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A short story by James Branch Cabell

The Rhyme To Porringer

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Title:     The Rhyme To Porringer
Author: James Branch Cabell [More Titles by Cabell]

As Played at Tunbridge Wells, April 2, 2022

"Ye gods, why are not hearts first paired above,
But still some interfere in others' love,
Ere each for each by certain marks are known?
You mould them up in haste, and drop them down,
And while we seek what carelessly you sort,
You sit in state, and make our pains your sport.
"


DRAMATIS PERSONÆ

CAPTAIN AUDAINE, an ingenious, well-accomplished gentleman.
LORD HUMPHREY DEGGE, an airy young gentleman, loves Miss Allonby for her money.
VANRINGHAM, emissary and confederate of Audaine.
MISS ALLONBY, a young lady of wit and fortune.

ATTENDANTS to Lord Humphrey, Etc.

SCENE

Tunbridge Wells, first in and about Lord Humphrey's lodgings, then shifting to a drawing-room in Lady Allonby's villa.

 

THE RHYME TO PORRINGER

PROEM:--Merely to Serve as Intermezzo

Next morning Captain Audaine was closeted with Mr. Vanringham in the latter's apartments at the _Three Gudgeons_. I abridge the Captain's relation of their interview, and merely tell you that it ended in the actor's looking up, with a puzzled face, from a certain document.

"You might have let me have a whiff of this," Mr. Vanringham began. "You might have breathed, say, a syllable or two last night--"

"I had my instructions, sir, but yesterday," replied the Captain; "and surely, Mr. Vanringham, to have presumed last night upon my possession of this paper, so far as to have demanded any favor of you, were unreasonable, even had it not savored of cowardice. For, as it has been very finely observed, it is the nicest part of commerce in the world, that of doing and receiving benefits. O Lord, sir! there are so many thousand circumstances, with respect to time, person, and place, which either heighten or allay the value of the obligation--"

"I take your point," said the other, with some haste, "and concede that you are, beyond any reasonable doubt, in the right. Within the hour I am off."

"Then all is well," said Captain Audaine.

But he was wrong in this opinion, so wrong that I confute him by subjoining his own account of what befell, somewhat later in the day.


I

'Twas hard upon ten in the evening (the Captain estimates) when I left Lady Culcheth's, [Footnote: Sir Henry Muskerry's daughter, of whom I have already spoken, and by common consent an estimable lady and a person of fine wit; but my infatuation for Lady Betty had by this time, after three nights with her, been puffed out; and this fortunate extinction, through the affair of the broken snuffbox, had left me now entirely indifferent to all her raptures, panegyrics, and premeditated artlessnesses.--F. A.] and I protest that at the time there was not a happier man in all Tunbridge than Francis Audaine.

"You haven't the king?" Miss Allonby was saying, as I made my adieus to the company. "Then I play queen, knave, and ace, which gives me the game, Lord Humphrey."

And afterward she shuffled the cards and flashed across the room a glance whose brilliance shamed the tawdry candles about her, and, as you can readily conceive, roused a prodigious trepidation in my adoring breast.

"Dorothy!--O Dorothy!" I said over and over again when I had reached the street; and so went homeward with constant repetitions of her dear name.

I suppose it was an idiotic piece of business; but you are to remember that I loved her with an entire heart, and that, as yet, I could scarcely believe the confession of a reciprocal attachment, which I had wrung from her overnight, to the accompaniment of Gerald's snoring, had been other than an unusually delectable and audacious dream upon the part of Frank Audaine.

I found it, then, as I went homeward, a heady joy to ponder on her loveliness. Oh, the wonder of her voice, that is a love-song! cried my heart. Oh, the candid eyes of her, more beautiful than the June heavens, more blue than the very bluest speedwell-flower! Oh, the tilt of her tiny chin, and the incredible gold of her hair, and the quite unbelievable pink-and-white of her little flower-soft face! And, oh, the scrap of crimson that is her mouth.

In a word, my pulses throbbed with a sort of divine insanity, and Frank Audaine was as much out of his senses as any madman now in Bedlam, and as deliriously perturbed as any lover is by ordinary when he meditates upon the object of his affections.

