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Chapter XI

Design for my grandfather's tomb. Death and interment of Mrs Emily Smith and the aunt that had stood with my mother's mother at the bottom of the stairs. Effect upon my father's health. Alexander Carkeek and his sons. Arrival home from the Stools. First tidings of the new lectern. My father's interview with the vicar. Curious instance of transposition of consonants. My father rehearses his denunciation. Arrival of Simeon Whey. My father repeats his denunciation.

Permanently impaired as had been my father's health by the ordeal referred to in Chapter VIII he had not permitted this, as I have said, to interfere with his duties as a sidesman; and there were still occasions upon which he would exhibit all his old-time fire and determination. Thus when my mother's parents had been destroyed by a tram accident about a month after the decease of Silas Whey, it was he who had arranged the funeral, chosen the hymns, and designed the monument by which they were to be commemorated, The provision business having declined somewhat, the chief factor in the design had necessarily been one of economy, and my father had therefore confined himself to a broken column some three inches in diameter and a foot high. Insufficient to accommodate their full names, their initials had been tastefully engraved upon it, the surface of the grave being sprinkled with flints that would require no subsequent upkeep.

the Aunt who stood with my mother's mother at the foot of the stairs

From a portrait of the Aunt who stood with my mother's mother at the foot of the stairs

In conjunction with Mr Balfour Whey, too, it was he who had selected a house for my mother's eight sisters, small but sufficient and in a remote part of Wales, where they would be able to husband their meagre income. Bitterly opposed as the eight sisters had been both to living together and leaving Walworth, my father had overcome them by the sheer power of his torrential eloquence and personality. Surrounded by strangers, as he had irresistibly reminded them, most of whom were unacquainted with the English language, fifteen miles from a railway station and three and a half from the nearest village, they would have neither the occasion nor the opportunity to dissipate their substance in convivial extravagance, while the precipitous roads, by which alone the house that he had chosen for them could be approached, would give them an appetite for the extremely simple fare which would be all that their means would allow them to purchase. To Wales they had gone, therefore, and though he continued to receive letters from them, couched in terms of the basest ingratitude, he neither replied to these nor permitted them to modify his kindly consideration for my mother.

Nor had he been less adequate in dealing with the circumstances that had arisen, a few months later, in connection with the demises of Mrs Emily Smith and the aunt that had stood with my mother's mother at the foot of the stairs. Both these ladies, who had been living on Post Office annuities, had unhappily died after sharing a sausage, strongly suspected, though never actually proved, of harbouring the bacillus of botulism. Thanks to my father's efforts, however, seconded by Mr Balfour Whey, the firm by whom the sausage had been manufactured consented without prejudice to pay a sum of money sufficient to provide for the ladies' interment. I have said sufficient, but after my father had reimbursed himself and paid the expenses of Mr Whey, he was once more faced, as in the case of my grandparents, with an acute necessity for economy. Burying them in a double coffin, however, of his own design — a design for which he afterwards obtained the patent — he succeeded not only in keeping the undertaker's bill within the balance at his disposal, but in providing a surplus with which he afterwards obtained a small iron slab containing their names and ages. Nor was that all, for with the pound or two that was over he bought a third-class ticket to Aberdeen, where he had obtained a situation for Mrs Emily Smith's grand-daughter as housemaid in a home for Xtian workers.

After every such exhibition of pristine vigour, however, my father experienced an acute reaction, and for many weeks would become a martyr not only to neurasthenic indigestion, but to digestive neurasthenia accompanied by flatulence of the severest order. For months on end, indeed, my mother would be obliged to sit by his bedside in case he should wake up and require abdominal kneading, and few were the nights upon which she had not in addition to go downstairs and make him some cocoa. But he would never allow himself to be daunted. His breakfast the next morning would be as hearty as usual. And he was never deterred by even the most obstinate inflation from the performance of a moral or religious duty. Despite his courage, however, he was leaning on me with ever-increasing emphasis, and I am proud to recall that, in what was so soon to prove the heaviest ordeal of his life, I was able to render him very material and indeed essential assistance.

Such, then, was the position when I parted with the Stools, after the evening meal that I have just recorded. And it was rather with their cries of thanks and gentle admiration resounding through the chill November night than with any sense of impending trouble that I turned my footsteps towards home. Indeed, as I buttoned up my overcoat and drew my scarf over my mouth, I had every reason to feel content both on my own account and my father's, whose health for some weeks had been slowly improving. For not only had my mother's parents been safely interred and her eight sisters satisfactorily disposed of, her two aunts competently buried, and Emily Smith junior despatched to Aberdeen, but my father, as I have indicated, had finally established himself as the senior sidesman of St James-the-Least-of-All.

