Fire of charcoal — The new-comer — No wonder! — Not a blacksmith — A love affair — Gretna Green — A cool thousand — Family estates — Borough interest — Grand education — Let us hear — Already quarrelling — Honourable parents — Most heroically — Not common people — Fresh charcoal.
It might be about ten o’clock at night. Belle, the postilion, and myself, sat just within the tent, by a fire of charcoal which I had kindled in the chafing-pan. The man had removed the harness from his horses, and, after tethering their legs, had left them for the night in the field above to regale themselves on what grass they could find. The rain had long since entirely ceased, and the moon and stars shone bright in the firmament, up to which, putting aside the canvas, I occasionally looked from the depths of the dingle. Large drops of water, however, falling now and then upon the tent from the neighbouring trees, would have served, could we have forgotten it, to remind us of the recent storm, and also a certain chilliness in the atmosphere, unusual to the season, proceeding from the moisture with which the ground was saturated; yet these circumstances only served to make our party enjoy the charcoal fire the more. There we sat bending over it: Belle, with her long beautiful hair streaming over her magnificent shoulders; the postilion smoking his pipe, in his shirt-sleeves and waistcoat, having flung aside his greatcoat, which had sustained a thorough wetting; and I without my wagoner’s slop, of which, it being in the same plight, I had also divested myself.
The new-comer was a well-made fellow of about thirty, with an open and agreeable countenance. I found him very well informed for a man in his station, and with some pretensions to humour. After we had discoursed for some time on indifferent subjects, the postilion, who had exhausted his pipe, took it from his mouth, and, knocking out the ashes upon the ground, exclaimed, ‘I little thought, when I got up in the morning, that I should spend the night in such agreeable company, and after such a fright.’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘I am glad that your opinion of us has improved; it is not long since you seemed to hold us in rather a suspicious light.’
‘And no wonder,’ said the man, ‘seeing the place you were taking me to! I was not a little, but very much afraid of ye both; and so I continued for some time, though, not to show a craven heart, I pretended to be quite satisfied; but I see I was altogether mistaken about ye. I thought you vagrant gypsy folks and trampers; but now — ’
‘Vagrant gypsy folks and trampers,’ said I; ‘and what are we but people of that stamp?’
‘Oh,’ said the postilion, ‘if you wish to be thought such, I am far too civil a person to contradict you, especially after your kindness to me, but — ’
‘But!’ said I; ‘what do you mean by but? I would have you to know that I am proud of being a travelling blacksmith; look at these donkey-shoes, I finished them this day.’
The postilion took the shoes and examined them. ‘So you made these shoes?’ he cried at last.
‘To be sure I did; do you doubt it?’
‘Not in the least,’ said the man.
‘Ah! ah!’ said I, ‘I thought I should bring you back to your original opinion. I am, then, a vagrant gypsy body, a tramper, a wandering blacksmith.’
‘Not a blacksmith, whatever else you may be,’ said the postilion, laughing.
‘Then how do you account for my making those shoes?’
‘By your not being a blacksmith,’ said the postilion; ‘no blacksmith would have made shoes in that manner. Besides, what did you mean just now by saying you had finished these shoes today? A real blacksmith would have flung off three or four sets of donkey-shoes in one morning, but you, I will be sworn, have been hammering at these for days, and they do you credit — but why? — because you are no blacksmith; no, friend, your shoes may do for this young gentlewoman’s animal, but I shouldn’t like to have my horses shod by you, unless at a great pinch indeed.’
‘Then,’ said I, ‘for what do you take me?’
‘Why, for some runaway young gentleman,’ said the postilion. ‘No offence, I hope?’
‘None at all; no one is offended at being taken or mistaken for a young gentleman, whether runaway or not; but from whence do you suppose I have run away?’
‘Why, from college,’ said the man: ‘no offence?’
‘None whatever; and what induced me to run away from college?’
‘A love affair, I’ll be sworn,’ said the postilion. ‘You had become acquainted with this young gentlewoman, so she and you — ’
‘Mind how you get on, friend,’ said Belle, in a deep serious tone.
‘Pray proceed,’ said I; ‘I daresay you mean no offence.’
‘None in the world,’ said the postilion; ‘all I was going to say was, that you agreed to run away together, you from college, and she from boarding-school. Well, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a matter like that, such things are done every day by young folks in high life.’
‘Are you offended?’ said I to Belle.
Belle made no answer; but, placing her elbows on her knees, buried her face in her hands.
‘So we ran away together?’ said I.
‘Ay, ay,’ said the postilion, ‘to Gretna Green, though I can’t say that I drove ye, though I have driven many a pair.’
‘And from Gretna Green we came here?’
‘I’ll be bound you did,’ said the man, ‘till you could arrange matters at home.’
‘And the horse-shoes?’ said I.
