The Scowcroft Critics III.
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BILLY'S BLUNDER.

I.


SCOWCROFT to all its other claims to distinction could add the great honour of possessing the most remarkable musical genius for miles round.  To look at, Billy Wardle was anything but prepossessing.  His large long head and prepossessing features, and his tremendous arms caused him, when sitting, to look tall, but when he stood up it was seen that he had never been much above middle height, and a slight stoop made him appear even less than he was.  He had mild-looking, almost soft blue eyes, a wide but weak mouth, and a few long and neglected hairs at each side of his face, and under his chin were evidently the best that Billy was capable of in the way of hirsute adornment.

    Nobody ever looked less like a man of mark than did Billy as he sat in his place on a Sunday, waiting for the minister to give out the hymn.  But when the number had been announced, and the instruments, or in later days the organ, had played the tune over, and the minister had read the first verse, you were startled by a sudden and terrific vocal explosion, and glancing upwards, you beheld a sickly-looking man with a hymn-book, held as far away from him as possible in one hand, whilst with the other he was wildly beating time, and his head, when it was not turned round to admonish some laggardly singer, was held at such an acute angle and so far away from the hymn-book, that your surprise at the music was soon forgotten in fear that the singer would overbalance himself and fall.

    Billy could not read music at all, but he knew every tune in the tune-books in use at the chapel, could play any instrument introduced to him, and could reproduce almost any tune he had once heard.  It was no use any mischievously-disposed preacher sending up to the singing gallery a list of peculiar metres in the hope of puzzling Billy.  The only result was a twisting, twirling, many-runned tune, which woke up the old folk to vociferous ecstacy, and caused the younger ones to stand still in bewildered and helpless dumbness.  Billy could only read very indifferently, but he knew most of the hymns by heart, and could fill up any forgotten lines with most artistic pom poms, interspersed with emphatic and jerky instructions to his assistants.


And sing with all the—pom-po-pom-po-pom,
And sing with—nay, wenches, bell aat,
And sing with all the—ler 'em hev it, lads,
The hendless song a-bo-o-o-ove,
The pom pom song abuv.


    Billy was the author of several very popular local tunes, and at least one most astonishing anthem, and was often absent during the earlier part of the summer conducting the music at adjacent village anniversaries.

    But of late Billy's throne had been a somewhat uneasy seat.  Some of the younger people in the choir could read music a little, and one of the tenors had learnt the wonderful new tonic sol-fa.  Besides which, young Abram Briggs, who played the organ, had a standing grievance against his conductor in the fact that he was never consulted in the selection of tunes, and though he and other juniors in the singing pew knew several grand new tunes, they were compelled, Sunday after Sunday, to sing the very oldest of the old, and were sternly snubbed both by their leader and by the authorities of the chapel if they made anything approaching to a complaint.

    Recently, however, the young people had received considerable support from outsiders.  The junior minister had on two recent occasions asked for particular tunes to certain hymns, and on being informed on the second of these occasions that "We sing noa new-faugled balderdash here," he had shrugged his shoulders and elevated his eyebrows in a manner more expressive than any possible words.

    And then it was plainly hinted, though with bated breath by those few degenerate souls who had so far forgotten themselves as to attend the parody of an anniversary held recently by the Methodist Adullamites in "Joany's loft," that the music on that occasion was better than that at the Scowcroft Chapel, "sarmons" and "mooar moderner," and this, in spite of several long and heated arguments in his defence, had done more to injure Billy's prestige than anything else.

    What made matters worse was that most of the young people at the chapel were ardent teetotalers, and though they had no particular fault to find with Billy on that score, save that he would neither sign the pledge nor attend their meetings, yet his two sons were notorious in the village for drunkenness, pigeon-flying and every species of riotous living, whilst his wife, who by the way was the sister of Jimmy the Scutcher, was not only a fierce-tongued and brawling neighbour, but was more than suspected of drinking habits as well.  And the virtuous young Temperance advocates of Scowcroft, many of whom were in the singing pew, protested that it wasn't "dacent" for the husband and father of such a disreputable set to be leading the worship of the chief sanctuary.

    And as luck would have it, just at this time a new bookkeeper came to the mill.  He turned out to be a Methodist, and as bookkeepers were regarded as persons a little above the common run, the chapel people received him with open arms, and congratulated themselves on having bagged a great prize.  Judge, therefore, of the consternation of the one party and the triumphant pride of the other when, after attending the services one whole Sunday, the bookkeeper actually postponed his selection of a pew, on the ground that he was not sure he could "cast in his lot" with them because the music was really so very old-fashioned and slow that it made him "fair crill " to hear it, and entirely destroyed any chance of profitable worship.  This was serious.  The bookkeeper was, of course, an educated man, and a great catch for the chapel; his opinion, therefore, as a mere ordinary worshipper was of great weight, and to allow him to go to church, or to that disreputable "Joany's loft," would be an everlasting disgrace.  But when it was discovered that the new-comer had been harmoniumist and choirmaster at a small Independent chapel in Manchester, the young people at once realised that Providence had sent them, not only a powerful leader in their opposition to Billy, but also an efficient and up-to-date successor to that worthy's position.  And now from mere spasmodic skirmishing the struggle suddenly passed to serious conflict.  The bookkeeper was suave and insinuating, and excessively friendly.  He invited the young folk to his house in relays of three or four, and gave them evidence of his skill and knowledge of music, deftly expressing his surprise at the musical quality of some of their voices, if only they were properly trained.  Then he related stories of some of his own musical triumphs, and alluded in a familiar, almost patronising, way to some of the leading musicians of the day.  This was the man.  They would have some music at Scowcroft if only they could get "Mestur Ryle" (Royle) to lead them.  "Owd Billy" was a blethering owd "Bluffinyed."  He had a "vice loike a cornerake," and was "that ignorant ――"

