Mine Host at Sea
MINE HOST AT SEA
By J. S. FLETCHER
HEARING the sound of his horse's shoes outside the door, and knowing that Ostler Gregory was then half-way along the road to Doncaster (whither I had despatched him on business of such moment as his brains could bear), I went forth and took a sly peep at my gentleman in the twilight. In the little room that overlooks the high road Prissy had set a light, and a glint of it fell full on his face, showing me a rakish turn of the eye, a loose mouth that could drink or kiss with equal readiness, and a dark countenance set about by long curls, as black and glossy as a woman's, that fell from under his befeathered hat to something below the breadth of his shoulders. "Of your sort," says I to myself, "I've seen plenty and to spare," and I goes out of the door a bit surly, and not overmuch inclined to civility.
He was shouting for the ostler when I showed myself, and in the midst of a word he pulled himself up, and looked at me very keen and hard.
"Ha!" says he. "The landlord, if I mistake not. Good, mine host, send some lad to take this beast of mine, for he and I are alike tired of your dreary North Road. I trust," he says, giving me a queer look that seemed to take me in from tip to toe, "I trust that you've good provender for both of us? As touching myself, now——"
But I had taken him in, too, and had an answer between my teeth.
"As good," says I, surlily enough, no doubt, "as'll do for either or both. And as there's neither man nor lad about the place, save myself, you'll maybe find a stall for your own beast. There's hay in the loft, and corn in the bin."
He looked at me in a curious way for a moment, and then he whistled to himself, and the whistle died away, and he burst out into laughter.
"Ah, ah!" says he, "I take your meaning, old cock. Well, and I can stable my own beast as well as any trooper of them all, and thank the Lord for that. But as to cooking my own provender, landlord, nay, nay, 'twill not suit my humour, man."
He dropped out of his saddle as he spoke, and stood with the rein over his arm, looking at me while he fumbled in his pocket.
"There," says he, "take as good a guinea as ever was minted. I warrant me it's harder than thy teeth, landlord." He showed his own, which were very white and glistening, as he spoke. "And now," says he, speaking with some pride and assurance, "get me some food—the best, sirrah!—and wine—your oldest—and where is this stable that lacks an ostler?"
But since all of them have at times a fashion of swaggering and playing the fine gentleman, I would not be brow-beaten by him, and pointed out the stable door with a turn of my finger. He led his beast across the yard without more ado, while I turned within, and bade Prissy set down a fat capon at the fire, and bring up a bottle of Tokay. For I had his guinea, and what matter to me how it was come by so long as I gave him the worth of it? After all, these fellows were never without money in their pockets. But I made them spread a table in the kitchen, for I was not going to light fires in the parlour for the likes of him, that might adorn a roadside tree or keep sheep by moonlight ere the week was out He comes swaggering in presently—i' faith, he was as proper a man as ever I saw!—and catches sight of the table spread before the kitchen fire. He whips round on me mighty quick, and gives me a look that had thunder in it.
" 'Od's body! " he says. "Am I to dine in the kitchen like a groom, sirrah? Have you no parlour for a man of——"
But there he pulls himself up very short and falls to laughter.
"Faith!" says he, "I like thy humour, landlord; by the kitchen fire let it be, certainly. Egad, I've dined in worse places."
"And will again, no doubt," says I.
He sat down on the settle, and gave me another queer look out of his black eyes.
" 'Od's wounds!" he said with a touch of wonder in his voice, "Thou art a surly varlet. And why, pray, master host, shall I be likely to dine in worse places?"
"Every man to his own thoughts," says I.
"Oh, a philosopher!" he says, and falls to slapping his boots with the switch that he carried in his right hand. "Well, well—one meets with strange company in going hither and thither, master landlord. But though I am to dine in the kitchen, I'll wash my hands and face before I sit down to table, if it please you."
However, mistrusting that eye of his, which was of the sort that's likely to turn a maiden's head to silly thoughts, I would not call Prissy to light him to any chamber, but went to the scullery myself for towel and soap, which matters I carried back and laid on his knee as he sat staring at the fire. He looked at them and then at me with an amazed countenance.
" 'Slife!" he says. "What am I to do with these?" and again he stares at them as if he had never seen aught of the sort before.
"The pump is without," says I, short enough. "And 'tis excellent cold water an' all."
He frowned heavily, and stood up, looking at me.
" 'Sdeath!" he says. "This is a merry adventure, to be sure. The pump, eh, master landlord? Ha! ha! ha!" He made for the door, as if there were some humour afoot. "May I die!" he says, "if ever I knew merrier!"
