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- The Imperialist - 1/64 -


Sara Jeannette Duncan, 1861-1922 (aka Mrs. Everard Cotes)

The Imperialist

1904

Chapter I

It would have been idle to inquire into the antecedents, or even the circumstances, of old Mother Beggarlegs. She would never tell; the children, at all events, were convinced of that; and it was only the children, perhaps, who had the time and the inclination to speculate. Her occupation was clear; she presided like a venerable stooping hawk, over a stall in the covered part of the Elgin market-place, where she sold gingerbread horses and large round gingerbread cookies, and brown sticky squares of what was known in all circles in Elgin as taffy. She came, it was understood, with the dawn; with the night she vanished, spending the interval on a not improbable broomstick. Her gingerbread was better than anybody's; but there was no comfort in standing, first on one foot and then on the other, while you made up your mind--the horses were spirited and you could eat them a leg at a time, but there was more in the cookies--she bent such a look on you, so fierce and intolerant of vacillation. She belonged to the group of odd characters, rarer now than they used to be, etched upon the vague consciousness of small towns as in a way mysterious and uncanny; some said that Mother Beggarlegs was connected with the aristocracy and some that she had been "let off" being hanged. The alternative was allowed full swing, but in any case it was clear that such persons contributed little to the common good and, being reticent, were not entertaining. So you bought your gingerbread, concealing, as it were, your weapons, paying your copper coins with a neutral nervous eye, and made off to a safe distance, whence you turned to shout insultingly, if you were an untrounced young male of Elgin, "Old Mother Beggarlegs! Old Mother Beggarlegs!" And why "Beggarlegs" nobody in the world could tell you. It might have been a dateless waggery, or it might have been a corruption of some more dignified surname, but it was all she ever got. Serious, meticulous persons called her "Mrs" Beggarlegs, slightly lowering their voices and slurring it, however, it must be admitted. The name invested her with a graceless, anatomical interest, it penetrated her wizened black and derisively exposed her; her name went far indeed to make her dramatic. Lorne Murchison, when he was quite a little boy was affected by this and by the unfairness of the way it singled her out. Moved partly by the oppression of the feeling and partly by a desire for information he asked her sociably one day, in the act of purchase, why the gilt was generally off her gingerbread. He had been looking long, as a matter of fact, for gingerbread with the gilt on it, being accustomed to the phrase on the lips of his father in connection with small profits. Mother Beggarlegs, so unaccustomed to politeness that she could not instantly recognize it, answered him with an imprecation at which he, no doubt, retreated, suddenly thrown on the defensive hurling the usual taunt. One prefers to hope he didn't, with the invincible optimism one has for the behaviour of lovable people; but whether or not his kind attempt at colloquy is the first indication I can find of that active sympathy with the disabilities of his fellow-beings which stamped him later so intelligent a meliorist. Even in his boy's beginning he had a heart for the work; and Mother Beggarlegs, but for a hasty conclusion, might have made him a friend.

It is hard to invest Mother Beggarlegs with importance, but the date helps me--the date I mean, of this chapter about Elgin; she was a person to be reckoned with on the twenty-fourth of May. I will say at once, for the reminder to persons living in England that the twenty-fourth of May was the Queen's Birthday. Nobody in Elgin can possibly have forgotten it. The Elgin children had a rhyme about it--

The twenty-fourth of May Is the Queen's Birthday; If you don't give us a holiday, We'll all run away.

