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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter12)

2006-08-28 22:42

  Book One Chapter XII. The One-Legged Soldier

  Following the high road, I came, in a little, to where the ways divided, the one leading straight before me, the other turning sharp to the left, where (as I remember) is a very steep hill.

  And at the parting of the ways was a finger-post with the words: "To LONDON. To TONBRIDGE WELLS. To PEMBRY." Now as I stood beneath the finger-post, debating which road I should take, I was aware of the sound of wheels, and, glancing about, saw a carrier's cart approaching. The driver was a fine, tall, ruddy-faced fellow, very spruce as to his person, who held himself with shoulders. squared and bolt upright, and who shouted a cheery greeting to me.

  "If so be you are for Pembry, or thereabouts, sir," said he, bringing his horses to a standstill, "why, jump up, sir——that is, if you be so minded."

  "My course lies anywhere," said I.

  "Then——if you be so minded——?"

  "I am so minded," said I.

  "Then, sir, jump up," said he.

  "Thanks!" said I.

  So I climbed upon the seat beside him, and then I saw that he had a wooden leg, and straightway understood his smart bearing, and general neat appearance.

  "You have been a soldier?" said I.

  "And my name's Tom, and I could tell you a sight about them Spanishers, and Frenchies——that is, if——you be so minded?"

  "I am so minded; fire away, Tom."

  "Well," he began, fixing his eyes on the "wheeler's" ears, "they Frenchies ain't so bad as is thought, though they do eat frogs, but what I say is——if they be so minded, why frogs let it be!"

  "To be sure!" said I.

  "And after all they're well worth fighting, and that's more than you can say for a many!"

  "True," said I, "one generally has a certain respect for the man one fights."

  "Then there's Old Bony."

  "Have you ever seen him?"

  "I have, sir; I were captured outside the Lines of Torres Vedras, and I saw Old Bony eating his breakfast off a drum-head wi' one hand and a-writing a dispatch wi' the other——a little fat man not so high as my shoulder, look you. There's some as says as Old Bony lives on new-born babies, but I know different. Because why, says you? Because I've seen with these 'ere 'peepers,' says I——bread it were, and cheese, and garlic, and a uncommon lot at that."

  "And where did you lose your leg, Tom?"

  "Vittoria——I 'appened to be carrying my off'cer, Ensign Standish his name, barely eighteen year old. Shot through the lung he were, and a-trying to tell me to put him down and go, the fire being uncommonly 'ot there, you'll understand, sir, and as I say, he were trying to tell me to drop him and run for it, and blowing blood-bubbles wi' every word, when all at once I feels a sort of a shock, and there I was on my back and him atop o' me; and when I went to get up——damme! there was my leg gone below the knee, and no pleasant sight, neither."

  "And afterward?"

  "Arterwards," he repeated. "Why, that were the end o' my sojerin', ye see; we lay in the same 'ospital 'im an' me, side by side, and he swore as I'd saved his life——which I 'adn't, look you, and likewise swore as he'd never forget it. And he never 'as either, for here am I wi' my own horse and cart, Tom Price by name, carrier by trade, an' very much at your service, sir, I'm sure."

  Thus we climbed the hill of Pembry, by tree and hedge, and lonely cottage, by rolling meadow, and twilit wood, Tom the Soldier and I.

  Much he told me of lonely night watches, of death sudden and sharp, of long, weary marches, and stricken fields, of the bloody doings of the Spanish Guerrillas, of Mina, and his deviltries. And in my ears was the roar of guns, and before my eyes the gleam and twinkle of bayonets. By the side of Tom the Soldier I waited the thunderous charge of French Dragoons, saw their stern, set faces, and the flash of their brandished steel as they swept down upon our devoted square, swept down to break in red confusion before our bristling bayonets; and the air was full of the screams of smitten, horses, and the deep-throated shouts and groans of men. By the side of Tom the Soldier I stormed through many a reeking breach, swept by fire, and slippery with blood; and all for love of it, the munificent sum of eightpence per day, and that which we call "Glory." Bravo, Tom the Soldier!

  And presently I became aware that he had stopped his horses, and was regarding me smilingly.

  "Tom," said I, "you are a wonderful talker!"

  "And you, sir," said he, "are a better listener, and, look you, a good listener is mighty hard to come by. Howsomever, here's the end o' my journey, more's the pity, but if you——"

  "Tom," said I suddenly, "you never heard of Tom Cragg, did you?"

  "Can't say as I have," he answered, stroking his chin thoughtfully, "though there was a Dick Snagget in the 'Thirty-Ninth,' I remember."

  "And you don't know who 'George' is, of course?" I continued musingly.

  "Why, I've knowed a many Georges in my time," said he, "and then there's George, Prince o' Wales, the Prince Regent, as they calls him now."

  "George, Prince of Wales!" said I, staring; "by heavens, Tom, I believe you've hit it!" And, with the word, I sprang down from the cart.

  "My cottage is near by, sir, and I should be proud for you to eat supper wi' me——that is——if you be so minded?"

  "Many thanks," said I, "but I am not so minded, and so, good-by, Tom!" And, with the words, I wrung the soldier's honest hand in mine, and went upon my way.

  "George, Prince of Wales!" said I to myself; "could this be the 'George' they had meant? If so, then who and what had they supposed me?" Hereupon, as I walked, I fell into a profound meditation, in which I presently remembered how that Tom Cragg had also mentioned the Prince, giving me to understand that his Highness had actually ordered him (Tom Cragg) to leave London; and why? "Arter that theer kidnappin', an' me 'avin' laid out Sir Jarsper Trent——accordin' to yer order."

  Sir Jasper Trent! I stopped stock still in the road. Sir Jasper Trent! At last I remembered the name that had eluded me so persistently. Remembered it? Nay, indeed, it was rather as if the Pugilist had whispered the words into my ear, and I glanced round almost expecting to see him.

  "Arter that theer kidnappin', an' me 'avin' laid out Sir Jarsper Trent——accordin' to yer orders!"

  According to my orders, or rather, the orders of the man for whom he (in common with the two gentlemen at "The Chequers") had mistaken me. But who was that man? Of him I knew two facts——namely, that he was much like me in person, and had formerly worn, or possibly still wore, whiskers. And beyond these two facts I could get no farther, revolve the matter how I might, so I presently shrugged my shoulders, and banishing it from my thoughts for the time being, set forward at a good pace.

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