"Madam," said I, bowing to her as she stood viewing us with startled eyes, "I have the honour to present your deliverer and my friend, Mr. Anthony Vere-Manville!" And now I saw that her eyes indeed were very beautiful. So I turned away and left them together.
Reaching the other room I found the squint-eyed maid had set forth our supper—a goodly joint of cold beef flanked by a loaf, cheese and a jug of ale. A mere glance at this simple fare reminded me how extraordinary was my hunger which I was greatly tempted to satisfy then and there, but checked the impulse resolutely and sat down to wait for Anthony. Nevertheless my gaze must needs wander from crusty loaf to mellow cheese and thence to juicy beef so that I was greatly tempted to begin there and then but schooled my appetite to patience. At last in strode Anthony who, seizing my hand, shook it heartily.
"Peregrine," said he, staring very hard at the beef, "what perfectly glorious hair—"
"Hair?" said I.
"So silky, Peregrine, and—ripply."
"Ah!" said I, glancing from the beef to his ecstatic face. "You mean—"
"To be sure I do!" said he, and shook my hand again.
"And her eyes—you must have observed her eyes?"
"Somewhat red and swollen—"
"Tush!" said he, and catching my hand again, led me to a small and dingy mirror against the wall.
"An ill-looking scoundrel!" he exclaimed, pointing to his reflection. "A miserable wretch, a friendless dog, and Peregrine, I tell you she stooped to trust this scoundrel, to touch this wretch's hand, to speak gentle words to this homeless dog. She's a saint, begad—a positive angel and—oh, stab my vitals—she's hungry and I forgot it—"
"So am I, Anthony—so are you—and here's supper—"
"Where?" he enquired, still lost in contemplation of his villainous reflection.
"On the table, of course."
"Dammit, what a repulsive object I look!" he groaned. "And yet, what matter? Yes—it's just as well she should have seen me at my very worst! And yet—these cursed bristles! I tell you she's an angel, Perry!"
"And hungry, Anthony."
"So she is, sweet soul!" he exclaimed and was gone as he spoke, to reappear in another moment ushering in our fair guest, whose mere presence and dainty grace seemed to make the dingy chamber more sweet and homelike.
"Madam," said I, taking up the carving-knife and bowing as she seated herself between us, "I fear we can offer you but the very simplest of fare, but if you are hungry—"
"Ravenous, sir!" said she, with a little upward motion of the eyes that I thought very engaging. "I have eaten nothing since I ran away this morning—"
"And this beef cuts very well!" said I. And so we began to eat forthwith, speaking but seldom (and Anthony not at all) until our hunger was somewhat appeased.
More than once I had noticed her bright eyes flit from the elegance of my garments to the ruin of Anthony's; at last she spoke:
"And you are—two friends, I understand?" she questioned.
"Yes, madam," answered Anthony, "of about six hours standing. My friend Mr. Vereker found me upon the road and took pity on my destitution. It is to Peregrine we are indebted for the food we eat—"
"And to Anthony for your safety. As to friendship," I pursued, "it is a gift of heaven, greater than time and born in a moment—and this I hope may endure as long as time, because Anthony is the only friend I possess."
Now at this she leaned back and glanced at us beneath wrinkled brows for a moment, then suddenly and with sweet impulse she reached out a hand to each of us.
"Then let us all be friends," said she, "for I am lonely too!"
So for a long moment we sat thus, hand in hand, and neither speaking. "And now," said she at last, "since we are friends, I want you to know how I came to run such risks. I am Barbara Knollys, and my father wishes me to marry a man I hate, so I determined to run away to my aunt Aspasia, because, though I fear my father, my father fears aunt Aspasia more. Captain Danby offered to escort me to aunt's house at Sevenoaks, but once I was in his chaise I grew afraid of him and instead of following the high road he drove by desolate lanes and—oh, he was hateful and so at last we came here. And now you say that Captain Danby has gone?" she enquired of Anthony.
"Quite!" said he a little grimly. "He is, I believe, snug in bed."
"I trust, sir, you—didn't—hurt him—more than was—necessary?"
"Rest assured of it, madam."
"Heaven is very kind to have brought me out of such danger and set me safe in the care of—gentlemen," said she, glancing from one to other of us.
"Rest assured of this also, madam!" said I, while Anthony looked from her to me with shining eyes. At this moment we started, all three, as borne to our ears came the distant rumble of thunder, followed by a fierce wind-gust that rattled crazy door and lattice and, dying in a dismal wail, left behind the mournful sound of pattering rain.
"O heavens!" exclaimed our companion, clasping slender hands. "A storm—and I am terrified of thunder—"
"It will soon pass!" said I.
"But I must start at once!" she faltered. "I must reach my aunt's house to-night."
"There is the chaise!" suggested Anthony.
"Ah, no, no—impossible!" she cried. "The chaise was engaged by Captain Danby and the postillion is in his pay—"
"The chaise shall be ready whenever you desire," said Anthony, rising, "and the postillion shall drive you wherever you appoint if—if you can trust yourself to the care of such a—a down-at-heels rogue as—myself."
"Mr. Anthony," said she, very gravely, "this morning I was a foolish girl—to-night I am a woman—my adventure has taught me much—and a woman always knows whom she may trust. And you are a friend and a gentleman, and one I can trust and so I accept your offer most thankfully." Saying which, she reached out her hand to him and with such a look as made me half wish myself in Anthony's place. So he took her hand, made as though to raise it to his lips, then loosed it and stood with bowed head, seemingly lost in contemplation of his broken boots.
"Thanks!" he mumbled. "I—I—thank you!"
"Now I must prepare for the road!" said she and sped away with never so much as a glance at me, leaving Anthony staring after her like one in a dream, and I saw his eyes bright with unshed tears.
"Perry!" he exclaimed, "O Perry—did you hear her?" And crossing to the little mirror he stood to behold his reflection again. "She has given me back my self-respect!" said he. And then, "Oh, for a barber!" he groaned. "Damn this stubble. I look like an accursed gooseberry! And now for the chaise, she must be safe with her aunt to-night, sweet soul. And she trusts me, Perry—me!" Here he turned to scowl at his reflection again. "An angel!" he murmured.
"But Anthony, if one of the horses has cast a shoe—"
"Shoe?" he repeated dreamily. "The prettiest, daintiest shoe in all Christendom. I noticed it particularly as she stood there—on that old, worn mat—"
Seeing him so lost, I ventured to shake his arm and repeat my query, whereupon he roused and nodded.
"To be sure. Perry, to be sure! We must persuade our ostler and postboy to find us another—let us see to it forthwith!" So saying, he picked up Captain Danby's heavy cane and with it gripped in purposeful hand, led the way from the room.
I AM LEFT FORLORN
At the extreme end of a narrow and somewhat dingy passage we came on a door, from behind which proceeded a din of voices in loud confabulation, together with much jingling of glasses, so that I judged the worthies we sought were engaged upon what I believe is known as "making a night of it."
This hoarse babel ended suddenly as, opening the door, Anthony strode in, his whole person and attitude suggestive of that air I have already mentioned as one of polite ferocity.
"Aha!" said he, feet wide-planted, Captain Danby's stout cane bending in his powerful hands. "How far is it to Sevenoaks, pray?"
"Better nor seven mile!" answered the surly landlord, setting down his spirit-glass.
"Ah, all o' that!" nodded the ostler over his tankard.
"Every bit!" added the postboy.
"An' 'oo might you be?" demanded an individual in top-boots, a large man chiefly remarkable for a pair of fierce, black whiskers and a truculent eye.
"Seven miles!" exclaimed Anthony, unheeding his interrupter. "I had feared it shorter—oh, excellent! Now my lads, we require the chaise—up with you, set to the horses and be ready to start in ten minutes at most. Come—bustle!"
"Lord!" exclaimed Black Whiskers, "You'd think 'e was a nearl or a jook to 'ear un—'oo is 'e?"
"Why, it's 'im as we was tellin' you of, Mr. Vokes!" quoth the landlord.
"'Is werry own selluf!" nodded the postboy.
"The desp'rit cove as gie me the one-er!" added the ostler.
"Aye, Mr. Vokes," continued the landlord with unction, "this is 'im as committed the 'ssault an' battery on 'is betters."
"Oh, is it?" said Mr. Vokes, nodding in highly menacing fashion.
"Ah!" nodded the landlord. "An' then goes for to make us go for to nigh drownd the pore, unfort'nate genelman in my own 'oss-trough, an' 'im now a-sneezin' an' a-groanin' an' a-swearin' in bed fit to break your 'eart. 'Ere be the desp'rit rogue as done the deed!"
"Oh, is it!" repeated Black Whiskers, scowling. "Why, very well, then—'ere's to show 'im 'oo's 'oo!" and he reached for a heavy riding-whip that lay on the floor beside him.
"Sit still, Mr. Vokes—remain seated, lest I pink you!" commanded Anthony, saluting him with the Captain's cane as if it had been a sword. The man Vokes stared, swore and rose up, whip in hand, whereupon Anthony lunged gracefully, thrusting the cane so extremely accurately into the middle of Mr. Vokes' waistcoat that he doubled up with marked suddenness and fell back helpless in his chair, groaning and gasping painfully.
"Now, my lads," quoth Anthony cheerily, as he picked up the whip, "the word is 'horses'! Come, bustle now!" and he cracked the whip like a pistol shot.
"Lord love me!" exclaimed the landlord, retreating precipitately. "I never see no thin' like this 'ere—no, never!"
"That'll do, my lad, that'll do!" said Anthony, flourishing the whip. "In six minutes or so I expect the chaise at the door."
"But I can't drive a hoss wot's cast a shoe, can I, sir?" whined the postillion, his eye on the whip.
"You can get another, my lad."
"Theer ain't no other 'oss nowhere, except Mr. Vokes' mare!" quoth the ostler.
"Then of course Mr. Vokes will be glad to lend us his mare, I'm sure."
