All this happened at a Martinmas Fair in Bursley, long ago in the fifties, when everybody throughout the Five Towns pronounced Bursley "Bosley" as a matter of course; in the tedious and tragic old times, before it had been discovered that hell was a myth, and before the invention of pleasure or even of half-holidays. Martinmas was in those days a very important moment in the annual life of the town, for it was at Martinmas that potters' wages were fixed for twelve months ahead, and potters hired themselves out for that term at the best rate they could get. Even to the present day the housewives reckon chronology by Martinmas. They say, "It'll be seven years come Martinmas that Sal's babby died o' convulsions." Or, "It was that year as it rained and hailed all Martinmas." And many of them have no idea why it is Martinmas, and not Midsummer or Whitsun, that is always on the tips of their tongues.
The Fair was one of the two great drunken sprees of the year, the other being the Wakes. And it was meet that it should be so, for intoxication was a powerful aid to the signing of contracts. A sot would put his name to anything, gloriously; and when he had signed he had signed. Thus the beaver-hatted employers smiled at Martinmas drunkenness, and smacked it familiarly on the back; and little boys swilled themselves into the gutter with their elders, and felt intensely proud of the feat. These heroic old times have gone by, never to return.
It was on the Friday before Martinmas, at dusk. In the centre of the town, on the waste ground to the north of the "Shambles" (as the stone-built meat market was called), and in the space between the Shambles and the as yet unfinished new Town Hall, the showmen and the showgirls and the showboys were titivating their booths, and cooking their teas, and watering their horses, and polishing the brass rails of their vans, and brushing their fancy costumes, and hammering fresh tent-pegs into the hard ground, and lighting the first flares of the evening, and yarning, and quarrelling, and washing--all under the sombre purple sky, for the diversion of a small crowd of loafers, big and little, who stood obstinately with their hands in their pockets or in their sleeves, missing naught of the promising spectacle.
Now, in the midst of what in less than twenty-four hours would be the Fair, was to be seen a strange and piquant sight--namely, a group of three white-tied, broad-brimmed dissenting ministers in earnest converse with fat Mr Snaggs, the proprietor of Snaggs's--Snaggs's being the town theatre, a wooden erection, generally called by patrons the "Blood Tub," on account of its sanguinary programmes. On this occasion Mr Snaggs and the dissenting ministers were for once in a way agreed. They all objected to a certain feature of the Fair. It was not the roundabouts, so crude that even an infant of to-day would despise them. It was not the shooting-galleries, nor the cocoanut shies. It was not the arrangements of the beersellers, which were formidably Bacchic. It was not the boxing-booths, where adventurous youths could have teeth knocked out and eyes smashed in free of charge. It was not the monstrosity-booths, where misshapen and maimed creatures of both sexes were displayed all alive and nearly nude to anybody with a penny to spare. What Mr Snaggs and the ministers of religion objected to was the theatre-booths, in which the mirror, more or less cracked and tarnished, was held up to nature.
Mr Snaggs's objection was professional. He considered that he alone was authorized to purvey drama to the town; he considered that among all purveyors of drama he alone was respectable, the rest being upstarts, poachers, and lewd fellows. And as the dissenting ministers gazed at Mr Snaggs's superb moleskin waistcoat, and listened to his positive brazen voice, they were almost convinced that the hated institution of the theatre could be made respectable and that Mr Snaggs had so made it. At any rate, by comparison with these flashy and flimsy booths, the Blood Tub, rooted in the antiquity of thirty years, had a dignified, even a reputable air--and did not Mr Snaggs give frequent performances of Cruickshanks' The Bottle, a sermon against intemperance more impressive than any sermon delivered from a pulpit in a chapel? The dissenting ministers listened with deference as Mr Snaggs explained to them exactly what they ought to have done, and what they had failed to do, in order to ensure the success of their campaign against play-acting in the Fair; a campaign which now for several years past had been abortive--largely (it was rumoured) owing to the secret jealousy of the Church of England.
