The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat
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Our drive till then had been quite a success. The other men in the car were my friend Woodhouse, young Ollyett, a distant connection of his, and Pallant, the M.P. Woodhouse's business was the treatment and cure of sick journals. He knew by instinct the precise moment in a newspaper's life when the impetus of past good management is exhausted and it fetches up on the dead-centre between slow and expensive collapse and the new start which can be given by gold injections--and genius. He was wisely ignorant of journalism; but when he stooped on a carcase there was sure to be meat. He had that week added a half-dead, halfpenny evening paper to his collection, which consisted of a prosperous London daily, one provincial ditto, and a limp-bodied weekly of commercial leanings. He had also, that very hour, planted me with a large block of the evening paper's common shares, and was explaining the whole art of editorship to Ollyett, a young man three years from Oxford, with coir-matting-coloured hair and a face harshly modelled by harsh experiences, who, I understood, was assisting in the new venture. Pallant, the long, wrinkled M.P., whose voice is more like a crane's than a peacock's, took no shares, but gave us all advice.
'You'll find it rather a knacker's yard,' Woodhouse was saying. 'Yes, I know they call me The Knacker; but it will pay inside a year. All my papers do. I've only one motto: Back your luck and back your staff. It'll come out all right.'
Then the car stopped, and a policeman asked our names and addresses for exceeding the speed-limit. We pointed out that the road ran absolutely straight for half a mile ahead without even a side-lane. 'That's just what we depend on,' said the policeman unpleasantly.
'The usual swindle,' said Woodhouse under his breath. 'What's the name of this place?'
'Huckley,' said the policeman. 'H-u-c-k-l-e-y,' and wrote something in his note-book at which young Ollyett protested. A large red man on a grey horse who had been watching us from the other side of the hedge shouted an order we could not catch. The policeman laid his hand on the rim of the right driving-door (Woodhouse carries his spare tyres aft), and it closed on the button of the electric horn. The grey horse at once bolted, and we could hear the rider swearing all across the landscape.
'Damn it, man, you've got your silly fist on it! Take it off!' Woodhouse shouted.
'Ho!' said the constable, looking carefully at his fingers as though we had trapped them. 'That won't do you any good either,' and he wrote once more in his note-book before he allowed us to go.
This was Woodhouse's first brush with motor law, and since I expected no ill consequences to myself, I pointed out that it was very serious. I took the same view myself when in due time I found that I, too, was summonsed on charges ranging from the use of obscene language to endangering traffic.
Judgment was done in a little pale-yellow market-town with a small, Jubilee clock-tower and a large corn-exchange. Woodhouse drove us there in his car. Pallant, who had not been included in the summons, came with us as moral support. While we waited outside, the fat man on the grey horse rode up and entered into loud talk with his brother magistrates. He said to one of them--for I took the trouble to note it down--'It falls away from my lodge-gates, dead straight, three-quarters of a mile. I'd defy any one to resist it. We rooked seventy pounds out of 'em last month. No car can resist the temptation. You ought to have one your side the county, Mike. They simply can't resist it.'
'Whew!' said Woodhouse. 'We're in for trouble. Don't you say a word--or Ollyett either! I'll pay the fines and we'll get it over as soon as possible. Where's Pallant?'
'At the back of the court somewhere,' said Ollyett. 'I saw him slip in just now.'
The fat man then took his seat on the Bench, of which he was chairman, and I gathered from a bystander that his name was Sir Thomas Ingell, Bart., M.P., of Ingell Park, Huckley. He began with an allocution pitched in a tone that would have justified revolt throughout empires. Evidence, when the crowded little court did not drown it with applause, was given in the pauses of the address. They were all very proud of their Sir Thomas, and looked from him to us, wondering why we did not applaud too.
Taking its time from the chairman, the Bench rollicked with us for seventeen minutes. Sir Thomas explained that he was sick and tired of processions of cads of our type, who would be better employed breaking stones on the road than in frightening horses worth more than themselves or their ancestors. This was after it had been proved that Woodhouse's man had turned on the horn purposely to annoy Sir Thomas, who happened to be riding by'! There were other remarks too--primitive enough,--but it was the unspeakable brutality of the tone, even more than the quality of the justice, or the laughter of the audience that stung our souls out of all reason. When we were dismissed--to the tune of twenty-three pounds, twelve shillings and sixpence--we waited for Pallant to join us, while we listened to the next case--one of driving without a licence. Ollyett with an eye to his evening paper, had already taken very full notes of our own, but we did not wish to seem prejudiced.
'It's all right,' said the reporter of the local paper soothingly. 'We never report Sir Thomas _in extenso_. Only the fines and charges.'
'Oh, thank you,' Ollyett replied, and I heard him ask who every one in court might be. The local reporter was very communicative.
The new victim, a large, flaxen-haired man in somewhat striking clothes, to which Sir Thomas, now thoroughly warmed, drew public attention, said that he had left his licence at home. Sir Thomas asked him if he expected the police to go to his home address at Jerusalem to find it for him; and the court roared. Nor did Sir Thomas approve of the man's name, but insisted on calling him 'Mr. Masquerader,' and every time he did so, all his people shouted. Evidently this was their established _auto-da-fe_.
'He didn't summons me--because I'm in the House, I suppose. I think I shall have to ask a Question,' said Pallant, reappearing at the close of the case.
'I think _I_ shall have to give it a little publicity too,' said Woodhouse. 'We can't have this kind of thing going on, you know.' His face was set and quite white. Pallant's, on the other hand, was black, and I know that my very stomach had turned with rage. Ollyett was dum.
'Well, let's have lunch,' Woodhouse said at last. 'Then we can get away before the show breaks up.'
We drew Ollyett from the arms of the local reporter, crossed the Market Square to the Red Lion and found Sir Thomas's 'Mr. Masquerader' just sitting down to beer, beef and pickles.
'Ah!' said he, in a large voice. 'Companions in misfortune. Won't you gentlemen join me?'
'Delighted,' said Woodhouse. 'What did you get?'
'I haven't decided. It might make a good turn, but--the public aren't educated up to it yet. It's beyond 'em. If it wasn't, that red dub on the Bench would be worth fifty a week.'
'Where?' said Woodhouse. The man looked at him with unaffected surprise.
'At any one of My places,' he replied. 'But perhaps you live here?'
'Good heavens!' cried young Ollyett suddenly. 'You _are_ Masquerier, then? I thought you were!'
'Bat Masquerier.' He let the words fall with the weight of an international ultimatum. 'Yes, that's all I am. But you have the advantage of me, gentlemen.'
For the moment, while we were introducing ourselves, I was puzzled. Then I recalled prismatic music-hall posters--of enormous acreage--that had been the unnoticed background of my visits to London for years past. Posters of men and women, singers, jongleurs, impersonators and audacities of every draped and undraped brand, all moved on and off in London and the Provinces by Bat Masquerier--with the long wedge-tailed flourish following the final 'r.'
'_I_ knew you at once,' said Pallant, the trained M.P., and I promptly backed the lie. Woodhouse mumbled excuses. Bat Masquerier was not moved for or against us any more than the frontage of one of his own palaces.
'I always tell My people there's a limit to the size of the lettering,' he said. 'Overdo that and the ret'na doesn't take it in. Advertisin' is the most delicate of all the sciences.'
'There's one man in the world who is going to get a little of it if I live for the next twenty-four hours,' said Woodhouse, and explained how this would come about.
Masquerier stared at him lengthily with gunmetal-blue eyes.
'You mean it?' he drawled; the voice was as magnetic as the look.
'_I_ do,' said Ollyett. 'That business of the horn alone ought to have him off the Bench in three months.' Masquerier looked at him even longer than he had looked at Woodhouse.
'He told _me_,' he said suddenly, 'that my home-address was Jerusalem. You heard that?'
'But it was the tone--the tone,' Ollyett cried.
'You noticed that, too, did you?' said Masquerier. 'That's the artistic temperament. You can do a lot with it. And I'm Bat Masquerier,' he went on. He dropped his chin in his fists and scowled straight in front of him.... 'I made the Silhouettes--I made the Trefoil and the Jocunda. I made 'Dal Benzaguen.' Here Ollyett sat straight up, for in common with the youth of that year he worshipped Miss Vidal Benzaguen of the Trefoil immensely and unreservedly. '"_Is_ that a dressing-gown or an ulster you're supposed to be wearing?" You heard _that_?... "And I suppose you hadn't time to brush your hair either?" You heard _that_?... Now, you hear _me_!' His voice filled the coffee-room, then dropped to a whisper as dreadful as a surgeon's before an operation. He spoke for several minutes. Pallant muttered 'Hear! hear!' I saw Ollyett's eye flash--it was to Ollyett that Masquerier addressed himself chiefly,--and Woodhouse leaned forward with joined hands.