    And the more vociferous and vehement the opposition became the more stubborn and immovable were Billy's defenders.  The heads of the church were unanimously and enthusiastically on his side.  He was an old friend.  His taste in tunes was exactly theirs, and they had so long regarded him with pride as one of the chief glories of the place that all attacks upon him seemed to them to be so many challenges to proper authority, and threatened the very foundations of order and government.  If Billy went some of them would speedily have to follow, and the instinct of self-preservation made them obdurate.  Never did those masters of strong language, Miles and Jacky o' the Gap, perform such feats of denunciation.  Never was the terrible Jimmy so cutting in his satires and so prolific of caustic, biting jokes.  Even the peaceable Noah the grocer waxed argumentative, and Quiet William was betrayed into language very unlike his name and character.

    "Aw wur axin' the beuk-keeper abaat yond pew this morning," said Noah, slowly, as they sat round Miles's fire early one Saturday evening.

    "Tha niver did, thaa lumpyed!  Aw'd see him at Dixey afur Aw'd ax him ageean," cried Jacky, indignantly.

    "Well, wot said he?" demanded Miles, with threatening looks.

    "He said as he hadna' made up his moind yet.  He wur thinkin' o' tryin' Adam's shop (Joany's loft) ta morn."

    "Let him tak' his papper dicky an' fancy moustache wheer hee's a moind.  We can dew baat him, Aw con tell thi."

    "He said as Billy's vice remoined him of a crow as 'ud getten the chin-cough."

    "The impident hupstart! " shouted Miles.  "Billy were singin' i' that chapel afoor he wur born!  Chin-cough, hay!  Ther's mooar music i' Billy's clugs nor i' aw his brazzened body! "

    "Dust remember has he used sing 'Thaa Shepherd ov Hisrael an' moine' ta owd Ransom?  It used mak' me fair whacker wi' jye.  Aw used feel as if Aw wur i' heaven," said Quiet William, softly.

    "Heaven! Tha'll ne'er yer nowt loike it ageean till tha gets theer, that's sartin!" cried Jacky, with a tear in the corner of his eye.

    "He's sung 'Rock of Ages' at mooar deeath-beds nor ony mon i' Lancashire," said Noah, with conviction.

    "Aye, an' Aw whop as he'll sing it at moine, tew," cried Jacky, with a suspicious sniff.

    "An' moine, few," responded William and Noah.

    "We mun ston up for him, chaps.  We mun feight!  We manna hev that blessed owd chapil turnt into a music-hall.  It's bin th' gate o' heaven tew uz mony a toime, an aar faythers afoor uz.  We mun feight fer it!  We mun feight!" and Miles pursed out his lips and projected his chin and struck his fist with a desperate and yet pathetic resolution.

    "If iver Billy goes off his peirch i' that singing pew it ull no be his fawt, it ull be aars," and Jimmy the Scutcher looked steadily at Dinah's paper-covered special occasion copper kettle hanging on the joists above Miles's head, and drew out the "aars" to a most expressive and emphatic length.

    "He'll neer goo off that peirch till he's carried off feet furmost," cried Miles.  "He's owd and he's welly blind, bud—bless his owd pow (head)―― Wot the ferrups is that?" and Miles whisked round and stared hard at the closed outer door, whilst the rest rose hastily to their feet and did the same.

    And they might well stare, for as Miles was about to pronounce a fervid and for him tender eulogium on the absent choirmaster, a most outrageous noise was heard outside.  It sounded like a wild Indian war-whoop, and was followed by the shrill laughter of a number of youthful voices.

    All those assembled round Miles's warm fire stood still and held their breath.  Not a sound was heard save the crunching of sand under their clog irons, and all at once there smote on their ears the words of an old Methodist tune sung as only Billy Wardle could sing it.


I'm a pilgrim hand a stranger,
Rough and thorny is the road.


    "Wot the heck is he up tew? " shouted Miles, looking round at his friends in wonder and indignation.  Nobody replied, and so as the singing proceeded and had a very eccentric and irreverent sound about it, Miles stepped to the door and flung it open.

    The rest stood still on the sanded floor intently listening.

    In a moment they heard an angry exclamation from Miles, and then the singing stopped and the laughter recommenced, and was louder than ever.

    Then they heard the singer give a wild and most ungodly yell, and then strike off into another tune.  It was a most strange proceeding.  What could it mean?  But at that moment the door closed abruptly, and Miles, white and trembling, stepped back into the house, and standing in the middle of the floor and looking round on his friends, in a voice of cruel dismay he cried, "Chaps, it's Billy!  An' he's drunk—ay, drunk as a foo'!"

    And with another cry that was almost a sob, he dropped into his chair and buried his head in his hands.

    The rest gave vent to various sounds in which wonder, fear and distress were blended.  Then they stood and gazed at each other with looks of stupefied horror, and then by sudden consent they rushed to the door, and standing in the entrance beheld the following humiliating spectacle.

    There in the middle of the croft, nearly opposite to the chapel, stood Billy.  He still had on his dirty workaday clothes, which ought to have been changed hours ago.  He was without hat, and had only one clog.  Around him was a ring of boys and girls, with piggy sticks and cricket bats in their hands, jeering and laughing, and evidently wickedly enjoying the sad sight.  All down the row fronting the croft every door was occupied by a spectator, and those who had been already in the croft when Billy appeared had left their various occupations, and were standing in groups and watching the scene, half in shame and half in amusement.  Yes, Billy was drunk, mad drunk, and standing there, in the midst of an ironical but applauding audience, he was running from one dear old tune to another, and bawling and gesticulating until the more serious of the spectators shuddered at the profanity of it.

