"When I'd done, he says, 'That's all right; he knows I'm comin' now. But it'll take a long time to gather all them sheep.'
"For a bit he was quite still, and both me and Mrs. Rowe sat watchin', when, all of a sudden, he starts up again and sez, 'Listen, he's goin' to blow again,' Well, sir, I dare say you won't believe what I'm going to tell yer, but it's as true as I'm standin' 'ere. He'd hardly got the words out of his mouth when I hears a whistle blown three times—leastways I thought I did—as it might be coming from the top of that 'ill you see over there. There weren't no other sounds, for it was as still a night as could be. But there was someone whistling, and Mrs. Rowe 'eard it too. If you don't believe me, you can ask her. I nearly dropped on the floor, and I knew from that minute that my 'usband was going to die.
"You see, sir, my 'usband was never what you might call a religious man. He were more of a readin' man, my 'usband was—papers and books and all sorts o' things—more'n was good for 'im, I often used to say. You can see a lot on 'em on that little shelf. If it hadn't been that they kep' 'im out o' the Nag's Head I'd ha' burned some on 'em, that I would, and I often told 'im so. He knowed a wonderful lot about the stars, my 'usband did. Why, he'd often sit in his chair outside that door, smokin' his pipe and watchin' 'em for hours together.
"One day there was a great man came down to give a lecture on the stars in C——, and a gentleman as knowed my 'usband's tastes paid his fare and gave 'im a ticket for the lecture. When he came 'ome he was that excited I thought he'd go out o' his mind. He seemed as though he could think of nothing else for weeks, and it wasn't till he began to ha' bad luck wi' the ewes as he was able to shake it off. He was allus lookin' in the paper to see if the gentleman as give the lecture was comin' again. His name was Sir Robert Ball. I dare say you've heard on 'im.
"He used to spend all his Sundays readin' about stars. No, sir, he 'adn't been inside the church for years. 'Church is for folks as knows nowt about the stars,' he used to say. 'Sir Robert Ball's my parson.' One night when he was sittin' outside the door. I sez, 'Why don't you come in and get yer supper? It's getting cold.' 'Let it get cold,' he sez; 'I'm not comin' in till the moon's riz. It's as good as a drop o' drink to see it.'
"P'raps he told yer all about that time when he was took up wi' spiritualism. He'd met a man in the public-'ouse who'd 'eard his talk and put 'im up to it. They got 'im to go to a meetin' i' the next village, and made 'im believe as he was a medium. Well, there never was such goin's-on as we 'ad wi' 'im for months. He'd sit up 'alf the night, bumpin' the table and tan-rannin' wi' an old bucket till I was a'most scared out o' my life. But that winter he was nearly carried off wi' the New Mony, and when he got better he said he wasn't goin' to touch the spirits no more. 'There's summat in it,' he sez; 'but there's more in the stars.' And from that day I never 'eard 'im so much as talk about spirits, and you may be sure I didn't remind 'im on 'em.
"You must ha' often 'eard 'im talk about the stars, sir. Well, I suppose them things makes no difference to a' eddicated gentleman like you. But poor folks, I sez, has no business to meddle wi' em. All about worlds and worlds floatin' on nothin' till you got fair lost. Folks as find them things out ought to keep 'em quiet, that's wot I sez. Why, I've 'eard 'im talk till I was that mazed that I couldn't 'a said my prayers; no, not if I'd tried ever so.
"Yes, sir, it were a strange thing that when my 'usband come to die his mind seemed to hang on his whistle more'n a'most anything else. He kep' talkin' about it all night, and sayin' the tall shepherd was answerin' back, though I never 'eard nothin' myself, save that one time I told yer of.
"'It's queer he don't talk about the stars,' sez Mrs. Rowe to me. 'He will do before he's done, you see if he doesn't,' I sez.
"Well, about three o'clock I see a change in his face and knowed as the end wasn't far off. So I puts my arm round his old neck, and I sez, 'Bob, my dear, are you prepared to meet your Maker?' 'Oh! I'm all right,' he sez quite sensible; 'don't you bother your head about that,' 'Don't you think you'd better let me send for the parson?' I sez. 'No,' he sez; 'but you could send for Sir Robert Ball—if you only knew where to find him.' 'But,' I sez, 'wouldn't you like somebody to pray with yer? Sir Robert Ball's no good for that,' 'He's as good as anybody else,' he sez. 'Besides what's the use of prayin' now? It's all over,' 'It might do yer good,' I sez. 'It's too late," he sez, 'and I don't want it. It isn't no Maker I'm goin' to—I'm goin' to the stars,' 'Oh,' I sez, 'you're dreamin' again,' 'No, I'm not' he sez. 'Didn't I tell yer they'd been a-callin' on me all day? I don't mean the stars, but them as lives in 'em.'
"No, sir, he wasn't wanderin' then. 'I wish the children was 'ere,' he sez; 'but you couldn't get 'em all in this little room. My eye, what a lot we've 'ad! And all livin'. And there's Tom got seven of 'is own,' And a lot more like that; but I was so upset and cryin' that I can't remember half on it.
"About four o'clock he seemed to rally a bit and asked me to put my arm round him and lift him up. So I raises him, like, on the pillow and gives him a sup o' water. 'What day o' the week is it?' he sez. 'Sunday mornin',' I sez. 'That's my day for the stars,' he sez, and a smile come over his face, as were beautiful to see.... No, sir, he weren't a smilin' man, as a rule—he allus got too much on his mind—and a lot o' pain to bear too, sir. Oh, dear me!... Well, as I was a-sayin', he were as glad as glad when he heard it were Sunday. 'What's o'clock?' he sez. 'Just struck four by the church clock,' I sez. 'Then the dawn must be breakin',' he sez; 'look out o' the winder, there's a good lass, and tell me if the sky's clear, and if you can see the mornin' star in the south-east.' So I goes to the winder and tells him as how the sky were clear and the mornin' star shinin' wonderful. 'Ah, she's a beauty,' he sez, 'and as bright as she were milions o' years ago!'
"After a bit he sez, 'Take yer arm off, Polly, and lay me on my right side.' When me and Mrs. Rowe 'ad turned 'im round he sez, 'You can fetch the old Bible and read a bit if you like,' 'What shall I read?' I sez, when Mrs. Rowe had fetched it, for I wouldn't leave 'im for a minute. 'Read about the Woman in Adultery,' he sez. 'Oh,' I sez, 'that'll do you no good. You don't want to 'ear about them things now.' 'Yes,' he sez, 'I do. It's the best bit in the book. But if you can't find it, the Box o' Hointment'll do as well.' 'What can he mean?' I sez. 'He means about them two women as come to our Lord,' sez Mrs. Rowe. ''Ere, I'll find 'em.' So I give the Bible to Mrs. Rowe and lets her read both of the bits he wanted.
"While Mrs. Rowe was readin' he lay as still as still, but his eyes were that bright it a'most scared me to see 'em. When she'd done, he said never a word, but lay on 'is side, wi' 'is 'ead turned a bit round, starin' at the window. 'I'm sure he sees summat,' sez Mrs. Rowe to me. 'I wonder wot it is,' I sez. 'P'raps it's our Lord come to fetch 'im,' she sez. 'I've 'eard o' such things.'
"He must ha' lay like that for ten minutes, breathin' big breaths as though he were goin' to sleep. Then I sees 'is lips movin', and I 'ad to bend my 'ead down to 'ear what he were sayin'. 'He's a-blowin' again. It's the tall shepherd—'im as wrote on the ground—and he's got no dog, and 'is sheep's scatterin'. It's me he wants. Fetch the old whistle, Polly, and blow back. I want 'im to know I'm comin'.'
"He kep' repeatin' it, till 'is breath went. I got Mrs. Rowe to blow the whistle, but he didn't 'ear it, and it made no difference. And so, poor thing, he just gave one big sigh and he were gone."
FARMER PERRYMAN'S TALL HAT
It was winter, and Farmer Perryman and I were seated in straight-backed arm-chairs on either side of his kitchen fire. The prosperity attendant on the labours of Snarley Bob had already begun: the house was roomy and well furnished; there was a parlour and a drawing-room; but Perryman, when the day's work was done, preferred the kitchen. And so did I.
Though evening had fallen, the lamp was not yet lit; but the flames of a wood fire gave light enough for conversational purposes, and imparted to the flitches and hams suspended from the ceiling a lively reality which neither daylight nor petroleum could ever produce. As the shadows danced among them, the kitchen became peopled with friendly presences; a new fragrance pervaded the place, bearing a hint of good things to come. No wonder that Perryman loved the spot.
