"And writes real poetry!" I nodded. "At least I think so. I should like to meet him again."
"Well, he'll be Tonbridge way about now. I knows all his rounds an' he's reg'lar as a clock."
"Do you know the way to Tonbridge?"
"Yes, I'll go to Tonbridge to-morrow; you shall tell me the best way to get there, if you will."
"'Tis very sure you are better of your beating."
"Yes, thank God!" I answered.
"Though your eyes will be black to-morrow."
"Which will serve me right and properly for my cowardice."
"But you're not afeard o' ghosts!"
"Heaven knows," quoth I bitterly, "I might be if I saw one. And as for solitude, I don't think I should care to stay here alone night after night and day after day as you seem to have done."
"Oh, you gets used to it."
"But how do you pass your time in this solitude?"
"Reads mostly, and makes my baskets; there be few can ekal me at rush or willow. And there's good money in baskets!"
"What books have you read?"
"Not so many as I'd like."
"Tell me some of them."
"Well there's the 'Castle of Otranto' and Virgil and 'Peregrine Pickle' and the Psalms, and 'Tom Jones' and John Milton's Poems, 'Tristram Shandy.' Dryden, Plutarch's lives—oh, and a lot beside—"
"And which do you like best?"
For answer she reached the six volumes from amongst her pots and pans and these I found to be: Shakespeare, 'Tristram Shandy,' the Bible, Anson's Voyages and 'Robinson Crusoe.'
"You have shown most excellent judgment and a most catholic taste!" said I.
"You loves books, too!" she nodded. "I sees that by the way you handles 'em. And I keeps these six here because I can read them over and over and never tires, though there's a lot I don't understand."
"That," said I, looking upon my companion with new vision, "that is because each of these books shrines some part of undying Truth which can never weary and never die. I think," said I, setting the books back in their accustomed place, "I think I will call you Diana, if I may?"
"And my name is Peregrine."
"You seemed to like your supper," said she, beginning to clear away the platters.
"More than words can express!"
"So did I," she nodded, "and that was worth a little risk."
"What risk, Diana?"
"Well, I tells you the duck was not bought with any of the beast's money, didn't I?"
"Yes. Pray, how did you come by it?"
"Great heaven! You mean that you—"
"Yes. I goes to a farmhouse as I knows of to get some milk an' eggs, an' spies four ducks on the kitchen table, trussed an' stuffed all ready for the oven, so I brings one away—only one, though I might ha' nabbed two just as easy—"
"But this was burglary!" I gasped.
"But 'twas a dainty supper!"
"This is frightful!" I exclaimed.
"But the duck was very tender—you said so."
"Oh, girl," I cried, "don't you know it is very wicked to steal? Are you aware you have broken one of God's commandments, contravened the law and made yourself liable to arrest and imprisonment—indeed, people have been hanged for less! O Diana, how could you do a thing so shameful, so unworthy your womanhood—how could you—how could you?"
But instead of answering or paying the least heed to this so earnest appeal, she continued her business of clearing away supper things and table, and thereafter begun to make herself a couch of hay in the corner remotest from mine, and all without so much as a glance in my direction.
"And now," said she at last, "if you're quite ready, I'll blow out the candle."
"Whenever you will," I answered, stretching myself upon my hay-pile. Almost as I spoke the light vanished, and in the pitchy gloom my hearing seemed to grow the more acute; I heard her light, assured tread, the fall of her shoes as she kicked them off, the rustle of the hay that was her bed, a long-drawn, sleepy sigh. These sounds at last subsiding, I spoke:
"Have I angered you, Diana?" Here I paused for answer but getting none continued, "Though indeed my strictures were all well-meant, for I cannot bear that you should do anything unworthy—" Here, though she uttered no word, I distinguished a sudden, petulant rustle of hay as if she had kicked viciously. "And so, Diana," I continued, "I want you to promise that henceforth you will so govern your conduct, so order your life that you may become a woman, gentle and sweet and good, in whose presence no evil thing may exist, one who is herself an inspiration to good and noble things, a woman whose friendship is a privilege and whose—whose love would be a crowning glory. Do you understand, Diana?"
"Hold your tongue!" she cried very suddenly. "Hold y'r tongue an' go to sleep—do!"
In the fervour of my exordium I had assumed a sitting posture but at her coarse rejoinder I fell back, inexpressibly shocked, and lay staring upon the dark, tingling with mortification that I should have wasted myself in such vain appeal and been thus callously repulsed by one who was no more than an ignorant gipsy-wench, prone to coarse expressions and small larcenies, a creature knowing little difference between good and evil and caring less. But now, remembering her rough upbringing and the wild folk who had fostered her, my anger gave place to commiseration, for how could she, under such circumstances, be other than what she seemed? And yet—was she in herself good or evil? This doubt troubled me so much that I turned to stare towards that dark corner where she lay; and listening to her gentle and regular breathing, I judged that she slept already, though more than once I heard the hay rustle as she stirred, sighing plaintively. But sleep was not for me, my mind being greatly troubled by this same unanswerable question: Was she a Diana indeed, dowered with the virtues of that chaste goddess, or only a poor, small-souled creature debased by the circumstances of her lawless origin?
Now as I lay thus wakeful, vainly seeking an answer to this most distressing question, I became aware that the place was no longer dark; instead was a soft glow, an ever-increasing radiance, and lifting my eyes to the unglazed window I beheld the moon,—Dian's fair self, throned in splendour, queen of this midsummer night, serene and infinitely remote, who yet sent down a kindly beam, that, darting athwart the gloom, fell in a glory upon that other Diana where she lay outstretched in peaceful slumber. And gazing upon this face, softened and beautified by gentle sleep—the wide, low brow, these tender lips, this firm and resolute chin, I thought to read therein a sweet nobility, purity and strength; and, like the darkness, my doubts and trouble were quite banished.
Therefore, lifting my gaze once more to Dian's placid loveliness, I breathed her a sigh of gratitude, for it seemed that she had shown me the answer to my question. And thus, my mind at rest, I presently fell asleep.
HOW WE SET OUT FOR TONBRIDGE
Starting up, I opened sleepy eyes to be dazzled by a glory of early sunshine, and creeping from the hay wherein I lay half-buried, I came blinking to the open trapdoor and beheld Diana standing below, flourishing a long-handled fork at me.
"Kooshti divvus," said she.
"Good morning!" said I.
"It is!" she nodded. "That's what I said! And the less reason to sleep—here's me been up an hour an' more."
"You should have waked me, Diana."
"I was too busy. But if you are awake, come down and wash."
"Yourself—Lord, you needs it bad enough by your looks! And 'cleanliness is next to godliness'—they says. So go an' wash!"
"Certainly!" said I, a little haughtily. "Though permit me to assure you that I am not in the habit of neglecting so healthful and necessary—"
"Soap an' towel—in th' basket—corner yonder!" said she, kneeling to puff the fire to a blaze as I descended the ladder.
"Thank you, and where shall I find the necessary water?"
"Outside—in the brook—enough to drownd you! And take your time, make a good job of it—a clean body makes a clean mind—sometimes. So scrub hard!" At this I came where she must meet my look.
"And pray, madam," I demanded, head aloft and arms folded, "do you thus suggest that my mind is so very unclean?"
"O la!" cried she, waving the fork at me with a pettish gesture. "Don't try to come your fine airs over me in such breeches and your eyes black and face all smutty—go an' get washed first!"
At this I turned and marched out of the barn, quite forgetting soap and towel until she came running to thrust them upon me, willy-nilly.
"There's ham an' eggs for breakfast!" she volunteered.
"Then I trust you will enjoy them," said I stiffly, "but as regards myself I most certainly shall not—"
"Don't frown," she admonished, "for with your face so bruised and swollen it do make you look that comical!" And laughing, she sped away, leaving me to scowl upon the empty air.
But the morning was glorious; I stood in a dew-spangled world radiant with sunshine while all about me the feathered host, that choir invisible, poured forth a song of universal praise to greet this new-born day. With this joyful clamour in my ears, this fresh, green world before my eyes, I grew joyful too, and hasted towards the brook, my foolish petulance quite forgotten.
Following these murmurous, sun-kissed waters, I came where they widened suddenly into a dark and silent pool; and here, well-screened by bending willows, I ventured to bathe and found in the cool, sweet water such gasping delight that I could have sung and shouted for pure joy of it. Greatly invigorated and prodigiously hungry, I donned my unlovely garments happily enough but stooping above this watery mirror to comb my damp locks into such order as my fingers might compass, I beheld my face, its features bruised and distorted out of all shape; and remembering Diana had laughed at and made mock of these disfigurements, I sat down, not troubling about my hair, and began to muse upon her heartlessness, contrasting this with my aunt Julia's unfailing sympathy and tender, loving care, and immediately felt myself woefully solitary, miserably cold and desperately hungry. The world, despite sunshine and bird-song, was a dark and evil place wherein I stood desolate and forlorn; here, bowing my head between my hands, I began to despair of myself and the future. But now, and all at once, what must obtrude upon these gloomy thoughts but a vision of ham and eggs, a tantalisation that would not be banished.
"Perry—green!" I lifted my head to listen intently; and presently heard it again, a voice rich and full and smooth as note of blackbird, calling upon my name: "Perry—green! Breakfast's ready—ham an' eggs! Perry—green!" Snatching soap and towel I rose, my gloomy thoughts forgotten again, and hasted whither this voice summoned me.
"Are ye washed?" she enquired, dexterously skewering a large ham rasher upon the iron fork and transferring it to a platter.
"Then you may eat! Here's breakfast—only don't go asking how I got it—nor yet where!"
So we ate, scarce speaking; I, for one, seldom lifting my gaze from the platter balanced upon my knees. I ate, I say, each mouthful a joy, ham that was a melting ecstasy and eggs of such delicate flavour as I had never tasted till now, it seemed.
"Diana," I sighed at last, "you are a truly wonderful cook!"
"No," she answered; "you are hungry, that's all. 'T is a good thing to be hungry—sometimes!"
O gentle and perspicacious reader! You, madam, who being so daintily feminine, cannot be supposed to revel in the joys of hog-flesh, flesh of ox, sheep, bird or fish, no matter how excellent well cooked; and you, honourable sir, who, being comfortably replete of such, seated before your groaning board at duly frequent and regular intervals, masticate in duty to yourself and digestion, but with none of that fine fervour of enthusiasm which true hunger may bestow—I cry ye mercy! For your author, tramping the roads, weary yet aglow with exercise, hath met and had familiar fellowship with lusty Hunger, and learned that eating, though a base necessity, may also be a joy. If therefore your author forgetteth soul awhile to something describe and mayhap dilate upon such material things as food and drink and their due assimilation, here and now he doth most humbly crave your patient forbearance.
