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   Chapter 24 CORONA'S BIRTHDAY.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13703

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The May-fly season had come around again, and Corona was spending her Saturday-the Greycoats' holiday-with Brother Copas by the banks of Mere. They had brought their frugal luncheon in the creel which was to contain the trout Brother Copas hoped to catch. He hoped to catch a brace at least-one for his sick friend at home, the other to replenish his own empty cupboard: for this excursion meant his missing to attend at the kitchen and receive his daily dole.

There may have been thunder in the air. At any rate the fish refused to feed; and after an hour's patient waiting for sign of a rise- without which his angling would be but idle pains-Brother Copas found a seat, and pulled out a book from his pocket, while Corona wandered over the meadows in search of larks' nests. But this again was pains thrown away; since, as Brother Copas afterwards explained, in the first place the buttercups hid them, and, secondly, the nests were not there!-the birds preferring the high chalky downs for their nurseries. She knew, however, that along the ditches where the willows grew, and the alder clumps, there must be scores of warblers and other late-breeding birds; for walking here in the winter she had marvelled at the number of nests laid bare by the falling leaves. These warblers wait for the leaves to conceal their building, and Winter will betray the deserted hiding-place. So Brother Copas had told her, to himself repeating-

"Cras amorum copulatrix inter umbras arborum

Inplicat casas virentes de flagello myrteo...."

Corona found five of these nests, and studied them: flimsy things, constructed of a few dried grasses, inwoven with horsehair and cobwebs. Before next spring the rains would dissolve them and they would disappear.

She returned with a huge posy of wild flowers and the information that she, for her part, felt hungry as a hunter.… They disposed themselves to eat.

"Do you know, Uncle Copas," she asked suddenly, "why I have dragged you out here to-day?"

"Did I show myself so reluctant?" he protested; but she paid no heed to this.

"It is because I came home here to England, to St. Hospital, just a year ago this very afternoon. This is my Thanksgiving Day," added Corona solemnly.

"I am afraid there is no turkey in the hamper," said Brother Copas, pretending to search. "We must console ourselves by reflecting that the bird is out of season."

"You didn't remember the date, Uncle Copas. Did you, now?"

"I did, though." Brother Copas gazed at the running water for a space and then turned to her with a quick smile. "Why, child, of course I did!… And I appreciate the honour."

Corona nodded as she broke off a piece of crust and munched it.

"I wanted to take stock of it all. (We're dining out of doors, so please let me talk with my mouth full. I'm learning to eat slowly, like a good English girl: only it takes so much time when there's a lot to say.) Well, I've had a good time, and nobody can take that away, thank the Lord! It-it's been just heavenly."

"A good time for all of us, little maid."

"Honest Indian?… But it can't last, you know. That's what we have to consider: and it mayn't be a gay thought, but I'd hate to be one of those folks that never see what's over the next fence.… Of course," said Corona pensively, "it's up to you to tell me I dropped in on St. Hospital like one of Solomon's lilies that take no thought for to-morrow. But I didn't, really: for I always knew this was going to be the time of my life."

"I don't understand," said Copas. "Why should it not last?"

"I guess you and I'll have to be serious," she answered. "Daddy gets frailer and frailer.… You can't hide from me that you know it: and please don't try, for I've to think of-of the afterwards, and I want you to help."

"But suppose that I have been thinking about it already-thinking about it hard?" said Brother Copas slowly. "Ah, child, leave it to me, and never talk like that!"

"But why?" she asked, wondering.

"Because we old folks cannot bear to hear a child talking, like one of ourselves, of troubles. That has been our business: we've seen it through; and now our best happiness lies in looking back on the young, and looking forward for them, and keeping them young and happy so long as the gods allow.… Never search out ways of rewarding us. To see you just going about with a light heart is a better reward than ever you could contrive for us by study. Child, if the gods allowed, I would keep you always like Master Walton's milkmaid, that had not yet attained so much age and wisdom as to load her mind with any fears of many things that will never be, as too many men too often do. But she cast away care-"

"I think she must have been a pretty silly sort of milkmaid," said Corona. "Likely she ended to slow music while the cows came home. But what worries me is that I'm young and don't see any way to hurry things. Miss Champernowne won't let me join the cookery class because I'm under the age for it: and I see she talks sense in her way. Even if I learnt cookery and let down my skirts, who's going to engage me for a cook-general at my time of life?"

