Chapter 28




THE MAJOR AND VAVASOR.


As major Marvel, for all the rebuffs he had met with, had not yet learned to entertain the smallest doubt as to his personal acceptability, so he was on his part most catholic in his receptivity. But there were persons whom from the first glance he disliked, and then his dislike was little short of loathing. I suspect they were such as found the heel of his all but invulnerable vanity and wounded it. Not accustomed to be hurt, it resented hurt when it came the more sorely. He was in one sense, and that not a slight one, a true man: there was no discrepancy, no unfittingness between his mental conditions and the clothing in which those conditions presented themselves to others. His words, looks, manners, tones, and everything that goes to express man to man, expressed him. What he felt that he showed. I almost think he was unaware of the possibility of doing otherwise. At the same time, he had very little insight into the feelings of others, and almost no sense of the possibility that the things he was saying might affect his listeners otherwise than they affected him. If he boasted, he meant to boast, and would scorn to look as if he did not know it was a good thing he was telling of himself: why not of himself as well as of another? He had no very ready sympathy with other people, especially in any suffering he had never himself experienced, but he was scrupulously fair in what he said or did in regard of them, and nothing was so ready to make him angry as any appearance of injustice or show of deception. He would have said that a man's first business was to take care of himself, as so many think who have not the courage to say it; and so many more who do not think it. But the Major's conduct went far to cast contempt upon his selfish opinion.

During dinner he took the greater part of the conversation upon himself, and evidently expected to be listened to. But that was nearly all he wanted. Let him talk, and hear you laugh when he was funny, and he was satisfied. He seemed to have no inordinate desire for admiration or even for approbation. He was fond of telling tales of adventure, some wonderful, some absurd, some having nothing in them but his own presence, and occasionally, while the detail was good the point for the sake of which it had been introduced would be missing; but he was just as willing to tell one, the joke of which turned against himself, as one amusing at the expense of another. Like many of his day who had spent their freshest years in India, he was full of the amusements and sports with which so much otherwise idle time is passed by Englishmen in the East, and seemed to think nothing connected with the habits of their countrymen there could fail to interest those at home. Every now and then throughout the dinner he would say, "Oh, that reminds me!" and then he would tell something that happened when he was at such and such a place, when So-and-So "of our regiment" was out tiger-shooting, or pig-sticking, or whatever the sport might be; "and if Mr. Raymount will take a glass of wine with me, I will tell him the story"--for he was constantly drinking wine, after the old fashion, with this or that one of the company.

When he and Vavasor were introduced to each other, he glanced at him, drew his eyebrows together, made his military bow, and included him among the listeners to his tales of exploit and adventure by sea and land.

Vavasor was annoyed at his presence--not that he much minded a little boring in such good company, or forgot that everything against another man was so much in his own favor; but he could not help thinking, "What would my aunt say to such a relative?" So while he retained the blandest expression, and was ready to drink as many glasses of wine with the new comer as he wished, he set him down in his own mind not only as an ill-bred man and a boaster, in which there was some truth, but as a liar and a vulgar-minded man as well, in which there was little or no truth.

Now although major Marvel had not much ordinary insight into character, the defect arose mainly from his not feeling a deep enough interest in his neighbor; and if his suspicion or dislike was roused in respect of one, he was just as likely as any other ever is to arrive at a correct judgment concerning a man he does not love.

He had been relating a thrilling adventure with a man-eating tiger. He saw, as they listened, the eyes of little Mark and Saffy had almost surpassed the use of eyes and become ears as well. He saw Hester also, who was still child enough to prefer a story of adventure to a love-tale fixed as if, but for the way it was bound over to sobriety, her hair would have stood on end. But at one moment he caught also--surprised indeed a certain expression on the face of Vavasor, which that experienced man of the world never certainly intended to be so surprised, only at the moment he was annoyed to see the absorption of Hester's listening; she seemed to have eyes for no one but the man who shot tigers as Vavasor would have shot grouse.

The major, who upon fitting occasion and good cause, was quarrelsome as any turkey-cock, swallowed something that was neither good, nor good for food, and said, but not quite so carelessly as he had intended:

"Ha, ha, I see by your eyes, Mr. Passover, you think I'm drawing the long bow--drawing the arrow to the head, eh?"

"No, 'pon my word!" said Vavasor earnestly, "nothing farther from my thoughts. I was only admiring the coolness of the man who would actually creep into the mouth of the--the--the jungle after a--what-you-call-him--a man-eating tiger."

