Copyright
J. C. (John Collis) Snaith.

The Wayfarers online

. (page 4 of 18)
Online LibraryJ. C. (John Collis) SnaithThe Wayfarers → online text (page 4 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Cynthia contrived it somehow. And when she fitted her lips to the
brim, there was never a drop that left this quaint vessel but it went
to its right destination.

"How warm and delicious it is!" says she, after bibbing a most
immoderate quantity. "How refreshed I feel!"

Shaking with laughter, I followed her example. Yet the vigour with
which I did it, combined with my clumsier masculine methods, had
unfortunate consequences. I choked and sputtered and turned a good
deal down my coat ere I was able to get any satisfaction out of my
labours. However, when I had learned to control my impatience, and had
found the true knack of drinking hot milk out of my own hat, it was
almost worth enduring the pangs of so shrewd a hunger to have such an
exquisite recompense. One hatful did not suffice us either. We
returned to the cow again and again; and with such excellent
consequences, that for the nonce, we were both strongly agreed that no
meal of rare dishes served on silver with powdered servants behind our
chairs had ever given us any pleasure to approach our present one.
Indeed, so delicately satisfied did we feel within, and such a sense of
sweet lassitude was stealing over us, as made the thoughts of our couch
of straw a thousand times more delectable than any pillows and lavender
sheets we had ever slept in - nay, we really marvelled that if this was
a state of mind incident to a vagabond roving life, how any one could
ever do aught else but adopt it? Truly it must be the ignorance of the
world. People could not know of these Arcadian delights. Who would
trouble else to be a peer, for ever sweating and fuming in the toils of
one's position, spending one's days in contriving fresh devices for the
defeat of weariness and in the excitement of new appetites? Who would
game and drink every night in order to forget the _ennui_ of the world,
only to find day by day that instead of forgetting it, the intolerable
oppression of it did increase?

After shaking down several bundles of sweet-smelling hay and making of
it a rare soft bed, I was about to lie in it, when the propriety of the
feminine character was most excellently manifested. With a good deal
of confusion in her voice, and I'll swear in her face too, though
unhappily the darkness of this far corner was so great I could not
observe it, my companion intimated her modest doubts. It seemed we had
not yet been through the hands of the clergyman. Be sure that this
marvellously bashful proper miss did not use words of this rude
character. In faith, I hardly think that she used words at all; and if
she did, certainly not more than three at a time, and even they were of
such a nature that taken by themselves they could have no meaning
whatever. But so evident were the poor child's modest distresses, and
so keen her desire not to act in anywise contrary to the conventions of
that propriety in which her sex has ever been foremost, that I nearly
cracked a rib with my vulgar mirth.

"So be it, Mrs. Puritan," says I. "But upon my soul more _bourgeois_
reasons I never heard. 'Fore Gad, though, a most meritorious
respectability."

Little Cynthia, however, was not to be smoked out of her demeanour.
She persevered in it in the most straight-laced manner, and in the end
I was fain to erect a barrier of hay between us, and build up a second
couch for myself. Thus we might at a pinch be said to occupy separate
chambers, though to be sure the partition between us was not stout
enough to prevent us conversing as we lay in our separate beds. But it
was little talk that passed between us. We were so delightfully weary
that it began and ended in "Good-night!" The next minute an
unmistakable indication came from Mrs. Cynthia's apartment, and a
minute afterwards I was sunk in the honestest and therefore the most
delicious sleep I had enjoyed for many a year. I neither dreamt nor
wandered, but just dropt into a profound insensibility which was
continued well into the daylight of the morning. This rare refreshment
was destined to end in a somewhat peremptory fashion.

I think it must have been a kick or a blow that waked me. For I came
to my senses with an unnatural suddenness and a curse on my tongue. It
was broad day, and the misty morning sun was struggling in through
numerous chinks in the roof and walls of the hovel. A farmer with a
pitchfork in his hand was standing before me. He was almost
inarticulate with rage. As I opened my eyes he burst out into a
violent Doric that I hope these pages are much too chaste to adequately
reproduce.

"Well I nivver in all my born days," says he, stamping his feet, and
then rounding his period with a most ferocious kick on my shin.

"Get up, ye impident scoundrel, and I'll beat ye to purpose so I will.
In my own barn, in broad daylight too. O the impidence, the domned
impidence of it!"

