Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/Back o' the Moon/Chapter 3

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pp. 46–60.

CHAPTER III.

“JOHNNY COPE.”

The house occupied by the new supervisor of excise lay up a narrow cobbled croft, turning sharp from the Fullergate by the “Fullers' Arms.” It was, in reality, half of what had once been a considerable house, extending along the top of the croft; but the right-hand portion had for long been boarded and shuttered, and a pear-tree, planted by design or lack of thought close to the wall, divided the two portions. The lower part of the tree grew of necessity outwards; but at the eaves it spread back and embowered in its branches two dormer windows. Between the cobbles of the croft grass grew; the place was retired and quiet; and on the roof-flags pigeons crooned and flirted and made white droppings.

The shop of Cole the clogger was in the extreme corner, adjoining the supervisor's house. It lay in the basement, reached by half a dozen stone steps down a sort of well, and its window was flush with the grass and the cobbles. Thus, appropriately enough, the clogger was able to recognise his visitors by that portion of their attire that was in many cases his own handiwork. There was no mistaking the calliper-legs of Pim o' Cuddy, the darned blue worsted that cased Mish Murgatroyd's shins, the vast calf-muscles of Big Monjoy, nor the pudding ankles of fat Dooina Benn, the clogger's sister.

A facetious soul, Cole the clogger was, and apparently a well-beloved by his neighbours. He was seldom without visitors, on his steps, on the bench within his door, or supporting his outer wall. As he shaped the wooden soles in his vice, or with his cobbler's knife carved the stiff uppers, Cole ever declared that the odour of the leather that soaked in his tubs of black water was as good for the lungs as his sister's gentian, and none who wore his clogs (he vowed) suffered from toothache or neuralgia.

Fond of animals Cole was, too. On his bench a profligate magpie harped on the wires of his cage, and over the leather thong that held his knives and awls and pincers there were always three or four pigeons in wicker cages—plain homers, that knew their way to Holdsworth and Brotherton and Booth. Should a man from one of these places be interested in (say) the Horwick weather, it was easily arranged that the tossing up of a blue or black or mixed bird should mean that there was thunder about, or that rain was likely; while if you were able to write, you could convey, with as much detail as you pleased, the state of the atmosphere or the set of the wind. The pigeons were frequently changed. The clogger's shop was known as “The Gazette.”

Cole the clogger had one gift that endeared him to his gossiping neighbours, and to Back o' th' Mooin especially—that of mimicry; and Cole vowed that no such pair of legs as the supervisor's had ever passed his window. The clogger recognised the chance of his lifetime.

“Eh!” he cried one day, to one or two laughter-loving souls gathered in his basement, “but he pods down th' croft like I can't tell ye what—sitha!” He ducked his head into his fat shoulders, crooked his knees, and began to make a little creeping perambulation among his tubs of soaking leather. “Pit, pat, pit, pat—like a cat on a hot bak'stone—and his laugh—a sort of whinney—“Hn! hn!” like summat snapping i' th' bridge of his nose. A haw on his eyes an' all——

Then the clogger was seized with a rare idea.

“By Gow! I can just show ye! Pass me my coat!” he cried.

He got them to button the coat about his shoulders, with his arms inside and the sleeves empty and dangling. Then on his hands he thrust a pair of clogs. He puffed his cheeks out, blinked rapidly with his eyes, and began to waddle with his hands up and down his bench.

Roars of laughter broke out. That, to be sure, was just Cope—Cope to a T! It was a'most worth sending a pigeon off for. Cole would never beat that!—And Cole, in an artist's transport, practised little variations.

There was free ale for a month for Cole.

Scarcely less capable of burlesque than the exciseman's gait was the manner in which, coming out of his house, he was wont to bid those about the clogger's shop good-morning. (There was always somebody to bid good-morning to). His wont was to repeat the greeting over and over again, running off into a little diminuendo of “good-mornings,” and ending with his “Hn! hn!” or a little nervous catch of his breath; and of this, also, the merry clogger made a travesty. Taking the name of his magpie, Jacko Macacco, he practised a string of Macacco—cacco—caccos, until the bird himself caught the trick, and the magpie's final “Hn!” convulsed all who heard it. Then Cole began habitually to double and repeat terminations, often achieving ludicrous accidental results. This again (being a conscientious artist) he developed; and certain combinations were arrived at of which the syllables, run together and reiterated, made new disreputable words and meanings. On Thursdays the Back o' th' Mooiners would gather in the clogger's shop after the market. Cole would mark spectacles of soot about his eyes, making the resemblance startling. He would button up his coat and draw on the clogs, and Mish Murgatroyd would laugh till the veins started out on his calf-licked forehead. Once, with clog-soles, they repeated the rhythmic racket of the pieceboards, and the clogger was a little sheep-faced next morning when the exciseman passed; but Cope greeted him as usual, and stumped down the croft, murmuring his refrain of “Good-morning—morning, morning, morning—ah!”

