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WHEREIN THE READER SHALL FIND SOME DESCRIPTION OF AN EXTRAORDINARY TINKER
I went at a good, round pace, being determined to cover as much distance as possible ere dawn, since I felt assured that so soon as my indomitable aunt Julia discovered my departure she would immediately head a search party in quest of me; for which cogent reason I determined to abandon the high road as soon as possible and go by less frequented byways.
A distant church clock chimed the hour and, pausing to hearken, I thrilled as I counted eleven, for, according to the laws which had ordered my life hitherto, at this so late hour I should have been blissfully asleep between lavender-scented sheets. Indeed my loved aunt abhorred the night air for me, under the delusion that I suffered from a delicate chest; yet here was I out upon the open road and eleven o'clock chiming in my ears. Thus as I strode on into the unknown I experienced an exhilarating sense of high adventure unknown till now.
It was a night of brooding stillness and the moon, high-risen, touched the world about me with her magic, whereby things familiar became transformed into objects of wonder; tree and hedgerow took on shapes strange and fantastic; the road became a gleaming causeway whereon I walked, godlike, master of my destiny. Beyond meadow and cornfield to right and left gloomed woods, remote and full of mystery, in whose enchanted twilight elves and fairies might have danced or slender dryads peeped and sported. Thus walked I in an ecstasy, scanning with eager eyes the novel beauties around me, my mind full of the poetic imaginations conjured up by the magic of this midsummer night, so that I yearned to paint it, or set it to music, or write it into adequate words; and knowing this beyond me, I fell to repeating Milton's noble verses the while:
"I walk unseen On the dry smooth-shaven green, To behold the wand'ring moon Riding near her highest noon, Like one that had been led astray Through the heaven's wide pathless way."
After some while I espied a stile upon my right and climbing this, I crossed a broad meadow to a small, rustic bridge spanning a stream that flowed murmurous in the shade of alder and willow. Being upon this bridge, I paused to look down upon these rippling waters and to watch their flash and sparkle where the moon caught them.
And hearkening to the melodious voice of this streamlet, I began to understand how great poems were written and books happened. At last I turned and, crossing the bridge, went my way, pondering on Death, of which I knew nothing, and on Life, of which I knew little more, and so at last came to the woods.
On I went amid the trees, following a grassy ride; but as I advanced, this grew ever narrower and I walked in an ever-deepening gloom, wherefore I turned about, minded to go back, but found myself quite lost and shut in, what with the dense underbrush around me and the twisted, writhen branches above, whose myriad leaves obscured the moon's kindly beam. In this dim twilight I pushed on then, as well as I might, often running foul of unseen obstacles or pausing to loose my garments from clutching thorns. Sudden there met me a wind, dank and chill, that sighed fitfully near and far, very dismal to hear.
And now, as I traversed the gloom of these leafy solitudes, what must come into my head but murders, suicides and death in lonely places. I remembered that not so long ago the famous Buck and Corinthian Sir Maurice Vibart had been found shot to death in just such another desolate place as this. And there was my own long-dead father!
"They fought in a little wood not so far from here!"
These, my uncle George's words, seemed to ring in my ears and, shivering, I stopped to glance about me full of sick apprehension. For all I knew, this might be the very wood where my youthful father had staggered and fallen, to tear at the tender grass with dying fingers; these sombre, leafy aisles perhaps had echoed to the shot--his gasping moan that had borne his young spirit up to the Infinite! At this thought, Horror leapt upon me, wherefore I sought to flee these gloomy shades, only to trip and fall heavily, so that I lay breathless and half-stunned, and no will to rise.
It was at this moment, lying with my cheek against Mother Earth, that I heard it,--a strange, uncanny sound that brought me to my hands and knees, peering fearfully into the shadows that seemed to be deepening about me moment by moment.
With breath held in check I crouched there, straining my ears for a repetition of this unearthly sound that was like nothing I had ever heard before,--a quick, light, tapping chink, now in rhythm, now out, now ceasing, now recommencing, so that I almost doubted but that this wood must be haunted indeed.
Suddenly these foolish apprehensions were quelled somewhat by the sound of a human voice, a full, rich voice, very deep and sonorous, upraised in song; and this voice being so powerful and the night so still, I could hear every word.
