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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter11)

2006-08-28 22:42

  Book One Chapter XI. Which Relates a Brief Passage-at-Arms at "The Chequers" Inn

  In due season I came into Tonbridge town, and following the High Street, presently observed a fine inn upon the right-hand side of the way, which, as I remember, is called "The Chequers." And here were divers loiterers, lounging round the door, or seated upon the benches; but the eyes of all were turned the one way.

  And presently, as I paused before the inn, to look up at its snow-white plaster, and massive cross-beams, there issued from the stable yard one in a striped waistcoat, with top-boots and a red face, who took a straw from behind his ear, and began to chew it meditatively; to whom I now addressed myself.

  "Good afternoon!" said I.

  "Arternoon!" he answered.

  "A fine day!" said I.

  "Is it?" said he.

  "Why——to be sure it is," said I, somewhat taken aback by his manner; "to be sure it is."

  "Oh!" said he, and shifted the straw very dexterously from one corner of his mouth to the other, by some unseen agency, and stared up the road harder than ever.

  "What are you looking at?" I inquired.

  "'Ill," said he.

  "And why do you look at the hill?"

  "Mail," said he.

  "Oh!" said I.

  "Ah!" said he.

  "Is it the London coach?"

  "Ah!" said he.

  "Does it stop here?"

  "Ah!" said he.

  "Do you ever say anything much beside 'ah'?" I inquired.

  He stopped chewing the straw, and with his eyes on the distance, seemed to turn this question over in his mind; having done which, he began to chew again.

  "Ah!" said he.

  "Why, then you can, perhaps, tell me how many miles it is——"

  "Five," said he.

  "I was about to ask how far it was to——"

  "The Wells!" said he.

  "Why——yes, to be sure, but how did you know that?"

  "It's use!" said he.

  "What do you mean?"

  "They all ask!" said he.

  "Who do?"

  "Tramps!" said he.

  "Oh! so you take me for a tramp?"

  "Ah!" said he.

  "And you," said I, "put me in mind of a certain Semi-quavering Friar."

  "Eh?" said he, frowning a little at the hill.

  "You've never heard of Rabelais, or Panurge, of course," said I. The Ostler took out his straw, eyed it thoughtfully, and put it back again.

  "No," said he.

  "More's the pity!" said I, and was about to turn away, when he drew the nearest fist abruptly from his pocket, and extended it towards me.

  "Look at that!" he commanded.

  "Rather dirty," I commented, "but otherwise a good, useful member, I make no doubt."

  "It's a-goin'," said he, alternately drawing in and shooting out the fist in question, "it's a-goin' to fill your eye up."

  "Is it?" said I.

  "Ah!" said he.

  "But what for?"

  "I aren't a Semmy, nor yet a Quaver, an' as for Friers," said he, very deliberately, "why——Frier yourself, says I."

  "Nevertheless," said I, "you are gifted with a certain terse directness of speech that greatly reminds me of——"

  "Joe!" he called out suddenly over his shoulder. "Mail, Joe!"

  Lifting my eyes to the brow of the hill, I could see nothing save a faint haze, which, however, gradually grew denser and thicker; and out from this gathering cloud, soft, and faint with distance, stole the silvery notes of a horn. Now I saw the coach itself, and, as I watched it rapidly descending the hill, I longed to be upon it, with the sun above, the smooth road below, and the wind rushing through my hair. On it came at a gallop, rocking and swaying, a good fifteen miles an hour; on it came, plunging into the green shade of trees, and out into the sun again, with ever the gathering dust cloud behind; while clear and high rang the cheery note of the horn. And now, from the cool shadows of the inn yard, there rose a prodigious stamping of hoofs, rattling of chains, and swearing of oaths, and out came four fresh horses, led by two men, each of whom wore topboots, a striped waistcoat, and chewed upon straws.

  And now the coach swung round the bend, and came thundering down upon "The Chequers," chains jingling, wheels rumbling, horn braying and, with a stamp and ring of hoof, pulled up before the inn.

  And then what a running to and fro! what a prodigious unbuckling and buckling of straps, while the jovial-faced coachman fanned himself with his hat; and swore jovially at the ostlers, and the ostlers swore back at the coachman, and the guard, and the coach, and the horses, individually and collectively; in the midst of which confusion, down came the window with a bang, and out of the window came a flask, and a hand, and an arm, and, last of all, a great, fat face, round, and mottled, and roaring as it came:

  "Oho——I say damn it! damn everybody's eyes and bones——brandy! O yoho, house——I say brandy! Guard, landlord, ostlers——brandy, d'ye hear? I say, what the devil! Am I to die for want of a drop of brandy? Oho!"

