Copyright
J. C. (John Collis) Snaith.

The Wayfarers online

. (page 15 of 18)
Online LibraryJ. C. (John Collis) SnaithThe Wayfarers → online text (page 15 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


clodhopper; but it was one infinitely rich in the comic. The
highwayman fell in exactly with the spirit of this comedy. He seemed
to take an almost diabolical pleasure in causing this pitiful specimen
of human nature to reveal the weakness and sterility of his mind. And
I fear that this pleasure was communicated to Cynthia and myself.
Could we have forgotten the persecution endured at the hands of the
fellow that afternoon, we must have found it in our hearts to pity him
in his fool's paradise. But with the sense of our late indignities yet
abiding within us, we followed the course of the play with the keenness
and zest of the leading actor in it. It was our revenge, and a very
ample and satisfying one we felt it to be, although in the tameness of
print it may not appear to possess the solid satisfaction of one
administered with a cudgel or a pair of resolute fists.

When at last the squire proposed to depart, he vowed that never had he
spent an evening with such profit and enjoyment. It far exceeded, he
was good enough to say, the memorable one he had once had the honour to
pass in the society of Colonel Musket of Barker's Hill. He swore he
would cherish the memory of it to his last day; and having humbly
thanked his grace for his condescension and his affability; and having
given a curt nod to Cynthia and myself, since the boon companion of a
duke is surely entitled to dispense his patronage, our justice stumbled
out into the rainy night, with more good wine in him than he deserved,
and certainly more than he could decently carry.

"Ships, pegs, coos and 'osses," says the highwayman, breaking out into
laughter as soon as our guest had lurched into the rain. "Let a man
live with them long enough, and they shall reduce his wit and
understanding to the level of their own. Was there ever such a pitiful
cheese of a fellow in the world before? If it were not such a foul
night, and I lay less snug in my corner, I would go after him, drub him
soundly, and fling him into the kennel. But at least we have had an
entertainment, and I have thought well to exact a ransom of him for his
own."

Here to our surprise our strange companion pulled forth a purse which a
few minutes since had been the squire's. The justice had been seated
next the venerable duke, and had paid for the high privilege. Besides,
is it not an axiom among the great that they never condescend unless
they are in need of a service, or can get something by their
condescension? His grace's exaction was the latter. Neither Cynthia
nor I could find it in our hearts to blame the highwayman for his
trick. Nay, I do not know that in one sense we were not secretly glad
that a tangible and material punishment had been inflicted upon the
fellow. When the purse was opened it was found to contain the sum of
nineteen pounds and a few odd shillings. The highwayman, after a
careful mental calculation, doled the money out into three heaps of
equal value, and having slipped one portion, some six pounds twelve
shillings, into his fob, pushed the two remaining portions over to us,
insisting that in this adventure it was share and share alike.

Of course we could not bring ourselves to accept of our friend's
somewhat embarrassing generosity. But the sight of such a fortune to
people in our penurious state, who had already partaken of much more
than they could pay for, was temptation indeed. Although we refused
the gifts with the same courtesy with which they were offered, I fear
that our eyes shone with a singular lust, and our minds rebelled as we
did so. The highwayman himself was astonished by our scruples.

"My dear friends," says he. "I confess I have never observed such
reluctancy in persons of your kidney before. You baffle me. I cannot
hold it to be generosity in you, since there can be little doubt that
William Sadler makes a fatter living than you do with all your talents.
Why then should you refuse a gift from a brother of your calling? And
it cannot be pride either, for if we come down to plain terms it is not
a gift at all. By all those unwritten laws that obtain amongst the
brethren of our profession, you are each honourably entitled to take a
share with me. Come, my friends, pocket the affront and let no more be
said."

The highwayman's high sense of right and wrong in regard to those he
was pleased to call "the brethren of our profession" was really
touching. Nothing in the first place could convince him that we were
not in that sense his brethren, and that we did not earn our livelihood
by his uncompromising methods. We had entered the inn by the aid of
false protestations; we had ordered a meal that he was sure we had no
means of paying for; we had connived at the escape of a desperate
malefactor, and had committed a gross fraud on a justice of the peace;
therefore he had every good reason to stand firm in his estimate of our
character. To my rejoinder that we hoped he would not pursue the
matter, as we were anything but what we appeared to be, and were
debarred by circumstances that had recently befallen us from publishing
our true condition to him or to any one else, he replied with laughter
of the most immoderate sort.

