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THE BATTLE OF THE PUDDINGS.
Extraordinary behaviour of a refractory pauper - his anxiety to be sent to prison for fourteen days instead of seven - I renew his acquaintance on his discharge from Coldbath Fields - He proves to be late a parish beadle - The story of his downfall - A victim to misplaced confidence and woman's wiles - The Battle of the Puddings - He agrees to deal with the mysterious packet of spice - The awful dénouement, and the beadle's prospects blighted for ever.
I ONCE chanced to be present at a certain metropolitan
police- court (my reasons for not making known which one will presently appear)
when a "refractory pauper" was placed in the prisoner's dock. He was
so strikingly different from the ordinary poor wretch brought before the
magistrate to answer for his rebellion against workhouse rules and regulations,
that I immediately felt an interest in him. He was not a lean and hungry pauper,
but a stout-built and well-fed-looking man, though the bagginess of his cheeks,
the dulness of his eyes, and his melancholy aspect generally denoted that he was
at present out of condition. Judging from his partially bald head and his grey
hair, his age may have been between fifty and sixty, and he stood to answer for
his offence in an ashamed sort of way; and with as much of his round face
concealed as could be covered with one hand.
He had been guilty of an extraordinary outrage. While seated the previous evening at the fire in the common ward, with some other paupers, without any quarrel or provocation he had suddenly risen up against them and pummelled them indiscriminately left and right, until the uproar brought the master on to the scene, and a police officer was called in. When requested to explain his extraordinary behaviour, the delinquent calmly replied it would be quite useless for him to enter into any explanation, though he could if he thought proper to do so. What he had done, he said, was with a purpose, and that the best thing would be for the policeman to take him into custody, so that he might be dealt with by a magistrate. Under such circumstances it was only natural that his worship should ask if the man was in his right senses, and, being assured that he was, sentenced him to seven days' imprisonment. Instead, however [-190-] of exhibiting satisfaction at the leniency of the judgment, the prisoner, hastily removing his hand from before his face, exclaimed, in anxious tones,
"Couldn't your worship make it fourteen days? I shall regard it as a great favour if you would do so."
But the magistrate merely waved his hand by way of reply, and there was a titter in court as the culprit was removed, the general impression evidently being that the remark was prompted either in sarcasm or impudence. It did not seem so to me, however. There was in the expression of his face, as he was led away, that which denoted him a baffled and a disappointed man. My curiosity being roused, I questioned the workhouse master concerning him, and from what he told me I resolved to endeavour to cultivate a brief acquaintance with the eccentric pauper when, at the expiration of a week, he would be enlarged from limbo.
It was easy enough afterwards to distinguish him among the six or eight other prisoners that represented the morning's gaol delivery, and as he was hurrying away, dejected and downcast, I ventured to accost him. I frankly gave him to understand that I had chanced to be present at the police-court at the time of his appearance there, and that I had judged from his demeanour that he was not a pauper of the common order, but more probably a person who until misfortune overtook him had moved in respectable society. In terms as delicate as at the moment occurred to me I further intimated to him that, assuming the latter to be the case, if he would confide to me what his trouble was, I might be able to assist him.
Seven days of incarceration and oakum-picking had, no doubt, made him low-spirited. He stopped abruptly when 1 ceased to address him, and with his large face twitching with suppressed emotion, gazed for several seconds at me with watery eyes. Then he clutched my hand in his own, and squeezing it hard, turned away sobbing. It was between nine and ten o'clock in the morning, and the spectacle of an elderly person of his proportions weeping in public was not so common but that it was likely to attract the attention of passers-by. Fortunately there was a decent-looking coffee-shop close at hand, and as he had not yet let go my hand, I had no difficult)' in leading him thither. After a week's dieting on bread and water only, his [-191-] grief was not so absorbing as to prevent him doing ample justice to the substantial steak that in a short time was set before him, and I took care not to encourage him to conversation until he had quite finished it. That point arrived at, he required but little urging.
"There are springs, sir, in human natur'," he commenced, as he pensively stirred the coffee remaining in his cup, "that, no matter when or where they may be touched, are like touching the spring of a secret drawer or anything of that kind. They fly open, revealing all that's inside. That was the case with me when you so kindly addressed me in the street just now. Your observation, if I remember rightly, sir, was that I seemed like a person. whose nat'ral spear was not that of a pauper. Yourn is a penetratin' eye, sir, and does honour to your heart; but if I might take the liberty, I would wish to remark that I am not all surprised that you made the discovery. A child might have made it, sir. It is so fully growed and developed in me, sir, that a work'us suit can't conceal it. It busts out at the seams and shows itself in the very buttons. I am aware of it, sir," he continued, with bitter emphasis and a sob that portended another gush of grief, "it is the torture and terror of my life."
He gulped down the threatened outburst with the last of his coffee, and then, after a pause, during which he gazed at me as steadfastly as the quivering of his eyelids would permit, he remarked,
"Would you do me the favour, sir, as to inform me what, in your opinion, is the station in life I might have been used to occupying?"
I replied that it was difficult to guess, but that his general aspect gave me the impression that, at all events, his previous pursuits were not incompatible with ease of mind and good living.
"You may, perhaps, have been a prosperous innkeeper, or possibly a butler or coachman in some wealthy family," said I.
I thought that I was flattering him to increased confidence by according so much, but the expression on his face betrayed that my speculations as to his antecedents scarcely came up to his anticipations.
"Well, of course I might have followed either of the ockipa-[-192-]tions you mention," he replied, "and I don't say, mind you, that I should have been ashamed to own it. But you are wide of the mark, sir; miles off it. I'm - leastways, have been - a officer, sir."
And with an air that assorted oddly with his humble garb, he straightened himself on his seat, and his fat finger and thumb sought his shirt-collar, but, reminded at first touch of its unstarched limpness, he lowered his hand disgustfully.
"An officer," I repeated; "dear me! In the army or the navy, may I ask?"
I could see by the shake of his head that I was not even now doing him justice.
"When I said an officer, sir," he replied, "I was speaking parochially. For nineteen years I have been, and should still be, but for the treachery and malice of my enemies, a ----" leaning across the table and uttering the words under cover of his hand -"a parish beadle!"
I endeavoured to look as astonished as he would have me at the startling intimation, and remarked that he must find it hard indeed to reconcile his present humble position with a post of such distinction and authority.
"It is not to be done, sir," he returned, with a doleful wag of his double chin; "you can no more do it than you can reconcile fire with water, or the heagle or the helephant with the crawlingist things going. It's agin' natur. The only comfort I've got is that they - the paupers, I mean - don't know anything about me or what I've been. They may have their suspicions that I m somebody uncommon, and they certainly do seem puzzled, and as though they didn't know what to make of it, when sometimes I'm aggrawated to eye 'em over or to speak to 'em in my old way. Its a relief to do it at times, but I daren't try it on too often for fear my secret should leak out. But I can t always control myself; I can't expect to. When a man has been used for nineteen years to commanding and ordering his inferiors about, he seems somehow to get saterated with his official spirit, and it can't be wrung out of him entirely, however hard he may be squeezed in the hard grip of adversity. The wonder to me is that I don't let it out in my sleep. How could I? You wouldn't ask if you knew what sort of dreams I have." And as he spoke he looked so intensely miserable, I could not [-193-] but pity him. "I'm haunted by him as regler as clockwork."
"Haunted by whom?"
"By him - by myself that used to be - by the beadle that was," he made answer in a melodramatic whisper; "if I'd a-murdered him he couldn't act more sewere by me."
"Perhaps he holds you responsible for terminating his existence," I suggested.
"And I wouldn't be guilty of the falsity of denying it sir," he promptly responded; "but if I did do away with him with my natural self I mean, it was not done in wickedness it was no more my fault than it was yours, sir. Yet, sure as I go to bed thinking about what used to be and what is now, soon as I fall asleep there he stands at the foot of the bedstead full-dressed for going to church - in his bottle-green coat trimmed with gold lace, and his weskit to match, all complete, even to his cocked hat and the bookay in his buttonhole; and he shakes his heath that mournful and reproaching that it gives me the creeps to look at him, and then he grows paler and paler till he fades away into the whitewashed wall behind him, and vanishes." And the voice of the distressed ex-beadle grew tremulous and husky, and he again hid his face in his handkerchief. By way of rousing him I reminded him of the strange request he had made to the magistrate, and inquired as to his reason for wishing to be sent to prison for a fortnight instead of a week.
"It was stated against you," said I, "that when asked why you committed the unprovoked assault on the old fellows who were sitting with you in the ward, you replied that you had a purpose in doing so. Was that the case?"
He did not reply for several seconds, but sat with his face concealed, as though pondering in his mind whether he should confide to me the story of his woes. Fortunately, he presently decided in my favour. Pocketing the handkerchief, and recovering himself with an effort, he remarked,
"When you ask me that question, you come to the p'int at once, sir. I had a purpose in what I did; I bore 'em no malice, and I didn't hit 'em hard, but I had a object in view. But to make you understand it I should have to make known to you the circumstances that led to my downfall. You have showed yourself sir, to be a gentleman with a heart that can [-194-] feel for the distresses of another, and if you've a mind to listen, I'll tell you all about it." I at once expressed my willingness to listen to his narrative, and he immediately launched it.
