A Cock And Policeman

by Ralph Kaye Assheton

A Tale of Rural England

It happened up in Lancashire, and the truth can be vouched for by at least half a hundred spectators. It fell in this wise: Bob O' Tims owned a game-cock which was the envy of the whole street for lustre of coloring and soundness of wind. Its owner was almost unduly proud of his possession, and would watch it admiringly as it stalked majestically about among its family of hens.

"There's a cock for you!" he would say, with a little wave of his pipe. "There's not many cocks like that one. The king himself has got nothing like it down at Windsor Castle."

Now, Jimmy Taylor had always been a rival of Bob O' Tims's. Jimmy's grandfather had fought at the Battle of Waterloo. This gave him great prestige, and it was almost universally believed, in Chellowdene, that the preëminence of the British Empire was mainly due to the battle-zeal of Jimmy's ancestry. But whenever Jimmy talked about his grandfather, Bob skilfully turned the conversation to his game-cock. This made Jimmy testy, and one day he told Bob, in contemptuous tones, that "he'd be even wi' him yet, in the matter o' game-cocks, as well as everything else."

That was one Monday evening, and the following Wednesday Bob O' Tims's cock disappeared. When Bob discovered his loss, his face went quite pale with anger. Without a word, he flung on his cap and set off for Jimmy Taylor's cottage.

When he reached it, he went still whiter. For Jimmy was sitting at the door, and up and down the yard in front of him strutted a magnificent game-cock.

Bob O' Tims stretched out his forefinger, pointed at the cock, and with a stubborn look forming about his mouth and jaw, observed:

"Yon's mine."

"It isn't," responded Jimmy. "It's mine."

"I tell thee, yon's mine. Yo've prigged it."

"It's mine! I bought it at th' fair."

"Thee never bought yon cock at any fair. It's mine, I tell thee."

Words grew high between the disputants, as the cock, in all its bronze and golden splendor, marched up and down the yard, until the argument between the two men terminated in a quarrel so violent that half-a-dozen neighbors came in to see what was the matter. It ended in Bob O' Tims insisting that he would take the matter into court. He was as good as his word, and the next time that the bench met, Bob O' Tims summoned Jimmy Taylor on a charge of having stolen his game-cock.

The magistrates listened to the witnesses on either side. Half-a-dozen people were ready to swear that the cock belonged to Bob. But Jimmy brought up a couple of witnesses to testify that they had seen him buy a similar animal at Turton Fair. The cock was then brought into court. It clucked and choked indignantly, and the partisans of Bob and Jimmy swore against each other as hard as ever they could. The bench appeared perplexed; and it was owing to their inability to come to any decision that the magistrate's clerk made his famous suggestion.

"The case appears to me impossible to prove as it stands, your worships," he said to the bench. "I would suggest, if I may be allowed, that you direct an officer of the court to take the cock to some spot at an equal distance between the houses of the plaintiff and of the defendant. If he is there placed upon the ground, and left to his own devices, he is pretty sure to make his way straight home."

The magistrates accepted the suggestion of the clerk, and gave judgment accordingly. A policeman was ordered to carry out their instructions. Now, this officer was young and raw, and had only recently been enrolled in the constabulary. He was a fat, rosy man, with an air of self-importance. He set out from the court with the cock under his arm. An excited crowd streamed after the policeman, who stalked on with no little pomposity. When he reached the common, which lay between the houses of the rival claimants, he stood still for a minute or two, grasping the cock and looking judiciously from one side of the broken land to the other.

The crowd eagerly commenced to give information.

"You're a bit nearer Bob O' Tims's than you are to Jimmy's!" cried one.

"Nay! Nay!" interposed another spectator, who was a partisan of Bob O' Tims. "There's a corner to turn afore you get to Bob's. It's not fair, not to make allowance for that."

"Stand back!" cried the policeman majestically—"Stand back, every man of you. The critter will be too much put about to go anywhere if you don't keep still tongues in your heads."

