The Hotwells Duel by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

From the Memoirs of Joshua Frampton, Esq., late Honorary Physician to the Wells, and Surgeon.

I cannot pass this year 1790 without speaking of a ridiculous adventure which, but that it providentially happened at the close of our season, when the Spa was emptying and our fashionables talked more of packing their trunks than of the newest scandals, might have done me some professional damage besides bringing unmerited public laughter upon the heads of two honest gentlemen. As it was, our leading news-sheet, the Hotwells Courant, did not even smoke the affair, and so lost a nine days’ wonder; while the Whig Examiner, after printing an item which threw me into a two days’ perspiration, forbore to follow up the scent–the reason being that Mr. Lemoine, its editor, was shortly expecting an addition to his family, and, knowing his nervousness upon these occasions and his singular confidence in my skill, I was able to engage him by arguments to which at another time he might have listened less amiably.

I have already related how, on the approach of autumn, I advertised for an assistant. The young man whom I selected was a Scotsman from the University of Glasgow, Duncan MacRea by name, and no youth of his age could have brought better testimonials to ability or character. Relying upon these, I did not stand out for an interview–his home lying so far away as Largs, in Ayrshire–but came to terms at once, and he arrived at my door with his valise at the untimely hour of five in the morning, the fifteenth of October, having travelled all the way to Bristol in a ship laden with salted herrings.

I will own that this apparition on my doorstep in the cold morning light (he had rung the night-bell) surprised me somewhat. But I remembered the proverbial impetuosity of Scotsmen in pushing their fortunes, and his personal appearance may have helped to conciliate me, since my mind had misgiven me that I had done wiser to insist on an interview, instead of buying a pig in a poke; for looks no less than knowledge are a physician’s passepartout among the ladies who bring their ailments to our provincial spas. The face which the lad lifted towards my bedroom window was a remarkably handsome one, though pallid, and the voice in which he answered my challenge had a foreign intonation, but musical and in no way resembling the brogue for which I had been preparing myself.

So delighted was I at this dissipation of my fears that, slipping on my dressing-gown (I believe without removing my nightcap), and pausing only on the landing to call up to the maidservants to light a fire and prepare coffee with all speed, I hurried downstairs and unbarred the door. Whereupon Master MacRea instantly and with great cordiality shook me by the hand.

“It is a great pleasure to me, Dr. Frampton, to make your acquaintance, more especially, sir, to find you surrounded by those evidences of a prosperous practice which I had indeed inferred from your genteel reticence and the quality of your notepaper. At the end of a long journey, undertaken on the strength of that inference, it is delightful to find my best hopes confirmed.”

He shook me by the hand again very warmly. Taken aback by this extraordinary address, I gasped once or twice, and even then could find nothing better to say than that he must have found his journey fatiguing.

“Fatiguing, perhaps, but not tiresome. To the philosophic mind, Dr. Frampton, there should be no such thing as tedium, boredom, ennui, and I trust that mine is philosophic. You were much in my thoughts, sir, between the attacks of sea-sickness. By frequent perusal I had committed your two epistles to memory, and while silently rehearsing their well-turned sentences, in the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson I pursued in imagination the pleasures of hope, yet without listening to the whispers of credulity–for I was prepared to find your flattering description fade upon a nearer prospect. But I am reassured!”

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Positively he shook hands for a third time. Confound the fellow! I had merely hinted that my patients, or the most of them, were of good social position, and had offered him board and lodging, with a salary of forty pounds, rising five pounds annually.

“And by Heavens!” he exclaimed, spinning round on his heel at a sound of hasty footsteps crossing the square, “here comes fresh confirmation! A black manservant–and, as I live, in a gold-laced hat! Of such things I have read in books, but how much livelier, Dr. Frampton, is the ocular appeal of reality!”

It was, to be sure, Major Dignum’s black valet Gumbo, and with a note for me. The fellow’s disordered dress and quick breathing spoke of urgency, and I broke the seal at once, wondering the while what could have befallen the Major, a retired and gouty West Indian whom I had been visiting daily for three months at his apartments in the Grand Pump Hotel. The missive ran:–

“My dear Dr. Frampton,–As a friend rather than a patient, I beg you to come to me without delay! Pray ask no questions of Gumbo, who knows nothing. You will need no spurring when I tell you that though in no worse than my usual health, a few hours may see me in eternity.

Confidently yours,
Orlando Dignum (Major).”

I folded the letter, and nodded to Gumbo. “Tell your master that I will delay only to shave and dress before calling on him.”

