This was in the episcopal city of Durham. We sat down, a considerable company, to dinner, most of us fine old vatted English tories of that class which is often so enthusiastic as to be inarticulate. I took and held the lead from the beginning; and, the talk having turned on the French in the Peninsula, I gave them authentic details (on the authority of a cousin of mine, an ensign) of certain cannibal orgies in Galicia, in which no less a person than General Caffarelli had taken a part. I always disliked that commander, who once ordered me under arrest for insubordination; and it is possible that a spice of vengeance added to the rigour of my picture. I have forgotten the details; no doubt they were high-coloured. No doubt I rejoiced to fool these jolter-heads; and no doubt the sense of security that I drank from their dull, gasping faces encouraged me to proceed extremely far. And for my sins, there was one silent little man at table who took my story at the true value. It was from no sense of humour, to which he was quite dead. It was from no particular intelligence, for he had not any. The bond of sympathy, of all things in the world, had rendered him clairvoyant.
Dinner was no sooner done than I strolled forth into the streets with some design of viewing the cathedral; and the little man was silently at my heels. A few doors from the inn, in a dark place of the street, I was aware of a touch on my arm, turned suddenly, and found him looking up at me with eyes pathetically bright.
"I beg your pardon, sir; but that story of yours was particularly rich. He—he! Particularly racy," said he. "I tell you, sir, I took you wholly! I smoked you! I believe you and I, sir, if we had a chance to talk, would find we had a good many opinions in common. Here is the 'Blue Bell,' a very comfortable place. They draw good ale, sir. Would you be so condescending as to share a pot with me?"
There was something so ambiguous and secret in the little man's perpetual signalling, that I confess my curiosity was much aroused. Blaming myself, even as I did so, for the indiscretion, I embraced his proposal, and we were soon face to face over a tankard of mulled ale. He lowered his voice to the least attenuation of a whisper.
"Here, sir," said he, "is to the Great Man. I think you take me? No?" He leaned forward till our noses touched. "Here is to the Emperor!" said he.
I was extremely embarrassed, and, in spite of the creature's innocent appearance, more than half alarmed. I thought him too ingenuous, and, indeed, too daring for a spy. Yet if he were honest he must be a man of extraordinary indiscretion, and therefore very unfit to be encouraged by an escaped prisoner. I took a half course, accordingly—accepted his toast in silence, and drank it without enthusiasm.
He proceeded to abound in the praises of Napoleon, such as I had never heard in France, or at least only on the lips of officials paid to offer them.
"And this Caffarelli, now," he pursued; "he is a splendid fellow, too, is he not? I have not heard vastly much of him myself. No details, sir—no details! We labour under huge difficulties here as to unbiassed information."
"I believe I have heard the same complaint in other countries," I could not help remarking. "But as to Caffarelli, he is neither lame nor blind, he has two legs, and a nose in the middle of his face. And I care as much about him as you care for the dead body of Mr. Perceval!"
He studied me with glowing eyes.
"You cannot deceive me!" he cried. "You have served under him. You are a Frenchman! I hold by the hand, at last, one of that noble race, the pioneers of the glorious principles of liberty and brotherhood. Hush! No, it is all right. I thought there had been somebody at the door. In this wretched, enslaved country we dare not even call our souls our own. The spy and the hangman, sir—the spy and the hangman! And yet there is a candle burning, too. The good leaven is working, sir—working underneath. Even in this town there are a few brave spirits who meet every Wednesday. You must stay over a day or so and join us. We do not use this house. Another, and a quieter. They draw fine ale, however—fair, mild ale. You will find yourself among friends, among brothers. You will hear some very daring sentiments expressed!" he cried, expanding his small chest. "Monarchy, Christianity—all the trappings of a bloated past—the Free Confraternity of Durham and Tyneside deride."
Here was a devil of a prospect for a gentleman whose whole design was to avoid observation! The Free Confraternity had no charms for me; daring sentiments were no part of my baggage; and I tried, instead, a little cold water.
"You seem to forget, sir, that my Emperor has reestablished Christianity," I observed.
"Ah, sir, but that was policy!" he exclaimed. "You do not understand Napoleon. I have followed his whole career. I can explain his policy from first to last. Now, for instance, in the Peninsula, on which you were so very amusing, if you will come to a friend's house who has a map of Spain, I can make the whole course of the war quite clear to you, I venture to say, in half an hour."
This was intolerable. Of the two extremes, I found I preferred the British tory; and, making an appointment for the morrow, I pleaded sudden headache, escaped to the inn, packed my knapsack, and fled, about nine at night, from this accursed neighbourhood. It was cold, starry, and clear, and the road dry, with a touch of frost. For all that, I had not the smallest intention to make a long stage of it; and about ten o'clock, spying on the right-hand side of the way the lighted windows of an ale-house, I determined to bait there for the night.
It was against my principle, which was to frequent only the dearest inns; and the misadventure that befell me was sufficient to make me more particular in the future. A large company was assembled in the parlour, which was heavy with clouds of tobacco-smoke, and brightly lighted up by a roaring fire of coal. Hard by the chimney stood a vacant chair in what I thought an enviable situation, whether for warmth or the pleasure of society; and I was about to take it when the nearest of the company stopped me with his hand.
"Beg thy pardon, sir," said he; "but that there chair belongs to a British soldier."
A chorus of voices enforced and explained. It was one of Lord Wellington's heroes. He had been wounded under Rowland Hill. He was Colbourne's right-hand man. In short, this favoured individual appeared to have served with every separate corps, and under every individual general in the Peninsula. Of course I apologised. I had not known. The devil was in it if a soldier had not a right to the best in England. And with that sentiment, which was loudly applauded, I found a corner of a bench, and awaited, with some hopes of entertainment, the return of the hero. He proved, of course, to be a private soldier. I say of course, because no officer could possibly enjoy such heights of popularity. He had been wounded before San Sebastian, and still wore his arm in a sling. What was a great deal worse for him, every member of the company had been plying him with drink. His honest yokel's countenance blazed as if with fever, his eyes were glazed and looked the two ways, and his feet stumbled as, amidst a murmur of applause, he returned to the midst of his admirers.
Two minutes afterwards I was again posting in the dark along the highway; to explain which sudden movement of retreat I must trouble the reader with a reminiscence of my services.
I lay one night with the out-pickets in Castile. We were in close touch with the enemy; the usual orders had been issued against smoking, fires, and talk, and both armies lay as quiet as mice, when I saw the English sentinel opposite making a signal by holding up his musket. I repeated it, and we both crept together in the dry bed of a stream, which made the demarcation of the armies. It was wine he wanted, of which we had a good provision, and the English had quite run out. He gave me the money, and I, as was the custom, left him my firelock in pledge, and set off for the canteen. When I returned with a skin of wine, behold, it had pleased some uneasy devil of an English officer to withdraw the outposts! Here was a situation with a vengeance, and I looked for nothing but ridicule in the present and punishment in the future. Doubtless our officers winked pretty hard at this interchange of courtesies, but doubtless it would be impossible to wink at so gross a fault, or rather so pitiable a misadventure as mine; and you are to conceive me wandering in the plains of Castile, benighted, charged with a wine-skin for which I had no use, and with no knowledge whatever of the whereabouts of my musket, beyond that it was somewhere in my Lord Wellington's army. But my Englishman was either a very honest fellow, or else extremely thirsty, and at last contrived to advertise me of his new position. Now, the English sentry in Castile and the wounded hero in the Durham public-house were one and the same person; and if he had been a little less drunk, or myself less lively in getting away, the travels of M. St. Ives might have come to an untimely end.
I suppose this woke me up; it stirred in me besides a spirit of opposition, and in spite of cold, darkness, the highwaymen and the footpads, I determined to walk right on till breakfast-time: a happy resolution, which enabled me to observe one of those traits of manners which at once depict a country and condemn it. It was near midnight when I saw, a great way ahead of me, the light of many torches; presently after, the sound of wheels reached me, and the slow tread of feet, and soon I had joined myself to the rear of a sordid, silent, and lugubrious procession, such as we see in dreams. Close on a hundred persons marched by torchlight in unbroken silence; and in their midst a cart, and in the cart, on an inclined platform, the dead body of a man—the centre-piece of this solemnity, the hero whose obsequies we were come forth at this unusual hour to celebrate. It was but a plain, dingy old fellow of fifty or sixty, his throat cut, his shirt turned over as though to show the wound. Blue trousers and brown socks completed his attire, if we can talk so of the dead. He had a horrid look of a waxwork. In the tossing of the lights he seemed to make faces and mouths at us, to frown, and to be at times upon the point of speech. The cart, with this shabby and tragic freight, and surrounded by its silent escort and bright torches, continued for some distance to creak along the high-road, and I to follow it in amazement, which was soon exchanged for horror. At the corner of a lane the procession stopped, and, as the torches ranged themselves along the hedgerow-side, I became aware of a grave dug in the midst of the thoroughfare, and a provision of quicklime piled in the ditch. The cart was backed to the margin, the body slung off the platform and dumped into the grave with an irreverent roughness. A sharpened stake had hitherto served it for a pillow. It was now withdrawn, held in its place by several volunteers, and a fellow with a heavy mallet (the sound of which still haunts me at night) drove it home through the bosom of the corpse. The hole was filled with quicklime, and the bystanders, as if relieved of some oppression, broke at once into a sound of whispered speech.