"If ony on ye had had any gumption," Mr Snaggs was saying fearlessly to the parsons, "ye'd ha' gone straight to th' Chief Bailiff and ye'd ha'--Houch!" He made the peculiar exclamatory noise roughly indicated by the last word, and spat in disgust; and without the slightest ceremony of adieu walked ponderously away up the slope, leaving his sentence unfinished.
"It is remarkable how Mr Snaggs flees from before my face," said a neat, alert, pleasant voice from behind the three parsons. "And yet save that in my unregenerate day I once knocked him off a stool in front of his own theayter, I never did him harm nor wished him anything but good.... Gentlemen!"
A rather small, slight man of about forty, with tiny feet and hands, and "very quick on his pins," saluted the three parsons gravely.
"Mr Smith!" one parson stiffly inclined.
"Mr Smith!" from the second.
"Brother Smith!" from the third, who was Jock Smith's own parson, being in charge of the Bethesda in Trafalgar Road where Jock Smith worshipped and where he had recently begun to preach as a local preacher.
Jock Smith, herbalist, shook hands with vivacity but also with self-consciousness. He was self-conscious because he knew himself to be one of the chief characters and attractions of the town, because he was well aware that wherever he went people stared at him and pointed him out to each other. And he was half proud and half ashamed of his notoriety.
Even now a little band of ragged children had wandered after him, and, undeterred by the presence of the parsons, were repeating among themselves, in a low audacious monotone:
He was the youngest of fourteen children, and when he was a month old his mother took him to church to be christened. The rector was the celebrated Rappey, sportsman, who (it is said) once pawned the church Bible in order to get up a bear-baiting. Rappey asked the name of the child, and was told by the mother that she had come to the end of her knowledge of names, and would be obliged for a suggestion. Whereupon Rappey began to cite all the most ludicrous names in the Bible, such as Aholibamah, Kenaz, Iram, Baalhanan, Abiasaph, Amram, Mushi, Libni, Nepheg, Abihu. And the mother laughed, shaking her head. And Rappey went on: Shimi, Carmi, Jochebed. And at Jochebed the mother became hysterical with laughter. "Jock-at-a-Venture," she had sniggered, and Rappey, mischievously taking her at her word, christened the infant Jock-at-a-Venture before she could protest; and the infant was stamped for ever as peculiar.
He lived up to his name. He ran away twice, and after having been both a sailor and a soldier, he returned home with the accomplishment of flourishing a razor, and settled in Bursley as a barber. Immediately he became the most notorious barber in the Five Towns, on account of his gab and his fisticuffs. It was he who shaved the left side of the face of an insulting lieutenant of dragoons (after the great riots of '45, which two thousand military had not quelled), and then pitched him out of the shop, soapsuds and all, and fought him to a finish in the Cock Yard and flung him through the archway into the market-place with just half a magnificent beard and moustache. It was he who introduced hair-dyeing into Bursley. Hair-dyeing might have grown popular in the town if one night, owing to some confusion with red ink, the Chairman of the Bursley Burial Board had not emerged from Jock-at-a-Venture's with a vermilion top-knot and been greeted on the pavement by his waiting wife with the bitter words: "Thou foo!"
A little later Jock-at-a-Venture abandoned barbering and took up music, for which he had always shown a mighty gift. He was really musical and performed on both the piano and the cornet, not merely with his hands and mouth, but with the whole of his agile expressive body. He made a good living out of public-houses and tea-meetings, for none could play the piano like Jock, were it hymns or were it jigs. His cornet was employed in a band at Moorthorne, the mining village to the east of Bursley, and on his nocturnal journeys to and from Moorthorne with the beloved instrument he had had many a set-to with the marauding colliers who made the road dangerous for cowards. One result of this connection with Moorthorne was that a boxing club had been formed in Bursley, with Jock as chief, for the upholding of Bursley's honour against visiting Moorthorne colliers in Bursley's market-place.
