TALES FROM "BLACKWOOD"
Contents of this Volume
My English Acquaintance. By F. Hardman, Esq.
The Murderer's Last Night. By T. Doubleday, Esq.
Narration of Certain Uncommon Things that did formerly happen to me, Herbert Willis, B.D.
The Wet Wooing: A Narrative of '98
WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS EDINBURGH AND LONDON
TALES FROM "BLACKWOOD."
MY ENGLISH ACQUAINTANCE.
BY FREDERICK HARDMAN, ESQ.
[MAGA. FEBRUARY 1848.]
"I believe I have the pleasure of seeing Mr ——," said a voice in English, as I paused for a moment, my breakfast concluded, before the door of a Palais Royal coffee-house, planning the disposal of my day.
I looked at the person who thus addressed me; and, although I pique myself on rarely forgetting the face of an acquaintance, in this instance my memory was completely at fault. But for his knowledge of my name, I should have concluded my interlocutor mistaken as to my identity. I was at least as much surprised at the perfectly good English he spoke, as at having my acquaintance claimed by a person of his profession and rank. He was a young man of about five-and-twenty, attired in the handsome and well-fitting undress of a sergeant of French light dragoons. His brown hair curled short and crisp from under his smart green forage-cap, cavalierly placed upon one side of his head; his clear blue eyes contrasted with the tawny colour of his cheek, a tint for which it was evidently indebted to sun and weather; his face was clean shaven, save and except small well-trimmed mustaches and a chin-tuft. Altogether, he was as pretty a model of a light cavalryman as I remember to have seen: square in the shoulder, slender in the hip, well limbed, lithe and muscular. His carriage was soldierly, without the exaggerated stiffness and swagger commonly found amongst non-commissioned officers of dragoons; and altogether he had a gentlemanly air which, I doubt not, would have made itself as visible under the coarse drugget of a private soldier, as beneath the garb of finer materials and more careful cut, which, in his capacity of marechal des logis, or sergeant, it was permitted him to wear. But my admiration of this pretty model of a man-at-arms did not assist me to recognise him, although, whilst gazing at him, and especially when he slightly smiled at my visible embarrassment, his features seemed not totally unfamiliar to me. I looked, I have no doubt, considerably puzzled. The stranger came to my assistance.
"I see you do not remember me," he said. "Not above four years since we met, if so much; but four years, an African sun, and a French uniform, have made a change. I met you in Warwickshire, at George Clinton's. I have seen you once or twice since; but I think the last time we spoke was when cantering over Harleigh Downs. My name is Frank Oakley."
I immediately recollected my man. About four summers previously, whilst on a flying visit at a country house, I had formed a slight acquaintance with Mr Frank Oakley, who had then just come of age, and into possession—by the death of his father, which had occurred a twelvemonth previously—of a few thousand pounds. The interest of this sum, which would have been an agreeable and sufficient addition to a subaltern's pay or curate's stipend, or which would have enabled a struggling barrister to bide his briefs, was altogether insufficient to supply the wants and caprices of an idler, especially such an idler as Oakley. Master Francis was what young gentlemen fresh from school or at college, sucking ensigns, precocious templars, et id genus omne, are accustomed to call a "fast" man; the said fastness not referring, as Johnson's dictionary teaches us it might do, to any particular strength or firmness of character, but merely to the singular rapidity with which such persons get through their money and into debt. At the time I speak of, Oakley was going his fastest—that is to say, spending the utmost amount of coin, for the least possible value; indeed he could hardly have run madder riot with his moderate patrimony, had he cast his sovereigns into bullets and made pipe-lights of his bank-notes. But verily, he had his reward in the open-mouthed admiration of three or four younkers of his own standing, then assembled at Harleigh Hall, who looked up to him as something between a hero and an oracle; and in the encouraging familiarity and approval of one or two gentlemen of maturer age, who swore he was a fine fellow, and proved they thought so by winning bets of him at billiards, and by selling him horses that would have fetched "twice the money at Tattersall's," with other bargains of an equally advantageous description. Although we were four days in the same house, meeting each evening at dinner, and occasionally riding and walking in the same group, our acquaintance continued of the very slightest description, and I took my departure without anything approaching to intimacy having sprung up between us. Amongst the large party of visitors at the Hall, were not wanting persons of tastes more suited to my own than those of Oakley and his little knot of flatterers and admirers; and he, on his part, was far too much taken up with his newly-inherited fortune—which he evidently considered inexhaustible—with planning amusements, and inhaling adulatory incense, to pay attention to a man whom, as full fifteen years his senior, he doubtless set down as an old fellow, a "slow coach," and perhaps even as a member of that distinguished corporation known as the "Fogie Club." So that when we met in London, during the ensuing season, occasionally in the street and once or twice in a ballroom, a slight bow or word of recognition was all that passed between us. I could perceive, however, that Oakley still kept up the rapid pace at which he had started, and lived, with a few hundreds a-year, as if he had possessed as many thousands. The proximity of my quiet club to the fashionable and expensive one into which he had obtained admission, gave me many opportunities of observing his proceedings, and those opportunities, in my capacity of a student of human nature, I did not neglect. I had marked his career and ultimate fate in my mind, and was curious to see my predictions verified, although I sincerely wished they might not be, for they were anything but favourable to the welfare of Oakley, who, in spite of his follies, had generous and manly qualities. His prodigality was not of that purely egotistical description most commonly found in spendthrifts of his class. He would give a lavish alms to a whining beggar, as freely as he would throw away a handful of gold on some folly of the moment or extravagant debauch; and I had heard an old one-armed soldier, who sometimes held his horse at the club door, utter blessings, when he had ridden out of hearing, on his kind heart and open hand. These and similar little traits that came under my notice, made me regret to see him going post to perdition. That he was doing so, I could not for one moment doubt. His extravagance knew no limit, and in six months he must have got through as many years' income. Wherever pleasure was to be had, no matter at what price, Oakley was to be seen.—Upon a revenue overrated at five hundred a-year, he kept half a dozen horses, a cab, and a strange nondescript vehicle, made after an eccentric design of his own, and which everybody turned to look at, as he drove down Piccadilly of an afternoon, on his way to the Park. He had his stall at the opera, of course, and an elegant set of apartments in the most expensive street in London, where he gave suppers and dinners of extravagant delicacy to thirsty friends and greedy danseuses. The former showed their gratitude for his good cheer by winning his money at cards; the latter evinced their affection by carrying off the costly nicknacks that strewed his rooms, and by taking his diamond shirt-pins to fasten their shawls. In short, he regularly delivered himself over to the harpies. In addition to these minor drafts upon his exchequer, came others of a more serious nature. He played high, and never refused a bet. Like many silly young men (and some silly old ones), he had a blind veneration for rank, and held that a lord could do no wrong. Even a baronetcy conferred a certain degree of infallibility in his eyes. No amount of respectable affidavits would have convinced him that if Lord Rufus Slam, who not unfrequently condescended to win a cool fifty of him at ecarte, did not turn the king each time he dealt, it was only because he despised so hackneyed a swindle, and had other ways of securing the game, equally nefarious but less palpable. Neither would it have been possible to persuade him that Sir Tantivy Martingale, "that prime fellow and thorough sportsman," as Frank admiringly and confidingly styled him, was capable of taking his bet upon a horse which he, the aforesaid Sir Tantivy, had just made "safe to lose." In short, poor Oakley, who, during his father's lifetime, had been little, if at all, in London, thought himself excessively knowing and fully up to all the wiles and snares of the metropolis. In reality he was exceedingly raw, was victimised accordingly, and, at the end of a few months in town, found himself minus a sum that brought reflection, I suspect, even to his giddy head. I conjectured so, at least, when, at the end of the season, I encountered him on a Boulogne steamer, looking fagged and out of spirits. It was only a year since we had met at Harleigh Hall, but that year had told upon him. Dissipation had driven the flush of health from his cheek, and his youthful brow was already care-loaded. I spoke to him, and made an attempt to converse; but he seemed sulky and unwilling; and, on reaching Boulogne, I lost sight of him. After a short tour, I went to winter at Paris, and there I frequently saw him. He had forgotten, apparently, the annoyances that weighed on him when he left London, and was again the gayest of the gay; living as if his purse were bottomless, and his Gibus the wishing cap of Fortunatus. Nothing was too hot or too strong for him: rated a "fast man" in England, in France he was held a viveur enrage. I did not much admire the society he selected. I saw him alternately with the most roue and dissolute young Frenchmen of fashion, and with an English set which, if it comprised men against whom nothing positively bad could be proved, also included others whose reputation was more than doubtful. At first he was chiefly with the French, whose language, from long residence in the country when a boy, he spoke as one of themselves; then he seemed to abandon them for the English clique, and then he suddenly disappeared. I no longer saw him pacing the Boulevard or riding in the Bois, or issuing at night from the Cafe Anglais, flushed with wine and bent on riotous debauch. All his former companions remained, pursuing their old amusements, frequenting the same haunts; but he was no more with them. I could not understand his leaving Paris just as the best season commenced, and at first I supposed him ill. But week after week slipped by, and, no Oakley appearing, I made up my mind he had departed, whither I knew not. I was rather vexed at this, for I had proposed watching him to the end of his career. Moreover, although we never spoke, and had almost left off bowing, my idle habit of observing his proceedings had given me a sort of interest in him. Once only, after his eclipse, did I fancy I caught a glimpse of him. I was fond of long rambles in the low and remote quarters of Paris, through those labyrinths of narrow streets, filthy courts, and rickety houses, where the character and peculiarities of the humbler classes of Parisians are best to be studied. Returning, after dark, from an expedition of this kind, I was surprised by a violent shower in a shabby street of the Faubourg St Antoine, and took refuge under a doorway. Immediately opposite to me was the wretched shop of a traiteur, in whose dingy window a cloudy white bowl of mashed spinach, a plate of bouilli, dry as a deal plank, and some triangular fragments of pear, stewed with cochineal and exposed in a saucer, served as indications of the luxurious fare to be obtained within. On one of the grimy shutters, whose scanty coat of green paint the weather had converted into a sickly blue, was the announcement, in yellow letters, that "Fricot, Traiteur, donne a Boire et a Manger;" whilst upon the other the hieroglyphical representation of a bottle and glass, flanked by the words "Bon Vin de Macon a 8 et a 10 S." hinted intelligibly at the well-provided state of Monsieur Fricot's cellar. It was one of those humble eating-houses, abounding in the French capital, where a very hungry man may stave off starvation for about the price of a tooth-pick at the Cafe or the Trois Freres, and where an exceedingly thirsty one may get intoxicated upon potato brandy and essence of logwood for a similar amount. It needs a three days' fast or a paviour's appetite to induce entrance into such a place. I was gazing with some curiosity at the windows of this poor tavern, through whose starred and patched panes, crowded with bottles, and backed by a curtain of dirty muslin, the waving of iron forks and spoons was dimly discernible by the light of two flickering candles, when the door suddenly opened, a man came out, heedless of the rain, which fell in torrents, and walked rapidly away. It was but a second, and he was lost in the darkness of the ill-lighted street, but in that second I thought I distinguished the gait and features of Frank Oakley. But my view of him was very indistinct, and I concluded myself misled by a resemblance. Since that day nothing had occurred to remind me of him, and for a long time I had entirely forgotten the good-hearted but reckless scamp, who for a brief period had attracted my attention.
