SIR JOHN CONSTANTINE.
MEMOIRS OF HIS ADVENTURES AT HOME AND ABROAD AND PARTICULARLY IN THE ISLAND OF CORSICA: BEGINNING WITH THE YEAR 1756.
WRITTEN BY HIS SON PROSPER PALEOLOGUS OTHERWISE CONSTANTINE AND EDITED BY "Q" (A. T. QUILLER-COUCH).
"For knighthood is not in the feats of warre, As for to fight in quarrel right or wrong, But in a cause which truth can not defarre He ought himself for to make sure and strong Justice to keep mixt with mercy among: And no quarrell a knight ought to take But for a truth, or for a woman's sake."
TO THE READER
A hundred and fifty episodes, two sermons, and a number of moral digressions, have been omitted from this story.
The late ingenious Mr. Fett (whose acquaintance you will make in the following pages), having been commissioned by Mr. Dodsley, the publisher, to write a conspectus of the Present State of the Arts in Italy at two guineas the folio—a fair price for that class of work— had delivered close upon two hundred folios before Mr. Dodsley interposed, professing unbounded admiration of the work, its style, and matter, but desiring to know when he might expect the end: "For," said he, "I have other enterprises which will soon be demanding attention, and, as a business-man, I like to make my arrangements in good time." To this Mr. Fett replied, that he, for his part, being well content with the rate of remuneration, did not propose to end the work at all!—and, the agreement, having unaccountably failed to stipulate for any such thing as a conclusion, Mr. Dodsley had to compound for one at a crippling price.
So this story had, in Browning's phrase, "grown old along with me," but for the forethought of Messrs. Smith, Elder and Co., in limiting its serial flow to twelve numbers of The Cornhill Magazine As it is, I have added a few chapters; but a hundred and fifty episodes remain unwritten, with the courtships of Mr. Priske, and the funeral oration spoken by the Rev. Mr. Grylls over the cenotaph Of Sir John Constantine in Constantine Parish Church. These omissions, however, may be remedied if you will ask the publishers for another edition.
Now, if it be objected against some of the adventures of Sir John Constantine that they are extravagant, or against some of his notions that they are fantastic, I answer that this book attempts to describe a man and not one of these calculable little super men who, of late, have been taking up so much more of your attention than they deserve. Students who engage in psychical research, as it is called, often confess themselves puzzled by the behaviour of ghosts, it appears to them wayward and trivial. How much more likely are ghosts to be puzzled by the actions of real men? And we are surely ghosts if we keep nothing of the blood which sent our fathers like schoolboys to the crusades.
Lastly, my friend, if you would know anything of the writer who has so often addressed you under an initial, you may find as much of him here as in any of his books. Here is interred part, at any rate, of the soul of the Bachelor Q, in a book which, though it tell of adventures, I would ask you not to disdain, though you be a boy no longer. An acquaintance of mine near the Land's End had a remarkably fine tree of apples—to be precise, of Cox's Orange Pippins—and one night was robbed of the whole of them. But what, think you, had the thief left behind him, at the foot of the tree? Why, a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
ARTHUR T. QUILLER-COUCH.
THE HAVEN, FOWEY, October 1st, 1906.
I. OF THE LINEAGE AND CONDITION OF SIR JOHN CONSTANTINE.
II. I RIDE ON A PILGRIMAGE.
III. I ACQUIRE A KINGDOM.
IV. LONG VACATION.
V. THE SILENT MEN.
VI. HOW MY FATHER OUT OF NOTHING BUILT AN ARMY, AND IN FIVE MINUTES PLANNED AN INVASION.
VII. THE COMPANY OF THE ROSE.
VIII. TRIBULATIONS OF A MAYOR.
IX. I ENLIST AN ARMY.
X. OF THE DISCOURSE HELD ON BOARD THE "GAUNTLET".
XI. WE FALL IN WITH A SALLEE ROVER.
XII. HOW WE LANDED ON THE ISLAND.
XIII. HOW, WITHOUT FIGHTING, OUR ARMY WASTED BY ENCHANTMENT.
XIV. HOW BY MEANS OF HER WINE I CAME TO CIRCE.
XV. I BECOME HOSTAGE TO PRINCESS CAMILLA.
XVI. THE FOREST HUT.
XVII. THE FIRST CHALLENGE.
XVIII. THE TENDER MERCIES OF PRINCE CAMILLO.
XIX. HOW MARC'ANTONIO NURESD ME AND GAVE ME COUNSEL.
XX. I LEARN OF LIBERTY, AND AM RESTORED TO IT.
XXI. OF MY FATHER'S ANABASIS; AND THE DIFFERENT TEMPERS OF AN ENGLISH GENTLEMAN AND A WILD SHEEP OF CORSICA.
XXII. THE GREAT ADVENTURE.
XXIII. ORDEAL AND CHOOSING.
XXIV. THE WOOING OF PRINCESS CAMILLA.
XXV. MY WEDDING DAY.
XXVI. THE FLAME AND THE ALTAR.
XXVII. MY MISTRESS RE-ENLISTS ME.
XXX. THE SUMMIT AND THE STARS.
SIR JOHN CONSTANTINE.
OF THE LINEAGE AND CONDITION OF SIR JOHN CONSTANTINE.
"I have laboured to make a covenant with myself, that affection may not press upon judgment: for I suppose there is no man, that hath any apprehension of gentry or nobleness, but his affection stands to a continuance of a noble name and house, and would take hold of a twig or twine-thread to uphold it: and yet time hath his revolution, there must be a period and an end of all temporal things, finis rerum, an end of names and dignities and whatsoever is terrene. . . . For where is Bohun? Where is Mowbray? Where is Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are intombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality."—Lord Chief Justice Crewe.
My father, Sir John Constantine of Constantine, in the county of Cornwall, was a gentleman of ample but impoverished estates, who by renouncing the world had come to be pretty generally reputed a madman. This did not affect him one jot, since he held precisely the same opinion of his neighbours—with whom, moreover, he continued on excellent terms. He kept six saddle horses in a stable large enough for a regiment of cavalry; a brace of setters and an infirm spaniel in kennels which had sometime held twenty couples of hounds; and himself and his household in a wing of his great mansion, locking off the rest, with its portraits and tapestries, cases of books, and stands of antique arms, to be a barrack for the mice. This household consisted of his brother-in-law, Gervase (a bachelor of punctual habits but a rambling head); a butler, Billy Priske; a cook, Mrs. Nance, who also looked after the housekeeping; two serving-maids; and, during his holidays, the present writer. My mother (an Arundell of Trerice) had died within a year after giving me birth; and after a childhood which lacked playmates, indeed, but was by no means neglected or unhappy, my father took me to Winchester College, his old school, to be improved in those classical studies which I had hitherto followed desultorily under our vicar, Mr. Grylls, and there entered me as a Commoner in the house of Dr. Burton, Head-master. I had spent almost four years at Winchester at the date (Midsummer, 1756) when this story begins.
To return to my father. He was, as the world goes, a mass of contrarieties. A thorough Englishman in the virtues for which foreigners admire us, and in the extravagance at which they smile, he had never even affected an interest in the politics over which Englishmen grow red in the face; and this in his youth had commended him to Walpole, who had taken him up and advanced him as well for his abilities, address, and singularly fine presence as because his estate then seemed adequate to maintain him in any preferment. Again Walpole's policy abroad—which really treated warfare as the evil it appears in other men's professions—condemned my father, a born soldier, to seek his line in diplomacy; wherein he had no sooner built a reputation by services at two or three of the Italian courts than, with a knighthood in hand and an ambassadorship in prospect, he suddenly abandoned all, cast off the world, and retired into Cornwall, to make a humdrum marriage and practise fishing for trout.
The reason of it none knew, or how his estate had come to be impoverished, as beyond doubt it was. Here again he showed himself unlike the rest of men, in that he let the stress of poverty fall first upon himself, next upon his household, last of all upon his tenants and other dependants. After my mother's death he cut down his own charges (the cellar only excepted) to the last penny, shut himself off in a couple of rooms, slept in a camp bed, wore an old velveteen coat in winter and in summer a fisherman's smock, ate frugally, and would have drunk beer or even water had not his stomach abhorred them both. Of wine he drank in moderation—that is to say, for him, since his temperance would have sent nine men out of ten under the table—and of the best. He had indeed a large and obstinate dignity in his drinking. It betrayed, even as his carriage betrayed beneath his old coat, a king in exile.
