“More likes he’s goin’ a sparkin’,” suggested one of the idlers. “The gal up ter the squire’s holds herself pooty high an’ mighty, but like as not she’s as plaguey fond of bundling with a good-looking man on the sly as most wenches.”
“If she ’s set on that, I’m her man,” remarked Bagby.
“Bundling?” questioned the covenant servant. “What ’s that?”
The question only produced a roar of laughter at his ignorance, during which the traveller turned to the publican and asked:—
“Who is this hind?”
“‘T is a new bond-servant o’ Squire Meredith’s, who I hearn is no smouch on horses. Folks think he’s a bloody-back who ’s took French leave.”
“A deserter, heigh?” said the traveller, once more looking at the man, who was now exchanging with the peddler the three-shilling note for the razor. He waited till the trade had been consummated, and then suddenly said aloud, in a sharp, decisive way, “Attention! To the left—dress!
Fownes’ body suddenly stiffened itself, his hands dropped to. his sides, and his head turned quickly to the left. For a second he held this position, then as suddenly relaxing himself, he turned and eyed the giver of the order.
“So ho I my man. It seems ye have carried Brown Bess,” said the traveller, giving the slang term for the musket.
Flushed in face, Fownes wheeled on the man hotly, while the whole room waited his reply in silence. “Thou liest!” he asserted.
“Thou varlet!” cried the man so insulted, flushing in turn, as he sprang to his feet and caught up from the table a heavy riding-whip.
As he did so, the bond-servant’s right hand went to his hip, as if instinctively seeking something there. The traveller’s eyes followed the impulsive gesture, even while he, too, made a motion more instinctive than conscious, by stepping backward, as if to avoid something. This motion he checked, and said—
“No. Bond-servants don’t wear bayonets.”
Again the colour sprang to Fownes’ face, and his lips parted as if an angry retort were ready. But instead of uttering it, he turned and started to leave the room.
“Ay,” cried the traveller, “run, while there ’s time, deserter.”
Fownes faced about in the doorway, with a smile on his face not pleasant to see, it was at once so contemptuous and so lowering. Yet when he spoke there was an amused, almost merry note in his voice, as if he were enjoying something.
“Ar bain’t no more deserter than thou baist spy,” he retorted, as he left the tavern and went to where his horse was tethered. Unfastening him, he stood for a moment stroking the animal’s nose.