News From Troy! by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

Troy–not for the first time in its history–is consumed with laughter; laughter which I deprecate, while setting down as an impartial chronicler the occasion and the cause of it.

You must know that our venerable and excellent squire, Sir Felix Felix-Williams, has for some years felt our little town getting, as he puts it, ‘beyond him.’ He remembers, in his father’s time, the grass growing in our streets. The few vessels that then visited the port brought American timber-props for the mines out of which the Felix-Williams estate drew its royalties, and shipped in exchange small cargoes of emigrants whom, for one reason or another, that estate was unable to support. It was a simple system, and Sir Felix has often in talk with me lamented its gradual strangulation, in his time, by the complexities of modern commerce.–You should hear, by the way, Sir Felix pronounce that favourite phrase of his ‘in my time’; he does it with a dignified humility, as who should say, ‘Observe, I am of the past indeed, but I have lent my name to an epoch.’

As a fact the access of a railway to our little port, the building of jetties for the china-clay trade, the development of our harbour which now receives over 300,000 tons of shipping annually–all these have, in ways direct and indirect, more than doubled the old gentleman’s income. But to do him justice, he regards this scarcely at all. He sets it down–and rightly–to what he has taken to call on public occasions ‘the expansion of our Imperial Greatness’; but in his heart of hearts he regrets his loosening hold on a population that was used to sit under his fig-tree and drink of his cistern. With their growth the working classes have come to prefer self-help to his honest regulation of their weal. There has been no quarrel: we all love Sir Felix and respect him, though now and then we laugh at him a good deal.

There has been no quarrel, I repeat. But insensibly we have lost the first place in his affections, which of late years have concentrated themselves more and more upon the small village of Kirris-vean, around a corner of the coast. By its mere beauty, indeed, any one might be excused for falling in love with Kirris-vean. It lies, almost within the actual shadow of Sir Felix’s great house, at the foot of a steep wooded coombe, and fronts with diminutive beach and pier the blue waters of our neighbouring bay. The cottages are whitewashed and garlanded with jasmine, solanum, the monthly rose. Fuchsias bloom in their front gardens; cabbages and runner beans climb the hillside in orderly rows at their backs. The women curtsey to a stranger; the men touch their hats; and the inhabitants are mostly advanced in years, for the young men and maidens leave the village to go into ‘good service’ with testimonials Sir Felix takes a delight to grant, because he has seen that they are well earned. If you were to stand at the cross-roads in the middle of Eaton Square and say ‘Kirris-vean!’ in a loud voice, it is odds (though I will not promise) that a score of faces would arise from underground and gaze out wistfully through area-railings. For no one born in Kirris-vean can ever forget it. But Kirris-vean itself is inhabited by grandparents and grandchildren (these last are known in Eaton Square as ‘Encumbrances’). It has a lifeboat in which Sir Felix takes a peculiar pride (but you must not launch it unless in fine weather, or the crew will fall out). It has also a model public-house, The Three Wheatsheaves, so named from the Felix-Williams’ coat of arms. The people of Troy believe–or at any rate assert–that every one in Kirris-vean is born with a complete suit of gilt buttons bearing that device.

Few dissipations ripple the gentle flow–which it were more descriptive perhaps to call stagnation–of life in that model village. From week-end to week-end scarcely a boat puts forth from the shelter of its weed-coated pier; for though Kirris-vean wears the aspect of a place of fishery, it is in fact nothing of the kind. Its inhabitants–blue-jerseyed males and sun-bonneted females–sit comfortably on their pensions and tempt no perils of the deep. Why should they risk shortening such lives as theirs? A few crab-pots–‘accessories,’ as a painter would say–rest on the beach above high-water mark, the summer through; a few tanned nets hang, and have hung for years, a-drying against the wall of the school-house. But the prevalent odour is of honeysuckle. The aged coxswain of the lifeboat reported to me last year that an American visitor had asked him how, dwelling remote from the railway, the population dealt with its fish. ‘My dear man,’ said I, ‘you should have told him that you get it by Parcels’ Post from Billingsgate.’

