Read Cunning Murrell Online

Authors: Arthur Morrison

Tags: #Historical Romance

Cunning Murrell (5 page)

The perversions all had for their object the substitution of gooseberry
pie for the dried apples, and therein they were made to succeed regardless of
metre, to the demoralisation of the whole poetical structure. Roboshobery
Dove had shouldered his stick, by way of keeping character with the
procession as he caught it up, but ere he quite did so the children checked
their march, and the train closed into a whispering group and strayed out
into the road. Roboshobery looked up and saw Dorrily Thorn, pale and sad,
coming along the path.

“Mornin’!” said Roboshobery, raising his hand in salute. “That aren’t a
fair-day face, my gal!”

“I’m tired. Master Dove, an’ ailing a little,” Dorrily answered, and
sought to pass on. But the old man lifted his wooden leg as a barrier, and,
bringing it down, took a pace to the left, confronting her with a grin on his
broad face.

“O, Johnny’s gone, what shall I do? John’s gone to Ilo!”
he half
said, half sung, and added: “Don’t yow fret. He’ll be home a’mos’ soon as yow
could knit him a puss. With a medal, too!”

And with a chuckle and a flourish of his stick above his head, as an
expression of naval and military glory, Roboshobery pursued his walk. The
children stared from across the way till Dorrily had turned the corner at the
cross roads, and then went on with their song.

Roboshobery Dove stumped along among the people and the stalls till he
came near the Crown and opposite a little front garden where a red-faced and
white-headed villager in shirt sleeves leaned on the gate and smoked his
pipe.

“Morn’, Henery!”

“Morn’, Bosh!”

“Hev yow seen e’er a paper o’ noos?”

“No, I an’t. Den’t see ye las’ night.”

“True ‘tis. I kim up late from the look-out. Three prizes yes’day
art’noon; no sense o’ prizes, though—bits o’ coasters.”

“Um!” Mr Prentice stood erect, rubbed his hand through the white hair
behind his head, and jerked his pipe toward his open front door. “Hev a nip,”
he said, and went up the garden path with Roboshobery behind him.

It was a neat keeping-room, that lighted by the front window, with a tall
clock and a wavy looking-glass that made the gazer’s face an undulating
nightmare. Old Harry Prentice brought a black bottle from the blackest corner
of a dark cupboard, and two glasses. At the lifting of the cork a scent stole
about the room, the soft scent of old white brandy, such as never is on sea
or land in these meaner days.

“Ah!” Roboshobery said, sniffing gratefully and holding his glass to the
light; “this is it!”

He gave it the water it needed, nodded to his host, and rolled a gulp
about his teeth. Then he look at the glass again, and said, “That’s a few
years sen’ that drop kim over, I warr’nt.”

“Ah, ‘tis,” answered the other. “It do come pretty good now, but not like
this.”

“An’ not so much of it.”

“No, not so much of it.” Mr Prentice’s eyes wandered toward the tall clock
by association of ideas. For the clock stood on a loose floor-board, and the
loose floor-board covered a space big enough for as many tubs as would make
provision for the thirst of the latter years of a man already old. “But,
Lord,” he went on, “I doan’t see why, now. These here coastguard chaps as
they got temp’ry, them aren’t worth nothen. Why, poor oad Stagg, the ridin’
officer, dead twenty year, he’d a’ done better’n them, arl the lot. An’
he
were no sense o’ use. Why, if I was younger, an’ needin’ a stroke
o’ trade, I’d hev a cargo run now, easy.”

“Ay, ‘twould be no trouble, I’d wager. I wonder some o’ the sharp ‘uns
don’t try. Oad Sim Cloyse, eh?”

“Him or anybody. ‘Tis easier than any time this thutty year. Yow could
land a cargo on Canvey a’most by daylight, an’ night—Lord,
anywheres!”

“I lay it ‘ud ha’ bin done if Golden Adams was about now. He’d soon ha’
found a freighter with the brass.”

“Ah, he would. Mayhap he’s a-done it where he be now—over in
Sheppey. Though that ‘ud be a mile harder job.”

Roboshobery Dove pulled out a knife and a hard plug, but paused ere he
cut. “Missus out?” he asked.

“Yes. She’s full o’ the noos. Hear about Banham’s gal? She’ve bin
bewitched, so the women do say.”

“Ay, I hear tell.” Dove spoke with a more hushed attention. “An’ Master
Murr’ll, he were hevin’ a witch-bottle made with young Steve Lingood.”

“That’s so. Well, the witch-bottle’s made an’ bust an’ arl, an’ the gal’s
better; an’ they found the witch—so them says as believes in ‘em.” It
was the way among the more intelligent in Hadleigh to add some such saving
clause to any reference to the subject of witches.

“Cuther! Found the witch, eh? Who is’t?”

“Young Jack Mart’n’s mother.”

