The New Arcadia/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX.

THE GUEST THAT HAD NOT ON A WEDDING GARMENT.

"I live for those who love me,
For those who know me true;
For the heaven that shines above me,
And waits my spirit too;
For the cause that lacks assistance,
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance.
For the good that I can do!"

The Town-hall was converted for the time being into an enormous bower—suggestive of the leafy glades in which our forefathers held their earliest Witenagemots, or chieftains their marriage festivals.

High above the balcony, at either side, rose tree-ferns, and boughs of pine, native cherry and apple tree, eucalypts of wondrous leaf, and heather of every variety. On the enlarged stage an Arcadian scene had been depicted by some who were exchanging paint-brush for axe and spade. On the vast floor were set tables spread with the best of plain fare, and decked with fern and wild-flowers from distant plains and ranges.

About the building were scattered a thousand smiling, expectant guests, clad in white and red. Men with Crimean shirts and brand-new moleskin trousers—each with a shining tomahawk stuck in his belt, a blue badge on the arm, embroidered with a spade and axe cross-wise, a device of hand clasped in hand above. The men wore a red sash across the shoulder, a harvester's Panama hat on head, with band and streamers of "turkey-red."

Each woman and child was clad in white, with red sash and blue badge.

"Home sweet Home" resounding from the great organ was signal for all to take their places at the feast. They sat by families, children in order of size, father and mother in centre—boys and girls together on either hand. All stood as the first verse of the "Old Hundredth" was sung to the accompaniment of the organ. Then they sat and looked bashfully at the viands arranged before them.

Ladies and gentlemen bustled round and bade the guests eat. They needed little persuasion. Often had they been hungry of late, but one who had himself known care, had resolved they should "hunger no more," if they would work. This was the Inaugural Festival. They started for new scenes to-morrow.

The doctor had decided to put his uncle's lands, which he had inherited, to better use than they had formerly served. His intentions he had communicated by circular to every clergyman and mayor in the metropolis, requesting nominations of suitable persons. Hundreds had been laboriously interviewed, their credentials examined, medical reports procured, and some two hundred and fifty families—a thousand souls—ultimately selected.

The rules and agreements had been signed, a suit of uniform given to each person, and provision made for transfer of families and furniture to Gumford Railway Station.

In the course of his opening remarks the host introduced his son, Travers Courtenay, returned the week before from a prolonged absence in the old country He had taken a fair degree at Cambridge, spent two or three years studying engineering in Germany, another twelve months in a leisurely tour through the United States, returning in time to take part in the contemplated social movement.

The young man regarded the undertaking with interest, mingled with misgivings. He was not free from the somewhat indolent, supercilious spirit with which young men of means are prone to regard social questions. He had no great admiration for the working-classes, deemed them dissatisfied without cause, given to intrigue and agitation—not over fond of work. He did not consider that, though existing social conditions suited him, they might be nevertheless imposing intolerable burdens on others less favoured; that the class to which he belonged was not, by nature, any more in love with labour, for its own sake, than the so-called "labouring classes." They, he thought, should be content to toil twelve hours a day, and be thankful for the privilege of doing so. Travers' disposition was, at the same time, generous as his father's, and the thought of the "desolate and oppressed" ever touched a vibrating chord in his heart.

In the course of the repast, the doctor, with pardonable pride, escorted his intelligent-looking if not actually handsome son, from table to table, and introduced him to some of the company.

"I must take you to an interesting group," said he. "The man talking and eating so energetically at the head of that table is my right-hand man—an important personage in his own estimation, but useful to me. On the right is his daughter."

"I thought her one of the ladies," remarked the son. "Not a bad-looking girl. Observe the grace with which she is addressing that greasy-looking personage."

"That's the fellow I had to thrash. Beside them is Willie, the lad I unfortunately ran over. Come, you must make their acquaintance."

The party rose as the doctor approached. After a few words of introduction, Gwyneth asked, with the ease of a daughter of the best-born—

"May I offer you a cup of tea, sir?"

"Thanks, Miss Elms, I must move amongst our friends."

"Perhaps you will stay and have a cup of tea with us?" suggested Elms to the younger man.

"Thanks, very much." Gwyneth made room for the young man at the end of her form.

"I fear you'll find it rather dull in the country," remarked Travers, with a patronizing air. "No theatres, football-matches, or assembly dances, eh?"

"I dare say we can manage to exist, sir, without such dissipation," answered Gwyneth, quietly pouring out the tea. "I fear you imagine we think of nothing save our 'day out.'"

"I am sure you are a cut above that, Miss Elms; but what will you do with yourself in your spare hours?"

"I suppose we can take our books with us, and that my sewing-machine may go; even my piano, I hope, may not be too bulky for transit."

"You play then?" asked Travers.

"You should hear her sing too, sir," suggested the proud father between his munchings of a big bun.

"Some thinks we don't know nothing," growled Dick Malduke, applying with both hands the drum-stick of a chicken to his mouth. Travers looked at the shock-haired young man as though he would not mind shaking him as his father had done.