To-night, however, there was another object in the room, of so alien a nature that any self-respecting ham or flitch, had it possessed a reasonable soul, would have been sorely tempted to "heave half a brick" at the intruder. This object stood gleaming on a table in the middle of the room. It was a bran-new and brilliantly polished tall hat.
"No," said Farmer Perryman, "it's not for Sundays. It's for a weddin'! You'll never see me wearing a box-hat on Sundays again. Will he, missis?" (Mrs. Perryman said, "I don't expect he will.") "No sir, not again! Not that I don't mean to go to church regular. I've done that all my life.
"Yes, you're quite right. Folks in the villages don't go to church as they used to do when I was a young man, and I'm sorry to see it. Folks nowadays seems to have forgotten as they've got to die. Besides, it's not good for farmin'. Show me any parish in the county where there's first-class farmin', and I'll bet you three to one there's a good congregation in the church.
"What's driven 'em away, did you say? Well, if you want my opinion, it's my belief as this 'ere Church Restoration has as much to do wi' it as anything else. There's been a lot o' new doctrine, it's true, and all this 'ere 'Igh Churchism, as I could never make head nor tail of; and that, no doubt, has offended some o' the old-fashioned folk like me. But it's when they starts restoring the old churches, and makin' 'em all spick and span, that the religious feelin' seems to die out on 'em, and folks begins to stop goin'. You might as well be in a concert hall—the place full o' chairs and smellin' o' varnish enough to make you sick, and a lot o' lads in the chancel dressed up in white gowns, and suckin' sweets, and chuckin' paper pellets at one another all through the sermon. That's not what I call religion!
"I've often told our parson as it were the worst day's work he ever did when he had our church restored. And a lot o' money it cost, too; but not a penny would I give, and I told 'em I wouldn't—no, not if they'd gone down on their bended knees. From that day to this our church has never smelt right—never smelt as a church ought to smell. You know the smell of a' old church? Well, I don't know what makes it; but there it is, and when you've said your prayers to it for forty years you can't say 'em to no other.
"I can remember what a turn it gave me that Sunday when the Bishop came down to open the church after it had been restored. The old smell clean gone, and what was worse a new smell come! 'Mr. Abel,' I says, 'I can put up wi' a bit of new doctrine, and I don't mind a pinch or two o' ceremony; but I can't abide these 'ere new smells,' 'I'll never be able to keep on comin',' I says to Charley Shott. 'Nor me, neither,' he says. "I'll go to church in another parish,' I says to my missis, 'for danged if you'll ever see me goin' inside a chapel.'
"So I went next Sunday to Holliton, and—would you believe me?—it had a new smell, worse, if anything, than ours. There was a' old man in a black gown, and a long stick in his hand, walkin' up and down the aisle. So I says to him, 'What's up with this 'ere church? Has them candles on the altar been smokin'?' 'No,' he says, 'not as I know on.' 'Well,' I says, sniffin' like, 'there's a very queer smell in the place. It's not 'ealthy. Summat ought to be done to it at once.' 'Hush!' he says, 'what you smells is the incense.' And then the Holliton clergyman! Well—I couldn't stand him at no price—a great, big, fat feller wi' no more religion in him than a cow—and not more'n six people in the church. 'Not for me,' I says, 'not after Mr. Abel.'
"Well, I didn't know what to do, when one day I sees Charley Shott comin' out o' our churchyard. 'Sam,' he says, 'I've just been sniffin' round inside the church, and there she is, all alive and kickin'!' 'What's all alive and kickin'?' I says. 'The old smell,' says he; 'come inside, and I'll show you where she is.' So I follows Charley Shott into the church, and he takes me round to where the old tomb is, in the north transep'. 'Now,' he says, 'take a whiff o' that, Sam.' 'Charley,' I says, 'it's the right smell sure enough; and if only she won't wear off, I'll sit in this corner to the end o' my days.' 'She's not likely to wear off,' he says; 'she comes from the old tomb. It's a mixture o' damp and dust. Now, the damp's all right, because the heatin' pipes don't come round here; and, besides, the sun never gets into this corner. And as to the dust, you just take your pocket-handkerchief and give a flick or two round the bottom o' the tomb. That'll freshen her up any time.'
"Well, you may laugh; but I tell you it's as true as I'm sittin' here. I allus goes to church in good time, and if my corner don't smell true, I just dusts her up a bit, and then she's as right as a trivet."
"But," I said, "you were going to tell me about the tall hat."
"Ha, so I was," replied Ferryman; "but the hat made me think o' the church, and that put me off. Well, it's no doin' o' mine that you see that hat where it is to-night. If I had my way it 'ud be in the place where it came from, and fifteen shillin's that's in another place 'ud be in my pocket. I'm not used to 'em, and what's more I never shall be. But a weddin's a weddin', and your niece is your niece, and when your missis says you've got to wear one—why, what's the use o' sayin' you won't? However, that's not the first tall hat as I've worn."
"Tell me about the others," I said.
"There was only one other, and that other was one 'other' too many for me," replied the farmer. "It's seven years come next hay harvest since my wife come into a bit of money as had been left her by her aunt. 'Sam,' she says to me, 'we got a rise, and we must act up to it.' 'Right you are,' I says; 'but how are you goin' to start?' 'Well,' she says, 'the first thing you've got to do is to leave off wearing billy-cocks on Sundays and buy a box-hat,' 'Polished 'ats,' I says, 'is for polished 'eads, and mine was ordered plain,' 'If there's no polish on your 'ead,' says she, 'that's a reason for having some on your 'at.'
"Well, we had a bit more chaff, and the end of it was that I promised to buy one, though, between you and me, I never meant to. However, when market-day come round, she would go with me, and never a bit of peace did she give me till she'd driven me into a shop and made me buy the hat. 'I've bought it, Sally,' I said; 'but you'll never see me wear it.' 'Oh yes, I shall,' she says; 'you're not nearly such a fool as you try to make yourself out.' Well, I went home that day just as mad as mad. If there's one thing in this world as upsets me it's spending money on things I don't want. And there was twelve-and-sixpence gone on a box-hat! If Sally hadn't kept hold on it I'd ha' kicked the whole thing half a mile further than the middle of next week. 'I'll get that twelve-and-sixpence back somehow,' I said to myself; 'you see if I don't. It's the Church that made me spend it, and the Church shall pay me back. If I didn't go to church I shouldn't have bought that hat. All right, Mr. Church,' I said, as I drove by it, shakin' my fist at the steeple, 'I'll be even with you yet'; and I shouted it out loud."
"I should have thought your wife had more to do with it than the Church," I interposed.
"Of course she had—in a plain sense o' speakin'," said the farmer. "But then your wife's your wife, especially when she's a good 'un, and the Church is the Church. Some men might ha' rounded on Sally; but I told her before we were married that the first bad word I gave her would be the answer to one she gave me. That's eight-and-twenty year ago, and we haven't begun yet. But where was I? Oh, I was tellin' you what I said to the church. You can guess what a rage I was in from my gettin' such a' idea into my 'ead."
"No other reason?" I asked.
"Not a drop," replied Perryman; "for I suppose that's what you mean. No, sir, I give it up once and for all ever since that time when Mrs. Abel followed me to Crawley Races. Ay, and the best day's work she ever did—and that's sayin' a good deal, I can tell you. I can see her just as she was. She were drivin' a little blood-mare as she'd bought o' me—one as I'd bred myself—for I were more in 'osses than sheep in them days—and Mrs. Abel were allus a lady as knowed a good 'oss when she see it. And there was Snarley Bob, in his Sunday clothes, sittin' on the seat behind. She'd got a little blue bonnet on, as suited her to a T, and were lookin' like a——"
"Tell him about that some other time," said Mrs. Perryman; "if you go on at this rate you'll never get finished with the story about your hat."
"Hats isn't everything," said the farmer; "but if hats is what you want to hear about, hats is what I'll talk on."
Mrs. Perryman looked at me with a glance which seemed to say that, even though hats weren't everything, we had better stick to them on the present occasion. I interpreted the glance by saying to the farmer, "Go on about the hat. We can have the other next time." Mrs. Perryman seemed relieved, and her husband continued:
"Well, next mornin' bein' Sunday, the missis managed to get her way, and off we sails to church—she in a silk dress, and me in a box-hat. We was twenty minutes before time, for I didn't want people to see us; but, just as we were crossing the churchyard, who should we meet but the parson and his lady? Know our parson? You're right: he's not only good, but good all through, fat, lean, and streaky. That's what he is, and you can take my word for it. Know his lady? No?" (I was a new-comer in those days.) "Well, you ought to: she'd make you laugh till you choked, and next minute she'd make you cry. Mischievous? Why, if I should tell you the tricks she's played on people you wouldn't believe 'em. Ever hear what she did when the Squire's son come of age? Or about her dressing up at the Queen's Jubilee? No? Well, I'll tell you that another time. Oh, she's a treat—a real treat!" (Here Farmer Perryman broke forth into mighty laughter and banged his fist on the table with such vigour that Tall Hat the Second leaped into the air.)
