BY JEFFERY FARNOL
He who hath Imagination is blessed or cursed with a fearful magic whereby he may scale the heights of Heaven or plumb the deeps of Hell
BOOK I—THE SILENT PLACES
I Introducing Myself
II Tells How and Why I Set Forth Upon the Quest in Question
III Wherein the Reader Shall Find Some Description of an Extraordinary Tinker
IV In Which I Meet a Down-at-Heels Gentleman
V Further Concerning the Aforesaid Gentleman, One Anthony
VI Describes Certain Lively Happenings at the "Jolly Waggoner" Inn
VII White Magic
VIII I Am Left Forlorn
IX Describes the Woes of Galloping Jerry, a Notorious Highwayman
X The Philosophy of the Same
XI Which Proves Beyond All Argument That Clothes Make the Man
XII The Price of a Goddess
XIII Which Tells Somewhat of My Deplorable Situation
XIV In Which I Satisfy Myself of My Cowardice
XV Proving That a Goddess Is Wholly Feminine
XVI In Which I Begin to Appreciate the Virtues of the Chaste Goddess
XVII How We Set Out for Tonbridge
XVIII Concerning the Grammar of a Goddess
XIX How and Why I Fought with One Gabbing Dick, a Peddler
XX Of the Tongue of a Woman and the Feet of a Goddess
XXI In Which I Learned That I Am Less of a Coward Than I Had Supposed
XXII Describing the Hospitality of One Jerry Jarvis, a Tinker
XXIII Discusses the Virtues of the Onion
XXIV How I Met One Jessamy Todd, a Snatcher of Souls
XXV Tells of My Adventures at the Fair
XXVI The Ethics of Prigging
XXVII Juno Versus Diana
XXVIII Exemplifying That Clothes Do Make the Man
XXIX Tells of an Ominous Meeting
XXX Of a Truly Memorable Occasion
XXXI A Vereker's Advice to a Vereker
XXXII How I Made a Surprising Discovery, Which, However, May Not Surprise the Reader in the Least
XXXIII Of Two Incomparable Things. The Voice of Diana and Jessamy's "Right"
XXXIV The Noble Art of Organ-Playing
XXXV Of a Shadow in the Sun
XXXVI Tells How I Met Anthony Again
XXXVII A Disquisition on True Love
XXXVIII A Crucifixion
XXXIX How I Came Home Again
TO THE READER
I The Incidents of an Early Morning Walk
II Introducing Jasper Shrig, a Bow Street Runner
III Concerning a Black Postchaise
IV Of a Scarabaeus Ring and a Gossamer Veil
V Storm and Tempest
VI I Am Haunted of Evil Dreams
VII Concerning the Song of a Blackbird at Evening
VIII The Deeps of Hell
IX Concerning the Opening of a Door
X Tells How a Mystery Was Resolved
XI Which Shows That My Uncle Jervas Was Right, After All
XII Tells How I Went Upon an Expedition with Mr. Shrig
TO MY PATIENT AND KINDLY READER
I Concerning One Tom Martin, an Ostler
II I Go to Find Diana
III Tells How I Found Diana and Sooner Than I Deserved
IV I Wait for a Confession
V In Which We Meet Old Friends
VI Which, as the Patient Reader Sees, Is the Last
This is the tale of Diana, the Gipsy, the Goddess, the Woman, one in all and all in one and that one so wonderful, so elusive, so utterly feminine that I, being but a man and no great student in the Sex, may, in striving to set her before you in cold words, distort this dear image out of all semblance and true proportion.
Here and now I would begin this book by telling of Diana as I remember her, a young dryad vivid with life, treading the leafy ways, grey eyes a-dream, kissed by sun and wind, filling the woodland with the glory of her singing, out-carolling the birds.
I would fain show her to you in her swift angers and ineffable tenderness, in her lofty pride and sweet humility, passionate with life yet boldly virginal, fronting evil scornful and undismayed, with eyes glittering bright as her "little churi" yet yielding herself a willing sacrifice and meekly enduring for Friendship's sake.
With her should this book properly commence; but because I doubt my pen (more especially at this so early stage) I will begin not with Diana but with my aunt Julia, my uncle Jervas, my uncle George and my painfully conscious self, trusting that, as this narrative progresses, my halting pen may grow more assured and my lack of art be atoned for by sincerity. For if any writer or historian were sincere then most truly that am I.
Therefore I set forth upon this relation humbly aware of my failings, yet trusting those who read will not fall asleep over my first ineffectual chapter nor throw the book aside after my second, but with kind and tolerant patience will bear with me and read bravely on until, being more at my ease, I venture to tell of Diana's wonderful self.
And when they shall come to the final chapter of this history (if they ever do) may they be merciful in their judgment of their humble author, that is to say this same poor, ineffectual, unheroical person who now subscribes himself
THE SILENT PLACES
"Nineteen to-day, is he!" said my uncle Jervas, viewing me languidly through his quizzing-glass. "How confoundedly the years flit! Nineteen—and on me soul, our poor youth looks as if he hadn't a single gentlemanly vice to bless himself with!"
"Not one, Jervas, my boy," quoth my uncle George, shaking his comely head at me. "Not one, begad, and that's the dooce of it! It seems he don't swear, he don't drink, he don't gamble, he don't make love, he don't even—"
"Don't, George," exclaimed my aunt Julia in her sternest tone, her handsome face flushed, her stately back very rigid.
"Don't what, Julia?"
"Fill our nephew's mind with your own base masculine ideas—I forbid."
"But damme—no, Julia, no—I mean, bless us! What's to become of a man—what's a man to do who don't—"
"But he's almost a man, ain't he?"
"Certainly not; Peregrine is—my nephew—"
"And ours, Julia. We are his legal guardians besides—"
"And set him in my care until he comes of age!" retorted my aunt defiantly.
"And there, happy youth, is his misfortune!" sighed my uncle Jervas.
"Misfortune?" echoed my aunt in whisper so awful that I, for one, nearly trembled. "Misfortune!" she repeated. "Hush! Silence! Not a word! I must think this over! Misfortune!"
In the dreadful pause ensuing, I glanced half-furtively from one to other of my three guardians; at my uncle Jervas, lounging gracefully in his chair, an exquisite work of art from glossy curls to polished Hessians; at my uncle George, standing broad back to the mantel, a graceful, stalwart figure in tight-fitting riding-coat, buckskins and spurred boots; at my wonderful aunt, her dark and statuesque beauty as she sat, her noble form posed like an offended Juno, dimpled chin on dimpled fist, dark brows bent above long-lashed eyes, ruddy lips close-set and arched foot tapping softly beneath the folds of her ample robe.
"His misfortune!" she repeated for the fourth time, softly and as to herself. "And ever have I striven to be to him the tender mother he never knew, to stand in place of the father he never saw!"
"I'm sure of it, Julia!" said my uncle George, fidgeting with his stock.
"His misfortune! And I have watched over him with care unfailing—"
"Er—of course, yes—not a doubt of it, Julia," said uncle George, fiddling with a coat button.
"His upbringing has been the passion of my life—"
"I'm sure of it, Julia, your sweet and—er—womanly nature—"
"George, have the goodness not to interrupt!" sighed my aunt, with a little gesture of her hand. "I have furthermore kept him segregated from all that could in any way vitiate or vulgarise; he has had the ablest tutors and been my constant companion, and to-day—I am told—all this is but his misfortune. Now and therefore. Sir Jervas Vereker, pray explain yourself."
"Briefly and with joy, m'dear Julia," answered my uncle Jervas, smiling sleepily into my aunt's fierce black eyes. "I simply mean that your meticulous care of our nephew has turned what should have been an ordinary and humanly promising, raucous and impish hobbledehoy into a very precise, something superior, charmingly prim and modest, ladylike young fellow—"
"Ladyli—!" My stately aunt came as near gasping as was possible in such a woman, then her stately form grew more rigidly statuesque, her mouth and chin took on that indomitable look I knew so well, and she swept the speaker with the blasting fire of her fine black eyes. "Sir Jervas Vereker!" she exclaimed at last, and in tones of such chilling haughtiness that I, for one, felt very like shivering. There fell another awful silence, aunt Julia sitting very upright, hands clenched on the arms of her chair, dark brows bent against my uncle Jervas, who met her withering glance with all his wonted impassivity, while my uncle George, square face slightly flushed, glanced half-furtively from one to the other and clicked nervous heels together so that his spurs jingled.
"George!" exclaimed my aunt suddenly. "In heaven's name, cease rattling your spurs as if you were in your native stables."
"Certainly, m'dear Julia!" he mumbled, and stood motionless and abashed.
"'Pon me life, Julia," sighed my uncle Jervas, "I swear the years but lend you new graces; time makes you but the handsomer—"
"Begad, but that's the very naked truth, Julia!" cried uncle George. "You grow handsomer than ever."
"Tush!" exclaimed my aunt, yet her long lashes drooped suddenly.
"Your hair is—" said uncle Jervas.
"Wonderful!" quoth uncle George. "Always was, begad!"
"Tchah!" exclaimed my aunt.
"Your hair is as silky," pursued my uncle Jervas, "as abundant and as black as—"
"As night!" added uncle George.
"A fiddlestick!" exclaimed my aunt.
"A raven's wing!" pursued my uncle Jervas. "Time hath not changed the wonder of it—"
"Phoh!" exclaimed my aunt.
"Devil a white hair to be seen, Julia!" added uncle George.
"While as for myself, Julia," sighed my uncle Jervas, "my fellow discovered no fewer than four white hairs above my right ear this morning, alas! And look at poor George—as infernally grey as a badger."
"I think," said my aunt, leaning back in her chair, "I think we were discussing my nephew Peregrine—"
"Our mutual ward—precisely, Julia."
"Aye," quoth uncle George, "we are legal guardians of the lad and—"
"Fie, George!" cried aunt Julia. "A vulgar word, an unseemly word!"
"Eh? Word, Julia? What word?"
"'Lad'!" exclaimed my aunt, frowning. "A most obnoxious word, applicable only to beings with pitchforks and persons in sleeved waistcoats who chew straws and attend to horses. Lads pertain only to your world! Peregrine never was, will, or could be such a thing!"
"Good God!" exclaimed my uncle George feebly, and groped for his short, crisp-curling whisker with fumbling fingers.
"Peregrine never was, will, or could be such a thing!" repeated my aunt in a tone of finality.
"Then what the dev—"
"I should say then—pray, Julia, what the—hum—ha—is he?"
"Being my nephew, he is a young gentleman, of course!"
"Ha!" quoth my uncle George.