"A tinker I am, O a tinker am I, A tinker I'll live, and a tinker I'll die; If the King in his crown would change places wi' me I'd laugh so I would, and I'd say unto he: 'A tinker I am, O a tinker am I, A tinker I'll live, and a tinker I'll'--"
The voice checked suddenly and I cowered down again as in upon me rushed the shadows, burying me in a pitchy gloom so that my fears racked me anew, until I bethought me this sudden darkness could be no more than a cloud veiling the moon, and I waited, though very impatiently, for her to light me again.
Now as I crouched there, I beheld a light that was not of the moon, but a red and palpitant glow that I judged must be caused by a fire at no great distance; therefore I arose and made my way towards it as well as I could for the many leafy obstacles that beset my way. And thus at last I came upon a glade where burned a fire and beyond this, flourishing a tin kettle in highly threatening fashion, stood a small, fierce-eyed man.
"Hold hard!" quoth he in mighty voice, peering at me over the fire. "I've a blunderbuss here and two popps, so hold hard or I'll be forced to brain ye wi' this here kettle. Now then--come forward slow, my covey, slow, and gi'e us a peep o' you churi--step cautious now or I'll be the gory death o' you!"
Not a little perturbed by these ferocious expressions, I advanced slowly and very unwillingly into the firelight and, halting well out of his reach, spoke in tone as conciliatory as possible.
"Pray pardon my intrusion, but--"
"Your what?" he demanded, while his quick, bright eyes roved over my shrinking person.
"Intrusion," I repeated, "and now, if you will kindly allow--"
"Intrusion," quoth he, mouthing the word, "intrusion! Why, here's one as don't come my way often! Intrusion! 'T is a good word and rhymes wi' confusion, don't it?"
"It does!" said I, wondering at his manner.
"And 'oo might you be--and what?" he questioned, beckoning me nearer with a motion of the kettle.
"One who has lost his way--"
"In silver buttons an' a jerry 'at--hum! You're a young nob, you are, a swell, a tippy, a go--that's what you are! Wherefore and therefore I ask what you might be a-doing in this here wood at midnight's lone hour?"
"I am lost--"
"Aha!" said he, eyeing me dubiously and scratching his long, blue chin with the spout of his kettle. "A young gent in a jerry 'at--lost an' wandering far from a luxurious 'ome in a wood at midnight! And wherefore? It ain't murder, is it? You aren't been doing to death any pore, con-fiding young fe-male, have ye?"
"Good God--no!" I answered in indignant horror.
"Why then, you don't 'appen to ha' been robbing your rich uncle and now on your way to London wi' the family jew-ells to make your fortun', having set fire to the fam-ly mansion to cover the traces o' your dark an' desp'ret doin's?"
"Ha!" said he, with rueful shake of his head, "I knew it--from the first. I suppose you'll tell me you ain't even forged your 'oary-'eaded grandfather's name for to pay off your gambling debts and other gentlemanly dissipations--come now?"
"No," said I, a little haughtily, "I am not the rogue and scoundrel you seem determined to take me for."
"True!" he sighed. "And what's more, you ain't even got the look of it. Life's full o' disapp'intments to a romantic soul like me and not half so inter-esting as a good nov-el. Now if you'd only 'appened to be a murderer reeking wi' crime an' blood--but you ain't, you tell me?" he questioned, his keen eyes twinkling more brightly than ever.
"I am not!"
"Why, very well then!" said he, nodding and seating himself upon a small stool. "So be it, young master, and if you'm minded to talk wi' a lonely man an' share his fire, sit ye down an' welcome. Though being of a nat'rally enquiring turn o' mind, I'd like to know what you've been a-doing or who, to be hiding in this wood at this witching hour when graves do yawn?"
"I might as well ask you why you sit mending a kettle and singing?"
"Because I'm a tinker an' foller my trade, an' trade's uncommon brisk hereabouts. But as to yourself--"
"You are a strange tinker, I think!" said I, to stay his questioning.
"And why strange?"
"You quote Shakespeare, for one thing--"
"Aha! That's because, although I'm a tinker, I'm a literary cove besides. I mend kettles and such for a living and make verses for a pleasure!"
"What, are you a poet?"
"'Ardly that, young sir, 'ardly that!" said he, rubbing his chin with the shaft of his hammer. "No, 'ardly a poet, p'raps,--but thereabouts. My verses rhyme an' go wi' a swing, which is summat, arter all, ain't it? I made the song I was a-singing so blithe an' 'earty--did ye like it?"
"No, but did ye though?" he questioned wistfully, slanting his head at me. "Honest an' true?"
"Honest and true!"
