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   Chapter 5 INTERFERENCE OF A GUERNSEY MERCHANT.

The Mayor of Troy By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 27325

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


A smaller man than Major Hymen-I allude to character rather than to stature-had undoubtedly postponed a military manoeuvre on finding it likely to clash with the Millennium, an event so incalculable and conceivably so disconcerting to the best-laid plans: and, indeed, for something like forty-eight hours the Major was in two minds about writing to Captain Pond and hinting at a postponement.

But in the end he characteristically chose the stronger line. I believe the handsome language of Captain Pond's last letter decided him. His was no cheap imitation of the grand manner. Magnificently, spaciously-too spaciously, perhaps, considering the width of our streets-it enshrined a real conception of Man's proper dignity. Here was an obligation in which honour met and competed with politeness: and he must fulfil it though the heavens fell. Moreover, he could not but be aware, during the month of April, that the town had its eye on him, hoping for a sign. He and the Vicar and Mr. Hansombody had bound each other to secrecy; nevertheless some inkling of the secret had leaked out. The daily current of gossip in the streets no longer kept its cheerful, equable flow. Citizens avoided each other's eyes, and talked either in hushed voices or with an almost febrile vehemence on any subject but that which lay closest to their thoughts.

But never did our Mayor display such strength, such unmistakable greatness, as during this, the last month-alas!-fate granted us to possess him. Men eyed him on his daily walk, but he for his part eyed the weather: and the weather continued remarkably fine for the time of year.

So warm, so still, indeed, were the evenings, that in the third week of April he began to take his dessert, after dinner, out of doors on the terrace overlooking the harbour; and would sit and smoke there, alone with a book, until the shadows gathered and it grew too dark to read print.

"And you may tell Scipio to bring me out a bottle of the green-sealed Madeira," he commanded, on the evening of the twentieth.

"The green-sealed Madeira?" echoed Miss Marty. "You know, of course, that there is but a dozen or so left?"

"A dozen precisely; and to-day is the twentieth. That leaves"-the Major drummed with his fingers on the mahogany-"a bottle a night and one over. That last one I reserve to drink on the evening of May-day if all goes well. One must risk something."

"Solomon!"

"Eh?" The Major looked up in surprise. Although a kinswoman, Miss Marty had never before dared to address him by his Christian name. "One must risk something; or rather, I should say, one must leave a margin. If Hansombody calls, you may send out the brown sherry."

"Forgive me, cousin. I see you going about your daily business, calm and collected, as though no shadow hung on us-"

"A man in my position has certain responsibilities, my dear Martha."

"Yes, yes; I admire you for it. Do not think that for one moment I have failed in paying you that tribute. I often wish," pursued Miss Marty, somewhat incoherently, "that I had been born a man. I trust the aspiration is not unwomanly. I see you going about as if nothing were happening or likely to happen, and me all the while half dead in my bed, and hearing the clock strike and expecting it every moment. As if the French weren't bad enough! And the Vicar may say what he likes, but when I hear you ordering up the green-sealed Madeira I know you're like me, and in your heart of hearts can't see much difference between it and the end of the world, for all the brave face you put on it. Oh, I dare say it's different when one happens to be a man," wound up Miss Marty, "but what I want to know is why couldn't we be let alone and go on comfortably?"

The Major rose and flicked a crumb or two from the knees of his pantaloons. For the moment he seemed about to answer her, but thought better of it and left the room without speech, taking his napkin with him.

To tell the truth, he had been near to giving way. In his heart he echoed Miss Marty's protest; and it touched him with an accent of reproach-faint indeed; an accent and no more-which yet he had detected and understood. Was he not in some sort responsible? Would the Millennium be imminent to-day-or, if imminent, would it be wearing so momentous an aspect?-if at the last Mayor-choosing he had modestly declined to be re-elected (for the fifth successive year), and had stood aside in favour of some worthy but less eminent citizen? Hansombody, for instance? Hansombody admired him, idolised him, with a devotion almost canine. Yet Hansombody might be expected to cherish hopes of the mayoral succession sooner or later, for one brief year at any rate; and for a few moments after acceding for the sixth time to the unanimous request of the burgesses, the Major had almost fancied that Hansombody's feelings were hurt. Hansombody would have made a competent mayor; provoking comparison, of course, but certainly not provoking the jealousy of the gods. It is notoriously the mountain top, the monarch oak that attracts the lightning. Impossible to think of Hansombody attracting the lightning, with his bedside manner!

