Charles’ luck seemed certainly to have deserted him at last. And that is rather a serious matter, you see; for, as he had never trusted to anything but luck, it now follows that he had nothing left to trust to, except eighteen shillings and ninepence, and his little friend the cornet, who had come home invalided, and was living with his mother in Hyde Park Gardens. Let us hope, reader, that you and I may never be reduced to the patronage of a cornet of Hussars, and eighteen shillings in cash.
It was a fine frosty night, and the streets were gay and merry. It was a sad Christmas for many thousands; but the general crowd seemed determined not to think too deeply of these sad accounts which were coming from the Crimea just now. They seemed inclined to make Christmas Christmas, in spite of everything; and erhaps they were right. It is good for a busy nation like the English to have two great festivals, and two only, the object of which every man who is a Christian can understand, and on these occasions to put in practice, to the best of one’s power, the lesson of goodwill towards men which our Lord taught us. We English cannot stand too many saints’ days. We decline to stop business for St. Blaize or St. Swithin; but we can understand Christmas and Easter. The foreign Catholics fiddle away so much time on saints’ days that they are obliged to work like the Israelites in bondage on Sunday to get on at all. I have as good a right to prophesy as any other freeborn Englishman who pays rates and taxes; and I prophesy that, in this wonderful resurrection of Ireland, the attendance of the male population at Church on weekdays will get small by degrees and beautifully less.
One man, Charles Ravenshoe, has got to spend his Christmas with eighteen shillings and a crippled left arm. There is half a million of money or so, and a sweet little wife, waiting for him if he would only behave like a rational being; but he will not, and must take the consequences.
He went westward, through a kind of instinct, and he came to Belgrave Square, where a certain duke lived. There were lidits in the windows. The duke was in ffice, and had been called up to town. Charles was glad of this; not that he had any business to transact with the duke, but a letter to deliver to the duke’s coachman.
This simple circumstance saved him from being much nearer actual destitution than I should have liked to see him. The coachman’s son had been wounded at Balaclava, and was still at Scutari, and Charles brought a letter from him. He got an English welcome, I promise you. And, next morning, going to Hyde Park Gardens, he found that his friend the cornet was out of town, and would not be back for a week. At this time the coachman became very useful. He offered him money, houseroom, employment, everything he could possibly get for him; and Charles heartily and thankfully accepted houseroom and board for a week.
At the end of a week he went back to Hyde Park Gardens. The cornet was come back. He had to sit in the kitchen while his message was taken upstairs. He merely sent up his name, said he was discharged, and asked for an interview.
The servants found out that he had been at the war in their young master’s regiment, and they crowded round him full of sympathy and kindness. He was telling them how he had last seen the cornet in the thick of it on the terrible 25th, when they parted right nd left, and in dashed the cornet himself, who caught him by both hands.
“By gad, I’m so glad to see you. How you are altered without your moustache! Look you here, you fellows and girls, this is the man that charged up to my assistance when I was dismounted among the guns, and kept by me, while I caught another horse. What a cropper I went down, didn’t I? What a terrible brush it was, eh? And poor Hornby, too! It is the talk of Europe, you know. You remember old Devna, and the galloping lizard, eh?”
And so on, till they got upstairs; and then he turned on him, and said, “Now, what are you going to do?”
“I have got eighteen shillings.” “Will your family do nothing for you?” “Did Hornby tell you anything about me, my dear sir?” said Charles, eagerly.
“Not a word. I never knew that Hornby and you were acquainted till I saw you together when he was dying.”
“Did you hear what we said to one another?” “Not a word. The reason I spoke about your family is that no one, who had seen so much of you as I, could doubt that you were a gentleman. That is all. I am very much afraid I shall offend you — ”
“That would not be easy, sir.”
“Well, then, here goes. If yon are utterly hard up, take service with me. There.”
“I will do so with the deepest gratitude,” said Charles. “But I cannot ride, I fear. My left arm is gone.”
“Pish! ride with your right. It’s a bargain. Come up and see my mother. I must show you to her, you know, because you will have to live here. She is deaf. Now you know the reason why the major used to talk so loud.”
Charles smiled for an instant; he did remember that circumstance about the cornet’s respected and gallant father. He followed the cornet upstairs, and was shown into the drawingroom, where sat a very handsome lady, about fifty years of age, knitting.
She was not only stone deaf, but had a trick of talking aloud, like the old lady in “Pickwick,” under the impression that she was only thinking, which was a very disconcerting habit indeed. When Charles and the cornet entered the room, she said aloud, with amazing distinctness, looking hard at Charles, “God bless me! Who has he got now? What a fine gentlemanly-looking fellow. I wonder why he is dressed so shabbily.” After which she arranged her trumpet, and prepared to go into action.
“This, mother,” bawled the cornet, “is the man who saved me in the charge at Balaclava.”
“Do you mean that that is trooper Simpson?” said she. “Yes, mother.”
“Then may the blessing of God Almighty rest upon your head!” she said to Charles. “The time will come, trooper Simpson, when you will know the value of a mother’s gratitude. And when that time comes think of me. But for you, trooper Simpson, I might have been tearing my grey hair this day. What are we to do for him, James? He looks ill and worn. Words are not worth much. What shall we do?”
The cornet put his mouth to his mother’s trumpet, and in an apologetic bellow, such as one gets from the skipper of a fruit brig, in the Bay of Biscay, when he bears up to know if you will be so kind as to oblige him with the longitude; roared out:
“He wants to take service with me. Have you any objection?”
