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The Broad Highway(Ante Scriptum)

2006-08-28 22:38

  Ante Scriptum

  As I sat of an early summer morning in the shade of a tree, eating fried bacon with a tinker, the thought came to me that I might some day write a book of my own: a book that should treat of the roads and by-roads, of trees, and wind in lonely places, of rapid brooks and lazy streams, of the glory of dawn, the glow of evening, and the purple solitude of night; a book of wayside inns and sequestered taverns; a book of country things and ways and people. And the thought pleased me much.

  "But," objected the Tinker, for I had spoken my thought aloud, "trees and suchlike don't sound very interestin'——leastways——not in a book, for after all a tree's only a tree and an inn, an inn; no, you must tell of other things as well."

  "Yes," said I, a little damped, "to be sure there is a highwayman——"

  "Come, that's better!" said the Tinker encouragingly.

  "Then," I went on, ticking off each item on my fingers, "come Tom Cragg, the pugilist——"

  "Better and better!" nodded the Tinker.

  "——a one-legged soldier of the Peninsula, an adventure at a lonely tavern, a flight through woods at midnight pursued by desperate villains, and——a most extraordinary tinker. So far so good, I think, and it all sounds adventurous enough."

  "What!" cried the Tinker. "Would you put me in your book then?"

  "Assuredly."

  "Why then," said the Tinker, "it's true I mends kettles, sharpens scissors and such, but I likewise peddles books an' nov-els, an' what's more I reads 'em——so, if you must put me in your book, you might call me a literary cove."

  "A literary cove?" said I.

  "Ah!" said the Tinker, "it sounds better——a sight better——besides, I never read a nov-el with a tinker in it as I remember; they're generally dooks, or earls, or barronites——nobody wants to read about a tinker."

  "That all depends," said I; "a tinker may be much more interesting than an earl or even a duke."

  The Tinker examined the piece of bacon upon his knifepoint with a cold and disparaging eye.

  "I've read a good many nov-els in my time," said he, shaking his head, "and I knows what I'm talking of;" here he bolted the morsel of bacon with much apparent relish. "I've made love to duchesses, run off with heiresses, and fought dooels——ah! by the hundred——all between the covers of some book or other and enjoyed it uncommonly well——especially the dooels. If you can get a little blood into your book, so much the better; there's nothing like a little blood in a book——not a great deal, but just enough to give it a 'tang,' so to speak; if you could kill your highwayman to start with it would be a very good beginning to your story."

  "I could do that, certainly," said I, "but it would not be according to fact."

  "So much the better," said the Tinker; "who wants facts in a nov-el?"

  "Hum!" said I.

  "And then again——"

  "What more?" I inquired.

  "Love!" said the Tinker, wiping his knife-blade on the leg of his breeches.

  "Love?" I repeated.

  "And plenty of it," said the Tinker.

  "I'm afraid that is impossible," said I, after a moment's thought.

  "How impossible?"

  Because I know nothing about love."

  "That's a pity," said the Tinker.

  "Under the circumstances, it is," said I.

  "Not a doubt of it," said the Tinker, beginning to scrub out the frying-pan with a handful of grass, "though to be sure you might learn; you're young enough."

  "Yes, I might learn," said I; "who knows?"

  "Ah! who knows?" said the Tinker. And after he had cleansed the pan to his satisfaction, he turned to me with dexter finger upraised and brow of heavy portent. "Young fellow," said he, "no man can write a good nov-el without he knows summat about love, it aren't to be expected——so the sooner you do learn, the better."

  "Hum!" said I.

  "And then, as I said afore and I say it again, they wants love in a book nowadays, and wot's more they will have it."

  "They?" said I.

  "The folk as will read your book——after it is written."

  "Ah! to be sure," said I, somewhat taken aback; "I had forgotten them."

  "Forgotten them?" repeated the Tinker, staring.

  "Forgotten that people might went to read it——after it is written."

  "But," said the Tinker, rubbing his nose hard, "books are written for people to read, aren't they?"

  "Not always," said I.

  Hereupon the Tinker rubbed his nose harder than ever.

  "Many of the world's greatest books, those masterpieces which have lived and shall live on forever, were written (as I believe) for the pure love of writing them."

  "Oh!" said the Tinker.

  "Yes," said I, warming to my theme, "and with little or no idea of the eyes of those unborn generations which were to read and marvel at them; hence it is we get those sublime thoughts untrammelled by passing tastes and fashions, unbounded by narrow creed or popular prejudice."

  "Ah?" said the Tinker.

  "Many a great writer has been spoiled by fashion and success, for, so soon as he begins to think upon his public, how best to please and hold their fancy (which is ever the most fickle of mundane things) straightway Genius spreads abroad his pinions and leaves him in the mire."

  "Poor cove!" said the Tinker. "Young man, you smile, I think?"

  "No," said I.

  "Well, supposing a writer never had no gen'us——how then?"

  "Why then," said I, "he should never dare to write at all."

  "Young fellow," said the Tinker, glancing at me from the corners of his eyes, "are you sure you are a gen'us then?"

  Now when my companion said this I fell silent, for the very sufficient reason that I found nothing to say.

  "Lord love you!" said he at last, seeing me thus "hipped"——"don't be downhearted——don't be dashed afore you begin; we can't all be gen'uses——it aren't to be expected, but some on us is a good deal better than most and that's something arter all. As for your book, wot you have to do is to give 'em a little blood now and then with plenty of love and you can't go far wrong!"

  Now whether the Tinker's theory for the writing of a good novel be right or wrong, I will not presume to say. But in this book that lies before you, though you shall read, if you choose, of country things and ways and people, yet, because that part of my life herein recorded was a something hard, rough life, you shall read also of blood; and, because I came, in the end, to love very greatly, so shall you read of love.

  Wherefore, then, I am emboldened to hope that when you shall have turned the last page and closed this book, you shall do so with a sigh.

  P. V.

  LONDON.

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