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J. C. (John Collis) Snaith.

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companion and yourself here in this place this evening perplexes and
surprises me beyond measure. I humbly crave your pardon if I may seem
to transgress the bounds of good taste, sir, but might I venture to ask
whether you were coming from London or were you going there?"

"Going there," says I incautiously.

"Then I confess," says he smoothly, "my perplexity increases. If you
were going to London, how could it happen that you were descending,
instead of mounting Marling Hill?"

I plainly saw that the fellow had lured me into a trap.

"Really, sir," says I, with some show of heat, "I am sorry that you
cannot see fit to respect my protests. You will do me a real service,
sir, if you will cease to pursue this disagreeable subject."

"I do not doubt you on that last point, sir," says the other. "And I
wonder if I might make so bold as to inquire how it befalls that two
persons who are presumably of the first quality, or at least of great
gentility, are to be found travelling the country in an attire that the
meanest of their servants would think twice before they affected?"

"This is insufferable, this is intolerable," says I. "I decline
peremptorily to answer such questions. They are impertinent, sir,
impertinent; and it grieves me to think that a gentleman of your taste
and discretion could have thought fit to put them."

However, my annoyance could restrain him no better than my persuasion.
He laughed openly, and then suddenly cast off the veil. With a curl at
his lips, and an unmistakable impudence in his eyes, says he:

"I think the time is come, sir, when we might with profit understand
one another a little better. Might we not deal a little more frankly
with one another, do you not think? For instance, if you are prepared
to confess that you have been beset by no highwayman whatever, and the
whole invention of him, the coach, the valuables, the servants, and the
horses is a cock-and-bull story intended to divert the attention of our
honest host from your destitute condition, I am just as prepared to
accept that statement."

"Sir," says I, "I fear that you forget yourself. You insult me
wantonly."

However difficult it may be to condone the truth when it is so
unblushingly expressed, I was hardly in a position to punish him for
the publication of it. Not that it was any sneaking respect for the
truth that restrained me. It was rather that I had arrived at years of
a certain discretion. Was there not everything in the world to lose
and nothing whatever to gain by indulging in open passages with a total
stranger? Cynthia was at my side, and wholly dependent upon me. And
it was her presence and that thought which enabled me to keep so tight
a rein on my furious inclination. Meanwhile this person had turned
such a cool impudent scrutiny upon me that it seemed as though he
calmly spelt out every phase of thought through which I was at that
moment passing.




CHAPTER XVII

WE MAKE ACQUAINTANCE WITH A PERSON OF DISTINCTION

I was by now worked up to a pretty rage. The stranger regarded it,
however, with perfect calmness, not to say enjoyment.

"In your own particular branch of the profession, sir," says he,
laughing, "I am the first to admit that you do remarkably well. A good
carriage, a refined appearance, an excellent address, and a quite
singular degree of assurance, there is but little wanting to your
success. The lady, your fair companion, is wholly admirable. She hath
the very look and air of a gentlewoman. She is vastly engaging too,
and hath some sweet looks of her own; and I am prepared to say that she
would reassure the most suspicious of landlords and the most
incredulous of travellers."

"I protest, sir," says I, "that I do not follow you in the least."

"I think between friends, sir," says the other, "you might reasonably
drop the high tone. I am not at all imposed on by it. Besides, where
is the need? Believe me, I am the last man in the world to betray a
brother in the pursuit of his calling. I have some few gifts myself,
and my name for some years past hath been considered an ornament to the
profession; but whatever my vanity, I am ever foremost in recognizing
true merit in others. I have never had the pleasure of meeting you
before, sir, but the very real talent you have already evinced will
make William Sadler proud to be numbered among your friends."

Although Mr. William Sadler, whoever he might be, pronounced his name
in the manner of one who is accustomed to have it greeted with
flattering recognition, as this was the first time I had happened to
hear of so exalted a personage, I was unable to pay it the homage I
think he expected from me.

"You must really pardon me, sir," says I, "but who you are or what your
name is does not particularly interest me. I do not remember to have
heard it before, and certainly as you appear to entertain such strange
views as to the manner in which friendship is to be conducted, I have
no very burning desire to hear it again."