But here Black Whiskers found voice and breath for a very decided negative, with divers gasping allusions to Anthony's eyes and limbs. Hereupon Anthony betook him again to his posture of escrime, the cane-point levelled threateningly within a foot of Mr. Vokes' already outraged person.
"Fellow," said he, "next time address me as 'sir'—and say 'yes'!"
For a moment the flinching Mr. Yokes paused to eye the levelled cane, the ready hand and fierce grey eyes behind it, then spoke the desired words in voice scarcely audible by reason of pain and passion; but they sufficed, the cane was lowered, the whip cracked, and forthwith into the yard filed landlord, ostler and postillion with us at their heels. And here by aid of flickering lanthorns, amid wind and rain, the horses were harnessed and put to, the chaise brought to the door where stood one cloaked and hooded who, with Anthony's ready assistance, climbed nimbly into the chaise.
"Anthony—your pistol!" and I handed it to him. "Take care," said I, as he thrust it carelessly into his bosom.
"Tush!" he laughed, "had it been loaded I should have blown out what brains I have days ago!"
"Good-bye, Anthony!" said I, and, or ever he could prevent, thrust a guinea into his hand. For a moment I thought he would toss it in my face, then he thrust it into his pocket.
"Egad, Perry!" said he, seizing my hand in his vital clasp. "You are a devilish—likeable fellow and—d'ye see—what I mean is—oh, dammit! Look for me at Tonbridge." Having said which, he sprang down the steps, entered the chaise and banged to the door. But now at the open window was a lovely face. "Good-bye—Peregrine," and with the word she reached out her hand to me.
"Good-bye," said I.
"Barbara," she suggested.
"Good-bye, Barbara!" said I, and lifted the hand to my lips.
"At Tonbridge, Perry!" repeated Anthony.
"At Tonbridge!" said I, whereupon the postillion vituperated the rain and wind, chirruped to his horses, and the chaise rolled away into the tempestuous dark.
For them, rain and wind and darkness, for me such comfort as the inn afforded, but of the three it was I who was desolate and forlorn.
DESCRIBES THE WOES OF GALLOPING JERRY, A NOTORIOUS HIGHWAYMAN
"An' now—wot about my door?" demanded a gruff voice. Starting, I turned to find the landlord at my elbow and immediately my forlornness grew intensified. I felt miserably helpless and at a loss, for the man's sullen face seemed to hold positive menace and I yearned mightily for Anthony's masterful presence beside me or a little of his polite ferocity.
"Come—wot about my door?" demanded the landlord, more threatening than ever. "Ten shillin' won't mend my door—"
"What door?" I questioned, fronting his insolent look with as much resolution as I could summon.
"The door as you an' that desp'rit villain broke betwixt ye—fifteen shillin'—ah, a pound won't pay for the mendin' o' my door—wot about it—come!" Here he lurched towards me, shoulders hunched, chin brutally out-thrust so that I shrank instinctively from him, perceiving which, he grew the more aggressive.
"That will do!" said I in woefully feeble imitation of Anthony's masterful manner. "That will do—and what is more—"
"Oh, will it do? Wot about my door?"
"You may charge it in your bill—"
"Not me, by goles! 'T is money as I wants—thirty shillin'—in my 'and—this 'ere very moment."
"I intend to stay the night, so will you please have a fire lighted in your best—"
"Thirty-five shillin's the word—in my 'and—this moment—my fine little gent—that's wot!"
Feeling myself quite powerless to cope with this drunken creature, I shrank before him, trembling with mingled rage and disgust; perceiving which, he scowled the fiercer and thrust a hairy fist into my face. Threatened thus with bodily harm, I glanced hastily over my shoulder with some wild notion of ignominious flight, but dignity forbidding, I stood my ground sick with apprehension and with my sweating hands tight-clenched.
"Smell it!" quoth the landlord, setting his fist under my nose. "Which is it t' be,—forty shillin' or this?"
I was groping for my purse when over my shoulder came a large, plump, red hand that took my scowling aggressor by an ear and tweaked it till he writhed, and turning, I beheld the large, plump woman who, putting me aside, interposed her comfortable bulk before me.
"Oh, Sammy," sighed she reproachfully. "You been a-drinkin' again—shame on ye to go a-frightin' an' a-scarin' this poor child. Go an' put your wicked 'ead under the pump this instant, you bad boy. As for you, my pore lamb, never 'eed 'im; 'e bean't so bad when 'e's sober. Come your ways along o' me, dearie." And folding me within one robust arm she brought me into that room that was half bar and half kitchen.
"There!" she exclaimed, leading me to the great settle beside the fire. "Sit ye there, my lamb, and never mind nobody. Lor'! You be a-shiverin' an' shakin' like a little asp, I declare. Poor child!" sighed she, gustily commiserate, and patting my head with her great plump hand. "Pore little soul—never mind, then!"
"Madam," said I, somewhat overwhelmed by her solicitude, "I am not so very—so extreme youthful as you deem me."
"Ain't you, lovey?"
"Indeed, no! I am nineteen."
"Nineteen, dearie—lor', an' you s' small an' all—"
"I am five feet three—almost!"
"Are ye, dearie—lor'! But then I'm s' big, most other folks seems small to me—'specially men—men is all children—'specially my man. Which do mind me. Sammy," she called, "go into the wash'us an' let Susie pump on ye. Susie, jest you pump water on your master's 'ead—this moment."
"Yes, ma'm!" And presently sure enough, from somewhere adjacent rose the clank of a pump to the accompaniment of much splashing and gasping.
"That'll do, Susie!"
"Now you, Sammy, go an' lie down—this moment. 'E'll be all right arter this, dearie. Susie!"
"Go light a fire for this young genelman in Number Four. This moment."
"The best chamber but one, dearie. And a feather bed!" All this as she bustled to and fro, and very quietly despite her size, while I sat gazing into the fire and hearkening to the patter of rain on the windows and the wind that howled dismally without and rumbled in the wide chimney so that I must needs wonder how it fared with the travellers and if I should ever see either of them again.
"You look very lonesome, dearie!" remarked the landlady at last, with a large wooden spoon in her hand. "Can I get ye anythink? A drop o' kind rum or nice brandy—or say a glass o' purl—a drop o' purl took warm would be very comfortin' for your little inside."
"Thank you—no!" said I, a little shortly. "But if you could oblige me with pen, ink and paper, I should be grateful."
"Why, for sure, though I'm afraid the pen's broke."
"I'll cut another."
"Ye see there ain't much writin' done 'ere, 'cept by me with my B-e-t-y for Betty and S-a-m-i-e for Samuel." So saying, she presently set out the articles in question; then, having made shift to cut and trim a new point to the quill, I wrote as follows:
NOBLEST AND BEST OF AUNTS: It is now an eternity of twenty-four hours since I left the secure haven of your loving care. Within this space I have found the world more wonderful than my dreams and man more varied than a book. I have also learned to know myself for no poet—it remains for me to convince myself that I am truly a man.
As to my sudden departure, I do beg you to banish from your mind any doubt of my deep love and everlasting gratitude to you, the noblest of women, believe rather I was actuated by motives as unselfish as sincere. Writing this, I pray that though this separation pain you as it does me, it may yet serve to bring to you sooner or late a deeper happiness than your great unselfish heart has ever known. In which sincere hope I rest ever your grateful, loving PEREGRINE.
P.S. I shall write you of my further adventures from time to time.
I was in the act of folding my epistle when I started, for above the lash of rain and buffeting wind, it seemed that some one was hailing from the road. Presently, as I listened, I heard a mutter of rough voices without, a tramp of feet, and the door swung suddenly open to admit two men, or rather three, for between them they dragged one, a short, squat fellow in riding boots and horseman's coat, but all so torn and bedraggled, so foul of blood and mire, as to seem scarce human. His hat was gone and his long, rain-soaked hair clung in black tangles about his bruised face and as he stood, swaying in his bonds, I thought him the very figure of misery.
"House!" roared one of his captors. "House—ho!" In response the landlady entered, followed by her sullen spouse (somewhat sobered by his late ablutions) and the man Vokes.
"Lor'!" exclaimed the landlord, plump fists on plump hips and eyeing the newcomers very much askance. "An' what might all this be?"
"Thieves, missus—a murderin' 'ighwayman—Galloping Jerry 'isself—a bloody rogue—"
"'E looks it!" nodded the landlady. "Bleedin' all over my clean kitchen, 'e be. Take 'im out t' barn—"
"Not us, ma'm, not us—'e's nigh give us the slip once a'ready, dang 'im!" Saying which, the speaker kicked the poor wretch so that he would have fallen but for the wall, whereupon the man Vokes laughed and nodded.
"Ecod!" quoth he. "I'm minded to try my boots on 'im myself."
"Not you, Mr. Vokes!" said the landlady. "No one ain't a-goin' t' kick nobody in my kitchen, and no more I don't want no murderin' 'ighwaymen neither—so out ye go."
"Not us, missus, not us! We be officers—Bow Street officers—wi' a werry dangerous criminal took red 'anded an' a fifty-pound reward good as in our pockets—so 'ere we be, an' 'ere we bide till mornin'. Lay down, you!" Saying which he fetched the wretched captive a buffet that tumbled him into a corner where he lay, his muddy back supported in the angle. And lying thus, it chanced that his eye met mine, a bright eye, very piercing and keen. Now beholding him thus in his helplessness and misery, I will confess that my very natural and proper repugnance for him and his past desperate crimes was greatly modified by pity for his present deplorable situation, the which it seemed he was quick to notice, for with his keen gaze yet holding mine, he spoke, albeit mumbling and somewhat indistinct by reason of his swollen lips:
"Oh, brother, I'm parched wi' thirst—a drink o' water—"
"Stow ye gab!" growled the man Tom. "Gi'e him one for 'is nob, Jimmy." But as his nearer captor raised his cudgel, I sprang to my feet.