  Now, little by little, I became conscious (how, I cannot define) that I was the object of a close and persistent scrutiny——that I was being watched and stared at by some one near by. Shifting my eyes, therefore, from the mottled face at the coach window, I cast them swiftly about until they presently met those of one of the four outside passengers——a tall, roughly-clad man who leaned far out from the coach roof, watching me intently; and his face was thin, and very pale, and the eyes which stared into mine glowed beneath a jagged prominence of brow.

  At the time, though I wondered at the man's expression, and the fixity of his gaze, I paid him no further heed, but turned my attention back to Mottle-face, who had, by this time, bellowed himself purple. Howbeit, in due time, the flask having been replenished and handed to him, he dived back into the recesses of the coach, jerked up the window, and vanished as suddenly as he had appeared.

  But now the four fresh horses were in and harnessed, capering and dancing with an ostler at the head of each; the Driver tossed off his glass of rum and water, cast an eye up at the clouds, remarked: "Wind, by Gemini!" settled his feet against the dashboard, and gathered up the reins. And now, too, the Guard appeared, wiping his lips as he came, who also cast an eye up at the heavens, remarked: "Dust, by Jingo!" and swung himself up into the rumble.

  "All right behind?" sang out the Driver, over his shoulder.

  "All right!" sang back the guard.

  "Then——let 'em go!" cried the Driver. Whereupon the ostlers jumped nimbly back, the horses threw up their heads, and danced undecidedly for a moment, the long whip cracked, hoofs clattered, sparks flew, and, rumbling and creaking, off went the London Mail with such a flourish of the horn as woke many a sleepy echo, near and far. As I turned away, I noticed that there remained but three outside passengers; the pale-faced man had evidently alighted, yet, although I glanced round for him, he was nowhere to be seen.

  Hereupon, being in no mind to undergo the operation of having my eye filled up, and, moreover, finding myself thirsty, I stepped into the "Tap." And there, sure enough, was the Outside Passenger staring moodily out of the window, and with an untouched mug of ale at his elbow. Opposite him sat an old man in a smock frock, who leaned upon a holly-stick, talking to a very short, fat man behind the bar, who took my twopence with a smile, smiled as he drew my ale, and, smiling, watched me drink.

  "Be you from Lunnon, sir?" inquired the old man, eyeing me beneath his hoary brows as I set down my tankard.

  "Yes," said I.

  "Well, think o' that now——I've been a-goin' to Lunnon this five an' forty year——started out twice, I did, but I never got no furder nor Sevenoaks!"

  "How was that?" I inquired.

  "Why, theer's 'The White Hart' at Sevenoaks, an' they brews fine ale at 'The White Hart,' d'ye see, an' one glass begets another."

  "And they sent ye back in the carrier's cart!" said the fat man, smiling broader than ever.

  "Ever see the Lord Mayor a-ridin' in 'is goold coach, sir?" pursued the old man.

  "Yes," said I.

  "Ever speak to 'im?"

  "Why, no."

  "Ah well, I once knowed a man as spoke to the Lord Mayor o' Lunnon's coachman——but 'e's dead, took the smallpox the year arterwards an' died, 'e did."

  At this juncture the door was thrown noisily open, and two gentlemen entered. The first was a very tall man with black hair that curled beneath his hat-brim, and so luxuriant a growth of whisker that it left little of his florid countenance exposed. The second was more slightly built, with a pale, hairless face, wherein were set two small, very bright eyes, rather close together, separated by a high, thin nose with nostrils that worked and quivered when he spoke, a face whose most potent feature was the mouth, coarse and red, with a somewhat protuberant under lip, yet supported by a square, determined chin below——a sensual mouth with more than a suspicion of cruelty lurking in its full curves, and the big teeth which gleamed white and serrated when he laughed. Indeed, the whole aspect of the man filled me with an instinctive disgust.

  They were dressed in that mixture of ultra-fashionable and horsey styles peculiar to the "Corinthian," or "Buck" of the period, and there was in their air an overbearing yet lazy insolence towards all and sundry that greatly annoyed me.

