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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter1)

2006-08-28 22:39

  Book One Chapter I. Chiefly Concerning My Uncle's Last Will and Testament

  "'And to my nephew, Maurice Vibart, I bequeath the sum of twenty thousand pounds in the fervent hope that it may help him to the devil within the year, or as soon after as may be.'"

  Here Mr. Grainger paused in his reading to glance up over the rim of his spectacles, while Sir Richard lay back in his chair and laughed loudly. "Gad!" he exclaimed, still chuckling, "I'd give a hundred pounds if he could have been present to hear that," and the baronet went off into another roar of merriment.

  Mr. Grainger, on the other hand, dignified and solemn, coughed a short, dry cough behind his hand.

  "Help him to the devil within the year," repeated Sir Richard, still chuckling.

  "Pray proceed, sir," said I, motioning towards the will…… But instead of complying, Mr. Grainger laid down the parchment, and removing his spectacles, began to polish them with a large silk handkerchief.

  "You are, I believe, unacquainted with your cousin, Sir Maurice Vibart?" he inquired.

  "I have never seen him," said I; "all my life has been passed either at school or the university, but I have frequently heard mention of him, nevertheless."

  "Egad!" cried Sir Richard, "who hasn't heard of Buck Vibart——beat Ted Jarraway of Swansea in five rounds——drove coach and four down Whitehall——on sidewalk——ran away with a French marquise while but a boy of twenty, and shot her husband into the bargain. Devilish celebrated figure in 'sporting circles,' friend of the Prince Regent——"

  "So I understand," said I.

  "Altogether as complete a young blackguard as ever swaggered down St. James's." Having said which, Sir Richard crossed his legs and inhaled a pinch of snuff.

  "Twenty thousand pounds is a very handsome sum," remarked Mr. Grainger ponderously and as though more with the intention of saying something rather than remain silent just then.

  "Indeed it is," said I, "and might help a man to the devil as comfortably as need be, but——"

  "Though," pursued Mr. Grainger, "much below his expectations and sadly inadequate to his present needs, I fear."

  "That is most unfortunate," said I, "but——"

  "His debts," said Mr. Grainger, busy at his spectacles again, "his debts are very heavy, I believe."

  "Then doubtless some arrangement can be made to——but continue your reading, I beg," said I.

  Mr. Grainger repeated his short, dry cough and taking up the will, slowly and almost as though unwillingly, cleared his throat and began as follows:

  "'Furthermore, to my nephew, Peter Vibart, cousin to the above, I will and bequeath my blessing and the sum of ten guineas in cash, wherewith to purchase a copy of Zeno or any other of the stoic philosophers he may prefer.'"

  Again Mr. Grainger laid down the will, and again he regarded me over the rim of his spectacles.

  "Good God!" cried Sir Richard, leaping to his feet, "the man must have been mad. Ten guineas——why, it's an insult——damme!——it's an insult——you'll never take it of course, Peter."

  "On the contrary, sir," said I.

  "But——ten guineas!" bellowed the baronet; "on my soul now, George was a cold-blooded fish, but I didn't think even he was capable of such a despicable trick——no——curse me if I did! Why, it would have been kinder to have left you nothing at all——but it was like George——bitter to the end——ten guineas!"

  "Is ten guineas," said I, "and when one comes to think of it, much may be done with ten guineas."

  Sir Richard grew purple in the face, but before he could speak, Mr. Grainger began to read again:

  "'Moreover, the sum of five hundred thousand pounds, now vested in the funds, shall be paid to either Maurice or Peter Vibart aforesaid, if either shall, within one calendar year, become the husband of the Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne.'"

  "Good God!" exclaimed Sir Richard.

  "'Failing which,'" read Mr. Grainger, "'the said sum, namely, five hundred thousand pounds, shall be bestowed upon such charity or charities as the trustees shall select. Signed by me, this tenth day of April, eighteen hundred and——, GEORGE VIBRART. Duly witnessed by ADAM PENFLEET, MARTHA TRENT."'

  Here Mr. Grainger's voice stopped, and I remember, in the silence that followed, the parchment crackled very loudly as he folded it precisely and laid it on the table before him. I remember also that Sir Richard was swearing vehemently under his breath as he paced to and fro between me and the window.

  "And that is all?" I inquired at last.

  "That," said Mr. Grainger, not looking at me now, "is all."

  "The Lady Sophia," murmured Sir Richard as if to "himself, "the Lady Sophia!" And then, stopping suddenly before me in his walk, "Oh, Peter!" said he, clapping his hand down upon my shoulder, "oh, Peter, that settles it; you're done for, boy——a crueller will was never made."

