NEVER in the whole history of Morrison’s boarding establishment had such festive preparations been known. The landlady herself had entered heart and soul into the business, and as all the boarders had received invitations for themselves and their friends, they co-operated in every possible manner to make the evening a success. The large drawing-room had been cleared and the floor waxed. This process left it in a very glassy and orthodox condition, as the cook discovered when, on bustling in, the back of her cranium came in violent contact with the boards, while her body described a half-circle with a velocity which completely eclipsed any subsequent feats of agility shown by the dancers in the evening. The saloon had been very tastefully laid out as a supper-room, and numerous other little chambers were thrown open and brightened up to serve as lounging places for those who were fatigued. In the parlour there were two card-tables, and every other convenience for any who preferred sedentary amusements. Altogether both Mrs. Morrison and the boarders, in solemn conclave assembled, agreed that the thing looked very promising, and that it would be a credit to the establishment.
The guests were as varied as the wines, though hardly as select. Mrs. Scully’s exuberant hospitality included, as already intimated, not only her own friends, but those of her fellow-boarders, so that from an early hour the rooms began to fill, and by nine o’clock there was hardly space for the dancers. Hansoms and growlers rattled up in a continuous stream and discharged their burdens. There was a carpet down from the kerb to the head of the lodging-house steps, “like r’yalty,” as the cook expressed it, and the greengrocer’s man in the hall looked so pompous and inflated in his gorgeous attire that his own cabbages would hardly have recognized him. His main defect as a footman was that he was somewhat hard of hearing, and had a marvellous faculty of misinterpreting whatever was said to him, which occasionally led to remarkable results. Thus, when he announced the sporting Captain Livingstone Tuck under the title of Captain Lives-on-his luck, it was felt that he was rather too near the truth to be pleasant. Indeed, the company had hardly recovered from the confusion produced by this small incident when the two Bohemians made their appearance.
Mrs. Scully, who was tastefully arrayed in black satin and lace, stood near the door of the drawing-room, and looked very charming and captivating as she fulfilled her duties as hostess. So thought the major as he approached her and shook her hand, with some well turned compliment upon his lips.
“Let me inthroduce me friend, Herr von Baumser,” he added.
Mrs. Scully smiled upon the German in a way that won his Teutonic heart. “You will find programmes over there,” she explained. “I think the first is a round dance. No, thank you, major; I shall stand out, or there will be no one to receive the people.” She hurried away to greet a party of new arrivals, while the major and Baumser wandered off in search of partners.
There was no want of spirit or of variety in the dancing at Morrison’s. From Mr. Snodder, the exciseman, who danced the original old-fashioned trois-temps, to young Bucklebury, of the Bank, who stationed himself immediately underneath the central chandelier, and spun rapidly round with his partner upon his own axis, like a couple of beetles impaled upon a single pin, every possible variation of the art of waltzing was to be observed. There was Mr. Smith, of the Medical College, rotating round with Miss Clara Timms, their faces wearing that pained and anxious expression which the British countenance naturally assumes when dancing, giving the impression that the legs have suddenly burst forth in a festive mood, and have dragged the rest of the body into it very much against its will. There was the major too, who had succeeded in obtaining Mrs. Scully as a partner, and was dancing as old soldiers can dance, threading his way through the crowded room with the ease begotten by the experience of a lifetime. Meanwhile Von Baumser, at the other end, was floundering about with a broad smile upon his face and an elderly lady tucked under his right arm, while he held her disengaged hand straight out at right angles, as if she had been a banjo. In short, the fun was fast and furious, and waltz followed polka and mazurka followed waltz with a rapidity which weeded out the weaker vessels among the dancers and tested the stamina of the musicians.
Then there was the card-room, whither the Widow Scully and the major and many others of the elders repaired when they found the pace too fast for them. Very snug and comfortable it was, with its square tables, each with a fringe of chairs, and the clean shining cards spread out over their green baize surfaces. The major and his hostess played against Captain Livingstone Tuck and an old gentleman who came from Lambeth, with the result that the gallant captain and his partner rose up poorer and sadder men, which was rather a blow to the former, who reckoned upon clearing a little on such occasions, and had not expected to find himself opposed by such a past master of the art as the major. Then the veteran and another played the hostess and another lady, and the cunning old dog managed to lose in such a natural manner, and to pay up with such a good grace, and with so many pretty speeches and compliments, that the widow’s partner was visibly impressed, a fact which, curiously enough, seemed to be anything but agreeable to the widow. After that they all filed off to supper, where they found the dancers already in possession, and there was much crushing and crowding, which tended to do away with ceremony and to promote the harmony of the evening.
