Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 96

A shout — A fireball — See to the horses — Passing away — Gap in the hedge — On three wheels — Why do you stop? — No craven heart — The cordial — Across the country — Small bags.

I listened attentively, but I could hear nothing but the loud clashing of branches, the pattering of rain, and the muttered growl of thunder. I was about to tell Belle that she must have been mistaken, when I heard a shout — indistinct, it is true, owing to the noises aforesaid — from some part of the field above the dingle. ‘I will soon see what’s the matter,’ said I to Belle, starting up. ‘I will go too;’ said the girl. ‘Stay where you are,’ said I; ‘if I need you, I will call’; and, without waiting for any answer, I hurried to the mouth of the dingle. I was about a few yards only from the top of the ascent, when I beheld a blaze of light, from whence I knew not; the next moment there was a loud crash, and I appeared involved in a cloud of sulphurous smoke. ‘Lord have mercy upon us!’ I heard a voice say, and methought I heard the plunging and struggling of horses. I had stopped short on hearing the crash, for I was half stunned; but I now hurried forward, and in a moment stood upon the plain. Here I was instantly aware of the cause of the crash and the smoke. One of those balls, generally called fireballs, had fallen from the clouds, and was burning on the plain at a short distance; and the voice which I had heard, and the plunging, were as easily accounted for. Near the left-hand corner of the grove which surrounded the dingle, and about ten yards from the fireball, I perceived a chaise, with a postilion on the box, who was making efforts, apparently useless, to control his horses, which were kicking and plunging in the highest degree of excitement. I instantly ran towards the chaise, in order to offer what help was in my power. ‘Help me,’ said the poor fellow, as I drew nigh; but before I could reach the horses, they had turned rapidly round, one of the fore-wheels flew from its axle-tree, the chaise was overset, and the postilion flung violently from his seat upon the field. The horses now became more furious than before, kicking desperately, and endeavouring to disengage themselves from the fallen chaise. As I was hesitating whether to run to the assistance of the postilion or endeavour to disengage the animals, I heard the voice of Belle exclaiming, ‘See to the horses, I will look after the man.’ She had, it seems, been alarmed by the crash which accompanied the firebolt, and had hurried up to learn the cause. I forthwith seized the horses by the heads, and used all the means I possessed to soothe and pacify them, employing every gentle modulation of which my voice was capable. Belle, in the meantime, had raised up the man, who was much stunned by his fall; but, presently recovering his recollection to a certain degree, he came limping to me, holding his hand to his right thigh. ‘The first thing that must now be done,’ said I, ‘is to free these horses from the traces; can you undertake to do so?’ ‘ I think I can,’ said the man, looking at me somewhat stupidly. ‘I will help,’ said Belle, and without loss of time laid hold of one of the traces. The man, after a short pause, also set to work, and in a few minutes the horses were extricated. ‘Now,’ said I to the man, ‘what is next to be done?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said he; ‘indeed, I scarcely know anything; I have been so frightened by this horrible storm, and so shaken by my fall.’ ‘I think,’ said I, ‘that the storm is passing away, so cast your fears away too; and as for your fall, you must bear it as lightly as you can. I will tie the horses amongst those trees, and then we will all betake us to the hollow below.’ ‘And what’s to become of my chaise?’ said the postilion, looking ruefully on the fallen vehicle. ‘Let us leave the chaise for the present,’ said I; ‘we can be of no use to it.’ ‘I don’t like to leave my chaise lying on the ground in this weather,’ said the man; ‘I love my chaise, and him whom it belongs to.’ ‘You are quite right to be fond of yourself,’ said I, ‘on which account I advise you to seek shelter from the rain as soon as possible.’ ‘I was not talking of myself,’ said the man, ‘but my master, to whom the chaise belongs.’ ‘I thought you called the chaise yours,’ said I. ‘That’s my way of speaking,’ said the man; ‘but the chaise is my master’s, and a better master does not live. Don’t you think we could manage to raise up the chaise?’ ‘And what is to become of the horses?’ said I. ‘I love my horses well enough,’ said the man; ‘but they will take less harm than the chaise. We two can never lift up that chaise.’ ‘But we three can,’ said Belle; ‘at least, I think so; and I know where to find two poles which will assist us.’ ‘You had better go to the tent,’ said I, ‘you will be wet through.’ ‘I care not for a little wetting,’ said Belle; ‘moreover, I have more gowns than one — see you after the horses.’ Thereupon, I led the horses past the mouth of the dingle, to a place where a gap in the hedge afforded admission to the copse or plantation on the southern side. Forcing them through the gap, I led them to a spot amidst the trees which I deemed would afford them the most convenient place for standing; then, darting down into the dingle, I brought up a rope, and also the halter of my own nag, and with these fastened them each to a separate tree in the best manner I could. This done, I returned to the chaise and the postilion. In a minute or two Belle arrived with two poles which, it seems, had long been lying, overgrown with brushwood, in a ditch or hollow behind the plantation. With these both she and I set to work in endeavouring to raise the fallen chaise from the ground.

