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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter9)

2006-08-28 16:04

  Chapter IX. Which Concerns Itself, Among Other Matters, with the Virtues of a Pair of Stocks and the Perversity of Fathers

  Before them was a church, a small church, gray with age, and, like age, lonely. It stood well back from the road which wound away down the hill to the scattered cottages in the valley below.

  About this church was a burial ground, upon whose green mounds and leaning headstones the great square tower cast a protecting shadow that was like a silent benediction. A rural graveyard this, very far removed from the strife and bustle of cities, and, therefore, a good place to sleep in.

  A low stone wall was set about it, and in the wall was a gate with a weather-beaten porch, and beside the gate were the stocks, and in the stocks, with his hands in his pockets, and his back against the wall, sat a young gentleman.

  A lonely figure, indeed, whose boots, bright and polished, were thrust helplessly enough through the leg-holes of the stocks, as though offering themselves to the notice of every passer-by. Tall he was, and point-de-vice from those same helpless boots to the gleaming silver buckle in his hat band.

  Now observing the elegance of his clothes, and the modish languor of his lounging figure, Barnabas at once recognized him as a gentleman par excellence, and immediately the memory of his own country-made habiliments and clumsy boots arose and smote him. The solitary prisoner seemed in no whit cast down by his awkward and most undignified situation, indeed, as they drew nearer, Barnabas could hear him whistling softly to himself. At the sound of their approach, however, he glanced up, and observed them from under the brim of the buckled hat with a pair of the merriest blue eyes in the world.

  "Aha, Jerry!" he cried, "whom do you bring to triumph over me in my abasement? For shame, Jerry! Is this the act of a loving and affectionate Bo'sun, the Bo'sun of my innocent childhood? Oh, bruise and blister me!"

  "Why, sir," answered the Bo'sun, beaming through his whiskers, "this be only a young genelman, like yourself, as be bound for Lonnon, Master Horatio."

  The face, beneath the devil-may-care rake of the buckled hat, was pale and handsome, and, despite its studied air of gentlemanly weariness, the eyes were singularly quick and young, and wholly ingenuous.

  Now, as they gazed at each other, eye to eye——the merry blue and the steadfast gray——suddenly, unaffectedly, as though drawn by instinct, their hands reached out and met in a warm and firm clasp, and, in that instant, the one forgot his modish languor, and the other his country clothes and blunt-toed boots, for the Spirit of Youth stood between them, and smile answered smile.

  "And so you are bound for London, sir; pray, are you in a hurry to get there?"

  "Not particularly," Barnabas rejoined.

  "Then there you have the advantage of me, for I am, sir. But here I sit, a martyr for conscience sake. Now, sir, if you are in no great hurry, and have a mind to travel in company with a martyr, just as soon as I am free of these bilboes, we'll take the road together. What d' ye say?"

  "With pleasure!" answered Barnabas.

  "Why then, sir, pray sit down. I blush to offer you the stocks, but the grass is devilish dewy and damp, and there's deuce a chair to be had——which is only natural, of course; but pray sit somewhere until the Bo'sun, like the jolly old dog he is, produces the key, and lets me out."

  "Bo'sun, you'll perceive the gentleman is waiting, and, for that matter, so am I. The key, Jerry, the key."

  "Axing your pardons, gentlemen both," began the Bo'sun, taking himself by the starboard whisker, "but orders is orders, and I was to tell you, Master Horatio, sir, as there was firstly a round o' beef cold, for breakfus!"

  "Beef!" exclaimed the prisoner, striking himself on the crown of the hat.

  "Next a smoked tongue——" continued the Bo'sun.

  "Tongue!" sighed the prisoner, turning to Barnabas. "You hear that, sir, my unnatural father and uncle batten upon rounds of beef, and smoked tongues, while I sit here, my legs at a most uncomfortable angle, and my inner man as empty as a drum; oh, confound and curse it!"

  "A brace o' cold fowl," went on the Bo'sun inexorably; "a biled 'am——"

  "Enough, Jerry, enough, lest I forget filial piety and affection and rail upon 'em for heartless gluttons."

