Authors: John Moore
nter ODO and DODO, two Dukes of Mercia
”. On the margin of the script there was a note in Mr. Gurney's spidery handwriting that the names could, if it were thought preferable, be spelt ODDA and DODDA or even UDDA and DUDDA; the authorities differed. But Lance, rolling them round his tongue, thought that all three versions were equally ridiculous, and the quaintness of the sound tickled his fancy, so that he laughed aloud. To him on this May morning it seemed that the whole world was composed of such delightful curiosities, life was a ceaseless cornucopia pouring out before his eyes a many-coloured bounty of these toys of his imagination, strange, wondrous, absurd, beautiful, but all new-minted and bright-shining as the first of May. For he was a poet and he was young.
From his couch among the sweet-smelling grasses at the top of the little haycock-shaped hill he looked down upon the sunlit scene into which Odo and Dodo, Odda and Dodda, Udda and Dudda, had possibly strolled, about the year 700. On the spot where they had installed (according to Mr. Gurney) a devoutly religious hermit, walling him
up to the glory of God in a cell with a six-inch grating through which he could glimpse the sky, there rose up now a great Norman abbey, with the assorted buildings of the small compact town clustered about it: cottages, pubs, shops, large private houses, and even a factory which made balloons, all huddled together like sheep in a storm. Ringed by roofs, the twelve chestnut-trees in the churchyard, known as the Twelve Apostles, bubbled up like a pale green foam; Lance was too far off to see their candles of white and red. But beyond them in the Vicarage garden a minute black figure moved, which was certainly his father pottering with the rain-gauge or taking a reading from the hygrometer, as he did about six times every day. The old man's addiction to the study of meteorology, which he practised with tireless devotion and remarkable muddle-headedness, was yet another of those bright and curious fragments which the cornucopia poured out before Lance's wondering and delighted eyes.
It was market-day, and the silvery-grey backs of the sheep in the market-place made a pattern of blobs, five to a pen, while other blobs ran to and fro down the alley-ways and gradually filled up the empty pens, as if somebody were playing one of those games with silver balls in a box which has to be tilted to and fro until all the balls are distributed among the various compartments. In the streets moved crepuscular cows, chivvied by crepuscular collie-dogs, and down the steep hill towards the river-bridge poured more sheep, a whole flock reddish brown from recent dipping, so that they looked like a trickling subsidence of soil.
Two rivers tied a knot round the town, a bowline in a bight, and joined together just below it. Thence the broadening stream ran on through emerald water-meadows towards the weir. Surely, thought Lance, these meadows had never been so green before, the patches of ladies'-smocks in the damp places had never since Shakespeare looked at them shone so quicksilver-bright in the sun, the buttercups had never made such a thick-piled carpet of gold; and nearer at hand, the blackbirds had never sung so loud nor with so sweet a melody, and the dapple-winged orange-tip butterfly had never so exquisitely matched the lacy umbel of hedge-parsley on which it poised. At twenty-two Lance was quite certain that no bygone spring had been so beautiful as this one nor would the years bring one so beautiful again. Its transience tormented him, and he stared greedily at the green-and-gold meadow as if it might fly away like the transient cuckoo calling faint and far-off among the churchyard chestnut-trees.
It was upon this great field beside the river, known as the Bloody Meadow because of the ancient battle which had been fought there, that the town's pageant would be enacted in ten weeks' time. Mr. Gurney, the industrious local archaeologist, had routed out the history and devised the episodes:
THE COMING OF ODO, DODO AND THE HOLY HERMIT (only that queer girl in the Festival Office had typed it HOLLY HERMIT);
DAME JOANNA, POETESS AND PRIORESS, FOUNDS A NUNNERY (Who on earth was she? thought Lance);
ROBERT FITZHAMON DEDICATES THE ABBEY;
GREAT FIGHT DURING THE WARS OF THE ROSES;
SURRENDER AND DISSOLUTION OF THE MONASTERY;
VISIT OF THE LADY MARY, DAUGHTER OF HENRY VIII AND AFTERWARDS QUEEN OF ENGLAND;
VISIT OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE POSSIBLY APHOCRYPAL (the queer girl's typewriter had slipped up again);
SKIRMISH DURING THE CIVIL WAR;
FLIGHT OF CHARLES II FOLLOWING THE BATTLE OF WORCESTER.
After that, it seemed, history had ceased, or Mr. Gurney's interest in it had petered out; for there the script ended, save for the non-committal words GRAND FINALE. It was Lance's task to “link the episodes together by means of Choruses in verse,” and when eight choruses, one prologue, and one epilogue had been duly delivered and approved, he would receive the modest reward of ten pounds, which worked out at approximately one shilling a line.
Lance did notâas many a high-minded young poet might have doneâlook askance at this meagre fee; for he reflected sensibly that it was as much as Dr. Johnson had been paid for his first poem, and more
than Shelley got for
or Keats for
. Nor indeed could he afford to despise it, for he had just been sent down from Oxford in considerable disgrace and was reduced to living on the charity of his father, who was fortunately well acquainted with the parable of the Prodigal Son.