Then came Jock's conversion to religion, a blazing affair, and his abandonment of public-houses. As tea-meetings alone would not keep him, he had started again in life, for the fifth or sixth time--as a herbalist now. It was a vocation which suited his delicate hands and his enthusiasm for humanity. At last, and quite lately, he had risen to be a local preacher. His first two sermons had impassioned the congregations, though there were critics to accuse him of theatricality. Accidents happened to him sometimes. On this very afternoon of the Friday before Martinmas an accident had happened to him. He had been playing the piano at the rehearsal of the Grand Annual Evening Concert of the Bursley Male Glee-Singers. The Bursley Male Glee-Singers, determined to beat records, had got a soprano with a foreign name down from Manchester. On seeing the shabby perky little man who was to accompany her songs the soprano had had a moment of terrible misgiving. But as soon as Jock, with a careful-careless glance at the music, which he had never seen before, had played the first chords (with a "How's that for time, missis?"), she was reassured. At the end of the song her enthusiasm for the musical gifts of the local artist was such that she had sprung from the platform and simply but cordially kissed him. She was a stout, feverish lady. He liked a lady to be stout; and the kiss was pleasant and the compliment enormous. But what a calamity for a local preacher with a naughty past to be kissed in full rehearsal by a soprano from Manchester! He knew that he had to live that kiss down, and to live down also the charge of theatricality.
Here was a reason, and a very good one, why he deliberately sought the company of parsons in the middle of the Fair-ground. He had to protect himself against tongues.
"I don't know," said Jock-at-a-Venture to the parsons, gesturing with his hands and twisting his small, elegant feet, "I don't know as I'm in favour of stopping these play-acting folk from making a living; stopping 'em by force, that is."
He knew that he had said something shocking, something that when he joined the group he had not in the least meant to say. He knew that instead of protecting himself he was exposing himself to danger. But he did not care. When, as now, he was carried away by an idea, he cared for naught. And, moreover, he had the consciousness of being cleverer, acuter, than any of these ministers of religion, than anybody in the town! His sheer skill and resourcefulness in life had always borne him safely through every difficulty--from a prize-fight to a soprano's embrace.
"A strange doctrine, Brother Smith!" said Jock's own pastor.
The other two hummed and hawed, and brought the tips of their fingers together.
"Nay!" said Jock, persuasively smiling. "'Stead o' bringing 'em to starvation, bring 'em to the House o' God! Preach the gospel to 'em, and then when ye've preached the gospel to 'em, happen they'll change their ways o' their own accord. Or happen they'll put their play-acting to the service o' God. If there's plays agen drink, why shouldna' there be plays agen the devil, and for Jesus Christ, our Blessed Redeemer?"
"Good day to you, brethren," said one of the parsons, and departed. Thus only could he express his horror of Jock's sentiments.
In those days churches and chapels were not so empty that parsons had to go forth beating up congregations. A pew was a privilege. And those who did not frequent the means of grace had at any rate the grace to be ashamed of not doing so. And, further, strolling players, in spite of John Wesley's exhortations, were not considered salvable. The notion of trying to rescue them from merited perdition was too fantastic to be seriously entertained by serious Christians. Finally, the suggested connection between Jesus Christ and a stage-play was really too appalling! None but Jock-at-a-Venture would have been capable of such an idea.
"I think, my friend--" began the second remaining minister.
"Look at that good woman there!" cried Jock-at-a-Venture, interrupting him with a dramatic out-stretching of the right arm, as he pointed to a very stout but comely dame, who, seated on a three-legged stool, was calmly peeling potatoes in front of one of the more resplendent booths. "Look at that face! Is there no virtue in it? Is there no hope for salvation in it?"
"None," Jock's pastor replied mournfully. "That woman--her name is Clowes--is notorious. She has eight children, and she has brought them all up to her trade. I have made inquiries. The elder daughters are actresses and married to play-actors, and even the youngest child is taught to strut on the boards. Her troupe is the largest in the Midlands."
