Monty St. Vincent had no sooner seated himself after telling the interesting tale of the Salvation of Findlayson, when Billy Jones, of the Oracle, rose up and stated that Mr. Harry Snobbe, as the holder of the seventh ball, would unfold the truly marvellous story that had come to him after the first dinner of the Dreamers.
“Mr. Snobbe requests all persons having nerves to be unstrung to unstring them now. His tale, he tells me, is one of intense gloom; but how intense the gloom may be, I know not. I will leave it to him to show. Gentlemen, Mr. Snobbe.”
Mr. Snobbe took the floor, and after a few preliminary remarks, read as follows:
A TALE OF THE ISLE OF MAN
Old Gloomster Goodheart, of Ballyhack, left the Palace of the Bishop of Man broken-hearted. The Bishop had summoned him a week previous to show cause why he should not be removed from his office of Gloomster, a position that had been held by members of his family for ten generations, aye, since the days of that ancient founder of the family, Cronky Gudehart, of whom tradition states that his mere presence at a wedding turned the marriage feast into a seeming funeral ceremony, making men and women weep, and on two occasions driving the bride to suicide and the groom into the Church. Indeed, Cronky Gudehart was himself the first to occupy the office of Gloomster. The office was created for his especial benefit, as you will see, for it was the mere fact that the two grooms bereft at the altar sought out the consolation of the monastery that called the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities to the desirability of establishing such a functionary. The two grooms were men of wealth, and, had it not been for Cronky Gudehart’s malign influence, neither they nor their wealth would have passed into the control of the Church, a fact which Ramsay Ballawhaine, then Bishop of Man, was quick to note and act upon.
“The gloomier the world,” said he, “the more transcendently bright will Heaven seem; and if we can make Heaven seem bright, the Church will be able to declare dividends. Let us spread misery and sorrow. Let us destroy the sunshine of life that so gilds with glory the flesh and the devil. Let all that is worldly be made to appear mean and vile and sordid.”
“But how?” Ramsay Ballawhaine was asked. “That is a hard thing to do.”
“For some ’twill doubtless so appear, but I have a plan,” the Bishop had answered. “We have here living, not far from Jellimacksquizzle, the veriest spoil-sport in the person of Cronky Gudehart. He has a face that would change the August beauties of a sylvan forest into a bleak scene of wintry devastation. I am told that when Cronky Gudehart gazes upon a rose it withers, and children passing him in the highways run shrieking to their mothers, as though escaping from the bogie man of Caine Hall—which castle, as you know, has latterly been haunted by horrors that surpass the imagination. His voice is like the strident cry of doom. Hearing his footsteps, strong men quail and women swoon; and I am told that, dressed as Santa Claus, on last Christmas eve he waked up his sixteen children, and with a hickory stick belabored one and all until they said that mercy was all they wanted for their Yule-tide gifts.”
“’Tis true,” said the assistant vicar. “’Tis very true; and I happen to know, through my own ministrations, that when a beggar-woman from Sodor applied to Cronky Gudehart for relief from the sorrows of the world, he gave her a bottle of carbolic acid, saying that therein lay the cure of all her woes. But what of Cronky and your scheme?”
“Let us establish the office of Gloomster,” returned the Bishop. “Set apart Nightmare Abbey as his official residence, and pay him a salary to go about among the people spreading grief and woe among them until they fly in desperation to us who alone can console.”
“It’s out of sight!” ejaculated the assistant vicar, “and Cronky’s just the man for the place.”
It was thus that the office of Gloomster was instituted. As will be seen, the duties of the Gloomster were simple. He was given liberty of entrance to all joyous functions in the life of the Isle of Man, social or otherwise, and his duties were to ruin pleasure wherever he might find it. Cronky Gudehart was installed in the office, and Nightmare Abbey was set apart as his official residence. He attended all weddings, and spoiled them in so far as he was able. It was his custom, when the vicar asked if there was any just reason why these two should not be joined together in holy wedlock, to rise up and say that, while he had no evidence at hand, he had no doubt there was just cause in great plenty, and to suggest that the ceremony should be put off a week or ten days while he and his assistants looked into the past records of the principals. At funerals he took the other tack, and laughed joyously at every manifestation of grief. At hangings he would appear, and dilate humorously upon the horrid features thereof; and at afternoon teas he would appear clad in black garments from head to foot, and exhort all present to beware of the future, and to give up the hollowness and vanities of tea and macaroons.