I never know–never, in this life shall I discover–how rumour operates in Troy, how it arrives or is spread. Early in August a rumour, incredible on the face of it, reached me that Kirris-vean intended a Regatta! . . . For a week I disbelieved it; for almost another week I forgot it; and then lo! Sir Felix himself called on me and confirmed it.

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A trio of young footmen (it appeared) had arrived in Kirris-vean to spend a holiday on board-wages–their several employers having gone northward for the grouse, to incommodious shooting-boxes where a few servants sufficed. Finding themselves at a loose end (to use their own phrase for it) these three young men had hit on the wild–the happy–the almost delirious idea of a Regatta; and taking their courage in their hands had sought an interview with Sir Felix, to entreat his patronage for the scheme. They had found him in his most amiable mood, and within an hour–the old gentleman is discursive–he had consented to become Patron and President and to honour the gathering with his presence. But observe; the idea cannot have originated before August the 12th, on which day the trio arrived from London; yet a whisper of it had reached me on the 2nd or 3rd. I repeat that I shall never understand the operation of rumour in Troy.

Sir Felix, having somewhat rashly given his consent, in a cooler hour began to foresee difficulties, and drove into Troy to impart them to me. I know not why, on occasions of doubt and embarrassment such as this, he ever throws himself (so to speak) on my bosom; but so it is. The Regatta, he explained, ought to take place in August, and we were already arrived at the middle of the month, Tuesday the 24th had been suggested–a very convenient date for him: it was, as I might remember, the day before Petty Sessions, immediately after which he had as good as promised to visit his second son in Devonshire and attend the christening of an infant grandchild. But would ten days allow us time to organise the ‘events,’ hire a band, issue the necessary posters, etc.?

I assured him that, hard as it might drive us, the thing could be done. ‘I shall feel vastly more confident,’ he was good enough to say, ‘if you will consent to join our Committee.’ And I accepted, on the prospect of seeing some fun. But ah! could I have foreseen what fun!

‘You relieve my mind, indeed. . . . And–er–perhaps you might also help us by officiating as starter and–er–judge, or timekeeper?’

‘Willingly,’ said I; ‘in any capacity the Committee may wish.’

‘They will be more inclined to trust the decisions of one who–er– does not live among them.’

‘Is that so?’ said I. ‘In Kirris-vean, one would have thought–but, after all, I shall have to forgo whatever public confidence depends on the competitors being unacquainted with me, since two-thirds of them will come to you from Troy.’

‘You are sure?’

‘Quite. Has it not struck you, Sir Felix, that Kirris-vean–ideal spot for a regatta–has in itself neither the boats nor the men for one?’

‘We might fill up with a launch of the lifeboat,’ he hazarded.

‘If one could only be certain of the weather.’

‘And a public tea, and a procession of the school children.’

‘Admirable,’ I agreed. ‘Never fear, we will make up a programme.’

‘Oh, and–er–by the way, Bates of the Wheatsheaf came to me this morning for an Occasional Licence. He proposes to erect a booth in his back garden. You see no objection?’

‘None at all.’

‘A most trustworthy man. . . . He could not apply, you see, at our last Petty Sessions because he did not then know that a regatta was contemplated; and the 25th will, of course, be too late. But the licence can be granted under these circumstances by any two magistrates sitting together; and I would suggest that you and I–‘

‘Certainly,’ said I, and accompanied Sir Felix to the small room that serves Troy for an occasional courthouse, where we solemnly granted Bates his licence.

There is a something about Sir Felix that tempts to garrulity, and I could fill pages here with an account of our preparations for the Regatta; the daily visits he paid me–always in a fuss, and five times out of six over some trivial difficulty that had assailed him in the still watches of the night; the protracted meetings of Committee in the upper chamber of the lifeboat-house at Kirris-vean. But these meetings, and the suggestions Sir Felix made, and the votes we took upon them, are they not recorded in the minute-book of the First and Last Kirris-vean Regatta? Yes, thus I have to write it, and with sorrow: there will never be another Regatta in that Arcadian village.