"That'll do!" I cried so imperatively that the fellow stayed his blow and turned to stare, as did the others. "You've maltreated him enough," said I, quite beside myself; "if he desires a little water where's the harm; he will find few enough comforts where he is going?" And taking up a jug of water that chanced to be near I approached the poor wretch, but ere I could reach him, the man Tom interposed, yet as he eyed me over, from rumpled cravat to dusty Hessians, his manner underwent a subtle change.
"No, no, young sir—can't be—I knows a genelman when I sees one, but it's no go—Jerry's a rare desperate cove an' oncommon sly—"
"Then give him the water yourself—"
"Not me, sir!"
"I tell you the man is faint with thirst and ill-usage—"
"Then let 'im faint. A young gent like you don't want nothin' to do wi' th' likes o' 'im—let 'im faint—"
At this I set down the jug and taking out my purse, extracted a guinea.
"Landlord," said I, tossing the coin upon the table, "a bottle of your best rum for the officers—a bowl of punch would do none of us any harm, I think."
"Lor'!" exclaimed the landlady, sitting down heavily.
"By goles!" quoth the landlord, reaching for the guinea.
"Allus know a genelman when I sees one!" said the man Tom, making a leg to me and knuckling shaggy eyebrow. So they suffered me to take the water to their prisoner, who drank avidly, his eyes upraised to mine in speechless gratitude.
"Don't believe 'em, brother," he whispered under cover of the talk where the others clustered around the hearth watching the preparations for the punch; "don't believe 'em, friend—I'm no murderer an' my pore old stricken mother on 'er knees for me this night, an' my sweet wife an' babbies weepin' their pretty eyes out, an' all for me. I'm a pore lame dog, brother, an' here's a stile as be 'ard to come over; howsomever, whether 'tis sweet wind an' open road for me by an' by, or Tyburn Tree—why God love ye for this, brother!"
Here he closed his eyes and bowed his head as one in prayer, for I saw his swollen lips moving painfully, then glancing up, beheld the man Jimmy watching us.
"Wot's Jerry a-sayin' of, sir?" he questioned.
"Praying, I believe."
"More like cursing. Jerry's a-flamming o' ye, young sir. An' the punch is ready at last." So while the storm raged outside, we sat down at the table beside the hearth where glasses were filled from a great bowl of steaming brew and forthwith emptied to my very good health. And now to the accompaniment of howling wind and lashing rain, the Bow Street officers recounted the history of Galloping Jerry's capture.
"'T were this evenin' as ever was just about dark, on the 'ill yonder. About 'arf way up there's a biggish tree, an' we was a-layin' for 'im there, Jimmy an' me, wi' our barkers ready, 'avin' been given the office. Presently we 'ears the sound o' hoofs an' down 'ill easy-like comes a mounted cove. It's 'im!' says I. 'Sure?' says Jimmy. 'Sartin,' says I, 'I knows 'im by 'is 'at!' 'Werry good!' says Jimmy, an' lets fly an' down comes the 'oss 'eadfirst, squealin' like a stuck pig, an' away down 'ill shoots Jerry, rollin' over an' over, an' then we was on 'im wi' our truncheons an' we give 'im wot for—eh, Jimmy?"
"Ar!" quoth Jimmy. "We did!"
"And a werry pretty little job it were—eh, Jimmy?"
"Ar!" quoth Jimmy. "It were!"
"Considerin' 'im such a werry desp'rit cove an' all—an' a pair o' popps in 'is 'olsters as long as your arm—they're in the pockets o' my greatcoat yonder—you can see 'em stickin' out. Yes, a sweet, pretty bit o' work as ever we done, eh, Jimmy?"
"Ar—though 'e floored you once."
"Aye—that was when 'e slipped off the darbies—Oh, a desp'rit cove an' the more credit to us! A desp'rit villain—slipped th' darbies, 'e did, an' us was forced to truss 'im wi' rope."
Here every one vied in expressions of acclaim and all eyes turned to that shadowy corner where the prisoner sat crouched in the same posture, bloody head bowed feebly on bowed breast. And now, as the glasses emptied and were refilled (with the exception of mine), we hearkened to tales of horrid murders and ghastly suicides, of gruesome deeds and bloody affrays of hunters and hunted until the landlady gasped and, calling the maid for company, went off to bed, while the men turned to stare uneasily behind them and I myself felt my flesh creep. But as the great bowl emptied, tongues began to stutter, and in the midst of a somewhat incoherent reminiscence of Tom's, the man Vokes snored loudly, whereupon Tom blinked and pillowing his bullet head on the table, promptly snored also; and glancing drowsily around upon the others, I saw they slumbered every one. Hereupon I rose, minded to seek my chamber, but before I reached the door I was arrested by a hoarse whisper:
"Brother—for th' love o' God!"
Peering towards the captive, I saw him upon his back, his face ghastly in the shadow. "Oh, brother," he whispered faintly, "I think I'm a-dyin'! Show kindness to a dyin' man an' ease my poor arms a bit." Moved by pity for his misery and seeing how cruelly he was bound, I contrived, with no small ado, to loosen his bonds somewhat, whereupon he blessed me faintly and closed his eyes. "If ye could bring me a drop more water, death 'ud come easier," he whispered.
So I rose and, coming to the table, found the jug empty, therefore out I went to the place beyond where I judged was the pump, and here found a bucket brimming with water wherewith I filled the jug. Creeping back to the kitchen, I stopped at once, my heart thumping, for to my wonder and dismay I beheld the prisoner on his feet, free of his bonds and rubbing and chafing his wrists and hands and arms. Then all at once this pitiful creature leapt to swift and terrible action, for at one bound, as it seemed, he had reached the chair where hung the officer's greatcoat, whipped forth and cocked the pistols and with these murderous things levelled in his hands, crept upon the sleepers. The jug slipped from my nerveless hold and, roused by the crash of its fall, the man Tom lifted his head only to stare dazedly into the nearest pistol muzzle and the awful scowling face behind it; while the highwayman, reaching out his second pistol, awoke Mr. Vokes with a smart rap on the crown, whereupon, cursing drowsily, he sat up, clasping his hurt and immediately sank cowering in his chair, which action roused the landlord who stared, gasped a feeble "Lorramighty!" and sat motionless.
"Norra word!" quoth the highwayman. "Let a man s' much as whisper an' I blow that man's face off. Ah, an' by hookey, I would, whether or no, if I was th' bloody rogue ye tell me for, 'stead of an 'ighly respectable genelman o' the road with a eye to business. So now turn out your pockets all—an' quick about it."
It was strange to see with what apparent eagerness each man stripped himself of such valuables as he possessed, all of which the highwayman appraised with expert eye.
"Young master," quoth he, beckoning to me with a flourish of his nearest pistol, "come you here!" Trembling I obeyed and at his command transferred the spoil to the capacious pockets of his muddy coat—in I thrust them with unsteady fingers,—rings, purses, a couple of watches, silver snuff and tobacco boxes, etc.: which done, he bade me fetch the ropes that had bound him.
"Now you," quoth he, tapping the flinching Tom's bristly cheek with his pistol barrel, "you're a likely cove at tying knots—get to work, my lad, and sharp it is!"
So under his watchful eye, Tom proceeded to bind his companions very securely to their chairs, which done, the highwayman again summoned me and commanding Tom to remove his belt, constrained me to bind the officer's arms behind him therewith and scarce knowing what I did, I lashed the man Tom fast to his chair. This done, the highwayman showed me how I must gag them and when this had been done to his satisfaction, he nodded:
"And now," quoth the highwayman, his battered features twisted in a wry smile as they sat thus gagged and helpless, "hearken all. If I was the murderous cove you name me, I might cut your throats as ye sit, which would be a j'y, or I might shoot ye or set the place afire an' roast ye, 'stead o' which I spits on an' leaves ye. An' now, young master, for your own sake—come along o' me; they'll likely be arter you too for this as a accomplice o' the fact. So come along o' Jerry an' damn their eyes an' limbs, say I!" With which, having stayed to kick Mr. Vokes and the two Bow Street officers, he thrust pistols into pockets and seizing me in powerful grip, hurried me away.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SAME
The storm had passed and I remember the moon was shining as, turning our backs upon the silent inn of the "Jolly Waggoner," we made off along the road at a good, sharp pace. And now, what with the stillness of the night and the strange happenings of the last few hours and the wild figure of the highwayman who seemed even more grim and terrifying by moonlight, my overwrought emotions brought on me a nausea of horror and faintness so that I stumbled more than once, whereupon my companion, tightening his grip, dragged me on, cursing me heartily; so that, contrasting his brutality with my aunt Julia's tender, loving care and my desperate plight with the luxurious security of home, I felt all at once the hot smart of tears and so fell to a silent passion of grief and yearning.
Thus we tramped on some while, the highwayman and I, until, having mastered this weakness somewhat, I ventured to steal a glance at him and immediately forgot my own grief in stark wonder and amaze to behold him weeping also, for upon his scarred cheek the moon showed me the gleam of tears, and even as I stared he rubbed at his eyes with hairy knuckle, sniffed and cursed softly. So great was my astonishment that I stopped to stare at him, whereupon he stopped to scowl at me.
"Well?" he enquired gruffly. "An' what now?"
"You—can shed tears also, then?" said I.
"Well, an' why not?" he demanded. "Can't a cove grieve now an' then if he's a mind to?"
"But you're a highwayman!"
"Which seein' you say so, I'll not deny," said he. "So I'll trouble you for your purse an' also your ticker—an' sharp's the word!" And speaking, he whipped a pistol beneath my chin, whereupon I delivered up the articles named as quickly as my consternation would allow. "And now," said he, pocketing my erstwhile property and seizing my arm again, "come on, friend, an' let this be a warnin' never to disturb a 'ighwayman wot grieves."
"Why do you grieve?"
"For my Chloe!"
"Wife—no! Never 'ad a wife—never shall. There's no woman breathin' could ekal my Chloe for love an' faithfulness—used to nibble my 'air, she did, poor lass!"
"Nibble your hair?" I repeated. "Pray who was she?"
