H. Rider Haggard.

Colonel Quaritch, V.C. A Tale of Country Life online

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Then came a longer drive, when the birds were pretty plentiful. The
Colonel got one, a low-flying Frenchman, which he killed as he topped
the fence, and after that for the life of him he could not touch a
feather. Every sportsman knows what a fatal thing it is to begin to
miss and then get nervous, and that was what happened to the Colonel.
Continually there came distant cries of "/Mark! mark over!/" followed
by the apparition of half-a-dozen brown balls showing clearly against
the grey autumn sky and sweeping down towards him like lightning.
/Whizz/ in front, overhead and behind; bang, bang; bang again with the
second gun, and they were away - vanished, gone, leaving nothing but a
memory behind them.

The Colonel swore beneath his breath, and Ida kneeling at his side,
sighed audibly; but it was of no use, and presently the drive was
done, and there he was with one wretched French partridge to show for
it.

Ida said nothing, but she looked volumes, and if ever a man felt
humiliated, Harold Quaritch was that man. She had set her heart upon
his winning the match, and he was making an exhibition of himself that
might have caused a schoolboy to blush.

Only Edward Cossey smiled grimly as he told his bearer to give the two
and a half brace which he had shot to George.

"Last drive this next, gentlemen," said that universal functionary as
he surveyed the Colonel's one Frenchman, and then glancing sadly at
the tell-tale pile of empty cartridge cases, added, "You'll hev to
shoot up, Colonel, this time, if you are a-going to win them there
gloves for Miss Ida. Mr. Cossey hev knocked up four brace and a half,
and you hev only got a brace. Look you here, sir," he went on in a
portentous whisper, "keep forrard of them, well forrard, fire ahead,
and down they'll come of themselves like. You're a better shot than he
is a long way; you could give him 'birds,' sir, that you could, and
beat him."

Harold said nothing. He was sorely tempted to make excuses, as any man
would have been, and he might with truth have urged that he was not
accustomed to partridge-driving, and that one of the guns was new to
him. But he resisted manfully and said never a word.

George placed the two guns, and then went off to join the beaters. It
was a capital spot for a drive, for on each side were young larch
plantations, sloping down towards them like a V, the guns being at the
narrow end and level with the points of the plantations, which were at
this spot about a hundred and twenty yards apart. In front was a large
stretch of open fields, lying in such a fashion that the birds were
bound to fly straight over the guns and between the gap at the end of
the V-shaped covers.

They had to wait a long while, for the beat was of considerable
extent, and this they did in silence, till presently a couple of
single birds appeared coming down the wind like lightning, for a
stiffish breeze had sprung up. One went to the left over Edward
Cossey's head, and he shot it very neatly, but the other, catching
sight of Harold's hat beneath the fence, which was not a high one,
swerved and crossed, an almost impossible shot, nearer sixty than
fifty yards from him.

"Now," said Ida, and he fired, and to his joy down came the bird with
a thud, bounding full two feet into the air with the force of its
impact, being indeed shot through the head.

"That's better," said Ida, as she handed him the second gun.

Another moment and a covey came over, high up. He fired both barrels
and got a right and left, and snatching the second gun sent another
barrel after them, hitting a third bird, which did not fall. And then
a noble enthusiasm and certainty possessed him, and he knew that he
should miss no more. Nor did he. With two almost impossible exceptions
he dropped every bird that drive. But his crowning glory, a thing
whereof he still often dreams, was yet to come.

He had killed four brace of partridge and fired eleven times, when at
last the beaters made their appearance about two hundred yards away at
the further end of rather dirty barley stubble.

"I think that is the lot," he said; "I'm afraid you have lost your
gloves, Ida."

Scarcely were the words out of his mouth when there was a yell of
"mark!" and a strong covey of birds appeared, swooping down the wind
right on to him.

On they came, scattered and rather "stringy." Harold gripped his gun
and drew a deep breath, while Ida, kneeling at his side, her lips
apart, and her beautiful eyes wide open, watched their advent through
a space in the hedge. Lovely enough she looked to charm the heart of
any man, if a man out partridge-driving could descend to such
frivolity, which we hold to be impossible.

Now is the moment. The leading brace are something over fifty yards
away, and he knows full well that if there is to be a chance left for
the second gun he must shoot before they are five yards nearer.