"Hum!" sighed my uncle Jervas. "A gentleman is usually a better man for having been a lad! As to our nephew—"
"Pray, Jervas," said aunt Julia, lifting white imperious hand, "suffer me one word, at least; in justice to myself I can sit mute no longer—"
"Mute?" exclaimed uncle George, grasping whisker again. "Mute, were you, Julia; oh, begad, why then—"
"George—silence—I plead!" said my aunt, and folding her white hands demurely on her knee gazed down at them wistfully beneath drooping lashes.
"Proceed, Julia," quoth my uncle Jervas, "your voice is music to my soul—"
"Mine too!" added uncle George, "mine too, dooce take me if 't isn't!"
MY AUNT (her voice soft and plaintively sad). For nineteen happy years I have devoted myself to caring for my nephew Peregrine, body and mind. My every thought has been of him or for him, my love has been his shield against discomforts, bodily ailments and ills of the mind—
MY UNCLE JERVAS. And precisely there, Julia, lies his happy misfortune. You have thought for him so effectively he has had small scope to think for himself; cared for him so sedulously that he shall hardly know how to take care of himself; sheltered him so rigorously that, once removed from the sphere of your strong personality, he would be pitifully lost and helpless. In short, he is suffering of a surfeit of love, determined tenderness and pertinacious care—in a word, Julia, he is over-Juliaized!
MY UNCLE GEORGE (a little diffidently, and jingling his spurs). B'gad, and there ye have it, sweet soul—d'ye see—
MY AUNT (smiting him speechless with flashing eye). I—am—not your sweet soul. And as for poor dear Peregrine—
MY UNCLE JERVAS. The poor youth is become altogether too preternaturally dignified, too confounded sober, solemn and sedate for this mundane sphere; he needs more—
UNCLE GEORGE. Brimstone and the devil!
MY AUNT (freezingly). George Vereker!
UNCLE JERVAS. Wholesome ungentleness.
UNCLE GEORGE (hazarding the suggestion). An occasional black eye—bloody nose, d'ye see, Julia, healthy bruise or so—
MY AUNT. Mr. Vereker!
UNCLE GEORGE (groping for whisker). What I mean to say is, Julia, a—ha—hum! (Subsides.)
UNCLE JERVAS. George is exactly right, Julia. Our nephew is well enough in many ways, I'll admit, but corporeally he is no Vereker; he fills the eye but meanly—
MY AUNT (in tones of icy gloom). Sir Jervas—explain!
UNCLE JERVAS. Well, my dear Julia, scan him, I beg; regard him with an observant eye, the eye not of a doting woman but a dispassionate critic—examine him!
(Here I sank lower in my great chair.)
MY AUNT. If Peregrine is not so—large as your robust self or so burly as—monstrous George, am I to blame?
MY UNCLE JERVAS. The adjective robust as applied to myself is, I think, a trifle misplaced. I suggest the word "elegant" instead.
MY AUNT (patient and sighful). What have you to remark, George Vereker?
UNCLE GEORGE (measuring me with knowing eye). I should say he would strip devilish—I mean—uncommonly light—
MY AUNT (in murmurous horror). Strip? An odious suggestion! Only ostlers, pugilists, and such as yourself, George, would stoop to do such a thing! Oh, monstrous!
UNCLE GEORGE (pathetically). No, no, Julia m'dear, you mistake; to "strip" is a term o' the "fancy"—milling, d'ye see—fibbing is a very gentlemanly art, assure you; I went three rounds with the "Camberwell Chicken" before I—
My AUNT (scornfully). Have done with your chickens, sir—
UNCLE GEORGE (ruefully). B'gad, he nearly did for me—naked mauleys, you'll understand. In—
MY AUNT (covers ears). Horrors! this ribaldry, George Vereker!
UNCLE GEORGE. O Lord! (Sinks into chair and gloomy silence.)
MY UNCLE JERVAS (rising gracefully, taking aunt Julia's indignant hands and kissing them gallantly). George is perfectly right, dear soul. Our Peregrine requires a naked mauley (clenches Aunt Julia's white hand into a fist)—something like this, only bigger and harder—applied to his torso—
UNCLE GEORGE. Of course, above the belt, you'll understand, Julia! Now the Camberwell Chicken—
MY UNCLE JERVAS. Applied, I say, with sufficient force to awake him to the stern—shall we say the harsh realities of life.
AUNT JULIA. Life can be real without sordid brutality.
UNCLE JERVAS. Not unless one is blind and deaf, or runs away and hides from his fellows like a coward; for brutality, alas, is a very human attribute and slumbers more or less in each one of us, let us deny it how we will.
UNCLE GEORGE. True enough, Jervas, and as you'll remember when I fought the "Camberwell Chicken," my right ogle being closed and claret flowing pretty freely, the crowd afraid of their money—
MY AUNT (coldly determined). Enough! My nephew shall never experience such horrors or consort with such brutish ruffians.
UNCLE GEORGE. Then he'll never be a man, Julia.
MY AUNT. Nature made him that. I intend him for a poet.
Here my uncle George rose up, sat down and rose again, striving for speech, while uncle Jervas smiled and dangled his eyeglass.
MY UNCLE GEORGE (breathing heavily). That's done it, Jervas, that's one in the wind. A poet! Poor, poor lad.
MY AUNT (triumphantly). He has written some charming sonnets, and an ode to a throstle that has been much admired.
UNCLE GEORGE (faintly). Ode! B'gad! Throstle!
MY UNCLE JERVAS. He trifles with paints and brushes, too, I believe?
MY AUNT. Charmingly! He may dazzle the world with a noble picture yet; who knows?
MY UNCLE JERVAS. Oh, my dear Julia, who indeed! He has a pronounced aversion for most manly sports, I believe: horses, for instance—
MY AUNT. He rides with me occasionally, but as for your inhuman hunting and racing—certainly not!
UNCLE GEORGE. And before we were his age, I had broken my collarbone and you had won the county steeplechase from me by a head, Jervas. Ha, that was a race, lad, never enjoyed anything more unless it was when the "Camberwell Chicken" went down and couldn't come up to time and the crowd—
AUNT JULIA. You were both so terribly wild and reckless!
UNCLE JERVAS. No, my sweet woman, just ordinary healthy young animals.
AUNT JULIA. My nephew is a young gentleman.
UNCLE GEORGE. Ha!
UNCLE JERVAS. H'm! A gentleman should know how to use his fists—there is Sir Peter Vibart, for instance.
UNCLE GEORGE. And to shoot straight, Julia.
UNCLE JERVAS. And comport himself in the society of the Sex. Yet you keep Peregrine as secluded as a young nun.
MY AUNT. He prefers solitude. Love will come later.
UNCLE JERVAS. Most unnatural! Before I was Peregrine's age I had been head over ears in and out of love with at least—
MY AUNT. Reprobate!
UNCLE GEORGE. So had I, Julia. There was Mary—or was it Ann—at least if it wasn't Ann it was Betty or Bessie; anyhow, I know she was—
AUNT JULIA. Rake!
UNCLE JERVAS. Remember, we were very young and had never been privileged to behold the Lady Julia Conroy—
UNCLE GEORGE. Begad, Julia—and there y'have it!
MY AUNT. We were discussing my nephew, I think!
MY UNCLE JERVAS. True, Julia, and I was about to remark that since you refuse to send him up to Oxford or Cambridge, the only chance I see for him is to quit your apron strings and go out into the world to find his manhood if he can.
My aunt turned upon the speaker, handsome head upflung, but, ere she could speak, the grandfather clock in the corner rang the hour in its mellow chime. Thereupon my aunt rose to her stately height and reached out to me her slender, imperious hand.
"Peregrine, it is ten o'clock. Good night, dear boy!" said she and kissed me. Thereafter, having kissed the hand that clasped mine, I bowed to my two uncles and went dutifully to bed.
TELLS HOW AND WHY I SET FORTH UPON THE QUEST IN QUESTION
"Ladylike!" said I to myself, leaning forth from my chamber window into a fragrant summer night radiant with an orbed moon. But for once I was heedless of the ethereal beauty of the scene before me and felt none of that poetic rapture that would otherwise undoubtedly have inspired me, since my vision was turned inwards rather than out and my customary serenity hatefully disturbed.
Thus, all unregarding, I breathed the incense of flowery perfumes and stared blindly upon the moon's splendour, pondering this hateful word in its application to myself. And gradually, having regard to the manifest injustice and bad taste of the term, conscious of the affront it implied, I grew warm with a righteous indignation that magnified itself into a furious anger against my two uncles.
"Damn them! Damn them both!" exclaimed I and, in that moment, caught my breath, shocked, amazed, and not a little ashamed at this outburst, an exhibition so extremely foreign to my usually placid nature.
'To swear is a painful exhibition of vulgarity, and passion uncontrolled lessens one's dignity and is a sign of weakness.'
Remembering this, one of my wonderful aunt's incontrovertible maxims, I grew abashed (as I say) by reason of this my deplorable lapse. And yet:
I repeated the opprobrious epithet for the third time and scowled up at the placid moon.
And this, merely because I had a shrinking horror of all brutal and sordid things, a detestation for anything smacking of vulgarity or bad taste. To me, the subtle beauty of line or colour, the singing music of a phrase, were of more account than the reek of stables or the whooping clamour and excitement of the hunting-field, my joys being rather raptures of the soul than the more material pleasures of the flesh.
"And was it," I asked myself, "was it essential to exchange buffets with a 'Camberwell Chicken,' to shoot and be shot at, to spur sweating and unwilling horses over dangerous fences—were such things truly necessary to prove one's manhood? Assuredly not! And yet—'Ladylike!'"
Moved by a sudden impulse I turned from the lattice to the elegant luxuriousness of my bedchamber, its soft carpets, rich hangings and exquisite harmonies of colour; and coming before the cheval mirror I stood to view and examine myself as I had never done hitherto, surveying my reflection not with the accustomed eyes of Peregrine Vereker, but rather with the coldly appraising eyes of a stranger, and beheld this:
A youthful, slender person of no great stature, clothed in garments elegantly unostentatious.
His face grave and of a saturnine cast—but the features fairly regular.
His complexion sallow—but clear and without blemish.
His hair rather too long—but dark and crisp-curled.
His brow a little too prominent—but high and broad.
His eyes dark and soft—but well-opened and direct.
His nose a little too short to please me—but otherwise well-shaped.
His mouth too tender in its curves—but the lips close and firm.
His chin too smoothly rounded, at a glance—but when set, looks determined enough.
His whole aspect not altogether unpleasing, though I yearned mightily to see him a few inches taller.
