G.J. Whyte-Melville.

M. or N. Similia similibus curantur. online

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But the horses were fed, ere the daylight had gone,
There's a slice in the embers - a drop in the can -
Take a suck of it, comrade! and so pass it on,
For a ration of brandy puts heart in a man.
Good liquor is scarce, and to waste it a sin, -
Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!

Hark! there's a shot from the crest of the hill!
Look! there's a rocket leaps high in the air.
By the beat of his gallop, that's nearing us still,
That runaway horse has no rider, I'll swear!

There's a jolly light-infantry post on the right,
I hear their bugles - they sound the 'Advance.'
They will tip us a tune that shall wake up the night,
And we're hardly the lads to leave out of the dance.
They're at it already, I'm sure, by the din, -
Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!

They don't give us long our divisions to prove -
Short, sharp, and distinct, comes the word of command.
'Have your men in the saddle - -Be ready to move -
Keep the squadron together - the horses in hand - '
While a whisper's caught up in the ranks as they form -
A whisper that fain would break out in a cheer -
How the foe is in force, how the work will be warm.
But, steady! the chief gallops up from the rear.
With old 'Death-or-Glory' to fight is to win,
And the Colonel means mischief, I see by his grin. -
Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in! -
Boots and Saddles! The Pickets are in!

"And it must be 'Boots and Saddles' with us," said Lord Bearwarden to
his guests as the applause subsided and he made a move towards the
door, "otherwise we shall be the 'lads to leave out of the dance'; and
I fancy that would suit none of us to-night."




CHAPTER XV


MRS. STANMORE AT HOME.


DANCING.

Amongst all the magnificent toilettes composed to do honour to the
lady whose card of invitation heads this chapter, none appeared more
variegated in colour, more startling in effect, than that of Miss
Puckers the maid.

True, circumstances compelled her to wear a high dress, but even
this modest style of costume in the hands of a real artist admits of
marvellous combinations and extraordinary breadth of treatment. Miss
Puckers had disposed about her person as much ribbon, tulle, and cheap
jewelry as might have fitted out a fancy fair. Presiding in a little
breakfast-room off the hall, pinning tickets on short red cloaks,
shaking out skirts of wondrous fabrication, and otherwise assisting
those beautiful guests who constituted the entertainment, she afforded
a sight only equalled by her after-performances in the tea-room,
where, assuming the leadership of a body of handmaidens almost as
smart as herself, she formed, for several waggish and irreverent young
gentlemen, a principal attraction in that favourite place of resort.

A ball is so far like a run with fox-hounds that it is difficult to
specify the precise moment at which the sport begins. Its votaries
gather by twos and threes attired for pursuit; there is a certain
amount of refitting practised, as regards dress and appointments,
while some of the keenest in the chase are nevertheless the latest
arrivals at the place of meeting. Presently are heard a note or two,
a faint flourish, a suggestive prelude. Three or four couples get
cautiously to work, the music swells, the pace increases, ere long the
excitement extends to all within sight or hearing, and a performance
of exceeding speed, spirit, and severity is the result.

Puckers, with her mouth full of pins, is rearranging the dress of
a young lady in her first season, to whom, as to the inexperienced
hunter, that burst of music is simply maddening. She is a well-bred
young lady, however, and keeps her raptures to herself, but is
slightly indignant at the very small notice taken of her by Dick
Stanmore, who rushes into the tiring-room, drops a flurried little
bow, and hurries Puckers off into a corner, totally regardless of the
displeasure with which a calm, cold-looking chaperon regards this
unusual proceeding.

"Did it come in time?" says Dick in a loud agitated whisper. "Did you
run up with it directly? Was she pleased? Did she say anything? Has
she got them on now?"

"Lor, Mr. Stanmore!" exclaims Puckers; "whatever do you mean?"

"Miss Bruce - the diamonds," explains Dick, in a voice that causes two
dandies, recently arrived, to pause in astonishment on the staircase.

"O, the diamonds!" answers Puckers. "Only think, now. Was it _you_,
sir? Well, I never. Why, sir, when Miss Bruce opens the packet, not
half-an-hour ago, the tears comes into her eyes, and she says, 'Well,
this _is_ kind' - them was her very words - 'this _is_ kind,' says
she, and pops'em on that moment; for I'd done her hair and all. Go
up-stairs, Mr. Stanmore, and see how she looks in them. I'll wager
she's waiting for Somebody to dance with her this very minute!"