Roboshobery’s jaw dropped, and he caught his quid with a quick snatch of
the hand. “What!” he cried, “Mrs Mart’n! No!”

“Ay, ‘tis so. An’ ‘tis arl about, too. There aren’t a woman in Hadleigh
‘ud take a bit o’ pie from her to-day; no, nor nothen else. Nor go near
her.”

“Mrs Mart’n!”

“Ay; an’ some do say her niece is bad as she.”

Roboshobery stared, open mouthed, for ten seconds. Then he brought his
fist on the table with a shock that made the bottle jump. “‘Tis a lie,
damme!” he said. “‘Tis a lie!”

“Very like. But they do say it.”

“Why, her boy Jack be a fightin’ the deadly Rooshans this very minute!”
Roboshobery pursued, with a fixed stare, and a logic of his own.

“An’ they do say ‘tis proved agin her.”

“An’ I fit the French meself, when I was that high, damme!” Roboshobery
went on regardless, with the same stare and the same logic, extending his
hand a little higher than the table.

“Well!” Prentice ejaculated, impartially, and finished his glass.

“That high, damme!” Roboshobery repeated without moving his hand. He kept
it in the air for a few seconds, and then let it drop, and gave his mouth the
quid again. “Howsomdever,” he went on, “if the women sez it, they’ll stick to
it, an’ argufyin’ woan’t change ‘em.” And then, with fresh heat, he repeated:
“But it’s a lie!”

“There be Jobson o’ Wickford,” Prentice said, suddenly rising and looking
through the window. “It’s odds he’s got a
Chronicle
.”

The two men hastened to the door and hailed Jobson of Wickford, who was
pulling up at the Crown. As it happened he had brought a copy of yesterday’s
paper with him, for the first Hadleigh friend who might demand it; and soon
Roboshobery Dove, with pains and slow spelling, was informed of the war news.
And ten minutes later he had Steve Lingood by the arm at the smithy door, and
was confusing the news of the burning of the docks at Uleaborg and Brahestad,
and of the retreat of the Russians from Silistria, by a mixed process of
telling it verbally with five or six diversely-pronounced names for each
place, and insisting on the smith reading for himself, while the paper was
violently brandished about his face and ears.

V. — AN INTERRUPTED SONG

HADLEIGH FAIR waxed and roared. It was not the way of
Cunning Murrell, in general, to be seen at daytime; his was a silent, sudden
presence of the night, and there were tales of the distances he travelled
(and hints of the means whereby) that were told in whispers only, and not to
strangers. But on fair day he was sought by the sick and the troubled of many
villages, and he dispensed herbs and charms to many that travelled half
across the county to fetch them. There were, indeed, those who came farther,
for Murrell’s fame as physician and cattle doctor spread across the county,
even to the Suffolk border, and he was esteemed far beyond Bedlow of Rawreth,
who was a most distinguished character; while in matters of greater
abstruseness and difficulty, the baffling of witches, the recovery of lost
property, and the bringing to the altar of fickle lovers, he had no rival
whatever. But it was not his way to sit at the receipt of custom, taking in
turn the many that resorted to him. Rather he must be sought and solicited,
and they were the lucky that were able to buy his counsel. So that one might
always see throughout the most of fair day, in the narrow lane where his
cottage stood and away from the merry crowd in Hadleigh street, certain
pensive women and a few anxious girls, their eyes solicitously turned toward
the cunning man’s door, their hands all willing to click the latch, though
each fearful of rebuff; sometimes, too, an awkward and shame-faced man. So it
was in the lane this day. But in the noisy street the round of gaiety spun
with a dazzle, and in the afternoon, long ere the Fire-eater had palled or
the Fat Lady had ceased to amaze, the customary fight had broken out between
the warriors of Hadleigh and those of Leigh. The Leigh men, easily
distinguished by their blue guernseys, but well enough known individually,
never allowed any day of rejoicing to run many hours without a fight; and
Hadleigh was as ready for Leigh as Leigh could wish. Conspicuous, though not
large, among the Hadleigh champions was Buck Murrell, disgraceful and
degenerate son of the soothsayer; short, thick, and shock-headed, hatless and
fierce, he was ever where the fray raged closest, and this day he headed the
rush up the stairs of the Castle Inn that drove the few Leigh men in the
clubroom (made another taproom for the day), out by the window, and down the
post of the inn-sign (reached by a jump from the sill) hand-over-hand to the
street. It was because of this irregular escape that, a week after,
tenterhooks were driven in the post—the tenterhooks that remain to this
day witnesses of the prowess of Hadleigh and of the seaman-like agility of
Leigh in the year 1854.

