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THE ACTRESS IN HIGH LIFE:
An Episode in Winter Quarters.
(Sue Petigru Bowen)
"Grim-Visag'd War hath smooth'd his wrinkled front; And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds, To fright the souls of fearful adversaries, He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber, To the lascivious pleasing of a lute."
New York: Derby & Jackson.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1860, in the Clerk's office of the District Court of South Carolina. C.A. Alvord, Printer, New York.
THE ACTRESS IN HIGH LIFE;
AN EPISODE IN WINTER QUARTERS.
I was a traveler, then, upon the moor, I saw the hare that raced about with joy, I heard the woods and distant waters roar, Or heard them not, as happy as a boy; The pleasant season did my heart employ. My old remembrances went from me wholly, And all the ways of men so vain and melancholy.
Gentle Reader: Wherever you may be, in bodily presence, when you cast your eyes on this page, let it for a few hours transport your complying spirit to a remote region and a bygone day. We may alter names without injury to our story; but every real character, or event, has its own time, place, and accidents; to tear it from them is like transplanting a tree from its native spot; it must be trimmed and pruned, and robbed of its due proportions and its natural grace.
Here, then, on this lovely day, near the end of the year 1812, you are in Alemtejo—the largest, poorest, and, in every sense, worst peopled province of Portugal. As its name implies, you are, as to Lisbon, beyond the Tagus. Hasten eastward over this sandy, arid plain, covered with a forest of stunted sea-pines, through whose tops the west wind glides with monotonous and melancholy moans, fit music for the wilderness around you. Nor need you loiter on this desolate moor, scantily carpeted with heaths of different kinds and varying hues. The drowsy tinkling of the cowbell amidst yonder brushwood, the goats sportively clambering over that ledge of rocks, and those distant dusky spots upon the downs, which may be sheep, tell you that all life has not left the land. You may, perchance, on your journey, see a goatherd or a shepherd here or there; by rarer chance may meet some wayfarer like yourself, but as likely a robber as an honest man; and may find shelter, at least, in one of the few and comfortless vendas, the wretched inns the route affords.
You need not pause to gaze on many a wild scene, some beautiful, and even here and there a fertile spot; nor loiter in this provincial town—rich, perhaps, in Moorish ruins, but in nothing else—but hasten onward till you reach that elevated point, where the road, one hundred miles from Lisbon, winds over the ridge of yonder hill. The chilly night winds of the peninsula have gone to sleep. Here, even in midwinter, the sun at this hour shoots down scorching rays upon your head. Seat yourself by the road-side, on this ledge of slate-rock, at the foot of the cork-oak, which so invitingly spreads out its sheltering arms. Here while you take breath, cast your eyes around you.
You are no longer in the midst of broken, desolate wastes. To the south-west rises the Serra d'Ossa—its sides clothed with evergreen oaks, and a dense growth of underbrush sheltering the wolf and the wild boar, while the northern slope of its rocky ridge is thatched with snow. Before you is spread out the valley of the Guadiana. Sloping downward toward the mighty stream, lie pasture, grove and field, gaily mingled together. There, to the east, sits Elvas, on a lofty hill, whose sides are covered with vineyards, oliveyards and orchards, and just north of it, on a yet loftier peak, with a deep narrow valley lying between them, stands the crowning castle of La Lippe, the strongest fortress in Portugal. Far beyond, but plainly seen through the clear atmosphere of the peninsula, now doubly transparent since it has been purified by the heavy rains which here usher in the winter, rises the blue mountain of Albuquerque, far away in Spanish Estremadura. Whichever way you look, Sierras, nearer or more distant, tower above the horizon, or fringe its utmost verge.
Among these scenes of nature's handiwork, a production of human art demands your attention. See, on your right, the beginning of the ancient aqueduct, reared by Moorish hands, which leads the pure mountain stream for three miles across the valley to the city seated on the hill. Here, the masonry is but a foot or two above the ground; below, the road will lead you under its three tiers of arches, with the water gliding an hundred feet above your head.
But here comes a native of this region to enliven, if not adorn, the landscape. This lean, swarthy young fellow, under his sombrero with ample brim, exhibits a fair specimen of the peasants of Alemtejo. His sheep-skin jacket hangs loosely from his shoulders, and between his nether garment and his clumsy shoes, he displays the greater part of a pair of sinewy legs, which would be brown, were they not so well powdered with the slate dust of the rocky road he travels. With a long goad he urges on the panting beasts, yoked to the rudest of all vehicles—the bullock cart of Portugal. Its low wheels, made of solid wooden blocks, are fastened to the axle-tree, which turns with them, and at every step squeaks out complaining notes under the burden of a cask of the muddy and little prized wine of the province, which is seeking a market at Elvas.
The carter is now overtaken by a peasant girl, who, with basket on her arm, has been gathering chesnuts and bolotas in the wood. They are no strangers to each other, and she exchanges her brisk, elastic step, for a pace better suited to that of the toiling oxen. The beauty of this dusky belle consists of a smiling mouth, bright black eyes, and youth and health. Though fond of gaudy colors, she is not over dressed. A light handkerchief rather binds her raven hair than covers her head. Her bright blue petticoat, scanty in length, and her orange-colored spencer, open in front, both well worn, and showing here and there a rent, but half conceal the graces of her form, and a pair of nimble feet, scorning the trammels of leather, pick their way skillfully along the stony path. That she does not contemn ornament, is shown by her one small golden ear-ring, long since divorced from its mate, and the devout faith which glows in her bosom is symbolized by the little silver image of our lady, slung from her neck by a silken cord, spun by her own silk worms, and twisted by her own hands. In short, she is neither beautiful, nor noble, nor rich; yet her company seems instantly to smooth the road and lighten the toils of travel to her swain. He helps himself, unasked, out of her basket, and urges her to partake of the stores of his leathern wallet—hard goat's cheese—and the crumbling loaf of broa, or maize bread. Soon in deep and sweet conference, in their crabbed, but expressive tongue, he forgets to make occasional use of his goad, and thus keeping pace with the loitering bullocks, they go leisurely along. Let them pass on, and wait for better game.
Turn and look at this cavalcade toiling up toward you. A sudden bend in the road has brought it into view, and its aspect, half native, half foreign—its mixed civil and military character—attract attention. Two mounted orderlies, in a British uniform, lead the way, and are followed by a clumsy Lisbon coach, every part of it well laden with luggage. It is drawn by four noble mules, such as are seldom seen out of the peninsula, deserving more stylish postillions than those who, in ragged jackets, greasy leathern breeches and huge jack boots, are urging them on. Two men sit at ease on the coach box. One, a tall young fellow, looks at a distance like a field-officer in a flashy uniform, but is only an English footman in a gaudy livery, who needs the training of a London winter or two, in a fashionable household, to make him a flunky of the first water. The other, an old man, with a severe countenance, is plainly dressed, but, with a less brilliant exterior, has a more respectable air than his companion. He, too, is the man in authority as, from time to time, he directs the party and urges them on in somewhat impatient tones.
If you are familiar with the country and the times, you may imagine that some British general officer has been so long in the peninsula, that he has adopted the style and equipage of Cuesta, and some other Spanish leaders, and fallen into their habits of slow and dignified motion. You will think it high time for him to be sent home, that some one less luxurious and stately, but more alert and energetic, may fill his place. One look into the coach will undeceive you. Its chief occupant is a lady, whose years do not exceed nineteen; and she is evidently no native of Alemtejo, nor of Portugal; and might have been sent out hither as a specimen of what a more northern country can occasionally produce. While she looks out with deep, yet lively interest on the scenery before and around her, you naturally gaze with deeper interest only upon her. Her companion is her maid, some years older than herself, who might be worth looking at, were her mistress out of the way.
One of the orderlies, turning in his saddle, now points out the city to the old man, who, in turn, leans over to the coach window, and calls out, "My lady, there is Elvas!"
"And my father is in Elvas!" She leans eagerly out of the window; but the front of the clumsy vehicle obstructs the view, and she calls out, "Stop the coach, Moodie, and let me out. I will not go one step further until I have taken a good look at Elvas."
The old man testily orders a halt. The footman opens the door, and the lady springs lightly out, followed by her maid. Neglecting all other objects in sight, she gazes long and eagerly at the city seated on the hill. The interest she shows is no longer merely that of observant curiosity, but is prompted by the gushing affections of the heart. In Elvas, besides much new and strange, there is something known and loved.
She now begins to question the orderlies as to the exact spot where her father has quartered himself; but the old man interrupts her:
"You have traveled a long way, my lady, to get to Elvas, but you will never reach it while you stand looking at it and spiering about it."