"Rat me," says he, "this is no new tale. I wonder how many times in a
twelvemonth it does duty at Old Bailey! But I do not like to be
baffled by anybody, and I must say your behaviour is inexplicable. It
is Quixotic, my friends, it is Quixotic. I cannot possibly let it
pass. I must beg you to accept these small monies as a token of my
gratitude."

He had the devil for his advocate too. It truly was Quixotic. It was
wealth untold to persons in our condition; persons condemned to blow
the flute from place to place for a livelihood. We were reminded of
nights in the rain; of empty bellies; of fainting limbs; of rags,
misery and mud, and the hundred other ills that attend on a bitter
poverty. We had sevenpence in our pockets with which to discharge a
score that would be reckoned in pounds. What wonder that we felt our
resolution falter before the lure that was laid before us? Together,
however, we prevailed where one of us singly might have given way.

The highwayman vented his perplexity in various ways. He put forth a
dozen theories that would cover our irreconcilable conduct. But all of
them were equally wide of the mark. To all sources but the true one
did he trace our demeanour. That we were striving to be as honest as
our circumstances would permit, never entered his head. And when at
last we gave him a cordial good-night prior to retiring to the chamber
that had been prepared for us, he was fain to acknowledge that he was
never so completely beaten by anything as by our behaviour.

"Smart you are, the pair of you," says he, "there's no manner of use in
denying that. But I'm damned if I can make head or tail of you. Never
heard of such a thing in my life as two pads on the road refusing their
share of the booty. But I like you none the less. You are a
well-favoured well-mannered pair, with rare good heads on your
shoulders. I'faith you are endowed with a most excellent presence.
You are bound to succeed in the line you have adopted; but if you are
not above taking a piece of advice from one who hath had a pretty long
apprenticeship on the road, you will dress a trifle better. Clothes go
for a great deal. A lord in rags counts for less than a postilion in
ruffles and a laced coat. You will not forget now; it is sure to mean
such and such a sum per annum to you. And harkee, here's a proposal.
I've got such a fancy for you both, that if you like to take up with
me, we will do the country in company and share the profits; and this I
may tell you is an offer not to be blinked at, when it is made by
William Sadler. Little madam there shall be the decoy, and you and I,
my lad, shall lift the blunt and generally attend to the practical
matters. Come now, I can't speak fairer; what do you say!"

Much to Mr. Sadler's disappointment, and I believe to his astonishment
too, I politely declined this liberal proposal. It was almost
incredible to him that a gentleman of his eminence and success could
meet with a refusal. It was like two green apprentices declining to
enter into partnership with a master of the highest credit!

"I confess you pass me altogether," says he in despair.

The last glimpse we had of this strange, whimsical, and in a sense
gifted man, was his sitting at the table, with his wig, his spectacles
and false whiskers removed, waving his good-night in the most cordial
fashion. He was as handsome and intelligent a fellow as I ever
encountered; and I can readily believe what was asserted of him at the
time of his hanging less than a year from this date, that he was a
cadet of a noble family. Certainly in his gaiety, generosity, and
gallant good humour, he was the very type of man to win the great fame
of the public that I believe was his. Strange as it may appear, there
was not one trace of vulgarity that I could discern in him; and leaving
his peculiar ideas in regard to _meum_ and _tuum_ out of the question,
in all other particulars he was a charming gentleman. And if I am one
day burnt for the heresy, I shall be ever the first to admit that in my
short acquaintance of this wicked rogue that so richly came to be
hanged on the Tree, I discovered better parts, a more chivalrous heart,
and vastly more liberal talents than in half the persons of high
consideration and great place, whose intimacy it has been my misfortune
to submit to for a longer period.

As for Cynthia, the first thing she did in the privacy of our chamber
was to burst into tears.

"Oh," she sobbed, "to think that a man like that should be such a
villain. Oh, I am sure I cannot believe it of him."

