RECALLING, IN SOME PARTICULARS, THE EASIEST RECORDED THEFT IN HUMAN HISTORY
He was short, neat, spectacled, in manner prompt and perky, in age under thirty, a townsman by birth and education, hailing from Midlandshire. Further, a strong advocate of organization, and imbued with the deepest respect for the obligations and prerogatives of his profession upon the ethical side. He took himself very seriously; and so took, also, the decalogue as delivered to mankind amid the thunders of Sinai. Keep the Ten Commandments, according to the letter, and you may confidently expect all things, spiritual and temporal, to be added unto you—such was the basis of his teaching and of his private creed.
He came to Deadham ardent for the reformation of that remote, benighted spot, so disgracefully, as he feared—and rather hoped—behind the times. He suspected its canon-vicar of being very much too easy-going; and its population, in respect of moral conduct, of being lamentably lax. In neither of which suppositions, it must be admitted, was he altogether incorrect. But he intended to alter all that!—Regarding himself thus, in the light of a providentially selected new broom, he applied himself diligently to sweep. A high-minded and earnest, if not conspicuously well-bred young man, he might in a suburban parish have done excellent work. But upon Deadham, with its enervating, amorous climate and queer inheritance of forest and seafaring—in other words poaching and smuggling—blood, he was wasted, out of his element and out of touch. The slow moving South Saxon cocked a shrewd sceptical eye at him, sized him up and down and sucked in its cheek refusing to be impressed. While by untoward accident, his misfortune rather than his fault, the earliest of his moral sweepings brought him into collision with the most reactionary element in the community, namely the inhabitants of the black cottages upon the Island.
The event fell out thus. The days shortened, the evenings lengthened growing misty and secret as October advanced. The roads became plashy and rutted, the sides of them silent with fallen leaves under foot. An odd sense of excitement flickers through such autumn twilights. Boys herded in little troops on wickedness intent. Whooping and whistling to disarm their elders' suspicion until the evil deed should be fairly within reach, then mum as mice, stealthily vanishing, becoming part and parcel of the earth, the hedge, the harsh dusky grasses of the sand-hills, the foreshore lumber on the beach.
Late one afternoon, the hour of a hidden sunset, Reginald Sawyer called at The Hard; and to his eminent satisfaction—for social aspirations were by no means foreign to him—was invited to remain to tea. The ladies—Damaris and Miss Felicia—were kind, the cakes and cream superlative. He left in high feather; and, at Damaris' suggestion, took a short cut through the Wilderness and by a path crossing the warren to the lane, leading up from the causeway, which joins the high-road just opposite the post office and Mrs. Doubleday's shop. By following this route he would save quite half a mile on his homeward journey; since the Grey House, where he enjoyed the Miss Minetts' assiduous and genteel hospitality, is situate at the extreme end of Deadham village on the road to Lampit.
Out on the warren, notwithstanding the hour and the mist, it was still fairly light, the zigzagging sandy path plainly visible between the heath, furze brakes, stunted firs and thorn bushes. The young clergyman, although more familiar with crowded pavements and flare of gas-lamps than open moorland in the deepening dusk, pursued his way without difficulty. What a wild region it was though! He thought of the sober luxury of the library at The Hard, the warmth, the shaded lights, the wealth of books; of the grace of Damaris' clothing and her person, and wondered how people of position and education could be content to live in so out of the way and savage a spot. It was melancholy to a degree, in his opinion.—Oh! well, he must do his best to wake it up, infuse a spirit of progress into it more in keeping with nineteenth-century ideas. Everyone would be grateful to him—
A little questioning pause—assurance in momentary eclipse. Then with renewed cheerfulness—Of course they would—the upper classes, that is. For they must feel the disadvantages of living in such a back-water. He gave them credit for the wish to advance could they but find the way. All they needed was leadership, which Canon Horniblow—evidently past his work—was powerless to supply. He, Sawyer, came as a pioneer. Once they grasped that fact they would rally to him. The good Miss Minetts were rallying hard, so to speak, already. Oh! there was excellent material in Deadham among the gentlefolk. It merely needed working, needed bringing out.
From the lower, the wage-earning class, sunk as it was in ignorance, he must, he supposed, expect but a poor response, opposition not impossibly. Opposition would not daunt him. You must be prepared to do people good, if not with, then against their will. He was here to make them rebel against and shake off the remnants of the Dark Ages amid which they so extraordinarily appeared still to live. He had no conception so low a state of civilization could exist within little over a hundred miles of the metropolis!—It was a man's work, anyhow, and he must put his back into it. Must organize—word of power—organize night classes, lectures with lantern slides, social evenings, a lads' club. Above all was there room and necessity for this last. The Deadham lads were very rowdy, very unruly. They gathered at corners in an objectionable manner; hung about the public-house. He must undersell the public-house by offering counter attractions. Amongst the men he suspected a sad amount of drinking. Their speech, too, was so reprehensibly coarse. He had heard horrible language in the village street. He reproved the offenders openly, as was his duty, and his admonitions were greeted with a laugh, an insolent, offensive, jeering laugh.
