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   Chapter 20 MERCHESTER PREPARES.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 21918

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I must not overload these slight pages by chronicling at length how Merchester caught and developed the Pageant fever. But to Mr Colt must be given his share of the final credit. He worked like a horse, no doubt of it; spurred constantly on his tender side-his vanity-by the hard riding of Mr. Julius Bamberger, M.P. He pioneered the movement. He (pardon this riot of simile and metaphor) cut a way through the brushwood, piled the first faggots, applied the torch, set the heather afire. He canvassed the Bishop, the Dean and Chapter, the Sunday Schools, the Church Lads' Brigade, the Girls' Friendly Society, the Boy Scouts. He canvassed the tradespeople, the professional classes, the widowed and maiden ladies resident around the Close.

In all these quarters he met with success-varying, indeed, but on the whole gratifying. But the problem was, how to fan the flame to reach and take hold of more seasoned timber?-opulent citizens, county magnates; men who, once committed, would not retract; ponderable subscribers to the Guarantee Fund; neither tinder nor brushwood, but logs to receive the fire and retain it in a solid core. For weeks, for a couple of months, the flame took no hold of these: it reached them only to die down and disappoint.

Nor was Mr. Isidore, during this time, the least part of our Chaplain's trial. Mr. Julius might flatter, proclaiming him a born organiser: but this was small consolation when Mr. Isidore (an artist by temperament) stamped and swore over every small hitch.

"Sobscribtions? Zat is your affaire, whad the devil!"

Or again: "Am I a dog to be bozzered by your General Committees or your influential batrons?… You wandt a Bageant, hein? Var'y well, I brovide it: It is I will mek a sogcess. Go to hell for your influenzial batrons: or go to Julius. He can lick ze boot, not I!"

On the other hand, Mr. Julius, while willing enough to spend money for which he foresaw a satisfactory return, had no mind to risk it until assured of the support of local 'Society.' He could afford some thousands of pounds better than a public fiasco.

"We must have the County behind us," he kept chanting.

Afterwards, looking back on the famous Merchester Pageant, Mr. Colt accurately dated its success from the hour when he called on Lady Shaftesbury and enlisted her to open the annual Sale of Work of the Girls' Friendly Society. Sir John Shaftesbury, somewhat late in life, had married a wife many years his junior; a dazzling beauty, a dashing horsewoman, and moreover a lady who, having spent the years of her eligible maidenhood largely among politicians and racehorses, had acquired the knack and habit of living in the public eye. She adored her husband, as did everyone who knew him: but life at Shaftesbury Court had its longueurs even in the hunting season. Sir John would (he steadily declared) as lief any day go to prison as enter Parliament-a reluctance to which Mr. Bamberger owed his seat for Merchester. Finding herself thus headed off one opportunity of making tactful little public speeches, in raiments to which the Press would give equal prominence, Lady Shaftesbury had turned her thoughts to good work, even before Mr. Colt called with his petition.

She assented to it with a very pretty grace. Her speech at the Sale of Work was charming, and she talked to her audience about the Empire; reminded them that they were all members of one body; called them her "dear Girl Friendlies": and hoped, though a new-comer, in future to see a great deal more of them. They applauded this passage de bon coeur, and indeed pronounced the whole speech "So womanly!" At its close Mr. Colt, proposing a vote of thanks, insinuated something "anent a more ambitious undertaking, in which (if we can only engage Lady Shaftesbury's active sympathy) we may realise a cherished dream. I fear," proceeded Mr. Colt, "that I am a sturdy beggar. I can only plead that the cause is no mere local one, but in the truest sense national-nay imperial. For where but in the story of Merchester can be found the earliest inspiration of those countless deeds which won the Empire?"

Later, when Lady Shaftesbury asked to what he alluded, he discoursed on the project of the Pageant with dexterity and no little tact.

"What a ripping idea!… Now I come to remember, my husband did say casually, the other day, that Mr. Bamberger had been sounding him about something of the sort. But Jack is English, you know, and a Whig at that. The mere notion of dressing-up or play-acting makes him want to run away and hide.… Oh, my dear sir, I know all about pageants! I saw one at Warwick Castle-was it last year or the year before?… There was a woman on horseback-I forget what historical character she represented: it wasn't Queen Elisabeth, I know, and it couldn't have been Lady Godiva because-well, because to begin with, she knew how to dress. She wore a black velvet habit, with seed-pearls, which sounds like Queen Henrietta Maria. Anyway, everyone agreed she had a perfect seat in the saddle. Is that the sort of thing-'Fair Rosamund goes a-hawking with King, er, Whoever-he-was?'"

Mr. Colt regretted that Fair Rosamund had no historical connection with Merchester.… No, and equally out of the question was Mary, Queen of Scots laying her neck on the block.