The faithful fellow had been watching me anxiously. “In the name of goodness, doctor, ain’t you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“I know as little as you,” said I. “But, whatever it is, the Major thinks it serious; so run, my man, and say that I am following.”

With something like a groan, Gumbo started off, and I turned to Mr. MacRea. “You will find a cup of coffee in your room,” I said. “I must attend to this sudden call; but possibly by the time you have washed and changed, I may be free to rejoin you at breakfast, when we can talk at leisure.”

The young man had caught up his valise, but set it down again and laid three fingers on my sleeve. “You speak of a change of clothes, sir. I will be frank with you–these breeches in which you behold me are my only ones. They were a present from my mother’s sister, resident in Paisley, and I misdoubt there will have been something amiss in her instructions to the tailor, for they gall me woundily– though in justice to her and the honest tradesman I should add that my legs, maybe, are out of practice since leaving Glasgow. At Largs, sir, I have been reverting to the ancestral garb.”

“You’ll wear no such thing about the Hotwells,” I interposed.

“Indeed, I was not thinking it likely. My purpose was to procure another pair on my arrival–aye, and I would do so before breaking fast, had not circumstances which I will not detain you by relating put this for the moment out of the question. Do not mistake me, Dr. Frampton. In public I will thole these dreadful articles, though it cost me my skin; but in private, sir, if as a favour you will allow me–if, as a bachelor yourself, you will take it sans gene. And, by-the-by, I trust you will not scruple to point out any small defects in my French accent, which has been acquired entirely from books.”

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He had, in fact, pronounced it “jeen,” but I put this by. “Quite impossible, Mr. MacRea! I have to think of the servants.”

“Eh? You have servants!”

“Four or five,” said I.

His eyes seemed ready to start out of his head. “I had opined by the way you opened the door with your own hand–” He broke off, and exclaimed: “Four or five servants! It will be a grand practice of yours! Well, go your ways, Dr. Frampton–I must e’en study to live up to you.”

Having piloted my eccentric upstairs and left him to his toilet, I lost no time in dressing and presenting myself at the Grand Pump Hotel, where I found my West Indian friend in a truly deplorable state of agitation. His face, ordinarily rubicund, bore traces of a sleepless night; indeed, it was plain that he had not changed his clothes since leaving the Assembly Rooms, where he invariably spent his evenings at a game of faro for modest stakes. He grasped my hand, springing up to do so from a writing-table whereon lay several sheets of foolscap paper.

“Ah! my dear friend, you are late!” was his greeting.

“I thought I had been moderately expeditious,” said I.

“Yes, yes–perhaps so.” He consulted his watch. “But with an affair of this sort hanging over one, the minutes drag. And yet, Heaven knows, mine may be few enough.”

“Pardon me,” I said, “but to what sort of affair are you alluding?”

“An affair of honour,” he answered tragically.

“Eh?” I said. “A duel! You have engaged yourself to fight a duel?” He nodded. “Then I will have nothing to do with it,” I announced with decision.

“Aye,” said he with marked irony, “it is at such a pinch that one discovers his true friends! But fortunately I had no sooner dispatched Gumbo in search of you than I foresaw some chance of this pusillanimity of which you give me proof.”

“Pusillanimity?” I interjected. “It is nothing of the kind. But you seem to forget my position here as honorary physician to the Hotwells.”

“We’ll call it lukewarmness, then,” he went on in yet more biting tones. “At the risk of seeming intrusive, I at once knocked up two Irish gentlemen on the landing above who had been audibly making a night of it while I sat here endeavouring to compose my thoughts to the calmness proper for framing a testamentary disposition. Although perfect strangers to me, they cheerfully granted what you have denied me; consented with alacrity–nay, with enthusiasm–to act as my seconds in this affair; and started to carry my cartel–which, having gone to bed in their boots, they were able to do with the smallest possible delay.”

“You have not yet told me the nature of the quarrel,” I suggested.

His face at once resumed its wonted colour–nay, took on an extra tinge inclining to purple. “And I don’t intend to!” he snapped.

“Then you no longer need my services?”

“Fortunately no, since you make such a pother of granting them. Stay–you might witness my will here, to which I am about to affix my signature.”

“With pleasure,” said I. “But who is to be the other witness? The law requires two, you know.”

“Confound it–so it does! I had forgotten. We might ring up the Boots, eh?”

“Better avoid dragging the servants of the hotel into this business, especially if you would keep your intention secret. How about Gumbo?”

“He’s black, to begin with, and moreover he benefits under the document to the extent of a small legacy.”

“That rules him out, at any rate. Ha!” I exclaimed, glancing out of window, “the very man!”