From where I stood I could see him at the pump, and it well-nigh moved me to laughter to watch his antics. But presently he comes back, and hands me the soap and towel wrapped in a bundle, and looks satisfied enough. "Faith!" he says. "I never enjoyed water more i' my life. I thank thee, master host, for a new experience. What! it has given me more appetite than I had, and that was sufficiently keen."
He watched me busy myself at the table out of his eye corner, and I saw his mouth tremble as I dished up the capon, and set all in order. Because of his guinea I served him well—besides, I wanted him to go his ways. He took his seat at table and carved himself a wing and breast "Done to a turn!" says he. "I never tasted aught tenderer. If your wine——"
But I drew a cork and set a bead-rimmed bumper before him. He wiped his mouth—I noticed that his manners were as nicely finnicking as those of the quality—and lifted it to his lips with a glance at me. "Here's to the King and his Cause!" says he, as he let the wine roll over his tongue, and paused to consider it.
" 'Slife!" he says, "it's a thing that merits high praise, landlord." He sips it again, and yet again, and then swallows the whole at a gulp. " 'Od's body!" he says, "you keep some marvellous good tipple in your wayside inns!" And for the next quarter-of-an-hour he said naught, but ate and drank as if he had tasted naught since daybreak. "Bring another bottle," says he at last, "and a glass for thyself, landlord. Faith, I do not remember to have dined in a kitchen before—'tis monstrous comfortable, I vow. Sit thee down, man, on thy own settle, and help thyself. 'Tis not every day thou hast the chance of drinking with a——"
"Nor want it," says I, taking no heed of his invitation, though I had set the second bottle before him. He looked at me with a knitting of the brows that cleared away as quick as it came.
"Ah!" says he, smiling. "Still in thy bad humour, old cock! Well, well—we are all liable to make mistakes at times; egad, I would not care to count my own!"
" 'Tis reckoned a sign of grace to confess them," says I, "and to make amends for them, too," I says, and gives him a searching look, for I thought of the forty guineas that some fellow of his trade once relieved me of 'twixt Tadcaster and York. "But there are few that remember that," I says significantly.
He leant back in his chair, with the napkin lifted to his mouth, staring at me, and he broke into a sudden laughter.
" 'Sdeath! " he says, when he could speak. "Thou art the queerest, most pragmatical old cock ever I chanced to meet! Confess? Make amends? Why, man—but whom have we here?"
As I followed the turn of his eye, I saw Prissy coming into the kitchen from the parlour.
The jade was in her finest raiment—why I know not—and looked marvellous well, being at seventeen the very spit of her mother when I married her.
I saw her look at him as she enters, and he at her, and the wench flushes up to the roots of her hair, and drops him a curtsey as deep as a court madam would give to the king.
As for him, he rises from his chair with a quick, straight movement, and bows as low as a courtier, and that was the first moment that I began to think I had been mistaken in him, for his air was that of a fine gentleman.
"Your daughter, landlord?" asks he, turning his eyes from her at last, and speaking with a new tone in his voice.
He looks at her again, "I wish you every happiness, mistress," he says, as respectful as you please.
But I was in no mind to listen to the bandying of compliments, and was about to bustle Prissy out of the kitchen, when there came a great noise in the yard without. "Some of my fellows," says the man at the table. He pours out more wine and gulps it down. "Well, landlord," says he, "all merry meetings must come to an end, eh? As for thee and me——"
But then a great man came in through the door, with his long sword clinking at his side, and his breastplate glistening in the firelight. "Where is the——," he begins, and catches sight of the other, and stops, surprised out of his speech. My man gives him a nod. "My horse," says he, "is in the stable—have him brought out for me—I'll join you without in a moment—we must forward," and the newcomer turned, and went out as quickly as he had entered.
I followed him with my eye as he opened the door, and I saw that the yard was full of armed men.
The other man rose from the table, and picked up his riding-switch, and for a moment he stood with his back to the fire, gazing at me and Prissy. And now there seemed to be something of the great man in his demeanour.
"Give thee go'd e'en, landlord," says he at last, and strides to the door. But with his hand on the latch he turned, and looked at Prissy. "Farewell, mistress," says he; "God send thee good years," and he passed into the yard, and was lost in the darkness.
But, as they rode out and away down the high road towards the ford, I caught the last trooper by the sleeve as he swung into the saddle, and questioned him of the man that had dined at my kitchen table. He shook my hand off.
" 'Slife! " says he. "What the murrain! I thought all men had known Prince Rupert Stand clear, old tunbelly," and he rudely thrust me aside, and within another moment he was out of the yard, and clattering down the village street to the river.