Sir Felix, good man, started with a fixed idea that a regatta differed from a Primrose Fete, if at all, then only in being non-political. He could not get it out of his head that public speeches were of the essence of the festivity; and when, with all the tact at my command, I insisted on aquatics, he countered me by proposing to invite down a lecturer from the Navy League! As he put it in the heat of argument, ‘Weren’t eight Dreadnoughts aquatic enough for anybody?’ But in the voting the three young footmen supported me nobly. They wanted fireworks, and were not wasting any money on lecturers: also there was a feeling in Kirris-vean that, while a regatta could scarcely be held without boat-racing, the prizes should be just sufficient to attract competitors and yet on a scale provoking no one to grumble at the amount of subscribed money lost to the village. A free public tea was suggested. I resisted this largesse; and we compromised on ‘No Charge for Bona-fide Schoolchildren’–whatever that might mean–and ‘Fourpence a head for Adults.’

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The weather prospects, as the moment drew near, filled us with anxious forebodings, for the anti-cyclonic spell showed signs of breaking, and the Sunday and Monday wore lowering faces. But Tuesday dawned brilliantly; and when after a hasty breakfast I walked over to Kirris-vean, I found Sir Felix waiting for me at the top of the hill in his open landau, with a smile on his face, a rose in his button-hole, and a white waistcoat that put all misgivings to shame. ‘A perfect day!’ he called out with a wave of the hand.

‘A foxy one,’ I suggested, and pointed out that the wind sat in a doubtful quarter, that it was backing against the sun, that it was light and might at any time die away and cheat us of our sailing matches.

‘Always the boats with you!’ he rallied me; ‘my dear sir, it is going to be perfect. As the song says, “We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too.” An entire success, you may take my word for it!’

We descended the hill to find the village gay with bunting, the competing boats lying ready off the pier, a sizeable crowd already gathered, and the Committee awaiting us at the beach-head. Each committee-man wore a favour of blue-and-white ribbon, and upon our arrival every hat flew off to Sir Felix, while the band played ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’

It was, not to put too fine a point on the description, an atrocious band. It had come from afar, from one of the inland china-clay villages, and in hiring it the Committee had been constant to its principle that no more money than was necessary should be allowed to go out of Kirris-vean. Report–malicious, I feel sure–reached me later, that, at the first note of it, an aloe in Sir Felix’s gardens, a mile away–a plant noted for blossoming once only in a hundred years-burst into profuse and instantaneous bloom. Sir Felix himself, who abounded all day in happy turns of speech, said the best thing of this band. He said it was sui generis.

He was magnificent throughout. I am not going to describe the Regatta, for sterner events hurry my pen forward. So let me only say that the weather completely justified his cheery optimism; that the breeze, though slight, held throughout the sailing events, and then dropped, leaving the bay glassy as a lake for the rowers; that sports ashore–three-legged races, egg-and-spoon races, sack races, races for young men, races for old women, donkey races, a tug-of-war, a greasy pole, a miller-and-sweep combat–filled the afternoon until tea-time; that at tea the tables groaned with piles of saffron cake and cream ‘splitters’; and that when the company had, in Homeric phrase–the only fit one for such a tea–put aside from them the desire of meat and drink, Sir Felix stood up and made a speech.

‘It was an admirable speech too. It began with ‘My dear friends,’ and the exordium struck at once that paternal note which makes him, with all his foibles, so lovable. ‘They’ must excuse him if he now took his departure; for he had arrived at an age to feel the length of a long day–even of a happy summer’s day such as this had been. To be innocently happy–that had used to be the boast of England, of “Merry England “; and he had ever prized happy living faces in Kirris-vean above the ancestral portraits–not all happy, if one might judge from their expressions–hanging on his walls at home.’ (Prolonged applause greeted this; and deservedly, for he spoke no more than he meant.) He became reminiscential, and singling out a school-child here and there, discoursed of their grandparents, even of their great-grandparents; recalled himself to pay a series of graceful tributes to all who had contributed to make the day a success; and wound up by regretting that he could not stay for the fireworks.

Dear honest Sir Felix! I can see him now, bareheaded, his white hairs lightly fluttered by the evening breeze that fluttered also the flags above Mr Bates’s booth immediately in his rear; the sunset light on his broad immaculate waistcoat; the long tea-tables, with their rows of faces all turned deferentially towards him; the shadows slanting from the trees; the still expanse of the bay, and far across the bay a bank of clouds softly, imperceptibly marshalling.