"My mare, for sure—my pretty mare as 'adn't 'er ekal for speed nor wind—my mare as they Bow Street dogs shot an' left to bleed 'er life out in the mud an' be damned to 'em."
"Then the tale of your wife and babies weeping for you was untrue?"
"Every word of it, friend. An' what then? A man's apt to say anything to save 'is neck—now ain't 'e? Wouldn't you?"
Now at this I was silent and we walked for a while with never a word.
"And your mother?" I questioned at last. "Your mother praying for you—was that also untrue?"
"My mother," said he, lifting his face to the radiant moon, "my mother died three years ago—on her knees—prayin' for me—an' it's like enough she's on 'er knees afore th' Throne a-prayin' for me this werry minute."
"And yet you are a—highwayman?"
"Why, friend, 'tis in the family, y' see. My father was one afore me an' uncommon successful—much looked up to in 'is perfession, though a little too quick o' th' trigger finger—but 'e was took at last, 'ung at Tyburn an' gibbeted on Blackheath. They took me to see 'im in 'is chains, an' bein' only a little lad, I cried all the way back 'ome to my mother an' found 'er a-cryin' too. But because 'e'd been so famous in 'is perfession they gibbeted 'im very 'igh, an' so, as folk 'ad looked up to 'im in life they did the same in death."
"Yours is a very evil, dangerous life," said I, after a while.
"Evil?" he repeated. "Well, life mostly is evil if ye come to think on it. An' as for danger—'t's so-so—three times shot, six times in jail an' many a rousin' gallop wi' the hue an' cry behind. But arter all 'tis my perfession an' there's worse, so what I am I'll be."
"And will you let your mother pray in vain?"
"In vain," he repeated, "in vain? Why, blast the Pope, hasn't she saved me from bein' scragged many a time—didn't she save me t'night?"
"Doesn't she pray rather that you may turn honest?"
"Honest!" quoth he, spitting. "Let them be honest as can! An' look 'ee, my lad, I'll tell ye what—you leave my dead mother alone or 't will be the worse for ye."
Having uttered which threat he strode on, scowling and snorting, now and then, in a very disturbing manner, so that I ventured no further remark and we walked a great way in silence until, suddenly venting a snort fiercer and louder then ever, he spoke:
"Honest!" he ejaculated. "Honest—why, curse your carkis, who are you to talk o' honesty? d'ye know as you're liable to be took by any o' these honest uns—took an' appre'ended as my accomplice afore an' arter the fact—d'ye know that?"
"God help me!" I ejaculated, in agonised dismay. "Oh, heaven help me!"
"Let's 'ope so!" he nodded grimly. "Meantime, I intend to do a bit for ye that way meself—seein' as you 'elped me t'night wi' that cursed knot. I'd managed 'em all but one an' that were out o' reach—so because o' that theer knot an' my good mother, I'm a-goin' to—do the best I can for ye."
"How—when—what do you mean?" I questioned eagerly.
"Never you mind, only I am—an' no man can say honester or fairer, an' I'm a-goin' t' do my best for ye because, bein' the son o' my blessed mother, I'm that tender-'earted that, though I'm th' son o' my feyther I've knowed myself to drop a tear in the very act o' business. She were an' old lady in a pair-'oss phaeton wi' plenty o' sparklers an' nice white hair: a rosy old creetur, comfortably plump and round—'specially in front. 'O Mr. 'ighwayman!' says she, weepin' doleful as she tipped me 'er purse an' the shiners, ''ow could ye do it?' 'Ma'm,' I says, wipin' my eyes wi' my pistol—and—'ma'm, I don't know—but do it I must!' An' I rode away quite down-'earted." Here he turned to regard me with his wry smile.
Thus we held on, by field paths and narrow muddy tracks until the moon was down and I was stumbling with weariness. At last, my strength almost spent, we entered a wood, a dismal place where a mournful wind stirred, where trees dripped upon me and wet leaves brushed my face like ghostly fingers, while rain-sodden underbrush and bracken clung about my wearied limbs. Through this clammy dreariness I followed my tireless companion until suddenly his dim form vanished and I was groping amid damp leaves; but through this dense thicket came his hand to seize and drag me on until I found myself in a place of utter darkness.
"Stand still!" he commanded.
A moment after I heard him strike flint and steel and presently he lighted a candle-end by whose welcome beam I saw we stood in a roomy cave. And an evil place I thought it, full of unexpected corners, littered with all manner of odds and ends and divers misshapen bundles. Having set down the candle, the highwayman drew a dingy blanket before the cave mouth and turned to scowl at me, eyeing my shrinking person over from dripping hat to sodden boots; and well might I shrink, for surely few waking eyes have beheld such a wild and terrifying vision as he presented, his battered face, his garments mired and torn, his hands hidden in the pockets of his riding-coat.
"Tyburn Tree!" said he suddenly. "The nubbing cheat! 'Tis there I'm like to go one o' these days an' all along o' my kind 'eart—with a curse on't. There were only three men in this 'ard world as knew o' this 'ere refuge, an' Ben Purvis was shot three year ago an' poor Nick Scrope swings a-top o' River Hill—which left only me. An' now 'ere's you—curse on my kind 'eart, says I!"
"Indeed—oh, indeed you may trust me—"
"W'y, there it is—I must trust you, blast my kind 'eart, I says! But look now, my cove, this here cave being as ye might say the secoor 'aven of a pore soul as the world don't love—if you should ever peach to a nark or speak a word of it to the queer coves, why then this pore soul will come a-seekin' till you're found an' blow your danged face off."
Hereupon I broke into such fervent protestations of secrecy as seemed to satisfy him, for he turned, and from a roughly constructed cupboard took a black bottle and two mugs; having filled the mugs he passed one to me and, raising the other to his lips, nodded:
"Happy days, pal!" said he; and so we drank together. The potent spirit warmed and comforted me despite the misery of wet boots and damp clothes, and seated on a box I was already half-asleep when his grip on my shoulder roused me and, starting up, I saw he had undone one of the bundles and spread the contents before me on the floor, namely: a rough jacket, cord breeches, woollen stockings and a pair of stout, clumsy shoes. "Get 'em on!" he commanded. So because I needs must, I obeyed; and though these rough garments fitted me but ill, I found them warm and comfortable enough.
"You'll do!" he nodded. "Roll ye'self in the mud an' your own mother'll never know ye. An' now—off wi' you!"
"Do you mean—I must go?" said I, aghast and shivering at the recollection of the dreary wilderness outside.
"Aye, I do so!" quoth he, seating himself on the small barrel that served him as a chair.
"And will you send me away destitute—without a penny?"
At this he was silent awhile, head bowed as one in profound thought, then groping in his capacious pocket, he at last drew forth my purse, stared at it, weighed it on his palm and suddenly thrust it into my hand; then as I stood amazed beyond speech, he took out my watch.
"Gold!" he muttered, as if to himself. "A gold tattler as would bring me—take it an' be damned!" saying which he thrust it savagely upon me.
"This—this is generous—" I began.
"Norra word!" he growled. "They said my feyther was a rogue an' hanged him according, but my mother was a saint as went back to heaven, so if you must thank anybody, thank 'er memory. An' now off wi' ye, lest minding my feyther, I take 'em back again."
Hereupon I made haste to be gone, but reaching the blanket at the cave mouth, I turned and came back again.
"Good-bye, Galloping Jerry!" said I, and held out my hand.
Now at this he drew in his breath sharply and sat scowling at my outstretched hand as though it had been something very rare and curious; at last he raised his keen eyes to my face in quick, strange scrutiny.
"Why, Lord love my eyes!" he exclaimed, like one greatly amazed, "Lord love my eyes and limbs!" Then, all at once, he took my hand, gripping it very hard, and held it thus a long moment, loosing it as suddenly; and so I turned and, lifting the blanket, went out into the dreary desolation of the wood.
On the misery of this night's wanderings I will not dwell; let it suffice to say that, sick and reeling with weariness and lack of sleep, I came at sunrise upon a barn into which I crept and here, with no better couch than a pile of hay, I was thankful to stretch my aching body, and so fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.
WHICH PROVES BEYOND ALL ARGUMENT THAT CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN
I awoke very stiff and sore and full of a black, oppressive melancholy despite the bright sunshine that poured in at every crack and crevice of the old barn. To this depression was added sudden dread as I recalled the incidents of last night and how (albeit unwittingly) I had favoured the escape of a desperate outlaw, thus placing myself in danger of arrest and possible imprisonment.
At this horrid thought I started up in great perturbation until observing thus my clumsy shoes, thick stockings and other garments of my rustical disguise, my apprehensions abated somewhat and I sat down again to ponder gloomily on my future course.
And now leapt Memory to tempt me, for I must needs think of my aunt who, viewed from my present deep of misery and loneliness, seemed like some goddess very high and remote. I yearned bitterly for that passionate, if somewhat tyrannic, devotion to my every need and comfort, and for the serene, untroubled haven her love and mere presence had ever afforded me.
With the money in my possession I had but to charter a horse or vehicle and in a few hours should be with her again, safe from all fears and dangers, secure from all further hardships. Moved by this thought, I rose to eager feet, but remembering the keen, critical eyes and aggressive chin of my uncle Jervas, I sat down again.
I remained thus some considerable time, torn between these conflicting emotions until at last, clenching my hands, I determined I would go on and persevere in the adventure at all hazards; though I must confess I came to this final decision more from pride and fear of ridicule than strength of character.
I remember I had just arrived at this conclusion that was to so vitally affect and change my after life, when the door of the barn creaked suddenly open and a man appeared who, espying me where I sat crouched among the hay, stooped to view me over. For a moment I blinked, dazzled by the sun-glare, then I saw him for a tall, bony man with a long nose and a ferrety eye.
"Come out o' that!" quoth he, fondling the lash of an ugly-looking whip he carried. "Who give you leave to snore in my barn? Come out of it!"
