The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXVII.

Mrs. Scully of Morrison’s.

Arthur Conan Doyle

ONE day Major Tobias Clutterbuck was sitting at the window of his little room smoking his cigarette and sipping his glass of wine, as was his custom if times were reasonably good. While thus agreeably employed he chanced to look across the road and perceived a little fringe of dark hair, and a still darker eye, which surveyed him round the border of one of the curtains which flanked a window opposite. The gallant major was much interested in this apparition, and rose to make a closer inspection of it, but, alas! before he could focus it with his eye-glass it was gone! He bent his gaze resolutely in that direction for a long time, and smoked at least half a dozen cigarettes, besides finishing the bottle of wine; but although he thought he saw certain flittings and whiskings of garments in the dark background of the opposite room, he could not make out anything more definite.

Next day the soldier was on the look-out at the same hour, and was rewarded by the appearance of two eyes, very mischievous and dangerous ones too, which were set in a buxom and by no means unprepossessing face. The lady who owned these charms looked very deliberately up the street, and very deliberately down the street, after which she bethought herself to look across the street, and started to perceive a stout, middle-aged gentleman, with a fiery face, who was looking at her with an expression of intense admiration. So much alarmed was she that she vanished behind the curtains and the major feared that he would see her no more. Fortunately, however, it became evident that the lady’s alarm was not very overpowering, for within five minutes she was back at the window, where her eyes again fell upon the beaming face and jaunty figure of the major, who had posed himself in a striking attitude, which was somewhat marred by the fact that he was still enveloped in his purple dressing-gown. This time her eyes lingered a little longer than before and the suspicion of a smile appeared upon her features. On this the major smiled and bowed, and she smiled also, showing a pretty little line of white teeth as she did so. What the veteran’s next move might have been no one can tell, for the lady solved the problem by disappearing, and this time permanently. He was very well satisfied, however, and chuckled much to himself while arraying himself in his long frock coat and immaculate collar before setting out for the club. He had been a sly old dog in his day, and had followed Venus almost as much as he had Mars during his chequered career.

All day the recollection of this little episode haunted him. So much pre-occupied was he at the club that he actually played out the thirteenth trump upon his partner’s long suit and so sacrificed the game—being the first and only time that he was ever known to throw away a point. He told Von Baumser all about it when he came back.

“She’s a demned foine-looking woman, whoever she may be,” he remarked, at they sat together before turning in. “Be George! she’s the foinest woman I’ve seen for a long time.”

“She’s a window,” said the German.

“A what?”

“A window—the window of an engineer.”

“Is it a widow you mane? What d’ye know about her? What’s her name, and where does she come from?”

“I have heard from the slavey that a win——a widow lives over dere in those rooms. She boards mit Madame Morrison, and that window belongs to her privacy zimmer—dat is, chamber. As to her name, I have not heard it, or else I disremember it.”

“Ged!” said the major, “she’d eyes that looked right through ye, and a figure like Juno.”

“She’s vierzig if she’s a day—dat is, forty,” Von Baumser remarked.

“Well, if she is, me boy, a woman of forty is just in the proime o’ loife. If you’d seen her at the window, she would have taken ye by storm. She stands like this, and she looks up like this, and then down in this way.” The major pursed up his warlike features into what he imagined to be an innocent and captivating expression. “Then she looks across and sees me, and down go the lids of her eyes, like the shutting off of a bull’s-eye lantern. Then she blushed and stole just one more glance at me round the corner of the curtain. She had two peeps, the divil a doubt of it.”

“Dat is very good,” the German said encouragingly.

“Ah, me boy, twinty years ago, when I was forty inches round the chest and thirty-three round the waist, I was worth looking at twice. Bedad, when a man gets ould and lonely he sees what a fool he was not to make better use of his time when he’d the chance.”

“Mein Gott!” cried Von Baumser. “You don’t mean to say that you would marry suppose you had the chance?”

“I don’t know,” the major answered reflectively.

“The vomens is not to be trusted,” the German said sadly. “I knew a voman in my own country which was the daughter of a man dat kept a hotel—and she and I was promised to be married to each others. Karl Hagelstein, he was to be vat you call my best man. A very handsome man was Karl, and I sent him often mit little presents of one thing or another to my girl, for there were reasons why I could not go myself. He was nicer than me because my hair was red, and pretty soon she began to like him, and he liked her too. So the day before the vedding she went down the Rhine to Frankfort by the boat, and he went down by train, and there they met and was married the one to the other.”

“And what did you do?” the major asked with interest.

“Ah, dat was the most worst thing of all, for I followed them mit a friend of mine, and when we caught them I did not let her know, but I called him out of his hotel, and I told him that he must fight me. Dat vos a mistake. I should have done him an insult, and then he vould have had to ask me to fight, and I could have chosen my own veapon. As it was he chose swords, for he knew veil that I knew nothing of them, and he had been the best fencer in the whole of his University. Then we met in the morning, and before I had time to do anything he ran me through the left lung. I have shown you the mark of it. After dat I vas in bed for two month and more, and it still hurts me ven de veather is cold. That is vat they call satisfaction,” Baumser added, pulling his long red beard reflectively. “To me it has ever seemed the most dissatisfactory thing that could be imagined.”

