Rodney Stone

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Watier's

My uncle’s house in Jermyn Street was quite a small one - five rooms and an attic.  “A man-cook and a cottage,” he said, “are all that a wise man requires.”  On the other hand, it was furnished with the neatness and taste which belonged to his character, so that his most luxurious friends found something in the tiny rooms which made them discontented with their own sumptuous mansions.  Even the attic, which had been converted into my bedroom, was the most perfect little bijou attic that could possibly be imagined.  Beautiful and valuable knick-knacks filled every corner of every apartment, and the house had become a perfect miniature museum which would have delighted a virtuoso.  My uncle explained the presence of all these pretty things with a shrug of his shoulders and a wave of his hands.  “They are des petites cadeaux,” said he, “but it would be an indiscretion for me to say more.” We found a note from Ambrose waiting for us which increased rather than explained the mystery of his disappearance. “My dear Sir Charles Tregellis,” it ran, “it will ever be a subject of regret to me that the force of circumstances should have compelled me to leave your service in so abrupt a fashion, but something occurred during our journey from Friar’s Oak to Brighton which left me without any possible alternative.  I trust, however, that my absence may prove to be but a temporary one.  The isinglass recipe for the shirt-fronts is in the strong-box at Drummond’s Bank. - Yours obediently, AMBROSE.” “Well, I suppose I must fill his place as best I can,” said my uncle, moodily.  “But how on earth could something have occurred to make him leave me at a time when we were going full-trot down hill in my curricle?  I shall never find his match again either for chocolate or cravats.  Je suis desolé!  But now, nephew, we must send to Weston and have you fitted up.  It is not for a gentleman to go to a shop, but for the shop to come to the gentleman.  Until you have your clothes you must remain en retraite.” The measuring was a most solemn and serious function, though it was nothing to the trying-on two days later, when my uncle stood by in an agony of apprehension as each garment was adjusted, he and Weston arguing over every seam and lapel and skirt until I was dizzy with turning round in front of them.  Then, just as I had hoped that all was settled, in came young Mr. Brummell, who promised to be an even greater exquisite than my uncle, and the whole matter had to be thrashed out between them.  He was a good-sized man, this Brummell, with a long, fair face, light brown hair, and slight sandy side-whiskers.  His manner was languid, his voice drawling, and while he eclipsed my uncle in the extravagance of his speech, he had not the air of manliness and decision which underlay all my kinsman’s affectations. “Why, George,” cried my uncle, “I thought you were with your regiment.” “I’ve sent in my papers,” drawled the other. “I thought it would come to that.” “Yes.  The Tenth was ordered to Manchester, and they could hardly expect me to go to a place like that.  Besides, I found the major monstrous rude.” “How was that?” “He expected me to know about his absurd drill, Tregellis, and I had other things to think of, as you may suppose.  I had no difficulty in taking my right place on parade, for there was a trooper with a red nose on a flea-bitten grey, and I had observed that my post was always immediately in front of him.  This saved a great deal of trouble.  The other day, however, when I came on parade, I galloped up one line and down the other, but the deuce a glimpse could I get of that long nose of his!  Then, just as I was at my wits’ end, I caught sight of him, alone at one side; so I formed up in front.  It seems he had been put there to keep the ground, and the major so far forgot himself as to say that I knew nothing of my duties.” My uncle laughed, and Brummell looked me up and down with his large, intolerant eyes. “These will do very passably,” said he.  “Buff and blue are always very gentlemanlike.  But a sprigged waistcoat would have been better.” “I think not,” said my uncle, warmly. “My dear Tregellis, you are infallible upon a cravat, but you must allow me the right of my own judgment upon vests.  I like it vastly as it stands, but a touch of red sprig would give it the finish that it needs.” They argued with many examples and analogies for a good ten minutes, revolving round me at the same time with their heads on one side and their glasses to their eyes.  