Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 5.

Under the Keeper’s Tree.

“You’re a lad o’ wax, my beauty!” cried Mr. Rake enthusiastically, surveying the hero of the Grand Military with adoring eyes as that celebrity, without a hair turned or a muscle swollen from his exploit, was having a dressing down after a gentle exercise. “You’ve pulled it off, haven’t you? You’ve cut the work out for ’em! You’ve shown ’em what a luster is! Strike me a loser, but what a deal there is in blood. The littlest pippin that ever threw a leg across the pigskin knows that in the stables; then why the dickens do the world run against such a plain fact out of it?”

And Rake gazed with worship at the symmetrical limbs of the champion of the “First Life,” and plunged into speculation on the democratic tendencies of the age, as clearly contradicted by all the evidences of the flat and furrow, while Forest King drank a dozen go-downs of water, and was rewarded for the patience with which he had subdued his inclination to kick, fret, spring, and break away throughout the dressing by a full feed thrown into his crib, which Rake watched him, with adoring gaze, eat to the very last grain.

“You precious one!” soliloquized that philosopher, who loved the horse with a sort of passion since his victory over the Shires. “You’ve won for the gentlemen, my lovely — for your own cracks, my boy!”

And Rake, rendered almost melancholy by his thoughts, went out of the box to get into saddle and ride off on an errand of his master’s to the Zu–Zu at her tiny hunting-lodge, where the snow-white ponies made her stud, and where she gave enchanting little hunting-dinners, at which she sang equally enchanting little hunting-songs, and arrayed herself, in the Fontainebleau hunting costume, gold-hilted knife and all, and spent Cecil’s winnings for him with a rapidity that threatened to leave very few of them for the London season. She was very pretty, sweetly pretty; with hair that wanted no gold powder, the clearest, sauciest eyes, and the handsomest mouth in the world; but of grammar she had not a notion, of her aspirates she had never a recollection, of conversation she had not an idea; of slang she had, to be sure, a repertoire, but to this was her command of language limited. She dressed perfectly, but she was a vulgar little soul; drank everything, from Bass’ ale to rum-punch, and from cherry-brandy to absinthe; thought it the height of wit to stifle you with cayenne slid into your vanilla ice, and the climax of repartee to cram your hat full of peach stones and lobster shells; was thoroughly avaricious, thoroughly insatiate, thoroughly heartless, pillaged with both hands, and then never had enough; had a coarse good nature when it cost her nothing, and was “as jolly as a grig,” according to her phraseology, so long as she could stew her pigeons in champagne, drink wines and liqueurs that were beyond price, take the most dashing trap in the Park up to Flirtation Corner, and laugh and sing and eat Richmond dinners, and show herself at the Opera with Bertie or some other “swell” attached to her, in the very box next to a Duchess.

The Zu–Zu was perfectly happy; and as for the pathetic pictures that novelists and moralists draw, of vice sighing amid turtle and truffles for childish innocence in the cottage at home where honeysuckles blossomed and brown brooks made melody, and passionately grieving on the purple cushions of a barouche for the time of straw pallets and untroubled sleep, why — the Zu–Zu would have vaulted herself on the box-seat of a drag, and told you “to stow all that trash”; her childish recollections were of a stifling lean-to with the odor of pigsty and straw-yard, pork for a feast once a week, starvation all the other six days, kicks, slaps, wrangling, and a general atmosphere of beer and wash-tubs; she hated her past, and loved her cigar on the drag. The Zu–Zu is fact; the moralists’ pictures are moonshine.

The Zu–Zu is an openly acknowledged fact, moreover, daily becoming more prominent in the world, more brilliant, more frankly recognized, and more omnipotent. Whether this will ultimately prove for the better or the worse, it would be a bold man who should dare say; there is at least one thing left to desire in it — i. e., that the synonym of “Aspasia,” which serves so often to designate in journalistic literature these Free Lances of life, were more suitable in artistic and intellectual similarity, and that, when the Zu–Zu and her sisterhood plunge their white arms elbow-deep into so many fortunes, and rule the world right and left as they do, they could also sound their H’s properly, and knew a little orthography, if they could not be changed into such queens of grace, of intellect, of sovereign mind and splendid wit as were their prototypes when she whose name they debase held her rule in the City of the Violet Crown, and gathered about her Phidias the divine, haughty and eloquent Antipho, the gay Crates, the subtle Protagorus, Cratinus so acrid and yet so jovial, Damon of the silver lyre, and the great poets who are poets for all time. Author and artist, noble and soldier, court the Zu–Zu order now; but it must be confessed that the Hellenic idols were of a more exalted type than are the Hyde Park goddesses!

