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Original Issue

The Beat of a Drummer

A dirge played that dreary day for a naive Lothario and horseplayer

There must be a moral to this story, or perhaps there's more than one. If you consort with loose women, make sure they are reasonably honest, might be one lesson to be learned from it. If you want to embezzle your firm's money, do it with an appearance of honesty, could be another. A third might run: when gambling, choose an established and reputable bookie.

To some, these precepts might seem like simple common sense, but the penalty for ignoring them could be death, as a traveling salesman from Manchester discovered on the 28th of June 1883.

Before he landed in the water, the man we will call Drummer had been spending some days in Newcastle peddling cotton samples around the town. In all likelihood it was only by chance that he put up at a hotel that was the favorite stopping place of racing journalists. It was this circumstance, however, plus the keen observation of Arthur Binstead of the Sporting Times that enabled the details of his story to be preserved.

Binstead saw Drummer for the first time the night he checked in. The journalist was standing around the hotel lobby when he noticed the smart young salesman chatting with the young lady at the reception desk. The prettiest girl in Newcastle, thought Binstead, as he took in her oval, madonna-like face, soft brown eyes, dimpled chin and full bosom.

So pure did the young lady appear that Binstead was quite surprised to hear her say to Drummer a few moments later: "My room is on the floor above yours and at the extreme end of the passage on the right-hand side. So that you may make no mistake, I'll kick the corner of my mat over."

Next morning Binstead was awakened by a lot of noisy talk outside his room. He peeped out of his door to see a considerable procession passing: the hotel's proprietor, the salesman, Drummer, in pajamas, a few hotel servants and one or two guests. He hurriedly slipped out to investigate and followed the troupe upstairs and along to the end of the passage. The entire group paused outside the door of the last room, and the proprietor knocked loudly.

"What do you want?" said a demure voice.

"Open the door, Miss Millington," commanded the proprietor.

"When I am dressed, I will and not before," the girl replied.

While they waited, Drummer explained to Binstead what the trouble was. He had gone to Miss Millington's room the evening before, he said, to discuss with her the virtues of vegetarian diet. He had stayed, discussing vegetarianism, until daylight. In the time intervening she'd agreed to try vegetarianism, and to start her off with an adequate supply of health food he had peeled off a £5 note from the bundle of money he was carrying for his employers.

A £5 deficit in his expense account could be easily explained, he thought. But back in his room he checked his money and found that the note he'd given Miss Millington was a 50, not a 5. Since this would be less easy to explain, he went back with the idea of exchanging notes. In the interval, Miss Millington discovered her new affluence and decided to give up hotel work in favor of a visit to an ex-beau in Darlington.

While Drummer was recounting all this to Binstead, the key turned in the lock of Miss Millington's door, and she came out. She was carrying her small suitcase.

"I'm sorry to have to leave you this abruptly," she said to the hotelman, "but opportunities such as this come seldom to a girl."

The last anyone saw of her, she was walking out through the hotel door.

Drummer, by this time, was reduced to tears. "I'm ruined," he blubbered. "What'll I do? What'll I do?" Obviously his firm would give short shrift to a £3-a-week salesman who was out by some £50.

To Binstead, the problem seemed nothing more than an ordinary commercial setback, for inexplicable shortages of cash come all too often to racing journalists. And he offered what seemed a perfectly sensible solution: "Just pick a winner at Gosforth Park today, and put a bundle on."

"But—what if it loses?"

Binstead patiently explained to Drummer that his situation would be worsened only in degree and that the final solution would probably be the same. Either way, Drummer would have to throw himself into the Tyne.

"But you haven't told me the name of the horse."

"Barcaldine," Binstead said firmly and wandered off in search of a drink.

Barcaldine: for many years this 5-year-old had been famous throughout the British turf. Not only was he one of the four best horses of the century, he was also the most vicious, with a reputation for seizing and shaking grown men between his teeth and taking hunks of flesh out of the arms of stableboys. He was running this day in the Northumberland Plate, an important race in the north of England, affectionately known to the coalmining population as The Pitman's Derby. For such an important occasion, it was fitting that he should be ridden by Fred Archer, the greatest jockey of his day and perhaps of all time. In that same year, 1883, Archer rode 232 winners; he was champion jockey for 10 years running. Although Barcaldine was handicapped to carry an impossible 136 pounds, he was firmly expected to win.

Drummer soon learned of all this; and, full of hope, he paid two shillings for a cab ride from Newcastle out to High Gosforth Park, the racecourse five miles outside the city. He spared hardly a glance for the sleek horses walking around the paddock; his interest lay in the bookmakers. To his inexperienced eye, they looked an untrustworthy lot. Tattered but garishly painted signs announced the business of hordes of sly-looking gentlemen in seedy coats. But down at the far end of the line he found something seemingly more respectable. The Nanty Poloney Ironclad Firm was the inscription on a smart new length of American cloth at the front of the stand; the stand itself was built of champagne boxes. Clearly the Ironclads were men of substance and integrity. He counted out £20 of his employer's banknotes, noted from the chalked figures on the bookies' board that Barcaldine was quoted at 11 to 2 and handed over his money.

"Hundred and ten to 20, Barcaldine," the bookie snapped to his clerk. Splendid: not only would Drummer recoup his loss, but he'd have a fine profit of £60 to play with.

As the horses assembled at the starting post, Barcaldine became restless, rearing up and pawing the turf. In those days there was no draw for starting places: each jockey judged his own best point of entry. Archer took his mount 50 yards away from the rest, and when the starter's flag went down he had extra ground to cover. But the great horse was going, going hard, because he had not been held back at the line, and it did not take Archer long to bring him over to the rail and catch up. Slowly he edged his way up through the crowded horses until he was among the leaders. He was being headed by another horse called Tertius; suddenly Tertius seemed to lose speed, and Barcaldine forged steadily ahead. By the time the two-mile race was over, Archer was an easy two and a half lengths ahead of the field.

He rode into the paddock in an uproar of cheering. The vast numbers of Northumbrians who had backed him hurried off to collect their winnings. Arthur Binstead collected his own and jotted down such notes as he needed for his editor. Then he strolled down the line of bookies to congratulate Drummer and—who knows?—take a drink or two off him.

He found Drummer standing disconsolately in front of a pile of champagne boxes. The Nanty Poloney Ironclads had proved, after all, to have had both feet of clay and inadequate cash reserves, and they had prudently vanished from the site as soon as Barcaldine looked like the winner. An angry crowd of miners were smashing up the flimsy wood of the boxes. Drummer stood wordless, holding the one article of value he could salvage: the piece of flamboyant American cloth bearing the name of the welshing bookies.

Next morning Drummer's body was indeed recovered from the Tyne River, his rigid hand still clutching a sodden mass that read, "Nanty Poloney Ironclad Firm." Had the unfortunate Lothario committed suicide? Indeed he had not. He had been walking back to Newcastle alone and sorrowful, when he was overtaken by a disappointed mob of men who had been swindled by the same firm of bookies. They took one look at the sign in Drummer's hand, decided he was the Ironclads in person and threw him into the river.