"Very true, old Wisdom. How comes it that you are always in the right? Let us push on now, and in an hour," she exclaims, stepping into the coach, "I will see my father, for the first time since I was fourteen."
The coach moves on, but too slowly for her. Leaning out of the window, and surveying the road, she calls out gaily, "Our way lies down hill, Moodie, and they tell me that mules are so sure-footed that they never stumble. Pray buy or borrow that long goad from the young gentleman in the sheep-skin jacket. By skillful use of it you might mend our pace, and bring us sooner to Elvas."
We will leave this impatient lady to hasten on to Elvas, whether expedited or not by the use of the goad, to inquire the occasion of her journey thither.
For five years the peninsula has been one battlefield, and the present has been one of unceasing activity to the British troops. Beginning the year by suddenly crossing the frontier and investing Ciudad Rodrigo, they had taken it by storm in January, while the French were preparing to relieve it. Equally unexpectedly crossing the Tagus and the Guadiana, they had sat down before the strong fortress of Badajoz, and to save a few precious days, in which Soult and Marmont might have united their hosts to its rescue, they, in April, took it in a bloody assault, buying immediate possession at the price of more than a thousand precious lives. No sooner had the disappointed Marshals withdrawn their armies to less exhausted regions, than the forts of Almarez were surprised in May, and the direct route of communication between them cut off. The British army then invaded Spain on the side of the kingdom of Leon: the forts of Salamanca fell before them in June, and in July the battle of Salamanca crushed the French force in that quarter, and opened the road to Madrid to the British, who, driving thence the intrusive king, acquired the control of all central Spain. But, at length, in October, the castle of Burgos defied their utmost efforts, unaided by a siege-train. The French hosts from north, south and east, abandoning rich provinces and strong fortresses they had held for years, gathered around them in overwhelming numbers; and slowly, reluctantly, and with many a stubborn halt, the English general retraced his steps toward Portugal. The prostrated strength of both armies put an end to the campaign. The French gave up the pursuit, being too hungry to march further, or to fight any more; and the discipline and appetites of the British soldiers were indicated, on their march through the forests bordering the Huebra, by the fusilade opened on the herds of swine, which were fattening on the acorns there. For a moment their commander thought himself surprised, and that the country, for miles around, was the scene of one wide-spread skirmish with the foe. Even hanging a few of his men did not put a stop to the disorder. Late in November the troops were permitted to pause for rest, in the neighborhood of Ciudad Rodrigo, with their energies prostrated and their discipline relaxed through the sieges and battles, the continual marches, the exposure and the want of a campaign so long and arduous as this. Strange it seemed to them, after going so far, and doing and suffering so much, that they should end the campaign where they had begun it. Yet they had done much: wrenching the larger and richer half of Spain out of the grasp of the French, and changing their possession of the country to a mere invasion of it.
Such toils need long rest. Privations and sufferings like theirs should be repaid by no scanty measure of plenty and enjoyment. The troops went into winter quarters chiefly between the Douro and the Tagus; but, as an army in this country is always in danger of starvation, a brigade was sent over into Alemtejo, at once, to make themselves comfortable, and to facilitate getting up supplies from a province which now had something in it: as, for four years, the French had been kept out of it.
Accordingly, it was absolutely refreshing to see the liberal provision made for the almost insatiable wants of this brigade—for among them our story lies. They proved themselves good soldiers, to a man, in their zeal to refresh and strengthen themselves against the next campaign, by enjoying, to the full, every good thing within their reach. The officers, especially, ransacked the country for every commodity that could promote enjoyment; and what Alemtejo could not furnish, Lisbon and London must provide. Nothing was too costly for their purses, no place too distant for their search. Doubtless, the veterans of the greatest of all great captains were permitted for a time to run a free and joyous career in Capua; and this brigade, besides having a little corner of Portugal to themselves, somewhat out of sight of the commander-in-chief and of Sir Rowland Hill, enjoyed the further advantage of being led by a good soldier in the field, and a free-liver in garrison and camp, who looked upon his men in winter quarters, after a hard campaign, somewhat in the light of school-boys in the holidays, and was willing to see the lads enjoy themselves freely.
Lord Strathern, a veteran somewhat the worse for wear, had entered the army a cadet of a Scotch family, more noble than rich. At length, the obliging death of a cousin brought him a Scotch peerage, and an estate little adequate to support that dignity. High rank, and a narrow estate, form an inconvenient union; so he stuck to the profession which he loved, and, being a widower, entrusted his only child, a daughter, to a sister in Scotland.
Though he had seen little of domestic life, he was an affectionate man. The briskness of the last campaign, and the number of his friends who dropped off in the course of it, strongly warned him that if he would once again see his daughter, now attaining womanhood, it would be well to lose no time about it. So, one morning, during the retreat from Burgos, after issuing the brigade orders for the day, he penned an order to his sister in Scotland, to send out the young lady, with proper attendants, under the care of the wife of any officer of rank who might be sailing for Lisbon. There she would be within reach, and he might find leisure to visit her.
His sister would have protested against this had she had an opportunity; but the order of the father, and the affectionate and adventurous spirit of the daughter, at once decided the matter. On her arrival, however, in Lisbon, her father was too busy establishing his brigade in comfortable quarters, to meet her there; and the military horizon giving promise of a quiet winter, he summoned her to join him at Elvas.
The brigade had been for some weeks living in clover in their modern Capua, when Lady Mabel Stewart joined her father. A Portuguese provincial town, with its filthy streets and squalid populace, could be no agreeable place of residence to a British lady. Lord Strathern felt this, and, looking about him, found a large building in the midst of an orchard without the walls of Elvas, and more than half-way down the hill. It had been erected by one of the monastic societies of the city, as a place of occasional retirement for pleasure, or devotion, or both. The French had summarily turned them out of it five years before, and so thoroughly plundered them, at the same time, that they had not since found heart or means to repair and refurnish it. Accordingly, it was a good deal dilapidated. But the refectory and the kitchen took his lordship's eye. The former could dine half the officers of the brigade at a time, and the latter allowed abundant elbow-room to cooks and scullions, while preparing the feast. So, here he established the headquarters of his brigade, and here Lady Mabel Stewart made her appearance in the new dignity of womanhood, to preside over his household.
Oh sovereign beauty, you whose charms All other charms surpass; Whose lustre nought can imitate, Except your looking-glass.
Southey, from the Spanish.
The arrival of Lady Mabel Stewart was a god-send to the young officers of the brigade. Already the sources of interest afforded by the country around, began to fail them. Few men can long make a business of mere eating and drinking; red-legged partridges were getting scarce in that neighborhood, and boar hunting in the mountain forests was distant, laborious, and too often, fruitless of game. The scenery of the country, the costume and habits of the people, now familiar to their eyes, palled upon their tastes. They wanted something new to interest them, and were particularly delighted when this novelty came from home. But, above all, the black-haired, dark-eyed daughters of this sunny region grew many shades browner in their eyes. We look not at the daffodils when the lily rears its head. A new and higher order of beauty, rare even at home, now demanded homage, and it was freely paid.
Lord Strathern, a social and jovial man, had always been a favorite with his subalterns, but now his popularity attained its acme. His open house became headquarters, even more in a social than a military sense. It was a little court, and Lady Mabel played the queen regnant there.