"Sir," said I, rising and saluting him with a somewhat haughty bow, "I regret to have trespassed upon your property, but when I remind you of last night's dreadful storm and further inform you that I was lost, you will, I am sure—"
"Come out of it—d'ye hear!" he repeated more angrily then before. "And don't try coming any o' your imperence wi' me, my lad—come, out ye go!"
"Willingly!" said I disdainfully. "Permit me first to assure you that if my sheltering in this barn has caused any damage to your property, I will reimburse you to any reasonable—"
"Get out—ye damned young thieving gipsy!" he roared, and cut at me fiercely with his whip; whereupon, forgetting dignity and all else in the sharp, unaccustomed pain, I took to my heels nor did I stop until I was safe beyond pursuit and out of sight of the scene of my humiliation.
This incident (though I could have wept for very indignation) served but to make me the more fixed in my resolution to follow the course I had marked out for myself, come what might.
My present worldly possessions amounted to some fourteen pounds and a valuable gold watch, thanks to the highwayman's gratitude; moreover I remembered Anthony's promise to meet me at Tonbridge and this cheered me greatly. To Tonbridge I would go and there await his coming.
Musing thus, I was aroused by the hoof strokes of a horse and, glancing up, beheld a plump man on plump steed ambling towards me down the lane. Waiting until he was sufficiently near, I stepped into the road and saluted him.
"Good-day, sir!" said I. "Pray pardon my detaining you, but this neighbourhood is strange to me. Will you therefore have the kindness to direct me to Tonbridge?"
The plump man eyed me over, damned my impudence, and rode off with never another word, leaving me to stare after him mute with indignation and surprise; and so to plod on, racking my brain to discover in what particular I could have offended.
I was yet busied on this perplexing problem when I espied a pleasant-faced fellow leaning over a gate; him I accosted thus:
"Sir, I am a stranger hereabouts and should esteem it a kindness if you would direct me to Tonbridge." The man stared, open-mouthed, and hardly had I finished speaking than he threw back his head and laughed loudly.
"Sir, why do you laugh?" I demanded, a little stiffly.
"Good lad!" he grinned. "Ye be a play-actor, for sure?"
"Certainly I am—not! Pray how may I get to Tonbridge?"
"Why, like Gammer Perkins' old sow," he grinned, "one leg afore t' other! I bean't sich a green 'un as ye think."
"Thank you for nothing!" said I sharply.
"Oh, ye can't make a fule of I!" quoth he, grinning.
"No," I retorted, "Nature has done so already!"
This seemed to tickle him mightily for some reason.
"By gum, but you be a rare un, ecod!" he cried, slapping his leg. "Gi'e us some more, lad—I'd rayther laugh than eat any day—sing us a song—step us a jig, will 'ee? Come, I don't mind payin' for 't. I du love a good laugh an' I'll pay. I don't mind spendin' a penny—no b' gum, 'ere's a groat—there y' are! Now tip us a song or jig—come!" Saying which, he tossed the four-penny piece into the road at my feet. Now at this I grew angry beyond words, but he was a large man, so I turned on indignant heel and left him leaning over the gate to stare from me to the despised coin and back again in open-mouthed wonderment.
And now, as I trudged on, my mind was exercised on the question as to whether this part of the world was peopled only by ill-tempered bullies, surly wretches, or bovine fools. So came I to a place where the ways divided and I was deliberating which to follow when I heard a shrill whistling and glancing about, beheld a large woman who talked very fast and angrily to a small man, who whistled extremely loud and shrill, heeding her not in the least. Being come to where I stood, the man paused and stopped his whistling.
"O laddie," quoth he, jerking grimy thumb at his companion, "will ye 'ark to this brimstone witch—been clackin' away all along from Sevenoaks, she 'ave! Gimme a tanner an' she's yourn—say thrippence—say a penny!" At this the woman started to berate him again and he to whistling.
"Pardon me," said I, when at last I might make myself heard, "will you be so obliging as to tell me the way to Tonbridge?"
"Look at 'im, Neddy, look at 'im!" cried the virago, stabbing bony finger at me. "Tell 'im t' close 'is trap or it's twist 'is yeres I will. Tell 'im 'e can't make fun o' we—"
"Make fun of you!" exclaimed I, falling back a pace, aghast at the suggestion. "Indeed nothing was further from my intent! Believe me, my good woman, I—"
"Don't ye dare go callin' me ye 'good woman' in them breeches an' ye shirt all tore! An' look at ye 'at—I seen better on a scarecrow, I 'ave! You're trash apeing y'r betters—poor trash, that's wot you are! Good woman indeed! You tell 'im wot we think of 'im, Neddy—tell 'im plain an' p'inted!" Instantly the little man set thumb to nose and, spreading his fingers, wagged them at me in a highly offensive manner, at the same time ejaculating the one word:
Which done, he nodded, the woman scowled, and so they left me.
So here it was, then, the answer to this perplexing riddle—my clothes! Mechanically I took off my hat and examined it as I had not troubled to do hitherto and saw it for a shapeless monstrosity faded to the colour of dust and with more than one hole in crown and brim. Truly I (like the woman) had seen better on many a scarecrow. I now stooped to survey as much of my person as possible—my thick and clumsy shoes, my rough stockings, the old, cord breeches that disfigured me, hideous in themselves and rendered more so by numerous darns and ill-contrived patches. Here then, as it seemed, was the explanation for the brutality, surliness and odious familiarity I had been subjected to; for my voice and manner being out of all keeping with my appearance, I must naturally become an object of suspicion, coarse merriment, or aversion.
Here I must needs begin to realise and justly appreciate how very much I had owed in the past to the excellence of my tailor, for, clothed in the dignity of broadcloth and fine linen I had unconsciously lived up to them and walked serene, accustomed to such deference as they inspired and accepting it as my due; but stripped of these sartorial aids and embellishings, who was to recognise the aristocrat? Nay, his very airs of birth and breeding, his customary dignity of manner would be of themselves but matter for laughter. To strive for dignity in such a hat was to be ridiculous and peering down at the cord breeches, stockings and shoes, I knew that these henceforth must govern my behaviour. But how adapt myself to these debasing atrocities? This question proving unanswerable, I determined to buy other clothes at the first opportunity.
On I tramped, rejoicing in the peaceful solitude of these leafy byways though, as the day advanced, conscious of a growing thirst and prodigious hunger. At last I espied an inn before me and hurried forward; but an inn meant people, folk who would talk and stare—remembering which, I paused, despite my hunger, and half-fearing to enter the place by reason of my clothes. As I stood thus, viewing the inn shyly and askance, a man stepped from the open doorway and came striding towards me, a jovial-faced, full-bodied man who, catching my eye, nodded good-humouredly, whereupon I ventured to address him.
"If you please, sir," said I, touching my hat respectfully (as such a hat should be touched), "can you tell me the way to Tonbridge?"
"I can, my lad, I can!" quoth he, crossing muscular hands on the handle of the thick stick he carried. "But Tonbridge is a goodish step from here and you look tired, my lad, peaked and pale about the gills. Are ye hungry?"
"Ha, thought so! Must eat beef—beef's the thing! d'ye like beef, hey?"
"How about pudding-steak and kidney pudding—d'ye like that?"
"Good lad! So do I! Just had some in the 'Artichoke' yonder—all hot! Go and do likewise, my poor lad! Say Squire sent ye—and eat hearty!" As he spoke he reached into a pocket of his smallclothes, took out a shilling, pressed it into my hand, nodded and strode away.
THE PRICE OF A GODDESS
Stomach is and ever has been a mighty factor in the affairs of mankind: the proud and lowly, the fool and sage, all alike are slaves to its imperious dictates. Let it go empty, and it is a curse, breeding cowardice, gloomy suspicions, unreasonableness, angers and a thousand evils and dissensions; fill it and it is a comfort, promoting good-fellowship, kindliness and abounding virtue. Hence, instead of saying of a man—"He has a good heart"—should not the dictum be rather—"He is the happy possessor of an excellent stomach regularly and adequately filled?" For truly how many actions, evil and good, may be directly traced to the influence of this most important organ! Thus, to your true Philosopher, "the Stomach is the thing," and so long as his own be comfortable he may philosophise with stoical fortitude upon other people's woes (and occasionally his own) more or less agreeably; but starve him and our Philosopher will grieve for himself as miserably as I—or even you. The Tooth of Remorse may be sharp but the Fangs of Hunger bite deeper still, and who shall cherish beauty in his soul or who find patience to rhapsodise on a sunset when his stomach is empty as a drum? Thus, alas, Soul goes shackled by, and Intellect is the slave of, Stomach!
All of the which foregoing points to the fact that the steak and kidney pudding had been excellent, even as my benefactor had said; wherefore, drowsing in somnolent content, I sat amid leaves beside a prattling rill musing comfortably as a well-fed young philosopher may, when these reflections were banished in sudden alarm, for upon the drowsy afternoon stillness rose a stir of leaves, a snapping of twigs, the sounds of one who burst through all obstacles in desperate flight. Starting to an elbow I gazed wildly about and thus espied a girl who, breaking through the bushes that crowned the bank above, came bounding down the steep. At sight of me she checked her wild career and turned to stare back whence she had come, catching her breath in great, sobbing gasps very distressing to hear.
I remember the round, full column of her throat as she stood thus, her long, night-black hair a troubled torrent stirring in the gentle wind. Then she swung about to face me, one hand upon her quick-moving bosom, the other grasping a small, evil-looking knife.
"Young man," she panted, "young man—help me—!"
As she uttered the words, two men appeared on the bank above us, tall, dark-complexioned fellows who scowled down on me in manner I found exceedingly disturbing. "Oh, young man," cried the girl, flourishing her knife and frowning up at her pursuers, "young man, if you've any manhood in ye—stand up and help me!"
And now the two men began to descend into the little dell with a certain deliberation very discomforting to witness, and I arose, greatly at a loss and looking from one to other of them in growing apprehension.
"Young man," demanded the girl in scornful undertones, "why do ye tremble?"
