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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIn The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 7. The Decanterbury Pilgrims
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In The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 7. The Decanterbury Pilgrims Post by :1234Piano Category :Long Stories Author :Christopher Morley Date :May 2012 Read :1463

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In The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 7. The Decanterbury Pilgrims

CHAPTER VII. THE DECANTERBURY PILGRIMS

Through a dreary waste of devastated country a little group of refugees plodded in silence. All about them lay fields and orchards which had been torn and uprooted as though by some unbelievable whirlwind. At a watering trough along the road they halted, facing the sign:


COMPULSORY DRINKING STATION

Adults, 1 quart
Children, 1 pint

THIRST FORBIDDEN BETWEEN HERE AND THE NEXT STATION


Under the eye of an armed chuff, who watched them suspiciously, the wretched wanderers drank the water in silence, but without enthusiasm. Then they shuffled on down the road.

At the front of the small procession a slender girl, in a much-stained sports suit, rode on a tall black horse. Beside the horse trudged a bulky man in a grotesque garb of dirty lavender quilting. A matted whisk of coarse beard drooped from his chin, but his blue eyes burned brightly in his sunburnt face. Over his shoulder he carried a six foot length of brass railing, a small folding table, and a shabby knapsack.

Behind the horse limped a lean, dyspeptic-colored individual in a Palm Beach suit that would have been a social death-warrant on the shining sands of its name-place. There is no form of sartorialism that takes on such utter humility as a Palm Beach suit gone wrong. This particular vestment was spotted with ink, with mud, with fruit-juices, with every kind of stain; it was punctured with perforations that might have been due to fallen tobacco tinder. The individual within this travesty of clothing was painfully propelling a wheelbarrow, in which rode (not without complaint) a substantial woman and a baby. An older child trailed from the Palm Beach coat-tail.

These jovial vagabonds, as the reader will have suspected, were no other than Theodolinda Chuff, Virgil Quimbleton, and the family of Bleaks.

Affairs had gone steadily from bad to worse. After the incident--or, as some blasphemously called it, the miracle--at Cana, Bishop Chuff had commenced ruthless warfare. Enraged beyond control by the perfidy of his daughter, he had sent out the armies of the Pan-Antis to wreak vengeance on every human enterprise that could be suspected of complicity in the matter of fermentation. Not only had the countryside been laid waste, but the printing press had been abolished and all publishing trades were now a thing of the past. This, of course, had thrown Dunraven Bleak out of a job. He had retrieved his wife and children from the seashore, and in company with Quimbleton and Miss Chuff, and the noble and faithful horse John Barleycorn, they had led a nomad existence for weeks, flying from bands of pursuing chuffs, and bravely preaching their illicit gospel of good cheer in the face of terrible dangers.

The girl, who was indeed the Jeanne d'Arc of their cause, was their sole means of subsistence. It was her psychic powers that made it possible for them, in a furtive way, to give their little entertainments. Their method was, on reaching a village where there were no chuff troops, to distribute certain handbills which Bleak had been able to get printed by stealth. These read thus:

THE SIX QUIMBLETONS or The Decanterbury Pilgrims In Their Artistic Revival Of Old and Entertaining Customs, Tableaux Vivants Vanished Arts, Folklore Games and Conjuring Tricks Such as The Drinking of Healths, Toasts, Nosepainting, The Lifted Elbow, Let's Match For It, Say When, Light or Dark? and This One's On Me. COMMUNION WITH DEPARTED SPIRITS Please Do Not Leave Before the Hat Goes Round

Having taken their station in some not too prominent place, Bleak would mount the wheelbarrow and play Coming Through the Rye on a jew's-harp. This, his sole musical accomplishment, was exceedingly distasteful to him: all his training had been in the anonymity of a newspaper office, and he felt his public humiliation bitterly.

When a crowd had gathered, Quimbleton would ascend the barrow and make a brief speech (of a highly inflammatory and treasonable nature) after which he would set up the small table and the brass rail, produce a white apron and a tumbler from his knapsack, and introduce Theodolinda for an alcoholic trance. It was found that the public entered into the spirit of these seances with great gusto, and often the collection taken up was gratifyingly large. However, the life was hazardous in the extreme, and they were in perpetual danger of meeting secret service agents. It was only by repeated private trances of their own that they were able to keep up their morale.