Justly proud of her, her father encouraged this, taking all the attention she attracted as compliments to himself; and the gentlemen displayed great ingenuity in devising various excuses for being in frequent attendance at headquarters, in the service of her ladyship. Lieutenant Goring, the best horseman in the —— light dragoons, a squadron of which had been sent hither with the brigade, to fatten their emaciated steeds on the barley and maize of Alemtejo, established himself, uninvited, in the post of equerry, and sedulously devoted himself to training the beautiful Andalusian provided for Lady Mabel's own saddle. Of course, he had to be in attendance when she took the air on horseback. Major Warren, from a free, heedless sportsman, who followed his game for his own pleasure, became gamekeeper, or rather, grand huntsman, bound to lay the feathered, furred, and scaly tribes under contribution to supply her table and tempt her delicate appetite. A proud and happy man was he when skill or fortune enabled him to lay the antlered stag or tusked boar at her feet, and expatiate on the incidents of his sylvan campaign. He, of course, must be often invited to partake of the social meal. Captain Cranfield, of the engineers, had just returned from Badajoz, where he had been repairing shattered bastions, and patching up curtains sadly torn by shot and shell. He found Lady Mabel busy renovating, modernising and adorning the rude and comfortless apartments of her monastic quarters. Immediately his pencil, his professional ingenuity and skill are devoted to her service. He appoints himself architect, upholsterer and improver-general to the household. He designed elegant curtains, with graceful festoons for the misshapen windows, tasteful hangings to conceal bare walls of rough-hewn stone, picturesque screens to hide unsightly corners; and arranged and put them up with as much skill as if, with a native genius for it, he had been bred to the business. The commonest materials became rich chintz and costly arras in his hands, mahogany, or rose-wood, at his bidding. One morning so spent put him on an easier footing with Lady Mabel than a dozen casual meetings; and he quite got the weather gage of both equerry and huntsman, securing frequent and easy intercourse, while advising and assisting her in his inter-menial capacity, whereas these gentlemen's spheres of official duty lay properly out of doors. But he soon found a dangerous rival to take the wind out of his sails, in the person of Major Lumley, who, possessing great taste and skill in music, accidentally heard Lady Mabel singing in one room, while he was conversing with her father in the next. "She has," thought and said the major, "the sweetest voice in the world; and it only needs a little more cultivation to make it heavenly!" Lord Strathern thought so too. The major's instructive talents were put into requisition, and, from private practice, her father led her on, somewhat reluctant, to more public display, and soon the major and herself discoursed exquisite music to the ears of a score of officers, at a musical soiree. If, with the powers, she did not acquire the confidence of a prima donna, it was not his lordship's fault. Had propriety permitted, he would have brought up the brigade in close column of divisions, to hear Lady Mabel sing; and he could not help saying to the gentlemen beside him: "I have heard you young fellows talk about the nightingale, and have even known some of you spend hours in the moonlit grove, listening to their music, but my bird from foggy Scotland can out-warble a wood full of them." And no one felt disposed to contradict him.
How many others, irresistibly attracted, sought, each in his own way, to make himself agreeable, we will not undertake to say. Perhaps Ensign Wade, who, not yet eighteen, had just been rubbing off the school-boy in the last campaign, was the most madly in love with her; unless he was surpassed by little Captain Hatton, who, being but five feet three, had, to the great injury of his marching powers, magnanimously added an extra inch to his boot heels, that Lady Mabel might not look too much down upon him, when so happy as to stand beside her.
Hers was a curious position for a lady, and, yet, more for one so young. She instinctively looked round for the countenance and support which only female companions could give. But, of the very few ladies with the brigade, Mrs. Colonel Colville was at Portalegre, where her husband's regiment was quartered, the wife of Major Grey was shut up with him in his sick room; Mrs. Captain Howe had come out from home less to visit her husband than to cure her rheumatism in the balmy climate of Elvas; and the wife of Captain Ford had just, very injudiciously, presented him with two little Portuguese, who might have made very good Englishmen, had they first seen the light in the right place. If the brigade had suffered heavy loss in the last campaign, the ladies of the brigade were absolutely hors de combat, and could not furnish Lady Mabel even a sentinel in the shape of a chaperon. She felt that this was awkward; but, said she to herself, "If there were any impropriety in my situation here, Papa would not open his house so freely to the officers of the brigade." For she loved and admired him far too much to doubt his judgment on such a point. Now, Lord Strathern had dined the better part of his life at a regimental mess table; and when promotion at length removed him from that genial sphere, he felt selfish and solitary, if he took his dinner and wine without, at least, a corporal's guard of his brother officers around him. So far from deeming his daughter's arrival a reason for excluding them, she was a strong ally, and a delightful addition to his means of entertaining his friends. So she found herself suddenly the centre of a circle, composed of gentlemen only, most of them unmarried, young and gay, and admiring her. In short, Lady Mabel was finishing off her education in a very bad school, worse, perhaps, than a Frenchified academy, devoted to the education of the extremities, in the shape of music, dancing and gabbling French, with a dash of mental and moral training in the development of the sickly imagination of the head and the empty vanities of the heart.
For a time the dilapidated condition of kitchen and refectory restricted the scale of hospitality at headquarters. But Lady Mabel soon completed her reforms of house and household, in which she found old Moodie an able assistant. Captain Cranfield had to bring his labors of love to an end, and Lord Strathern celebrated the event by feasting a large party of his friends.
While the company was assembled, Lady Mabel led a party of the first comers through the apartments, to admire the results of the labor and taste bestowed upon them. Some of the more prying peeped into the kitchen to see what was going on there.
"I am glad to see," said Captain Hatton, "that though this is a monastic house, and this a fast day, we shall not have to dine orthodoxly, on bacalhao and sardinhas."
"Nor be bored with the long Latin grace," said Major Warren, "which the very walls of the refectory are tired of hearing and not understanding."
"Would rendering it into English reconcile you to its length?" asked Lady Mabel.
"Not in the least. I think nothing so heterodox as a long grace, while soup and fish grow cold."
"I am told," said Lady Mabel, ascending to the apartment above, "that this was the abbot's own room."
"That is very likely," said Captain Hatton, "from its neighborhood to the kitchen."
"It is not exactly the apartment," she continued, "which I would design for a lady's withdrawing room. But, if it satisfied the holy father before it was thus improved, it is too good for a heretic like me. I sometimes feel myself a profane intruder here, and, when I call to mind whom this building belongs to, and see so many red-coated gentry stalking at ease through dormitory, refectory and cloisters, I think of rooks who have fled the rookery, before a flock of flamingoes who usurp their place."
"The pious crows," said Captain Hatton, "would forgive our intrusion, did they see the bird of paradise that attracts us hither."
"Put a weight on your fancy, Captain Hatton," said Lady Mabel. "Such another flight and it may soar away altogether. Pray observe the admirable effect of those hangings, with which Captain Cranfield has concealed the dark and narrow passage that leads to the oratory."
Major Warren was provoked at the general admiration of Cranfield's taste and skill, and stung by the repeated thanks with which Lady Mabel repaid his labors, so he endeavored to turn them into ridicule.
"It is a thousand pities, Cranfield, that these happy designs should perish with their temporary use. Let me beg you to send a sketch of them to Colonel Sturgeon, the head of your department. They should be preserved among the draughts and plans of the engineer corps."
Cranfield was about to make angry answer, but Lady Mabel anticipated him by saying: "doubtless, whenever Colonel Sturgeon has occasion to turn monkish cloisters into ladies' bowers, it will save him a world of trouble to avail himself of these designs."
At this moment dinner was announced. Colonel Bradshawe, resolving that his juniors should not have Lady Mabel all to themselves, availed himself of his right of precedence, to hand her into the room, and seated himself at her right hand.
Full thirty guests occupied the space between her father's portly, but martial figure, and her seat at the head of the table; and though, Minerva-like in air and form, she presided there with exquisite grace, she shrunk from this long array, and sought a kind of privacy in devoting her attention, somewhat exclusively, to the senior colonel of the brigade. Knowing how important a matter dining was in his estimation, she soon made a conquest of him, by her judicious care in supplying his wants, tickling his palate, and coinciding in his tastes. She even, for his benefit, called into requisition the unwilling service of old Moodie, who had habitually taken his post behind her, like a sentinel, not troubling himself about the wants of the guests. The colonel might have choked with thirst before he spontaneously handed him a decanter.
Colonel Bradshawe having made himself comfortable, next sought to make himself agreeable. "What a delightful contrast between my situation to-day, and this day year, Lady Mabel."
"Where were you then?"
"About this hour we were fording the Aguada, in a snow storm, to invest Ciudad Rodrigo."
"That was somewhat different from our present occupation."
"We soon finished that little job, however, before we had suffered many privations there. But it proved to be but the opening of a campaign, which I began, after a time, to think would never come to an end."
"And, unhappily," said Lady Mabel, "it did not end quite so well as it promised to do."
"Fortune is a fickle mistress, and fond of showing her character in war," said the colonel. "Sometimes she favors one party with a run of luck, then shifts suddenly over to the other side. So with individuals, only there she is most apt to work at cross purposes. One pretty fellow deserves to live forever, and gets knocked on the head in the first skirmish; another deserves to rise, and all his good service is overlooked or forgotten; another gets praise and promotion for what he never did, or ought never to have done. Some men have such luck! There is L'Isle now, who, after being pushed on as fast as money and family interest could shove him; what next happens to him? Why just for blundering into a Spanish village, and being nearly taken with his whole command, he is made a lieutenant-colonel on the spot."
"That is a curious result of such a blunder."
