The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XXVIII.

Back in Bohemia.

Arthur Conan Doyle

FORTUNE had been smiling upon the Bohemians of late. Ever since the major’s successful visit to Fenchurch Street he had been able to live in a state of luxury to which he had long been unaccustomed. His uncle, the earl, too, had condescended to think of his humble relative, and had made a small provision for him, which, with his other resources, removed all anxiety as to the future. Von Baumser had his fair share in this sudden accession of prosperity. The German had resumed his situation as commercial clerk and foreign correspondent to Eckermann & Co., so that his circumstances had also improved. The pair had even had some conversation as to the expediency of migrating into larger and more expensive lodgings, but the major’s increasing intimacy with his fair neighbour opposite stood in the way of a change. In any case, they were loth to leave their fourth floor, and to have the trouble of moving their effects.

These same effects were the pride of Major Clutterbuck’s heart. Small as their sanctum was, it was a very museum of curious objects brought from every part of the world, most of them of little intrinsic value, but all possessing a charm of association to their owner. They were his trophies of travel, battle, and the chase. From the bison rug and tiger skin upon the floor to the great Sumatran bat which hung head downwards, as in the days of its earthly existence, from the ceiling, there was not an object but had its own special history. In one corner was an Afghan matchlock, and a bundle of spears from the southern seas; in another a carved Indian paddle, a Kaffir assegai, and an American blowpipe, with its little sheaf of poisoned arrows. Here was a hookah, richly mounted, and with all due accessories, just as it was presented to the major twenty years before by a Mahommedan chieftain, and there was a high Mexican saddle on which he had ridden through the land of the Aztecs. There was not a square foot of the walls which was not adorned by knives, javelins, Malay kreeses, Chinese opium pipes, and such other trifles as old travellers gather round them. By the side of the fire rested the campaigner’s straight regulation sword in its dim sheath—all the dimmer because the companions occasionally used it as a poker when that instrument happened to be missing.

“It’s not the value of thim,” the major remarked, glancing round the apartment, “but, bedad, there’s not one of the lot that has not got a story tacked on to it. Look at that bear’s head now, that’s grinning at ye from over the door. That’s a Thibet bear, not much bigger than a Newfoundland dog, but as fierce as a grizzly. That’s the very one that clawed Charley Travers, of the 49th. Ged, he’d have been done for if I hadn’t got me Westley Richards to bear on him. ‘Duck man! duck!’ I cried, for they were so mixed that I couldn’t tell one from the other. He put his head down, and I caught the brute right between the eyes. Ye can see the track of the bullet on the bone.”

The major paused, and the pair smoked meditatively, for Baumser had returned from the City, and the twilight was falling and everything conduced to tobacco and reverie.

“See that necklace of cowrie shells hanging beside it,” continued the veteran, waving his cigarette in that direction; “that came from the neck of a Hottentot woman—a black Vanus, be Jove! We were trekking up country before the second Kaffir war. Made an appintment—could not go—orderly duty—so sent a trusty man to tell her. He was found next day with twenty assegais in his body. She was a decoy duck, bedad, and the whole thing a plant.”

“Mein Gott!” Von Baumser ejaculated. “What a life you have led! I have lived with you now many months and heard you tell many tales, but ever there are fresh ones.”

“Yes, a strange life,” answered the major, stretching out his gaitered legs and gazing up at the ceiling. “I niver thought to be stranded in me ould age. If I hadn’t commuted I’d have had a fair pinsion, but I drew me money in a lump sum, and went to Monte Carlo to break the bank. Instead o’ that the bank broke me, and yet I believe me system was correct enough, and I must have won if I had had more capital.”

“There is many says dat,” grunted Von Baumser doubtfully.

“I believe it for all that,” the major continued. “Why, man, I was always the luckiest chap at cards. I depinded on me skill principally, but still I had luck as well. I remimber once being becalmed for a fortnight in the Bay of Biscay in a small transport. Skipper and I tried to kill time by playing nap, and we had the stakes low enough at first, but they soon grew higher, for he kept trying to cover his losses. Before the ind of the two weeks I cleared out of him nearly all he had in the world. ‘Look here, Clutterbuck,’ he said at last, looking mighty white about the gills, ‘this ship that we are in is more than half mine. I am chief owner. I’ll stake me share of the ship on the next game against all that I have lost.’ ‘Done!’ said I, and shuffled, cut, and dealt. He went four on three highest trumps, and an ace, and I held four small trumps. ‘It’s a bad job for my creditors,’ he said, as he threw his hand down. Ged! I started on that vyage a poor captain, and I came into port very fairly well off, and sailing in me own ship, too! What d’ye think of that?”

“Wunderbar!” ejaculated the German. “And the captain?”

“Brandy, and delirium tremens,” the major said, between the puffs of his cigarette. “Jumped overboard off Finisterre, on the homeward vyage. Shocking thing, gamblin’—when you lose.”

“Ach Gott! And those two knives upon the wall, the straight one and the one with the crook; is there a history about them?”