"Dick calls himself a 'root and branch' man," explained Elms apologetically; "but he's not as ferocious as he talks."

"Nor as he looks," interjected the daughter, eyeing the mangled chicken with a smile.

"And what do you read?" inquired the young man, turning to Gwyneth with growing interest.

"Oh, I suppose penny-dreadfuls, Scraps and Answers," she replied with a laugh, not caring to parade her literary tastes.

"Nothing of the kind, sir," interjected her father. "She's been all through my books on Political Economy. She's great on history, and is now reading aloud to us of evenings the Greater Britain. Her mother was a great reader before her."

"Then you'll be interested in the agricultural communities of America—'Riverside,' 'Oneida,' 'Utah,' and the others. I have been visiting them lately." The young man proceeded to describe phases of social life, as he had observed them in America. "If you do as well as those settlers, you'll be all bloated capitalists in a few years."

"Won't it be fun to see Dick living on the interest of his interest!" said the girl, mischievously.

"Not if I knows it," said Dick, savagely; "I'll be a Knight of Labour to the end of the chapter."

"You'd be the most overbearing and selfish capitalist ever demagogue denounced," continued Gwyneth. "You know you would, Dick, if you ever possessed the opportunity. It is bourgeois bloomed into millionaire that makes the hardest-shelled capitalist. We'll see Dick in the Upper House yet, with a knighthood."

The young man looked as if he could devour the girl, with love or hate, as he replied, with feeling—

"At least, I'll not make slaves of the people, to be robbed, or, at best, fed like paupers in soup-kitchens and town-halls—just to show off." This with a savage glance at Travers, for whom the agreeable young man seemed already to cherish no special love. "Society will be no better," he added, "till you sweep it away, root and branch, lock, stock, and barrel," and wildly waving his hands as though on the stump, he inadvertently tilted the épergne opposite him into little Will's face, and the cup of coffee into his own lap.

Gwyneth so far forgot herself as to hide her face in her handkerchief to smother her laughter. The elder Elms, roused and vexed, bid his friend "not make a fool of himself," while Travers thought that it took "many people to make a world." He wondered that his father tolerated this destructive young man among his guests.

"Coffee usen't make father drunk," remarked Willie laconically, as he picked up the flowers.

"You shut up," said the angered youth, "or I'll make it hot for you outside."

"Did I not say that democracy is ever tyrannical," remarked Gwyneth, "when it gets the chance?"

"I've spoilt my best trousers any way," said Dick, beginning to recognize the absurdity of the position. "I beg your pardon. Miss Elms, that righteous indignation should get the better of me."

"I've no patience with you," rejoined the girl. "You're not fit to be here. You're always acting, and the fool is your rôle."

"Why did you not wear the uniform?" demanded the old soldier. "Then you wouldn't have spoiled your own clothes, at least. Moles will wash, which slops won't."

"I never wore moles in my life, and I'm not going to begin now," was the reply.

"Well, I don't like a fellow as is ashamed of his comrades and his colours," said the Sergeant, decisively.

"I'll wear none of their uniform, if I stop in town for it," swaggered Dick.

Just then his host passed. Hearing the remark he replied—

"Then you can stay in town, Malduke"—adding to Elms—"I won't have your friend at any price. Sergeant."

"Then I'm off," returned the agitator; "I'll wear no capitalist's bloomin' colours, blowed if I does."

"I'd better show the way out," remarked Travers, significantly; "we should make short work of such as you at Cambridge, my fine fellow."

"Oh, I'll denounce you," was the fierce reply. "I'lll write to the Leveller, and expose your money-making, sweating scheme. I know your little ways." And to the astonishment of the company, the "guest that had not on the wedding garment" swaggered out of the hall.

When well outside, Dick paused a moment, then banging one fist into the palm of the other hand, declared with an oath—

"See if I don't go. And smash it all up too—sure's my name's Dick Malduke."

No one, unless it were Elms, quite understood, later, how it was that, despite his unmanliness and some demur on the doctor's part, Dick was permitted to accompany the emigrants.

The repast ended and tables cleared away, the doctor appeared on the embowered platform, and explained the nature of the undertaking. He was greeted with rounds of applause. Picturesque harvest hats waved in the air, women holding up their children to gesticulate, in imitation of their fathers. A thousand faces beamed their thanks on their benefactor.

"And to-morrow they'd howl him down," remarked Tom Lord, cynically.

"Don't you believe it," replied Frank Brown, also on the platform. "These people are of the right sort. They'll be treated well and behave well, I'll guarantee."

"They! They have no generous feelings. The mob never yet had."

"As true hearts beat under flannel shirts, believe me, as beneath the whitest starched fronts. The characters of the wearers of both are much mixed. You'll find good and bad everywhere."

"And a mighty lot more of bad than good in some quarters, I am thinking," persisted Tom. But we shall see.