"It is a good thing to be hungry—sometimes!" said Diana.
"If one may assuage that hunger with such ham and eggs!" I added. "Though I greatly fear I shall never taste their like again."
"Anything'll taste good," quoth she, rising, "if you're hungry enough!"
"Diana," said I, watching her as she flitted lightly to and fro, engaged on what she called "tidying up." "Diana, what are we going to do?"
"I thought we were going to Tonbridge?"
"Well then, the sooner we starts the better."
"But," I demurred, rubbing my chin and staring hard at the toe of my clumsy shoe, "don't you think it a little unwise—very extraordinary and—yes, extremely irregular for—for two people of opposite sexes to consort thus? Are not folk apt to misjudge our intimacy?"
"Well, I mean the world."
"Lord, Peregrine, who's us for the world to trouble about?"
"I merely mention this because I dread lest I compromise you."
"Well," I explained, lifting my gaze to the time-worn timbering above my head, "people seeing us together might suppose we—we were—lovers—"
"But we ain't!" she retorted, turning to look at me. "And never shall be—shall we?"
"No!" said I with my gaze still turned upward. "Of course not! But none the less people might think we were—were living together!"
"Well, so we are, ain't we?" she demanded.
"But," said I, staring at my shoe again, "suppose they imagine—"
"Evil of us?"
"What matter, s' long as we knows different?"
"But I cannot bear that any should speak or even think evil of you, Diana—"
"Never mind about me—though it's kind of you!" she added in that suddenly soft, half-shy tone that I have before attempted to describe. "Y' see," she continued, "nobody ever troubled themselves about me all my life, except Jerry—or them as I keeps my little knife for. And you ain't that sort, so we'll go on together until I feels like leaving you, an' then I'll go—"
"Go where, Diana?"
"Back to the lonely places—"
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing!" she answered, shaking her head. "You wouldn't never understand. But I'll go along wi' you to Tonbridge."
"Very well!" said I. "And on the way, if you'll allow me, I'll teach you to speak more correctly and to behave with a—a little more—feminine restraint—"
"Oh—and why should I?" she demanded, cheeks flushed and proud head aloft.
"Because," I answered, struck anew by her beauty, "though you look like a goddess you speak and act like a—like—"
"A what? And—be careful!" she warned.
"I don't know."
"Come, speak out!"
"Indeed, I can think of no just parallel; you are like no one I ever saw or heard. But your speech and actions often do not match your looks."
"And your looks don't match your words or actions!" she retorted, "you speak s' very grand and look s' very—s' very—"
"What?" I questioned anxiously.
"I don't know. 'T isn't a scarecrow—scarecrow's clothes fits better—but you looks an' acts like nobody as ever I see afore."
"At the very first opportunity I will certainly purchase better garments!" quoth I, scowling down at the noxious things that covered me.
"With no money?" she scoffed.
"I have my watch!" quoth I.
"They'll think as you prigs it and hand you over to the narks an' queer cuffins—"
"That sounds very terrible; what do you mean?"
"I means the plastramengroes."
"What in the world is that?" said I.
"Oh, Kooshti duvvel!" she exclaimed. "You don't know nothin'; you're what they calls a rye, ain't you?"
"Pray, what is a rye?" I enquired, a little diffidently.
"A gorgio gentleman," she explained patiently.
"What should give you that impression?"
"You're s' different to the 'Folk'—or any of the padding kind."
"Yes, I suppose I am—despite my clothes!"
"Your speech is soft an' your ways are softer, but you have a high an' mighty look about ye at times—although you're so precious green."
"As grass!" she nodded, "Very green—like your name."
"My name is Peregrine, as you know."
"But t' other suits ye best!"
"You grow more unkind, Diana!"
"You're a scholar too, o' course?"
"I have received a somewhat careful education."
"What d'ye know?"
"Well, I am fairly conversant with Greek and Latin, though a trifle shaky on the higher mathematics, I fear."
"You've read lots an' lots o' books?"
"And you're nineteen years old?"
"And such a very poor, helpless thing!" said she in lofty scorn. "Oh, you may be able to teach me how t' speak an' how t' behave, but 'tis me as could teach ye how to live without friends or money! You may know how to use words but ye can't use your hands! You can talk but ye can't 'do'—you don't know how to help yourself nor nobody else! You're a poor creature as would creep into a wet ditch an' perish o' want an' misery—an' all because you're so full o' Greek an' Latin an' fine airs that you can't even tell how many beans make five!" Having said which, all in a breath, she turned and, mounting the ladder, left me staring vacantly at the crumbling wall and greatly humbled since all these indictments I knew for very truth. Sitting thus, I heard her descend the ladder, felt her hand upon my bowed shoulder and glancing up, saw her eyes big and soft and tender.
"Come, Peregrine," said she in her gentle voice, "let us go, and while we walk you shall give me my first lesson how to talk—and behave, if you will."
"No," said I, rising, "first you shall teach me how to be a little less of a fool. Pray—how many beans do make five?"
"Why, four an' a little one, o' course," she answered, with a tremulous laugh.
"Diana," said I, clasping her hands in mine, "you were exactly right; considering all my advantages, I am indeed a poor, helpless sort of thing! You shall teach me how to become a little wiser, if possible. So let us try to help each other like friends, Diana, like true friends."
"Yes," said she, "like true friends, Peregrine."
Then, having hidden the ladder among the hay, we went forth from the barn into the sunshine together.
CONCERNING THE GRAMMAR OF A GODDESS
A broad, white road led between grassy banks topped by hedgerows and trees whose wide-flung, rusting leafage cast a pleasant shade, while high in the sunny air a lark carolled faint and sweet against the blue. From the distant woods stole a wind languorous and fragrant of dewy earth, of herb and flower, a wind soft as a caress yet vital and full of promise (as it were) so that as I breathed of it, hope and strength were renewed in me with an assurance of future achievement. Filled thus with an ecstasy unknown till now, I stopped suddenly to look above and round about, glad-eyed; and thus presently my eager gaze came upon my companion who had paused also, her eyes upraised to watch the flight of a mounting lark. Beholding her in this graceful posture, so vivid with life and youthful strength, all slim shapeliness from wind-kissed hair to buckled shoe, she seemed the spirit, nay the very embodiment, of this fair midsummer morning.
"O Diana!" I exclaimed. "Is it not good to be alive?"
"The lark seems to think so," she answered, her gaze still uplifted. "Yet I wonder if he is truly happy, or sings only because 'tis his nature?"
"Because he's happy, of course!" I answered. "Who wouldn't be happy on such a morning?"
"Well, I ain't, for one!"
"Not happy, Diana—but why?"
"Because of what?"
"Oh, never mind! Let's go on."
"Won't you tell me?"
"No. Let's go on."
"May I not share your sorrows, Diana?" I enquired, and laid my hand on her arm; but she shook me off, though not before I had seen her eyes were suffused with tears. Therefore I caught and held her hand so that she stopped, facing me, and thus I saw her tears were falling and she not troubling to hide or wipe them away.
"Can't you let me alone?" she sobbed.
"Why, Diana!" I exclaimed. "O child, don't weep; true friends must share sorrow as well as joy! So, if we are to be friends, tell me what is troubling you."
"Yonder!" said she, pointing to the blue distance before us. "'Tis the beyond—'tis the Future as do fright me."
"But I thought you feared nothing, Diana?"
"Only myself!" she cried, throwing out her arms in a sudden wild gesture. "There be a devil inside o' me sometimes—a devil as even old Azor was afeard of an' most o' the men—"
"Then I think this must be rather a good devil, Diana."
"Ah no—no!" she cried. "'Tis a devil as drives me to wild thoughts an' ways—things as do shame me. 'Tis very fierce and strong!"
"Still, I do not think I fear this devil—or ever should, Diana."
"You? But you calls yourself a coward!"
"To be sure I did, and very properly, because I was greatly afraid of a ruffian with a bludgeon and fled accordingly. But I do not fear devils in the least."
"Because you don't know—"
"There you are quite wrong!" said I, patting the hand I still held and noting its strength and shapeliness. "For, and apprehend me, Diana, we all, each one of us, possess a devil large or small, and my own is uncomfortably big and strong occasionally, and very difficult to overcome. But this is what devils are for—"
"You're flamming me!" she cried angrily and snatched her hand away.
"A very unpleasing word! Pray what does it signify?"
"That is rather worse—"
"You're making game o' me!"
"On the contrary, I'm very serious! Don't you see, Diana, that all demons and devils are a means to our ultimate good?"
"No, I don't! How can they be?"
"In this manner: every devil, be he an evil thought, passion, hate or revenge, a desire to do harm, to lie, to steal, to kill or to run away like a coward—these are all demons to be fought with and overcome, and the oftener we vanquish them, the stronger and better we grow, until at last you—or I—may become something very near an angel."
"I could never be an angel!" she retorted sullenly. "And what's more, I don't want—"
"You do," said I, "indeed you do, I'm sure, or why should you so hate this devil of yours and fear the beyond? And there is an angel inside you, Diana; I have seen it peep at me through your eyes—"
"Now I think you're talking foolish!" said she petulantly.
"Perhaps so," I nodded, "but 'foolish' is an adjective which in this instance should be an adverb and which we will proceed to make so by the suffix 'ly.' Thus instead of saying, I talk 'foolish,' you must say I talk 'foolishly'—"
"So you do!" quoth she.
"Then I will talk grammar instead, Diana. Pray give me your most careful attention. Yonder is a tree, which is a noun common; the tree is shady, which is an adjective qualifying the noun 'tree,' and casts its shade obliquely, which is an adverb governing the qualifying verb 'casts.'" Thus, as we walked, I proceeded to give her a definition of the various parts of speech with their relation one to another, and found her to be, on the whole, very quick and of a retentive memory. Encouraged thus, I plunged into my subject whole-heartedly and was discussing the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs when she checked me in full career by asking:
"Have you a father and mother?"
"Good heaven!" I exclaimed. "What has this to do with grammar?"
"Well, but have you?" she persisted.
"No," answered I; "they died before I can remember."
"So did mine!" she nodded. "But you have friends?"
"Three," I answered. "To be particular, one aunt and two uncles."
"Rich folk, ain't they?"
"Well, yes, I suppose they are. And allow me to point out that the word 'ain't' is becoming obsolete in polite conversation, giving place to 'are not' or to 'is not' as the case may be. Now, returning to our grammar—" And forthwith I began to decline for her benefit verbs regular and irregular, together with their tenses; I parsed and analysed simple sentences, explaining the just relation of Subject, Object and Predicate, while she watched me grave-eyed and listened to my grammatical dicta with an attention that I found highly gratifying. Thus I dilated upon the beauties of our language, its wealth of metaphor and adjectival possibilities, its intricacies and pitfalls, until the sun was high and my throat parched.
