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1: The Bishop's Fool (part 5)


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« on: January 21, 2023, 07:35:38 am »

I NEVER had such a good visit again to Bagwick. Either there were young people there or Rymer was preoccupied by the worries of his cure, connected mainly with the hostile activities of the young farmer. But when he came up to London he was in better spirits. He returned to the excitements of his youth: he would have been to see a new Italian film which reminded him of the early Russian ones when he was an undergraduate. Another time he would have been to see a socialist curate in an East End parish who reported packed churches of slum-dwellers, to listen to a sensational mixture of inflammatory social doctrine and tawdry mysticism.

Two months or more after my visit I sent him a post-card message as follows:

"Recalling my discourse socialism and Christianity. Have just seen something written or said by David Low, the famous Cartoonist. Here it is.

"'If any man come to you from the Right or the Left and promise you economic security on condition that you first surrender your personal and political liberty, kick him downstairs. You won't get the security and what is more having surrendered your liberty, you will then be in no position whatever to argue about it.'

"I fear that Low will have lost an admirer in Bagwick."

Whenever I saw Rymer I made a point of enquiring if any new moves had been made, by his enemies in the parish, to have his living taken away from him. I got the impression that they had given it up as a bad job. He did not say so, but that is what I gathered was his view.

Then one day in January, while a young Italian workman was "hacking out and reglazing" one of our hall windows, the icy wind from Siberia still blowing in, there was a knock at the front door. The young Italian went on hacking. Mr. Rushbottom, my old man of errands, my washer-up and guardian of the street-door key was standing hat in hand, counting with difficulty his silver. "Shall I see who it is, sir?" he enquired. I asked him to do so, and he went out into the hall. A moment later he returned, practically walking backwards with his customary exaggerated deference. He was followed by the massive form of Rymer, limping, and with a large black patch over his left eye. The Rymer that looked at me out of the other eye was a stranger.

"Rymer, of all unexpected visitors!"

"I'm sorry," the stranger said.

"Aren't you cold? Come over here and sit by the fire."

"I'm not cold," said the stranger.

"Sit down," I repeated. "Have you hurt yourself?"

"No. I have not hurt myself."

"No? And you are limping, too. Bad luck. One moment, I will settle with Mr. Rushbottom."

I accelerated Mr. Rushbottom's ritual of the-change-out-of-a-pound, dismissed him with old-world courtesy on both sides—a bow from Mr. Rushbottom at the door towards the ominous vault of Rymer's back. That finished, I returned to the fire, facing my visitor.

"You look as if you had been fighting," I observed.

"I have," said the stranger.

Gradually I grew accustomed to the lonely eye, staring at me with a new expression. It was not the eye of the Bishop's Fool. Samuel Hartley Rymer was there, as he had begun: the parson that was underneath the rags and patches—which he was not wearing today: the man who played the Bishop's Fool for my entertainment. Even the poet had deserted this forlorn figure.

All those attributes removed, the personality was as it were undressed. However, this sort of psychological nudity was presented to me with dramatic satisfaction, so the old Rymer was there after all, peering at me dully out of his one eye.

There was a long silence. Rymer looked down at the floor. The "hacking and glazing" the other side of the door filled the room with violent sound. Rymer turned towards the door.

"Who is that?" he enquired.

"Why, that is an Italian workman," I told him, "putting in a new pane of glass. He cannot speak, nor can he understand, the English language."

A silence ensued.

"See this?" He pointed to the black patch obscuring his left eye.

"I do," I nodded.

"The farmer did that," he told me, panting a little.

"I am sorry, Rymer. How disgusting."

"Yes, I've come up to see a lawyer. And a doctor."

There was a short deep silence.

Several deep groans broke from him like successive belches. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his uninjured eye.

"Will this lead to anything tiresome?" I asked him.

"Lead to anything! I have been told to pack. I am to move into rooms in Storby. The Archdeacon came over last night. I was still in bed, he came into the room and told me no other course was open to them, I must go at once. I asked him what I had done. I have done nothing, people have done things to me. It is not I who should move away from the neighbourhood, it is Jack Cox. But they are such liars, a lot of people have come forward to testify that I ... was drunk."

"You drunk!"

"Drunk. They say that I stank of whisky. I never drink anything at all; even if I have people to lunch or to dinner and buy a bottle of wine for them at the grocer's in Cockridge I never have any myself."

