Jock-At-A-Venture by Arnold Bennett
All this happened at a Martinmas Fair in Bursley, long ago in the
fifties, when everybody throughout the Five Towns pronounced Bursley
“Bosley” as a matter of course; in the tedious and tragic old times,
before it had been discovered that hell was a myth, and before the
invention of pleasure or even of half-holidays. Martinmas was in those
days a very important moment in the annual life of the town, for it was
at Martinmas that potters' wages were fixed for twelve months ahead,
and potters hired themselves out for that term at the best rate they
could get. Even to the present day the housewives reckon chronology by
Martinmas. They say, “It'll be seven years come Martinmas that Sal's
babby died o' convulsions.” Or, “It was that year as it rained and
hailed all Martinmas.” And many of them have no idea why it is
Martinmas, and not Midsummer or Whitsun, that is always on the tips of
The Fair was one of the two great drunken sprees of the year, the
other being the Wakes. And it was meet that it should be so, for
intoxication was a powerful aid to the signing of contracts. A sot
would put his name to anything, gloriously; and when he had signed he
had signed. Thus the beaver-hatted employers smiled at Martinmas
drunkenness, and smacked it familiarly on the back; and little boys
swilled themselves into the gutter with their elders, and felt
intensely proud of the feat. These heroic old times have gone by, never
It was on the Friday before Martinmas, at dusk. In the centre of the
town, on the waste ground to the north of the “Shambles” (as the
stone-built meat market was called), and in the space between the
Shambles and the as yet unfinished new Town Hall, the showmen and the
showgirls and the showboys were titivating their booths, and cooking
their teas, and watering their horses, and polishing the brass rails of
their vans, and brushing their fancy costumes, and hammering fresh
tent-pegs into the hard ground, and lighting the first flares of the
evening, and yarning, and quarrelling, and washing—all under the
sombre purple sky, for the diversion of a small crowd of loafers, big
and little, who stood obstinately with their hands in their pockets or
in their sleeves, missing naught of the promising spectacle.
Now, in the midst of what in less than twenty-four hours would be
the Fair, was to be seen a strange and piquant sight—namely, a group
of three white-tied, broad-brimmed dissenting ministers in earnest
converse with fat Mr Snaggs, the proprietor of Snaggs's—Snaggs's being
the town theatre, a wooden erection, generally called by patrons the
“Blood Tub,” on account of its sanguinary programmes. On this occasion
Mr Snaggs and the dissenting ministers were for once in a way agreed.
They all objected to a certain feature of the Fair. It was not the
roundabouts, so crude that even an infant of to-day would despise them.
It was not the shooting-galleries, nor the cocoanut shies. It was not
the arrangements of the beersellers, which were formidably Bacchic. It
was not the boxing-booths, where adventurous youths could have teeth
knocked out and eyes smashed in free of charge. It was not the
monstrosity-booths, where misshapen and maimed creatures of both sexes
were displayed all alive and nearly nude to anybody with a penny to
spare. What Mr Snaggs and the ministers of religion objected to was the
theatre-booths, in which the mirror, more or less cracked and
tarnished, was held up to nature.
Mr Snaggs's objection was professional. He considered that he alone
was authorized to purvey drama to the town; he considered that among
all purveyors of drama he alone was respectable, the rest being
upstarts, poachers, and lewd fellows. And as the dissenting ministers
gazed at Mr Snaggs's superb moleskin waistcoat, and listened to his
positive brazen voice, they were almost convinced that the hated
institution of the theatre could be made respectable and that Mr Snaggs
had so made it. At any rate, by comparison with these flashy and flimsy
booths, the Blood Tub, rooted in the antiquity of thirty years, had a
dignified, even a reputable air—and did not Mr Snaggs give frequent
performances of Cruickshanks' The Bottle, a sermon against
intemperance more impressive than any sermon delivered from a pulpit in
a chapel? The dissenting ministers listened with deference as Mr Snaggs
explained to them exactly what they ought to have done, and what they
had failed to do, in order to ensure the success of their campaign
against play-acting in the Fair; a campaign which now for several years
past had been abortive—largely (it was rumoured) owing to the secret
jealousy of the Church of England.
