Story type: Literature
In the days of my childhood, and up to the year 1886, the Justices of the Peace for the Gantick Division of Hundred of Powder, in the county of Cornwall, held their Petty Sessions at Scawns, a bleak, foursquare building set on the knap of a windy hill, close beside the high road that leads up from the sea to the market town of Tregarrick. The house, when the county in Quarter Sessions purchased it to convert it into a police station and petty sessional court, had been derelict for twenty years–that is to say, ever since the winter of 1827, when Squire Nicholas, the last owner to reside in it (himself an ornament in his time of the Gantick Bench), broke his neck in the hunting field. With his death, the property passed to some distant cousin in the North, who seldom visited Cornwall. This cousin leased the Scawns acres to a farmer alongside of whose fields they marched, and the farmer, having no use for the mansion, gladly sub-let it. The county authorities, having acquired the lease, did indeed make certain structural adaptations, providing tolerable quarters for the local constabulary, with a lockup in the cellarage (which was commodious), but apart from this did little to arrest the general decay of the building. In particular, the disrepair of the old dining-room, where the magistrates now held Session, had become a public scandal. The old wall-paper dropped in tatters, the ceiling showed patches where the plaster had broken from the battens, rats had eaten holes in the green baize table-cloth, and the whole place smelt of dry-rot. From the wall behind the magistrates’ table, in the place where nations more superstitious than ours suspend a crucifix, an atrocious portrait of the late Squire Nicholas surveyed the desolated scene of his former carousals. An inscription at the base of the frame commemorated him as one who had consistently “Done Right to all manner of People after the Laws and Usages of the Realm, without Fear or Favour, Affection or Ill-will.”
Beneath this portrait, on the second Wednesday in June, 1886, were gathered no fewer than six Justices of the Peace, a number the more astonishing because Petty Sessions chanced to clash with the annual meeting of the Royal Cornwall Agricultural Society, held that year at the neighbouring market town of Tregarrick. Now, the reason of this full bench was at once simple and absurd, and had caused merriment not unmixed with testiness in the magistrates’ private room. Each Justice, counting on his neighbour’s delinquency, had separately resolved to pay a sacrifice to public duty, and to drop in to dispose of the business of Sessions before proceeding to the Show. The charge-sheet, be it noted, was abnormally light: it comprised one single indictment.
“Good Lord!” growled Admiral Trist, Chairman of the Bench, Master of the famous Gantick Harriers. “Six of us to hear a case of sleeping out!”
“Who’s the defendant?” asked Sir Felix Felix-Williams. “‘Thomas Edwards’–Don’t know the name in these parts.”
“I doubt if he knows it himself, Sir Felix,” answered Mr. Batty, the Justices’ Clerk. “The Inspector tells me it’s a tramping fellow the police picked up two nights ago. He has been in lock-up ever since.”
“Then why the devil couldn’t they have sent round and fished up one of us–or a couple–to deal with the case out of hand?”
“Damned shame, the way the police nurse this business!” murmured Lord Rattley, our somewhat disreputable local peer. “They’re wanted at Tregarrick to-day, and, what’s more, they want the fun of the Show. So they take excellent care to keep the charge-list light. But since Petty Sessions must be held, whether or no, they pounce on some poor devil of a tramp to put a face on the business.”
“H’m, h’m.” The Admiral, friend of law and order, dreaded Lord Rattley’s tongue, which was irresponsible and incisive. “Well, if this is our only business, gentlemen–“
“There is another case, sir,” put in Mr. Batty. “Wife–Trudgian by name–wants separation order. Application reached me too late to be included in the list.”
“Trudgian?” queried Parson Voisey. “Not Selina Magor, I hope, that married young Trudgian a year or so back? Husband a clay-labourer, living somewhere outside Tregarrick.”
“That’s the woman. Young married couple–first quarrel. The wife, on her own admission, had used her tongue pretty sharply, and, I don’t doubt, drove the man off to the public-house, where he sat until sulky-drunk. A talking-to by the Chairman, if I might suggest–“
“Yes, yes,” agreed Parson Voisey. “And I’ll have a word with Selina afterwards. She used to attend my Young Women’s Class–one of my most satisfactory girls.”
“We’ll see–we’ll see,” said the Admiral. “Are we ready, gentlemen?”
He led the way into Court, where all rose in sign of respect–Mr. Batty’s confidential clerk, the Inspector, a solitary constable, a tattered old man in the constable’s charge, and the two Trudgians. These last occupied extreme ends of the same form; the husband sullen, with set jaw and eyes obstinately fixed on his boots, the young wife flushed of face and tearful, stealing from time to time a defiant glance at her spouse.
In face of this scanty audience the six Justices solemnly took their seats.
“Thomas Edwards!” called the Clerk.
The tattered old man cringed up to the table, with an embarrassed smile, which yet had a touch of impudence about the corners of the mouth.
