SWANS ON THE WATER.
At about half-past six that evening, Puddock arrived at Captain Cluffe's lodgings, and for the last time the minstrels rehearsed their lovelorn and passionate ditties. They were drest 'all in their best,' under that outer covering, which partly for mystery and partly for bodily comfort—the wind, after the heavy rains of the last week, having come round to the east—these prudent troubadours wore.
Though they hardly glanced at the topic to one another, each had his delightful anticipations of the chances of the meeting. Puddock did not value Dangerfield a rush, and Cluffe's mind was pretty easy upon that point from the moment his proposal for Gertrude Chattesworth had taken wind.
Only for that cursed shower the other night, that made it incumbent on Cluffe, who had had two or three sharp little visits of his patrimonial gout, and no notion of dying for love, to get to his quarters as quickly as might be—he had no doubt that the last stave of their first duet rising from the meadow of Belmont, with that charming roulade—devised by Puddock, and the pathetic twang-twang of his romantic instrument, would have been answered by the opening of the drawing-room window, and Aunt Becky's imperious summons to the serenaders to declare themselves, and come in and partake of supper!
The only thing that at all puzzled him, unpleasantly connected with that unsuccessful little freak of musical love-making, was the fellow they saw getting away from under the open window—the very same at which Lilias Walsingham had unintentionally surprised her friend Gertrude. He had a surtout on, with the cape cut exactly after the fashion of Dangerfield, and a three-cocked hat with very pinched corners, in the French style, which identical hat Cluffe was ready to swear he saw upon Dangerfield's head very early one morning, as he accidentally espied him viewing his peas and tulips in the little garden of the Brass Castle by the river side.
'Twas fixed, in fact, in Cluffe's mind that Dangerfield was the man; and what the plague need had a declared lover of any such clandestine manoeuvres. Was it possible that the old scoundrel was, after all, directing his night visits differently, and keeping the aunt in play, as a reserve, in the event of the failure of his suit to the niece? Plans as gross, he knew, had succeeded; old women were so devilish easily won, and loved money too, so well sometimes.
These sly fellows agreed that they must not go to Belmont by Chapelizod-bridge, which would lead them through the town, in front of the barrack, and under the very sign-board of the Phoenix. No, they would go by the Knockmaroon-road, cross the river by the ferry, and unperceived, and unsuspected, enter the grounds of Belmont on the further side.
So away went the amorous musicians, favoured by the darkness, and talking in an undertone, and thinking more than they talked, while little Puddock, from under his cloak, scratched a faint little arpeggio and a chord, ever and anon, upon 'the inthrument.'
When they reached the ferry, the boat was tied at the near side, but deuce a ferryman could they see. So they began to shout and hallo, singly, and together, until Cluffe, in much ire and disgust, exclaimed—
'Curse the sot—drunk in some whiskey-shop—the blackguard! That is the way such scoundrels throw away their chances, and help to fill the high roads with beggars and thieves; curse him, I sha'n't have a note left if we go on bawling this way. I suppose we must go home again.'
'Fiddle-thtick!' exclaimed the magnanimous Puddock. 'I pulled myself across little more than a year ago, and 'twas as easy as—as—anything. Get in, an' loose her when I tell you.'
This boat was managed by means of a rope stretched across the stream from bank to bank; seizing which, in both hands, the boatman, as he stood in his skiff, hauled it, as it seemed, with very moderate exertion across the river.
Cluffe chuckled as he thought how sold the rascally boatman would be, on returning, to find his bark gone over to the other side.
'Don't be uneathy about the poor fellow,' said Puddock; 'we'll come down in the morning and make him a present, and explain how it occurred.'
'Explain yourself—poor fellow, be hanged!' muttered Cluffe, as he took his seat, for he did not part with his silver lightly. 'I say, Puddock, tell me when I'm to slip the rope.'
The signal given, Cluffe let go, entertaining himself with a little jingle of Puddock's guitar, of which he had charge, and a verse or two of their last song; while the plump little lieutenant, standing upright, midships in the boat, hauled away, though not quite so deftly as was desirable. Some two or three minutes had passed before they reached the middle of the stream, which was, as Puddock afterwards remarked, 'gigantically thwollen;' and at this point they came to something very like a stand-still.
