« VorigeDoorgaan »
THE PIPER OF POSEN.
AND THE PEOPLE WHO WOULDN'T DANCE TO HIM.
Air (vaguely): "Hamelin Town's in Brunswick."
Posen town's in Posen,
And that's a province of Prussia;
And round this way, as you should know,
A matter of ninety years ago,
The Great Man brought his travelling show
Out on the ruthless plains of Russia.
The taint that comes, when the winds are low,
They breed so fast by swarms and shoals, And can't be kept in their proper station,
But want a voice-poor ignorant drolls
In the matter of popular education! Pay, it's true, their taxes and tolls,
But won't remain like primitive moles
In suitable subterranean holes,
Nor adopt a decently servile air
To German officials planted there
With full permission to ply their staves
On the knuckles of contumacious kna ves;
Forget, in fact, their Helot rôles,
And claim to preach
Freedom of speech
And the general use of their private souls!
So it happened that one fine dusty day,
When matters had grown a shade too warm,
William the War-Lord rode that way
In a terrible Prussian uniform.
And first he called for his mailèd fist,
And gave his moustaches an upward twist, And cried, as he buckled his burnished glaive, "I'll teach my Poseners how to behave!
Let not a Slav attempt to show
(If he wants, that is, to remain alive) a
Full-rigged, but otherwise like Godiva !”
Hark! ye serfs, to the tramp of My retinue,
And the fear of Me and of God I'll be get in you!"
On second thoughts he smoothed his brow,
And stuck in his helm an olive bough,
And said, "I will stoop to win their love!
And bid My army and brave police
Nor shoot, nor maim, nor trample down
And so with suave salute, he
So to speak, to the piper's playing;
And though they behaved with perfect tact
That a War-Lord riding there in state
Was a lovable object to contemplate!
And then in a well-prepared oration
(Other than such as go with the wassail
Pilsener, not your British crass ale),
Poured in the ear of the Burgomaster,
Allowing the city by special grace
To be no longer a fenced place
A scheme that I chance to know was not
While the generous blood ran red and hot,
For making the favor more emphatic.
And when he touched on the extra space,
And ventured to hope it would meet the case
Why, then on the actual men, it seems,
For love of whom he had launched these schemes
At Heaven knows how much fiscal cost,
This strangely liberal move was lost,
You can take a Pole, as I understand,
And play on his nerves with a German band,
THE "UTILITY MAN."
(And one man in his time plays many parts.)
There is a certain little town in the heart of the southern counties, which is called Five Oaks. The trees from which it takes its name stand in the centre of the town, and make a pleasant green shade, where one may sit through the long hot afternoons. There are houses placed around the green, but they have a deserted look, and, indeed, seem to sleep all day, and only wake up in the evenings, when the candles twinkle in the windows. For
the inhabitants of Five Oaks hide themselves in a mysterious fashion, and one may walk the length of the little town and see no one but a sleepy shopkeeper sunning himself upon his doorstep, or an old woman, who may sit and knit beneath the trees upon the green. And there are days when even these keep within doors, and there might not be a living soul in Five Oaks, for all one sees of them.
An uncle of mine had left me some
property in the town and I had ridden over to survey it. It comprised a little inn, which stood beside the green, untenanted.
I had looked at the straggling line of shops, of which I was the proud possessor, and now I sat on the rough bench beneath the oak trees, and meditated on my chance of finding a landlord for the inn. It seemed to me to wear a satisfied look of stagnation in the hot sunlight. The fat porch stood solidly in front, with its shuttered windows peeping drowsily on either side. It looked so placidly indifferent to any prospect of a tenant that it quite oppressed me.
An apathy, born of the warm soft Sussex air, fell on me. I sat and dreamed on comfortably. I was content to leave the little inn undisturbed. The sunlight fell through the green leaves, and made patches of gold and brown upon the trodden ground beneath my feet. The white road lay unblinkingly before me. A stray bee hummed somnolently in a cottage garden. It was so still, I could hear a clock ticking, quite plainly, in an adjoining house. Even the fowls scratched no longer in the roadway. They had vanished as mysteriously as the people.
And then, as I sat there, the bumpety-bumps of a hand-cart broke in on the silent air, and a sad little man came in sight along the High Street. He was pushing a lorry-like erection of gaily-pictured boards and printed placards, on which was announced, in startling letters:
"THE WHIRLWIND OF SIN. TO-NIGHT AT 8."