"Besides, she couldn't very well do that on horseback. And Maseppa was a man, wasn't he?"

"If," said Mr. Colt diplomatically, "we can only prevail upon one or two really influential ladies to see the thing in that light, details could be arranged later. We have not yet decided on the Episodes. … But notoriously where there's a will there's a way."

Lady Shaftesbury pondered this conversation while her new car whirled her homewards. She had begun to wish that Jack (as she called her lord) would strike out a bolder line in county affairs, if his ambition confined him to these. He was already (through no search of his own) Chairman of the County Council, and Chairman of Quarter Sessions, and was pricked to serve as High Sheriff next year. He ought to do something to make his shrievalty memorable… and, moreover, the Lord-Lieutenant was an old man.

In the library that evening after dinner she opened fire. The small function at the Girls' Friendly had been a success; but she wished to do something more for Merchester-"where we ought to be a real influence for good-living as we do so close to it."

She added, "I hear that Mr. Bamberger's seat is by no means safe, and another General Election may be on us at any moment.… I know how little you like Mr. Bamberger personally: but after all, and until you will consent to take his place-Mr. Bamberger stands between us and the rising tide of Socialism. I was discussing this with Mr. Colt to-day."

"Who is Mr. Colt?" asked Sir John.

"You must have met him. He is Chaplain of St. Hospital, and quite a personality in Merchester… though I don't know," pursued Lady Shaftesbury, musing, "that one would altogether describe him as a gentleman. But ought we to be too particular when the cause is at stake, and heaven knows how soon the Germans will be invading us?"

The end was that Sir John, who loved his young wife, gave her a free hand, of which she made the most. Almost before he was aware of it, he found himself Chairman of a General Committee, summoning a Sub-Committee of Ways and Means. At the first meeting he announced that his lady had consented to set aside, throughout the winter months, one day a week from hunting, and offered Shaftesbury Hall as head-quarters of the Costume Committee.

Thereupon it was really astonishing with what alacrity not only the "best houses" around Merchester, but the upper-middle-class (its damsels especially) caught the contagion. Within a week "Are you Pageantising?" or, in more condensed slang, "Do you Padge?" became the stock question at all social gatherings in the neighbourhood of the Close. To this a stock answer would be-

"Oh, I don't know! I suppose so." Here the respondent would simulate a slight boredom. "One will have to mix with the most impossible people, of course"-Lady Shaftesbury had won great popularity by insisting that, in a business so truly national, no class distinctions were to be drawn-"but anyhow it will fill up the off-days this winter."

Lady Shaftesbury herself, after some pretty deliberation, decided to enact the part of the Empress Maud, and escape on horseback from King Stephen of Blois. Mr. Colt and Mr. Isidore Bamberger together waited on Brother Copas with a request that he would write the libretto for this Episode.

"But it was only last week you turned me on to Episode VI-King Hal and the Emperor Charles the Fifth," Copas protested.

"We are hoping you will write this for us too," urged Mr. Colt. "It oughtn't to take you long, you know. To begin with, no one knows very much about that particular period."

"The less known the better, if we may trust the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A few realistic pictures of the diversions of the upper classes-"

"Hawking was one, I believe?" opined Mr. Colt.

"Yes, and another was hanging the poor by their heels over a smoky fire, and yet another was shutting them up in a close cell into which had been inserted a few toads and adders."

"Her ladyship suggests a hawking scene, in the midst of which she is surprised by King Stephen and his, er, myrmidons-if that be the correct term-"

"It is at least as old as Achilles."

"She escapes from him on horseback.… At this point she wants to know if we can introduce a water-jump."

"Nothing could be easier, in a blank verse composition," assented Brother Copas gravely.

"You see, there is very little writing required. Just enough dialogue to keep the thing going.… Her ladyship is providing her own riding-habit and those of her attendant ladies, for whom she has chosen six of the most beautiful maidens in the neighbourhood, quite irrespective of class. The dresses are to be gorgeous."

"They will form a pleasing contrast, then, to King Stephen, whose riding-breeches, as we know, 'cost him but a crown.'… Very well, I will 'cut the cackle and come to the hosses.' And you, Mr. Isidore? Do I read in your eye that you desire a similar literary restraint in your Episode of King Hal?"

"Ach, yes," grinned Mr. Isidore. "Cut ze caggle-cabital! I soggest in zat Ebisode we haf a Ballet."

"A Ballet?"

"A Ballet of Imberial Exbansion-ze first English discofferies ofer sea-ze natives brought back in brocession to mek sobmission-"

"Devilish pretty substitute for Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation!"

"It was zere lay ze future of Englandt, hein?"

"I see," said Brother Copas thoughtfully; "provided you make the ballets of our nation, you don't care if your brother makes its laws."