"You'll excuse me, sir," he began, "if I only reweal the hard - the cruelly hard - facts, without mentioning names and places. My misfortunes, sir, are all owing to a Christmas pudding." He uttered the words slowly and mournfully, and paused to observe their effect on me. My instant impression - founded, no doubt, on the proneness he had exhibited to fall foul of his fellow-men - was that at some time or other he had over-fed himself with the article mentioned, and in a fit of irritability, induced by indigestion, committed an assault that led to his dismissal from office. "Understand me," he presently continued, "it was not a common or a private sort of pudding, but a parochial one - the anniwal pudding that every parish prides itself on producing, and which you may read all the particulars of in the newspapers, as no doubt you are aware." I intimated with a nod that I was aware of it. " Course you must be," he went on. "It has growed to be quite a institution of the country. There is what they call the blue ribbin of the Turf, which is run for every year on Derby Day at Epsom; and there's what you might call the blue ribbin of the work'us kitchen, competed for at Christmas-time by every parish in the metropolis. Just as the weights of the horses and the names and colours of the jockeys are published afore the race," continued the ex-beadle, emerging somewhat, as I was glad to observe, from his melancholy as he warmed into the old familiar subject, "so is it made known in print the day before Christmas Day how much flour and fruit, suet and spice, and how many eggs each work'us has at stake in the great event. All that the public know about it or all they care is that the paupers eat it in a extray feed along with their beef on Christmas Day. But in parochial circles, sir, more importance hangs to it. Only them that are behind the scenes know of the anxiety the affair produces, and how that every one - guardians, vestrymen, beadle - down even to the old women helps in the kitchen - are nearly off their heads with the excitement of going in for first prize. I wish it had not been so. Leastways, I wish that I hadn't allowed my feelings for the honour of our work'us to carry me the lengths they did," and he shook his head with a sad sigh; "and more than all, I wish I [-195-] hadn't been such a delooded fool as to be humbugged by the woman I d a-laid down my life for."
His voice at this point became almost inaudible, and it was several seconds before he could proceed. "As I told you before sir, I will not mention names or places, but it came about in this way. The party - the female, I mean - I just now alluded to was head nurse at another work'us, and she being a widder and me a widderer, we came to know each other, and to my mind the matter was as good as settled, though I knew that the man cook at the same work'us as she was was her fust cousin, and that at one time she had kept company with him."
"Well, sir, you must know that our work'us and theirn had run neck-and-neck, in a manner of speaking, for three years in succession, for the best pudding, and that year we were going to do our very best, if we had never done it before. But of course, as you may understand, although the two parishes were fighting against each other, we - me and the female party I mentioned - were none the less friendly on that account, and it was only natural that I should think she had a stronger leaning to'rds me than to'rds the pudding and her party. We wor talking of being married at Whitsun, in fact; therefore I was not surprised at something she had to say to me when I met her the Sunday evening before the Christmas Day. She was going to leave the parish service when we were married, as they had served her shabby, she said, and she would like to do them a bad turn before she left. 'And I think we can do the trick nicely now, Robert,' says she. 'A uncle of mine who is head cook in a nobleman's family is famous for his Christmas puddings, and all on account of a secret spice he puts in 'em. I went to see him last week,' she says, 'and after a deal of persuasion I got him to give me a packet of it. All you've got to do is to introduce it into your people's pudding, and it will come off with flying colours, and our people won't have a look in against it either for flavour or colour.' 'But I can't do it,' I says; 'the cook at our place is such an opinionated old fellow, he wouldn't use it if I was to give it him.' 'Then win all the glory for yourself,' says she. 'It smells just like common mixed spice. Do it up in a paper just like that your mixed spice comes in, and find an opportunity to change the packets.' It was a tempting offers and I liked the idea of it. Of course I could go [-196-] into the kitchen whenever I liked, and I knew when the Christmas grocery was coming in. 'But,' I says, 'how can I prove my right to the credit of the victory unless I can show that it was me who changed the spice?' 'Write,' says she, 'to the chairman of guardians overnight, so that he'll get it fust post of the morning, when the puddings are put into the copper, that they'll be something uncommon this year, and that it is your doing.' Well, sir, never dreaming of willany or treachery, I did what she advised up to the letter, and what do you think happened?" And his trembling hand once again sought his pocket-handkerchief ere he could proceed. "I was sold, sir. Goodness only knows what was in that confounded packet that looked like spice, but when the puddings was turned out of the cloths they were all speckled green, and smelt as though they'd been made in a painter's shop. And the worst of it was they were took out of the coppers in my own presence, and in the presence of the guardian I had written to the night before. I was ruined, sir; it was no use my offering explanations. It had to be made known that, 'owing to an unavoidable accident,' there would be no Christmas pudding at our work'us this year, and I was sacked at the very next board meeting. And that was not the worst of it," he continued, with a spasmodic gasp. "It was all an arranged thing between her and that dratted fust cousin of hers, and they were married on New Year's Day."
And arrived at this, the harrowing climax to his story, he was so overcome that no words of mine could console him. He could not finish the narrative. He became so hysterical with grief that the other customers in the coffee-shop gathered about him wondering what was the matter, and I found a resumption of his story impossible. It was an exceedingly unsatisfactory ending, but there was no help for it. I should like to have learnt and been able to tell why he maltreated his brother paupers, and why he was anxious to change the workhouse for a prison until Christmas was over. I can only conjecture it was because the odour of parochial Christmas pudding had become odious to him, and he was afraid that if he subjected himself to its influence he might become so maddened as to murder somebody, and so get himself hanged and out of his misery.