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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter14)

2006-08-28 22:42

  Book One Chapter XIV. Further Concerning the Gentleman in the Battered Hat

  "Sir," said my companion at last, lifting the battered hat, "I tender you my apology, and I shall be delighted to eat with you in the ditch, if you are in the same mind about it?"

  "Then you believe me?"

  "Indubitably, sir," he answered with a faint smile; "had you indeed been Sir Maurice, either he or I, and most probably I, would be lying flat in the road, by this."

  So, without more ado, we sat down in the ditch together, side by side, and began to eat. And now I noticed that when he thought my eye was upon him, my companion ate with a due deliberation and nicety, and when he thought it was off, with a voracity that was painful to witness. And after we had eaten a while in silence, he turned to me with a sigh.

  "This is very excellent cheese!" said he.

  "The man from whom I bought it," said I, "called it a noble cheese, I remember."

  "I never tasted one of a finer flavor!" said my companion.

  "Hunger is a fine sauce," said I, "and you are probably hungry?"

  "Hungry!" he repeated, bolting a mouthful and knocking his hat over his eyes with a slap on its dusty crown. "Egad, Mr. Vibart! so would you be——so would any man be who has lived on anything he could beg, borrow, or steal, with an occasional meal of turnips——in the digging of which I am become astonishingly expert——and unripe blackberries, which latter I have proved to be a very trying diet in many ways——hungry, oh, damme!"

  And after a while, when there nothing remained of loaf or cheese save a few scattered crumbs, my companion leaned back, and gave another sigh.

  "Sir," said he, with an airy wave of the hand, "in me you behold a highly promising young gentleman ruined by a most implacable enemy——himself, sir. In the first place you must know my name is Beverley——"

  "Beverley?" I repeated.

  "Beverley," he nodded, "Peregrine Beverley, very much at your service ——late of Beverley Place, Surrey, now of Nowhere-in-Particular."

  "Beverley," said I again, "I have heard that name before."

  "It is highly probable, Mr. Vibart; a fool of that name——fortunate or unfortunate as you choose to classify him——lost houses, land, and money in a single night's play. I am that fool, sir, though you have doubtless heard particulars ere now?"

  "Not a word!" said I. Mr. Beverley glanced at me with a faint mingling of pity and surprise. "My life," I explained, "has been altogether a studious one, with the not altogether unnatural result that I also am bound for Nowhere-in-Particular with just eight shillings and sixpence in my pocket."

  "And mine, as I tell you," said he, "has been an altogether riotous one. Thus each of us, though by widely separate roads——you by the narrow and difficult path of Virtue, and I by the broad and easy road of Folly——have managed to find our way into this Howling Destitution, which we will call Nowhere-in-Particular. Then how does your path of Virtue better my road of Evil?"

  "The point to be considered," said I, "is not so much what we now are, but rather, what we have done, and may ultimately be, and do."

  "Well?" said he, turning to look at me.

  "For my own achievements, hitherto," I continued, "I have won the High Jump, and Throwing the Hammer, also translated the works of Quintilian, with the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, and the Life, Lives, and Memoirs of the Seigneur de Brantome, which last, as you are probably aware, has never before been done into the English."

  "Ha!" exclaimed Mr. Beverley, sitting up suddenly, with his ill-used hat very much over one eye, "there we have it! Whoever heard of Old Quin——What's-his-name, or cared, except, perhaps, a few bald-headed bookworms and withered litterateurs? While you were dreaming of life, and reading the lives of other fellows, I was living it. In my career, episodically brief though it was, I have met and talked with all the wits, and celebrated men, have drunk good wine, and worshipped beautiful women, Mr. Vibart."

  "And what has it all taught you?" said I.

  "That there are an infernal number of rogues and rascals in the world, for one thing——and that is worth knowing."

  "Yes," said I.

  "That, though money can buy anything, from the love of a woman to the death of an enemy, it can only be spent once——and that is worth knowing also."

  "Yes," said I.

  "And that I am a most preposterous ass!——and that last, look you, is more valuable than all the others. Solomon, I think, says something about a wise man being truly wise who knoweth himself a fool, doesn't he?"