My shirt stuck to me, my heart had almost ceased beating, and I found my tongue with difficulty.
"I beg your pardon," I gasped to a neighbour, "what is this? what has he done? is it allowed?"
"Why, where do you come from?" replied the man.
"I am a traveller, sir," said I, "and a total stranger in this part of the country. I had lost my way when I saw your torches, and came by chance on this—this incredible scene. Who was the man?"
"A suicide," said he. "Ay, he was a bad one was Johnny Green."
It appeared this was a wretch who had committed many barbarous murders, and being at last upon the point of discovery fell of his own hand. And the nightmare at the cross-roads was the regular punishment, according to the laws of England, for an act which the Romans honoured as a virtue! Whenever an Englishman begins to prate of civilisation (as, indeed, it's a defect they are rather prone to), I hear the measured blows of a mallet, see the bystanders crowd with torches about the grave, smile a little to myself in conscious superiority—and take a thimbleful of brandy for the stomach's sake.
I believe it must have been at my next stage, for I remember going to bed extremely early, that I came to the model of a good old-fashioned English inn, and was attended on by the picture of a pretty chambermaid. We had a good many pleasant passages as she waited table or warmed my bed for me with a devil of a brass warming-pan, fully larger than herself; and as she was no less pert than she was pretty, she may be said to have given rather better than she took. I cannot tell why (unless it were for the sake of her saucy eyes), but I made her my confidante, told her I was attached to a young lady in Scotland, and received the encouragement of her sympathy, mingled and connected with a fair amount of rustic wit. While I slept the down-mail stopped for supper; it chanced that one of the passengers left behind a copy of the Edinburgh Courant, and the next morning my pretty chambermaid set the paper before me at breakfast, with the remark that there was some news from my lady-love. I took it eagerly, hoping to find some further word of our escape, in which I was disappointed; and I was about to lay it down, when my eye fell on a paragraph immediately concerning me. Faa was in hospital, grievously sick, and warrants were out for the arrest of Sim and Candlish. These two men had shown themselves very loyal to me. This trouble emerging, the least I could do was to be guided by a similar loyalty to them. Suppose my visit to my uncle crowned with some success, and my finances re-established, I determined I should immediately return to Edinburgh, put their case in the hands of a good lawyer, and await events. So my mind was very lightly made up to what proved a mighty serious matter. Candlish and Sim were all very well in their way, and I do sincerely trust I should have been at some pains to help them, had there been nothing else. But in truth my heart and my eyes were set on quite another matter, and I received the news of their tribulation almost with joy. There is never a bad wind that blows where we want to go, and you may be sure there was nothing unwelcome in a circumstance that carried me back to Edinburgh and Flora. From that hour I began to indulge myself with the making of imaginary scenes and interviews, in which I confounded the aunt, flattered Ronald, and now in the witty, now in the sentimental manner, declared my love and received the assurance of its return. By means of this exercise my resolution daily grew stronger, until at last I had piled together such a mass of obstinacy as it would have taken a cataclysm of nature to subvert.
"Yes," said I to the chambermaid, "here is news of my lady-love indeed, and very good news too."
All that day, in the teeth of a keen winter wind, I hugged myself in my plaid, and it was as though her arms were flung around me.
I FOLLOW A COVERED CART NEARLY TO MY DESTINATION
At last I began to draw near, by reasonable stages, to the neighbourhood of Wakefield; and the name of Mr. Burchell Fenn came to the top in my memory. This was the gentleman (the reader may remember) who made a trade of forwarding the escape of French prisoners. How he did so: whether he had a signboard, Escapes forwarded, apply within; what he charged for his services, or whether they were gratuitous and charitable, were all matters of which I was at once ignorant and extremely curious. Thanks to my proficiency in English, and Mr. Romaine's bank-notes, I was getting on swimmingly without him; but the trouble was that I could not be easy till I had come to the bottom of these mysteries, and it was my difficulty that I knew nothing of him beyond the name. I knew not his trade beyond that of Forwarder of Escapes—whether he lived in town or country, whether he were rich or poor, nor by what kind of address I was to gain his confidence. It would have a very bad appearance to go along the highwayside asking after a man of whom I could give so scanty an account; and I should look like a fool, indeed, if I were to present myself at his door and find the police in occupation! The interest of the conundrum, however, tempted me, and I turned aside from my direct road to pass by Wakefield; kept my ears pricked, as I went, for any mention of his name, and relied for the rest on my good fortune. If Luck (who must certainly be feminine) favoured me as far as to throw me in the man's way, I should owe the lady a candle; if not, I could very readily console myself. In this experimental humour, and with so little to help me, it was a miracle that I should have brought my enterprise to a good end; and there are several saints in the calendar who might be happy to exchange with St. Ives!
I had slept that night in a good inn at Wakefield, made my breakfast by candle-light with the passengers of an up-coach, and set off in a very ill temper with myself and my surroundings. It was still early; the air raw and cold; the sun low, and soon to disappear under a vast canopy of rain-clouds that had begun to assemble in the north-west, and from that quarter invaded the whole width of the heaven. Already the rain fell in crystal rods; already the whole face of the country sounded with the discharge of drains and ditches; and I looked forward to a day of downpour and the hell of wet clothes, in which particular I am as dainty as a cat. At the corner of the road, and by the last glint of the drowning sun, I spied a covered cart, of a kind that I thought I had never seen before, preceding me at the foot's pace of jaded horses. Anything is interesting to a pedestrian that can help him to forget the miseries of a day of rain; and I bettered my pace and gradually overtook the vehicle.
The nearer I came the more it puzzled me. It was much such a cart as I am told the calico-printers use, mounted on two wheels, and furnished with a seat in front for the driver. The interior closed with a door, and was of a bigness to contain a good load of calico, or (at a pinch and if it were necessary) four or five persons. But, indeed, if human beings were meant to travel there, they had my pity! They must travel in the dark, for there was no sign of a window; and they would be shaken all the way like a phial of doctor's stuff, for the cart was not only ungainly to look at—it was besides very imperfectly balanced on the one pair of wheels, and pitched unconscionably. Altogether, if I had any glancing idea that the cart was really a carriage, I had soon dismissed it; but I was still inquisitive as to what it should contain, and where it had come from. Wheels and horses were splashed with many different colours of mud, as though they had come far and across a considerable diversity of country. The driver continually and vainly plied his whip. It seemed to follow they had made a long, perhaps an all-night, stage; and that the driver, at that early hour of a little after eight in the morning, already felt himself belated. I looked for the name of the proprietor on the shaft, and started outright. Fortune had favoured the careless: it was Burchell Fenn!
"A wet morning, my man," said I.
The driver, a loutish fellow, shock-headed and turnip-faced, returned not a word to my salutation, but savagely flogged his horses. The tired animals, who could scarce put the one foot before the other, paid no attention to his cruelty; and I continued without effort to maintain my position alongside, smiling to myself at the futility of his attempts, and at the same time pricked with curiosity as to why he made them. I made no such formidable a figure as that a man should flee when I accosted him; and, my conscience not being entirely clear, I was more accustomed to be uneasy myself than to see others timid. Presently he desisted and put back his whip in the holster with the air of a man vanquished.
"So you would run away from me?" said I. "Come, come, that's not English."
"Beg pardon, master; no offence meant," he said, touching his hat.
"And none taken!" cried I. "All I desire is a little gaiety by the way."
I understood him to say he didn't "take with gaiety."
"Then I will try you with something else," said I. "O, I can be all things to all men, like the apostle! I dare to say I have travelled with heavier fellows than you in my time, and done famously well with them. Are you going home?"
"Yes, I'm a-goin' home, I am," he said.
"A very fortunate circumstance for me!" said I. "At this rate we shall see a good deal of each other, going the same way; and, now I come to think of it, why should you not give me a cast? There is room beside you on the bench."
With a sudden snatch he carried the cart two yards into the roadway. The horses plunged and came to a stop. "No, you don't!" he said, menacing me with the whip. "None o' that with me."
"None of what?" said I. "I asked you for a lift, but I have no idea of taking one by force."
"Well, I've got to take care of the cart and 'orses, I have," says he. "I don't take up with no runagate vagabones, you see, else."
"I ought to thank you for your touching confidence," said I, approaching carelessly nearer as I spoke. "But I admit the road is solitary hereabouts, and no doubt an accident soon happens. Little fear of anything of the kind with you! I like you for it, like your prudence, like that pastoral shyness of disposition. But why not put it out of my power to hurt? Why not open the door and bestow me here in the box, or whatever you please to call it?" And I laid my hand demonstratively on the body of the cart.
He had been timorous before; but at this he seemed to lose the power of speech a moment, and stared at me in a perfect enthusiasm of fear.
"Why not?" I continued. "The idea is good. I should be safe in there if I were the monster Williams himself. The great thing is to have me under lock and key. For it does lock; it is locked now," said I, trying the door. "A propos, what have you for a cargo? It must be precious."
He found not a word to answer.
Rat-tat-tat, I went upon the door like a well-drilled footman. "Any one at home?" I said, and stooped to listen.
There came out of the interior a stifled sneeze, the first of an uncontrollable paroxysm; another followed immediately on the heels of it; and then the driver turned with an oath, laid the lash upon the horses with so much energy that they found their heels again, and the whole equipage fled down the road at a gallop.