    And as the friends stood there enduring torments of mortification and shame a finishing touch was given to the disgraceful scene by the sudden appearance of Billy's wife.  She came running across the croft, angrily shaking her fist at her husband, and then when she reached him she seized him by the back of his coat-neck, gave him several energetic shakes, called him names we cannot write, and then transferring her grip from his coat to the back of his arms, she got behind him, and giving him a starting push, ran him before her homewards.

    And as if this were not humiliation enough, just at this moment a well-known yellow pony came slowly round Lark Lane corner.  A great scornful laugh smote on their ears, and the mocking face of Reuben Tonge turned sneeringly towards them, whilst his harsh voice was heard crying, "Anuther canting Methody, Pablo!  Anuther canting Methody!  Wayshin'-up mugs, stew mugs, whaite sand and rubbin stoan!"



II.


WHEN the vociferating and gesticulating Billy and his termagant wife disappeared round Cinder Hill Corner, Miles and his friends slunk back into the house with feelings it would be impossible adequately to describe.  Amazement, shame, and mortification struggled together in their minds.  They were humiliated, but above all they were defeated.  For the scene they had just witnessed was all that was needed to complete the triumph of Billy's enemies.  Even his friends could not help him now, and just when they were making a last desperate stand in his defence, Billy himself had played into their opponents' hands and settled the matter.

    For a time no one spoke.  Most of them remained standing, and those who had dropped into chairs squirmed about in them and groaned until their seats creaked in melancholy sympathy.

    "Lord help uz," sighed Jacky o' th' Gap, with a most lugubrious countenance.

    "Aye, Lord help uz," responded Noah, and then they were silent again, whilst each was busy with his own mortifying thoughts.

    "It's happen a sunstrooak," ventured Quiet William at last.

    And this was just the little touch that Miles's pent-up feelings required in order to explode, and so he whipped round, and glaring at his unfortunate brother-in-law, he cried in outraged indignation: "S-u-n-s-t-r-o-o-a-k, thaa lumpyed.  Hast ony een (eyes) i' thi yed?  Sunstrooak, mon! it's drink strooak; it's Red Cat strooak; it's ale strooak!  We're byetten (beaten), mon!  We're floored! and we're disgraced in at th' bargin."

    "Aye, it's aw up wi' uz naa," sighed Jacky, wearily shaking his head.

    "An' th' bewk-keeper 'ull ger in," groaned Noah.

    There was another long, melancholy silence, and then Quiet William got up and went out, and nobody needed to ask where he had gone.

    "An' it's th' Trust sarmons ta morn," said Noah at length, sadly.

    "Aye, goa on wi' thi!  Mak' it wur nur it is, thaa sniftering Joaab's comforter, thaa," snapped the irascible Miles, and then, glaring round resentfully at the rest, he cried, sarcastically, "Hez ony on yo' else owt noice to say?"

     "He'll be on his peirch ageean i' th' morn yo'll see," said the Scutcher, with conviction.

    "On his peirch " shouted the goaded Miles, "bud he winna!  He shanna!"

    "Wot's th' use meythering?" added Jacky, "he'll ne'er goa i' that singin' box ageean as lung as he lives."

    The others, Jimmy excepted, looked a sorrowful admission, but just then William returned, and walked with a crestfallen and dejected air to his seat.  As he ventured no information, Miles, after waiting impatiently for some time, whisked round sharply and demanded, "Well?"

    But William did not reply.

    "Speik, mon!  Wot's he say?" demanded the tailor, fiercely.

    "Nowt."

    Miles looked at William as though he would like to put him under torture to compel him to be more communicative, and Jimmy the Scutcher asked cautiously, "Wot's hoo say?"

    "Nowt."

    As a matter of fact, Billy's wife had banged the door in the big man's face, and told him from behind it that when she wanted any of the chapel people she would send for them; and the men sitting round the fire remembered, as an additional difficulty, that Rachel and her good-for-nothing sons had done their best for years to wean Billy of his attachment to the chapel.

    The friends lingered at Miles's all the evening, partly in the hope that some one would be able to devise some means of escape for them, and partly out of fear of the criticisms they knew they would encounter if they went abroad.

    One thing, however, was agreed upon.  Billy must be prevented at all costs from taking his place in the singing-pew on the following day, and as nobody cared to face Billy's wife.  Quiet William and Jacky o' th' Gap were deputed to waylay the erring choirmaster if he attempted to enter the chapel, and thus prevent him making things worse.

    The next morning proved very wet, and Jacky was somewhat late at his post.  William, however, was there, and he stood very dejectedly propping up the railings outside the chapel when Jacky arrived.

    "Hast seen owt on him?" asked Jacky as he came up, out of breath with hurrying.

    "Neaw."

    They waited a while, but Billy did not appear.

    The congregation began to gather, but no Billy.  The preacher arrived, but still no Billy.

    "He's no' comin'," said Jacky at length.  "Pooer lad, he conna face it."

    William looked very hard at the Mill chimney, and after blinking his eyes rapidly and trying to swallow something, he said, "Pooer felley!  Pooer owd lad!"

    Just then the organ began to play, and the two watchers turned and nodded at each other in mutual confirmation of their previously expressed conviction that Billy was not coming.  Then, without speaking, they entered the porch, and as they did so they turned and stared at each other in surprise and consternation, for the singing had commenced, and above every other sound they could hear Billy's loud, harsh tones ringing through the chapel as if nothing had occurred.

    Before they could speak the red inner door opened, and out stepped the bookkeeper with outraged righteousness written on his smug face.  After him came several of his supporters, and glancing upwards they saw the members of the choir, evidently by pre-arranged agreement, picking up their books and disappearing down the narrow back-stairs, making all the noise possible, presumably as a protest against Billy's scandalous presence.