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“Who?”

“An excellent fellow at this moment crossing the gardens towards the Mall–he is early this morning; a discreet, solid citizen, and able to keep his counsel as well as any man in the Hotwells; our leading jeweller, Mr. Jenkinson.”

I turned sharply, for the Major had sunk into his chair with a groan.

“Jenkinson!” he gasped. “Jenkinson! The man’s insatiable–he has been watching the hotel in his lust for blood! He threatened last night to cut my liver out and give it to the crows–my unfortunate liver on which you, doctor, have wasted so much solicitude. He used the most extraordinary language–not,” the Major added, gripping the arms of his chair and sitting erect, “not that he shall find me slow in answering his threats.”

“My dear Major,” I cried, “under what delusion are you labouring? Mr. Jenkinson, believe me, is incapable of hurting a fly. You must have mistaken your man. Come and see him for yourself.” And drawing him to the window, I pointed after the figure of the retreating jeweller.

The Major’s brow cleared. “No,” he admitted, “that is not in the least like him. Still, he gave me his name as Jenkinson. Oh! decidedly that is not the man.”

“The name is not uncommon,” said I. “Excuse me, I must hurry, or he will be out of sight!” And I ran downstairs and out into the street as Mr. Jenkinson disappeared around the corner. Following briskly, I brought him into sight again a moment before he turned aside into a small tavern–‘The Lamb and the Flag’–half-way down the Mall.

Now ‘The Lamb and the Flag’ enjoyed a low reputation, and for a citizen of ordinary respectability to be seen entering it at that hour–well, it invited surmise. But I knew Mr. Jenkinson to be above suspicion; he might be the ground-landlord–I had heard of his purchasing several small bits of property about the town. In short, it was almost with consternation that, following into the dirty bar, I surprised him in the act of raising a glass of brandy to his lips with a trembling hand.

I certainly took him aback, and he almost dropped the glass. “Excuse me, Dr. Frampton,” he stammered, “pray do not think–this indulgence–not a habit, I assure you. Oh, doctor! I have passed a fearful night!”

“Indeed?” said I sympathetically. “If my services can be of use–“

“No, no,” he interrupted, paused, and seemed to consider. “At least, not yet.”

“It seems, then, that I am doubly inopportune,” I said, “for I have been following you to ask a small favour–not for myself, but for a certain Major Dignum, at the Grand Pump Hotel; nothing more than the attesting of a signature–a mere matter of form.”

“Major Dignum? Ah, yes! the name is familiar to me from the Courant’s Visitors’ List.” Mr. Jenkinson passed an agitated hand across his forehead. “I cannot recall seeing him in my shop. By all means, doctor–to oblige the gentleman–in my unhappy frame of mind– it will be a–a distraction.”

So back I led the jeweller, explaining on the way how I had caught sight of him from the hotel window, and ushered him up to the apartment where the Major sat impatiently awaiting us.

“Good morning, sir,” the Major began, with a bow. “So your name’s Jenkinson? Most extraordinary! I–I am pleased to hear it, sir.”

“Extraordinary!” the Major repeated, as he bent over the papers to sign them. “I am asking you, Mr. Jenkinson, to witness this signature to my last will and testament. In the midst of life–by the way, what is your Christian name?”

“William, sir.”

“Incredible!” The Major bounced up from his chair and sat down again trembling, while he fumbled with his waistcoat pocket. “Ah, no!–to be sure–I gave it to my seconds,” he muttered. “In the midst of life–“

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“You may well say so, sir!” The jeweller took a seat and adjusted his spectacles as I sanded the Major’s signature and pushed the document across the table. “A man,” Mr. Jenkinson continued, dipping his pen wide of the ink-pot, “on the point of exchanging time for eternity–“

“That thought is peculiarly unpleasant to me just now,” the Major interrupted. “May I beg you not to enlarge upon it?”

“But I must, sir!” cried out Mr. Jenkinson, as though the words were wrested from him by an inward agony; and tearing open his coat, he plucked a packet of folded papers from his breast-pocket and slapped it down upon the table. “You have called me in, gentlemen, to witness a will. I ask you in return to witness mine–which must be at least ten times as urgent.”

“Another will!” I glanced at the Major, who stared wildly about him, but could only mutter: “Jenkinson! William Jenkinson!”