"Bang!" down comes the old cock bird; "bang!" and his mate follows
him, falling with a smash into the fence.

Quick as light Ida takes the empty gun with one hand, and as he swings
round passes him the cocked and loaded one with the other. "Bang!"
Another bird topples head first out of the thinned covey. They are
nearly sixty yards away now. "Bang!" again, and oh, joy and wonder!
the last bird turns right over backwards, and falls dead as a stone
some seventy paces from the muzzle of the gun.

He had killed four birds out of a single driven covey, which as
shooters well know is a feat not often done even by the best driving
shots.

"Bravo!" said Ida, "I was sure that you could shoot if you chose."

"Yes," he answered, "it was pretty good work;" and he commenced
collecting the birds, for by this time the beaters were across the
field. They were all dead, not a runner in the lot, and there were
exactly six brace of them. Just as he picked up the last, George
arrived, followed by Edward Cossey.

"Well I niver," said the former, while something resembling a smile
stole over his melancholy countenance, "if that bean't the masterest
bit of shooting that ever I did see. Lord Walsingham couldn't hardly
beat that hisself - fifteen empty cases and twelve birds picked up.
Why," and he turned to Edward, "bless me, sir, if I don't believe the
Colonel has won them gloves for Miss Ida after all. Let's see, sir,
you got two brace this last drive and one the first, and a leash the
second, and two brace and a half the third, six and a half brace in
all. And the Colonel, yes, he hev seven brace, one bird to the good."

"There, Mr. Cossey," said Ida, smiling sweetly, "I have won my gloves.
Mind you don't forget to pay them."

"Oh, I will not forget, Miss de la Molle," said he, smiling also, but
not too prettily. "I suppose," he said, addressing the Colonel, "that
the last covey twisted up and you browned them."

"No," he answered quietly, "all four were clear shots."

Mr. Cossey smiled again, as he turned away to hide his vexation, an
incredulous smile, which somehow sent Harold Quaritch's blood leaping
through his veins more quickly than was good for him. Edward Cossey
would rather have lost a thousand pounds than that his adversary
should have got that extra bird, for not only was he a jealous shot,
but he knew perfectly well that Ida was anxious that he should lose,
and desired above all things to see him humiliated. And then he, the
smartest shot within ten miles round, to be beaten by a middle-aged
soldier shooting with a strange gun, and totally unaccustomed to
driven birds! Why, the story would be told over the county; George
would see to that. His anger was so great when he thought of it, that
afraid of making himself ridiculous, he set off with his bearer
towards the Castle without another word, leaving the others to follow.

Ida looked after him and smiled. "He is so conceited," she said; "he
cannot bear to be beaten at anything."

"I think that you are rather hard on him," said the Colonel, for the
joke had an unpleasant side which jarred upon his taste.

"At any rate," she answered, with a little stamp, "it is not for you
to say so. If you disliked him as much as I do you would be hard on
him, too. Besides, I daresay that his turn is coming."

The Colonel winced, as well he might, but looking at her handsome
face, set just now like steel at the thought of what the future might
bring forth, he reflected that if Edward Cossey's turn did come he was
by no means sure that the ultimate triumph would rest with him. Ida de
la Molle, to whatever extent her sense of honour and money
indebtedness might carry her, was no butterfly to be broken on a
wheel, but a woman whose dislike and anger, or worse still, whose
cold, unvarying disdain, was a thing from which the boldest hearted
man might shrink aghast.

Nothing more was said on the subject, and they began to talk, though
somewhat constrainedly, about indifferent matters. They were both
aware that it was a farce, and that they were playing a part, for
beneath the external ice of formalities the river of their devotion
ran strong - whither they knew not. All that had been made clear a few
nights back. But what will you have? Necessity over-riding their
desires, compelled them along the path of self-denial, and, like wise
folk, they recognised the fact: for there is nothing more painful in
the world than the outburst of hopeless affection.

And so they talked about painting and shooting and what not, till they
reached the grey old Castle towers. Here Harold wanted to bid her
good-bye, but she persuaded him to come in and have some tea, saying
that her father would like to say good-night to him.

