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PAGE 5

Port In A Storm
by [?]

“‘That’s of course, uncle,’ I said.

“‘Ah! I see you’re a gentleman like your father, not to trip a man when he stumbles,’ said my uncle. For such was the dear old man’s sense of honour, that he was actually uncomfortable about the hasty promise he had made without first specifying the exception. The exception, you know, has Culverwood at the present hour, and right welcome he is.

“‘Of course, uncle,’ I said–‘between gentlemen, you know. Still, I want my joke out, too. What will you give me for a dozen of port to tide you over Christmas Day?’

“‘Give you, my boy? I’ll give you–‘

“But here he checked himself, as one that had been burned already.

“‘Bah!’ he said, turning his back, and going towards the door; ‘what’s the use of joking about serious affairs like this?’

“And so he left the room. And I let him go. For I had heard that the road from Liverpool was impassable, the wind and snow having continued every day since that night of which I told you. Meantime, I had never been able to summon the courage to say one word to your mother–I beg her pardon, I mean Miss Thornbury.

“Christmas Day arrived. My uncle was awful to behold. His friends were evidently anxious about him. They thought he was ill. There was such a hesitation about him, like a shark with a bait, and such a flurry, like a whale in his last agonies. He had a horrible secret which he dared not tell, and which yet would come out of its grave at the appointed hour.

“Down in the kitchen the roast beef and turkey were meeting their deserts. Up in the store-room–for Lady Georgiana was not above housekeeping, any more than her daughter–the ladies of the house were doing their part; and I was oscillating between my uncle and his niece, making myself amazingly useful now to one and now to the other. The turkey and the beef were on the table, nay, they had been well eaten, before I felt that my moment was come. Outside, the wind was howling, and driving the snow with soft pats against the window-panes. Eager-eyed I watched General Fortescue, who despised sherry or Madeira even during dinner, and would no more touch champagne than he would eau sucrée, but drank port after fish or with cheese indiscriminately–with eager eyes I watched how the last bottle dwindled out its fading life in the clear decanter. Glass after glass was supplied to General Fortescue by the fearless cockswain, who, if he might have had his choice, would rather have boarded a Frenchman than waited for what was to follow. My uncle scarcely ate at all, and the only thing that stopped his face from growing longer with the removal of every dish was that nothing but death could have made it longer than it was already. It was my interest to let matters go as far as they might up to a certain point, beyond which it was not my interest to let them go, if I could help it. At the same time I was curious to know how my uncle would announce–confess the terrible fact that in his house, on Christmas Day, having invited his oldest friends to share with him the festivities of the season, there was not one bottle more of port to had.

“I waited till the last moment–till I fancied the admiral was opening his mouth; like a fish in despair, to make his confession. He had not even dared to make a confidante of his wife in such an awful dilemma. Then I pretended to have dropped my table-napkin behind my chair, and rising to seek it, stole round behind my uncle, and whispered in his ear:

“‘What will you give me for a dozen of port now, uncle?’

“‘Bah!’ he said, ‘I’m at the gratings; don’t torture me.’

“‘I’m in earnest, uncle.’

“He looked round at me with a sudden flash of bewildered hope in his eye. In the last agony he was capable of believing in a miracle. But he made me no reply. He only stared.