"Why doesn't Parson keep her under, did you say?" he continued. "Bless yer heart, he doesn't want to. She never harmed a living soul. Why, the good she's done to this parish couldn't be told. It'll take the whole of the Judgment Day to get through it, and then they won't ha' done—that's what folks says. Popular? I should think she was! There isn't a poor man or woman in the village as doesn't worship the soles of her boots. And there's not many, rich or poor, as she hasn't made fools of—yes, and more than once. They ought to write a book about her. It's a shame they don't. My eye, if she'd been Queen of England she'd ha' made things jump! As for finding things out, she's got a nose like that little terrier bitch o' mine. 'Pon my word, it wouldn't surprise me if she knows that you're sittin' in that chair at this minute. You mayn't believe me, but I tell you she's capable of more than that.
"Yes, yes, she's gettin' an old woman now. I remember the day as Parson brought her home—a quiet-looking little thing, with a face like a tame rabbit—you wouldn't ha' thought she could 'a bitten a hole in the cheek of a' apple. Some say she was a' actress before he married her; she's clever enough for twenty actresses, and she's better than twenty thousand."
"Those are impressive figures," I said, not a little puzzled by the sum in moral arithmetic which the farmer's enthusiasm had propounded. "Why, she must be a perfect saint."
The words were scarcely out of my mouth when Mr. Perryman rose from his chair like a man in wrath. Inadvertently I had used an expression which acted like a spark upon gunpowder. Intending to praise his idol, I had for some obscure reason wounded the passionate old man in the most sensitive nerve of his being. I sat amazed, not understanding what I had done, and even now I do not pretend to understand it wholly. But this is what happened. Standing over me with fierce gesticulations, Mr. Perryman poured out a fury of words, only fragments of which I can now recall.
"Perfect saint!" he shouted. "Do you know who it is you're talking about? No, you don't, or you'd never have said such a word! Look here, mister, let me tell yer this: you're on the wrong side of your 'osses this time! She's no more a saint than I am; if she had been, do you think she could ha' done the best thing she ever did?"
"Great heavens!" I thought, "what can he mean?—I'm sorry you're hurt," I said aloud. "I meant no offence. Only you said just now she was as good as twenty thousand——"
"Actresses," broke in the farmer. "I said twenty thousand actresses—not twenty thousand lambs."
"Oh, well," I replied, "of course, there's a great difference between the two things, and I was stupid not to think of it before. Whatever she may be, it's plain you admire her, and that's enough." I was anxious to break the current of Mr. Perryman's thoughts, and recover the history of the Tall Hat, the thread of which had been so unexpectedly snapped.
"Admire her!" cried the old man, who was evidently not to be put off. "And why shouldn't I? Who was it that dug Sam Perryman out of the mud when he was buried in it up to his neck—yes, and got half smothered with mud herself in doing it? But do you think she cared? Not she! Snapped her fingers in the face of half the county, that she did, and what's more she gave some of 'em a taste of the whip as they won't forget! Now listen, and I'll tell you something that'll make your hair curl."
I swiftly resolved not to listen, for the farmer was beside himself with excitement and not responsible for what he was doing. I saw that I was about to discover what I was never intended to know. Dim recollections came to my mind of a grotesque but terrible story, known to not more than four living souls, the names and personalities in which had for good reasons been carefully concealed from me and from others. That Farmer Perryman was one actor in that tragedy, and that Mrs. Abel was another, had been already revealed past recalling. More than this it was unseemly that I should hear.
The figure of the old man, as he stood before me then, is one of those images that cannot be effaced. His voice was broken, his lips were parted and quivering, his form rigid but unsteady, and the furrows on his brow ran into and crossed one another like the lines on a tragic mask. He was about to proceed, and I to protest against his doing so, when an incident occurred which relieved the tension and gave a new turn to the course of events.
Mrs. Perryman, who had left the room when the farmer resumed the history of the Tall Hat, though not to go beyond the reach of hearing, now emerged from the shadows and said in a quiet voice, "Sam, stop talking a minute, and attend to business. Snarley Bob's at the back door, and wants to know if you're going to keep him waiting all night. He come for his wages at five o'clock, and it's struck six some time ago."
"Give him a mug o' ale, and tell him to go home," said Sam.
"I've given him two mugs already, and he says he must see you afore he goes."
"Wait where you are," said Mr. Perryman to me, "and I'll be back in half a shake."
The Perrymans withdrew together, leaving me alone. I listened to the voices in the next room and could distinguish those of the farmer and his wife, urgent but subdued. I could not hear the voice of Snarley Bob. Then I drew conclusions, and searched in the recesses of my memory for a forgotten clue. Gazing into the fire, I saw three separate strands of smoke roll themselves into a single column, and rush upwards into the darkness of the chimney. The thing acted as a stimulus to recollection, for it spoke of three human lives flowing onwards to the Unknown in a single stream of destiny: Mrs. Abel, Farmer Perryman, Snarley Bob—and further articulations would have followed had not the re-entry of the Perrymans disturbed the process and plunged it back beneath the threshold of consciousness. The farmer's wife sat down between us, in front of the fire.
"I want to hear him finish the story of the Tall Hat," she said. "With me by he's less likely to put the frilling on."
"Let's see—where was I?" said Perryman.
"You'd come to the place where you met the parson and his lady in the churchyard," I said.
"Ha, so I had," replied the farmer. "I can see her at this very minute just as she was. She looked——"
"Never mind what she looked like: tell us what she said," interrupted Mrs. Perryman.
"She says, 'Good-morning, Mr. Perryman. How much?'—looking 'ard at my 'at all the time. I guessed she was up to some devilry, so I thought I would put her wrong a bit. 'A guinea, ma'am,' says I. She looks at my 'at again and says, 'Mr. Perryman, you've been took in. Twelve-and-six would have been more than enough for that 'at.' 'Oh,' says I to myself, 'you've been nosing round already, 'ave you?' I suppose I must have looked a bit foolish like—I'm sure I felt it,—but she didn't give me no time to speak. 'Wouldn't you like to have that guinea back in your pocket?' says she, putting a funny sound on the 'guinea.' 'Yes,' I says; 'and, what's more, I mean to get it back.' 'Oh indeed,' says she, and a look come into her face as though she was putting two and two together. After a bit she says, 'Mr. Perryman, was that your trap that drove by about half-past seven last night?' 'Yes,' I says; and I might have known from that minute she was going to do a down on me.
"However, I'd made up my mind how I was goin' to get that money back, and I wasn't goin' to change for nobody. You must understand there's a weekly offertory in our church. There was a lot of objection when Parson started it years ago. But, you see, he's always been a bit 'Igh." ("Much too High for me," here interposed Mrs. Perryman.) "Yes, I've warned him about it several times. 'Mr. Abel,' I says to him, 'you're 'Igh enough already. Now, you take my advice, and don't you get no 'Igher.' That was when he started the offertory.
"Well, I'm the sort of man that when I gives, I gives. Ever since the offertory was begun my missis puts a two-shillin' piece into the waistcoat-pocket of my Sunday suit—don't you, Sally?" (Sally nodded)—"regular every Monday morning when she brushes my clothes, so there's no doubt about its being there when Sunday comes. That's for collection.
"And now you can understand my plan. I'd made up to give one shillin' instead o' two, Sunday by Sunday, till I'd paid for my new box-hat. That's how I was goin' to get even with the Church.
"I kep' it up regular for twelve weeks, counting 'em off one by one. I didn't bother about the sixpence. Meanwhile two or three other farmers, not wanting to be put in the shade by me—or more likely it was their missises—had begun to wear box-hats o' Sunday. There was Tom Henderson, who's no more fit to wear a box-hat than his bull is; and there was old Charley Shott—know him?—a man with a wonderful appetite for pig-meat is old Charley Shott. It would ha' made you die o' laughin' to see old Charley come shufflin' up the church just like this" (here the farmer executed an imitative pas seul), "sit down in his seat, and say his prayers into his box-hat same as I'm doing now." (He took Tall Hat the Second from the table, and poured—or rather puffed—an imaginary petition into its interior.)
