The napoleon of notting.., p.15
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Napoleon of Notting Hill, p.15

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

  CHAPTER I--_The Empire of Notting Hill_

  On the evening of the third of October, twenty years after the greatvictory of Notting Hill, which gave it the dominion of London, KingAuberon came, as of old, out of Kensington Palace.

  He had changed little, save for a streak or two of grey in his hair,for his face had always been old, and his step slow, and, as it were,decrepit.

  If he looked old, it was not because of anything physical or mental.It was because he still wore, with a quaint conservatism, thefrock-coat and high hat of the days before the great war. "I havesurvived the Deluge," he said. "I am a pyramid, and must behave assuch."

  As he passed up the street the Kensingtonians, in their picturesqueblue smocks, saluted him as a King, and then looked after him as acuriosity. It seemed odd to them that men had once worn so elvish anattire.

  The King, cultivating the walk attributed to the oldest inhabitant("Gaffer Auberon" his friends were now confidentially desired to callhim), went toddling northward. He paused, with reminiscence in hiseye, at the Southern Gate of Notting Hill, one of those nine greatgates of bronze and steel, wrought with reliefs of the old battles, bythe hand of Chiffy himself.

  "Ah!" he said, shaking his head and assuming an unnecessary air ofage, and a provincialism of accent--"Ah! I mind when there warn't noneof this here."

  He passed through the Ossington Gate, surmounted by a great lion,wrought in red copper on yellow brass, with the motto, "Nothing Ill."The guard in red and gold saluted him with his halberd.

  It was about sunset, and the lamps were being lit. Auberon paused tolook at them, for they were Chiffy's finest work, and his artistic eyenever failed to feast on them. In memory of the Great Battle of theLamps, each great iron lamp was surmounted by a veiled figure, swordin hand, holding over the flame an iron hood or extinguisher, as ifready to let it fall if the armies of the South and West should againshow their flags in the city. Thus no child in Notting Hill could playabout the streets without the very lamp-posts reminding him of thesalvation of his country in the dreadful year.

  "Old Wayne was right in a way," commented the King. "The sword doesmake things beautiful. It has made the whole world romantic by now.And to think people once thought me a buffoon for suggesting aromantic Notting Hill. Deary me, deary me! (I think that is theexpression)--it seems like a previous existence."

  Turning a corner, he found himself in Pump Street, opposite the fourshops which Adam Wayne had studied twenty years before. He enteredidly the shop of Mr. Mead, the grocer. Mr. Mead was somewhat older,like the rest of the world, and his red beard, which he now wore witha moustache, and long and full, was partly blanched and discoloured.He was dressed in a long and richly embroidered robe of blue, brown,and crimson, interwoven with an Eastern complexity of pattern, andcovered with obscure symbols and pictures, representing his warespassing from hand to hand and from nation to nation. Round his neckwas the chain with the Blue Argosy cut in turquoise, which he wore asGrand Master of the Grocers. The whole shop had the sombre andsumptuous look of its owner. The wares were displayed as prominentlyas in the old days, but they were now blended and arranged with asense of tint and grouping, too often neglected by the dim grocers ofthose forgotten days. The wares were shown plainly, but shown not somuch as an old grocer would have shown his stock, but rather as aneducated virtuoso would have shown his treasures. The tea was storedin great blue and green vases, inscribed with the nine indispensablesayings of the wise men of China. Other vases of a confused orange andpurple, less rigid and dominant, more humble and dreamy, storedsymbolically the tea of India. A row of caskets of a simple silverymetal contained tinned meats. Each was wrought with some rude butrhythmic form, as a shell, a horn, a fish, or an apple, to indicatewhat material had been canned in it.

  "Your Majesty," said Mr. Mead, sweeping an Oriental reverence. "Thisis an honour to me, but yet more an honour to the city."

  Auberon took off his hat.

  "Mr. Mead," he said, "Notting Hill, whether in giving or taking, candeal in nothing but honour. Do you happen to sell liquorice?"