Reaching a bend in the way, where a grove of trees cast a grateful shade, the Decanterbury Pilgrims halted to rest. Quimbleton helped Theodolinda down from her horse, and they all sat sadly by the roadside.

"Theo," said Quimbleton, as he wiped his brow, "do you think, dear, that if I set up the table you could give us a little trance? Upon my soul, I am nearly done in."

"Darling Virgil," said Theodolinda, "I really can't do it. You know I've given you four trances already this morning, and you have communed with the soul of Wurzburger at least a dozen times. Then, as you know, I have put Mr. Bleak in touch with a julep six or seven times. All that takes it out of me dreadfully. I really must consider my art a bit: I don't want to be a mere psychic bartender, a clairvoyant distiller."

"You are quite right, dear girl," said Quimbleton remorsefully. "But I couldn't help thinking how agreeable a psychical seidel of dark beer would be just now. You are our little Jeanne Dark, you know," he added, with an atrocious attempt at pleasantry.

"That's all very well," said Bleak (who preferred julep to beer), "but if we don't look out Miss Chuff will go into a permanent trance. I've noticed it has been harder and harder to bring her back from these states of suspended sobriety. You know, if we crowd these phantasms of the grape upon her too fast, she might pass over altogether, and stay behind the bar for good. We are deeply indebted to Miss Chuff for her adorable willingness to act as a kind of bunghole into the spirit world, but we don't want her to slip through the hole and evaporate."

"Safety thirst!" cried Quimbleton, raising his loved one to his lips.

"We can't go on like this indefinitely," continued Bleak. "I don't mind being a mountebank, but mountebanks don't pay much interest. I'd rather be a safe deposit somewhere out of Chuff's reach. There's too much drama in this way of living."

"I can stand the drama as long as I get the drams," said the unrepentant Quimbleton.

"Well, _I won't stand it!" exclaimed Mrs. Bleak, shrilly. "Look what your insane schemes have brought us to! You and my husband seem to find comfort in your psychical toping, but I don't notice any psychical millinery being draped about for Miss Chuff or myself. And look at the children! They're simply in rags. If you really loved Miss Chuff I should think you'd be ashamed to use her as a spiritual demijohn! You've alienated her from her father, and reduced my husband from managing editor of a leading paper to managing jew's-harpist of a gang of psychic bootleggers." She burst into angry tears.

Quimbleton groaned, and turned a ghastly fade upon Bleak.

"It's quite true," he said.

In the excitement Miss Chuff had turned very pale.

"Virgil," she said faintly, "I believe I feel a trance coming on."

"Great grief!" cried the harassed leader. "Not now, my darling! I think I see some troops in the distance. Quick, try to concentrate your mind on lemonade, on buttermilk, on beef tea!"

Happily this crisis passed. Theodolinda had presence of mind enough to pull out a little photograph of her father from some secret hiding place, and by putting her mind on it shook off the dominion of the other world.

Quimbleton spoke with anguished remorse.

"Mrs. Bleak is right. I've been trying to hide it from myself, but I can do so no longer. This monkey business--what we might call this gorilla warfare--must stop. We will only land in front of a firing squad. I have only one idea, which I have been saving in case all else failed."

The Bleaks were too discouraged to comment, but Theodolinda smiled bravely.

"Virgil dear," she said, "your ideas are always so original. What is it?"

Quimbleton stood up, unconsciously putting one foot on the portable brass rail which rested on its six-inch legs by the roadside. His tired eyes shone anew with characteristic enthusiasm. It was plain that he imagined himself before a large and sympathetic audience.

"My friends," he said, "the secret of eloquence is to know your facts--or, as the all-powerful Chuff would amend it, to know your tracts. One fact, I think I may say, is plain. The jig is up, or (more literally), the jag is up. I can see now that alcohol will never be more than a memory. Principalities and powers are in league against us. If the malt has lost its favor, wherewith shall it be malted?"

He paused a moment, as though expecting a little applause, and Theodolinda murmured an encouraging "Here, here."

With rekindled eye he resumed.

"Alcohol, I say, will never be more than a memory. Yet even a memory must be kept alive. The great tradition must not die. For the very sake of antiquarian accuracy, for the instruction of posterity, some exact record must be kept of the influence of alcohol upon the human soul. How can this be preserved? Not in books, not in the dead mummies of a museum. No, not in dead mummies, indeed, but in living rummies. That brings me to my great idea, which I have long cherished.