But there was other work than sonneting afoot that night, and shortly I set about it. Yet such was my felicity that I went to my nocturnal labors singing. Yes, it rang in my ears, somehow, that silly old Scotch song, and under my breath I hummed odd snatches of it as I went about the night's business.

Sang I:


"Ken ye the rhyme to porringer?
Ken ye the rhyme to porringer?
King James the Seventh had ae daughter,
And he gave her to an Oranger.

"Ken ye how he requited him?
Ken ye how he requited him?
The dog has into England come,
And ta'en the crown in spite of him!

"The rogue he salna keep it lang,
To budge we'll make him fain again;
We'll hang him high upon a tree,
And King James shall hae his ain again!"


II

Well! matters went smoothly enough at the start. With a diamond Vanringham dexterously cut out a pane of glass, so that we had little difficulty in opening the window; and I climbed into a room black as a pocket, leaving him without to act as a sentinel, since, so far as I could detect, the house was now untenanted.

But some twenty minutes later, when I had finally succeeded in forcing the escritoire I found in the back room upon the second story, I heard the street door unclose. And I had my candle extinguished in that self same instant. You can conceive that 'twas with no pleasurable anticipation I peered into the hall, for I was fairly trapped. I saw some five or six men of an ugly aspect, who carried among them a burden, the nature of which I could not determine in the uncertain light. But I heaved a sigh of relief as they bore their cargo past me, to the front room, (which opened on the one I occupied), without apparent recognition of my presence.

"Now," thinks I, "is the time for my departure." And having already selected the papers I had need of from the rifled desk, I was about to run for it, when I heard a well-known voice.

"Rat the parson!" it cried; "he should have been here an hour ago. Here's the door left open for him, endangering the whole venture, and whey-face han't plucked up heart to come! Do some of you rogues fetch him without delay; and do all of you meet me to-morrow at the _Mitre_, to be paid in full for this business, before reporting to his Grace."

"Here," thinks I, "is beyond doubt a romance." And as the men tumbled down-stairs and into the street, I resolved to see the adventure through, by the light of those candles which were now burning in the next room.

I waited for perhaps ten minutes, during which period I was aware of divers movements near at hand; and, judging that in any case there was but one man's anger to be apprehended, I crept toward the intervening door and found it luckily ajar.

So I peered through the crack into the adjoining room, and there, as I had anticipated, discovered Lord Humphrey Degge, whom I had last seen at Lady Culcheth's wrangling over a game of _écarté_ with the fairest antagonist the universe could afford.

Just now my Lord was in a state of high emotion, and the cause of it was evident when I perceived his ruffians had borne into the house a swooning lady, whom merciful unconsciousness had rendered oblivious to her present surroundings, and whose wrists his Lordship was vigorously slapping in the intervals between his frequent applications to her nostrils of a flask, which, as I more lately learned, contained sal volatile.

Here was an unlucky turn, since I had no desire to announce my whereabouts, my business in the house being of a sort that necessitated secrecy; whereas, upon the other hand, I could not but misdoubt my Lord's intention toward the unknown fair was of discreditable kinship, and such as a gentleman might not countenance with self-esteem.

Accordingly I devoted the moments during which the lady was recovering from her swoon, to serious reflection concerning the course that I should preferably adopt. But now, Miss came to, and, as is the custom of all females similarly situated, rubbed her eyes and said, "Where am I?"

And when she rose from the divan I saw that 'twas my adored Dorothy.

"In the presence of your infatuated slave," says my Lord. "Ah, divine Miss Allonby--!"

But being now aware of her deplorable circumstances, she began to weep, and, in spite of the amorous rhetoric with which his Lordship was prompt to comfort her, rebuked him for unmanly conduct, with sublimity and fire, and depicted the horrors of her present predicament in terms that were both just and elegant.

From their disjointed talk I soon determined that, Lord Humphrey's suit being rejected by my angel, he had laid a trap for her (by bribing her coachman, as I subsequently learned), and had so far succeeded in his nefarious scheme that she, on leaving Lady Culcheth's, had been driven to this house, in the conviction she rode homeward; and this course my Lord endeavored to justify, with a certain eloquence, and attributed the irregularity of his behavior solely to the colossal vehemence of his affection.