“If ony on ye had had any gumption,” Mr Snaggs was saying fearlessly
to the parsons, “ye'd ha' gone straight to th' Chief Bailiff and ye'd
ha'—Houch!” He made the peculiar exclamatory noise roughly indicated
by the last word, and spat in disgust; and without the slightest
ceremony of adieu walked ponderously away up the slope, leaving his
“It is remarkable how Mr Snaggs flees from before my face,” said a
neat, alert, pleasant voice from behind the three parsons. “And yet
save that in my unregenerate day I once knocked him off a stool in
front of his own theayter, I never did him harm nor wished him anything
but good.... Gentlemen!”
A rather small, slight man of about forty, with tiny feet and hands,
and “very quick on his pins,” saluted the three parsons gravely.
“Mr Smith!” one parson stiffly inclined.
“Mr Smith!” from the second.
“Brother Smith!” from the third, who was Jock Smith's own parson,
being in charge of the Bethesda in Trafalgar Road where Jock Smith
worshipped and where he had recently begun to preach as a local
Jock Smith, herbalist, shook hands with vivacity but also with
self-consciousness. He was self-conscious because he knew himself to be
one of the chief characters and attractions of the town, because he was
well aware that wherever he went people stared at him and pointed him
out to each other. And he was half proud and half ashamed of his
Even now a little band of ragged children had wandered after him,
and, undeterred by the presence of the parsons, were repeating among
themselves, in a low audacious monotone:
He was the youngest of fourteen children, and when he was a month
old his mother took him to church to be christened. The rector was the
celebrated Rappey, sportsman, who (it is said) once pawned the church
Bible in order to get up a bear-baiting. Rappey asked the name of the
child, and was told by the mother that she had come to the end of her
knowledge of names, and would be obliged for a suggestion. Whereupon
Rappey began to cite all the most ludicrous names in the Bible, such as
Aholibamah, Kenaz, Iram, Baalhanan, Abiasaph, Amram, Mushi, Libni,
Nepheg, Abihu. And the mother laughed, shaking her head. And Rappey
went on: Shimi, Carmi, Jochebed. And at Jochebed the mother became
hysterical with laughter. “Jock-at-a-Venture,” she had sniggered, and
Rappey, mischievously taking her at her word, christened the infant
Jock-at-a-Venture before she could protest; and the infant was stamped
for ever as peculiar.
He lived up to his name. He ran away twice, and after having been
both a sailor and a soldier, he returned home with the accomplishment
of flourishing a razor, and settled in Bursley as a barber. Immediately
he became the most notorious barber in the Five Towns, on account of
his gab and his fisticuffs. It was he who shaved the left side of the
face of an insulting lieutenant of dragoons (after the great riots of
'45, which two thousand military had not quelled), and then pitched him
out of the shop, soapsuds and all, and fought him to a finish in the
Cock Yard and flung him through the archway into the market-place with
just half a magnificent beard and moustache. It was he who introduced
hair-dyeing into Bursley. Hair-dyeing might have grown popular in the
town if one night, owing to some confusion with red ink, the Chairman
of the Bursley Burial Board had not emerged from Jock-at-a-Venture's
with a vermilion top-knot and been greeted on the pavement by his
waiting wife with the bitter words: “Thou foo!”
A little later Jock-at-a-Venture abandoned barbering and took up
music, for which he had always shown a mighty gift. He was really
musical and performed on both the piano and the cornet, not merely with
his hands and mouth, but with the whole of his agile expressive body.
He made a good living out of public-houses and tea-meetings, for none
could play the piano like Jock, were it hymns or were it jigs. His
cornet was employed in a band at Moorthorne, the mining village to the
east of Bursley, and on his nocturnal journeys to and from Moorthorne
with the beloved instrument he had had many a set-to with the marauding
colliers who made the road dangerous for cowards. One result of this
connection with Moorthorne was that a boxing club had been formed in
Bursley, with Jock as chief, for the upholding of Bursley's honour
against visiting Moorthorne colliers in Bursley's market-place.