'Are you _with_ me?' he went on, gathering us all up in one sweep of the arm. 'When I begin a thing I see it through, gentlemen. What Bat can't break, breaks him! But I haven't struck that thing yet. This is no one-turn turn-it-down show. This is business to the dead finish. Are you with me, gentlemen? Good! Now, we'll pool our assets. One London morning, and one provincial daily, didn't you say? One weekly commercial ditto and one M.P.'
'Not much use, I'm afraid,' Pallant smirked.
'But privileged. _But_ privileged,' he returned. 'And we have also my little team--London, Blackburn, Liverpool, Leeds--I'll tell you about Manchester later--and Me! Bat Masquerier.' He breathed the name reverently into his tankard. 'Gentlemen, when our combination has finished with Sir Thomas Ingell, Bart., M.P., and everything else that is his, Sodom and Gomorrah will be a winsome bit of Merrie England beside 'em. I must go back to town now, but I trust you gentlemen will give me the pleasure of your company at dinner to-night at the Chop Suey--the Red Amber Room--and we'll block out the scenario.' He laid his hand on young Ollyett's shoulder and added: 'It's your brains I want.' Then he left, in a good deal of astrachan collar and nickel-plated limousine, and the place felt less crowded.
We ordered our car a few minutes later. As Woodhouse, Ollyett and I were getting in, Sir Thomas Ingell, Bart., M.P., came out of the Hall of Justice across the square and mounted his horse. I have sometimes thought that if he had gone in silence he might even then have been saved, but as he settled himself in the saddle he caught sight of us and must needs shout: 'Not off yet? You'd better get away and you'd better be careful.' At that moment Pallant, who had been buying picture-postcards, came out of the inn, took Sir Thomas's eye and very leisurely entered the car. It seemed to me that for one instant there was a shade of uneasiness on the baronet's grey-whiskered face.
'I hope,' said Woodhouse after several miles, 'I hope he's a widower.'
'Yes,' said Pallant. 'For his poor, dear wife's sake I hope that, very much indeed. I suppose he didn't see me in Court. Oh, here's the parish history of Huckley written by the Rector and here's your share of the picture-postcards. Are we all dining with this Mr. Masquerier to-night?'
'Yes!' said we all.
- * * * *
If Woodhouse knew nothing of journalism, young Ollyett, who had graduated in a hard school, knew a good deal. Our halfpenny evening paper, which we will call _The Bun_ to distinguish her from her prosperous morning sister, _The Cake_, was not only diseased but corrupt. We found this out when a man brought us the prospectus of a new oil-field and demanded sub-leaders on its prosperity. Ollyett talked pure Brasenose to him for three minutes. Otherwise he spoke and wrote trade-English--a toothsome amalgam of Americanisms and epigrams. But though the slang changes the game never alters, and Ollyett and I and, in the end, some others enjoyed it immensely. It was weeks ere we could see the wood for the trees, but so soon as the staff realised that they had proprietors who backed them right or wrong, and specially when they were wrong (which is the sole secret of journalism), and that their fate did not hang on any passing owner's passing mood, they did miracles.
But we did not neglect Huckley. As Ollyett said our first care was to create an 'arresting atmosphere' round it. He used to visit the village of week-ends, on a motor-bicycle with a side-car; for which reason I left the actual place alone and dealt with it in the abstract. Yet it was I who drew first blood. Two inhabitants of Huckley wrote to contradict a small, quite solid paragraph in _The Bun_ that a hoopoe had been seen at Huckley and had, 'of course, been shot by the local sportsmen.' There was some heat in their letters, both of which we published. Our version of how the hoopoe got his crest from King Solomon was, I grieve to say, so inaccurate that the Rector himself--no sportsman as he pointed out, but a lover of accuracy--wrote to us to correct it. We gave his letter good space and thanked him.
'This priest is going to be useful,' said Ollyett. 'He has the impartial mind. I shall vitalise him.'
Forthwith he created M.L. Sigden, a recluse of refined tastes who in _The Bun_ demanded to know whether this Huckley-of-the-Hoopoe was the Hugly of his boyhood and whether, by any chance, the fell change of name had been wrought by collusion between a local magnate and the railway, in the mistaken interests of spurious refinement. 'For I knew it and loved it with the maidens of my day--_eheu ab angulo!_--as Hugly,' wrote M.L. Sigden from Oxf.
Though other papers scoffed, _The Bun_ was gravely sympathetic. Several people wrote to deny that Huckley had been changed at birth. Only the Rector--no philosopher as he pointed out, but a lover of accuracy--had his doubts, which he laid publicly before Mr. M.L. Sigden who suggested, through _The Bun_, that the little place might have begun life in Anglo-Saxon days as 'Hogslea' or among the Normans as 'Argile,' on account of its much clay. The Rector had his own ideas too (he said it was mostly gravel), and M.L. Sigden had a fund of reminiscences. Oddly enough--which is seldom the case with free reading-matter--our subscribers rather relished the correspondence, and contemporaries quoted freely.
'The secret of power,' said Ollyett, 'is not the big stick. It's the liftable stick.' (This means the 'arresting' quotation of six or seven lines.) 'Did you see the _Spec._ had a middle on "Rural Tenacities" last week. That was all Huckley. I'm doing a "Mobiquity" on Huckley next week.'
Our 'Mobiquities' were Friday evening accounts of easy motor-bike-_cum_-side-car trips round London, illustrated (we could never get that machine to work properly) by smudgy maps. Ollyett wrote the stuff with a fervour and a delicacy which I always ascribed to the side-car. His account of Epping Forest, for instance, was simply young love with its soul at its lips. But his Huckley 'Mobiquity' would have sickened a soap-boiler. It chemically combined loathsome familiarity, leering suggestion, slimy piety and rancid 'social service' in one fuming compost that fairly lifted me off my feet.
'Yes,' said he, after compliments. 'It's the most vital, arresting and dynamic bit of tump I've done up to date. _Non nobis gloria!_ I met Sir Thomas Ingell in his own park. He talked to me again. He inspired most of it.'
'Which? The "glutinous native drawl," or "the neglected adenoids of the village children"?' I demanded.
'Oh, no! That's only to bring in the panel doctor. It's the last flight we--I'm proudest of.'
This dealt with 'the crepuscular penumbra spreading her dim limbs over the boskage'; with 'jolly rabbits'; with a herd of 'gravid polled Angus'; and with the 'arresting, gipsy-like face of their swart, scholarly owner--as well known at the Royal Agricultural Shows as that of our late King-Emperor.'
'"Swart" is good and so's "gravid,"' said I, 'but the panel doctor will be annoyed about the adenoids.'
'Not half as much as Sir Thomas will about his face,' said Ollyett. 'And if you only knew what I've left out!'
He was right. The panel doctor spent his week-end (this is the advantage of Friday articles) in overwhelming us with a professional counterblast of no interest whatever to our subscribers. We told him so, and he, then and there, battered his way with it into the _Lancet_ where they are keen on glands, and forgot us altogether. But Sir Thomas Ingell was of sterner stuff. He must have spent a happy week-end too. The letter which we received from him on Monday proved him to be a kinless loon of upright life, for no woman, however remotely interested in a man would have let it pass the home wastepaper-basket. He objected to our references to his own herd, to his own labours in his own village, which he said was a Model Village, and to our infernal insolence; but he objected most to our invoice of his features. We wrote him courtously to ask whether the letter was meant for publication. He, remembering, I presume, the Duke of Wellington, wrote back, 'publish and be damned.'
'Oh! This is too easy,' Ollyett said as he began heading the letter.
'Stop a minute,' I said. 'The game is getting a little beyond us. To-night's the Bat dinner.' (I may have forgotten to tell you that our dinner with Bat Masquerier in the Red Amber Room of the Chop Suey had come to be a weekly affair.) 'Hold it over till they've all seen it.'
'Perhaps you're right,' he said. 'You might waste it.'
