Cap’en Jollyfax’s Gun
ENTERTAINING SHORT STORIES
BY ARTHUR MORRISON IN THE METROPOLITAN
This amusing story illustrates the stubborness of an old English couple who had a dispute on the eve of their wedding. So determined was the party of the second part that she refused to allow the wedding to take place until Cap’en Jollyfax could see things her way. As far as Cap’en Jollyfax was concerned this meant an indefinite postponement of the wedding day. The reader will be interested in the manner in which the difficulty was solved.
THE fame of Cap’en Jollyfax’s gun spread wide over Thames mouth and the costs there-about, in the years before and after the middle nineteenth century. The gun was no such important thing to look at, being a little brass cannon short of a yard long, standing in a neat little circle of crushed cockleshell, with a border of nicely matched flints, by the side of Cap’en Jollyfax’s white flagstaff, before Cap’en Jollyfax's blue front door, on the green ridge that backed the marshes and overlooked the sea. But small as Cap’en Jollyfax’s gun might be to look at, it was most amazingly large to hear ; perhaps not so deep and thunderous as loud and angry, with a ringing bang that seemed to tear the ear-drums.
Cap’en Jollyfax fired the gun at midnight on Christmas Eve, to start the carollers. Again he fired it at midnight between the old year and the new, to welcome the year ; on the ninth of January, because this was the anniversary of Nelson’s funeral, and on the twenty-eighth, because that was the date of the battle of Aliwal, then a recent victory. He fired it on the Queen’s birthday, on Waterloo day, Trafalgar day, St. Clement’s day—for Clement was the parish saint—
on the anniversary of the battle of the Nile ; and on the fifth of November he fired it at intervals all day long, and as fast as he could clean and load it after dark.
He also fired it on his own birth-
day, on Roboshobery Dove’s, Sam Prentice’s, old Tom Blyth’s, and any other casual birthday he might hear of. He fired it in commemoration of every victory reported during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, he fired it to celebrate all weddings, some christenings, and once when they hanged a man at Springfield gaol.
Cap’en Jollyfax was a retired master mariner of lusty girth and wide and brilliant countenance. In the intervals between the discharges of his gun he painted his cottage, his flagstaff, his garden fence and gate, and any other thing that was his on which paint would stay, except the gun, which he kept neatly scoured and polished.
He painted the flagstaff white, the fence green, and the cottage in several colors ; and the abiding mystery of Cap’en Jollyfax’s establishment was what ultimately became of the paint. For a new coat succeeded the last very soon after the surface was sufficiently dry, and the consumption of paint was vast ; and yet the flagstaff never seemed to grow much thicker, nor did the fence, as a reasonable person would expect, develop into a continuous wall of paint, supported within by a timber skeleton.
Cap’en Jollyfax was a popular man on the whole, though perhaps more particularly so with the boys, because of the gun. They would congregate about the fence to watch him clean it and load it, and the happiest of all boys was the one who chanced
to be nearest when it was fired, and whose ears were loudest assailed by the rending bang that was so delightful to every boy’s senses.
Boys dreamed at night of some impossible adventure by the issue whereof the happy dreamer was accorded the reward of permission to fire Cap’en Jollyfax’s gun ; and one boy at least formed a dark project of hoarding pennies, buying powder, escaping by a perilous descent from his bedroom window and firing Cap’en Jollyfax’s gun lawlessly in the depth of night.
But if the gun enhanced Cap’en Jollyfax’s popularityamong the boys its tendency was otherway with the women—those in particular who lived near enough to be startled by its noise. The natural feminine distrust of all guns in all circumstances was increased in the case of a brass cannon which might go oft' at any moment of Cap’en Jollyfax’s crowded calendar. And it was asserted that Mrs. Billing, the widow, who lived at the hill-foot exactly under Cap’en Jollyfax’s line of fire, had been startled into the destruction of three basins and a large dish within one month of many birthdays. Mrs. Billing, indeed, as was to be expected from her situation, was the brass gun’s chief enemy. Consequent^, if Cap’en Jollyfax had dragged his gun up the aisle of Leigh church and fired it under the pulpit, he could scarcely have startled the parishioners more than did the rector when he first read the banns of marriage between John Jollyfax, bachelor, and Mary Ann Billing, widow, both of that parish.
