You’ve heard tell, I dare say, about Landlord Cummins and Billy Bosistow, and the great jealousy there was between them. No? Well, I see you going about Ardevora, and making a study of us; and I know you can read, because I’ve seen you doing it down to the Institute. But sometimes, when I ask you a simple little question like that, you force me to wonder what you’ve been doing with yourself all these years. Why, it got into the Law Courts!
I know all about it, being related to them both after a fashion, as you might say. Landlord Cummins–he that used to keep the Welcome Home– married an aunt of mine on my mother’s side, and that’s part of the story. The boys used to call him “Calves-in-front,” because of his legs being put on in an unusual manner, which made him walk slow all his days, and that’s another part of the story. And Billy Bosistow, or Uncle Billy, was my father’s father’s’ stepson. You needn’t take any trouble to get that clear in your mind, because our family never owned him after he came home from the French war prisons and took up with his drinking habits; and that comes into the story, too.
As it happens, the occasion that took their quarrel into the Law Courts is one of the first things I can remember. It was in the year ‘twenty-five. Landlord Cummins, by dint of marrying a woman with means (that was my aunt), and walking the paths of repute for eleven years with his funny-shaped calves, got himself elected Mayor of the Borough. You may suppose it was a proud day for him. In those times the borough used to pay the mayor a hundred pounds a year to keep up appearances, and my mother had persuaded my father to hire a window for Election Day opposite the Town Hall, so that she might have the satisfaction of seeing so near a relative in his robes of dignity.
Well, there in the window we were gathered on that July forenoon (for the mayors in those back-a-long days weren’t chosen in November as they are now), and the sun–it was a bright day–slanting high down our side of the street, and my mother holding me tight as we leaned out, for I was just rising five, and extraordinary heavy in the head. And out upon the steps of the Town Hall stepped Landlord Cummins, Mayor, with the town crier and maces before him, and his robes hanging handsomely about his calves, and his beaver hat and all the rest of the paraphernalia, prepared to march to church.
While he stood there, bowing to a score of people, and looking as big as bull’s beef, who should step out from the pavement under us but Uncle Billy Bosistow! He was a ragged old scarecrow, turned a bit grey and lean with iniquitous living, but not more than half-drunk; and he stepped into the middle of the roadway and cut a low reverence to his worship, flinging out his leg like a dancing-master. And says he, in a high cackle, very solemn but mocking:
“I salute thee, O Mayor! Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before thy God.”
“Put that dam fool in the stocks!” cried his worship, very red in the gills, and speaking vicious. And Uncle Billy was collared and marched off between two constables, while the procession formed up to lead the new Mayor to church.
Well, that, as it happened, wasn’t a lucky start-off for Mr. Cummins’s year of office. For no sooner was Billy let out of the stocks than off he went to Lawyer Mennear, who was a young man then just set up in practice, and as keen for a job as a huer for pilchards; and between them they patched up an action for false imprisonment–damages claimed, one hundred pounds.