Frank Oakley, then, it was, who now stood before me under the arcades of the Palais Royal. I held out my hand, with a word or two of apology for my slowness in remembering him.
"No excuse, I beg," was his reply. "Not one in twenty of my former acquaintances recognises the spendthrift dandy in the humble sergeant of dragoons, and in the few who do, I observe, upon my approach, a strong partiality for the opposite side of the street. They give themselves unnecessary trouble, for I have no wish to intrude upon them. I have been four months in Paris, and have constantly met former intimates, but have never spoken to one of them. And I cannot say what induced me to address you, with whom my acquaintance is so slight, except that I should be very glad to have a talk about dear old England, and if I am not mistaken you are a likely man to grant it me."
"With pleasure, Mr Oakley," said I. "I am glad to see you, although I confess myself surprised at your present profession. For an Englishman, I should have thought our own service preferable to a foreign one; and doubtless your friends would have got you a commission—that is—if—"
I hesitated, and paused, for I felt that I was upon delicate ground, getting run away with by my own foregone conclusions, and likely, unintentionally, to wound my interlocutor's feelings. Oakley observed my embarrassment, smiled, and completed my unfinished sentence.
"If I had not money left after my extravagance, to buy one for myself. Well, I had not; and moreover—but you shall hear all about it, if you care to learn the adventures of a scapegrace, now, I hope, reformed. And, in return, you shall tell me if London is still in the same place, and as wicked and pleasant as ever; and how it fares with old George Clinton, and all the jolly Warwickshire lads. Have you an hour to spare?"
"Half a dozen, if you like," I replied warmly, for I was greatly taken with the frank manly tone of the young man, whom I had last known as a conceited frivolous coxcomb. "Half a dozen. Shall we walk?"
"I will not tax your kindness so long," replied Oakley; "and as for walking," he added, glancing from the silver stripe upon his sleeve, indicative of his non-commissioned rank, to my suit of civilian broadcloth, "although I am by no means ashamed of my position, that is no reason for exposing you to the stare and wonder of your English acquaintances, by parading in your company the public promenade. So, if you have no objection, we will step up here. The place is respectable; but unfrequented, I dare say, by any you know."
And without giving me time to protest my utter indifference to the supercilious criticism referred to, he turned into a doorway, upon a pane of glass above which was painted a ship in full sail, with the words "Cafe Estaminet Hollandais." Ascending a flight or two of stairs, we entered a suite of spacious apartments, furnished with several billiard tables, with cue-racks, chairs, benches, and small tables for the use of drinkers. Several of the windows, which looked out upon the garden of the Palais Royal, were open, in the vain hope, perhaps, of purifying the place from the inveterate odour of tobacco remaining there from the previous night. Although it was not yet noon, the billiard balls rattled vigorously upon more than one of the tables, and a few early drinkers, chiefly foreigners, professional billiard players and non-commissioned officers of the Paris garrison, sipped their Strasburg beer or morning dram of brandy. The further end of the long gallery, however, was unoccupied, and there Oakley drew a couple of chairs to a window, called for refreshment as a pretext for our presence, and seating himself opposite to me, assailed me with a volley of questions concerning persons and things in England. To these I replied as satisfactorily as I was able, and allowed the stream of interrogation to run itself dry, before assuming, in my turn, the character of questioner. At last, having in some degree appeased Oakley's eager desire for information about the country whence he had been so long absent, I intimated a curiosity concerning his own adventures, and the circumstances that had made a soldier of him. He at once took the hint, and, perceiving that I listened with friendly attention and interest, gave me a detailed narrative of his life since I had first made his acquaintance. He told his story with a spirit and military conciseness that riveted my attention as much as the real pungency of the incidents. Its first portion, relating to his London career, informed me of little beyond what I already knew, or, at least, had conjectured. It was the everyday tale of a heedless, inexperienced youth, suddenly cast without guide or Mentor upon the ocean of life, and striking in turn against all the shoals that strew the perilous waters. He had been bubbled by gentlemanly swindlers—none of your low, seedy rapscallions, but men of style and fashion, even of family, but especially of honour, who would have paraded and shot him, had he presumed to doubt their word, but made no scruple of genteelly picking his pocket. He had been duped by designing women, spunged upon by false friends, pillaged by unprincipled tradesmen. He never thought of making a calculation—except on a horse-race, and then he was generally wrong,—or of looking at an account, or keeping one; but, when he wanted money, and his banker wrote him word he had overdrawn, he just sent his autograph to his stockbroker, prefixing the words, "Sell five hundred, or a thousand," as the case might be. For some time these laconic mandates were obeyed without remark, but at last, towards the close of the London season, the broker, the highly respectable Mr Cashup, of Change Alley, called upon his young client, whose father he had known for many years, and ventured a gentle remonstrance on such an alarming consumption of capital. Frank affected to laugh at the old gentleman's caution, and told an excellent story that evening, after a roaring supper, about the square-toed cit, the wise man of the East, who made a pilgrimage to St James's, to preach a sermon on frugality. Nevertheless, the prodigal was startled by the statements of the man of business. He was unaware how deeply he had dipped into his principal, and felt something like alarm upon discovering that he had got through more than half his small fortune. This, in little more than a year! For a moment he felt inclined to reform, abandon dissipation, and apply to some profession. But the impulse was only momentary. How could he, the gay Frank Oakley, the flower of fashion, and admiration of the town (so at least he thought himself,) bend his proud spirit to pore over parchments in a barrister's chambers, or to smoke British Havanas, and spit over the bridge of a country town, as ensign in a marching regiment? Was he to read himself blind at college, to find himself a curate at thirty, with a hundred a-year, and a breeding wife? Or was he to go to India, to get shot by Sikhs, or carried off by a jungle fever? Forbid it, heaven! What would Slam and Martingale, and Mademoiselle Entrechat, and all his fast and fashionable acquaintances, male and female, say to such declension? The thought was overwhelming, and thereupon Oakley resolved to give up all idea of earning an honest living, to "drown care," "d— the consequences," and act up to the maxim he had frequently professed, when the champagne corks were flying at his expense for the benefit of a circle of admiring friends, of "a short life and a merry one." So he stopped in London till the very close of the season, "keeping the game alive," as he expressed it, to the last, and then started for the Continent. An attempt to recruit his finances at Baden-Baden terminated, as might be expected, in their further reduction, and at last he found his way to Paris. Unfortunately for him, his ruinous career in England had been so short, and his self-conceit, and great opinion of his own knowingness, had made him so utterly reject the advice and experience of the very few friends who cared a rush for his welfare, that he was still in the state of a six-day-old puppy, and as unable to take care of himself. More than half-ruined, he preserved his illusions; still believed in the sincerity of fashionable acquaintances, in the fidelity of histrionic mistresses, in the disinterestedness of mankind in general, or at least of that portion of it with which he habitually associated. The bird had left half its feathers with the fowler, but was as willing as ever to run again into the snare. And at Paris snares were plentiful, well-baited and carefully covered up.