If the major had contrived to win favour from Mrs. Lavinia Scully in the early part of the evening, he managed now to increase any advantage he had gained. In the first place he inquired in a very loud voice of Captain Tuck, at the other end of the table, whether that gentleman had ever met the deceased Major-General Scully, and being answered in the negative, he descanted fluently upon the merits of that imaginary warrior. After this unscrupulous manuvre the major proceeded to do justice to the wine and to indulge in sporting reminiscences, and military reminiscences, and travelling reminiscences, and social reminiscences, all of which he treated in a manner which called forth the admiration of his audience. Then, when supper had at last been finished, and the last cork drawn and the last glass filled, the dancers went back to their dance and the card-players to their cards, and the major addressed himself more assiduously than ever to the pursuit of the widow.
“I am afraid that you find the rooms very hot, major,” she remarked.
“They are rather hot,” he answered candidly.
“There is a room here,” she said, “where you might be cooler. You might have a cigarette, too. I meant these rooms as smoking-rooms.”
“Then you must come, too.”
“No, no, major. You must remember that I am the hostess.”
“But there is no one to entertain. They are all entertaining each other. You are too unselfish.”
“But really, major——”
“Sure you are tired out and need a little rest.”
He held the door open so persuasively that she yielded. It was a snug little room, somewhat retired from the bustle, with two or three chintz-covered chairs scattered round it, and a sofa of the same material at one side. The widow sat down at one end of this sofa, and the major perched himself at the other, looking even redder than usual, and puffing out his chest and frowning, as was his custom upon critical occasions.
“Do light a cigarette?” said Mrs. Scully.
“But the smell?”
“I like it.”
The major extracted one from his flat silver case. His companion rolled a spill and lit it at the gas.
“To one who is as lonely as I am,” she remarked, “it is a pleasure to feel that one has friends near one, and to serve them even in trifles.”
“Lonely!” said the major, shuffling along the sofa, “I might talk with authority on that point. If I were to turn me toes up to-morrow there’s not a human being would care a thraneen about the mather, unless it were old Von Baumser.”
“Oh, don’t talk so,” cried Mrs. Scully, with emotion.
“It is a fact. I’ve kicked against me fate at times, though. I’ve had fancies of late of something happier and cheerier. They have come on me as I sat over yonder at the window, and, do what I will, I have not been able to git them from me heart. Yit I know how rash I have been to treasure them, for if they fail me I shall feel me loneliness as I niver did before.”
The major paused and cleared his throat huskily, while the widow remained silent, with her head bent and her eyes intent upon the pattern of the carpet.
“These hopes are,” said the major, in a low voice, leaning forward and taking his companion’s little ring-covered hand in his thick, pudgy fingers, “that you will have pity upon me; that you will——”
“Ach, my very goot vriend!” cried Von Baumser heartily, suddenly protruding his hairy head into the room and smiling benignantly.
“Go to the divil!” roared the major, springing furiously to his feet, while the German’s head disappeared like a Jack-in-the-box. “Forgive the warmth of me language,” the veteran continued, apologetically, “but me feelings overcame me. Will you be mine, Lavinia? I am a plain ould soldier, and have little to offer you save a faithful heart, and that is yours, and always will be. Will you make the remainder of me life happy by becoming me wife?” He endeavoured to pass his arm round her waist, but she sprang up from the sofa and stood upon the rug, facing him with an amused and somewhat triumphant smile upon her buxom features.
“Look here, major,” she said, “I am a plain-spoken woman, as my poor Tom that’s dead was a plain-spoken man. Out with it straight, now—have you come after me, or have you come after my money?”
The major was so astonished at this point-blank question, that for a moment he sat speechless upon the sofa. Being a man of ready resource, however, and one who was accustomed to sudden emergencies, he soon recovered himself.
“Yoursilf, of course” cried he. “If you hadn’t a stiver I would do the same.”
