Moonfleet/Chapter 7

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Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner
Chapter 7. An Auction

CHAPTER 7: An auction

What if my house be troubled with a rat,
And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
To have it baned—SHAKESPEARE

One evening in March, when the days were lengthening fast, there came a messenger from Dorchester, and brought printed notices for fixing to the shutters of the Why Not? and to the church door, which said that in a week's time the bailiff of the duchy of Cornwall would visit Moonfleet. This bailiff was an important person, and his visits stood as events in village history. Once in five years he made a perambulation, or journey, through the whole duchy, inspecting all the Royal property, and arranging for new leases. His visits to Moonfleet were generally short enough, for owing to the Mohunes owning all the land, the only duchy estate there was the Why Not? and the only duty of the bailiff to renew that five-year lease, under which Blocks had held the inn, father and son, for generations. But for all that, the business was not performed without ceremony, for there was a solemn show of putting up the lease of the inn to the highest bidder, though it was well understood that no one except Elzevir would make an offer.

So one morning, a week later, I went up to the top end of the village to watch for the bailiff's postchaise, and about eleven of the forenoon saw it coming down the hill with four horses and two postillions. Presently it came past, and I saw there were two men in it—a clerk sitting with his back to the horses, and in the seat opposite a little man in a periwig, whom I took for the bailiff. Then I ran down to my aunt's house, for Elzevir had asked me to beg one of her best winter candles for a purpose which I will explain presently. I had not seen Aunt Jane, except in church, since the day that she dismissed me, but she was no stiffer than usual, and gave me the candle readily enough. 'There,' she said, 'take it, and I wish it may bring light into your dark heart, and show you what a wicked thing it is to leave your own kith and kin and go to dwell in a tavern.' I was for saying that it was kith and kin that left me, and not I them; and as for living in a tavern, it was better to live there than nowhere at all, as she would wish me to do in turning me out of her house; but did not, and only thanked her for the candle, and was off.

When I came to the inn, there was the postchaise in front of the door, the horses being led away to bait, and a little group of villagers standing round; for though the auction of the Why Not? was in itself a trite thing with a foregone conclusion, yet the bailiff's visit always stirred some show of interest. There were a few children with their noses flattened against the windows of the parlour, and inside were Mr. Bailiff and Mr. Clerk hard at work on their dinner. Mr. Bailiff, who was, as I guessed, the little man in the periwig, sat at the top of the table, and Mr. Clerk sat at the bottom, and on chairs were placed their hats, and travelling-cloaks, and bundles of papers tied together with green tape. You may be sure that Elzevir had a good dinner for them, with hot rabbit pie and cold round of brawn, and a piece of blue vinny, which Mr. Bailiff ate heartily, but his clerk would not touch, saying he had as lief chew soap. There was also a bottle of Ararat milk, and a flagon of ale, for we were afraid to set French wines before them, lest they should fall to wondering how they were come by.

Elzevir took the candle, chiding me a little for being late, and set it in a brass candlestick in the middle of the table. Then Mr. Clerk takes a little rule from his pocket, measures an inch down on the candle, sticks into the grease at that point a scarf-pin with an onyx head that Elzevir lent him, and lights the wick. Now the reason of this was, that the custom ran in Moonfleet when either land or lease was put up to bidding, to stick a pin in a candle; and so long as the pin held firm, it was open to any to make a better offer, but when the flame burnt down and the pin fell out, then land or lease fell to the last bidder. So after dinner was over and the table cleared, Mr. Clerk takes out a roll of papers and reads a legal description of the Why Not?, calling it the Mohune Arms, an excellent messuage or tenement now used as a tavern, and speaking of the convenient paddocks or parcels of grazing land at the back of it, called Moons'-lease, amounting to sixteen acres more or less. Then he invites the company to make an offer of rent for such a desirable property under a five years' lease, and as Elzevir and I are the only company present, the bidding is soon done; for Elzevir offers a rent of £12 a year, which has always been the value of the Why Not? The clerk makes a note of this; but the business is not over yet, for we must wait till the pin drops out of the candle before the lease is finally made out. So the men fell to smoking to pass the time, till there could not have been more than ten minutes' candle to burn, and Mr. Bailiff, with a glass of Ararat milk in his hand, was saying, 'Tis a curious and fine tap of Hollands you keep here, Master Block,' when in walked Mr. Maskew.

A thunderbolt would not have astonished me so much as did his appearance, and Elzevir's face grew black as night; but the bailiff and clerk showed no surprise, not knowing the terms on which persons in our village stood to one another, and thinking it natural that someone should come in to see the pin drop, and the end of an ancient custom. Indeed, Maskew seemed to know the bailiff, for he passed the time of day with him, and was then for sitting down at the table without taking any notice of Elzevir or me. But just as he began to seat himself, Block shouted out, 'You are no welcome visitor in my house, and I would sooner see your back than see your face, but sit at this table you shall not.' I knew what he meant; for on that table they had laid out David's body, and with that he struck his fist upon the board so smart as to make the bailiff jump and nearly bring the pin out of the candle.