At the first sound of the sneeze I had started back like a man shot. The next moment a great light broke on my mind, and I understood. Here was the secret of Fenn's trade: this was how he forwarded the escape of prisoners, hawking them by night about the country in his covered cart. There had been Frenchmen close to me; he who had just sneezed was my countryman, my comrade, perhaps already my friend! I took to my heels in pursuit. "Hold hard!" I shouted. "Stop! It's all right! Stop!" But the driver only turned a white face on me for a moment, and redoubled his efforts, bending forward, plying his whip and crying to his horses; these lay themselves down to the gallop and beat the highway with flying hoofs; and the cart bounded after them among the ruts and fled in a halo of rain and spattering mud. But a minute since, and it had been trundling along like a lame cow; and now it was off as though drawn by Apollo's coursers. There is no telling what a man can do until you frighten him!
It was as much as I could do myself, though I ran valiantly, to maintain my distance; and that (since I knew my countrymen so near) was become a chief point with me. A hundred yards farther on the cart whipped out of the high-road into a lane embowered with leafless trees, and became lost to view. When I saw it next the driver had increased his advantage considerably, but all danger was at an end, and the horses had again declined into a hobbling walk. Persuaded they could not escape me, I took my time, and recovered my breath as I followed them.
Presently the lane twisted at right angles and showed me a gate and the beginning of a gravel sweep; and a little after, as I continued to advance, a red-brick house about seventy years old, in a fine style of architecture, and presenting a front of many windows to a lawn and garden. Behind, I could see outhouses and the peaked roofs of stacks; and I judged that a manor-house had in some way declined to be the residence of a tenant-farmer, careless alike of appearances and substantial comfort. The marks of neglect were visible on every side, in flower-bushes straggling beyond the borders, in the ill-kept turf, and in the broken windows that were incongruously patched with paper or stuffed with rags. A thicket of trees, mostly evergreen, fenced the place round and secluded it from the eyes of prying neighbours. As I came in view of it, on that melancholy winter's morning, in the deluge of the falling rain, and with the wind that now rose in occasional gusts and hooted over the old chimneys, the cart had already drawn up at the front-door steps, and the driver was already in earnest discourse with Mr. Burchell Fenn. He was standing with his hands behind his back—a man of a gross, misbegotten face and body, dewlapped like a bull and red as a harvest moon; and in his jockey-cap, blue coat and top-boots, he had much the air of a good, solid tenant-farmer.
The pair continued to speak as I came up the approach, but received me at last in a sort of goggling silence. I had my hat in my hand.
"I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Burchell Fenn?" said I.
"The same, sir," replied Mr. Fenn, taking off his jockey-cap in answer to my civility, but with the distant look and the tardy movements of one who continues to think of something else. "And who may you be?" he asked.
"I shall tell you afterwards," said I. "Suffice it, in the meantime, that I come on business."
He seemed to digest my answer laboriously, his mouth gaping, his little eyes never straying from my face.
"Suffer me to point out to you, sir," I resumed, "that this is a devil of a wet morning; and that the chimney corner, and possibly a glass of something hot, are clearly indicated."
Indeed, the rain was now grown to be a deluge; the gutters of the house roared; the air was filled with the continuous, strident crash. The stolidity of his face, on which the rain streamed, was far from reassuring me. On the contrary, I was aware of a distinct qualm of apprehension, which was not at all lessened by a view of the driver, craning from his perch to observe us with the expression of a fascinated bird. So we stood silent, when the prisoner again began to sneeze from the body of the cart; and at the sound, prompt as a transformation, the driver had whipped up his horses and was shambling off round the corner of the house, and Mr. Fenn, recovering his wits with a gulp, had turned to the door behind him.
"Come in, come in, sir," he said. "I beg your pardon, sir; the lock goes a trifle hard."
Indeed, it took him a surprising time to open the door, which was not only locked on the outside, but the lock seemed rebellious from disuse; and when at last he stood back and motioned me to enter before him, I was greeted on the threshold by that peculiar and convincing sound of the rain echoing over empty chambers. The entrance-hall, in which I now found myself, was of a good size and good proportions; potted plants occupied the corners; the paved floor was soiled with muddy footprints and encumbered with straw; on a mahogany hall-table, which was the only furniture, a candle had been stuck and suffered to burn down—plainly a long while ago, for the gutterings were green with mould. My mind, under these new impressions, worked with unusual vivacity. I was here shut off with Fenn and his hireling in a deserted house, a neglected garden, and a wood of evergreens; the most eligible theatre for a deed of darkness. There came to me a vision of two flagstones raised in the hall-floor, and the driver putting in the rainy afternoon over my grave; and the prospect displeased me extremely. I felt I had carried my pleasantry as far as was safe; I must lose no time in declaring my true character, and I was even choosing the words in which I was to begin, when the hall-door was slammed-to behind me with a bang, and I turned, dropping my stick as I did so, in time—and not any more than time—to save my life.
The surprise of the onslaught and the huge weight of my assailant gave him the advantage. He had a pistol in his right hand of a portentous size, which it took me all my strength to keep deflected. With his left arm he strained me to his bosom, so that I thought I must be crushed or stifled. His mouth was open, his face crimson, and he panted aloud with hard animal sounds. The affair was as brief as it was hot and sudden. The potations which had swelled and bloated his carcase had already weakened the springs of energy. One more huge effort, that came near to overpower me, and in which the pistol happily exploded, and I felt his grasp slacken and weakness come on his joints; his legs succumbed under his weight, and he grovelled on his knees on the stone floor. "Spare me!" he gasped.
I had not only been abominably frightened; I was shocked besides: my delicacy was in arms, like a lady to whom violence should have been offered by a similar monster. I plucked myself from his horrid contact, I snatched the pistol—even discharged, it was a formidable weapon—and menaced him with the butt. "Spare you!" I cried, "you beast!"
His voice died in his fat inwards, but his lips still vehemently framed the same words of supplication. My anger began to pass off, but not all my repugnance; the picture he made revolted me, and I was impatient to be spared the further view of it.
"Here," said I, "stop this performance: it sickens me. I am not going to kill you, do you hear? I have need of you."
A look of relief, that I could almost have called beautiful, dawned on his countenance. "Anything—anything you wish," said he.
Anything is a big word, and his use of it brought me for a moment to a stand. "Why, what do you mean?" I asked. "Do you mean that you will blow the gaff on the whole business?"
He answered me "Yes" with eager asseverations.
"I know Monsieur de Saint-Yves is in it; it was through his papers we traced you," I said. "Do you consent to make a clean breast of the others?"
"I do—I will!" he cried. "The 'ole crew of 'em; there's good names among 'em. I'll be King's evidence."
"So that all shall hang except yourself? You damned villain!" I broke out. "Understand at once that I am no spy or thief-taker. I am a kinsman of Monsieur de Saint-Yves—here in his interest. Upon my word, you have put your foot in it prettily, Mr. Burchell Fenn! Come, stand up; don't grovel there! Stand up, you lump of iniquity!"
He scrambled to his feet. He was utterly unmanned, or it might have gone hard with me yet; and I considered him hesitating, as, indeed, there was cause. The man was a double-dyed traitor: he had tried to murder me, and I had first baffled his endeavours and then exposed and insulted him. Was it wise to place myself any longer at his mercy? With his help I should doubtless travel more quickly; doubtless also far less agreeably; and there was everything to show that it would be at a greater risk. In short, I should have washed my hands of him on the spot, but for the temptation of the French officers, whom I knew to be so near, and for whose society I felt so great and natural an impatience. If I was to see anything of my countrymen, it was clear I had first of all to make my peace with Mr. Fenn; and that was no easy matter. To make friends with any one implies concessions on both sides; and what could I concede? What could I say of him, but that he had proved himself a villain and a fool, and the worse man?
"Well," said I, "here has been rather a poor piece of business, which I dare say you can have no pleasure in calling to mind; and, to say truth, I would as readily forget it myself. Suppose we try. Take back your pistol, which smells very ill; put it in your pocket or wherever you had it concealed. There! Now let us meet for the first time.—Give you good morning, Mr. Fenn! I hope you do very well. I come on the recommendation of my kinsman, the Vicomte de Saint-Yves."
"Do you mean it?" he cried. "Do you mean you will pass over our little scrimmage?"
"Why, certainly!" said I. "It shows you are a bold fellow, who may be trusted to forget the business when it comes to the point. There is nothing against you in the little scrimmage, unless that your courage is greater than your strength. You are not so young as you once were, that is all."
"And I beg of you, sir, don't betray me to the Viscount," he pleaded. "I'll not deny but what my 'eart failed me a trifle; but it was only a word, sir, what anybody might have said in the 'eat of the moment, and over with it."
"Certainly," said I. "That is quite my own opinion."
"The way I came to be anxious about the Viscount," he continued, "is that I believe he might be induced to form an 'asty judgment. And the business, in a pecuniary point of view, is all that I could ask; only trying, sir—very trying. It's making an old man of me before my time. You might have observed yourself, sir, that I 'aven't got the knees I once 'ad. The knees and the breathing, there's where it takes me. But I'm very sure, sir, I address a gentleman as would be the last to make trouble between friends."
"I am sure you do me no more than justice," said I; "and I shall think it quite unnecessary to dwell on any of these passing circumstances in my report to the Vicomte."