“I don’t wonder you’re afraid of the women after that,” said the major, laughing. “There are plenty of good women in the world, though, if you have the luck to come across them. D’ye know a young fellow called Dimsdale—? Ah, you wouldn’t, but I’ve met him lately at the club. He’s got a girl who’s the adopted daughter of that same ould Girdlestone that we talk about. I saw the two of them togither one day as happy as a pair of young love birds. Sure, you’ve only got to look at her face to see that she’s as good as gold. I’ll bet that that woman over the strate there is another of the right sort.”

“Dat voman is alvays in your head,” the German said, with a smile. “You shall certainly dream about her to-night. I remember a voman in Germany—” And so these two Bohemians rambled on into the small hours, discoursing upon their past experiences and regaling each other with many reminiscences, some of which, perhaps, are just as well omitted and allowed to sink into oblivion. When the major finally retired for the night, his last thought was of the lady at the window and of the means by which he might contrive to learn something of her.

These proved to be more easy than he anticipated, for next morning, on cross-examining the little servant girl from whom Von Baumser had derived his information, the major found out all that he desired to know. According to this authority, the lady was a widow of the name of Scully, the relict of a deceased engineer, and had been staying some little time at Morrison’s, which was the rival establishment to that in which the major and Von Baumser resided.

Armed with this information, the major pondered for some time before deciding upon his course of action. He saw no possible means by which he could gain an introduction to his charming neighbour unless he had recourse to some daring strategem. “Audace et toujours audace” had always been the soldier’s motto. He rose from his chair, discarded his purple gown, and arrayed himself in his best attire. Never had he paid such attention to his toilet. His face was clean shaven and shining, his sparse hairs were laid out to the best advantage, his collar spotless, his frock coat oppressively respectable, and his tout ensemble irreproachable. “Be George!” he said to himself, as he surveyed himself in the small lodging-house glass, “I’d look as young as Baumser if I had some more hair on me head. Bad cess to the helmets and shakoes that wore it all off.”

When his toilet was fully completed and rounded off by the addition of a pair of light gloves and an ebony stick with a silver head, the veteran strode forth with a bold front, but with considerable trepidation at his heart; for when is a man so seasoned as to have no misgivings when he makes the first advances to a woman who really attracts him? Whatever the major’s inward feelings may have been, however, he successfully concealed them as he rang the bell of the rival lodging-house and inquired of the servant whether Mrs. Scully was at home.

“Yes, sir, she is,” said the slavey, with a frightened bob, which was a tribute to the major’s martial mien and gorgeous attire.

“Would you tell her that I should like to see her,” said the major boldly. “I shan’t detain her a moment. Here is my card—Major Tobias Clutterbuck, late of the 119th Light Infantry.”

The servant disappeared with the card, and presently returned with a request that he would step up. The old soldier stumped his way upstairs with the firm footfall of one who has taken a thing in hand and means to carry it through at all hazard. As he ascended, it seemed to him that he heard the sound of feminine laughter in the distance. If so, it could hardly have come from the lady whom he was in quest of, for he was shown into a large and well-furnished room, where she sat looking demure and grave enough, as did another young lady who was crocheting on the ottoman beside her.

The major made his most courtly bow, though he felt very much as the Spaniards may be supposed to have done when they saw their ships blazing behind them. “I trust you will excuse this intrusion on my part,” he began. “I happened to hear that a lady of the name of Scully was stopping here.”

“My name is Scully, sir,” said the lady, whose dark eyes had allured the major to this feat of daring.

“Then perhaps, madam,” the veteran said with another bow, “you will allow me to ask you whether you are any relation to Major-gineral Scully, of the Indian Sappers?”

“Pray take a seat, Major—Major Clutterbuck,” said Mrs. Scully, referring to his card, which she still held in her very well-formed little hand. “Major-general Scully, did you say? Dear me! I know that one of my husband’s relations went into the army, but we never heard what became of him. A major-general, is he? Whoever would have thought it!”

“As dashing a souldier, madam,” said the major, warming into eloquence, “as ever hewed a way through the ranks of the enemy, or stormed the snow-clad passes of the Himalayas.”

“Fancy!” ejaculated the young lady with the crochet needle.

“Many a time,” continued the soldier, “he and I after some hard-fought battle have slept togither upon the blood-stained ground wrapped in the same martial cloak.”

“Fancy!” cried both ladies in chorus; and they could not have selected a more appropriate interjection.

“And when at last he died,” the major went on with emotion, “cut in two with a tulwar in a skirmish with hill tribes, he turned to me—”

“After being cut in two?” interrupted the younger lady.

“He turned to me,” said the major inflexibly, “and putting his hand in mine, he said, with his last breath, ‘Toby’—that was what he always called me—’Toby,’ he said, ‘I have a—’ Your husband was his brother, I think you said, ma’am?”

“No, it was Mr. Scully’s uncle who went into the army.”