"There, Diana," I concluded, "here endeth our first lesson for the present. I trust you have not found me too discursive?"
"Well," said she, knitting her black brows thoughtfully, "I'm not sure. It all sounds very—wonderful, but I don't understand a word of it."
"Great heaven!" I ejaculated. "Why could you not say so before?"
"I didn't like to interrupt you."
"Here I have been talking for a good hour—"
"Two hours," she nodded; "indeed, you're a wonderful talker!"
"But all to no purpose it seems!" said I ruefully.
"No," she answered, "it has helped to pass the time and I knows that a noun is a tree."
"Oh, indeed!" quoth I. "And what more have you learned?"
"That if you add to a verb it's an adverb, though both are much of a muchness, and an adjective is not like either, though they all has summat to do with a tree we passed a long time ago."
At this I gasped and sinking down in a shady spot, fanned myself feebly with my hat.
"My poor child," said I mournfully, "my poor—"
"I'm not your child!" she retorted. "And as for poor—what o' this?" and she shook the bag at her girdle until the coins within it chinked.
"This is most distressing!" said I, shaking my head.
"A noun is not a tree—"
"You says it was—"
"I told you a tree was a noun—which is a very different thing."
"If a tree's a noun, a noun's a tree—or should be, and if 'tain't, then grammar's foolish and I don't want none of it—"
"That sentence is execrable grammar, Diana, because two negatives make a positive hence when you say 'you don't want none,' it really means that you do want some—"
"I don't care!" she said in her sullen fashion.
"But you must—"
"Well, I shan't!"
"Don't be a naughty child, Diana! Please come and sit down."
"I hates your grammar—"
"The sun is very hot, Diana, so come and sit down here by me and let us talk like the true friends I hope we are."
With a petulant gesture she obeyed; so there we sat side by side, our backs to the broad bole of the great tree, a branch of which, drooping low, made for us a green bower, as it were. And here, sitting thus side by side, we continued our discussion on this wise:
DIANA (sullenly). However, I don't want any more o' your grammar; I gets along well enough without it—
MYSELF (interrupting). But then I want you to do much more than just get along, Diana.
DIANA. How much more?
MYSELF. Well, I want you to live to the utmost of your capacity, to make the very best of yourself and your life, to become the wonderful woman you may be if only you will. And this you can never do without a knowledge of grammar and deportment.
DIANA. And why d'ye want me to do—to be all this?
MYSELF. Because it is a duty you owe to the world and your own womanhood. If we all strove to do our best, the world would become a better place for everybody, at once.
DIANA (passionately). Oh, 'tis easy for you to talk so fine; you've got friends—rich friends t' help you! But who have I got—
MYSELF. Well, Diana, his name, as I told you before, is Peregrine.
DIANA. d'ye mean—what do you mean?
MYSELF. That I will be your true friend always—to help you so long as you need—if you will have me. My friends shall be your friends—especially my aunt Julia, who is the noblest and best of women—
DIANA (ungraciously). A Kooshti para rati—a true rawni—a grand lady, I s'pose?
MYSELF. She is a truly great lady.
DIANA. And wears silk gowns that rustle, I s'pose?
MYSELF (mystified). I believe her gowns do rustle—but what in the world—?
DIANA. Then I should hate her!
MYSELF. But why? In the name of reason why under heaven should—?
DIANA. Just because!
MYSELF. Pray be more explicit. Why should you hate one whom—?
DIANA. Because she'd rustle her fine silks at me and look through me and try to make me feel I was only small beer.
MYSELF. 'Small beer' is an extremely unpleasing phrase, Diana.
DIANA. But it tells ye what I mean. I sees grand ladies afore to-day and I don't want any of 'em to rustle at me! I won't have their pity and I don't want their help—I likes the silent places and my little churi best.
MYSELF. My aunt Julia is a very noble woman, as good as she is beautiful, a woman whom all respect and honour—
DIANA. Well, I hates her already.
MYSELF. That is exceedingly unreasonable! How can you hate one you have never seen?
MYSELF. But in heaven's name, why?
DIANA. Because I do!
MYSELF. That is no answer! (Here she scowled at me.) Pray be sensible, Diana! (Here she kicked viciously at a tuft of grass.) Indeed you make it very difficult for me to help you.
"I don't want your help either!" she retorted angrily.
"No matter!" quoth I, folding my arms. "My mind is quite made up."
"So is mine!" and speaking, she would have risen, but I caught a fold of her petticoat. "Let go!" she cried.
"Sit still, Diana, and listen to me!"
"Let me go!"
"Not until you have heard all I wish to say—" As I spoke, with a movement incredibly quick, she flashed out her knife.
"What, Diana," said I, staring into her fierce eyes, "do you think that is necessary with me? Would you harm your friend, child?" The fierce eyes drooped and, averting her head, she sat mute and still. "I am going to help you," I continued, "because in spite of any or every demon, I know you are sweet and pure and good."
"How—d'ye know this?" she questioned.
"I know it, I am sure of it—oh, well—because!"
"That's no answer!" said she in her turn.
"Still, I think you know what I mean. But, and this is very sure, Diana, because I respect you, I would have the world respect you. And therefore I am going to help you however I may. So that is settled once for all."
"Suppose I—runs away?"
"I shall have to find you, of course."
"Then you—don't want to be rid o' me—so much?"
"But you offered me your gold watch to—"
"True!" I admitted, a little put out. "But I—I did not know or understand you—then."
"And do you now?"
"I think so—or at least enough to know that you can also help me if you will—"
"How could I help you?" she questioned wistfully.
"You might perhaps teach me to be—less of a coward—more like yourself—"
"Like me?" she repeated, wondering.
"You are so strong, Diana, so brave and fearless and I—ran away like the coward I am—left you alone to face—"
Here, once more overcome by memory of my shame, I covered my face; but now, all at once, perceiving my abasement and bitter remorse, moved by a sweet impulse she clasped her arm about my stooping shoulders and sought earnestly to comfort me.
"There, there," she murmured, her voice very soft and sweet, "never grieve so, Peregrine—you're no coward! When a coward runs away, he keeps running in the same direction; a coward don't come back to be beaten black and blue—see your poor face!"
"You laughed at it this morning!" said I, striving to steady my voice.
"Yes, I know I did, but only—only because!" she answered gently. "But you ain't—I mean are not—a coward; you fought your best—"
"But to no purpose!" I added bitterly. "Nature has shaped me in such puny mould, I'm so miserably weak—" Here the arm tightened and, conscious thus of all the throbbing strength and vitality of her, I felt my own weakness the more. "Oh, I'm a miserable, undersized rat!" I groaned.
"Hush!" she whispered, as if I had shocked her. "'Tisn't size or strength as wins a fight, Peregrine; 'tis quickness an' knowing how—but most of all being game-plucked. The next time a man hits ye, stand away and hit back; there's nothing will keep a man from hitting you like hitting him often and hard."
"It seems that my uncles were right, after all!" said I. "Hard knocks are sometimes more efficacious than the best-reasoned arguments. You have seen many fights, I suppose, Diana?"
"I wish you could teach me how it is done!"
"Why, so I will, Peregrine—stand up! Now," she admonished, as we faced each other, "put up your hands—so!" Hereupon I imitated her posture. "Now," she continued, "I'm going to hit you in the face!" which she immediately did, though lightly and with her open hand. "Now hit me if you can, Peregrine."
But though I tried my best, she was so wonderfully quick and light upon her feet that I smote but empty air or my blows were parried, while her hands flashed, now here, now there, to pat and tap my face as often as she would. So we sparred together until, flushed and laughing and breathless, we paused by common consent.
And thus I had my first lesson in the Noble Art.
"You do be very light o' your feet!" said she as we sat side by side beneath the tree again, "and much quicker than I thought, Peregrine!"
"I—I'm glad—very glad you think so!" I answered vastly elated by this praise.
"Yes, if you had proper teaching, you might be able to take your part against most o' them."
Now at this I became filled with such a glow of pleasure as amazed me by its intensity, such indeed as no praise from tutors or even my loved aunt Julia had ever inspired.
"Though to be sure," she added, "'t would all depend on whether you was game-plucked. No, size don't always count; why, Jessamy Todd ain't—is not—much bigger than you."
"And who is he?"
"Lord, haven't you heard? Why, Jessamy was one of the greatest, fiercest fighters that ever was, they say! But he had the ill-luck to kill a man and turned religious."
"Do you know him?"
"Very well. I've heard him preach often."
"Preach?" said I.
"Yes, Jessamy never fights now—unless he has to—goes about preaching. And he preaches as well as he used to fight, and sings as well as he preaches."
"I should like to meet Jessamy Todd," said I.
"Well, so you will, if you pad the hoof long enough. But now, what o'clock is it?"
"Half-past twelve," I answered, consulting my watch. "Yet surely it can't be so late?"
"But it is—look at the sun! And don't you feel 't is dinner time? There's a little tavern down the lane yonder—let's go and eat."
"Not unless I pay for it—"
"With no money?"
"Here is my watch!"
"Don't be foolish!" she exclaimed, springing to her feet. "Get up and come along, do! No, stay where you are; things will taste sweeter out here—they always do. Only don't go trying to run off or any such foolishness—just stay where you are an' wait for me."
"I won't be long—so promise!"
Waiting for no more, she sped away all lithe and vigorous grace; when she was out of sight, I lay upon my and, staring up at the rustling canopy above, became lost in thought, wondering, among other things, if I could ever possibly attain unto that mysterious virtue she had called 'game-plucked' and just precisely what it might be.
HOW AND WHY I FOUGHT WITH ONE GABBING DICK, A PEDDLER
"You won't be wantin' ever a broom, now?"
Starting up in no little amazement, I beheld a man who bore a bundle of brooms upon his shoulder and a pack upon his back, while round his neck dangled ribbands and laces of many colours and varieties; a smallish, grizzled, plump man with an ill-natured face.
"You won't be wantin' ever a broom?" he repeated.
"No, thank you," I answered; "though indeed I should think it was sufficiently obvious."
"Nor yet a mop?"
"Why then, a belt? 'Ow about a fine, leather belt wi' a good steel buckle made in Brummagem?"
"I couldn't buy anything of you if I wished," I explained, "because I have no money."
"Eh—no money?" said the man, turning to spit into the road. "No money—eh? Then wot about 'er, the Eve as you was a kissy-cuddlin'—"
"I was not!"
"Oh!" he exclaimed, "then if not, why not? Yah, ye can't gammon me! She's a Eve, ain't she, an' all Eves loves a bit o' kissy-cuddly. An' she looks a nice warm armful, so why not try? Better soon nor late!"
"What d' you mean?" I demanded, trembling with indignation.