"Which you do favour him (if you'll excuse me being so bold as to mention it) exac'ly!" said he. "I should have known you anywheres. May I offer you a pot of 'ome-brewed ale, sir? By your leave? This way, if you please. I am 'eartily grateful—'eartily pleased to be of any service to a gentleman like you, sir, which is related to the Vis-count, and really a fambly of which you might well be proud! Take care of the step, sir. You have good news of 'is 'ealth, I trust? as well as that of Monseer the Count?"
God forgive me! the horrible fellow was still puffing and panting with the fury of his assault, and already he had fallen into an obsequious, wheedling familiarity like that of an old servant—already he was flattering me on my family connections!
I followed him through the house into the stable-yard, where I observed the driver washing the cart in a shed. He must have heard the explosion of the pistol. He could not choose but hear it; the thing was shaped like a little blunderbuss, charged to the mouth, and made a report like a piece of field artillery. He had heard, he had paid no attention; and now, as we came forth by the back door, he raised for a moment a pale and tell-tale face that was as direct as a confession. The rascal had expected to see Fenn come forth alone; he was waiting to be called on for that part of sexton, which I had already allotted to him in fancy.
I need not detain the reader very long with any description of my visit to the back-kitchen; of how we mulled our ale there, and mulled it very well; nor of how we sat talking, Fenn like an old, faithful, affectionate dependant, and I—well! I myself fallen into a mere admiration of so much impudence, that transcended words, and had very soon conquered animosity. I took a fancy to the man, he was so vast a humbug. I began to see a kind of beauty in him, his aplomb was so majestic. I never knew a rogue to cut so fat; his villainy was ample, like his belly, and I could scarce find it in my heart to hold him responsible for either. He was good enough to drop into the autobiographical; telling me how the farm, in spite of the war and the high prices, had proved a disappointment; how there was "a sight of cold, wet land as you come along the 'igh-road"; how the winds and rains and the seasons had been misdirected, it seemed "o' purpose"; how Mrs. Fenn had died—"I lost her coming two year agone; a remarkable fine woman, my old girl, sir; if you'll excuse me," he added, with a burst of humility. In short, he gave me an opportunity of studying John Bull, as I may say, stripped naked—his greed, his usuriousness, his hypocrisy, his perfidy of the back-stairs, all swelled to the superlative—such as was well worth the little disarray and fluster of our passage in the hall.
I MEET TWO OF MY COUNTRYMEN
As soon as I judged it safe, and that was not before Burchell Fenn had talked himself back into his breath and a complete good-humour, I proposed he should introduce me to the French officers, henceforth to become my fellow-passengers. There were two of them, it appeared, and my heart beat as I approached the door. The specimen of Perfidious Albion whom I had just been studying gave me the stronger zest for my fellow-countrymen. I could have embraced them; I could have wept on their necks. And all the time I was going to a disappointment.
It was in a spacious and low room, with an outlook on the court, that I found them bestowed. In the good days of that house the apartment had probably served as a library, for there were traces of shelves along the wainscot. Four or five mattresses lay on the floor in the corner, with a frowsy heap of bedding; near by was a basin and a cube of soap; a rude kitchen-table and some deal chairs stood together at the far end; and the room was illuminated by no less than four windows, and warmed by a little crazy sidelong grate, propped up with bricks in the vent of a hospitable chimney, in which a pile of coals smoked prodigiously and gave out a few starveling flames. An old frail white-haired officer sat in one of the chairs, which he had drawn close to this apology for a fire. He was wrapped in a camlet cloak, of which the collar was turned up, his knees touched the bars, his hands were spread in the very smoke, and yet he shivered for cold. The second—a big, florid, fine animal of a man, whose every gesture labelled him the cock of the walk and the admiration of the ladies—had apparently despaired of the fire, and now strode up and down, sneezing hard, bitterly blowing his nose, and proffering a continual stream of bluster, complaint, and barrack-room oaths.
Fenn showed me in with the brief form of introduction: "Gentlemen all, this here's another fare!" and was gone again at once. The old man gave me but the one glance out of lack-lustre eyes; and even as he looked a shiver took him as sharp as a hiccough. But the other, who represented to admiration the picture of a Beau in a Catarrh, stared at me arrogantly.
"And who are you, sir?" he asked.
I made the military salute to my superiors.
"Champdivers, private, Eighth of the Line," said I.
"Pretty business!" said he. "And you are going on with us? Three in a cart, and a great trolloping private at that! And who is to pay for you, my fine fellow?" he inquired.
"If monsieur comes to that," I answered civilly, "who paid for him?"
"Oh, if you choose to play the wit!" said he,—and began to rail at large upon his destiny, the weather, the cold, the danger and the expense of the escape, and, above all, the cooking of the accursed English. It seemed to annoy him particularly that I should have joined their party. "If you knew what you were doing, thirty thousand millions of pigs! you would keep yourself to yourself! The horses can't drag the cart; the roads are all ruts and swamps. No longer ago than last night the Colonel and I had to march half the way—thunder of God!—half the way to the knees in mud—and I with this infernal cold—and the danger of detection! Happily we met no one: a desert—a real desert—like the whole abominable country! Nothing to eat—no, sir, there is nothing to eat but raw cow and greens boiled in water—nor to drink but Worcestershire sauce! Now I, with my catarrh, I have no appetite; is it not so? Well, if I were in France, I should have a good soup with a crust in it, an omelette, a fowl in rice, a partridge in cabbages—things to tempt me, thunder of God! But here—day of God!—what a country! And cold, too! They talk about Russia—this is all the cold I want! And the people—look at them! What a race! Never any handsome men; never any fine officers!"—and he looked down complacently for a moment at his waist—"And the women—what faggots! No, that is one point clear, I cannot stomach the English!"
There was something in this man so antipathetic to me, as sent the mustard into my nose. I can never bear your bucks and dandies, even when they are decent-looking and well dressed; and the Major—for that was his rank—was the image of a flunkey in good luck. Even to be in agreement with him, or to seem to be so, was more than I could make out to endure.
"You could scarce be expected to stomach them," said I civilly, "after having just digested your parole."
He whipped round on his heel and turned on me a countenance which I dare say he imagined to be awful; but another fit of sneezing cut him off ere he could come the length of speech.
"I have not tried the dish myself," I took the opportunity to add. "It is said to be unpalatable. Did monsieur find it so?"
With surprising vivacity the Colonel woke from his lethargy. He was between us ere another word could pass.
"Shame, gentlemen!" he said. "Is this a time for Frenchmen and fellow-soldiers to fall out? We are in the midst of our enemies; a quarrel, a loud word, may suffice to plunge us back into irretrievable distress. Monsieur le Commandant, you have been gravely offended. I make it my request, I make it my prayer—if need be, I give you my orders—that the matter shall stand by until we come safe to France. Then, if you please, I will serve you in any capacity.—And for you, young man, you have shown all the cruelty and carelessness of youth. This gentleman is your superior; he is no longer young"—at which word you are to conceive the Major's face. "It is admitted he has broken his parole. I know not his reason, and no more do you. It might be patriotism in this hour of our country's adversity, it might be humanity, necessity; you know not what in the least, and you permit yourself to reflect on his honour. To break parole may be a subject for pity and not derision. I have broken mine—I, a colonel of the Empire. And why? I have been years negotiating my exchange, and it cannot be managed; those who have influence at the Ministry of War continually rush in before me, and I have to wait, and my daughter at home is in a decline. I am going to see my daughter at last, and it is my only concern lest I should have delayed too long. She is ill, and very ill,—at death's door. Nothing is left me but my daughter, my Emperor, and my honour; and I give my honour, blame me for it who dare!"
At this my heart smote me.
"For God's sake," I cried, "think no more of what I have said! A parole? what is a parole against life and death and love? I ask your pardon; this gentleman's also. As long as I shall be with you, you shall not have cause to complain of me again. I pray God you will find your daughter alive and restored."
"That is past praying for," said the Colonel; and immediately the brief fire died out of him, and, returning to the hearth, he relapsed into his former abstraction.
But I was not so easy to compose. The knowledge of the poor gentleman's trouble, and the sight of his face, had filled me with the bitterness of remorse; and I insisted upon shaking hands with the Major (which he did with a very ill grace), and abounded in palinodes and apologies.
"After all," said I, "who am I to talk? I am in the luck to be a private soldier; I have no parole to give or to keep; once I am over the rampart, I am as free as air. I beg you to believe that I regret from my soul the use of these ungenerous expressions. Allow me.... Is there no way in this damned house to attract attention? Where is this fellow Fenn?"
I ran to one of the windows and threw it open. Fenn, who was at the moment passing below in the court, cast up his arms like one in despair, called to me to keep back, plunged into the house, and appeared next moment in the doorway of the chamber.
"O, sir!" says he, "keep away from those there windows. A body might see you from the back lane."
"It is registered," said I. "Henceforward I will be a mouse for precaution and a ghost for invisibility. But in the meantime, for God's sake, fetch us a bottle of brandy! Your room is as damp as the bottom of a well, and these gentlemen are perishing of cold."
So soon as I had paid him (for everything, I found, must be paid in advance), I turned my attention to the fire, and whether because I threw greater energy into the business, or because the coals were now warmed and the time ripe, I soon started a blaze that made the chimney roar again. The shine of it, in that dark, rainy day, seemed to reanimate the Colonel like a blink of sun. With the outburst of the flames, besides, a draught was established, which immediately delivered us from the plague of smoke; and by the time Fenn returned, carrying a bottle under his arm and a single tumbler in his hand, there was already an air of gaiety in the room that did the heart good.
