Headlong Hall, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter IX

The Sexton

Mr Escot passed a sleepless night, the ordinary effect of love, according to some amatory poets, who seem to have composed their whining ditties for the benevolent purpose of bestowing on others that gentle slumber of which they so pathetically lament the privation. The deteriorationist entered into a profound moral soliloquy, in which he first examined whether a philosopher ought to be in love? Having decided this point affirmatively against Plato and Lucretius, he next examined, whether that passion ought to have the effect of keeping a philosopher awake? Having decided this negatively, he resolved to go to sleep immediately: not being able to accomplish this to his satisfaction, he tossed and tumbled, like Achilles or Orlando, first on one side, then on the other; repeated to himself several hundred lines of poetry; counted a thousand; began again, and counted another thousand: in vain: the beautiful Cephalis was the predominant image in all his soliloquies, in all his repetitions: even in the numerical process from which he sought relief, he did but associate the idea of number with that of his dear tormentor, till she appeared to his mind’s eye in a thousand similitudes, distinct, not different. These thousand images, indeed, were but one; and yet the one was a thousand, a sort of uni-multiplex phantasma, which will be very intelligible to some understandings.

He arose with the first peep of day, and sallied forth to enjoy the balmy breeze of morning, which any but a lover might have thought too cool; for it was an intense frost, the sun had not risen, and the wind was rather fresh from north-east and by north. But a lover, who, like Ladurlad in the Curse of Kehama, always has, or at least is supposed to have, “a fire in his heart and a fire in his brain,” feels a wintry breeze from N.E. and by N. steal over his cheek like the south over a bank of violets; therefore, on walked the philosopher, with his coat unbuttoned and his hat in his hand, careless of whither he went, till he found himself near the enclosure of a little mountain chapel. Passing through the wicket, and stepping over two or three graves, he stood on a rustic tombstone, and peeped through the chapel window, examining the interior with as much curiosity as if he had “forgotten what the inside of a church was made of,” which, it is rather to be feared, was the case. Before him and beneath him were the font, the altar, and the grave; which gave rise to a train of moral reflections on the three great epochs in the course of the featherless biped — birth, marriage, and death. The middle stage of the process arrested his attention; and his imagination placed before him several figures, which he thought, with the addition of his own, would make a very picturesque group; the beautiful Cephalis, “arrayed in her bridal apparel of white;” her friend Caprioletta officiating as bridemaid; Mr Cranium giving her away; and, last, not least, the Reverend Doctor Gaster, intoning the marriage ceremony with the regular orthodox allowance of nasal recitative. Whilst he was feasting his eyes on this imaginary picture, the demon of mistrust insinuated himself into the storehouse of his conceptions, and, removing his figure from the group, substituted that of Mr Panscope, which gave such a violent shock to his feelings, that he suddenly exclaimed, with an extraordinary elevation of voice, Οιμοι κακοδαιμων, και τρις κακοδαιμων, και τετρακις, και πεντακις, και δωδεκακις, και μυριακις!1 to the great terror of the sexton, who was just entering the churchyard, and, not knowing from whence the voice proceeded, pensa que fut un diableteau. The sight of the philosopher dispelled his apprehensions, when, growing suddenly valiant, he immediately addressed him:—

“Cot pless your honour, I should n’t have thought of meeting any pody here at this time of the morning, except, look you, it was the tevil — who, to pe sure, toes not often come upon consecrated cround — put for all that, I think I have seen him now and then, in former tays, when old Nanny Llwyd of Llyn-isa was living — Cot teliver us! a terriple old witch to pe sure she was — I tid n’t much like tigging her crave — put I prought two cocks with me — the tevil hates cocks — and tied them py the leg on two tombstones — and I tug, and the cocks crowed, and the tevil kept at a tistance. To pe sure now, if I had n’t peen very prave py nature — as I ought to pe truly — for my father was Owen Ap-Llwyd Ap-Gryffydd Ap-Shenkin Ap-Williams Ap-Thomas Ap-Morgan Ap-Parry Ap-Evan Ap-Rhys, a coot preacher and a lover of cwrw2 — I should have thought just now pefore I saw your honour, that the foice I heard was the tevil’s calling Nanny Llwyd — Cot pless us! to pe sure she should have been puried in the middle of the river, where the tevil can’t come, as your honour fery well knows.”

