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The Fugitive by E. V. Lucas

 

On the evening of the day which succeeded that of the visit to the Fairy Island the baronet and his family were seated in the drawing-room, and Lady Clairmont was arranging with her husband their plans for the reception of their uncle, Mr. Geoffrey Clairmont, from whom a letter had been just received intimating his intention of being with them the next day to a late dinner, but requesting they would not make any material addition to their table, as a white soup, a turbot, a little venison, and a pheasant would be all he should require, or if his fancy stood for any bonnes bouches, his factotum, Monsieur Melange (his valet, cook, and occasional secretary) would bring materials for preparing them.

The party were amusing themselves with admiring the modest simplicity of the old gentleman's bill of fare when Denton, the house-steward, ran in, and, staring wildly around, exclaimed: 'Thank goodness everybody is here!' then, darting forward to an open door which looked upon the lawn, he shut and locked it, and slammed down the sashes with the greatest precipitation, then, turning to Sir William, said: 'Pray, sir, please to come out of the room with me this moment.'

The baronet followed him outside the door, while the careful servant, still holding it ajar, added: 'Pray, ladies and gentlemen, don't stir out of this room, pray don't.' He then shut and locked the door.

'Why, what ails you, Denton; what is all this about?' said the baronet. 'One would think you had been bit by a mad dog.'

'Not exactly that, Sir William,' replied the man, quivering in every limb, 'but I fear we may all be bit, before an hour is over our heads, by something quite as bad.'

He then informed his master that the keeper of a caravan of wild beasts had just come to the castle, and stated that in going through the nearest market-town his vehicle had been upset, and the damage which ensued had given an opportunity for one of his most valuable animals, a Bengal tiger, to make its escape, that he and two of the keepers had tracked it as far as the Warren on the Clairmont estate, and he had come to beg assistance from the castle, while the other two stood armed on each side a gap in the Warren where they thought it was hid, and from whence, should it attempt to issue, they hoped, by help from Sir William, to intercept its free egress.

'They want ropes and blankets and coverlets from the servants' beds,' added Denton, 'to spread over the gap, which things they mean to fasten down on each side, and then lure the beast to the entrance by the scent of his usual food, when he will try to force himself through the coverings; then they can lay hold of his smothered head without fear, and easily slipping a noose round his neck convey him in this manner back to his old quarters.'

'By all means let them have what is necessary,' said the baronet, 'and tell the grooms to keep the stable-door locked, and get in the horses. It is not likely that the creature will come near the house till he is starved into a visitation, but let the gamekeeper and his men be ready, and muster what arms you have.'

'To be sure, Sir William, it shall be done,' said the frightened steward, as he walked cautiously across the hall, looking on every side as he advanced.

'Well,' said the baronet laughing, as he returned to the drawing-room, 'two such gourmands in one four-and-twenty hours is one too many sure enough. Here's a tiger come amongst us to-day by way of avant-courier to Uncle Geoffrey.'

'A tiger!' cried both the boys. 'Oh, where, father? But you are joking?'

'No; 'tis a plain fact, according to Denton,' said Sir William, whose information he then gave, and added: 'Though I have no apprehension of the animal coming here I must beg you all to move upstairs, and keep in the house till it is secured.'

'Secured; how can that be? it must be shot,' said William, adding: 'Pray don't let Fred and me go upstairs with the misses, father. We can load a gun, and take aim now as well as we shall do at five-and-twenty.'

'Pray let us go, father,' said Frederick; 'it would be such a thing for me to say in India that I had shot a tiger in England.'

'But,' said Mr. Stanhope, 'do you not think it would be better if the poor creature's life could be preserved? Its death must be a great loss to its owner, and life is, no doubt, happiness to the creature itself. Why terminate the existence of any animal by which we are not annoyed, and which is not necessary to our subsistence? We certainly have no right to do so.'

'Then you would not even kill a moth, Mr. Stanhope?' said Julia.