Soon the fight took half the attention of the fair, and peep-shows were
overset. More, one corner of the Living Skeleton’s booth gave way, and
brought the canvas about Mag Banham’s ears, and those of young Sim Cloyse,
who was taking her a-fairing; and such was her discomposure and affliction
that gin and peppermint was necessary to restore her, and she had to be
restored more than once. Then, toward five o’clock or so, the scrimmage grew
slack; for some bodily refreshment, some measure of threepenny, is needed to
maintain the activity of the most valorous champions. And when the noise of
battle arose again, it was less in volume than it had been in the afternoon,
and the combat itself not so brisk; for the measures of threepenny that spur
warriors to conflict are apt at the same time to impair their might, and to
pull away the legs from under them. Till at last, when the final skirmish
tailed away into a meadow by the fourwont way, somebody was inspired to drive
a startled and disconcerted cow into the meadow with the shout: “The bull!
look out for the bull!” Whereat the champions of Leigh, already somewhat
outnumbered and in no very able state to make zoological distinctions, went
for the nearest hedge and cleared it, and the fight was done. For extreme
distrust of bulls and a great disinclination to remain in the same field with
one, made a singular failing of the fishermen of this coast; though one might
have been sadly put to it to find another earthly creature wherewith to daunt
them.

The peep-shows were picked up and packed up, the Living Skeleton took down
the remaining three corners of his habitation, and the Fat Lady bethought her
of supper. At the Castle Inn and the Crown late rallies were made of
revellers yet unwearied, and young Sim Cloyse and Mag Banham wandered
together through Dawes Heath Lane, amid gathering shadows and evening odours,
somewhat characterised by peppermint.

At the Castle Inn, taprooms and bars were full of them that still thirsted
after threepenny; but the parlour was given over to a privileged group of
tradesmen and respectabilities, and no threepenny entered there. There sat
Prentice, Steve Lingood, Banham, Dan Fisk the builder, and a dozen others,
some from neighbouring parts, immersed in the enjoyment of pipes, beverages,
and mutual improvement. There was some disposition to perceive a weakness in
the drink, perhaps because it really was the custom to water it on fair day,
perhaps merely because it was the infirmity of jealous human nature to
suspect it. Dan Fisk, a thick-set humourist with a squint, rotated his pot
before him, as though to enrich the liquor with whatever sediment there might
be, and shook his head. “Carl that six-ale, ‘em do,” he said, “an’ what’s
wuss they charge it…Well, well, ‘tis fair day!”

“‘Tis poor stuff, sarten to say,” Prentice remarked.

“Rotgut an’ belly-wengeance,” Fisk assented.

“Nothen moer;” and he smelt it contemptuously.

“It do seem that the way to brew sixpenny for fair day be to take
thruppenny an’ double it with watter. That’s bad as what oad Sim Cloyse’s
wife used to brew, an’ we arl knowed that!”

“I den’t know it,” Lingood said. “She’ve been dead nigh twenty year.”

“Ah, you’re a young ‘un. Oad Sim Cloyse’s missis, she were twice as near
as oad Sim were real Dutch. She coon’t bear to see nobody eat nor drink, she
coon’t. Why, when oad Sim kep’ fowls (he took ‘em off the widdar Mead for
rent) she swore he’d ruined hisself. ‘What’s the good o’ giv’n’ they fowls
corn?’ she said. ‘They onny eat it!’”

Dan Fisk took a pull or two at his pipe, so as not to interfere with the
laugh, which was prolonged by Banham, who had heard the story before, but
wished to be polite.

“Well,” Dan resumed, “when Sim Cloyse took the Ploughboy, along there by
the Pest’us, afore he made his money, he putt his missis to mind it, an’
there were precious little trade. Fust night—‘Well,’ says Sim, ‘what
ha’ yow took?’ ‘Nut a farden,’ says she; ‘nut one.’ Nex’ night Sim kims in
an’ draws hisself a pint o’ six. ‘How’s trade?’ says Sim. ‘Wusser’n
yesterday,’ she says, ”cause yow’ve bin an’ drunk a pint o’ six without
payin’ for it, an’ if yow’re ruined it’ll sarve ye right!’ An’ Sim never
drunk no more o’ her beer. Well, night arter that he kims agen, an’ he says,
‘Trade better?’ he says. ‘Wusser’n ever,’ she says, with a snap; ‘look at
that there winder!’ An’ there were the biggest winder arl smashed to shivers.
‘Why, how’s that?’ says Sim. ‘Why,’ says she, ‘the fust customer kim in
to-day. He had a pint o’ thruppeny. When he’d a-gulped it, he went pale as
pudden, an’ his eyes turns up into his head. Then he goes red, an’ his eyes
kims down agen, an’ he swore and ranted, an’ hulled the mug through the
winder an’ tore off like Bedlam.’ ‘Yow don’t say!’ says Sim. ‘Well, praise be
he den’t hev a pint o’ six, or he’d ha’ knocked the house down!’”

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