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Black Bartlemy's Treasure(Chapter3)

2006-08-28 21:43

  Chapter III. Tells How I Stole My Breakfast

  The mist lay very thick all about me, but when I had climbed to higher ground it thinned away somewhat, so that as the pallid light grew I began to see something of the havoc wrought by the storm; here and there lay trees uprooted, while everywhere was a tangle of broken boughs and trailing branches, insomuch that I found my going no small labour. But presently as I forced a way through these leafy tangles, the birds, awaking, began to fill the dim world with blithe chirpings that grew and grew to a sweet clamour, ever swelling until the dark woods thrilled with gladsome music and I, beholding the first beam of sun, felt heartened thereby 'spite my lack of sleep and the gnawing of hunger's sharp fangs, and hastened with blither steps. Thus in a while I brake forth of the desolate trees and came out upon a fair, rolling meadow with blooming hedgerows before me and, beyond, the high road. And now as I stayed to get my bearings, up rose the sun in majesty, all glorious in purple and pink and gold, whose level beams turned the world around me into a fair garden all sweet and fresh and green, while, in the scowling woods behind, the sullen mists crept furtive away till they were vanished quite and those leafy solitudes became a very glory.

  But my hunger was very sore, a need I purposed to satisfy soon and at all hazards; therefore, having marked my direction, I went at speed and, crossing the meadow, came into the highway and struck south. On my going through the woods I had chosen me a cudgel in place of the one lost, shortish and knotted and very apt for quick wrist-play, and I plucked forth my sailor's knife meaning to trim my staff therewith; but with it poised in my hand, I stopped all at once, for I saw that the point of the stout blade (the which I had sharpened and whetted to an extreme keenness), I perceived, I say, that the blade was bent somewhat and the point turned, hook-like. Now as I strode on again, the early sun flashing back from the steel, I fell to wondering how this had chanced, and bethinking me of those two deadly blows I had struck in the dark I scrutinised my knife, blade and haft, yet found nowhere on it any trace of blood, so that 'twas manifest the fellow had worn some protection——chain-shirts were common enough and many a rogue went with a steel skull to line his hat. So it seemed the fellow lived yet and (black rogue though he was) I was vaguely glad 'twas not my hand had sent him to his account.

  I was yet revolving the matter in my mind when I heard a loud and merry whistling, and glancing up, beheld a country fellow approaching down a side lane. He wore a wide-eaved hat and his smock was new-washed and speckless; but that which drew and held my eyes, that which brought me to a sudden stand, was the bundle he bore wrapped in a fair, white clout. So, with my gaze on this I stood leaning on my knotted, untrimmed staff, waiting him. Suddenly, chancing to turn his head, he espied me, halted in his stride, then eyeing me askance, advanced again. A small man he was, with rosy face, little, merry eyes, and a wide, up-curving mouth.

  "Goo' marnin' to 'ee——it do have been a tur'ble bad starm las' night, master!"

  "Aye!" says I, and my heart warmed to him by reason of his good Kentish tongue——the like of which I had not heard these many weary years; but at sight of that white-clouted bundle my mouth watered and hunger gnawed with sharper tooth. "What have ye here?" I questioned, touching this with my staff.

  "Nou't but my dinner, master, 's ever was!"

  "Nay," says I scowling, "I think not!"

  "Aye, but it be, master!" he nodded. "Bread and beef wi' a mossel of cheese like, 's ever was!"

  "Bread!" says I. "Beef! Cheese! Liar——here is no dinner o' yours!"

  "Aye, master, but it do be so, sure!" quoth he, staring. "My very own dinner cut by my very own darter, beef an' bread an' a mossel o' cheese——I take my bible oath t' it, I do——bread an' beef an' a mossel——"

  "Show me!" With notable haste he undid the wrapping, discovering a good half-loaf, a thick slice of roast beef and a slab of yellow cheese.

  "Ha, man!" quoth I 'twixt shut teeth. "So you lied to me then."

  "Lied to 'ee, master?" says he faintly.

  "You told me 'twas your dinner!"