The kick had greatly helped me to realize the state of the case. We
had been discovered by the owner of the cow-house, and he, with true
British respect for the rights of property, was not unnaturally
incensed that two persons were so calmly infringing them. For by this
he had discovered poor little Cynthia, whom I was able to observe
through the frail portion of hay between us, sitting up in her bed with
a very woeful, frightened countenance.

"Whoy theer's a woman too," says the farmer. "Well if this doan't beat
all I ivver heard. O you impident hussy."

"My good fellow," says I, fearing lest he should deal Cynthia a kick
also, "I am afraid you are under some misapprehension in this matter.
Allow me to explain."

I thought it to be an occasion when the very nicest suavity of tone and
manner was required, for the consequences were like to be uncommonly
ruffling else. Therefore I could not have been more careful of my
courtesy had I been addressing my remarks to the King. But all I got
for my pains was the sight of a great bewilderment that suddenly ran in
the farmer's purple face.

"Whoy, a dom'd foreigner," says he. "That makes it wuss, an hundred
times wuss, that it do. I'll give you foreigner, I will too. A
foreigner in my plaace, among my cows, lying in my hay. Come out o' it
and I'll break your yedd in two plazen; once for yersen, and once for
t' little witch with the blue eyes. How d'ye like that, Mister
Foreigner?"

Crack came the blunt end of the pitchfork at me so smartly, that it was
only the fact that I was expecting some small manifestation of the kind
that enabled me to get up my arm quick enough to save my head.

As my attempt at a polite argument had had such an unfortunate effect
upon him, I judged that I should best serve my skin by advancing a less
formal sort of rejoinder, but one that might more directly appeal to
his rustic character.

"Enough of this, sir," says I, "But just lay down your pitchfork, take
off your jacket and step outside, and you shall be the judge as to
whether I am a foreigner, or as good an Englishman as you are yourself."

The effect upon him was excellent. His anger melted at once at this
proposal, so clearly was it after his own mind.

"'Tis fair speaking anyway," says he. "I could not have spoken it
better myself. Come on this way, my lad, we'll soon set this matter to
rights."

Cynthia was terribly frightened. She clung to my arms, and refused to
let me follow the farmer into the yard.

"Much as I admire your solicitude, my prettiness," says I, "it is most
highly inconvenient. For do you not see that this is as much an affair
of honour as an appointment at Lincoln's Inn Fields? Mr. Chawbacon has
suffered an injury at our hands, and you who milked his cow last night
should be the last to deny it. Wherefore should he not have the
satisfaction that he desires? You would not, I am sure, have me put
off my gentility now that I cease to wear its livery. It is the only
reparation that I can make to Mr. Chawbacon, and if I denied it to the
honest fellow I should cease to respect myself."

Poor little Cynthia having no substantial argument to advance against
this - indeed how could she have? - had recourse to a flood of tears, at
once the most natural, formidable and convincing one her sex can set
up. But greatly as her behaviour embarrassed me, I was committed with
the farmer, and I have such an instinct in these matters, that
notwithstanding Cynthia's very real distress, I could not possibly have
backed out of my position with any shred of credit. Therefore taking
off my great-coat I bade the poor frightened child wrap herself in it
up to her ears and to stay where she was, that she might neither hear
nor observe that which was going forward. She obeyed me in this, and
lay sobbing softly to herself while I went forth to do battle with my
friend the farmer.

On stepping out of the hovel into the yard I found my antagonist was
surrounded by three or four of the farm yokels, and moreover was
stripped to the waist. To judge by his expression he was plainly
animated by the highest intentions towards me, and was prepared to give
quite as much or even more than he was likely to receive.

"Now then, my lad," he says briskly, "I'm a-going to do as well by you
as Tench did last week by the Fightin' Tinman. Now then, Joe Barker,
and you, Bill Blagg, come on with them there pails and moppses."

To my infinite delight I saw that the two children of the soil in
question were bearing two buckets of water towards us with a sponge
floating on the top of each.

"We can't have this done in due and proper form according to the
reggerlations," says this sportsman of a farmer in an apologetic voice,
"because you see we've got no judge, and none o' these men o' mine
could be trusted with the dooties. I wish Squire was here, I do so.
We _could_ have it all done proper then accordin' to the reggerlations.
Squire was Tench's backer down Putney way last week, and knows all the
reggerlations off by heart, does Squire. He only lives just across the
road, and if you'll wait a minute I'll have him fetched."

