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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter30)

2006-08-28 22:57

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XXX. Concerning the Fate of Black George

  A broad, white road; on either hand some half-dozen cottages with roofs of thatch or red tile, backed by trees gnarled and ancient, among which rises the red conical roof of some oast-house. Such, in a word, is Sissinghurst.

  Now, upon the left-hand side of the way, there stands a square, comfortable, whitewashed building, peaked of roof, bright as to windows, and with a mighty sign before the door, whereon you shall behold the picture of a bull: a bull rolling of eye, astonishingly curly of horn and stiff as to tail, and with a prodigious girth of neck and shoulder; such a snorting, fiery-eyed, curly-horned bull as was never seen off an inn-sign.

  It was at this bull that I was staring with much apparent interest, though indeed, had that same curly-horned monstrosity been changed by some enchanter's wand into a green dragon or griffin, or swan with two necks, the chances are that I should have continued sublimely unconscious of the transformation.

  Yet how should honest Silas Hoskins, ostler, and general factotum of "The Bull" inn, be aware of this fact, who, being thus early at work, and seeing me lost in contemplation, paused to address me in all good faith?

  "A fine bull 'e be, eh, Peter? Look at them 'orns, an' that theer tail; it's seldom as you sees 'orns or a tail the like o' them, eh?"

  "Very seldom!" I answered, and sighed.

  "An' then——'is nose-'oles, Peter, jest cast your eye on them nose'oles, will ye; why, dang me! if I can't 'ear 'im a-snortin' when I looks at 'em! An' 'e were all painted by a chap——a little old chap wi' gray whiskers——no taller 'n your elber, Peter! Think o' that——a little chap no taller 'n your elber! I seen 'im do it wi' my two eyes——a-sittin' on a box. Drored t' bull in wi' a bit o' chalk, first; then 'e outs wi' a couple o' brushes; dab 'e goes, an' dab, dab again, an'——by Goles! theer was a pair o' eyes a-rollin' theirselves at me——just a pair o' eyes, Peter. Ah! 'e were a wonder were that little old chap wi' gray whiskers! The way 'e went at that theer bull, a-dabbin' at 'im 'ere, an' a-dabbin' at 'im theer till 'e come to 'is tail——'e done 'is tail last of all, Peter. 'Give un a good tail!' says I. 'Ah! that I will,' says 'e. 'An' a good stiff un!' says I. 'Ye jest keep your eye on it, an' watch!' says 'e. Talk about tails, Peter! 'E put in that theer tail so quick as nigh made my eyes water, an'——as for stiffness——well, look at it! I tell 'ee that chap could paint a bull wi' 'is eyes shut, ah, that 'e could! an' 'im such a very small man wi' gray whiskers. No, ye don't see many bulls like that un theer, I'm thinkin', Peter?"

  "They would be very hard to find!" said I, and sighed again. Whereupon Silas sighed, for company's sake, and nodding, went off about his many duties, whistling cheerily.

  So I presently turned about and crossed the road to the smithy. But upon the threshold I stopped all at once and drew softly back, for, despite the early hour, Prudence was there, upon her knees before the anvil, with George's great hand-hammer clasped to her bosom, sobbing over it, and, while she sobbed, she kissed its worn handle. And because such love was sacred and hallowed that dingy place, I took off my hat as I once more crossed the road.

  Seeing "The Bull" was not yet astir, for the day was still young (as I say), I sat me down in the porch and sighed.

  And after I had sat there for some while, with my chin sunk upon my breast, and plunged in bitter meditation, I became aware of the door opening, and next moment a tremulous hand was laid upon my head, and, looking round, I beheld the Ancient.

  "Bless 'ee, Peter——bless 'ee, lad!——an' a old man's blessin' be no light thing——'specially such a old, old man as I be——an' it bean't often as I feels in a blessin' sperrit——but oh, Peter! 'twere me as found ye, weren't it?"

  "Why, to be sure it was, Ancient, very nearly five months ago."

  "An' I be allus ready wi' some noos for ye, bean't I?"

  "Yes, indeed!"

  "Well, I got more noos for 'ee, Peter——gert noos!"

  "And what is it this time?"

  "I be allus full up o' noos, bean't I?" he repeated.

  "Yes, Ancient," said I, and sighed; "and what is your news?"

  "Why, first of all, Peter, jest reach me my snuff-box, will 'ee? ——'ere it be——in my back 'ind pocket——thankee! thankee!" Hereupon he knocked upon the lid with a bony knuckle. "I du be that full o' noos this marnin' that my innards be all of a quake, Peter, all of a quake!" he nodded, saying which, he sat down close beside me.