Results were not long in their manifestation. In place of open marriage the young people of the isle, to escape the malignant persecution of the Gloomster, took up the habit of elopement, and as elopements always end in sorrow and regret, the monasteries and nunneries waxed great in the land. To avoid funerals, at which the Gloomster’s wit was so fearsome a thing, the sick or the maimed and the halt fled out into the open sea and drowned themselves, and all sociability save that which came from book sales and cake auctions—in their very nature destructive of a love of life—faded out of the land.
“Cronky Gudehart was an ideal Gloomster,” said the Bishop of Man, with a sigh, when that worthy spoil-sport, having gone to Africa for a vacation, was eaten by cannibals. “We shall not look upon his like again.”
“I’ve no doubt he disagreed with the cannibals,” sobbed the vicar, as he thought over the virtues of the deceased.
“None who ate him could escape appendicitis,” commented the Bishop, wiping a tear from his eye; “and, thank Heaven, the operation for that has yet to be invented. Those cannibals have been taken by this time from their wicked life.”
So it had gone on for ten generations. Cronky had been succeeded by his son and by his son’s son, and so on. To be Gloomster of the Isle of Man had by habit become the prerogative of the Gudehart family until the present, when Christian Goodheart found himself summoned before the Bishop to show cause why he should not be removed. Hitherto the Gloomster had given satisfaction. It would be hard to point to one of them—unless we except Eric Goodheart, the one who changed the name from Gudehart to Goodheart—who had not filled the island with that kind of sorrow that makes life seem hardly worth living. Eric Goodheart had once caught his father, “Bully Gudehart,” as he was called, in a moment of forgetfulness, doing a kindly act to a beggar at the door. A wanderer had appeared at the door of Nightmare Abbey in a starving condition, and Eric had surprised the Gloomster in the very act of giving the beggar a piece of apple-pie. The father found himself suddenly confronted by the round, staring eyes of his son, and he was frightened. If it were ever known that the Gloomster had done a kindly thing for anybody, he might be removed, and Bully Gudehart recognized the fact.
“Come here!” he cried brutally, to Eric, as the beggar marched away munching hungrily on the pie. “Come here, you brat! Do you hear? Come here!” The boy was coming all the while. “You saw?”
“Yes, your Honor,” he replied, “I saw. The man said he was nearly dead with hunger, and you gave him food.”
“No,” roared the Gloomster, full of fear, for he knew how small boys prattle, “I did not give him food! I gave him pie!”
“All right, your Majesty,” the boy answered. “You gave him pie. And I see now why they call you Bully. For pie is bully, and nothing less.”
“My son,” the Gloomster responded, seizing a trunk-strap and whacking the lad with it forcefully, “you don’t understand. Do you know why I fed that man?”
“Because he was dying of hunger,” replied the lad, ruefully, rubbing his back where the trunk-strap had hit him.
“Precisely,” said the Gloomster. “If I hadn’t given him that pie he’d have died on the premises, and I can’t afford the expense of having a tramp die here. As it is, he will enjoy a lingering death. That was one of your mother’s pies.”
Eric ran sobbing to his room, but in his heart he believed that he had detected his father in a kindly act, and conceived that a Gloomster might occasionally relax. Nevertheless, when he succeeded to the office he was stern and unrelenting, in spite of the fact that occasionally there was to be detected in his eye a glance of geniality. This was doubtless due to the fact that from the time of his intrusion upon his father’s moment of weakness he was soundly thrashed every morning before breakfast, and spanked before retiring at night, as a preliminary to his prayers.
But Christian Goodheart, the present incumbent, had not given satisfaction, and his Bishop had summoned him to show cause why he should not be removed, and, as we have seen, the Gloomster had gone away broken-hearted. Shortly after having arrived at Nightmare Abbey he was greeted by his wife.
“Well, Christian,” she said, “what did the Bishop say?”
“He wants my resignation,” sighed Christian. “He says I have shown myself unworthy, and I fear he has evidence.”
“Evidence? Against you, my husband, the most disagreeable man in the isle?” cried his wife, fondly.
“Yes,” sighed Christian. “Do you remember, you old termagant, how, forgetting myself and my position, last Tuesday I laughed when Peter Skelly told us what his baby said to his nurse?”
“I do, Christian,” the good woman answered. “You laughed heartily, and I warned you to be careful. It is not the Gloomster’s place to laugh, and I feared it might reach the Bishop’s ears.”
