Talk you of young Master Lancelot?
Merchant of Venice.
After some brief interval, Master Goldthred, at the earnest instigation of mine host, and the joyous concurrence of his guest, indulged the company with, the following morsel of melody:-
“Of all the birds on bush or tree,
Commend me to the owl,
Since he may best ensample be
To those the cup that trowl.
For when the sun hath left the west,
He chooses the tree that he loves the best,
And he whoops out his song, and he laughs at his jest;
Then, though hours be late and weather foul,
We’ll drink to the health of the bonny, bonny owl.
“The lark is but a bumpkin fowl,
He sleeps in his nest till morn;
But my blessing upon the jolly owl,
That all night blows his horn.
Then up with your cup till you stagger in speech,
And match me this catch till you swagger and screech,
And drink till you wink, my merry men each;
For, though hours be late and weather be foul,
We’ll drink to the health of the bonny, bonny owl.”
“There is savour in this, my hearts,” said Michael, when the mercer had finished his song, “and some goodness seems left among you yet; but what a bead-roll you have read me of old comrades, and to every man’s name tacked some ill-omened motto! And so Swashing Will of Wallingford hath bid us good-night?”
“He died the death of a fat buck,” said one of the party, “being shot with a crossbow bolt, by old Thatcham, the Duke’s stout park-keeper at Donnington Castle.”
“Ay, ay, he always loved venison well,” replied Michael, “and a cup of claret to boot — and so here’s one to his memory. Do me right, my masters.”
When the memory of this departed worthy had been duly honoured, Lambourne proceeded to inquire after Prance of Padworth.
“Pranced off — made immortal ten years since,” said the mercer; “marry, sir, Oxford Castle and Goodman Thong, and a tenpenny-worth of cord, best know how.”
“What, so they hung poor Prance high and dry? so much for loving to walk by moonlight. A cup to his memory, my masters-all merry fellows like moonlight. What has become of Hal with the Plume — he who lived near Yattenden, and wore the long feather? — I forget his name.”
“What, Hal Hempseed?” replied the mercer. “Why, you may remember he was a sort of a gentleman, and would meddle in state matters, and so he got into the mire about the Duke of Norfolk’s affair these two or three years since, fled the country with a pursuivant’s warrant at his heels, and has never since been heard of.”
“Nay, after these baulks,” said Michael Lambourne, “I need hardly inquire after Tony Foster; for when ropes, and crossbow shafts, and pursuivant’s warrants, and such-like gear, were so rife, Tony could hardly ‘scape them.”
“Which Tony Foster mean you?” said the innkeeper.
“Why, him they called Tony Fire-the-Fagot, because he brought a light to kindle the pile round Latimer and Ridley, when the wind blew out Jack Thong’s torch, and no man else would give him light for love or money.”
“Tony Foster lives and thrives,” said the host. “But, kinsman, I would not have you call him Tony Fire-the-Fagot, if you would not brook the stab.”
“How! is he grown ashamed on’t?” said Lambourne, “Why, he was wont to boast of it, and say he liked as well to see a roasted heretic as a roasted ox.”
“Ay, but, kinsman, that was in Mary’s time,” replied the landlord, “when Tony’s father was reeve here to the Abbot of Abingdon. But since that, Tony married a pure precisian, and is as good a Protestant, I warrant you, as the best.”
“And looks grave, and holds his head high, and scorns his old companions,” said the mercer.
“Then he hath prospered, I warrant him,” said Lambourne; “for ever when a man hath got nobles of his own, he keeps out of the way of those whose exchequers lie in other men’s purchase.”
“Prospered, quotha!” said the mercer; “why, you remember Cumnor Place, the old mansion-house beside the churchyard?”
“By the same token, I robbed the orchard three times — what of that? It was the old abbot’s residence when there was plague or sickness at Abingdon.”
“Ay,” said the host, “but that has been long over; and Anthony Foster hath a right in it, and lives there by some grant from a great courtier, who had the church-lands from the crown. And there he dwells, and has as little to do with any poor wight in Cumnor, as if he were himself a belted knight.”
“Nay,” said the mercer, “it is not altogether pride in Tony neither; there is a fair lady in the case, and Tony will scarce let the light of day look on her.”
“How!” said Tressilian, who now for the first time interfered in their conversation; “did ye not say this Foster was married, and to a precisian?”
“Married he was, and to as bitter a precisian as ever ate flesh in Lent; and a cat-and-dog life she led with Tony, as men said. But she is dead, rest be with her! and Tony hath but a slip of a daughter; so it is thought he means to wed this stranger, that men keep such a coil about.”
“And why so? — I mean, why do they keep a coil about her?” said Tressilian.
