“Provost,” said my uncle to the jovial and rubicund magistrate who sat
on his left hand, now that he had taken Cora’s place at the head of the
table, “try the Johannisberg. It is some given to me by Prince
Metternich when I was at Vienna, and is from grapes raised in his own
vineyards. Rare stuff it is for those who like such light wines.”
“Thank you, Sir Nigel; but Binns, I see, has brought the three elements,
so I’ll e’en brew some whisky-toddy,” replied the magistrate.
The conversation now became more noisy and animated. The approaching
war, the treaty of neutrality between the Scandinavian and the Western
Powers, whether our fleet had yet entered the Euxine, or whether Luders
had yet burst into the Dobrudscha, became the prevailing topics, and in
interest seemed fully to rival that never-failing subject at a country
The county pack, the meet of the Fifeshire hounds at the kennels, or on
the green slopes of Largo; of the Buccleuch pack at Blacklaw, Ancrum,
and so forth; their runs by wood and wold, loch and lee, rock and river,
with many a perilous leap and wild adventure in the field, over a rough
and hilly country, were narrated with animation, and descanted on with
interest, though all such sank into insignificance beside the history of
a hunt in Bengal, where General Rammerscales had figured in pursuit of a
tiger (long the terror of the district), seated in a lofty _howdah_ of
basket-work, strapped on the back of an elephant, twelve feet high to
the shoulder, accompanied by the major of his regiment, each armed with
two double-barrelled guns.
The tiger, which measured nine feet from his nose to the tip of his
tail, and five in height, had been roused from among the jungle grass,
and was a brute of the most ferocious kind, yellow in hide, and striped
with beautiful transverse bars of black and brown. He was well-known in
that district. With his tremendous jaws he had carried off many a foal
and buffalo; by a single stroke of his claws he had disembowelled and
rent open the body of more than one tall dark sowar of the 3rd Bengal
Light Cavalry; and as for sheep and goats, he made no more account of
them than if they had been so many shrimps.
With a shrill, short scream of rage, on finding that he was brought to
bay at last, he threw himself in cat-fashion on his back, belly upwards,
his small and quivering ears close on the back of his head, his dreadful
claws thrust out, his eyes glaring like two gigantic carbuncles, his
wide, red mouth distended, and every wiry whisker bristling with rage
The general fired both barrels of his first gun. One shot failed; but
the other wounded the tiger in the shoulder, and only served to make him
more savage; though, instead of springing upwards, he lay thus on the
defensive, gathered up in a round ball.
The major, an enormously fat man, weighing more than twenty stone, now
leant over the _howdah_ to take a cool and deliberate aim; but the
elephant in the same moment happened to bend his fore-knees, for the
claws of the tiger were inserted in his trunk.
Losing all balance by this unlucky motion, the poor major toppled
headlong over the _howdah_, just as both barrels of his gun exploded
harmlessly, amid a yell from the Indian hunters as they thought of his
But, “with a mighty squelch,” as the general phrased it, the major, with
his twenty-two stone weight of flesh and bone, fell prone upon the fair,
white, upturned belly of the tiger!
Terrified, breathless, and bewildered by an antagonist so ponderous, and
by such an unexpected mode of attack, the tiger started up, and fled
from the scene, leaving the major untouched and unharmed, but seated
ruefully among the jungle grass, and with considerable doubts as to his
safety and his own identity.
The parish minister fairly overmatched this story by the narrative of a
fox which had been drowned by a mussel.
Prior to being appointed pastor of Calderwood Kirk, through the favour
of its patron, Sir Nigel, he had been an assistant in a parish situated
on the borders of one of the great salt lochs in the western highlands.
When riding one morning along the shore, opposite the Summer Isles, he
was surprised to see a large grey fox busy among the basket-mussels,
thick clusters of which were adhering to the dark whin rocks which the
ebb tide had left dry. The sea was coming in fast; but, strange to say,
Reynard seemed to be so much engaged in breakfasting on shell-fish that
he was heedless of that important circumstance.
Dismounting, and tying his horse to a tree, the minister made a circuit
to reach the place, and being armed with a heavy-handled riding-whip, he
had no fear of the encounter; but by the time he arrived at the
mussel-beds, the rapid tide had overflowed them, and the fox had
disappeared. So, remounting, the minister pursued his way into the
Returning along the shore by the same path in the evening, when the tide
had ebbed, he again saw Reynard in the same place, but lying quite dead,
and, on examination, discovered that he was held fast by the tongue
between the sharp shells of one of the basket-mussels, which are
sometimes seven inches long, and adhere with intense strength to the
rocks by the beard, known to the learned as a powerful _byssus_. Seized
and retained thus, as if in the grasp of a steel vice, the fox, which
had been in the habit of seeking the sea shore to feed on the mussels,
had been held fast, until drowned by the advancing tide, which there
flows rapidly in from the Atlantic.
This story elicited roars of laughter from the fox-hunters, who had
never heard of a brush being taken in such a fashion; and Berkeley
expressed astonishment that the anecdote had never found its way into
the columns of _Bell’s Life_, or other sporting journals.
The provost and minister gabbled about presbyteries and synods, the
moderation of calls, elders, deacons, and overtures to the General
Assembly, anent sundry ecclesiastical matters, particularly the adoption
of organs, and other innovations that savoured of prelacy, making up a
jargon which, to many present, and even to me, proved quite
unintelligible; but now, as a military man, old Rammerscales seized me
by a button, for there was no eluding being bored by him.
He had been so many years in India that he found a difficulty in
assuring himself that he was not “up country” and in cantonments still.
Thus, if the rooms were warm, the general grumbled that there was no
_punkah_ to swing over his head, the baldness of which he polished
vigorously, and muttered about “tatties of iced water.”
He calculated everything by its value in rupees, and talked much of
compounds and cantonments; of _batta_ and marching money, of _chutney_
and _chunam_, and all manner of queer things, including sepoys and
_sowars_, _subadars_, _havildars_, and _jemidars_; thus the most casual
remark drew forth some Indian reference.
The cold of last night reminded him of what he had endured in the
mountains of Affghanistan; and the dark clouds of this morning were
exactly like some he had seen near Calcutta, when a sepoy was killed by
his side by a stroke of lightning, which twisted up the barrel of his
musket like a screw—”yes, sir, like a demmed corkscrew!”
Next, the gas offended his eyes, which had been so long accustomed to
the oil lamps or oil-shades of his bungalow; and then he spoke to all
the servants, even respectable old Mr. Binns (who had been for forty
years like Sir Nigel’s shadow) as if they had been so many _sycees_,
grass-cutters, or tent-pitchers, making them start whenever he addressed
them; for he seemed to bark or snap out his words and wishes at “the
precious Griffs,” as he termed them.
On the other hand, I was bored by the provost, who, like the M.P. (a
peace-at-any-price man), by no means approved of the expected war, and
informed Berkeley and myself that—
“Our trade—soldiering, to wit—was a deuced poor one—a speculation, a
loss, and never profit to any one, individually or collectively.”
Berkeley smiled superciliously, eyed the provost through his glass, and
blandly asked him to repeat his remark twice over, professing that he
did not understand the worthy man.
“If you mean that you disapprove of the intended war, my good friend,”
said he, “I—haw—quite agree with you, Why the deuce should I fight for
the ’sick man’ at Constantinople; or for the Turks or the Tartars of the
Crimea? It’s a horrid bore.”
Amid all this uncongenial conversation, I longed for the time when the
seniors would move towards the drawing-room, from whence the sounds of
music and of voices sweetly attuned were heard to issue at times; for
there my star was shining—Louisa Loftus, so beautiful to look upon, and
yet whom it seemed so hopeless in me to love!
Lost in reverie, and full of her image, it was some time before I became
aware that my distinguished brother in arms, Mr. De Warr Berkeley, was
“I beg your pardon,” said I, nervously; “did you speak?”
“I was remarking,” he lisped, languidly, “that these good people here
are—haw—very pleasant, and all that sort of thing; but have little of
“Oh—the _odeur de la bonne société_ about them.”
“The deuce!” said I, with some annoyance, for I was conscious that at
our end of the table were really gathered the lions of my uncle’s dinner
party. “I hope you don’t include our host in this—he represents the
oldest line of baronets in Scotland.”
“In Scotland—haw—very good,” he drawled.
“Sir Nigel is my uncle,” said I, pointedly.
“Yes, by the way, I crave pardon; so deuced stupid of me, when I know
well that there are no such sticklers about precedence and dignity as
your little baronets.”
Coming from a conceited _parvenu_, the cool impudence of this remark was
so amusing that I burst into a fit of laughter; and at that moment, by a
singular coincidence, Sir Nigel, who had been engaged in an animated
discussion, almost amounting to a dispute, with Spittal of Lickspittal,
the M.P., now suddenly raised his voice, and without at all intending
it, sent one random shot after another at my fashionable comrade.
“I can assure you, sir,” he continued, “that such cosmopolitan views as
yours, politically and socially, can never be endorsed by me. Thackeray
says—and he says truly—that God has created no more offensive creature
than a Scotch snob, and I quite agree with him. The chief aim of such
is to be thought an Englishman (just as some Englishmen affect the
foreigner), and a deplorable caricature he makes of the Englishman in
language, bearing, and appearance. An English snob, in whatever his
line may be, is, as Thackeray has shown us, a great and amusing
original; but a Scotch snob is a poor and vile imitation, and like all
counterfeits is easily discernible: Birmingham at once. I know no
greater hot-bed of snobbery than our law-courts, sir, especially those
of Edinburgh. Binns, pass the claret.”
The M.P. bowed, and smiled deprecatingly, for he had long figured among
the said courts as one who would joyfully have blacked the boots of the
lord advocate or the ministry.
I felt almost sorry for Berkeley while my uncle spurred his hobby
against the M.P.; the ugly cap fitted so exactly.
“I know,” resumed Sir Nigel, “that in a nation of tuft-hunters like the
British, whose Bible is the ’Peerage,’ a man with a handle to his name,
however small it may be, is a trump card indeed; hence the adoration of
rank, which, as some one says, ’if folly in London, deepens into
positive vice in the country.’”
“Then what do you say of your poor Scottish metropolis, whose
aristocracy consists of a few psalm-singing—aw—bailies and young legal
prigs of the bar, whose importance is only equalled by their
necessities—boiled mutton and thin Cape Madeira?” said Berkeley, glad of
an opportunity to sneer at something Scotch.
“I have known a few honest fellows—and men of first-rate ability,
too—connected with the Scottish Parliament House,” said Sir Nigel.
“But that, I suppose, was in the old Tory days, when all Edinburgh fell
down in the mud to worship George IV., the first gentleman in Europe,”
said the M.P. as a retort, at which my uncle laughed loudly.
But thus, by his remarks at the fag end of some discussion, Sir Nigel
had the effect of completely silencing, and unintentionally mortifying,
Berkeley, who continued to sip his wine in silence, and with something
of malevolence in his eye, till Binns announced coffee, and we repaired
to the drawing-room.