The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter I

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Harry Boyce addressed Queen Anne in glittering verse. She was not present. She had, however, no cause to regret that, for he was tramping the Great North Road at four miles by the hour—a pace far beyond the capacity of Her Majesty's legs; and his verses were Latin—a language not within the capacity of Her Majesty's mind. Her absence gave him no grief. In all his twenty-four years he could not remember being grieved by anyone's absence. His general content was never diminished at finding himself alone. He chose the Queen as the subject of his verses merely because he did not admire her. She appeared to him then, as to later generations, a woman ineffectual and without interest; a dull woman physically, mentally, and perhaps morally; just the woman upon whom it would be hardest to make an encomium of any splendour. So he was heartily ingenious over his alcaics, and relished them.

From this you may divine much that you have to know about the soul of Harry Boyce. It was more given to mockery than enthusiasms, apter to criticisms than devotion, not very gentle nor very kind, and so quite satisfied with itself and by itself. To be sure, it was yet only twenty-four.

You discover also other things less fundamental. He was something of a scholar, as scholarship was reckoned in those placid days. He had even some Greek—more than Mr. Pope and quite as much as Mr. Addison. His Latin verses would have brought him a fellowship at Merton if he had been willing to take Holy Orders, "I may take them indeed; but how believe they have been given me?" quoth he to the Warden with a tilt of one eyebrow. Whereat the Warden, aghast, wrote him off as a youth unreasonable, impracticable, and impish. Many others had the same opinion of Harry Boyce before the world was done with him. Few of them saw in his antics the uncertain spasms of too tender a conscience. But you must judge.

Of course he was poor. He could only boast a bob wig, a base thing, which, for all the show it made, might have been a man's own hair. He wore no sword. His hat lacked feather and lace. His coat and breeches were but black drugget, shiny at each corner of him and rusty everywhere. His stockings were worsted, and darned even on his excellent calves. His shoes had strings where buckles should have been, and mere black heels—and low heels at that. As you know, he could walk at a round pace with them—a preposterous, vulgar thing. There was nothing in him to give this poverty a romantical air. To be sure, he had admirable legs, but the rest was neither good nor bad. He was of the middle size and a wholesome complexion. You would look at him long and see nothing rare enough to be worth looking at. If you looked longer yet you might begin to be surprised: his so ordinary face was extraordinary in its lack of expression.

The man who owned it must be either very dull of heart and mind, or self-contained and of self-control beyond the common. But whatever the heart might be, no one ever took the eyes for the eyes of a fool. They were keen, alert, perpetually on guard. There is a letter extant—it was indeed a dear friend who wrote it—which mocks at Harry for his "curst stand-and-deliver stare." But it is a queer thing that most men had to know Harry Boyce a long time before they remarked that his eyes were not quite of the same colour. The common English grey-green-blue was in both of them, but one had a bluer glint than the other. The oddity, when it was discovered, seemed to make the challenge of the eyes more defiant and more baffling, as though they gleamed from the shadow of a mask.

Not that anyone cared yet whether he wore a mask or his soul in that placid, ordinary face. Who should care a pinch of snuff for "a scholar just from his college broke loose" with a penny farthing in his pocket, who had to pioneer young gentlemen through their Horace and their Tully for his bed and board? When you meet him, Harry Boyce was happy in having caught for his pupil a young fellow who had not merely money but brains, and so sublime a condescension that Harry was not sent away from table with the parson when the puddings came. Mr. Geoffrey Waverton was pleased to have a value for him, and defended him from his natural duty of being gentleman usher to Lady Waverton. So, Mr. Waverton having taken horse, Harry was free to go walking.

It was late in a wet autumn, and all the clay of Middlesex slippery as butter and, withal, affectionate as warm glue. Harry kept to the highway. Though its miles of mud and water were, on the surface, even worse than the too green meadows or the gleaming brown furrows of plough land, a careful man could count upon its letting him go no further than knee deep. When he came to Whetstone, Harry's feet were brown, shapeless, weighty masses, but he had not lost either shoe, and he was still in hopes of reaching Barnet and a pint of small beer before it was time to struggle back. At the worst a dry throat and wet legs were a cheap price for escaping the voice of Lady Waverton, who, in the afternoons, read the romances of Mlle. de Scudéry aloud.

