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'It happened on Sunday after Christmas--the last Sunday ever they
played in Longpuddle church gallery, as it turned out, though they
didn't know it then. As you may know, sir, the players formed a very
good band--almost as good as the Mellstock parish players that were
led by the Dewys; and that's saying a great deal. There was Nicholas
Puddingcome, the leader, with the first fiddle; there was Timothy
Thomas, the bass-viol man; John Biles, the tenor fiddler; Dan'l
Hornhead, with the serpent; Robert Dowdle, with the clarionet; and
Mr. Nicks, with the oboe--all sound and powerful musicians, and
strong-winded men--they that blowed. For that reason they were very
much in demand Christmas week for little reels and dancing parties;
for they could turn a jig or a hornpipe out of hand as well as ever
they could turn out a psalm, and perhaps better, not to speak
irreverent. In short, one half-hour they could be playing a
Christmas carol in the squire's hall to the ladies and gentlemen, and
drinking tay and coffee with 'em as modest as saints; and the next,
at The Tinker's Arms, blazing away like wild horses with the "Dashing
White Sergeant" to nine couple of dancers and more, and swallowing
rum-and-cider hot as flame.

'Well, this Christmas they'd been out to one rattling randy after
another every night, and had got next to no sleep at all. Then came
the Sunday after Christmas, their fatal day. 'Twas so mortal cold
that year that they could hardly sit in the gallery; for though the
congregation down in the body of the church had a stove to keep off
the frost, the players in the gallery had nothing at all. So
Nicholas said at morning service, when 'twas freezing an inch an
hour, "Please the Lord I won't stand this numbing weather no longer:
this afternoon we'll have something in our insides to make us warm,
if it cost a king's ransom."

'So he brought a gallon of hot brandy and beer, ready mixed, to
church with him in the afternoon, and by keeping the jar well wrapped
up in Timothy Thomas's bass-viol bag it kept drinkably warm till they
wanted it, which was just a thimbleful in the Absolution, and another
after the Creed, and the remainder at the beginning o' the sermon.
When they'd had the last pull they felt quite comfortable and warm,
and as the sermon went on--most unfortunately for 'em it was a long
one that afternoon--they fell asleep, every man jack of 'em; and
there they slept on as sound as rocks.

"Twas a very dark afternoon, and by the end of the sermon all you
could see of the inside of the church were the pa'son's two candles
alongside of him in the pulpit, and his spaking face behind 'em. The
sermon being ended at last, the pa'son gie'd out the Evening Hymn.
But no choir set about sounding up the tune, and the people began to
turn their heads to learn the reason why, and then Levi Limpet, a boy
who sat in the gallery, nudged Timothy and Nicholas, and said,
"Begin! begin!"

'"Hey? what?" says Nicholas, starting up; and the church being so
dark and his head so muddled he thought he was at the party they had
played at all the night before, and away he went, bow and fiddle, at
"The Devil among the Tailors," the favourite jig of our neighbourhood
at that time. The rest of the band, being in the same state of mind
and nothing doubting, followed their leader with all their strength,
according to custom. They poured out that there tune till the lower
bass notes of "The Devil among the Tailors" made the cobwebs in the
roof shiver like ghosts; then Nicholas, seeing nobody moved, shouted
out as he scraped (in his usual commanding way at dances when the
folk didn't know the figures), "Top couples cross hands! And when I
make the fiddle squeak at the end, every man kiss his pardner under
the mistletoe!"

'The boy Levi was so frightened that he bolted down the gallery
stairs and out homeward like lightning. The pa'son's hair fairly
stood on end when he heard the evil tune raging through the church,
and thinking the choir had gone crazy he held up his hand and said:
"Stop, stop, stop! Stop, stop! What's this?" But they didn't hear
'n for the noise of their own playing, and the more he called the
louder they played.

'Then the folks came out of their pews, wondering down to the ground,
and saying: "What do they mean by such wickedness! We shall be
consumed like Sodom and Gomorrah!"

'Then the squire came out of his pew lined wi' green baize, where
lots of lords and ladies visiting at the house were worshipping along
with him, and went and stood in front of the gallery, and shook his
fist in the musicians' faces, saying, "What! In this reverent
edifice! What!"

'And at last they heard 'n through their playing, and stopped.

'"Never such an insulting, disgraceful thing--never!" says the
squire, who couldn't rule his passion.

'"Never!" says the pa'son, who had come down and stood beside him.

'"Not if the Angels of Heaven," says the squire (he was a wickedish
man, the squire was, though now for once he happened to be on the
Lord's side)--"not if the Angels of Heaven come down," he says,
"shall one of you villanous players ever sound a note in this church
again; for the insult to me, and my family, and my visitors, and God
Almighty, that you've a-perpetrated this afternoon!"

'Then the unfortunate church band came to their senses, and
remembered where they were; and 'twas a sight to see Nicholas Pudding
come and Timothy Thomas and John Biles creep down the gallery stairs
with their fiddles under their arms, and poor Dan'l Hornhead with his
serpent, and Robert Dowdle with his clarionet, all looking as little
as ninepins; and out they went. The pa'son might have forgi'ed 'em
when he learned the truth o't, but the squire would not. That very
week he sent for a barrel-organ that would play two-and-twenty new
psalm-tunes, so exact and particular that, however sinful inclined
you was, you could play nothing but psalm-tunes whatsomever. He had
a really respectable man to turn the winch, as I said, and the old
players played no more.'

'And, of course, my old acquaintance, the annuitant, Mrs. Winter, who
always seemed to have something on her mind, is dead and gone?' said
the home-comer, after a long silence.

Nobody in the van seemed to recollect the name.

'O yes, she must be dead long since: she was seventy when I as a
child knew her,' he added.

'I can recollect Mrs. Winter very well, if nobody else can,' said the
aged groceress. 'Yes, she's been dead these five-and-twenty year at
least. You knew what it was upon her mind, sir, that gave her that
hollow-eyed look, I suppose?'

'It had something to do with a son of hers, I think I once was told.
But I was too young to know particulars.'

The groceress sighed as she conjured up a vision of days long past.
'Yes,' she murmured, 'it had all to do with a son.' Finding that the
van was still in a listening mood, she spoke on:-

Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy
19th century fiction

Short stories
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