A Cut & a Kiss
by Anthony Hope
WE were sitting round the fire at Colonel Holborow's. Dinner was over—had, in fact, been over for same time—the hour of smoke, whisky, and confidence had arrived, and we had been telling one another the various reasons which accounted for our being unmarried, for we were all bachelors, except the Colonel, and he had, as a variety, told the reasons why he wished he was unmarried (his wife was away). Jack Dexter, however, had not spoken, and it was only in response to a direct appeal that he related the following story. The story may be true or untrue, but I must remark that Jack always had rather a weakness for representing himself on terms of condescending intimacy with the nobility and even greater folk.
Jack sighed deeply. There was a sympathetic silence. Then he began:
"For some reason best known to herself," said Jack, with a patient shrug of his shoulders, "the Duchess of Medmenham (I don't know whether any of you fellows know her) chose to object to me as a suitor for the hand of her daughter, Mary Fitzmoine. The woman was so ignorant that she may really have thought that my birth was not equal to her daughter's; but all the world knows that the Munns were yeomen two hundred years ago, and that her Grace's family hails from a stucco villa in the neighbourhood of Cardiff. However, the Duchess did object; and when the season (in the course of which I had met Lady Mary many times) ended, instead of allowing her daughter to pay a series of visits at houses where I had arranged to be, she sent her off to Switzerland, under the care of a dragon whom she had engaged to keep me and other dangerous fellows at a proper distance. On hearing of what had happened from George Fitzmoine (an intimate friend of mine), I at once threw up my visits and started in pursuit. I felt confident that Lady Mary was favourably inclined (in fact, I had certain proofs which——but no matter), and that if I won her heart I could break down the old lady's opposition. I should certainly have succeeded in my enterprise, and been at this moment the husband of one of the most beautiful girls in England, but for a very curious and unfortunate circumstance, which placed me in an unfavourable light in Mary's eyes. I was not to blame, it was just a bit of bad luck.
"I ranged over most of Switzerland in search of Lady Mary. Wherever I went I asked about her, and at last I got upon the track. At Interlaken I found her name in the visitors' book, together with that of a Miss Dibbs, whom I took to be the dragon. I questioned the porter, and found that the two ladies had, the afternoon before, hired a carriage and driven to a quiet little village some fifteen miles off, where there was a small but good inn. Here they evidently meant to stay, for letters were to be sent after them there for the next week. The place was described to me as pretty and retired; it seemed, therefore, an ideal spot for my purpose. 1 made up my mind at once. I started the next day after luncheon, took the journey easily, and came in sight of the little inn about seven o'clock in the evening. All went well. The only question was as to the disposition of Miss Dibbs towards me. I prayed that she might turn out to be a romantic dragon, but, in case she should prove obstinate, I made my approaches with all possible caution. When my carriage stopped at the door I jumped out. The head-waiter, a big fellow in a white waistcoat, was on the steps. I drew him aside, and took a ten-franc piece from my pocket.
"‘Is there a young lady staying here?' I asked. 'Tall, fair, handsome?' and I slid the piece of gold into his palm.
"‘Well, yes, sir,' he said, 'there is a young lady, and she's all that you say, sir. Pardon me, Monsieur is English?'
"‘Yes,' said I.
"‘Ah!' said he, smiling mysteriously. 'And it is Wednesday.'
"‘It is certainly Wednesday,' I admitted, though I did not see that the day of the week mattered much.
"He came close to me and whispered:
"‘The lady thought you might come, sir. I think she expects you, sir. Oh, you can rely on my discretion, sir.'
"I was rather surprised, but not very much, for I had hinted to George Fitzmoine that I meant to try my luck, and I supposed that he had passed my hint on to his sister. My predominant feeling was one of gratification. Mary loved me! Mary expected me! There was complete mental sympathy between Mary and myself!
"I went up to my room in a state of great contentment. I had been there about half an hour, when my friend the waiter came in. Advancing towards me with a mysterious air, he took a blank envelope out of his pocket and held it up before me with a roguish smile.
"‘Monsieur will know the handwriting inside,' he said cunningly.