"I can scarcely define the society into which I got at Paris," said Oakley, when he came to this part of his history. "It was of a motley sort, gathered from all quarters, and, upon the whole, rather pleasant than respectable. It consisted partly of persons I had known in England, either Englishmen or dashing young Frenchmen of fortune, whose acquaintance I had made during their visits to London a few months previously. I had also several letters of introduction, some of which gave me entrance into the best Parisian circles, but these I generally neglected, preferring the gay fellows for whom I bore commendatory scrawls from my London associates. But probably my best recommendation was my pocket, still tolerably garnished, and the recklessness with which I scattered my cash. I felt myself on the high road to ruin, but my down-hill course had given such impetus to my crazy vehicle, that I despaired of checking it, and shut my eyes to the inevitable smash awaiting me at the bottom.
"It was not long in coming. Although educated in France, and consequently speaking the language as a native, I always took more kindly to my own countrymen than to Frenchmen, and gradually I detached myself unconsciously from those with whom I had spent much of my time when first in Paris. I exchanged for the worse, in making my sole companions of a set of English scamps, who asked no better than to assist at the plucking of such a pigeon as myself. At first they treated me with tenderness, fearing to spoil their game by a measure of wholesale plunder. They made much of me, frequently favoured me with their company at dinner, occasionally forgot their purses and borrowed from mine, forgetting repayment, and got up card parties, at which, however, I was sometimes allowed to come off a winner. But my gains were units and my losses tens. An imprudent revelation accelerated the catastrophe. My chosen intimate was one Harry Darvel, a tall pale man, several years older than myself, who would have been good-looking, but for the unpleasant shifting expression of his grey eyes, and for a certain cold rigidity of feature, frequently seen in persons of the profession I afterwards found he exercised. I first made his acquaintance at Baden, met him by appointment at Paris, and he soon became my chief associate. I knew little of him, except that he had a large acquaintance, lived in good style, spent his money freely, and was one of the most amusing companions I had ever had. By this time I began to see through flattery, when it was not very adroitly administered, and to suspect the real designs of some of the vultures that flocked about me Darvel never flattered me; his manner was blunt, almost to roughness; he occasionally gave me advice, and affected sincere friendship and anxiety for my welfare. 'You are young in the world,' he would say to me, 'you know a good deal for the time you have been in it, but I am an old stager, and have been six seasons in Paris for your one. I don't want to dry-nurse you, nor are you the man to let me, but two heads are better than one, and you may sometimes be glad of a hint. This is a queer town, and there are an infernal lot of swindlers about.' I little dreamed that my kind adviser was one of the most expert of the class he denounced, but reposed full trust in him, and, by attending to his disinterested suggestions, gradually detached myself from my few really respectable associates, and delivered myself entirely into his hands, and those of his assistant Philistines. Upon an unlucky day, when a letter of warning from my worthy old stockbroker had revived former anxieties in my mind, I made Darvel my confidant, and asked counsel of him to repair my broken fortunes. He heard me without betraying surprise, said he would think the matter over, and that something would assuredly turn up, talked vaguely of advantageous appointments which he had interest in England to procure, assured me of his sympathy and friendship, and bade me not despond, but keep my heart up, for that I had plenty of time to turn in, and meanwhile I must limit my expenses, and not be offended if he occasionally gave me a friendly check when he saw me 'outrunning the constable.' His tone and promises cheered me, and I again forgot my critical position. Little did I dream that my misplaced confidence had sealed my doom. If I had hitherto been spared, it was from no excess of mercy, but because my real circumstances were unknown, my fortune overrated, and a fear entertained of prematurely scaring the game by too rapid an attack. It was now ascertained that the goose might be slaughtered, without any sacrifice of golden eggs. Darvel now knew exactly what I was worth,—barely two thousand pounds. That gone, I should be a beggar. For two days he never lost sight of me, accompanied me everywhere and kept me in a whirl of dissipation, exerted to the utmost his amusing powers, which were very considerable, and did all he could to raise my spirits. The third morning he came to breakfast with me.
"'Dine at my rooms, to-day,' said he, as he sat puffing a Turkish pipe, after making me laugh to exhaustion at a ridiculous adventure that had befallen him the night before. 'Bachelor fare, you know—brace of fowls and a gigot, a glass of that Chambertin you so highly approve, and a little chicken hazard afterwards. Quite quiet—shan't allow you to play high. We'll have a harmless, respectable evening. I will ask Lowther and the Bully. Dine at seven, to bed at twelve.'
"I readily accepted, and we strolled out to invite the other guests. A few minutes' walk brought us to the domicile of Thomas Ringwood, Esq., known amongst his intimates as the Bully, a sobriquet he owed to his gruff voice, blustering tone, and skill as a pugilist and cudgel-player. He was member of a well-known and highly respectable English family, who had done all in their power to keep him from disgracing their name by his disreputable propensities. In dress and manner he affected the plain bluff Englishman, wore a blue coat, beaver gloves (or none at all), and a hat broad in the brim, spoke of all foreigners with supreme contempt, and of himself as honest Tom Ringwood. This lip honesty and assumed bluntness were a standing joke with those who knew his real character, but passed muster as perfectly genuine with ingenious and newly imported youngsters like myself, who took him for a wealthy and respectable English gentleman, the champion of fair play, just as at a race, or fair, boobies take for a bona-fide farmer the portly individual in brown tops, who so loudly expresses his confidence in the chances of the thimble rig, and in the probity of the talented individual who manoeuvres the 'little pea.'
"Ringwood was at his rooms, having 'half a round' with the Oxford Chicken, a promising young bruiser who, having recently killed his man in a prize-fight, had come over to Paris for change of air. There was bottled English porter on the table, sand upon the floor to prevent slipping, and the walls were profusely adorned with portraits of well-known pugilists, sketches of steeple-chases, boxing-gloves, masks, and singlesticks. In the comfortable embraces of an arm-chair sat Archibald Lowther, honest Tom's particular ally, who, in every respect, was the very opposite of his Achates. Lowther affected the foreigner and dandy as much as Ringwood assumed the bluff and rustic Briton; wore beard and mustaches, and brilliant waistcoats, owned shirt-studs by the score and rings by the gross, lisped out his words with the aid of a silver tooth-pick, and was never seen without a smile of supreme amiability upon his dark, handsome countenance. Fortunately, both these gentlemen were disengaged for the evening. The day passed in lounging and billiard-playing, varied by luncheon and a fair allowance of liquids, and at half-past seven we sat down to dinner. It did not occur to me at the time that, although Darvel's invitation had the appearance of an impromptu, he did not warn his servant of expected guests, or return home till within an hour of dinner-time. Nevertheless, all was in readiness; not the promised fowl and leg of mutton, but an exquisite repast, redolent of spices and truffles, with wines of every description. I was in high spirits, and drank freely, mixing my liquor without scruple, and towards ten o'clock I was much exhilarated, although not yet drunk, and still tolerably cognisant of my actions. Then came coffee and liqueurs, and whilst Darvel searched in an adjoining room for some particularly fine cigars for my special smoking, Lowther cleared a table, and rummaged in the drawers for cards and dice, whilst Ringwood called for lemons and sugar, and compounded a fiery bowl of Kirschwasser punch. It was quite clear we were to have a night of it. Darvel's declaration that he would have no high play in his rooms, and would turn every one out at midnight, was replied to by me with a boisterous shout of laughter, in which I was vociferously joined by Lowther, who, to all appearance, was more than half tipsy. We sat down to play for moderate stakes; fortune favoured me at the expense of Ringwood and Lowther. The former looked sulky, the latter became peevishly noisy and excited, cursed his luck, and insisted on increasing the stakes. Darvel strongly objected; as winner, I held myself bound to oppose him, and the majority carried the day. The stakes were doubled, quadrupled, and at last became extravagantly high. Presently in came a couple more 'friends,' in full evening costume, white-waistcoated and gold-buttoned, patent leather, starch and buckram from heel to eyebrow. They were on their way to a rout at the Marchioness of Montepulciano's, but, seeing light through Darvel's windows, came up 'just to see what was going on.' With great difficulty they were prevailed upon to take a cigar and a hand at cards, and to disappoint the Marchioness. It was I who, inspired by deep potations and unbounded good fellowship, urged and insisted upon their stopping. My three friends did not seem nearly so cordial in their solicitations, and subsequently, when I came to think over the night's proceedings, I remembered a look of vexation exchanged between them, upon the entrance of the uninvited vultures who thus intruded for their share of the spoil. Doubtless, the worthy trio would rather have kept me to themselves. They suppressed their discontent, however; externally all was honeyed cordiality and good feeling; the Bully made perpetual bowls of punch, and I quaffed the blazing alcohol till I could scarcely distinguish the pips on the cards. But scenes like these have been too often described for their details to have much interest. Enough, that at six o'clock the following morning I threw myself upon my bed, fevered, frantic, and a beggar. I had given orders upon my London agent for the very last farthing I possessed.
