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of the greatest estates in England. So he sneaked
it by purchase much as the duke's forefathers
might have sneaked it in another way. His Grace
offered to pay handsomely for his mistake through
the solicitors, but Mr. Kisbye smiled derisively at
every bid, and stuck as close as a horse-fly with a
lodgment.

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The Yellow Van

"A Naboth's vineyard at Allonby," Augusta
said. "Who would have thought it?"

"It is not exactly that, but it establishes this
bounder from town, this nondescript without any
means of getting a living that can be known and
traced, as a country gentleman and farmer, even a
landlord in his small way."

"I understand a little. I 'm going to get quite
as much annoyed as you are when I understand
more. ' '

"It 's his set," he said, laughing. "Didn't you
hear them holding their witches' sabbath in the mid-
dle of the night? "

"I thought it was rooks, and took it for poetry."

"Quite enough to wake them, with the glare and
the noise."

"We 're not obliged to speak to him."

' ' Speak ! It 's the rubbing shoulders I can 't
stand."

"Kisbye does not seem very anxious to rub."

" No., the worst of it is, they 're beginning to be
sufficient to themselves. They join hands across
counties; and the motor-car brays their progress
from house to house of their set for costly guzzle,
and all their other comforts of home."

"I haven't exactly got to that yet," she said,
"b'ut I feel that I 'm coming to it."

"To what?"

l< That horror of merely living in the same hemi-
sphere with undesirables. Why not look the other
way?"

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The Yellow Van

"There are so many other ways. They 're every-
where. They snap up all the old places in the
market, and furnish in a night and a day, and, not
only in upholstery and dinner-services, but in people
to sit at the board. I assure you this fellow actu-
ally bids for younger sons and needy elders who
don 't always find it easy to get to Allonby; aye,
and gets 'em, too."

"Don't you know why? Because, from all I 've
heard, through the open windows, if you like,
there is a go in their mirth which is sometimes want-
ing in the statelier establishments. Their stars of the
variety stage are livelier than those of Bayreuth, and
they import an up-to-date wickedness of the asphalt
which puts the historic and legendary sort in the
shade. They can get art and literature of a kind,
even poets of the minor constellation, and thinkers
for metaphysics and the love of a good dinner are
still as closely allied as ever."

"Yes, yes," he said, with a sigh. "If they don't
always know what to do with their chances, they '11
learn in time. There are West End tailors to rig
them in the costume of sport, though on some of
them it sits about as gracefully as the court-dress at
wax- work shows; gamekeepers to teach them to
point a gun, and even to carry it; crack billiard-
players for their object-lessons in the mathematics
of amusement; and, for the golf, the costliest im-
portations from St. Andrews, who are canny enough
to reserve the bad language of uncontrollable disgust
for the safe side of the bunker. Their motto is that

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The Yellow Van

everything may be picked up. They don't mind
consulting the groom of the chambers as to the
amount of the tip, and offering to toss him for the
difference between his estimate and their bid. The
thing hums. They buy the old halls, sometimes only
as sites and names, and put up new ones of marble
and plate-glass in their places, with the armor still
on the premises, and the turret-chamber in com-
munication by telephone with the Stock Exchange.
They mean business, that is the humor of it, and
they are going to fight it out on this line till the
judgment day."

"People of that sort always make me laugh," said
Augusta.

' ' They make me sad. ' '

' ' I 'm sure that 's more dignified. ' '

"Come now, Augusta. Do you remember that
specimen we saw at Rome the one I had to com-
plain of to the landlord of the hotel?"

"Shall I ever forget him?"

"Well, he 's one of Kisbye's barons. I met him
yesterday, as large as life; and he had the impu-
dence to bow. Somebody gave me his history circus
rider to start with, declined into billiard-marking,
married a pawnbroker's widow, ennobled her at her
own expense by investing part of the dowry in a
title. He gets himself interviewed in the papers as
a rollicking blade who has outridden and outdrunk
the Magyars, and generally had a deuce of a life.
It 's killing, I 'm told, to catch him in one of his
familiar haunts in town. After a hard day's work

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The Yellow Van

in pursuit of the widow of the moment, he sinks
into a seat with an order for a pint of beer. That 's
one of the set at 'The Grange'; I hope you 're an-
noyed with Kisbye now."

