ST. Ives

Page 62

'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, 'Oh, 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.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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