Yet while he pinched himself with these economies, he drew no strings—or drew them tenderly—upon the expenses and charities of a good landlord. The fences rotted around his own park and pleasure-grounds, but his tenants' fences, walls, roofs stood in more than moderate repair, nor (although my uncle Gervase groaned over the accounts) would an abatement of rent be denied, the appeal having been weighed and found to be reasonable. The rain—which falls alike upon the just and the unjust—beat through his own roof, but never through the labourer's thatch; and Mrs. Nance, the cook, who hated beggars, might not without art and secrecy dismiss a single beggar unfed. His religion he told to no man, but believed the practice of worship to be good for all men, and regularly encouraged it by attending church on Sundays and festivals. He and the vicar ruled our parish together in amity, as fellow-Christians and rival anglers.
Now, all these apparent contrarieties in my father flowed in fact from a very rare simplicity, and this simplicity again had its origin in his lineage, which was something more than royal.
On the Cornish shore of the Tamar River, which divides Cornwall from Devon, and a little above Saltash, stands the country church of Landulph, so close by the water that the high tides wash by its graveyard wall. Within the church you will find a mural tablet of brass thus inscribed—
"Here lyeth the body of Theodoro Paleologvs of Pesaro in Italye, descended from ye Imperyall lyne of ye last Christian Emperors of Greece being the sonne of Camilio ye sonne of Prosper the sonne of Theodoro the sonne of John ye sonne of Thomas second brother to Constantine Paleologvs, the 8th of that name and last of yt lyne yt raygned in Constantinople vntill svbdewed by the Tvrks who married with Mary ye davghter of William Balls of Hadlye in Svffolke gent & had issve 5 children Theodoro John Ferdinando Maria & Dorothy & dep'ted this life at Clyfton ye 21th of Ianvary 1636"
Above these words the tablet bears an eagle engraved with two heads, and its talons resting upon two gates of Rome and Constantinople, with (for difference) a crescent between the gates, and over all an imperial crown. In truth this exile buried by Tamar drew his blood direct from the loins of the great Byzantine emperors, through that Thomas of whom Mahomet II. said, "I have found many slaves in Peloponnesus, but this man only:" and from Theodore, through his second son John, came the Constantines of Constantine—albeit with a bar sinister, of which my father made small account. I believe he held privately that a Constantine, de stirpe imperatorum, had no call to concern himself with petty ceremonies of this or that of the Church's offshoots to legitimize his blood. At any rate no bar sinister appeared on the imperial escutcheon repeated, with quarterings of Arundel, Mohun, Grenville, Nevile, Archdeckne, Courtney, and, again, Arundel, on the wainscots and in the windows of Constantine, usually with the legend Dabit Devs His Qvoqve Finem, but twice or thrice with a hopefuller one, Generis revocemvs honores.
Knowing him to be thus descended, you could recognize in all my father said or did a large simplicity as of the earlier gods, and a dignity proper to a king as to a beggar, but to no third and mean state. A child might beard him, but no man might venture a liberty with him or abide the rare explosions of his anger. You might even, upon long acquaintance, take him for a great, though mad, Englishman, and trust him as an Englishman to the end; but the soil of his nature was that which grows the vine—volcanic, breathing through its pores a hidden heat to answer the sun's. Whether or no there be in man a faith to remove mountains, there is in him (and it may come to the same thing) a fire to split them, and anon to clothe the bare rock with tendrils and soft-scented blooms.
In person my father stood six feet five inches tall, and his shoulders filled a doorway. His head was large and shapely, and he carried it with a very noble poise; his face a fine oval, broad across the brow and ending in a chin at once delicate and masterful; his nose slightly aquiline; his hair—and he wore his own, tied with a ribbon—of a shining white. His cheeks were hollow and would have been cadaverous but for their hue, a sanguine brown, well tanned by out-of-door living. His eyes, of an iron-grey colour, were fierce or gentle as you took him, but as a rule extraordinarily gentle. He would walk you thirty miles any day without fatigue, and shoot you a woodcock against any man; but as an angler my uncle Gervase beat him.
He spoke Italian as readily as English; French and the modern Greek with a little more difficulty; and could read in Greek, Latin, and Spanish. His books were the "Meditations" of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Dante's "Divine Comedy," with the "Aeneis," Ariosto, and some old Spanish romances next in order. I do not think he cared greatly for any English writers but Donne and Izaak Walton, of whose "Angler" and "Life of Sir Henry Wotton" he was inordinately fond. In particular he admired the character of this Sir Henry Wotton, singling him out among "the famous nations of the dead" (as Sir Thomas Browne calls them) for a kind of posthumous friendship—nay, almost a passion of memory. To be sure, though with more than a hundred years between them, both had been bred at Winchester, and both had known courts and embassies and retired from them upon private life. . . . But who can explain friendship, even after all the essays written upon it? Certainly to be friends with a dead man was to my father a feat neither impossible nor absurd.
Yet he possessed two dear living friends at least in my Uncle Gervase and Mr. Grylls, and had even dedicated a temple to their friendship. It stood about half a mile away from the house, at the foot of the old deer-park: a small Ionic summer-house set on a turfed slope facing down a dell upon the Helford River. A spring of water, very cold and pure, rose bubbling a few paces from the porch and tumbled down the dell with a pretty chatter. Tradition said that it had once been visited and blessed by St. Swithun, for which cause my father called his summer-house by the saint's name, and annually on his festival (which falls on the 15th of July) caused wine and dessert to be carried out thither, where the three drank to their common pastime and discoursed of it in the cool of the evening within earshot of the lapsing water. On many other evenings they met to smoke their pipes here, my father and Mr. Grylls playing at chequers sometimes, while my uncle wrapped and bent, till the light failed him, new trout flies for the next day's sport; but to keep St. Swithun's feast they never omitted, which my father commemorated with a tablet set against the back wall and bearing these lines—
"Peace to this house within this little wood, Named of St. Swithun and his brotherhood That here would meet and punctual on his day Their heads and hands and hearts together lay. Nor may no years the mem'ries three untwine Of Grylls W.G. And Arundell G.A. And Constantine J.C. Anno 1752 Flvmina amem silvasqve inglorivs."
Of these two friends of my father I shall speak in their proper place, but have given up this first chapter to him alone. My readers maybe will grumble that it omits to tell what they would first choose to learn: the reason why he had exchanged fame and the world for a Cornish exile. But as yet he only—and perhaps my uncle Gervase, who kept the accounts—held the key to that secret.
I RIDE ON A PILGRIMAGE.
"_Heus Rogere! fer caballos; Eja, nunc eamus!" Domum.
At Winchester, which we boys (though we fared hardly) never doubted to be the first school in the world, as it was the most ancient in England, we had a song we called Domum: and because our common pride in her—as the best pride will—belittled itself in speech, I trust that our song honoured Saint Mary of Winton the more in that it celebrated only the joys of leaving her.
The tale went, it had been composed (in Latin, too) by a boy detained at school for a punishment during the summer holidays. Another fable improved on this by chaining him to a tree. A third imprisoned him in cloisters whence, through the arcades and from the ossuaries of dead fellows and scholars, he poured out his soul to the swallows haunting the green garth—
"Jam repetit domum Daulias advena, Nosque domum repetamus."
Whatever its origin, our custom was to sing it as the holidays— especially the summer holidays—drew near, and to repeat it as they drew nearer, until every voice was hoarse. As I remember, we kept up this custom with no decrease of fervour through the heats of June 1756, though they were such that our hostiarius Dr. Warton, then a new broom, swept us out of school and for a fortnight heard our books (as the old practice had been) in cloisters, where we sat upon cool stone and in the cool airs, and between our tasks watched the swallows at play. Nevertheless we panted, until evening released us to wander forth along the water-meadows by Itchen and bathe, and, having bathed, to lie naked amid the mints and grasses for a while before returning in the twilight.
This bathing went on, not in one or two great crowds, but in groups, and often in pairs only, scattered along the river-bank almost all the way to Hills; it being our custom again at Winchester (and I believe it still continues) to socius or walk with one companion; and only at one or two favoured pools would several of these couples meet together for the sport. On the evening of which I am to tell, my companion was a boy named Fiennes, of about my own age, and we bathed alone, though not far away to right and left the bank teemed with outcries and laughter and naked boys running all silvery as their voices in the dusk.
With all this uproar the trout of Itchen, as you may suppose, had gone into hiding; but doubtless some fine fellows lay snug under the stones, and—the stream running shallow after the heats—as we stretched ourselves on the grass Fiennes challenged me to tickle for one; it may be because he had heard me boast of my angling feats at home. There seemed a likely pool under the farther bank; convenient, except that to take up the best position beside it I must get the level sun full in my face. I crept across, however, Fiennes keeping silence, laid myself flat on my belly, and peered down into the pool, shading my eyes with one hand. For a long while I saw no fish, until the sun-rays, striking aslant, touched the edge of a golden fin very prettily bestowed in a hole of the bank and well within an overlap of green weed. Now and again the fin quivered, but for the most part my gentleman lay quiet as a stone, head to stream, and waited for relief from these noisy Wykehamists. Experience, perhaps, had taught him to despise them; at any rate, when gently—very gently—I lowered my hand and began to tickle, he showed neither alarm nor resentment.
