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   Chapter 8 LOW AND HIGH TABLES.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 17957

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"This," said Brother Copas sweetly, turning over his portion of roast duck and searching for some flesh on it, "is not a duck at all, but a pelican, bird of wrath. See, it has devoured its own breast."

Beside the dais, at the eastern end of the Hundred Men's Hall, an ancient staircase leads to an upper chamber of which we shall presently speak; and on the newel-post of this staircase stands one of the curiosities of St. Hospital-a pelican carved in oak, vulning its breast to feed its young. Brother Copas, lifting a pensive eye from his plate, rested it on this bird, as though comparing notes.

"The plague take your double meanings!" answered Brother Warboise gruffly. "Not that I understand 'em, or want to. 'Tis enough, I suppose, that the Master preached about it this morning, and called it the bird of love, to set you miscalling it."

"Not a bit," Brother Copas replied. "As for the parable of the Pelican, the Master has used it in half a dozen sermons; and you had it by heart at least as long ago as the day before yesterday, when I happened to overhear you pitching it to a convoy of visitors as you showed them the staircase. I hope they rewarded you for the sentiment of it."

"Look here," fired up Brother Warboise, turning over his portion of duck, "if it's poor I am, it don't become you to mock me. And if I haven't your damned book-learning, nor half your damned cleverness, maybe you've not turned either to such account in life as to make a boast of it. And if you left me just now to stand up alone to the Master, it don't follow I take pleasure in your sneering at him."

"You are right, my dear fellow," said Brother Copas; "and also you are proving in two or three different ways that I was right just now. Bird of love-bird of wrath-they are both the same thing. But, with all submission, neither you nor the Master have the true parable, which I found by chance the other day in an old book called the Ancren Riwle. Ancren, brother, means 'anchoresses,' recluses, women separated, and living apart from the world pretty much as by rights we men should be living in St. Hospital; and riwle is 'rule,' or an instruction of daily conduct. It is a sound old book, written in the thirteenth century by a certain good Bishop Poore (excellent name!) for a household of such good women at Tarrent, on the River Stour; and it contains a peck of counsel which might be preached not only upon the scandal-mongering women who are the curse of this place-yes, and applied; for it recommends here and there, a whipping as salutary-but even, mutatis mutandis, upon us Brethren-"

"We've had one sermon, to-day," growled Brother Warboise.

"I am correcting it. This book tells of the Pelican that she is a peevish bird and so hasty of temper that, when her young ones molest her, she kills them with her beak; and soon after, being sorry, she moans, smites her own breast with the same murderous beak, and so draws blood, with which (says the Bishop) 'she then quickeneth her slain birds.' But I, being no believer in miracles, think he is right as to the repentance but errs about the bringing back to life. In this world, Brother, that doesn't happen; and we poor angry devils are left wishing that it could."

Brother Warboise, playing with knife and fork, looked up sharply from under fierce eyebrows.

"The moral?" pursued Brother Copas. "There are two at least: the first, that here we are, two jolly Protestants, who might be as comfortable as rats in a cheese-you conscious of a duty performed, and I filled with admiration of your pluck-and lo! when old Biscoe annoys us by an act of petty spite, we turn, not on him, but on one another. You, already more angry with yourself than with Biscoe, suddenly take offence with me because I didn't join you in standing between a good man and his dinner; while I, with a spoilt meal of my own for a grievance, choose to feel an irrational concern for the Master's, turn round on my comrade who has spoilt that, and ask, What the devil is wrong with Protestantism, that it has never an ounce of tact? Or why, if it aims to be unworldly, must it always overshoot its mark and be merely inhuman?"

Brother Warboise put nine-tenths of this discourse aside.

"You think it has spoilt the Master's dinner?" he asked anxiously, with a glance towards the high table.

"Not a doubt of it," Brother Copas assured him. "Look at the old boy, how nervously he's playing with his bread."

"I never meant, you know-"

"No, of course you didn't; and there's my second moral of the Pelican. She digs a bill into her dearest, and then she's sorry. At the best of her argument she's always owing her opponent an apology for some offence against manners. She has no savoir-faire." Here Brother Copas, relapsing, let the cloud of speculation drift between him and Brother Warboise's remorse. "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus-I reverence the pluck of a man who can cut himself loose from all that; for the worst loss he has to face (if he only knew it) is the inevitable loss of breeding. For the ordinary gentleman in this world there's either Catholicism or sound Paganism; no third choice."

In truth Master Blanchminster's dinner was spoilt for him. He sat distraught, fingering his bread between the courses which he scarcely tasted, and giving answers at random, after pauses, to the Bishop's small-talk. He was wounded. He had lived for years a life as happy as any that can fall to the lot of an indolent, unambitious man, who loves his fellows and takes a delight in their gratitude. St. Hospital exactly suited him. He knew its history. His affection, like an ivy, clung about its old walls and incorporated itself in the very mortar that bound them. He loved to spy one of its Brethren approaching in the street; to anticipate and acknowledge the deferential salute; to see himself as father of a happy family, easily controlling it by good will, in the right of good birth.

