But Damaris, busy with her own sensations, her glance still following the blue-clad figure along the shore and out on to the tumble-down wooden jetty, failed to remark his embarrassment and thus gave him time to recover his scattered wits.
"Jennifer is bringing the ferry-boat across," she said presently, "so you won't have to wait much longer. Not that you need be at all anxious about those letters. It is not my father's habit to forget a promise. Most likely they were written last night before he went to bed. He sleeps badly, I am sorry to say, and is glad to cheat the wakeful hours by reading and doing his correspondence until late."
As she spoke the young girl rose to her feet, pulling the close-fitting jersey down over her hips and, stooping, dusted particles of sand off the hem of her dress.
"There—that's better. Now I am tidy. Shall we go home, cousin Tom?" she asked.
Her eyes shone with inward excitement and she carried her head proudly, but her face was white. And he, sensible that she had suddenly hardened towards him and strove, he could not divine why, to keep him at arm's length, turned perversely teasing again. He would not await a more convenient season. Here and now he would satisfy his curiosity—and at her expense—regarding one at least of the queer riddles Deadham Hard had sprung on him.
"I did not know your father suffered from sleeplessness," he said. "It must be horribly trying and depressing. I am glad, in a way, you have told me, because it may account for my seeing him go out into the garden from the study last night, or rather very early this morning. It would be about two o'clock. I put down his appearance to another cause, and"—
He smiled at her, delightfully ingratiating, assaugingly apologetic.
"Shall I own it?—one which, frankly, struck me as a little upsetting and the reverse of pleasant."
"Weren't you comfortable? I am so sorry," Damaris exclaimed, instincts of hospitality instantly militant. "What was wrong? You should have called someone—rung for Hordle. What was it?"
"No—no—my dear Damaris, don't vex yourself I entreat you. I was in clover, luxuriously comfortable. You've allotted me a fascinating room and perfect dream of a bed. I feel an ungrateful wretch for so much as mentioning this matter to you after the way in which you have indulged me. Only something rather extraordinary really did happen, of which I honestly confess I am still expiring to find a reasonable and not too humiliating explanation. For, though I blush to own it"—
He laughed softly, humping up his shoulders after the manner of a naughty small boy dodging a well-merited box on the ear.—
"Yes, I blush to own it, but I was frightened, downright frightened. I quailed and I quaked. The sight of Sir Charles stepping out of the study window filled me with abject rapture. Metaphorically speaking, my craven soul squirmed at his heels. He was to me as a strong tower and house of defence.—But look here, Damaris, joking apart, tell me weren't you disturbed, didn't you hear any strange noises last night?"
"No, none." She hesitated, then with evident reluctance—"I sleep in the new wing of the house."
"Which you imply, might make a difference?" Tom asked.
"The older servants would tell you that it does."
"And you agree with them?"
Damaris had a moment of defective courage.
"I would rather not discuss the subject, cousin Tom," she said and moved away down over the shifting shingle.
At first her progress was sober, even stately. But soon, either from the steep, insecure nature of the ground or from less obvious and material cause, her pace quickened until it became a run. She ran neatly, deftly, all of a piece as a boy runs, no trace of disarray or feminine floundering in her action. More than ever, indeed, did she appear a fine nymph-like creature; so that, watching her flight Tom Verity was touched alike with self-reproach and admiration. For he had succeeded in asserting himself beyond his intention. Had overcome, had worsted her; yet, as it occurred to him, won a but barren victory. That she was alienated and resentful he could hardly doubt, while the riddle he had rather meanly used to procure her discomfiture remained unanswered as ever, dipped indeed only deeper in mystery. He was hoist with his own petard, in short; and stood there nonplussed, vexed alike at himself and at circumstance.
A soft wind, meanwhile, caressed him, as hesitating, uncertain what to do next, he glanced out over the smiling sea and then back at the delicate shore line, the white house, the huge evergreen trees and brilliant flower garden. A glamour covered the scene. It was lovely, intimately, radiantly lovely as he had lately declared it. Yet just now he grew distrustful, as though its fair seeming cloaked some subtle trickery and deceit. He began to wish he had not undertaken this expedition to Deadham; but gone straight from the normal, solidly engrained philistinism of dear old Canton Magna to join his ship. In coming here he had, to put it vulgarly, bitten off more than he could chew. For the place and its inhabitants seemed to have a disintegrating effect on him. Never in all his life had he been such a prey to exterior influences, been twisted and turned to and fro, weather-cock fashion, thus. It was absurd, of course, to take things too seriously, yet he could not but fear the Archdeacon's well-intentioned bit of worldliness and his own disposition to court whatever family prejudice pronounced taboo, were in process of leading him a very questionable little dance.
Reaction, however, set in before long, as with so lively, light-hearted a temperament, it was bound to do, the healthy scepticism, healthy optimism of untried three-and-twenty rising to the surface buoyant as a cork.
Tom Verity shook himself, took off his hat, smoothed his hair, settled his tie, hitched up the waist of his trousers, stamping to get them into place, laughed a little, calling himself every sort of silly ass, and then swung away down the side of the long ridge in pursuit of Damaris. He acknowledged his treatment of her had been lacking in chivalry. He hadn't shown himself altogether considerate or even kind. But she challenged him—perhaps unconsciously—and once or twice had come near making him feel small.—Oh! there were excuses for his behaviour! Now however he would sail on another tack. Would placate, discreetly cherish her until she couldn't but be softened and consent to make it up. After all maidens of her still tender age are not precisely adamant—such at least was his experience—where a personable youth is concerned. It only needed a trifle of refined cajolery to make everything smooth and to bring her round.
He overtook the fugitive as she reached the low wooden jetty crawling, like some giant but rather dilapidated black many-legged insect, out over the stream. Its rows of solidly driven piles were intact, but the staging they supported had suffered damage from the rush of river floods, let alone from neglect and age. Handrails were broken down, planks rotted and wrenched away leaving gaps through which the cloudy greenish blue water could be seen as it purred and chuckled beneath. Here, at the river level, it was hot to the point of sultriness, the air heavy, even stagnant, since the Bar shut off the southerly breeze.
"Upon my word one requires to be in training to race you, my dear Damaris," the young man said gaily, ostentatiously mopping his forehead. "And I'm disgracefully soft just now, I know. You beat me utterly and ignominiously; but then you did have a good three minutes' start. In common honesty you can't deny that"—
The girl made no response, but began mounting the few sand-strewn steps on to the jetty. He saw her face in profile, the delicate upward curve of her long dark eyelashes in the shade of her hat. Saw, too, that her soft lips quivered as with the effort to repress an outburst of tears. And this affected him as the wounding of some strong free creature might, stirring his blood in a fashion new to him and strange. For not only did he find it piteous; but unseemly, unpermissible somehow, yet marvellously sweet, startling him out of all preconceived light diplomatic plans, plucking shrewdly at his complacently unawakened heart.
He came close to her, and putting his hand under her elbow gently held it.
"Pray, pray be careful," he said. "I don't trust this crazy little pier of yours one atom. Any one of these boards looks capable of crumbling and letting one through.—And, Damaris, please don't be cross with me or I shall be quite miserable. Forgive my having asked you stupid questions. I was a blundering idiot. Of course, what I heard last night was just some echo, some trick of wind or of the river and tide. I was half asleep and imagined the whole thing most likely, magnified sounds as one does, don't you know, sometimes at night. Your father talked wonderfully, and I went to bed dazzled, such imagination as I possess all aflame"—
But Damaris shook her head, while her elbow rested rigid upon the palm of his hand.
"No—what you heard was real," she answered. "I heard once myself—and the people here know about it. They say the dead smugglers still drive their ponies up from the beach, across the lawn where the old road was, and, as it sounds, through the round rooms downstairs, in which my father lives, on their way up into the forest.—You cannot help seeing—although you see nothing—how the ponies are ill-used, hounded and flogged. The last of the drove are lame and utterly worn out. They stumble along anyhow and one falls. Oh! it is cruel, wicked. And it is—was, really true, cousin Tom. It must have happened scores of times before old Mr. Verity, your namesake, put a stop to the iniquity by buying The Hard—I have only heard the ponies driven once, about this time in September last year—just before something very sad, quite of my own, happened"—
Damaris stopped, her lips quivering again and too much for speech.
"Don't tell me any more. I can't bear you to be distressed. Pray, pray don't"—the young man urged incoherently while his grasp on her elbow tightened somewhat.
For he felt curiously flurried and put about; near cursing himself moreover for having helped to break up her high serenity thus. The whole thing was manifestly impossible as he told himself, outside every recognized law of Nature and sound science. Even during the mistrustful phantasy-breeding watches of the night, when reason inclines to drag anchor setting mind and soul rather wildly adrift, he had refused credence to the apparent evidence of his own senses. Now in broad daylight, the generous sunshine flooding him, the smooth river purring and glittering at his feet, belief in grim and ghostly happenings became more than ever inadmissible, not to say quite arrantly grotesque. Yet Damaris' version of those same happenings tallied with his own in every point. And that her conviction of their reality was genuine, profound indeed to the point of pain, admitted neither of question nor of doubt.
