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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter6)

2006-08-28 22:40

  Book One Chapter VI. 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.

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