Minnie's Bishop and Other Stories/Passionate Kisses

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XVIII.—PASSIONATE KISSES


LISNALLY is a small and inconvenient town, but the neighbourhood is counted an agreeable one. Nowhere else in Ireland are there so many retired military officers. We are not very well off, but we are most friendly and sociable. In summer we have a tennis club. In winter we meet at each other's houses to play bridge. We possess, both in summer and in winter, fairly good golf links. The place has been unkindly described as a hotbed of gossip. I prefer to say that we are all friendly with our neighbours, and, as friends should, take a deep interest in each other's affairs. When old Colonel Miles' boy passed into Sandhurst I was as pleased as he was, and told the news to everyone I met. When Jack Rodgers, the rector's only son, took first honours in some college examination, old Miles, who was the first to hear of it, called on me and half a dozen other people to tell us, and we were all in a position to congratulate the rector when we met him. I do not call that kind of thing gossip.

Lisnally Castle, the only large house in the neighbourhood, stood empty for years because Lord Lisnally, who owned it, lived abroad. Last November it was taken by Mrs. Lowe—the Honourable Mrs. Edward Lowe. We all knew something about her beforehand, for her name appears frequently in the fashionable intelligence of the London papers. She is a widow and very well off. Her tastes, so we gathered from the newspapers, were theatrical, and we all hoped that she would get up something in the way of a play for our benefit during the winter.

I called on her directly after she arrived, and she told me that she intended to do something to brighten us all up. She was as good as her word. Never before or since did Lisnally enjoy so splendid a sensation as that which Mrs. Lowe's New Year party provided.

Early in December she proposed that we should get up amateur theatricals. I told her that I was too old to take a part, but I offered to act as stage manager. Mrs. Lowe said she intended to be stage manager herself, but that she would be glad of my help in selecting the caste.

"Your local knowledge, Major," she said, "and your tact will be invaluable."

They were. I was sorry sometimes, before we were through with the business, that I had so much local knowledge and tact. There were a great many difficulties, and Mrs. Lowe always fell back on me to surmount them.

Our principal lady was Miss Minnie Rodgers, the rector's eldest daughter. She was a very pretty girl, and had acted several times at school in speech day plays. We had no hesitation about selecting her, and she accepted the part with alacrity. Our troubles began when we came to choose the leading gentleman. There were three candidates for the part of Minnie's lover. The police officer, Mr. Gunning, put in a strong claim. He said it was the only part he could play really well. The villain, he assured us, was out of the question for him on account of his profession. As a police officer he could not possibly compromise himself by representing a man whom he might in real life be called upon to arrest. He firmly refused to be Minnie's father, because he did not want to shave off his moustache. George Miles, old Colonel Miles' eldest son, who was at home for a holiday, said that he wanted the part.

"Gunning," he said, "is far too old for a lover. The hero of the piece ought to be a man in the prime of life."

Gunning looks about thirty; George Miles is just nineteen.

The rector read the play as a sort of censor, and told me that he made a point of the lover's part being given to his own son. Minnie, as he pointed out, had to be kissed several times in the last act by her lover, and it would be very embarrassing to the girl if this were done by anyone except her own brother. Mrs. Lowe asked me to settle the matter without hurting anybody's feelings. She said that she did not really care who had the part, but that George Miles was by far the best suited for it, and that the play would probably be a complete failure if anyone else were chosen.

"Whoever it is," she said, "will have to wear knee breeches and silk stockings, and you know what Mr. Gunning's legs are like—walking-sticks, my dear Major, emaciated walking-sticks. As for that Rodgers boy, he's shaggy."

I saw Mrs. Lowe's point. Jack Rodgers is a little unkempt. He also had an awkward way of walking. But the rector's opinion weighed with me. I did not like the idea of subjecting a pretty girl to the passionate kisses—"passionate"—is in the stage directions of a strange young man for a long series of rehearsals. I decided in my own mind that Jack Rodgers must have the part. Unfortunately, Minnie herself preferred Gunning. I do not know how she managed it, but she talked Mrs. Lowe into agreeing with her. Gunning confessed to me afterwards that he had promised to pad the calves of his legs with cotton wool.