"Now, listen to what happened next. The very day after I'd put the last shillin' into the plate—that was three months, you must remember, after I'd bought the 'at—up comes a note from the cook at the Rectory, saying as the weekly order for butter was to be reduced from six pounds to five. 'I suppose it's because Master Norman's goin' to boarding school,' I says to the missis. 'Not it,' says she, 'one mouth more or less don't make no difference in a big household like that. Besides, they're not the people to cut it fine.' 'I wonder what it means,' I says. But I hadn't long to wait. About a fortnight later I met old Charley Shott and says to him, jokin' like, 'Well, Charley, how much did you pay for your Sunday box-hat?' 'Cost me nothing,' said Charley laughin'. 'I've run up a little bill against his Reverence for that 'at. And, what's more, I've made him pay it! By the way,' says he, 'what's become o' their appetites down at the Rectory? We've just received warnin' as no more poultry'll be wanted till further orders.' 'I don't know,' says I; but it was a lie, for it come over me in a flash what it all meant. Even then, however, I wasn't quite sure.
"However, it was twenty-one weeks before I got the final clearing-up. Thirty-three weeks to the very day, reckoning from the Saturday which I bought the 'at, comes another message from the Rectory: 'Please send six pounds of butter as before.'
"Next day I went to church as usual. No sooner did Mr. Abel give out his text than I saw it all, plain as daylight. The text was something about 'robbery of God.' There was not a thing I've told you about the 'at that was not put into that sermon. Of course, it was roundabout—all about pearls and precious stones and such like; but it was my box-hat he was driving at all the time. It was Solomon mostly as he talked about; but I nearly jumped out of my seat when he made Solomon shake his fist at the 'Oly Temple on Mount Zion and say almost the very words as I said as I drove by the church that Saturday night. First he went for me, and then he went for Charley Shott, and I can tell you that he twisted the tails of both on us to a pretty tune! Says I to myself, 'Don't I know who's put you up to preaching that sermon?' And more than seven months gone since it happened! Think of that for a memory! And she sitting in her pew with a face as smooth as a dish o' cream.
"Well, I was churchwarden that year, and of course had to take the plate round. When I comes to the Rector's pew I see Mrs. Abel openin' a little purse. First she takes out a sovereign, and then a shilling, and says to me, quite clear, as she dropped 'em into the plate, 'All right, Mr. Church, I'll be even with you yet! And here's another two pounds fifteen. You can tell Charley Shott and Tom Henderson, and all the lot on 'em, as they've paid for their Sunday 'ats. And give 'em all my kind regards.' Then she counts the money out as deliberate as if she were payin' the cook's wages, and drops it into the plate wi' a clatter as could be heard all over the church. She must ha' kep' me waitin' full two minutes, all the congregation starin' and wonderin' what was up, and me lookin' like a silly calf.
"When I come out of church my wife says to me, 'Sam, what's that you and Mrs. Abel was whispering about?' 'You mind your own business,' I says, and for the first time since we were married we was very near coming to words."
A GRAVEDIGGER SCENE
It was Sunday evening, and the congregation had dispersed. I was making my way into the church to take a last look at a famous fourteenth-century tomb. Not a soul was visible; but the sound of a pick and the sight of fresh earth announced that the sexton was at work digging a grave. I walked to the spot. A bald head, the shining top of which was now level with the surface of the ground, raised the hope that he would prove to be a sexton of the old school. I was not disappointed.
"Good evening," I said.
"A good evening to you, sir," said the sexton, pausing in his work with the air of a man who welcomed an excuse to rest.
"And whose grave is that you're digging?" I asked.
"Old Sally Bloxham—mother to Tom Bloxham—him as keeps the 'Spotted Pig.' And a bad job for him as she's gone. If it hadn't been for old Sally he'd ha' drunk hisself to death long ago. And who may you be?" he asked, as though realising that this sudden burst of confidential information was somewhat rash.
"Oh, I'm nobody in particular. Just passing through and taking a look around."
"Ah! there's lots as comes lookin' round, nowadays. More than there used to be. Why, bless your life, I remember the time when you nivver seed a soul in this village except the home-dwellers. And now there's bicycles and motor cars almost every day. Most on 'em just pokes their noses round, and then off they goes. Some wants to see the tomb inside, and then there's a big stone over an old doorway at the back o' the church, what they calls ''Arrowing o' 'Ell,' though I don't know what it means. You've 'eard on it? Well, I suppose it's something wonderful; but I could nivver see no 'Arrow and no 'Ell."
"I'll tell you what, sexton," I said, noticing some obviously human bones in the earth at his graveside, "this churchyard needs a bit of new ground."
"Ye're right there," said he, "it's needed that a good many years. But we can't get no new ground. Old Bob Cromwell as owns the lands on that side won't sell, and Lord —— won't give, so wot are yer to do? Why, I do believe as there's hundreds and thousands of people buried in this little churchyard. It's a big parish, too, and they've been burying their dead here since nobody knows when. Bones? Why, in some parts there's almost as much bones as there is clay. Yer puts in one, and yer digs up two: that's about what it comes to. I sometimes says to my missis, 'I wonder who they'll dig up to make room for me.' 'Yes,' she says, 'and I wonder who you'll be dug up to make room for.' It's scandalous, that's what I says."
"But does the law allow you to disturb these old graves?"
"It does when they're old enough. But you can't be over particular in a place no bigger than this. Of course, we're a bit careful like. But ask no questions, and I'll tell yer no lies."
"But this grave you're digging now; how long is it since the last interment was made in the same ground?"
"Well, that's a pretty straight 'un. That's what I call coming to the point!—Thank 'ee, sir—and good luck to you and yours!—However, since you seem a plain-dealing gentleman I'll tell you summat as I wouldn't tell everybody. You poke your stick about in that soil over there, and you'll find some bits as belonged to Sam Wiggin's grandfather on his mother's side." (I poked my stick as directed.) "That's his tooth you've got now; but I won't swear to it, as things had got a bit mixed, no doubt, afore they put him in. Wait a bit, though. What's under that big lump at the end o' my spade?" (He reached out his spade and touched a clod; I turned it over and revealed the thing it hid: he examined it carefully.) "You see, you can generally tell after a bit o' practice what belongs to what. Putting two and two together—what with them bones coming up so regular, and that bit o' coffin furniture right on the top on 'em—I reckon we've struck 'im much as he was put down in '62."
"Are none of his relatives living?" I asked.
"Why, yes, of course they're living. Didn't I tell yer he was grandfather to Sam Wiggin—that's 'im as farms the Leasowes at t'other end of the village. What'll he say?—why, nothing o' course. Them as sees nothing, says nothing."
"But," I said, "if Sam comes to church next Sunday he'll see his grandfather's bones sticking out all over this grave."
"'Ow's 'e to know they're his grandfather's? There's no name on 'em," said the sexton.
"But surely he will remember that his grandfather was buried in this spot."
"Not 'im! 'E don't bother 'is 'ead about grandfathers. Sam Wiggin! Doesn't know 'e ever had a grandfather. Somebody else might take it up? Not in this parish. Besides, we've all got used to it. Folks here is all mixed up wi' one another while they're living, so they don't mind gettin' a bit mixeder when they're dead."
"But is the parson used to it along with the rest of you?"
"Well, yer see, I allus clears up before he comes to bury—ribs and shins and big 'un's as won't break up. Skulls breaks up easy; you just catches them a snope with yer spade, and they splits up down the joinin'. Week afore last I dug up two beauties under that yew; anybody might a' kep' 'em for a museum. I've knowed them as would ha' done it, and sold 'em for eighteenpence apiece. But I couldn't bring my mind to it."
"So you just broke them up, I suppose?"
"No, I didn't. One on 'em belonged to a man as I once knowed; leastways I remember him as a young chap. He was underkeeper at the Hall. The young woman he wanted to marry wouldn't 'ave 'im, so he shot hisself wi' a rook gun. I knowed it was 'im by the 'ole in 'is 'ead, no bigger nor a pea. Just think o' that! No bigger nor a big pea, I tell yer, and as round as if it had been done wi' a punch. I told my missis about it when I went 'ome to my tea. I says, 'Do yer remember 'Arry Pole, the young keeper in the old lord's time, what shot hisself over that affair wi' Polly Towers?' 'Remember 'im?' she says. 'Why, I used to go out walking wi' 'im myself afore he took up wi' Polly.' 'I thought you did,' I says; 'well, there's 'is skull. See that little 'ole in it, clean as if it had been cut wi' a punch? He never shot hisself, not 'e!' Why, bless yer heart, doesn't it stand to sense that if 'e'd done it 'isself, he'd a'most ha' blowed 'is 'ead off, leastways made a 'ole a lot bigger nor that? And wot's more, there'd ha' been a 'ole on the other side, and there wasn't any sign o' one."
