''Ar'n't you – you – going to get it out?'' said George, between his shrieks.
I could not answer him at all for a while, I was laughing so, but, at last, between
my peals I managed to jerk out:
''It isn't my shirt – it's YOURS!''
I never saw a man's face change from lively to severe so suddenly in all my life
''What!'' he yelled, springing up. ''You silly cuckoo! Why can't you be more
careful what you're doing? Why the deuce don't you go and dress on the bank? You're
not fit to be in a boat, you're not. Gimme the hitcher.''
I tried to make him see the fun of the thing, but he could not. George is very
dense at seeing a joke sometimes.
Harris proposed that we should have scrambled eggs for breakfast. He said he
would cook them. It seemed, from his account, that he was very good at doing scrambled
eggs. He often did them at picnics and when out on yachts. He was quite famous for
them. People who had once tasted his scrambled eggs, so we gathered from his conversation,
never cared for any other food afterwards, but pined away and died when they could
not get them.
It made our mouths water to hear him talk about the things, and we handed him
out the stove and the frying-pan and all the eggs that had not smashed and gone
over everything in the hamper, and begged him to begin.
He had some trouble in breaking the eggs – or rather not so much trouble in breaking
them exactly as in getting them into the frying-pan when broken, and keeping them
off his trousers, and preventing them from running up his sleeve; but he fixed some
half-a-dozen into the pan at last, and then squatted down by the side of the stove
and chivied them about with a fork.
It seemed harassing work, so far as George and I could judge. Whenever he went
near the pan he burned himself, and then he would drop everything and dance round
the stove, flicking his fingers about and cursing the things. Indeed, every time
George and I looked round at him he was sure to be performing this feat. We thought
at first that it was a necessary part of the culinary arrangements.
We did not know what scrambled eggs were, and we fancied that it must be some
Red Indian or Sandwich Islands sort of dish that required dances and incantations
for its proper cooking. Montmorency went and put his nose over it once, and the
fat spluttered up and scalded him, and then he began dancing and cursing. Altogether
it was one of the most interesting and exciting operations I have ever witnessed.
George and I were both quite sorry when it was over.
The result was not altogether the success that Harris had anticipated. There
seemed so little to show for the business. Six eggs had gone into the frying-pan,
and all that came out was a teaspoonful of burnt and unappetizing looking mess.
Harris said it was the fault of the frying-pan, and thought it would have gone
better if we had had a fish-kettle and a gas-stove; and we decided not to attempt
the dish again until we had those aids to housekeeping by us.
The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the
wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was
in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century; and, as we looked out upon the
river in the morning sunlight, we could almost fancy that the centuries between
us and that ever-to-be-famous June morning of 1215 had been drawn aside, and that
we, English yeomen's sons in homespun cloth, with dirk at belt, were waiting there
to witness the writing of that stupendous page of history, the meaning whereof was
to be translated to the common people some four hundred and odd years later by one
Oliver Cromwell, who had deeply studied it.
It is a fine summer morning – sunny, soft, and still. But through the air there
runs a thrill of coming stir. King John has slept at Duncroft Hall, and all the
day before the little town of Staines has echoed to the clang of armed men, and
the clatter of great horses over its rough stones, and the shouts of captains, and
the grim oaths and surly jests of bearded bowmen, billmen, pikemen, and strange-speaking
Gay-cloaked companies of knights and squires have ridden in, all travel– stained
and dusty. And all the evening long the timid townsmen's doors have had to be quick
opened to let in rough groups of soldiers, for whom there must be found both board
and lodging, and the best of both, or woe betide the house and all within; for the
sword is judge and jury, plaintiff and executioner, in these tempestuous times,
and pays for what it takes by sparing those from whom it takes it, if it pleases
it to do so.
Round the camp-fire in the market-place gather still more of the Barons' troops,
and eat and drink deep, and bellow forth roystering drinking songs, and gamble and
quarrel as the evening grows and deepens into night. The firelight sheds quaint
shadows on their piled-up arms and on their uncouth forms. The children of the town
steal round to watch them, wondering; and brawny country wenches, laughing, draw
near to bandy ale– house jest and jibe with the swaggering troopers, so unlike the
village swains, who, now despised, stand apart behind, with vacant grins upon their
broad, peering faces. And out from the fields around, glitter the faint lights of
more distant camps, as here some great lord's followers lie mustered, and there
false John's French mercenaries hover like crouching wolves without the town.
And so, with sentinel in each dark street, and twinkling watch-fires on each
height around, the night has worn away, and over this fair valley of old Thame has
broken the morning of the great day that is to close so big with the fate of ages
Ever since grey dawn, in the lower of the two islands, just above where we are
standing, there has been great clamour, and the sound of many workmen. The great
pavilion brought there yester eve is being raised, and carpenters are busy nailing
tiers of seats, while `prentices from London town are there with many-coloured stuffs
and silks and cloth of gold and silver.
And now, lo! down upon the road that winds along the river's bank from Staines
there come towards us, laughing and talking together in deep guttural bass, a half-a-score
of stalwart halbert-men – Barons' men, these – and halt at a hundred yards or so
above us, on the other bank, and lean upon their arms, and wait.
And so, from hour to hour, march up along the road ever fresh groups and bands
of armed men, their casques and breastplates flashing back the long low lines of
morning sunlight, until, as far as eye can reach, the way seems thick with glittering
steel and prancing steeds. And shouting horsemen are galloping from group to group,
and little banners are fluttering lazily in the warm breeze, and every now and then
there is a deeper stir as the ranks make way on either side, and some great Baron
on his war-horse, with his guard of squires around him, passes along to take his
station at the head of his serfs and vassals.
