The Blue Curtains/Chapter I
Chapter I 
In his regiment familiarly they called him "Bottles," nobody quite knew why. It was, however, rumoured that he had been called "Bottles" at Harrow on account of the shape of his nose. Not that his nose was particularly like a bottle, but at the end of it was round and large and thick. In reality, however, the sobriquet was more ancient than that, for it had belonged to the hero of this story from babyhood. Now, when a man has a nickname, it generally implies two things: first, that he is good-tempered, and, secondly, that he is a good fellow. Bottles, alias John George Peritt, of a regiment it is unnecessary to name, amply justified both these definitions, for a kindlier-tempered or better fellow never breathed. But unless a thick round nose, a pair of small light-coloured eyes, set under bushy brows, and a large but not badly shaped mouth can be said to constitute beauty, he was not beautiful. On the other hand, however, he was big and well-formed, and a pleasant-mannered if a rather silent companion.
Many years ago Bottles was in love; all the regiment knew it, he was so very palpably and completely in love. Over his bed in his tidy quarters hung the photograph of a young lady who was known to be the young lady; which, when the regiment, individually and collectively, happened to see it, left no doubt in its mind as to their comrade's taste. It was evident even from that badly-coloured photograph that Miss Madeline Spenser had the makings of a lovely figure and a pair of wonderful eyes. It was said, however, that she had not a sixpence; and as our hero had but very few, the married ladies of the battalion used frequently to speculate how Mr. Peritt would "manage" when it came to matrimony.
At this date the regiment was quartered in Maritzburg, Natal, but its term of foreign service had expired, and it expected to be ordered home immediately.
One morning Bottles had been out buck hunting with the scratch pack kept in those days by the garrison at Maritzburg. The run had been a good one, and after a seven or eight-mile gallop over the open country they had actually killed their buck—a beautiful Oribe. This was a thing that did not often happen, and Bottles returned filled with joy and pride with the buck fastened behind his saddle, for he was whip to the pack. The hounds had met at dawn, and it was nine o'clock or so, when, as he was riding hot and tired up the shadier side of broad and dusty Church Street, a gun fired at the Fort beyond Government House announced the arrival of the English mail.
With a beaming smile—for to him the English mail meant one if not two letters from Madeline, and possibly the glad news of sailing orders—he pushed on to his quarters, tubbed and dressed, and then went down to the mess-house for breakfast, expecting to find the letters delivered. But the mail was a heavy one, and he had ample time to eat his breakfast, also to sit and smoke a pipe upon the pleasant verandah under the shade of the bamboos and camellia bushes before the orderly arrived with the bag. Bottles went at once into the room that opened on to the veranda and stood by calmly, not being given to betraying his emotions, while slowly and clumsily the mess sergeant sorted the letters. At last he got his packet—it only consisted of some newspapers and a single letter—and went away back to his seat on the veranda, feeling rather disappointed, for he had expected to hear from his only brother as well as from his lady-love. Having relit his pipe—for he was of a slow and deliberate mind, and it rather enhances a pleasure to defer it a little—and settled himself in the big chair opposite the camellia bush just now covered with sealing-wax-like blooms, he opened his letter and read:—
"My dear George——"
"Good heavens!" he thought to himself, "what can be the matter? She always calls me 'Darling Bottles!'"
"My dear George," he began again, "I hardly know how to begin this letter—I can scarcely see the paper for crying, and when I think of you reading it out in that horrid country it makes me cry more than ever. There! I may as well get it out at once, for it does not improve by keeping—it is all over between you and me, my dear, dear old Bottles."
"All over!" he gasped to himself.
