What Will He Do With It? (Belford)/Book 1/Chapter I

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

What will he do with it?

Book First.

Chapter I.

In which the History opens with a description of the Social Manners, Habits, and Amusements of the English People, as exhibited in an immemorial National Festivity.—Characters to be commemorated in the History introduced and graphically portrayed, with a nasological illustration.—Original suggestions as to the idiosyncracies engendered by trades and callings, with other matters worthy of note, conveyed in artless dialogue, after the manner of Herodotus, Father of History (Mother unknown).

It was a summer Fair in one of the prettiest villages in Surrey. The main street was lined with booths abounding in toys, gleaming crockery, gay ribbons, and gilded gingerbread. Farther on, where the street widened into the ample village-green, rose the more pretending fabrics which lodged the attractive forms of the Mermaid, the Norfolk Giant, the Pig-faced Lady, the Spotted Boy, and the Calf with Two Heads; while high over even these edifices, and occupying the most conspicuous vantage-ground, a lofty stage promised to rural play-goers the “Grand Melodramatic Performance of The Remorseless Baron and the Bandit's Child.” Music, lively if artless, resounded on every side; drums, fifes, penny-whistles, cat-calls, and a hand-organ played by a dark foreigner from the height of whose shoulder a cynical but observant monkey eyed the hubbub and cracked his nuts.

It was now sunset—the throng at the fullest—an animated, joyous scene. The day had been sultry; no clouds were to be seen, except low on the western horizon, where they stretched, in lengthened ridges of gold and purple, like the borderland between earth and sky. The tall elms on the green were still, save, near the great stage, one or two, upon which young urchins had climbed; and their laughing faces peered forth, here and there, from the foliage trembling under their restless movements.

Amidst the crowd, as it streamed saunteringly along, were two spectators—strangers to the place, as was notably proved by the attention they excited, and the broad jokes their dress and appearance provoked from the rustic wits—jokes which they took with amused good-humor, and sometimes retaliated with a zest which had already made them very popular personages; indeed, there was that about them which propitiated liking. They were young, and the freshness of enjoyment was so visible in their faces that it begot a sympathy, and wherever they went other faces brightened round them.

One of the two whom we have thus individualized was of that enviable age, ranging from five-and-twenty to seven-and-twenty, in which, if a man cannot contrive to make life very pleasant—pitiable, indeed, must be the state of his digestive organs. But you might see by this gentleman's countenance, that if there were many like him, it would be a worse world for the doctors. His cheek, though not highly-colored, was yet ruddy and clear; his hazel eyes were lively and keen; his hair, which escaped in loose clusters from a jean shooting-cap set jauntily on a well-shaped head, was of that deep sunny auburn rarely seen but in persons of vigorous and hardy temperament. He was good-looking on the whole, and would have deserved the more flattering epithet of handsome, but for his nose, which was what the French call “a nose in the air”—not a nose supercilious, not a nose provocative, as such noses mostly are, but a nose decidedly in earnest to make the best of itself and of things in general—a nose that would push its way up in life, but so pleasantly that the most irritable fingers would never itch to lay hold of it. With such a nose a man might play the violoncello, marry for love, or even write poetry, and yet not go to the dogs. Never would he stick in the mud so long as he followed that nose in the air!

By the help of that nose this gentleman wore a black velveteen jacket of foreign cut; a mustache and imperial (then much rarer in England than they have been since the siege of Sebastopol); and yet left you perfectly convinced that he was an honest Englishman, who had not only no designs on your pocket, but would not be easily duped by any designs upon his own.

