Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 14.

“De Profundis” Before “Plunging.”

Three months later it was guest-night in the messroom of a certain famous light cavalry regiment, who bear the reputation of being the fastest corps in the English service. Of a truth, they do “plunge” a little too wildly; and stories are told of bets over ecarte in their anteroom that have been prompt extinction forever and aye to the losers, for they rarely play money down, their stakes are too high, and moderate fortunes may go in a night with the other convenient but fatal system. But, this one indiscretion apart, they are a model corps for blood, for dash, for perfect social accord, for the finest horseflesh in the kingdom, and the best president at a mess-table that ever drilled the cook to matchlessness, and made the ice dry, and the old burgundies, the admired of all newcomers.

Just now they had pleasant quarters enough in York, had a couple of hundred hunters, all in all, in their stalls, were showing the Ridings that they could “go like birds,” and were using up their second horses with every day out, in the first of the season. A cracker over the best of the ground with the York and Ainsty, that had given two first-rate things quick as lightning, and both closed with a kill, had filled the day; and they were dining with a fair quantity of county guests, and all the splendor of plate, and ceremony, and magnificent hospitalities which characterize those beaux sabreurs wheresoever they go. At one part of the table a discussion was going on but they drank singularly little; it was not their “form” ever to indulge in that way; and the Chief, as dashing a sabreur as ever crossed a saddle, though lenient to looseness in all other matters, and very young for his command, would have been down like steel on “the boys,” had any of them taken to the pastime of overmuch drinking in any shape.

“I can’t get the rights of the story,” said one of the guests, a hunting baronet, and M. F. H. “It’s something very dark, isn’t it?”

“Very dark,” assented a tall, handsome man, with a habitual air of the most utterly exhausted apathy ever attained by the human features, but who, nevertheless, had been christened, by the fiercest of the warrior nations of the Punjaub, as the Shumsheer-i-Shaitan, or Sword of the Evil One, so terrible had the circling sweep of one back stroke of his, when he was quite a boy, become to them.

“Guard cut up fearfully rough,” murmured one near him, known as “the Dauphin.” “Such a low sort of thing, you know; that’s the worst of it. Seraph’s name, too.”

“Poor old Seraph! He’s fairly bowled over about it,” added a third. “Feels it awfully — by Jove, he does! It’s my belief he paid those Jew fellows the whole sum to get the pursuit slackened.”

“So Thelusson says. Thelusson says Jews have made a cracker by it. I dare say! Jews always do,” muttered a fourth. “First Life would have given Beauty a million sooner than have him do it. Horrible thing for the Household.”

“But is he dead?” pursued their guest.

“Beauty? Yes; smashed in that express, you know.”

“But there was no evidence?”

“I don’t know what you call evidence,” murmured “the Dauphin.” “Horses are sent to England from Paris; clearly shows he went to Paris. Marseilles train smashes; twenty people ground into indistinguishable amalgamation; two of the amalgamated jammed head foremost in a carriage alone; only traps in carriage with them, Beauty’s traps, with name clear on the brass outside, and crest clear on silver things inside; two men ground to atoms, but traps safe; two men, of course Beauty and servant; man was a plucky fellow, sure, to stay with him.”

And having given the desired evidence in lazy little intervals of speech, he took some Rhenish.

“Well — yes; nothing could be more conclusive, certainly,” assented the Baronet, resignedly convinced. “It was the best thing that could happen under the unfortunate circumstances; so Lord Royallieu thinks, I suppose. He allowed no one to wear mourning, and had his unhappy son’s portrait taken down and burned.”

“How melodramatic!” reflected Leo Charteris. “Now what the deuce can it hurt a dead man to have his portrait made into a bonfire? Old lord always did hate Beauty, though. Rock does all the mourning; he’s cut up no end; never saw a fellow so knocked out of time. Vowed at first he’d sell out, and go into the Austrian service; swore he couldn’t stay in the Household, but would get a command of some Heavies, and be changed to India.”

“Duke didn’t like that — didn’t want him shot; nobody else, you see, for the title. By George! I wish you’d seen Rock the other day on the Heath; little Pulteney came up to him.”

“What Pulteney? — Jimmy, or the Earl?”

“Oh, the Earl! Jimmy would have known better. These new men never know anything. ‘You purchased that famous steeple-chaser of his from Mr. Cecil’s creditors, didn’t you!’ asks Pulteney. Rock just looks him over. Such a look, by George! ‘I received Forest King as my dead friend’s last gift.’ Pulteney never takes the hint — not he. On he blunders: ‘Because, if you were inclined to part with him, I want a good new hunting strain, with plenty of fencing power, and I’d take him for the stud at any figure you liked.’ I thought the Seraph would have knocked him down — I did, upon my honor! He was red as this wine in a second with rage, and then as white as a woman. ‘You are quite right,’ he says quietly, and I swear each word cut like a bullet, ‘you do want a new strain with something like breeding in it, but — I hardly think you’ll get it for the three next generations. You must learn to know what it means first.’ Then away he lounges. By Jove! I don’t think the Cotton–Earl will forget this Cambridgeshire in a hurry, or try horse-dealing on the Seraph again.”