"No; I 'm still laughing."

"Well, then, listen to this. I hear that he has had
the impudence to beg, borrow, or steal a photograph
of Mary Liddicot, and to hang it in his drawing-
room without ever having exchanged a word with
her in his life. ' '

"Now you may put him to death," said Augusta.



XV




HE peddler rang his bell as he
neared the village, and the women
came to their doors. It was an au-
dience as well as a knot of cus-
tomers. He had things to sell which
they could get nowhere else without
a long journey ; and he brought the local news and
that strange atmosphere of the outer world which
attends the very tramp on his rounds. In his uses
as a chapman he had well-nigh everything in their
simple range of wants crockery, tinware, scraps of
furniture, plain stuffs and the wherewithal for their
make-up, writing-paper of the commonest, some of it
destined to carry fateful words from village homes
to the uttermost ends of the earth, pipes and pouches
for the men, fancies in bead- work or cheap jewelry
for the women, toys for the children, oil for the mur-
derous little village lamps.

All this was arranged on his cart in most orderly
confusion ; he could have found his way to a needle
or slate-pencil with his eyes shut, and you could have
robbed him of hardly a packet of pins without im-
mediate detection. But no one wanted to rob him.
All seemed to like him, and to have friendly rela-
tions with even the horse in the shafts. He was a

132



The Yellow Van

good-looking young fellow ; and his manners, a mix-
ture of cautious familiarity and genial sarcasm, were
part of his stock in trade. He sold the article, and
threw in the epigram by way of bonus.

His face was turned toward Slocum Parva, yet he
was miles away from that restful spot, in a scene,
if possible, more restful still. England has almost
the secret of these placid hamlets which seem a hun-
dred miles from everywhere. His bell, for all the
lenity of its motion, seemed to smite the stillness with
a note of alarm.

He was soon surrounded, mainly by those who
coveted his gauds. There is always something to
sharpen the appetite of want in a general store. No
human being might seem to need a cow in glazed
earthenware, with a view of Brighton inserted as a
medallion in the center of its system; yet he had
found a buyer for such an article by urging a young
woman on the eve of marriage to consider the tragedy
of a home without pretty things. It is a peculiarity
of purchases of this kind that they awaken unavail-
ing remorse immediately on the completion of the
bargain. The young woman hid her offense with
her apron as she moved away. He did a brisk trade,
with varying fortunes, for the customers often cut
him close. His final encounter was with a matron
who had to complain of the behavior of a clock
bought of him last week. This sex is distinguished
by its twin passions for adulation and for the sallies
of a sprightly audacity which might seem to pre-
clude it. The peddler had both oil and vinegar in

'33



The Yellow Van

his manner, but the acid was only a subflavor, and,
like a good salad, he was preeminently bland.

' ' Won 't go, ma 'am ! Nonsense ! Let 's have a look
at it. ' ' He stretched out his hand for the delinquent,
and subjected it to a keenly scrutinizing gaze. It
was a most melancholy little object in painted wood,
but one degree above the timepiece of a Noah's ark.
' ' Ah, I thought so : it 's in a temper, that 's what 's
the matter with it. You bought it too cheap, ma'am,
you really did. Clocks have their feelin's, like
Christians : an article o ' this sort does n 't like to be
knocked down at two and elevenpence ha'penny.
But you 've got such a way with you ! I wonder you
did n 't get it for nothin ' : you might, if you 'd stood
out."

"None of your gammon!"

"P'r'aps the young uns have been playing with
it? Not as I tear no malice; I could forgive 'em
anything children like that."

"It 's been on the top shelf all the toime, out of
their reach. ' '

"That 's it; it felt lonesome. There, it '11 be all
right now."

