Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Evan Harrington - Part 8
EVAN HARRINGTON; or, HE WOULD BE A GENTLEMAN.
BY GEORGE MEREDITH.
CHAPTER XI.DOINGS AT AN INN.
What every traveller sighs to find, was palateably furnished by the Green Dragon of Fallowfield,—a famous inn, and a constellation of wandering coachmen. There pleasant smiles seasoned plenty, and the bill was gilded in a manner unknown to our days. Whoso drank of the ale of the Green Dragon, kept in his memory a place apart for it. The secret that to give a warm welcome is the breath of life to an inn was one the Green Dragon boasted, even then, not to share with many Red Lions, or Cocks of the Morning, or Kings’ Heads, or other fabulous monsters; and as if to show that when you are in the right track you are sure to be seconded, there was a friend of the Green Dragon, who, on a particular night of the year, caused its renown to enlarge to the dimensions of a miracle. But that, for the moment, is my secret.
Evan and Jack were met in the passage by a chambermaid. Before either of them could speak, she had turned and fled, with the words:
“More coming!” which, with the addition of “My goodness me!” were echoed by the hostess in her recess. Hurried directions seemed to be consequent, and then the hostess sallied out, and said, with a curtsey:
“Please to step in, gentlemen. This is the room, to-night.”
Evan lifted his hat; and bowing, requested to know whether they could have a supper and beds.
“Beds, sir!” cried the hostess. “What am I to do for beds! Yes, beds indeed you may have, but bed-rooms—if you ask for them, it really is more than I can supply you with. I have given up my own. I sleep with my maid Jane to-night.”
“Anything will do for us, madam,” replied Evan, renewing his foreign courtesy. “But there is a poor young woman outside.”
“Another!” the hostess instantly smiled down the inhospitable outcry.
“She,” said Evan, “must have a room to herself. She is ill.”
“Must is must, sir,” returned the gracious hostess. “But I really haven’t the means.”
“You have bed-rooms, madam?”
“Every one of them engaged, sir.”
“By ladies, madam?”
“Lord forbid, sir!” she exclaimed with the honest energy of a woman who knew her sex.
Evan bade Jack go and assist the waggoner to bring in the girl. Jack, who had been all the time pulling at his wristbands, and settling his coat-collar by the dim reflection of a window of the bar, departed, after, on his own authority, assuring the hostess that fever was not the young woman’s malady, as she protested against admitting fever into her house, seeing that she had to consider her guests.
“We’re open to all the world to-night, except fever,” said the hostess. “Yes,” she rejoined to Evan’s order that the waggoner and his mate should be supplied with ale, “they shall have as much as they can drink,” which is not a speech usual at inns, when one man gives an order for others, but Evan passed it by, and politely begged to be shown in to one of the gentlemen who had engaged bed-rooms.
“Oh! if you can persuade any of them, sir, I’m sure I’ve nothing to say,” observed the hostess. “Pray don’t ask me to stand by and back it, that’s all.”
Had Evan been familiar with the Green Dragon, he would have noticed that the landlady, its presiding genius, was stiffer than usual; the rosy smile was more constrained, as if a great host had to be embraced, and were trying it to the utmost stretch. There was, however, no asperity about her, and when she had led him to the door he was to enter to prefer his suit, and she had asked whether the young woman was quite common, and he had replied that he had picked her up on the road, and that she was certainly poor, the hostess said:
“I’m sure you’re a very good gentleman, sir, and if I could spare your asking at all, I would.”
With that she went back to encounter Mr. Raikes and his charge, and prime the waggoner and his mate.
A noise of laughter and talk was stilled gradually, as Evan made his bow into a spacious room, wherein, as the tops of pines are seen swimming on the morning mist, about a couple of dozen guests of divers conditions sat partially revealed through wavy clouds of tobacco-smoke. By their postures, which Evan’s appearance by no means disconcerted, you read in a glance men who had been at ease for so many hours that they had no troubles in the world save the two ultimate perplexities of the British Sybarite, whose bed of roses is harassed by the pair of problems: first, what to do with his legs: secondly, how to imbibe liquor with the slightest possible derangement of those members subordinate to his upper structure. Of old the Sybarite complained. Not so our self-helpful islanders. Since they could not, now that work was done, and jollity the game, take off their legs (a mechanical contrivance overlooked by Nature, who should have made Britons like the rest of her children in all things, if unable to suit us in all), they got away from them as far as they might, in fashions original or imitative: some by thrusting them out at full length; some by cramping them under their chairs: while some, taking refuge in a mental effort, forgot them, a process to be recommended if it did not involve occasional pangs of consciousness to the legs of their neighbours. We see in our cousins West of the great water, who are said to exaggerate our peculiarities, beings labouring under the same difficulty, and intent on its solution. As to the second problem: that of drinking without discomposure to the subservient limbs: the company present worked out this republican principle ingeniously, but in a manner beneath the attention of the Muse. Let Clio record that mugs and glasses, tobacco and pipes, were strewn upon the table. But if the guests had arrived at that stage when to reach the arm, or arrange the person, for a sip of good stuff, causes moral debates, and presents to the mind impediments equal to what would be raised in active men by the prospect of a great excursion, it is not to be wondered at that the presence of a stranger produced no immediate commotion. Two or three heads were half-turned; such as faced him imperceptibly lifted their eyelids.
“Good evening, sir,” said one who sat as chairman, with a decisive nod.
“Good night, ain’t it?” a jolly-looking old fellow queried of the speaker, in an under-voice.
“’Gad, you don’t expect me to be wishing the gentleman good-bye, do you?” retorted the former.
“Ha! ha! No, to be sure,” answered the old boy; and the remark was variously uttered, that “Good night,” by a caprice of our language, did sound like it.
“Good evening’s ‘How d’ye do?’—‘How are ye?’ Good night’s ‘Be off, and be blowed to you,’” observed an interpreter with a positive mind; and another, whose intelligence was not so clear, but whose perceptions had seized the point, exclaimed: “I never says it when I hails a chap; but, dash my buttons, if I mightn’t ’a done, one day or another! Queer!”
