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   Chapter 12 BROTHER COPAS ON THE ANGLO-SAXON.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 12436

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"You ought to write a play," said Mrs. Simeon.

Mr. Simeon looked up from his dinner and stared at his wife as though she had suddenly taken leave of her senses. She sat holding a fork erect and close to her mouth, with a morsel of potato ready to be popped in as soon as she should finish devouring a paragraph of The People newspaper, folded beside her plate. In a general way Mrs. Simeon was not a reader; but on Mondays (washing-days) she regularly had the loan of a creased copy of The People from a neighbour who, having but a couple of children, could afford to buy and peruse it on the day of issue. There is much charity among the working poor.

"I-I beg your pardon, my dear?" Mr. Simeon murmured, after gently admonishing his second son (Eustace, aged 11, named after the Master) for flipping bread pills across the table. "I am afraid I did not catch-"

"I see there's a man has made forty thousand pounds by writing one. And he did it in three weeks, after beginning as a clerk in the stationery.… Forty thousand pounds, only think! That's what I call turning cleverness to account."

"But, my love, I don't happen to be clever," protested Mr. Simeon.

His wife swallowed her morsel of potato. She was a worn-looking blonde, peevish, not without traces of good looks. She wore the sleeves of her bodice rolled up to the elbows, and her wrists and forearms were bleached by her morning's work at the wash-tub.

"Then I'm sure I don't know what else you are!" said she, looking at him straight.

Mr. Simeon sighed. Ever on Mondays he returned at midday to a house filled with steam and the dank odour of soap-suds, and to the worst of the week's meagre meals. A hundred times he had reproached himself that he did ungratefully to let this affect him, for his wife (poor soul) had been living in it all day, whereas his morning had been spent amid books, rare prints, statuettes, soft carpets, all the delicate luxuries of Master Blanchminster's library. Yet he could not help feeling the contrast; and the children were always at their most fractious on Mondays, chafed by a morning in school after two days of freedom.

"Where are you going this afternoon?" his wife asked.

"To blow the organ for Windeatt."

Dr. Windeatt (Mus. Doc. Oxon.) was the Cathedral organist.

"Has he offered to pay you?"

"Well-it isn't pay exactly. There was an understanding that if I blew for him this afternoon-old Brewer being laid up with the shingles-he would take me through that tenor part in the new Venite Exultemus. It's tricky, and yesterday morning I slurred it horribly."

"Tc'ht! A man of your education blowing an organ, and for nothing! If there was any money in it one wouldn't mind so much.… But you let yourself be put upon by anybody."

Mr. Simeon was silent. He knew that to defend himself would be to court a wrangle, reproaches, tears perhaps, all unseemly before the children; and, moreover, what his wife said was more than half deserved.

"Daddy, why don't you write a play?" demanded the five-year-old Agatha. "And then mammy would have a carriage, and I'd go to a real boarding-school with canaries in the window like they have at Miss Dickinson's."

The meal over, Mr. Simeon stole away to the Cathedral. He was unhappy; and as he passed through Friars' Gateway into the Close, the sight of the minster, majestical above its green garth, for once gave no lift to his spirit. The great central tower rose against a sky of clearest blue, strong and foursquare as on the day when its Norman builders took down their scaffolding. White pigeons hovered or perched on niche and corbel. But fortitude and aspiration alike had deserted Mr. Simeon for the while. Life-hard life and poverty-had subdued him to be one of the petty, nameless crowd this Cathedral had seen creep to their end in its shadow.… "What should such creatures as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?" A thousand thousand such as Mr. Simeon had listened or lifted their voice to its anthems-had aspired for the wings of a dove, to fly away and be at rest. Where now were all their emotions? He entered by a side-door of the western porch. The immense, solemn nave, if it did not catch his thoughts aloft, at least hushed them in awe. To Mr. Simeon Merchester Cathedral was a passion, nearer, if not dearer, than wife or children.

He had arrived ten minutes ahead of the appointed time. As he walked towards the great organ he heard a child's voice, high-pitched and clear, talking behind the traceries of the choir screen. He supposed it the voice of some irreverent chorister, and stepping aside to rebuke it, discovered Corona and Brother Copas together gazing up at the coffins above the canopy.

"And is King Alfred really up there?-the one that burnt the cakes?- and if so, which?" Corona was asking, too eager to think of grammar.

Brother Copas shrugged his shoulders.

"What's left of him is up there somewhere."

'Here are sands, ignoble things

Dropped from the ruined sides of kings.'

"-But the Parliament troopers broke open the coffins and mixed the dust sadly. The Latin says so. 'In this and the neighbouring chests' (or caskets, as you say in America), 'confounded in a time of Civil Fury, reposes what dust is left of-' Ah, good afternoon, Mr. Simeon! This young lady has laid forcible hands on me to give her an object-lesson in English history. Do you, who know ten times more of the Cathedral than I, come to my aid."

"If you are looking for King Alfred," answered Mr. Simeon, beaming on Corona through his glasses, "there's a tradition that his dust lies in the second chest to the right… a tradition only. No one really knows."

Corona shifted her position some six paces to the right, and tilted her gaze up at the coffer as though she would crick her neck.

"Aye, missie"-Mr. Simeon still beamed-"they're up there, the royal ones-Dane and Norman and Angevin; and not one to match the great Anglo-Saxon that was father of us all."

Brother Copas grunted impatiently.

