Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The tale he told the Marines

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THE TALE HE TOLD THE MARINES.


Now mind, I will not guarantee the truth of this. I can only tell it you as he told it us. It sounds improbable, certainly, but no one can say it is impossible. What is there to prevent a lady, if she is so inclined, from——? But that would spoil the story. And there is no law of nature, I suppose, to restrain a man who is so devoid of gentlemanly feeling as he is——. But that would tell you what is coming. It is no good saying he was intoxicated, because I defy you to get drunk on sherry and soda-water; and to lay it to the heat of the season is absurd, for it was a remarkably cool evening for August. No! Jenkyns is a man who has had some strange experiences, and this was not the least strange among them. Still, mind, I will not guarantee the truth of this; though, by the way, you don’t often find a man tell the same tale twice in exactly the same way if it is not true, and I have heard him tell this twice. The first time was at a dinner at Lord—— Well! it does not matter where. It is sometimes advisable not to mention proper names. I don’t think mentioning this would do any harm, though—at a dinner at Lord’s cricket-ground, and the second time was on the occasion of which I am speaking, when I found him drinking sherry and soda-water and smoking cheroots with three officers of Marines, one of whom, with five gloves (lady’s six-and-a-half) and a withered rose before him, was telling how—“after leading me on in this way, after gaining my young affections in this treacherous manner, by Jove! sir, she throws me over and marries Blubber.”

“It’s like the sex,” said the second Marine.

“It’s woman that sejuices all mankind,” said the third Marine.

“It reminds me of what once happened to myself,” said Jenkyns; “you know the story,” he continued, turning to me. “So just order yourself some sherry and soda-water; ah! and while you are about it order some for me too, and you can pay for them both when they come; then I sha’nt be put out. Paying for anything always puts me out. Thank you! I’ll try one of your cigars. Well! gentlemen,” turning to the Marines, “Some time ago I was staying with Sir George P——, P—— House, P——shire. Great number of people there—all kinds of amusements going on. Driving, riding, fishing, shooting, everything in fact. Sir George’s daughter, Fanny, was often my companion in these expeditions, and I was considerably struck with her. For she was a girl to whom the epithet ‘stunning’ applies better than any other that I am acquainted with. She could ride like Nimrod, she could drive like Jehu, she could row like Charon, she could dance like Terpsichore, she could run like Diana, she walked like Juno, and she looked like Venus. I’ve even seen her smoke.”

“One good point in her character, at any rate,” said the third Marine.

“Just like the sex!” said the second Marine.

“Ah! she was a stunner,” continued Jenkyns, “you should have heard that girl whistle, and laugh——you should have heard her laugh. She was truly a delightful companion. We rode together, drove together, fished together, walked together, danced together, sang together; I called her Fanny, and she called me Tom. All this could have but one termination, you know. I fell in love with her, and determined to take the first opportunity of proposing. So one day, when we were out together fishing on the lake, I went down on my knees amongst the gudgeons, seized her hand, pressed it to my waistcoat, and in burning accents entreated her to become my wife.

‘Don’t be a fool!’ she said. ‘Now drop it, do! and put me a fresh worm on.’

‘Oh! Fanny,’ I exclaimed; ‘don’t talk about worms when marriage is in question. Only say——

‘I tell you what it is, now,’ she replied, angrily, ‘if you don’t drop it I’ll pitch you out of the boat.’

“Gentlemen,” said Jenkyns, with strong emotion, “I did not drop it; and I give you my word of honour, with a sudden shove she sent me flying into the water; then seizing the sculls, with a stroke or two she put several yards between us, and burst into a fit of laughter that fortunately prevented her from going any further. I swam up and climbed into the boat. ‘Jenkyns!’ said I to myself, ‘Revenge! revenge!’ I disguised my feelings. I laughed—hideous mockery of mirth—I laughed. Pulled to the bank, went to the house, and changed my clothes. When I appeared at the dinner-table, I perceived that everyone had been informed of my ducking—universal laughter greeted me. During dinner Fanny repeatedly whispered to her neighbour, and glanced at me. Smothered laughter invariably followed. ‘Jenkyns!’ said I, ‘Revenge!’ The opportunity soon offered. There was to be a balloon ascent from the lawn, and Fanny had tormented her father into letting her ascend with the aeronaut. I instantly took my plans; bribed the aeronaut to plead illness at the moment when the machine should have risen; learned from him the management of the balloon, though I understood that pretty well before, and calmly awaited the result. The day came. The weather was fine. The balloon was inflated. Fanny was in the car. Everything was ready, when the aeronaut suddenly fainted. He was carried into the house, and Sir George accompanied him to see that he was properly attended to. Fanny was in despair.