The chairman, warmed by his joke, added, with a sharp wink: “Ay; it would be queer, if you hailed ‘Good night’ in the middle of the day!” and this among a company soaked in ripe ale, could not fail to run the electric circle, and persuaded several to change their positions; in the rumble of which, Evan’s reply, if he made any, was lost. Few, however, were there who could think of him, and ponder on that glimpse of fun, at the same time; and he would have been passed over, had not the chairman said: “Take a seat, sir: make yourself comfortable.”
“Before I have that pleasure,” replied Evan, “I—”
“I see where ’tis,” burst out the old boy who had previously superinduced a diversion: “he’s going to ax if he can’t have a bed!”
A roar of laughter, and “Don’t you remember this day last year?” followed the cunning guess. For a-while explication was impossible; and Evan coloured, and smiled, and waited for them.
“I was going to ask—”
“Said so!” shouted the old boy, gleefully.
“—one of the gentlemen who has engaged a bed-room to do me the extreme favour to step aside with me, and allow me a moment’s speech with him.”
Long faces were drawn, and odd stares were directed towards him, in reply.
“I see where ’tis;” the old boy thumped his knee. “Ain’t it now? Speak up, sir! There’s a lady in the case?”
“I may tell you thus much,” answered Evan, “that it is an unfortunate young woman, very ill, who needs rest and quiet.”
“Didn’t I say so?” shouted the old boy.
But this time, though his jolly red jowl turned all round to demand a confirmation, it was not generally considered that he had divined so correctly. Between a lady and an unfortunate young woman, there seemed to be a strong distinction, in the minds of the company.
The chairman was the most affected by the communication. His bushy eyebrows frowned at Evan, and he began tugging at the brass buttons of his coat, like one preparing to arm for a conflict.
“Speak out, sir, if you please,” he said. “Above board—no asides—no taking advantages. You want me to give up my bed-room for the use of your young woman, sir?”
Evan replied quietly: “She is a stranger to me; and if you could see her, sir, and know her situation, I think she would move your pity.”
“I don’t doubt it, sir—I don’t doubt it,” returned the chairman. “They all move our pity. That’s how they get over us. She has diddled you, and she would diddle me, and diddle us all—diddle the devil, I dare say, when her time comes. I don’t doubt it, sir.”
To confront a vehement old gentleman, sitting as president in an assembly of satellites, requires some command of countenance, and Evan was not browbeaten: he held him, and the whole room, from where he stood, under a serene and serious eye, for his feelings were too deeply stirred on behalf of the girl to let him think of himself. That question of hers, “What are you going to do with me?” implying such helplessness and trust, was still sharp on his nerves.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I humbly beg your pardon for disturbing you as I do.”
But with a sudden idea that a general address on behalf of a particular demand must necessarily fail, he let his eyes rest on one there, whose face was neither stupid nor repellent, and who, though he did not look up, had an attentive, thoughtful cast about the mouth.
“May I entreat a word apart with you, sir?”
Evan was not mistaken in the index he had perused. The gentleman seemed to feel that he was selected from the company, and, slightly raising his head, carelessly replied: “My bed is entirely at your disposal,” resuming his contemplative pose.
On the point of thanking him, Evan advanced a step, when up started the irascible chairman.
“I don’t permit it! I won’t allow it!” And before Evan could ask his reasons, he had rung the bell, muttering: “They follow us to our inns, now, the baggages! They must harry us at our inns! We can’t have peace and quiet at our inns!”
In a state of combustion, he cried out to the waiter: “Here, Mark, this gentleman has brought in a dirty wench: pack her up to my bed-room, and lock her in: lock her in, and bring down the key.”
Agreeably deceived in the old gentleman’s intentions, Evan could not refrain from joining the murmured hilarity created by the conclusion of his order. The latter glared at him, and added: “Now, sir, you’ve done your worst. Sit down, and be merry.”
Replying that he had a friend outside, and would not fail to accept the invitation, Evan retired. He was met by the hostess with the reproachful declaration on her lips, that she was a widow woman, wise in appearances, and that he had brought into her house that night work she did not expect, or bargain for. Rather (since I must speak truth of my gentleman) to silence her on the subject, and save his ears, than to propitiate her favour towards the girl, Evan drew out his constitutionally lean purse, and dropped it in her hand, praying her to put every expense incurred to his charge. She exclaimed: “If Dr. Pillie has his full sleep this night, I shall be astonished;” and Evan hastily led Jack into the passage to impart to him, that the extent of his resources was reduced to three shillings and a few pence. Jack made a wry face, but regained his equanimity, saying: “Well, we can’t be knights of chivalry and aldermen too. The thing was never known. Let me see. I’ve almost forgotten how to reckon. Beds, a shilling a piece—the rest for provender. To-morrow we die. That’s a consolation to the stumped! Come along, Harrington; let us look like men who have had pounds in their pockets!”
Mr. Raikes assumed the braver features of this representation, and marched into the room without taking off his hat, which was a part of his confidence in company. He took his seat at a small table, and began to whistle. His demeanour signified: “I am equal to any of you.” His thoughts were: “How shall I prove it upon three shillings?”
“I see you’re in mourning as well as myself. Jack,” said Evan, calling attention to his hat.
Mr. Raikes did not displace it, as he replied, “Yes,” with the pre-occupied air of a man who would be weeping the past had he not to study the present.
Eyes were on him, he could feel. It appeared to him that the company awaited his proceedings; why they should he did not consider; but the sense of it led him to stalk with affected gravity to the bell, which he rang consequentially; and, telling Evan to leave the ordering to him, sat erect, and scanned the measure and quality of the stuff in the glasses.
“Mind you never mention about my applying to old Cudford,” he whispered to Evan, hurriedly. “Shouldn’t like it known, you know—one’s family!—Here, waiter!”
Mark, the waiter, scudded past, and stopped before the chairman to say: “If you please, sir, the gentlemen up-stairs send their compliments, and will be happy to accept.”
“Ha!” was the answer. “Thought better of it, have they! Lay for three more, then. Pretty nearly ready?”
“It will be another twenty minutes, sir.”
“Oh, attend to that gentleman, then.”
Mark presented himself to the service of Mr. Raikes.
“R-r-r-r—a—” commenced Jack, “what have you got-a-that you can give a gentleman for supper, waiter?”
