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CHAPTER XX: A Caller - A Talk about Old Times - The Fox Hunt - An Accurate Judgment of an Idiot - How We Passed the Custom Officers in Italy
It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
- Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
Mr. G. called. I had not seen him since Nauheim, Germany - several years ago; the time that the cholera broke out at Hamburg. We talked of the people we had known there, or had casually met; and G. said:
"Do you remember my introducing you to an earl - the Earl of C.?"
"Yes. That was the last time I saw you. You and he were in a carriage, just starting - belated - for the train. I remember it."
"I remember it too, because of a thing which happened then which I was not looking for. He had told me a while before, about a remarkable and interesting Californian whom he had met and who was a friend of yours, and said that if he should ever meet you he would ask you for some particulars about that Californian. The subject was not mentioned that day at Nauheim, for we were hurrying away, and there was no time; but the thing that surprised me was this: when I induced you, you said, 'I am glad to meet your lordship gain.' The I again' was the surprise. He is a little hard of hearing, and didn't catch that word, and I thought you hadn't intended that he should. As we drove off I had only time to say, 'Why, what do you know about him.?' and I understood you to say, 'Oh, nothing, except that he is the quickest judge of - - ' Then we were gone, and I didn't get the rest. I wondered what it was that he was such a quick judge of. I have thought of it many times since, and still wondered what it could be. He and I talked it over, but could not guess it out. He thought it must be fox-hounds or horses, for he is a good judge of those - no one is a better. But you couldn't know that, because you didn't know him; you had mistaken him for some one else; it must be that, he said, because he knew you had never met him before. And of course you hadn't had you?"
"Yes, I had."
"Is that so? Where?"
"At a fox-hunt, in England."
"How curious that is. Why, he hadn't the least recollection of it. Had you any conversation with him?"
"Some - yes."
"Well, it left not the least impression upon him. What did you talk about?"
"About the fox. I think that was all."
"Why, that would interest him; that ought to have left an impression. What did he talk about?"
It's very curious. I don't understand it. Did what he said leave an impression upon you?"
"Yes. It showed me that he was a quick judge of - however, I will tell you all about it, then you will understand. It was a quarter of a century ago 1873 or '74. I had an American friend in London named F., who was fond of hunting, and his friends the Blanks invited him and me to come out to a hunt and be their guests at their country place. In the morning the mounts were provided, but when I saw the horses I changed my mind and asked permission to walk. I had never seen an English hunter before, and it seemed to me that I could hunt a fox safer on the ground. I had always been diffident about horses, anyway, even those of the common altitudes, and I did not feel competent to hunt on a horse that went on stilts. So then Mrs. Blank came to my help and said I could go with her in the dog-cart and we would drive to a place she knew of, and there we should have a good glimpse of the hunt as it went by.
"When we got to that place I got out and went and leaned my elbows on a low stone wall which enclosed a turfy and beautiful great field with heavy wood on all its sides except ours. Mrs. Blank sat in the dog-cart fifty yards away, which was as near as she could get with the vehicle. I was full of interest, for I had never seen a fox-hunt. I waited, dreaming and imagining, in the deep stillness and impressive tranquility which reigned in that retired spot. Presently, from away off in the forest on the left, a mellow bugle-note came floating; then all of a sudden a multitude of dogs burst out of that forest and went tearing by and disappeared in the forest on the right; there was a pause, and then a cloud of horsemen in black caps and crimson coats plunged out of the left-hand forest and went flaming across the field like a prairie-fire, a stirring sight to see. There was one man ahead of the rest, and he came spurring straight at me. He was fiercely excited. It was fine to see him ride; he was a master horseman. He came like, a storm till he was within seven feet of me, where I was leaning on the wall, then he stood his horse straight up in the air on his hind toe-nails, and shouted like a demon:
"'Which way'd the fox go?'
"I didn't much like the tone, but I did not let on; for he was excited, you know. But I was calm; so I said softly, and without acrimony:
"It seemed to anger him. I don't know why; and he thundered out:
"'WHICH fox? Why, THE fox? Which way did the FOX go?'
"I said, with great gentleness - even argumentatively:
"'If you could be a little more definite - a little less vague - because I am a stranger, and there are many foxes, as you will know even better than I, and unless I know which one it is that you desire to identify, and - - '
"'You're certainly the damdest idiot that has escaped in a thousand years!' and he snatched his great horse around as easily as I would snatch a cat, and was away like a hurricane. A very excitable man.
"I went back to Mrs. Blank, and she was excited, too - oh, all alive. She said:
"'He spoke to you! - didn't he?'