At dinner, then, Sir Thomas's letter was handed round. Bat seemed to be thinking of other matters, but Pallant was very interested.
'I've got an idea,' he said presently. 'Could you put something into _The Bun_ to-morrow about foot-and-mouth disease in that fellow's herd?'
'Oh, plague if you like,' Ollyett replied. 'They're only five measly Shorthorns. I saw one lying down in the park. She'll serve as a sub-stratum of fact.'
'Then, do that; and hold the letter over meanwhile. I think _I_ come in here,' said Pallant.
'Why?' said I.
'Because there's something coming up in the House about foot-and-mouth, and because he wrote me a letter after that little affair when he fined you. 'Took ten days to think it over. Here you are,' said Pallant. 'House of Commons paper, you see.'
DEAR PALLANT--Although in the past our paths have not lain much together, I am sure you will agree with me that on the floor of the House all members are on a footing of equality. I make bold, therefore, to approach you in a matter which I think capable of a very different interpretation from that which perhaps was put upon it by your friends. Will you let them know that that was the case and that I was in no way swayed by animus in the exercise of my magisterial duties, which as you, as a brother magistrate, can imagine are frequently very distasteful to--Yours very sincerely,
_P.S._--I have seen to it that the motor vigilance to which your friends took exception has been considerably relaxed in my district.
'What did you answer?' said Ollyett, when all our opinions had been expressed.
'I told him I couldn't do anything in the matter. And I couldn't--then. But you'll remember to put in that foot-and-mouth paragraph. I want something to work upon.'
'It seems to me _The Bun_ has done all the work up to date,' I suggested. 'When does _The Cake_ come in?'
'_The Cake_,' said Woodhouse, and I remembered afterwards that he spoke like a Cabinet Minister on the eve of a Budget, 'reserves to itself the fullest right to deal with situations as they arise.'
'Ye-eh!' Bat Masquerier shook himself out of his thoughts. '"Situations as they arise." I ain't idle either. But there's no use fishing till the swim's baited. You'--he turned to Ollyett--'manufacture very good ground-bait.... I always tell My people--What the deuce is that?'
There was a burst of song from another private dining-room across the landing. 'It ees some ladies from the Trefoil,' the waiter began.
'Oh, I know that. What are they singing, though?'
He rose and went out, to be greeted by shouts of applause from that merry company. Then there was silence, such as one hears in the form-room after a master's entry. Then a voice that we loved began again: 'Here we go gathering nuts in May--nuts in May--nuts in May!'
'It's only 'Dal--and some nuts,' he explained when he returned. 'She says she's coming in to dessert.' He sat down, humming the old tune to himself, and till Miss Vidal Benzaguen entered, he held us speechless with tales of the artistic temperament.
We obeyed Pallant to the extent of slipping into _The Bun_ a wary paragraph about cows lying down and dripping at the mouth, which might be read either as an unkind libel or, in the hands of a capable lawyer, as a piece of faithful nature-study.
'And besides,' said Ollyett, 'we allude to "gravid polled Angus." I am advised that no action can lie in respect of virgin Shorthorns. Pallant wants us to come to the House to-night. He's got us places for the Strangers' Gallery. I'm beginning to like Pallant.'
'Masquerier seems to like you,' I said.
'Yes, but I'm afraid of him,' Ollyett answered with perfect sincerity. 'I am. He's the Absolutely Amoral Soul. I've never met one yet.'
We went to the House together. It happened to be an Irish afternoon, and as soon as I had got the cries and the faces a little sorted out, I gathered there were grievances in the air, but how many of them was beyond me.
'It's all right,' said Ollyett of the trained ear. 'They've shut their ports against--oh yes--export of Irish cattle! Foot-and-mouth disease at Ballyhellion. _I_ see Pallant's idea!'
The House was certainly all mouth for the moment, but, as I could feel, quite in earnest. A Minister with a piece of typewritten paper seemed to be fending off volleys of insults. He reminded me somehow of a nervous huntsman breaking up a fox in the face of rabid hounds.
'It's question-time. They're asking questions,' said Ollyett. 'Look! Pallant's up.'
There was no mistaking it. His voice, which his enemies said was his one parliamentary asset, silenced the hubbub as toothache silences mere singing in the ears. He said:
'Arising out of that, may I ask if any special consideration has recently been shown in regard to any suspected outbreak of this disease on _this_ side of the Channel?'
He raised his hand; it held a noon edition of _The Bun_. We had thought it best to drop the paragraph out of the later ones. He would have continued, but something in a grey frock-coat roared and bounded on a bench opposite, and waved another _Bun_. It was Sir Thomas Ingell.
'As the owner of the herd so dastardly implicated--' His voice was drowned in shouts of 'Order!'--the Irish leading.
'What's wrong?' I asked Ollyett. 'He's got his hat on his head, hasn't he?'
'Yes, but his wrath should have been put as a question.'
'Arising out of that, Mr. Speaker, Sirrr!' Sir Thomas bellowed through a lull, 'are you aware that--that all this is a conspiracy--part of a dastardly conspiracy to make Huckley ridiculous--to make _us_ ridiculous? Part of a deep-laid plot to make _me_ ridiculous, Mr. Speaker, Sir!'
The man's face showed almost black against his white whiskers, and he struck out swimmingly with his arms. His vehemence puzzled and held the House for an instant, and the Speaker took advantage of it to lift his pack from Ireland to a new scent. He addressed Sir Thomas Ingell in tones of measured rebuke, meant also, I imagine, for the whole House, which lowered its hackles at the word. Then Pallant, shocked and pained: 'I can only express my profound surprise that in response to my simple question the honourable member should have thought fit to indulge in a personal attack. If I have in any way offended--'
Again the Speaker intervened, for it appeared that he regulated these matters.
He, too, expressed surprise, and Sir Thomas sat back in a hush of reprobation that seemed to have the chill of the centuries behind it. The Empire's work was resumed.
'Beautiful!' said I, and I felt hot and cold up my back.
'And now we'll publish his letter,' said Ollyett.
We did--on the heels of his carefully reported outburst. We made no comment. With that rare instinct for grasping the heart of a situation which is the mark of the Anglo-Saxon, all our contemporaries and, I should say, two-thirds of our correspondents demanded how such a person could be made more ridiculous than he had already proved himself to be. But beyond spelling his name 'Injle,' we alone refused to hit a man when he was down.
'There's no need,' said Ollyett. 'The whole press is on the buckle from end to end.'
Even Woodhouse was a little astonished at the ease with which it had come about, and said as much.
'Rot!' said Ollyett. 'We haven't really begun. Huckley isn't news yet.'
'What do you mean?' said Woodhouse, who had grown to have great respect for his young but by no means distant connection.
'Mean? By the grace of God, Master Ridley, I mean to have it so that when Huckley turns over in its sleep, Reuters and the Press Association jump out of bed to cable.' Then he went off at score about certain restorations in Huckley Church which, he said--and he seemed to spend his every week-end there--had been perpetrated by the Rector's predecessor, who had abolished a 'leper-window' or a 'squinch-hole' (whatever these may be) to institute a lavatory in the vestry. It did not strike me as stuff for which Reuters or the Press Association would lose much sleep, and I left him declaiming to Woodhouse about a fourteenth-century font which, he said, he had unearthed in the sexton's tool-shed.
My methods were more on the lines of peaceful penetration. An odd copy, in _The Bun's_ rag-and-bone library, of Hone's _Every-Day Book_ had revealed to me the existence of a village dance founded, like all village dances, on Druidical mysteries connected with the Solar Solstice (which is always unchallengeable) and Mid-summer Morning, which is dewy and refreshing to the London eye. For this I take no credit--Hone being a mine any one can work--but that I rechristened that dance, after I had revised it, 'The Gubby' is my title to immortal fame. It was still to be witnessed, I wrote, 'in all its poignant purity at Huckley, that last home of significant mediaeval survivals'; and I fell so in love with my creation that I kept it back for days, enamelling and burnishing.
'You's better put it in,' said Ollyett at last. 'It's time we asserted ourselves again. The other fellows are beginning to poach. You saw that thing in the _Pinnacle_ about Sir Thomas's Model Village? He must have got one of their chaps down to do it.'
Nothing like the wounds of a friend,' I said. 'That account of the non-alcoholic pub alone was--'
'I liked the bit best about the white-tiled laundry and the Fallen Virgins who wash Sir Thomas's dress shirts. Our side couldn't come within a mile of that, you know. We haven't the proper flair for sexual slobber.'