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We cheered him to the echo, of course. At his invitation I walked some way up the hill with him, to meet his carriage. He halted three or four times in the road, still talking of the day’s success. He was even somewhat tremulous at parting.

‘I shall see you to-morrow, at Tregantick?’–Tregantick is the centre of the eight parishes included in our Petty Sessional Division, and the seat of such justice as I and seven others help Sir Felix to administer.

‘Oh, assuredly,’ said I.

I watched his carriage as it rounded the bend of the road, and so faced about to return to the village. But I took second thought at sight of the clouds massing across the bay and coming up–as it seemed to me against the wind. They spelt thunder. In spite of my early forebodings I had brought no mackintosh; my duties as a Committee-man were over: and I have reached an age when fireworks give me no more pleasure than I can cheerfully forgo or take for granted. I had, having coming thus far on my homeward way, already more than half a mind to pursue it, when the band started to render the ‘Merry Duchess’ waltz, with reed instruments a semitone below the brass. This decided me, and I reached my door as the first raindrops fell.

When I awoke next morning it was still raining, and raining hard. The thunderstorm had passed; but a westerly wind, following hard on it, had collected much water from the Atlantic, and the heavens were thick as a blanket. A tramp in the rain, however, seldom comes amiss to me, and I trudged the three miles to the court-house in very cheerful mood, now smoking, now pocketing my pipe to inhale those first delicious scents of autumn, stored up by summer for a long day of downpour.

Our Court meets at 11.15, and I timed myself (so well I know the road in all weathers) to reach the magistrates’ door on the stroke of the quarter. Now Sir Felix, as Chairman, makes a point of arriving ten or fifteen minutes ahead of time, for a preliminary chat with the Clerk over the charge-sheet and any small details of business. I was astonished, therefore, when, turning at the sound of wheels, I beheld Sir Felix’s carriage and pair descending the street behind me. ‘Truly the Regatta must have unsettled his habits,’ I murmured; and then, catching the eye of one of the pair of constables posted at the door, I gazed again and stood, as some of my fellow-novelists say, ‘transfixed.’ For the driver on the box was neither Sir Felix’s coachman, nor his second coachman, nor yet again one of his stablemen; but a gardener, and a tenth-down under-gardener at that; in fact, you could scarcely call him even an under-gardener, though he did odd jobs about the gardens. To be short, it was Tommy Collins a hydrocephalous youth generally supposed to be half-baked, or, as we put it in Cornwall, ‘not exactly’; and on his immense head, crowning a livery suit which patently did not belong to him, Tommy Collins wore a dilapidated billycock hat.

As the carriage drew up I noted with a lesser shock that the harness was wrongly crossed: and with that, as one constable stepped forward to open the carriage door, I saw the other wink and make a sign to Tommy, who–quick-witted for once–snatched off his billycock and held it low against his thigh on the off-side, pretending to shake off the rain, but in reality using this device to conceal the horrid thing. At the same time the other constable, receiving an umbrella which Sir Felix thrust forth, opened it with remarkable dexterity, and held it low over my friend’s venerable head, thus screening from sight the disreputable figure on the box. As a piece of smuggling it was extremely neat; but as I turned to follow I heard Tommy Collins ask, and almost with a groan,–

‘Wot’s the use?’

Four of our fellow-magistrates were already gathered in the little room at the rear of the court-house: of whom the first to greet our Chairman was Lord Rattley. Lord Rattley, a peer with very little money and a somewhat indecorous past, rarely honours the Tregantick bench by attending sessions; but for once he was here, and at once started to banter Sir Felix on his unpunctuality.

‘Very sorry, gentlemen; very sorry–most inexplicable,’ stuttered Sir Felix, who suffers from a slight impediment of the speech when hurried. ‘Servants at home seemed–conspired–detain me. Jukes’– Jukes is Sir Felix’s butler, an aged retainer of the best pattern– ‘Jukes would have it, weather too inclement. Poof! I am not too old, I hope, to stand a few drops of rain. Next he brings word that Adamson’–Adamson is (or was) Sir Felix’s trusted coachman– ‘is indisposed and unable to drive me. “Then I’ll have Walters,” said I, losing my temper, “or I’ll drive myself.” Jukes must be failing: and so must Walters be, for that matter. We might have arrived ten minutes ago, but he drove execrably.’

