A SERMON ON INNS
THE sea was a pale elfin green and the afternoon had already felt the fairy touch of evening as a young woman with dark hair, dressed in a crinkly copper-coloured sort of dress of the artistic order, was walking rather listlessly along the parade of Pebblewick-on-Sea, trailing a parasol and looking out upon the sea’s horizon. She had a reason for looking instinctively out at the sea-line; a reason that many young women have had in the history of the world. But there was no sail in sight.
On the beach below the parade were a succession of small crowds, surrounding the usual orators of the seaside; whether niggers or socialists, whether clowns or clergymen. Here would stand a man doing something or other with paper boxes; and the holiday makers would watch him for hours in the hope of some time knowing what it was that he was doing with them. Next to him would be a man in a top hat with a very big Bible and a very small wife, who stood silently beside him, while he fought with his clenched fist against the heresy of Milnian Sublapsarianism so wide-spread in fashionable watering-places. It was not easy to follow him, he was so very much excited; but every now and then the words “our Sublapsarian friends” would recur with a kind of wailing sneer. Next was a young man talking of nobody knew what (least of all himself), but apparently relying for public favour mainly on having a ring of carrots round his hat. He had more money lying in front of him than the others. Next were niggers. Next was a children’s service conducted by a man with a long neck who beat time with a little wooden spade. Farther along there was an atheist, in a towering rage, who pointed every now and then at the children’s service and spoke of Nature’s fairest things being corrupted with the secrets of the Spanish Inquisition–by the man with the little spade, of course. The atheist (who wore a red rosette) was very withering to his own audience as well. “Hypocrites!” he would say; and then they would throw him money. “Dupes and dastards!” and then they would throw him more money. But between the atheist and the children’s service was a little owlish man in a red fez, weakly waving a green gamp umbrella. His face was brown and wrinkled like a walnut, his nose was of the sort we associate with Judaea, his beard was the sort of black wedge we associate rather with Persia. The young woman had never seen him before; he was a new exhibit in the now familiar museum of cranks and quacks. The young woman was one of those people in whom a real sense of humour is always at issue with a certain temperamental tendency to boredom or melancholia; and she lingered a moment, and leaned on the rail to listen.
It was fully four minutes before she could understand a word the man was saying; he spoke English with so extraordinary an accent that she supposed at first that he was talking in his own oriental tongue. All the noises of that articulation were odd; the most marked was an extreme prolongation of the short “u” into “oo”; as in “poo-oot” for “put.” Gradually the girl got used to the dialect, and began to understand the words; though some time elapsed even then before she could form any conjecture of their subject matter. Eventually it appeared to her that he had some fad about English civilisation having been founded by the Turks; or, perhaps by the Saracens after their victory in the Crusades. He also seemed to think that Englishmen would soon return to this way of thinking; and seemed to be urging the spread of teetotalism as an evidence of it. The girl was the only person listening to him.
“Loo-ook,” he said, wagging a curled brown finger, “loo-ook at your own inns” (which he pronounced as “ince”). “Your inns of which you write in your boo-ooks! Those inns were not poo-oot up in the beginning to sell ze alcoholic Christian drink. They were put up to sell ze non-alcoholic Islamic drinks. You can see this in the names of your inns. They are eastern names, Asiatic names. You have a famous public house to which your omnibuses go on the pilgrimage. It is called the Elephant and Castle. That is not an English name. It is an Asiatic name. You will say there are castles in England, and I will agree with you. There is the Windsor Castle. But where,” he cried sternly, shaking his green umbrella at the girl in an angry oratorical triumph, “where is the Windsor Elephant? I have searched all Windsor Park. No elephants.”
The girl with the dark hair smiled, and began to think that this man was better than any of the others. In accordance with the strange system of concurrent religious endowment which prevails at watering-places, she dropped a two shilling piece into the round copper tray beside him. With honourable and disinterested eagerness, the old gentleman in the red fez took no notice of this, but went on warmly, if obscurely, with his argument.
“Then you have a place of drink in this town which you call The Bool!”
“We generally call it The Bull,” said the interested young lady, with a very melodious voice.
“You have a place of drink, which you call The Bool,” he reiterated in a sort of abstract fury, “and surely you see that this is all vary ridiculous!”
“No, no!” said the girl, softly, and in deprecation.
