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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter34)

2006-08-28 22:47

  Book One Chapter XXXIV. Which Describes Sundry Happenings at the Fair, and Ends This First Book

  "I say, young cove, where are you a-pushing of?"

  The speaker was a very tall individual whose sharp-pointed elbow had, more than once, obtruded itself into my ribs. He was extremely thin and bony, with a long, drooping nose set very much to one side, and was possessed of a remarkable pair of eyes——that is to say, one eyelid hung continually lower than the other, thus lending to his otherwise sinister face an air of droll and unexpected waggery that was quite startling to behold.

  All about us were jostling throngs of men and women in snowy smock frocks, and holiday gowns, who pushed, or were pushed, laughed, or frowned, according to their several natures; while above the merry hubbub rose the blare of trumpets, the braying of horns, and the crash, and rattle of drums——in a word, I was in the middle of an English Country Fair.

  "Now then, young cove," repeated the man I have alluded to, "where are you a-pushing of? Don't do it again, or mind your eye!" And, saying this, he glared balefully at me with one eye and leered jocosely with the other, and into my ribs came his elbow again.

  "You seem to be able to do something in that way yourself," I retorted.

  "Oh——do I?"

  "Yes," said I; "suppose you take your elbow out of my waistcoat."

  "'Elber,'" repeated the man, "what d'ye mean by 'elber'?"

  "This," said I, catching his arm in no very gentle grip.

  "If it's a fight you're wantin'——" began the man.

  "It isn't!" said I.

  "Then leggo my arm!"

  "Then keep your elbow to yourself."

  "'Cod! I never see such a hot-headed cove!"

  "Nor I a more bad-tempered one."

  This altercation had taken place as we swayed to and fro in the crowd, from which we now slowly won free, owing chiefly to the dexterous use of the man's bony elbows, until we presently found ourselves in a veritable jungle of carts and wagons of all kinds and sorts, where we stopped, facing each other.

  "I'm inclined to think, young cove, as you'd be short-tempered if you been shied at by your feller-man from your youth up," said the man.

  "What do you mean by 'shied at'?"

  "What I sez!——some perfessions is easy, and some is 'ard——like mine."

  "And what is yours?"

  "I'm a perfessional Sambo."

  "A what?"

  "Well——a 'Nigger-head' then,——blacks my face——sticks my 'ead through a 'ole, and lets 'em shy at me——three shies a penny——them as 'its me gets a cigar——a big 'un——them as don't——don't!"

  "Yours is a very unpleasant profession," said I.

  "A man must live!"

  "But," said I, "supposing you get hit?"

  "Them as 'its me gets a cigar!"

  "Doesn't it hurt you?"

  "Oh! you gets used to it——though, to be sure, they don't 'it me very often, or it would be a loss; cigars is expensive——leastways they costs money."

  "But surely a wooden image would serve your turn just as well."

  "A wooden image!" exclaimed the man disgustedly. "James!——you must be a fool, you must! Who wants to throw at a wooden image ——you can't 'urt a wooden image, can you——if you throwed 'eavens 'ard at a wooden image that there wooden image wouldn't flinch, would it? When a man throws at anything 'e likes to 'it it ——that's 'uman——and when 'e 'its it 'e likes to see it flinch ——that's 'uman too, and when it flinches, why——'e rubs 'is 'ands, and takes another shot——and that's the 'umanest of all. So you see, young cove, you're a fool with your wooden image."

  Now, as he ended, I stooped, very suddenly, and caught hold of his wrist——and then I saw that he held my purse in his hand. It was a large hand with bony knuckles, and very long fingers, upon one of which was a battered ring. He attempted, at first, to free himself of my grip, but, finding this useless, stood glowering at me with one eye and leering with the other.

  "Ha!" said I.

  "Hallo!" said he.

  "A purse!" said I.

  "Why, so it is," he nodded; leastways, it looks uncommonly like one, don't it?"

  "What's more, it looks like mine!"

  "Does it?"

