The Mayor’s Dovecot: A Cautionary Tale by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century there lived at Dolphin House, Troy, a Mr Samuel Pinsent, ship-chandler, who by general consent was the funniest fellow that ever took up his abode in the town. He came originally from somewhere in the South Hams, but this tells us nothing, for the folk of the South Hams are a decent, quiet lot, and you might travel the district to-day from end to end without coming across the like of Mr Pinsent.

He was, in fact, an original. He could do nothing like an ordinary man, and he did everything jocosely, with a wink and a chuckle. To watch him, you might suppose that business was a first-class practical joke, and he invariably wound up a hard bargain by slapping his victim on the back. Some called him Funny Pinsent, others The Bester. Few liked him. Nevertheless he prospered, and in 1827 was chosen mayor of the borough.

In person, Mr Pinsent was spare and diminutive, with a bald head, a tuft of badger-gray hair over either ear, and a fresh-coloured, clean-shaven face, extraordinarily wrinkled about the face and at the corners of the eyes, which twinkled at you from under a pair of restless stivvery eyebrows. You had only to look at them and note the twitch of his lips to be warned of the man’s facetiousness.

Mr Pinsent’s office–for he had no shop-front, and indeed his stock-in-trade was not of a quality to invite inspection–looked out upon the Town Square; his back premises upon the harbour, across a patch of garden, terminated by a low wall and a blue-painted quay-door. I call it a garden because Mr Pinsent called it so; and, to be sure, it boasted a stretch of turf, a couple of flower-beds, a flagstaff, and a small lean-to greenhouse. But casks and coils of manilla rope, blocks, pumps, and chain-cables, encroached upon the amenities of the spot–its pebbled pathway, its parterres, its raised platform overgrown with nasturtiums, where Mr Pinsent sat and smoked of an evening and watched the shipping; the greenhouse stored sacks of ship-bread as well as pot-plants; and Mrs Salt, his housekeeper (he was unmarried), had attached a line to the flagstaff, and aired the washing thereon.

But the pride of the garden was its dovecote, formed of a large cider-barrel on a mast. The barrel was pierced with pigeon-holes, and fitted with ledges on which the birds stood to preen themselves. Mr Pinsent did not profess himself a fancier. His columbarium–a mixed collection of fantails and rocketers–had come to him by a side-wind of business, as offset against a bad debt; but it pleased him to sit on his terrace and watch the pretty creatures as they wheeled in flight over the harbour and among the masts of the shipping. They cost him nothing to keep, for he had always plenty of condemned pease on hand; and they multiplied in peace at the top of their mast, which was too smooth for any cat to climb.

One summer’s night, however, about midway in the term of his mayoralty, Mr Pinsent was awakened from slumber by a strange sound of fluttering. It came through the open window from the garden, and almost as he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes it warned him that something serious was amiss with his dovecote. He flung off the bed-clothes and made a leap for the window.

The night was warm and windless, with a waning moon in the east, and as yet no tremble of the dawn below it. Around the foot of the dovecote the turf lay in blackest shadow; but a moon-ray overtopping the low ridge of Mr Garraway’s back premises (Mr Pinsent’s next-door neighbour on the left), illuminated the eastern side of the barrel, the projecting platform on which it rested, and a yard or more of the mast, from its summit down–or, to be accurate, it shed a pale radiance on a youthful figure, clinging there by its legs, and upon a hand and arm reaching over the platform to rob the roost.

‘You infernal young thief!’ shouted Mr Pinsent.

As his voice broke upon the night across the silent garden, the hand paused suddenly in the act of dragging forth a pigeon which it had gripped by the neck. The bird, almost as suddenly set free, flapped across the platform, found its wings and scuffled away in flight. The thief–Mr Pinsent had been unable to detect his features-slid down the mast into darkness, and the darkness, a moment later, became populous with whispering voices and the sound of feet stealing away towards the yet deeper shadow of Mr Garraway’s wall.

