THE SIGN OF “THE OLD SHIP”
UPON few of the children of men has the surname of Pump fallen, and of these few have been maddened into naming a child Humphrey in addition to it. To such extremity, however, had the parents of the innkeeper at “The Old Ship” proceeded, that their son might come at last to be called “Hump” by his dearest friends, and “Pumph” by an aged Turk with a green umbrella. All this, or all he knew of it, he endured with a sour smile; for he was of a stoical temper.
Mr. Humphrey Pump stood outside his inn, which stood almost on the seashore, screened only by one line of apple trees, dwarfed, twisted and salted by the sea air; but in front of it was a highly banked bowling green, and behind it the land sank abruptly; so that one very steep sweeping road vanished into the depth and mystery of taller trees. Mr. Pump was standing immediately under his trim sign, which stood erect in the turf; a wooden pole painted white and suspending a square white board, also painted white but further decorated with a highly grotesque blue ship, such as a child might draw, but into which Mr. Pump’s patriotism had insinuated a disproportionately large red St. George’s cross.
Mr. Humphrey Pump was a man of middle size, with very broad shoulders, wearing a sort of shooting suit with gaiters. Indeed, he was engaged at the moment in cleaning and reloading a double-barrelled gun, a short but powerful weapon which he had invented, or at least improved, himself; and which, though eccentric enough as compared with latest scientific arms, was neither clumsy nor necessarily out of date. For Pump was one of those handy men who seem to have a hundred hands like Briareus; he made nearly everything for himself and everything in his house was slightly different from the same thing in anyone else’s house. He was also as cunning as Pan or a poacher in everything affecting every bird or dish, every leaf or berry in the woods. His mind was a rich soil of subconscious memories and traditions; and he had a curious kind of gossip so allusive as to almost amount to reticence; for he always took it for granted that everyone knew his county and its tales as intimately as he did; so he would mention the most mysterious and amazing things without relaxing a muscle on his face, which seemed to be made of knotted wood. His dark brown hair ended in two rudimentary side whiskers, giving him a slightly horsy look, but in the old-fashioned sportsman’s style. His smile was rather wry and crabbed; but his brown eyes were kindly and soft. He was very English.
As a rule his movements, though quick, were cool; but on this occasion he put down the gun on the table outside the inn in a rather hurried manner and came forward dusting his hands in an unusual degree of animation and even defiance. Beyond the goblin green apple trees and against the sea had appeared the tall, slight figure of a girl, in a dress about the colour of copper and a large shady hat. Under the hat her face was grave and beautiful though rather swarthy. She shook hands with Mr. Pump; then he very ceremoniously put a chair for her and called her “Lady Joan.”
“I thought I would like a look at the old place,” she said. “We have had some happy times here when we were boys and girls. I suppose you hardly see any of your old friends now.”
“Very little,” answered Pump, rubbing his short whisker reflectively. “Lord Ivywood’s become quite a Methody parson, you know, since he took the place; he’s pulling down beer-shops right and left. And Mr. Charles was sent to Australia for lying down flat at the funeral. Pretty stiff I call it; but the old lady was a terror.”
“Do you ever hear,” asked Lady Joan Brett, carelessly, “of that Irishman, Captain Dalroy?”
“Yes, more often than from the rest,” answered the innkeeper. “He seems to have done wonders in this Greek business. Ah! He was a sad loss to the Navy!”
“They insulted his country,” said the girl, looking at the sea with a heightened colour. “After all, Ireland was his country; and he had a right to resent it being spoken of like that.”
“And when they found he’d painted him green,” went on Mr. Pump.
“Painted him what?” asked Lady Joan.
“Painted Captain Dawson green,” continued Mr. Pump in colourless tones. “Captain Dawson said green was the colour of Irish traitors, so Dalroy painted him green. It was a great temptation, no doubt, with this fence being painted at the time and the pail of stuff there; but, of course, it had a very prejudicial effect on his professional career.”
“What an extraordinary story!” said the staring Lady Joan, breaking into a rather joyless laugh. “It must go down among your county legends. I never heard that version before. Why, it might be the origin of the ‘Green Man’ over there by the town.”
“Oh, no,” said Pump, simply, “that’s been there since before Waterloo times. Poor old Noyle had it until they put him away. You remember old Noyle, Lady Joan. Still alive, I hear, and still writing love-letters to Queen Victoria. Only of course they aren’t posted now.”
“Have you heard from your Irish friend lately?” asked the girl, keeping a steady eye on the sky-line.
“Yes, I had a letter last week,” answered the innkeeper. “It seems not impossible that he may return to England. He’s been acting for one of these Greek places, and the negotiations seem to be concluded. It’s a queer thing that his lordship himself was the English minister in charge of them.”
“You mean Lord Ivywood,” said Lady Joan, rather coldly. “Yes, he has a great career before him, evidently.”
“I wish he hadn’t got his knife into us so much,” chuckled Pump. “I don’t believe there’ll be an inn left in England. But the Ivywoods were always cranky. It’s only fair to him to remember his grandfather.”
“I think it’s very ungallant on your part,” said Lady Joan, with a mournful smile, “to ask a lady to remember his grandfather.”
“You know what I mean, Lady Joan,” said her host, good humouredly. “And I never was hard on the case myself; we all have our little ways. I shouldn’t like it done to my pig; but I don’t see why a man shouldn’t have his own pig in his own pew with him if he likes it. It wasn’t a free seat. It was the family pew.”
Lady Joan broke out laughing again. “What horrible things you do seem to have heard of,” she said. “Well, I must be going, Mr. Hump–I mean Mr. Pump–I used to call you Hump … oh, Hump, do you think any of us will ever be happy again?”
“I suppose it rests with Providence,” he said, looking at the sea.
“Oh, do say Providence again!” cried the girl. “It’s as good as ‘Masterman Ready.’”
With which inconsequent words she betook herself again to the path by the apple trees and walked back by the sea front to Pebblewick.
The inn of “The Old Ship” lay a little beyond the old fishing village of Pebblewick; and that again was separated by an empty half-mile or so from the new watering-place of Pebblewick-on-Sea. But the dark-haired lady walked steadily along the sea-front, on a sort of parade which had been stretched out to east and west in the insane optimism of watering-places, and, as she approached the more crowded part, looked more and more carefully at the groups on the beach. Most of them were much the same as she had seen them more than a month before. The seekers after truth (as the man in the fez would say) who assembled daily to find out what the man was doing with the paper-boxes, had not found out yet; neither had they wearied of their intellectual pilgrimage. Pennies were still thrown to the thundering atheist in acknowledgment of his incessant abuse; and this was all the more mysterious because the crowd was obviously indifferent, and the atheist was obviously sincere. The man with the long neck who led Low Church hymns with a little wooden spade had indeed disappeared; for children’s services of this kind are generally a moving feast; but the man whose only claim consisted of carrots round his hat was still there; and seemed to have even more money than before. But Lady Joan could see no sign of the little old man in the fez. She could only suppose that he had failed entirely; and, being in a bitter mood, she told herself bitterly that he had sunk out of sight precisely because there was in his rubbish a touch of unearthly and insane clearheadedness of which all these vulgar idiots were incapable. She did not confess to herself consciously that what had made both the man in the fez and the man at the inn interesting was the subject of which they had spoken.
As she walked on rather wearily along the parade she caught sight of a girl in black with faint fair hair and a tremulous, intelligent face which she was sure she had seen before. Pulling together all her aristocratic training for the remembering of middle class people, she managed to remember that this was a Miss Browning who had done typewriting work for her a year or two before; and immediately went forward to greet her, partly out of genuine good nature and partly as a relief from her own rather dreary thoughts. Her tone was so seriously frank and friendly that the lady in black summoned the social courage to say:
“I’ve so often wanted to introduce you to my sister who’s much cleverer than I am, though she does live at home; which I suppose is very old-fashioned. She knows all sorts of intellectual people. She is talking to one of them now; this Prophet of the Moon that everyone’s talking about. Do let me introduce you.”
Lady Joan Brett had met many prophets of the moon and of other things. But she had the spontaneous courtesy which redeems the vices of her class, and she followed Miss Browning to a seat on the parade. She greeted Miss Browning’s sister with glowing politeness; and this may really be counted to her credit; for she had great difficulty in looking at Miss Browning’s sister at all. For on the seat beside her, still in a red fez but in a brilliantly new black frock coat and every appearance of prosperity, sat the old gentleman who had lectured on the sands about the inns of England.
“He lectured at our Ethical Society,” whispered Miss Browning, “on the word Alcohol. Just on the word Alcohol. He was perfectly thrilling. All about Arabia and Algebra, you know, and how everything comes from the East. You really would be interested.”
“I am interested,” said Lady Joan.
“Poot it to yourselfs,” the man in the fez was saying to Miss Browning’s sister, “joost what sort of meaning the names of your ince can have if they do not commemorate the unlimitable influence of Islam. There is a vary populous Inn in London, one of the most distinguished, one of the most of the Centre, and it is called the Horseshoe? Now, my friendss, why should anyone commemorate a horse-shoe? It iss but an appendage to a creature more interesting than itself. I have already demonstrated to you that the very fact that you have in your town a place of drink called the Bool–”
“I should like to ask–” began Lady Joan, suddenly.
“A place of drink called the Bool,” went on the man in the fez, deaf to all distractions, “and I have urged that the Bool is a disturbing thought, while the Bul-Bul is a reassuring thought. But even you my friends, would not name a place after a ring in a Bool’s nose and not after the Bool? Why then name an equivalent place after the shoo, the mere shoo, upon a horse’s hoof, and not after the noble horse? Surely it is clear, surely it is evident that the term ‘horse-shoe’ is a cryptic term, an esoteric term, a term made during the days when the ancient Moslem faith of this English country was oppressed by the passing superstition of the Galileans. That bent shape, that duplex curving shape, which you call horse-shoe, is it not clearly the Crescent?” and he cast his arms wide as he had done on the sands, “the Crescent of the Prophet of the only God?”
“I should like to ask,” began Lady Joan, again, “how you would explain the name of the inn called ‘The Green Man,’ just behind that row of houses.”
“Exactly! exactly!” cried the Prophet of the Moon, in almost insane excitement. “The seeker after truth could not at all probably find a more perfect example of these principles. My friendss, how could there be a green man? You are acquainted with green grass, with green leaves, with green cheese, with green chartreuse. I ask if any one of you, however wide her social circle, has ever been acquainted with a green man. Surely, surely, it is evident, my friendss, that this is an imperfect version, an abbreviated version, of the original words. What can be clearer than that the original expression, was ‘the green-turban’d man,’ in allusion to the well-known uniform of the descendants of the Prophet? ‘Turban’d’ surely is just the sort of word, exactly the sort of foreign and unfamiliar word, that might easily be slurred over and ultimately suppressed.”
“There is a legend in these parts,” said Lady Joan, steadily, “that a great hero, hearing the colour that was sacred to his holy island insulted, really poured it over his enemy for a reply.”
“A legend! a fable!” cried the man in the fez, with another radiant and rational expansion of the hands. “Is it not evident that no such thing can have really happened?”
“Oh, yes–it really happened,” said the young lady, softly. “There is not much to comfort one in this world; but there are some things. Oh, it really happened.”
And taking a graceful farewell of the group, she resumed her rather listless walk along the parade.