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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter9)

2006-08-28 22:41

  Book One Chapter IX. In Which I Stumble Upon an Affair of Honor.

  There are times (as I suppose) when the most aesthetic of souls will forget the snow of lilies, and the down of a butterfly's wing, to revel in the grosser joys of, say, a beefsteak. One cannot rhapsodize upon the beauties of a sunset, or contemplate the pale witchery of the moon with any real degree of poetic fervor, or any degree of comfort, while hunger gnaws at one's vitals, for comfort is essential to your aesthete, and, after all, soul goes hand in hand with stomach.

  Thus, I swung along the road beneath the swaying green of trees, past the fragrant, blooming hedges, paying small heed to the beauties of wooded hill and grassy dale, my eyes constantly searching the road before me for some sign of the "Old Cock" tavern. And presently, sure enough, I espied it, an ugly, flat-fronted building, before which stood a dilapidated horse trough and a battered sign. Despite its uninviting exterior, I hurried forward, and mounting the three worn steps pushed open the door. I now found myself in a room of somewhat uninviting aspect, though upon the hearth a smouldering fire was being kicked into a blaze by a sulky-faced fellow, to whom I addressed myself:

  "Can I have some breakfast here?" said I.

  "Why, it's all according, master," he answered, in a surly tone.

  "According to what?" said I.

  "According to what you want, master."

  "Why, as to that——" I began.

  "Because," he went on, administering a particularly vicious kick to the fire, "if you was to ask me for a French hortolon——or even the 'ump of a cam-el——being a very truthful man, I should say——no."

  "But I want no such things," said I.

  "And 'ow am I to know that——'ow am I to know as you ain't set your 'eart on the 'ump of a cam-el?"

  "I tell you I want nothing of the sort," said I, "a chop would do——"

  "Chop!" sighed the man, scowling threateningly at the fire, "chop!"

  "Or steak," I hastened to add.

  "Now it's a steak!" said the man, shaking his head ruefully, and turning upon me a doleful eye, "a steak!" he repeated; "of course——it would be; I s'pose you'd turn up your nose at 'am and eggs——it's only to be expected."

  "On the contrary," said I, "ham and eggs will suit me very well; why couldn't you have mentioned them before?"

  "Why, you never axed me as I remember," growled the fellow.

  Slipping my knapsack from my shoulders, I sat down at a small table in a corner while the man, with a final kick at the fire, went to give my order. In a few minutes he reappeared with some billets of wood beneath his arm, and followed by a merry-eyed, rosy-cheeked lass, who proceeded, very deftly, to lay a snowy cloth and thereupon in due season, a dish of savory ham and golden-yolked eggs.

  "It's a lovely morning!" said I, lifting my eyes to her comely face.

  "It is indeed, sir," said she, setting down the cruet with a turn of her slender wrist.

  "Which I make so bold as to deny," said the surly man, dropping the wood on the hearth with a prodigious clatter, "'ow can any morning be lovely when there ain't no love in it——no, not so much as would fill a thimble? I say it ain't a lovely morning, not by no manner o' means, and what I says I ain't ashamed on, being a nat'rally truthful man!" With which words he sighed, kicked the fire again, and stumped out.

  "Our friend would seem somewhat gloomy this morning," said I.

  "He've been that way a fortnight now, come Satu'day," replied the slim lass, nodding.

  "Oh?" said I.

  "Yes," she continued, checking a smile, and sighing instead; "it's very sad, he've been crossed in love you see, sir."

  "Poor fellow!" said I, "can't you try to console him?"

  "Me, sir——oh no!"

  "And why not? I should think you might console a man for a great deal."

  "Why, you see, sir," said she, blushing and dimpling very prettily, "it do so happen as I'm the one as crossed him."

  "Ah!——I understand," said I.

  "I'm to be married to a farmer——down the road yonder; leastways, I haven't quite made up my mind yet."

  "A fine, tall fellow?" I inquired.

  "Yes——do 'ee know him, sir?"

  "With a handsome pair of black whiskers?" said I.

  "The very same, sir, and they do be handsome whiskers, though I do say it."

  "The finest I ever saw. I wish you every happiness," said I.

  "Thankee sir, I'm sure," said she, and, dimpling more prettily than ever, she tripped away, and left me to my repast.