We experienced considerable difficulty in this undertaking; at length, with the assistance of the postilion, we saw our efforts crowned with success — the chaise was lifted up, and stood upright on three wheels.

‘We may leave it here in safety,’ said I, ‘for it will hardly move away on three wheels, even supposing it could run by itself; I am afraid there is work here for a wheelwright, in which case I cannot assist you; if you were in need of a blacksmith it would be otherwise.’ ‘I don’t think either the wheel or the axle is hurt,’ said the postilion, who had been handling both; ‘it is only the linch-pin having dropped out that caused the wheel to fly off; if I could but find the linch-pin! — though, perhaps, it fell out a mile away.’ ‘Very likely,’ said I; ‘but never mind the linch-pin, I can make you one, or something that will serve: but I can’t stay here any longer, I am going to my place below with this young gentlewoman, and you had better follow us.’ ‘I am ready,’ said the man; and after lifting up the wheel and propping it against the chaise, he went with us, slightly limping, and with his hand pressed to his thigh.

As we were descending the narrow path, Belle leading the way, and myself the last of the party, the postilion suddenly stopped short, and looked about him. ‘Why do you stop?’ said I. ‘I don’t wish to offend you,’ said the man, ‘but this seems to be a strange place you are leading me into; I hope you and the young gentlewoman, as you call her, don’t mean me any harm — you seemed in a great hurry to bring me here.’ ‘We wished to get you out of the rain,’ said I, ‘and ourselves too; that is, if we can, which I rather doubt, for the canvas of a tent is slight shelter in such a rain; but what harm should we wish to do you?’ ‘You may think I have money,’ said the man, ‘and I have some, but only thirty shillings, and for a sum like that it would be hardly worth while to — ’ ‘Would it not?’ said I; ‘thirty shillings, after all, are thirty shillings, and for what I know, half a dozen throats may have been cut in this place for that sum at the rate of five shillings each; moreover, there are the horses, which would serve to establish this young gentlewoman and myself in housekeeping, provided we were thinking of such a thing.’ ‘Then I suppose I have fallen into pretty hands,’ said the man, putting himself in a posture of defence; ‘but I’ll show no craven heart; and if you attempt to lay hands on me, I’ll try to pay you in your own coin. I’m rather lamed in the leg, but I can still use my fists; so come on, both of you, man and woman, if woman this be, though she looks more like a grenadier.’

‘Let me hear no more of this nonsense,’ said Belle; ‘if you are afraid, you can go back to your chaise — we only seek to do you a kindness.’

‘Why, he was just now talking of cutting throats,’ said the man. ‘You brought it on yourself,’ said Belle; ‘you suspected us, and he wished to pass a joke upon you; he would not hurt a hair of your head, were your coach laden with gold, nor would I.’ ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘I was wrong — here’s my hand to both of you,’ shaking us by the hands; ‘I’ll go with you where you please, but I thought this a strange lonesome place, though I ought not much to mind strange lonesome places, having been in plenty of such when I was a servant in Italy, without coming to any harm — come, let us move on, for ’tis a shame to keep you two in the rain.’

So we descended the path which led into the depths of the dingle; at the bottom I conducted the postilion to my tent, which, though the rain dripped and trickled through it, afforded some shelter; there I bade him sit down on the log of wood, whilst I placed myself as usual on my stone. Belle in the meantime had repaired to her own place of abode. After a little time, I produced a bottle of the cordial of which I have previously had occasion to speak, and made my guest take a considerable draught. I then offered him some, bread and cheese, which he accepted with thanks. In about an hour the rain had much abated: ‘What do you now propose to do?’ said I. ‘I scarcely know,’ said the man; ‘I suppose I must endeavour to put on the wheel with your help.’ ‘How far are you from your home?’ I demanded. ‘Upwards of thirty miles,’ said the man; ‘my master keeps an inn on the great north road, and from thence I started early this morning with a family, which I conveyed across the country to a hall at some distance from here. On my return I was beset by the thunderstorm, which frightened the horses, who dragged the chaise off the road to the field above, and overset it as you saw. I had proposed to pass the night at an inn about twelve miles from here on my way back, though how I am to get there to-night I scarcely know, even if we can put on the wheel, for, to tell you the truth, I am shaken by my fall, and the smoulder and smoke of that fireball have rather bewildered my head; I am, moreover, not much acquainted with the way.

‘The best thing you can do,’ said I, ‘is to pass the night here; I will presently light a fire, and endeavour to make you comfortable — in the morning we will see to your wheel.’ ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘I shall be glad to pass the night here, provided I do not intrude, but I must see to the horses.’ Thereupon I conducted the man to the place where the horses were tied. ‘The trees drip very much upon them,’ said the man, ‘and it will not do for them to remain here all night; they will be better out on the field picking the grass; but first of all they must have a good feed of corn.’ Thereupon he went to his chaise, from which he presently brought two small bags, partly filled with corn — into them he inserted the mouths of the horses, tying them over their heads. ‘Here we will leave them for a time,’ said the man; ‘when I think they have had enough, I will come back, tie their fore-legs, and let them pick about.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32