After this, as you may fancy, I left this disgusting establishment, and lived for some time along with pa and mamma at home. My education was finished, at least mamma and I agreed that it was; and from boyhood until hobbadyhoyhood (which I take to be about the sixteenth year of the life of a young man, and may be likened to the month of April when spring begins to bloom)—from fourteen until seventeen, I say, I remained at home, doing nothing—for which I have ever since had a great taste—the idol of my mamma, who took part in all my quarrels with father, and used regularly to rob the weekly expenses in order to find me in pocket-money. Poor soul! many and many is the guinea I have had from her in that way; and so she enabled me to cut a very pretty figure.
Papa was for having me at this time articled to a merchant, or put to some profession; but mamma and I agreed that I was born to be a gentleman and not a tradesman, and the army was the only place for me. Every body was a soldier in those times, for the French war had just begun, and the whole country was swarming with militia regiments. "We'll get him a commission in a marching regiment," said my father; "as we have no money to purchase him up, he'll fight his way, I make no doubt;"—and papa looked at me, with a kind of air of contempt, as much as to say he doubted whether I should be very eager for such a dangerous way of bettering myself.
I wish you could have heard mamma's screech, when he talked so coolly of my going out to fight. "What, send him abroad! across the horrid, horrid sea—to be wrecked and, perhaps, drowned, and only to land for the purpose of fighting the wicked French-men,—to be wounded, and perhaps kick—kick— killed! Oh, Thomas, Thomas! would you murder me and your boy?" There was a regular scene. However, it ended—as it always did—in mother's getting the better, and it was settled that I should go into the militia. And why not? The uniform is just as handsome, and the danger not half so great. I don't think in the course of my whole military experience I ever fought anything, except an old woman, who had the impudence to hallo out, "Heads up, lobster!"—Well, I joined the North Bungays, and was fairly launched into the world.
I was not a handsome man, I know; but there was something about me—that's very evident—for the girls always laughed when they talked to me, and the men, though they affected to call me a poor little creature, squint-eyes, knock-knees, redhead, and so on, were evidently annoyed by my success, for they hated me so confoundedly. Even at the present time they go on, though I have given up gallivanting, as I call it. But in the April of my existence,—that is, in anno Domini 1791, or so—it was a different case; and ing nothing else to do, and being bent upon bettering my condition, I did some very pretty things in that way. But I was not hot-headed and imprudent, like most young fellows. Don't fancy I looked for beauty! Pish!—I wasn’t such a fool. Nor for temper; I don't care about a bad temper: I could break any woman's heart in two years. What I wanted was to get on in the world. Of course I didn’t prefer an ugly woman, or a shrew; and, when the choice offered, would certainly put up with a handsome, good-humoured girl, with plenty of money, as any honest man would.
Now there were two tolerably rich girls in our parts: Miss Magdalen Crutty, with twelve thousand pounds (and, to do her justice, as plain a girl as ever I saw), and Miss Mary Waters, a fine, tall, plump, smiling, peach-cheeked, golden-haired, white-skinned lass, with only ten. Mary Waters lived with her uncle, the Doctor, who had helped me into the world, and who was trusted with this little orphan charge very soon after. My mother, as you have heard, was so fond of Bates, and Bates so fond of little Mary, that both, at first, were almost always in our house; and I used to call her my little wife as soon as I could speak, and before she could walk almost. It was beautiful to see us, the neighbors said.
Well, when her brother, the lieutenant of an India ship, came to be captain, and actually gave Mary five thousand pounds, when she was about ten years old, and promised her five thousand more, there was a great talking, and bobbing, and smiling between the Doctor and my parents, and Mary and I were left together more than ever, and she was told to call me her little husband. And she did; and it was considered a settled thing from that day. She was really amazingly fond of me.
Can any one call me mercenary after that? Though Miss Crutty had twelve thousand, and Mary only ten (five in hand, and five in the bush), I stuck faithfully to Mary. As a matter of course, Miss Crutty hated Miss Waters. The fact was, Mary had all the country dangling after her, and not a soul would come to Magdalen, for all her £12,000. I used to be attentive to her, though (as it’s always useful to be), and Mary would sometimes laugh and sometimes cry at my flirting with Magdalen. This I thought proper very quickly to check. "Mary," said I, "you know that my love for you is disinterested,—for I am faithful to you, though Miss Crutty is richer than you. Don’t fly into a rage, because I pay her attentions, when you know that my heart and my promise are engaged to you."
The fact is, to tell a little bit of a secret, there is nothing like the having two strings to your bow. "Who knows," thought I, "Mary may die; and then where are my £10,000?" So I used to be very kind indeed to Miss Crutty; and well it was that I was so; for when I was twenty, and Mary eighteen, I'm blest if news did not arrive that Captain Waters, who was coming home to England with all his money in rupees, had been taken—ship, rupees, self and all—by a French privateer! and Mary, instead of £10,000, had only £5,000, making a difference of no less than £350 per annum betwixt her and Miss Crutty.
I had just joined my regiment (the famous North Bungay Fencibles, Colonel Craw commanding), when this news reached me; and you may fancy how a young man, in an expensive regiment and mess, having uniforms and what not to pay for, and a figure to cut in the world, felt at hearing such news! "My dearest Robert," wrote Miss Waters, "will deplore my dear brother’s loss: but not, I am sure, the money which that kind and generous soul had promised me. I have still five thousand pounds, and with this and your own little fortune (I had £1000 in the five per cents.!) we shall be as happy and contented as possible."
Happy and contented, indeed! Didn't I know how my father got on with his £300 a year, and how it was all he could do out of it to add a hundred a year to my narrow income, and live himself! My mind was made up. I instantly mounted the coach, and flew to our village,—to Mr. Crutty's, of course. It was next door to Doctor Bates's; but I had no business there.
I found Magdalen in the garden. "Heavens, Mr. Stubbs!" said she, as in my new uniform I appeared before her, "I really did never—such a handsome officer—expect to see you." And she made as if she would blush, and began to tremble violently. I led her to a garden-seat. I seized her hand—it was not withdrawn. I pressed it;—I thought the pressure was returned. I flung myself on my knees, and then I poured into her ear a little speech which I had made on the top of the coach. "Divine Miss Crutty," said I; "idol of my soul! It was but to catch one glimpse of you that I passed through this garden. I never intended to breathe the secret passion" (oh, no; of course not) "which was wearing my life away. You know my unfortunate pre-engagement—it is broken, and for ever! I am free;—free, but to be your slave,—your humblest, fondest, truest slave!" and so on.
"Oh, Mr. Stubbs," said she, as I imprinted a kiss upon her cheek, "I can't refuse you; but I fear you are a sad naughty man."
Absorbed in the delicious reverie which was caused by the dear creature's confusion, we were both silent for a while, and should have remained so for hours perhaps, so lost were we in happiness, had I not been suddenly roused by a voice exclaiming from behind us,
"Don't cry, Mary; he is a swindling, sneaking scoundrel, and you are well rid of him!"
I turned round. O heaven, there stood Mary, weeping on Doctor Bates's arm, while that miserable apothecary was looking at me with the utmost scorn. The gardener, who had let me in, had told them of my arrival, and now stood grinning behind them. "Imperence!" was my Magdalen's only exclamation, as she flounced by with the utmost self-possession, while I, glancing daggers at the spies, followed her. We retired to the parlor, where she repeated to me the strongest assurances of her love.
I thought I was a made man. Alas! I was only an APRIL FOOL!