4. THE OPEN ROAD
Mr Pucklehammer saw the carter safely out of the yard and came back into the house, where he found Adrian, his head in his hands, contemplating an empty beer mug gloomily.
“I simply can’t think straight,” said Adrian miserably, “I just can’t think what to do.”
“Have some more beer,” suggested Mr. Pucklehammer, whose philosophy in life was simple and direct. “Stop fretting yourself . . . we’ll think of something.”
“It’s all very well for you to keep soothing me,” said Adrian irritably, “but I’m the one that’s got the elephant. We don’t even know what she eats yet.”
“Buns,” said Mr. Pucklehammer, clinging to his original premise. “You mark my words, she’ll do well on buns.”
“I wonder if the carter was right?” said Adrian thoughtfully “If I could find a circus where she’d be happy and gave the owner the five hundred to look after her, I wonder if that would be legal?”
“I don’t know if it would be legal,” said Mr. Pucklehammer, pursing his lips thoughtfully, “but it’s one solution.”
“But where d’you find a circus?” said Adrian. “I haven’t seen one since I was seven or eight.”
“The seaside,” said Mr. Pucklehammer promptly. “There’s always circuses and fairs and such at the seaside.”
“But we’re fifty miles from the sea,” said Adrian. “How would I get her there?”
“Walk her,” said Mr. Pucklehammer, “the exercise will probably do her a power of good. One thing’s for sure, you can’t keep her here indefinitely. I don’t mind having her, mind, but an elephant isn’t the sort of thing you can keep in your yard without getting talk from the neighours. Nosey lot, round here.”
“Well, there’s nothing for it,” said Adrian. “I’ll have to tell Mrs. Dredge and the shop that my uncle’s dying and that I have to go away for a bit. I don’t think the shop will mind—I’m due for a holiday, anyway. How long do you think it will take me to get her down to the coast?”
“Rather depends,” said Mr. Pucklehammer.
“Depends on what?” asked Adrian. “How many miles a day an elephant can walk?”
“No, I wasn’t thinking about that,” said Mr. Pucklehammer, “I was thinking about the number of pubs you might have to pass on the way.”
“Yes,” Adrian groaned, “I’d forgotten about that.”
“Tell you what,” suggested Mr. Pucklehammer. “You know that little old pony trap I’ve got in the shed out there? Well, if we did that up and made a sort of harness thing, Rosy could pull it. You could put all your clothes and some beer and stuff in the back . . .”
“Not beer,” said Adrian hastily. “I’m not having any beer next to that creature.”
“Well, food then,” said Mr. Pucklehammer, “and then when you’re all loaded up, off you go, eh?”
In spite of his anxiety Adrian felt a faint stirring of enthusiasm in his heart. He had always craved for adventure, hadn’t he? Well, what could be more adventurous than setting off on a journey accompanied by an elephant? For the first time since receiving his uncle’s letter he began to feel that things were not quite as bad as he thought. He was almost excited at the prospect of walking Rosy down to the coast.
“If I can make the coast in three days,” he said thoughtfully, “it’ll take me another couple of days to find a circus, I should think. Well, let’s say ten days to a fortnight, to be on the safe side.”
“Yes,” agreed Mr Pucklehammer, “you should be able to do it in that time, if all goes well.”
“Right!” said Adrian, leaping to his feet and becoming once again (for a brief moment) the best swordsman outside France, “I’ll do it!”
“Good lad!” said Mr. Pucklehammer. “I’d come with you, only I can’t leave the yard. I bet you’ll have a rare old time. Now, let’s get organised. I’ll get the trap out and give it a wash down and a lick of paint and it’ll be all ready for you tomorrow.”
Adrian went and peered through the window. Rosy was lying peacefully asleep, her ears twitching occasionally and her stomach rumbling with a sound like distant thunder.
“She’ll need something to eat,” he said worriedly. “Just listen to the poor thing’s stomach.”
“Now stop fussing,” said Mr. Pucklehammer “I’ll attend to that.”
He and Adrian went out into the yard and, careful not to wake Rosy, pulled the somewhat dilapidated pony trap from inside the shed.
“There you are,” said Mr. Pucklehammer gazing at it admiringly. “With a lick of paint she’ll be as good as new. Now, you give her a wash down, boy, while I go and get some food for Rosy.”
Adrian went and fetched a couple of buckets of warm water and a scrubbing brush, and was soon hard at work washing the trap down, whistling softly to himself. He was so absorbed in his work that it gave him a shock when a warm, grey trunk smelling strongly of beer suddenly curled round his neck in an affectionate manner. He was not yet used to the fact that elephants, for all their bulk, can move when they want to with considerably less noise than a house mouse Rosy was standing behind him, staring down at him benignly. She blew a thoughtful blast of beer-laden breath into his ear and uttered a tiny squeak of greeting.