His oratory, however, was of little avail, for Dorothy told him plainly that she had rather hear the protestations of a toad than listen to his far more nauseous flattery; and bade him at once restore her to her natural guardians.

"_Ma charmante_," said he, "to-morrow your good step-mother may, if you will, share with your husband the privilege of saluting Lady Humphrey Degge; but as for Miss Allonby, I question if in the future her dearest friends are likely to see much of her."

"What do you mean?" cries she.

"That the parson will be here directly," said he.

"Infamous!" she observes; "and is the world run mad, that these extempore weddings should be foisted upon every woman in the Allonby connection!"

"Ah, but, my dear," he answered airily, "'twas those two fiascos which begot my notion, and yet hearten me. For in every approved romance the third adventurer gets the victory; so that I am, I take it, predestinate to win where Vanringham and Rokesle failed."

She did not chop logic with him, but instead retorted in a more primitive fashion by beginning to scream at the top of her voice.

I doubt if any man of honor was ever placed under a more great embarrass. Yonder was the object of my devotion, exposed to all the diabolical machinations of a heartless villain; and here was I concealed in my Lord's bedroom, his desk broken open, and his papers in my pocket. To remain quiet was impossible, since 'twas to expose her to a fate worse than death; yet to reveal myself was to confess Frank Audaine a thief, and to lose her perhaps beyond redemption.

Then I thought of the mask which I had brought in case of emergency; and, clapping it on, resolved to brazen out the affair. Meanwhile I saw all notions of gallantry turned topsy-turvy, for my Lord was laughing quietly, while my adored Dorothy called aloud upon the name of her Maker.

"The neighborhood is not unaccustomed to such sounds," said he, "and I hardly think we need fear any interruption. I must tell you, my dear creature, you have, by an evil chance, arrived in a most evil locality, for this quarter of the town is the devil's own country, and he is scarcely like to make you free of it."

"O Lord, sir!" said I, and pushed the door wide open, "surely you forget that the devil is a gentleman?"


III

Had I dropped a hand-grenade into the apartment the astonishment of its occupants would not have been excessive. My Lord's face, as he clapped his hand to his sword, was neither tranquil nor altogether agreeable to contemplate; but as for Dorothy, she gave a frightened little cry, and ran toward the masked intruder with a piteous confidence which wrung my heart.

"The devil!" says my Lord.

"Not precisely," I amended, and bowed in my best manner, "though 'tis undeniable I come to act as his representative."

"Oh, joy to your success!" his Lordship sneered.

"Harkee, sir," said I, "as you, with perfect justice, have stated, this is the devil's stronghold, and hereabouts his will is paramount; and, as I have had the honor to add, the devil is a gentleman. Sure, and as such, he cannot be expected to countenance your present behavior? Nay, never fear! Lucifer, already up to the ears in the affairs of this mundane sphere, lacks leisure to express his disapproval in sulphuric person. He tenders his apologies, sir, and sends in his stead your servant, with whose capabilities he is indifferently acquainted."

"To drop this mummery," says Lord Humphrey, "what are you doing in my lodgings?"

"O Lord, sir!" I responded, "I came thither, I confess, without invitation. And with equal candor I will admit that my present need is of your Lordship's banknotes and jewels, and such-like trifles, rather than--you force me, sir, to say it,--rather than of your company."

Thus speaking, I drew and placed myself on guard, while my Lord gasped.

"You're the most impudent rogue," says he, after he had recovered himself a little, "that I have had the privilege of meeting--"

"Your Lordship is all kindness," I protested.

