Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 8.

A Stag Hunt Au Clair De La Lune.

“Seraph — I’ve been thinking,” said Cecil musingly, as they paced homeward together from the Scrubs, with the long line of the First Life stretching before and behind their chargers, and the hands of the Household Cavalry plying mellowly in their rear.

“You don’t mean it. Never let it ooze out, Beauty; you’ll ruin your reputation!”

Cecil laughed a little, very languidly; to have been in the sun for four hours, in full harness, had almost taken out of him any power to be amused at anything.

“I’ve been thinking,” he went on undisturbed, pulling down his chin-scale. “What’s a fellow to do when he’s smashed?”

“Eh?” The Seraph couldn’t offer a suggestion; he had a vague idea that men who were smashed never did do anything except accept the smashing; unless, indeed, they turned up afterward as touts, of which he had an equally vague suspicion.

“What do they do?” pursued Bertie.

“Go to the bad,” finally suggested the Seraph, lighting a great cigar, without heeding the presence of the Duke, a Field–Marshal, and a Serene Highness far on in front.

Cecil shook his head.

“Can’t go where they are already. I’ve been thinking what a fellow might do that was up a tree; and on my honor there are lots of things one might turn to ——”

“Well, I suppose there are,” assented the Seraph, with a shake of his superb limbs in his saddle till his cuirass and chains and scabbard rang again. “I should try the P. R., only they will have you train.”

“One might do better than the P. R. Getting yourself into prime condition, only to be pounded out of condition and into a jelly, seems hardly logical or satisfactory — specially to your looking-glass, though, of course, it’s a matter of taste. But now, if I had a cropper, and got sold up ——”

“You, Beauty?” The Seraph puffed a giant puff of amazement from his Havana, opening his blue eyes to their widest.

“Possible!” returned Bertie serenely, with a nonchalant twist to his mustaches. “Anything’s possible. If I do now, it strikes me there are vast fields open.”

“Gold fields!” suggested the Seraph, wholly bewildered.

“Gold fields? No! I mean a field for — what d’ye call it — genius. Now, look here; nine-tenths of creatures in this world don’t know how to put on a glove. It’s an art, and an art that requires long study. If a few of us were to turn glove-fitters when we are fairly crushed, we might civilize the whole world, and prevent the deformity of an ill-fitting glove ever blotting creation and prostituting Houbigant. What do you say?”

“Don’t be such a donkey, Beauty!” laughed the Seraph, while his charger threatened to passage into an oyster cart.

“You don’t appreciate the majesty of great plans,” rejoined Beauty reprovingly. “There’s an immense deal in what I’m saying. Think what we might do for society — think how we might extinguish snobbery, if we just dedicated our smash to Mankind. We might open a College, where the traders might go through a course of polite training before they blossomed out as millionaires; the world would be spared an agony of dropped h’s and bad bows. We might have a Bureau where we registered all our social experiences, and gave the Plutocracy a map of Belgravia, with all the pitfalls marked; all the inaccessible heights colored red, and all the hard-up great people dotted with gold to show the amount they’d be bought for — with directions to the ignoramuses whom to know, court, and avoid. We might form a Courier Company, and take Brummagem abroad under our guidance, so that the Continent shouldn’t think Englishwomen always wear blue veils and gray shawls, and hear every Englishman shout for porter and beefsteak in Tortoni’s. We might teach them to take their hats off to women, and not to prod pictures with sticks, and to look at statutes without poking them with an umbrella, and to be persuaded that all foreigners don’t want to be bawled at, and won’t understand bad French any the better for its being shouted. Or we might have a Joint–Stock Toilette Association, for the purposes of national art, and receive Brummagem to show it how to dress; we might even succeed in making the feminine British Public drape itself properly, and the B. P. masculine wear boots that won’t creak, and coats that don’t wrinkle, and take off its hat without a jerk, as though it were a wooden puppet hung on very stiff strings. Or one might —”

“Talk the greatest nonsense under the sun!” laughed the Seraph. “For mercy’s sake, are you mad, Bertie?”