"Is it a trout?" demanded Fiennes, in an excited whisper from the farther shore. But of course I made no answer, and presently I supposed that he must have crept off to his clothes, for some way up the stream I heard the Second Master's voice warning the bathers to dress and return, and with his usual formula, _Ite domum saturae, venit Hesperus, ite capelloe! Being short-sighted, he missed to spy me, and I felt, rather than saw or heard, him pass on; for with one hand I yet shaded my eyes while with the other I tickled.
Yet another two minutes went by, and then with a jerk I had my trout, my thumb and forefinger deep under his gills; brought down my other clutch upon him and, lifting, flung him back over me among the meadow grass, my posture being such that I could neither hold him struggling nor recover my own balance save by rolling sideways over on my shoulder-pin; which I did, and, running to him where he gleamed and doubled, flipping the grasses, caught him in both hands and held him aloft.
But other voices than Fiennes' answered my shout over the river— voices that I knew, though they belonged not to this hour nor to this place; and blinking against the sun, now sinning level across Lavender Meads, I was aware of two tall figures standing dark against it, and of a third and shorter one between whose legs it poured in gold as through a natural arch. Sure no second man in England wore Billy Priske's legs!
Then, and while I stood amazed, my father's voice and my Uncle Gervase's called to me together: and gulping down all wonder, possessed with love only and a wild joy—but yet grasping my fish— I splashed across the shallows and up the bank, and let my father take me naked to his heart.
"So, lad," said he, after a moment, thrusting me a little back by the shoulders (while I could only sob), and holding me so that the sun fell full on me, "Dost truly love me so much?"
"Clivver boy, clivver boy!" said the voice of Billy Priske. "Lord, now, what things they do teach here beside the Latin!"
The rogue said it, as I knew, to turn my father's suspicion, having himself taught me the poacher's trick. But my uncle Gervase, whose mind moved as slowly as it was easily diverted, answered with gravity—
"It is hard knowing what may or may not be useful in after life, seeing that God in His wisdom hides what that life is to be."
"Very true," agreed my father, with a twinkle, and took snuff.
"But—but what brings you here?" cried I, with a catch of the breath, ignoring all this.
"Nevertheless, such comely lads as they be," my uncle continued, "God will doubtless bring them to good. Comelier lads, brother, I never saw, nor, I think, the sun never shined on; yet there was one, at the bowls yonder, was swearing so it grieved me to the heart."
"Put on your clothes, boy," said my father, answering me. "We have ridden far, but we bring no ill news; and to-morrow—I have the Head-master's leave for it—you ride on with us to London."
"To London!" My heart gave another great leap, as every boy's must on hearing that he is to see London for the first time. But here we all turned at a cry from Billy Priske, between whose planted ankles Master Fiennes had mischievously crept and was measuring the span between with extended thumb and little finger. My father stooped, haled him to his feet by the collar, and demanded what he did.
"Why, sir, he's a Colossus!" quoted that nimble youth;
"'and we petty men Walk under his huge legs and peer about—'"
"And will find yourself a dishonourable grave," my father capped him. "What's your name, boy?"
"Fiennes, sir; Nathaniel Fiennes." The lad saluted.
My father lifted his hat in answer. "Founder's kin?"
"I am here on that condition, sir."
"Then you are kinsman, as well as namesake, of him who saved our Wykeham's tomb in the Parliament troubles. I felicitate you, sir, and retract my words, for by that action of your kinsman's shall the graves of all his race and name be honoured."
Young Fiennes bowed. "Compliments fly, sir, when gentlemen meet. But"—and he glanced over his shoulder and rubbed the small of his back expressively, "as a Wykehamist, you will not have me late at names-calling."
"Go, boy, and answer to yours; they can call no better one." My father dipped a hand in his pocket. "I may not invite you to breakfast with us to-morrow, for we start early; and you will excuse me if I sin against custom. . . . It was esteemed a laudable practice in my time." A gold coin passed.
"Et in saecula saeculo—o—rum. Amen!" Master Fiennes spun the coin, pocketed it, and went off whistling schoolwards over the meads.
My father linked his arm in mine and we followed, I asking, and the three of them answering, a hundred questions of home. But why, or on what business, we were riding to London on the morrow my father would not tell. "Nay, lad," said he, "take your Bible and read that Isaac asked no questions on the way to Moriah."
"My uncle, who overheard this, considered it for a while, and said—
"The difference is that you are not going to sacrifice Prosper."
The three were to lie that night at the George Inn, where they had stabled their horses; and at the door of the Head-master's house, where we Commoners lodged, they took leave of me, my father commending me to God and good dreams. That they were happy ones I need not tell.
He was up and abroad early next morning, in time to attend chapel, where by the vigour of his responses he set the nearer boys tittering; two of whom I afterwards fought for it, though with what result I cannot remember. The service, which we urchins heeded little, left him pensive as we walked together towards the inn, and he paused once or twice, with eyes downcast on the cobbles, and muttered to himself.
"I am striving to recollect my Morning Lines, lad," he confessed at length, with a smile; "and thus, I think, they go. The great Sir Henry Wotton, you have heard me tell of, in the summer before his death made a journey hither to Winchester; and as he returned towards Eton he said to a friend that went with him: 'How useful was that advice of an old monk that we should perform our devotions in a constant place, because we so meet again with the very thoughts which possessed us at our last being there.' And, as Walton tells, 'I find it,'" he said, "'thus far experimentally true, that at my now being in that school and seeing that very place where I sat when I was a boy occasioned me to remember those very thoughts of my youth which then possessed me: sweet thoughts indeed—'"
Here my father paused. "Let me be careful, now. I should be perfect in the words, having read them more than a hundred times. 'Sweet thoughts indeed,'" said he, "'that promised my growing years numerous pleasures, without mixture of cares; and those to be enjoyed when time—which I therefore thought slow-paced—had changed my youth into manhood. But age and experience have taught me these were but empty hopes, for I have always found it true, as my Saviour did foretell, Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Nevertheless, I saw there a succession of boys using the same recreations, and, questionless, possessed with the same thoughts that then possessed me. Thus one generation succeeds another, both in their lives, recreations, hopes, fears, and death.'"
"But I would not have you, lad," he went on, "to pay too much heed to these thoughts, which will come to you in time, for as yet you are better without 'em. Nor were they my only thoughts: for having brought back my own sacrifice, which I had sometime hoped might be so great, but now saw to be so little, at that moment I looked down to your place in chapel and perceived that I had brought belike the best offering of all. So my hope—thank God!—sprang anew as I saw you there standing vigil by what bright armour you guessed not, nor in preparation for what high warfare." He laid a hand on my shoulder. "Your chapel to-day, child, has been the longer by a sermon. There, there! forget all but the tail on't."
We rode out of Winchester with a fine clatter, all four of us upon hired nags, the Cornish horses being left in the stables to rest; and after crossing the Hog's Back, baited at Guildford. A thunderstorm in the night had cleared the weather, which, though fine, was cooler, with a brisk breeze playing on the uplands; and still as we went my spirits sang with the larks overhead, so blithe was I to be sitting in saddle instead of at a scob, and riding to London between the blown scents of hedgerow and hayfield and beanfield, all fragrant of liberty yet none of them more delicious to a boy than the mingled smell of leather and horseflesh. Billy Priske kept up a chatter beside me like a brook's. He had never till now been outside of Cornwall but in a fishing-boat, and though he had come more than two hundred miles each new prospect was a marvel to him. My father told me that, once across the Tamar ferry, being told that he was now in Devonshire, he had sniffed and observed the air to be growing "fine and stuffy;" and again, near Holt Forest, where my father announced that we were crossing the border between Hampshire and Surrey, he drew rein and sat for a moment looking about him and scratching his head.
"The Lord's ways be past finding out," he murmured. "Not so much as a post!"
"Why should there be a post?" demanded my uncle. "Why, sir, for the men of Hampshire and the men of Surrey to fight over and curse one another by on Ash Wednesdays. But where there's no landmark a plain man can't remove it, and where he can't remove it I don't see how he can be cursed for it."
"'Twould be a great inconvenience, as you say, Billy, if, for the sake of argument, the men of Hampshire wanted to curse the men of Surrey."
"They couldn't do it"—Billy shook his head—"for the sake of argument or any other sake; and therefore I say, though not one to dictate to the Lord, that if a river can't be managed hereabouts— and, these two not being Devon and Cornwall, a whole river might be overdoing things—there ought to be some little matter of a trout-stream, or at the least a notice-board."