“An incident,” the major answered languidly. “Curious, but true. Saw it meself. In the Afghan war I was convoying supplies through the passes, when we were set upon by Afreedees, hillmen, and robbers. I had fifty men of the 27th Native Infantry under me, with a sergeant. Among the Afreedees was a thumping big chief, who stood among the rocks with that very knife in his hand, the long one, shouting insults at our fellows. Our sergeant was a smart little nigger, and this cheek set his blood up. Be jabers! he chucked his gun down, pulled out that curved dagger—a Ghoorkha knife it is—and made for the big hillman. Both sides stopped firing to see the two chaps fight. As our fellow came scrambling up over the rocks, the chief ran at him and thrust with all his stringth. Be jabers! I thought I saw the pint of the blade come out through the sergeant’s back. He managed to twist round though, so as to dodge it. At the same time he hit up from below, and the hillman sprang into the air, looking for all the world like one o’ those open sheep you see outside a butcher’s shop. He was ripped up from stomach to throat. The sight knocked all the fight out of the other spalpeens, and they took to their heels as hard as they could run. I took the dead man’s knife away, and the sergeant sold me his for a few rupees, so there they are. Not much to make a story of, but it was intheresting to see. I’d have bet five to three on the chief.”

“Bad discipline, very bad,” Baumser remarked. “To break the ranks and run mit knives would make my old Unter-offizier Kritzer very mad indeed.” The German had served his time in the Prussian Army, and was still mindful of his training.

“Your stiff-backed Pickelhaubes would have had a poor chance in the passes,” answered the major. “It was ivery man for himself there. You might lie, or stand, or do what you liked as long as you didn’t run. Discipline goes to pieces in a war of that sort.”

“Dat is what you call gorilla warfare,” said Von Baumser, with a proud consciousness of having mastered an English idiom. “For all dat, discipline is a very fine thing—very good indeed. I vell remember in the great krieg—the war with Austria—we had made a mine and were about to fire it. A sentry had been placed just over this, and after the match was lit it was forgotten to withdraw the man. He knew well that the powder beneath him would presently him into the air lift, but since he had not been dismissed in right form he remained until the ausbruch had exploded. He was never seen no more, and, indeed, dat he had ever been dere might well have been forgotten, had it not been dat his nadelgewehr was dere found. Dat was a proper soldier, I think, to be placed in command had he lived.”

“To be placed in a lunatic asylum if he lived,” said the Irishman testily. “Hullo, what’s this?”

The “this” was the appearance of the boarding-house slavey with a very neat pink envelope upon a tray, addressed, in the most elegant of female hands, to “Major Tobias Clutterbuck, late of Her Majesty’s Hundred and Nineteenth.”

“Ah!” cried Von Baumser, laughing in his red beard, “it is from a woman. You are what the English call a sly hog, a very sly hog—or, I should say, dog, though it is much the same.”

“It’s for you as well as for me. See here. ‘Mrs. Lavinia Scully presints her compliments to Major Tobias Clutterbuck and to his friend, Mr. Sigismund von Baumser, and trusts that they may be able to favour her with their company on Tuesday evening at eight, to meet a few frinds.’ It’s a dance,” said the major. “That accounts for the harp and the tables and binches and wine cases I saw going in this morning.”

“Will you go?”

“Yes, of course I will, and so shall you. We’d better answer it.”

So in due course an acceptance was sent across to Mrs. Scully’s hospitable invitation.

Never was there such a brushing and scrubbing in the bedroom of a couple of quiet bachelors as occurred some two evenings afterwards in the top story of Mrs. Robins’ establishment. The major’s suit had been pursued unremittingly since his first daring advance upon the widow, but under many difficulties and discouragements. In the occasional chance interviews which he had with his attractive neighbour he became more and more enamoured, but he had no opportunity of ascertaining whether the feeling was mutual. This invitation appeared to promise him the very chance which he desired, and many were the stern resolutions which he formed as he stood in front of his toilet-table and arranged his tie and his shirt front to his satisfaction. Von Baumser, who was arrayed in a dress coat of antiquated shape, and very shiny about the joints, sat on the side of the bed, eyeing his companion’s irreproachable get-up with envy and admiration.

“It fits you beautiful,” he said, alluding to the coat.

“It came from Poole’s,” answered the major carelessly.

“As for me,” said Von Baumser, “I have never used mine in England at all. Truly, as you know, I hate all dances and dinners. I come with you, however, very willingly, for I would not for nothing in the world give offence to the liebchen of my comrade. Since I go, I shall go as a gentleman should.” He looked down as he spoke with much satisfaction at his withered suit of black.

“But, me good fellow,” cried the major, who had now completed his toilet, “you’ve got your tie under your lift ear. It looks very quaint and ornamintal there, but still it’s not quite the place for it. You look as if you were ticketed for sale.”

“They von’t see it unless I puts it out sidevays from under my beard,” the German said apologetically. “However, if you think it should be hidden, it shall be so. How are my stud-buttons? You have them of gold, I see, but mine are of mother-of-oysters.”

“Mother-of-pearl,” said the major, laughing. “They will do very well. There’s the divil of a lot of cabs at their door,” he continued, peering round the corner of the blind. “The rooms are all lighted up, and I can hear them tuning the instruments. Maybe we’d better go across.”

“Vorvarts, then!” said Von Baumser resolutely; and the two set off, the major with a fixed determination that he should know his fate before the evening was over.

The Firm of Girdlestone - Contents    |     Chapter XXIX

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