Read CHAPTER XXIII - CORK of Charles O' Malley‚ The Irish Dragoon Volume 1, free online book, by Charles Lever, on

The undress rehearsal of a new piece, with its dirty-booted actors, its cloaked and hooded actresses en papillote, bears about the same relation to the gala, wax-lit, and bespangled ballet, as the raw young gentleman of yesterday to the epauletted, belted, and sabretasched dragoon, whose transformation is due to a few hours of head-quarters, and a few interviews with the adjutant.

So, at least, I felt it; and it was with a very perfect concurrence in his Majesty’s taste in a uniform, and a most entire approval of the regimental tailor, that I strutted down George’s Street a few days after my arrival in Cork. The transports had not as yet come round; there was a great doubt of their doing so for a week or so longer; and I found myself as the dashing cornet, the centre of a thousand polite attentions and most kind civilities.

The officer under whose orders I was placed for the time was a great friend of Sir George Dashwood’s, and paid me, in consequence, much attention. Major Dalrymple had been on the staff from the commencement of his military career, had served in the commissariat for some time, was much on foreign stations; but never, by any of the many casualties of his life, had he seen what could be called service. His ideas of the soldier’s profession were, therefore, what might almost be as readily picked up by a commission in the battle-axe guards, as one in his Majesty’s Fiftieth. He was now a species of district paymaster, employed in a thousand ways, either inspecting recruits, examining accounts, revising sick certificates, or receiving contracts for mess beef. Whether the nature of his manifold occupations had enlarged the sphere of his talents and ambition, or whether the abilities had suggested the variety of his duties, I know not, but truly the major was a man of all work. No sooner did a young ensign join his regiment at Cork, than Major Dalrymple’s card was left at his quarters; the next day came the major himself; the third brought an invitation to dinner; on the fourth he was told to drop in, in the evening; and from thenceforward, he was the ami de la maison, in company with numerous others as newly-fledged and inexperienced as himself.

One singular feature of the society at the house was that although the major was as well known as the flag on Spike Island, yet somehow, no officer above the rank of an ensign was ever to be met with there. It was not that he had not a large acquaintance; in fact, the “How are you, Major?” “How goes it, Dalrymple?” that kept everlastingly going on as he walked the streets, proved the reverse; but strange enough, his predilections leaned towards the newly gazetted, far before the bronzed and seared campaigners who had seen the world, and knew more about it. The reasons for this line of conduct were twofold. In the first place, there was not an article of outfit, from a stock to a sword-belt, that he could not and did not supply to the young officer, from the gorget of the infantry to the shako of the grenadier, all came within his province; not that he actually kept a magasin of these articles, but he had so completely interwoven his interests with those of numerous shopkeepers in Cork that he rarely entered a shop over whose door Dalrymple & Co. might not have figured on the sign-board. His stables were filled with a perfect infirmary of superannuated chargers, fattened and conditioned up to a miracle, and groomed to perfection. He could get you only you about three dozen of sherry to take out with you as sea-store; he knew of such a servant; he chanced upon such a camp-furniture yesterday in his walks; in fact, why want for anything? His resources were inexhaustible; his kindness unbounded.