At this moment (and to my inexpressible relief) from the leafy tangles adjacent rose a voice, shrill and imperious:
The men halted and, following their gaze, I beheld a woman, ancient and bowed with years yet apparently wonderfully active none the less, a strange, wrinkled old creature extremely neat of person, with keen, bright eyes and a portentous chin. Having descended the bank, she stood leaning on the staff she carried, her quick glance darting from the men to the girl, and the girl to me, many times over.
"Oho—aha!" she ejaculated at last. "Scant o' breath be I, tur'ble scant, being s' very old—aha—but age be wise!"
And now she turned to address the woman, though in language quite beyond my comprehension, stabbing her staff at us all four in turn.
"No, gammer—no!" cried the girl passionately, but at the ancient woman's commanding gesture she fell mute, though she scowled in sullen defiance and I saw the knife glitter where she gripped it, half concealed by a fold of her petticoat. Here one of the men muttered some unintelligible word and pointed scornfully at me, whereupon the old woman rapped him smartly over the knuckles and fixed her uncomfortably shrewd gaze on my person, scanning me over very keenly, more especially my face and hands.
"Well, my pretty young gorgio," said she, "there be horses a-sweating along o' you, eyes a-looking and hearts a-grieving all along o' you—though you ain't much to look at—so—I guess you be better than ye look. Now here be a maid—a regular dimber-damber dell as looketh better than she be, for her's a gnashing, tearing shrew wi' no kindness in her. But she be handsome—as ye may see—and courted by many, whereby hath been overmuch ill-feeling, fighting and bloodshed among our young men—so wed this day she shall be for peace and quiet's sake! Him as can show most o' the pretty gold taketh her for good, and all according to our laws and ways."
Scarcely had she done speaking than the two young fellows hastened to count over to her such monies as they possessed, while the girl watched sullen and defiant.
"Aie—aie!" quoth the old woman suddenly. "Bennigo, you have but three to Jochabed's eight, so Jochabed taketh her—unless the nice, kind, young gorgio will give more—the fine young gorgio as my wisdom telleth me is other than he do seem—aha! What of it, young master—aie—aie?"
"Young man," whispered the girl, grasping my arm in strong, compelling fingers and staring at me with eyes big and desperate, "young man, if you would not see bloody work—turn out your pockets!"
Moved by her wild looks, I obeyed almost involuntarily, but hardly was my purse out of my pocket than she snatched and tossed it to the old woman.
"Count, grannam, count!" she cried imperiously, "and if't is not enough I've my little churi for the first as dare touch me!"
The old woman opened my purse, told over its contents very deliberately, nodded and, thrusting it into her bosom, spoke with the fierce-eyed men in her strange dialect, tapped each with her staff and motioned them to be gone; hereupon, and to my unutterable wonder, they obeyed her and slunk off without a word.
"Fourteen guineas!" said she. "Fourteen guineas be more than eight—fourteen guineas, a florin, one groat and three pennies! Aha, 't is more than she be worth, I think, by reason of her shrewish tongue and unkindly ways, and if only a hindity mengro and no true Camlo yet she be's a rinkinni fakement to look at, but then a bargain is a bargain—an' I wishes ye j'y o' her, my young rye!" Which said, she reached out her staff and touched first me and then the girl lightly on head and breast, muttering a farrago of strange words while her bright glance flashed from one to other of us; then she turned and, bowed upon her staff, climbed the ferny steep nimble and sure-footed despite her years and left us staring after her, the girl frowning and sullen as ever, I full of chagrined surprise and a growing uneasiness.
WHICH TELLS SOMEWHAT OF MY DEPLORABLE SITUATION
And after we had stood thus some while my companion spoke, though without troubling to turn her head or so much as glance towards me:
"Young man, what now?"
"Why, now," I answered, taking off my hat and bowing, "I have the honour to bid you good-bye!"
At this she wheeled quickly and stood viewing me over with a bold, unwavering gaze that it seemed nothing might abash; and though her eyes were large and well-shaped, yet I remember thinking them excessively unfeminine, the eyes rather of an ill-natured, pugnacious boy; and now, because of the hard coldness of her look, the unmaidenly, calculating intensity of her regard, I grew very conscious of my disfiguring garments and felt myself quite out of countenance.
"Why d'ye blush, young man?"
"Because you don't!"
"And why should I blush?"
"It would be more maidenly—?"
"Maidenly?" she repeated, and broke into such a mockery of laughter that I felt my cheeks indeed burn with a painful effusion and turning abruptly, I walked away in high dudgeon.
"Come back!" she commanded, but I went only the faster and being very earnest to rid myself of her, was even meditating ignominious flight, when I heard the leap of her feet in pursuit, felt her grip upon my arm and was checked thus so violently that I was amazed at the strength of her.
"Don't come your fine airs over me, young man," she panted in hot anger, her full, red lips tight-drawn, her great eyes dark and passionate. "Don't do it!" she repeated. "Don't ye dare!"
"Most decidedly not!" I answered, retreating before her threatening mien; and thus, not caring to turn my back on this young virago, I fronted her fierce scrutiny with what resolution I could, while devoutly wishing myself anywhere else in the world. And it was now that I realised she was taller than myself by fully an inch—indeed, perhaps a little more.
"Why does ye stare so?" she demanded.
I craved her forgiveness and lifted my offending gaze to the leaves above her head and maintained a dignified silence; whereupon she questioned me breathlessly,
"Now what are ye thinking?"
"That the ancient person spoke truly."
"You means as I'm a shrew?"
"Pray remember it was not I said so."
"But you means so! Come, does ye or don't ye?"
"Madam," I began, very conscious of the evil glitter of her knife, "if you will permit me to—"
"Don't 'madame' me, young man! I don't like it and I won't be madamed by you or any other—so don't dare—"
"Certainly not!" said I, fixing my gaze on the leaves again. "And may I suggest that we might converse more easily if you would have the kindness to put away your knife?"
"My little churi, d'ye mean? Not I, young man, not I! 'T is my best friend as saves from evil more than once! And how do I know as you won't come any games?"
"Games?" I repeated, shaking my head in mystification. "The sports of youth never interested me—indeed, I never play games—"
"No," cried she, with sudden, shrill laugh, "I don't think you do!" Here (to my startled amazement) she whipped short petticoats above her knee and thrust the knife into her garter. Now though my gaze was immediately abased to earth I none the less had a memory of an exceedingly well-turned and shapely limb.
"And so you thinks I'm a shrew, does ye?" she demanded, head aslant, and hands on shapely hips.
"I think you might perhaps be just a little more gentle."
"Tush, young man, gentleness don't serve a maid among the Folk!"
"Romans?" said I, puzzled.
"Aye, Romans. The Romany, gipsies, the poor folk."
"Are you a gipsy, then?"
"I guess so! Though old Azor, of the Romany rawni Camlo, do ever tell I'm no true Roman. So mayhap I'm not. However, when I grows up I takes to my little knife—by reason of the chals—aye, and uses it too, otherwise I might ha' been tamed by now instead o' being free to choose. Ah, yes, I might ha' been creeping the ways wi' some man's brat on my shoulders, to work while he slept, go hungry till he'd ate his fill and slave for him—ah, I hate men!" And she spat in contempt and very coarsely. Yet I could not but notice how perfectly shaped was this vivid, scornful mouth.
"So you don't like me, young man, and I do not like you, which is a pity, seeing you buys me out o' the tribe and—"
"Bought you!" I exclaimed, utterly aghast.
"Indeed and to be sure you did. Which is what many a man has wished to do ere this. However, according to the law of our tribe we are mates—"
"Great heaven!" I exclaimed in such unfeigned consternation that she knit her black brows at me. "Impossible!" quoth I. "Ridiculous—absolutely preposterous! There is no bond between us—you are free, quite free—nay, I'll go—now—"
"Are ye a man?" cried she between snapping white teeth. "If so, you'll be the first as runs away from me. And why? Is it that I'm not good enough—fine enough—handsome enough—"
"My good girl, pray be reasonable—" I pleaded, which seemed only to enrage her the more until, finding me mute and so helpless against the torrent of her wrath, she checked upon a word, her red lips curved to sudden smile, and her voice grew singularly and sweetly soft.
"Poor young man, sit down and let us talk," said she, as if we hadn't uttered a word hitherto. So willy-nilly down I sat facing her amid the fern and very ill at ease. "Poor young man," said she again, "don't go for to look so downcast over so small a matter. Here's you and here's me; what's done is done! Treat me fair and you'll find me faithful, quick with my needle, a good hand at cooking and not so unkind as they tell o' me. Your life shall be my life and mine yours. Where you go I'll follow and belike it is we shall get along without overmuch fighting and bloodshed."
"But," said I, my brain whirling, "I had no idea—I—I—never imagined anything of this sort—the whole situation is—impossible!"
"You bought me, remember!"
"Of course you did!" said she, looking at me great-eyed and I saw her lips quivering. "You pays over to old Azor fourteen guineas, a florin, one groat and three pennies."
"The act was slightly involuntary, as I remember!" said I.
"Talk plain, young man, talk plain! You buys me, and what's more, old Azor weds us and makes me your mort according to the law o' the Folk."
"But not according to the laws of the English Church," said I, "and I am not one of the Folk. So you are quite free: the words of old Azor cannot bind me—"
"But they do bind me, young man, now and hereafter. Besides, you have bought me away from the tribe and I may never go back and you can never leave me solitary."
Here I groaned and she sighed, but with that quiver of red lips that might mean tears or laughter.
"A truly terrible situation!" said I.
"It is, young man, it is! Though it might ha' been worse."
"Well, though I have no liking for you, neither your looks, nor your ways, nor your talk, you are better than Bennigo and Jochabed that are very brute beasts."
Now at this I leapt to my feet and, turning on indignant heel, strode off, but soon she was up with me and together we presently came out into the high road. And now as she went beside me I saw with added misgiving that the sun was already westering.
IN WHICH I SATISFY MYSELF OF MY COWARDICE
After we had walked thus in silence for may be a mile or more, she spoke.
