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Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13115

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

'As poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things…'

The Honourable and Reverend Eustace John Wriothesley Blanchminster, D.D., Master of St. Hospital-by-Merton, sat in the oriel of his library revising his Trinity Gaudy Sermon. He took pains with these annual sermons, having a quick and fastidious sense of literary style. "It is," he would observe, "one of the few pleasurable capacities spared by old age." He had, moreover, a scholarly habit of verifying his references and quotations; and if the original, however familiar, happened to be in a dead or foreign language, would have his secretary indite it in the margin. His secretary, Mr. Simeon, after taking the Sermon down from dictation, had made out a fair copy, and stood now at a little distance from the corner of the writing-table, in a deferential attitude.

The Master leaned forward over the manuscript; and a ray of afternoon sunshine, stealing in between a mullion of the oriel and the edge of a drawn blind, touched his bowed and silvery head as if with a benediction. He was in his seventy-third year; lineal and sole-surviving descendant of that Alberic de Blanchminster (Albericus de Albo Monasterio) who had founded this Hospital of Christ's Poor in 1137, and the dearest, most distinguished-looking old clergyman imaginable. An American lady had once summed him up as a Doctor of Divinity in Dresden china; and there was much to be allowed to the simile when you noted his hands, so shapely and fragile, or his complexion, transparent as old ivory-and still more if you had leisure to observe his saintliness, so delicately attuned to this world.

"As having nothing, and yet possessing all things."-The Master laid his forefinger upon the page and looked up reproachfully. "-my good Simeon, is it possible? A word so common as ! and after all these years you make it perispomenon!"

Mr. Simeon stammered contrition. In the matter of Greek accents he knew himself to be untrustworthy beyond hope. "I can't tell how it is, sir, but that always seems to me to want a circumflex, being an adverb of sorts." On top of this, and to make things worse, he pleaded that he had left out the accent in , just above.

"H'm-as poor, and yet thankful for small mercies," commented the Master with gentle sarcasm. He had learnt in his long life to economise anger. But he frowned as he dipped a pen in the ink-pot and made the correction; for he was dainty about his manuscripts as about all the furniture of life, and a blot or an erasure annoyed him. "Brother Copas," he murmured, "never misplaces an accent."

Mr. Simeon heard, and started. It was incredible that the Master, who five-and-twenty years ago had rescued Mr. Simeon from a school for poor choristers and had him specially educated for the sake of his exquisite handwriting, could be threatening dismissal over a circumflex. Oh, there was no danger! If long and (until the other day) faithful service were not sufficient, at least there was guarantee in the good patron's sense of benefits conferred. Moreover, Brother Copas was not desirable as an amanuensis.… None the less, poor men with long families will start at the shadow of a fear; and Mr. Simeon started.

"Master," he said humbly, choosing the title by which his patron liked to be addressed, "I think Greek accents must come by gift of the Lord."


The Master glanced up.

"I mean, sir"-Mr. Simeon extended a trembling hand and rested his fingers on the edge of the writing-table for support-"that one man is born with a feeling for them, so to speak; while another, though you may teach and teach him-"

"In other words," said the Master, "they come by breeding. It is very likely."

He resumed his reading:

"'-and yet possessing all things. We may fancy St. Paul's actual words present in the mind of our Second Founder, the Cardinal Beauchamp, as their spirit assuredly moved him, when he named our beloved house the College of Noble Poverty. His predecessor, Alberic de Blanchminster, had called it after Christ's Poor; and the one title, to be sure, rests implicit in the other; for the condescension wherewith Christ made choice of His associates on earth has for ever dignified Poverty in the eyes of His true followers.'

"And you have spelt 'his' with a capital 'H'-when you know my dislike of that practice!"

Poor Mr. Simeon was certainly not in luck to-day. The truth is that, frightened by the prospect of yet another addition to his family (this would be his seventh child), he had hired out his needy pen to one of the Canons Residentiary of Merchester, who insisted on using capitals upon all parts of speech referring, however remotely, to either of the Divine Persons. The Master, who despised Canon Tarbolt for a vulgar pulpiteer, and barely nodded to him in the street, was not likely to get wind of this mercenage; but if ever he did, there would be trouble. As it was, the serving of two masters afflicted Mr. Simeon's conscience while it distracted his pen.

"I will make another fair copy," he suggested.

"I fear you must. Would you mind drawing back that curtain? My eyes are troublesome this afternoon. Thank you."-

"'Nevertheless it was well done of the great churchman to declare his belief that the poor, as poor, are not only blessed-as Our Lord expressly says-but noble, as Our Lord implicitly taught. Nay, the suggestion is not perhaps far-fetched that, as Cardinal Beauchamp had great possessions, he took this occasion to testify how in his heart he slighted them. Or again-for history seems to prove that he was not an entirely scrupulous man, nor entirely untainted by self-seeking-that his tribute to Noble Poverty may have been the assertion, by a spirit netted among the briars of this world's policy, that at least it saw and suspired after the way to Heaven. Video meliora, proboque-

"O limèd soul, that struggling to be free

Art more engaged!"

"'But he is with God: and while we conjecture, God knows.

"'Lest, however, you should doubt that the finer spirits of this world have found Poverty not merely endurable but essentially noble, let me recall to you an anecdote of Saint Francis of Assisi. It is related that, travelling towards France with a companion, Brother Masseo, he one day entered a town wherethrough they both begged their way, as their custom was, taking separate streets. Meeting again on the other side of the town, they spread out their alms on a broad stone by the wayside, whereby a fair fountain ran; and Francis

rejoiced that Brother Masseo's orts and scraps of bread were larger than his own, saying, "Brother Masseo, we are not worthy of such treasure." "But how," asked Brother Masseo, "can one speak of treasure when there is such lack of all things needful? Here have we neither cloth, nor knife, nor plate, nor porringer, nor house, nor table, nor manservant, nor maidservant." Answered Francis, "This and none else it is that I account wide treasure; which containeth nothing prepared by human hands, but all we have is of God's own providence-as this bread we have begged, set out on a table of stone so fine, beside a fountain so clear. Wherefore," said he, "let us kneel together and pray God to increase our love of this holy Poverty, which is so noble that thereunto God himself became a servitor."'

The declining sun, slanting in past the Banksia roses, touched the edge of a giant amethyst which the Master wore, by inheritance of office, on his forefinger; and, because his hand trembled a little with age, the gem set the reflected ray dancing in a small pool of light, oval-shaped and wine-coloured, on the white margin of the sermon. He stared at it for a moment, tracing it mistakenly to a glass of Rh?ne wine-a Chateau Neuf du Pape of a date before the phylloxera-that stood neglected on the writing-table. (By his doctor's orders he took a glass of old wine and a biscuit every afternoon at this hour as a gentle digestive.)

Thus reminded, he reached out a hand and raised the wine to his lips, nodding as he sipped.

"In Common Room, Simeon, we used to say that no man was really educated who preferred Burgundy to claret, but that on the lower Rh?ne all tastes met in one ecstasy.… I'd like to have your opinion on this, now; that is, if you will find the decanter and a glass in the cupboard yonder-and if you have no conscientious objection."

Mr. Simeon murmured, amid his thanks, that he had no objection.

"I am glad to hear it.… Between ourselves, there is always something lacking in an abstainer-as in a man who has never learnt Greek. It is difficult with both to say what the lack precisely is; but with both it includes an absolute insensibility to the shortcoming."

Mr. Simeon could not help wondering if this applied to poor men who abstained of necessity. He thought not; being, for his part, conscious of a number of shortcomings.

"Spirits," went on the Master, wheeling half-about in his revolving-chair and crossing one shapely gaitered leg over another, "Spirits-and especially whisky-eat out the health of a man and leave him a sodden pulp. Beer is honest, but brutalising. Wine-certainly any good wine that can trace its origin back beyond the Reformation-is one with all good literature, and indeed with civilisation. Antiquam exquirite matrem: all three come from the Mediterranean basin or from around it, and it is only the ill-born who contemn descent."

"Brother Copas-" began Mr. Simeon, and came to a halt.

He lived sparely; he had fasted for many hours; and standing there he could feel the generous liquor coursing through him-nay could almost have reported its progress from ganglion to ganglion. He blessed it, and at the same moment breathed a prayer that it might not affect his head.

"Brother Copas-?"

Mr. Simeon wished now that he had not begun his sentence. The invigorating Chateau Neuf du Pape seemed to overtake and chase away all uncharitable thoughts. But it was too late.

"Brother Copas-you were saying-?"

"I ought not to repeat it, sir. But I heard Brother Copas say the other day that the teetotallers were in a hopeless case; being mostly religious men, and yet having to explain in the last instance why Our Lord, in Cana of Galilee, did not turn the water into ginger-pop."

The Master frowned and stroked his gaiters.

"Brother Copas's tongue is too incisive. Something must be forgiven to one who, having started as a scholar and a gentleman, finds himself toward the close of his days dependent on the bread of charity."

It was benignly spoken; and to Mr. Simeon, who questioned nothing his patron said or did, no shade of misgiving occurred that, taken down in writing, it might annotate somewhat oddly the sermon on the table. It was spoken with insight too, for had not his own poverty, or the fear of it, sharpened Mr. Simeon's tongue just now and prompted him to quote Brother Copas detrimentally? The little man did not shape this accusation clearly against himself, for he had a rambling head; but he had also a sound heart, and it was uneasy.

"I ought not to have told it, sir.… I ask you to believe that I have no ill-will against Brother Copas."

The Master had arisen, and stood gazing out of the window immersed in his own thoughts.

"Eh? I beg your pardon?" said he absently.

"I-I feared, sir, you might think I said it to his prejudice."

"Prejudice?" the Master repeated, still with his back turned, and still scarcely seeming to hear. "But why in the world?… Ah, there he goes!-and Brother Bonaday with him. They are off to the river, for Brother Copas carries his rod. What a strange fascination has that dry-fly fishing! And I can remember old anglers discussing it as a craze, a lunacy."

He gazed out, still in a brown study. The room was silent save for the ticking of a Louis Seize clock on the chimney-piece; and Mr. Simeon, standing attentive, let his eyes travel around upon the glass-fronted bookcases, filled with sober riches in vellum and gilt leather, on the rare prints in black frames, the statuette of Diane Chasseresse, the bust of Antinoüs, the portfolios containing other prints, the Persian carpets scattered about the dark bees'-waxed floor, the Sheraton table with its bowl of odorous peonies.

"Eh? I beg your pardon-" said the Master again after three minutes or so, facing around with a smile of apology. "My wits were wool-gathering, over the sermon-that little peroration of mine does not please me somehow.… I will take a stroll to the home-park and back, and think it over.… Thank you, yes, you may gather up the papers. We will do no more work this afternoon."

"And I will write out another fair copy, sir."

"Yes, certainly; that is to say, of all but the last page. We will take the last page to-morrow." For a moment, warmed by the wine and by the Master's cordiality of manner, Mr. Simeon felt a wild impulse to make a clean breast, confess his trafficking with Canon Tarbolt and beg to be forgiven. But his courage failed him. He gathered up his papers, bowed and made his escape.

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