Though it is too often of sadly short duration, every man _has_ his
"good time" for a few blissful seconds during life. Let him not
complain they are so brief. It is something to have at least tasted
the cup, and perhaps it is better to turn with writhing lips from the
bitter drop near the brim than, drinking it fairly out, to find its
sweets pall on the palate, its essence cease to warm the heart and
stimulate the brain.

Dick, hurrying past his mother into the soft, mellow, yet brilliant
radiance of her crowded ball-room, felt for that moment the happiest
man in London.

Miss Bruce was _not_ waiting to dance with him, according to her
maid's prediction, but was performing a waltz in exceeding gravity,
assisted, as Dick could not help observing, with a certain
satisfaction, by the ugliest man in the room. The look she gave him
when their eyes met at last sent this shortsighted young gentleman
up to the seventh heaven. It seemed well worth all the hunters in
Leicestershire, all the diamonds in Golconda! He did the honours of
his step-mother's house, and thanked his own friends for coming, but
all with the vague consciousness of a man in a dream. Presently the
"round" dance came to an end, much to the relief of the ugly man, who
cared, indeed, for ladies as little as ladies cared for him; and
Dick hastened to secure Miss Bruce as a partner for the approaching
"square." She was engaged, of course, six deep, but she put off all
her claimants and took Mr. Stanmore's arm. "He's my cousin, you know,"
said she, with her rare smile, "and cousins don't count; so you're
all merely put back _one_. If you don't like it, you needn't come for
it - _c'est tout simple_!"

Then they took their places, and the dark eyes looked full into his
own. Dick felt he was winning in a canter.

Miss Bruce put her hand on the collar of diamonds round her neck. "I'm
glad you're _not_ my cousin," she said; "I'm glad you're not _really_
a relation. You're far dearer as it is. You're the best friend and
truest gentleman I ever met in my life. Now I sha'n't thank you any
more. Mind your dancing, and set to that gawky woman opposite. Isn't
she badly dressed?"

How could Dick tell? He didn't even know he had a _vis-à-vis_, and the
"gawky woman," as Miss Bruce most unjustly called her, only wondered
anybody could make such blunders in so simple a figure as the _Eté_.
His head was in a whirl. A certain chivalrous instinct warned him that
this was no time, while his idol lay under a heavy obligation, to
press his suit. Yet he could not, for the life of him, help venturing
a word.

"I look at nobody but you," he answered, turning pale as men do when
they are in sad earnest. "I should never wish to see any other face
than yours for the rest of my life."

"How tired you'd get of it," said she, with a bright smile; but she
timed her reply so as to embark immediately afterwards on the _Chaîne
des Dames_, a measure exceedingly ill calculated for sustained
conversation, and changed the subject directly she returned to his
side.

"Where did you dine?" she asked saucily. "With those wild young men at
the barracks, I suppose. I knew you would: and you did all sorts of
horrid things, drank and smoked - I'm _sure_ you smoked." She put her
laced hand-kerchief laughingly to her nose.

"I dined with Bearwarden," answered honest Dick, "and he's coming on
here directly with a lot of them. My mother will be so pleased - it's
going to be a capital ball."

"I thought Lord Bearwarden never went to balls," replied the young
lady carelessly; but her heart swelled with gratified vanity to think
of the attraction that drew him now to every place where he could hear
her voice and look upon her beauty.

"There he is," was her partner's comment, as his lordship's
head appeared in the doorway. "We'll have one more dance, Miss
Bruce - Maud - before the night is over?"

"As many as you please," was her answer, and still Dick felt he had
the race in hand and was winning in a canter.

People go to balls for pleasure, no doubt, but it must be admitted,
nevertheless, that the pleasure they seek there is of a delusive kind
and lasts but for a few minutes at a time.

Mr. Stanmore's whole happiness was centred in Miss Bruce, yet it was
impossible for him to neglect all his step-mother's guests because of
his infatuation for one, nor would the usages of society's Draconic
laws, that are not to be broken, permit him to haunt that one
presence, which turned to magic a scene otherwise only ludicrous for
an hour or so, and simply wearisome as it went on.

So Dick plunged into the thick of it, and did his duty manfully,
diving at partners right and left, yet, with a certain characteristic
loyalty, selecting the least attractive amongst the ladies for his
attentions. Thus it happened that as the rooms became crowded,
and half the smartest people in London surged and swayed upon the
staircase, he lost sight of the face he loved for a considerable
period, and was able to devote much real energy to the success of his
step-mother's ball, uninfluenced by the distraction of Miss Brace's
presence.

