Copyright
Richard Whiteing.

The yellow van online

. (page 9 of 21)
Online LibraryRichard WhiteingThe yellow van → online text (page 9 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the summer, the seal to be broken only by the house-
keeper at the Towers.

The combat was now joined. Skett, the navvy,
was pressed into the service, and was engaged, very
much in the manner of a famous character of drama,
to represent a wall whereon the Progressives might
exhibit a placard which was strung round his neck
as he sat at the cottage door. Sally Artifex promised
a public canvass of the entire womanhood of the vil-
lage, not so much in the interest of any political
party as with a view to the selection of candidates
pledged to the practice of all the domestic virtues,



The Yellow Van

especially on the part of the male sex. The Con-
servative interest stood proudly aloof from these
anxieties, relying on the all-sufficiency of its nod at
the right moment. Only Mr. Kisbye rode more fre-
quently through the village, and slightly deepened
his scowl, while, to nice observers, Herbert Peascod,
on his beat, seemed to keep the Knuckle of Veal in
detective observation as the headquarters of the ene-
mies of the country. The powers that be were all
indifferent or worse, knowing that the new council
was only one more institution to capture. There
was one exception: the High-church recluse, Mr.
Bascomb, made an unwonted irruption into the po-
litical arena as a supporter of the popular ticket.

For the rest, even smug Mr. Grimber from Lon-
don boldly proclaimed that he was for the castle, and
did not care who knew it. What was good enough
for the Duke of Allonby was good enough for him.
The powers of darkness, as represented by the larger
areas of local government, looked down on Slocum
Parva with undisguised contempt. The scorn of Al-
lonby Towers had a spice of mirth in it, and so was
tempered by good nature. The Duke of Allonby 's
amazement at the thought of this village was sublime
in its intensity, if not exactly in its mode of expres-
sion. His village, in all its goings out and its com-
ings in, it was, and ever should be ; and the thought
of its having a will of its own tickled him to that
degree! The words were his, and so was the trick
of leaving the rest of the sentence to the imagination
of his hearers.

146



The Yellow Van

The populace would soon be ready for anything.
This very night an orator standing on a chair out-
side the Knuckle of Veal publicly clamored for a
new letter-box for the benefit of the straggling con-
tinuation of the village a quarter of a mile beyond
its center. He was succeeded by a carter, who said
there never would be quiet in the country-side till
Sokes Lane, that well-known short cut between two
main roads, had a new coating of metal, and a full
cart-load in the hole at the bend. Then, as to the
charities, a new recruit, and a woman this time, for
the sex had mysteriously left the fence, asked if it
were "trew" that the old writings provided for fuel
without respect of persons, while under the new
practice it was "no churchman, no coals."

But the water was the burning question, strange
as that may seem. It threw out a heat, in the course
of discussion, that led to the removal of the meeting
to the inn parlor, where the flame was partly reduced,
again in a manner contrary to experience, fty the use
of spirituous fluids. The village had now discovered
that it wanted water all the year round. At present
it had to depend upon its wells. But nature some-
times forgot Slocum Parva, and there were days
when water was as dear as "tuppenny," and bad at
that. Such were the statements overheard through
the open window of the inn. They were boldly con-
tradicted by the Conservative interest, otherwise
called the Moderate, which remained outside the
building in protest for this occasion. , The Conserva-
tive interest, quoting a letter of one of its cousins,

H7



The Yellow Van

argued that Australia got on very well in spite of
droughts, since common laborers there earned five
shillings a day. A voice from within said that Slo-
cum might manage to make do with the wells, if
some one would only put pumps to them. It was
the everlasting bucket going up and down that
troubled the water, and in summer made its muddy
sediment yield "worms and insecks and things," in-
stead of potable fluid.

A Conservative, suspected to be Mr. Grimber, cre-
ated a diversion by asking who was to pay for the
pumps. There was a moment's consternation within
the building, when another voice replied mockingly,
and with the expected reward of a guffaw, "His
Goodness Gracious, to be sure," an allusion to the
owner of the Towers as unmistakable as it was in-
solent.

"Men, men," cried George, in his cheery voice,
"we don't want any stuff o' that sort."

The meeting now seemed to get completely out of
hand, until its very promoters grew terrified at the
spirit which they had raised.

"When Bangs (his words were taken down) bel-
lowed, "Why can't we have water-pipes, like the
duke and Squire Liddicot?" the landlord himself
grew alarmed, and said with becoming severity,
"Gently, please."

