Dacre was in his element.
“Come along, gentlemen! No ceremony under my Ishmaelitish tent. Dinner is in the next room. Calverly, you know Ponsonby, of course. Welter, this is a friend of mine, Mr. Calverly. Pierrepoint, you know Mr. Calverly’s uncle, Sir Valentine Yoicks. Hunts Loamshire. Don’t you remember that great day when you and old Double-thong were alone in the last field? Hurst, they say that you are going to write something about Australia in your next novel. Take care, or Calverly will bowl you out in your facts, old fellow. Harris, soup to Mr. Fleem. That sherry is part of old Trulliber’s stock, Quantox; don’t be afraid of it.”
“Did you ever taste the Greek wine, fined with milk?” asked Hurst.
“Never. I hate ‘fined’ wines. I bought some crusted port, once, many years ago, and a friend of mine analysed a bottle of it, and pronounced it to be rectified spirit, cognac brandy, rough cider, and sloe juice, made at a cost of sixteen shillings a gallon.”
Calverly looked at the speaker.
It was Quantox, the manager, a man of no particular nation, no particular accent, no particular relations, and no particular virtues.
“Who is he?” asked Ponsonby.
“Old Quantox. Keeps the best cellar in London, and tells the most impossible stories. Dacre will draw him out directly.”
“The worst wine I ever drank,” says Leamington, “is stuff called Rachenputzer. It’s made in Dalmatia, I believe, and they say that the man who goes to sleep on a bottle of it, must be turned every half-hour, or the liquid will eat a hole through his side.”
“Come, come, Leamington, you’re not at the ‘Traveller’s.’ ”
“I endeavoured to get a paté de cheval for you; but the recent improvements in cavalry have caused all the horses to be bought up,” said Dacre.
“‘Was ever Tartar fierce or cruel|
Upon the strength of water gruel?
But who shall stand his rage and force
If first he rides, then eats his horse!’”
“Have you read B——’s new novel, Chatteris?” asked Fleem, across the table.
“He gives a great account of a fox-hunt, in which the hero leaps a brook thirty feet wide.”
“I don’t care about B——. So much dialogue and so little description.”
“I like dialogue. Look at Dumas.”
“Look at Dickens. There’s description for you!”
“Dickens describes exceptions.”
“And Thackeray, generalities.”
“There you’re wrong,” says Fleem. “Thackeray takes the type, I admit; but God forbid that Becky Sharp is anything but an exception.”
“Don’t think she is,” said Hurst, shortly.
“Everybody has his own opinion about women,” said Dacre. “For my part, I suppose they are necessary evils.”
“You young fellows talk nonsense,” put in Quantox. “If it wasn’t for the women I might shut up the Isthmian. Do you imagine that the British public want to see Shakespeare—not they. They want plenty of pink silk and spangled gauze. Bah! you young men! Give me the hock, Ruper-rte, my boy!”
“Always the same theme, ‘Woman,’” cried Hurst. “Like Goldsmith’s bench beneath the something shade, it seems for whispering age and talking lovers made.”
Quantox frowned. He was hit hard.
“Well, give me Balzac,” says Cyril; “he has written the best novel in the world.”
“Gil Blas for me!”
“‘Candide’ is a wonderful book!”
“There will be a new style soon,” said Hurst.
“I am afraid so,” said Quantox, maliciously. “The gentle public don’t care for your sporting, tearing, spasmodic books; they have been overdosed with them. Hurst, here, floods the market.”
“What does it matter? It pays!”
“That is the great point, then—only you don’t think so, Maxwell, my dear-r-r boy. You want Fame. Ah, bah! Shtick to the money, my dear fellow, shtick to the money?”
“Not much to stick to, my dear sir.”
“Who is going to Dollington’s to-night?” asked Pierrepoint.
Lord Dollington was a nobleman who gave musical parties, at which Offenbach was worshipped as a deity.
