When the immortal Don set out to ring all the bells of merriment, he was
followed by one clown. Charles Courtier on the other hand had always been
accompanied by thousands, who really could not understand the conduct of
this man with no commercial sense. But though he puzzled his
contemporaries, they did not exactly laugh at him, because it was reported
that he had really killed some men, and loved some women. They found such
a combination irresistible, when coupled with an appearance both vigorous
and gallant. The son of an Oxfordshire clergyman, and mounted on a lost
cause, he had been riding through the world ever since he was eighteen,
without once getting out of the saddle. The secret of this endurance lay
perhaps in his unconsciousness that he was in the saddle at all. It was as
much his natural seat as office stools to other mortals. He made no
capital out of errantry, his temperament being far too like his red-gold
hair, which people compared to flames, consuming all before them. His
vices were patent; too incurable an optimism; an admiration for beauty
such as must sometimes have caused him to forget which woman he was most
in love with; too thin a skin; too hot a heart; hatred of humbug, and
habitual neglect of his own interest. Unmarried, and with many friends,
and many enemies, he kept his body like a sword-blade, and his soul always
at white heat.
That one who admitted to having taken part in five wars should be mixing
in a by-election in the cause of Peace, was not so inconsistent as might
be supposed; for he had always fought on the losing side, and there seemed
to him at the moment no side so losing as that of Peace. No great
politician, he was not an orator, nor even a glib talker; yet a quiet
mordancy of tongue, and the white-hot look in his eyes, never failed to
make an impression of some kind on an audience.
There was, however, hardly a corner of England where orations on behalf of
Peace had a poorer chance than the Bucklandbury division. To say that
Courtier had made himself unpopular with its matter-of-fact, independent,
stolid, yet quick-tempered population, would be inadequate. He had
outraged their beliefs, and roused the most profound suspicions. They
could not, for the life of them, make out what he was at. Though by his
adventures and his book, “Peace-a lost Cause,” he was, in London, a
conspicuous figure, they had naturally never heard of him; and his
adventure to these parts seemed to them an almost ludicrous example of
pure idea poking its nose into plain facts—the idea that nations
ought to, and could live in peace being so very pure; and the fact that
they never had, so very plain!
At Monkland, which was all Court estate, there were naturally but few
supporters of Miltoun's opponent, Mr. Humphrey Chilcox, and the reception
accorded to the champion of Peace soon passed from curiosity to derision,
from derision to menace, till Courtier's attitude became so defiant, and
his sentences so heated that he was only saved from a rough handling by
the influential interposition of the vicar.
Yet when he began to address them he had felt irresistibly attracted. They
looked such capital, independent fellows. Waiting for his turn to speak,
he had marked them down as men after his own heart. For though Courtier
knew that against an unpopular idea there must always be a majority, he
never thought so ill of any individual as to suppose him capable of
belonging to that ill-omened body.
Surely these fine, independent fellows were not to be hoodwinked by the
jingoes! It had been one more disillusion. He had not taken it lying down;
neither had his audience. They dispersed without forgiving; they came
together again without having forgotten.
The village Inn, a little white building whose small windows were
overgrown with creepers, had a single guest's bedroom on the upper floor,
and a little sitting-room where Courtier took his meals. The rest of the
house was but stone-floored bar with a long wooden bench against the back
wall, whence nightly a stream of talk would issue, all harsh a's, and
sudden soft u's; whence too a figure, a little unsteady, would now and
again emerge, to a chorus of 'Gude naights,' stand still under the
ash-trees to light his pipe, then move slowly home.
But on that evening, when the trees, like cattle, stood knee-deep in the
moon-dust, those who came out from the bar-room did not go away; they hung
about in the shadows, and were joined by other figures creeping furtively
through the bright moonlight, from behind the Inn. Presently more figures
moved up from the lanes and the churchyard path, till thirty or more were
huddled there, and their stealthy murmur of talk distilled a rare savour
of illicit joy. Unholy hilarity, indeed, seemed lurking in the deep
tree-shadow, before the wan Inn, whence from a single lighted window came
forth the half-chanting sound of a man's voice reading out loud. Laughter
was smothered, talk whispered.
“He'm a-practisin' his spaches.” “Smoke the cunnin' old vox out!” “Red
pepper's the proper stuff.” “See men sneeze! We've a-screed up the door.”
Then, as a face showed at the lighted window, a burst of harsh laughter
broke the hush.
He at the window was seen struggling violently to wrench away a bar. The
laughter swelled to hooting. The prisoner forced his way through, dropped
to the ground, rose, staggered, and fell.
A voice said sharply:
Out of the sounds of scuffling and scattering came the whisper: “His
lordship!” And the shade under the ash-trees became deserted, save by the
tall dark figure of a man, and a woman's white shape.
“Is that you, Mr. Courtier? Are you hurt?”
A chuckle rose from the recumbent figure.
“Only my knee. The beggars! They precious nearly choked me, though.”