"Curious, but true. This is capital port," interjected the colonel, emptying his glass. "We drank no such stuff as this during the last campaign. I would not disgust you with a detail of our privations; but you must know, Lady Mabel, that during the whole march from Madrid to Burgos, and thence, in retreat, to Ciudad Rodrigo, I never tasted a bottle of wine that deserved the name, except one of Peralta, of which I feel bound to make honorable mention. I met with it by great good luck at the posada at Buitrago; but when I called for another, it was so excellent that the landlord had drank all himself. The stuff we had to drink was made by pouring water on the skins of grapes already pressed. After they had been well macerated in it, it was allowed to ferment and grow sour, then sold to us at the price of good liquor."
"That accounts," said Lady Mabel, "for the provident care you lately showed, in laying in a stock of better liquor for your winter's use. Is it true that you sent a special agent to Xeres de la Frontera, to select the best sherry for the regimental mess?"
"Not exactly a special agent," said the colonel, disclaiming it with a gentle wave of the hand; "but, finding a trusty person, and a capital judge, going thither, we did charge him with a little commission that way."
"I was sorry to hear of your disappointment," added she, in a commiserating tone. "I am told that he found that the firm of Soult, Victor & Co., had already taken up all the oldest and best wine on credit, that is, without paying for it; and you had to put up with new and inferior brands, or go without any."
"It is but too true," said the colonel, with a sigh. "Those rascally Frenchmen had drained the country of everything worth drinking; our agent, very wisely, under the circumstances, made no purchase there, and I am glad of it; for I have since learned, that the Amontillado, which had been recommended to us as the dryest of sherry wines, is made from a variety of grapes plucked before they are ripe."
"How lucky," said Lady Mabel, in a congratulatory tone, "that you have since found out that this wine is made of sour grapes."
A faint suspicion that she was laughing at him induced him to change the topic. "You were never abroad before, I believe. This part of the country has some drawbacks; but I think you will find it, during the winter, a very pleasant part of the world."
"We will all endeavor to make it so to you, Lady Mabel," said Major Warren, who, impatient of his superior's monopoly, here tried to edge in a word. But the colonel cut him short with "That's a mere truism, Warren, a self-evident proposition. Let us have nothing more of that sort. One of the peculiarities of this climate, Lady Mabel, is that it has a double spring: one in February and another in April. Then we will see you take your appropriate place in the picture, representing the heyday of youth in the midst of spring, and beauty, surrounded by flowers."
She bowed low, in suppressing a laugh at this elaborate compliment, and said, "Will spring be so soon upon us?"
"In a fortnight you may gather the same flowers which at home you must wait for till May."
"Not the same flowers," said she, quickly. "Portugal has a Flora peculiar to itself, embracing very few of our native British plants. I am on my strong ground on this topic, being a pupil of Dr. Graham, who relieves his graver studies by striving to rival King Solomon in the knowledge of plants, 'from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on the wall.' I am pledged to carry home a vast hortus siccus for him."
"Oh! a scientific young lady—perhaps a little of a blue-stocking, too," said the colonel to himself. "I must hash up a dish to suit her peculiar taste. Though no botanist," continued he aloud, "there is one plant that has strongly attracted my attention, and I recommend it to yours; though your hortus siccus will hardly contain a fair specimen of it."
"What is that?" said she, on the qui vive to hear of some rare plant.
"It is the cork-oak," said the colonel, solemnly. "Its rough exterior has led tourists and artists, and even naturalists, to treat it with neglect, while it is daily contributing to the comfort, delight, and civilization of the world."
"It may, perhaps," said Lady Mabel, hesitating, "be said to do all that you attribute to it."
"Does it not strike you as passing strange, Lady Mabel, (apropos to our subject, pray take a glass of wine with me,) that the Romans, who were, doubtless, a great and a wise people, should have been masters of Spain and Gaul, and of their forests of cork trees for centuries—that these Romans," continued he, growing eloquent on the subject, "who had the tree in their own country, though not, perhaps, in the full perfection of its cortical development, and did apply its bark to a number of useful purposes, including, occasionally, that of stoppers for vessels, should yet never have attained to the systematic use of it in corking their bottles!"
"Strange, indeed," said Lady Mabel. "It was shutting their eyes against the light of nature; for, we may say, that the obvious final end of the cork tree is to provide corks for bottles."
"A great truth well expressed," said the colonel. "Such an oversight has hardly a parallel; unless it be in their invention of printing and never using it. For we see, in the baker's name, stamped on the loaves found in Pompeii, and words impressed on their pottery and other articles, what amounts to stereotype printing; yet they never went on to separate the individual letters, and so become compositors and printers in the usual sense of the art. But they could certainly get on better without printing than without corks."
"Undoubtedly. For the world may—indeed, has—become too full of books; while there is little fear of its becoming too full of bottles; they get emptied and broken so fast."
"I wonder whether Horace," continued Colonel Bradshawe, with a thoughtful air, "when he opened a jar of Falernian, was obliged to finish it at a sitting, to prevent its growing sour? Wine out of a jar! Think of that. With a wooden or earthen stopper, made tight with pitch. Think of having your wine vinho-flavored with pitch! like the vinho verde of these Portuguese peasants, out of a pitchy goat-skin sack."
Lady Mabel looked nauseated at the idea, and the colonel swallowed a glass of Madeira, to wash away the pitchy flavor. "Yes," said he, shaking his head gravely, "they must have often felt sadly the want of a cork. How would it be possible to confine champagne (I am sorry this cursed war prevents our getting any,) until it is set free with all its life and perfection of flavor, just at the moment of enjoyment! They had glass, too, and used glass, these Romans, yet persevered in keeping their wine in those abominable jars. It proves how little progress they had made in the beautiful art of glass-blowing; and, of course, (here the colonel took up a decanter of old Madeira and replenished his glass, after eyeing approvingly the amber-colored liquor,) they were ignorant that wines that attain perfection by keeping, ripen most speedy in light-colored bottles."
"Indeed!" said Lady Mabel, "I did not know that. But I learn something new from you every moment."
"And that," said he, nodding approvingly at her, "is something worth knowing. I doubt, after all, whether these Romans, with the world at their beck, really knew much of the elegant and refined pleasures of life. Setting aside their gladiatorial shows, and the custom of chaining the porter by the leg to the doorpost, that he might not be out of the way when friend or client called on his master, and similar rude habits, there is enough to convict them as a gross people. They put honey in their wine, too! What a proof of childish, or rather, savage taste! Lucullus' monstrous suppers, and Apicius' elaborate feasts, are better to read about than to partake of. Give me, rather, a quiet little dinner of a few well-chosen dishes and wines, and three or four knowing friends, not given to long stories, but spicy in talk, and I will enjoy myself better than 'the noblest Roman of them all.'"
"But, Colonel Bradshawe, how did you become so familiar with Roman manners? Many of us know something of their public life, their wars, conquests, seditions and laws; but you seem to have put aside the curtain, and peered into the house, first floor, garret and cellar."
"You overrate my learning, Lady Mabel; my tastes naturally lead me to inform myself on some points that may seem to lie out of the common road. Some people take the liberty of calling me an epicure. I admit it so far as this: I hold it to be our duty to enjoy ourselves wisely and well. Much as I esteem a knowing bon vivant, I despise an ignorant glutton, or undiscriminating sot. To know how to make the most of the good things given us, is, at once, a duty and a pleasure. This conviction has led me to heighten what are called our epicurean enjoyments, by investigating the history of cookery, the literature of the vineyard, and other cognate branches of learning."
"You have devised a happy union of intellectual and sensual pleasure, well calculated to heighten both."
"Why were these good things given us," said the colonel, gracefully waving his hand over the table, "but that we should ascertain their uses, and apply them accordingly?"
"I begin to understand your philosophy, in letting none of the good things of life run to waste, but rather receiving them all in the spirit of thankfulness."
"In those few words you express the essence of my philosophy."
"There may be," continued Lady Mabel, "as much piety, and certainly more wisdom, in frankly enjoying the good things given us, than in despising the world which God made, and rejecting the blessings it teems with, like these self-tormenting ascetics, the monks and friars around us."
"Heaven help your simplicity, Lady Mabel! They only pretend to do so, the hypocrites! Rest assured, every one of these fellows is on the sly."
"What! No exceptions? Is it true of every one—
'His eyes are set on heaven, his heart on earth?'"
"It fits them to a man!" said the colonel. "Their vocation is securing to themselves the god things of this world, by promising to others the blessings of the next: and as for the friars, true to their motto, Nihil habentes et omnia possidentes, they profess to hold no special property, merely that the whole country might be bound to maintain them. They know the value of the good things of this life, and how to enjoy them in a corner."
"These odd-looking monks and friars attract me much," said Lady Mabel: "perhaps they will not bear a close inspection; but, with all my prejudice against them, I must own, that many seem truly devout, and the friars, at least, very zealous in their labors among the people."
