When it became known that the Circus was coming to Bullocktown there was much excitement. Anything in the shape of amusement was so eagerly seized upon--even a pound sale was considered a joyous occasion--that the news of a circus within cooey, as one might say, almost took away the breath of the inhabitants.
The intelligence was brought by 'Arry the mail boy, who, riding at Grogmore and Brandyvale twice aweek, had on his last journey fallen in with the Circus, camped (quite condescendingly) by the Muddy Waterholes. 'Arry's description of the regal magnificence of the proud proprietors of this travelling raree show fired all the youth of the township, and juvenile Bullocktown burned for the arena. As has been hinted at, juvenile Bullocktown did not often get a chance to do anything but burn. Bullocktown did not offer any vast attractions to the itinerant showman, and even the Wizard Oil Man, daring beyond his compeers in exploring of "untrodden ways," drew the line at Quartzborough, and turned off to Grogmore by the way of St. Omer and Whisky Flat. Two "performances" had indeed been given in the biggest parlour of the "Royal Cobb," but they were not eminently successful. One of these was a "lecture," and the other an "entertainment." I witnessed both, and until I saw the entertainment, would have ventured to wager large sums that nothing in the way of amusement could be more dreary than the lecture.
The "Siege of Sebastopol," with illustrations, is, one would think, a subject which could be rendered interesting, if not instructive, but it wasn't. In the first place, the illustrations were not all they might have been. A comic set of magic lantern slides representing Chinamen seized by sailors, rats entering the practicable mouths of sleeping miners, and marvellous men in red garments chasing anatomically alarming youths in blue, does not give one a very accurate idea of the Russian Campaign. Moreover, the lecturer was afflicted with what he was pleased to term "whisky in the hair," and was uncertain in his movements. Bullocktown grew bewildered when informed that, "'ere they saw the 'Eurilas' twentyeight guns as hengagin' the Rooshan frigate 'Chokemoff,' 181 guns (to the left Hadmiral Sir C. Napier standing on the foretops'le sheet-blocks)," and were presented with a portrait of the Vale of Pempes, by moonlight, instead. Jack Harris, the son of the butcher, asked the lecturer in an unsophisticated way to "bung out his blank Sebastypool and get on," and when the lecturer wobbled in his speech, and hiccoughed solemnly during the Bombardment of Cronstadt, told him that "he'd never buy the child a new frock," and advised him to "knock off and have a smoke." Eventually the lecturer appealed to Longbow, who made a little speech, in which he stated that if his respected friend, Miss Burdett-Coutts, could by any possibility have heard the ungentlemanly observations of Mr. Harris she would "never get over it," as though it was a five-barred gate to be taken at a fly with a bad take off and an uncertain landing. Mr. Patrick Rafferty (senior-Constable Rafferty the Quartzborough Chronicle called him) cut the gordian know by locking Jack Harris in the stable until the "lecture" was concluded.
The "entertainment" was given by Mr. And Mrs. Montacute, late of the Theatre Royal and Haymarket, Melbourne. The biggest table in the "Royal Cobb" was the stage, and Mrs Montacute ran laughingly up a pair of steps on the left hand to meet Mr. Montacute, who bounded gracefully from the vantage ground of an inverted bucket on the right. The curtain was a horse-cloth, and the orchestra a piano, played by Tom Patterson, the overseer at Mount Melancholy, who had an ear for music, and who, being in the township on a matter of post-and-rail fencing, most generously volunteered his services. I am afraid that the artistic position which poor Mr. and Mrs. Montacute occupied at the Theatre Royal and Haymarket had not been the most exalted one, but they did their best, and were received with rapturous applause. Indeed, when Mr. Montacute, clad severely in a dressing-gown of Longbow's (given him, of course, by his "intimate friend, the Marquis of Doon"), rolled his eyes, and asked in a terrible voice, "Who has been opening oysters with my razor?" the peals of laughter were deafening. This was the more complimentary to the comic powers of Mr. Montacute, for none of the "born inhabitants" of Bullocktown had ever seen an oyster in all their lives.
