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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Charles Lever (1806–1872)

Major Monsoon and the King of Spain’s Story

From “Charles O’Malley”

“NOW, then, for the King of Spain’s story. Out with it, old boy; we are all good men and true here!” cried Power, as we slowly came along upon the tide up the Tagus, “So you’ve nothing to fear.”

“Upon my life,” replied the major, “I don’t half like the tone of our conversation. There is a certain freedom young men affect nowadays regarding morals that is not at all to my taste. When I was five or six and twenty——”

“You were the greatest scamp in the service,” cried Power.

“Fie, fie, Fred! If I was a little wild or so”—here the major’s eye twinkled maliciously—“it was the ladies that spoiled me. I was always something of a favourite, just like our friend Sparks there. Not that we fared very much alike in our adventures; for somehow I believe I was generally in fault in most of mine, as many a good man and many an excellent man has been before.” Here his voice dropped into a moralising key, as he added, “David, you know, didn’t behave well to old Uriah. Upon my life, he did not; and he was a very respectable man.”

“But the story, major—the story.”

“You sha’n’t have a bit of it.”

“What,” said Power, “will you break faith with us?”

“There’s none to be kept with reprobates like you. Fill my glass.”

“Hold there! Stop!” cried Power. “Not a spoonful till he redeems his pledge!”

“Well, then, if you must have a story—for most assuredly I must drink—I have no objection to give you a leaf from my early reminiscences; and, in compliment to Sparks there, my tale shall be of love.”

“I dinna like to lose the king’s story. I hae my thoughts it wasna a bad ane.”

“Nor I, either, doctor; but——”

“Come, come, you shall have that, too, the first night we meet in a bivouac, and, as I fear the time may not be very far distant, don’t be impatient; besides, a love-story——”

“Quite true,” said Power; “a love-story claims precedence. Place aux dames. There’s a bumper for you, old Wickedness; so go along.”

The major cleared off his glass, refilled it, sipped twice, and ogled it as though he would have no peculiar objection to sip once more, took a long pinch of snuff from a box something the shape of a child’s coffin, looked around to see that we were all attention, and thus began:

“When I have been in a moralising mood, as I very frequently am about this hour in the morning, I have often felt surprised by what little, trivial, and insignificant circumstances our lot in life seems to be cast; I mean especially as regards the fair sex. You are prospering, as it were, to-day; to-morrow a new cut of your whiskers, a novel tie of your cravat, mars your destiny and spoils your future—varium et mutabile, as Horace has it. On the other hand, some equally slight circumstance will do what all your ingenuity may have failed to effect. In fact, you are never safe. They are like the guerillas, and they pick you off when you least expect it, and when you think there is nothing to fear. Therefore, as young fellows beginning life, I would caution you. On this head you can never be too circumspect. Do you know, I was once nearly caught by so slight a habit as sitting thus, with my legs across.”

Here the major rested his right foot on his left knee, in illustration, and continued:

“We were quartered in Jamaica. I had not long joined, and was about as raw a young gentleman as you could see; the only very clear ideas in my head being that we were monstrous fine fellows in the 50th, and that the planters’ daughters were deplorably in love with us. Not that I was much wrong on either side. For brandy-and-water, sangaree, Manilla cigars, and the ladies of colour, I’d have backed the corps against the service. Proof was, of eighteen only two ever left the island; for it’s very hard to leave the West Indies if once you’ve been quartered there. In fine, if you don’t knock under to the climate you become soon totally unfit for living anywhere else. Preserved ginger, yams, flannel jackets, and grog won’t bear exportation; and the free-and-easy chuck under the chin, cherishing, waist-pressing kind of way we get with the ladies would be quite misunderstood in less favoured regions, and lead to very unpleasant consequences. It is a curious fact how much climate has to do with love-making. In our cold country the progress is lamentably slow; fogs, east winds, sleet, storms, and cutting March weather, nip many a budding flirtation; whereas, warm sunny days, and bright moonlight nights, with genial air and balmy zephyrs, open the heart, like the cup of a camellia, and let us drink in the soft dew of——”

“Devilish poetical, that!” said Power.