'That's what I'm always saying,' I retorted. 'Leave 'em alone. The other fellows are doing our work for us now. Besides I want to touch up my "Gubby Dance" a little more.'
'No. You'll spoil it. Let's shove it in to-day. For one thing it's Literature. I don't go in for compliments as you know, but, etc. etc.'
I had a healthy suspicion of young Ollyett in every aspect, but though I knew that I should have to pay for it, I fell to his flattery, and my priceless article on the 'Gubby Dance' appeared. Next Saturday he asked me to bring out _The Bun_ in his absence, which I naturally assumed would be connected with the little maroon side-car. I was wrong.
On the following Monday I glanced at _The Cake_ at breakfast-time to make sure, as usual, of her inferiority to my beloved but unremunerative _Bun_. I opened on a heading: 'The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat.' I read ... I read that the Geoplanarian Society--a society devoted to the proposition that the earth is flat--had held its Annual Banquet and Exercises at Huckley on Saturday, when after convincing addresses, amid scenes of the greatest enthusiasm, Huckley village had decided by an unanimous vote of 438 that the earth was flat. I do not remember that I breathed again till I had finished the two columns of description that followed. Only one man could have written them. They were flawless--crisp, nervous, austere yet human, poignant, vital, arresting--most distinctly arresting--dynamic enough to shift a city--and quotable by whole sticks at a time. And there was a leader, a grave and poised leader, which tore me in two with mirth, until I remembered that I had been left out--infamously and unjustifiably dropped. I went to Ollyett's rooms. He was breakfasting, and, to do him justice, looked conscience-stricken.
'It wasn't my fault,' he began. 'It was Bat Masquerier. I swear _I_ would have asked you to come if--'
'Never mind that,' I said. 'It's the best bit of work you've ever done or will do. Did any of it happen?'
'Happen? Heavens! D'you think even _I_ could have invented it?'
'Is it exclusive to _The Cake_?' I cried.
'It cost Bat Masquerier two thousand,' Ollyett replied. 'D'you think he'd let any one else in on that? But I give you my sacred word I knew nothing about it till he asked me to come down and cover it. He had Huckley posted in three colours, "The Geoplanarians' Annual Banquet and Exercises." Yes, he invented "Geoplanarians." He wanted Huckley to think it meant aeroplanes. Yes, I know that there is a real Society that thinks the world's flat--they ought to be grateful for the lift--but Bat made his own. He did! He created the whole show, I tell you. He swept out half his Halls for the job. Think of that--on a Saturday! They--we went down in motor char-a-bancs--three of 'em--one pink, one primrose, and one forget-me-not blue--twenty people in each one and "The Earth _is_ Flat" on each side and across the back. I went with Teddy Rickets and Lafone from the Trefoil, and both the Silhouette Sisters, and--wait a minute!--the Crossleigh Trio. You know the Every-Day Dramas Trio at the Jocunda--Ada Crossleigh, "Bunt" Crossleigh, and little Victorine? Them. And there was Hoke Ramsden, the lightning-change chap in _Morgiana and Drexel_--and there was Billy Turpeen. Yes, you know him! The North London Star. "I'm the Referee that got himself disliked at Blackheath." _That_ chap! And there was Mackaye--that one-eyed Scotch fellow that all Glasgow is crazy about. Talk of subordinating yourself for Art's sake! Mackaye was the earnest inquirer who got converted at the end of the meeting. And there was quite a lot of girls I didn't know, and--oh, yes--there was 'Dal! 'Dal Benzaguen herself! We sat together, going and coming. She's all the darling there ever was. She sent you her love, and she told me to tell you that she won't forget about Nellie Farren. She says you've given her an ideal to work for. She? Oh, she was the Lady Secretary to the Geoplanarians, of course. I forget who were in the other brakes--provincial stars mostly--but they played up gorgeously. The art of the music-hall's changed since your day. They didn't overdo it a bit. You see, people who believe the earth is flat don't dress quite like other people. You may have noticed that I hinted at that in my account. It's a rather flat-fronted Ionic style--neo-Victorian, except for the bustles, 'Dal told me,--but 'Dal looked heavenly in it! So did little Victorine. And there was a girl in the blue brake--she's a provincial--but she's coming to town this winter and she'll knock 'em--Winnie Deans. Remember that! She told Huckley how she had suffered for the Cause as a governess in a rich family where they believed that the world is round, and how she threw up her job sooner than teach immoral geography. That was at the overflow meeting outside the Baptist chapel. She knocked 'em to sawdust! We must look out for Winnie.... But Lafone! Lafone was beyond everything. Impact, personality--conviction--the whole bag o' tricks! He sweated conviction. Gad, he convinced _me_ while he was speaking! (Him? He was President of the Geoplanarians, of course. Haven't you read my account?) It _is_ an infernally plausible theory. After all, no one has actually proved the earth is round, have they?'
'Never mind the earth. What about Huckley?'
'Oh, Huckley got tight. That's the worst of these model villages if you let 'em smell fire-water. There's one alcoholic pub in the place that Sir Thomas can't get rid of. Bat made it his base. He sent down the banquet in two motor lorries--dinner for five hundred and drinks for ten thousand. Huckley voted all right. Don't you make any mistake about that. No vote, no dinner. A unanimous vote--exactly as I've said. At least, the Rector and the Doctor were the only dissentients. We didn't count them. Oh yes, Sir Thomas was there. He came and grinned at us through his park gates. He'll grin worse to-day. There's an aniline dye that you rub through a stencil-plate that eats about a foot into any stone and wears good to the last. Bat had both the lodge-gates stencilled "The Earth _is_ flat!" and all the barns and walls they could get at.... Oh Lord, but Huckley was drunk! We had to fill 'em up to make 'em forgive us for not being aeroplanes. Unthankful yokels! D'you realise that Emperors couldn't have commanded the talent Bat decanted on 'em? Why, 'Dal alone was.... And by eight o'clock not even a bit of paper left! The whole show packed up and gone, and Huckley hoo-raying for the earth being flat.'
'Very good,' I began. 'I am, as you know, a one-third proprietor of _The Bun_.'
'I didn't forget that,' Ollyett interrupted. 'That was uppermost in my mind all the time. I've got a special account for _The Bun_ to-day--it's an idyll--and just to show how I thought of you, I told 'Dal, coming home, about your Gubby Dance, and she told Winnie. Winnie came back in our char-a-banc. After a bit we had to get out and dance it in a field. It's quite a dance the way we did it--and Lafone invented a sort of gorilla lockstep procession at the end. Bat had sent down a film-chap on the chance of getting something. He was the son of a clergyman--a most dynamic personality. He said there isn't anything for the cinema in meetings _qua_ meetings--they lack action. Films are a branch of art by themselves. But he went wild over the Gubby. He said it was like Peter's vision at Joppa. He took about a million feet of it. Then I photoed it exclusive for _The Bun_. I've sent 'em in already, only remember we must eliminate Winnie's left leg in the first figure. It's too arresting.... And there you are! But I tell you I'm afraid of Bat. That man's the Personal Devil. He did it all. He didn't even come down himself. He said he'd distract his people.'
'Why didn't he ask me to come?' I persisted.
'Because he said you'd distract me. He said he wanted my brains on ice. He got 'em. I believe it's the best thing I've ever done.' He reached for _The Cake_ and re-read it luxuriously. 'Yes, out and away the best--supremely quotable,' he concluded, and--after another survey--'By God, what a genius I was yesterday!'
I would have been angry, but I had not the time. That morning, Press agencies grovelled to me in _The Bun_ office for leave to use certain photos, which, they understood, I controlled, of a certain village dance. When I had sent the fifth man away on the edge of tears, my self-respect came back a little. Then there was _The Bun's_ poster to get out. Art being elimination, I fined it down to two words (one too many, as it proved)--'The Gubby!' in red, at which our manager protested; but by five o'clock he told me that I was _the_ Napoleon of Fleet Street. Ollyett's account in _The Bun_ of the Geoplanarians' Exercises and Love Feast lacked the supreme shock of his version in _The Cake_, but it bruised more; while the photos of 'The Gubby' (which, with Winnie's left leg, was why I had set the doubtful press to work so early) were beyond praise and, next day, beyond price. But even then I did not understand.