Conferring the right of leading the other sidesmen up the central aisle at the end of the collection, this was the more gratifying since my father had only obtained it as the result of a prolonged and determined struggle, in which his chief opponent had been a retired fishmonger, known as Alexander Carkeek. A northern Caledonian of the most offensive type, this gentleman, as he liked to consider himself, was now a sleeping partner in the firm of Carkeek and Carkeek, fishmongers and poulterers in the Kennington Road, and had long been suspected, both by my father and myself, of a secret addiction to alcohol. Of middle height — he was perhaps taller than my father by an inch and three-quarters or two inches — his abdominal circumference was equally extensive and his bullet-shaped face even more highly coloured. Unlike my father, however, he had signally failed in retaining the bulk of his hair, and even his two sons, Corkran and Cosmo, were showing signs of becoming bald. Sidesmen like their father, they were only less aggressive, and during the long contest for supremacy, they had seized every opportunity 'of detaining or distracting my father while their own got into position at the head of the line. Indeed on one occasion, when my father had paused for a moment to adjust a door-handle half-way up the aisle, they had deliberately encouraged their father to push himself in front and thereby head the procession. Naturally resenting this, my father had immediately plunged forward, with the painful result that the two of them had become wedged and had been unable, owing to their respective girths, either to advance or retreat. Needless to say, in the struggle that ensued, my father had been the first to break away and had arrived at the chancel half an abdomen ahead of his pertinacious rival.

Ultimately, as I have said, however, thanks to repeated protests and an impassioned interview with the vicar, my father had definitely secured for himself the right of precedence, though the Carkeeks still remained sidesmen. Nor was that all. For it was now generally known that the vicar's churchwarden was about to retire, and there could be little doubt, as my father had several times observed to me, as to the probable successor to this great position.

It was with a comparatively light heart, therefore, that I opened the front door, hung up my hat and coat and folded my scarf, and entered the parlour ready to describe to my father the events that had occupied my evening; and my distress can be imagined when I at once perceived him to be in a state of the acutest physical congestion. Facially suffused to an alarming extent, the hairs of his moustache were visibly projecting, and I naturally assumed at first that he must have become the subject of an exceptional degree of intestinal discomfort. On closer inspection, however, I observed that this could scarcely be the case, since his waist-coat buttons were still fastened, and for a brief second I had a fearful apprehension that he was annoyed with myself. He did, in fact, ask me rather abruptly the reason for my absence from the evening meal. But his expression lightened a little when I told him where I had been and of the services rendered by me to Ezekiel Stool.

‘Yes, it's a good family,’ he said, ‘a very good family, and there's money in it as well as religion.’

The next moment, however, his face had resumed its congestion, and as I leaned back while my mother unlaced my boots, it became increasingly evident to me that I was in the presence of a spiritual crisis of the gravest kind. Nay, even then, I remember, I had a sudden presentiment that here was a situation of no common significance, and I signalled to my mother to be as rapid as possible in bringing me my slippers and leaving us alone. Then I took a deep breath and, leaning forward a little, gently touched my father's knee.

‘Can I not help you?’ I said.

My father stared at me. For perhaps a minute his lips moved convulsively. Then in a strangled voice he uttered a single word, followed a little later by fourteen other words.

‘Carkeek,’ he said. ‘It's that fellow Carkeek. He’s been and presented the church with a lectern.’

For a moment I was utterly dumbfounded.

‘A lectern?’ I asked.

My father nodded. ‘Made of brass,’ he said, ‘in the image of a bird.’

‘Of a bird?’ I cried. ‘What sort of bird?’

‘Of an eagle,’ said my father, ‘looking towards the left.’

‘Towards the left?’ I said. ‘But where's it to stand?’

‘At the top of the aisle,’ said my father, ‘just below the chancel steps.’

‘But, dear father,’ I cried, ‘we already have a lectern,’ and indeed this was literally the case, since the cavity or enclosure adjoining the choir seats, from which the vicar or his curate read the service, was also provided with a separate book-rest for the purpose of delivering the lessons.

‘Yes, I know,’ said my father, ‘but that wouldn’t deter Carkeek.’

‘But surely,’ I cried, ‘the vicar hasn’t accepted it?’

‘He has not only accepted it,’ said my father, ‘but the thing's in position.’

‘In position,’ I said, ‘and looking to the left?’ — My father nodded again.

‘Just west of south,’ he said.

‘But good heavens,’ I cried, ‘I say it in all reverence, then it must be staring right into our pew.’

‘So it is,’ said my father, ‘and not only that, the brazen hell-bird's protruding its tongue.’

The room darkened a little.

‘But not intentionally?’ I asked. ‘You don’t mean to say that it's protruding its tongue intentionally?’

My father gulped once or twice. Then he bowed his head.

‘Yes, I do,’ he said, ‘and I say it deliberately.’

Then he rose to his feet and stood looking down at me.

