When the barracks at Aldenby were full, the last comers were generally drafted into tents, in the summer, and long rows of huts in the winter - low wooden erections dating from the Crimean war, and certainly neither comfortable nor picturesque; although many efforts were made to redeem their ugliness by laying out the surrounding space in flower beds, and covering the walls with climbing plants.
In one of these huts, of which the furniture was sparse, and all of that portable nature which is handiest to a military man, sat the original of Verna Merstham's sketch of Romeo. His American folding-chair was tilted back to enable him to rest his legs on the table; his eyes were riveted on the novel he had santched up half an hour earlier when he had come in from a long morning on the parade ground, and he was smoking a quaint little pipe, the gift of an Indian chief.
His dress was as degagé as his attitude, for his sword-belt had been unbuckled and tossed aside with his cap; his tunic was unbuttoned, and his boots exchanged for slippers. He might have sat there till it was time to dress for dinner, if his solitude had not been noisily invaded by a brother officer, the Major Halliss, whom Mr Stretby had mentioned while conversing with Mrs Merstham.
"Just as I expected," said the Major, with a twinkle of his merry dark eyes. "If you don't get lazier and lazier every hour of your miserable life. You'll grow to that chair some day. Is this the way you keep your promises?"
"To myself, yes," was the reply, as the young man dropped his book, and, leaning back to yawn more comfortably, folded his arms behind his head. "I made up my mind to have a quiet afternoon, to compensate for all the fagging old Fitz gave us this morning. Why did you come and disturb me?"
"Because you are due at Stretby's in half an hour. I told him to expect us about three o'clock. His rink is ready for use, and we shall have a jolly time of it. Come, Frank, slip into your coloured clothes, and be quick about it."
"But, my good fellow, I never agreed to go," his friend remonstrated, without stirring except to dodge the nutshell flipped at his nose.
"Never mind that. I promised and vowed it for you. I told Stretby I should be obliged to bring you with me, for you were never happy away from your beloved brother-in-arms, and he was quite touched at such a proof that your wits were sprouting as well as your moustache."
"How far is it to The Beeches?" asked Frank Lyssendon, glancing irresolutely at the window, through which the sun of a January day was shining.
"Three miles - not more."
"Not more! The coolness of asking one to walk three miles, and then rink for a couple of hours, after what I have ploughed through today. Get you to some greater flat than myself, Jimmy Halliss, for I'll none of you."
He stretched out his hand for his book, but with a switch of the Major's cane it was jerked beyond his reach.
"Frank, don't be a fool!"
"No - no, my dear boy; I leave that to you."
"Then you're an idiot, and that's worse; do you know the consequences of lounging about like a woman, reading novels, and smoking bad tobacco? Look at me and tremble! I used to indulge in such habits, and now its the trouble of my life to keep my weight down. I'm so horribly plump, that I shall have to starve myself if there isn't an alteration. Neither my daily labours at the gymnasium, nor on my bicycle, nor the rides I take, suffice to reduce my figure to its proper proportions. A little embonpoint is not unbecoming to me; but it would convert you into a fright; so take warning. You're not much to look at now, but you might be worse; so, dress and be thankful that you've a friend at your elbow always ready to point his precepts with example."
"who's going besides you?" inquired Frank, raising himself into a sitting position.
"Sweet William - I like the boy, although he is the greatest blunderer that ever existed - and Vinson. I saw him before his looking-glass, oiling his hair, about an hour and a half ago, so I daresay he's nearly ready by this time. I wish you wouldn't put me to the trouble of talking so much; it makes me thristy, got any soda or seltzer?"
"There's a coule of bottles in that cupboard, and some sherry. Vinson and Whiting going with you? Ah! then you'll not want me. Drink your soapsuds, and depart. Bless you my boy, and farewell! Hand us that book before you go, and let me be happy my own way."
"With pleasure," said Halliss, jerking the volume to the other end of the room; "but I'm not gone yet. As soon as I have swallowed all your sherry, I shall read you a lecture on the sin of ingratitude. Stretby was like a father to you, you young bear! When you first went to Canada; and now you think it too much trouble to walk three miles to shake hands with him."