The rector called on me when he heard that the matter was settled, and said that the passionate kisses must be left out. I took him up to Lisnally Castle, and laid his proposal before Mrs. Lowe. She simply scouted it.

"My dear rector," she said, "don't be absurd. He won't really kiss her. He'll only smack his lips somewhere near the back of her head, standing between her and the audience. Look here——"

She threw her two arms round the rector's neck and smacked her lips.

"You can't call that kissing," she said, "can you?"

The rector, who is also a canon, got extremely red in the face. He straightened his collar and the lappets of his coat.

"Of course," he said, "if there's nothing worse than that——"

Mrs. Lowe picked him up before he had finished his sentence.

"Worse than that!" she said. "Worse! You're not very complimentary to me."

The rector made no real attempt at an apology. We left the house together, and he told me that he would not allow Minnie to act in the play. I was not much frightened by the threat. Minnie is a young woman of great determination.

Various other difficulties arose as the rehearsals went on. Every individual member of the company, except Minnie and Mr. Gunning, got angry about something at least once, most of them three or four times. My hair was noticeably greyer, and there was a great deal less of it, when we reached the dress rehearsal on New Year's Eve. Then, I am bound to say, our troubles seemed to be over. The play went swimmingly for the first two acts. Mrs. Lowe was purring with delight, and I found myself patting the actors on the back and expressing my satisfaction in a series of most extravagant compliments. I can honestly say that when the curtain rose for the third act, I did not feel the smallest trace of nervousness.

Mrs. Lowe was still purring when the crisis of the whole play arrived. Mr. Gunning, his legs most beautifully puffy, was on his knees before Minnie, and his pink satin breeches had stood the strain of the attitude. He poured out his declaration of devotion in the best possible style. Minnie turned her head aside coyly, just as Mrs. Lowe had taught her, and felt about with her left hand until she grasped Gunning's shoulder. Then he rose, flung his arms round her, and the passionate kisses began, as directed. Instead of letting her head fall languidly back and gazing up into Gunning's eyes, as Mrs. Lowe had arranged, and as had been done at every rehearsal, Minnie suddenly sprang back and smacked Gunning's face with tremendous force.

"How dare you?" she said.

Then before anyone could interfere she smacked his face again. Mrs. Lowe and I rushed forward. The rector, who had been given a seat in front by special permission, tried to climb across the foot-lights. We seized Minnie and dragged her off the stage. Even Gunning's cheek—she had chosen the same one for both smacks—was not redder than hers were.

"How dared he?" she said.

"What did he do?" said Mrs. Lowe.

"It," said Minnie. "Really, not only pretending."

"Do you mean to tell me," I said, "that Mr. Gunning actually——"

"My cheek," said Minnie, "and then—then my mouth. Oh!"

We got her into the dressing-room, and then Mrs. Lowe signed to me to go away. I was extremely glad to do so. Minnie was laughing in a convulsive way. I had faced most of the difficulties which naturally arise out of private theatricals, but I felt unequal to the hysterics of the leading lady. When I reached the stage I found young Miles and Jack Rodgers standing together in a corner. I was not interested in them, but I could not help hearing Miles calling some one, presumably Gunning, an infernal cad. Rodgers appeared to be trying to moderate Miles' passion. He said something about not making a scene, and added the word "here" in sinister tones. He was doing the villain in the piece, and had practiced speaking that kind of way so much that it came quite natural to him. Gunning was standing by himself at the far side of the stage. As I approached him I saw that he was fumbling with the hilt of his sword. I thought for a moment that he had gone suddenly mad and intended to kill me, but his play with the sword must have been pure nervousness. What he actually did was apologise.