"It's afeard o' you, I reckon; it'll go wrong
soon 's you 've turned your back. ' '

"Money returned if not found suited; but give it
another trial. Do you know what I fancied at fust ? ' '
he added as a parting shot. "I thought somebody
might ha' been nagging their 'usbands. I 've known
a woman 's tongue stop a clock. Thank you ! ' '

The last words were evidently a signal to the ani-

'34



The Yellow Van

mal in the shafts, and the equivalent of the "Gee
up ! " of the ordinary commerce of horse-flesh. They
were uttered with a peculiar intonation, and at the
sound of them the faithful creature moved forward
with a jerk that gave a rattle to the whole stock in
trade. It was a sign of the completed transaction
in flummery, and it carried horse and man beyond
the reach of reprisal. None was to be feared in this
instance. The woman laughed a good-natured threat
of vengeance, and went indoors with the clock in her
arms. The peddler, before leaving the parish bounds,
waylaid a little girl, and, with the gift of a pepper-
mint, induced her to take charge of a bundle of hand-
bills for house-to-house distribution. They con-
tained an announcement of the forthcoming elections
for the parish councils, and an earnest appeal to the
Progressive party at large to return candidates of
the right sort. He dropped other bills of the same
kind on the bare hedge-rows, where, as they occa-
sionally fluttered to the ground, they looked like
some new and belated variety of fungoid growths.

The man was George Herion, of course. Much
had happened since he was last seen. For one thing,
he had got married ; for another, he had started the
little general shop on wheels wherewith he threatened
defiance to adverse fate on a memorable occasion.
With the success of it Rose had Been dazzled into
the great venture, and Slocum Parva had almost
shaken off. its terror of heroic ideals. Our merchant
adventurer began cautiously by buying a small stock
in trade, piling it on a hand-truck, and wheeling it

'35



The Yellow Van

two-and-twenty miles out and home every day,
"standing market" for a rest on the outward jour-
ney. Nothing could resist such determination. What
the villages on one line of route refused had a sec-
ond chance in the little market town, and a third in
the other villages on the home stretch. When George
had ten golden sovereigns knotted in his handker-
chief, he told Rose that the time had come to name
the day. She named it without further hesitation.
The village knew it that night ; the duchess knew it
next morning ; and by the favor of that august per-
son they were established, within a fortnight, in their
own cottage, after one of the prettiest village wed-
dings Slocum had ever seen.

But for Augusta they would have been homeless.
Slocum maintained so exquisite an adjustment of
means to end in house-room that it had no place for
the new pair. George had lived with his mother,
Rose with hers: there were no cottages to let. To
build was out of the question: the area of human
shelter was fixed as by some law of nature. The
village was almost hermetically closed to newcomers.
Even babies were considered to have taken an unfair
advantage, and were discouraged for the very reason
that they might one day grow up with claims of
independent settlement like those of Rose and
George. As individuals these young persons might
plead a right of prescription; as a pair they were
intruders. The mothers tried to settle the matter
with a happy thought : by living together they might
set one cottage free. But the duke's agent was not

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The Yellow Van

disposed to sanction this arrangement until the
duchess signified that it had her entire approval. So
Rose now lived as wife in the cottage in which she
had lived as nursling, and, indeed, had first seen the
light.

The marriage gave George more to work for, and
so, naturally, he worked more. He went on till he
saved enough to put shafts to the hand-cart, and a
horse to the shafts. In a little time people began
to turn their faces toward Slocum when they wanted
a flat-iron or a rolling-pin, and Randsford saw its
proud supremacy assailed. Rose now needed little
to make her the happiest young woman in all the
wide world, not even the contrast of a latent anxiety.
George still kept up the interest in village politics
which owed its birth to the passage of the van, and
which had cost him the favor of the "gentlefolks"
in the person of Mr. Kisbye. But the ideal of well-
being at Slocum Parva was a life without opinions
as the prime condition of a life without events.
Rose trembled for her mate, now with vague ap-
prehension, and then again with joy at the thought
of his power of making things come right.

And so, singing by the way, the peddler went from
hamlet to hamlet in his wide round, through villages
of all varieties villages sleepier and sillier than
Slocum itself; petted villages, coddled as carefully
as Mr. Raif 's; wicked villages, where you might get
drunk at unlawful hours by whistling in the right
note at the right back door; fighting villages, where
they lived on dim though still stimulating memories



The Yellow Van

of a time when it was "Who are yer, stranger? Can
ye foight?" and off went their coats till the way-
farer established his right of sojourn by the ordeal
of battle. He was greeted, as he passed, by the
country sights, the country sounds, the plow, the
drill, the humming steam-thresher, the opening notes
of chaffinch or blackbird, the opening flower of cro-
cus or primrose, here and there perhaps by some
almost white-haired school-boy with a red neck, here-
after, as soldier or sailor, to keep the flag in the sun-
light on its passage round the world. Ah, the glori-
ous life of the road! Amid such scenes who could
not wish forever to defer the visit of the ' ' terminator
of delights and the separator of companions"?