Sawyer cut at the dark straggling furzes bordering the path with his walking-stick. Recollection of that laugh made him go red about the ears; made his skin tingle and his eyes smart. It represented an insult not only to himself but to his cloth. Yet he'd not lost control of himself, he was glad to remember, though the provocation was rank—
He cut at the furze again, being by nature combative. And—stopped short, with a start, a tremor running through him. Something rustled, scuttled away amongst the bushes, and something flapped upward behind him into the thick lowering sky above. A wailing cry—whether human, or of bird or beast, he was uncomfortably ignorant—came out of the mist ahead, to be answered by a like and nearer cry from a spot which he failed, in his agitation, to locate.
Under ordinary conditions the young cleric was neither troubled by imagination nor lacking in pluck. His habitual outlook was sensible, literal and direct. But, it must be owned, this wide indistinct landscape, over which pale vapours trailed and brooded, the immense loneliness of the felt rather than seen, expanse of water, marsh and mud-flat of the Haven—the tide being low—along with the goblin whispering chuckle of the river speeding seaward away there on his left, made him oddly jumpy and nervous. No human being was in sight, neither did any human dwelling show signs of habitation. He wished he had gone round by the road and through the length of the village. He registered a vow against short cuts—save in broad daylight—for his present surroundings inspired him with the liveliest distrust. They were to him positively nightmarish. He suffered the nastiest little fears of what might follow him, what might, even now, peer and lurk. Heretofore he had considered the earth as so much dead matter, to be usefully and profitably exploited by all-dominant man—specially by men of his own creed and race. But now the power of the earth laid hands on him. She lived, and mankind dwindled to the proportions of parasitic insects, at most irritating some small portions of her skin, her vast indifferent surface. Such ideas had never occurred to him before. He resented them—essayed to put them from him as trenching on blasphemy.
Starting on again, angry alike with himself for entertaining, and with the unknown for engendering, such subversive notions, his pace unconsciously quickened to a run. But the line of some half-dozen ragged Scotch firs, which here topped the low cliff bordering the river, to his disordered vision seemed most uncomfortably to run alongside him, stretching gaunt arms through the encircling mist to arrest his flight.
He regarded them with an emotion of the liveliest antipathy; consciously longing, meanwhile, for the humming thoroughfares of his native industrial town, for the rattle and grind of the horse-trams, the brightly lighted shop-fronts, the push all about him of human labour, of booming trade and vociferous politics. Even the glare of a gin palace, flooding out across the crowded pavement at some street corner, would have, just now, been fraught with solace, convinced prohibitionist though he was. For he would, at least, have been in no doubt how to feel towards that stronghold of Satan—righteously thanking God he was not as those reprehensible others, who passed in and out of its ever-swinging doors. While towards this earth dominance, this dwarfing of human life by the life of things he had hitherto called inanimate, he did not know how to feel at all. It attacked some unarmoured, unprotected part of him. Against its assault he was defenceless.
With a sense of escape from actual danger, whether physical or moral he did not stay to enquire, he stumbled, a few minutes later, through a gap in the earth-bank into the wet side lane. Arrived, he gave himself a moment's breathing space. It was darker here than out upon the warren; but, anyhow, this was a lane. It had direction and meaning. Men had constructed it for the linking up of house with house, hamlet with hamlet. Like all roads, it represented the initial instinct of communal life, the basis of a reasoned social order, of civilization in short. He walked forward over the soft couch of fallen, water-soaked leaves, his boots squelching at times into inches of sucking mud, and his spirits rose. He began to enter into normal relations both with himself and with things in general. A hundred yards or so and the village green would be reached.
Then on his left, behind an ill-kept quick-set hedge that guarded a strip of garden and orchard, he became aware of movement. Among the apple trees three small figures shuffled about some dark recumbent object. For the most part they went on all fours, but at moments reared up on their hind legs. Their action was at once silent, stealthy and purposeful. Our young clergyman's shortness of sight rendered their appearance the more peculiar. His normal attitude was not so completely restored, moreover, but that they caused him another nervous tremor. Then he grasped the truth; while the detective, latent in every moralist, sprang to attention. Here were criminals to be brought to justice, criminals caught red-handed. Reginald Sawyer, having been rather badly scared himself, lusted—though honestly ignorant of any personal touch in the matter—to very badly scare others.
Standing back beside the half-open gate, screened by the hedge, here high and straggling, he awaited the psychological moment, ready to pounce. To enter the orchard and confront these sinners with their crime, if their activities did by chance happen to be legitimate, was to put himself altogether in the wrong. He would bide his time, would let them conclude their—in his belief—nefarious business and challenge them as they passed out.
Nor had he long to wait. The two smaller boys, breathing hard, hoisted the bulging, half-filled sack on to the back of their bigger companion; who, bowed beneath its weight, grunting with exertion, advanced towards the exit.
Sawyer laid aside his walking-stick, and, as the leader of the procession came abreast of him, pounced. But missed his aim. Upon which the boy cast down the sack, from the mouth of which apples, beets, turnips rolled into the road; and, with a yelp, bolted down the lane towards the causeway, leaving his accomplices to their fate. These, thrown into confusion by the suddenness of his desertion, hesitated and were lost. For, pouncing again, and that the more warily for his recent failure, Sawyer collared one with either hand.
They were maladorous children; and the young clergyman, grasping woollen jersey-neck and shirt-band, the backs of his hands in contact with the backs of their moist, warm, dirty little necks, suffered disgust, yet held them the more firmly.
"I am convinced you have no right to that fruit or to those vegetables. You are stealing. Give an account of yourselves at once."