This I was able to confirm.

"I noticed," I said, "when you brought a bottle of claret back for lunch one day, that you drank nothing yourself. Here, I have offered you everything from beer to burgundy—certainly you do not drink. You're the driest man I ever met."

"No, I don't drink. But they say I do and that's all that matters."

"A beastly situation! How did it all come to pass? You seem to have a lovely black eye."

He told me then how he had been trapped. Knowing him as I do it was not difficult to reconstruct the scene. I could see him as clearly as if I had been there, attempting to extricate himself. But a clergyman is a very easy prey, and this one perhaps especially so. He was a most unpractical man and at the same time over-confident in himself. His was so subjective a temperament that he was disposed to feel he could subdue to his will the most resistant fact. He behaved often as though the objective world were clay to be fashioned—not rock to negotiate. If a solid fact came into collision with him, as in this case for instance with his eye, he would be nonplussed.

How things began was as follows. A married woman in the village in whom his wife and he had taken an interest (I suppose because she was a bad hat) had got herself in a fix. She had stolen something in a shop in Storby, and the presence of the stolen article in the house had led to difficulties—the details are immaterial. He wanted to ask his wife to come down and see this woman, and he went into "The Marquess of Salisbury" to telephone to the Rectory.

The public telephone was situated at the far end of a passage, and in order to reach it one passed the two doors leading into, first, the public bar, and, next, the saloon bar. It was Saturday afternoon about two o'clock and there were people in both bars. As he passed the second door, which was open, he saw Jack Cox at the bar with two other farmers. He telephoned, and, having done so, as he turned around he found Jack Cox was standing there in the narrow passage looking at him.

"Ah, hallo, Jack. I thought I saw you inside with Joliffe."

But Cox did not speak. What was more, he did not move and there was no room to pass him.

Rymer is the most pacific and friendly of men, for all his arrogance, and I honour him for it, I cannot imagine him speaking roughly to anybody. Cox was plainly barring his way out and it might be assumed that he had been drinking enough for his ego to have swollen. There was probably nothing to be done but to push him out of the way. But English clergymen are not supposed to push human obstacles out of the way.

"Well, Jack," said Rymer, as if addressing an awkward child. He rested his shoulder against the wall and crossed one leg over the other, as though settling down for a chat. "How is the farm? I must run up there and pay you a visit. I've been intending to for some time."

"I shouldn't," said Cox.

"Oh, why not, Jack?" he sang musically, with a teasing note, as if Jack was being a little silly.

"Because I'll kick you out of it on your bloody neck. That's why."

"But why? That's nonsense, Jack. Aren't we friends?"

At this point the most pacific clergyman should have taken steps to bring this colloquy to an end. Not so Rymer. No, he would charm this enraged animal into docility.

"Jack," he coaxed, "you've got this all wrong you know. You are not pleased with me, of course I know that, but you've got the wrong idea about me. Let's talk it over, Jack! Shall I come up and see you tomorrow?"

"Yes, come and convert me to communism. You've tried it on all the men who work for me. Come up and try it on me. But first of all take that."

With which he hit Rymer, the blow breaking two of the new set of Health teeth. Rymer straightened himself in a bound, putting his arms up in front of him—not pugilistically but to create an obstacle, and advancing at the same time: but Cox sprang to one side and shot in a second blow which brought the blood out of his nose.

Jack Cox, whom I have seen, is half Rymer's size, a little legginged English yeoman with a reddish bullet head. Although much older, I should suppose the larger could have annihilated the smaller had he wanted to. In this case the annihilation took a different form. With a great roar of "Jaaack!" which echoed all over "The Marquess of Salisbury", the Man of God, as if in an access of love, flung himself upon Jack Cox and folded him in an ardent maternal embrace. Dropping blood all over Jack's face and shoulders—when they caught sight of them people got the impression that Cox had been half murdered—Rymer practically carried him out of the public house.

"Now, Jack Cox! Will you behave yourself," he croaked huskily and breathlessly in Jack's ear, as he hugged him under the inn sign of a bearded man, ostentatiously plastered with stars and medals.