“Now look,” said Adrian sharply, unwinding her trunk from his neck, “you’ve got to stop messing about. You’ve been enough trouble already, heaven knows. You just go on back over there and sleep it off, there’s a good girl.”
By way of an answer, Rosy dipped her trunk into one of the buckets and noisily sucked up a good supply. Then, taking careful aim, she squirted the water over the sides of the pony trap. She refilled her trunk and repeated the process, while Adrian watched her in amazement.
“Well,” he said at last, “if you’re going to be helpful, that’s different.”
He soon found that if he indicated the area of the trap he wanted cleaned, Rosy would stand there and squirt water on it until further notice. All he had to do was keep replenishing the buckets. The force with which she could expel the water from her trunk greatly aided the cleaning process, and in next to no time the grime and cobwebs were washed away and the pony trap was beginning to look quite different. At this point Mr. Pucklehammer returned, carrying a bulging sack on his back.
“I couldn’t get any buns,” he said, obviously disappointed that he was not going to be able to prove his point, “but I managed to get some stale bread.”
They opened the sack and extracted two large brown loaves, Adrian held them out towards Rosy, not at all convinced that she would accept this somewhat worn largesse, but Rosy uttered a squeal of pleasure and engulfed both loaves, devouring them with a speed and enthusiasm that had to be seen to be believed.
“There you are,” said Adrian, “that’s the feeding problem solved.” He tipped the rest of the bread out of the sack and Rosy fell to like a glutton.
“My word,” said Mr. Pucklehammer admiringly, “you have made a difference to that trap.”
“It was mainly Rosy’s work,” said Adrian.
“Rosy?” asked Mr. Pucklehammer. “How d’you mean?”
“Well, she helped me. She squirted water over it . . . we had it clean in half the time.”
“Would you believe it!” said Mr. Pucklehammer. “I wonder if she knows any more tricks?”
“I don’t think we ought to start her off on tricks now,” said Adrian hastily. “For one thing, I’d better go down to the bank and fix up about the money, hadn’t I?”
“Right you are,” said Mr. Pucklehammer. “You leave Rosy and me here. We’ll be all right. I’ll paint the trap while you’re gone.”
When Adrian returned to the yard some hours later, he was greeted by the sound of Mr. Pucklehammer’s voice raised in song, accompanied by a periodical friendly squeal from Rosy. He went into the yard and there he found Rosy lying down, with Mr. Pucklehammer leaning against her shoulder, singing a serenade in her left ear. They were both bedaubed with splashes of paint, and an empty basin with traces of froth at the bottom and a pint tankard told Adrian that Mr. Pucklehammer and Rosy had cemented their friendship in no uncertain manner. Rather to his surprise—considering the condition of the two workers—the trap looked magnificent Mr. Pucklehammer had obviously allowed all his latent artistic genius to come to the fore. The body of the trap was a bright clean daffodil yellow, and the shafts a brave scarlet. The spokes of the wheels had been cunningly picked out in blue and gold, and the whole thing shone like a jewel.
“Hi, boy!” said Mr. Pucklehammer, straightening up unsteadily. “Just been having a little sing-song with Rosy . . . she likes a good song. What d’you think of the cart, eh?”
“It’s wonderful,” said Adrian enthusiastically. “You’ve done it beautifully.”
“Always thought I should’ve taken up art,” said Mr. Pucklehammer gloomily, but there’s not much call for it nowadays. Did you get the money?”
“Yes, I got it,” said Adrian. “There were lots of papers and things to sign . . . that’s why I was so long.”
“Well, if I were you,” said Mr. Pucklehammer, pulling out his watch and peering at it blearily, “I’d cut off home and break the news to that Dredge woman.”
“Yes, I suppose I’d better,” sighed Adrian. “In the meantime don’t go and give Rosy too much to drink, will you? You know what my uncle said in his letter.”
“A drop of beer,” said Mr. Pucklehammer severely, “never hurt no one.”
Adrian stepped up to his vast, slumbering prot'eg'ee and patted her domed head.
“Good night, Rosy old girl,” he said.
Rosy opened one small, mischievous eye and peered at him. She looked almost as though she was smiling, Adrian reflected, as if she knew what the plans for the next day were and thoroughly approved of them. She uttered a tiny squeak, dosed her eyes and went back to sleep, while Adrian left the yard and trudged down the road towards Mrs. Dredge.
As he bad anticipated, Mrs. Dredge proved difficult about the whole thing. She was not at all satisfied with Adrian’s excuse of a dying uncle, and in her efforts to get to the bottom of this she muddied both herself and Adrian up to such an extent that eventually neither of them really knew what the other was talking about. Finally admitting defeat, Mrs. Dredge gave up the attack and allowed Adrian (who now had a splitting headache) to go to bed.