"I mean as she's a Eve, an' all Eves loves a bit o' kissy-cuddly an'—"
"That will do!" cried I, clenching my fists. "I've told you I can purchase none of your wares, so pray have the goodness to cease your importunities and go."
"Go?" said the Peddler. "An' why should I go? I ain't a-trespassin' on your private property, am I? No, because 'tis a public 'ighway. Very good! An' England's a free country, ain't it? It is! Very good again! I ain't a-goin' to go until I wants to go; you can't make me go nor nobody else. So 'ere I waits till your Eve comes back. An' why? 'Cause if you ain't got no money—she 'as, I'll lay, an' I've ribbands an' laces, rings an' garters as no Eve can say 'No' to. Besides, she looks a fine gal as Eves go, an' there's enough o' the old Adam inside o' me to—"
"Are you going?" I demanded.
"Not me!" he answered, turning to spit at a butterfly that hovered near. "I'm a free-born Briton, I am, as scorns the furrin' yoke!"
Hereupon I rose, that is to say, I forced my unwilling body upon my shaking legs and faced him.
"Then I must do my best to make you!" said I, with as much stern resolution in voice and look as I could summon.
"What—you?" exclaimed the Peddler, regarding me with eye of scorn. "You—eh?" he repeated. "Well, burn my neck, there's imperence for ye!"
"Put up your hands!" said I.
"What—fight, is it?"
"It is!" said I. "Unless you prefer to depart immediately."
"Well, twist my innards!" exclaimed the Peddler, laying aside his brooms. "The owdacious young willin'! Wants t' fight! An' 'im sich a young whipper-snapper!"
He was a middle-aged man, squat of figure with short, plump legs, but I thought him formidable enough and felt the old nauseating fear growing upon me as I watched the determined manner in which he prepared for the approaching combat. Having removed his pack and the multifarious articles that draped his person, he took off his coat, folded it neatly and laid it by, which done, he slowly rolled up his shirt sleeves, eyeing me fiercely and scowling portentously the while. Now as I watched him, my sweating palms tight-clenched, my jaws hard-locked to prevent my teeth from chattering, the thought occurred to me that the hurts I was about to endure and endeavour to inflict should not only save Diana from evil, but might also prove to her (and myself) if I were indeed possessed of that thing she called 'game-pluck.'
At this moment my opponent rapped himself soundly upon the chest and nodded fiercely; quoth he:
"I'm a-goin' t' gi'e ye two more black heyes to start wi', and 'aving draw'd your claret an' knocked out a tusk or so, I'll finish the job by leatherin' ye wi' one o' my best leather belts wi' a fine, steel buckle made in Brum—"
But here I launched myself at him and, forgetting all caution in my trembling eagerness, beset the fellow with a wild hurly-burly of random blows, one or two of which found their mark, judging by his grunts; then his fist crashed into my ribs, driving me reeling back so that I should have fallen but for the friendly tree. This steadied me (in more senses than one) for in this moment I remembered Diana's admonition, and, seeing him rush in to finish me, I stepped aside and as his fist shot by my ear, I smote him flush upon the side of his bristly chin; and lo, to my wonder and fearful joy, he spun round and came violently to earth in a sitting posture! For a moment he sat thus, staring wide-eyed at nothing in particular; then I stepped forward and tendered him my hand.
"What now?" he gasped.
"Let me help you up!" I panted.
"Whaffor?" he demanded.
"That I may—knock you down again—as speedily as possible," I answered.
"Not me!" he answered, feeling his chin in gentle, tentative fashion. "I'm jolted sufficient an' the ground's danged 'ard 'ereabouts! An' wot's more—why, burn my neck—it's Anna!" he broke off and pointed with stubby finger. Turning about, I beheld Diana on the other side of the hedge. And she was looking at me!
"Ha, well done, Peregrine!" she exclaimed; at which, and because of the expression in her eyes, I felt again that strange sense of joyous exhilaration which had thrilled me once before, insomuch that I felt almost sorry the combat was ended so soon. Then, before I might aid her, she was through the hedge and shaking my hand as a man might have done.
"Lord love me!" ejaculated the Peddler, scrambling to his feet. "So you've turned into a Eve at last, 'ave yer, Anna? You as couldn't abide a man! An' 'ere you be in a nice little garden o' Eden along o' your Adam, eh? Found yourself a lad at last for kissy-cuddly, eh? You as was so prim! What'll folks say when I tell 'em?"
"That you'm a liar, Gabbing Dick, as big a liar as ever you was."
"When I tells folk as Anna's took up wi' a lad at last—an' 'im such a whipper-snapper! When I tell 'em as 'ow you—"
"That's enough!" cried I passionately. "Take your things and go before I endeavour to kill you—"
"Lord, Peregrine!" said Diana, viewing me in big-eyed wonder. "'T is only Gabbing Dick, and he must talk dirt, but nobody minds."
"Well, I do, and if he doesn't depart immediately—"
"Depart's th' word!" nodded the Peddler, and taking up his pack he adjusted it, shouldered his brooms and then paused to spit thoughtfully. "What'll folk say when I tell 'em as I see you kissy-cuddlin' a whipper-snapper—"
Clenching my fists I took a step towards him; saw him shrink away, staring, not at me, but the knife in Diana's hand.
"Hop, Dick, hop!" said she, making the blade flash and glitter evilly, whereupon the fellow, clutching his wares, made off with sudden alacrity; but being at a distance he stopped and turned.
"I 'opes," he cried, "I do 'ope as your Adam tires o' ye an' leaves ye despairin'—danged soon, an' that's for you, Anna! An' I 'opes as she pokes out both your eyes for ye—both on 'em, mind—an' that's for you, young whipper-snapper!"
Then he spat towards us, nodded, and hasted off along the road.
"And now, let's have dinner!" said Diana.
"Dinner?" I repeated, frowning after my late antagonist.
OF THE TONGUE OF A WOMAN AND THE FEET OF A GODDESS
Roast beef is now, has been, and probably will be, long acclaimed and proclaimed by every true-born Englishman as his own peculiar diet; vide the old song:
"When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food It ennobled our hearts and enriched our blood. O the Roast Beef of Old England And O for old England's Roast Beef!"
By long association and assimilation it has become, as it were, a national asset, a very part and parcel of the British constitution.
From ages dim and remote it has gone to the building of a sturdy race which, by dint of hard knocks and harder heads, has won for itself a mighty Empire. Our Saxon ancestors devoured it; our Norman conquerors scorned, tasted and—ate of it; our stout yeomen throve on it; our squires and gentry hunt, fight, make speeches and laws upon it; and doubtless future generations shall do the like.
As for myself, I have frequently eaten of it, though never, I fear, with either that awe or appetite which such noble fare justly demands. But to-day within this green bower, blessed by a gentle wind that rustled the leaves about me and stirred Diana's glossy tresses where she sat beside me, I ate of beef, cold, and set between slices of new bread,—ate with a reverent joy as any healthy young Briton should. And presently, meeting the bright glance of my companion, I sighed.
"Diana," said I, "heaven sends dew for the flower, honey for the bee and butterfly, the worm for the bird, and beef for the Briton. Let us then be duly thankful that we are neither flower, butterfly nor bird."
"It would be worse to be the worm, I think," she answered.
Alas! It seemed we were not to be long unmolested for, roused by a shuffling step, I glanced hastily up and beheld an old woman hobbling towards us bent upon a stick, a miserably ragged, furtive, hag-like creature who nodded and leered upon us as she came.
"Lor', Ann!" she cried in queer, piping tones. "Lorramity, Ann—so you've fell in love at last, 'ave ye, dearie? And why not, my pretty, why not? There's nowt like a bit o' love—'cept it be a bit o' beef! O Ann, gi'es a bite o' the good meat—a mouthful for poor old Moll, do 'ee now—do!"
"Why, for sure!" answered Diana. "You can eat and welcome, Moll; sit ye down here by me and rest your old bones. And I ain't fallen in love wi' no one, Moll."
"Ain't you, Ann; lor', dearie, ain't you!" piped the old creature, snatching the food Diana offered. "But what about your nice young pal 'ere? Is 'e for comp'ny's sake—jest to keep away the solitood, eh, dearie?"
"We're padding it to Tonbridge, Moll."
"Tonbridge—hey!" gabbled this fearsome old woman, clawing at the meat with her bony, talon-like fingers in a highly offensive manner. "Tonbridge, hey, dearie?" she mumbled, stuffing the meat into her mouth until I wondered she did not choke to death outright. "'T is a goodish step from 'ere, dearie," she gasped, when at last she could speak, "a goodish bit an' love may ketch ye afore ye get there—eh, dearie, eh? I 'ope's it do, for love's a pretty thing when you're young—I know, for I was young once—aye an' 'ansome too, I was—"
"I don't love anybody, Moll, and never shall."
"Don't say that, dearie, oh, don't say that! Some man'll win an' tame ye yet, for all your proud, wild ways an' little knife—'e will, dearie—'e will; maids is for men an' men—"
"Never think it, Moll!" said Diana, shaking her head. "As for men, I hates 'em and always shall—"
"What d'ye say t' that, my fine, nice laddie—eh, eh?" piped the old, witch-like creature, leering at me hideously. "Ann's a beauty, ain't she? Made to be kissed an' all, ain't she, eh? If I was you, I'd kiss 'er afore ye reached the next milestone an' that ain't fur—kiss 'er afore she knowed, I would, an' if she takes it unkind, never trouble, jest you wait till she's asleep—steal 'er little knife an'—"
"Let us go!" said I hastily, getting to my feet.
"That's th' sperrit, laddie, that's th' sperrit!" croaked the old woman. "Afore th' next milestone—on th' lips! All maids love it an' so'll she, 'spite all 'er skittish ways—on 'er mouth, mind!"
But I hasted away, nor paused until I was some distance down the road, then glancing back, I saw Diana bestow on this frightful old creature all that remained of our dinner, and money besides.
"A truly dreadful old person, Diana!" said I, as she joined me. "I wonder you can stop to consort or speak with such—"
"She's a woman, after all, Peregrine, very old and worn and generally hungry. And how can it harm me to be a little kind to her?"
"She suggests vile things!"
"What o' that, if she don't do 'em, or make others do 'em?"
"A horrible creature!" I repeated.
"Without a friend in the world, Peregrine."
"Do you happen to be acquainted with every discreditable vagabond hereabouts, Diana?"
"I knows most o' th' padding kind, trampers and sech. There'll be many going Tonbridge way to-day and tomorrow, because o' the fair."
"Then cannot we reach Tonbridge by ways unfrequented?"
"There's the field-paths, though 'twill take us a day longer—maybe two—"
"No matter, let us go by the field-paths, Diana."