And he shook them slightly to emphasize his command. One hung on his hand, limp as a rag. The other showed fight, kicking our friend liberally about the shins, with hobnailed boots which did, most confoundly, hurt.
"You lem' me go," he cried. "Lem' me go, or I'll tell father, and first time you come along by our place 'e'll set the ratting dawgs on to you. Our ole bitch 'as got 'er teeth yet. She'll bite. Ketch the fleshy part of your leg, she will, and just tear and bite."
This carrying of war into the enemy's country proved as disconcerting as unexpected, while to mention the sex of an animal was, in Reginald Sawyer's opinion, to be guilty of unpardonable coarseness. The atmosphere of a Protestant middle-class home clung to him yet, begetting in him a squeamishness, not to say prudery, almost worthy of his hostesses, the Miss Minetts. He shook the culprits again, with a will. He also blushed.
"If you were honest you would be anxious to give an account of yourselves," he asserted, ignoring the unpleasant matter of the dogs. "I am afraid you are very wicked boys. You have stolen these vegetables and fruits. Thieves are tried by the magistrates, you know, and sent to prison. I shall take you to the police-station. There the constable will find means to make you confess."
Beyond provoking a fresh paroxysm of kicking, these adjurations were without result. His captives appeared equally impervious to shame, contrition or alarm. They remained obstinately mute. Whereupon it began to dawn upon their captor that his position risked becoming not a little invidious, since the practical difficulty of carrying his threats into execution was so great. How could he haul two sturdy, active children, plus a sack still containing a goodly quantity of garden produce, some quarter of a mile without help? To let them go, on the other hand, was to have them incontinently vanish into those trailing whitish vapours creeping over the face of the landscape. And, once vanished, they were lost to him, since he knew neither their names nor dwelling place; and could, with no certainty, identify them, having seen them only in the act of struggle and in this uncertain evening light. He felt himself very nastily planted on the horns of a dilemma, when on a sudden there arrived help.
A vehicle of some description turned out of the main road and headed down the lane.
Laocooen-like, flanked on either hand by a writhing youthful figure, Reginald Sawyer called aloud:
"Hi!—Stop, there—pray, stop."
Darcy Faircloth lighted down out of a ramshackle Marychurch station fly, and advanced towards the rather incomprehensible group.
"What's happened? What's the matter?" he said. "What on earth do you want with those two youngsters?"
"I want to convey them to the proper authorities," Sawyer answered, with all the self-importance he could muster. He found his interlocutor's somewhat abrupt and lordly manner at once annoying and impressive, as were his commanding height and rather ruffling gait. "These boys have been engaged in robbing a garden. I caught them in the act, and it is my duty to see that they pay the penalty of their breach of the law. I count on your assistance in taking them to the police-station."
"You want to give them in charge?"
"What else?—The moral tone of this parish is, I grieve to say, very low."
Sawyer talked loud and fast in the effort to assert himself.
"Low and coarse," he repeated. "Both as a warning to others, and in the interests of their own future, an example must be made of these two lads."
"Must it?" Faircloth said, towering above him in the pale bewildering mist.
The little boys, who had remained curiously and rather dangerously still since the advent of this stranger, now strained together, signalling, whispering. Sawyer shook them impatiently apart.
"Steady there, please," Faircloth put in sharply. "It strikes me you take a good deal upon yourself. May I ask who you are?"
"I am the assistant priest," Reginald began. But his explanation was cut short by piping voices.
"It's Cap'en Darcy, that's who it is. We never meant no 'arm, Cap'en. That we didn't. The apples was rotting on the ground, s'h'lp me if they wasn't. Grannie Staples was took to the Union last Wednesday fortnight, and anyone's got the run of her garden since. Don't you let the new parson get us put away, Cap'en. We belongs to the Island—I'm William Jennifer's Tommy, please Cap'en, and 'e's Bobby Sclanders 'e is."
And being cunning, alike by nature and stress of circumstance, they pathetically drooped, blubbering in chorus:
"We never didn't mean no 'arm, Cap'en. Strike me dead if we did."
At which last implied profanity Reginald Sawyer shuddered, loosening his grasp.
Of what followed he could subsequently give no definite account. The dignities of his sacred profession and his self-respect alike reeled ignominiously into chaos. He believed he heard the person, addressed as Captain Darcy, say quietly:
"Cut it, youngsters. Now's your chance."
He felt that both the children violently struggled, and that the round hard head of one of them butted him in the stomach. He divined that sounds of ribald laughter, in the distance, proceeded from the driver of the Marychurch station fly. He knew two small figures raced whooping down the lane attended by squelchings of mud and clatter of heavy soled boots.
Knew, further, that Captain Darcy, after nonchalantly picking up the sack, dropping it within the garden hedge and closing the rickety gate, stood opposite him and quite civilly said:
"I am sorry I could not give you the sort of assistance, sir, which you asked. But the plan would not have worked."
Sawyer boiled over.
"You have compounded a felony and done all that lay in your power to undermine my authority with my parishioners. Fortunately I retain the boys' names and can make further enquiries. This, however, by no means relieves you of the charge of having behaved with reprehensible levity both towards my office and myself."