Except for the gun there need have been little to startle Leigh, for Cap’en Jollyfax was none so old, as retired skippers went thereabout,
and Mrs. Billing was as neat and pleasant a widow of forty-two as might be found in Essex, where the widows have always been admirable. Moreover, she had no incumbrance in the way of children.
But there was no mistaking the fact now, even for the deaf who were not at church. For the succeeding fortnight and a day or two ovqr, Cap’en Jollyfax and Mrs. Billing were visible day by day and arm-inarm from shop to shop in Leigh High Street.
The result was no great advance in the retail commerce of Leigh—in fact none. The household appointments of both Cap’en Jollyfax and Mrs. Billing were fairly complete in their humble way, and when Mrs. Billing had triumphantly hauled Cap’en Jollyfax into an inronmonger’s in pursuit of a certain fishkettle or a particular fender, she was certain presently to discover that just such an article already embellished Cap’en Jollyfax’s kitchen or her own.
Nevertheless she persevered, for a bout of shopping was the proper preliminary of any respectable wedding, and must be performed with full pomp and circumstance ; and if nothing, or very little, was actually bought, so much the cheaper.
Mrs. Billing was resolved to be balked of no single circumstance of distinction and triumph appertaining to the occasion. And Cap’en Jollyfax was mightily relieved to find so much shopping cost so little after all ; so that he grew gradually more cheerful as the wedding-day neared, which is said not to be invariably the case in these circumstances.
The wedding was fixed for the morning of a certain Wednesday, and on the evening before the day, Mrs. Billing spent some little time in
glorious authority on Cap’en Jollyfax’s premises, superintending the labor of Mrs. Packwood, who did charing, and was now employed to make the domestic arrangements of the place suit the fancies of its coming mistress. Flushed with hours of undisputed command, Mrs. Billing emerged into the little garden, whereunto Cap’en Jollyfax had retreated early in the operations ; and there perceived to-morrow’s bridegroom in the act of withdrawing a broomstick from the mouth of the brass gun.
“What ha’ you been a-doin’ to that gun ?” demanded Mrs. Billing, rather peremptorily, eyeing the weapon askant.
“A-givin’ her a rub up inside an’ out,” answered Cap’en Jollyfax, placably. “An’ I’ve just rammed her with a good big charge, ready for to-morrow. ’ ’
“Why for to-morrow ?” Mrs. Billing’s voice was a trifle sharper still, and she turned a fresh glance of unmistakable dislike on the gun.
“Why for to-morrow?” Cap’en Jollyfax repeated wonderingly. “Why, weddin’-day, o’ course. Touch her off when we come home from church. ’ ’
“Nothin’ o’ the sort.” She spoke now with a positive snap. “A nasty dangerous, bangin’ thing as frightens people out of their seven senses. I won’t hev it. Why, ’twere almost more’n I could stand down there at the bottom of the hill, an’ hev that thing go off near me I will not, so there. ’ ’
Cap’en Jollyfax stared blankly. “What !” he jerked out, scarce believing his ears, “not fire the gun on the weddin’-day ?”
“No,” Mrs. Billing replied, emphatically, “nor any other day, neither. Folks ’ud think you were a
little boy a-playin’ with sich toys ; an’ I can’t abear to be near the thing.”
The staring wonder faded gradually from Cap’en Jollyfax’s face, and a certain extra redness succeeded it. I be goin’ to fire my gun on my weddin’-day,” he said, firmly.
“You hen’t nothin’ o’ the sort,” rejoined the widow, no less firmly. “Nayther then nor after, if I’m your wife. Just you take the charge out o’ that gun.”