"Lowther, to all appearance the least sober and worst player of the party, had been chief winner. Ringwood had won a little; Madame Montepulciano's friends did not make a bad night's work of it, although they declared their gains trifling, but as there had been a good deal of gold and some bank-notes upon the table, it was difficult to say exactly how the thing had gone. Darvel, who had frequently made attempts to stop the play—attempts frustrated by Lowther's drunken violence, Ringwood's dogged sullenness, and my own mad eagerness—was visibly a loser; but what mattered that, when his confederates won? There is honour amongst thieves, and no doubt next day witnessed an equitable division of the spoils.
"It was the second day after the debauch before I again saw any of my kind friends. I spent the greater part of the intervening one in bed, exhausted and utterly desponding, revolving in my mind my desperate position. I had no heart to go out or see anybody. At last Darvel called upon me, affected great sorrow for my losses, deplored my obstinacy in playing high against his advice, and inveighed against Lowther for his drunken persistence. Anxiety and previous excess had rendered me really unwell; Darvel insisted on sending me his physician, and left me with many expressions of kindness, and a promise to call next day. All this feigned sympathy was not lavished without an object; the gang had discovered I might still be of use to them. In what way, I did not long remain ignorant. During a week or more that I remained in the house, suffering from a sort of low fever, Darvel came daily to sit with me, brought me newspapers, told me the gossip of the hour, and not unfrequently threw out hints of better times near at hand, when the blind goddess should again smile upon me. At last I learned in what way her smiles were to be purchased. I was convalescent; my doctor had paid his farewell visit, and pocketed my last napoleon, when Darvel entered my room. After the usual commonplace inquiries, he sat down by the fire, silent, and with a gloomy countenance. I could not help noticing this, for I was accustomed to see him cheerful and talkative upon his visits to me; and I presently inquired if any thing had gone wrong.
"'Yes—no—nothing with me exactly, but for you. I am disappointed on your account.'
"'On my account?'
"'Yes. I wrote to England some days ago, urging friends of mine in high places to get you a snug berth, and to-day I have received answers.'
"'No, ill—cold comfort enough. Lots of promises, but with an unmistakeable hint that many are to be served before me, and that we must wait several months—which with those people means several years—before there will be a chance of a good wind blowing your way. I am infernally sorry for it.'
"'And I also,' I replied, mournfully. There was a short pause.
"'How are you off for the sinews of war?' said Darvel.
"'You may find some small change on the chimney-piece—my last money.'
"'The devil! This won't do. We must fill your exchequer somehow. You must be taken care of, my boy.'
"'Easy to say,' I answered, 'but how? Unless you win me a lottery prize, or show me a hidden treasure, my purse is likely to continue empty.'
"'Pshaw! hidden treasure indeed! There are always treasures to be found by clever seekers. Nothing without trouble.'
"'I should not grudge that.'
"'Perhaps not; but you young gentlemen are apt to be proud and squeamish.'
"'Pshaw!' said I in my turn, 'you know I can't afford to be that. Money I must have, no matter how.'
"I spoke thoughtlessly, and without weighing my words, but also without evil meaning. I merely meant to express my willingness to work for my living, in ways whose adoption I should have scoffed at a fortnight previously. Darvel doubtless understood me differently—thought dissipation and reckless extravagance had blunted my sense of honour and honesty, and that I was ripe for his purpose. After a minute or two's silence—
"'By the bye,' he said, 'are not you intimate with the young D——s, sons of that rich old baronet Sir Marmaduke D——?'
"'Barely acquainted,' I replied, 'I have seen them once or twice, but it is a long time back, and we should hardly speak if we met. They are poor silly fellows, brought up by a fool of a mother, and by a puritanical private tutor.'
"'They have broken loose from the apron-string then, for they arrived here yesterday on their way to Italy, Greece, and the Lord knows where. Why don't you call upon them. They are good to know. They have swinging letters of credit on Paris and half the towns in Europe.'
"'I see no use in calling on them, nor any that their letters of credit can be to me.'
"'Pshaw! who knows? They are to be a month here. It might lead to something.'
"'To what?' I inquired indifferently. A gesture of impatience escaped Darvel.
"'You certainly are dull to-day—slow of comprehension, as I may say. Recollect what some play-writing man has said about the world being an oyster for clever fellows to open. Now these D——s are just the sort of natives it is pleasant to pick at, because their shells are lined with pearls. Well, since you won't take a hint, I must speak plainly. Dine to-day at the table-d'hote of the Hotel W——. The D——s are staying there, and you are safe to fall in with them. Renew your acquaintance, or strike up a fresh one, whichever you please. You are a fellow of good address, and will have no difficulty in making friends with two such Johnny Newcomes. Ply them with Burgundy, bring them here or to my rooms, we will get Lowther and Ringwood, and it shall be a hundred pounds in your pocket.'
"I must have been a fool indeed, had I doubted for another instant the meaning and intentions of my respectable ally. As by touch of enchanter's wand, the scales fell from my eyes; illusions vanished, and I saw myself and my associates in the right colours, myself as a miserable dupe, them as vile sharpers. So confounded was I by the suddenness of the illumination, that for a moment I stood speechless and motionless, gazing vacantly into the tempter's face. He took my silence for acquiescence, and opened his lips to continue his base hints and instructions. Roused into vehement action by the sound of his odious voice, I grasped his collar, and seizing a horsewhip that lay opportunely near, I lashed the miscreant round the room till my arm could strike no longer, and till the inmates of the house, alarmed by his outcries, assembled at the door of my apartment. Too infuriated to notice them, I kicked the fellow out and remained alone, to meditate at leisure upon my past folly and present embarrassments. The former was irreparable, the latter were speedily augmented. I know not what Darvel told the master of the house (I subsequently found he had had an interview with him after his ejection from my room), but two days later, the month being at an end, I received a heavy bill, with an intimation that my apartments were let to another tenant, and a request for my speedy departure. I was too proud to take notice of this insolence, and too poor, under any circumstances, to continue in so costly a lodging. Money I had none, and it took the sacrifice of my personal effects, including even much of my wardrobe, to satisfy my landlord's demand. I settled it, however, and removed, with a heavy heart, a light portmanteau, and a hundred francs in my pocket, to a wretched garret in a cheap faubourg.
"You will think, perhaps, that I acted rashly, and should have sought temporary assistance from friends before proceeding to such extremities. But the very few persons who might have been disposed to help me, I had long since neglected for the society of the well-dressed thieves by whom I had been so pitilessly fleeced. And had it been otherwise, I knew not how to beg or borrow. My practice had been in giving and lending. The first thing I did, when installed in my sixieme at twenty francs a-month, was to write to my uncle in England, informing him, without entering into details, of the knavery of which I had been victim, expressing my penitence for past follies, and my desire to atone them by a life of industry. I craved his advice as to the course I should adopt, declared a preference for the military profession, and entreated, as the greatest of favours, and the only one I should ever ask of him, that he would procure me a commission, either in the British service or Indian army. I got an answer by return of post, and, before opening it, augured well from such promptitude. Its contents bitterly disappointed me. My uncle's agent informed me, by his employer's command, that Mr Oakley, of Oakley Manor, was not disposed to take any notice of a nephew who had disgraced him by extravagance and evil courses, and that any future letters from me would be totally disregarded. I felt that I deserved this; but yet I had hoped kinder words from my dead father's elder brother. The trifling assistance I asked would hardly have been missed out of his unencumbered income of ten thousand a-year. This was my first advertisement of the wide difference that sometimes exists between relatives and friends. Gradually I gathered experience, paid for, in advance, at a heavy rate.