“Receive the gentleman’s orders!” shouted the chairman to a mute interrogation from Mark, who capitulated spontaneously:
“Cold veal, cold beef, cold duck, cold—”
“Stop!” cried Mr. Raikes. “It’s summer, I know; but cold, cold, cold!—really! And cold duck! Cold duck and old peas, I suppose! I don’t want to come the epicure exactly, in the country. One must take what one can get, I know that. But some nice little bit to captivate the appetite?”
Mark suggested a rarebit.
Mr. Raikes shook his head with melancholy.
“Can you let us have some Maintenon cutlets, waiter?—or Soubise?—I ask for some dressing, that’s all—something to make a man eat.” He repeated to Evan: “Maintenon? Soubise?” whispering: “Anything will do!”
“I think you had better order bread and cheese,” said Evan, meaningly, in the same tone.
“You think, on the whole, you prefer Soubise?” cried Jack. “Very well. But can we have it? These out-of-the-way places—we must be modest! Now, I’ll wager you don’t know how to make an omelette here, waiter? Plain English cookery, of course!”
“Our cook has made ’em, sir,” said Mark.
“Oh, that’s quite enough!” returned Jack. “Oh, dear me! Has made an omelette! That doesn’t by any means sound cheerful.”
Jack was successful in the effect he intended to produce on the company. The greater number of the sons of Britain present gazed at him with the respectful antagonism peculiar to them when they hear foreign words, the familiarity with which appears to imply wealth and distinction.
“Chippolata pudding, of course, is out of the question,” he resumed. “Fish one can’t ask for. Vain were the call! A composition of eggs, flour, and butter we dare not trust. What are we to do?”
Before Evan could again recommend bread and cheese, the chairman had asked Mr. Raikes whether he really liked cutlets for supper; and, upon Jack replying that they were a favourite dish, sung out to Mark: “Cutlets for two!” and in an instant Mark had left the room, and the friends found themselves staring at one another.
“There’s three shillings at a blow!” hissed Jack, now taking off his hat, as if to free his distressed mind.
Evan, red in the face, reproached him for his folly. Jack comforted him with the assurance that they were in for it, and might as well comport themselves with dignity till the time for payment.
“I shall do nothing of the sort,” said Evan, getting up to summon Mark afresh. “I shall sup on bread and cheese.”
“My lord! my lord!” cried Jack, laying hold of his arm, and appearing to forget some private necessity for an incognito.
“Well,” he added, as the bell rang, “perhaps at this late hour we ought to consider the house. We should bear in mind that a cook, however divine in bounties, is mortal, like the rest of us. We are not at Trianon. I’m not the Abbé Dubois, nor you the Duc d’Orleans. Since they won’t let us cook for ourselves, which I hold that all born gentlemen are bound to be able to do, we’ll e’en content ourselves with modest fare.”
“My good Jack,” said Evan, less discreetly than it pleased his friend to hear, “haven’t you done playing at ‘lords’ yet? It was fun when we were boys at school. But, let me tell you, you don’t look a bit like a lord.”
“I’m the son of a gentleman,” returned Jack, angrily.
“I’m sorry you find yourself compelled to tell everybody of it,” said Evan, touched by a nettle.
“But what’s the use of singing small before these fellows?” Jack inquired.
The chairman was doubled in his seat with laughter. Among a portion of the guests there had been a return to common talk, and one had observed that he could not get that “Good Evening,” and “Good Night,” out of his head: which had caused a friend to explain the meaning of these terms of salutation to him: while another, of a philosophic turn, pursued the theme: “Ye see, when we meets, we makes a night of it. So, when we parts, it’s Good Night—natural! ain’t it?” A proposition assented to, and considerably dilated on; but whether he was laughing at that, or what had aroused the fit, the chairman did not say. Evan countermanded the cutlets, and substituted an order for bread and cheese, Jack adding, with the nod of a patron to the waiter:
“We think—since it’s late—we won’t give you the trouble to-night. We’ll try the effect of bread and cheese for once in a way. Nothing like new sensations!”
At this the chairman fell right forward, grasping the arms of his chair, and shouting.
Jack unconsciously put on his hat, for when you have not the key to current laughter—and especially when you are acting a part, and acting it, as you think, with admirable truth to nature—it has a hostile sound, and suggests devilries.
The lighter music of mirth had succeeded the chairman’s big bursts, by the time the bread and cheese appeared.
In the rear of the provision came three young gentlemen, of whom the foremost lumped in, singing to one behind him,—“And you shall have little Rosey!”
They were clad in cricketing costume, and exhibited the health and manners of youthful Englishmen of station. Frolicsome young bulls bursting on an assemblage of sheep, they might be compared to. The chairman welcomed them a trifle snubbingly. The colour mounted to the cheeks of Mr. Raikes as he made incision in the cheese, under their eyes, knitting his brows fearfully, as if at hard work.
“What a place!” he muttered. “Nothing but bread and cheese! Well! We must make the best of it. Content ourselves with beer, too! A drink corrupted into a likeness of wine! Due to our Teutonic ancestry, no doubt. Let fancy beguile us!” And Mr. Raikes, with a grand air of good-nature, and the lofty mind that makes the best of difficulties, offered Evan a morsel of cheese, saying: “We dispense with soup. We commence with the entrées. May I press a patty upon you.”
“Thank you,” said Evan, smiling, and holding out his plate.
“Yes, yes; I understand you,” continued Mr. Raikes. “We eat, and eke we swear. We’ll be avenged for this. In the interim let sweet fancy beguile us!”
Before helping himself, a thought appeared to strike him. He got up hastily, and summoned Mark afresh.
“R-r-r-r—a—what are the wines here, waiter?” he demanded to know.
It was a final effort at dignity and rejection of the status to which, as he presumed, the sight of a gentleman, or the son of one, pasturing on plain cheese, degraded him. It was also Jack’s way of repelling the tone of insolent superiority in the bearing of the three young cricketers.
“What are the wines in this establishment?” he repeated peremptorily, for Mark stood smoothing his mouth, as if he would have enjoyed the liberty of a grin.
“Ah—the old story,” returned Mr. Raikes. “Dear! dear! dear!”
“Perhaps, sir,” insinuated Mark, “you mean foreign wines?”