Thus the Gazette. Elsewhere the new-comer, if less derisively taken, was not accepted much more seriously. He had confessed to a weakly stomach for liquor; but he was not averse to sitting for an hour of an evening in the “Cross Pipes,” sipping his weak brandy and water, entering once in a while deferentially into the general conversation, and so ready with the hospitality of his snuffbox (though he himself did not snuff), that he seemed a little cringingly desirous of conciliating all the world. That the disproportion of his stature should be less apparent, he invariably sat with his chair drawn close up to the table; but the presence of dogs beneath the board always disturbed him. On one occasion, when it was jestingly remarked that something must ail his snuff that he did not use it himself, he gave a little snigger, took snuff, sneezed immoderately, and at each sneeze his short legs gave an absurd little kick on the seat of his chair, almost as if a pair of legs should hiccough. They did not roar in his face, as the Gazette would have done; but it was tickling all the same. He invariably addressed even the humblest as “Mr.”

Once, and once only (if the drawing of his chair up to the table be excepted), he showed sensitiveness, and of that Arthur Monjoy was unwittingly the cause.

They were leaving the “Cross Pipes” one evening together, and had passed to the outer door; and Monjoy, who was a couple of paces in front, held open the heavy door (which else would have swung to again) in such a manner that Jeremy Cope was compelled to walk under his outstretched arm. It was dark in the entry, but Monjoy heard a little sound as of teeth gritted together, and the exciseman passed under his arm with a foot or so to spare. On the steps he turned to Monjoy.

“That—that, Mr. Monjoy,” he stammered, “that was a little gratuitous, was it not? I think you will agree, Mr. Monjoy——

“Eh?” said Monjoy, and suddenly he took his meaning. “Oh, the devil!—Nay, hang me, Cope, if I meant to pain you!”

“You must pardon me, Mr. Monjoy, if I suggest that you, as compared with most men, are as exceptional as I. I—I—I——

“Nay, you shall not say another word about it. I was to blame——

Cope sniggered.

“There, there, there! Perhaps I was foolish to notice it; let it pass, Mr. Monjoy——

And, as the dwarf became conciliatory again, and seemed to dread nothing so much as that the other should renew his apologies, it was odd that what in another man might have been dignity seemed, somehow, something less in him.

At the supper, to which John Emmason, as a magistrate, had been in courtesy bound to invite the new supervisor, there were present, besides three of the Executive (Raikes being left out), John Leedes (a fellow magistrate), and Hemstead, the solicitor. This Emmason was a long-nosed, horse-faced, pompous spoken man, who delivered his opinions with his eyes all but closed, and, when interrupted, waited and resumed again at his own last word. The supper was remarkable on the official, rather than on the social side, and after supper the conversation turned to the subject of certain transferences recently made from the Customs to the Excise. In this connection it would have been neither feasible nor advisable to avoid mention of the proclamation on the pillar of the Piece Hall; and on this Emmason delivered himself sententiously.

“For the two foolish fellows now in York,” he pronounced, “although the warrant for their arrest was not of my making out——

“Parker, of Ford, made it,” Hemstead interrupted; “they were seized at the 'Sun Inn'——

“—of my making out, yet I doubt if a conviction will be obtained. Misguided fellows!—Taken in most compromising circumstances, Mr. Cope. But the solicitor to His Majesty's Mint informs me ... hum! hum! ... I can acquaint you with all you may desire to know of that case, Mr. Cope.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you—silly, silly fellows!” Cope murmured.

“Most nefarious!” Emmason assented. “I desire that you will not hesitate to come to me in your need. In regard, now, to any possible line of action you might elect to pursue ....”

But he could get nothing from the blinking image in the black spectacles. He failed, also, in his hospitable intention of making his guest drunk, and if anybody made a profit out of the occasion, it was not the magistrate.

Before long the company at the “Cross Pipes” had nicknamed the supervisor “Johnny Cope.” The name had its rise in certain idle, daffing discussions which the big seal-engraver started, and in which Cope began to bear a share. These topics are of no present moment, save that they were directed humorously at the exciseman, and included the events of thirty years before (in which many had taken part, and all were familiar with). Monjoy usually took the whimsical side in such debates as whether laws were anything more than customs sanctioned; whether a guinea would be of much use to you in a desert; whether it would not be a thing patriotic, rather than otherwise, to counterfeit the image of a foreign king (this referred to the twenty-seven and thirty-six shilling Portugals, current in this country by consent, but not by proclamation), and a deal of similar stuff. These idle pastimes were the means of discovering a new quirk of humour in the puny exciseman. This was to close his eyes, wag his heavy head, pat the air gently away from him with his hand, and say, “La, Mr. Monjoy!”