  "I could swear to it anywhere."

  "Could you?"

  "I could."

  "Then p'r'aps you'd better take it, young cove, and very welcome, I'm sure."

  "So you've been picking my pocket!" said I.

  "Never picked a pocket in my life——should scorn to."

  I put away my recovered property, and straightway shifted my grip to the fellow's collar.

  "Now," said I, "come on."

  "Why, what are you a-doing of?"

  "What does one generally do with a pickpocket?"

  But I had hardly uttered the words when, with a sudden cunning twist, he broke my hold, and, my foot catching in a guy-rope, I tripped, and fell heavily, and ere I could rise he had made good his escape. I got to my feet, somewhat shaken by the fall, yet congratulating myself on the recovery of my purse, and, threading my way among the tents, was soon back among the crowd. Here were circuses and shows of all kinds, where one might behold divers strange beasts, the usual Fat Women and Skeleton Men (who ever heard of the order being reversed?); and before the shows were fellows variously attired, but each being purplish of visage, and each possessing the lungs of a Stentor——more especially one, a round-bellied, bottle-nosed fellow in a white hat, who alternately roared and beat upon a drum——a red-haired man he was, with a fiery eye, which eye, chancing to single me out in the crowd, fixed itself pertinaciously upon me, thenceforth, so that he seemed to address himself exclusively to me, thus:

  "O my stars! [young man]." (Bang goes the drum.) "The wonderful wild, 'airy, and savage man from Bonhoola, as eats snakes alive, and dresses hisself in sheeny serpents! O my eye! step up! [young man]." (Bang!) "Likewise the ass-tonishin' and beautiful Lady Paulinolotti, as will swaller swords, sabres, bay'nets, also chewin' up glass, and bottles quicker than you can wink [young man]." (Bang!) "Not to mention Catamaplasus, the Fire Fiend, what burns hisself with red-hot irons, and likes it, drinks liquid fire with gusto——playfully spittin' forth the same, together with flame and sulphurous smoke, and all for sixpence [young man]." (Bang!) "O my stars! step up [young man] and all for a tanner." (Bang!)

  Presently, his eye being off me for the moment, I edged my way out of the throng and so came to where a man stood mounted upon a cart. Beside him was a fellow in a clown's habit who blew loudly three times upon a trumpet, which done, the man took off his hat and began to harangue the crowd, something in this wise:

  "I come before you, ladies and gentlemen, not for vulgar gain——or, as I might say——kudos, which is Eyetalian for the same——not to put my hands into your pockets and rifle 'em of your honestly earned money; no, I come before you for the good of each one of you, for the easing of suffering mankind——as I might say——the ha-melioration of stricken humanity. In a word, I am here to introduce to you what I call my Elixir Anthropos——Anthropos, ladies and gentlemen, is an old and very ancient Egyptian word meaning man——or woman, for that matter," etc.

  During this exordium I had noticed a venerable man in a fine blue surtout and a wide-brimmed hat, who sat upon the shaft of a cart and puffed slowly at a great pipe. And as he puffed, he listened intently to the quack-salver's address, and from time to time his eyes would twinkle and his lips curve in an ironic smile. The cart, upon the shaft of which he sat, stood close to a very small, dirty, and disreputable-looking tent, towards which the old gentleman's back was turned. Now, as I watched, I saw the point of a knife gleam through the dirty canvas, which, vanishing, gave place to a hand protruded through the slit thus made——a very large hand with bony knuckles, and long fingers, upon one of which was a battered ring. For an instant the hand hovered undecidedly, then darted forward——the long skirts of the old gentleman's coat hardly stirred, yet, even as I watched, I saw the hand vanish with a fat purse in its clutches.

  Skirting the tent, I came round to the opening, and stooping, peered cautiously inside. There, sure enough, was my pickpocket gazing intently into the open purse, and chuckling as he gazed. Then he slipped it into his pocket, and out he came——where I immediately pinned him by the neckerchief.