Thus then I took dispassionate regard to, and here as dispassionately set down, my outer being; as to my inner, that shall appear, I hope, as this history progresses.
I was yet engaged on this most critical examination of my person when I was interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the flagged terrace beneath my open window and the voices of my two uncles as they passed slowly to and fro, each word of their conversation very plain to hear upon the warm, still air. Honour should have compelled me to close my ears or the lattice; had I done so, how different might this history have been, how utterly different my career. As it was, attracted by the sound of my own name, I turned from contemplation of my person and, coming to the window, leaned out again.
"Poor Peregrine," said my uncle George for the second time.
"Why the pity, George? Curse and confound it, wherefore the pity? Our youth is a perfect ass, an infernal young fish, a puppy-dog—pah!"
"Aye, but," quoth my uncle George (and I could distinguish the faint jingle of his spurs), "we roasted him devilishly to-night between us, Jervas, and never a word out o' the lad—"
"Egad, Julia did the talking for him—"
"Ha, yes—dooce take me, she did so!" exclaimed uncle George. "What an amazingly magnificent creature she is—"
"And did ye mark our youth's cool insolence, his disdainful airs—the cock of his supercilious nose—curst young puppy!"
"Most glorious eyes in Christendom," continued my uncle George, "always make me feel so dooced—er—so curst humble—no, humble's not quite the word; what I do mean is—"
"Fatuous, George?" suggested Uncle Jervas a trifle impatiently.
"Unworthy—yes, unworthy and er—altogether dooced, d'ye see—her whole life one of exemplary self-sacrifice and so forth, d'ye see, Jervas—"
"Exactly, George! Julia will never marry, we know, while she has this precious youth to pet and pamper and cherish—"
"Instead of us, Jervas!"
"Us? George, don't be a fool! She couldn't wed us both, man!"
"Why, no!" sighed uncle George. "She'd ha' to be content wi' one of us, to be sure, and that one would be—"
"Aye!" quoth uncle George, sighing more gustily than ever. "Begad, I think it would, Jervas."
"Though, mark me, George, I have sometimes thought she has the preposterous lack of judgment to prefer you."
"No—did you though!" exclaimed my uncle George, spurs jingling again. "B'gad, and did you though—dooce take me!"
"Aye, George, I did, but only very occasionally. Of course, were she free of this incubus Peregrine, free to live for her own happiness instead of his, I should have her wedded and wifed while you were thinking about it."
"Aye," sighed my uncle George, "you were always such an infernal dasher—"
"As it is, the boy will grow into a priggish, self-satisfied do-nothing, and she into an adoring, solitary old woman—"
"Julia! An old woman! Good God! Hush, Jervas—it sounds dooced indecent!"
"But true, George, devilish true! Here's Julia must grow into a crotchety old female, myself into a solitary, embittered recluse, and you into a lonely, doddering old curmudgeon—and all for sake of this damned lad—"
At this, stirred by sudden impulse, I thrust my head out of the window and hemmed loudly, whereupon they halted very suddenly and stood staring up at me, their surprised looks plain to see by reason of the brilliant moon.
"Pardon me, my dear uncles," said I, bowing to them as well as I might, "pardon me, but I venture to think not—"
"Now 'pon me everlasting soul!" exclaimed my uncle Jervas, fumbling for his eyeglass. "What does the lad mean?"
"With your kind attention, he will come down and explain," said I, and clambering through the casement, I descended forthwith, hand over hand, by means of the ivy stems that grew very thick and strong hereabouts.
Reaching the terrace, I paused to brush the dust from knee and elbow while my uncle Jervas, lounging against the balustrade, viewed me languidly through his glass, and uncle George stared at me very round of eye and groped at his close-trimmed whisker.
"Sirs," said I, glancing from one to other, "I regret that I should appear to you as a 'fish,' a 'puppy' and a 'self-satisfied do-nothing,' but I utterly refuse to be considered either an 'incubus' or a 'damned lad'!"
"Oh, the dooce!" ejaculated uncle George.
"To the which end," I proceeded, "I propose to remove myself for a while—let us say for six months or thereabouts—on a condition."
"Remove yourself, nephew?" repeated uncle Jervas, peering at me a little more narrowly. "Pray where?"
"Anywhere, sir. I shall follow the wind, tramp the roads, consort with all and sundry, open the book of Life and endeavour to learn of man by man himself."
"Very fine!" said my uncle Jervas,—"and damned foolish!"
"In a word," I continued, "I propose to follow your very excellent advice, Uncle Jervas, and go out into the world to find my manhood if I can! That was your phrase, I think?"
"Ah, and when, may I ask?"
"At once, sir. But, as I said before—on a condition."
"Hum!" quoth my uncle Jervas, dropping his glass to tenderly stroke his somewhat too prominent chin.
"And might we humbly venture to enquire as to the condition?"
"Merely this, sir; so soon as Aunt Julia is freed of her incubus—so soon as I am gone—you will see to it she is not lonely. You will woo her, beginning at once, both together or turn about, because I would not have her—this best, this noblest and most generous of women—forfeit anything of happiness on my account; because, having neither father nor mother that I ever remember, the love and reverence that should have been theirs I have given to her."
"Lord!" exclaimed my uncle George, clashing his spurs suddenly. "Lord love the lad—begad—oh, the dooce!"
As for uncle Jervas, forgetting his languor, he stood suddenly erect, frowning, his chin more aggressive than ever.
"You haven't been drinking, have you, Peregrine?" he demanded.
"Then you must be mad!"
"I think not, sir. Howbeit, I shall go!"
"Preposterousandamridiculous!" he exclaimed in a breath.
"Possibly, sir!" quoth I, squaring my shoulders resolutely. "But my mind is resolved—"
"Julia—your aunt, will never permit such tom-fool nonsense, boy!"
"I am determined, sir!" said I, folding my arms. "I go for her sake—her future happiness—"
"Happiness?" cried my uncle George, pulling at his whisker, "'t would break her heart, Perry; she'd grieve, boy, aye, begad she would—she'd grieve, as I say, and—grieve, d'ye see—"
"Then you must comfort her—you or Uncle Jervas, or both! Woo her, win her whoever can, only make her happy—that happiness she has denied herself for my sake, all these years. This you must do—it is for this I am about to sacrifice the joy of her companionship, the gentle quiet and luxury of home to pit myself, alone and friendless, against an alien world. This, my dear uncles," said I, finding myself not a little moved as I concluded, "this is my prayer, that, through one of you she may find a greater happiness than has ever been hers hitherto."
"Tush, boy!" murmured my uncle Jervas, lounging gracefully against the balustrade of the terrace again, "Tush and fiddle-de-dee! If you have done with these heroics, let us get to our several beds like common-sense beings," and he yawned behind a white and languid hand.
His words stung me, I will own; but it was not so much these that wrought me to sudden, cold fury, as that contemptuous yawn. Even as I stood mute with righteous indignation, all my finer feelings thus wantonly outraged, he yawned again.
"Come, Peregrine," he mumbled sleepily, "come you in to bed, like a sensible lad."
"Uncle Jervas," said I, smiling up at him as contemptuously as possible, "I will see you damned first!"
"Good God!" exclaimed my uncle George, and letting go his whisker he fell back a step, staring down at me as if he had never seen me before in all his life. Uncle Jervas, on the contrary, regarded me silently awhile, then I saw his grim lips twitch suddenly and he broke into a peal of softly modulated laughter.
"Our sucking dove can roar, it seems, George—our lamb can bellow on occasion. On me soul, I begin to hope we were perhaps a trifle out in our estimation of him. There was an evil word very well meant and heartily expressed!" And he laughed again; then his long arm shot out, though whether to cuff or pat my head I do not know nor stayed to enquire, for, eluding that white hand, I vaulted nimbly over the balustrade and, from the flower bed below, bowed to him with a flourish.
"Uncle Jervas," said I, "pray observe that I bow to your impertinence, by reason of your age; may God mend your manners, sir! Uncle George, farewell. Uncles both, heaven teach you to be some day more worthy my loved aunt Julia!" Saying which, I turned and strode resolutely away across the shadowy park, not a little pleased with myself.
I was close upon the gates that opened upon the high road when, turning for one last look at the great house that had been my home, I was amazed and somewhat disconcerted to find my two uncles hastening after me; hotfoot they came, at something betwixt walk and run, their long legs covering the ground with remarkable speed. Instinctively I began to back away and was deliberating whether or not to cast dignity to the winds and take to my heels outright, when my uncle George hailed me, and I saw he flourished a hat the which I recognised as my own.
"Hold hard a minute, Perry!" he called, spurs jingling with his haste.
"My good uncles," I called, "you are two to one—two very large, ponderous men; pray excuse me therefore if I keep my distance."
"My poor young dolt," quoth uncle Jervas a trifle breathlessly, "we merely desire a word with you—"
"Aye, just a word, Perry!" cried uncle George. "Besides, we've brought your hat and coat, d'ye see."
"You have no other purpose?" I enquired, maintaining my rearward movement.
"Dammit—no!" answered uncle Jervas.
"Word of honour!" cried uncle George.
At this I halted and suffered them to approach nearer.
"You do not meditate attempting the futility of force?" I demanded.
"We do not!" said uncle Jervas.
"Word of honour!" cried uncle George.
"On the contrary," continued uncle Jervas, handing me my silver-buttoned, frogged surtout, "I for one heartily concur and commend your decision in so far as concerns yourself—a trifle of hardship is good for youth and should benefit you amazingly, nephew—"
"B'gad, yes!" nodded uncle George. "Fine thing, hardship—if not too hard. So we thought it well to see that you did not go short of the—ah—needful, d'ye see."
"Needful, sir?" I enquired.
"Rhino, lad—chink, my boy!"
"Ha, to be sure," sighed uncle Jervas, noting my bewilderment. "These coarse metaphors are but empty sounds in your chaste ears, nephew—brother George is trying to say money. Do you happen to have a sufficiency of such dross about you, pray?" A search of my various pockets resulted in the discovery of one shilling and a groat. "Precisely as I surmised," nodded my uncle Jervas, "having had your every possible want supplied hitherto, money is a sordid vulgarity you know little about, yet, if you persist in adventuring your precious person into the world of men and action, you will find money a somewhat useful adjunct. In this purse are some twelve guineas or so—" here he thrust the purse into the right-hand pocket of my coat.
"And six in this, Perry!" said uncle George, thrusting his purse into my left pocket.
"So here are eighteen-odd guineas," quoth uncle Jervas, "a paltry and most inadequate sum, perhaps, but these should last you a few days—with care, or at least until, wearying of hardship, you steal back into the silken lap of luxury."
