Etext prepared by Polly Stratton and Andrew Sly
The Broad Highway
by Jeffery Farnol
To Shirley Byron Jevons The friend of my boyish ambitions This book is dedicated As a mark of my gratitude, affection and esteem
As I sat of an early summer morning in the shade of a tree, eating fried bacon with a tinker, the thought came to me that I might some day write a book of my own: a book that should treat of the roads and by-roads, of trees, and wind in lonely places, of rapid brooks and lazy streams, of the glory of dawn, the glow of evening, and the purple solitude of night; a book of wayside inns and sequestered taverns; a book of country things and ways and people. And the thought pleased me much.
"But," objected the Tinker, for I had spoken my thought aloud, "trees and suchlike don't sound very interestin'—leastways—not in a book, for after all a tree's only a tree and an inn, an inn; no, you must tell of other things as well."
"Yes," said I, a little damped, "to be sure there is a highwayman—"
"Come, that's better!" said the Tinker encouragingly.
"Then," I went on, ticking off each item on my fingers, "come Tom Cragg, the pugilist—"
"Better and better!" nodded the Tinker.
"—a one-legged soldier of the Peninsula, an adventure at a lonely tavern, a flight through woods at midnight pursued by desperate villains, and—a most extraordinary tinker. So far so good, I think, and it all sounds adventurous enough."
"What!" cried the Tinker. "Would you put me in your book then?"
"Why then," said the Tinker, "it's true I mends kettles, sharpens scissors and such, but I likewise peddles books an' nov-els, an' what's more I reads 'em—so, if you must put me in your book, you might call me a literary cove."
"A literary cove?" said I.
"Ah!" said the Tinker, "it sounds better—a sight better—besides, I never read a nov-el with a tinker in it as I remember; they're generally dooks, or earls, or barronites—nobody wants to read about a tinker."
"That all depends," said I; "a tinker may be much more interesting than an earl or even a duke."
The Tinker examined the piece of bacon upon his knifepoint with a cold and disparaging eye.
"I've read a good many nov-els in my time," said he, shaking his head, "and I knows what I'm talking of;" here he bolted the morsel of bacon with much apparent relish. "I've made love to duchesses, run off with heiresses, and fought dooels—ah! by the hundred—all between the covers of some book or other and enjoyed it uncommonly well—especially the dooels. If you can get a little blood into your book, so much the better; there's nothing like a little blood in a book—not a great deal, but just enough to give it a 'tang,' so to speak; if you could kill your highwayman to start with it would be a very good beginning to your story."
"I could do that, certainly," said I, "but it would not be according to fact."
"So much the better," said the Tinker; "who wants facts in a nov-el?"
"Hum!" said I.
"And then again—"
"What more?" I inquired.
"Love!" said the Tinker, wiping his knife-blade on the leg of his breeches.
"Love?" I repeated.
"And plenty of it," said the Tinker.
"I'm afraid that is impossible," said I, after a moment's thought.
Because I know nothing about love."
"That's a pity," said the Tinker.
"Under the circumstances, it is," said I.
"Not a doubt of it," said the Tinker, beginning to scrub out the frying-pan with a handful of grass, "though to be sure you might learn; you're young enough."
"Yes, I might learn," said I; "who knows?"
"Ah! who knows?" said the Tinker. And after he had cleansed the pan to his satisfaction, he turned to me with dexter finger upraised and brow of heavy portent. "Young fellow," said he, "no man can write a good nov-el without he knows summat about love, it aren't to be expected—so the sooner you do learn, the better."
"Hum!" said I.
"And then, as I said afore and I say it again, they wants love in a book nowadays, and wot's more they will have it."
"They?" said I.
"The folk as will read your book—after it is written."
"Ah! to be sure," said I, somewhat taken aback; "I had forgotten them."
"Forgotten them?" repeated the Tinker, staring.
"Forgotten that people might went to read it—after it is written."
"But," said the Tinker, rubbing his nose hard, "books are written for people to read, aren't they?"
"Not always," said I.
Hereupon the Tinker rubbed his nose harder than ever.
"Many of the world's greatest books, those masterpieces which have lived and shall live on forever, were written (as I believe) for the pure love of writing them."
"Oh!" said the Tinker.
"Yes," said I, warming to my theme, "and with little or no idea of the eyes of those unborn generations which were to read and marvel at them; hence it is we get those sublime thoughts untrammelled by passing tastes and fashions, unbounded by narrow creed or popular prejudice."
"Ah?" said the Tinker.
"Many a great writer has been spoiled by fashion and success, for, so soon as he begins to think upon his public, how best to please and hold their fancy (which is ever the most fickle of mundane things) straightway Genius spreads abroad his pinions and leaves him in the mire."
"Poor cove!" said the Tinker. "Young man, you smile, I think?"
"No," said I.
"Well, supposing a writer never had no gen'us—how then?"
"Why then," said I, "he should never dare to write at all."
"Young fellow," said the Tinker, glancing at me from the corners of his eyes, "are you sure you are a gen'us then?"
Now when my companion said this I fell silent, for the very sufficient reason that I found nothing to say.
"Lord love you!" said he at last, seeing me thus "hipped"—"don't be downhearted—don't be dashed afore you begin; we can't all be gen'uses—it aren't to be expected, but some on us is a good deal better than most and that's something arter all. As for your book, wot you have to do is to give 'em a little blood now and then with plenty of love and you can't go far wrong!"
Now whether the Tinker's theory for the writing of a good novel be right or wrong, I will not presume to say. But in this book that lies before you, though you shall read, if you choose, of country things and ways and people, yet, because that part of my life herein recorded was a something hard, rough life, you shall read also of blood; and, because I came, in the end, to love very greatly, so shall you read of love.
Wherefore, then, I am emboldened to hope that when you shall have turned the last page and closed this book, you shall do so with a sigh.
CHIEFLY CONCERNING MY UNCLE'S LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT
"'And to my nephew, Maurice Vibart, I bequeath the sum of twenty thousand pounds in the fervent hope that it may help him to the devil within the year, or as soon after as may be.'"
Here Mr. Grainger paused in his reading to glance up over the rim of his spectacles, while Sir Richard lay back in his chair and laughed loudly. "Gad!" he exclaimed, still chuckling, "I'd give a hundred pounds if he could have been present to hear that," and the baronet went off into another roar of merriment.
Mr. Grainger, on the other hand, dignified and solemn, coughed a short, dry cough behind his hand.
"Help him to the devil within the year," repeated Sir Richard, still chuckling.
"Pray proceed, sir," said I, motioning towards the will.... But instead of complying, Mr. Grainger laid down the parchment, and removing his spectacles, began to polish them with a large silk handkerchief.
"You are, I believe, unacquainted with your cousin, Sir Maurice Vibart?" he inquired.
"I have never seen him," said I; "all my life has been passed either at school or the university, but I have frequently heard mention of him, nevertheless."
"Egad!" cried Sir Richard, "who hasn't heard of Buck Vibart—beat Ted Jarraway of Swansea in five rounds—drove coach and four down Whitehall—on sidewalk—ran away with a French marquise while but a boy of twenty, and shot her husband into the bargain. Devilish celebrated figure in 'sporting circles,' friend of the Prince Regent—"
"So I understand," said I.
"Altogether as complete a young blackguard as ever swaggered down St. James's." Having said which, Sir Richard crossed his legs and inhaled a pinch of snuff.
"Twenty thousand pounds is a very handsome sum," remarked Mr. Grainger ponderously and as though more with the intention of saying something rather than remain silent just then.
"Indeed it is," said I, "and might help a man to the devil as comfortably as need be, but—"
"Though," pursued Mr. Grainger, "much below his expectations and sadly inadequate to his present needs, I fear."
"That is most unfortunate," said I, "but—"
"His debts," said Mr. Grainger, busy at his spectacles again, "his debts are very heavy, I believe."
"Then doubtless some arrangement can be made to—but continue your reading, I beg," said I.
Mr. Grainger repeated his short, dry cough and taking up the will, slowly and almost as though unwillingly, cleared his throat and began as follows:
"'Furthermore, to my nephew, Peter Vibart, cousin to the above, I will and bequeath my blessing and the sum of ten guineas in cash, wherewith to purchase a copy of Zeno or any other of the stoic philosophers he may prefer.'"
Again Mr. Grainger laid down the will, and again he regarded me over the rim of his spectacles.
"Good God!" cried Sir Richard, leaping to his feet, "the man must have been mad. Ten guineas—why, it's an insult—damme!—it's an insult—you'll never take it of course, Peter."
"On the contrary, sir," said I.
"But—ten guineas!" bellowed the baronet; "on my soul now, George was a cold-blooded fish, but I didn't think even he was capable of such a despicable trick—no—curse me if I did! Why, it would have been kinder to have left you nothing at all—but it was like George—bitter to the end—ten guineas!"
"Is ten guineas," said I, "and when one comes to think of it, much may be done with ten guineas."
Sir Richard grew purple in the face, but before he could speak, Mr. Grainger began to read again:
"'Moreover, the sum of five hundred thousand pounds, now vested in the funds, shall be paid to either Maurice or Peter Vibart aforesaid, if either shall, within one calendar year, become the husband of the Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne.'"
"Good God!" exclaimed Sir Richard.
"'Failing which,'" read Mr. Grainger, "'the said sum, namely, five hundred thousand pounds, shall be bestowed upon such charity or charities as the trustees shall select. Signed by me, this tenth day of April, eighteen hundred and—, GEORGE VIBRART. Duly witnessed by ADAM PENFLEET, MARTHA TRENT."'
Here Mr. Grainger's voice stopped, and I remember, in the silence that followed, the parchment crackled very loudly as he folded it precisely and laid it on the table before him. I remember also that Sir Richard was swearing vehemently under his breath as he paced to and fro between me and the window.
"And that is all?" I inquired at last.
"That," said Mr. Grainger, not looking at me now, "is all."
"The Lady Sophia," murmured Sir Richard as if to "himself, "the Lady Sophia!" And then, stopping suddenly before me in his walk, "Oh, Peter!" said he, clapping his hand down upon my shoulder, "oh, Peter, that settles it; you're done for, boy—a crueller will was never made."
"Marriage!" said I to myself. "Hum!"
"A damnable iniquity," exclaimed Sir Richard, striding up and down the room again.
"The Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne!" said I, rubbing my chin.
"Why, that's just it," roared the baronet; "she's a reigning toast—most famous beauty in the country, London's mad over her—she can pick and choose from all the finest gentlemen in England. Oh, it's 'good-by' to all your hopes of the inheritance, Peter, and that's the devil of it."