“None of your infamous home-concoctions, waiter. Port! I believe there’s no Port in the country, except in half-a-dozen private cellars—of which I know three. I do mean foreign wines.”
Now Mark had served in a good family, and in a London hotel. He cleared his throat, and mutely begging the attention of the chairman, thus volubly started: “Foreign wines, sir, yes! Rhine wines! we have Rudesham; we have Maregbrun; we have Steenbug—Joehannisbug—Libefromil—Asmyhaus, and several others. Claret!—we have Lafitte; we have Margaw; we have Rose;—’Fitte—Margaw—Rose—Julia—Bodo. At your disposal, sir.”
Jack, with a fiery face, blinked wildly under the torrent of vintages.
Evan answered his plaintive look: “I shall drink ale.”
“Then I suppose I must do the same,” said Jack, with a miserable sense of defeat and provoked humiliation. “Thank you, waiter, it goes better with cheese. A pint of ale.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mark, scorning to stop and enjoy his victory.
Heaving a sad “Heigho!” and not daring to glance at the buzzing company, Mr. Raikes cut a huge bit of crust off the loaf, and was preparing to encounter it. The melancholy voracity in his aspect was changed in a minute to surprise, for the chairman had started out of a fit of compressed merriment to arrest his hand.
“Let me offer you vengeance on the spot, sir.”
“How?” cried Jack, angrily; “enigmas?”
The chairman entreated Evan to desist from the cheese; and, pulling out his watch, thundered: “Time!”
The company generally jumped on their legs; and, in the midst of a hum of talk and laughter, the chairman informed Evan and Jack, that he invited them cordially to a supper upstairs, and would be pleased if they would partake of it, and in a great rage if they would not.
“Sir,” said Jack, by this time quite recovered, “the alternative decides me. The alternative is one I should so deeply grieve to witness, that, in short, I—a—give in my personal adhesion, with thanks.”
“You are not accustomed to this poor fare, sir,” remarked the chairman.”
“You have aptly divined the fact, sir, said Jack; “nor I, nor this, my friend. The truth is, that where cometh cheese, and nothing precedeth it, there is, the—the cultivated intelligence, the sense of a hiatus—a sort of vocative ‘caret,’ as we used to say at school—which may promote digestion, but totally at the expense of satisfaction. Man, by such means, is sunk below the level of the ruminating animal. He cheweth—”
The stentorian announcement of supper interrupted Mr. Raikes; and the latter gentleman, to whom glibness stood for greatness of manner, very well content with the effect he conceived he had produced on the company, set about persuading Evan to join the feast. For several reasons, Evan would have preferred to avoid it. He was wretched, inclined to enjoy a fit of youthful misanthropy; Jack’s dramatic impersonation of the lord had disgusted him; and bread and cheese symbolled his condition. The chairman, catching indications of reluctance, stooped forward, and said: “Sir! must I put it as a positive favour?”
“Pray, do not,” replied Evan, and relinquished the table with a bow.
The door was open, and the company of jolly yeomen, tradesmen, farmers, and the like, had become intent on observing all the ceremonies of precedence: not one would broaden his back on the other: and there was bowing, and scraping, and grimacing, till Farmer Broadmead was hailed aloud, and the old boy stepped forth, and was summarily pushed through: the chairman calling from the rear, “Hulloa! no names to-night!” to which was answered lustily: “All right, Mr. Tom!” and the speaker was reproved with, “There you go! at it again!” and out and up they hustled.
The chairman said quietly to Evan, as they were ascending the stairs: “We don’t have names to-night: may as well drop titles.” Which presented no peculiar meaning to Evan’s mind, and he smiled the usual smile.
To Jack, at the door of the supper-room, the chairman repeated the same; and Jack, with extreme affability and alacrity of abnegation, rejoined, “Oh, certainly!”
No wonder that he rubbed his hands with more delight than aristocrats and people with gentlemanly connections are in the habit of betraying at the prospect of refection, for the release from bread and cheese was rendered overpoweringly glorious, in his eyes, by the bountiful contrast exhibited on the board before him.
CHAPTER XII.IN WHICH ALE IS SHOWN TO HAVE ONE QUALITY OF WINE.
To proclaim that yon ribs of beef, and yonder ruddy Britons have met, is to furnish matter for an hour’s comfortable meditation.
Digest the fact. Here the Fates have put their seal to something Nature clearly devised. It was intended: and it has come to pass. A thing has come to pass which we feel to be right! The machinery of the world, then, is not entirely dislocated: there is harmony, on one point, among the mysterious Powers who have to do with us. Discordant as the individual may have become, the condition of the universe is vindicated by this great meeting of beef and Britons. We have here a basis. I cherish a belief that, at some future day, the speculative Teuton and experimental Gaul will make pilgrimages to this island solely to view this sight, and gather strength from it.
Apart from its eloquent and consoling philosophy, the picture is pleasant. You see two rows of shoulders resolutely set for action: heads in divers degrees of proximity to their plates: eyes variously twinkling, or hypocritically composed: chaps in vigorous exercise. Now leans a fellow right back with his whole face to the firmament: Ale is his adoration. He sighs not till he sees the end of the mug. Now from one a laugh is sprung; but, as if too early tapped, he turns off the cock, and serenely primes himself anew. Occupied by their own requirements, these Britons allow that their neighbours have rights: no cursing at waste of time is heard when plates have to be passed: disagreeable, it is still duty. Field-Marshal Duty, the Briton’s star, shines here. If one usurps more than his allowance of elbow-room, bring your charge against them that fashioned him: work away to arrive at some compass yourself.
Now the mustard has ceased to travel, and the salt: the guests have leisure to contemplate their achievements. Laughs are more prolonged, and come from the depths.
Now Ale, which is to Beef what Eve was to Adam, threatens to take possession of the field. Happy they who, following Nature’s direction, admitted not bright ale into their Paradise till their manhood was strengthened with beef. Some, impatient, had thirsted; had satisfied their thirst; and the ale, the light though lovely spirit, with nothing to hold it down, had mounted to their heads; just as Eve will do when Adam is not mature: just as she did—Alas! Gratitude forbid that I should say a word against good ale: I am disinclined to say a word in disfavour of Eve. Both Ale and Eve seem to speak imperiously to the soul of man. See that they be good, see that they come in season, and we bow to the consequences.
