ST. Ives

Page 106

My face seemed to myself to dislimn under his gaze, my expression to change, the smile (with which I had began) to degenerate into the grin of the man upon the rack. I was besides harassed with doubts. An innocent man, I argued, would have resented the fellow's impudence an hour ago; and by my continued endurance of the ordeal, I was simply signing and sealing my confession; in short, I had reached the end of my powers.

'Have you any objection to my putting my hands in my breeches pockets?' I inquired. 'Excuse me mentioning it, but you showed yourself so extremely nervous a moment back.' My voice was not all I could have wished, but it sufficed. I could hear it tremble, but the landlord apparently could not. He turned away and drew a long breath, and you may be sure I was quick to follow his example.

'You're a cool hand at least, and that's the sort I like,' said he. 'Be you what you please, I'll deal square. I'll take the chaise for a hundred pound down, and throw the dinner in.'

'I beg your pardon,' I cried, wholly mystified by this form of words.

'You pay me a hundred down,' he repeated, 'and I'll take the chaise. It's very little more than it cost,' he added, with a grin, 'and you know you must get it off your hands somehow.'

I do not know when I have been better entertained than by this impudent proposal. It was broadly funny, and I suppose the least tempting offer in the world. For all that, it came very welcome, for it gave me the occasion to laugh. This I did with the most complete abandonment, till the tears ran down my cheeks; and ever and again, as the fit abated, I would get another view of the landlord's face, and go off into another paroxysm.

'You droll creature, you will be the death of me yet!' I cried, drying my eyes.

My friend was now wholly disconcerted; he knew not where to look, nor yet what to say; and began for the first time to conceive it possible he was mistaken.

'You seem rather to enjoy a laugh, sir,' said he.

'O, yes! I am quite an original,' I replied, and laughed again.

Presently, in a changed voice, he offered me twenty pounds for the chaise; I ran him up to twenty-five, and closed with the offer: indeed, I was glad to get anything; and if I haggled, it was not in the desire of gain, but with the view at any price of securing a safe retreat. For although hostilities were suspended, he was yet far from satisfied; and I could read his continued suspicions in the cloudy eye that still hovered about my face. At last they took shape in words.

'This is all very well,' says he: 'you carry it off well; but for all that, I must do my duty.'

I had my strong effect in reserve; it was to burn my ships with a vengeance! I rose. 'Leave the room,' said I. 'This is insuperable. Is the man mad?' And then, as if already half- ashamed of my passion: 'I can take a joke as well as any one,' I added; 'but this passes measure. Send my servant and the bill.'

When he had left me alone, I considered my own valour with amazement. I had insulted him; I had sent him away alone; now, if ever, he would take what was the only sensible resource, and fetch the constable. But there was something instinctively treacherous about the man which shrank from plain courses. And, with all his cleverness, he missed the occasion of fame. Rowley and I were suffered to walk out of his door, with all our baggage, on foot, with no destination named, except in the vague statement that we were come 'to view the lakes'; and my friend only watched our departure with his chin in his hand, still moodily irresolute.

I think this one of my great successes. I was exposed, unmasked, summoned to do a perfectly natural act, which must prove my doom and which I had not the slightest pretext for refusing. I kept my head, stuck to my guns, and, against all likelihood, here I was once more at liberty and in the king's highway. This was a strong lesson never to despair; and, at the same time, how many hints to be cautious! and what a perplexed and dubious business the whole question of my escape now appeared! That I should have risked perishing upon a trumpery question of a pourboire, depicted in lively colours the perils that perpetually surrounded us.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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