It was a relief to me when they at last agreed upon a compromise. “You must not let anything I have said shake your faith in Sir Charles’s judgment, Mr. Stone,” said Brummell, very earnestly. I assured him that I should not. “If you were my nephew, I should expect you to follow my taste.  But you will cut a very good figure as it is.  I had a young cousin who came up to town last year with a recommendation to my care.  But he would take no advice.  At the end of the second week I met him coming down St. James’s Street in a snuff-coloured coat cut by a country tailor.  He bowed to me.  Of course I knew what was due to myself.  I looked all round him, and there was an end to his career in town.  You are from the country, Mr. Stone?” “From Sussex, sir.” “Sussex!  Why, that is where I send my washing to.  There is an excellent clear-starcher living near Hayward’s Heath.  I send my shirts two at a time, for if you send more it excites the woman and diverts her attention.  I cannot abide anything but country washing.  But I should be vastly sorry to have to live there.  What can a man find to do?” “You don’t hunt, George?” “When I do, it’s a woman.  But surely you don’t go to hounds, Charles?” “I was out with the Belvoir last winter.” “The Belvoir!  Did you hear how I smoked Rutland?  The story has been in the clubs this month past.  I bet him that my bag would weigh more than his.  He got three and a half brace, but I shot his liver-coloured pointer, so he had to pay.  But as to hunting, what amusement can there be in flying about among a crowd of greasy, galloping farmers?  Every man to his own taste, but Brookes’s window by day and a snug corner of the macao table at Watier’s by night, give me all I want for mind and body.  You heard how I plucked Montague the brewer!” “I have been out of town.” “I had eight thousand from him at a sitting.  ‘I shall drink your beer in future, Mr. Brewer,’ said I.  ‘Every blackguard in London does,’ said he.  It was monstrous impolite of him, but some people cannot lose with grace.  Well, I am going down to Clarges Street to pay Jew King a little of my interest.  Are you bound that way?  Well, good-bye, then!  I’ll see you and your young friend at the club or in the Mall, no doubt,” and he sauntered off upon his way. “That young man is destined to take my place,” said my uncle, gravely, when Brummell had departed.  “He is quite young and of no descent, but he has made his way by his cool effrontery, his natural taste, and his extravagance of speech.  There is no man who can be impolite in so polished a fashion.  He has a half-smile, and a way of raising his eyebrows, for which he will be shot one of these mornings.  Already his opinion is quoted in the clubs as a rival to my own.  Well, every man has his day, and when I am convinced that mine is past, St. James’s Street shall know me no more, for it is not in my nature to be second to any man.  But now, nephew, in that buff and blue suit you may pass anywhere; so, if you please, we will step into my vis-à-vis, and I will show you something of the town.” How can I describe all that we saw and all that we did upon that lovely spring day?  To me it was as if I had been wafted to a fairy world, and my uncle might have been some benevolent enchanter in a high-collared, long-tailed coat, who was guiding me about in it.  He showed me the West-end streets, with the bright carriages and the gaily dressed ladies and sombre-clad men, all crossing and hurrying and recrossing like an ants’ nest when you turn it over with a stick.  Never had I formed a conception of such endless banks of houses, and such a ceaseless stream of life flowing between.  Then we passed down the Strand, where the crowd was thicker than ever, and even penetrated beyond Temple Bar and into the City, though my uncle begged me not to mention it, for he would not wish it to be generally known.  There I saw the Exchange and the Bank and Lloyd’s Coffee House, with the brown-coated, sharp-faced merchants and the hurrying clerks, the huge horses and the busy draymen.  It was a very different world this from that which we had left in the West - a world of energy and of strength, where there was no place for the listless and the idle.  Young as I was, I knew that it was here, in the forest of merchant shipping, in the bales which swung up to the warehouse windows, in the loaded waggons which roared over the cobblestones, that the power of Britain lay.  Here, in the City of London, was the taproot from which Empire and wealth and so many other fine leaves had sprouted.  