Now, the ruins of the feast being removed, and a clear course left for the flow of ale, farmer Broadmead, facing the chairman, rises. He speaks:
“Gentlemen! ’Taint fust time you and I be met here, to salbrate this here occasion. I say, not fust time, not by many a time, ’tain’t. Well, gentlemen, I ain’t much of a speaker, gentlemen, as you know. Hows'ever, here I be. No denyin’ that. I’m on my legs. This here’s a strange enough world, and a man as ’s a gentleman, I say, we ought for to be glad when we got ’m. You know: I’m coming to it shortly. I ain’t much of a speaker, and if you wants somethin’ new, you must ax elsewhere: but what I say is—dang it! here’s good health and long life to Mr. Tom, up there!”
“No names!” shouts the chairman, in the midst of a tremendous clatter.
Farmer Broadmead moderately disengages his breadth from the seat. He humbly asks pardon, which is accorded.
Ale (to Beef what Eve was to Adam), circulates beneath a dazzling foam, fair as the first woman.
Mr. Tom (for the breach of the rules in mentioning whose name on a night when identities thereon dependent are merged, we offer sincere apologies every other minute), Mr. Tom is toasted. His parents, who selected that day sixty years ago, for his bow to be made to the world, are alluded to with encomiums, and float down to posterity on floods of liquid amber.
But to see all the subtle merits that now begin to bud out from Mr. Tom, the chairman and giver of the feast; and also rightly to appreciate the speeches, we require to be enormously charged with Ale. Mr. John Raikes did his best to keep his head above the surface of the rapid flood. He conceived the chairman in brilliant colours, and probably owing to the energy called for by his brain, the legs of the young man failed him twice, as he tried them. Attention was demanded. Mr. John Raikes addressed the meeting.
The three young gentlemen-cricketers had hitherto behaved with a certain propriety. It did not offend Mr. Raikes to see them conduct themselves as if they were at a play, and the rest of the company paid actors. He had likewise taken a position, and had been the first to laugh aloud at a particular slip of grammar; while his shrugs at the aspirations transposed and the pronunciation prevalent, had almost established a free-masonry between him and one of the three young gentlemen-cricketers—a fair-haired youth, with a handsome reckless face, who leaned on the table, humourously eyeing the several speakers, and exchanging by-words and laughs with his friends on each side of him.
But Mr. Raikes had the disadvantage of having come to the table empty in stomach—thirsty, exceedingly; and, I repeat that as, without experience, you are the victim of divinely-given Eve, so, with no foundation to receive it upon, are you the victim of good sound Ale. Mr. Raikes very soon lost his head. He would otherwise have seen that he must produce a wonderfully-telling speech if he was to keep the position he had taken, and had better not attempt one. The three young cricketers were hostile from the beginning. All of them leant forward, calling attention loudly, humming a roll of Rhine wines, laughing for the fun to come.
“Gentlemen!” he said; and said it twice. The gap was wide, and he said, “Gentlemen!” again.
This commencement of a speech proves that you have made the plunge, but not that you can swim. At a repetition of “Gentlemen!” expectancy resolved into cynicism.
“Gie’n a help,” sung out a son of the plough to a neighbour of the orator.
“Dang it!” murmured another, “we ain’t such gentlemen as that comes to.”
Mr. Raikes was politely requested to “tune his pipe.”
With a gloomy curiosity as to the results of Jack’s adventurous undertaking, and a touch of anger at the three, whose bearing throughout had displeased him, Evan regarded his friend. He, too, had drunk, and upon emptiness. Bright ale had mounted to his brain. A hero should be held as sacred as the Grand Llama: so let no more be said than that he drank still, nor marked the replenishing of his glass.
Jack cleared his throat for a final assault: he had got an image, and was dashing off; but, unhappily, as if to make the start seem fair, he was guilty of the reiteration of “Gentlemen.”
Everybody knew that it was a real start this time, and indeed he had made an advance, and had run straight through half a sentence. It was therefore manifestly unfair, inimical, contemptuous, overbearing, and base, for one of the three young cricketers, at this period to fling back weariedly and exclaim: “By jingo! too many gentlemen here!”
Evan heard him across the table. Lacking the key of the speaker’s previous conduct, the words might have passed. As it was, they, to the ale-invaded head of a young hero, feeling himself the world’s equal, and condemned nevertheless to bear through life the insignia of Tailordom, not unnaturally struck with peculiar offence. There was arrogance, too, in the young man who had interposed. He was long in the body, and, when he was not refreshing his sight by a careless contemplation of his finger-nails, looked down on his company at table, as one may do who comes from loftier studies. He had what is popularly known as the nose of our aristocracy: a nose that much culture of the external graces, and affectation of suavity, are required to soften. Thereto were joined thin lips and hot brows. Birth it was possible he could boast: hardly brains. He sat to the right of the fair-haired youth, who, with his remaining comrade, a quiet smiling fellow, appeared to be better liked by the guests, and had been hailed once or twice, under correction of the chairman, as Mr. Harry. The three had distinguished one there by a few friendly passages; and this was he who had offered his bed to Evan for the service of the girl. The recognition they extended to him did not affect him deeply. He was called Drummond, and had his place near the chairman, whose humours he seemed to relish.
Now the ears of Mr. Raikes were less keen at the moment than Evan’s, but his openness to ridicule was that of a man on his legs solus, amid a company sitting, and his sense of the same—when he saw himself the victim of it—acute. His face was rather comic, and, under the shadow of embarrassment, twitching and working for ideas—might excuse a want of steadiness and absolute gravity in the countenances of others.
“Gentlemen!” this inveterate harper resumed.
It was too much. Numerous shoulders fell against the backs of chairs, and the terrible rattle of low laughter commenced. Before it could burst overwhelmingly, Jack, with a dramatic visage, leaned over his glass, and looking, as he spoke, from man to man, asked emphatically: “Is there any person present whose conscience revolts against being involved in that denomination?”
The impertinence was at least a saving sign of wits awake. So the chairman led off, in reply to Jack, with an encouraging “Bravo!” and immediately there ensued an agricultural chorus of “Brayvos!”
