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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter8)

2006-08-28 22:41

  Book One Chapter VIII. Which Concerns Itself with a Farmer's Whiskers and a Waistcoat

  How long I slept I have no idea, but when I opened my eyes it was to find the moon shining down on me from a cloudless heaven; the wind also had died away; it seemed my early fears of a wild night were not to be fulfilled, and for this I was sufficiently grateful. Now as I lay, blinking up to the moon, I presently noticed that we had come to a standstill and I listened expectantly for the jingle of harness and creak of the wheels to recommence. "Strange!" said I to myself, after having waited vainly some little time, and wondering what could cause the delay, I sat up and looked about me. The first object my eyes encountered was a haystack and, beyond that, another, with, a little to one side, a row of barns, and again beyond these, a great, rambling farmhouse. Evidently the wain had reached its destination, wherever that might be, and the sleepy wagoner, forgetful of my presence, had tumbled off to bed. The which I thought so excellent an example that I lay down again, and, drawing the loose hay over me, closed my eyes, and once more fell asleep.

  My second awakening was gradual. I at first became conscious of a sound, rising and falling with a certain monotonous regularity, that my drowsy ears could make nothing of. Little by little, however, the sound developed itself into a somewhat mournful melody or refrain, chanted by a not unmusical voice. I yawned and, having stretched myself, sat up to look and listen. And the words of the song were these:

  "When a man, who muffins cries,Cries not, when his father dies,'Tis a proof that he would rather Have a muffin than his father."

  The singer was a tall, strapping fellow with a good-tempered face, whose ruddy health was set off by a handsome pair of black whiskers. As I watched him, he laid aside the pitchfork he had been using, and approached the wagon, but, chancing to look up, his eye met mine, and he stopped:

  "Hulloa!" he exclaimed, breaking short off in the middle of a note, "hulloa!"

  "Hallo!" said I.

  "W'at be doin' up theer?"

  "I was thinking," I returned, "that, under certain circumstances, I, for one, could not blame the individual, mentioned in your song, for his passionate attachment to muffins. At this precise moment a muffin——or, say, five or six, would be highly acceptable, personally."

  "Be you partial to muffins, then?"

  "Yes, indeed," said I, "more especially seeing I have not broken my fast since midday yesterday."

  "Well, an' w'at be doin' in my hay?"

  "I have been asleep," said I.

  "Well, an' what business 'ave ye got a-sleepin' an' a-snorin' in my hay?"

  "I was tired," said I, "and 'Nature her custom holds, let shame say what it will,' still——I do not think I snored."

  "'Ow do I know that——or you, for that matter?" rejoined the farmer, stroking his glossy whiskers, "hows'ever, if you be quite awake, come on down out o' my hay." As he said this he eyed me with rather a truculent air, likewise he clenched his fist. Thinking it wisest to appear unconscious of this, I nodded affably, and letting myself down from the hay, was next moment standing beside him.

  "Supposin' I was to thump 'ee on the nose?" he inquired.

  "What for?"

  "For makin' so free wi' my hay."

  "Why then," said I, "I should earnestly endeavor to thump you on yours."

  The farmer looked me slowly over from head to foot, with a dawning surprise.

  "Thought you was a common tramper, I did," said he.

  "Why, so I am," I answered, brushing the clinging hay from me.

  "Trampers o' the road don't wear gentlemen's clothes——leastways, I never see one as did." Here his eyes wandered over me again, from my boots upward. Half-way up, they stopped, evidently arrested by my waistcoat, a flowered satin of the very latest cut, for which I had paid forty shillings in the Haymarket, scarcely a week before; and, as I looked down at it, I would joyfully have given it, and every waistcoat that was ever cut, to have had that forty shillings safe back in my pocket again.

  "That be a mighty fine weskit, sir!"

  "Do you think so?" said I.

  "Ah, that I do——w'at might be the cost of a weskit the like o' that, now?"

  "I paid forty shillings for it, in the Haymarket, in London, scarcely a week ago," I answered. The fellow very slowly closed one eye at the same time striking his nose three successive raps with his forefinger:

  "Gammon!" said he.

  "None the less, it's true," said I.

  "Any man as would give forty shillin' for a garment as is no mortal good agen the cold——not reachin' fur enough, even if it do be silk, an' all worked wi' little flowers——is a dommed fool!——"

  "Assuredly!" said I, with a nod.

  "Howsomever," he continued, "it's a handsome weskit, there's no denyin', an' well worth a woman's lookin' at——a proper man inside of it."

  "Not a doubt of it," said I.

  "I mean," said he, scratching his ear, and staring hard at the handle of the pitchfork, "a chap wi' a fine pair o' whiskers, say."

  "Hum!" said I.

  "Now, woman," he went on, shifting his gaze to the top button of his left gaiter, "woman is uncommon fond o' a good pair o' whiskers——leastways, so I've heerd."