Then money was no object, hang it, you could pay when you liked; what signified it? In other words, a bill at thirty-one days, cashed and discounted by a friend of the major’s, would always do. While such were the unlimited advantages his acquaintance conferred, the sphere of his benefits took another range. The major had two daughters; Matilda and Fanny were as well known in the army as Lord Fitzroy Somerset, or Picton, from the Isle of Wight to Halifax, from Cape Coast to Chatham, from Belfast to the Bermudas. Where was the subaltern who had not knelt at the shrine of one or the other, if not of both, and vowed eternal love until a change of quarters? In plain words, the major’s solicitude for the service was such, that, not content with providing the young officer with all the necessary outfit of his profession, he longed also to supply him with a comforter for his woes, a charmer for his solitary hours, in the person of one of his amiable daughters. Unluckily, however, the necessity for a wife is not enforced by “general orders,” as is the cut of your coat, or the length of your sabre; consequently, the major’s success in the home department of his diplomacy was not destined for the same happy results that awaited it when engaged about drill trousers and camp kettles, and the Misses Dalrymple remained misses through every clime and every campaign. And yet, why was it so? It is hard to say. What would men have? Matilda was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, romantic-looking girl, with a tall figure and a slender waist, with more poetry in her head than would have turned any ordinary brain; always unhappy, in need of consolation, never meeting with the kindred spirit that understood her, destined to walk the world alone, her fair thoughts smothered in the recesses of her own heart. Devilish hard to stand this, when you began in a kind of platonic friendship on both sides. More than one poor fellow nearly succumbed, particularly when she came to quote Cowley, and told him, with tears in her eyes,

“There are hearts that live and love alone,” etc.

I’m assured that this coup-de-grace rarely failed in being followed by a downright avowal of open love, which, somehow, what between the route coming, what with waiting for leave from home, etc., never got further than a most tender scene, and exchange of love tokens; and, in fact, such became so often the termination, that Power swears Matty had to make a firm resolve about cutting off any more hair, fearing a premature baldness during the recruiting season.

Now, Fanny had selected another arm of the service. Her hair was fair; her eyes blue, laughing, languishing, mischief-loving blue, with long lashes, and a look in them that was wont to leave its impression rather longer than you exactly knew of; then, her figure was petite, but perfect; her feet Canova might have copied; and her hand was a study for Titian; her voice, too, was soft and musical, but full of that gaieté de coeur that never fails to charm. While her sister’s style was il penserono, hers was l’allegro; every imaginable thing, place, or person supplied food for her mirth, and her sister’s lovers all came in for their share. She hunted with Smith Barry’s hounds; she yachted with the Cove Club; she coursed, practised at a mark with a pistol, and played chicken hazard with all the cavalry, for, let it be remarked as a physiological fact, Matilda’s admirers were almost invariably taken from the infantry, while Fanny’s adorers were as regularly dragoons. Whether the former be the romantic arm of the service, and the latter be more adapted to dull realities, or whether the phenomenon had any other explanation, I leave to the curious. Now, this arrangement, proceeding upon that principle which has wrought such wonders in Manchester and Sheffield, the division of labor, was a most wise and equitable one, each having her one separate and distinct field of action, interference was impossible; not but that when, as in the present instance, cavalry was in the ascendant, Fanny would willingly spare a dragoon or two to her sister, who likewise would repay the debt when occasion offered.