These preparations (he noted) had a small byproduct pleasantly affecting St. Hospital. Mr. Colt, in his anxiety to enlist the whole-hearted services of

the Brethren (who according to design were to serve as a sort of subsidiary chorus to the Pageant, appearing and reappearing, still in their antique garb, in a succession of scenes supposed to extend over many centuries), had suddenly taken the line of being 'all things to all men,' and sensibly relaxed the zeal of his proselytising as well as the rigour of certain regulations offensive to the more Protestant of his flock.

"You may growl," said Brother Copas to Brother Warboise: "but this silly Pageant is bringing us more peace than half a dozen Petitions."

Brother Warboise was, in fact, growling because for three months and more nothing had been heard of the Petition.

"You may depend," said Copas soothingly, "the Bishop put the thing away in his skirt pocket and forgot all about it. I happen to know that he must be averse to turning out his skirt pockets, for I once saw him surreptitiously smuggle away a mayonnaise sandwich there. It was at a Deanery garden party; and I, having been invited to hand the ices and look picturesque, went on looking picturesque and pretended not to see.… I ought to have told you, when you asked me to write it, that such was the invariable fate of my compositions."

Meanwhile, it certainly seemed that a truce had been called to the internal dissensions of St. Hospital. On the pageant-ground one afternoon, in the midst of a very scratchy rehearsal, Brother Copas found himself by chance at the Chaplain's side. The two had been watching in silence for a full five minutes, when he heard Mr. Colt addressing him in a tone of unusual friendliness.

"Wonderful how it seems to link us up, eh?"

"I beg your pardon, sir?"

"I was thinking, just then, of the St. Hospital uniform, which you have the honour to wear. It seems-or Mr. Isidore has the knack of making it seem-the, er, foil of the whole Pageant. It outlasts all the more brilliant fashions."

"Poverty, sir, is perduring. It is in everything just because it is out of everything. We inherit time, if not the earth."

"But particularly," said Mr. Colt, "I was thinking of the corporate unity it seems to give us, and to pass on, through us, to the whole story of Merchester."

"Aye, we are always with you."

Afterwards Brother Copas repented that he had not answered more graciously: for afterwards, looking back, he perceived that, in some way, the Pageant had actually helped to bring back a sense of "corporate unity" to St. Hospital.

Even then, and for months later, he missed to recognise Corona's share in it. What was she but a child?

"Is it true what I hear?" asked Mrs. Royle, intercepting him one day as he carried his plate of fast-cooling meat from the kitchen.

"Probably not," said Brother Copas.

"They tell me Bonaday's daughter has been singled out among all the school children-Greycoats and others-to be Queen of the May, or something of the kind, in this here Pageant."

"Yes, that is a fact."

"Oh!… I suppose it's part of your sneering way to make little of it. I call it an honour to St. Hospital."

"The deuce you do?"

"And what's more," added Mrs. Royle, "she mustn't let us down by appearing in rags."

"I hope we can provide against that."

"What I meant to say," the woman persisted, "was that you men don't probably understand. If there's to be a dance, or any such caper, she'll be lifting her skirts. Well, for the credit of St. Hospital, I'd like to overhaul the child's under-clothing, and see that she goes shipshape and Bristol fashion."

Brother Copas thanked her. He began to perceive that Mrs. Royle, that detestable woman, had her good points-or, at any rate, her soft spot.

It became embarrassing, though, when Mrs. Clerihew accosted him next day with a precisely similar request.

"And I might mention," added Mrs. Clerihew, "that I have a lace stomacher-frill which was gove to me by no less than the late honourable Edith, fifth daughter of the second Baron Glantyre. She died unmarried, previous to which she used frequently to honour me with her confidence. This being a historical occasion, I'd spare it."

Yes; it was true. Corona was to be a Queen, among many, in the Merchester Pageant.

It all happened through Mr. Simeon.

Mr. Simeon's children had, one and all, gone for their education to the Greycoats' School, which lies just beyond the west end of the Cathedral. He loved to think of them as growing up within its shadow.… One Tuesday at dinner the five-year-old Agatha popped out a question-

"Daddy, if the Cafederal fell down while we were in school, would it fall on top of us?"

"God forbid, child. But why ask such a question?"

"Because when we went to school this morning some workpeople had dug a hole, close by that end-quite a big pit it was. So I went near the edge to look down, and one of the men said, 'Take care, missy, or you'll tumble in and be drowned.' I told him that I knew better, because people couldn't build cafederals on water. He told me that was the way they had built ours, and he held my hand for me to have a look. He was right, too. The pit was half-full of water. He said that unless we looked sharp the whole Cafederal would come down on our heads.… I don't think it's safe for me to go to school any more, do you?" insinuated small Agatha.