‘And that's not the worst,’ he said, ‘not by a long way.’

‘Not the worst?’ I cried. ‘What do you mean?’

My father swayed a little, but managed to recover himself

‘I mean this,’ he said. ‘I mean that Alexander Carkeek is trying to get himself made churchwarden.’

For a moment I was stunned. My father sat heavily down again.

‘But good God,’ I cried, ‘that amounts to simony.’

‘I know,’ said my father. ‘That's what I’ve told Carkeek.’

‘Then you’ve seen him?’ I said.

My father looked at me grimly.

‘I’ve not only seen him,’ he answered, ‘but I’ve told him what I thought of him. And I've explicitly informed him that if he's made a churchwarden, I shall take proceedings against him in the ecclesiastical courts.’

My father leaned back closing his eyes, and I had never admired him more, perhaps, than at that moment.

‘And the vicar,’ I said. ‘Have you spoken to the vicar?’

‘I was obliged to warn him,’ said my father, ‘in identical terms.’

‘You could do no less,’ I said. ‘But what about the bird itself?’

‘I regret to say,’ said my father, ‘that he professed to admire it.’

I stared at him aghast.

‘Professed to admire it?’ I gasped. ‘The vicar that we have supported all these years?’

My father covered his eyes for a moment.

‘Even so,’ he said. ‘As I had to point out to him, I was seriously shaken.’

‘But surely you protested,’ I cried.

‘For seventy-five minutes,’ said my father.

‘But couldn’t he perceive,’ I said, ‘that it was a direct insult to us?’

My father moved his hand a little.

‘He claimed that it was not so. He said that the majority of these birds looked towards the left.’

‘But not with their tongues out,’ I cried.

‘He seemed to think so. He said it was symbolic of inward joy.

’But good heavens,’ I said, ‘I repeat it with all reverence, does he expect us to worship under conditions like that?’

‘I’m sorry to say,’ said my father, ‘that he had appeared to contemplate it prior to my insistence on its immediate removal.’

My heart gave a great leap.

‘Then it's being taken down?’ I cried.

But my father stared at me with bulging eyes. My heart fell back again.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘That's why I’m preparing my denunciation.’

It was a solemn moment. It was perhaps the solemnest moment that either of us had been called upon to experience, and even as I spoke, I felt that we were drawing towards the threshold of one of the greatest issues of our terrestrial life.

‘Then he refused?’ I said.

‘Let me be quite fair,’ said my father. ‘He rather temporized than actually refused.’

I could not help smiling a little sardonically.

‘The distinction is a fine one,’ I said. ‘I suppose he adduced some grounds?’

My father breathed heavily.

‘He was insolent enough to remind me,’ he said, ‘that it was eight o’clock on Saturday evening and that the bird in question, which had only just been set up, weighed approximately a quarter of a ton. He also suggested that the congregation ought to have an opportunity of inspecting it.’

‘The congregation?’ I cried. ‘But what has the congregation to do with it? It's not putting its tongue out at the congregation.’

My father inclined his head.

‘Precisely what I told him,’ he said, ‘but he merely fell back upon his previous argument, that the exposure of the tongue, if indeed it were a tongue, was merely significant of good tidings.’

‘I see,’ I said. ‘So you gave him an ultimatum?’

‘I was compelled to,’ said my father. ‘There was no other course. Either it must be removed, I told him, before tomorrow morning or I should publicly denounce it during morning service.’

‘And what did he say?’ I asked.

My father made a contemptuous gesture.

‘Oh, you know what he is,’ he replied, ‘a weed before the rind.’

‘You mean a reed,’ I said.

‘What did I say?’ said my father.

‘You said a weed,’ I said.

‘I said a weed?’ said my father.

‘A weed before the wind,’ I said. ‘I mean the rind.’

‘The rind?’ said my father. ‘But that's wrong.’

‘Yes. But that's what you said,’ I said.

‘A weed before the rind?’ said my father.

‘Yes, a transposition,’ I explained, ‘of the initial consonants.’

‘A transposition?’ inquired my father.

‘Yes, an error in enunciation,’ I said, ‘such as frequently takes place under emotional stress.’

‘But, I don’t understand,’ said my father.

‘You meant a reed before the wind,’ I said.

‘Well, of course,’ said my father. ‘That's what I said.’

‘No, you said a weed,’ I said, ‘a weed before the rind.’

‘But how can a weed be before the rind?’ said my father. ‘But you didn’t mean that,’ I said. ‘You meant a reed before the wind.’

‘Well, that's what he is,’ said my father. ‘That's just what I say. That’s why he implored me not to make a denunciation.’

‘But of course you will,’ I said.

My father nodded.

‘Immediately after the collection,’ said my father, ‘and before the blessing.’

I looked at the clock. It was a quarter past ten. In an hour and three-quarters the Sabbath would be upon us. There was not much time. I glanced at my father anxiously.