The companion of the personage thus sketched might be somewhere about seventeen; but his gait, his air, his lithe, vigorous frame, showed a manliness at variance with the boyish bloom of his face. He struck the eye much more than his elder comrade. Not that he was regularly handsome—far from it; yet it is no paradox to say that he was beautiful—at least, few indeed were the women who would not have called him so. His hair, long like his friend's, was of a dark chestnut, with gold gleaming through it where the sun fell, inclining to curl, and singularly soft and silken in its texture. His large, clear, dark-blue, happy eyes were fringed with long ebon lashes, and set under brows which already wore the expression of intellectual power, and, better still, of frank courage and open loyalty. His complexion was fair, and somewhat pale, and his lips in laughing showed teeth exquisitely white and even. But though his profile was clearly cut, it was far from the Greek ideal; and he wanted the height of stature which is usually considered essential to the personal pretensions of the male sex. Without being positively short, he was still under middle height, and, from the compact development of his proportions, seemed already to have attained his full growth. His dress, though not foreign, like his comrade's, was peculiar; a broad-brimmed straw-hat, with a wide blue ribbon; shirt collar turned down, leaving the throat bare; a dark-green jacket of thinner material than cloth; white trowsers and waistcoat completed his costume. He looked like a mother's darling—perhaps he was one.

Scratch across his back went one of those ingenious mechanical contrivances familiarly in vogue at fairs, which are designed to impress upon the victim to whom they are applied the pleasing conviction that his garment is rent in twain.

The boy turned round so quickly that he caught the arm of the offender—a pretty village-girl, a year or two younger than himself. "Found in the act, sentenced, punished," cried he, snatching a kiss, and receiving a gentle slap. "And now, good for evil, here's a ribbon for you—choose."

The girl slunk back shyly, but her companions pushed her forward, and she ended by selecting a cherry-colored ribbon, for which the boy paid carelessly, while his elder and wiser friend looked at him with grave, compassionate rebuke, and grumbled out‚—"Dr. Franklin tells us that once in his life he paid too dear for a whistle; but then, he was only seven years old, and a whistle has its uses. But to pay such a price for a scratchback! Prodigal! Come along!"

As the friends strolled on, naturally enough all the young girls who wished for ribbons, and were possessed of scratchbacks, followed in their wake. Scratch went the instruments, but in vain.

"Lasses," said the elder, turning sharply upon them, his nose in the air, "ribbons are plentiful—shillings scarce; and kisses, though pleasant in private, are insipid in public. What, still! Beware! know that, innocent as we seem, we are women-eaters; and if you follow us farther, you are devoured!" So saying, he expanded his jaws to a width so preternaturally large, and exhibited a row of grinders so formidable, that the girls fell back in consternation. The friends turned down a narrow alley between the booths, and though still pursued by some adventurous and mercenary spirits, were comparatively undisturbed as they threaded their way along the back of the booths, and arrived at last on the village-green, and in front of the Great Stage.

"Oho, Lionel!" quoth the elder friend; "Thespian and classical—worth seeing, no doubt." Then, turning to a grave cobbler in leathern apron, who was regarding the dramatis personæ ranged in front of the curtain with saturnine interest, he said, "You seem attracted, Sir; you have probably already witnessed the performance."

"Yes," returned the Cobbler; "this is the third day, and to-morrow is the last. I arn't missed once yet, and I shan't miss; but it arn't what it was a while back."

"That is sad; but then the same thing is said of everything by everybody who has reached your respectable age, friend. Summers and suns, stupid old watering-places, and pretty young women 'arn't what they were a while back.' If men and things go on degenerating in this way, our grandchildren will have a dull time of it!"

The Cobbler eyed the young man, and nodded, approvingly. He had sense enough to comprehend the ironical philosophy of the reply—and our Cobbler loved talk out of the common way. "You speak truly and cleverly, Sir. But if folks do always say that things are worse than they were, ben't there always summat in what is always said? I'm for the old times; my neighbor, Joe Spruce, is for the new, and says we are all a-progressing. But he's a pink—I'm a blue."

"You are a blue!" said the boy Lionel—"I don't understand."

"Young 'un, I'm a Tory—that's blue; and Spruce is a Rad—that's pink! And, what is more to the purpose, he is a tailor, and I'm a cobbler."

"Aha!" said the elder, with much interest; "more to the purpose, is it? How so?"