"And look 'ee, Perry lad," added uncle George, clapping me on the shoulder and eyeing me a little anxiously, "come back soon, boy—soon, d'ye see—"
"He will, George, he will!" nodded uncle Jervas.
"He looks damnably solitary, somehow, Jervas."
"And small, George."
"Sirs," said I, "for my lack of size, blame nature. As to loneliness—'my mind to me my kingdom is,' and one peopled by a thousand loved friends, or of what avail the reading of books?"
"Books? M—yes, precisely!" quoth my uncle George, ruffling up his thick curls and eyeing me askance. "But what are we to tell your aunt Julia?"
"Nothing, sir. At the first inn I stop at I will write her fully regarding my departure and future plans—"
"But—oh, curse it. Perry," exclaimed uncle George, fumbling for his whisker, "she'll be sure to blame us, aye, she will so, b'gad d'ye see—"
"Not when she reads my letter, sir. Indeed I feel—nay, I know that my absence will but serve to draw you nearer together, all three, and I look forward with assured hope to seeing her happily wedded to—to one or other of you when—when I return—"
"Lord love me!"
"Now on me immortal soul!" exclaimed my two uncles in one breath.
"My dear sirs," I continued, "I have long suspected your passion for my peerless aunt, nor do I venture to blame you—"
"Blame, b'gad!" exclaimed my uncle George faintly.
"To-night I chanced to overhear words pass between you that put the matter beyond doubt—"
"Impertinent young eavesdropper!" exclaimed my uncle Jervas, very red in the face.
"Thus, in taking my departure, I can but wish you every happiness. But before I go, I would beg of you to satisfy me on a point of family history—if you will. My parents died young, I believe?"
"They did!" answered my uncle Jervas in strangely repressed voice.
"Very young!" sighed my uncle George.
"And what—how came they to die?" I questioned.
"Your mother died of—a broken heart, Peregrine," said uncle Jervas.
"Sweet child!" added uncle George.
"Then I pray that God in His mercy has mended it long ere this," said I. "And my father, sirs,—how came he by death so early?"
Here my two uncles exchanged looks as though a little at a loss.
"Has your aunt never told you?" enquired my uncle Jervas.
"Never, sir! And her distress forbade my questioning more than the once. But you are men and so I ask you how did your brother and my father die?"
"Shot in a duel, lad, killed on the spot!" said my uncle George, and I saw his big hand clench itself into a quivering fist. "They fought in a little wood not so far from here—such a lad he was—our fag at school, d'ye see. I remember they carried him up these very steps—and the sun so bright—and he had scarcely begun to live—"
"And the bullet that slew him," added my uncle Jervas, "just as surely killed your mother also."
"Yes!" said I. "And whose hand sped that bullet?"
"He is dead!" murmured my uncle Jervas, gazing up at the placid moon. "Dead and out of reach—years ago."
"Aye—he died abroad," added uncle George, "Brussels, I think, or Paris—or was it Vienna—anyhow he—is dead!"
"And—out of reach!" murmured uncle Jervas, still apparently lost in contemplation of the moon.
"As to yourself, dear, foolish lad," said uncle George, laying his hand upon my shoulder, "if go you will, come back soon! And should you meet trouble—need a friend—any assistance, d'ye see, you can always find me at the Grange."
"Or a letter to me, Peregrine, directed to my chambers in St. James's Street, will always bring you prompt advice in any difficulty and, what is better, perhaps—money. Moreover, should you wish to see the town or aspire socially, you will find I can be of some small service—"
"My dear uncles," I exclaimed, grasping their hands in turn, "for this kind solicitude God bless you both again and—good-bye!"
So saying, I turned (somewhat hastily) and went my way; but after I had gone some distance I glanced back to behold them watching me, motionless and side by side; hereupon, moved by their wistful attitude, I forgot my dignity and, whipping off my hat, I flourished it to them above my head ere a bend in the drive hid them from my view.
WHEREIN THE READER SHALL FIND SOME DESCRIPTION OF AN EXTRAORDINARY TINKER
I went at a good, round pace, being determined to cover as much distance as possible ere dawn, since I felt assured that so soon as my indomitable aunt Julia discovered my departure she would immediately head a search party in quest of me; for which cogent reason I determined to abandon the high road as soon as possible and go by less frequented byways.
A distant church clock chimed the hour and, pausing to hearken, I thrilled as I counted eleven, for, according to the laws which had ordered my life hitherto, at this so late hour I should have been blissfully asleep between lavender-scented sheets. Indeed my loved aunt abhorred the night air for me, under the delusion that I suffered from a delicate chest; yet here was I out upon the open road and eleven o'clock chiming in my ears. Thus as I strode on into the unknown I experienced an exhilarating sense of high adventure unknown till now.
It was a night of brooding stillness and the moon, high-risen, touched the world about me with her magic, whereby things familiar became transformed into objects of wonder; tree and hedgerow took on shapes strange and fantastic; the road became a gleaming causeway whereon I walked, godlike, master of my destiny. Beyond meadow and cornfield to right and left gloomed woods, remote and full of mystery, in whose enchanted twilight elves and fairies might have danced or slender dryads peeped and sported. Thus walked I in an ecstasy, scanning with eager eyes the novel beauties around me, my mind full of the poetic imaginations conjured up by the magic of this midsummer night, so that I yearned to paint it, or set it to music, or write it into adequate words; and knowing this beyond me, I fell to repeating Milton's noble verses the while:
"I walk unseen On the dry smooth-shaven green, To behold the wand'ring moon Riding near her highest noon, Like one that had been led astray Through the heaven's wide pathless way."
After some while I espied a stile upon my right and climbing this, I crossed a broad meadow to a small, rustic bridge spanning a stream that flowed murmurous in the shade of alder and willow. Being upon this bridge, I paused to look down upon these rippling waters and to watch their flash and sparkle where the moon caught them.
And hearkening to the melodious voice of this streamlet, I began to understand how great poems were written and books happened. At last I turned and, crossing the bridge, went my way, pondering on Death, of which I knew nothing, and on Life, of which I knew little more, and so at last came to the woods.
On I went amid the trees, following a grassy ride; but as I advanced, this grew ever narrower and I walked in an ever-deepening gloom, wherefore I turned about, minded to go back, but found myself quite lost and shut in, what with the dense underbrush around me and the twisted, writhen branches above, whose myriad leaves obscured the moon's kindly beam. In this dim twilight I pushed on then, as well as I might, often running foul of unseen obstacles or pausing to loose my garments from clutching thorns. Sudden there met me a wind, dank and chill, that sighed fitfully near and far, very dismal to hear.
And now, as I traversed the gloom of these leafy solitudes, what must come into my head but murders, suicides and death in lonely places. I remembered that not so long ago the famous Buck and Corinthian Sir Maurice Vibart had been found shot to death in just such another desolate place as this. And there was my own long-dead father!
"They fought in a little wood not so far from here!"
These, my uncle George's words, seemed to ring in my ears and, shivering, I stopped to glance about me full of sick apprehension. For all I knew, this might be the very wood where my youthful father had staggered and fallen, to tear at the tender grass with dying fingers; these sombre, leafy aisles perhaps had echoed to the shot—his gasping moan that had borne his young spirit up to the Infinite! At this thought, Horror leapt upon me, wherefore I sought to flee these gloomy shades, only to trip and fall heavily, so that I lay breathless and half-stunned, and no will to rise.
It was at this moment, lying with my cheek against Mother Earth, that I heard it,—a strange, uncanny sound that brought me to my hands and knees, peering fearfully into the shadows that seemed to be deepening about me moment by moment.
With breath held in check I crouched there, straining my ears for a repetition of this unearthly sound that was like nothing I had ever heard before,—a quick, light, tapping chink, now in rhythm, now out, now ceasing, now recommencing, so that I almost doubted but that this wood must be haunted indeed.
Suddenly these foolish apprehensions were quelled somewhat by the sound of a human voice, a full, rich voice, very deep and sonorous, upraised in song; and this voice being so powerful and the night so still, I could hear every word.
"A tinker I am, O a tinker am I, A tinker I'll live, and a tinker I'll die; If the King in his crown would change places wi' me I'd laugh so I would, and I'd say unto he: 'A tinker I am, O a tinker am I, A tinker I'll live, and a tinker I'll'—"
The voice checked suddenly and I cowered down again as in upon me rushed the shadows, burying me in a pitchy gloom so that my fears racked me anew, until I bethought me this sudden darkness could be no more than a cloud veiling the moon, and I waited, though very impatiently, for her to light me again.
Now as I crouched there, I beheld a light that was not of the moon, but a red and palpitant glow that I judged must be caused by a fire at no great distance; therefore I arose and made my way towards it as well as I could for the many leafy obstacles that beset my way. And thus at last I came upon a glade where burned a fire and beyond this, flourishing a tin kettle in highly threatening fashion, stood a small, fierce-eyed man.
"Hold hard!" quoth he in mighty voice, peering at me over the fire. "I've a blunderbuss here and two popps, so hold hard or I'll be forced to brain ye wi' this here kettle. Now then—come forward slow, my covey, slow, and gi'e us a peep o' you churi—step cautious now or I'll be the gory death o' you!"
Not a little perturbed by these ferocious expressions, I advanced slowly and very unwillingly into the firelight and, halting well out of his reach, spoke in tone as conciliatory as possible.
"Pray pardon my intrusion, but—"
"Your what?" he demanded, while his quick, bright eyes roved over my shrinking person.
"Intrusion," I repeated, "and now, if you will kindly allow—"
"Intrusion," quoth he, mouthing the word, "intrusion! Why, here's one as don't come my way often! Intrusion! 'T is a good word and rhymes wi' confusion, don't it?"
"It does!" said I, wondering at his manner.
"And 'oo might you be—and what?" he questioned, beckoning me nearer with a motion of the kettle.
"One who has lost his way—"
"In silver buttons an' a jerry 'at—hum! You're a young nob, you are, a swell, a tippy, a go—that's what you are! Wherefore and therefore I ask what you might be a-doing in this here wood at midnight's lone hour?"
"I am lost—"
"Aha!" said he, eyeing me dubiously and scratching his long, blue chin with the spout of his kettle. "A young gent in a jerry 'at—lost an' wandering far from a luxurious 'ome in a wood at midnight! And wherefore? It ain't murder, is it? You aren't been doing to death any pore, con-fiding young fe-male, have ye?"
"Good God—no!" I answered in indignant horror.