Jack’s readiness had thus rescued him in extremity.
He nodded, and went ahead cheerily.
“I should be sorry to think so. When I said ‘Gentlemen,’ I included all. If the conscience of one should impeach him, or me—” Jack eyed the lordly contemplator of his nails, on a pause, adding, “It is not so. I rejoice. I was about to observe, then, that, a stranger, I entered this hospitable establishment—I and my friend—”
“The gentleman!” their now recognised antagonist interposed, and turned his head to one of his comrades, and kept it turned—a proceeding similar in tactics to striking and running away.
“I thank my honourable—a—um! I thank the—a—whatever he may be!” continued Jack. “I accept his suggestion. My friend, the gentleman!—the real gentleman!—the true gentleman!—the undoubted gentleman!”
Further iterations, if not amplifications, of the merits of the gentleman would have followed, had not Evan, strong in his modesty, pulled Jack into his seat, and admonished him to be content with the present measure of his folly.
But Jack had more in him. He rose, and flourished off: “A stranger, I think I said. What I have done to deserve to feel like an alderman I can’t say; but—” (Jack, falling into perfect good-humour and sincerity, was about to confess the cordial delight his supper had given him, when his eyes met those of his antagonist superciliously set): “but,” he resumed, rather to the perplexity of his hearers, “this sort of heavy fare of course accounts for it, if one is not accustomed to it, and gives one, as it were, the civic crown, which I apprehend to imply a surcharged stomach—in the earlier stages of the entertainment. I have been at feasts, I have even given them—yes, gentlemen—” (Jack slid suddenly down the slopes of anti-climax), “you must not judge by the hat, as I see one or two here do me the favour to do. By the bye,” he added, glancing hurriedly about, “where did I clap it down when I came in?”
His antagonist gave a kick under the table, saying, with a sneer, “What’s this?”
Mr. Raikes dived below, and held up the battered decoration of his head. He returned thanks with studious politeness, the more so as he had forgotten the context of his speech, and the exact state of mind he was in when he broke from it. “Gentlemen!” again afflicted the ears of the company.
“Oh, by Jove! more gentlemen!” cried Jack’s enemy.
“No anxiety, I beg!” Jack rejoined, always brought to his senses when pricked: “I did not include you, sir.”
“Am I in your way, sir?” asked the other, hardening his under lip.
“Well, I did find it difficult, when I was a boy, to cross the Ass’s Bridge!” retorted Jack—and there was laughter.
The chairman’s neighbour, Drummond, whispered him: “Laxley will get up a row with that fellow.”
“It’s young Jocelyn egging him on,” said the chairman.
“Um!” added Drummond: “it’s the friend of that talkative rascal that’s dangerous, if it comes to anything.”
Mr. Raikes perceived that his host desired him to conclude. So, lifting his voice and swinging his arm, he ended: “Allow me to propose to you the Fly in Amber. In other words, our excellent host embalmed in brilliant ale! Drink him! and so let him live in our memories for ever!”
Mr. Raikes sat down very well contented with himself, very little comprehended, and applauded loudly.
“The Flyin’ Number!” echoed farmer Broadmead, confidently and with clamour; adding to a friend, when both had drunk the toast to the dregs, “But what number that be, or how many ’tis of ’em, dishes me! But that’s ne'ther here nor there.”
The chairman and host of the evening stood up to reply, welcomed by thunders, and “There ye be, Mr. Tom! glad I lives to see ye!” and “No names!” and “Long life to him!”
This having subsided, the chairman spoke, first nodding.
“You don’t want many words, and if you do, you won’t get ’em from me.”
Cries of “Got something better!” took up the blunt address.
“You’ve been true to it, most of you. I like men not to forget a custom.”
“Good reason so to be,” and “A jolly good custom,” replied to both sentences.
“As to the beef, I hope you didn’t find it tough: as to the ale—I know all about that!”
“Aha! good!” rang the verdict.
“All I can say is, that this day next year it will be on the table, and I hope that every one of you will meet Tom—will meet me here punctually. I’m not a Parliament man, so that’ll do—”
The chairman’s breach of his own rules drowned the termination of his speech in an uproar.
Re-seating himself, he lifted his glass, and proposed: “The Antediluvians!”
Farmer Broadmead echoed: “The Antediloovians!” appending, as a private sentiment, “And dam rum chaps they were!”
The Antediluvians, undoubtedly the toast of the evening, were enthusiastically drunk, and in an ale of treble brew.
When they had quite gone down, Mr. Raikes ventured to ask for the reason of their receiving such honour from a posterity they had so little to do with. He put the question mildly, but was impetuously snapped at by the chairman.
“You respect men for their luck, sir, don’t you? Don’t be a hypocrite, and say you don’t—you do. Very well: so do I. That’s why I drink ‘The Antediluvians!’”
“Our worthy host here” (Drummond, gravely smiling, undertook to elucidate the case) “has a theory that the constitutions of the Postdiluvians have been deranged, and their lives shortened, by the miasmas of the Deluge. I believe he carries it so far as to say that Noah, in the light of a progenitor, is inferior to Adam, owing to the shaking he had to endure in the ark, and which he conceives to have damaged the patriarch and the nervous systems of his sons. It’s a theory, you know.”
“They lived close on a thousand years, hale, hearty—and no water!” said the chairman.
“Well!” exclaimed one, some way down the table, a young farmer, red as a cock’s comb: “no fools they, eh, master? Where there’s ale, would you drink water, my hearty?” and back he leaned to enjoy the tribute to his wit; a wit not remarkable, but nevertheless sufficient in the noise it created to excite the envy of Mr. John Raikes, who, inveterately silly when not engaged in a contest, now began to play on the names of the sons of Noah.
The chairman lanced a keen light at him from beneath his bushy eyebrows.
“Ought to have excused this humble stuff to you, sir,” he remarked. “It’s the custom. We drink ale to-night: any other night happy to offer you your choice, sir—Johannisberg, Rudesheim, Steenberg, Libefreemilk, Asmannshauser, Lafitte, La Rose, Margaux, Bordeaux: Clarets, Rhine wines, Burgundies—drinks that men of your station are more used to.”
