Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/Back o' the Moon/Chapter 1

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pp. 9–20.

CHAPTER I.

HORWICK THURSDAY.

The hands of the Piece Hall clock still lacked twenty minutes of eight of the March morning, but already Horwick market-place was thronged with the folk who had come in for the first general cloth-market of the spring. They had come in with their oilskin budgets of grey cloth on their shoulders, and their mastiffs and terriers and lurchers at their heels; and such as had risen while it was yet night bore the lanterns that they had now extinguished. The air was misty and chill, and the hills grey, and a thin vapour of breathing lay over all the market-place; but a brightness trembled in the haze, and the hoarse calling of the Horwick cocks and the fainter crowings that answered them over the misty heights made a cheerful din. The two long pieceboards, not yet dried of the night's damp, were stacked with the bales and budgets, and the weavers leaned against them and ate their breakfasts as they talked. On the cobbles of the “Cross Pipes,” opposite the Piece Hall, packmen were loosing the wame-tows of a string of horses. By the winding Fullergate the merchants and dyers arrived, and there mingled with the noises of the market and of the morning the incessant light pattering of wood-soled clogs on the hard earth.

Under the arches of the raised Piece Hall the fullers and dyers and merchants moved, and the arcades sounded with the shuffle of their leather shoes and the hum of their voices as they discussed the arrival of the new Supervisor of Excise, now breakfasting in the “Cross Pipes” opposite. The bailiff's books, wherein he entered his proper market charges, lay unopened on the small table at the top of the steps, and his two clerks moved among the Back o' th' Mooiners at the pieceboards. The square stone pillars were placarded with lists, broadsheets, handbills and public notices, and against the pillar immediately behind the bailiff's table Matthew Moon, the merchant, leaned.

His fists were doubled deep in his breeches pockets, and his brow was closely contracted. He was forty, heavily built, with a square and solid head. As he moved slightly, there showed over the brown homespun of his shoulder one corner of a proclamation. The royal arms were visible, and the letters, plain and heavy and black, “COIN ...” He moved again, and the letters became hidden.

There advanced to the bailiff's table and flung one leg over it, a huge red man. He was red-haired, red-faced, red-whiskered, red as a red setter, and on his head was a cap of red foxskin. The table creaked beneath his weight, and the spread-out of his buckskin-covered thigh hid half the width of it. An old coat, of a wide and flaring cut, seemed to add even more to his bulk, and it was spotted with stains of vivid orange, apparently the eating of some acid. His accent, as he spoke, was not the curt and grudging accent of those parts.

“So we've got William Huggins's successor, Matthew,” he said cheerfully; “have you seen him yet?”

As Matthew Moon moved slightly again, the “....ING” of the proclamation showed.

“No,” he replied.

“Nor I. Well, we must entertain him. King's Excise or not, William Huggins was always companionable. A fair show of the lads here. You'll be at the meeting to-night?”

The merchant grunted. Presently he said, “What sort o' man does Sally say he is?”

“I don't know. Sally's out of heart, with Jim and Haigh all these months in York. Small wonder.”

Matthew Moon frowned again, and was silent for a minute. Then he looked up and said, “Ye said entertainment, Arthur. Supervisors must take their chance o' that. Don't start taking it heady. Tongues tie knots that teeth can't loose, and we don't want the speech and confession of Arthur Monjoy yet. Two in York's enough. Shall I be at the meeting? Yes; but don't go and take things too headstrong.”

The big man laughed. “If I remember, they wanted to set the dogs on Huggins at first; none of that,” he said; and as the merchant moved away the whole word “COINING” showed on the stone pillar.

Under the bow-windowed shops and houses the vendors of tinware and early market-stuff and wanded chairs and wooden vessels were knocking up their light booths; but no wares were yet displayed, for in Horwick the cloth market takes precedence of all else, and it is a fine of forty shillings, all but a penny, to as much as ask the price of a piece of cloth before the first stroke of the bell in the little round-topped turret of the Piece Hall. Among these minor merchants the women moved and gossipped. The waspish wife of Pim o' Cuddy, the Wadsworth verger, declared that she would not live with her husband another day—but she had left him at regular intervals any time this twenty years. Fat, gap-toothed Dooina Benn, who mashed herbs and distilled simples and rendered services to her sex that Mrs. Pim o' Cuddy was now little likely ever to stand in need of, exchanged tidings of the December's asthmas and lumbagos, and declared that she had scarce an ounce of gentian left to her name. They, too, spoke of the new resident excise officer, but their voices fell as Sally Northrop passed. Sally managed the “Cross Pipes” during her husband's absence. Jim Northrop and Will Haigh should have been back from York months ago; and on a January afternoon, during Jim's detention, Dooina had been sent for to Sally in haste—the innkeeper's wife had been brought to bed of a son. Not far from the women, Mish Murgatroyd held in a leash his choicest specimen of dogflesh, a currant-eyed, brindled brute, heavy as a man, heavily muzzled and formidable. Curs and terriers and mastiffs, noses to the ground, threaded in and out across the market-place invisible scents and tracks of their own, and a group of Back o' th' Mooiners looked admiringly at the animal.