  "Fifteen thousand a year, by gad!" exclaimed the taller of the two, giving a supercilious sniff to the brandy he had just poured out.

  "Yes, ha! ha!——and a damnably pretty filly into the bargain!"

  "You always were so infernally lucky!" retorted the first.

  "Call it rather the reward of virtue," answered his companion with a laugh that showed his big, white teeth.

  "And what of Beverley——poor dey-vil?" inquired the first.

  "Beverley!" repeated the other; "had he possessed any spirit he would have blown his brains out, like a gentleman; as it was, he preferred merely to disappear," and herewith the speaker shrugged his shoulders, and drank off his glass with infinite relish and gusto.

  "And a——pretty filly, you say?"

  "Oh, I believe you! Country bred, but devilish well-blooded——trust Beverley for that."

  "Egad, yes——Beverley had a true eye for beauty or breed, poor dey-vil!" This expression of pity seemed to afford each of them much subtle enjoyment. "Harking back to this——filly," said the big man, checking his merriment, "how if she jibs, and cuts up rough, kicks over the traces——devilish awkward, eh?"

  His companion raised his foot and rested it carelessly, upon the settle near by, and upon the heel of his slim riding-boot I saw a particularly cruel-looking, long-necked spur.

  "My dear Mostyn," said he, his nostrils working, "for such an emergency there is nothing like a pair of good sharp 'persuaders,'" here he tapped the spur lightly with the slender gold-mounted cane he carried; "and I rather fancy I know just how and when to use 'em, Mostyn." And once again I saw the gleam of his big, white teeth.

  All this I heard as they lolled within a yard of me, manifesting a lofty and contemptuous disregard for all save themselves, waited upon most deferentially by the smiling fat fellow, and stared at by the aged man with as much admiring awe as if they had each been nothing less than a lord mayor of London at the very least. But now they leaned their heads together and spoke in lowered tones, but something in the leering eyes of the one, and the smiling lips of the other, told me that it was not of horses that they spoke.

  "…… Bring her to reason, by gad!" said the slighter of the two, setting down his empty glass with a bang, "oh, trust me to know their pretty, skittish ways, trust me to manage 'em; I've never failed yet, by gad!"

  "Curse me, that's true enough!" said the other, and here they sank their voices again.

  My ale being finished, I took up my staff, a heavy, knotted affair, and turned to go. Now, as I did so, my foot, by accident, came in contact with the gold-mounted cane I have mentioned, and sent it clattering to the floor. I was on the point of stooping for it, when a rough hand gripped my shoulder from behind, twisting me savagely about, and I thus found myself staring upon two rows of sharp, white teeth.

  "Pick it up!" said he, motioning imperiously to the cane on the floor between us.

  "Heaven forbid, sir," said I; "'is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?'"

  "I told you to pick it up," he repeated, thrusting his head towards me; "are you going to do so, or must I make you?" and his nostrils worked more than ever.

  For answer I raised my foot and sent the cane spinning across the room. Somebody laughed, and next moment my hat was knocked from my head. Before he could strike again, however, I raised my staff, but suddenly remembering its formidable weight, I altered the direction of the blow, and thrust it strongly into the very middle of his gayly flowered waistcoat. So strongly did I thrust, indeed, that he would have fallen but for the timely assistance of his companion.

  "Come, come," said I, holding him off on the end of my staff, "be calm now, and let us reason together like logical beings. I knocked down your cane by accident, and you, my hat by intent; very well then, be so good as to return me my property, from the corner yonder, and we will call 'quits.'"

  "No, by gad!" gasped my antagonist, bending almost double, "wait——only wait until I get——my wind——I'll choke——the infernal life out of you——only wait, by gad!"

  "Willingly," said I, "but whatever else you do, you will certainly reach me my hat, otherwise, just so soon as you find yourself sufficiently recovered, I shall endeavor to throw you after it." Saying which, I laid aside my staff, and buttoned up my coat.

  "Why," he began, "you infernally low, dusty, ditch-trotting blackguard——" But his companion, who had been regarding me very closely, twitched him by the sleeve, and whispered something in his ear. Whatever it was it affected my antagonist strangely, for he grew suddenly very red, and then very white, and abruptly turned his back upon me.

  "Are you sure, Mostyn?" said he in an undertone.

  "Certain."