"The fellow's right," said my father. "Man would tire too soon of his natural vices; so we invent new ones for him by making laws and boundaries."
"Surely and virtues too," suggested my uncle, as we rode forward again. "You will not deny that patriotism is a virtue?"
"Not I," said my father; "nor that it is the finest invention of all."
I remember the Hog's Back and the breeze blowing there because on the highest rise we came on a gibbet and rode around it to windward on the broad turfy margin of the road; and also because the sight put my father in mind of a story which he narrated on the way down to Guildford.
THE STORY OF OUR LADY OF THE ROSARY.
"It is told," began my father, "in a sermon of the famous Vieyras—"
"For what was he famous?" asked my uncle.
"For being a priest, and yet preaching so good a sermon on love. It is told in it that in the kingdom of Valencia there lived an hidalgo, young and rich, who fell in love with a virtuous lady, ill treated by her husband: and she with him, howbeit without the least thought of evil. But, as evil suspects its like, so this husband doubted the fidelity which was his without his deserving, and laid a plot to be revenged. On the pretext of the summer heats he removed with his household to a country house; and there one day he entered a room where his wife sat alone, turned the key, and, drawing out a dagger, ordered her to write what he should dictate. She, being innocent, answered him that there was no need of daggers, but she would write, as her duty was, what he commanded: which was, a letter to the young hidalgo telling him that her husband had left home on business; that if her lover would come, she was ready to welcome him; and that, if he came secretly the next night, he would find the garden gate open, and a ladder placed against the window. This she wrote and signed, seeing no escape; and, going to her own room, commended her fears and her weakness to the Virgin.
"The young hidalgo, on receiving the letter (very cautiously delivered), could scarcely believe his bliss, but prepared, as you will guess, to embrace it. Having dressed himself with care, at the right hour he mounted his horse and rode out towards his lady's house. Now, he was a devout youth, as youths go, and on his way he remembered—which was no little thing on such an occasion—that since morning he had not said over his rosary as his custom was. So he began to tell it bead by bead, when a voice near at hand said 'Halt, Cavalier!' He drew his sword and peered around him in the darkness, but could see no one, and was fumbling his rosary again when again the voice spoke, saying, 'Look up, Cavalier!' and looking up, he beheld against the night a row of wayside gibbets, and rode in among them to discover who had called him. To his horror one of the malefactors hanging there spoke down to him, begging to be cut loose; 'and,' said the poor wretch, 'if you will light the heap of twigs at your feet and warm me by it, your charity shall not be wasted.' For Christian charity then the youth, having his sword ready, cut him down, and the gallows knave fell on his feet and warmed himself at the lit fire. 'And now,' said he, being warmed, 'you must take me up behind your saddle; for there is a plot laid to-night from which I only can deliver you.' So they mounted and rode together to the house, where, having entered the garden by stealth, they found the ladder ready set. 'You must let me climb first,' said the knave; and had no sooner reached the ladder's top than two or three pistol shots were fired upon him from the window and as many hands reached out and stabbed him through and through until he dropped into the ditch; whence, however, he sprang on his feet, and catching our hidalgo by the arm hurried him back through the garden to the gate where his horse stood tethered. There they mounted and rode away into safety, the dead behind the living. 'All this is enchantment to me,' said the youth as they went. 'But I must thank you, my friend; for whether dead or alive—and to my thinking you must be doubly dead— you have rendered me a great service.' 'You may say a mass for me, and thank you,' the dead man answered; 'but for the service you must thank the Mother of God, who commanded me and gave me power to deliver you, and has charged me to tell you the reason of her kindness: which is, that every day you say her rosary.' 'I do thank her and bless her then,' replied the youth, 'and henceforth will I say her rosary not once daily but thrice, for that she hath preserved my life to-night.'"
"A very proper resolution," said my uncle.
"And I hope, sir, he kept it," chimed in Billy Priske; "good Protestant though I be."
"The story is not ended," said my father. "The dead man—they were dismounted now and close under the gallows—looked at the young man angrily, and said he, 'I doubt Our Lady's pains be wasted, after all. Is it possible, sir, you think she sent me to-night to save your life?' 'For what else?' inquired the youth. 'To save your soul, sir, and your lady's; both of which (though you guessed not or forgot it) stood in jeopardy just now, so that the gate open to you was indeed the gate of Hell. Pray hang me back as you found me," he concluded, 'and go your ways for a fool.'"
"Now see what happened. The murderers in the house, coming down to bury the body and finding it not, understood that the young man had not come alone; from which they reasoned that his servants had carried him off and would publish the crime. They therefore, with their master, hurriedly fled out of the country. The lady betook herself to a religious house, where in solitude questioning herself she found that in will, albeit not in act, she had been less than faithful. As for the hidalgo, he rode home and shut himself within doors, whence he came forth in a few hours as a man from a sepulchre—which, indeed, to his enemies he evidently was when they heard that he was abroad and unhurt whom they had certainly stabbed to death; and to his friends almost as great a marvel when they perceived the alteration of his life; yea, and to himself the greatest of all, who alone knew what had passed, and, as by enchantment his life had taken this turn, so spent its remainder like a man enchanted rather than converted. I am told," my father concluded, "though the sermon says nothing about it, that he and the lady came in the end, and as by an accident, to be buried side by side, at a little distance, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Succour in the Cathedral church of Valencia, and there lie stretched—two parallels of dust—to meet only at the Resurrection when the desires of all dust shall be purged away."
With this story my father beguiled the road down into Guildford, and of his three listeners I was then the least attentive. Years afterwards, as you shall learn, I had reason to remember it.
At Guildford, where we fed ourselves and hired a relay of horses, I took Billy aside and questioned him (forgetting the example of Isaac) why we were going to London and on what business. He shook his head.
"Squire knows," said he. "As for me, a still tongue keeps a wise head, and moreover I know not. Bain't it enough for 'ee to be quit of school and drinking good ale in the kingdom o' Guildford? Very well, then."
"Still, one cannot help wondering," said I, half to myself; but Billy dipped his face stolidly within his pewter.
"The last friend a man should want to take up with is his Future," said he, sagely. "I knows naught about en but what's to his discredit—as that I shall die sooner or later, a thing that goes against my stomach; or that at the best I shall grow old, which runs counter to my will. He's that uncomfortable, too, you can't please him. Take him hopeful, and you're counting your chickens; take him doleful, and foreboding is worse than witchcraft. There was a Mevagissey man I sailed with as a boy—and your father's tale just now put me in mind of him—paid half a crown to a conjurer, one time, to have his fortune told; which was, that he would marry the ugliest maid in the parish. Whereby it preyed on his mind till he hanged hisself. Whereby along comes the woman in the nick o' time, cuts him down, an' marries him out o' pity while he's too weak to resist. That's your Future; and, as I say, I keeps en at arm's length."
With this philosophy of Billy I had to be content and find my own guesses at the mystery. But as the afternoon wore on I kept no hold on any speculation for more than a few minutes. I was saddle-weary, drowsed with sunburn and the moving landscape over which the sun, when I turned, swam in a haze of dust. The villages crowded closer, and at the entry of each I thought London was come; but anon the houses thinned and dwindled and we were between hedgerows again. So it lasted, village after village, until with the shut of night, when the long shadows of our horses before us melted into dusk, a faint glow opened on the sky ahead and grew and brightened. I knew it: but even as I saluted it my chin dropped forward and I dozed. In a dream I rode through the lighted streets, and at the door of our lodgings my father lifted me down from the saddle.
I ACQUIRE A KINGDOM.
"Gloucester. The trick of that voice I do well remember: Is't not the king?" "Lear. Ay, every inch a king." King Lear.
From our lodgings, which were in Bond Street, we sallied forth next morning to view the town; my father leading us first by way of St. James's and across the Park to the Abbey, and on the way holding discourse to which I recalled myself with difficulty from London's shows and wonders—his Majesty's tall guards at the palace gates, the gorgeous promenaders in the Mall, the swans and wild fowl on the lake.
"I wish you to remark, my dear child," said he, "that between a capital and solitude there is no third choice; nor, I would add, can a mind extract the best of solitude unless it bring urbanity to the wilderness. Your rustic is no philosopher, and your provincial townsman is the devil: if you would meditate in Arden, your company must be the Duke, Jaques, Touchstone—courtiers all—or, again, Rosalind, the Duke's daughter, if you would catch the very mood of the forest. I tell you this, child, that you may not be misled by my example (which has a reason of its own and, I trust, an excuse) into shunning your destiny though it lead and keep you in cities and among crowds; for we have it on the word of no less busy a man than the Emperor Marcus Aurelius that to seek out private retiring-rooms for the soul such as country villages, the sea-shore, mountains, is but a mistaken simplicity, seeing that at what time soever a man will it is in his power to retire into himself and be at rest, dwelling within the walls of a city as in a shepherd's fold of the mountain. So also the sainted Juan de Avila tells us that a man who trusts in God may, if he take pains, recollect God in streets and public places better than will a hermit in his cell; and the excellent Archbishop of Cambrai, writing to the Countess of Gramont, counselled her to practise recollection and give a quiet thought to God at dinner times in a lull of the conversation, or again when she was driving or dressing or having her hair arranged; these hindrances (said he) profited more than any engouement of devotion.
