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Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 18862

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The great day dawned at last: the day to which all Merchester had looked forward for months, for which so many hundreds had been working, on which all must now pin their hopes: the opening day of Pageant Week.

I suppose that never in Merchester's long history had her citizens so frequently or so nervously studied their weather-glasses.

"Tarbolt, of all people!" murmured Brother Copas one afternoon in the Venables Free Library.

He had just met the Canon coming down the stairs, and turned to watch the retreating figure to the doorway.

"I am suffering from a severe shock," he announced five minutes later to Mr. Simeon, whom he found at work in Paradise. "Did you ever know your friend Tarbolt patronise this institution before?"

"Never," answered Mr. Simeon, flushing.

"Well, I met him on the stairs just now. For a moment I knew not which alternative to choose-whether your desertion had driven him to the extreme course of reading a book or two for himself, or he had come desperately in search of you to promise that if you returned, all should be forgiven.… No, you need not look alarmed. He came in search of a newspaper."

"But there are no newspapers in the Library."

"Quite so: he has just made that discovery. Thereupon, since an animal of that breed cannot go anywhere without leaving his scent behind him, he has scrawled himself over half a page of the Suggestion' Book. He wants this Library to take in The Times newspaper, 'if only for the sake of its foreign correspondence and its admirable weather-charts.' Signed, 'J. Tarbolt.' What part is the humbug sustaining, that so depends on the weather?"

"He takes Bishop Henry of Blois in the Fourth Episode. He wears a suit of complete armour, and you cannot conceive how much it-it-improves him. I helped him to try it on the other day," Mr. Simeon explained with a smile.

"Maybe," suggested Brother Copas, "he fears the effect of rain upon his 'h's.'"

But the glass held steady, and the great day dawned without a cloud. Good citizens of Merchester, arising early to scan the sky, were surprised to find their next-door neighbours already abroad, and in consultation with neighbours opposite over strings of flags to be suspended across the roadway. Mr. Simeon, for example, peeping out, with an old dressing-gown cast over his night-shirt, was astounded to find Mr. Magor, the contiguous pork-seller, thus engaged with Mr. Sillifant, the cheap fruiterer across the way. He had accustomed himself to think of them as careless citizens and uncultured, and their unexpected patriotism gave him perhaps less of a shock than the discovery that they must have been moving faster than he with the times, for they both wore pyjamas.

They were kind to him, however: and, lifting no eyebrow over his antiquated night-attire, consulted him cheerfully over a string of flags which (as it turned out) Mr. Magor had paid yesterday a visit to Southampton expressly to borrow.

I mention this because it was a foretaste, and significant, of the general enthusiasm.

At ten in the morning Fritz, head waiter of that fine old English coaching-house, "The Mitre," looked out from the portico where he stood surrounded by sporting prints, and announced to the young lady in the bar that the excursion trains must be "bringing them in hundreds."

By eleven o'clock the High Street was packed with crowds that whiled away their time with staring at the flags and decorations. But it was not until 1.0 p.m. that there began to flow, always towards the Pageant Ground, a stream by which that week, among the inhabitants of Merchester, will always be best remembered; a stream of folk in strange dresses-knights in armour, ladies in flounces and ruffs, ancient Britons, greaved Roman legionaries, monks, cavaliers, Georgian beaux and dames.

It appeared as if all the dead generations of Merchester had arisen from their tombs and reclaimed possession of her streets. They shared it, however, with throngs of modern folk, in summer attire, hurrying from early luncheons to the spectacle. In the roadway near the Pageant Ground crusaders and nuns jostled amid motors and cabs of commerce.

For an hour this mad medley poured through the streets of Merchester. Come with them to the Pageant Ground, where all is arranged now and ready, waiting the signal!

Punctually at half-past two, from his box on the roof of the Grand Stand, Mr. Isidore gave the signal for which the orchestra waited. With a loud outburst of horns and trumpets and a deep rolling of drums the overture began.

