ST. Ives

Page 67

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 -

'Merrily danced the Quaker's wife, And merrily danced the Quaker.'

I broke into that animated and appropriate air, clapped my arm about Dudgeon's waist, and away down the hill at a dancing step! He hung back a little at the start, but the impulse of the tune, the night, and my example, were not to be resisted. A man made of putty must have danced, and even Dudgeon showed himself to be a human being. Higher and higher were the capers that we cut; the moon repeated in shadow our antic footsteps and gestures; and it came over my mind of a sudden--really like balm--what appearance of man I was dancing with, what a long bilious countenance he had shown under his shaven pate, and what a world of trouble the rascal had given me in the immediate past.

Presently we began to see the lights of Bedford. My Puritanic companion stopped and disengaged himself.

'This is a trifle infra dig., sir, is it not?' said he. 'A party might suppose we had been drinking.'

'And so you shall be, Dudgeon,' said I. 'You shall not only be drinking, you old hypocrite, but you shall be drunk--dead drunk, sir--and the boots shall put you to bed! We'll warn him when we go in. Never neglect a precaution; never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day!'

But he had no more frivolity to complain of. We finished our stage and came to the inn-door with decorum, to find the house still alight and in a bustle with many late arrivals; to give our orders with a prompt severity which ensured obedience, and to be served soon after at a side-table, close to the fire and in a blaze of candle-light, with such a meal as I had been dreaming of for days past. For days, you are to remember, I had been skulking in the covered cart, a prey to cold, hunger, and an accumulation of discomforts that might have daunted the most brave; and the white table napery, the bright crystal, the reverberation of the fire, the red curtains, the Turkey carpet, the portraits on the coffee- room wall, the placid faces of the two or three late guests who were silently prolonging the pleasures of digestion, and (last, but not by any means least) a glass of an excellent light dry port, put me in a humour only to be described as heavenly. The thought of the Colonel, of how he would have enjoyed this snug room and roaring fire, and of his cold grave in the wood by Market Bosworth, lingered on my palate, amari aliquid, like an after-taste, but was not able--I say it with shame--entirely to dispel my self- complacency. After all, in this world every dog hangs by its own tail. I was a free adventurer, who had just brought to a successful end--or, at least, within view of it--an adventure very difficult and alarming; and I looked across at Mr. Dudgeon, as the port rose to his cheeks, and a smile, that was semi-confidential and a trifle foolish, began to play upon his leathery features, not only with composure, but with a suspicion of kindness. The rascal had been brave, a quality for which I would value the devil; and if he had been pertinacious in the beginning, he had more than made up for it before the end.

'And now, Dudgeon, to explain,' I began. 'I know your master, he knows me, and he knows and approves of my errand. So much I may tell you, that I am on my way to Amersham Place.'

'Oho!' quoth Dudgeon, 'I begin to see.'

'I am heartily glad of it,' said I, passing the bottle, 'because that is about all I can tell you. You must take my word for the remainder. Either believe me or don't. If you don't, let's take a chaise; you can carry me to-morrow to High Holborn, and confront me with Mr. Romaine; the result of which will be to set your mind at rest--and to make the holiest disorder in your master's plans.

ST. Ives Page 68

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson
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