A CRITIC IN CORDUROY
William Jennifer, who successfully combined in his single person the varied offices of ferryman, rat-catcher, jobbing gardener, amateur barber, mender of sails and of nets, brought the heavy, flat-bottomed boat alongside the jetty. Shipping the long sweeps, he coughed behind his hand with somewhat sepulchral politeness to give warning of his presence.
"Sweethearting—lost to sight and hearing, espoused to forgetfulness," he murmured, peering up at the two cousins standing in such close proximity to one another upon the black staging above.
For William Jennifer was a born lover of words and maker of phrases, addicted to the bandying of pleasantries, nicely seasoned to their respective age, sex and rank, with all he met; and, when denied an audience, rather than keep silence holding conversation with himself.
The hot morning induced thirst, which, being allayed by a couple of pints at Faircloth's Inn, induced desire for a certain easiness of costume. His waistcoat hung open—he had laid aside his coat—displaying a broad stitched leather belt that covered the junction between buff corduroy trousers and blue-checked cotton shirt. On his head, a high thimble-crowned straw hat, the frayed brim of it pulled out into a poke in front for the better shelter of small, pale twinkling eyes set in a foxy face.
The said face, however—for all its sharp-pointed nose, long upper lip, thin gossipy mouth, tucked in at the corners and opening, redly cavernous, without any showing of teeth, a stiff sandy fringe edging cheeks and chin from ear to ear—could on occasion become utterly blank of expression. It became so now, as Tom Verity, realizing the fact of its owner's neighbourhood, moved a step or two away from Damaris and, jumping on board himself, proceeded with rather studied courtesy to hand her down into the boat.
"Looks as there might have been a bit of a tiff betwixt 'em"—Thus Jennifer inwardly. Then aloud—"Put you straight across the ferry, sir, or take you to the breakwater at The Hard? The tide's on the turn, so we'd slip down along easy and I'm thinking that 'ud spare Miss Verity the traipse over the shore path. Wonnerful parching in the sun it is for the latter end of September."
"Oh! to the breakwater by all means," Tom answered with alacrity.
For reaction had set in. Not only was the young man still slightly flustered, but vexed by the liveliness of his own emotions. Everything to-day savoured of exaggeration. The most ordinary incidents distended, inflated themselves in a really unaccountable manner. So that, frankly, he fought shy of finding himself alone with Damaris again. She seemed so constantly to betray him into ill-regulated feeling, ill-considered speech and action, which tended to endanger the completeness of his self-esteem. Therefore, although admitting his attitude to be scantily heroic, he welcomed the prospect of the ferryman's chaperonage until such time as her father or her discarded lady-in-waiting, the innocent and pink-nosed Bilson, should effect his final deliverance.
"Yes, it is uncommonly hot," he repeated, while, with both arms extended, he worked to keep the side of the boat from bumping against the range of piles, backing it clear of the jetty into the fairway of the river. He found exertion pleasant, steadying.
"Neither Miss Verity nor I shall be sorry to be saved the walk along that basting path. That is," he added, smiling with disarming good-temper, "if we're not blocking business and keeping you too long away from the ferry."
But Jennifer, mightily pleased at his company and having, moreover, certain scandalous little fishes of his own to fry—or attempt to fry—waved the objection aside.
The ferry could very well mind itself for a while, he said; and if anyone should come along they must just hold hands with patience till he got back, that was all. But passengers were few and far between this time of year and of day. The "season"—as was the new-fangled fashion to call it—being now over; trippers tripped home again to wheresoever their natural habitat might be. The activities of boys' schools, picnic parties, ambulant scientific societies and field-clubs—out in pursuit of weeds, of stone-cracking, and the desecration of those old heathen burying barrows on Stone Horse Head quieted off for the time being. Deadham, meanwhile, in act of repossessing its soul in peace and hibernating according to time-honoured habit until the vernal equinox.
Not that he, Jennifer, as he explained, owned to any quarrel with the alien invasion. Good for trade they were, that tripper lot, though wonnerful simple, he must say, when they came to talk, blessed with an almighty wide swallow for any long-eared fairy tale you liked to put on them. Mortal full of senseless questions, too, fit to make anybody laugh!—Whereat overcome by joyous memories of human folly, he opened the red cavern of his apparently toothless mouth, barking up audible mirth, brief and husky, from the depth of a beer-slaked throat.
He leaned forward while speaking, resting chest and elbows on the oars—only now and again dipping the blades in the water to steady the boat in its course as it moved smoothly onward borne by brimming stream and tide. From out the shadow of his thimble-crowned hat he looked up knowingly, with the freemasonry of assured good-temper at Tom, who stood before him hands in pockets, friendly and debonair, class distinctions for the moment quite forgot. For, let alone immediate convenience of chaperonage, the young man found unexpected entertainment in this typical South Saxon, relic, as it struck him, of a bygone age and social order. Might not that tough and somewhat clumsy body, that crafty, jovial, yet non-committal countenance, have transferred themselves straight from the pages of Geoffrey Chaucer into nineteenth-century life? Here, was a master of primitive knowledge and of arts not taught in modern Board (or any other) Schools; a merry fellow too, who could, as Tom divined, when company and circumstances allowed, be broadly, unprintably humorous.
So, in this last connection perhaps, it was just as well that Damaris still appeared somewhat implacable. Coming on board she had passed Jennifer—who rowed amidships—and gone right forward, putting as wide a distance as conditions permitted between her cousin and herself. Now, as she sat on a pile of red-brown seine nets in the bow of the boat, she kept her face averted, looking away down the cool liquid highway, and presenting to his observation a graceful, white-clad but eminently discouraging back. Her attitude repelled rather than invited advances, so at least Tom, watching her, certainly thought. This justified his not following her but staying where he was, and leaving her to herself. Whereupon annoyance again beset him; for it was very little to his credit to have mismanaged his dealings with her and alienated her sympathies thus. With her, it was very evident, he had not been at all a success. And it pricked his young vanity very shrewdly not to be a success.
From these unsatisfactory reflections William Jennifer's voice, prefaced by a warning cough, recalled him.
"Making any long stay in these parts, sir?" he enquired.
And when Tom explained that a few hours from now would witness the termination of his visit, and that, in all probability, many years of absence from England lay ahead—
"Indeed, indeed, to be sure. Who'd have thought it for a young gentleman of the quality-like yourself! But, there, some are born under the traveller's star, sir—created with a roving spirit. And the Lord help 'em, I say, for they're so made as to be powerless to help themselves seemingly. Rove they must and will, if they are to taste any contentment—an itch in their feet from the cradle nought but foreign lands'll serve to pacify. The sight of the ocean now, seems fairly tormenting to 'em till they can satisfy themselves of what's on the far side of it."
But, here, the boat being unduly drawn aside by the suck of some local current, Jennifer was constrained to apply his mind to navigation. He dipped the long sweeps, and with a steady powerful pull straightened the course to midstream. Then raising the glistening blades, off which the water dripped white and pattering, he leaned forward again, resting elbows and chest on the butt-end of the oars, and once more addressed himself to polite conversation.
"Not as I've been greatly troubled that way myself. Had my chance of going to sea and welcome many's the time when I was a youngster. But always a one for the land, I was. Never had any special fancy for salt water, though I do make my living of it now, as you may say, in a sense."
During this biographical excursion Tom Verity's attention wandered. His eyes dwelt on Damaris. She had altered her position turning half round as she scanned the strip of sandy warren with its row of sentinel Scotch firs bordering the river. Seen thus, three-quarter face, Tom realized suddenly not only how really beautiful she was—or rather could at moments be—but how strangely she resembled Sir Charles her father. There was likeness not of features alone; but, for all her youthful freshness, a reflection of his strength, his inscrutability. Whereupon rather unworthy curiosity reawoke in Tom Verity, to satisfy which he was tempted to descend to methods not entirely loyal.
Damaris, sitting to windward, must be out of earshot assuredly, yet he lowered his voice as he said:
"By the way, talking of going to sea, can you tell me anything about the young sailor whom you took across the ferry just before fetching Miss Verity and me? I am pretty sure I have met him before and yet I can't place him somehow."
Jennifer shot a sharply enquiring glance at the speaker; for here, at first sight, appeared rare opportunity of that same coveted and scandalous fish-frying! Yet he debated the wisdom of immediate indulgence in that merry pastime, inherent suspicion of class for class, suspicion too, of this young gentleman's conspicuously easy, good-natured manner, preaching caution. A show of friendliness supplies fine cover for the gaining of one's own ends.—Hadn't he, Jennifer, practised the friendly manoeuvre freely enough himself on occasion? And he did not in the least relish the chance of walking into a trap, instead of jovially baiting one. So he dipped the oars again, and answered slowly as though the question taxed his memory sorely, his face vacant of expression as an empty plate.
