Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts , by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Prisoners of war

A Reported Tale of Ardevora

You’ve heard tell, I dare say, about Landlord Cummins and Billy Bosistow, and the great jealousy there was between them. No? Well, I see you going about Ardevora, and making a study of us; and I know you can read, because I’ve seen you doing it down to the Institute. But sometimes, when I ask you a simple little question like that, you force me to wonder what you’ve been doing with yourself all these years. Why, it got into the Law Courts!

I know all about it, being related to them both after a fashion, as you might say. Landlord Cummins — he that used to keep the Welcome Home — married an aunt of mine on my mother’s side, and that’s part of the story. The boys used to call him “Calves-infront,” because of his legs being put on in an unusual manner, which made him walk slow all his days, and that’s another part of the story. And Billy Bosistow, or Uncle Billy, was my father’s father’s’ stepson. You needn’t take any trouble to get that clear in your mind, because our family never owned him after he came home from the French war prisons and took up with his drinking habits; and that comes into the story, too.

As it happens, the occasion that took their quarrel into the Law Courts is one of the first things I can remember. It was in the year ‘twenty-five. Landlord Cummins, by dint of marrying a woman with means (that was my aunt), and walking the paths of repute for eleven years with his funny-shaped calves, got himself elected Mayor of the Borough. You may suppose it was a proud day for him. In those times the borough used to pay the mayor a hundred pounds a year to keep up appearances, and my mother had persuaded my father to hire a window for Election Day opposite the Town Hall, so that she might have the satisfaction of seeing so near a relative in his robes of dignity.

Well, there in the window we were gathered on that July forenoon (for the mayors in those back-a-long days weren’t chosen in November as they are now), and the sun — it was a bright day — slanting high down our side of the street, and my mother holding me tight as we leaned out, for I was just rising five, and extraordinary heavy in the head. And out upon the steps of the Town Hall stepped Landlord Cummins, Mayor, with the town crier and maces before him, and his robes hanging handsomely about his calves, and his beaver hat and all the rest of the paraphernalia, prepared to march to church.

While he stood there, bowing to a score of people, and looking as big as bull’s beef, who should step out from the pavement under us but Uncle Billy Bosistow! He was a ragged old scarecrow, turned a bit grey and lean with iniquitous living, but not more than half-drunk; and he stepped into the middle of the roadway and cut a low reverence to his worship, flinging out his leg like a dancing-master. And says he, in a high cackle, very solemn but mocking:

“I salute thee, O Mayor! Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before thy God.”

“Put that dam fool in the stocks!” cried his worship, very red in the gills, and speaking vicious. And Uncle Billy was collared and marched off between two constables, while the procession formed up to lead the new Mayor to church.

Well, that, as it happened, wasn’t a lucky start-off for Mr. Cummins’s year of office. For no sooner was Billy let out of the stocks than off he went to Lawyer Mennear, who was a young man then just set up in practice, and as keen for a job as a huer for pilchards; and between them they patched up an action for false imprisonment — damages claimed, one hundred pounds.

The case came on at Bodmin, and the Mayor was cast in damages, twenty-five pounds. He paid, of course, though with a very long face. But Billy’s revenge didn’t stop here. Instead of putting the money by, the old varmint laid it out in the best way he could to annoy his enemy. And the way he contrived it was this. Every free Saturday he’d put a sovereign in his pocket, and start the round of the public-houses — always beginning with Cummins’s own house, the Welcome Home. Cummins, you see, couldn’t refuse to serve him: the law wouldn’t allow it. So he’d pull out a brand new sovereign and slap it on the counter and eye it. “Ah!” he’d say, “it was a dear friend gave me that there coin. His heart’s in the right place, which is more’n can be said for his calves. Two-pennyworth of gin, please, your Worship.” The Mayor’s dignity wouldn’t let him serve it, so, the first day, he called his wife down. Mrs. Cummins began by trying argument. “William,” she said, “the Lord knows you wouldn’t have this money if there was justice in England. But got it you have, and now be a sensible man and put it by for a rainy day.” “Mrs. Mayor,” answers Billy, slow and vicious, “if there was any chance of presentin’ you with a silver cradle, I’d save it up and subscribe.” After that there was nothing more to say. It hurt the poor soul terrible, and she went upstairs again and cried as she went. Billy sat on and soaked, and the Mayor, across the counter, sat and watched his condition, quiet-like, till the time came for refusing any more liquor and turning him out. When that happened the old sinner would gather up his change and make off for another public. And the end was that he’d be up before the Mayor on Monday morning, charged with drunkenness. No use to fine him; he wouldn’t pay, but went to gaol instead. “Ten years was I in prison,” he’d say, addressing the bench, “along with his Worship there. I don’t know what ’twould appear to him who came back and got the Welcome Home; but I didn’t, and ten days don’t frighten me.”