“Hares? Birds? Nay!” Mish said, setting his cap back from his forehead that had a bull's-front of rough hair over his brows, but showed two great calf-licks over his temples. “Keep off him, Charley, for all he's muzzled. Sometimes I think I wouldn't like to slip him at a man; no, not muzzled. Sitha!” A terrier had approached the brindled dog. The ferocious creature had not growled, but the terrier crawled away, tail and belly to earth. “What d'ye think o' that?” exclaimed Mish, exultingly.

Suddenly there was a stir under the stable-arch of the “Cross Pipes,” and the noise about the inn fell. The hush seemed to spread instantaneously, and out of every upper window heads were thrust. Then, at the entrance of the stable-arch, a pack was flung down as if by inadvertence, and somebody stumbled over it. A tall weaver turned with a heavy budget on his back and jostled somebody. A man laughed. Then the weavers fell of their own accord back to the pieceboards, and the new Supervisor of the King's Excise was seen to be standing on the cobbles.

They have, as the Wadsworth parson had discovered, a humour of their own Horwick way. As if at a signal, there was a general catching of breath, and then a shout of laughter went up. Men clambered to the pieceboards to look over their neighbours' shoulders at the oddity that had been sent to them for an exciseman.

He was ludicrous, half a man only, a dwarf. An ordinary flight of steps would have taxed his diminutive legs; his body and shoulders were those of an undersized lad; and, awkwardly set on them, an enormous head wagged. His complexion was floury, and looked as if, had you touched it, a mothy dust would have adhered to your finger. A pair of round, black-rimmed spectacles made a double-O under his forehead, and behind them a pair of drowsy, blinking eyelids, purple with veining, showed scarce half of the greenish irises beneath them. He made alarmed and nervous movements with his hands as a hundred dogs pressed about him.

The peal of laughter had scarce died away when a couple of weavers had an exquisite idea. They hoisted themselves on one of the pieceboards and began to clack together the wooden heels of their brass-bound clogs. Across the market-place two more men began to clack. There was a general scramble for the pieceboards.

The infection caught and spread instantaneously. The tall pieceboards became an avenue of legs regularly moving—legs in casings of hide, in wrappings of straw-band, calves and tibias in stockings of grey and white and blue and brown—and an appalling racket of sound arose. In a second they had taken their time from the original clackers; the rhythmic high noise filled the market-place, rang under the Piece Hall arches, spread in a harsh, splitting cascade to the hills, affronted the sense of hearing. A man from Booth tossed up a pigeon. The derisive, puerile noise fell to a soft beat; it rose again as if a regiment of paviors had been at work; and the villainous dogs that pressed round the preposterous exciseman seemed but to await a signal from their masters. The bell in the turret of the Piece Hall struck eight; the wooden heels accompanied it; and then, as if by magic, there came a silence. Eyes still streaming with tears of enjoyment turned towards the Piece Hall steps. The big red man was descending them.

Monjoy extended his hand and snapped his fingers.

“Call those dogs off!” he ordered; and from the indescribable short mingling of noises that followed each dog seemed to sort out his own cluck or call or whistle, just as they had threaded the invisible tracks across the market-place. The great fellow stood opposite the exciseman.

“Our new Resident Supervisor?” he said courteously, his lips twitching as if he himself had to strive not to make drollery of it.

The heavy, livid lids behind the round black spectacles lifted a little, and the dwarf gave a short nasal “Hn, hn!”

“Yes, yes; I am he; hn, hn! My name is Cope—Jeremy Cope.”

This time Big Monjoy could not resist the smile. “It is a historic name in these parts,” he said.

“Yes, yes, yes.... I should say, rather, How so, Mr. ——?”

“How so? Well, if the fellows you see about you are anything at all in politics (which I doubt), they are for—you know whom: not the Elector. A gentleman of your name made himself famous some thirty years ago, and things move slowly hereabouts. But perhaps you have heard my own name from William Huggins—Arthur Monjoy.”

“From William—from whom?” queried the little man; and to those on the pieceboards he seemed pleased that any should take the trouble to talk to one so insignificant as he.