The mamma for it is time I should say something of the head of the family was an excessively fat, coarse-looking, dark-skinned personage, of some fifty years, with a voice like a boatswain in a quinsy. Heaven can tell, perhaps, why the worthy major allied his fortunes with hers, for she was evidently of a very inferior rank in society, could never have been aught than downright ugly, and I never heard that she brought him any money. “Spoiled five,” the national amusement of her age and sex in Cork, scandal, the changes in the army list, the failures in speculation of her luckless husband, the forlorn fortunes of the girls, her daughters, kept her in occupation, and her days were passed in one perpetual, unceasing current of dissatisfaction and ill-temper with all around, that formed a heavy counterpoise to the fascinations of the young ladies. The repeated jiltings to which they had been subject had blunted any delicacy upon the score of their marriage; and if the newly-introduced cornet or ensign was not coming forward, as became him, at the end of the requisite number of days, he was sure of receiving a very palpable admonition from Mrs. Dalrymple. Hints, at first dimly shadowed, that Matilda was not in spirits this morning; that Fanny, poor child, had a headache, directed especially at the culprit in question, grew gradually into those little motherly fondnesses in mamma, that, like the fascination of the rattlesnake, only lure on to ruin. The doomed man was pressed to dinner when all others were permitted to take their leave; he was treated like one of the family, God help him! After dinner, the major would keep him an hour over his wine, discussing the misery of an ill-assorted marriage; detailing his own happiness in marrying a woman like the Tonga Islander I have mentioned; hinting that girls should be brought up, not only to become companions to their husbands, but with ideas fitting their station; if his auditor were a military man, that none but an old officer (like him) could know how to educate girls (like his); and that feeling he possessed two such treasures, his whole aim in life was to guard and keep them, a difficult task, when proposals of the most flattering kind were coming constantly before him. Then followed a fresh bottle, during which the major would consult his young friend upon a very delicate affair, no less than a proposition for the hand of Miss Matilda, or Fanny, whichever he was supposed to be soft upon. This was generally a coup-de-maitre; should he still resist, he was handed over to Mrs. Dalrymple, with a strong indictment against him, and rarely did he escape a heavy sentence. Now, is it not strange that two really pretty girls, with fully enough of amiable and pleasing qualities to have excited the attention and won the affections of many a man, should have gone on for years, for, alas! they did so in every climate, under every sun, to waste their sweetness in this miserable career of intrigue and man-trap, and yet nothing come of it? But so it was. The first question a newly-landed regiment was asked, if coming from where they resided, was, “Well, how are the girls?” “Oh, gloriously. Matty is there.” “Ah, indeed! poor thing.” “Has Fan sported a new habit?” “Is it the old gray with the hussar braiding? Confound it, that was seedy when I saw them in Corfu. And Mother Dal as fat and vulgar as ever?” “Dawson of ours was the last, and was called up for sentence when we were ordered away; of course, he bolted,” etc. Such was the invariable style of question and answer concerning them; and although some few, either from good feeling or fastidiousness, relished but little the mode in which it had become habitual to treat them, I grieve to say that, generally, they were pronounced fair game for every species of flirtation and love-making without any “intentions” for the future. I should not have trespassed so far upon my readers’ patience, were I not, in recounting these traits of my friends above, narrating matters of history. How many are there who may cast their eyes upon these pages, that will say, “Poor Matilda! I knew her at Gibraltar. Little Fanny was the life and soul of us all in Quebec.”

“Mr. O’Malley,” said the adjutant, as I presented myself in the afternoon of my arrival in Cork to a short, punchy, little red-faced gentleman, in a short jacket and ducks, “you are, I perceive, appointed to the 14th; you will have the goodness to appear on parade to-morrow morning. The riding-school hours are . The morning drill is ; evening drill . Mr. Minchin, you are a 14th man, I believe? No, I beg pardon! a carbineer; but no matter. Mr. O’Malley, Mr. Minchin; Captain Dounie, Mr. O’Malley. You’ll dine with us to-day, and to-morrow you shall be entered at the mess.”

“Yours are at Santarem, I believe?” said an old, weather-beaten looking officer with one arm.

“I’m ashamed to say, I know nothing whatever of them; I received my gazette unexpectedly enough.”

“Ever in Cork before, Mr. O’Malley?”

“Never,” said I.

“Glorious place,” lisped a white-eyelashed, knocker-kneed ensign; “splendid gals, eh?”

“Ah, Brunton,” said Minchin, “you may boast a little; but we poor devils ”

“Know the Dals?” said the hero of the lisp, addressing me.

“I haven’t that honor,” I replied, scarcely able to guess whether what he alluded to were objects of the picturesque or a private family.

“Introduce him, then, at once,” said the adjutant; “we’ll all go in the evening. What will the old squaw think?”

“Not I,” said Minchin. “She wrote to the Duke of York about my helping Matilda at supper, and not having any honorable intentions afterwards.”

“We dine at ‘The George’ to-day, Mr. O’Malley, sharp seven. Until then ”

So saying, the little man bustled back to his accounts, and I took my leave with the rest, to stroll about the town till dinner-time.