With this story my father beguiled the road down into Guildford, and of his three listeners I was then the least attentive. Years afterwards, as you shall learn, I had reason to remember it.
At Guildford, where we fed ourselves and hired a relay of horses, I took Billy aside and questioned him (forgetting the example of Isaac) why we were going to London and on what business. He shook his head.
“Squire knows,” said he. “As for me, a still tongue keeps a wise head, and moreover I know not. Bain’t it enough for ’ee to be quit of school and drinking good ale in the kingdom o’ Guildford? Very well, then.”
“Still, one cannot help wondering,” said I, half to myself; but Billy dipped his face stolidly within his pewter.
“The last friend a man should want to take up with is his Future,” said he, sagely. “I knows naught about en but what’s to his discredit—as that I shall die sooner or later, a thing that goes against my stomach; or that at the best I shall grow old, which runs counter to my will. He’s that uncomfortable, too, you can’t please him. Take him hopeful, and you’re counting your chickens; take him doleful, and foreboding is worse than witchcraft. There was a Mevagissey man I sailed with as a boy—and your father’s tale just now put me in mind of him—paid half a crown to a conjurer, one time, to have his fortune told; which was, that he would marry the ugliest maid in the parish. Whereby it preyed on his mind till he hanged hisself. Whereby along comes the woman in the nick o’ time, cuts him down, an’ marries him out o’ pity while he’s too weak to resist. That’s your Future; and, as I say, I keeps en at arm’s length.”
With this philosophy of Billy I had to be content and find my own guesses at the mystery. But as the afternoon wore on I kept no hold on any speculation for more than a few minutes. I was saddle-weary, drowsed with sunburn and the moving landscape over which the sun, when I turned, swam in a haze of dust. The villages crowded closer, and at the entry of each I thought London was come; but anon the houses thinned and dwindled and we were between hedgerows again. So it lasted, village after village, until with the shut of night, when the long shadows of our horses before us melted into dusk, a faint glow opened on the sky ahead and grew and brightened. I knew it: but even as I saluted it my chin dropped forward and I dozed. In a dream I rode through the lighted streets, and at the door of our lodgings my father lifted me down from the saddle.
I ACQUIRE A KINGDOM.
The trick of that voice I do well remember:
Is’t not the king?”
“Lear. Ay, every inch a king.”
From our lodgings, which were in Bond Street, we sallied forth next morning to view the town; my father leading us first by way of St. James’s and across the Park to the Abbey, and on the way holding discourse to which I recalled myself with difficulty from London’s shows and wonders—his Majesty’s tall guards at the palace gates, the gorgeous promenaders in the Mall, the swans and wild fowl on the lake.