  "Peter."

  "Yes, Ancient?"

  "Some day——when that theer old stapil be all rusted away, an' these old bones is a-restin' in the churchyard over to Cranbrook, Peter——you'll think, sometimes, o' the very old man as was always so full o' noos, won't 'ee, Peter?"

  "Surely, Ancient, I shall never forget you," said I, and sighed.

  "An' now, Peter," said the old man, extracting a pinch of snuff, "now for the noos——'bout Black Jarge, it be."

  "What of him, Ancient?" The old man shook his head.

  "It took eight on 'em to du it, Peter, an' now four on 'em's a-layin' in their beds, an' four on 'em's 'obblin' on crutches——an' all over a couple o' rabbits——though theer be some fules as says they was pa'tridges!"

  "Why——what do you mean?"

  "Why, ye see, Peter, Black Jarge be such a gert, strong man (I were much such another when I were young) like; lion, in 'is wrath, 'e be——ah!——a bull bean't nothin' to Black Jarge! An' they keepers come an' found 'im under a tree, fast asleep——like David in the Cave of Adullam, Peter, wi' a couple o' rabbits as 'e'd snared. An' when they keepers tried to tak' 'im, 'e rose up, 'e did, an' throwed some on 'em this way an' some on 'em that way——'twere like Samson an' the Philistines; if only 'e'd 'appened to find the jaw-bone of a ass lyin' 'andy, 'e'd ha' killed 'em all an' got away, sure as sure. But it weren't to be, Peter, no; dead donkeys be scarce nowadays, an' as for asses' jaw-bones——"

  "Do you mean that George is taken——a prisoner?"

  The Ancient nodded, and inhaled his pinch of snuff with much evident relish.

  "It be gert noos, bean't it, Peter?"

  "What have they done with him? Where is he, Ancient?" But, before the old man could answer, Simon appeared.

  "Ah, Peter!" said he, shaking his head, "the Gaffer's been tellin' ye 'ow they've took Jarge for poachin', I suppose——"

  "Simon!" cried the Ancient, "shut thy mouth, lad hold thy gab an' give thy poor old feyther a chance——I be tellin' 'im so fast as I can! As I was a-sayin', Peter like a fur'us lion were Jarge wi' they keepers——eight on 'em, Peter——like dogs, a-growlin' an' growlin', an' leapin', and worryin' all round 'im——ah!——like a lion 'e were——"

  "Waitin' for a chance to use 'is 'right, d'ye see, Peter!" added Simon.

  ANCIENT. Wi' 'is eyes a-rollin' an' flamin', Peter, an' 'is mane all bristlin'——

  SIMON. Cool as any cucumber, Peter——

  ANCIENT. A-roarin' an' a-lashin' of 'is tail——

  SIMON. And sparrin' for an openin', Peter, and when 'e sees one ——downin' 'is man every time——

  ANCIENT. Leapin' in the air, rollin' in the grass, wi' they keepers clingin' to 'im like leeches——ah! leeches——

  SIMON. And every time they rushed, tap 'ud go 'is "left," and bang 'ud go 'is "right"——

  ANCIENT. An' up 'e'd get, like Samson again, Peter, an' give 'isself a shake; bellerin'——like a bull o' Bashan——

  SIMON. Ye see, they fou't so close together that the keepers was afear'd to use their guns——

  ANCIENT (indignantly). Guns!——who's a-talkin' o' guns? Simon, my bye——you be allus a-maggin' an' a-maggin'; bridle thy tongue, lad, bridle thy tongue afore it runs away wi' ye.

  SIMON (sheepishly). All right, Old Un——fire away!

  But, at this juncture, Old Amos hove in view, followed by the Apologetic Dutton, with Job and sundry others, on their way to work, and, as they came, they talked together, with much solemn wagging of heads. Having reached the door of "The Bull," they paused and greeted us, and I thought Old Amos's habitual grin seemed a trifle more pronounced than usual.

  "So poor Jarge 'as been an' gone an' done for 'isself at last, eh? Oh, my soul! think o' that, now!" sighed Old Amos.

  "Allus knowed as 'e would!" added Job; "many's the time I've said as 'e would, an' you know it——all on you."

  "It'll be the Barbadies, or Austrayley!" grinned Amos; "transportation, it'll be——Oh, my soul! think o' that now——an' 'im a Siss'n'urst man!"

  "An' all along o' a couple o'——rabbits!" said the Ancient, emphasizing the last word with a loud rap on his snuff-box.