"I'm frightfully sorry, Major," he said. "I give you my word of honour that I didn't mean to. It came over me quite suddenly, and I couldn't help it."

"You'd better go home at once," I said. "If you were drunk there would be some excuse for you; but as things stand, the only proper thing for you is to apply to-morrow for a transfer to some other district and not show your face in public till you get it. The theatricals, of course, can't come off now. They're utterly ruined."

Gunning did not say another word. He was so much ashamed of himself that he did not even attempt to change his clothes. He sneaked out of the house just as he was, in pink satin breeches and silk stockings. Young Miles and Jack Rodgers did not wait to change their clothes either. They left shortly after Gunning did.

I had no particular wish to meet the rector, who would certainly attack me as soon as he had finished comforting Minnie. The remaining members of the company gathered round me, and were babbling madly, asking questions which I could not answer. I thought that the best, certainly the most agreeable, thing for me to do was to go home. I got my overcoat and slipped away.

It was very fortunate indeed that I did so. Near the bottom of the avenue I came upon Miles, Rogers and Gunning. They were fighting. Gunning had his back to a clump of laurel-trees and was putting up a pretty good defence, considering that his opponents were two to one. I shouted to them to stop at once. Miles, who is at Sandhurst and has some idea of discipline, obeyed me. Gunning looked round to see who I was. Rodgers, who all through the rehearsals had shown a contempt for my authority, seized his opportunity and knocked Gunning down. The laurel-bushes broke his fall, but the blow was a nasty one. Miles appealed to me.

"Let's thrash him, Major," he said. "He deserves it."

I could not deny that he did, but I happen to be a man of some position and a magistrate. It was impossible for me to stand by and watch with approval an aggravated assault upon a police officer. I do not know that the law takes a specially severe view of the battery of a policeman, but I imagine that it would be much more difficult to hush up a case of the kind than it would be if the victim were some unofficial person. I took Miles and Rodgers each by an arm and led them from the field of battle. They came with me without resistance, but they kept binding themselves by frightful oaths not to rest until they were savagely revenged on Gunning. Miles, I recollect, had a plan for inducing the police officer to accompany him to France, and there forcing him to fight a duel with revolvers. Rodgers favoured simpler forms of brutality. "Mash him up" was one of the phrases he used, and I understood that his football boots were to be the chosen instruments.

I conducted these two young men to their homes and bound them over to attempt no further violence until the next morning. Then I went to my own house and settled down to a cigar, which I needed badly.

At ten o'clock a mounted messenger galloped up to my door. In stories which deal with love and duelling mounted messengers always gallop; in real life they usually trot. But this one did actually gallop. He was one of the grooms from Lisnally Castle, and Mrs. Lowe, so he told me, had ordered him to gallop. She has a very strongly developed taste for the theatrical. I went to the door myself, and the man handed me a note with the information that no answer was required. It was, of course, from Mrs. Lowe.

"Dear Major," she wrote. "It's all right. I've settled the whole affair in the most satisfactory possible way. The play will come off to-morrow night and will be a flaming success."

I did not see how Mrs. Lowe could possibly have settled the matter. She might have pacified Minnie. She might, though it seemed very unlikely, have talked the rector into a mood of Christian forgiveness towards Gunning. But she could not have known anything about the battle which had been fought on her avenue. Miles and Rodgers would certainly not act on the same stage with Gunning. Their feelings were too bitter to be concealed, and Gunning himself could scarcely appear with a black eye. I was quite sure that his eye would be black after the way Rodgers hit him. Besides, no man with any self-respect could be expected to fling his arms around the neck of a girl who had smacked his face twice in public. Mrs. Lowe was over- sanguine. Her note did not cheer me up in the least.

