EPISODE OF THE CONTENTED TAILOR

Not a hundred yards out of a certain village I came across a little man
dressed in grey. We were alone on the road, we were going in the same
direction, and I came to learn that he travelled with as little purpose
as I.

As soon as I saw his face, his jaunty walk, his knapsack and his stick,
I knew him for a friend.

I hailed him. He stopped, smiled pleasantly, and fell in with my stride.
We soon found a mutual bond of esteem. It appeared we were out in search
of adventures.

He explained to me, quite simply, that he was not going anywhere, and
that he proposed to be some four months about it.

“Just walking about looking at things,” he volunteered.

“That is my case,” I replied.

“I’m a tailor, sir,” said he.

“Having a look at the cut of the country?”

He gave a little friendly nod.

“And do you tailor as you go along?” I asked, for I had never met a
travelling tailor before: tinkers galore; haberdashers aplenty; patent
medicine men a few; sailors; old soldiers (the worst); apothecaries I
have mentioned; gentlemen, many; ploughboys, purse thieves, one or two,
and ugly customers—they were in a dark lane—but a tailor, never. It
seemed all the world could tread the high road but a tailor. Then I
remembered my fairy tales—“Seven at a Blow”—and laughed aloud.

“I’ve given up my trade,” he explained, as we began to mount the hill.
“No more sitting on a bench for me in the spring or summer. I do a bit
in the winter, but I’m a free man on two pounds ten a week.”

And he was young—forty at the most.

“Put by?” said I.

He smiled again. “Not quite, sir. I had a little bit put by, but a
brother of mine went to Australia, and made a fortune—he died, poor Tom,
and left his money to me and my sister. Two pound ten a week for each of
us.”

“And it has brought you—this,” I explained, pointing with my stick at
the expanse of country. “It’s like a romance.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Then you read romances?” I asked quickly.

“I read all I can lay hands on,” he replied. “I’m living just as my
sister and I dreamed we’d live if ever something wonderful happened.”

“And it has happened?”

“You’re right, sir. My sister lives in the little cottage I bought with
my savings. She’s got all she wants—all anybody might want, you might
say. A cottage, six-roomed, all white, with a Pink Rose growing over the
porch, and a canary in a cage in the parlour. Then there’s a garden, and
a bit of orchard, and bees and a river at the bottom of the little
meadow, and a Catholic Church within a stone’s throw—so it’s all right.
She’s a rare good gardener, is my sister.”

“I envy you both,” I said.

He looked me up and down for a moment before speaking. “No cause for you
to do that, I expect, sir.”

“Well, you know what you want, and you’ve got it.”

We had reached the crest of the hill now after a longish climb. It was a
hot day and I proposed a rest. Besides, it was one o’clock and I was
hungry.

I had four hard boiled eggs, and he had bread and cheese—we divided our
goods evenly, and ate comfortably under a hedge in a field.

“I’ve often sat on my bench,” he said, “and looked out at the sun in the
dusty street and wondered if I should ever be able to sit out in it on
the grass and have nothing to do. We used to go for a day in the
country, I and my sister, whenever I could spare the money, and it was a
holiday. You wouldn’t believe what the sight of green fields and trees
meant to me and my sister: you see the hedgerows were the only garden we
could afford, and we could ill-afford that. My sister used to talk about
the Roses she’d have, and the Carnations, and the Sunflowers and Asters,
when our ship came home. It came home—think of that.” He stretched his
limbs luxuriously. “And here we are with everything, and more.”

“And more?” I asked.

“Well, you see, it is more, somehow. I’m ‘me’ now—do you follow the
idea? I never knew what it was to be on my own: just ‘me.’ I can lie
abed now as long as I want to, I can wear what I like, do what I like.
And I’ve a garden of my own.”

“But you don’t stop there,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I wonder if you’d know what I meant if I said that a
garden and sitting about is a bit too much for me for the present. I
want to walk and walk in the open air, and see things, and stretch my
legs a bit to get rid of twenty odd years of the bench. I want to run up
the top of hills and shout because—well, because I feel as if I had a
right to shout when the sun is shining.”

“I quite understand that,” I said.

“And then,” he went on, and his face showed the joy he felt, “everything
is so wonderful. Look at that village we came through: those people
there feel the same as you and me. They’ve got to express themselves
somehow, so they grow flowers right out into the road, just as a gift to
you and me. A sort of something comes to them that they must have
flowers at the front door. Whenever I see a good garden, full of Pinks
and Roses and Larkspur, I get a bed at that cottage, if I can. I’ve
slept all over the place, all over England, you might say; and cheap,
too.”

“That was a beautiful village, below there,” I said.

He nodded wisely. “Seems as if they’d decorated the street on purpose to
make the cottages look as if they grew like the flowers. All the porches
covered with Honeysuckle and Roses, and everlasting Peas, and flowers up
against the windows. I’ve a perfect craze for flowers—can’t think where
I get it from.”

“You are the real gardener,” said I.

“I believe I am,” he said. “And why I took to tailoring beats me, now.
My father was a butcher.”

I pointed over my shoulder towards the village. “Do you live in a place
like that?” I asked.

“Better than that,” he answered proudly. “It took me nearly two years to
find the place my sister and I had dreamed of. We wanted a cottage in a
county as much like a garden as possible. I found it—in Devonshire; my
eye, it’s a wonderful place, all orchards. In the blossom time it looks
like—well, as if it was expecting somebody, it’s so beautiful.”

“I know,” I said. “Sometimes the country dresses itself as if a lover
were coming.”