  "Liquorice, sire," said Mr. Mead, "is not the least important of ourbenefits out of the dark heart of Arabia."

  And going reverently towards a green and silver canister, made in theform of an Arabian mosque, he proceeded to serve his customer.

  "I was just thinking, Mr. Mead," said the King, reflectively, "I don'tknow why I should think about it just now, but I was just thinking oftwenty years ago. Do you remember the times before the war?"

  The grocer, having wrapped up the liquorice sticks in a piece of paper(inscribed with some appropriate sentiment), lifted his large greyeyes dreamily, and looked at the darkening sky outside.

  "Oh yes, your Majesty," he said. "I remember these streets before theLord Provost began to rule us. I can't remember how we felt very well.All the great songs and the fighting change one so; and I don't thinkwe can really estimate all we owe to the Provost; but I can rememberhis coming into this very shop twenty-two years ago, and I rememberthe things he said. The singular thing is that, as far as I remember,I thought the things he said odd at that time. Now it's the thingsthat I said, as far as I can recall them, that seem to me odd--as oddas a madman's antics."

  "Ah!" said the King; and looked at him with an unfathomable quietness.

  "I thought nothing of being a grocer then," he said. "Isn't that oddenough for anybody? I thought nothing of all the wonderful places thatmy goods come from, and wonderful ways that they are made. I did notknow that I was for all practical purposes a king with slaves spearingfishes near the secret pool, and gathering fruits in the islands underthe world. My mind was a blank on the thing. I was as mad as ahatter."

  The King turned also, and stared out into the dark, where the greatlamps that commemorated the battle were already flaming.

  "And is this the end of poor old Wayne?" he said, half to himself. "Toinflame every one so much that he is lost himself in the blaze. Isthis his victory that he, my incomparable Wayne, is now only one in aworld of Waynes? Has he conquered and become by conquest commonplace?Must Mr. Mead, the grocer, talk as high as he? Lord! what a strangeworld in which a man cannot remain unique even by taking the troubleto go mad!"

  And he went dreamily out of the shop.

  He paused outside the next one almost precisely as the Provost haddone two decades before.


  "How uncommonly creepy this shop looks!" he said. "But yet somehowencouragingly creepy, invitingly creepy. It looks like something in ajolly old nursery story in which you are frightened out of your skin,and yet know that things always end well. The way those low sharpgables are carved like great black bat's wings folded down, and theway those queer-coloured bowls underneath are made to shine likegiants eye-balls. It looks like a benevolent warlock's hut. It isapparently a chemist's."

  Almost as he spoke, Mr. Bowles, the chemist, came to his shop door ina long black velvet gown and hood, monastic as it were, but yet with atouch of the diabolic. His hair was still quite black, and his faceeven paler than of old. The only spot of colour he carried was a redstar cut in some precious stone of strong tint, hung on his breast. Hebelonged to the Society of the Red Star of Charity, founded on thelamps displayed by doctors and chemists.

  "A fine evening, sir," said the chemist. "Why, I can scarcely bemistaken in supposing it to be your Majesty. Pray step inside andshare a bottle of sal-volatile, or anything that may take your fancy.As it happens, there is an old acquaintance of your Majesty's in myshop carousing (if I may be permitted the term) upon that beverage atthis moment."

  The King entered the shop, which was an Aladdin's garden of shades andhues, for as the chemist's scheme of colour was more brilliant thanthe grocer's scheme, so it was arranged with even more delicacy andfancy. Never, if the phrase may be employed, had such a nosegay ofmedicines been presented to the artistic eye.

  But even the solemn rainbow of that evening interior was rivalled oreven eclipsed
by the figure standing in the centre of the shop. Hisform, which was a large and stately one, was clad in a brilliant bluevelvet, cut in the richest Renaissance fashion, and slashed so as toshow gleams and gaps of a wonderful lemon or pale yellow. He hadseveral chains round his neck, and his plumes, which were of severaltints of bronze and gold, hung down to the great gold hilt of his longsword. He was drinking a dose of sal-volatile, and admiring its opaltint. The King advanced with a slight mystification towards the tallfigure, whose face was in shadow; then he said--

  "By the Great Lord of Luck, Barker!"