"But perhaps it wasn't 'Arry Pole's skull?"
"Yes, it was. Why, where's the sense of its not bein'? I remember his bein' buried as if it was yesterday, and I knowed the spot quite well. And do you think it likely that two men 'ud be put in the same grave both wi' rook bullets in their 'eads? If it wasn't 'Arry Pole, who was it?"
"But wasn't all this gone into at the inquest?"
"Well, you see, it's over forty years since it 'appened; but I can remember as the 'ole were looked into, and there was a good deal o' talk at the time. There was two men as said they seed him wi' the gun in his hand, and a mournful look on his face, like. And so, what wi' one thing and another, when they couldn't find who else had killed him, they give the verdict as he must ha' killed hisself. So, you see, they made it out some'ow. But you'll never make me believe 'e did it 'isself—not after I've seen that 'ole."
"I wonder who shot him," I said meditatively.
"Yes, and you'll 'ave to go on wondering till the Judgment Day. You'll find out then. All I can tell yer is that it wasn't me, and it wasn't Polly Towers. However, when I found his skull I didn't break it as I do wi' most on 'em. I just kep' it in a bag and put it back when I filled in the grave.
"But you were askin' me about Parson. Well, I telled him the state o' the churchyard when he come to the living. At first he took it pretty easy. 'Hide 'em as far as you can, Johnny,' he says to me. 'And remember there's this great consolation—they'll all be sorted out on the Judgment Day.'
"But one day something 'appened as give Parson a pretty start. It was one of these chaps in motors, I reckon, as did it. I see him one Saturday night rootin' about the churchyard and lookin' behind them laurels where I used to pitch all the bits and bobs of bone as I see lying about. I've often wished I'd took the number on his motor, and then we'd ha' catched him fine! But he was a gentlemanly-looking young feller, and I didn't suspect nothing at the time.
"Well, next morning, when Parson comes to read the Service, what do you think he found? Why, there was a man's thigh-bone, large as life, stuck in the middle of the big Prayer-Book at the Psalms for the day. Then, when he opens the Bible to read the lessons, blessed if there wasn't a coffin-plate, worn as thin as a sheet of paper, marking the place, Then he goes into the pulpit, and the first thing he sees was a jawbone full of teeth lyin' on the cushion; there was ribs in the book-rack; there was a tooth in his glass of water; there was bones everywhere—you never see such a sight in all yer life! The young man must ha' taken a basketful into the church. Some he put into the pews, some into the collectin' boxes, some under the cushions—you never knew where you were going to find 'em next!"
"That was a blackguardly thing to do," I said. "The man who did it deserves the cat."
"So he does," said Johnny. "But I can tell yer, it's made us more partikler ever since. Everything behind them laurel bushes was cleared out and buried next day, and, my eye, you wouldn't believe what a lot there was! Barrer-loads!
"I'm told that when Lord ——, up at the Hall, heard on it, he nearly killed hisself wi' laughin'. There's some folks"—here Johnny lowered his voice—"there's some folks as thinks that his lordship 'ad a 'and in it hisself. Some says it was one of them wild chaps as 'e's allus got staying with him. That's more likely, in my opinion. But it wouldn't surprise me, just between you and me, to hear some day that his lordship was going to give us a bit o' new ground."
HOW I TRIED TO ACT THE GOOD SAMARITAN
One of the chief actors in the incident about to be related was a machine, and it is important that the reader should have this machine in his mind's eye. It was a motor-bicycle, furnished in the midst with a sputtering little engine, said to contain in its entrails the power of three horses and a half. To the side thereof was attached a small vehicle like a bath-chair, in which favoured friends of the writer are from time to time either permitted or invited to ride.
On this occasion the bath-chair was empty, and a long journey was drawing to a close. It is true that at various periods of the day I had enjoyed the company of a passenger in this humble but lively little carriage. The first had been a clergyman, who, I believe, had invented a distant engagement for the sole purpose of inducing me to give him a ride in my car. To him there had succeeded a series of small boys, picked up in various villages, each of whom, at the conclusion of a brief but mad career through space, was duly dismissed with a penny and a strict injunction to be a good lad to his mother. The last lift had been given to an aged wayfarer whose weary and travel-stained appearance had excited my compassion. No sooner, however, was the machine under weigh than I discovered, in spite of my will to believe otherwise, that my passenger was suffering not from fatigue, but from intoxication. To get rid of him was no easy matter, and the employment of stratagem became necessary. What the stratagem was, I shall pass over; I will only say that it was not in accordance with any recognised form of the categorical imperative. However, the ruse succeeded, and now, as I have said, the car was empty. Thus were concluded the prolegomena to that great act of altruism which was to crown the day.
It was in a part of the country consecrated by the genius of a great novelist (as what part of England is not?) that these things took place. I found myself in the narrow streets of an ancient town—and it was market-day. The roadway was thronged with red-faced men and women; and flocks of sheep, herds of cattle and pigs, provided the motor-cyclist with a severe probation to the nerves. With much risk to myself, and not a little to other people, I emerged from this place of danger and joyfully swept over the bridge into the broad highway beyond the town.
Turning a corner, I became suddenly aware that the road a hundred yards ahead was again blocked. Two carriers' carts, a brewer's waggon, and some other miscellaneous vehicles were drawn up anyhow in the road, and the drivers of these, having descended from their various perches, were gathered around a figure lying prostrate on the ground. I, too, alighted and forced my way into the group. In the midst was an old man, his countenance pallid as death, save where a broad stream of blood pouring from a gash two inches long, crimsoned his cheek from eye to chin. There was a great bruise on his temple, and again on the back of his head—for he had spun round in falling—was a lump the size of a pullet's first egg.
"'Oss ran away and pitched him on the curb," said one whom I questioned. "He's dying," said another, "if not already dead." For myself, I turned sick at the sight; nevertheless, I could not help being struck by the vigorous actions and attitude of an old woman, who, armed with a bucket of water and a roller towel, seemed to be not merely bathing his wounds, but giving the whole man a bath. I also noted the figure of a clergyman, of whom all that I distinctly recall is that he had a tassel round his hat.
"We must take him to the hospital," said I. "No," said an elderly man; "he'll be dead before you get him there. He's nearly gone already. Better fetch a doctor."
"Has anybody got a bicycle?" said the clergyman in the slightly imperious accents of Keble College. "Yes," I replied, "I've got one, and just the sort of bicycle for this business, too." "You'd better fetch Ross," said the same voice, speaking once more in the tones which indicate conscious possession of the Last Word on Everything Whatsoever. "No," said the old woman, with enough defiance in her manner to frighten a Pope, "No, Ross's no good. Fetch Conklin." "All right," I said; "if one of you will show me where Conklin lives, I'll fetch him in a brace of shakes."
Instantly the whole company, saving only the parson and the old woman, volunteered. Selecting one who seemed of lighter weight than the rest (he was a boy), I jumped up, called to my three horses, yoked up the half-horse (kept in reserve for great occasions), and, letting all loose at once, drove at top speed in the direction of Conklin's abode.
Then was seen in the streets of that old town such a scurrying and scattering, both of men and beast, as the world has not beheld since the most desperate moments of John Gilpin's ride. Back over the bridge, where Cavaliers and Roundheads once stood at push of pike for fifty minutes by "the towne clocke"; through the market-place, where the cheap-jack ceased lying that he might regard us; past the policeman at the Cross (slower at this point); up the steep gradient of the High Street; right through a flock of geese (illustrious bird! who not only warnest great cities of impending ruin, but keepest thyself out of harm's way better than any four-footed beast of the field), we drove our headlong course; and, in less time than this paragraph has taken to write I stood on the doorstep, of the doctor's house. In another minute I had seen him and told my tale.
The doctor received my gushings with perfect impassivity, and responded with the merest apology for a grunt. But the repeated allusion to flowing blood seemed at last to rouse him. He seized a black bag that stood on the table, thrust in the necessary tackle, and said, "Come along."
In the race back to the Field of Blood, I had no leisure to analyse the structure of Conklin's mind. But a few remarks which he shouted in my ear revealed the fact that his interests were by no means confined to the performance of professional duty. I could not help wondering what Ross was like. If any reader should be taken suddenly ill while staying in that town, my advice, formed mainly on negative data, would be to send for Ross during the acute stage of the malady, and to try Conklin's treatment in convalescence. Or, better still, call them both in at once, and then take your choice.
