Cheap Jack Zita
BEFORE THE GALILEE
WHAT was the world coming to? The world—the centre of it—the Isle of Ely?
What aged man in his experience through threescore years and ten had heard of such conduct before?
What local poet, whose effusions appeared in the 'Cambridge and Ely Post,' in his wildest flights of imagination, conceived of such a thing?
Decency must have gone to decay and been buried. Modesty must have unfurled her wings and sped to heaven before such an event could become possible.
Where were the constables? Were bye-laws to become dead letters? Were order, propriety, the eternal fitness of things, to be trampled under foot by vagabonds?
In front of the cathedral, before the Galilee,—the magnificent west porch of the minster of St. Etheldreda,—a Cheap Jack's van was drawn up.
Within twenty yards of the Bishop's palace, where every word uttered was audible in every room, a Cheap Jack was offering his wares.
Effrontery was, in heraldic language, rampant and regardant.
A crowd was collected about the van; a crowd composed of all sorts and conditions of men, jostling each other, trampling on the grass of the lawn, climbing up the carved work of the cathedral, to hear, to see, to bid, to buy.
Divine service was hardly over. The organ was still mumbling and tooting, when through the west door came a drift of choristers, who had flung off their surplices and had raced down the nave, that they might bid against and outbid each other for the pocket-knives offered by Cheap Jack.
Mr. Faggs, the beadle, was striding in the same direction, relaxing the muscles of his face from the look of severe ecclesiastical solemnity into which they were drawn during divine worship. It had occurred to him during the singing of the anthem that there were sundry articles of domestic utility Cheap Jack was selling that it might be well for him to secure at a low figure.
Mr. Bowles, the chief bailiff, had come forth from evensong with his soul lifted up with thankfulness that he was not as other men were: he attended the cathedral daily, he subscribed to all the charities; and now he stood looking on, his breath taken away, his feet riveted to the soil by surprise at the audacity of the Cheap Jack, in daring to draw up before the minster, and vend his wares during the hour of afternoon prayer.
The servant maids in the canons' houses in the Close had their heads craned out from such narrow Gothic windows as would allow their brachycephalic skulls to pass, and were listening and lawk-a-mussying and oh-mying over the bargains.
Nay, the Bishop himself was in an upper room, the window-sash of which was raised, ensconced behind the curtain, with his ear open and cocked, and he was laughing at what he heard till his apron rippled, his bald head waxed pink, and his calves quivered.
Very little of the sides of the van was visible, so encrusted were they with brooms, brushes, door-mats, tin goods, and coalscuttles. Between these articles might be detected the glimmer of the brimstone yellow of the carcase of the shop on wheels. The front of the conveyance was open; it was festooned with crimson plush curtains, drawn back; and, deep in its depths could be discerned racks and ranges of shelves, stored with goods of the most various and inviting description.
The front of the van was so contrived as to fall forward, and in so falling to disengage a pair of supports that sustained it, and temporarily converted it into a platform. On this platform stood the Cheap Jack, a gaunt man with bushy dark hair and sunken cheeks; he was speaking with a voice rendered hoarse by bellowing. He was closely shaven. He wore drab breeches and white stockings, a waistcoat figured with flowers, and was in his shirt sleeves. On his head was a plush cap, with flaps that could be turned up or down as occasion served. When turned down, that in front was converted into a peak that sheltered his eyes, those at the sides protected his ears, and that behind prevented rain from coursing down the nape of his neck. When, however, these four lappets were turned up, they transformed the cap into a crown—a crown such as it behoved the King of Cheap Jacks to wear. The man was pale and sallow, sweat-drops stood on his brow, and it was with an effort that he maintained the humour with which he engaged the attention of his hearers, and that he made his voice audible to those in the outermost ring of the curious and interested clustered about the van. Within, in the shadowed depths of the conveyance, glimpses were obtained of a girl, who moved about rapidly and came forward occasionally to hand the Cheap Jack such articles as he demanded, or to receive from him such as had failed to command a purchaser.
When she appeared, it was seen that she was a slender, well-built girl of about seventeen summers, with ripe olive skin, a thick head of short-cut chestnut hair, and a pair of hazel eyes.