The Cobbler put the forefinger of the right hand on the forefinger of the left; it is the gesture of a man about to ratiocinate or demonstrate—as Quintilian, in his remarks on the oratory of fingers, probably observes; or, if he has failed to do so, it is a blot in his essay.

"You see, Sir," quoth the Cobbler, "that a man's business has a deal to do with his manner of thinking. Every trade, I take it, has ideas as belong to it. Butchers don't see life as bakers do; and if you talk to a dozen tallow-chandlers, then to a dozen blacksmiths, you will see tallow-chandlers are peculiar, and blacksmiths, too."

"You are a keen observer," said he of the jean cap, admiringly; "your remark is new to me; I dare say it is true."

"Course it is; and the stars have summat to do with it; for if they order a man's calling, it stands to reason that they order a man's mind to fit it. Now, a tailor sits on his board with others, and is always a-talking with 'em, and a-reading the news; therefore he thinks, as his fellows do, smart and sharp, bang up to the day, but nothing 'riginal and all his own like. But a cobbler," continued the man of leather, with a majestic air, "sits by hisself, and talks with hisself; and what he thinks gets into his head without being put there by another man's tongue."

"You enlighten me more and more," said our friend with the nose in the air, bowing respectfully. "A tailor is gregarious, a cobbler solitary. The gregarious go with the future, the solitary stick by the past. I understand why you are a Tory and perhaps a poet."

"Well a bit of one," said the Cobbler, with an iron smile. "And many's the cobbler who is a poet—or discovers marvellous things in a crystal—whereas a tailor, Sir" (spoken with great contempt), "only sees the upper-leather of the world's sole in a newspaper."

Here the conversation was interrupted by a sudden pressure of the crowd toward the theatre; the two young friends looked up, and saw that the new object of attraction was a little girl, who seemed scarcely ten years old, though in truth she was about two years older. She had just emerged from behind the curtain, made her obeisance to the crowd, and was now walking in front of the stage with the prettiest possible air of infantine solemnity. "Poor little thing!" said Lionel. "Poor little thing!" said the Cobbler. And had you been there, my reader, ten to one but you would have said the same. And yet she was attired in white satin, with spangled flounce and a tinsel jacket; and she wore a wreath of flowers (to be sure, the flowers were not real) on her long fair curls, with gaudy bracelets (to be sure the stones were mock) on her slender arms. Still there was something in her that all this finery could not vulgarize; and since it could not vulgarize, you pitied her for it. She had one of those charming faces that look straight into the hearts of us all, young and old. And though she seemed quite self-possessed, there was no effrontery in her air, but the ease of a little lady, with the simple unconsciousness of a child that there was anything in her situation to induce you to sigh, "Poor thing!"

"You should see her act, young gents," said the Cobbler. "She plays uncommon. But if you had seen him as taught her—seen him a year ago."

"Who's that?"

"Waife, Sir. Mayhap you have heard speak of Waife?"

"I blush to say, no."

"Why, he might have made his fortune at Common Garden; but that's a long story. Poor fellow! he's broke down now, anyhow. But she takes care of him, little darling—God bless thee!" And the Cobbler here exchanged a smile and nod with the little girl, whose face brightened when she saw him amidst the crowd.

"By the brush and pallet of Raffaelle," cried the elder of the young men, "before I am many hours older I must have that child's head!"

"Her head, man!" cried the Cobbler, aghast.

"In my sketch-book. You are a poet—I a painter. You know the little girl?"

"Don't I! She and her grandfather lodge with me—her grandfather—that's Waife—marbellous man! But they ill-uses him; and if it wasn't for her, he'd starve. He fed them all once; he can feed them no longer—he'd starve. That's the world; they use up a genus, and when it falls on the road, push on; that's what Joe Spruce calls a-progressing. But there's the drum! they're a-going to act. Won't you look in, gents?"

"Of course," cried Lionel, "of course. And, hark ye, Vance, we'll toss up which shall be the first to take that little girl's head."

"Murderer in either sense of the word!" said Vance, with a smile that would have become Correggio if a tyro had offered to toss up which should be the first to paint a cherub.