"Well, you see, what was a fellow to do," returned the major suspiciously. "The fellow wouldn't come out! and by Jove I wasn't the only fellow that wanted him out! Besides I didn't creep in; I only looked in to see whether he was really there. That I could tell by the shining eyes of him."

"But is not a man-eating tiger a something tremendous, you know? When he once takes to that kind of diet, don't you know--they say he likes nothing else half so well! Good beef and mutton will no longer serve his turn, I've been told at the club. A man must be a very Munchausen to venture it."

"I don't know the gentleman--never heard of him," said the major: for Vavasor had pronounced the name German-fashion, and none of the listeners recognized that of the king of liars; "but you are quite mistaken in the character of the man-eating tiger. It is true he does not care for other food after once getting a passion for the more delicate; but it does not follow that the indulgence increases either his courage or his fierceness. The fact is it ruins his moral nature. He does not get many Englishmen to eat; and it would seem as if the flesh of women and children and poor cowardly natives, he devours, took its revenge upon him by undermining and destroying his natural courage. The fact is, he is well-known for a sneak. I sometimes can't help thinking the ruffian knows he is a rebel against the law of his Maker, and a traitor to his natural master. The man-eating tiger and the rogue-elephant are the devils of their kind. The others leave you alone except you attack them; then they show fight. These attack you--but run--at least the tiger, not the elephant, when you go out after him. From the top of your elephant you may catch sight of him sneaking off with his tail tucked between his legs from cover to cover of the jungle, while they are beating up his quarters to drive him out. You can never get any sport out of him. He will never fly at your elephant, or climb a tree, or take to the water after you! If there's a creature on earth I hate it's a coward!" concluded the major.

Said Vavasor to himself, "The man is a coward!"

"But why should you hate a coward so?" asked Hester, feeling at the moment, with the vision of a man-eating tiger before her, that she must herself come under the category. "How can a poor creature made without courage help being one? You can neither learn nor buy courage!"

"I am not so sure about the learning. But such as you mean, I wouldn't call cowards," returned the major. "Nobody thinks worse of the hare, or even the fox, for going away before the hounds. Men whose business it is to fight go away before the enemy when they have not a chance, and when it would do no good to stand and be cut down. To let yourself be killed when you ought not is to give up fighting. There is a time to run and a time to stand. But the man will run like a man and the coward like a coward."

Said Vavasor to himself, "I'll be bound you know when to run at least!"

"What can harmless creatures do but run," resumed the major, filling his glass with old port. "But when the wretch that has done all the hurt he could will not show fight for it, but turns tail the moment danger appears, I call him a contemptible coward. Man or beast I would set my foot on him. That's what made me go into the hole to look after the brute."

"But he might have killed you, though he was a coward," said Hester, "when you did not leave him room to run."

"Of course he might, my dear! Where else would be the fun of it? Without that the thing would be no better than this shooting of pigeons and pheasants by men who would drop their guns if a cock were to fly in their faces. You had to kill him, you know! He's first cousin--the man-eating, or rather woman-eating tiger, to a sort that I understand abounds in the Zoological Gardens called English society; if the woman be poor, he devours her at once; if she be rich he marries her, and eats her slowly up at his ease in his den."

"How with the black wife!" thought Mr. Raymount, who had been little more than listening.

But Mr. Raymount did not really know anything about that part of his old friend's history; it was hardly to his discredit. The black wife, as he called her, was the daughter of an English merchant by a Hindoo wife, a young creature when he first made her acquaintance, unaware of her own power, and kept almost in slavery by the relatives of her deceased father, who had left her all his property. Major Marvel made her acquaintance and became interested in her through a devilish attempt to lay the death of her father to her door. I believe the shine of her gold had actually blinded her relatives into imagining, I can hardly say believing her guilty. The major had taken her part and been of the greatest service to her. She was entirely acquitted. But although nobody believed her in the smallest degree guilty, society looked askance upon her. True, she was rich, but was she not black? and had she not been accused of a crime? And who saw her father and mother married? Then said the major to himself--"Here am I a useless old fellow, living for nobody but myself! It would make one life at least happier if I took the poor thing home with me. She's rather too old, and I'm rather too young to adopt her; but I daresay she would marry me. She has a trifle I believe that would eke out my pay, and help us to live decently!" He did not know then that she had more than a very moderate income, but it turned out to be a very large fortune indeed when he came to inquire into things. That the major rejoiced over his fortune, I do not doubt; but that he would have been other than an honorable husband had he found she had nothing, I entirely disbelieve. When she left him the widowed father of a little girl, he mourned sincerely for her. When the child followed her mother, he was for some time a sad man indeed. Then, as if her money was all he had left of her, and he must lead what was left of his life in its company, he went heartily into speculation with it, and at least doubled the fortune she brought him. He had now returned to his country to find almost every one of his old friends dead, or so changed as to make them all but dead to him. Little as any one would have imagined it from his conversation or manner, it was with a kind of heart-despair that he sought the cousin he had loved. And scarcely had he more than seen the daughter of his old love than, in the absence of almost all other personal interest, he was immediately taken possession of by her--saw at once that she was a grand sort of creature, gracious as grand, and different from anything he had even seen before. At the same time he unconsciously began to claim a property in her; to have loved the mother seemed to give him a right in the daughter, and that right there might be a way of making good. But all this was as yet only in the region of the feeling, not at all in that of the thinking.