"Sir, I fail to see your argument," said I.
"What?" cried Sir Richard, facing round on me, "d'you think you'd have a chance with her then?"
"Without friends, position, of money? Pish, boy! don't I tell you that every buck and dandy—every mincing macaroni in the three kingdoms would give his very legs to marry her—either for her beauty or her fortune?" spluttered the baronet. "And let me inform you further that she's devilish high and haughty with it all—they do say she even rebuffed the Prince Regent himself."
"But then, sir, I consider myself a better man than the Prince Regent," said I.
Sir Richard sank into the nearest chair and stared at me openmouthed.
"Sir," I continued, "you doubtless set me down as an egoist of egoists. I freely confess it; so are you, so is Mr. Grainger yonder, so are we all of us egoists in thinking ourselves as good as some few of our neighbors and better than a great many."
"Deuce take me!" said Sir Richard.
"Referring to the Lady Sophia, I have heard that she once galloped her horse up the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral—"
"And down again, Peter," added Sir Richard.
"Also she is said to be possessed of a temper," I continued, "and is above the average height, I believe, and I have a natural antipathy to termagants, more especially tall ones."
"Termagant!" cried Sir Richard. "Why, she's the handsomest woman in London, boy. She's none of your milk-and-watery, meek-mouthed misses—curse me, no! She's all fire and blood and high mettle—a woman, sir glorious—divine—damme, sir, a black-browed goddess—a positive plum!"
"Sir Richard," said I, "should I ever contemplate marriage, which is most improbable, my wife must be sweet and shy, gentle-eyed and soft of voice, instead of your bold, strong-armed, horse-galloping creature; above all, she must be sweet and clinging—"
"Sweet and sticky, oh, the devil! Hark to the boy, Grainger," cried Sir Richard, "hark to him—and one glance of the glorious Sefton's bright eyes—one glance only, Grainger, and he'd be at her feet—on his knees—on his confounded knees, sir!"
"The question is, how do you propose to maintain yourself in the future?" said Mr. Grainger at this point; "life under your altered fortunes must prove necessarily hard, Mr. Peter."
"And yet, sir," I answered, "a fortune with a wife tagged on to it must prove a very mixed blessing after all; and then again, there may be a certain amount of satisfaction in stepping into a dead man's shoes, but I, very foolishly, perhaps, have a hankering for shoes of my own. Surely there must be some position in life that I am competent to fill, some position that would maintain me honorably and well; I flatter myself that my years at Oxford were not altogether barren of result—"
"By no means," put in Sir Richard; "you won the High Jump, I believe?"
"Sir, I did," said I; "also 'Throwing the Hammer.'"
"And spent two thousand pounds per annum?" said Sir Richard.
"Sir, I did, but between whiles managed to do fairly well in the Tripos, to finish a new and original translation of Quintilian, another of Petronius Arbiter and also a literal rendering into the English of the Memoirs of the Sieur de Brantome."
"For none of which you have hitherto found a publisher?" inquired Mr. Grainger.
"Not as yet," said I, "but I have great hopes of my Brantome, as you are probably aware this is the first time he has ever been translated into the English."
"Hum!" said Sir Richard, "ha!—and in the meantime what do you intend to do?"
"On that head I have as yet come to no definite conclusion, sir," I answered.
"I have been wondering," began Mr. Grainger, somewhat diffidently, "if you would care to accept a position in my office. To be sure the remuneration would be small at first and quite insignificant in comparison to the income you have been in the receipt of."
"But it would have been money earned," said I, "which is infinitely preferable to that for which we never turn a hand—at least, I think so."
"Then you accept?"
"No, sir," said I, "though I am grateful to you, and thank you most sincerely for your offer, yet I have never felt the least inclination to the practice of law; where there is no interest one's work must necessarily suffer, and I have no desire that your business should be injured by any carelessness of mine."
"What do you think of a private tutorship?"
"It would suit me above all things were it not for the fact that the genus 'Boy' is the most aggravating of all animals, and that I am conscious of a certain shortness of temper at times, which might result in pain to my pupil, loss of dignity to myself, and general unpleasantness to all concerned—otherwise a private tutorship would suit most admirably."
Here Sir Richard took another pinch of snuff and sat frowning up at the ceiling, while Mr. Grainger began tying up that document which had so altered my prospects. As for me, I crossed to the window and stood staring out at the evening. Everywhere were trees tinted by the rosy glow of sunset, trees that stirred sleepily in the gentle wind, and far away I could see that famous highway, built and paved for the march of Roman Legions, winding away to where it vanished over distant Shooter's Hill.
"And pray," said Sir Richard, still frowning at the ceiling, "what do you propose to do with yourself?"
Now, as I looked out upon this fair evening, I became, of a sudden, possessed of an overmastering desire, a great longing for field and meadow and hedgerow, for wood and coppice and shady stream, for sequestered inns and wide, wind-swept heaths, and ever the broad highway in front. Thus I answered Sir Richard's question unhesitatingly, and without turning from the window:
"I shall go, sir, on a walking tour through Kent and Surrey into Devonshire, and thence probably to Cornwall."
"And with a miserable ten guineas in your pocket? Preposterous —absurd!" retorted Sir Richard.
"On the contrary, sir," said I, "the more I ponder the project, the more enamored of it I become."
"And when your money is all gone—how then?"
"I shall turn my hand to some useful employment," said I; "digging, for instance."
"Digging!" ejaculated Sir Richard, "and you a scholar—and what is more, a gentleman!"
"My dear Sir Richard," said I, "that all depends upon how you would define a gentleman. To me he would appear, of late years, to have degenerated into a creature whose chief end in life is to spend money he has never earned, to reproduce his species with a deplorable frequency and promiscuity, habitually to drink more than is good for him, and, between whiles, to fill in his time hunting, cock-fighting, or watching entranced while two men pound each other unrecognizable in the prize ring. Occasionally he has the good taste to break his neck in the hunting field, or get himself gloriously shot in a duel, but the generality live on to a good old age, turn their attention to matters political and, following the dictates of their class, damn reform with a whole-hearted fervor equalled only by their rancor."
"Deuce take me!" ejaculated Sir Richard feebly, while Mr. Grainger buried his face in his pocket-handkerchief.
"To my mind," I ended, "the man who sweats over a spade or follows the tail of a plough is far nobler and higher in the Scheme of Things than any of your young 'bloods' driving his coach and four to Brighton to the danger of all and sundry."
Sir Richard slowly got up out of his chair, staring at me open-mouthed. "Good God!" he exclaimed at last, "the boy's a Revolutionary."
I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, but, before I could speak, Mr. Grainger interposed, sedate and solemn as usual:
"Referring to your proposed tour, Mr. Peter, when do you expect to start?"
"Early to-morrow morning, sir."
"I will not attempt to dissuade you, well knowing the difficulty," said he, with a faint smile, "but a letter addressed to me at Lincoln's Inn will always find me and receive my most earnest attention." So saying, he rose, bowed, and having shaken my hand, left the room, closing the door behind him.
"Peter," exclaimed the baronet, striding up and down, "Peter, you are a fool, sir, a hot-headed, self-sufficient, pragmatical young fool, sir, curse me!"
"I am sorry you should think so," I answered.
"And," he continued, regarding me with a defiant eye, "I shall expect you to draw upon me for any sum that—that you may require for the present—friendship's sake—boyhood and—and all that sort of thing, and—er—oh, damme, you understand, Peter?"
"Sir Richard," said I, grasping his unwilling hand, "I—I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Pooh, Peter, dammit!" said he, snatching his hand away and thrusting it hurriedly into his pocket, out of farther reach.
"Thank you, sir," I reiterated; "be sure that should I fall ill or any unforeseen calamity happen to me, I will most gladly, most gratefully accept your generous aid in the spirit in which it is offered, but—"
"But?" exclaimed Sir Richard.
"Oh, the devil!" said Sir Richard, and ringing the bell ordered his horse to be brought to the door, and thereafter stood with his back to the empty fireplace, his fists thrust down into his pockets, frowning heavily and with a fixed intentness at the nearest armchair.
Sir Richard Anstruther is tall and broad, ruddy of face, with a prominent nose and great square chin whose grimness is offset by a mouth singularly sweet and tender, and the kindly light of blue eyes; he is in very truth a gentleman. Indeed, as he stood there in his plain blue coat with its high roll collar and shining silver buttons, his spotless moleskins and heavy, square-toed riding boots, he was as fair a type as might be of the English country gentleman. It is such men as he, who, fearless upon the littered quarterdecks of reeling battleships, undismayed amid the smoke and death of stricken fields, their duty well and nobly done; have turned their feet homewards to pass their latter days amid their turnips and cabbages, beating their swords into pruning-hooks, and glad enough to do it.
"Peter," said he suddenly.
"Sir?" said I.
"You never saw your father to remember, did you?"
"No, Sir Richard."
"Nor your mother?"
"Nor my mother."
"Poor boy—poor boy!"
"You knew my mother?"
"Yes, Peter, I knew your mother," said Sir Richard, staring very hard at the chair again, and I saw that his mouth had grown wonderfully tender. "Yours has been a very secluded life hitherto, Peter," he went on after a moment.
"Entirely so," said I, "with the exception of my never-to-be-forgotten visits to the Hall."
"Ah, yes, I taught you to ride, remember."
"You are associated with every boyish pleasure I ever knew," said I, laying my hand upon his arm. Sir Richard coughed and grew suddenly red in the face.
"Why—ah—you see, Peter," he began, picking up his riding whip and staring at it, "you see your uncle was never very fond of company at any time, whereas I—"
"Whereas you could always find time to remember the lonely boy left when all his companions were gone on their holidays—left to his books and the dreary desolation of the empty schoolhouse, and echoing cloisters—"
"Pooh!" exclaimed Sir Richard, redder than ever. "Bosh!"
"Do you think I can ever forget the glorious day when you drove over in your coach and four, and carried me off in triumph, and how we raced the white-hatted fellow in the tilbury—?"
"And beat him!" added Sir Richard.
"Took off his near wheel on the turn," said I.
"The fool's own fault," said Sir Richard.
"And left him in the ditch, cursing us!" said I.
"Egad, yes, Peter! Oh, but those were fine horses and though I say it, no better team in the south country. You'll remember the 'off wheeler' broke his leg shortly after and had to be shot, poor devil."
"And later, at Oxford," I began.
"What now, Peter?" said Sir Richard, frowning darkly.
"Do you remember the bronze vase that used to stand on the mantelpiece in my study?"
"Bronze vase?" repeated Sir Richard, intent upon his whip again.