Landlord Cummins would listen to this, looking as unnatural as a blue china cat in a thunderstorm. He fairly hated these appearances of Billy, and they spoiled his term of office, I do believe. But all the same he turned out a very passable Mayor. The townsfolk respected him so highly, I’ve heard my mother say, that they made him Ex–Mayor the year following.

Now you’ll be wanting to know what made these two men hate each other, for friends they had been, as two men ought to be who had been taken prisoners together and spent ten years in captivity to the French, and come home aboard the same ship like brothers. The bigger the love the bigger the hate, and no difficulty to guess there was a woman in the case. So there was; but the way she came between them was curious, for all that.

First of all, you must know, that up to the year ‘three Abe Cummins and Bill Bosistow hadn’t known what it is to quarrel or miss meeting each other every day. They went to school together, and then to the fishing, and afterwards they sailed together with the free-traders over to Mount’s Bay, and good seamen the both, though not a bit alike in looks and ways. Abe, the elder by a year, was a bit slow and heavy on his pins; given to reading, too, though he seemed to take it up for peace and quietness more than for any show he made of his learning. Bill was smarter altogether and better looking; a bit boastful, after the manner of young chaps. He could read too, but never did much at it, though I’ve heard that on Saturday nights he was fond of ranting verses — stuff about drink and such like — out of a book of Robert Burns’s poetry he’d borrowed off Abe.

You’d hardly have thought two young fellows so different in every way could have hit it off as they did. But these were like two figures in a puzzle-block; their very differences seemed to make them fit. There never was such a pair since David and Jonathan, and I believe ’twas partly this that kept them from running after girls. So far as I can see, the most of the lads begin at seventeen; but these two held off sweethearting right along until Christmas of the year ‘three when they came home from Porthleven to spend a fortnight at Ardevora, and they both fell in love with Selina Johns.

Selina Johns wasn’t but just husband-high; turned sixteen and her hair only put up a week before, she having begged her mother’s leave to twist it in plaits for the Christmas courants. And Abe and Billy each knew the other’s secret almost before he knew his own, for each, as you may say, kept his heart like a window and looked into his friend’s window first.

And what they did was to have it out like good fellows, and agree to wait a couple of years, unless any third party should interfere. In two years’ time, they agreed, Selina Johns would be wise enough to choose — and then let the best man win! No bad blood afterwards, and meanwhile no more talk than necessary — they shook hands upon that. That January, being tired of the free-trade, they shipped together on board a coaster for the Thames, and reshipped for the voyage homeward on board the brig Hand and Glove, of London.

The Hand and Glove, Uriah Wilcox, master, was bound for Devonport with a cargo of copper and flour for the dockyard there, and came to anchor in the Downs on March 24th to join convoy under the Spider gun-brig. On the 25th (a Sunday) it blew hard from north to west, and she let go sheet anchor. Next day the weather moderated a bit, and, heaving up her sheet anchor, she rode to her best bower. On the Tuesday, the wind having fallen light, the master took off a new longboat from Deal. There was some hitch in delivering her, and she was scarcely brought alongside by five the next morning when the Commodore signalled to get under weigh.

By reason of this delay, the Hand and Glove was taken unawares, and started well astern of the fleet, which numbered over twenty sail of merchantmen; and, being a sluggard in anything short of half a gale, she made up precious little way in the light E.N.E. breeze.

