Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts , by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

A Town’s Memory

A Pendant to the Foregoing

The returned Emigrant was not one of those who sometimes creep back to Tregarrick and scan the folk wistfully and the names over the shops till they bethink themselves of stepping up the hill to take a look at the cemetery, and there find all they sought. This man stood under the archway of the Pack-horse Inn (by A. Walters), with his soft hat tilted over his nose, a cigar in his mouth, hands in his trouser pockets, and legs a-straddle, and smoked and eyed the passers-by with a twinkle of humour.

He knew them all again, or nearly all. He had quitted Tregarrick for the Cape at the age of fifteen, under the wing of a cousin from the Mining District, had made money out there, and meant to return to make more, and was home just now on a holiday, with gold in his pocket and the merest trace of silver in his hair. He watched the people passing, and it all seemed very queer to him and amusing.

They were one and all acting and behaving just as they had used to act and behave. Some were a trifle greyer, perhaps, and others stooped a bit; but they went about their business in the old fashion, and their occupations had not changed. It was just as if he had wound up a clockwork toy before leaving England, and had returned after many years to find it still working. Here came old Dymond, the postman, with the usual midday delivery, light as ever, and the well-remembered dot-and-go-one gait. The maids who came out to take the letters were different; in one of them the Emigrant recognised a little girl who had once sat facing him in the Wesleyan day-school; but the bells that fetched them out were those on which he had sounded runaway peals in former days, and with his eyes shut he could have sworn to old Dymond’s double-knock. The cart that rattled its load of empty cans up the street belonged to Nicholas Retallack (“Old Nick”), the milkman, and that was Retallack beside it, returning from his morning round. The Emigrant took the cigar from his mouth and blew a lazy cloud. But for Retallack he might never have seen South Africa or known Johannesburg. Retallack had caught him surreptitiously milking the Alderney into a battered straw hat, and had threatened a summons. There had been a previous summons with a conviction, and the Mayor had hinted at the Reformatory, so the Emigrant had been packed off. And here he was, back again; and here was Retallack trudging around, the same as ever.

In the window across the road a saddler sat cutting out a strap, and reminding the Emigrant of a certain First of April when he had ventured in and inquired for half a pint of strap-oil. It might almost be the same strap, as it certainly was the same saddler.

Down at the street corner, by the clock, a couple of Town Councillors stood chatting. While the Emigrant looked there came round the corner a ruck of boys from school chivvying and shouting after an ungainly man, who turned twice and threatened them with a stick. The Town Councillors did not interfere, and the rabble passed bawling by the Pack-horse. Long before it came the Emigrant had recognised the ungainly man. It was Dicky Loony, the town butt. He had chivvied the imbecile a hundred times in just the same fashion, yelling “Black Cat!” after him as these young imps were yelling — though why “Black Cat” neither he nor the imps could have told. But Dicky had always resented it as he resented it now, wheeling round, shaking his stick, and sputtering maledictions. A stone or two flew harmlessly by. The Emigrant did not interfere.

As yet no one had recognised him. He had arrived the night before, and taken a room at the Pack-horse, nobody asking his name; had sat after supper in a corner of the smoking-room and listened to the gossip there, saying nothing.

“Who’s he travellin’ for?” somebody had asked of Abel Walters, the landlord. “He ain’t a commercial. He han’t got the trunks, only a kit-bag. By the soft hat he wears I should say a agent in advance. Likely we’ll have a circus before long.”

His father and mother were dead these ten years. He had sent home money to pay the funeral expenses and buy a substantial headstone. But he had not been up to the cemetery yet. He was not a sentimental man. Still, he had expected his return to make some little stir in Tregarrick, and now a shade of disappointment began to creep over his humour.

He flung away the end of his cigar and strolled up the sunny pavement to a sweetshop where he had once bought ha’porths of liquorice and cinnamon-rock. The legend, “E. Hosking, Maker of Cheesecakes to Queen Victoria,” still decorated the window. He entered and demanded a pound of best “fairing,” smiling at the magnificence of the order. Mrs. Hosking — her white mob — cap and apron clean as ever — offered him a macaroon for luck, and weighed out the sweets. Her hand shook more than of old.

“You don’t remember me, Mrs. Hosking?”

“What is it you say? You must speak a little louder, please, I’m deaf.”

“You don’t remember me?”

“No, I don’t,” she said composedly. “I’m gone terrible blind this last year or two.”

The Emigrant paid for his sweets and walked out. He had bought them with a purpose, and now bent his steps down Market Street. At the foot of the hill he paused before a row of white-washed cottages. A green fence ran along their front, and a pebbled path; and here he found a stout, matronly woman bent over a wash-tub.

“Does Mrs. Best live here?” he asked.