"Why then, you don't 'appen to ha' been robbing your rich uncle and now on your way to London wi' the family jew-ells to make your fortun', having set fire to the fam-ly mansion to cover the traces o' your dark an' desp'ret doin's?"
"Ha!" said he, with rueful shake of his head, "I knew it—from the first. I suppose you'll tell me you ain't even forged your 'oary-'eaded grandfather's name for to pay off your gambling debts and other gentlemanly dissipations—come now?"
"No," said I, a little haughtily, "I am not the rogue and scoundrel you seem determined to take me for."
"True!" he sighed. "And what's more, you ain't even got the look of it. Life's full o' disapp'intments to a romantic soul like me and not half so inter-esting as a good nov-el. Now if you'd only 'appened to be a murderer reeking wi' crime an' blood—but you ain't, you tell me?" he questioned, his keen eyes twinkling more brightly than ever.
"I am not!"
"Why, very well then!" said he, nodding and seating himself upon a small stool. "So be it, young master, and if you'm minded to talk wi' a lonely man an' share his fire, sit ye down an' welcome. Though being of a nat'rally enquiring turn o' mind, I'd like to know what you've been a-doing or who, to be hiding in this wood at this witching hour when graves do yawn?"
"I might as well ask you why you sit mending a kettle and singing?"
"Because I'm a tinker an' foller my trade, an' trade's uncommon brisk hereabouts. But as to yourself—"
"You are a strange tinker, I think!" said I, to stay his questioning.
"And why strange?"
"You quote Shakespeare, for one thing—"
"Aha! That's because, although I'm a tinker, I'm a literary cove besides. I mend kettles and such for a living and make verses for a pleasure!"
"What, are you a poet?"
"'Ardly that, young sir, 'ardly that!" said he, rubbing his chin with the shaft of his hammer. "No, 'ardly a poet, p'raps,—but thereabouts. My verses rhyme an' go wi' a swing, which is summat, arter all, ain't it? I made the song I was a-singing so blithe an' 'earty—did ye like it?"
"No, but did ye though?" he questioned wistfully, slanting his head at me. "Honest an' true?"
"Honest and true!"
At this, his bright eyes danced and a smile curved his grim lips; setting by hammer and kettle, he rose and disappeared into the small dingy tent behind him, whence he presently emerged bearing a large case-bottle, which he uncorked and proffered to me.
"Rum!" said he, nodding. "Any cove as likes verses, 'specially my verses, is a friend—so drink hearty, friend, to our better acquaintance."
"Thank you, but I never drink!"
"Lord!" he exclaimed, and stood bottle in hand, like one quite at a loss; whereupon, perceiving his embarrassment, I took the bottle and swallowed a gulp for good-fellowship's sake and straightway gasped.
"Why, 'tis a bit strong," quoth he, "but for the concocting, or, as you might say, com-posing o' verses there's nothing like a drop o' rum, absorbed moderate, to hearten the muse now and then—here's health an' long life!"
Having said which, he swallowed some of the liquor in turn, sighed, corked the bottle and, having deposited it in the little tent, sat down to his work again with a friendly nod to me.
"Young sir," quoth he, "'tis very plain you are one o' the real sort wi' nothing flash about you, therefore I am the more con-sarned on your account, and wonder to see the likes o' you sitting alongside the likes o' me at midnight in Dead Man's Copse—"
"Dead Man's Copse!" I repeated, glancing into the shadows and drawing nearer the fire. "It is a very dreadful name—"
"But very suitable, young sir. There's many a dead 'un been found hereabouts, laying so quiet an' peaceful at last—pore souls as ha' found this big world and life too much for 'em an' have crept here to end their misery—and why not? There's the poor woman that's lost, say, and wandering in the dark, but with her tired eyes lifted up to the kindly stars; so she struggles on awhile, but by an' by come storm clouds an' one by one the stars go out till only one remains, a little twinkling light that is for her the very light of Hope itself—an' presently that winks an' goes, an' with it goes Hope as well, an' she—poor helpless, weary soul—comes a-creeping into some quiet place like this, an' presently only her poor, bruised body lies here, for the soul of her flies away—up an' up a-singing an' a-carolling—back to the stars!"
"This is a great thought—that the soul may not perish!" said I, staring into the Tinker's earnest face.
"Ah, young sir, where does the soul come from—where does it go to? Look yonder!" said he, pointing upwards with his hammer where stars twinkled down upon us through the leaves. "So they've been for ages, and so they will be, winking down through the dark upon you an' me an' others like us, to teach us by their wisdom. An' as to our souls—Lord, I've seen so many corpses in my time I know the soul can't die. Corpses? Aye, by goles, I'm always a-finding of 'em. Found one in this very copse none so long ago—very young she was—poor, lonely lass! Ah, well! Her troubles be all forgot, long ago. An' here's the likes o' you sitting along o' the likes o' me in a wood at midnight—you as should be snug in sheets luxoorious, judging by your looks—an' wherefore not, young friend?"
Now there was about this small, quick, keen-eyed tinker a latent kindliness, a sympathy that attracted me involuntarily, so that, after some demur, I told him my story in few words as possible and careful to suppress all names. Long before I had ended he had laid by hammer and kettle and turned, elbows on knees and chin on sinewy fists, viewing me steadfastly where I sat in the fireglow.
"So you make verses likewise, do you?" he questioned, when I had done.
"And can paint pic-toors, beside?"
"Yes—of a sort!" I answered, finding myself suddenly and strangely diffident.
"An' you so young!" said he in hushed and awestruck tones. "Have you writ many poems, sir?"
"I have published only one volume so far."
"Lord!" he whispered. "Published a vollum—in print—a book! Ah—what wouldn't I give t' see my verses in print—in a book—to know they were good enough—"
"Ah, pray don't mistake!" said I hastily, my new diffidence growing by reason of his unfeigned and awestruck wonder. "I published them myself—no bookseller would take them, so I—I paid to have them printed."
"And did it cost much—very much?" he enquired eagerly. "Anywhere near, well, say—five pound?"
"A great deal nearer a hundred!"
"A hun—" he gasped. "By goles!" he ejaculated after a moment, "poetry comes expensive, don't it? A hundred pound! Lord love me, I don't make so much in a year! So I'll never see any o' my verses in a book, 'tis very sure. Ah, well," said he with a profound sigh, "that won't stop me a-thinking or a-making of 'em, will it?"
"And what do you write about?" I enquired, vastly interested.
"All sorts o' things—common things, trees an' brooks, fields an' winding roads, and then—there's always the stars. Wrote one about 'em this very week, if you'd care to—"
"I should," cried I eagerly. "Indeed I should!"
"Should you, friend?" said he, fumbling in a pocket of his sleeved waistcoat. "Why, then, so you shall, though there ain't much of it, which is p'raps just as well!"
From his pocket he brought forth a strange collection of oddments whence he selected a crumpled wisp of paper; this he smoothed out and bending low to the fire, read aloud as follows:
"When night comes down, where'er I be I want no roof to shelter me; I love to lie where I may see The blessed stars.
"Though I am one not over-wise They seem to me like friendly eyes That watch us kindly from the skies, These winking stars.
"Though I've no friend to share my woe And bitter tears unseen may flow, To soothe my grief I silent go To tell the stars.
"And when my time shall come to die I care not where my flesh shall lie Because I know my soul shall fly Back to the stars!"
"Did you write that?" I exclaimed.
"Aye, I did!" he answered, a little anxiously. "Rhymes true, don't it?"
"Goes wi' a swing, don't it?"
"Very well then; what more can you want in a verse?"
"But you've got more—much more!"
"A great deal! Atmosphere, for one thing—"
"Why, 't was writ under a hedge," he explained. "And now, friend, p'raps you'll oblige me wi' one o' yourn?"
"Indeed I would rather not," said I, finding myself oddly ill at ease for once.
"Come, fair is fair!" he urged. Hereupon, after some little reflection, I began reciting this, one of my latest efforts:
"Hail, gentle Dian, goddess-queen Throned 'mid th' Olympian vasts Majestic, splendidly serene 'Spite Boreas' rageful blasts. Immaculate, 'midst starry fires Incalculable thou—"
here I stopped suddenly and bowed my head.
"Why, what now, young sir; what's wrong?" questioned the Tinker.
"Everything!" said I miserably. "This is not poetry!"
"It—sounds very fine!" said the Tinker kindly.
"But it is just sound and nothing more—it is fatuous—trivial—it has no soul, no meaning, nothing of value—I shall never be a poet!" And knowing this for very truth, there was born in me a humility wholly unknown until this moment.
"Nay—never despond, friend!" quoth the Tinker, laying his hand on my bowed shoulder. "For arter all you've got what I ain't got—words! All you need is to suffer a bit, mind an' body, an' not so much for yourself as for some one or something else. Nobody can expect to be a real poet, I think, as hasn't suffered or grieved over summat or some one! So cheer up; suffering's bound to come t' ye soon or late; 'tis only to be expected in this world. Meanwhile how are ye going to live?"
"I haven't thought of it yet."
"Hum! Any money?"
"Only eighteen guineas."
"Why, 'tis a tidy sum! But even eighteen pound can't last for ever, an' when 'tis all gone—how then?"
"I don't know."
"Hum!" quoth the Tinker again and sat rubbing his chin and staring into the fire, while I, lost in my new humility, wondered if my painting was not as futile as my poetry.
"Can ye work?" enquired my companion suddenly.
"I think so!"
"I don't know!"
"Hum! Any trade or profession?"
"Ha! too well eddicated, I suppose. Well, 'tis a queer kettle o' fish, but so's life, yet, though heaviness endure for a night, j'y cometh in the morning, and mind, I'm your friend if you're so minded. And now, what I says is—let's to sleep, for I must be early abroad." Here he reached into the little tent and presently brought thence two blankets, one of which he proffered me, but the night being very hot and oppressive, I declined it and presently we were lying side by side, staring up at the stars. But suddenly upon the stillness, from somewhere amid the surrounding boskages that shut us in, came the sound of one sighing gustily, and I sat up, peering.
"All right, friend," murmured the Tinker drowsily; "'tis only my Diogenes!"
"And who is Diogenes?"
"My pony, for sure!"
"But why do you call him Diogenes?"
"Because Diogenes lived in a tub an'—he don't! Good night, young friend! Never thought o' writing a nov-el, I s'pose?" he enquired suddenly.
"Never! Why do you ask?"
"I met a young cove once, much like you only bigger, and this young cove threatened to write a nov-el an' put me into it. That was years ago, an' I've sold and read a good many nov-els since then, but never came across myself in ever a one on 'em."