But to resume. Riding along the bush road to Grogmore the day after the deliverance of 'Arry's budget, the traveller of the guide-books would have observed that the gum-trees were here and there "blazed" with posters--"Buncombe's Imperial Yanko-American Circus!" "The most complete Stud in the Australias!" "The Boneless Brothers of Blazing Beet!" "Mademoiselle Zepherina, the Fairy Equestrienne!" "Feats in the Haute Ecole!" "Mr. Stanislaus Buncombe, the Machiavelian Clown!" and so on; while the pictures of the Brothers distorting their boneless limbs, the Machiavellian Clown roaring with laughter at his own jests, and Mademoiselle Zepherina performing her feats in the Haute Ecole, were calculated to appal the stoutest beholder. By mid-day Bullocktown shook to its foundations--the Circus had arrived.
Most of us have seen that inexpressibly melancholy spectacle--a "Triumphal Entry by Circus Riders." We know the paint and powder, and long hair, and fillets, and piebald ponies, and big drums. We are familiar with the lovely damsels who are not lovely, and the spirited steeds that are not spirited, and the golden car that is not golden, and the sham and pretension of the whole business. We know how cold and wretched the Bounding Bucks look in their silk tights at mid-day, and how singularly bony are the Boneless Brothers. We sympathise with the dusty team of sixteen creams that comport themselves with such preposterous affectation of suddenly making for their native postures, and dragging at their fiery heels the fragments of the Triumphal Car. We observe even the bulged and blackened stocking-knee of the Famed Equestrienne, and bethink us how many times it has knelt in vain to the murderous marauder, who, bestriding three steeds at once, would fain bear off the pearl of the Haute Ecole across his triple saddle bow. All this we have seen, and have commented on in our various methods: some parsonically, with hints of burnings in store for the abandoned folk: some cynically, as betokening a condition of sham and humbug typical of much in humanity: some kindly and cheerily, with knowledge of good fellowship and friendship displayed among these hard-working holiday-makers that might put better dressed and more respectable people to shame. But I doubt if it has fallen to the lot of many of us to see the strange sight which this eighth wonder of Bullocktown presented when contrasted with its surroundings. The sordid little wooden stores, the grey, grim gumtrees, the staring public-house, the unmetalled roads, the dispiriting "newness" of the whole place, and in the midst of this position of unreal heroes, mock marauders, motley clowns, and pasteboard knights-in-armour.
Three times did the Circus encircle the township, and then it coiled itself gradually into the back yard of the "Royal Cobb," to be seen of men no more until night. By-and-by certain cadaverous, greasy-haired people came into Longbow's bar, and condescendingly drank with the inhabitants. In the bar congregated at once the rank and fashion of the township.
Mr. Bluffem was there; also Mrs Bluffem, called by her affectionate husband, "Ize Betsy," and popularly known as "Bluffem's Pet." Flash Harry, the coachdriver, was there, in breeches of appalling tightness and loose spurs that jingled highwayman like as he walked. There was also little Potkins, the owner of the adjoining run of marsh-mallows; and numerous horses--"mokes" as their owners termed them--were hanging at various degrees of neck extension to the rings on the "Royal Cobb" verandah-post. By-and-by the Boneless Brothers, attended by an admiring crowd of township children, marked out a sort of free selection on a piece of waste ground, between McTaggart the blacksmith's and the schoolhouse, and in the course of an hour or so a wondrous erection of poles and canvas, to which the tent of the Fairy Peri Barron (so celebrated in Eastern story) was but a shanty in comparison, rose into being. On the top of this canvas mushroom flew in the hot wind an enormous flag. The "Circus" had become a fact.
During the afternoon the world and his wife trooped into Bullocktown. Stockmen were abundant, and riding their own horses for the day, behaved with that reckless disregard of life and limb which characterises stockmen on such occasions.