"--but your impudence is worth the price of whatever you may have pilfered. Go, my good man--or devil, if you so prefer to style yourself! Tell Lucifer that he is well served; and obligingly return to the infernal regions without delay. For, as you have doubtless learned, Miss and I have many private matters to discuss. And, gad, Mr. Moloch, [Footnote: A deity of, I believe, Ammonitish origin. His traditional character as represented by our immortal Milton is both taking to the fancy and finely romantic; and is, I am informed, no less remarkable for many happy turns of speech than for conformity throughout to the most famous legends of Talmudic fabrication.--F.A.] pleasant as is your conversation, you must acknowledge I can't allow evil spirits about the house without getting it an ill reputation. So pardon me if I exorcise you with this."

He spoke boldly, and, as he ended, tossed me a purse. I let it lie where it fell, for I had by no means ended my argument.

"Yet, sir," said I, "my errand, which began with the acquisition of your pins, studs and other jewelry, now reaches toward treasure far more precious--"

"Enough!" he cried, impatiently, "Begone! and do you render thanks--that my present business is so urgent as to prevent my furnishing the rope which will one day adorn your neck."

"That's as may be," quoth I; "and, indeed, I doubt if I could abide drowning, for 'tis a damp, unwholesome, and very permanent sort of death. But my fixed purpose, to cut short all debate, is to escort Miss Allonby homeward."

"Come," sneers my Lord,--"come, Mr. Moloch, I have borne with your insolence for a quarter of an hour--"

"Twenty minutes," said I, after consulting my watch.

"--but I mean to put up with it no longer; and in consequence I take the boorish liberty of suggesting that this is none of your affair."

"Good sir," I conceded, "your Lordship speaks with considerable justice, and we must leave the final decision to Miss here."

I bowed toward her. In her face there was a curious bewilderment that made me fear lest, for all my mask, for all my unnatural intonations, and for all the room's half-light, my worshipped mistress had come near to recognizing this caught thief.

"Miss Allonby," said I, in a falsetto voice which trembled, "since I am unknown to you, may I trust you will permit me to present myself? My name--though, indeed, I have a multitude of names--is for the occasion Frederick Thomasson. With my father's appellation and estates I cannot accommodate you, for the reason that a mystery attaches to his identity. As for my mother, let it suffice to say that she was a vivacious brunette of a large acquaintance, and generally known to the public as Black Moll O'Reilly. I began life as a pickpocket. Since then I have so far improved my natural gifts that the police are flattering enough to value my person at several hundred pounds. My rank in society, as you perceive, is not exalted; yet, if my luck by any chance should fail, I do not question that I shall, upon some subsequent Friday, move in loftier circles than any nobleman who happens at the time to be on Tyburn Hill.--So much for my poor self. And since by this late hour Lady Allonby is beyond doubt beginning to grow uneasy, let us have done with further exposition, and remember that 'tis high time you selected an escort to her residence. May I implore that you choose between the son of the Marquis of Venour and Black Molly's bastard?"

She looked us over,--first one, then the other. More lately she laughed; and if I had never seen her before, I could have found it in my heart to love her for the sweet insolence of her demeanor.

"After all," said my adored Dorothy, "I prefer the rogue who when he goes about his knaveries has at least the decency to wear a mask."

"That, my Lord," said I, "is fairly conclusive; and so we will be journeying."

"Over my dead body!" says he.

"Sure, and what's beneath the feet," I protested, "is equally beneath consideration."

The witticism stung him like a wasp, and, with an oath, he drew, as I was heartily glad to observe, for I cannot help thinking that when it comes to the last pinch, and one gentleman is excessively annoyed by the existence of another, steel is your only arbiter, and charitable allowances for the dead make the one rational peroration. So we crossed blades; and, pursuing my usual tactics, I began upon a flow of words, which course, as I have learned by old experience, is apt to disconcert an adversary far more than any trick of the sword can do.

I pressed him sorely, and he continued to give way, but clearly for tactical purposes, and without permitting the bright flash of steel that protected him to swerve an instant from the proper line.

"Miss Allonby," said I, growing impatient, "have you never seen a venomous insect pinned to the wall? In that case, I pray you to attend more closely. For one has only to parry--thus! And to thrust--in this fashion! And behold, the thing is done!"