Soon after seven that evening, Beachy Head bearing N.W. by W. four miles and a half, Abe Cummins on the look-out forward spied a lugger coming towards shore upon a wind. She crossed well ahead of the Hand and Glove, and close — as it looked — under the stem of an East Indiaman which was then busy reefing topsails before night. For a while Abe lost sight of her under the dark of the land; but by-and-by the wheelman took a glance over his shoulder, and there she was, creeping up close astern. His call fetched up Captain Wilcox, who ran aft and hailed, but got no reply. And so she came on, until, sheering close up under the Hand and Glove’s port quarter, she was able to heave a grapnel on board and throw twenty well-armed Johnnies into the old brig. The Englishmen — seven in all, and taken unprepared — were soon driven below and shut down — four in the cabin, two in the steerage, and one in the forecastle, this last being Abe Cummins. After a while the sentry over the hatchway called for him to come up and show where the leading ropes were, which he did at the point of a cutlass. And precious soon the Johnnies had altered the brig’s course and stood away for the coast of France, the lugger keeping her company all night.

Early next morning the two vessels were close off Dieppe Harbour; and there, when the tide suited, they were taken inside, and the prisoners put ashore at nightfall and lodged for three days in a filthy round tower, swarming with vermin. On April 1 — Easter Sunday, I’ve heard it was — they were told to get ready for marching, and handed over, making twenty-five in all, with the crews of two other vessels, both brigs — the Lisbon Packet, bound from London to Falmouth with a general cargo, and the Margaret, letter of marque of London, bound from Zante, laden with currants — to a lieutenant and a guard of foot soldiers. Not a man of them knew where they were bound. They set out through a main pretty country, where the wheat stood nearabouts knee-high, but the roads were heavy after the spring rains. Each man had seven shillings in his pocket, given him at parting by the captain of his vessel — the three captains had been left behind at Dieppe — and on they trudged for just a fortnight on an allowance of 1 lb. of brown bread and twopence-halfpenny per man per day; the bread served out regular and the money, so to say, when they could get it. Mostly they came to a town for their night’s halt, and as often as not the townsfolk drummed them to jail with what we call the “Rogue’s March,” but in France I believe it’s “Honours of War,” or something that sounds politer than ’tis. But there were times when they had to put up at a farm house by the road, and then the poor chaps slept on straw for a treat.

Well, on the last day of the fortnight they reached their journey’s end — a great fortress on a rock standing right over the river, with a town lying around the foot of the rock, and a smaller town, reached by a bridge of boats, on the far side of the river. I can’t call to mind the name of the river, but the towns were called Jivvy — Great and Little Jivvy. 5 The prison stood at the very top of the rock, on the edge of a cliff that dropped a clean 300 feet to the river: not at all a pretty place to get clear of, and none so cheerful to live in on a day’s allowance of one pound of brown bread, half a pound of bullock’s offal, three-halfpence in money (paid weekly, and the most of it deducted for prison repairs, if you please!), and now and then a noggin of peas for a treat. They found half a dozen ships’ companies already there, and enjoying themselves on this diet; the crew of the Minerva frigate, run ashore off Cherbourg; the crew of the Hussar, wrecked outside Brest; and — so queerly things fall out in this world — among them a parcel of poor fellows from Ardevora, taken on board the privateer Recovery of this port.

To keep to my story, though — which is about Abe Cummins and Billy Bosistow. It was just in these unhappy conditions that the difference in the two men came out. Abe took his downfall very quiet from the first. He had managed to keep a book in his pocket — a book of voyages it was — and carry it with him all the way from Dieppe, and it really didn’t seem to matter to him that he was shut up, so long as he could sit in a corner and read about other folks travelling. In the second year of their captivity an English clergyman, a Mr. Wolfe, came to Jivvy, and got leave from the Commandant to fit up part of the prison granary for a place of worship and preach to the prisoners. It had a good effect on the men in general, and Abe in particular turned very religious. Mr. Wolfe took a fancy to him, and lent him an old book on “Navigation”— Hamilton Moore’s; and over that Abe would sit by the hour, with his room-mates drunk and fighting round him, and copy out tables and work out sums. All his money went in pen and ink instead of the liquor which the jailors smuggled in.

Billy Bosistow was a very different pair of shoes. Although no drinker by habit, he fretted and wore himself down at times to a lowness of spirits in which nothing seemed to serve him but drinking, and fierce drinking. On his better days he was everybody’s favourite; but when the mood fell on him he grew teasy as a bear with a sore head, and fit to set his right hand quarrelling with his left. Then came the drinking fit, and he’d wake out of that like a man dazed, sitting in a corner and brooding for days together. What he brooded on, of course, was means of escape. At first, like every other prisoner in Jivvy, he had kept himself cheerful with hopes of exchange, but it seemed the folks home in Ardevora had given up trying for a release, or else letters never reached them. And yet they must have known something of the case their poor kinsmen were in, for in the second year the Commandant sent for Abe and Billy, and informed them that, by the kindness of a young English lady, a Miss Selina Johns, their allowance was increased by two sols a day. He showed them no letter, but the increase was paid regularly for eight months; after which a new Commandant came, and it ceased. They could never find out if the supply ceased, or into whose pocket it went if it came.

