This zealot Is of a mongrel, diverse kind; cleric before, and lay behind; A lawless linsey-woolsey brother, Half of one order, half another. Butler, “Hudibras.”
As old England has always been rich in “characters,” in those grotesque or gnarled individualities that have escaped the common mould, the superabundance of sects, which, in conjunction with the paucity of sauces, amused Voltaire, has its natural explanation.
John Bull—himself a “character” among nationalities—could not long endure the Papal leading-strings, and ever since the days of Wycliffe a succession of free spirits has founded “heresies,” not a few based on misunderstood mistranslations of Greek or Hebrew texts, torn from their literary and, above all, their historical context. But why during these five centuries Essex has been a breeding-place for Nonconformity, second to no other county, is a problem to tempt the philosopher. For its ministers have been silenced or ejected in numbers almost unparalleled; some indeed merely for tippling, dicing, carding, and womanizing, but the majority for the more serious offences of heresy or disrespect towards Parliament; while simple peasants—men, women, and girls—for their participation in seditious conventicles or practices, have been fined, jailed, transported to “His Majesty’s plantations,” and even nailed to stakes and burnt alive, clapping their hands the while with joy. Some of the most moving scenes of “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” and Bloomfield’s “History of the Martyrs” are laid in Essex. Triumphant descendants of these opinionated saints were now converging on Chipstone from every quarter of the compass—it was but a toy-model of a town, yet it held in its petty periphery chapels, meeting-houses, or churches—ancient-towered or drably wooden or offering the image of a tinned congregation, tightly packed—for Baptists (Particular or General), Quakers, Wesleyans, Congregationalists, Peculiars, and Primitive Methodists, as well as your everyday Churchgoer; nothing indeed was wanting except an Ecclesia for the variation represented by Martha. And as most of these structures were in the High Street, or just off it, you beheld in that ancient thoroughfare of a Sunday a crowd of Christians, as like to the naked eye as a flock of sheep, sorting themselves into their denominational pigeon-holes, and disappearing as suddenly to right or left as the pedestrians in “The Vision of Mirza” vanished downwards through the trap-doors in the bridge.
Of all these types of Christian none seemed so indigenous to Essex as that aptly christened “Peculiar”: it was as though peculiar to the marshes, an emanation of the soil. Though the first apostolic fervour was over in Chipstone, and the spirit was moving rather towards Woodham and Southend, the sect was still young and persecuted enough to be a devoted brotherhood, as Will soon realized from the greetings which his father exchanged with fellow-pilgrims, who grew more and more frequent as they drew nigh the outskirts of the theological town.
There was, among others, a cheerful-looking woman pushing a four-wheeled baby-cart, which held an infant back and front, and a food-parcel sandwiched between them. Caleb, addressing her as Sister, offered to wheel it, but she replied that the children would cry at a stranger. “Well, you’ll soon be comin’ to your destiny,” said Caleb. But before Will and he had forged ahead of her, she had begun pouring out a premature confession. Two or three were gathered together, and the Spirit seemingly blew through her. That time last year she hadn’t trusted the Lord: when they were wheeling the cart to chapel, she had wondered to her husband how she could fit in the coming baby. And the Lord had now made room by taking the prior baby, so that she was well chastised: moreover they had “parsecuted” her husband before a magistrate for not calling in a doctor for the child, but as it wasn’t insured, they had only put him in prison for a little. All the same he was “broke up,” having always been a “forthright” man. The Lord was indeed trying him by fire.
“Ay, ’twas the same, Willie, when your brother what’s-a-name died,” said Caleb as they drew ahead of the labouring baby-cart. “But the Brethren now exhort one another not to insure their childer, Satan being swift to cry child-murder.”
“But isn’t it child-murder if a doctor might have saved it?” asked Will coldly, for the woman’s story had shocked him.
Caleb looked pained. “Ef the Lord wouldn’t listen even to prayers, is it likely He’d regard doctors? Howsomever the Brethren stand fast and faithful—they goo to prison even at harvest-time when you’re worth forever o’ money. But the Lord’s people are wunnerful good to one another, and the Elders look arter the families. Oh, what a joyous Harvest Thanksgivin’ we had two years agoo, time the martyrs came out o’ their cells. All in the open air it was, and Deacon Mawhood brought out be-yu-tiful lessons. No matter you lost your harvest money, he says, you won the palm and the crown, and ’tis the Second Harvest in the heavenly fields with angels to squinch your thirst from golden wessels that shall be yourn, says the Deacon.”
Will received the rat-catcher’s rhetoric with a snort, which put Caleb again on the defensive.
“Oi’ve never took no medicine for ten year,” said Caleb. “And look at me!”
“Well, I’ve taken plenty,” said Will. “And look at me!”
“Oi allow Oi ain’t a Samson like you,” admitted Caleb honestly, “nor couldn’t carry a box that far. And when Oi say no medicine, Oi don’t mean when Oi’m not ill. For same as Oi’m well, mother makes me take a little pill afore meals, bein’ a wegeble as stops the gripes. There ain’t naught about that in the Bible, seein’ as the text starts onny when you git sick. And arter she lost your brother Jim—or maybe he was Zecharoiah—she did fetch a doctor for the tothers, argufyin’ that when the child’s too young to seek grace of itself, oil inside ain’t no wuss than oil outside. And then they Christy Dolphins come along——”
“Who are they?” inquired Will.
But Caleb drew up with a sudden remembrance. “You’ll find that out for yourself. They ain’t far from Daniel.”
“Live on the Common, do you mean?”
“Noa—there ain’t none near us—there was two in Long Bradmarsh, but they’ve gone back to the Joanna prophet woman, so your poor mother ain’t got—” he broke off again. “Oi don’t say ef mother was took real bad, Oi shouldn’t goo and git Doctor Gory, seein’ as she threatens to goo for him same as Oi’m ill. It ain’t the doctor, it’s the faith, says mother, and so long as you don’t believe in the doctor, there ain’t no harm in lettin’ him thump you about. So long as your heart turns to God, says mother, the doctor can listen to it all he likes.”
“Then you do have the doctor!” Will was amused at these compromises exacted by his masterful mother, whose heretical evolution after the loss of offspring he could, however, well understand.
“Noa—noa, not for us—leastways not yet,” Caleb protested. “That was onny for the childer. That made us feel free.”
“Free?” Will queried.
“Not responsible like.” He was somewhat embarrassed. “Faith-healin’ ain’t the main thing,” he expounded anxiously, “it’s faith-gittin’; it’s lovin’ God and seekin’ His grace, just as you’re doin’ to-day.”
Will was silent.
“Bless me!” cried Caleb suddenly. “Ef that don’t look tempesty!”
Will’s eyes went skywards and found indeed a livid patch of gloom, like a ghastly sag of sky, suddenly splotched in the warm blue. And as he looked, a zigzag flash stabbed through it.
“Quick,” cried Caleb, indicating a fairly leafy oak, “git under that tree!”
“No, no,” said Will, “it’s dangerous.” And a terrible peal of thunder accentuated his words.
“Oi’ll hazard it,” said Caleb, hastening towards the shelter. “The Lord is marciful—He can kill us when He pleases. He ain’t got no need o’ lightnin’. But that’s gooin’ to pour like billyho—and the rine falls alike on the just and the unjust—unless the roighteous man’s got an umberrella.”
Will smiled, though humour was as far as ever from Caleb’s intentions. Unwilling to desert the old man, and perhaps weighing the improbability of an electric stroke against the certainty of spoiling his jacket, and the last surviving sheen of his boots, Will stood pluckily beside his parent, while, after another celestial salvo, great drops began to patter on the leaves and even to drip through them. “Lucky that thunder dedn’t come in the middle o’ last night,” mused the old man gratefully as it roared on. “It’s sech a bother dressin’ yourself agen to set up till it stops. Hark at they Tommy Devils squealin’,” he cried, indicating the startled swifts. But after a few minutes Caleb’s patience gave out: the distant chiming of Chipstone Church bells, with which the way had been piously enlivened, was now chillingly inaudible; the thought that they would be late for chapel gnawed at his heart; and dryness seemed a poor equivalent for those missed moments of spiritual ecstasy. He was about to dash through the storm, when the rain ceased as suddenly as it came, the blackbirds began to whistle and forage merrily, and the sun, bursting out more brilliantly than ever, soon licked up the modicum of moisture that had percolated to their Sunday exterior. But Caleb’s apprehensions were justified. He had overrated the pace of his aged legs, and despite the gain through Plashy Walk, he got no compensation for the missed Half-Way Service, for when they arrived at the little meeting-house, the Morning Service proper had begun.
The chapel of the Peculiars was one of the minor religious edifices that did not aspire to the High Street. Behind an iron gate and a petty stone courtyard, it displayed a gabled front, with a roof of pantiles, and a row of dull windows of an ecclesiastical order on either side.
As Will passed through the door, all his tardily born sympathy vanished, and a wave of the old insufferable boredom smote him like a breath of the steerage on his Atlantic steamer. Almost ere his hat was off, his eye had taken in the whole once-familiar scene, the painfully crude walls, a little dingier with the passing of the years, the broad table-desk at the head of the hall, at which Deacon Mawhood and the Elders throned it in Sunday black, the rows of spruce wooden chairs sexually divided by a gangway, and exhibiting in its left section a desert of elderly females with a few oases of hobbledehoy girls. He thought of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and calculated whimsically that if that cost twopence to see, how much ought one not to pay to escape seeing this!