  And, after a while, finding he could not again break my hold, he lay still, beneath me, panting, and, as he lay, his one eye glared more balefully and his other leered more waggishly than ever, as I, thrusting my hand into his pocket, took thence the purse, and transferred it to my own.

  "Halves, mate!" he panted, "halves, and we'll cry 'quits.'"

  "By no means," said I, rising to my feet, but keeping my grip upon him.

  "Then what's your game?"

  "I intend to hand you over as a pickpocket."

  "That means 'Transportation'!" said he, wiping the blood from his face, for the struggle, though short, had been sharp enough.

  "Well?" said I.

  "It'll go 'ard with the babby."

  "Baby!" I exclaimed.

  "Ah!——or the hinfant, if you like it better——one as I found in a shawl, a-laying on the steps o' my van one night, sleeping like a alderman——and it were snowing too."

  "Yet you are a thief!"

  "We calls it 'faking.'"

  "And ought to be given up to the authorities."

  "And who's to look arter the babby?"

  "Are you married?"

  "No,"

  "Where is the baby?"

  "In my van."

  "And where is that?"

  "Yonder!" and he pointed to a gayly-painted caravan that stood near by. "'e's asleep now, but if you'd like to take a peep at 'im——"

  "I should," said I. Whereupon the fellow led me to his van, and, following him up the steps, I entered a place which, though confined, was wonderfully neat and clean, with curtains at the open windows, a rug upon the floor, and an ornamental; brass lamp pendent from the roof. At the far end was a bed, or rather, berth, curtained with chintz, and upon this bed, his chubby face pillowed upon a dimpled fist, lay a very small man indeed. And, looking up from him to the very large, bony man, bending over him, I surprised a look upon the hardened face——a tenderness that seemed very much out of place.

  "Nice and fat, ain't 'e?" said the man, touching the baby's applelike cheek with a grimy finger.

  "Yes."

  "Ah——and so 'e should be, James! But 'you should see 'im eat, a alderman's nothing to Lewis——I calls 'im Lewis, for 'twere at Lewisham I found 'im, on a Christmas Eve——snowing it was, but, by James! it didn't bother 'im——not a bit."

  "And why did you keep him?——there was the parish."

  "Parish!" repeated the man bitterly. "I were brought up by the parish myself——and a nice job they made o' me!"

  "Don't you find him a great trouble?"

  "Trouble!" exclaimed the man. "Lewis ain't no trouble——not a bit——never was, and he's great company when I'm on the move from one town to another larning to talk a'ready."

  "Now," said I, when we had descended from the van, "I propose to return this purse to the owner, if he is to be found; if not, I shall hand it to the proper authorities."

  "Walker!" exclaimed the man.

  "You shall yourself witness the restitution," said I, unheeding his remark, "after which——"

  "Well!" said he, glancing back toward his caravan, and moistening his lips as I tightened my grip upon his arm, "what about me?"

  "You can go——for Lewis's sake——if you will give me your word to live honestly henceforth."

  "You have it, sir——I swear it——on the Bible if you like."

  "Then let us seek the owner of this purse." So, coming in a while to where the quack doctor was still holding forth——there, yet seated upon the shaft of the cart, puffing at his great pipe, was the venerable man. At sight of him the pickpocket stopped and caught my arm.

  "Come, master," said he, "come, you never mean to give up all that good money——there's fifty guineas, and more, in that purse!"

  "All the more reason to return it," said I.

  "No, don't——don't go a-wasting good money like that——it's like throwing it away!" But shaking off the fellow's importunate hand, I approached, and saluted the venerable man.

  "Sir," said I, "you have had your pocket picked."

  He turned and regarded me with a pair of deep-set, very bright eyes, and blew a whiff of smoke slowly into the air.

  "Sir," he replied, "I found that out five minutes ago."

  "The fact seems to trouble you very little," said I.

