Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER VIII

Barry’s Adieu to Military Profession

You who have never been out of your country, know little what it is to hear a friendly voice in captivity; and there’s many a man that will not understand the cause of the burst of feeling which I have confessed took place on my seeing my uncle. He never for a minute thought to question the truth of what I said. ‘Mother of God!’ cried he, ‘it’s my brother Harry’s son.’ And I think in my heart he was as much affected as I was at thus suddenly finding one of his kindred; for he, too, was an exile from home, and a friendly voice, a look, brought the old country back to his memory again, and the old days of his boyhood. ‘I’d give five years of my life to see them again,’ said he, after caressing me very warmly. ‘What?’ asked I. ‘Why,’ replied he, ‘the green fields, and the river, and the old round tower, and the burying-place at Ballybarry. ’Twas a shame for your father to part with the land, Redmond, that went so long with the name.’

He then began to ask me concerning myself, and I gave him my history at some length; at which the worthy gentleman laughed many times, saying, that I was a Barry all over. In the middle of my story he would stop me, to make me stand back to back, and measure with him (by which I ascertained that our heights were the same, and that my uncle had a stiff knee, moreover, which made him walk in a peculiar way), and uttered, during the course of the narrative, a hundred exclamations of pity, and kindness, and sympathy. It was ‘Holy Saints!’ and ‘Mother of Heaven!’ and ‘Blessed Mary!’ continually; by which, and with justice, I concluded that he was still devotedly attached to the ancient faith of our family.

It was with some difficulty that I came to explain to him the last part of my history, viz., that I was put into his service as a watch upon his actions, of which I was to give information in a certain quarter. When I told him (with a great deal of hesitation) of this fact, he burst out laughing, and enjoyed the joke amazingly. ‘The rascals!’ said he; ‘they think to catch me, do they? Why, Redmond, my chief conspiracy is a faro-bank. But the King is so jealous, that he will see a spy in every person who comes to his miserable capital in the great sandy desert here. Ah, my boy, I must show you Paris and Vienna!’

I said there was nothing I longed for more than to see any city but Berlin, and should be delighted to be free of the odious military service. Indeed, I thought, from his splendour of appearance, the knickknacks about the room, the gilded carriage in the remise, that my uncle was a man of vast property; and that he would purchase a dozen, nay, a whole regiment of substitutes, in order to restore me to freedom.

But I was mistaken in my calculations regarding him, as his history of himself speedily showed me. ‘I have been beaten about the world,’ said he, ‘ever since the year 1742, when my brother your father (and Heaven forgive him) cut my family estate from under my heels, by turning heretic, in order to marry that scold of a mother of yours. Well, let bygones be bygones. ’Tis probable that I should have run through the little property as he did in my place, and I should have had to begin a year or two later the life I have been leading ever since I was compelled to leave Ireland. My lad, I have been in every service; and, between ourselves, owe money in every capital in Europe. I made a campaign or two with the Pandours under Austrian Trenck. I was captain in the Guard of His Holiness the Pope, I made the campaign of Scotland with the Prince of Wales — a bad fellow, my dear, caring more for his mistress and his brandy-bottle than for the crowns of the three kingdoms. I have served in Spain and in Piedmont; but I have been a rolling stone, my good fellow. Play — play has been my ruin; that and beauty’ (here he gave a leer which made him, I must confess, look anything but handsome; besides, his rouged cheeks were all beslobbered with the tears which he had shed on receiving me). ‘The women have made a fool of me, my dear Redmond. I am a soft-hearted creature, and this minute, at sixty-two, have no more command of myself than when Peggy O’Dwyer made a fool of me at sixteen.’

‘‘Faith sir,’ says I, laughing, ‘I think it runs in the family!’ and described to him, much to his amusement, my romantic passion for my cousin, Nora Brady. He resumed his narrative.

‘The cards now are my only livelihood. Sometimes I am in luck, and then I lay out my money in these trinkets you see. It’s property, look you, Redmond; and the only way I have found of keeping a little about me. When the luck goes against me, why, my dear, my diamonds go to the pawnbrokers, and I wear paste. Friend Moses the goldsmith will pay me a visit this very day; for the chances have been against me all the week past, and I must raise money for the bank to-night. Do you understand the cards?’

I replied that I could play as soldiers do, but had no great skill.

‘We will practise in the morning, my boy,’ said he, ‘and I’ll put you up to a thing or two worth knowing.’

Of course I was glad to have such an opportunity of acquiring knowledge, and professed myself delighted to receive my uncle’s instruction.