"Good night!" said I and very presently heard him snore. But as for me I lay wakeful, busied with my thoughts and staring up at the radiant heaven. "No!" said I to myself at last, speaking my thought aloud, "No, I shall never be a poet!"
IN WHICH I MEET A DOWN-AT-HEELS GENTLEMAN
I awoke uncomfortably warm, to find the high-risen sun pouring his dazzling beams full upon me while, hard by, the Tinker's fire yet smouldered; up I started to rub my eyes and stare about me upon the unfamiliar scene. Birds piped and chirped merrily amid the leaves above and around, a rabbit sat to watch me inquisitively, but otherwise I was alone, for the Tinker had vanished and his tent with him.
Now as I sat, feeling strangely lonely and disconsolate, I espied a bulbous parcel lying in reach and, opening this, found it to contain a small loaf, three slices of bacon and a piece of cheese, together with a folded paper whereon I deciphered these words inscribed in painfully neat characters.
What is one thing at night is another in the morning, so I have gone my way and taken my course appointed. If you should wish to meet me again, which would be strange, I think, you shall hear of me at the White Hart nigh to Sevenoaks, or the Chequers at Tonbridge or from mostly any of the padding kind, since the high road is my home and has been long. I am glad you liked my verses, I have more I could have read you and I think better of yours than you think I thought, though you have taken Lord Byron for your model I think and he is only a poet when he forgets to be a fine gentleman. May you prosper, young sir, and find your manhood which I reckon is none so far to seek. And this is the true desire of me.
Tinker and occasionally literary cove.
I have left you some breakfast also fire to cook same, eat hearty. You will find a frying-pan in a cleft of the tree we slept under.
Thereupon, being much more hungry than was my wont, I came to the tree in question and presently found a roomy cleft where was the frying-pan, sure enough. And now, having made up the fire, I set about cooking my breakfast for the first time in my life and found it no great business, turning the rashers this way and that in the pan until what with their delectable sight and smell, my hunger grew to a voracious desire that amazed me by its intensity. So, placing the frying-pan on the grass between my knees, I began to eat with the aid of my penknife and a hunch of crusty bread, and never in all my days enjoyed anything more.
In due time, the bacon being despatched together with the greater part of the loaf and cheese, I lay propped against the tree, blinking in the sun and drowsily content. But this blissful aftermath was presently marred by haunting memories of tea, coffee and creamy chocolate until at last, roused by an insistent and ever-growing thirst, I arose, minded to seek some means of assuaging this appetite. Thus, having scrubbed out the frying-pan with a handful of bracken, I restored it to the tree and set out. After some little while I came on a brook bubbling pleasantly amid mossy stones and yet, though it looked sweet and clean enough, I could not bring myself to drink of it, being too proud-stomached, and must go wandering on, plagued by my thirst, until, chancing on the same brook or another, I could resist no longer, and stretching myself full-length upon the bank I stooped to the murmurous water and drank my fill and found it none so ill, although a little brackish.
As the day advanced, the cool wind died away so that what with the heat and this unwonted exercise I grew distressed and was about to cast myself down in the shade of a hedge, when I espied a small tavern bowered in trees some little distance along the road, very pleasant to see, and hasted thitherward accordingly. I was yet some distance away when I became aware that something untoward was afoot, for, borne to my ears, came a sound of excited voices, dominated all at once by one deep and hoarse and loud in virtuous indignation.
"Drunk me beer, I tell 'ee—every drop! Drunk me beer at one gullup so quick's a flash—the 'eartless ruffin!"
Hereupon rose an answering chorus.
"Throw 'im out! Duck 'im! Gi'e 'un one for 'isself!"
Reaching the tavern, I halted on the threshold of a low, wide chamber, floored with red tiles and furnished with oaken tables and benches, where I beheld some half-dozen angry country-fellows grouped about a solitary individual who fronted them in very desperate and determined manner, his back to the wall; an extremely down-at-heels gentleman this, who yet cocked his hat and glared about him with an air of polite ferocity.
"In half a pig's whisper," said he, squaring his arms belligerently, "in half a pig's whisper or less, blood will flow, gore will gush and spatter—" Here, chancing to catch sight of me in the doorway, he flourished off his hat, a miserably sorry-looking object, and bowed profoundly. "Aha, Sir Oswald," quoth he, "you arrive most aptly—in the very nick, the moment, the absolute tick! If you have a mind to see a little delicate fibbing, some scientific bruising as taught by the famous Natty Bell, foot and fist-work as exhibited by Glorious John, Jem Belcher and—"
"'E swallowed all my beer, 'e did, sir!" exclaimed a red-faced man in gaiters and smock-frock, "in one gullup—so quick no 'and could stay the deed! Stole me beer an' can't deny it—"
"No, by heaven!" exclaimed the down-at-heels gentleman. "I drank the fellow's beer, every drop—could have drunk more. Our fat and furious friend labours under a delusion, for to drink good beer with a man out of that man's own pot is surely a mark of high esteem—"
"Dang your 'steem!" cried the stout fellow, flourishing his empty tankard threateningly. "A chap as thieves a chap's beer is a chap as can't be no chap's friend! 'Ow about it, you chaps?" quoth he, appealing to his fellows. "Shall us let a chap thieve a chap's beer an' not kick that chap out where that chap belongs—'ow about it?" Whereupon came the answering chorus:
"Aye, Sim, go for 'im, lad—we'm wi' 'ee! Pitch 'im out! Duck 'im in th' 'orsepond!"
At this juncture spake one I deemed to be the landlord, a gloomy being who drooped above a small bar in one corner.
"Do as ye will, neighbours all, do as ye will—only don't break nothink—them as breaks, pays!"
"One moment, please!" said I, stepping forward. "If the gentleman committed the solecism complained of, it was, I am sure, not so much a wish to offend as an error of judgment—"
"Admirably expressed, sir!" exclaimed the gentleman in question. "And suffer me to add—the exigencies of fortune and circumstance!"
"Therefore," I continued, returning the gentleman's polite bow, "I shall be happy to make such restitution on his behalf as I may."
At this there fell a strange silence during which every eye was fixed on me in somewhat disconcerting fashion, feet shuffled, heads were scratched.
"Ax your pardon, sir—" said the red-faced man at last, rasping shaven chin with tankard rim, "but if you could manage to talk a little less furrin'—more plain English-like?"
"I mean I will buy more beer for you—and any one else who—"
"D'ye hear that, landlord?" cried a voice. "The genelman do mean pots all round!"
"Do ye mean that same, sir?" enquired the landlord, glooming and doubtful.
"I will pay for as many pots as they can drink, for good-fellowship's sake," said I, and laid down a coin.
"Spoken like a true sportsman, sir!" exclaimed the down-at-heels gentleman. "Sir Oswald, permit me to bring to your notice one Anthony—myself, once blooming gayest of the gay, now, alas! a faded blossom, cankered, sir, blighted, yet not to be trodden upon with impunity and always your most obliged, humble servant!" Here he paused to lift the brimming tankard the gloomy landlord had just set before him and bow to me across the creamy foam. "Sir Oswald, your health!" said he. "And may heaven preserve you from these three fatal F's—fathers, friends and females!" Having said which, he drank thirstily and thereafter sat frowning down at his broken boots beneath the brim of his woebegone hat, apparently lost in bitter thought. And beholding him thus, his flippancy forgotten, his air of dashing ferocity laid aside, I saw he was pale and thin and haggard and much younger than I had thought. Suddenly, chancing to meet my eye, his pale cheeks flushed painfully, then, squaring his drooping shoulders, he smote his hat more over one eye than ever, nodded gaily, sprang lightly to his feet and gripped at the table to steady himself.
"E'gad, sir," said he, laughing, "they brew uncommonly strong ale in these parts, it seems!"
"Yes!" said I, well knowing it was not this had so shaken him or caused his hands to quiver as he leaned. "I was thinking," I continued, "that with such ale a crust of bread and cheese might not be amiss?"
"Cheese!" he exclaimed fiercely. "Sir—I—I detest cheese!" But as he spoke I noticed his nearest hand had clenched itself into a quivering fist.
"Why, indeed," said I, furtively watching that telltale hand, "I myself should prefer a slice of roast beef—or a rasher of ham—"
"Ham!" he murmured softly as if to himself—and then in the same tone, "Sir, I never eat ham, it is an abom—"
"'Am, sir?" sighed the gloomy landlord at this juncture, "if you gentleman was a-thinking of 'am, I've as fine a gammon as was ever smoked, leastways so my missus do say, so if you'm minded for a rasher or so—cut thick—an' say 'arf a dozen eggs—why, say the word, sir."
"The word is 'yes'—if this gentleman will honour me with his company," said I. Hereupon the down-at-heels gentleman shook his head, scowled into his tankard, sighed, and, meeting my eye, broke into a wry smile.
"With all the pleasure in life, sir!" said he.
Thus in a little while we were seated in a small, clean room with the ham and eggs smoking on a dish between us, whence emanated a savour most delectable.
"It smells very appetising!" said I, taking up knife and fork.
"So much so," said he, "so very much so, that before I accept more of your hospitality, it is as well you should know whom you would honour—" here I paused and stared down at the ham and eggs. "Sir, I am a thief!" Here I let fall the knife. "Three nights since, sir," he continued in the same passionless voice, "I broke into a farmhouse and stole a loaf and a piece of cheese. I should have stolen more but that I was interrupted and pursued. I lost the cheese clambering over a wall, the last of the loaf I finished yesterday morning, since when I have subsisted on air and an occasional mangel-wurzel—"
"Then surely it is time you ate something more substantial—this ham seems excellent and—"
"God love you, Sir Oswald—you're a trump!" he exclaimed and sitting down, fell to upon the food I had set before him.
"It is good ham!" said I.
"Sublime!" he answered, and seeing with what fervour he addressed himself to the viands, I troubled him with no further speech until, his plate empty, he leaned back in his chair and vented a sigh of blissful and utter content.
"For that—" he began haltingly, his voice a little hoarse, "for—your hospitality—accept the thanks of a starving wretch!"
"And my name is not Oswald!" said I.
"Of course not, but it answered very well with the fellows outside—nothing like a high-sounding name or title to awe your British rustic. And now," said he, with an expression half-whimsical, half-rueful, as he picked up his woebegone hat, "having by your courtesy eaten and drunk my fill, I will do my best to repay you by ridding you of my company."
"I was christened Peregrine," said I, reaching over to refill his tankard. Now at this he stood mute a space, and very still, only he fumbled nervously with his hat and I heard his breath catch oddly, wherefore I kept my gaze bent upon the jug in my hand.