Cap’en Jollyfax shook his head, with something like triumph in his eye. “Won’t come out ’cept you fire it,” he said. “That’s the onny way.”
“Very well, then, fire it now—not now, but as soon as I be gone. Fire off your gun for the last time tonight, and be done with sich foolishness.”
“Ben’t nothin’ to fire it for today,” the old sailor returned shortly. “This gun’s my department, an’ I’m goin’ to tend to it. I’m goin’ to nutt the tarpaulin over it now, an’ to-morrow, Polly, when we’re back from church, I’m goin’ to fire it.”
Mrs. Billing bridled. “ You’re agoin’ to fire that gun before I go to church with ’ee, John Jollyfax, an’ not to load it agin, nayther.”
“I’m a-goin’ to fire this gun when we’re back from church, an’ afterwards, when proper.”
“Cap’en John Jollyfax, I ben’t goin’ to church with ’ee till after that gun be fired. So now you know. If you don’t fire it to-night you must fire it to-morrow before I turn a step toward church. That’s my word on it.”
“I’m goin’ to fire my gun when I like,” growled Cap’en Jollyfax, dogged and sulky.
“Very-' well,” replied the widow,
tossing her head, and turning away, “then if you want me tp wed ’ee, an' when you want me to wed ’ee, you’ll fire it first. Then, maybe, I’ll consider of it. But no wife o’ yours I’ll be till that powder be fired off. An’ so good-evenin’ to ’ee, Cap’en Jollyfax.”
That was the beginning of a period of vast interest and excitement in Leigh and its neighborhood.
Cap’en Jollyfax’s gun remained silent all that night, nor was it fired in the morning. What Mrs. Billing’s feelings were in the matter, whether she sat anxiously listening for the. sound of the gun, as some averred, or dismissed the whole subject from her mind, as her subsequent conversation with Mrs. Peck suggested, are secrets I cannot pretend to have penetrated. Cap’en Jollyfax, on his part, consulted deeply in the morning with Roboshobery Dove, and evolved a scheme of strategy suited to the physical leatures of the place. As the hour fixed for the wedding drew near, Cap’n Jollyfax, in his best blue coat with blue buttons and his very shiniest hard glazed hat, approached the churchyard and took his seat, in a non-committal sort of w~ay, on the low stone wall that bounded it, with his back toward the church. Roboshbery Dove crouched behind a corner of the same wall, vastly inconvenienced by his wooden leg, but steadily directing his telescope downhill, so that it bore exactly on the door of Mrs. Billing’s cottage. It was Roboshoberv’s duty, as look-out man, to report instantly if Mrs. Billing were seen emerging from the door with her best bonnet on, in which event Cap’en Jollyfax would at once leave the wall and take up his position at the church door to receive
her. Failing that, Cap’en Jollyfax would be spared the ignominy of waiting at the church for a bride who never came.
At intervals Cap’en Jollyfax took his pipe from his mouth and roared : “Lookout ahoy !”
“Aye, aye, sir !” came the unvarying reply.
“Hev’ee sighted ?”
“Nothin’ but the door !”
Whereat the watch would resume for ten minutes more.
It was three-quarters of an hour past the time fixed, when the rector, himself never very punctual, came angrily to the church door, surveyed the small crowd that had gathered, and became aware of Cap’en Jollyfax’s strategy.
“What’s the meaning of this ?” he demanded of Mrs. Peck, who, in fact, was spying in the interests of the opposite party. “Where’s Mrs. Billing ?”
“Mrs. Billing, sir, she say she ll never think o’ coinin’ till Cap en Jollyfax hev fired the gun.”
The rector stared at Mrs. Peck for fifteen seconds, passed his fingers once backward and once forward through his hair, and then without a word retired to the vestry.
