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XIII. Doubly False
'DigBy GRAND,' ETC.
FTER a storm comes a calm. It is a fortnight since the good run
from Plumpton Oziers, and in less than an hour the gong will sound for luncheon at the Priors. Meantime peace and quiet pervade the blue drawing-room in which Percy Mortimer and his broken leg are established. The Middleton doctor has "reduced the fracture," as he calls it; a process the sufferer renders by the expression “spliced it where it was sptung;" the bone is knitting, and the patient going on favourably. Indeed, Percy, as he often boasts, is an excellent subject for surgical operations. His constitution is healthy, his temperament easy and somewhat lethargic. He possesses plenty of courage, and derives a certain amusement from such experiments as those to which he is now subjected, even when made on his own person.
He has lived in so many strange scenes and places, has so often been prostrated by accident or illness—with a screen of branches for a roof, a tattered blanket and weather-worn saddle for bedding, and an Indian squaw or & swarthy Affghan for nurse—that to be laid up in this luxurious drawing-room, with books and newspapers at hand, hothouse flowers on the table, and every female creature in the house his devoted slave, seems a positive luxury and delight.
His eye travels lazily round till it rests on the figure of Annie Dennison, drawing at the window, but looking up every now and then with a dreamy, abstracted air, suggestive of her occupation, and by no means unbecoming to a pretty woman.
It has just struck him that to have such a companion about one
every day, even when no longer held by the leg on a drawing-room sofa, might be worth the sacrifice of many bachelor comforts and pleasures, which no man is better able to appreciate, and of which no man in his time has made better use.
Physical pain, especially when borne without complaint, seldom fails to win a woman's sympathies and excite her interest. Annie established herself from the first as head nurse to Mr. Mortimer, and in a very few days it seemed the most natural thing in the world that his sofa should be wheeled into the blue drawing-room, and that he should spend the morning tête à tête with Miss Dennison.
Far be it from me to profess dissent from any article of faith cherished by that order of fire-worshippers who scorch, if they do not entirely consume, their own hearts on an altar of self-immolation. No doubt the true believer “ drags at each remove a lengthening chain.” No doubt "absence” (if not too prolonged) “makes the heart grow fonder," and the ideal reigos perhaps most triumphantly when there is nothing present to destroy his or her ideality. But Gutta cavat lapidem : constant dropping wears away a stone; constant flirtation saps the character while it deteriorates the brain. Repeated confidences kindle into sympathy—the tow and tinder of which men and women are proverbially composed, only wait a chance spark, a rising breeze, to become a bonfire, and propinquity is perhaps the most combustible ingredient of all. Then, even if the heart remain steady, the fancy is sadly apt to stray, and one step at least is taken on that downward path which runs in a steeper incline at every inch, and hurries us, before we know where we are, to the very
bottom of the bill.
Percy Mortimer always boasted that he could stop and put on the drag-chain whenever he chose. He had often been in love, but never, as yet, with only one woman at a time; and believed himself, as he was believed by his friends, to be incapable of committing what he and they considered the crowning imprudence of matrimony. His mother, his aunts, all his female relations, persistently recommended the institution, even while they were prepared to revile and vituperate any lady who should propose herself as a candidate for its advantages, and professed themselves, as no doubt they felt, eager to receive “dear Percy's” wife with open arms—an expression best understood by those who have had most experience of the cordiality that exists between relations by marriage.
But "dear Percy” did not see it. He got on very well as he was-could tolerate his own society better than that of people who bored him, liked his own way, his own pursuits and amusements, his own friends, married and single, his horses, his cigar-above all, his liberty. To-day, for the first time, he began to think there might be something in life better than all these.
“Turn your head a little towards the fire-place, Mr. Mortimer," said Annie, from the window. “I've rubbed your nose out three times, and a very provoking nose it is. Never mind ! don't move, if it hurts you, please.”
“Most certainly not !" answered Percy, laughing. “But turning one's head does not necessarily give one a pain in the leg. Will that do? Make a good nose of it, Miss Dennison-art should be nature idealised, not copied. On the aquiline, if you please, as much as possible, and off the snub. Have you done the tiger ?”