“Of course not, you foolish boy,” said she. “I wish we could do more for him than that.” And then she continued in a tone slightly lowered, but perfectly audible, evidently under the impression that she was thinking to herself: “He is ugly, but he has a sweet face. I feel certain he is a gentleman who has had a difference with his family. I wish I could hear his oice. God bless him! he looks like a valiant soldier, I hope he won’t get drunk, or make love to the maids.”
Charles had heard every word of this before he had time to bow himself out.
And so he accepted his new position with dull carelessness. Life was getting very worthless.
He walked across the park to see his friend, the-coachman. The frost had given, and there was a dull dripping thaw. He leant against the railings at the end of the Serpentine. There was still a great crowd all round the water; but up the whole expanse there were only four skaters, for the ice was very dangerous and rotten, and the people had been warned off. One of the skaters came sweeping down to within a hundred yards of where he was — a reckless, headlong skater, one who would chance drowning to have his will. The ice cracked every moment and warned him, but he would not heed, till it broke, and down he went; clutching wildly at the pitiless, uptilted slabs which clanked about his head, to save himself; and then with a wild cry disappeared. The icemen were on the spot in a minute; and, when five were past, they had him out, and bore him off to the receiving-house. A gentleman, a doctor apparently, who stood by Charles, said to him, “Well, there is a reckless fool gone to his account, God forgive him!”
“They will bring him round, won’t they?” said Charles.
“Ten to one against it,” said the doctor. “What right has he to calculate on such a thing, either? Why, most likely there will be half a dozen houses in mourning for that man tomorrow. He is evidently a man of some mark. I can pity his relations in their bereavement, sir, but I have precious little pity for a reckless fool.”
And so Charles began to serve his friend, the cornet, in a way — a very poor way, I fear, for he was very weak and ill, and could do but little. The deaf lady treated him like a son, God bless her; but Charles could not recover the shock of his fever and delirium in the Crimea. He grew very low-spirited and despondent by day, and, worst of all, he began to have sleepless nights — terrible nights. In the rough calculation he had made of being able to live through his degradation, and get used to it, he had calculated, unwittingly, on perfect health. He had thought that in a few years he should forget the old life, and become just like one of the grooms he had made his companions. This had now become impossible, for his health and his nerve were gone.
He began to get afraid of his horses; that was the first symptom. He tried to fight against the conviction, but it forced itself upon him. When he was on horseback, he found that he was frightened when anything went wrong; his knees gave way on emergency, and his hand was irresolute. And, what is more, be sure of this, that, before he confessed the fact to himself, the horses had found it out, and “taken action on it,” or else, may I ride a donkey, with my face towards the tail, for the rest of my life.
And he began to see another thing. Now, when he was nervous, in ill health, and whimsical, the company of men among whom he was thrown as fellow-servants became nearly unbearable. Little trifling acts of coarseness, unnoticed when he was in good health and strong, at the time he was with poor Hornby, now disgusted him. Most kind-hearted young fellows, brought up as he had been, are apt to be familiar with, and probably pet and spoil, the man whose duty it is to minister to their favourite pleasures, be he gamekeeper or groom, or cricketer, or waterman. Nothing can be more natural, or, in proper bounds, harmless. Charles had thought that, being used to these men, he could live with them and do as they did. For a month or two, while in rude coarse health, he found it was possible; for had not Lord Welter and he done the same thing for amusement? But now, with shattered nerves, he found it intolerable. I have had great opportunities of seeing gentlemen trying to do this sort of thing — I mean in Australia — and, as far as my experience goes, it ends in one of two ways. Either they give it up as a bad job, and assume the position that superior education gives them, or else they take to drink, and go, not to mince matters, to the devil.
What Charles did, we shall see. Nobody could be more kind and affectionate than the cornet and his deaf mother. They guessed that he was “somebody,” and that things were wrong with him; though, if he had been a chimney-sweep’s son, it would have made no difference to them, for they were “good people.” The cornet once or twice invited his confidence; but he was too young, and Charles had not the energy to tell him anything. His mother, too, asked him to tell her if anything was wrong in his affairs, and whether she could help him; and possibly he might have been more inclined to confide in her, than in her son. But who could bellow such a sad tale of misery through an ear-trumpet? He held his peace.
He kept Ellen’s picture, which he had taken from Hornby. He determined he would not go and seek her. She was safe somewhere, in some Catholic asylum. Why should he reopen her grief?
But life was getting very, very weary business. By day, his old favourite pleasure of riding had become a error, and at night he got no rest. Death forty good years away, by all calculation. A weary time.
He thought himself humbled, but he was not. He said to himself that he was prevented from going back, because he had found out that Mary was in love with him, and also because he was disgraced through his sister; and both of these reasons were, truly, most powerful with him. But, in addition to this, I fear there was a great deal of obstinate pride, which thing is harder to beat out of a man than most things.
And now, after all this half-moralizing narrative, an important fact or two. The duke was very busy, and stayed in town, and, as a consequence, the duke’s coachman. Moreover, the duke’s coachman’s son came home invalided, and stayed with his father; and Charles, with the hearty approval of the cornet, used to walk across the park every night to see him, and talk over the campaign, and then look in at the Servants’ Club, of which he was still a member. And the door of the Servants’ Club room had glass windows to it. And I have noticed that anybody who looks through a glass window (under favourable circumstances) can see who is on the other side. I have done it myself more than once.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10