‘Who goes there?’ challenged Mr Pinsent again. ‘Villains! Robbers! You just wait till I come down to you! I’ve a gun here, by George! and if you don’t stand still there and give me your names–‘

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But this was an empty threat. Mr Pinsent, though nothing of a sportsman, did indeed possess a gun, deposited with him years ago as security against a small loan. But it hung over the office chimney-piece downstairs, and he could not have loaded it, even if given the necessary powder and shot. Possibly the boys guessed this. At any rate, they made no answer.

Possibly, too (for a white nightcap and nightshirt were discernible in almost pitchy darkness), they saw him strut back from the window to slip downstairs and surprise them. Mr Pinsent paused only to insert his feet into a pair of loose slippers, and again, as he unbolted the back door, to snatch a lantern off its hook. Yet by the time he ran out upon the garden the depredators had made good their escape.

He groped inside the lantern for the tinder-box, which lay within, handy for emergencies; found it, and kneeling on the grass-plot beside the mast, struck flint upon steel. As he blew upon the tinder and the faint glow lit up his face and nightcap, a timorous exclamation quavered down from one of the upper windows.

‘Oh, sir! Wha–whatever is the matter?’ It was the voice of Mrs Salt, the housekeeper.

For a moment Mr Pinsent did not answer. In the act of thrusting the brimstone match into the lantern his eye had fallen on a white object lying on the turf and scarcely a yard away–a white fan-tail pigeon, dead, with a twisted neck. He picked up the bird and stared around angrily into the darkness.

‘Robbery is the matter, ma’am,’ he announced, speaking up to the unseen figure in the window. ‘Some young ruffians have been stealing and killing my pigeons. I caught ’em in the act, and a serious matter they’ll find it.’ Here Mr Pinsent raised his voice, in case any of the criminals should be lurking within earshot. ‘I doubt, ma’am, a case like this will have to go to the assizes.’

‘Hadn’t you better put something on?’ suggested another voice, not Mrs Salt’s, from somewhere on the left.

‘Eh?’ Mr Pinsent wheeled about and peered into the darkness. ‘Is that you, Garraway?’

‘It is,’ answered Mr Garraway from his bedroom window over the wall. ‘Been stealin’ your pigeons, have they? Well, I’m sorry; and yet in a way ’tis a relief to my mind. For, first along, seeing you, out there, skipping round in your shirt with a lantern, I’d a fear you had been taken funny in the night!’

‘Bless the man!’ said Mr Pinsent. ‘Do you suppose I’d do this for a joke?’

I don’t know,’ responded Mr Garraway, with guarded candour. ‘I feared it. But, of course, if they’ve stolen your pigeons, ’tis another matter. A very serious matter, as you say, and no doubt your being mayor makes it all the worse.’

Now this attitude of Mr Garraway conveyed a hint of warning, had Mr Pinsent been able to seize it. The inhabitants of Troy have, in fact, a sense of humour, but it does not include facetiousness. On the contrary, facetiousness affronts and pains them. They do not understand it, and Mr Pinsent understood nothing else. Could he have been told that for close upon twenty years he had been afflicting his neighbours with the pleasantries he found so enjoyable, his answer had undoubtedly been ‘The bigger numskulls they!’ But now his doom was upon him.

He ate his breakfast that morning in silence. Mrs Salt, burning to discuss the robbery, set down the dishes with a quite unnecessary clatter, but in vain. He scarcely raised his head.

‘Indeed, sir, and I’ve never known you so upset,’ she broke out at length, unable to contain herself longer. ‘Which I’ve always said that you was wonderful, the way you saw the bright side of everything and could pass it off with a laugh.’

‘Good Lord!’ said Mr Pinsent testily. ‘Did I ever call midnight robbery a laughing matter?’

‘No–o,’ answered Mrs Salt, yet as one not altogether sure. ‘And I dare say your bein’ mayor makes you take a serious view.’