"Brought him across before I started to fetch you and the young lady, sir, did I? To be sure, there, let me see. I've had several sea-going chaps of sorts back and forth this morning. Come and go most days, they do, come and go without my taking any particular account—the Lord forgive me, for it ain't over civil—unless strangers should hail me, or someone out of the common such as Miss Verity and yourself. A passing show, sir, half the time those I carry; no more to me, bless you, than so many sand-fleas a-hopping on the beach.—Mr. Blackmore—coast-guard officer he is—I fetched him across early, with one of his men coming round from the Head. And that poor lippity-lop, Abram Sclanders' eldest.—Pity he wasn't put away quiet-like at birth!—Terrible drag he is on Abram and always will be. Anybody with an ounce of gumption might have seen he'd be a short-wit from the first.—I took him over; but that 'ud the opposite way about, as he wanted to go shrimping back of the Bar so he said."
Jennifer paused as in earnest thought.
"No, not a soul to merit your attention, to-day, sir, that I can call to mind. Unless"—with an upward look of returning intelligence—"but that ain't very likely either—unless it should be Darcy Faircloth. I'd clean forgot him, so I had. Cap'en Faircloth, as some is so busy calling 'im, now, in season and out of season till it's fairly fit to make you laugh.—Remarkable tall, Johnny-head-in-air young feller with a curly yaller beard to him."
"That's the man!" Tom exclaimed.
He had distrusted Jennifer's show of ignorance, believing he was being fenced with, played with, even royally lied to; but this merely served to heighten his curiosity and amusement. Something of moment must lie, he felt, behind so much wandering talk, something of value, purposely and cunningly withheld until time was ripe for telling disclosure.
"Darcy Faircloth—Captain Faircloth?" he could not but repeat, and with such honest puzzlement and evident desire for further enlightening as to overcome his hearer's hesitation.
"No—not a likely person for you to be in any wise acquainted with, sir," Jennifer returned, wary still, though yielding—"even if you didn't happen to be a bit new to Deadham yourself, as I may put it. For been away mostly from his natural home here, young Faircloth has, ever since he was a little shaver. Mrs. Faircloth—owns the Inn there and all the appurtenances thereof, sheds, cottages, boats, and suchlike, she does—always had wonnerful high views for him. Quite the gentleman Darcy must be, with a boarding school into Southampton and then the best of the Merchant Service—no before the mast for him, bless you. There was a snug little business to count on, regular takings in the public, week in and week out—more particularly of late years in the summer—let alone the rest of the property—he being the only son of his mother, too, and she a widow woman free to follow any whimsies as took her about the lad."
Jennifer gave some slow, strong strokes, driving the lumbering boat forward till the water fairly hissed against its sides. And Tom Verity still listened, strangely, alertly interested, convinced there was more, well worth hearing, to follow.
"Oh! there's always bin a tidy lot of money behind young Darcy, and is yet I reckon, Mrs. Faircloth being the first-class business woman she is. Spend she may with one hand, but save, and make, she does and no mistake, Lord love you, with the other. Singular thing though," he added meditatively, his face growing wholly expressionless, "how little Darcy, now he's growed up, features old Lemuel his father. Squinny, red-cheeked little old party, he was; thin as a herring, and chilly, always chilly, sitting over the fire in the bar-parlour winter and summer too—small squeaky voice he had minding any one of a penny whistle. But a warm man and a close one—oh! very secret. Anybody must breakfast overnight and hurry at that—eat with their loins girded, as you may say, to get upsides with old Lemuel."
He ceased speaking, and glanced round over his shoulder calculating the distance to the breakwater, for the boat drew level with the sea-wall of rough-hewn pinkish-grey granite along the river frontage of The Hard gardens.
"There's some as 'ud tell you it was the surprise of old Lemuel's life to find himself a parent," he added, eyeing Tom slyly as he spoke, his mouth remaining open as in preparation for coming laughter.
For those same scandalous little fishes were well into the frying-pan, now—sizzling, frizzling. And this was a vastly agreeable moment to William Jennifer, worth waiting for, worth scheming for. Unprintable humour looked out of his twinkling eyes while he watched to see how far Tom Verity caught his meaning. Then as the young man flushed, sudden distaste, even a measure of shame invading him, Jennifer, true artist in scandal, turned the conversation aside with an air of indulgent apology.
"But, lor, there, you know how people'll talk in a little country place where there ain't much doing!—And it ain't for me to speak of what happened back in those times, being barely out of my teens then and away cow-keeping over Alton way for Farmer Whimsett. Regular chip of the old block, he was. Don't breed that sort nowadays. As hearty as you like, and swallered his three pints of home-brewed every morning with his breakfast he did, till he was took off quite sudden in his four-score-and-ten twelve months ago come Michaelmas."
Upon the terrace, by the pyramid of ball and the two little cannons, Sir Charles Verity stood, holding a packet of newly written letters in his hand and smoking, while he watched the approaching boat. Damaris rose from the pile of red-brown fishing-nets and waved to him. Jennifer, too, glanced up, steadying both oars with one hand while he raised the other to the brim of his thimble-crowned hat. A couple of minutes more and he would part company with his passenger, and so judged it safe to indulge himself with a final fish-frying.
"Mortal fine figure of a man, Sir Charles even yet," he said to Tom admiringly. "But anybody should have seen him as a young gentleman. When he used to visit here in old Mr. Verity's time, none in the country-side could hold a candle to him for looks, as you may say. Turned the females' heads he did. Might have had his pick of the lot, maids and wives alike for 'arf a word. Well, good-bye to you, sir"—and, as certain coin changed hands—"thank ye, sir, kindly. Wish you a pleasant voyage and a rare good picking up of honours and glories, and gold and silver likewise, there across the seas and oceans where you're a-going to."
THE HARD SCHOOL OF THINGS AS THEY ARE
IN MAIDEN MEDITATION
It was afternoon, about five o'clock. The fine September weather, hot and cloudless, lasted still. The air was heavy with garden scents, the aromatic sweetness of sun-baked gorse and pine-scrub on the warren, and with the reek off the mud-flats of the Haven, the tide being low. Upon the sandy skirts of the Bar, across the river just opposite, three cormorants—glossy black against the yellow—postured in extravagant angular attitudes drying their wings. Above the rim of the silver-blue sea—patched with purple stains in the middle distance—webs of steamer smoke lay along the southern sky. Occasionally a sound of voices, the creak of a wooden windlass and grind of a boat's keel upon the pebbles as it was wound slowly up the foreshore, came from the direction of the ferry and of Faircloth's Inn. The effect was languorous, would have been enervating to the point of mental, as well as physical, inertia had not the posturing cormorants introduced a note of absurdity and the tainted breath of the mud-flats a wholesome reminder of original sin.
Under these conditions, at once charming and insidious, Damaris Verity, resting in a wicker deck-chair in the shade of the great ilex trees, found herself alone, free to follow her own vagrant thoughts, perceptions, imaginations without human let or hindrance. Free to dream undisturbed and interrogate both Nature and her own much wondering soul.
For Sir Charles was away, staying with an old friend and former brother-in-arms, Colonel Carteret, for a week's partridge shooting over the Norfolk stubble-fields. Sport promised to be good, and Damaris had great faith in Colonel Carteret. With him her father was always amused, contented, safe. Hordle was in attendance, too, so she knew his comfort in small material matters to be secure. She could think of him without any shadow of anxiety, her mind for once at rest. And this she enjoyed. For it is possible to miss a person badly, long for their return ardently, yet feel by no means averse to a holiday from more active expenditure of love on their account.
And Theresa Bilson—pleasing thought!—was, for the moment, absent also, having gone to tea with the Miss Minetts. Two maiden ladies, these, of uncertain age, modest fortune and unimpeachable refinement, once like Theresa herself, members of the scholastic profession; but now, thanks to the timely death of a relative—with consequent annuities and life interest in a ten-roomed, stone-built house of rather mournful aspect in Deadham village—able to rest from their ineffectual labours, support the Church, patronize their poorer and adulate their richer neighbours to their guileless hearts' content.
Gentility exuded from the Miss Minetts, and—if it is permissible slightly to labour the simile—their pores were permanently open. Owing both to her antecedent and existing situation, it may be added, Theresa Bilson was precious in their sight. For had she not in the past, like themselves, sounded the many mortifications of a governess' lot; and was she not now called up higher, promoted indeed to familiar, almost hourly, intercourse with the great? Miss Felicia Verity was known to treat her with affection. Mrs. Augustus Cowden, that true blue of county dames and local aristocrats, openly approved her. She sat daily at Sir Charles Verity's table and helped to order his household. What more genuine patents of gentility could be asked? So they listened with a pleasure, deep almost to agitation, to her performances upon the piano, her reminiscences of Bonn and the Rhine Provinces, and, above all, to her anecdotes of life at The Hard and of its distinguished owner's habits and speech. Thus, by operation of the fundamental irony resident in things, did Theresa Bilson, of all improbable and inadequate little people, become to the Miss Minetts as a messenger of the gods; exciting in them not only dim fluttering apprehensions of the glories of art and delights of foreign travel, but—though in their determined gentility they knew it not—of the primitive allurements and mysteries of sex.
