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Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 20005

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"The nasty pigs!"

Nurse Branscome's face, usually composed and business-like (as a nurse's should be), was aflush between honest shame and equally honest scorn.

"To be sure," said Brother Copas soothingly. He had met her by chance in the ambulatory on her way from Brother Bonaday's rooms. On a sudden resolve he had told her of the anonymous letter, not showing it, but conveying (delicately as he might) its substance. "To be sure," he repeated. "But I am thinking-"

"As if I don't know your thoughts!" she interrupted vigorously. "You are thinking that, to save scandal, I had better cease my attendance on Brother Bonaday, and hand over the case to Nurse Turner. That I could do, of course; and if he knows of it, I certainly shall. Have you told him?"

Brother Copas shook his head.

"No. What is more, I have not the smallest intention of telling him."

"Thank you.… Oh, but it is vile-vile!"

"So vile that, believe me, I had great difficulty in telling you."

"I am sure you had.… I can hand over the case to Nurse Turner, of course; in fact, it came on her rota, but she asked me as a favour to take it, having her hands full just then with Brother Royle and Brother Dasent's rheumatics. It will be hard, though, to give up the child." Nurse Branscome flushed again. "Oh, yes-you are a gentleman, Brother Copas, and will not misunderstand! I have taken a great liking for the child, and she will ask questions if I suddenly desert her. You see the fix?… Besides, Nurse Turner-I hope I am not becoming like one of these people, but I must say it-Nurse Turner has not a nice mind."

"There we get at it," said Brother Copas. "As a fact, you were far from reading my thoughts just now. They did not (forgive me) concern themselves with you or your wisest line of conduct. You are a grown woman, and know well enough that honesty will take care of its own in the end. I was thinking rather of Corona. As you say, she has laid some hold upon the pair of us. She has a pathetic belief in all the inmates of St. Hospital-and God pity us if our corruption infects this child!… You take me?"

Nurse Branscome looked at him squarely.

"If I could save her from that!"

"You would risk appearances?"

"Gladly.… Will you show me the letter?"

Brother Copas shook his head.

"You must take it on faith from me for a while… at any rate until I find out who in St. Hospital begins her 'w's' with a curl like a ram's horn. Did you leave the child with her father?"

"No; she had run out to the kitchen garden. Since she has discovered it she goes there regularly twice a day, morning and evening. I can't think why, and she won't tell. She is the queerest child."

The walled kitchen garden of St. Hospital lies to the south, between the back of the "Nunnery" and the River Mere. It can be reached from the ambulatory by a dark, narrow tunnel under the nurses' lodgings. The Brethren never went near it. For years old Battershall, the gardener, had dug there in solitude-day in, day out-and had grown his vegetables, hedged in from all human intercourse, nor grumbling at his lot.

Corona, exploring the precincts, had discovered this kitchen garden, found it to her mind, and thereafter made free of it with the cheerfullest insouciance. The dark tunnel, to begin with, put her in mind of some adventure in a fairy tale she could not recall; but it opened of a sudden and enchantingly upon sunshine and beds of onions, parsley, cabbages, with pale yellow butterflies hovering. Old Battershall, too, though taciturn, was obviously not displeased by her visits. He saw that while prying here and there-especially among the parsley beds, for what reason he could not guess-the child stole no fruit, did no harm. She trampled nothing. She lifted no leaf to harm it. When she stopped to speak with him her talk was "just nonsense, you know." Unconsciously, by the end of the third day he had looked up twice or thrice from his delving, asking himself why she was late.

And what (do you suppose) did Corona seek in the kitchen garden? She too, unknowing, was lonely. Unknowing, this child felt a need for children, companions. Uncle Copas's doll-well meant and priced at 1s. 3d.-had somehow missed to engage her affections. She could not tell him so, but she hated it.

Like every woman-child of her age she was curious about babies. She had heard, over in America, that babies came either at early morning or at shut of eve, and were to be found in parsley beds. Now old Mr. Battershall grew parsley to make you proud. At the Merchester Rural Gardening Show he regularly took first prize; his potting-shed, in the north-east angle of the wall, was papered with winning tickets from bench to roof. At first when he saw Corona moving about the bed, lifting the parsley leaves, he had a mind to chide her away; for, as he put it, "Children and chicken be always a-pickin'-the mischief's in their natur'." Finding, however, that she did no damage, yet harked back to the parsley again and again, he set her down for an unusually intelligent child, who somehow knew good gardening when she saw it.

