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   Chapter 9 A PEACE-OFFERING.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 9659

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"'Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!

Blessedest Thursday's the fat of the week!'"

Quoted Brother Copas from one of his favourite poems. This was in the kitchen, three days later, and he made one of the crowd edging, pushing, pressing, each with plate in hand, around the great table where the joints stood ready to be carved and distributed. For save on Gaudy Days and great festivals of the Church, the Brethren dine in their own chambers, not in Hall; and on three days of the week must fend for themselves on food purchased out of their small allowances. But on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays they fetch it from the kitchen, taking their turns to choose the best cuts. And this was Thursday and, as it happened, Brother Copas stood first on the rota.

The rota hung on the kitchen wall in a frame of oak canopied with faded velvet-an ingenious and puzzling contrivance, somewhat like the calendar prefixed to the Book of Common Prayer, with the names of the Brethren inserted on movable cards worn greasy with handling. In system nothing could be fairer; but in practice, human nature being what it is, and the crowd without discipline, the press and clamour about the table made choosing difficult for the weaker ones.

"Brother Copas to choose! Brother Clerihew to divide!"

"Aye," sang out Brother Copas cheerfully, "and I'll take my time about it. Make room, Woolcombe, if you please, and take your elbow out of my ribs-don't I know the old trick? And stop pushing-you behind there!… 'Rats in a hamper, swine in a sty, wasps in a bottle.'-Mrs. Royle, ma'am, I am very sorry for your husband's rheumatism, but it does not become a lady to show this indecent haste."

"Indecent?" shrilled Mrs. Royle. "Indecent, you call me?-you that pretend to ha' been a gentleman! I reckon, if indecency's the matter in these times, I could talk to one or two of ye about it."

"Not a doubt of that, ma'am.… But really you ladies have no right here: it's clean against the rules, and the hubbub you provoke is a scandal."

"Do you mean to insinuate, sir-"

"With your leave, ma'am, I mean to insinuate myself between your person and the table from which at this moment you debar me. Ah!" exclaimed Brother Copas as the cook whipped off the first of the great dish-covers, letting loose a cloud of savoury steam. He sniffed at it.

"What's this? Boiled pork, and in June! We'll have a look at the others, please… Roast leg of mutton, boiled neck and scrag of mutton-aha! You shall give me a cut of the roast, please; and start at the knuckle end. Yes, Biscoe-at the knuckle end."

Hate distorted Brother Biscoe's patriarchal face. He came second on the rota, and roast knuckle of mutton was the tit-bit dearest of all to his heart, as Brother Copas knew. Brother Biscoe also had a passion for the two first cutlets of a mutton-neck; but he thought nothing of this in his rage.

"Please God it'll choke ye!" he snarled.

"Dear Brother," said Copas amiably, "on Monday last you helped me to the back of a duck."

"Hurry up there!" shouted Brother Woolcombe, and swung round. "Are we all to get cold dinner when these two old fools have done wrangling?"

"Fool yourself, Woolcombe!" Brother Biscoe likewise swung about. "Here's Copas has brought two plates! Isn't it time to speak up, when a rogue's caught cheating?"

One or two cried out that he ought to lose his turn for it.

"My friends," said Brother Copas, not at all perturbed, "the second plate is for Brother Bonaday's dinner, when his turn arrives. He has a heart-attack to-day, and cannot come for himself."

"A heart-attack!" sniggered Mrs. Royle, her voice rising shrill above the din. "Oh, save us if we didn't all know that news!"

Laughter crackled like musketry about Brother Copas's ears, laughter to him quite meaningless. It was plain that all shared some joke against his friend Bonaday; but he had no clue.

"And," pursued Mrs. Royle, "here's his best friend tellin' us as 'tis a scandal the way women push themselves into St. Hospital-'when they're not wanted,' did I hear you say, sir? Yes, 'a scandal' he said, and 'indecent'; which I leave it to you is pretty strong language as addressed to a woman what has her marriage lines I should hope!"

Brother Copas, bewildered by this onslaught-or, as he put it later, comparing the encounter with that between Socrates and Gorgias the Sophist-drenched with that woman's slop-pail of words and blinded for the moment, received his portion of mutton and drew aside, vanquished amid peals of laughter, of which he guessed only from its note that the allusion had been disgusting. Indeed, the whole atmosphere of the kitchen sickened him; even the portion of mutton cooling on his plate raised his gorge in physical loathing. But Brother Bonaday lay helpless in his cham

ber, without food. Remembering this, Brother Copas stood his ground and waited, with the spare plate ready for the invalid's portion.