The woman withdrew about a dozen pins from her mouth and answered all in one breath:—

“She isn’t called Best any longer; she married agen five year ago; second husbing, he died too; she doesn’ live here any more.”

With this she stuck the pins very deliberately, one by one, in the bosom of her print gown, and plunged her hands into the wash-tub again.

The Emigrant stood nonplussed for a moment and scratched the back of his head, tilting his soft hat still further forward on his nose.

“She used to be very fond of me when I was a boy,” he said lamely.

“Yes?” The tone seemed to ask what business that could be of hers.

“She came as nurse to my mother when I was born. I suppose that made her take a fancy to me.”

“Ah, no doubt,” replied the woman vaguely, and added, while she soaped a long black stocking, “she did a lot o’ that, one time and another.” “She had a little girl of her own before I left Tregarrick,” the Emigrant persisted, not because she appeared interested — she did not, at all — but with some vague hope of making himself appear a little less trivial. “Lizzie she called her. I suppose you don’t know what has become of the old woman?”

“Well, considerin’ that I’m her daughter Elizabeth”— she lengthened the name with an implied reproof —“I reckon I ought to know.”

The Emigrant’s hand sought and crushed the big packet of sweets well into his pocket. He flushed scarlet. At the same time he could hardly keep back a smile at his absurd mistake. To be here with lollipops for a woman of thirty and more!

“You haven’t any little ones of your own?”

“No, I haven’t. Why?”

“Oh, well; only a question. My name is Peter Jago — Pete, I used to be called.”

“Yes?”

He took notice that she had said nothing of her mother’s whereabouts; and concluded, rightly, that the old woman must be in the workhouse.

“Well, I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought I might be able to do something for her.”

The woman became attentive at last.

“Any small trifle you might think o’ leavin’ with me, sir, it should duly reach her. She’ve failed a lot, lately.”

“Thank you; I’ll think it over. Good-day.”

He strolled back to the Pack-horse and ate his dinner. Abel Walters, coming in after with a pint of port to his order, found the Emigrant with a great packet of sugared almonds and angelica spread open beside his cheese.

“I suppose, sir,” said Mr. Walters, eyeing the heap, “you’ve travelled a great deal in foreign parts.”

Two days passed. The Emigrant visited the cemetery, inspected his parents’ tombstone, and found about it a number of tombstones belonging to people whose faces he had not hitherto missed. But after his experiment upon Elizabeth Best he had not declared himself a second time. Indeed, his humour by this had turned sour, and his mind was made up that, if no one recognised him spontaneously, he would leave his native town as quietly as he had come — would go back without revealing himself to a soul. It would be unfair to say that he felt aggrieved; but he certainly dismissed a project, with which he had often played in South Africa, of erecting a public drinking-fountain on Mount Folly, as the citizens of Tregarrick call the slope in front of the County Assize Hall.

The third day was Sunday, and he went to church in the morning. The Vicar who preached was a stranger to him; but in the sidesman who came down the aisle afterwards with the offertory-plate he recognised one Billy Smithers, who had been a crony of his some twenty years ago; who had, in fact, helped him more than once to milk Retallack’s Alderney. He felt in his pocket and dropped a sovereign into the plate. The sidesman halted and rubbed his chin.

“Han’t you made a mistake?” he asked in a stage whisper.

The Emigrant waved his hand in rather a lordly manner, and William Smithers, sidesman, proceeded down the aisle, wondering, but not suspecting.

The Vicar recited the prayer for the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here on earth, and the Emigrant joined the crowd trooping out by the western door.

But in the press just outside the door two hands suddenly seized his right hand and shook it violently. He turned and faced — Dicky Loony.

“Me know, eh? Pete — Mas’r Pete!” The idiot bent over his hand and mumbled it with his wry mouth, then shook it again, peering up in his face. “Eh? Pete — Pete. Yes. All right!”

The Emigrant looked down on this poor creature at whom he had flung scores of stones, but never a kind word. And the idiot ran on:—

“Dicky, eh?”— tapping his chest. “You know — Dicky. Pete — Pete, eh?”— and he made the gesture of one flinging a stone. “Often, ha, ha! So high.” He spread his hand, palm downward, about five feet from the ground.

“Well I’m blest!” said the Emigrant softly. They stood now on the green together, a little apart from the crowd.

“So high, eh? Li’l boy, eh? Fling — me know!” He took the emigrant’s hand again and shook it, smiling and looking him straight in the eyes with innocent gaiety. “These boys — no good; no good now. Pete, he fling so. Li’l boy — quite li’l boy. Me know, eh? Dicky know!”

“Well,” repeated the Emigrant; “I’m blest, but this is funny!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/q/quiller-couch/arthur_thomas/old-fires-and-profitable-ghosts/chapter10.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:15