[From High Bailiff Laughton's Recollections, 1911]
I suppose, that many, especially of my more youthful readers, would shrink from beholding a dead man laid out stark and stiff. My good old friend Call, in later years Stipendiary Magistrate of Melbourne, Australia, affected not to be subject to any such weakness.
Happening to discuss the subject one day, I admitted to a horror of a corpse, whereat Call chaffed one unmercifully, laughing at my cowardice and weakness, as he called it, and boasting a superiority over all such childish nonsense, dead bodies, live ghosts, or anything else.
I made up my mind that I would put his superiority to the test, and shortly afterwards I contrived my scheme.
In those days Phrenology was greatly in fashion, and lectures were frequently delivered thereon. I borrowed, from a friend, one of the model Phrenological Heads. The colour of that particular one was a pale dull yellow just like a corpse.
This I arranged, dramatically, upon Call's bed, white handkerchief, plentifully besprinkled with red ink, round the head, which hid the Phrenological markings, but left to view the pallid face: the bolster, disposed under the bed-clothes, doing duty for the body. I lowered the; blinds, and then proceeded to meet Call on his return to our lodgings for luncheon. We entered together, I having gently prepared him, by an account of a supposed accident near-by, by which some may had been killed, and carried into one of the houses thereabouts. Call rushed up as usual to his room, two steps at a time. I listened, and in half a minute I heard him come flying down at breakneck pace, on, on, to the cellar kitchen, where he loudly harangued our landlady, Miss Skillicorn, for the gross Impropriety of allowing a dead man to be placed in his bed; she, as vigorously denying the charge until at last, to prove its he insisted upon her accompanying him upstairs to see the ghastly thing.
Meanwhile I had run up, removed my handiwork smoothed the bed, and retired under it, to hear the fun. he scene is better imagined than described, Call's, by now, almost hysterical assertions that the corpse was in the bed, and Miss Skillicorn's indignation at his extraordinary delusion. When they went down, I slipped into my own room, and upon the bell ringing for luncheon, made my appearance calm and serene, as if nothing had happened. Call looked pale and depressed but made no reference to recent events, Neither did I but he never again twitted me about my fear of a dead man.
In the days of which I have been writing, we young people were sore let and hindered by the Sundays of our existence; they were terrible trials to us, though I have been credibly informed, that to the Elect, they were comforting to the body and nourishing to the soul.
Call and I, however, were unregenerate, and accordingly we hated them; they were a positive weariness to the flesh. We were, in the first place, compelled by deadly custom, to wear top hats, to put on the most sedate and uncomfortable Sunday clothes, to go to church and hearken unto Tate and Brady's melancholy hymns given out two lines at a time by an illiterate old Clerk then we were supposed to listen for one solid hour either to platitudes which wearied, or absurdities which disgusted us; to dine early, which we always hated, to read only Blair's sermons or other similar canonical literature, except such cheerful and elevating periodicals as the " Record," the " Christian Observer," etc., etc. not even magazines being permitted. Then we had to repeat in the evenings our depressing morning experiences. We went to bed early, for no other reason than because we were sick and tired of staying up. The nearest approach that was permitted to anything like reasonable amusement I experienced upon a curtain memorable Sunday evening at the hospitable house of Mr. Bluett.
He, with his wife and family, was a pewholder and regular attendant at St. Barnabas' Church. Upon the evening in question, as I was leaving that place of worship, Mr. Bluett kindly invited me to spend the evening with him. With fear and trembling I accepted, for Mrs. Bluett and her sisters (who lived next door to her) were very much given to take a serious view of life, which, in their opinion, ought to be treated with great gravity, much mortification of the flesh, and solemn and oft repeated religious rites and ceremonies. Now at that period of my existence-aged about 18 or 19-these views were not in harmony with my temperament, which I confess, was somewhat mercurial.
After absorbing an exceedingly heavy tea, the cloth was removed, and we seated ourselves forming an extensive half-circle around the fire. It occurred to me hopefully, that these preparations were possibly a prelude to the secular game of " musical chairs," or " hunt the slipper." I was quickly undeceived.
Mr. Bluett explained that it was their regular practise each Sabbath evening to assemble in this fashion; he and his wife, his father-in-law and his mother-in-law, his sisters-in-law and his brothers-in-law, and any stranger! who might be within his gates, in order, profitably to pass the time by means of what he designated " Scripture Exercitations."
Now the very meaning of the word " Exercitation " was to me an unknown quantity, but I assumed a virtue if I had it not, by putting as intelligent an expression into my face as it was capable of.
With becoming gravity I took my seat, not without serious misgivings that I should speedily " come a cropper" and expose my Biblical ignorance in some ludicrous and fatal manner. I soon picked up the nature and design of the " Exercitation," and was quickly awakened to the critical position I occupied.