"I hardly know how to tell the miserable story," went on the letter, "but as it must be told I suppose I had better begin from the beginning. A month ago I went with my father and my aunt to the Hunt Ball at Atherton, and there I met Sir Alfred Croston, a middle-aged gentleman, who danced with me several times. I did not care about him much, but he made himself very agreeable, and when I got home aunt—you know her nasty way—congratulated me on my conquest. Well, next day he came to call, and papa asked him to stop to dinner, and he took me in, and before he went away he told me that he was coming to stop at the George Inn to fish for trout in the lake. After that he came here every day, and whenever I went out walking he always met me, and really was kind and nice. At last one day he asked me to marry him, and I was very angry and told him that I was engaged to a gentleman in the army, who was in South Africa. He laughed, and said South Africa was a long way off, and I hated him for it. That evening papa and aunt set on me—you know they neither of them liked our engagement—and told me that our affair was perfectly silly, and that I must be mad to refuse such an offer. And so it went on, for he would not take 'no' for an answer; and at last, dear, I had to give in, for they gave me no peace, and papa implored me to consent for his sake. He said the marriage would be the making of him, and now I suppose I am engaged. Dear, dear George, don't be angry with me, for it is not my fault, and I suppose after all we could not have got married, for we have so little money. I do love you, but I can't help myself. I hope you won't forget me, or marry anybody else—at least, not just at present—for I cannot bear to think about it. Write to me and tell me you won't forget me, and that you are not angry with me. Do you want your letters back? If you burn mine that will do. Good-bye, dear! If you only knew what I suffer! It is all very well to talk like aunt does about settlements and diamonds, but they can't make up to me for you. Good-bye, dear, I cannot write any more because my head aches so.—Ever yours,
When George Peritt, alias Bottles, had finished reading and re-reading this letter, he folded it up neatly and put it, after his methodical fashion, into his pocket. Then he sat and stared at the red camellia blooms before him, that somehow looked as indistinct and misty as though they were fifty yards off instead of so many inches.
"It is a great blow," he said to himself. "Poor Madeline! How she must suffer!"
Presently he rose and walked—rather unsteadily, for he felt much upset—to his quarters, and, taking a sheet of notepaper, wrote the following letter to catch the outgoing mail:—
"My dear Madeline,—I have got your letter putting an end to our engagement. I don't want to dwell on myself when you must have so much to suffer, but I must say that it has been, and is, a great blow to me. I have loved you for so many years, ever since we were babies, I think; it does seem hard to lose you now after all. I thought that when we got home I might get the adjutancy of a militia regiment, and that we might have been married. I think we might have managed on five hundred a year, though perhaps I have no right to expect you to give up comforts and luxuries to which you are accustomed; but I am afraid that when one is in love one is apt to be selfish. However, all that is done with now, as, of course, putting everything else aside, I could not think of standing in your way in life. I love you much too well for that, dear Madeline, and you are too beautiful and delicate to be the wife of a poor subaltern with little beside his pay. I can honestly say that I hope you will be happy. I don't ask you to think of me too often, as that might make you less so, but perhaps sometimes when you are quiet you will spare your old lover a thought or two, because I am sure nobody could care for you more than I do. You need not be afraid that I shall forget you or marry anybody else. I shall do neither the one nor the other. I must close this now to catch the mail; I don't know that there is anything more to say. It is a hard trial—very; but it is no good being weak and giving way, and it consoles me to think that you are 'bettering yourself' as the servants say. Good-bye, dear Madeline. May God bless you, is now and ever my earnest prayer.
"J. G. Peritt."
Scarcely was this letter finished and hastily dispatched when a loud voice was heard calling, "Bottles, Bottles, my boy, come rejoice with me; the orders have come—we sail in a fortnight;" followed by the owner of the voice, another subaltern, and our hero's bosom friend. "Why, you don't seem very elated," said he of the voice, noting his friend's dejected and somewhat dazed appearance.
"No—that is, not particularly. So you sail in a fortnight, do you?"
"'You sail?' What do you mean? Why, we all sail, of course, from the colonel down to the drummer-boy."
"I don't think that I—I am going to sail, Jack," was the hesitating answer.
"Look here, old fellow, are you off your head, or have you been liquoring up, or what?"
"No—that is, I don't think so; certainly not the first—the second, I mean."
"Then what do you mean?"
"I mean that, in short, I am sending in my papers. I like this climate —I, in short, am going to take to farming."
"Sending in your papers! Going to take to farming! And in this God-forsaken hole, too. You must be screwed."
"No, indeed. It is only ten o'clock."
"And how about getting married, and the girl you are engaged to, and whom you are looking forward so much to seeing. Is she going to take to farming?"
Bottles winced visibly.
"No, you see—in short, we have put an end to that. I am not engaged now."
"Oh, indeed," said the friend, and awkwardly departed.