“Isn’t it, though?” said the major, smiling graciously. “Where was I?”

“Out of my latitude altogether,” said the poor skipper, who often found it hard to follow the thread of a story.

“Yes, I remember. I was remarking that sangaree, and calipash, mangoes, and guava jelly dispose the heart to love, and so they do. I was not more than six weeks in Jamaica when I felt it myself. Now, it was a very dangerous symptom, if you had it strong in you, for this reason. Our colonel, the most cross-grained old crabstick that ever breathed, happened himself to be taken in when young, and resolving, like the fox who lost his tail, and said it was not the fashion to wear one, to pretend he did the thing for fun, resolved to make every fellow marry upon the slightest provocation. Very hard this was, for me particularly; for, like poor Sparks there, my weakness was ever for the petticoats. I had, besides, no petty contemptible prejudices as to nation, habits, language, colour, or complexion; black, brown, or fair, from the Muscovite to the Malabar, from the voluptuous embonpoint of the adjutant’s widow—don’t be angry, old boy—to the fairy form of Isabella herself, I loved them all round. But were I to give a preference anywhere, I should certainly do so to the West Indians, if it were only for the sake of the planters’ daughters. I say it fearlessly, these colonies are the brightest jewels in the crown. Let’s drink their health, for I’m as husky as a lime-kiln.”

This ceremony being performed, with suitable enthusiasm, the major cried out:

“Another cheer for Polly Hackett, the sweetest girl in Jamaica! By Jove, Power, if you only saw her, as I did, five-and-forty years ago, with eyes black as jet, twinkling, ogling, leering, teasing, and imploring, all at once, do you mind, and a mouthful of downright pearls pouting and smiling at you, why man, you’d have proposed for her in the first half-hour, and shot yourself the next, when she refused you. She was, indeed, a perfect little beauty, rayther dark, to be sure: a little upon the rosewood tinge, but beautifully polished, and a very nice piece of furniture for a cottage ornée, as the French call it. Well, well, it’s all past and gone now.

“But I was very fond of Polly Hackett, and she was of me. We used to take our little evening walks together through the coffee plantation; very romantic little strolls they were; she in white muslin, with a blue sash and blue shoes; I in a flannel jacket and trousers, straw hat, and cravat; a Virginia cigar, as long as a walking-stick, in my mouth, puffing and courting between times; then we’d take a turn to the refining-house, look in at the big boilers, quiz the niggers, and come back to Twangberry Moss to supper, where old Hackett, the father, sported a glorious table at eleven o’clock. Great feeding it was. You were always sure of a preserved monkey, a baked land-crab, or some such delicacy. And such Madeira! It makes me dry to think of it!

“I was the man to appreciate it all. The whole course of proceeding seemed to have been invented for my peculiar convenience, and not a man in the island enjoyed a more luxurious existence than myself, not knowing all the while how dearly I was destined to pay for my little comforts. Among my plenary after-dinner indulgences I had contracted an inveterate habit of sitting cross-legged, as I showed you. Now, this was become a perfect necessity of existence to me. I could have dispensed with cheese, with my glass of port, my pickled mango, my olive, my anchovy toast, my nut-shell of curaçoa, but not my favourite lounge. You may smile; but I’ve read of a man who could never dance except in a room with an old hair-brush. Now, I’m certain my stomach would not digest if my legs were perpendicular. I don’t mean to defend the thing. The attitude was not graceful; it was not imposing; but it suited me somehow, and I liked it.