"Yet the people, except the women," said Bradshawe, "are losing faith in their greasy reverences."
"Women are everywhere more devout than men," she answered; "and I do indeed observe their greasy reverences, as you call them, conversing oftener with our sex than yours."
"Observe more closely, Lady Mabel, and you will see that they are most zealous for the conversion of the young women, the tender lambs of the flock. They care little for a tough, smoke-dried, old woman's soul." This was said with a knowing, wink, and caused some merriment among his juniors within ear-shot.
A gradual but perceptible change was coming over the colonel's manner, which Lady Mabel did not like. In fact, Lord Strathern had pushed the bottle briskly, though sometimes slighting it himself, as did many of his guests; but Bradshawe made it a point of conscience to take toll every time it passed him. He had, moreover, violated one of his own maxims, in talking incessantly while imbibing his liquor; so she took advantage of the next pause in his conversation to leave the table.
You are a gentleman of excellent breeding, admirable discourse, of great admittance; authentic in your place and person, and generally allowed for your many warlike, courtlike, and learned preparations.—Merry Wives of Windsor.
So time ran merrily on in Elvas, and most merrily at headquarters; thanks to Lord Strathern's hospitality, and to the elegance, variety and life Lady Mabel gave to the brilliant circle she attracted thither.
Entering her father's sitting-room one morning, she found him in conference with a gentleman whom she had never seen before. They were so much engrossed in conversation, that she had time to remark, unobserved, that he was young, handsome, and an officer of rank, but thin and pallid, as if just released from long confinement in a sick room. She was about to withdraw, when the stranger, turning to take a paper from the table, saw her. After an abstracted look of admiring curiosity, as if gazing on a fine picture, unexpectedly placed before him, he recollected himself, and rose from his chair.
"This must be Lady Mabel Stewart. Pray, my lord, present me to your daughter."
"What, Ma Belle, are you here? L'Isle, let me make you known to my daughter. Like yourself, she occupies a distinguished post in the brigade, though not quite so well defined as yours."
Lady Mabel acknowledged this addition to her acquaintance; then said, "but I see you are busy, papa."
"Not at all," said he, thrusting some papers into his portfolio, "sit with us here;" and he drew a chair for her. "L'Isle has been so long in his sick room, that a little of our pleasant company will do him good. You must have suffered much from solitude, L'Isle, as well as from your wounds."
"Surgeons and servants were my sole companions. Their rude hands, too, convinced me that our sex were never meant for nurses. A sister of mercy would have been an angel of light; and if young and good-looking, she might have made a convert of me to her church."
Lady Mabel could perceive that her father treated his companion with unusual consideration, and L'Isle was induced to prolong his visit for an hour and more. He was certainly well-bred and well-informed, and seemed disposed to make himself agreeable; yet there was something in his manner that puzzled and annoyed her. It was not the little reserve which he exhibited toward her father, yet more than to herself. It was not that he was out of spirits; for he was quite animated at times. It seemed to be a feeling of—Lady Mabel's self-satisfaction did not permit her immediately to perceive what this feeling was.
"So," said she to herself, when L'Isle had taken his leave, her father accompanying him out of the room, "So this is the veritable Lieutenant-Colonel L'Isle! After hearing of him daily for three weeks, I have now seen him in real life, or rather, half alive; for the cadaverous gentleman seems to have had at least half his life let out of him in that last affair. This is the glass in which the young lieutenants and ensigns of the brigade dress themselves. As Colonel Bradshawe says, there is no need to distribute copies of the articles of war among them. They may all be condensed into one injunction: 'Be just like Lieutenant-Colonel L'Isle, and you will rise like him; and deserve to rise—if you have as strong family interest to back you.' But he seems to have suffered much from his wounds, poor fellow, and in spite of family interest, to have been very near leaving his regiment vacant for another aspirant."
"By-the-bye," said Lady Mabel, as a new light flashed upon her, "he seemed to pity me all the time he was talking to me. That was it! A condescending commiseration in every look, and in every word he uttered. I am very much indebted to him for his sympathy." Here she assumed a haughty air. "But we certainly do not know ourselves; for I cannot, for the life of me, discover what he sees so pitiable about me. He is, doubtless, a very over-weening fellow—I do not like him at all!" And, with a haughty wave of the hand, she dismissed an imaginary personage from her presence, and moved off with dignity to her own room. Now, be it remembered, that Lady Mabel, walking in "maiden meditation, fancy free," among the officers of the brigade, had never, until this moment, thought it worth while to ask herself, as to any of them, whether she liked him or not.
While she was thus meditating and soliloquizing, L'Isle had mounted his horse, and was riding slowly back to his quarters, meditating and soliloquizing, too.
"What on earth was Lord Strathern dreaming of, when he brought his daughter out here—and such a daughter—to preside over his house and his table? She might as well take her seat at the head of a regimental mess-table. We know his habits of life. He cannot dine comfortably without half a dozen fast fellows about him. To make it worse, has a new set every day. And with his notions of hospitality, all are made free of the house. Of course, they become her companions, and to such a degree of freedom, that she can only get out of their way by shutting herself up in her chamber. She can scarcely have a female companion an hour in the week; for the few of our ladies here have no leisure to be trotting out of Elvas, down to headquarters, to play chaperon to a young girl who ought to be in England."
"Here is a man," continued L'Isle to himself, in an indignant tone, and so loud that his servant spurred up from behind him to see if he was wanted. "Here is a man who has been near forty years in the service, and has not yet found out what kind of women are made out of these garrison girls. Bold, flippant creatures, light infantry in petticoats, destitute of the delicacy and modesty, without which a woman may be honest by good luck, but can never be a lady deserving the name.
"She seems to retain yet the air and manner, and, I trust, the modesty and purity of mind that should grace such beauty. But how will it be six months hence? Her situation is absolutely improper. Lord Strathern has shown himself no more fit to bring up such a daughter, or even to take charge of her, after some fitter person has brought her up, than he is to say mass." For here L'Isle's eye fell on a fat priest, toiling up the hill beside him. "Though he may be as fit for that as some of these gentry. No more fit," continued he, struggling after another simile, "than for a professor of Greek literature." For during his late solitude his thoughts had often wandered back to his old haunts, before he had broken off a promising career at Oxford, to join the first British expedition that had come out to Portugal nearly five years ago.
"I am sorry for her, upon my soul I am. She would make so fine a woman in proper hands! I wonder if some remedy cannot be found against the effects of her father's folly—his forgetfulness of what is due to maiden delicacy and the privacies of domestic life!"
L'Isle was still meditating on this interesting subject when he dismounted at his own quarters, one of the best houses on the praca, or public square of Elvas.
Lady Mabel was right in supposing that family interest had something to do with putting L'Isle at the head of a regiment when just twenty-four. Such instances have been common enough in the British service—and not rare in others, in all ages of the world. Family interest, or something very like it, put Alexander, at the age of twenty, at the head of an army with which he went on conquering to the end of his short life. The same influence put Hannibal, at twenty-seven, at the head of an army with which he continued for seventeen years to shake the foundations of Rome. Family interest thrust forward such men as Edward the Black Prince, the fifth Harry of England, and the fourth Henri of France. This, too, thrust forward the great Conde to offer to France the first fruits of his heroism, when victor at Rocroi, at twenty-two. So, too, with Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Eugene of Savoy, and Frederick the Great. Family interest, not of the most creditable kind, turned the courtier Churchill into the conquering Marlborough; and his nephew, the gallant young Berwick, found that being, somewhat irregularly, the son of an English king, helped him much in obtaining the command of the armies of France. Just at this time the son of an earl, and the brother of a governor-general of India, pushed on by family interest, was proving himself not unfit to direct the efforts of the British arms. It is curious to see in these, and many an instance more in military history, how aptly family interest has come into play. It is likely that these men were not the mere creatures of accident, but had each merits of his own, and in spite of whispered insinuations, so had Lieutenant-Colonel L'Isle, though nephew and heir to an earl. Having chosen his profession, he followed it laboriously and gallantly, as if he had not been heir to an acre—but bore his fortunes on the point of his sword.
He had just reached Elvas, after spending six tedious weeks at Ciudad Rodrigo, under the surgeon's hands. He now found his own hands full of regimental business—accumulated against his arrival—and being a prompt man, set himself to work, though yet little fit for it.
Though he had seen Lady Mabel but once, he was not suffered to forget her. Every young officer he met, and many of the older, had something to say of her, some comment to make on the attractions at headquarters, some details to give of the witty things said, and the graceful things done by Lady Mabel; for she said many happy things, and did many things well, and was, at all events, sure of admiration. All this only the more convinced L'Isle that her position was very inappropriate to one so beautiful and young.