And up the slope of Cooper's Hill, just opposite, are gathered the wondering
rustics and curious townsfolk, who have run from Staines, and none are quite sure
what the bustle is about, but each one has a different version of the great event
that they have come to see; and some say that much good to all the people will come
from this day's work; but the old men shake their heads, for they have heard such
And all the river down to Staines is dotted with small craft and boats and tiny
coracles – which last are growing out of favour now, and are used only by the poorer
folk. Over the rapids, where in after years trim Bell Weir lock will stand, they
have been forced or dragged by their sturdy rowers, and now are crowding up as near
as they dare come to the great covered barges, which lie in readiness to bear King
John to where the fateful Charter waits his signing.
It is noon, and we and all the people have been waiting patient for many an hour,
and the rumour has run round that slippery John has again escaped from the Barons'
grasp, and has stolen away from Duncroft Hall with his mercenaries at his heels,
and will soon be doing other work than signing charters for his people's liberty.
Not so! This time the grip upon him has been one of iron, and he has slid and
wriggled in vain. Far down the road a little cloud of dust has risen, and draws
nearer and grows larger, and the pattering of many hoofs grows louder, and in and
out between the scattered groups of drawn-up men, there pushes on its way a brilliant
cavalcade of gay-dressed lords and knights. And front and rear, and either flank,
there ride the yeomen of the Barons, and in the midst King John.
He rides to where the barges lie in readiness, and the great Barons step forth
from their ranks to meet him. He greets them with a smile and laugh, and pleasant
honeyed words, as though it were some feast in his honour to which he had been invited.
But as he rises to dismount, he casts one hurried glance from his own French mercenaries
drawn up in the rear to the grim ranks of the Barons' men that hem him in.
Is it too late? One fierce blow at the unsuspecting horseman at his side, one
cry to his French troops, one desperate charge upon the unready lines before him,
and these rebellious Barons might rue the day they dared to thwart his plans! A
bolder hand might have turned the game even at that point. Had it been a Richard
there! the cup of liberty might have been dashed from England's lips, and the taste
of freedom held back for a hundred years.
But the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting
men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes
his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand
upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.
Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly
against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble,
they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the
name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait
in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone
in England's temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.
HENRY VIII. AND ANNE BOLEYN. – DISADVANTAGES OF LIVING IN SAME HOUSE WITH PAIR
OF LOVERS. – A TRYING TIME FOR THE ENGLISH NATION. – A NIGHT SEARCH FOR THE PICTURESQUE.
– HOMELESS AND HOUSELESS. – HARRIS PREPARES TO DIE. – AN ANGEL COMES ALONG. – EFFECT
OF SUDDEN JOY ON HARRIS. – A LITTLE SUPPER. – LUNCH. – HIGH PRICE FOR MUSTARD. –
A FEARFUL BATTLE. – MAIDENHEAD. – SAILING. – THREE FISHERS. – WE ARE CURSED.
I WAS sitting on the bank, conjuring up this scene to myself, when George remarked
that when I was quite rested, perhaps I would not mind helping to wash up; and,
thus recalled from the days of the glorious past to the prosaic present, with all
its misery and sin, I slid down into the boat and cleaned out the frying-pan with
a stick of wood and a tuft of grass, polishing it up finally with George's wet shirt.
We went over to Magna Charta Island, and had a look at the stone which stands
in the cottage there and on which the great Charter is said to have been signed;
though, as to whether it really was signed there, or, as some say, on the other
bank at ''Runningmede,'' I decline to commit myself. As far as my own personal opinion
goes, however, I am inclined to give weight to the popular island theory. Certainly,
had I been one of the Barons, at the time, I should have strongly urged upon my
comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on
to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks.
There are the ruins of an old priory in the grounds of Ankerwyke House, which
is close to Picnic Point, and it was round about the grounds of this old priory
that Henry VIII. is said to have waited for and met Anne Boleyn. He also used to
meet her at Hever Castle in Kent, and also somewhere near St. Albans. It must have
been difficult for the people of England in those days to have found a spot where
these thoughtless young folk were NOT spooning.
Have you ever been in a house where there are a couple courting? It is most trying.
You think you will go and sit in the drawing-room, and you march off there. As you
open the door, you hear a noise as if somebody had suddenly recollected something,
and, when you get in, Emily is over by the window, full of interest in the opposite
side of the road, and your friend, John Edward, is at the other end of the room
with his whole soul held in thrall by photographs of other people's relatives.
''Oh!'' you say, pausing at the door, ''I didn't know anybody was here.''
''Oh! didn't you?'' says Emily, coldly, in a tone which implies that she does
not believe you.
You hang about for a bit, then you say:
''It's very dark. Why don't you light the gas?''
John Edward says, ''Oh!'' he hadn't noticed it; and Emily says that papa does
not like the gas lit in the afternoon.
You tell them one or two items of news, and give them your views and opinions
on the Irish question; but this does not appear to interest them. All they remark
on any subject is, ''Oh!'' ''Is it?'' ''Did he?'' ''Yes,'' and ''You don't say so!''
And, after ten minutes of such style of conversation, you edge up to the door, and
slip out, and are surprised to find that the door immediately closes behind you,
and shuts itself, without your having touched it.
Half an hour later, you think you will try a pipe in the conservatory. The only
chair in the place is occupied by Emily; and John Edward, if the language of clothes
can be relied upon, has evidently been sitting on the floor. They do not speak,
but they give you a look that says all that can be said in a civilised community;
and you back out promptly and shut the door behind you.