But if his entry meant ennui to himself, it was a most dramatic event to the congregation. At first, indeed, this stranger in the fashionable jacket was not associated with Caleb, whose return to the fold was a separate thrill. It was believed for an instant that a veritable gentleman had succumbed to the Truth, and even when it was perceived that he was no other than Will Flynt, the news of whose home-coming had reached the majority, the sensation did not abate, for was not God still visibly with His peculiar flock, turning back the hearts of the wanderers, whether of the old generation or the young? A breath of new inspiration shook the hall, and the grey-haired Brother who had just begun reading the thirteenth chapter of Acts faltered in his mispronunciation of Cyrene. As he went on droning out the chapter—surely the longest in the Bible, chosen maliciously to depress him further, thought Will—its burden of the people of God, set for a light to the Gentiles, evoked a mounting exaltation, and those who had come with no thought of testifying, found themselves possessed of the Spirit. There was in particular a man with mutton-chop whiskers, on the bench in front of Will, whose body swayed with excitement, and who punctuated the reading with breathless jerks of nasal interpolation. “Be-yu-tiful!” “Yes!” “Amen!” “Thank Gord!” “Mercy!” and the like. And when at last the chapter ended on the verse “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost,” it lifted the man to his feet and he poured forth the story of his sinful past.
“Oi was Church of England—in the choir—and wore black and whoite gowns—and rang the bells—and was confirmed and all—but Gord had never pardoned my sins.”
Will stifled a yawn and looked towards the door. But the rest of the audience hung upon the tale—the tale of a death-bed repentance of Churchmanship and the miraculous recovery to lead the better life of the Peculiar Brotherhood.
“Oi asked the Elder to howd up my hands, so that Oi might die praising Gord for the revelation.”
Sobs came from the left benches, but they only fevered Will. He sat in a dull fury, dazed by words that passed over his brain without leaving a meaning.
“Oh, what a thronging boy and boy—a land where we shall never say ‘Good noight’—engraved in eternal brass—the Lord shoines on your heart—sheep and goats—streets paved with pure gold as it were transparent glass!” It was not till he felt his arm clutched by Caleb in the old man’s excitement at hearing this last phrase that Will connected such words with reality at all, and they faded back into mere religion till a sudden mention of “John in the oil of Patmos” shot up a quaint picture of a too profuse anointment.
Other speakers followed with the same transcendental vocabulary, and then hymns, in an interval between which, the black-garmented Deacon with a royal gesture, that seemed to sweep away the remotest effluvium of aniseed or moleskins, sent Will a hymn-book by a deferentially wriggling Brother. It seemed an ironic revenge for the book he had flung into the bushes, but it saved him from the oppressive proximity of his father’s, which he had been sharing; for the old man, though he could not read the book, liked to hold it as he had always held it with Martha, and indeed could not have sung without feeling it at his fingers’ ends. Will turned its pages with curiosity, thinking of Bundock’s “village idiot,” and noting that it was still published by a village barber. Then a gaunt, horn-spectacled man was seized of the Spirit.
“I’ve been looking for a han’kercher,” he began, to Will’s surprise. “I’ve been looking for a han’kercher,” he repeated. “I’ve been looking for a han’kercher,” he recapitulated with rising rhetoric, “to wipe my tears away.” But the thrilling level, of this exordium was not maintained, and the stock phrases started again, merciless, unendurable, beating on Will’s brain till they beat vainly against the depths of his reverie—or was it his doze? Ah, surely that was Jinny’s horn at last! No, it was only his father blowing emotionally into his red cotton handkerchief—too huge to need looking for—a duplicate of that which held their meals. Besides, Jinny wouldn’t be blowing her horn of a Sunday. But why didn’t she come to chapel, the graceless minx? Was she careering around with that Farmer Gale, or was it her grandfather’s illness?
If flighty young girls, with hearts sound at bottom, would come here and unfold the error of their independent ways, the practice of confession might be justified, and chapel-service become both useful and exciting. But these faded people, these ungainly men and fubsy females! Who on earth cared for their drab histories? Ah, there was Mother Gander, not so podgy as most—in the blue silk of auld lang syne—if only she would get up—or even Charley Mott—there would be some spark of interest. But no, the horn-spectacled bore held the floor pitilessly, and the phrases beat on.
“Be-yu-tiful, be-yu-tiful words—I thought I should die!—Poor me! What a comfort in them words!”
And the nasal voice, its fervour unallayed by its own outpouring, still punctuated the other speeches with jerky interpolations. “Praise the Lord!” or “Glory!” came with fiery iteration, and sometimes this saint with the mutton-chop whiskers said “Lord bless me!” or “Lord bless my soul!” and these frayed and almost meaningless ejaculations seemed full of a startling significance in his mouth and nose.
“Brother Bridges, they said to me, how’s your soul? I couldn’t give ’em a straightforward answer.”
Will woke up again. It was not now the horn-spectacled speaker—he had apparently been wiped off the floor at last, and was not even visible—it was a man with a humorous twinkle and a red beard.
“But if they had asked me, how’s your body——?”
There was a faint snigger from a thick-set girl, instantly repressed by her shocked mother; but after Will had extracted what relief he could from this incident, he tried vainly to extract from the anecdote the exciting edification it held for the others. “How can I go to Romford and tell people I haven’t got salvation?” A dramatic crisis indeed for all save Will, who did not even stifle his yawn. The man’s journey to Romford seemed infinitely unimportant compared with journeys going on every Tuesday and Friday, and despitefully checked on Sunday.
Once the door opened, but it was only for a shambling youth in his teens, and Will did not share the satisfaction of the congregation at this new, if belated, proof of their vitality.
“We’re not afeared, no, not the humblest of us,” pursued the red-bearded man, catching fresh inspiration from this continuous rise in their numbers. “And why? Because we don’t go to work without a Partner.”
Here at last was a definite image through the blur, and if Will in a vivid flash saw a working-partner for himself in a less sublime incarnation than the speaker had in mind, he was for once as a-quiver as his father, who now, albeit with the stock exclamation of “Be-yu-tiful!” proceeded to add real tears to the contents of his capacious handkerchief.
When Will became attentive again, it was a new voice testifying, and the matter seemed quite sensational.
“They used to be carried away and buried in a day. But when our Brother Bundock’s boy got it, we had a special prayer-meeting, and even the marks were light!”
Oh! So it was only the postman’s smallpox. He looked round in vain for Her Majesty’s servant: indeed a general consciousness that the hero of the story was ungratefully absent, damped its appeal—only the man with the mutton-chop whiskers called out with unabated ardour, “Glory!” Will felt that the glory was to Bundock, thus valiantly sticking to his lack of convictions. More than even during the last week, life at Little Bradmarsh seemed impossible, as impossible as in his boyhood; better had he rushed with the mob of his mates to California; even now it was probably the best thing to do with his ninety pounds, unmanly though it were to flee and leave this girl carrier with her arrogance unbroken.
In her absence, if only one of the females would get up! That would be at least a change. But no! The sex was shy to-day, though the forenoon was, he remembered, the traditional time for its testifyings. Perhaps it was the presence of this stalwart young stranger that tongue-tied it.
But the males seemed to be telling their soul-stories at him, challenging his eye, appealing to his black jacket—or was that only a morbid impression of his? An outsider might have been touched by the thread of spiritual poetry in these outwardly commonplace lives, but Will, being of them, had the familiarity that breeds boredom, if not contempt. And contempt, too, was not wanting to this elegantly clad and much-travelled connoisseur of men and women and creeds, who had seen even French cathedrals in Canada, and knew that Roman Catholics were not the scarlet beasts his infancy had somehow imagined them. Once he caught Mr. Charles Mott’s eye fixed upon him with a curious, wondering gaze, which seemed to change to a wink as eye met eye. Will’s eye, however, remaining serious, a flush overspread the ex-potboy’s face, and he looked away.
But Will’s contempt passed into alarm when, at a sudden pause in the testifyings, all other eyes unquestionably converged on him. He turned as red as Charley Mott, and glued his eyes to his hymn-book, not daring to look up till another voice indicated that the Spirit had found a more willing tongue for its organ. But his relief was mixed with disgust, for it was the dry voice of the original grey-haired reader, and it seemed bent on a sermon which had not even the mitigated brightness of a confession. Then, autobiography seemed suddenly to break through it, for Will’s wandering thoughts were fixed by an anecdote about riding to Rochester seven miles on a donkey on a winter’s evening. “Lord bless me!” interpolated the nasal voice, so distracting Will that he never understood how the story led up to a doctor’s remark: “I must have your leg off,” a design the medical materialist appeared to have carried out.
Will tried to peer under the table to see the preacher’s peg, but failing to perceive any signs of corkiness, concluded that the anecdote was not personal. He gathered that after this melancholy amputation by impotent Science, Faith had sufficed to keep the rest of the man together. Medicine had subsequently proclaimed he was in a galloping consumption, “but he ain’t dead yet—he’s still sound and whole,” cried the preacher paradoxically, to the applausive “Glory!” of the tireless commentator.
Another illustrious example of regeneration—the preacher kept Will awake by recounting—had begun life as a parson. But none is beyond hope; even in the sacristy one is not safe from the Spirit, and unable to go any longer through the flummeries and mummeries of the Established Church, he had given up his living and fallen—at one time—so low that he was glad to become a potman in a public-house.
All eyes were here turned towards the unfortunate Charley Mott, and from his squirming figure to Mother Gander, sitting so stern and stiff; but the tension relaxed when the preacher—perhaps tactfully—went on to mention that it was at “The White Hart” in Colchester: where the landlord and landlady had both “parsecuted” him. They were now both dead. (“Glory!” from the nasal punctuator.) “I am sorry they are dead,” said the preacher magnanimously. “But the Lord’s arm is not short.” And while they were well dead, Will learnt that their poor, persecuted potman had now a chapel of his own, where he preached “Full Salvation.” Twenty or thirty were, it appeared, saved regularly and punctually every Sunday evening. “Glory!” trumpeted the nasal voice, and again Will, sullen and glowering, felt that the whole congregation was palpitating with expectation that he would leap to his feet and declare himself similarly saved, or at least not lost during his long absence. But he was not going to make a fool of himself, he told himself harshly. He would sooner face the ordeal of escape, of running the gauntlet of the Brothers and Sisters, and he looked round wildly towards the door, perceiving with satisfaction that the late youth had left it slightly ajar. Then, to his joy and the congregation’s disappointment, another worshipper took the word, or was taken by it; Bidlake, the bargee, with his dog-eyes now shining and his shaggy face sublimated, who declared with touching fervour that he would praise God as long as breath was in him, and with the death-rattle in his throat he would cry: “You can do, Gord, what you like with me!” Ephraim recalled the coup by which he had converted his wife, whom family sorrows had made an infidel. “Ef you won’t goo to heaven with me, says Oi, Oi’ll goo to hell with you!” Now they both pulled and poled together and were happy—so happy, despite family losses and troubles. “Most men ain’t fit to live nor ready to die. Just drifters. Throw ’em the life-line—the life-line afore they drift away!” And with a vivid gesture he threw an imaginary rope. By accident or design it was in Will’s direction, and again the poor young man, with a stifling sense of being lassoed, became the cynosure of every eye. But, fortunately for him, Ephraim Bidlake did not pause here, and his rhapsody poured on; “Glorious truth”—“one generation to the tother”—“the prayer of roighteousness”—“come as you are”—“wain to trust in man”—a veritable cascade of phrases that, falling on Will’s head, gradually lowered it in sleep. An impromptu speech is usually one the speaker cannot wind up, and the worthy bargee went on tangling himself up more and more, till it looked doubtful if he would ever have come to a stop, had not something happened which stole even his breath away.
Through the interstice of the door came suddenly sidling a little white dog. But this accession to the congregation produced no joy, merely a sense of profanity as it pattered up the central parting, leaving, moreover, wet prints of its paws. Springing without hesitation or apology upon the sleeper’s best trousers, it curled itself up comfortably with a grunt. Assuredly Will was not fated to-day to escape the centre of the stage.
The young man recognized Nip instantly, and his yawn of awakening changed into a gasp, and his somnolent pulse into a precipitate beat. The animal’s leap was indeed sudden enough to startle the strongest heart. Will turned his head instinctively towards the door—oblivious even of his damped trousers—but there was no sign of Nip’s mistress. Still, whether she was in the vicinity or not, the dog was clearly out of place. Grasping his pretext of escape firmly by the collar and clasping his struggling opportunity to his breast, he stole from the meeting-house.
He expected to see Nip’s owner outside. In his reading of the situation she had arrived so late that while she was hesitating whether to come in, the shameless dog had burst through the door, attracted doubtless by the aroma of all those dinner-packets, and this had made her still more ashamed to enter. But the quaint little street was bare of Jinny. So sunless did it appear without her, that he scarcely noticed that the sky was actually overcast again, and that the black cloud had regathered. He stood still, hesitating; in which relaxed mood of his the spasmodic struggles of the animal were successful, and Will became painfully aware that he was alone with his moist trousers and his London coat snowed over with little hairs, while Nip, after some preliminary gambollings and barkings at the recovery of the liberty he had himself abandoned, was vanishing into the High Street. So assured were Nip’s movements that Will divined at once he had only to follow him to restore him to his mistress, and without waiting even to brush off the little white hairs, he darted towards the street corner, and was happily just in time to see the excellent creature trotting into the courtyard of “The Black Sheep.”
His pleasure was not, however, free from surprise. What was Jinny doing at her business headquarters on the Lord’s Day? Or had she come in her cart to chapel, and put it up there? He ran towards the picturesque stable-yard. There were a good many chaises, gigs, dog-carts and even carriages standing—the countryside drove to its churches—but there was no trace of either Jinny or Methusalem, while Nip was standing with hang-dog air by the doorstep, under a poster of “Duke’s Marionettes.” But as Will drew nearer, he turned tail, sauntered down the passage, surveyed the painted hand, and then with an air of decision bounded up the stairs. Ah, she would be in the parlour! And Nip’s follower bounded upstairs too, keeping closely to heel. But no! Nip was not on dining bent, though the door was open. Rejecting all the appetizing scents that already emanated from the eating-room, Nip pit-patted along the dusky corridor and began whining and scrabbling outside a closed and numbered door. Very soon it receded before his pleadings; and as he scampered in, “You poor dog!” came out in the girlish voice that had so lacerated him with “Fol de rols!” But not the worst of that musical torment could vie with the jar to his heart-strings when, through the reclosing door, came another unforgettable voice with the jovial interrogatory: “Well, Nip, and what was the parson’s text?”
He remembered now—with a cold sick horror—that this was the very bedroom from which indignant housemaids had excluded its tenant—yes, there was Reynard opposite with his glassy eye and his erected brush. Possibly Tony Flip was not even up. That was what came of minxes driving Methusalems! Instead of being at divine service, like all God-fearing humanity, she was coquetting—or worse—with a mountebank in an inn bedroom. Yet he felt he must not spy upon her—any moment, too, she might come out—and he hurried downstairs and stood on the step under the ironwork lamp, louring like the great black cloud, which he now perceived to be in heaven-sent harmony with his mood. And that drivelling patriarch had foamed at the mouth when he had hinted that woman’s place was not a cart!
But Jinny did not keep him more than five endless minutes.
“Hullo, Will,” she cried gaily, as she tripped from the passageway with Nip in her arms. “What are you doing here?”
How the broad frame of her bonnet set off the picture of her face! Small wonder a loose-living showman found it bewitching. Not so William Flynt—with his high ideals of womanhood! Even to be called “Will” was provoking rather than flattering: he felt it now less the perquisite of the old friend than the proof of an indiscriminating levity.
“I’ve come for the dinner,” he said coldly. Nip gazed straight at him with his mild brown eye, but although Will did not suppose that the brute would open its mouth like Balaam’s ass and give him away, he could not look it in the head. He turned his shoulder on dog and damsel and stared at the poster.
“I wish I could have dinner with you,” replied Jinny frankly. “But I must be off to feed Gran’fer. Farmer Gale’s trap should be here by now.”
“He drives you home too?” He turned towards her, startled.
“Within half a mile—it is a treat for me to have another carrier.”
“But he isn’t a Peculiar,” he observed severely.
“No, he’s a Wesleyan like Gran’fer, who used to drive his father about. He puts up at ‘The Chequers’ hard by his chapel—his service ought to be over. I hope his horse hasn’t taken fright again—we had just got to the High Street when the storm broke, and at the first flash the horse was off, galloped miles beyond the town before he could be got to a standstill.”
“He might have killed you, the silly!” cried Will, meaning the farmer.
“Yes,” said Jinny simply, meaning the animal. “By the time he was walked warily back, it was too late to go in. But I don’t wonder Nip was worried about me. You see he likes to run behind the trap, poor fellow”—she wasted a kiss upon his unresponsive head—“and he always comes up in time to say good-bye at the chapel door, where he hangs about till I come out. But this time, of course, he must have been wandering about in search of me. He wasn’t there when I passed just now. Mr. Flippance declares he must have gone to Chipstone Church, in the idea I’d suddenly joined it.”
And the girlish laugh rang out, dissipating some of his humours as much by its joyousness as by the innocent mention of the Showman.
“But why shouldn’t you join it, Miss Quarles?” he said. “It can’t be duller than chapel.”
“Now, now, Will.” She shook a serious finger. “You ought to have gone to chapel yourself this morning. And don’t call me Miss Quarles.”
“But I prefer to call you Miss Quarles.”
“But why not Jinny?” Her voice was plaintive.
“Because everybody else calls you that.”
“Is that any reason why you should call me Miss Quarles?”
“If you can’t see it——!” he began.
“I can’t, and I hope you won’t call me Miss Quarles.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
“Because I won’t answer to it.”
“And why not?”
“Because, Will, it’s not my name.”
He gasped. “Not your name?”
She laughed merrily at his discomfiture. “It’s a long story and Farmer Gale will be here. Hulloa,” she went on, making his confusion worse confounded, “how did Nip’s hairs get on you?”
He flushed, and flicked nervously at his coat. “There are other white dogs,” he said evasively.
“Well, don’t let him spoil your coat.”
“And what about your bodice?”
“Oh, mine isn’t new and Londony.”
He was gratified at her perception: still more at her setting down Nip. That animal, however, was in the rampageous mood which always followed his restoration to freedom, and he began leaping up at his mistress’s hand.
“Down, Nip, down! Oh, I do believe he’s bitten through my new glove!” She pulled it off ruefully to examine the damage.
“Sensible dog!” Will growled. “He knows you oughtn’t to be wearing Mr. Flippance’s gloves.”
Her own little white teeth flashed out in a mocking smile: “Lucky you are going to buy me another pair!”
“Me! Why, you wouldn’t let me when I offered.”
“Of course not. I’m thinking of the pair you’ll be owing me.”
“You don’t suppose you’ll win the wager, do you?”
“Oh, that!” He was disconcerted again. “Of course I’ll win it,” he said defiantly in a bombastic burst. “It won’t take me a day’s practice to blow down the walls of Jericho.”
She laughed. “So you do remember your Bible. Well, I’ll be satisfied if you blow Nip back from a rabbit.”
“We shall see. Have you superscribed again?” he asked pompously, assured of his accuracy this time.
“Not yet—I expect the horn’ll be at Chipstone by Tuesday—you shall have it the same evening.”
“And the next day I’ll be wanting gloves,” he said loftily.
“We shall see—or rather hear. What size do you take, though?”
“Oh, I don’t know—twice yours, I suppose.”
“Oh, not twice!”
“Why, sure!” And he suddenly prisoned her little ungloved hand between his brawny palms. “I could easily crush it,” he said, with a strange desire to do so, pressing it indeed almost to hurting-point. At that instant a far-palpitating blueness transfigured the courtyard, and from above-stairs came a terrific racket as if all the plates and dishes in the dining-room were hurling themselves at one another. Will felt the girl’s fingers curl spasmodically round his and hold them tight: her face went white, and he seemed to hear her heart thumping.
“Don’t be frightened!” he said, with his first manly satisfaction in her. Surely she was clinging to him for protection.
“That’ll be a fireball down the chimney,” she observed with disappointing coolness. “There was one came down last year in Long Bradmarsh and killed a poor little chimney-sweep who had got stuck in the flue. It’ll set the chimney on fire, I expect.”
“This rain will put it out,” he said, still cheerfully conscious of her warm fingers, and feeling a joy in the deluge that had been so damp in his father’s company. She drew back, however, into the passage to avoid the big plopping and ricochetting rain-drops and her hand got disentangled. “What fun if it’s fallen down Mr. Flippance’s chimney,” she laughed. “Make him get up early.”
Her laughter seemed to ring untrue, hysterical.
“Isn’t he up yet?” he asked, trying to speak lightly.
“Oh, he never gets up on a Sunday—not properly, I mean. I saw him half up, but he’s gone back to bed and is already snoring—I heard him.”
“But how could you hear him?” he asked, with careful carelessness.
“Oh, I was in his daughter’s room, whiling away the time of waiting—she’s got ten times his sense—when, woke up by our voices, I suppose, in he trails through the communicating door in his fancy dressing-gown, yawning like a mouse-trap, and asks me to buy him a horse at the fair.”
“A horse at the fair!” Scarcely had he enjoyed the relief of working out that he had taken the harmless adjoining bedroom for the Showman’s, when this new blow struck him, like hooves on his chest.
“Of course I wouldn’t listen to him,” she said.
“Of course not!” His breast expanded again. “How can a woman understand buying horses?”
“Oh, I don’t mean that.” Jinny was distinctly colder. “I mean it’s the Lord’s Day. He’ll have to repeat his order on Tuesday.”
“But surely you wouldn’t go to a horse fair?”
“Because—it’s—it’s so horsey.”
She laughed again. “And so fairish, too, isn’t it?”
“What does he want a horse for?” he asked sullenly.
“I don’t suppose it’s for dinner—he isn’t a Frenchy. But he’s got a caravan, hasn’t he?—and he has to begin his summer tour soon.”
“And why can’t he buy his own horses?”
“That infant? Why his last horse died of old age at four!”
“And what about that sensible daughter of his?”
“She hasn’t got horse-sense,” said Jinny, smiling.
“Well, I don’t see how it comes into your business.”
“A carrier has to buy whatever she’s asked.”
“Whatever she can carry. You can’t carry a horse.”
“No, but it can carry me. Besides, I’ve often carried a calf or a pig, and where am I to draw the line?”
“You’ll be buying elephants next,” he said, with a bitter remembrance of Mr. Flippance’s story.
“I’m too old for gingerbread,” she replied unexpectedly. “But I haven’t forgotten the one you gave me once.” He trembled under her radiant gratitude, with its evocation of the poetry of childhood. But a convulsive bound forward on the part of Nip broke up the argument. “Ah, here’s Farmer Gale coming along,” she said cheerfully.
Just like the fellow, he thought, to come just at that moment. And his resentment at the arrival of the dog-cart was not even mitigated by the watery spectacle presented by its red-faced driver, whose personable and still youthful figure rose from a streaming tarpaulin, to which a hat with an unremoved mourning-band contributed its drippings.
“You can’t go in that rain,” Will protested. “Let him go without you—I’ll order a trap myself.”
“But you said you were dining here—I can’t wait.”
He winced—his white lie had come home like a curse to roost.
“You can dine with me!”
“And what about Gran’fer?”
“Well, I can dine at home.” But she scarcely heard him. She was already fastening a handkerchief over her Sunday bonnet—a fascinating process. “There’s a good cover—I’ll snuggle right in.”
Shameless, he thought, riding about cheek by jowl and skirt by trouser with a young man not even of her own faith. That thin tiny boy sandwiched between was no real separation: why, the tarpaulin almost swallowed him under! They ought at least to sit back to back, and if there was any chivalry in the pudding-faced lout, he would transfer the tarpaulin to the back seat. How could Jinny forget that the magnate of Little Bradmarsh—cursèd Cornish interloper—was no fit company for the likes of her? He wondered that people did not warn her: but they were inured to her vagaries, he supposed. And even if the man meant honourably, in his reckless passion, how dare a widower with a great thumping boy approach a rosebud? Ah, now she was talking to this second-hand, warmed-up aspirant, who had already killed off one wife; inquiring sweetly about his animal’s behaviour under the recent flash.
“Steady as a plough-horse!” came the cheery reply. “My eye, Jinny, you did handle him wonderful. I reckon you saved my life!”
“And what about my own?” With a laugh whose gaiety stabbed, she sprang upon the step. “Good-bye, Will. Hope you’ll enjoy your dinner.”
“Good-bye, Miss Quarles,” he said coldly. “I mean, Miss——” But before he had realized he could not fill up the blank, the trap had started, and he could not even bound behind, like the joyous-barking Nip. Nothing tangible was left of the whole delectable and distressing episode except some white hairs on the fashionable fabric of Moses & Son.
“Hope you’ll enjoy your dinner!” Her last words still rang in his ear. His dinner! Cold meat wrapped in a “muckinger,” and consumed on chapel benches among drab Elders and elderly Sisters and better-lost Brothers and dismal rat-catching Deacons. No, sooner a crust and cheese at the bar. But why not roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the parlour—why not make his lie true? Yes, lies were reprehensible: truth was always best, and his chaps began to water with ethical excitement. But alas, with a sudden misgiving he put his hand in his pocket. Not a farthing! In the agitation of his chapel-going, he had forgotten to transfer his purse to the Sunday suit—nay, even the ninety pounds were left in the discarded waistcoat, he remembered with an unreasonable chill. He was to be nailed to his lie, then. True, he might possibly get credit, but it was an awkward situation at best. No, better go back to his cold meat—besides, his poor old father would be wondering and waiting. It would be cruel to desert and distract him, and, the rain appearing somewhat thinner, he turned up his coat-collar and started out, almost colliding at the archway with the Mott couple, lovingly entwined under a spacious umbrella. They at least had no need to dine in chapel. Mr. Charles Mott looked at him again with the same curious wonder. “You’re not going back?” he cried involuntarily.
“I can’t desert my dad!” Will answered, somewhat shamefacedly.
“And he must eat, Charley darling,” Mother Gander intervened. “You know how bad our Sunday dinners are.”
“I haven’t even got any money with me,” he cried, with a last wild hope. But Mother Gander did not respond to his longing for truth. “Lend him the umbrella, dearest,” she said ruthlessly. “We’ve another for the afternoon service.”
Accepting it with mitigated gratitude—the umbrella he was trusted with was worth more than the dinner, he thought bemusedly—he moved more slowly to the chapel; wondering, too, how hotel-keeping could be reconciled with the Sabbatarian conscience.
He found the meeting-house now turned into an eating-house. The congregation had, however, visibly thinned: only those who had no hosts or homes in Chipstone remaining for this love-feast, with the exception of Deacon Mawhood, who, rather than go home to his wife, remained at the table as presiding dignitary, flanked by great glass jugs of water. The ravages in the ranks appeared to Will an eloquent testimony to the spread of the doctrine in Chipstone proper: in his young days the sect had been more suburban and rural, and the chapel at that hour had seethed with hungry pilgrims. Still, there was quite a happy hubbub, and the spectacle, with its real sense of brotherhood, struck from him more sympathy than anything in the service; and when a Sister told her cherub not to “goffle” so, he was mysteriously touched by the old word, and the memories it roused, to a sincerer respect for the creed which satisfied Jinny. What fun the boys had had in the wagon, driving home with her!
Caleb was chewing a hunk of bread and meat. The handkerchief-parcel—shrunk like the congregation—incarnadined the bench. “Oi had to begin,” he explained apologetically, “seein’ as Oi’d said grace, expectin’ you back every second, and it seemed foolin’ with the Lord to wait more than ten minutes. Pity that dog worrited you. Be-yu-tiful things were brought out when you was gone. Where did you git to?”
He evaded the question. “I’m not hungry.”
“Not arter that walk of ourn!” cried Caleb incredulously. “Oi count you’ve had your dinner somewhere else.”
“Yes, off the dog!” he said a bit crossly.
Caleb smiled. “Oi’ll not believe that,” he said with an air of infinite cuteness.
“I’ll have a drink,” condescended Will.
“Do!” Caleb passed him a large tin mug of water. “And there’s plenty more where that come from.” Will knew it was Brother Quint—the “snob” or shoemaker who lived next door—who supplied these limitless streams.
“Ain’t she beautifully polished?” Caleb went on naïvely, when his thirsty son set the mug down. “Holds noigh a quart—Oi never see sech mugs nowhere else! And Brother Quint’ll fill it with biling for our tea. There, Will! There’s your favourite sausages mother put in for you, special. None o’ your dogs in that!” And he chuckled, brimming over with holy glee.
Cooled by the long draught, Will allowed himself to be seduced by the veal sausages, and, finding with surprise that the first slid down his throat in a twinkling, he was soon depleting the parcel into a mere “muckinger.” And at this Caleb’s innocent happiness was complete.
But the fate that stalks mortals at their culminating felicities now sped its arrow. In excavating a pickled walnut from the remains of the parcel, Caleb loosed a minute cardboard box, which sprang maliciously to the floor and then, to the agitation of the neighbours, rolled round and round towards the table under the very eyes of the rat-catcher.
The Deacon stooped down zealously to pick it up, and then held it on high. It was a pill-box! “Who brought this?” he cried in stern prophetic accents, across the table.
The happy hubbub ceased, the holy glee was frozen. In a tense silence all eyes were turned on the profane symbol. Will saw his wretched father’s face go red and white, and his scraggy throat work painfully below the ragged white beard. Both the Flynts guessed at once that the careful Martha had slipped into the packet her husband’s usual pill before meals!
It was a dreadful moment. For a space in which all nature seemed to hold its breath, Caleb sat rigid and dumb.
“Whose propity is this?” asked the Deacon still more sternly, and Will divined the mighty struggle going on in his father’s quaint conscience; casuistic questions as to how far a pill-box conveyed unconsciously had been “brought” by him, or in what sense pills administered to him remorselessly from without could be said to be his “property.”
Then suddenly Caleb’s lips opened. “Oi count ’twas in my parcel,” he said in tremulous accents.
The sublimity of the confession thrilled Will: he even felt a curious moisture at his eyes. But before the Deacon, sitting there like a judge about to pronounce sentence, could say a word, a blinding glare, followed almost instantaneously by an appalling crashing and smashing right overhead, showed that nature had indeed held its breath and had now spoken in flame and thunder. Will’s first reflection when the daze had passed away, and the congregation found itself and its building providentially safe, was that it was indeed lucky his father had spoken first; otherwise his confession might have seemed extorted by terror. But Joshua Mawhood was not the Deacon to let such a situation pass without profit. “The Lord havin’ spoke, brethren,” said he, “there ain’t no need for my opinion. The thing Oi hate most in this lower world is hypocrisy and dissemblin’. ‘Roight up and down, Jo Perry,’ as the sayin’ goos. Ef we ain’t been destroyed, as we sat here guzzlin’ and guttlin’, ’tain’t no merit of the congregation, ’tis because the Lord bein’ marciful don’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah so long as there’s one roighteous man.” He rose majestically and drew himself up to his full height, and held the pill-box even higher. “Brother Flynt, if you’ll kindly step out, Oi’ll hand you back your propity.”
No fiercer punishment could have been devised for Caleb’s gentle soul: the sinner, isolated, passing through his shrinking Brethren and Sisters, must come forward as to a confession table. No wonder the poor man held back.
“Oi don’t need it now, Deacon,” he said, with lips almost as white as his hair. “You can throw it away ef you like.”
With malicious enjoyment the Deacon slowly and solemnly lifted the lid of the pill-box and dipped in his fingers, to hold up the impious contents to the public execration. Then his face changed.
“Why, it’s salt!” he cried in angry disappointment. It was as if the devil were playing thimblerig with him.
“Oi was thinkin’ the missus had ought to put some in,” said Caleb, beaming again.
The woman of the baby-cart now found herself possessed of the Spirit. She sprang to her feet, a baby on either arm.
“We are the salt of the earth,” she shrilled, “wherewith the others shall be salted.”
“Hallelujah!” burst from the mutton-chop whiskers.
“Hallelujah!” responded the congregation, and a great anthem rolled out, outshouting the thunder.
To the disappointment of his father, who still hoped he would testify, Will would not stay for the Afternoon Service. But his worthy sire could bear a disappointment after the revulsion in his favour, he thought. He had to take back the umbrella to the Motts, he insisted, or, with this weather, the good Samaritans might be unable to return to their worshipping: in any case he had to see somebody at “The Black Sheep” on urgent business: business, he corrected hastily, of a spiritual nature, calculated to save certain souls from temptation.
“Well, Oi’m glad the Sperrit’s workin’!” said Caleb, “and do ye git back to mother quick as you can, for it ain’t fair as she should be left at home, time Oi’m enjoyin’ myself. Not that ’tis my fault there ain’t no chapel for Christy Dolphins—!” He checked himself and added hurriedly: “Do ye don’t tell her about the pill-box: happen she’d think Oi was wexed.”
“And do ye don’t say you can’t carry a box to Chipstone!” mocked Will gaily, glad to be released. “And of a Sunday too—you old Sabbath-breaker!”
Caleb did not smile: the episode had left too deep a scar. “Oi count the Deacon’s in the roight,” he said. “ ’Tis hypocrisy and dissemblin’ to take pills at home and salt in public. Oi count Oi’ll testify to the truth this arternoon.”
“But you only take pills to keep off the indigestion, not to cure it,” urged Will, giving him his own plea back. “Besides, salt is a sort of medicine too: without it you might get scurvy and goodness knows what.”
Caleb shook his head. “Lot’s wife wasn’t turned into a medicine. Any man in his seven senses knows the difference ’twixt puttin’ salt or medicine on his wounds.”
Leaving his father to execute his sublime purpose, Will went off on his own mission under protection of the big Mott umbrella. In returning it, he learnt that even its great ribbed dome had not saved Mr. Mott from a wetting, in consequence of which and his delicate health he was now imbibing stiff glasses of grog in his bedroom, hovered over by the anxious Mother Gander. It was pathetically out of the question, Will gathered, for Brother Mott to attend chapel again that day. Will’s “urgent business” lay, however, with Mr. Anthony Flippance: the soul to be saved being Jinny’s, now menaced with still further soilure from the gross contacts of horse-copers, cadgers, kidders, butchers, drovers, shepherds, swineherds, touts, tramps, and all the tricksters and pickpockets of the cattle-market.
The mission did not loom unpleasant, for although he resented the fiction about the Crystal Palace and the stuffed elephant, the tall talk was harmless enough—he had heard taller in America—and he was not indisposed for ungodly society after the reek of the chapel. That the genial Showman would instantly see the matter from his point of view he did not doubt.
But Tony Flip was not in the dining-room even in dishabille, and the waiter was still so occupied with late or leisurely diners as apparently to be unable to conjure him up. “I’ve just taken him up his breakfast,” he said, with an envious sigh. “No. 42. You’ll find him.”
But to intrude thus on the Showman’s privacy seemed indelicate: he waylaid a chambermaid in the corridor and asked her to tell Mr. Flippance a gentleman would be glad to see him when he had finished his meal. She brought back a mysterious answer as from Miss Flippance that he never saw clean-shaven gents.
Will fired up as at an insult. Evidently the rogue was not going to be so malleable: that daughter of his, too, he remembered, had no proper respect for Jinny. “Tell ’em I’ll wait here till my beard grows!” he commanded.
The chambermaid hung back, giggling. He felt in his pocket for a sixpence—again encountering only lining. “If you don’t take my message, I’ll kiss you,” he menaced. It was a jest that never failed him, and it did not fail now, though the fleeing “tucker-in” giggled more than ever. He watched her enter the lion’s den, but hardly had she done so, when the noble animal himself padded forth, grinning like a Cheshire cat, his fork protruded like a claw, and just-spluttered coffee dripping from his great jaws over the breast of his flamboyant hundred-stained hide.
“Where is he?” he roared genially to the dark corridor. “Come in! Come in!”
Will advanced defiantly.
“So it’s you! I was wondering what wit heaven had dropped with the thunder! Yankee yumour—I ought to ha’ guessed it.” And he nearly spitted Will on his fork in his enthusiastic effort to shake hands. “ ‘I’ll wait till my beard grows’—ha, ha, ha! That goes in this very night—no, there’s no show to-night, hang it! Don’t go, Polly,” he called, as he pulled Will into the room over a barrier of Bluchers and Wellingtons and even Hessian boots with silken tassels, “we must get that into Hamlet. When I say to Ophelia, ‘Get thee to a nunnery; go, farewell’— I’ll wind up ‘Until thy beard grows.’ That’ll be your new cue, Polly.”
“But that’ll spoil the scene,” Miss Flippance protested, poised in a morning wrapper in the open doorway between the two rooms. She was mysteriously mantled in aromatic clouds, like the spirit in The Mistletoe Bough, yet her father did not seem to be smoking.
“Not at all, Polly,” he persisted, “it’s just the right grotesque spirit.”
“There’ll be a laugh.”
“The one thing Hamlet needs. Even the ghost don’t carry it off.”
“You’d better give me the line,” persisted Miss Flippance. “It’ll come better in the mad scene.”
“Well, we’ll talk about it—I think you’ve seen our American friend before.”
“Before and behind,” said Miss Flippance viciously, a scowl traversing her pockmarks. “And since he left me in the lurch, I wasn’t sorry to think I’d seen the back of him.”
“But as Miss Quar—as the Carrier hadn’t got your drumstick, there was nothing to return for,” apologized Will.
“Then why have you?” she snapped, and closed the door behind her with a similar snap.
“Polly’s in a pet,” commented her parent. “She don’t like being worried by actors in search of jobs, specially on Sundays. It’s your hairless phiz, you know.”
“But I’m not an actor.”
“Of course not—she ought to have seen you haven’t the face—only the razor: ha, ha, ha!”
Will was vaguely resentful. “But I dare say I could black my face.”
“There’s more to the drama than Othello, and more to Othello than burnt cork.” And Mr. Flippance laughed again as he dropped into his wooden arm-chair and resumed his breakfast at a little table ’twixt the bed-canopy and the window. “Sit down, won’t you? Excuse my back—I can hear all you say behind it. Ha, ha! That’s another good gag, eh?”
Will, glancing round, saw that the chair not occupied by his host was hopelessly littered by his garments, mixed with papers: he therefore dropped on the high four-poster—it was now made—and cleared his throat for action.
“You’ll have a drop of something,” Mr. Flippance threw backwards, mistranslating the sounds.
“No, thank you!” He must not be bribed or drugged, Will felt: he had stern work before him. It was as well, however, to placate the adversary. “Glad to hear the show’s a big draw,” he said.
“And who told you that?”
“Er—the Bradmarsh Carrier!”
“Bless her—she carries all the lies I tell her.”
“Aren’t things rosy then?”
“I never lie on Sundays. Ha, ha, ha! Perhaps it’s just as well Jinny won’t do business with me to-day. No, old man, I ought to be middling mollancholy, as they say here. But I’m as happy as the day is long—and it’s getting longer every day.” He drained his coffee-cup voluptuously. “Never mind my business—what’s yours?”
“Mine? I haven’t come on business.”
“Then you must have a brandy.” He reached out and pulled the green bell-rope.
“No thank you. You see—” Will swung his legs hesitatingly. “Surely you don’t think she ought to carry lies——?”
“The Bradmarsh Carrier.”
“Jinny! She has to carry anything—at the proper tariff.”
“But is it fair to her?”
“If you mean our doing bumper business, she don’t know it’s a lie, and her telling it helps to make it true. Why, you were itching to see the show yourself, as soon as you heard other fools were flocking.” He turned a grinning face. “Come now, confess.”
“I didn’t come to see the show,” Will contradicted, feeling vaguely baffled.
“Of course not, being Sunday. But what did you come for? Cut the cackle and come to the ’osses.”
“I will,” he said eagerly. “I hear you want to buy one.”
Mr. Flippance swung round, chair and all. “Then you have come on business!”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, have you got a horse?”
“No, but I could get one.”
“And you don’t call that business!”
“I didn’t mean to—!” Will was getting embarrassed. “It just slipped out. What I want to ask of you is——”
“Where the devil is that waiter?” broke in the Showman, reaching for the cord again.
“What I mean is,” said Will, determined to get it out before the waiter popped up, “that there’s a girl you’re leading into brazen courses!”
“A girl! Me!” Mr. Flippance pulled himself angrily to his feet, and stood glaring at Will, with the snapped bell-cord in his hand like a green serpent. “You son of Ananias, if you’ve listened to any of those scandal-mongering swine you ought to be jolly well ashamed of yourself. There isn’t a cleaner man—for a widower—in all the circuit. Why, I could pile up the dollars—as you call it—if I’d only darken my tent a bit, so that the lovers of the drama could go rubbing their noses and licking one another like the calves in the next field. But there isn’t a brighter show this side of the Atlantic. Besides, my girls are all wood—there’s not a flesh and blood female with me except Polly, and she’s my own daughter, born on the right side of the blanket, too. Which is more than can be said for all of us. What may be your name, now?”
“What has my name to do with it?” He got off the bed.
“What has his name to do with it?” asked Mr. Flippance of the waiter, who now shot in with a well-divined bottle and appurtenances.
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“And so you may, you son of a slug. Here, take this rope and hang yourself with it! So you won’t tell your name, you son of a flea,” he went on, when the waiter had spirited off the breakfast-tray. “Well, here’s my back—bite away.” And with a high tragic gesture he turned to open the brandy-bottle.
“I’m not a backbiter,” said Will angrily. “I’m a front-puncher, and my name is——”
“Never mind your name. I accepted you. You came like the spirit of the May Day—mixed with the Mayflower. I opened my heart to you. I gave you three names. I was Duke, I was Anthony Flippance, I was Tony Flip.” He gurgled the brandy into his glass. “I demanded no references. I entrusted you with posters for my daughter.”
“Which I delivered honestly.”
“My name is——”
“Hush! Not for a million pounds would I hear it now. But the girl’s name?” he turned round, glass in hand. “That at least I beg.”
“I’ve mentioned it already. It’s—it’s the Carrier.”
“Jinny!” Tony Flip burst into an explosive laugh of relief. “Fancy calling Jinny a girl!”
“And what else would you call her?”
“What you just called her—the Carrier.”
“Then if she is a carrier, why should you degrade her into a horse-broker?”
“Oh, that’s all you mean, is it?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Don’t be an idiot. Here, have a drink.”
Will waved the glass away.
“Would you like to send your daughter bargaining among a lot of rough men?”
Tony grinned. “I don’t think Polly ’ud mind the men. It’s the horse she’d come a cropper over. Jinny’s had a long experiance of horses, and she’s smart enough to buy anything. If I wanted the moon, she’d get it for me—and cheap too!”
“And why can’t you buy your own horses?”
“Why? Because I’m a child of nature—a simple player—who wears his heart on his sleeve for daws to peck at. My last mare crocked up in a week in the flower of her youth—seems to have been bought in a knacker’s yard, shaved and singed and brushed and combed till she was as shiny as a Derby winner. They gingered her ears and jaws and cayenne-peppered her nostrils till she seemed clothed in thunder, like the war-horse in the Bible.”
Will smiled despite himself. “And you expect a girl to see through all that! Look here, I’ll buy your horse.”
Mr. Flippance paused in the act of imbibing. “Oh, there we are,” he said, looking shrewd. “Want to cut out Jinny’s business!”
Will’s cheeks became chromatically indistinguishable from his hair.
“Me! Do you think I want your dirty commission?”
“And do you think I want your stinking horse? Why the devil do you come interfering?”
Will was silent. Tony finished his glass like a victor.
“If it ain’t the commission, what are you after?”
“That’s my business,” said Will sullenly.
“Just what I said!” crowed Tony. “But I’d rather pay Jinny a quid than you a bob. She’s got her old grandfather to keep!”
“Yes, and he’s as selfish and inconsiderate as you. But she shan’t get you a horse, and there’s an end of it.”
“Oho!” Brandy had made him genial again. “Who’s going to prevent it? Now don’t say ‘I will,’ because that’s in our dramas—attitude and all. Though judging by the way you’ve been going on, Mr. Anon, I’m not so sure you wouldn’t make an actor! Perhaps Polly smelt right and you are one after all. But don’t you come disturbing my peace of mind, you son of a star. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back to the legitimate.”
“We’re talking of caravan horses,” said Will, at once mystified and mollified.
“You seem to know all about it. I guess you ran a show yourself in the States.”
Will smiled darkly. “That’s not your affair.”
“But it might be. I’m not above a partner with capital. Duke’s Marionettes are getting shabby. The ghost is nearly black; Ophelia wants a new coat of paint. Harlequin is out of joint and the Clown’s cheeks are worn white. And we’ve got too few characters and too many plays. The public are on to it when they see Hamlet turning up again in The Beggar of Bethnal Green. Some new scenery too would smarten up the show. I shan’t expect you to pull the strings—just put up the chinkers and we’ll divvy up, you and me and Polly. Now don’t say ‘No’ too quick. Drink it over.” And, beaming beneficence, he again tendered Will the other glass.
This time Will took it, hearing himself clink it against Tony’s through a daze, as he asked himself whether, after all, this notion—utterly fantastic and unexpected as it was—mightn’t be as good a way as any other of investing his ninety pounds: he would certainly be in a position then to stop Jinny from buying the horse!
“Well, what do you say?” cried Tony.
“But you don’t know my name?” murmured Will, with the stir of adventure and brandy in his veins.
“Pooh! What’s in a name? A nose by any other name would swell as red.” And, laughing, he clapped Will on the shoulder. “We’ll spruce up the tent too, and slick up the caravan—a dingy old hearse ain’t the best advertisement on a tour. And why shouldn’t you take some of the parts? Pity to waste your twang. We’d get some American figures made—cowboys and slave-dealers and such—and spice our ghosts and goblins with Colonel Bowie knives and Yankee yumour. We might even turn the bridegroom in The Mistletoe Bough into a rich New-Yorker, and make the bride moulder away in an American trunk. There’s a fortune in it. I don’t mean in the trunk—ha, ha, ha!”
With a last instinct of sanity Will observed maliciously that it was Sunday. He merely meant to remind Tony that that was his day for truth. But the Showman’s glass nearly fell from his fingers.
