ST. Ives

Page 63

No more could I, you may say; but then I had the more impudence--and I had made the proposal.

'He says I'm no Englishman, but the proof of the pudding is the eating of it,' I continued. And here I stripped my coat and fell into the proper attitude, which was just about all I knew of this barbarian art. 'Why, sir, you seem to me to hang back a little,' said I. 'Come, I'll meet you; I'll give you an appetiser--though hang me if I can understand the man that wants any enticement to hold up his hands.' I drew a bank-note out of my fob and tossed it to the landlord. 'There are the stakes,' said I. 'I'll fight you for first blood, since you seem to make so much work about it. If you tap my claret first, there are five guineas for you, and I'll go with you to any squire you choose to mention. If I tap yours, you'll perhaps let on that I'm the better man, and allow me to go about my lawful business at my own time and convenience, by God; is that fair, my lads?' says I, appealing to the company.

'Ay, ay,' said the chorus of chawbacons; 'he can't say no fairer nor that, he can't. Take off thy coat master!'

The limb of the law was now on the wrong side of public opinion, and, what heartened me to go on, the position was rapidly changing in our favour. Already the Major was paying his shot to the very indifferent landlord, and I could see the white face of King at the back-door, making signals of haste.

'Oho!' quoth my enemy, 'you are as full of doubles as a fox, are you not? But I see through you; I see through and through you. You would change the venue, would you?'

'I may be transparent, sir,' says I, 'but if you'll do me the favour to stand up, you'll find I can hit dam hard.'

'Which is a point, if you will observe, that I had never called in question,' said he. 'Why, you ignorant clowns,' he proceeded, addressing the company, 'can't you see the fellow's gulling you before your eyes? Can't you see that he has changed the point upon me? I say he's a French prisoner, and he answers that he can box! What has that to do with it? I would not wonder but what he can dance, too--they're all dancing masters over there. I say, and I stick to it, that he's a Frenchy. He says he isn't. Well then, let him out with his papers, if he has them! If he had, would he not show them? If he had, would he not jump at the idea of going to Squire Merton, a man you all know? Now, you are all plain, straightforward Bedfordshire men, and I wouldn't ask a better lot to appeal to. You're not the kind to be talked over with any French gammon, and he's plenty of that. But let me tell him, he can take his pigs to another market; they'll never do here; they'll never go down in Bedfordshire. Why! look at the man! Look at his feet! Has anybody got a foot in the room like that? See how he stands! do any of you fellows stand like that? Does the landlord, there? Why, he has Frenchman wrote all over him, as big as a sign- post!'

This was all very well; and in a different scene I might even have been gratified by his remarks; but I saw clearly, if I were to allow him to talk, he might turn the tables on me altogether. He might not be much of a hand at boxing; but I was much mistaken, or he had studied forensic eloquence in a good school. In this predicament I could think of nothing more ingenious than to burst out of the house, under the pretext of an ungovernable rage. It was certainly not very ingenious--it was elementary, but I had no choice.

'You white-livered dog!' I broke out. 'Do you dare to tell me you're an Englishman, and won't fight? But I'll stand no more of this! I leave this place, where I've been insulted! Here! what's to pay? Pay yourself!' I went on, offering the landlord a handful of silver, 'and give me back my bank-note!'

The landlord, following his usual policy of obliging everybody, offered no opposition to my design. The position of my adversary was now thoroughly bad. He had lost my two companions. He was on the point of losing me also.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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