“Why, I wot not,” answered the host, “except that men say she is as beautiful as an angel, and no one knows whence she comes, and every one wishes to know why she is kept so closely mewed up. For my part, I never saw her — you have, I think, Master Goldthred?”
“That I have, old boy,” said the mercer. “Look you, I was riding hither from Abingdon. I passed under the east oriel window of the old mansion, where all the old saints and histories and such-like are painted. It was not the common path I took, but one through the Park; for the postern door was upon the latch, and I thought I might take the privilege of an old comrade to ride across through the trees, both for shading, as the day was somewhat hot, and for avoiding of dust, because I had on my peach-coloured doublet, pinked out with cloth of gold.”
“Which garment,” said Michael Lambourne, “thou wouldst willingly make twinkle in the eyes of a fair dame. Ah! villain, thou wilt never leave thy old tricks.”
“Not so-not so,” said the mercer, with a smirking laugh —“not altogether so — but curiosity, thou knowest, and a strain of compassion withal; for the poor young lady sees nothing from morn to even but Tony Foster, with his scowling black brows, his bull’s head, and his bandy legs.”
“And thou wouldst willingly show her a dapper body, in a silken jerkin — a limb like a short-legged hen’s, in a cordovan boot — and a round, simpering, what-d’ye-lack sort of a countenance, set off with a velvet bonnet, a Turkey feather, and a gilded brooch? Ah! jolly mercer, they who have good wares are fond to show them! — Come, gentles, let not the cup stand — here’s to long spurs, short boots, full bonnets, and empty skulls!”
“Nay, now, you are jealous of me, Mike,” said Goldthred; “and yet my luck was but what might have happened to thee, or any man.”
“Marry confound thine impudence,” retorted Lambourne; “thou wouldst not compare thy pudding face, and sarsenet manners, to a gentleman, and a soldier?”
“Nay, my good sir,” said Tressilian, “let me beseech you will not interrupt the gallant citizen; methinks he tells his tale so well, I could hearken to him till midnight.”
“It’s more of your favour than of my desert,” answered Master Goldthred; “but since I give you pleasure, worthy Master Tressilian, I shall proceed, maugre all the gibes and quips of this valiant soldier, who, peradventure, hath had more cuffs than crowns in the Low Countries. And so, sir, as I passed under the great painted window, leaving my rein loose on my ambling palfrey’s neck, partly for mine ease, and partly that I might have the more leisure to peer about, I hears me the lattice open; and never credit me, sir, if there did not stand there the person of as fair a woman as ever crossed mine eyes; and I think I have looked on as many pretty wenches, and with as much judgment, as other folks.”
“May I ask her appearance, sir?” said Tressilian.
“Oh, sir,” replied Master Goldthred, “I promise you, she was in gentlewoman’s attire — a very quaint and pleasing dress, that might have served the Queen herself; for she had a forepart with body and sleeves, of ginger-coloured satin, which, in my judgment, must have cost by the yard some thirty shillings, lined with murrey taffeta, and laid down and guarded with two broad laces of gold and silver. And her hat, sir, was truly the best fashioned thing that I have seen in these parts, being of tawny taffeta, embroidered with scorpions of Venice gold, and having a border garnished with gold fringe — I promise you, sir, an absolute and all-surpassing device. Touching her skirts, they were in the old pass-devant fashion.”
“I did not ask you of her attire, sir,” said Tressilian, who had shown some impatience during this conversation, “but of her complexion — the colour of her hair, her features.”
“Touching her complexion,” answered the mercer, “I am not so special certain, but I marked that her fan had an ivory handle, curiously inlaid. And then again, as to the colour of her hair, why, I can warrant, be its hue what it might, that she wore above it a net of green silk, parcel twisted with gold.”
“A most mercer-like memory!” said Lambourne. “The gentleman asks him of the lady’s beauty, and he talks of her fine clothes!”
“I tell thee,” said the mercer, somewhat disconcerted, “I had little time to look at her; for just as I was about to give her the good time of day, and for that purpose had puckered my features with a smile —”
“Like those of a jackanape simpering at a chestnut,” said Michael Lambourne.
“Up started of a sudden,” continued Goldthred, without heeding the interruption, “Tony Foster himself, with a cudgel in his hand —”
“And broke thy head across, I hope, for thine impertinence,” said his entertainer.
“That were more easily said than done,” answered Goldthred indignantly; “no, no — there was no breaking of heads. It’s true, he advanced his cudgel, and spoke of laying on, and asked why I did not keep the public road, and such like; and I would have knocked him over the pate handsomely for his pains, only for the lady’s presence, who might have swooned, for what I know.”