In proportion as he was taken with the daughter of the house, he disliked the look of the fine gentleman visitor that seemed to be dangling after her. Who he was, or in what capacity there, he did not know, but almost from the first sight profoundly disliked him, and the more as he saw more sign of his admiration of Hester. He might be a woman-eater, and after her money--if she had any: such suspects must be watched and followed, and their haunts marked.

"But," said Hester, fearing the conversation might here take a dangerous turn, "I should like to understand the thing a little better. I am not willing to set myself down as a coward; I do not see that a woman has any right to be a coward any more than a man. Tell me, major Marvel--when you know that a beast may have you down, and begin eating you any moment, what is it that keeps you up? What have you to fall back upon? Is it principle, or faith, or what is it?"

"Ho, ho!" said the Major, laughing, "a meta-physician in the very bosom of my family!--I had not reckoned upon that!--Well, no, my dear, I cannot exactly say that it is principle, and I am sure it is not faith. You don't think about it at all. It's partly your elephant, and partly your rifle--and partly perhaps--well, there I daresay comes in something of principle!--that as an Englishman you are sent to that benighted quarter of the world to kill their big vermin for them, poor things! But no, you don't think of that at the time. You've got to kill him--that's it. And then when he comes roaring on, your rifle jumps to your shoulder of itself."

"Do you make up your mind beforehand that if the animal should kill you, it is all right?" asked Hester.

"By no means, I give you my word of honor," answered the major, laughing.

"Well now," answered Hester, "except I had made up my mind that if I was killed it was all right, I couldn't meet the tiger."

"But you see, my dear," said the major, "you do not know what it is to have confidence in your eye and your rifle. It is a form of power that you soon come to feel as resting in yourself--a power to destroy the thing that opposes you!"

Hester fell a-thinking, and the talk went on without her. She never heard the end of the story, but was roused by the laughter that followed it.

"It was no tiger at all--that was the joke of the thing," said the major. "There was a roar of laughter when the brute--a great lumbering floundering hyena, rushed into the daylight. But the barrel of my rifle was bitten together as a schoolboy does a pen--a quill-pen, I mean. They have horribly powerful jaws, those hyenas."

"And what became of the man-eater?" asked Mark, with a disappointed look.

"Stopped in the hole till it was safe to come out and go on with his delicate meals."

"Just imagine that horrible growl behind you, as if it came out of a whole mine of teeth inside!"

"By George! for a young lady," said the major, "you have an imagination! Too much of that, you know, won't go to make you a good hunter of tigers!"

"Then you owe your coolness to want of imagination?" suggested Hester.

"Perhaps so. Perhaps, after all," returned the major, with a merry twinkle in his eye, "we hunters are but a set of stupid fellows--too stupid to be reasonably frightened!"

"I don't mean that exactly. I think that perhaps you do not know so well as you might where your courage comes from. For my part I would rather be courageous to help the good than to destroy the bad."

"Ah, but we're not all good enough ourselves for that," said the major, with a serious expression, and looking at her full out of his clear eyes, from which their habitual twinkle of fun had for the moment vanished. "Some of us are only fit to destroy what is yet worse than ourselves."

"To be sure we can't make anything," said Hester thoughtfully, "but we can help God to make. To destroy evil things is good, but the worst things can only be destroyed by being good, and that is so hard!"

"It is hard," said the major--"so hard that most people never try it!" he added with a sigh, and a gulp of his wine.

Mrs. Raymount rose, and with Hester and the children withdrew. After they were gone the major rattled on again, his host putting in a word now and then, and Vavasor sat silent, with an expression that seemed to say, "I am amused, but I don't eat all that is put on my plate."




Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: