Richard Whiteing.

The yellow van online

. (page 5 of 21)
Online LibraryRichard WhiteingThe yellow van → online text (page 5 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook



HE yellow van had decidedly
stolen a march on Slocum Parva.
None paid heed to it as it entered
the village, because it looked so
much like a van conveying a fat
lady to business at a distant fair.
But the wiser sort soon saw reason to repent of
their indifference. The placards calling for ''the
restoration of the land to the people and of the
people to the land," and the aggressively displayed
opinions of eminent persons on this subject, told
their own tale. The worst sign of all was that the
vehicle had stopped as on a camping-ground, its
driver, after releasing the old horse, having gone
off in search of quarters for the night. So much,
and no more, was to be learned from the awe-struck
urchins beginning to cluster about the door.

The duchess pulled up, and she was for staying
to hear the lecture; but on this point Mary came
to the aid of Mr. Kaif :

"You really mustn't think of such a thing, Au-
gusta. It would never do down here. Only fancy
a Duchess of Allonby taking notice of a thing like
that! Don't you know what it means?"
"How can I, until I hear what it says?"


The Yellow Van

"I feel sure it would annoy the duke."

The duchess flicked the ponies without another
word, and Slocum Parva was left to the full enjoy-
ment of its mystery.

No sound came from the van for some time, but
at length the patience of the youthful watchers was
rewarded by an infant's wail within, and finally
by the sight of a gentle face at the doorway, as its
owner, the wife and mother, offered a penny to any
one who would fetch her a pail of water. The ap-
parition, however, was too alarming, and it had the
momentary effect of dispersing the whole swarm
in hasty flight.

There was really nothing to be afraid of. The
little house on wheels was but the mission van of
a "movement," and it had come out this year,
after its wont, for its village campaign against
the feudal system. Its fortunes were nearly always
the same apathy and fear on the part of the peas-
antry, a contemptuous refusal to fight on the part
of the feudal system, and that most plentiful lack
of funds which in England necessarily attends un-
dertakings still awaiting the patronage of the no-
bility. Nobody made anything by the society. Its
itinerant lecturers worked for only as much as would
keep body and soul together ; but they, and its whole
tiny frame, were kept going by a Band of enthusiasts
who maintained the subscription lists at a level of
mediocrity. It was an interesting situation : on the
one hand, a still vigorous growth of law and custom
covering all England, and on the other this little


The Yellow Van

thing in yellow, assuredly the tiniest engine of war
ever sent out against a giant power intrenched in its
pride. For comparison, a catapult against the rock
of Gibraltar might serve our turn.

In due course the lecturer reappeared, and his
wife passed the baby to him across the hutch for
a run in the open air. He was a tall, well-knit
young fellow, with regular features, and with the
orator's potential flash in the light of his eye. The
whole manner of him betokened a way of managing
crowds. He dispersed the returning infants with a
peremptory "Be off with you, and tell your fathers
to come to the meeting when your mothers have put
you to bed," at the same time presenting his wife
to the gathering audience with apologies because
it was "not a gipsy this time."

"I 've found a chairman, Amy, and a place for
the van, too both birds with one stone. He '11 let
us a whole field for the night for eighteenpence, so
we sha'n't do badly at that. But there '11 be two
miles to travel still."

"Get it over as soon as you can," said the wife,
"or it will be another twelve-o'clock job; and one
does bob about so in those fields in the dark. ' '

"Anything since I went away?"

"No, dear; the same jokes about the van."

"I fancy I hear them now, especially when they
are thrown at the window, and only miss it because
they are aimed."

"I think I heard somebody call it a 'yaller-fever'

7 6

The Yellow Van

''That 's new; we must be thankful for small
mercies on the road. We 've known what it is to
trace the same joke, with local variations, all the
way from Land's End to John o' Groat's.
Haven't us, old girl?"

"I think I '11 put baby to bed. She does keep so
wakeful, unless she goes off before the chairman's

The infant, now chasing an inquisitive duck with
some prospect of success, was herself chased, cap-
tured, and carried into the van, not without pro-
tests of the usual kind. Her father, however, soon
turned the current of her thoughts by opening the
door and bringing out the materials of his platform,
which he put in position in front of the van. This
done, he gave the child a farewell kiss for the night,
and then, closing the door on his family, laid aside
the husband and parent to become the tribune of
the people.

His first care was to beckon a rugged figure from
the crowd, and, having hauled his man up to the
platform, to propose him as chairman of the meet-
ing. The election of this functionary was duly put
to the assembly, and was supposed to be carried by
the remark, "Why, blest if it ain't old Spurr!"
The lecturer had made his choice with judgment,
for the sight of the familiar form of the farmer of
a small patch in the neighborhood, who toiled for
all the days of the year, and for all the feasts of the
church, to make his rent, had a distinctly reassuring
effect on the electorate. They seemed to draw some-


The Yellow Van

what less close to one another and closer to the van.
As a mere stranger the lecturer would certainly
have lacked magnetism, in spite of his plausible

The two who drew closest were George Herion
and Rose, who had paused in momentary interrup-
tion of their evening stroll. These and a few more
stood for the modest villainage of the place, while,
a little apart from them, Ness the gamekeeper and
Constable Peascod seemed to represent the feudal
system, vigilant, and perhaps somewhat over-
manned. For by their side was Mr. Grimber, the
retired tradesman who always supported the landed
interest, with Mr. Kisbye, the London gentleman in
business who rented the adjacent hall. The latter
surveyed the scene from the elevation of horseback,
from time to time making suggestive play with his
whip-handle on a well-booted leg.

Mr. Spurr made a model chairman. He showed
no disposition to take the bread out of the mouth
of the speakers that were to follow him. His ora-
torical generalities on the land question were decid-
edly a failure, perhaps by reason of his opening
statement that in assuming his present position he
did not mean no offense to nobody. So many people
was poor, and so many was working their 'earts
out at the same time, that he thought there might
be no 'arm in giving something new a bit of a trial.
He did not wish to go beyond that. In the look
and manner of him he suggested Job pleading for
a dab of ointment, just by way of experiment. If


The Yellow Van

it failed, one would still be strengthened for resig-
nation to the sores.

"A tell you true, neighbors, A cannot make ma
rent and fill ma belly. If A don't send every bit
to market, A 'm behind 'and, and A 'm sometimes
glad to get a lick o' lard for ma bread. So now
A '11 ask yew to 'ear this young man."

None of the country dialect is now pure. The free
communication between county and county, and,
above all, between county and London, has spoiled
all. It is but a hash of the old local form inter-
mingled with abundant cockneyisms to spoil the dish.
You may hear bits of Somerset in the eastern coun-
ties and bits of Northumbrian at the Land's End.
It is not even consistent with itself. The same
speaker will, almost in the same breath, use one and
the same word in its townish setting and in the
earlier country one to which he was born. The school
boards are more especially responsible for that.

The lecturer swung into his place, and in a mo-
ment or two had got into his stride. He took them
all in from beneath pent brows, and seemed to know
where to pitch his voice for laughter, and even
for a tear at need. "You are a landless people,"
that was the burden of it, "and while you are land-
less you must be poor. If anything happened to
your manufactures to-morrow, and something is
going to happen before long, you would be on your
beam-ends. But the town won't be able to save the
country forever, and we shall all starve together if
we don't look out."


The Yellow Van

"Oh, shall we?"

The interruption raised a laugh, and so, appar-
ently, answered the sole purpose of the inevitable
wag of the meeting. It was uttered in a kind of
squeak, and it might have come from one of a group
of stable-boys belonging to the castle. It is impos-
sible to be more precise, such was the author's mas-
tery of the artifice of "throwing the voice."

"No other civilized folk in the world is quite
such a stranger to its own soil as you are. Some five
hundred members of the peerage own a third of the
workable acreage of the whole country. The rest
of us have to take our luck in a kind of raffle for
what is left. Most of the land is kept as a rich
man's toy, for ornament and not for use, for parks
and gardens, game-preserves, and the devil knows
what. A good deal of it is owned by the Stock Ex-
change, even when it seems to be owned by the
nobility and gentry. These other gentry in the city
have too much fellow-creature in the way of busi-
ness, and they like to hear the cuckoo for a change. ' '

The voice: "Cuckoo!"

The lecturer, evidently a seasoned campaigner,
was not to be stopped in his rush.

"Most of the big owners can live on their invest-
ments in every good thing that is going, from China
to Peru. They don't want to live by the land.
Even if it 's worked for a profit, it won't keep the
three that have to live out of it, owner, farmer, and
laborer, so the laboring-man has to go to the wall.
He still gets his wages in shillings, in an age when


The Yellow Van

there 's no keeping soul and body together without
a bit of gold. Have it or leave it, they don't want
you as husbandmen. They lay down the land in
pasture, and tell you to go to the towns, and you
have to go, -whether you like it or not. I defy you
to find a single acre to live on, or to live by, without
their good leave. Try to start a business in a vil-
lage, or to tickle the fields into a harvest on your
own account, and see what they '11 say to you as
lords of the soil. How many did Slocum Magna
keep in the old days ? "We know it by the records-
three times the number it keeps now. Look at the
size of the old church."

The voice, whose method seemed to be simplicity
itself :

"Just look at it now!"

The chairman: " 'Old yer tongue, will 'ee?"

It was a little too much, even for the lecturer.

"One at a time, gentlemen; but flunkies next
turn, with all my heart." It won the laugh and

"The feudal system has come down to you with-
out a break, except in its forms, and the new one
is worse than the old. The old lord had duties, and
he paid for the right of owning his fellow-creatures
by finding men and money for the service of the
state. The new one has only his rights, and the
chief of them is to keep the smoke of a poor man's
chimney out of his sight. "What the nobles did not
want was left as waste land for the poor, and there
was a living to be made out of it. How much is


The Yellow Van

left now? Every inch is mapped and owned and
come if you dare! Saxon chiefs or Norman lords
in the fullness of their power were not in it with
the landowner of to-day. He has got you, body
and soul. The parson is actually his nominee, and
often his poor relation. The farmers, who are al-
most the only employers of labor besides himself,
are his tenants at will, and possibly his debtors.
The tradespeople of the village rent under him, and
even if they don't they can be ruined by his frown.
The laborers live in his cottages, and are absolutely
at his mercy for the privilege of hiring a bit of al-
lotment land hiring, not owning ; mark that well !
He is usually the magistrate ; and so he and his
administer the law that should stand between you

He went on without further interruption until a
cry of "Daddy!" from the domestic apartments of
the van was smothered before it could obtain com-
plete utterance. Such as it was, it occasioned an-
other break in the magnetic current, and he had to
hurry on to save the situation:

' ' Till the other day you had less local government
in the villages than they had for centuries before
and for centuries after the Conquest. But mark
this: next spring Slocum Parva is going to elect its
first parish council, and to come into line with the
rest of the country. Make the most of it. Try to
do a little bit for yourselves. Put your own men
in, and your own women, too, if you can find any
willing to stand, and do your best in your day of


The Yellow Van

small things, hoping that the great will come. Bet-
ter late than never. Who '11 stand when the time
comes, and who '11 work for it now ? ' '

"I 'm your man, master!" cried George Herion.
"Put me down."

The crowd seemed thunderstruck by this unex-
pected declaration, and Constable Peascod made an
entry in his note-book, as though to take the speaker
at his word. Mr. Kisbye glared. It was the only
other sign of animation. Not a peasant of them
spoke, or even stirred to look at George. The lad
had shown some excitement during the speech, but
even the few who had noticed it never expected
this. He was now, for the moment, awed into si-
lence by his own temerity, though he still flushed
defiance and resolve. There was intense anguish in
the eyes of Kose. The manhood of Slocum Parva
at length took courage to pretend to be idly busy in
lighting its pipe, while it eyed the constituted au-
thority of squire and policeman over the grimy edge
of the bowl. Finally Mrs. Artifex ventured on a
fatuous "That do seem roight." This, however,
was hardly enough for the business of the meeting,
and the lecturer resumed :

"Does anybody want to ask a question?"

Nobody wanted to ask a question.

"Does anybody want to oppose?"

The manhood received this much as it was in the
habit of receiving the courteous invitation to try a
fall with the wrestler at the local fair.

The meeting was melting away at its edges. The


The Yellow Van

children, losing their respect for the invader, began
to eye the supports of his platform with manifest
intent. Mr. Kisbye again tapped his leg, this time
as though he loved it.

"You rascal," he cried, pointing a threatening
whip at the lecturer, "I warn you, and I warn all
your dupes, that if you do a single illegal act, or
say a single illegal word, you '11 hear of it. Peas-
cod, keep an eye on that man. As for you, you
whelp," turning to George, "never let me see your
face again on my place!"

Perfect silence fell once more on the meeting, and
every footfall told as a threat as the speaker rode

"There, George," wailed the poor village beauty,
"you 've done it now! And what '11 they say at the
castle if they know I was in this night's work?"

The young fellow looked uncommonly foolish.
"My blood was on fire," he said.

"And I 've caught a chill," cried the girl, trying
to frown in pettish displeasure, and then bursting
into tears and running away.

It was again one of those moments, like that
which had just passed, when everything seemed to
hang on the pure hazard of a lead. The lecturer
naturally wished to rally his meeting. He had his
short way with the landed interest to propose in the
form of a resolution. He had also to thank his
chairman in the same manner. But Mr. Kisbye had
hardly passed out of sight and hearing when an-
other clatter of hoofs came, from the distance this

8 4

The Yellow Van

time, as though he had only gone to fetch up his re-
serves, and a turn of the road brought two of the
castle drags in view.

It was a fragment of the ducal party house and
other hurrying back to dress for dinner after a
day's shooting; in other words, the feudal system
in full trot for the scene of the meeting. The awe-
struck villagers could distinguish the Liddicots,
Beuceys, Lavertons, Mohants, Neves, and Incledons
from the neighboring strongholds of social power,
as they sped by, chatting in music on the day's
sport. It was the leadership of the land in a nut-
shell Parliament, office, military command, satra-
pies, wealth, worship, and power in some of their
most imposing forms. Herbert Peascod stood at
the salute, and most of the others involuntarily fol-
lowed his example in their own way. The system
was not unobservant of the meeting and of the van,
and its laughter, which was not much more than a
smile made audible, betokened a turn in the current
of thoughts that were still pleasant from first to
last. The lecturer, who had gazed with the rest,
turned to rally his meeting, but found that the vil-
lage green was all his own.


OW, then, Amy, off we go! Two
mile to bedtime."

The lecturer entered the van on
tiptoe, and gazed tenderly at a
bundle of bedding securely tied to
a shelf. It contained his only child.
''Hasn't she gone off nicely?" said the wife, ad-
justing the clothes. "I was afraid when the man
on horseback began to shout. Who was he?"

"Oh, only one of the heathen. She '11 get used
to them soon. He cut us out of our vote, though,
and out of our sale of literature. If we could have
postponed him for five minutes we should have been
eighteenpence to the good."

He put the horse in, while his wife made all tight
for the jolting journey before them by extinguish-
ing the lamp and wedging it and the crockery into
a padded box.

"Hold tight, Amy! Gee up, Tom!"
The vehicle started with a creak, and the wife
sat still in the darkness, with one hand on the pre-
cious bundle, and the other on a hat-peg.

Agitators are supposed to revel on the fat of the
land, but in truth the public cause has only too
little of this delicacy to spare for its rank and file.


The Yellow Van

The Tommys of the social war have as hard a lot as
those who carry a musket in the other one ; and they
are to be counted happy if the balance of the day's
operations leaves them with a whole skin and a ra-
tion. They have their liberty, though, or what they
take for such, which is just as good. The people on
the road grow fewer and fewer, for civilization
means a postal address. The wandering Kirghiz,
with his tent of felt and his old freedom of the
Asian plains, is now circumscribed by law and
order; and his pitch, cand count of cattle, have be-
come items of entry in the note-book of a Muscovite
policeman. The immigrant-wagon has made way
for the immigrant-train. Soon the last king of the
gipsies, or perhaps the last commoner, for the mon-
archs of the tribe generally lead the way into shop-
keeping, will boil his last kettle by his last roadside,
and sink to obscurity in a slum. Meanwhile the van
is the camel of our deserts of mansuetude, and a
home of a kind for those prophets of struggling
causes who escape stoning only by keeping per-
petually on the go.

The opening of a gate, and a new variety of jolt
that marked the change from macadam to grass,
showed that they had reached their journey's end.

Old Spurr, the chairman of the meeting, was in
waiting with his lantern; and his wild figure, in
the shirt-sleeves which formed the full dress of his
everlasting labor, was revealed in rugged effects
of light and shade as he guided them to their place
for the night.


The Yellow Van

"Come to back o' t' 'ouse; ye '11 be more out of
the way loike in t' other field. He '11 be up early,
and sniffin' about."