"Then why weep for him?" says I. "But what a pity it is that these
villains are so delectable. Even a man like your husband if he gets
his deserts will come to be hanged. Can you tell me, my dear, why it
is that virtue never walks in these radiant colours? Can it be that
you strait-laced madams secretly lean to the wicked?"

Poor Cynthia sobbed louder than ever.

"Oh, I cannot, I will not believe it of such a dear fine gentleman!"
says she.

The next morning found us heavy of heart. In what manner we could meet
the landlord's charges we did not know. Although we were both too
proud to say so, I am sure we should have been greatly thankful could
we have had our share of the highwayman's booty to comfort us. After
all it was a queer kind of scruple that preferred to rob the innkeeper
rather than the squire. For it was plain that he, poor fellow, must go
unpaid. Honesty, I take it, is largely a question of terms; and why we
should hold it to be more venial to rob the one than the other I cannot
tell. We breakfasted over the hard problem of what to do. We had no
other course, we decided, than to persevere in the original fiction of
our misfortunes on the road at the hands of a highwayman, and defer the
settlement of the landlord's account against the time when our affairs
had assumed a more prosperous shape.

As it happened, our misgivings and searchings of conscience were in
vain. The highwayman, who had ridden away in the small hours of the
morning, had insisted unknown to us in giving at least some token of
his gratitude. He had discharged our score and his own in a handsome
manner, the innkeeper said. Perchance it was he held that our host
merited some sort of reward for his behaviour too; and he doubtless
held in the shrewd opinion he had formed of our condition, that it was
little enough he was likely to receive at our hands.

In this fortunate manner we were able to go forth into the world again.
Our hunger and weariness had been amply refreshed and our debts paid.
We did not pause to consider that these happy contingencies had been
brought about by the very means that we had so loftily disdained. It
was the squire's purse after all that had paid our charges. Honesty,
as I have said, is largely a question of terms.

To the downpour of the night had succeeded a sullen morning. The
lowering sky promised more misery to follow. The air was wet with
mists; the trees dripped incessantly; every blade of grass shone with
the dankness that clung to it, and the state of the deep-rutted, rude,
uneven roads was terrible. But even all these things together, and the
fact that we had to plough our way, step by step, slowly through seas
of mud could not entirely depress our spirits. We felt ourselves in
the society of one another, to be in spite of everything, invincible in
our common courage, unconquerable in our common resolution. The one
sustained the other in these adventures.

"My prettiness," says I, "it is under embarrassing conditions such as
these that we should endeavour to sustain ourselves with a few tender,
amorous passages of love. I think I will pay you a compliment or two
upon your beauty, if you will give me but a minute's time in which to
rack my mind to find them."

"For your pretty speeches to be sincere, sir," says Cynthia, "they
should be quite spontaneous."

"Here is one," says I. "The sunshine of your countenance lights up the
morning's gloom."

"A common enough figure, I confess," says she, "which a hundred poets
have better exprest."

"Here is another, then," says I, undaunted. "The solace of your
companionship sweetens the bitter miles."

"Nay," says she, "I think no better of that trope than the first. It
wants a poet to give an originality, a point and grace, to things of
this sort."

"But every lover is a poet," says I triumphantly.

"I am deluded then," says Cynthia, "for if your love is measured by
your poetry I am like to die of a broken heart. But after all, that
last glib phrase of yours is but a poor sort of speech for a man to
make to his mistress. A poet, as all the world knows, is but an
embellisher of common things."

"A poet is more than that," says I. "A thousand times more. A poet
is - - A poet is - - "

"A poet is?" says Cynthia archly.

"The human mind cannot express what a poet is," says I. "He is all,
and he is nothing. He weaves a sovereign spell about material things.
He can put a new glamour in the stars, although he cannot hold a candle
to the sun. He is the airy nothing that can reveal the face of God to
simple men."

"But what hath all this to do with Love?" says Cynthia. "And I confess
I never suspected this phase to your character. I always held you for
a common four-square kind of a fellow enough, by no means given to
these sudden heats and violences, these sudden whimsies and
nonsensicals."