Breakfast over, the mayor took hat and walking-stick for his customary morning stroll along the street to Butcher Trengrove’s to choose the joint for his dinner and pick up the town’s earliest gossip. It is Troy’s briskest hour; when the dairy carts, rattling homeward, meet the country folk from up-the-river who have just landed at the quays and begun to sell from door to door their poultry and fresh eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nosegays of garden flowers; when the tradesmen, having taken down their shutters, stand in the roadway, admire the effect of their shop-windows and admonish the apprentices cleaning the panes; when the children loiter and play at hop-scotch on their way to school, and the housewives, having packed them off, find time for neighbourly clack over the scouring of door-steps.

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It might be the mayor’s fancy and no more, but it certainly appeared to him that the children smiled with a touch of mockery as they met him and saluted. For aught he knew any one of these grinning imps– confound ’em!–might be implicated in the plot. The townsmen gave him ‘good-morning’ as usual, and yet not quite as usual. He felt that news of the raid had won abroad; that, although shy of speaking, they were studying his face for a sign. He kept it carefully cheerful; but came near to losing his temper when he reached Trengrove’s shop to find Mr Garraway already there and in earnest conversation with the butcher.

‘Ah! good-mornin’ again! I was just talkin’ about you and your pigeons,’ said Mr Garraway, frankly.

‘Good-morning, y’r Worship,’ echoed Butcher Trengrove. ‘And what can I do for y’r Worship this fine morning? I was just allowin’ to Mr Garraway here that, seein’ the young dare-devils had left you a bird with their compliments, maybe you’d fancy a nice cut of rumpsteak to fill out a pie.’

‘This isn’t exactly a laughing matter, Mr Trengrove.’

‘No, no, to be sure!’ Butcher Trengrove composed his broad smile apologetically. But, after a moment, observing Mr Pinsent’s face and that (at what cost he guessed not) it kept its humorous twist, he let his features relax. ‘I was allowin’ though, that if any man could get even with a bit of fun, it would be y’r Worship.’

‘Oh, never fear but I’ll get even with ’em,’ promised his Worship, affecting an easiness he did not feel.

‘Monstrous, though! monstrous!’ pursued the butcher. ‘The boys of this town be gettin’ past all control. Proper young limbs, I call some of ’em.’

‘And there’s the fellow that’s to blame,’ put in Mr Garraway, with a nod at a little man hurrying past the shop, on the opposite pavement. This was Mr Lupus, the schoolmaster, on his way to open school. ‘Hi! Mr Lupus!’

Mr Lupus gave a start, came to a halt, and turned on the shop door a pair of mildly curious eyes guarded by moon-shaped spectacles. Mr Lupus lived with an elderly sister who kept a bakehouse beside the Ferry Landing, and there in extra-scholastic hours he earned a little money by writing letters for seamen. His love-letters had quite a reputation, and he penned them in a beautiful hand, with flourishes around the capital letters; but in Troy he passed for a person of small account.

‘I–I beg your pardon, gentlemen! Were you calling to me?’ stammered Mr Lupus.

‘Good-morning, Lupus!’ The mayor nodded to him. ‘We were just saying that you bring up the boys of this town shamefully. Yes, sir, shamefully.’

‘No, indeed, your Worship,’ protested Mr Lupus, looking up with a timid smile, as he drew off his spectacles and polished them. ‘Your Worship is pleasant with me. I do assure you, gentlemen, that my boys are very good boys, and give me scarcely any trouble.’

‘That’s because you sit at school in your daydreams, and don’t take note of the mischief that goes on around you. A set of anointed young scoundrels, Mr Lupus!’

‘You don’t mean it, sir. Oh, to be sure you don’t mean it! Your Worship’s funny way of putting things is well known, if I may say so. But they are good boys, on the whole, very good boys; and you should see the regularity with which they attend. I sometimes wish–meaning no offence–that you gentlemen of position in the town would drop in upon us a little oftener. It would give you a better idea of us, indeed it would. For my boys are very good boys, and for regularity of attendance we will challenge any school in Cornwall, sir, if you will forgive my boasting.’

Now this suggestion of Mr Lupus, though delicately put, and in a nervous flutter, ought by rights to have hit the mayor and Mr Garraway hard; the pair of them being trustees of the charity under which the Free Grammar School was administered. But in those days few public men gave a thought to education, and Mr Lupus taught school, year in and year out, obedient to his own conscience, his own enthusiasms; unencouraged by visitation or word of advice from his governors.