“I am perfectly aware of it,” said Mr Escot.

“True, true,” continued the sexton; “put to pe sure, Owen Thomas of Morfa-Bach will have it that one summer evening — when he went over to Cwm Cynfael in Meirionnydd, apout some cattles he wanted to puy — he saw a strange figure — pless us! — with five horns! — Cot save us! sitting on Hugh Llwyd’s pulpit, which, your honour fery well knows, is a pig rock in the middle of the river ——”

“Of course he was mistaken,” said Mr Escot.

“To pe sure he was,” said the sexton. “For there is no toubt put the tevil, when Owen Thomas saw him, must have peen sitting on a piece of rock in a straight line from him on the other side of the river, where he used to sit, look you, for a whole summer’s tay, while Hugh Llwyd was on his pulpit, and there they used to talk across the water! for Hugh Llwyd, please your honour, never raised the tevil except when he was safe in the middle of the river, which proves that Owen Thomas, in his fright, did n’t pay proper attention to the exact spot where the tevil was.”

The sexton concluded his speech with an approving smile at his own sagacity, in so luminously expounding the nature of Owen Thomas’s mistake.

“I perceive,” said Mr Escot, “you have a very deep insight into things, and can, therefore, perhaps, facilitate the resolution of a question, concerning which, though I have little doubt on the subject, I am desirous of obtaining the most extensive and accurate information.”

The sexton scratched his head, the language of Mr Escot not being to his apprehension quite so luminous as his own.

“You have been sexton here,” continued Mr Escot, in the language of Hamlet, “man and boy, forty years.”

The sexton turned pale. The period Mr Escot named was so nearly the true one, that he began to suspect the personage before him of being rather too familiar with Hugh Llwyd’s sable visitor. Recovering himself a little, he said, “Why, thereapouts, sure enough.”

“During this period, you have of course dug up many bones of the people of ancient times.”

“Pones! Cot pless you, yes! pones as old as the ‘orlt.”

“Perhaps you can show me a few.”

The sexton grinned horribly a ghastly smile. “Will you take your Pible oath you ton’t want them to raise the tevil with?”

“Willingly,” said Mr Escot, smiling; “I have an abstruse reason for the inquiry.”

“Why, if you have an obtuse reason,” said the sexton, who thought this a good opportunity to show that he could pronounce hard words as well as other people; “if you have an obtuse reason, that alters the case.”

So saying he lead the way to the bone-house, from which he began to throw out various bones and skulls of more than common dimensions, and amongst them a skull of very extraordinary magnitude, which he swore by St David was the skull of Cadwallader.

“How do you know this to be his skull?” said Mr Escot.

“He was the piggest man that ever lived, and he was puried here; and this is the piggest skull I ever found: you see now ——”

“Nothing can be more logical,” said Mr Escot. “My good friend will you allow me to take this skull away with me?”

“St Winifred pless us!” exclaimed the sexton, “would you have me haunted py his chost for taking his plessed pones out of consecrated cround? Would you have him come in the tead of the night, and fly away with the roof of my house? Would you have all the crop of my carden come to nothing? for, look you, his epitaph says,

“He that my pones shall ill pestow,
Leek in his cround shall never crow.”

“You will ill bestow them,” said Mr Escot, “in confounding them with those of the sons of little men, the degenerate dwarfs of later generations; you will well bestow them in giving them to me: for I will have this illustrious skull bound with a silver rim, and filled with mantling wine, with this inscription, NUNC TANDEM: signifying that that pernicious liquor has at length found its proper receptacle; for, when the wine is in, the brain is out.”

Saying these words, he put a dollar into the hands of the sexton, who instantly stood spellbound by the talismanic influence of the coin, while Mr Escot walked off in triumph with the skull of Cadwallader.

1 Me miserable! and thrice miserable! and four times, and five times, and twelve times, and ten thousand times miserable!

2 Pronounced cooroo — the Welsh word for ale.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24