Those in the bars had come out into the street and people had come out of their houses, men, women and children, so that by now most of Bagwick was watching him. They did not watch in silence. The greater part of the men were Cox's labourers. Rymer was surprised at the hostility towards himself. He had always believed himself popular and several of the hostile faces he could see as he struggled with his foully cursing prisoner belonged to men with whom only recently he had had most friendly conversations about labour conditions. But apparently they hated him! He thought inevitably of Christ and the Jewish populace.

His tattered suit, under the strain of this violent encounter, was showing signs of disintegrating. Several patches had been torn off by Cox and he could hear a man derisively shouting: "Hi, sir, ye 'comin' onstuck! Why don't ee get t'misses to sew ee together!" But voices on all sides gave him very little comfort—the great tattered bleeding clergyman, hugging and heaving this way and that the little farmer, who was spitting insults up into his face like a little geyser of wrath, was not the sort of man to appeal to Hodge. He heard them cry: "Let him go! You coward, stand up to him!" "Trip him up, Jack! Kick him, Jack, he'll drop yer then!" "Murder! Parson's murdering Jack Cox!" There were no counter-cries to these. All were against him.

Then Bill Crockett, the village "red", arrived on the scene. Rymer could hear him coming and his heart sank. It only needed Bill Crockett to consummate the scandal. It would become a political issue, that man could be guaranteed to make political capital out of a dogfight. The "red's" voice could be heard in raucous argument not far away, though there was so much noise he could not hear what he was saying. Rymer for the first time began to despair—this was just what Cox wanted. "Go away, Bill Crockett!" he called. But he had loosened his hold a little in order to expand his chest to shout, and Cox managed to jab him under the rib. Suddenly Crockett was shouting in his ear, "Squeeze the life out of the dirty little exploiter, Mr. Rymer. Teach him to soak the poor!" "Go away, Bill, for Heaven's sake!" Rymer panted. But Crockett was kicking Cox on the shin-bone in his ideological enthusiasm. There was an indignant roar from Cox's chorus, and out of the corner of his eye Rymer could see Bill Crockett exchanging blows with one of Cox's men.

Rymer became more depressed, confused and obsessed with the dread of the consequences every minute. "This is a bad dream. It cannot be happening!" was the semi-comforting idea that helped to sustain him.

Releasing Jack Cox, and stepping back, he said:

"Jack, let us put a stop to this disgraceful scene. You see what is going on. It does credit to neither of us. Do be sensible, Jack, and stop striking me. I am a clergyman, you know I cannot strike you back. It is cowardly to attack me."

Cox's little eyes shone with malice as he stood listening and his little fists were tightly clenched. One of his little fists flew up into Rymer's face. That is how he got his "shiner". This nearly sent him to the ground; it also made him angry. He sprang at his enemy before the little fists could be used again and this time pinned him to the wall of the inn—holding him as before in his arms but up against the brick wall. That way it was less hard work, the wall assisting. Not of course that Cox remained just a bundle in his arms; he kicked, jerked this way and that, and stamped on Rymer's toes. Nor, of course, did the people round them give him any peace and they might suddenly intervene in favour of their boss. Bleeding, perspiring, panting, he rode his little nightmare in a chaos of shouts, oaths, kicks, and chatter. The shrill voices of women pierced the murky fever of his mind. Mrs. Rossiter's voice was the nearest and shrillest. His left eye was closing up now, so what happened to the right of him (the brick wall being in front) was less in his field of vision and less distinct.

He could see no issue to this but, as a final absurdity, a stand-up fight with the farmer—for as he struggled in a hot blur his mind darted about seeking a means of escape. He saw the headlines in the Storby papers, "Fighting Parson. Riot in Bagwick. Farmer Cox's story." For more than a decade this man had been his enemy and it was most unlikely that he would let him off with anything short of the extremity of humiliation and scandal. His appeals to "Jack" he saw had been absurd. There was always Providence—it even passed through his mind that the Archdeacon might pass that way. He ran through all the most unlikely visitants before reaching his wife. But Eleanor had said on the telephone that she would run down in the car almost at once, so it was after all in her that the best hope of intervention lay. He would hold this little rat pinioned to the wall until Eleanor stopped the car a few yards away, jumped out and hurried over to "The Marquess of Salisbury". She would of course be horrified. "My poor darling!" she would cry when she saw his face, which was in a bit of a mess. And when she noticed Jack Cox was unmarked wouldn't she just give Jack a piece of her mind which he richly deserved—and these brutes too, standing around here and allowing their Rector ... well, he was their Rector!

