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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter7)

2006-08-28 22:41

  Book One Chapter VII. 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.

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