In fact, having been run through the chest, my Lord was for the moment affixed to the panelling at the extreme end of the apartment, where he writhed, much in the manner of a cockchafer which mischievous urchins have pinned to a card,--his mien and his gesticulations, however, being rather more suggestive of the torments of the damned, as they are so strikingly depicted by the Italian Dante. [Footnote: I allude, of course, to the famous Florentine, who excels no less in his detailed depictions of infernal anguish than in his eloquent portrayal of the graduated and equitable emoluments of an eternal glorification.--F.A.] He tumbled in a heap, though, when I sheathed my sword and bowed toward my charmer.

"Miss Allonby," said I, "thus quickly ends this evil quarter of an hour; and with, equal expedition, I think, should we be leaving this evil quarter of the town."

She had watched the combat with staring and frightened eyes. Now she had drawn nearer, and she looked curiously at her over-presumptuous lover where he had fallen.

"Have you killed him?" she asked, in a hushed voice.

"O Lord, no!" I protested. "The life of a peer's son is too valuable a matter; he will be little the worse for it in a week."

"The dog!" cries she, overcome with pardonable indignation at the affront which the misguided nobleman had put upon her; and afterward, with a ferocity the more astounding in an individual whose demeanor was by ordinary of an aspect so amiable and so engaging, she said, "Oh, the lewd thieving dog!"

"My adorable Miss Allonby," said I, "do not, I pray you, thus slander the canine species! Meanwhile, permit me to remind you that 'tis inexpedient to loiter in these parts, for the parson will presently be at hand; and if it be to inter rather than to marry Lord Humphrey--well, after all, the peerage is a populous estate! But, either way, time presses."

"Come!" said she, and took my arm; and together we went down-stairs and into the street.


IV

On the way homeward she spoke never a word. Vanringham had made a hasty flitting when my Lord's people arrived, so that we saw nothing of him. But when we had come safely to Lady Allonby's villa, Dorothy began to laugh.

"Captain Audaine," says she, in a wearied and scornful voice, "I know that the hour is very late, yet there are certain matters to be settled between as which will, I think, scarcely admit of delay. I pray you, then, grant me ten minutes' conversation."

She had known me all along, you see. Trust the dullest woman to play Oedipus when love sets the riddle. So there was nothing to do save clap my mask into my pocket and follow her, sheepishly enough, toward one of the salons, where at Dorothy's solicitation a gaping footman made a light for us.

She left me there to kick my heels through a solitude of some moments' extent. But in a while my dear mistress came into the room, with her arms full of trinkets and knick-knacks, which she flung upon a table.

"Here's your ring, Captain Audaine," says she, and drew it from her finger. "I did not wear it long, did I? And here's the miniature you gave me, too. I used to kiss it every night, you know. And here's a flower you dropped at Lady Pevensey's. I picked it up--oh, very secretly!--because you had worn it, you understand. And here's--"

But at this point she fairly broke down; and she cast her round white arms about the heap of trinkets, and strained them close to her, and bowed her imperious golden head above them in anguish.

"Oh, how I loved you--how I loved you!" she sobbed. "And all the while you were only a common thief!"

"Dorothy--!" I pleaded.

"You shame me--you shame me past utterance!" she cried, in a storm of mingled tears and laughter. "Here's this bold Captain Audaine, who comes to Tunbridge from nobody knows where, and wins a maid's love, and proves in the end a beggarly house-breaker! Mr. Garrick might make a mirthful comedy of this, might he not?" Then she rose to her feet very stiffly. "Take your gifts, Mr. Thief," says she, pointing,--"take them. And for God's sake let me not see you again!"

So I was forced to make a clean breast of it.

"Dorothy," said I, "ken ye the rhyme to porringer?" But she only stared at me through unshed tears.

Presently, though, I hummed over the old song:


"Ken ye the rhyme to porringer?
Ken ye the rhyme to porringer?
King James the Seventh had ae daughter,
And he gave her to an Oranger.


"And the Oranger filched his crown," said I, "and drove King James--God bless him!--out of his kingdom. This was a while and a half ago, my dear; but Dutch William left the stolen crown to Anne, and Anne, in turn, left it to German George. So that now the Elector of Hanover reigns at St. James's, while the true King's son must skulk in France, with never a roof to shelter him. And there are certain gentlemen, Dorothy, who do not consider that this is right."