  "Well, I'd fight him were he the devil himself! Pistols perhaps would be——"

  "Don't be a fool, Harry," cried the other, and seizing his arm, drew him farther away, and, though they lowered their voices, I caught such fragments as "What of George?" "changes since your time," "ruin your chances at the start," "dead shot."

  "Sir," said I, "my hat——in the corner yonder."

  Almost to my surprise, the taller of the two crossed the room, followed by his friend, to whom he still spoke in lowered tones, stooped, picked up my hat, and, while the other stood scowling, approached, and handed it to me with a bow.

  "That my friend, Sir Harry Mortimer, lost his temper, is regretted both by him and myself," said he, "but is readily explained by the fact that he has been a long time from London, while I labored under a——a disadvantage, sir——until your hat was off."

  Now, as he spoke, his left eyelid flickered twice in rapid succession.

  "I beg you won't mention it," said I, putting on my hat; "but, sir, why do you wink at me?"

  "No, no," cried he, laughing and shaking his head, "ha! ha! ——deyvilish good! By the way, they tell me George himself is in these parts——incog. of course——"

  "George?" said I, staring.

  "Cursed rich, on my life and soul!" cried the tall gentleman, shaking his head and laughing again. "Mum's the word, of course, and I swear a shaven face becomes you most deyvilishly!"

  "Perhaps you will be so obliging as to tell me what you mean?" said I, frowning.

  "Oh, by gad!" he cried, fairly hugging himself with delight. "Oh, the devil! this is too rich——too infernally rich, on my life and soul it is!"

  Now all at once there recurred to me the memory of Tom Cragg, the Pugilist; of how he too had winked at me, and of his incomprehensible manner afterwards beneath the gibbet on River Hill.

  "Sir," said I, "do you happen to know a pugilist, Tom Cragg by name?"

  "Tom Cragg! well, I should think so; who doesn't, sir?"

  "Because," I went on, "he too seems to labor under the delusion that he is acquainted with me, and——"

  "Acquainted!" repeated the tall gentleman, "acquainted! Oh, gad!" and immediately hugged himself in another ecstasy.

  "If," said I, "you will have the goodness to tell me for whom you evidently mistake me——"

  "Mistake you!" he gasped, throwing himself upon the settle and rocking to and fro, "ha! ha!——mistake you!"

  Seeing I did but waste my breath, I turned upon my heel, and made for the door. As I went, my eye, by chance, lighted upon a cheese that stood at the fat landlord's elbow, and upon which he cast amorous glances from time to time.

  "That seems a fine cheese!" said I.

  "It is, sir, if I might make so bold, a noble cheese!" he rejoined, and laid his hand upon it with a touch that was a caress.

  "Then I will take three pennyworth of your noble cheese," said I.

  "Cheese!" faintly echoed the gentleman upon the settle, "three pennyworth. Oh, I shall die, positively I shall burst!"

  "Also a loaf," said I. And when the landlord had cut the cheese with great nicety——a generous portion——and had wrapped it into a parcel, I put it, together with the loaf, into my knapsack, and giving him "Good day!" strode to the door. As I reached it, the tall gentleman rose from the settle, and bowed.

  "Referring to George, sir——"

  "George!" said I shortly; "to the devil with George!"

  Now I could not help being struck by the effect of my words, for Sir Harry let fall his cane, and stared open-mouthed, while his companion regarded me with an expression between a frown and wide-eyed dismay.

  "Now I wonder," said I to myself as I descended the steps, "I wonder who George can be?"

  Before the inn there stood a yellow-wheeled stanhope with a horse which, from his manner of trembling all over for no conceivable reason, and manifest desire to stand upon his hind legs, I conceived to be a thorough-bred; and, hanging grimly to the bridle, now in the air, now on terra firma, alternately coaxing and cursing, was my friend the Semi-quavering Ostler. He caught sight of me just as a particularly vicious jerk swung him off his legs.

  "Damn your liver!" he cried to the horse, and then, to me: "If you'll jest call Joe to 'old this 'ere black varmin for me, I'll ——fill yer——eye up."

  "Thanks," said I, "but I much prefer to keep it as it is; really there is no need to trouble Joe, and as for you, I wish you good morning!"

  And when I had gone a little way, chancing to glance back over my shoulder, I saw that the Outside Passenger stood upon the inn steps, and was staring after me.

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