He therefore applied himself earnestly to the unpromising
task of writing a Chorus on the subject of Odo and Dodo, and for a few minutes his pencil scratched some tentative fragments of blank verse on the back of Mr. Gurney's Draft Synopsis. Soon, however, the essential absurdity of the names got the better of him and he found himself laughing at his own lines, which is a very healthy and excellent thing for a young poet to do. But it is not the way to write deathless poetry, and Odo and Dodo began to take on in his mind some attributes of musical comedy:
Humming this air to himself, he stuffed the sheet of paper into his pocket and ran down the hill, taking huge strides over the springy turf for the sheer joy of being alive. He became caught up again in wonder at the whole world's absurdity; and in particular at the beautiful absurdity of the microcosm which lay below him, his beloved, his native townâits Mayor portentously announcing “our not unworthy contribution to the Dollar Drive and to the entertainment of the foreign visitors,” Mr. Gurney the antique-furniture-dealer taking lucky dips out of history, Stephen Tasker, the indigent little bookseller, accepting the job of producer on the strength of having once organised a Boy Scouts' entertainment, that pale wisp of a girl who couldn't spell apocryphal wrestling with an old typewriter in the back room of the bookshop now converted into the Festival Office, Councillor Noakes pompously booming, “I don't know much about Modern Poetry, young man, but make it
and make it
At the bottom of the hill he turned left along the tow-path which ran beside the river towards the town. Some moorhens delighted him with their antics as they swam downstream like clockwork toys, heads wagging stiffly, little white scuts rhythmically rising and falling in perfect time with their heads, as if the same unwinding spring controlled the whole anatomy; and he found himself repeating a poem in which Gerard Manley Hopkins praised God for
“All things counter, original, spare, strange.”
That included Mayors and moorhens, old kindly Vicars pottering with rain-gauges, small-town pageants, pompous Councillors, Odo and Dodo, everything; it surely included the tubby, the almost globular figure of Mr. Handiman who now approached him along the towpath, Mr. Handiman the ironmonger who was also Treasurer of the Festival, and who was apt to shut up his shop on any bright day in order that he might indulge his passion for angling. Lance was particularly fond of Mr. Handiman because he had bought fishing-tackle from him ever since he was so-high, hooks for a penny, bright-painted tiger-striped floats for twopence, twenty yards of stout watercord line for sevenpence-ha'penny, even a varnished bamboo rod beautifully dappled with brown and yellow blotches for four-and-sixpence. Moreover, Mr. Handiman had given long credit to generations of small boys, who forgot to pay as often as he forgot to remind them; which was one of the reasons why he was so poor.
“Any luck?” Lance asked him; and Mr. Handiman shook his head.
“It's close season, Mr. Lance, for everything except eels; and they're not biting this bright morning. But somehow, just to be beside the river on a day like this, it takes you out of yourself, don't it?”
“âToo lovely to be looked on, save only on holy-days,'” said Lance half to himself, thinking of the green-and-gold field with the quicksilver patches of ladies'-smocks.
“Ah, that's Izaak Walton, that is. My Bible,” smiled Mr. Handiman. “Every time I comes along here in the spring-time I calls it to mind.”
“In a week or two, I suppose, they'll be putting up the stands,” said Lance, “and then we shan't see the buttercups. How are the bookings going?”
“Bad; but it's early yet. And there's a lot of apathy in the town. They seem more interested in the Beauty Queens than in the Pageant. I sometimes wonder,” added Mr. Handiman, “whether we was altogether
to mix up Beauty Queens with our History. It don't seem proper somehow. What does your father think about it, Mr. Lance?”
says we must cater for all tastes. But he's more concerned about the weather than about Beauty Queens.”
“A very clever gentleman, your father. Last year, a whole month before the event, he said it would be fine for the Bellringers' Outing; and fine it was. But about this Beauty Competition: what I says is that it makes for bad feeling in the town. There was booing in the cinema when they chose the finalistsâbooing and catcalls. The
young men take sides, you see. I shouldn't like to be the man who has to judge the final, and that's a fact!”
“Nor should I,” said Lance, as Mr. Handiman climbed down the steep bank and began to bait his hook with a gross and flaccid worm. “Nor should I; because I think they're both so beautiful that there's not a pin to choose between them!”
And indeed that was true; for as Lance continued on his way along the towpath he racked his memory to discover one minute particular in which the charms of Virginia exceeded those of Edna and
and he could find none. Virginia was a shade the taller, certainly, and she walked with such an airy grace that a man would have to be a Herrick or a Lovelace to do it justice; and she had calm grey eyes and the slender delicacy of a flower, you could compare her with a sprig of the lilac ladies'-smock misty with the dew ! Yes; but Edna with the yellow hair and the high frank breasts and the glowing skin, so that there was a sort of incandescence about herâyou had to liken her to those buxom marshmallows which offered themselves so artlessly to the sun. Between ladies'-smocks and kingcups, who could make a judgment? Between Pallas and Aphrodite, who could choose?
It was true that the name “Virginia” was greatly to be preferred to “Edna,” and this might seem to give her a trifling advantage in the eyes of a poet, until one recollected that her surname was Smith, whereas Edna bore the more romantic one of Shirley. Once more the balance was even; by not a minim nor a single hair did the loveliness of the one outweigh the beauty of the other; and when he asked
himself which of them he would have beside him now, if Edna could be miraculously translated from the balloon factory where she worked or Virginia from the office of the
, he had no doubt whatever about the answer. He would have them both.