  "Marriage!" said I to myself. "Hum!"

  "A damnable iniquity," exclaimed Sir Richard, striding up and down the room again.

  "The Lady Sophia Sefton of Cambourne!" said I, rubbing my chin.

  "Why, that's just it," roared the baronet; "she's a reigning toast——most famous beauty in the country, London's mad over her——she can pick and choose from all the finest gentlemen in England. Oh, it's 'good-by' to all your hopes of the inheritance, Peter, and that's the devil of it."

  "Sir, I fail to see your argument," said I.

  "What?" cried Sir Richard, facing round on me, "d'you think you'd have a chance with her then?"

  "Why not?"

  "Without friends, position, of money? Pish, boy! don't I tell you that every buck and dandy——every mincing macaroni in the three kingdoms would give his very legs to marry her——either for her beauty or her fortune?" spluttered the baronet. "And let me inform you further that she's devilish high and haughty with it all——they do say she even rebuffed the Prince Regent himself."

  "But then, sir, I consider myself a better man than the Prince Regent," said I.

  Sir Richard sank into the nearest chair and stared at me openmouthed.

  "Sir," I continued, "you doubtless set me down as an egoist of egoists. I freely confess it; so are you, so is Mr. Grainger yonder, so are we all of us egoists in thinking ourselves as good as some few of our neighbors and better than a great many."

  "Deuce take me!" said Sir Richard.

  "Referring to the Lady Sophia, I have heard that she once galloped her horse up the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral——"

  "And down again, Peter," added Sir Richard.

  "Also she is said to be possessed of a temper," I continued, "and is above the average height, I believe, and I have a natural antipathy to termagants, more especially tall ones."

  "Termagant!" cried Sir Richard. "Why, she's the handsomest woman in London, boy. She's none of your milk-and-watery, meek-mouthed misses——curse me, no! She's all fire and blood and high mettle——a woman, sir glorious——divine——damme, sir, a black-browed goddess——a positive plum!"

  "Sir Richard," said I, "should I ever contemplate marriage, which is most improbable, my wife must be sweet and shy, gentle-eyed and soft of voice, instead of your bold, strong-armed, horse-galloping creature; above all, she must be sweet and clinging——"

  "Sweet and sticky, oh, the devil! Hark to the boy, Grainger," cried Sir Richard, "hark to him——and one glance of the glorious Sefton's bright eyes——one glance only, Grainger, and he'd be at her feet——on his knees——on his confounded knees, sir!"

  "The question is, how do you propose to maintain yourself in the future?" said Mr. Grainger at this point; "life under your altered fortunes must prove necessarily hard, Mr. Peter."

  "And yet, sir," I answered, "a fortune with a wife tagged on to it must prove a very mixed blessing after all; and then again, there may be a certain amount of satisfaction in stepping into a dead man's shoes, but I, very foolishly, perhaps, have a hankering for shoes of my own. Surely there must be some position in life that I am competent to fill, some position that would maintain me honorably and well; I flatter myself that my years at Oxford were not altogether barren of result——"

  "By no means," put in Sir Richard; "you won the High Jump, I believe?"

  "Sir, I did," said I; "also 'Throwing the Hammer.'"

  "And spent two thousand pounds per annum?" said Sir Richard.

  "Sir, I did, but between whiles managed to do fairly well in the Tripos, to finish a new and original translation of Quintilian, another of Petronius Arbiter and also a literal rendering into the English of the Memoirs of the Sieur de Brantome."

  "For none of which you have hitherto found a publisher?" inquired Mr. Grainger.

  "Not as yet," said I, "but I have great hopes of my Brantome, as you are probably aware this is the first time he has ever been translated into the English."

  "Hum!" said Sir Richard, "ha!——and in the meantime what do you intend to do?"

  "On that head I have as yet come to no definite conclusion, sir," I answered.

  "I have been wondering," began Mr. Grainger, somewhat diffidently, "if you would care to accept a position in my office. To be sure the remuneration would be small at first and quite insignificant in comparison to the income you have been in the receipt of."

  "But it would have been money earned," said I, "which is infinitely preferable to that for which we never turn a hand——at least, I think so."

  "Then you accept?"

  "No, sir," said I, "though I am grateful to you, and thank you most sincerely for your offer, yet I have never felt the least inclination to the practice of law; where there is no interest one's work must necessarily suffer, and I have no desire that your business should be injured by any carelessness of mine."

  "What do you think of a private tutorship?"

  "It would suit me above all things were it not for the fact that the genus 'Boy' is the most aggravating of all animals, and that I am conscious of a certain shortness of temper at times, which might result in pain to my pupil, loss of dignity to myself, and general unpleasantness to all concerned——otherwise a private tutorship would suit most admirably."