This young lady's movements, however, were not unobserved. Puckers,
from her position behind the cups and saucers, enjoyed great
reconnoitring opportunities, which she did not suffer to escape
unimproved - the tea-room, she was aware, held an important place in
the working machinery of society, as a sort of neutral territory,
between the cold civilities of the ball-room and the warmer interests
fostered by juxtaposition in the boudoir, not to mention a wicked
little alcove beyond, with low red velvet seats, and a subdued light
suggestive of whispers and provoking question rather than reply.

Puckers was not easily surprised. In the housekeeper's room she often
thanked her stars for this desirable immunity, and indeed on the
present occasion had furnished a loving couple with tea, whose united
ages would have come hard upon a century, without moving a muscle
of her countenance, albeit there was something ludicrous to
general society in the affectation of concealment with which this
long-recognised attachment had to be carried on. The gentleman was
bald and corpulent. The lady - well, the lady had been a beauty thirty
years ago, and dressed the character still. There was nothing to
prevent their seeing each other every day and all day long, if they
chose, yet they preferred scheming for invitation to the same places,
that they might meet _en évidence_ before the public; and dearly
loved, as now, a retirement into the tea-room, where they could
enact their _rôle_ of turtle-doves, uninterrupted, yet not entirely
unobserved. Perhaps, after all, this imaginary restraint afforded the
little spice of romance that preserved their attachment from decay.

Puckers, I say, marvelled at these not at all, but she did marvel, and
admitted it, when Miss Bruce, entering the tea-room, was seen to be
attended, not by Mr. Stanmore, but by Lord Bearwarden.

Her dark eyes glittered, and there was an exceedingly becoming flush
on the girl's fair face, usually so pale. Her maid thought she had
never seen Maud look so beautiful, and to judge by the expression of
his countenance, it would appear Lord Bearwarden thought so too. They
had been dancing together, and he seemed to be urging her to dance
with him again. His lordship's manner was more eager than common, and
in his eyes came an anxious expression that only one woman, the one
woman it was so difficult to forget, had ever been able to call into
them before.

"Look odd!" he repeated, while he set down her cup and gave her back
the fan he had been holding. "I thought you were above all that, Miss
Bruce, and did what you liked, without respect to the fools who stare
and can't understand."

She drew up her head with a proud gesture peculiar to her. "How do you
know I do like it?" said she haughtily.

He looked hurt, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Forgive me," he
said, "I have no right to suppose it. I have been presumptuous, and
you are entitled to be unkind. I have monopolised you too much, and
you're - you're bored with me. It's my own fault."

"I never said so," she answered in the same tone; "who is unkind now?"
Then the dark eyes were raised for one moment to look full in his, and
it was all over with Lord Bearwarden.

"You will dance with me again before I go," said he, recovering his
former position with an alacrity that denoted some previous practice.
"I shall ask nobody else - why should I? You know I only came here to
see _you_. One waltz, Miss Bruce - promise?"

"I promise," she answered, and again came into her eyes that smile
which so fascinated her admirers to their cost. "I shall get into
horrid disgrace for it, and so I shall for sitting here so long now.
I'm always doing wrong. However, I'll risk it if you will."

Her manner was playful, almost tender; and Puckers, adding another
large infusion of tea, wondered to see her look so soft and kind.

A crowded waltz was in course of performance, and the tea-room, but
for this preoccupied couple, would have been empty. Two men looked in
as they passed the door, the one hurried on in search of his partner,
the other started, scowled, and turned back amongst the crowd.
Puckers, the lynx-eyed, observing and recognising both, had sufficient
skill in physiognomy to pity Mr. Stanmore and much mistrust Tom Ryfe.

The former, indeed, felt a sharp, keen pang, when he saw the face that
so haunted him in close proximity to another face belonging to one
who, if he should enter for the prize, could not but prove a dangerous
rival. Nevertheless, the man's generous instincts stifled and kept
down so unworthy a suspicion, forcing himself to argue against his own
conviction that, at this very moment, the happiness of his life was
hanging by a thread. He resolved to ignore everything of the kind.
Jealousy was a bad beginning for a lover, and after all, if he should
allow himself to be jealous of every man who admired and danced with
Maud, life would be unbearable. How despicable, besides, would she
hold such a sentiment! With her disposition, how would she resent
anything like _espionage or surveillance_! How unworthy it seemed both
of herself and of him! In two minutes he was heartily ashamed of his
momentary discomfiture, and plunged energetically once more into the
duties of the ball-room. Nevertheless, from that moment, the whole
happiness of the evening had faded out for Dick.

