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JOE PEPPER

A TALE OF BONFIRE TIME

Once upon a time, that is some few years since, our little village of Tipny was on the verge of a very serious revolution, the facts of the case being as follows:— Tipny was famous for its bonfires, they being always a great deal bigger than those of the surrounding districts.  Everybody seemed to patronise and take part in them, and the system of kindling huge bonfires on the fifth of November was almost as old as Tipny itself.  But at last a great breach was threatened in this much respected institution.  A new constable had been imported into the village in the shape of a big, raw-boned, fierce-looking individual, generally known as Joe Pepper; and this important personage had, in his official capacity, issued peremptory orders that bonfires were henceforth to be prohibited.  The indignation of the people when they heard this was very great, but the younger portion of the inhabitants defiantly set his authority aside, and exerted themselves with greater energy than usual in preparation for the annual festival, which was then near at hand.  Some were busy every night in going about hunting for stray pieces of wood, and now and then easing some hedge of its cumbersome burden.  Others went from house to house singing—

It’s th’ fifth of November,
We hope you’ll remember,
If you don’t give us a lump of coal,
Or a piece of tharcake (parkin).
We’ll shoot thro’ th’ keyhole.

Or should this mild threat prove unavailing, they would urge with great force—

Up a ladder down a wall,
A cob of coal will serve us all.

In this manner they collected sufficient material to make several bonfires, but it was resolved that the number should be three.  Being in perfect readiness, the time was looked forward to with no ordinary amount of anxiety.  It was the sole theme of conversation.  Old people who sat comfortably at their firesides spoke very gravely upon the matter, and wondered how Mr. Pepper could have the impudence to come meddling with things that he had no business to do.  The young people were quite cheerful about it, and did not manifest the slightest doubt of defeating the invading enemy; and so time went on until at length the eventful day arrived.  The weather was everything that could be desired.  A cool, breezy November day, just such a one as could be wished for bonfires.  Everybody was busy in order to get their work done in good time, so as to witness or take part in the coming scenes.  As afternoon approached preparations were made for kindling fires.  The “old kings” were duly installed into their respective positions in centre of the piles, and were each crowned with an old hat to add to their majestical dignity.  Little children were running to and fro with coals and “stocks,” and seeming to consider themselves highly favoured with the occupation.  Larger boys were busily engaged in putting the same (coals and stocks we mean, not the children) on the top of the piles, which soon began to assume very imposing dimensions.

At length everything was completed, and as yet Joe Pepper had not put in an appearance.  Many wondered whether he had given up his intended sortie; and others who seemed altogether indifferent as to whether he had or not, busied themselves with whitewashing a large stump, which stood in Cinder Lane (though for what purpose they did this it is impossible to say, unless it were as a kind of memoriam of the great day), and then inscribing upon it in large black capitals the word — PEPPER.  Having done this to their entire satisfaction, they attended more particularly to the fires which now began to blaze away very freely, and which appeared all the brighter in the darkness which gradually gathered around them.  Still Joe Pepper had not molested them.  What was the matter?  Nobody could tell, and as he was only a policeman nobody exhibited any symptoms of caring.  It grew darker and darker, the fires blazed away with a brighter glow, the young men began to fire off their guns and send their rockets flying in the air; the little children roasted and ate their potatoes quite comfortably, and yet Joe Pepper came not.  Some thought that he was not going to come, and that he had only said so to frighten them; other were of opinion that he himself was afraid of coming.  But be this as it may, it soon became a general conviction that he would not disturb them that night, and by and by they ceased to think of him.

Meanwhile Joe Pepper had been making arrangements to take the citadel by storm.  He had in the first place disposed of a very large plate of meal porridge, and a moderate sized muffin, in order that he might the better endure the fatigues of the struggle.  He then put on a strong pair of clogs, which, though they might look very unpolicemanlike, yet he chuckled to himself that they would assist him very much in extinguishing the fires.  He next secured his staff very firmly to his wrist with a strong cord, so that he might make short work of his enemies without fear of being disarmed.  He finally muffled himself a great deal, for he was of a very soft nature, and sallied forth on his bonfire extinguishing expedition.