Jock-at-a-Venture was certainly dashed by this information.
"The more reason," said he, obstinately, "for saving her!... And all hers!"
The two ministers did not want her to be saved. They liked to think of the theatre as being beyond the pale. They remembered the time, before they were ordained, and after, when they had hotly desired to see the inside of a theatre and to rub shoulders with wickedness. And they took pleasure in the knowledge that the theatre was always there, and the wickedness thereof, and the lost souls therein. But Jock-at-a-Venture genuinely longed, in that ecstasy of his, for the total abolition of all forms of sin.
"And what would you do to save her, brother?" Jock's pastor inquired coldly.
"What would I do? I'd go and axe her to come to chapel Sunday, her and hers. I'd axe her kindly, and I'd crack a joke with her. And I'd get round her for the Lord's sake."
Both ministers sighed. The same thought was in their hearts, namely, that brands plucked from the burning (such as Jock) had a disagreeable tendency to carry piety, as they had carried sin, to the most ridiculous and inconvenient lengths.
"Those are bonny potatoes, missis!"
"Ay!" The stout woman, the upper part of whose shabby dress seemed to be subjected to considerable strains, looked at Jock carelessly, and then, attracted perhaps by his eager face, smiled with a certain facile amiability.
"But by th' time they're cooked your supper'll be late, I'm reckoning."
"Them potatoes have naught to do with our supper," said Mrs Clowes. "They're for to-morrow's dinner. There'll be no time for peeling potatoes to-morrow. Kezia!" She shrilled the name.
A slim little girl showed herself between the heavy curtains of the main tent of Mrs Clowes's caravanserai.
"Bring Sapphira, too!"
"Those yours?" asked Jock.
"They're mine," said Mrs Clowes. "And I've six more, not counting grandchildren and sons-in-law like."
"No wonder you want a pailful of potatoes!" said Jock.
Kezia and Sapphira appeared in the gloom. They might have counted sixteen years together. They were dirty, tousled, graceful and lovely.
"Twins," Jock suggested.
Mrs Clowes nodded. "Off with this pail, now! And mind you don't spill the water. Here, Kezia! Take the knife. And bring me the other pail."
The children bore away the heavy pail, staggering, eagerly obedient. Mrs Clowes lifted her mighty form from the stool, shook peelings from the secret places of her endless apron, and calmly sat down again.
"Ye rule 'em with a rod of iron, missis," said Jock.
She smiled good-humouredly and shrugged her vast shoulders--no mean physical feat.
"I keep 'em lively," she said. "There's twelve of 'em in my lot, without th' two babbies. Someone's got to be after 'em all the time."
"And you not thirty-five, I swear!"
"Nay! Ye're wrong."
Sapphira brought the other pail, swinging it. She put it down with a clatter of the falling handle and scurried off.
"Am I now?" Jock murmured, interested; and, as it were out of sheer absent-mindedness, he turned the pail wrong side up, and seated himself on it with a calm that equalled the calm of Mrs Clowes.
It was now nearly dark. The flares of the showmen were answering each other across the Fair-ground; and presently a young man came and hung one out above the railed platform of Mrs Clowes's booth; and Mrs Clowes blinked. From behind the booth floated the sounds of the confused chatter of men, girls and youngsters, together with the complaint of an infant. A few yards away from Mrs Clowes was a truss of hay; a pony sidled from somewhere with false innocence up to this truss, nosed it cautiously, and then began to bite wisps from it. Occasionally a loud but mysterious cry swept across the ground. The sky was full of mystery. Against the sky to the west stood black and clear the silhouette of the new Town Hall spire, a wondrous erection; and sticking out from it at one side was the form of a gigantic angel. It was the gold angel which, from the summit of the spire, has now watched over Bursley for half a century, but which on that particular Friday had been lifted only two-thirds of the way to its final home.