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‘Reminds me–‘ began Lord Rattley, when Sir Felix–who is ever nervous of that nobleman’s reminiscences, and had by this time divested himself of his Inverness cape, turned to the Clerk and demanded news of a lad discharged at the last Sessions on his own and parents’ recognisances, to be given another chance under the eye of our new Probation Officer.

‘–Of a coachman I once had called Oke–William Oke,’ continued Lord Rattley imperturably. ‘Drunken little sot he was, but understood horses. One night I had out the brougham and drove into Bodmin to mess with the Militia. The old Royal Cornwall Rangers messed at the hotel in those days, in the long room they used for Assemblies. About eleven o’clock I sent for my carriage, and along it came in due course. Well, I dare say at that hour I wasn’t myself in a condition to be critical of Oke’s–‘

Sir Felix pulled out his watch, and asked me what I made the time.

‘Off we drove,’ pursued Lord Rattley, ignoring this hint, ‘and I must have dropped asleep at once. When I awoke the blessed vehicle had come to a standstill. I called to Oke–no answer: so by-and-by I opened the carriage door and stepped out. The horses had slewed themselves in towards the hedge and were cropping peaceably: but no Oke was on the box and still no Oke answered from anywhere when I shouted. He had, as a fact, tumbled clean off the box half a mile astern, and was lying at that moment in the middle of the road. At that hour I had no mind to look for him, so I collected the reins somehow, climbed up in front, and drove myself home. I had a butler then by the name of Ibbetson–a most respectable man, with the face of a Bible Christian minister; and, thought I, on my way up the drive, “I’ll give Ibbetson a small scare.” So coming to the porch, when Ibbetson heard the wheels and cast the door open, I kept my seat like a rock. Pretty well pitch dark it was where I sat behind the lamps. Ibbetson comes down the steps, opens the carriage door and stands aside. After a moment he begins to breathe hard, pops his head into the brougham, then his arm, feels about a bit, and comes forward for a lamp. “My God, Bill!” says Ibbetson, looking up at me in the dark. “What have you done with th’ ould devil?”‘

‘I really think,’ suggested Sir Felix hurriedly, ‘we ought not to keep the Court waiting.’

So in we filed, and the Court rose respectfully to its feet and stood while we took our seats. The Superintendent of Police–an officer new to our Division–gazed at me with a perfectly stolid face across the baize-covered table. Yet somehow it struck me that the atmosphere in Court was not, as usual, merely stuffy, but electrical; that the faces of our old and tried constabulary twitched with some suppressed excitement; and that the Clerk was fidgeting with an attack of nerves.

‘Certain supplementary cases, your Worship,’ said he, taking a small sheaf of papers from the hands of his underling, ‘too late to be included on the charge-sheet issued.’

‘Eh?–Oh, certainly–certainly!’ Sir Felix drew his spectacle case from his waistcoat pocket and laid it on the table; took the paper handed to him, and slipped it methodically beneath the sheet of agenda; resumed the business of extracting his spectacles, adjusted them, and gravely opened business.

He had it all to himself. For me, as I, too, received the paper of supplementary cases, my first thought was of simple astonishment at the length of the list. Then my gaze stiffened upon certain names, and by degrees as I recognised them, my whole body grew rigid in my chair. Samuel Sleeman–this was the Superintendent’s name–appellant against Isaac Adamson, drunk and disorderly; Ditto against Duncan McPhae, drunk and disorderly; Ditto against Henry James Walters, drunk and disorderly; Ditto against Selina Mary Wilkins, drunk on licensed premises; Ditto against Mary Curtis, drunk on licensed premises; Ditto against Solomon Tregaskis, drunk on highway. . . . There were no less than twenty-four names on the list; and each was the name of a retainer or pensioner of Sir Felix–those aged Arcadians of Kirris-vean.