  "There, sir, being young, and judging exteriorly, you are wrong. There is recounted somewhere in the classics an altogether incredible story of a Spartan youth and a fox: the boy, with the animal hid beneath his cloak, preserved an unruffled demeanor despite the animal's tearing teeth, until he fell down and died. In the same way, young sir, no man can lose fifty-odd guineas from his pocket and remain unaffected by the loss."

  "Then, sir," said I, "I am happy to be able to return your purse to you." He took it, opened it, glanced over its contents, looked at me, took out two guineas, looked at me again, put the money back, closed the purse, and, dropping it into his pocket, bowed his acknowledgment. Having done which, he made room for me to sit beside him.

  "Sir," said he, chuckling, "hark to that lovely rascal in the cart, yonder——hark to him; Galen was an ass and Hippocrates a dunce beside this fellow——hark to him."

  "There's nothing like pills!" the Quack-salver was saying at the top of his voice; "place one upon the tip o' the tongue——in this fashion——take a drink o' water, beer, or wine, as the case may be, give a couple o' swallers, and there you are. Oh, there's nothing in the world like pills, and there's nothing like my Elixir Anthropos for coughs, colds, and the rheumatics, for sore throats, sore eyes, sore backs——good for the croup, measles, and chicken-pox——a certain cure for dropsy, scurvy, and the king's evil; there's no disease or ailment, discovered or invented, as my pills won't soothe, heal, ha-meliorate, and charm away, and all I charge is one shilling a box. Hand 'em round, Jonas." Whereupon the fellow in the clown's dress, stepping down from the cart, began handing out the boxes of pills and taking in the shillings as fast as he conveniently could.

  "A thriving trade!" said my venerable companion; "it always has been, and always will, for Humanity is a many-headed fool, and loves to be 'bamboozled.' These honest folk are probably paying for bread pellets compounded with a little soap, yet will go home, swallow them in all good faith, and think themselves a great deal better for them."

  "And therefore," said I, "probably derive as much benefit from them as from any drug yet discovered."

  "Young man," said my companion, giving me a sharp glance, "what do you mean?"

  "Plainly, sir, that a man who believes himself cured of a disease is surely on the high road to recovery."

  "But a belief in the efficacy of that rascal's bread pellets cannot make them anything but bread pellets."

  "No," said I, "but it may effect great things with the disease."

  "Young man, don't tell me that you are a believer in Faith Healing, and such-like tomfoolery; disease is a great and terrible reality, and must be met and overcome by a real means."

  "On the contrary, sir, may it not be rather the outcome of a preconceived idea——of a belief that has been held universally for many ages and generations of men? I do not deny disease——who could? but suffering and disease have been looked upon from the earliest days as punishments wrought out upon a man for his sins. Now, may not the haunting fear of this retributive justice be greatly responsible for suffering and disease of all kinds, since the mind unquestionably reacts upon the body?"

  "Probably, sir, probably, but since disease is with us, how would you propose to remedy it?"

  "By disbelieving in it; by regarding it as something abnormal and utterly foreign to the divine order of things."

  "Pooh!" exclaimed my venerable companion. "Bah!——quite, quite impracticable!"

  "They say the same of 'The Sermon on the Mount,' sir," I retorted.

  "Can a man, wasting away in a decline, discredit the fact that he is dying with every breath he draws?"

  "Had you, or I, or any man, the Christ-power to teach him a disbelief in his sickness, then would he be hale and well. The Great Physician healed all diseases thus, without the aid of drugs, seeking only to implant in the mind of each sufferer the knowledge that he was whole and sound——that is to say, a total disbelief in his malady. How many times do we read the words: 'Thy faith hath made thee whole'? All He demanded of them was faith——or, as I say, a disbelief in their disease."

  "Then the cures of Christ were not miracles?"

  "No more so than any great and noble work is a miracle."

  "And do you," inquired my companion, removing his pipe from his lips, and staring at me very hard, "do you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God?"

  "Yes," said I, "in the same way that you and I are, and the Quack-salver yonder."

  "But was He divine?"