"Squoire Kisbye."

"What has he to do with it?"

"Well, if you gets off in good time in the morn-
ing, I dussay you '11 never know. Here, tek this,"
he added with a shamefaced air, laying a small
basket on the van. "The wife sent ye a quart o'
milk and a few eggs. Need n/t say nothin ' about it,
if anybody asks. Ye 're supposed to pay for every-
thing here."

Amy went in to thank her hostess and to com-
plete her modest shopping for the day. Meanwhile
the horse was taken out of the shafts and turned
loose in the field, where, late as it was, he woke the
echoes with a thunderous gallop which signalized
his sense of freedom. When the wife returned, the
old man cried a cheery good night, and the wander-
ers were left alone.

One charm of van life lies in its frequent surprises.
It seems to promise nothing, while it offers every-
thing by turns. This poor little inclosure of nine
feet by seven was, at a pinch, kitchen, dining-room,
nursery, and even library and drawing-room,
though, as to the last, perhaps it was rather the
parlor sitting-room of lodgings at the seaside. It
was also a bedroom ; and, for purposes of argument,
if not of use, it had even a sort of upper floor, in
fact garrets, at a pinch.

The Yellow Van

The housewife now drew forth the kerosene-lamp
and the tiny cooking-stove, neither of which could
be lighted with safety until the vehicle was at rest.
The next thing was to draw the curtains and make
all snug. It was not to be done in a moment.
There was a window in each of the four sides, and
each window had a pair of muslin curtains for the
daytime, and of serge for the night. A skylight was
left unveiled, on the consideration that the stars
were not to be suspected of impertinent curiosity.
The windows were but eighteen inches square, and
their curtains being cut to measure, they had a
ridiculous air of being in short clothes.

The larder stood confessed in an open cupboard,
with crockery and stores of eatables above, and with
pots and pans below; and the small stove was soon
in full blaze, in so far as the phrase may be used
in regard to a volume of combustion positively be-
neath the notice of science. The peculiarity of
this stove was that it would cook only one thing at
a time, and even that but a dish for a table of
Lilliput; so, just as the chops were beginning to
frizzle, the potatoes were getting cold. The wit of
man, or at any rate of that better half of him prin-
cipally concerned, had not yet discovered how to
serve both dishes together hot and hot. This prob-
lem, however, had the touching insistence of an un-
realized ideal; and the better half was still busy
over it with bent brows, while the other went to tidy
up the library. This part of their almost too com-
modious dwelling consisted of a set of pigeonholes,

8 9

The Yellow Van

with shelves sloping downward to prevent the
escape of their contents to the floor. Much of the
literature of pamphlet used in the propaganda was
stored here tract "The Curse of Landlordism," a
great favorite, with "The Crux of the Land Ques-
tion," "Better Homes for the Workers," "Land
Nationalization Why Do We Want It?" and
"The Landless Man." Besides these such is the
weakness of our nature were a common tobacco-
pipe and as common a pouch, with a cigar-box,
which, however, was redeemed to finer uses as a
receptacle for pen and ink. These things, as the
van moved, were perpetually charging forward to
the apertures, looking over the dizzy precipice be-
low, and then rolling back baffled into the gloom of
their caves. The library, as beseemed an institution
devoted to the service of the mind, had stretched
beyond these narrow limits, and its annex was
found at the end of the vehicle, on the same shelf
as the bed for the child. The nursery seemed rather
dangerously near the garret window, but as the lat-
ter remained intact, the infant Amy was probably
one of those wingless angels that do not kick in their
sleep. In a general way she had certainly come to
terms with her environment. Under her mother's
brooding gaze, she slept as soundly with the van in
motion as with the oratory. Exceptions excepted,
the same smile of the better world which she had
just left was on her face, whether the house rumbled
over fresh cobbles, or some town meeting carried a
resolution by the acclamation of a roar.


The Yellow Van

"I '11 lay the supper-things now, old girl, if you


This operation involved the conversion of the
middle part of the van into a dining-room, by un-
folding a couple of deck-stools, and drawing out a
table trained to subdue itself to the most demure
insignificance by the management of its flaps.

The chops at least were hot; and, with a little

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryRichard WhiteingThe yellow van → online text (page 5 of 21)