'No, that he would not, I dare say,' said Agnes; 'dear little silver-wings. Mr. Stanhope knows that clippings of Russia leather and cedar-shavings will keep the little creatures off our shawls and muffs, and why should not the pretty things live and be happy?'

'Are you the patroness of the spiders too, little girl?' said William.

'I would put one out of my room,' said Agnes, 'if I found one there, but certainly I would not kill it, for you know it does me no harm, and surely it was intended that spiders should have some place to live in, or they would not have been made.'

'You are a very considerate miss,' said William; 'but, at all events, we cannot afford any free place for tigers in this country. So come, dear father, let us have guns, and go with you and Mr. Stanhope, for I am sure neither of you intend to stay cooped up here. I promise to be under orders, and not move an inch in any way without permission.'

'And I make the same promise,' said Frederick eagerly.

'And I can answer for both,' said Mr. Stanhope warmly, 'that neither of those young gentlemen will fail to keep his word.'

'Thank you, dear sir,' said the youths in the same breath.

'Mother, grandmother, you don't wish us to stay here,' said William; 'you would not like to see us milk-sops?'

'Certainly not, my dears,' said the dowager. 'While you move under your father's directions your mother and I can have nothing to fear. Courage is a virtue indispensible in a man and a gentleman, and like other virtues is confirmed by exercise. You need not walk into the tiger's mouth, you know; but if you find him likely to do mischief, and you can prevent it, I hope you will retain your self-possession so as to make sure aim, and pull your trigger firmly.'

'Never fear, grandmother; never fear, dear mother,' cried the youths.

'Good-bye, Bill; good-bye, Freddy,' said all the sisters.

'Now, father, shall we go?'

'What say you, Mr. Stanhope,' asked the baronet, 'will you make a sortie with us.'

'Most willingly,' replied the tutor. 'I have a brace of trusty pistols in prime condition, and with a gun shall feel well equipped.'

'Well, then, ladies, adieu for the present,' said Sir William; 'you had better go up to the observatory; you may see all our movements from thence.'

'An excellent thought,' replied Lady Clairmont; and away went the female party to their high station, while the gentlemen, well furnished with arms, walked out into the park, looking with keen inquiring eyes on every side as they went on. No enemy, however, appeared, but in about ten minutes, having taken the direction of the western lodge, they were surprised by the sight of a coach-and-four coming rapidly along.

'By Jove, 'tis the Clairmont livery! 'tis Uncle Geoffrey, as I am alive!' exclaimed Sir William. 'What day of the month is this?'

'The seventeenth,' said Frederick.

'His letter says he shall be here on the eighteenth,' rejoined the baronet. 'Well, he must put up with what he can get for his dinner, and thank his own want of punctuality for his bad fare.'

'Oh, poor Sheldon, what a fuss he will be in,' said Frederick laughing. 'The turbot is taking his pastime in the waters, and the pheasant in the woods. Unfortunate Uncle Geff!'

At this moment a tremendous shout or rather yell was heard in the direction of the Warren on the left, and at a considerable distance, but it grew louder and approached nearer every moment.

'There is certainly something in the wind now,' said the gentlemen. Every eye was upon the alert, and the carriage within two hundred paces of our party.

'Ha, there he goes!' said William.

'There he goes!' cried Frederick, as the tiger darted across the park towards the carriage. 'He'll make at the horses. See! see! he has actually fastened upon poor Culina! No, 'tis Apicius, uncle's grand favourite. Look at the horses, how they rear and tear away!'

'Now,' said Sir William, 'a little in this direction to be out of his side-sight. Remember we must act in concert, and all fire at his head at the same moment. A single bullet would but interrupt his attentions to poor Apicius, and call them to ourselves, but two brace must surely disable him.'