Whenever the engraver turned up the croft to the shop of Cole the clogger, he took with him some morsel for Jacko Macacco, the magpie—a biscuit, a hard-boiled egg, or a bit of sugar. The bird knew his coming, and, indeed, would answer nobody's whistle but his; and Monjoy had taught it scraps of songs. Among these was an air of which the words began, “I don't like a Dutchman, I'm damned if I do”; and he would cry, “No more we do, Jacko; we may as well have it as they, eh?”

One morning he came into the shop, not thinking of the magpie, but whistling the air of Johnny Cope. The bird took to it, and after a couple of days (the merry clogger saw to that) the diminutive step of the supervisor down the croft was accompanied by a shrilly whistled, “Hey, Johnny Cope, are ye waukin yet?

One Wednesday evening, nearing the end of March, when the weavers had “felled” for the morrow's market, and Sally Northrop was run nearly on her feet getting ready beef and bread and cheese, a company sat in the red-curtained parlour of the “Pipes.” Every time the door opened the rich smell and crackling of a roasting joint came along the passage from the kitchen, and it had been remarked that the care of the inn was work for more than one pair of hands. Arthur Monjoy, a-straddle on a bench in the middle of the parlour, fanned his face with his foxskin cap, for the room had grown hot and he had been laughing. Matthew Moon, in a corner of the fireplace, was reading bills and letters at arm's-length. John Raikes smoked stolidly opposite him. Some nine or ten others sat round on benches, or in the recess of the window, and Cope's chair was drawn, as usual, up to the table.

As they talked in desultory fashion, there came along the passage a whistled stave of Johnny Cope. Cole the clogger entered, and he stood for a moment wondering at the laughter that greeted him. Then he bethought him and laughed also.

“Nay, I must ha' picked it up from th' bird,” he said, as he took his seat; and then, somebody else remarking that it was a good song for all that, the talk drifted to the never-stale subject of the '45. (By the way, Scotland itself did not contain a more rampant Jacobite than Dooina Benn. Not that she knew politics from a crow's nest, but because Charles Edward, passing through Carlisle, had stilled his bagpipes opposite the house of a lady brought to bed, and had sent her his salutations and compliments. “When did yon t'other piece o' pork ever do aught like that?” Dooina would demand.)

All at once, when, among other matters, mention had been made of Hawley's misadventure at Falkirk, the excise officer was seen to be chuckling extraordinarily to himself. His narrow shoulders heaved, he sobbed with his private mirth, and the whole parlour watched in amazement his soft convulsion of delight.

“Come, out with it, Cope!” Monjoy cried, and the exciseman gave a sigh, took off and wiped his glasses, and the edges of his battered purple lids shone with tears.

“Hn! hn! hn! hn! It must seem extraordinary to you, gentlemen, but—hn! hn!—once in a while I cannot resist these attacks. When you spoke of General Hawley—hn! hn!—I was put in mind of a very droll circumstance when he was in France. I will relate it. One day, being among certain of his officers, he said—just as I might have said that our friend who came in whistling was at the door—he said, 'There is a spy coming in from the French army'—no more than that; hn! hn! And so the officers formed themselves into a hasty court-martial, and in a very little while (this is what made me laugh) the man was brought in—on a gallows! Hn! hn! he! he! ho! ho! ho! ... A little grim, to be sure, grim and droll at the same time, eh? 'Came in!' Yes, he came in ... ah!”

There was something abominable, unnameable, in his relish of it, and for the moment he himself seemed disconcerted by the dead silence with which his story was received. He still chuckled nervously, as if to outface some hostile impression he had created; and in a minute Monjoy said quietly, glancing towards the door, “You have an extraordinary turn of humour, Cope.”

The heavy lids drooped, and Cope's hand patted the air away from his cheek. “La, Mr. Monjoy!” he murmured; but before the gesture was completed, Matthew Moon had advanced to the table, his brows contracted.

“See here, whatever they call ye,” he said. “'Grim,' ye said; but it might easy be grimmer. Now just take it on yourself that that's the last tale o' that sort ye tell in this house.”

And as Moon strode out, more than one man felt as if a chill hand had passed over his flesh at the thought that Sally Northrop might at any moment have entered the parlour.

Monjoy had followed Moon out. They met on the cobbles.

“Yon man heard what was said at Emmason's about Will and Jim, didn't he?” the merchant demanded.

“Yes,” Monjoy replied.

“And he knew that was Jim's house, too; ay, he knew. Yon's mind's as misshapen as his body,” the merchant said, and he turned away.