"No—no," Faircloth returned, goodnaturedly. "Sleep upon it, and you will take an easier view of the transaction. I have saved you from putting unmerited disgrace upon two decent families and getting yourself into hot water up to the neck. I know these Deadham folk better than you do. I'm one of them, you see, myself. They've uncommonly long memories where they're offended, though it may suit them to speak you soft. Take it from me, you'll never hound them into righteousness. They turn as stubborn as so many mules under the whip."
He hailed the waiting flyman.
"Good evening to you, sir," he said. And followed by the carriage, piled with sea-chest and miscellaneous baggage, departed into the mysteriousness of deepening dusk.
Had the young clergyman been willing to leave it at that, all might yet have been well, his ministry at Deadham a prolonged and fruitful one, since his intentions, at least, were excellent. But, as ill-luck would have it, while still heated and sore, every feather on end, his natural combativeness almost passionately on top, turning out in the high-road he encountered Dr. Cripps, faring westward like himself on the way to visit a patient at Lampit. The two joined company, falling into a conversation the more confidential that the increasing darkness gave them a sense of isolation and consequent intimacy.
Of all his neighbours, the doctor—a peppery disappointed man, struggling with a wide-strewn country practice mainly prolific of bad debts, conscious of his own inefficiency and perpetually smarting under imagined injuries and slights—was the very last person to exercise a mollifying influence upon Sawyer in his existing angry humour. The latter recounted and enlarged upon the insults he had just now suffered. His hearer fanned the flame of indignation with comment and innuendo—recognized Faircloth from the description, and proceeded to wash his hands in scandalous insinuation at the young sea-captain's expense.
For example, had not an eye to business dictated the sheltering from justice of those infant, apple-stealing reprobates? Their respective fathers were good customers! The islanders all had the reputation of hard drinkers—and an innkeeper hardly invites occasion to lower his receipts. The inn stood in old Mrs. Faircloth's name, it is true; but the son profited, at all events vicariously, by its prosperity. A swaggering fellow, with an inordinate opinion of his own ability and merits; but in that he shared a family failing. For arrogance and assumption the whole clan was difficult to beat.
"You have heard whose son this young Faircloth is, of course?"
Startled by the question, and its peculiar implication, Reginald Sawyer hesitatingly admitted his ignorance.
The Grey House stands flush with the road, and the two gentlemen finished their conversation upon the doorstep. Above them a welcoming glow shone through the fanlight; otherwise its windows were shuttered and blank.
"This is a matter of common knowledge," Dr. Cripps said; "but one about which, for reasons of policy, or, more truly, of snobbery, it is the fashion to keep silent. So, for goodness' sake, don't give me as your authority if you should ever have occasion to speak of it"—
And lowering his voice he mentioned a name.
"As like as two peas," he added, "when you see them side by side—which, in point of fact, you never do. Oh! I promise you the whole dirty business has been remarkably well engineered—hush-money, I suppose. Sometimes I am tempted to think poverty is the only punishable sin in this world. For those who have a good balance at their bankers there is always a safe way out of even the most disgraceful imbroglios of this sort. But I must be moving on, Mr. Sawyer. I sympathize with your annoyance. You have been very offensively treated. Good night."
The young clergyman remained planted on the doorstep, incapable of ringing the bell and presenting himself to his assiduously attentive hostesses, the Miss Minetts, for the moment.
He was, in truth, indescribably shocked. Deadham presented itself to his mind as a place accursed, a veritable sink of iniquity. High and low alike, its inhabitants were under condemnation.—And he had so enjoyed his tea with the ladies at The Hard. Had been so flattered by their civility, spreading himself in the handsome room, agreeably sensible of its books, pictures, ornaments, and air of cultured leisure.—While behind all that, as he now learned, was this glaring moral delinquency! Never had he been more cruelly deceived. He felt sick with disgust. What callousness, what hypocrisy!—He recalled his disquieting sensations in crossing the warren. Was the very soil of this place tainted, exhaling evil?
He made a return upon himself. For what, after all, was he here for save to let in light and combat evil, to bring home the sense of sin to the inhabitants of this place, convincing them of the hatefulness of the moral slough in which they so revoltingly wallowed. He must slay and spare not. He saw himself as David, squaring up to Goliath, as Christian fighting single-handed against the emissaries of Satan who essayed to defeat his pilgrimage. Yes, he would smite these lawbreakers hip and thigh, whatever their superficial claims to his respect, whatever their worldly position. He would read them all a lesson—that King Log, Canon Horniblow, included.
He at once pitied and admired himself, not being a close critic of his own motives; telling himself he did well to be angry, while ignoring the element of personal pique which gave point and satisfaction to that anger.
He was silent and reserved with the Miss Minetts at supper; and retired early to his own room to prepare a sermon.
BROTHER AND SISTER
Upon the Sunday morning following, Damaris went to the eleven o'clock service alone. Miss Felicia Verity attended church at an earlier hour to-day, partly in the interests of private devotion, partly in those of a person she had warmly befriended in the past, and wanted to befriend in the present—but with delicacy, with tact and due consideration for the susceptibilities of others. She wished earnestly to effect a reconciliation; but not to force it. To force it was to endanger its sincerity and permanence. It should seem to come about lightly, naturally. Therefore did she go out early to perfect her plans—of which more hereafter—as well as to perform her religious duties. Sir Charles Verity was from home, staying with Colonel Carteret for partridge shooting, over the Norfolk stubble-fields. The habit of this annual visit had, for the last two seasons, been in abeyance; but now, with his return to The Hard, was pleasantly revived, although this autumn, owing to business connected with the publication of his book, the visit took place a few weeks later than usual.