"But," he went on, "to bear yourself rightly in a crowd you must study how one crowd differs from another, and how in one city you may have that great orderly movement of life (whether of business or of pleasure) which is the surrounding joy of princes in their palaces, and an insensate mob, which is the most brutal and vilest aspect of man. For as in a thronged street you may learn the high meaning of citizenship, so in a mob you may unlearn all that makes a man dignified. Yet even the mob you should study in a capital, as Shakespeare did in his 'Julius Caesar' and 'Coriolanus;' for only so can you know it in its quiddity. I conjure you, child, to get your sense of men from their capital cities."
He had something to tell of almost every great house we passed. He seemed—he that had saluted no one as we crossed the Mall, saluted of none—to walk this quarter of London with a proprietary tread; and by and by, coming to the river, he waved an arm and broke into panegyric.
"Other capitals have had their turn, and others will overtake and outstrip her; but where is one in these times to compare with London? Where in Europe will you see streets so well ordered, squares so spacious, houses so comfortable, yet elegant, as in this mile east and south of Hyde Park? Where such solid, self-respecting wealth as in our City? Where such merchant-princes and adventurers as your Whittingtons and Greshams? Where half its commerce? and where a commerce touched with one tithe of its imagination? Where such a river, for trade as for pageants? On what other shore two buildings side by side so famous, the one for just laws, civil security, liberty with obedience, the other for heroic virtues resumed, with their propagating dust, into the faith which sowed all and, having reaped, renews?"
In the Abbey—where my Uncle Gervase was forced to withdraw behind a pillar and rub Billy Priske's neck, which by this time had a crick in it—my father's voice, as he moved from tomb to tomb, deepened to a regal solemnity. He repeated Beaumont's great lines—
"Mortality, behold and fear! What a change of flesh is here!"
laying a hand on my shoulder the while; and in the action I understood that this and all his previous discourse was addressed to me with a purpose, and that somehow our visit to London had to do with that purpose.
"Here they lie had realms and lands Who now want strength to stir their hands; Where from their pulpits seal'd with dust They preach 'In greatness is no trust' . . . Here are sands, ignoble things, Dropt from the ruin'd sides of kings. . . ."
I must have fallen a-wondering while he quoted in a low sonorous voice, like a last echo of the great organ, rolling among the arches; for as it ceased I came to myself with a start and found his eyes searching me; also his hold on my shoulder had stiffened, and he held me from him at arm's length.
"And yet," said he, as if to himself, "this dust is the strongest man can build with; and we must build in our generation—quickly, trusting in the young firm flesh; yes, quickly—and trusting—though we know what its end must be."
These last words he muttered, and afterwards seemed to fall into a meditation, which lasted until we found ourselves outside the Abbey and in the light again.
From Westminster we took boat to Blackfriars, and, landing there, walked up through the crowded traffic to a gateway opening into Clement's Inn. I did not know its name at the time, nor did I regard the place as we entered, being yet fascinated with the sight of Temple Bar and of the heads of four traitors above it on poles, blackening in the sun; but within the courtyard we turned to the right and mounted a staircase to the head of the second flight and to a closed door on which my father knocked. A clerk opened, and presently we passed through an office into a well-sized room where, from amid a pile of books, a grave little man rose, reached for his wig, and, having adjusted it, bowed to us.
"Good morning! Good morning, gentlemen! Ah—er—Sir John Constantine, I believe?"
My father bowed. "At your service, Mr. Knox. You received my letter, then? Let me present my brother-in-law and man of affairs, Mr. Gervase Arundel, who will discuss with you the main part of our business; also my son here, about whom I wrote to you."
"Eh? Eh?" Mr. Knox, after bowing to my uncle, put on his spectacles, took them off, wiped them, put them on again, and regarded me benevolently. "Eh? so this is the boy—h'm—Jasper, I believe?"
"Prosper," my father corrected.
"Ah, to be sure—Prosper—and I hope he will, I'm sure." Mr. Knox chuckled at his mild little witticism and twinkled at me jocosely. "Your letter, Sir John? Yes, to be sure, I received it. What you propose is practicable, though irregular."
"Not legally irregular—oh no, not in the least. Legally the thing's as simple as A B C. The man has only to take the benefit of the Act of Insolvency, assign his estate to his creditors, and then— supposing that they are agreed—"
"There can be no question of their agreement or disagreement. His creditors do not exist. As I told you, I have paid them off, bought up all their debts, and the yes or no rests with me alone."
"Quite so; I was merely putting it as the Act directs. Very well then, supposing you agree, nothing more is necessary than an appearance—a purely formal appearance—at the Old Bailey, and your unfortunate friend—"
"Pardon me," my father put in; "he is not my friend."
"Eh?" . . . Mr. Knox removed his spectacles, breathed on them, and rubbed them, while he regarded my father with a bewildered air. "You'll excuse me . . . but I must own myself entirely puzzled. Even for a friend's sake, as I was about to protest, your conduct, sir, would be Quixotic; yes, yes, Quixotic in the highest degree, the amount being (as you might say) princely, and the security—" Mr. Knox paused and expressed his opinion of the security by a pitying smile. "But if," he resumed, "this man be not even your friend, then, my dear sir, I can merely wonder."
For a moment my father seemed about to argue with him, but checked himself.
"None the less the man is very far from being my friend," he answered quietly.
"But surely—surely, sir, you cannot be doing this in any hope to recover what he already owes you! That were indeed to throw the helve after the hatchet. Nay, sir, it were madness—stark madness!"
My father glanced at my uncle Gervase, who stood pulling his lip; then, with an abrupt motion, he turned on Mr. Knox again.
"You have seen him? You delivered my letter?"
"What was his answer?"
Mr. Knox shrugged his shoulders. "He jumped at it, of course."
"And the boy, here! What did he say about the boy?"
"Well, to speak truth, Sir John, he seemed passably amused by the whole business. The fact is, prison has broken him up. A fine figure he must have been in his time, but a costly one to maintain . . . as tall as yourself, Sir John, if not taller; and florid, as one may say; the sort of man that must have exercise and space and a crowd to admire him, not to mention wine and meats and female society. The Fleet has broken down all that. Even with liberty I wouldn't promise him another year of life; and, unless I'm mistaken, he knows his case. A rare actor, too! It wouldn't surprise me if he'd even deceived himself. But the mask's off. Your offer overjoyed him; that goes without saying. In spite of all your past generosity, this new offer obviously struck him for the moment as too good to be true. But I cannot say, Sir John, that he made any serious effort to keep up the imposture or pretend that the security which he can offer is more than a sentimental one. Not to put too fine a point on it, he ordered in a couple of bottles of wine at my expense, and over the second I left him laughing."
My father frowned. "And yet this man, Mr. Knox, is an anointed king."
"Of Corsica!" Mr. Knox shrugged his shoulders. "You may take my word for it, he's an anointed actor."
"One can visit him, I suppose?"
"At the most the turnkey will expect five shillings. Oh dear me yes! For a crowned head he's accessible."
My father took me by the arm. "Come along, then, child. And you, Gervase, get your business through with Mr. Knox and follow us, if you can, in half an hour. You"—he turned to Billy Priske—"had best come with us. 'Tis possible I may need you all for witnesses."
He walked me out and downstairs and through the lodge gateway; and so under Temple Bar again and down Fleet Street through the throng; till near the foot of it, turning up a side street out of the noise, we found ourselves in face of a gateway which could only belong to a prison. The gate itself stood open, but the passage led to an iron-barred door, and in the passage—which was cool but indescribably noisome—a couple of children were playing marbles, with half a dozen turnkeys looking on and (I believe) betting on the game.
My father sniffed the air in the passage and turned to me.
"Gaol-fever," he announced. "Please God, child, we won't be in it long."
He rescued Billy from the two urchins who had dropped their game to pinch his calves, and addressed a word to one of the turnkeys, at the same time passing a coin. The fellow looked at it and touched his hat.
"Second court, first floor, number thirty-seven." He opened a wicket in the gate. "This way, please, and sharp to the left."