  "Indeed," said I, "few women can look upon such things unmoved, I believe, and nothing can set off a pair of fine, black whiskers better than a flowered satin waistcoat."

  "That's so!" nodded the farmer.

  "But, unfortunately," said I, passing my hand over my smooth lips and chin, "I have no whiskers."

  "No," returned the farmer, with a thoughtful shake of the head, "leastways, none as I can observe."

  "Now, you have," said I.

  "So they do tell me," he answered modestly.

  "And the natural inference is that you ought to have a flowered waistcoat to go with them."

  "Why, that's true, to be sure!" he nodded.

  "The price of this one is——fifteen shillings," said I.

  "That's a lot o' money, master," said he, shaking his head.

  "It's a great deal less than forty," said I.

  "An' ten is less than fifteen, an' ten shillin' is my price; what d'ye say——come now."

  "You drive a hard bargain," said I, "but the waistcoat is yours at your own price." So saying, I slipped off knapsack and coat, and removing the garment in question, having first felt through the pockets, handed it to him, whereupon he slowly counted the ten shillings into my hand; which done, he sat down upon the shaft of a cart near by, and, spreading out the waistcoat on his knees, looked it over with glistening eyes.

  "Forty shillin' you paid for 'un, up to Lunnon," said he, "forty shillin' it were, I think?"

  "Forty shillings!" said I.

  "Ecod, it's a sight o' money! But it's a grand weskit——ah, that it is!"

  "So you believe me now, do you?" said I, pocketing the ten shillings.

  "Well," he answered slowly, "I won't go so fur as that, but 'tis a mighty fine weskit theer's no denyin', an' must ha' cost a sight o' money——a powerful sight!" I picked up my knapsack and, slipping it on, took my staff, and turned to depart. "Theer's a mug o' homebrewed, an' a slice o' fine roast beef up at th' 'ouse, if you should be so inclined——"

  "Why, as to that," said I, over my shoulder, "I neither eat nor drink with a man who doubts my word."

  "Meanin' those forty shillin'?"

  "Precisely!"

  "Well," said he, twisting his whisker with a thoughtful air, "if you could manage to mak' it twenty——or even twenty-five, I might mak' some shift to believe it——though 'twould be a strain, but forty!——no, damme, I can't swaller that!"

  "Then, neither can I swallow your beef and ale," said I. "Wheer be goin'?" he inquired, rising, and following as I made for the gate.

  "To the end of the road," I answered.

  "Then you be goin' pretty fur——that theer road leads to the sea."

  "Why, then I'm going to the sea," said I.

  "What to do?"

  "I haven't the ghost of an idea," I returned.

  "Can you work?"

  "Yes," said I.

  "Can ye thatch a rick?"

  "No," said I.

  "Shear a sheep?"

  "No," said I.

  "Guide a plough?"

  "No," said I.

  "Shoe a 'oss?"

  "No," said I.

  "Then ye can't work——Lord love me, wheer 'ave 'e been?"

  "At a university," said I.

  "Where, master?"

  "At a place warranted to turn one out a highly educated incompetent," I explained.

  "Why, I don't hold wi' eddication nor book-larnin', myself, master. Here I be wi' a good farm, an' money in the bank, an' can't write my own name," said the farmer.

  "And here am I, a 'first' in 'Litterae Humaniores,' selling my waistcoat that I may eat," said I. Being come to the gate of the yard, I paused. "There is one favor you might grant me," said I.

  "As what, master?"

  "Five minutes under the pump yonder, and a clean towel." The farmer nodded, and crossing to one of the outhouses, presently returned with a towel. And, resting the towel upon the pump-head, he seized the handle, and sent a jet of clear, cool water over my head, and face, and hands.

  "You've got a tidy, sizeable arm," said he, as I dried myself vigorously, "likewise a good strong back an' shoulders; theer's the makin's of a man in you as might do summat——say in the plough or smithin' way, but it's easy to see as you're a gentleman, more's the pity, an' won't. Hows'ever, sir, if you've a mind to a cut o' good beef, an' a mug o' fine ale——say the word."

  "First," said I, "do you believe it was forty shillings yes or no?"

  The farmer twisted his whisker, and stared very hard at the spout of the pump.

  "Tell 'ee what," said he at length, "mak' it thirty, an' I give ye my Bible oath to do the best wi' it I can."

  "Then I must needs seek my breakfast at the nearest inn," said I.

  "An' that is the 'Old Cock,' a mile an' a half nearer Tonbridge."

  "Then the sooner I start the better," said I, "for I'm mightily sharp set."

  "Why, as to that," said he, busy with his whisker again, "I might stretch a pint or two an' call it——thirty-five, at a pinch——what d'ye say?"

  "Why, I say 'good morning,' and many of them!" And, opening the gate, I started off down the road at a brisk pace. Now, as I went, it began to rain.

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