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   Chapter 3 THE COLLEGE OF NOBLE POVERTY.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 20644

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


If a foreigner would apprehend (he can never comprehend) this England of ours, with her dear and ancient graces, and her foibles as ancient and hardly less dear; her law-abidingness, her staid, God-fearing citizenship; her parochialism whereby (to use a Greek idiom) she perpetually escapes her own notice being empress of the world; her inveterate snobbery, her incurable habit of mistaking symbols and words for realities; above all, her spacious and beautiful sense of time as builder, healer and only perfecter of worldly things; let him go visit the Cathedral City, sometime the Royal City, of Merchester. He will find it all there, enclosed and casketed-"a box where sweets compacted lie."

Let him arrive on a Saturday night and awake next morning to the note of the Cathedral bell, and hear the bugles answering from the barracks up the hill beyond the mediaeval gateway. As he sits down to breakfast the bugles will start sounding nigher, with music absurd and barbarous, but stirring, as the Riflemen come marching down the High Street to Divine Service. In the Minster to which they wend, their disused regimental colours droop along the aisles; tattered, a hundred years since, in Spanish battlefields, and by age worn almost to gauze-"strainers," says Brother Copas, "that in their time have clarified much turbid blood." But these are guerdons of yesterday in comparison with other relics the Minster guards. There is royal dust among them-Saxon and Dane and Norman-housed in painted chests above the choir stalls. "Quare fremuerunt gentes?" intone the choristers' voices below, Mr. Simeon's weak but accurate tenor among them. "The kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel together…" The Riflemen march down to listen. As they go by ta-ra-ing, the douce citizens of Merchester and their wives and daughters admire from the windows discreetly; but will attend their Divine Service later. This, again, is England.

Sundays and week-days at intervals the Cathedral organ throbs across the Close, gently shaking the windows of the Deanery and the Canons' houses, and interrupting the chatter of sparrows in their ivy. Twice or thrice annually a less levitical noise invades, when our State visits its Church; in other words, when with trumpeters and javelin-men the High Sheriff escorts his Majesty's Judges to hear the Assize Sermon. On these occasions the head boy of the great School, which lies a little to the south of the Cathedral, by custom presents a paper to the learned judge, suing for a school holiday; and his lordship, brushing up his Latinity, makes a point of acceding in the best hexameters he can contrive. At his time of life it comes easier to try prisoners; and if he lie awake, he is haunted less by his day in Court than by the fear of a false quantity.

The School-with its fourteenth-century quadrangles, fenced citywards behind a blank brewhouse-wall (as though its Founder's first precaution had been to protect learning from siege), and its precincts opening rearwards upon green playing-fields and river-meads-is like few schools in England, and none in any other country; and is proud of its singularity. It, too, has its stream of life, and on the whole a very gracious one, with its young, careless voices and high spirits. It lies, as I say, south of the Close; beyond the northward fringe of which you penetrate, under archway or by narrow entry, to the High Street, where another and different tide comes and goes, with mild hubbub of carts, carriages, motors-ladies shopping, magistrates and county councillors bent on business of the shire, farmers, traders, marketers.… This traffic, too, is all very English and ruddy and orderly.

Through it all, picturesque and respected, pass and repass the bedesmen of Saint Hospital: the Blanchminster Brethren in black gowns with a silver cross worn at the breast, the Beauchamp Brethren in gowns of claret colour with a silver rose. The terms of the twin bequests are not quite the same. To be a Collegian of Christ's Poor it is enough that you have attained the age of sixty-five, so reduced in strength as to be incapable of work; whereas you can become a Collegian of Noble Poverty at sixty, but with the proviso that misfortune has reduced you from independence (that is to say, from a moderate estate). The Beauchamp Brethren, who are the fewer, incline to give themselves airs over the Blanchminsters on the strength of this distinction: like Dogberry, in their time they have "had losses." But Merchester takes, perhaps, an equal pride in the pensioners of both orders.

Merchester takes an even fonder pride in St. Hospital itself-that compact and exquisite group of buildings, for the most part Norman, set in the water-meadows among the ambient streams of Mere. It lies a mile or so southward of the town, and some distance below the School, where the valley widens between the chalk-hills and, inland yet, you feel a premonition that the sea is not far away. All visitors to Merchester are directed towards St. Hospital, and they dote over it-the American visitors especially; because nowhere in England can one find the Middle Ages more compendiously summarised or more charmingly illustrated. Almost it might be a toy model of those times, with some of their quaintest customs kept going in smooth working order. But it is better. It is the real thing, genuinely surviving. No visitor ever finds disappointment in a pilgrimage to St. Hospital: the inmates take care of that.