Hence did Damaris—arrayed in a russet-red serge gown, black velvet collar and cuffs to its jacket of somewhat manly cut, and a russet-red upstanding plume in her close-fitting black velvet hat—set forth alone to church. This, after redirecting such letters as had arrived for her father by the morning post. One of them bore the embossed arms of the India Office, and signature of the, then, Secretary of State for that department in the corner of the envelope. She looked at it with a measure of respect and curiosity, wondering as to the purport of its contents. She studied the envelope, turning it about in the hope of gleaning enlightenment from its external aspect. Still wondering, slightly oppressed even by a persuasion—of which she could not rid herself—that it held matters of no common moment closely affecting her father, she went out of the house, down the sheltered drive, and through the entrance gates. Here, as she turned inland, the verve of the clear autumn morning rushed on her, along with a wild flurry of falling leaves dancing to the breath of the crisp northerly breeze.
A couple of fine days, with a hint of frost in the valley by night, after a spell of soft mists and wet, sent the leaves down in fluttering multitudes, so that now all trees, save the oaks only, were bare. These—by which the road is, just here, overhung—still solidly clothed in copper, amber and—matching our maiden's gown—in russet-red, offered sturdy defiance to the weather. The sound of them, a dry crowded rustling, had a certain note of courage and faithfulness in it which caused Damaris to wait awhile and listen; yet a wistfulness also, since to her hearing a shudder stirred beneath its bravery, preluding the coming rigours of winter.
And that wistfulness rather strangely enlarged its meaning and area, as the reiterated ting, tang, tong of Deadham's church bells recalled the object of her walk. For English church services, of the parochial variety such as awaited her, had but little, she feared, to give. Little, that is, towards the re-living of those instants of exalted spiritual perception which had been granted to her at distant Avila.
In overstrained and puritanic dread of idolatory, the English Church has gone lamentably far to forfeit its sacramental birthright. It savours too strongly of the school and class-room, basing its appeal upon words, upon spoken expositions, instructive no doubt, but cold, academic. It offers no tangible object of worship to sight or sense. Its so-called altars are empty. Upon them no sacrifice is offered, no presence abidingly dwells. In its teaching the communion of saints and forgiveness of sins are phrases rather than living agencies. Its atmosphere is self-conscious, its would-be solemnity forced.—This, in any case, was how Damaris saw the whole matter—though, let us hasten to add, she was modest enough to question whether the fault might not very well be in herself rather than in our national variant of the Christian Faith. Many sweet, good persons—dear Aunt Felicia among them—appeared to find Anglican ministrations altogether sufficient for their religious needs. But to Damaris those ministrations failed to bring any moment of vision, of complete detachment. She must be to blame, she supposed—which was discouraging, a little outcasting and consequently sad.
In a somewhat pensive spirit she therefore, pursued her way, until, where the prospect widened as she reached the village green, a larger sky disclosed itself flaked with light cirrus cloud. This glory of space, and the daring northerly breeze blowing out from it, sent her fancy flying. It beckoned to journeyings, to far coasts and unknown seas—an offshore wind, filling the sails of convoys outward bound. And, with the thought of ships upon the sea, came the thought of Darcy Faircloth, and that with sharp revolt against the many existing hindrances to his and her intercourse. Freedom seemed abroad this morning. Even the leaves declared for liberty, courting individual adventure upon the wings of that daring wind. And this sense of surrounding activity worked upon Damaris, making her doubly impatient of denials and arbitrary restraints. She sent her soul after Darcy Faircloth across the waste of waters, fondly, almost fiercely seeking him. But her soul refused to travel, curiously turning homeward again, as though aware not the prodigious fields of ocean, nor any loud-voiced foreign port of call, held knowledge of him, but rather the immediate scene, the silver-glinting levels of the Haven and lonely stone-built inn.
Deadham church, originally a chapelry of Marychurch Abbey, crowns a green monticule in the centre of Deadham village, backed by a row of big elms.—A wide, low-roofed structure, patched throughout the course of centuries beyond all unity and precision of design; yet still showing traces of Norman work in the arch of the belfry and in the pillars supporting the rafters of the middle aisle. At the instance of a former vicar, the whole interior received a thick coat of whitewash, alike over plaster and stone. This, at the time in question, had been in places scraped off, bringing to light some mural paintings of considerable interest and antiquity.
In the chancel, upon the gospel side, is a finely-carved tomb, with recumbent figures of an armoured knight and richly-robed lady, whose slippered feet push against the effigy of a particularly alert, sharp-muzzled little hound. The two front pews, in the body of the church, at the foot of the said tomb, are allotted to the owner and household at The Hard. The slender, lively little hound and the two sculptured figures lying, peaceful in death, for ever side by side, touched and captivated Damaris from the first time she set eyes on them. She reverenced and loved them, weaving endless stories about them when, in the tedium of prayer or over-lengthy sermon, her attention, all too often, strayed.
This morning the three bells jangled altogether as she reached the churchyard gate. Then the smallest tolled alone, hurrying stragglers. She was indeed late, the bulk of the congregation already seated, the Canon at the reading-desk and Mrs. Horniblow wheezing forth a voluntary upon the harmonium, when she walked up the aisle.