The moral effect of this friendship upon Theresa herself was not, however, of the happiest. Fired by their interest in her recitals she was tempted to spread herself. At first almost unconsciously, for by instinct she was truthful, she embroidered fact, magnifying her office not only in respect of her ex-pupil Damaris but of Damaris' father also. She represented herself as indispensable to both parent and child, until she more than half believed that flattering fiction. She began to reckon herself an essential element in the establishment at The Hard, the pivot indeed upon which it turned. Whereupon a rather morbid craving for the Miss Minetts' society developed in her. For, with those two credulous ladies as audience, she could fortify herself in delusion by recounting all manner of episodes and incidents not as they actually had, but as she so ardently desired they might have, taken place.—A pathetic form of lying this, though far from uncommon to feminine and—more especially—spinster practice and habit!
Still Theresa was not so besotted but that lucid intervals now and again afflicted her. One seized her this afternoon, as she prepared to bid Damaris good-bye. Either conscience pricked with unusual sharpness, or the young girl's smiling and unruffled acquiescence in her departure aroused latent alarms. She began to excuse her action in leaving her charge thus solitary, to protest her devotion; becoming, it may be added, red and agitated in the process. Her thick, short little fingers worked nervously on the crook handle of her white cotton umbrella. Her round light-coloured eyes grew humid to the point of fogging the lenses of her gold-rimmed glasses.
"But why should you worry so now, just as you are starting, Billy?" Damaris reasoned, with the rather cruel logic of cool eighteen in face of hot and flustered nine-and-thirty. "Only at luncheon you were telling me how much you always enjoy spending an afternoon at the Grey House. I thought you looked forward so much to going. What has happened to turn you all different, like this, at the last minute?"
"Nothing has happened exactly; but I have scruples about visiting my own friends and letting you remain alone when Sir Charles is from home. It might appear a dereliction of duty—as though I took advantage of his absence."
"Nobody would think anything so foolish," Damaris declared. "And then you knew he would be away this week when you made the engagement."
Theresa gulped and prevaricated.
"No, surely not—I must have mistaken the date."
"But you were quite happy at luncheon, and you couldn't have mistaken the date then," Damaris persisted.
Whereupon poor Theresa lost herself, the worthy and unworthy elements in her nature alike conspiring to her undoing. In her distraction she sniffed audibly. A tear ran down either side of her pink shiny nose and dropped on the folds of shepherd's-plaid silk veiling her plump bosom. For, with some obscure purpose of living up to her self-imposed indispensability, Miss Bilson was distinctly dressy at this period, wearing her best summer gown on every possible occasion and tucking a bunch of roses or carnations archly in her waist-belt.
"Do you think it kind to insist so much on my passing forgetfulness?" she quavered. "The habit of criticizing and cavilling at whatever I say grows on you, Damaris, and it so increases the difficulties of my position. I know I am sensitive, but that is the result of my affection for you. I care so deeply, and you are not responsive. You chill me. As I have told dear Miss Felicia—for I must sometimes unburden myself"—
This hastily, as Damaris' eyes darkened with displeasure.
—"For the last year, ever since you have nominally been out of the schoolroom, I have seen my influence over you lessen, and especially since poor Mrs. Watson's death"—
"We will not talk about Nannie, please," Damaris said quietly.
"Yes, but—as I told your Aunt Felicia—since then I have tried more than ever to win your entire confidence, to make up to you for the loss of poor Watson and fill her place with you."
"No one else can ever fill the place of the person one has loved," Damaris returned indignantly. "It isn't possible. I should be ashamed to let it be possible. Nannie was Nannie—she had cared for me all my life and I had cared for her. She belongs to things about which you"—
And there the girl checked herself, aware of something almost ludicrously pitiful in the smug tearful countenance and stumpy would-be fashionable figure. Hit a man your own size, or bigger, by all means if you are game to take the consequences. But to smite a creature conspicuously your inferior in fortune—past, present, and prospective—is unchivalrous, not to say downright mean-spirited. So Damaris, swiftly repentant, put her arm round the heaving shoulders, bent her handsome young head and kissed the uninvitingly dabby cheek—a caress surely counting to her for righteousness.
"Don't find fault with me any more, Billy," she said. "Indeed I never hurt you on purpose. But there are such loads of things to think about, that I get absorbed in them and can't attend sometimes directly on the minute."
"Absent-mindedness should be corrected rather than encouraged," Miss Bilson announced, sententious even amid her tears.
"Oh! it amounts to more than absent-mindedness I'm afraid—a sort of absent-every-thingedness when it overtakes me. For the whole of me seems to go away and away, hand in hand and all together," Damaris said, her eyes alight with questions and with dreams. "But don't let us discuss that now," she added. "It would waste time, and it is you who must go away and away, Billy, if you are not to put the poor Miss Minetts into a frantic fuss by being late for tea. They will think some accident has happened to you. Don't beep them in suspense, it is simply barbarous.—Good-bye, and don't hurry back. I have heaps to amuse me. I'll not expect you till dinner-time."
Thus did it come about that Damaris reposed in a deck chair, under the shade of the great ilex trees, gazing idly at the webs of steamer smoke hanging low in the southern sky, at the long yellow-grey ridge of the Bar between river and sea, and at the cormorants posturing in the hot afternoon sunshine upon the sand.
Truly she was free to send forth her soul upon whatever far fantastic journey she pleased. But souls are perverse, not to be driven at will, choosing their own times and seasons for travel. And hers, just now, proved obstinately home-staying—had no wings wherewith to fly, but must needs crawl a-fourfoot, around all manner of inglorious personal matters. For that skirmish with her ex-governess, though she successfully bridled her tongue and conquered by kindness rather than by smiting, had clouded her inward serenity, not only by its inherent uselessness, but by reminding her indirectly of an occurrence which it was her earnest desire to forget.
Indirectly, mention of her beloved nurse, Sarah Watson—who journeying back from a visit to her native Lancashire, just this time last year, had met death swift and hideous in a railway collision—recalled to Damaris the little scene, of a week ago, with Tom Verity when ho had asked her, in the noonday sunshine out on the Bar, for some explanation of his strange nocturnal experience. She went hot all over now, with exaggerated childish shame, thinking of it. For had not she, Damaris Verity, though nurtured in the creed that courage is the source and mother of all virtues, shown the white feather, incontinently turned tail and run away? Remembrance of that running scorched her, so that more than once, awakening suddenly in the night, her fair young body was dyed rose-red with the disgrace of it literally from head to heel. She was bitterly humiliated by her own poltroonery, ingenuously doubtful as to whether she could ever quite recover her self-respect; glad that every day put two hundred miles and more of sea between her and Tom Verity, since he had witnessed that contemptible fall from grace.
Nevertheless, after her first consternation—in which, to avoid further speech with him she had sought refuge among the unsavoury seine nets in the fore-part of Jennifer's ferry-boat—Tom Verity's probable opinion of her undignified action troubled her far less than the cause of the said action itself. For exactly what, after all, had so upset her, begetting imperative necessity of escape? Not the apparent confirmation of that ugly legend concerning ghostly ponies driven up across The Hard garden from the shore. From childhood, owing both to temperament and local influences, her apprehension of things unseen and super-normal had been remarkably acute. From the dawn of conscious intelligence these had formed an integral element in the atmosphere of her life; and that without functional disturbance, moral or physical, of a neurotic sort. She felt no morbid curiosity about such matters, did not care to dwell upon or talk of them.—Few persons do who, being sane in mind and body, are yet endowed with the rather questionable blessing of the Seer's sixth sense.—For while, in never doubting their existence her reason acquiesced, her heart turned away, oppressed and disquieted, as from other mysterious actualities common enough to human observation, such as illness, disease, deformity, old age, the pains of birth and of death. Such matters might perplex and sadden, or arouse her indignant pity; but, being strong with the confidence of untouched youth and innocence, they were powerless, in and by themselves, to terrify her to the contemptible extremity of headlong flight.
This she recognized, though less by reasoning than by instinct; and so found herself compelled to search deeper for the cause of her recent disgrace. Not that she willingly prosecuted that search; but that the subject pursued her, simply refusing to leave her alone. Continually it presented itself to her mind, and always with the same call for escape, the same foreboding of some danger against which she must provide. Always, too, it seemed to hinge upon Tom Verity's visit, and something in her relation to the young man himself which she could not define. She revolved the question now—Theresa being safely packed off to her tea-party—in shade of the ilex trees, with solemn eyes and finely serious face.
There was not anything unusual in receiving visitors at The Hard. Men came often to see her father, and she took her share in entertaining all such comers as a matter of course. Some she "didn't much care about," some she liked. But, with the exception of Colonel Carteret from childhood her trusted friend and confidant, their coming and going was just part of the accustomed routine, a survival from the life at the Indian summer palace of long ago, and made no difference. Yet, though she was still uncertain whether she did like Tom Verity or not, his coming and going had indisputably made a difference. It marked, indeed, a new departure in her attitude and thought. Her world, before his advent, was other than that in which she now dwelt.