I poured out some of the brandy.
"Colonel," said I, "I am a young man and a private soldier. I have not been long in this room, and already I have shown the petulance that belongs to the one character and the ill manners that you may look for in the other. Have the humanity to pass these slips over, and honour me so far as to accept this glass."
"My lad," says he, waking up and blinking at me with an air of suspicion, "are you sure you can afford it?"
I assured him I could.
"I thank you, then: I am very cold." He took the glass out, and a little colour came in his face. "I thank you again," said he. "It goes to the heart."
The Major, when I motioned him to help himself, did so with a good deal of liberality; continued to do so for the rest of the morning, now with some sort of apology, now with none at all; and the bottle began to look foolish before dinner was served. It was such a meal as he had himself predicted: beef, greens, potatoes, mustard in a teacup, and beer in a brown jug that was all over hounds, horses, and hunters, with a fox at the far end and a gigantic John Bull—for all the world like Fenn—sitting in the midst in a bob-wig and smoking tobacco. The beer was a good brew, but not good enough for the Major; he laced it with brandy—for his cold, he said; and in this curative design the remainder of the bottle ebbed away. He called my attention repeatedly to the circumstance; helped me pointedly to the dregs, threw the bottle in the air and played tricks with it; and at last, having exhausted his ingenuity, and seeing me remain quite blind to every hint, he ordered and paid for another himself.
As for the Colonel, he ate nothing, sat sunk in a muse, and only awoke occasionally to a sense of where he was, and what he was supposed to be doing. On each of these occasions he showed a gratitude and kind courtesy that endeared him to me beyond expression. "Champdivers, my lad, your health!" he would say. "The Major and I had a very arduous march last night, and I positively thought I should have eaten nothing, but your fortunate idea of the brandy has made quite a new man of me—quite a new man." And he would fall to with a great air of heartiness, cut himself a mouthful, and, before he had swallowed it, would have forgotten his dinner, his company, the place where he then was, and the escape he was engaged on, and become absorbed in the vision of a sick-room and a dying girl in France. The pathos of this continual pre-occupation, in a man so old, sick, and over-weary, and whom I looked upon as a mere bundle of dying bones and death-pains, put me wholly from my victuals: it seemed there was an element of sin, a kind of rude bravado of youth, in the mere relishing of food at the same table with this tragic father; and though I was well enough used to the coarse, plain diet of the English, I ate scarce more than himself. Dinner was hardly over before he succumbed to a lethargic sleep; lying on one of the mattresses with his limbs relaxed, and his breath seemingly suspended—the very image of dissolution.
This left the Major and myself alone at the table. You must not suppose our tete-a-tete was long, but it was a lively period while it lasted. He drank like a fish or an Englishman; shouted, beat the table, roared out songs, quarrelled, made it up again, and at last tried to throw the dinner-plates through the window, a feat of which he was at that time quite incapable. For a party of fugitives, condemned to the most rigorous discretion, there was never seen so noisy a carnival; and through it all the Colonel continued to sleep like a child. Seeing the Major so well advanced, and no retreat possible, I made a fair wind of a foul one, keeping his glass full, pushing him with toasts; and sooner than I could have dared to hope, he became drowsy and incoherent. With the wrong-headedness of all such sots, he would not be persuaded to lie down upon one of the mattresses until I had stretched myself upon another. But the comedy was soon over; soon he slept the sleep of the just, and snored like a military music; and I might get up again and face (as best I could) the excessive tedium of the afternoon.
I had passed the night before in a good bed; I was denied the resource of slumber; and there was nothing open for me but to pace the apartment, maintain the fire, and brood on my position. I compared yesterday and to-day—the safety, comfort, jollity, open-air exercise and pleasant roadside inns of the one, with the tedium, anxiety, and discomfort of the other. I remembered that I was in the hands of Fenn, who could not be more false—though he might be more vindictive—than I fancied him. I looked forward to nights of pitching in the covered cart, and days of monotony in I knew not what hiding-places; and my heart failed me, and I was in two minds whether to slink off ere it was too late, and return to my solitary way of travel. But the Colonel stood in the path. I had not seen much of him; but already I judged him to be a man of childlike nature—with that sort of innocence and courtesy that, I think, is only to be found in old soldiers or old priests—and broken with years and sorrow. I could not turn my back on his distress; could not leave him alone with the selfish trooper who snored on the next mattress. "Champdivers, my lad, your health!" said a voice in my ear, and stopped me—and there are few things I am more glad of in the retrospect than that it did.
It must have been about four in the afternoon—at least the rain had taken off, and the sun was setting with some wintry pomp—when the current of my reflections was effectually changed by the arrival of two visitors in a gig. They were farmers of the neighbourhood, I suppose—big, burly fellows in greatcoats and top-boots, mightily flushed with liquor when they arrived, and, before they left, inimitably drunk. They stayed long in the kitchen with Burchell, drinking, shouting, singing, and keeping it up; and the sound of their merry minstrelsy kept me a kind of company. The night fell, and the shine of the fire brightened and blinked on the panelled wall. Our illuminated windows must have been visible not only from the back lane of which Fenn had spoken, but from the court where the farmer's gig awaited them. In the far end of the firelit room lay my companions, the one silent, the other clamorously noisy, the images of death and drunkenness. Little wonder if I were tempted to join in the choruses below, and sometimes could hardly refrain from laughter, and sometimes, I believe, from tears—so unmitigated was the tedium, so cruel the suspense, of this period.
At last, about six at night, I should fancy, the noisy minstrels appeared in the court, headed by Fenn with a lantern, and knocking together as they came. The visitors clambered noisily into the gig, one of them shook the reins, and they were snatched out of sight and hearing with a suddenness that partook of the nature of prodigy. I am well aware there is a Providence for drunken men, that holds the reins for them and presides over their troubles; doubtless he had his work cut out for him with this particular gigful! Fenn rescued his toes with an ejaculation from under the departing wheels, and turned at once with uncertain steps and devious lantern to the far end of the court. There, through the open doors of a coach-house, the shock-headed lad was already to be seen drawing forth the covered cart. If I wished any private talk with our host, it must be now or never.
Accordingly I groped my way downstairs, and came to him as he looked on at and lighted the harnessing of the horses.
"The hour approaches when we have to part," said I; "and I shall be obliged if you will tell your servant to drop me at the nearest point for Dunstable. I am determined to go so far with our friends, Colonel X and Major Y, but my business is peremptory, and it takes me to the neighbourhood of Dunstable."
Orders were given, to my satisfaction, with an obsequiousness that seemed only inflamed by his potations.
TRAVELS OF THE COVERED CART
My companions were aroused with difficulty: the Colonel, poor old gentleman, to a sort of permanent dream, in which you could say of him only that he was very deaf and anxiously polite; the Major still maudlin drunk. We had a dish of tea by the fireside, and then issued like criminals into the scathing cold of the night. For the weather had in the meantime changed. Upon the cessation of the rain, a strict frost had succeeded. The moon, being young, was already near the zenith when we started, glittered everywhere on sheets of ice, and sparkled in ten thousand icicles. A more unpromising night for a journey it was hard to conceive. But in the course of the afternoon the horses had been well roughed; and King (for such was the name of the shock-headed lad) was very positive that he could drive us without misadventure. He was as good as his word; indeed, despite a gawky air, he was simply invaluable in his present employment, showing marked sagacity in all that concerned the care of horses, and guiding us by one short cut after another for days, and without a fault.
The interior of that engine of torture, the covered cart, was fitted with a bench, on which we took our places; the door was shut: in a moment, the night closed upon us solid and stifling; and we felt that we were being driven carefully out of the courtyard. Careful was the word all night, and it was an alleviation of our miseries that we did not often enjoy. In general, as we were driven the better part of the night and day, often at a pretty quick pace and always through a labyrinth of the most infamous country lanes and by-roads, we were so bruised upon the bench, so dashed against the top and sides of the cart, that we reached the end of a stage in truly pitiable case, sometimes flung ourselves down without the formality of eating, made but one sleep of it until the hour of departure returned, and were only properly awakened by the first jolt of the renewed journey. There were interruptions, at times, that we hailed as alleviations. At times the cart was bogged, once it was upset, and we must alight and lend the driver the assistance of our arms; at times, too (as on the occasion when I first encountered it), the horses gave out, and we had to trail alongside in mud or frost until the first peep of daylight, or the approach to a hamlet or a high-road, bade us disappear like ghosts into our prison.