    The two discomfited watchers walked sadly up the stairs to their seats in the gallery, but when Jacky reached his pew and glanced round William was just disappearing downstairs again.  As the hymn went on the singing-pew gradually emptied, until when it ceased Billy was absolutely alone.

    Very little heed was given that morning to the prayer, and the quiet of the service was disturbed again and again by the banging of pew-doors, as several righteously indignant worshippers, who felt they could not stay to countenance the offending presence of the choirmaster, left the chapel.

    When


Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire,


which was the perpetual chant at Scowcroft, was started, Billy was still alone, but hearing the deep bass tones of a second voice suddenly blending with the leader's, the worshippers glanced up and beheld Quiet William standing as close as ever he could get to Billy, and singing away with all his might, as if he would fain take the place of all those who had left, and in apparent unconsciousness of the many astonished eyes that were fixed upon him.

    When the service was over every man with any semblance of right to do so made for the vestry, and when the preacher entered he found it full of indignant and protesting men who were shouting out in the excess of their excitement their various opinions on the crisis which had thus sadly arisen.

    Somebody suggested that Billy be sent for, but the messenger who went in search of him announced that he had already disappeared.  In the course of a long and noisy wrangle the friends of the bookkeeper made it abundantly clear that no compromise was possible, and the looks of virtuous indignation which they cast upon Miles and his party made those worthies feel as though they were in some way responsible for what had taken place.

    At last, after a long and heated discussion the authorities undertook that Billy should be kept out of the singing-pew pending a future settlement of the case, and all were preparing to disperse when some one rashly suggested that the bookkeeper should be asked to take Billy's place, at any rate until something definite could be arranged.

    Miles and his friends suddenly stiffened, and looked sour and defiant, but as the bookkeeper's advocates protested that they only meant this as a temporary arrangement, without any prejudice to the final appointment, the old men were constrained, though much against their feelings, to give way, and all seemed settled for the time, when, to everybody's astonishment, Quiet William suddenly turned obstinate.

    "Aw'll tak cur as Billy does na goo in, an yo mun keep th' bewkkeeper aat, tew," he said, with quiet firmness; and so, though victory seemed to be thus slipping from their grasp in the very moment of success, the friends of the new man were compelled to be content, for though William was gentleness and conciliation itself as a rule, they had learnt long ago that when he did take a stand it was more than useless to try to move him.

    Several Sunday dinners were spoilt in Scowcroft that day, for when the party in the vestry broke up it was only to split into two sections, the larger one standing in the croft and debating afresh the various points of the situation, and the smaller one adjourning to Miles's to decide how to deal with Billy.

    It was a melancholy business.  One moment they were anathematising the bookkeeper and all his ways, and the next they were expressing their mortification at the conduct of their old friend Billy.

    How were they to proceed?

    William could not be induced to visit the offending choirmaster's house again at any price.  Jimmy the Scutcher had not been on speaking terms with his sister for years, and the rest plainly dare not face her at all.  Someone suggested the extreme expedient of a note, but Billy could not read writing, and his better educated sons were too worthless and wicked to be approached, even if they were at home and sober, which was exceedingly doubtful.  It was evident that Billy was avoiding them, for Quiet William reported that when he rose from his knees after the benediction Billy had already disappeared.  Nobody seemed able to make any very useful suggestion, and so William and Jacky were deputed once more to waylay the offender and prevent him taking his place in the singing-pew.

    And this time they would be early enough.  Soon after five o'clock they posted themselves, one at the gate to intercept Billy as he went in, and the other near a clothes-post in the croft to watch for his approach.  They watched and watched, but Billy never appeared.  Then Tom Crompton, the chapel-keeper, came to unlock the doors, but still no Billy.  A number of boys began to assemble round the doors, but no Billy.  Then the congregation commenced to arrive, and Jacky came from his position at the clothes-post to consult with William.

    Just then a red-haired lad came clambering down the gallery steps, and leaning over the "banister," he stood looking for a moment at the two in consultation, and then cried in a loud whisper, "Heigh, William, dun yo want Billy?"

    Jacky, who stood with his back to the entrance, suddenly wheeled round and replied, "Aye! wheer is he?"

    "He's i' th' singin'-pew."

    The two outwitted watchers turned and gazed at each other in bewilderment, and then, as Jacky's face grew longer and longer, a sneaking smile flickered for a moment on William's broad face, and he cried, under his breath, "Well dun, Billy!"

    Just then Miles, who was steward that year, came rushing down the narrow entry on the south side of the chapel, and with his thin hair flying, and his face all awork with nervous agitation, burst upon them, crying indignantly: "Wot arr yo dooin' theer, yo gawping lumpyeds!  He's i' th' chapil!  He's i' th' singin'-pew, Aw tell yo."

    At this moment a number of young people were approaching the entrance.  They caught Miles's words instantly, and in a minute or two they were standing in the croft outside the railings absolutely refusing to enter until the objectionable choirmaster had been removed.

    Then they were joined by others, then more still, until the front of the chapel was almost blocked with people all talking in restrained tones, not so much about Billy's fall as about his shameless and hardened persistence.  By degrees, and after much coaxing, some of them were induced to enter the chapel, where the service had already commenced, but the greater number strolled off in small parties to adjacent cottages to discuss matters.

    The heads of the church took no part in the service that evening.  Most of them, in fact, never entered the main building at all, and those who did simply stole up the front stairs to satisfy themselves by actual sight that Billy was in his place, and immediately came down again.

    Things were becoming desperate, and after a long, low-toned discussion in the vestry it was determined to waylay Billy as he came down the back stairs and carry him off bodily, if he resisted, to Miles's house, and try to bring him to reason.