For one thing, Tom was much younger than the majority of her father's guests—a man not made but still early in the making, the glamour of promise rather than the stark light of finality upon him. This affected her; for at eighteen, a career, be it never so distinguished, which has reached its zenith, in other words reached the end of its tether, must needs have a touch of melancholy about it. With the heat of going on in your own veins, the sight of one who has no further go strikes chill to the heart. And so, while uncertain whether she quite trusted him or not, Damaris—until the unlucky running away episode—had taken increasing pleasure in this new cousin's company. It both interested and diverted her. She had not only felt ready to talk to him; but,—surprising inclination!—once the ice of her natural reserve broken, to talk to him about herself.
Half-shyly she dwelt upon his personal appearance.—A fine head and clever face, the nose astute, slightly Jewish in type, so she thought. His eyes were disappointing, too thickly brown in colour, too opaque. They told you nothing, were indeed curiously meaningless; and, though well set under an ample brow, were wanting in depth and softness owing to scantiness of eyelash. But his chin satisfied her demands. It was square, forcible, slightly cleft; and his mouth, below the fly-away reddish moustache, was frankly delightful.—Damaris flushed, smiling to herself now as she recalled his smile. Whereupon the humiliation of that thrice wretched running away took a sharper edge. For she realized, poor child, how much—notwithstanding her proud little snubbing of him—she coveted his good opinion, wished him to admire and to like her; wanted, even while she disapproved his self-complacency and slightly doubted his truthfulness, to have him carry with him a happy impression of her—carry it with him to that enchanted far Eastern land in which all the poetry of her childhood had its root. For, if remembrance of her remained with him, and that agreeably, she herself also found "Passage to India" in a sense. And this idea, recondite though it was, touched and charmed her fancy—or would have done so but for the recollection of her deplorable flight.—Oh! what—what made her run away? From what had she thus run? If she could only find out! And find, moreover, the cause sufficient to palliate, to some extent at least, the woefulness of her cowardice.
But at this point her meditation suffered interruption. The three cormorants, having finished their sun-bath, rose from the sand and flapped off, flying low and sullenly in single file over the sea parallel with the eastward-trending coast-line.
With the departure of the great birds her surroundings seemed to lose their only element of active and conscious life. The brooding sunlit evening became oppressive, so that in the space of a moment Damaris passed from solitude, which is stimulating, to loneliness, which is only sad. Meanwhile the shadow cast by the ilex trees had grown sensibly longer, softer in outline, more transparent and finely intangible in tone, and the reek of the mud-flats more potent, according to its habit at sundown and low tide.
It quenched the garden scents with a fetid sweetness, symbolic perhaps of the languorous sheltered character of the scene and of much which had or might yet happen there—the life breath of the genius loci, an at once seductive and, as Tom Verity had rightly divined, a doubtfully wholesome spirit! Over Damaris it exercised an unwilling fascination, as of some haunting refrain ending each verse of her personal experience. Even when, as a little girl of eight, fresh from the gentle restraints and rare religious and social amenities of an aristocratic convent school in Paris, she had first encountered it, it struck her as strangely familiar—a thing given back rather than newly discovered, making her mind and innocent body alike eager with absorbed yet half-shuddering recognition. A good ten years had elapsed since then, but her early impression still persisted, producing in her a certain spiritual and emotional unrest.
And at that, by natural transition, her thought turned from Tom Verity to fix itself upon the one other possible witness of her ignominy—namely, the young master mariner who, coming ashore in Proud, the lobster-catcher's cranky boat, had walked up the shifting shingle to the crown of the ridge and stood watching her, in silence, for a quite measurable period, before passing on his way down to the ferry. For, from her first sight of him, had he not seemed to evoke that same sense of remembrance, to be, like the reek off the mud-flats, already well-known, something given back to her rather than newly discovered? She was still ignorant as to who ho was or where he came from, having been far too engrossed by mortification to pay any attention to the conversation between her cousin and Jennifer during their little voyage down the tide-river, and having disdained to make subsequent enquiries.—She had a rooted dislike to appear curious or ask questions.—But now, reviewing the whole episode, it broke in on her that the necessity for escape and foreboding of danger, which culminated in her flight, actually dated from the advent of this stranger rather than from Tom's request for enlightenment concerning unaccountable noises heard in the small hours.
Damaris slipped her feet down off the leg-rest, and sat upright, tense with the effort to grasp and disentangle the bearings of this revelation. Was her search ended? Had she indeed detected the cause of her discomfiture; or only pushed her enquiry back a step further, thus widening rather than limiting the field of speculation? For what conceivable connection, as she reflected, could the old lobster-catcher's passenger have with any matter even remotely affecting herself!
Then she started, suddenly sensible of a comfortable, though warmly protesting, human voice and presence at her elbow.
"Yes, you may well look astonished, Miss Damaris. I know how late it is, and have been going on like anything to Lizzie over her carelessness. Mrs. Cooper's walked up the village with Laura about some extra meat that's wanted, and when I came through for your tea if that girl hadn't let the kitchen fire right out!—Amusing herself down in the stable-yard, I expect, Mrs. Cooper being gone.—And the business I've had to get a kettle to boil!"
Verging on forty, tall, dark, deep-bosomed and comely, a rich flush on her cheeks under the clear brown skin thanks to a kitchen fire which didn't burn and righteous anger which did, Mary Fisher, the upper housemaid, set a tea-tray upon the garden table beside Damaris' chair.
"That's what comes of taking servants out of trades-peoples' houses," she went on, as she marshalled silver tea-pot and cream-jug—embossed with flamboyant many-armed Hindu deities—hot cakes, ginger snaps and saffron-sprinkled buns. "You can't put any real dependence on them, doing their work as suits themselves just anyhow and anywhen. Mrs. Cooper and I knew how it would be well enough when Miss Bilson engaged Lizzie Trant and Mr. Hordle said the same. But it wasn't one atom of use for us to speak. The Miss Minetts recommended the girl—so there was the finish of it. And that's at the bottom of your being kept waiting the best part of a hour for your tea like this, Miss."
Notwithstanding the exactions of a somewhat tyrannous brain and her conviction of high responsibilities, the child, which delights to be petted, told stories and made much of, was strong in Damaris still. This explosion of domestic wrath on her behalf proved eminently soothing. It directed her brooding thought into nice, amusing, everyday little channels; and assured her of protective solicitude, actively on the watch, by which exaggerated shames and alarms were withered and loneliness effectually dispersed. She felt smoothed, contented. Fell, indeed, into something of the humour which climbs on to a friendly lap and thrones it there blissfully careless of the thousand and one ills, known and unknown, which infant flesh is heir to. She engaged the comely comfortable woman to stay and minister further to her.
"Pour out my tea for me, Mary, please," she said, "if you're not busy. But isn't this your afternoon off, by rights?"
And Mary, while serving her, acknowledged that not only was it "by rights" her "afternoon off;" but that Mr. Patch, the coachman, had volunteered to drive her into Marychurch to see her parents when he exercised the carriage horses. But, while thanking him very kindly, she had refused. Was it likely, she said, she would leave the house with Sir Charles and Mr. Hordle away, and Miss Bilson taking herself off to visit friends, too?
From which Damaris gathered that, in the opinion of the servants' hall, Theresa's offence was rank, it stank to heaven. She therefore, being covetous of continued contentment, turned the conversation to less controversial subjects; and, after passing notice of the fair weather, the brightness of the geraniums and kindred trivialities, successfully incited Mary to talk of Brockhurst, Sir Richard Calmady's famous place in the north of the county, where—prior to his retirement to his native town of Marychurch, upon a generous pension—her father, Lomas Fisher, had for many years occupied the post of second gardener. Here was material for story-telling to the child Damaris' heart's content! For Brockhurst is rich in strange records of wealth, calamity, heroism, and sport, the inherent romance of which Mary's artless narrative was calculated to enhance rather than dissipate.
So young mistress listened and maid recounted, until, the former fortified by cakes and tea, the two sauntered, side by side—a tall stalwart black figure, white capped and aproned and an equally tall but slender pale pink one—down across the lawn to the battery where the small obsolete cannon so boldly defied danger of piracy or invasion by sea.
The sun, a crimson disc, enormous in the earth-mist, sank slowly, south of west, behind the dark mass of Stone Horse Head. The upper branches of the line of Scotch firs in the warren and, beyond them, the upper windows of the cottages and Inn caught the fiery light. Presently a little wind, thin, perceptibly chill, drew up the river with the turning of the tide. It fluttered Mary Fisher's long white muslin apron strings and lifted her cap, so that she raised her hand to keep it in place upon her smooth black hair. The romance of Brockhurst failed upon her tongue. She grew sharply practical.
"The dew's beginning to rise, Miss Damaris," she said, "and you've only got your house shoes on. You ought to go indoors at once."
But—"Listen," Damaris replied, and lingered.
The whistling of a tune, shrill, but true and sweet, and a rattle of loose shingle, while a young man climbed the seaward slope of the Bar. The whistling ceased as he stopped, on the crest of the ridge, and stood, bare-headed, contemplating the sunset. For a few seconds the fiery light stained his hands, his throat, his hair, his handsome bearded face; then swiftly faded, leaving him like a giant leaden image set up against a vast pallor of sea and sky.
Mary Fisher choked down a hasty exclamation.