‘Am I to lose my air expedition?’ she exclaimed, looking over the side of the car, ‘Someone understands the management of this thing, surely? Nobody! Tom!’ she called out to me, ‘you understand it, don’t you?’

‘Perfectly!’ I answered.

‘Come along then!’ she cried, ‘be quick; before papa comes back.’

“The company in general endeavoured to dissuade her from her project, but of course in vain. After a decent show of hesitation, I climbed into the car. The balloon was cast off, and rapidly sailed heavenward. There was scarcely a breath of wind, and we rose almost straight up. We rose above the house, and she laughed, and said:

‘How jolly!’

“We were higher than the highest trees and she smiled, and said it was very kind of me to come with her. We were so high that the people below looked mere specks, and she hoped that I thoroughly understood the management of the balloon. Now was my time.

‘I understand the going up part,’ I answered, ‘to come down is not so easy,’ and I whistled.

‘What do you mean?’ she cried.

‘Why, when you want to go up faster, you throw some sand overboard,’ I replied, suiting the action to the word.

‘Don’t be foolish, Tom,’ she said, trying to appear quite calm and indifferent, but trembling uncommonly.

‘Foolish!’ I said. ‘Oh, dear no! but whether I go along the ground or up in the air I like to go the pace, and so do you, Fanny, I know. Go it, you cripples!’ and over went another sand-bag.

‘Why, you’re mad, surely,’ she whispered in utter terror, and tried to reach the bags, but I kept her back.

‘Only with love, my dear,’ I answered, smiling pleasantly; ‘only with love for you. Oh, Fanny, I adore you! Say you will be my wife.’

‘I gave you an answer the other day,’ she replied; ‘one which I should have thought you would have remembered,’ she added, laughing a little, notwithstanding her terror.

‘I remember it perfectly,’ I answered, ‘but I intend to have a different reply to that. You see those five sand-bags, I shall ask you five times to become my wife. Every time you refuse I shall throw over a sand-bag—so, lady fair, as the cabmen would say, reconsider your decision, and consent to become Mrs. Jenkyns.’

‘I won’t!’ she said; ‘I never will! and, let me tell you, that you are acting in a very ungentlemanly way to press me thus.’

‘You acted in a very ladylike way the other day, did you not,’ I rejoined, ‘when you knocked me out of the boat?’ She laughed again, for she was a plucky girl, and no mistake—a very plucky girl. ‘However,’ I went on, ‘it’s no good arguing about it—will you promise to give me your hand?’

‘Never!’ she answered; ‘I’ll go to Ursa Major first, though I’ve got a big enough bear here, in all conscience. Stay! you’d prefer Aquarius, wouldn’t you?’

“She looked so pretty that I was almost inclined to let her off (I was only trying to frighten her, of course—I knew how high we could go safely well enough, and how valuable the life of Jenkyns was to his country); but resolution is one of the strong points of my character, and when I’ve begun a thing I like to carry it through, so I threw over another sand-bag, and whistled the Dead March in Saul.

‘Come, Mr. Jenkyns,’ she said, suddenly, ‘come, Tom, let us descend now, and I’ll promise to say nothing whatever about all this.’

“I continued the execution of the Dead March.

‘But if you do not begin the descent at once I’ll tell papa the moment I set foot on the ground.’

“I laughed, seized another bag, and, looking steadily at her, said:

‘Will you promise to give me your hand?’

‘I’ve answered you already,’ was the reply.

“Over went the sand, and the solemn notes of the Dead March resounded through the car.

‘I thought you were a gentleman,’ said Fanny, rising up in a terrible rage from the bottom of the car, where she had been sitting, and looking perfectly beautiful in her wrath; ‘I thought you were a gentleman, but I find I was mistaken; why a chimney-sweeper would not treat a lady in such a way. Do you know that you are risking your own life as well as mine by your madness?’