A week later, I think it was, Bat Masquerier telephoned to me to come to the Trefoil.
'It's your turn now,' he said. 'I'm not asking Ollyett. Come to the stage-box.'
I went, and, as Bat's guest, was received as Royalty is not. We sat well back and looked out on the packed thousands. It was _Morgiana and Drexel_, that fluid and electric review which Bat--though he gave Lafone the credit--really created.
'Ye-es,' said Bat dreamily, after Morgiana had given 'the nasty jar' to the Forty Thieves in their forty oil 'combinations.' 'As you say, I've got 'em and I can hold 'em. What a man does doesn't matter much; and how he does it don't matter either. It's the _when_--the psychological moment. 'Press can't make up for it; money can't; brains can't. A lot's luck, but all the rest is genius. I'm not speaking about My people now. I'm talking of Myself.'
Then 'Dal--she was the only one who dared--knocked at the door and stood behind us all alive and panting as Morgiana. Lafone was carrying the police-court scene, and the house was ripped up crossways with laughter.
'Ah! Tell a fellow now,' she asked me for the twentieth time, 'did you love Nellie Farren when you were young?'
'Did we love her?' I answered. '"If the earth and the sky and the sea"--There were three million of us, 'Dal, and we worshipped her.'
'How did she get it across?' Dal went on.
'She was Nellie. The houses used to coo over her when she came on.'
'I've had a good deal, but I've never been cooed over yet,' said 'Dal wistfully.
'It isn't the how, it's the when,' Bat repeated. 'Ah!'
He leaned forward as the house began to rock and peal full-throatedly. 'Dal fled. A sinuous and silent procession was filing into the police-court to a scarcely audible accompaniment. It was dressed--but the world and all its picture-palaces know how it was dressed. It danced and it danced, and it danced the dance which bit all humanity in the leg for half a year, and it wound up with the lockstep finale that mowed the house down in swathes, sobbing and aching. Somebody in the gallery moaned, 'Oh Gord, the Gubby!' and we heard the word run like a shudder, for they had not a full breath left among them. Then 'Dal came on, an electric star in her dark hair, the diamonds flashing in her three-inch heels--a vision that made no sign for thirty counted seconds while the police-court scene dissolved behind her into Morgiana's Manicure Palace, and they recovered themselves. The star on her forehead went out, and a soft light bathed her as she took--slowly, slowly to the croon of adoring strings--the eighteen paces forward. We saw her first as a queen alone; next as a queen for the first time conscious of her subjects, and at the end, when her hands fluttered, as a woman delighted, awed not a little, but transfigured and illuminated with sheer, compelling affection and goodwill. I caught the broken mutter of welcome--the coo which is more than tornadoes of applause. It died and rose and died again lovingly.
'She's got it across,' Bat whispered. 'I've never seen her like this. I told her to light up the star, but I was wrong, and she knew it. She's an artist.'
Dal, you darling!' some one spoke, not loudly but it carried through the house.
'Thank _you_!' 'Dal answered, and in that broken tone one heard the last fetter riveted. 'Good evening, boys! I've just come from--now--where the dooce was it I have come from?' She turned to the impassive files of the Gubby dancers, and went on: 'Ah, so good of you to remind me, you dear, bun-faced things. I've just come from the village--The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat.'
She swept into that song with the full orchestra. It devastated the habitable earth for the next six months. Imagine, then, what its rage and pulse must have been at the incandescent hour of its birth! She only gave the chorus once. At the end of the second verse, 'Are you _with_ me, boys?' she cried, and the house tore it clean away from her--'_Earth_ was flat--_Earth_ was flat. Flat as my hat--Flatter than that'--drowning all but the bassoons and double-basses that marked the word.
'Wonderful,' I said to Bat. 'And it's only "Nuts in May," with variations.'
'Yes--but _I_ did the variations,' he replied.
At the last verse she gestured to Carlini the conductor, who threw her up his baton. She caught it with a boy's ease. 'Are you _with_ me?' she cried once more, and--the maddened house behind her--abolished all the instruments except the guttural belch of the double-basses on '_Earth_'--'The Village that voted the _Earth_ was flat--_Earth_ was flat!' It was delirium. Then she picked up the Gubby dancers and led them in a clattering improvised lockstep thrice round the stage till her last kick sent her diamond-hiked shoe catherine-wheeling to the electrolier.
I saw the forest of hands raised to catch it, heard the roaring and stamping pass through hurricanes to full typhoon; heard the song, pinned down by the faithful double-basses as the bull-dog pins down the bellowing bull, overbear even those; till at last the curtain fell and Bat took me round to her dressing-room, where she lay spent after her seventh call. Still the song, through all those white-washed walls, shook the reinforced concrete of the Trefoil as steam pile-drivers shake the flanks of a dock.
'I'm all out--first time in my life. Ah! Tell a fellow now, did I get it across?' she whispered huskily.
'You know you did,' I replied as she dipped her nose deep in a beaker of barley-water. 'They cooed over you.'
Bat nodded. 'And poor Nellie's dead--in Africa, ain't it?'
'I hope I'll die before they stop cooing,' said 'Dal.
'"_Earth_ was flat--_Earth_ was flat!"' Now it was more like mine-pumps in flood.
'They'll have the house down if you don't take another,' some one called.
'Bless 'em!' said 'Dal, and went out for her eighth, when in the face of that cataract she said yawning, 'I don't know how _you_ feel, children, but _I_'m dead. You be quiet.'
'Hold a minute,' said Bat to me. 'I've got to hear how it went in the provinces. Winnie Deans had it in Manchester, and Ramsden at Glasgow--and there are all the films too. I had rather a heavy week-end.'
The telephones presently reassured him.
'It'll do,' said he. 'And _he_ said my home address was Jerusalem.' He left me humming the refrain of 'The Holy City.' Like Ollyett I found myself afraid of that man.
When I got out into the street and met the disgorging picture-palaces capering on the pavements and humming it (for he had put the gramophones on with the films), and when I saw far to the south the red electrics flash 'Gubby' across the Thames, I feared more than ever.
- * * * *
A few days passed which were like nothing except, perhaps, a suspense of fever in which the sick man perceives the searchlights of the world's assembled navies in act to converge on one minute fragment of wreckage--one only in all the black and agony-strewn sea. Then those beams focussed themselves. Earth as we knew it--the full circuit of our orb--laid the weight of its impersonal and searing curiosity on this Huckley which had voted that it was flat. It asked for news about Huckley--where and what it might be, and how it talked--it knew how it danced--and how it thought in its wonderful soul. And then, in all the zealous, merciless press, Huckley was laid out for it to look at, as a drop of pond water is exposed on the sheet of a magic-lantern show. But Huckley's sheet was only coterminous with the use of type among mankind. For the precise moment that was necessary, Fate ruled it that there should be nothing of first importance in the world's idle eye. One atrocious murder, a political crisis, an incautious or heady continental statesman, the mere catarrh of a king, would have wiped out the significance of our message, as a passing cloud annuls the urgent helio. But it was halcyon weather in every respect. Ollyett and I did not need to lift our little fingers any more than the Alpine climber whose last sentence has unkeyed the arch of the avalanche. The thing roared and pulverised and swept beyond eyesight all by itself--all by itself. And once well away, the fall of kingdoms could not have diverted it.
Ours is, after all, a kindly earth. While The Song ran and raped it with the cataleptic kick of 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,' multiplied by the West African significance of 'Everybody's doing it,' plus twice the infernal elementality of a certain tune in _Dona et Gamma_; when for all practical purposes, literary, dramatic, artistic, social, municipal, political, commercial, and administrative, the Earth _was_ flat, the Rector of Huckley wrote to us--again as a lover of accuracy--to point out that the Huckley vote on 'the alleged flatness of this scene of our labours here below' was _not_ unanimous; he and the doctor having voted against it. And the great Baron Reuter himself (I am sure it could have been none other) flashed that letter in full to the front, back, and both wings of this scene of our labours. For Huckley was News. _The Bun_ also contributed a photograph which cost me some trouble to fake.
'We are a vital nation,' said Ollyett while we were discussing affairs at a Bat dinner. 'Only an Englishman could have written that letter at this present juncture.'
'It reminded me of a tourist in the Cave of the Winds under Niagara. Just one figure in a mackintosh. But perhaps you saw our photo?' I said proudly.