The Major seated himself in his favourite chair on the terrace, spread his napkin over his knees and mused, while Scipio set out the decanters and glasses.

His gaze, travelling over the low parapet of the quay-wall, rested on the quiet harbour, the ships swinging slowly with the tide, the farther shore touched with the sunset glory. Evensong, the close of day, the end of deeds, the twilit passing of man-all these the scene, the hour suggested. And yet (the Major poured out a glass of the green-sealed Madeira) this life was good and desirable.

The Major's garden (as I have said) was a narrow one, in width about half the depth of his house, terminating in the "Terrace" and a narrow quay-door, whence a ladder led down to the water. Alongside this garden ran the rear wall of the Custom House, which abutted over the water, also with a ladder reaching down to the foreshore, and not five yards from the Mayor's. On the street side one window of the Custom House raked the Mayor's porch; in the rear another and smaller window overlooked his garden, and this might have been a nuisance had the Collector of Customs, Mr. Pennefather, been a less considerate neighbour. But no one minded Mr. Pennefather, a little, round, self-depreciating official who, before coming to Troy, had served as clerk in the Custom House at Penzance, and so, as you might say, had learnt his business in a capital school: for the good feeling between the Customs officials and the free-traders of Mount's Bay, and the etiquette observed in their encounters, were a by-word throughout the Duchy.

The Major, glancing up as he sipped his Madeira and catching sight of Mr. Pennefather at his window, nodded affably.

"Ah! Good evening, Mr. Collector!"

"Good evening, Major! You'll excuse my seeming rudeness in overlooking you. To tell the truth, I had just closed my books, and the sight of your tulips-"

"A fair show this year-eh?" The Major took pride in his tulips.

"Magnificent! I was wondering how you will manage when the bulbs deteriorate; for, of course, there's no renewing them from Holland, nor any prospect of it while this war lasts."

The Major sipped his wine. "Between ourselves, Mr. Collector, I have heard that forbidden goods find their way into this country somehow. Eh?"

The Collector laughed. "But the price, Major? That is where it hits us, even in the matter of tulips. War is a terrible business."

"It has been called the sport of kings," answered the Major, crossing his legs with an air of careless greatness, and looking more like the Prince Regent than ever.

"I have sometimes wondered, being of a reflective turn, on the-er- far-reaching consequences of events which, to the casual eye, might appear insignificant. An infant is born in the remote island of Corsica. Years roll on, and we find our gardens denuded of a bulb, the favourite habitat of which must lie at least eight hundred miles from Corsica as the crow flies. How unlikely was it, sir, that you or I, considering these tulips with what I may perhaps call our finite intelligence-"

"Step around, Mr. Collector, and have a look at them. You can unfold your argument over a glass of wine, if you will do me that pleasure." The Major had a high opinion of Mr. Pennefather's conversation; he was accustomed to say that it made you think.

"If you are sure, sir, it will not incommode you?"

"Not in the least. I expect Hansombody will join us presently. Scipio, bring out the brown sherry."

Now the Major had not invited Dr. Hansombody; yet that he expected him is no less certain than that, while he spoke, Dr. Hansombody was actually lifting the knocker of the front door.

How did this happen? The Major-so used was he to the phenomenon- accepted it as a matter of course. Hansombody (good soul!) had a wonderful knack of turning up when wanted. But what attracted him? Was it perchance that magnetic force of will which our Major, and all truly great men, unconsciously exert? No; the explanation was a simpler one, though the Major would have been inexpressibly shocked had he suspected it.