The trustees, or governing body, are careful too. A few years ago, finding that his old lodgings in the quadrangle were too narrow for the Master's comfort, they erected a fine new house for him, just without the precincts. But though separated from the Hospital by a roadway, this new house comes into the picture from many points of view, and therefore not only did the architect receive instructions to harmonise it with the ancient buildings, but where he left off the trustees succeeded, planting wistarias, tall roses and selected ivies to run up the coigns and mullions. Nay, it is told that to encourage the growth of moss they washed over a portion of the walls (the servants' quarters) with a weak solution of farmyard manure. These conscientious pains have their reward, for to-day, at a little distance, the Master's house appears no less ancient than the rest of the mediaeval pile with which it composes so admirably.

With the Master himself we have made acquaintance. In the words of an American magazine, "the principal of this old-time foundation, Master E. J. Wriothesley (pronounced 'Wrottesley') Blanchminster, may be allowed to fill the bill. He is founder's kin, and just sweet."

The Master stepped forth from his rose-garlanded porch, crossed the road, and entered the modest archway which opens on the first, or outer, court. He walked habitually at a short trot, with his head and shoulders thrust a little forward and his hands clasped behind him. He never used a walking-stick.

The outer court of St. Hospital is plain and unpretending, with a brewhouse on one hand and on the other the large kitchen with its offices. Between these the good Master passed, and came to a second and handsomer gate, with a tower above it, and three canopied niches in the face of the tower, and in one of the niches-the others are empty-a kneeling figure of the great cardinal himself. The passageway through the tower is vaulted and richly groined, and in a little chamber beside it dwells the porter, a part of whose duty it is to distribute the Wayfarers' Dole-a horn of beer and a manchet of bread-to all who choose to ask for it. The Master halted a moment to give the porter good evening.

"And how many to-day, Brother Manby?"

"Thirty-three, Master, including a party of twelve that came in motor-cars. I was jealous the cast wouldn't go round, for they all insisted on having the dole, and a full slice, too-the gentlemen declaring they were hungry after their drive. But," added Brother Manby, with a glance at a card affixed by the archway and announcing that tickets to view the hospital could be procured at sixpence a head, "they were most appreciative, I must say."

The Master smiled, nodded, and passed on. He gathered that someone had profited by something over and above the twelve sixpences.

But how gracious, how serenely beautiful, how eloquent of peace and benediction, the scene that met him as he crossed the threshold of the great quadrangle! Some thousands of times his eyes had rested on it, yet how could it ever stale?

"In the evening there shall be light."-The sun, declining in a cloudless west behind the roof-ridge and tall chimneys of the Brethren's houses, cast a shadow even to the sundial that stood for centre of the wide grass-plot. All else was softest gold-gold veiling the sky itself in a powdery haze; gold spread full along the front of the 'Nunnery,' or row of upper chambers on the eastern line of the quadrangle, where the three nurses of St. Hospital have their lodgings; shafts of gold penetrating the shaded ambulatory below; gold edging the western coigns of the Norman chapel; gold rayed and slanting between boughs in the park beyond the railings to the south. Only the western side of the quadrangle lay in shadow, and in the shadow, in twos and threes, beside their doors and tiny flower-plots (their pride), sat the Brethren, with no anxieties, with no care but to watch the closing tranquil hour: some with their aged wives (for the Hospital, as the Church of England with her bishops, allows a Brother to have one wife, but ignores her existence), some in monastic groups, withdrawn from hearing of women's gossip.

The Master chose the path that, circumventing the grass-plot, led him past these happy-looking groups and couples. To be sure, it was not his nearest way to the home-park, where he intended to think out his peroration; but he had plenty of time, and moreover he delighted to exchange courtesies with his charges. For each he had a greeting-

-"Fine weather, fine weather, Brother Dasent! Ah, this is the time to get rid of the rheumatics! Eh, Mrs. Dasent? I haven't seen him looking so hale for months past."

-"A beautiful evening, Brother Clerihew-yes, beautiful indeed.… You notice how the swallows

are flying, both high and low, Brother Woolcombe?… Yes, I think we are in for a spell of it."

-"Ah, good evening, Mrs. Royle! What wonderful ten-week stocks! I declare I cannot grow the like of them in my garden. And what a perfume! But it warns me that the dew is beginning to fall, and Brother Royle ought not to be sitting out late. We must run no risks, Nurse, after his illness?"

The Master appealed to a comfortable-looking woman who, at his approach, had been engaged in earnest talk with Mrs. Royle-talk to which old Brother Royle appeared to listen placidly, seated in his chair.

-And so on. He had a kindly word for all, and all answered his salutations respectfully; the women bobbing curtseys, the old men offering to rise from their chairs. But this he would by no means allow. His presence seemed to carry with it a fragrance of his own, as real as that of the mignonette and roses and sweet-Williams amid which he left them embowered.

When he had passed out of earshot, Brother Clerihew turned to Brother Woolcombe and said-

"The silly old '-' is beginning to show his age, seemin' to me."

"Oughtn't to," answered Brother Woolcombe. "If ever a man had a soft job, it's him."

"Well, I reckon we don't want to lose him yet, anyhow-'specially if Colt is to step into his old shoes."

Brother Clerihew's reference was to the Reverend Rufus Colt, Chaplain of St. Hospital.

"They never would!" opined Brother Woolcombe, meaning by "they" the governing body of Trustees.

"Oh, you never know-with a man on the make, like Colt. Push carries everything in these times."

"Colt's a hustler," Brother Woolcombe conceded. "But, damn it all, they might give us a gentleman!"

"There's not enough to go round, nowadays," grunted Brother Clerihew, who had been a butler, and knew. "Master Blanchminster's the real thing, of course…" He gazed after the retreating figure of the Master. "Seemed gay as a goldfinch, he did. D'ye reckon Colt has told him about Warboise?"

"I wonder. Where is Warboise, by the way?"

"Down by the river, taking a walk to cool his head. Ibbetson's wife gave him a dressing-down at tea-time for dragging Ibbetson into the row. Threatened to have her nails in his beard-I heard her. That woman's a terror.… All the same, one can't help sympathising with her. 'You can stick to your stinking Protestantism,' she told him, 'if it amuses you to fight the Chaplain. You're a widower, with nobody dependent. But don't you teach my husband to quarrel with his vittles.'"

"All the same, when a man has convictions-"

"Convictions are well enough when you can afford 'em," Brother Clerihew grunted again. "But up against Colt-what's the use? And where's his backing? Ibbetson, with a wife hanging on to his coat-tails; and old Bonaday, that wouldn't hurt a fly; and Copas, standing off and sneering."

"A man might have all the pains of Golgotha upon him before ever you turned a hair," grumbled Brother Dasent, a few yards away.

He writhed in his chair, for the rheumatism was really troublesome; but he over-acted his suffering somewhat, having learnt in forty-five years of married life that his spouse was not over-ready with sympathy.

"T'cht!" answered she. "I ought to know what they're like by this time, and I wonder, for my part, you don't try to get accustomed to 'em. Dying one can understand: but to be worrited with a man's ailments, noon and night, it gets on the nerves.…"

"You're sure?" resumed Mrs. Royle eagerly, but sinking her voice- for she could hardly wait until the Master had passed out of earshot.

"Did you ever know me spread tales?" asked the comfortable-looking Nurse. "Only, mind you, I mentioned it in the strictest secrecy. This is such a scandalous hole, one can't be too careful.… But down by the river they were, consorting and God knows what else."

"At his age, too! Disgusting, I call it."

"Oh, she's not particular! My comfort is I always suspected that woman from the first moment I set eyes on her. Instinct, I s'pose. 'Well, my lady,' says I, 'if you're any better than you should be, then I've lived all these years for nothing.'"

"And him-that looked such a broken-down old innocent!"

"They get taken that way sometimes, late in life."

Nurse Turner sank her voice and said something salacious, which caused Mrs. Royle to draw a long breath and exclaim that she could never have credited such things-not in a Christian land. Her old husband, too, overheard it, and took snuff with a senile chuckle.

"Gad, that's spicy!" he crooned.

The Master, at the gateway leading to the home-park, turned for a look back on the quadrangle and the seated figures. Yes, they made an exquisite picture. Here-

"Here where the world is quiet"-

Here, indeed, his ancestor had built a haven of rest.

"From too much love of living,

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives for ever;

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea."

