It was shortly before closing time at the Gallows and Glockenspiel, and the bar was unusually quiet. This was partly because Limbless Fred had fallen asleep, which allowed the other card-players to play some remarkably bad hands on his behalf, but quietly so as not to disturb him. It was also partly because Granny Forbus was dozing lightly: had Granny Forbus been fully awake, she would have occupied herself and everyone else with improving advice and helpful instruction; and had Granny Forbus been fully asleep, the bar would have echoed with her snores and the carefree gambolling of her horrible conscience. Meanwhile, in their enigmatic corner, Mr Blodgett and Mr Boggust were engaged in some enigmatic business involving stains and floorboards, which they conducted with all due discretion.
"Tenth of March, eighteen hundred and one," announced Hooligan Motts. "Nearly closing time."
Even as he spoke, a person came in. Whether or not Hooligan Motts observed his entry was a matter impossible to judge. This of course was nothing unusual, so vast and profound was the imperturbability of Hooligan Motts; but neither did Granny Forbus stir, nor Melon Head Myrtle look up from the trimmings of her banana daiquiri. Pippa Twelve Toes did not glance in the person's direction, and Malvolio Quabbage's eyeballs no more strayed sidelong towards the person than did the eyeballs of Throaty Gubbins, who had passed out unconscious in the ladies' room half an hour ago.
For the newcomer was not only quiet, but nondescript to an ineffable degree. His unremarkable features barely interrupted the curvature of his understated head. The blandness of his build was rivalled by the mediocrity of his height, though admittedly to a degree barely worthy of attention. His general air of furtiveness might have attracted notice, had there been any indication that he had something worth being furtive about. Just as he reached the bar, the gaze of Melon Head Myrtle happened to fall upon him, and she immediately forgot he was there.
Having reached the bar, this insignificant person looked up timorously at the stolid expanse of Hooligan Motts and said, "I wish to hide."
"We serve what's on the blackboard," said Hooligan Motts. "Beer and wine, whisky and gin, mostly. Not places of concealment."
"I could hide in your cellars," said the insignificant person.
"You could," agreed Hooligan Motts; "but only if I let you, and only from whoever's been chasing you so far. There's things down there, you know."
"No-one is chasing me," said the insignificant person; "I merely wish to avoid a certain person, for a limited period of time, in the interests of English law and liberty." He fumbled in one of the less remarkable pockets of his generally unremarkable coat. "I should, of course, be prepared to offer you whatever recompense seems appropriate - "
"We serve what's on the blackboard," said Hooligan Motts.
"But, dash it all," squeaked the insignificant person, "do you not realise what is at stake? The horrors of Malthusianism? The triumph of Bonaparte? The reduction of God's very image, as embodied in myself and others, to a mere cipher in a scrivener's ledger?"
"That's as may be," said Hooligan Motts; "but whatever's at stake, you still wouldn't like it in the cellars. There's things down there. Barrels, and things."
The insignificant person might have expostulated further, had he been physiologically equipped for expostulation and had the door not banged open, drawing the eyes of everyone toward the vast and substantial cleric whose form was now manifest upon the threshold. Granny Forbus and Limbless Fred were startled into wakefulness; Malvolio Quabbage and Pippa Twelve Toes turned their heads; the doings of Mr Boggust and Mr Blodgett became subject to an enigmatic pause; and Melon Head Myrtle peered like a concealed surveillance device through the trimmings of her banana daiquiri.
"You," the substantial parson said, while his gaze descended avalanche-like upon the insignificant person and induced him to cringe a little further in the direction of total invisibility. The substantial parson strode across the bar, wielding a sheaf of papers. "It is my duty," he rumbled, "to render an account concerning the population of this parish, in accordance with the Parliamentary Act for enumerating the population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof. I have the authority, vested in me by God, the King and Parliament. I have the necessary forms. And you,"
he addressed the insignificant person, upon whose vicinity he now encroached with terrifying portent, "you
are the last remaining soul left unaccounted for, because you won't keep still. You will now remain motionless until the census is completed, otherwise I promise it will go hard with you at the next Harvest Festival."
"But I'm not the last remaining soul," protested the insignificant person. "Just look about you, sir; do you not see that the souls in this room alone number a dozen and more, and every one of them an absentee from your bureaucratic brief?"
"Is this true?" the substantial parson demanded of Hooligan Motts. "Have the denizens of this public house been avoiding the lawful census?"
"A lawful expedient from the days of Herod, for tax purposes," put in the insignificant person, with an insubstantial sneer; "previously attempted in England by the Frenchman, King William the Conqueror, and soon to prove a great convenience to the Frenchman, King Napoleon."
The substantial parson ignored him, and addressed Hooligan Motts. "Are you, or any of your customers, resident in this parish?"
"Only until closing time," said Hooligan Motts.
"And what of your families and servants?"
"We serve what's on the blackboard," said Hooligan Motts.
"But you must have families, somewhere," asserted the substantial parson, looking from Melon Head Myrtle, who liked a pregnancy now and then as long as it wasn't hers; to Malvolio Quabbage, who thought fathers, mothers and children the three best arguments in favour of universal sterilisation; to Granny Forbus, who looked straight back at him with little respect and less charity.
"Anyway," said the substantial parson after a few moments, blinking, "as I mentioned before, it is my duty before God and King to carry out this census on all residents of this parish. Wherever the rest of you may have come from, this creature here,"
he waved some of his substance at the insignificant person, who staggered against the resulting breeze, "shall not escape documentation."
"It will be the last of England," said the insignificant one.
"Nonsense," boomed the parson. "If Boney should choose to invade, it will be necessary to know how many householders can be called upon to resist, and how many can be abandoned as a price worth paying for freedom. Similarly, if Malthus is correct in his projections of population growth, our great men must be informed as to how many little men they can afford to keep."
"It is a blasphemy against the image of God," said the insignificant person to the Gallows and Glockenspiel at large, though his voice was virtually drowned by the noise of Hooligan Motts polishing a glass and Granny Forbus sucking her teeth.
The substantial parson seized the insignificant person by his understated collar, and proceeded without undue noise or effort to drag him towards the door.
"If any of you be resident in my parish, now or hereinafter," he proclaimed, "I'll be back." The door slammed behind him.
"Who was that?" said Granny Forbus.
"Closing time," said Hooligan Motts.