Doctor Syn/Chapter 35
SCYLLA OR CHARYBDIS
CAPTAIN TUFFTON could certainly not complain of his reception, for the lawyer was positively nervous in his endeavours to please, while Mrs. Whyllie, in her anxiety to let bygones be bygones, positively basked in the sunshine of his glory, and as to Imogene—well, she at least had the speedy satisfaction of knowing that her appearance had caused havoc in the heart of the lady-killer.
"And so you are back from India?" he said to the beautiful niece.
"So it appears, sir," answered Imogene, with a roguish smile.
"Ah, yes. Of course it is only too obvious," answered the military one, "for here you are, aren't you now? It's a beastly place out there, I suppose, now isn't it? I never could abide elephants or snakes!"
"La, sir, then you must not venture there, for they abound most vastly," answered Imogene. Mrs. Whyllie by this time was tittering behind her fan, and old Whyllie looked greatly troubled at the whole proceedings.
"A devilish climate, too, for the complexion, isn't it?" stroking his smooth, weak chin.
"La, sir, indeed if you say that, I must take it as a poor compliment to myself."
"Do not mistake me, I beg," urged the officer, "for in your case the Indian sun has been most gentle. He has kissed you with a light hand—er—a light mouth, indeed. Lucky sun, lucky sun!"
"You are being vastly gentle with my complexion, sir, but I perceive you to be a most accomplished courtier and a turner of beautiful compliments."
"Madam, I speak from my heart, I assure you."
"Whoever heard of Captain Tuffton possessing one?" tittered Mrs. Whyllie.
"You wrong me, Madam, I assure you," declared the glorious one with conviction. "My poor heart is too large for my scarlet tunic, I assure you. It was an empty shell this morning, I confess, but the beauty of your accomplished niece, which it has been drinking in with rapture, has filled that poor receptacle and made it swell and stretch with the very throes of deep emotion."
"La, sir, how prettily you turn the English tongue! How the Indians would adore you, sir!"
"Pooh-pooh, indeed," said Mrs. Whyllie with a great show of decorum, "you must not take for gospel what the captain says. He is a very prince of dandies; indeed, he is second only to the Regent and Mister Brummel in all manners of deportment. I never trust dandies myself entirely."
"Oh, Madam, pray, pray, make me the exception."
"No, Captain, for you are not only a dandy, but a soldier, and soldiers are another class I distrust."
"Ah, Madam," lisped the officer, "you are cruelty itself."
"I cannot help it, my dear sir. Soldiers are not to be trusted, and well you know it. They walk about with gay apparel, appearing the most gentle of creatures, but we know how dangerous they are, aye, dangerous both morally and physically, with their minds full of most terrible conquests planned against poor women, and their pockets stuffed to the bursting point with explosives and weapons."
"La, Madam, you are mistaken, upon my soul. Take my case now as an example: I came here, I confess it, with thoughts of conquest in my mind, but I am conquered, I am vanquished, I am beaten most damnably myself. The eyes of your niece have sown my very foundations with salt."
"Indeed, sir, that's bitter!" exclaimed Imogene, blushing.
"And as to the belief that soldiers—officers, that is—are loaded with explosives and weapons, why, pish! Madam, it is a fallacy, I assure you. We leave explosives to the sergeants and our weapons to our orderlies. It is not only most damnably dangerous to carry firearms on our person, but it is most damnably damaging to the set of one's clothes. Indeed, I declare that the cream of the army would retire if carrying weapons was insisted upon."
"And you mean to say, sir, that you, a captain, walk abroad in your uniform unarmed?"
"And with the place infested with French spies?" added Imogene, shuddering.
"Why, yes, Madam, I assure you it is so. When I walk abroad I rely entirely for my personal safety upon my tasselled cane, and I venture to suggest that I could put up a very pretty fight with it."
"But it would not be of much service against pistols, would it, Captain?" asked Mrs. Whyllie.
"Perhaps not, Madam, but who would want to put a pistol to my head?"
"You must have many enemies surely, Captain," suggested the old lady, "for are you not in command of the press gang?"
"Yes, and a poor job it is for an army officer," said the soldier. "I take no interest in the sea at all, and the authorities are endeavouring to transfer me to the marine service."
"The press gang does most cruel work, too, I hear," went on the old lady.
"Well, you see, that really cannot be helped. Madam. War with France is a certain thing, and if our navy is not able to smash Napoleon on the sea—well, we shall not be able to sing 'Rule Britannia' any more, now shall we? And if young men won't join the navy—well, we have to make 'em, you see, and that's what the press gang's for, don't you know? If you cannot get a thing done for love, you know, you must get it done by force. Do you follow me?"