"You are a Jacobite?" said she. "Well! and what have your politics to do with the matter?"

"Simply that Lord Humphrey is not of my way of thinking, my dearest dear. Lord Humphrey--pah!--this Degge is Ormskirk's spy, I tell you! He followed Vanringham to Tunbridge on account of our business. And to-day, when Vanringham set out for Avignon, he was stopped a mile from the Wells by some six of Lord Humphrey's fellows, disguised as highwaymen, and all his papers were stolen. Oho, but Lord Humphrey is a thrifty fellow: so when Ormskirk puts six bandits at his disposal he employs them in double infamy, to steal you as well as Vanringham's despatches. To-morrow they would have been in Ormskirk's hands. And then--" I paused to allow myself a whistle.

She came a little toward me, in the prettiest possible glow of bewilderment, "I do not understand," she murmured. "Oh, Frank, Frank, for the love of God, beware of trusting Vanringham in anything! And you are not a thief, after all? Are you really not named Thomasson?"

"I am most assuredly not Frederick Thomasson," said I, "nor do I know if any such person exists, for I never heard the name before to-night. Yet, in spite of this, I am an unmitigated thief. Why, d'ye not understand? What Vanringham carried was a petition from some two hundred Scotch and English gentlemen that our gracious Prince Charlie be pleased to come over and take back his own from the Elector. 'Twas rebellion, flat rebellion, and the very highest treason! Had Ormskirk seen the paper, within a month our heads had all been blackening over Temple Bar. So I stole it,--I, Francis Audaine, stole it in the King's cause, God bless him! 'Twas burglary, no less, but it saved two hundred lives, my own included; and I look to be a deal older than I am before I regret the deed with any sincerity."

Afterward I showed her the papers, and then burned them one by one over a candle. She said nothing. So by and by I turned toward her with a little bow.

"Madam," said I, "you have forced my secret from me. I know that your family is staunch on the Whig side; and yet, ere the thief goes, may he not trust you will ne'er betray him?"

And now she came to me, all penitence and dimples.

"But it was you who said you were a thief," my dear mistress pointed out.

"O Lord, madam!" said I, "'twas very necessary that Degge should think me so. A house-breaker they would have only hanged, but a Jacobite they would have hanged and quartered afterward."

"Ah, Frank, do not speak of such fearful matters, but forgive me instantly!" she wailed.

And I was about to do so in what I considered the most agreeable and appropriate manner when the madcap broke away from me, and sprang upon a footstool and waved her fan defiantly.

"Down with the Elector!" she cried, in her high, sweet voice. "Long live King James!"

And then, with a most lovely wildness of mien, she began to sing:


"Ken ye the rhyme to porringer?
Ken ye the rhyme to porringer?
King James the Seventh had ae daughter--"


until I interrupted her. For, "Extraordinary creature!" I pleaded, "you will rouse the house."

"I don't care! I intend to be a Jacobite if you are one!"

"Eh, well," said I, "Frank Audaine is not the man to coerce his wife in a political matter. Nevertheless, I know of a certain Jacobite who is not unlikely to have a bad time of it if by any chance Lord Humphrey recognized him to-night. Nay, Miss, you may live to be a widow yet."

"But he didn't recognize you. And if he did"--she snapped her fingers,--"why, we'll fight him again, you and I. Won't we, my dear? For he stole our secret, you know. And he stole me, too. Very pretty behavior, wasn't it?" And here Miss, Allonby stamped the tiniest, the most infinitesimal of red-heeled slippers.


"The rogue he didna keep me lang,
To budge we made him fain again--

"that's you, Frank, and your great, long sword. And now:

"We'll hang him high, upon a tree,
And King Frank shall hae his ain again!"


Afterward my adored Dorothy jumped from the footstool, and came toward me, lifting up the crimson trifle that she calls her mouth, "So take your own, my king," she breathed, with a wonderful gesture of surrender.

And a gentleman could do no less.


[The end]
James Branch Cabell's short story: The Rhyme To Porringer

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