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Chapter XIII

Description of the injuries sustained by my father. A supremely difficult medical problem. Legal assistance of Mr Balfour Whey. Infamous decisions and public comments. A quiet church and obliging clergy. Surprising character-growth of Ezekiel. A distasteful proposition generously put forward. Disgusting behaviour of a show-room manager.

Such, then, was the incident that not only, as I have said, finally destroyed my father's health, but was also destined, after several weeks of the profoundest physical inconvenience, and almost as many months of the acutest legal anxiety, to deprive him (and ultimately myself) of the greater portion of his savings. For it was obvious from the outset that the matter had to be challenged — and indeed we had so pledged ourselves before the ambulance bore him from the vestry — at whatever cost to ourselves and our friends, and before as many tribunals as might prove necessary; and it has often seemed to me that it was only this sacred obligation that preserved my father from immediate extinction. For not only was it discovered by the three doctors, who were immediately summoned to attend upon him, that his right knee was displaying evidences of incipient synovitis, but the three falls, to which he had been subjected between the lectern and the vestry, had resulted in extremely severe contusions of both his larger gluteal muscles.

The problem before the physicians was thus an exceptionally difficult one. For while the condition of his knee demanded that he should lie upon his back, that of his gluteal muscles was even more imperative in demanding a position precisely opposed to this. After a considerable argument, therefore, it was finally decided that for the first week or ten days the position to be assumed should be a face-downwards one, with a protective cage over the contused muscles. By this means any painful pressure that might have been exerted by the bed-clothes was avoided — an additional protection being afforded by two discs of lint, previously spread with a cooling ointment. For the purposes of nourishment, which was to be ample and sustaining, my father was then to be drawn towards the end of the bed, his head being allowed to project to a sufficient distance to permit of nutriment being inserted from below. Owing to his weight, this, of course, necessitated the erection of a pulley with straps passing under his arm-pits, a return pulley with straps passing round his ankles coming into play at the end of each meal. Even with such assistance, however, my poor father's plight remained an exceedingly deplorable one; and it is scarcely to be wondered at that, from time to time, he betrayed a marked irritability.

Prostrate as he was, however, and already conscious that his career as a sidesman was definitely over, he flung himself almost immediately, and with all the energy left to him, into the necessary preliminaries of the approaching litigation. Day after day, even while still lying on his abdomen, he held prolonged interviews with Mr Balfour Whey, who most considerately lay beneath my father's bed, parallel with the sufferer and looking up into his face. Whether, in the world's history, an action of such importance — for it was fully reported in most of the daily newspapers — was ever arranged in similar circumstances I do not know, although I doubt it. But I have certainly never seen a spectacle more solemn and pathetic than that of these two earnest and horizontal men vertically discussing, across the end of the bedstead, the possible methods of legal procedure.

Nor was either to blame for the iniquitous judgements, into the details of which I do not propose to enter, but which had the effect, as I have already stated, of seriously impoverishing my poor father. For from the outset Mr Balfour Whey, although sharing to the full in my father's indignation, was explicit as to the difficulty that would certainly accrue in translating this into a legal victory. Indeed the only vehicle under which proceedings could possibly be instituted was the original and extremely crude Employers' Liability Act,* and this upon the doubtful assumption of the applicability of Subsection (I) of Section 1, and subject to the further acceptance of the Carkeek lectern as a portion of the plant of St James-the-Least-of-All. Under this earlier Act, too, the status of the vicar as employer and that of his sidesmen as employees was far less substantiable in law than it would have been under the Workmen's Compensation Act; and deeply as I have always regretted, on general grounds, the inclusion of this latter measure in our legal machinery, I have equally deplored that it was not then available to assist my poor father in his heroic crusade.