The yard of the "Three Posts" presented a curious appearance. Hans Kolsen, the "cranky shepherd," was expatiating on the mystery of the mallee to a crowd to bearded fellows, who alternately ridiculed and "shouted" for him. Sandy McDonald fought a pitched battle with Andy O'Brien; and that onearmed hero, old Niel Gow, the boundary rider ("shepherd ranger" he loved to term himself) bent pewter pots and held up strong men in his teeth, and achieved other feats for which he had become celebrated throughout the district. The fiddles struck up fast and furious in the "long room," the tobaccoed brandy circulated freely, and before sundown, had the traveller before-mentioned paused for an instant at the bridge, he could not have failed to have come to the conclusion that Bullocktown was in the primary stage of intoxication.
The Circus was to open at half-past seven o'clock, and shortly before that hour the crowd around the "Royal Cobb" increased in density. Mr. Patrick Rafferty--his whiskers blazing with a sense of duty--exerted himself to the utmost to preserve order, and with patriotic disregard of expense, dressed himself defiantly in full uniform. The avenues and passages of the "Royal Cobb"--not too many nor too wide--were choked with enthralled inhabitants. The Equestrienne was eating in an adjoining apartment. Rumour, with its thousand tongues, even hinted that Stanislaus Buncombe himself had, with Machiavelian Clownishness, ordered steak and onions. Great thought! The dish rose in the estimation of Bullocktown from that hour.
The violet darkness of a moonless summer night had fallen on the tent when the canvas flap was lifted to admit the multitude. Prices did not rule high--one shilling to the pit, one shilling and sixpence to the boxes, and sixpence to all other parts of the house, were the advertised charges; and Bullocktown, on pleasure bent, thronged to the pit. It was rumoured that three shillings had been charged in Quartzborough for a seat in that locality, and that so high were the notions of the Circus proprietors that but for the necessity of "spelling" their horses they would not have performed in Bullocktown at all, but gone straight to Grogmore. It was pleasant to see how Bullocktown appreciated the honour done it, and lavished its shillings on pit seats.
The aristocrats--that is to say, Little Potkins, Tom Patterson, Dick Stevens of the Gash, and other wealthy squatters, occupied the boxes, and tapped their boots with the thong-ends of their Sunday riding whips with much dignity. Meerschaum pipes obtained about this part of the house, and young Sholtz (learning colonial experience), who was generally supposed to devote his existence to the colouring of these articles, had mounted the most gigantic specimen in his collection in pure honour of the occasion. Tom Patterson, the rogue, ogled the two township belles, and even dared to cast the eye of flirtation on pretty Mrs Ballantine, the poundkeeper's lately achieved bridge. Potkins sucked the German-silver head of his whip, and looked knowing, while Stevens, who was in "society" when in town, leant against the post and assumed a "blasé" air.
A moment of anxious expectation, and the Machiavelian One himself leapt into the ring.
I believe that the Machiavelian One was a good clown. I have seen his memoirs, penned by my versatile "hic-et-ubique" friend. Bob Jingle, bound in green covers, with a pensive portrait of the humourist himself on the back of it, and been alarmed at his violent predilection for jesting. I am willing, even now, to believe that the M.O. has turned fifteen double somersaults in succession, peeling and eating an orange during the process, and that as a "jumpist," so to speak, he is without a rival. But candour compels me to admit, on this occasion, he was not sparkling. I have heard funnier jests than those that fell from his Machiavelian lips, and have witnessed acrobatic feats quite as dangerous as those which horrified the Bullocktown public on this particular evening. But perhaps the day's journey had fatigued him, or perhaps--and this supposition is not an improbable one--he did not care about wasting his best jokes upon a Bullocktown audience.