Accordingly he went into the vestibule, where there was a light, for
it was getting dusk; and here he found the Squire and Mr. Cossey. As
soon as he entered, Edward Cossey rose, said good-night to the Squire
and Ida, and then passed towards the door, where the Colonel was
standing, rubbing the mud off his shooting boots. As he came, Harold
being slightly ashamed of the business of the shooting match, and very
sorry to have humiliated a man who prided himself so much upon his
skill in a particular branch of sport, held out his hand and said in a
friendly tone:

"Good-night, Mr. Cossey. Next time that we are out shooting together I
expect I shall be nowhere. It was an awful fluke of mine killing those
four birds."

Edward Cossey took no notice of the friendly words or outstretched
hand, but came straight on as though he intended to walk past him.

The Colonel was wondering what it was best to do, for he could not
mistake the meaning of the oversight, when the Squire, who was
sometimes very quick to notice things, spoke in a loud and decided
tone.

"Mr. Cossey," he said, "Colonel Quaritch is offering you his hand."

"I observe that he is," he answered, setting his handsome face, "but I
do not wish to take Colonel Quaritch's hand."

Then came a moment's silence, which the Squire again broke.

"When a gentleman in my house refuses to take the hand of another
gentleman," he said very quietly, "I think that I have a right to ask
the reason for his conduct, which, unless that reason is a very
sufficient one, is almost as much a slight upon me as upon him."

"I think that Colonel Quaritch must know the reason, and will not
press me to explain," said Edward Cossey.

"I know of no reason," replied the Colonel sternly, "unless indeed it
is that I have been so unfortunate as to get the best of Mr. Cossey in
a friendly shooting match."

"Colonel Quaritch must know well that this is not the reason to which
I allude," said Edward. "If he consults his conscience he will
probably discover a better one."

Ida and her father looked at each other in surprise, while the Colonel
by a half involuntary movement stepped between his accuser and the
door; and Ida noticed that his face was white with anger.

"You have made a very serious implication against me, Mr. Cossey," he
said in a cold clear voice. "Before you leave this room you will be so
good as to explain it in the presence of those before whom it has been
made."

"Certainly, if you wish it," he answered, with something like a sneer.
"The reason why I refused to take your hand, Colonel Quaritch, is that
you have been guilty of conduct which proves to me that you are not a
gentleman, and, therefore, not a person with whom I desire to be on
friendly terms. Shall I go on?"

"Most certainly you will go on," answered the Colonel.

"Very well. The conduct to which I refer is that you were once engaged
to my aunt, Julia Heston; that within three days of the time of the
marriage you deserted and jilted her in a most cruel way, as a
consequence of which she went mad, and is to this moment an inmate of
an asylum."

Ida gave an exclamation of astonishment, and the Colonel started,
while the Squire, looking at him curiously, waited to hear what he had
to say.

"It is perfectly true, Mr. Cossey," he answered, "that I was engaged
twenty years ago to be married to Miss Julia Heston, though I now for
the first time learn that she was your aunt. It is also quite true
that that engagement was broken off, under most painful circumstances,
within three days of the time fixed for the marriage. What those
circumstances were I am not at liberty to say, for the simple reason
that I gave my word not to do so; but this I will say, that they were
not to my discredit, though you may not be aware of that fact. But as
you are one of the family, Mr. Cossey, my tongue is not tied, and I
will do myself the honour of calling upon you to-morrow and explaining
them to you. After that," he added significantly, "I shall require you
to apologise to me as publicly as you have accused me."

"You may require, but whether I shall comply is another matter," said
Edward Cossey, and he passed out.

"I am very sorry, Mr. de la Molle," said the Colonel, as soon as he
had gone, "more sorry than I can say, that I should have been the
cause of this most unpleasant scene. I also feel that I am placed in a
very false position, and until I produce Mr. Cossey's written apology,
that position must to some extent continue. If I fail to obtain that
apology, I shall have to consider what course to take. In the
meanwhile I can only ask you to suspend your judgment."



CHAPTER XXIII

THE BLOW FALLS

On the following morning, about ten o'clock, while Edward Cossey was
still at breakfast, a dog-cart drew up at his door and out of it
stepped Colonel Quaritch.

"Now for the row," said he to himself. "I hope that the governor was
right in his tale, that's all. Perhaps it would have been wiser to say
nothing till I had made sure," and he poured out some more tea a
little nervously, for in the Colonel he had, he felt, an adversary not
to be despised.

