The devil, they say, looks after his own and, that same day, the answer dropped into Hupsman’s grasp like a ripened plum. After supper at the rectory, he escaped from his carping spouse and sauntered down to the Berkeley Arms for his quart of ale. The inn was a forum for the debating of local topics, the playing of dice and ‘shove ha’penny’ and the transacting of commerce. He considered it part of his parochial duty to take the pulse of its activities from time to time. He would have been astounded had he not found old Seth Tulliver sucking on a long-stemmed pipe and holding forth to a veteran audience upon his salad days as a midshipman in the last King George’s Navy. In another corner, Joseph Pocock, the Salt Officer, was deep in a game of cards with Squire Pritchard. The Squire’s spaniel, squatting on a barrel-stool of his own, leapt on to the table and licked at the frothy overspill from his master’s tankard.
Through the hoary atmosphere, Hupsman noticed a couple of strangers in broadcloth and starched ruffles sitting in the circle of firelight over bowls of turnip soup. Emma Winterson, the landlord’s daughter, was poring over the wares of a hawker. The fellow’s shoulders were weighted with a string of pots and pans. A tray strapped around his neck exhibited pins and trinkets, thimbles and patches, ribbons and lace, anything to tempt the heart of a frivolous lass.
“Don’t, dear child, go frittering away the profits of the house,” he counselled.
The tinker snorted. He looked pinched and hungry. His bloodshot eyes, smarting from heat and smoke, were long accustomed to biting winds.
“Come, zur, a man must eat bread. Devil the trade I’ve had this day.”
“And they’re such pretty ribbons, Reverend,” Emma enthused. “Just the thing for trimming my Sunday bonnet.”
“Consider the lilies of the field, child. They neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them.” Even upon his own ears, Hupsman’s sing-song piety grated. “Aye, give the fellow a sale. He could do with a square meal by the looks of him. Have you come far, sir? I divine you’re new to these parts.”
“Indeed, your worship, foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but Dick Barns has nowhere to lay his head. Last week I was in Tewkesbury town and sheltered in the cloisters of the Abbey. I’ve trudged on, sore of foot, these six days since, buying victuals at the farms, sleeping in haylofts.”
“Pray, unload your wares and take some refreshment. I’m Augustus Hupsman, vicar of this parish. Emma, fetch mulled wine to warm my guest and ale for me.
“Thank ye kindly, parson. I’ll not say no.”
The percussion of unwieldy pans and utensils being put down caused Tulliver’s crew and Joe Pocock and crusty old Pritchard to glare in concert.
“I perceive,” ventured Hupsman craftily, “you are a man of some little education. Can you read and write?”
“Why, I reads the sky and the hedgerows and the cottage gates. Dick Barns can make out a milestone’s numbers thirty paces hence. I knows my trade and that a fool may prosper where a wise man scorns to tread, but as for book-learning, ah no, zur. Schooling’s for gentlefolk.”
“And when was the last time you slept in a bed?”
“Maybe, twas Agnes’ Eve in yonder Black Mountains. I might find a grand house where the cook’s a Christian and sends me to sleep with the grooms, so long as I douse myself under the yard-pump. Faith, zur, there’s naught mortifies the flesh half so true as that!”
Hupsman eschewed this Spartan advice with a scowl, feeling slightly abashed that this bucolic dreamer had the measure of him. “And what say you, Dick Barns, to several nights on a feather mattress and a clean suit of clothes and suppers a-plenty?”
“Nay, zur, I’m a simple soul who asks only bread and cheese and a bale of dry straw.”
“In return, you have it in your power to grant me a favour. Come.”
Hupsman led his humble acquaintance to a recessed bench by a small latticed window and explained his tight spot in careful phrases. “A second witness, you see, is required by law and my principal is insistent on utter concealment.”
Barns shuffled the brim of his hat through his fingers in an agitated manner. “But, zur, I cannot write my name."
Capital! Hupsman thought. He will not be able to read the registry. We will situate him at a distance from the proceedings so that no names are distinct. “No matter. All you need do is make your mark on the appropriate line. But mind, not a word of your business in this town, or it will not go well with you.”
“I’m not easy, parson…. Tis folk like me as end up in ditches with their throats slit.”
“Afterwards, you may make yourself scarce.”
Dick Barns’ bovine gaze disconcerted Hupsman. There was a gritty streak of independence in the man he had not bargained for. “Listen, fellow, in addition to your board and lodging until next Wednesday se’nnight, I’ll give you a golden guinea for your trouble. There!”
Dick Barns smelled the spit-roast suckling pig, an even greater temptation than money. “Well, seeing as how you’re a man of the Cloth….”
“Excellent. Landlord! A room and some supper for this wayfarer.”
Winterson was scooping out a careful firkin of millet from one of the rolled-back sacks on the taproom floor and raised his brows, as did some of the patrons of his respected hostelry. The two gentlemen by the fire glanced up, then resumed their dialogue in an undertone. The innkeeper had been watching them and reckoned they were set fair to jaw for the rest of the evening which meant they might wish for accommodation. It was just the sort of custom he wanted, a touch of class and a free hand with the gratuities, valets to ensure boots weren’t worn in bed and a modest revenue from horsekeeping! So he was not best pleased to have Parson Hupsman demand a bed for a vagrant.
“Acting the Good Samaritan’s all very fine, Mr Hupsman,” he said, “but I’ve my trade to consider.”
Hupsman’s jowls reddened with anger at being crossed by a publican. “Are you saying, Winterson, that there’s no room at the inn? You, of your abundance will not offer shelter to this poor traveller? Why, some have entertained angels….”
“Aye, Noll, that’s a fact,” cried Seth Tulliver roguishly. “What about the bonny Flossie Fortnum with the peachy bosom?”
Winterson flushed at the mention of this lady of less than impeccable repute who regularly made discreet use of his rooms.
“Well, maybe there’s an attic room….”
“Here is a shilling on account,” said Hupsman, replete with the smugness of one conforming to biblical example. “I’ll settle with you fair and square next time I come.”
So saying, he crammed on his shovel hat and took his leave of the Berkeley Arms, the crimson hose sheathing his baluster calves an absurd contrast to the sober weave of the rest of his garb. He was aware that parishioners mocked him. An inn full of clout-shoes, tax collectors, harbourers of loose women, and he had had to spend his way into their good offices!
Causes Rosy Cole Supports
World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...