From that time Bosistow had two things to brood upon — escape and Selina. But confinement is the ruination of some natures, and as year after year went by and his wits broke themselves on a stone wall, he grew into a very different man from the handy lad the Johnnies had taken prisoner. One thing he never gave up, and that was his pluck; and he had plenty of use for it when, after seven years, his chance came.

His first contrivance was to change names with an old American in the depot. It so happened that the captain of a French privateer had applied to the prison for a crew of foreigners to man his ship, then lying at Morlaix. The trick, by oiling the jailor’s palm, was managed easily enough, and away Bosistow was marched with twenty comrades of all nations. But at the first stage some recruiting officers stopped them, insisting that they were Irish and not Americans, and must be enlisted to serve with Bonaparty’s army in Spain. The prisoners to a man refused to hear of it, and the end was they were marched back to prison in disgrace, and, to cap everything, had their English allowance stopped on pretence that they had been in the French service. Yet this brought him a second chance, for being now declared an Irishman he managed to get himself locked up with the Irish, who had their quarters on the handier side of the prison; and that same night broke out of window with two other fellows, got over the prison wall, and hid in the woods beyond. But on the second day a party of wood-rangers attacked them with guns and captured them; and back they went, and were condemned to six years in irons.

This, as it turned out, didn’t amount to much; for, while they were waiting to be marched off to the galleys, their jailor came with news that a son was born to the Emperor, and they were pardoned in honour of it. But instead of putting them back in their old quarters, he fixed them up for a fortnight in a room by themselves, being fearful that such bad characters would contaminate the other prisoners. This room was an upstairs one in a building on the edge of the ramparts, and after a few nights they broke through the ceiling into an empty chamber, which had a window looking on the roof. With a rope made of their bedclothes they lowered themselves clean over the ramparts on to the edge of the precipice over the river; and along this they passed — having no daylight to make them giddy — and took their way northwards across the fields.

Well, it doesn’t come into my tale to tell you what they went through. Bosistow wrote out an account of it years after, and you shall read it for yourself. At one place they had to cross a river, and Billy being, like the most of our fishermen, no swimmer, his mates stuck him on a hurdle and pushed him over while they swam behind. They steered by the Pole Star (for, you understand, they could only travel by night) and also by a fine comet which they guessed to be in the north-west quarter.

You see the difference between these two fellows, and how little Providence made of it. Back in Jivvy, Abe Cummins was staring at this same comet out of his prison windows, and doing his sums and thinking of Selina Johns. And here was Bosistow following it up for freedom — with the upshot that he made the coast and was taken like a lamb in the attempt to hire a passage, and marched in irons from one jail to another, and then clean back the whole length of France, pretty well to the Mediterranean Sea. And then he was shut up in a prison on the very top of the Alps 6 and twice as far from home as he had been in Jivvy. That’s a moral against folks in a hurry if ever there was one.

Well, let alone that while he was here he received a free pardon from the Emperor, which his persecutors took no notice of, he broke out of prison again, and was caught and brought back half-starving. And ‘twasn’t till Christmas of the year ‘thirteen that orders came to march him right away north again, with all the prisoners, to a place in the Netherlands; and no sooner arrived than away to go again three hundred and fifty miles west-sou’-west for Tours, on the Loire river. I’ve figured it out on the map, and even that is enough to make a man feel sore in his feet. But what made Bosistow glad at the time, and vicious after, was that on his way he fell in with a draft of prisoners, and, among them, with Abe Cummins, who, so to say, had reached the same place by walking a tenth part of the distance. And, what’s more, though a man couldn’t very well get sleek in Jivvy, Abe had kept his bones filled out somehow, and knew enough navigation by this time to set a course to the Channel Fleet. ‘Deed, that’s what he began talking about on the first day’s journey he and Billy trudged together after their meeting. And he began it after a spell of silence by asking, quiet like, “Have you been happening to think much about Selina Johns this last year or two?”