The officer still stood, with his legs wide apart, turning his head slowly from side to side. Once he made a pace in the direction of Jimmy Taylor's; then, changing his mind, he took a couple of steps toward Bob O' Tims's. Finally, he decided that he had fixed upon the exact locality commanded by the law, and with a magisterial air, he again waved back the crowd and deposited the cock upon the ground in front of him.

Everybody held their breath. The first thing that the cock did was to shake himself until he resembled nothing so much as a living mop. Then he began to smooth his feathers down again. Then he stretched his neck, flapped his wings and crowed. Finally, with a blink of his bright eyes, which almost appeared like a wink to the hushed and expectant crowd, he made two solemn steps with his slender legs in the direction of Jimmy Taylor's cottage.

"He's going to Jimmy's!" exclaimed the crowd with one voice.

"Can't you all be quiet for a moment or two," interposed the policeman, indignantly. "I tell you, if you don't keep still, you'll upset the critter's mind, and make the magistrates' decision just good for nothing."

The crowd appeared ashamed and relapsed once more into silence.

The policeman stood erect and tall, a few paces in front of them, watching the cock with great solemnity. It was standing still now, jerking its neck a little. Then it looked round, and, retracing its paces, began stepping slowly off in the opposite direction.

"It's going to Bob's!" cried the crowd.

But the cock was doing no such thing; it paused again, scratching in an imaginary dust-heap, and then, with a loud crow, stretched its wings and flew up into a small tree.

This was disconcerting. The policeman turned with anger upon the crowd.

"I told you you were not giving the critter a chance!" he exclaimed. "You'd best be off home. Come, move on! Move on!"

The crowd retreated, but it had no intention of going home. Some of those less interested strolled away, but the partisans of Bob and Jimmy remained at a little distance, eagerly watching to see what would happen next.

The cock, after jerking his head round several times, settled down comfortably among his feathers, and went to sleep in the tree.

This was altogether beyond the expectancy of the policeman. Not knowing what else to do, he sat down on a broken bit of fence under the tree and waited.

The day advanced. The cock slept on and the policeman began to doze. Now and then he awoke with a start, and looked up at the obstinate biped above his head. Presently the man got down from the fence and shook himself.

The partisans of Bob and Jimmy still remained at a discreet distance, watching the progress of events. The policeman stood still for a few moments, staring at the cock; then he approached the small, stumpy tree and clapped his hands vigorously.

The cock woke up, gurgled, and went to sleep again.

The policeman clapped his hands a second time, and then with shrill indignation the creature flew down from the tree, and set off in the direction of the distant moors.

The proceedings promptly assumed the aspect of a hunt. The cock ran along with outstretched wings and neck, and the policeman and the crowd ran after it. At last it reached a small cottage, belonging to a widow of the name of Gammer. Exerting a final effort, it flew up toward her open window and ensconced itself on the top of the good woman's tester-bed.

Now Mrs. Gammer was a woman of character. She heard the noise outside; and when the breathless policeman arrived at the door of her kitchen, she was wiping the soapsuds off her plump red arms, ready for any dispute or fray. She stood with her arms held akimbo, as the man in blue explained his errand. When he had finished his recital she looked at him defiantly.

"And I should like to know what you call yourself, policeman or no policeman, to be chasing a poor harmless critter across 'em blazing commons on a day like this! You want to go and poke him down from my tester-bed, do you? Well, you can just go back and tell the magistrates as Mrs. Gammer's got him, and if they want him they must come for him themselves."

This was direct defiance of the law, and the policeman commenced a remonstrance. His remarks were, however, cut short by Mrs. Gammer.

"I have always said as magistrates was as ignorant as babies, and I only wish that they was as harmless," she persisted, in open contempt of the government of her country. "You can go back, and tell 'em as Mrs. Gammer says so. My house is my house, magistrate or no magistrate, and I won't have any policeman messing about on the top of my tester-bed."

The policeman was not certain whether the authority which had been entrusted to him in the matter would justify his making a deliberate prisoner of Mrs. Gammer. And, as she showed every sign of resorting to violence, should he attempt to pass the door, which she barred with her stout figure, he decided upon beating a retreat. He went outside again and reasserted his shattered dignity by once more driving away the crowd; then, not knowing what else to do, he returned to the police station and reported the matter to the chief constable.