“You too!” he said. “And that Jinny—as lively a girl as ever stepped. And Mother Gander—as buxom a landlady as ever bussed a bagman. What’s come over the East Anglian circuit? And I took you for a man of the world.”
Unwilling to repudiate that status, Will remarked flabbily that precisely as a man of the world he didn’t see any money in marionettes.
“No money!” Mr. Flippance swelled with indignation as he pointed out that Drury Lane and the mines of Golconda were not in it with marionettes, properly equipped and spring-cleaned; the public was simply panting for high-class puppets.
It goaded Will to emphasize his meaning. “Is this your Sunday talk or your week-day talk?” he interrupted dryly. “Didn’t you just tell me that you’re doing badly?”
Mr. Flippance admitted it almost without a wince. And had he not given the reason? To take money out you must put money in. “I tell you there’s a fortune in it,” he repeated.
“Sunk?” asked Will blandly. He added vengefully that he would consider a partnership when the stuffed elephant came home from the Crystal Palace. Tony, in crimson comprehension, rushed at the litter on the spare chair and dragged out a newspaper from under the neckties. “Read that!” he said sublimely, “the Essex County Chronicle!” And his semi-gilded forefinger indicated a heavily blued passage. “Our readers will be interested to know,” read Will, “that it is a local showman who supplied the great stuffed elephant that holds Her Majesty’s gorgeous howdah in Mr. Paxton’s marvellous glass——”
He dropped the paper. “I beg your pardon!” he said, too disconcerted to realize that the “local” showman need not necessarily be Tony Flip. “But I really would rather not talk business to-day, and I don’t know anything about yours—that wasn’t my line in the States. I never even saw a puppet-show in my life, outside Punch and Judy. A real live drama now——” he concluded vaguely, meaning that he had at least seen real plays, and utterly unforeseeing the effect the remark would have upon his host.
For Tony Flip bounded like a large mechanical toy, plumped down again in his chair, turned its back and his own to his guest, and stuffing jewelled forefingers into both his ears cried out: “Get thee behind me, Satan! Avaunt! Avaunt!”
“Me, Satan!” said Will, astonished. “Who ever heard of Satan refusing to do business on Sunday?”
If his last innocent remark had produced convulsive effects in a perpendicular direction, this set Tony Flip rolling from side to side in his chair. “Yankee yumour,” he gasped between the spasms. “Lord!” he said at last. “You’ll drive me to set up a minstrel show, only to get that in.”
Will, though puzzled, could hardly help being flattered by these proofs of his facetious talents. It was strange, he thought, how different the conversation went when he was with Jinny. Then the laugh seemed always at his expense.
“I should think a minstrel show would be more fun,” he observed.
Tony veered round with his arm-chair, ceased to laugh, and regarded Will with large, reproachful eyes. “And you cant about Sunday!” he said. “And then to come tempting me back to that Witches’ Sabbath of a profession.”
“Nigger minstrels?” Will murmured, more dazed than ever.
“As if nigger minstrels weren’t half-way to your Othello. No, you son of Satan. To hell with your capital! Didn’t you hear me say ditto to the rat-catcher? They are dens of the devil—theatres.”
“Then why do you run one?”
“Me! I don’t class my show as a theatre. Marionettes keep themselves to themselves.”
“But you play Shakespeare.”
Tony held up his fat glittering forefinger. “We pull Shakespeare’s strings—Polly and me. But there’s no actors the public can drag before the curtain.”
Will admitted the difference, but not the moral distinction.
“You ever met any actors and actresses?” said Tony.
Will could not pretend to that privilege—if Mr. Flippance and his daughter refused to be counted—and there was a long silence, in which Tony seemed to the outer eye to keep sips of brandy-and-water lingering on his palate, though he was really—it transpired—chewing the cud of bitter memories. For suddenly he burst out: “I lived all my life with ’em. I’ve managed ’em for years—or, rather, failed to manage ’em. Born in a Green Room, rocked in a Witches’ Cauldron, and baptized in grease-paint. My ma was a leading lady—she played heroines and my father wrote the melodramas. And they know a good melodrama at the ‘Eagle.’ ”
“Yes—I’ve heard of the ‘Eagle’ in London,” said Will.
“Ah, you know it by the song, perhaps:
Up and down the City Road,
In and out the ‘Eagle.’
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel!”
“I never heard a weasel go pop,” Will laughed. “It was the mouse, if anything, though I did once see a stoat crack up before a cat.”
Tony’s mien relaxed in a faint smile.
The weasel was a tailor’s iron, he explained, pawned by the reckless snip to raise money for treating the damsels who danced with him on that open-air platform to which the “Eagle’s” audience streamed out betwixt the drama and the farce. He added simply: “That’s where my Don Juan of a dad first clapped eyes on a girl, pretty, of course, but with no more acting in her than Mother Gander. Yet, would you believe it, he shoved her into the lead instead of ma, and wrote a piece all for her, and what was worse it was a big go. That was the last straw, and clasping me to her wounded bosom, she left him, poor ma.”
“I should have thought she’d ha’ left him sooner,” murmured Will, vaguely uncomfortable under these frank domestic revelations.
“It isn’t so easy to leave a man you’re not married to!” said Tony.
“Ah, that surprises you?” said the Showman complacently. With a cautious glance at his daughter’s door of communication, he produced two cigars furtively from his washstand drawer—was he forbidden to smoke, Will wondered. “You’ll find that good,” he said, pressing one upon his guest.
“You see,” he explained, as they puffed at these excellent weeds in a new intimacy, “if a woman leaves her husband it makes a scandal he don’t like, whereas a man that’s not tied is only too glad to be rid of her. Oh, I ain’t defending ma, mind you—it only shows she was a born actress. I dare say she’d only sucked up to pa to get parts. But when he unstarred her, fine emotional actress as she was, she could never get her foot in again in London, to play leads I mean, for she was too proud to play anything else. ‘I can play anything except second fiddle,’ she used to say, and rather than cave in, she married a fifth-rate manager, called Jim Flippance, who had only a fit-up theatre (carries its own props, scenery, and proscenium, but not open-air, you know), and made him put up pieces with a kid in ’em to keep me out of mischief, but it wasn’t long before I soared out of the parental nest, and by the time they both joined the majority, poor old birds, I’d been leading man or manager or both in half a dozen theatres, two of ’em London houses.” Will receiving this information with a silent curl of his smoke, as though it were another elephantine claim, Mr. Flippance added vehemently: “Real London theatres, mind you, not those swindling gaffs for paying amateurs described by Boz—that’s Charles Dickens, you know. You’ve read Dickens?”
Will shook his head. “Too heavy and high-class for me. They don’t like him in the States either—I’ve heard he wrote a piece against them——”
“Ah, but you should hear him read his ‘Christmas Carol!’ There’s a wasted actor for you! Lord, if I’d had the running of that chap!”
Will was more interested in the girl who cut out Mr. Flippance’s ma. “I hope your father—your pa—” he substituted politely, “married his new flame,” he said. Even through the glow of the brandy and the blur of the smoke he was dismayed by this dishevelled life.
“How could he? He had a wife in Cork. Yes, I forgot to say pa was Irish. I’ve always gone by my mother’s married name, but you can have my father’s name if you wish!”
“Not for a million pounds,” said Will.
“You Yankee yumorist!” Tony blew a playful puff of smoke at him. “Well, you’ll see it if you come across the old ‘Eagle’ playbills or those of Flippance’s Fit-Up for that matter, for we did all pa’s plays—ma had played them so long she knew all the parts. Pa sent her a lawyer’s letter—for she didn’t even trouble to change the titles or the author’s name—but she defied him to wash his dirty linen in court, knowing how virtuous his ‘Eagle’ public was, and that it might ha’ ruined him and his moral melodramas.”
“They seem a funny lot—stage folk,” Will commented.
“Bless you, there’s no bearing of ’em.”
Will, relieved, said he was glad Mr. Flippance didn’t approve of such morals.
“Morals!” Tony glared at him. “Who’s talking of morals? Men will be men and women women whether they’re pro’s or public. You didn’t find America a Sunday-school, I reckon?”
Will, coughing over his liquor, supposed a man could have his fun anywhere.
“That’s what I say!” said the Showman. “And on the other hand I’ve known actors as respectable as your rat-catcher. I’m one of ’em myself, as I told you just now. I’d seen too many dead flies in the honey—and my Polly’s as pure as her poor dead mother. No, it ain’t their morals that bother me, it’s their ways. Holy Moses! To think of the time I had travelling round managing these sons of dragons and hell-cats! I envied ma and Flippance in the churchyard under their favourable stone notices. The jealousies! The cat-and-dog bickerings! The screams and hysterics! Who should play this or that, who should be largest on the programmes and posters, who should stand in the limelight, who should take the call—they never quarrelled who should take the bird: that’s the hiss in our lingo. They were always hissing at one another, or at the poor manager, that’s me! I’ve seen the leading man and the leading lady take their call hand in hand, and the moment the curtain was down resume spitting fire at each other. It wasn’t that they had any vanity, they said, it was only that their position demanded they should take calls singly or be printed larger than each other. Cocks and catamarans! I tell you if I hadn’t swopped with Duke for his marionettes, I should have had little rose-bushes growing out of me now, and that favourable stone notice over me. Oh, the peace of it—it’s Sunday all the week!”
“I can see marionettes would be easier to manage,” said Will, smiling.