“Your predecessor; you did not know him? Our very good friend, Huggins was; always, in some respects, a 'Pot o' One' (as they say here of a man who combs his wool alone)—that was the disability of his office. Unofficially, we counted him one of ourselves.”

“The poor fellow is—hn, hn!—dead, then?”

“One foggy evening last November, with a pot in his hand and a pipe in his mouth, like the gentleman in the ballad. Died of a Halo Punch.—But you must let me show you our market.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you. A barren country hereabouts, Mr. ——

“(Monjoy) ... Barren? So-so. Yes, the hills are barren, and breed a rough homely folk. Our staple is cloth, as you see. I see you are looking at the stains on my old coat. You are right; they are of acid. I am no clothier myself; I am a seal-engraver.—What was I saying? Ah, our cloth! Our cloth goes far afield, much to Liverpool; and in return the good folk of Liverpool press on us a certain number of these metal pieces, the possession of which is vulgarly supposed to constitute wealth. But we know better than that, you and I—eh, Cope? 'Fill me with your corn and I'll cover you with my cloth; a third shall build us roof and hearth'—that's the true wealth, the commonwealth, eh?—But your pardon. I carry my coals to Newcastle—that is to say, my cloth to Horwick.”

“Hn! hn! hn! You are a very pleasant gentleman, Mr. Monjoy.... I should say, now, that a great variety of saxifrages is to be found on your hills?”

“Best let the hills alone; these gentlemen at the pieceboards are not always in a merry humour. Come and see the market.”

As Monjoy passed up the square with the supervisor, talking pleasantly, and explaining that save for the cloth-staple the district would be a wilderness, cachinnations, as if at some hidden jest, passed along the pieceboards. For all the bell had rung, not a man had unstrapped his budget. Big Monjoy pointed out this feature, or that man—goîtred John Raikes, dusty with the earth of the fulling-mill; Mish, with the brindled dog squatting under the pieceboard beneath him; the pack-road winding up the Shelf to the Causeway, and so forth. And every now and then the weavers seemed to see the ludicrous figure afresh and to break into fresh chuckles.

Matthew Moon drew James Eastwood, the Wadsworth flockmaster, aside under the pillars of the Piece Hall, and took him by the sleeve.

“There's times, James, when Arthur wants libbing of his tongue,” he growled. “Two at Ouse Bridge now ... he's daft. He cuts our dies well enough; but look here—right in our midst!” He rapped with the back of his hand on the proclamation.

James Eastwood, a lean man, with a cracked and wrinkled and sly face, laughed softly.

“Leave the bills to John Emmason,” he said; “John knows what he's about when he sticks bills up. The more bills the more safety.—Did ye ever see aught more like a frog nor yon?”

“That daft talk o' Arthur's! There's more fox in Arthur's cap than in all the rest of him put together. Listen to him now!” And again the voice of the big red man was heard.

“... That may be; but many of them saw Charles Edward in the '45, in Manchester. For that matter, his drummer was a Horwick lad; there's a tale about that I'll tell you some time. But King or Elector, it's small odds now, and I shouldn't wonder (this, of course, is unofficial) but my own word carried as much weight in Back o' th' Mooin as another man's.—Our Piece Hall is considered a fine building. The statue in the niche is of Queen Anne; a good piece of work, take an engraver's word for it.—The market is very late.—Ah, let me make you known to John Emmason, one of our magistrates. You and he will doubtless work in some measure together....”

The bailiff had now opened his books, and the Back o' th' Mooiners were unpacking their budgets on the pieceboards. The market was opening tardily. The huge red-whiskered man in the foxskin cap continued to present the new exciseman here and there, and then the bailiff's clerks began to pass more busily between the pieceboards. Quickly the talk and laughter fell to a low murmur of exchange; and presently Monjoy said, “Come, a morning draught at the 'Cross Pipes.' What say you?”

The eyes beneath the bruised-looking lids blinked up at Monjoy.

“Certainly, certainly, certainly; but I fear I must confess—hn! hn!—that I have a weakly stomach. The weakest glass of brandy and water—a very little excess—ah!” His narrow chest rose in a quick little sigh.

“Ay? Well, Huggins was the other way. 'Four-in-Hand Huggins,' we called him; but it beat him at the finish. Come.”

Half-way down the market-place Monjoy stopped to exchange a word with Matthew Moon. “Ay, eight o'clock, in the kitchen,” Moon grunted, and Monjoy nodded and returned to Jeremy Cope. They passed almost unnoticed into the “Cross Pipes.”