“Most every day,” answered Billy.

“So have I,” said Abe, and seemed to be pondering to himself. “She’ll be a woman growed by this time,” he went on.

“Turnin’ twenty-seven,” Billy agreed.

“That’s of it,” said Abe. “I’ve been thinking about her, constant.”

“Well, look’ee here,” spoke up Billy, “our little agreement holds, don’t it? — that is, if we ever get out of this here mess, and Selina hasn’t gone and taken a husband. Play fair, leave it to the maid, and let the best man win; that’s what we shook hands over. If that holds, seemin’ to me the rest can wait.”

“True, true,” says Abe; but after a bit he asks rather sly-like: “And s’posin’ you’re the lucky one, how do’ee reckon you’re going to maintain her?”

“Why, on seaman’s wages, I suppose; or else at the shoe-mending. I learnt a little of that trade in Jivvy, as you d’know.”

“Well,” says Abe, “I was reckonin’ to set up school and teach navigation. Back in Ardevora I can make between seventy and eighty pounds a year at that game easy.”

Bosistow scratched his head. “You’ve been making the most of your time. Now I’ve been busy in my way, too, but seemin’ to me the only trade I’ve learned is prison-breakin’. Not much to keep a wife on, as you say. Still, a bargain’s a bargain.”

“Oh, sutt’nly,” says Abe; “that is if your conscience allows it.”

“I reckon I’ll risk that,” answers Billy, and no more passed.

From Tours the prisoners tramped south-east again, to a town called Riou, in the middle of France, and reached it in a snowstorm on March 1. Here they were billeted for five weeks or so, and here, one night, they were waked up and told that Bonaparty had gone scat, and they must come forth and dance with the townspeople in honour of it. You may be sure they heeled and toed it that night, and no girl satisfied unless she had an Englishman for a partner. But the next day it all turned out to be lies, and off they were marched again. To be short, ‘twasn’t till the end of April that they came to the river opposite Bordeaux, and were taken in charge by English red-coats, who told them they were free men. On the 28th of that month Abe and Billy, with forty others, were put on board a sloop and dropped down the river to the Dartmouth frigate, from which they were drafted on to the Lord Wellington, and again on to the Suffolk transport. And on May 4 the Suffolk, with six other transports, having about fifteen hundred released prisoners on board, weighed anchor under convoy for Plymouth before a fine breeze, S.E. by S.

On Monday, May 9, at half-past two in the afternoon — the wind still steady in the same quarter, and blowing fresh — the Suffolk sighted land, making out St. Michael’s Mount; and fetching up to Mousehole Island, the captain hailed a mackerel boat to come alongside and take ashore some officers with despatches.

Abe Cummins and Billy Bosistow were both on deck, you may be sure, watching the boat as the fishermen brought her alongside. Not a word had been said between them on the matter that lay closest to their minds, but while they waited Billy fetched a look at the boat and another at Abe. “The best man wins,” he said to himself, and edged away towards the ladder.

The breeze, as I said, was a fresh one, with a sea in the bay that kept the Suffolk rolling like a porpoise. A heavier lurch than ordinary sent her main channels grinding down on the mackerel boat’s gunwale, smashing her upper strakes and springing her mizzen mast as she recovered herself.

“Be dashed,” said one of the officers, “if I trust myself in a boat that’ll go down under us between this and land!”

The rest seemed to be of his mind, too. But Billy, being quick as well as eager, saw in a moment that the damaged strakes would be to windward on the reach into Mousehole, and well out of harm’s way in the wind then blowing, and also that her mainsail alone would do the job easy. So just as she fell off and her crew ran aft to get the mizzen lug stowed he took a run past the officer and jumped aboard, with two fellows close on his heels — one a Penzance fellow whose name I’ve forgot, and the t’other a chap from Ludgvan, Harry Cornish by name. I reckon the sight of the old shores just made them mazed as sheep, and like sheep they followed his lead. The officers ran to stop any more from copying such foolishness; and if they hadn’t, I believe the boat would have been swamped there and then. As ’twas, she rehoisted her big lug and away-to-go for Mousehole, the three passengers sitting down to leeward with their sterns in and out of the water to help keep her damaged side above mischief.