Miss Marty and Dr. Hansombody were mutually enamoured.

They never told their love. To acknowledge it nakedly to one another-nay, even to themselves-had been treason. What? Could Miss Marty disturb the comfort, could her swain destroy the confidence, could they together forfeit the esteem, of their common hero? In converse they would hymn antiphonally his virtues, his graces of mind and person; even as certain heathen fanatics, wounding themselves in honour of their idol, will drown the pain by loud clashings of cymbals.

They never told their love, and yet, as the old song says:

"But if ne'er so close ye wall him,

Do the best that ye may,

Blind Love, if so ye call him,

He will find out his way."

Miss Marty had found out a way.

The Major's house, as you have been told, looked down the length of Fore Street; and on the left hand (the harbour side) of Fore Street, at some seventy yards' distance, Dr. Hansombody resided over his dispensary, or, as he preferred to call it, his "Medical Hall." The house stood aligned with its neighbours but overtopped them by an attic storey; and in the north side of this attic a single window looked up the street to the Major's windows-Miss Marty's among the rest-and was visible from them.

Behind this attic window the Doctor, when released from professional labours, would sit and read, or busy himself in arranging his cases of butterflies, of which he had a famous collection; and somehow-I cannot tell you when or how, except that it began in merest innocence-Miss Marty had learnt to signal with her window-blind and the Doctor to reply with his. This evening, for instance, by lowering her blind to the foot of the second pane from the top, Miss Marty had telegraphed,-

"The Major requests you to call and take wine with him."

The Doctor drew his blind down rapidly and as rapidly raised it again. This said, "I come at once," and Miss Marty knew that it added, "On the wings of love!"

A slight agitation of the lower left-hand corner of her blind supplemented the message thus,-

"There will be brown sherry."

"Then will I also call to-morrow," said the Doctor's blind, roguishly, meaning that if the Major indulged in brown sherry (which never agreed with him) this convivial visit would almost certainly be followed by a professional one. Miss Marty, having no signal for the green-sealed Madeira, postponed explanation, and drew her blind midway down the window. The Doctor did the same with his. This signal and its answer invariably closed their correspondence; but what it meant, what tender message it conveyed, remained an uncommunicated secret. By it Miss Marty-but shall I reveal the arcana of that virgin breast? Let us be content to know that whatever it conveyed was, on her part, womanly; on his, gallant and even dashing.

The Doctor lost no time in fetching his hat and gold-topped cane. He knew the Major's brown sherry; it had twice made a voyage to the West Indies. He hied him up the street with alacrity.

The Collector, though he had the worse of the start, was not slow. He also had tasted the Major's brown sherry. He closed his ledgers, locked his desk, caught up his hat, and was closing the Custom House door behind him when, from the top of the Custom House steps, he saw the Major's door open to admit Dr. Hansombody.

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy and pursue in imagination the pleasures of hope, attend to the story of Dr. Hansombody, Mr. Pennefather, and the brown sherry!

"Dr. Hansombody?" With her own hand Miss Marty opened the door, and her start of surprise was admirably affected. (Ah, Miss Marty! Who was it rated Lavinia this morning for a verbal fib, until the poor child dropped her head upon the kitchen table and with sobs confessed herself the chief of sinners?) But even as she welcomed the apothecary, her gaze fell past him upon the form of a stranger who, sauntering up the street, had paused at the gate to scan the Major's house-front.

"I ask your pardon." The stranger, a long, lean, lantern-jawed man, raised his hat and addressed her with a strong French accent. "But does Mr. Hymen inhabit here?"

"Yes, sir; Major Hymen-that is to say the Mayor-lives here."

"Ah! he is also the Maire? So much the better." He drew out a card. "Will it please you, mademoiselle, to convey this to him

?"

Standing on the third step he held up the card. Miss Marty took it and read, "M. Cesar Dupin."

"Of Guernsey," added M. Dupin, rubbing his long unshaven chin while he stole a long look at the Doctor. "It is understood that I come only to lodge a complaint."