However, the Zu–Zu was the rage, and spent Bertie’s money, when he got any, just as her willful sovereignty fancied, and Rake rode on now with his master’s note, bearing no very good will to her; for Rake had very strong prejudices, and none stronger than against these fair pillagers who went about seeking whom they should devour, and laughing at the wholesale ruin they wrought while the sentimentalists babbled in “Social Science” of “pearls lost” and “innocence betrayed.”

“A girl that used to eat tripe and red herring in a six-pair pack, and dance for a shilling a night in gauze, coming it so grand that she’ll only eat asparagus in March, and drink the best Brands with her truffles! Why, she ain’t worth sixpence thrown away on her, unless it’s worth while to hear how hard she can swear at you!” averred Rake, in his eloquence; and he was undoubtedly right for that matter; but then — the Zu–Zu was the rage, and if ever she should be sold up, great ladies would crowd to her sale and buy with eager curiosity at high prices her most trumpery pots of pomatum, her most flimsy gew-gaws of marqueterie!

Rake had seen a good deal of men and manners, and, in his own opinion at least, was “up to every dodge on the cross” that this iniquitous world could unfold. A bright, lithe, animated, vigorous, yellow-haired, and sturdy fellow; seemingly with a dash of the Celt in him that made him vivacious and peppery; Mr. Rake polished his wits quite as much as he polished the tops, and considered himself a philosopher. Of whose son he was he had not the remotest idea; his earliest recollections were of the tender mercies of the workhouse; but even that chill foster-mother, the parish, had not damaged the liveliness of his temper or the independence of his opinions, and as soon as he was fifteen Rake had run away and joined a circus; distinguishing himself there by his genius for standing on his head and tying his limbs into a porter’s knot.

From the circus he migrated successively into the shape of a comic singer, a tapster, a navvy, a bill-sticker, a guacho in Mexico (working his passage out), a fireman in New York, a ventriloquist in Maryland, a vaquero in Spanish California, a lemonade seller in San Francisco, a revolutionist in the Argentine (without the most distant idea what he fought for), a boatman on the bay of Mapiri, a blacksmith in Santarem, a trapper in the Wilderness, and finally, working his passage home again, took the Queen’s shilling in Dublin, and was drafted into a light-cavalry regiment. With the — th he served half a dozen years in India; a rough-rider, a splendid fellow in a charge or a pursuit, with an astonishing power over horses, and the clearest back-handed sweep of a saber that ever cut down a knot of natives; but — insubordinate. Do his duty whenever fighting was in question, he did most zealously; but to kick over the traces at other times was a temptation that at last became too strong for that lawless lover of liberty.

From the moment that he joined the regiment a certain Corporal Warne and he had conceived an antipathy to one another, which Rake had to control as he might, and which the Corporal was not above indulging in every petty piece of tyranny that his rank allowed him to exercise. On active service Rake was, by instinct, too good a soldier not to manage to keep the curb on himself tolerably well though he was always regarded in his troop rather as a hound that will “riot” is regarded in the pack; but when the — th came back to Brighton and to barracks, the evil spirit of rebellion began to get a little hotter in him under th Corporal’s “Idees Napoliennes” of justifiable persecution. Warne indisputably provoked his man in a cold, iron, strictly lawful sort of manner, moreover, all the more irritating to a temper like Rake’s.

“Hanged if I care how the officers come it over me; they’re gentlemen, and it don’t try a fellow,” would Rake say in confidential moments over purl and a penn’orth of bird’s-eye, his experience in the Argentine Republic having left him with strongly aristocratic prejudices; “but when it comes to a duffer like that, that knows no better than me, what ain’t a bit better than me, and what is as clumsy a duffer about a horse’s plates as ever I knew, and would almost let a young ’un buck him out of his saddle — why, then I do cut up rough, I ain’t denying it; and I don’t see what there is in his Stripes to give him such a license to be aggravating.”

With which Rake would blow the froth off his pewter with a puff of concentrated wrath, and an oath against his non-commissioned officers that might have let some light in upon the advocates for “promotion from the ranks,” had they been there to take the lesson. At last, in the leisure of Brighton, the storm broke. Rake had a Scotch hound that was the pride of his life; his beer-money often going instead to buy dainties for the dog, who became one of the channels through which Warne could annoy and thwart him. The dog did no harm, being a fine, well-bred deerhound; but it pleased the Corporal to consider that it did, simply because it belonged to Rake, whose popularity in the corps, owing to his good nature, his good spirits, and his innumerable tales of American experience and amorous adventures, increased the jealous dislike which his knack with an unbroken colt and his abundant stable science had first raised in his superior.