"Nobody, please God," answered Brother Copas, copying her seriousness. "Did I not tell you I have been thinking about all this? If you must know, I have talked it over with the Master… and the long and short of it is that, if or when the time should come, I can step in and make a claim for you as your only known guardian. My dear child, St. Hospital will not let you go."

For a moment Corona tried to speak, but could not. She sat with her palms laid on her lap, and stared at the blurred outline of the chalk-hills-blurred by the mist in her eyes. Two great tears welled and splashed down on the back of her hand.

"The years and years," she murmured, "before I can begin to pay it back!"

"Nay"-Brother Copas set down his half-filled glass, took the hand and gently wiped it with the sleeve of his frayed gown; and so held it, smoothing it while he spoke, as though the tear had hurt it-"it is we who are repaying you. Shall I tell you what I told the Master? 'Master,' I said, 'all we Brethren, ever since I can remember, have been wearing gowns as more or less conscious humbugs. Christ taught that poverty was noble, and such a gospel might be accepted by the East. It might persevere along the Mediterranean coast, and survive what St. Paul did to Christianity to make Christianity popular. It might reach Italy and flame up in a crazed good soul like the soul of St. Francis. It might creep along as a pious opinion, and even reach England, to be acknowledged on a king's or a rowdy's death-bed-and Alberic de Blanchminster,' said I, '(saving your presence, sir) was a rowdy robber who, being afraid when it came to dying, caught at the Christian precept he has most neglected,

as being therefore in all probability the decentest. But no Englishman, not being on his death-bed, ever believed it: and we knew better-until this child came along and taught us. The Brethren's livery has always been popular enough in the streets of Merchester: but she-she taught us (God bless her) that it can be honoured for its own sake; that it is noble and, best of all, that its noblesse oblige'… Ah, little maid, you do not guess your strength!"

Corona understood very little of all this. But she understood that Uncle Copas loved her, and was uttering these whimsies to cover up the love he revealed. She did better than answer him in words: she nestled to his shoulder, rubbing her cheek softly against the threadbare gown.

"When is your birthday, little one?"

"I don't know," Corona confessed. "Mother never would tell me. She would get angry about birthdays, and say she never took any truck with them.… But, of course, everyone ought to have a birthday, of sorts, and so I call this my real one. But I never told you that-did I?"

"I heard you say once that you left a little girl behind you somewhere in the States, but that you only came to yourself the day you reached England."

"Yes; and I do feel sorry for that other little girl sometimes!"

"You need not. She'll grow up to be an American woman: and the American woman, as everybody knows, has all the fun of the fair. … To-day is your birthday, then; and see! I have brought along a bottle of claret, to drink your health. It isn't-as the Irish butler said-the best claret, but it's the best we've got. Your good health, Miss Corona, and many happy returns!"

"Which," responded Corona, lifting her cupful of milk, "I looks towards you and I likewise bows.… Would you, by the way, very much object if I fetched Timothy out of the basket? He gets so few pleasures."

For the rest of the meal, by the clear-running river, they talked sheer delightful nonsense.… When (as Brother Copas expressed it) they had "put from themselves the desire of meat and drink," he lit a pipe and smoked tranquilly, still now and again, however, sipping absent-mindedly at his thin claret.

"But you are not to drink more than half a bottle," Corona commanded. "The rest we must carry home for supper."

"So poor a vintage as this, once opened, will hardly bear the journey," he protested. "But what are you saying about supper?"