So we presently struck off from the great, dusty high-road and went by ways pleasantly sequestered. By shady copse and rustling cornfield; past lonely farms and rick-yards; past placid cows that chewed, somnolent, in the shade of trees or stood knee-deep in stilly pools; past hop-gardens from whose long, green alleys stole a fragrance warm and acridly sweet; past rippling streams that murmured drowsily, sparkling amid mossy boulders or over pebbly beds; past rustics stooped to their leisured toil who straightened bowed backs to peer after us under sunburned hands; wheresoever I looked, I found some new matter for delight.
The afternoon was very hot for the wind had fallen, and, being somewhat distressed and weary with travel, I was greatly tempted to propose a halt that I might rest and feast my sight upon the many and varied beauties of this Kentish countryside, but seeing Diana walk with the same smooth, tireless stride, I forbore for very shame.
The stream we were following presently brought us to a wood where leaves rustled lazily, birds chirped drowsily and the brook whispered slumberously; a shady wood where wearied travellers might rest awhile, and, their troubles lulled to sleep, dream of journeys ended and happiness to be.
Here my companion paused; and watching her as she stood to stare down into the stream that widened hereabouts to a placid pool, it seemed to me more than ever that she was akin to the beauties around us, herself the spirit of these solitudes.
"O Diana!" I exclaimed, beholding her rapt expression. "Do you see it—feel it too—all the unending wonder of it?"
"Well, Peregrine," she answered, her gaze still bent upon the pool, "I be wondering where we shall eat and sleep to-night, for we're miles away from Brasted—"
"Heavens, child!" I exclaimed, seating myself beside the stream. "Have you no soul? Cannot you soar above such base material wants? Listen to the voice of this brook; has it no message for you?"
"It sounds cool, Peregrine, so while you rest, I'll bathe my feet." And sitting down, off came her shoes and stockings forthwith.
Now though, after my first startled glance, I kept my eyes averted, I could not help being very conscious of these white feet as they splashed and dabbled beside me and of their slim shapeliness.
"Diana, have you indeed no soul?" I repeated.
"If I have, it don't trouble me much!" she answered. "Why don't you dabble your feet; 'tis better than drinking?"
"O girl," I sighed, "have you no thought beyond your immediate bodily needs, no dreams of the greater—"
"Dreams?" she exclaimed bitterly. "It don't do for the likes o' me to go a-dreaming! Let them dream as can afford."
"But even the poorest, humblest of us may have our dreams, Diana, visions of a greater self and nobler living. Dreams are the soul's relaxation and inspire us to higher purpose. I think it is this faculty that lifts us above the brute creation."
Here, finding my companion silent, I glanced up to behold her watching a man who was approaching astride of a shaggy, bare-backed pony, a dark-complexioned, impudent-looking fellow with bright eyes and a wide mouth. At sight of us, he checked his steed with a jerk of the halter, smote his boot with the stout ash stick he carried, and burst into a shout of laughter. Here again I became extremely conscious of Diana's pretty, naked feet; but the fellow never even so much as glanced towards them.
"Aha, Anna!" he cried. "Whose mother's j'y ha' ye got theer?" and he pointed at me. At this she turned and spoke angrily in that unknown speech she had used with old Azor and in which he answered her. Thus they talked awhile, Diana scowling and fierce, he grinning and impudent.
"Hey, my buck!" he cried suddenly, tossing the ash stick to me. "You can tak' it; aye, tak' it—'t will be more use to you nor me—her'll need it more nor my pony, aye, that 'er will. Don't stand none o' her tricks, pal, though her'll take a lot o' taming, an' you ain't no match for 'er by your looks, but lay into 'er wi' yon stick an' do your best—" Having said which, he laughed again and, turning his pony, trotted off. Outraged by his insolence, I caught up the stick with some notion of running after him, but Diana checked me.
"Not him!" she said. "He ain't—isn't like Gabbing Dick; he's a fighting man and dangerous."
"Who is he?" I demanded.
"And what did the fellow say to you?"
"Nothing to harm."
"Did he suggest—the—the same as the Peddler and that hateful old hag?"
"Lord—and what if he did?"
"Why, then," I answered, "for your sake there is but one of two courses that I can honourably adopt. I must either leave you at once or marry you at the—the first opportunity."
"Marry me!" she breathed. "Marry—me?"
"Exactly!" said I, folding my arms and staring down into the stream in a very determined fashion. At this, she sat so very still and silent that at last I ventured to glance up, to find her regarding me great-eyed. Then, all at once, to my indignant surprise, she began to laugh, but ceased as suddenly, and I wondered to see her eyes brimming with tears.
"But I—don't love you, and you don't love me—and never can!" said she at last.
"No!" I answered. "Nevertheless, my honour demands it!"
"What is honour?" she questioned wistfully.
"It is another name for duty!" I answered. "And my duty is to guard you from all evil or suspicion of evil."
"What evil, Peregrine?"
"The evil of vile tongues."
"But they can't make us evil, whatever they say of us."
"But what of your maidenly reputation?" I demanded. "That hateful peddler-fellow and vile old hag will make your name a byword—O, decidedly I must marry you!"
"Because of your duty?"
"And because it will resolve all my other difficulties with regard to your education; for instance, I will send you to the best and most select young ladies' academy—"
"What sort of a thing is that, Peregrine?"
"A place where ladies are educated in all the higher branches and taught deportment and all the refinements and usages of polite society."
"O!" exclaimed Diana, and sent up a sparkling shower of water with a flirt of her white foot.
"Furthermore," I continued, wiping my cheek—for some of this water had splashed me, "furthermore, Diana, you need never fear the future any longer, because as my—my wife, you would of course lack for nothing."
"Meaning as you'd find me plenty to eat and drink, Peregrine?"
"Heavens, yes, child!" I exclaimed. "You would be a lady of some position in society."
"A lady—O!" she exclaimed, and flirted her foot again.
"I beg you won't do that!" said I, wiping my face.
"But I like to, Peregrine."
"Because you are such—oh, such a Peregrine!"
"That sounds ridiculous, Diana!"
"But means a lot, Peregrine. But tell me, if you can make your wife a real lady, you must be a gentleman and rich—are you?"
"I shall have a sufficiently comfortable fortune when I come of age."
"You will be rich and grand—like your aunt?"
"I suppose so."
"Without working for it?"
"Of course; I shall inherit it from my father."
"Any one could get rich that way, couldn't they? And when will you get your money, Peregrine?"
"In two years' time. Meanwhile, by writing to my uncles, I can procure all the money I need."
"Why don't you?"
"I propose doing so at the very earliest opportunity." At this she turned and looked at me with her direct, unswerving gaze, so that I grew suddenly uncomfortable. "You don't doubt my word, do you, Diana?" I questioned, glancing down at my grotesque attire.
"No, Peregrine, I don't think you could deceive any one. Only I was wondering what brings the like o' you padding the roads dressed like—like you are."
Hereupon, sitting down beside her, I told my story at large, much as I have written it here, to all of which she listened with such deep interest and grave attention as gratified me not a little. When at last I had ended my narrative, she sat, chin in hand, staring down at the rippling waters so long that I must needs ask what she was thinking.
"That 't is no wonder you are so soft!" said she.
"Soft?" I repeated indignantly.
"Yes, soft, Peregrine, and so green—so precious green! You've never had a chance."
"Of living. And your Aunt Julia's a fool!"
"Diana—!" I exclaimed, inexpressibly shocked.
"Such a fool, Peregrine, that I'm greatly minded to let you marry me just to see my lady's face when I take ye back and say, 'Ma'm, here's your precious Peregrine married to a girl o' the roads, ma'm, and a-going to be a man in spite o' you, ma'm!' Oh, tush! And now let's go on—unless you'm minded to sleep in the wood yonder and no supper."
"As you will!" said I stiffly.
And so, when she had donned her stockings and shoes, we continued our way together, though in silence now.
IN WHICH I LEARNED THAT I AM LESS OF A COWARD THAN I HAD SUPPOSED
There is, I think, a wistful sadness in the fall of evening, a vague regret for the fading glories of the day which, passing out of our lives for ever, leaves us so much the richer or poorer, the nobler or more unworthy, according to the use we have made of the opportunities it has offered us for the doing of good or evil.
Thus I walked pensive through the solemn evening stillness, watching the shadows gathering and the sky slowly deepen to a glimmering dusk, wherein the first faint stars peeped.
Suddenly, from the mysteries of sombre trees hard by, stole the plaintive notes of a blackbird singing, as it were, in poignant, sweet farewell:
'This day, with its joys and sorrows, its pain and travail, its possibilities for works good or evil, is passed away. O ye that grieve for chances lost or wasted, that sorrow for wrongs done or good undone, be comforted. Sleep ye in the sure hope that God of His mercy shall renew your hope for better things with to-morrow's dawn. So comfort ye!'
As I stood, the better to hear, my mind busied with some such thought as this conjured up of the bird's evening hymn, Diana's hand met mine in sudden, warm clasp.
"O Peregrine," she murmured, "so you love the silent places too?"
"Yes!" said I. "Yes! It is in such places that angels walk."
"Great and noble thoughts, Diana. These are truly God's angels, I think, since they are the inspiration to all great and good works."
"It is in the silent places I am happiest, Peregrine."
"Because you have a soul, thank God!"
"What do you mean by a 'soul,' Peregrine?"
"I mean that part of us which cannot perish because it is part of God Himself. I mean that part of us whereby, in spite of this fleshly body, we may rise above fleshly desires and gain some perception of the Infinite Truth—which is God. Do you understand, Diana?"
"No, I'm afraid I don't," she answered wistfully, "but you won't lose patience wi' me, Peregrine?"
"Never, Diana. How could I when I don't understand myself. Who does? The wisest philosophers of all ages have been puzzling over their souls and never understood the wonder of it. Who shall describe the soul and its ultimate end?"
"Well," said she diffidently, "there's Jerry Jarvis—"
"What, the Tinker?" I exclaimed.
"Yes. He made a verse about the soul—I mean this one—
"'And when my time shall come to die I care not where my flesh may lie Because I know my soul shall fly Back to the stars!'"
"Ah, yes, the stars!" said I, lifting my gaze to the spangled firmament above us. "This is a great thought—who knows?"
And presently as we went on together, hand in hand, came night very still and silent and full of a splendour of stars that made a soft twilight about us, very wonderful to behold.
"Now, why do that?" I demanded suddenly, for she had slipped her hand from mine.
"Because!" she retorted.
"Because of what?"
"Does it impede you to hold my hand?"
"Of course not."
"My hand is neither unpleasantly clammy nor particularly dirty, is it?"
"Then why not hold it?"
"Upon my word!" I exclaimed, "you are very provoking!"
"Am I, Peregrine?"
"Extremely so! Why won't you hold my hand? And pray answer intelligibly."
"Because I don't want to!"