"Where are you taking me?" she demanded.
"Why do you follow me?" I retorted.
"Because I must—also it is my whim—and you so wishful to be rid o' me! And why?" she demanded sullenly.
"I prefer solitude."
"That's a pity!"
"Under the circumstances, it is!" I agreed.
"You haven't said what you mean to do wi' me!"
"Or where you takes me to?"
"I don't know."
"You must be a fool, young man. Where shall ye stay the night?"
"I don't know this either!"
"Lord, young man, you are a fool!"
"I begin to suspect I am!" said I bitterly. "However, I wish you would not call me 'young man.'"
"Why not, young man?"
"Because I resent the appellation."
"Talk plain, young man. You do what?"
"I strongly object to the term 'young man.'"
"But you are a man, ain't you—or something like one? And then you're young—very young, I can see that."
"I am nineteen!"
"And I am eighteen and years older than you! But if you don't like 'young man' what must I call ye?"
"Whatever you please," said I stiffly.
"I called ye 'fool' just now, but that won't do, seeing there's s' many about, so I think you shall be 'Tom'—"
"My name is Peregrine!" said I in sudden wrath. For a moment she viewed me with her direct, half-sullen gaze, then drooping dark lashes, laughed with a flash of strong white teeth.
"Hoity-toity! Don't be angry, Joe!" she mocked; and then: "Peregrine," said she, as if trying the sound of it. "'Peregrine' sounds very fine but then it don't agree wi' your looks—yes, I thinks Tom will suit ye better—or Sam, p'raps."
To this I deigned no answer but trudged on in moody silence, endeavouring to formulate some method of escape from this outrageous creature and so absorbed that I paid not the least heed to her foolish chatter until suddenly and most unpleasantly roused by the touch of her fingers on my ear which she tweaked none too gently. This extraordinary familiarity bred in me such indignant disgust that I sprang from her touch to stand dumb and trembling with fury.
"What," cried she, wilfully mistaking these tremors, "did I fright him then! Lord, how he do tremble! Oh, young man, you be a poor sort, I think!"
"Poor indeed!" cried I passionately. "Poorer even than you judge me, for I haven't a penny in the world! But here is my watch—all I have left—take it—take it, for God's sake, and let me go!" Saying which I drew forth my gold repeater and would have forced it into her hand, but now she sprang back in her turn and, bowing her head, fronted me with both arms rigidly out-thrust.
"Lord God!" she muttered. "D'ye think 'tis your money I want—your dirty money!"
"What matter my thoughts?" I cried. "Here is my watch; pray take it and let us say good-bye!"
Now here, to my unutterable amazement, she flung herself down, and crouched against the high, grassy bank, burst into a tempestuous weeping while I stood gaping and infinitely distressed.
"I—I beg your pardon!" said I at last and then, struck by the inadequacy of these trite words, drew a pace nearer. "Oh, pray—pray don't weep!" I pleaded. "If I have hurt you, I crave your forgiveness!" Here she sobbed but the fiercer. "But indeed—indeed," I stammered, "I thought—that is, I did not think, I—I mean I could not leave you destitute and having no money to bestow, I—"
"Money!" cried she bitterly. "Money!" And here, checking her sobs, added very unreasonably, "I hates you!"
"Please," said I, "oh, pray believe I meant only kindness! I thought you were—"
"A girl o' the road, a creeper o' ditches and byways—well, I'm not, I tell ye—I'm not! And I only followed ye because you were so wishful to be rid o' me and because you were so silly and young and strange I couldn't understand ye. But I do now, and I'm done wi' you! Go away—go away; I hates you more than Bennigo or Jochabed—go away, I hates you!"
"Blind me, and no wonder!" chuckled a hoarse voice behind me with such startling suddenness as for a moment bereft me of speech or motion; then, wheeling about, I came face to face with a rough-clad, villainous-looking man who stood, powerful legs apart, hairy fists grasping a short, heavy stick or bludgeon, and evil head out-thrust to stare beyond me at the prostrate form of my companion who had merely lifted her head to watch us through her tumbled hair.
"What d' you want?" I questioned the fellow, breathlessly.
"Never you mind, my chick," he growled, leering upon the girl's shapeliness with evil eyes. "I know what she wants—and it ain't you, so cut your stick and leave 'er to the man who can comfort a fine, 'andsome lass."
Though addressing me, his eyes were for my companion, his loathsome gaze never swerving from her prostrate form; very slowly and deliberately he began to approach her, and now in the man himself, in his every look and gesture there was an indescribable beastliness that turned me physically sick. But none the less, though my soul shrank within me, I ventured to grasp him by the sleeve.
"Let her alone—let her alone!" I gasped, dry-mouthed.
At this he turned on me, his evil face convulsed with a look of such brutish ferocity as appalled me, yet I only tightened my grip more desperately and repeated my passionate cry:
"Let her alone, I say; let her alone!"
Snarling inarticulately he leapt, striking at me with his bludgeon, a cruel blow that staggered and dazed me, sapping alike my strength and fortitude for, beholding the murderous glare of his eyes as he made to smite again, blind panic seized me and, reeling aside, I sped away on stumbling feet, my head throbbing with the blow,—deafened, sick and half-blind. But all at once I stopped, suddenly oblivious of self as, louder than the buzzing torment of my wounded head, rose a distressful cry and the more hateful sound of desperate struggling. Round I turned and, peering, saw them locked in close grapple, and her slender body bent and swaying in his merciless clutch: at which sight my pain and sickness and selfish fear were all forgotten and in their stead sprang a passionate desire to kill and be done with this evil thing that defiled the earth in man's shape. So back again sped I, and with every step this murderous desire grew until my mind held no other purpose. I remember snatching up the bludgeon he had let fall, whirling it aloft in both hands and striking for his bullet head, but in that instant (and well for him) he espied his danger and, loosing the girl, stooped and taking the blow across the broad of his back was beaten to his knees; but, as I swung again, he sprang in beneath my lifted arms. I felt the sickening impact of a blow and the bludgeon flew from my hold; then he was upon me, belabouring me with both fists, but twining my legs in his, I clung to those merciless arms, while above his fierce snarling and the painful shock of his blows, I heard the girl calling out to me:
"Fight him—fight! Don't cling like a woman—stand away—hit him back—fight!"
But though spent and faint with my hurts, I clung the more tenaciously, my face buried in his foul-smelling jacket, but at last he wrenched one arm from my desperate embrace; there was a sudden blinding shock that hurled me backward into the road: lying thus helpless, my antagonist leapt to kick the life out of my defenceless body, but I saw him reel suddenly and whirl about, grasping at an arm that spouted blood between his hairy fingers, while he stared at the girl crouched for another spring, the knife glittering in her hand.
"Go—go, filthy beast!" she panted. "Go, or I'll be the death o' ye!" And speaking, she began to creep towards me. The fellow gave back, staring from this deadly knife to her fierce eyes and reading there the truth of her words, he turned and made off, spattering blood as he went.
Relieved of his evil presence, I closed my eyes awhile feeling myself very faint and sick; when I opened them again I saw her standing above me, knife in hand, looking down on me with her sombre gaze.
"Kick me if you will!" I groaned.
"Why should I kick you?"
"Because I am a coward!" I mumbled, covering my bruised face. "I ran away—and left you—"
"Still, I don't think I'll kick you," said she in a soft, grave voice, "because although you runs away like a coward, you comes back again. Though to be sure I didn't need you—"
"But," said I, keeping my face hidden, "I heard you cry out—"
"That was because I wished you to come back, though having my little churi, I didn't need you; I've managed worse than him before now! However, you did come back—which was more than I expected. But I'll never call you 'young man' any more because you ain't a real man, are you?"
"God help me!" I groaned, for added to my shame the pain of my hurts was more than I could well bear, "O God help me!" And now indeed it seemed that in some measure He answered my prayer, for, as I strove to rise, the faintness seized me again and I sank to a blessed unconsciousness.
PROVING THAT A GODDESS IS WHOLLY FEMININE
I was lying beneath a tree, my head softly pillowed and wet with cool water that refreshed me wonderfully; thus I presently turned my head and glanced up into eyes that gazed down upon me, very beautiful eyes these seemed, being soft and tender and darkly grey.
"Are ye better?" she questioned. Now at this I wondered, for the voice matched the eyes for gentleness.
"Thank you, much better."
"He hurt you more than I thought."
"It was the blow on the head—slight concussion, I think."
"And you stands up to him like—"
"You mean I ran away like a coward."
"He was twice as big as you—"
"No matter! Cowardice is always despicable, more especially in defence of one of the weaker sex," said I dismally.
"But you saves me, to be sure!"
At this I strove to rise in sheer amazement and thus found my head pillowed in her lap.
"How did I save you?" I demanded bitterly. "I that am a craven!"
"By giving me the chance to reach my little churi. However, I was never once afraid of the beast."
"I was!" I confessed miserably. "Afraid beyond words!"
"But you comes running back, and very fierce too!"
"I meant to kill him!"
"Why trouble to kill him?"
"I could not bear he should foul you in his brutal arms!"
Here came her hand to touch my aching brow and I closed my eyes again.
"Does your head ache very much?" she enquired.
"A little!" I groaned.
"Can ye walk?" she enquired. "'Tis goin' to storm and rain on us soon, I think—can ye walk a small ways?"
For answer I got to my knees and, with her ready assistance, to my feet, but found myself very faint and sick and with my head throbbing as though it would burst.
"Come!" said she, taking my hand in her warm, strong, clasp. "There's rain in this wind—come! I knows a fair, likely place—"
"No, no!" cried I. "Please leave me, I shall be very well here—the rain will do me good, perhaps—besides, I have no money to pay for a night's lodging—"
"But I have!"
"No matter, I cannot live on your money."
"Aye, but you can, for this money is yourn as much as mine, seeing as I prigs it."
"What do you mean?"