"Sir," said he at last, speaking as with an effort, "when I stole the bread and cheese, I would have stolen—anything that had chanced in my reach—money—jewels—anything. I was mad and desperate with hunger. And yet many a poor rogue in the same circumstances did no more and their bodies dangle in chains on the highway. I have even contemplated turning footpad—"
"I think," said I, "you told me your name was Anthony—well, if you are going on, I will come with you, if I may."
"You will trust yourself—with me—in these solitary byways!"
"Of course," said I, rising, "because, in spite of everything, you are a gentleman!"
At this he turned very abruptly and strode to the latticed casement, while I, having summoned the landlord, paid the reckoning. Then, bidding the company good-day, we set forth together.
FURTHER CONCERNING THE AFORESAID GENTLEMAN, ONE ANTHONY
So we walked on together, side by side, through leafy byways and winding paths, past smiling cornfield and darkling wood; we talked of the Government, of country and town, of the Fashionable World and its most famous denizens, concerning which last my companion's knowledge seemed profound; we spoke but little of books, of which he seemed amazingly ignorant—in fine, we exchanged thoughts and reflections on any and everything except ourselves. And thus, as evening drew nigh, we came to the top of a hill. Here he stopped all at once and taking off his dilapidated hat, pointed with it up at the thing that rose above us, looming against the sunset-glory, beam, cross-bar and chain.
"Look at that!" quoth he, staring up at something hideously warped and weather-beaten and clasped round with iron bands,—an awful shape that dangled from rusting chain. "But for my light heels—I might have come to that—and yet why not—his troubles are over. So in a year—six months—who knows,—there hang I—"
"God forbid, Anthony?" cried I.
Now at this he whirled round and, clapping his two hands upon my shoulders, burst forth into vehement oaths to my deep amazement until I saw the tears in his haggard eyes.
"....Curse and confound it!" he ended. "Why must you call me Anthony!"
"Because it is the only name I know you by, for one thing."
"Well!" said he, blinking and scowling savagely.
"And because I like the name of Anthony."
"Oh! egad do you? Well, I like the name Peregrine."
"Good!" said I, and we walked on down the hill together. "My other name is Vereker," I volunteered, seeing he was silent.
"Vereker?" he repeated and stopped to stare at me. "No relation to Sir Jervas Vereker?"
"The devil you are!" And here he stood looking down at me from his superior height, rasping his fingers up and down his thin, unshaven cheek like one quite dumbfounded.
"Do you happen to know my uncle?"
"I do—or rather I did, humbly and at a distance, for Sir Jervas is, and always will be, magnificently aloof from all and sundry—but you know this, of course?"
"On the contrary, though I have seen him frequently, I know him not in the least."
"My dear Vereker—who does?"
"My name is Peregrine!" said I, whereupon came that impulsive hand to rest lightly upon my shoulder again for a moment.
"My dear Peregrine, your uncle is unique; there never was any one quite like him unless it were Sir Maurice Vibart, the famous Buck, though your uncle, perhaps, is not quite so coldly devilish; still, he's sufficiently remarkable."
"Well, he has fought three duels to my knowledge, won a point-to-point steeplechase not so long ago and a fortune with it—came down at the first jump and rode with a broken arm though nobody knew until he fainted. Youthful despite years, quick of eye, hand and tongue, correct in himself and all that pertains to him, one who must be sought—even by Royalty, it seems—who might have married among the fairest and lives solitary except for his man John. Sir Jervas Vereker is—Sir Jervas."
"You seem to know my uncle rather well."
"I did—for my name besides Anthony is Vere-Manville!" Here he paused as expecting some comment but finding me silent, continued: "My father was killed with Sir John Moore, at Corunna, and I was brought up by a curmudgeonly uncle, the most preposterous unavuncular uncle that ever bullied a defenceless nephew to the dogs. Well, I grew up and was a moderately happy man despite my uncle, until I took to my bosom a friend who deceived me and a mistress who broke my heart."
"Oh," said I, not a little touched by this gloomy and romantic tale, "then this explains your—your—"
"My present misery, Peregrine? Not altogether. Had I been a philosopher and bent to the storm, I might perchance have gone my solitary way a broken and embittered man, but philosophy and bending to storms is not in me, unhappily, for chancing to encounter my faithless friend, I twisted his nose to such a tune that he demanded satisfaction which resulted in my wounding him; after which I consigned my perjured mistress to perdition; after which again, purely because she happened to be a wealthy heiress, my curmudgeonly uncle cast me adrift, cut me off and consigned me to the devil."
"Here is a very moving story!" said I.
"It is, Peregrine, it is, egad—and consequently I have been moving ever since and going to the devil as fast as I can, though sadly hampered by lack of funds."
"What do you mean by 'going to the devil?'"
"Why, there are many ways, Peregrine, as of course you know, but mine would be ale, beer, wine, brandy—had I the necessary money."
"Are you determined on it?"
"Absolutely!" said he, taking off his battered hat to scowl at it and clap it on again. "Absolutely, Peregrine—I am firmly determined to drink myself to the final exodus."
"How much money should you require, Anthony?"
At this he turned to stare with an expression of whimsical dubiety and thereafter fell to rubbing his unshaven chin as rather at a loss.
"Let us say fifty guineas—no, we'll make it a hundred while we're about it—a hundred guineas would do the thing admirably—though to be sure much might be done with less."
"I have only eighteen pounds," said I, thrusting hand into pocket; "which will leave nine for you—"
"Hey!" he exclaimed, stopping in his sudden fashion. "What's this—what the devil—I say, curse and confound everything, man, what d'ye mean?"
"Being both solitary wanderers, we will share equally so far as we may—"
"No—not to be thought of—preposterous—"
"So I ask you to honour me by accepting these nine pounds—"
"I'll be shot if I do!"
"They may help you to—"
"To my drunken dissolution? Ridiculous! Nine pounds' worth would never do it, I'm so infernally healthy and strong! Nine accursed, miserable pounds—what use to a drinker such as I?"
"Many, Anthony, and I think I can guess one of the first—"
"To procure yourself a shave!"
"Egad!" cried he with a sudden, merry look, "I believe you're in the right of it! A stubbly chin makes a man feel such a pernicious, scoundrelly, hangdog walking misery."
"Precisely!" said I, holding out the nine pounds. "So take your money, Anthony."
"Positively no!" said he, scowling down at the coins. "I thieve occasionally, but I don't beg—yet, and be damned t' you!" And thrusting hands into pockets, he went on again. So I put up the money and we walked on, but in silence now, while the shadows deepened about us. And thus we went for a great while until with every stride this silence became painfully irksome—at least, to me. All at once his arm was about my shoulders, a long, nervous arm drawing me to him, then he had freed me and we stood facing each other in the gathering dusk.
"Perry!" said he, in strange, shaken voice. "Dear fellow, will you forgive a graceless dog? You meant kindly, but I couldn't—I should despise myself more than I do—so—Oh, curse and confound it—what about it?"
For answer I reached out and took his hand; so we stood for a long moment speaking never a word. And presently we went on down the darkling road together.
DESCRIBES CERTAIN LIVELY HAPPENINGS AT THE "JOLLY WAGGONER" INN
We had gone thus no great distance when we heard a sound of hoofs and wheels and perceived an open travelling chaise coming up behind us. The lane was narrow and rutted and thus the vehicle was progressing at an inconsiderable pace, and as it passed us where we stood in the hedge, I saw it contained a man and a woman. This man was richly dressed, and handsome in a big, plethoric fashion, but beholding his face, the small eyes, heavy jowls and fleshy nose, I took an instant aversion to him.
"Did you notice that fellow?" I enquired, brushing the dust from me.
"Did you see—her?" exclaimed Anthony.
"A fleshly brute if ever there was one!" said I.
"Such glorious eyes and hair—a sweet angelic creature, Perry. Her eyes seemed so big and appealing. Oh, curse it, why must women have such eyes. Damn everything!"
"It will be a beautiful night!" said I, staring up at the purple vault where stars began to wink.
"She looked—miserable—almost like one afraid."
"I wonder where we shall sleep, Anthony?"
"Oh, anywhere, in some barn, under a hedge, in a rick—what matter? Why should she look afraid, I wonder?"
I made no answer, for truth to tell my mind yearned and my body hungered for the sweet, cool luxury of lavender sheets; the thought of a draughty barn or comfortless ditch appalled me, but I held my peace, only I scanned the dim road before me with eager eyes for some sign of tavern or inn.
And presently from the loom of trees I espied a twinkling light that upon our nearer approach I saw proceeded from a wayside inn with a great trough of water before it and a signboard whereon, though evening was falling apace, I could make out the legend—
THE JOLLY WAGGONER
and above this the dim semblance of a man in gaiters and smock, bearing a whip in one hand while in the other he upheld a foaming beaker—but never in nature did ale or beer ever so foam, froth, bubble and seethe as did this painted waggoner's painted beer.
"What now?" enquired my companion, for I had halted. "What is it, Peregrine?"
"The beer!" said I.
"Where, man, where?"
"Yonder!" and I pointed to the sign. "Did ever eyes behold beer so preternaturally frothy?"
"Of course not, Perry my lad, because reality is never so perfect as the dream! The cove who painted that was damnably dry, perishing of a noble thirst, not a doubt of it, and being a true artist he painted it all in—egad, there's thirst in every inch of that foam—it's a masterpiece!"
"It's a daub—and a bad one!" said I. "Indeed, on closer inspection the foam looks very like cheese!"
"Excellent—the poor painting-cove was hungry also, and there you are! I'd hang that thing in my dining room (supposing I had one) to get me an appetite—it's made me hungry already and as for the thirst—Oh, confound it—come on—"
"By no means!" said I resolutely. "Here is a cosy inn; here will we eat and sleep—"
"At your expense? Curse me, no, Peregrine."
"Damme, yes, Anthony."
"I say positively I'll not—"
"Look at that cheese-like foam, Anthony!"
"Curse your pitiful eighteen pounds!"
"A dinner, a glass and a downy bed with sheets, Anthony!"
"Remember I'm a man of astonishing determination, Peregrine!"
"Forget your ridiculous pride, Anthony!"
"Ha—ridiculous, d'ye say, sir?"
"And utterly preposterous, sir!"
"Preposterous! By heaven!" he exclaimed, cocking the battered hat very ferociously over one eye. "Were you a little nearer my weight and size, sir—"
"Sir," quoth I, nettled by the allusion, "does my size offend you—"
"Rather say lack of size, sir—"
Now while we stood glaring upon each other in this very ridiculous manner, we were startled by a clatter of hoofs from the inn yard, and the snorting squeal of a horse in pain.