One day in the chargers’ stables the hound ran out of a loose box with a rush to get at Rake, and upset a pailful of warm mash. The Corporal, who was standing by in harness, hit him over the head with a heavy whip he had in his hand; infuriated by the pain, the dog flew at him, tearing his overalls with a fierce crunch of his teeth. “Take the brute off, and string him up with a halter; I’ve put up with him too long!” cried Warne to a couple of privates working near in their stable dress. Before the words were out of his mouth Rake threw himself on him with a bound like lightning, and, wrenching the whip out of his hands, struck him a slashing, stinging blow across his face.

“Hang my hound, you cur! If you touch a hair of him, I’ll double-thong you within an inch of your life!”

And assuredly he would have kept his word, had he not been made a prisoner and marched off to the guardroom.

Rake learned the stern necessity of the law, which, for the sake of morale, must make the soldiers, whose blood is wanted to be like fire on the field, patient, pulseless, and enduring of every provocation, cruelty, and insolence in the camp and barrack, as though they were statues of stone — a needful law, a wise law, an indispensable law, doubtless, but a very hard law to be obeyed by a man full of life and all life’s passions.

At the court-martial on his mutinous conduct, which followed, many witnesses brought evidence, on being pressed, to the unpopularity of Warne in the regiment and to his harshness and his tyranny to Rake. Many men spoke out what had been chained down in their thoughts for years; and, in consideration of the provocation received, the prisoner, who was much liked by the officers, was condemned to six months’ imprisonment for his insubordination and blow to his superior officer, without being tied up to the triangles. At the court-martial, Cecil, who chanced to be in Brighton after Goodwood, was present one day with some other Guardsmen; and the look of Rake, with his cheerfulness under difficulties, his love for the hound, and his bright, sunburnt, shrewd, humorous countenance, took his fancy.

“Beauty” was the essence of good nature. Indolent himself, he hated to see anything or anybody worried; lazy, gentle, wayward, and spoilt by his own world, he was still never so selfish and philosophic as he pretended but what he would do a kindness, if one came in his way; it is not a very great virtue, perhaps, but it is a rare one.

“Poor devil! Struck the other because he wouldn’t have his dog hanged. Well, on my word, I should have done the same in his place, if I could have got up the pace for so much exertion,” murmured Cecil to his cheroot, careless of the demoralizing tendency of his remarks for the army in general. Had it occurred in the Guards, and he had “sat” on the case, Rake would have had one very lenient judge.

As it was, Bertie actually went the lengths of thinking seriously about the matter; he liked Rake’s devotion to his dumb friend, and he heard of his intense popularity in his troop; he wished to save, if he could, so fine a fellow from the risks of his turbulent passion and from the stern fetters of a trying discipline; hence, when Rake found himself condemned to his cell, he had a message sent him by Bertie’s groom that, when his term of punishment should be over, Mr. Cecil would buy his discharge from the service and engage him as extra body-servant, having had a good account of his capabilities; he had taken the hound to his own kennels.

Now, the fellow had been thoroughly devil-may-care throughout the whole course of the proceedings, had heard his sentence with sublime impudence, and had chaffed his sentinels with an utterly reckless nonchalance; but somehow or other, when that message reached him, a vivid sense that he was a condemned and disgraced man suddenly flooded in on him; a passionate gratitude seized him to the young aristocrat who had thought of him in his destitution and condemnation, who had even thought of his dog; and Rake the philosophic and undauntable, could have found it in his heart to kneel down in the dust and kiss the stirrup-leather when he held it for his new master, so strong was the loyalty he bore from that moment to Bertie.

Martinets were scandalized at a Life–Guardsman taking as his private valet a man who had been guilty of such conduct in the Light Cavalry; but Cecil never troubled his head about what people said; and so invaluable did Rake speedily become to him that he had kept him about his person wherever he went from then until now, two years after.

Rake loved his master with a fidelity very rare in these days; he loved his horses, his dogs, everything that was his, down to his very rifle and boots; slaved for him cheerfully, and was as proud of the deer he stalked, of the brace he bagged, of his winnings when the Household played the Zingari, or his victory when his yacht won the Cherbourg Cup, as though those successes had been Rake’s own.

