as he spoke: 'You could be the last man on earth and she would be too good for you, Picart.'
'Don't you know, farmer boy, that any whore will have you if the price is right?' Picart smirked, placed a perfectly polished boot in his stirrup and vaulted on to his horse.
Henri made to step forward, but Florence stopped him. 'Darling . . . look, I'd better get to my seat,' she said, backing away. 'You need to prepare.' She hesitated, then reached up and kissed him again, her slim white hand pulling the back of his neck towards her. He knew what she was trying to do: tug his thoughts from Picart's poison. And she was right; it was impossible to feel anything but joy when Florence's lips were on his own. She smiled. 'Bonne chance, ecuyer.'
'Ecuyer!' he repeated, momentarily diverted, touched that in his absence she had discovered the correct word for 'horseman'.
'I'm learning!' She blew a kiss, her eyes filled with mischief, with promise, and then she was gone, his English girl, running back down the long stables, her heels clicking on the cobbles.
Le Carrousel, the annual military festival, traditionally marked the end of a year of training for the young cavalry officers of Saumur. As usual, the July weekend was thick with visitors to the medieval town, keen not just to witness the passing out of the young cavalrymen but the traditional displays of cavalry riding, motorbike acrobatics and the parade of tanks, their great hulls still scarred from the war.
It was 1960. The old guard was teetering in the face of an onslaught of popular culture, of shifting attitudes and Johnny Hallyday, but in Saumur there was little appetite for change. The annual performance of the twenty-two elite French horsemen, some military, some civilian, who comprised Le Cadre Noir, the highlight of Le Carrousel weekend, was always enough to guarantee that the tickets were sold out within days - to the local community, to those who were imbued with a sense of France's heritage, and, on a less cerebral level, to those intrigued by posters all over the Loire region promising 'Majesty, Mystery, Horses that Defy Gravity'.
Le Cadre Noir had been born almost 250 years earlier, after the decimation of the French cavalry in the Napoleonic Wars. In an attempt to rebuild what had once been considered a crack band of horsemen, a school was created in Saumur, a town which had housed an equestrian academy since the 16th century. Here, a corps of instructors had been gathered from the finest riding schools at Versailles, the Tuileries and Saint Germain, to pass on the high traditions of academic riding to a new generation of officers, and had continued to do so ever since.
With the advent of tanks and mechanised warfare, Le Cadre Noir faced questions as to the usefulness of such an arcane organisation. But for decades no government had felt able to disband what had, by then, become part of France's heritage: the horsemen in their black uniforms were iconic, and France, with its traditions of L'Academie Francaise, haute cuisine and couture, understood the importance of the tradition. The horsemen themselves, perhaps recognising that the best way to ensure survival was to create a new role, widened their remit: as well as teaching cavalrymen, the school opened its doors to reveal its rarified skills and magnificent horses at public performances in France and abroad.
This was the Le Cadre Noir in which Henri Lachapelle now found himself, and that night's performance was the most symbolically important of the year, in the home of Le Cadre Noir, a chance to demonstrate hard-won skills to friends and family. The air smelt of caramel, wine and firecrackers, and the heat of thousands of gently moving bodies. Around the place du Chardonnet, in the heart of the Ecole de Cavalrie, its elegant, honeyed buildings, the crowds were already swelling. The carnival atmosphere was amplified by the July heat, the still evening, an inflating air of expectation. Children ran to and fro with balloons or sticks of candy floss, their parents lost in crowds that surveyed stalls selling paper windmills and sparkling wine, or merely walking in laughing groups across the great bridge to the pavement cafes of the north side. All the while a low hum of excitement emanated from those who had already taken their seats around the Grand Manege, the vast sand arena of the public performance, and now sat impatiently, fanning themselves and perspiring in the dimming light.
Henri, hearing the cry to attention, checked his saddle and bridle, asked the dresseur for the fifteenth time whether his uniform was straight, then rubbed the nose of Gerontius, his horse, admiring the minute ribboned plaits that the groom had sewn across his gleaming neck, muttering words of praise and encouragement into his elegantly trimmed ears. Gerontius was seventeen, elderly in terms of the academy, and would soon be retired. He had been Henri's horse since he had arrived at Le Cadre Noir three years previously, and an instant, passionate bond had formed between them. Here, within the confines of the school's ancient walls, it was not unusual to see young men kissing their horses' noses, muttering endearments they would have been embarrassed to bestow on a woman.
'Vous etes pret?' Le Grand Dieu, the master horseman, was striding down the centre of the preparatory arena, followed by a coterie of ecuyers, his gilded uniform and three-cornered cap marking him out as the most senior of the school's practitioners. He stood in front of the young horsemen and their fidgeting horses. 'This, as you know, is the highlight of our year. The ceremony dates back more than a hundred and thirty years, and the traditions of our school from many years before that, back to Xenophon and the age of the Greeks.
'So much in our world today seems to be about the need for change, of throwing out the old ways in pursuit of what is free or easy. Le Cadre Noir believes there is still a place for an elite, for the pursuit of excellence above all else. Tonight you are ambassadors, showing that true grace, true beauty can only be the result of discipline, of patience, of sympathy and self-denial.'
