Meagan was dismayed to see a thin male form hurrying through the entrance. It was Robert Cheveley, pulling on gloves as he strode across the arena. “Your Majesty!” he called out boisterously, “I apologize for my tardiness. I was in the process of losing a tournament of cards.” He went quickly to Nero and lifted his leg to mount. No one moved to assist. Meagan wished it were acceptable to boo.
“Pardon, monsieur,” Pierre said diplomatically, “but the demonstration is today given by riders of the Court.”
“Oh, that. No need. I shall ride my own horse, and no one else need bother. This dressage riding is in fashion and I am ready to restart my tuition.”
“But not today, Monsieur, I beg.”
“Yes, today. I am here, am I not?”
The King cleared his throat. “Perhaps, Instructor, this could be a test of the manège art. Surely our English guest’s skills are not less than the average cavalryman’s … ?”
“Oui, Majesté,” Pierre said in surrender, giving a signal to his assistants. They busied themselves adjusting the tack and helping Robert to mount. Swinging his leg high, Robert sat upon Nero with a hard thump—the horse jerked his head up as if awaking to a bad dream. Robert tugged on the reins and Nero swished his tail, tucking his head behind the bit and chewing voraciously.
“He seems a bit sluggish,” Robert commented loudly. “Why? He used to be so spirited.”
“Please, monsieur.” Pierre wrung his hands. “Petit à petit the horse is become relaxed and calm.”
“Calm? But I want the horse to leap and kick. I do not want him calm.”
“The horse needs this calm to perform the leaps with élan.”
“Come now, let us not argue. You are the instructor. Instruct.”
Pierre looked at the chandeliers of the Court manège for a moment, and then spread his arms. Music commenced. “Yes, monsieur … please lower the heel. Maintain the soft contact. The heel is lower, please. Tighten your thigh, shoulders back, do not lean! Heels lower, if you please, monsieur. Head up, elbows not press, wrists out, fingers closed, hands off neck. Look up from the ground, monsieur, heels lower! Lower, if you please, monsieur, we are not dancing the ballet. Wrist strong, head up, knees back, chest open … heels, monsieur! Heels!”
Robert’s face was getting redder and Nero was champing on the bit, ears pinned back. Nervous sweat was beginning to show on the gelding’s neck. Finally Robert shouted and jerked the reins. “This may be well and good, but I want to do one of those Airs!”
Pierre glanced unhappily at the King. Meagan almost stood to give her own comment, but realized her place and remained silently stewing.
“Proceed, Instructor,” the King said mildly.
“Very well, Majesté. Very well, Monsieur Cheveley. The first principle is calm, the second is balance.”
“Bother calm. We have talked of nothing else since we began. I want to leap!”
Pierre looked a final time to the King and, defeated, indicated to the attendants to stand close. Men took Nero’s bridle and Pierre took up a position near the horse’s side. Nero shook his head and yawed his mouth, prancing tensely. “Monsieur Cheveley, please attend. The leap is resulting from the horse’s obedience to the driving aids, made con brio with the aids of holding. The horse releases himself when the point of tension must become equilibrium.”
“We are not leaping…”
“In the Capriole, monsieur, the height of the leap is of second importance to the forward spring and the kick. If the kick is well finished, the landing will be light.”
Robert shrugged irritably. “This is quite tedious. Just tell me what to do!”
“Yes, monsieur, of course. Commence the Piaffe.”
Robert lifted his reins higher and spurred. Nero nearly escaped from his handlers, but they hung on grimly and the horse threw himself into an uneven fidgeting-in-place.
“Now what?” shouted Robert.
“It is not … raise the hand slightly, monsieur, slightly. Remember to be the velvet glove over the iron fist! Now, softly apply the leg.”
Robert hauled the reins high and clapped his legs on Nero with all his strength. The horse did, in fact, abandon his calm: he struck out a hind leg, tore his bridle from the attendants’ grip, planted both feet in the finely raked dirt and flung Robert off with the first hitch. The incensed gelding continued plunging across the manège … scraps of Royal tack scattered in a colorful stream behind him.
The King rose and Pierre, shaking, took the Royal chair. Meagan sat stunned in the gallery as the orchestra fell silent, though one flutist tried for a time to accompany Nero in his circuits around the arena.
Robert waved away assistance and stood, brushing himself. “I say, the horse was much better before all this training.”
“We must thank Monsieur Cheveley,” said the King gravely. “He has made our own riding seem beaucoup plus expert.”
Robert picked up his hat from the dirt and shook it before bowing low to the King. “It is my pleasure, Majesté.”