OLD JIMMY’S SCRUPLES

In the meantime the vicar had eaten a hurried luncheon of bread
and cheese in the master’s room, and leaving the Union walked
quickly down to the church. He had barely time to put on his
surplus and stole when the mournful procession came in sight; and
with a sad heart he went to meet it, reading, of course, as he
went the opening sentences of our beautiful burial service for
two more victims of the epidemic–a young girl and a child from
Gravel-pit Lane.

After the service, when he once more emerged from the vestry, he
was followed by the old man in whose person were embodied the
three offices of verger, sexton, and clerk–“Jimmy the clerk,” as
the parish dubbed him.

If anybody had asked me to point out a few of the “characters”
which are to be found in every village as well as in Willowton, I
think, without hesitation, I should have begun with Jimmy
Greenacre. I do not know if I shall be able to show you dear old
Jimmy just as I saw him, because his quaintness was a great deal
made up of a whimsical twist of his funny old face, a touch of
humour in the turn of his sentences, and an absurd habit of
gabbling his information like an eager child who has been given a
few minutes only to say his say–a habit partly the result of
having only three or four teeth left in his head, and partly from
a laudable desire to use the best and most appropriate words in
conversation with those he was pleased to look upon as his
betters.

In person he was rather inclined to be tall, spare, and sinewy;
his hair was thick, and still dark in spite of his seventy-three
years; and being an economical gentleman, he was not as
intimately acquainted with the barber as the vicar would have
liked, but his rugged-lined old face was clean shaven, and tanned
to a deep mahogany. He walked with the slow, rather shuffling
gait of the agricultural labourer, and stooped a little from the
shoulders with the stoop that comes of hard work in early youth.
Jimmy had been born and bred in Willowton, and he was destined to
die there. In his humble way he was a perfect walking De Brett:
he knew the family history of every man, woman, and child in the
place, and that of their forebears for the last two generations
or more–some people said his memory was far too good! But if
they had only known it, they themselves had benefited oftentimes
by that same memory. To the vicar he was invaluable. The late
incumbent had died very suddenly, and his wife had followed him
within a few days. They had no children, and but for old Jimmy,
Mr. Rutland would have had to find out everything for himself.
But Jimmy knew the ropes, and taught the new vicar to put his
hands on them. “Jimmy is as good as a curate to me any day!” the
vicar would say with a kindly hand on the old man’s shoulder when
he introduced him to any of his friends; and old Jimmy would slip
away with a pleased chuckle and a modest, “No, no, master; but I
does my best, and a carn’t due no more–so I carn’t.” Nor could
he.

It was due to this passion for genealogies on the part of the old
man that he took such a lively interest in Geo Lummis, the
“laziest booy,” as he termed him in his own mind, in Willowton.

“That there chap harn’t got a chance, that he harn’t,” he would
tell the vicar. “His fayther was jist sich another, and his
grandfa’ afore him–poochin’, good-fur-noethin’s booth on ’em!
messin’ about all day a’ the bridge, and creepin’ out a’ nights
after the trout–ticklin’ of ’em, yer mind, and layin’ abed the
best o’ ther mornin’ afterwards. This here booy–why, Mr. Morse,
he took a likin’ tew ‘um, and had ‘um up here teachin’ of ‘um all
manner a’ things. He set ‘im tew a trade along av a carpenter in
Walden; but he was sune back agen, an’ dun no good at all! And
here he be, herdin’ along a’ that scum Corkam, and talkin’ all
manner a’ rubbidge along a’ him. His mother’s ter blame, I say.
She knew well enow how it was with her husband, and here’s she
a-lettin’ a’ the booy go th’ same way. But there, what can yew
expect a’ her when yew cum to recollect that her mother, Mary
Anne, was–” But when Jimmy went into the next generation the
vicar was apt to interrupt him, for he was an impetuous, hasty
young man, and not so good a listener as the old man would have
wished him to be.

But on this occasion Jimmy’s words commanded attention.

“Look yew there sir!” he exclaimed in a hollow tone, grasping the
vicar’s arm, and pointing with a gnarled old finger that shook
partly from age and partly from excitement–“look you there, sir!
There go Mosus to strike th’ rock. ‘Must we find you water?’ he
say; and yer know what happened tew ‘um, yer know, and so dew
he–well!” and Jimmy threw out both hands with a gesture that
implied that he, at least, would have no traffic with such evil
doings.

Mr. Wilman and his following had just come over the common, and
were bearing down again on the village, and the vicar was all
eagerness to join them. It was tiresome of Jimmy to detain him
just now, and Jimmy was as difficult to shake off as a terrier
with a rat.

“You’ll be thankful enough to drink the clear water when we get
it, I’ll be bound. And as for the means, it isn’t for you or me
either to criticise Mr. Wilman. God has given him apparently an
unusual gift, and he is going to use it for our good. Be off with
you and cut the grass, you old goose.”

“Cut the grass! He, he!” This was a little joke between the vicar
and the clerk, and Jimmy never failed to laugh at the sarcasm (it
had been so long since there had been a blade of grass to cut).
“Well, well, let his punishment fall on his own hid!” said Jimmy
piously.

“Jimmy,” said the vicar, quite seriously this time, “if I wasn’t
a parson, I should tell you you’re a regular old fool. There’s a
proverb somewhere (you won’t find it in the Bible, so don’t think
you’ve caught me tripping) that says, ‘God helps those who help
themselves;’ and do you honestly tell me that if we kneel down
every Sunday and pray for rain, and don’t accept every chance of
getting good water that God puts in our way, that He will pay any
heed to us? Must we have it in our own special way, or not at
all? Jimmy, Jimmy, your argument won’t hold water; you’d better
come with me and see how it’s done.”

But Jimmy scorned the suggestion, and went off mumbling about
judgements to come, and doers of iniquities, and witches, and
soothsayers, till he had grumbled himself out of the churchyard
and up the lane till he reached his own door.

He found the house empty. Milly had been smitten with the quest,
and had gone out to the dowser. Jimmy could hardly believe his
ears when the next door neighbour–a lame woman who “would have
gone on her own account if she could,” as she stoutly protested
when Jimmy lifted up his voice in a gabble of invective–informed
him that Milly had asked her to see to the kettle, and the cake
in the oven, while she went off to see the water found. “And
small blame, too! Who wouldn’t see a miracle when they could in
these days when nothing happened that—”

“There’s no miracle at all about it,” grumbled Jimmy, turning
round and arguing the other way when he found himself worsted.

“Well, then, I don’t see that you have no call to make such a
to-due about it. If that be so as you say jest ordinary tappin’,
there can’t be no witchcraft nor Satan’s work about it. Bless me,
if I’d a got your legs I’d have been there long ago.”

And so it happened that before many minutes were over Jimmy’s
curiosity had overcome his scruples, and he became one of the
fast-increasing crowd.