Presently the door opened, and "Colonel Quaritch" was announced. He
rose and bowed a salutation, which the Colonel whose face bore a
particularly grim expression, did not return.

"Will you take a chair?" he said, as soon as the servant had left, and
without speaking Harold took one - and presently began the
conversation.

"Last night, Mr. Cossey," he said, "you thought proper to publicly
bring a charge against me, which if it were true would go a long way
towards showing that I was not a fit person to associate with those
before whom it was brought."

"Yes," said Edward coolly.

"Before making any remarks on your conduct in bringing such a charge,
which I give you credit for believing to be true, I purpose to show to
you that it is a false charge," went on the Colonel quietly. "The
story is a very simple one, and so sad that nothing short of necessity
would force me to tell it. I was, when quite young, engaged to your
aunt, Miss Heston, to whom I was much attached, and who was then
twenty years of age. Though I had little besides my profession, she
had money, and we were going to be married. The circumstances under
which the marriage was broken off were as follow: - Three days before
the wedding was to take place I went unexpectedly to the house, and
was told by the servant that Miss Heston was upstairs in her sitting-
room. I went upstairs to the room, which I knew well, knocked and got
no answer. Then I walked into the room, and this is what I saw. Your
aunt was lying on the sofa in her wedding dress (that is, in half of
it, for she had only the skirt on), as I first thought, asleep. I went
up to her, and saw that by her side was a brandy bottle, half empty.
In her hand also was a glass containing raw brandy. While I was
wondering what it could mean, she woke up, got off the sofa, and I saw
that she was intoxicated."

"It's a lie!" said Edward excitedly.

"Be careful what you say, sir," answered the Colonel, "and wait to say
it till I have done."

"As soon as I realised what was the matter, I left the room again, and
going down to your grandfather's study, where he was engaged in
writing a sermon, I asked him to come upstairs, as I feared that his
daughter was not well. He came and saw, and the sight threw him off
his balance, for he broke out into a torrent of explanations and
excuses, from which in time I extracted the following facts: - It
appeared that ever since she was a child, Miss Heston had been
addicted to drinking fits, and that it was on account of this
constitutional weakness, which was of course concealed from me, that
she had been allowed to engage herself to a penniless subaltern. It
appeared, too, that the habit was hereditary, for her mother had died
from the effects of drink, and one of her aunts had become mad from
it.

"I went away and thought the matter over, and came to the conclusion
that under these circumstances it would be impossible for me, much as
I was attached to your aunt, to marry her, because even if I were
willing to do so, I had no right to run the risk of bringing children
into the world who might inherit the curse. Having come to this
determination, which it cost me much to do, I wrote and communicated
it to your grandfather, and the marriage was broken off."

"I do not believe it, I do not believe a word of it," said Edward,
jumping up. "You jilted her and drove her mad, and now you are trying
to shelter yourself behind a tissue of falsehood."

"Are you acquainted with your grandfather's handwriting?" asked the
Colonel quietly.

"Yes."

"Is that it?" he went on, producing a yellow-looking letter and
showing it to him.

"I believe so - at least it looks like it."

"Then read the letter."

Edward obeyed. It was one written in answer to that of Harold Quaritch
to his betrothed's father, and admitted in the clearest terms the
justice of the step that he had taken. Further, it begged him for the
sake of Julia and the family at large, never to mention the cause of
his defection to any one outside the family.

"Are you satisfied, Mr. Cossey? I have other letters, if you wish to
see them."

Edward made no reply, and the Colonel went on: - "I gave the promise
your grandfather asked for, and in spite of the remarks that were
freely made upon my behaviour, I kept it, as it was my duty to do.
You, Mr. Cossey, are the first person to whom the story has been told.
And now that you have thought fit to make accusations against me,
which are without foundation, I must ask you to retract them as fully
as you made them. I have prepared a letter which you will be so good
as to sign," and he handed him a note addressed to the Squire. It ran:


"Dear Mr. de la Molle, -

"I beg in the fullest and most ample manner possible to retract the
charges which I made yesterday evening against Colonel Quaritch,
in the presence of yourself and Miss de la Molle. I find that
those charges were unfounded, and I hereby apologise to Colonel
Quaritch for having made them."