The narrow court into which we descended by a short flight of steps was, as I remember, empty; but passing under an archway and through a kind of tunnel we entered a larger one crowded with men, some gathered in groups, others pacing singly and dejectedly, the most of them slowly too, with bowed heads, but three or four with fierce strides as if in haste to keep an appointment. One of them, coming abreast of us as the turnkey led us off to a staircase on the left, halted, drew himself up, stared at us for a moment with vacant eyes, and hurried by; yet before we mounted the stairs I saw him reach the farther wall, wheel, and come as hastily striding back.
The stairway led to a filthy corridor, pierced on the left with a row of tiny windows looking on the first and empty courtyard; and on the right with a close row of doors, the most of which stood open and gave glimpses of foul disordered beds, broken meats, and barred windows crusted with London grime. The smell was pestilential. Our turnkey rapped on one of the closed doors, and half-flung, half-kicked it open; for a box had been set against it on the inside.
"Visitors for the Baron!" he announced, and stood aside to let us enter. My father had ordered Billy to wait below. We two passed in together.
Now, my father, as I have said, was tall; yet it seemed to me that the man who greeted us was taller, as he rose from the bed and stood between us and the barred dirty window. By little and little I made out that he wore an orange-coloured dressing-gown, and on his head a Turk's fez; that he had pushed back a table at which, seated on the bed, he had been writing; and that on the sill of the closed window behind him stood a geranium-plant, dry with dust and withering in the stagnant air of the room. But as yet, since he rose with his back to the little light, I could not make out his features. I marked, however, that he shook from head to foot.
My father bowed—a very reverent and stately bow it was too—regarded him for a moment, and, taking a pace backward to the door, called after the retreating turnkey, to whom he addressed some order in a tone to me inaudible.
"You are welcome, Sir John," said the prisoner, as my father faced him again; "though to my shame I cannot offer you hospitality." He said it in English, with a thick and almost guttural foreign accent, and his voice shook over the words.
"I have made bold, sire, to order the remedy."
"'Sire!'" the prisoner took him up with a flash of spirit. "You have many rights over me, Sir John, but none to mock me, I think."
"As you have no right to hold me capable of it, in such a place as this," answered my father. "I addressed you in terms which my errand proves to be sincere. This is my son Prosper, of whom I wrote."
"To be sure—to be sure." The prisoner turned to me and looked me over—I am bound to say with no very great curiosity, and sideways, in the half light, I had a better glimpse of his features, which were bold and handsome, but dreadfully emaciated. He seemed to lose the thread of his speech, and his hands strayed towards the table as if in search of something. "Ah yes, the boy," said he, vaguely.
The turnkey entering just then with two bottles of wine, my father took one from him and filled an empty glass that stood on the table. The prisoner's fingers closed over it.
"I have much to drown," he explained, as, having gulped down the wine, he refilled his glass at once, knocking the bottle-neck on its rim in his clattering haste. "Excuse me; you'll find another glass in the cupboard behind you. . . . Yes, yes, we were talking of the boy. . . . Are you filled? . . . We'll drink to his health!"
"To your health, Prosper," said my father, gravely, and drank.
"But, see here—I received your letter right enough, and it sounds too good to be true. Only "—and into the man's eyes there crept a sudden cunning—"I don't understand what you want of me."
"You may think it much or little; but all we want—or, rather, all my boy wants—is your blessing."
"So I gathered; and that's funny, by God! My blessing—mine—and here!" He flung out a hand. "I've had some strange requests in my time; but, damn me, if I reckoned that any man any longer wanted my blessing."
"My son does, though; and even such a blessing as your own son would need, if you had one. You understand?"—for the prisoner's eyes had wandered to the barred window—"I mean the blessing of Theodore the First."
"You are a strange fellow, John Constantine," was the answer, in a weary, almost pettish tone. "God knows I have more reason to be grateful to you than to any man alive—"
"But you find it hard? Then give it over. You may do it with the lighter heart since gratitude from you would be offensive to me."
"If you played for this—worthless prize as it is—from the beginning—"
Again my father took him up; and, this time, sternly. "You know perfectly well that I never played for this from the beginning; nor had ever dreamed of it while there was a chance that you—or she— might leave a child. I will trouble you—" My father checked himself. "Your pardon, I am speaking roughly. I will beg you, sire, to remember first, that you claimed and received my poor help while there was yet a likelihood of your having children, before your wife left you, and a good year before I myself married or dreamed of marrying. I will beg you further to remember that no payment of what you owed to me was ever enforced, and that the creditors who sent you and have kept you here are commercial persons with whom I had nothing to do; whose names until the other day were strange to me. Now I will admit that I play for a kingdom."
"You really think it worth while?" The prisoner, who had stood all this time blinking at the window, his hands in the pockets of his dirty dressing-gown, turned again to question him.
"But listen a moment. I have had too many favours from you, and I don't want another under false pretences. You may call it a too-late repentance, but the fact remains that I don't. Liberty?"—he stretched out both gaunt arms, far beyond the sleeves of his gown, till they seemed to measure the room and to thrust its walls wide. "Even with a week to live I would buy it dear—you don't know, John Constantine, how you tempt me—but not at that price."
"Your title is good. I will take the risk."
"How good or how bad my title is, you know. 'Tis the inheritance against which I warn you."
"I take the risk," my father repeated, "if you will sign."
The prisoner shrugged his shoulders and helped himself to another glassful.
"We must have witnesses," said my father, "Have you a clergyman in this den?"
"To be sure we have. The chaplain, we call him Figg—Jonathan Figg's his name; the Reverend Jonathan Figg, B.A., of Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge; a good fellow and a moderately hard drinker. He spends the best part of his morning marrying up thieves and sailors to trulls; but he's usually leaving church about this time, if a messenger can catch him before he's off to breakfast with 'em. Half an hour hence he'll be too drunk to sign his name."
"Prosper"—my father swung round on me—"run you down to Billy and take him off to search for this clergyman. If on your way you meet with your uncle and Mr. Knox, say that we shall require them, too, as witnesses."
I ran down to the courtyard, but no Billy could I see; only the dejected groups of prisoners, and among them the one I had marked before, still fiercely striding, and still, at the wall, returning upon his track. I hurried out to the gate, and there, to my amazement, found Billy in the clutches of a strapping impudent wench and surrounded by a ring of turnkeys, who were splitting their sides with laughter.
"I won't!" he was crying. "I'm a married man, I tell 'ee, and the father of twelve!"
"Oh, Billy!" I cried, aghast at the lie.
"There was no other way, lad. For the Lord's sake fetch Squire to deliver me?"
Before I could answer or ask what was happening, the damsel rounded on me.
"Boy," she demanded, "is this man deceiving me?"
"As for that, ma'am," I answered, "I cannot say. But that he's a bachelor I believe; and that he hates women I have his word over and over."
"Then he shall marry me or fight me," she answered very coolly, and began to strip off her short bodice.
"There's twelve o'clock," announced one of the turnkeys, as the first stroke sounded from the clock above us over the prison gateway. "Too late to be married to-day; so a fight it is."
"A ring! a ring!" cried the others.
I looked in Billy's face, and in all my life (as I have since often reminded him) I never saw a man worse scared. The woman had actually thrown off her jacket and stood up in a loose under-bodice that left her arms free—and exceedingly red and brawny arms they were. How he had come into this plight I could guess as little as what the issue was like to be, when in the gateway there appeared my uncle and Mr. Knox, and close at their heels a rabble of men and women arm-in-arm, headed by a red-nosed clergyman with an immense white favour pinned to his breast.
"Hey? What's to do—what's to do!" inquired Mr. Knox.
The clergyman thrust past him with a "Pardon me, sir," and addressed the woman. "What's the matter, Nan? Is the bridegroom fighting shy?"
"Please your reverence, he tells me he's the father of twelve."
"H'm." The priest cocked his head on one side. "You find that an impediment?"
"And a married man, your reverence."
"Then he has the laughing side of you, this time," said his reverence, promptly, and took snuff. "Tut, tut, woman—down with your fists, button up your bodice, and take disappointment with a better grace. Come, no nonsense, or you'll start me asking what's become of the last man I married ye to."
"Sir," interposed my uncle, "I know not the head or tail of this quarrel. But this man Priske is my brother's servant, and if he told the lady what she alleges, for the credit of the family I must correct him. In sober truth he's a bachelor, and no more the father of twelve than I am."
This address, delivered with entire simplicity, set the whole company gasping. Most of all it seemed to astonish the woman, who could not be expected to know that my uncle's chivalry accepted all her sex, the lowest with the highest, in the image in which God made it and without defacement.
The priest was the first to recover himself. "My good sir," said he, "your man may be the father of twelve or the father of lies; but I'll not marry him after stroke of noon, for that's my rule. Moreover"— he swept a hand towards the bridal party behind him—"these turtles have invited me to eat roast duck and green peas with 'em, and I hate my gravy cold."