"I used to find bank-notes in it after you had visited me, and when I hid the vase they turned up just the same in most unexpected places."
"Young fellow—must have money—necessary—now and then," muttered Sir Richard.
At this juncture, with a discreet knock, the butler appeared to announce that Sir Richard's horse was waiting. Hereupon the baronet, somewhat hastily, caught up his hat and gloves, and I followed him out of the house and down the steps.
Sir Richard drew on his gloves, thrust his toe into the stirrup, and then turned to look at me over his arm.
"Peter," said he.
"Sir Richard?" said I.
"Regarding your walking tour—"
"I think it's all damned tomfoolery!" said Sir Richard. After saying which he swung himself into the saddle with a lightness and ease that many younger might have envied.
"I'm sorry for that, sir, because my mind is set upon it."
"With ten guineas in your pocket!"
"That, with due economy, should be ample until I can find some means to earn more."
"A fiddlestick, sir—an accursed fiddlestick!" snorted Sir Richard. "How is a boy, an unsophisticated, hot-headed young fool of a boy to earn his own living?"
"Others have done it," I began.
"Pish!" said the baronet.
"And been the better for it in the end."
"Tush!" said the baronet.
"And I have a great desire to see the world from the viewpoint of the multitude."
"Bah!" said the baronet, so forcibly that his mare started; "this comes of your damnable Revolutionary tendencies. Let me tell you, Want is a hard master, and the world a bad place for one who is moneyless and without friends."
"You forget, sir, I shall never be without a friend."
"God knows it, boy," answered Sir Richard, and his hand fell and rested for a moment upon my shoulder. "Peter," said he, very slowly and heavily, "I'm growing old—and I shall never marry—and sometimes, Peter, of an evening I get very lonely and—lonely, Peter." He stopped for a while, gazing away towards the green slopes of distant Shooter's Hill. "Oh, boy!" said he at last, "won't you come to the Hall and help me to spend my money?"
Without answering I reached up and clasped his hand; it was the hand which held his whip, and I noticed how tightly he gripped the handle, and wondered.
"Sir Richard," said I at last, "wherever I go I shall treasure the recollection of this moment, but—"
"Oh, dammit!" he exclaimed, and set spurs to his mare. Yet once he turned in his saddle to flourish his whip to me ere he galloped out of sight.
I SET OUT
The clock of the square-towered Norman church, a mile away, was striking the hour of four as I let myself out into the morning. It was dark as yet, and chilly, but in the east was already a faint glimmer of dawn. Reaching the stables, I paused with my hand on the door-hasp, listening to the hiss, hissing that told me Adam, the groom, was already at work within. As I entered he looked up from the saddle he was polishing and touched his forehead with a grimy forefinger.
"You be early abroad, Mr. Peter."
"Yes," said I. "I wish to be on Shooter's Hill at sunrise; but first I came to say 'good-by' to 'Wings.'"
"To be sure, sir," nodded Adam, picking up his lanthorn.
Upon the ensuing interview I will not dwell; it was affecting both to her and to myself, for we were mutually attached.
"Sir," said Adam, when at last the stable door had closed behind us, "that there mare knows as you're a-leaving her."
"I think she does, Adam."
"'Osses be wonderful wise, sir!"
"This is a bad day for Wings, sir—and all of us, for that matter."
"I hope not, Adam."
"You be a-going away, they tell me, sir?"
"Yes, going away," I nodded.
"Wonder what'll become o' the mare, sir?"
"Ah, yes, I wonder," said I.
"Everything to be sold under the will, I think, sir?"
"Excuse me, sir," said he, knuckling his forehead, "you won't be wanting ever a groom, will you?"
"No, Adam," I answered, shaking my head, "I sha'n't be wanting a groom."
"Nor yet a body servant, sir?"
"No, Adam, nor yet a body servant."
Here there ensued a silence during which Adam knuckled his right temple again and I tightened the buckle of my knapsack.
"I think, Adam," said I, "I think it is going to be a fine day."
"Good-by, Adam!" said I, and held out my hand.
"Good-by, sir." And, having shaken my hand, he turned and went back into the stable.
So I set off, walking beneath an avenue of trees looming up gigantic on either hand. At the end was the lodge and, ere I opened the gates—for John, the lodgekeeper, was not yet astir—ere I opened the gates, I say, I paused for one last look at the house that had been all the home I had ever known since I could remember. As I stood thus, with my eyes upon the indistinct mass, I presently distinguished a figure running towards me and, as he came up, recognized Adam.
"It ain't much, sir, but it's all I 'ave," said he, and thrust a short, thick, well-smoked clay pipe into my hand—a pipe that was fashioned to the shape of a negro's head. "It's a good pipe, sir," he went on, "a mortal good pipe, and as sweet as a nut!" saying which, he turned about and ran off, leaving me standing there with his parting gift in my hand.
And having put the pipe into an inner pocket, I opened the gate and started off at a good pace along the broad highway.
It was a bleak, desolate world that lay about me, a world of shadows and a white, low-lying mist that filled every hollow and swathed hedge and tree; a lowering earth and a frowning heaven infinitely depressing. But the eastern sky was clear with an ever-growing brightness; hope lay there, so, as I walked, I kept my eyes towards the east.
Being come at last to that eminence which is called Shooter's Hill, I sat down upon a bank beside the way and turned to look back upon the wonderful city. And as I watched, the pearly east changed little by little, to a varying pink, which in turn slowly gave place to reds and yellows, until up came the sun in all his majesty, gilding vane and weathercock upon a hundred spires and steeples, and making a glory of the river. Far away upon the white riband of road that led across Blackheath, a chaise was crawling, but save for that the world seemed deserted.
I sat thus a great while gazing upon the city and marvelling at the greatness of it.
"Truly," said I to myself, "nowhere in the whole world is there such another city as London!" And presently I sighed and, rising, set my back to the city and went on down the hill.
Yes—the sun was up at last, and at his advent the mists rolled up and vanished, the birds awoke in brake and thicket and, lifting their voices, sang together, a song of universal praise. Bushes rustled, trees whispered, while from every leaf and twig, from every blade of grass, there hung a flashing jewel.
With the mists my doubts of the future vanished too, and I strode upon my way, a very god, king of my destiny, walking through a tribute world where feathered songsters carolled for me and blossoming flowers wafted sweet perfume upon my path. So I went on gayly down the hill, rejoicing that I was alive.
In the knapsack at my back I had stowed a few clothes, the strongest and plainest I possessed, together with a shirt, some half-dozen favorite books, and my translation of Brantome; Quintilian and Petronius I had left with Mr. Grainger, who had promised to send them to a publisher, a friend of his, and in my pocket was my uncle George's legacy,—namely, ten guineas in gold. And, as I walked, I began to compute how long such a sum might be made to last a man. By practising the strictest economy, I thought I might manage well enough on two shillings a day, and this left me some hundred odd days in which to find some means of livelihood, and if a man could not suit himself in such time, then (thought I) he must be a fool indeed.
Thus, my thoughts caught something of the glory of the bright sky above and the smiling earth about me, as I strode along that "Broad Highway" which was to lead me I knew not whither, yet where disaster was already lying in wait for me—as you shall hear.
CONCERNS ITSELF MAINLY WITH A HAT
As the day advanced, the sun beat down with an ever-increasing heat, and what with this and the dust I presently grew very thirsty; wherefore, as I went, I must needs conjure up tantalizing visions of ale—of ale that foamed gloriously in tankards, that sparkled in glasses, and gurgled deliciously from the spouts of earthen pitchers, and I began to look about me for some inn where these visions might be realized and my burning thirst nobly quenched (as such a thirst deserved to be). On I went, through this beautiful land of Kent, past tree and hedge and smiling meadow, by hill and dale and sloping upland, while ever the sun grew hotter, the winding road the dustier, and my mighty thirst the mightier.
At length, reaching the brow of a hill, I espied a small inn or hedge tavern that stood back from the glare of the road, seeming to nestle in the shade of a great tree, and joyfully I hastened toward it.
As I approached I heard loud voices, raised as though in altercation, and a hat came hurtling through the open doorway and, bounding into the road, rolled over and over to my very feet. And, looking down at it, I saw that it was a very ill-used hat, frayed and worn, dented of crown and broken of brim, yet beneath its sordid shabbiness there lurked the dim semblance of what it had once been, for, in the scratched and tarnished buckle, in the jaunty curl of the brim, it still preserved a certain pitiful air of rakishness; wherefore, I stooped, and, picking it up, began to brush the dust from it as well as I might.
I was thus engaged when there arose a sudden bull-like roar and, glancing up, I beheld a man who reeled backwards out of the inn and who, after staggering a yard or so, thudded down into the road and so lay, staring vacantly up at the sky. Before I could reach him, however, he got upon his legs and, crossing unsteadily to the tree I have mentioned, leaned there, and I saw there was much blood upon his face which he essayed to wipe away with the cuff of his coat. Now, upon his whole person, from the crown of his unkempt head down to his broken, dusty boots, there yet clung that air of jaunty, devil-may-care rakishness which I had seen, and pitied in his hat.
Observing, as I came up, how heavily he leaned against the tree, and noting the extreme pallor of his face and the blank gaze of his sunken eyes, I touched him upon the shoulder.
"Sir, I trust you are not hurt?" said I.
"Thank you," he answered, his glance still wandering, "not in the least—assure you—merely tap on the nose, sir—unpleasant—damnably, but no more, no more."
"I think," said I, holding out the battered hat, "I think this is yours?"
His eye encountering it in due time, he reached out his hand somewhat fumblingly, and took it from me with a slight movement of the head and shoulders that might have been a bow.
"Thank you—yes—should know it among a thousand," said he dreamily, "an old friend and a tried—a very much tried one—many thanks." With which words he clapped the much-tried friend upon his head, and with another movement that might have been a bow, turned short round and strode away. And as he went, despite the careless swing of his shoulder, his legs seemed to falter somewhat in their stride and once I thought he staggered; yet, as I watched, half minded to follow after him, he settled his hat more firmly with a light tap upon the crown and, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his threadbare coat, fell to whistling lustily, and so, turning a bend in the road, vanished from my sight.
And presently, my thirst recurring to me, I approached the inn, and descending three steps entered its cool shade. Here I found four men, each with his pipe and tankard, to whom a large, red-faced, big-fisted fellow was holding forth in a high state of heat and indignation.
"Wot's England a-comin' to?—that's wot I wants to know," he was saying; "wot's England a-comin' to when thievin' robbers can come a-walkin' in on you a-stealin' a pint o' your best ale out o' your very own tankard under your very own nose—wot's it a-comin' to?"