So on Mousehole Quay these three stepped ashore, and the first man to shake hands with them was Capen Josiah Penny, of the Perseverance trading ketch, then lying snug in Mousehole Harbour. Being a hearty man he invited them down to his cabin to take a drop of rum. The Penzance fellow, having only a short way to trudge, said “No, thank’ee,” and started for home with a small crowd after him. But Bosistow and Cornish agreed ’twould be more neighbourly to accept, and, to tell the truth, they didn’t quite know how to behave with so many eyes upon them. Cornish had on a soldier’s red jacket with white facings, and a pair of blue trousers out at the knees, while Bosistow’s trousers were of white cloth, and he carried a japanned knapsack at the back of his red shirt: and with a white-painted straw hat apiece, you may guess they felt themselves looking like two figures of fun.

So down they went to the Perseverance’s cabin, and Capen Penny mixed them a stiff glass of rum and called them fine fellows, and mixed them two more glasses while they talked; and when the time came to say “so long,” Billy was quite sure he didn’t care for appearances one snap of his fingers.

They linked arms on the quay, where they found a crowd waiting for them, and many with questions to ask about absent friends, so that from Mousehole to Penzance it was a regular procession. And then they had to go to the hotel and tell the whole story over again, and answer a thousand and one questions about Penzance boys imprisoned at Jivvy. And all this meant more rum, of course.

It was seven in the evening, and day closing in, before they took the road again. Billy had fallen into a boastful mood, and felt his heart so warm towards Cornish that nothing would do but they must tramp it together so far as Nancledrea, which was a goodish bit out of Cornish’s road to Ludgvan. By the time they reached Nancledrea Billy was shedding tears and begging Cornish to come along to Ardevora. “I’ll make a man of ‘ee there,” he promised: “I will sure ‘nough!” But Cornish weighed the offer, and decided that his mother at Ludgvan would be going to bed before long. So coming to a house with red blinds and lights within they determined to have a drink before parting.

In the tap-room they found a dozen fellows or so drinking their beer and smoking solemn, and an upstanding woman in a black gown attending on them. “Hullo!” says one of the men looking up, “What’s this? Geezy-dancers?” 7

“I’ll soon tell ‘ee about Geezy-dancers,” says Billy. “Here, Missus — a pot of ale all round, and let ’em drink to two Cornish boys home from festerin’ in French war prisons, while they’ve a’been diggin’ taties!”

There was no resisting a sociable offer like this, and in two two’s, as you might say, Billy was boasting ahead for all he was worth, and the company with their mouths open — all but the landlady, who was opening her eyes instead, and wider and wider.

“There isn’ none present that remembers me, I dare say. My name’s Bosistow — Billy Bosistow — from Ardevora parish. And back there I’m going this very night, and why? you ask. I ben’t one of your taty-diggin’ slowheads —I ben’t. I’ve broke out of prison three times, and now —” He nodded at the company, whose faces by this time he couldn’t very well pick out of a heap —“do any of ‘ee know a maid there called Selina Johns? Because if so I warn ‘ee of her. ‘Why?’ says you. Because that’s the maid I’m goin’ to marry, and I’m off to Ardevora to do it straight. Another pot of beer, please, missus.”

“You’ve had a plenty, sir, seemin’ to me,” answered up the landlady, while the company tittered.

“And is this the way”— Billy stood up very dignified —“is this the way to welcome home a man who bled for his country? Is this your gratitude to a man who’s spent ten o’ the best years of his life in slavery while you’ve been diggin’ taties?” I can’t tell you why potatoes ran so much in the poor fellow’s head; but they did, and he seemed to see the hoeing of them almost in the light of a personal injury. He spat on the floor. “And as for you, madam, these here boots of mine have tramped thousands of miles, and I shake off their dust upon you,” he says.

“I wish you’d confine yourself to that, with your dirty habits!” the landlady answered up again, but Billy marched out with great dignity which was only spoiled by his mistaking the shadow across the doorway for a raised step. He didn’t forget to slam the door after him; but he did forget to take leave of Harry Cornish, who had walked so far out of his way in pure friendliness.

For the first mile or so, what with his anger and the fresh air, Billy had a to-do to keep his pins and fix his mind on the road. But by-and-by his brain cleared a bit, and when he reached the hill over Ardevora, and saw the lights of the town below him, his mood changed, and he sat down on the turf of the slope with tears in his eyes.