After some days he began to think himself guilty of gross neglect in not having called on the lady at headquarters. Disliking, however, to make one of an admiring crowd, he showed his strategy in choosing well his time, and called on Lady Mabel on the day and at the hour when an inspection of the troops having been ordered, every officer was at his post except himself—yet too weak to be expected to put himself at the head of his regiment.
On calling, he was immediately admitted. Lady Mabel apparently had been reading in the room in which she received him. He now saw her for the first time alone, and she was by no means aware what a critical examination she was undergoing. Her manner was different from what he had expected. With quiet politeness she received his visit as one of mere etiquette to the lady at headquarters. That repose of manner might indicate a cold disposition, or might cover strength of character and depth of feeling, not given to perpetual demonstrations, but showing vigor and animation, with telling effect, at the right time. There was no indication of that craving for company, of the ennui at being thrown upon her own resources for a whole morning, so common with young women brought up in a crowd, and habitually surrounded by admirers. "As yet," thought L'Isle, "she has escaped that." He even thought he could perceive that he had interrupted her in some occupation, which would be resumed the moment he left her; that his visit was a parenthesis awkwardly thrust in between, and breaking the connection of her morning hours.
Lady Mabel expressed some surprise at his being at leisure just at this time, but added: "I suppose you are yet too weak to burden yourself with such mere formalities as parades and inspections."
L'Isle was a martinet, and this a military heresy. "Keeping the troops up to the mark, fit for instant service, is not a matter of form; and that is the end of parades and inspections. But," added he, smiling, "I am not surprised at your mistake; for I find, on coming to Elvas, that many of my brother officers have embraced the same opinion. They have got tired of these formalities, and dispense with them as often as they can. But I must not find fault with them, while indulging myself as an invalid longer than is absolutely necessary. Confinement and idleness have made me a little lazy."
An air of languor, and the marks of recent suffering, fully excused what he called his laziness. They did something more for him by exciting Lady Mabel's sympathy, putting her at ease, and inducing her to exert herself to entertain him; and during their conversation L'Isle was quietly on the watch for each indication of character his fascinating companion might betray.
Presently she rested her elbow on a thick quarto on the table beside her. L'Isle then observed that it was a Portuguese and English dictionary, and saw a volume of Count Ericeira's works beside it.
"I see, Lady Mabel, that you do not mean to remain ignorant of the language of the people you have come among."
"I wish not to remain ignorant. But between my own dullness and the want of a master, I make wonderfully slow progress. It is very provoking, particularly to a woman, to be in the midst of a people whom she can neither talk to nor understand."
"It is certainly better," said L'Isle, "to learn to fight before we go into battle, and to speak a people's language before we throw ourselves among them."
"Very true. But I have been thrown very unexpectedly among these Portuguese. I came out merely to visit my father, you know. That is, he sent for me, not having seen me for years. That must account," said she, laughing, "for my joining the brigade. I am not even a volunteer among you; nor shall I subject myself to the articles of war."
"You are a traveler, then, and not a soldier," said L'Isle.
"I am a daughter," she answered, "and in that character I come. But, beside the pleasure of being with my father, an opportunity to see outlandish places and people was no small inducement. I have my full share of curiosity and love of adventure; I want, too, to know the people I am among; and that is impossible, without speaking their language."
"But I think you are misdirecting your efforts, and wasting your time," said L'Isle. "The Spanish will be of more permanent value, and almost equally useful here on the frontier. The one is a language widely spread and a noble one. The other, though exceedingly well adapted to conversation, has but a narrow range, and may one day be merged in the superior tongue. The literature of the Spanish, too, is the richer, though both are poor enough."
"I am glad to hear you say that; for I have already made some little progress in Spanish. I have read a few books, and moulded my tongue to the utterance of a long list of conversational phrases. I would now gladly exchange my French for Spanish or Portuguese. What a pity it is, that the languages of different countries are not, like their coins, exchangeable one for another."
"Unfortunately," said L'Isle, laughing, "that exchange is a slow process; and exact equivalents are seldom found."
"It is too provoking," continued Lady Mabel, "after having been at so much pains to learn French, not to be at liberty to go to France, to show the natives how well I can speak their tongue. True, I have access to their books, which are, perhaps, better than themselves."
"That is not saying much for their books," said L'Isle contemptuously. "Their literature is much overvalued. Its chief merits are variety and bulk."
"Do you think so? That is not the opinion I have heard expressed."
"Very true. The world is full of false opinions and bad taste. But a literature, whose great epic poem is the Henriade, may be abundant but cannot be rich. A language, in which you cannot make verse without the jingle of rhyme, may be clear and copious, but is wanting in melody and force. Take away from French literature Gil Blas and the memoires, and were all the rest lost, its place might be easily filled with something better. With these exceptions, there is little worth doing into English or any other tongue. And after all, Gil Blas is only a renegade Spaniard in a French uniform; and, undoubtedly, it is not genius, but merely their intense vanity and egotism, that enables them to excel in writing their own memoirs. Besides, unlike most other people, their books are as immoral as themselves."
"Well," said Lady Mabel, looking at him in some surprise, yet half convinced of the truth of what he had been saying. "It must certainly be a great comfort to you to entertain so thorough a contempt and dislike for the people you have to fight against."
"Perhaps it is," said L'Isle, laughing at her observation and his own warmth. "It may not be in the spirit of Christianity or of chivalry, but it is exceedingly true to our nature, to dislike our enemies, and heartily, too. But to return to our subject. You wish to learn Spanish, and I can provide you a capable and zealous teacher."
"I am much obliged to you; where is he to be found?"
"I will bring him here, any day and hour you may appoint."
"Then I will fix an early hour, and take a lesson every day."
"The truth is," said L'Isle, hesitating and somewhat confused, "it is very difficult to find a Spaniard who speaks English well enough to teach you his own tongue."
"But you said just now that would find me such a master."
"But not a Spaniard. I hear," said L'Isle, putting a bold face on the matter, "that several of my brother officers have been permitted to make themselves useful to you in various capacities. For instance, on looking round this room, I see more than one achievement of Captain Cranfield's, and hear that Major Lumley's skill in music has been called into play. Now I am behind no one in zeal for your service."
"So you, yourself, are the Spanish master, whom you, yourself, would recommend?"
"I assure you I do not know where to find another."
"Your offer is exceedingly tempting," said Lady Mabel, bowing ironically low. "But I am too much in debt already to the gentlemen in his majesty's service. To turn one of his colonels into my Spanish master would be seriously to misemploy his precious time. I would feel that I was robbing my country. Is it not positive treason to aid and abet the king's enemies? Then it is negative treason, to divert from his service any of the king's friends."
"But you forget that I am an invalid, not yet fit for duty."
"You are getting more fit for it every day. My invalid tutor would become a sound colonel long before I had made much progress under his tuition."
"But I would not object to relaxing from my military duties, and prolonging my invalid condition in your service."
"Let me beg that you do no such thing, but hasten to get so well as to forget your wounds, and the awkward occasion on which you received them."
"Why," said L'Isle, in some surprise, "what have you heard of that occasion?"
"Perhaps you, like some other people, do not care to be reminded of your blunders," said Lady Mabel, mischievously.
"Blunders?" said L'Isle, "I do not see how a soldier can avoid exposing himself occasionally to the risk of being shot, sabred, or bayoneted. What blunder of mine have you heard of?"
"Merely that on the approach of a French column, you, instead of rejoining the main body, in great alarm hid yourself and your men in a little Spanish village too mean to have a name. The French found you out, and kept you shut up there in great trepidation for five or six hours, while they were cutting away your barricades, beating in the doors, and tearing off the roofs of the houses. Your case was as desperate as that of a rat in a trap; and when your friends came to your relief, they had to knock a great many of the French in the head before they could persuade them to let you slip out. But, by some lucky misunderstanding at headquarters, you were soon after made a lieut. colonel."
"Do you know," said L'Isle, laughing, "that this is, to me, quite a new version of that little affair? Did you hear whether we did the French any damage, while they beset us so closely?"
"Nothing was said on that score. So I suppose you did them little harm."
"It is lucky for me that your informant had not the reporting of this affair at headquarters."
"It is said that you had that more adroitly done by your own friends."
