IN WHICH THE GENTLEMEN FOLLOW THE LADIES.
Having had as much claret as they cared for, the gentlemen fluttered gaily into the drawing-room, and Puddock, who made up to Miss Gertrude, and had just started afresh, and in a rather more sentimental vein, was a good deal scandalised, and put out by the general's reciting with jolly emphasis, and calling thereto his daughter's special attention, his receipt for 'surprising a weaver,' which he embellished with two or three burlesque improvements of his own, which Puddock, amidst his blushes and confusion, allowed to pass without a protest. Aunt Rebecca was the only person present who pointedly refused to laugh; and with a slight shudder and momentary elevation of her eyes, said, 'wicked and unnatural cruelty!' at which sentiment Puddock used his pocket-handkerchief in rather an agitated manner.
Tis a thing I've never done myself—that is, I've never seen it done,' said Little Puddock, suffused with blushes, as he pleaded his cause at the bar of humanity—for those were the days of Howard, and the fair sex had taken up the philanthropist. 'The—the—receipt—'tis, you see, a thing I happened to meet—and—and just read it in the—in a book—and the—I—a——'
Aunt Becky, with her shoulders raised in a shudder, and an agonised and peremptory 'there, there, there,' moved out of hearing in dignified disgust, to the general's high entertainment, who enjoyed her assaults upon innocent Puddock, and indeed took her attacks upon himself, when executed with moderation, hilariously enough—a misplaced good-humour which never failed to fire Aunt Becky's just resentment.
Indeed, the general was so tickled with this joke that he kept it going for the rest of the evening, by sly allusions and mischievous puns. As for instance, at supper, when Aunt Rebecca was deploring the miserable depression of the silk manufacture, and the distress of the poor Protestant artisans of the Liberty, the general, with a solemn wink at Puddock, and to that officer's terror, came out with—
'Yet, who knows, Lieutenant Puddock, but the weavers, poor fellows, may be surprised, you know, by a sudden order from the Court, as happened last year.'
But Aunt Rebecca only raised her eyebrows, and, with a slight toss of her head, looked sternly at a cold fowl on the other side. But, from some cause or other—perhaps it was Miss Gertrude's rebellion in treating the outlawed Puddock with special civility that evening, Miss Becky's asperity seemed to acquire edge and venom as time proceeded. But Puddock rallied quickly. He was on the whole very happy, and did not grudge Mervyn his share of the talk, though he heard him ask leave to send Miss Gertrude Chattesworth a portfolio of his drawings made in Venice, to look over, which she with a smile accepted—and at supper, Puddock, at the general's instigation, gave them a solo, which went off pretty well, and, as they stood about the fire after it, on a similar pressure, an imitation of Barry in Othello; and upon this, Miss Becky, who was a furious partisan of Smock-alley Theatre and Mossop against Barry, Woodward, and the Crow-street play-house, went off again. Indeed, this was a feud which just then divided the ladies of all Dublin, and the greater part of the country, with uncommon acrimony.
'Crow-street was set up,' she harangued, 'to ruin the old house in the spirit of covetousness, you say' (Puddock had not said a word on the subject;) 'well, covetousness, we have good authority for saying, is idolatry—nothing less—idolatry, Sir,—you need not stare.' (Puddock certainly did stare.) 'I suppose you once read your Bible, Sir, but every sensible man, woman, child, and infant, Sir, in the kingdom, knows it was malice; and malice, Holy Writ says, is murder—but I forgot, that's perhaps no very great objection with Lieutenant Puddock.'
And little Puddock flushed up, and his round eyes grew rounder and rounder, as she proceeded, every moment; and he did not know what to say—for it had not struck him before that Messrs. Barry's and Woodward's theatrical venture might be viewed in the light of idolatry or murder. So dumfounded as he was, he took half of Lord Chesterfield's advice in such cases, that is, he forgot the smile, but he made a very low bow, and, with this submission, the combat (si rixa est) subsided.
Dangerfield had gone away some time—so had Mervyn—Sturk and his wife went next, and Cluffe and Puddock, who lingered as long as was decent, at last took leave. The plump lieutenant went away very happy, notwithstanding the two or three little rubs he had met with, and a good deal more in love than ever. And he and his companion were both thoughtful, and the walk home was quite silent, though very pleasant.
Cluffe was giving shape mentally to his designs upon Miss Rebecca's £20,000 and savings. He knew she had had high offers in her young days and refused; but those were past and gone—and gray hairs bring wisdom—and women grow more practicable as the time for action dwindles—and she was just the woman to take a fancy—and 'once the maggot bit,' to go any honest length to make it fact. And Cluffe knew that he had the field to himself, and that he was a well-made, handsome, agreeable officer—not so young as to make the thing absurd, yet young enough to inspire the right sort of feeling. To be sure, there were a few things to be weighed. She was, perhaps—well, she was eccentric. She had troublesome pets and pastimes—he knew them all—was well stricken in years, and had a will of her own—that was all. But, then, on the other side was the money—a great and agreeable arithmetical fact not to be shaken—and she could be well-bred when she liked, and a self-possessed, dignified lady, who could sail about a room, and courtesy, and manage her fan, and lead the conversation, and do the honours, as Mrs. Cluffe, with a certain air of haut ton, and in an imposing way, to Cluffe's entire content, who liked the idea of overawing his peers.
And the two warriors, side by side, marched over the bridge, in the starlight, and both by common consent, halted silently, and wheeled up to the battlement; and Puddock puffed a complacent little sigh up the river toward Belmont; and Cluffe was a good deal interested in the subject of his contemplation, and in fact, the more he thought of it, the better he liked it.
And they stood, each in his reverie, looking over the battlement toward Belmont, and hearing the hushed roll of the river, and seeing nothing but the deep blue, and the stars, and the black outline of the trees that overhung the bridge, until the enamoured Cluffe, who liked his comforts, and knew what gout was, felt the chill air, and remembered suddenly that they had stopped, and ought to be in motion toward their beds, and so he shook up Puddock, and they started anew, and parted just at the Phoenix, shaking hands heartily, like two men who had just done a good stroke of business together.