"No more did I," says I ruefully. "But it is so like this wretched
passion to take us in our weakest part, which in me, as you are ever
the first to remind me, is the head."

"It is not such a wretched passion neither," says Cynthia, "if it is
but left to itself. It is these low poets and people that debase it.
Love is the noblest thing in the world, until your puny twopenny poets
and the like sing of it, and prate of it, and write an advertisement of
it, that they may earn enough to spend at the nearest tavern."

"Alas! mistress," says I, "you are too severe on the muse. There have
been elegies composed to Love that could dignify even that sacred
passion."

"All of which the sacred passion could very well have done without,"
says my didactic miss. "There is not a painter in the world, be he
never so cunning, that can put a new colour in the sunset, nor is there
an author of them all that can add a new rapture to a kiss."

"Body o' me," says I, "you are not a little right there."

If there is any vindication needed of the sex's incontestable
prerogative to enjoy the last word in any argument, be it of the nature
of metaphysics, reason or common practice, here is it to be found. We
stopped in the middle of the road and concluded our discourse with a
chaste salute. And I think there was a strain of poetry in us both as
we did so. The weeping heavens smiled upon us; all the wet verdure of
the spring was a sparkling face that laughed and greeted us. We went
along refreshed and more cheerful of heart.

Yet it was a toilsome journey. The mud clogged our feet, the damp
pervaded our clothes, and our unaccustomed fatigues of the last few
days were beginning to tell upon us terribly. Never in all our lives
had we given our feet such exercise. We had not walked much beyond an
hour this morning before I noticed with something of a sinking heart
that poor Cynthia was limping. At first these symptoms were hardly to
be discerned, and when I taxed her with them, she denied them stoutly.
But too soon were they revealed beyond a doubt. It was getting towards
noon before my proud little miss would in any wise admit this to be the
case, though. By then, however, she was so footsore that she could
scarce drag one foot behind the other. Chancing to pass near a
handrail bridge a little later, that spanned a small clear stream
running over long floating moss and stones, nothing would content me
but she should go and sit upon it, take off her shoes and stockings,
and bathe her bruised feet by dangling them over the side. A little
cottage nestling close at hand, fenced with box in front and
apple-trees behind, thither I repaired to beg clean linen rags to wrap
them in.

The cottage door was opened at my knock by a smiling, buxom housewife,
who stood out upon a background of crowing babes. No sooner had I made
my request than with cheerful energy, says she:

"Oh yes, sir, to be sure I can," and feeling that we were like to find
a true friend in her, no sooner had I explained the occasion for it
than she proved a friend indeed. Having procured these requisites with
a bustling promptitude, she carried them to Cynthia and found her
seated on the bridge as I had left her, bathing her toes in the cool
sweetness of the stream. With many a "poor lamb!" and many a "deary,
deary me!" she played the good Samaritan to my unlucky little one. She
dried them, comforted them, and bound them up with all the honest grace
of her great good nature. Never did I see a woman so brisk and
motherly, and certainly never one so overflowing with true charity.
When she had fulfilled her tender offices, and having kissed poor
Cynthia on both cheeks in a most resounding manner, "because she was
such a little beauty," she had us both go back with her to the cottage,
that we might eat a bowl of curds and whey in the arbour cut in the
laurel bushes, next the well, at the bottom of the garden.

Looking back on the scenes of our itinerary, this bustling, kindly
housewife makes the fairest picture of them all. Can the great who
dwell in palaces conceive the degree of simple happiness it is in the
power of such a creature to bestow? Whenever subsequently, in an hour
of gloom, I may have been led to doubt the essential goodness that lies
buried in the hearts of our human kind, I insensibly recall the conduct
of this honest woman on that wet spring morning when we came to her
door afflicted of mind and body.

