"faster!" cried costermayne, "faster! did i teach you nothing in our long ago happy school days?" and he roared with laughter. "when the challenges come , you must rise to meet them!" and he strode ahead of me, unheeding.
costermayne grew smaller in the distance.
fenwick vanished from my sight.
the enormity of what had transpired suddenly overwhelmed me.
but i was no stranger to enormity.
or to suddenness.
above all, i was no stranger to being overwhelmed.
enormity - had not my whole life been one enormity after another? from the enormity of my so-called birth (which i had no memory of and always taken on faith) to the hideous enormities of mute and bewildered childhood (which i remembered only too well and had no need to take on faith) to the blizzard of petty indignities (i concede i can hardly call them enormities) of my schooldays and finally to the dribbling dregs of desperation, which, laid end to end, made up my "life" - had not enormity been my mother, brother and guardian angel?
or suddenness? could i ever forget the terrible day when i realized that i existed?
and i was overwhelmed - truly truly overwhelmed by the complete folly of everything i had ever done (which was not much) of everything that ever been done to me (which was also not much but a little more) and most of all everything that spun around me in the so-called "universe" (whose existence i had always been sceptical of - i mean, tell me, how do we know?).
and i thought of miss pathwell and madame jarnet and the nasty girl in lisbon - but these are stories for another time - around another roaring fire - yes another roaring fire in another inn as the hour grows late - innkeeper, another round!
fenwick. yes, fenwick. what was fenwick to me? why was i standing here on this road from somewhere to somewhere else? what madness had possessed me?
"pull yourself together," i told myself sternly (as sternly as i was capable of).
as soon as i spoke the words the spell was broken. i was immediately conscious of a blister on my left foot, and wished the spell had not been broken. but it had been broken - broken well and truly.
well. i was thirsty.
and i did not have a clear idea of where i was. should i turn back to the town? i should certainly find a drink of water - cool, cool, water - there. on the other hand - and it is the curse of existence, is it not, that there is always another hand? just as it is the greater curse that there is always another foot - a left, then a right , then another left, then another right - that forces , that seduces us, onward into nothingness, does it not?
how bitterly i repented my foolish pride in my technique of putting one foot in front of the other, first the left, then the right - what else could i have done, i ask you. "technique" indeed! i ask you, citizens, i stand here before you, i ask you, one particle in the universe to another, what else can we do?
i had now completely lost my train of thought, if not quite my consciousness of existence. i knew - i suspected - not strongly suspected to be sure , but suspected - that i existed, that i was standing on a road, that i was thirsty, that i had been following a fellow named fenwick - something of a fascinating fellow to be sure, but in the end just a fellow, a fellow like any other, who had to put one foot in front of the other to get anywhere, unless indeed he was riding a horse, or seated in a carriage pulled by a horse, or a pair of horses, or indeed a mighty team of horses, who would then have to put one hooved foot in front of the other and so forth. and so forth.
don't get me on to the subject of motorcars! in any case, there were no motorcars in sight, welcome as the sight of one - or in fact, the sight of anything at all on this silent and deserted road - would have been.
i realized i was holding a bag of strawberries in one hand and my stout walking stick in the other. having nothing in particular at that moment to shake my stick at, i decided to eat one of the strawberries. yes, i would eat one of the strawberries, and after i had eaten it, and thoroughly digested it, i would then come to a decision. a decision, as to what, in my infinite bewilderment and despair , i should do next. turn back, or go forward? back - to the known? or forward - into the unknown? i had never been a great partisan of the unknown. on the other hand, was the road really leading to the "unknown"? was it not reputed on reliable authority (insofar as there is any "reliable authority") that the road led merely to the town of b----------, in the county of k---------------,
a town much like any other, with pubs, and houses, and more pubs, and more houses, where creatures much like myself - and indeed, much like costermayne and the celebrated colonel fenwick, walked about, one foot in front of the other, first the left, then the right, and entered the pubs (having exited the houses) and raised glasses to their lips,
first the raising of the glass, then the satisfying inhalation, then the placing of the glass on the bar, over and over, if not exactly in perfect unison, then at least with a certain predictable regularity, yes a certain somewhat satisfyingly predictable regularity, much as in the seaside town of a-----------, also in the county of k--------------, which i had just left behind, to embark on my most unsatisfying adventure, whose motive now seemed lost in the mists of time?
i took a strawberry out of the bag (keeping my walking stick tucked firmly to my side) and took a bite out of it. i stood there digesting it i know not how long - with the sun now reaching its zenith over my head - a not entirely unpleasant sensation.
suddenly the stillness was shattered by a shrieking sound and i looked upward at the sky, expecting a crow to come swooping down to seize my still half-eaten strawberry. i gazed upward. but the sky was blue and empty.
i heard the shriek again, nearer this time. i looked up the road in the direction fenwick and costermayne had vanished, and what should my wondering eyes behold but costermayne - hurtling towards me as if all the hounds and hecates of hell were upon him, and with fenwick hot upon his heels, brandishing some sort of short firearm in one hand and his walking stick in the other .
i stood aside, expecting them both to pass me - what was their quarrel to me? and for my part i would have gladly seen the backs of both of them. but costermayne pulled up and ducked behind me, shaking his fist at the approaching fenwick.
"ah villain!" he cried. "we are back in civilization. this honest citizen will witness your deviltry. unless you plan to shoot him too, eh? and leave a trail of death for the world to see." and he added in my ear, "together shoulder to shoulder, hey muggleton, as we were as lads at trinity? for the glory of trinity!"
"i beg your pardon, i was never at trinity school."
"no?" costermayne feigned surprise. fenwick had come up to us and looked sneeringly at him, quite ignoring me.
"no, we were together at mr muldoon's school."
"ah, for the glory of mr muldoon's school, then."
"i am afraid i don't recall glory as having any connection to mr muldoon's school."
fenwick listened to this without the sneer leaving his face. he stuck his pistol back in his belt under his coat and leaned on his walking stick.
"i see this gentleman has a proper appreciation of your worth, ye miserable spy. would ye believe it, sir, " fenwick addressed me. "this rascal has the effrontery to follow me on the country rood, in broad daylight, spying upon me, as if he were the royal indian constable and i were a lascar pedlar. what de ye think of that, sir?'
"deserves a thrashing, at least, sir, wouldn't ye say?"
"that's as may be, sir," i answered evenly. "that's as may be. i think i will leave you two gentlemen to sort it out among yourselves. now if you will excuse me."
and i left them, and proceeded on the road to - i knew not where.