He could see the tufts of smoke above Barnet and its church on the hill-top. He was winding down to the bottom of the valley from which that hill rises, when eloquence arrested him. He may at other times have heard profanity as copious, but never profanity so vehement or at such speed. The orator was a woman.

Harry stood to listen with critical admiration. Madame mixed the ugly and the pleasant rarely; she made a charming grotesque. Her mind was very far from nice and provided her with amazing images; but she had a pretty, womanly voice, and hard though she drove it, it would not break to one ugly note. Disgusting epithets, mean threats, poured out in mellow music. Harry splashed on round the corner. He was eager to see her.

In the morass at the cross-lanes by the green, a coach was stuck—a coach of splendour. It was a huge thing as big as a room, half glass, half gold and garter blue, and it swayed luxuriously on its great springs. Six horses heaved at it in vain with great splashing and squelching, and a whole company of servants, some mounted, some afoot, struggled with them.

The profane woman had half her body and two gesticulating arms out of the coach window. She was plainly neither a drab nor in liquor. Harry halted out of range of the splashes to examine and enjoy her. She had been comely, and still could hold a man's eye with her curves of neck and bosom. The piquant features must have been adorable before they sharpened and her cheeks faded and the lines came. Her abundant hair must once have been gold, and was not yet altogether grey.

"You filthy slug," said she. "Samuel! Stand to it, I say. Damme, I'll have a whip about that loose belly of yours! Now pull, you swine, pull. Odso, flog the black horse. You, devil broil your bones, lay on to him. What now? Od rot you, Antony, you'll see no money this month, you—" She became unprintable. As she took breath again, she saw Harry Boyce calmly contemplative. "You dog, who bade you stand and gape? Go, give a hand there, I say."

Harry touched his hat. "By your leave, ma'am, I am too busy admiring you."

"William, put that rogue into the ditch," said she.

All this while a man in the coach had been writing, calmly intent upon his tablets as though there was not a sound or a rage within a mile. He now stood up, and, while his lady was still execrating through one door of the coach, he opened the other and came out. Two of the servants, obedient to the lady's oaths, were approaching Harry, who waited them with calm and a swinging stick. The man waved his hand at them and they turned tail. But he had no further interest in Harry. He stood to watch the struggles of his horses and his men. He was of some height, and, though past middle age, bore himself with singular grace and vigour. He had still a rarely handsome face—too handsome, by far, for Harry's taste. The features were of an impossible, absurd perfection. There was something superhuman or fatuous, at least something vastly irritating, in his assured calm, his air of blandly confident supremacy.

He walked on to the leaders and, with a gesture and a word, set the whole team pulling at an angle. Meanwhile the lady had earnestly continued her abusive orders, but none of the servants now professed to heed her. Dragging the horses on, or labouring hand and shoulder at the wheels, they were now effective, and they watched the man's eye as though it were an inspiration. Wondering why he did, Harry, too, put his weight on a wheel. The horses found a footing in the mire, the coach was dragged on to the higher, firmer ground beyond.

My lady subsided. The man came back to the coach and touched his hat to Harry. "I'm obliged for your help, sir," he said, and climbed in. They drove away towards London.

As the servants swung to their saddles, "Who's your obscene lady?" said Harry.

"What, don't you know him, bumpkin?"

"She will never be him. Her shape is all provocative she."

This humble wit was not remarked. His ignorance occupied them, "Oh Lud, not to know the Old Corporal!"

One of Harry's eyebrows went up. "That the Old Corporal? Faith, I am sorry for him."

He received a handful of mud in his face. With a cry of "Rot your impudence," they splashed off.