At a turn of his course he drew up to make room
for a carriage and pair cleaving their way through
a light cloud of Olympic dust of their own raising.
He had just time to recognize the liveries, and bring
himself to the salute, when, with a smile and a cheer-
ful "Good day, Herion," the duchess was whirled
out of sight. The family was still in residence, but
was preparing for the annual migration to town.
The house-parties were over ; the whole world of the
British worldlet was going up for the annual meeting
of Parliament, and for the ordeal by. fire of the
London season.

Augusta's interest in George, at first a mere con-
sequence of her interest in Rose, had grown with
better acquaintance. She had learned to like him
for himself, and for the variety which his pluck and
resource had introduced into the pattern of village

138



The Yellow Van

life. He was refreshing, after the rather too mo-
notonous note of submission; and the sight of him
somehow seemed to remind her of her native land.
But she was trying to learn to take her patterns as
she found them, and this not all in resignation, but
simply as a philosopher in petticoats, which is as
much as to say a woman of the world. Here was
her new home and place of settlement, and here,
with it, must be her new point of view. It was as
fascinating as China to the thoughtful mind. So
millions live and have lived in their own way, and
apparently to the greatest ends, in a majestic order
with dependence for its main principle. What a
contrast, not unrefreshing at times, to those tumultu-
ous millions on "the other side," where every man's
morning thought is how he may get one step ahead
of his neighbor !

Augusta remembered Uncle Gooding's fable of
how they brought the great railway out West. Ac-
cording to this, they put a line of workmen one be-
hind the other, with the smartest last, to give the
time. "The one ahead had to keep pace with the one
behind, you bet, or he felt the point of the pick in
his heel as he was plugging along. By gum, sir,
that last one hotfooted up the whole circus, and they
got it fed into them that they had to hustle for all
they were worth!"

The peddler was at home now, and the wife re-
ceived him with a kiss in a kitchen which ought to
be considered the "best room" of the house, since it
was at least without pretense of style. But his ad-

139



The Yellow Van

miration, like hers, was reserved for the lurid glories
of another chamber into which at last they peeped
fondly on their way up-stairs. There it was in its
sanctities of plush- framed photographs George in
his Sunday wear, colored like life, Rose in her wed-
ding hat; in its antimacassars, saddle-bag suites,
tormented carpets, their patterns echoing the cries
of pain from the walls. Ah, how grateful they felt,
how good, at the thought of all this redeeming gaiety
and beauty in their rather sordid lives! The peep
into the best room especially was almost devotional
in its effects. George registered a silent vow to be
more deserving of his new-found luck. Rose mingled
the thought of it with her prayers.



140




XVI

HE family had left for town. The
great house was shut up. But Slo-
cum was saved from the void of
human interests by the election of
its first parish council. The prob-
lem of such an election in such a
place should be dear to science as to history, since
it touches on the question of the indivisibility of
matter in the legislative domain. You cannot get
much farther down in institutions seen under the
microscope. The relation of all parliamentary
boards and other assemblies of the British govern-
mental scheme to this speck on the planet is that of
Ossa to the wart. Slocum's council is the village
senate, the village administration, the village forum,
the village tribune in one. It is still a new thing.
Parliament, finding the peasantry clamorous for the
right to manage their own affairs, has tossed them
this log. So it is Gurth the swineherd at the council,
with Wamba the witless, if he can find a place, and,
with them, Cedric the Saxon, and even Brian de
Bois-Guilbert, retired, if any can manage to com-
mend himself to the favor of the tiny electorate.

There is something quite captivating in the
thought of the exquisite littleness of the whole thing.
The observer seems to watch the processes of insect

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The Yellow Van

life. Here is the smallest unit, the very protoplasm
of corporate existence, and it has, as such, the charm
of all absolutes. You can hardly get nearer to the
vanishing-point of institutions than the village
council. It has been known to have an audit of
nineteen shillings and eightpence ha'penny for the
entire year. One may conceive a worn chancellor
of the exchequer turning to its debates for refresh-
ment of spirit after a budget night. The question
of the abolition of the village pump, in favor of a
supply from the mains, means as much to Slocum
as the abolition of slavery or the repeal of the corn-
laws once meant to the world at large.