“I am!” exclaimed an unctuous man, with mutton-chop whiskers, by name Randon, and by profession a flaneur. He had an impediment in his speech, and was the most impudent man in London. His weakness was a desperate assertion of frankness. He wore his heart upon his sleeve, and was constantly inviting daws to peck at it. “I am. I—I like Dollington; I own it; I—I own, I f-fwankly own I like Dollington. Dacre, my d-dear fellow, some aromatic mustard. I cannot eat without aromatic m-mustard. I know it’s a trouble to you, but I am t-troublesome; I own it! I fwankly own I am t-troublesome!”
“Harris, the mustard!”
“Ah!” went on the ‘frank one.’ “You may talk what you like about c-composers; give me Of-Offenbach! I ought to know, for I think I have a t-taste in m-music. It may be egotistical, I own; but I have a keen p-perception of the b-beautiful and the t-t-wue. I own it! I f-fwankly own it! There are few m-men k-keener to appweciate Art than I am. Hurst, my dear fellow, you know that. I own, I f-fwankly own, that you are indebted to me. I t-take p-pleasure in being of service to my f-friends.”
“Come to the Isthmian, then!” says Quantox, helping himself to a bird.
“My d-dear Quantox, I cannot stand the Isthmian. V-vewy good in its way, I own; but my n-nature s-sympathises with the T-t-twue! I own, I ffwankly own, I can’t st-st-stand your b-bub-burlesques. What’s this? My d-dear D-Dacre, where’s the cayenne? Good Ged! ca-cayenne is the soul of made dishes. I own, I f-fwankly own, I am a judge of cookery. Harris, give me the cayenne!”
And the shining face distended into a maze of unctuous wrinkles as Mr. Felix Randon emptied the contents of the peppercastor into his plate.
“Well, I’ve eaten tobacco and nitron in Gesira, but Randon’s ‘cayenne’ would kill me,” whispered Leamington to Calverly.
Poor Bob was silent. In sporting parlance, he was at least three fields behind. This talk about Trollope and Dickens, Gesira, Offenbach, and cookery, bewildered him. He drank off his champagne at a gulp, and stared at Dacre.
That inimitable host came to the rescue.
“By the way, Bob, how’s Stockrider? That near fore-leg all right?”
“Just a little ‘puffy,’ that’s all.”
The magic word, ‘foreleg’ roused Welterwate and Ponsonby.
“Who is going to win the Chester Cup?” asked the former.
“Why, Fly-by-Night, of course!”
“Take your fifteen to three!” cries little Miniver.
“I say, what’s become of Windermere? He was too hard hit to recover, I expect?”
“Not he! He’s gone to Swabia to shoot snipe,” says Fitz-Frederick.
“Are there no snipe in England, in the name of all that’s shootable?”
“Oh! Windermere was always a little queer. He proposed to his father’s cook one day, because he said she looked like a ‘Burgomaster’s wife shelling peas,’ by Gerard Dow.”
“And did she accept?”
“She said that she regretted that she was married already; but, when dear John died, she would be happy to oblige his lordship.”
“I like cooks myself,” put in Randon. “I f-fwankly own that, if ever I marry, I shall m-marry a cook.”
“‘A ministering angel shall my sister be when thou liest howling,’” says Hurst.
“Yes, an angel with a stewpan.”
“Try that claret, Quantox—a present from Nantwich to his indefatigable secretary.”
“How Dacre manages to do so little for his salary is one of the mysteries of the Foreign Office.”
“Come, come; no scandal about Queen Elizabeth.”
“You’ve no Foreign Office in Victoria, old fellow,” says Cyril to Calverly, laudably wishing to draw him out a little.
“No; we are sadly ignorant of all the amenities of civilisation.”
“I knew young Skipp, who went out to Australia years ago,” says Leamington.
“What! old Sir Joshua Skipp, the convict amelioration man’s nephew?”
Bob Calverly laughed.
“What is it, Bob?” asked Dacre.