At half-past ten the rector knocked at my door. He looked shaken and extremely nervous. I felt sorry for the poor man, so I went downstairs and got a bottle of champagne. I make a point of keeping a dozen bottles or so in the house, though I cannot afford to drink the wine except on great occasions. The rector is usually a teetotaler, but he drank half that bottle, and would have drunk more if I had not stopped him. Things were bad enough without any additional scandal, and there would have been additional scandal of a very serious kind if the rector had gone staggering home from my house at midnight. I got his story out of him bit by bit. It appeared that Minnie had been most unreasonable, had raged against everyone, and had blamed Mrs. Lowe and me for making a scene. The rector said, and I quite agreed with him, that it was Minnie herself who had made the scene. If she objected to scenes she ought not to have smacked Gunning's face. Nothing the rector or Mrs. Lowe could do was any use. Minnie simply became more outrageous when they reasoned with her. Then Gunning arrived at the house and asked to be allowed to see Minnie. The rector, of course, refused permission, but he went out to the hall himself and had an interview with Gunning. That unfortunate young man was in a horrid condition. His eye was swelling rapidly. A kind of cloak which he wore, made of thin silk, was in rags. The padding of the calves of his legs had somehow slipped down and made his ankles look as if they were enormously swollen. The rector thought at first that he had sprained them both badly, and wondered how he managed to walk. Gunning said he wanted to apologise to Minnie, but the rector cut him short, and told him to go home at once and never to dare to go near Minnie again. Gunning went after that, slowly, like a man in deep distress.

The rector went back to the dressing-room and told Mrs. Lowe what he had seen, speaking in a whisper. Minnie, of course, heard all he said, although she was supposed to be insensible at the time. The moment the rector mentioned Gunning's eye she jumped up and ran out of the room.

The rector and Mrs. Lowe stood staring at each other, wondering what they ought to do. In the end they both went to look for Minnie. They tried various rooms, and came back at last to the hall. There Minnie met them. She came in through the front door, leading Gunning with her, and announced that she and he were engaged to be married.

"I don't like it," said the rector. "I don't like it at all."

"But you can't help it," I said.

"As far as I can make out there has been an understanding between them for some time back, not a regular engagement, but a sort of mutual understanding."

"Then why did Minnie object so violently when——?"

"It was only an understanding," said the rector. "They hadn't gone to those extremes."

"Still—any understanding must have led her to expect——"

"I didn't like to cross-question her, but I imagine she didn't think anything of the sort would have happened just then."

"It was rather public," I said.

The theatricals went on and were a great success, though the last act of the play was not finished on the night of the performance. I spent most of the day arguing with Miles and Rodgers. It was all I could do to persuade them to act. I succeeded in the end only by representing Minnie's original understanding with Gunning as something much more definite than it actually was. Young Miles gave in sulkily.

"Of course," he said, "if a fellow was engaged to a girl, or even engaged to be engaged, he has a perfect right to—you know the sort of thing I mean. But what I want to say is, that if a fellow is, then other fellows ought to be told. It's an utterly rotten thing not to, and I should call it bad form."

Jack Rodgers took a different line. Once he grasped the fact of the understanding, he exonerated Gunning completely, and laid the whole blame on Minnie.

"I've always known," he said, "that she was a deceitful beast. If she didn't like Gunning kissing her, she ought not to have got engaged to him. If she did like it—though why he wanted to do it I can't imagine—she oughtn't to have smacked his face. But that's Minnie all over."

I think it is logic in which Jack Rodgers takes honours at college.

The company played to an audience excited to the highest possible pitch. Mrs. Lowe had collected about a hundred and fifty people into the long gallery at Lisnally Castle, and I am sure that every single one of them had heard an erroneous version of the story of Minnie's engagement. When we reached the great scene in the third act there was an absolutely breathless silence. When Gunning—dreadfully disfigured by the condition of his eye—flung his arms round Minnie's neck and followed the stage direction, the whole audience rose and cheered in the most terrific way. We could not get on with the play, for the cheering was continuous and drowned every effort which the actors made to speak. We had to let the curtain down at last on Minnie and Gunning still locked in each other's arms.