  "Something of the sort."

  "Then," said he, flinging his hat down upon the grass beside him, "what argument can you advance in favor of your 'Narrow and Thorny'?"

  "The sum of eight shillings and sixpence, a loaf of bread, and a slice of noble cheese, now no more," said I.

  "Egad!" said he, looking at me from the corners of his blue eyes, "the argument is unanswerable, more especially the cheese part, against which I'd say nothing, even if I could." Having remarked which, he lay flat on his back again, staring up at the leaves, and the calm serenity of the sky beyond, while I filled my negro-head pipe from my paper of tobacco, and forthwith began to smoke.

  And, presently, as I sat alternately watching the blue wreaths of my pipe and the bedraggled figure extended beside me, he suddenly rolled over on his arm, and so lay, watching me.

  "On my soul!" he exclaimed at length, "it is positively marvellous."

  "What is?" I inquired.

  "The resemblance between you and your famous cousin."

  "It would appear so," said I, shrugging my shoulders, "though, personally, I was unaware of this fact up till now."

  "Do I understand that you have never seen Sir Maurice Vibart, never seen 'Buck' Vibart?"

  "Never!" said I.

  "Too much occupied——in keeping to the Narrow and Thorny, I suppose? Your cousin's is the Broad and Flowery, with a vengeance."

  "So I understand," said I.

  "Nevertheless, the resemblance between you, both in face and figure, is positively astounding! With the sole exception that he wears hair upon his face, and is of a ruddy complexion, while you are pale, and smooth smooth-cheeked as as a boy——"

  "Or yourself!" said I.

  "Ah——exactly!" he answered, and passed his fingers across his chin tentatively, and fell again to staring lazily up into the sky. "Do you happen to know anything about that most remarkable species of the 'genus homo' calling themselves 'Bucks,' or 'Corinthians'?" he inquired, after a while.

  "Very little," said I, "and that, only by hearsay."

  "Well, up to six months ago, I was one of them, Mr. Vibart, until Fortune, and I think now, wisely, decreed it otherwise." And herewith, lying upon his back, looking up through the quivering green of leaves, he told mad tales of a reckless Prince, of the placid Brummel, of the "Dashing" Vibart, the brilliant Sheridan, of Fox, and Grattan, and many others, whose names are now a byword one way or the other. He recounted a story of wild prodigality, of drunken midnight orgies, of days and nights over the cards, of wine, women, and horses. But, lastly and very reverently, he spoke of a woman, of her love, and faith, and deathless trust. "Of course," he ended, "I might have starved very comfortably, and much quicker, in London, but when my time comes, I prefer to do my dying beneath some green hedge, or in the shelter of some friendly rick, with the cool, clean wind upon my face. Besides—— She loved the country."

  "Then there are some women who can't be bought?" said I, looking at his glistening eyes.

  "Mr. Vibart," said he, "so far as I know, there are two——the Lady Helen Dunstan and the 'Glorious' Sefton."

  "The Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne?" said I.

  "And——the Lady Helen Dunstan," he repeated.

  "Do you know the Lady Sophia Sefton?"

  "I have had the honor of dancing with her frequently," he answered.

  "And is she so beautiful as they say?"

  "She is the handsomest woman in London, one of your black-browed, deep-eyed goddesses, tall, and gracious, and most nobly shaped; though, sir, for my own part, I prefer less fire and ice——and more gentle beauty."

  "As, for instance, the Lady Helen Dunstan?" said I.

  "Exactly!" nodded Mr. Beverley.

  "Referring to the Lady Sophia Sefton," I pursued, "she is a reigning toast, I believe?"

  "Gad, yes! her worshippers are legion, and chief among them his Royal Highness, and your cousin, Sir Maurice, who has actually had the temerity to enter the field as the Prince's avowed rival; no one but 'Buck' Vibart could be so madly rash!"

  "A most fortunate lady!" said I.