It was well that he did not, for from the instant he entered a storm of noises shook the canvas. All the powers of bullock-driving "badinage"--seldom elegant--were put in force to drive him from the ring. The good folks thought he was the fool he feigned to be and laughed at him, not with him! When the ring-master, chose, I imagine, for that exalted office on account of the peculiar breadth and beauty of his whiskers, lashed the clown, the audience solemnly applauded him; and when poor Stanislaus, in ecstasies of melancholy laughter, upset and trampled upon the ringmaster, the audience cried "shame" at the unmanly action. It was evident that they regarded the jester as the one serious blot upon the amusement of the evening!
This being the unexpected conclusion, haste was made to bring in the Equestrienne, who was graciously received. Mademoiselle Zepherina sat gracefully on the tail end of her fiery charger--a Roman-nosed animal of sedate and wise appearance who seemed to be rather ashamed of his capers and caparisons--stood upon one leg, smiled beamingly, and leapt through hoops and bounded over silk scarfs (falling upon her knees with tremendous accuracy) until Bullocktown would have died for her fair sake to a man. Three times was she compelled to re-enter and kiss her fingers in acknowledgement of the homage of her subjects; and in the last grand act, where her sailor-lover (having torn off his trousers and flung them to the wind) stripped off so many costumes during his rapid flight that blushing matrons, unused to daring acts of equitation, wondered alarmedly how deep he meant to go, the applause was deafening. The lover peeled to the last tight, waved his breathless thanks, and sank exhausted on the pad of his foaming piebald. As the flap closed on the pair the tumult was a hurricane, tempered by hiccups.
At this entrancing instant a pattering sound was heard. One of those violent sudden showers which sometimes burst upon up-country townships was about to descend on the tent. The ring-master paused in the midst of a whip-crack, and the Machiavelian jester had need of all his diplomacy to assume a jocular appearance. All faces turned simultaneously to the roof, and some half dozen men were observed to rush past the ticket-taker and vanish into the now cloudy night. The entrance of the Boneless Brothers recalled us to revelry. No event of less importance could have availed to do so.
The boneless pair were certainly very startling. The way in which they defied the anatomists, by putting their heads where their feet ought to be, and tying themselves into knots of the most gristly description, was perfectly perplexing. Longbow, who, amongst other professions, owned that of a surgeon, said that the cartilaginous formation was extraordinary; only equalled, indeed, by that of his poor dear friend, Lord Herbert of Cherberry, who had (upon Longbow's soul) the most remarkable development of muscle ever vouchsafed to man. But when the B.B. bent themselves into a triumphal arch, of which their heads were the keystone, and walked upon their hands twice round the arena, even Longbow felt compelled conscientiously to admit that Lord Herbert of Cherberry was, in comparison, cartilaginously nowhere.
As the brothers rose, empurpled from this feat, a hideous yell resounded, and the canvas, after swaying ominously, bulged into the centre.
The tin-hoop chandelier, with its wreath of flaming tallow-dips, dropped rattling into the "boxes," and amid a wild shried of dismay the whole fabric collapsed upon us. Those merry fellows outside had cut the ropes!
The cries of women pierced the canvas, and a running accompaniment of strong language testified that male Bullocktown was not at ease.
It is not a good thing to be suddenly swamped into a sea of dirty canvas, and for a few moments suffocation seemed imminent. Longbow, however, who was next to me, suggested a remedy.
"I've got a knife in my trousers pocket," said he, in semi-stifled tones, "and if you can get it out we'll cut the canvas. My arms are immovable."
Painfully conscious of the immediate and oppressive presence of "Ize Betsy," I made shift to grasp the desired weapon, and plunged it into the blinding mass above me. With a sound like that emitted by a tearing sheet the tent split in sunder, and we wriggled out. The momentary glimpse we got of the chaos out of which we had escaped was not calculated to reassure us. The centre tent-pole alone remained. Grimly upright, it protruded from a heaving desert of dirty white canvas, upon which the gathering rain fell patteringly. This canvas was here and there bulged with heads and pinnacled with feet.