"Of course, I did not dream of renewing an application thus cruelly repulsed, but resolved to rely on myself alone, and to find some occupation, however humble, sufficient for my subsistence. I had no idea, until I tried, of the immense difficulty of procuring such occupation. Master of no trade or handicraft, I knew not which way to turn, or what species of employment to seek. I was a good swordsman, and once I had a vague notion of teaching fencing; but even had I had the means to establish myself, the profession was already over-stocked; and not a regiment of the Paris garrison but could turn out a score of prevots to button me six times for my once. I could ride, which qualified me for a postilion, and had sufficient knowledge of billiards to aspire to the honourable post of a marker; but even to such offices—could I have stooped to compete for them—I should have been held ineligible without certificates of character. And to whom was I to apply for these? To my gay acquaintances of the Cafe de Paris? To the obsequious banker to whom I had come handsomely accredited, and who had given me a sumptuous dinner in his hotel of the Rue Bergere? To the noble and fashionable families to whom I had brought letters of recommendation, and whom I had neglected after a single visit? To which of these should I apply for a character as groom? And how was I to exist without condescending to some such menial office? To aught better, gentleman though I was, I had no qualifications entitling me to aspire. It was a sharp but wholesome lesson to my vanity and pride, to find myself, so soon as deprived of my factitious advantage of inherited wealth, less able to provide for my commonest wants than the fustian-coated mechanic and hob-nailed labourer, whom I had been wont to splash with my carriage-wheel and despise as an inferior race of beings. Bitter were my reflections, great was my perplexity, during the month succeeding my sudden change of fortune. I passed whole days lying upon the bed in my melancholy lodging, or leaning out of the window, which looked over a dreary range of roofs, ruminating my forlorn position, and endeavouring, but in vain, to find a remedy. This was urgent; but no cudgelling of my brain suggested one, and at last I saw myself on the brink of destitution. A score of five-franc pieces had constituted my whole fortune after satisfying my former extortionate landlord. These were nearly gone, and I knew not how to obtain another shilling; for my kit was reduced to linen and the most indispensable necessaries. I now learned upon how little a man may live, and even thrive and be healthy. During that month, I contrived to keep my expenses of food and lodging within two francs a-day, making the whole month's expenditure considerably less than I had commonly thrown away on an epicurean breakfast or dinner. And I was all the better for the coarse regimen to which I thus suddenly found myself reduced. Harassed in mind though I was, my body felt the benefit of unusual abstinence from deep potations, late hours, and sustained dissipation. The large amount of foot-exercise I took during these few weeks, doubtless contributed also to restore tone and vigour to a constitution which my dissolute career, however mad and reckless, had not been long enough seriously to impair. When weary of my lonesome attic, I would start through the nearest barrier, avoiding the streets and districts where I might encounter former acquaintances, and take long walks in the environs of Paris, returning with an appetite that gave a relish even to the tough and unsavoury viands of a cheap traiteur.
"It chanced, upon a certain day, when striding along the road to Orleans, that I met a regiment of hussars changing their quarters from that town to Paris. The morning sun shone brightly on their accoutrements; the hoofs of their well-groomed horses rang upon the frosty road; the men, closely wrapped in their warm pelisses, looked cheerful, in good case, and in high spirits at the prospect of a sojourn in the capital. I seated myself upon a gate to see them pass, and could not avoid making a comparison between my position and that of a private dragoon, which resulted considerably to my disadvantage. I was not then so well aware as I have since become, of all the hardships and disagreeables of a soldier's life; and it appeared to me that these fellows, well clothed, well mounted, and with their daily wants provided for, were perfect kings compared to a useless, homeless, destitute being like myself. Their profession was an honourable one; their regiment was their home; they had comrades and friends; and their duty as soldiers properly done, none could reproach or oppress them. The column marched by, and was succeeded by the rear-guard, half-a-dozen smart, sunburned hussars, with carbine on thigh; one of whom sang, in a mellow tenor voice, and with considerable taste, the well-known soldier's song out of La Dame Blanche. In their turn they disappeared behind a bend of the road; but the spirited burthen of the ditty still reached my ears after they were lost to my view—
'Ah, quel plaisir! ah, quel plaisir! Ah, quel plaisir d'etre soldat!'
I repeated to myself, as the last notes died in the distance, and jumping off the gate, I turned my steps towards Paris, my mind strongly inclining to the sabre and worsted lace.
"My half-formed resolution gathered strength from reflection, and on reaching Paris I proceeded straight to the Champ de Mars. The spectacle that there met my eyes was of a nature to encourage my inclination to embrace a military career, even in the humble capacity of a private trooper. It was a cavalry field-day, and a number of squadrons manoeuvred in presence of several general officers and of a brilliant staff, whilst soldiers of various corps,—dragoons, lancers, cuirassiers and hussars, stood in groups watching the evolutions of their comrades. Veterans from the neighbouring Hotel des Invalides—scarred and mutilated old warriors, who had shared the triumphs and reverses of the gallant French armies from Valmy to Waterloo—talked of their past campaigns and criticised the movements of their successors in the ranks. Several of these parties I approached within ear-shot, and overheard, with strong interest, many a stirring reminiscence of those warlike days when the Corsican firebrand set Europe in a flame, and spread his conquering legions from Moscow to Andalusia. At last I came to a group of younger soldiers, who discussed more recent if less glorious deeds of arms. The words Bedouins, razzia, Algerie, recurred frequently in their discourse. I started at the sounds. They reminded me of what I had previously forgotten, that there was still a battle-field in the world where danger might be encountered and distinction won. True, I might have wished more civilised foes than the tawny denizens of the desert, and a more humane system of warfare than that pursued by the French in Africa. But my circumstances forbade over-nicety, and that day I enlisted as volunteer in the light cavalry, merely stipulating that I should be placed in a corps then serving in Africa.
"Should you care to hear, I will give you at a future time some details of my military novitiate and African adventures. The former was by no means easy, the latter had little to distinguish them from those of thousands of my comrades. A foreign service is rarely an agreeable refuge, and that of France is undoubtedly the very worst an Englishman can enter. The old antipathy to England, weakened in the breasts of French civilians, still exists to a great extent amongst the military classes of the population. A traditionary feeling of hatred and humiliation has been handed down from the days of our Peninsular victories, and especially from that of the crowning triumph at Waterloo,—the battle won by treachery, as many Frenchmen affirm, and some positively believe. A French barrack-room, I can assure you, is anything but a bed of roses to a British volunteer. I was better off, however, than most of my countrymen would have been under similar circumstances. Speaking the language like a native—better, indeed, than the majority of those with whom I now found myself associated—I escaped the mockery and annoyances which an English accent would inevitably have perpetuated. My country was known, however; it was moreover discovered that in birth and education I was superior to those about me, and these circumstances were sufficient to draw upon me envy and insult. Of the former I took no heed, the latter I promptly and fiercely resented, feeling that to do so was the only means of avoiding a long course of molestation. Two or three duels, whence my skill with the foils brought me out unscathed and with credit, made me respected in my regiment, and whilst thus establishing my reputation for courage, I did my best to conciliate the good-will of those amongst whom I was henceforward to live. To a great extent I was successful. My quality of an Englishman gradually ceased to give umbrage or invite aggression, and, if not forgotten, was rarely referred to.
