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Four Fools, An International Complication by Alexander Montgomery

 

FEW Britons are aware that the battle of Waterloo was won by the Netherlanders. In one of the Brussels galleries, at all events, is a picture, symbolic of that decisive struggle, in which the Lion is represented as triumphing over the Eagle. But he isn't the British Lion! He is identical with the emblematic beast which surmounts a tall column on the "Waterloo Plain" of Batavia--a column further ornamented with an inscription severely contradictory of the notion that the British troops were obliged to open their ranks to let the Netherlanders run away. For it was indubitably the latter, saith this veracious legend, who did the work and should receive the glory.

"Hang me!" said Hambleton, "if that doesn't break the record!"

He didn't know that the Russians, upon their own authority, won every fight in the Crimea, or that, according to Danish history, Nelson was well thrashed at Copenhagen. Therefore, this thing, he repeated, broke the record for downright crammers, and, as Staagel's English didn't run to such recondite idioms, Hambleton explained to him in more orthodox phrase that the statement before them was the most outrageous lie ever committed to stone--"or to paper, for that matter!"

The Dutchman's face grew dark, if such a term can apply to a countenance for redness and rotundity like unto the rising sun. He pulled out into martial spikes the ends of his maize-coloured moustache, as it dawned upon him that possibly the insufferable self-conceit of the Englanders might have made them imagine themselves the heroes of that famous day. Therefore he spoke quietly.

"Do I understand you to infer, mynheer, that the honours of the occasion fell principally to your countrymen?"

"Infer? I don't infer! I say it straight out. And not 'principally,' but altogether! D'ye mean to say you don't know that?--even if you are a Dutchman!"

Staagel made as low a bow as his circumference would admit of.

"I do not know it, sir. But I do know how remarkable are the English for modesty and--courtesy!"

The Briton--incapable of sarcasm himself--was, by the law of compensation, proof against its shafts. He took out his cigar and stared.

"Pretty well for courtesy," he said. "But I don't know so much about the modesty!"

"The reservation itself is modest, sir! But, tell me--if the Englanders, as you say, played the leading part at Waterloo, what share in the proceedings fell to the Netherlanders?"

"The--ha! ha!--the discretionary part."

"Pardon me?"

"Discretion!--better part of valour, you know! Live to fight another day, and all that sort of thing!" Hambleton's big white teeth shone out in appreciation of his own wit.

But the Dutchman understood only that he was being laughed at.

"Mynheer," he said, "this may turn out a less amusing matter than you suppose. Where, I repeat, did the Netherlanders come in?--to use á phrase of your own."

Hambleton's loud laugh went up amongst the kanary-trees.

"They didn't come in at all--that's just it! They--hee-haw!--they went out! See?"

"Ran away, do you mean?"

"Exactly! And our chaps had to open out to let 'em do it! Haw--haw--hwagh--gh!" Holland was pulling England's nose, whereupon England--proceeding, secundum artem, to knock Holland down--was, to its huge astonishment, laid handsomely out with such a rattler on the nose as nobody could have expected from a casky little man of five-feet-nothing.

The redeeming characteristic of the bovine stamp of Englishman showed up as Hambleton got slowly to his feet again.

"By Jove!" he said, "you can let out! Who'd have thought it was in you! But come on, and--what's this?" The Dutchman was handing him a card. "Oh, I see!--send a friend to you, and so on! Yes, I suppose you do that sort of thing here. But it's devilish ridiculous, you know; I'd a lot sooner finish it this way."

It was Staagel's turn to laugh now. "Better not, I think--see there!" Some soldiers from the barracks were coming over to investigate a matter about which the rapidly-growing dusk made them uncertain. "I have written my address on the card, and shall expect to hear from you to-morrow." He lifted his hat and went jauntily away.

The Englishman laughed at himself. "You got it properly that time, old man--and no mistake! I'll look up Schwartzberg to-night, for I suppose I'll have to challenge this plucky little spitfire; though, 'pon my soul, it's quite too utterly absurd!"


"Oh, I know Staagel," Dr. Schwartzberg said when he looked at the card. "He's rather what you call a 'fire-eater,' too--been 'out' several times already. Do you know what he does?"

"Hits confoundedly hard, for one thing," Hambleton said, rubbing his swollen nose.

"Ecce signum!" said the German, laughing. "But I mean that he teaches boxing and the savate at the Ecole Gymnastique."

"What?--that fat little tub? He can hit like a small Sullivan, as I've reason to know, but I shouldn't think he'd have much more activity than a pound of butter."

"I think you Englanders are a good deal in error about fat. My experience is that a fat man who will take the necessary exercise is under no athletic disadvantage except that of the extra weight. But, look here--can you do anything with the sword?"

"Not much!"

"So I supposed; and so Staagel will suppose--for which reason he's pretty sure to choose the steel. He'll have the option, you know."

"Can't be helped! When shall you see him?"

"This afternoon. But you haven't told me what he struck you for; there may be negotiations, you see."

"Oh, I said--but never mind!--I won't apologize, and he can't--for this!" Hambleton touched his nose.

"No!--I suppose there's no other way out of it. You're at the Nederlanden? Yes! Well, expect me at six."

Le Chauffeur screwed up his narrow black eyes as he listened.

"Diantre!" he said, "but that was excellent! I should have liked to behold the islander when he was--what does their Shake-speare say?--'hoist with his own' something. Has he sent anybody yet?"