At last it seemed I had found in him a tender spot. The purple
deepened in his cheeks, and there was a brightness of anger in his
eyes. It was plain that to be ignorant of the name of Mr. William
Sadler was to be guilty of a grave solecism. But his chagrin was only
momentary, for he had an admirable command of himself, and at once
resumed the control of his feelings.

"It strikes me as something of an affectation, sir," says he, "that one
who practises a very similar calling should yet profess an ignorance of
a name, which I may say, without making a boast of it, stands foremost
in a kindred profession, and hath ever been reckoned an honour and an
embellishment to it. The name of William Sadler, sir, is known and
reverenced wherever gentlemen of the pad of all shades and degrees do
congregate or hold their intercourse. It grieves me, sir, that such a
fine example of our calling at its best, as is to be seen in the person
of yourself, sir, and in that of your fair companion, should yet deny
the smallest recognition to one who hath been allowed by the ablest
practitioners of the time, and by publick opinion also, to be worthy of
his meed of praise."

I confess I was getting out of my depth. My companion was wholly
unintelligible to me. What he meant by his allusions to our kindred
professions, his own celebrity, and my own skill in an art of which I
did not even know the name, gravelled me completely. In his smooth,
even tones, it was impossible not to find a genuine regret. But
methought there was even more of irony in it too, a very delicate irony
that seemed entirely to consist with his cultivated and polished
character. Indeed the man was an enigma altogether. His manner, his
appearance, his address were those of a gentleman. He was an elegant,
well-informed, well-equipped man of the world, capable of exciting the
admiration of a lady of quality, as many a time I have been fain to
acquaint Mrs. Cynthia subsequently. But who he might be passed me
altogether. He could not be a great author like Mr. Fielding. In that
case I should have been more familiar with his name. He could not be a
man of the first fashion, for the same reason. Neither was he foremost
in Parliament, in the King's service, in the Queen's favour, nor was he
a virtuoso in the arts. In what manner was he celebrated then? I
could not forbear from putting the question to him. As it happened,
our host was fussing about the supper-table at that moment with the
pudding.

"I refer you, sir," says he, "to our worthy Boniface, our excellent Mr.
Jim Grundy, for the panegyric of my character."

Upon this the innkeeper looked from one to the other of us with a great
deal of unction, and involved his rosy countenance in such a number of
nods and winks as conferred a great air of mystery on a simple question.

"Come, my good Grundy," says our companion, "inform the lady and
gentleman who Mr. William Sadler is."

"They don't know who Mr. William Sadler is," says the landlord. "Who
ever heard the like of it! He, he, he!"

Instead of giving us any precise information on this point, the
landlord laughed and laughed again. Once or twice he seemed to brace
himself to break the important news to us, yet on each occasion as he
was about to open his mouth to do so, a fresh gust of mirth nearly
choked him into a fit. Indeed, he was wholly incapable of getting
farther than:

"Not know who Mr. Will Sadler is; well, I call that a good 'un."

And I suppose we might have still remained in ignorance of the identity
of our companion to this hour, for apparently Mr. William Sadler was
too proud to exhibit his claims to notoriety, and the innkeeper was
physically incapable of doing so, had it not been for a whimsical
occurrence that presently befell. Amity had been in a great measure
restored, and we had nearly finished our supper in peace, having at the
same time behaved very creditably by the wine and the victuals, when
the landlord suddenly burst in upon us again with a very agitated face.
"Oh, Mr. William," cries he to our friend, "whatever shall we do? A
sheriff's posse is coming along, and I fear it is you they are seeking
hot-foot. They will be here in a minute, and I do not see that you can
possibly get out in time."

Words of this nature vastly interested us, you may be sure. We noted
that despite the shaken condition of the landlord, Mr. Sadler was
perfectly cool.

"Hold 'em as long as you can in talk," says he, "and I will play 'em my
old trick. But, my dear fellow, let me beg of you to compose yourself
a little. Such a face as you are wearing is enough to betray the
cunningest knight in the country, and I must also crave the indulgence
of my two friends here. I am sure their true sporting instincts, to
say nothing of a professional fellow-feeling, will enable them to give
me any small assistance I may be in need of."