By gentle walking we were able to make many more miles that day. But a
shadow had come over us. We had no longer the joyous intrepidity with
which we had set out less than a week ago. A foreboding had come upon
us. We could not hope to go much farther by our present mode. My
little companion, strive as she might to conceal the dire fact, was
rapidly being overcome. Her boots were wearing thin, she was already
suffering much pain, and there was the sum of sevenpence left to us by
which she could obtain her ease. We had not the heart to endeavour to
increase it by blowing further on the flute. Besides, if the truth of
that matter must be told, the stocks had given us a particular distaste
for the gentle instrument. As the slow, cloud-laden hours passed to
the occasional accompaniment of rain, with no glint of sunshine to
relieve their drab monotony, it called for all the courage of which we
had made a boast that morning to keep us from repining. The nearer we
approached the evening the greater was our gloom. There was the
eternal problem of food and shelter to be solved. The previous night
our audacity had solved it for us. But in our present state we both
felt quite incapable of furnishing the necessary spirit and effrontery
for a repetition of that bold trick. Alas! our one desire was to be
wafted by some magic into warmth and plenty that we might sup and fall
asleep.

We spent our last pence at a hedge inn on our habitual repast of bread
and cheese and ale. But the longer we lingered, the cheerless,
wretched place appeared to heighten our dejection, so that we hailed
the wet countryside as a relief when we walked out again upon it. But
I cannot tell you how we dreaded the coming of night. The barren
character of the landscape, and the few people and the fewer
habitations that we came upon probably increased the depression of our
spirits. Indeed, towards evening, the only human being that we
encountered in several miles was a travelling tinker singing on a
stile, and I think we could have wished to have been spared this
meeting. In our forlorn state we regarded such an irresponsible gaiety
in the light of a personal affront. But the dirty rogue had such a
cheerful, jolly look that I was fain to accost him with my curiosity.

"I beg your pardon, sir," says I, "but why do you uplift your soul in
merriment on such a dismal afternoon?"

The tinker looked at me suspiciously, and then at his bundle reposing
at his feet. He evidently speculated as to what designs I could have
upon it.

"It is a good world, my lad, that is why I sing," says he, "and you'd
be singing too, I fancy, if this was your first day out o' jail."

However that might be I am sure we both envied the tinker his frame of
mind. Our own was desperate indeed. There was nothing for it but to
push on relentlessly, and to hope against hope for some happy chance.
We were both utterly wearied and dispirited by this; no houses were
near at hand; and the night was closing in. We were consoled in a
slight degree with the thought that we were on a high road and that a
shelter of one sort or another should not be far to seek. By what
means we should be able to avail ourselves of it in our destitute state
was another question.

In the very height of our distresses we suddenly came upon a wayside
inn, and a scene of a violent and singular character was being enacted
on the threshold. Two persons, a man and a woman of mean appearance,
had evidently just been ejected from it, since they stood resentfully
in the middle of the road with divers bundles containing their goods
and chattels scattered around them. The landlord stood at the inn
door, shaking his fist and declaiming his great indignation, whilst his
wife, standing in a haven of security behind him, was giving rein to
her own sentiments with neither hesitation nor uncertainty.




CHAPTER XIX

WE APPEAR IN A NEW CHARACTER

It seemed that the man and woman in the middle of the road were the
ostler and chambermaid to the inn, who had just been convicted of a
grave misdemeanour. The language in which it was designated and
described by the host and hostess, energetic in form and warm in colour
as it was, could not, I fear, be reproduced in this chaste narrative.
It must suffice to say that the guilty persons had been discharged at a
moment's notice. They were now resenting this extreme course from
their station in the middle of the road; and whatever were the colours
in which their own conduct had been depicted, it is greatly to be
doubted, whether they could possibly have been more vivid than those
applied to that of their late master and mistress.

To these people in the midst of their altercation came Cynthia and I.
Almost at the same instant a similar thought entered the minds of us
both. Why should we not apply for these vacated situations? We had
had no experience of such duties, it was true. Our lot indeed would be
arduous. But we should at least be provided with a shelter for the
night; and we could relinquish our unaccustomed tasks the moment we
might feel ourselves better served by doing so. A brief whispered
conference as we stood apart in the road, and we decided to make
application. Never for an instant did the idea cross our minds that
such a highly superior ostler and chambermaid could be anything but
acceptable to the good people of the inn. Yet when taking our courage
in our hands we came up to the door, and I put forward my suggestion


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Collis) SnaithThe Wayfarers → online text (page 15 of 18)