These mental observations were scarcely completed when a turn in the road brought us in sight of our goal. Will the reader believe me when I tell him that the goal seemed to have vanished? I could scarcely believe it myself. Not a soul was to be seen. Stare as I would, no human form, living or dead, prostrate or upright, wounded or whole, answered to my gaze. Men, horses, and carts—all were gone! The whole insubstantial pageant had faded, leaving not a wrack behind.
"This is the place," I said to Conklin; "but the man has disappeared." For answer, he looked fixedly into the pupil of my left eye, expecting, no doubt, to find there unmistakable signs of lunacy. "Wait a bit," I cried, divining his thoughts; "here's somebody who will clear it up." And I pointed to a cottage-door at which I suddenly espied the old woman whose handling of the roller-towel had so impressed me. "Where," I shouted, addressing her, "where is the wounded man?" "Took away," was the laconic reply. "Took away!" I said; "and who has had the impudence to take him away?"
"Why," said the old woman, "you hadn't been gone more'n two minutes when his niece—her as keeps his house—comes driving home in a big cart. 'Hello!' she says, 'blest if that isn't Uncle Fred!' 'Yes,' says one of 'em, 'and got it pretty badly this time, I can tell yer. There's a gentleman just gone to fetch Conklin.' 'Conklin?' says she. 'I'll Conklin 'im! Who do you think's going to pay 'im? Not me! Let 'im as fetches 'im pay 'im. 'Ere,' she says, 'some of yer help to put this old man on the bottom of my cart, and look sharp, or Conklin'll be here in a minute.' So they shoves the poor old thing on to the floor of the cart with a sack of 'taters to keep him steady, and Eliza—that's her name—'its the 'oss with a long stick as she carried instead of a whip, sets off at full gallop, and was out of sight almost before you could say so. Somebody else took the old man's pony, and the rest of 'em all made off as fast as they could."
"And what did that clergyman do?" I asked.
"Jumped on his bicycle and went 'ome to his tea," said the old woman.
"The sneak!" I cried.
"You couldn't ha' used a better word," said the old woman, "and there's plenty of people in this parish who'd be glad to hear you say it. And the worst of it is, there's plenty more like him!" This last was shouted with great emphasis, perhaps with a view to Conklin's edification, but at all events with the air of a person who could produce supporting evidence were such to be demanded.
There was a pause, and I endeavoured to collect my thoughts. "Doctor," I said, making a desperate attempt to get as near the Good Samaritan as these untoward developments rendered possible, "Doctor, what's your fee?"
"The expression on your face is the best fee I've had for a long time," said the doctor; "I'm sorry I didn't bring my kodak."
"Doctor Conklin," I resumed, "I'll tell you one thing. You and this old lady are the only members of the company who carry away an untarnished reputation from this episode. As for me, I have been made a perfect fool of. As for the rest of them,"—I waited for words to come, and, finally lapsing into melodrama, said—"as for the rest of them, I leave them to the company of their own consciences."
"There's one of 'em as hasn't got any," said the old woman.
"MACBETH" AND "BANQUO" ON THE BLASTED HEATH
The scene was the top of a lofty hill in Northamptonshire, crossed by the high road to London. The time, late afternoon of a dark and thunderous day in July.
I had journeyed many miles that day—on wheels, according to the fashion of this age—and had passed and overtaken hundreds, literally hundreds, of tramps. With some of these I had already conversed as we sheltered from recurrent storms under hedges or wayside trees; and I had committed, with a joyful conscience, all the vices of indiscriminate charity.
But now the rain came on in earnest. Blacker and blacker grew the skies, and, just as I reached the top of this shelterless hill, the windows of heaven were opened, and the flood burst.
No house was in sight. But, looking round me, in that spirit of despair bred of black weather and a wet skin, I saw, in a large bare field, a shepherd's box—a thing on wheels, large enough, perhaps, to accommodate a prosperous vendor of ice-cream. Abandoning my iron friend to the cold mercies of the ditch, I scaled the wall, crossed the field, and dived into the dry interior of the box. At one bound I entered into full possession of the freedom of Diogenes in his tub, with no Alexander to bother me. The absolute seclusion of the country was all my own.
The box was closed by a half-door, with an aperture above facing towards the road. Had the animal inside possessed four legs instead of two, his body would have filled the box, and his head would have projected into the rain. Though my head was inside, I could see well enough what was going on in the road. Presently there passed two cyclists—a young man and woman—racing through the storm. I shouted to them, but my voice was drowned in the din. Some minutes elapsed, during which I had the company of my thoughts. Then suddenly there appeared on the wall the incarnate figures of two tramps, unquestionably such. They had seen the box, and were making tracks for it with all their might.
I confess that for a moment my spirit quailed within me. Seen at that distance, the newcomers looked ugly customers; they had me in a trap, and, had I possessed pistols, I verily believe that I should have "looked to the priming." But, having no alternatives of that kind before me, necessity determined the policy I was to pursue, and I resolved at once for a friendly attitude. Waiting till the tramps were well within hearing, I thrust my head from the aforesaid aperture and cried aloud as follows:
"Walk up, gentlemen! It's my annual free day. No charge for seats."
Macbeth and Banquo were not more affrighted by the apparition of witches on the blasted heath than were these two individuals when they heard the voice from the box, and saw the face of him that spake. They stopped dead, stared, and, though I won't give this on oath, turned pale. I believe they were genuinely scared.
Presently one of them—say Macbeth—broke into a loud and merry laugh. The sound of it was worth more to me at that moment than a sheaf of testimonials, for I remembered Carlyle's dictum that there is nothing irremediably wrong with any man who can utter a hearty laugh.
"All right, guvnor," came the reply, "we'll take two stalls in the front row."
"Good!" I replied. "Wire just received from the Prince and Princess of Wales resigning their seats! Bring your own opera-glasses, and don't forget the fans."
"Got 'em both," said Macbeth.
A moment later I found myself in close physical proximity to two of the dirtiest rascals in Christendom. A reconciler of opposites, bent on knocking our heads together, would have had an easy task, for there was not more than eight inches between them. Misfortunes are said to bring out the fragrance of noble natures, and I can testify that the wetting these men had received most effectually brought out the fragrance of theirs. And the ventilation was none too good.
The language in which the newcomers proceeded to introduce themselves was not of the kind usually printed, though it had a distinctly theological tinge. More strenuous blasphemy I have never heard on land—or sea.
The introductions concluded—they were sufficient—Macbeth, as though suddenly recollecting an interrupted train of thought, broke out: "Say, mister, did yer see them two go by on bicycles just now?"
"Well, I see 'em, quarter of a mile oop the road, crouching oonder t'hedge"—he spoke Yorkshire—"wet to skin, and she nowt on but a cotton blouse. So I sez to her, 'My dear, ye'll get yer death o' cold,' 'Yes,' she says, 'and me with a weak chest.' Pore young thing, I'm fair sorry for her. I towd t'young man to tek his co-at off and put it ra-ownd her. 'That'll do no good,' he sez; 'she's wet through a'ready.' 'Well,' I sez, 'she's not been wet through all her life, has she? Why didn't you put it on her while she were dry? Sense? You've got no more sense nor a blind rabbit.' But it was no good. My! What rain! Nivver see nothing like it. They'll be fair drownded. I think I'll go and fetch 'em in. Holy potatoes!" (Will anyone explain this expression? It was evoked by a crash of thunder which burst immediately above the box and seemed to hurl us into space.)
[Footnote 4: The reader who would get the full flavour of Macbeth's conversation should translate it, if he can, into a broad Yorkshire dialect. This I have indicated here and there by the spelling of a word, which is as far as, or perhaps farther than, my own competence extends.]
"No good fetching 'em in now," I replied, taking a point of view which I afterwards saw to have been that of the Priest and the Levite. "They'd suffer more damage getting here than staying where they are. Besides, where would you put 'em?"
"That's trew," said Macbeth. "This ain't no place for ladies, anyhow." (It wasn't!) "But just think of that pore young thing—nowt on, I tell yer, but a cotton blouse. Hello! there's a cart coming. I'll tell t'man to tek 'em oop."
Out jumped Macbeth into the pelting rain, and presently I heard him shouting to the man in charge: "Hey, mister! There's a young man and woman crouching under t'hedge oop t'ro-ad. She nowt on but a cotton blouse! It isn't sa-afe, yer know, in this thoonder and lightnin'. Tek her oop, and put a sack or two on her."
I gathered the result of the interview was satisfactory to Macbeth, for presently he came back, steaming, into the box. For some minutes he continued to mutter with the thunder, about "poor young things," "cotton blouses," and "weak chests."