‘How far have you got?’ I asked.

‘About half-way,’ he said.

Then he rose to his feet again and crossed to the harmonium.

‘Ring for the cocoa,’ he said. I sprang to the bell. But just as I reached it my mother entered, bearing two cups of the sustaining fluid. Signalling to her to withdraw, he lifted one of the cups and drained its contents at a single gulp.

‘Now, listen,’ he said, and in a low but rising voice, he began a denunciation that I shall never forget.

Impeccable in logic, succinct in argument, perfect in phrasing and faultlessly delivered, I have never, I think, listened to so moving an utterance as the initial moiety of my father's denunciation. Beginning, as I have said, in a low voice, yet one that was crystal clear in its penetrating capacity, for the first five minutes or so my father refused to allow himself the adventitious aid of a single gesture. It was the gathering of the storm, as it were, the marshalling of the hosts of heaven, composed but relentless, above the brazen image. Then he paused for a moment, indicating the aspidistra that stood upon a tripod in the corner of the room.

‘Now, say that's the bird’ he said, and suddenly, like a flash of lightning, his right index finger was quivering upon the air. Involuntarily I leapt round and stared at the aspidistra, and then like the deafening down-burst of a tornado, my father expanded his chest, threw back his head, and opened the full flood-gates of his passion. Pallid and cowering, I crept behind the armchair, while syllable after syllable rent the night, and the delirious harmonium leapt and crashed down again beneath the palpitant thunder of his blows. Then almost as suddenly he stopped.

‘That's as far as I’ve got,’ he said.

I crept from my shelter.

‘Is there to be much more?’ I asked.

‘About five minutes' calm,’ he said, ‘and then the final, culminating climax.’

He wiped his forehead.

‘I’ve got it roughed out,’ he said, ‘if you’d like to hear it before it's rounded off.’

I signified my assent, and he proceeded. But indeed it already seemed to me to be practically flawless, while the ultimate crescendo, prepared as I had believed myself, left me literally prostrate and fighting for breath. My father, on the other hand, although he was perspiring freely, seemed to have become endowed with a new lease of life, and was able single-handed to replace the harmonium which had fallen upon its face during his closing sentence. Then there came a low knock on the parlour window. It was nearly eleven; we stared at each other startled; and it was with considerable relief that we perceived the newcomer to be no more important than Simeon Whey. Yet his errand was a kind one, although it was a considerable time before he was sufficiently master of himself to explain his presence, while we had already foreseen and prepared for the tidings that had brought the admirable youth to our window.

Hearing from his father, whom my father had already consulted, of the very great trouble with which we were threatened, he had put on his hat and coat, wrapped his scarf round his neck, and immediately hurried to St James-the-Least-of-All. There, with infinite cunning and hardly less devotion, he had managed to conceal himself behind a tombstone, where he had awaited for nearly an hour and a half the arrival of workmen to remove the lectern. None had come, however, and somewhere about half-past ten, he had reluctantly abandoned his vigil and, faint with hunger, hurried to Angela Gardens to apprise us of its result.

Kck,’ he said, when we had given him a biscuit, ‘I’m afraid it'll be a case of denunciation.’

My father nodded grimly.

‘So I had anticipated,’ he said. ‘In fact, I had just been denouncing when you knocked at the window.’

Kck,’ said Simeon — now a theological student — ‘I should like to have heard you.’

My father glanced at me, and I inclined my head.

‘I’ll do it again,’ he said, and he returned to the harmonium.

Nor was he less powerful than on the first occasion, and I shall never forget his effect on Simeon Whey. Beginning as before in a low voice, yet one that was crystal clear in its penetrative capacity, for the first five minutes or so he refused to allow himself the adventitious aid of a single gesture. It was the gathering of the storm, as it were, the marshalling of the hosts of heaven, composed but relentless, above the brazen image. Then he paused for a moment, again indicating the aspidistra that stood upon a tripod in the corner of the room.

‘Now, say that's the bird,’ he said, and suddenly, like a flash of lightning, his right index finger was quivering upon the air. Involuntarily Simeon leapt round and stared at the aspidistra, and then like the deafening down-burst of a tornado, my father expanded his chest, threw back his head, and opened the full flood-gates of his passion. Pallid and cowering, Simeon crept behind the armchair while syllable after syllable rent the night, and the delirious harmonium leapt and crashed down again beneath the palpitant thunder of my father's blows. Then for five minutes there was a comparative calm, while Simeon Whey crept from his shelter, until the ultimate crescendo stretched him helpless on the carpet, blue in the face, and fighting for his breath. Then he staggered to his feet and sank into the armchair, while my father once more picked up the harmonium.

‘Oh, kck,’ he said, ‘kck.’

It was all that the poor youth was able to utter.

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