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- The Splendid Spur - 10/44 -
Curiously, it opened at once; and I saw a couple of men in the lighted passage.
"Heard the mare's heels on the road, Cap--. Hillo! What in the fiend's name is this?"
Said I: "If you are he that keeps this house, I want two things of you--first, a civil tongue, and next a bed."
"Ye'll get neither, then."
"Your sign says that you keep an inn."
"Aye--the 'Three Cups': but we're full."
"Your manner of speech proves that to be a lie."
I liked the fellow's voice so little that 'tis odds I would have re-mounted Molly and ridden away; but at this instant there floated down the stairs and out through the drink-smelling passage a sound that made me jump. 'Twas a girl's voice singing----
"Hey nonni--nonni--no! Men are fools that wish to die! Is't not fine to laugh and sing When the hells of death do ring----"
There was no doubt upon it. The voice belonged to the young gentlewoman I had met at Hungerford. I turned sharply toward the landlord, and was met by another surprise. The second man, that till now had stood well back in the shadow, was peering forward, and devouring Molly with his gaze. 'Twas hard to read his features, but then and there I would have wagered my life he was no other than Luke Settle's comrade, Black Dick.
My mind was made up. "I'll not ride a step further, to-night," said I.
"Then bide there and freeze," answer'd the landlord.
He was for slamming the door in my face, when the other caught him by the arm and, pulling him a little back, whisper'd a word or two. I guess'd what this meant, but resolved not to draw back; and presently the landlord's voice began again, betwixt surly and polite----
"Have ye too high a stomach to lie on straw?"
"Oho!" thought I to myself, "then I am to be kept for the mare's sake, but not admitted to the house:" and said aloud that I could put up with a straw bed.
"Because there's the stable loft at your service. As ye hear" (and in fact the singing still went on, only now I heard a man's voice joining in the catch) "our house is full of company. But straw is clean bedding, and the mare I'll help to put in stall."
"Agreed," I said, "on one condition--that you send out a maid to me with a cup of mulled sack: for this cold eats me alive."
To this he consented: and stepping back into a side room with the other fellow, returned in a minute alone, and carrying a lantern which, in spite of the moon, was needed to guide a stranger across that ruinous yard. The flare, as we pick'd our way along, fell for a moment on an open cart shed and, within, on the gilt panels of a coach that I recogniz'd. In the stable, that stood at the far end of the court, I was surprised to find half a dozen horses standing, ready saddled, and munching their fill of oats. They were ungroom'd, and one or two in a lather of sweat that on such a night was hard to account for. But I asked no questions, and my companion vouchsafed no talk, though twice I caught him regarding me curiously as I unbridled the mare in the only vacant stall. Not a word pass'd as he took the lantern off the peg again, and led the way up a ramshackle ladder to the loft above. He was a fat, lumbering fellow, and made the old timbers creak. At the top he set down the light, and pointed to a heap of straw in the corner.
"Yon's your bed," he growled; and before I could answer, was picking his way down the ladder again.
I look'd about, and shiver'd. The eaves of my bedchamber were scarce on speaking terms with the walls, and through a score of crannies at least the wind poured and whistled, so that after shifting my truss of straw a dozen times I found myself still the centre of a whirl of draught. The candle-flame, too, was puffed this way and that inside the horn sheath. I was losing patience when I heard footsteps below; the ladder creak'd, and the red hair and broad shoulders of a chambermaid rose into view. She carried a steaming mug in her hand, and mutter'd all the while in no very choice talk.
The wench had a kind face, tho'; and a pair of eyes that did her more credit than her tongue.
"And what's to be my reward for this, I want to know?" she panted out, resting her left palm on her hip.
"Why, a groat or two," said I, "when it comes to the reckoning."
"Lud!" she cried, "what a dull young man!"
"Aye--to make me ask for a kiss in so many words:" and with the back of her left hand she wiped her mouth for it frankly, while she held out the mug in her right.
"Oh!" I said, "I beg your pardon, but my wits are frozen up, I think. There's two, for interest: and another if you tell me whom your master entertains to-night, that I must be content with this crib."
She took the kisses with composure and said---
"Well--to begin, there's the gentlefolk that came this afternoon with their own carriage and heathenish French servant: a cranky old grandee and a daughter with more airs than a peacock: Sir Something- or-other Killigew--Lord bless the boy!"
For I had dropp'd the mug and split the hot sack all about the straw, where it trickled away with a fragrance reproachfully delicious.
"Now I beg your pardon a hundred times: but the chill is in my bones worse than the ague;" and huddling my shoulders up, I counterfeited a shivering fit with a truthfulness that surpris'd myself.
"--And 'tis first hot and then cold all down my spine."
"-And goose flesh and flushes all over my body."
"Dear heart-and to pass the night in this grave of a place!"
"--And by morning I shall be in a high fever: and oh! I feel I shall die of it!"
"Don't--don't!" The honest girl's eyes were full of tears. "I wonder, now--" she began: and I waited, eager for her next words. "Sure, master's at cards in the parlor, and 'll be drunk by midnight. Shalt pass the night by the kitchen fire, if only thou make no noise."
"But your mistress--what will she say?"
"Is in heaven these two years: and out of master's speaking distance forever. So blow out the light and follow me gently."
Still feigning to shiver, I follow'd her down the ladder, and through the stable into the open. The wind by this time had brought up some heavy clouds, and mass'd them about the moon: but 'twas freezing hard, nevertheless. The girl took me by the hand to guide me: for, save from the one bright window in the upper floor, there was no light at all in the yard. Clearly, she was in dread of her master's anger, for we stole across like ghosts, and once or twice she whisper'd a warning when my toe kick'd against a loose cobble. But just as I seem'd to be walking into a stone wall, she put out her hand, I heard the click of a latch, and stood in a dark, narrow passage.
The passage led to a second door that open'd on a wide, stone-pav'd kitchen, lit by a cheerful fire, whereon a kettle hissed and bubbled as the vapor lifted the cover. Close by the chimney corner was a sort of trap, or buttery hatch, for pushing the hot dishes conveniently into the parlor on the other side of the wall. Besides this, for furniture, the room held a broad deal table, an oak dresser, a linen press, a rack with hams and strings of onions depending from it, a settle and a chair or two, with (for decoration) a dozen or so of ballad sheets stuck among the dish covers along the wall.
"Sit," whisper'd the girl, "and make no noise, while I brew a rack- punch for the men-folk in the parlor." She jerked her thumb toward the buttery hatch, where I had already caught the mur-mer of voices.
I took up a chair softly, and set it down between the hatch and the fireplace, so that while warming my knees I could catch any word spoken more than ordinary loud on the other side of the wall. The chambermaid stirr'd the fire briskly, and moved about singing as she fetch'd down bottles and glasses from the dresser----
"Lament ye maids an' darters For constant Sarah Ann, Who hang'd hersel' in her garters All for the love o' man, All for the--"
She was pausing, bottle in hand, to take the high note: but hush'd suddenly at the sound of the voices singing in the room upstairs---
"Vivre en tout cas C'est le grand soulas Des honnetes gens!"
"That's the foreigners," said the chambermaid, and went on with her ditty----
"All for the love of a souljer Who christening name was Jan."
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