"Come, do come, Miss Damaris, before the grass gets too wet," she said almost sharply. "It's going to be a drenching dew to-night."
"Yes—directly—in a minute—but, Mary, tell me who that is?"
The woman hesitated.
"Out on the Bar, do you mean? No one I am acquainted with, Miss."
"I did not intend to ask if he was a friend of yours," Damaris returned, with a touch of grandeur, "but merely whether you could tell me his name."
"Oh! it's Mrs. Faircloth's son I suppose—the person who keeps the Inn. I heard he'd been home for a few days waiting for a ship"—and she turned resolutely towards the house. "It's quite time that silver was taken indoors and the library windows closed. But you must excuse me, Miss Damaris, I can't have you stay out here in that thin gown in the damp. You really must come with me, Miss."
And the child in Damaris obeyed. Dutifully it went, though the soul of the eighteen-year-old Damaris was far away, started once more on an anxious quest.
She heard the loose shingle shift and rattle under Faircloth's feet as he swung down the near slope to the jetty. The sound pursued her, and again she was overtaken—overwhelmed by foreboding and desire of flight.
WHICH CANTERS ROUND A PARISH PUMP
Not until the second bell was about to cease ringing did Theresa Bilson—fussily consequential—reappear at The Hard.
During the absence of the master of the house she would have much preferred high tea in the schoolroom, combined with a certain laxity as to hours and to dress; but Damaris, in whom the sense of style was innate, stood out for the regulation dignities of late dinner and evening gowns. To-night, however, thanks to her own unpunctuality, Miss Bilson found ample excuse for dispensing with ceremonial garments.
"No—no—we will not wait," she said, addressing Mary and her attendant satellite, Laura, the under-housemaid, as—agreeably ignorant of the sentiment of a servants' hall which thirsted for her blood—she passed the two standing at attention by the open door of the dining-room. "I am not going to change. I will leave my hat and things down here—Laura can take them to my room later—and have dinner as I am."
During the course of that meal she explained how she had really quite failed to observe the hour when she left the Grey House. Commander and Mrs. Battye were at tea there; and the vicar—Dr. Horniblow—looked in afterwards. There was quite a little meeting, in fact, to arrange the details of the day after to-morrow's choir treat. A number of upper-class parishioners, she found, were anxious to embrace this opportunity of visiting Harchester, and inspecting the Cathedral and other sights of that historic city, under learned escort. It promised to be a most interesting and instructive expedition, involving moreover but moderate cost.—And every one present—Theresa bridled over her salmon cutlet and oyster sauce—everyone seemed so anxious for her assistance and advice. The vicar deferred to her opinion in a quite pointed manner; and spoke, which was so nice of him, of her known gift of organization. "So we claim not only your sympathy, Miss Bilson, but your active co-operation," he had said. "We feel The Hard should be officially represented."
Here the speaker became increasingly self-conscious and blushed.
"What could I do, therefore, but remain even at the risk of being a trifle late for dinner?" she asked. "It would have been so extremely uncivil to the Miss Minetts to break up the gathering by leaving before full agreement as to the arrangements had been reached. I felt I must regard it as a public duty, under the circumstances. I really owed it to my position here, you know, Damaris, to stay to the last."
It may be observed, in passing, that Miss Bilson was fond of food and made a good deal of noise in eating, particularly when, as on the present occasion, she combined that operation with continuous speech. This may account for Damaris bestowing greater attention on the manner than the matter of her ex-governess' communications. She was sensible that the latter showed to small advantage being rather foolishly excited and elate, and felt vexed the maids should hear and see her behaving thus. It could hardly fail to lower her in their estimation.
As to the impending parochial invasion of Harchester—during the earlier stages of dinner Damaris hardly gave it a second thought, being still under the empire of impressions very far removed from anything in the nature of choir treats. She still beheld the fiery glare of an expiring sunset, and against the ensuing pallor of sea and sky a leaden-hued human, figure strangely, almost portentously evident. That it appeared noble in pose and in outline, even beautiful, she could not deny. But that somehow it frightened her, she could equally little deny. So it came about that once again, as Mary and her satellite Laura silently waited at table, and as Theresa very audibly gobbled food in and words out, Damaris shrank within herself seeming to hear a shrill sweet whistling and the shatter of loose pebbles and shifting shingle under Faircloth's pursuing feet.
The young man's name aroused her interest, not to say her curiosity, the more deeply because of its association, with a locality exploration of which had always been denied her—a Naboth's vineyard of the imagination, near at hand, daily in sight, yet personal acquaintance with which she failed to possess even yet. The idea of an island, especially a quite little island, a miniature and separate world, shut off all by itself, is dreadfully enticing to the infant mind—at once a geographical entity and a cunning sort of toy. And Faircloth's Inn, with the tarred wooden houses adjacent, was situated upon what, to all intents and purposes, might pass as an island since accessible only by boat or by an ancient paved causeway daily submerged at high tide.
Skirting the further edge of the warren, a wide rutted side lane leads down to the landward end of the said causeway from the village green, just opposite Deadham post office and Mrs. Doubleday's general shop.—A neglected somewhat desolate strip of road this, between broken earthbanks topped by ragged firs, yet very paintable and dear to the sketch-book of the amateur. In summer overgrown with grass and rushes, bordered by cow-parsley, meadowsweet, pink codlings-and-cream, and purple flowered peppermint, in winter a marsh of sodden brown and vivid green; but at all seasons a telling perspective, closed by the lonely black and grey island hamlet set in the gleaming tide.
Small wonder the place stirred Damaris' spirit of enquiry and adventure! She wanted to go there, to examine, to learn how people lived cut off from the mainland for hours twice every day and night. But her early attempts at investigation met with prompt discouragement from both her nurse and her aunt, Felicia Verity. And Damaris was not of the disposition which plots, wheedles, and teases to obtain what it wants; still less screams for the desired object until for very weariness resistance yields. Either she submitted without murmuring or fearlessly defied authority. In the present case she relinquished hope and purpose obediently, while inwardly longing for exploration, of her "darling little island" all the more.
But authority was not perhaps altogether unjustified of its decision, for the inhabitants of the spot so engaging to Damaris' imagination were a close corporation, a race of sailors and fishermen and, so said rumour, somewhat rough customers at that. They lived according to their own traditions and unwritten laws, entertained a lordly contempt for wage-earning labourers and landsmen, and, save when money was likely to pass, were grudging of hospitality even to persons of quality setting foot within their coasts.
To their reprehensible tendencies in this last respect the Miss Minetts could bear painful witness, as—with hushed voices and entreaties the sorry tale might "go no further"—they more than once confided to Theresa Bilson. For one Saturday afternoon—unknown to the vicar—being zealous in the admonishing of recalcitrant church-goers and rounding up of possible Sunday-school recruits, they crossed to the island at low tide; and in their best district visitor manner—too often a sparkling blend of condescension and familiarity, warranted to irritate—severally demanded entrance to the first two of the black cottages.—The Inn they avoided. Refined gentlewomen can hardly be expected, even in the interests of religion, to risk pollution by visiting a common tavern, more particularly when a company of half-grown lads and blue jerseyed men—who may, of course, have been carousing within—hangs about its morally malodorous door.
Of precisely what followed their attempted violation of the privacy of those two cottages, even the Miss Minetts themselves could subsequently give no very coherent account. They only knew that some half-hour later, with petticoats raised to a height gravely imperilling decency, they splashed landward across the causeway—now ankle-deep in water—while the lads congregated before the Inn laughed boisterously, the men turned away with a guffaw, dogs of disgracefully mixed parentage yelped, and the elder female members of the Proud and Sclanders families flung phrases lamentably subversive of gentility after their retreating figures from the foreshore.
Modesty and mortification alike forbade the outraged ladies reporting the episode to Dr. Horniblow in extenso. But they succeeded in giving Miss Bilson a sufficiently lurid account of it to make "the darling little island," in as far as her charge, Damaris, was concerned, more than ever taboo. Their request that the story might "go no further" she interpreted with the elasticity usually accorded to such requests; and proceeded, at the first opportunity, to retail the whole shocking occurrence to her pupil as an example of the ingratitude and insubordination of the common people. For Theresa was nothing if not conservative and aristocratic. From such august anachronisms as the divine right of kings and the Stuart succession, down to humble bobbing of curtseys and pulling of forelocks in to-day's village street, she held a permanent brief for the classes as against the masses. Unluckily the Miss Minetts' hasty and watery withdrawal, with upgathered skirts, across the causeway had appealed to Damaris' sense of comedy rather than of tragedy.—She didn't want to be unkind, but you shouldn't interfere; and if you insisted on interfering you must accept whatever followed. The two ladies in question were richly addicted to interfering she had reason to think.—And then they must have looked so wonderfully funny scuttling thus!
The picture remained by her as a thing of permanent mirth. So it was hardly surprising, in face of the dominant direction of her thoughts to-night, that, when the Miss Minetts' name punctuated Theresa's discourse recurrent as a cuckoo-cry, remembrance of their merrily inglorious retirement from the region of Faircloth's Inn should present itself. Whereupon Damaris' serious mood was lightened as by sudden sunshine, and she laughed.