  "Aye, and so it be, so it be, I lay my oath——beef, d'ye see, an' a mossel——"

  "Nay," says I gathering up the viands, "here's my breakfast."

  "Is it?" says he, gaping.

  "It is! Would ye deny it?"

  "Not for a moment!" says he, eyeing my staff and the gleaming knife in my belt. "Lordy, no! Only how was I to know 'twere yourn, master——when my darter cut it for her very own feyther——"

  "We live and we learn!" says I, turning away. "What might your name be?"

  "Full-o'-j'y Tucker, master."

  "Why then, Full-of-joy, though my gain be your loss take comfort in that 'tis more blessed to give than receive. Moreover, though you lack a dinner you have a daughter and a roof to shelter you and I neither one nor other——a poor, hungry rogue. Methinks of the two of us you have the better of life."

  "Why, look'ee now, master," says he, scratching his shaven chin, "since you've got your breakfus' surely, if you're minded t' step along t' my cottage down t' lane, I can give ye a jug of good ale to wash it down." Now as he spoke thus, seeing the sturdy manliness of him I dropped my staff and reached out my hand.

  "Full-of-joy," says I, "a starving man must eat by hook or crook, but if you'll give your honest hand to a thief——there's mine!"

  The man stared from my hand to my face, his wide mouth curved, then rubbing hand on snowy smock he grasped my fingers and wrung them heartily——a clean and honest grip, such as I had not known for many a long day.

  "Will 'ee come, master?" he questioned. I shook my head. Quoth I:

  "You have a daughter and I'm no fit company for a good, sweet maid——nor ever shall be for that matter!" So saying, I dropped his hand and turning, strode away down the road, his dinner beneath my arm; and when at last I glanced back I saw him standing where I had left him, staring after me chin in hand. Presently, turning in at a gate beside the way, I sat down beneath a hedge in the warm, level beams of the sun and fell to eating with huge appetite and (stolen though it was) never tasted food more sweet. I was thus rapturously employed when I heard a dolorous whine and, starting about, beheld a ragged creature on the opposite side of the hedge who glared at the food with haggard eyes and reached out claw-like hands in supplication.

  "O for the love o' Christ, spare a crust!" she wailed. "Spare a bite to a grannam as dieth o' hunger. O sweet Jesu——a mouthful to a poor soul as do be pined for lack o' food——"

  "Off!" cries I fiercely, "What know you of hunger? Away, hag!" and I reached for my staff, whereupon she wailed and wept, and clawing her dismal rags about her, crept away moaning.

  But now while my jaws champed ravenously, the food had lost its savour; wherefore I cursed and choked and, springing to my feet, made after her, but, seeing me follow at speed, she cried out in fear and, striving to flee from me, sank on feeble knees.

  "Old hag!" quoth I, "Be damned for spoiling a hungry man's appetite and robbing him of what he was at pains to rob for himself!" Then I thrust the well-filled napkin into her clutching fingers and hasted away, but her raptured cry followed me as I went.

  I trudged on slow and heavy through the mud, being very weary for lack of sleep and mightily down cast, heedless of gladsome morn and the fair, fresh world about me, conscious but of my own most miserable estate; insomuch that I presently sank down on the grass by the road and, with heavy head bowed between my hands, gave myself up to black despond.

  But now as I sat thus, very sick and sorrowful, I heard a sound of wheels and plodding hoofs drawing slowly near, and lifting my head at last, espied a great wain piled high with fragrant hay whereon the driver sprawled asleep, a great fat fellow whose snores rose above the jingle of harness and creak of wheels. Now hearkening to his snoring, beholding him so gross and full-fed (and I starving!!) my sadness gave place to sudden, hot anger and, as the waggon lumbered by, I swung myself up behind, and clambering over the hay, raised my staff, minded to drub the fellow into wakefulness; but even then I stayed the blow, for I spied a wallet that hung to the driving-seat, a large wallet of plump and inviting aspect. Reaching it down I opened it forthwith and found therein a new-baked loaf, a roast capon delicately browned and a jar of small beer. And now, couched luxuriously among the hay, I fell to work (tooth and nail) and though I ate in voracious haste, never before or since have I tasted aught so delicate and savoury as that stolen fowl. I was yet busied with what remained of the carcass when the fat fellow choked in his snoring, sighed, grunted, propped himself on lazy elbow and, catching sight of me, fell a-gaping. So whiles he watched open-mouthed, I finished what remained of the capon and tossed the bones over the hedge.