  "Pa'tridges, Gaffer!——they was pa'tridges!" returned Old Amos.

  "I allus said as Black Jarge'd come to a bad end," reiterated Job, "an' what's more——'e aren't got nobody to blame but 'isself!"

  "An' all for a couple o'——rabbits!" sighed the Ancient, staring Old Amos full in the eye.

  "Pa'tridges, Gaffer, they was pa'tridges——you, James Dutton——was they pa'tridges or was they not——speak up, James."

  Hereupon the man Dutton, all perspiring apology, as usual, shuffled forward, and, mopping his reeking brow, delivered himself in this wise:

  "W'ich I must say——meanin' no offence to nobody, an' if so be, apologizin'——w'ich I must say——me 'avin' seen 'em——they was ——leastways," he added, as he met the Ancient's piercing eye, "leastways——they might 'ave been, w'ich——if they ain't——no matter!"

  Having said which, he apologetically smeared his face all over with his shirt-sleeve, and subsided again.

  "It do wring my 'eart——ah, that it do! to think o' pore Jarge a convic' at Bot'ny Bay!" said Old Amos, "a-workin', an' diggin', an' slavin' wi' irons on 'is legs an' arms, a-jinglin', an' ajanglin' when 'e walks."

  "Well, but it's Justice, aren't it?" demanded Job——"a poacher's a thief, an' a thief's a convic'——or should be!"

  "I've 'eerd," said Old Amos, shaking his head, "I've 'eerd as they ties they convic's up to posts, an' lashes an' lashes 'em wi' the cat-o'-nine-tails!"

  "They generally mostly deserves it!" nodded Job.

  "But 'tis 'ard to think o' pore Jarge tied up to one o' them floggin'-posts, wi' 'is back all raw an' bleedin!" pursued Old Amos; "crool 'ard it be, an' 'im such a fine, strappin' young chap."

  "'E were allus a sight too fond o' pitchin' into folk, Jarge were!" said Job; "it be a mercy as my back weren't broke more nor once."

  "Ah!" nodded the Ancient, "you must be amazin' strong in the back, Job! The way I've seed 'ee come a-rollin' an' awallerin' out o' that theer smithy's wonnerful, wonnerful. Lord! Job——'ow you did roll!"

  "Well, 'e won't never do it no more," said Job, glowering; "what wi' poachin' 'is game, an' knockin' 'is keepers about, 't aren't likely as Squire Beverley'll let 'im off very easy——"

  "Who?" said I, looking up, and speaking for the first time.

  "Squire Beverley o' Burn'am 'All."

  "Sir Peregrine Beverley?"

  "Ay, for sure."

  "And how far is it to Burnham Hall?"

  "'Ow fur?" repeated Job, staring; "why, it lays 't other side o' Horsmonden——"

  "It be a matter o' eight mile, Peter," said the Ancient. "Nine, Peter!" cried old Amos——"nine mile, it be!"

  "Though I won't swear, Peter," continued the Ancient, "I won't swear as it aren't——seven——call it six an' three quarters!" said he, with his eagle eye on Old Amos.

  "Then I had better start now," said I, and rose.

  "Why, Peter——wheer be goin'?"

  "To Burnham Hall, Ancient."

  "What——you?" exclaimed Job; "d'ye think Squire'll see you?"

  "I think so; yes."

  "Well, 'e won't——they'll never let the likes o' you or me beyond the gates."

  "That remains to be seen," said I.

  "So you 'm goin', are ye?"

  "I certainly am."

  "All right!" nodded Job, "if they sets the dogs on ye, or chucks you into the road——don't go blamin' it on to me, that's all!"

  "What——be ye really a-goin', Peter?"

  "I really am, Ancient."

  "Then——by the Lord!——I'll go wi' ye."

  "It's a long walk!"

  "Nay——Simon shall drive us in the cart."

  "That I will!" nodded the Innkeeper.

  "Ay, lad," cried the Ancient, laying his hand upon my arm, "we'll up an' see Squire, you an' me——shall us, Peter? There be some fules," said he, looking round upon the staring company, "some fules as talks o' Bot'ny Bay, an' irons, an' whippin'-posts——all I says is——let 'em, Peter, let 'em! You an' me'll up an' see Squire, Peter, sha'n't us? Black Jarge aren't a convic' yet, let fules say what they will; we'll show 'em, Peter, we'll show 'em!" So saying, the old man led me into the kitchen of "The Bull," while Simon went to have the horses put to.

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