"They give me credit at least for good diplomacy," said L'Isle. "Or, at all events, it is a good thing to have a friend at court—that is, at the elbow of the commander-in-chief. And it seems that I have one there. But still you make a great mistake in declining my services as a teacher of the Spanish tongue. I may be a blundering soldier, but have made myself thoroughly master of the languages of the Peninsula, and have a decided aptitude for teaching. Let me begin by warning you against a blunder we English always commit, in trying to speak a tongue not our own, with the mouth half open, and the hands in the pockets. Now, when you address a foreigner in his own tongue, speak with much noise and vociferation, opening your mouth wide and using much action. The ideas you cannot convey in words, you must communicate by gesticulation, the more emphatic the better."
"What!" said Lady Mabel. "Would you have me go scolding and gesticulating at every foreign fellow I meet with, and become notorious throughout Elvas as the British virago?"
"There is no danger of that," said L'Isle. "They would only say that you have as much vivacity as a native, and soon begin to understand you."
"I have made the acquaintance of some ladies of Elvas. As yet our intercourse has been limited to a few formal visits, and a few set phrases mingled with pantomime. But some of them are disposed to be very sociable, and, through their teaching, I hope to be able soon to bear my part in the most sprightly and sentimental conversation. You shall see what an apt scholar I am under the tuition of my own sex."
"I trust you will be on your guard against cultivating too great an intimacy with these people," said L'Isle. "You do not know what Portuguese and Spanish ladies are."
"What are they?"
"A thorough knowledge of them would only satisfy you that they are gross in language, particularly the Spaniards, indelicate in their habits, careless of propriety, lax in morals, and, with all their grace, vivacity, and elegance, very unfit companions for you. In short, the purity of mind, true refinement of manners, and scrupulous propriety of conduct we look for in a lady, are almost unknown among them."
"What a shocking picture you paint of our friends here. You must know them exceedingly well," added Lady Mabel, in innocent surprise, "to justify your abusing them so roundly."
"By report—only by report," said L'Isle hastily.
"But I have had many opportunities of judging of the grossness of their conversation and manners. The Portuguese ladies are not gross in language, like the Spaniards; but are quite on a par with them in essentials, or rather the want of essentials."
"They are not at all indebted to your report, which has used them very roughly. You, perhaps, have been unfortunate in the samples you have met with; and, at least, do not know my new friends here in Elvas."
"I confess that I do not."
"Yet I must own that you have damped my ardor to cultivate an intimacy with them. Yet such is the situation of the two or three of our own ladies here, that these allies of ours afford the only female society at my command."
"In that respect your situation here must seem very strange to you."
"Strange, indeed, at first—but now I am getting accustomed to it. I begin to feel as if I held an official position in the brigade. I make great progress in knowledge of military affairs—am quite familiar, as you may perceive, with the details of the last campaign, and begin to understand both the technical language and the slang of our comrades; who give me plenty of their company, and right merry companions they are. But, perhaps," said she, looking at him doubtingly, "you may be able to understand me, and excuse my weakness, when I confess that there is still so much of the woman left in me that I do often long to slam the door in the face of the brigade, and have a good long confidential chat with some of my own sex."
"The want of that must be a sad privation to you."
"My only resource now is to get old Moodie and Jennie Aiken, my maid, together, and have a good home talk with them, which, for the time, may blot out the map of Portugal, and carry us back to Scotland."
"After that avowal," said L'Isle, rising from his chair, "I had better not trespass on you longer, lest I should have the door slammed in my face the next time I visit you." And he bowed and put an end to his visit.
As he rode homeward, he again brought Lord Strathern to trial, and soon found a verdict against him, of utter incapacity to take charge of such a daughter as heaven had blessed him with. L'Isle felt strongly tempted to take the vacant guardianship upon himself—but did not see just then how it was to be brought about.
He was buried in these thoughts when the sound of horses' feet aroused him; and looking up he saw Lord Strathern riding down toward him from the city gate, followed by a party of young officers. His lordship drew up as he approached, and said: "L'Isle, I am glad to see you look so much like taking the field again. Why, your ride has actually brought a color into your cheeks." In truth, L'Isle had turned somewhat red on seeing suddenly before him the very man he had just been condemning in secret tribunal. "We cannot let you play invalid much longer," his lordship continued. "We begin to miss you sadly. By the by, I have just been inspecting the troops. Their condition is not exactly what I would wish. But the less we say about the matter—only—I am glad the French are not just now in the neighborhood."
"But they have not told us how long they meant to stay away," suggested L'Isle.
"We won't see them soon, however," said his lordship carelessly. "Well, L'Isle, I will begin to put you on duty by having you to dine with me to-morrow. These noisy fellows I have with me to-day would be too much for your nerves. We will have a quieter party, and I will not insist on your doing your full turn of duty at the bottle."
"I will obey you, my lord, with the greatest pleasure, particularly as you are so considerate as to the bottle. I have just been paying my respects, for the first time, to Lady Mabel."
"Well, if you did not bore her by the length of your visit—a thing she sometimes complains of—she will be glad to see you again to-morrow." And Lord Strathern rode off—with a merry party at his heels.
Celia.—Here comes Monsieur Le Beau. Rosalind.—With his mouth full of news. Celia.—Which he will put on us as pigeons feed their young. Rosalind.—Then shall we be news-crammed.
As You Like It.
The next morning Colonel L'Isle was seated in his room, wrapped in his cloak, with a brasero filled with wood embers at his feet; for it was one of those windy, chilly days, not uncommon in this fluctuating climate, and he was still invalid enough to be keenly sensitive to these sudden changes of temperature. He was, too, so completely wrapped up in his meditations, that his servant had twice to announce that the adjutant was in the next room.
"Here, already!" said L'Isle; "I did not expect him until ten o'clock." He looked at his watch. "But it is ten already. Here have I been thinking for two hours, and have never once thought of the regiment. I am acquiring a sad habit of day-dreaming, or, rather, my mind has not yet recovered its tone. Ask Lieutenant Meynell to walk in here."
The regimental business was soon dispatched, and the adjutant, who was a capital newsmonger, began to detail the local news of the day. L'Isle liked to keep himself informed of what was going on around him, on the easy terms of listening to the adjutant. But this morning he seemed to tire soon at the details of small intelligence, much of which was of a sporting character, such as this: "Warren has succeeded in buying the famous dog at Estremoz; they say he will collar a wolf without ceremony, and throttle him single-handed; and he has the knack of so seizing a wild boar, that he can never bring his tusks to bear upon him."
"I hope," said L'Isle, "that Warren will show us many trophies of his prowess, or his dog's rather, in the hunt."
"He had to pay well for him, though. Fifty moidores was the least his owner would take for him."
"I sincerely trust that Warren will get fifty moidores' worth of sport out of him."
"He went out yesterday to try him," continued Meynell, "but Hatton, who was with him, got such a fall (he is a villainous rider, without knowing it), that they had great trouble in getting him back here, and it broke up the day's sport."
"Is he much hurt?" asked L'Isle.
"No permanent injury. But he fell on his head, and, at first, they thought the time come for firing blank-cartridges over him."
"I trust, if Hatton is bent on dying in the field, he will choose some occasion when they do not fire blank-cartridges."
As his colonel seemed little interested in his sporting intelligence, the adjutant turned to a topic that looked a little more like business. "I see that Commissary Shortridge has got back."
"Ah!" said L'Isle, suppressing a yawn, "where has he been?"
"He has been to Lisbon."
"What carried him there?" mechanically asked the colonel, evidently not caring to know.
"Business of the commissariat, he says."
"So I suppose," said L'Isle, carelessly.
"But I suppose no such thing," said Meynell. "The first thing these fellows think of is not the supply of the troops, but their own comfort. He only went to Lisbon to bring his wife here."
"What!" said L'Isle, with sudden interest, "is Mrs. Shortridge in Elvas?"
"Yes. She came with him last night."
"And is she to remain here any time?"
"As long as we stay," answered Meynell, surprised at the interest his superior now showed at his intelligence. "That is, if Shortridge can establish her here comfortably. You know, since the king's money has been passing through his hands, and some of it has stuck to his palms, he has begun to give himself airs. He speaks with the most gentlemanly disgust of the narrow and inconvenient lodgings they are obliged to put up with. He told me they were in the dirtiest part of the town, in the midst of the filthiest of these Portuguese, and sooner than let Mrs. Shortridge stay there, he will take her to Portalegre, or back to Lisbon."
"There will not be the least need of that," said L'Isle, quickly; "this house is large and convenient enough"—and he looked round the apartment into the room beyond—"and is one of the best situated in Elvas."
"But you are occupying it yourself, sir. What good will that do, Shortridge?"
"Oh, I will give it up to Shortridge. It is quite thrown away on a bachelor like me. Now I am on duty again, I prefer being near the regiment, and shall take rooms at the barracks."
"Shortridge will be exceedingly obliged to you. But," added Meynell, fishing for information, "I did not think you cared a farthing whether the commissary got into good quarters or no."