Mr. Raikes stammered: “Thank you, thank you; ale will do, sir—an excellent ale!”
But before long the chairman had again to call two parties to order. Mr. Raikes was engaged in a direct controversy with his enemy. In that young gentleman he had recognised one of a station above his own—even what it was in the palmy days of bank-notes and naughty suppers; and he did not intend to allow it. On the other hand, Laxley had begun to look at him very distantly over the lordly bridge of his nose. To Mr. Raikes, Laxley was a puppy: to Laxley, Mr. Raikes was a snob. The antagonism, therefore, was natural: ale did but put the match to the magazine. But previous to an explosion, Laxley, who had observed Evan’s disgust at Jack’s exhibition of himself, and had been led to think, by his conduct and clothes in conjunction, that Evan was his own equal; a gentleman condescending to the society of a low-born acquaintance; had sought with sundry propitiations—calm, intelligent glances, light shrugs, and such like—to divide Evan from Jack. He did this, doubtless, because he partly sympathised with Evan, and to assure him that he took a separate view of him. Probably Evan was already offended, or he held to Jack, as a comrade should, or else it was that Tailordom bellowed in his ears, every fresh minute: “Nothing assume!” I incline to think that the more ale he drank the fiercer rebel he grew against conventional ideas of rank, and those class-barriers which we scorn so vehemently when we find ourselves kicking at them. Whatsoever the reason that prompted him, he did not respond to Laxley’s advances; and Laxley, deferentially disregarding him, dealt with Jack alone.
In a tone plainly directed at Mr. Raikes, he said: “Well, Harry, tired of this? The agriculturals are good fun, but I can’t stand much of the small cockney. A blackguard who tries to make jokes out of the Scriptures ought to be kicked!”
Harry rejoined, with wet lips: “Wopping stuff, this ale! Who’s that you want to kick?”
“Somebody who objects to his bray, I suppose,” Mr. Raikes struck in, across the table, negligently thrusting out his elbow to support his head.
“Did you allude to me, sir?” Laxley inquired.
“I alluded to a donkey, sir.” Jack lifted his eyelids to the same level as Laxley’s: “a passing remark on that interesting animal.”
Laxley said nothing; but the interjection “blackguard!” was perceptible on his mouth.
“Did you allude to me, sir?” Jack inquired, in his turn.
“Would you like me to express what I think of a fellow who listens to private conversations?” was the answer.
“I should be happy to task your eloquence even to that extent, if I might indulge a hope for grammatical results,” said Jack.
Laxley thought fit to retire upon his silent superiority. His friend Harry now came into the ring to try a fall.
“Are you an usher in a school?” he asked, meaning by his looks what men of science in fisticuffs call business.
Mr. Raikes started up in amazement. He recovered as quickly.
“No, sir, not quite; but I have no doubt I should be able to instruct you upon a point or two.”
“Good manners, for instance?” remarked the third young cricketer, without disturbing his habitual smile.
“Or what comes from not observing them,” said Evan, unwilling to have Jack over-matched.
“Perhaps you’ll give me a lesson now?” Harry indicated a readiness to rise for either of them.
At this juncture the chairman interposed.
“Harmony, my lads!—harmony to-night.”
Farmer Broadmead, imagining it to be the signal for a song, returned:
“All right, Mr. —— Mr. Chair! but we an’t got pipes in yet. Pipes before harmony, you know, to-night.”
The pipes were summoned forthwith. System appeared to regulate the proceedings of this particular night at the Green Dragon. The pipes charged, and those of the guests who smoked, well fixed behind them, celestial Harmony was invoked through the slowly curling clouds. In Britain the Goddess is coy. She demands pressure to appear, and great gulps of ale. Vastly does she swell the chests of her island children, but with the modesty of a maid at the commencement. Precedence again disturbed the minds of the company. At last the red-faced young farmer led off with “The Rose and the Thorn.” In that day Chloe still lived: nor were the amorous transports of Strephon quenched. Mountainous inflation—mouse-like issue characterised the young farmer’s first verse. Encouraged by manifest approbation he now told Chloe that he “by Heaven! never would plant in that bosom a thorn,” with such volume of sound as did indeed show how a lover’s oath should be uttered in the ear of a British damsel to subdue her.
“Good!” cried Mr. Raikes, anxious to be convivial.
Subsiding into impertinence, he asked Laxley, “Could you tip us a Strephonade, sir? Rejoiced to listen to you, I am sure! Promise you my applause beforehand.”
Harry replied hotly: “Will you step out of the room with me a minute?”
“Have you a confession to make?” quoth Jack, unmoved. “Have you planted a thorn in the feminine flower-garden? Make a clean breast of it at the table. Confess openly, and be absolved. ’Gad, there’s a young woman in the house. She may be Chloe. If so, all I can say is, she may complain of a thorn of some magnitude, and will very soon exhibit one.”
While Evan spoke a word of angry reproof to Mr. Raikes, Harry had to be restrained by his two friends. Jack’s insinuation seemed to touch him keenly. By a strange hazard they had both glanced close upon facts.
Mutterings amid the opposite party of “Sit down,” “Don’t be an ass,” “Leave the snob alone,” were sufficiently distinct. The rest of the company looked on with curiosity; the mouth of the chairman was bunched. Drummond had his eyes on Evan, who was gazing steadily at the three. Suddenly “The fellow isn’t a gentleman!” struck the attention of Mr. Raikes with alarming force.
I remember hearing of a dispute between two youthful clerks, one of whom launched at the other’s head accusations that, if true, would have warranted his being expelled from society: till, having exhausted his stock, the youth gently announced to his opponent that he was a numskull: upon which the latter, hitherto full of forbearance, shouted that he could bear anything but that,—appealed to the witnesses generally for a corroboration of the epithet, and turned back his wristbands.
It was with similar sensations, inexplicable to the historian, that Mr. Raikes, who had borne to have imputed to him frightful things—heard that he was not considered a gentleman: and as they who are themselves, perhaps, doubtful of the fact, are most stung by the denial of it, so do they take refuge in assertion, and claim to establish it by violence.
This Mr. John Raikes seized on, and vociferating: “I’m the son of a gentleman!” flung it in the faces of the three.
