We rode out of Winchester with a fine clatter, all four of us upon hired nags, the Cornish horses being left in the stables to rest; and after crossing the Hog’s Back, baited at Guildford. A thunderstorm in the night had cleared the weather, which, though fine, was cooler, with a brisk breeze playing on the uplands; and still as we went my spirits sang with the larks overhead, so blithe was I to be sitting in saddle instead of at a scob, and riding to London between the blown scents of hedgerow and hayfield and beanfield, all fragrant of liberty yet none of them more delicious to a boy than the mingled smell of leather and horseflesh. Billy Priske kept up a chatter beside me like a brook’s. He had never till now been outside of Cornwall but in a fishing-boat, and though he had come more than two hundred miles each new prospect was a marvel to him. My father told me that, once across the Tamar ferry, being told that he was now in Devonshire, he had sniffed and observed the air to be growing “fine and stuffy;” and again, near Holt Forest, where my father announced that we were crossing the border between Hampshire and Surrey, he drew rein and sat for a moment looking about him and scratching his head.
“The Lord’s ways be past finding out,” he murmured. “Not so much as a post!”
“Why should there be a post?” demanded my uncle. “Why, sir, for the men of Hampshire and the men of Surrey to fight over and curse one another by on Ash Wednesdays. But where there’s no landmark a plain man can’t remove it, and where he can’t remove it I don’t see how he can be cursed for it.”
“’Twould be a great inconvenience, as you say, Billy, if, for the sake of argument, the men of Hampshire wanted to curse the men of Surrey.”
“They couldn’t do it”—Billy shook his head—“for the sake of argument or any other sake; and therefore I say, though not one to dictate to the Lord, that if a river can’t be managed hereabouts— and, these two not being Devon and Cornwall, a whole river might be overdoing things—there ought to be some little matter of a trout-stream, or at the least a notice-board.”
“The fellow’s right,” said my father. “Man would tire too soon of his natural vices; so we invent new ones for him by making laws and boundaries.”
“Surely and virtues too,” suggested my uncle, as we rode forward again. “You will not deny that patriotism is a virtue?”
“Not I,” said my father; “nor that it is the finest invention of all.”
I remember the Hog’s Back and the breeze blowing there because on the highest rise we came on a gibbet and rode around it to windward on the broad turfy margin of the road; and also because the sight put my father in mind of a story which he narrated on the way down to Guildford.
“It is told,” began my father, “in a sermon of the famous Vieyras—”