From the beginning, therefore, it was an unequal contest, with the dice of evasion loaded against my father, and all the forces of idolatry, spite, and ambition arrayed to defeat the course of justice. Thus, despite the arguments — and I have never listened to longer or more powerful ones — of the celebrated counsel that my father employed; despite the photographs — and I have never seen any more heart-rending — of the contused areas of my father's person; and despite the irrepressible applause from Simeon and myself that greeted his every reply in the witness-box, the case was not only decided against him with costs, on a series of the most palpable legal quibbles, but an appeal to a higher court met with a similarly scandalous and financially devastating result. Obviously primed, too, by the Carkeeks — although our detectives were unable to prove this — the verdict in each case became the subject of a malicious article in the Camberwell Observer, my father once more having to bear the total costs of the prosecutions that immediately ensued.

Nor did a printed appeal to the congregation of St James-the-Least-of-All bring my poor father more than eight shillings, although the cost of its printing and subsequent postage had amounted to no less than three pounds. Moreover — and even now the pen shakes in my hand as I force it to write the shameful words — not only was the lectern retained in the church (where it may probably be seen at this moment), but within less than a year Cosmo and Corkran Carkeek were the sons of the vicar's churchwarden. It was perhaps the bitterest stab of the whole squalid conspiracy. But my father was then too enfeebled for active resistance.

‘Let it be enough,’ he wrote to Alexander Carkeek, ‘until at a Greater Bar you shall stand condemned, that you know, and I know, and so does your vicar, that you have committed simony in your heart.’

So ended an episode with which I have dealt thus fully — at what a cost can well be imagined — partly because, as I have said, the contemporary newspaper accounts of it were either misleading or deliberately spiteful, but chiefly because it was the means adopted by Providence of uniting us still more closely with the Stools. That this was an end possible of achievement otherwise, I have never disguised my private opinion. But since it was to lead to my own ultimate matrimony, I have always considered it best to suspend judgement; and I cannot but feel convinced that my readers will share the relief with which I now begin to approach this distant event.

For it was still distant. Let there be no mistake about that. And in the particular form in which it was about to be adumbrated, I ought not to conceal, perhaps, that for several years I found it extremely distasteful. Nevertheless, it came about, and even when Ezekiel first suggested it, deeply repugnant though the idea seemed to me, I could not help recognizing and suitably acknowledging the generosity with which it had been put forward.

‘Dear Augustus,’ he said, ‘each of my sisters will receive an equal portion of my father's estate, and if it would be any help to you, I should be only too glad to give you one of them in marriage.’

This was on the Sunday evening, I remember, the sixth after we had lost our action against the Camberwell Observer, and the seventeenth after my father had been mulcted in costs by the infamous judgement of the Court of Appeal — upon which we had decided, after careful investigation, to transfer our worship to St Nicholas, Newington Butts. A quiet edifice, devoid of a lectern, yet within a few yards of the tram-lines, it had seemed to us both, although it had various drawbacks, as suitable a receptacle as we should be likely to find for the very modified degree of worship of which my father now remained capable.

‘After what has happened,’ he said, ‘it is, of course, a subject in which I can scarcely be expected to take much further interest. But the church appears clean and its clergy seem obliging, if not particularly intelligent.’

Making it quite clear, therefore, that he would be entirely unable to accept any position of responsibility, and that his attendances, even as an ordinary worshipper, would almost certainly be precarious, my father had added his name to its list of clients, to which I had been very happy to subscribe my own. This we had done verbally, at the close of the morning service, to the obvious satisfaction of the vicar and his curate, Ezekiel having been absent, as his sisters had informed me, owing to a mild attack of gastro-enteritis. At the evening service, however, he was present as usual, and it was upon our way home together after its close that I told him of the decision to which my father and I had come, and of which we had already apprised the clergy. Transported with delight, he shook me by the hand, the hairs upon his face sparkling with happy tears, and I shall never forget the emotion with which he expressed his hope that this would complete the intimacy between us.

‘Drawn together,’ he said, ‘in the A.D.S.U. and by your memorable salvation of me on the fifth of November, and further united in the misfortunes that have befallen the fathers of us both, surely this must be the link that shall finally unite us in a firm and irrevocable friendship.’