The Chevalier’s account of himself rather disagreeably affected me. All his show was on his back, as he said. His carriage, with the fine gilding, was a part of his stock in trade. He HAD a sort of mission from the Austrian Court:— it was to discover whether a certain quantity of alloyed ducats which had been traced to Berlin, were from the King’s treasury. But the real end of Monsieur de Balibari was play. There was a young attache of the English embassy, my Lord Deuceace, afterwards Viscount and Earl of Crabs in the English peerage, who was playing high; and it was after hearing of the passion of this young English nobleman that my uncle, then at Prague, determined to visit Berlin and engage him. For there is a sort of chivalry among the knights of the dice-box: the fame of great players is known all over Europe. I have known the Chevalier de Casanova, for instance, to travel six hundred miles, from Paris to Turin, for the purpose of meeting Mr. Charles Fox, then only my Lord Holland’s dashing son, afterwards the greatest of European orators and statesmen.

It was agreed that I should keep my character of valet; that in the presence of strangers I should not know a word of English; that I should keep a good look-out on the trumps when I was serving the champagne and punch about; and, having a remarkably fine eyesight and a great natural aptitude, I was speedily able to give my dear uncle much assistance against his opponents at the green table. Some prudish persons may affect indignation at the frankness of these confessions, but Heaven pity them! Do you suppose that any man who has lost or won a hundred thousand pounds at play will not take the advantages which his neighbour enjoys? They are all the same. But it is only the clumsy fool who CHEATS; who resorts to the vulgar expedients of cogged dice and cut cards. Such a man is sure to go wrong some time or other, and is not fit to play in the society of gallant gentlemen; and my advice to people who see such a vulgar person at his pranks is, of course, to back him while he plays, but never — never to have anything to do with him. Play grandly, honourably. Be not, of course, cast down at losing; but above all, be not eager at winning, as mean souls are. And, indeed, with all one’s skill and advantages, winning is often problematical; I have seen a sheer ignoramus that knows no more of play than of Hebrew, blunder you out of five thousand pounds in a few turns of the cards. I have seen a gentleman and his confederate play against another and HIS confederate. One never is secure in these cases: and when one considers the time and labour spent, the genius, the anxiety, the outlay of money required, the multiplicity of bad debts that one meets with (for dishonourable rascals are to be found at the play-table, as everywhere else in the world), I say, for my part, the profession is a bad one; and, indeed, have scarcely ever met a man who, in the end, profited by it. I am writing now with the experience of a man of the world. At the time I speak of I was a lad, dazzled by the idea of wealth, and respecting, certainly too much, my uncle’s superior age and station in life.

There is no need to particularise here the little arrangements made between us; the playmen of the present day want no instruction, I take it, and the public have little interest in the matter. But simplicity was our secret. Everything successful is simple. If, for instance, I wiped the dust off a chair with my napkin, it was to show that the enemy was strong in diamonds; if I pushed it, he had ace, king; if I said, ‘Punch or wine, my Lord?’ hearts was meant; if ‘Wine or punch?’ clubs. If I blew my nose, it was to indicate that there was another confederate employed by the adversary; and THEN, I warrant you, some pretty trials of skill would take place. My Lord Deuceace, although so young, had a very great skill and cleverness with the cards in every way; and it was only from hearing Frank Punter, who came with him, yawn three times when the Chevalier had the ace of trumps, that I knew we were Greek to Greek, as it were.

My assumed dulness was perfect; and I used to make Monsieur de Potzdorff laugh with it, when I carried my little reports to him at the Garden-house outside the town where he gave me rendezvous. These reports, of course, were arranged between me and my uncle beforehand. I was instructed (and it is always far the best way) to tell as much truth as my story would possibly bear. When, for instance, he would ask me, ‘What does the Chevalier do of a morning?’

‘He goes to church regularly’ (he was very religious), ‘and after hearing mass comes home to breakfast. Then he takes an airing in his chariot till dinner, which is served at noon. After dinner he writes his letters, if he have any letters to write: but he has very little to do in this way. His letters are to the Austrian envoy, with whom he corresponds, but who does not acknowledge him; and being written in English, of course I look over his shoulder. He generally writes for money. He says he wants it to bribe the secretaries of the Treasury, in order to find out really where the alloyed ducats come from; but, in fact, he wants it to play of evenings, when he makes his party with Calsabigi, the lottery-contractor, the Russian attaches, two from the English embassy, my Lords Deuceace and Punter, who play a jeu d’enfer, and a few more. The same set meet every night at supper: there are seldom any ladies; those who come are chiefly French ladies, members of the corps de ballet. He wins often, but not always. Lord Deuceace is a very fine player. The Chevalier Elliot, the English Minister, sometimes comes, on which occasion the secretaries do not play. Monsieur de Balibari dines at the missions, but en petit comite, not on grand days of reception. Calsabigi, I think, is his confederate at play. He has won lately; but the week before last he pledged his solitaire for four hundred ducats.’

