“LYING WIRES” (1/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents. Ed.]
Eldred Digby, Athelstan Digby’s younger brother, had retired in early middle-age from his business of blanket manufacturer to live the life of a country gentleman at Burton Pomeroy, an East Riding market-town, that lay forgotten at the foot of the wolds.
A thorough-going Radical, with a real genius for statistics, a capable organizer and man of affairs, pugnacious, unadaptable, a leader of Nonconformity, who studied theology as a hobby, and who as a result could have outflanked or carried by storm the whole of the archidiaconate, he was as much at home in his surroundings as an advertisement of his own blankets would have been in the pages of Country Life.
A weakness of the lungs had first sent him into exile. He had bought Burton Pomeroy Hall, not on account of its Jacobean fireplaces and old oak wainscotting, but because it stood on gravel and faced south and was near enough to the railway station for him to hear distinctly the sound of the trains.
Eldred Digby did not hunt; on the contrary, he wired his fences. He did not shoot; he was a vegetarian, who disbelieved in the efficacy of vaccination, and the morality of vivisection. Captain Aislaby, of the Grange, whose conversation was usually restricted to the commonplace, had never once said that the man was no sportsman; such an observation, even to Captain Aislaby, would have appeared too obvious.
Captain Aislaby was all that Eldred Digby was not. He rode to hounds; he bred hackneys, investing the profits, when there were profits, in brewery shares. In politics he was a Conservative. On Sundays he accepted the necessity of attending church as wholesome discipline, though he disliked the parsons who inflicted it upon him. He enjoyed a game of billiards; Eldred Digby played chess. He drank port, and his headaches were in the morning. Eldred, a teetotaller and a somewhat immoderate eater, usually had his headaches at night. Though the two men did not actively dislike each other, they lived in worlds apart. Blackwood’s Magazine formed the background of Captain Aislaby’s England, the Methodist Reader the foreground of Eldred Digby’s.
Athelstan Digby was not a frequent visitor to Burton Pomeroy Hall. His brother’s character was too hard and angular to inspire real affection; his sister-in-law was too voluble, too fussy, to compensate for the peaceful freedom of his own bachelor life. When he came for a long week-end, it was either at a time when his niece Prudence was home for the holidays, or when the flowers in the rock garden at the Hall were in bloom. He was very fond of Prudence, though he disliked her name. Captain Aislaby used to say that she had been called after the Insurance Company of which Eldred Digby was a director and which was open only to total abstainers; but it was the virtue of prudence that had given her the name; that and the fact that it had belonged to Mrs. Digby’s mother, old Mrs. Hebblethwaite.
In the summer of 1914 Athelstan Digby had taken no holiday, and it was not until mid-September that he was able to snatch a few days to run down to Burton Pomeroy. He arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Prue met him at the station.
“I’ve come in the dogcart, uncle,” she said, “but let’s walk back. Mother has some callers I don’t want to see, and we’ve lots of time. It’s a jolly good thing you’re staying over Monday. You’ll be able to take me to the circus.”
“Do you mean to say you have such dissipations in a little town like this? Why, we haven’t had a circus in Bradborough for nearly a year!”
“This is just a visiting one,” Prue explained; “but it’s splendid. It came here three months ago and even father went. They’ve got the sweetest little lion cubs, and merry-go-rounds, and switchbacks, and things; and there’s a Madame Politza, who walks on a tight-rope, and a perfectly wonderful performing monkey, called Mac. They had a huge, big marquee in the Priory field that belongs to Captain Aislaby, with a tight-rope ever so high above the ground. Madame Politza offers to wheel anyone along it in a wheel-barrow, provided they don’t weigh more than seven stone. And then above the wire she walks on there’s another, along which Mac, the monkey, goes on a sort of imitation motor-cycle with a real horn which he hoots when he’s half-way across. Above him there’s another wire. The two dearest little parakeets perform on it. One wheels the other across in a bathchair.”
“All this,” said Mr. Digby, “sounds very interesting.”
“It is indeed; and you will get tickets, won’t you, uncle? You see, I’m afraid father won’t want to go a second time, and mother says she doesn’t enjoy it, because she’s afraid Madame Politza will fall, and she says the fat woman’s vulgar. You can get seats in the front row for two shillings, and children under fourteen are half-price. I’m not fourteen yet, you know.”