The mayor, to be sure, flushed red for a moment; but Mr Garraway’s withers were unwrung.

‘That don’t excuse their committing burglary and stealing his Worship’s pigeons,’ said he. Briefly he told what had happened.

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Mr Lupus adjusted and readjusted his spectacles, still in a nervous flurry.

‘You surprise me, gentlemen. It is unlike my boys–unlike all that I have ever believed of them. You will excuse me, but if this be true, I shall take it much to heart. So regular in attendance, and– stealing pigeons, you say? Oh, be sure, sirs, I will give them a talking-to–a severe talking-to–this very morning.’

The little schoolmaster went his way down the street in a flutter. Mr Pinsent stared after him abstractedly.

‘That man,’ said he, after a long pause, ‘ought to employ some one to use his cane for him.’

With this, for no apparent reason, his eye brightened suddenly. But the source of his inspiration he kept to himself. His manner was jocular as ever as he ordered his steak.

On his way home he knocked at the door of the town sergeant, Thomas Trebilcock, a septuagenarian, more commonly known as Pretty Tommy. The town sergeant was out in the country, picking mushrooms; but his youngest granddaughter, who opened the door, promised to send him along to the mayor’s office as soon as ever he returned.

At ten o’clock, or a little later, Pretty Tommy presented himself, and found Mr Pinsent at his desk engaged in complacent study of a sheet of manuscript, to which he had just attached his signature.

‘I think this will do,’ said Mr Pinsent, with a twinkle, and he recited the composition aloud.

Pretty Tommy, having adjusted his horn spectacles, took the paper and read it through laboriously.

‘You want me to cry it through the town?’

‘Certainly. You can fetch your bell, and go along with it at once.’

‘Your Worship knows best, o’ course.’ Pretty Tommy appeared to hesitate.

‘Why, what’s wrong with it?’

‘Nothin’,’ said Tommy, after a slow pause and another perusal, ‘only ’tis unusual–unusual, and funny at the same time; an’ that’s always a risk.’ He paused again for a moment, and his face brightened. ‘But there!’ he said, ”tis a risk you’re accustomed to by this time.’

Half an hour later the sound of the town sergeant’s bell at the end of the street called tradesmen from their benches and housewives from their kitchens to hear the following proclamation, to which Tommy had done honour by donning his official robe (of blue, gold-laced) with a scarlet pelisse and a cocked hat. A majestic figure he made, too, standing in the middle of the roadway with spectacles on nose, and the great handbell tucked under his arm–


‘Take you all notice: that whereas some evil-disposed boys did last night break into the premises of Samuel Pinsent, Worshipful Mayor of this Borough, and did rob His Worship of several valuable pigeons; His Worship hereby offers a reward of Five Shillings to the parent or parents of any such boy as will hand him over, that the Mayor may have ten minutes with him in private. Amen.


Mr Pinsent, seated in his office, heard the bell sounding far up the street, and chuckled to himself. He chuckled again, peering through his wire blinds, when Pretty Tommy emerged upon the square outside and took his stand in the middle of it to read the proclamation. It collected no crowd, but it drew many faces to the windows and doorways, and Mr Pinsent observed that one and all broke into grins as they took the humour of his offer.

He rubbed his hands together. He had been angry to begin with; yes– he would confess it–very angry. But he had overcome it and risen to his reputation. The town had been mistaken in thinking it could put fun on him. It was tit-for-tat again, and the laugh still with Samuel Pinsent.

He ate his dinner that day in high good humour, drank a couple of glasses of port, and retired (as his custom was on warm afternoons) to his back-parlour, for an hour’s siesta. Through the open window he heard the residue of his pigeons murmuring in their cotes, and the sound wooed him to slumber. So for half an hour he slept, with an easy conscience, a sound digestion, and a yellow bandanna handkerchief over his head to protect him from the flies. A tapping at the door awakened him.

‘There’s a woman here–Long Halloran’s wife, of Back Street–wishes to see you, sir,’ announced the voice of Mrs Salt.