It was anybody's meeting now, and a Camille
Desmoulins might have run a free course. The wild-
est cries were heard amid the din.

"Oil-lamps for the main street!"

148



The Yellow Van

"A playground for the children!"

' ' Seats in the shady lane ! ' '

Mr. Grimber turned homeward with the reflection
that he should never have thought to see this day;
and other well-disposed persons followed his example.

Then the meeting Began to talk of letting the shoot-
ing over the old gravel-pits which were given to the
parish after the great inclosure of 1810, and Bangs
offered to bid.

The landlord put out the lights.



149




XVII

HE great day of the election came at
last just because it had to come.
They were all afraid of it as some-
thing impending, and would gladly
have put it off. It was a fairish
day, yet, to speak the truth, not
much more so than the one that went before. You
might never have guessed with what sort of event
it was charged.

The result was a startling surprise. George got
his man in, at the expense of all persons of the
castle 's candidate ! Spurr triumphed over Mr. Raif .
The Conservatives, who took for the occasion their
second baptismal name of Moderates, had expected
to have it all their own way. They were left with
but four winners, Kisbye and the schoolmaster,
Grimber and Fawke. Radicalism, treacherously
calling itself Progressive to confuse the issue, had
effected a lodgment in the sacred soil. Its victory
had all the interest that might attach to the creation
of a soul under the ribs of death. The other side
took it so: Squire Liddicot thought that things
were going rather too far ; the ducal agent frowned ;
Mr. Kisbye said that George Herion was a firebrand,
and that there would b"e no peace in Slocum till he
was turned out of the place.



The Yellow Van

It was understood that there would be a full
evening sitting at the Knuckle of Veal. The event
had to be adjusted to consciousness, to be digested,
so to speak ; and where but in the village inn ? The
landlord, who had quite overcome his rather unpro-
fessional displeasure of the other evening, was in his
best humor. There was a flutter of expectation in
the outer bar, as though new times were at hand.
Bangs, the poacher, found other gossips already as-
sembled in the parlor, old Skett among them, and
Job Gurt who would have been there, as at a post
of duty, in any case.

It would be an error to suppose that the black-
smith was a sot. If he was a glutton for drink, he
was also a glutton for work. He earned "good
money," and, with his pickings in the season at Al-
lonby, turned in an average five-and-twenty shillings
a week. Sixteen of these shillings he gave to his wife
for housekeeping ; the rest he reserved for beer. As
he had no children, he could not be said to be doing
an injustice to his family. He began with his gener-
ous liquor at five in the morning, to clear his head
of the fumes with which he usually charged it at
night. His prudent helpmate took care that the
house should never be without this restorative. He
was a genuine Saxon peasant, and one of his remoter
ancestors had probably contracted his final head-
ache by a blow from a mace at Senlac. To be fair
to him, however, it should be said that he was on
this occasion extremely moderate in his potations.
He had recently had a bout. He was now slowly



The Yellow Van

getting sober again, so that his system might the bet-
ter respond to treatment with his favorite beverage
on next bank-holiday.

These and other small fry were there to make an
audience. The principal figures who were more in-
timately connected with the event of the day lin-
gered, as befitted their state. The first of them to
arrive was Mr. Grimber, the retired tallow-chandler,
doubly respected as a Londoner and as a person of
independent means. He may best be described as
the essential ratepayer of the smaller sort, the de-
spair of the champions of the lost causes in heroic
ideals. He was absolutely self-centered, save for
his immense reverence for wealth and station, and
nothing could exceed his disdain for all who, as he
put it, were fed, clothed, or educated at his expense.
He had paid rates nearly all his life, -not without
satisfaction to his vanity as a man of substance,
and for the same period had cherished a profound
contempt and aversion for those who derived the
slightest benefit from his enforced contributions to
the public cause. In short, he was in every respect
a genial model of skullcapped nincompoopery, alike
in body and in soul.

On his entry, the others said in chorus, "Good
evening, Mr. Councilor. ' ' It was a new form for the
new occasion, and it was one that, as a precedent,
would govern Slocum for all future time. Mr. Grim-
ber replied, "Good evening, gentlemen." When his
colleague, the schoolmaster, followed, he was saluted
in the same way. His reply was, "Good evening,

152



The Yellow Van

gentlemen and Mr. Councilor." It was another
precedent for the ages. Mr. Kisbye, of course, was
not for this company.