Fashion and speech and manners may change, but the spirit of enterprise within that square mile or two of land must not change, for when it withers all that has grown from it must wither also. We lunched at Stephen’s, the fashionable inn in Bond Street, where I saw a line of tilburys and saddle-horses, which stretched from the door to the further end of the street.  And thence we went to the Mail in St. James’s Park, and thence to Brookes’s, the great Whig club, and thence again to Watier’s, where the men of fashion used to gamble.  Everywhere I met the same sort of men, with their stiff figures and small waists, all showing the utmost deference to my uncle, and for his sake an easy tolerance of me.  The talk was always such as I had already heard at the Pavilion: talk of politics, talk of the King’s health, talk of the Prince’s extravagance, of the expected renewal of war, of horse-racing, and of the ring.  I saw, too, that eccentricity was, as my uncle had told me, the fashion; and if the folk upon the Continent look upon us even to this day as being a nation of lunatics, it is no doubt a tradition handed down from the time when the only travellers whom they were likely to see were drawn from the class which I was now meeting. It was an age of heroism and of folly.  On the one hand soldiers, sailors, and statesmen of the quality of Pitt, Nelson, and afterwards Wellington, had been forced to the front by the imminent menace of Buonaparte.  We were great in arms, and were soon also to be great in literature, for Scott and Byron were in their day the strongest forces in Europe.  On the other hand, a touch of madness, real or assumed, was a passport through doors which were closed to wisdom and to virtue.  The man who could enter a drawing-room walking upon his hands, the man who had filed his teeth that he might whistle like a coachman, the man who always spoke his thoughts aloud and so kept his guests in a quiver of apprehension, these were the people who found it easy to come to the front in London society.  Nor could the heroism and the folly be kept apart, for there were few who could quite escape the contagion of the times.  In an age when the Premier was a heavy drinker, the Leader of the Opposition a libertine, and the Prince of Wales a combination of the two, it was hard to know where to look for a man whose private and public characters were equally lofty.  At the same time, with all its faults it was a strong age, and you will be fortunate if in your time the country produces five such names as Pitt, Fox, Scott, Nelson, and Wellington. It was in Watier’s that night, seated by my uncle on one of the red velvet settees at the side of the room, that I had pointed out to me some of those singular characters whose fame and eccentricities are even now not wholly forgotten in the world.  The long, many-pillared room, with its mirrors and chandeliers, was crowded with full-blooded, loud-voiced men-about-town, all in the same dark evening dress with white silk stockings, cambric shirt-fronts, and little, flat chapeau-bras under their arms. “The acid-faced old gentleman with the thin legs is the Marquis of Queensberry,” said my uncle.  “His chaise was driven nineteen miles in an hour in a match against the Count Taafe, and he sent a message fifty miles in thirty minutes by throwing it from hand to hand in a cricket-ball.  The man he is talking to is Sir Charles Bunbury, of the Jockey Club, who had the Prince warned off the Heath at Newmarket on account of the in-and-out riding of Sam Chifney, his jockey.  There’s Captain Barclay going up to them now.  He knows more about training than any man alive, and he has walked ninety miles in twenty-one hours.  You have only to look at his calves to see that Nature built him for it.  There’s another walker there, the man with a flowered vest standing near the fireplace.  That is Buck Whalley, who walked to Jerusalem in a long blue coat, top-boots, and buckskins.” “Why did he do that, sir?” I asked, in astonishment. My uncle shrugged his shoulders. “It was his humour,” said he.  “He walked into society through it, and that was better worth reaching than Jerusalem.  There’s Lord Petersham, the man with the beaky nose.  He always rises at six in the evening, and he has laid down the finest cellar of snuff in Europe.  It was he who ordered his valet to put half a dozen of sherry by his bed and call him the day after to-morrow.  He’s talking to Lord Panmure, who can take his six bottles of claret and argue with a bishop after it.  The lean man with the weak knees is General Scott who lives upon toast and water and has won £200,000 at whist.  