Then came Jock's conversion to religion, a blazing affair, and his
abandonment of public-houses. As tea-meetings alone would not keep him,
he had started again in life, for the fifth or sixth time—as a
herbalist now. It was a vocation which suited his delicate hands and
his enthusiasm for humanity. At last, and quite lately, he had risen to
be a local preacher. His first two sermons had impassioned the
congregations, though there were critics to accuse him of
theatricality. Accidents happened to him sometimes. On this very
afternoon of the Friday before Martinmas an accident had happened to
him. He had been playing the piano at the rehearsal of the Grand Annual
Evening Concert of the Bursley Male Glee-Singers. The Bursley Male
Glee-Singers, determined to beat records, had got a soprano with a
foreign name down from Manchester. On seeing the shabby perky little
man who was to accompany her songs the soprano had had a moment of
terrible misgiving. But as soon as Jock, with a careful-careless glance
at the music, which he had never seen before, had played the first
chords (with a “How's that for time, missis?”), she was reassured. At
the end of the song her enthusiasm for the musical gifts of the local
artist was such that she had sprung from the platform and simply but
cordially kissed him. She was a stout, feverish lady. He liked a lady
to be stout; and the kiss was pleasant and the compliment enormous. But
what a calamity for a local preacher with a naughty past to be kissed
in full rehearsal by a soprano from Manchester! He knew that he had to
live that kiss down, and to live down also the charge of theatricality.
Here was a reason, and a very good one, why he deliberately sought
the company of parsons in the middle of the Fair-ground. He had to
protect himself against tongues.
“I don't know,” said Jock-at-a-Venture to the parsons, gesturing
with his hands and twisting his small, elegant feet, “I don't know as
I'm in favour of stopping these play-acting folk from making a living;
stopping 'em by force, that is.”
He knew that he had said something shocking, something that when he
joined the group he had not in the least meant to say. He knew that
instead of protecting himself he was exposing himself to danger. But he
did not care. When, as now, he was carried away by an idea, he cared
for naught. And, moreover, he had the consciousness of being cleverer,
acuter, than any of these ministers of religion, than anybody in the
town! His sheer skill and resourcefulness in life had always borne him
safely through every difficulty—from a prize-fight to a soprano's
“A strange doctrine, Brother Smith!” said Jock's own pastor.
The other two hummed and hawed, and brought the tips of their
“Nay!” said Jock, persuasively smiling. “'Stead o' bringing 'em to
starvation, bring 'em to the House o' God! Preach the gospel to 'em,
and then when ye've preached the gospel to 'em, happen they'll change
their ways o' their own accord. Or happen they'll put their play-acting
to the service o' God. If there's plays agen drink, why shouldna' there
be plays agen the devil, and for Jesus Christ, our Blessed
“Good day to you, brethren,” said one of the parsons, and departed.
Thus only could he express his horror of Jock's sentiments.
In those days churches and chapels were not so empty that parsons
had to go forth beating up congregations. A pew was a privilege. And
those who did not frequent the means of grace had at any rate the grace
to be ashamed of not doing so. And, further, strolling players, in
spite of John Wesley's exhortations, were not considered salvable. The
notion of trying to rescue them from merited perdition was too
fantastic to be seriously entertained by serious Christians. Finally,
the suggested connection between Jesus Christ and a stage-play was
really too appalling! None but Jock-at-a-Venture would have been
capable of such an idea.
“I think, my friend—” began the second remaining minister.
“Look at that good woman there!” cried Jock-at-a-Venture,
interrupting him with a dramatic out-stretching of the right arm, as he
pointed to a very stout but comely dame, who, seated on a three-legged
stool, was calmly peeling potatoes in front of one of the more
resplendent booths. “Look at that face! Is there no virtue in it? Is
there no hope for salvation in it?”