"Now I had never corresponded with Lady Mary, and of course did not know her handwriting, but I saw no use in telling the waiter that. In truth, I thought the fellow quite familiar enough. So I said shortly and with some hauteur,
"‘Give me the note;' and I took another piece of gold out of my pocket. We exchanged our possessions, the waiter withdrew with a wink, and I tore open the precious note.
"‘Whatever you do,' it ran, 'don't recognise me. I am watched. As soon as I can I will tell you where to meet me. I knew you would come.—M.'
"‘The darling!' I exclaimed. 'She's a girl of spirit. I'll take good care not to betray her. Oh, we'll circumvent old Dibbs between us.'
"At eight o'clock I went down to the salle à manger. It was quite empty. Mary and Miss Dibbs no doubt dined in their own sitting-room, and there appeared to be no one else in the hotel. However, when I was half way through my meal, a stylishly dressed young woman came in and sat down at a table at the end of the room farthest from where I was. I should have noticed her more, but I was in a reverie about Mary's admirable charms, and I only just looked at her; she was frowning and drumming angrily with her fingers on the table. The head waiter hurried upto her; his face was covered with smiles, and he gave me a confidential nod en passant. Nothing else occurred, except that a villainous-looking fellow—something, to judge by his appearance, between a valet and a secretary—thrust his ugly head through the door three or four times. Whenever he did so the waiter smiled blandly at him. He did it the last time just as the lady was walking down the room. Seeing her coming he drew back and held the door open for her with a clumsy, apologetic bow. She smiled scornfully and passed through. The waiter stood grinning in the middle of the room, and when I, in my turn, rose, he whispered to me, 'It's all right, sir.' I went to bed and dreamt of Mary.
"On entering the room next morning the first person I saw was Mary. She was looking adorably fresh and pretty. She sat opposite a stout, severe-looking dame in black. Directly my eyes alighted on her I schooled them into a studiously vacant expression. She, poor girl, was no diplomatist. She started; she glanced anxiously at Miss Dibbs; I saw her lips move; she blushed; she seemed almost to smile. Of course this behaviour (I loved Mary the more that she could not conceal her delightful embarrassment!) excited the dragon's curiosity; she turned round and favoured me with a searching gaze. I was equal to the occasion. I comprehended them both in a long, cool, deliberate, empty stare. The strain on my self-control was immense, but I supported it. Mary blushed crimson, and her eyes sank to her plate. Poor girl! She had sadly overrated her powers of deception. I was not surprised that Miss Dibbs frowned severely and sniffed audibly.
"At that moment the other girl came in. She walked up, took the table next to mine, and, to my confusion, bestowed upon me a look of evident interest though of the utmost shortness—one of those looks, you know, that seem to be repented of in an instant, and are generally the most deliberate. I took no notice at all, assuming an air of entire unconsciousness. A few minutes later Mary got up and made for the door, with Miss Dibbs in close attendance. The imprudent child could not forbear to glance at me; but I, seeing the dragon's watchful eye upon me, remained absolutely irresponsive. Nay, to throw Miss Dibbs off the scent, I fixed my eyes on my neighbour with assumed preoccupation. Flushing painfully, Mary hurried out, and I heard Miss Dibbs sniff again. I chuckled over her obvious disapproval of my neighbour and myself. The excellent woman evidently thought us no better than we ought to be! But I felt that I should go mad if I could not speak to Mary soon.
"I went out and sat down in the verandah. It was then about half-past ten. The ugly fellow whom I had noticed the evening before was hanging about, but presently a waiter came and spoke to him, and he got up with a grumble and went into the house. Ten minutes afterwards my neighbour of the salle à manger came out. She looked very discontented. She rang a handbell that stood on the table, and a waiter ran up.
"‘Where's the head waiter?' she asked sharply.
"‘Pardon, ma'mselle, but he is waiting on some ladies up stairs.'
"‘What a nuisance!' said she. 'But you'll do. I want to give him an order. Stay, come indoors and I'll write it down.'
"She disappeared, and I sat on, wondering how I was to get a sight of Mary. At last, in weariness, I went indoors to the smoking-room. It looked out to the back and was a dreary little room; but I lit my cigar and began on a three days' old copy of the Times. Thus I spent a tedious hour. Then my friend the head waiter appeared, looking more roguish than ever. I dived into my pocket, he produced a note, I seized it.
