ST. Ives

Page 98

He would hear the same word twenty times with profound refreshment, mispronounce it in several different ways, and forget it again with magical celerity. Say it happened to be STIRRUP. 'No, I don't seem to remember that word, Mr. Anne,' he would say: 'it don't seem to stick to me, that word don't.' And then, when I had told it him again, 'Etrier!' he would cry. 'To be sure! I had it on the tip of my tongue. Eterier!' (going wrong already, as if by a fatal instinct). 'What will I remember it by, now? Why, INTERIOR, to be sure! I'll remember it by its being something that ain't in the interior of a horse.' And when next I had occasion to ask him the French for stirrup, it was a toss-up whether he had forgotten all about it, or gave me EXTERIOR for an answer. He was never a hair discouraged. He seemed to consider that he was covering the ground at a normal rate. He came up smiling day after day. 'Now, sir, shall we do our French?' he would say; and I would put questions, and elicit copious commentary and explanation, but never the shadow of an answer. My hands fell to my sides; I could have wept to hear him. When I reflected that he had as yet learned nothing, and what a vast deal more there was for him to learn, the period of these lessons seemed to unroll before me vast as eternity, and I saw myself a teacher of a hundred, and Rowley a pupil of ninety, still hammering on the rudiments! The wretched boy, I should say, was quite unspoiled by the inevitable familiarities of the journey. He turned out at each stage the pink of serving-lads, deft, civil, prompt, attentive, touching his hat like an automaton, raising the status of Mr. Ramornie in the eyes of all the inn by his smiling service, and seeming capable of anything in the world but the one thing I had chosen--learning French!


The country had for some time back been changing in character. By a thousand indications I could judge that I was again drawing near to Scotland. I saw it written in the face of the hills, in the growth of the trees, and in the glint of the waterbrooks that kept the high-road company. It might have occurred to me, also, that I was, at the same time, approaching a place of some fame in Britain- -Gretna Green. Over these same leagues of road--which Rowley and I now traversed in the claret-coloured chaise, to the note of the flageolet and the French lesson--how many pairs of lovers had gone bowling northwards to the music of sixteen scampering horseshoes; and how many irate persons, parents, uncles, guardians, evicted rivals, had come tearing after, clapping the frequent red face to the chaise-window, lavishly shedding their gold about the post- houses, sedulously loading and re-loading, as they went, their avenging pistols! But I doubt if I had thought of it at all, before a wayside hazard swept me into the thick of an adventure of this nature; and I found myself playing providence with other people's lives, to my own admiration at the moment--and subsequently to my own brief but passionate regret.

At rather an ugly corner of an uphill reach I came on the wreck of a chaise lying on one side in the ditch, a man and a woman in animated discourse in the middle of the road, and the two postillions, each with his pair of horses, looking on and laughing from the saddle.

'Morning breezes! here's a smash!' cried Rowley, pocketing his flageolet in the middle of the Tight Little Island.

I was perhaps more conscious of the moral smash than the physical-- more alive to broken hearts than to broken chaises; for, as plain as the sun at morning, there was a screw loose in this runaway match. It is always a bad sign when the lower classes laugh: their taste in humour is both poor and sinister; and for a man, running the posts with four horses, presumably with open pockets, and in the company of the most entrancing little creature conceivable, to have come down so far as to be laughed at by his own postillions, was only to be explained on the double hypothesis, that he was a fool and no gentleman.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book