His house was situated about a mile from the nearest bonfire, so that he had a tolerably long walk before him, but, however, it gave him the opportunity of planning his mode of attack.  At first he thought that he would march unceremoniously to the fires and put them out, but then he thought that there would be so many people around that it would not be altogether a safe policy, so he abandoned it.  An idea then presented itself to his mind, that he should fall upon them by surprise, and by making some unearthly noise frighten all the people away.  This notion seemed so easy, and was so congenial to Mr. Pepper’s nature, that he at once adopted it, and was already exulting over its triumphs when he discovered some other person walking a little ahead of him.  Being not over fond of walking alone in the dark lanes, he quickened his pace, and was not at all dissatisfied to find that the person was no other than a young woman (at least so she called herself, though nobody else did) named Mary Weedle.  Joe Pepper had often cast an admiring eye on this Mary Weedle, and had as often wished for an opportunity of finding her alone, so that he could declare unto her his boundless and unfathomable love; but he felt a little put about that it had come so unexpectedly, for he was at a loss how to begin.  He therefore gave a slight cough when within a few yards of her, to indicate his presence.  Miss Weedle, however, appeared to take no notice of it, and only walked a little quicker than she had been doing.  Mr. Pepper also quickened his pace, and was soon side by side with his fair companion.

“A very fine evening Mar 
Miss Weedle,” said Joe.  He was about to have said “Mary” but he checked himself.

“Yes,” replied Mary.

Joe did not expect this brief reply, and he did not know how to proceed.  If she had only said that it looked like rain, or that it was very cool, or something to that effect, he could have done better; but as she only said ‘yes,’ he could make nothing of it.  So they walked on a short distance in silence, until at length Joe unconsciously gave another low cough.  Miss Weedle did the same.

This encouraged Joe, who thereupon remarked that it had been a very cool day.  Miss Weedle said that it had.

This kind of argument being thoroughly conclusive, the conversation again came to a standstill.  Miss Weedle would not say anything, and Mr. Pepper hadn’t got anything to say, so they walked on very mutely together.

Joe began to think that it looked very strange, and gave another feeble cough.  Miss Weedle immediately followed him.  He again began the conversation by saying that it was the fifth of November.

Miss Weedle replied that it was.

This again exhausted Joe’s stock of conversation, so he consoled himself by another cough, which he half smothered by endeavouring to check it.  Miss Weedle instantly smothered one likewise.  Joe then intimated his belief that the children of the village would be having their bonfires.

Miss Weedle said that she thought so too.

He further told her that he was then going to put them out.

“Put them out?” said Miss Weedle; “what for?”

“Why, don’t you see,” replied Joe, who was a little puzzled by the question, “I’m a member of the force, and I’ve got my duties to perform; and I consider it one of my duties to put out these fires, for in my humble opinion they do more harm than good, and anything of that description I shall, if it be in my power, put down.”

“Why, how do they do harm, Mr. Pepper?” asked Miss Weedle.

“Why, in many a way,” said Joe.  “What would you think if you were married, and had some children who went to bonfires?”

Miss Weedle said nothing, but inwardly wished that the first part of the supposition were true, no matter what became of the latter.

Meanwhile Joe continued: “They would,” he said, “crowd around the fires, and thereby get a cold which might perhaps end in fever and death, and then how your heart would be troubled to think that you had permitted them to go.”

Miss Weedle heaved a gentle sigh, and Joe proceeded.

“Ah,” said he, “I hold it to be the duty of every mother to keep her children away from bonfires, and if mothers do not like to hurt their children’s feelings by preventing them, I think it then falls to the lot of the policeman to stand betwixt the mother’s tender love and the children, and see that duty is done.”