  The figure removed his plumed cap, showing the same dark head andlong, almost equine face which the King had so often seen rising outof the high collar of Bond Street. Except for a grey patch on eachtemple, it was totally unchanged.

  "Your Majesty," said Barker, "this is a meeting nobly retrospective, ameeting that has about it a certain October gold. I drink to olddays;" and he finished his sal-volatile with simple feeling.

  "I am delighted to see you again, Barker," said the King. "It isindeed long since we met. What with my travels in Asia Minor, and mybook having to be written (you have read my 'Life of Prince Albert forChildren,' of course?), we have scarcely met twice since the GreatWar. That is twenty years ago."

  "I wonder," said Barker, thoughtfully, "if I might speak freely toyour Majesty?"

  "Well," said Auberon, "it's rather late in the day to start speakingrespectfully. Flap away, my bird of freedom."

  "Well, your Majesty," replied Barker, lowering his voice, "I don'tthink it will be so long to the next war."

  "What do you mean?" asked Auberon.

  "We will stand this insolence no longer," burst out Barker, fiercely."We are not slaves because Adam Wayne twenty years ago cheated us witha water-pipe. Notting Hill is Notting Hill; it is not the world. Wein South Kensington, we also have memories--ay, and hopes. If theyfought for these trumpery shops and a few lamp-posts, shall we notfight for the great High Street and the sacred Natural HistoryMuseum?"

  "Great Heavens!" said the astounded Auberon. "Will wonders nevercease? Have the two greatest marvels been achieved? Have you turnedaltruistic, and has Wayne turned selfish? Are you the patriot, and hethe tyrant?"

  "It is not from Wayne himself altogether that the evil comes,"answered Barker. "He, indeed, is now mostly wrapped in dreams, andsits with his old sword beside the fire. But Notting Hill is thetyrant, your Majesty. Its Council and its crowds have been sointoxicated by the spreading over the whole city of Wayne's old waysand visions, that they try to meddle with every one, and rule everyone, and civilise every one, and tell every one what is good for him.I do not deny the great impulse which his old war, wild as it seemed,gave to the civic life of our time. It came when I was still a youngman, and I admit it enlarged my career. But we are not going to seeour own cities flouted and thwarted from day to day because ofsomething Wayne did for us all nearly a quarter of a century ago. I amjust waiting here for news upon this very matter. It is rumoured thatNotting Hill has vetoed the statue of General Wilson they are puttingup opposite Chepstow Place. If that is so, it is a black and whiteshameless breach of the terms on which we surrendered to Turnbullafter the battle of the Tower. We were to keep our own customs andself-government. If that is so--"

  "It is so," said a deep voice; and both men turned round.

  A burly figure in purple robes, with a silver eagle hung round hisneck and moustaches almost as florid as his plumes, stood in thedoorway.

  "Yes," he said, acknowledging the King's start, "I am Provost Buck,and the news is true. These men of the Hill have forgotten that wefought round the Tower as well as they, and that it is sometimesfoolish, as well as base, to despise the conquered."

  "Let us step outside," said Barker, with a grim composure.

  Buck did so, and stood rolling his eyes up and down the lamp-litstreet.

  "I would like to have a go at smashing all this," he muttered,"though I am over sixty. I would like--"

  His voice ended in a cry, and he reeled back a step, with his hands tohis eyes, as he had done in those streets twenty years before.

  "Darkness!" he cried--"darkness again! What does it mean?"

  For in truth every lamp in the street had gone out, so that they couldnot see even each other's outline, except faintly. The voice of thechemist came with startling cheerfulness out of the density.

