5. THE MONKSPEPPER HOLOCAUST
The sun was hot, the sky a clear blue, and all around them the hedgerows and copses, clad in a frilly green crinoline of swing leaves, were bursting like a musical box full of birdsong. It was wonderful, he decided, to be able to walk along the narrow, leafy lanes, their high banks covered with waterfalls of butter-yellow primroses, with Rosy shuffling through the dust at his side, listening to the clatter and scrape of the pony trap’s wheels, and the pleasant squeaking and jingling of the harness. Presently, he removed his coat and threw it into the back of the trap. Half an hour later his waistcoat, celluloid collar and black tie joined it, and in a fit of wild daring he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. Now, clad in his black trousers, striped braces and with his bowler hat perched jauntily on his head, he made an arresting sight, but he did not care. He was intoxicated with the sights and sounds of the countryside, and the road to adventure lay beneath his feet.
Mr. Pucklehammer had been quite right, Adrian discovered, Rosy did like singing, so as they walked along amicably together, he regaled her with music hall ditties. Finding these appreciated, Adrian got his banjo out and accompanied himself. If his playing left a little bit to be desired, Rosy was far too well-bred an audience to mention it, and the time passed very pleasantly.
By noon they were deep in the country. After consulting the map, Adrian had worked out their route so that they travelled by small side roads, for he had no desire to attract attention. In consequence they had not seen a living soul since leaving the city. They might have been two travellers in an uninhabited continent. Now, with the unaccustomed fresh air Adrian was beginning to feel hungry. It was all right for Rosy, he reflected, she merely snatched a snack from the hedgerows as they passed. But he felt in need of something more substantial than leaves. Soon he spotted what he wanted: a gigantic meadow that sloped, as green as velvet, all daisy-starred, down to the banks of a river. The meadow was studded with groups of enormous oak trees piled with a great shimmering cumulus of leaves like giant green Pompadour wigs, and casting pleasant blue and black shadows on the lush grass.
“This is it, Rosy, my girl,” said Adrian. “We’ll stop here for a bite to eat.”
He steered Rosy through a convenient gap in the hedge and down to a smooth patch of green sward under the oak trees. Six paces away the river ran glinting and whispering between reedy banks. Adrian unharnessed Rosy and unpacked the food. He carefully filled two large tankards of beer from the firkin and Rosy, at the sight of it, gave a prolonged and excited trumpet Sitting on the grass Adrian made short work of a meat pie, a large slab of cheese and half a loaf of bread. After years of Mrs. Dredge’s cooking, these simple foods tasted deliciously exotic to him. Rosy, having investigated the oak trees, torn down and eaten the more accessible branches, proceeded to scratch herself vigorously against the trunks, to the obvious alarm of a pair of magpies who had a nest in the upper branches. Adrian lay on his back, his eyes half closed, staring up through the filigree of leaves to the blue sky, and a great peace stole over him. Why, he though; this isn’t going to be nearly as bad as I thought. What, in fact, could be nicer? He yawned luxuriously, closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
He awoke some time later with a start, and lay for a moment, straining his ears, wondering what had caused the sound that had awakened him. He could hear the magpies scolding in the distance, and a lark chiming in the sky high above, but what be had heard was an extraordinary gurgling splashing noise. He sat up and looked around in alarm. Rosy was nowhere to be seen. The most terrible thoughts immediately filled Adrian’s mind: where had the gone? Was she terrorising some unfortunate cottager? Or, and he blanched at the thought, had she found a public house? He leapt to his feet and glanced around wildly.
From the cool depths of the river rose a sudden silvery fountain of spray, and Rosy surfaced. She was lying on her side in the deep water, and her normally grey hide was now black and shiny. She lay there, wallowing in ecstasy, occasionally putting her trunk under the water and blowing a series of reverberating bubbles. Filled with relief at having located her, Adrian walked down to the edge of the river, and Rosy gave a little squeak of pleasure at seeing him.
“Well, you are a clever girl,” said Adrian. “Are you enjoying that . . . having a lovely bath, eh?”
By way of an answer Rosy shifted from her right side to her left, creating a tidal wave, and almost disappearing beneath the surface of the water.
“D’you know, old girl, I’ve half a mind to join you,” said Adrian. “It looks wonderful.”
He looked round furtively to make sure there was no one watching, and then quickly removed his clothes, retaining only his underpants for decency’s sake. Uttering a piercing yell, he raced across the grass and leapt into the river. The water was icy cold but refreshing. He rose, spluttering, splashed his way over to where Rosy lay, and climbed on to her shoulder. Rosy gave a delighted squeak and, reaching up with her trunk, gently touched his face and wet hair.
“Glorious,” said Adrian, patting Rosy on the ear. “Simply glorious. What an extremely good idea of yours, Rosy. What a sagacious, what an intelligent creature you are!”
He got precariously to his feet and proceeded to do a dance on Rosy’s recumbent form, shouting “Glorious, simply glorious!” at intervals, until his feet slipped from under him and he fell with a splash into the river. As he rose choking and laughing to the surface, Rosy, gazing at him affectionately from her tiny bright eyes, squirted him with a trunkful of water. So for the next half hour they gambolled in the stream, to the extreme alarm of the coots and moorhens, and the annoyance of a kingfisher who had a nest in the bank nearby.
“The next village we come to,” said Adrian as they hauled themselves dripping out of the river and lay down on the bank, “the very next village we come to, I shall buy a large scrubbing brush. And then I shall scrub you, Rosy my girl, until you’re a lovely clean elephant.”
Tired by their activities, they lay on the bank dozing, while the sun dried them. They were lying there so quietly that the fox had crossed the whole meadow and was quite close to them before they noticed him.
“Hello,” said Adrian sitting up. “You’re a fine fellow.” The fox stopped, one foot raised, its ears pricked. Then Rosy flapped her ears and stretched forward an enquiring trunk. The fox, uttering a sharp yap of alarm, jumped backwards and, turning sharply, ran down the river bank, plunged into the water and swam swiftly to the opposite bank. He hauled himself out of the water, shook himself vigorously, and with a baleful glance in the direction of Adrian and Rosy, disappeared into the hedge.
“Well, he wasn’t very friendly, was he, Rosy?” said Adrian. “Not a convivial sort of chap at all.”
He was just about to give Rosy a short but comprehensive lecture on foxes when they heard the hunt.
“Oh, Lord,” gasped Adrian, who had quite forgotten that he was only wearing his underpants. “Here . . . quick I must get some clothes on.”
He leapt to his feet and started running to where he had left his clothes, draped neatly over the shafts of the trap, but he was too late. Through the one gap in the tall hedge that surrounded the field poured the hunt, a brown and white cascade of hounds, moaning and howling excitedly, closely followed by a mass of red-coated huntsmen and women on beautiful prancing horses as bright and shiny as chestnuts. As a predicament it left practically nothing to be desired, Adrian decided. To be caught by what was, presumably, the aristocracy of the district in a large meadow accompanied by an elephant and a multi-coloured pony trap was eccentric enough, but when you were only wearing your underpants the whole thing became fraught with difficulty.
To make matters worse Rosy, refreshed from her swim, suddenly became very animated at the sight of the hunt. It may be that the shrill whinnying of the hunting horn was mistaken by her for the shrill cries of another elephant, or maybe the great wave of hounds, the scarlet tunics and the general air of bustling festivity, recalled to her mind the happy days she had spent with the circus. Uttering a loud and prolonged trumpet of joy, she scrambled to her feet and shambled across the meadow to meet the, hunt.
The hounds, to a dog, skidded to an astonished halt. From their expressions you could tell that they thought this was unfair. They had been asked to chase and catch a small, red animal, and there, suddenly materialising in their path, was a monstrous grey animal such as one only dreams about in nightmares when one is a very young puppy. Simultaneously, all the bright shiny horses caught sight of Rosy. The effect on them was much the same as it had been on the plodding horses that pulled hansom cabs, and in a moment the meadow looked like an exceptionally bloody battlefield. Huntsmen fell like autumn leaves and lay sprawled in their scarlet coats on the grass, while riderless horse panic-stricken, galloped wildly to and fro, seeking a way out of the meadow through the thick hedge that surrounded it.
Rosy was delighted. She was, by now, under the firm impression that this was some sort of a circus, and that this pandemonium was all part of the act. Trumpeting excitedly, she pursued the terrified pack of hounds round and round, occasionally pausing to pat a maddened horse on the rump with her trunk. Adrian, cowering behind the trunk of a tree in his wet underpants, wished he was dead. This was far worse than anything that had gone before, and what made it worse was the fact that Rosy was so obviously enjoying herself and joining in with an exuberance that was diverting, to say the least.
In Rosy’s circus days she had been wont to end her performance with a mock assault on the ringmaster, for part of her act was a pretended animosity between that exalted personage and herself. As the hounds had now disappeared through the hedge, and all the horses were gathered in the far corner of the field in a quivering, hysterical mass, Rosy came to the not unnatural conclusion that the act had ended. Searching around her with a rheumy eye her glance chanced to fall on the Master of the hunt. He was rolling about on the grass, covered with mud, endeavouring to wrench off his top hat which had been wedged firmly down over his nose by his fall. This, thought Rosy, must be the ringmaster. It was a pardonable mistake, for the Master was a fine, corpulent specimen of manhood, wearing the mud-stained remains of a brilliant coat and a top hat. Rosy shambled towards him, paused to utter a shrill trumpeting, and then curled her trunk tenderly around his body and lifted him high in the air. She paused for a moment, obviously faintly surprised that her action did not provoke the roar of applause that it normally did.
One of the female members of the hunt, the Honourable Petunia Magglebrood, had just risen shakily to her feet when she was treated to the sight of the Master, no less, being waved thoughtfully to and fro by an elephant. The feelings of horror and sacrilege that filled her were overwhelming; she felt rather as a Crusader would have felt if he had seen someone lighting a fire with a piece of the True Cross.
“Put him down, you vulgar brute!” she screamed. “Put him down!” Then she gave a piercing, tremulous wail and fainted. Rosy, still swinging the Master to and fro like a giant cat with a scarlet mouse, looked around thoughtfully. The Honourable Petunia’s scream was not much in the way of applause, she thought, but it was obviously the best she was going to get. Peering out she perceived Adrian’s white face peeping round the trunk of an oak tree, and so she shambled across to him and deposited the Master at his feet with the good-natured air of a retriever bringing in the first grouse of the season. The jolt with which she deposited the Master on the grass dislodged the top hat, which fell off and rolled across the meadow. It revealed the fact that the Master possessed magnificent black side-whiskers and moustache, and that his face was congested to a shade of royal purple that gave one the impression that he was either in imminent danger of dying of apoplexy, or else was going to disappear in a large puff of black smoke. He sat there, glaring up at Adrian, and making a noise that—even by his most fervent admirers—could only be described as an inarticulate gobbling.
“Er . . . Good afternoon,” said Adrian, for want of a better remark. Not altogether to his surprise the Master’s face turned black. He struggled desperately with his respiratory system, and at last managed to gain some control over his strangled vocal chords.
“What d’ye mean?” he said in a muted roar, articulating with difficulty. “What d’ye mean: Good afternoon? Is that your filthy, verminous, misbegotten, shapeless animal, hey?”
He pointed a quivering finger at Rosy, who had plucked herself a bunch of long grass and daisies and was fanning herself with it to keep the flies off.
“Oh, that,” said Adrian, as though the presence of an elephant had escaped his notice until that moment, “that . . . well, yes, in a way you could say it was mine.”
“Well, what the devil d’ye mean, sir?” roared the Master. “Stampin’ about in the meadows with a damn’ great misbegotten elephant . . . dressed in that obscene costume . . . frightenin’ the hounds . . . terrifyin’ the women even frightenin’ the horses . . . what the devil d’ye mean by it, sir?”
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Adrian contritely. “We were just having a quiet swim, you see, and we didn’t know you were all coming this way.”
“D’you usually,” enquired the Master with deadly calm, “d’you usually travel through the countryside, swimming in other people’s rivers, frightenin’ the salmon, accompanied by a misbegotten elephant?”
“Not usually, no,” Adrian admitted, “but I’m afraid it would take too long to explain.”
“I can explain it,” shouted the Master, getting to his feet. “You’re a lunatic, sir, a criminal lunatic, that’s what you are. Gallopin’ around the country worryin’ the hunt, frightenin’ the fish and probably the birds as well . . . a lunatic. I shall have you and the misshapen beast under lock and key, sir, see if I don’t. I shall sue for damages and for trespass. I shall get you five years’ penal servitude. The charge might even be attempted murder, sir, what d’you think of that, hey? The moment I get back to the village I shall have the law on you, mark my words.”
“Look,” said Adrian in a panic, “I really am most awfully sorry, but if you’d just let me explain. You see, your horses and dogs . . .”
“Dogs?” hissed the Master, his face regaining its purple hue, “dogs? Hounds, sir, hounds.”
“Well, your hounds,” said Adrian, “it’s just that they’re not used to elephants.”
The Master drew a long quivering breath and cast a fierce eye over the meadow, where huntsmen, in various stages of disarray, were climbing shakily to their feet and endeavouring to catch their terrified horses.
“Yes, I can see they’re not used to elephants,” said the Master, “and shall I let you into a secret, you misbegotten peasant? THEY’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE USED TO ELEPHANTS!”
Adrian bad to admit that he had a point there. The Master picked up the remains of his top hat and placed it on his head.
“As soon as I get back to the village I shall have you and your blasted elephant arrested, mark my words,” he said, and strode off after the rest of the soiled, limping huntsmen. As the last of them mounted and trotted out of the field, Adrian turned to Rosy.
“Now look what you’ve done,” he said bitterly, “and just when I thought everything was going along all right You’ve gone and mucked everything up again . . . now we’re going to be arrested. I should think you’ll get about five hundred years’ penal servitude.”
He dressed hurriedly and hitched Rosy up to the trap once more.
“The best thing is to get as far away from the village as possible,” he said, as they started down the road.
After walking for a little while they came to a crossroads, and here the signpost informed them that if they turned to the left they would reach the village of Fennel, and if they turned to the right they would come to the village of Monkspepper. Adrian was not sure what to do. He did not know which village the hunt had come from and, while he knew that he could conceal himself and possibly the tap from any pursuing minions of the law, Rosy was a different matter. Looking down the road that led to Fennel he saw the beginning of a great wood, and that decided him. He could at least make some attempt at concealing an elephant in a wood. So, gripping Rosy’s ear to hurry her, they set off down the road to Fennel.