There is a light irradiating all such gatherings which is totally
irrespective of gas or wax-candles. It can shed a mellow lustre on
dingy rooms, frayed carpets, and shabby furniture; nay, I have seen
its tender rays impart a rare and spiritual beauty to an old, worn,
long-loved face; but on the other hand, when this magic light is
quenched, or even temporarily shaded, not all the illuminations of a
royal birthday are brilliant enough to dispel the gloom its absence
leaves about the heart.

Mr. Stanmore, though whirling a very handsome young lady through a
waltz, began to think it was not such a good ball after all.

Tom Ryfe, on the other hand, congratulated himself on his tactics in
having obtained an invitation, not without considerable pressure put
upon Miss Bruce, for a gathering of which his social standing hardly
entitled him to form a part. He was now, so to speak, on the very
ground occupied by the enemy, and though he saw defeat imminent, could
at least make his own effort to avert it. After all his misgivings as
regarded Stanmore, it seemed that he had been mistaken, and that Lord
Bearwarden was the rival he ought to dread. In any case but his own,
Mr. Ryfe was a man of the world, quite shrewd enough to have reasoned
that in this duality of admirers there was encouragement and hope. But
Tom had lost his heart, such as it was; and his head, though of much
better material, had naturally gone with it. Like other gamblers, he
determined to follow his ill-luck to the utmost, bring matters to a
crisis, and so know the worst. In all graver affairs of life, it is
doubtless good sense to look a difficulty in the face; but in the
amusements of love and play practised hands leave a considerable
margin for that uncertainty which constitutes the very essence of both
pastimes; and this is why, perhaps, the man in earnest has the worst
chance of winning at either game.

So Tom Ryfe turned back into the crowd, and waited his opportunity for
a few minutes' conversation with Miss Bruce.

It came at last. She had danced through several engagements, the night
was waning, and a few carriages had already been called up. Maud
occupied the extreme end of a bench, from which a party of ladies had
just risen to go away: she had declined to dance, and for the moment
was alone. Tom slipped into the vacant seat by her side, and thus
cut her off from the whole surrounding world. A waltz requiring much
terrific accompaniment of brass instruments pealed out its deafening
strains within ten feet of them, and in no desert island could there
have been less likelihood that their conversation would be overheard.

Miss Bruce looked very happy, and in thorough good-humour. Tom Ryfe
opened the trenches quietly enough.

"You haven't danced with me the whole evening," said he, with only
rather a bitter inflection of voice.

"You never asked me," was the natural rejoinder.

"And I'm not going to ask you, now," proceeded Mr. Ryfe; "you and I,
Miss Bruce, have something more than a mere dancing acquaintance, I
think."

An impatient movement, a slight curl of the lip, was the only answer.

"You may drop an acquaintance when you are tired of him, or a friend
when he gets troublesome. It's done every day. It's very easy, Miss
Bruce."

He spoke in a tone of irony that roused her.

"Not so easy," she answered, with tightening lips, "when people have
no tact - when they are not _gentlemen_."

The taunt went home. The beauty of Mr. Ryfe's face was at no time
in its expression - certainly not now. Miss Bruce, too, seemed well
disposed to fight it out. Obviously it must be war to the knife!

"Did you get my letter?" said he, in low, distinct syllables. "Do you
believe I mean what I say? Do you believe I mean what I _write_?"

She smiled scornfully. A panting couple who stopped just in front of
them imagined they were interrupting a flirtation, and, doing as they
would be done by, twirled on.

"I treat all begging-letters alike," answered Maud, "and make yours no
exception, because they contain threats and abuse into the bargain.
You have chosen the wrong person to try and frighten, Mr. Ryfe. It
only shows how little you understand my character."

He would have caught at a straw even then. "How little chance I have
had of studying it!" he exclaimed. "It is not my fault. Heaven knows
I have been kept in ignorance, uncertainty, suspense, till it almost
drove me mad. Miss Bruce, you have known the worst of me; only the
worst of me, indeed, as yet."

The man was pleading for his life, you see. Was it pitiable, or only
ludicrous, that his voice and manner had to be toned down to the staid
pitch of general conversation, that a fat and happy German was puffing
at a cornet-à-piston within arm's length of him? But for a quiver of
his lip, any bystander might have supposed he was asking Miss Bruce if
he should bring her an ice.

