Open main menu

CHAPTER XXXIV


A MILITARY LADY-KILLER PREPARES FOR BATTLE


THAT insufferable coxcomb Captain Tuffton was in the act of sprinkling his lace handkerchief with the scent that old Mrs. Whyllie found so atrociously obnoxious when his valet entered the room with a note. The insufferable one went on with his sprinkling and languidly inquired who the note was from.

"I really cannot say, sir," returned the valet.

"Cannot say?" repeated the insufferable, lifting his pencilled eyebrows into the higher regions of astonishment. "Indeed, my good Transome—and you call yourself a valet, don't you now? It is not a bill, I trust, strayed in upon the Sabbath out of cunning, for I have not seen a bill these many years now, and the sight, I feel convinced, might upset my stomach."

"I think, sir, that there is no valet in Europe so quick to smell out a bill or so nimble at tearing them up as your humble servant." Transome could be tremendous upon occasions and he certainly was when he added: "And under your livery, sir, I venture to suggest that my practice of bill nosing has been unlimited."

"Now, come, my good Transome, you disrespectful dog. I'll not have you chiding me, upon my soul I won't, for I have a most damned head on me this forenoon. I generally do get a damned bad head on me o' Sundays. All a-buzz, I declare, and it's those damned exasperating church bells. I never met anything so persistent in my life. They go on, they go on, and there's no stopping them, now is there? As plentiful as bills are church bells and just as taxing to the nerves. If ever I have to oblige the blasted Parliament by sleeping in it, I shall endeavour to keep awake to vote for the abolishment of church bells."

"And you might, sir, at the same time do away with bills. It would be most convenient, wouldn't it, sir?"

"Well, I suppose it would. If I ever do get in, which I think extremely unlikely, for which I most heartily thank my Maker, knowing how unutterably bored I should become, but if ever I do get in, I will most certainly abolish bills and bells, and if there should be any other little thing that you think might sensibly be abolished, why, you must jog my memory, Transome, and jog it hard, won't you, my dear fellow, for you know what a memory I have? Damned bad, upon my soul it is!"

"Ah, sir," sighed the valet, "you will become a great orator, a very great orator."

"I might, my dear fellow, I really might, although I am positive that I shan't, because, you see, I know that I shall go most damnably to sleep. I shan't be able to help myself."

"You must really make an effort, sir, to keep awake, for the sake of your country, you really must, sir, for you will make as great a statesman as you have a soldier. You cannot help it, sir. Talent such as yours, genius such as yours, is like murder, sir—it will out."

"No, I am a lazy good-for-nought, upon my soul I am, and a statesman I shall never become, for even if I do get pushed into a seat, what shall I lay on my sleeping in it all the time? A pack o' dogs, sixteen fighting cocks, and a blasted nag? Will you take me?"

"Against what, sir?"

"Against nothing, you damned, disrespectful dog! Upon my honour, against nothing but my sleeping. What are you flashing that deuced silver tray about for? It catches the light in a most exasperating manner and causes the most acute suffering to my wretched eyesight. Have you no feeling at all, my good Transome, or have you lost it as well as your respect? Have you never suffered the spasms of the damned? I declare that my poor wretched head is executing positive manoeuvres this morning. Musket drill and cavalry charges are going on inside it the whole time. Oh, dear, oh, dear! How I wish you would open that note, instead of flourishing it about again. You surely don't expect me to open it, do you?"

Accordingly the valet opened the letter and announced to his master that it was a lady's handwriting.

"Then you had better give it to me," drawled the captain with a resigned air, "for if you pry into the contents of the poor thing's soul, it will be all over the town in an hour or so, and another woman's reputation will have disappeared. Why, Lord love us," he added as he glanced at the note in question, "if it isn't from that she-dragon herself, that most terrible and alarming Missus What'shername, Missus—Missus—oh, what the devil is her name, eh?"

The valet suggested humbly that the lady in question would most probably have signed her name at the end of the letter.

"Oh, yes, of course, what a downright sane fellow you are, to be sure. Now with all my brain power I should never have thought of that. Perfectly ridiculous of me, I know, but I really shouldn't have, you know. Ah! I remember who the woman is now, without looking. She's the wife of that perfectly idiotic lawyer fellow who always fastens up his fat stomach in a white waistcoat a cut or two too small, but I'm blamed if I can remember even his name, so you see we are not much nearer to it, are we now?"

Again the valet repeated the brilliant suggestion of looking to the end of the letter, and the master, having graciously accepted his suggestion, announced to the valet that the mystery was solved at last and that the name was nothing more nor less than Whyllie.

"And I wonder what the devil she can want with me, Transome?"

The valet again made a brilliant suggestion that if he would take the pains to read the letter he would in all likelihood discover. So with a very bored air the perfumed soldier read the note right through, and threw it down upon the dressing-table with a great smile of self-complacency.

"She desires me to wait upon her this afternoon, my good fellow. She wishes positively to let bygones be bygones, and desires that I will bury all past differences by partaking of an hour's hospitality from their house. She also states that she has a wealthy niece but just returned from India, and she desires that this same niece may have the privilege of meeting the cream of the Rye bachelors. My dear fellow, what a truly terrible age we do live in! I have never heard of such daring and unblushing matchmaking. Well, I suppose it is a thing that we must expect in a Godforsaken little hole of a place like this, where the available bachelors are few indeed and possess not the smallest knowledge of how to decently deport themselves, much less their clothes."

"Besides, sir," the valet ventured to remark, "the red cloth of the military has a great attraction for matchmakers. It is always so very respectable, and it carries a most remarkable tone with it, to be sure, sir."

"Well, I think I will go, at all events," went on the insufferable, "and throw my eye over the niece, though I really cannot expect much in the beauty line, for she will probably be forty if she's a day, judging by the ancient aunt. However, it will not be such bad sport leading her on a bit. Have you ever practised the amusing art of exciting elderly spinsters? If not, do, my dear fellow, for it has its humour, and, really now, humour is about all that is left to us nowadays, isn't it? Hurry up, my good fellow! No, you dolt, I am not on duty. What do I want my sword for? Swords get most damnably between your legs at the wrong moment. They really are positively useless lumber. I cannot think why they are not abolished. Damned clanky things, always in the wrong place, and tripping one up when least on one's guard. I'll take my cane. No, no, you positive Judas, the one with the scarlet tassle of course. And my perfume box—no, no, that's a snuffbox. I hate snuff. You know that I always endeavour to leave it behind whenever possible, for it has a most damnable habit of getting up my nose and bringing on the most acute attacks of sneezing. Now my hat and—no, perhaps not the cloak. A cloak, my good fellow, has a most annoying habit of hiding the curve of the waist. And I really do think that even my most bitter detractors must own that my waist curve is entirely and absolutely right. Now how are we, eh? Has the most criticising valet in the world got anything to remedy, anything to suggest? I think we can do little else with the cravat?"

"It would be passed by Mister Brummel himself."

"Then we are ready, are we? Au revoir, therefore, my estimable friend! Keep your spirits up, and don't forge my name to a check in my absence!" With which piece of jocular raillery Captain Tuffton, the military lady-killer, swaggered out of the room, swinging the red-tasselled cane, and humming in well-modulated tenor a Spanish love song in very bad Spanish; but that didn't matter, as nobody was any the wiser, and literally tripping into Watchbell Street, he approached the little white front door behind which were waiting three good people, preparing a most superb ambuscade for the insufferable captain to walk into, an ambuscade that was going to very effectually put an end to the military swagger of this scent-breathing officer. He rang the bell languidly, little thinking it a tocsin of battle and of sudden death.