He is talking to young Lord Blandford who gave £1800 for a Boccaccio the other day.  Evening, Dudley!” “Evening, Tregellis!”  An elderly, vacant-looking man had stopped before us and was looking me up and down. “Some young cub Charlie Tregellis has caught in the country,” he murmured.  “He doesn’t look as if he would be much credit to him.  Been out of town, Tregellis?” “For a few days.” “Hem!” said the man, transferring his sleepy gaze to my uncle.  “He’s looking pretty bad.  He’ll be going into the country feet foremost some of these days if he doesn’t pull up!”  He nodded, and passed on. “You mustn’t look so mortified, nephew,” said my uncle, smiling.  “That’s old Lord Dudley, and he has a trick of thinking aloud.  People used to be offended, but they take no notice of him now.  It was only last week, when he was dining at Lord Elgin’s, that he apologized to the company for the shocking bad cooking.  He thought he was at his own table, you see.  It gives him a place of his own in society.  That’s Lord Harewood he has fastened on to now.  Harewood’s peculiarity is to mimic the Prince in everything.  One day the Prince hid his queue behind the collar of his coat, so Harewood cut his off, thinking that they were going out of fashion.  Here’s Lumley, the ugly man.  ‘L’homme laid’ they called him in Paris.  The other one is Lord Foley - they call him No. 11, on account of his thin legs.” “There is Mr. Brummell, sir,” said I. “Yes, he’ll come to us presently.  That young man has certainly a future before him.  Do you observe the way in which he looks round the room from under his drooping eyelids, as though it were a condescension that he should have entered it?  Small conceits are intolerable, but when they are pushed to the uttermost they become respectable.  How do, George?” “Have you heard about Vereker Merton?” asked Brummell, strolling up with one or two other exquisites at his heels.  “He has run away with his father’s woman-cook, and actually married her.” “What did Lord Merton do?” “He congratulated him warmly, and confessed that he had always underrated his intelligence.  He is to live with the young couple, and make a handsome allowance on condition that the bride sticks to her old duties.  By the way, there was a rumour that you were about to marry, Tregellis.” “I think not,” answered my uncle.  “It would be a mistake to overwhelm one by attentions which are a pleasure to many.” “My view, exactly, and very neatly expressed,” cried Brummell.  “Is it fair to break a dozen hearts in order to intoxicate one with rapture?  I’m off to the Continent next week.” “Bailiffs?” asked one of his companions. “Too bad, Pierrepoint.  No, no; it is pleasure and instruction combined.  Besides, it is necessary to go to Paris for your little things, and if there is a chance of the war breaking out again, it would be well to lay in a supply.” “Quite right,” said my uncle, who seemed to have made up his mind to outdo Brummell in extravagance.  “I used to get my sulphur-coloured gloves from the Palais Royal.  When the war broke out in ‘93 I was cut off from them for nine years.  Had it not been for a lugger which I specially hired to smuggle them, I might have been reduced to English tan.” “The English are excellent at a flat-iron or a kitchen poker, but anything more delicate is beyond them.” “Our tailors are good,” cried my uncle, “but our stuffs lack taste and variety.  The war has made us more rococo than ever.  It has cut us off from travel, and there is nothing to match travel for expanding the mind.  Last year, for example, I came upon some new waist-coating in the Square of San Marco, at Venice.  It was yellow, with the prettiest little twill of pink running through it.  How could I have seen it had I not travelled?  I brought it back with me, and for a time it was all the rage.” “The Prince took it up.” “Yes, he usually follows my lead.  We dressed so alike last year that we were frequently mistaken for each other.  It tells against me, but so it was.  He often complains that things do not look as well upon him as upon me, but how can I make the obvious reply?  By the way, George, I did not see you at the Marchioness of Dover’s ball.” “Yes, I was there, and lingered for a quarter of an hour or so.  I am surprised that you did not see me.  I did not go past the doorway, however, for undue preference gives rise to jealousy.” “I went early,” said my uncle, “for I had heard that there were to be some tolerable débutantes.  It always pleases me vastly when I am able to pass a compliment to any of them.  