The defeated, and yet, in a sense, the triumphant,
party presently appeared in the person of old Spurr.
He was toil-worn, rugged, dirty as usual, and he had
the air of some hunted Hebrew prophet who had
momentarily left his wilderness in search of refresh-
ment while dodging the wrath of a king. There was
no sport to be expected from his taciturnity and
from his total want of repartee. He even failed to
comply with the formula. George, it was known,
would be late, as he was still on his rounds. The
sitting, therefore, lacked animation until the arrival
of Mr. Fawke, a little man, now swelling with im-
portance, whose face seemed to say nothing except
that pudding was cheap. His flowing salutation
Brought the whole composition into convivial har-
mony with a sweep of the hand.

"I drink your 'ealth, sir, and proud to welcome
you," said the ratepayer, raising his glass.

"An' I should loike to drink it, tew," piped Sam-
son Skett.

Like most persons called for the first time to public
station, Mr. Fawke seemed wishful to show that it
had not made him proud.

"I 'ardly know 'ow it 'appened, I 'm sure," he
said, "an' when I think 'ow many there is in this
parish that knows more than me, I could almost
throw it up. I can only do my best, that 's all."

Nobody helped Mr. Fawke at this stage, and a

J 53



The Yellow Van

humane person might have felt that he was rather
hardly used.

"But, gentlemen, it 's no use tryin' to make be-
lieve. I never 'ad a day's schoolin' in grammar in
all my loife an* me to be a speaker, too!"

"Woire in, Fawke, and get your name up. That 's
all you 've got to dew."

"Well, mates, I '11 say this for mysen: it 's come
through no seekin' o' mine. I 'ad n't even no idee
of it till I see my nime in the list. ' '

A voice: "Come, now, didn't 'e say that, if any-
body 'u'd ask 'e, you 'd make one?"

"I may have said it, but I asked no man to ask
me, and I canvassed no man, neyther."

The voice: "What about Maw?"

Fawke, changing color: "Now I '11 just tell 'e all
about that. Maw said he did n 't think his name
was on the register casual-like, as we was passin'
the time o' day. Well, I said I 'd look; an' there,
sure enough, I found it, an' I jes let him know."

The schoolmaster: "Why not? Why not? What
've ye got to be ashamed of, man?"

Fawke, taking heart: "I certainly did say, after
that, 'My number 's four on the pollin'-card'; but it
went no further."

The voice: "There!"

Fawke : ' ' The fact is, the act 's a bit too com-
plected. It wants masterin '. 'T ain 't so easy to put
yer mark agen a name if you can't read the name.
We 'aven't all got the edication."

Grimber, contemptuously: "Education, educa-

154



The Yellow Van

tion nothin' but that now! I speak as a rate-
payer. ' '

Job Gurt : "You 're reet there, maister. It 's a 'ard
thing on them as 'ave got children. A child as might
be earnin' a few pence a week to 'elp keep 'issen,
taken away and sent to school as you might say,
by force of arms. It 's a 'ard thing on a parent,
say Oi."

"It 's the law, and we 've got to put up with it,"
growled the schoolmaster. Even he thought that the
parent had a case.

It was the matured deliverance of the rural mind
on this subject. No one in that parlor spoke up for
education; its warmest apologists simply held their
peace. And while silly Slocum talks thus after
its nature, tremendous Germany and tremendous
America, with their systems polished to the last point
of perfection, are waiting to spring on an unlet-
tered prey. Truly, there is no fighting against doom.

"We want to be guided," said Fawke, directing
his gaze to an aged person in the corner, who seemed
to require propitiation. "We 're mere young uns
at it."

It was the voice (for this person was the owner and
embodiment of that organ) , but it took not the slight-
est notice of him.

"I wish it 'd all passed more amicable and
f riendly-like, " continued Fawke, still propitiatory.
"I wish there 'ad n't been no opposition to the dook
as one might say. It ain't pleasant to 'ave a con-
tused election 'mong neighbors."

'55



The Yellow Van

"Contested," suggested Grimber, not unkindly.

"All my grammar 's self-taught," said Fawke.

"Well, you got a progrim o' your own, I under-
stand, if it comes to that," said Grimber, sharply.
"What 's your little game? I 'ope you ain't comin'
on the rates for more money."

"I don't quite ketch your meanin', Mr. Coun-
cilor."