Apparently she was unmoved by her father's jokes; they provoked no smile on her lips, for they were familiar to her; and she was equally unmoved by the admiration she aroused among the youths, with which also she was apparently familiar.
'Here now!' shouted the Cheap Jack. 'What the dickens have I got?—a spy-glass to be sure, and such a spy-glass as never was and never will be offered again. When I was a-comin' along the road from Cambridge, and was five miles off, "Tear and ages!" sez I, seein' your famous cathedral standin' up in the sunshine, "Tear and ages!" sez I; "that's a wonder of the world." And I up wi' my spy-glass. Now look here. You observe as 'ow one of the western wings be fallen down. 'Tis told that when the old men built up that there top storey to the tower, that it throwed the left wing down. Now I looked through this perspective glass, and I seed both wings standing just as they used to be, and just as they ought to be, but ain't. I couldn't take less than seventeen and six for this here wonderful spy-glass—seventeen and six. What! not buy a glass as will show you how things ought to be, but ain't?' He turned to the circle round him from side to side. 'Come now,—say ten shillings. 'Tis a shame to take the perspective glass out of Ely.' A pause. 'No one inclined to bid ten shillings? Take it back, Zita. These here Ely folk be that poor they can't go above tenpence. Ten shillings soars above their purses. But stay. Zita, give me that there glass again. There is something more that is wonderful about it. You look through and you'll see what's to your advantage, and that's what every one don't see wi' the naked eye. Come—say seven shillings!'
'And let me tell the ladies—they've but to look through, and they'll see the him they've set their 'arts on, comin', comin',—bloomin' as a rose, and 'olding the wedding ring in 'is 'and.'
In went the heads of the servant maids of the canons' residences.
'I say!' shouted one of the choristers, 'will it show us a coming spanking?'
'Of course it will,' answered the Cheap Jack, 'because it's to your advantage.'
'Let us look then.'
Cheap Jack handed the telescope to the lad. He put his eye to it, drew the glass out, lowered it, and shouted, 'I see nothing.'
'Of course not. You're such a darlin' good boy; you ain't going to have no spanking.'
'Let me look,' said a shop-girl standing by.
Cheap Jack waited. Every one watched.
'I don't see nothing,' said the girl.
'Of course not. You ain't got a sweetheart, and never will have one.'
A roar of laughter, and the young woman retired in confusion.
'And, I say,' observed the boy, as he returned the glass, 'it's all a cram about the fallen transept. I looked, and saw it was down.'
'Of course you did,' retorted the Cheap Jack. 'Didn't I say five miles off? Go five miles along the Wisbeach Road, and you'll see it sure enough, as I said. There—five shillings for it.'
'I'll give you half a crown.'
'Half a crown!' jeered the vendor. 'There, though, you're a quirister, and for the sake o' your beautiful voice, and because you're such a good boy, as don't deserve nor expect a whacking, you shall have it for half a crown.'
The Bishop's nose and one eye were thrust from behind the curtain.
'Why,' said the Right Reverend to himself, 'that's Tom Bulk, as mischievous a young rogue as there is in the choir and grammar school. He is as sure of a caning this week as—as'—
'Thanky, sir,' said Cheap Jack, pocketing the half-crown. 'Zita, what next? Hand me that blazin' crimson plush weskit.'
From out the dark interior stepped the girl, and the sunshine flashed over her, lighting her auburn hair, rich as burnished copper. She wore a green, scarlet, and yellow flowered kerchief, tied across her bosom, and knotted behind her back. Bound round her waist was a white apron.
She deigned no glance at the throng, but kept her eyes fixed on her father's face.
'Are you better, dad?' she asked in a low tone.
'Not much, Zit. But I'll go through with it.'
'Here we are now!' shouted the Jack, after he had drawn the sleeve of his left arm across his brow and lips, that were bathed in perspiration. And yet the weather was cold; the season was the end of October, and the occasion of the visit of the van to Ely was Tawdry (St. Etheldreda's) Fair.
A whisper and nudges passed among the young men crowded about the van.