"I was found an apt recruit, and after far less than the usual amount of drill I was dismissed to my duty in the ranks of my present regiment, with which I returned from Africa at the beginning of this winter, and am now in garrison at Paris. My steady attention to my duties, knowledge of writing and accounts, and conduct in one or two sharply-contested actions, obtained me promotion to the grades of corporal and fourrier. For my last advancement, to the highest non-commissioned rank, I am indebted to an affair that occurred a few weeks before we left Africa. A small division, consisting of three battalions and as many squadrons, including mine, moved from Oran and its neighbourhood, for the purpose of a reconnaissance. After marching for a whole day, we halted for the night near a lonely cistern of water. The only living creature we saw was a wretched little Arab boy, taking care of three lean oxen, who told us that, with the exception of his parents, the whole tribe inhabiting that district had fled on news of our approach, and were now far away. This sounded rather suspicious, and all precautions were taken to guard against surprise. Pickets and outposts were established, the bivouac fires blazed cheerily up, rations were cooked and eaten, and, wrapped in our cloaks, we sought repose after the day's fatigue. Tired though we were, sleep was hard to obtain, especially for us cavalry men, by reason of the uneasiness of our horses, which scarcely ceased for a moment to neigh and kick and fight with each other. Troopers always look upon this as a bad omen, and more than one old soldier, whilst caressing and calming his restless charger, muttered a prediction of danger at hand. For once, these military prophets were not mistaken. About two hours after midnight, the bivouac was sunk in slumber, the horses had become quieter, and the silence was rarely broken, save by the warning cry of 'Sentinelle, garde a vous!' when suddenly a few dropping shots were heard, the drum of a picket rattled a loud alarm, and a shout arose of 'Les Arabes!' In an instant, the encampment, so still before, swarmed like a hive of bees. Luckily we had all laid down fully accoutred, with our weapons beside us, so that, as we sprang to our feet, we found ourselves ready for action. The general, who alone had a small tent, rushed half-dressed from under his canvass. Our veteran colonel was on foot with the first, cool as on parade, and breathing defiance. 'Chasseurs, to your horses!' shouted he in stentorian tones, hoarse from the smoke of many battles. At the word we were in the saddle. On every side we heard wild and savage shouts, and volleys of small arms, and the pickets, overpowered by numbers, came scampering in, with heavy loss and in much confusion. There was no moon, but by the starlight we saw large bodies of white shadowy figures sweeping around and towards our encampment. Our infantry had lain down in order, by companies and battalions, according to a plan of defence previously formed, and now they stood in three compact squares, representing the three points of a triangle; whilst in the intervals the squadrons manoeuvred, and the artillerymen watched opportunities to send the contents of their light mountain-howitzers amongst the hostile masses. With whoop and wild hurrah, and loud invocations of Allah and the Prophet, the Bedouin hordes charged to the bayonet's point, but recoiled again before well-directed volleys, leaving the ground in front of the squares strewed with men and horses dead and dying. Then the artillery gave them a round, and we cavalry dashed after them, pursuing and sabring till compelled to retire before fresh and overwhelming masses. This was repeated several times. There were many thousand Arabs collected around us, chiefly horsemen; and had their discipline equalled their daring, our position would have been perilous indeed. Undismayed by their heavy loss, they returned again and again to the attack. At last the general, impatient of the protracted combat, wheeled up the wings of the squares, reserved the fire till the last moment, and received the assailants with so stunning a discharge that they fled to return no more. The cavalry of course followed them up, and our colonel, Monsieur de Bellechasse, an old soldier of Napoleon's, ever foremost where cut and thrust are passing, headed the squadron to which I belong. Carried away by his impetuosity, and charging home the flying Bedouins, he lost sight of prudence, and we soon found ourselves surrounded by a raging host, who, perceiving how few we were, stood at bay, and in their turn assumed the offensive. Seen in the dim starlight, with their tawny faces, gleaming eyes, white burnous, and furious gesticulations, the Arabs seemed a legion of devils let loose for our destruction. Our ranks were disordered by the pursuit, and we thus lost one of our chief advantages; for the Bedouins, unable to resist the charge in line of disciplined cavalry, are no despicable opponents in a hand-to-hand melee. And this the combat soon became. Greatly outnumbered, we fought for our lives, and of course fought our best. I found myself near the colonel, who was assailed by two Arabs at one time. He defended himself like a lion, but his opponents were strong and skilful, and years have impaired the activity and vigour which procured him, a quarter of a century ago, the reputation of one of the most efficient dragoons in Buonaparte's armies. There were none to aid him, for all had their hands full, and I myself was sharpset with a brawny Bedouin, who made excellent use of his scimitar. At last I disabled him by a severe cut on the sword arm; he gnashed his teeth with rage, turned his beautiful horse with lightning swiftness, and fled from the fight before I had time to complete my work. I was glad to be quit of him at any price, as I was now able to strike in by the colonel's side. The old warrior was hard put-to; a sabre cut had knocked off his shako, and inflicted a wound on his high, bald forehead, slight indeed, but the blood from which, trickling into his eyes, nearly blinded him, and he was fain to leave go his reins to dash it away with his hand. The Arabs perceived their advantage, and pressed him hard, when I charged one of them in the flank, bringing the breast of my horse against the shoulder of his, and cutting at the same time at his head. Man and beast rolled upon the ground. M. de Bellechasse had scarcely time to observe from whom the timely succour came, when I dashed in before him, and drew upon myself the fury of his remaining foe. Just then, to my infinite relief, I heard at a short distance a steady regular fire of musketry. It was the infantry, advancing to our support. The Arabs heard it also, and having had, for one day, a sufficient taste of French lead, beat a precipitate retreat, scouring away like phantoms, and disappearing in the gloom of the desert. I was triply recompensed for my share in this action, by honourable mention in general orders, by promotion to the rank of marechal des logis—equivalent to troop sergeant-major in the English service—and by the personal thanks of my excellent old colonel, who shook me heartily by the hand, and swore 'Mille millions de sabres!' that after successfully guarding his head against Russian, Prussian, and Austrian, Englishman and Spaniard, he would have been ignominiously cut to pieces by a brace of black-faced heathens, but for my timely interposition. Since then he has shown me unvarying kindness, for which I am indebted chiefly to my preservation of his life, but partly also to his high approval of the summary manner in which I upset, by a blow of my sabre and bound of my horse, one of his swarthy antagonists, reminding him, as he always mentions when telling the story, of a similar feat of his own when attacked on the Russian retreat by three gigantic Tartars from the Ukraine. Since we have been in garrison here, he has frequently had me at his house, nominally to assist in the arrangement of regimental accounts and orders, but in reality to take opportunities of rendering me small kindnesses; and latterly, I am inclined to think, a little for the pleasure of talking to me of his old campaigns. He soon discovered, what he previously had some inkling of, that my original position in the world was superior to my present one; and I am not without hopes, from hints he has let fall, that he will, at no very distant day, procure my promotion to a cornetcy. These hopes and alleviations enable me to support, with tolerable patience and cheerfulness, the dull ordeal of a garrison life, seldom so pleasantly varied as by my meeting with you. And now, that I have inflicted my whole history upon you," added Oakley, with a smile, "I must bid you good-by, for duty calls,—no longer, it is true, to action in the field, but to the monotonous routine of barrack ordinances."
Thanking Oakley for his interesting narrative, I gave him my address, and begged him to visit me. This he promised to do, and we parted. Three days later he called upon me; I kept him to dine with me at my lodgings, and had reason, during an evening of most agreeable conversation, to be more than ever pleased with the tone of his mind and tenor of his discourse. The unthinking rake of former days must have learned and reflected much during his period of adversity and soldiering, to convert himself into the intelligent, well-informed, and unaffected man he had now become. One thing that struck me in him, however, was an occasional absence of mind and proneness to reverie. If there was a short pause in the conversation, his thoughts seemed to wander far away; and at times an expression of perplexed uneasiness, if not of care, came over his countenance. I had only to address him, however, to dissipate these clouds, whencesoever they came, and to recall his usual animated readiness of manner.
A fortnight now elapsed without my again seeing him. I was to return to England in a couple of days, and was busy one evening writing letters and making preparations for departure, when the bell at the door of my apartment was hastily rung. I opened, and Oakley entered. At first I hardly recognised him, for he was in plain clothes, which had the effect of converting the smart sergeant into an exceedingly handsome and gentlemanlike civilian. It struck me he looked paler than usual, and grave, almost anxious. His first words were an apology for his intrusion at so late an hour, which I cut short by an assurance of my gladness to see him, and an inquiry if I could do anything for him in England.
"When do you go?" said he.
"The day after to-morrow."
"I want nothing there," was his reply; "but before you go you can render me a great service, if you will."
"If I can, be sure that I will."
"You may perhaps hesitate, when you hear what it is. I want you to be my second in a duel."
"In a duel!" I repeated, greatly astonished, and not over-pleased at the idea of being mixed up in some barrack-room quarrel. "In a duel! and with whom?"
"With an officer of my regiment."
"Of your own rank, I presume?" said I, a little surprised at the sort of assumption by which he called a sergeant an officer.
"In that case I need not have troubled you," he replied; "I could have found a dozen seconds. But my antagonist is a commissioned officer—a lieutenant of the same regiment with myself, although in a different squadron."
"The devil he is!" I exclaimed. "That becomes a case for court-martial."
"Undoubtedly," replied Oakley, "for me, but no harm can accrue to you. I am your countryman; I come to you in plain clothes and ask you to be my second in a duel. You consent; we go on the ground and meet another man, apparently a civilian, of whose military quality or grade you are in no way supposed cognisant. Duels occur daily in France, as you know, and no notice is taken of them, even when fatal. I assure you there is no danger for you."
"I was not thinking of myself. But if you escape unhurt from the encounter, you will be shot for attempting the life of your superior."
Oakley shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "I know that, but must take my chance;" but made no other reply to my remark.