“It has done so,” sighed Christian, shaking his head sadly and wringing his hands in his agony. “It has reached the Bishop’s ears. Little Glory Grouse was passing by the door at the moment and saw me. Astonished, the child ran home and told her mother. ‘Mommer!’ she cried, ‘I have seen the Gloomster laugh! I have seen the Gloomster laugh!’ The child was cross-questioned, but stuck to her story until Mrs. Grouse was convinced, and told her neighbors, and these neighbors told other neighbors, until the story came to the ears of Canon Cashman, by whom it was conveyed to the Bishop himself.”
“What a little gossip that Glory Grouse is! She’ll come to a bad end, mark my words!” cried Mrs. Goodheart, angrily. “She’ll have her honored father’s name on the circus posters yet.”
“Do not blame the child,” said Christian, sadly. “She was right. Who had ever seen a Gloomster smile before? As well expect a ray of sunshine or a glimpse of humor in a Manx novel—”
“But the Bishop is not going to remove you for one false step, is he, Christian? He cannot do that, can he?” pleaded the woman.
“That is what I asked him,” Christian answered. “And he handed me a type-written memorandum of what he called my record. It seems that for six months they have been spying upon me. Read it for yourself.”
Mrs. Goodheart took the paper and read, with trembling hands:
“‘January 1, 1898—wished Peggy Meguire a happy New Year.’ Did you really, Christian?”
“I don’t remember doing so,” sighed the Gloomster. “If I did, it must have been in sarcasm, for I hate Peggy Meguire, and I am sure I wish her nothing of the sort. I told the Bishop so, but all he would say was, ‘Read on.’”
“‘February 23, 1898,’” Mrs. Goodheart continued, reading from the paper—“‘took off his coat and wrapped it about the shivering form of a freezing woman.’
“How very imprudent of you, Christian!” said his wife.
“But the Bishop didn’t know the circumstances,” said Christian. “It was the subtlest kind of deviltry, not humanity, that prompted the act. If I hadn’t given her my coat, the old lady would have frozen to death and been soon out of her misery. As it was, my wet coat saved her from an immediate surcease of sorrow, and, as I had foreseen, gave her muscular rheumatism of the most painful sort, from which she has suffered ever since.”
“You should have explained to the Bishop.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said my methods were too damned artistic.”
“What?” cried Mrs. Goodheart. “The Bishop?”
“Oh, well,” said Christian, “words to that effect. He doesn’t appreciate the subtleties of gloom distinction. What he looks for is sheer brutality. Might as well employ an out-and-out desperado for the work. I like to infuse a little art into my work. I’ve tried to bring Gloomsterism up to the level of an art, a science. Slapping a man in the face doesn’t make him gloomy; it makes him mad. But subtlely infusing woe into his daily life, so that he doesn’t know whence all his trouble comes—ah! that is the perfect flower of the Gloomster’s work!”
“H’m!” said Mrs. Goodheart. “That’s well enough, Christian. If you are rich enough to consume your own product with profit, it’s all right to be artistic; but if you are dependent on a salary, don’t forget your consumer. What else have they against you?”
“Read on, woman,” said the Gloomster.
“‘April 1, 1898,’” the lady read. “‘Gave a half-crown to a starving beggar.’”
“That was another highly artistic act,” said Christian. “I told the Bishop that I had given the coin to the beggar knowing it to be counterfeit, and hoping that he would be arrested for trying to pass it. The Bishop cut me short by saying that my hope had not been fulfilled. It seems that that ass of a beggar bought some food with the half-crown, and the grocer who sold him the food put the counterfeit half-crown in the contribution-box the next Sunday, and the Church was stuck. That’s what I call hard luck.”
“Oh, well,” returned Mrs. Goodheart, putting the paper down in despair. “There’s no need to read further. That alone is sufficient to cause your downfall. When do you resign?”
“At once,” sighed Christian. “In fact, the Bishop had already written my resignation—which I signed.”
“And the land is without a Gloomster for the first time in five hundred years?” demanded Mrs. Goodheart.
“No,” said Christian, the tears coursing down his nose. “The place is filled already, and by one who knows gloom only theoretically—a mere summer resident of the Isle of Man. In short, a famous London author has succeeded me.”
“His name!” cried Mrs. Goodheart.
“Just then,” said Snobbe, “I awoke, and did not catch the author’s name. It is a curious thing about dreams that just when you get to the crucial point you wake up.”
“I wonder who the deuce the chap could have been?” murmured the other diners. “Has any London author with a residence on the Isle of Man ever shown any acquaintance with gloom?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said Billy Jones. “But my impression is that it must be the editor of Punch. What I am uncertain about is his residence on the Isle of Man. Otherwise I think he fills the bill.”