"Glad to see you admirin' it, missie," he said one morning, coming up behind her unperceived.

Corona, in the act of upturning a leaf, started and drew back her hand. Babies-she could not tell why-made their appearance in this world by stealth, and must be searched for furtively.

"A mort o' prizes I've took with that there parsley one time and another," pursued Mr. Battershall, not perceiving the flush of guilt on her face (for his eyesight was, in his own words, not so young as it used to be). "Goodbody's Curly Mammoth is the strain, and I don't care who knows it, for the secret's not in the strain, but in the way o' raisin' it. I grows for a succession, too. Summer or winter these six-an'-twenty years St. Hospital's ne'er been without a fine bed o' parsley, I thank the Lord!"

Six-and-twenty years.… It was comforting in a way to know that parsley grew here all the seasons round. But-six-and-twenty years, and not one child in the place save herself, who had come over from America! Yet Mr. Battershall was right; it seemed excellent parsley.

"You don't find that anything comes and-and takes away-" she hazarded, but came to a full stop.

"There's slugs," answered Mr. Battershall stolidly, "and there's snails. Terrible full o' snails the old wall was till I got the Master to repoint it."

"Would snails-"

"Eh?" he asked as she hesitated.

"They might take away the-the flowers, for instance."

Old Battershall guffawed.

"You wasn' sarchin' for flowers, was you? Dang me, but that's a good 'un!… I don't raise my own seed, missie, if that's your meanin'; an' that bein' so, he'd have to get up early as would find a flower in my parsley."

Ah, this might explain it! As she eyed him, her childish mind searching the mystery, yet keeping its own secret, Corona resolved to steal down to the garden one of these fine mornings very early indeed.

"Now I'll tell you something about parsley," said Mr. Battershall; "something very curious, and yet it must be true, for I heard the Master tell it in one of his sermons. The ancients, by which I mean the Greeks, set amazin' store by the yerb. There was a kind of Athletic Sports-sort of Crystal Palace meetin'-the great event, as you might say, and attractin' to sportsmen all over Greece-"

"All over what?"

"Greece. Which is a country, missy, or, at any rate, was so. The meeting was held every four years; and what d'ye suppose was the top prize, answerin', as you may say, to the Championship Cup? Why, a wreath o' parsley! 'Garn!' says you. And 'Parsley!' says you. Which a whole wreath of it might cost fivepence at the outside.…"

Now Corona, whose mind was ever picking up and hoarding such trifles, had heard Uncle Copas two days before drop a remark that the Greeks knew everything worth knowing. Plainly, then, the parsley held some wonderful secret after all. She must contrive to outwit old Battershall, and get to the garden ahead of him, which would not be easy, by the way.

To begin with, on these summer mornings old Battershall rose with the lark, and boasted of it; and, furthermore, the door of her father's bedroom stood open all night. To steal abroad she must pass it, and he was the lightest of sleepers. She did not intend to be beaten, though; and meanwhile she punctually visited the parsley morning and evening.

Heaven knows how the day-dream came to take possession of her. She was not consciously lonely. She worshipped this marvellous new home. Sometimes in her rambles she had to pinch herself to make sure this was all really happening. But always in her rambles she saw St. Hospital peopled with children-boys, girls, and little toddlers-chasing one another across the lawns, laughing at hide-and-seek in the archways, bruising no flower-bed, filling old souls with glee. They were her playmates, these innocents of her fancy, the long day through. At evening in her prayers she called them home, and they came reluctant-

No, no, let us play, for it is yet day

And we cannot go to sleep;

Besides, in the sky the little birds fly

And the hills are all covered with sheep.

The tunnel was populous with them as she passed through it from the garden to the ambulatory, and at the end of the tunnel she came plump upon Branny and Uncle Copas in converse. They started guiltily.

"I've been looking for you this half-hour," said Brother Copas, recovering himself. "Didn't a certain small missy make an appointment with me to be shown the laundry and its wonders? And isn't this Tuesday-ironing day?"

"You promised to show it to me some time," answered Corona, who was punctilious in small matters; "but you never fixed any time in p'tic'lar."

"Oh, then I must have made the appointment with myself! Never mind; come along now, if you can spare the time."

