Noughts and Crosses/The Constant Post-Boy
II—THE CONSTANT POST-BOY.
It was a stifling August afternoon. Not a breath of wind came over the downs, and the sky was just a great flaming oven inverted over them. I sat down under a dusty gorse-bush (no tree could be seen) beside the high-road, and tugging off a boot, searched for a prickle that somehow had got into it. Then, finding myself too hot to pull the boot on again, I turned out some crumbs of tobacco from a waistcoat pocket, lit my pipe, and unbuckled my pack.
I "travel" in Tracts, edifying magazines, and books on the Holy Land; but in Tracts especially. As Watteau painted the ladies and cavaliers of Versailles so admirably, because he despised them, so I will sell a Tract against any man alive. Also, if there be one kind of Tract that I loathe more than another, it is the Pink Tract. Paper of that colour is sacred to the Loves—to stolen kisses and assignations—and to see it with a comminatory text tacked on at the foot of the page turns my stomach. I have served in my time many different masters, and mistresses; and it still pleases me, after quitting their service, to recognise the distinction between their dues. So it must have been the heat that made me select a Pink Tract. I leant back with my head in the shadow to digest its crude absurdity.
It was entitled, "How infernally Hot!" I doubt not the words were put in the mouth of some sinner, and the moral dwelt on their literal significance. But half-way down the first page sleep must have descended on me: and I woke up to the sound of light footsteps.
Pit-a-pat—pit-a-pat-a-pit-pat. I lifted my head.
Two small children were coming along the road towards me, hand-in-hand, through the heat—a boy and a girl; who, drawing near and spying my long legs sprawling out into the dust, came to a stand, finger in mouth.
"Hullo, my dears!" I called out, "what are you doing out in this weather?"
The children stared at one another, and were silent. The girl was about eight years old, wore a smart pink frock and sash, a big pink sun-bonnet, and carried an apple with a piece bitten out. She seemed a little lady; whereas the boy wore corduroys and a battered straw hat, and was a clod. Both children were exceedingly dusty and hot in the cheeks.
Finally, the girl disengaged her hand and stepped forward—
"If you please, sir, are you a clergyman?"
Now this confused me a good deal; for, to tell the truth, I had worn a white tie in my younger days, before . . . So I sat up and asked why she wished to know.
"Because we want to be married."
I drew a long breath, looked from her to the boy, and asked—
"Is that so?"
"She's wishful," answered he, nodding sulkily.
"Oho!" I thought; "Adam and Eve and the apple, complete. Do you love each other?" I asked.
"I adore Billy," cried the little maid; "he's the stable-boy at the 'Woolpack' in Bleakirk——"
"So I am beginning to smell," I put in.
—"and we put up there last night—father and I. We travel in a chaise. And this morning in the stable I saw Billy for the first time, and to see him is to love. He is far below me in station,—ain't you, Billy dear? But he rides beautifully, and is ever so strong, and not so badly ed—educated as you would fancy: he can say all his 'five-times.' And he worships me,—don't you, Billy?"
"Washups," said Billy, stolidly.
"Do you mean to tell me you have trotted in this sun all the way from Bleakirk?" I inquired.
The girl nodded. She was a splendid child—dark-haired, proud of chin, and thoroughbred down to her very toes. And the looks of fondness she threw at that stable-urchin were as good as a play.
"And what will you do," I asked, "when you are married?"
"Go home and ask my father's forgiveness. He is proud; but very, very kind."
I told them I was a clergyman, and began to cast round in my mind what to do next; for the marriage service of the Church isn't exactly the thing to repeat to two babes, and the girl was quick enough to detect and resent any attempt at fooling. So at last I persuaded them to sit together under the gorse-bush, and told them that matrimony was a serious matter, and that a long exhortation was necessary. They settled themselves to listen.
Having been twice married, I did not lack materials for a discourse. Indeed, when I talk of married life, it is a familiar experience with me to be carried away by my subject. Nor was I altogether surprised, on looking up after half an hour's oratory, to find the little ones curled in each other's arms, fast asleep.