It should have been a walk-over for the Conserva-
tive party; but new yearnings, new hopes had come
with the yellow van. It is idle to make a secret of
it: Slocum Parva was undermined with subversive
literature about village rights. The batteries were
charged at George's; so much was known. Peascod
had several times brought to the station dangerous
handbills left in the hedge-rows. Bad characters
were growing bold. Bangs, the poacher, had openly
defied the collector of Easter offerings for the
church.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance
of this incident as it stood entered in the constable's
official report.

As the collector entered the reprobate 's cottage on
his peaceful, not to say his holy, mission, Bangs
called out ominously to his son in the back room,
"Boy, put the poker on the fire."

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The Yellow Van

The collector began to collect.

"Is it hot, boy?"

"Yes, father."

"Well," to the collector, "I 've heard of meat-
offerings and of drink-offerings; I '11 give you a
burnt-offering if you don't get out."

The collector left in haste. We live in strange
times.

Then England was still under the shock of the
tremendous news from South Africa, and Slocum
Parva was a part of England, if only a speck of its
dust. A few weeks after the departure of the ducal
family came the declaration of war, with all that
followed, "recoil and rally, charge and rout, and
triumph and despair." Stormberg, Magersfontein,
Colenso in one black week ; Spion Kop ; and then
again hope, with Paardeberg and Bloemfontein.
The most startling event of all for the village had
been the hasty departure of Captain Liddicot for the
front, with his regiment, on the very eve of the
Christmas festivities, with Mary turning recluse and
knitting comforters, and her father's sentient life
reduced to one protracted exclamation of "Bless my
soul ! " In an atmosphere so charged with electricity
even Slocum could not preserve its wonted calm.

There were five members to be chosen, that was
the minimum allowed by law, and there were six
candidates. The Conservatives had put up for all
the seats. Their phalanx, which they believed irre-
sistible, consisted of Kisbye, Grimber, and the school-
master, Parson Raif, the nominee of the castle, and

"43



The Yellow Van

one Fawke, a person in the grocery and lollypop
line, who ran in the same general interest, but with
some stress on a harmless question of his own affect-
ing the management of the annual flower show. But
George had determined to set up one candidate for
the Radicals, and had succeeded in persuading Spurr
to quit his retirement for public life. This aged per-
son, though, as we have seen, no orator, was a repre-
sentative of the doomed class of small farmers whose
all but fruitless struggle to keep themselves out of
the workhouse might be expected to touch the sym-
pathies of the electorate. The constituency could
not possibly carry more. George canvassed for him,
spoke for him, in spite of the sickening forebodings
of Rose, who sought confirmation of her worst fears
in the prophecies of the penny almanac. She found
no specific warning against the danger of "tamper-
ing with parish councils," her constant theme; but
this, of course, was only an oversight on the part of
the reader of the stars.

Nothing could prevent George from working heart
and soul for his man. As one born and bred in the
village, he knew what he knew. For behind these
fair outsides of Slocum, with their honeysuckle
porches, there were sometimes dire realities. In the
dry weather our peddler, after his hard day 's work,
had often to walk a mile to get a couple of pails of
drinking-water for his wife's use. It was lucky
for the duchess that she did not push her researches
in Samson's cottage as far as the back premises. She
would have found the narrow yard one pool of slush,

I 44



The Yellow Van

and, in spite of the occasional brickbats used as step-
ping-stones, would have risked damage to her dainty
shoes. The rain and the damp at times claimed free
right of entry in these ramshackle bowers of bliss.
The workmen from London who came down for the
wedding decorations would hardly look at them as
dwelling-places.

The overcrowding was sometimes terrible, in spite
of the refusal to build or because of it. Slocum
knew how many members of growing families were
occasionally crowded into one room. What our vil-
lage Hampden wanted was to get these things set
right; with his instinct of self-help, the instinct
that had enabled him to recover himself after the
mishap at Mr. Kisbye's, he thought that only the
village in council could manage it. His soul sick-
ened against all the meddlesome guidance from
above that was but coddling at the best the very
charity blankets lent in winter and sealed up during


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Online LibraryRichard WhiteingThe yellow van → online text (page 8 of 21)