“Ah, quite so. ‘I have a nephew in England,’ he said, ‘who is very dear to me. He is married to a charming woman. Search out the young couple, Toby. Guard over them. Protict them!’ Those were his last words, madam. Next moment his sowl had fled. When I heard your name casually mintioned I could not feel satisfied in me mind until I had come across and ascertained if you were the lady in question.”

Now, this narrative not only surprised the widow, which was not unnatural, seeing that it was entirely an invention of the old soldier’s, but it appealed to her weakest point. The father of the deceased Scully had been of plebeian origin, so that the discovery in the family of a real major-general—albeit he was dead—was a famous windfall, for the widow had social ambitions which hitherto she had never been able to gratify. Hence she smiled sweetly at the veteran in a way which stimulated him to further flights of mendacity.

“Sure he and I were like brothers,” he said. “He was a man that any one might well be proud to know. Commander-in-chief said to me once, ‘Clutterbuck,’ says he, ‘I don’t know what we’d do if we had a European war. I’ve no one I can rely on,’ says he. ‘There’s Scully,’ says I. ‘Right,’ says he, ‘Scully would be our man.’ He was terribly cut up when this occurred. ‘Here’s a blow to the British army!’ he remarked, as he looked down at him where he lay with a bullet through his head—he did, madam, be Jove!”

“But, major, I understood you to say that he was cut in two?”

“So he was. Cut in two, and shot and mortally wounded in a dozen places besides. Ah, if he could have foreseen that I should have met you he would have died happy.”

“It’s strange he never let us know of his existence when he was alive,” the widow remarked.

“Pride, madam, pride! ‘Until I reach the top of the tree, Toby,’ he used to say, ‘I shall niver reveal myself to me brother.’”

“Nephew,” interpolated the widow.

“Quite so—‘I shall niver reveal myself to me nephew.’ He said those very words to me only a few minutes before the fatal shell struck him.”

“A shell, major? You mean a bullet.”

“A shell, madam, a shell,” said the major with decision.

“Dear me!” exclaimed Mrs. Scully, with a somewhat bewildered expression. “How very sad it all is. We must thank you very much, Major Bottletop——”

“Clutterbuck,” said the Major.

“I beg pardon, Major Clutterbuck. It was very kind of you to call upon us in this friendly way and to give us these details. Of course, when a relative dies, even though you don’t know much about him, still it is interesting to have a clear account of how it all happened. Just fancy, Clara,” continued the widow, drawing her handkerchief from her reticule and mopping one of her eyes with it. “Just fancy the poor fellow being cut in two with a bullet far away in India and him just speaking about Jack and me a few minutes before. I am sure we must thank Major Bottlenose——”

“Clutterbuck, madam,” cried the major with some indignation.

“I really beg pardon. We must thank him, Clara, for having told us about it and for having called.”

“Do not thank me, me dear Mrs. Scully,” said the major, clearing his throat and waving his stubby hand deprecatingly. “I have already had me reward in having the pleasure and honour of making your acquaintance and of coming nearer to those charums which I had alriddy admired from a distance.”

“Oh, auntie, listen to that!” cried Clara, and both ladies giggled.

“Not forgetting yours, Miss—Miss——”

“Miss Timms,” said Mrs. Scully. “My brother’s daughter.”

“Not forgetting your charums, Miss Timms,” continued the major, with a bow and a flourish. “To a lonely man like meself, the very sight of a lady is like dew to a plant. I feel stringthened, madam, vitalized, invigorated.” The major puffed out his chest and looked apoplectically tender over his high white collar.

“The chief object of me visit,” the old soldier said after a pause, “was to learn whether I could be of any assistance to you in any way. Afther your sad bereavement, of which I have heard, it may be that even a comparative stranger may be of service in business matters.”

“I’m sure it’s very kind of you, major,” the widow answered. “Since poor Jack died everything has been in disorder. If it wouldn’t trouble you, I should very much like your advice on some future occasion. I’ll ask your opinion when I have cleared up things a little myself. As to these lawyers, they think of their own interests, not of yours.”

“Quite so,” said the major sympathetically.

“There’s the fifteen hundred of poor Jack’s insurance. That’s not laid out yet.”

“Fifteen hundred!” said the major. “That’s seventy-five pounds a year at five per cint.”

“I can get better interest than that,” said the widow gaily. “I’ve got two thousand laid out at seven per cent.—haven’t I, Clara?”

“Safe, too,” said the girl.

“The deuce you have!” thought the major.

“So, when we are making arrangements, I’ll ask your assistance and advice, Major Tanglebobs. I know that we poor women are very bad at business.”

“I shall look forward to the day,” said the major gallantly, rising and taking up his hat. He was very well satisfied with his little ruse and his success in breaking the ice.

“Be George!” he remarked to Von Baumser that evening, “she’s got money as well as her looks. It’s a lucky man that gits her.”

“I vill bet dat you ask her for to marry you,” Von Baumser said with a smile.

“I’ll bet that she refuses me if I do,” answered the major despondently, in spite of which he retired that night feeling considerably more elated than on the preceding evening.

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