The chief laughed, and so did everybody else who heard the story. The policeman was directed to return to Mrs. Gammer's cottage later in the day, and serve her with an order requiring her to give up the cock immediately. But when he handed Mrs. Gammer the official paper, she laughed in his face.

"You can look round the house for the cock now if you like," she said contemptuously, slapping down the order upon the table, "and you can see if you can find him."

"Is he still on the top of your tester-bed?" demanded the policeman.

"Go and look," responded Mrs. Gammer, with a snort. "You can take the turk's-head brush and brush him down!"

So, armed with the turk's-head brush, the policeman ascended Mrs. Gammer's small, steep staircase. When he reached her bedroom, he poked into every cranny and corner with the handle of his brush. But no cock was to be found.

He descended the stairs, and stood again in the little kitchen. A savory smell of cooking arose from a stew-pan on the fire.

"Where's the critter gone to?" he demanded.

"How should I know?" replied Mrs. Gammer testily.

The policeman, still standing in the kitchen, wished that Mrs. Gammer would give him an invitation to supper. The widow glanced up sharply at him and saw what was in his mind.

"You'd like some supper, I make no doubt, after your wild-goose chase," she said. "Sit down at t' table and take a bit o' stew."

The policeman seated himself with alacrity. The stew which Mrs. Gammer placed before him consisted of a mixture of barley, onions and some white meat. He ate a hearty supper, and when he stood up he drew his hands across his mouth.

"Thank you kindly," he said. "I must be off now, and see where that cock has gone to."

Then it was that Mrs. Gammer gave a short and derisive laugh. She began to pile up the empty plates and to put the spoons and forks in the basin by the sink.

"If you go a-chasing of that cock until you are black and blue in the face," she said, "you'll never find him. And the reason why, is that you have just helped to eat him up."

"I have eat him up!" he gasped.

"Aye," responded Mrs. Gammer, with brevity. "I made him into soup!"

The policeman remained open-mouthed, staring at the impenitent widow.

"You'd no business ever to do such a thing," he said. "The cock belonged to the Law."

"I care nowt for your Law," retorted Mrs. Gammer. "Anyway you've helped to eat him!"

A vague sense of cannibalism was haunting the policeman's mind; he felt almost as dismayed as if he had made a hearty supper off the magistrate's clerk himself.

"You're a very wicked woman," he said to Mrs. Gammer. "And—and——"

He broke off, entirely nonplussed by the situation in which he found himself. Mrs. Gammer continued to wash up the spoons and forks with utter indifference to his consternation.

"The cock's eat up, and there's an end of it," she said. "You'd best go and tell the magistrates all about it."

Sheepish and disconcerted, the policeman slunk home. The next morning the chief asked him if he had served the order on Mrs. Gammer.

"I—served it," said he, scratching his head.

"And did you get the bird given up?" demanded his superior officer.

"No, I can't say as I did," replied the policeman.

"Was it still on the top of the tester-bed?" pursued his awkward questioner.

"No. It was not on the tester-bed," replied the policeman.

"Then where was it?" insisted the chief.

For several seconds the policeman was silent, then he told a lie.

"I canna say," he answered, "it war gone."

The chief shrugged his shoulders, and sent the man about the business of the day. The next time that the magistrates met, the question of Bob O' Tims's cock was again brought into court. The magistrate's clerk demanded if the case were settled.

To the great relief of the policeman, who was waiting in attendance, Bob O' Tims spoke up from the spot where he stood.

"Jim hadna stolen my cock after all, sir," he said, "for it came home the next morning."

"Then what happened to the cock that was brought into court on Tuesday?" demanded the magistrate's clerk. But nobody seemed to know.

Only, people used to wonder why Widow Gammer almost always gave a peculiar kind of snort when she spoke of Police Constable X, and why that worthy officer avoided her cottage ever after, and invariably turned down a side street if he saw the widow within speaking distance of him.