  "And," pursued the Bo'sun, still busy with his whisker and abstracted of eye——"and I were to say as you was now free to come out of they stocks——"

  "Aha, Jerry! even the most Roman of fathers can relent, then. Out with the key, Jerry! Egad! I can positively taste that beef from here; unlock me, Jerry, that I may haste to pay my respects to Roman parent, uncle, and beef——last, but not least, Jerry——"

  "Always supposing," added the Bo'sun, giving a final twist to his whisker, "that you've 'ad time to think better on it, d' ye see, and change your mind, Master Horatio, my Lord."

  Barnabas pricked up his ears; a lord, and in the stocks! preposterous! and yet surely these were the boots, and clothes, and hat of a lord.

  "Change my mind, Jerry!" exclaimed his Lordship, "impossible; you know I never change my mind. What! yield up my freedom for a mess of beef and tongue, or even a brace of cold fowl——"

  "Not to mention a cold biled 'am, Master Horatio, sir."

  "No, Jerry, not for all the Roman parents, rounds of beef, tyrannical uncles and cold hams in England. Tempt me no more, Jerry; Bo'sun, avaunt, and leave me to melancholy and emptiness."

  "Why then," said the Bo'sun, removing the glazed hat and extracting therefrom the Captain's meat packages, "I were to give you this meat, Master Horatio, beef and bread, my Lord."

  "From the Captain, I'll be sworn, eh, Jerry?"

  "Ay, ay, my Lord, from his Honor the Cap'n."

  "Now God bless him for a tender-hearted old martinet, eh, Bo'sun?"

  "Which I begs to say, amen, Master Horatio, sir."

  "To be sure there is nothing Roman about my uncle." Saying which, his Lordship, tearing open the packages, and using his fingers as forks, began to devour the edibles with huge appetite.

  "There was a tongue, I think you mentioned, Jerry," he inquired suddenly.

  "Ay, sir, likewise a cold biled 'am."

  His Lordship sighed plaintively.

  "And yet," said he, sandwiching a slice of beef between two pieces of bread with great care and nicety, "who would be so mean-spirited as to sell that freedom which is the glorious prerogative of man (and which I beg you to notice is a not unpleasing phrase, sir) who, I demand, would surrender this for a base smoked tongue?"

  "Not forgetting a fine, cold biled 'am, Master Horatio, my Lord. And now, wi' your permission, I'll stand away for the village, leaving you to talk wi' this here young gentleman and take them vittles aboard, till I bring up alongside again, Cap'n's orders, Master Horatio." Saying which, the Bo'sun touched the glazed hat, went about, and, squaring his yards, bore away for the village.

  "Sir," said his Lordship, glancing whimsically at Barnabas over his fast-disappearing hunch of bread and meat, "you have never been——called upon to——sit in the stocks, perhaps?"

  "Never——as yet," answered Barnabas, smiling.

  "Why, then, sir, let me inform you the stocks have their virtues. I'll not deny a chair is more comfortable, and certainly more dignified, but give me the stocks for thought, there's nothing like 'em for profound meditation. The Bible says, I believe, that one should seek the seclusion of one's closet, but, believe me, for deep reverie there's nothing like the stocks. You see, a poor devil has nothing else to do, therefore he meditates."

  "And pray," inquired Barnabas, "may I ask what brings you sitting in this place of thought?"

  "Three things, sir, namely, matrimony, a horse race, and a father. Three very serious matters, sir, and the last the gravest of all. For you must know I am, shall I say——blessed? yes, certainly, blessed in a father who is essentially Roman, being a man of his word, sir. Now a man of his word, more especially a father, may prove a very mixed blessing. Speaking of fathers, generally, sir, you may have noticed that they are the most unreasonable class of beings, and delight to arrogate to themselves an authority which is, to say the least, trying; my father especially so——for, as I believe I hinted before, he is so infernally Roman."

  "Indeed," smiled Barnabas, "the best of fathers are, after all, only human."

  "Aha!" cried his Lordship, "there speaks experience. And yet, sir, these human fathers, one and all, believe in what I may term the divine right of fathers to thwart, and bother, and annoy sons old enough to be——ha——"

  "To know their own minds," said Barnabas.