“Inevitable question addressed to Genius!” yawned Cecil. “I’m showing you plans that might teach a whole nation good style if we just threw ourselves into it a little. I don’t mean you, because you’ll never smash, and one don’t turn bear-leader, even to the B. P., without the primary impulse of being hard-up. And I don’t talk for myself, because, when I go to the dogs I have my own project.”

“And what’s that?”

“To be groom of the chambers at Meurice’s or Claridge’s,” responded Bertie solemnly. “Those sublime creatures with their silver chains round their necks and their ineffable supremacy over every other mortal! — one would feel in a superior region still. And when a snob came to poison the air, how exquisitely one could annihilate him with showing him his ignorance of claret; and when an epicure dined, how delightfully, as one carried in a turbot, one could test him with the eprouvette positive, or crush him by the eprouvette negative. We have been Equerries at the Palace, both of us, but I don’t think we know what true dignity is till we shall have risen to headwaiters at a Grand Hotel.”

With which Bertie let his charger pace onward, while he reflected thoughtfully on his future state. The Seraph laughed till he almost swayed out of saddle, but he shook himself into his balance again with another clash of his brilliant harness, while his eyes lightened and glanced with a fiery gleam down the line of the Household Cavalry.

“Well, if I went to the dogs I wouldn’t go to Grand Hotels; but I’ll tell you where I would go, Beauty.”

“Where’s that?”

“Into hot service, somewhere. By Jove, I’d see some good fighting under another flag — out in Algeria, there, or with the Poles, or after Garibaldi. I would, in a day — I’m not sure I won’t now, and I bet you ten to one the life would be better than this.”

Which was ungrateful in the Seraph, for his happy temper made him the sunniest and most contented of men, with no cross in his life save the dread that somebody would manage to marry him some day. But Rock had the true dash and true steel of the soldier in him, and his blue eyes flashed over his Guards as he spoke, with a longing wish that he were leading them on to a charge instead of pacing with them toward Hyde Park.

Cecil turned in his saddle and looked at him with a certain wonder and pleasure in his glance, and did not answer aloud. “The deuce — that’s not a bad idea,” he thought to himself; and the idea took root and grew with him.

Far down, very far down, so far that nobody had ever seen it, nor himself ever expected it, there was a lurking instinct in “Beauty,”— the instinct that had prompted him, when he sent the King at the Grand Military cracker, with that prayer, “Kill me if you like, but don’t fail me!”— which, out of the languor and pleasure-loving temper of his unruffled life, had a vague, restless impulse toward the fiery perils and nervous excitement of a sterner and more stirring career.

It was only vague, for he was naturally very indolent, very gentle, very addicted to taking all things passively, and very strongly of persuasion that to rouse yourself for anything was a niaiserie of the strongest possible folly; but it was there. It always is there with men of Bertie’s order, and only comes to light when the match of danger is applied to the touchhole. Then, though “the Tenth don’t dance,” perhaps, with graceful, indolent, dandy insolence, they can fight as no others fight when Boot and Saddle rings through the morning air, and the slashing charge sweeps down with lightning speed and falcon swoop.

“In the case of a Countess, sir, the imagination is more excited,” says Dr. Johnson, who had, I suppose, little opportunity of putting that doctrine for amatory intrigues to the test in actual practice. Bertie, who had many opportunities, differed with him. He found love-making in his own polished, tranquil circles apt to become a little dull, and was more amused by Laura Lelas. However, he was sworn to the service of the Guenevere, and he drove his mail-phaeton down that day to another sort of Richmond dinner, of which the lady was the object instead of the Zu–Zu.

She enjoyed thinking herself the wife of a jealous and inexorable lord, and arranged her flirtations to evade him with a degree of skill so great that it was lamentable it should be thrown away on an agricultural husband, who never dreamt that the “Fidelio-III-TstnegeR,” which met his eyes in the innocent face of his “Times” referred to an appointment at a Regent Street modiste’s, or that the advertisement —“White wins — Twelve,” meant that if she wore white camellias in her hair at the opera she would give “Beauty” a meeting after it.

Lady Guenevere was very scrupulous never to violate conventionalities. And yet she was a little fast — very fast, indeed, and was a queen of one of the fastest sets; but then — O sacred shield of a wife’s virtue — she could not have borne to lose her very admirable position, her very magnificent jointure, and, above all, the superb Guenevere diamonds!