  And when I had assuaged my hunger, I took out the pipe of Adam, the groom, the pipe shaped like a negro's head, and, calling for a paper of tobacco, I filled and lighted the pipe, and sat staring dreamily out of the window.

  Happy is that man who, by reason of an abundant fortune, knows not the meaning of the word hunger; but thrice happy is he who, when the hand of famine pinches, may stay his craving with such a meal as this of mine. Never before, and never since have I tasted just such eggs, and such ham——so tender! so delicate! so full of flavor! It is a memory that can never fade. Indeed, sometimes (even now), when I grow hungry, (about dinner-time) I see once more the surly-faced man, the rosy-cheeked waiting-maid, and the gloomy chamber of the "Old Cock" tavern as I saw them upon that early May morning of the year of grace 18——.

  So I sat, with a contented mind, smoking my pipe, and staring out at the falling summer rain. And presently, chancing to turn my eyes up the road, I beheld a chaise that galloped in a smother of mud. As I watched its rapid approach, the postilion swung his horses towards the inn, and a moment later had pulled up before the door. They had evidently travelled fast and far, for the chaise was covered with dirt; and the poor horses, in a lather of foam, hung their heads, while their flanks heaved distressfully.

  The chaise door was now thrown open, and three gentlemen alighted. The first was a short, plethoric individual, bull-necked and loud of voice, for I could hear him roundly cursing the post-boy for some fault; the second was a tall, languid gentleman, who carried a flat, oblong box beneath one arm, and who paused to fondle his whisker, and look up at the inn with an exaggerated air of disgust; while the third stood mutely by, his hands thrust into the pockets of his greatcoat, and stared straight before him.

  The three of them entered the room together, and, while the languid gentleman paused to survey himself in the small, cracked mirror that hung against the wall, the plethoric individual bustled to the fire, and, loosening his coats and neckerchief, spread out his hands to the blaze.

  "A good half-hour before our time," said he, glancing towards the third gentleman, who stood looking out of the window with his hands still deep in his pockets; "we did the last ten miles well under the hour——come, what do you say to a glass of brandy?"

  At this, his languid companion turned from the mirror, and I noticed that he, too, glanced at the silent figure by the window.

  "By all means," said he, "though Sir Jasper would hardly seem in a drinking humor," and, with the very slightest shrug of the shoulders, he turned back to the mirror again.

  "No, Mr. Chester, I am not——in a drinking humor," answered Sir Jasper, without turning round, or taking his eyes from the window.

  "Sir Jasper?" said I to myself, "now where, and in what connection, have I heard such a name before?"

  He was of a slight build, and seemingly younger than either of his companions by some years, but what struck me particularly about him was the extreme pallor of his face. I noticed also a peculiar habit he had of moistening his lips at frequent intervals with the tip of his tongue, and there was, besides, something in the way he stared at the trees, the wet road, and the gray sky——a strange wide-eyed intensity——that drew and held my attention.

  "Devilish weather——devilish, on my life and soul!" exclaimed the short, red-faced man, in a loud, peevish tone, tugging viciously at the bell-rope, "hot one day, cold the next, now sun, now rain—— Oh, damn it! Now in France——ah, what a climate——heavenly ——positively divine; say what you will of a Frenchman, damn him by all means, but the climate, the country, and the women——who would not worship 'em?"

  "Exactly!" said the languid gentleman, examining a pimple upon his chin with a high degree of interest, "always 'dored a Frenchwoman myself; they're so——so ah——so deuced French, though mark you, Selby," he broke off, as the rosy-cheeked maid appeared with the brandy and glasses," though mark you, there's much to be said for your English country wenches, after all," saying which, he slipped his arm about the girl's round waist. There was the sound of a kiss, a muffled shriek, and she had run from the room, slamming the door behind her, whereupon the languid gentleman went back to his pimple.

  "Oh! as to that, Chester, I quarrel only with the climate. God made England, and the devil sends the weather!"

  "Selby," said Sir Jasper, in the same repressed tone that he had used before and still without taking his eyes from the gray prospect of sky and tree and winding road, "there is no fairer land, in all the world, than this England of ours; it were a good thing to die——for England, but that is a happiness reserved for comparatively few." And, with the words, he sighed, a strange, fluttering sigh, and thrust his hands deeper into his pockets.