  "Oh, don't you know?" he said. "Did they never tell you this is theFeast of the Lamps, the anniversary of the great battle that almostlost and just saved Notting Hill? Don't you know, your Majesty, thaton this night twenty-one years ago we saw Wilson's green uniformscharging down this street, and driving Wayne and Turnbull back uponthe gas-works, fighting with their handful like fiends from hell? Andthat then, in that great hour, Wayne sprang through a window of thegas-works, with one blow of his hand brought darkness on the wholecity, and then with a cry like a lion's, that was heard through fourstreets, flew at Wilson's men, sword in hand, and swept them,bewildered as they were, and ignorant of the map, clear out of thesacred street again? And don't you know that upon that night everyyear all lights are turned out for half an hour while we sing theNotting Hill anthem in the darkness? Hark! there it begins."

  Through the night came a crash of drums, and then a strong swell ofhuman voices--

  "When the world was in the balance, there was night on Notting Hill,(There was night on Notting Hill): it was nobler than the day;On the cities where the lights are and the firesides glow,From the seas and from the deserts came the thing we did not know,Came the darkness, came the darkness, came the darkness on the foe, And the old guard of God turned to bay. For the old guard of God turns to bay, turns to bay, And the stars fall down before it ere its banners fall to-day: For when armies were around us as a howling and a horde, When falling was the citadel and broken was the sword, The darkness came upon them like the Dragon of the Lord, When the old guard of God turned to bay."

  The voices were just uplifting themselves in a second verse when theywere stopped by a scurry and a yell. Barker had bounded into thestreet with a cry of "South Kensington!" and a drawn dagger. In lesstime than a man could blink, the whole packed street was full ofcurses and struggling. Barker was flung back against the shop-front,but used the second only to draw his sword as well as his dagger, andcalling out, "This is not the first time I've come through the thickof you," flung himself again into the press. It was evident that hehad drawn blood at last, for a more violent outcry arose, and manyother knives and swords were discernible in the faint light. Barker,after having wounded more than one man, seemed on the point of beingflung back again, when Buck suddenly stepped out into the street. Hehad no weapon, for he affected rather the peaceful magnificence of thegreat burgher, than the pugnacious dandyism which had replaced the oldsombre dandyism in Barker. But with a blow of his clenched fist hebroke the pane of the next shop, which was the old curiosity shop,and, plunging in his hand, snatched a kind of Japanese scimitar, andcalling out, "Kensington! Kensington!" rushed to Barker's assistance.

  Barker's sword was broken, but he was laying about him with hisdagger. Just as Buck ran up, a man of Notting Hill struck Barker down,but Buck struck the man down on top of him, and Barker sprang upagain, the blood running down his face.

  Suddenly all these cries were cloven by a great voice, that seemed tofall out of heaven. It was terrible to Buck and Barker and the King,from its seeming to come out the empty skies; but it was more terriblebecause it was a familiar voice, and one which at the same time theyhad not heard for so long.

  "Turn up the lights," said the voice from above them, and for a momentthere was no reply, but only a tumult.

  "In the name of Notting Hill and of the great Council of the City,turn up the lights."

  There was again a tumult and a vagueness for a moment, then the wholestreet and every object in it sprang suddenly out of the darkness, asevery lamp sprang into life. And looking up they saw, standing upon abalcony near the roof of one of the highest h
ouses, the figure and theface of Adam Wayne, his red hair blowing behind him, a little streakedwith grey.