"Oh, bother!" cried Frank, springing to his feet, and kicking off his slippers; "I suppose I shall have no peace if I don't go with you. but no, I won't!" and he sat down again. "Look here, Jimmy' I like the Stretbys, one and all, and I should be pleased to renew the acquaintances; but there's a relative of mine living in their neighbourhood, whom I don't care to meet."
"Then come with me by all means. Don't you know that if you try to keep out of the way of a bore, you're certain to rush into his arms? but if you go where you make sure of meeting him, it's nine chances to one if you do."
Frank laughed, and began pulling off his regimental tunic. "Yours may be logical reasoning; but it isn't very convincing. However, I'll be guided by it for once; so here goes."
"If it's an affair of money," said the Major, "I've often declared that I'd share my last shilling with you. I'd rather you did not ask me to do so today, because I'm not quite certain whether there's one left in my purse to share! but I shall be in funds again next week, and if a loan - "
"Thanks!" cried Frank Lyssendon, colouring high; "but it's not a question of cash. Say no more. There's those fellows at the door; let them in and I'll be ready in a few minutes."
The Major admitted his friends, and, having accommodated them with the only chairs the hut contained, returned to his own seat on the table; from that post of observation he surveyed them, and admired the camelia in vinson's button-hole, making that gentleman turn pale with suppressed anger by inquiring confidentially if his washerwoman's daughter sent it home in his clean linen. But he did not venture on any further jesting with him, having learned by expereince that it was dagerous.
Captain Vinson was a very polite little man, always precise, always punctual, very moral and discreet, and never in debt or disgrace. Colonel FitzGeorge was wont to say that he was quite a credit to the regiment; yet no one really liked him, and it was well known that an offence given to Basil Vinson was neither forgotten nor forgiven until an opportunity had occurred for repaying it with interest.
But the restless Jimmy, who could bear the sharpest cuts with invincible good humour, and was always the first to laugh at his own mistakes, could not be quiet long; so he turned his attention to the young Ensign, whom he had dubbed Sweet William, asking him seriously if he thought his mamma would approve of his visiting at a house where there were half a dozen unmarried daughters! and if he was aware that Mr Stretby had fought no fewer than twenty duels with presuming youths who had ventured to shake hands with them, and then protested that they had no intentions!
Finding that Ensign Whiting was not to be daunted by these mysterious hints, he was doing his best to make the lad unhappy by discovering that his coat was not cut properly, and that he had seen the ring and breast-pin he had just bought, worn the previous week by a Jew clothesman, when Frank Lyssendon pronounced himself ready to start.
As they quitted the hut, Ensign whiting, encouraged by the sly chuckles of the Major, contrived to get behind Vinson, and mimicked with boyish mischief, the walk and gestures of the apparently unconscious officer. But his mirth was followed by an exclamation of pain and an impromptu dance on one leg, for Vinson suddenly stepped back, affecting to stumble, and planted the heel of his neat boot on the lad's toe with crushing force.
Nothing could be more civil than his apologies. He was so profuse in his expressions of astonishment at his own clumsiness, and his hopes that he had not been as unlucky as to step on a pet corn, that Whiting, after his first wild contortions of agony, stifled his feelings, and heroically declared that it was not worth mentioning - that he was scarcely hurt at all; but as he limped beside frank, he whispered the question:
"Don't you believe that he did it on purpose? I do. I forgot that he could see me in that glass that hangs over Lyssendon's stove. I gave him a poke in the ribs with a foil at the Gym. the other day - just in fun, you know - and he appeared to take it quite pleasantly. But he challenged me yesterday to a bout at singlestick, and I was fool enough to feel flattered by his selecting me; but, by George! I never had such a drubbing before; my bones ache when I think of it and I was so simple as to take it all in good part, till Filder - the Captain, of the Gym., you know - says to me when he'd gone, 'you got it hot and strong, then, young 'un. What had you done to offend him?'"
"He never falls foul of me," said Frank, quietly. "Shall I tell you why? Because I let him alone."
"That's just what I'm not inclined to do," grumbled the Ensign. "There's nothing I should enjoy more than pitching into him."
"Better not. He's too strong for you, and it don't do. We may not always like our brother officers; but we are thrown together, and may as well make the best of each other. Besides, such horseplay as you indulge in is ungentlemanly."