But the altruistic passion in the man had spent itself for the moment, and now the conversation began to take other forms. Banquo began to enter into the dialogue. His contributions so far had been mainly interjectory and blasphemous—a department of which he was obviously a more versatile exponent than the other, who was by no means a 'prentice hand. And here I must note a curious thing. Whether it was that the box afforded no proper theatre for exhibiting the natural dignity of my carriage, or that the light was not good, or that I am a ruffian at heart and had been caught at an unguarded moment—whatever the true cause may have been, I am certain that up to this moment my two companions had no suspicion that I was not a tramp like themselves.
It was Banquo who unmasked the truth. His mind was less preoccupied with the sufferings of the "poor young thing," and no doubt had been taking observations. The result of these he proceeded to communicate to Macbeth by a series of nudges and winks which, in the close proximity of the moment, I felt rather than saw. On the whole, I am sorry that their first delusion—if, indeed, it was a delusion, of which I am genuinely doubtful—was not maintained. However, the discovery opened the way to fresh developments. They ceased to address me as "Johnny," "Old Joker," or something worse; ceased swearing, for which, lover of originality as I am, I was thankful; and began generally to pay me the respect due to the fact that the soles of my boots were intact. Theirs were in a very different condition.
I can't disguise that there was something like an awkward pause. But I exerted myself to bridge the chasm, and, thanks to them rather than to me, it was bridged.
"Where are you going to-night?" I asked as soon as the modus vivendi was assured.
"Ain't going nowhere in particular," said Banquo. "We just go anywhere."
"What!" I said, "don't you know where you'll pass the night?"
"Well, it's just this way," returned the other. "Me and my mate here are musicians, and we just go this way and that according to where the publics are. It's in the publics we makes what living we gets—singing in the bars and cadging for drink and coppers."
"And a bloomin' shame we should have to do it!" chimed in Macbeth. "But what can yer do? My trade's a mason; Leeds is where I come from; but when they're short of work, if you've got two grey hairs and another chap's got only one, you gets the sack, and has to live as best yer can.
"God knows I don't want this beastly life. But it's a good thing I've got it to turn to. Most on 'em has nowt but their trades, and them's the ones as has to starve. But me and my mate here happens to be moosical. Used to sing in St. —— Church in Leeds. Leading bass, I was—a bit irregular, I'll own, and that's why they wouldn't keep me on. My mate plays the cornet. He used to be in the band of the —— Fusiliers. Served in South Africa, he did, and got a sock in the face from a shell; yer can see the 'ole under his eye. Good thing it didn't 'it him in the ma-outh, or he wouldn't ha' been able to play the cornet any more. Know Yorkshire, mister?"
I replied that I did.
"Well, if yer knows Yorkshire, yer knows there's plenty of music up there. They can tell music, when they hear it, in Yorkshire, that they can! But these caownties down here, why, the people knows no more about music nor pigs. They can't tell the difference between a man what really can sing and one of these 'ere 'owlin' 'umbugs that goes draggin' little children up and daown t' streets. That sort makes more money than we does. And I tell you, him 'ere"—indicating Banquo—"is a good cornet player. 'Ere, Banquo, fetch it out o' your pocket, lad, and play the gentleman a toon."
As far as I could judge, Banquo's pocket was situated somewhere in the middle of his back, for it was from a region in that quarter, where I had already felt a hard excrescence, due as I might have thought to an unextracted cannon-ball received in South Africa, that the cornet was produced.
"Play the gentleman 'The Merry Widder,'" said Macbeth, "and wait till the thunder's stopped rolling before you begin."
The "Merry Widder" was well and duly played, and fully bore out Macbeth's eulogy of the player. It was followed by something from Maritana, and other things which I forget. Though the mouth of the trumpet was only a few inches from the drum of my ear, yet the din of the rain on the roof was such that the effect was not unpleasant—at all events, it was a welcome relief from the frightful strains on the olfactory organ. The man, I say, was a good player, and I remember wishing, as I listened to him, that there was anything in life that I could do half as well.
As he finished one of his selections, the gloom deepened, it became almost as dark as night, the rain ceased for a moment, and there was silence; and then there shot in upon us a blast of fire and a bolt of thunder, so near and so overwhelming that I verily believe it was a narrow escape from death.
"That's something to put the fear of God into a man," said Macbeth, as the volley rolled into distance. "My crikey! But I've heard say, mister, that the thunder is the voice of the wrath of God."
"I'm sure it is," I replied.
"Sounds like it anyhow. I wonder if that there chap with the cart has got the young woman under cover. She'll be scared out of her life. Eh, but isn't it dark? It might be half-past ten. Here, matey"—to Banquo—"let's have something in keepin' loike. Give us 'Lead, Kindly Light,' lad, on t' cornet, and I'll sing the bass. I want t' gentleman to hear my voice."
The hymn was sung in a voice as good as some that have made great fortunes, but with a depth of emotion which occasionally spoilt the notes; and I can say little more than that the singing, in that strange setting, with muttering thunder for an undertone, was a thing I shall not forget.
"Do you know anything about that hymn?" said Macbeth (the tears made watercourses down his dirty face) when it was over.
"Yes," I said, "a little."
"But I know all about it," replied Macbeth. "Him as wrote that hymn was Cardinal Newman. They say he wrote it at sea, maybe he wrote it in a storm—like this. He was a Protestant, and was just turning into a Catholic. Didn't know whether he would or whether he wouldn't, loike. That's what he means when he says, 'Lead, Kindly Light.' He was i' th' dark, and wanted lightin'. It was all dark, don't you see, just loike it is naow."
Some minutes elapsed, during which neither Banquo nor I said a word. I stole a glance at the "'ole under his eye," and saw that it was no laughing matter to "get a sock in the face from a shell." The human profile, on that side, had virtually disappeared; jaw and cheek-bone were smashed in; there was neither nostril nor ear; the lower eyelid was missing; the eye itself was evidently sightless, and a constant trickle of tears ran down into the hideous scar below.
I thought of this man wandering over the earth, abhorred of all beholders; I thought of the music he managed to make with the remnant of his mutilated face; I thought also of the rigour of Destiny and the kindliness of Death. I remember the words running in my head, "He hath no form nor comeliness. Yet he was wounded for our transgressions, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him."
I averted my glance, but not before Banquo had discovered that I was looking at him. "Ha," he said; "you're lookin' at my face. It's a beauty, isn't it? They ought to put it on the board outside the recruitin' stations, as a sort of inducement to good-lookin' young men. Help to make the Army popular wi' the young women, don't you see? 'George, why don't you join the Army and get a face like that? You'd be worth lookin' at then.' Can't you hear 'em saying it? Oh, yes, I'm proud o' my face, that I am! So's my old gal. That's why she left me and the kids the day I come home—never seen her since. Every time I draws my pension I says to myself, 'Bill, my lad, that face o' yours is cheap at the price. Keep up your pecker, my hearty; you'll make yer fortune when Mr. Barnum sees yer! It's a bloomin' good investment, that's what I calls it. Give yer a sort o' start in life. Makes folks glad to see yer when you drops in to tea. And then I'm always feelin' as though I wanted to have my photograph taken—and that's nice, too. So you see takin' it all round, it's quite a blessin' to have a face like mine."
I was silent, not knowing what to say. Banquo went on:
"I thought when I come out o' the 'orspital as it were all up wi' playin' the cornet. But I made up my mind as I'd try. So I kep' up practice all the way home from the Cape, and when we got to Southampton I could just manage to blow into the mouthpiece. It hurt a bit, too, I can tell you. You see, I can only play on one side o' my mouth—like this. But I got used to it after a time; and now I can play a'most as well wi' half a mouth as I used to do wi' a whole un."
Again I was silent, for there was a tangle of thoughts in my mind, and behind it all a vague, uncomfortable sense that I was come to judgment. From this sprang a sudden resolve to change the subject, which was unpleasant to me in more senses than one. So I said, after the pause, "What about your pension?"
"Pension, did you say? Well, you see, sir, I've been in a bit o' trouble since I come home. There was a kind old gent as give me three months in the choke-hole for not behavin' quite as handsome as I ought to. 'It'll spile all my good looks, your Worship,' I says when he sentenced me. 'Remove the prisoner, officer!' he says; and I thinks to myself, 'I'd like to remove you, old gentleman, and see what you'd look like on a hammynition waggon, wi' two dead pals under your nose, and a pom-pom shell a-burstin' in your ear-'ole.' But I've had one good friend, anyhow; and I don't want a better—and that's him there" (indicating Macbeth). "He's a man, he is! I can tell you one thing!—if it hadn't been for him there, I'd ha' sent the other half o' my head to look for the first long ago—and that's the truth!"