    And by this time a kind of suspicion had arisen against William, and so Jimmy and Abram Briggs were deputed to carry out the arrangement.

    As soon as the collection had been made the two stationed themselves in the passage at the foot of the singing gallery stairs, and waited.  The last hymn was sung, and Billy's strident voice was heard up to the very last notes of it.  Then there was a short pause, and then a shuffling of feet and a banging of pew doors, and the thudding of feet going down the front staircase, but nobody came down the back stairs.  Billy had escaped before by being first man out of the building, but he was certainly in no hurry this time.  Then the organ stopped, and young Abram Briggs, the organist, came stumbling down the narrow stairs.

    "Is he comin'?" demanded Abram's father.

    "Is whoa comin'?"

    "Billy."

    "Billy!  He gooan lung sin; he strade o'er th' partition an' went alung the gallery an' aat at the front dur!"

    Something very like anathemas broke from the lips of the cheated liers-in-wait, and they turned sulkily round and made for Miler's, where their coming was impatiently awaited.

    Their appearance empty-handed and discouraged brought forth more cries of discomfiture, and when Miles arrived just behind them, the reproaches to which he had subjected Jacky and William for their failure were as nothing to those he heaped on the hapless heads of Jimmy and Abram.

    Then he discovered that Quiet William was not present, and demanded to know where "that shaffling sawftyed" was.  Nobody knew, whereupon the irate tailor asked them fiercely "what they used their een for," and then including both them and the absent William in one general sweep of condemnation as "dateliss, numyeds," he put his hands under his semi-clerical coat-tails and stood glowering around, whilst the rest, with gloomy and abashed faces, slowly charged their pipes.

    A few minutes later a scuffling of feet was heard outside.  The door was flung noisily open, and the offending choirmaster came staggering into the room as if he had been pushed from behind, followed by Quiet William looking somewhat "checked " and out of breath.

    Billy had a crestfallen and almost frightened look, and as he fell into a chair, and sitting sideways, leaned his arms on the chair-back and buried his head in them, the onlookers thought that they never saw him look so utterly miserable.

    For several minutes nobody spoke.  Miles looked down again and again at the unhappy Billy as if about to address him, and fidgeted about uneasily as if scarcely knowing how to commence.

    "Thar't a bonny mon, artna?" he said, looking Billy over from head to foot.

    But the culprit neither moved nor spoke, and William gave a long, sympathetic sigh as if to reassure the suffering man.

    It was quite enough, however, for the peppery Miles.

    "Wot's up wi' thee?" he demanded with a snarl.

    William paused a while, softly hissed a fragment of a tune between his teeth, and then answered slowly, "Nay, Aw wur nobbut thinkin' abaat Him as talked abaat throwin' th' fost stooan."

    "Stooan!  It's nor a stooan az hez come daan upon aar chapel to-day; it's a—ahavalanche!" and Miles, whose zeal for the honour of the church was blended, at the moment, with ungodly pride at having so appositely hit upon a long expressive word, glared defiantly around on the company.

    The accused man uttered a deep groan, but gave no other sign.

    Miles waited for some time to give Billy an opportunity of replying, but as he did not do so he cried at last, "A Methody leeadin' singer lewks weel guzzlin' i' th' Red Cat, doesn't he?"

    The culprit hastily lifted his head as if about speak, and then, closing his eyes as if in pain, and groaning more deeply than ever, he dropped his head again upon his chair-propped arms.

    "He's no' bin i' th' Red Cat fur twenty yer," remarked William, quietly.

    "Red Cat!  Neaw!  He's bin wi' them wastril lads ov his ta Kitty Codger's, Aw reacon!"

    "He's neer bin i' Kitty's sin he wur born."

    "Then wheer the ferrups did he get it?  He geet plenty on it sumwheer, that's sartin."

    William shook his head slowly, as if that were the point that specially puzzled him.

    Then there was another pause, and at last Miles resumed, "Well, ther's wun thing sartin: he goos inta that singing-pew no moaar, chuse haa?"

    Billy gave a start, moved uneasily in his seat, and then, lifting a haggard face, he cried piteously: "Duna, lad!  Dunna!"

    Miles was touched.  A sudden film seemed to pass over his vision; but seeing that the rest were in similar plight he obstinately choked back his emotion, and said, "Aw see nowt else fur it.  Tha'll ha ta goo aat."

    Billy jumped to his feet, a wild, desperate look in his eyes, and his face all wet with tears.

    "But Aw winna goo!  Aw conna!  Dun yo want ta kill me?"

    "But tha mun goo!

    "But Aw winna goo!

    There was a dead silence.  A man who actually would not resign when bidden was a novelty, and the assembled authorities looked at each other in perplexity.

    At last Jimmy the Scutcher raised his head, and with a sad face and sadder voice said, "Tha'll ha to goo, lad!"

    Billy, now fairly at bay, turned upon Jimmy, and cried in pleading, protesting tones, "Aw tell thi Aw winna goo!  Aw've set i' that pew forty yer.  It's the ony bit o' heaven ther is i' my loife.  Wod yo tak' that off me?"  And with another wild cry he shook his fist in passionate desperation, and reiterating "Aw winna goo!  Aw winna goo!" he made a sudden dash at the door, and before any one could stop him was gone.



III.