While he wiped the mud out of his eyes, Harry felt a very comfortable self-satisfaction. It was agreeable to pity His Grace of Marlborough. For the Duke of Marlborough was still the greatest man in Europe, the greatest man in the world—credibly the greatest man that ever lived. A pleasant fool, to marry such a wife and to keep her.

Harry Boyce at no time in his life had much admiration for human eminence. In this, his hungry youth, he was set upon despising rank and power, great fame and pure virtue, as no more than the luck of fools. He would always atone by finding sympathy and excuses for any rogue's roguery. Highly fortified in this faith by the exhibition of Marlborough's matrimonial happiness, he trudged back.

The delay over the coach had left him no time for small ale at Barnet. Mr. Waverton, though amiably pleased to deliver Harry from attendance on his mother, required constant attendance on himself. He would be, in his superb way, disagreeable if Harry were not in waiting when he was wanted to take a hand at ombre. Harry liked Mr. Waverton well enough, as well as he liked anybody, but found him in the part of offended majesty intolerable. So there was some hard walking back to Whetstone. On the way his temper was not sweetened by two horsemen at the gallop who gave him a shower-bath of mud.

As he came through the village, behold another coach labouring up to the high road from Totteridge lane. This had but four horses, no array of outriders, no gilt splendours. It was a sober, old-fashioned thing, and it rumbled on at a sober gait. "Some city ma'am," Harry sneered at it, "much the same shape as her horses."

But half an hour after he saw it again. Where the road was dark through a thicket it had come to a stand. "Oh Lud," said Harry, "here's more fair madames in the mud. They may sit on it till they hatch it for me." But he wondered a little. It was indeed nothing very strange in such an autumn to find a coach stuck upon the highway. But two for one afternoon, two so near was a generous provision. And hereabouts, where the road ran level and high, was a strange place for a coach to choose to stick. "Madame seems to be a gross girl," quoth Harry.

And then he saw what made him step out. There were two men on horseback by the halted coach—two men with black upon their faces which must be masks, and that in their hands which must be pistols.

"Egad, the road's joyful to-night," said Harry. "And two and one make three," and he began to run, and arrived.

Of the two highwaymen one was dismounted. The other, holding his friend's horse, held also a pistol at the coachman's head, muttering lurid threats of what he would do if the coachman drove on. The dismounted man was half inside the coach where two women shrank from him, and thence his blusterous voice proceeded, "Now, my blowens, hand over, or I'll rummage you. A skinny purse? Come, now, you've more than that. What's under your legs, fatty? Stand up, I say. Ay, hand out the jewel-box. Now, my tackle, what ha' you got aboard? What's under that pretty tucker?" He threw the jewel-case out into the mud and, leaning across one woman, reached with a fat, foul hand to the younger bosom beyond.

He was prevented by a whistle and a cry, "Behind you, Ben." His companion announced the arrival of Harry.

Ben came out of the coach with an oath and thrust his pistol into Harry's face. "Good e'en to you, bully. Now cut and run or I'll drill you. Via, my poppet."

Harry looked along the pistol and stood fast. The highwayman was no bigger than he, and bloated. "I am studying arithmetic, Benjamin," said he.

"Burn your eyes, be off with you; run while you may."

Harry laughed and swung his stick at the mud. "But, I wonder, is it addition or subtraction? Is it two and one makes three, or—"

"Kick the bumpkin into the ditch, Ben," the man on horseback advised.

"Off with you," Benjamin thrust him back, and in the act the pistol wavered. Harry slashed with his stick at the pistol hand. A yell, an oath, and the shot came together—a shot which went into the mud and sent it spattering about them. Harry sprang away from Benjamin's rush and brought his stick down on the hindquarters of the horses. They plunged forward, and the man in the saddle, wrestling with them, let off another aimless shot. Harry dodged round them and lashed them again, and they bolted down the road. He returned to fling himself upon Benjamin, who was ramming another charge into his pistol. "It seems to be subtraction, Benjamin," said he, embracing the man fervently. "One from two leaves one," and they swayed together, and he found Benjamin's body soft.