Deeply moved, I was unable to reply for a moment. But presently, in a response of some duration, I contrived to signify my general agreement with the aspirations that he had enunciated. He then invited me to share a second evening meal with himself, his mother and his five sisters, and it was during the progress of this that I first became aware of a new development of his character. Hitherto, as I have said, of an extremely gentle and even yielding disposition, he had now assumed, with a dignity and completeness that both surprised and delighted me, not only the headship of the table, but the full direction of the household. Thus when Faith ventured upon a remark that, on a week-day, might have been considered humorous, he at once reminded her that it was the Sabbath and gently but firmly demanded an apology; while a look from his eye was sufficient to quell Hope, who inadvertently ‘hiccuped’ during the pronouncement of grace. I was glad to observe, too, that these facially unattractive girls all remained seated until he had indicated that they might rise, and that together with their mother they instantly left the room when he inclined his head toward the door.

So effective, indeed, was his assumption of his father's duties that I could not refrain from congratulating him, and it was during the conversation that naturally followed that he supplied me with details of the family finances. Thus I learned from him that, prior to his admission to the Home of Rest in which he was now detained, his father had been persuaded by his legal advisers to retire from the management of the Adult Gripe Water; and that the right to manufacture this, together with the existing plant, had been sold to a limited company. As the sole proprietor, Mr Abraham Stool had received a considerable sum of money, half of this having been paid to him in cash and the remainder in shares of the new company. The cash had then been invested, upon his solicitor's advice, in colonial and Government securities, and a will drawn up of which Ezekiel was kind enough to give me the exact particulars. Then he paused for a moment, and it was then, leaning towards me with the utmost affection, that he uttered the words of which, as I have already recorded, I could not but recognize the good feeling.

‘And so you see, dear Augustus, each of my sisters will receive an equal portion of my father's estate, and if it would be any help to you, I should be only too glad to give you one of them in marriage.’

Admirably meant, however, as was this offer, and obviously one of considerable value, few could have blamed me, I think, for the instinctive shudder with which I was obliged at first to postpone an answer. Nor was he one of them.

‘In fact, I never supposed,’ he said, ‘that you could immediately bring yourself to accept. And I fully appreciate that, had I been in your position, my gesture of repulsion would have been equally violent. But at the same time I thought it might be useful to you to know that they would be there to fall back upon.’

I stared at him.

‘To fall back upon?’ I asked.

Colouring deeply, he held out his hand.

‘I was speaking metaphorically,’ he said. ‘I beg your pardon.’

‘Conceded,’ I replied. ‘But it was an unpleasant idea.’

‘And an ill-chosen phrase,’ he said. ‘All that I meant was that they would be there for you to select from.’

‘Do you mean all of them?’ I asked.

He signified his assent.

‘Subject to the Great Reaper,’ he said, ‘I think that I can promise that.’

Then for five minutes we sat in silence, and then, extending my hand to him, I rose to my feet.

‘Ezekiel,’ I said, ‘I am not unobliged to you, and although I could never view such a marriage with enthusiasm, yet I can conceive circumstances in which, as a last resort, it might be my duty to consider it.’

‘Precisely,’ he said, ‘and it is for such a contingency that I shall be only too glad, as I have said, to reserve them.’

Then we parted, Ezekiel, as he afterwards told me, to the happy contemplation of our closer friendship, and myself, as I walked home, to the sombre consideration of the possibilities with which I had been presented. I had scarcely been so occupied, however, for ten minutes when I suddenly became aware of the odour of alcohol, and to my infinite horror found myself being embraced by the showroom manager from Paternoster Row.

‘Why, ShAugustus,’ he said. ‘Fansheen you.’

Involuntarily I recoiled from him, but he came after me.

‘Fansheen you,’ he repeated. ‘Hahu?’

And having kissed me, he sat down on the pavement.

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