"‘Why have you been so long?' (Charmingly unreasonable! what could I have done?) 'Directly you get this, come to the wood behind the hotel. Take the path to the right and go straight till you find me. I have thrown the spy' (Poor old Dibbs!) 'off the scent.—M.'
"I caught up my hat and rushed into the hall. I cannoned into a young man who had just got out of a carriage and was standing in the verandah. With a hasty apology I dashed on. Beyond doubt she loved me! And she was honest enough not to conceal it. I hate mock modesty. I longed to show her how truly I returned her love, and I rejoiced that there need be no tedious preliminaries. Mary and I understood one another. A kiss would be the seal of our love—and the most suitable beginning of our conversation.
"In five minutes I was in the wood. Just before I disappeared among its trees, I heard some one calling 'Monsieur, monsieur!' It sounded like the voice of the head waiter, but I wouldn't have stopped for fifty head waiters. I took the path Mary had indicated and ran along it at the top of my speed. Suddenly, to my joy, I caught sight of the figure of a girl; she was seated on a mound of grass, and, though her face was from me, I made no doubt it was Mary. She wore the most charming blue cloak (it was a chilly morning) which completely enveloped her. I determined not to shilly-shally. She loved me—I loved her. I ran forward, plumped down on my knees behind her, took her head between my hands, dodged round, and kissed her cheek.
"‘At last, my darling!' I cried in passionate tones.
"By Jupiter, it was the other girl, though!
"I sprang back in horror. The girl looked at me for a moment. Then she blushed; then she frowned; then—why, then she began to laugh consumedly. I was amazed.
"‘"At last," you call it,' she gasped. 'I call it "at first"’; and she laughed merrily and melodiously. She certainly had a nice laugh, that girl.
"Now, concerning what follows I have, since then, entertained some doubts whether I behaved in all respects discreetly. You will allow that the position was a difficult one, but it is, I admit, very possible that my wisest course would have been to make an apology and turn tail as quickly as I could. Well, I didn't. I thought that I owed the lady a full explanation. Besides, I wanted a full explanation myself. Finally (oh yes, I see you fellows grinning and winking), Mary was not there, and this young lady rather interested me. I decided that I would have five minutes' talk with her; then I would run back and find Mary.
"‘I must beg a thousand pardons,' I began, 'but I took you for somebody else.'
"‘Oh, of course,' said she with a shrug; 'it's always that.'
"‘You appear incredulous,' said I, rather offended.
"‘Well, and if I am?' said she.
"My feelings were hurt. I produced Mary's second note.
"‘If I can trust to your discretion I'll prove what I say,' I remarked in a nettled tone.
"‘I shall be very curious to hear the proof, sir, and I will he most discreet,' she said. She was pouting, but her eyes danced. Really she looked very pretty—although, of course, I would not for a moment compare her with Lady Mary.
"‘A lady,' said I, 'was so kind as to tell me to seek her here this morning.'
"‘Oh, as if I believed that!'
"I was piqued.
"‘There's the proof,' I cried, flinging the note into her lap.
"She took it up, glanced at it, and gave a little shriek.
"‘Where did you get this?'
"‘Why, from the head waiter.'
"‘Oh, the fool!' she cried. 'It's mine.'
"‘Yours? nonsense! He gave me that and another last night.'
"‘Oh, the stupidity! They were for—they were not for you. They were for—some one who is to arrive.'
"I pointed at the signature and gasped, 'M! Do you sign "M"?'
"‘Yes, my name's—my name begins with M. Oh, if I'd only seen that waiter this morning! Oh, the idiot!'
"Then I believe I swore.
"‘Madame,' said I, 'I'm ruined! No harm is done to you—I'm a man of honour—but I'm ruined. On the strength of your wretched notes, madame, I've cut the girl I love best in the world—cut her dead—dead—dead!'
"‘What? That young lady in the—— Oh, you thought they were from her? Oh, I see! How—how—oh, how very amusing!' And the heartless little wretch went off into another peal of laughter.