Jock-at-a-Venture felt deeply all the influences of the scene and of the woman. He was one of your romantic creatures; and for him the woman was magnificent. Her magnificence thrilled.
"And what are you going to say?" she quizzed him. "Sitting on my pail!"
Now to quiz Jock was to challenge him.
"Sitting on your pail, missis," he replied, "I'm going for to say that you're much too handsome a woman to go down to hell in eternal damnation."
She was taken aback, but her profession had taught her the art of quick recovery.
"You belong to that Methody lot," she mildly sneered. "I thought I seed you talking to them white-chokers."
"I do," said Jock.
"And I make no doubt you think yourself very clever."
"Well," he vouchsafed, "I can splice a rope, shave a head, cure a wart or a boil, and tell a fine woman with any man in this town. Not to mention boxing, as I've given up on account of my religion."
"I was handsome once," said Mrs Clowes, with apparent, but not real, inconsequence. "But I'm all run to fat, like. I've played Portia in my time. But now it's as much as I can do to get through with Maria Martin or Belladonna."
"Fat!" Jock protested. "Fat! I wouldn't have an ounce taken off ye for fifty guineas."
He was so enthusiastic that Mrs Clowes blushed.
"What's this about hell-fire?" she questioned. "I often think of it--I'm a lonely woman, and I often think of it."
"You lonely!" Jock protested again. "With all them childer?"
There was a silence.
"See thee here, missis!" he exploded, jumping up from the pail. "Ye must come to th' Bethesda down yon, on Sunday morning, and hear the word o' God. It'll be the making on ye."
Mrs Clowes shook her head.
"And bring yer children," he persisted.
"If it was you as was going to preach like!" she said, looking away.
"It is me as is going to preach," he answered loudly and proudly. "And I'll preach agen any man in this town for a dollar!"
Jock was forgetting himself: an accident which often happened to him.
The Bethesda was crowded on Sunday morning; partly because it was Martinmas Sunday, and partly because the preacher was Jock-at-a-Venture. That Jock should have been appointed on the "plan" [rota of preachers] to discourse in the principal local chapel of the Connexion at such an important feast showed what extraordinary progress he had already made in the appreciation of that small public of experts which aided the parson in drawing up the quarterly plan. At the hands of the larger public his reception was sure. Some sixteen hundred of the larger public had crammed themselves into the chapel, and there was not an empty place either on the ground floor or in the galleries. Even the "orchestra" (as the "singing-seat" was then called) had visitors in addition to the choir and the double-bass players. And not a window was open. At that date it had not occurred to people that fresh air was not a menace to existence. The whole congregation was sweltering, and rather enjoying it; for in some strangely subtle manner perspiration seemed to be a help to religious emotion. Scores of women were fanning themselves; and among these was a very stout peony-faced woman of about forty in a gorgeous yellow dress and a red-and-black bonnet, with a large boy and a small girl under one arm, and a large boy and a small girl under the other arm. The splendour of the group appeared somewhat at odds with the penury of the "Free Seats," whither it had been conducted by a steward.
In the pulpit, dominating all, was Jock-at-a-Venture, who sweated like the rest. He presented a rather noble aspect in his broadcloth, so different from his careless, shabby week-day attire. His eye was lighted; his arm raised in a compelling gesture. Pausing effectively, he lifted a glass with his left hand and sipped. It was the signal that he had arrived at his peroration. His perorations were famous. And this morning everybody felt, and he himself knew, that all previous perorations were to be surpassed. His subject was the wrath to come, and the transient quality of human life on earth. "Yea," he announced, in gradually-increasing thunder, "all shall go. And loike the baseless fabric o' a vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself--Yea, I say, all which it inherit shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial payjent faded, leave not a rack behind."
His voice had fallen for the last words. After a dramatic silence, he finished, in a whisper almost, and with eyebrows raised and staring gaze directed straight at the vast woman in yellow: "We are such stuff as drames are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. May God have mercy on us. Hymn 442."