So I spread my coat over them, and next (because the fancy took me, and not a breath of air was stirring) I treated them much as the robins treated the Babes in the Wood, strewing all my Tracts, pink and white, over them, till all but their faces was covered. And then I set off for the "Woolpack."
One spring morning, ten years later, I was standing outside the "Woolpack," drinking my mug of beer with a tall recruiting sergeant, and discussing the similarity of our professions, when a post-chaise appeared at the head of the street, and a bobbing red postillion's jacket, and a pair of greys that came down the hill with a rattle, and drew up at the inn-door.
A young lady and a young gentleman sat in the chaise, and the first glance told they were newly married. They sat in the chaise, and held each other by the hand, while the horses were changing. And because I had a bundle of tracts that fitted their condition, and because the newly married often pay for a thing beyond its worth, I approached the chaise-door.
The fresh horses were in as I began my apologies; and the post-boy was settling himself in the saddle. Judge of my astonishment when he leant back, cut me sharply across the calves with his long whip, and before I could yell had started his horses up the opposite hill at a gallop. The hind wheel missed my toes by an inch. In three minutes the carriage and red coat were but a speck on the road that led up to the downs.
I returned to my mug, emptied it moodily, broke a fine repartee on the sergeant's dull head (he was consumed with mirth), and followed the same road at a slow pace; for my business took me along it.
I was on the downs, and had walked, perhaps, six miles, when again I saw the red speck ahead of me. It was the post-boy—a post-boy returning on foot, of all miracles. He came straight up to meet me, and then stood in the road, barring my path, and tapping his riding-boot with the butt of his whip—a handsome young fellow, well proportioned and well set up.
"I want you," he said, "to walk back with me to Bleakirk."
"Upon my word!" I cried out. "Considering that Bleakirk is six miles away, that I am walking in the other direction, and that, two hours back, you gave me a cursed cut over the legs with that whip, I fancy I see myself obliging you!"
He regarded me moodily for about a minute, but did not shift his position.
"Why are you on foot?" I asked.
"Oh, my God!" he cried out quickly, as a man might that was stabbed; "I couldn't trust myself to ride; I couldn't." He shuddered, and put a hand over his eyes. "Look here," he said, "you must walk home with me, or at least see me past the Chalk-pit."
Now the Chalk-pit, when spelt with a capital letter, is an especially deep and ugly one on the very edge of the Bleakirk road, about two miles out of the village. A weak fence only separates its lip from the macadam. It is a nasty place to pass by night with a carriage; but here it was broad day, and the fellow was walking. So I didn't take him at all.
"Listen to me," he went on in a dull voice; "do you remember sitting beside this road, close on ten years back? And a boy and girl who came along this road together and asked you to marry them?"
"Bless my soul! Were you that boy?"
He nodded. "Yes: and the young lady in the chaise to-day was that girl. Old man, I know you reckon yourself clever,—I've heard you talk: but that when I met her to-day, three hours married, and she didn't know me, I had a hell in my heart as I drove past the Chalk-pit, is a thing that passes your understanding, perhaps. They were laughing together, mark you, and yet they weren't a hair's breadth from death. And, by the Lord, you must help me past that pit!"
"Young man," I said, musing, "when first I met you, you were ten years old, and I thought you a fool. To-day you have grown into an unmitigated ass. But you are dangerous; and therefore I respect you, and will see you home."
I turned back with him. When we came to the Chalk-pit, I kept him on the farther side of the road, though it cost me some terror to walk between him and the edge; for I have too much imagination to be a thoroughly brave man.
The sun was sinking as we walked down to Bleakirk; and the recruiting sergeant sat asleep outside the "Woolpack," with his head on the window-sill. I woke him up; and within half an hour my post-boy wore a bunch of ribbons on his cap—red, white, and blue.
I believe he has seen some fighting since then; and has risen in the ranks.