"Ay, sir?" asked my uncle. "Do you tell me that folks marry and give in marriage within this dreadful place?"
"Now and then, sir; and in the liberties and purlieus thereof with a proclivity that would astonish you; which, since I cannot hinder it, I sanctify. My name is Figg, sir—Jonathan Figg; and my office, Chaplain of the Fleet."
"And if it please you, sir," I put in, "my father has sent me in search of you, to beg that you will come to him at once."
"And you have heard me say, young sir, that I marry no man after stroke of noon; no, nor will visit him sick unless he be in articulo mortis."
"But my father neither wants to be married, sir, nor is he sick at all. I believe it is some matter of witnessing an oath."
"Hath he better than roast duck and green peas to offer, hey? No? Then tell him he may come and witness my oath, that I'll see him first to Jericho."
"Whereby, if I mistake not," said Mr. Knox, quietly, "your pocket will continue light of two guineas; and I may add, from what I know of Sir John Constantine, that he is quite capable, if he receive such an answer, of having your blood in a bottle."
"'Sir John Constantine?' did I hear you say. Sir John Constantine?'" queried the Reverend Mr. Figg, with a complete change of manner. "That's quite another thing! Anything to oblige Sir John Constantine, I'm sure—"
"Do you know him?" asked my uncle.
"Well—er—no; I can't honestly declare that I know him; but, of course, one knows of him—that is to say, I understand him to be a gentleman of title; a knight at least."
"Yes," my uncle answered, "he is at least that. What a very extraordinary person!" he added in a wondering aside.
Oddly enough, as we were leaving, I heard the woman Nan say pretty much the same of my uncle. She added that she had a great mind to kiss him.
We found my father and the prisoner seated with the bottle between them on the rickety liquor-stained table. Yet—as I remember the scene now—not all the squalor of the room could efface or diminish the majesty of their two figures. They sat like two tall old kings, eye to eye, not friends, or reconciled only in this last and lonely hour by meditation on man's common fate. If I cannot make you understand this, what follows will seem to you absurd, though indeed at the time it was not so.
My father rose as we entered. "Here is the boy returned," said he; "and here are the witnesses."
The prisoner rose also. "I did not catch his name, or else I have forgotten it," he said, fixing his eyes on me and motioning me to step forward; which I did. His eyes—which before had seemed to me shifty—were straight now and commanding, yet benevolent.
"His name is Prosper; in full, John Prosper Camilio Paleologus. Never more than one of us wears the surname of Constantine, and he not until he succeeds as head of our house."
"One name is enough for a king." The prisoner motioned again with his hand. "Kneel, boy," my father commanded, and I knelt.
"I ask you, gentlemen," said the prisoner, facing them and lifting his voice, "to hear and remember what I shall say; to witness and remember what I shall do; and by signature to attest what I shall presently write. I say, then, that I, Theodore, was on the fifteenth of April, twenty years ago, by the united voice of the people of Corsica, made King of that island and placed in possession of its revenues and chief dignities. I declare, as God may punish me if I lie, that by no act of mine or of my people of Corsica has that election been annulled, forfeited, or invalidated; that its revenues are to-day rightfully mine to receive and bequeath, as its dignities are to-day rightfully mine to enjoy or abdicate to an heir of my own choosing. I declare further that, failing male issue of my own body, I resign herewith and abdicate both rank and revenue in favour of this boy, Prosper Paleologus, son of Constantine, and heir in descent of Constantine last Emperor of Constantinople. I lay my hands on him in your presence and bless him. In your presence I raise him and salute him on both cheeks, naming him my son of choice and my successor, Prosper I., King of the Commonwealth of Corsica. I call on you all to attest this act with your names, and all necessary writings confirming it; and I beseech you all to pray with me that he may come to the full inheritance of his kingdom, and thrive therein as he shall justly and righteously administer it. God save King Prosper!"
At the conclusion of this speech, admirably delivered, I—standing with bent head as he had raised me, and with both cheeks tingling from his salutation—heard my father's voice say sonorously, "Amen!" and another—I think the parson's—break into something like a chuckle. But my uncle must have put out a hand threatening his weasand, for the sound very suddenly gave place to silence; and the next voice I heard was Mr. Knox's.
"May I suggest that we seat ourselves and examine the papers?" said Mr. Knox.
"One moment." King Theodore stepped to the cupboard and drew out a bundle in a blue-and-white checked kerchief, and a smaller one in brown paper. The kerchief, having been laid on the table and unwrapped, disclosed a fantastic piece of ironwork in the shape of a crown, set with stones of which the preciousness was concealed by a plentiful layer of dust. He lifted this, set it on my head for a moment, and, replacing it on the table, took up the brown-paper parcel.
"This," said he, "contains the Great Seal. To whose keeping "—he turned to my father—"am I to entrust them, Sir John?"
My father nodded towards Billy Priske, who stepped forward and tucked both parcels under his arm, while Mr. Knox spread his papers on the table.
We walked back to our lodgings that afternoon, with Billy Priske behind us bearing in his pocket the Great Seal and under his arm, in a checked kerchief, the Iron Crown of Corsica.
Two mornings later we took horse and set our faces westward again; and thus ended my brief first visit to London. Billy Priske carried the sacred parcel on the saddle before him; and my uncle, riding beside him, spent no small part of the way in an exhortation against lying in general, and particularly against the sin of laying false claim to the paternity of twelve children.
Now, so shaken was Billy by his one adventure in London that until we had passed the tenth milestone he seemed content enough to be rated. I believe that as, for the remainder of his stay in London, he had never strayed beyond sight, so even yet he took comfort and security from my uncle's voice; "since," said he, quoting a Cornish proverb, "'tis better be rated by your own than mated with a stranger." But, by-and-by, taking courage to protest that a lie might on occasion be pardonable and even necessary, he drew my father into the discussion.
"This difficulty of Billy's," interposed my father, "was in some sort anticipated by Plato, who instanced that a madman with a knife in his hand might inquire of you to direct him which way had been taken by the victim he proposed to murder. He posits it as a nice point. Should one answer truthfully, or deceive?"
"For my part," answered my uncle, "I should knock him down."
"In a harbour grene aslope whereas I lay, The byrdes sang swete in the middes of the day, I dreamed fast of mirth and play: In youth is pleasure, in youth is pleasure." Robert Wever.
A history (you will say) which finds a schoolboy tickling trout, and by the end of another chapter has clapped a crown on his head and hailed him sovereign over a people of whom he has scarcely heard and knows nothing save that they are warlike and extremely hot-tempered, should be in a fair way to move ahead briskly. Nevertheless I shall pass over the first two years of the reign of King Prosper, during which he stayed at school and performed nothing worthy of mention: and shall come to a summer's afternoon at Oxford, close upon the end of term, when Nat Fiennes and I sat together in my rooms in New College—he curled on the window-seat with a book, and I stretched in an easy-chair by the fireplace, and deep in a news-sheet.
"By the way, Nat," said I, looking up as I turned the page, "where will you spend your vacation?"
A groan answered me.
"Hullo!" I went on, making a hasty guess at his case. "Has the little cordwainer's tall daughter jilted you, as I promised she would?"
"A curse on this age!" swore Nat, who ever carried his heart on his sleeve.
I began to hum—
"I loved a lass, a fair one, As fair as e'er was seen; She was indeed a rare one, Another Sheba queen. Her waist exceeding small, The fives did fit her shoe; But now alas! sh' 'as left me, Falero, lero, loo!"
"Curse the age!" repeated Nat, viciously. "If these were Lancelot's days now, a man could run mad in the forest and lie naked and chew sticks; and then she'd be sorry."
"In summer time to Medley My love and I would go; The boatmen there stood read'ly My love and me to row,"
sang I, and ducked my head to avoid the cushion he hurled. "Well then, there's very pretty forest land around my home in Cornwall, with undergrowth and dropped twigs to last you till Michaelmas term. So why not ride down with me and spend at least the fore-part of your madness there?"
"I hate your Cornwall."
"'Tis a poor rugged land," said I; "but hath this convenience above your own home, that it contains no nymphs to whom you have yet sworn passion. You may meet ours with a straight brow; and they are fair, too, and unembarrassed, though I won't warrant them if you run bare."
"'Tis never I that am inconstant."
"Never, Nat; 'tis she, always and only—" she, she, and only she"— and there have been six of her to my knowledge."
"If I were a king, now—"
"T'cht!" said I (for as my best friend, and almost my sole one, he knew my story).
"If a fellow were a king now—instead of being doomed to the law— oh, good Lord!"
"You are incoherent, dear lad," said I; "and yet you tell me one thing plainly enough; which is that in place of loving this one or that one, or the cordwainer's strapping daughter, you are in love with being in love."