The effect was terrific. Men sighed and women wept, in relief that the strain was past. Jock was an orator; he wielded the orator's dominion. Well he knew, and well they all knew, that not a professional preacher in the Five Towns could play on a congregation as he did. For when Jock was roused you could nigh see the waves of emotion sweeping across the upturned faces of his hearers like waves across a wheatfield on a windy day.
And this morning he had been roused.
But in the vestry after the service he met enemies, in the shape and flesh of the chapel-steward and the circuit-steward, Mr Brett and Mr Hanks respectively. Both these important officials were local preachers, but, unfortunately, their godliness did not protect them against the ravages of jealousy. Neither of them could stir a congregation, nor even fill a country chapel.
"Brother Smith," said Jabez Hanks, shutting the door of the vestry. He was a tall man with a long, greyish beard and no moustache. "Brother Smith, it is borne in upon me and my brother here to ask ye a question."
"Ask!" said Jock.
"Were them yer own words--about cloud-capped towers and baseless fabrics and the like? I ask ye civilly."
"And I answer ye civilly, they were," replied Jock.
"Because I have here," said Jabez Hanks, maliciously, "Dod's Beauties o' Shakspere, where I find them very same words, taken from a stage-play called The Tempest."
Jock went a little pale as Jabez Hanks opened the book.
"They may be Shakspere's words too," said Jock, lightly.
"A fortnight ago, at Moorthorne Chapel, I suspected it," said Jabez.
"Suspected ye o' quoting Shakspere in our pulpits."
"And cannot a man quote in a sermon? Why, Jabez Hanks, I've heard ye quote Matthew Henry by the fathom."
"Ye've never heard me quote a stage-play in a pulpit, Brother Smith," said Jabez Hanks, majestically. "And as long as I'm chapel-steward it wunna' be tolerated in this chapel."
"Wunna it?" Jock put in defiantly.
"It's a defiling of the Lord's temple; that's what it is!" Jabez Hanks continued. "Ye make out as ye're against stage-plays at the Fair, and yet ye come here and mouth 'em in a Christian pulpit. You agen stage-plays! Weren't ye seen talking by the hour to one o' them trulls, Friday night--? And weren't ye seen peeping through th' canvas last night? And now--"
"Now what?" Jock inquired, approaching Jabez on his springy toes, and looking up at Jabez's great height.
Jabez took breath. "Now ye bring yer fancy women into the House o' God! You--a servant o' Christ, you--"
Jock-at-a-Venture interrupted the sentence with his daring fist, which seemed to lift Jabez from the ground by his chin, and then to let him fall in a heap, as though his clothes had been a sack containing loose bones.
"A good-day to ye, Brother Brett," said Jock, reaching for his hat, and departing with a slam of the vestry door.
He emerged at the back of the chapel and got by "back-entries" into Aboukir Street, up which he strolled with a fine show of tranquillity, as far as the corner of Trafalgar Road, where stood and stands the great Dragon Hotel. The congregations of several chapels were dispersing slowly round about this famous corner, and Jock had to salute several of his own audience. Then suddenly he saw Mrs Clowes and her four children enter the tap-room door of the Dragon.
He hesitated one second and followed the variegated flotilla and its convoy.
The tap-room was fairly full of both sexes. But among them Jock and Mrs Clowes and her children were the only persons who had been to church or chapel.
"Here's preacher, mother!" Kezia whispered, blushing, to Mrs Clowes.
"Eh," said Mrs Clowes, turning very amiably. "It's never you, mester! It was that hot in that chapel we're all on us dying of thirst.... Four gills and a pint, please!" (This to the tapster.)
"And give me a pint," said Jock, desperately.