While this conversation was proceeding Macbeth, more suo, continued to mutter like a man in a troubled dream, now humming a bar of the tune, now drawling out a phrase from the words, "O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till the night is gone"—this, I believe, he repeated several times, lighting his pipe in the intervals and spitting out of the door. Then he went on more articulately: "Rum go, ain't it—me singing that hymn in a place like this? Sung it in church 'undreds o' times. We give it sometimes in the streets. It's part of our repertoire" (he pronounced this word quite correctly). "But I can't help makin' a babby o' mysen whenever I think o' what it means. I don't think of it, as a rewle. I should break down if I did; like as I nearly did just naow. Oh Lor'! I can get on all right till I comes to th' end. It's them 'angel faces' wot knocks the stuffing out o' me!"
"Same 'ere," I replied; and I put my head out of the aperture for a breath of fresh air.
* * * * *
"When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"
* * * * *
VIOLA BURHANS'S THE CAVE-WOMAN
A novel of to-day that commences in a cave so dark that the hero can see nothing of the woman he meets there. It ends in the same cave, and much of the action occurs in and near a neighboring summer hotel. Robbery and mystery, as well as love, figure in the plot.
"An excellent detective.... The action moves quickly.... Many sidelights fall upon newspaperdom, and the author tells her story cleverly."—Boston Herald.
"The most delightful of grown-up fairy-tales of modern times.... The characters ... are finely various and their conversations piquantly fresh and edifying ... a dramatic climax of great strength and beauty ... clean, clever, captivating."—The Boston Common.
"A very charming, very elusive and quite modern young lady ... a very delightful story."—Bellman.
M. LITTLE'S AT THE SIGN OF THE BURNING BUSH
A novel of such universal human appeal that locality makes little difference. It starts as a satire on Scotch divinity students, tho there is said to be "not a word of preaching in it".
"Characters drawn with a sure hand, and with unusual subtlety. The story broadens and strikes deep roots into human nature and human life ... a story that seems as if it might have been made out of the real experiences of flesh and blood, told with humor that is sometimes biting and sometimes gentle, and with very great humanness."—The New York Times Review.
GERTRUDE HALL'S THE UNKNOWN QUANTITY
A young widow comes to New York to investigate various business interests of her late husband, and finds herself face to face at the outset with the two most vital problems of a woman's life.
"Her people are alive. They linger in the imagination."—Boston Transcript.
"Seeing life with sincerity and truth ... she has a rather big idea for a working basis."—The Bookman.
"Retains the charmed interest ... the quiet, thoughtful style, and the vivid, if restrained, humanity. The tale is so natural, so lifelike.... The author's evident faith in the eternal rightness of things."—Chicago Record-Herald.
GEORGE GARY EGGLESTON'S RECOLLECTIONS OF A VARIED LIFE
By the author of "A Rebel's Recollections," "Captain Sam," "A Daughter of the South," "Long Knives," etc. With portrait.
These reminiscences of the veteran author and editor are rich in fields so wide apart as the experiences of a Hoosier schoolmaster (the basis for the well-known story), a young man's life in Virginia before the War, a Confederate soldier, a veteran in the literary life of New York.
"Jeb Stuart," "Fitz Lee," Beauregard, Grant, Frank R. Stockton, John Hay, Stedman, Bryant, Parke Godwin, "Mark Twain," Gosse, Pulitzer, Laffan, and Schurz, are among the many who appear.
The author was born at Vevay, Indiana, 1839, practiced law in Virginia; served in the Confederate Army, was Literary Editor of the New York Evening Post for 6 years, Editor of the Commercial Advertiser (now the Globe); and for 11 years Editorial writer for The World.
"There are few American men of letters whose reminiscences would seem to promise more. The man's experiences cover so wide a period; he has had such exceptional opportunities of seeing interesting men and events at first hand."—Bookman.
"Has approached the emergencies of life with courage and relish ... qualities that make for readableness ... this autobiography, despite a tendency to anecdotal divagations ... is thoroughly entertaining."—Nation.
"Told with the convincing force of actual experience ... has all the excellences, and not many of the defects, of the trained journalist ... tells us rapidly and effectively what sort of a life he has led ... full of interest."—Dial.
"Its cozily intimate quality.... One of those books which the reviewer begins to mark appreciatively for quotation, only to discover ere long that he cannot possibly find room for half the passages selected."—New York Tribune.
"Very pleasant are these reviews of the days that are gone."—Sun.
"He has much to say and says it graphically."—Times-Review.
"The most charming and useful of his many books ... sympathetic, kindly, humorous, and confidential talk ... laughable anecdotes ... a keen observer's and critic's comment on more than half a century of American development."—Hartford Courant.
"Seldom does one come upon so companionable a volume of reminiscences ... the author has good materials galore and presents them with so kindly a humor that one never wearies of his chatty history ... the whole volume is genial in spirit and eminently readable."—Chicago Record-Herald.
"Deserves to rank high in the literature of American autobiography, even though that literature boasts the masterpiece of Benjamin Franklin."—San Francisco Argonaut.
WILLIAM DE MORGAN'S JOSEPH VANCE
A touching story, yet full of humor, of lifelong love and heroic sacrifice. While the scene is mostly in and near the London of the fifties, there are some telling glimpses of Italy, where the author lives much of the time.
"The book of the last decade; the best thing in fiction since Mr. Meredith and Mr. Hardy; must take its place as the first great English novel that has appeared in the twentieth century."—Lewis Melville in New York Times Saturday Review.
"If the reader likes both 'David Copperfield' and 'Peter Ibbetson,' he can find the two books in this one."—The Independent.
WILLIAM DE MORGAN'S ALICE-FOR-SHORT
This might paradoxically be called a genial ghost-and-murder story, yet humor and humanity again dominate, and the most striking element is the touching love story of an unsuccessful man. The reappearance in Nineteenth Century London of the long-buried past, and a remarkable case of suspended memory, give the dramatic background.
"Really worth reading and praising ... will be hailed as a masterpiece. If any writer of the present era is read a half century hence, a quarter century, or even a decade, that writer is William De Morgan."—Boston Transcript.
"It is the Victorian age itself that speaks in those rich, interesting, over-crowded books.... Will be remembered as Dickens' novels are remembered."—Springfield Republican.
WILLIAM DE MORGAN'S SOMEHOW GOOD
The purpose and feeling of this novel are intense, yet it is all mellowed by humor, and it contains perhaps the author's freshest and most sympathetic story of young love. Throughout its pages the "God be praised evil has turned to good" of the old Major rings like a trumpet call of hope. This story of to-day tells of a triumph of courage and devotion.
"A book as sound, as sweet, as wholesome, as wise, as any in the range of fiction."—The Nation.
"Our older novelists (Dickens and Thackeray) will have to look to their laurels, for the new one is fast proving himself their equal. A higher quality of enjoyment than is derivable from the work of any other novelist now living and active in either England or America."—The Dial.
WILLIAM DE MORGAN'S IT NEVER CAN HAPPEN AGAIN
This novel turns on a strange marital complication, and is notable for two remarkable women characters, the pathetic girl Lizarann and the beautiful Judith Arkroyd, with her stage ambitions. Lizarann's father, Blind Jim, is very appealingly drawn, and shows rare courage and devotion despite cruel handicaps. There are strong dramatic episodes, and the author's inevitable humor and optimism.
"De Morgan at his very best, and how much better his best is than the work of any novelist of the past thirty years."—Independent.
"There has been nothing at all like it in our day. The best of our contemporary novelists ... do not so come home to our business and our bosoms ... his method ... is very different in most important respects from that of Dickens. He is far less the showman, the dashing prestidigitator ... more like Thackeray ... precisely what the most 'modern' novelists are striving for—for the most part in vain ... most enchanting ... infinitely lovable and pathetic."—The Nation.
"Another long delightful voyage with the best English company ... from Dukes to blind beggars ... you could make out a very good case for handsome Judith Arkroyd as an up-to-date Ethel Newcome ... the stuff that tears in hardened and careless hearts are made of ... singularly perceiving, mellow, wise, charitable, humorous ... a plot as well defined as if it were a French farce."—The Times Saturday Review.
"The characters of Blind Jim and Lizarann are wonderful—worthy of Dickens at his best."—Professor William Lyon Phelps, of Yale, author of "Essays on Modern Novelists."
WILLIAM DE MORGAN'S AN AFFAIR OF DISHONOR
A dramatic story of England in the time of the Restoration. It commences with a fatal duel, and shows a new phase of its remarkable author. The movement is fairly rapid, and the narrative absorbing, with occasional glints of humor.