[From Captain of the Parish, 1897]
At the period referred to in this volume, the more sinister aspects of ' Latter Day Saint' religion were practically unknown ;-its 'peculiar institution' as yet unrevealed to ordinary ' saints.'
The Captain of the Parish
BOOK I - ARROSEY TOPS
"That's the way with the kids, you know, ~
And the years do come and the years do go;
And when you look back it's all like a puff,
Happy and over and short enough."-T. E. B.
THE highroad north and south sweeps across the broad plateau of Arrosey Tops in one straight reach, white and firm with road-metal of broken quartz. At its southern end are a few cottages and a row of one-storied houses, all by the road side facing the west. At its northern end are the cross-roads, the church, the parsonage, and the glebe-farm. Then you are on the northward slope, the hills to your right, the sea to your left, and the coast unfolded before you like a map. The row had been built by Curlat the " Steel-fist," an old Waterloo pensioner, farming a few acres of his own land. He had not actually fought at Waterloo, but at Quatre-Bras, where he had lost his right hand. On the day of Waterloo he was in hospital, but he claimed his share in its glory. To judge by his make, he must have been a terrible fellow-over six feet in height, and massive as the giants. Curlat was clerk and sexton at Arrosey Church, and it may be inferred naturally that he was a man of peaceful disposition. Nevertheless there were occasions when he spoke of the days of the war.
Its horrors had left an impress on his brain, and the recollection excited him, His voice, his head, his hands trembled. Men rose to their feet; the passions of slaughter and blood might be only asleep in him; if they awoke, they might demand immediate victims. But it was the man rather than the soldier that manifested itself thus-the true soldier being manifested in quite other ways. Curlat's everyday dress was a red waistcoat with brass buttons, the body of a cast-off soldier's coat cut to fit, enlarged with a fustian band inserted down the back, and with dirty-white fustian sleeves attached. Thus he dispensed with a coat. Every year when he went to Castletown to draw his pension, he brought home from the garrison some cast-off uniforms to be expanded into red sleeve-waistcoats. His headgear was a top-hat. In the place of his right hand he had a heavy iron gauntlet-much as if he had knocked the neck and shoulders off a wine-bottle and thrust the stump of his wrist into the bottle. This was the steel-fist. The children of the locality believed that the steel-fist had been for the express purpose of fighting-to knock men down, to burst open castle doors, to deal blows irresistible and deadly. But none of them had the least fear of him. He was the kindliest and gentlest of men; and as he marched along the highroad, dragging at a yard or two behind him his horse and cart, the rein within his elbow and the steel-fist close to his side, they clambered into the cart. Curlat's horse was only a wretched nag. It followed the soldier with its head extended in a line with its neck and body. It moved one foot past the other only by force of being dragged along.
Curlat lived in the end house of his own row, with a lean-to shed at the gable for the horse and cow, and in front a haystack, a midden, and usually the cart tilted up on end. Curlat, pensioner, farmer, landlord of the row, clerk and sexton of Arrosey Church, was of course in religion a Churchman and in politics a Conservative. A drunken and lawless butcher was Curlat's tenant of the house at the other end of the row. He killed his pigs and sheep on a trestle frame before his door by the roadside. There were always traces of blood on the ground, and the water in the roadside channel had a tinge of blood. This butcher, Corkle by name, was deemed really dangerous. Whether at home or abroad, he wore a leather belt round his waist, with his steel suspended from it. The children of the locality understood that this steel was for sticking pigs and people indifferently. For them, however, the soldier's steel fist was a trusted antidote to the bloodthirsty steel of the butcher. The steel fist was an object of honourable respect and love. The fact was that Curlat was landlord, and Corkle had much to do to pay his rent. When the butcher had an ox to kill, the soldier was reputed to fell it with a blow of the steel fist. In actual fact he held the beast with his left hand by a rope through a ring, and the butcher felled it with an axe. The soldier's left hand, in dexterity as in strength, was equal to most men's two hands. It was so massive that a sober doubt was felt by the country menservants if Curlat could ever have inserted his finger within the trigger-guard of a musket. They confidently believed he must have had a big gun especially made for himself. Mrs. Curlat, the soldier's wife, was insignificant in physique as her husband was huge and brawny. By reason of their property, she ranked herself above some of her female neighbours, and on a level with farmers' wives. She was social, and especially fond of going out to tea, and in turn bad little tea-parties of her own. It was understood that she had a rehearsal of her tea-table behaviour before a looking-glass prior to these social exchanges; in any case, she had a positive reputation for being polite and mannerly.
In the middle house of the row lived Nell Gawn, maiden lady, grocer and schoolmistress, and sister of Mrs. Curlat. She lived under the wgis of the mighty soldier. She kept her grocer's shop in the parlour and her school in the kitchen.
The parlour was, moreover, her bedroom. Two occasions presented themselves daily to gratify her vanity, in most other ways decayed : first, when a customer from one of the farms came to the shop, Nell sitting by the fire, spectacled, with Testament in one hand and peeled willow wand in the other, not affecting to notice the entrance of a spectator, struck the settle by her side and in magisterial voice showed how she kept school; second, when she rose in the conscious dignity of grocer and impressively withdrew to the mysterious shop to weigh the tea or sugar. This impressed the children. It gave her an importance in their eyes that maintained discipline better than the willow wand. She may have been guilty of favouritism to the children of customers. Good behaviour was certainly obtained by judicious bribery with Turkey nobs ; and besides, the children in this way brought home a good report of her. Nell Gawn was a Churchwoman, and socially a Conservative. She was in all points the pink of respectability and virtue. Being a spinster of fifty-five, sh( was also a gossip. She knew everybody's affairs, especially everybody's failings; thus she was perhaps well fitted to train up the infant mind in the way it should go. It is the purpose of this book to relate the subsequent history of three little pupils of hers, who, along with a score or so of others, were in and about the year 1837 reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Testament on the forms in her kitchen,
Before proceeding further, it is well that the reader should be acquainted with Juan Paddy yn Tholt; for no one knew more of the history in question than this self-same Juan Paddy. He lived in a thatched cottage by the roadside not a hundred paces from the row. Juan was a doubly lame old man, who nevertheless was a great pedestrian traveller. In this he had the energy and patience of a wounded hare. Juan bad no visible means of subsistence. By his cottage was neither cowshed nor pigsty, neither poultry nor garden. It was just a bare cottage in a few square yards of waste open to the highroad, with two paths like the letter V between door and road. Juan was always on tramp, and seldom or ever was smoke seen on his chimney. He set out on long marches with no apparent aim. His gait might have suggested to Addison the hobbling march in the vision of Mirza. His commonest journey was to the town of Inchport, where his ungainly shuffle and the dragging of his boots on the cobblepaved streets made the children run after him with shouts of derision. His head hung down and swung from side to side with the regularity of a pendulum. Thus he glanced alternately at the shops and the people on either side of the street, never ceasing to hurry on as if on a journey.
Juan's highest ambition was to be entrusted with a commission to the town by people about Arrosey Tops, his substantial and sufficient reward a meal on his return. He may have conceived dimly a distant admiration for the great barefooted courier Tommy Vondy, who now and again passed over Arrosey Tops, traversing the island from south to north with his shoes on a stick over his shoulder. Tommy Vondy, the courier of the Governor, in passing through the country was a wonder-the rumour of his passing spread far and wide. Juan Paddy, when he saw him pass, would stand swinging his head, and not stir till the courier was out of sight. Had Juan a dim dull longing for some such fame ? It is not too much to suppose it. Tommy Vondy was a comet; he came from the vast and distant beyond of the south, and passed into the beyond, as distant and vast, of the wide north. Juan Paddy was a minor planet, with a limited and strictly local ambit ; but Juan had besides another function-call it rather profession. He picked up in his wanderings every scrap of current gossip and country news. To all the news he imparted a colour sombre, melancholy, tragic. He delighted in he death of man and of beast, in accidents, m offences, in wrongs and in sorrows ; and this news he retailed from house to house. This budget was his passport across every threshold, and to a seat on the settle by the door. This was the commodity he exchanged for human intercourse and for his daily bread.
"It's a fine day," was his overture to conversation. Saving the telling of his news in his own way, Juan evaded all questionings with one potent formula, "'Deed I don't know," with the alternative variation, " I don't know indeed ! " In aspect he seemed little better than an idiot, blear-eyed and bald, with long straggling-grey locks over his shoulders, and his bowed head swinging mechanically from side to side. But when he told his tale, he artfully picked up any and every scrap of fresh news inadvertently let fall in his hearing. He wore a dilapilated top-hat, in which he carried a coloured handkerchief, a touching square-cut swallow-tailed coat of blue frieze, and a stick shod with an iron spike. Living solely on charity, and gating only when a meal was offered him, Juan was a voracious eater. It was the opinion of the people about Arrosey Tops, that in this matter it was much easier to start Juan than to stop him. For forty years had Juan been going on the houses, in other words, he had been a common mendicant, and for forty. years Juan had been bringing "all the newses." As the Steel-fist used to say, " There's not much that'll escape Juan."