The Drawn Blind by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

Silver trumpets sounded a flourish, and the javelin-men came pacing down Tregarrick Fore Street, with the sheriff’s coach swinging behind them, its panels splendid with fresh blue paint and florid blazonry. Its wheels were picked out with yellow, and this scheme of colour extended to the coachman and the two lackeys, who held on at the back by leathern straps. Each wore a coat and breeches of electric blue, with a canary waistcoat, and was toned off with powder and flesh-coloured stockings at the extremities. Within the coach, and facing the horses, sat the two judges of the Crown Court and Nisi Prius, both in scarlet, with full wigs and little round patches of black plaister, like ventilators, on top; facing their lordships sat Sir Felix Felix-Williams, the sheriff, in a tightish uniform of the yeomanry with a great shako nodding on his knees, and a chaplain bolt upright by his side. Behind trooped a rabble of loafers and small boys, who shouted, “Who bleeds bran?” till the lackeys’ calves itched with indignation.

I was standing in the archway of the Packhorse Inn, among the maids and stable-boys gathered to see the pageant pass on its way to hear the Assize sermon. And standing there, I was witness of a little incident that seemed to escape the rest.

At the moment when the trumpets rang out, a very old woman, in a blue camlet cloak, came hobbling out of a grocer’s shop some twenty yards up the pavement, and tottered down ahead of the procession as fast as her decrepit legs would move. There was no occasion for hurrying to avoid the crowd; for the javelin-men had barely rounded the corner of the long street, and were taking the goosestep very seriously and deliberately. But she went by the Packhorse doorway as if swift horsemen were after her, clutching the camlet cloak across her bosom, glancing over her shoulder, and working her lips inaudibly. I could not help remarking the position of her right arm. She held it bent exactly as though she held an infant to her old breast, and shielded it while she ran.

A few paces beyond the inn-door she halted on the edge of the kerb, flung another look up the street, and darted across the roadway. There stood a little shop–a watchmaker’s–just opposite, and next to the shop a small ope with one dingy window over it. She vanished up the passage, at the entrance of which I was still staring idly, when, half a minute later, a skinny trembling hand appeared at the window and drew down the blind.

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I looked round at the men and maids; but their eyes were all for the pageant, now not a stone’s-throw away.

“Who is that old woman?” I asked, touching Caleb, the head ostler, on the shoulder.

Caleb–a small bandy-legged man, with a chin full of furrows, and the furrows full of grey stubble–withdrew his gaze grudgingly from the sheriff’s coach.

“What woman?”

“She that went by a moment since.”

“She in the blue cloak, d’ee mean?–an old, ancient, wisht-lookin’ body?”


“A timmersome woman, like?”

“That’s it.”

“Well, her name’s Cordely Pinsent.”

The procession reclaimed his attention. He received a passing wink from the charioteer, caught it on the volley and returned it with a solemn face; or rather, the wink seemed to rebound as from a blank wall. As the crowd closed in upon the circumstance of Justice, he turned to me again, spat, and went on–

“–Cordely Pinsent, widow of old Key Pinsent, that was tailor to all the grandees in the county so far back as I can mind. She’s eighty-odd; eighty-five if a day. I can just mind Key Pinsent–a great, red, rory-cumtory chap, with a high stock and a wig like King George–‘my royal patron’ he called ‘en, havin’ by some means got leave to hoist the king’s arms over his door. Such mighty portly manners, too–Oh, very spacious, I assure ‘ee! Simme I can see the old Trojan now, with his white weskit bulgin’ out across his doorway like a shop-front hung wi’ jewels. Gout killed ‘en. I went to his buryin’; such a stretch of experience does a young man get by time he reaches my age. God bless your heart alive, I can mind when they were hung for forgery!”

“Who were hung?”

“People,” he answered vaguely; “and young Willie Pinsent.”

“This woman’s son?”

“Ay, her son–her ewe-lamb of a child. ‘Tis very seldom brought up agen her now, poor soul! She’s so very old that folks forgits about it. Do ‘ee see her window yonder, over the ope?”

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He was pointing across to the soiled white blind that still looked blankly over the street, its lower edge caught up at one corner by a dusty geranium.

“I saw her pull it down.”

“Ah, you would if you was lookin’ that way. I’ve a-seed her do ‘t a score o’ times. Well, when the gout reached Key Pinsent’s stomach and he went off like the snuff of a candle at the age of forty-two, she was left unprovided, with a son of thirteen to maintain or go ‘pon the parish. She was a Menhennick, tho’, from t’other side o’ the Duchy–a very proud family–and didn’t mean to dip the knee to nobody, and all the less because she’d demeaned hersel’, to start with, by wedding a tailor. But Key Pinsent by all allowance was handsome as blazes, and well-informed up to a point that he read Shakespeare for the mere pleasure o’t.

“Well, she sold up the stock-in-trade an’ hired a couple o’ rooms–the self-same rooms you see: and then she ate less ‘n a mouse an’ took in needle-work, plain an’ fancy: for a lot o’ the gentry’s wives round the neighbourhood befriended her–though they had to be sly an’ hide that they meant it for a favour, or she’d ha’ snapped their heads off. An’ all the while, she was teachin’ her boy and tellin’ ‘en, whatever happened, to remember he was a gentleman, an’ lovin’ ‘en with all the strength of a desolate woman.

“This Willie Pinsent was a comely boy, too: handsome as old Key, an’ quick at his books. He’d a bold masterful way, bein’ proud as ever his mother was, an’ well knowin’ there wasn’ his match in Tregarrick for head-work. Such a beautiful hand he wrote! When he was barely turned sixteen they gave ‘en a place in Gregory’s Bank–Wilkins an’ Gregory it was in those aged times. He still lived home wi’ his mother, rentin’ a room extra out of his earnin’s, and turnin’ one of the bedrooms into a parlour. That’s the very room you’re lookin’ at. And when any father in Tregarrick had a bone to pick with his sons, he’d advise ’em to take example by young Pinsent–‘so clever and good, too, there was no tellin’ what he mightn’t come to in time.’

