The Curmudgeon


Monday, January 28, 2013

28 January 1896

It was almost closing time at the Gallows and Glockenspiel. In their enigmatic corner, Mr Blodgett and Mr Boggust were doing enigmatic things with wheels and spiders; at the card-players' table, Limbless Fred was employing gratuitous violence in his performance of the function of dealer. Melon Head Myrtle stood nearby looking unimpressed, in case Limbless Fred intended to impress her, and Hooligan Motts stood behind the bar polishing his knuckles.

The doors opened. "Damnation," boomed a voice.
"Twenty-eighth of January, eighteen ninety-six," clarified Hooligan Motts. "Nearly closing time."
"Damnation," boomed the voice again, "and doom."

The gentleman who entered possessed a preternatural bulk, which was covered almost in its entirety by protective layers of tweed and leather. Beneath his tweed cape he wore a leather overcoat, and beneath his leather overcoat he wore a tweed jacket, and above his leather boots he wore tweed trousers with leather gaiters. Upon his head was a leather cap, and leather gloves were upon his hands. His eyes were shielded by goggles, his chin was invisible behind a woollen scarf, and the rest of his face was obscured by a moustache. Granny Forbus detected the tip of his nose and tried to stare it down, but the gentleman clumped past her in his leather boots, all unawares.

Reaching the bar, the gentleman tugged the leather gloves from his hands and removed the leather cap from his head. He put the gloves inside the cap and the cap on the bar. He unravelled his woollen scarf and folded it into a pocket of his leather overcoat; he removed his tweed cape and hung it over a bar-stool. He removed his leather overcoat and hung it over the tweed cape. He pulled his goggles away from his eyes and let them hang around his neck, which was a good deal thinner than most observers would have anticipated, even at the Gallows and Glockenspiel. Indeed, the gentleman as a whole was now considerably less bulky than before in virtually every aspect of his being, except for the moustache.

"Doom and damnation," proclaimed a squeaky voice from behind the moustache. "A shilling, sir, a shilling."
"We don't serve them here," said Hooligan Motts.
"What?" The moustache underwent a brief contraction, and Pippa Twelve Toes had to resist an urge to swat it. "Don't be fatuous, fellow," squeaked the gentleman at Hooligan Motts. "Be so good as to serve me a whisky and soda. A shilling, indeed."
"A shilling?" said Pippa Twelve Toes.
"The price of being ahead of one's time," said the gentleman. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr Walter Arnold, of East Peckham."
"Very nice, I'm sure," agreed Pippa Twelve Toes.

Hooligan Motts served Mr Walter Arnold a single measure of Flotsam's Old Blend with soda, and Mr Walter Arnold emptied the glass into a small opening beneath his moustache, whereupon his forehead turned purple, after the usual manner of foreheads attached to persons who drank Flotsam's Old Blend without due precaution.

"What was that about a shilling?" asked Pippa Twelve Toes, when Mr Walter Arnold looked as if he might be able to squeak again.
"A shilling, my dear lady," said Mr Walter Arnold, "is the sum and total of the fine which has been imposed upon me this very day, by a hidebound legalistic poltroon at the Magistrates' Court." Hooligan Motts refilled Mr Walter Arnold's glass, and he sipped at it cautiously. The purple returned fleetingly to his forehead, but this time it faded away without his having to cough or dig his fingernails into anything.

"Not that the money is important, of course," went on Mr Walter Arnold; "it is the principle of the matter. It is the fact that one may be dragged into court and suffer such a stain upon one's honour, such a blot on one's escutcheon, all for the so-called crime of risking one's safety in the cause of science."
"Science, was it?" said Pippa Twelve Toes. "Well, I can understand how that might blot an escutcheon or so. All those test tubes and things."
"This was a practical experiment," said Mr Walter Arnold; "the public demonstration of a remarkable feat of mechanised transport, in defiance of all considerations of personal safety and petty legality."
"In laymen's terms, then," said Malvolio Quabbage, "you exceeded the speed limit."
"Exceeded, sir?" The squeak rose to a squawk, while the moustache bristled forth indignantly. "I quadrupled the speed limit, sir. I drove my horseless carriage, sir, at eight miles an hour through the village of Paddock Wood, despite the constraints of meddling officialdom which would have limited me to two."
"You were travelling at four times the legal limit," said Malvolio Quabbage, "in the interests of science?"
"Precisely," said Mr Walter Arnold; "and science would have benefited immensely, had I not been pursued for five miles and ultimately overtaken by a meddling policeman."
"Quite a fast runner then, that policeman," consoled Pippa Twelve Toes.
"He had a bicycle," snapped Mr Walter Arnold, "which I really think unnecessary, what with there being so much poverty in the world. Surely, if policemen are paid to patrol our streets, they can do so much more thoroughly on foot, as their faculties of observation and apprehension will not be impeded by excessive velocity and physical indolence. In any case, I was summoned to court at Tonbridge this very day, where a magistrate blotted my escutcheon by relieving me of a shilling."

Mr Walter Arnold drained the last of his Flotsam's Old Blend, placed a banknote in the hand of Hooligan Motts and began to resume his driving clothes. He put on his leather overcoat and threw his tweed cape across his suddenly expanded shoulders; he took his woollen scarf from its pocket and wrapped it around his newly substantial neck. He took his leather cap from the bar, took his leather gloves from the cap, and pulled the cap over his head and the gloves over his hands. He put his goggles back over his eyes, inclined his head briefly and effortfully in the direction of Pippa Twelve Toes, and clumped his way out. A few moments later, an engine rattled to life, died and was boomily consigned to damnation and doom.

"Closing time," said Hooligan Motts.


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