“Thomas Edwards, you stand charged for that on a certain date, to wit, June 6th, you, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of yourself, were found lodging in a certain outhouse known as Lobb’s Barn, in the Parish of Gantick, contrary, etc. Do you plead Guilty or Not Guilty?”
“Guilty, y’r Worships.”
The constable, on a nod from the Inspector, cleared his throat, and stated the charge: “On the 6th instant, y’r Worships, at 10.45 in the evening, being on duty in the neighbourhood of Lobb’s Barn,” etc. Defendant, on being arrested, had used the filthiest language, and had for some time stoutly resisted being marched off to the lock-up.
“That will do,” the Chairman interrupted. “You, Edwards–if that’s your real name–“
“It’ll do for this job,” put in the prisoner.
“Very well. Have you anything to say?”
The prisoner ran his eye along the array of Justices.
“Seems a lot o’ dogs for one bone!”
The Admiral stiffened with wrath, and the crimson of his face deepened as Lord Rattley threw himself back in his chair, laughing.
“Forty shillings, or a month!”
“Oh, come–I say!” Lord Rattley murmured.
The Admiral, glancing to right and left, saw, too, that three or four of his colleagues were lifting their eyebrows in polite protest.
“I–I beg your pardon, gentlemen, for not consulting you! Correct me, if you will. I would point out, however, that in addition to the offence with which he is charged, this fellow was guilty of violent and disgusting language, and, further, of resisting the police.”
But his colleagues made no further protest, and Thomas Edwards, having but two coppers to his name, was conducted below to the cellarage, there to await transference to the County Jail.
The Admiral, viewing the young couple as they stood sheepishly before him, commanded Selina to state her complaint as briefly as possible, avoiding tears.
But this was beyond her.
“He came home drunk, your Worship,” she sobbed, twisting her handkerchief.
“I didn’,” corrected her husband.
“He came home d-drunk, your Worship . . . he c-came home d-drunk–“
“Now hearken to me, you two!”
The Admiral, fixing a severe eye on them, started to read them a lesson on married life, with its daily discipline, its constant obligation of mutual forbearance. For a confirmed bachelor, he did it remarkably well; but it must be recorded that this was not by any means his first essay in lecturing discordant spouses from the Bench. Lord Rattley, whose own matrimonial ventures had been (like Mr. Weller’s researches in London) extensive and peculiar, leaned back and followed the discourse with appreciation, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, his finger-tips delicately pressed together, his gaze pensively tracking the motions of a bumblebee that had strayed in at an open window and was battering its head against the dusty pane of a closed one.
Just then the Admiral, warming to his theme, pushed back his chair a few inches. . . .
For some days previously a stream of traction-engines had passed along the high road, dragging timber-wagons, tent-wagons, machinery, exhibits of all kinds, towards the Tregarrick Show. This heavy traffic (it was afterwards surmised) had helped what Wordsworth calls “the unimaginable touch of Time,” shaking the dry-rotted joists of Scawns House, and preparing the catastrophe.
The Admiral was a heavy-weight. He rode, in those days, at close upon seventeen stone. As he thrust back his chair, there came from the floor beneath–from the wall immediately behind him–an ominous, rending sound. The hind legs of his chair sank slowly, the seat of justice tilted farther and farther; as he clutched wildly at the table, the table began to slide upon him, and with an uproar of cracking timber, table, chairs, magistrates, clerks, together, in one burial blent, were shot downwards into the cellarage.
The Inspector–a tall man–staggering to his feet as the table slid from him into the chasm, leapt and clutched a crazy chandelier that depended above him. His weight tore it bodily from the ceiling, with a torrential downrush of dust and plaster, sweeping him over the edge of the gulf and overwhelming the Trudgians, husband and wife, on the brink of it.
At this moment the constable, fresh from locking up Thomas Edwards below, returned, put his head in at the door, gasped at sight of a devastation which had swallowed up every human being, and with great presence of mind, ran as hard as he could pelt for the hamlet of High Lanes, half a mile away, to summon help.
Now the Inspector, as it happened, was unhurt. Picking himself up, digging his heels into the moraine of plaster, and brushing the grit from his eyes, he had the pleasure of recognising Lord Rattley, the Parson, Mr. Humphry Felix-Williams (son of Sir Felix), and Mr. Batty, as they scrambled forth successively, black with dust but unhurt, save that the Parson had received a slight scalp-wound. Then Mr. Humphry caught sight of a leg clothed in paternal shepherd’s-plaid, and tugged at it until Sir Felix was restored, choking, to the light of day–or rather, to the Cimmerian gloom of the cellarage, in which an unexpected figure now confronted them.
It was the prisoner, Thomas Edwards. A collapsing beam had torn away some bricks from the wall of his cell, and he came wriggling through the aperture, using the most dreadful oaths.