“I explained that I adored her so much that to die in her company would be perfect bliss, so that I begged she would not consider my feelings at all. She dashed her beautiful hair from her face, and standing perfectly erect, looking like the Goddess of Anger or Boadicea—if you can fancy that personage in a balloon—she said:

‘I command you to begin the descent this instant!’

“The Dead March, whistled in a manner essentially gay and lively, was the only response. After a few minutes’ silence, I took up another bag, and said:

‘We are getting rather high, if you do not decide soon we shall have Mercury coming to tell us that we are trespassing—will you promise me your hand?’

“She sat in sulky silence in the bottom of the car. I threw over the sand. Then she tried another plan. Throwing herself upon her knees, and bursting into tears, she said:

‘Oh, forgive me for what I did the other day! It was very wrong, and I am very sorry. Take me home, and I will be a sister to you.’

‘Not a wife?’ said I.

‘I can’t! I can’t!’ she answered.

“Over went the fourth bag, and I began to think she would beat me, after all; for I did not like the idea of going much higher. I would not give in just yet, however. I whistled for a few moments, to give her time for reflection, and then said:

‘Fanny, they say that marriages are made in Heaven—if you do not take care, ours will be solemnised there.’

“I took up the fifth bag.

‘Come,’ I said, ‘my wife in life, or my companion in death! Which is it to be?’ and I patted the sand-bag in a cheerful manner. She held her face in her hands, but did not answer. I nursed the bag in my arms, as if it had been a baby.

‘Come, Fanny, give me your promise!’

“I could hear her sobs. I’m the most soft-hearted creature breathing, and would not pain any living thing, and, I confess, she had beaten me. I forgave her the ducking; I forgave her for rejecting me. I was on the point of flinging the bag back into the car, and saying: ‘Dearest Fanny: forgive me for frightening you. Marry whomsoever you will. Give your lovely hand to the lowest groom in your stables,—endow with your priceless beauty the Chief of the Panki-wanki Indians. Whatever happens, Jenkyns is your slave—your dog—your footstool. His duty, henceforth, is to go whithersoever you shall order,—to do whatever you shall command.’ I was just on the point of saying this, I repeat, when Fanny suddenly looked up, and said, with a queerish expression upon her face:

‘You need not throw that last bag over. I promise to give you my hand.’

‘With all your heart?’ I asked, quickly.

‘With all my heart,’ she answered, with the same strange look.

“I tossed the bag into the bottom of the car, and opened the valve. The balloon descended.

‘Gentlemen,’ said Jenkyns, rising from his seat in the most solemn manner, and stretching out his hand, as if he were going to take an oath; ‘Gentlemen, will you believe it? When we had reached the ground, and the balloon had been given over to its recovered master,—when I had helped Fanny tenderly to the earth, and turned towards her to receive anew the promise of her affection and her hand,—will you believe it?—she gave me a box on the ear that upset me against the car, and running to her father, who at that moment came up, she related to him and the assembled company what she called my disgraceful conduct in the balloon, and ended by informing me that all of her hand that I was likely to get had been already bestowed upon my ear, which she assured me had been given with all her heart.’

‘You villain!’ said Sir George, advancing towards me with a horse-whip in his hand. ‘You villain! I’ve a good mind to break this over your back.’

‘Sir George,’ said I, ‘villain and Jenkyns must never be coupled in the same sentence; and as for the breaking of this whip, I’ll relieve you of the trouble,’ and, snatching it from his hand, I broke it in two, and threw the pieces on the ground. ‘And now I shall have the honour of wishing you a good morning. Miss P——, I forgive you.’ And I retired.

“Now I ask you whether any specimen of female treachery equal to that has ever come within your experience, and whether any excuse can be made for such conduct?”

“As I said before, it’s like the sex,’ said the second Marine.

“Yes, all mankind is sejuiced by woman,’ said the third Marine.

“It’s just my case over again,’ said the first Marine. ‘After drawing me on in that way,—after gaining my affections in that treacherous manner, by Jove! sir, she goes and marries Blubber!”

Well, it does sound improbable, certainly—very improbable. But, I said before I began, that I would not guarantee the truth of it. Indeed, if you ask my candid opinion, I do’nt think it is true, but yet the Marines believed it.