"Oh, very well!" said I, greatly huffed. "Then you shall decline the verb 'To be' instead."
"I do, Peregrine."
"Decline any more of your verbs."
"Ha, then you don't wish to learn—?"
"I do, Peregrine, I do! But I'm sure I shall learn quicker if you'll let me try to talk like you; I've learned a bit already only you never notice—"
"Oh, yes, I do—God in heaven!" I gasped, my heart leaping in sudden sickening dread. "What is that?" My flesh chilled with horror as from the gloomy depths of the wood upon our left rose a sound evil beyond description, an awful scuffling intermingled with gasps and sighs very terrible to hear.
Spellbound by this dreadful, hushed clamour, I stood rigidly, staring into those dense shadows whence it came; then joyed to the warm, strong clasp of her fingers on mine and, in this awful moment, wondered to feel her hand so steady.
"Are you afraid, Peregrine?" she whispered.
"Yes!" I mumbled. "Yes!"
"But are you brave enough to go and see what it is? Dare you go—alone?"
"No!" I gasped. "No—I should—die—" My teeth snapped shut upon the word and I began to creep forward, the ash stick clutched in shaking hand, my eyes glaring in horrified expectancy. Foot by foot I forced my shivering body forward into the denser shadows of the underbrush, on and on in such agony of fear that the sweat poured from me, for now this frightful struggling was louder and more menacing; therefore, lest I should blench and turn back, I ran wildly forward until, all at once, I stopped at sight of a shapeless something, a dim horror that started and wallowed, gasping, upon the ground before me; then, as I stared, the thing bleated feebly, and I knew it for a sheep and, coming nearer, saw the poor animal lay upon its back, kicking and struggling vainly to regain its feet.
My revulsion of feeling was so great that a faintness seized me and I leaned half-swooning against a tree. And in this moment Diana's arm was about me and her voice in my ear.
"Oh, but that was brave, Peregrine—I never thought you'd go! Now help me to get the poor thing to her feet." So between us we contrived to set the sheep upon its legs and watched it amble feebly away. Then, side by side, we came out of the wood where we might behold the stars.
"Diana," said I, with my gaze uplifted to their glory, "did you know it was only a sheep?"
"And I am a little braver than you expected?"
"Then—suppose you take my hand again!"
DESCRIBING THE HOSPITALITY OF ONE JERRY JARVIS A TINKER
We stood upon a hill beneath an orbed moon whose splendour dimmed the stars; below us lay a mystery of sombre woods with a prospect of hill and dale beyond, and never a sound to disturb the all-pervading stillness save the soft, bubbling notes of a nightjar and the distant murmur of the brook that flowed in the valley at our feet, here leaping in glory, there gliding,—a smooth and placid mirror to Dian's beauty, a brook that wound amid light and shadow until it lost itself in the gloom of trees thick-clustered about a little hamlet that slept in the shadow of hoary church tower.
Thus as we descended the hill, I walked reverently, my soul upraised in chaste and fervent ecstasy. However, this fine, poetical rhapsody was banished, suddenly and most unpleasantly, by my companion who, setting fingers to mouth, emitted a shrill whistle,—three ear-piercing blasts that shattered the night's holy calm and startled me to indignant protest.
"Heavens, Diana!" I exclaimed, "why do that? It was desecration!"
"You'll know if you listen, Peregrine!" As she spoke there came an answering whistle from the woods before us. "It's Jerry!" she nodded. "It's Jerry Jarvis—hark, he be coming to meet me!"
"Then he knows it is you?"
"Of course! He learned me to whistle for him so when I was a little child and—" She turned suddenly, and with a little, glad cry of "O Jerry!" ran forward into the shadows and was clasped and hugged in a pair of dim arms.
"Why, Ann—why, Anna, dear child—have ye come a-seeking your old Jeremy? What is it this time, dear lass; tell your trouble to your old pal—"
"O Jerry, I'm free, I'm free of 'em at last!"
"Free o' the Folk, lass? Lord, here's j'y! But what of old Azor—that witch o' darkness?"
"Her too, Jerry."
"How, lass, how so?" Here Diana reached her hand to me and I stepped into the Tinker's purview.
"He did it for me, Jerry."
"Lord!" exclaimed the Tinker, falling back a step. "Lord love me—a boy! A lad at last! Well, well, 't is nat'ral, I suppose, though what I can see of him bean't much to look at, Ann—but no more am I, for that matter! And he ain't exactly a Goliath of Gath—though no more am I again. But then I've noticed that great men be generally of a comfortable, middling size. And if he be your chal, my dear—"
"Have you forgotten me so soon, Mr. Jarvis?" said I at this juncture, whereupon he turned to peer into my face, then caught and wrung my hand.
"Strike me blue!" he exclaimed. "It's the bang-up young gent in the jerry 'at 'as left a home luxoorious to see the world and l'arn to be a man!"
"That very same!" said I.
"Why, then, Lord love me, here's j'y again!" cried he, grasping my hand with a heartiness there was no mistaking. "But how come you hereabouts and along of Anna, too? And how comes Anna free o' the Folk at last and along wi' a young gorgio gent wi' nothing flash about him? And what's come o' your bang-up duds? And I'd like to know—but wait a bit! Are ye hungry?"
"We are!" answered Diana.
"Good!" exclaimed the Tinker. "Then come your ways to my fire, children; I've a couple o' rabbits in the pot wi' a lump o' pork and an onion or so for comp'ny, which is a supper fit for any king."
"You are very kind, Mr. Jarvis," said I, a little awkwardly, "but I ought to tell you that I am as poor as I look—I haven't one penny—"
"Well, that don't make me speechless wi' surprise, young sir; money has a habit o' going, 'specially when you're young, but a full stomach's better than a full purse, I think."
"But," said I, "having no money, how may I repay your hospitality?"
"By eating hearty! And as for money, Lord love my eyes and limbs—who wants your money?"
"There, there, Jerry—don't get peppery!" said Diana soothingly. "Peregrine don't understand the likes of us, yet."
"Why no, Ann, I was forgetting the poor, misfort'nate young gent has never known the blessings of hardship, never suffered, never lacked for anything all his days and consequently knows nothing o' true hospitality or the brotherhood o' the roadside—how should he?"
"Then you shall teach me, if you will, Mr. Jarvis," said I, humbly.
"Then, sir—come and eat," he answered, "and don't go 'mistering' me; I'm Tinker Jarvis and Jerry to my friends."
"Then please don't call me 'sir'—my name is Peregrine."
"Then it's a bargain, friend Peregrine!" said he, and led us into the deeps of the wood where was a small clearing well shut in by bush and thicket; and here burned a fire that crackled cheerily beneath a bubbling pot, a fire whose dancing light showed me the three-legged stool, the dingy tent and Diogenes the pony tethered near by, who, having lifted shaggy head to snuff towards us enquiringly, fell to cropping the grass again. And beholding all this, the Tinker's shrewd and kindly face and Diana smiling at me across the fire, I felt a sense of rest and companionship vastly comforting.
DISCUSSES THE VIRTUES OP THE ONION
"There's nothing like an onion!" said the Tinker, lifting pot-lid to lunge at the bubbling contents with an inquisitorial fork. "An onion is the king o' vegetables! Eat it raw and it's good; b'ile it and it's better; fry it and it can't be ekalled; stoo it wi' a rabbit and you've got a stoo as savoury an' full o' flavour—smells all right, don't it, Ann?" he enquired suddenly and a little anxiously, for Diana had possessed herself of the fork and was investigating the pot's bubbling contents with that deft and capable assurance that is wholly feminine. "Smells savoury, don't it, Ann?" he questioned again, noting her puckered brow.
"Very!" said I.
"Did ye put in any salt or pepper, Jerry?" she demanded.
"Drat my whiskers, never a shake nor pinch!" he exclaimed, whereupon Diana sighed, shook her head in silent reprobation and vanished into the dingy tent as one acquainted with its mysteries, leaving the Tinker gazing at the pot quite crestfallen.
"A man can't always be for ever a-remembering everything, Ann!" said he, as she reappeared. "An' besides, now I come to think on it, I aren't so partial to pepper an' salt—"
"A stew should never boil, Jerry!" she admonished.
"Why, that's a matter o' taste," he retorted. "I always b'ile my stoos and uncommon tasty I find 'em—"
"And a little thickening will improve it more," she continued serenely. "And if you had cut the rabbits a little smaller, it would ha' been better, Jerry. Still, I daresay I can make it eatable, so go an' talk to Peregrine and leave me to do it."
Obediently the Tinker came and seated himself beside me.
"Friend Peregrine," said he, jerking his thumb to the busy figure at the fire, "I stooed rabbits afore she was born—ah, hundreds on 'em!"
"And boiled 'em hard as stones!" she added.
"I've throve on b'iled rabbits, Peregrine friend, rabbits and other things cooked by these two hands, lived and throve on 'em these fifty-odd years—and you see me today a man hale and hearty—"
"Which is a wonder!" interpolated Diana without glancing up from her labour.
"Pray," said I, seeing him at loss for an answer, "what did you mean by the 'Brotherhood of the Roadside'?"
"I meant the Comradeship o' Poverty, friend, the Fellowship o' the Friendless, the Hospitality o' the Homeless. The poor folk on the padding-lay, such as live on the road and by the road, help one another when needful—which is frequent. Those as have little give freely to them as have none—I to-day, you to-morrow. The world would be a poor place else, 'specially for the likes o' we."
"Do you mean that all who tramp the road know each other?"
"Well, 'ardly that, brother. To be sure, I know most o' the reg'lar padding-coves, but you don't have to know a man to help him."
"Are you acquainted with a peddler called Gabbing Dick?"
"Aye, poor soul. Dick's father was hung for a crime he didn't commit, just afore Dick was born, which drove his poor mother mad, which is apt to make a child grow up a little queer, d'ye see?"
"And old Moll?" said I, with growing diffidence.
"Aye, a fine figure of a woman she was once, I mind. But her man was pressed aboard ship and killed, and she starved along of her babby, though she did all she could to live for the child's sake and when it died, she—well, look at her now, poor soul!"
"The world would seem a very hard and cruel place!" I exclaimed.
"Sometimes, brother—'specially for the poor and friendless. But if there's shadow there's sun, and if there's darkness there's always the dawn. But what o' yourself, friend; you've been fighting I think, judging by your looks?"
"Yes, and—I ran away!" I confessed miserably.
"Humph!" said the Tinker. "That don't sound very hee-roic!"
"But he came back, Jerry!" said Diana in her gentlest voice.
"Ha!" exclaimed the Tinker, looking from her to me and back again, keenly. "Then he is hee-roic!"
"No!" said I, "No, I'm not—and never can be!"
"Oh," said the Tinker. "And why?"
