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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIn The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 8. With Benefit Of Clergy
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In The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 8. With Benefit Of Clergy Post by :1234Piano Category :Long Stories Author :Christopher Morley Date :May 2012 Read :956

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In The Sweet Dry And Dry - Chapter 8. With Benefit Of Clergy

CHAPTER VIII. WITH BENEFIT OF CLERGY

Through the sullen streets of the terrorized city Miss Chuff, Quimbleton and Bleak proceeded toward the great building where the Pan-Antis had their headquarters. They had left Mrs. Bleak, the children and the horse at a quiet soda-fountain in the suburbs. After repeated application over the wireless telephone, the terrible Bishop--the Prohibishop, as Quimbleton called him--had agreed to grant them an audience, and had accorded them safe-conduct through the chuff troops. Even so, their progress was difficult. Every few hundred yards they were halted and subjected to curt inquiry. Men and women who had heard of their gallant struggle against fearful odds pressed forward in an attempt to seize their hands, to embrace and applaud them, but these evidences of enthusiasm were sternly repressed by the chuffs.

Bleak was frankly nervous as they approached the Chuff Building.

"What line of talk are we going to adopt?" he asked.

"Like any self-respecting line," replied Quimbleton, "Ours will be the shortest distance between two points. The first point is that we want to obtain something from Chuff. The second is that we have some information to give him which will be of immense value to him. This we shall hold over him as a club, to force him to concede what we want."

"And what is this club?" asked Bleak, somewhat suspicious of his friend's sanguine disposition.

"The admirable plan," said Quimbleton, "is Theodolinda's idea. She knows her father better than we do. She says that his passion is for prohibiting things. He thinks he has now prohibited everything possible. We are in a position to tell him something that still remains unprohibited. His eagerness to know what that may be will make him yield to our request."

Bleak pondered gloomily. As far as he could recall, the Prohibition Government had overlooked nothing. The quaint part of it was that some of its prohibitions, carried to their logical extreme, had curiously overleaped their mark. For instance, finding it impossible to enforce the laws against playing games on Sundays, the Government had concluded that the only way to make the Sabbath utterly immaculate was to abolish it altogether, which was done. Other laws, probably based upon genuine zeal for human welfare, had resulted in odd evasions or legal fictions. For instance, people were forbidden to miss trains. The penalty for missing a train was ten days' hard labor splitting infinitives in the government tract-factory. Rather than impose this harsh punishment on any one, good-hearted engineers would permit their trains to loiter about the stations until they felt certain no other passengers would turn up. Consequently no trains were ever on time, and the Government was forced to do away with time entirely. Another thing that was abolished was hot weather. It had been found too tedious to tilt the axis of the earth, therefore all the thermometers were re-scaled. When the temperature was really 96 degrees, the mercury registered only 70 degrees, and every one was saying how jolly cool it was for the time of year. This, of course, was careless, for there was no such thing as time or year, but still people kept on saying it. Bleak was thinking over these matters when he suddenly recalled that it was forbidden to remember things as they had been under the old regime. He pulled himself up with a start. In order to make his mind a blank he tried to imagine himself about to write a leading editorial for the Balloon. This was so successful that he did not come to earth again until they stood in the ante-room--or as Quimbleton called it, the anti-room--of the Bishop.

"Who is to be spokesman?" he said apprehensively, gazing with distaste at the angular females who were pecking at typewriters. "It would be unseemly for me to present my own claims in this project. Quimbleton, you are the one--you have the gift of the tongue."

"I would rather have the gift of the bung," whispered Quimbleton resolutely as they were ushered into the inner sanctum.

The dreaded Bishop sat at an immense ebony flat-topped desk. The room was furnished like his mind, that is to say, sparsely, and without any southern exposure. A peculiarly terrifying feature of the scene was that the top of the desk was completely bare, not a single paper lay on it. Remembering his own desk in the newspaper office, Bleak felt that this was unnatural and monstrous. He noticed a breathoscope on the mantelpiece, with its sensitive needle trembling on the scaled dial which read thus:--

As he watched the indicator oscillate rapidly on the dial, and finally subside uncertainly at zero, he thanked heaven that they had indulged in no psychic grogs that day.

The Bishop's black beard foamed downward upon the desk like a gloomy cataract. Quimbleton for a moment was almost abashed, and regretted that he had not thought to whitewash his own dingy thicket.

Bishop Chuff's piercing and cruel gaze stabbed all three. He ignored Theodolinda with contempt. His disdain was so complete that (as the unhappy girl said afterward) he seemed more like a younger brother than a father. There were no chairs: they were forced to stand. In a small mirror fastened to the edge of his desk the sneering potentate could note the dial-reading of the instrument without turning. He watched the reflected needle flicker and come to rest.

"So, Mr. Quimbleton," he said, in a harsh and untuned voice, "You come comparatively sober. Strange that you should choose to be unintoxicated when you face the greatest ordeal of your life."

The savage irony of this angered Quimbleton.