"And supposing that I refuse to sign," said Edward sulkily.

"I do not think," answered the Colonel, "that you will refuse."

Edward looked at Colonel Quaritch, and the Colonel looked at Edward.

"Well," said the Colonel, "please understand I mean that you should
sign this letter, and, indeed, seeing how absolutely you are in the
wrong, I do not think that you can hesitate to do so."

Then very slowly and unwillingly, Edward Cossey took up a pen, affixed
his signature to the letter, blotted it, and pushed it from him.

The Colonel folded it up, placed it in an envelope which he had ready,
and put it in his pocket.

"Now, Mr. Cossey," he said, "I will wish you good-morning. Another
time I should recommend you to be more careful, both of your facts and
the manner of your accusations," and with a slight bow he left the
room.

"Curse the fellow," thought Edward to himself as the front door
closed, "he had me there - I was forced to sign. Well, I will be even
with him about Ida, at any rate. I will propose to her this very day,
Belle or no Belle, and if she won't have me I will call the money in
and smash the whole thing up" - and his handsome face bore a very evil
look, as he thought of it.

That very afternoon he started in pursuance of this design, to pay a
visit to the Castle. The Squire was out, but Miss de la Molle was at
home. He was ushered into the drawing-room, where Ida was working, for
it was a wet and windy afternoon.

She rose to greet him coldly enough, and he sat down, and then came a
pause which she did not seem inclined to break.

At last he spoke. "Did the Squire get my letter, Miss de la Molle?" he
asked.

"Yes," she answered, rather icily. "Colonel Quaritch sent it up."

"I am very sorry," he added confusedly, "that I should have put myself
in such a false position. I hope that you will give me credit for
having believed my accusation when I made it."

"Such accusations should not be lightly made, Mr. Cossey," was her
answer, and, as though to turn the subject, she rose and rang the bell
for tea.

It came, and the bustle connected with it prevented any further
conversation for a while. At length, however, it subsided, and once
more Edward found himself alone with Ida. He looked at her and felt
afraid. The woman was of a different clay to himself, and he knew it -
he loved her, but he did not understand her in the least. However, if
the thing was to be done at all it must be done now, so, with a
desperate effort, he brought himself to the point.

"Miss de la Molle," he said, and Ida, knowing full surely what was
coming, felt her heart jump within her bosom and then stand still.

"Miss de la Molle," he repeated, "perhaps you will remember a
conversation that passed between us some weeks ago in the
conservatory?"

"Yes," she said, "I remember - about the money."

"About the money and other things," he said, gathering courage. "I
hinted to you then that I hoped in certain contingencies to be allowed
to make my addresses to you, and I think that you understood me."

"I understood you perfectly," answered Ida, her pale face set like
ice, "and I gave you to understand that in the event of your lending
my father the money, I should hold myself bound to - to listen to what
you had to say."

"Oh, never mind the money," broke in Edward. "It is not a question of
money with me, Ida, it is not, indeed. I love you with all my heart. I
have loved you ever since I saw you. It was because I was jealous of
him that I made a fool of myself last night with Colonel Quaritch. I
should have asked you to marry me long ago only there were obstacles
in the way. I love you, Ida; there never was a woman like you - never."

She listened with the same set face. Obviously he was in earnest, but
his earnestness did not move her; it scarcely even flattered her
pride. She disliked the man intensely, and nothing that he could say
or do would lessen that dislike by one jot - probably, indeed, it would
only intensify it.

Presently he stopped, his breast heaving and his face broken with
emotion, and tried to take her hand.

She withdrew it sharply.

"I do not think that there is any need for all this," she said coldly.
"I gave a conditional promise. You have fulfilled your share of the
bargain, and I am prepared to fulfil mine in due course."

So far as her words went, Edward could find no fault with their
meaning, and yet he felt more like a man who has been abruptly and
finally refused than one declared chosen. He stood still and looked at
her.

"I think it right to tell you, however," she went on in the same
measured tones, "that if I marry you it will be from motives of duty,
and not from motives of affection. I have no love to give you and I do
not wish for yours. I do not know if you will be satisfied with this.


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Online LibraryH. Rider HaggardColonel Quaritch, V.C. A Tale of Country Life → online text (page 14 of 27)