'Heyday, sirs,' says Mr. Bailiff, astonished, 'let us have no brawling here, the more so as this worshipful gentleman is a magistrate and something of a friend of mine.' Yet Maskew refrained from sitting, but stood by the bailiff's chair, turning white, and not red, as he did with Mr. Glennie; and muttered something, that he had as lief stand as sit, and that it should soon be Block's turn to ask sitting-room of him.

I was wondering what possibly could have brought Maskew there, when the bailiff, who was ill at ease, said—

'Come, Mr. Clerk, the pin hath but another minute's hold; rehearse what has been done, for I must get this lease delivered and off to Bridport, where much business waits.'

So the clerk read in a singsong voice that the property of the duchy of Cornwall, called the Mohune Arms, an inn or tavern, with all its land, tenements, and appurtenances, situate in the Parish of St. Sebastian, Moonfleet, having been offered on lease for five years, would be let to Elzevir Block at a rent of £12 per annum, unless anyone offered a higher rent before the pin fell from the candle.

There was no one to make another offer, and the bailiff said to Elzevir, 'Tell them to have the horses round, the pin will be out in a minute, and 'twill save time.' So Elzevir gave the order, and then we all stood round in silence, waiting for the pin to fall. The grease had burnt down to the mark, or almost below it, as it appeared; but just where the pin stuck in there was a little lump of harder tallow that held bravely out, refusing to be melted. The bailiff gave a stamp of impatience with his foot under the table as though he hoped thus to shake out the pin, and then a little dry voice came from Maskew, saying—

'I offer £13 a year for the inn.'

This fell upon us with so much surprise, that all looked round, seeking as it were some other speaker, and never thinking that it could be Maskew. Elzevir was the first, I believe, to fully understand 'twas he; and without turning to look at bailiff or Maskew, but having his elbows on the table, his face between his hands, and looking straight out to sea said in a sturdy voice, 'I offer £20.'

The words were scarce out of his mouth when Maskew caps them with £21, and so in less than a minute the rent of the Why Not? was near doubled. Then the bailiff looked from one to the other, not knowing what to make of it all, nor whether 'twas comedy or serious, and said—

'Kind sir, I warn ye not to trifle; I have no time to waste in April fooling, and he who makes offers in sport will have to stand to them in earnest.'

But there was no lack of earnest in one at least of the men that he had before him, and the voice with which Elzevir said £30 was still sturdy. Maskew called £31 and £41, and Elzevir £40 and £50, and then I looked at the candle, and saw that the head of the pin was no longer level, it had sunk a little—a very little. The clerk awoke from his indifference, and was making notes of the bids with a squeaking quill, the bailiff frowned as being puzzled, and thinking that none had a right to puzzle him. As for me, I could not sit still, but got on my feet, if so I might better bear the suspense; for I understood now that Maskew had made up his mind to turn Elzevir out, and that Elzevir was fighting for his home. His home, and had he not made it my home too, and were we both to be made outcasts to please the spite of this mean little man?

There were some more bids, and then I knew that Maskew was saying £91, and saw the head of the pin was lower; the hard lump of tallow in Aunt Jane's candle was thawing. The bailiff struck in: 'Are ye mad, sirs, and you, Master Block, save your breath, and spare your money; and if this worshipful gentleman must become innkeeper at any price, let him have the place in the Devil's name, and I will give thee the Mermaid, at Bridport, with a snug parlour, and ten times the trade of this.'

Elzevir seemed not to hear what he said, but only called out £100, with his face still looking out to sea, and the same sturdiness in his voice. Then Maskew tried a spring, and went to £120, and Elzevir capped him with £130, and £140, £150, £160, £170 followed quick. My breath came so fast that I was almost giddy, and I had to clench my hands to remind myself of where I was, and what was going on. The bidders too were breathing hard, Elzevir had taken his head from his hands, and the eyes of all were on the pin. The lump of tallow was worn down now; it was hard to say why the pin did not fall. Maskew gulped out £180, and Elzevir said £190, and then the pin gave a lurch, and I thought the Why Not? was saved, though at the price of ruin. No; the pin had not fallen, there was a film that held it by the point, one second, only one second. Elzevir's breath, which was ready to outbid whatever Maskew said, caught in his throat with the catching pin, and Maskew sighed out £200, before the pin pattered on the bottom of the brass candlestick.

The clerk forgot his master's presence and shut his notebook with a bang, 'Congratulate you, sir,' says he, quite pert to Maskew; 'you are the landlord of the poorest pothouse in the Duchy at £200 a year.'

The bailiff paid no heed to what his man did, but took his periwig off and wiped his head. 'Well, I'm hanged,' he said; and so the Why Not? was lost.