"The commissary!" said L'Isle, looking round on his companion with an air of surprise; then he added, in a tone of contempt, "he may lie in a ditch. Many a better man has done it. It is Mrs. Commissary for whom I would find good quarters."
"Oh, indeed!" said Meynell, elevating his eyebrows a good deal, "I overlooked that. But I was not aware that you had ever seen her."
"Oh, many times: in Lisbon, last year. Indeed, on one occasion I did her a well-timed service."
"What was that?—if I may be allowed to ask."
"Why, Mrs. Shortridge, though an excellent woman, is a little afflicted with the disease of sight-seeing, and had thrust herself, with a party of other heretics, into the Patriarchal Church, to witness the rending of the veil. Do you know what that means, Meynell? I believe you are not well drilled in theology."
"Not popish theology."
"Nor any other, I fear. However, a large detachment of the live and dead saints were there, and, certainly, half the rabble of Lisbon. In the rush of this devout crowd, Mrs. Shortridge got separated from her party, and, between alarm and exhaustion, fell, fainting, on the pavement. She would soon have been trampled to death, had I not picked her up and carried her out bodily. I had to swear awfully at the rabble to make them give way."
"That was no small service," said Meynell; then, glancing at the colonel's thin form, "I am afraid you could not repeat it just now. Mrs. Shortridge is a plump little body."
"I suppose not. Yet there is no knowing what exertions a man might make to save a pretty woman. However, she has been very grateful ever since, and whenever we meet we are excellent friends. I am glad Shortridge has brought her here. She is a different sort of person from himself. She has some very pleasant traits of character—in fact, she is a very good woman," and he sank into a reverie, apparently thinking over Mrs. Commissary's good qualities.
Meynell had nothing more to tell, and, hopeless of extracting any thing more, now took leave. But when he had gone out of the room, his colonel called him back to inquire where Shortridge was now lodged. Having given as precise an answer as he could to this question, the adjutant departed, trying as he went, to frame such a definition of a good woman as would fit his view of this case.
This little conversation seemed to have revived L'Isle a good deal. He looked out of the window and pronounced the wind to have fallen, and that, after all, it was a very pleasant day. Calling his servant to bring his boots and brush his clothes, he was soon after on the praca of Elvas.
This exhibited a busy scene; for the troops quartered in Elvas created a market, and drew a concourse of people from the surrounding country. Asses laden with, or just unladen of, country produce, were grouped about the square, each with his nose tied up in a net, that he might not eat his saddle or panniers. Bullock carts were seen here and there, among them, many of the oxen lying down with their legs doubled under them, taking advantage of the halt to enjoy their siesta. A crowd of peasants hovered about, and the sonorous Spanish mingling with the abrupt and nasal Portuguese, the short black jackets and montero caps, among the hats and vests, generally brown, showed that many of these men had come across the Spanish border. Here was the pig merchant, with his unquiet and ear-piercing merchandise, and the wine merchant, with his pitchy goat-skin sacks, full of, and flavoring the vinho verde Colonel Bradshawe so much abhorred. Here were peasant women, with poultry, and sausages, and goats'-milk cheese; and young girls, persuasively offering for sale the contents of their baskets, oranges, chesnuts, bolotas, and other fruits and nuts. Here, in the crowd, was a monk; there, a secular priest, and of friars a plenty. And here, in the midst of them, were the broad-faced English soldiers, touching their caps as L'Isle passed among them—their faces growing broader as they remarked to each other, that there was still something left of the colonel. Here, too, were the lounging citizens of Elvas, who might have personified otium cum dignitate, or plain English laziness, but for the presence of some of the gentlemen of the brigade, who were sauntering about with their hands in their pockets, as if caring for nothing, and having nothing to do, or at once too proud and lazy to do it—not much caring which way their steps led them, but expecting, of course, every one to get out of their way. Yet a spark of interest would, at times, shine out from them at the sight of a neat figure, or a pretty face, among the rustic belles, whose love of bright and strongly contrasted colors in dress, attracted the eye, and gave variety to the scene.
Some of these gentlemen stopped L'Isle to talk with him. But, avoiding any prolonged conversation, he hastened across the praca, into one of the narrow and uncleanly streets, along which he picked his way, wishing that he had authority, for a few days, to turn the good people of Elvas, clergy and all, into scavengers, and enter on a thorough purification of the place, beginning with the persons of the people themselves. A moral purification might possibly follow, but could not possibly precede this physical cleansing. Walking along, divided between these thoughts and the necessity of looking for the place he was searching for, he heard himself called by some one behind him. He turned; it was Commissary Shortridge himself, who being rather pursy, was a little out of breath through his exertions to overtake him.
Now, there were a good many things that L'Isle despised. But, if there was any thing that he did despise beyond all others, it was a commissary—a fellow who makes his gains where all other men make their losses; who devotes himself to his country's service for the express purpose of cheating it; who seizes the hour of its greatest want and weakness, to bleed it most freely; who, as often as he can, sells to his country straw for hay, chaff for corn, and bones for beef; the master-stroke of whose art is to get passed, by fraudulent vouchers, accounts full of imaginary articles, charged at fabulous prices; in short, a man who loves war more than Mars or Achilles; reaping, amidst its blood and havoc, a rich harvest in safety. Our commissary was not quite equal in professional skill to some of his brethren. Perhaps he had some small remnant of conscience left, or of patriotism, or of loyalty, or of caution, which withheld him from plundering king and country with both hands. Nevertheless, from being an unprosperous London tradesman, he had, in a few years, contrived to line his pockets exceedingly well, and had now grown ambitious of social position.
How came it then, when the commissary had expressed very copiously his delight at seeing Colonel L'Isle again, and yet more at seeing him so much better in health and strength than he had dared to hope, L'Isle condescendingly gave him to understand that the pleasure of this meeting was not all on the commissary's side? When Shortridge congratulated him on his promotion, and yet more on the high deserts that had drawn it upon him, L'Isle's manner implied that the commissary's good opinion gave him greater confidence in himself. How could L'Isle do this? Simply because the proudest and best of us can tolerate, and even flatter, those we despise, when we have urgent occasion to use them.
The commissary then said, "I have brought Mrs. Shortridge with me to Elvas."
"I am very glad to hear it," answered L'Isle, without betraying that he knew it before. "Even one English lady is a precious addition to our society in this dull place."
"Mrs. Shortridge has never forgotten your rescuing her from under the feet of the idolatrous rabble of Lisbon. She is still a strong friend of yours, and will be delighted to see you, as soon as she is mistress of a decent apartment."
"Where is she now?"
"Not far from here—but in such an abominable hole, that a lady is naturally ashamed to be caught there by any genteel acquaintance."
"I am truly sorry to hear that she is so badly lodged."
"Our officers," said Shortridge, "have taken up all the best houses; and the troops being quartered here has attracted such an additional population from the country around, that I was afraid I would have to carry Mrs. Shortridge to rooms in the barracks."
"That will never do," said L'Isle. "But, pray, if I am in her neighborhood, let me call on Mrs. Shortridge, and welcome her to Elvas."
Thus urged, the commissary led the way, and soon reached his lodgings. They found the lady in a room of some size, but dark, dirty, and offensive enough to eye and nose to disgust her with Elvas and drive her back to Lisbon, without unpacking the numerous trunks, baskets, band-boxes, and portable furniture which lumbered the room. These her man-servant was arranging, under her direction, while she was good-humoredly trying to pacify her maid, who, with tears in her eyes, was protesting that she could not sleep another night in that coal-hole, into which the people of the house had thrust her, and which they would persist in calling a chamber.
Mrs. Shortridge, a plump and pretty woman of eight-and-twenty, was a good deal fluttered at seeing such a visitor at such a time. She declared "that she did not know whether she was more delighted or ashamed to see Major—I beg your pardon—Colonel L'Isle, in such a place; we, who have been accustomed to a suite of genteel apartments wherever we went."
L'Isle cast his eye around the forlorn and dismal walls. "Let me beg you, Colonel L'Isle, to be conveniently near-sighted during your visit. I would not, for the world, have our present domicil, and our household arrangements, minutely inspected by your critical eye."
Without minding her protest, he completed a deliberate survey; then said, suddenly, "Why, Shortridge, how could you think of shutting up a lady in such a dungeon? If Mrs. Shortridge were not the best-tempered woman in the world, it would cause a domestic rebellion, and we would soon see her posting back to Lisbon, and London, perhaps, without leave or license. Do you forget how she yearns after the two little boys she left at home, that you venture to aggravate so her regrets at leaving England?"