“None,” Jock's pastor replied mournfully. “That woman—her name is
Clowes—is notorious. She has eight children, and she has brought them
all up to her trade. I have made inquiries. The elder daughters are
actresses and married to play-actors, and even the youngest child is
taught to strut on the boards. Her troupe is the largest in the
Jock-at-a-Venture was certainly dashed by this information.
“The more reason,” said he, obstinately, “for saving her!... And all
The two ministers did not want her to be saved. They liked to think
of the theatre as being beyond the pale. They remembered the time,
before they were ordained, and after, when they had hotly desired to
see the inside of a theatre and to rub shoulders with wickedness. And
they took pleasure in the knowledge that the theatre was always there,
and the wickedness thereof, and the lost souls therein. But
Jock-at-a-Venture genuinely longed, in that ecstasy of his, for the
total abolition of all forms of sin.
“And what would you do to save her, brother?” Jock's pastor inquired
“What would I do? I'd go and axe her to come to chapel Sunday, her
and hers. I'd axe her kindly, and I'd crack a joke with her. And I'd
get round her for the Lord's sake.”
Both ministers sighed. The same thought was in their hearts, namely,
that brands plucked from the burning (such as Jock) had a disagreeable
tendency to carry piety, as they had carried sin, to the most
ridiculous and inconvenient lengths.
“Those are bonny potatoes, missis!”
“Ay!” The stout woman, the upper part of whose shabby dress seemed
to be subjected to considerable strains, looked at Jock carelessly, and
then, attracted perhaps by his eager face, smiled with a certain facile
“But by th' time they're cooked your supper'll be late, I'm
“Them potatoes have naught to do with our supper,” said Mrs Clowes.
“They're for to-morrow's dinner. There'll be no time for peeling
potatoes to-morrow. Kezia!” She shrilled the name.
A slim little girl showed herself between the heavy curtains of the
main tent of Mrs Clowes's caravanserai.
“Bring Sapphira, too!”
“Those yours?” asked Jock.
“They're mine,” said Mrs Clowes. “And I've six more, not counting
grandchildren and sons-in-law like.”
“No wonder you want a pailful of potatoes!” said Jock.
Kezia and Sapphira appeared in the gloom. They might have counted
sixteen years together. They were dirty, tousled, graceful and lovely.
“Twins,” Jock suggested.
Mrs Clowes nodded. “Off with this pail, now! And mind you don't
spill the water. Here, Kezia! Take the knife. And bring me the other
The children bore away the heavy pail, staggering, eagerly obedient.
Mrs Clowes lifted her mighty form from the stool, shook peelings from
the secret places of her endless apron, and calmly sat down again.
“Ye rule 'em with a rod of iron, missis,” said Jock.
She smiled good-humouredly and shrugged her vast shoulders—no mean
“I keep 'em lively,” she said. “There's twelve of 'em in my lot,
without th' two babbies. Someone's got to be after 'em all the time.”
“And you not thirty-five, I swear!”
“Nay! Ye're wrong.”
Sapphira brought the other pail, swinging it. She put it down with a
clatter of the falling handle and scurried off.
“Am I now?” Jock murmured, interested; and, as it were out of sheer
absent-mindedness, he turned the pail wrong side up, and seated himself
on it with a calm that equalled the calm of Mrs Clowes.
It was now nearly dark. The flares of the showmen were answering
each other across the Fair-ground; and presently a young man came and
hung one out above the railed platform of Mrs Clowes's booth; and Mrs
Clowes blinked. From behind the booth floated the sounds of the
confused chatter of men, girls and youngsters, together with the
complaint of an infant. A few yards away from Mrs Clowes was a truss of
hay; a pony sidled from somewhere with false innocence up to this
truss, nosed it cautiously, and then began to bite wisps from it.
Occasionally a loud but mysterious cry swept across the ground. The sky
was full of mystery. Against the sky to the west stood black and clear
the silhouette of the new Town Hall spire, a wondrous erection; and
sticking out from it at one side was the form of a gigantic angel. It
was the gold angel which, from the summit of the spire, has now watched
over Bursley for half a century, but which on that particular Friday
had been lifted only two-thirds of the way to its final home.