“I remember the fellow. I knew him when I was a boy. Ha, ha! I was stopping at a station in Narangai, Port Phillip, as the place used to be called then, and there was a fellow there—poor Jack Briscoe—who got rather muddled, and, having heard old Sir Joshua’s name in connection with ‘convicts,’ insisted that Skipp’s uncle had been transported. Skipp was highly indignant, and offered to bet fabulous sums on the event. Briscoe took him up to three hundred pounds, payable by a draft on the old gentleman himself; and, being still unconvinced, the matter was decided by a fight in the stockyard by moonlight, with all the fellows sitting on the rails smoking.”
“How did it end?”
“Oh, Skipp thrashed him after thirteen rounds; and we broke open another case of brandy to drink to the honour of the family!”
There was a general laugh.
“You must be strange fellows out there!” says Miniver.
“There were some curious things done in the old days,” returned Bob, warming with his subject. “There was a fellow I knew who was Acting Governor, Sheriff, and Judge of Supreme Court, all at once, at Hobart Town. He was terribly in debt, and his creditors filed bills to any extent against him. He heard the case himself, in defiance of all law and equity; gave ‘judgment for the plaintiff;’ issued a warrant for his own arrest, and then made his own house the gaol, and never did any work for six months.”
There was an incredulous chorus.
“I can easily believe it,” says Dacre. “Old Grey, who used to be chief clerk in the ‘Colonial,’ told me that, when Tiger Dodds was made Sheriff at Norfolk Island, he used to ride roughshod over everyone. The Governor gave a picnic on one occasion, and Dodds, being invited, found that eight men were to be hanged that morning, and he could not go. He had the fellows brought up before him, and made a pretty little speech, in which he suggested that, as a day or two could not make much difference to them, they should be hung on Monday instead of Wednesday, in order that he might go to the picnic.”
“By Jove; what did they say?”
“Well, the story goes that the fellows retired to consult; and that, after some ten minutes or so, the biggest ruffian, being elected spokesman, pulled his forelock, and said—‘It’s werry hard that a man should lose two days’ life, sir; but me and my mates were a talkin’ of it over, and, seein’ as how you’ve always been a good master to us, and always given a cove a chance, we’re willin’ to oblige you in any way; and, if you’ll give us a fig of tobacco and a glass o’ rum, we don’t mind!’ ”
“Bravo, Dacre! That is the best story told to night!”
“And every word of it’s true.”
The careful Harris appearing at this juncture with cigars, smoke was added to the charms of talk and liquor; and Bob Calverly found himself, at two in the morning, contemplating the placid face of the sleeping Welterwate through a misty halo of wine and tobacco. Pierrepoint was endeavouring to book a “pony” upon Fly-by-Night, but his uncertain fingers refused to direct the pencil; while Maxwell Hurst was attacking Cyril Chatteris upon the subject of the variation of species. Dacre, ever calm and genial, was toying with his fifth cigar and “drawing out” Quantox, who, with his rubicund face more rubicund than ever, was telling, with many leers and winks, a somewhat incoherent anecdote concerning Madame Vestris and the late Duke of Wellington. Fleem had gone home with Leamington. Ponsonby was tossing Fitz-Frederick for sovereigns. And Mr. Felix Randon, with increased unctuousness and difficulty of articulation, was vowing in loud tones “that for his part he l-l-iked, he owned it, f-f-fwankly ow-owned it—he l-liked these little rèuni-unions of ch-choice spirits? These w-worshippings at the shrine of the Bub-beautiful and the Tutterwue!”
Bob roused himself.
“I shall go home!” His legs were a little unsteady too.
“Nonsense,” says Pierrepoint. “Nobody ever goes home, sweet home. Do they, Dacre?
“What is there to do, then, my dear fellow?” asks the bland host, with his self-sacrificial air.
“Let’s go to Charley’s, and have a little hazard!” cries Welterwate.
“Good!” says Randon. “I own, I f-f-fwankly own, I like hazard! To Ch-Charlie’s!”
Dacre allowed himself to be drawn into a reluctant consent; and all the party, except Hurst and Quantox, who went home arm-in-arm, sallied forth together.