"I will tell you the circumstances," he said, "and you shall judge for yourself if I can avoid the duel. When talking to you of my kind old colonel, I did not tell you of his only daughter, Bertha de Bellechasse, the most beautiful and fascinating of her sex. On our return from Africa, the colonel, in his gratitude for the man who had saved his life, presented me to his wife and child, pronouncing at the same time an exaggerated encomium on my conduct. The ladies gave me their hands to kiss, and had I shed half my blood in saving that of the colonel, I should have been more than repaid by Bertha's gracious smile, and by her warm expression of thanks to her father's preserver. Madame de Bellechasse, I suspect, was about to give me her purse, but was checked by a sign from her husband, who doubtless told them, after my departure, as much as he knew of my history,—that I was a foreigner and a gentleman, whom circumstances had driven to don the coarse vest of the private dragoon. He may perhaps have added some of the romantic stories current in the regiment when I first joined. I had never been communicative concerning my past life, which I felt was nothing to boast of; and regimental gossips had drawn upon their invention for various strange tales about the Milord Anglais. When I became domesticated in the corps, and my country was almost forgotten, these fictitious histories ceased to be repeated, and fell into oblivion; but some of them were revived for the benefit of the colonel, when, after the action near Oran, he instituted inquiries concerning me amongst his officers. It was not till some weeks later that he asked and received from me a plain unvarnished account of my very commonplace career. It is possible that the sort of mystery previously attaching to me, combined with her father's glowing eulogiums and her own gratitude for his preservation, worked upon Bertha's ardent and susceptible imagination, prepossessing her in my favour. For my part, I had been struck to the heart by the very first glance from the dark eyes that sparkled like diamonds beneath their lashes of sable silk; I had been captivated and fettered on the instant, by the smile of enchanting sweetness that played round her graceful lips. For a while I struggled steadfastly against the passionate impulse; its indulgence I felt would be madness, and could result but in misery. What folly for the penniless soldier, even though time and her father's protection should convert him into an equally penniless officer, to raise his eyes to the rich, the beautiful, the brilliant daughter of the Count de Bellechasse! Rejection, ridicule, contempt, could be the sole recompense of such presumption. M. de Bellechasse, although an officer of Napoleon's, is of old French nobility; his wealth is very great; and if he still continues to serve, it is solely from enthusiastic love of his profession. His daughter is a match for the first in the land. All these and many more such arguments did I again and again repeat to myself; but when had reason a chance against love? Repeatedly did I vow to forget the fair vision that had crossed my path and troubled my repose, or to think of her only as the phantom of a dream, unsubstantial and unattainable. But the resolution was scarcely formed, when I found myself dwelling on her perfections, recapitulating the few gentle words she had addressed to me, recalling her voice, her look, her gesture. One moment, in view of the precipice on whose brink I stood, I swore to shun her perilous presence, and to avert my eyes should I again find myself in it: not an hour afterwards I eagerly seized a pretext that led me to her father's house, and afforded me the possibility of another glimpse of my idol. Such glimpses were not difficult to obtain. The colonel's partiality to me daily increased, and when I went to him on regimental matters, and he was alone with his wife and daughter, he would receive me in the drawing-room in their presence, and waiving for the time the difference of grade, would converse with me as affably as with an equal, and make me repeat, for the amusement of the ladies, some of our African skirmishes and adventures. Doubtless I should have avoided these dangerous interviews, but how was it to be done without an appearance of ingratitude and discourtesy? Truth to tell, I taxed my invention but little for means of escaping them. I continued to see Bertha, and at each interview my passion gathered strength. She listened with marked attention to my anecdotes of our campaigns. These I always addressed to her father or mother; but without looking at her, I could feel her eyes fixed upon me with an expression of interest, and, I at last ventured to think, of a more tender feeling. About this time the colonel frequently kept me for hours together at his house, arranging regimental papers and accounts, in a room upon the ground floor, set apart for the purpose. Within this room is another, used as a library; and thus it happened that one day, when immersed in states and muster-rolls, I beheld the door open, and the fairy form of Bertha upon the threshold. She appeared confused at seeing me; I rose and bowed in silence as she passed through the apartment, but I was taken too much by surprise to have full command over myself, and doubtless my eyes said something of what my lips would gladly have spoken, for before Bertha reached the outer door, her cheeks were suffused with blushes. Again and again these meetings, sweet as transient, occurred. But I will not weary you by dwelling upon such passages.
"We abandoned ourselves to the charm of our attachment, sadly embittered by its hopelessness. Since then, I have had almost daily occupation at the colonel's house, and Bertha has found means to afford me brief but frequent interviews. At these we discussed, but ever in vain, the possibility of breaking our secret to M. de Bellechasse. Frank and affable though he be, the colonel's pride of birth is great, and we were well assured that the disclosure of our correspondence would produce a terrific explosion of fury, consign Bertha to the seclusion of a convent, and draw upon me his hatred and revenge. This morning Bertha came into the room, upon the usual pretext of seeking a book from the library, and the painful and perplexing topic that has long and unceasingly occupied our thoughts was again resumed. For the first time, she had heard her father state his intention of recommending me in the strongest terms for a commission. This let in a ray of hope upon our despondency; and we resolved that, so soon as the epaulet was on my shoulder, I should hazard a confession to the colonel. The prospect of a termination to our cruel state of suspense, and the possibility, faint though it indeed was, of a result favourable to our wishes, brought a joyful gleam over Bertha's lovely features, which have lately grown pale with anxiety. On my part, I did my utmost to inspire her with hopes I myself scarce dared to entertain; when, as she stood beside me, her hand clasped in mine, a smile of affection upon her countenance, the door suddenly opened, and, before we had time to separate, Victor de Berg, a lieutenant in my regiment, and a suitor of Bertha's, made a step into the room. For an instant he stood like one thunderstruck, and then, without uttering a word, abruptly turned upon his heel and went out. The next minute the sound of his step in the court warned us that he had left the house.
"Overwhelmed with terror and confusion to an extent that precluded reflection, Bertha fled to her apartment, leaving me to deliberate on the best course to adopt. My mind was presently made up. The only plan was to seek Monsieur de Berg, inform him of our mutual attachment, and appeal to his honour and generosity to preserve inviolate the secret he had surprised. I hurried to his quarters, which were at no great distance. He had already arrived there, and was pacing his apartment in manifest agitation. Since our return from Africa, he had been a declared admirer of Bertha's; by family and fortune he was an eligible suitor, and her father favoured his pretensions, contingent, however, upon his daughter's consent. Dismissing the servant who ushered me in, he addressed me before I had time to enter upon the object of my visit.
"'It is unnecessary,' he said, in a voice choked with passionate emotion, as I was about to speak. 'I can guess all you would say. A single instant informed me of the state of affairs; the half hour that has elapsed since then, has sufficed to mark out my line of conduct. Mr Oakley, I know that by birth and breeding you are above your station. You have forgotten your present position; I will follow your example so far as to waive our difference of military rank. As the friend of Colonel de Bellechasse, I ought, perhaps, instantly to tell him what I have this day learned; as his daughter's suitor, and the son-in-law of his choice, I select another course. Your secret is safe with me. To-night you shall receive a leave of absence, entitling you to quit your uniform; and to-morrow we will meet in the wood of Vincennes, not as officer and sergeant, but as private gentlemen, with arms in our hands. The man whom Bertha de Bellechasse distinguishes by her preference, cannot be unworthy of the proposal I now make to you. Do you accept it?'
"I was astounded by the words. Accustomed to the iron rigidity of military discipline, and to the broad gulf placed between officer and soldier by the king's commission, the possibility of a duel between M. de Berg and myself, although it would have been no unnatural occurrence between rivals of equal rank, had never occurred to me. For a moment I could not comprehend the singular and unheard-of proposal; but a glance at my challenger's countenance, on which the passions agitating him were plainly legible, solved the mystery of his motives. He was a prey to jealous fury; and, moreover, the chivalrous generosity of his character, combined, perhaps, with the fear of irretrievably offending Bertha, prevented his pursuing the course most persons, in his place, would have adopted, and revealing to Colonel de Bellechasse his daughter's predilection for an inferior. By a duel he hoped to rid himself of a favoured rival, whom he might replace in Bertha's heart. It was not necessary she should know by whose hand I had fallen. Such were the reasons that flashed across me, explaining his strange offer of a personal encounter. Doubtless, I defined them more clearly than he himself did. I believe he spoke and acted upon the first vague impulse of a passionate nature, racked by jealousy, and thirsting for revenge upon its cause. I saw at once, however, that by accepting the duel I virtually secured his silence; and overjoyed to preserve my secret, and shield Bertha from her father's wrath at so cheap a price as the exposure of my life, I eagerly accepted M. de Berg's proposal, thanking him warmly for his generosity in thus repudiating the stern prejudices of military rank.
"After fixing hour and weapons, I left him, and then only did the difficulty of finding a second occur to me. For obvious reasons I could not ask the assistance of a comrade; and out of my regiment I had not a single friend in Paris. In my difficulty I thought of you. Our brief acquaintance scarcely warrants my request; but the kindness you have already shown me encourages the hope that you will not refuse me this service. M. de Berg is a man of strict honour, and you may depend on your name and share in the affair remaining undivulged. Even were they known, you, as a foreigner and civilian, would in no way be compromised by the relative position of my opponent and myself, which renders me liable, should the affair get wind, to a court-martial and severe punishment."
Although opposed to duelling, except under circumstances of extraordinary aggravation, I had been more than once unavoidably mixed up in affairs of the kind; and the apprehension of unpleasant results from accession to Oakley's request did not for an instant weigh with me. I was greatly struck by the chivalrous conduct of M. de Berg, and felt strong sympathy with Oakley, in the painful and most peculiar position into which his early follies and unfortunate attachment had brought him. Very brief deliberation was necessary to decide me to act as his second. There was no time to lose, and I begged him to put me at once in possession of the details of the affair, and to tell me where I could find De Berg's second. I was not sorry to learn that it was unnecessary for me to see him, and that all preliminaries were in fact arranged. The duel not being one of those that the intervention of friends may prevent, and Oakley having already fixed time and place with his antagonist, my functions became limited to attending him on the ground. It grew late, and Oakley left me for the night. In order to preserve my incognito in the business—for I had no desire to figure in newspaper paragraphs, or to be arraigned before a criminal tribunal, even with certainty of acquittal—we agreed to meet at eight o'clock the next morning, at a certain coffee-house, a considerable distance from my lodgings, whence a cabriolet would convey us to the place of rendezvous.