Hearing which infectiously gay but quite unexpected sound, Miss Bilson stopped dead in the middle both of a nectarine and a sentence.
"What is the matter, Damaris?" she exclaimed. "I was explaining our difficulty in securing sufficient conveyances for some of our party to and from Marychurch station. I really do not see any cause for amusement in what I said."
"There wasn't anything amusing, dear Billy, I'm sure there wasn't," Damaris returned, the corners of her mouth still quivering and her eyes very bright. "I beg your pardon. I'm afraid I wasn't quite attending. I was thinking of something else. You were speaking about the carriage horses, weren't you? Yes."
But Theresa turned sulky. She had been posing, planing in mid-air around the fair castles hope and ambition are reported to build there. Her fat little feet were well off the floor, and that outbreak of laughter let her down with a bump. She lost her head, lost her temper and her opportunity along with it, and fell into useless scolding.
"You are extremely inconsequent and childish sometimes, Damaris," she said. "I find it most trying when I attempt to talk to you upon practical subjects, really pressing subjects, and you either cannot or will not concentrate. What can you expect in the future when you are thrown more on your own resources, and have not me—for instance—always to depend upon, if you moon through life like this? It must lead to great discomfort not only for yourself but for others. Pray be warned in time."
Damaris turned in her chair at the head of the table. A station not unconnected, in Theresa's mind, with the internal ordering of those same air-built castles, and consistently if furtively coveted by her. To Sir Charles's chair at the bottom of the table, she dared not aspire, so during his absence reluctantly retained her accustomed place at the side.
"You need not wait any longer, Mary," Damaris said, over her shoulder.
"Why?" Theresa began fussily, as the two maids left the room.
"Why?" Damaris took her up. "Because I prefer our being alone during the remainder of this conversation. I understand that you want to ask me about something to do with this excursion to Harchester. What is it, please?"
"My dear Damaris," the other protested, startled and scenting unexpected danger, "really your manner"—
"And yours.—Both perhaps would bear improvement. But that is by the way. What is it, please, you want?"
"Really you assert yourself"—
"And you forget yourself—before the servants, too, I do not like it at all. You should be more careful."
"Damaris," she cried aghast, confounded to the verge of tears—"Damaris!"
"Yes—I am giving you my full attention. Pray let us be practical," the young girl said, sitting up tall and straight in the shaded lamp-light, the white dinner-table spread with gleaming glass and silver, fine china, fruit and flowers before her, the soft gloom of the long low room behind, all tender hint of childhood banished from her countenance, and her eyes bright now not with laughter but with battle. "Pray let us finish with the subject of the choir treat. Then we shall be free to talk about more interesting things."
Miss Bilson waved her hands hysterically.
"No—no—I never wish to mention it again. I am too deeply hurt by your behaviour to me, Damaris—your sarcasm.—Of course," she added, "I see I must withdraw my offer. It will cause the greatest inconvenience and disappointment; but for that I cannot hold myself responsible, though it will be most painful and embarrassing to me after the kind appreciation I have received. Still I must withdraw it"—
"Withdraw what offer?"
"Why the offer I was explaining to you just now, when you ordered the maids out of the room. You really cannot deny that you heard what I said, Damaris, because you mentioned the carriage horses yourself."
Theresa sipped some water. She was recovering if not her temper, yet her grasp on the main issue. She wanted, so desperately, to achieve her purpose and, incidentally, to continue to play, both for her own benefit and that of the parish, her self-elected role of Lady Bountiful, of "official representative of The Hard"—as Dr. Horniblow by a quite innocent if ill-timed flourish of speech had unfortunately put it.
"The conveyances in the village are insufficient to take the whole party to the station," she continued. "An extra brake can be had at the Stag's Head in Mary church; but a pair of horses must be sent in to-morrow afternoon to bring it over here. I saw"—she hesitated a moment—"I really could see no objection to Patch taking our horses in to fetch the brake, and driving a contingent to the station in it next morning."
"And meeting the train at night, I suppose?" Damaris said calmly.
"Of course," Theresa answered, thus unconsciously declaring herself a rank outsider, and rushing blindly upon her fate.
For what thoroughbred member of the equestrian order does not know that next—and even that not always—to the ladies of his family and, possibly, the key of his cellar, an Englishman's stable is sacrosanct? Dispose of anything he owns rather than his horses. To attempt touching them is, indeed, to stretch out your hand against the Ark of the Covenant and risk prompt withering of that impious limb. Yet poor Theresa blundered on.
"I told the vicar that, Sir Charles being from home, I felt I might make the offer myself, seeing how much it would simplify the arrangements and how very little work Patch has when you and I are alone here. It is a pity there is not time to obtain Sir Charles's sanction. That would be more proper, of course, more satisfactory. But under the circumstances it need not, I think, be regarded as an insuperable objection. I told the Miss Minetts and the vicar"—
Here Miss Bilson blushed, applying fork and spoon, in coy confusion, to the remains of the nectarine upon her plate.
"I told them," she repeated, "knowing Sir Charles as well as I do, I felt I might safely assure them of that."
In Damaris, meanwhile, anger gradually gave place to far more complex emotions. She sat well back in her chair, and clasped her hands firmly in her flowered Pompadour-muslin lap. Her eyes looked enormous as she kept them fixed gravely and steadily upon the speaker. For extraordinary ideas and perceptions concerning the said speaker crowded into her young head. She did not like them at all. She shrank from dwelling upon or following them put. They, indeed, made her hot and uncomfortable all over. Had Theresa Bilson taken leave of her senses, or was she, Damaris, herself in fault—a harbourer of nasty thoughts? Consciously she felt to grow older, to grow up. And she did not like that either; for the grown-up world, to which Theresa acted just now as doorkeeper, struck her as an ugly and vulgar-minded place. She saw her ex-governess from a new angle—a more illuminating than agreeable one, at which she no longer figured as pitiful, her little assumptions and sillinesses calling for the chivalrous forbearance of persons more happily placed; but as actively impertinent, an usurper of authority and privileges altogether outside her office and her scope. She was greedy—not a pretty word yet a true one, covering both her manner of eating and her speech. Registering which facts Damaris was sensible of almost physical repulsion, as from something obscurely gross. Hence it followed that Theresa must, somehow, be stopped, made to see her own present unpleasantness, saved from herself in short—to which end it became Damaris' duty to unfurl the flag of revolt.
The young girl arrived at this conclusion in a spirit of rather pathetic seriousness. It is far from easy, at eighteen, to control tongue and temper to the extent of joining battle with your elders in calm and dignified sort. To lay about you in a rage is easy enough. But rage is tiresomely liable to defeat its own object and make you make a fool of yourself. Any unfurling of the flag would be useless, and worse than useless, unless it heralded victory sure and complete—Damaris realized this. So she kept a brave front, although her pulse quickened and she had a bad little empty feeling around her heart.
Fortunately, however, for her side of the campaign, Theresa—emboldened by recapitulation of her late boastings at the Miss Minetts' tea-table—hastened to put a gilded dome to her own indiscretion and offence. For nothing would do but Damaris must accompany her on this choir treat! She declared herself really compelled to press the point. It offered such an excellent opportunity of acquiring archaeological knowledge—had not the Dean most kindly promised to conduct the party round the Cathedral himself and deliver a short lecture en route?—and of friendly social intercourse, both of which would be very advantageous to Damaris. As she was without any engagement for the day clearly neither should be missed. Of course, everyone understood how unsuitable it would be to ask Sir Charles to patronize parish excursions and events.—Here Miss Bilson became lyrical, speaking with gasping breath and glowing face, of "a call to exalted spheres of action, of great Proconsuls, Empire Builders, Pillars of the State."—Naturally you hesitated to intrude on the time and attention of such a distinguished person—that in point of fact was her main reason for disposing of the matter of the carriage horses herself. How could she trouble Sir Charles with such a homely detail?—But Damaris' case, needless to remark, was very different. At her age it was invidious to be too exclusive. Miss Felicia Verity felt—so she, Theresa, was certain—that it was a pity Damaris did not make more friends in the village now she was out of the schoolroom. May and Doris Horniblow were sweet girls and highly educated. They, of course, were going. And Captain Taylor, she understood would bring his daughter, Louisa—who was home for a few days before the opening of term at the Tillingworth High School where she was second mistress.
"It is always well to realize the attainments of young people of your own age, even if they are not in quite the same social grade as yourself. Your going would give pleasure too. It will be taken as a compliment to the vicar and the Church—may really, in a sense, be called patriotic since an acknowledgment of the duty we owe, individually, to the local community of which we form part. And then," she added, naively giving herself away at the last, "of course, if you go over to the station in the brake Patch cannot make any difficulties about driving it."
Here Theresa stayed the torrent of her eloquence and looked up, to find Damaris' eyes fixed upon her in incredulous wonder.
"Have you nothing to say, dear, in answer to my proposition?" she enquired, with a suddenly anxious, edgy little laugh.
"I am afraid I have a lot to say, some of which you won't like."