"No, my good man," says I hastily, "we'll have no squires if you
please. We can trust one another, I suppose. Let me suggest that a
knock-down ends the round, and that we set-to again when we feel able."

"That seems fair," says the farmer. "But I should a-liked Squire to
ha' been here all the same, and I'm thinking he'd a-liked to ha' been
here too. He's the best sporting man in Surrey, is the Squire, and
fair death on the reggerlations."

Having fixed up all the preliminaries of an encounter in this
expeditious fashion, I proceeded to prepare for the fray. I imitated
the farmer's excellent example, divested myself of coat, waistcoat and
shirt, and bound up my breeches with a leathern belt I was able to
borrow from a flattered and delighted yokel. It was in this negligent
attire that I regarded my antagonist, and devoutly hoped the while that
my little Cynthia was still sobbing among the hay in the hovel.




CHAPTER V

I VINDICATE THE NATIONAL CHARACTER

The farmer held out his hand with a grin, but quite in the approved
manner, and I seized the occasion of shaking it briefly to run over his
points. He was extremely broad: a hard-looking, powerful fellow,
apparently capable of taking a deal of punishment. But his years were
against him. He was considerably on the wrong side of fifty to judge
by his looks, and in height I had the advantage of a full four inches.
To judge by the attitude in which he set himself, I doubted whether,
whatever his experience of these encounters, he had much science to
recommend him. For myself I must confess I was hugely delighted with
the whole thing, and entered into it with the spirit of a boy. A match
or a contest or a wager of any kind has ever been peculiarly acceptable
to me. Indeed was it not this fondness, amounting almost to a passion,
that had so largely contributed to my present position? I had always,
I think, been pretty ready with my hands; had had some little practice
in night affrays with footpads and persons of that kidney; had
witnessed more than one set-to in the ring; whilst as for the matter of
science, I had in my younger days taken so keen an interest in this
invaluable art, as to put myself under the tutelage of acknowledged
masters of it. Therefore I was not without a certain confidence in
myself, although there was a grim determination about the mien and air
of the farmer that was not to be despised. He was unmistakably game
and full of the true fighting instinct, but his years were no friends
of his intrepidity.

Disregarding all subtleties and finesse, as well became his blunt,
rustical, honest character, we had no sooner greeted one another and
got our hands up, than the farmer came at me both hands pell-mell, with
his head down, like a bull at a gate. His onset was so fierce and
sudden, that I was by no means prepared to receive it, and he had me at
a decided disadvantage. He had rained in a full dozen of short-armed
blows, right and left, left and right at my face, at my ribs, at my
chest, ere I could even so much as find my fighting legs, or bring into
action any little skill that I might possess. My long-unpractised ward
could not prevail at all against such an onslaught. I received
half-parried blows on the mouth, which cut my lip and broke a tooth, on
the right eye which partially closed it up, and a full one in the ribs.
This last was the worst of all, as for a time it deprived me somewhat
of my wind and made me sob to catch my breath. And while I was meeting
with these misfortunes, the bystanding yokels, whose sympathies were
all on one side and that not mine, as you may suppose, were dancing
with delight, and shrieking their hoarse encouragement.

"Go it, varmer. Give un pepper, give un snuff!"

However, by this I had pulled myself together somewhat, and had found a
means of coping with this hand-over-hand style of fighting. There was
plenty of room to dodge in. This I began to make use of. Indeed it
was the only chance I had of protecting myself, for I was quite
incapable of standing up to the farmer's terrible blows. But as soon
as I could find myself sufficiently to begin dancing out of his reach,
the game turned at once in my favour. There was devil a bit of guile
or finesse in the heart of my honest adversary. The moment I gave
ground, he pursued me, hitting the air. Happily for me he was much too
slow and heavy in this kind of warfare ever to get his knuckles near
the place he desired.