  "Mr. Vibart!" exclaimed my companion, cocking his battered hat and regarding me with a smouldering eye, "Mr. Vibart, I object to your tone; the noble Sefton's virtue is proud and high, and above even the breath of suspicion."

  "And yet my cousin would seem to be no laggard in love, and as to the Prince——his glance is contamination to a woman."

  "Sir," returned Mr. Beverley very earnestly, "disabuse your mind of all unworthy suspicions, I beg; your cousin she laughs to scorn, and his Royal Highness she had rebuffed as few women have, hitherto, dared do."

  "It would almost seem," said I, after a pause, "that, from what I have inadvertently learned, my cousin has some dirty work afoot, though exactly what, I cannot imagine."

  "My dear Mr. Vibart, your excellent cousin is forever up to something or other, and has escaped the well-merited consequences, more than once, owing to his friendship with, and the favor of his friend——"

  "George?" said I.

  "Exactly!" said my companion, raising himself on his elbow, and nodding: "George."

  "Have you ever heard mention of Tom Cragg, the Pugilist?" I inquired, blowing a cloud of smoke into the warm air.

  "I won ten thousand guineas when he knocked out Ted Jarraway of Swansea," yawned my companion; "a good fighter, but a rogue——like all the rest of 'em, and a creature of your excellent cousin's."

  "I guessed as much," I nodded, and forthwith plunged into an account of my meeting with the "craggy one," the which seemed to amuse Mr. Beverley mightily, more especially when I related Cragg's mysterious disappearance.

  "Oh, gad!" cried Beverley, wiping his eyes on the tattered lapel of his coat, "the resemblance served you luckily there; your cousin gave him the thrashing of his life, and poor Tom evidently thought he was in for another. That was the last you saw of him, I'll be bound."

  "No, I met him afterwards beneath the gibbet on River Hill, where, among other incomprehensible things, he gave me to understand that he recognized me despite my disguise, assumed, as he supposed, on account of his having kidnapped some one or other, and 'laid out' a certain Sir Jasper Trent in Wych Street according to my orders, or rather, it would seem, my cousin's orders, the author of which outrage Sir Jasper had evidently found out——"

  "The devil!" exclaimed Mr. Beverley, and sat up with a jerk.

  "And furthermore," I went on, "he informed me that the Prince himself had given him the word to leave London until the affair had blown over."

  Now while I spoke, Mr. Beverley had been regarding me with a very strange expression, his cheeks had gone even paler than before, his eyes seemed to stare through, and beyond me, and his hands were tight-clenched at his sides.

  "Mr. Beverley," said I, "what ails you?"

  For a moment he did not speak, then answered, with the same strange look:

  "Sir Jasper Trent——is my cousin, sir."

  My negro-head pipe slipped suddenly, and fell into the grass, happily without injury.

  "Indeed!" said I.

  "Can you not see what this means, sir?" he went on hurriedly. "Jasper will fight."

  "Indeed," said I again, "I fear so."

  "Jasper was always a bit of a fish, and with no particular affection for his graceless kinsman, but I am his only relative; and——and he hardly knows one end of a pistol from the other, while your cousin is a dead shot."

  "My cousin!" I exclaimed; "then if was he——to be sure I saw only his back."

  "Sir Jasper is unmarried——has no relations but myself," my companion repeated, with the same fixed intentness of look; "can you appreciate, I wonder, what this would mean to me?"

  "Rank, and fortune, and London," said I.

  "No, no!" He sprang to his feet, and threw wide his ragged arms with a swift, passionate gesture. "It means Life——and Helen. My God!" he went on, speaking almost in a whisper, "I never knew how much I wanted her——how much I had wilfully tossed aside——till now! I never realized the full misery of it all——till now! I could have starved very well in time, and managed it as quietly as most other ruined fools. But now——to see the chance of beginning again, of coming back to self-respect and——Helen, my God!" And, of a sudden, he cast himself upon his face, and so lay, tearing up the grass by handfuls. Then, almost as suddenly, he was upon his feet again, and had caught up his hat. "Sir," said he somewhat shamefacedly, smoothing its ruffled nap with fingers that still quivered, "pray forgive that little ebullition of feeling; it is over——quite over, but your tidings affected me, and I am not quite myself at times; as I have already said, turnips and unripe blackberries are not altogether desirable as a diet."