Jock-at-a-Venture felt deeply all the influences of the scene and of
the woman. He was one of your romantic creatures; and for him the woman
was magnificent. Her magnificence thrilled.
“And what are you going to say?” she quizzed him. “Sitting on my
Now to quiz Jock was to challenge him.
“Sitting on your pail, missis,” he replied, “I'm going for to say
that you're much too handsome a woman to go down to hell in eternal
She was taken aback, but her profession had taught her the art of
“You belong to that Methody lot,” she mildly sneered. “I thought I
seed you talking to them white-chokers.”
“I do,” said Jock.
“And I make no doubt you think yourself very clever.”
“Well,” he vouchsafed, “I can splice a rope, shave a head, cure a
wart or a boil, and tell a fine woman with any man in this town. Not to
mention boxing, as I've given up on account of my religion.”
“I was handsome once,” said Mrs Clowes, with apparent, but
not real, inconsequence. “But I'm all run to fat, like. I've played
Portia in my time. But now it's as much as I can do to get through with
Maria Martin or Belladonna.”
“Fat!” Jock protested. “Fat! I wouldn't have an ounce taken off ye
for fifty guineas.”
He was so enthusiastic that Mrs Clowes blushed.
“What's this about hell-fire?” she questioned. “I often think of
it—I'm a lonely woman, and I often think of it.”
“You lonely!” Jock protested again. “With all them childer?”
There was a silence.
“See thee here, missis!” he exploded, jumping up from the pail. “Ye
must come to th' Bethesda down yon, on Sunday morning, and hear the
word o' God. It'll be the making on ye.”
Mrs Clowes shook her head.
“And bring yer children,” he persisted.
“If it was you as was going to preach like!” she said, looking away.
“It is me as is going to preach,” he answered loudly and proudly.
“And I'll preach agen any man in this town for a dollar!”
Jock was forgetting himself: an accident which often happened to
The Bethesda was crowded on Sunday morning; partly because it was
Martinmas Sunday, and partly because the preacher was
Jock-at-a-Venture. That Jock should have been appointed on the “plan"
[rota of preachers] to discourse in the principal local chapel of the
Connexion at such an important feast showed what extraordinary progress
he had already made in the appreciation of that small public of experts
which aided the parson in drawing up the quarterly plan. At the hands
of the larger public his reception was sure. Some sixteen hundred of
the larger public had crammed themselves into the chapel, and there was
not an empty place either on the ground floor or in the galleries. Even
the “orchestra” (as the “singing-seat” was then called) had visitors in
addition to the choir and the double-bass players. And not a window was
open. At that date it had not occurred to people that fresh air was not
a menace to existence. The whole congregation was sweltering, and
rather enjoying it; for in some strangely subtle manner perspiration
seemed to be a help to religious emotion. Scores of women were fanning
themselves; and among these was a very stout peony-faced woman of about
forty in a gorgeous yellow dress and a red-and-black bonnet, with a
large boy and a small girl under one arm, and a large boy and a small
girl under the other arm. The splendour of the group appeared somewhat
at odds with the penury of the “Free Seats,” whither it had been
conducted by a steward.
In the pulpit, dominating all, was Jock-at-a-Venture, who sweated
like the rest. He presented a rather noble aspect in his broadcloth, so
different from his careless, shabby week-day attire. His eye was
lighted; his arm raised in a compelling gesture. Pausing effectively,
he lifted a glass with his left hand and sipped. It was the signal that
he had arrived at his peroration. His perorations were famous. And this
morning everybody felt, and he himself knew, that all previous
perorations were to be surpassed. His subject was the wrath to come,
and the transient quality of human life on earth. “Yea,” he announced,
in gradually-increasing thunder, “all shall go. And loike the baseless
fabric o' a vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the
solemn temples, the great globe itself—Yea, I say, all which it
inherit shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial payjent faded,
leave not a rack behind.”
