Considering how he may perform his task to the best advantage, he finds that the events which preceded and followed Mr. Cosway's disastrous marriage resolve themselves into certain well-marked divisions. Adopting this arrangement, he proceeds to relate:
The First Epoch in Mr. Cosway's Life.
The sailing of her Majesty's ship Albicore was deferred by the severe illness of the captain. A gentleman not possessed of political influence might, after the doctor's unpromising report of him, have been superseded by another commanding officer. In the present case, the Lords of the Admiralty showed themselves to be models of patience and sympathy. They kept the vessel in port, waiting the captain's recovery.
Among the unimportant junior officers, not wanted on board under these circumstances, and favored accordingly by obtaining leave to wait for orders on shore, were two yo ung men, aged respectively twenty-two and twenty-three years, and known by the names of Cosway and Stone. The scene which now introduces them opens at a famous seaport on the south coast of England, and discloses the two young gentlemen at dinner in a private room at their inn.
"I think that last bottle of champagne was corked," Cosway remarked. "Let's try another. You're nearest the bell, Stone. Ring."
Stone rang, under protest. He was the elder of the two by a year, and he set an example of discretion.
"I am afraid we are running up a terrible bill," he said. "We have been here more than three weeks--"
"And we have denied ourselves nothing," Cosway added. "We have lived like princes. Another bottle of champagne, waiter. We have our riding-horses, and our carriage, and the best box at the theater, and such cigars as London itself could not produce. I call that making the most of life. Try the new bottle. Glorious drink, isn't it? Why doesn't my father have champagne at the family dinner-table?"
"Is your father a rich man, Cosway?"
"I should say not. He didn't give me anything like the money I expected, when I said good-by--and I rather think he warned me solemnly, at parting, to take the greatest care of it.' There's not a farthing more for you,' he said, 'till your ship returns from her South American station.' Your father is a clergyman, Stone."
"Well, and what of that?"
"And some clergymen are rich."
"My father is not one of them, Cosway."
"Then let us say no more about him. Help yourself, and pass the bottle."
Instead of adopting this suggestion, Stone rose with a very grave face, and once more rang the bell. "Ask the landlady to step up," he said, when the waiter appeared.
"What do you want with the landlady?" Cosway inquired.
"I want the bill."
The landlady--otherwise Mrs. Pounce--entered the room. She was short, and old, and fat, and painted, and a widow. Students of character, as revealed in the face, would have discovered malice and cunning in her bright black eyes, and a bitter vindictive temper in the lines about her thin red lips. Incapable of such subtleties of analysis as these, the two young officers differed widely, nevertheless, in their opinions of Mrs. Pounce. Cosway's reckless sense of humor delighted in pretending to be in love with her. Stone took a dislike to her from the first. When his friend asked for the reason, he made a strangely obscure answer. "Do you remember that morning in the wood when you killed the snake?" he said. "I took a dislike to the snake." Cosway made no further inquiries.
"Well, my young heroes," said Mrs. Pounce (always loud, always cheerful, and always familiar with her guests), "what do you want with me now?"
"Take a glass of champagne, my darling," said Cosway; "and let me try if I can get my arm round your waist. That's all I want with you."
The landlady passed this over without notice. Though she had spoken to both of them, her cunning little eyes rested on Stone from the moment when she appeared in the room. She knew by instinct the man who disliked her--and she waited deliberately for Stone to reply.
"We have been here some time," he said, "and we shall be obliged, ma'am, if you will let us have our bill."
Mrs. Pounce lifted her eyebrows with an expression of innocent surprise.
"Has the captain got well, and must you go on board to-night?" she asked.
"Nothing of the sort!" Cosway interposed. "We have no news of the captain, and we are going to the theater to-night."
"But," persisted Stone, "we want, if you please, to have the bill."
"Certainly, sir," said Mrs. Pounce, with a sudden assumption of respect. "But we are very busy downstairs, and we hope you will not press us for it to-night?"
"Of course not!" cried Cosway.
Mrs. Pounce instantly left the room, without waiting for any further remark from Cosway's friend.
"I wish we had gone to some other house," said Stone. "You mark my words--that woman means to cheat us."
Cosway expressed his dissent from this opinion in the most amiable manner. He filled his friend's glass, and begged him not to say ill-natured things of Mrs. Pounce.
But Stone's usually smooth temper seemed to be ruffled; he insisted on his own view. "She's impudent and inquisitive, if she is not downright dishonest," he said. "What right had she to ask you where we lived when we were at home; and what our Christian names were; and which of us was oldest, you or I? Oh, yes--it's all very well to say she only showed a flattering interest in us! I suppose she showed a flattering interest in my affairs, when I awoke a little earlier than usual, and caught her in my bedroom with my pocketbook in her hand. Do you believe she was going to lock it up for safety's sake? She knows how much money we have got as well as we know it ourselves. Every half-penny we have will be in her pocket tomorrow. And a good thing, too--we shall be obliged to leave the house."
Even this cogent reasoning failed in provoking Cosway to reply. He took Stone's hat, and handed it with the utmost politeness to his foreboding friend. "There's only one remedy for such a state of mind as yours," he said.