Drummond, from the head of the table, saw that a diversion was imperative. He leaned forward, and with a look of great interest, said:
“Are you really? Pray, never disgrace your origin, then.”
He spoke with an apparent sincerity, and Jack, absorbed by the three in front of him, and deceived by the mildness of his manner, continued glaring at them, after a sharp turn of the head, like a dog receiving a stroke while his attention is taken by a bone.
“If the choice were offered me, I think I would rather have known his father,” said the smiling fellow, yawning, and rocking on his chair.
“You would, possibly, have been exceedingly intimate—with his right foot,” said Jack.
The other merely remarked: “Oh! that is the language of the son of a gentleman.”
Jack’s evident pugnacity behind his insolence, astonished Evan, as the youth was not famed for bravery at school; but this is what dignity and ale do for us in the world.
The tumult of irony, abuse, and retort, went on despite the efforts of Drummond and the chairman. It was strange; for at farmer Broadmead’s end of the table, friendship had grown maudlin: two were seen in a drowsy embrace, with crossed pipes; and others were vowing deep amity, and offering to fight the man that might desire it.
“Are ye a friend? or are ye a foe?” was heard repeatedly, and consequences to the career of the respondent, on his choice of affirmatives to either of these two interrogations, emphatically detailed. It was likewise asked, in reference to the row at the gentlemen’s end; “Why doan’ they stand up and have’t out?”
“They talks, they speechifies—why doan’ they fight for’t, and then be friendly?”
“Where’s the yarmony, Mr. Chair, I axes—so please ye?” sang out farmer Broadmead.
“Ay, ay! Silence!” the chairman called.
Mr. Raikes begged permission to pronounce his excuses, but lapsed into a lamentation for the squandering of property bequeathed to him by his respected uncle, and for which—as far as he was intelligible—he persisted in calling the three offensive young cricketers opposite to account.
Before he could desist, Harmony, no longer coy, burst on the assembly from three different sources. “A Man who is given to Liquor,” soared aloft with “The Maid of sweet Seventeen,” who participated in the adventures of “Young Molly and the Kicking Cow;” while the guests selected the chorus of the song that first demanded it.
Evan probably thought that Harmony was herself only when she came single, or he was wearied of his fellows, and wished to gaze a moment on the skies whose arms were over and around his young beloved. He went to the window and threw it up, and feasted his sight on the moon standing on the downs. He could have wept at the bitter ignominy that severed him from Rose. And again he gathered his pride as a cloak, and defied the world, and gloried in the sacrifice that degraded him. The beauty of the night touched him, and mixed these feelings with a strange mournfulness. He quite forgot the bellow and clatter behind. The beauty of the night, and heaven knows what treacherous hope in the depths of his soul, coloured existence very warmly.
He was roused from his reverie by an altercation unmistakeably fierce.
Mr. Raikes had been touched on a tender point. In reply to a bantering remark of his, Laxley had hummed a list of Claret and Rhenish: “Liebfraumilch—Johannisberg—Asmannshauser—Steinberg—Chateau Margaux—La Rose—Lafitte,” over and again, amid the chuckles of his comrades, and Mr. Raikes, unfortunately at a loss for a biting retort, was reduced to that plain confession of a lack of wit: he offered combat.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Laxley, “I never soil my hands with a blackguard, and a fellow who tries to make fun of Scripture, in my opinion is one. A blackguard—do you hear? But, if you’ll give me satisfactory proofs that you really are what I have some difficulty in believing—the son of a gentleman—I’ll meet you when and where you please, sir.”
“Fight him, anyhow,” said Harry. “I’ll take him myself after we finish the match to-morrow.”
Laxley rejoined that Mr. Raikes must be left to him.
“Then I’ll take the other,” said Harry. “Where is he?”
Evan walked round to his place.
“I am here,” he answered, “and at your service.”
“Will you fight?” cried Harry.
There was a disdainful smile on Evan’s mouth, as he replied: “I must first enlighten you. I have no pretentions to blue blood, or yellow. If, sir, you will deign to challenge a man who is not the son of a gentleman, and consider the expression of his thorough contempt for your conduct sufficient to enable you to overlook that fact, you may dispose of me. My friend here has, it seems, reason to be proud of his connections. That you may not subsequently bring the charge against me of having led you to ‘soil your hands’—as your friend there terms it—I, with all the willingness in the world to chastise you or him for your impertinence, must—as I conceive I am bound to do—first give you a fair chance of escape, by telling you that my father was a tailor, and that I also am a tailor.”
The countenance of Mr. Raikes at the conclusion of this speech was a painful picture. He knocked the table passionately, exclaiming:
“Who’d have thought it?”
Indeed, Evan could not have mentioned it, but for the ale. It was the ale in him expelling truth; and certainly, to look at him, none would have thought it.
“That will do,” said Laxley, lacking the magnanimity to despise the advantage given him, “you have chosen the very best means of saving your skins.”
“We’ll come to you when our supply of clothes runs short,” added Harry. “A snip!”
“Pardon me,” said Evan, with his eyes slightly widening, “but if you come to me, I shall no longer give you a choice of behaviour. I wish you good-night, gentlemen. I shall be in this house, and am to be found here, till ten o’clock to-morrow morning. Sir,” he addressed the chairman, “I must apologise to you for this interruption to your kindness, for which I thank you, very sincerely. It’s ‘good-night,’ now, sir,” pursued, bowing, and holding out his hand, with a smile.
The chairman grasped it: “You’re a hot-headed young fool, sir: you’re an ill-tempered ferocious young ass, sir. Can’t you see another young donkey without joining company in kicks—eh? Sit down, and don’t dare to spoil the fun any more. You a tailor! Who’ll believe it? You’re a nobleman in disguise. Didn’t your friend say so?—ha! ha! Sit down.” He pulled out his watch, and proclaiming that he was born into this world at the hour about to strike, called for a bumper all round.
While such of the company as had yet legs and eyes unvanquished by the potency of the ale, stood up to drink and cheer; Mark, the waiter, scurried into the room, and, to the immense stupefaction of the chairman, and amusement of his guests, spread the news of the immediate birth of a little stranger on the premises, who was declared by Dr. Pillie to be a lusty boy, and for whom the kindly landlady solicited good luck to be drunk.