"By George! I've seen you as ready for a spree as anyone!" retorted Whiting.
"I should hope so; but there are sprees and sprees, oh! William, don't you know that yet? Jimmy!" he shouted, to the Major, "look here, my bounding boy! What an excellent constitutuional it would be for you if you were to run Whiting from this gate to yonder oak! It's a capital piece of flat road."
The young men were walking along a quiet country lane, where they were not likely to be interrupted by many passers-by, and the Major, who was proud of his skill in all athletic exercises, immediately agreed to the proposal. But just as they were taking their places for the start, and Captain Vinson's watch was in his hand to time them, the trampling of horses arrested their attention, and a phaeton came in sight, drawn by two ponies, over which the driver - a lady in half-mourning - had lost all control.
Though so frightened that every vestige of colour had fled from both cheek and lip, she steadily kept her place and her hold on the reins; but whither the animals - startled by the sudden firing of a gun on the other side of the hedge - would have borne her, or how she would have escaped severe injury, there is no knowing, if Frank Lyssendon had not rushed forward, and boldly grasped their heads, as they came clattering by.
He did not succeed in retaining his hold, but the check thus given them enabled Captain Vinson to seize the reins, and his firmer hand compelled them, after a short, sharp, struggle, to succumb. Then the lady, who had neither screamed nor spoken, sank back in her carriage, and covered her eyes with her hands for a moment, as if overcome at the thought of the perilous position from which she had just been rescued.
When she looked up again, and tried to smile her gratitude to the gentlemen who had come so promptly to her assistance, Captain Vinson, enthralled by her beauty, pressed forward; but Frank Lyssendon recoiled, muttering to himself;
"Verna! Good Heavens, it is Verna!"
While the others patted and soothed the now trembling ponies, and congratulated the lady, who thanked them with much grace for the aid they had rendered her, he continued to stand aloof, till she caught sight of him, and glanced inquiringly at his face. Then her own grew crimson, and she seemed uncertain whether to appear as if she had not recognised his features, or boldly address him. But his own presence of mind had, by this time, returned, and, lfiting his hat, he courteously accosted her.
"I was just asking myself whether I dared hope that Mrs Merstham wouuld remember an old acquaintance, Frank Lyssendon, of the 160th."
Deeper still grew the flush upon her cheek. Perhaps she would have been better pleased had he manifested more emotion, but trying in vain to emulate his unembarrassed manner, she held out her gloved fingers, saying, in a tremuless whisper:
"I never foret old friends, but I did not know till lately that you were in the neighbourhood."
"We have not been long at Aldenby," he answered, carelessly. "May I introduce to you the gentlemen who have had the pleasure of being of some service to you?"
"I shall be most happy to know any friends of yours," said Verna, softly; but the young man's brows only contracted as he heard this, and he hastened to name his companions in succession; then drew back, while Vinson, whose eagerness contrasted strongly with his own coldness, begged to be permitted to drive Mrs Merstham home; protesting that, unnerved as she must be by what had happened, it would never do to take the reins herself.
Mrs Merstham glanced at Frank, but he would not see that half-entreating look, and sharply biting her lip, she accepted the escort of Vinson, who stepped with alacrity into the phaeton, and seated himself beside her.
"I believe there are a few fine pheasants in my plantations," Verna said, as she bowed her adieux. "If either of you gentlemen feel disposed to come and shoot them, my people will give you any information you require, and my luncheon hour is two o'clock. I hope no one will wait for a more formal invitation. I am a brave soldier's daughter, so I could not regard you as strangers, even if I did not owe you my life."
She looked back to bow and smile once more as she was being driven away, but it was only the Major and Whiting who responded, for Frank Lyssendon was walking along with his hands thrust deeply into his pockets, and his eyes bent on the ground.
"I say, Frank," Major Halliss suddenly exclaimed, "is this lady - this Mrs Merstham, the relative to whom you were alluding?"
"Yes," was the brief and snappish reply.
"Ha! hum! I think I begin to understand the state of affairs."
"I don't think you do; and I'll thank you not to mention her name to me again."
This was said so sharply, that the Major shrugged his shoulders and promised compliance.
to be continued.........