It was the work of a young musician, ambitious to seize his opportunity. After stating its theme largely, simply, in sixteen strong chords, it broke into variations in which the audience for a few moments might read nothing but cacophonous noise, until a gateway opened in the old wall, and through it a band of white-robed Druids came streaming towards the stone altar which stood-the sole stage "property"-in the centre of the green area. Behind them trooped a mob of skin-clothed savages, yelling as they dragged a woman to the sacrifice. It was these yells that the music interpreted. The Pageant had opened, and was chanting in high wild notes to its own prelude.

Almost before the spectators realised this, the Arch-Druid had mounted his altar. He held a knife to the victim's throat. But meanwhile the low beat of a march had crept into the music, and was asserting itself more and more insistently beneath the disconnected outcries. It seemed to grow out of distance, to draw nearer and nearer, as it were the tramp of an armed host.… It was the tramp of a host.… As the Arch-Druid, holding his knife aloft, dragged back the woman's head to lay her throat the barer, all turned to a sudden crash of cymbals; and, to the stern marching-tune now silencing all clamours, the advance-guard of Vespasian swung in through the gateway.…

So for an hour Saxon followed Roman, Dane followed Saxon, Norman followed both. Alfred, Canute, William-all controlled (as Brother Copas cynically remarked to Brother Warboise, watching through the palings from the allotted patch of sward which served them for green-room) by one small Jew, perspiring on the roof and bawling orders here, there, everywhere, through a gigantic megaphone; bawling them in a lingua franca to which these mighty puppets moved obediently, weaving English history as upon a tapestry swiftly, continuously unrolled. "Which things," quoted Copas mischievously, "are an allegory, Philip."

To the waiting performers it seemed incredible that to the audience, packed by thousands in the Grand Stand, this scolding strident voice immediately above their heads should be inaudible. Yet it was. All those eyes beheld, all those ears heard, was the puppets as they postured and declaimed. The loud little man on the roof they saw not nor heard.

"Which things again are an allegory," said Brother Copas.

The Brethren of St. Hospital had no Episode of their own. But from the time of the Conquest downward they had constantly to take part in the moving scenes as members of the crowd, and the spectators constantly hailed their entry.

"Our coat of poverty is the wear to last, after all," said Copas, regaining the green-room and mopping his brow. "We have just seen out the Plantagenets."

In this humble way, when the time came, he looked on at the Episode of Henry the Eighth's visit to Merchester, and listened to the blank verse which he himself had written. The Pageant Committee had ruled out the Reformation, but he had slyly introduced a hint of it. The scene consisted mainly of revels, dances, tournays, amid which a singing man had chanted, in a beautiful tenor, Henry's own song of Pastime with good Companye.-

"Pastime with good Companye,

I love and shall until I die:

Grudge who lust, but none deny,

So God be pleased, thus live will I.

For my pastance,

Hunt, sing and dance,

My heart is set.

All goodly sport

For my comfòrt

Who shall me let?"

With its chorus-

"For Idleness

Is chief mistress

Of vices all.

Then who can say

But mirth and play

Is best of all?"

As to the tune of it their revels ended, Henry and Catherine of Aragon and Charles the Emperor passed from the sunlit stage, one solitary figure-the blind Bishop of Merchester-lingered, and stretched out his hands for the monks to come and lead him home, stretched out his hands towards the Cathedral behind the green elms.

"Being blind, I trust the Light.

Ah, Mother Church! If fire must purify,

If tribulation search thee, shall I plead

Not in my time, O Lord? Nay let me know

All dark, yet trust the dawn-remembering

The order of thy services, thy sweet songs,

Thy decent ministrations-Levite, priest

And sacrifice-those antepasts of heaven.

We have sinn'd, we have sinn'd! But never yet went out

The flame upon the altar, day or night;

And it shall save thee, O Jerusalem!


"And I stole that straight out of Jeremy Taylor," murmured Brother Copas, as the monks led off their Bishop, chanting-

"Crux, in c?lo lux superna,

Sis in carnis hac taberna

Mihi pedibus lucerna-

"Quo vexillum Dux cohortis

Sistet, super flumen mortis,

Te, flammantibus in portis!"