  "What is this, my people?" he said. "Is it altogether impossible tomake a thing good without it immediately insisting on being wicked?The glory of Notting Hill in having achieved its independence, hasbeen enough for me to dream of for many years, as I sat beside thefire. Is it really not enough for you, who have had so many otheraffairs to excite and distract you? Notting Hill is a nation. Whyshould it condescend to be a mere Empire? You wish to pull down thestatue of General Wilson, which the men of Bayswater have so rightlyerected in Westbourne Grove. Fools! Who erected that statue? DidBayswater erect it? No. Notting Hill erected it. Do you not see thatit is the glory of our achievement that we have infected the othercities with the idealism of Notting Hill? It is we who have creatednot only our own side, but both sides of this controversy. O toohumble fools, why should you wish to destroy your enemies? You havedone something more to them. You have created your enemies. You wishto pull down that gigantic silver hammer, which stands, like anobelisk, in the centre of the Broadway of Hammersmith. Fools! BeforeNotting Hill arose, did any person passing through HammersmithBroadway expect to see there a gigantic silver hammer? You wish toabolish the great bronze figure of a knight standing upon theartificial bridge at Knightsbridge. Fools! Who would have thought ofit before Notting Hill arose? I have even heard, and with deep pain Ihave heard it, that the evil eye of our imperial envy has been casttowards the remote horizon of the west, and that we have objected tothe great black monument of a crowned raven, which commemorates theskirmish of Ravenscourt Park. Who created all these things? Were theythere before we came? Cannot you be content with that destiny whichwas enough for Athens, which was enough for Nazareth? the destiny, thehumble purpose, of creating a new world. Is Athens angry becauseRomans and Florentines have adopted her phraseology for expressingtheir own patriotism? Is Nazareth angry because as a little village ithas become the type of all little villages out of which, as the Snobssay, no good can come? Has Athens asked every one to wear the chlamys?Are all followers of the Nazarene compelled to wear turbans. No! butthe soul of Athens went forth and made men drink hemlock, and the soulof Nazareth went forth and made men consent to be crucified. So hasthe soul of Notting Hill gone forth and made men realise what it is tolive in a city. Just as we inaugurated our symbols and ceremonies, sothey have inaugurated theirs; and are you so mad as to contend againstthem? Notting Hill is right; it has always been right. It has mouldeditself on its own necessities, its own _sine qua non_; it has acceptedits own ultimatum. Because it is a nation it has created itself; andbecause it is a nation it can destroy itself. Notting Hill shallalways be the judge. If it is your will because of this matter ofGeneral Wilson's statue to make war upon Bayswater--"

  A roar of cheers broke in upon his words, and further speech wasimpossible. Pale to the lips, the great patriot tried again and againto speak; but even his authority could not keep down the dark androaring masses in the street below him. He said something further, butit was not audible. He descended at last sadly from the garret inwhich he lived, and mingled with the crowd at the foot of the houses.Finding General Turnbull, he put his hand on his shoulder with a queeraffection and gravity, and said--

  "To-morrow, old man, we shall have a new experience, as fresh as theflowers of spring. We shall be defeated. You and I have been throughthree battles together, and have somehow or other missed this peculiardelight. It is unfortunate that we shall not probably be able toexchange our experiences, because, as it most annoyingly happens, weshall probably both be dead."

  Turnbull looked dimly surprised.

  "I don't mind so much about being dead," he said, "but why should yousay that we shall be defeated?"

  "The answer is very simple," replied Wayne, calmly. "It is because weought to be defeated. We have been in the most horrible holes beforenow; but in all those I was perfectly certain that the stars were onour side, and that we ought to get out. Now I know that we ought notto get out; and that takes away from me everything with which I won."

  As Wayne spoke he started a little, for both men became aware that athird figure was listening to them--a small figure with wonderingeyes.

  "Is it really true, my dear Wayne," said the King, interrupting, "thatyou think you will be beaten to-morrow?"

  "There can be no doubt about it whatever," replied Adam Wayne; "thereal reason is the one of which I have just spoken. But as aconcession to your materialism, I will add that they have an organisedarmy of a hundred allied cities against our one. That in itself,however, would be unimportant."

  Quin, with his round eyes, seemed strangely insistent.

  "You are quite sure," he said, "that you must be beaten?"

  "I am afraid," said Turnbull, gloomily, "that there can be no doubtabout it."

  "Then," cried the King, flinging out his arms, "give me a halberd!Give me a halberd, somebody! I desire all men to witness that I,Auberon, King of England, do here and now abdicate, and implore theProvost of Notting Hill to permit me to enlist in his army. Give me ahalberd!"

  He seized one from some passing guard, and, shouldering it, stampedsolemnly after the shouting columns of halberdiers which were, by thistime, parading the streets. He had, however, nothing to do with thewrecking of the statue of General Wilson, which took place beforemorning.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment