THE ASTONISHMENT OF THE AGENT
LORD IVYWOOD shared the mental weakness of most men who have fed on books; he ignored, not the value but the very existence of other forms of information. Thus Humphrey Pump was perfectly aware that Lord Ivywood considered him an ignorant man who carried a volume of Pickwick and could not be got to read any other book. But Lord Ivywood was quite unaware that Humphrey never looked at him without thinking that he could be most successfully hidden in a wood of small beeches, as his grey-brown hair and sallow, ashen face exactly reproduced the three predominant tints of such a sylvan twilight. Mr. Pump, I fear, had sometimes partaken of partridge or pheasant, in his early youth, under circumstances in which Lord Ivywood was not only unconscious of the hospitality he was dispensing, but would have sworn that it was physically impossible for anyone to elude the vigilance of his efficient system of game-keeping. But it is very unwise in one who counts himself superior to physical things to talk about physical impossibility.
Lord Ivywood was in error, therefore, when he said that the fugitives could not possibly escape in modern England. You can do a great many things in modern England if you have noticed; some things, in fact, which others know by pictures or current speech; if you know, for instance, that most roadside hedges are taller and denser than they look, and that even the largest man lying just behind them, takes up far less room than you would suppose; if you know that many natural sounds are much more like each other than the enlightened ear can believe, as in the case of wind in leaves and of the sea; if you know that it is easier to walk in socks than in boots, if you know how to take hold of the ground; if you know that the proportion of dogs who will bite a man under any circumstances is rather less than the proportion of men who will murder you in a railway carriage; if you know that you need not be drowned even in a river, unless the tide is very strong, and unless you practise putting yourself into the special attitudes of a suicide; if you know that country stations have objectless, extra waiting rooms that nobody ever goes into; and if you know that county folk will forget you if you speak to them, but talk about you all day if you don’t.
By the exercise of these and other arts and sciences Humphrey Pump was able to guide his friend across country, mostly in the character of trespasser and occasionally in that of something like housebreaker, and eventually, with sign, keg, cheese and all to step out of a black pinewood onto a white road in a part of the county where they would not be sought for the present.
Opposite them was a cornfield and on their right, in the shades of the pine trees, a cottage, a very tumbledown cottage that seemed to have collapsed under its own thatch. The red-haired Irishman’s face wore a curious smile. He stuck the inn-sign erect in the road and went and hammered on the door.
It was opened tremulously by an old man with a face so wrinkled that the wrinkles seemed more distinctly graven than the features themselves, which seemed lost in the labyrinth of them. He might have crawled out of the hole in a gnarled tree and he might have been a thousand years old.
He did not seem to notice the sign-board, which stood rather to the left of the door; and what life remained in his eyes seemed to awake in wonder at Dalroy’s stature and strange uniform and the sword at his side. “I beg your pardon,” said the Captain, courteously. “I fear my uniform startles you. It is Lord Ivywood’s livery. All his servants are to dress like this. In fact, I understand the tenants also and even yourself, perhaps … excuse my sword. Lord Ivywood is very particular that every man should have a sword. You know his beautiful, eloquent way of putting his views. ‘How can we profess,’ he was saying to me yesterday, while I was brushing his trousers. ‘How can we profess that all men are brothers while we refuse to them the symbol of manhood; or with what assurance can we claim it as a movement of modern emancipation to deny the citizen that which has in all ages marked the difference between the free man and the slave. Nor need we anticipate any such barbaric abuses as my honourable friend who is cleaning the knives has prophesied, for this gift is a sublime act of confidence in your universal passion for the severe splendours of Peace; and he that has the right to strike is he who has learnt to spare.’”
Talking all this nonsense with extreme rapidity and vast oratorical flourishes of the hand, Captain Dalroy proceeded to trundle both the big cheese and the cask of rum into the house of the astonished cottager: Mr. Pump following with a grim placidity and his gun under his arm.
“Lord Ivywood,” said Dalroy, setting the rum cask with a bump on the plain deal table, “wishes to take wine with you. Or, more strictly speaking, rum. Don’t you run away, my friend, with any of these stories about Lord Ivywood being opposed to drink. Three-bottle Ivywood, we call him in the kitchen. But it must be rum; nothing but rum for the Ivywoods. ‘Wine may be a mocker,’ he was saying the other day (and I particularly noted the phrasing, which seemed to be very happy even for his lordship; he was standing at the top of the steps, and I stopped cleaning them to make a note of it), ‘wine may be a mocker; strong drink may be raging, but nowhere in the sacred pages will you find one word of censure of the sweeter spirit sacred to them that go down to the sea in ships; no tongue of priest and prophet was ever lifted to break the sacred silence of Holy Writ about Rum.’ He then explained to me,” went on Dalroy, signing to Pump to tap the cask according to his own technical secret, “that the great tip for avoiding any bad results that a bottle or two of rum might have on young and inexperienced people was to eat cheese with it, particularly this kind of cheese that I have here. I’ve forgotten its name.”
“Cheddar,” said Pump, quite gravely.
“But mind you!” continued the Captain almost ferociously, shaking his big finger in warning at the aged man. “Mind you ‘no bread with the cheese. All the devastating ruin wrought by cheese and the once happy homes of this country, has been due to the reckless and insane experiment of eating bread with it.’ You’ll get no bread from me, my friend. Indeed, Lord Ivywood has given directions that the allusion to this ignorant and depraved habit shall be eliminated from the Lord’s Prayer. Have a drink.”
He had already poured out a little of the spirit into two thick tumblers and a broken teacup, which he had induced the aged man to produce; and now solemnly pledged him.
“Thank ye kindly, sir,” said the old man, using his cracked voice for the first time. Then he drank; and his old face changed as if it were an old horn lantern in which the flame began to rise.
“Ar,” he said. “My son he be a sailor.”
“I wish him a happy voyage,” said the Captain. “And I’ll sing you a song about the first sailor there ever was in the world; and who (as Lord Ivywood acutely observes) lived before the time of rum.”
He sat down on a wooden chair and lifted his loud voice once more, beating on the table with the broken tea-cup.
“Old Noah, he had an ostrich farm, and fowls on the greatest scale;
He ate his egg with a ladle in an egg-cup big as a pail,
And the soup he took was Elephant Soup and the fish he took was Whale;
But they all were small to the cellar he took when he set out to sail;
And Noah, he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,
‘I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.’
“The cataract of the cliff of heaven fell blinding off the brink,
As if it would wash the stars away as suds go down a sink,
The seven heavens came roaring down for the throats of hell to drink,
And Noah, he cocked his eye and said, ‘It looks like rain, I think,
The water has drowned the Matterhorn as deep as a Mendip mine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.’
“But Noah he sinned, and we have sinned; on tipsy feet we trod,
Till a great big black teetotaller was sent to us for a rod,
And you can’t get wine at a P. S. A. or chapel or Eisteddfod;
For the Curse of Water has come again because of the wrath of God,
And water is on the Bishop’s board and the Higher Thinker’s shrine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”
“Lord Ivywood’s favourite song,” concluded Mr. Patrick Dalroy, drinking. “Sing us a song yourself.”
Rather to the surprise of the two humourists, the old gentleman actually began in a quavering voice to chant,
“King George that lives in London Town,
I hope they will defend his crown,
And Bonyparte be quite put down
On Christmas Day in the morning.
“Old Squire is gone to the Meet today
All in his–”
It is perhaps fortunate for the rapidity of this narrative that the old gentleman’s favourite song, which consists of forty-seven verses, was interrupted by a curious incident. The door of the cottage opened and a sheepish-looking man in corduroys stood silently in the room for a few seconds and then said, without preface or further explanation,
“I beg your pardon?” inquired the polite Captain.
“Four ale,” said the man with solidity; then catching sight of Humphrey seemed to find a few more words in his vocabulary.
“Morning, Mr. Pump. Didn’t know as how you’d moved ‘The Old Ship.’”
Mr. Pump, with a twist of a smile, pointed to the old man whose song had been interrupted.
“Mr. Marne’s seeing after it now, Mr. Gowl,” said Pump with the strict etiquette of the country side. “But he’s got nothing but this rum in stock as yet.”
“Better’nowt,” said the laconic Mr. Gowl; and put down some money in front of the aged Marne, who eyed it wonderingly. As he was turning with a farewell and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, the door once more moved, letting in white sunlight and a man in a red neckerchief.
“Morning, Mr. Marne; Morning, Mr. Pump; Morning, Mr. Gowl,” said the man in the red neckerchief.
“Morning, Mr. Coote,” said the other three, one after another.
“Have some rum, Mr. Coote?” asked Humphrey Pump, genially. “That’s all Mr. Marne’s got just now.”
Mr. Coote also had a little rum; and also laid a little money under the rather vague gaze of the venerable cottager. Mr. Coote was just proceeding to explain that these were bad times, but if you saw a sign you were all right still; a lawyer up at Grunton Abbot had told him so; when the company was increased and greatly excited by the arrival of a boisterous and popular tinker, who ordered glasses all round and said he had his donkey and cart outside. A prolonged, rich and confused conversation about the donkey and cart then ensued, in which the most varied views were taken of their merits; and it gradually began to dawn on Dalroy that the tinker was trying to sell them.
An idea, suited to the romantic opportunism of his present absurd career, suddenly swept over his mind, and he rushed out to look at the cart and donkey. The next moment he was back again, asking the tinker what his price was, and almost in the same breath offering a much bigger price than the tinker would have dreamed of asking. This was considered, however, as a lunacy specially allowed to gentlemen; the tinker had some more rum on the strength of the payment, and then Dalroy, offering his excuses, sealed up the cask and took it and the cheese to be stowed in the bottom of the cart. The money, however, he still left lying in shining silver and copper before the silver beard of old Marne.
No one acquainted with the quaint and often wordless camaraderie of the English poor will require to be told that they all went out and stared at him as he loaded the cart and saw to the harness of the donkey –all except the old cottager, who sat as if hypnotised by the sight of the money. While they were standing there they saw coming down the white, hot road, where it curled over the hill, a figure that gave them no pleasure, even when it was a mere marching black spot in the distance. It was a Mr. Bullrose, the agent of Lord Ivywood’s estates.
Mr. Bullrose was a short, square man with a broad, square head with ridges of close, black curls on it, with a heavy, froglike face and starting, suspicious eyes; a man with a good silk hat but a square business jacket. Mr. Bullrose was not a nice man. The agent on that sort of estate hardly ever is a nice man. The landlord often is; and even Lord Ivywood had an arctic magnanimity of his own, which made most people want, if possible, to see him personally. But Mr. Bullrose was petty. Every really practical tyrant must be petty.
He evidently failed to understand the commotion in front of Mr. Marne’s partly collapsed cottage, but he felt there must be something wrong about it. He wanted to get rid of the cottage altogether, and had not, of course, the faintest intention of giving the cottager any compensation for it. He hoped the old man would die; but in any case he could easily clear him out if it became suddenly necessary, for he could not possibly pay the rent for this week. The rent was not very much; but it was immeasurably too much for the old man who had no conceivable way of borrowing or earning it. That is where the chivalry of our aristocratic land system comes in.
“Good-bye, my friends,” the enormous man in the fantastic uniform was saying, “all roads lead to rum, as Lord Ivywood said in one of his gayer moments, and we hope to be back soon, establishing a first class hotel here, of which prospectuses will soon be sent out.”
The heavy froglike face of Mr. Bullrose, the agent, grew uglier with astonishment; and the eyes stood out more like a snail’s than a frog’s. The indefensible allusion to Lord Ivywood would in any case have caused a choleric intervention, if it had not been swallowed up in the earthquake suggestion of an unlicensed hotel on the estate. This again would have effected the explosion, if that and everything else had not been struck still and rigid by the sight of a solid, wooden sign-post already erected outside old Marne’s miserable cottage.
“I’ve got him now,” muttered Mr. Bullrose. “He can’t possibly pay; and out he shall go.” And he walked swiftly towards the door of the cottage, almost at the same moment that Dalroy went to the donkey’s head, as if to lead it off along the road.
“Look here, my man,” burst out Bullrose, the instant he was inside the cottage. “You’ve cooked yourself this time. His lordship has been a great deal too indulgent with you; but this is going to be the end of it. The insolence of what you’ve done outside, especially when you know his lordship’s wishes in such things, has just put the lid on.” He stopped a moment and sneered. “So unless you happen to have the exact rent down to a farthing or two about you, out you go. We’re sick of your sort.”
In a very awkward and fumbling manner, the old man pushed a heap of coins across the table. Mr. Bullrose sat down suddenly on the wooden chair with his silk hat on, and began counting them furiously. He counted them once; he counted them twice; and he counted them again. Then he stared at them more steadily than the cottager had done.
“Where did you get this money?” he asked in a thick, gross voice. “Did you steal it?”
“I ain’t very spry for stealin’,” said the old man in quavering comedy.
Bullrose looked at him and then at the money; and remembered with fury that Ivywood was a just though cold magistrate on the bench.
“Well, anyhow,” he cried, in a hot, heady way, “we’ve got enough against you to turn you out of this. Haven’t you broken the law, my man, to say nothing of the regulations for tenants, in sticking up that fancy sign of yours outside the cottage? Eh?”
The tenant was silent.
“Eh?” reiterated the agent.
“Ar,” replied the tenant.
“Have you or have you not a sign-board outside this house?” shouted Bullrose, hammering the table.
The tenant looked at him for a long time with a patient and venerable face, and then said: “Mubbe, yes. Mubbe, no.”
“I’ll mubbe you,” cried Mr. Bullrose, springing up and sticking his silk hat on the back of his head. “I don’t know whether you people are too drunk to see anything, but I saw the thing with my own eyes out in the road. Come out, and deny it if you dare!”
“Ar,” said Mr. Marne, dubiously.
He tottered after the agent, who flung open the door with a businesslike fury and stood outside on the threshold. He stood there quite a long time, and he did not speak. Deep in the hardened mud of his materialistic mind there had stirred two things that were its ancient enemies; the old fairy tale in which every thing can be believed; the new scepticism in which nothing can be believed–not even one’s own eyes. There was no sign, nor sign of a sign, in the landscape.
On the withered face of the old man Marne there was a faint renewal of that laughter that has slept since the Middle Ages.