Laughter loud and long greeted the story.

“Poor Beauty,” said the Dauphin, “he’d have enjoyed that. He always put down Pulteney himself. I remember his telling me he was on duty at Windsor once when Pulteney was staying there. Pulteney’s always horribly funked at Court; frightened out of his life when he dines with any royalties; makes an awful figure too in a public ceremony; can’t walk backward for any money, and at his first levee tumbled down right in the Queen’s face. Now at the Castle one night he just happened to come down a corridor as Beauty was smoking. Beauty made believe to take him for a servant, took out a sovereign, and tossed it to him. ‘Here, keep a still tongue about my cigar, my good fellow!’ Pulteney turned hot and cold, and stammered out God knows what, about his mighty dignity being mistaken for a valet. Bertie just laughed a little, ever so softly, ‘Beg your pardon — thought you were one of the people; wouldn’t have done it for worlds; I know you’re never at ease with a sovereign!’ Now Pulteney wasn’t likely to forget that. If he wanted the King, I’ll lay any money it was to give him to some wretched mount who’d break his back over a fence in a selling race.”

“Well, he won’t have him; Seraph don’t intend to have the horse ever ridden or hunted at all.”

“Nonsense!”

“By Jove, he means it! nobody’s to cross the King’s back; he wants weight-carriers himself, you know, and precious strong ones too. The King’s put in stud at Lyonnesse. Poor Bertie! Nobody ever managed a close finish as he did at the Grand National — last but two — don’t you remember?”

“Yes; waited so beautifully on Fly-by-Night, and shot by him like lightning, just before the run-in. Pity he went to the bad!”

“Ah, what a hand he played at ecarte; the very best of the French science.”

“But reckless at whist; a wild game there — uncommonly wild. Drove Cis Delareux half mad one night at Royallieu with the way he threw his trumps out. Old Cis dashed his cards down at last, and looked him full in the face. ‘Beauty, do you know, or do you not know, that a whist-table is not to be taken as you take a timber in a hunting-field, on the principle of clear it or smash it?’ ‘Faith!’ said Bertie, ‘clear it or smash it is a very good rule for anything, but a trifle too energetic for me.’”

“The deuce, he’s had enough of ‘smashing’ at last! I wish he hadn’t come to grief in that style; it’s a shocking bore for the Guards — such an ugly story.”

“It was uncommonly like him to get killed just when he did — best possible taste.”

“Only thing he could do.”

“Better taste would have been to do it earlier. I always wondered he stopped for the row.”

“Oh, never thought it would turn up; trusted to a fluke.”

He whom the Punjaub knew as the Sword of the Evil One, but who held in polite society the title of Lord Kergenven, drank some hock slowly, and murmured as his sole quota to the conversation, very lazily and languidly:

“Bet you he isn’t dead at all.”

“The deuce you do? And why?” chorused the table; “when a fellow’s body’s found with all his traps round him!”

“I don’t believe he’s dead,” murmured Kergenven with closed, slumberous eyes.

“But why? Have you heard anything?”

“Not a word.”

“Why do you say he’s alive, then?”

My lord lifted his brows ever so little.

“I think so, that’s all.”

“But you must have a reason, Ker?”

Badgered into speech, Kergenven drank a little more hock, and dropped out slowly, in the mellowest voice in the world, the following:

“It don’t follow one has reasons for anything; pray don’t get logical. Two years ago I was out in a chasse au sanglier, central France; perhaps you don’t know their work? It’s uncommonly queer. Break up the Alps into little bits, scatter ’em pell-mell over a great forest, and then set a killing pack to hunt through and through it. Delightful chance for coming to grief; even odds that if you don’t pitch down a ravine, you’ll get blinded for life by a branch; that if you don’t get flattened under a boulder, you’ll be shot by a twig catching your rifle-trigger. Uncommonly good sport.”

Exhausted with so lengthened an exposition of the charms of the venerie and the hallali, he stopped, and dropped a walnut into some Regency sherry.

“Hang it, Ker!” cried the Dauphin. “What’s that to do with Beauty?”

My lord let fall a sleepy glance of surprise and of rebuke from under his black lashes, that said mutely, “Do I, who hate talking, ever talk wide of any point?”

