General rule, people don't like chaises with bullet-holes.'
'Too much Romance of the Forest?' I suggested, recalling my little friend of the morning, and what I was sure had been her favourite reading--Mrs. Radcliffe's novels.
'Just so,' said he. 'They may be right, they may be wrong; I'm not the judge. But I suppose it's natural, after all, for respectable people to like things respectable about them; not bullet-holes, nor puddles of blood, nor men with aliases.'
I took a glass of wine and held it up to the light to show that my hand was steady.
'Yes,' said I, 'I suppose so.'
'You have papers, of course, showing you are the proper owner?' he inquired.
'There is the bill, stamped and receipted,' said I, tossing it across to him.
He looked at it.
'This all you have?' he asked.
'It is enough, at least,' said I. 'It shows you where I bought and what I paid for it.'
'Well, I don't know,' he said. 'You want some paper of identification.'
'To identify the chaise?' I inquired.
'Not at all: to identify YOU,' said he.
'My good sir, remember yourself!' said I. 'The title-deeds of my estate are in that despatch-box; but you do not seriously suppose that I should allow you to examine them?'
'Well, you see, this paper proves that some Mr. Ramornie paid seventy guineas for a chaise,' said the fellow. 'That's all well and good; but who's to prove to me that you are Mr. Ramornie?'
'Fellow!' cried I.
'O, fellow as much as you please!' said he. 'Fellow, with all my heart! That changes nothing. I am fellow, of course--obtrusive fellow, impudent fellow, if you like--but who are you? I hear of you with two names; I hear of you running away with young ladies, and getting cheered for a Frenchman, which seems odd; and one thing I will go bail for, that you were in a blue fright when the post- boy began to tell tales at my door. In short, sir, you may be a very good gentleman; but I don't know enough about you, and I'll trouble you for your papers, or to go before a magistrate. Take your choice; if I'm not fine enough, I hope the magistrates are.'
'My good man,' I stammered, for though I had found my voice, I could scarce be said to have recovered my wits, 'this is most unusual, most rude. Is it the custom in Westmorland that gentlemen should be insulted?'
'That depends,' said he. 'When it's suspected that gentlemen are spies it IS the custom; and a good custom, too. No no,' he broke out, perceiving me to make a movement. 'Both hands upon the table, my gentleman! I want no pistol balls in my chaise panels.'
'Surely, sir, you do me strange injustice!' said I, now the master of myself. 'You see me sitting here, a monument of tranquillity: pray may I help myself to wine without umbraging you?'
I took this attitude in sheer despair. I had no plan, no hope. The best I could imagine was to spin the business out some minutes longer, then capitulate. At least, I would not capituatle one moment too soon.
'Am I to take that for NO?' he asked.
'Referring to your former obliging proposal?' said I. 'My good sir, you are to take it, as you say, for "No." Certainly I will not show you my deeds; certainly I will not rise from table and trundle out to see your magistrates. I have too much respect for my digestion, and too little curiosity in justices of the peace.'
He leaned forward, looked me nearly in the face, and reached out one hand to the bell-rope. 'See here, my fine fellow!' said he. 'Do you see that bell-rope? Let me tell you, there's a boy waiting below: one jingle, and he goes to fetch the constable.'
'Do you tell me so?' said I. 'Well, there's no accounting for tastes! I have a prejudice against the society of constables, but if it is your fancy to have one in for the dessert--' I shrugged my shoulders lightly. 'Really, you know,' I added, 'this is vastly entertaining. I assure you, I am looking on, with all the interest of a man of the world, at the development of your highly original character.'
He continued to study my face without speech, his hand still on the button of the bell-rope, his eyes in mine; this was the decisive heat.