Benjamin, panting, cursed him. "Od rot you, why must you meddle, bully? What's your will, burn you? Ha' done now, and—" Benjamin went down on his back in the mud with Harry on top of him. "Ugh! What's the game, bully?"

"I think you call it the high toby," said Harry delicately and began to sing to the tune of a catch:

"Oh, three merry men, three merry men, three highwaymen were we.
You in a quag and he on a nag and I on top of the three."

"Lord love you, are you on the road?" Benjamin cried. "Why, rot you, did you want a share then? You should ha' said so, bully. Come on now, my dear, let's up. We do be gentlemen and share fair enough."

"I warrant you I am having my share," Harry laughed; "and I like it very well. But oh, Benjamin, there would have been nought to share if I had not come up. No fun at all, Benjamin." He wrenched the pistol away. "'Tis I have made the business joyous. You are a dull fellow by yourself."

"Rot you," said Benjamin frankly. "When Ned comes back he'll shoot you like vermin."

On which they both heard horses, and both, according to their abilities—Benjamin in the mud, and Harry keeping a sure hold of him—wriggled to look for them.

Harry laughed. It was certainly not a returning Ned. These horses came from the other way, and there were four of them and each had a rider. "I fear your Ned will come too late, Benjamin—if, by the grace of God, he comes at all." So said Harry, chuckling, and to his amazement Benjamin also laughed. Why should Benjamin find consolation in the coming of this posse? It was not credible that they could be allies of his. Highwaymen did not work in gangs of half a dozen.

The four horsemen, urged by the shots or by what they saw, came at a gallop and reined up almost on top of Harry and Benjamin. One of them, a little man with a lean, brown face, called out, "By your leave, sir! What's this?"

"It's a rude fellow, sir," Harry said. "I fear a lewd fellow. By trade a highwayman. The highway, indeed, is his life's love, his adored mistress. Observe how he cleaves to it." He compressed Benjamin, who squelched, into the mud, and rose, standing on Benjamin's chest and stomach.

Benjamin groaned, and the eyes behind his mask rolled towards the little man.

"Filthy dog," that little man said with sincere disgust. "Can I serve you, sir?" he touched his hat to the women in the coach.

"Why, Benjamin has a friend, one Ned. Ned hath a pistol or so and two horses which have bolted with him. But he may yet persuade them to bring back his pistols and him. Now, if you would be so good, it would be convenient in you to ride on and destroy Ned."

"It's a pleasure, sir," the little man showed his teeth. "And the fat rogue there, can I help you with him? Shall we take him on to the constables?"

"Oh, I thank you, but my Benjamin is docile. I'll e'en tie him up with his garters, and all will be well."

The little man scowled at Benjamin. "I shall hope to be at his hanging," he said incisively. "Sir, your most obedient! Ladies!" he bobbed at them and rode off, his three companions close about him in eager talk.

As they went, Benjamin let out a cry of anguish: "Captain!"

The little man and his company used their spurs.

Harry looked at their hurry and then down at Benjamin.

"Now why did you call him that, my Benjamin?" said he. "Indeed, why did you call on him at all?"

From behind the mask Benjamin's prominent eyes stared sullenly. He said nothing.

Harry shook his head. "I feel that I do not know you, Benjamin. I must see more of you," With which he fell upon the man again and twitched off the mask. The wig came with it. Benjamin was revealed the owner of a big, bald, shiny head with a face which was puffed and purple. "You were right, Benjamin," said Harry sadly, "You were kind. To wear a mask was charity, nay, decency—what breeches are to other men. That obese and flaccid nose—pah, let us talk of something else." He lay upon Benjamin and tugged at his sword-belt. Benjamin writhed and groaned. His sword was caught underneath him, the hilt deep in the small of his back. Harry hauled the sword-belt off at last and gripped at Benjamin's wrists. He began to struggle again. "Do not be troublesome or I'll tap the beer on your brain. So." He hauled the belt taut about the fighting arms and made all fast. Then he sat himself on Benjamin's legs, which thus ceased to be turbulent, and, taking off the garters, therewith tied the ankles together.