"Because I'm not brave enough, strong enough, big enough—"
"Lord, young friend, don't be so down-hearted and confounded humble; it aren't nat'ral in one so young! What do you think, Ann?"
"That he's hungry," she answered.
"Aye, to be sure!" chuckled the Tinker. "And I reckon no hero can feel properly hee-roic when his innards be cold and empty—"
"But I'm not hungry," I sighed, "at least—not very. But the longer I live the more I know myself for a hopeless incompetent—lately, at least—a poor, helpless do-nothing—"
"Lord love ye, lad," quoth the Tinker, laying his hand upon my bowed shoulder, "if you've learned so much, take comfort, for to know ourselves and our failings is surely the beginning o' wisdom. But if you can't be a conquering hero all at once, don't grieve—you ain't cut out for a fighter—"
"He beat Gabbing Dick, anyway," said Diana suddenly, whereat I lifted drooping head and looked towards her gratefully, only to see her vanishing into the dingy little tent again.
"Well, but—" said the Tinker as she reappeared, "Gabbing Dick ain't a fighter like Jem Belcher or Gentleman Jack Barty or Jessamy Todd. Dick's a poorish creetur'—"
"He's twice as big and heavy as Peregrine!" she retorted.
"True!" said he. "And yet friend Peregrine ain't exactly—"
"Supper's ready!" she cried.
"Good!" exclaimed the Tinker, rising, but his sharp eyes seemed keener than ever as he glanced from Diana's lovely, flushed face to me and back again. Then down we sat to supper as savoury as mortal palate could desire; the Tinker, having tasted, sighed and winked his approbation at me, forgetful of Diana's bright and watchful eyes.
"Well, Jerry," she demanded, "how is it?"
"'Twill do, lass, 'twill do," he answered; "though you've come it a leetle too strong o' the pepper and salt, to my thinking, still—it'll do. And now, friend Peregrine, I'm consarned to know what's become of all your money—"
"He buys me with it," answered Diana.
"For fourteen guineas, a florin, one groat and three pennies, Jerry!"
The Tinker gulped and stared.
"Lord love you, gal—what d'ye mean?" he questioned.
"'T was all old Azor's doing, Jerry. She gives me to her grandson Joseph for his mort, but I gives Joseph a touch of my little churi and runs away and happens on Peregrine. But she follows me with Jochabed and Bennigo, that I hates more than Joseph, and she was for going to force me to take him could give most money, and Peregrine has most, so she weds me to Peregrine."
"Wed you?" exclaimed the Tinker, blinking.
"Aye, according to the ways o' the Folk—she weds us and leaves us. Then while I was considering about running off from Peregrine and where I should go, Peregrine goes for to run off from me, so then I followed him, of course—and here we are!"
"Lord!" exclaimed the Tinker. "Lord love my eyes an' limbs—here's a pretty kettle o' fish!"
"It is!" nodded Diana. "For now Peregrine wants to marry me according to the ways o' the Church!"
"Hum!" said the Tinker, staring very hard at a piece of pork impaled upon his knife-point. "Ha—marriage, hey, friend Peregrine? Marriage is an oncommon serious business and you are a—leetle young for it, ain't you?"
"I'm nineteen turned!" said I.
"And I'm fifty and more, young friend, and never found courage for it yet—and never shall now!" Here the morsel of pork vanished and he masticated thoughtfully. "And I suppose," said he, his keen eyes flashing from me to Diana, "I suppose you'll be tellin' me as you're in love and a-dyin' for each other—"
"No!" said Diana sharply.
"Of course not!" said I, imitating her tone.
"And never could be!" she added, frowning at the fire.
"Utterly impossible!" I added, frowning at her.
"Strike me pink!" ejaculated the Tinker, scratching chin with knife-handle and staring at us in ever-deepening perplexity. "Then why want to marry?"
"I don't!" said Diana, with the same unnecessary vehemence.
"Nor I either!" I added. "But my honour and—circumstances would seem to demand it."
"What circumstances, young sir?" demanded the Tinker, his features distorted by a sudden fierce scowl. "Ha, d'ye mean as you've taken advantage of—"
"Don't be foolish, Jerry!" said Diana serenely. "Does he look as if he would take advantage of any one? d'ye think he could take advantage o' me? Can't you see he ain't—is not th' kind I keeps my little knife for? Don't be foolish, Jerry; he's never even tried to kiss me—nor wanted to—"
"How do you know that?" I demanded impulsively. Now at this she turned and looked at me, red lips parted in speechless surprise.
"How do you know?" I repeated. "How can you be so sure?"
"Be-cause!" she murmured and then, all at once, from throat to brow crept a wave of hot colour, her long lashes drooped and she turned away with a strange, new shyness; and in this moment I saw she was altogether more lovely than I had ever imagined her.
"Why, Diana!" I said. "Child, you need never trouble to take your knife to me; the respect I have for your goodness is enough—"
"Ah, Peregrine," she whispered fiercely, without turning her head, "I am only good because I have seen enough of evil to hate it!"
"And it is just because I would shield you from all and every evil that I would marry you, Diana."
"Ha!" exclaimed the Tinker, so suddenly that I started, having clean forgotten his existence. "Ha!" said he. "You're quite sure as you don't love each other, then?"
"Quite!" said Diana.
"Absolutely!" said I.
"Oh!" said the Tinker, wiping his knife upon his breeches. "Well, considering you was both so hungry, you ain't neither of you eaten dooly of this stoo as was fit for any king. And talkin' o' wed-lock, if you ain't in love with each other—yet, I should wait until you are, which," said he, glancing up at the leaves above his head, "which judging by the look o' things, I should say might 'appen at any moment 'twixt now and Christmas. Meantime, what are ye going' to do?"
At this, being somewhat at a loss, I looked at Diana and she at the fire again.
"Now if," pursued the Tinker, "if you'm minded, both on ye, for to j'ine comp'ny and travel the country awhile along o' Diogenes an' me—say the word, an' I'll be the j'y-fullest tinker 'twixt here an' John o' Groat's!" As he ended, Diana reached out suddenly and, catching his hand, fondled those work-roughened fingers against her soft cheek.
"O Jerry," she sighed, "you were always s' good and wise!"
"Then, dear lass, you'll come?"
"Of course I will. I'll weave baskets—"
"And I'll mend kettles, if you'll teach me, friend Jerry," said I, grasping his other hand.
"Why, children!" said he, looking upon us gentle-eyed, "Lord love ye now—you make me as proud as if I was a dook 'stead of only a travelling tinker!"
"It were best of all to be a poet, I think!" said I. "Have you written any more verses lately?"
"Well—I have!" he confessed, with a look that was almost guilty. "I'm always at it when there's time—I must. There was an idee as came to me this very evening an' I had to write it down. 'T was that as made me forget the salt an' pepper—"
"Is it about the Silent Places, Jerry?" questioned Diana eagerly. "Or a lonely star, or the sound of a brook at night—?"
"It's got a bit of all on 'em," said the Tinker.
"I should very much like to hear it," said I.
"Honest an' true?" he enquired a little diffidently.
"Honest and true!" I answered, as I had done upon a former occasion.
"Then so ye shall, though it ain't finished, or rather it ain't begun, as ye might say, for I can't find a good opening verse. I want to say that if a man don't happen to be blest wi' riches there's better things for him if he's only got eyes to see 'em." Saying which (and after no little rummaging) the Tinker drew a crumpled paper from capacious pocket and, bending to the fire, read as follows:
"'Instead of riches give to me Eyes, the great, good things to see The golden earth, the jewelled sky The best that in all hearts doth lie.
Give me this: when day's begun A woodland glade, a ray of sun Falling where the dewdrops lie Give me this, and rich am I.
Give me this: the song of bird In lonely wood at sunset heard Piping of his evening hymn 'Mid a leafy twilight dim.
Give me this: a stream that wendeth, Where the sighing willow bendeth, Singing through the woodland ways Never-ending songs of praise.
Give me these, with eyes to see And richer than a king I'll be.'"
"D'ye like it, Peregrine?" he enquired, anxious and diffident.
"So much that I wish I had written it."
"Jerry writes verses like birds sing and the wind blows, just because he must," said Diana gravely. "All that is best happens so, I think. Are you for Tonbridge tomorrow, Jerry?"
"Aye, I am, lass, 'cording to custom. Maybe I'll pick up plenty to do at the fair."
"And maybe you'll find your friend, Peregrine," said she, rising.
"Him you was to meet, of course."
"Why, to be sure—Anthony! I'd clean forgotten him."
"That's strange," said she, "seeing you were so anxious to find him."
"It is," said I, "I wonder what should have put it out of my head?"
"Ah—I wonder!" said the Tinker. "What, goin' to bed, lass? Tent soot ye?"
"Yes—I laid your blankets under the tree yonder—Good night!" And with a wave of the hand she was gone.
Then, having made up the fire, we presently rolled ourselves in our blankets and lay down where we might behold the stars. And after some while the Tinker spoke drowsily:
"I'm glad—very glad, friend Peregrine, as I've met you again, not only because you like my verses but because I like your ways. But I'm sorry—aye, very sorry, as you should ha' fallen in wi' Diana—"
"And why, pray?" I demanded, a little sharply.
"Because if you should happen to fall in love wi' her and really want to marry her, which I don't suppose—and she was foolish enough to let you—which I'm pretty sure she wouldn't, being of a proud temper and mighty independent—'t would be a very bad thing for you and a terrible shock to that fine aunt and those rich uncles o' yours as you told me of—"
"And why should it be?"
"Because Anna ain't of your world and not being born wi' drawing-room manners she'd shock you twenty times a day, throw your fine aunt into a fit and give your uncles paralytic strokes—Anna's all right in her way but—"
"She's a very beautiful girl!" said I hotly. "And good as she's beautiful!"
"She is!" said the Tinker heartily. "Sweet an' good still, in spite of everything, an' I know—I've watched her grow up—"
"And taken care of her," I added, "like the good friend you are."
"I've done what I could, when I could, but she's mostly had to take care of herself and done it well, too—for she's as brave as—"
"As Diana—as beautiful and as chaste!" said I.
"Quite sure as you ain't fallen in love—or falling, friend Peregrine?"
"To—be—sure!" murmured the Tinker drowsily. "But though your pockets be empty, you ain't in any violent hurry to get back to your luxoorious home, are ye?"
"No!" said I.
"By reason of Anna?"
"By reason that, like her, I have learned to love the Silent Places."
"Ah, yes, lad, I know—for I love 'em too. But you're young and in the Silent Places one may meet wi' demons an' devils."
"Maybe!" I answered.
"Or walk with God!" said the Tinker.