"One touch of liquor makes the whole world kin," he said. "I assure you I have no desire to claim kinship with your bitter and intolerant soul."

"Ah?" said the Bishop, with mock politeness. "You relieve me greatly. I had thought you desired to claim me as father-in-law."

"Oh, Parent!" cried Theodolinda; "How can you be so cruel? Sarcasm is such a low form of humor."

"I am not trying to be humorous," said the Bishop grimly. "You, who were once the apple of my eye, are now only an apple of discord. You, whom I considered such a promising child, are now a breach of promise. You have sucked my blood. You are a Vampire."

"The Vampire on whom the sun never sets," whispered Quimbleton to the terrified girl, encouraging her as she shrank against him.

"This is no time for jest," said the Bishop angrily. "You said you had a matter of vital import to lay before me. Make haste. And remember that you are here only on sufferance. I shall be pitiless. I shall scourge the evil principle you represent from the face of the earth."

"We do not fear your threats," said Quimbleton stoutly. "We are not alarmed by your frown."

He was, greatly, but he was sparring for time to put his thoughts in order. He started to say "Uneasy lies the head that wears a frown," which was an aphorism of his own he thought highly of, but Theodolinda checked him. She knew that her father detested puns. It was perhaps his only virtue.

"Bishop Chuff," said Quimbleton, "perhaps you are not aware of the strength and tenacity of the sentiment we represent. I assure you that if you underestimate the power of the millions of thirsty mouths that speak through us, you will rue the consequences. Trouble is brewing--"

"Neither trouble, nor anything else, is brewing nowadays," said the terrible Bishop.

Theodolinda saw that Quimbleton was losing ground by his incorrigible habit of talking before he said anything. She broke in impetuously, and explained the plan for the Perpetual Souse. Her father listened to the end with his cold, forbidding gaze, while the sensitive needle of the recording instrument on the mantel danced and wagged in agitation.

"So this is your scheme, is it?" he said. "Abandoned offspring, you deserve the gallows."

"Wait a moment," said Quimbleton. "Now comes the other side of the argument. If you grant us this concession we in turn will put you in possession of a magnificent idea. You think that you have prohibited everything. Your vetoes cumber the earth. But there is still one thing you have forgotten to prohibit."

"What is it?" said the Bishop coldly. His hard face was unmoved, but his eyes brightened a trifle.

"There is one thing you have forgotten to prohibit," said Quimbleton solemnly. "I can hardly conceive how it escaped you. The one thing that harasses human beings over the whole civilized world. The one thing which, if you were to abolish it, would make your name, foul as that now is, blessed in the ears of men. Oh, the joy of still having something to prohibit! The unmixed bliss and high privilege of the vetoing function! I envy you, from my heart, in still having something to forbid."

The Bishop stirred uneasily in his chair. "What is it?" he said.

Quimbleton watched him with a steady and slightly annoying smile.

"I like to dwell in imagination upon your surprise when you realize what you have overlooked. It seems so simple! To abolish, prohibit, banish, and remove, at one swoop, the chief preoccupation of mankind! The simple and high-minded felicity of still having something prohibitable subject to your omnipotent legislation! But there, I dare say I am wrong. Probably you are weary of prohibiting things."

Quimbleton made a motion to his companions as though to leave the room. The Bishop leaped to his feet, with curiously mingled anger and eagerness on his face. "Stop!" he cried. "You can't mean laughter? I abolished that some weeks ago. I don't believe there is anything left--"

"How quaint it is," said Quimbleton (as though talking to himself), "that it is always the plainly obvious that eludes! But, of course, the reason you have not abolished this matter before is that to do so would wholly alter and undermine the habits of the race. Nothing would be the same as before. I daresay a good deal of misery would be caused in the long run, who knows? Ah well, it seems a pity you forgot it--"

"Hell's bells!" roared the Bishop, bringing his fist down on the desk with fury--"What is it? Let me get at it!"

"I should be sorry to marry into a profane family," was Quimbleton's reply, moving toward the door.

The Bishop chewed the end of his beard with a crunching sound. This unpleasant gesture caused a tingle to pass along Bleak's sensitive spine, already strained to painful nervous tension. The office of the Perpetual Souse hung in the balance.

"Look here," said Bishop Chuff, "If I let you have your way about the--the Permanent Exhibit, will you tell me what it is I have forgotten to prohibit?"

"With pleasure," said Quimbleton. "Will you put it down in black and white, please?"

He secured the Bishop's signature to a document giving instructions for the necessary legislation to be passed. Folding the precious paper in his pocket, Quimbleton faced the black-browed Bishop. He held Theodolinda by the hand.

"I am sorry," he said, "that I should have forgotten to bring a ring with me. If I had done so, you might have married us here and now. At least you will not refuse us your blessing?"

"Blessings have been abolished," said Chuff in a voice of exasperation. "Now inform me what it is that I have forgotten to condemn."

"Work!" cried Quimbleton, and the three ran hastily from the room.

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