The following was the process:- The person nearest the fireplace commenced by thinking of some character mentioned in the Bible, and the others proceeded to catechise him or her, as the case may be, as to whether such character was a prophet, a priest or a king; whether he or she was in existence before the Flood or after, etc., etc.; and by this means they were to discover the identity of the Scripture personage. Then the next in the group took up the parable, and so on, till each had had a turn.
Of course if a wrong answer were given the error would be quickly detected, and the ignorance of the culprit at once exposed .
My position was alarming. Never in my life had I a similar experience. I felt as if I were an imposter in presence of Inquistors. and that my sin would speedily be discovered. My knees smote each other with quite a noise, I cast a longing look at the door, but such an ignominious exit would have been an admission of guilt, so I remained in my seat, and though fully reconsidered the outlook.
So long as I was cross-examining the others, without any unjustifiable vanity, I was decidedly of opinion that as really distinguishing myself, and rapidly rising in favour with the ladies and gentlemen of the Inquisition
I rattled off leading questions in the most hardened and professional tone and style; I pursued the witness relentlessly; question succeeding question like a cataract It was observed, however, that it was never by me that the identity of the subject of " Exercitation " was guessed. This, the Inquisitors kindly imputed to my modesty, at time excessive, the duties of my subsequent professional life have, I fear, entirely annihilated.
At last my turn came. I was calm and' collected, in fact, perfectly prepared. The questions put to me. and my replies, were as follows:-"Was it man or woman?" Women. " Prophetess, Priestess, or Queen ?"
Neither. "Mentioned in Old or New Testament ?"
"After." " Was she married, and had she any children ? " Not stated." " Mentioned more than once?" "No." "A prominent character? no.
'Date and place of her birth and death?" "Not stated." By this time the fury of the attack upon me held considerably abated, and the Inquisitors looked enquiringly and with a puzzled expression into each other faces. Mr. Bluett, an experienced cross-examiner, well known and feared by many a dodging victim in our Courts of Law, at length put the final question, "You tell us that the person you have thought of was only once mentioned, and that in the Old Testament; at what period of her life might that have been? " " At her, birth." No further question was attempted. I was the cynosure of all eyes, one pair of them, at least, was decidedly pretty, and they smiled sweetly upon me. How we prize those smiles at eighteen !
My success was a triumph. I, alone, had fixed upon a person whose identity had remained undiscovered. They unanimously declared that they gave it up. I, however, declined to reveal my Biblical conundrum. The owner of the pretty eyes smiled, saying she would not for the world be told, as she was quite satisfied that she would find it out. I, therefore, kept my secret. Not one of the party ever did find it out, and I never disclosed it, for the simple reason that I had never fixed upon anyone !
I quite approve of Sunday being preserved as a day of rest from worldly toil and business worries, but to devote it to physical and mental stagnation and make it a positive trial to human nature, is a mistake. The "unco guid" of those days-and there are some of their representatives yet surviving-always managed to make religion appear, especially on Sunday, in a gloomy dress. A melancholy and depressed expression was considered saintly; whilst a merry laugh, or even a faint smile, partook of the nature of sin.
I remember upon one occasion, as I was standing at a street corner talking to an old friend, a week-day morning congregation from a church filed down past us. My friend was an Irishman, with all the wit of his country.
Now the good people before us were not of the handsomest, nor the most fashionably dressed, in fact, without meaning any disrespect to them, they were what might be called exceedingly humdrum-long of visage staid of demeanour, and slow of walk.
"Now Alfred," said my worthy friend, " do you suppose that the Kingdom of Heaven is composed of people like that ? " I suppose so," I replied, " for they seem to attend to their religious duties while on earth.;'
Be me honour" said he, "then I think we'd meet better society in the other place.
But strict notions of Sunday observance were by no means peculiar to the Isle of Man. In bonny Scotland they were equally severe. Being in Edinburgh some years ago with the late Mr. John Thomas Clucas-a brother advocate-and Sunday being our only free day we decided to " do" Lochs Lomond and Katrine, with the Trossachs. We arrived at the foot of Loch Lomond on Saturday evening, and immediately after breakfast the next morning, proceeded to the lake side, to arrange for a boat to take us up to Inversnaid. We accosted one of the boatmen and asked their charge for the job. "Weel, mon, our charge is ten shillin', but we dinna go on the Sawbeth." Despite all remonstrances, and our statement that our business was urgent, they took not the slightest heed (there were two of them). At last we offered them double their ordinary fare, whereat they looked enquiringly at each other, and one of them scratching his fiery red hair, said to his mate, " Weel Sandy, wha' shall we say, mon ? The lairds seem in safer need." " Weel ! weel !" replied his Free Kirk brother, " we're told in the Book the' we maun heave our neighbours ass out of a ditch on the Sawbeth, an' they seem in distress, aw thenk we mon dots," and accordingly we were rowed up the Loch. It would, no doubt, have been wicked for them to have done it for " ten shillings," but for double; that sum, why, that was another matter. In other words, " we were strangers," and these pious Scotsmen had read in the " Book " that under these circumstances, they might "take us in"; which they did.