“Why should there be a Bull?” he cried, prolonging the word in his own way. “Why should there be a Bull in connection with a festive locality? Who thinks about a Bull in gardens of delight? What need is there of a Bull when we watch the tulip-tinted maidens dance or pour the sparkling sherbert? You yourselves, my friends?” And he looked around radiantly, as if addressing an enormous mob. “You yourselves have a proverb, ‘It is not calculated to promote prosperity to have a Bull in a china shop.’ Equally, my friends, it would not be calculated to promote prosperity to have a Bull in a wine shop. All this is clear.”
He stuck his umbrella upright in the sand and struck one finger against another, like a man getting to business at last.
“It iss as clear as the sun at noon,” he said solemnly. “It iss as clear as the sun at noon that this word Bull, which is devoid of restful and pleasurable associations, is but the corruption of another word, which possesses restful and pleasurable associations. The word is not Bull; it is the Bul-Bul!” His voice rose suddenly like a trumpet and he spread abroad his hands like the fans of a tropic palm-tree.
After this great effect he was a little more subdued and leaned gravely on his umbrella. “You will find the same trace of Asiatic nomenclature in the names of all your English inns,” he went on. “Nay, you will find it, I am almost certain, in all your terms in any way connected with your revelries and your reposes. Why, my good friends, the very name of that insidious spirit by which you make strong your drinks is an Arabic word: alcohol. It is obvious, is it not, that this is the Arabic article ‘Al,’ as in Alhambra, as in Algebra; and we need not pause here to pursue its many appearances in connection with your festive institutions, as in your Alsop’s beer, your Ally Sloper, and your partly joyous institution of the Albert Memorial. Above all, in your greatest feasting day–your Christmas day–which you so erroneously suppose to be connected with your religion, what do you say then? Do you say the names of the Christian Nations? Do you say, ‘I will have a little France. I will have a little Ireland. I will have a little Scotland. I will have a little Spain?’ No–o.” And the noise of the negative seemed to waggle as does the bleating of a sheep. “You say, ‘I will have a little Turkey,’ which is your name for the Country of the Servant of the Prophet!”
And once more he stretched out his arms sublimely to the east and west and appealed to earth and heaven. The young lady, looking at the sea-green horizon with a smile, clapped her grey gloved hands softly together as if at a peroration. But the little old man with the fez was far from exhausted yet.
“In reply to this you will object–” he began.
“O no, no,” breathed the young lady in a sort of dreamy rapture. “I don’t object. I don’t object the littlest bit!”
“In reply to this you will object–” proceeded her preceptor, “that some inns are actually named after the symbols of your national superstitions. You will hasten to point out to me that the Golden Cross is situated opposite Charing Cross, and you will expatiate at length on King’s Cross, Gerrard’s Cross and the many crosses that are to be found in or near London. But you must not forget,” and here he wagged his green umbrella roguishly at the girl, as if he was going to poke her with it, “none of you, my friends, must forget what a large number of Crescents there are in London! Denmark Crescent; Mornington Crescent! St. Mark’s Crescent! St. George’s Crescent! Grosvenor Crescent! Regent’s Park Crescent! Nay, Royal Crescent! And why should we forget Pelham Crescent? Why, indeed? Everywhere, I say, homage paid to the holy symbol of the religion of the Prophet! Compare with this network and pattern of crescents, this city almost consisting of crescents, the meagre array of crosses, which remain to attest the ephemeral superstition to which you were, for one weak moment, inclined.”
The crowds on the beach were rapidly thinning as tea-time drew nearer. The west grew clearer and clearer with the evening, till the sunshine seemed to have got behind the pale green sea and be shining through, as through a wall of thin green glass. The very transparency of sky and sea might have to this girl, for whom the sea was the romance and the tragedy, the hint of a sort of radiant hopelessness. The flood made of a million emeralds was ebbing as slowly as the sun was sinking: but the river of human nonsense flowed on for ever.
“I will not for one moment maintain,” said the old gentleman, “that there are no difficulties in my case; or that all the examples are as obviously true as those that I have just demonstrated. No-o. It is obvious, let us say, that the ‘Saracen’s Head’ is a corruption of the historic truth ‘The Saracen is Ahead’–I am far from saying it is equally obvious that the ‘Green Dragon’ was originally ‘the Agreeing Dragoman’; though I hope to prove in my book that it is so. I will only say here that it is su-urely more probable that one poo-ooting himself forward to attract the wayfarer in the desert, would compare himself to a friendly and persuadable guide or courier, rather than to a voracious monster. Sometimes the true origin is very hard to trace; as in the inn that commemorates our great Moslem Warrior, Amir Ali Ben Bhoze, whom you have so quaintly abbreviated into Admiral Benbow. Sometimes it is even more difficult for the seeker after truth. There is a place of drink near to here called ‘The Old Ship’–”
The eyes of the girl remained on the ring of the horizon as rigid as the ring itself; but her whole face had coloured and altered. The sands were almost emptied by now: the atheist was as non-existent as his God; and those who had hoped to know what was being done to the paper boxes had gone away to their tea without knowing it. But the young woman still leaned on the railing. Her face was suddenly alive; and it looked as if her body could not move.
“It shood be admitted–” bleated the old man with the green umbrella, “that there is no literally self-evident trace of the Asiatic nomenclature in the words ‘the old ship.’ But even here the see-eeker after Truth can poot himself in touch with facts. I questioned the proprietor of ‘The Old Ship’ who is, according to such notes as I have kept, a Mr. Pumph.”
The girl’s lip trembled.
“Poor old Hump!” she said. “Why, I’d forgotten about him. He must be very nearly as worried as I am! I hope this man won’t be too silly about this! I’d rather it weren’t about this!”
“And Mr. Pumph to-old me the inn was named by a vary intimate friend of his, an Irishman who had been a Captain in the Britannic Royal Navy, but had resigned his po-ost in anger at the treatment of Ireland. Though quitting the service, he retained joost enough of the superstition of your western sailors, to wish his friend’s inn to be named after his old ship. But as the name of the ship was ‘The United Kingdom–’”
His female pupil, if she could not exactly be said to be sitting at his feet, was undoubtedly leaning out very eagerly above his head. Amid the solitude of the sands she called out in a loud and clear voice, “Can you tell me the Captain’s name?”
The old gentleman jumped, blinked and stared like a startled owl. Having been talking for hours as if he had an audience of thousands, he seemed suddenly very much embarrassed to find that he had even an audience of one. By this time they seemed to be almost the only human creatures along the shore; almost the only living creatures, except the seagulls. The sun, in dropping finally, seemed to have broken as a blood orange might break; and lines of blood-red light were spilt along the split, low, level skies. This abrupt and belated brilliance took all the colour out of the man’s red cap and green umbrella; but his dark figure, distinct against the sea and the sunset, remained the same, save that it was more agitated than before.
“The name,” he said, “the Captain’s name. I–I understood it was Dalroy. But what I wish to indicate, what I wish to expound, is that here again the seeker after truth can find the connection of his ideas. It was explained to me by Mr. Pumph that he was rearranging the place of festivity, in no inconsiderable proportion because of the anticipated return of the Captain in question, who had, as it appeared, taken service in some not very large Navy, but had left it and was coming home. Now, mark all of you, my friends,” he said to the seagulls “that even here the chain of logic holds.”
He said it to the seagulls because the young lady, after staring at him with starry eyes for a moment and leaning heavily on the railing, had turned her back and disappeared rapidly into the twilight. After her hasty steps had fallen silent there was no other noise than the faint but powerful purring of the now distant sea, the occasional shriek of a sea-bird, and the continuous sound of a soliloquy.
“Mark, all of you,” continued the man flourishing his green umbrella so furiously that it almost flew open like a green flag unfurled, and then striking it deep in the sand, in the sand in which his fighting fathers had so often struck their tents, “mark all of you this marvellous fact! That when, being for a time, for a time, astonished-embarrassed–brought up as you would say short–by the absence of any absolute evidence of Eastern influence in the phrase ‘the old ship,’ I inquired from what country the Captain was returning, Mr. Pumph said to me in solemnity, ‘From Turkey.’ From Turkey! From the nearest country of the Religion! I know men say it is not our country; that no man knows where we come from, of what is our country. What does it matter where we come from if we carry a message from Paradise? With a great galloping of horses we carry it, and have no time to stop in places. But what we bring is the only creed that has regarded what you will call in your great words the virginity of a man’s reason, that has put no man higher than a prophet, and has respected the solitude of God.”
And again he spread his arms out, as if addressing a mass meeting of millions, all alone on the dark seashore.