At this, his bright eyes danced and a smile curved his grim lips; setting by hammer and kettle, he rose and disappeared into the small dingy tent behind him, whence he presently emerged bearing a large case-bottle, which he uncorked and proffered to me.
"Rum!" said he, nodding. "Any cove as likes verses, 'specially my verses, is a friend--so drink hearty, friend, to our better acquaintance."
"Thank you, but I never drink!"
"Lord!" he exclaimed, and stood bottle in hand, like one quite at a loss; whereupon, perceiving his embarrassment, I took the bottle and swallowed a gulp for good-fellowship's sake and straightway gasped.
"Why, 'tis a bit strong," quoth he, "but for the concocting, or, as you might say, com-posing o' verses there's nothing like a drop o' rum, absorbed moderate, to hearten the muse now and then--here's health an' long life!"
Having said which, he swallowed some of the liquor in turn, sighed, corked the bottle and, having deposited it in the little tent, sat down to his work again with a friendly nod to me.
"Young sir," quoth he, "'tis very plain you are one o' the real sort wi' nothing flash about you, therefore I am the more con-sarned on your account, and wonder to see the likes o' you sitting alongside the likes o' me at midnight in Dead Man's Copse--"
"Dead Man's Copse!" I repeated, glancing into the shadows and drawing nearer the fire. "It is a very dreadful name--"
"But very suitable, young sir. There's many a dead 'un been found hereabouts, laying so quiet an' peaceful at last--pore souls as ha' found this big world and life too much for 'em an' have crept here to end their misery--and why not? There's the poor woman that's lost, say, and wandering in the dark, but with her tired eyes lifted up to the kindly stars; so she struggles on awhile, but by an' by come storm clouds an' one by one the stars go out till only one remains, a little twinkling light that is for her the very light of Hope itself--an' presently that winks an' goes, an' with it goes Hope as well, an' she--poor helpless, weary soul--comes a-creeping into some quiet place like this, an' presently only her poor, bruised body lies here, for the soul of her flies away--up an' up a-singing an' a-carolling--back to the stars!"
"This is a great thought--that the soul may not perish!" said I, staring into the Tinker's earnest face.
"Ah, young sir, where does the soul come from--where does it go to? Look yonder!" said he, pointing upwards with his hammer where stars twinkled down upon us through the leaves. "So they've been for ages, and so they will be, winking down through the dark upon you an' me an' others like us, to teach us by their wisdom. An' as to our souls--Lord, I've seen so many corpses in my time I know the soul can't die. Corpses? Aye, by goles, I'm always a-finding of 'em. Found one in this very copse none so long ago--very young she was--poor, lonely lass! Ah, well! Her troubles be all forgot, long ago. An' here's the likes o' you sitting along o' the likes o' me in a wood at midnight--you as should be snug in sheets luxoorious, judging by your looks--an' wherefore not, young friend?"
Now there was about this small, quick, keen-eyed tinker a latent kindliness, a sympathy that attracted me involuntarily, so that, after some demur, I told him my story in few words as possible and careful to suppress all names. Long before I had ended he had laid by hammer and kettle and turned, elbows on knees and chin on sinewy fists, viewing me steadfastly where I sat in the fireglow.
"So you make verses likewise, do you?" he questioned, when I had done.
"And can paint pic-toors, beside?"
"Yes--of a sort!" I answered, finding myself suddenly and strangely diffident.
"An' you so young!" said he in hushed and awestruck tones. "Have you writ many poems, sir?"
"I have published only one volume so far."
"Lord!" he whispered. "Published a vollum--in print--a book! Ah--what wouldn't I give t' see my verses in print--in a book--to know they were good enough--"
"Ah, pray don't mistake!" said I hastily, my new diffidence growing by reason of his unfeigned and awestruck wonder. "I published them myself--no bookseller would take them, so I--I paid to have them printed."
"And did it cost much--very much?" he enquired eagerly. "Anywhere near, well, say--five pound?"
"A great deal nearer a hundred!"
"A hun--" he gasped. "By goles!" he ejaculated after a moment, "poetry comes expensive, don't it? A hundred pound! Lord love me, I don't make so much in a year! So I'll never see any o' my verses in a book, 'tis very sure. Ah, well," said he with a profound sigh, "that won't stop me a-thinking or a-making of 'em, will it?"
"And what do you write about?" I enquired, vastly interested.