So, for the sake of the diamonds, she and Bertie had their rendezvous under the rose.

This day she went down to see a dowager Baroness aunt, out at Hampton Court — really went, she was never so imprudent as to falsify her word; and with the Dowager, who was very deaf and purblind, dined at Richmond, while the world thought her dining at Hampton Court. It was nothing to anyone, since none knew it to gossip about, that Cecil joined her there; that over the Star and Garter repast they arranged their meeting at Baden next month; that while the Baroness dozed over the grapes and peaches — she had been a beauty herself, in her own day, and still had her sympathies — they went on the river, in the little toy that he kept there for his fair friends’ use; floating slowly along in the coolness of evening, while the stars loomed out in the golden trail of the sunset, and doing a graceful scene a la Musset and Meredith, with a certain languid amusement in the assumption of those poetic guises, for they were of the world worldly; and neither believed very much in the other.

When you have just dined well, and there has been no fault in the clarets, and the scene is pretty, if it be not the Nile in the afterglow, the Arno in the moonlight, or the Loire in vintage-time, but only the Thames above Richmond, it is the easiest thing in the world to feel a touch of sentiment when you have a beautiful woman beside you who expects you to feel it. The evening was very hot and soft. There was a low south wind, the water made a pleasant murmur, wending among its sedges. She was very lovely, moreover; lying back there among her laces and Indian shawls, with the sunset in the brown depths of her eyes and on her delicate cheek. And Bertie, as he looked on his liege lady, really had a glow of the old, real, foolish, forgotten feeling stir at his heart, as he gazed on her in the half-light, and thought, almost wistfully, “If the Jews were down on me tomorrow, would she really care, I wonder?”

Really care? Bertie knew his world and its women too well to deceive himself in his heart about the answer. Nevertheless, he asked the question. “Would you care much, chere belle?”

“Care what?”

“If I came to grief — went to the bad, you know; dropped out of the world altogether?”

She raised her splendid eyes in amaze, with a delicate shudder through all her laces. “Bertie! You would break my heart! What can you dream of?”

“Oh, lots of us end so! How is a man to end?” answered Bertie philosophically, while his thoughts still ran off in a speculative skepticism. “Is there a heart to break?”

Her ladyship looked at him an laughed.

“A Werther in the Guards! I don’t think the role will suit either you or your corps, Bertie; but if you do it, pray do it artistically. I remember, last year, driving through Asnieres, when they had found a young man in the Seine; he was very handsome, beautifully dressed, and he held fast in his clinched hand a lock of gold hair. Now, there was a man who knew how to die gracefully, and make his death an idyl!”

“Died for a woman? — ah!” murmured Bertie, with the Brummel nonchalance of his order. “I don’t think I should do that, even for you — not, at least, while I had a cigar left.”

And then the boat drifted backward, while the stars grew brighter and the last reflection of the sun died out; and they planned to meet tomorrow, and talked of Baden, and sketched projects for the winter in Paris, and went in and sat by the window, taking their coffee, and feeling, in a half-vague pleasure, the heliotrope-scented air blowing softly in from the garden below, and the quiet of the starlit river in the summer evening, with a white sail gleaming here and there, or the gentle splash of an oar following on the swift trail of a steamer; the quiet, so still and so strange after the crowded rush of the London season.

“Would she really care?” thought Cecil, once more. In that moment he could have wished to think she would.

But heliotrope, stars, and a river, even though it had been tawny and classical Tiber instead of ill-used and inodorous Thames, were not things sufficiently in the way of either of them to detain them long. They had both seen the Babylonian sun set over the ruins of the Birs Nimrud, and had talked of Paris fashions while they did so; they had both leaned over the terraces of Bellosguardo, while the moon was full on Giotto’s tower, and had discussed their dresses for the Veglione masquerade. It was not their style to care for these matters; they were pretty, to be sure, but they had seen so many of them.

The Dowager went home in her brougham; the Countess drove in his mail-phaeton — objectionable, as she might be seen, but less objectionable than letting her servants know he had met her at Richmond. Besides, she obviated danger by bidding him set her down at a little villa across the park, where dwelt a confidential protegee of hers, whom she patronized; a former French governess, married tolerably well, who had the Countess’ confidences, and kept them religiously for sake of so aristocratic a patron, and of innumerable reversions of Spanish point and shawls that had never been worn, and rings, of which her lavish ladyship had got tired.