“Now, out upon thee for a faint-spirited slave!” said Lambourne; “what adventurous knight ever thought of the lady’s terror, when he went to thwack giant, dragon, or magician, in her presence, and for her deliverance? But why talk to thee of dragons, who would be driven back by a dragon-fly. There thou hast missed the rarest opportunity!”
“Take it thyself, then, bully Mike,” answered Goldthred. “Yonder is the enchanted manor, and the dragon, and the lady, all at thy service, if thou darest venture on them.”
“Why, so I would for a quartern of sack,” said the soldier —“or stay: I am foully out of linen — wilt thou bet a piece of Hollands against these five angels, that I go not up to the Hall tomorrow and force Tony Foster to introduce me to his fair guest?”
“I accept your wager,” said the mercer; “and I think, though thou hadst even the impudence of the devil, I shall gain on thee this bout. Our landlord here shall hold stakes, and I will stake down gold till I send the linen.”
“I will hold stakes on no such matter,” said Gosling. “Good now, my kinsman, drink your wine in quiet, and let such ventures alone. I promise you, Master Foster hath interest enough to lay you up in lavender in the Castle at Oxford, or to get your legs made acquainted with the town-stocks.”
“That would be but renewing an old intimacy, for Mike’s shins and the town’s wooden pinfold have been well known to each other ere now,” said the mercer; “but he shall not budge from his wager, unless he means to pay forfeit.”
“Forfeit?” said Lambourne; “I scorn it. I value Tony Foster’s wrath no more than a shelled pea-cod; and I will visit his Lindabrides, by Saint George, be he willing or no!”
“I would gladly pay your halves of the risk, sir,” said Tressilian, “to be permitted to accompany you on the adventure.”
“In what would that advantage you, sir?” answered Lambourne.
“In nothing, sir,” said Tressilian, “unless to mark the skill and valour with which you conduct yourself. I am a traveller who seeks for strange rencounters and uncommon passages, as the knights of yore did after adventures and feats of arms.”
“Nay, if it pleasures you to see a trout tickled,” answered Lambourne, “I care not how many witness my skill. And so here I drink success to my enterprise; and he that will not pledge me on his knees is a rascal, and I will cut his legs off by the garters!”
The draught which Michael Lambourne took upon this occasion had been preceded by so many others, that reason tottered on her throne. He swore one or two incoherent oaths at the mercer, who refused, reasonably enough, to pledge him to a sentiment which inferred the loss of his own wager.
“Wilt thou chop logic with me,” said Lambourne, “thou knave, with no more brains than are in a skein of ravelled silk? By Heaven, I will cut thee into fifty yards of galloon lace!”
But as he attempted to draw his sword for this doughty purpose, Michael Lambourne was seized upon by the tapster and the chamberlain, and conveyed to his own apartment, there to sleep himself sober at his leisure.
The party then broke up, and the guests took their leave; much more to the contentment of mine host than of some of the company, who were unwilling to quit good liquor, when it was to be had for free cost, so long as they were able to sit by it. They were, however, compelled to remove; and go at length they did, leaving Gosling and Tressilian in the empty apartment.
“By my faith,” said the former, “I wonder where our great folks find pleasure, when they spend their means in entertainments, and in playing mine host without sending in a reckoning. It is what I but rarely practise; and whenever I do, by Saint Julian, it grieves me beyond measure. Each of these empty stoups now, which my nephew and his drunken comrades have swilled off, should have been a matter of profit to one in my line, and I must set them down a dead loss. I cannot, for my heart, conceive the pleasure of noise, and nonsense, and drunken freaks, and drunken quarrels, and smut, and blasphemy, and so forth, when a man loses money instead of gaining by it. And yet many a fair estate is lost in upholding such a useless course, and that greatly contributes to the decay of publicans; for who the devil do you think would pay for drink at the Black Bear, when he can have it for nothing at my Lord’s or the Squire’s?”
Tressilian perceived that the wine had made some impression even on the seasoned brain of mine host, which was chiefly to be inferred from his declaiming against drunkenness. As he himself had carefully avoided the bowl, he would have availed himself of the frankness of the moment to extract from Gosling some further information upon the subject of Anthony Foster, and the lady whom the mercer had seen in his mansion-house; but his inquiries only set the host upon a new theme of declamation against the wiles of the fair sex, in which he brought, at full length, the whole wisdom of Solomon to reinforce his own. Finally, he turned his admonitions, mixed with much objurgation, upon his tapsters and drawers, who were employed in removing the relics of the entertainment, and restoring order to the apartment; and at length, joining example to precept, though with no good success, he demolished a salver with half a score of glasses, in attempting to show how such service was done at the Three Cranes in the Vintry, then the most topping tavern in London. This last accident so far recalled him to his better self, that he retired to his bed, slept sound, and awoke a new man in the morning.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00