'Yes,' Bat replied. 'I've been to Niagara, too. And how's Huckley taking it?'
'They don't quite understand, of course,' said Ollyett. 'But it's bringing pots of money into the place. Ever since the motor-bus excursions were started--'
'I didn't know they had been,' said Pallant.
'Oh yes. Motor char-a-bancs--uniformed guides and key-bugles included. They're getting a bit fed up with the tune there nowadays,' Ollyett added.
'They play it under his windows, don't they?' Bat asked. 'He can't stop the right of way across his park.'
'He cannot,' Ollyett answered. 'By the way, Woodhouse, I've bought that font for you from the sexton. I paid fifteen pounds for it.'
'What am I supposed to do with it?' asked Woodhouse.
'You give it to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is fourteenth-century work all right. You can trust me.'
'Is it worth it--now?' said Pallant. 'Not that I'm weakening, but merely as a matter of tactics?'
'But this is true,' said Ollyett. 'Besides, it is my hobby, I always wanted to be an architect. I'll attend to it myself. It's too serious for _The Bun_ and miles too good for _The Cake_.'
He broke ground in a ponderous architectural weekly, which had never heard of Huckley. There was no passion in his statement, but mere fact backed by a wide range of authorities. He established beyond doubt that the old font at Huckley had been thrown out, on Sir Thomas's instigation, twenty years ago, to make room for a new one of Bath stone adorned with Limoges enamels; and that it had lain ever since in a corner of the sexton's shed. He proved, with learned men to support him, that there was only one other font in all England to compare with it. So Woodhouse bought it and presented it to a grateful South Kensington which said it would see the earth still flatter before it returned the treasure to purblind Huckley. Bishops by the benchful and most of the Royal Academy, not to mention 'Margaritas ante Porcos,' wrote fervently to the papers. _Punch_ based a political cartoon on it; the _Times_ a third leader, 'The Lust of Newness'; and the _Spectator_ a scholarly and delightful middle, 'Village Hausmania.' The vast amused outside world said in all its tongues and types: 'Of course! This is just what Huckley would do!' And neither Sir Thomas nor the Rector nor the sexton nor any one else wrote to deny it.
'You see,' said Ollyett, 'this is much more of a blow to Huckley than it looks--because every word of it's true. Your Gubby dance was inspiration, I admit, but it hadn't its roots in--'
'Two hemispheres and four continents so far,' I pointed out.
'Its roots in the hearts of Huckley was what I was going to say. Why don't you ever come down and look at the place? You've never seen it since we were stopped there.'
'I've only my week-ends free,' I said, 'and you seem to spend yours there pretty regularly--with the side-car. I was afraid--'
'Oh, _that's_ all right,' he said cheerily. 'We're quite an old engaged couple now. As a matter of fact, it happened after "the gravid polled Angus" business. Come along this Saturday. Woodhouse says he'll run us down after lunch. He wants to see Huckley too.'
Pallant could not accompany us, but Bat took his place.
'It's odd,' said Bat, 'that none of us except Ollyett has ever set eyes on Huckley since that time. That's what I always tell My people. Local colour is all right after you've got your idea. Before that, it's a mere nuisance.' He regaled us on the way down with panoramic views of the success--geographical and financial--of 'The Gubby' and The Song.
'By the way,' said he, 'I've assigned 'Dal all the gramophone rights of "The Earth." She's a born artist. 'Hadn't sense enough to hit me for triple-dubs the morning after. She'd have taken it out in coos.'
'Bless her! And what'll she make out of the gramophone rights?' I asked.
'Lord knows!' he replied. 'I've made fifty-four thousand my little end of the business, and it's only just beginning. Hear _that_!'
A shell-pink motor-brake roared up behind us to the music on a key-bugle of 'The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat.' In a few minutes we overtook another, in natural wood, whose occupants were singing it through their noses.
'I don't know that agency. It must be Cook's,' said Ollyett. 'They _do_ suffer.' We were never out of earshot of the tune the rest of the way to Huckley.
Though I knew it would be so, I was disappointed with the actual aspect of the spot we had--it is not too much to say--created in the face of the nations. The alcoholic pub; the village green; the Baptist chapel; the church; the sexton's shed; the Rectory whence the so-wonderful letters had come; Sir Thomas's park gate-pillars still violently declaring 'The Earth _is_ flat,' were as mean, as average, as ordinary as the photograph of a room where a murder has been committed. Ollyett, who, of course, knew the place specially well, made the most of it to us. Bat, who had employed it as a back-cloth to one of his own dramas, dismissed it as a thing used and emptied, but Woodhouse expressed my feelings when he said: 'Is that all--after all we've done?'
'_I_ know,' said Ollyett soothingly. '"Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing: When Ilion like a mist rose into towers." I've felt the same sometimes, though it has been Paradise for me. But they _do_ suffer.'
The fourth brake in thirty minutes had just turned into Sir Thomas's park to tell the Hall that 'The _Earth_ was flat'; a knot of obviously American tourists were kodaking his lodge-gates; while the tea-shop opposite the lych-gate was full of people buying postcards of the old font as it had lain twenty years in the sexton's shed. We went to the alcoholic pub and congratulated the proprietor.
'It's bringin' money to the place,' said he. 'But in a sense you can buy money too dear. It isn't doin' us any good. People are laughin' at us. That's what they're doin'.... Now, with regard to that Vote of ours you may have heard talk about....'
'For Gorze sake, chuck that votin' business,' cried an elderly man at the door. 'Money-gettin' or no money-gettin', we're fed up with it.'
'Well, I do think,' said the publican, shifting his ground, 'I do think Sir Thomas might ha' managed better in some things.'
'He tole me,'--the elderly man shouldered his way to the bar--'he tole me twenty years ago to take an' lay that font in my tool-shed. He _tole_ me so himself. An' now, after twenty years, me own wife makin' me out little better than the common 'angman!'
'That's the sexton,' the publican explained. 'His good lady sells the postcards--if you 'aven't got some. But we feel Sir Thomas might ha' done better.'
'What's he got to do with it?' said Woodhouse.
'There's nothin' we can trace 'ome to 'im in so many words, but we think he might 'ave saved us the font business. Now, in regard to that votin' business--'
'Chuck it! Oh, chuck it!' the sexton roared, 'or you'll 'ave me cuttin' my throat at cock-crow. 'Ere's another parcel of fun-makers!'
A motor-brake had pulled up at the door and a multitude of men and women immediately descended. We went out to look. They bore rolled banners, a reading-desk in three pieces, and, I specially noticed, a collapsible harmonium, such as is used on ships at sea.
'Salvation Army?' I said, though I saw no uniforms.
Two of them unfurled a banner between poles which bore the legend: 'The Earth _is_ flat.' Woodhouse and I turned to Bat. He shook his head. 'No, no! Not me.... If I had only seen their costumes in advance!'
'Good Lord!' said Ollyett. 'It's the genuine Society!'
The company advanced on the green with the precision of people well broke to these movements. Scene-shifters could not have been quicker with the three-piece rostrum, nor stewards with the harmonium. Almost before its cross-legs had been kicked into their catches, certainly before the tourists by the lodge-gates had begun to move over, a woman sat down to it and struck up a hymn:
Hear ther truth our tongues are telling, Spread ther light from shore to shore, God hath given man a dwelling Flat and flat for evermore.
When ther Primal Dark retreated, When ther deeps were undesigned, He with rule and level meted Habitation for mankind!
I saw sick envy on Bat's face. 'Curse Nature,' he muttered. 'She gets ahead of you every time. To think _I_ forgot hymns and a harmonium!'
Then came the chorus:
Hear ther truth our tongues are telling, Spread ther light from shore to shore-- Oh, be faithful! Oh, be truthful! Earth is flat for evermore.
They sang several verses with the fervour of Christians awaiting their lions. Then there were growlings in the air. The sexton, embraced by the landlord, two-stepped out of the pub-door. Each was trying to outroar the other. 'Apologising in advarnce for what he says,' the landlord shouted: 'You'd better go away' (here the sexton began to speak words). 'This isn't the time nor yet the place for--for any more o' this chat.'
The crowd thickened. I saw the village police-sergeant come out of his cottage buckling his belt.
'But surely,' said the woman at the harmonium, 'there must be some mistake. We are not suffragettes.'
'Damn it! They'd be a change,' cried the sexton. 'You get out of this! Don't talk! _I_ can't stand it for one! Get right out, or we'll font you!'