“Do you ever read Browning?” he asked. “Because he answers a lot of
questions for me.”

“For me too.”

“Well,” he said, and reddened shyly as he said it; “do you remember the
poem that ends

‘What if that friend happened to be God?’”

I understood perfectly. He was a man of soul, my tailor.

“I expect you are surprised to find I read a lot,” he went on in his
artless way. “But when I was a boy I was in a book shop, before my
father lost all his money, and put me out to be a tailor. My mother was
a lady’s maid, and she encouraged me to read. There was a priest, Father
Brown, who helped me too; it was from him I first learned to love
flowers.”

“Then, as you are a Catholic, you know what to-day is,” said I.




“The twenty-ninth of August. No, sir, I’m afraid I don’t.”

“It is dedicated to one of our patron Saints—there are two for
gardeners—Saint Phocas, a Greek, and Saint Fiacre, an Irishman. To-day
is the day of Saint Phocas.”

The tailor crossed himself reverently.

“I’ll tell you the story if you like.” And, as he lay on his back, I
told him the little legend of

SAINT PHOCAS: PATRON SAINT OF GARDENERS.

“At the end of the third century there lived a certain good man called
Phocas, who had a little dwelling outside the gates of the city of
Sinope, in Pontus. He had a small garden in which he grew flowers and
vegetables for the poor and for his own needs. Prayer, love of his
labour, and care for the things he grew filled his life.”

My tailor interrupted here to ask, apologetically, what manner of garden
Saint Phocas would have.

“Neat beds,” said I—for I had gone into the matter myself—“edged with
box. The flowers and vegetables growing together. Violets, Leeks,
Onions, with Crocuses, Narcissus, and Lilies. Then, in their season,
Gladiolus, Hyacinths, Iris, Poppies, and plenty of Roses. Melons, also,
and Gherkins, Peaches, Plums, Apples and Pomegranates, Olives, Almonds,
Medlars, Cherries, and Pears, of which quite thirty kinds were known. In
his house, on the window ledge, if he had one, he may have grown Violets
and Lilies in window pots, for they did that in those days.”

“Now, isn’t that interesting?” said the tailor. “My sister will care to
know that. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised to find her putting a statue
of Saint Phocas over the door. She’s all for figures.”

“I’m afraid,” said I, “there will be some trouble over that. There is a
statue of him in Saint Mark’s in Venice, a great old man with a fine
beard, dressed like a gardener, and holding a spade in his hand. There’s
one of him, too, in the Cathedral at Palermo, but I have never seen them
copied. Now I must tell you the rest of the story.

“There were days, you know, when Christians were hunted out and killed.
One evening there came to the house of the Saint, two strangers. It was
the habit of this good man to give of what he had to all travellers,
food, rest, water to bathe their feet, and a kindly welcome. On this
occasion the Saint performed his hospitable offices as usual—set the
strangers at his board, prepared a meal for them, and led them
afterwards to a place where they might sleep. Before going to rest they
told him their errand; they were searching for a certain man of the name
of Phocas, a Christian, and, having found him, they were to slay him.
When they were asleep, the Saint, after offering up his prayers, went
into his garden and dug a grave in the middle of the flower beds.

“The morning came, and the strangers prepared to depart, but the Saint,
standing before them, told them he was the very man whom they sought. A
horror seized them that they should have eaten with the man they had set
out to kill, but Saint Phocas, leading them to the grave among the
flowers, bid them do their work. They cut off his head, and buried him
in his own garden, in the grave he had dug.”

[Illustration: PORCHES GROWN OVER WITH HONEYSUCKLE AND ROSES AT BROADWAY
IN THE COTSWOLDS.]

The little tailor was silent. I lit my pipe, and began to put my traps
together.

Then he spoke. “I couldn’t do that, you know. Those martyrs—by gum!”

“Death,” said I, “was life to them. Their life was only a preparation
for death.”

The tailor sat up. “My sister’s like that,” he said. “She’s bought a
tombstone—think of that. Said she’d like to have it by her. She’s a one
for a bargain, if you like; saw this tombstone marked ‘Cheap,’ in a
stonemason’s yard down our way, and went in at once to ask the price.
She’d price anything, my sister would. You’ve only got to mark a thing
down ‘Cheap’ and she’s after the price in a minute.”

“How did the tombstone come to be marked ‘cheap’?” I asked, laughing
with him.

“It was this way,” said the tailor. Then he turned, in his inconsequent
way to me. “I wonder,” he said, “if, as you’re so kind as to take an
interest, you’d care to see our cottage. We’d be proud, my sister and I,
if you would come. If you are just walking about for pleasure, perhaps
you’d come down as far as that one day and—and, well, sir, it’s very
humble, but we’d do our best.”

“When shall you be there?” I said. “Because I want to come very much.”

“I’m going back; I’m on my way now,” he said; “I always go back two or
three times in the summer just to tell her the news. I tell her what’s
happened, and what flowers they grow where I’ve been. If you would
really come, sir, perhaps you’d come in three weeks from now, if you
have nothing better to do. I’d let her know.”

“Then she could tell me the story of the tombstone herself?” I said.

It ended at that. He wrote the address for me in my sketch-book, and
took his leave of me in characteristic fashion.

“I hope I’m not taking a liberty,” he said, as he jerked his knapsack
into a comfortable place between his shoulders.

“There’s nothing I should like better,” said I.

“You’ll like the garden,” he said as an inducement.

And this was how I came to hear the story of the “Tailor’s Sister’s
Tombstone.”

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