"Well, and why not?" he demanded. "Were I a king, now, that is even what I would be—in love with being in love. Were I a king, now, so deep in love were I with being in love, that my messengers should compass earth to fetch me the right princess. Yes, and could they not reach to her, if I but heard of one hidden and afar that was worth my loving, I would build ships and launch them, enlist crews and armies, sail all seas and challenge all wars, to win her. If I were king, now, my love should dwell in the fastnesses of the mountains, and I would reach her; she should drive me to turn again and gather the bones of the seamen I had dropped overboard, and I would turn and dredge the seas for them; for a whim she should demand to watch me at the task, and gangs of slaves should level mountains to open a prospect from her window; nay, all this while she should deny me sight of her, and I would embrace that last hardship that in the end she might be the dearer prize, a queen worthy to seat beside me. Man, heave your great lubberly bones out of that chair and salute a poor devil whom, as you put it, a cordwainer's daughter has jilted."
"Hullo!" cried I, who had turned from his rhapsody to con the news again, and on the instant had been caught by a familiar name at the foot of the page.
"What is it?"
"Why," said I, reading, "it seems that you are not the only such madman as you have just proclaimed yourself. Listen to this: it is headed "'Falmouth.'
"'A Gentleman, having read that the Methodist Preachers are to pay a visit to Falmouth, Cornwall, on the 16th, 17th, and 18th of next month; and that on the occasion of their last visit certain women, their sympathizers, were set upon and brutally handled by the mob; hereby announces that he will be present on the Market Strand, Falmouth, on these dates, with intent to put a stop to such behaviour, and invites any who share his indignation to meet him there and help to see fair play. The badge to be a Red Rose pinned in the hat.'" "'EUGENIO.'"
"What think you of that?" I asked, without turning my head.
"The newspaper comes from Cornwall?" he asked.
"From Falmouth itself. My father sent it. . . . Jove!" I cried after a moment, "I wonder if he's answerable for this? 'Twould be like his extravagance."
"A pity but what you inherited some of it, then," said Nat, crossly.
"Tell you what, Nat"—I slewed about in my chair—"Come you down to Cornwall and we'll stick each a rose in our hats and help this Master Engenio, whoever he is. I've a curiosity to discover him: and if he be my father—he has not marked the passage, by the way—we'll have rare fun in smoking him and tracking him unbeknown to the rendezvous. Come, lad; and if I know the Falmouth mob, you shall have a pretty little turn-up well worth the journey."
But Nat, still staring out of window, shook his head. He was in one of his perverse moods—and they had been growing frequent of late— in which nothing I could say or do seemed to content him; and for this I chiefly accused the cordwainer's daughter, who in fact was a decent merry girl, fond of strawberries, with no more notion of falling in love with Nat than of running off with her father's apprentice. Whatever the cause of it, a cloud had been creeping over our friendship of late. He sought companions—some of them serious men—with whom I could not be easy. We kept up the pretence, but talked no longer with entirely open hearts. Yet I loved him; and now in a sudden urgent desire to carry him off to Cornwall with me and clear up all misunderstandings, I caught his arm and haled him down to our college garden, which lies close within the city wall; and there, pacing the broken military terrace, plied him with a dozen reasons why he should come. Still he shook his head to all of them; and presently, hearing four o'clock strike, pulled up in his walk and announced that he must be going—he had an engagement.
"And where?" I asked.
He confessed that it was to visit the poor prisoners shut up for debt in Bocardo.
I pulled a wry mouth, remembering the dismal crew in the Fleet Prison. But though, the confession being forced from him, he ended wistfully and as if upon a question, I did not offer to come. It seemed a mighty dull way to finish a summer's afternoon. Moreover I was nettled. So I let him go and watched him through the gate, thinking bitterly that our friendship was sick and drooping by no fault of mine.
The truth was—or so I tried to excuse him—that beside his plaguey trick of falling in and out of love he had an overhanging quarrel with his father, a worthy man, tyrannous when crossed, who meant him for the law. Nat abhorred the law, and, foreseeing that the tussel must come, vexed his honest conscience with the thought that while delaying to declare war he was eating his father's bread. This thought, working upon the ferment of youth, kept him like a colt in a fretful lather. He scribbled verses, but never finished so much as a sonnet; he flung himself into religion, but chiefly, I thought, to challenge and irritate his undevout friends; and he would drop any occupation to rail at me and what he was pleased to call my phlegm.
He had some reason too, though at the time I could not discover it. Now, looking back, I can see into what a stagnant calm I had run. My boyhood should have been over; in body I had shot up to a great awkward height; but for the while the man within me drowsed and hung fire. I lived in the passing day and was content with it. Nat's gusts of passion amused me, and why a man should want to write verses or fall in love was a mystery at which I arrived no nearer than to laugh. For this (strange as it may sound) I believe the visit to London was partly to blame. Nothing had come of it, except that the unhappy King Theodore had gained his release and improved upon it by dying, a few weeks later, in wretched lodgings in Soho; where, at my father's expense, the church of St. Anne's now bore a mural tablet to his memory with an epitaph obligingly contributed by the Hon. Horace Walpole, since Earl of Orford.
Near this place is interred THEODORE KING OF CORSICA who died in this parish Dec. 11, 1756 immediately after leaving The King's Bench Prison by the benefit of the Act of Insolvency in consequence of which he registered his kingdom of Corsica for the use of his creditors.
The grave, great teacher, to a level brings Heroes and beggars, galley slaves and kings; But Theodore this moral learned ere dead: Fate poured his lesson on his living head, Bestow'd a kingdom, and denied him bread.
My father, who copied this out for me, had announced in few words poor Theodore's fate, but without particular allusion to our adventure, which, as he made no movement to follow it up, or none that he confided, I came in time to regard humorously as an escapade of his, a holiday frolic, a piece of midsummer madness. The serious part was that he had undoubtedly paid away large sums of money, and for two years my Uncle Gervase had worn a distracted air which I set down to the family accounts. By degrees I came to conclude, with the rest of the world, that my father's brain was more than a little cracked, and sounded my uncle privately about this—delicately as I thought; but he met me with a fierce unexpected heat. "Your father," said he, "is the best man in the world, and I bid you wait to understand him better, taking my word that he has great designs for you." Sure enough, too, my father seemed to hint at this in the tenor of his conversation with me, which was ever of high politics and the government of states, or on some point which could be stretched to bear on these; but of any immediate design he forbore— as it seemed, carefully—to speak. Thus I found myself at pause and let my youth wait upon his decision.
Yet I had sense enough to feel less than satisfied with myself, albeit sorer with Nat as I watched the dear lad go from me across the turf and out at the garden gate. Nor will I swear that my eyes did not smart a little. I was but a boy, and had set my heart on our travelling down to Cornwall together.
To Cornwall I rode down alone, a week later, and fell to work to idle my vacation away; fishing a little, but oftener sailing my boat; sometimes alone, sometimes with Billy Priske for company. Billy—whose duties as butler were what he called a sine qua non, pronounced as "shiny Canaan" and meaning a sinecure—had spent some part of term time in netting me a trammel, of which he was inordinately proud, and with this we amused ourselves, sailing or rowing down to the river's mouth every evening at nightfall to set it, and, again, soon after daybreak, to haul it, and usually returning with good store of fish for breakfast—soles, dories, plaice, and the red mullet for which Helford is famous above all streams.
Now, during these lazy weeks I had not forgotten Eugenio's advertisement, which, on returning to my rooms that evening after Nat's rebuff, I had clipped from the newspaper and since kept in my pocket. For the fun of it, and to find out who this Eugenio might be—I had given over suspecting my father—my mind was made up to ride over to Falmouth on the 16th of July; but whether with or without a rose in my hat I had not determined. Therefore on the morning of the 15th, when Billy, after hauling the trammel, began to lay our plans for the morrow, I cut him short, telling him that to-morrow I should not fish.
"What's matter with 'ee to-all?" he asked, smashing a spider-crab and picking it out piecemeal from the net. "Pretty fair catch to-day, id'n-a? spite of all the weed; an' no harm done by these varmints that a man can't put to rights afore evenin'."
I took the paddles without answering and pulled towards the river's mouth, while he sat and smoked his pipe over the business of clearing the net of weed. Around his feet on the bottom boards lay our morning's catch—half a dozen soles and twice the number of plaice, a brace of edible crabs, six or seven red mullet, besides a number of gurnard and wrass worth no man's eating, an ugly-looking monkfish and a bream of wonderful rainbow hues. A fog lay over the sea, so dense that in places we could see but a few yards; but over it the tops of the tall cliffs stood out clear, and the sun was mounting. A faint breeze blew from the southward. All promised a hot still day.