  "Ecod!" quoth he faintly. "O, ecod——my dinner!" As for me, having my mouth full, I spake not. "Ad's bobs!" says he, "A rascally, robbing thief of the roads!"

  "Even so!" I nodded and took a long draught of his beer.

  "A-eating and a-drinking of a honest man's dinner, by the Lord!" says he, clenching fat fists. "O ecod——a hell-fire rogue——a very lousy, scurvy dog as shall be carted and whipped and set in Sir Richard's new pillory!" At this, being engaged with the bread, I reached out my foot and kicked him (very featly) in the belly; whereat he gasped and growing thoughtful, dolefully watched me make an end.

  "If there is aught left to eat," says I, "show it me!"

  "As fine a capon as was ever plucked, by the Lord!" he groaned.

  "Most true!" says I, stretching myself in the hay.

  "O!" quoth he, as to himself, "O the pity on't——so foul an end to so fair a bird!"

  "Never whine!" says I, "but tell me how far hence lieth Lamberhurst."

  "Better nor six mile!" he sighed, heaving himself into the driving-seat.

  "Why then, do you carry me thither."

  "Ad's love!" he mourned. "'Tis manifest shame a rogue should thieve the food of an honest man——a man like I be as do slave morning, noon and——"

  "Slave!" says I, frowning. "What know you of slavery? Be curst for a great, fat fool that speaketh lies!" Now watching him as I lay, I saw his hand close stealthily on his heavy whip, but or ever he could turn to strike, I rose and fetched him a buffet 'neath the ear that pitched him sprawling upon the broad backs of his horses, whence (with much groaning and puffing) he presently got him safely into the road; seeing the which, I took the reins, whipping the team to faster gait, so that to keep pace he must needs trot it in the mud.

  "Hold!" cries he. "What would ye wi' my waggon?"

  "Ride in 't!"

  "Hold! Then suffer me to ride likewise, for I'm scant o' breath——"

  "Good! I've been scant o' breath ere now!"

  "Show a little pity, master!" he groaned.

  "None ever showed pity on me!"

  "Nay, but——what harm have I——ever——done thee?"

  "Begrudged food to a starving wretch!"

  "'Twas my dinner and I do need a deal of feeding, I! Lord, how I sweat! Prithee, master, let me up. How have I deserved this?"

  "Called me rogue and thief!"

  "Aye, that I did——to my woe. Aye, rogue I named thee and likewise——lousy knave——and grieve for't now, I do!"

  "And so needs must you sweat awhile!" says I.

  And thus I (aloft and at mine ease) and the fat fellow trotting breathless at the wheel we went awhile (and never another word) until, what with fear of losing his goods, what with the mud and heat and sweat, the poor gross fool looked wellnigh spent and all foredone (as I had seen many a better man than he), whereupon I brought the waggon to a stand and reached down to stir him where he lent half-swooning across the wheel.

  "Hark'ee, fool, dost know of one called Brandon of Shene hereabouts?"

  "Aye, truly——truly!" he gasped. "I do know——Sir Richard——passing well. Ad's bobs, my innards be all shook t'pieces and I do be parched wi' thirst."

  "Why then, up with you!" says I, and giving him my hand, aided him back to the driving-seat. Being there, he sighed, groaned and cast a yearning eye towards his wallet.

  "Parched wi' thirst I be!" he groaned.

  "I've been the like ere now!" says I, and having gulped down what remained of the fellow's beer I tossed the jar into the road, whereat he beat his breast.

  "My beer!" he wailed, "And I a-famishing wi' thirst! O my beer!"

  "There's sweet water i' the brook yonder!" says I.

