ST. Ives

Page 11

It was the third morning after the duel, and Goguelat was still in life, when the time came round for me to give Major Chevenix a lesson. I was fond of this occupation; not that he paid me much--no more, indeed, than eighteenpence a month, the customary figure, being a miser in the grain; but because I liked his breakfasts and (to some extent) himself. At least, he was a man of education; and of the others with whom I had any opportunity of speech, those that would not have held a book upsidedown would have torn the pages out for pipe- lights. For I must repeat again that our body of prisoners was exceptional: there was in Edinburgh Castle none of that educational busyness that distinguished some of the other prisons, so that men entered them unable to read, and left them fit for high employments. Chevenix was handsome, and surprisingly young to be a major: six feet in his stockings, well set up, with regular features and very clear grey eyes. It was impossible to pick a fault in him, and yet the sum-total was displeasing. Perhaps he was too clean; he seemed to bear about with him the smell of soap. Cleanliness is good, but I cannot bear a man's nails to seem japanned. And certainly he was too self-possessed and cold. There was none of the fire of youth, none of the swiftness of the soldier, in this young officer. His kindness was cold, and cruel cold; his deliberation exasperating. And perhaps it was from this character, which is very much the opposite of my own, that even in these days, when he was of service to me, I approached him with suspicion and reserve.

I looked over his exercise in the usual form, and marked six faults.

'H'm. Six,' says he, looking at the paper. 'Very annoying! I can never get it right.'

'Oh, but you make excellent progress!' I said. I would not discourage him, you understand, but he was congenitally unable to learn French. Some fire, I think, is needful, and he had quenched his fire in soapsuds.

He put the exercise down, leaned his chin upon his hand, and looked at me with clear, severe eyes.

'I think we must have a little talk,' said he.

'I am entirely at your disposition,' I replied; but I quaked, for I knew what subject to expect.

'You have been some time giving me these lessons,' he went on, 'and I am tempted to think rather well of you. I believe you are a gentleman.'

'I have that honour, sir,' said I.

'You have seen me for the same period. I do not know how I strike you; but perhaps you will be prepared to believe that I also am a man of honour,' said he.

'I require no assurances; the thing is manifest,' and I bowed.

'Very well, then,' said he. 'What about this Goguelat?'

'You heard me yesterday before the court,' I began. 'I was awakened only--'

'Oh yes; I "heard you yesterday before the court," no doubt,' he interrupted, 'and I remember perfectly that you were "awakened only." I could repeat the most of it by rote, indeed. But do you suppose that I believed you for a moment?'

'Neither would you believe me if I were to repeat it here,' said I.

'I may be wrong--we shall soon see,' says he; 'but my impression is that you will not "repeat it here." My impression is that you have come into this room, and that you will tell me something before you go out.'

I shrugged my shoulders.

'Let me explain,' he continued. 'Your evidence, of course, is nonsense. I put it by, and the court put it by.'

'My compliments and thanks!' said I.

'You MUST know--that's the short and the long,' he proceeded. 'All of you in shed B are bound to know. And I want to ask you where is the common-sense of keeping up this farce, and maintaining this cock-and-bull story between friends. Come, come, my good fellow, own yourself beaten, and laugh at it yourself.'

'Well, I hear you, go ahead,' said I. 'You put your heart in it.'

He crossed his legs slowly. 'I can very well understand,' he began, 'that precautions have had to be taken. I dare say an oath was administered. I can comprehend that perfectly.' (He was watching me all the time with his cold, bright eyes.) 'And I can comprehend that, about an affair of honour, you would be very particular to keep it.'

'About an affair of honour?' I repeated, like a man quite puzzled.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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