"Ah!" nodded the others solemnly, "that's it, Joel—wot?"
"W'y," growled the red-faced innkeeper, bringing his big fist down with a bang, "it's a-comin' to per—dition; that's wot it's a-comin' to!"
"And wot," inquired a rather long, bony man with a face half-hidden in sandy whisker, "wot might per—dition be, Joel; likewise, wheer?"
"You must be a danged fule, Tom, my lad!" retorted he whom they called Joel, redder in the face than ever.
"Ay, that ye must!" chorused the others.
"I only axed 'wot an' wheer."
"Only axed, did ye?" repeated Joel scornfully,
"Ah," nodded the other, "that's all."
"But you're always a-axin', you are," said Joel gloomily.
"W'ich I notice," retorted the man Tom, blowing into his tankard, "w'ich I notice as you ain't never over-fond o' answerin'."
"Oh!—I ain't, ain't I?"
"No, you ain't," repeated Tom, "nohow."
Here the red-faced man grew so very red indeed that the others fell to coughing, all together, and shuffling their feet and giving divers other evidences of their embarrassment, all save the unimpressionable Tom.
Seizing the occasion that now presented itself, I knocked loudly upon the floor with my stick, whereupon the red-faced man, removing his eyes slowly and by degrees from the unconcerned Tom, fixed them darkly upon me.
"Supposing," said I, "supposing you are so very obliging as to serve me with a pint of ale?"
"Then supposin' you show me the color o' your money?" he growled, "come, money fust; I aren't takin' no more risks."
For answer I laid the coins before him. And having pocketed the money, he filled and thrust a foaming tankard towards me, which I emptied forthwith and called upon him for another.
"Wheer's your money?"
"Here," said I, tossing a sixpence to him, "and you can keep the change."
"Why, ye see, sir," he began, somewhat mollified, "it be precious 'ard to know who's a gentleman, an' who ain't; who's a thief, an' who ain't these days."
"Why, only a little while ago—just afore you—chap comes a-walkin' in 'ere, no account much to look at, but very 'aughty for all that—comes a-walkin in 'ere 'e do an' calls for a pint o' ale—you 'eard 'im, all on ye?" He broke off, turning to the others; "you all 'eard 'im call for a pint o' ale?"
"Ah—we 'eard 'im," they nodded.
"Comes a-walkin' in 'ere 'e do, bold as brass—calls for a pint o' ale—drinks it off, an'—'ands me 'is 'at; you all seen 'im 'and me 'is 'at?" he inquired, once more addressing the others.
"Every man of us," the four chimed in with four individual nods.
"'Wot's this 'ere?' says I, turnin' it over. 'It's a 'at, or once was,' says 'e. 'Well, I don't want it,' says I. 'Since you've got it you'd better keep it,' says 'e. 'Wot for?' says I? 'Why,' says 'e, 'it's only fair seein' I've got your ale—it's a case of exchange,' says 'e. 'Oh! is it?' says I, an' pitched the thing out into the road an' 'im arter it—an' so it ended. An' wot," said the red-faced man nodding his big head at me, "wot d'ye think o' that now?"
"Why, I think you were perhaps a trifle hasty," said I.
"Oh, ye do, do ye?"
"Yes," I nodded.
"An' for why?"
"Well, you will probably remember that the hat had a band round it—"
"Ay, all wore away it were too—"
"And that in the band was a buckle—"
"Ay, all scratched an' rusty it were—well?"
"Well, that tarnished buckle was of silver—"
"Silver!" gasped the man, his jaw falling.
"And easily worth five shillings, perhaps more, so that I think you were, upon the whole, rather hasty." Saying which, I finished my ale and, taking up my staff, stepped out into the sunshine.
I MEET WITH A GREAT MISFORTUNE
That day I passed through several villages, stopping only to eat and drink; thus evening was falling as, having left fair Sevenoaks behind, I came to the brow of a certain hill, a long and very steep descent which (I think) is called the River Hill. And here, rising stark against the evening sky, was a gibbet, and standing beneath it a man, a short, square man in a somewhat shabby coat of a bottle-green, and with a wide-brimmed beaver hat sloped down over his eyes, who stood with his feet well apart, sucking the knob of a stick he carried, while he stared up at that which dangled by a stout chain from the cross-beam of the gibbet,—something black and shrivelled and horrible that had once been human.
As I came up, the man drew the stick from his mouth and touched the brim of his hat with it in salutation.
"An object lesson, sir," said he, and nodded towards the loathsome mass above.
"A very hideous one!" said I, pausing, "and I think a very useless one."
"He was as fine a fellow as ever thrust toe into stirrup," the man went on, pointing upwards with his stick, "though you'd never think so to look at him now!"
"It's a horrible sight!" said I.
"It is," nodded the man, "it's a sight to turn a man's stomach, that it is!"
"You knew him perhaps?" said I.
"Knew him," repeated the man, staring at me over his shoulder, "knew him—ah—that is, I knew of him."
"Nick Scrope his name was," answered the man with a nod, "hung at Maidstone assizes last year, and a very good end he made of it too; and here he be—hung up in chains all nat'ral and reg'lar, as a warning to all and sundry."
"The more shame to England," said I; "to my thinking it is a scandal that our highways should be rendered odious by such horrors, and as wicked as it is useless."
"'Od rot me!" cried the fellow, slapping a cloud of dust from his coat with his stick, "hark to that now."
"What?" said I, "do you think for one moment that such a sight, horrible though it is, could possibly deter a man from robbery or murder whose mind is already made up to it by reason of circumstances or starvation?"
"Well, but it's an old custom, as old as this here road."
"True," said I, "and that of itself but proves my argument, for men have been hanged and gibbeted all these years, yet robbery and murder abide with us still, and are of daily occurrence."
"Why, as to that, sir," said the man, falling into step beside me as I walked on down the hill, "I won't say yes and I won't say no, but what I do say is—as many a man might think twice afore running the chance of coming to that—look!" And he stopped to turn, and point back at the gibbet with his stick. "Nick can't last much longer, though I've know'd 'em hang a good time—but they made a botch of Nick—not enough tar; you can see where the sun catches him there!"
Once more, though my whole being revolted at the sight, I must needs turn to look at the thing—the tall, black shaft of the gibbet, and the grisly horror that dangled beneath with its chains and iron bands; and from this, back again to my companion, to find him regarding me with a curiously twisted smile, and a long-barrelled pistol held within a foot of my head.
"Well?" said I, staring.
"Sir," said he, tapping his boot with his stick," I must trouble you for the shiner I see a-winking at me from your cravat, likewise your watch and any small change you may have."
For a moment I hesitated, glancing from his grinning mouth swiftly over the deserted road, and back again.
"Likewise," said the fellow, "I must ask you to be sharp about it." It was with singularly clumsy fingers that I drew the watch from my fob and the pin from my cravat, and passed them to him.
"Now your pockets," he suggested, "turn 'em out."
This command I reluctantly obeyed, bringing to light my ten guineas, which were as yet intact, and which he pocketed forthwith, and two pennies—which he bade me keep.
"For," said he, "'t will buy you a draught of ale, sir, and there's good stuff to be had at 'The White Hart' yonder, and there's nothin' like a draught of good ale to comfort a man in any such small adversity like this here. As to that knapsack now," he pursued, eyeing it thoughtfully, "it looks heavy and might hold valleybels, but then, on the other hand, it might not, and those there straps takes time to unbuckle and—" He broke off suddenly, for from somewhere on the hill below us came the unmistakable sound of wheels. Hereupon the fellow very nimbly ran across the road, turned, nodded, and vanished among the trees and underbrush that clothed the steep slope down to the valley below.
I was yet standing there, half stunned by my loss and the suddenness of it all, when a tilbury came slowly round a bend in the road, the driver of which nodded lazily in his seat while his horse, a sorry, jaded animal, plodded wearily up the steep slope of the hill. As he approached I hailed him loudly, upon which he suddenly dived down between his knees and produced a brass-bound blunderbuss.
"What's to do?" cried he, a thick-set, round-faced fellow, "what's to do, eh?" and he covered me with the wide mouth of the blunderbuss.
"Thieves!" said I, "I've been robbed, and not three minutes since."
"Ah!" he exclaimed, in a tone of great relief, and with the color returning to his plump cheeks, "is that the way of it?"
"It is," said I, "and a very bad way; the fellow has left me but twopence in the world."
"Come," I went on, "you are armed, I see; the thief took to the brushwood, here, not three minutes ago; we may catch him yet—"
"Catch him?" repeated the fellow, staring.
"Yes, don't I tell you he has stolen all the money I possess?"
"Except twopence," said the fellow.
"Well, twopence ain't to be sneezed at, and if I was you—"
"Come, we're losing time," said I, cutting him short.
"But—my mare, what about my mare?"
"She'll stand," I answered; "she's tired enough."
The Bagman, for such I took him to be, sighed, and, blunderbuss in hand, prepared to alight, but, in the act of doing so, paused:
"Was the rascal armed?" he inquired, over his shoulder
"To be sure he was," said I.
The Bagman got back into his seat and took up the reins.
"What now?" I inquired.
"It's this accursed mare of mine," he answered; "she'll bolt again, d'ye see—twice yesterday and once the day before, she bolted, sir, and on a road like this—"
"Then lend me your blunderbuss."
"I can't do that," he replied, shaking his head.
"But why not?" said I impatiently.
"Because this is a dangerous road, and I don't intend to be left unarmed on a dangerous road; I never have been and I never will, and there's an end of it, d'ye see!"
"Then do you mean to say that you refuse your aid to a fellow-traveler—that you will sit there and let the rogue get away with all the money I possess in the world—"
"Oh, no; not on no account; just you get up here beside me and we'll drive to 'The White Hart.' I'm well known at 'The White Hart;' we'll get a few honest fellows at our heels and have this thieving, rascally villain in the twinkling of an—" He stopped suddenly, made a frantic clutch at his blunderbuss, and sat staring. Turning short round, I saw the man in the beaver hat standing within a yard of us, fingering his long pistol and with the same twisted smile upon his lips.
"I've a mind," said he, nodding his head at the Bagman, "I've a great mind to blow your face off."
The blunderbuss fell to the roadway, with a clatter.
"Thievin', rascally villain—was it? Damme! I think I will blow your face off."
"No—don't do—that," said the Bagman, in a strange, jerky voice, "what 'ud be—the good?"
"Why, that there poor animal wouldn't have to drag that fat carkiss of yours up and down hills, for one thing."
"I'll get out and walk."
