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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter36)

2006-08-28 22:58

Book Two. The Woman
Chapter XXXVI. Which Sympathizes with a Brass Jack, a Brace of Cutlasses, and Divers Pots and Pans

I found the Ancient sunning himself in the porch before the inn, as he waited for his breakfast.

"Peter," said he, "I be tur'ble cold sometimes. It comes a-creepin' on me all at once, even if I be sittin' before a roarin' fire or a-baskin' in this good, warm sun--a cold as reaches down into my poor old 'eart--grave-chills, I calls 'em, Peter--ah! grave-chills. Ketches me by the 'eart they do; ye see I be that old, Peter, that old an' wore out."

"But you're a wonderful man for your age!" said I, clasping the shrivelled hand in mine, "and very lusty and strong--"

"So strong as a bull I be, Peter!" he nodded readily, "but then, even a bull gets old an' wore out, an' these grave-chills ketches me oftener an' oftener. 'Tis like as if the Angel o' Death reached out an' touched me--just touched me wi' 'is finger, soft-like, as much as to say: ''Ere be a poor, old, wore-out creeter as I shall be wantin' soon.' Well, I be ready; 'tis only the young or the fule as fears to die. Threescore years an' ten, says the Bible, an' I be years an' years older than that. Oh! I shan't be afeared to answer when I'm called, Peter. ''Ere I be, Lord!' I'll say. ''Ere I be, thy poor old servant' --but oh, Peter! if I could be sure o' that theer old rusty stapil bein' took first, why then I'd go j'yful--j'yful, but-- why theer be that old fule Amos--Lord! what a dodderin' old fule 'e be, an' theer be Job, an' Dutton--they be comin' to plague me, Peter, I can feel it in my bones. Jest reach me my snuff-box out o' my 'ind pocket, an' you shall see me smite they Amalekites 'ip an' thigh."

"Gaffer," began Old Amos, saluting us with his usual grin, as he came up, "we be wishful to ax 'ee a question--we be wishful to know wheer be Black Jarge, which you 'avin' gone to fetch 'im, an' bring 'im 'ome again--them was your words."

"Ah!" nodded Job, "them was your very words, 'bring 'im 'ome again,' says you--"

"But you didn't bring 'im 'ome," continued Old Amos, "leastways, not in the cart wi' you. Dutton 'ere--James Dutton see you come drivin' 'ome, but 'e didn't see no Jarge along wi' you--no, not so much as you could shake a stick at, as you might say. Speak up, James Dutton you was a-leanin' over your front gate as Gaffer come drivin' 'ome, wasn't you, an' you see Gaffer plain as plain, didn't you?"

"W'ich, me wishin' no offense, an' no one objectin'--I did," began the Apology, perspiring profusely as usual, "but I takes the liberty to say as it were a spade, an' not a gate--leastways--"

"But you didn't see no signs o' Jarge, did ye?" demanded Old Amos, "as ye might say, neither 'ide nor 'air of 'im--speak up, James Dutton."

"W'ich, since you axes me, I makes so bold as to answer--an' very glad I'm sure--no; though as to 'ide an' 'air, I aren't wishin' to swear to, me not bein' near enough--w'ich could only be expected, an' very much obliged, I'm sure."

"Ye see, Gaffer," pursued Amos, "if you didn't bring Jarge back wi' you--w'ich you said you would--the question we axes is--wheer be Jarge?"

"Ah!--wheer?" nodded Job gloomily. Here the Ancient was evidently at a loss, to cover which, he took a vast pinch of snuff.

"'Ow be we to know as 'e bean't pinin' away in a dungeon cell wi' irons on 'is legs, an' strapped in a straitjacket an--"

Old Amos stopped, open-mouthed and staring, for out from the gloom of the smithy issued Black George himself, with Prue upon his arm. The Ancient stared also, but, dissembling his vast surprise, he dealt the lid of his snuffbox two loud, triumphant knocks.

"Peter," said he, rising stiffly, "Peter, lad, I were beginnin' to think as Jarge were never comin' in to breakfus' at all. I've waited and waited till I be so ravenous as a lion an' tiger--but 'ere 'e be at last, Peter, 'ere 'e be, so let's go in an' eat summ'at." Saying which, he turned his back upon his discomfited tormentors, and led me into the kitchen of the inn.

And there were the white-capped maids setting forth such a breakfast as only such a kitchen could produce. And, presently, there was Prue herself, with George hanging back, something shamefaced, till the Ancient had hobbled forward to give him welcome. And there was honest Simon, all wonderment and hearty greeting. And (last, but by no means least) there were the battered cutlasses, the brass jack, and the glittering pots and pans--glittering and gleaming and twinkling a greeting likewise, and with all their might.

Ah! but they little guessed why Prue's eyes were so shy and sweet, or why the color came and went in her pretty cheeks; little they guessed why, this golden-haired giant trod so lightly, and held his tall head so very high--little they dreamed of the situation as yet; had they done so, surely they must, one and all, have fallen upon that curly, golden head and buried it beneath their gleaming, glittering, twinkling jealousy.

And what a meal was that! with those deft, whitecapped maids to wait upon our wants, and with Prudence hovering here and there to see that all were duly served, and refusing to sit down until George's great arm--a very gentle arm for one so strong and big --drew her down beside him.

Yes, truly, what a meal that was, and how the Ancient chuckled, and dug me with one bony elbow and George with the other, and chuckled again till he choked, and choked till he gasped, and gasped till he had us all upon our feet, then demanded indignantly why we couldn't let him "enj'y hisself in peace."

And now, when the meal was nearly over, he suddenly took it into his head that Prue didn't love George as she should and as he deserved to be, and nothing would content him but that she must kiss him then and there.

"An' not on the forr'ud, mind--nor on the cheek, but on the place as God made for it--the mouth, my lass!"

And now, who so shy and blushing as Prue, and who so nervous, for her sake, as Black George, very evidently clasping her hand under the table, and bidding her never to mind--as he was content, and never to put herself out over such as him. Whereupon Mistress Prue must needs turn, and taking his bead between her hands, kissed him--not once, or twice, but three times, and upon "the place God made for it--the mouth."

O gleaming Cutlasses! O great Brass Jack and glittering Pots and Pans! can ye any longer gleam and glitter and twinkle in doubt? Alas! I trow not. Therefore it is only natural and to be expected that beneath your outward polish lurk black and bitter feelings against this curly-headed giant, and a bloodthirsty desire for vengeance. If so, then one and all of you have, at least, the good feeling not to show it, a behavior worthy of gentlemen--what do I say?--of gentlemen?--fie! rather let it be said--of pots and pans.

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