So in a sense he became numbed to outer sensations, he no longer heard the invective directed at him by his captive, he prosecuted the locking up of the little fists of Cox as an automaton. His mind supplied a feverish daydream to distract him as he rocked about on top of Cox. It ran on like a clockwork producing consoling images.

But Jack Cox began to wriggle and to sink—he was slipping down all the time. Rymer tried to pull him up, but he had got down almost on his knees. Rymer at last was obliged to slip after him until he was on his knees too. It was impossible to hold him like that. He had to throw him over on his back, an operation he found none too easy. He did at last get him over, receiving a nasty punch or two in the process, and he then lay on top of him. Perhaps the earth would help him to hold Jack Cox better than the wall had.

Meanwhile this was psychologically a less satisfactory position. He would have looked, to anyone suddenly arriving on the scene, more like an aggressor—lying there on top of a man as if he were a victorious wrestler, than he would have while they were both on their feet, and he obviously pinioning Cox's arms, in the way a quite gentle police constable might. That, Heaven knows, was not a pretty picture: but this was a worse picture—should the Bishop happen at that moment to drive through Bagwick. He shuddered as he thought of the Bishop's reaction on finding one of his clergymen lying on top of a man in the street, surrounded by a jeering crowd.

He panted on top of Cox and it was much more difficult in this position to immobilize him. Their bodies lay parallel to the houses so he looked up at the road before him, the direction of the Rectory. Eleanor was taking her time!—or had something made it difficult for her to get away? (He refused to say impossible: difficult, perhaps.) Then, with a howl of pain, he leapt off Cox as if suddenly a bar of red-hot iron was there in place of Farmer Cox. He rushed away doubled up, in a crouching run. There was no longer any question of holding Cox. Without thinking, a wounded animal scuttling blindly for safety, he bolted from Cox as if that harmless-looking little countryman were possessed of some malignant property, fatal to life. He did not look back; he looked nowhere, heard nothing. Crouching and scuttling up the road he made for the Rectory.

Jeering laughter followed him. Everyone was laughing and chattering, great hilarity prevailed in Bagwick as their Rector ran away from it screaming with pain. "Take it to y'missus, parson, she 'ull fix it for 'ee," one of them called after him, a gust of fresh laughter beginning before the jeer ended. But the malice of Bagwick took a more tangible form. Mrs. Rossiter's Jacko, from the start at his heels, now ran level with him, and, to round off the whole performance, plunged his teeth into Rymer's calf. "First Jack—then Jacko!" as I said when he told me of the payment of that long-outstanding debt—pulling up his trousers and pants and showing me the relevant bandage.

Eleanor appeared almost at once, he saw her red tam-o'-shanter. As she drew near to the crouching figure, smeared with blood, dishevelled, his patches gaping and fluttering, she could scarcely believe her eyes. As she stopped the car and sprang out she exclaimed "My poor darling!" just as she had done in his fevered daydream upon Cox's breast. But the villagers began to move back into their houses as they saw her approaching, and Jack Cox had already gone back into "The Marquess of Salisbury", so it was too late for the telling-off even had he not been suffering such atrocious pain. In the middle of the road was the inanimate form of Bill Crockett—who at first Eleanor had supposed must have been her husband's victim.

But Rymer was, it seems, practically inarticulate and she helped him tenderly into the car, saying "My poor darling!" again as she did so. One of the many thuggish tricks included in commando-training had been utilized by the farmer (who had been exempted from military service because of his farm but who had learnt a few of the best thug-tricks for use in civil life). All the facts were sorted out afterwards; Eleanor saw it was no time to ask questions. She turned the car round and with all speed made for home.

His story greatly shocked me. I felt sorry about him as I should with a child. The majority of men are so cunning and practical, such little strategists. They would have known exactly what to do. They would in any case never have found themselves with a drunken farmer in their arms outside a public house.

Rymer's departure from my flat was rather sudden. He recalled the hospital hours: I offered to go with him but he would not allow me to do that. He hobbled past the Italian workman who was still glazing though he had stopped hacking. Rymer's back went slowly along the corridor; that was more than six months ago and it is the last I have seen or heard of him. I have written several times but received no reply. I am beginning to wonder whether Rymer exists or whether he is not, rather, a figment of my imagination.

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