Indistinct growlings and groanings escaped from it, and at the slit from which we had emerged peered one forlorn face.
It was that of Sanislaus Buncombe himself.
Longbow extended his hands which had been pressed so many times in friendship by F.M. the Duke of Wellington, and dragged the Machiavelian one gasping in the air.
"Oh my!" said he, "here's an almighty slide."
He spoke truly. It was an almighty slide, and looked like nothing so much as a dirty avalanche that had lost its way in a London fog, except perhaps a monster bundle of clothes split on their course to a Titanic wash. The clown surveyed the scene with emotion, but at last the driving rain, filling his clownish pockets with water, compelled him to cease meditation. Around us, on the edge of this overturned Circus riding, were several figures who appeared from their gestures to be on the point of expiring in convulsions of laughter. These were the merry dogs who had perpetrated this exquisite jest. Stanislaus seized upon two of these as volunteers, and borrowing the knife that had done such good service, he rapidly cut the cords that bound the canvas to the tent-pegs.
For an instant it appeared as though the vast sheet would be twisted into a ball by the struggles of the creatures beneath, but Buncombe catching one end of it, and Neil Gow the other, they "skinned" it from the corporate body beneath. Rending as it ran, into its various sections, the emblazoned tent was pulled from the elite of Bullocktown. Squirming, struggling, gasping, fighting, there lay the best blood of the township, the human bottles that held what Daw, the editor of the Quartzborough Gazette, so euphoniously termed the "vital fluid of the colonies."
Despite all one's knowledge of their misery and discomfort, one could not forbear a laugh at the appearance of the "audience." It was as though we had overturned a huge stone that covered a snug family of earth worms. Though not a head was visible, I never fully realized the truth of the saying "that man is but a forked radish with head fantastically carved" until then. Stanislaus was a modest man, and he turned away his face with a gasp of dismay.
In a few minutes, however, all were upright, and then was confusion worse confounded than before. Several friendly fights, began under the obscurity of the canvas, were concluded above ground; women wept over crushed bonnets and torn dresses. "Ize Betsy" urged her lord to execute instant vengeance upon the whole troupe of circus-riders, and catching sight of poor Stanislaus, made at him like a lioness. Not all the diplomacy of Machiavel was equal to the occasion, and feebly uttering "My good woman!" the proprietor of the Yanko-American Circus turned and fled. "I'll good woman you," screamed Mrs. Bluffem. "Wait a minute, you dog! Wait a minute."
But Stanislaus had no such intention. Bounding over the fallen patriarchs of the village, he ran like a deer for the "Royal Cobb," and reaching his bedroom a hand's breadth in advance of "Ize Betsy," locked the door, vanished from view. Mrs. Bluffem, foiled in her vengeance, and wet to the skin, screamed "Fire!" at the top of her voice, and, falling into strong convulsions, was only to be got round by still stronger brandy and water, administered scalding hot in the biggest tumbler the house afforded.
By-and-by, however, the first flavour of alarm having gone off, it was found that after all the affair was a most excellent jest, and merited drinks all round. So more dark brandy was consumed, and Bullocktown agreed in the parlour, passage, and what not of the "Royal Cobb" that it had not enjoyed itself so much for years, and that the true way to see a circus performance was to cut the ropes at the earliest opportunity.
This conclusion having been amicably arrived at, and the Yanko-Americans pledged bottle deep in liquor--which they drank suddenly and silently, as though they were not quite satisfied at the hilarity of their hosts--it was discovered that there was yet more excitement. A Mysterious Beast and a Knife-Swallowing Boy were exhibiting in a small booth which had escaped the general overthrow, and sixpence was the price of admission.