The main roads of England are incomparable for excellence, of a beautiful smoothness, very ingeniously laid down, and so well kept that in most weathers you could take your dinner off any part of them without distaste. On them, to the note of the bugle, the mail did its sixty miles a day; innumerable chaises whisked after the bobbing post-boys; or some young blood would flit by in a curricle and tandem, to the vast delight and danger of the lieges. On them the slow-pacing waggons made a music of bells, and all day long the travellers on horseback and the travellers on foot (like happy Mr. St. Ives so little a while before!) kept coming and going, and baiting and gaping at each other, as though a fair were due, and they were gathering to it from all England. No, nowhere in the world is travel so great a pleasure as in that country. But unhappily our one need was to be secret; and all this rapid and animated picture of the road swept quite apart from us, as we rumbled up hill and down dale, under hedge and over stone, among circuitous byways. Only twice did I receive, as it were, a whiff of the highway. The first reached my ears alone. I might have been anywhere. I only knew I was walking in the dark night and among ruts, when I heard very far off, over the silent country that surrounded us, the guard's horn wailing its signal to the next post-house for a change of horses. It was like the voice of the day heard in darkness, a voice of the world heard in prison, the note of a cock crowing in the mid-seas—in short, I cannot tell you what it was like, you will have to fancy for yourself—but I could have wept to hear it. Once we were belated: the cattle could hardly crawl, the day was at hand, it was a nipping, rigorous morning, King was lashing his horses, I was giving an arm to the old Colonel, and the Major was coughing in our rear. I must suppose that King was a thought careless, being nearly in desperation about his team, and, in spite of the cold morning, breathing hot with his exertions. We came, at last, a little before sunrise to the summit of a hill, and saw the high-road passing at right angles through an open country of meadows and hedgerow pollards; and not only the York mail, speeding smoothly at the gallop of the four horses, but a post-chaise besides, with the post-boy titupping briskly, and the traveller himself putting his head out of the window, but whether to breathe the dawn, or the better to observe the passage of the mail, I do not know. So that we enjoyed for an instant a picture of free life on the road, in its most luxurious forms of despatch and comfort. And thereafter, with a poignant feeling of contrast in our hearts, we must mount again into our wheeled dungeon.
We came to our stages at all sorts of odd hours, and they were in all kinds of odd places. I may say at once that my first experience was my best. Nowhere again were we so well entertained as at Burchell Fenn's. And this, I suppose, was natural, and indeed inevitable, in so long and secret a journey. The first stop, we lay six hours in a barn standing by itself in a poor, marshy orchard, and packed with hay; to make it more attractive, we were told it had been the scene of an abominable murder, and was now haunted. But the day was beginning to break, and our fatigue was too extreme for visionary terrors. The second or third, we alighted on a barren heath about midnight, built a fire to warm us under the shelter of some thorns, supped like beggars on bread and a piece of cold bacon, and slept like gipsies with our feet to the fire. In the meanwhile, King was gone with the cart, I know not where, to get a change of horses, and it was late in the dark morning when he returned and we were able to resume our journey. In the middle of another night we came to a stop by an ancient, whitewashed cottage of two stories; a privet hedge surrounded it; the frosty moon shone blankly on the upper windows; but through those of the kitchen the firelight was seen glinting on the roof and reflected from the dishes on the wall. Here, after much hammering on the door, King managed to arouse an old crone from the chimney-corner chair, where she had been dozing in the watch; and we were had in, and entertained with a dish of hot tea. This old lady was an aunt of Burchell Fenn's—and an unwilling partner in his dangerous trade. Though the house stood solitary, and the hour was an unlikely one for any passenger upon the road, King and she conversed in whispers only. There was something dismal, something of the sick-room, in this perpetual, guarded sibilation. The apprehensions of our hostess insensibly communicated themselves to every one present. We ate like mice in a cat's ear; if one of us jingled a teaspoon, all would start; and when the hour came to take the road again, we drew a long breath of relief, and climbed to our places in the covered cart with a positive sense of escape. The most of our meals, however, were taken boldly at hedge-row alehouses, usually at untimely hours of the day, when the clients were in the field or the farmyard at labour. I shall have to tell presently of our last experience of the sort, and how unfortunately it miscarried; but as that was the signal for my separation from my fellow-travellers I must first finish with them.
I had never any occasion to waver in my first judgment of the Colonel. The old gentleman seemed to me, and still seems in the retrospect, the salt of the earth. I had occasion to see him in the extremes of hardship, hunger, and cold; he was dying, and he looked it; and yet I cannot remember any hasty, harsh, or impatient word to have fallen from his lips. On the contrary, he ever showed himself careful to please; and even if he rambled in his talk, rambled always gently—like a humane, half-witted old hero, true to his colours to the last. I would not dare to say how often he awoke suddenly from a lethargy, and told us again, as though we had never heard it, the story of how he had earned the Cross, how it had been given him by the hand of the Emperor, and of the innocent—and, indeed, foolish—sayings of his daughter when he returned with it on his bosom. He had another anecdote which he was very apt to give, by way of a rebuke, when the Major wearied us beyond endurance with dispraises of the English. This was an account of the braves gens with whom he had been boarding. True enough, he was a man so simple and grateful by nature, that the most common civilities were able to touch him to the heart, and would remain written in his memory; but from a thousand inconsiderable but conclusive indications, I gathered that this family had really loved him, and loaded him with kindness. They made a fire in his bedroom, which the sons and daughters tended with their own hands; letters from France were looked for with scarce more eagerness by himself than by these alien sympathisers; when they came, he would read them aloud in the parlour to the assembled family, translating as he went. The Colonel's English was elementary; his daughter not in the least likely to be an amusing correspondent; and, as I conceived these scenes in the parlour, I felt sure the interest centred in the Colonel himself, and I thought I could feel in my own heart that mixture of the ridiculous and the pathetic, the contest of tears and laughter, which must have shaken the bosoms of the family. Their kindness had continued till the end. It appears they were privy to his flight; the camlet cloak had been lined expressly for him, and he was the bearer of a letter from the daughter of the house to his own daughter in Paris. The last evening, when the time came to say good-night, it was tacitly known to all that they were to look upon his face no more. He rose, pleading fatigue, and turned to the daughter, who had been his chief ally: "You will permit me, my dear—to an old and very unhappy soldier—and may God bless you for your goodness!" The girl threw her arms about his neck and sobbed upon his bosom; the lady of the house burst into tears; "et je vous le jure, le pere se mouchait!" quoth the Colonel, twisting his moustaches with a cavalry air, and at the same time blinking the water from his eyes at the mere recollection.
It was a good thought to me that he had found these friends in captivity: that he had started on this fatal journey from so cordial a farewell. He had broken his parole for his daughter: that he should ever live to reach her sick-bed, that he could continue to endure to an end the hardships, the crushing fatigue, the savage cold, of our pilgrimage, I had early ceased to hope. I did for him what I was able,—nursed him, kept him covered, watched over his slumbers, sometimes held him in my arms at the rough places of the road. "Champdivers," he once said, "you are like a son to me—like a son." It is good to remember, though at the time it put me on the rack. All was to no purpose. Fast as we were travelling towards France, he was travelling faster still to another destination. Daily he grew weaker and more indifferent. An old rustic accent of Lower Normandy reappeared in his speech, from which it had long been banished, and grew stronger; old words of the patois, too: Ouistreham, matrasse, and others, the sense of which we were sometimes unable to guess. On the very last day he began again his eternal story of the Cross and the Emperor. The Major, who was particularly ill, or at least particularly cross, uttered some angry words of protest. "Pardonnez-moi, monsieur le commandant, mais c'est pour monsieur," said the Colonel; "monsieur has not yet heard the circumstance, and is good enough to feel an interest." Presently after, however, he began to lose the thread of his narrative; and at last: "Que que j'ai? Je m'embrouille!" says he. "Suffit: s'm'a la donne, et Berthe en etait bien contente." It struck me as the falling of the curtain or the closing of the sepulchre doors.
Sure enough, in but a little while after, he fell into a sleep as gentle as an infant's, which insensibly changed into the sleep of death. I had my arm about his body at the time and remarked nothing, unless it were that he once stretched himself a little, so kindly the end came to that disastrous life. It was only at our evening halt that the Major and I discovered we were travelling alone with the poor clay. That night we stole a spade from a field—I think near Market Bosworth—and a little farther on, in a wood of young oak trees, and by the light of King's lantern, we buried the old soldier of the Empire with both prayers and tears.
We had needs invent Heaven if it had not been revealed to us; there are some things that fall so bitterly ill on this side Time! As for the Major, I have long since forgiven him. He broke the news to the poor Colonel's daughter: I am told he did it kindly; and sure, nobody could have done it without tears! His share of purgatory will be brief; and in this world, as I could not very well praise him, I have suppressed his name. The Colonel's also, for the sake of his parole. Requiescat.
THE ADVENTURE OF THE ATTORNEY'S CLERK
I have mentioned our usual course, which was to eat in inconsiderable wayside hostelries, known to King. It was a dangerous business: we went daily under fire to satisfy our appetite, and put our head in the lion's mouth for a piece of bread. Sometimes, to minimise the risk, we would all dismount before we came in view of the house, straggle in severally, and give what orders we pleased, like disconnected strangers. In like manner we departed, to find the cart at an appointed place, some half a mile beyond. The Colonel and the Major had each a word or two of English—God help their pronunciation! But they did well enough to order a rasher and a pot or call a reckoning; and, to say truth, these country-folks did not give themselves the pains, and had scarce the knowledge, to be critical.
About nine or ten at night the pains of hunger and cold drove us to an alehouse in the flats of Bedfordshire not far from Bedford itself. In the inn kitchen was a long, lean, characteristic-looking fellow of perhaps forty, dressed in black. He sat on a settle by the fireside, smoking a long pipe, such as they call a yard of clay. His hat and wig were hanged upon the knob behind him, his head as bald as a bladder of lard, and his expression very shrewd, cantankerous and inquisitive. He seemed to value himself above his company, to give himself the airs of a man of the world among that rustic herd; which was often no more than his due; being, as I afterwards discovered, an attorney's clerk. I took upon myself the more ungrateful part of arriving last; and by the time I entered on the scene the Major was already served at a side-table. Some general conversation must have passed, and I smelled danger in the air. The Major looked flustered, the attorney's clerk triumphant, and three or four peasants in smock-frocks (who sat about the fire to play chorus) had let their pipes go out.
