The Curmudgeon


Saturday, January 05, 2013

5 January 1066

It was nearly closing time at the Gallows and Glockenspiel. In their enigmatic corner, Mr Boggust and Mr Blodgett were engaged upon some enigmatic business involving rodents; nobody was watching very closely, but it was difficult to avoid hearing a squeak now and then. The card-players were all cheating with sullen obduracy, except for Limbless Fred who was cheating with cheerful persistence; but none of them were winning because somebody - not Constable Pring - had hidden the two of clubs and then forgotten where.

"Fifth of January, ten sixty-six," proclaimed Hooligan Motts from behind the bar. "Nearly closing time."

The proclamation did nothing to interrupt the group of men at table seventeen, who had spent the last couple of hours in hushed and intensive conference. Except for the youngest among them, they talked almost as quietly as Mr Blodgett and Mr Boggust, and even the presence of Granny Forbus within spitting distance had barely distracted them.

They had entered the Gallows and Glockenspiel in a short yet ceremonial line, the most decrepit first and the youngest at the rear. Hooligan Motts, who was polishing up the barrel of Cadger's Muckle in case of emergencies, had greeted them with his customary imperturbability. Their leader's little eyes had glared at Hooligan Motts from under thick white eyebrows and over a thin white beard; then he had knocked on the floor with the staff he carried, and the procession broke up and sat down. The leader had remained upright, leaning on his staff and wheezing.

"We are ealdormen," he said finally, "of the Witangemot."
"Good for you," said Hooligan Motts.
"We are in conference," said the leader, and sat down with the rest. Hooligan Motts served them red wine and water at discreet intervals; the wine was made from a genetically-modified, highly carnivorous twenty-fourth-century grape and caused the leader's left eyebrow to twitch like a nervous rodent in the hands of Mr Blodgett, but nobody else seemed to mind.

"With King Edward's death, it is clear that the realm stands in peril of invasion," the leader began, while Granny Forbus muttered and slurped in regions beyond. "Whatever happens," the leader continued, "we shall face war within the year; it remains only for this committee to determine which is the best man to lead us through the danger."
"I agree," said the second most decrepit of the ealdormen; and the rest, in descending order of decrepitude, agreed also. The only man to remain silent was the youngest, who was not decrepit at all and was dressed like a warrior. As the committee came into the room, Melon Head Myrtle had gazed upon him with a certain approval; at least until she noticed his moustache.

One of the ealdormen now addressed the warrior. "Because of that Yorkshire episode, your brother bears you no good will," he said. "We hear that he is seeking support in Norway."
"Family values," endorsed Granny Forbus loudly, tipping her empty glass in the warrior's direction.

Under the collective glare of the ealdormen of the Witangemot, Hooligan Motts made haste to deploy the quieting gin. "What are they talking about?" demanded Granny Forbus in a stage whisper that would have disarranged coiffures in the dress circle. "Is there going to be a war?"
"Not in my pub there isn't," said Hooligan Motts.
"We've had them here before," said Granny Forbus.
"Not real ones we haven't," said Hooligan Motts; "not with weapons and such. We don't have the panelling for it."
"Well, I'd still like to know what they're talking about," said Granny Forbus firmly, and hauled her chair a few inches closer with a scrape that caused dentures to dislodge halfway across the bar.

"Harald and Tostig are not our only sources of difficulty," the most decrepit of the ealdormen was saying. "There is Duke William to be considered as well."
"The duke of Normandy is formidable, no doubt," said the younger man; "but he is not invincible."
"That's the spirit," yelled Granny Forbus. "What is he, after all? Just a Viking who's halfway to becoming a Frenchman."

The ealdormen of the Witangemot made noises among themselves, and looked as if they might be considering a punitive expedition against Granny Forbus; but the younger man rose from his seat and bowed his head briefly in her direction. Granny Forbus was so surprised that she lapsed into near-silence for the rest of the conference.

"It is settled, then." said the most decrepit of the ealdormen at last. "The thegns and the rest of the Witangemot will follow our recommendation. We shall have the coronation tomorrow, since having it this evening would show unseemly haste." The committee stood, and each of the ealdormen in turn shook the younger man's hand.

"I thank you for your confidence," the warrior said; "I fear not Harald of Norway, nor Duke William nor my brother, nor any combination thereof. Let them all attack at once, and still I shall sweep them from our shores. We will fight them on the beaches; we will fight them in the fields and in the hills."
"God save the king," muttered an ealdorman of intermediate decrepitude; but he muttered it very quietly and only Mr Boggust and a rodent heard him, and the rodent was a little distracted and didn't remember for long.

"Closing time," said Hooligan Motts, and with due ceremony the ealdormen of the Witangemot filed out.

The warrior paused at the door and addressed Granny Forbus. "I thank you for your confidence also," he said.

Granny Forbus waved her glass. "To victory," she said. "Here's mud in your eye."


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