They all sat down familiarly. That a mother should take her children into a public-house and give them beer, and on a Sunday of all days, and immediately after a sermon! That a local preacher should go direct from the vestry to the gin-palace and there drink ale with a strolling player! These phenomena were simply and totally inconceivable! And yet Jock was in presence of them, assisting at them, positively acting in them! And in spite of her enormities, Mrs Clowes still struck him as a most agreeable, decent, kindly, motherly woman--quite apart from her handsomeness. And her offspring, each hidden to the eyes behind a mug, were a very well-behaved lot of children.
"It does me good," said Mrs Clowes, quaffing. "And ye need summat to keep ye up in these days! We did Belphegor and The Witch and a harlequinade last night. And not one of these children got to bed before half after midnight. But I was determined to have 'em at chapel this morning. And not sorry I am I went! Eh, mester, what a Virginius you'd ha' made! I never heard preaching like it--not as I've heard much!"
"And you'll never hear anything like it again, missis," said Jock, "for I've preached my last sermon."
"Nay, nay!" Mrs Clowes deprecated.
"I've preached my last sermon," said Jock again. "And if I've saved a soul wi' it, missis...!" He looked at her steadily and then drank.
"I won't say as ye haven't," said Mrs Clowes, lowering her eyes.
Rather less than a week later, on a darkening night, a van left the town of Bursley by the Moorthorne Road on its way to Axe-in-the-Moors, which is the metropolis of the wild wastes that cut off northern Staffordshire from Derbyshire. This van was the last of Mrs Clowes's caravanserai, and almost the last to leave the Fair. Owing to popular interest in the events of Jock-at-a-Venture's public career, in whose meshes Mrs Clowes had somehow got caught, the booth of Mrs Clowes had succeeded beyond any other booth, and had kept open longer and burned more naphtha and taken far more money. The other vans of the stout lady's enterprise (there were three in all) had gone forward in advance, with all her elder children and her children-in-law and her grandchildren, and the heavy wood and canvas of the booth. Mrs Clowes, transacting her own business herself, from habit, invariably brought up the rear of her procession out of a town; and sometimes her leisurely manner of settling with the town authorities for water, ground-space and other necessary com-modities, left her several miles behind her tribe.
The mistress's van, though it would not compare with the glorious vehicles that showmen put upon the road in these days, was a roomy and dignified specimen, and about as good as money could then buy. The front portion consisted of a parlour and kitchen combined, and at the back was a dormitory. In the dormitory Kezia, Sapphira and the youngest of their brothers were sleeping hard. In the parlour and kitchen sat Mrs Clowes, warmly enveloped, holding the reins with her right hand and a shabby, paper-covered book in her left hand. The book was the celebrated play, The Gamester, and Mrs Clowes was studying therein the role of Dulcibel. Not a role for which Mrs Clowes was physically fitted; but her prolific daughter, Hephzibah, to whom it appertained by prescription, could not possibly play it any longer, and would, indeed, be incapacitated from any role whatever for at least a month. And the season was not yet over; for folk were hardier in those days.
The reins stretched out from the careless hand of Mrs Clowes and vanished through a slit between the double doors, which had been fixed slightly open. Mrs Clowes's gaze, penetrating now and then the slit, could see the gleam of her lamp's ray on a horse's flank. The only sounds were the hoof-falls of the horse, the crunching of the wheels on the wet road, the occasional rattle of a vessel in the racks when the van happened to descend violently into a rut, and the steady murmur of Mrs Clowes's voice rehearsing the grandiloquence of the part of Dulcibel.
And then there was another sound, which Mrs Clowes did not notice until it had been repeated several times; the cry of a human voice out on the road:
She opened wide the doors of the van and looked prudently forth. Naturally, inevitably, Jock-at-a-Venture was trudging alongside, level with the horse's tail! He stepped nimbly--he was a fine walker--but none the less his breath came short and quick, for he had been making haste up a steepish hill in order to overtake the van. And he carried a bundle and a stick in his hands, and on his head a superb but heavy beaver hat.