"‘You pretended not to know her! Oh, dear! oh, dear!' and her laughter echoed among the trees again. 'I saw her looking at you, and you ate on like a pig! Oh, dear! oh, dear!'
"‘Stop laughing!' said I savagely.
"‘Oh, I'm very sorry, but I can't. What a scrape you've got into! Oh, dear me!' And she wiped her eyes (they were as blue as her cloak) with a delicate bit of a handkerchief.
"‘You sha'n't laugh,' said I. 'Who were your notes for?'
"‘Somebody I expected. He hasn't come. The waiter took you for him, I suppose. I never thought of his being so stupid. Oh, what a brute she must have thought you!' And she began to laugh again.
"I had had enough of it. I hate being laughed at.
"‘If you go on laughing,' said I, 'I'll kiss you again.'
The threat was a failure; she did not appear at all alarmed.
"‘Not you!' she said, laughing worse than ever.
"I should like you fellows to understand that my heart never wavered in its allegiance to Lady Mary—my conscience is quite clear as to that—but I had pledged my word. I caught that tiresome girl round the waist and I kissed her once—I'm sure of once, anyhow. She gasped and struggled, laughing still. Then, with a sudden change of voice, she cried, 'Stop, stop!'
"I let her go. I looked round. We had a gallery of spectators. On one side stood the ugly-headed valet; on the other, in attitudes of horror, Mary and Miss Dibbs!
"‘You've ruined us both now,' said the girl in blue.
"I rose to my feet and was about to explain, when the ugly fellow rushed at me, brandishing a cane. I had quite enough to arrange without being bothered by him. I caught the cane in my left hand, and with my right I knocked him down.
"Then I walked up to Lady Mary. I took no heed of Miss Dibbs' presence; it was too critical a moment to think of trifles.
"‘Lady Mary,' said I, 'appearances are so much against me that you cannot possibly attach the slightest weight to them.'
"‘Sir,' said she, 'I have no longer the honour of your acquaintance. I have only to thank you for having had the consideration not to recognise me when we met so unexpectedly in the dining-room. Pray continue to show me the same favour.'
"With which pleasant little speech she turned on her heel. It was clear that she suspected me most unjustly. I turned to the girl in blue, but she was beforehand with me.
"‘Ah, I wish I'd never seen you,' she cried, 'you great stupid creature! He (she pointed to the prostrate figure of the ugly servant), will tell Frederic everything.'
"‘Come,' said I, 'I was only an accident: it would have been just as bad if——'
"As I spoke I heard a step behind me. Turning round, I found myself face to face with the young man with whom I had come in collision as I rushed through the hall. He gazed at the servant—at me—at the girl in blue.
"‘Margaret!' he exclaimed. 'What is the——?'
"‘Hush hush!' she whispered, pointing again to the servant.
"I stepped up to him, lifting my hat:
"‘Sir,' said I, 'kindly inform me if you are the gentleman who was to come from England.'
"‘Certainly I come from England,' he said.
"‘And you ought to have arrived on Wednesday?'
"‘Yes,' he answered.
"‘Then,' said I, 'all I have to say to you, sir, is—that I wish the devil you'd keep your appointments.' And I left them.
"That's why I'm not married, boys. Where's my glass?"
"It is a very curious story," observed the Colonel. "And who were they all—the girl in blue—and the young man—and the ugly servant—and Frederic?"
"Colonel," said Jack, with an air of deepest mystery, "you would be astounded to hear."
We all pricked up our ears.
"But," he continued, "I am not at liberty to say."
We sank back in our chairs.
"Do you know?" asked the Colonel, and Jack nodded solemnly.
"Out with it!" we cried.
"Impossible," said Jack. "But I may tell you that the matter engaged the attention of more than one of the Foreign Offices of Europe."
"Good heavens!" cried we in chorus, and Jack drank off his whisky-and-water, rose to his feet and put on his hat.
"Poor dear Mary!" said he, as he opened the door. "She never got over it."
The Colonel shouted after him,
"Then what did she marry Jenkyns of the Blues for?"
"Pique," said Jack, and he shut the door.