"And it might learn ye to keep a civil tongue in your head."
"I—I didn't mean—any—offence."
"Then chuck us your purse," growled the other, "and be quick about it." The Bagman obeyed with wonderful celerity, and I heard the purse chink as the footpad dropped it into the pocket of his greatcoat.
"As for you," said he, turning to me, "you get on your way and never mind me; forget you ever had ten guineas and don't go a-riskin' your vallyble young life; come—up with you!" and he motioned me into the tilbury with his pistol.
"What about my blunderbuss?" expostulated the Bagman, faintly, as I seated myself beside him, "you'll give me my blunderbuss—cost me five pound it did."
"More fool you!" said the highwayman, and, picking up the unwieldy weapon, he hove it into the ditch.
"As to our argyment—regardin' gibbetin', sir," said he, nodding to me, "I'm rayther inclined to think you was in the right on it arter all." Then, turning towards the Bagman: "Drive on, fat-face!" said he, "and sharp's the word." Whereupon the Bagman whipped up his horse and, as the tired animal struggled forward over the crest of the hill, I saw the highwayman still watching us.
Very soon we came in view of "The White Hart," an inn I remembered to have passed on the right hand side of the road, and scarce were we driven up to the door than down jumped the Bagman, leaving me to follow at my leisure, and running into the tap, forthwith began recounting his loss to all and sundry, so that I soon found we were become the center of a gaping crowd, much to my disgust. Indeed, I would have slipped away, but each time I attempted to do so the Bagman would appeal to me to corroborate some statement.
"Galloping Dick himself, or I'm a Dutchman!" he cried for the twentieth time; "up he comes, bold as brass, bless you, and a horse-pistol in each hand. 'Hold hard!' says I, and ups with my blunderbuss; you remember as I ups with my blunderbuss?" he inquired, turning to me.
"Quite well," said I.
"Ah, but you should have seen the fellow's face, when he saw my blunderbuss ready at my shoulder; green it was—green as grass, for if ever there was death in a man's face, and sudden death at that, there was sudden death in mine, when, all at once, my mare, my accursed mare, jibbed—"
"Yes, yes?" cried half-a-dozen breathless voices, "what then?"
"Why, then, gentlemen," said the Bagman, shaking his head and frowning round upon the ring of intent faces, "why then, gentlemen, being a resolute, determined fellow, I did what any other man of spirit would have done—I—"
"Dropped your blunderbuss," said I.
"Ay, to be sure I did—"
"And he pitched it into the ditch," said I.
"Ay," nodded the Bagman dubiously, while the others crowded nearer.
"And then he took your money, and called you 'Fool' and 'Fatface,' and so it ended," said I. With which I pushed my way from the circle, and, finding a quiet corner beside the chimney, sat down, and with my last twopence paid for a tankard of ale.
WHAT BEFELL ME AT "THE WHITE HART"
When a man has experienced some great and totally unexpected reverse of fortune, has been swept from one plane of existence to another, that he should fail at once to recognize the full magnitude of that change is but natural, for his faculties must of necessity be numbed more or less by its very suddenness.
Yesterday I had been reduced from affluence to poverty with an unexpectedness that had dazed me for the time being, and, from the poverty of an hour ago, I now found myself reduced to an utter destitution, without the wherewithal to pay for the meanest night's lodging. And, contrasting the careless ease of a few days since with my present lamentable situation, I fell into a gloomy meditation; and the longer I thought it over, the more dejected I became. To be sure, I might apply to Sir Richard for assistance, but my pride revolted at even the thought, more especially at such an early stage; moreover, I had determined, beforehand, to walk my appointed road unaided from the first.
From these depressing thoughts I was presently aroused by a loud, rough voice at no great distance, to which, though I had been dimly conscious of it for some time, I had before paid no attention. Now, however, I raised my eyes from the spot upon the floor where they had rested hitherto, and fixed them upon the speaker.
He was a square-shouldered, bullet-headed fellow, evidently held in much respect by his companions, for he occupied the head of the table, and I noticed that when ever he spoke the others held their peace, and hung upon the words with an appearance of much respect.
"'Yes, sirs,' says I," he began, louder than before, and with a flourish of his long-stemmed pipe, "'yes, sirs, Tom Cragg's my name an' craggy's my natur,' says I. 'I be 'ard, sirs, dey-vilish 'ard an' uncommon rocky! 'Ere's a face as likes good knocks,' I says, 'w'y, when I fought Crib Burke o' Bristol 'e broke 'is 'and again' my jaw, so 'e did, an' I scarce knowed 'e'd 'it me till I see 'im 'oppin' wi' the pain of it. Come, sirs,' says I, 'who'll give me a black eye; a fiver's all I ask.' Well, up comes a young buck, ready an' willin'. 'Tom,' says 'e, 'I'll take two flaps at that figger-head o' yourn for seven guineas, come, what d'ye say?' I says, 'done,' says I. So my fine gentleman lays by 'is 'at an' cane, strips off 'is right-'and glove, an' 'eavin' back lets fly at me. Bang comes 'is fist again' my jaw, an' there's my gentleman a-dabbin' at 'is broken knuckles wi' 'is 'ankercher. 'Come, my lord,' says I, 'fair is fair, take your other whack.' 'Damnation!' says 'e, 'take your money an' go to the devil!' says 'e, 'I thought you was flesh an' blood an' not cast iron!' 'Craggy, my lord,' says I, gathering up the rhino, 'Cragg by name an' craggy by natur', my lord,' says I."
Hereupon ensued a roar of laughter, with much slapping of thighs, and stamping of feet, while the bullet-headed man solemnly emptied his tankard, which was the signal for two or three of those nearest to vie for its possession, during which Tom Cragg sucked dreamily at his pipe and stared placidly up at the ceiling.
"Now, Tom," said a tall, bony individual, chiefly remarkable in possessing but one eye, and that so extremely pale and watery as to give one the idea that it was very much overworked, "now, Tom," said he, setting down the refilled tankard at the great man's elbow with a triumphant flourish, "tell us 'ow you shook 'ands wi' the Prince Regent."
"Ah! tell us," chimed the rest.
"Well," said the bullet-headed man, stooping to blow the froth from his ale, "it was arter I beat Jack Nolan of Brummagem. The Prince 'e come a-runnin' to me 'e did, as I sat in my corner a-workin' at a loose tusk. 'Tom,' 'e says, 'Tom, you be a wonder.' 'I done Jack Nolan up proper I think, your 'Ighness,' says I. 'Tom,' says 'e, wi' tears in 'is eyes, 'you 'ave; an' if I 'ad my way,' says 'e, 'I'd make you Prime Minister to-morrer!' 'e says. An' slapped me on the back 'e did, wi' 'is merry own 'and, an' likewise gave me this 'ere pin," saying which, he pointed to a flaming diamond horseshoe which he wore stuck through his neckerchief. The stones were extremely large and handsome, looking very much out of place on the fellow's rough person, and seemed in some part to bear out his story. Though, indeed, as regarded his association with the Prince Regent, whose tastes were at all times peculiar (to say the least), and whose love for "the fancy" was notorious, I thought it, on the whole, very probable; for despite Craggy's words, foolishly blatant though they sounded, there was about him in his low, retreating brow, his small, deep-set eyes, his great square jowl and heavy chin, a certain air there was no mistaking. I also noticed that the upper half of one ear was unduly thick and swollen, which is a mark (I believe) of the professional pugilist alone.
"Tom," cried the one-eyed man, "wot's all this we heerd of Ted Jarraway of Swansea bein' knocked out in five rounds by this 'ere Lord Vibbot, up in London?"
"Vibbot?" repeated Cragg, frowning into his tankard, "I 'aven't 'eard of no Vibbot, neither lord, earl, nor dook."
"Come, Tom," coaxed the other, "everybody's heerd o' Buck Vibbot, 'im they calls the 'Fightin' Barronite.'"
"If," said Cragg, rolling his bullet-head, "if you was to ask me who put Ted Jarraway to sleep, I should answer you, Sir Maurice Vibart, commonly called 'Buck' Vibart; an' it took ten rounds to do it, not five."
As may be expected, at this mention of my cousin's name I pricked up my ears.
"And what's all this 'bout him 'putting out' Tom Cragg, in three?" At this there was a sudden silence and all eyes were turned towards the speaker, a small, red-headed fellow, with a truculent eye. "Come," said he, blowing out a cloud of tobacco smoke, "in three rounds! What d'ye say to that now, come?"
Cragg had started up in his chair and now sat scowling at his inquisitor open-mouthed; and in the hush I could hear the ticking of the clock in the corner, and the crackle of the logs upon the hearth. Then, all at once, Cragg's pipe shivered to fragments on the floor and he leapt to his feet. In one stride, as it seemed, he reached the speaker, who occupied the corner opposite mine, but, even as he raised his fist, he checked himself before the pocket-pistol which the other held levelled across the table.
"Come, come—none o' that," said the red-headed man, his eye more truculent than ever, "I ain't a fightin' cove myself, and I don't want no trouble—all I asks is, what about Buck Vibart putting out Tom Cragg—in three rounds? That's a civil question, ain't it—what d'ye say now—come?"
"I says," cried Tom Cragg, flourishing a great fist in the air, "I says as 'e done it—on a foul!" And he smote the table a blow that set the glasses ringing.
"Done it on a foul?" cried three or four voices.
"On a foul!" repeated Cragg.
"Think again," said the red-headed man, "'t were said as it was a werry clean knock-out."
"An' I say it were done on a foul," reiterated Cragg, with another blow of his fist, "an' wot's more, if Buck Vibart stood afore me—ah, in this 'ere very room, I'd prove my words."
"Humph!" said the red-headed man, "they do say as he's wonderful quick wi' his 'mauleys,' an' can hit—like a sledgehammer."
"Quick wi' 'is 'ands 'e may be, an' able to give a goodish thump, but as for beatin' me—it's 'all me eye an' Betty Martin,' an' you can lay to that, my lads. I could put 'im to sleep any time an' anywhere, an' I'd like—ah! I'd like to see the chap as says contrairy!" And here the pugilist scowled round upon his hearers (more especially the red-headed man) so blackly that one or two of them shuffled uneasily, and the latter individual appeared to become interested in the lock of his pistol.
"I'd like," repeated Cragg, "ah! I'd like to see the cove as says contrairy."
"No one ain't a-goin' to, Tom," said the one-eyed man soothingly, "not a soul, Lord bless you!"
"I only wish they would," growled Cragg.
"Ain't there nobody to obleege the gentleman?" inquired the red-headed man.
