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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter3)

2006-08-28 22:40

  Book One Chapter III. Concerns Itself Mainly with a Hat

  As the day advanced, the sun beat down with an ever-increasing heat, and what with this and the dust I presently grew very thirsty; wherefore, as I went, I must needs conjure up tantalizing visions of ale——of ale that foamed gloriously in tankards, that sparkled in glasses, and gurgled deliciously from the spouts of earthen pitchers, and I began to look about me for some inn where these visions might be realized and my burning thirst nobly quenched (as such a thirst deserved to be). On I went, through this beautiful land of Kent, past tree and hedge and smiling meadow, by hill and dale and sloping upland, while ever the sun grew hotter, the winding road the dustier, and my mighty thirst the mightier.

  At length, reaching the brow of a hill, I espied a small inn or hedge tavern that stood back from the glare of the road, seeming to nestle in the shade of a great tree, and joyfully I hastened toward it.

  As I approached I heard loud voices, raised as though in altercation, and a hat came hurtling through the open doorway and, bounding into the road, rolled over and over to my very feet. And, looking down at it, I saw that it was a very ill-used hat, frayed and worn, dented of crown and broken of brim, yet beneath its sordid shabbiness there lurked the dim semblance of what it had once been, for, in the scratched and tarnished buckle, in the jaunty curl of the brim, it still preserved a certain pitiful air of rakishness; wherefore, I stooped, and, picking it up, began to brush the dust from it as well as I might.

  I was thus engaged when there arose a sudden bull-like roar and, glancing up, I beheld a man who reeled backwards out of the inn and who, after staggering a yard or so, thudded down into the road and so lay, staring vacantly up at the sky. Before I could reach him, however, he got upon his legs and, crossing unsteadily to the tree I have mentioned, leaned there, and I saw there was much blood upon his face which he essayed to wipe away with the cuff of his coat. Now, upon his whole person, from the crown of his unkempt head down to his broken, dusty boots, there yet clung that air of jaunty, devil-may-care rakishness which I had seen, and pitied in his hat.

  Observing, as I came up, how heavily he leaned against the tree, and noting the extreme pallor of his face and the blank gaze of his sunken eyes, I touched him upon the shoulder.

  "Sir, I trust you are not hurt?" said I.

  "Thank you," he answered, his glance still wandering, "not in the least——assure you——merely tap on the nose, sir——unpleasant——damnably, but no more, no more."

  "I think," said I, holding out the battered hat, "I think this is yours?"

  His eye encountering it in due time, he reached out his hand somewhat fumblingly, and took it from me with a slight movement of the head and shoulders that might have been a bow.

  "Thank you——yes——should know it among a thousand," said he dreamily, "an old friend and a tried——a very much tried one——many thanks." With which words he clapped the much-tried friend upon his head, and with another movement that might have been a bow, turned short round and strode away. And as he went, despite the careless swing of his shoulder, his legs seemed to falter somewhat in their stride and once I thought he staggered; yet, as I watched, half minded to follow after him, he settled his hat more firmly with a light tap upon the crown and, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his threadbare coat, fell to whistling lustily, and so, turning a bend in the road, vanished from my sight.

  And presently, my thirst recurring to me, I approached the inn, and descending three steps entered its cool shade. Here I found four men, each with his pipe and tankard, to whom a large, red-faced, big-fisted fellow was holding forth in a high state of heat and indignation.

  "Wot's England a-comin' to?——that's wot I wants to know," he was saying; "wot's England a-comin' to when thievin' robbers can come a-walkin' in on you a-stealin' a pint o' your best ale out o' your very own tankard under your very own nose——wot's it a-comin' to?"

  "Ah!" nodded the others solemnly, "that's it, Joel——wot?"

  "W'y," growled the red-faced innkeeper, bringing his big fist down with a bang, "it's a-comin' to per——dition; that's wot it's a-comin' to!"

  "And wot," inquired a rather long, bony man with a face half-hidden in sandy whisker, "wot might per——dition be, Joel; likewise, wheer?"

  "You must be a danged fule, Tom, my lad!" retorted he whom they called Joel, redder in the face than ever.

  "Ay, that ye must!" chorused the others.

  "I only axed 'wot an' wheer."

  "Only axed, did ye?" repeated Joel scornfully,

  "Ah," nodded the other, "that's all."

  "But you're always a-axin', you are," said Joel gloomily.

  "W'ich I notice," retorted the man Tom, blowing into his tankard, "w'ich I notice as you ain't never over-fond o' answerin'."

  "Oh!——I ain't, ain't I?"

  "No, you ain't," repeated Tom, "nohow."

  Here the red-faced man grew so very red indeed that the others fell to coughing, all together, and shuffling their feet and giving divers other evidences of their embarrassment, all save the unimpressionable Tom.

  Seizing the occasion that now presented itself, I knocked loudly upon the floor with my stick, whereupon the red-faced man, removing his eyes slowly and by degrees from the unconcerned Tom, fixed them darkly upon me.

  "Supposing," said I, "supposing you are so very obliging as to serve me with a pint of ale?"

  "Then supposin' you show me the color o' your money?" he growled, "come, money fust; I aren't takin' no more risks."

  For answer I laid the coins before him. And having pocketed the money, he filled and thrust a foaming tankard towards me, which I emptied forthwith and called upon him for another.

  "Wheer's your money?"

  "Here," said I, tossing a sixpence to him, "and you can keep the change."

  "Why, ye see, sir," he began, somewhat mollified, "it be precious 'ard to know who's a gentleman, an' who ain't; who's a thief, an' who ain't these days."

  "How so?"

  "Why, only a little while ago——just afore you——chap comes a-walkin' in 'ere, no account much to look at, but very 'aughty for all that——comes a-walkin in 'ere 'e do an' calls for a pint o' ale——you 'eard 'im, all on ye?" He broke off, turning to the others; "you all 'eard 'im call for a pint o' ale?"

  "Ah——we 'eard 'im," they nodded.

  "Comes a-walkin' in 'ere 'e do, bold as brass——calls for a pint o' ale——drinks it off, an'——'ands me 'is 'at; you all seen 'im 'and me 'is 'at?" he inquired, once more addressing the others.

  "Every man of us," the four chimed in with four individual nods.

  "'Wot's this 'ere?' says I, turnin' it over. 'It's a 'at, or once was,' says 'e. 'Well, I don't want it,' says I. 'Since you've got it you'd better keep it,' says 'e. 'Wot for?' says I? 'Why,' says 'e, 'it's only fair seein' I've got your ale——it's a case of exchange,' says 'e. 'Oh! is it?' says I, an' pitched the thing out into the road an' 'im arter it——an' so it ended. An' wot," said the red-faced man nodding his big head at me, "wot d'ye think o' that now?"

  "Why, I think you were perhaps a trifle hasty," said I.

  "Oh, ye do, do ye?"

  "Yes," I nodded.

  "An' for why?"

  "Well, you will probably remember that the hat had a band round it——"

  "Ay, all wore away it were too——"

  "And that in the band was a buckle——"

  "Ay, all scratched an' rusty it were——well?"

  "Well, that tarnished buckle was of silver——"

  "Silver!" gasped the man, his jaw falling.

  "And easily worth five shillings, perhaps more, so that I think you were, upon the whole, rather hasty." Saying which, I finished my ale and, taking up my staff, stepped out into the sunshine.

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