Miss Weedle held down her head, but whether it was that she had been softened a little by Joe’s eloquence or not, we cannot say.  Certain it is that she walked some distance without raising it, and when at length Joe could not restrain himself any longer, he put his arm around her, and gently asked her if she did not think the same.  She did not repel it, but looked at him in such a loving manner, that he would have kissed her and declared his love on the spot, had he not caught a glimpse of something which, to use a common expression, “made his heart cold.”  His manner startled Miss Weedle, who looked to see what was the matter, but no sooner had she done so, than she uttered a loud scream, and clung helplessly to Joe for protection.  Mr. Pepper scarcely knew what to do.  He almost wished that he had not seen Miss Weedle, for had he been alone he might probably have escaped.  But this was now entirely out of question.  There he was with something terrible in front of him, and Miss Weedle behind him, clinging to him, and begging him not to leave her.  This, as there was no other alternative, he consented to do, and endeavoured to console her by saying that there was nothing to fear.  But somehow or other Miss Weedle would not believe, but continued to hold on to his coat tails, and scream out “Help,” “Murder,” loud enough to arouse the whole village.  Joe trembled all over, his teeth chattered together, and his knees knocked against each other at an extremely rapid rate.  What could he do?  What any human being would have done under the circumstances.  The horrible figure showed no signs of retreating, and Miss Weedle continued to scream most piteously.

Suddenly a bright idea struck him.  Loosening his truncheon from his wrist he flung it with all his might at the unearthly monster before him, and then without waiting to ascertain the effect of this proceeding, he caught Miss Weedle in his arms, and turning his steps homeward, he ran as fast as his legs would possibly carry him.  It was no light burden which he had to bear, but he bore the task bravely.  Love and fear work wonders, and Mr. Pepper was labouring under the influence of both.  On, on, he went, panting for breath at almost every step, his hat blew off and went rolling merrily along in an opposite direction; but that was no impedient to his progress.  His heart beat quick and loud, as he fancied that he had heard some one in pursuit; so on, on, he went, puffing and blowing, his hair standing erect, his coat tails floating about in the air, and his clogs clattering on the uneven paved road.  Gradually his pace slackened, but he held out courageously to the last, and then sank exhausted on the ground.

It was some little time before he awoke to a state of consciousness, and then oh! joy of joys!  Miss Weedle was nursing him with such tenderness, that he felt as though he could have lain there all night in the cold, with such a loving heart to care for him.  But what had become of the ghost?

Miss Weedle said that she had seen nothing of it, and thought that, perhaps, Mr. Pepper had hurt it very seriously.  Joe said that he was sure he had, though how he acquired this information it is impossible to say; but then there was nobody to question the assertion but Miss Weedle, and how could she doubt anything that Mr. Pepper said.

Joe then, on his bended knees, told his dear Mary how he loved and adored her, and how he could not live a minute unless she consented to accept him; and as Miss Weedle could not bear the idea of shortening anybody’s life a single second, she consented, and thus in the language of somebody or other, we forgot who, two souls were made happy, and two hearts were made into one.

After having seen Miss Weedle safe home, it was Joe’s first intention to endeavour to recover his runaway hat, and at the same time to make a great onslaught on the bonfires, but then he would have to go along Cinder Lane, and perhaps, encounter the horrid spectacle again; which by the way we may say he would have done cheerfully enough, and hazarded all danger had he been as he once was, alone, and only himself to care for.  But now there was Miss Weedle, what would become of her if anything happened to him.  Ah! the thought was too much for him, so he wended his way home trying to imagine himself a heroic martyr and a worthy object of Miss Weedle’s love.

As soon as he got home he went to bed but he could not sleep for thinking of his future happiness; and daybreak found him up and on his way towards the abode of his heart’s treasure.  But Miss Weedle was not so early, so he walked on until he came to a large white-washed stump, with his own name figuring conspicuously upon it, and on approaching it, he discerned something near to it which on taking it up proved to be his own lost hat, which had blown off the night before, and which had rolled on through the mud and wet until it had stopped against this veritable stump and there defied the wind to move it an inch further.

Joe stood for some minutes in confused amazement, congratulating himself upon the recovery of his hat, and wondering what could be the meaning of the stump.  Whilst in this perplexity he also noticed something else a few yards from him, and what on earth should it be but his own faithful truncheon which he had hurled with such force at — at what? —why at the stump the night before, and there sure enough was a large dinge that the blow had made.  Joe muttered something to himself and walked home.

In about a month after the villagers were apprised of a marriage that had taken place and were somewhat astonished to find that the parties were our old friends Miss Mary Weedle and Mr. Joseph Pepper.

Years have since gone by and the village bonfires are as large and as numerous as ever, and amongst the many children who share in the enjoyment thereof may be observed two or three descendants of the worthy village constable Joe Pepper.

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