‘Woman!’ said the mayor testily. ‘Haven’t you learned by this time that I’m not to be disturbed after dinner?’

‘She said her business was important, sir. It’s–it’s about the pigeons,’ explained Mrs Salt.

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And before he could protest again, Mrs Halloran had thrust her way into the room and stood curtseying, with tears of recent weeping upon her homely and extremely dirty face. Behind her shuffled a lanky, sheepish-eyed boy, and took up his stand at her shoulder with a look half-sullen, half-defiant.

‘It’s about my Mike, sir,’ began Mrs Halloran, in a lachrymose voice, and paused to dab her eyes with a corner of her apron. ‘Which I’m sure, sir, we ought to be very grateful to you for all your kindness and the trouble you’re takin’, and so says the boy’s father. For he’s growin’ up more of a handful every day, and how to manage him passes our wits.’

‘Are you telling me, Mrs Halloran, that this boy of yours is the thief who stole my pigeons?’

Mr Pinsent, looking at the boy with a magisterial frown, began to wish he had not been quite so hasty in sending round the town sergeant.

‘You did, didn’t you, Mike?’ appealed Mrs Halloran. And Mike, looking straight before him, grunted something which might pass for an admission. ‘You must try to overlook the boy’s manner, sir. He’s case-hardened, I fear, and it goes sore to a mother’s heart that ever I should rear up a child to be a thief. But as Halloran said to me, “Take the young limb to his Worship,” Halloran says, “and maybe a trifle of correction by a gentleman in his Worship’s position will have some effect,” he says. But I hope, sir, you won’t visit all the punishment on Mike, for he didn’t do it alone; and though I’m not sayin’ he don’t deserve all he gets, ’tisn’t fair to make him the only scapegoat–now is it, sir?’

‘My good woman, I–I have no such intention,’ stammered the mayor, glancing at the lad again, and liking his appearance worse than ever.

‘I thank your Worship.’ Mrs Halloran dropped a quick curtsey. ‘And so I made free to tell Halloran, who was in doubt of it. “Mr Pinsent,” I said, “is a just-minded man, an’ you may be sure,” I said, “he’ll mete out the same to all, last as well as first.”‘

‘Yes, yes!’ The mayor took her up impatiently and paused for a moment, still eyeing the boy. ‘Er–by the way, what age is your son?’

‘Rising fifteen, sir; christened fifteen years ago last St Michael’s Day, which is the twenty-ninth of September, though little good it done him. He takes after his father, sir. All the Hallorans shoot up tall, like runner beans; and thick in the bone. Or so his father says. For my part, I’ve never been to Ireland; but by the looks of en you’d say not a day less than seventeen. It seems like blood-money, my takin’ five shillin’ and handin’ the child over–at his tender age–and me his own mother that nursed en!’

Here Mrs Halloran, whose emotions had been mastering her for some moments, broke down in a violent fit of sobbing; and this so affected her offspring that he emitted a noise like the hoot of a dog. As he started it without warning, so abruptly he ended it, and looked around with an impassive face.

It was uncanny. It shook the mayor’s nerve. ‘My dear Mrs Halloran, if you will let me have a word or two with your son–‘

‘Oh, I know!’ she wailed. ‘That’s how you put it. But you give me over the money, sir, and let me go quick, before I weaken on it. You never had a child of your own, Mr Pinsent–and more’s the pity for the child–but with one of your own you’d know what it feels like!’

Mr Pinsent felt in his trouser-pocket, drew forth two half-crowns, and pressed them into Mrs Halloran’s dirty palm. With a sob and a blessing she escaped. He heard her run sobbing down the passage to the front door. Then he turned upon Mike.

The boy had sidled round with his back against the wall, and stood there with his left elbow up and his fists half clenched. For the space of half a minute the mayor eyed him, and he eyed the mayor.

‘Sit down, Mike,’ said the mayor gently.

‘Goo! What d’ye take me for?’ said Mike, lifting his hands a little.

‘Sit down, I tell you.’

‘Huh–yes, an’ let you cop me over the head? You just try it–that’s all; you just come an’ try it?’