"Schwartzberg; that big German doctor you've seen at the Gymnasium a few times. He lives in--"

"Oh, I know! I'll see him at once, then." The professor of fencing took his hat, but turned suddenly at the door. "You've forgotten to tell me why you struck him. I may have to arrange--"

"There can be no arrangement. He said, or insinuated, that we Netherlanders are cowards."

"Pouf!" Monsieur Le Chauffeur hoisted his shoulders to his ears, turned out his palms, and departed whistling "Malbrook s'en va-t-en guerre!"


"It is infinitely to be regretted, monsieur," Dr. Schwartzberg said, "but there is no apology possible from us. You struck us, you see--and struck us hard."

"Quite so, monsieur le docteur! And, unfortunately, it is equally out of the question that any amende should come from us. We have been called a coward. Was monsieur not aware?" Le Chauffeur asked, noticing the other's surprised look.

"No; my principal didn't tell me any more than that he wouldn't apologize."

The Frenchman shook his short-cropped head. "It is very irregular!--the seconds should be possessed of all the facts. However, as we are not in France--let us say Rajassan--the bamboo bridge--six, to-morrow morning--swords!"

"Couldn't you make it pistols?" Schwartzberg said; "your man is a capital shot."

"My man, with my consent, shall throw away no chance. Swords, monsieur--swords--and six in the morning. Au revoir!"


"Fo-foo!--fo-foo!--fo-foo!" shrieked the red-crested woodpecker, as the intending combatants took off their coats--the Dutchman cool, because of confidence; the Englishman cooler, because of the want of it.

Schwartzberg, the best-brained man of the four, made a final effort.

"Your principal, Monsieur Le Chauffeur, has suffered the slighter indignity. Will he now, at the last moment, express any regret?"

"Will Mynheer the Englander," said Staagel, when the question had been repeated to him, "acknowledge even that the Netherlanders did as much as the Englanders for the defeat of the French?"

"Of the French!" echoed Le Chauffeur, with a stare of surprise. "How, monsieur?--when?--and where?"

The Dutchman bit his lip. "I forgot your nationality, Le Chauffeur, for the moment! But, since you must know--at Water-loo! The Englander said that the victory was entirely due to his people--said, in fact, that the Netherlanders ran--that is, retreated! You know better than that, don't you?"

The Gaul bristled up in a moment. "But I do not know better, Monsieur Staagel. It is very probable they did, when they saw that the irresistible star of Napoleon was to shine with the lustre of yet another triumph!"

"Triumph? Are you mad? Do you call Waterloo a triumph for Napoleon?"

"Practically, monsieur! A virtual triumph, because, if--but, hold! Do you say it was a defeat?"

"Am I an idiot? Of course I say it was a defeat--a crushing defeat!"

"Then, monsieur, I cannot act for you in this matter, since you will have to answer for this insolence to me!"

"As soon as you like!" shouted the equally fiery Dutchman. "Get a sword and come on."

Le Chauffeur became in an instant cool, bowed stiffly, and walked back to the Englishman's second.

"I have the honour to inform you, Dr. Schwartzberg, that, owing to a difference with my principal, I cannot now act as his second. He himself has now to give me satisfaction for an unpardonable insult."

"I profoundly regret to hear it, Monsieur Le Chauffeur," returned the German, with a smile lurking in his russet beard, for he couldn't help having heard what he was not supposed to be officially aware of.

"You are pleased to be amused, monsieur!" returned the Frenchman, instantly. "Perhaps you are also of opinion that Waterloo was a defeat for the French?"

"You surmise correctly, monsieur. It was more than a defeat for them--it was a catastrophe!"

"Enough, sir! enough!" Le Chauffeur stamped on the ground. "If you can induce Monsieur Staagel to act for you, I will request the same favour of your late principal, and the matter can be settled forthwith. Monsieur L'Anglais," he went on, walking up to Hambleton; "your late second has just had the temerity to tell me to my face that Waterloo was a catastrophe for the French. If you will honour me by acting as my second--"

"Scarcely, sir--upon those grounds. My late second, as you call him, was perfectly correct."

"Very good, monsieur! then my quarrel is first with you. Take your sword and let us get to business."

The slow-match of the Englishman's temperament burnt at last into the magazine of his anger. "Hang it all!" he growled--"I don't care whom I fight as long as we make an end of this palaver. Schwartzberg," he added, "just do the needful for me. Our Gallic friend here would have us believe the English didn't thrash him well at Waterloo."

The German stiffened up like a ramrod. "I cannot say that Monsieur Le Chauffeur is very wrong there. If he had denied it of the Prussians, now--"

"The Prussians? Confound it all, man:--you don't mean to say the wooden-headed Prussians won the battle?"

"I am of that opinion, sir! And, if you apply the term 'wooden-headed' to me--"

"You'll want my blood, next, I suppose! Well, come on, then!--you, or anybody else! I'm about sick of this!"

He snatched up a sword, listened for a moment as the woodpecker cried again, then threw the weapon down and burst into a laugh.

"Listen!" he said. "Fo-foo, fo-foo, fo-foo! The bird's right! Four fools, four fools, four fools!"

The ludicrous resemblance finished it. The other three joined, perforce, in the Englishman's laughter; hands were shaken, swords and grievances put up, and the four fools went back four friends.

 
 
 

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