He gazed around him. 'Ours is an art that dies the moment it is created. Let us make the people of Saumur feel privileged to witness such a spectacle.'
There was a murmur of approval, then the men began to mount their horses, some fiddling with their caps, rubbing at non-existent marks on their boots, little gestures to dispel the anxiety that was creeping in.
'You're ready, Lachapelle? Not too nervous?'
'No, sir.' Henri stood straight, feeling the older man's eyes travel swiftly over his uniform, checking for chinks in perfection. He was conscious that his studied calm was betrayed by the sweat trickling from his temples to his stiff mandarin collar.
'It's no shame to feel a little adrenalin at one's first Carrousel,' he said, stroking Gerontius's neck. 'This old hand will see you through. So, you perform Capriole in the second team performance. Then, riding Phantasme, La Croupade. D'accord?'
He knew the maitres ecuyers had been split over whether he should be granted such a visible role in the annual performance, given his history over these past months, the arguments, his perceived and catastrophic lack of discipline . . . His groom had passed on to him the talk in the tack room: that his rebelliousness had nearly cost him his place in Le Cadre Noir altogether.
He had not attempted to defend himself. How could he have explained to them the seismic shift that had taken place within him? How could he tell them that, to a man who had never heard a word of affection, or felt a gentle touch, her voice, her kindness, her breasts, her scent and hair had proven not just a distraction but an obsession far more powerful than an intellectual treatise on the finer points of horsemanship?
Henri Lachapelle's childhood had been a world of chaos and disorder, dominated by his father. Refinement was a two-franc bottle of wine, and any attempt at learning derided. Joining the cavalry had provided him with a lifeline, and his progression through the ranks until he was recommended for one of the rare positions at Le Cadre Noir had seemed the summit of what any man could expect in life. At twenty-five he had believed himself at home for the first time.
He was prodigiously talented. His years on the farm had given him a rare capacity for hard work. He had an aptitude for dealing with difficult horses. There was talk that he might eventually prove a maitre ecuyer - even, in more fanciful moments, another Grand Dieu. He had been sure that the rigour, the discipline, the sheer pleasure and reward of learning would be enough for the rest of his days.
And then Florence Jacobs from Clerkenwell, who hadn't even liked horses but had taken up a free ticket to the French riding-school performance in England, had destroyed it all - his peace of mind, his resolve, his patience. Later in life, with the kind of perspective that comes only with experience, he might have told his younger self that such passion was only to be expected with a first love, that such cataclysmic feelings would ease and perhaps fade. But Henri - a solitary man with few friends who might have offered such sage advice - knew only that, from the moment he had noticed the dark-haired girl who had watched, wide-eyed, from the side of the arena for three nights running, she was all he
could think about. He had introduced himself, not even sure why he had sought her out after his performance, and every minute spent without her since felt like an irritation or, worse, an endless, meaningless abyss. And where did that leave everything else?
His concentration disappeared almost overnight. On his return to France he began to question the doctrine, became vexed by the tiny details he considered irrelevant. He accused Devaux, one of the senior maitre ecuyers, of being 'stuck in the past'. It was only when he had missed the third training session in a row, and his groom had warned him he would be let go, that he realised he had to take a firm grip on himself. He studied Xenophon, bent himself to his travails. Kept his nose clean. He had felt reassured by Florence's increasingly frequent letters, her promise that she would be over to see him that summer. And a few months on, perhaps as a reward, he had been given the key role in Le Carrousel: La Croupade - one of the most challenging movements a rider could attempt - displacing Picart and adding insult to whatever that privileged young man had already considered injurious.
The Grand Dieu mounted his horse, a robust Portuguese stallion, and took two elegant steps close to him. 'Don't let me down, Lachapelle. Let us treat this evening as a new start.'
Henri nodded, a sudden attack of nerves silencing him. He mounted, gathered his reins, checked that the black peaked cap was straight on his shorn head. He could hear the murmur of the crowd, the expectant hush as the orchestra played a few exploratory notes, the kind of dense silence that can only come from a thousand people watching intently. He was dimly aware of a murmured 'Good luck' among his fellows, and then he was guiding Gerontius into his place, halfway along the militarily exact line of gleaming, beribboned horses. His mount was eagerly awaiting his first instruction as the heavy red curtain was pulled back, beckoning them into the floodlit arena.
Despite the calm, orderly appearance of its twenty-two horsemen, the graceful nature of their public performances, life at Le Cadre Noir was physically and intellectually testing. Day after day Henri Lachapelle had found himself exhausted, almost reduced to tears of frustration by the endless corrections of the maitres ecuyers, his apparent inability to persuade the huge, highly strung horses perform the 'airs above the ground' to their exacting standards. He had felt, even if he could not prove, a perceived prejudice against those who had entered the elite school from the military, as he had, rather than from the civilian riding competitions, those upper-class members of French society who had always had the twin luxuries of fine horses and time with which to build their skills. In theory, all were equal in Le Cadre Noir, separated only by their skills on horseback. Henri was conscious that egalitarianism ran no deeper than their serge uniforms.