From here she would take her exgoverness’ little brougham, and get quietly back to her own home in Eaton Square, in due time for all the drums and crushes at which she must make her appearance. This was the sort of little device which really made them think themselves in love, and gave the salt to the whole affair. Moreover, there was this ground for it, that had her lord once roused from the straw-yards of his prize cattle, there was a certain stubborn, irrational, old-world prejudice of pride and temper in him that would have made him throw expediency to the winds, then and there, with a blind and brutal disregard to slander and to the fact that none would ever adorn his diamonds as she did. So that Cecil had not only her fair fame, but her still more valuable jewels in his keeping when he started from the Star and Garter in the warmth of the bright summer’s evening.

It was a lovely night; a night for lonely highland tarns, and southern shores by Baiae; without a cloud to veil the brightness of the stars. A heavy dew pressed the odors from the grasses, and the deep glades of the avenue were pierced here and there with a broad beam of silvery moonlight, slanting through the massive boles of the trees, and falling white and serene across the turf. Through the park, with the gleam of the water ever and again shining through the branches of the foliage, Cecil started his horses; his groom he had sent away on reaching Richmond, for the same reason as the Countess had dismissed her barouche, and he wanted no servant, since, as soon as he had set down his liege lady at her protegee’s, he would drive straight back to Piccadilly. But he had not noticed what he noted now, that instead of one of his carriage-grays, who had fallen slightly lame, they had put into harness the young one, Maraschino, who matched admirably for size and color, but who, being really a hunter, though he had been broken to shafts as well, was not the horse with which to risk driving a lady.

However, Beauty was a perfect whip and had the pair perfectly in hand, so that he thought no more of the change, as the grays dashed at a liberal half-speed through the park, with their harness flashing in the moonlight, and their scarlet rosettes fluttering in the pleasant air. The eyes beside him, the Titian-like mouth, the rich, delicate cheek, these were, to be sure, rather against the coolness and science that such a five-year-old as Maraschino required; they were distracting even to Cecil, and he had not prudence enough to deny his sovereign lady when she put her hands on the ribbons.

“The beauties! Give them to me, Bertie. Dangerous? How absurd you are; as if I could not drive anything? Do you remember my four roans at Longchamps?”

She could, indeed, with justice, pique herself on her skill; she drove matchlessly, but as he resigned them to her, Maraschino and his companion quickened their trot, and tossed their pretty thoroughbred heads, conscious of a less powerful hand on the reins.

“I shall let their pace out; there is nobody to run over here,” said her ladyship.

Maraschino, as though hearing the flattering conjuration swung off into a light, quick canter, and tossed his head again; he knew that, good whip though she was, he could jerk his mouth free in a second, if he wanted. Cecil laughed — prudence was at no time his virtue — and leaned back contentedly, to be driven at a slashing pace through the balmy summer’s night, while the ring of the hoofs rang merrily on the turf, and the boughs were tossed aside with a dewy fragrance. As they went, the moonlight was shed about their path in the full of the young night, and at the end of a vista of boughs, on a grassy knoll were some phantom forms — the same graceful shapes that stand out against the purple heather and the tawny gorse of Scottish moorlands, while the lean rifle-tube creeps up by stealth. In the clear starlight there stood the deer — a dozen of them, a clan of stags alone — with their antlers clashing like a clash of swords, and waving like swaying banners as they tossed their heads and listened.2

2 Let me here take leave to beg pardon of the gallant Highland stags for comparing them one instant with the shabby, miserable-looking wretches that travesty them in Richmond Park. After seeing these latter scrubby, meager apologies for deer, one wonders why something better cannot be turned loose there. A hunting-mare I know well nevertheless flattered them thus by racing them through the park: when in harness herself, to her own great disgust.

In an instant the hunter pricked his ears, snuffed the air, and twitched with passionate impatience at his bit; another instant and he had got his head, and, launching into a sweeping gallop, rushed down the glade.

Cecil sprang forward from his lazy rest, and seized the ribbons that in one instant had cut his companion’s gloves to stripes.