"Give you good-evening, sir!" said the attorney's clerk to me.
"The same to you, sir," said I.
"I think this one will do," quoth the clerk to the yokels with a wink; and then, as soon as I had given my order, "Pray, sir, whither are you bound?" he added.
"Sir," said I, "I am not one of those who speak either of their business or their destination in houses of public entertainment."
"A good answer," said he, "and an excellent principle.—Sir, do you speak French?"
"Why, no, sir," said I. "A little Spanish, at your service."
"But you know the French accent, perhaps?" said the clerk.
"Well do I do that!" said I. "The French accent? Why, I believe I can tell a Frenchman in ten words."
"Here is a puzzle for you, then!" he said. "I have no material doubt myself, but some of these gentlemen are more backward. The lack of education, you know. I make bold to say that a man cannot walk, cannot hear, and cannot see, without the blessings of education."
He turned to the Major, whose food plainly stuck in his throat.
"Now, sir," pursued the clerk, "let me have the pleasure to hear your voice again. Where are you going, did you say?"
"Sare, I am go—ing to Lon—don," said the Major.
I could have flung my plate at him to be such an ass, and to have so little a gift of languages where that was the essential.
"What think ye of that?" said the clerk. "Is that French enough?"
"Good God!" cried I, leaping up like one who should suddenly perceive an acquaintance, "is this you, Mr. Dubois? Why, who would have dreamed of encountering you so far from home?" As I spoke, I shook hands with the Major heartily; and turning to our tormentor, "O, sir, you may be perfectly reassured! This is a very honest fellow, a late neighbour of mine in the City of Carlisle."
I thought the attorney looked put out; I little knew the man!
"But he is French," said he, "for all that?"
"Ay, to be sure!" said I. "A Frenchman of the emigration! None of your Buonaparte lot. I will warrant his views of politics to be as sound as your own."
"What is a little strange," said the clerk quietly, "is that Mr. Dubois should deny it."
I got it fair in the face, and took it smiling; but the shock was rude, and in the course of the next words I contrived to do what I have rarely done, and make a slip in my English. I kept my liberty and life by my proficiency all these months, and for once that I failed, it is not to be supposed that I would make a public exhibition of the details. Enough that it was a very little error, and one that might have passed ninety-nine times in a hundred. But my limb of the law was as swift to pick it up as though he had been by trade a master of languages.
"Aha!" cries he; "and you are French too! Your tongue bewrays you. Two Frenchmen coming into an alehouse, severally and accidentally, not knowing each other, at ten of the clock at night, in the middle of Bedfordshire? No, sir, that shall not pass! You are all prisoners escaping, if you are nothing worse. Consider yourselves under arrest. I have to trouble you for your papers."
"Where is your warrant, if you come to that?" said I. "My papers! A likely thing that I would show my papers on the ipse dixit of an unknown fellow in a hedge alehouse!"
"Would you resist the law?" says he.
"Not the law, sir!" said I. "I hope I am too good a subject for that. But for a nameless fellow with a bald head and a pair of gingham small-clothes, why certainly! 'Tis my birthright as an Englishman. Where's Magna Charta else?"
"We will see about that," says he; and then, addressing the assistants, "Where does the constable live?"
"Lord love you, sir!" cried the landlord, "what are you thinking of? The constable at past ten at night! Why, he's abed and asleep, and good and drunk two hours agone!"
"Ah that a' be!" came in chorus from the yokels.
The attorney's clerk was put to a stand. He could not think of force; there was little sign of martial ardour about the landlord, and the peasants were indifferent—they only listened, and gaped, and now scratched a head, and now would get a light to their pipes from the embers on the hearth. On the other hand, the Major and I put a bold front on the business and defied him, not without some ground of law. In this state of matters he proposed I should go along with him to one Squire Merton, a great man of the neighbourhood, who was in the commission of the peace, the end of his avenue but three lanes away. I told him I would not stir a foot for him if it were to save his soul. Next he proposed I should stay all night where I was, and the constable could see to my affair in the morning, when he was sober. I replied I should go when and where I pleased; that we were lawful travellers in the fear of God and the King, and I for one would suffer myself to be stayed by nobody. At the same time, I was thinking the matter had lasted altogether too long, and I determined to bring it to an end at once.
"See here," said I, getting up, for till now I had remained carelessly seated, "there's only one way to decide a thing like this—only one way that's right English—and that's man to man. Take off your coat, sir, and these gentlemen shall see fair play."
At this there came a look in his eye that I could not mistake. His education had been neglected in one essential and eminently British particular: he could not box. No more could I, you may say; but then I had the more impudence—and I had made the proposal.
"He says I'm no Englishman, but the proof of the pudding is the eating of it," I continued. And here I stripped my coat and fell into the proper attitude, which was just about all I knew of this barbarian art. "Why, sir, you seem to me to hang back a little," said I. "Come, I'll meet you; I'll give you an appetiser—though hang me if I can understand the man that wants any enticement to hold up his hands." I drew a bank-note out of my fob and tossed it to the landlord. "There are the stakes," said I. "I'll fight you for first blood, since you seem to make so much work about it. If you tap my claret first, there are five guineas for you, and I'll go with you to any squire you choose to mention. If I tap yours, you'll perhaps let on that I'm the better man, and allow me to go about my lawful business at my own time and convenience, by God!—Is that fair, my lads?" says I, appealing to the company.
"Ay, ay," said the chorus of chawbacons; "he can't say no fairer nor that, he can't. Take off thy coat, master!"
The limb of the law was now on the wrong side of public opinion, and, what heartened me to go on, the position was rapidly changing in our favour. Already the Major was paying his shot to the very indifferent landlord, and I could see the white face of King at the backdoor, making signals of haste.
"Oho!" quoth my enemy, "you are as full of doubles as a fox, are you not? But I see through you; I see through and through you. You would change the venue, would you?"
"I may be transparent, sir," says I, "but if you'll do me the favour to stand up, you'll find I can hit damn hard."
"Which is a point, if you will observe, that I had never called in question," said he. "Why, you ignorant clowns," he proceeded, addressing the company, "can't you see the fellow's gulling you before your eyes? Can't you see that he has changed the point upon me? I say he's a French prisoner, and he answers that he can box! What has that to do with it? I would not wonder but what he can dance too—they're all dancing-masters over there. I say, and I stick to it, that he's a Frenchy. He says he isn't. Well then, let him out with his papers, if he has them! If he had, would he not show them? If he had, would he not jump at the idea of going to Squire Merton, a man you all know? Now, you are all plain, straightforward Bedfordshire men, and I wouldn't ask a better lot to appeal to. You're not the kind to be talked over with any French gammon, and he's plenty of that. But let me tell him, he can take his pigs to another market; they'll never do here; they'll never go down in Bedfordshire. Why! look at the man! Look at his feet! Has anybody got a foot in the room like that? See how he stands! do any of you fellows stand like that? Does the landlord, there? Why, he has Frenchman wrote all over him as big as a sign-post!"
This was all very well; and in a different scene I might even have been gratified by his remarks; but I saw clearly, if I were to allow him to talk, he might turn the tables on me altogether. He might not be much of a hand at boxing; but I was much mistaken, or he had studied forensic eloquence in a good school. In this predicament I could think of nothing more ingenious than to burst out of the house, under the pretext of an ungovernable rage. It was certainly not very ingenious—it was elementary, but I had no choice.
"You white-livered dog!" I broke out. "Do you dare to tell me you're an Englishman, and won't fight? But I'll stand no more of this! I leave this place, where I've been insulted! Here! what's to pay? Pay yourself!" I went on, offering the landlord a handful of silver, "and give me back my bank-note!"
The landlord, following his usual policy of obliging everybody, offered no opposition to my design. The position of my adversary was now thoroughly bad. He had lost my two companions. He was on the point of losing me also. There was plainly no hope of arousing the company to help; and, watching him with a corner of my eye, I saw him hesitate for a moment. The next, he had taken down his hat and his wig, which was of black horsehair; and I saw him draw from behind the settle a vast hooded greatcoat and a small valise. "The devil!" thought I: "is the rascal going to follow me?"
I was scarce clear of the inn before the limb of the law was at my heels. I saw his face plain in the moonlight; and the most resolute purpose showed in it, along with an unmoved composure. A chill went over me. "This is no common adventure," thinks I to myself. "You have got hold of a man of character, St. Ives! A bite-hard, a bull-dog, a weasel is on your trail; and how are you to throw him off?" Who was he? By some of his expressions I judged he was a hanger-on of courts. But in what character had he followed the assizes? As a simple spectator, as a lawyer's clerk, as a criminal himself, or—last and worst supposition—as a Bow Street "runner"?
The cart would wait for me, perhaps half a mile down our onward road, which I was already following. And I told myself that in a few minutes' walking, Bow Street runner or not, I should have him at my mercy. And then reflection came to me in time. Of all things, one was out of the question. Upon no account must this obtrusive fellow see the cart. Until I had killed or shook him off, I was quite divorced from my companions—alone, in the midst of England, on a frosty by-way leading whither I knew not, with a sleuth-hound at my heels, and never a friend but the holly-stick!