  Here Sir Richard took another pinch of snuff and sat frowning up at the ceiling, while Mr. Grainger began tying up that document which had so altered my prospects. As for me, I crossed to the window and stood staring out at the evening. Everywhere were trees tinted by the rosy glow of sunset, trees that stirred sleepily in the gentle wind, and far away I could see that famous highway, built and paved for the march of Roman Legions, winding away to where it vanished over distant Shooter's Hill.

  "And pray," said Sir Richard, still frowning at the ceiling, "what do you propose to do with yourself?"

  Now, as I looked out upon this fair evening, I became, of a sudden, possessed of an overmastering desire, a great longing for field and meadow and hedgerow, for wood and coppice and shady stream, for sequestered inns and wide, wind-swept heaths, and ever the broad highway in front. Thus I answered Sir Richard's question unhesitatingly, and without turning from the window:

  "I shall go, sir, on a walking tour through Kent and Surrey into Devonshire, and thence probably to Cornwall."

  "And with a miserable ten guineas in your pocket? Preposterous ——absurd!" retorted Sir Richard.

  "On the contrary, sir," said I, "the more I ponder the project, the more enamored of it I become."

  "And when your money is all gone——how then?"

  "I shall turn my hand to some useful employment," said I; "digging, for instance."

  "Digging!" ejaculated Sir Richard, "and you a scholar——and what is more, a gentleman!"

  "My dear Sir Richard," said I, "that all depends upon how you would define a gentleman. To me he would appear, of late years, to have degenerated into a creature whose chief end in life is to spend money he has never earned, to reproduce his species with a deplorable frequency and promiscuity, habitually to drink more than is good for him, and, between whiles, to fill in his time hunting, cock-fighting, or watching entranced while two men pound each other unrecognizable in the prize ring. Occasionally he has the good taste to break his neck in the hunting field, or get himself gloriously shot in a duel, but the generality live on to a good old age, turn their attention to matters political and, following the dictates of their class, damn reform with a whole-hearted fervor equalled only by their rancor."

  "Deuce take me!" ejaculated Sir Richard feebly, while Mr. Grainger buried his face in his pocket-handkerchief.

  "To my mind," I ended, "the man who sweats over a spade or follows the tail of a plough is far nobler and higher in the Scheme of Things than any of your young 'bloods' driving his coach and four to Brighton to the danger of all and sundry."

  Sir Richard slowly got up out of his chair, staring at me open-mouthed. "Good God!" he exclaimed at last, "the boy's a Revolutionary."

  I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, but, before I could speak, Mr. Grainger interposed, sedate and solemn as usual:

  "Referring to your proposed tour, Mr. Peter, when do you expect to start?"

  "Early to-morrow morning, sir."

  "I will not attempt to dissuade you, well knowing the difficulty," said he, with a faint smile, "but a letter addressed to me at Lincoln's Inn will always find me and receive my most earnest attention." So saying, he rose, bowed, and having shaken my hand, left the room, closing the door behind him.

  "Peter," exclaimed the baronet, striding up and down, "Peter, you are a fool, sir, a hot-headed, self-sufficient, pragmatical young fool, sir, curse me!"

  "I am sorry you should think so," I answered.

  "And," he continued, regarding me with a defiant eye, "I shall expect you to draw upon me for any sum that——that you may require for the present——friendship's sake——boyhood and——and all that sort of thing, and——er——oh, damme, you understand, Peter?"

  "Sir Richard," said I, grasping his unwilling hand, "I——I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

  "Pooh, Peter, dammit!" said he, snatching his hand away and thrusting it hurriedly into his pocket, out of farther reach.

  "Thank you, sir," I reiterated; "be sure that should I fall ill or any unforeseen calamity happen to me, I will most gladly, most gratefully accept your generous aid in the spirit in which it is offered, but——"

  "But?" exclaimed Sir Richard.

  "Until then——"

  "Oh, the devil!" said Sir Richard, and ringing the bell ordered his horse to be brought to the door, and thereafter stood with his back to the empty fireplace, his fists thrust down into his pockets, frowning heavily and with a fixed intentness at the nearest armchair.

  Sir Richard Anstruther is tall and broad, ruddy of face, with a prominent nose and great square chin whose grimness is offset by a mouth singularly sweet and tender, and the kindly light of blue eyes; he is in very truth a gentleman. Indeed, as he stood there in his plain blue coat with its high roll collar and shining silver buttons, his spotless moleskins and heavy, square-toed riding boots, he was as fair a type as might be of the English country gentleman. It is such men as he, who, fearless upon the littered quarterdecks of reeling battleships, undismayed amid the smoke and death of stricken fields, their duty well and nobly done; have turned their feet homewards to pass their latter days amid their turnips and cabbages, beating their swords into pruning-hooks, and glad enough to do it.