  "Precisely," nodded his Lordship. "Consequently, my Roman father and I fell out——my honored Roman and I frequently do fall out——but this morning, sir, unfortunately 't was before breakfast." Here his Lordship snatched a hasty bite of bread and meat with great appetite and gusto, while Barnabas sat, dreamy of eye, staring away across the valley.

  "Pray," said he suddenly, yet with his gaze still far away, "do you chance to be acquainted with a Sir Mortimer Carnaby?"

  "Acquainted," cried his Lordship, speaking with his mouth full. "Oh, Gad, sir, every one who is any one is acquainted with Sir Mortimer Carnaby."

  "Ah!" said Barnabas musingly, "then you probably know him."

  "He honors me with his friendship."

  "Hum!" said Barnabas.

  Here his Lordship glanced up quickly and with a slight contraction of the brow.

  "Sir," he retorted, with a very creditable attempt at dignity, despite the stocks and his hunch of bread and meat, "Sir, permit me to add that I am proud of his friendship."

  "And pray," inquired Barnabas, turning his eyes suddenly to his companion's face, "do you like him?"

  "Like him, sir!"

  "Or trust him!" persisted Barnabas, steadfast-eyed.

  "Trust him, sir," his Lordship repeated, his gaze beginning to wander, "trust him!" Here, chancing to espy what yet remained of the bread and meat, he immediately took another bite, and when he spoke it was in a somewhat muffled tone in consequence. "Trust him? Egad, sir, the boot's on t'other leg, for 'twixt you and me, I owe him a cool thousand, as it is!"

  "He is a great figure in the fashionable world, I understand," said Barnabas.

  "He is the most admired Buck in London, sir," nodded his Lordship, "the most dashing, the most sought after, a boon companion of Royalty itself, sir, the Corinthian of Corinthians."

  "Do you mean," said Barnabas, with his eyes on the distance again, "that he is a personal friend of the Prince?"

  "One of the favored few," nodded his Lordship, "and, talking of him, brings us back to my honored Roman."

  "How so?" inquired Barnabas, his gaze on the distance once more.

  "Because, sir, with that unreasonableness peculiar to fathers, he has taken a violent antipathy to my friend Carnaby, though, as far as I know, he has never met my friend Carnaby. This morning, sir, my father summoned me to the library. 'Horatio,' says he, in his most Roman manner,——he never calls me Horatio unless about to treat me to the divine right of fathers,——'Horatio,' says he, 'you're old enough to marry.' 'Indeed, I greatly fear so, sir,' says I. 'Then,' says he, solemn as an owl, 'why not settle down here and marry?' Here he named a certain lovely person whom, 'twixt you and me, sir, I have long ago determined to marry, but, in my own time, be it understood. 'Sir,' said I, 'believe me I would ride over and settle the matter with her this very morning, only that I am to race 'Moonraker' (a horse of mine, you'll understand, sir) against Sir Mortimer Carnaby's 'Clasher' and if I should happen to break my neck, it might disappoint the lady in question, or even break her heart.' 'Horatio,' says my Roman——more Roman than ever——'I strongly disapprove of your sporting propensities, and, more especially, the circle of acquaintances you have formed in London.' 'Blackguardedly Bucks and cursed Corinthians!' snarls my uncle, the Captain, flapping his empty sleeve at me. 'That, sirs, I deeply regret,' says I, preserving a polite serenity, 'but the match is made, and a man must needs form some circle of acquaintance when he lives in London.' 'Then,' says my honored Roman, with that lack of reasonableness peculiar to fathers, 'don't live in London, and as for the horse match give it up.' 'Quite impossible, sir,' says I, calmly determined, 'the match has been made and recorded duly at White's, and if you were as familiar with the fashionable sporting set as I, you would understand.' 'Pish, boy,' says my Roman——'t is a trick fathers have at such times of casting one's youth in one's teeth, you may probably have noticed this for yourself, sir——'Pish, boy,' says he, 'I know, I know, I've lived in London!' 'True, sir,' says I, 'but things have changed since your day, your customs went out with your tie-wigs, and are as antiquated as your wide-skirted coats and buckled shoes'——this was a sly dig at my worthy uncle, the Captain, sir. 'Ha!' cries he, flapping his empty sleeve at me again, 'and nice figure-heads you made of yourselves with your ridiculous stocks and skin-tight breeches,' and indeed," said his Lordship, stooping to catch a side-view of his imprisoned legs, "they are a most excellent fit, I think you'll agree."