IN the moody and fitful conversation that followed Billy's sudden exit, it became clear to Miles that if he wished to carry his point he would have to proceed with great care.  For it was very evident that William and Jimmy only needed a very little to drive them into open defence of the choirmaster at all cost and against all comers.  Jacky, too, was by no means decided in his mind, and Miles felt himself very shaky on the point.  William and Jimmy would not hear of Billy's place being filled, either by the bookkeeper or any one else, and when Miles demanded if they thought it right that a "druffen felley" should lead the singing they simply sighed and said nothing, and the utmost he could get them to consent to was that for the present Billy should be kept out of the singing-pew.  And the week that followed brought no relief to the situation.  The young people and the more advanced of the older ones were unanimous in demanding Billy's instant dismissal, and even threatened that if there were any more "dilly-dallying" they would carry the matter straight to the super.  And young Abram Briggs, the organist, who was the only person in the village who could play the instrument, and had been especially trained at the expense of the trustees, stoutly declared that it was a teetotal organ, and there would have to be a teetotal leader if it continued to be played at all.

    Billy was the mill cop-carrier, and in that capacity came into constant contact with the hands.  They had therefore many opportunities of speaking with him, but he now adopted a stand-off and gruffly taciturn manner that kept everybody at a distance, so that the generally genial and loquacious old man compelled everybody to leave him alone.

    Saturday afternoon came round again, and, in spite of the numerous discussions, reluctantly commenced and painfully prolonged, no settlement of the case had been arrived at.  Everybody agreed that Billy must be kept out of the singing-pew for the following Sunday, and several others at any rate, but the cop-carrier's manner left in the minds of the authorities an uneasy feeling that Billy himself might have quite other views of the matter.

    It was decided on Saturday evening at Miles's that the chapel should be watched from earliest morn, so that if the offender tried to enter surreptitiously he could be prevented.  This was accordingly arranged for, Abram senior and Noah watched from daybreak to prayer-meeting time, and were then relieved by Quiet William and Jimmy.  Half-past nine arrived and no sign of Billy.  At a quarter to ten the chapel-keeper came to open the doors and attend to his duties.  Still no sign of Billy, and the watchers were just coming to the conclusion that their old friend had thought better of the matter when the chapel-keeper came clambering noisily down the back stairs crying, as soon as he saw his friends, "Whey, chaps, he's theer!"

    "Theer!  Wheer?"

    "On his peirch i' th' singin'-pew!"

    The two watchers turned and looked stupidly at each other for a moment, and then, rushing indoors, climbed up the narrow staircase and saw for themselves.

Yes, there was Billy.  He had a rumpled, dishevelled sort of look about him, and his seedy Sunday clothes were creased all over, indicating only too clearly that he had slept in them, and must therefore have entered the chapel the night before.

    He did not move or turn round as the astonished men gave vent to various characteristic exclamations, but sat steadily looking into his own old hymn-book with a look of dull desperation on his face.

    "He's getten in through th' vestry winda! shouted the chapel-keeper in a loud whisper from the bottom of the staircase.  Quiet William stood looking down on the obstinate choirmaster with a face in which sympathy and amusement were struggling for the mastery, and then, without a word or a sign of what he was about to do, he stepped carefully down towards Billy, stooped, and threw his great arms suddenly round him, lifted him to his feet, and whilst Billy kicked and struggled, and almost shrieked in protestation, carried him down the stairs through the yard, and along a narrow back lane to his own little cottage in Lark Lane.  And that was the last that was seen publicly of Billy that day.

    Now Jimmy the Scutcher had from the beginning of this unfortunate business been strangely quiet about it, though evidently deeply and anxiously concerned.  The fact was, he looked at the subject from a standpoint of his own.  Billy had married Jimmy's sister, and the Scutcher had good reason to suspect that Billy's wife gave him a very uncomfortable time of it.  For the first few years of their married life there had been constant storms; rumour darkly hinted even at blows.  But after a while these seem to have ceased; but Billy lost his old sprightly look, and jocose garrulous manner and looked habitually pensive and dejected.  It was commonly supposed that he was "i' th' club" (henpecked), a suggestion which Billy always resented with quite unnecessary heat.  For years now no particular notice had been taken of the family, and whilst Billy had grown more and more attached to the chapel, and especially to his own department in it, his sons had become notorious drunkards and gamblers, whilst his wife was more than suspected of being inclined to drink.

    But Billy would not have it so.  The misdemeanours of his sons were too numerous and too flagrant to conceal, but any hint, however distant, at misconduct on the part of his wife, he resented with the utmost heat.

    Some years before the circumstances we are narrating took place, Jimmy the Scutcher had found reason to remonstrate with his sister on her conduct towards her husband, but though Jimmy was a terror to all ordinary people in debate, he was no match for his fiery sister, and after a long noisy interview he had poured a last fierce volley of reproach and threatening upon her and had left the house, and since then the two had never spoken.

    But this disgrace of his brother-in-law's troubled him a great deal more than he showed.  He could not help thinking that Billy's wife had had something to do with his fall, and strongly suspected that some more than usually distressing circumstance had driven the unhappy choirmaster to take to drinking.

    The preacher that morning therefore need have had no fear of the great critic had he known it, for truth to tell Jimmy heard next to nothing of the sermon, his mind being occupied altogether with painful thoughts about his poor friend who had just been forcibly removed from the chapel.

    In the quietest part of the same afternoon, therefore, Jimmy sauntered into Quiet William's cottage.  "Wheer is he?" he asked, as he sat down on the long-settle and carelessly threw one leg upon it whilst he drew a long clay pipe from up his coat-sleeve.

    William jerked his thumb upwards to indicate that Billy was in bed upstairs, and went on smoking.

    After several minutes of silence, during which William was evidently preparing to speak, he leaned forward, tapped Jimmy significantly, on the knee, and said, "Aw'll tell thi wot it is: ther's summat mysteerious abaat aw this."

    Jimmy put on a complicated look of secrecy, nodded slowly, and then waited for William to proceed.

    "Aw've fain aat az he's neer bin in ony alehaase within tew moile of here, an' he hedna toime furt goo furrer."