"My good Simeon, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! God forbid that one should decry such a man as Alfred was. But the pedantry of Freeman and his sect, who tried to make 'English

' a conterminous name and substitute for 'Anglo-Saxon,' was only by one degree less offensive than the ignorance of your modern journalist who degrades Englishmen by writing them down (or up, the poor fool imagines) as Anglo-Saxons. In truth, King Alfred was a noble fellow. No one in history has struggled more pluckily to rekindle fire in an effete race or to put spirit into an effete literature by pretending that both were of the prime."

"Come, come," murmured Mr. Simeon, smiling. "I see you are off upon one of your hobbies.… But you will not tell me that the fine rugged epic of Beowulf, to which the historians trace back all that is noblest in our poetry, had lost its generative impulse even so early as Alfred's time. That were too extravagant!"

"Brekekekèx, ten brink, ten brink!" snapped Brother Copas. "All the frogs in chorus around Charon's boat! Fine rugged fiddlestick-have you ever read Beowulf?"

"In translation only."

"You need not be ashamed of labour saved. I once spent a month or two in mastering Anglo-Saxon, having a suspicion of Germans when they talk about English literature, and a deeper suspicion of English critics who ape them. Then I tackled Beowulf, and found it to be what I guessed-no rugged national epic at all, but a blown-out bag of bookishness. Impulse? Generative impulse?-the thing is wind, I tell you, without sap or sinew, the production of some conscientious Anglo-Saxon whose blue eyes, no doubt, watered with the effort of inflating it. I'll swear it never drew a human tear otherwise.… That's what the whole Anglo-Saxon race had become when Alfred arose to galvanise 'em for a while-a herd of tall, flabby, pale-eyed men, who could neither fight, build, sing, nor enforce laws. And so our England-wise as Austria in mating-turned to other nuptials and married William the Norman. Behold then a new breed; the country covered with sturdy, bullet-headed, energetic fellows, who are no sooner born than they fly to work-hammers going, scaffolds climbing; cities, cathedrals springing up by magic; and all to a new song that came with some imported workmen from the Provence-"

'Quan la douss' aura venta

Deves vostre pa?s'-

"And so-pop!-down the wind goes your pricked bladder of a Beowulf: down the wind that blows from the Mediterranean, whence the arts and the best religions come."

Mr. Simeon rubbed the side of his jaw thoughtfully.

"Ah," said he, "I remember Master Blanchminster saying something of the sort the other day. He was talking of wine."

"Yes-the best religions and the best wine: they go together. Could ever an Anglo-Saxon have built that, think you?" demanded Brother Copas with a backward jerk of the head and glance up at the vaulted roof. "But to my moral.-All this talk of Anglo-Saxons, Celts, and the rest is rubbish. We are English by chemical action of a score of interfused bloods. That man is a fool who speaks as though, at this point of time, they could be separated: had he the power to put his nonsense into practice he would be a wicked fool. And so I say, Mr. Simeon, that the Roundheads-no pure Anglo-Saxon, by the way, ever had a round head-who mixed up the dead dust in the caskets aloft there, were really leaving us a sound historical lesson-"

But here Mr. Simeon turned at the sound of a brisk footstep. Dr. Windeatt had just entered by the western door.

"You'll excuse me? I promised the Doctor to blow the organ for him."

"Do people blow upon organs?" asked Corona, suddenly interested. "I thought they played upon them the same as pianos, only with little things that pulled out at the sides."

"Come and see," Mr. Simeon invited her, smiling.

The three went around to the back of the organ loft. By and by when Mr. Simeon began to pump, and after a minute, a quiet adagio, rising upon a throb of air, stole along the aisles as though an angel spoke in it, or the very spirit of the building, tears sprang into the child's eyes and overflowed. She supposed that Mr. Simeon alone was working this miracle.… Blinking more tears away, she stared at him, meeting his mild, half-quizzical gaze as he stooped and rose and stooped again over the bellows.

Brother Copas, touching her elbow, signed to her to come away. She obeyed, very reluctantly. By a small doorway in the southern aisle she followed him out into the sunshine of the Cathedral Close.

"But how does he do it?" she demanded. "He doesn't look a bit as if he could do anything like that-not in repose."

Brother Copas eyed her and took snuff. "He and the like of him don't touch the stops, my dear. He and the like of him do better; they supply the afflatus."

O ye holy and humble Men of heart, bless ye the Lord: praise Him, and magnify Him for ever!

Mr. Simeon worked mechanically, heaving and pressing upon the bellows of the great organ. His mind ran upon Master Copas's disparagement of Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons. It was ever the trouble that he remembered an answer for Brother Copas after Brother Copas had gone. … Why had he not bethought him to cite C?dmon, at any rate, against that sweeping disparagement? How went the story?-

C?dmon was a lay brother, a tender of cattle at the Abbey of Whitby under the Abbess Hilda who founded it. Until somewhat spent in years he had never learnt any poems. Therefore at a feast, when all sang in turn, so soon as he saw the harp coming near him, he would rise and leave the table and go home. Once when he had gone thus from the feast to the stables, where he had night-charge of the beasts, as he yielded himself to sleep One stood over him and said, greeting him by name, "Caedmon, sing some song to me." "I cannot sing," he said, "and for this cause left I the feast." "But you shall sing to me," said the Vision. "Lord, what shall I sing?" "Sing the Creation," said the Vision. Caedmon sang, and in the morning remembered what he had sung…

"If this indeed happened to Caedmon, and late in life" (mused Mr. Simeon, heaving on the bellows of the great organ), "might not even some such miracle befall me?"

Lord, I have loved the habitation of Thy house, and the place where Thine honour dwelleth.

"I might even write a play," thought Mr. Simeon.

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