  "You be a chap wi' no bowels, for sure!" he cried. "Aye, a hard man you be!"

  "'Tis a hard world," says I, "but 'tis no matter for that, tell me of Sir Richard Brandon."

  "Why then, you must know I am Myles Trueman——"

  "And truly, man, there be miles of you, but 'tis no matter for that either——what of Sir Richard?"

  "I do be coming to he," says Trueman in surly tone. "I do farm Sir Richard's land——a hard man, see you, though just."

  "So——here's another hard man."

  "Though a just——aye, and a godly! He hath restored our church weathercock an' all an' set up a fine, large and fair pillory on the green. Lunnon couldn't show a finer, wi' stocks an' cucking- stool complete and rare to fancy——"

  "And findeth he the wherewithal to fill 'em?"

  "That doth he! Aha, there be never a vagrant, gipsy nor beggar dare come anigh in Sir Richard's time. And witches be few hereabouts since old Mother Mottridge was ducked, and scolds and shrews be fewer by reason o' the brank, d'ye see?"

  "Hum!" says I, "a right proper gentleman this!"

  "Aye," quoth Trueman, nodding until his fat cheeks quivered, "and one that doth abhor vagrants and such-like vermin——"

  "As myself?" says I. To this Trueman answered nothing, but fell a-fanning himself with his hat again, eyeing me warily the while.

  "Art strange in these parts?" he questioned.

  "Aye and no!"

  "Hast met Sir Richard?"

  "I have!"

  "Aha!" quoth the fellow, nodding. "He had ye whipped, belike?"

  "He did so."

  "For stealing of a fine, fat capon, belike?"

  "Nay, 'twas for another matter. But what of him, is he hale o' body, rich and well esteemed, is he strong in friends and a power at court yet?"

  "No," says Trueman, flicking his plodding horses. "Neither one nor t'other!"

  "How——not?" quoth I. "And wherefore?"

  "Because he's dead——"

  "Dead!" says I, starting up. "Dead?"

  "Why look'ee, if he ain't dead——leastways——" But here I seized him by the throat and, twisting him round, shook him to and fro till he choked:

  "Rogue——damned rogue!" I cried 'twixt gnashing teeth. "Will ye mock me then!:

  "No——no!" he gasped.

  "Then tell me ye lied——confess!"

  "Aye, aye——I'll confess——anything——anything ye will, master!"

  "Then Sir Richard lieth snug in his manor of Shene——doth he not? Aye or no?"

  "Aye——aye, at Shene——at Shene!" Hereupon I loosed him and, falling back on the hay, found myself all breathless and shaking as with an ague-fit. And these tremors were within me as without, since (by reason of this fellow's lying words) I had, for one black moment, doubting God's justice, seen (as it were) my countless anguished supplications for vengeance on mine enemy so much vain breath, and this my toilsome journey a labour to no purpose. But now, bowing my head, I (who knew no forgiveness) humbly prayed forgiveness of God for my doubting of God, and passionately besought Him that He would cherish mine enemy and save him in health. And this to no other end but that I myself might destroy him.

  "His life, O God——give this man's life into mine hand!" So prayed I (in my vain pride and selfish blindness) as I jogged along that sunny midsummer morn; and thereafter, my trembling having passed from me, I stretched myself out amid the hay and fell to blissful slumber.

  Now to all such as reading this my narrative shall contemn and abhor me for the purblind fool and poor, desperate wretch I was, and who, living but for murder, could cry thus on God for the blood of his fellow-man——to all such I would say that none can despise me more utterly than I who write these words. For life since then hath learned me many truths and in some few things I am, mayhap, a little wiser.

  But, because I was proud and stubborn beyond belief, because hate begetteth hate and evil——evil, so came I to consort and make fellowship with pirates and the like rogues and to endure much of harms and dangers as battle, shipwreck, prison and solitude; until God (of His infinite mercy) brought me forth a better man therefor and, in some sense, a more worthy. All of the which I have fully and faithfully recorded for such as shall trouble to read this narrative to the end.

  And so will I again to my story.

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