-"While I wrote that dog-Latin myself," said Brother Copas, musing, forgetful that he, the author, was lingering on the sta

ge from which he ought to have removed himself three minutes ago with the rest of the crowd.

"Ger' out! Get off, zat olt fool! What ze devil you mean by doddling!"

It was the voice of Mr. Isidore screeching upon him through the megaphone. Brother Copas turned about, uplifting his face to it for a moment with a dazed stare.… It seemed that, this time, everyone in the Grand Stand must have heard. He fled: he made the most ignominious exit in the whole Pageant.

The afternoon heat was broiling.… He had no sooner gained the green-room shade of his elm than the whole of the Brethren were summoned forth anew; this time to assist at the spousals of Queen Mary of England with King Philip of Spain. And this Episode (Number VII on the programme) was Corona's.

He had meant-and again he cursed his forgetfulness-to seek her out at the last moment and whisper a word of encouragement. The child must needs be nervous.…

He had missed his chance now. He followed the troop of Brethren back into the arena and dressed rank with the others, salaaming as the mock potentates entered, uttering stage cheers, while inwardly groaning in spirit. His eye kept an anxious sidewise watch on the gateway by which Corona must make her entrance.

She came. But before her, leading the way, strewing flowers, came score upon score of children in regiments of colour-pale blue, pale yellow, green, rose, heliotrope. They conducted her to the May Queen's throne, hung it with wreaths, and having paid their homage, ranged off, regiment by regiment, to take their station for the dance. And she, meanwhile?… If she were nervous, no sign of it betrayed her. She walked to her throne with the air of a small queen.… Vera incessu patuit-Corona; walked, too, without airs or minauderies, unconscious of all but the solemn glory. This was the pageant of her beloved England, and hers for the moment was this proud part in it. Brother Copas brushed his eyes. In his ears buzzed the verse of a psalm-

She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needle-work: the virgins that be her fellows shall bear her company…

The orchestra struck up a quick-tripping minuet. The regiments advanced on curving lines. They interwove their ranks, making rainbows of colour; they rayed out in broadening bands of colour from Corona's footstool. Through a dozen of these evolutions she sat, and took all the homage imperially. It was not given to her, but to the idea for which she was enthroned; and sitting, she nursed the idea in her heart.

The dance over-and twice or thrice as it proceeded the front of the Grand Stand shook with the clapping of thousands of hands, all agitated together as when a wind passes over a wheatfield-Corona had to arise from her throne, a wreath in either hand, and deliver a speech before Queen Mary. The length of it was just a line and three-quarters-

"Lady, accept these perishable flowers

Queen May brings to Queen Mary.…"

She spoke them in a high, clear voice, and all the Grand Stand renewed its clapping as the child did obeisance.

"First-class!" grunted Brother Warboise at Copas's elbow. "Pity old Bonaday couldn't be here to see the girl!"

"Aye," said Copas; but there was that in his throat which forbade his saying more.

So the Pageant went on unfolding its scenes. Some of them were merely silly: all of them were false to fact, of course, and a few even false to sentiment. No entry, for example, received a heartier round of British applause than did Nell Gwynn's (Episode IX). Tears actually sprang to many eyes when an orange-girl in the crowd pushed forward offering her wares, and Nell with a gay laugh bought fruit of her, announcing "I was an orange-girl once!" Brother Copas snorted, and snorted again more loudly when Prebendary Ken refused to admit the naughty ex-orange-girl within his episcopal gates. For the audience applauded the protest almost as effusively, and again clapped like mad when the Merry Monarch took the rebuke like a sportsman, promising that "the next Bishopric that falls vacant shall be at this good old man's disposal!"

Indeed, much of the Pageant was extremely silly. Yet, as it progressed, Brother Copas was not alone in feeling his heart lift with the total effect of it. Here, after all, thousands of people were met in a common pride of England and her history. Distort it as the performers might, and vain, inadequate, as might be the words they declaimed, an idea lay behind it all. These thousands of people were met for a purpose in itself ennobling because unselfish. As often happens on such occasions, the rite took possession of them, seizing on them, surprising them with a sudden glow about the heart, sudden tears in the eyes. This was history of a sort. Towards the close, when the elm shadows began to stretch across the green stage, even careless spectators began to catch this infection of nobility- this feeling that we are indeed greater than we know.

In the last act all the characters-from early Briton to Georgian dame-trooped together into the arena. In groups marshalled at haphazard they chanted with full hearts the final hymn, and the audience unbidden joined in chorus-

"O God! our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home!"

"Where is the child?" asked Brother Copas, glancing through the throng.

He found her in the thick of the press, unable to see anything for the crowd about her, and led her off to a corner where, by the southern end of the Grand Stand, some twenty Brethren of St. Hospital stood shouting in company-

"A thousand ages in Thy sight

Are like an evening gone,

Short as the watch that ends the night

Before the rising sun."

"She can't see. Lift her higher!" sang out a voice-Brother Royle's.

By happy chance at the edge of the group stood tall good-natured Alderman Chope, who had impersonated Alfred the Great. The Brethren begged his shield from him and mounted Corona upon it, all holding it by its rim while they chanted-

"The busy tribes of flesh and blood,

With all their hopes and fears,

Are carried downward by the flood

And lost in following years.

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

"O God! our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come;

Be Thou our guard while troubles last

And our perpetual home!"

Corona lifted her voice and sang with the old men; while among the excited groups the swallows skimmed boldly over the meadow, as they had skimmed every summer's evening before and since English History began.


Brother Copas walked homeward along the river-path, his gaunt hands gathering his Beauchamp robe behind him for convenience of stride. Ahead of him and around him the swallows circleted over the water-meads or swooped their breasts close to the current of Mere. Beside him strode his shadow, and lengthened as the sun westered in a haze of potable gold. In the haze swam evening odours of mints, grasses, herbs of grace and virtue named in old pharmacop?ias as most medicinal for man, now forgotten, if not nameless.

The sunset breathed benediction. To many who walked homeward that evening it seemed in that benediction to enwrap the centuries of history they had so feverishly been celebrating, and to fold them softly away as a garment. But Brother Copas heeded it not. He was eager to reach St. Hospital and carry report to his old friend.

"Upon my word, it was an entire success.… I have criticised the Bambergers enough to have earned a right to admit it. In the end a sort of sacred fury took hold of the whole crowd, and in the midst of it we held her up-Corona-on a shield-"

Brother Bonaday lay panting. He had struggled through an attack sharper than any previous one-so much sharper that he knew the end to be not far distant, and only asked for the next to be swift.

"-And she was just splendid," said Brother Copas. "She had that unconscious way of stepping out of the past, with a crown on her head. My God, old friend, if I had that child for a daughter-"

Brother Bonaday lay and panted, not seeming to hear, still with his eyes upturned to the ceiling of his narrow cell. They scanned it as if feebly groping a passage through.

"I ought to have told you," he muttered.-"More than once I meant- tried-to tell you."


Brother Copas bent lower.

"She-Corona-never was my child.… Give me your hand.… No, no; it's the truth, now. Her mother ran away from me… and she, Corona, was born… a year after… in America… Coronation year. The man-her father-died when she was six months old, and the woman… knowing that I was always weak-"

He panted, very feebly. Brother Copas, still holding his hand, leaned forward.

"Then she died, too.… What does it matter? Her message.… 'Bluff,' you would call it.… But she knew me. She was always decided in her dealings… to the end. I want to sleep now.… That's a good man!"

Brother Copas, seeking complete solitude, found it in the dusk of the garden beyond the Ambulatory. There, repelling the benediction of sunset that still lingered in the west, he lifted his face to the planet Jupiter, already establishing its light in a clear space of sky.

"Lord!" he ingeminated, "forgive me who counted myself the iron?ist of St. Hospital!"

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