  "Surely a mighty thinker——a great teacher whose hand points the higher way, whose words inspire Humanity to nobler ends and aims, is, of necessity, divine."

  "You are a very bold young man, and talk, I think, a little wildly."

  "Heterodoxy has been styled so before, sir."

  "And a very young, young man."

  "That, sir, will be amended by time." Here, puffing at his pipe, and finding it gone out, he looked at me in surprise.

  "Remarkable!" said he.

  "What is, sir?"

  "While I listened to you I have actually let my pipe go out——a thing which rarely happens with me." As he spoke he thrust one hand into his pocket, when he glance slowly all round, and back once more to me. "Remarkable!" said he again.

  "What now, sir?"

  "My purse has gone again!"

  "What!——gone!" I ejaculated.

  "Vanished!" said he, and, to prove his words, turned inside out first one pocket and then the other.

  "Come with me," said I, springing up, "there is yet a chance that we may possibly recover it." Forthwith I led him to where had stood a certain gayly-painted caravan, but it was gone——vanished as utterly as my companion's purse.

  "Most annoying!" said he, shaking his venerable head, "really most exasperating——I particularly wished to secure a sample of that fellow's pills——the collection of quack remedies is a fad of mine——as it is——"

  "My purse is entirely at your disposal, sir," said I, "though, to be sure, a very——" But there I stopped, staring, in my turn, blankly at him.

  "Ha?" he exclaimed, his eyes twinkling.

  "Yes," I nodded, "the rascal made off with my purse also; we are companions in misfortune."

  "Then as such, young sir, come and dine with me, my habitation is but a little way off."

  "Thank you, sir, but I am half expecting to meet with certain good friends of mine, though I am none the less honored by your offer."

  "So be it, young sir; then permit me to wish you a very, 'Good day!'" and, touching the brim of his hat with the long stem of his pipe, the Venerable Man turned and left me.

  Howbeit, though I looked diligently on all hands, I saw nothing of Simon or the Ancient; thus evening was falling as, bending my steps homeward, I came to a part of the Fair where drinking-booths had been set up, and where they were preparing to roast an ox whole, as is the immemorial custom. Drinking was going on, with its usual accompaniment of boisterous merriment and rough horseplay——the vulgarity of which ever annoys me. Two or three times I was rudely jostled as I made my way along, so that my temper was already something the worse, when, turning aside to avoid all this, I came full upon two fellows, well-to-do farmers, by their look, who held a struggling girl between them——to each of whom I reached out a hand, and, gripping them firmly by their collars, brought their two heads together with a sounding crack——and then I saw that the girl was Prudence. Next moment we were running, hand in hand, with the two fellows roaring in pursuit. But Prudence was wonderfully fleet and light of foot, wherefore, doubling and turning among carts, tents, and booths, we had soon outstripped our pursuers, and rid ourselves of them altogether. In spite of which Prudence still ran on till, catching her foot in some obstacle, she tripped, and would have fallen but for my arm.

  And looking down into her flushed face, glowing through the sweet disorder of her glossy curls, I could not but think how lovely she was. But, as I watched, the color fled from her cheeks, her eyes dilated, and she started away from me.

  Now, turning hastily, I saw that we were standing close by a certain small, dirty, and disreputable-looking tent, the canvas of which had been slit with a knife——and my movement had been quick enough to enable me to see a face vanish through the canvas. And, fleeting though the glimpse had been, yet, in the lowering brow, the baleful glare of the eye, and the set of the great jaw, I had seen Death.

  And, after we had walked on a while together, looking at Prue, I noticed that she trembled.

  "Oh, Mr. Peter," she whispered, glancing back over her shoulder, "did ye see?"

  "Yes, Prudence, I saw." And, speaking, I also glanced back towards the villainous little tent, and though the face appeared no more, I was aware, nevertheless, of a sudden misgiving that was almost like a foreboding of evil to come; for in those features, disfigured though they were with black rage and passion, I had recognized the face of Black George.

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