"To be sure-to be sure," agreed the Doctor, hurriedly. "A Guernsey merchant," he whispered.… "You will convey my excuses to the Major; an unexpected visitor-I quite understand."

He made a motion to retire. At the same moment the Collector, after scanning the stranger from the Custom House porch, himself unseen, unlocked his door again without noise, re-entered his office and delicately drew down the blind of the little window overlooking the Major's garden.

"There is the parlour," Miss Marty made answer in an undertone. "This gentleman may not detain the Major long." She turned to the stranger. "Your business, sir, is doubtless private?"

"I should prefer."

"Quite so." She raised her voice and called, "Scipio! Scipio! Ah, there you are! Take this gentleman's card out to the terrace and inform the Major that he desires an interview."

"Why, hallo!" exclaimed the Major, glancing up at the sound of a blind being drawn above, in the Custom House window. "What the deuce is delaying Pennefather?"

While he speculated, Scipio emerged from the house, bearing in one hand a decanter of brown sherry, and in the other a visitor's card.

"Eh-what? M. Cesar Dupin?" The Major, holding the card almost at arm's length, conned it with a puzzled frown.

"From Guernsey, Major."

"Good Lord! And I've just invited Pennefather!" The Major rose half-way from his chair with a face of dismay.

Scipio glanced up at the Custom House window. He, too, had caught the sound of the drawn blind.

"Mas' Pennefather, Major, if you'll excuse me, he see a hole t'ro' a ladder, but not t'ro' a brick wall. Shall I show the genelman in?"

"I fear," began Miss Marty, as the Doctor took a seat in the parlour, "I greatly fear that Scipio has carried the brown sherry out to the terrace."

Dr. Hansombody smiled as a lover but sighed as a connoisseur.

"There is the Fra Angelico, however." She stepped to a panelled cupboard on the right of the chimney-piece. "Made from my own recipe," she added archly.

The Doctor lifted a hand in faint protest; but already she had set a glass before him. He knew the Fra Angelico of old. It was a specific against catarrh, and he had more than once prescribed it for Scipio.

"Wine is wine," continued Miss Marty, reaching down the bottle. "And, after all, when one knows what it is made of, as in this case- that seems to me the great point."

"You mustn't think-" began the Doctor.

"I must plead guilty"-Miss Marty poured out a glassful-"if its name suggests a foreign origin. You men, I know, profess a preference for foreign wines; and so, humorously, I hit on the name of Fra Angelico, from the herb angelica, which is its main ingredient. In reality, as I can attest, it is English to the core."

The Doctor lifted his glass and set it down again.

"You will join me?" he asked, pointing to the decanter and temporising.

"Pardon me. I indulge but occasionally: when I have a cold."

"And the Major?"

"He pleads habit. He says he is wedded to the vintages of France and Spain. 'What?' I rally him, 'when those two nations are at war with us? And you call yourself a patriot?' He permits these railleries."

"He is a man in a thousand!"

"There is no man like him!"

"If we exclude a certain resemblance-"

"You refer to the Prince Regent? But I was thinking only of moral grandeur."

"True. All else, if one may say so without disloyalty, is but skin-deep."

"Superficial."

"Thank you, the expression is preferable, and I ask your leave to substitute it."

"Solomon, my kinsman, is the noblest of men."

"And you, Miss Marty, the best of women!" cried the Doctor, taking fire and a sip of the Fra Angelico together, and gulping the latter down heroically. "I drink to you; nay, if I dared, I would go even farther-

"No, no, I beg of you!" Her eyes, downcast before this sudden assault, let fall two happy tears, but a feeble gesture of the hand besought his mercy. "Let us talk of him," she went on breathlessly. "His elevation of character-"

"If he were to marry, now?" the Doctor suggested. "Have you thought of that?"

"Sometimes," she admitted, with a flutter of the breath, which sounded almost like a sigh.

