Page images

actly threepence three-farthings on three-quarters of a million sterling liabilities) are not these things written in the chronicles of that section of society who are aware of Bob Vates ? He never did any harm to anybody, but he is always predicting uncomfortable things about somebody. There is no use in striving to cut him. He has been known to growl ratiocinations from the opposite side of the street, and to shout unpleasant references to coming events from the top of an omnibus.

I met Vates once at Milan, and being solitary but solicitous of company at the time, gaily bade him prophesy his worst. But even as parrots, when you want them to talk, remain silont, but we you have no desire for their garrulity, begin to jabber intolerably; so Vates, being asked to foretell things, subsided into a mere pleasant conversationalist, talked about the weather and the opera, told me that he had never seen me looking better, and altogether disappointed me. But the disappointment was so agreeable, and we got on so well together, that we agreed to travel for a while in company; and Bob Vates and I rambled up and down the Lake of Como; went to Cernobbio, Bellaggio, the Villa d'Este, and so forth ; then landed at Colico; made tracks for Chiavenna ; sojourned for a while at the Baths of St. Moritz; and then hiring a vetturino, started from Samaden and crossed the Bernina Pass, intending to come out in the Italian Tyrol, somewhere about Itoro or Edolo. I think it was at a beautiful little villeggiatura by the Lake of Poschiavo, and at breakfast-time, the prophesying fit suddenly seized Bob Vates again, and that he curtly asked me whether I had ever been in the East. I told him, in reply, that up to that moment my Oriental travels had been of a very circumscribed nature ; but that I intended to do' Asia Minor, and Palestine, and, if possible, Persia and India, very thoroughly some day or another. "Ah,' returned Vates, 'I daresay you'll go to the East; and I daresay you'll die at Damascus. You're just the sort of fellow to die at Damascus.'

Poor Mr. Buckle died at Damascus; but why should I make my exit from life's stage in that city of roses? I know that I would willingly have assisted Vates' exit from the stage of the world at the Lake of Poschiavo at that moment. Confound his prophecies ! A coolness grew up between us in consequence of his Damascene allusions, and I was glad to be rid of him before we came to Edolo, and pursue my route alone.

He had made up his mind to push on to Trent. It was war time, and the Austrians were in force there, while Garibaldi and his volunteers were holding the country about Storo. Take care you don't get hanged for a spy,' I said malevolently, and thinking to do a little prophesying on my own account, as I parted from Vates. • Take care you don't,' he retorted, shaking a long bony fore-finger (it was his prophesying finger, and when he wagged it, there was always mischief in store). I can see him now.

It was a glorious Italian sunset, and he went away on a mule across some mountain-pass. His legs were very long, and almost trailed on the ground; and he and his beast cast inordinate purple shadows downwards on the rocky path. I didn't fling a jagged stone at his head for luck, but I felt very much inclined that way. Die at Damascus, indeed! I was arrested that same evening by the Italian carabinieri, set on by the villanous landlord of the inn where we had dined, and was vehemently suspected by the sotto-prefetto of being an Austrian spy; and it was only by the skin of my teeth, and by exhibiting passports and lascio passares, that I escaped. I thought of Bob Vatco rojoinder to my prophecy.

I thought of him again at a back window in Africa, slowly recovering from an attack of rheumatic gout.

I was quite alone, and had been very ill; and this was, or rather had been, the land of the Moslem. I could see the minarets of a mosque from my back-room window, and men, women, and children, in Oriental costumes, were passing beneath it all day long ; but still Algeria (I was in Algeria) isn't precisely the East, and Blidah (I was at Blidah) isn't Damascus.

• But sure it's near enough,' as a friendly Irish waiter at the St. Nicholas Hotel, New York, told me once when he claimed acquaintance with me on the score of having been a footman to a Mr. Salomons, and so insisted on bringing me more boiled turkey and celery

Sala or Salomons, it's near enough ;' and the genial creature heaped my plate with delicacies for auld lang syne. A good-natured Irishman would give you his head, if it were loose ; a sulky Irishman would knock off your head, if he dared ; and I am sorry to say the sulky Celt is oftener met with than the good-natured one in the States.

Vates told me that I should die at Damascus; but this was only Blidah, and it is a far cry from Cæsarian Mauritania to Syria ; but I remembered that as much latitude is allowed to prophets as license to poets. A prophet may shoot at the pigeon and kill the crow; but so long as he hits something, the public will be satisfied. A similar elasticity in construction was admitted in those curious divings into the lucky bag of futurity, the pagan Sortes Homerice and the Sortes Virgiliana; to which likewise the early Christians resorted under the name of the Sortes Sanctorum, opening the Scriptures at random, and choosing a casual text to resolve any question which troubled them. They brought down the oracle sometimes with a


* This superstition still lingers among us in the form of the Bible and key? the book being suspended by a string, and the key placed between its leaves being supposed to turn to the oracular text. There are also a number of sortes deducible from a particular chapter of Proverbs, notably in the verses, 'Set me for a seal upon thy heart,' and ' For love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave,' &c. Touching the ancient sortes sanctorum, St. Gregory of Tours--what a mine of storytelling there is in those old Fathers !-relates a very pretty but melancholy narraeverything is in the hands of heaven; but if you agree to it, let us go to the church, and have a mass said ; afterwards we will lay the gospel on the altar, and say a joint prayer, and open the book to be certainly informed of the will of providence in this affair.' The proposal was accepted; the sortes sanctorum were said; but the first verse which met the eyes of the unlucky pair was the sublime one beginning, * Whoso loveth father or mother more,' &c. You see,' cried St. Consortia, 'heaven claims me as its own.' And she took the veil. I hope I shall not be thought irreverent in quoting a story which was first told by a saint.

very long bow indeed; as when the monks of Dijon, uncertain as to whether they should side with Chraumes, who had revolted against his brother Clotaire, turned up a chapter in Isaiah, and lighting on the text, ‘I will pluck up the fence of my vineyard, and it shall be destroyed,' at once concluded to make cause in favour of Clotaire. Now, Chraumes was not a vineyard; but the implication was held to be close enough to jump with the monkish humour.

Vates was 'near or close enough, then, in his prophecy; and for many days I had quite made up my mind that my Damascus was to be here, and that I should make an end of it at Blidah. You fancy all kinds of things when you have got rheumatic gout; and the more helpless is your miserable body, the more nervously active does your mind become. In fact, one of the best definitions I can fix upon for temporary delirium is that your intellect, meanly taking advantage of your physical prostration, goes out for a walk. That is called wandering; and, to a modified extent, such capricious promenades are made by the mind in dreams.

I suppose my rheumatic gout, or fever, or whatever it was that made me a helpless cripple, fit only to lie in bed, and groan, and with difficulty help myself to cup after cup of iced lemonade from an enormous bowl of that refreshing beverage which was placed beside my couch—I suppose this most irritating of ailments kept me on my back for about ten days. Of course I was in hourly expectation of pericarditis, dropsy, and the accomplishment of Vates' prophecy; but it didn't come to that. I had a French doctor, who was a very good fellow. From his first prescription of la diète absolue—which meant that I was to have nothing to eat (and I am sure I didn't want anything)—and from his insistence that I should swallow large quantities of tisanes — mint tea, sassafras tea, mandrake tea, sarsaparilla tea, hellebore tea, and the like (a French doctor will prescribe a tisane for a broken leg)—I suspected my medico to be of the great Sangrado family, and opined that his next step would be in the interest of Bob Vates) to bleed me. But he forbore phlebotomy, and turned out, as I have said, to be a very tive of true love, the course of which did not run smooth. St. Consortia, in her youth, was passionately courted by a young man of very powerful family. She reciprocated his love ; but she had given some kind of pledge to her family that she would take the veil. She asked her lover for a week's delay to determine her choice. At the expiration of this time, which she employed in devout exercises, the young man, accompanied by one of the most distinguished matrons of the city, came to know her decision. 'I can neither accept you nor refuse you,' replied the maiden ; good fellow; and when I got better, would sit for hours at my bedside, narrating strange stories of the Bedouin douars and the bureaux Arabes of the taking of smalat, the hunting of lions, and the coursing-matches of the Bedouin chiefs, whose greyhounds would, I fancy, rather astonish the noble proprietor of Master M'Grath and other competitors for the Waterloo cup. He had known Algeria in the old days of the Regency, and when it was indeed 'Barbary;' and when, under the beneficent sway of the Turkish Deys, it was by no means a matter of mathematical certainty if a man went to bed with his head on, that he should find it still on his shoulders when he woke the next morning.

He had been into harems, had this experienced physician, and his coat had been more than once half torn off his back by infuriated houris because he had been unable to cure a chief Odalisque's raging tooth. I grew at last to love this doctor, and was specially grateful to him for allowing me to smoke in an early stage of convalescence. How we hate the doctor who puts the tobacco - pouch under taboo ! I tendered him a napoleon as his first fee, but told him I was poor, and could not afford a similar honorarium every time; but he said, ' Bêtise !' and pushing back the piece of gold, told me that he would send me my bill when I got well. I am sure I must have seen him thirty times; and when at last I went away to Oran, he told me that would I give him a hundred francs, he would be amply paid, medicine and all. “Car, voyez-vous,' he remarked, in a singular spirit of philosophic contentment, 'cent francs c'est un pécule ; c'est une somme.' 'Twas but four pounds any way; and I cannot say that I have ever found much spending in eighty shillings. Good old Doctor Rasticolis, I wonder where you are now! He knew a little-a very little—English, and had often promised himself, he said, to become a subscriber to the Lancet. Sidnam—great man ; Sheselden—ver great man; Jon Onterre—moch great man,' he would exclaim. I imagine he thought those illustrious practitioners were still alive. By the way, he had been in early life an assistant-surgeon in the navy; and have you not found that the vast majority of those who have had anything to do with the sea have a habit of being very good fellows, and careless in moneymatters? He had the Cross of the Legion of Honour for services rendered to the Arabs during a time of cholera and famine; he had eight children (a brown little Provençale woman was his wife ; and she gave me some Nougat de Montélimar, the most delicious of all lollipops, when I went away), and he was as poor as Job. I am inclined to think there are a good many Doctors Rasticolis in this world—virtuous, contented, cheerful, just, and quite obscure and neglected.

My room was on the first-floor back of an hotel—the hotel, in fact, of Blidah, which is in the centre of a wealthy agricultural district, and is garrisoned, besides, by a regiment of infantry; for in this country Peace has always to be drawn armed, and ploughing is scarcely practicable without the aid of muskets and fixed bayonets. The hotel was, de fond en comble, a French one. The landlady was a Marseillaise — voluble, passionate, kind-hearted, and a prodigious liar. Her temper was amusingly violent. She was always showing-up somebody: now Celestine the maid, who was a pure Parisian ex-grisette, with an inextinguishable passion for fromage de Brie, and eggs boiled in cochineal to make their shells crimson—I am sure she imagined that to be their natural hue; now Jean the waiter, formerly a drummer in the twenty-third regiment of the line, and who claimed (he was a liar too; and we are all liars) to have once worsted the Emir Abdel-Kader in single combat by 'caving-in' the parchment of his drum on that Paladin's head—Je lui enfonce la caisse sur sa boule comme çacrac!' would this Munchausenesque waiter repeat, striking one palm against the other; now Zepherini her niece, whose ears she would box until she howled, and had to be pacified with gingerbread.; and now her husband, a meek little man hailing from Lyons, who also officiated as cook in the establishment, and who, when I was restored to health, frequently vanquished me at dominoes. The officers of the regiment in garrison held their table-d'hôtes at the hotel ; the subalterns in the public salle-à-manger ; the captains and field-officers in another apartment; while the colonel in solitary grandeur—in the first-floor front indeed, the room next to mine. A common mess for all grades of officers has not yet been established in the French army, although Napoleon III. has done his best to establish the system in the garrison of Paris. I don't think the colonel enjoyed his isolated dignity much ; for I frequently heard him swearing terribly at Jean the waiter; and once I was sensible of sounds remotely resembling a kick. Perhaps the imaginative ex-drummer had been rash enough to tell his story of Abd-el-Kader and the drum, and the colonel had with his boot avenged the cause of outraged truth. On the day prior to my departure this awful officer asked me to dinner. He had served in the Crimea, and was good enough to inform me that the English guards were 'prodigies of solidity;' but his most enthusiastic admiration was reserved for the Highland regiments, whose valour and whose costume seemed equally to have astonished him. Et les femmes écossaises, portent-elles aussi le kilt ?he asked, his little black eyes twinkling merrily. I was so far from home--a beau mentir qui vient de loin--and he had been so hospitable, that I thought there was no harm in telling him a trifling Munchausenism to please him ; so I replied that the Highland ladies did wear the garb of old Gael on solemn occasions. After all, the fib was not ‘such a very outrageous one; for is not the kilt a petticoat ? And a petticoat, I take it, may be either long or short, as the wearer pleases. I have seen it worn very short indeed at the Impropriety theatre.

« PreviousContinue »