But Elgin was in Canada. In Canada the twenty-fourth of May WAS the Queen's Birthday; and these were times and regions far removed from the prescription that the anniversary "should be observed" on any of those various outlying dates which by now, must have produced in her immediate people such indecision as to the date upon which Her Majesty really did come into the world. That day, and that only, was the observed, the celebrated, a day with an essence in it, dawning more gloriously than other days and ending more regretfully, unless, indeed, it fell on a Sunday when it was "kept" on the Monday, with a slightly clouded feeling that it wasn't exactly the same thing. Travelled persons, who had spent the anniversary there, were apt to come back with a poor opinion of its celebration in "the old country"--a pleasant relish to the more-than-ever appreciated advantages of the new, the advantages that came out so by contrast. More space such persons indicated, more enterprise they boasted, and even more loyalty they would flourish, all with an affectionate reminiscent smile at the little ways of a grandmother. A "Bank" holiday, indeed! Here it was a real holiday, that woke you with bells and cannon--who has forgotten the time the ancient piece of ordnance in "the Square" blew out all the windows in the Methodist church?--and went on with squibs and crackers till you didn't know where to step on the sidewalks, and ended up splendidly with rockets and fire-balloons and drunken Indians vociferous on their way to the lock-up. Such a day for the hotels, with teams hitched three abreast in front of their aromatic barrooms; such a day for the circus, with half the farmers of Fox County agape before the posters--with all their chic and shock they cannot produce such posters nowadays, nor are there any vacant lots to form attractive backgrounds--such a day for Mother Beggarlegs! The hotels, and the shops and stalls for eating and drinking, were the only places in which business was done; the public sentiment put universal shutters up, but the public appetite insisted upon excepting the means to carnival. An air of ceremonial festivity those fastened shutters gave; the sunny little town sat round them, important and significant, and nobody was ever known to forget that they were up, and go on a fool's errand. No doubt they had an impressiveness for the young countryfolk that strolled up and down Main Street in their honest best, turning into Snow's for ice-cream when a youth was disposed to treat. (Gallantry exacted ten-cent dishes, but for young ladies alone, or family parties, Mrs Snow would bring five-cent quantities almost without asking, and for very small boys one dish and the requisite number of spoons.) There was discrimination, there was choice, in this matter of treating. A happy excitement accompanied it, which you could read in the way Corydon clapped his soft felt hat on his head as he pocketed the change. To be treated--to ten-cent dishes--three times in the course of the day by the same young man gave matter for private reflection and for public entertainment, expressed in the broad grins of less reckless people. I speak of a soft felt hat, but it might be more than that: it might be a dark green one, with a feather in it; and here was distinction, for such a hat indicated that its owner belonged to the Independent Order of Foresters, who Would leave their spring wheat for forty miles round to meet in Elgin and march in procession, wearing their hats, and dazzlingly scatter upon Main Street. They gave the day its touch of imagination, those green cocked hats; they were lyrical upon the highways; along the prosaic sidewalks by twos and threes they sang together. It is no great thing, a hat of any quality; but a small thing may ring dramatic on the right metal, and in the vivid idea of Lorne Murchison and his sister Advena a Robin Hood walked in every Independent Forester, especially in the procession. Which shows the risks you run if you, a person of honest livelihood and solicited vote, adopt any portion of a habit not familiar to you. and go marching about with a banner and a band. Two children may be standing at the first street corner, to whom your respectability and your property may at once become illusion and your outlawry the delightful fact.

A cheap trip brought the Order of Green Hats to Elgin; and there were cheap trips on this great day to persuade other persons to leave it. The Grand Trunk had even then an idea of encouraging social combination for change of scene, and it was quite a common thing for the operatives of the Milburn Boiler Company to arrange to get themselves carried to the lakeside or "the Falls" at half a dollar a head. The "hands" got it up themselves and it was a question in Elgin whether one might sink one's dignity and go as a hand for the sake of the fifty-cent opportunity, a question usually decided in the negative. The social distinctions of Elgin may not be easily appreciated by people accustomed to the rough and ready standards of a world at the other end of the Grand Trunk; but it will be clear at a glance that nobody whose occupation prescribed a clean face could be expected to travel cheek by jowl, as a privilege, with persons who were habitually seen with smutty ones, barefaced smut, streaming out at the polite afternoon hour of six, jangling an empty dinner pail. So much we may decide, and leave it, reflecting as we go how simple and satisfactory, after all, are the prejudices which can hold up such obvious justification. There was recently to be pointed out in England the heir to a dukedom who loved stoking, and got his face smutty by preference. He would have been deplorably subversive of accepted conventions in Elgin; but, happily or otherwise, such persons and such places have at present little more than an imaginative acquaintance, vaguely cordial on the one side, vaguely critical on the other, and of no importance in the sum.


The Imperialist - 1/64

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