While he was speaking in this singular manner, he was occupying himself
in one no less remarkable. He casually produced a fresh wig from one
of the huge pockets of the riding-coat that hung on the back of a chair
near his elbow, and having shook it out, discarded the modest tie wig
he was wearing in favour of this much grander one, which he placed on
his head with absolute nicety and correctness. Having got as far as
this, the landlord apprehended which line he was going to take. Armed
with that knowledge, the host accordingly moved to the threshold to
greet the sheriff's posse, whilst Mr. Sadler went on with his toilet.
This consisted in attaching a grey beard to his chin, a pair of
moustachios to his upper lip, and a formidable pair of horn spectacles
to his eyes. All of these he produced from the same pocket as the wig.
The consequence was a complete and effectual transformation; and had we
not been witnesses of the process itself, we could not possibly have
identified our companion of the previous moment in this venerable sage.

This strange play which was passing in front of our eyes was so
bewildering that at first we could hardly realize what was taking
place, or gauge the singular situation in which we found ourselves.
But hearing the lusty demanding voices of the persons who even at that
moment were at the threshold of the inn, the whole meaning of this odd
matter suddenly flashed into my mind. Our elegant companion was a
professional breaker of laws, a highwayman most probably, and the
sheriff's men were hot on his track. Yet as I looked at the venerable
figure before me, the embodiment of stately grace and honoured age, I
could not forbear from laughing at him.

"An excellent jest," says he, in a voice that so utterly differed from
his natural one as to bestow the last and crowning touch to his altered
character. "But it is one that I have played so often in one form or
another upon these and similar people that I begin to fear it may grow
a little worn-out. However, I must trust to my proverbial luck, and
your kind co-operation."

He had no time to say anything more before these unwelcome visitors
came into the room with the landlord at their head.

"You can really take my word for it, gentlemen I assure you," he said
positively, protesting, "I have seen no such person as you describe.
Nor is it at all likely that my house, which has ever been famous for
its high respectability, would harbour such a desperate ruffian. You
say that His Majesty's mail has been stopped and tried this evening by
Will Sadler not five miles off, and that booty exceeding four thousand
pounds hath been taken. Lord defend us, gentlemen, whoever heard the
like! It is incredible; can this be the eighteenth century?"

By this about half a-dozen dirty, rain-soaked ruffians, comprising the
sheriff's posse, had come into the room. And at the head of them, if
you please, was that very despotic justice, the squire of the
neighbouring parish, who that afternoon had clapt us in the stocks.
His appearance certainly complicated matters a good deal, and was like
to make them vastly more awkward for us. Yet the fellow at this time
was in such an excited state of mind, due to the recent terrible event
and his high sense of what he was pleased to call his public duty, that
he gave neither Cynthia nor myself the slightest recognition. Indeed,
he had most probably forgotten our recent encounter.

I had hardly on my side recognized the justice ere my decision was
taken. It may be to my lasting discredit as a good citizen and true
subject that I hardly so much as gave a thought to betraying the
desperate fellow who was so completely delivered into our hands. One
word from either of us, and his last exploit would have been
perpetrated. But it would have called for a greater humanity or a
less, sure I know not which, and a deeper instinct of the public weal
than either of us appeared to possess, to deliver up Mr. Sadler in cold
blood to the tender mercies of the law. Accordingly I took a bold
course, perhaps as much to assist the disguise of our companion as to
preserve our own impunity.

Swinging round on the justice and the inn-keeper, I exhibited a degree
of excitement at the news by no means inferior to their own.

"Zounds!" I cried, "what are you saying, landlord? King's mail, four
thousand pounds, villain escaped. Whenever did I hear the like? He
must be pursued; we must leave no stone unturned. Do I understand that
he is on these premises?"

The stress of my concern and the degree of authority I contrived to
insinuate into it, stood me in good stead with the squire, who saw in
me a person as law-abiding as himself. Indeed, the number of
breathless questions I pestered him with concerning how the matter
happened, when it happened, who could be made responsible for it, and
what steps could be taken to prevent it happening again, all of which
were so futile and worth so little, as presently suggested to the
squire that he might conceivably be in the company of a brother justice.

"Are you in the commission, may I ask, sir?" says he.

"Aye, that I am, sir," says I, "for the county of Wilts. I never was
more distressed by anything than the news of this grievous affair."

"Very pleased to meet you, sir," says the squire. "I am in the
commission too, sir, and I quite agree with every word you have thought
fit to utter. Every word, I do upon my word, sir."

It was remarkable how the fact that I was a justice of the peace as
well as himself affected his demeanour. He developed a sudden
affability towards me, and used a special tone in which to address me.
He discovered such a respect for my opinion, showed so many marks of
his consideration for me, and generally endeavoured to ingratiate
himself into my esteem in a way that allowed it to be clearly
understood that to his mind the office of a magistrate had lifted me at
once out of the ruck of common men. I was one who, like himself, had
been as it were initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. My look, my
lightest word, was to him of vastly more importance than even the
business he had come upon. Indeed he was quite overjoyed to find
himself in the society of a person who was of his own rank in life, and
one with whom he might converse without imperilling his own uneasy
dignity. It was delightful to observe how my presence unfitted him to
pay the slightest attention to any one other than myself. He could
hardly bring himself to address the innkeeper or his attendants in the
presence of a brother magistrate. And to such an extent was he worked
upon that even the business that had brought him thither paled into
insignificance before so felicitous a meeting.

After a full five minutes had been spent on his affable reception of
me, and he had repeated again and again how pleased and honoured he was
to meet me; and he had asked me how long I had been in the commission,
and had told me how long he had been in it, and how long his father had
been in it before him; with other matters of the first importance, and
all mightily pertinent to the robbery of the royal mail, one of his men
had the temerity to make a suggestion.

"Begging your honour's pardon," says he, politely touching his hat,
"but what does your honour think we had better do, seeing as how the
man don't seem to be here?"

"Do," says the squire, taking him up angrily. "Burn me, was there ever
such insolence? Are you not aware that I am at present engaged with
your betters, and yet you have the damnable impertinence to ask me what
you shall do."

"But the highwayman, if you please, your honour," says the other, who
was rather a stubborn fellow.

"Oh, the highwayman," says the squire. "How dare you intrude a person
of that low character when I am engaged with a brother magistrate? Let
the highwayman go to the devil too."

"In short," says I, reading the squire's disposition, "you can all go
to the devil, the sooner the better. Do you think the meeting of two
gentlemen can be disturbed by such a petty matter? I am about to ask
the honour of the company of my brother justice over a bottle.
Landlord, have the goodness to bring up some more of your excellent
Burgundy, and also do us the service of sending these dirty rascals
about their business. There are no highwaymen here, and if there were,
do you suppose that gentlemen are to be put to inconvenience by them?"

Hereupon the squire, finding himself received in such high favour,
hastened to second my proposal. The posse was sent packing into the
wind and rain to continue the pursuit of Mr. William Sadler, although
they evidently had not the least idea as to which direction he might be
in; whilst the magistrate proposed to take his ease in his inn, in the
society of the very rogue his men had gone forth to seek.

The host soon returned with the wine, and we settled ourselves to
good-fellowship. To judge by the sly satisfaction that appeared at
intervals in Mr. Sadler's venerable countenance, he was very well
pleased with the arrangement; whilst I am sure the squire was vastly
so. As for Cynthia and myself, I think we both had some share in this
satisfaction also. We figured to ourselves the eventuality of being
able to repay this numscull fellow in his own coin, by putting upon him
some of the indignity he had been so prompt to put upon us that
afternoon.