“Sit still,” he said calmly, but under his breath. “He had been always ridden with the Buckhounds; he will race the deer as sure as we live!”

Race the deer he did.

Startled, and fresh for their favorite nightly wandering, the stags were off like the wind at the noise of alarm, and the horses tore after them; no skill, no strength, no science could avail to pull them in; they had taken their bits between their teeth, and the devil that was in Maraschino lent the contagion of sympathy to the young carriage mare, who had never gone at such a pace since she had been first put in her break.

Neither Cecil’s hands nor any other force could stop them now; on they went, hunting as straight in line as though staghounds streamed in front of them, and no phaeton rocked and swayed in a dead and dragging weight behind them. In a moment he gauged the closeness and the vastness of the peril; there was nothing for it but to trust to chance, to keep his grasp on the reins to the last, and to watch for the first sign of exhaustion. Long ere that should be given death might have come to them both; but there was a gay excitation in that headlong rush through the summer night; there was a champagne-draught of mirth and mischief in that dash through the starlit woodland; there was a reckless, breathless pleasure in that neck-or-nothing moonlight chase!

Yet danger was so near with every oscillation; the deer were trooping in fast flight, now clear in the moonlight, now lost in the shadow, bounding with their lightning grace over sward and hillock, over briar and brushwood, at that speed which kills most living things that dare to race the “Monarch of the Glens.” And the grays were in full pursuit; the hunting fire was in the fresh young horse; he saw the shadowy branches of the antlers toss before him, and he knew no better than to hunt down in their scenting line as hotly as though the field of the Queen’s or the Baron’s was after them. What cared he for the phaeton that rocked and reeled on his traces; he felt its weight no more than if it were a wicker-work toy, and, extended like a greyhound, he swerved from the road, swept through the trees, and tore down across the grassland in the track of the herd.

Through the great boles of the trunks, bronze and black in the shadows, across the hilly rises of the turf, through the brushwood pell-mell, and crash across the level stretches of the sward, they raced as though the hounds were streaming in front; swerved here, tossed there, carried in a whirlwind over the mounds, wheeled through the gloom of the woven branches, splashed with a hiss through the shallow rain-pools, shot swift as an arrow across the silver radiance of the broad moonlight, borne against the sweet south wind, and down the odors of the trampled grass, the carriage was hurled across the park in the wild starlight chase. It rocked, it swayed, it shook, at every yard, while it was carried on like a paper toy; as yet the marvelous chances of accident had borne it clear of the destruction that threatened it at every step as the grays, in the height of their pace now, and powerless even to have arrested themselves, flew through the woodland, neither knowing what they did, nor heeding where they went; but racing down on the scent, not feeling the strain of the traces, and only maddened the more by the noise of the whirling wheels behind them.

As Cecil leaned back, his hands clinched on the reins, his sinews stretched almost to bursting in their vain struggle to recover power over the loosened beasts, the hunting zest awoke in him too, even while his eyes glanced on his companion in fear and anxiety for her.

“Tally-ho! hark forward! As I live, it is glorious!” he cried, half unconsciously. “For God’s sake, sit still, Beatrice! I will save you.”

Inconsistent as the words were, they were true to what he felt; alone, he would have flung himself delightedly into the madness of the chase; for her he dreaded with horror the eminence of their peril.

On fled the deer, on swept the horses; faster in the gleam of the moonlight the antlered troop darted on through the gloaming; faster tore the grays in the ecstasy of their freedom; headlong and heedless they dashed through the thickness of leaves and the weaving of branches; neck to neck, straining to distance each other, and held together by the gall of the harness. The broken boughs snapped, the earth flew up beneath their hoofs; their feet struck scarlet sparks of fire from the stones, the carriage was whirled, rocking and tottering, through the maze of tree-trunks, towering like pillars of black stone up against the steel-blue clearness of the sky. The strain was intense; the danger deadly. Suddenly, straight ahead, beyond the darkness of the foliage, gleamed a line of light; shimmering, liquid, and glassy — here brown as gloom where the shadows fell on it, here light as life where the stars mirrored on it. That trembling line stretched right in their path. For the first time, from the blanched lips beside him a cry of terror rang.

“The river! — oh, heaven! — the river!”

