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One fair morning when the breath of June was in the air and the wind, setting from the north, had cleared the heaven of the few wisping clouds that lay, like straws, across it, it befell that I, a wanderer and a taster of life, stood upon a little hill, in freedom and at the tip-top of fortune, staring at the world.
My voice is my pittance and my substance, for I, like many another ragged and bedecked straggler on the road, sing for my pleasure and my purse.
The course of the highway was my chief intent, for I was ward bound," as seamen say. I followed with my eye the winding road as it led with fanciful mood among its elms, a fitful and
It was a road I liked. It was none of your steady-going roads that plow straight away like cart horses and suggest nothing of adventure. It was none of your kings' highways with a mailcoach and a beggar to surfeit with. It was a road that wandered like myself, little caring whither but to have something of excitement or pleasure on't, and with the bubbling enthusiasm of a new day's play I was for it.
At my back lay the rolling heath, red-brown at the start of spring, and to the south a pleasant valley and a glimpse now and then of white water, where a brook crept silently.
I had been at the green fair at Holingshead, a roaring, ropeswinging, cheat-and-lie sort of a place, and with a fat purse in my pocket and a sheriff at my heels I had left for the south. I knew it was warm and pleasant at the Blackfriars and I could almost taste the ale at the White Horse.
Scarcely had I stepped away through the furze toward my path when I heard a piercing whistle from the hillside at my right. I stopped and listened, turning toward the place whence it came. There was intense silence and not a soul in sight. Again it sounded, and I thought from among some rocks hanging in ragged projection down the slope. I was not mistaken, for directly I saw a head bound with a red cloth peer out at me and a long hand beckoning.
I slid my hand over my dirk handle and started for it. I felt no fear, for I had a quick wrist and a stout heart for a boy. As I came near a fat, ragged beggar clambered out, cocked his arms and looked at me curiously. He who had beckoned also rose from his concealment and greeted me. He was a tall, swarthy
. cut-throat looking devil with a nasty air of murder somehow clinging to him. I waited for him to speak, and he smiled in the friendly fashion of a thief to a thief.
"We meet again," said he, showing a beautiful set of teeth in his sinister grin.
"To my pleasure," I returned, touching my ragged cap to the lie of it.
"What luck?” he queried, looking at me narrowly. I shrugged my shoulders.
"There's a swinging job waiting for you, my lad," said he. "Your friend died at the Red Lion at midnight. I had it from the hostler."
"So," I replied, indifferently, "he was a soft fool and his purse was as empty as his head." I spoke warily for I had chances at a lame head on my own account, should he know the contents of the belt under my jacket.
"What is your direction ?” he asked, lowering his voice. "I go to France," I replied carelessly, for I tell my mind to no
“Tonight, to Calais."
“We have a job with money on't tonight,” he said with a soft purr. “There's work for a lusty lad with quick fingers.”
"What can I do?" I asked with some show of interest.
" 'Twill be your work when we have made the way,” he responded, "to shag the silver ; we have a key to the case in the gun room.”
"Is it a great distance from here?” said I.
"Some three hours' travel, at a house an odds distance from the Kings' highway in Darbyshire; a stone house among the trees, not a league from St. Giles and near the Surrey road in the bargain. Are you with us?”
"No, thankee," I returned after a moment's pause to consider it. “'Tis my business to cry quits with merry England. We know each other. We are all gallows' birds, but I have no taste for hanging this day," and I turned across the heather.
"I bid you good fortune if you journey so soon,” he cried after me somewhat snarlingly.
“My respects," I called back to him, bowing low.
Uneasy in the neighborhood of these rascals, I quickly placed a distance between us down the winding road, until I could breathe freely. The thought that there might be truth in this fellow's statements concerning the death of the wild head I had slipped a knife into the evening before, disturbed me somewhat. When ballad-making is dull (for penny work yields not a great income) 'tis ofttimes handy to filch a stuffed pocket and knife the owner if he resist, and who is to blame if the fool dies. He was drunk and -Bah! I threw it off my mind and gave myself over to making a new tune out of the sunshine.
'Tis an easy life, this beggars' existence, and I was joyful with the morning. The promise of summer puts a life into one, and I sang with the birds for my heart was light.
Once I met a peasant with a cart which looked for all the world so like the cart that poor Jack Shade rode to the gallows in, that my heart was in my throat for an instant. The thought did not please me.
I wandered on, not caring for time nor distance. The road was quiet and but little traveled, and in this solitude the wide sky and the green meadows were my companions.
At "The Hand and Glove" I stopped for some cakes and ale and sat smoking a great pipe by an open window near the chimney corner, when a chaise came clattering up the highway and stopped. The occupant was a young doctor, who had a sick man with him. He called loudly for brandy, and for water for his horse. Some discussion arose after he had driven on, in which I gathered that the patient was a young man who had been injured in a brawl of some kind and was being taken home.
A wild, reckless devil, they told me, scarcely a credit to the name of the family.
My thoughts reverted to the little affair of my own the evening before, and I began to feel that a neighborhood more secluded would suit me quite as well.
When I had paid my score I set forth again. Suddenly there arose in my head a desire for adventure; my soul cried out against the monotony of idleness.
I bethought me of my cut-throat roadmates and wondered if I might be in time for their enterprise. I could not be a great distance from the house they aimed at, and with this thought, I turned toward St. Giles.
The way through meadow lands and skirting hedges filled me with song. I had a new ballad half completed, and in the enthusiasm of it I sang with all the freedom of one unconscious of dangerous precincts.
By a sedgy brook I met two girls picking cowslips; they looked at me wonder-eyed while I was yet at some distance. I doffed my rag of a hat, made a low bow and sang a verse of my new ballad.
Before I had finished, a yokel who evidently attended the girls came toward me as if to warn me away, but a gesture from the older girl kept him from his purpose.
“You sing well,” she said to me when I had finished, "and your
song deserves reward. If you will come with me I will serve you some cheese cakes in our garden.”
She walked with her companion over the downs, and I followed at the side of the groom, whom I quizzed steadily regarding the locality. I judged from his responses that I must be in the vicinity of the place I sought.
At the approach of the garden I was convinced that this must be the very house, and I immediately began wondering at my chances of success. House-breaking is not my line and I determined to take few chances.
One thing was certain, if I gained entrance I must in some way get word to my fellows to be able to reach our end.
While I was thus absorbed in reflection a maid approached and served me daintily with cakes. At some distance, among the hollyhocks, I saw the two girls who had led me hither. There was a kind-looking mother with them, who listened in gentle sympathy to the story the girls told her.
I ate with diffidence, my appetite having surfeited so short a time before.
"Master Balladmonger," said the mother, approaching me when I had done. "What is your labor in the world ?”
"I sing, good madam," said I, making a profound bow.
“Does your voice serve you since you have eaten,” she asked kindly. “I desire greatly to hear a sweet voice.”
"My heart would prompt me, madam, to sing ever to so gracious a company," I replied, and I promptly set a tune from a Scotch air I knew.
A serving-man came toward us before I had done and addressed the mother. I could not help hearing.
"Master Valentine's respects, Mem; he asks that the minstrel may come nearer the sick chamber.”
"Tell Valentine, Farrel, I think he would better rest. We will keep the singer for the morrow."
"Your ballad was excellent," she continued, turning to me. "If you please, I will retain you for a day or more to sing to my son. He lies ill within."