‘Do he and the English attaches talk together in their own language?’

‘Yes; he and the envoy spoke yesterday for half-an-hour about the new danseuse and the American troubles: chiefly about the new danseuse.’

It will be seen that the information I gave was very minute and accurate, though not very important. But such as it was, it was carried to the ears of that famous hero and warrior the Philosopher of Sans Souci; and there was not a stranger who entered the capital but his actions were similarly spied and related to Frederick the Great.

As long as the play was confined to the young men of the different embassies, His Majesty did not care to prevent it; nay, he encouraged play at all the missions, knowing full well that a man in difficulties can be made to speak, and that a timely rouleau of Frederics would often get him a secret worth many thousands. He got some papers from the French house in this way: and I have no doubt that my Lord Deuceace would have supplied him with information at a similar rate, had his chief not known the young nobleman’s character pretty well, and had (as is usually the case) the work of the mission performed by a steady roturier, while the young brilliant bloods of the suite sported their embroidery at the balls, or shook their Mechlin ruffles over the green tables at faro. I have seen many scores of these young sprigs since, of these and their principals, and, mon Dieu! what fools they are! What dullards, what fribbles, what addle-headed simple coxcombs! This is one of the lies of the world, this diplomacy; or how could we suppose, that were the profession as difficult as the solemn red-box and tape-men would have us believe, they would invariably choose for it little pink-faced boys from school, with no other claim than mamma’s title, and able at most to judge of a curricle, a new dance, or a neat boot?

When it became known, however, to the officers of the garrison that there was a faro-table in town, they were wild to be admitted to the sport; and, in spite of my entreaties to the contrary, my uncle was not averse to allow the young gentlemen their fling, and once or twice cleared a handsome sum out of their purses. It was in vain I told him that I must carry the news to my captain, before whom his comrades would not fail to talk, and who would thus know of the intrigue even without my information.

‘Tell him,’ said my uncle.

‘They will send you away,’ said I; ‘then what is to become of me?’

‘Make your mind easy,’ said the latter, with a smile; ‘you shall not be left behind, I warrant you. Go take a last look at your barracks, make your mind easy; say a farewell to your friends in Berlin. The dear souls, how they will weep when they hear you are out of the country; and, as sure as my name is Barry, out of it you shall go!’

‘But how, sir?’ said I.

‘Recollect Mr. Fakenham of Fakenham,’ said he knowingly. ‘’Tis you yourself taught me how. Go get me one of my wigs. Open my despatch-box yonder, where the great secrets of the Austrian Chancery lie; put your hair back off you forehead; clap me on this patch and these moustaches, and now look in the glass!’

‘The Chevalier de Balibari,’ said I, bursting with laughter, and began walking the room in his manner with his stiff knee.

The next day, when I went to make my report to Monsieur de Potzdorff, I told him of the young Prussian officers that had been of late gambling; and he replied, as I expected, that the King had determined to send the Chevalier out of the country.

‘He is a stingy curmudgeon,’ I replied; ‘I have had but three Frederics from him in two months, and I hope you will remember your promise to advance me!’

‘Why, three Frederics were too much for the news you have picked up,’ said the Captain, sneering.

‘It is not my fault that there has been no more,’ I replied. ‘When is he to go, sir?’

‘The day after tomorrow. You say he drives after breakfast and before dinner. When he comes out to his carriage, a couple of gendarmes will mount the box, and the coachman will get his orders to move on.’

‘And his baggage, sir?’ said I.

‘Oh! that will be sent after him. I have a fancy to look into that red box which contains his papers, you say; and at noon, after parade, shall be at the inn. You will not say a word to any one there regarding the affair, and will wait for me at the Chevalier’s rooms until my arrival. We must force that box. You are a clumsy hound, or you would have got the key long ago!’

I begged the Captain to remember me, and so took my leave of him. The next night I placed a couple of pistols under the carriage seat; and I think the adventures of the following day are quite worthy of the honours of a separate chapter.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07