The Mysterious Beast was certainly very mysterious. He was a clean-shaved, melancholy animal, with a collar of gray fur round his neck, and a chain round his body. He sat on his hind legs in a corner, and moaned plaintively, shaking his miserable head from side to side as though he would exclaim against the wickedness of the world and the intolerable vanity of circus-riders. The only creature I had ever seen that resembled him in the slightest degree was a worthy pastor at Aberdeen that preached there to me on the Sabbath upon "Balwin' oop the trumpet i' the fool moon," and did so with just such a woebegone expression. It was evident that the Mysterious Beast was weighed down by the consciousness of his mystery. He felt the loneliness of genius.
The Knife-Swallowing Boy was, however, of a most cheerful character. He was stupendously fat. (I am indeed of opinion that he was in training for greatness in that profession, and burned to eclipse Lambert). His eyes were of pale blue, and his cheeks a sodden white. His tights were stretched to their utmost, and rolls of adipose tissue hung down over his spangled boots. If he swallowed nothing but knives, cutlery must have agreed with him wonderfully.
He commenced operations by a snack of pebbles. Handing round some good sized pieces of quartz upon a plate, he informed us that he was in the habit of consuming these delicacies in prodigal profusion, and that he found they were eminently satisfying and agreeable. Having said this he swallowed--or seemed to swallow--five or six in rapid succession, and made a low bow. The audience thrilled with delight, and one gentleman, in an ecstasy of admiration, swore with surprising energy for several minutes.
The boy, however, took this compliment as his evident due, and disdainfully spat into his hand. A lean man in the corner, who acted as showman to this exhibition, said as solemnly as though he really believed it, "He eats ten o' them every morning afore breakfast. It is supposed by physicians that the flints striking fire with the steel, enables him to better digest this remarkable repast." The boy sniffed contemptuously at this, and pretend not to know that everybody was looking at him.
"He will now swallow a sword," said the lean man. "'And it round Master Merryweather! 'and it round!" So the sword was 'anded round, and everybody felt it and weighed it, looked knowingly over it, and tried if it would go into the handle, and if it was real steel, and winked their eyes mysteriously, or affected to pass it by with a placid smile, as though they had seen it habitually from boyhood, and knew the man who made it.
During this process I got a little closer to the boy, and observed that he was standing on a platform, around the bottom of which was a legend to this effect:--
"JOHN LAMBTON MERRYWEATHER,
"Age fourteen and a-half years, born in the County of Grant. He swallows knives, swords, and all sorts of old iron. He eats pebbles, and is passionately fond of Chalk.
"PATRONISE NATIVE TALENT!
By the time I had read it over, the sword had been returned, and the swallow was about to commence. Stretching his legs very wide apart, the boy flung back his head until the Adam's-apple in his throat protruded in a dangerous manner, and then holding the sword very straight in the air, he allowed it to slide into his gullet. To the horror of all of us, the hilt rested upon his teeth, and the blade consequently fifteen inches deep into his stomach. After remaining in this position for an instant, the boy rapidly stretched out his arms, and the lean man, mounting on a chair, dexterously drew the weapon from its human sheath, and handed round the reeking blade to be admired.
During the awe-stricken silence which followed upon this feat a wild shriek was heard. It proceeded from little Potkins, who, tormenting the Mysterious Beast, had been bitten severely for his pains.
"Go it!" says the lean man. "Wot der want to hirritate him for?"
"I wasn't irritating," says Potkins.
"Yes yer were, I sor yer," says the boy. "You was a rokin' of him."
"Yer carn't expect beasts to be quiet when folks rokes 'em."
Flash Harry scented a riot.
"Shut up, you young quartz-crusher," said he. "Who asked for your opinion."
The boy solemnly advanced.
"Hold on my pipkin," he said. "Wait till I get up with yer; and we'll see whose quartz'll get crushed."
"Come on young stoneworks," says Harry. "Roll up here and show yer muscle."