In a little while his great jowl grew inflamed, the sweat poured off
his forehead into his eyes, his breath came short and thick, and his
hitting grew gradually weaker and less sustained. It was not yet that
I went in, however. I continued to prance round and round him, there
being plenty of room in which to do so; and at every futile blow he
grew more unsteady. But all this while I had a keen eye for my
opportunity. It was coming slowly but surely, for I was well enough
versed in the matter to know better than to go so much as an inch to
meet it. I waited then with a wary patience, sometimes letting him get
nearer than I need have done to encourage him in his course. Not that
this was necessary, for the old fellow was as game as any pet of the
"fancy" that ever buffed in the ring. But not again did I allow him to
get his "ten commandments" home on me; I had had enough of that. And
at last having allowed him to spend himself entirely, I quickly
selected the moment of my advantage, even deliberated on it to make
quite sure, and then stiffened every muscle into trim. I made a
pretence of closing up with him. This had the effect of luring him
into another futile rush. As he came hitting blindly, I feinted, and
as he went past, my right went out at the most correct fraction of an
instant, and down went the gallant farmer into the muck of his own
barton. The Fighting Tinker himself could not have done it more
neatly, I'll vow. But the old fellow was of a rare British mettle. He
was no sooner down than he was up again. Apparently he was ashamed to
be seen in such a humiliating posture.

I, for my part, had barely time to wipe away the blood that was oozing
from my broken lip, ere the farmer was up and at me again. But I was
not to be caught napping a second time. By this I was perfectly calm
and sure of myself, for I felt that I enjoyed a command of the methods
that were likely to bring me success. Instead of dodging from my
opponent on this occasion I allowed him to come right up and literally
hurl himself on his own undoing. For again at the exact instant I got
a beautiful lead on to his point, and stunned as much by the unexpected
check to his own impetus as by the blow itself, he fell flat on his
back. This time he lay half stunned. He made several attempts to rise
immediately, but was quite unable to do so.

Seeing him to be somewhat the worse, his yokels ran to him, whilst I
went too, and rendered him all the assistance that lay in my power. He
lay puffing and panting in the mire of the yard, half-dazed by his
disaster, otherwise apparently not a penny the worse. He was still
full of fighting courage; but unfortunately he lay as weak as a child
from the shock of the blow and the fall. Strive as he might he was
quite unable to rise. His yokels of course were at a loss to know what
to do in the circumstances, but I did what I could by propping his head
on my knee, and dispatching one of the men to the house for some
brandy. And at this moment who should arrive but little Cynthia with a
very white face indeed, and in such a quiver of distress as plainly
said that she had witnessed the whole affair from the seclusion of the
cowhouse.

"Oh," says she, taking charge of the farmer at once, and sponging his
face and his breast with the cold water, "you are neither of you
killed, I hope. Oh, you pair of ruffian wretches! Have you much pain,
poor farmer? Lean your head on Jack, and take things gently a little.
And do you, What's-your-name? bring his coat and put over the poor
man's shoulders."

While these delicate attentions were going forward, my sturdy adversary
was recovering remarkably.

"I'm all right, my wench," says he. "But I'm dom'd if I can stand up
again, much as I should like. Your mate's done me fair for once, and I
can tell you he's the only man hereabouts that ivver gave Joe Headish
his bellyful. Dom'd if I don't go at 'im again. Here, let be; let me
get up."

By a sudden effort he tried to rise, but immediately fell back again in
a still more dilapidated state. But the arrival of the brandy did a
good deal to restore him, and a little afterwards he was on his legs.
Feeling himself in no condition to continue, reluctant as he was to
admit the fact, he held out his hand, and we both subscribed to the
articles of peace.

By the time I had donned my clothes in the seclusion of the hovel, and
had emerged forth again in all the respectability of my great-coat,
coat, waistcoat, and shirt, the farmer was thoroughly recovered and
talking to Cynthia in the most friendly spirit. At my appearance, says
he:

"I don't know who you are, young man; I don't know you from Adam, that
I don't, but I respect you. You're of the right stuff, my lad, and
pretty handy with your mauleys. I ax pardon for calling you a
foreigner. Whatever part you come from, and whatever your occipation
may be, dom'd if you're not as true-blood an Englishman as I am mysen.
And I don't care who hears me say it."

"I thank you, sir," says I gravely. "But I am sure the apology should
come from me. I on my side ask your pardon for using your cowhouse and
using your milk in the small hours of the morning."