“ I'm coming to him directly. I've straightened your nose," said the artist, whose talent lay chiefly in caricature. “But was it a true story, Mr. Mortimer? Uncle John made my blood run cold when he described how the creature stood over you waving its cruel tail like a cat with a mouse. Poor mouse! What a moment it must have been! Tell me all about it from beginning to end. I shall draw it as well again if you do."
“There's not much to tell, only the mouse had a squeak for it. Do you know what a shekarry is ?”
“Not the least. The only Indian word I know is bungalow, and I haven't an idea what it means. Now I've begun the tiger's back. How do their stripes go? The long way of the skirt, or across it? Don't move your head. Tell me exactly how it happened, without any Indian words, whilst I finish his tail.”
Well, I was at a station-never mind where—what we call up country, staying with a very good fellow, an indigo-planter with one eye. Did you ever see an indigo-planter ? No? Well, you've seen a fellow with one eye, and that's near enough. One day, after tiffin
Stop. What’s ‘tiffin'? Don't say that again.” “After luncheon, then, a native made his appearance in a state of dismay and trepidation, to tell us that his relatives, his belongings, his entire village, were in terror of their lives from the depredations of a man-eater.”
“That's an Indian word, I'm sure. Don't take your eyes off the chimney-piece, and confine your narrative to plain English.”
“Man-eater is plain English ; I've seen lots of them in London and elsewhere, with striped dresses and other tiger-like qualifications. For fifteen miles round, it seemed the beast kept everybody in alarm, and, according to the native's account, had eaten within the month seven children, a water-carrier, and a tough old Hindoo woman, the speaker's grandmother. My friend, who was drinking brandy paw
- brandy-and-water, I mean—thought the story probable enough, and in short, being a resolute fellow, determined to lie in wait at a certain spot the beast frequented, next morning at daybreak, and keep his eyes open."
" His one eye open, if you please,” interposed the young lady. “I'm sketching him doing it. If this improbable story really be true, let us have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Mr. Mortimer."
“ You must draw him with a good deal of stomach then, and very thin legs," continued Percy; "and the eye that is open ought to be as sharp as a needle. He made all bis arrangements over night, ordered everything to be ready-guns, fellows to carry them, an elephant to take us to the ground, &c., and at four in the morning we settled comfortably to our coffee, for of course I said I'd go with him."
“Of course you did, and I think it was very foolish—no, I don't ! I think you were quite right.”
“Can you draw a bead ?' said my friend, as soon as we got fairly under weigh. You must shoot to an inch, when you go out to kill a tiger on foot. He's not like a pheasant in Norfolk, you know. If you're at all uncertain, you had better remain with the elephant. I should be sorry for you to risk your life in the kind of sport we are likely to have to-day.
“Of course I swore I could shoot like Colonel Ross, and so, though I was in a blue funk, I resolved to do my best, and put a bold face on it, while the elephant tramped steadily on.”
“ Had the elephant tusks ?" interrupted Miss Annie. “I'm putting it in the background.”
“ Tusks! Of course it had, and horns too,” answered Percy, laughing. “Well, Miss Dennison, you'll hardly believe it, but no sooner were we in sight of the tope—the clump of trees that was to guide us—than we came upon the beast's track, printed off quite fresh in the clay, by a water spring. We had no doubt then of his size, or the shape of his claws. My friend's one eye blazed like a lamp.
“We'll get down here,' said he,' and leave the elephant to take us back again.' I only hoped the elephant's load might not be lightened for its homeward journey.
" We placed ourselves in a narrow pass, such as you would almost call a 'ride' in a woodland here, waiting till the beaters should have driven up to us. Notwithstanding the diabolical row they made, I swear I could hear my heart beat. The indigo-planter, however, seemed as cool as was compatible with a temperature of 90° Fahrenheit in the shade."
Miss Dennison had laid her pencils down and was looking at him, as Desdemona (before marriage) looked at Othello.
"Presently I felt his hand on my shoulder. Right in front of you,' he whispered. Twenty yards, not an inch farther. You'll see his head when he moves.'
"But when you come to paint that masterly sketch, Miss Dennison,