"'Yes, it is what happened.'
"'I knew it! I couldn't hear what he said, but I knew be spoke to you! Do you know who it was? It was Lord C., and he is Master of the Buckhounds! Tell me - what do you think of him?'
"'Him? Well, for sizing-up a stranger, he's got the most sudden and accurate judgment of any man I ever saw.'
"It pleased her. I thought it would."
G. got away from Nauheim just in time to escape being shut in by the quarantine-bars on the frontiers; and so did we, for we left the next day. But G. had a great deal of trouble in getting by the Italian custom-house, and we should have fared likewise but for the thoughtfulness of our consul-general in Frankfort. He introduced me to the Italian consul-general, and I brought away from that consulate a letter which made our way smooth. It was a dozen lines merely commending me in a general way to the courtesies of servants in his Italian Majesty's service, but it was more powerful than it looked. In addition to a raft of ordinary baggage, we had six or eight trunks which were filled exclusively with dutiable stuff - household goods purchased in Frankfort for use in Florence, where we had taken a house. I was going to ship these through by express; but at the last moment an order went throughout Germany forbidding the moving of any parcels by train unless the owner went with them. This was a bad outlook. We must take these things along, and the delay sure to be caused by the examination of them in the custom-house might lose us our train. I imagined all sorts of terrors, and enlarged them steadily as we approached the Italian frontier. We were six in number, clogged with all that baggage, and I was courier for the party the most incapable one they ever employed.
We arrived, and pressed with the crowd into the immense custom-house, and the usual worries began; everybody crowding to the counter and begging to have his baggage examined first, and all hands clattering and chattering at once. It seemed to me that I could do nothing; it would be better to give it all up and go away and leave the baggage. I couldn't speak the language; I should never accomplish anything. Just then a tall handsome man in a fine uniform was passing by and I knew he must be the stationmaster - and that reminded me of my letter. I ran to him and put it into his hands. He took it out of the envelope, and the moment his eye caught the royal coat of arms printed at its top, he took off his cap and made a beautiful bow to me, and said in English:
"Which is your baggage? Please show it to me."
I showed him the mountain. Nobody was disturbing it; nobody was interested in it; all the family's attempts to get attention to it had failed - except in the case of one of the trunks containing the dutiable goods. It was just being opened. My officer said:
"There, let that alone! Lock it. Now chalk it. Chalk all of the lot. Now please come and show the hand-baggage."
He plowed through the waiting crowd, I following, to the counter, and he gave orders again, in his emphatic military way:
"Chalk these. Chalk all of them."
Then he took off his cap and made that beautiful bow again, and went his way. By this time these attentions had attracted the wonder of that acre of passengers, and the whisper had gone around that the royal family were present getting their baggage chalked; and as we passed down in review on our way to the door, I was conscious of a pervading atmosphere of envy which gave me deep satisfaction.
But soon there was an accident. My overcoat pockets were stuffed with German cigars and linen packages of American smoking tobacco, and a porter was following us around with this overcoat on his arm, and gradually getting it upside down. Just as I, in the rear of my family, moved by the sentinels at the door, about three hatfuls of the tobacco tumbled out on the floor. One of the soldiers pounced upon it, gathered it up in his arms, pointed back whence I had come, and marched me ahead of him past that long wall of passengers again - he chattering and exulting like a devil, they smiling in peaceful joy, and I trying to look as if my pride was not hurt, and as if I did not mind being brought to shame before these pleased people who had so lately envied me. But at heart I was cruelly humbled.
When I had been marched two-thirds of the long distance and the misery of it was at the worst, the stately station-master stepped out from somewhere, and the soldier left me and darted after him and overtook him; and I could see by the soldier's excited gestures that be was betraying to him the whole shabby business. The station-master was plainly very angry. He came striding down toward me, and when he was come near he began to pour out a stream of indignant Italian; then suddenly took off his hat and made that beautiful bow and said:
"Oh, it is you! I beg a thousands pardons! This idiot here - -" He turned to the exulting soldier and burst out with a flood of white-hot Italian lava, and the next moment he was bowing, and the soldier and I were moving in procession again - he in the lead and ashamed, this time, I with my chin up. And so we marched by the crowd of fascinated passengers, and I went forth to the train with the honors of war. Tobacco and all.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXI: The 'Weet-Weet' - Keeping down the Population - Victoria - Killing the Aboriginals - Pioneer Days in Queensland - Material for a Drama - The Bush-Pudding with Arsenic Revenge - A Right Spirit but a Wrong Method - Death of Donga Billy