He had been a reformer, too. The staircase beside the dais led to an upper chamber whence, through a small window pierced in the wall, former Masters had conceived it their duty to observe the behaviour of the Brethren at meals. In his sixth year of office Master Blanchminster had sent for masons to block this window up. The act of espial had always been hateful to him: he preferred to trust his brethren, and it cost far less trouble. For close upon thirty years he had avoided their dinner-hour on all but Gaudy Days.

He had been warming a serpent, and it had bitten him. The wound stung, too. Angry he was at Warboise's disloyalty; angrier at the manner of it. If these old men had a grievance, or believed they had, at least they might have trusted him first with it. Had he ever been tyrannical, harsh, unsympathetic even, that instead of coming to him as to their father and Master they should have put this public affront on him and appealed straight away to the Bishop? To be sure, the Statutes provided that the Bishop of Merchester, as Visitor, had power to inquire into the administration of St. Hospital and to remedy abuses. But everyone knew that within living memory, and for a hundred years before, this power had never been invoked. Doubtless these malcontents, whoever they might be-and it disquieted Master Blanchminster yet further that he could not guess as yet who they were or how many-had kept to the letter of their rights. But good Heaven! had he in all these years interpreted his rule by the letter, and not rather and constantly by the spirit?

Brother Copas was right. Warboise's action had been inopportune, offensive, needlessly hurting a kindly heart. But the Master, while indignant with Warboise, could not help feeling just a reflex touch of vexation with Mr. Colt. The Chaplain no doubt was a stalwart soldier, fighting the Church's battle; but her battle was not to be won, her rolling tide of conquest not to be set going, in such a backwater as St. Hospital. Confound the fellow! Why could not these young men leave old men alone?

Thus it happened that the Master, immersed in painful thoughts, missed the launching of the Great Idea, which was to trouble him and indeed all Merchester until Merchester had done with it.

The idea was Mr. Bamberger's.

("Why, of course it was," said Brother Copas later; "ideas, good and bad, are the mission of his race among the Gentiles.")

Mr. Bamberger, having taken his seat, tucked a corner of his dinner-napkin between his collar and the front of his hairy throat. Adaptable in most things, in feeding and in the conduct of a napkin he could never subdue old habit to our English custom, and to-day, moreover, he wore a large white waistcoat, which needed protection. This seen to, he gazed around expansively.

"A picture, by George!"-Mr. Bamberger ever swore by our English patron saint. "Slap out of the Middle Ages, and priceless."

(He actually said "thlap" and "pritheless," but I resign at the

outset any attempt to spell as Mr. Bamberger pronounced.)

"-Authentic, too! To think of this sort of thing taking place to-day in Merchester, England's ancient capital. Eh, Master? Eh, Mr. Mayor?"

Master Blanchminster awoke so far out of his thoughts as to correct the idiom.

"Undoubtedly Merchester was the capital of England before London could claim that honour."

"Aye," agreed his Worship, "there's no end of antikities in Merchester, for them as takes an interest in such. Dead-and-alive you may call us; but, as I've told the Council more than once, they're links with the past in a manner of speaking."

"But these antiquities attract visitors, or ought to."

"They do: a goodish number, as I've told the Council more than once."

"Why shouldn't they attract more?"

"I suppose they would, if we had more of 'em," answered his Worship thoughtfully. "When I said just now that we had no end of antikities, it was in a manner of speaking. There's the Cathedral, of course, and the old Palace-or what's left of it, and St. Hospital here. But there's a deal been swept away within my recollection. We must move with the times."

At this point the inspiration came upon Mr. Bamberger. He laid down the spoon in his soup and hurriedly caught at the rim of his plate as a vigilant waiter swept a hand to remove it.

"Hold hard, young man!" said Mr. Bamberger, snatching at his spoon and again fixing his eye on the Mayor. "You ought to have a Pageant, Sir."

"A what?"

"A Pageant; that's what we want for Merchester-something to advertise the dear old place and bring grist to our mills. I've often wondered if we could not run something of the sort."

This was not a conscious falsehood, but just a word or two of political patter, dropped automatically, absently. In truth, Mr. Bamberger, possessed by his inspiration, was wondering why the deuce it had never occurred to him until this moment. Still more curious, too, that it had never occurred to his brother Isidore! This Isidore, after starting as a croupier at Ostend and pushing on to the post of Directeur des Fêtes Périodiques to the municipality of that watering-place, had made a sudden name for himself by stage-managing a Hall of Odalisques at the last Paris Exposition, and, crossing to London, had accumulated laurels by directing popular entertainments at Olympia (Kensington) and Shepherd's Bush. One great daily newspaper, under Hebrew control, habitually alluded to him as the Prince of Pageantists. Isidore saw things on a grand scale, and was, moreover, an excellent brother. Isidore (said Mr. Julius Bamberger to himself) would find all the History of England in Merchester and rattle it up to the truth of music.

Aloud he said-

"This very scene we're looking on, f'r instance!"

"There would be difficulties in the way of presenting it in the open air," hazarded his Worship.

Mr. Bamberger, never impatient of stupidity, opined that this could be got over easily.

"There's all the material made to our hand. Eh, Master?-these old pensioners of yours-in a procession? The public is always sentimental."