"I'd fight any man as ever was born—wish I may die!" snorted Cragg.
"You always was so fiery, Tom!" purred the one-eyed man, blinking his pale orb.
"I were," cried the prizefighter, working himself into another rage, "ah! an' I'm proud of it. I'd fight any man as ever wore breeches—why, burn me! I'd give any man ten shillin' as could stand up to me for ten minutes."
"Ten shillings!" said I to myself, "ten shillings, when one comes to think of it, is a very handsome sum—more especially when one is penniless and destitute!"
"Wish I may die!" roared Cragg, smiting his fist down on the table again, "a guinea—a golden guinea to the man as could stand on 'is pins an' fight me for five minutes—an' as for Buck Vibart—curse 'im, I say as 'e won on a foul!"
"A guinea," said I to myself, "is a fortune!" And, setting down my empty tankard, I crossed the room and touched Cragg upon the shoulder.
"I will fight you," said I, "for a guinea."
Now, as the fellow's eyes met mine, he rose up out of his chair and his mouth opened slowly, but he spoke no word, backing from me until he was stayed by the table, where he stood, staring at me. And once again there fell a silence, in which I heard the tick of the clock in the corner and the crackle of the logs upon the hearth.
"You?" said he, recovering himself with an effort, "you?" and, as he spoke, I saw his left eyelid twitch suddenly.
"Exactly," I answered, "I think I can stand up to even you—for five minutes." Now, as I spoke, he winked at me again. That it was meant for me was certain, seeing that his back was towards the others, though what he intended to convey I could form no idea, so I assumed as confident an air as possible and waited. Hereupon the one-eyed man broke into a sudden raucous laugh, in which the others joined.
"'Ark to 'im, lads," he cried, pointing to me with the stern of his pipe, "'e be a fine un to stand up to Tom Cragg—I don't think."
"Tell 'un to go an' larn hisself to grow whiskers fust!" cried a second.
"Ay, to be sure, 'e aren't got so much as our old cat!" grinned a third.
"Stay!" cried the one-eyed man, peering up at me beneath his hand. "Is they whiskers a-peepin' at me over 'is cravat or do my eyes deceive me?" Which pleasantry, called forth another roar of laughter at my expense.
Now, very foolishly perhaps, this nonsense greatly exasperated me, for I was, at that time, painfully conscious of my bare lips and chin. It was, therefore, with an effort that I mastered my quickly rising temper, and once more addressed myself to Cragg.
"I am willing," said I, "to accept your conditions and fight you—for a guinea—or any other man here for that matter, except the humorous gentleman with the watery eye, who can name his own price." The fellow in question stared at me, glanced slowly round, and, sitting down, buried his face in his tankard.
"Come, Tom Cragg," said I, "a while ago you seemed very anxious for a man to fight; well—I'm your man," and with the words I stripped off my coat and laid it across a chairback.
This apparent willingness on my part was but a cloak for my real feelings, for I will not here disguise the fact that the prospect before me was anything but agreeable; indeed my heart was thumping in a most unpleasant manner, and my tongue and lips had become strangely parched and dry, as I fronted Cragg.
Truly, he looked dangerous enough, with his beetling brow, his great depth of chest, and massive shoulders; and the possibility of a black eye or so, and general pounding from the fellow's knotted fists, was daunting in the extreme. Still, the chance of earning a guinea, even under such conditions, was not to be lightly thrown away; therefore I folded my arms and waited with as much resolution as I could.
"Sir," said Cragg, speaking in a very altered tone, "sir, you seem oncommon—eager for it."
"I shall be glad to get it over," said I.
"If," he went on slowly, "if I said anything against—you know who, I'm sorry for it—me 'aving the greatest respec' for—you know who—you understand me, I think." And herewith he winked, three separate and distinct times.
"No, I don't understand you in the least," said I, "nor do I think it at all necessary; all that I care about is the guinea in question."
"Come, Tom," cried one of the company, "knock 'is 'ead off to begin with."
"Ay, set about 'm, Tom—cut your gab an' finish 'im," and here came the clatter of chairs as the company rose.
"Can't be done," said Cragg, shaking his head, "leastways—not 'ere."
"I'm not particular," said I, "if you prefer, we might manage it very well in the stable with a couple of lanthorns."
"The barn would be the very place," suggested the landlord, bustling eagerly forward and wiping his hands on his apron, "the very place—plenty of room and nice and soft to fall on. If you would only put off your fightin' till to-morrow, we might cry it through the villages; 'twould be a big draw. Ecod! we might make a purse o' twenty pound—if you only would! Think it over—think it over."
"To-morrow I hope to be a good distance from here," said I; "come, the sooner it is over the better, show us your barn." So the landlord called for lanthorns and led the way to a large outbuilding at the back of the inn, into which we all trooped.
"It seems to be a good place and very suitable," said I.
"You may well say that," returned the landlord; "it's many a fine bout as has been brought off in 'ere; the time Jem Belcher beat 'The Young Ruffian' the Prince o' Wales sat in a cheer over in that theer corner—ah, that was a day, if you please!"
"If Tom Cragg is ready," said I, turning up the wristbands of my shirt, "why, so am I." Here it was found to every one's surprise, and mine in particular, that Tom Cragg was not in the barn. Surprise gave place to noisy astonishment when, after much running to and fro, it was further learned that he had vanished altogether. The inn itself, the stables, and even the haylofts were ransacked without avail. Tom Cragg was gone as completely as though he had melted into thin air, and with him all my hopes of winning the guinea and a comfortable bed.
It was with all my old dejection upon me, therefore, that I returned to the tap-room, and, refusing the officious aid of the One-Eyed Man, put on my coat, readjusted my knapsack and crossed to the door. On the threshold I paused, and looked back.
"If," said I, glancing round the ring of faces, "if there is any man here who is at all willing to fight for a guinea, ten shillings, or even five, I should be very glad of the chance to earn it." But, seeing how each, wilfully avoiding my eye, held his peace, I sighed, and turning my back upon them, set off along the darkening road.
OF THE FURTHER PUZZLING BEHAVIOR OF TOM CRAGG, THE PUGILIST
Evening had fallen, and I walked along in no very happy frame of mind, the more so, as the rising wind and flying wrack of clouds above (through which a watery moon had peeped at fitful intervals) seemed to presage a wild night. It needed but this to make my misery the more complete, for, as far as I could tell, if I slept at all (and I was already very weary), it must, of necessity, be beneath some hedge or tree.
As I approached the brow of the hill, I suddenly remembered that I must once more pass the gibbet, and began to strain my eyes for it. Presently I spied it, sure enough, its grim, gaunt outline looming through the murk, and instinctively I quickened my stride so as to pass it as soon as might be.
I was almost abreast of it when a figure rose from beneath it and slouched into the road to meet me. I stopped there and then, and grasping my heavy staff waited its approach.
"Be that you, sir?" said a voice, and I recognized the voice of Tom Cragg.
"What are you doing—and there of all places?"
"Oh—I ain't afeared of 'im," answered Cragg, jerking his thumb towards the gibbet, "I ain't afeard o' none as ever drawed breath—dead or livin'—except it be 'is 'Ighness the Prince Regent."
"And what do you want with me?"
"I 'opes as theer's no offence, my lord," said he, knuckling his forehead, and speaking in a tone that was a strange mixture of would-be comradeship and cringing servility. "Cragg is my name, an' craggy's my natur', but I know when I'm beat. I knowed ye as soon as I laid my 'peepers' on ye, an' if I said as it were a foul, why, when a man's in 'is cups, d'ye see, 'e's apt to shoot rayther wide o' the gospel, d'ye see, an' there was no offence, my lord, strike me blind! I know you, an' you know me—Tom Cragg by name an' craggy by—"
"But I don't know you," said I, "and, for that matter, neither do you know me."
"W'y, you ain't got no whiskers, my lord—leastways, not with you now, but—"
"And what the devil has that got to do with it?" said I angrily.
"Disguises, p'raps!" said the fellow, with a sly leer, "arter that theer kidnappin'—an' me 'avin' laid out Sir Jarsper Trent, in Wych Street, accordin' to your orders, my lord, the Prince give me word to 'clear out'—cut an' run for it, till it blow'd over; an' I thought, p'raps, knowin' as you an' 'im 'ad 'ad words, I thought as you 'ad 'cut stick' too—"
"And I think—that you are manifestly drunk," said I, "if you still wish to fight, for any sum—no matter how small—put up your hands; if not, get out of my road." The craggy one stepped aside, somewhat hastily, which done, he removed his hat and stood staring and scratching his bullet-head as one in sore perplexity.
"I seen a many rum goes in my time," said he, "but I never see so rummy a go as this 'ere—strike me dead!"
So I left him, and strode on down the hill. As I went, the moon shot out a feeble ray, through some rift in the rolling clouds, and, looking back, I saw him standing where I had left him beneath the gibbet, still scratching his bullethead, and staring after me down the hill.
Now, though the whole attitude and behavior of the fellow was puzzling to no small degree, my mind was too full of my own concerns to give much thought to him indeed, scarce was he out of my sight but I forgot him altogether; for, what with my weariness, the long, dark road before and behind me, and my empty pockets, I became a prey to great dejection. So much so that I presently sank wearily beside the way, and, resting my chin in my hands, sat there, miserably enough, watching the night deepen about me.
"And yet," said I to myself, "if, as Epictetus says—'to despise a thing is to possess it,' then am I rich, for I have always despised money; and if, weary as I am, I can manage to condemn the luxury of a feather bed, then tonight, lying in this grassy ditch beneath the stars, I shall slumber as sweetly as ever I did between the snowy sheets." Saying which, I rose and began to look about for some likely nook in the hedge, where I might pass the night. I was thus engaged when I heard the creak of wheels, and the pleasant rhythmic jingle of harness on the dark hill above, and, in a little while, a great wagon or wain, piled high with hay, hove into view, the driver of which rolled loosely in his seat with every jolt of the wheels, so that it was a wonder he did not roll off altogether. As he came level with me I hailed him loudly, whereupon he started erect and brought his horses to a stand:
"Hulloa!" he bellowed, in the loud, strident tone of one rudely awakened, "w'at do 'ee want wi' I?"
"A lift," I answered, "will you give a tired fellow a lift on his way?"
"W'y—I dunno—be you a talkin' chap?"
"I don't think so," said I.
"Because, if you be a talkin' chap, I beant a-goin' to give 'ee a lift, no'ow—not if I knows it; give a chap a lift, t' other day, I did—took 'im up t' other side o' Sevenoaks, an' 'e talked me up 'ill an' down 'ill, 'e did—dang me! if I could get a wink o' sleep all the way to Tonbridge; so if you 'm a talkin' chap, you don't get no lift wi' I."