    Jimmy nodded again comprehendingly, and then said, "It's my belief aar Rachil gan it him aat o' pure divilment."

    "Nay, hoo'd no goo that fur, sureli," said William.

    "Aw tell thi hoo'd dew it ta spoite th' chapil an' haggrivate me."

    William looked as if he were very loath to believe any such thing, but Jimmy went on with a sudden accession of resolution: "Thaa con dew as tha's a moind, but if he goos Aw goo, that's aw."

    William was evidently of much the same mind, but contented himself with leaning back, sighing heavily, and remarking, "Th' chapil winna be th' chapil baat Billy."

    Then they lapsed into silence, and as the boards over their heads began to creak, and it was evident that Billy was getting up, William hastened upstairs to attend to him, and presently returned followed by the disgraced singer, looking very sheepish and crestfallen, but all the better for his rest.

    Nobody spoke, and Billy shrank shyly into a chair in the opposite corner of the fireplace to William.  Then Mrs. William brought in the tea, and they all drew up to the table.  Billy tried to eat, but could not; his food seemed to be choking him; and at last, putting down an untasted cup of tea, he burst into a great sob, and cried in quivering tones, "Hay, bud yo arr koind ta me."

    "Huish! mon, huish!" cried William, scarcely less agitated than his visitor.  "Ha sum crumpets, wi' thi?"  And he thrust a piled-up plate of the delectable Sunday tea confection close under Billy's nose.

    But Billy was thinking of things far more serious than crumpets.

    "Aw've disgraced you aw'.  Aw've shawmed Yo'.  Aw wuish Aw'd a-deed afoor Aw'd dun it," he wailed, with a burst of hot tears.

    "Huish, lad!  Dunna tak' on!  Tha con live it daan, tha knows."

    "Live!" he almost screamed; "Aw conna live at aw!  Dun yo' think Aw con live baat the chapil?" and then he paused and sobbed again, crying presently, "Aw'll niver dew it ageean.  Niver!  Niver!"

    Nobody wanted any tea after that, and so, after giving Billy a moment or two to recover himself, William asked gently, "Wot did t' dew it fur?  Hed yore Rachil bin agate on thi?"

    A sudden change came over poor Billy.  A look of alarm and suspicion shot into his red eyes, and he cried earnestly, "Aar Rachil?  Neaw!  Hay, hoo's a good un, Rachil is; hoo made me a fat cake last neet."

    "Aw thowt tha'd happen getten drunk 'cause hoo'd been fratchin' wi' thi;—sum felleys does."

    "Neaw!—hay, neaw!  Aar Rachil had nowt to dew wi' it," and the look of suspicion on Billy's face deepened.

    All this time Jimmy had been listening intently and narrowly watching his brother-in-law, and as William paused, evidently by no means satisfied, Jimmy rose to his feet, and putting on a most fearful scowl he tapped Billy on the shoulder and said sternly, "Billy, thar't lyin'."

    "Naa, then, thee let me alooan," cried Billy, more frightened than ever.

    "Aw tell thi' thar't lyin'.  Yore Rachil's bin agate on thi."

    "Nay, hoo hasna—no—no mitch."

    "Naa, come! aat wi' it."  But neither sternness, nor threats, nor coaxing could induce Billy to say anything against his wife, and so at last, though still very suspicious, his two friends turned the conversation to other phases of the subject.

    Greatly relieved to get away from what he evidently regarded as dangerous ground, the cop-carrier became exceedingly pliable on all other points.

    He consented after a struggle to abandon his intention of resuming his seat in the singing-pew, and then, as it was thought wise that everybody should know as soon as possible of his change of mind, he also agreed to go to the chapel and sit somewhere else.

    Having gone so far, Billy went further and announced his intention of going to the penitent form after the service, and it was with some difficulty that he was dissuaded.  So far all was well.  Billy went and sat with Quiet William in the front pew of the gallery.  The singing-pew being thus empty, the organ led the singing alone, and Billy stood up by the side of his friend, hanging his head down, and every now and again wiping his eyes.  After service William took Billy with him to Miles's, and the company assembled there did its best to make the poor fellow feel at home.  Late in the evening, however, a note was brought to Miles.  It was from the super.  He had been preaching at Cockey Lane in the afternoon, and had there met the bookkeeper, who, as they walked home together towards Wallbury, told him the story of Billy's fall and the agitated condition of the society, and the note was a brief request to Miles to call a special leaders' meeting for the following night.  Now the bookkeeper could not have taken a course more certain to defeat his own ends than the one he had resorted to, for when the super's note had been read there was not a man present but was heartily, almost fiercely, on Billy's side.

    "Oh! he thinks he'll manidge it that rooad, does he?" cried Miles, indignantly.  "Well, them as lives th' lungest 'ull see th' mooast, that's aw," and the rest looked eloquent endorsements of Miles's words.

    The rest of the evening, Billy having departed, was spent in raking up and reciting all the good things the choirmaster had done, and the sacrifices he had made for the Scowcroft chapel and congregation.

    Next night the super arrived to find the vestry lighted up and prepared for the meeting, but quite empty.  He waited a while, but nobody came.  He began to pace up and down the room impatiently, looking every moment or two at his watch, but nobody arrived.  A quarter of an hour passed and he was still alone.  He hunted up the chapel-keeper and made a few inquiries.

    But that officer knew nothing, or, at any rate, would tell nothing, and at last the super made his way to Miles's.

    When he opened the door he could scarcely see for tobacco smoke.  As it had cleared a little he glanced round and discovered that the room was inconveniently full, every man whom he expected to have seen at the vestry being present, Jimmy the Scutcher alone excepted.

    "Gentlemen, have you forgotten the meeting?" he asked, in not too gracious tones.