'Oh, father,' cried William, 'how terrified the horses are! See how they plunge and rear, first on one side the road, then on the other; they will upset poor Uncle Geff to a certainty. Look, the footman leaps off like lightning, and now the coachman follows him. See, they are climbing up into the old oak, and leave the horses to their fate, the cowards! The poor beasts are perfectly mad. Now they have done it. The fore-wheel has struck against the curbstone and flown off, and now the hind-wheel on the same side is off too, and down goes the carriage. I'm sure I heard poor Uncle Geff cry out, but the tiger still keeps hold on the horse's shoulders.'

'Now there's a moment's pause,' said the baronet. 'Fire at his head!' They did so, and their aim was so just that the creature fell instantly, but his efforts to rise, in which he nearly succeeded two or three times, filled the crowd which was now assembling with dismay.

'Mr. Stanhope will lend you his pistols, boys,' said Sir William. 'Go nearer, if you like, and share the honour of giving the beast his quietus.'

The youths took the arms exultingly, and advancing boldly towards the animal, who still writhed in fearful strength, they fired again at his head, and he then sunk to rise no more. It seems he had actually taken refuge in a hollow of the Warren, but the keepers had secured the entrance so imperfectly that he easily effected his escape.

A loud cry of 'Victory! victory!' was uttered by the surrounding multitude, and the words 'Brave boys!' 'True Clairmonts!' were many times repeated by the crowd.

'And now let us see after poor Mr. Clairmont,' said Sir William, going up to the carriage, which lay on its side. The two stout gentlemen who had clambered up into the oak, seeing the enemy breathless, had summoned courage to descend, and were trying to pacify and unharness the trembling horses.

'How are you, my dear sir? how are you, Mr. Clairmont?' said the baronet, speaking aloud, not being able to see into the carriage.

'What am I, you mean, nephew,' roared out the old gentleman. 'Why I am a perfect mass of blanc-mange, bruised to a universal pulp.'

[Illustration: 'There he goes!'—Page 261.]

'I hope not,' replied the baronet; 'no bones broken, I trust?'

'Bones! I don't think I've such a thing as a bone belonging to me no more than if I had been hermetically sealed in a register-boiler. I tell you I'm nothing but a huge fricandeau; you may cut me in slices, and take me out piecemeal.'

'I am happy to hear you are in a state to make merry with your misfortunes, my dear sir,' rejoined Sir William; 'but, seriously, how shall we manage to get you out?'

'The tiger is dead as Napoleon, uncle, and lies at the feet of your favourite Apicius,' said William.

'And the horses are taken off,' added the baronet; 'but I fear the raising of the carriage to assist your descending cannot be effected without giving you some more severe jolting. Where is your valet? Perhaps he can help you if the coach-door be got open. Melange,' cried Mr. Clairmont, 'are you dead or stupid?'

'Ni l'un ni l'autre, monsieur,' replied the servant doggedly.

'Then pray bestir yourself, and get me out of this miserable ruin. Don't you hear them say the tiger is killed? Why do you stay sprawling here looking as ghastly as if he were grinning at you in all his glory?'

Melange began to move.

'There now,' said his master, 'you have set your foot on the bottle in the side-pocket; there it goes—a bottle of my finest claret!'

Melange popped his head over the perpendicular floor of the carriage, and seeing the tiger positively dead he sprang out with great facility, and appeared to have received no other injury than certain indications of culinary luxuries which besprinkled his habit so plentifully as to give his tailor (had he seen it) hopes of an ample order for a refit.

'Well, Melange,' said Sir William, 'what measure are you about to take for your master's relief?'

'The carriage must be unpacked, Sir William,' said the valet consequentially, 'and then monsieur may be raised so gently as not to suffer any farther inconvenience.'

He then, with the assistance of his two fellow-servants, removed all the packages from the boot, etc., etc., and by the help of the numerous bystanders propped up the carriage, and assisted his master to descend, the skirts of whose coat bore evident marks of the course the claret had taken when it escaped from its imprisonment in the flask, while his trousers and stockings appeared to have been liberally complimented with Ude's delicious consommé at the moment of the grand squash.

Lady Clairmont, having seen all from the observatory, had sent a sofa and pillows for her uncle's accommodation, which arrived at this moment, and the baronet, with Mr. Stanhope's aid, placed the old gentleman upon it in a state of comparative comfort, the boys trying to arrange the cushions and pillows for him, while an air of good-humoured contempt mingled with their assiduities.

'Ah, my poor friend, Apicius,' he exclaimed on seeing the dying horse panting beside the prostrate destroyer, 'nothing can be done for you, I see. Lead him away if possible, and put him out of his pain as mercifully as you can. Fine creature. I cannot bear to look at him; he little thought, when he pranced off so stately yesterday morning, that he was coming to feed the hounds at Clairmont, and a tit-bit they will find him; he's in capital condition. Pray let him be taken away.'

'I think we had better take care of you first, dear sir,' said his nephew, 'but I fear you will not find a dinner to your taste this evening. There will be two dishes minus at least, for we did not expect you till to-morrow, the eighteenth—the day you named.'

'Ha, that was an unlucky mistake of Melange which we found out too late. He put the paper before me and dated the letter; but, however, as things have turned out it is of no consequence. I shall take no dinner to-day, but some pearl-sago, enriched with a good dash of old Jamaica. You must let me have a warm bath, nephew, and bid them put me to bed directly, and in two or three days, perhaps, all will be set to rights. Hope Lady Clairmont and all your family are well. How do you do, Mr. Stanhope? Excuse me, I can't pretend to see anybody for the next eight-and-forty hours. By this management I, perhaps, may escape a fit of the gout, which has certainly received a most pressing invitation to take intire possession of me, even on the very heels of the dog-days. Ha, William, how are you, my boy? and dear Freddy, how are you? How wonderfully you are both grown. No need to inquire if you are well; you must have been playing a capital knife and fork this last year, young gentlemen, but that's not surprising; you live in clover here at old Clairmont as usual. Fat Scotch cattle and black-faced sheep in the meadows, and a crowd of noble bucks in the park.'

'Et les poissons,' said Melange, edging in his remark as he stood making some arrangement required by his master. 'Les jolis poissons qui s'élèveront de temps hors l'eau, pour dire à leur façon vous êtes les bienvenus, Messieurs, nous aurons l'honneur de vous régaler. Ah, c'etait un coup d'oeil ravissant.'

The boys laughed aloud, and Mr. Stanhope could hardly preserve his gravity, but Sir William gave Melange a look that seemed a deathblow to his flippancy, for he moved off directly to the care of his jars and hampers.

'And your pheasants, how are they? Suppose you have had grouse this fortnight? However, for fear of the worst, I've brought a few brace. Are your partridges lovable? But I forgot; you never disturb them till next month. But I should not dare to touch them if you could set me down to a covey just now; my stomach would take it fearfully amiss if I were to call upon it for any service at present, after all the bumpings and thumpings it has just suffered. But stay, before they carry me off I should like to ascertain the extent of the mischief we have sustained. Melange, get into the carriage and examine the contents of the sword-case and all the little private recesses. What a ruin it is!'

The valet skipped in.

'Well, is the curaçoa safe?'

'No, sir, the bottle is smashed to atoms.'

'Not a drop left?'

'Not a drop, monsieur.'

'Well, it was a liquor fit for the gods, and George the Fourth—made after old Goddard's recipe. His late Majesty used to say he never tasted any so excellent. And my “Treatise on the Wines of the Ancients,” where is it?'

'Here, sir'—holding it up outside the coach-door.

'Actually seasoned with sardines; not a page legible, I fear. And there's the “Cook's Oracle,” dumb as a fish, drowned in claret, and a new edition of “Ude” soaked, I'm aware, in one of his own delicious consommés. This is sad work, indeed! And the glaze?'

'Smashed, monsieur.'

'Oh, ruin upon ruin! Best portable soup in the kingdom! Only three men in England can make it. However, Melange is one of the three. The edible nests[B] and the Strasburg livers?'

'Quite safe, sir.'

'The potted char, and the Scotch laver? The limes, and the olives, and the dravolinas?'

'Tout est à merveille, monsieur.'

'Then how have my medicines fared?'

'They were put in the boot with the ginger, the parmesan, the Westphalia hams, and the reindeer tongues,' said Melange.

'Now then, come down and see if the colchicum sherry, l'eau médicinale, gout mixture, cogniac, vespetro, noyau, and old Jamaica are safe.'

Melange examined, and reported, 'Perfectly safe, sir.'

'And the lachryma christi, Hermitage hock, and tokay, with the West India sweetmeats?'

'All right.'

'Well, 'tis an untoward business enough, but it might have been worse, nephew,' said Mr. Clairmont, consoled to think all his hampers were in a sound state.

'True, sir,' replied Sir William, 'infinitely worse. You have escaped broken bones, and out of four horses have lost only one.'

'Then are all the rest safe and sound, coachman?' asked his master.

'Quite well, sir, only terribly frightened, like some of us,' replied the man, smiling on one side of his face, and blushing as well as he could on the other, 'but life is sweet to us all, and who would not have run away from that frightful beast?' looking at the tiger.

'What a beautiful animal it was!' said Mr. Stanhope to William.

'Very beautiful indeed, sir,' replied William, 'and if I were rich I would buy its coat, and make a present of it to mother for a hearthrug.'

'A very good thought, my boy,' said Mr. Clairmont, 'and you shall have it, if it is to be sold.'

'Are you the proprietor of this unfortunate animal?' said the baronet.

'I am, sir,' said one of the three men who were standing guard over the dead tiger, and waiting for an opportunity to ask the baronet for the loan of a cart to convey it to the town where their caravan was waiting.

'What do you ask for the skin?' demanded Mr. Clairmont.

The man named his price, and the demand, though somewhat exorbitant, was complied with, greatly to the satisfaction of the two youths, who were anxious to have it in the family as a memento of this, to them, important day. Sir William then ordered the tiger to be conveyed to the butchery, and uncoated preparatory to the operation the currier would have to perform on the skin previous to its exhibition in the dining-room.

'Well, now, my good Melange,' said Mr. Clairmont, beckoning him to come near, and whispering coaxingly, 'you will see all our valuables safe before you leave them.'

'Sans doute, monsieur, n'ayez pas peur, I have sent Foster on to the house for a cart, and shall have everything conveyed to that apartment you are accustomed to occupy. Of course we shall be there?'

'Are we to have our old lodgings, nephew?' said Mr. Clairmont.

'If you please, sir,' replied the baronet; 'your bedroom is as usual in the west angle, on the ground floor, close to the bath, which is the situation you have always preferred.'

'Ha, thank you, that is comfortable. You hear, Melange?'

'Oui, monsieur.'

'And now, nephew, if your carriers be ready say the word, and let us be moving, for I begin to feel terribly stiff and awkward in the sinews, and shall be right glad to find myself in a steaming bath. Don't forget,' added he to his servant, 'the gout-stool and the moxa, and all necessary for a good shampooing, and remember to have the sago ready for me on coming out of the bath. Now make haste, for here comes the cart. Be alive, Foster, as you were when you clambered up the oak like a squirrel.'

'My valet shall attend you till Melange has made his arrangements,' said Sir William. 'No doubt your apartments are in perfect order by this time; so come, chairmen, take up the sofa, and go gently.'

The men began their march, and the baronet walked on at a brisk pace to apprise Lady Clairmont that the whole family had a respite of eight-and-forty hours.

Mr. Stanhope and his pupils lingered behind, walking on very slowly till the men were out of hearing with their burden, and William then exclaimed:

'Go, you genuine sybarite! Uncle of mine, I would not accept the gift of all your estates if your gourmandizing be entailed on them.'

'Neither would I,' said his brother. 'It is impossible for a man to be a more devoted slave to his appetite than our great-uncle Geff. The slave of the ring in the Arabian Nights' Entertainments had a holiday life of it in comparison. Perhaps it is wrong to say it, but really I feel quite disgusted with him. As father truly says, “All his conversation has reference to the sustenation of his insatiable maw,” and we shall all be glad when this animal infliction is over.'

'Gourmandizing,' said Mr. Stanhope, 'is indeed a vice which fearfully degrades a man from the rank he was born to hold as a rational being, and I trust you will never either of you be under the dominion of such a tyrant.'

'We should both of us,' said William, 'revolt at the idea of being an object of contempt to others, such as Uncle Geff is now to us.'

'That's plain English,' replied Frederick, 'but not the most polite thing to say of one's venerable great uncle, brother Bill, and who has, moreover, just now given you that superb tiger's skin.'

'The fear of the world's contempt,' said Mr. Stanhope, 'though salutary, ought not to influence our conduct so much as the consciousness that, while excess clogs our intellects, we become incapable of the virtuous exertions we might otherwise make, and that of the talents we have thus smothered we must one day render an account.'

'And yet there are, I have heard, some men of great abilities and eminent virtue who are said to eat enormously,' said Frederick.

'True,' replied the tutor, 'extreme hunger is, in some constitutions, a rapid effect of intense study, and the appetite may be innocently gratified while it rather adds to the impetus of thought than checks its advance. Excess begins when the perceptions become weak and indistinct by indulgence. Every person is able to judge for himself when he approaches that point, and, if he respect himself, he will stop short of it. Such men as those to whom you allude feel renovated by their meal, and return to their intellectual pursuits with increased alacrity, but the veritable gourmand divides his existence between the contemplation of what his dinner shall be, the pleasure of eating, and the labour of digesting it.'

'It is very odd in Uncle Geff to bring his eatables and his cook to Clairmont. I wonder father will suffer it. What a larder this modern Lucullus carries about with him!' said Frederick.

'Why, father has indulged him in the practice so many years that I suppose he does not think it worth his while to set his face against it now,' replied William. 'Besides, Melange is a superb cook. Sheldon finds it his interest to keep well with him, and gets into many of his culinary mysteries, of which father reaps the benefit when he is obliged to give great dinners. As to the Frenchman himself, it is easy to see he is the master of his master, and holds him fast by the stomach, as it were, by a talisman.'

'What an honourable bondage for a man who is proud of his descent from men who were hand and glove with the conqueror,' said Frederick, laughing.

A servant now came out upon the lawn to say tea had been waiting some time. The youths and their tutor hastened to the drawing-room, when William and his brother were congratulated on the fortunate issue of their rencounter with the tiger. Their gentle mother shed a tear of joy as she kissed the cheek of each darling child, and the dowager expressed herself happy at seeing they had proved themselves worthy descendants of the Clairmonts.

'Emily,' said she to her grand-daughter in the joy of her heart, 'what do you think of your brothers now? Do you not think they will indeed prove an honour to the family, and realize in their manhood all the anticipations of youth? For my part, I feel so much obliged to our grand-dame Cicely Dewberry at the present moment, that I can hardly find words to express myself in due terms; that task I shall, therefore, leave to you.'

Emily coloured at this remark, but, after a pause, replied:

'I am so much pleased that my brothers have acquitted themselves with honour that I am equally at a loss for words with your ladyship.'

The evening passed most agreeably, and the conversation was animated and interesting from the topics the occurrences of the day gave birth to. As for Lady Clairmont, she was, indeed, greatly pleased with the present of her new hearthrug, and Sir William ordered the body of the tiger to be deposited under the oak in which the servants had found shelter, saying that, some time or other, he might probably put down on that spot some solid memento of the event.

FOOTNOTES:

[B] The nest of a bird found in the southern latitudes, considered a delicacy by the natives, particularly by European epicures.

 
 
 

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