"Well, what 's your wheeze for the free and in-
dependent elector, your job line, speakin' as a trades-
man to a tradesman?"

Fawke, clearing his throat: "The question o' the
day in Slocum Parva, aye, an' Slocum Magna, too,
is prizes at the flower an' vegetable show. You see,
it 's like this here. Our fust prize is five shillin ' ;
our second 's two an ' six ; our third 's only a shillin '.
Now it ain't enough to encourage laborin' people.
It don't pay, when p'r'aps you 've brought forward
as many beans, 'taters, an' onions as 'u'd cover this
table. The thing I 've been workin' for all my life
is to get the money raised to seven an' a kick, five
bob, an' two an' a half. That 's the way to en-
courage industry an' beat the furiner. An', mark
my words, it 's got to come. ' '

"It will b"e a tough job," said Grimber. " 'Ow
often do we meet?"

"A full hour every month," said Fawke, eagerly,
"sometimes two; an' I mean to bring it on fust
thing."

The discussion could not be maintained at this high
level, and it soon began to decline into sheer incon-

156



The Yellow Van

sequence. Fawke became almost interjectional in his
vain repetition of stock phrases "I 've no edica-
tion," "we do our best," "it 's got to come." Grim-
ber made an effort to restore it by a masterly digres-
sion on the water question. He recalled a time when
the wells of London were condemned, owing to an-
outbreak of cholera, and when the shop of his father,
an undertaker, like a second Temple of Janus, was
never closed, night or day, for three weeks.

' ' I speak of a man as I find him, ' ' maundered the
wretched Fawke.

Grimber looked as though he thought he would
say something to Fawke; then again he looked as
though he thought he would not. And the more
merciful view prevailed.

A stir at the door, and George came in. "Good
evenin', gentlemen all. Well, lads, we 've done it"
shaking hands with Spurr. The old man smiled
in iron lines, and, by way of showing some excite-
ment of sensibility, knocked the ashes out of his pipe.

Every kind of leadership soon makes itself felt,
even the humblest. All pressed forward to shake
hands with the peddler. Mr. Grimber did it with
the unmistakable air of taking leave of him on his
passage to perdition. Still, it was done. The school-
master thought he was proud to have had him in his
class, but said only, "Well, well ! Well, well !" with
the qualified praise which he had formerly given to
a successful lesson. The youngster had the self-pos-
session of his new pride in himself. He was begin-
ning to do things instead of merely thinking things



The Yellow Van

and hoping them precious moment for all of us.
He was alive with the new sense of opportunity.
The village was not the narrow place he once thought.
His success in his new trade showed that something
might be done in Slocum, if one only tried. And
now there was this second and greater success. He
might start the village, as he had started himself, in
some way of life less miserably narrow and bounded
than the old one. It was no revolt against his bet-
ters. He was a peasant still, and recognized their
right to rule him; all that he wanted was to be al-
lowed to bear a hand. Regenerative ideas mature
slowly, and no one gets new-born all at once. What
a triumph if he could endow Slocum with a tight
thatch and a pail of clean drinking-water all the
year round! He was elate, radiant. Fawke tried
to introduce his panacea of the flower show, but
George waved him off with a laugh. "Never mind
that now ; let 's all have a chat, same as old times. ' '

The proposition was evidently relished; the con-
versation at once took a more convivial tone, and the
oldest chestnuts of anecdote began their weary and
yet welcome round. There is still a market in the
inn parlor for worn-out jokes, as there is one else-
where for worn-out boots. Nature knows nothing of
waste.

The wide, wide world, too, came into their talk,
but only as the universe might come into the talk
of astronomers. It seemed immeasurably far. Yet
not always so. They mumbled cricket, even at this
season, and it seemed to bring Australia very near to

158



The Yellow Van

them. America was remote as being less in their
thoughts. The national game was, in a manner, their
tie of empire. How this county bowled, how that
one batted, rallied them, as experts, to a sense of a
common interest in life.

George now called for a song, and though this re-
quest was evidently welcome, compliance was de-
layed by the usual sheepish unwillingness to face the
company. One or two cleared their throats, and
pondered, and gave it up, professing to have forgot-
ten the words. The landlord at length came to the
rescue with a contrivance expressly designed for
emergencies of this sort, and superfluously intro-
duced by Fawke as the " grammerphone, " perhaps
with the thought of his own educational deficiencies
still running in his head. The function of this most
dismal instrument seemed to be to make the min-
strelsy of the music-hall accessible to the rural dis-
tricts. The landlord adjusted the slides, not without
difficulty, and touched the springs, not without mis-
takes. At length, after several false starts, the thing
was delivering a metrical pleasantry on the subject
of paper collars, in a far-off tone which suggested
a revel of cockney gnomes in the bowels of the earth.
Yet nothing could have been at once more impres-
sively unearthly in its metallic travesty of the hu-
man voice, nor more commonplace in its general
drift.