His voice had fallen for the last words. After a dramatic silence,
he finished, in a whisper almost, and with eyebrows raised and staring
gaze directed straight at the vast woman in yellow: “We are such stuff
as drames are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. May
God have mercy on us. Hymn 442.”
The effect was terrific. Men sighed and women wept, in relief that
the strain was past. Jock was an orator; he wielded the orator's
dominion. Well he knew, and well they all knew, that not a professional
preacher in the Five Towns could play on a congregation as he did. For
when Jock was roused you could nigh see the waves of emotion sweeping
across the upturned faces of his hearers like waves across a wheatfield
on a windy day.
And this morning he had been roused.
But in the vestry after the service he met enemies, in the shape and
flesh of the chapel-steward and the circuit-steward, Mr Brett and Mr
Hanks respectively. Both these important officials were local
preachers, but, unfortunately, their godliness did not protect them
against the ravages of jealousy. Neither of them could stir a
congregation, nor even fill a country chapel.
“Brother Smith,” said Jabez Hanks, shutting the door of the vestry.
He was a tall man with a long, greyish beard and no moustache. “Brother
Smith, it is borne in upon me and my brother here to ask ye a
“Ask!” said Jock.
“Were them yer own words—about cloud-capped towers and baseless
fabrics and the like? I ask ye civilly.”
“And I answer ye civilly, they were,” replied Jock.
“Because I have here,” said Jabez Hanks, maliciously, “Dod's
Beauties o' Shakspere, where I find them very same words, taken
from a stage-play called The Tempest.”
Jock went a little pale as Jabez Hanks opened the book.
“They may be Shakspere's words too,” said Jock, lightly.
“A fortnight ago, at Moorthorne Chapel, I suspected it,” said Jabez.
“Suspected ye o' quoting Shakspere in our pulpits.”
“And cannot a man quote in a sermon? Why, Jabez Hanks, I've heard ye
quote Matthew Henry by the fathom.”
“Ye've never heard me quote a stage-play in a pulpit, Brother
Smith,” said Jabez Hanks, majestically. “And as long as I'm
chapel-steward it wunna' be tolerated in this chapel.”
“Wunna it?” Jock put in defiantly.
“It's a defiling of the Lord's temple; that's what it is!” Jabez
Hanks continued. “Ye make out as ye're against stage-plays at the Fair,
and yet ye come here and mouth 'em in a Christian pulpit. You
agen stage-plays! Weren't ye seen talking by the hour to one o' them
trulls, Friday night—? And weren't ye seen peeping through th' canvas
last night? And now—”
“Now what?” Jock inquired, approaching Jabez on his springy toes,
and looking up at Jabez's great height.
Jabez took breath. “Now ye bring yer fancy women into the House o'
God! You—a servant o' Christ, you—”
Jock-at-a-Venture interrupted the sentence with his daring fist,
which seemed to lift Jabez from the ground by his chin, and then to let
him fall in a heap, as though his clothes had been a sack containing
“A good-day to ye, Brother Brett,” said Jock, reaching for his hat,
and departing with a slam of the vestry door.
He emerged at the back of the chapel and got by “back-entries” into
Aboukir Street, up which he strolled with a fine show of tranquillity,
as far as the corner of Trafalgar Road, where stood and stands the
great Dragon Hotel. The congregations of several chapels were
dispersing slowly round about this famous corner, and Jock had to
salute several of his own audience. Then suddenly he saw Mrs Clowes and
her four children enter the tap-room door of the Dragon.
He hesitated one second and followed the variegated flotilla and its
The tap-room was fairly full of both sexes. But among them Jock and
Mrs Clowes and her children were the only persons who had been to
church or chapel.
“Here's preacher, mother!” Kezia whispered, blushing, to Mrs Clowes.
“Eh,” said Mrs Clowes, turning very amiably. “It's never you,
mester! It was that hot in that chapel we're all on us dying of
thirst.... Four gills and a pint, please!” (This to the tapster.)
“And give me a pint,” said Jock, desperately.
