James Brunton Stephens
Universally Respected - Poem by James Brunton Stephens
Biggs was missing: Biggs had vanished; all the town was in a ferment;
For if ever man was looked to for an edifying end,
With due mortuary outfit, and a popular interment,
It was Biggs, the universal guide, philosopher, and friend.
But the man had simply vanished; speculation wove no tissue
That would hold a drop of water; each new theoryfell flat.
It was most unsatisfactory, and hanging on the issue
Were a thousand wagers, ranging from a “pony” to a hat.
Not a trace could search discover in the township or without it,
And the river had been dragged from morn till night with no avail.
His continuity had ceased, and that was all about it,
And there wasn't even a grease-spot left behind to tell the tale.
That so staid a man as Biggs was should be swallowed up in mystery
Lent an increment to wonder—he who trod no doubtful paths,
But stood square to his surroundings, with no cloud upon his history,
As the much-respected lessee of the Corporation Baths.
His affairs were all in order: since the year the alligator
With a startled river bather made attempt to coalesce,
The resulting wave of decency had greater grown and greater,
And the Corporation Baths had been a marvellous success.
Nor could trouble in the household solve the riddle of his clearance,
For his bride was now in heaven, and the issue of the match
Was a patient drudge whose virtues were as plain as her appearance—
Just the sort whereto no scandal could conceivably attach.
So the Whither and the Why alike mysterious were counted;
And as Faith steps in to aid where baffled Reason must retire,
There were those averred so good a man as Biggs might well have mounted
Up to glory like Elijah in a chariot of fire!
For indeed he was a good man; when he sat beside the portal
Of the Bath-house at his pigeon-hole, a saint within a frame,
We used to think his face was as the face of an immortal,
As he handed us our tickets, and took payment for the same.
And, oh, the sweet advice with which he made of such occasion
A duplicate detergent for our morals and our limbs—
For he taught us that decorum was the essence of salvation,
And that cleanliness and godliness were merely synonyms;
But that open-air ablution in the river was a treason
To the purer instincts, fit for dogs and aborigines,
And that wrath at such misconduct was the providential reason
For the jaws of alligators and the tails of stingarees.
But, alas, our friend was gone, our guide, philosopher, and tutor,
And we doubled our potations, just to clear the inner view;
But we only saw the darklier through the bottom of the pewter,
And the mystery seemed likewise to be multiplied by two.
And the worst was that our failure to unriddle the enigma
In the “rags” of rival towns was made a by-word and a scoff,
Till each soul in the community felt branded with the stigma
Of the unexplained damnation of poor Biggs's taking off.
So a dozen of us rose and swore this thing should be no longer:
Though the means that Nature furnished had been tried without result,
There were forces supersensual that higher were and stronger,
And with consentaneous clamour we pronounced for the occult.
Then Joe Thomson slung a tenner, and Jack Robinson a tanner,
And each according to his means respectively disbursed;
And a letter in your humble servant's most seductive manner
Was despatched to Sludge the Medium, recently of Darlinghurst.
“I am Biggs,” the spirit said ('t was through the medium's lips he said it;
But the voice that spoke, the accent, too, were Biggs's very own,
Be it, therefore, not set down to our unmerited discredit
That collectively we sickened as we recognized the tone).
“From a saurian interior, Christian friends, I now address you”—
(And “Oh heaven!” or its correlative, groaned shudderingly we)—
“While there yet remains a scrap of my identity, for, bless you,
This ungodly alligator's fast assimilating me.
“For although through nine abysmal days I've fought with his digestion,
Being hostile to his processes and loth to pulpify,
It is rapidly becoming a most complicated question
How much of me is crocodile, how much of him is I.
“And, oh, my friends, 'tis sorrow's crown of sorrow to remember
That this sacrilegious reptile owed me nought but gratitude,
For I bought him from a showman twenty years since come November,
And I dropped him in the river for his own and others' good.
“It had grieved me that the spouses of our townsmen, and their daughters,
Should be shocked by river bathers and their indecorous ways
So I cast my bread—that is, my alligator—on the waters,
And I found it, in a credit balance, after many days.
“Years I waited, but at last there came the rumour long expected,
And the out-of-door ablutionists forsook their wicked paths,
And the issues of my handiwork divinely were directed
In a constant flow of custom to the Corporation Baths.
‘'Twas a weakling when I bought it; 'twas so young that you could pet it;
But with all its disadvantages I reckoned it would do;
And it did: Oh, lay the moral well to heart and don't forget it—
Put decorum first, and all things shall be added unto you.
“Lies! all lies! I've done with virtue. Why should I be interested
In the cause of moral progress that I served so long in vain,
When the fifteen hundred odd I've so judiciously invested
Will but go to pay the debts of some young rip who marries Jane?
“But the reptile overcomes me; my identity is sinking;
Let me hasten to the finish; let my words be few and fit.
I was walking by the river in the starry silence, thinking
Of what Providence had done for me, and I had done for it;
“I had reached the saurian's rumoured haunt, where oft in fatal folly
I had dropped garotted dogs to keep his carnal craving up”
(Said Joe Thomson, in a whisper, “That explains my Highland collie!”
Said Bob Williams, sotto voce, “That explains my Dandy pup!”)
“I had passed to moral questions, and found comfort in the notion
That fools are none the worse for things not being what they seem,
When, behold, a seeming log became instinct with life and motion,
And with sudden curvature of tail upset me in the stream.
“Then my leg, as in a vice”—But here the revelation faltered,
And the medium rose and shook himself, remarking with a smile
That the requisite conditions were irrevocably altered,
For the personality of Biggs was lost in crocodile.
* * * * *
Now, whether Sludge's story would succeed in holding water
Is more, perhaps, than one has any business to expect;
But I know that on the strength of it I married Biggs's daughter,
And I found a certain portion of the narrative correct.
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