It was a fresh and beautiful spring morning, when Oakley and myself descended from our hack vehicle, near the little village of St Mande, and struck into the Bois de Vincennes. There had been rain during the night, and the leaves and grass were heavy with water drops. The sky was bright blue, and the sun shone brilliantly; but over the ground and between the tree trunks floated a light mist, like the smoke of a skirmish, growing thinner as it ascended, and dissipated before it reached the topmost branches. At some distance within the wood, we turned into a secluded glade, seated ourselves upon a fallen tree, and waited. We had come faster than we expected, and were fully a quarter of an hour before our time; but in less than five minutes we heard the sound of steps and voices, soon succeeded by the appearance of three gentlemen, one of whom, by his military gait and aspect, I conjectured to be the officer of Chasseurs. In one of his companions I recognised, after a brief puzzle of memory, a well-known and popular litterateur; doubtless M. de Berg, from motives of delicacy, had not chosen to ask the aid of a brother officer in his duel with a military inferior. The black coat and grave aspect of the third stranger sufficiently indicated the doctor, who, on reaching the ground, separated himself from his companions and retired a little to one side. The others bowed to Oakley and myself. M. de Berg's second stepped forward, and I advanced to meet him. I was particularly pleased with the appearance of Oakley's antagonist. He was a young man of six or seven and twenty, of very dark complexion, with flashing black eyes and a countenance expressive of daring resolution and a fiery temperament. I should have taken him for an Italian, and I afterwards learned that he was a native of Provence, born within a stone's-throw of Italy. I never saw an ardent and enthusiastic character more strongly indicated by physiognomy, than in the case of this young officer; and I began to understand and explain to myself the feelings that had impelled him to challenge the man preferred by the mistress of his choice, even although that man's position was such as, in the eyes of society, forbade the encounter.
More as a matter of duty than with expectation of success, I asked De Berg's second if there were no chance of this meeting terminating peaceably. He shook his head with a decided gesture.
"Impossible," he said. "I am ignorant of the cause of quarrel: I know not even your principal's name. My friend, who may possibly be equally unknown to you, has asked my assistance, pledging himself that the duel is a just and honourable one, which cannot be avoided, but whose motive he has reasons to conceal even from me. Satisfied with this assurance, reposing implicit confidence in his word, I inquire no further. Moreover, once upon the ground, it is difficult creditably to arrange an affair of this kind."
I bowed without replying. The ground was measured, the pistols loaded, the men placed. The toss-up of a five-franc piece gave the first fire to M. de Berg. His bullet grazed Oakley's cheek, but so slightly as scarcely to draw blood. Oakley fired in return. The officer staggered, turned half round, and fell to the ground, the bone of his right leg broken. His second, the doctor, and I, ran forward to his assistance. As we did so, three soldiers, who it afterwards appeared had witnessed, from their concealment amongst the trees, the whole of the proceedings, emerged from the shelter of the foliage, and walked across one end of the open space where the duel had taken place, casting curious and astonished glances in our direction. They had not yet disappeared, when De Berg, whom we had raised into a sitting posture, caught sight of them. He started, and uttered an exclamation of vexation, then looked at Oakley, who had left his ground and stood near to the wounded man.
"Do you see that?" said De Berg, hurriedly, wincing as he spoke, under the hands of the surgeon, who by this time had cut off boot and trousers, and was manipulating the damaged limb.
The soldiers were now again lost to view in the thick wood. It occurred to me that two of them wore dragoon uniforms.
Oakley bowed his head assentingly.
"You had better be off, and instantly," said the lieutenant. "Go to England or Germany. You have leave for a week. I will procure you a prolongation; but be off at once, and get away from Paris. Those fellows have recognised us, and will not be prevented talking."
He spoke in broken sentences, and with visible effort, for the surgeon was all the while poking and probing at the leg in a most uncomfortable manner, and De Berg was pale from pain and loss of blood. Oakley looked on with an expression of regret, and showed no disposition to the hasty flight recommended him.
"Well, doctor," said the officer, with a painful smile, "my dancing is spoilt, eh?"
"Bagatelle!" replied the man of lancets. "Clean fracture, neat wound, well as ever in a month. Your blood's too hot, mon lieutenant; you'll be all the better for losing a little of it."
"There, there," said De Berg kindly to Oakley, "no harm done, you see—to me at least. I should be sorry that any ensued to you. Away with you at once. Take him away, sir," he added to me; "he risks his life by this delay."
I took Oakley's arm, and led him unresistingly away. He was deep in thought, and scarcely replied to one or two observations I addressed to him whilst walking out of the wood. Our cabriolet was waiting; we got in, and took the road to Paris. "I hope you intend following M. de Berg's advice," said I, "and leaving the country for a while, until you are certain this affair does not become known. He evidently fears its getting wind through those soldiers."
"And he is right," said Oakley. "Two of them are of my squadron, and of those two, one is a bad character whom I have frequently had to punish. He will assuredly not lose this opportunity of revenge."
"Then you must be off at once to England. My passport is already countersigned, and you can have it. There is not much similarity in our age and appearance, but that will never be noticed."
"A thousand thanks. But I think I shall remain in Paris."
"And be brought to a court-martial? To what punishment are you liable?"
"Death, according to the letter of the law. The French articles of war are none of the mildest. But, under the circumstances, I daresay I should get off with a few years' imprisonment, followed, perhaps, by serving in a condemned regiment."
"A pleasant alternative, indeed," said I.
"I am no way anxious to incur it," replied Oakley; "but, in fact, I am as safe in Paris as anywhere, at least for a day or two; and possibly M. de Berg may find means of securing the silence of the witnesses. At any rate, it will be time enough to-morrow or the next day to make a run of it. I cannot go upon the instant. There is one person I must see or communicate with before I leave."
I guessed whom he meant, and saw, from his manner, he was resolved to remain, so used no farther arguments to dissuade him. Before entering Paris, we dismissed our vehicle and separated; he betook himself to a small retired lodging, where he had taken up his quarters since the previous evening, and I went home to resume my preparations for departure. I remained in-doors till after dinner, and then repaired to a well-known coffee-house, frequented chiefly by military men. As I had feared, the strange duel between Victor de Berg and a sergeant of his regiment was already the talk of the town. It had been immediately reported by the soldiers who had seen it; M. de Berg was under close arrest, and the police were diligently seeking his antagonist. I left the cafe, jumped into a cabriolet, and made all speed to Oakley's lodging. He was out. I went again, as late as eleven o'clock, but still he was absent; and I was obliged to content myself with leaving a note, containing a word of caution and advice, which I prudently abstained from signing. I then went home and to bed, not a little uneasy about him. The next morning I breakfasted at the coffee-house, in order to get the news; and the first thing I heard was intelligence of Oakley's capture. He had been taken the previous evening, in the neighbourhood of the colonel's house, around which he doubtless hovered in hopes to obtain sight or speech of Bertha.
Few courts-martial ever excited a stronger interest in the French military world than those held upon Lieutenant Victor de Berg and the marechal des logis Francis Oakley. The case was one almost unparalleled in the annals of military offences. A duel between an officer and a sergeant was a thing previously unheard of; and the mystery in which its causes were enveloped aggravated the universal curiosity and excitement. The offenders resolutely refused to throw light upon the subject; it had been vainly endeavoured to ascertain their seconds; the surgeon who attended on the ground had been sought for equally in vain; after placing the first dressings he had disappeared, and another had been summoned to the sufferer's bedside. The wound proved of little importance, and, with the assistance of crutches, De Berg was soon able to get out. Upon their trials, he and Oakley persisted in the same system of defence. When off duty, they said, they had met in society, and had had a dispute on a subject unconnected with the service; the result had been an agreement to settle their difference with pistols. Oakley refused to state from whom the challenge proceeded; but Lieutenant de Berg proclaimed himself the aggressor, and, aware that the sentence would weigh far more heavily on Oakley than on himself, generously assumed a large share of blame. As to the cause of quarrel, names of the seconds, and all other particulars, both culprits maintained a determined silence, which no endeavours of friends or judges could induce them to break. Colonel de Bellechasse and various other officers visited Oakley in his prison, and did their utmost to penetrate the mystery. Their high opinion both of him and De Berg, convinced them there was something very extraordinary and unusual at the bottom of the business, and that its disclosure would tell favourably for the prisoners. But nothing could be got out of the obstinate duellists, who called no witnesses, except to character. Of these a host attended, for both Oakley and De Berg; and nothing could be stronger than the laudatory testimonials given them by their superiors and comrades. These, doubtless, had weighed with the court, for its sentence was considered very lenient. Oakley was condemned to five years' imprisonment, for attempting the life of his officer; De Berg was reprimanded for his forgetfulness of discipline, in provoking or consenting to a personal encounter with a subordinate, was removed from his regiment and placed in non-activity, which, under the circumstances, was equivalent to dismissal from the service, less the disgrace.