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   Chapter 1 OUR MAJOR.

The Mayor of Troy By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 15128

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Arms and the Man I sing!

When, on the 16th of May, 1803, King George III. told his faithful subjects that the Treaty of Amiens was no better than waste paper, Troy neither felt nor affected to feel surprise. King, Consul, Emperor-it knew these French rulers of old, under whatever title they might disguise themselves. More than four centuries ago an English King had sent his pursuivants down to us with a message that "the Gallants of Troy must abstain from attacking, plundering, and sinking the ships of our brother of France, because we, Edward of England, are at peace with our brother of France": and the Gallants of Troy had returned an answer at once humble and firm: "Your Majesty best knows your Majesty's business, but we are at war with your brother of France." Yes, we knew these Frenchmen. Once before, in 1456, they had thought to surprise us, choosing a night when our Squire was away at market, and landing a force to burn and sack us: and our Squire's wife had met them with boiling lead. His Majesty's Ministers might be taken at unawares, not we. We slept Bristol fashion, with one eye open.

But when, as summer drew on, news came that the infamous usurper was collecting troops at Boulogne, and flat-bottomed boats, to invade us; when the spirit of the British people armed for the support of their ancient glory and independence against the unprincipled ambition of the French Government; when, in the Duchy alone, no less than 8511 men and boys enrolled themselves in twenty-nine companies of foot, horse and artillery, as well out of enthusiasm as to escape the general levy threatened by Government (so mixed are all human motives); then, you may be sure, Troy did not lag behind.

Ah! but we had some brave corps among the Duchy Volunteers!

There was the St. Germans Subscription Troop, for instance, which consisted of forty men and eleven uniforms, and hunted the fox thrice a week during the winter months under Lord Eliot, Captain and M.F.H. There was the Royal Redruth Infantry, the famous "Royal Reds," of 103 men and five uniforms. These had heard, at second hand, of Bonaparte's vow to give them no quarter, and wore a conspicuous patch of red in the seat of their pantaloons that he might have no excuse for mistaking them. There was the even more famous Mevagissey Battery, of no men and 121 uniforms. In Mevagissey, as you may be aware, the bees fly tail-foremost; and therefore, to prevent bickerings, it was wisely resolved at the first drill to make every unit of this corps an officer.

But the most famous of all (and sworn rivals) were two companies of coast artillery-the Looe Diehards and the Troy Gallants.

The Looe Diehards (seventy men and two uniforms) wore dark blue coats and pantaloons, with red facings, yellow wings and tassels, and white waistcoats. Would you know by what feat they earned their name? Listen. I quote the very words of their commander, Captain Bond, who survived to write a History of Looe-and a sound book it is. "The East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery was established in 1803, and kept in pay from Government for six years. Not a single man of the company died during the six years, which is certainly very remarkable."

But, when you come to think of it, what an even more remarkable boast for a body of warriors!

We of Troy (180 men and two uniforms) laughed at this claim. Say what you will, there is no dash about longevity, or very little. For uniform we wore dark-blue coats and pantaloons, with white wings and facings, edged and tasselled with gilt, and scarlet waistcoats, also braided with gilt. We wanted no new name, we! Ours was an inherited one, derived from days when, under Warwick the King-maker, Lord High Admiral of England, we had swept the Channel, summoned the men of Rye and Winchelsea to vail their bonnets-to take in sail, mark you: no trumpery dipping of a flag would satisfy us-and when they stiff-neckedly refused, had silenced the one town and carried off the other's chain to hang across our harbour from blockhouse to blockhouse. Also, was it not a gallant of Troy that assailed and carried the great French pirate, Jean Doree, and clapped him under his own hatches?

"The roaring cannons then were plied,

And dub-a-dub went the drum-a;

The braying trumpets loud they cried

To courage both all and some-a."

"The grappling-hooks were brought at length,

The brown bill and the sword-a;

John Dory at length, for all his strength,

Was clapt fast under board-a."

That was why we wore our uniforms embroidered with gold (dores). The Frenchmen, if they came, would understand the taunt.

But most of all we were proud of Solomon Hymen, our Major and our Mayor of Troy.

I can see him now as he addressed us on the evening of our first drill, standing beside the two long nineteen-pounders on the Old Fort; erect, with a hand upon his ivory sword-hilt, his knops and epaulettes flashing against the level sun. I can see his very gesture as he enjoined silence on the band; for we had a band, and it was playing "Come, Cheer Up, My Lads!" As though we weren't cheerful enough already!

[But "Come, come!" the reader will object. "All this happened a hundred years ago. Yet here are you talking as if you had been present." Very true: it is a way we have in Troy. Call it a foible-but forgive it! The other day, for instance, happening on the Town Quay, I found our gasman, Mr. Rabling, an earnest Methodist, discussing to a small crowd on the subject of the Golden Calf, and in this fashion: "Well, friends, in the midst of all this pillaloo, hands-across and down-the-middle, with old Aaron as bad as any and flinging his legs about more boldacious with every caper, I happens to glance up the hill, and with that I gives a whistle; for what do I see but a man aloft there picking his way down on his heels with a parcel under his arm! Every now and then he pulls up, shading his eyes, so, like as if he'd a lost his bearin's. I glances across to Aaron, and thinks I, 'Look out for squalls! Here's big brother coming, and a nice credit this'll be to the family!'…" The historic present, as my Latin grammar used to call it, is our favourite tense: and if you insist that, not being a hundred years old, I cannot speak as an eye-witness of this historic scene, my answer must be Browning's,-

"All I can say is-I saw it!"]

"Gentlemen!" began the Major.

We might not all be officers, like the Mevagissey Artillery, but in the Troy Gallants we were all gentlemen.

"Gentlemen!"-the Major waved an arm seaward-"yonder lies your enemy. Behind you"-he pointed up the harbour to the town- "England relies on your protection. Shall the Corsican tyrant lay his lascivious hands upon her ancient liberties, her reformed and Protestant religion, her respectable Sovereign and his Consort, her mansions, her humble cottages, and those members of the opposite sex whose charms reward, and, in rewarding, refine us? Or shall we meet his flat-bottomed boats with a united front, a stern 'Thus far and no farther,' and send them home with their tails between their legs? That, gentlemen, is the alternative. Which will you choose?"

Here the Major paused, and finding that he expected an answer, we turned our eyes with one consent upon Gunner Sobey, the readiest man in the company.

"The latter!" said Gunner Sobey, with precision; whereat we gave three cheers. We dined, that afternoon, in the Long Room of the "Ship" Inn, and afterwards danced the night through in the Town Hall.

The Major danced famousl

y. Above all things, he prided himself on being a ladies' man, and the fair sex (as he always called them) admired him without disguise. His manner towards them was gallant yet deferential, tender yet manly. He conceded everything to their weakness; yet no man in Troy could treat a woman with greater plainness of speech. The confirmed spinsters (high and low, rich and poor, we counted seventy-three of them in Troy) seemed to like him none the less because he lost no occasion, public or private, of commending wedlock. For the doctrine of Mr. Malthus (recently promoted to a Professorship at the East India College) he had a robust contempt. He openly regretted that, owing to the negligence of our forefathers, the outbreak of war found Great Britain with but fifteen million inhabitants to match against twenty-five million Frenchmen. They threatened to invade us, whereas we should rather have been in a position to march on Paris! He asked nothing better. He quoted with sardonic emphasis the remark of a politician that "'twas hardly worth while to go to war merely to prove that we could put ourselves in a good posture for defence."

"If I had my way," announced Major Hymen, "every woman in England should have a dozen children at least."

"What a man!" said Miss Pescod afterwards to Miss Sally Tregentil, who had dropped in for a cup of tea.

And yet the Major was a bachelor. They could not help wondering a little.

"With two such names, too!" mused Miss Sally. "'Solomon' and 'Hymen'; they certainly suggest-they would almost seem to give promise of, at least, a dual destiny."

"You mark my words," said Miss Pescod. "That man has been crossed in love."

"But who?" asked Miss Sally, her eyes widening in speculation. "Who could have done such a thing?"

"My dear, I understand there are women in London capable of anything."

The Major, you must know, had spent the greater part of his life in the capital as a silk-mercer and linen-draper-I believe, in the Old Jewry; at any rate, not far from Cheapside. He had left us at the age of sixteen to repair the fortunes of his family, once opulent and respected, but brought low by his great-grandfather's rash operations in South Sea stock. In London, thanks to an ingratiating manner with the sex on which a linen-draper relies for patronage, he had prospered, had amassed a competence, and had sold his business to retire to his native town, as Shakespeare retired to Stratford-on-Avon, and at about the same period of life.