“Well, one day old Hackett gave us a great blow-out, a dinner of two-and-twenty souls; six days’ notice; turtle from St. Lucia, guinea-fowl, claret of the year forty, Madeira à discrétion, and all that. Very well done the whole thing; nothing wrong, nothing wanting. As for me, I was in great feather. I took Polly in to dinner, greatly to the discomfiture of old Belson, our major, who was making up in that quarter; for, you must know, she was an only daughter, and had a very nice thing of it in molasses and niggers. The papa preferred the major, but Polly looked sweetly upon me. Well, down we went, and really a most excellent feed we had. Now, I must mention here that Polly had a favourite Blenheim spaniel the old fellow detested; it was always tripping him up and snarling at him; for it was, except to herself, a beast of rather vicious inclinations. With a true Jamaica taste, it was her pleasure to bring the animal always into the dinner-room, where, if papa discovered him, there was sure to be a row. Servants sent in one direction to hunt him out; others endeavouring to hide him, and so on; in fact, a tremendous hubbub always followed his introduction and accompanied his exit, upon which occasions I invariably exercised my gallantry by protecting the beast, although I hated him like the devil all the time.

“To return to our dinner. After two mortal hours of hard eating, the pace began to slacken, and a sense of peaceful repose seemed to descend upon our labours. Pastilles shed an aromatic vapour through the room. The well-iced decanters went with measured pace along; conversation, subdued to the meridian of after-dinner comfort, just murmured; the open jalousies displayed upon the veranda the orange-tree in full blossom, slightly stirring with the cool sea-breeze.

“Well, it was just the hour when, opening the last two buttons of your white waistcoat—remember, we were in Jamaica—you stretch your legs to the full extent, throw your arm carelessly over the back of your chair, look contemplatively toward the ceiling, and wonder within yourself why it is not all ‘after dinner’ in this same world of ours. Such, at least, were my reflections as I assumed my attitude of supreme comfort, and inwardly ejaculated a health to Sneyd and Barton. Just at this moment I heard Polly’s voice gently whisper, ‘Isn’t he a love? Isn’t he a darling?’

“‘Zounds!’ thought I, as a pang of jealousy shot through my heart, ‘is it the major she means?’ For old Belson, with his bag-wig and rouged cheeks, was seated on the other side of her.

“‘What a dear thing it is!’ said Polly.

“‘It is him!’ said I, throwing off a bumper, and almost boiling over with passion at the moment.

“‘I wish I could take one look at him,’ said she, laying down her head as she spoke.

“The major whispered something in her ear, to which she replied:

“‘Oh! I dare not; papa will see me at once.’

“The major leaned over, as if to touch her hand, beneath the cloth. I almost sprang from my chair, when Polly, in her sweetest accents, said:

“‘You must be patient, dear thing, or you may be found out, and then there will be such a piece of work. Though I’m sure, major, you would not betray me.’ The major smiled till he cracked the paint upon his cheeks. ‘And I am sure that Mr. Monsoon——’

“‘You may rely upon me,’ said I, half-sneeringly.

“The major and I exchanged glances of defiance, while Polly continued, ‘Now, come, don’t be restless. You are very comfortable there. Isn’t he, major?’ The major smiled again more graciously than before, as he added:

“‘May I take a look?’

“‘Just one peep, then, no more!’ said she coquettishly. ‘Poor dear Wowski is so timid.’

“Scarcely had these words borne balm and comfort to my heart—for I now knew that to the dog, and not to my rival, were all the flattering expressions applied—when a slight scream from Polly, and a tremendous oath from the major, raised me from my dream: ‘Take your foot down, sir!’ And, ‘Mr. Monsoon, how could you do so?’ cried Polly.

“‘What the devil, sir, do you mean?’ shouted the major.

“‘Oh! I shall die of shame!’ sobbed she.

“By this time the whole table had got at the story, and such peals of laughter, mingled with suggestions for my personal maltreatment, I never heard. All my attempts at explanation were in vain. I was not listened to, and the old colonel finished the scene by ordering me to my quarters, the whole room being one scene of tumultuous laughter from one end to the other. Jamaica after this became too hot for me. The story was repeated on every side, for it seems I had been sitting with my foot on Polly’s lap; but so occupied was I with my jealous vigilance of the major I was not aware of the fact until she herself discovered it.

“I need not say how the following morning brought with it every possible offer of amende upon my part. How the matter might have ended I know not, for, in the middle of the negotiations, we were ordered off to Halifax, where I abandoned my Oriental attitude for many a long day after.”