The babel went on as one after another fought for the spoil. They had forgotten him, and those at the back of the crowd had found a new diversion in hustling old Biscoe as he struggled to get away with his two cutlets of half-warm mutton.

Brother Copas held his gaze upon the joints. His friend's turn came all but last on the rota; and by perversity-but who could blame it, in the month of June?-everyone eschewed the pork and bid emulously for mutton, roast or boiled. He knew that Brother Bonaday abhorred pork, which, moreover, was indigestible, and by consequence bad for a weak heart. He stood and watched, gradually losing all hope except to capture a portion of the mutton near the scrag-end. As for the leg, it had speedily been cleaned to the bone.

At the last moment a ray of hope shot up, as an expiring candle flames in the socket. Brother Inchbald-a notoriously stingy man- whose turn came immediately before Brother Bonaday's, seemed to doubt that enough of the scrag remained to eke out a full portion; and bent towards the dish of pork, fingering his chin. Copas seized the moment to push his empty plate towards the mutton, stealthily, as one forces a card.

As he did so, another roar of laughter-coarser than before-drew him to glance over his shoulder. The cause of it was Nurse Branscome, entering by way of the refectory, with a hot plate held in a napkin between her hands.

She paused on the threshold, as though the ribaldry took her in the face like a blast of hot wind.

"Oh, I am late!" she cried. "I came to fetch Brother Bonaday's dinner. Until five minutes ago no one told me-"

"It's all right," called back Brother Copas, still looking over his shoulder while his right hand extended the plate. "His turn is just called, and I am getting it for him."

Strange to say, his voice reached the Nurse across an almost dead silence; for the laughter had died down at sight of a child-Corona- beside her in the doorway.

"But your plate will be cold. Here, change it for mine!"

"Well thought upon! Wait a second!"

But before Brother Copas could withdraw the plate a dollop of meat had been dumped upon it.

"Eh? but wait-look here!-"

He turned about, stared at the plate, stared from the plate to the dish of scrag. The meat on the plate was pork, and the dish of scrag was empty. Brother Inchbald had changed his mind at the last moment and chosen mutton.

The Brethren, led by Mrs. Royle, cackled again at sight of his dismay. One or two still hustled Brother Biscoe as he fought his way to the foot of the refectory steps, at the head of which Nurse Branscome barred the exit, with Corona holding fast by her hand and wondering.

"But what is it all about?" asked the child.

"Hush!" The Nurse squeezed her hand, meaning that she must have courage. "We have come too late, and the dinner is all shared up-or all of it that would do your father good."

"But"-Corona dragged her small hand loose-"there is plenty left; and when they know he is sick they will make it all right.… If you please, sir," she spoke up, planting her small body in front of Brother Biscoe as he would have pushed past with his plate, "my father is sick, and Nurse says he must not eat the meat that's left on the dish there. Won't you give me that on your plate?"

She stretched out a hand for it, and Brother Biscoe, spent with senile wrath at this last interruption of his escape, was snatching back the food, ready to curse her, when Brother Copas came battling through the press, holding both his plates high and hailing cheerfully.

"I forgot," he panted, and held up the plate in his left hand. "Bonaday can have the knuckle. I had first choice to-day."

"He ought not to eat roasted meat," said Nurse Branscome slowly. "I am sorry. You are good and will be disappointed. The smallest bit of boiled, now-were it only the scrag-"

"Why," bustled Brother Copas, "Brother Biscoe has the very thing, then-the two best cutlets at the bottom of the neck. And, what's more, he'll be only too glad to exchange 'em for the roast knuckle here, as I happen to know."

He thrust the tit-bit upon Brother Biscoe, who hesitated a moment between hate and greed, and snatched the cutlets from him before hate could weigh down the balance.

Brother Biscoe, clutching the transferred plate, fled ungraciously, without a word of thanks. Nurse Branscome stayed but a moment to thank Brother Copas for his cleverness, and hurried off with Corona to hot-up the plate of mutton for the invalid.

They left Brother Copas eyeing his dismal pork.

"And in June, too!" he murmured. "No: a man must protect himself. I'll have to eke out to-day on biscuits."

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