The crowd parted like water, and in another minute Harry and the boy were at it hammer and tongs. I'll do Harry the justice to say that he fought well, but he was nowhere against the boy. That corpulent infant had been apparently bred to the science of self-defence, and the precision with which he planted his fatal left upon the nose of the horsebreader was, as Longbow declared, beautiful to see. After the third blow of this sort, which induced Harry's nose to spurt burstingly beneath the fat fist, as though it had been a suddenly-quashed gooseberry, the fight was virtually over, and the boy withdrew. Harry was removed by Potkins, and harmony seemed again restored, when a terrible accident was found to have taken place--the Mysterious Beast had vanished. Taking advantage of the confusion, the captive had escaped. It would be "roked" no more.
The lean man was violently wroth at this, and preposterously accusing Neil Gow of having concealed the marvellous animal about his person, was promptly knocked head over heels by that gigantic worthy.
The boy came to the rescue, and the row, for it deserves no better name, became fiercely general. The booth was uprooted, and the knife-swallower ran some danger of annihilation. But help was nigh. The Circus-riders came down upon us in a compact mass, and cut into us like a wedge. Hemmed in and separated from our companions, Longbow and I surrendered at our discretion, but the others, madly drunk, fought until they could fight no longer. The place where the Circus had been was the arena of one of the freest fights I remember. The Circus men were terribly sober, and in most unpleasant "condition." They had evidently made up their minds to avenge the destruction of their tent, and they did so most completely. I did not see much of the combat, but in about half-an-hour the Yanko-Americans returned, and ordered whiskies hot. Their coats were torn, and their faces badly cut, but not a Bullocktown man showed in their wake.
One of the Bounding Brothers was kind enough to ask me for a light, and I took the opportunity of enquiring what had become of my companions.
"Guess we kinder squelched 'em," said he. And I guess they kinder had, for not another resident showed his nose that evening.
Having thus celebrated their victory, the Yanko-Americans began to look about them for amusement, and strange to say they found it ready at their hand.
Curiously enough that very evening had arrived at the "Royal Cobb" that teetotal lecturer whose eloquence had formerly moved Bullocktown to repentance and sodawater. The name of this distinguished man was Barclay, and he had with him a teetotal friend, who, by one of those laughable coincidences which so often occur in life, was named Perkins. These two were sworn friends, and hunted in couples. The low-backed shandy-dan--half buggy, half go-cart--in which they rode was well-known in the district, and with its full freight of lecturers and lecturers' wives, had been dubbed. "Barclay and Perkins Entire." This shandy-dan was now resting in Longbow's backyard, and the four eschewers of the evil of strong drink seated in Longbow's best parlour.
Mrs Barclay was a tall, thin, and aristocratic lady; Mrs Perkins was podgy, short, and plebeian. Mrs Barclay was severe in demeanour; Mrs Perkins was merry with all. Mrs Barclay read serious books; Mrs Perkins affected novels of the Percy B. St. John type. They both, however, agreed on the subject of alcholic liquors; for the matter of that they might have been twinned in teetotalism. It was rumoured that Mrs Perkins had been heard to express more than friendly admiration for Mr. Barclay, and that Mrs. Barclay had owned to a tender respect for the noble character of Mr. Perkins. As for Barclay and Perkins, they were both like brothers. To see them you would think Cato and Hortensius were not more unselfishly affectionate.
Plump upon this happy quartette did Stanislaus Buncombe, creeping down the passage in mortal terror of "Ize Betzy," fall.
"A thousand pardons."
"Pray! Cone in," said Mr. Perkins, with a sigh. "It may chance that we win another soul to grace."
This blessed utterance was heard by the troupe, and expecting fun, they blocked the doorway.
"Come in, me Keristian friends," says Barclay, with a sigh that seemed to rend his vitals. "Oh! Come in!"
Mr. Perkins in the meanwhile addressed himself to Stanislaus with a smile. "Do you drink, sir?"
"Thank you," says the bewildered Machiavel, expectant of liquor. "I do." "I thought so," returned Mr. Perkins, throwing himself back in his chair. "Dorothy! My dear, just look at this unhappy man!"
Mrs. Perkins tittered (in a pious way) and looked. "Is he not a miserable spectacle," asked Perkins, with deep sorrow in his tones. "Oh why do the heathen thus furiously rage together?"
Stanislaus began to see how the land lay, and with Machiavelian sharpness, winked at his joyous band. "Ize Betsy" had departed, and he felt himself a man again. "My dear sir," he said, "do you know that your teetotal cordials are more pernicious than any quantity of ardent spirits."
Barclay waved his hand to Perkins, as who should say, "here is another benighted heathen. Hark at him!"
"I was not aware of it," says Perkins, "I have heard the argument many times before. It is a favourite one with the children of Beeelial."
"It's a fact," says Stanislaus. "Mr. Longbow, bring me some stomach bitters."
Longbow brought them.
"Drink this," said he, "and tell me your candid opinion."
Perkins drank and handed the bottle to Barclay. The bitters were good, for the holy men smiled a pleasant smile.
"It is comforting," said Barclay.
Stanislaus pretended to be astonished, and drank himself. "Upon my word," he cried, "it is not bad. I half begin to believe your doctrines." "Sit down, my friend," cried Barclay, "and I shall expound them yet further into thee."
"The ladies," says Stanislaus, "if they will forgive a poor player, but discussion is weary, and--may I suggest lemonade?"
Mrs. Barclay iced herself at once, but Mrs. Perkins bowed a gracious assent, and the lemonade was brought.
I have not now space to give the sermon that was preached by the pair, but it was a good one, and one of these days I may repeat it. Suffice it here to say that we all sat down and listened, and that the two holy men applied themselves to the stomach bitters between whiles. Speaking was dry work. The evening waned, and Stanislaus gallantly ordered more lemonade. We drank a good deal of lemonade, and then the ladies retired to a sort of cock-loft bed-chamber suite of their rooms that were built upon the upper storey.
"The bitters are empty," said Stanislaus. "Another bottle. Your discourse has impressed me."
Some more bitters were brought, and more lemonade, and presently I began to feel unaccountably drowsy.
A glance through the open door explained the mystery. Longbow, doubtless by that villain Stanislaus' directions, had been putting gin into the lemonade, and brandy into the cordial.
What need for further explanation. Perkins began to wander in his speech, and Barclay to get unsteady on his legs. Babbling peacefully of teetotalism, they were soon as happily drunk as the most confirmed toper of us all. Stanislaus, triumphant, called for a "health," and filling up a cordial glass to the brim with brandy, he handed it to Perkins.
"Water for ever," cried he.
"Wah! Wah! Water for--egh," says Perkins, draining the brandy, with a dreadful splutter, and suddenly awakening to the consciousness of the trick that had been played upon him. "Why you oul, oul villain, I'm t-t-tight!" Here his speech failed him, and he fell exhausted on the carpet.
Then came our task to convey him to bed. With wondrous exercise of mechanical ingenuity, we bore him up stairs, and opening the doors of their rooms, bundled him in and retreated. But when half way up the stairs a wild cry arose, and two white figures rushed at each other on the landing.
"Jeerusalem!" says the leader of the Yanko-Americans, "but we've put 'em into wrong rooms."
It was even so. Mr. Barclay had enraded the chamber of Mrs. Perkins, and Mr. Perkins that of Mrs. Barclay. 'Twas like a scene from Smollett. The two ladies, each thinking that she had discovered her husband's infidelity, flew at each other with deadly fury. Barclay, holding on by the bannister, denounced them both, but Perkins, too drunk to stand, clapped his hands feebly, and said with the last flicker of expiring sense, "Gug-go it Kak! Kak-Karoline!"
Who is it says that nothing is more gratifying to the gods than the spectacle of a good man struggling with adversity!
But I am not a god, so let me draw the veil.