I glanced along the table and winced as I met Sir Felix’s eyes. He was inclining towards me. ‘Five shillings and costs will meet this case, eh?’ he was asking. I nodded, though without a notion of what case we were hearing. (It turned out to be one of cattle-straying, so no great harm was done.) Beyond him I saw Lord Rattley covering an infernally wicked grin with his arched palm; beyond Lord Rattley two estimable magistrates staring at that fatal supplementary paper as though they had dined and this was a bill they found themselves wholly unable to meet.

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Sir Felix from time to time finds his awards of justice gently disputed. No one disputed them to-day. Lord Rattley, whose language is younger than his years, declared afterwards–between explosions of indecent mirth–that we left the floor to the old man, and he waltzed. He fined three parents for not sending their children to school, made out an attendance order upon another, mulcted a youth in five shillings for riding a bicycle without a light, charged a navvy ten shillings and costs for use of indelicate language (total, seventeen and sixpence), and threatened, but did not punish, a farmer with imprisonment for working a horse ‘when,’ as the charge put it ambiguously, ‘in an unfit state.’ He wound up by transferring an alehouse licence, still in his stride, beamed around and observed ‘That concludes our business, I think–eh, Mr Clerk?’

‘Supplementary cases, y’r Worship,’ murmured the Clerk. ‘If I may remind–paper handed to y’r Worship–‘

‘Eh? Yes, to be sure–‘

‘Number of cases, drunk and disorderly: arising–as I understand–out of Regatta held yesterday at Kirris-vean.’

The Superintendent arose. He is an amazingly tall man, and it seemed to me that he took an amazingly long time in arising to his full height.

‘Impossible to accommodate them all in the cells, y’r Worship. If I may say so, the police were hard worked all night. Mercifully’–the Superintendent laid stress on the word, and I shall always, when I think of it, remember to thank him–‘the most of ’em were blind. We laid ’em out on the floor of the charge-room, and with scarcely an exception, as I am credibly informed, they’ve come to, more or less.’

‘Kirris-vean?’ I saw Sir Felix’s hands grip the arms of his chair. Then he put them out and fumbled with his papers. Lord Rattley obligingly pushed forward his copy of the list.

‘Shall I have the defendants brought into Court at once?’ asked the Superintendent. ‘The constables tell me that they are–er–mostly, by this time, in a condition to understand, for all practical purposes, the meaning of an oath.’

Sir Felix has–as I have hinted–his foibles. But he is an English gentleman and a man of courage. He gasped, waved a hand, and sat up firmly.

He must have needed courage indeed, as the sorry culprits filed into Court: for I verily believe he felt more shame than they, though their appearance might be held to prove this impossible. The police at about eleven o’clock had raided the booth of that respectable landlord, Mr Bates (‘Which,’ observed the Superintendent, stonily, ‘we may ‘ave somethink to say to ‘im, as it were, by-and-by’) and had culled some of them–even as one picks the unresisting primrose, others not without recourse to persuasion. ‘Many of ’em,’ the Superintendent explained, ‘showed a liveliness you wouldn’t believe. It was, in a manner of speaking, beyond anythink y’r Worships would expect.’ He paused a moment, cleared his throat, and achieved this really fine phrase: ‘It was, for their united ages, in a manner of speaking, a knock-out.’

I see them now as they filed into court–yellow in the gills, shaking between present fear and the ebb of excess. But I see Sir Felix also, a trifle red in the face, gripping the arms of his chair, bending forward and confronting them.

For a moment I imagined he meant to address them as a crowd. But his fine sense of business prevailed, and he signed to the Clerk to read the first charge.

He dealt with the charges, one by one, and in detail. Alone he inflicted the fines, while we sat and listened with eyes glued upon the baize table. And the fines were heavy–too heavy. It was not for us to interfere.

At the end I expected some few words of general rebuke. I believe the culprits themselves would have been glad of a tongue-lashing. But he uttered none. To the end he dealt out justice, none aiding him; and when the business was over, pushed back his chair.

We filed out after him. I believe that he has paid all the fines out of his own pocket.

And Troy laughs. But I believe it is safe to say that, while Sir Felix lives, Kirris-vean will not hold a second Regatta.

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