“We must get two tickets,” said Mr. Digby. “I wonder if they have a giant. I used to be very fond of giants when I was a boy. Ah! there is a handbill. – Daniel Byron’s Royal Circus. Mac, the Marvellous Monkey. Politza, the Wire Queen. A Scream from start to finish. – (Everybody expects her to fall, I suppose). Three Jingling Jigsaws, – (“they are awfully poor,” said Prue). Klack, the Clumsy Clown. – (“Quite good,” said Prue; “he breaks plates.”) Eva Evans, London’s Favourite Comedienne: Mendez, the Spanish Minstrel. – (“He plays a violin with his toes, and accompanies himself on the concertina, and sings all at once. He’s splendid.”) – Well, there’s no giant but it’s a carefully selected programme. We’ll go, Prue. It’s thirty years since I’ve been to a circus.”
“Yes,” said Eldred Digby, when five minutes after their arrival at the Hall Prue breathlessly broached the question, “if your uncle is willing to take you, you can go, provided that there is a performance at all. At the present moment I doubt whether there will be. It appears that we are fighting for freedom abroad, but at home we trample on her. The petty tyrannies of the countryside are almost unbelievable, Athelstan. I am glad you came when you did, if only to witness this act of stupid selfishness on Aislaby’s part.”
“What’s the trouble now?” Athelstan asked. “I suppose you have been shooting a fox or have been objecting to the renewal of some inn’s license. Really, Eldred, you weren’t born for a country life.”
“Nonsense! The country’s what it is, because they haven’t got men with backbone enough to stand up against their parsons and squires. Captain Aislaby, as Lord of the Manor, has certain nominal rights over the Priory field, where all these shows are held. Three months ago he didn’t raise the slightest objection to the circus using it. Now, when everything has been arranged, when their vans and paraphernalia may arrive at any time, to-night he calmly announces that if they want their performance to be held, they must go elsewhere. I am no defender of these circuses – I think their general tendency is on the whole immoral – but liberty is liberty. It’s the principle of the thing that one must lose weight of. I…”
“Darling,” said Mrs. Digby, “there is no need to get excited. Prudence, dear, pass your father’s cup.”
“I won’t have any more tea, and the toast is abominable. As I was saying, Athelstan, these petty tyrannies of the countryside make one despair of England. The proprietor of the circus has just been up to ask whether the show can take place in the Low Field.”
“I hope, darling,” said Mrs. Digby, “that you won’t allow it. The noise so late at night will be very trying.”
“I shall have to allow it. I have no alternative. The circus is the livelihood of these people. We have absolutely no right to stand in their way.”
“Then,” said Prue to her uncle, “we shall go after all.”
On Sunday morning Eldred Digby drove off in the dogcart to Little Walton, where he was to preach at the new chapel.
“I’ll leave Prudence in your charge, Athelstan,” he said. “Fanny won’t be down before lunch; her lumbago has been troubling her again. The service at the Baptist chapel begins at half-past ten; or, if you liked, you could walk across the fields to Burton Magna.”
“Or,” said Prue, as they watched the dogcart disappear down the drive, “if we liked we needn’t go to chapel at all, and you could take me to see how the circus is getting on. I expect father might be rather cross. We could set out for Burton Magna though, and you could lose your way.”
The Low Field was a busy scene. The big marquee, with the tight-rope above it, along which Madame Politza took her daily walk, was up already. Round it were smaller tents for the side-shows, with an outer ring of vans.
“That’s where they keep the animals,” said Prue. “Listen! you can hear them growling. Do let’s go and look at them. I’m sure the circus people won’t mind.”
Mr. Digby found the proprietor with his back against the centre post of the merry-go-round, smoking a cigar. He was a big man, with a cheerful red face and a series of double chins that slid down his neck until they disappeared beneath an immense white cravat. Athelstan explained who he was and why he had brought his niece.