Had the Major in London been crossed in love? No; I incline to believe that Miss Pescod was mistaken. That hearts, up there, fluttered for a man of his presence is probable, nay certain. In port and even in features he bore a singular likeness to the Prince Regent. He himself could not but be aware of this, having heard it so often remarked upon by persons acquainted with his Royal Highness as well as by others who had never set eyes on him. In short, our excellent Major may have dallied in his time with the darts of love; there is no evidence that he ever took a wound.

Within a year after his return he bought back the ancestral home of the Hymens, a fine house dating from the reign of Queen Anne. (His great-grandfather had built it on the site of a humbler abode, on the eve of the South Sea collapse.) It stood at the foot of Custom House Hill and looked down the length of Fore Street-a perspective view of which the Major never wearied-no, not even on hot afternoons when the population took its siesta within doors and, in the words of Cai Tamblyn, "you might shot a cannon down the streets of Troy, and no person would be shoot." This Cai (or Caius) Tamblyn, an eccentric little man of uncertain age, with a black servant Scipio, who wore a livery of green and scarlet and slept under the stairs, made up the Major's male retinue. Between them they carried his sedan chair; and because Cai (who walked in front) measured but an inch above five feet, whereas Scipio stood six feet three in his socks, the Major had a seat contrived with a sharp backward slope, and two wooden buffers against which he thrust his feet when going down-hill. Besides these, whom he was wont to call, somewhat illogically, his two factotums, his household comprised Miss Marty and a girl Lavinia who, as Miss Marty put it, did odds and ends. Miss Marty was a poor relation, a third or fourth cousin on the maternal side, whom the Major had discovered somewhere on the other side of the Duchy, and promoted. Socially she did not count. She asked no more than to be allowed to feed and array the Major, and gaze after him as he walked down the street.

And what a progress it was!

Again I can see him as he made ready for it, standing in his doorway at the head of a flight of steps, which led down from it to the small wrought-iron gate opening on the street. The house has since been converted into bank premises and its threshold lowered for the convenience of customers. Gone are the plants-the myrtle on the right of the porch, the jasmine on the left-with the balusters over which they rambled, and the steps which the balusters protected-ah, how eloquently the Major's sword clanked upon these as he descended! But the high-pitched roof remains, with its three dormer windows still leaning awry, and the plaster porch where a grotesque, half-human face grins at you from the middle of a fluted sea-shell. Standing before it with half-closed eyes, I behold the steps again, and our great man at the head of them receiving his hat from the obsequious Scipio, drawing on his gloves, looping his malacca cane to his wrist by its tasselled cord of silk. The descent might be military or might be civil: he was always Olympian.

"The handsome he is!" Miss Marty would sigh, gazing after him.

"A fine figure of a man, our Major!" commented Butcher Oke, following him from the shop-door with a long stare, after the day's joint had been discussed and chosen.

The children, to whom he was ever affable, stopped their play to take and return his smile. Some even grinned and saluted. They reserved their awe for Scipio. Indeed, there is a legend that when Scipio made his first appearance in Fore Street-he being so tall and the roadway so narrow-he left in his wake two rows of supine children who, parting before him, had gradually tilted back as their gaze climbed up his magnificent and liveried person until the sight of his ebon face toppled them over, flat.

Miss Jex, the postmistress, would hand him his letters or his copy of the Sherborne Mercury with a troubled blush. No exception surely could be taken if she, a Government official, chose to hang a coloured engraving of the Prince Regent on the wall behind her counter. And yet-the resemblance! She had heard of irregular alliances, Court scandals; she had even looked out "Morganatic" in the dictionary, blushing for the deed while pretending to herself (fie, Miss Jex!) that "Moravian" was the word she sought.

In Admirals' Row-its real name was Admiral's Row, and had been given to it in 1758, after the capture of Louisbourg and in honour of Admiral Boscawen; but we in Troy preferred to write the apostrophe after the 's'-Miss Sally Tregentil would overpeer her blind and draw back in a flutter lest the Major had observed her.

"Georgiana Pescod is positive that he was wild in his youth. But how," Miss Sally asked herself, "can Georgiana possibly know? And if he were-"

I leave you, my reader, as you know the female heart, to continue Miss Sally's broken musings.

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