In a person of a better capacity it might have been a matter of
surprise that we should have gone unrecognized. But this squire was
but a poor apology of a fellow, with probably as many wits as a rabbit,
and as great a discernment as a mole. And in my case there may have
been some little excuse, for after all one man is very much like
another, and differs not so much in his appearance as in his
circumstances. In the parlour of a tavern it is as easy to pass for a
justice of the peace as it is in the stocks to pass for a rogue.
Perhaps in Cynthia's case an even better excuse could be found for him.
Instead of a dejected and bedraggled creature (madam hath twice already
blotted this sentence out!) trudging at the side of a forlorn
musicianer that blew the flute, here was a very different person. Her
muddy cloak had been discarded to disclose a very tolerable travelling
attire beneath, which, laced as it was, could pass very well in the
country for the first fashion. Besides, in some impalpable feminine
way, by some cunning trick of the sex, she had added here and there a
touch to her hair and her person, till she shone forth as fair and trim
in the glow of the fire and the candles as Herrick's Julia. She was no
longer the wandering female (saving her presence!), but the lady of
quality, holding her court of three. The brightness of the place was
communicated to her cheeks and her eyes. The dainty malice, the grave
insolence, the superb disdain, the assurance and yet the solicitude of
fashion wedded to beauty, youth to breeding, was a sufficient masque to
the draggle-tailed little creature of the afternoon. If it may be said
of men that they are the victims of their circumstances, and cut their
figure in the world according to them, how much more truly may the same
be said of women, for are they not chameleons that receive their hue
from their surroundings?

Being completely confident that we ran no risk of discovery from any
exercise the squire might make of his natural faculties, I had no
compunction about introducing Mrs. Cynthia and Mr. Sadler, that the
feast of reason and the flow of soul might be unimpeded. Thoroughly
alive to the whimsicality of the passages that were like to ensue from
such ill-assorted company sitting down together, I mischievously
determined to give the thing a more extravagant touch if possible, by
sailing as near to the truth as I could. Therefore, fully aware of the
delicious savour of the whole affair, Mrs. Cynthia was presented as my
wife, the Countess of Tiverton, and our friend Mr. Sadler, the
highwayman and lord knows what besides, as her ladyship's choleric
papa, his grace of Salop.

Never, I vow, was a man so overcome with the society in which he found
himself as this rustical clown of a justice. Having plainly been used
to no better all his life than that of his pigs, his sheep, his cows,
his horses, the village beadle, and the worthies of the village
ale-house, he had no higher sense of rendering what he conceived was
due to our superior dignity, than they had in rendering the same to
his. His bows, his smirks, his grimaces, his gross flatteries, would
have excited our pity had he deserved any. They were so grotesque that
even Mr. Sadler grinned through his great beard.

The landlord too fell in very sagaciously with the whole thing.
Whatever opinion he might entertain on his own part of our figure in
the world, the fact that we had been admitted to the friendship of Mr.
Sadler was a sufficient guarantee of his not going unrequited. Armed
with this assurance he produced some really excellent wine in liberal
quantities, and furnished us with the fullest meed of his respectful
service; though it is gravely to be doubted whether he considered we
had any better right to enjoy our titles than had Mr. Sadler. But I
will go bail for the justice, who rejoiced in the name of Hodgkin, that
no such doubts invaded his mind. He was simply happy. His wildest
dreams were realized. His loftiest ambitions were fulfilled. Was he
not hobnobbing with the great at their own table on terms of perfect
equality? He never addressed any of us without bringing in our titles
somehow, either as the prologue or the epilogue of what he had to say,
sometimes as both, and in the middle too. And just as a duke is a
personage of more consideration than an earl, even if he be a justice
of the peace, or a countess if she be young and fair, so did our
squire, after he had felt his way a bit, had drunk a glass or two and
got used to such unaccustomed company, direct the main of his attention
to his grace of Salop. Indeed such advances did he presently make in
the good esteem of that venerable nobleman that he was fain to direct
nearly the whole of his discourse to him. He played him, and ogled
him, your grace'd him this, and your grace'd him that, until he felt he
had ingratiated himself into the highest favour. And having attained
to this good fortune, he could hardly bring himself to so much as look
at Cynthia and me. As in the case of his rustics and the inn-keeper,
we, as it were, presently discovered him engaged with our betters; and
he clearly hoped we should understand that to be the case.




CHAPTER XVIII

CONTAINS A PANEGYRIC ON THE GENTLE PASSION

It was truly a novel kind of amusement to enjoy the patronage of such a


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Online LibraryJ. C. (John Collis) SnaithThe Wayfarers → online text (page 14 of 18)