As the lines floated across his memory, the Master had a mind to employ them in his peroration (giving them a Christian trend, of course) in place of the sonnet he had meant to quote. This would involve reconstructing a longish paragraph; but they had touched his mood, and he spent some time pacing to and fro under the trees before his taste rejected them as facile and even cheap in comparison with Wordsworth's-

"Men unto whom sufficient for the day,

And minds not stinted or untill'd are given,

-Sound healthy children of the God of heaven-

Are cheerful as the rising sun in May."

"Yes, yes," murmured the Master, "Wordsworth's is the better. But what a gift, to be able to express a thought just so-with that freshness, that noble simplicity! And even with Wordsworth it was fugitive, lost after four or five marvellous years. No one not being a Greek has ever possessed it in permanence.…"

Here he paused at the sound of a footfall on the turf close behind him, and turned about with a slight frown; which readily yielded, however, and became a smile of courtesy.

"Ah, my dear Colt! Good evening!"

"Good evening, Master."

Mr. Colt came up deferentially, yet firmly, much as a nurse in a good family might collect a straying infant. He was a tall, noticeably well-grown man, a trifle above thirty, clean shaven, with a square and obstinate chin. He wore no hat, and his close black hair showed a straight middle parting above his low and somewhat protuberant forehead. The parting widened at the occiput to a well-kept tonsure. At the back the head wanted balance; and this lent a suggestion of brutality-of "thrust"-to his abounding appearance of strength. He walked in his priestly black with the gait and carriage proper to a heavy dragoon.

"A fine evening, indeed. Are you disengaged?"

"Certainly, certainly"-in comparison with Mr. Colt's grave voice the Master's was almost a chirrup-"whether for business or for the pleasure of a talk. Nothing wrong, I hope?"

For a moment or two the Chaplain did not answer. He seemed to be weighing his words. At length he said-

"I should have reported at once, but have been thinking it over. At Early Celebration this morning Warboise insulted the wafer."

"Dear, dear, you don't say so!"

-"Took it from me, held it derisively between finger and thumb, and muttered. I could not catch all that he said, but I distinctly heard the words 'biscuit' and 'Antichrist.' Indeed, he confesses to having used them. His demeanour left no doubt that he was insolent of set purpose.… I should add that Ibbetson, who was kneeling next to him and must have overheard, walked back from the altar-rail straight out of chapel; but his wife assures me that this was purely a coincidence, and due to a sudden weakness of the stomach."

"You have spoken to Warboise?"

"Yes, and he is defiant. Says that bread is bread, and-when I pressed him for a definition-asked (insolently again) if the Trustees had authorised our substituting biscuit for bread in the Wayfarers' Dole. Advised us to 'try it on' there, and look out for letters in the Merchester Observer. He even threatened-if you'll believe me-to write to the Press himself. In short, he was beyond all self-control."

"I was afraid," murmured the Master, flushing a little in his distress, "you would not introduce this-er-primitive use-or, I should say, restore it-without trouble. Brother Warboise has strong Protestant prejudices; passionate, even."

"And ignorant."

"Oh, of course, of course! Still-"

"I suggest that, living as he does on the Church's benefaction, eating the bread of her charity-"

The Chaplain paused, casting about for a third phrase to express Brother Warboise's poor dependence.

The Master smiled whimsically.

"'The bread'-that's just it, he would tell you… And Alberic de Blanchminster, moreover, was a layman, not even in any of the minor orders; so that, strictly speaking-"

"But he left his wealth expressly to be administered by the Church. … Will you forgive me, Master, if I repeat very respectfully the suggestion I made at the beginning? If you could see your way to be celebrant at the early office, your mere presence would silence these mutineers. The Brethren respect your authority without question, and, the ice once broken, they would come to heel as one man."

The Master shook his head tremulously, in too much of a flurry even to note the Chaplain's derangement of metaphors.

"You cannot guess how early rising upsets me. Doctor Ainsley, indeed, positively forbids it.… I can sympathise, you see, with Ibbetson… and, for Brother Warboise, let us always remember that St. Hospital was not made, and cannot be altered, in a day-even for the better. Like England, it has been built by accretions, by traditions; yes, and by traditions that apparently conflict-by that of Brother Ingman, among others.…

"We who love St. Hospital," continued the Master, still tremulously, "have, I doubt not, each his different sense of the genius loci. Warboise finds it, we'll say, in the person of Peter Ingman, Protestant and martyr. But I don't defend his behaviour. I will send for him to-morrow, and talk to him. I will talk to him very severely."

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