But, during her brief passage, Damaris could not but observe the largeness of the assembly. An uncommon wave of piety must have swept over the parish this morning! The Battyes and Taylors were present in force. Farmers and tradespeople mustered in impressive array. Even Dr. Cripps—by no means a frequent churchgoer—and his forlorn-looking, red-eyed little wife were there. The Miss Minetts had a lady with them—a plump, short little person, dressed with attempted fashion, whose back struck Damaris as quaintly familiar, she catching a glimpse of it in passing. Most surprising of all, William Jennifer headed a contingent from the Island, crowding the men's free seats to right and left of the west door. An expectancy, moreover, seemed to animate the throng. Then she remembered, the new curate, Reginald Sawyer, had informed her and Miss Felicia two evenings ago when he had called and been bidden to stay to tea, that he would preach for the first time at the eleven o'clock service. So far he had only occupied the pulpit on Sunday afternoons, when a country congregation is liable to be both scanty and somnolent. To-day he would prove himself before the heads of tribes, before the notables. And Damaris wished him well, esteeming him a worthy young man, if somewhat provincial and superfluously pompous.
In the servants' pew directly behind, Mary and Mrs. Cooper were duly ensconced, supported by Mr. Patch, two small male Patches, white-collared and shining with excess of cleanliness, wedged in between him and his stable sub-ordinate Conyers, the groom. The Hard thus made a commendably respectable show, as Damaris reflected with satisfaction.
She stood, she knelt, her prayer book open upon the carved margin of the tomb, the slender crossed legs and paws of the alert little marble dog serving as so often before for bookrest. Canon Horniblow boomed and droned, like some unctuous giant bumble-bee, from the reading-desk. The choir intoned responses from the gallery with liberal diversity of pitch. And presently, alas! Damaris' thoughts began to wander, making flitting excursions right and left. For half-way through the litany some belated worshipper arrived, causing movement in the men's free seats. This oddly disturbed her. Her mind flew again to Faircloth, and the strange impression of her own soul's return declaring this and no other to be his actual neighbourhood. And if it indeed were so?—Damaris thrust back the emotions begotten of that question, as unpermissibly stormy at this time and in this place.
She tried to fix her thoughts wholly upon the office. But, all too soon they sprang aside again, now circling about the enigmatic back beheld in the Miss Minetts' pew. Of whom did that round, dressy little form remind her? Why—why—of Theresa, of course. Not Theresa, genius and saint of Spanish Avila; but Theresa Bilson, her sometime governess-companion of doubtfully amiable memory. She longed to satisfy herself, but could only do so by turning round and looking squarely—a manoeuvre impossible during the prayers, but which might be accomplished later, when the congregation rose to sing the hymn before the sermon.
She must wait. And during that waiting light, rather divertingly, broke in on her. For supposing her belief as to the lady's identity correct, must not dear Aunt Felicia be party to this resurrection? Had not she known, and stolen forth this morning to perfect some innocent plot of peace-making? In furtherance of which she now cunningly remained at home, thus leaving Damaris free to offer renewal of favour or withhold it as she pleased. Was not that deliciously characteristic of Aunt Felicia and her permanent effort to serve two masters—to make everybody happy, and, regardless of conflicting interests, everybody else too?—Well, Damaris was ready to fulfil her wishes. She bore Theresa no ill-will. An inclination to grudge or resentment seemed to her unworthy. Whatever Theresa's tiresomenesses, they were over and done with, surely, quite immensely long ago.
The hymn given out and the tune of it played through, the assembly scraped and rustled to its feet. Damaris standing, in height overtopping her neighbours, discreetly turned her head. Let her eyes rest an instant, smiling, upon the upturned polished countenances of the two small Patches—shyly watching her—and then seek a more distant goal. Yes, veritably Theresa Bilson in the flesh—very much in the flesh, full of face and plump of bosom, gold-rimmed glasses gleaming, her mouth opened wide in song. It was a little astonishing to see her so unchanged. For how much had happened since the day of that choir-treat, at Harchester, which marked her deposition, the day of Damaris' sleep in the sunshine and awakening in the driving wet out on the Bar.—The day wherein so much began, and so much ended, slashed across and across with an extravagance of lasting joy and lasting pain!—In the sense of it all Damaris lost herself a little, becoming forgetful of her existing situation. She looked past, over Theresa and beyond.
At the extreme end of the church, in the last of the free seats where the light from the west door streamed inward, a man's figure detached itself with singular distinctness from the background of whitewashed wall. He, too, overtopped his fellows, and that by several inches. And from the full length of the building, across the well-filled benches, his glance sought and met that of Damaris, and held it in fearless, high security of affection not to be gainsaid.
The nice, clean-shining little Patches, still watching shyly out of their brown, glossy, mouse-like eyes, to their extreme mystification saw the colour flood Damaris' face, saw her lips tremble and part as in prelude to happy speech. Then saw her grow very pale, and, turning away, clutch at the head of the alert little hound. Mrs. Cooper delivered herself of a quite audible whisper to the effect—"that Miss Damaris was took faint-like, as she feared." And Mary leaned forward over the front of the pew in quick anxiety. But our maiden's weakness was but passing. She straightened herself, stood tall and proudly again, looking at the knight and his lady lying so peacefully side by side upon their marble couch. She gathered them into her gladness—they somehow sympathized, she felt, in her present sweet and poignant joy. Her soul had known best, had been right in its homing—since Faircloth was here—was here.
