ST. Ives

Page 54

And all the time I was going to a disappointment.

It was in a spacious and low room, with an outlook on the court, that I found them bestowed. In the good days of that house the apartment had probably served as a library, for there were traces of shelves along the wainscot. Four or five mattresses lay on the floor in a corner, with a frowsy heap of bedding; near by was a basin and a cube of soap; a rude kitchen-table and some deal chairs stood together at the far end; and the room was illuminated by no less than four windows, and warmed by a little, crazy, sidelong grate, propped up with bricks in the vent of a hospitable chimney, in which a pile of coals smoked prodigiously and gave out a few starveling flames. An old, frail, white-haired officer sat in one of the chairs, which he had drawn close to this apology for a fire. He was wrapped in a camlet cloak, of which the collar was turned up, his knees touched the bars, his hands were spread in the very smoke, and yet he shivered for cold. The second--a big, florid, fine animal of a man, whose every gesture labelled him the cock of the walk and the admiration of the ladies--had apparently despaired of the fire, and now strode up and down, sneezing hard, bitterly blowing his nose, and proffering a continual stream of bluster, complaint, and barrack-room oaths.

Fenn showed me in with the brief form of introduction: 'Gentlemen all, this here's another fare!' and was gone again at once. The old man gave me but the one glance out of lack-lustre eyes; and even as he looked a shiver took him as sharp as a hiccough. But the other, who represented to admiration the picture of a Beau in a Catarrh, stared at me arrogantly.

'And who are you, sir?' he asked.

I made the military salute to my superiors.

'Champdivers, private, Eighth of the Line,' said I.

'Pretty business!' said he. 'And you are going on with us? Three in a cart, and a great trolloping private at that! And who is to pay for you, my fine fellow?' he inquired.

'If monsieur comes to that,' I answered civilly, 'who paid for him?'

'Oh, if you choose to play the wit!' said he,--and began to rail at large upon his destiny, the weather, the cold, the danger and the expense of the escape, and, above all, the cooking of the accursed English. It seemed to annoy him particularly that I should have joined their party. 'If you knew what you were doing, thirty thousand millions of pigs! you would keep yourself to yourself! The horses can't drag the cart; the roads are all ruts and swamps. No longer ago than last night the Colonel and I had to march half the way--thunder of God!--half the way to the knees in mud--and I with this infernal cold--and the danger of detection! Happily we met no one: a desert--a real desert--like the whole abominable country! Nothing to eat--no, sir, there is nothing to eat but raw cow and greens boiled in water--nor to drink but Worcestershire sauce! Now I, with my catarrh, I have no appetite; is it not so? Well, if I were in France, I should have a good soup with a crust in it, an omelette, a fowl in rice, a partridge in cabbages--things to tempt me, thunder of God! But here--day of God!--what a country! And cold, too! They talk about Russia--this is all the cold I want! And the people--look at them! What a race! Never any handsome men; never any fine officers!'--and he looked down complacently for a moment at his waist--'And the women--what faggots! No, that is one point clear, I cannot stomach the English!'

There was something in this man so antipathetic to me, as sent the mustard into my nose. I can never bear your bucks and dandies, even when they are decent-looking and well dressed; and the Major-- for that was his rank--was the image of a flunkey in good luck. Even to be in agreement with him, or to seem to be so, was more than I could make out to endure.

'You could scarce be expected to stomach them,' said I civilly, 'after having just digested your parole.'

He whipped round on his heel and turned on me a countenance which I dare say he imagined to be awful; but another fit of sneezing cut him off ere he could come the length of speech.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book