"I have seen enough!" she replied, very resolutely, "and I am
determined to see no more. Mr. Ryfe, if you have no pleasanter
subjects of conversation than yourself and your arrangements, I
will ask you to move for an instant that I may pass and find Mrs.
Stanmore."

Lord Bearwarden was at the other end of the room, looking about
apparently for some object of unusual interest. Perhaps Miss Bruce saw
him - as ladies do see people without turning their eyes - and the sight
fortified her resolution.

"Then you defy me!" whispered Tom, in the low suppressed notes that
denote rage, concentrated and intensified for being kept down. "By
heaven, Miss Bruce, you shall repent it! I'll show you up! I'll expose
you! I'll have neither pity nor remorse! You think you've won a heavy
stake, do you? Hooked a big fish, and need only pull him ashore? _He_
sha'n't be deceived! _He_ shall know you for what you are! He shall,
by - - !"

The adjuration with which Mr. Ryfe concluded this little ebullition
was fortunately drowned to all ears but those for which it was
intended by a startling flourish on the cornet-à-piston. Miss Bruce
accepted the challenge readily. "Do your worst!" said she, rising
with a scornful bow, and taking Lord Bearwarden's arm, much to that
gentleman's delight, walked haughtily away.

Perhaps this declaration of open war may have decided her subsequent
conduct; perhaps it was only the result of those circumstances which
form the meshes of a certain web we call Fate. Howbeit, Miss Bruce was
too tired to dance. Miss Bruce would like to sit down in a cool place.
Miss Bruce would not be bored with Lord Bearwarden's companionship,
not for an hour, not for a week - no, not for a lifetime!

Dick Stanmore, taking a lady down to her carriage, saw them sitting
alone in the tea-room, now deserted by Puckers [Illustration: "'O,
Dick!' she said, 'I couldn't help it!'"] and her assistants. His
honest heart turned very sick and cold. Half-an-hour after, passing
the same spot, they were there still; and then, I think, he knew that
he was overtaken by the first misfortune of his life.

Later, when the ball was over, and he had wished Mrs. Stanmore
good-night, he went up to Maud with a grave, kind face.

"We never had our waltz, Miss Bruce," said he; "and - and - there's _a
reason_, isn't there?"

He was white to his very lips. Through all her triumph, she felt a
twinge, far keener than she expected, of compunction and remorse.

"O, Dick!" she said, "I couldn't help it! Lord Bearwarden proposed to
me in that room."

"And you accepted him?" said Dick, trying to steady his voice,
wondering why he felt half suffocated all the time.

"And I accepted him."




CHAPTER XVI


"MISSING - A GENTLEMAN"


"Age about thirty. Height five feet nine inches and a half - fair
complexion - light-grey eyes - small reddish-brown whiskers,
close-trimmed - short dark hair. Speaks fast, in a high key, and has a
habit of drawing out his shirt-sleeves from beneath his cuffs. When
last seen, was dressed in a dark surtout, fancy necktie, black-cloth
waist-coat, Oxford-mixture trousers, and Balmoral boots. Wore a black
hat with maker's name inside - Block and Co., 401 Regent Street.
Whoever will give such information to the authorities as may lead to
the discovery of the above, shall receive - A Reward!"

Such was the placard that afforded a few minutes' speculation for the
few people who had leisure to read it, one fine morning about a week
after Mrs. Stanmore's eventful ball, and towards the close of the
London season; eliciting at the same time criticism not altogether
favourable on the style of composition affected by our excellent
police. The man was missing no doubt, and had been missing for some
days before anxiety, created by his absence, growing into alarm for
his safety, had produced the foregoing advertisement, prompted by
certain affectionate misgivings of Mr. Bargrave, since the lost sheep
was none other than his nephew Tom Ryfe. The old man felt, indeed,
seriously discomposed by the prolonged absence of this the only member
of his family. It was unjustifiable, as he remarked twenty times a
day, unfeeling, unheard-of, unaccountable. He rang for the servants at
his private residence every quarter of an hour or so to learn if the
truant had returned. He questioned the boy at the office sharply and
repeatedly as to orders left with him by Mr. Ryfe before he went away,


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Online LibraryG.J. Whyte-MelvilleM. or N. Similia similibus curantur. → online text (page 12 of 24)