They all sat down familiarly. That a mother should take her children
into a public-house and give them beer, and on a Sunday of all days,
and immediately after a sermon! That a local preacher should go direct
from the vestry to the gin-palace and there drink ale with a strolling
player! These phenomena were simply and totally inconceivable! And yet
Jock was in presence of them, assisting at them, positively acting in
them! And in spite of her enormities, Mrs Clowes still struck him as a
most agreeable, decent, kindly, motherly woman—quite apart from her
handsomeness. And her offspring, each hidden to the eyes behind a mug,
were a very well-behaved lot of children.
“It does me good,” said Mrs Clowes, quaffing. “And ye need summat to
keep ye up in these days! We did Belphegor and The Witch
and a harlequinade last night. And not one of these children got to bed
before half after midnight. But I was determined to have 'em at chapel
this morning. And not sorry I am I went! Eh, mester, what a Virginius
you'd ha' made! I never heard preaching like it—not as I've heard
“And you'll never hear anything like it again, missis,” said Jock,
“for I've preached my last sermon.”
“Nay, nay!” Mrs Clowes deprecated.
“I've preached my last sermon,” said Jock again. “And if I've saved
a soul wi' it, missis...!” He looked at her steadily and then drank.
“I won't say as ye haven't,” said Mrs Clowes, lowering her eyes.
Rather less than a week later, on a darkening night, a van left the
town of Bursley by the Moorthorne Road on its way to Axe-in-the-Moors,
which is the metropolis of the wild wastes that cut off northern
Staffordshire from Derbyshire. This van was the last of Mrs Clowes's
caravanserai, and almost the last to leave the Fair. Owing to popular
interest in the events of Jock-at-a-Venture's public career, in whose
meshes Mrs Clowes had somehow got caught, the booth of Mrs Clowes had
succeeded beyond any other booth, and had kept open longer and burned
more naphtha and taken far more money. The other vans of the stout
lady's enterprise (there were three in all) had gone forward in
advance, with all her elder children and her children-in-law and her
grandchildren, and the heavy wood and canvas of the booth. Mrs Clowes,
transacting her own business herself, from habit, invariably brought up
the rear of her procession out of a town; and sometimes her leisurely
manner of settling with the town authorities for water, ground-space
and other necessary com-modities, left her several miles behind her
The mistress's van, though it would not compare with the glorious
vehicles that showmen put upon the road in these days, was a roomy and
dignified specimen, and about as good as money could then buy. The
front portion consisted of a parlour and kitchen combined, and at the
back was a dormitory. In the dormitory Kezia, Sapphira and the youngest
of their brothers were sleeping hard. In the parlour and kitchen sat
Mrs Clowes, warmly enveloped, holding the reins with her right hand and
a shabby, paper-covered book in her left hand. The book was the
celebrated play, The Gamester, and Mrs Clowes was studying
therein the role of Dulcibel. Not a role for which Mrs Clowes was
physically fitted; but her prolific daughter, Hephzibah, to whom it
appertained by prescription, could not possibly play it any longer, and
would, indeed, be incapacitated from any role whatever for at least a
month. And the season was not yet over; for folk were hardier in those
The reins stretched out from the careless hand of Mrs Clowes and
vanished through a slit between the double doors, which had been fixed
slightly open. Mrs Clowes's gaze, penetrating now and then the slit,
could see the gleam of her lamp's ray on a horse's flank. The only
sounds were the hoof-falls of the horse, the crunching of the wheels on
the wet road, the occasional rattle of a vessel in the racks when the
van happened to descend violently into a rut, and the steady murmur of
Mrs Clowes's voice rehearsing the grandiloquence of the part of
And then there was another sound, which Mrs Clowes did not notice
until it had been repeated several times; the cry of a human voice out
on the road:
She opened wide the doors of the van and looked prudently forth.
Naturally, inevitably, Jock-at-a-Venture was trudging alongside, level
with the horse's tail! He stepped nimbly—he was a fine walker—but
none the less his breath came short and quick, for he had been making
haste up a steepish hill in order to overtake the van. And he carried a
bundle and a stick in his hands, and on his head a superb but heavy
“I'm going your way, missis,” said Jock.
