Matris et oscula . . .
He had ordered claret–a bottle of Lafitte, the best the house could produce–and the waiter, impressed a little by the choice, now appeared noiselessly, almost deferentially, at his elbow, and poured out a first glassful of the wine.
‘Where does that music come from?’–for the sound of an antiquated piano had been thrumming for some minutes from a distant room. The music was not ambitious–an old set of quadrille tunes. The colonel did not recognise it. He had no ear at all for music, and could just distinguish the quickstep of his regiment from ‘God save the Queen.’ In fact, when he paid any attention at all to music (and this was rare), it gave him no sensation beyond a vague discomfort.
‘It comes from the Assembly Room, sir, at the back of the Court.’
‘Ah! yes, I remember the old Assembly Room. Some one is giving a ball to-night?’
The waiter smiled indulgently. ‘Oh no, sir! It’s Miss Wallas’s dancing-class breaking up–that’s all.’
‘Breaking up?’ echoed the colonel, whose mind was sometimes a trifle slow in the uptake.
‘She rents the room alternate Fridays, sir, and usually gives ‘em a little treat just before Christmas. I don’t know,’ pursued the waiter, meditatively laying two fingers wide on his chin, ‘as many people would call it a treat. But the little ‘uns likes dressing up in their evening frocks, and the buns and lemonade is well enough for their time of life. There used to be a fiddle too, as well as the piano; but the class hev fallen off considerable of late. The management don’t like it too well. But there’s a notion ‘twould be unfeelin’ to stop it. She’s been carrying it on all these years, and her aunt before her. But if it annoys you, sir, I can say a word at the office and get it stopped.’
‘Heaven forbid!’ said the colonel. But the music made him uncomfortable, nevertheless. It broke off, and started again upon a waltz tune. After the waltz came a mazurka, and after the mazurka another set of quadrilles. And still, as he sipped his claret, the successive tunes wove themselves into old memories haunting the coffee-room–ghostly memories! Yet he had no will to escape them. Outside he could see the crowd jostling to and fro on the opposite pavement. The lights within a chemist’s shop, shining through bottles of coloured water in its window, threw splashes of colour– green, crimson, orange–on the eager faces as they went by. Colonel Baigent rose half impatiently, drew down the blind, and, returning to his chair, sat alone with the ghosts.
The waiter brought dessert–a plateful of walnuts and dried figs. He cracked a walnut and peeled it slowly, still busy with his thoughts. For a while these thoughts were all in a far past; but by-and-by a stray thread carried him down to the year ‘fifty-seven– and snapped suddenly. His thoughts always broke off suddenly at the year ‘fifty-seven–the Mutiny year. In that year he had won his Victoria Cross and, along with it, a curious tone in his voice, an inexpressible gentleness with all women and children, certain ineradicable lines in his face (hidden though they were by his drooping moustache and absurd old-fashioned whiskers); also a certain very grave simplicity when addressing the Almighty in his prayers. But he never thought of the year ‘fifty-seven if he could help it. And as a spider, its thread snapping, drops upon the floor, so Colonel Baigent fell to earth out of his dreaming.
With a sudden impulse of his hands against the table’s edge, he thrust back the chair and stood erect. His bottle of claret was all but empty, and he bethought him that he had left his cigar-case upstairs. His bedroom lay on the farther side of the courtyard and on his way to it he passed the tall windows of the Assembly Room close enough to fling a glance inside.