ST. Ives

Page 61

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.


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 loin'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.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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