"Why, you wouldn't leave poor old Daddy quite out of the birthday, I hope!… There's to be a supper to-night. Branny's coming."

"Am I to take this for an invitation?"

"Of course you are.… There will be speeches." "The dickens is, there won't be any trout at this rate!"

"They'll be rising before evening," said Corona confidently. "And, anyway, we can't hurry them."

From far up stream, where the grey mass of the Cathedral blocked the vale, a faint tapping sound reached them, borne on 'the cessile air.' It came from the Pageant Ground, where workmen were hammering busily at the Grand Stand. It set them talking of the Pageant, of Corona's 'May Queen' dress, of the lines (or, to be accurate, the line and a half) she had to speak. This led to her repeating some verses she had learnt at the Greycoats' School. They began-

"I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers."

And Corona was crazy over them, because (as she put it) "they made you feel you were smelling all England out of a bottle." Brother Copas told her of the man who had written them; and of a lovelier poem he had written To Meadows-

"Ye have been fresh and green,

Ye have been filled with flowers,

And ye the walks have been

Where maids have spent their hours.

"You have beheld how they

With wicker arks did come

To kiss and bear away

The richer cowslips home.…

"But now we see none here-"

He broke off.

"Ah, there he gets at the pang of it! Other poets have wasted pity on the dead-and-gone maids, but his is for the fields they leave desolate."

This puzzled Corona. But the poem had touched her somehow, and she kept repeating snatches of it to herself as she rambled off in search of more birds' nests. Left to himself, Brother Copas pulled out book and pencil again, and began botching at the last lines of the Pervigilium Veneris-

"Her favour it was filled the sail of the Trojan

for Latium bound;

Her favour that won her ?neas a bride on

Laurentian ground;

And anon from the cloister inveigled the

Vestal, the Virgin, to Mars,

As her wit by the wild Sabine rape recreated

her Rome for its wars

With the Ramnes, Quirites, together

ancestrally proud as they drew

From Romulus down to our Ceesar-last,

best of that bone and that thew.-

Now learn ye to love who loved never-now ye

who have loved, love anew!"

Brother Copas paused to trim his pencil, which was blunt. His gaze wandered across the water-meadows and overtook Corona, who was wading deep in buttercups.

"Proserpine on the fields of Enna!" he muttered, and resumed-

"Love planteth a field; it conceives to the

passion, the pang, of his joy.

In a field was Dione in labour delivered of

Cupid the Boy:

And the field in its fostering lap from her

travail receiv'd him: he drew

Mother's milk from the delicate kisses of

flowers; and he prospered and grew.-

Now learn ye to love who loved never-now ye

who have loved, love anew!"

"Why do I translate this stuff? Why, but for the sake of a child who will never see it-who if she read it, would not understand a word?"

"Lo! Behold ye the bulls, with how lordly a

flank they besprawl on the broom!

-Yet obey the uxorious yoke and are tamed

by Dione her doom.

Or behear ye the sheep, to the husbanding

rams how they bleat to the shade!

Or behear ye the birds, at the Goddess'

command how they sing unafraid!-

Be it harsh as the swannery's clamour that

shatters the hush of the lake;

Be it dulcet as where Philomela holds

darkling the poplar awake,

So melting her soul into music, you'd vow

'twas her passion, her own,

She chanteth-her sister forgot, with the

Daulian crime long-agone.

Hush! Hark! Draw around to the circle…

Ah, loitering Summer, say when

For me shall be broken the charm, that I

chirp with the swallow again?

I am old: I am dumb: I have waited to

sing till Apollo withdrew.

-So Amycl? a moment was mute, and for

ever a wilderness grew.-

Now learn ye to love who loved never-now ye

who have loved, love anew!"

"Perdidi musam tacendo," murmured Brother Copas, gazing afield. "Only the young can speak to the young.… God grant that, at the right time, the right Prince may come to her over the meadows, and discourse honest music!"

Splash!

He sprang up and snatched at his rod. A two-pound trout had risen almost under his nose.

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