"All sorts o' things--common things, trees an' brooks, fields an' winding roads, and then--there's always the stars. Wrote one about 'em this very week, if you'd care to--"
"I should," cried I eagerly. "Indeed I should!"
"Should you, friend?" said he, fumbling in a pocket of his sleeved waistcoat. "Why, then, so you shall, though there ain't much of it, which is p'raps just as well!"
From his pocket he brought forth a strange collection of oddments whence he selected a crumpled wisp of paper; this he smoothed out and bending low to the fire, read aloud as follows:
"When night comes down, where'er I be I want no roof to shelter me; I love to lie where I may see The blessed stars.
"Though I am one not over-wise They seem to me like friendly eyes That watch us kindly from the skies, These winking stars.
"Though I've no friend to share my woe And bitter tears unseen may flow, To soothe my grief I silent go To tell the stars.
"And when my time shall come to die I care not where my flesh shall lie Because I know my soul shall fly Back to the stars!"
"Did you write that?" I exclaimed.
"Aye, I did!" he answered, a little anxiously. "Rhymes true, don't it?"
"Goes wi' a swing, don't it?"
"Very well then; what more can you want in a verse?"
"But you've got more--much more!"
"A great deal! Atmosphere, for one thing--"
"Why, 't was writ under a hedge," he explained. "And now, friend, p'raps you'll oblige me wi' one o' yourn?"
"Indeed I would rather not," said I, finding myself oddly ill at ease for once.
"Come, fair is fair!" he urged. Hereupon, after some little reflection, I began reciting this, one of my latest efforts:
"Hail, gentle Dian, goddess-queen Throned 'mid th' Olympian vasts Majestic, splendidly serene 'Spite Boreas' rageful blasts. Immaculate, 'midst starry fires Incalculable thou--"
here I stopped suddenly and bowed my head.
"Why, what now, young sir; what's wrong?" questioned the Tinker.
"Everything!" said I miserably. "This is not poetry!"
"It--sounds very fine!" said the Tinker kindly.
"But it is just sound and nothing more--it is fatuous--trivial--it has no soul, no meaning, nothing of value--I shall never be a poet!" And knowing this for very truth, there was born in me a humility wholly unknown until this moment.
"Nay--never despond, friend!" quoth the Tinker, laying his hand on my bowed shoulder. "For arter all you've got what I ain't got--words! All you need is to suffer a bit, mind an' body, an' not so much for yourself as for some one or something else. Nobody can expect to be a real poet, I think, as hasn't suffered or grieved over summat or some one! So cheer up; suffering's bound to come t' ye soon or late; 'tis only to be expected in this world. Meanwhile how are ye going to live?"
"I haven't thought of it yet."
"Hum! Any money?"
"Only eighteen guineas."
"Why, 'tis a tidy sum! But even eighteen pound can't last for ever, an' when 'tis all gone--how then?"
"I don't know."
"Hum!" quoth the Tinker again and sat rubbing his chin and staring into the fire, while I, lost in my new humility, wondered if my painting was not as futile as my poetry.
"Can ye work?" enquired my companion suddenly.
"I think so!"
"I don't know!"
"Hum! Any trade or profession?"
"Ha! too well eddicated, I suppose. Well, 'tis a queer kettle o' fish, but so's life, yet, though heaviness endure for a night, j'y cometh in the morning, and mind, I'm your friend if you're so minded. And now, what I says is--let's to sleep, for I must be early abroad." Here he reached into the little tent and presently brought thence two blankets, one of which he proffered me, but the night being very hot and oppressive, I declined it and presently we were lying side by side, staring up at the stars. But suddenly upon the stillness, from somewhere amid the surrounding boskages that shut us in, came the sound of one sighing gustily, and I sat up, peering.
"All right, friend," murmured the Tinker drowsily; "'tis only my Diogenes!"
"And who is Diogenes?"
"My pony, for sure!"
"But why do you call him Diogenes?"
"Because Diogenes lived in a tub an'--he don't! Good night, young friend! Never thought o' writing a nov-el, I s'pose?" he enquired suddenly.
"Never! Why do you ask?"
"I met a young cove once, much like you only bigger, and this young cove threatened to write a nov-el an' put me into it. That was years ago, an' I've sold and read a good many nov-els since then, but never came across myself in ever a one on 'em."
"Good night!" said I and very presently heard him snore. But as for me I lay wakeful, busied with my thoughts and staring up at the radiant heaven. "No!" said I to myself at last, speaking my thought aloud, "No, I shall never be a poet!"
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