“Stir yourselves–Oh,–,–, stir yourselves! Standin’ there like a–lot of stuck pigs! Get out the Admiral! The Admiral, I tell you! . . . . Hark to the poor old devil, damnin’ away down ther, wi’ two hundredweight o’ table pressin’ against his belly!”
Mr. Edwards, in fact, used an even more vulgar word. But he was not stopping to weigh words. Magistrates, Inspector, Clerk–he took charge of them all on the spot–a master of men. The Admiral, in the unfathomed dark of the cellar, was indeed uttering language to make your hair creep.
“Oh, cuss away, y’ old varmint!” sang down Mr. Edwards cheerfully. “The louder you cuss, the better the hearin’; ‘means ye have air to breathe an’ nothin’ broke internal. . . . Eh? Oh, I knows th’ old warrior! Opened a gate for en once when he was out hare-huntin’, up St. Germans way–I likes a bit o’ sport, I do, when I happens on it. Lord love ye, the way he damned my eyes for bein’ slow about it! . . . Aye, aye, Admiral! Cuss away, cuss away–proper quarter-deck you’re givin’ us! But we’re gettin’ to you fast as we can. . . . England can’t spare the likes o’ you–an’ she won’t, not if we can help it!”
The man worked like a demon. What is more, he was making the others work, flailing them all–peer and baronet and parson–with slave-driver’s oaths, while they tugged to loosen the timbers under which the magistrates’ table lay wedged.
“Lift, I tell ye! Lift! . . . What the–‘s wrong with that end o’ the beam? Stuck, is it? Jammed? Jammed your grandmothers! Nobbut a few pounds o’ loose lime an’ plaster beddin’ it. Get down on your knees an’ clear it. . . . That’s better! And now pull! PULL, I say! Oh, not that way, you rabbits!–here, let me show you!”
By efforts Herculean, first digging the rubbish clear with clawed hands, then straining and heaving till their loins had almost cracked, they levered up the table at length, and released not only the Admiral, but the two remaining magistrates, whom they found pinned under its weight, one unharmed, but in a swoon, the other moaning feebly with the pain of two broken ribs.
“Whew! What the devil of a smell of brandy!” observed Lord Rattley, mopping his brow in the intervals of helping to hoist the rescued ones up the moraine. At the top of it, the Inspector, lifting his head above the broken flooring to shout for help, broke into furious profanity; for there, in the empty court-room, stood young Trudgian and his wife, covered, indeed, with white dust, but blissfully wrapt in their own marvellous escape; and young Trudgian for the moment was wholly preoccupied in probing with two fingers for a piece of plaster which had somehow found its way down his Selina’s back between the nape of the neck and the bodice.
“Drop it, you fool, and lend a hand!” objurgated the Inspector; whereupon Mrs. Trudgian turned about, bridling.
“You leave my Tom alone, please! A man’s first call is on his wedded wife, I reckon.”
The rescued magistrates were lifted out, carried forth into fresh air, and laid on the turf by the wayside to recover somewhat while the rescuers again wiped perspiring brows.
“A thimbleful o’ brandy might do the Admiral good,” suggested the prisoner.
“Brandy?” cried Lord Rattley. “The air reeks of brandy! Where the–?”
“The basement’s swimmin’ with it, m’ lord.” The fellow touched his hat. “Two casks stove by the edge o’ the table. I felt around the staves, an’ counted six others, hale an’ tight. Thinks I, ’tis what their Worships will have been keepin’ for private use, between whiles. Or elst–“
“Or else maybe we’ve tapped a private cellar.”
Lord Rattley slapped his thigh.
“A cache, by Jove! Old Squire Nicholas–I remember, as a boy, hearing it whispered he was hand-in-glove with the Free Trade.”
The prisoner touched his hat humbly.
“This bein’ a magistrates’ matter, m’ lord, an’ me not wishin’ to interfere–“
“Quite so.” Lord Rattley felt in his pockets. “You have done us a considerable service, my man, and–er–that bein’ so–“
“Forty shillin’ it was. He’s cheap at it”–with a nod towards the Admiral. “A real true-blue old English gentleman! You can always tell by their conversations.”
“The fine shall be paid.”
“I counted six casks, m’lord, so well as I could by the feel–“
“Yes, yes! And here’s a couple of sovereigns for yourself–all I happen to have in my pocket–“
Lord Rattley bustled off to the house for brandy.
“England’s old England, hows’ever you strike it!” chirruped the prisoner gleefully, and touched his forehead again. “See you at the Show, m’ lord, maybe? ‘Will drink your lordship’s health there, anyway.”
He skipped away up the road towards Tregarrick. In the opposite direction young Mr. and Mrs. Trudgian could be seen just passing out of sight, he supporting her with his arm, pausing every now and then, bending over her uxoriously.