‘The donkey-shoes you mean,’ answered the postilion; ‘why, I suppose you persuaded the blacksmith who married you to give you, before you left, a few lessons in his trade.’
‘And we intend to stay here till we have arranged matters at home?’
‘Ay, ay,’ said the postilion, ‘till the old people are pacified, and they send you letters directed to the next post town, to be left till called for, beginning with “Dear children,” and enclosing you each a cheque for one hundred pounds, when you will leave this place, and go home in a coach like gentlefolks, to visit your governors; I should like nothing better than to have the driving of you: and then there will be a grand meeting of the two families, and after a few reproaches, the old people will agree to do something handsome for the poor thoughtless things; so you will have a genteel house taken for you, and an annuity allowed you. You won’t get much the first year, five hundred at the most, in order that the old folks may let you feel that they are not altogether satisfied with you, and that you are yet entirely in their power; but the second, if you don’t get a cool thousand, may I catch cold, especially should young madam here present a son and heir for the old people to fondle, destined one day to become sole heir of the two illustrious houses; and then all the grand folks in the neighbourhood, who have — bless their prudent hearts! — kept rather aloof from you till then, for fear you should want anything from them — I say all the carriage people in the neighbourhood, when they see how swimmingly matters are going on, will come in shoals to visit you.’
‘Really,’ said I, ‘you are getting on swimmingly.’
‘Oh,’ said the postilion, ‘I was not a gentleman’s servant nine years without learning the ways of gentry, and being able to know gentry when I see them.’
‘And what do you say to all this?’ I demanded of Belle.
‘Stop a moment,’ interposed the postilion, ‘I have one more word to say:— and when you are surrounded by your comforts, keeping your nice little barouche and pair, your coachman and livery servant, and visited by all the carriage people in the neighbourhood — to say nothing of the time when you come to the family estates on the death of the old people — I shouldn’t wonder if now and then you look back with longing and regret to the days when you lived in the damp dripping dingle, had no better equipage than a pony or donkey cart, and saw no better company than a tramper or gypsy, except once, when a poor postilion was glad to seat himself at your charcoal fire.’
‘Pray,’ said I, ‘did you ever take lessons in elocution?’
‘Not directly,’ said the postilion; ‘but my old master, who was in Parliament, did, and so did his son, who was intended to be an orator. A great professor used to come and give them lessons, and I used to stand and listen, by which means I picked up a considerable quantity of what is called rhetoric. In what I last said, I was aiming at what I have heard him frequently endeavouring to teach my governors as a thing indispensably necessary in all oratory, a graceful pere — pere — peregrination.’
‘Just so,’ said the postilion; ‘and now I’m sure I am not mistaken about you; you have taken lessons yourself, at first hand, in the college vacations, and a promising pupil you were, I make no doubt. Well, your friends will be all the happier to get you back. Has your governor much borough interest?’
‘I ask you once more,’ said I, addressing myself to Belle, ‘what you think of the history which this good man has made for us?’
‘What should I think of it,’ said Belle, still keeping her face buried in her hands, ‘but that it is mere nonsense?’
‘Nonsense!’ said the postilion.
‘Yes,’ said the girl, ‘and you know it.’
‘May my leg always ache, if I do,’ said the postilion, patting his leg with his hand; ‘will you persuade me that this young man has never been at college?’
‘I have never been at college, but — ’
‘Ay, ay,’ said the postilion, ‘but — ’
‘I have been to the best schools in Britain, to say nothing of a celebrated one in Ireland.’
‘Well, then, it comes to the same thing,’ said the postilion, ‘or perhaps you know more than if you had been at college — and your governor — ’
‘My governor, as you call him,’ said I, ‘is dead.’
‘And his borough interest?’
‘My father had no borough interest,’ said I; ‘had he possessed any, he would perhaps not have died, as he did, honourably poor.’
‘No, no,’ said the postilion, ‘if he had had borough interest, he wouldn’t have been poor, nor honourable, though perhaps a right honourable. However, with your grand education and genteel manners, you made all right at last by persuading this noble young gentlewoman to run away from boarding-school with you.’
‘I was never at boarding-school,’ said Belle, ‘unless you call — ’
‘Ay, ay,’ said the postilion, ‘boarding-school is vulgar, I know: I beg your pardon, I ought to have called it academy, or by some other much finer name — you were in something much greater than a boarding-school.’
‘There you are right,’ said Belle, lifting up her head and looking the postilion full in the face by the light of the charcoal fire, ‘for I was bred in the workhouse.’
‘Wooh!’ said the postilion.
‘It is true that I am of good — ’
‘Ay, ay,’ said the postilion, ‘let us hear — ’
‘Of good blood,’ continued Belle; ‘my name is Berners, Isopel Berners, though my parents were unfortunate. Indeed, with respect to blood, I believe I am of better blood than the young man.’