The crowd which was being recruited from every house in sight echoed the invitation. The sergeant pushed forward. A man beside the reading-desk said: 'But surely we are among dear friends and sympathisers. Listen to me for a moment.'
It was the moment that a passing char-a-banc chose to strike into The Song. The effect was instantaneous. Bat, Ollyett, and I, who by divers roads have learned the psychology of crowds, retreated towards the tavern door. Woodhouse, the newspaper proprietor, anxious, I presume, to keep touch with the public, dived into the thick of it. Every one else told the Society to go away at once. When the lady at the harmonium (I began to understand why it is sometimes necessary to kill women) pointed at the stencilled park pillars and called them 'the cromlechs of our common faith,' there was a snarl and a rush. The police-sergeant checked it, but advised the Society to keep on going. The Society withdrew into the brake fighting, as it were, a rear-guard action of oratory up each step. The collapsed harmonium was hauled in last, and with the perfect unreason of crowds, they cheered it loudly, till the chauffeur slipped in his clutch and sped away. Then the crowd broke up, congratulating all concerned except the sexton, who was held to have disgraced his office by having sworn at ladies. We strolled across the green towards Woodhouse, who was talking to the police-sergeant near the park-gates. We were not twenty yards from him when we saw Sir Thomas Ingell emerge from the lodge and rush furiously at Woodhouse with an uplifted stick, at the same time shrieking: 'I'll teach you to laugh, you--' but Ollyett has the record of the language. By the time we reached them, Sir Thomas was on the ground; Woodhouse, very white, held the walking-stick and was saying to the sergeant:
'I give this person in charge for assault.'
'But, good Lord!' said the sergeant, whiter than Woodhouse. 'It's Sir Thomas.'
'Whoever it is, it isn't fit to be at large,' said Woodhouse. The crowd suspecting something wrong began to reassemble, and all the English horror of a row in public moved us, headed by the sergeant, inside the lodge. We shut both park-gates and lodge-door.
'You saw the assault, sergeant,' Woodhouse went on. 'You can testify I used no more force than was necessary to protect myself. You can testify that I have not even damaged this person's property. (Here! take your stick, you!) You heard the filthy language he used.'
'I--I can't say I did,' the sergeant stammered.
'Oh, but _we_ did!' said Ollyett, and repeated it, to the apron-veiled horror of the lodge-keeper's wife.
Sir Thomas on a hard kitchen chair began to talk. He said he had 'stood enough of being photographed like a wild beast,' and expressed loud regret that he had not killed 'that man,' who was 'conspiring with the sergeant to laugh at him.'
Ad you ever seen 'im before, Sir Thomas?' the sergeant asked.
'No! But it's time an example was made here. I've never seen the sweep in my life.'
I think it was Bat Masquerier's magnetic eye that recalled the past to him, for his face changed and his jaw dropped. 'But I have!' he groaned. 'I remember now.'
Here a writhing man entered by the back door. He was, he said, the village solicitor. I do not assert that he licked Woodhouse's boots, but we should have respected him more if he had and been done with it. His notion was that the matter could be accommodated, arranged and compromised for gold, and yet more gold. The sergeant thought so too. Woodhouse undeceived them both. To the sergeant he said, 'Will you or will you not enter the charge?' To the village solicitor he gave the name of his lawyers, at which the man wrung his hands and cried, 'Oh, Sir T., Sir T.!' in a miserable falsetto, for it was a Bat Masquerier of a firm. They conferred together in tragic whispers.
'I don't dive after Dickens,' said Ollyett to Bat and me by the window, 'but every time _I_ get into a row I notice the police-court always fills up with his characters.'
'I've noticed that too,' said Bat. 'But the odd thing is you mustn't give the public straight Dickens--not in My business. I wonder why that is.'
Then Sir Thomas got his second wind and cursed the day that he, or it may have been we, were born. I feared that though he was a Radical he might apologise and, since he was an M.P., might lie his way out of the difficulty. But he was utterly and truthfully beside himself. He asked foolish questions--such as what we were doing in the village at all, and how much blackmail Woodhouse expected to make out of him. But neither Woodhouse nor the sergeant nor the writhing solicitor listened. The upshot of their talk, in the chimney-corner, was that Sir Thomas stood engaged to appear next Monday before his brother magistrates on charges of assault, disorderly conduct, and language calculated, etc. Ollyett was specially careful about the language.
Then we left. The village looked very pretty in the late light--pretty and tuneful as a nest of nightingales.
'You'll turn up on Monday, I hope,' said Woodhouse, when we reached town. That was his only allusion to the affair.
So we turned up--through a world still singing that the Earth was flat--at the little clay-coloured market-town with the large Corn Exchange and the small Jubilee memorial. We had some difficulty in getting seats in the court. Woodhouse's imported London lawyer was a man of commanding personality, with a voice trained to convey blasting imputations by tone. When the case was called, he rose and stated his client's intention not to proceed with the charge. His client, he went on to say, had not entertained, and, of course, in the circumstances could not have entertained, any suggestion of accepting on behalf of public charities any moneys that might have been offered to him on the part of Sir Thomas's estate. At the same time, no one acknowledged more sincerely than his client the spirit in which those offers had been made by those entitled to make them. But, as a matter of fact--here he became the man of the world colloguing with his equals--certain--er--details had come to his client's knowledge _since_ the lamentable outburst, which ... He shrugged his shoulders. Nothing was served by going into them, but he ventured to say that, had those painful circumstances only been known earlier, his client would--again 'of course'--never have dreamed--A gesture concluded the sentence, and the ensnared Bench looked at Sir Thomas with new and withdrawing eyes. Frankly, as they could see, it would be nothing less than cruelty to proceed further with this--er-unfortunate affair. He asked leave, therefore, to withdraw the charge _in toto_, and at the same time to express his client's deepest sympathy with all who had been in any way distressed, as his client had been, by the fact and the publicity of proceedings which he could, of course, again assure them that his client would never have dreamed of instituting if, as he hoped he had made plain, certain facts had been before his client at the time when.... But he had said enough. For his fee it seemed to me that he had.
Heaven inspired Sir Thomas's lawyer--all of a sweat lest his client's language should come out--to rise up and thank him. Then, Sir Thomas--not yet aware what leprosy had been laid upon him, but grateful to escape on any terms--followed suit. He was heard in interested silence, and people drew back a pace as Gehazi passed forth.
'You hit hard,' said Bat to Woodhouse afterwards. 'His own people think he's mad.'
'You don't say so? I'll show you some of his letters to-night at dinner,' he replied.
He brought them to the Red Amber Room of the Chop Suey. We forgot to be amazed, as till then we had been amazed, over the Song or 'The Gubby,' or the full tide of Fate that seemed to run only for our sakes. It did not even interest Ollyett that the verb 'to huckle' had passed into the English leader-writers' language. We were studying the interior of a soul, flash-lighted to its grimiest corners by the dread of 'losing its position.'
'And then it thanked you, didn't it, for dropping the case?' said Pallant.
'Yes, and it sent me a telegram to confirm.' Woodhouse turned to Bat. 'Now d'you think I hit too hard?' he asked.
'No-o!' said Bat. 'After all--I'm talking of every one's business now--one can't ever do anything in Art that comes up to Nature in any game in life. Just think how this thing has--'
'Just let me run through that little case of yours again,' said Pallant, and picked up _The Bun_ which had it set out in full.
'Any chance of 'Dal looking in on us to-night?' Ollyett began.
'She's occupied with her Art too,' Bat answered bitterly. 'What's the use of Art? Tell me, some one!' A barrel-organ outside promptly pointed out that the _Earth_ was flat. 'The gramophone's killing street organs, but I let loose a hundred-and-seventy-four of those hurdygurdys twelve hours after The Song,' said Bat. 'Not counting the Provinces.' His face brightened a little.
'Look here!' said Pallant over the paper. 'I don't suppose you or those asinine J.P.'s knew it--but your lawyer ought to have known that you've all put your foot in it most confoundedly over this assault case.'
'What's the matter?' said Woodhouse.
'It's ludicrous. It's insane. There isn't two penn'orth of legality in the whole thing. Of course, you could have withdrawn the charge, but the way you went about it is childish--besides being illegal. What on earth was the Chief Constable thinking of?'
'Oh, he was a friend of Sir Thomas's. They all were for that matter,' I replied.
