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- Stories by English Authors: England - 1/27 -


STORIES BY ENGLISH AUTHORS

ENGLAND

THE BOX TUNNEL BY CHARLES READE MINIONS OF THE MOON BY F. W. ROBINSON THE FOUR-FIFTEEN EXPRESS BY AMELIA B. EDWARDS THE WRONG BLACK BAG BY ANGELO LEWIS THE THREE STRANGERS BY THOMAS HARDY MR. LISMORE AND THE WIDOW BY WILKIE COLLINS THE PHILOSOPHER IN THE APPLE ORCHARD BY ANTHONY HOPE

THE BOX TUNNEL

BY CHARLES READE

The 10:15 train glided from Paddington May 7, 1847. In the left compartment of a certain first-class carriage were four passengers; of these two were worth description. The lady had a smooth, white, delicate brow, strongly marked eyebrows, long lashes, eyes that seemed to change colour, and a good-sized, delicious mouth, with teeth as white as milk. A man could not see her nose for her eyes and mouth; her own sex could, and would have told us some nonsense about it. She wore an unpretending grayish dress, buttoned to the throat with lozenge-shaped buttons, and a Scottish shawl that agreeably evaded colour. She was like a duck, so tight her plain feathers fitted her, and there she sat, smooth, snug, and delicious, with a book in her hand and a soupcon of her wrist just visible as she held it. Her opposite neighbour was what I call a good style of man, the more to his credit since he belonged to a corporation that frequently turns out the worst imaginable style of young men. He was a cavalry officer, aged twenty-five. He had a moustache, but not a very repulsive one--not one of those subnasal pigtails on which soup is suspended like dew on a shrub; it was short, thick, and black as a coal. His teeth had not yet been turned by tobacco smoke to the colour of juice; his clothes did not stick to nor hang to him; he had an engaging smile, and, what I liked the dog for, his vanity, which was inordinate, was in its proper place, his heart, not in his face, jostling mine and other people's who have none; in a word, he was what one oftener hears of than meets--a young gentleman. He was conversing in an animated whisper with a companion, a fellow-officer; they were talking about what it is far better not to--women. Our friend clearly did not wish to be overheard; for he cast ever and anon a furtive glance at his fair vis-a-vis and lowered his voice. She seemed completely absorbed in her book, and that reassured him. At last the two soldiers came down to a whisper (the truth must be told); the one who got down at Slough, and was lost to posterity, bet ten pounds to three that he who was going down with us to Bath and immortality would not kiss either of the ladies opposite upon the road. "Done, done!" Now I am sorry a man I have hitherto praised should have lent himself, even in a whisper, to such a speculation; "but nobody is wise at all hours," not even when the clock is striking five and twenty, and you are to consider his profession, his good looks, and the temptation--ten to three.

After Slough the party was reduced to three. At Twylford one lady dropped her handkerchief; Captain Dolignan fell on it like a lamb; two or three words were interchanged on this occasion. At Reading the Marlborough of our tale made one of the safe investments of that day; he bought a "Times" and "Punch"--the latter full of steel-pen thrusts and woodcuts. Valour and beauty deigned to laugh at some inflamed humbug or other punctured by "Punch." Now laughing together thaws our human ice; long before Swindon it was a talking-match; at Swindon who so devoted as Captain Dolignan? He handed them out, he souped them, he tough-chickened them, he brandied and cochinealed one, and he brandied and burnt-sugared the other; on their return to the carriage one lady passed into the inner compartment to inspect a certain gentleman's seat on that side of the line.

Reader, had it been you or I, the beauty would have been the deserter, the average one would have stayed with us till all was blue, ourselves included; not more surely does our slice of bread and butter, when it escapes from our hand, revolve it ever so often, alight face downward on the carpet. But this was a bit of a fop, Adonis, dragoon, --so Venus remained in tete-a-tete with him. You have seen a dog meet an unknown female of his species; how handsome, how _empresse_, how expressive he becomes: such was Dolignan after Swindon, and, to do the dog justice, he got handsome and handsomer. And you have seen a cat conscious of approaching cream: such was Miss Haythorn; she became demurer and demurer. Presently our captain looked out of the window and laughed; this elicited an inquiring look from Miss Haythorn.

"We are only a mile from the Box Tunnel."

"Do you always laugh a mile from the Box Tunnel?" said the lady.

"Invariably."

"What for?"

"Why, hem! it is a gentleman's joke."

Captain Dolignan then recounted to Miss Haythorn the following:

"A lady and her husband sat together going through the Box Tunnel; there was one gentleman opposite; it was pitch-dark. After the tunnel the lady said, 'George, how absurd of you to salute me going through the tunnel!' 'I did no such thing.' 'You didn't?' 'No; why?' 'Because somehow I thought you did!'"

Here Captain Dolignan laughed and endeavoured to lead his companion to laugh, but it was not to be done. The train entered the tunnel.

_Miss Haythorn._ Ah!

_Dolignan._ What is the matter?

_Miss Haythorn._ I am frightened.

_Dolignan_ (moving to her side). Pray do not be alarmed; I am near you.

_Miss Haythorn._ You are near me--very near me indeed, Captain Dolignan.

_Dolignan._ You know my name?

_Miss Haythorn._ I heard you mention it. I wish we were out of this dark place.

_Dolignan._ I could be content to spend hours here reassuring you, my dear lady.

_Miss Haythorn._ Nonsense!

_Dolignan._ Pweep! (Grave reader, do not put our lips to the next pretty creature you meet, or will understand what this means.)

_Miss Haythorn._ Ee! Ee!

_Friend._ What is the matter?

_Miss Haythorn._ Open the door! Open the door!

There was a sound of hurried whispers; the door was shut and the blind pulled down with hostile sharpness.

If any critic falls on me for putting inarticulate sounds in a dialogue as above, I answer, with all the insolence I can command at present, "Hit boys as big as yourself"--bigger, perhaps, such as Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes; they began it, and I learned it of them sore against my will.

Miss Haythorn's scream lost most of its effect because the engine whistled forty thousand murders at the same moment, and fictitious grief makes itself heard when real cannot.

Between the tunnel and Bath our young friend had time to ask himself whether his conduct had been marked by that delicate reserve which is supposed to distinguish the perfect gentleman.

With a long face, real or feigned, he held open the door; his late friends attempted to escape on the other side; impossible! they must pass him. She whom he had insulted (Latin for kissed) deposited somewhere at his feet a look of gentle, blushing reproach; the other, whom he had not insulted, darted red-hot daggers at him from her eyes; and so they parted.

It was perhaps fortunate for Dolignan that he had the grace to be a friend to Major Hoskyns of his regiment, a veteran laughed at by the youngsters, for the major was too apt to look coldly upon billiard-balls and cigars; he had seen cannon-balls and linstocks. He had also, to tell the truth, swallowed a good bit of the mess-room poker, which made it as impossible for Major Hoskyns to descend to an ungentlemanlike word or action as to brush his own trousers below the knee.

Captain Dolignan told this gentleman his story in gleeful accents; but Major Hoskyns heard him coldly, and as coldly answered that he had known a man to lose his life for the same thing.

"That is nothing," continued the major, "but unfortunately he deserved to lose it."

At this blood mounted to the younger man's temples, and his senior added, "I mean to say he was thirty-five; you, I presume, are twenty-one!"

"Twenty-five."

"That is much the same thing; will you be advised by me?"

"If you will advise me."

"Speak to no one of this, and send White the three pounds, that he may think you have lost the bet."


Stories by English Authors: England - 1/27

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