'I say, Puddock, keep her head a little more up the stream, will you?' said Cluffe, thinking no evil, and only to show his nautical knowledge.
'It's easy to say keep her head up the stream,' gasped Puddock who was now labouring fearfully, and quite crimson in the face, tugging his words up with a desperate lisp, and too much out of breath to say more.
The shades of the night and the roar of the waters prevented Cluffe observing these omens aright.
'What the plague are you doing now? cried Cluffe, arresting a decorative passage in the middle, and for the first time seriously uncomfortable, as the boat slowly spun round, bringing what Cluffe called her head—though head and tail were pretty much alike—toward the bank they had quitted.
'Curse you, Puddock, why—what are you going back for? you can't do it.'
'Lend a hand,' bawled Puddock, in extremity. 'I say, help, seize the rope; I say, Cluffe, quick, Sir, my arms are breaking.'
There was no exaggeration in this—there seldom was in any thing Puddock said; and the turn of the boat had twisted his arms like the strands of a rope.
'Hold on, Puddock, curse you, I'm comin',' roared Cluffe, quite alive to the situation. 'If you let go, I'm diddled but I'll shoot you.'
'Catch the rope, I thay, Thir, or 'tith all over!'
Cluffe, who had only known that he was slowly spinning round, and that Puddock was going to commit him to the waves, made a vehement exertion to catch the rope, but it was out of reach, and the boat rocked so suddenly from his rising, that he sat down by mistake again, with a violent plump that made his teeth gnash, in his own place; and the shock and his alarm stimulated his anger.
'Hold on, Sir; hold on, you little devil, I say, one minute, here—hold—hollo!'
While Cluffe was shouting these words, and scrambling forward, Puddock was crying—
'Curth it, Cluffe, quick—oh! hang it, I can't thtand it—bleth my thoul!
And Puddock let go, and the boat and its precious freightage, with a horrid whisk and a sweep, commenced its seaward career in the dark.
'Take the oars, Sir, hang you!' cried Cluffe.
'There are no oarth,' replied Puddock, solemnly.
'Or the helm.'
'There'th no helm.'
'And what the devil, Sir?' and a splash of cold water soused the silken calves of Cluffe at this moment.
'Heugh! heugh!—and what the devil will you do, Sir? you don't want to drown me, I suppose?' roared Cluffe, holding hard by the gunwale.
'You can thwim, Cluffe; jump in, and don't mind me,' said little Puddock, sublimely.
Cluffe, who was a bit of a boaster, had bragged, one evening at mess, of his swimming, which he said was famous in his school days; 'twas a lie, but Puddock believed it implicitly.
'Thank you!' roared Cluffe. 'Swim, indeed!—buttoned up this way—and—and the gout too.'
'I say, Cluffe, save the guitar, if you can,' said Puddock.
In reply, Cluffe cursed that instrument through his teeth, with positive fury, and its owner; and, indeed, he was so incensed at this unfeeling request, that if he had known where it was, I think he would have gone nigh to smash it on Puddock's head, or at least, like the 'Minstrel Boy,' to tear its chords asunder; for Cluffe was hot, especially when he was frightened. But he forgot—though it was hanging at that moment by a pretty scarlet and gold ribbon about his neck.
'Guitar be diddled!' cried he; tis gone—where we're going—to the bottom. What devil possessed you, Sir, to drown us this way?'
Puddock sighed. They were passing at this moment the quiet banks of the pleasant meadow of Belmont, and the lights twinkled from the bow-window in the drawing-room. I don't know whether Puddock saw them—Cluffe certainly did not.
'Hallo! hallo!—a rope!' cried Cluffe, who had hit upon this desperate expedient for raising the neighbourhood. 'A rope—a rope! hallo! hallo!—a ro-o-o-ope!'
And Aunt Becky, who heard the wild whooping, mistook it for drunken fellows at their diversions, and delivered her sentiments in the drawing-room accordingly.