Sighing satisfaction, Harry picked up the pistol and sword, spoils of victory, and rose at his leisure. He contemplated the hapless highwayman with benign interest for a moment, and turned to the coach. "You are still there, ladies? Benjamin is flattered and so am I. But the play is over. He will not be amusing for some time, and at any moment he may be profane. I see him bursting with it. Pray drive on and remove your chaste ears." He restored to them the jewel-case.

"Put him up on the box, sir," the younger woman cried.

"I beg your pardon, madame?"

"We will take him to the constables at Finchley."

"But why? He is beautiful there, my Benjamin, and I doubt he was never beautiful before. And I have planted him so firmly. I think if we leave him there he may grow and blossom. Do not dig him up again yet. Imagine Benjamin in flower! A thing to dream of."

"You are pleased to be witty, sir. Come, we have lost time enough. Put the rogue up, and do you mount with us."

Harry became aware that this young woman had a brow of pride. It was ample and broad and, after the Greek manner, it rose almost in a line with her admirable nose. A noble head, to be sure, but alarming to a mere human man. So Harry thought, and he touched his hat and said: "Madame, your most humble. Pray what do you want with my Benjamin? Your gentle heart would never have him hanged."

Her eyes made Harry feel that he was impudent, which, unhappily, amused him. "I desire the fellow should be given up to the law, sir," she said coldly. "Have you anything against it?"

"Oh, ma'am, a thousand things, with which I'll not weary you. For I see that you would not understand. You are very young (as I hope). Perhaps you may soon grow older (which I pray for you). Let this suffice then. My Benjamin may deserve a hanging. Who knows? We are not God, ma'am, neither you nor I. Therefore I have no mind to be a hangman. And you—why, you are young enough to wait another occasion. And so I give you good-night. Home, coachman, home."

The young woman stared at him as though he were grovelling stupidity, and then lay back on her cushions with a "You will drive on, Samuel."

Harry made his bow, and then, as the coach began to move, there was a cry: "Alison! Alison! It is not right!" The older woman leaned forward, and for the first time he remarked a gentle, motherly face, much lined and worn. "Sure, sir, you will ride with us," she said, and he liked the voice. "We may carry you home."

Harry smiled at her. "Nay, ma'am. I am too dirty for such fine company."

"Drive on," said Mistress Alison. And the coach rolled away.

Harry looked down at the wretched Benjamin, whose eyes answered with apprehension and anxiety. "What's the game?" said Benjamin hoarsely. "I say, master—what d'ye want with me?"

Harry did not answer. He was finding that motherly face, that pleasant voice, curiously vivid still. This annoyed him, and he forced himself back with a jerk to the oddity of events. "A queer business, my Benjamin," he said. "Who was your captain, I wonder?"

Benjamin scowled. "I know nought o' no captain."

"Ah, I thought you did. But I fear you have annoyed the captain, Benjamin. Now what had you done—or what had you not done?"

"It's not fair, master," Benjamin whined. "You do be making game of me, and me beat."

"I am rebuked, Benjamin. Good-night."

"Oons, ye won't leave me so?" Benjamin howled. "I ha' done you no harm, master. Come now, play fair. What d'ye want of me?"

"Nothing, Benjamin, nothing. I like you very well. You are a beautiful mystery. Pleasant dreams."

The hapless Benjamin howled after him long and loud. Thereby Harry, who had a musical ear, was spurred to his best pace. "It's a vile voice," he reflected; "like Lady Waverton's. The marmoreal Alison was right. He would be better hanged. But so also would Lady Waverton. She will acridly want to know why I am late. Well! It will be a melancholy satisfaction not to tell her. That will also annoy Geoffrey, who'll magnificently indicate that I owe him an apology. The poor Geoffrey! He is so fond of himself!"

His evening was as pleasant as he had anticipated. He won two shillings from Lady Waverton at ombre, which made her angry; and lost them to Geoffrey, which made him melancholy. For Mr. Waverton loved (in small things) to be a martyr.