There it lay in the distance, the deep and yellow water, cold in the moon’s rays, with its further bank but a dull gray line in the mists that rose from it, and its swamp a yawning grave as the horses, blind in their delirium and racing against each other, bore down through all obstacles toward its brink. Death was rarely ever closer; one score yards more, one plunge, one crash down the declivity and against the rails, one swell of the noisome tide above their heads, and life would be closed and passed for both of them. For one breathless moment his eyes met hers — in that moment he loved her, in that moment their hearts beat with a truer, fonder impulse to each other than they had ever done. Before the presence of a threatening death life grows real, love grows precious, to the coldest and most careless.

No aid could come; not a living soul was nigh; the solitude was as complete as though a western prairie stretched round them; there were only the still and shadowy night, the chilly silence, on which the beat of the plunging hoofs shattered like thunder, and the glisten of the flowing water growing nearer and nearer every yard. The tranquillity around only jarred more horribly on ear and brain; the vanishing forms of the antlered deer only gave a weirder grace to the moonlight chase whose goal was the grave. It was like the midnight hunt after Herne the Hunter; but here, behind them, hunted Death.

The animals neither saw nor knew what waited them, as they rushed down on to the broad, gray stream, veiled from them by the slope and the screen of flickering leaves; to save them there was but one chance, and that so desperate that it looked like madness. It was but a second’s thought; he gave it but a second’s resolve.

The next instant he stood on his feet, as the carriage swayed to and fro over the turf, balanced himself marvelously as it staggered in that furious gallop from side to side, clinched the reins hard in the grip of his teeth, measured the distance with an unerring eye, and crouching his body for the spring with all the science of the old playing-fields of his Eton days, cleared the dashboard and lighted astride on the back of the hunting five-year old — how, he could never have remembered or have told.

The tremendous pace at which they went swayed him with a lurch and a reel over the off-side; a woman’s cry rang again, clear, and shrill, and agonized on the night; a moment more, and he would have fallen, head downward, beneath the horses’ feet. But he had ridden stirrupless and saddleless ere now; he recovered himself with the suppleness of an Arab, and firm-seated behind the collar, with one leg crushed between the pole and Maraschino’s flanks, gathering in the ribbons till they were tight-drawn as a bridle, he strained with all the might and sinew that were in him to get the grays in hand before they could plunge down into the water. His wrists were wrenched like pulleys, the resistance against him was hard as iron; but as he had risked life and limb in the leap which had seated him across the harnessed loins of the now terrified beast, so he risked them afresh to get the mastery now; to slacken them, turn them ever so slightly, and save the woman he loved — loved, at least in this hour, as he had not loved her before. One moment more, while the half-maddened beast rushed through the shadows; one moment more, till the river stretched full before them in all its length and breadth, without a living thing upon its surface to break the still and awful calm; one moment — and the force of cool command conquered and broke their wills despite themselves. The hunter knew his master’s voice, his touch, his pressure, and slackened speed by an irresistible, almost unconscious habit of obedience; the carriage mare, checked and galled in the full height of her speed, stood erect, pawing the air with her forelegs, and flinging the white froth over her withers, while she plunged blindly in her nervous terror; then with a crash, her feet came down upon the ground, the broken harness shivered together with a sharp, metallic clash; snorting, panting, quivering, trembling, the pair stood passive and vanquished.

The carriage was overthrown; but the high and fearless courage of the peeress bore her unharmed, even as she was flung out on to the yielding fern-grown turf. Fair as she was in every hour, she had never looked fairer than as he swung himself from the now powerless horses and threw himself beside her.

“My love — my love, you are saved!”

The beautiful eyes looked up, half unconscious; the danger told on her now that it was passed, as it does most commonly with women.

“Saved! — lost! All the world must know, now, that you are with me this evening,” she murmured with a shudder. She lived for the world, and her first thought was of self.

He soothed her tenderly.

“Hush — be at rest! There is no injury but what I can repair, nor is there a creature in sight to have witnessed the accident. Trust in me; no one shall ever know of this. You shall reach town safely and alone.”

And, while he promised, he forgot that he thus pledged his honor to leave four hours of his life so buried that, however much he needed, he neither should nor could account for them.

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