It was as disappointing in this respect as those
sittings of unlettered mediums in which the sages
of history revisit our sphere to talk the wisdom of

'59



The Yellow Van

the copy-book in the vernacular of Whitechapel. It
left the company cold, but not for this reason. They
felt that it was dull, while they silently acknowledged
that it was perhaps too fashionable for their com-
prehension. In short, they put it in the same cate-
gory as the selections from Wagner at village con-
certs, performed by distinguished amateurs. In the
one instance, as in the other, they were much too
well-bred to complain. The judicious landlord saved
them the trouble by covering the machine once more
with its oil-cloth, and stimulating Bangs to harmony
with the offer of a drink.

The poacher accordingly plunged headlong into a
patriotic ditty, inspired by the war, with a burden
of "England, be proud of your boys in brown."
The choice of a color was but a tacit confession of
the poet's inability to make khaki subservient to the
purposes of his art. Whatever its faults in composi-
tion and execution, this was at least a vital deliver-
ance, and it had the happiest effect. The whole
parlor joined heartily in the chorus, and Fawke,
in particular, grew manifestly reckless, as though
meditating an immediate start for the front. The
ice thus broken, Mr. Grimber next undertook to
oblige.

"I ain't got nothin' new," he said, "but if you
care for one of the old uns, here 's something that
my old father learned from his father, who was a
volunteer in the great French war. It 's about Na-
poleon Bonyparte."

An old song, and a song that might contain some

160



The Yellow Van

mention of the battle of Waterloo! Nothing more
was needed to bespeak their most reverent attention.
It opened as follows :

"Come, all you young men, beware of ambition,
Or else, in course o' time, you may alter your

condition.

Oh, think upon 'is woes who was born to be a yero,
And now is gone to end his days in the isle of St.
'Eleno."

There were twelve verses, and they traced a career
of misguided ambition from the cradle almost to
the grave. In the treatment of it, and particularly
in Mr. Grimber's rendering, this dazzling but irregu-
lar genius became an awful warning for the rising
manhood of Sloeum Parva of the dangers of dis-
content with their lot. He seemed to walk the earth
again to impress upon them the great truth that if
they were not exceedingly careful they might cease to
be British boors. He had probably served the same
purpose for their grandsires, and so had not lived
altogether in vain. The song was thus of real social
and political significance in its solemn echoes of the
teaching of the catechism in regard to contentment
with the state of life to which we are called. The
implied rebuke seemed especially to come home to
Mr. Fawke, with his newly awakened desires for civil
and even for military distinction. He sat silent, as
though meditating, with thankfulness, his exceed-
ingly narrow escape of a throne.

161



The Yellow Van

They were at the height of their rude revel when
a child from the village came in and handed a letter
to George. It had just been left at his cottage, and
the messenger who had brought it from the agent's
room at the castle said it was pressing. So few let-
ters, pressing or other, came to them that all present
boded something momentous, especially when they
saw the young man, as he opened it, turn deathly
pale. He read it again in the perfect silence, dropped
it, and staggered forth without a word. One of them
picked it up and without ceremony read it aloud for
the benefit of the company. It was a formal notice
to quit, on the ground that the cottage was wanted
for a new laborer on the estate. They all realized its
dire significance just as fully as George. It meant
ruin. Without Slocum as a center, his little business
would be nothing; and for a man under the ban of
the castle there would be no other footing anywhere
throughout the countryside. "A fancied summat
was comin'," said Job, "when A see the agent makin'
a ugly face,"



162



XVIII




ITHIN a fortnight of that day, so
swiftly was it done, George Herion
was in London, earning his living
at the dock-side.

Thus the blow fell. There was
the agent 's decree of expulsion, for
such it was, and no valid appeal.
The duchess, their one friend, was in town, amid the
whirl of her first season, as effectually out of reach
as Arcturus. If she had been at their door, they


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryRichard WhiteingThe yellow van → online text (page 9 of 21)