"It would serve to perpetuate-"

"But where to find one worthy of him? She must be capable of rising to his level; rather, of continuing there."

"You are sure that is necessary? Now, in my experience," the Doctor inclined his head to one side and rubbed his chin softly between thumb and forefinger-a favourite trick of his when diagnosing a case-"in my observation, rather, some disparity of temper, taste, character, may almost be postulated of a completely happy alliance; as in chemistry you bring together an acid and an alkali, and, always provided they don't explode-"

"He would never be satisfied with that. Believe me, the woman he condescends upon must, in return for that happy privilege, surrender her whole fate into his hands. Beneath his deference to our sex he carries an imperious will, and would demand no less."

"There is a little bit of that about him, now you mention it," assented the Doctor.

"But let us not cheat-" Miss Marty checked herself suddenly. "Let us not vex ourselves with any such apprehensions. He will never marry, I am convinced. I cannot imagine him in the light of a parent-with offspring, for instance. Rather, when I see him in his regimentals, or, again, in his mayoral robe and chain-you have noticed how they become him?-"

The Doctor admitted, with a faint sigh, that he had.

"Well, then, he puts me in mind of that-what d'you call it, which the poets tell us is reproduced but once in several hundred years?"

"The blossoming aloe?" suggested the Doctor.

Miss Marty shook her head. "It's not a plant-it's a kind of bird. It begins with 'P, h,'-and you think of Dublin."

"Let me see-Phelim? No, I have it! Phoenix."

"That's it-Phoenix. And when it's going to die it lights a fire and sits down upon it and another springs up from the ashes."

"But I don't see how that applies to the Major."

"No-o?" queried Miss Marty, dubiously. "Well, not in every particular; but the point is, there's only one at a time."

"The same might be said," urged the Doctor, delicately, "of other individual members of the Town Council; with qualifications, of course."

"And somehow I feel-I can't help a foreboding-that if ever we lose him it will be in some such way."

"Miss Marty!" The Doctor stood up, with horror-stricken face.

"There, now! You may call me fanciful, but I can't help it. And you've spilled the Fra Angelico! Let me pour you out another glassful."

"We must all die," answered the Doctor inconsequently, not yet master of himself.

"Except a few Bible characters," said Miss Marty, filling his glass. "But what the town would do without him I can't think. In a sense he is the town."

A moment before the Doctor had all but denied it; but now, overcome by the thought of a world without the Major, he hid his face. For a moment, if but in thought, he had been disloyal to his friend, his hero!

Miss Marty said afterwards that, although not accustomed to prophesy and humbly aware that it was out of her line, she must have spoken under inspiration. She was wont also, when she recalled her forebodings and the events that followed and so signally fulfilled them, to regret that when the Guernsey merchant took his leave, an hour later, she omitted to take note of his boots; it being an article of faith with her that, in his traffic with mortals, the Prince of Darkness could not help betraying himself by his cloven hoof.

In the garden meanwhile the Major and his guest were making very good weather of it, as we say in Troy; the one with his Madeira, the other with the brown sherry. I leave the reader to discern the gist of their talk from its technicalities.

"Three gross of ankers, you say?" queried the Major.

"At four gallons the anker, and six francs the gallon."

"It is a large venture."

"And, for that reason, dirt cheap. To my knowledge there is not a firm in Guernsey at this moment doing trade at less than seven francs the gallon in parcels under five hundred gallons."

"Yes, yes." The Major lit his pipe and puffed meditatively. "I am not denying that. Only, you see, on our side these large operations rather heighten the expense than diminish it, while they heighten the risk enormously."

"I do not see." M. Dupin crossed his legs and awaited an explanation.

"It is simple. So many more tubs, so many more carriers; so many more carriers, so much the more risk of including an informer. One hundred carriers, say, I can lay hands on, knowing them all for tried men. Beyond that number I rely on recommendations, often carelessly given. The risk is more than trebled. And then, the fact of my being Mayor-"

"I should have thought it lessened the risk."