“My dear Seraph,” said Cecil himself once, on this point, to the Marquis, “if you want generosity, fidelity, and all the rest of the cardinal what-d’ye-call-‘ems — sins, ain’t it? — go to a noble-hearted Scamp; he’ll stick to you till he kills himself. If you want to be cheated, get a Respectable Immaculate; he’ll swindle you piously, and decamp with your Doncaster Vase.”

And Rake, who assuredly had been an out-and-out scamp, made good Bertie’s creed; he “stuck to him” devoutly, and no terrier was ever more alive to an otter than he was to the Guardsman’s interests. It was that very vigilance which made him, as he rode back from the Zu–Zu’s in the twilight, notice what would have escaped any save one who had been practiced as a trapper in the red Canadian woods; namely, the head of a man, almost hidden among the heavy, though leafless, brushwood and the yellow gorse of a spinney which lay on his left in Royallieu Park. Rake’s eyes were telescopic and microscopic; moreover, they had been trained to know such little signs as a marsh from a hen harrier in full flight, by the length of wing and tail, and a widgeon or a coot from a mallard or a teal, by the depth each swam out of the water. Gray and foggy as it was, and high as was the gorse, Rake recognized his born-foe Willon.

“What’s he up to there?” thought Rake, surveying the place, which was wild, solitary, and an unlikely place enough for a head groom to be found in. “If he ain’t a rascal, I never seen one; it’s my belief he cheats the stable thick and thin, and gets on Mr. Cecil’s mounts to a good tune — aye, and would nobble ’em as soon as not, if it just suited his book. That blessed King hates the man; how he lashes his heels at him!”

It was certainly possible that Willon might be passing an idle hour in potting rabbits, or be otherwise innocently engaged enough; but the sight of him, there among the gorse, was a sight of suspicion to Rake. Instantaneous thoughts darted through his mind of tethering his horse, and making a reconnaissance, safely and unseen, with the science of stalking brute or man that he had learned of his friends the Sioux. But second thoughts showed him that was impossible. The horse he was on was a mere colt, just breaking in, who had barely had so much as a “dumb jockey” on his back; and stand for a second, the colt would not.

“At any rate, I’ll unearth him,” thought Rake, with his latent animosity to the head groom and his vigilant loyalty to Cecil overruling any scruple as to his right to overlook his foe’s movements; and with a gallop that was muffled on the heathered turf he dashed straight at the covert, unperceived till he was within ten paces. Willon started and looked up hastily; he was talking to a square-built man very quietly dressed in shepherd’s plaid, chiefly remarkable by a red-hued beard and whiskers.

The groom turned pale, and laughed nervously as Rake pulled up with a jerk.

“You on that young ’un again? Take care you don’t get bucked out o’ saddle in the shape of a cocked-hat.”

“I ain’t afraid of going to grass, if you are!” retorted Rake scornfully; boldness was not his enemy’s strong point. “Who’s your pal, old fellow?”

“A cousin o’ mine, out o’ Yorkshire,” vouchsafed Mr. Willon, looking anything but easy, while the cousin aforesaid nodded sulkily on the introduction.

“Ah! looks like a Yorkshire tyke,” muttered Rake, with a volume of meaning condensed in these innocent words. “A nice, dry, cheerful sort of place to meet your cousin in, too; uncommon lively; hope it’ll raise his spirits to see all his cousins a-grinning there; his spirits don’t seem much in sorts now,” continued the ruthless inquisitor, with a glance at the “keeper’s tree” by which they stood, in the middle of dank undergrowth, whose branches were adorned with dead cats, curs, owls, kestrels, stoats, weasels, and martens. To what issue the passage of arms might have come it is impossible to say, for at that moment the colt took matters into his own hands, and bolted with a rush that even Rake could not pull in till he had had a mile-long “pipe-opener.”

“Something up there,” thought that sagacious rough-rider; “if that red-haired chap ain’t a rum lot, I’ll eat him. I’ve seen his face, too, somewhere; where the deuce was it? Cousin; yes, cousins in Queer Street, I dare say! Why should he go and meet his ‘cousin’ out in the fog there, when, if you took twenty cousins home to the servants’ hall, nobody’d ever say anything? If that Willon ain’t as deep as Old Harry ——”

And Rake rode into the stable-yard, thoughtful and intensely suspicious of the rendezvous under the keeper’s tree in the out-lying coverts. He would have been more so had he guessed that Ben Davis’ red beard and demure attire, with other as efficient disguises, had prevented even his own keen eyes from penetrating the identity of Willon’s “Cousin” with the welsher he had seen thrust off the course the day before by his master.

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