"I am generally a very silent chap," said I; "besides, I am too tired and sleepy to talk, even if I wished—"
"Sleepy," yawned the man, "then up you get, my chap—I'm sleepy too—I allus am, Lord love ye! theer's nowt like sleep—up wi' you, my chap." Forthwith, up I clambered and, laying myself down among the fragrant hay, stretched out my tired limbs, and sighed. Never shall I forget the delicious sense of restfulness that stole over me as I lay there upon my back, listening to the creak of the wheels, the deliberate hoof-strokes of the horses, muffled in the thick dust of the road, and the gentle snore of the driver who had promptly fallen asleep again. On we went as in borne on air, so soft was my bed, now beneath the far-flung branches of trees, sometimes so low that I could have touched them with my hand, now, beneath a sky heavy with sombre masses of flying cloud or bright with the soft radience of the moon. On I went, careless alike of destination, of time, and of future, content to lie there upon the hay, and rest. And so, lulled by the gentle movement, by the sound of wheels and harness, and the whisper of the soft wind about me, I presently fell into a most blessed sleep.
WHICH CONCERNS ITSELF WITH A FARMER'S WHISKERS AND A WAISTCOAT
How long I slept I have no idea, but when I opened my eyes it was to find the moon shining down on me from a cloudless heaven; the wind also had died away; it seemed my early fears of a wild night were not to be fulfilled, and for this I was sufficiently grateful. Now as I lay, blinking up to the moon, I presently noticed that we had come to a standstill and I listened expectantly for the jingle of harness and creak of the wheels to recommence. "Strange!" said I to myself, after having waited vainly some little time, and wondering what could cause the delay, I sat up and looked about me. The first object my eyes encountered was a haystack and, beyond that, another, with, a little to one side, a row of barns, and again beyond these, a great, rambling farmhouse. Evidently the wain had reached its destination, wherever that might be, and the sleepy wagoner, forgetful of my presence, had tumbled off to bed. The which I thought so excellent an example that I lay down again, and, drawing the loose hay over me, closed my eyes, and once more fell asleep.
My second awakening was gradual. I at first became conscious of a sound, rising and falling with a certain monotonous regularity, that my drowsy ears could make nothing of. Little by little, however, the sound developed itself into a somewhat mournful melody or refrain, chanted by a not unmusical voice. I yawned and, having stretched myself, sat up to look and listen. And the words of the song were these:
"When a man, who muffins cries, Cries not, when his father dies, 'Tis a proof that he would rather Have a muffin than his father."
The singer was a tall, strapping fellow with a good-tempered face, whose ruddy health was set off by a handsome pair of black whiskers. As I watched him, he laid aside the pitchfork he had been using, and approached the wagon, but, chancing to look up, his eye met mine, and he stopped:
"Hulloa!" he exclaimed, breaking short off in the middle of a note, "hulloa!"
"Hallo!" said I.
"W'at be doin' up theer?"
"I was thinking," I returned, "that, under certain circumstances, I, for one, could not blame the individual, mentioned in your song, for his passionate attachment to muffins. At this precise moment a muffin—or, say, five or six, would be highly acceptable, personally."
"Be you partial to muffins, then?"
"Yes, indeed," said I, "more especially seeing I have not broken my fast since midday yesterday."
"Well, an' w'at be doin' in my hay?"
"I have been asleep," said I.
"Well, an' what business 'ave ye got a-sleepin' an' a-snorin' in my hay?"
"I was tired," said I, "and 'Nature her custom holds, let shame say what it will,' still—I do not think I snored."
"'Ow do I know that—or you, for that matter?" rejoined the farmer, stroking his glossy whiskers, "hows'ever, if you be quite awake, come on down out o' my hay." As he said this he eyed me with rather a truculent air, likewise he clenched his fist. Thinking it wisest to appear unconscious of this, I nodded affably, and letting myself down from the hay, was next moment standing beside him.
"Supposin' I was to thump 'ee on the nose?" he inquired.
"For makin' so free wi' my hay."
"Why then," said I, "I should earnestly endeavor to thump you on yours."
The farmer looked me slowly over from head to foot, with a dawning surprise.
"Thought you was a common tramper, I did," said he.
"Why, so I am," I answered, brushing the clinging hay from me.
"Trampers o' the road don't wear gentlemen's clothes—leastways, I never see one as did." Here his eyes wandered over me again, from my boots upward. Half-way up, they stopped, evidently arrested by my waistcoat, a flowered satin of the very latest cut, for which I had paid forty shillings in the Haymarket, scarcely a week before; and, as I looked down at it, I would joyfully have given it, and every waistcoat that was ever cut, to have had that forty shillings safe back in my pocket again.
"That be a mighty fine weskit, sir!"
"Do you think so?" said I.
"Ah, that I do—w'at might be the cost of a weskit the like o' that, now?"
"I paid forty shillings for it, in the Haymarket, in London, scarcely a week ago," I answered. The fellow very slowly closed one eye at the same time striking his nose three successive raps with his forefinger:
"Gammon!" said he.
"None the less, it's true," said I.
"Any man as would give forty shillin' for a garment as is no mortal good agen the cold—not reachin' fur enough, even if it do be silk, an' all worked wi' little flowers—is a dommed fool!—"
"Assuredly!" said I, with a nod.
"Howsomever," he continued, "it's a handsome weskit, there's no denyin', an' well worth a woman's lookin' at—a proper man inside of it."
"Not a doubt of it," said I.
"I mean," said he, scratching his ear, and staring hard at the handle of the pitchfork, "a chap wi' a fine pair o' whiskers, say."
"Hum!" said I.
"Now, woman," he went on, shifting his gaze to the top button of his left gaiter, "woman is uncommon fond o' a good pair o' whiskers—leastways, so I've heerd."
"Indeed," said I, "few women can look upon such things unmoved, I believe, and nothing can set off a pair of fine, black whiskers better than a flowered satin waistcoat."
"That's so!" nodded the farmer.
"But, unfortunately," said I, passing my hand over my smooth lips and chin, "I have no whiskers."
"No," returned the farmer, with a thoughtful shake of the head, "leastways, none as I can observe."
"Now, you have," said I.
"So they do tell me," he answered modestly.
"And the natural inference is that you ought to have a flowered waistcoat to go with them."
"Why, that's true, to be sure!" he nodded.
"The price of this one is—fifteen shillings," said I.
"That's a lot o' money, master," said he, shaking his head.
"It's a great deal less than forty," said I.
"An' ten is less than fifteen, an' ten shillin' is my price; what d'ye say—come now."
"You drive a hard bargain," said I, "but the waistcoat is yours at your own price." So saying, I slipped off knapsack and coat, and removing the garment in question, having first felt through the pockets, handed it to him, whereupon he slowly counted the ten shillings into my hand; which done, he sat down upon the shaft of a cart near by, and, spreading out the waistcoat on his knees, looked it over with glistening eyes.
"Forty shillin' you paid for 'un, up to Lunnon," said he, "forty shillin' it were, I think?"
"Forty shillings!" said I.
"Ecod, it's a sight o' money! But it's a grand weskit—ah, that it is!"
"So you believe me now, do you?" said I, pocketing the ten shillings.
"Well," he answered slowly, "I won't go so fur as that, but 'tis a mighty fine weskit theer's no denyin', an' must ha' cost a sight o' money—a powerful sight!" I picked up my knapsack and, slipping it on, took my staff, and turned to depart. "Theer's a mug o' homebrewed, an' a slice o' fine roast beef up at th' 'ouse, if you should be so inclined—"
"Why, as to that," said I, over my shoulder, "I neither eat nor drink with a man who doubts my word."
"Meanin' those forty shillin'?"
"Well," said he, twisting his whisker with a thoughtful air, "if you could manage to mak' it twenty—or even twenty-five, I might mak' some shift to believe it—though 'twould be a strain, but forty!—no, damme, I can't swaller that!"
"Then, neither can I swallow your beef and ale," said I. "Wheer be goin'?" he inquired, rising, and following as I made for the gate.
"To the end of the road," I answered.
"Then you be goin' pretty fur—that theer road leads to the sea."
"Why, then I'm going to the sea," said I.
"What to do?"
"I haven't the ghost of an idea," I returned.
"Can you work?"
"Yes," said I.
"Can ye thatch a rick?"
"No," said I.
"Shear a sheep?"
"No," said I.
"Guide a plough?"
"No," said I.
"Shoe a 'oss?"
"No," said I.
"Then ye can't work—Lord love me, wheer 'ave 'e been?"
"At a university," said I.
"At a place warranted to turn one out a highly educated incompetent," I explained.
"Why, I don't hold wi' eddication nor book-larnin', myself, master. Here I be wi' a good farm, an' money in the bank, an' can't write my own name," said the farmer.
"And here am I, a 'first' in 'Litterae Humaniores,' selling my waistcoat that I may eat," said I. Being come to the gate of the yard, I paused. "There is one favor you might grant me," said I.
"As what, master?"
"Five minutes under the pump yonder, and a clean towel." The farmer nodded, and crossing to one of the outhouses, presently returned with a towel. And, resting the towel upon the pump-head, he seized the handle, and sent a jet of clear, cool water over my head, and face, and hands.
"You've got a tidy, sizeable arm," said he, as I dried myself vigorously, "likewise a good strong back an' shoulders; theer's the makin's of a man in you as might do summat—say in the plough or smithin' way, but it's easy to see as you're a gentleman, more's the pity, an' won't. Hows'ever, sir, if you've a mind to a cut o' good beef, an' a mug o' fine ale—say the word."
"First," said I, "do you believe it was forty shillings yes or no?"
The farmer twisted his whisker, and stared very hard at the spout of the pump.
"Tell 'ee what," said he at length, "mak' it thirty, an' I give ye my Bible oath to do the best wi' it I can."
"Then I must needs seek my breakfast at the nearest inn," said I.
"An' that is the 'Old Cock,' a mile an' a half nearer Tonbridge."
"Then the sooner I start the better," said I, "for I'm mightily sharp set."
"Why, as to that," said he, busy with his whisker again, "I might stretch a pint or two an' call it—thirty-five, at a pinch—what d'ye say?"
"Why, I say 'good morning,' and many of them!" And, opening the gate, I started off down the road at a brisk pace. Now, as I went, it began to rain.
IN WHICH I STUMBLE UPON AN AFFAIR OF HONOR.