‘I–er–have no intention of trying it,’ said Mr Pinsent. ‘It certainly would not become me to administer–to inflict–corporal punishment on a youth of your–er–inches. What grieves me–what pains me more than I can say, is to find a boy of your–er-size and er–development–by which I mean mental development, sense of responsibility–er–mixed up in this disgraceful affair. I had supposed it to be a prank, merely–a piece of childish mischief–and that the perpetrators were quite small boys.’ (Here–not a doubt of it–Mr Pinsent was telling the truth.)

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‘Why,’ he went on, with the air of one making a pleasant little discovery, ‘I shouldn’t be surprised to find you almost as tall as myself! Yes. I declare I believe you are quite as tall! No’-he put up a hand as Mike, apparently suspecting a ruse, backed in a posture of defence–‘we will not take our measures to-day. I have something more serious to think about. For you will have noticed that while I suspected this robbery to be the work of small thoughtless boys, I treated it lightly; but now that I find a great strapping fellow like you mixed up in the affair, it becomes my business to talk to you very seriously indeed.’

And he did. He sat down facing Mike Halloran across the table, and read him a lecture that should have made any boy of Mike’s size thoroughly ashamed of himself; and might have gone on admonishing for an hour had not Mrs Salt knocked again at the door.

‘If you please,’ announced Mrs Salt, ‘here’s the Widow Barnicutt from the Quay to see you, along with her red-headed ‘Dolphus.’

‘Which,’ said the Widow Barnicutt, panting in at her heels and bobbing a curtsey, ‘it’s sorry I am to be disturbin’ your Worship, and I wouldn’t do it if his poor father was alive and could give ’em the strap for his good. But the child bein’ that out of hand that all my threats do seem but to harden him, and five shillin’ a week’s wage to an unprovided woman; and I hope your Worship will excuse the noise I make with my breathin’, which is the assma, and brought on by fightin’ my way through the other women.’

Mr Pinsent gasped, and put up a hand to his brow.

‘The other women?’ he echoed. ‘What other women?’

‘The passage is full of ’em,’ said Mrs Salt, much as though she were reporting that the house was on fire.

‘Ay,’ said the widow, ‘but my ‘Dolphus is the guilty one–I got his word for it.’

‘There’s Maria Bunny,’ persisted Mrs Salt, beginning to tick off the list on her fingers, ‘Maria Bunny with her Wesley John, and Mary Polly Polwarne with her Nine Days’ Wonder, and Amelia Trownce with the twins, and Deb Hicks with the child she christened Nonesuch, thinkin’ ’twas out of the Bible; and William Spargo’s second wife Maria with her step-child, and Catherine Nance with her splay-footed boy that I can never remember the name of–‘

‘Oh! send ’em away!’ bawled Mr Pinsent. ‘Send ’em away before their husbands come home from work and raise a riot!’ Then he recollected himself. ‘No, fetch ’em all in here, from the street,’ said he, dropping into a chair and taking his head in both hands. ‘Fetch ’em all in, and let me deal with ’em!’

The town, when it laughed over the story next day, found the cream of the joke in this–Bester Pinsent, in promising Mrs Halloran that her boy should but share punishment with the rest, had forgotten in his agitation of mind to stipulate that the reward should also be divided. As it was, he had paid her the full five shillings, and the rest of the women (there were twenty-four) would be content with nothing less.

But it was really little Mr Lupus, the schoolmaster, that–all unconsciously–had the last word. Trotting past Butcher Trengrove’s shop next morning, on his way to open school, Mr Lupus caught sight of his Worship standing within the doorway, halted, and came across the street with a nervous flush on his face.

‘Mr Mayor, sir, if I may have a word with you? Begging your pardon, sir, but it lies on my conscience–all night, sir, it has been troubling me–that I boasted to you yesterday of my boys’ good attendance. Indeed, sir, it has been good in the past. But yesterday afternoon! Oh, sir, I fear that you were right, after all, and something serious is amiss with the boys of this town!’

I regret that I cannot report here the precise words of Mr Pinsent’s reply.

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