The posters represented, severally, a red-haired enchantress, draining a wine-cup mockingly; and a gentleman of forbidding expression, who held a pistol to the head of his white-haired
and reproachful father. These harrowing pictures were accompanied by the information that Mr. Reginald Noble's Specially Selected London Company would appear for that night only in the Public Hall. Further placards exhorted the populace of Five Oaks to "Come early," and modestly reminded them that it was the "Chance of a lifetime." I watched The Whirlwind of Sin pursue its dejected progress down the silent street. The little man behind the cart plodded on patiently. He was a hot little man, and a tired little man and the perspiration rolled off his face as he pushed and panted. Every now and then he would cast a glance at the coldly hostile windows, so frankly indifferent to himself and his ridiculous pursuit. And then his eyes would seek again the flaming pictures on the tailend of the lorry.
He neared the end of the High Street. The green stretched before him. He paused a moment, and stood and gazed blankly at the deserted grass, and the more deserted houses, lying so far back from the road.
He blinked his eyes wearily, with a futile glance of reproach at the fierce sun, which beat down on his miserable little head. Then he picked up the horrible cart, and in a sort of helpless desperation, started round the green. As he did so, he caught sight of me!
For a second he stood, stupefied with the surprise of seeing an inhabitant. Then over his face came a beatific illumination which was more pathetic than his despair, and he approached me shyly. As he passed, he slackened his pace, and a new poster burst upon me.
A gentleman, with a lady hanging over his shoulder in a limp and uncomfortable position, was savagely stabbing another gentleman, both of them being poised on the extreme edge of a yawning chasm. The situation appeared fraught with danger to all
parties, and the nonchalance they displayed under the circumstances seemed to me most praiseworthy.
The little man cast a tentative glance at me as he went by, and I gazed with interest upon his bills, putting up my eye-glass to denote my serious attention. Hope shone in his mildly beaming eye. The little figure stiffened. The bumpety-bumps became quite jaunty. Then I heard him stop.
The three sides of the green lay be fore him-a hot Sahara to traverse before he could hope to win my appreciative gaze again. The bumpety-bumps suddenly began with increased vigor. He was lugging the lorry round.
In another minute, he strolled by carelessly-the other side of the cart now turned toward me. The meekly triumphant air he wore was too much for me. I bit my lip, but could not suppress a smile. Then I saw he was looking at me, in wonder, as to what I could find amusing in such a concatenation of depressing circumstances-and I, in my turn, wondered too that I had smiled at such helpless misery. The lorry bumped mournfully away into the distance, and the green was left to silence. But now the deadly stupor of the place oppressed me, and I rose with a vague idea of following the lorry.
I came across it half-way up the High Street, tilted against the kerbstone, opposite the hotel. As I neared it, I saw my little friend had vanished to seek comfort in the shadowy recesses of the bar. I lingered for a moment beside the deserted cart. School was now over, and the children were appearing in the street. Presently we attracted the attention of some redfaced little boys, who proceeded take up various posts of vantage round us. Then I became aware that I was receiving as much notice as the lorry. A pallid youth, for whom I had already conceived a definite aversion, was
pointing me out to his friends with derisive comments. From the ensuing conversation, I gathered that he had detected a most unflattering resemblance between me and the parricide on the poster. The likeness was immediately recognized as a speaking one by all his friends, and my position became embarassing. So particular, indeed, was the attention they proceeded to bestow on me, that I do not know to what lengths their righteous indignation would not have driven them, if they had not been diverted by the advent of a brisk young man. There was a vigorous decision in his bearing which betokened a personal interest in the lorry, and my impression was confirmed when he dived into the hotel and re-emerged with the little man, dejectedly apologetic.
The lorry trundled off-this time with the brisk young man behind, and my sad little friend trotting beside and I made my way into the hotel.
But the memory of the patient little figure remained with me to haunt me. I thought of Edmund Kean, and wondered if he had ever dragged a handcart in his strolling days. And as the afternoon waned into evening, and still I lingered in the town, I decided that I would stop all night and witness the performance.
The green had awakened into life when I started on my way to the hall where the strollers were performing. The windows sent out cheery streams of light across the shadowy grass, and men in shirtsleeves leant over the gates of the cottages, while their wives stood knitting by their side, or chatted to one another across the hedges. But no one seemed to be contemplating a visit to the performance, and my fears were realized when I stepped inside the hall.
A few children, amongst whom I recognized my pallid enemy of the afternoon, were scattered over the back