Now it chanced that Mr. Simeon had to visit the Greycoats that very afternoon. He had written a little play for the children-boys and girls-to act at Christmas. It was not a play of the sort desiderated by Mrs. Simeon-the sort to earn forty thousand pounds in royalties; nor, to speak accurately, had he written it. He had in fact patched together a few artless scenes from an old Miracle Play- The Life of Saint Meriadoc-discovered by him in the Venables Library; and had tinkered out some rhymes (the book being a prose translation from the Breton original). "A poor thing," then, and very little of it his own-but Miss Champernowne opined that it would be a novelty, while the children enjoyed the rehearsals, and looked forward to the fun of "dressing-up."

Rehearsals were held twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in the last hour of the afternoon session. This afternoon, on his way to the school, Mr. Simeon found that Agatha had indeed spoken truth. Five or six men were busy, digging, probing, sounding, around a large hole close under the northeast corner of the Lady Chapel. The foreman wore a grave face, and in answer to Mr. Simeon's inquiries allowed that the mischief was serious; so serious that the Dean and Chapter had sent for a diver to explore the foundations and report. The foreman further pointed out certain ominous cracks in the masonry overhead.

Just then the great clock chimed, warning Mr. Simeon away.… But the peril of his beloved Cathedral so haunted him that he arrived at the school-door as one distraught.

Rehearsal always took place in the girls' schoolroom, the boys coming in from their part of the building to clear the desks away and arrange them close along the walls. They were busy at it when he entered. He saw: but-

"He heeded not-his eyes

Were with his heart,"

And that was in the Close outside-

From the start he allowed the rehearsal to get hopelessly out of hand. The children took charge; they grew more and more fractious, unruly. Miss Champernowne chid them in vain. The schoolroom, in fact, was a small pandemonium, when of a sudden the door opened and two visitors entered-Mr. Colt and Mr. Isidore Bamberger.

"A-ach so!" intoned Mr. Isidore, and at the sound of his appalling guttural Babel hushed itself, unable to compete. He inquired what was going forward; was told; and within five minutes had the children moving through their parts in perfect discipline, while with a fire of cross-questions he shook Mr. Simeon back to his senses and rapidly gathered the outline of the play. He terrified all.

"Bardon my interference, ma'am!" he barked, addressing Miss Champernowne. "I haf a burbose."

The scene engaging the children was that of the youthful St. Meriadoc's first school-going; where his parents (Duke and Duchess of Brittany) call with him upon a pedagogue, who introduces him to the boys and girls, his fellow scholars. For a sample of Mr. Simeon's version-

PEDAGOGUE-

"Children look on your books.

If there be any whispering

It will be great hindering,

And there will be knocks."

FIRST SCHOLAR (chants)-

"God bless A, Band C!

The rest of the song is D:

That is all my lore.

I came late yesterday,

I played truant by my fay!

I am a foul sinner.

Good master, after dinner

I will learn more."

SECOND SCHOLAR-

"E, s, t, that is est,

I know not what comes next-"

Whilst the scholars recited thus, St. Meriadoc's father and mother-each with a train of attendants-walked up and down between the ranks 'high and disposedly,' as became a Duke and Duchess of Brittany.

Mr. Isidore of a sudden threw all into confusion again. He shot out a forefinger and screamed-yes, positively screamed-

"Ach! zat is ze child-ze fourt' from ze end! I will haf her and no ozzer-you onderstandt?" Here he swung about upon the Chaplain. "Ob-serf how she walk! how she carry her chin! If I haf not her for ze May Queen I will haf non.… Step vorwards, liddle one. Whad is your name?"

"Corona."

Seeing that Mr. Isidore's finger pointed at her, she stepped forward, with a touch of defiance in her astonishment, but fearlessly. The touch of defiance helped to tilt her chin at the angle he so much admired.

"Cohrona-zat must mean ze chrowned one. Cabital!… You are not afraid of me, hein?"

"No," answered Corona simply, still wondering what he might mean, but keeping a steady eye on him. Why should she be afraid of this comic little man?

"So?… I engage you. You are to be ze May Queen in ze great Merchester Bageant.… But you must be goot and attend how I drill you. Ozzerwise I dismees you."

It appeared that Mr. Isidore had spent the afternoon with Mr. Colt, hunting the schools of Merchester in search of a child to suit his fastidious requirements. He had two of the gifts of genius- unwearying patience in the search, unerring swiftness in the choice.

Mr. Simeon, the rehearsal over, walked home heavily. On his way he paused to study the pit, and look up from it to the threatened mass of masonry. 'Not in my time, O Lord!'

And yet-

"From low to high doth dissolution climb,

And sink from high to low along a scale

Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail…

Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear

The longest date… drop like the tower sublime

Of yesterday, which royally did wear

His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain

Some casual shout that broke the silent air,

Or the unimaginable touch of Time."

But Corona, breaking away from her playfellows and gaining the road to St. Hospital, skipped as she ran homeward, treading clouds of glory.

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