“To-morrow, sir,” pursued the jeweller, his voice rising almost to a scream, “you may have forgotten the transient fears which drove you to this highly proper precaution. For you the sun will shine, the larks sing, your blood will course with its accustomed liveliness, and your breast expand to the health-giving breeze. I don’t blame you for it–oh, dear, no! not in the least. But you will admit it’s a totally different thing to repose beneath the churchyard sod on a mere point of honour, with an assassin’s bullet in your heart–not to mention that he threatened to tear it out and fling it to the crows!”

“The deuce!” shouted the Major, “your heart, did you say?”

“I did, sir.”

“You are quite sure! Your heart?–you are certain it was your heart? Not your liver? Think, man!”

“He did not so much as allude to that organ, sir, though I have no doubt he was capable of it.”

While we gazed upon one another, lost in a maze of extravagant surmise, a riotous rush of feet took the staircase by storm, and the door crashed open before two hilarious Irishmen, of whom the spokesman wore the reddest thatch of hair it has ever been my lot to cast eyes on. The other, so far as I can remember, confined his utterances to frequent, vociferous, and wholly inarticulate cries of the chase.

The Major presented them to us as Captain Tom O’Halloran and Mr. Finucane.

“And we’ve had the divvle’s own luck, Major, dear,” announced Tom O’Halloran. “The blayguard’s from home. Ah, now! don’t be dispirited, ’tis an early walk he’s after takin’; at laste, that’s what the slip of a gurrl towld us who answered the door; and mighty surprised she seemed to open it to a pair of customers at such an hour. For what d’ye suppose he calls himself when he’s at home? A jooler, sorr; a dirthy jooler.”

“A jeweller!” I cried aloud.

“No more, no less. Says I, there’s quare gentlefolks going in these times, but I don’t cool my heels waitin’ in a jooler’s shop with a challenge for the principal when he chooses to walk in to business. So I said to the gurrl: ‘You may tell your master,’ I said, ‘there’s two gentlemen have called, and will have his blood yet in a bottle,’ I said; ‘but any time will do between this and to-morrow.’ And with that I came away. But Mr. Finucane here suggested that, whilst we were at it, we might save time and engage the surgeon. So on our way back we rang up Dr. Frampton. No luck again; the doctor was out. Faix! early walkin’ seems the fashion at this health resort. But we’ve brought along his assistant, if that’s any use to you, and he’s downstairs at this moment on the door-mat.”

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The captain put his head outside and whistled. Mr. Finucane assisted with a lifelike imitation of a coach-horn, and Mr. MacRea, thus summoned, appeared upon the threshold.

I cannot accurately describe what followed, for the jeweller, by casting himself into my arms, engaged a disproportionate share of my attention. I believe the Major caught up a loo table and held it before him as a shield.

“You see,” said Mr. MacRea, that afternoon, as I escorted him to the office of the Bath Coaching Company, to book his seat for that city, “on arriving at the Hotwells last evening, I naturally wished, Dr. Frampton, to assure myself that your position as a medical man answered to the glowing descriptions of it in your correspondence. I could think of no better method to arrive at this than by mingling with the gay throng in the Assembly Rooms; and I deemed that to take a hand at cards at the public tables would be the surest way to overhear the chit-chat of the fashionable world, and maybe elicit its opinion of you. But alas, sir! a man cannot play at the cards without exposing himself to the risk of losing. At the first table I lost–not heavily indeed, yet considerably. I rose and changed to another table; again I lost–this time the last sixpence in my pocket. Now, it is an idiosyncrasy of mine, maybe, but I cannot lose at the cards without losing also my temper; and the form it takes with me, Dr. Frampton, is too often an incontrollable impulse to pull the winner’s nose. I have argued with myself against this tendency a score of times, but it will not be denied. So, sir, last night, penniless and in a foreign land, I paced to and fro beneath the trees in front of the Assembly Rooms, and when this Mr. Jenkinson emerged, I accosted him and pulled his nose. To my astonishment he gave me a ticket and assured me that I should hear from him. Sir, we have no such practice at Largs, but it is my desire to conform with the customs of this country, especially in matters of etiquette. Consequently, after pulling the second gentleman’s nose, I handed him the first gentleman’s ticket, having none of my own and being ignorant (in the darkness) that it bore the first gentleman’s name. It was a mischance, sir, but so far as I can see one that might have happened to anybody. You say that even after apologising–for on reflection I am always willing to apologise for any conduct into which my infirmity of temper may have betrayed me–it is impossible for me to continue here as your assistant. I am glad, then, that prudence counselled me to provide two strings to my bow, and engage myself to Dr. Mathers of Bath, on the chance that you proved unsatisfactory; and I thank you for the month’s salary, which I could not perhaps claim under the circumstances as a right, but which I am happy to accept as a favour.”

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