“You’re very welcome to look round, Mr. Digby,” said the showman. “I’m sure I don’t know what we should have done if your brother hadn’t allowed us to use this field. All our bills were out, and the public doesn’t like to be disappointed. So the young lady remembers he last visit? We’ll start with the lions; they are always a favourite.”
Prue spent an hour of ecstatic enjoyment. She fed the cubs; she stroked the heads of the performing parakeets; she was introduced to Mr. Jones, the clown, who wasn’t at all funny – (“I expect because it’s Sunday,” she said); she clambered on to the backs of the horses in the merry-go-round; and watched the marvellous Mac smoke a cigarette which Mr. Byron gave him.
“Is there anything else you would like to see?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Prue, “I’d like to go inside one of those funny caravans where you sleep.”
“Certainly, miss! If you wait a minute here, I’ll just see that everything is straight and tidy.”
He climbed up the steps of the largest van, which stood by the marquee, and after a minute or two came back and told them to follow him. Everything inside was extraordinarily neat. There were lockers, and a little desk for writing; the bed was like a cabin bunk; and at the far end was a little kitchen.
“It’s just lovely!” she said. “Why, you’ve even got electric light!”
“Yes,” said the showman, “I’m really rather proud of my little caravan. Things have changed since the days of the old travelling circus. I make my own electric light here. We get the power from the engines. They draw the vans while we’re on the road, and turn the merry-go-rounds when we’ve pitched our camp. There’s nothing like being self-contained. The only thing that I’m dependent on others for is a suitable pitch. With Captain Aislaby cutting up rough at the last I’d have been in an awkward corner if Mr. Digby hadn’t helped me out.”
“It looks an excellent show,” said Athelstan. “My niece and I are looking forward to seeing the performance to-morrow evening. But, speaking as one business man to another, I’m rather surprised that you don’t advertise more.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, Mr. Digby, I’m feeling my way. I only took over the concern three months ago. So far I’ve been working on the idea that if you give a really good show, the advertising will look after itself; but I’m not sure that you’re not right after all.”
“I like your atlas,” said Prue, who had been busy looking round. “It’s better than the one we use at school.”
“I dare say it is, miss; and if you’d take my advice, don’t neglect geography. It’s a useful science, as some day you’ll find out, when you start on your travels. But that won’t be for a long time yet. I don’t expect I shall be on the road then.”
“Come, Prue, we must be off,” said Mr. Digby. “Many thanks, Mr. Byron, for such an interesting morning.”
“Now I wonder what father will say,” said Prue, as they walked across the park.
Eldred took their delinquency in good spirit. The dinner was unusually well cooked, and both Athelstan and Prue were punctual. He understood that they both wished to attend the evening service.
Athelstan Digby for some years had been in the habit of waking early. Though elderly, he was a philosopher, and willingly exchanged a dreamless sleep for the beauties of an early dawn.
At six on Monday morning the birds had already called him. Getting out of bed, he threw open the windows (Mr. Digby had a mid-Victorian suspicion of draughts) and took long breaths of the crisp September air. The sun was shining brightly on a garden silvered with the lightest of hoar frosts. He determined that he would take a walk before breakfast. Down the autumn border he paced, where Michaelmas daisies and phlox stood shivering, purple with cold, in front of the flaming red-hot pokers, through the rose garden that Mr. Digby had planned the year before, across the sunk fence into the park. “I shouldn’t be at all surprised,” he said to himself, “to find mushrooms.”
Instead of mushrooms he found Prue.
“It’s no good, uncle,” she said, “there aren’t any. I’ve been right down to the Midhope pastures and came back by the low field. There were heaps down there last week, but I expect the frost has put a stop to them. Guess what I’ve got though.”
“Wet feet and a cold in the head.”
“Of course not. Guess again.”
“Rosy cheeks and an appetite for breakfast.”
“I’ve always got those. No, look! Two dead swallows! I found them by the big circus marquee, quite cold.”
“So that’s where you’ve been. Poor little beggars! They don’t seem to have been injured in any way. I suppose it must have been last night’s frost. But who is this coming, Prue?”
“It’s Captain Aislaby. He’s always trying to pull my leg. I can’t wait, though. I’ve got to groom the pony before breakfast. Do you mind if I leave the swallows with you? I’ll bury them properly later in the morning.”