“Ah, but to feel it as I do, you must have lived through it.” Mr. Flippance rose in his emotion and paced animatedly. “You must have had a hornets’ nest for your seat and a brood of vipers in your bosom, and shared diggings with the Furies. Oh, my radiant juvenile, your sun-coloured hair would have been snow if you had gone through what I have! If you’d had Ophelia in hysterics and Hamlet in liquor and even the ghost hardly able to walk, and the call-boy crying the curtain was up, and the audience stamping and whistling, and short-tempered people at the box-office demanding their money back, you’d be able to measure the feeling of thankfulness that comes over the cockles of my heart when I stand in my theatre and see my leading lady sitting so angelic on her wires unable to move hand or foot without me, or when I jerk my leading man out of the centre of the stage all in a heavenly calm; And to see the curtain come up and down with nobody scuffling behind it to bob and smirk—oh, the Jerusalem restfulness! There mayn’t be as much rhino in marionettes as in flesh and blood——”
“You just said there was more,” Will reminded him, unkindly.
“I meant compared with the capital put in,” said Tony, without turning a hair. “You don’t risk much when you don’t have to pay your actors. But Duke wasn’t mercenary, and it was the glory that appealed to him, poor man. He’d inherited the business, like me, but he’d always been ambitious after high art, he told me, and Flippance’s Fit-Up was his boyhood’s dream. We did the swop over mulled claret last Christmas Eve in this very inn. Peace and goodwill, thinks I, as we clinked tumblers on the deal. You’ve got the goodwill, but peace, no, that you’ll never see again.”
Will smiled. “I’ll really have to come and see those blessèd puppets,” he said, as the Showman replenished the glasses.
Tony replied that he should see the whole boiling of them either before or after the show, neatly packed in their big box. “And if there’s any you’d like to kick, you’re welcome,” he said.
“What! Damage your property?”
“It would work off my bitter memories.”
“But they’re not the real live actors.”
“No—there’s the pity!” said Tony. “But they look so real—they’re life-size, you know—that I sometimes yell at ’em and abuse ’em just for the satisfaction of their not answering back. And the leading lady looks as if she had a tongue to her—I promise you. A tongue—but thank the Lord it can only talk Shakespeare or noble sentiments—can’t even nag the management for a new dress. As for the juvenile lead, I can’t help tweaking his nose sometimes for the sake of auld lang syne. Polly can’t understand my spoiling his beauty—I can’t make her see I’m getting a bit of my own back—and when she catches me punching the low comedian’s head with a boxing-glove she saucers her eyes, as though I was going dotty. But she never had to manage ’em. And I had to travel ’em too—don’t forget that. Fancy carting around a menagerie, all in the same cage! But I have my revenge when I travel ’em now—into the box they go—leads below and the heavy man sitting on their heads, ha, ha, ha!—and utilities and supers on top of all! And it don’t raise a whisper. Talk of the lion lying down with the lamb. Believe me, old cock, that there millennium will never come till we’re all on wires.” He drew vigorously at the cigar his eloquence had all but extinguished.
“There’s a lot of the brutes,” he mused between the puffs, “that don’t know Tony Flip’s escaped out of hell, and they write and call for engagements—same as Polly thought you did—and if it isn’t Sunday I take ’em to see my company and rub their noses into ’em, so to speak. Look at ’em, I say, every man and woman knowing their place, and when to speak and when to hold their blooming tongue, every one knowing their parts too, which is more than you ever did, I’ll be bound. No wigs, no make-ups, no dresses, no young bloods or decrepit dandies coming behind, no prompter, nobody missing their cue, or unpunctual or hysterical. No Bardell versus Pickwick. Nobody drunk, married, divorced, deceased, laid up, locked up, or run over, between the dress rehearsal and the first night. No understudies, eating their heads off: in the way when they’re not wanted, and missing their cues when they are. No sore throats, no funerals to go to, no babies to get—if there’s a baby wanted, I order it from the makers. And above all, my boy, say I to ’em, no treasury.”
“What’s that?” inquired Will.
“What’s that? Well I’m blowed. That’s pay-day. And kindly note, I say to ’em, that lead don’t get more than utility, nor responsibles than walking gentlemen. It’s Owenism, you sons of Mammon, I tell ’em, sheer Owenism. Everybody getting the same nothing, and nobody coming carneying for advance half-crowns. As for curtain-calls, the singing chambermaid’s got the same chance as Lady Macbeth. And when it is a leading man that’s come for a berth, I take him to the front of the booth where there’s a retired village idiot I picked up, banging the drum. Look there, says I, he’s not got much brains but he isn’t wood, and that’s the only flesh-and-blood job I’ve got left in this blooming shop. If you like to take it, why, in recognition of your position, I’ll throw in an extra naphtha flare.”
“And what do they say?” laughed Will.
“It can’t be repeated on a Sunday! But you can picture ’em black in the face—all except the nose. That gets redder than ever! Hullo, Charley! Come in! Come in!”
Through the open door he had caught sight of the landlord in the corridor.
“Can’t stop, Tony.” Mr. Mott was, in fact, hurrying to take advantage of his spouse’s return to chapel.
“Gander-pecked again, I suppose,” laughed the Showman. “Ah, Charley, you’d be much happier if you had a wife on wires.”
“There you go again!” And Mr. Mott, eager to join old pals at their fishing, sniggered past, leaving a reek of hair-oil.
“Poor chap!” sighed Tony. “But there’s always hope for a man whose wife won’t call in a doctor.”
Will laughed, and cunningly took advantage of all this expansive geniality to escape from the room and the threatened transaction and to call from the doorstep as he took his farewell, “Then it’s settled—I get the horse.”
“If you bring it into the partnership,” cried Tony after him, “not otherwise.”
Will found himself waylaid by Polly as he passed her doorway. She beckoned him within with a mysterious, masterful forefinger, and he, seeing the moreen curtains of her four-poster discreetly drawn, entered, though not without Puritan misgivings. She drew another curtain over the closed door communicating with her father’s room, and turned the key. “Don’t waste my cigar,” she said as he held it behind him. “I can see pa’s given you one of mine.” And taking up her glowing fag-end from the ash-tray, she resumed her suction of it, sipping in the intervals at a glass of milk. “I suppose you won’t share my drink,” she said simply.
“No, thank you,” he said, hardly believing his eyes, though he now understood whence came the clouds in which he had found her mantled. Perhaps she was really a man in disguise, despite her long ear-rings. But then, would ever a male take milk with his cigar? What with tobacco and horsiness, what was the sex coming to? And yet there seemed something symbolic in this combination of stimulants, this masculinity mitigated by milk! “What do you want to say to me?” he asked, keeping the front door open with his hand.
“What’s this about a partnership?” she said softly. “I couldn’t help hearing.”
“Don’t ask me,” said Will in tones hushed as cautiously. “Mr. Flippance did speak of it, but I’ve never thought of the theatre as a business, only as a spree.”
“Did he want you to take a theatre?” she asked anxiously.
“Good heavens, no! He called it hell!”
Miss Flippance smiled sadly. “That’s his way of consoling himself. He’s dying to get a stock company again. But he mustn’t have even a theatre for amateurs. I’d fight it tooth and nail.”
“It’s bad for him, I know.”
“It’s bad for me,” said Miss Flippance. She puffed out a cloud. “You see, there’d be no place for me. I can wipe most actresses off the stage, but I’m not pretty—at least, not since my illness—and the public won’t have me—except at the piano where I turn my back on them. Plain actresses must be heard and not seen.”
“Oh!” Will was taken aback by such candour.
“Besides, one of the women would probably entangle him into marriage. I don’t mind his having a wife on wires!” And a smile came travelling over the pits of her face.
“You don’t mean to say he really wants to go back to hell?” said Will, dazed.
“Don’t the moths after you’ve saved ’em from the lamp? And it was no easy task saving him. Christmas after Christmas I used to jest: ‘Peace and goodwill indeed! You’ll never have peace till you’ve got rid of your goodwill.’ ”
“But that’s what he says himself,” said Will naïvely. “So he can’t be craving to go back—it’s the marionettes he wanted me to stand in with.”
“That’s all my eye. He don’t know how happy he really is nowadays, playing all the men’s parts. That was always the trouble in a real theatre, especially when he was cock-of-the-walk—he never could make up his mind which part he wanted. First he’d try one, and then think another was better and throw it up in the middle and take away the other man’s part. Nobody likes to give up a half-digested part, and it doesn’t make things easier when, after all, you get it back again. Imagine the ructions he was always making, and I’m not going to have it all over again. He’s got all the parts now, and so it’s going to stay.” With which ultimatum she held out her hand and gripped him with what he felt a manly clasp, and an honest. “Don’t you be his partner,” she counselled. “He’s lost all his own money and it’s not likely he’d multiply yours. He might have been a big London actor or manager, but the Bible sized him up before he was born. ‘Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.’ If only at least one can keep him to water! No, you stick to your cash. There’s no money in the show for more than him and me—my last jewellery will have to go for the horse—and if you’ve really got the dollars, he’d have a theatre, with you as juvenile lead, before you could say Jack Robinson, and then he’d steal your part and drive you to drink.”
Will replied firmly, still holding her hand, that he was going to put his money into farming, and by the way, would she countermand that order to the Carrier for the horse?
“Oh, but we must have a horse,” said Polly.
“Quite so, but why through Jinny?” He was prepared himself, he explained, to get them the best animal at the lowest price.
“And for what commission?” she queried.
“For love!” said Will.
Polly withdrew her hand. “No, thank you. We’d best let it go through Jinny—like everything else.”
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