  "Marvellous!" sighed Barnabas, observing them with the eyes of envy.

  "Well, sir," pursued his Lordship, "the long and short of it was——my honored Roman, having worked himself into a state of 'divine right' necessary to the occasion, vows that unless I give up the race and spend less time and money in London, he will clap me into the stocks. 'Then, sir,' says I, smiling and unruffled, 'pray clap me in as soon as you will'; and he being, as I told you, a man of his word,——well——here I am."

  "Where I find you enduring your situation with a remarkable fortitude," said Barnabas.

  "Egad, sir! how else should I endure it? I flatter myself I am something of a philosopher, and thus, enduring in the cause of freedom and free will, I scorn my bonds, and am consequently free. Though, I'll admit, 'twixt you and me, sir, the position cramps one's legs most damnably."

  "Now in regard to Sir Mortimer Carnaby," persisted Barnabas, "your father, it would seem, neither likes nor trusts him."

  "My father, sir, is——a father, consequently perverse. Sir Mortimer Carnaby is my friend, therefore, though my father has never met Sir Mortimer Carnaby, he takes a mortal antipathy to Sir Mortimer Carnaby, Q.E.D., and all the rest of it."

  "On the other hand," pursued Barnabas the steadfast-eyed, "you——admire, respect, and honor your friend Sir Mortimer Carnaby!"

  "Admire him, sir, who wouldn't? There isn't such another all-round sportsman in London——no, nor England. Only last week he drove cross-country in his tilbury over hedges and ditches, fences and all, and never turned a hair. Beat the 'Fighting Tanner' at Islington in four rounds, and won over ten thousand pounds in a single night's play from Egalite d'Orleans himself. Oh, egad, sir! Carnaby's the most wonderful fellow in the world!"

  "Though a very indifferent boxer!" added Barnabas.

  "Indiff——!" His Lordship let fall the last fragments of his bread and meat, and stared at Barnabas in wide-eyed amazement. "Did you say——indifferent?"

  "I did," nodded Barnabas, "he is much too passionate ever to make a good boxer."

  "Why, deuce take me! I tell you there isn't a pugilist in England cares to stand up to him with the muffles, or bare knuckles!"

  "Probably because there are no pugilists left in England, worth the name," said Barnabas.

  "Gad, sir! we are all pugilists nowadays——the Manly Art is all the fashion——and, I think, a very excellent fashion. And permit me to tell you I know what I'm talking of, I have myself boxed with nearly all the best 'milling coves' in London, and am esteemed no novice at the sport. Indeed love of the 'Fancy' was born in me, for my father, sir——though occasionally Roman——was a great patron of the game, and witnessed the great battle between 'Glorious John Barty' and Nathaniel Bell——"

  "At Dartford!" added Barnabas.

  "And when Bell was knocked down, at the end of the fight——"

  "After the ninety-seventh round!" nodded Barnabas.

  "My father, sir, was the first to jump into the ring and clasp the Champion's fist——and proud he is to tell of it!"

  "Proud!" said Barnabas, staring.

  "Proud, sir——yes, why not? so should I have been——so would any man have been. Why let me tell you, sir, at home, in the hall, between the ensign my uncle's ship bore through Trafalgar, and the small sword my grandfather carried at Blenheim, we have the belt John Barty wore that day."

  "His belt!" exclaimed Barnabas, "my——John Barty's belt?"

  "So you see I should know what I am talking about. Therefore, when you condemn such a justly celebrated man of his hands as my friend Carnaby, I naturally demand to know who you are to pronounce judgment?"

  "I am one," answered Barnabas, "who has been taught the science by that very Nathaniel Bell and 'Glorious John' you mention."