Just as the last bid was given, Elzevir half-rose from his chair, and for a moment I expected to see him spring like a wild beast on Maskew; but he said nothing, and sat down again with the same stolid look on his face. And, indeed, it was perhaps well that he thus thought better of it, for Maskew stuck his hand into his bosom as the other rose; and though he withdrew it again when Elzevir got back to his chair, yet the front of his waistcoat was a little bulged, and, looking sideways, I saw the silver-shod butt of a pistol nestling far down against his white shirt. The bailiff was vexed, I think, that he had been betrayed into such strong words; for he tried at once to put on as indifferent an air as might be, saying in dry tones, 'Well, gentlemen, there seems to be here some personal matter into which I shall not attempt to spy. Two hundred pounds more or less is but a flea-bite to the Duchy; and if you, sir,' turning to Maskew, 'wish later on to change your mind, and be quit of the bargain, I shall not be the man to stand in your way. In any case, I imagine 'twill be time enough to seal the lease if I send it from London.'

I knew he said this, and hinted at delay as wishing to do Elzevir a good turn; for his clerk had the lease already made out pat, and it only wanted the name and rent filled in to be sealed and signed. But, 'No,' says Maskew, 'business is business, Mr. Bailiff, and the post uncertain to parts so distant from the capital as these; so I'll thank you to make out the lease to me now, and on May Day place me in possession.'

'So be it then,' said the bailiff a little testily, 'but blame me not for driving hard bargains; for the Duchy, whose servant I am,' and he raised his hat, 'is no daughter of the horse-leech. Fill in the figures, Mr. Scrutton, and let us away.'

So Mr. Scrutton, for that was Mr. Clerk's name, scratches a bit with his quill on the parchment sheet to fill in the money, and then Maskew scratches his name, and Mr. Bailiff scratches his name, and Mr. Clerk scratches again to witness Mr. Bailiff's name, and then Mr. Bailiff takes from his mails a little shagreen case, and out from the case comes sealing-wax and the travelling seal of the Duchy.

There was my aunt's best winter-candle still burning away in the daylight, for no one had taken any thought to put it out; and Mr. Bailiff melts the wax at it, till a drop of sealing-wax falls into the grease and makes a gutter down one side, and then there is a sweating of the parchment under the hot wax, and at last on goes the seal.

'Signed, sealed, and delivered,' says Mr. Clerk, rolling up the sheet and handing it to Maskew; and Maskew takes and thrusts it into his bosom underneath his waistcoat front—all cheek by jowl with that silver-hafted pistol, whose butt I had seen before.

The postchaise stood before the door, the horses were stamping on the cobble-stones, and the harness jingled. Mr. Clerk had carried out his mails, but Mr. Bailiff stopped for a moment as he flung the travelling cloak about his shoulders to say to Elzevir, 'Tut, man, take things not too hardly. Thou shalt have the Mermaid at 20 a year, which will be worth ten times as much to thee as this dreary place; and canst send thy son to Bryson's school, where they will make a scholar of him, for he is a brave lad'; and he touched my shoulder, and gave me a kindly look as he passed.

'I thank your worship', said Elzevir, 'for all your goodness; but when I quit this place, I shall not set up my staff again at any inn door.' Mr. Bailiff seemed nettled to see his offer made so little of, and left the room with a sniff, 'Then I wish you good day.'

Maskew had slipped out before him, and the children's noses left the window-pane as the great man walked down the steps. There was a little group to see the start, but it quickly melted; and before the clatter of hoofs died away, the report spread through the village that Maskew had turned Elzevir out of the Why Not?

For a long time after all had gone, Elzevir sat at the table with his head between his hands, and I kept quiet also, both because I was myself sorry that we were to be sent adrift, and because I wished to show Elzevir that I felt for him in his troubles. But the young cannot enter fully into their elders' sorrows, however much they may wish to, and after a time the silence palled upon me. It was getting dusk, and the candle which bore itself so bravely through auction and lease-sealing burnt low in the socket. A minute later the light gave some flickering flashes, failings, and sputters, and then the wick tottered, and out popped the flame, leaving us with the chilly grey of a March evening creeping up in the corners of the room. I could bear the gloom no longer, but made up the fire till the light danced ruddy across pewter and porcelain on the dresser. 'Come, Master Block,' I said, 'there is time enough before May Day to think what we shall do, so let us take a cup of tea, and after that I will play you a game of backgammon.' But he still remained cast down, and would say nothing; and as chance would have it, though I wished to let him win at backgammon, that so, perhaps, he might get cheered, yet do what I would that night I could not lose. So as his luck grew worse his moodiness increased, and at last he shut the board with a bang, saying, in reference to that motto that ran round its edge, 'Life is like a game of hazard, and surely none ever flung worse throws, or made so little of them as I.'