It has happened, but not often, for I keep to my own standard.” So they talked, these singular men, and I, looking from one to the other, could not imagine how they could help bursting out a-laughing in each other’s faces.  But, on the contrary, their conversation was very grave, and filled out with many little bows, and opening and shutting of snuff-boxes, and flickings of laced handkerchiefs.  Quite a crowd had gathered silently around, and I could see that the talk had been regarded as a contest between two men who were looked upon as rival arbiters of fashion.  It was finished by the Marquis of Queensberry passing his arm through Brummell’s and leading him off, while my uncle threw out his laced cambric shirt-front and shot his ruffles as if he were well satisfied with his share in the encounter.  It is seven-and-forty years since I looked upon that circle of dandies, and where, now, are their dainty little hats, their wonderful waistcoats, and their boots, in which one could arrange one’s cravat?  They lived strange lives, these men, and they died strange deaths - some by their own hands, some as beggars, some in a debtor’s gaol, some, like the most brilliant of them all, in a madhouse in a foreign land. “There is the card-room, Rodney,” said my uncle, as we passed an open door on our way out.  Glancing in, I saw a line of little green baize tables with small groups of men sitting round, while at one side was a longer one, from which there came a continuous murmur of voices.  “You may lose what you like in there, save only your nerve or your temper,” my uncle continued.  “Ah, Sir Lothian, I trust that the luck was with you?” A tall, thin man, with a hard, austere face, had stepped out of the open doorway.  His heavily thatched eyebrows covered quick, furtive grey eyes, and his gaunt features were hollowed at the cheek and temple like water-grooved flint.  He was dressed entirely in black, and I noticed that his shoulders swayed a little as if he had been drinking. “Lost like the deuce,” he snapped. “Dice?” “No, whist.” “You couldn’t get very hard hit over that.” “Couldn’t you?” he snarled.  “Play a hundred a trick and a thousand on the rub, losing steadily for five hours, and see what you think of it.” My uncle was evidently struck by the haggard look upon the other’s face. “I hope it’s not very bad,” he said. “Bad enough.  It won’t bear talking about.  By the way, Tregellis, have you got your man for this fight yet?” “No.” “You seem to be hanging in the wind a long time.  It’s play or pay, you know.  I shall claim forfeit if you don’t come to scratch.” “If you will name your day I shall produce my man, Sir Lothian,” said my uncle, coldly. “This day four weeks, if you like.” “Very good.  The 18th of May.” “I hope to have changed my name by then!” “How is that?” asked my uncle, in surprise. “It is just possible that I may be Lord Avon.” “What, you have had some news?” cried my uncle, and I noticed a tremor in his voice. “I’ve had my agent over at Monte Video, and he believes he has proof that Avon died there.  Anyhow, it is absurd to suppose that because a murderer chooses to fly from justice - ” “I won’t have you use that word, Sir Lothian,” cried my uncle, sharply. “You were there as I was.  You know that he was a murderer.” “I tell you that you shall not say so.” Sir Lothian’s fierce little grey eyes had to lower themselves before the imperious anger which shone in my uncle’s. “Well, to let that point pass, it is monstrous to suppose that the title and the estates can remain hung up in this way for ever.  I’m the heir, Tregellis, and I’m going to have my rights.” “I am, as you are aware, Lord Avon’s dearest friend,” said my uncle, sternly.  “His disappearance has not affected my love for him, and until his fate is finally ascertained, I shall exert myself to see that his rights also are respected.” “His rights would be a long drop and a cracked spine,” Sir Lothian answered, and then, changing his manner suddenly, he laid his hand upon my uncle’s sleeve. “Come, come, Tregellis, I was his friend as well as you,” said he.  “But we cannot alter the facts, and it is rather late in the day for us to fall out over them.  Your invitation holds good for Friday night?” “Certainly.” “I shall bring Crab Wilson with me, and finally arrange the conditions of our little wager.” “Very good, Sir Lothian: I shall hope to see you.”  They bowed, and my uncle stood a little time looking after him as he made his way amidst the crowd. “A good sportsman, nephew,” said he.  “A bold rider, the best pistol-shot in England, but … a dangerous man!”

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