Nurse Branscome nodded and left them, turning in at the stair

way which led to her quarters in the Nunnery. At the foot of it she paused to call after them-

"Mind, Corona is not to be late for her tea! I've invited myself this evening, and there is to be a plum cake in honour of the occasion."

Brother Copas and Corona passed down the ambulatory and by the porter's lodge to the outer court. Of a sudden, within a few paces of the laundry, Brother Copas halted to listen.

"You had better stop here for a moment," he said, and walked forward to the laundry door, the hasp of which he lifted after knocking sharply with his staff. He threw the door open and looked in, surveying the scene with an angry disgust.

"Hallo! More abominations?" exclaimed Brother Copas.

The quarrel had started in the forenoon over a dirty trick played by Brother Clerihew, the ex-butler. (Brother Clerihew had a name for underhand practice; indeed, his inability to miss a chance of it had cost him situation after situation, and finally landed him in St. Hospital.) This time he had played it upon poor old doddering Brother Ibbetson. Finding Ibbetson in the porter's gateway, with charge of a lucrative-looking tourist and in search of the key of the Relique Room, he noted that the key, usually handed out by Porter Manby, hung on a hook just within the doorway; but old Ibbetson, being purblind, could not see it, or at all events could not recognise it, and Manby happened to be away at the brewhouse on some errand connected with the Wayfarers' Dole. Brother Clerihew, who had left him there, sent Ibbetson off on a chase in the wrong direction, loitered around for a couple of minutes chatting about the weather, and then, with a remark that it was shameful to keep gentlefolks waiting so, looked casually in at the doorway.

"Why the key is here all the time!" he exclaimed. "If you are in any hurry, sir, permit me to take brother Ibbetson's place, and show you round. Oh," he added falsely, seeing the visitor hesitate, "it won't hurt him at all! I don't like to mention it, but any small gratuities bestowed on the Brethren are carried to a common fund."

Ibbetson, harking back from a vain search to find his bird had flown, encountered Porter Manby returning with Brother Warboise from the brew-house, and tremulously opened up his distress.

"Eh?" snapped Warboise, after exchanging glances with the Porter. "Clerihew said Manby was in the kitchen, did he? But he'd left us at the brewhouse not a minute before."

"And the key! gone from the hook!" chimed in Porter Manby, "where I'll swear I left it. This is one of Clerihew's monkeyings, you bet."

"I'll monkey him," growled Brother Warboise.

The three kept sentry, knowing that Clerihew must sooner or later return with his convoy, there being no other exit. When at length he hove in sight with his convoy his face wore an uneasy, impudent smile. He was the richer by half a crown. They stood aside and let him brazen it past them; but Manby and Ibbetson were still waiting for him as he came back alone. Ibbetson was content with a look of reproach. Manby told him fair and straight that he was a swindling cur. But meanwhile Warboise had stumped off and told Ibbetson's wife. This done, he hurried off, and catching Clerihew by the steps of the Hundred Men's Hall, threatened the rogue with his staff. Manby caught them in altercation, the one aiming impotent blows, the other evading them still with his shameless grin, and separated them. Brother Ibbetson looked on, feebly wringing his hands.

But Mrs. Ibbetson was worth three of her husband, and a notorious scold. In the laundry, later on, she announced within earshot of Mrs. Clerihew that, as was well beknown, Clerihew had lost his last three places for bottle-stealing; and Mrs. Royle, acknowledged virago of St. Hospital, took up the accusation and blared it obscenely. For a good five minutes the pair mauled Mrs. Clerihew, who, with an air of high gentility, went on ironing shirts. She had been a lady's maid when Clerihew married her, and could command, as a rule, a high-bred, withering sneer. Unhappily, the united attack of Mrs. Ibbetson and Mrs. Royle goaded her so far beyond the bounds of breeding that of a sudden she upped and called the latter a bitch; whereupon, feeling herself committed, this ordinarily demure woman straightened her spine and followed up the word with a torrent of filthy invective that took the whole laundry aback.

Her success was but momentary. Mrs. Royle had a character to maintain. Fetching a gasp, she let fly the dirtiest word one woman can launch at another, and on the instant made a grab at Mrs. Clerihew's brow.… It was a matter of notoriety in St. Hospital that Mrs. Clerihew wore a false "front." The thing came away in Mrs. Royle's clutch, and amid shrieks of laughter Mrs. Royle tossed it to Mrs. Ibbetson, who promptly clapped down a hot flat-iron upon it. The spectators rocked with helpless mirth as the poor woman strove to cover her bald brows, while the thing hissed and shrivelled to nothing, emitting an acrid odour beneath the relentless flat-iron.