"Lord, what should I mean except as I takes it, nabs it—steals it from yon dirty beast while he struggled wi' me. Look!" And taking out a ragged belcher neckerchief she unknotted one corner and showed me three bright, new guineas.
"Ah, throw them away!" I cried. "The man was so vile—"
"He was!" she nodded. "But his money is clean enough and will be useful to us—"
"But you are—a thief!" I exclaimed, aghast.
"And you are a fool!" she retorted, thrusting the money into a small leathern bag she carried at her girdle. "And he was a dirty rogue and his money shall feed us until I can earn more. And now let us hurry afore the storm ketches us."
"There's a place I know where we can be warm and sheltered and nothing to pay."
And so, because of her persistence and my sickness, I suffered her to lead me where she would, though more than once I tripped and should have fallen but for her ready arm. Presently turning out of the road we came to a meadow and here, half-blinded by the pain of my head and scarcely able to drag one foot after the other, I earnestly besought her to leave me, storm or no storm; to which she merely bade me not to be a fool, with the further assurance that she would leave me when she wished and not before.
I remember stumbling down a grassy slope and through a tangle of bushes and dense-growing trees, amid whose whispering leafage shadows were deepening, and so at last to a half-ruined barn, very remote and desolate, into which she conducted me.
Here, from amid a pile of mouldy hay, she dragged a ladder which she reared to a small hatch or trap in the floor above and bade me mount. This I did, though very clumsily and presently found myself in an upper chamber or loft, illuminated by a small, unglazed window that opened beneath the eaves at one end. Scarcely was I here than she was beside me and brought me to an adjacent corner where was a great pile of hay that made the place sweet with its fragrance, whereon, at her behest, I sank down and would have expressed my gratitude, but she checked me, frowning.
"Are ye hungry?" she demanded ungraciously.
"Indeed, no, I thank you," I answered, lying back upon my fragrant couch.
"Well, I am!" she retorted sullenly. "And you will be, sooner or later, so I'll go afore the storm ketches me."
"Go where, and for what?"
"To buy supper with money as I stole, for you an' me to eat—"
"I'd rather starve!" quoth I, sitting up the better to say it.
"Starve!" she repeated, with a scornful flash of her great eyes. "You? d'ye know what starvation means? Ha' you ever tried it?"
"No," I admitted, "but none the less—"
"Then don't talk foolishness!" said she disdainfully. "You'll be glad t' eat an' ask no questions when you're hungry enough! And don't go pitying yourself and grieving over your bruises. If your eyes are bulged and blacked a bit—what of it? Lord! I've seen men get it worse than you an' come up smiling, but then to be sure they were men and stronger than you. However, you'll be better to-morrow! So now go to sleep and forget all about yourself if ye can—sleep till supper's ready and when I say eat—eat."
"Many thanks, but I do not desire any supper."
"Wait till you smell it!"
"I shall neither smell it nor eat it," I answered, frowning, "because I propose to rid you of my presence almost immediately."
"Meaning as you will cut your stick?"
"Certainly not! I mean that I shall take my departure just so soon as I find myself sufficiently recovered."
"Why, then," said she, compressing her lips and jutting her round chin at me in highly unfeminine fashion, "you'll have to jump or fly."
"What do you mean?"
"I shall take away the ladder!"
"You would never do such a thing!" quoth I, starting.
"Tush!" she retorted and, turning from me with a disdainful swirl of her short petticoat, began to descend into the depths below, seeing which, I scrambled to my feet and crossed to the trap, only to behold her standing beneath me, the ladder dragged quite out of my reach.
"Fly down, little bird!" she cried insolently. "Jump, Jack—jump!" and snapping finger and thumb at me, was gone before my anger might find vent in words.
Trapped and imprisoned thus, I presently came wandering disconsolately back to the hay-pile and lying there began to ponder upon the extreme unlovely deportment of this strange creature whose almost every speech and look and gesture outraged all my preconceived ideas of "the sex", and bitterly to deplore my present situation.
Evening was falling apace but there was still sufficient light to show me something of the place wherein I lay and the orderly disorder that surrounded me. In one corner, upon a rough board that served for a shelf, stood six battered volumes flanked by divers pots and pans; against the wall near by hung a small, cracked mirror, while dangling from nails driven into the warped and twisted timbering of roof and walls hung a great variety of baskets, large and small and variously shaped, of rush or bent withies, many of which seemed in course of manufacture. These and many other objects I took casual heed of as I lay, but often my gaze would rove back to the six books standing so orderly amid the pots and pans; indeed, these so stirred my interest that I began to wonder what manner of books these might be and what should bring them in such a strange and desolate place, so that despite my aches and pains I felt much disposed to rise and investigate them, but in the end was content to lie and stare at them while the light failed and shadows deepened until, my eyes little serving me, I closed them and fell fast asleep.
IN WHICH I BEGIN TO APPRECIATE THE VIRTUES OF THE CHASTE GODDESS
Assuredly never were the nostrils of mortal youth saluted with odour more inspiring and altogether more delectable than that which, wooing me from the drowsy arms of Morpheus, awoke me to growing consciousness of three several things, namely: light, movement and an extraordinarily poignant hunger.
Being awake, I firstly sniffed of this most appetising aroma, then lifting my head espied the girl busily combing her long hair before that small mirror I have mentioned. Now although the place was illumined by no more than a farthing dip, yet this was sufficient to wake many fugitive gleams and coppery lights in these long, rippling tresses, so that I lay for some time content to watch as she combed with smooth-sweeping motions of arm and wrist; but suddenly this arm grew still and I knew that she was viewing me through this silky curtain as it hung.
"Well?" she demanded suddenly, and putting back the hair from her face, stood looking down at me with her sombre, half-sullen gaze.
"Well?" said I, sitting up. And now, beholding her face framed thus in her glossy tresses, the wide, low brow, the deep eyes, the delicate modelling of nose and chin, the vivid lips, I realised that she was beautiful—beautiful as any fabled goddess or dryad; and what with this, the rippling splendour of her hair that covered her like a garment, the deep silence of this remote solitude, there rushed upon me a sense of such intimacy that I caught my breath and averted my gaze instinctively, awed by, yet delighting in, this sudden consciousness of her beauty.
"Well," said she again, "d'ye smell it?"
Starting, I glanced up, to find her busied with the comb again and immediately recognised that here was neither goddess nor dryad but merely a well-shaped, comely young woman with extraordinarily long hair; which fact established, my hunger (momentarily forgotten) returned with keener pang than ever.
"Are ye going to sleep again?" she enquired, finding me silent.
"Well, don't you smell it?"
"Pray what is it?"
"A duck as I be roasting to our supper."
"Duck!" I repeated, mouth watering. "I have breathed its enticement ever since I awoke."
"Wi' plenty o' sage and onion, a new loaf, and cheese!" she added, with a nod of her shapely head at each item, "unless," said she, eyeing me askance, "you're minded to starve—as you said?"
At this I grew very despondent and, sighing, watched her twist her glossy hair into two long braids and tie up the ends with small ribbands which I thought a very quaint and pretty fashion.
She now bade me help her to set up the supper table, which proved to be a weather-beaten half-door propped upon baskets. This done, she took the candle and descended below, I following; and here, within an old cauldron pierced with many holes, burned a fire, above which was a covered pot whence emanated that fragrance I have already mentioned, but stronger and more savoury than ever now, so that my hunger was wrought to a passionate yearning, more especially when, having removed the pot from the fire, she lifted the cover. Ascending to the loft she pronounced supper all ready and bade me sit down and eat. But this I could not do for my pride's sake as I freely confessed, which seemed to surprise her not a little.
"Well then," said she, perceiving me thus determined, "you may eat if you are truly hungry, because none o' the money I prigs pays for this duck."
So down I sat forthwith and never in all my life enjoyed any meal quite so much, as I told her.
"Well, then, eat it!" said she in her ungracious, half-sullen manner.
"I mean to," I retorted, "though I must say you are a wonderful cook." At this she merely scowled at me and I did not venture another remark until the sharper pangs of hunger were appeased, then, sighing, I spoke again. "Yes, I repeat you are a wonderful cook! But then everything seems so wonderful to me—this place, for instance—so strange and so solitary!"
"It is!" she answered, leaning her chin on her hands and staring at me across the table. "That's why I runs away here to hide from the chals or when in any trouble wi' old Azor—yes, 'tis a very lonely place, which do make me wonder if you be afeard o' ghosts?"
"No—that is, I don't think so—if such things do really exist. But why do you ask?"
"A woman was murdered here once an' they say her spirit walks, so there's few people dare venter here by day an' never a one by night, an' that's why 'tis so lonely an' that's why I loves the place."
"Then you don't believe in ghosts?"
"Well I sees strange things among the Romans; there's the dukkerin and dukkeripen, an' the Walkers o' the Heath. They're a strange folk, the Romans—'specially old Azor!"
"But you are not afraid—never have been?"
"No," she answered, shaking her head slowly, "I've never been afeard of anything or any one yet—except old Azor." And beholding her as she said this, observing the proud cast of her features, the lofty carriage of her head, her compelling eyes, resolute chin and the noble lines of her form, I knew she spoke truth and began to doubt if she were no more than a mere comely, well-shaped young female, after all.
"Pray, what is your name?" I enquired.
"Indeed it is a pretty name, though you are more like my conception of Diana."
"She was a young goddess."
"A goddess?" repeated my companion in her deep, soft voice, "that don't sound much like me."
"A goddess, very brave and strong, who despised all men and feared none!"
"That does sound more like me! Though I thought all goddesses were beautiful?" she added wistfully.
"So they were," I nodded, "but how do you know this?"
"From Jerry Jarvis—"
"What, the Tinker?" I exclaimed. "Do you mean the tinker who calls himself a 'literary cove'—the wonderful tinker who writes excellent poetry and travels about with a pony named Diogenes?"
"Yes, there be only one Jerry Jarvis," answered my companion. "'Twas Jerry taught me to write and lent me books to read. I've known him since I can remember and he was always kind. Jerry's a good man!"