We came at the same time to a crossing of lanes. The branch to the left was overhung with trees, deeply sunken and dark. Not a ray of moonlight penetrated its recesses; and I took it at a venture. The wretch followed my example in silence; and for some time we crunched together over frozen pools without a word. Then he found his voice, with a chuckle.
"This is not the way to Mr. Merton's," said he.
"No?" said I. "It is mine, however."
"And therefore mine," said he.
Again we fell silent; and we may thus have covered half a mile before the lane, taking a sudden turn, brought us forth again into the moonshine. With his hooded greatcoat on his back, his valise in his hand, his black wig adjusted, and footing it on the ice with a sort of sober doggedness of manner, my enemy was changed almost beyond recognition: changed in everything but a certain dry, polemical, pedantic air, that spoke of a sedentary occupation and high stools. I observed, too, that his valise was heavy; and, putting this and that together, hit upon a plan.
"A seasonable night, sir," said I. "What do you say to a bit of running? The frost has me by the toes."
"With all the pleasure in life," says he.
His voice seemed well assured, which pleased me little. However, there was nothing else to try, except violence, for which it would always be too soon. I took to my heels accordingly, he after me; and for some time the slapping of our feet on the hard road might have been heard a mile away. He had started a pace behind me, and he finished in the same position. For all his extra years and the weight of his valise, he had not lost a hair's breadth. The devil might race him for me—I had enough of it!
And, besides, to run so fast was contrary to my interests. We could not run long without arriving somewhere. At any moment we might turn a corner and find ourselves at the lodge-gate of some Squire Merton, in the midst of a village whose constable was sober, or in the hands of a patrol. There was no help for it—I must finish with him on the spot, as long as it was possible. I looked about me, and the place seemed suitable; never a light, never a house—nothing but stubble-fields, fallows, and a few stunted trees. I stopped and eyed him in the moonlight with an angry stare.
"Enough of this foolery!" said I.
He had turned, and now faced me full, very pale, but with no sign of shrinking.
"I am quite of your opinion," said he. "You have tried me at the running; you can try me next at the high jump. It will be all the same. It must end the one way."
I made my holly whistle about my head.
"I believe you know what way!" said I. "We are alone, it is night, and I am wholly resolved. Are you not frightened?"
"No," he said, "not in the smallest. I do not box, sir; but I am not a coward, as you may have supposed. Perhaps it will simplify our relations if I tell you at the outset that I walk armed."
Quick as lightning I made a feint at his head; as quickly he gave ground, and at the same time I saw a pistol glitter in his hand.
"No more of that, Mr. French-Prisoner!" he said. "It will do me no good to have your death at my door."
"Faith, nor me either!" said I; and I lowered my stick and considered the man, not without a twinkle of admiration. "You see," I said, "there is one consideration that you appear to overlook: there are a great many chances that your pistol may miss fire."
"I have a pair," he returned. "Never travel without a brace of barkers."
"I make you my compliment," said I. "You are able to take care of yourself, and that is a good trait. But, my good man! let us look at this matter dispassionately. You are not a coward, and no more am I; we are both men of excellent sense; I have good reason, whatever it may be, to keep my concerns to myself and to walk alone. Now, I put it to you pointedly, am I likely to stand it? Am I likely to put up with your continued and—excuse me—highly impudent ingerence into my private affairs?"
"Another French word," says he composedly.
"O! damn your French words!" cried I. "You seem to be a Frenchman yourself!"
"I have had many opportunities by which I have profited," he explained. "Few men are better acquainted with the similarities and differences, whether of idiom or accent, of the two languages."
"You are a pompous fellow, too!" said I.
"O, I can make distinctions, sir," says he. "I can talk with Bedfordshire peasants; and I can express myself becomingly, I hope, in the company of a gentleman of education like yourself."
"If you set up to be a gentleman——" I began.
"Pardon me," he interrupted: "I make no such claim. I only see the nobility and gentry in the way of business. I am quite a plain person."
"For the Lord's sake," I exclaimed, "set my mind at rest upon one point. In the name of mystery, who and what are you?"
"I have no cause to be ashamed of my name, sir," said he, "nor yet my trade. I am Thomas Dudgeon, at your service, clerk to Mr. Daniel Romaine, solicitor of London; High Holborn is our address, sir."
It was only by the ecstasy of the relief that I knew how horribly I had been frightened. I flung my stick on the road.
"Romaine?" I cried. "Daniel Romaine? An old hunks with a red face and a big head, and got up like a Quaker? My dear friend, to my arms!"
"Keep back, I say!" said Dudgeon weakly.
I would not listen to him. With the end of my own alarm, I felt as if I must infallibly be at the end of all dangers likewise; as if the pistol that he held in one hand were no more to be feared than the valise that he carried with the other, and now put up like a barrier against my advance.
"Keep back, or I declare I will fire," he was crying. "Have a care, for God's sake! My pistol——"
He might scream as he pleased. Willy nilly, I folded him to my breast, I pressed him there, I kissed his ugly mug as it had never been kissed before and would never be kissed again; and in the doing so knocked his wig awry and his hat off. He bleated in my embrace; so bleats the sheep in the arms of the butcher. The whole thing, on looking back, appears incomparably reckless and absurd; I no better than a madman for offering to advance on Dudgeon, and he no better than a fool for not shooting me while I was about it. But all's well that ends well; or, as the people in these days kept singing and whistling on the streets:—
"There's a sweet little cherub that sits up aloft And looks out for the life of poor Jack."
"There!" said I, releasing him a little, but still keeping my hands on his shoulders, "je vous ai bel et bien embrasse—and, as you would say, there is another French word." With his wig over one eye, he looked incredibly rueful and put out. "Cheer up, Dudgeon; the ordeal is over, you shall be embraced no more. But do, first of all, for God's sake, put away your pistol; you handle it as if you were a cockatrice; some time or other, depend upon it, it will certainly go off. Here is your hat. No, let me put it on square, and the wig before it. Never suffer any stress of circumstances to come between you and the duty you owe to yourself. If you have nobody else to dress for, dress for God!
"Put your wig straight On your bald pate, Keep your chin scraped, And your figure draped.
Can you match me that? The whole duty of man in a quatrain! And remark, I do not set up to be a professional bard; these are the outpourings of a dilettante."
"But, my dear sir!" he exclaimed.
"But, my dear sir!" I echoed, "I will allow no man to interrupt the flow of my ideas. Give me your opinion on my quatrain, or I vow we shall have a quarrel of it."
"Certainly you are quite an original," he said.
"Quite," said I; "and I believe I have my counterpart before me."
"Well, for a choice," says he, smiling, "and whether for sense or poetry, give me
"'Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow: The rest is all but leather and prunello.'"
"Oh, but that's not fair—that's Pope! It's not original, Dudgeon. Understand me," said I, wringing his breast-button, "the first duty of all poetry is to be mine, sir—mine. Inspiration now swells in my bosom, because—to tell you the plain truth, and descend a little in style—I am devilish relieved at the turn things have taken. So, I dare say, are you yourself, Dudgeon, if you would only allow it. And a propos, let me ask you a home question. Between friends, have you ever fired that pistol?"
"Why, yes, sir," he replied. "Twice—at hedge-sparrows."
"And you would have fired at me, you bloody-minded man?" I cried.
"If you go to that, you seemed mighty reckless with your stick," said Dudgeon.
"Did I indeed? Well, well, 'tis all past history; ancient as King Pharamond—which is another French word, if you cared to accumulate more evidence," says I. "But happily we are now the best of friends, and have all our interests in common."
"You go a little too fast, if you'll excuse me, Mr.——: I do not know your name, that I am aware," said Dudgeon.
"No, to be sure!" said I. "Never heard of it!"
"A word of explanation——" he began.
"No, Dudgeon!" I interrupted. "Be practical; I know what you want, and the name of it is supper. Rien ne creuse comme l'emotion. I am hungry myself, and yet I am more accustomed to warlike palpitations than you, who are but a hunter of hedge-sparrows. Let me look at your face critically: your bill of fare is three slices of cold rare roast beef, a Welsh rabbit, a pot of stout, and a glass or two of sound tawny port, old in bottle—the right milk of Englishmen." Methought there seemed a brightening in his eye and a melting about his mouth at this enumeration.
"The night is young," I continued; "not much past eleven, for a wager. Where can we find a good inn? And remark that I say good, for the port must be up to the occasion—not a headache in a pipe of it."
"Really, sir," he said, smiling a little, "you have a way of carrying things——"
"Will nothing make you stick to the subject?" I cried; "you have the most irrelevant mind! How do you expect to rise in your profession? The inn?"
"Well, I will say you are a facetious gentleman!" said he. "You must have your way, I see. We are not three miles from Bedford by this very road."
"Done!" cried I. "Bedford be it!"
I tucked his arm under mine, possessed myself of the valise, and walked him off unresisting. Presently we came to an open piece of country lying a thought downhill. The road was smooth and free of ice, the moonshine thin and bright over the meadows and the leafless trees. I was now honestly done with the purgatory of the covered cart; I was close to my great-uncle's; I had no more fear of Mr. Dudgeon: which were all grounds enough for jollity. And I was aware, besides, of us two as of a pair of tiny and solitary dolls under the vast frosty cupola of the midnight; the rooms decked, the moon burnished, the least of the stars lighted, the floor swept and waxed, and nothing wanting but for the band to strike up and the dancing to begin. In the exhilaration of my heart I took the music on myself—