"Don't name it," says the farmer. "You're quite welcome to the best
I've got. And dom me if it comes to that you shall have it too. You
come along with me, and bring the little wench as well. Purty a little
wench as ivver I see, she is so!"

I suppose it was the rudest and coarsest invitation either of us had
ever had in our lives, but it was certainly the heartiest; and this
I'll vow, there never was an invitation in this world more promptly and
thankfully accepted. Indeed at the first hint of it our hearts almost
leapt with joy, and then a tear sparkled in Cynthia's eyes as she
curtsied to the farmer. It was really fine to observe the behaviour of
the honest fellow. There was not a spark of animosity in him. He had
arbitrated on the merits of the case in his own fashion, and he now
acquiesced in the result with the same game spirit with which he had
arrived at it. And I am perfectly certain for my part that there was
more wisdom in the man's instincts of justice than may at the first
sight appear. If all the world would recognize his as the accepted
manner of adjudicating on its private and individual grievances, it
would be found the best method, the one least likely to breed bad
blood, and the one most calculated to engender a mutual respect in the
parties concerned. And now having delivered this superior sentiment as
a sort of grace before meat, let us follow our good farmer to his
dwelling with the cheerful expedition that we did on the occasion
itself.

The excellent man, although evidently puzzled as to who we might
be - our mode of life was certainly such as to justify his gravest
suspicions - was at great pains to conceal any doubts of our character
and occupation that he might entertain. But the moment we entered the
ample food-smelling kitchen of the farm, the ceiling hung if you please
with hams, a rare dish of bacon frizzling before the fire, and a
breakfast table that to our charmed eyes was almost overborne with good
homely and appetizing things, we had to run the gauntlet of the
farmer's wife. She was a little, keen-featured, hard-faced woman,
with, as we were soon to discover, the devil of a sharp tongue. She
ruffled her feathers as soon as she saw us.

"Lork-a-mercy!" says she, "I didn't know, Joseph, as 'ow you was
a-bringing of company to breakfast."

"I didn't know mysen," says Joseph complacently. Then followed a
moment of embarrassment. It was plainly the good man's duty to present
us to his wife. She very properly expected it of him. But as in his
own phrase he did not know us from Adam himself, he was at a loss to
know in what terms to represent us. Nor did the pause that ensued help
matters at all. The farmer's wife had from the first, as her manner
showed, been by no means disposed to view us favourably. There was
evidently something in our appearance that had caused her to take a
strong prejudice against us. One cannot be surprised that this was the
case, however, seeing that we were both unwashed, and as unkempt as we
possibly could be, whilst to add a final touch to the picture we
presented, I was embellished with a puffy and discoloured eye, and a
bloodied lip. These misfortunes, when her good man had made
appearances ten times more unfortunate by his hesitation, his wife was
only too ready to take as a confirmation of her suspicions. We were a
pair of worthless persons, and Joseph was unable to account for the
sudden impulse that had led him to bring us into that respectable
abode. For if we were persons of some credit, why did not Joseph say
so at once? His wife sniffed, and after gazing at us in a most
disconcerting manner, was moved to say:

"Joseph, I'm surprised at you. I'll have no wicked vagabond
play-actors here. I've always done my best to keep this house
respectable, and, please God, it shall always be so. How dare you
bring such people here? I'll be bound you found them sleeping in your
barn, and then, soft-hearted fool that you are, you bring them in to
breakfast. Oh, I know; you can't deceive me. It is not enough then
that they should trespass on your premises, lie on your hay, and rob
your hen-roosts, but you must encourage 'em in it into the bargain, and
bring them into this clean, wholesome kitchen that you know I've always
took such a pride in."

The farmer turned as red as a cabbage. In his heart he was bound to
admit that every word his wife uttered was true in substance. But he
was a very honest fellow; and though he might feel that he was greatly
to blame for taking a couple of vagrants so much under his wing, he was
not the man to go back on his hospitality. He stood by us nobly.

"Wife," says he, "what words be these? If I choose to ask a lady and
gentleman to come and sit at table with me, shall my own wife insult
them lo their faces?"

"Lady and gentleman!" says the redoubtable wife. "A pretty sort of
lady and gentleman, ain't they? A brazen madam with a hat on. Oh, and


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Collis) SnaithThe Wayfarers → online text (page 4 of 18)