  "Hey——what?——what?" cried his Lordship.

  "I have boxed with them regularly every day," Barnabas continued, "and I have learned that strength of arm, quickness of foot, and a true eye are all unavailing unless they be governed by a calm, unruffled temper, for passion clouds the judgment, and in fighting as in all else, it is judgment that tells in the long run."

  "Now, by heaven!" exclaimed his Lordship, jerking his imprisoned legs pettishly, "if I didn't happen to be sitting trussed up here, and we had a couple of pair of muffles, why we might have had a friendly 'go' just to take each other's measures; as it is——"

  But at this moment they heard a hoarse bellow, and, looking round, beheld the Bo'sun who, redder of face than ever and pitching and rolling in his course, bore rapidly down on them, and hauling his wind, took off the glazed hat.

  "Ha, Jerry!" exclaimed his Lordship, "what now? If you happen to have anything else eatable in that hat of yours, out with it, for I am devilish sharp-set still."

  "Why, I have got summat, Master Horatio, but it aren't bread nor yet beef, nor yet again biled 'am, my Lord——it can't be eat nor it can't be drank——and here it be!" and with the words the Bo'sun produced a ponderous iron key.

  "Why, my dear old Jerry——my lovely Bo'sun——"

  "Captured by his Honor, Master Horatio——carried off by the Cap'n under your own father's very own nose, sir——or as you might say, cut out under the enemy's guns, my Lord!" With which explanation the old sailor unfastened the padlock, raised the upper leg-board, and set the prisoner free.

  "Ah!——but it's good to have the use of one's legs again!" exclaimed his Lordship, stretching the members in question, "and that," said he, turning to Barnabas with his whimsical smile, "that is another value of the stocks——one never knows how pleasant and useful a pair of legs can be until one has sat with 'em stretched out helplessly at right angles for an hour or two." Here, the Bo'sun having stowed back the key and resumed his hat, his Lordship reached out and gripped his hand. "So it was Uncle John, was it, Jerry——how very like Uncle John——eh, Jerry?"

  "Never was nobody born into this here vale o' sorrer like the Cap'n——no, nor never will be——nohow!" said the Bo'sun with a solemn nod.

  "God bless him, eh, Jerry?"

  "Amen to that, my Lord."

  "You'll let him know I said 'God bless him,' Jerry?"

  "I will, my Lord, ay, ay, God bless him it is, Master Horatio!"

  "Now as to my Roman——my father, Jerry, tell him——er——"

  "Be you still set on squaring away for London, then, sir?"

  "As a rock, Jerry, as a rock!"

  "Then 't is 'good-by,' you're wishing me?"

  "Yes, 'good-by,' Jerry, remember 'God bless Uncle John,' and——er——tell my father that——ah, what the deuce shall you tell him now?——it should be something a little affecting——wholly dutiful, and above all gently dignified——hum! Ah, yes——tell him that whether I win or lose the race, whether I break my unworthy neck or no, I shall never forget that I am the Earl of Bamborough's son. And as for you, Jerry, why, I shall always think of you as the jolly old sea dog who used to stoop down to let me get at his whiskers, they were a trifle blacker in those days. Gad! how I did pull 'em, Jerry, even then I admired your whiskers, didn't I? I swear there isn't such another pair in England. Good-by, Jerry!" Saying which his Lordship turned swiftly upon his heel and walked on a pace or two, while Barnabas paused to wring the old seaman's brown hand; then they went on down the hill together.

  And the Bo'sun, sitting upon the empty stocks with his wooden pin sticking straight out before him, sighed as he watched them striding London-wards, the Lord's son, tall, slender, elegant, a gentleman to his finger tips, and the commoner's son, shaped like a young god, despite his homespun, and between them, as it were linking them together, fresh and bright and young as the morning, went the joyous Spirit of Youth.

  Now whether the Bo'sun saw aught of this, who shall say, but old eyes see many things. And thus, perhaps, the sigh that escaped the battered old man-o'-war's man's lips was only because of his own vanished youth——his gray head and wooden leg, after all.

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