“Why, this,” he murmured. “He was with us down at Veille-roc — Louis D’Auvrai’s place, you know; and we were out after an old boar — not too old to race; but still tough enough to be likely to turn and trust to his tusks if the pace got very hot, and he was hard pressed at the finish. We hadn’t found till rather late, the limeurs were rather new to the work, and the November day was short, of course; the pack got on the slot of a roebuck too, and were off the boar’s scent in a little while, running wild. Altogether we got scattered, and in the forest it grew almost as dark as pitch; you followed just as you could, and could only guide yourself by your ear when the hounds gave cry, or the horns sounded. On you blundered, hit or miss, headlong down the rocks and through the branches; horses warmed wonderfully to the business, scrambled like cats, slid down like otters, kept their footing where nobody’d have thought anything but a goat could stand. Our hunting bloods wouldn’t live an hour in a French forest. You see we just look for pace and strength in the shoulders; we don’t much want anything else — except good jumping power. What a lot of fellows — even in the crack packs — will always funk water! Horses will fly, but they can’t swim. Now, to my fancy, a clever beast ought to take even a swelling bit of water like a duck. How poor Standard breasted rivers till that fool staked him!”

He dropped more walnuts into his wine, wistfully recalling a mighty hero of Leicestershire fame, that had given him many a magnificent day out, and had been the idol of his stables, till in his twelfth year the noble old sorrel had been killed by a groom’s recklessness; recklessness that met with such chastisement as told how and why the hill-tribes’ sobriquet had been given to the hand that would lie so long in indolent rest, to strike with such fearful force when once raised.

“Well,” he went on once more, “we were all of us scattered; scarcely two kept together anywhere; where the pack was, where the boar was, where the huntsmen were, nobody knew. Now and then I heard the hounds giving tongue at the distance, and I rode after that to the best of my science; and uncommonly bad was the best. That forest work perplexes one, after the grass-country. You can’t view the beauties two minutes together; and as for sinning by overriding ’em, you’re very safe not to do that! At last I heard a crashing sound, loud and furious; I thought they had got him to bay at last. There was a great oak thicket as hard as iron, and as close as a net, between me and the place; the boughs were all twisted together, God knows how, and grew so low down that the naked branches had to be broken though at every step by the horse’s fore hoofs, before he could force a step. We did force it somehow at last, and came into a green, open space, where there were fewer trees, and the moon was shining in; there, without a hound near, true enough was the boar rolling on the ground, and somebody rolling under him. They were locked in so close they looked just like one huge beast, pitching here and there, as you’ve seen the rhinos wallow in Indian jheels. Of course, I leveled my rifle, but I waited to get a clear aim; for which was man and which was boar, the deuce a bit could I tell; just as I had pointed, Beauty’s voice called out to me; ‘Keep your fire, Ker! I want to have him myself.’ It was he that was under the brute. Just as he spoke they rolled toward me, the boar foaming and spouting blood, and plunging his tusks into Cecil; he got his right arm out from under the beast, and crushed under there as he was, drew it free, with the knife well gripped; then down he dashed it three times into the veteran’s hide, just beneath the ribs; it was the coup de grace; the boar lay dead, and Beauty lay half dead too; the blood rushing out of him where the tusks had dived. Two minutes, though, and a draught of my brandy brought him all round; and the first words he spoke were, ‘Thanks Ker; you did as you would be done by — a shot would have spoilt it all.’ The brute had crossed his path far away from the pack, and he had flung himself out of saddle and had a neck-and-neck struggle. And that night we played baccarat by his bedside to amuse him; and he played just as well as ever. Now this is why I don’t think he’s dead; a fellow who served a wild boar like that won’t have let a train knock him over. And I don’t believe he forged that stiff, though all the evidence says so; Beauty hadn’t a touch of the blackguard in him.”

With which declaration of his views, Kergenven lapsed into immutable silence and slumberous apathy, from whose shelter nothing could tempt him afresh; and the Colonel, with all the rest, lounged into the anteroom, where the tables were set, and began “plunging” in earnest at sums that might sound fabulous, were they written here. The players staked heavily; but it was the gallery who watched around, making their bets, and backing their favorites, that lost on the whole the most.

“Horse Guards have heard of the plunging; think we’re going too fast,” murmured the Chief to Kergenven, his Major, who lifted his brows, and murmured back with the demureness of a maiden:

“Tell ’em it’s our only vice; we’re models of propriety.”

Which possibly would not have been received with the belief desirable by the skeptics of Pall Mall.

So the De Profundis was said over Bertie Cecil; and “Beauty of the Brigades” ceased to be named in the service, and soon ceased to be even remembered. In the steeple-chase of life there is no time to look back at the failures, who have gone down over a “double and drop,” and fallen out of the pace.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter14.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06