"I propose, my dear friends, that in some appropriate shrine, surrounded by all the authentic trappings and utensils, some chosen individual be maintained at the public charge, to exhibit for the contemplation of a drouthing world the immortal flame of intoxication. He will be known, without soft concealments, as the Perpetual Souse. In his little bar, served by austere attendants, he will be kept in a state of gentle exhilaration. Nothing gross, nothing unseemly, I insist! In that state of sweetly glowing mind and heart, in that ineffable blossoming of all the nobler qualities of human dignity, this priest of alcohol will represent and perpetuate the virtues of the grape. Booze, in the general sense, will have gone West, but ah how fair and ruddy a sunset will it have in the person of this its vicar! There he will live, visited, studied, revered, a living memorial. There he will live, perpetually in a mellow fume of bliss, trailing clouds of glory, as if--as some poet says,


As if his whole vocation
Were endless intoxication.


And now, my friends--not to weary you with the minor details of this far-reaching proposal--let me come to the point. For so gravely responsible a post, for an office so representative of the ideals and ambitions of millions, the choice cannot be cast haphazard. The choice must fall upon one qualified, confirmed, consecrated to this end. This deeply significant office must be conferred by the people themselves. It must be conferred by popular election. Candidates must be nominated, must stump the country explaining their qualifications. And let me say that, upon looking over the whole field, I see one man, who by the jury of his peers--or shall I say by the jury of his beers?--is supremely fitted for this post. It is my intention to nominate Mr. Dunraven Bleak for the office of Perpetual Souse."

There was a moment of complete silence while his hearers considered the vast scope of this remarkable suggestion. It is only fair to say that Mr. Bleak's face had at first lighted up, but then he glanced at his wife and his countenance grew pinched. He spoke hastily:

"A very generous thought, my dear fellow; but I feel that you would be far more competent for this form of public service than I could hope to be."

"Your modesty does you credit," replied Quimbleton, "but you forget that owing to my relation with Miss Chuff I shall happily be precluded from the necessity of entering public life for this purpose."

"And what, pray," said Mrs. Bleak with distinct asperity, "is to become of me and the children if Mr. Bleak is elected to this preposterous office?"

"I was coming to that," said Quimbleton eagerly. "It would be arranged, of course, that the Perpetual Souse would be granted a liberal salary for his family expenses; you and your delightful children would be maintained at the public expense in a suitable bungalow nearby, with a private family entrance into the official cellars. Your rank, of course, would be that of Perpetual Spouse."

"My good Quimbleton," said Bleak, somewhat bitterly, "this is a fascinating vision indeed, but how can it be accomplished? How would you ever get such a scheme accepted by Bishop Chuff, who will never forgive you for kidnaping his daughter? You are building bar-rooms in Spain, my dear chap; you are blowing mere soap-bubbles."

"And why not?" cried his friend. "Bishop Chuff has called me a soap-box orator. At any rate, a man who stands upon a soap-box is nearer heaven by several inches than the man who stands upon the ground."

Theodolinda's face sparkled with the impact of an idea.

"Come," she said, "it's not impossible after all. I have a thought. We'll offer Father an armistice and talk things over with him. He doesn't know what straits we're in, and maybe we can bring him to terms. He was very badly scared by those gooseberry bombs, and maybe we can bluff him into a concession."

"If we had had any luck," said Quimbleton, "we would have blown him into a concussion. But anyway, that's a bonny scheme. We'll grant him a truce. Bleak, you're a newspaper man, just get hold of the United Press and let them know the armistice is signed."

Bleak smiled wanly at the thrust.

"All right," he said. "Let's go. But what's your idea, Miss Chuff? We must have something to base negotiations on."

"Wait and see," she cried gayly. "We'll talk it over as we go along."

Mrs. Bleak aroused her children, who had fallen asleep, and climbed back into the wheelbarrow.

"I don't know that I approve of that scheme of making Dunraven the Perpetual Souse," she remarked. "I can imagine what my poor mother would say about it if she were living. She came of fine old Kentucky stock, and it would humiliate her deeply to know to what a level we had been reduced."

"My dear Mrs. Bleak," said Quimbleton, as he hoisted his betrothed into the saddle and the pilgrims began to move, "I know of a great deal of good old Kentucky stock that has had a far worse fate than that in these tragic years."

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