  "Peter," said he suddenly.

  "Sir?" said I.

  "You never saw your father to remember, did you?"

  "No, Sir Richard."

  "Nor your mother?"

  "Nor my mother."

  "Poor boy——poor boy!"

  "You knew my mother?"

  "Yes, Peter, I knew your mother," said Sir Richard, staring very hard at the chair again, and I saw that his mouth had grown wonderfully tender. "Yours has been a very secluded life hitherto, Peter," he went on after a moment.

  "Entirely so," said I, "with the exception of my never-to-be-forgotten visits to the Hall."

  "Ah, yes, I taught you to ride, remember."

  "You are associated with every boyish pleasure I ever knew," said I, laying my hand upon his arm. Sir Richard coughed and grew suddenly red in the face.

  "Why——ah——you see, Peter," he began, picking up his riding whip and staring at it, "you see your uncle was never very fond of company at any time, whereas I——"

  "Whereas you could always find time to remember the lonely boy left when all his companions were gone on their holidays——left to his books and the dreary desolation of the empty schoolhouse, and echoing cloisters——"

  "Pooh!" exclaimed Sir Richard, redder than ever. "Bosh!"

  "Do you think I can ever forget the glorious day when you drove over in your coach and four, and carried me off in triumph, and how we raced the white-hatted fellow in the tilbury——?"

  "And beat him!" added Sir Richard.

  "Took off his near wheel on the turn," said I.

  "The fool's own fault," said Sir Richard.

  "And left him in the ditch, cursing us!" said I.

  "Egad, yes, Peter! Oh, but those were fine horses and though I say it, no better team in the south country. You'll remember the 'off wheeler' broke his leg shortly after and had to be shot, poor devil."

  "And later, at Oxford," I began.

  "What now, Peter?" said Sir Richard, frowning darkly.

  "Do you remember the bronze vase that used to stand on the mantelpiece in my study?"

  "Bronze vase?" repeated Sir Richard, intent upon his whip again.

  "I used to find bank-notes in it after you had visited me, and when I hid the vase they turned up just the same in most unexpected places."

  "Young fellow——must have money——necessary——now and then," muttered Sir Richard.

  At this juncture, with a discreet knock, the butler appeared to announce that Sir Richard's horse was waiting. Hereupon the baronet, somewhat hastily, caught up his hat and gloves, and I followed him out of the house and down the steps.

  Sir Richard drew on his gloves, thrust his toe into the stirrup, and then turned to look at me over his arm.

  "Peter," said he.

  "Sir Richard?" said I.

  "Regarding your walking tour——"

  "Yes?"

  "I think it's all damned tomfoolery!" said Sir Richard. After saying which he swung himself into the saddle with a lightness and ease that many younger might have envied.

  "I'm sorry for that, sir, because my mind is set upon it."

  "With ten guineas in your pocket!"

  "That, with due economy, should be ample until I can find some means to earn more."

  "A fiddlestick, sir——an accursed fiddlestick!" snorted Sir Richard. "How is a boy, an unsophisticated, hot-headed young fool of a boy to earn his own living?"

  "Others have done it," I began.

  "Pish!" said the baronet.

  "And been the better for it in the end."

  "Tush!" said the baronet.

  "And I have a great desire to see the world from the viewpoint of the multitude."

  "Bah!" said the baronet, so forcibly that his mare started; "this comes of your damnable Revolutionary tendencies. Let me tell you, Want is a hard master, and the world a bad place for one who is moneyless and without friends."

  "You forget, sir, I shall never be without a friend."

  "God knows it, boy," answered Sir Richard, and his hand fell and rested for a moment upon my shoulder. "Peter," said he, very slowly and heavily, "I'm growing old——and I shall never marry——and sometimes, Peter, of an evening I get very lonely and——lonely, Peter." He stopped for a while, gazing away towards the green slopes of distant Shooter's Hill. "Oh, boy!" said he at last, "won't you come to the Hall and help me to spend my money?"

  Without answering I reached up and clasped his hand; it was the hand which held his whip, and I noticed how tightly he gripped the handle, and wondered.

  "Sir Richard," said I at last, "wherever I go I shall treasure the recollection of this moment, but——"

  "But, Peter?"

  "But, sir——"

  "Oh, dammit!" he exclaimed, and set spurs to his mare. Yet once he turned in his saddle to flourish his whip to me ere he galloped out of sight.

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