'He ought to be hanged. So ought the Chairman of the Bench. I'm talking as a lawyer now.'
'Why, what have we been guilty of? Misprision of treason or compounding a felony--or what?' said Ollyett.
'I'll tell you later.' Pallant went back to the paper with knitted brows, smiling unpleasantly from time to time. At last he laughed.
'Thank you!' he said to Woodhouse. 'It ought to be pretty useful--for us.'
'What d'you mean?' said Ollyett.
'For our side. They are all Rads who are mixed up in this--from the Chief Constable down. There must be a Question. There must be a Question.'
'Yes, but I wanted the charge withdrawn in my own way,' Woodhouse insisted.
'That's nothing to do with the case. It's the legality of your silly methods. You wouldn't understand if I talked till morning,' He began to pace the room, his hands behind him. 'I wonder if I can get it through our Whip's thick head that it's a chance.... That comes of stuffing the Bench with radical tinkers,' he muttered.
'Oh, sit down!' said Woodhouse.
'Where's your lawyer to be found now?' he jerked out.
'At the Trefoil,' said Bat promptly. 'I gave him the stage-box for to-night. He's an artist too.'
'Then I'm going to see him,' said Pallant. 'Properly handled this ought to be a godsend for our side.' He withdrew without apology.
'Certainly, this thing keeps on opening up, and up,' I remarked inanely.
'It's beyond me!' said Bat. 'I don't think if I'd known I'd have ever ... Yes, I would, though. He said my home address was--'
'It was his tone--his tone!' Ollyett almost shouted. Woodhouse said nothing, but his face whitened as he brooded.
'Well, any way,' Bat went on, 'I'm glad I always believed in God and Providence and all those things. Else I should lose my nerve. We've put it over the whole world--the full extent of the geographical globe. We couldn't stop it if we wanted to now. It's got to burn itself out. I'm not in charge any more. What d'you expect'll happen next. Angels?'
I expected nothing. Nothing that I expected approached what I got. Politics are not my concern, but, for the moment, since it seemed that they were going to 'huckle' with the rest, I took an interest in them. They impressed me as a dog's life without a dog's decencies, and I was confirmed in this when an unshaven and unwashen Pallant called on me at ten o'clock one morning, begging for a bath and a couch.
'Bail too?' I asked. He was in evening dress and his eyes were sunk feet in his head.
'No,' he said hoarsely. 'All night sitting. Fifteen divisions. 'Nother to-night. Your place was nearer than mine, so--' He began to undress in the hall.
When he awoke at one o'clock he gave me lurid accounts of what he said was history, but which was obviously collective hysteria. There had been a political crisis. He and his fellow M.P.'s had 'done things'--I never quite got at the things--for eighteen hours on end, and the pitiless Whips were even then at the telephones to herd 'em up to another dog-fight. So he snorted and grew hot all over again while he might have been resting.
'I'm going to pitch in my question about that miscarriage of justice at Huckley this afternoon, if you care to listen to it,' he said. 'It'll be absolutely thrown away--in our present state. I told 'em so; but it's my only chance for weeks. P'raps Woodhouse would like to come.'
'I'm sure he would. Anything to do with Huckley interests us,' I said.
'It'll miss fire, I'm afraid. Both sides are absolutely cooked. The present situation has been working up for some time. You see the row was bound to come, etc. etc.,' and he flew off the handle once more.
I telephoned to Woodhouse, and we went to the House together. It was a dull, sticky afternoon with thunder in the air. For some reason or other, each side was determined to prove its virtue and endurance to the utmost. I heard men snarling about it all round me. 'If they won't spare us, we'll show 'em no mercy,' 'Break the brutes up from the start. They can't stand late hours.' 'Come on! No shirking! I know _you've_ had a Turkish bath,' were some of the sentences I caught on our way. The House was packed already, and one could feel the negative electricity of a jaded crowd wrenching at one's own nerves, and depressing the afternoon soul.
'This is bad!' Woodhouse whispered. 'There'll be a row before they've finished. Look at the Front Benches!' And he pointed out little personal signs by which I was to know that each man was on edge. He might have spared himself. The House was ready to snap before a bone had been thrown. A sullen minister rose to reply to a staccato question. His supporters cheered defiantly. 'None o' that! None o' that!' came from the Back Benches. I saw the Speaker's face stiffen like the face of a helmsman as he humours a hard-mouthed yacht after a sudden following sea. The trouble was barely met in time. There came a fresh, apparently causeless gust a few minutes later--savage, threatening, but futile. It died out--one could hear the sigh--in sudden wrathful realisation of the dreary hours ahead, and the ship of state drifted on.
Then Pallant--and the raw House winced at the torture of his voice--rose. It was a twenty-line question, studded with legal technicalities. The gist of it was that he wished to know whether the appropriate Minister was aware that there had been a grave miscarriage of justice on such and such a date, at such and such a place, before such and such justices of the peace, in regard to a case which arose--
I heard one desperate, weary 'damn!' float up from the pit of that torment. Pallant sawed on--'out of certain events which occurred at the village of Huckley.'
The House came to attention with a parting of the lips like a hiccough, and it flashed through my mind.... Pallant repeated, 'Huckley. The village--'
'That voted the _Earth_ was flat.' A single voice from a back Bench sang it once like a lone frog in a far pool.
'_Earth_ was flat,' croaked another voice opposite.
'_Earth_ was flat.' There were several. Then several more.
It was, you understand, the collective, overstrained nerve of the House, snapping, strand by strand to various notes, as the hawser parts from its moorings.
'The Village that voted the _Earth_ was flat.' The tune was beginning to shape itself. More voices were raised and feet began to beat time. Even so it did not occur to me that the thing would--
'The Village that voted the _Earth_ was flat!' It was easier now to see who were not singing. There were still a few. Of a sudden (and this proves the fundamental instability of the cross-bench mind) a cross-bencher leaped on his seat and there played an imaginary double-bass with tremendous maestro-like wagglings of the elbow.
The last strand parted. The ship of state drifted out helpless on the rocking tide of melody.
'The Village that voted the _Earth_ was flat! The Village that voted the _Earth_ was flat!'
The Irish first conceived the idea of using their order-papers as funnels wherewith to reach the correct '_vroom--vroom_' on '_Earth_.' Labour, always conservative and respectable at a crisis, stood out longer than any other section, but when it came in it was howling syndicalism. Then, without distinction of Party, fear of constituents, desire for office, or hope of emolument, the House sang at the tops and at the bottoms of their voices, swaying their stale bodies and epileptically beating with their swelled feet. They sang 'The Village that voted the _Earth_ was flat': first, because they wanted to, and secondly--which is the terror of that song--because they could not stop. For no consideration could they stop.
Pallant was still standing up. Some one pointed at him and they laughed. Others began to point, lunging, as it were, in time with the tune. At this moment two persons came in practically abreast from behind the Speaker's chair, and halted appalled. One happened to be the Prime Minister and the other a messenger. The House, with tears running down their cheeks, transferred their attention to the paralysed couple. They pointed six hundred forefingers at them. They rocked, they waved, and they rolled while they pointed, but still they sang. When they weakened for an instant, Ireland would yell: 'Are ye _with_ me, bhoys?' and they all renewed their strength like Antaeus. No man could say afterwards what happened in the Press or the Strangers' Gallery. It was the House, the hysterical and abandoned House of Commons that held all eyes, as it deafened all ears. I saw both Front Benches bend forward, some with their foreheads on their despatch-boxes, the rest with their faces in their hands; and their moving shoulders jolted the House out of its last rag of decency. Only the Speaker remained unmoved. The entire press of Great Britain bore witness next day that he had not even bowed his head. The Angel of the Constitution, for vain was the help of man, foretold him the exact moment at which the House would have broken into 'The Gubby.' He is reported to have said: 'I heard the Irish beginning to shuffle it. So I adjourned.' Pallant's version is that he added: 'And I was never so grateful to a private member in all my life as I was to Mr. Pallant.'
He made no explanation. He did not refer to orders or disorders. He simply adjourned the House till six that evening. And the House adjourned--some of it nearly on all fours.
I was not correct when I said that the Speaker was the only man who did not laugh. Woodhouse was beside me all the time. His face was set and quite white--as white, they told me, as Sir Thomas Ingell's when he went, by request, to a private interview with his Chief Whip.