    "Neaw," answered Miles, with a rising inflection of his voice which was ominous had the super known it.

    "But we must not stay here.  I have come over purposely.  We must go and hold the meeting."

    Miles leaned as far back as he could in his chair and said, with a studious indifference as he contemplated the shank end of a ham that was hanging on the joists near the door, "Yo con goa if yo'on a moind."

    "But, gentlemen," began the super, amazed and a little nettled, "we must really――"  But just then the door opened and in stepped Jimmy the Scutcher, still greasy, and covered with lint and dirt, having evidently not yet been home since he left the mill.  He appeared not to have seen the super, but stepping eagerly across the floor and standing over Quiet William, he fixed upon him that terrible eye of his, and glancing slyly at the super out of the other, he cried, "Didn't Aw tell thi he wur lyin'?"

    William looked up eagerly and demanded "Haa dust know?"

    "Aw've fund it out.  Aw've bin maulin' wi' yond owd—owd huzzy iver sin' the shop (mill) losed."

    "Well?"

    "Aw could get nowt aat of her fur a great while, the brazzened besom; bud at the lung last Aw've fun' this aat," and Jimmy paused for the question he knew would follow.

    "Wot?"

    "He wurna drunk of his own accord," and having delivered his master stroke, Jimmy stepped back to watch its effect on the rest.

    There was a long pause.  "Yes, but nobody can make a man drink if he doesn't want to, you know," said the minister dubiously.

    "Conna they?  Hay, mestur, yo' dunna know iverything, an' yo' dunna know aar Rachil."

    The minister seemed disposed to argue the point, but he soon found that every man present believed with Jimmy, and that it would be impossible to get anything like an impartial discussion of the case.  He soon learnt also that Billy had retired from his post, and as this was the main point of anxiety with him just then, he was fain to leave the rest for the present, and in a short time he took his departure.

    The next Sunday the singers were all back in their places, and Billy sat once more with his old friend Quiet William.

    In a week or two efforts were made to get the bookkeeper appointed choirmaster, but on that question the elders were quite immovable and the singers had to be content for the time with such guidance as Abram the organist could give them, the bookkeeper meanwhile transferring his patronage to "Joany's loft."

    For the next few weeks nothing worth recording in connection with this story occurred, except that our friends noticed that Billy was gradually getting very thin and sickly-looking, and that even when the choir, repenting of their harshness, sang a tune which Billy always regarded as his greatest triumph in original composition, he never put in a note.

    And just then a diversion occurred.  One of those exciting and yet morally and spiritually fruitful revivals broke out at the chapel, and for a time Billy and his fall were forgotten in the overwhelming interests thus excited.

    The effects of this visitation manifested themselves, as they often do, in somewhat singular forms, and one day a deputation of the choir, made up entirely of teetotalers, waylaid Billy after a week-evening service, and formally invited him to return to his place in the choir.  Very sadly, and yet with a firmness strange to him, Billy declined, and the elders of the church, though greatly disappointed, admitted that they liked him all the better for it.

    One evening, just at the commencement of a special revival service, who should walk into the chapel but Rachel Wardle.  Billy was sitting upstairs, and did not see her, but as soon as the prayer-meeting commenced, Rachel, without a word of invitation, walked straight up to the Communion rail and fell on her knees.  Then Billy saw her, and a cry that was almost a scream, broke from him, and he hurried downstairs, and in a moment or two was kneeling and praying at her side.

    One or two, as was the custom, went to speak to her, and were somewhat nonplussed by the candour and naïveté of her descriptions of her feelings and desires.

    Presently she rose to her feet, and turning her back on those who were counselling her and facing the congregation, she cried, "Fowks, Aw conna, get saved till Aw get summat off my crop."  Billy, still kneeling at the communion rail, gave a little startled cry at the sound of his wife's voice, and rose hastily to his feet as if to interrupt her.

    But she waved him back with her left hand, and said, "Aw've bin a weary bad un fur a deeal o' years naa," and then she paused to wipe her streaming eyes.  "Bud Aw should 'a' bin a foine seet wur if Aw hedn't a-hed a husband as wur a hangil aat o' heaven."

    "Huish, woman! huish!  Sit thi daan," cried Billy, in eager and yet somewhat suspicious excitement.

    "Aw winna, huish!  Aw'll speak chuse wot tha, says."

    Then Billy turned with distress in his eyes to the congregation, and cried, "Yo munna, believe her, fowks.  Her's wandthering."  Rachel stood quietly still for a moment with more dignity than seemed possible to her, and then she went on, "Aye, Aw've bin wandthering ta lung, bud Aw've come to my senses at last."

    "Bless the Lord," rang out all over the chapel.

    "Fowk," she continued, "Aw want ta tell yo' abaat aar Billy being drunk."

    The responses and "Amens" instantly ceased, and there was a deathly stillness all in a moment, whilst Billy jumped to his feet and was about to interrupt again, when Quiet William, who had stolen up behind him, took him by the arm and pulled him back, at the same time covering Billy's mouth with his great hand.  "Fowk, he didna tak it hissel; it wur teemed daan his throttle bi his nowty lads an' his nowtier woife."  "God forgive her."

    "Hallelujah!" shouted several through choking throats.

    Rachel seemed about to say more, and had opened her mouth for the purpose, but suddenly breaking down she turned and rushed at her husband, and seizing him by the neck and passionately kissing him, she cried, "Bless thi owd face!  Bless thi!"

    The scene that followed must be left to the imagination of the reader.  Only when the excitement had somewhat sudsided somebody suggested a hymn, and Billy, starting forward and raising his voice, burst out in one of the very oldest of the old Scowcroft tunes――


God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.


And next Sunday Billy resumed his place in the singing-pew.



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