"By heaven, Perry!" he exclaimed, forgetting his ferocity and settling his hat more firmly with a blow of his fist, "I believe some damned scoundrel is kicking a horse!" And away he strode forthwith and I hastened after him. Reaching the yard behind the inn we perceived an ostler and a postboy who cherished a trembling horse between them, talking together in hushed but sullen tones.
"Who's been savaging the horse, my lads?" demanded Anthony, running a hand over the sweating animal with the caressing touch of a true horseman. "Come, speak up and no mumbling!"
"'T were the genelman in the blue spencer as druv up 'ere a while ago cursing 'orrid, an' 'im wi' a young fe-male. A bad 'un by 'is looks an' ways, I think, an' I don't care if 'e 'ears me say it."
"Ah—with a lady, was he?"
"A very beautiful lady—young, with hair—eyes—"
"W'y, she may 'ave 'ad heyes an' she might 'ave 'ad 'air—likewise she may not—she may ha' been as bald as a coot an' as blind as a mole for all I see—"
"That'll do, my lad, that'll do! But she was young, wasn't she?"
"'Ow should I know?" exclaimed the ostler, his manner losing all respect as he observed Anthony's general down-at-heel appearance. "I didn't think to open 'er mouth nor yet ob-serve 'er teeth—"
"That'll do, my lad, that'll do—"
"Oh, will it an' all—why then, git out o' this yere yard. Who are you t' ax questions—out wi' ye an' quick's the word!" Saying which, the tall ostler approached in a very dangerous and threatening fashion; but even as he moved, so moved Anthony, only infinitely quicker, and lo! in place of large, scowling visage were two large hobnailed shoes that wavered uncertainly aloft in air while their owner rolled upon a pile of stable sweepings.
"That was what Natty Bell would call 'one to go on with!'"
"Lorramity!" gasped the ostler, sitting up and glancing about in dazed fashion. "Lorramity—that's done it, that 'as!"
"If it hasn't, we'll try another!" suggested Anthony in cheery tone.
"By cripes!" exclaimed the ostler, taking up a handful of stable sweepings in an aimless sort of manner. "That was a one-er, that was!"
"I believe you!" quoth the postboy. "It were a leveller as you was a fair askin' an' a-pleading for, an' you got it!"
"Is the lady stopping here to-night?" enquired Anthony.
"She are, sir!" answered the postboy.
"She am, sir!" answered the other, "an' because why, sir—I'll tell ye true, if you won't go a-landin' me no more o' them one-er's—"
"Because 'is near 'orse cast a shoe, sir," explained the postboy.
"An' no smith nigher than Sevenoaks, which is seven miles away."
"Peregrine," said my companion, turning towards the inn, "remembering the foam and your magnanimous offer we will reconsider our decision. This way!" And pushing open a door, we found ourselves in a comfortable chamber, half bar, half kitchen, where was a woman of large and heroic proportions who, beholding Anthony's draggled exterior, frowned, but the sight of my silver buttons and tasseled Hessians seemed to reassure her, for she smiled and bobbed a curtsey to them and asked my pleasure. At my suggestion of supper and beds for two, she turned to frown at Anthony's attire again and called, "Susie!"
In answer to which summons presently appeared a trim maid who, at her mistress's bidding, forthwith brought us to a small chamber none too comfortable, and there left us to kick our heels.
"As lovely a pair of eyes that ever eyes looked into, Perry!"
"Why, she's a fine, plump, buxom kind of creature," said I, "but I think she squints a little—"
"Squints!" cried Anthony, turning with a kind of leap—"I'll be damned if she does—"
"Well, then, take notice when she comes to lay the table—"
"What table? Who?"
"Why, the maid—"
"Ass! I meant the Lady of the Chaise! And she was frightened, Perry—and no wonder—a man who would kick a horse would savage a woman—by heaven, there are times when murder is a virtue!" Here he rose suddenly as a heavy, trampling footstep shook the ceiling above us. "Peregrine," said he, tossing his hat into a corner, "while you remain here to observe the squint-eyed maid, I will forthwith investigate."
Left alone, I sat impatiently enough, twiddling my thumbs; but as time passed and brought neither Anthony nor the maid with supper, my impatience redoubled, so that I rose and, opening a door, found myself in a passage wherein were other doors, from behind one of which came the dull, low sound of a woman's passionate weeping. Inexpressibly moved by this, I hastened forward impulsively and, opening this door, stepped into the room beyond.
She was crouching at the table, a slender, desolate figure, her face hidden in her arms, but hearing my footstep, she lifted her head with a weary gesture and, looking into the beauty of this pale, tear-wet face, I read there a hopeless terror that went far beyond fear.
At sight of me she half rose, then sank down again, as from an inner chamber strode a tall, heavily built man in whom I instantly recognised the gentleman of the chaise. Beholding me, he halted suddenly and stood a minute like one utterly amazed, then his face was convulsed with sudden fury, his full lips curled back from strong, white teeth, and uttering a snarling, inarticulate sound, he caught up a heavy walking cane and strode towards me, whereupon I retreated so precipitately that my heel catching in the worn floor-covering, I tripped and fell; then, or ever I could rise, he stooped and catching me in merciless hands, shook me like the savage monster he was and dragging me across the floor, hurled me into the passage; lying breathless and half-stunned, I heard the slam of the door, the rattle of a bolt and thereafter the sound of his voice, hoarse and muffled and very evil to be heard. I was upon my knees and groping for my hat when powerful arms caught me and lifted me to my feet.
"Why, Perry—curse and confound it!" exclaimed Anthony. "What in the name of—"
He broke off suddenly and I felt the arm about me grow tense and rigid as from beyond the bolted door the harsh voice reached us, fiercer, louder than before.
"Let you go back—and be laughed at for a fool? Not I! Little fool.... No, by God ... weep your eyes out ... we're as good as married ... to-morrow morning ... come here ... obey me—"
"God!" exclaimed Anthony between shut teeth.
"And the door is bolted!" said I.
"No matter! Out o' my way!"
I saw him leap, saw his foot shoot out, heard a rending crash and next moment he was in the room and I behind him. The man in the blue spencer was in the act of locking the door of the inner room and stood, his hand upon the key, glaring at us beneath drawn brows.
"What the devil!" quoth he, and snatching the stick where it lay on the table, turned upon Anthony with the weapon quivering in his big fist. "Out of this!" he snarled. "Back to the mud that bred you—d'ye hear!"
"One moment!" said Anthony, his grey eyes very wide and bright. "There is a lady in the room yonder and the doors are devilish flimsy, otherwise I should endeavour to describe the kind of thing you are—I intend very shortly to tread on you, but first—"
I saw the heavy stick whirl high, to fall whistling on empty air as Anthony, timing the blow, sprang lightly aside, then leapt heavily in with stiffened arm and fist that smote the scowling face reeling back to the wall. And now rose sounds evil to hear, fierce-panted oaths, the trampling of quick, purposeful feet, and a dust wherein they swayed and smote each other in desperate, murderous fashion; sickened by this beastly spectacle I shrank away, then ran to catch up the flickering lamp and with this grasped in tremulous hands, waited for the end. They were down at last, rolling upon the floor; then I saw the shabby, weather-beaten figure was uppermost, saw this figure reach for and grasp the heavy cane, saw the long arm rise and fall, heard a muffled groan, a sharp cry, a shout of agony; but the long arm rose and fell untiring, merciless, until all sounds were hushed save for a dull moaning and the monotonous sound of blows.
"Anthony—for God's sake—don't kill him!" I cried.
"Murder—sometimes—virtue!" he gasped. At this I set down the lamp in a safe place and, running in, caught that merciless arm, commanding and beseeching in turn. "Right, Peregrine—loose my arm—he's had about—enough—besides, I'm devilish blown!"
So I loosed him and, standing back, saw beyond the door a throng of pale, fearful faces, that parted suddenly to make way for a short, squat man who carried a blunderbuss. Anthony saw him too, for in a moment he was up and, thrusting hand into his bosom, drew thence a small pistol.
"Put down that blunderbuss!" he commanded; whereupon, after a momentary hesitation, the squat fellow stepped forward and laid it sulkily upon the table. "Here, Peregrine," said Anthony, "take this pistol and keep 'em quiet while I walk on this scoundrel a little!" Unwillingly enough, I took the weapon, while Anthony forthwith stood upon his prostrate antagonist and proceeded very deliberately to wipe his villainous-looking boots upon the gentleman's fine blue spencer; this done, he stepped down and beckoned the squat man to approach, who came in, though very unwillingly, and closely followed by the ostler and postillion.
"'Ave ye killed the pore soul?" questioned the squat fellow, eyeing the prostrate man very much askance.
"Alas, no—so I will ask you and these good fellows to carry him out and lay him in the horse-trough—"
"'Orse-trough?" exclaimed the landlord.
"Horse-trough!" nodded Anthony.
"Not us!" answered the landlord.
"Think again!" said Anthony, taking up the blunderbuss.
"Ye mean t' say—" began the landlord.
"Horse-trough!" said Anthony, levelling the ungainly weapon.
"Come on, master," quoth the ostler, "'e du be a mortal desp'rit cove for sure! An' what's a little water; 't will du un good!" So in the end they raised the groaning man and bore him forth, followed by Anthony with the blunderbuss across his arm. And presently from without came a splash, a fierce sputtering and a furious torrent of gasping oaths, which last sound greatly relieved me; and now, what with this and the excitement of the whole affair, I sank down in a chair, trembling from head to foot and my head bowed upon my hands. But hearing a light footstep, I looked up to behold the lady, a bewitching vision despite red eyes and pallid cheeks, where she stood surveying me—then all at once she came forward, impetuous, her hands clasped.
"Oh, sir, how can I ever thank you—and my nose so red and my eyes so dreadfully bleared!"
And in the extremity of her gratitude I believe this beautiful young creature would have knelt to me but that I caught and held her hands in mine; and it was at this moment that Anthony strode in, still a little breathless by reason of his late exertions.
"Oh, Peregrine—" he began and stopped, for at sight of him the lady shrank closer to me, viewing him with terrified eyes, as indeed well she might, for now, in addition to the woeful misery of his garments and stubble of beard, his wild and desperate appearance was heightened by a smear of blood across his pallid cheek. "Ah!" said he, beholding her instinctive gesture of aversion. "Pray assure madam that in spite of my looks she has nothing to fear!" and with one of his grand obeisances he turned to go, but in that moment I had him by the sleeve.