"In a way, yes. But in case of miscarriage, the consequences must be more severe. I will own that you tempt me. The tubs, you say, would be ready slung."

"Ready slung for carriage, man or horse, whichever you prefer, with ropes, stones and six anchors for sinking in case of emergency. We will allow for these if they are returned."

"To tell the truth, since becoming chief magistrate of this borough, I have rather set my face against these operations. It has seemed to me more consonant.… And an operation on the scale you propose could not be conducted without some degree of-er-audacity."

"It means a forced run," assented M. Dupin.

"If, on reflection-" the Major hesitated.

"Excuse me, but there is no time. For reasons of our own, my firm must clear the stuff before the end of April; that is why we offer it at the price. Three gross, with six ankers of the colouring stuff gratis-and the tubs ready slung. It must be 'yes' or 'no'; if you decline, then I have another customer on the string."

"The end of April, you say?" The Major refilled his glass and mused, holding it up against the last gleam of daylight.

"We could ship it on the 27th or 28th. The moon serves then. Say that you run it on the night of the 30th?"

"Of the 30th?" echoed the Major. "But on that night, of all others, my hands are full. To begin with, we are half-expecting the Millennium."

"The Millennium, hein?" echoed M. Dupin in his turn. "I do not know her."

"It's not a boat," the Major explained. "It's a-well, in fact, we are not altogether sure what it may turn out to be. But, setting this aside, I am engaged to conduct a military operation on the night of the 30th."

"Hein?" M. Dupin eyed his host with interest. "A counter-stroke to the First Consul-is that so?"

"Well, not exactly a downright counter-stroke; although, if I had my way… but in fact (and I mention it in confidence, of course) our Artillery here is planning a surprise upon our neighbours of Looe, the descent to be made upon Talland Cove."

M. Dupin set down his glass. "But I am in luck to-night!" said he. "You-I-we are all in luck!"

"Forgive me, I do not see-"

"Oh, decidedly, I am in very great luck! If only your neighbours of Looe-they, too, have a corps of Artillery, I suppose?" M. Dupin felt in his breast pocket and drew out a paper. "Quick! their officer's name?"

"A Captain Pond commands them: Captain Aeneas Pond."

"Pond? Pond? See now, and I have an introduction to him! And you have arranged to surprise him on the night of April 30th-and at Talland Cove-when there will be no moon! Oh, damgood!"

"But even yet I do not see," the Major protested.

"Not quite. For the moment you do not see, quite; but in a little while." M. Dupin leaned forward and tapped the Major's knee. "Your Artillery? You can count on them?"

"To the death."

"How many?"

"Nine score, without reckoning uniforms or stretcher-bearers."

"Stretcher-bearers?"

"For the wounded. And, of course-during the operation you propose- we expect our corps to be depleted."

"By the crews? But they will be there! It is of the essence of your surprise that they, too, will return from Guernsey and join you in time. Next, of the Looe Artillery, how many?"

"You may put them down at seventy, all told."

"One hundred and eighty, and seventy-that makes two hundred and fifty; and the cognac at six francs a gallon; and this Captain Pond commended to me for the deepest man in Looe! It is you-it is he-it is I-it is all of us together that are in luck's way!" M. Dupin leapt up, snapped his bony fingers triumphantly; then, thrusting his hands beneath his coat-tails and clasping them, strode to and fro in front of the Major, for all the world like a long-legged chanticleer.

Ah, but wait a moment! Vainglorious bird of Gaul, or of the island contiguous, wait a moment ere you crow before the Mayor of Troy!

For a moment the Major lay back in his chair, to all appearance stupefied, confounded. Then he too rose, his lips working, his hand shaking for one instant only as with his pipe-stem he traced a magnificent curve upon the evening sky.

"Sit down!" he commanded. "Your plan is clever enough; but I have another worth ten of it."

And, laying down his pipe, this extraordinary man lifted the decanter and refilled his glass to the brim without spilling a drop.

What was the Major's plan? Wait again, and you shall see it evolved in operation.

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