'Ain't she just a stunner?'
'I say, I wish the Cheap Jack would put up the girl to sale. Wouldn't there be bidding?'
'She's the finest thing about the caravan.'
Such were comments that flew from one to another.
'Now, then!' bellowed the vendor of cheap wares; 'here you are again! A red velvet weskit, with splendid gold—real gold—buttons. You shall judge; I'll put it on.'
The man suited the action to the word. Then he straightened his legs and arms, and turned himself about from side to side to exhibit the full beauty of the vestment from every quarter.
'Did you ever see the like of this?' he shouted. 'But them breeches o' mine have a sort o' deadening effect on the beauty of the weskit. Thirty shillings is the price. You should see it along with a black frock-coat and black trousers. Then it's glorious! It's something you can wear with just what you likes. No one looks at rags when you've this on, so took up is they with the weskit. What is that you said, sir? Twenty-five shillings was your offer? It is yours—and all because I sees it'll go with them great black whiskers of yours like duck and green peas. It'll have a sort of a mellering effect on their bushiness, and 'armonise with them as well as the orging goes wi' the chanting of the quiristers.'
Jack handed the waistcoat, which he had hastily plucked off his back, to one of the layclerks of the cathedral. The man turned as red as the waistcoat, and thrust his hands behind his back.
'I never bid for it,' he protested.
'Beg pardon, sir; I thought you nodded your 'ead to me, but it was the wind a-blowin' of it about. That gentleman with the black flowin' whiskers don't take the weskit; it is still for sale. I'll let you have it for fifteen shillings, and it'll make you a conquering hero among the females. You, sir? Here you are.'
He addressed the chief bailiff, Mr. Bowles, an elderly, white-whiskered, semi-clerical official, the pink and paragon of propriety.
'No!' exclaimed Cheap Jack, as Mr. Bowles, with uplifted palms and averted head, staggered back. 'No—his day is past. But I can see by the twinkle of his eye he was the devil among the gals twenty years ago. It's the young chaps who must compete for the weskit. I'll tell you something rare,' continued the man, after clearing his throat and mopping his brow and lips. 'No one will think but what you're a lord or a harchbishop when you 'ave this 'ere weskit on. As I was a-coming into Ely in this here concern, sez I to myself, "I'll put on an appearance out o' respect to this ancient and venerable city." So I drawed on this weskit; and what should 'appen but we meets his most solemn and sacred lordship, the Bishop of the diocese.'
'This is coming it rather strong,' said the person alluded to behind the curtain, and his face and head became hot and damp.
'Well, and when his lordship, the Right Reverend, saw me, he lifted up his holy eyes and looked at my weskit. And then sez he to himself, "Lawk-a-biddy, it's the Prince!" and down he went in the dirt afore me, grovellin' with his nose in the mire. He did, upon my word.'
'Upon my word, this is monstrous! this is insufferable! A joke is a joke!' gasped the Bishop, very much agitated. 'There's moderation in all things—a limitation to be observed even in exaggeration. I haven't been on the Wisbeach Road this fortnight. I never saw the man. I never went down in the dirt. This is positively appalling!'
He took a turn round the room, went to the bell, then considered that it would be inadvisable to summon the footman and show that he had been listening to the nonsense of a Cheap Jack. Accordingly he went back to the window, hid himself once more behind the curtain, but so trembled with excitement and distress, that the whole curtain trembled with him.
'Nine and six. Here you are. Nine and six for this splendid garment, and cheap it is—dirt cheap. You're a lucky man, sir; and won't you only cut out your rivals with the darling?'
Cheap Jack handed the plush waistcoat to a young farmer from the Fens; then suddenly he turned himself about, looked into his van, and said in a husky voice—
'Zit, I can't go yarning no longer. I've got to the end of my powers; you carry on.'
'Right, father; I'm the boy for you with the general public.'
The man stepped within. As he did so, the girl lowered one of the curtains so as to conceal him. He sank wearily on a bench at the side. She stooped with a quivering lip and filling eye and kissed him, then sprang forward and stood outside on the platform, contemplating the crowd with a look of assurance, mingled with contempt.