Roboshobery Dove maintained his watch and the little crowd waited patiently till the shadow of the dial over the church porch lay well past twelve o’clock and the legal time for a wedding was over. Then Cap’en Jollyfax hauled out his silver watch and roared, though Roboshobery Dove was scarce a dozen yards off, “Lookout ahoy !”
“Aye, aye, sir ! ”
“Eight bells ! ”
With that Roboshobery Dove hauled out his own watch, banged it, as usual, on the socket of his wooden
leg, clapped it against his ear, and then held it before his eyes. Then, having restored the watch to his breeches pocket, he shut the telescope, stood erect and rejoined his principal ; and the two old sailors stumped off solemnly toward Cap’en Jollyfax’s cottage.
All that day Cap’en Jollyfax’s gun remained silent, and all the next. The day after that was June the first, on which date Cap’en Jollyfax had been wont to fire the gun in celebration of Howe’s victory. But this time the Glorious First went unhonored, and it was perceived that Cap’en Jollyfax was mighty stubborn. Monday, the fourth, was Sam Prentice’s birthday, but Cap’en Jollyfax's gun stood dumb still.
Leigh had never listened so eagerly for a bang before as it listened now for the report that should publish the submission of Cap’en J0II3'fax ; but still the report did not come. People took sides, and bets were made. It was observed ’that Cap'en Jollyfax had grown peevish and morose, that he shunned his friends and moped at home.
Mrs. Billing, on the other hand, went abroad as always, gay and smiling as ever. Cap’en Jollyfax might do as he pleased, said Mrs. Billing, but she wasn’t going to marry him while the charge remained in that gun. If he chose to fire it out'—well, she might think over the matter again, but she was none so sure of even that, now.
The days went on, and Cap’en Jollyfax’s friends grew concerned for him. He was obstinate enough, but brooding, it was plain. Roboshobery Dove, with much ingenuity, sought to convince him that by persisting in his determination he was defeating himself, since there was
now an end of gun-fire altogether. Cap’en Jollyfax thought a little over that aspect of the case, but did not fire the gun. It was thought, however, that he could scarce hold out much longer. He was said to have been seen one afternoon stealthily rubbing over the gun and renewing the priming.
A fortnight went, and with June the eighteenth ever3Tbody expected to see an end of the business ; for in truth, Waterloo day would have been the best excuse of the year. But for the first time since Cap’en Jollyfax came to the cottage, Waterloo day passed unsaluted. People wondered and shook their heads ; surely it couldn’t last much longer ?
And, indeed, it did not. There was another silent day, and then, in the dead of night of the nineteenth, Leigh was startled once more by the bang of Cap’en Jollyfax’s gun. Louder and sharper than ever it rang in the still of the night, and folk jumped upright in their beds at the shock. Heads pushed out from latticed casements in Leigh High Street and conversation passed between opposite gables.
“Did ’ee hear ? ’Twere up at Cap’en Jollyfax’s ! ”
“Hear ? I’d think so ! Cap’en Jollyfax hev fired the gun !”
And so word passed all through Leigh and about, on the moment, within house and out of window : Cap’en Jollyfax hev fired the gun ! Cap’en Jollyfax hev fired the gun !”
But, in fact, no sleeper in all Leigh bounced higher in his bed than Cap’en Jollyfax himself ; and that for good reason, for the gun was almost under his bedroom window.
The gun ! It was the gun ! Somebody had fired it ! Those boyrs—
those rascal boys, rapscallion boys, cheeky boys, plaguey, villainous, accursed, infernal boys ! Cap’en Jollyfax fell downstairs and into a pair of trousers in one complicated gymnastic, and burst into the garden under the thin light of a clouded moon. There stood the gun, uncovered, and there, by its side, lay the tarpaulin—no, not the tarpaulin, it
would seem, but a human figure ; a woman, in a swoon.
Cap’en Jollyfax turned her over and stared down into her face. “Why !” he cried, “Polly ! Polly ! What’s this ?”
With that her eyes opened. “Be that you, John ?” she said. “I den’t count ’twould go off that fearful sudden !”