31st January 1907
“There was once, Gentlemen,” the Professor began, bringing Logan Hall to an immediate hush, “a man of Irish descent riding a fine black horse along the King’s Highway. The man was wearing his finest clothes, and carrying a purse heavy with all the coins of his wealth. Beneath him, distributed evenly between two saddle-bags was all that he otherwise owned in the world. He had travelled far, the West I believe, and was bound for Dublin, and from there to America where he planned to make a new living.”
Arthur had heard this speech before, as Secretary it was his responsibility to do so; and looking about the room he could tell at once which of the other delegates shared this experience with him. That Jack Knightley did not was immediately clear; Arthur’s brother-in-law was sitting alone, his eyes lowered to the table, and he seemed to be transcribing the lecture verbatim. Jack worked on card, thin strips stacked neatly to the side. Arthur watched him write as he stepped closer, listening to the Professor at the same time.
“The man,” Professor Boyd was saying; “conscious of his position in society, and unwilling to bow before the dangers of the road, bore no weapons of his own, and as the days passed the confidence of this foolhardy decision grew. The man would ride later into the night, rising as early as the Inns in which he stayed, and would set off to continue on his journey.
It can be of little surprise then that late one evening, as the sun was setting on a winding, solitary stretch of road this lone figure came to the attention of one of the outlaws who make it their business to prey upon travelling men.”
Coming to the attention of the many men gathered for The Society lecture was Charles Hampton MP. Like the others, Charles was aware of his importance, he was a man of position and wealth; but for Charles Hampton these were secondary, accidents of life. As Charles Hampton stood up indeed, upsetting his chair and distracting the professor from his lecture, he was not thinking of eugenics at all. Charles Hampton’s thoughts were excited rather by the prospect of meeting a young German mistress at London Bridge station.
Arthur took advantage of the disruption to make his own move; and as the eyes of the room turned to Charles Hampton, Arthur Downing was taking a seat next to Jack. Arthur had a book in his pocket, a book that was both rare and stolen; and Arthur patted it reflexively as he sat down, greeting Jack with a silent nod. Then, he turned his eyes to Charles Hampton, watching the MP leave the hall.
“The outlaw,” Professor Boyd continued when this disturbance ended, “learning his morals from the practices of his class, and expert in his crime like many of his kind, made a quick assessment of the rider as he approached. He saw a tall, middle-aged man, his position announced by his costume, and his lack of understanding displayed by his decision to ride alone in such treacherous surroundings. Of even greater import, Gentlemen, a bonus for the outlaw, was the ready wealth the rider carried with him; this could be seen to bulge from the bags beneath his seat.
There was no need then for further encouragement, crime provides its own rationale. The outlaw reasoned that the travelling man, one so well-presented, would also carry a purse, and he was already guessing at the extent of coin within as he took up his position. Unlike the rider he was long familiar with that stretch of road; he knew its bends as readily as the escapes that were provided, and he secreted himself thus behind a large round oak, waiting to ply his crime as he listened to the steady trot of his approaching target.”
Jack looked to his left as Arthur placed the book on the table. The shock was immediate, a flush of recognition; and Arthur left it linger until Jack had read the title and confirmed the author. Then, without explanation, Arthur picked up The Pig Myths once more and slipped them into his waist-pocket. He could tell from the stutter of Jack’s pen that the tease had worked.
“At just the moment;” Professor Boyd was bringing his introduction to a close. Arthur was all attention now, as though he had forgotten both Jack and the book; “when the rider was close enough to make retreat a futile option the outlaw stepped out, his scarf raised on his face and his triangular hat lowered on his brow. He held two pistols, one in each hand, waited for the startled horse to settle, and called as he had done on many previous occasions.
‘Your money or your life, Stranger.’
This challenge, Gentlemen, as I am sure that many of your number might readily imagine, threatened the man of Ireland to the core. He looked to the road ahead, remembered what he had already travelled, and reasoned as a result the particular vulnerability of his position.
Not to be outdone, however, and hating to lose what was rightly his, the Irishman spoke with a native and direct intelligence.
‘Robber,’ he said; ‘yeh’re well armed and yeh have me covered good enough. So I’ll say this, and it’s me best offer. Yeh’ll need to take me life; for I’m savin’ me money for me auld age.’”1
©2012 Padraig De Brún