  "Indeed," said I, "you seemed strangely perturbed."

  "Mr. Vibart," said he, staring very hard at the battered hat, and turning it round and round, "Mr. Vibart, the devil is surprisingly strong in some of us."

  "True," said I.

  "My cousin, Sir Jasper, is a bookish fellow, and, as I have said, a fool where anything else is in question; if this meeting is allowed to take place, I feel that he will most certainly be killed, and his death would mean a new life——more than life to me."

  "Yes," said I.

  "And for a moment, Mr. Vibart, I was tempted to sit down in the ditch again, and let things take their course. The devil, I repeat, is remarkably strong in some of us."

  "Then what is your present intention?"

  "I am going to London to find Sir Maurice Vibart——to stop this duel."

  "Impossible!" said I.

  "But you see, sir, it so happens that I am possessed of certain intelligence which might make Sir Maurice's existence in England positively untenable."

  "Nevertheless," said I, "it is impossible."

  "That remains to be seen, Mr. Vibart," said he, and speaking, turned upon his heel.

  "One moment," said I, "was not your cousin, Sir Jasper, of the middle height, slim-built and fair-haired, with a habit of plucking at his lips when at all nervous or excited?"

  "Exactly; you know him, sir?"

  "No," I answered, "but I have seen him, very lately, and I say again to stop this duel is an impossibility."

  "Do you mean——" he began, and paused. Now, as his eyes met mine, the battered hat escaped his fingers, and lay all unheeded. "Do you mean——" he began again, and again stopped.

  "Yes," said I, "I mean that you are too late. Sir Jasper was killed at a place called Deepdene Wood, no longer since than to-day at half-past seven in the morning. It was raining at the time, I remember, but the day grew glorious later."

  For a long moment Mr. Beverley stood silent with bent head, then, apparently becoming aware of the hat at his feet, he sent it flying with a sudden kick, and watched it describe a wide parabola ere it disappeared into the ditch, some yards away. Which done, he walked after it, and returned, brushing it very carefully with his ragged cuff.

  "And——you are sure——quite sure, Mr. Vibart?" he inquired, smoothing the broken brim with the greatest solicitude.

  "I stood behind a hedge, and watched it done," said I.

  "Then——my God!——I am Sir Peregrine Beverley! I am Sir Peregrine Beverley of Burnham Hall, very much at your service. Jasper——dead! A knight banneret of Kent, and Justice of the Peace! How utterly preposterous it all sounds! But to-day I begin life anew, ah, yes, a new life, a new life! To-day all things are possible again! The fool has learned wisdom, and, I hope, become a man. But come," said he in a more natural tone, "let us get back to our ditch, and, while you tell me the particulars, if you don't object I should much like to try a whiff at that pipe of yours."

  So, while I recounted the affair as briefly as I might, he sat puffing at my pipe, and staring away into the distance. But gradually his head sank lower and lower, until his face was quite hidden from me, and for a long moment after I had ended my narration, there was silence.

  "Poor Jasper!" said he at last, without raising his head, "poor old Jasper!"

  "I congratulate you, Sir Peregrine," said I.

  "And I used to pummel him so, when we were boys together at Eton ——poor old Jasper!" And, presently, he handed me my pipe, and rose. "Mr. Vibart," said he, "it would seem that by no effort, or virtue of my own, I am to win free of this howling desolation of Nowhere-in-Particular, after all; believe me, I would gladly take you with me. Had I not met with you it is——rather more than probable——that I——should never have seen another dawn; so if——if ever I can be of——use to you, pray honor me so far; you can always hear of me at Burnham Hall, Pembry. Good-by, Mr. Vibart, I am going to her——in all my rags——for I am a man again."

  So I bade him good-by, and, sitting in the ditch, watched him stride away to his new life. Presently, reaching the brow of the hill (there are hills everywhere in the South country), I saw him turn to flourish the battered hat ere he disappeared from my sight.

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