That sweet, poignant joy flooded her, so that she wordlessly gave thanks and praise. He was in life—more, was within sight of her, hearing the same sounds, breathing the same air. Across the short dividing space, spirit had embraced spirit. He claimed her.—Had not his will, indeed, far more than any curiosity regarding the identity of poor, plump little Theresa, compelled her to look around?
She demanded nothing further, letting herself dwell in a perfection of content—without before or after—possible only to the pure in heart and to the young.
The hymn concluded, Damaris knelt, while Reginald Sawyer, having mounted into the pulpit, read the invocation; mechanically rose from her knees with the rest, and disposed herself in the inner corner of the pew, sitting sideways so that her left hand might rest upon the carven marble margin of the tomb. She liked touch of it still, in the quietude of her great content, cherishing a pretty fancy of the knight and his lady's sympathy and that also of their sprightly little footstool dog.
Otherwise she was deaf to outward things, deliciously oblivious, wrapped away sweetly within herself. Hence she quite failed to notice how awkwardly Sawyer stumbled, treading on the fronts of his long surplice when going up the pulpit stairs. How he fumbled with his manuscript as he flattened it out on the cushioned desk. Or how husky was his voice, to the point of the opening sentences being almost inaudible. The young clergyman suffered, indeed, so it appeared, from a painfully excessive fit of nervousness. All this she missed, not awakening from her state of blissful trance until the sermon had been under way some good five to ten minutes.
Her awakening even then was gradual. It was also unpleasant. It began in vague and uneasy suspicion of something unusual and agitating toward. In consciousness of a hushed and strained attention, very foreign to the customary placid, not to say bovine, indifference of the ordinary country congregation. The preacher's voice was audible enough now, in good truth, though still under insufficient control. It roared, cracked upward, approaching a scream. Sentences trod on one another's heels, so rapid was his delivery; or bumped and jolted so overlaid was it with emphasis. He, dealt in ugly words, too—"lies, drunkenness, theft, profanity;" and worse still, "uncleanness, adultery, carnal debauchery." For not venial sins only, but mortal sins likewise were rife in Deadham, as he averred, matters of common knowledge and everyday occurrence—tolerated if not openly encouraged, callously winked at. The public conscience could hardly be said to exist, so indurated was it, so moribund through lack of stimulation and through neglect. Yet such wickedness, sooner or later, must call down the vengeance of an offended God. It would be taken upon these lawbreakers. Here or hereafter these evil-livers would receive the chastisement their deeds invited and deserved. Let no man deceive himself. God is just. He is also very terrible in judgment. Hell yawns for the impenitent.
Breathless, he paused; and a subdued sigh, an instinctive shuffling of feet ran through the assembly.—Yet these were but generalities after all, often heard before, when you came to think, though seldom so forcibly put. Every man made liberal gift of such denunciations to his neighbours, rather than applied their lesson to himself. But Reginald Sawyer was merely gathering energy, gathering courage for more detailed assault. He felt nervous to the verge of collapse—a new and really horrible experience. His head was hot, his feet cold. The temptation simply and crudely to give in, bundle down the pulpit stairs and bolt, was contemptibly great. His eyesight played tricks on him. Below there, in the body of the church, the rows of faces ran together into irregular pink blots spread meaninglessly above the brown of the oaken pews, the brown, drab, and black, too, of their owners' Sunday best. Here and there a child's light frock or white hat intruded upon the prevailing neutral tints; as did, in a startling manner, Damaris Verity's russet-red plume and suit.
Time and again, since he began his sermon, had that dash of rich colour drawn his reluctant attention. He recoiled from, oddly dreaded it—now more than ever, since to him it rather mercilessly focussed the subject and impending climax of his denunciatory address.
The pause began to affect the waiting congregation, which stirred uneasily. Some one coughed. And Sawyer was a sufficiently practised speaker to know that, once you lose touch with an audience, it is next to impossible successfully to regain your ascendency over it. Unless he was prepared to accept ignominious defeat he must brace himself, or it would be too late. He abominated defeat. Therefore, summoning all his native combativeness, he took his own fear by the throat, straightened his manuscript upon the desk, and vehemently broke forth into speech.
—Did his hearers deny or doubt the truth of his assertions, suppose that he spoke at random, or without realization of the heavy responsibility he incurred in advancing such accusations? They were in error, so he told them. He advanced no accusations which he could not justify by examples chosen from among themselves, from among residents in this parish. He would be false to his duty both to them—his present audience—and to his and their Creator, were he to abstain from giving those examples out of respect of persons. Other occupants of this pulpit might have—he feared had—allowed worldly considerations to influence and silence them.
A nasty cut this, at the poor vicar-canon, increasingly a prey to distracted fidgets, sitting helpless in the chancel.
But of such pusillanimity, such time-serving, he—Reginald Sawyer—scorned to be guilty. The higher placed the sinner, the more heinous the sin.—He would deal faithfully with all, since not only was the salvation of each one in jeopardy, but his own salvation was in peril likewise, inasmuch as, at the dread Last Assize, he would be required to give account of his stewardship in respect of this sinful place.