Master Blanchminster, rousing himself out of reverie, made guarded answer that such an exhibition might be instructive, historically, for schoolchildren.

"An institution like this, supported by endowments, don't need advertising, of course-not for its own sake," said Mr. Bamberger. "I was thinking of what might be done indirectly for Merchester. But-you'll excuse me, I must ride a notion when I get astride of one-St. Hospital would be no more than what we call an episode. We'd start with Alfred the Great-maybe before him; work down to the Cathedral and its consecration and Sir John, here-that is, of course, his ancestor-swearing on the Cross to depart for Jerusalem."

Sir John-a Whig by five generations of descent-glanced at Mr. Bamberger uneasily. He had turned Unionist when Mr. Gladstone embraced Home Rule; and now, rather by force of circumstance than by choice, he found himself Chairman of the Unionist Committee for Merchester; in fact he, more than any man, was responsible for Mr. Bamberger's representing Merchester in Parliament, and sometimes wondered how it had all come about. He answered these rare questionings by telling himself that Disraeli, whose portrait hung in his library, had also been a Jew. But he did not quite understand it, or what there was in Mr. Bamberger that personally repelled him.

At any rate Sir John was a pure Whig and to your pure Whig personal dignity is everything.

"So long," murmured he, "as you don't ask me to dress up and make myself a figure of fun."

The Bishop had already put the suggestion, so far as it concerned him, aside with a tolerant smile, which encouraged everything from which he, bien entendu, was omitted.

Mr. Bamberger, scanning the line of faces with a Jew's patient cunning, at length encountered the eye of Mr. Colt, who at the farther end of the high table was leaning forward to listen.

"You're my man," thought Mr. Bamberger. "Though I don't know your name and maybe you're socially no great shakes; a chaplain by your look, and High Church. You're the useful one in this gang."

He lifted his voice.

"You won't misunderstand me, Master," he said. "I named the Cathedral and the Crusades because, in Merchester, history cannot get away from the Church. It's her history that any pageant of Merchester ought to illustrate primarily-must, indeed: her past glories, some day (please God) to be revived."

"And," said Mr. Bamberger some months later, in private converse with his brother Isidore, "that did it, though I say it who shouldn't. I froze on that Colt straight; and Colt, you'll allow, was trumps."

For the moment little more was said. The company at the high table, after grace-a shorter one this time, pronounced by the Chaplain- bowed to the Brethren and followed the Master upstairs to the little room which had once served for espial-chamber, but was now curtained cosily and spread for dessert.

"By the way, Master," said the Bishop, suddenly remembering the Petition in his pocket, and laughing amicably as he dropped a lump of sugar into his coffee, "what games have you been playing in St. Hospital, that they accuse you of Romanising?"

The Master's ivory face flushed at the question.

"That was old Warboise," he answered nervously. "I must apologise for the annoyance."

"Not at all-not at all! It amused me, rather, to be reminded that, as Visitor, I am a person in St. Hospital, and still reckoned an important one. 'Made me feel like an image in a niche subjected to a sudden dusting. Who is this-er, what-d'-ye-call-him? Warboise? An eccentric?"

"I will not say that. Old and opinionated, rather; a militant Protestant-"

"Ah, we know the sort. Shall we glance over his screed? You permit me?"

"I was about to suggest your doing so. To tell the truth, I am curious to be acquainted with the charge against me."

The Bishop smiled, drew forth the paper from his pocket adjusted his gold-rimmed eyeglasses and read-

"To the Right Rev. Father in God, Walter, Lord Bishop of Merchester.

"My Lord,-We the undersigned, being Brethren on the Blanchminster and Beauchamp foundations of St. Hospital's College of Noble Poverty by Merton, respectfully desire your lordship's attention to certain abuses which of late have crept into this Society; and particularly in the observances of religion.

"We contend (1) that, whereas our Reformed and Protestant Church, in Number XXII of her Articles of Religion declares the Romish doctrine of purgatory inter alia to be a fond thing vainly invented, etc., and repugnant to the Word of God, yet prayers for the dead have twice been publicly offered in our Chapel and the practice defended, nay recommended, from its pulpit.

"(2) That, whereas in Number XXVIII of the same Articles the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper is defined in intention, and the definition expressly cleared to repudiate several practices not consonant with it, certain of these have been observed of late in our Chapel, to the scandal of the Church, and to the pain and uneasiness of souls that were used to draw pure refreshment from these Sacraments-"

The Bishop paused.

"I say, Master, this Brother Warboise of yours can write passable English."

"Warboise? Warboise never wrote that-never in his life."

Master Blanchminster passed a hand over his forehead.

"It's Copas's handwriting!" announced Mr. Colt, who had drawn close and, unpermitted, was staring over the Bishop's shoulder at the manuscript.

The Bishop turned half about in his chair, slightly affronted by this offence against good manners; but Mr. Colt was too far excited to guess the rebuke.

"Turn over the page, my lord."

As the Bishop turned it, on the impulse of surprise, Mr. Colt pointed a forefinger.

"There it is-half-way down the signatures! 'J. Copas,' written in the same hand!"

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