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“Well-a-well, to cut it short, the lad was too clever. It came out, after, that he’d took to bettin’ his employers’ money agen the rich men up at the Royal Exchange. An’ the upshot was that one evenin’, while he was drinkin’ tea with his mother in his lovin’ light-hearted way, in walks a brace o’ constables, an’ says, ‘William Pinsent, young chap, I arrest thee upon a charge o’ counterfeitin’ old Gregory’s handwritin’, which is a hangin’ matter!’

“An’ now, sir, comes the cur’ous part o’ the tale; for, if you’ll believe me, this poor woman wouldn’ listen to it–wouldn’ hear a word o’t. ‘What! my son Willie,’ she flames, hot as Lucifer–‘my son Willie a forger! My boy, that I’ve missed, an’ reared up, an’ studied, markin’ all his pretty takin’ ways since he learn’d to crawl! Gentlemen,’ she says, standin’ up an’ facin’ ’em down, ‘what mother knows her son, if not I? I give you my word it’s all a mistake.’

“Ay, an’ she would have it no other. While her son was waitin’ his trial in jail, she walked the streets with her head high, scornin’ the folk as she passed. Not a soul dared to speak pity; an’ one afternoon, when old Gregory hissel’ met her and began to mumble that ‘he trusted,’ an’ ‘he had little doubt,’ an’ ‘nobody would be gladder than he if it proved to be a mistake,’ she held her skirt aside an’ went by with a look that turned ‘en to dirt, as he said. ‘Gad!’ said he, ‘she couldn’ ha’ looked at me worse if I’d been a tab!’ meanin’ to say ‘instead o’ the richest man in Tregarrick.’

“But her greatest freak was seen when th’ Assizes came. Sir, she wouldn’ even go to the trial. She disdained it. An’ when, that mornin’, the judges had driven by her window, same as they drove to-day, what d’ee think she did?

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“She began to lay the cloth up in the parlour yonder, an’ there set out the rarest meal, ready for her boy. There was meats, roasted chickens, an’ a tongue, an’ a great ham. There was cheese-cakes that she made after a little secret of her own; an’ a bowl of junket, an inch deep in cream, that bein’ his pet dish; an’ all kind o’ knick-knacks, wi’ grapes an’ peaches, an’ apricots, an’ decanters o’ wine, white an’ red. Ay, sir, there was even crackers for mother an’ son to pull together, with scraps o’ poetry inside. An’ flowers–the table was bloomin’ with flowers. For weeks she’d been plannin’ it: an’ all the forenoon she moved about an’ around that table, givin’ it a touch here an’ a touch there, an’ takin’ a step back to see how beautiful it looked. An’ then, as the day wore on, she pulled a chair over by the window, an’ sat down, an’ waited.

“In those days a capital trial was kept up till late into the night, if need were. By-an’-by she called up her little servin’ gal that was then (she’s a gran’mother now), an’ sends her down to the court-house to learn how far the trial had got, an’ run back with the news.

“Down runs Selina Mary, an’ back with word–

“‘They’re a-summin’-up,’ says she.

“Then Mrs. Pinsent went an’ lit eight candles. Four she set ‘pon the table, an’ four ‘pon the mantel-shelf. You could see the blaze out in the street, an’ the room lit up, wi’ the flowers, an’ fruit, an’ shinin’ glasses–red and yellow dahlias the flowers were, that bein’ the time o’ year. An’ over each candle she put a little red silk shade. You never saw a place look cosier. Then she went back an’ waited: but in half-an-hour calls to Selina Mary agen:

“‘Selina Mary, run you back to the courthouse, an’ bring word how far they’ve got.’

“So the little slip of a maid ran back, and this time ’twas–

“‘Missis, the judge has done; an’ now they’re considerin’ about Master Willie.’

“So the poor woman sat a while longer, an’ then she calls:

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“‘Selina Mary, run down agen, an’ as he comes out, tell ‘en to hurry. They must be finished by now.’

“The maid was gone twenty minutes this time. The evenin’ was hot an’ the window open; an’ now all the town that wasn’ listenin’ to the trial was gathered in front, gazin’ cur’ously at the woman inside. She was tittivatin’ the table for the fiftieth time, an’ touchin’ up the flowers that had drooped a bit i’ the bowls.

“But after twenty minutes Selina Mary came runnin’ up the street, an’ fetched her breath at the front door, and went upstairs slowly and ‘pon tip-toe. Her face at the parlour door was white as paper; an’ while she stood there the voices o’ the crowd outside began to take all one tone, and beat into the room like the sound o’ waves ‘pon a beach.

“‘Oh, missis–‘ she begins.

“‘Have they finished?’

“The poor cheald was only able to nod.

“‘Then, where’s Willie? Why isn’t he here?’

“‘Oh, missis, they’re goin’ to hang ‘en!’

“Mrs. Pinsent moved across the room, took her by the arm, led her downstairs, an’ gave her a little push out into the street. Not a word did she say, but shut the door ‘pon her, very gentle-like. Then she went back an’ pulled the blind down slowly. The crowd outside watched her do it. Her manner was quite ord’nary. They stood there for a minute or so, an’ behind the blind the eight candles went out, one by one. By the time the judges passed homeward ’twas all dark, only the blind showin’ white by the street lamp opposite. From that year to this she has pulled it down whenever a judge drives by.”

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