"How so?" Theresa cried, still playfully. "You must see how natural and reasonable my suggestion is." Then becoming admonitory. "You should learn to think a little more of others.—It is a bad habit to offer opposition simply for opposition's sake."
"I do not oppose you for the mere pleasure of opposing," Damaris began, determined her voice should not shake. "But I'm sorry to say, I can't agree to the horses being used to draw a loaded brake. I could not ask Patch. He would refuse and be quite right in refusing. It's not their work—nor his work either."
She leaned forward, trying to speak civilly and gently.
"There are some things you don't quite understand about the stables, or about the servants—the things which can't be done, which it's impossible to ask.—No,—wait, please—please let me finish"—
For between astonishment, chagrin, and an inarticulate struggle to protest, Miss Bilson's complexion was becoming almost apoplectic and her poor fat little cheeks positively convulsed.
"I dislike saying such disagreeable things to you, but it can't be avoided. It would be cowardly of me not to tell you the truth.—You shall have the brougham the day after to-morrow, and I'll write to Miss Minett in the morning, and tell her you will call for her and her sister, on your way to Marychurch, and that you will bring them back at night. I will give Patch his orders myself, so that there may be no confusion. And I will subscribe a pound to the expenses of the choir treat. That is all I can promise in the way of help."
"But—but—Damaris, think of the position in which you place me! I cannot be thrust aside thus. I will not submit. It is so humiliating, so—so—I offered the horses. I told the vicar he might consider it settled about the extra brake"—
"I know. That was a mistake. You had no right to make such an offer."
For justice must take its course. Theresa must be saved from herself. Still her implacable young saviour, in proportion as victory appeared assured, began to feel sad. For it grew increasingly plain that Theresa was not of the stuff of which warriors, any more than saints, are made. Stand up to her and she collapsed like a pricked bubble.—So little was left, a scum of colourless soap suds, in which very certainly there is no fight. Again she showed a pitiful being, inviting chivalrous forbearance.
"You are very hard," she lamented, "and you are always inclined to side with the servants against me. You seem to take pleasure in undermining my influence, while I am so ready and anxious to devote myself to you. You know there is nothing, nothing I would not do for you and—and for Sir Charles."
Theresa choked, coughed, holding her handkerchief to her eyes.
"And what reward do I meet with?" she asked brokenly. "At every turn I am thwarted. But you must give way in this case, Damaris. Positively you must. I cannot allow myself to be publicly discredited through your self-will. I promised the horses for the extra brake. The offer was made and accepted—accepted, you understand, actually accepted. What will the vicar say if the arrangement is upset? What will every one think?"
Damaris pushed her chair back from the table and rose to her feet.—Forbearance wore threadbare under accusation and complaint. No, Theresa was not only a little too abject, but a little too disingenuous, thereby putting herself beyond the pale of rightful sympathy. Even while she protested devotion, self looked out seeking personal advantage. And that devotion, in itself, shocked Damaris' sense of fitness where it involved her father. It wasn't Theresa's place to talk of devotion towards him!
Moreover the young girl began to feel profoundly impatient of all this to do and bother. For wasn't the whole affair, very much of a storm in a teacup, petty, paltry, quite unworthy of prolonged discussion such as this? She certainly thought so, in her youthful fervour and inexperience; while—the push of awakening womanhood giving new colour and richness to her conception of life—nature cried out for a certain extravagance in heroism, in largeness of action of aspiration. She was athirst for noble horizons, in love with beauty, with the magnificence of things, seen and unseen alike. In love with superb objectives even if only to be reached through a measure of suffering, and—searching, arresting, though the thought was to her—possibly through peril of death.
In such moods there is small room for a Bilson regime and outlook. A flavour of scorn marked her tone as she answered at last:
"Oh, you can lay the blame on me—or rather tell the truth, which amounts to the same thing. Say that, my father being away, I refused my consent to the horses being taken out. Say you appealed to me but I was hopelessly obstinate. It is very simple."
A SAMPLING OF FREEDOM
When two persons, living under the same roof, have the misfortune to fall out a hundred and one small ways are ready to hand for the infliction of moral torment. The weak, it may be added, are not only far more addicted to such inflictings than the strong, but far more resourceful in their execution. Theresa Bilson's conduct may furnish a pertinent example.
From the moment of emerging from her bed-chamber, next morning, she adopted an attitude which she maintained until she regained the chaste seclusion of that apartment at night. During no instant of the intervening hours did she lapse from studied speechlessness unless directly addressed, nor depart from an air of virtuous resignation to injustice and injury—quite exquisitely provoking to the onlooker. Twice during the morning Damaris, upon entering the schoolroom, discovered her in tears, which she proceeded to wipe away, furtively, with the greatest ostentation.—Dramatic effect, on the second occasion was, however, marred by the fact that she was engaged in retrimming a white chip hat, encircled by a garland of artificial dog-roses, blue glass grapes and assorted foliage—an occupation somewhat ill-adapted to tragedy. In addition to making her ex-pupil—against whom they were mainly directed—first miserable and then naughtily defiant by these manoeuvres, she alienated any sympathy which her red-rimmed eyelids and dolorous aspect might otherwise have engendered in the younger and less critical members of the establishment, by sending Alfred, the hall-boy, up to the vicarage with a note and instructions to wait for an answer, at the very moment when every domestic ordinance demanded his absorption in the cleaning of knives and of boots. Being but human, Alfred naturally embraced the heaven-sent chance of dawdling, passing the time of day with various cronies, and rapturously assisting to hound a couple of wild, sweating and snorting steers along the dusty lane, behind the churchyard, to Butcher Cleave's slaughter-house: with the consequence that his menial duties devolved upon Laura and Lizzie, who, supported by the heads of their respective departments, combined to "give him the what for," in no measured terms upon his eventual and very tardy return.
It is not too much to say that, by luncheon time Theresa—whether wilfully or not—had succeeded in setting the entire household by the ears; while any inclinations towards peace-making, with which Damaris might have begun the day, were effectively dissipated, leaving her strengthened and confirmed in revolt. Around the stables, and the proposed indignity put upon Patch and the horses, this wretched quarrel centred so—as at once a vote of confidence and declaration of independence—to the stables Damaris finally went and ordered the dog-cart at three o'clock. For she would drive, and drive, throughout the course of this gilded September afternoon. Drive far away from foolishly officious and disingenuous Theresa, far from Deadham, so tiresome just now in its irruption of tea-parties and treats. She would behold peaceful inland horizons, taste the freedom of spirit and the content which the long, smooth buff-coloured roads, leading to unknown towns and unvisited country-side, so deliciously give.
She stood at the front door, in blue linen gown, white knitted jersey and white sailor hat, buttoning her tan doeskin driving-gloves, a gallant, gravely valiant young creature, beautifully unbroken as yet by any real assent to the manifold foulness of life—her faith in the nobility of human nature and human destiny still finely intact. And that was just where her revolt against poor Theresa Bilson came in. For Theresa broke the accepted law, being ignoble; and thereby spoiled the fair pattern, showed as a blot.—Not that she meant to trouble any more about Theresa just now. She was out simply to enjoy, to see and feel, rather than reason, analyse or think. So she settled herself on the sloping high-cushioned seat, bracing her feet against the driving iron, while Mary, reaching up, tucked the dust-rug neatly about her skirts. Patch—whose looks and figure unmistakably declared his calling—short-legged and stocky, inclining to corpulence yet nimble on his feet, clean shaven, Napoleonic of countenance, passed reins and whip into her hands as Tolling, the groom, let go the horse's head.
The girl squared her shoulders a little, and the soft colour deepened in her cheeks, as she swung the dog-cart down the drive and out of the entrance gate into the road—here a green-roofed tunnel, branches meeting overhead, thickly carpeted with dry sand blown inward from the beach—and on past the whitewashed cottages, red brick and grey stone houses of Deadham village, their gardens pleasant with flowers, and with apple and pear trees weighted down by fruit. Past the vicarage and church, standing apart on a little grass-grown monticule, backed by a row of elms, which amid their dark foliage showed here and there a single bough of verdigris-green or lemon-yellow—first harbingers of autumn. Into the open now, small rough fields dotted with thorn bushes and bramble-brakes on the one side; and on the other the shining waters of the Haven. Through the hamlet of Lampit, the rear of whose dilapidated sheds and dwellings abut on reed-beds and stretches of unsightly slime and ooze. A desolate spot, bleak and wind-swept in winter, and even under blue skies, as to-day basking in sunshine, degraded by poverty and dirt.
Some half-mile further is Horny Cross where, as the name indicates, four roads meet. That from Deadham to the edge of the forest runs north; the other, from Beaupres-on-Sea to Marychurch, Stourmouth and Barryport, due west. Damaris, having a fancy to keep the coast-line out of sight, chose the former, following the valley of the Arne, between great flat meadows where herds of dairy cows, of red Devons and black Welsh runts, feed in the rich deep grass. In one place a curve of the river brings it, for three hundred yards or more, close under the hanging woods, only the width of the roadway between the broad stream and living wall of trees. Here transparent bluish shadow haunted the undergrowth, and the air grew delicately chill, charged with the scent of fern, of moist earth, leaf mould, and moss.