"I'm going your way, missis," said Jock.
"Seemingly," agreed Mrs Clowes, with due caution.
"Canst gi' us a lift?" he asked.
"And welcome," she said, her face changing like a flash to suit the words.
"Nay, ye needna' stop!" shouted Jock.
In an instant he had leapt easily up into the van, and was seated by her side therein on the children's stool.
"That's a hat--to travel in!" observed Mrs Clowes.
Jock removed the hat, examined it lovingly and replaced it.
"I couldn't ha' left it behind," said he, with a sigh, and continued rapidly in another voice: "Missis, we'n seen a pretty good lot o' each other this wik, and yet ye slips off o'this'n, without saying good-bye, nor a word about yer soul!"
Mrs Clowes heaved her enormous breast and shook the reins.
"I've had my share of trouble," she remarked mysteriously.
"Tell me about it, missis!"
And lo! in a moment, lured on by his smile, she was telling him quite familiarly about the ailments of her younger children, the escapades of her unmarried daughter aged fifteen, the surliness of one of her sons-in-law, the budding dishonesty of the other, the perils of infant life, and the need of repainting the big van and getting new pictures for the front of the booth. Indeed, all the worries of a queen of the road!
"And I'm so fat!" she said, "and yet I'm not forty, and shan't be for two year--and me a grandmother!"
"I knowed it!" Jock exclaimed.
"If I wasn't such a heap o' flesh--"
"Ye're the grandest heap o' flesh as I ever set eyes on, and I'm telling ye!" Jock interrupted her.
Then there were disconcerting sounds out in the world beyond the van. The horse stopped. The double doors were forced open from without, and a black figure, with white eyes in a black face, filled the doorway. The van had passed through the mining village of Moorthorne, and this was one of the marauding colliers on the outskirts thereof. When the colliers had highroad business in the night they did not trouble to wash their faces after work. The coal-dust was a positive aid to them, for it gave them a most useful resemblance to the devil.
Jock-at-a-Venture sprang up as though launched from a catapult.
"Is it thou, Jock?" cried the collier, astounded.
"Ay, lad!" said Jock, briefly.
And caught the collier a blow under the chin that sent him flying into the obscurity of the night. Other voices sounded in the road. Jock rushed to the doorway, taking a pistol from his pocket. And Mrs Clowes, all dithering like a jelly, heard shots. The horse started into a gallop. The reins escaped from the hands of the mistress, but Jock secured them, and lashed the horse to greater speed with the loose ends of them.
"I've saved thee, missis!" he said later. "I give him a regular lifter under the gob, same as I give Jabez, Sunday. But where's the sense of a lone woman wandering about dark roads of a night wi' a pack of childer?... Them childer 'ud ha' slept through th' battle o' Trafalgar," he added.
Mrs Clowes wept.
"Well may you say it!" she murmured. "And it's not the first time as I've been set on!"
"Thou'rt nowt but a girl, for all thy flesh and thy grandchilder!" said Jock. "Dry thy eyes, or I'll dry 'em for thee!"
She smiled in her weeping. It was an invitation to him to carry out his threat.
And while he was drying her eyes for her, she asked:
"How far are ye going? Axe?"
"Ay! And beyond! Can I act, I ask ye? Can I fight, I ask ye? Can ye do without me, I ask ye, you a lone woman? And yer soul, as is mine to save?"
"But that business o' yours at Bursley?"
"Here's my bundle," he said, "and here's my best hat. And I've money and a pistol in my pocket. The only thing I've clean forgot is my cornet; but I'll send for it and I'll play it at my wedding. I'm Jock-at-a-Venture."
And while the van was rumbling in the dark night across the waste and savage moorland, and while the children were sleeping hard at the back of the van, and while the crockery was restlessly clinking in the racks and the lamp swaying, and while he held the reins, the thin, lithe, greying man contrived to take into his arms the vast and amiable creature whom he desired. And the van became a vehicle of high romance.