“Seemingly,” agreed Mrs Clowes, with due caution.
“Canst gi' us a lift?” he asked.
“And welcome,” she said, her face changing like a flash to suit the
“Nay, ye needna' stop!” shouted Jock.
In an instant he had leapt easily up into the van, and was seated by
her side therein on the children's stool.
“That's a hat—to travel in!” observed Mrs Clowes.
Jock removed the hat, examined it lovingly and replaced it.
“I couldn't ha' left it behind,” said he, with a sigh, and continued
rapidly in another voice: “Missis, we'n seen a pretty good lot o' each
other this wik, and yet ye slips off o'this'n, without saying good-bye,
nor a word about yer soul!”
Mrs Clowes heaved her enormous breast and shook the reins.
“I've had my share of trouble,” she remarked mysteriously.
“Tell me about it, missis!”
And lo! in a moment, lured on by his smile, she was telling him
quite familiarly about the ailments of her younger children, the
escapades of her unmarried daughter aged fifteen, the surliness of one
of her sons-in-law, the budding dishonesty of the other, the perils of
infant life, and the need of repainting the big van and getting new
pictures for the front of the booth. Indeed, all the worries of a queen
of the road!
“And I'm so fat!” she said, “and yet I'm not forty, and shan't be
for two year—and me a grandmother!”
“I knowed it!” Jock exclaimed.
“If I wasn't such a heap o' flesh—”
“Ye're the grandest heap o' flesh as I ever set eyes on, and I'm
telling ye!” Jock interrupted her.
Then there were disconcerting sounds out in the world beyond the
van. The horse stopped. The double doors were forced open from without,
and a black figure, with white eyes in a black face, filled the
doorway. The van had passed through the mining village of Moorthorne,
and this was one of the marauding colliers on the outskirts thereof.
When the colliers had highroad business in the night they did not
trouble to wash their faces after work. The coal-dust was a positive
aid to them, for it gave them a most useful resemblance to the devil.
Jock-at-a-Venture sprang up as though launched from a catapult.
“Is it thou, Jock?” cried the collier, astounded.
“Ay, lad!” said Jock, briefly.
And caught the collier a blow under the chin that sent him flying
into the obscurity of the night. Other voices sounded in the road. Jock
rushed to the doorway, taking a pistol from his pocket. And Mrs Clowes,
all dithering like a jelly, heard shots. The horse started into a
gallop. The reins escaped from the hands of the mistress, but Jock
secured them, and lashed the horse to greater speed with the loose ends
“I've saved thee, missis!” he said later. “I give him a regular
lifter under the gob, same as I give Jabez, Sunday. But where's the
sense of a lone woman wandering about dark roads of a night wi' a pack
of childer?... Them childer 'ud ha' slept through th' battle o'
Trafalgar,” he added.
Mrs Clowes wept.
“Well may you say it!” she murmured. “And it's not the first time as
I've been set on!”
“Thou'rt nowt but a girl, for all thy flesh and thy grandchilder!”
said Jock. “Dry thy eyes, or I'll dry 'em for thee!”
She smiled in her weeping. It was an invitation to him to carry out
And while he was drying her eyes for her, she asked:
“How far are ye going? Axe?”
“Ay! And beyond! Can I act, I ask ye? Can I fight, I ask ye? Can ye
do without me, I ask ye, you a lone woman? And yer soul, as is mine to
“But that business o' yours at Bursley?”
“Here's my bundle,” he said, “and here's my best hat. And I've money
and a pistol in my pocket. The only thing I've clean forgot is my
cornet; but I'll send for it and I'll play it at my wedding. I'm
And while the van was rumbling in the dark night across the waste
and savage moorland, and while the children were sleeping hard at the
back of the van, and while the crockery was restlessly clinking in the
racks and the lamp swaying, and while he held the reins, the thin,
lithe, greying man contrived to take into his arms the vast and amiable
creature whom he desired. And the van became a vehicle of high romance.