‘There you are mistaken,’ said I; ‘by my father’s side I am of Cornish blood, and by my mother’s of brave French Protestant extraction. Now, with respect to the blood of my father — and to be descended well on the father’s side is the principal thing — it is the best blood in the world, for the Cornish blood, as the proverb says — ’
‘I don’t care what the proverb says,’ said Belle; ‘I say my blood is the best — my name is Berners, Isopel Berners — it was my mother’s name, and is better, I am sure, than any you bear, whatever that may be; and though you say that the descent on the fathers side is the principal thing — and I know why you say so,’ she added with some excitement — ‘I say that descent on the mother’s side is of most account, because the mother — ’
‘Just come from Gretna Green, and already quarrelling!’ said the postilion.
‘We do not come from Gretna Green,’ said Belle.
‘Ah, I had forgot,’ said the postilion; ‘none but great people go to Gretna Green. Well, then, from church, and already quarrelling about family, just like two great people.’
‘We have never been to church,’ said Belle; ‘and to prevent any more guessing on your part, it will be as well for me to tell you, friend, that I am nothing to the young man, and he, of course, nothing to me. I am a poor travelling girl, born in a workhouse: journeying on my occasions with certain companions, I came to this hollow, where my company quarrelled with the young man, who had settled down here, as he had a right to do if he pleased; and not being able to drive him out, they went away after quarrelling with me, too, for not choosing to side with them; so I stayed here along with the young man, there being room for us both, and the place being as free to me as to him.’
‘And in order that you may be no longer puzzled with respect to myself,’ said I; ‘I will give you a brief outline of my history. I am the son of honourable parents, who gave me a first-rate education, as far as literature and languages went, with which education I endeavoured, on the death of my father, to advance myself to wealth and reputation in the big city; but failing in the attempt, I conceived a disgust for the busy world, and determined to retire from it. After wandering about for some time, and meeting with various adventures, in one of which I contrived to obtain a pony, cart, and certain tools used by smiths and tinkers, I came to this place, where I amused myself with making horse-shoes, or rather pony-shoes, having acquired the art of wielding the hammer and tongs from a strange kind of smith — not him of Gretna Green — whom I knew in my childhood. And here I lived, doing harm to no one, quite lonely and solitary, till one fine morning the premises were visited by this young gentlewoman and her companions. She did herself anything but justice when she said that her companions quarrelled with her because she would not side with them against me; they quarrelled with her because she came most heroically to my assistance as I was on the point of being murdered; and she forgot to tell you that, after they had abandoned her, she stood by me in the — dark hour, comforting and cheering me, when unspeakable dread, to which I am occasionally subject, took possession of my mind. She says she is nothing to me, even as I am nothing to her. I am of course nothing to her, but she is mistaken in thinking she is nothing to me. I entertain the highest regard and admiration for her, being convinced that I might search the whole world in vain for a nature more heroic and devoted.’
‘And for my part,’ said Belle, with a sob, ‘a more quiet agreeable partner in a place like this I would not wish to have; it is true he has strange ways, and frequently puts words into my mouth very difficult to utter, but — but — ’ and here she buried her face once more in her hands.
‘Well,’ said the postilion, ‘I have been mistaken about you; that is, not altogether, but in part. You are not rich folks, it seems, but you are not common people, and that I could have sworn. What I call a shame is, that some people I have known are not in your place and you in theirs, you with their estates and borough interest, they in this dingle with these carts and animals; but there is no help for these things. Were I the great Mumbo Jumbo above, I would endeavour to manage matters better; but being a simple postilion, glad to earn three shillings a day, I can’t be expected to do much.’
‘Who is Mumbo Jumbo?’ said I.
‘Ah!’ said the postilion, ‘I see there may be a thing or two I know better than yourself. Mumbo Jumbo is a god of the black coast, to which people go for ivory and gold.’
‘Were you ever there?’ I demanded.
‘No,’ said the postilion, ‘but I heard plenty of Mumbo Jumbo when I was a boy.’
‘I wish you would tell us something about yourself. I believe that your own real history would prove quite as entertaining, if not more, than that which you imagined about us.’
‘I am rather tired,’ said the postilion, ‘and my leg is rather troublesome. I should be glad to try to sleep upon one of your blankets. However, as you wish to hear something about me, I shall be happy to oblige you; but your fire is rather low, and this place is chilly.’
Thereupon I arose, and put fresh charcoal on the pan; then taking it outside the tent, with a kind of fan which I had fashioned, I fanned the coals into a red glow, and continued doing so until the greater part of the noxious gas, which the coals are in the habit of exhaling, was exhausted. I then brought it into the tent and reseated myself, scattering over the coals a small portion of sugar. ‘No bad smell,’ said the postilion; ‘but upon the whole I think I like the smell of tobacco better; and with your permission I will once more light my pipe.’
Thereupon he relighted his pipe; and, after taking two or three whiffs, began in the following manner.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06