The following morning, his bag neatly packed, he made his way down to the yard. He had spent an uneasy night beset with dreams of enormous herds of intoxicated pachyderms crushing multi-coloured pony traps underfoot, and so was somewhat relieved, on entering the yard, to be greeted by a squeal of pleasure from Rosy, who shambled forward and curled an affectionate trunk round his neck in greeting. Rosy’s natural bonhomie was strangely endearing, thought Adrian. He was beginning to feel quite fond of his giant encumbrance.
With the aid of Mr. Pucklehammer He packed the back of the trap with the things they thought he would need for the journey. There was an assortment of tinned and bottled food for Adrian, three sacks of stale bread for Rosy, blankets, a hatchet, a first-aid outfit full of mysterious and potent-looking potions that belonged to Mr. Pucklehammer, a coil of stout rope, a canvas tarpaulin which, as Mr. Pucklehammer pointed out, was big enough to cover both Adrian and Rosy should it rain, Rosy’s chains, in case it became necessary to shackle her, a firkin of ale, heavily disguised so that Rosy would not know it was there, and last but not least, Adrian’s banjo. This instrument he had purchased some months before, but his progress on it. had been slow, for he could only practise when Mrs. Dredge was down seeing Mr. Dredge at the cemetery. But Mr. Pucklehammer had thought it a splendid idea to take it with them. There was nothing, he explained to Adrian, like music when you were marching along. With music and beer, he insisted, you could get anywhere.
At last they had the trap loaded up and, with a certain difficulty, managed to hitch it up to Rosy who was fascinated by this new game and most cooperative. Then, with Adrian holding the tip of her ear as a guide, they walked round and round the yard several times to get her used to the idea.
“Well,” said Adrian at last, “I suppose we’d better be going. I can’t thank you enough for all your help, Mr. Pucklehammer.”
“Don’t think anything of it, boy,” said Mr. Pucklehammer. “Only wish I was coming too. I bet you’ll have a wonderful time. Now don’t forget to write and let me know how you’re getting on, will you?”
“I won’t,” said Adrian, “and thanks once again.”
Mr. Pucklehammer patted Rosy affectionately on the flank and then flung open the gates of the yard. Rosy lumbered out into the road with Adrian guiding her, the trap rattling and tinkling behind them, and Mr. Pucklehammer stood and watched them out of sight.
Although they took back streets wherever possible, they still bad to traverse a section of the city before they could strike out into the country, and it was in the city that Adrian added considerably to his knowledge of elephants, and the effect they had on life. For example, he soon discovered that horses were apt to have collective nervous breakdowns when suddenly confronted with one. It did not seem to matter whether they were pulling an omnibus or a hansom cab, the result, so far as Adrian could see, was identical. They would utter a piercing whinny, rear up on their hind legs and then gallop off down the road at full speed, with their terrified owners clinging desperately to the reins. Rosy was considerably mystified by this; having been used to sensible, plebeian circus horses whom she considered to be her friends, this lack of enthusiasm on the part of the city horses was puzzling and hurtful, to say the least.
Another item of information that Adrian learnt about elephants—at the cost of a sovereign—was that they eat fruit and vegetables. They had rounded a corner and come face to face with an elderly man pushing a barrow piled high with market produce, at the sight of which Rosy had uttered a gleeful trumpeting and quickened her pace. She took no notice of Adrian clinging to her ear and shouting instructions. Her one thought was for the barrow-load of food so thoughtfully provided by fate. The owner of the barrow, being suddenly confronted by an elephant pulling a multi-coloured cart and bearing down on him with considerable speed, obviously bent on his destruction, turned tail and ran with a speed and agility one would not have suspected possible in one of his years. Rosy, uttering the peculiar roaring, squeaking noise she made when excited, stood by the discarded barrow and—in spite of Adrian’s protests—proceeded to stuff fruit and vegetables into her mouth and chew them with immense satisfaction. While she was thus engaged Adrian had to pursue the barrow owner, calm his shattered nerves and pay for the damage. But at any rate, he reflected, it meant that Rosy had eaten a good meal, and he hoped that this would have a soothing effect on her for the rest of the trip. In this he was right, for Rosy paced along after her meal, her stomach rumbling musically, in a passive haze of goodwill.
Eventually the houses dwindled and fell away, until, when they breasted the top of a hill, the city lay glittering and sprawling behind them, and ahead, brilliant in the spring sunshine, lay the open country, a magical carpet of woods and fields, meandering rivers and misty hills, all ringing with lark song and the drowsy call of cuckoos. Adrian took a deep breath of the clean, clover-scented air.
“Well, there it is, Rosy,” he said. “The country. I think we’re over the worst now, my girl.”
It was only later that he realised that this was the stupidest statement he could have made.