The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

4 December 1154

It was almost the hour of closing at the Gallows and Glockenspiel. Granny Forbus nodded over her gin, which for many years had been almost the only thing that agreed with her. Malvolio Quabbage was chewing matchsticks to improve his breath, and Pippa Twelve Toes was bothering the card-players. Hooligan Motts had just flushed out a leaky tap with Mudgett's Certified Ninety-Proof Malarial Delirium; its vapours hung heavy behind the bar, and Hooligan Motts was just wondering whether he could draw a deep breath without risk of thoracic scarring, when two cowled figures staggered in.

Hooligan Motts straightened his back and took a deep breath. "Fourth of December, eleven fifty-four," he announced. "Nearly closing time."

The cowled figures approached, each leaning on the other. Their faces were shrouded in shadow, and their voices mumbled indistinctly. They tripped over legs now and again: sometimes their own legs, sometimes one another's. Only when they reached the bar could they steady themselves sufficiently to unlink their elbows. They threw back their cowls, revealing pinkish monkish faces.

"Good evening, and blessings upon this house," said the elder one, whose face had little to distinguish it except a beard like a failed briar-bush. "We are friars, of the order of Saint Ethylbreth."
"That holy English saint," said the younger, whose face had the distinction of being even less distinguished than his companion's, "who is credited by tradition with inventing the plainsong chant for the watchers of games on the village green. We're English too. English, like the new Pope."
"Now, Cuthbert," said the elder friar, "don't tempt fate. We haven't yet heard the result of the election, and may not hear for many days."
"You want to bet against him?" demanded Cuthbert. Beneath his ragged tonsure his ears glowed maroon with indignation. "You think it'll be another Italian, do you?"
"I think Cardinal Brakespear has a very good chance," said the elder friar diplomatically.
"You think he'll win?"
"I wouldn't bet against it," said the elder friar, producing a purse of money from the irredeemable depths of his habit. "We are friars," he informed Hooligan Motts once again; "English friars, as my friend has pointed out. We are mendicants, travelling in pairs and sharing all we have, bed as well as board, in order to avoid bodily temptation."

He fished out a couple of coins and slapped them down on the bar. "Wine immediately, two," he ordered, "one with honey and one with water, and serve the water separately, to avoid any little miracles of dilution. An English man of God does not drink to a possible English pope in one part to three parts, but rather the reverse."
"And that's gospel," said Cuthbert, dissolving into giggles which dried up rather fast before the imperturbability of Hooligan Motts.
"An English Pope," said Melon Head Myrtle; "well, that'll make a nice change. They're usually foreign-made, I believe."
"There'll be hell to pay for Arnold," said Cuthbert, "that's for sure and certain."
"Arnold who?" asked Melon Head Myrtle.
"The villain of Brescia, of course," said Cuthbert. "The demagogue who preaches poverty for the church, against all doctrine, sense and reason."
"Poverty for the church?" said Melon Head Myrtle. "He sounds like one of those fanatical fundamentalist things that are always stirring up trouble. The sooner we have a proper English Pope who can sort it all out C of E fashion, the better we all shall be."
"See of where?" asked Cuthbert.
"Oh, you," said Melon Head Myrtle, and rammed her elbow into his midriff companionably.
"Arnold shall be dealt with, never fear," said the elder friar while Cuthbert wheezed. "Strung up and burned at the very least, unless he should recant. Cardinal Brakespear is a most active and holy person. He has spent much time and effort setting up schools in Scandinavia."
"Really," said Melon Head Myrtle, who liked a well-kippered troublemaker here and there but wasn't sure whether she held with Scandinavian schools. "Well, here's to many another English Pope."

She raised her glass and gulped the dregs. Cuthbert had recovered just enough to straighten up and finish his wine, and the two friars staggered off to continue their pilgrimage. "Just as long as doesn't call himself by one of those ungodly Roman names," muttered one of them as they went out.

"Closing time," said Hooligan Motts.


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