“Take care! take care!” said the lady, with a warning finger uplifted. “You heard of the breaking of the Agra Bank?”
“What of that?”
“Every penny that I had in the world was in it.”
This was facer number two for the campaigner. He recovered himself more quickly from this one, however, and inflated his chest with even more than his usual pomposity.
“Lavinia,” said he, “you have been straight with me, and, bedad, I’ll be so with you! When I first thought of you I was down in the world, and, much as I admired you, I own that your money was an inducement as well as yoursilf. I was so placed that it was impossible for me to think of any woman who had not enough to keep up her own end of the game. Since that time I’ve done bether. How I got it is neither here nor there, but I have a little nist-egg in the bank and see me way to increasing it. You tell me your money’s gone, and I tell you I’ve enough for two; so say the word, acushla, and it’s done.”
“What! without the money?”
“Damn the money!” exclaimed Major Tobias Clutterbuck, and put his arm for the second time around his companion. This time it remained there. What happened after that is neither my business nor the reader’s. Couples who have left their youth behind them have their own little romance quite as much as their juniors, and it is occasionally the more heartfelt of the two.
“What a naughty boy to swear!” exclaimed the widow at last. “Now I must give you a lecture since I have the chance.”
“Bless her mischievous eyes!” cried the major, with delight in every feature of his face. “You shall give me as many lectures as you plase.”
“You must be good, then, Toby, if you are to be my husband. You must not play billiards for money any more.”
“No billiards! Why, pool is worth three or four pound a wake to me.”
“It doesn’t matter. No billiards and no cards, and no racing and no betting. Toby must be very good and behave as a distinguished soldier should do.”
“What are you afther at all?” the major cried. “Sure if I am to give up me pool and whist, how is a distinguished soldier, and, above all, a distinguished soldier’s wife, going to live?”
“We’ll manage, dear,” she said, looking roguishly up into his face. “I told you that my money was all in the Agra Bank that broke.”
“You did, worse luck!”
“But I didn’t tell you that I had drawn it all out before it broke, Toby dear. It was too bad to put you to such a trial, wasn’t it? but really I couldn’t resist the temptation. Toby shall have money enough without betting, and he shall settle down and tell his stories, and do what he likes without anything to bother him.”
“Bless her heart!” cried the major fervently; and the battered old Bohemian, as he stooped over and kissed her, felt a tear spring to his eyes as he knew that he had come into harbour after life’s stormy tossings.
“No billiards or cards for three months, then,” said the little woman firmly, with her hands round his arm. “None at all mind! I am going into Hampshire on a visit to my cousins in the country, and you shall not see me for that time, though you may write. If you can give me your word of honour when I come back that you’ve given up your naughty ways, why then——”
“Wait till then and you’ll see,” she said, with a merry laugh. “No, really, I won’t stay another moment. Whatever will the guests say? I must, Toby; I really must—” Away she tripped, while the major remained standing where she had left him, feeling a better man than he had done since he was a young ensign and kissed his mother for the last time at the Portsmouth jetty before the great transport carried him off to India.
Everything in the world must have an end, and Mrs. Scully’s dance was no exception to the rule. The day was breaking, however, before the last guests had muffled themselves up and the last hansom dashed away from the door. The major lingered behind to bid farewell, and then rejoined his German friend, who had been compelled to wait at the door for the latchkey.
“Look here, major,” the latter said, when they came into their room, “is it well to tell a Brussian gentleman to go to the devil? You have much offended me. Truly I was surprised that you should have so spoken!”
“Me dear friend,” the old soldier answered, shaking his hand, “I would not hurt your feelings for the world. Bedad, if I come into the room while you are proposing to a lady, you are welcome to use the strongest German verb to me that you can lay your tongue to.”
“You have probosed, then?” cried the good-natured German, forgetting all about his grievance in an instant.
“And been took—received by her?”
“Dat is gloriful!” Von Baumser cried, clapping his hands. “Three hochs for Frau Scully, and another one for Frau Clutterbuck. We must drink a drink on it; we truly must.”
“So we shall, me boy, but it’s time we turned in now. She’s a good woman, and she plays a good hand at whist. Ged! she cleared the trumps and made her long suit to-night as well as ever I saw it done in me life!” With which characteristic piece of eulogy the major bade his comrade good night and retired to his room.