“There you be,” said he, talking to the lights, “and here be I; and somewheres down amongst you is the dear maid I’ve come to marry. Not much welcome for me in Ardevora, I b’law, though I do love every stone of her streets. But there’s one there that didn’ forget me in my captivity, and won’t despise me in these here rags. I wish I’d seen Abe’s face when I jumped aboard the boat. Poor old Abe! — but all’s fair in love and war, I reckon. He can’t be here till tomorrow at earliest, so let’s have a pipe o’ baccy on it.”

He lit up and sucked away at his pipe, still considering the lights in the valley. Somehow they put him in mind of Abe, and how in the old days he and Abe used to come on them shining just so on their way home on Saturday nights from Bessie’s Cove. Poor old mate! — first of all he pictured Abe’s chap-fallen face, and chuckled; then he began to wonder if Abe would call it fair play. But all was fair in love and war: he kept saying this over to himself, and then lit another pipe to think it out.

Well, he couldn’t; and so, after a third pipe, he pulled an old French cloak out of his knapsack and wrapped himself in it and huddled himself to sleep there on the slope of the hillside.

When he woke up the sun was shining and the smoke coming up towards him from the chimneys, and all about him the larks a-singing just as they’d carried on every fine morning since he’d left Ardevora. And somehow, though he had dropped asleep in a puzzle of mind, he woke up with not a doubt to trouble him. He hunted out a crust from his knapsack and made his breakfast, and then he lit his pipe again and turned towards Penzance. He was going to play fair.

On he went in this frame of mind, feeling like a man almost too virtuous to go to church, until by-and-by he came in sight of Nancledrea and the inn he’d left in such a hurry over night. And who should be sitting in the porchway, and looking into the bottom of a pint pot, but Abe Cummins!

“Why, however on earth did you come here?” asked Billy.

“Cap’en landed us between four and five this morning,” said Abe.

“Well,” said Billy, “I’m right glad to meet you, anyway, for — tell ‘ee the truth — you’re the very man I was looking for.”

“Really?” says Abe, like one interested.

“You and no other. I don’t mind telling ‘ee I’ve been through a fire of temptation. You know why I jumped into that boat: it vexed you a bit, I dare say. And strickly speakin’, mind you”— Billy took his friend by the button-hole —“strickly speakin’ I’d the right on my side. ‘Let the best man win’ was our agreement. But you needn’ to fret yourself: I ben’t the man to take an advantage of an old friend, fair though it be. Man, I ha’n’t been to Ardevora — I turned back. So finish your beer and come’st along with me, and we’ll walk down to Selina Johns together and ask her which of us she’ll choose, fair and square.”

Abe set down his mug and looked up, studying the signboard over the door.

“Well,” says he, “’tis a real relief to my mind to know you’ve played so fair. For man and boy, Bill, I always thought it of you.”

“Yes, indeed,” says Billy, “man and boy, it always was my motto.”

“But as consarnin’ Selina Johns,” Abe went on, “there ain’t no such woman.”

“You don’t tell me she’s dead!”

“No; ’tis her first husband that’s dead. She’s Selina Widlake now.”

“How long have ‘ee knowed that?”

“Maybe an hour, maybe only three-quarters. Her name’s Selina Widlake, and she owns this here public. What’s more, her name isn’t going to be Selina Widlake, but Selina Cummins. We’ve fixed it up, and she’s to leave Nancledrea and take the Welcome Home over to Ardevora.”

Billy Bosistow took a turn across the road, and, coming back, stuck his hands in his pockets and stared up at the sign overhead.

“Well! And I, that was too honourable —” he began.

“So you was,” agreed Abe, pulling out his pipe. “You can’t think what a comfort that is to me. But, as it turns out, ‘twouldn’t have made no difference. For she see’d you last evenin’, and she was tellin’ me just now that prison hadn’t improved you. In fact she didn’t like either your looks or your behaviour.”

I’ve heard that he was just in time to pop inside and bolt the door after him. And now you know why Billy Bosistow and Abe Cummins could never bear the sight of each other from that day. But there! you can’t be first and last too, as the saying is.

5 Givet in the Ardennes. The river, of course, is the Meuse.

6 Probably Briancon in the Hautes Alpes.

7 Performers in a Christmas Play.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/q/quiller-couch/arthur_thomas/old-fires-and-profitable-ghosts/chapter9.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:15