There are times (as I suppose) when the most aesthetic of souls will forget the snow of lilies, and the down of a butterfly's wing, to revel in the grosser joys of, say, a beefsteak. One cannot rhapsodize upon the beauties of a sunset, or contemplate the pale witchery of the moon with any real degree of poetic fervor, or any degree of comfort, while hunger gnaws at one's vitals, for comfort is essential to your aesthete, and, after all, soul goes hand in hand with stomach.
Thus, I swung along the road beneath the swaying green of trees, past the fragrant, blooming hedges, paying small heed to the beauties of wooded hill and grassy dale, my eyes constantly searching the road before me for some sign of the "Old Cock" tavern. And presently, sure enough, I espied it, an ugly, flat-fronted building, before which stood a dilapidated horse trough and a battered sign. Despite its uninviting exterior, I hurried forward, and mounting the three worn steps pushed open the door. I now found myself in a room of somewhat uninviting aspect, though upon the hearth a smouldering fire was being kicked into a blaze by a sulky-faced fellow, to whom I addressed myself:
"Can I have some breakfast here?" said I.
"Why, it's all according, master," he answered, in a surly tone.
"According to what?" said I.
"According to what you want, master."
"Why, as to that—" I began.
"Because," he went on, administering a particularly vicious kick to the fire, "if you was to ask me for a French hortolon—or even the 'ump of a cam-el—being a very truthful man, I should say—no."
"But I want no such things," said I.
"And 'ow am I to know that—'ow am I to know as you ain't set your 'eart on the 'ump of a cam-el?"
"I tell you I want nothing of the sort," said I, "a chop would do—"
"Chop!" sighed the man, scowling threateningly at the fire, "chop!"
"Or steak," I hastened to add.
"Now it's a steak!" said the man, shaking his head ruefully, and turning upon me a doleful eye, "a steak!" he repeated; "of course—it would be; I s'pose you'd turn up your nose at 'am and eggs—it's only to be expected."
"On the contrary," said I, "ham and eggs will suit me very well; why couldn't you have mentioned them before?"
"Why, you never axed me as I remember," growled the fellow.
Slipping my knapsack from my shoulders, I sat down at a small table in a corner while the man, with a final kick at the fire, went to give my order. In a few minutes he reappeared with some billets of wood beneath his arm, and followed by a merry-eyed, rosy-cheeked lass, who proceeded, very deftly, to lay a snowy cloth and thereupon in due season, a dish of savory ham and golden-yolked eggs.
"It's a lovely morning!" said I, lifting my eyes to her comely face.
"It is indeed, sir," said she, setting down the cruet with a turn of her slender wrist.
"Which I make so bold as to deny," said the surly man, dropping the wood on the hearth with a prodigious clatter, "'ow can any morning be lovely when there ain't no love in it—no, not so much as would fill a thimble? I say it ain't a lovely morning, not by no manner o' means, and what I says I ain't ashamed on, being a nat'rally truthful man!" With which words he sighed, kicked the fire again, and stumped out.
"Our friend would seem somewhat gloomy this morning," said I.
"He've been that way a fortnight now, come Satu'day," replied the slim lass, nodding.
"Oh?" said I.
"Yes," she continued, checking a smile, and sighing instead; "it's very sad, he've been crossed in love you see, sir."
"Poor fellow!" said I, "can't you try to console him?"
"Me, sir—oh no!"
"And why not? I should think you might console a man for a great deal."
"Why, you see, sir," said she, blushing and dimpling very prettily, "it do so happen as I'm the one as crossed him."
"Ah!—I understand," said I.
"I'm to be married to a farmer—down the road yonder; leastways, I haven't quite made up my mind yet."
"A fine, tall fellow?" I inquired.
"Yes—do 'ee know him, sir?"
"With a handsome pair of black whiskers?" said I.
"The very same, sir, and they do be handsome whiskers, though I do say it."
"The finest I ever saw. I wish you every happiness," said I.
"Thankee sir, I'm sure," said she, and, dimpling more prettily than ever, she tripped away, and left me to my repast.
And when I had assuaged my hunger, I took out the pipe of Adam, the groom, the pipe shaped like a negro's head, and, calling for a paper of tobacco, I filled and lighted the pipe, and sat staring dreamily out of the window.
Happy is that man who, by reason of an abundant fortune, knows not the meaning of the word hunger; but thrice happy is he who, when the hand of famine pinches, may stay his craving with such a meal as this of mine. Never before, and never since have I tasted just such eggs, and such ham—so tender! so delicate! so full of flavor! It is a memory that can never fade. Indeed, sometimes (even now), when I grow hungry, (about dinner-time) I see once more the surly-faced man, the rosy-cheeked waiting-maid, and the gloomy chamber of the "Old Cock" tavern as I saw them upon that early May morning of the year of grace 18—.
So I sat, with a contented mind, smoking my pipe, and staring out at the falling summer rain. And presently, chancing to turn my eyes up the road, I beheld a chaise that galloped in a smother of mud. As I watched its rapid approach, the postilion swung his horses towards the inn, and a moment later had pulled up before the door. They had evidently travelled fast and far, for the chaise was covered with dirt; and the poor horses, in a lather of foam, hung their heads, while their flanks heaved distressfully.
The chaise door was now thrown open, and three gentlemen alighted. The first was a short, plethoric individual, bull-necked and loud of voice, for I could hear him roundly cursing the post-boy for some fault; the second was a tall, languid gentleman, who carried a flat, oblong box beneath one arm, and who paused to fondle his whisker, and look up at the inn with an exaggerated air of disgust; while the third stood mutely by, his hands thrust into the pockets of his greatcoat, and stared straight before him.
The three of them entered the room together, and, while the languid gentleman paused to survey himself in the small, cracked mirror that hung against the wall, the plethoric individual bustled to the fire, and, loosening his coats and neckerchief, spread out his hands to the blaze.
"A good half-hour before our time," said he, glancing towards the third gentleman, who stood looking out of the window with his hands still deep in his pockets; "we did the last ten miles well under the hour—come, what do you say to a glass of brandy?"
At this, his languid companion turned from the mirror, and I noticed that he, too, glanced at the silent figure by the window.
"By all means," said he, "though Sir Jasper would hardly seem in a drinking humor," and, with the very slightest shrug of the shoulders, he turned back to the mirror again.
"No, Mr. Chester, I am not—in a drinking humor," answered Sir Jasper, without turning round, or taking his eyes from the window.
"Sir Jasper?" said I to myself, "now where, and in what connection, have I heard such a name before?"
He was of a slight build, and seemingly younger than either of his companions by some years, but what struck me particularly about him was the extreme pallor of his face. I noticed also a peculiar habit he had of moistening his lips at frequent intervals with the tip of his tongue, and there was, besides, something in the way he stared at the trees, the wet road, and the gray sky—a strange wide-eyed intensity—that drew and held my attention.
"Devilish weather—devilish, on my life and soul!" exclaimed the short, red-faced man, in a loud, peevish tone, tugging viciously at the bell-rope, "hot one day, cold the next, now sun, now rain— Oh, damn it! Now in France—ah, what a climate—heavenly —positively divine; say what you will of a Frenchman, damn him by all means, but the climate, the country, and the women—who would not worship 'em?"
"Exactly!" said the languid gentleman, examining a pimple upon his chin with a high degree of interest, "always 'dored a Frenchwoman myself; they're so—so ah—so deuced French, though mark you, Selby," he broke off, as the rosy-cheeked maid appeared with the brandy and glasses," though mark you, there's much to be said for your English country wenches, after all," saying which, he slipped his arm about the girl's round waist. There was the sound of a kiss, a muffled shriek, and she had run from the room, slamming the door behind her, whereupon the languid gentleman went back to his pimple.
"Oh! as to that, Chester, I quarrel only with the climate. God made England, and the devil sends the weather!"
"Selby," said Sir Jasper, in the same repressed tone that he had used before and still without taking his eyes from the gray prospect of sky and tree and winding road, "there is no fairer land, in all the world, than this England of ours; it were a good thing to die—for England, but that is a happiness reserved for comparatively few." And, with the words, he sighed, a strange, fluttering sigh, and thrust his hands deeper into his pockets.
"Die!" repeated the man Selby, in a loud, boisterous way. "Who talks of death?"
"Deuced unpleasant subject!" said the other, with a shrug at the cracked mirror. "Something so infernally cold and clammy about it—like the weather."
"And yet it will be a glorious day later. The clouds are thinning already," Sir Jasper went on; "strange, but I never realized, until this morning, how green—and wonderful—everything is!"
The languid Mr. Chester forgot the mirror, and turned to stare at Sir Jasper's back, with raised brows, while the man Selby shook his head, and smiled unpleasantly. As he did so, his eye encountered me, where I sat, quietly in my corner, smoking my negro-head pipe, and his thick brows twitched sharply together in a frown.
"In an hour's time, gentlemen," pursued Sir Jasper, "we shall write 'finis' to a more or less interesting incident, and I beg of you, in that hour, to remember my prophecy—that it would be a glorious day, later."
Mr. Chester filled a glass, and crossing to the speaker, tendered it to him without a word; as for Selby, he stood stolidly enough, his hands thrust truculently beneath his coat-tails, frowning at me.
"Come," said Mr. Chester persuasively, "Just a bracer!" Sir Jasper shook his head, but next moment reached out a white, unsteady hand, and raised the brandy to his lips; yet as he drank, I saw the spirit slop over, and trickle from his chin.
"Thanks, Chester," said he, returning the empty glass; "is it time we started yet?"
"It's just half-past seven," answered Mr. Chester, consulting his watch, "and I'm rather hazy as to the exact place."
"Deepdene Wood," said Sir Jasper dreamily.
"You know the place?"
"Then we may as well start, if you are ready?"
"Yes, it will be cool and fresh, outside."
"Settle the bill, Selby, we'll walk on slowly," said Mr. Chester, and, with a last glance at the mirror, he slipped his arm within Sir Jasper's, and they went out together.
Mr. Selby meanwhile rang for the bill, frowning at me all the time.
"What the devil are you staring at?" he demanded suddenly, in a loud, bullying tone.
"If you are pleased to refer to me, sir," said I, "I would say that my eyes were given for use, and that having used them upon you, I have long since arrived at the conclusion that I don't like you."
"Ah?" said he, frowning fiercer than ever.
"Yes," said I, "though whether it is your person, your manner, or your voice that displeases me most, I am unable to say."
"An impertinent young jackanapes!" said he; "damnation, I think I'll pull your nose!"
"Why, you may try, and welcome, sir," said I; "though I should advise you not, for should you make the attempt I should be compelled to throw you out of the window."