"Ladies! ladies!" commanded Brother Copas. "A visitor, if you please!"

The word-as always in St. Hospital-instantly commanded a hush. The women fled back to their tables, and started ironing, goffering, crimping for dear life, with irons hot and cold. Brother Copas, with a chuckle, leant back and beckoned Corona in from the yard.

At sight of her on the threshold Mrs. Royle broke into a coarse laugh. It found no echo, and died away half-heartedly. For one thing, there might yet be a real visitor behind the child; for another, these women stood in some little awe of Brother Copas, who paid well for his laundry-work, never mixed himself up with gossip, and moreover had a formidable trick of lifting his hat whenever he passed one of these viragoes, and after a glance at her face, fixing an amused stare at her feet.

"Pardon me, ladies," said he; "but my small laundry-work has hitherto gone, as you know, to old Mrs. Vigurs in St. Faith's Road. Last week she sent me word that she could no longer undertake it, the fact being that she has just earned her Old Age Pension and is retiring upon it. I come to ask if one of you will condescend to take her place and oblige me."

He paused, tasting the fun of it. As he well knew, they all feared and hated him for his trick of irony; but at least half a dozen of them desired his custom, for in St. Hospital (where nothing escaped notice) Brother Copas's fastidious extravagance in body-linen and his punctuality in discharging small debts were matters of common knowledge. Moreover, in their present mood each of these women saw a chance of spiting another by depriving her of the job.

Brother Copas eyed them with an amiable smile.

"Come," he said, "don't all speak at once!… I'll not ask you to bid for my little contract just now when I see you are all so busy. But seriously, I invite tenders, and will ask any one of you who cares for my custom to send me (say by to-morrow evening) a list of her prices in a sealed envelope, each envelope to bear the words 'Washing List' in an upper corner, that I may put all the tenders aside and open them together. Eh? What do you say, ladies?"

"I shall be happy for one," said Mrs. Clerihew, laying stress on the aspirate. She was always careful of this, having lived with gentlefolks. She burned to know if Brother Copas had heard her call Mrs. Royle a bitch. Mrs. Royle (to do her justice) when enraged recked neither what she said nor who overheard. But Mrs. Clerihew, between her lapses, clung passionately to gentility and the world's esteem. She was conscious, moreover, that without her false "front" she must be looking a fright.… In short, the wretched woman rushed into speech because for the moment anything was more tolerable than silence.

"I thank you, ma'am."

Neither voice nor look betrayed that Brother Copas had overheard or perceived anything amiss.

Mrs. Clerihew, baffled, began desperately to curry favour.

"And you've brought Brother Bonaday's pretty child, I see.… Step over here, my dear, and watch me-when I've heated this iron. 'Crimping,' they call it, and I've done it for titled folks in my time. One of these days, I hope, you'll be going into good service yourself. There's nothing like it for picking up manners."

She talked for talking's sake, in a carneying tone, while her bosom still heaved from the storm of battle.

Mrs. Royle attempted a ribald laugh, but it met with no success, and her voice died down under a disapproving hush.

Mrs. Clerihew talked on, gaining confidence. She crimped beautifully, and this was the more remarkable because (as Corona noted) her hand shook all the while.

In short, the child had, as she put it, quite a good time.

When it was time to be going she thanked Mrs. Clerihew very prettily, and walked back with Brother Copas to her father's room. They found Nurse Branscome there and the table already laid for tea; there was a plum cake, too.

After tea Branny told them all very gravely that this must be her last visit. She was giving over the care of Corona's father to Nurse Turner, whose "case" it had really been from the first. She explained that the nurses, unless work were extra heavy, had to take their patients in a certain order, by what she called a rota.

"But he's bettering every day now, so I don't mind." She nodded cheerfully towards Brother Bonaday, and then, seeing that Corona's face was woebegone, she added: "But you will often be running across to the Nunnery to see me. Besides, I've brought a small parting gift to console you."

She unwrapped a paper parcel, and held out a black boy-doll, a real Golliwog, with white shirt buttons for eyes and hair of black Berlin wool.

"Oh, Branny!"

Corona, after holding the Golliwog a moment in outstretched hands, strained it to her breast.

"Oh, Branny! And till this moment I didn't know how much I've wanted him!"

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