  "Die!" repeated the man Selby, in a loud, boisterous way. "Who talks of death?"

  "Deuced unpleasant subject!" said the other, with a shrug at the cracked mirror. "Something so infernally cold and clammy about it——like the weather."

  "And yet it will be a glorious day later. The clouds are thinning already," Sir Jasper went on; "strange, but I never realized, until this morning, how green——and wonderful——everything is!"

  The languid Mr. Chester forgot the mirror, and turned to stare at Sir Jasper's back, with raised brows, while the man Selby shook his head, and smiled unpleasantly. As he did so, his eye encountered me, where I sat, quietly in my corner, smoking my negro-head pipe, and his thick brows twitched sharply together in a frown.

  "In an hour's time, gentlemen," pursued Sir Jasper, "we shall write 'finis' to a more or less interesting incident, and I beg of you, in that hour, to remember my prophecy——that it would be a glorious day, later."

  Mr. Chester filled a glass, and crossing to the speaker, tendered it to him without a word; as for Selby, he stood stolidly enough, his hands thrust truculently beneath his coat-tails, frowning at me.

  "Come," said Mr. Chester persuasively, "Just a bracer!" Sir Jasper shook his head, but next moment reached out a white, unsteady hand, and raised the brandy to his lips; yet as he drank, I saw the spirit slop over, and trickle from his chin.

  "Thanks, Chester," said he, returning the empty glass; "is it time we started yet?"

  "It's just half-past seven," answered Mr. Chester, consulting his watch, "and I'm rather hazy as to the exact place."

  "Deepdene Wood," said Sir Jasper dreamily.

  "You know the place?"

  "Oh, yes!"

  "Then we may as well start, if you are ready?"

  "Yes, it will be cool and fresh, outside."

  "Settle the bill, Selby, we'll walk on slowly," said Mr. Chester, and, with a last glance at the mirror, he slipped his arm within Sir Jasper's, and they went out together.

  Mr. Selby meanwhile rang for the bill, frowning at me all the time.

  "What the devil are you staring at?" he demanded suddenly, in a loud, bullying tone.

  "If you are pleased to refer to me, sir," said I, "I would say that my eyes were given for use, and that having used them upon you, I have long since arrived at the conclusion that I don't like you."

  "Ah?" said he, frowning fiercer than ever.

  "Yes," said I, "though whether it is your person, your manner, or your voice that displeases me most, I am unable to say."

  "An impertinent young jackanapes!" said he; "damnation, I think I'll pull your nose!"

  "Why, you may try, and welcome, sir," said I; "though I should advise you not, for should you make the attempt I should be compelled to throw you out of the window."

  At this moment the pretty maid appeared, and tendered him the bill with a curtesy. He glanced at it, tossed some money upon the table, and turned to stare at me again.

  "If ever I meet you again——" he began.

  "You'd probably know me," I put in.

  "Without a doubt," he answered, putting on his hat and buttoning his befrogged surtout; "and should you," he continued, drawing on his gloves, "should you stare at me with those damned, impertinent fishes' eyes of yours, I should, most certainly, pull your nose for you——on the spot, sir."

  "And I should as certainly throw you out of the window!" I nodded.

  "An impertinent young jackanapes!" said he again, and went out, banging the door behind him. Glancing from the window, I saw him catch up with the other two, and all three walk on together down the road. Sir Jasper was in the middle, and I noticed that his hands were still deep in his pockets. Now, as I watched their forms getting smaller and smaller in the distance, there grew upon me a feeling that he who walked between would nevermore come walking back.

  And, in a little, having knocked out my negro-head pipe upon my palm, I called for and settled my score. As I rose, the pretty chambermaid picked up my knapsack from the corner, and blushing, aided me to put it on.

  "My dear, thank you," said I, and kissed her. This time she neither shrieked nor ran from the room; she merely blushed a trifle rosier.

  "Do you think I have fishes' eyes, my dear?"

  "La! no, sir——handsome they be, I'm sure, so bright an' black an' wi' little lights a-dancing in them——there, sir, do ha' done, and go along wi' you!"

  "By the way," I said, pausing upon the worn steps, and looking back at her, "by the way, how far is it to Deepdene Wood?"

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