"Perfectly, my dear Captain," said Mrs. Whyllie. "That little maxim of yours is most admirable, I declare, and we shall put it to most instant practice." Thereupon the old lady got up from her chair and pointed a pistol at the captain's head. "And it's most fortunate, I vow, that your tasselled cane is reposing safely in the hall."
"What does this mean, Madam?" spluttered the captain. "Are you joking?"
"My dear niece," said the old lady, "this admirable captain really asks us if we are joking." The captain turned his terrified eyes to Imogene only to discover that she also held a pistol at his head.
"What is the cause of this terrible behaviour?" he stammered.
"You are going to pay your debts, my dear Captain," said the old lady. "To pay your debts in full. You have owed me apologies for a long time which you have taken no pains to tender to me. You made me a laughing-stock in public—well, I am now going to return the compliment, and heaven shield you from the scorn of your brother officers, the anger of your superiors, and the scathing and greedy wits of the neighbourhood. I say, heaven shield, for I shan't. Antony, my dear, get the paper out of the drawer in the desk there."
Old Mr. Whyllie moved behind the captain and went to the desk. The captain moved toward Mrs. Whyllie.
"Stay where you are!" she ordered. "If you move again I shall fire."
"A likely tale!" he spluttered. "You wouldn't dare!"
"I can easily contradict you on that score," quickly remarked the old lady, and she pulled the trigger. The captain fell back upon the sofa, his pale face blackened with powder, his eyes blinded with smoke, and a sharp, pricking sensation in his left shoulder.
"My God!" he cried. "You've hit me."
"And shall do so again if you give me any more trouble," said the old lady, "and," she added, "next time I may aim to kill," and she took up another pistol from the mantelpiece. "You see, sir, we were quite prepared for you."
Then the lawyer set a table before him with pen and ink and requested him to sign a certain paper that he had already drawn up. This paper was addressed to the petty officer in charge of the press gang, and commanded that the young man of the name of Denis Cobtree should be driven immediately in a hired coach to the house of Antony Whyllie, attorney-at-law, Watchbell Street, who would give them further commands. To this paper Captain Tuffton signed his name. Indeed, he could do nothing else; and a servant was sent off to the castle to deliver it.
In half an hour or so the noise of a coach was heard rattling over the cobblestones, and Antony Whyllie left the room to see if Denis was safe. In the meantime the captain had signed another paper declaring Denis free to return over the Sussex border into Kent, and this paper having been shown to the petty officer and a guinea piece having been put into his dirty hand by the lawyer himself, the seadog saluted respectfully and swung off down Watchbell Street whistling a tune. The lawyer explained the situation hurriedly to Denis and then went in to take Imogene's place as guard over the wretched soldier. But the captain was suffering acute spasms in his left shoulder, and this being his first experience of bullet wounds, he was nearly unconscious at the horror of it. So Mrs. Whyllie was able for a moment to lower the pistol in order to kiss Imogene, and having recommended her to Denis's care, bade them urge the coach quickly out of Rye and into Kent.
"Shall I change my clothes first or send them back to you?" asked Imogene.
"Neither, my love," answered the old lady, again levelling the pistol at Captain Tuffton's head; "for when we have packed this ridiculous soldier back to his place in an hour or so, I am going to see to it that Mr. Whyllie draws up all legal forms for adopting you as our daughter—that is, providing of course you raise no objection—but I shall do myself the honour of calling upon Sir Antony Cobtree himself within the week," saying which she dismissed the young people to the coach, and when the driver had received a handsome fee from the lawyer and been promised a further one if he made good pace for Dymchurch, he touched up the horses, and with great rattling clattered the cumbersome coach through the great gate of Rye and so out on the smooth highroad, where the long whip cracked and the wheels began to spin. But for a whole hour the wretched captain stayed a prisoner in the white house until he beseeched the old lady to let him go home and have the surgeon dress his wound. So at last she consented, and another coach having been hired, he was lifted into it and in a few moments reached his rooms, where the most criticising valet in the world pulled from his shoulder a steel pin. With the exception of this deep pin prick, there was no mark of a wound, as indeed why should there have been? for Mrs. Whyllie had fired only a blank charge, and the old lawyer, according to careful instructions, had got behind the captain and dug in the pin at the crucial moment.
And while the valet administered brandy as a restorative, a boy and a girl sat hand in hand in a great old coach which swayed and jolted as they dashed along the Romney Road toward Dymchurch. Useless, indeed, to follow that coach from Rye, for the necks of the four horses were stretched in tensioned gallop, the harness pulling near to breaking-point, the wheels tearing round the axles, and the busy driver's long whip cracking like pistol shots above the pounding thunder of the swift-flying hoofs.