HOW I MET ONE JESSAMY TODD, A SNATCHER OF SOULS
Diogenes the sturdy pony trotted at such good pace that where the ways were rough the Tinker's light cart creaked and lurched until the tins wherewith it was festooned rattled and clinked and I, perched precariously on the tailboard, legs a-swing, was fain to hold on lest I be precipitated into the ditch, yet felt myself ridiculously happy notwithstanding.
Thus we bumped and jingled through shady lanes and pleasant byways, I for one, seldom speaking, content to watch tree and hedge flit by and the ever-changing prospect beyond, though often turning to glimpse Diana's shapely back where she sat on the driving seat beside the Tinker; and at such times often it would happen she would glance round also, and thus our glances would meet and as we gazed, slowly but surely the colour would deepen in her cheek, her long lashes would flicker and droop, and she would turn away and I full of wonder and an infinite joy, marvelling that I could ever have thought such eyes hard, bold and unfeminine. Thus, albeit perched so precariously on the swaying tailboard I was none the less marvellously content.
O Diogenes of the plodding hoofs! O creaking wheels, O tinkling pots and pans, had I but possessed the wisdom to understand your oft-repeated message, how much of doubt, of grief and pain I might have spared myself.
Suddenly Diana hailed and waved her hand, the Tinker checked Diogenes in full career, and with a jingling clank the cart pulled up as a man sprang lightly forth of the dry ditch wherein he had been sitting, a man of no great stature but clean-limbed and shapely, despite rough and dusty clothes,—a keen-eyed, short-nosed, square-jawed fellow whose mouth had a humorous twist.
"Why, Jessamy," said Diana, leaning down to give him her hand, "'t is good t' see you!"
"And so it is, lad!" nodded the Tinker. "How goeth the good work?"
"Fairish, Jeremy, fairish!" answered Jessamy, in a sweet voice peculiarly rich and mellow. "Old Nick's a toughish customer d'ye see, and a glutton for punishment; wind him, cross-buttock him or floor him wi' a leveller amidships, but he'll come up smiling next round, ready and willin' for more, an' fight back at you 'ard as ever, alas!"
Here I got down from the cart that I might better behold the speaker, who now turned to glance at me with a pair of the kindliest blue eyes I had ever seen.
"Jessamy," said Diana, "this is my—my friend Peregrine as do want you to teach him the game."
"The game," repeated Jessamy, shaking his head a little ruefully, "the game's all vanity and vexation o' spirit! Besides, your young friend don't look cut out for the ring—"
"Lord, Jess, he don't want to be a fighter! Peregrine only wants to know how—"
"Why, that's different," sighed the ex-pugilistic champion, "though I ain't got the heart nor yet the time to teach any one—"
"But I want you to, Jessamy," said Diana imperiously.
"Why, that's different again, Anna, and so I don't mind showing him a thing or two if time and opportoonity offer."
"Are ye for Tonbridge Fair, Jessamy?" enquired the Tinker.
"I am so, Jerry. I'm a-marching, comrade, wi' royals and studden-sails set, messmate, and all for the glory o' the Lord, brother."
"Then if you'm be minded for a lift, Jessamy, there be room for ye alongside Peregrine!" Up we mounted forthwith, the Tinker gave Diogenes his head, and we bumped and jingled on our way.
"Pray, Mr. Todd," I gasped, as we clutched and swayed together, "may I enquire if you have been a soldier or a sailor?"
"Both, brother," he answered, "I was a powder-boy aboard the old Bully-Sawyer—a powder-monkey and sat on my tub?"
"But why on a tub?"
"In case o' sparks from the guns—broadside agin' the wind—"
"What—have you been in action?"
"For sure, brother—"
"Ah!" I exclaimed eagerly. "Tell me about it."
"I can't, brother—all as I remember is sparks and flame—the roar of the guns—screams and cries—blood and—things as no eyes should see and bad to think on—and me squatting on my tub amidst it all—wanting my mother. Later on I turned soldier and didn't find that life a bed o' roses either; to-day I'm a soldier o' the Lord ready to fight, sing and preach to His glory, and ever ready to cheat Old Nick o' what don't belong to him—"
"What do you mean?"
"Souls, brother. I plucks brands from the burning with j'y and gather sheaves with gratitood. You've 'eard o' body-snatchers, I suppose?"
"Well, I'm a soul-snatcher. I snatches 'em to the Lord whensoever and wheresoever I can, brother."
"But surely," I demurred, "the soul, which is an abstraction, a part of the Infinite and thus of God Himself, is therefore imperishable. Socrates taught this, Pantheism is based on this, the arguments of the Peripatetic Philosophers all trend to this belief, and Christ preached the Soul's immortality and life after death. Thus, if the Soul is immortal and cannot perish, how may it be saved?"
"By the Blood o' the Lamb, brother; otherwise ye shall be cast into outer darkness to weep and gnash."
"For sins, committed in the flesh and unrepented."
"Supposing a man sins daily for threescore years and ten and dies unrepentant, must he go down to hell and be tormented for ever and ever for so short a time of sinning?"
"He must, brother, alas!"
"Horrible!" I cried. "Horrible, and most unjust."
"Why, it do seem a bit 'ard to the likes o' we, brother, but then we only see as through a glass darkly. God is a just God, a jealous God and a God o' Vengeance; 't is in the Book—"
"Then this is not Christ's Heavenly Father, but Jehovah, the blood-spattered deity of the Jews, a God of battles, of sacrifices and death, a God pitiless and without mercy. But man's soul, being conceived of the Infinite Mind, may never utterly perish even though corrupt with sin or debased by ignorance, for even then that divine Spark which is the very life of the soul shall sooner or later grow to a flame, burning up the evil, lighting the gloom of ignorance until in course of time, years, ages, or aeons, the soul purified and perfected shall win back to the God whence it came!"
For a full minute after I had ended Jessamy Todd was silent, staring from me to the cloudless sky and back again with a look of growing perplexity; at length he spoke:
"You've seen better days, brother, I'm thinking."
"No, indeed," I answered, "never so good as these."
"I'm likewise thinkin' as your speech and talk don't rightly match your rig-out, brother."
"Which, on the whole, is just as well," I answered.
"And you've read and learned a lot from books, brother."
"But you have read a better book, friend Todd, and much more of it."
"Ah, you mean this, brother?" said he, taking out a small, well-worn Bible.
"I mean the Book of Life," I answered; "you have lived while I have only dreamed, so far."
"Why, to be sure, I've seen a good deal o' life and something o' death, one way or another. I've known friendship and loneliness, plenty and poverty, been hooted and cheered and had a prince shake my fist—"
"'T was arter I'd beat the Chelsea Snob, him as licked the Bristol Slasher; they thought the Snob would eat me but—ah, well these were days o' vanity, brother, and no grace about me—no, not a ha'porth."
"Please tell me of it."
"Well, I was fighting for Sir Jervas then, him they call 'The Firebrand'—"
"Do you mean Sir Jervas Vereker?"
"Aye, I do—one o' the bang-up nobs, a tip o' the tippies, but the best sportsman and truest friend ever man fought for—"
"Good!" quoth I.
"D'ye happen to know him, brother?" enquired Jessamy, with another look of mild surprise.
"I begin to think I do not," I answered. "Pray, why is he called 'The Firebrand'?"
"Because he's allus so precious cool, I reckon."
"Well, pray continue," I urged.
But at this moment we became aware of a confused uproar, a ribaldry of laughter and shouting. Round I started, to see we were approaching a small inn, with a sign bearing the legend "The Ring o' Bells," before which inn stood a number of vehicles and a rough crowd of merrymakers who danced and sang and flourished ale-pots. Beholding this unholy company, my alarm grew, for it seemed their vociferations were directed at us.
"Pull up, Tinker—pull up and drink wi' us!" roared one.
"Aye—a drink, a drink, come down an' drink!" cried another.
"And bring the gal along wi' ye!" cried a third.
Suddenly, seeing Jeremy heeded them no whit, a big, swaggering fellow stepped forward, a flashily dressed herculean figure in tops and cords, his high-collared, brass-buttoned coat moulding a mighty chest and spread of shoulder; which formidable person now advanced upon us flourishing a quart pot and with divers of the riotous company at his heels. No honest, sun-burned rustics these, but pallid, narrow-eyed folk whose half-furtive, half-hectoring air gave me a sense of evil streets, of dark alleys and dens where iniquity lurked, and my alarm and abhorrence waxed acute, finding vent in words:
"What vile wretches!"
"Not so, brother!" answered Jessamy, viewing them with his kindly eyes where they had halted across the road, barring our advance. "No, brother, these are all souls to be snatched to the Lord, one way or t' other, brands to be plucked from the—"
"Pull up, Tinker!" roared the big fellow threateningly. "You've got a lass there as I likes the looks on; pull up, d'ye hear! Look at the shape of 'er!" quoth he, pointing out Diana to his companions. "A tidy piece—eh, my bucks an' pippins?"
Here rose an answering chorus of laughing profanity and worse, amongst which I caught the words, "Pretty filly!" "A dainty tit!" "A kiss all round, Tom! Share an' share, Tom!" "Oho, Tinker, pull an' be damned t' ye!"
Instead of complying, Jeremy touched the pony to faster pace and with a jingling clash of tinware we bore down upon this lewd-tongued company which, howling obscenity, scattered promptly right and left—all except the big man Tom who, with a dexterous leap, caught the rein, jerking and wrenching at the bit with hand so cruelly strong that the poor animal reared up, snorting with fright and pain and the cart came to a lurching standstill.
"Didn't ye hear me tell ye to pull up?" demanded the man Tom, scowling. "When I says a thing, I means it. And now, first of all I wants a kiss from the gal an' then—"
"Stand off, ye vermin!" quoth Jeremy and, reaching down beneath the seat, whipped out a long-barrelled pistol and levelled it full into Tom's big, evil face, whereupon my trembling hand loosed the saucepan I had clutched as a weapon and I stared from the tense features of the two men to the calm, coldly contemptuous face of Diana. Then spake Jessamy Todd:
"All right, Jerry! Put up your barker; here's where I climb into the ring for a round wi' Old Nick," and taking off his frayed hat he sent it spinning through the air to the big man's feet, who promptly kicked it into the ditch.
"Open your trap an' I'll serve ye the same!" snarled the fellow.
"Good!" answered Jessamy cheerily, and alighting from the cart he walked slowly towards the speaker, viewing the big man over with kindly eyes, though his square chin jutted somewhat.
"Friends and brothers," quoth he, throwing out his arms, "I'm a man o' peace as cometh afore you wi' peace in his heart and the Word o' the Lord upon his tongue—" Now at this, some laughed, some cursed blasphemously, and one began a song so unspeakably vile that my ears tingled, and hot with shame I stole a glance at Diana, who sat watching Jessamy's good-tempered face, calmly serene and apparently utterly unconscious.