Thus far Damaris had listened in deepening distaste. Surely the young man very much magnified his office, was in manner exaggerated, in matter aggressive and verbose? Notwithstanding its attempted solemnity and heat, his sermon seemed to be conventional, just a "way of talking," and a conceited one at that. But, as he proceeded to set forth his promised examples of local ill-living, distaste passed into bewilderment and finally into a sense of outrage, blank and absolute. He named no names, and wrapped his statements up in Biblical language. Yet they remained suggestive and significant enough. He spoke, surely, of those whose honour was dearest to her, whom she boundlessly loved. Under plea of rebuking vice, he laid bare the secrets, violated the sanctities of their private lives. Yet was not that incredible? All decencies of custom and usage forbade it, stamped such disclosure as unpermissible, fantastic. He must be mad, or she herself mad, mishearing, misconceiving him.
"Adulterous father, bastard son—publican sheltering youthful offenders from healthy punishment in the interests of personal gain."—Of that last she made nothing, failed to follow it. But the rest?—
It was true, too. But not as he represented it, all its tragic beauty, all the nobleness which tempered and, in a measure at least, discounted the great wrong of it, stripped away—leaving it naked, torn from its setting, without context and so without perspective. Against this not only her tenderness, but sense of justice, passionately fought. He made it monstrous and, in that far, untrue, as caricature is untrue, crying aloud for explanation and analysis. Yet who could explain? Circumstances of time and place rendered all protest impossible. Nothing could be done, nothing said. Thus her beloved persons were exposed, judged, condemned unheard, without opportunity of defence.
And realizing this, realizing redress hopelessly barred, she cowered down, her head bowed, almost to the level of the marble couch whereon the figures of knight and lady reposed in the high serenity of love and death. Happier they than she, poor child, for her pride trailed in the dust, her darling romance of brother and sister and all the rare pieties of her heart, defiled by a shameful publicity, exposed for every Tom, Dick and Harry to paw over and sneer at!
Horror of a crowd, which watches the infliction of some signal disgrace, tormented her imagination, moreover, to the temporary breaking of her spirit. Whether that crowd was, in the main, hostile or sympathetic mattered nothing. The fact that it silently sat there, silently observed, made every member of it, for the time, her enemy. Even the trusted servants just behind, comfortable comely Mary, soft Mrs. Cooper, the devoted Patch, were hateful to her as the rest. Their very loyalty—which she for no instant doubted—went only to fill the cup of her humiliation to the brim.
Reginald Sawyer's voice continued; but what he said now she neither heard nor cared. Her martyrdom could hardly suffer augmentation, the whole world seemed against her, she set apart, pilloried.—But not alone. Faircloth was set apart, pilloried, also. And remembering this, her courage revived. The horror of the crowd lifted. For herself she could not fight; but for him she could fight, with strength and conviction, out of the greatness of her love for him, out of her recognition that the ignominy inflicted upon him was more bitter, more cruel, than any inflicted upon her. For those who dare, in a moment the worst can turn best.—She would make play with the freedom which this breach of convention, of social reticence, of moral discretion, conferred upon her. The preacher had gone far in demolition. She would go as far, and further, in construction, in restitution. Would openly acknowledge the bond which joined Faircloth to her and to her people, by openly claiming his protection now, in this hour of her disgrace and supreme dismay. She would offer no excuse, no apology. Only there should be no more attempted concealment or evasion of the truth on her part, no furtiveness in his and her relation. Once and for all she would make her declaration, cry it from the house-top in fearless yet tender pride.
Damaris stood up, conspicuous in her red dress amid that rather drab assembly as a leaping flame. She turned about, fronting the perplexed and agitated congregation, her head carried high, her face austere for all its youthful softness, an heroic quality, something, indeed, superlative and grandiose in her bearing and expression, causing a shrinking in those who saw her and a certain sense of awe.
Her eyes sought Faircloth again. Found him, and unfalteringly spoke with him, bidding him claim her as she, claimed him, bidding him come. Which bidding he obeyed; and that at the same rather splendid level of sentiment, worthily sustaining her abounding faith in him. For a touch of the heroic and superlative was present in his bearing and expression, also, as he came up the church between the well-filled pews—these tenanted, to left and right, by some who figured in his daily life, figured in his earliest recollections, by others, newcomers, to him, even by sight, barely known; yet each and all, irrespective of age, rank, and position, affecting his outlook and mental atmosphere in some particular, as every human personality does and must, with whom one's life, ever so transiently, is thrown. Had he had time to consider them, this cloud of witnesses might have proved disturbing even to his masterful will and steady nerve. But he had not time. There was for him—so perfectly—the single object, the one searching yet lovely call to answer, the one act to be performed.
Reaching the front pew upon the gospel side, Darcy Faircloth took Damaris' outstretched hand. He looked her in the eyes, his own worshipful, ablaze at once with a great joy and a great anger; and then led her back, down the length of the aisle, through the west door into the liberty of the sunshine and the crisp northerly wind outside.
Standing here, the houses and trees of the village lay below them. The whole glinting expanse of the Haven was visible right up to the town of Marychurch gathered about its long-backed Abbey, whose tower, tall and in effect almost spectral, showed against the purple ridges of forest and moorland beyond. Over the salt marsh in the valley, a flock of plovers dipped and wheeled, their backs and wide flapping wings black, till, in turning, their breasts and undersides flashed into snow and pearl.
And because brother and sister, notwithstanding diversities of upbringing and of station, were alike children of the open rather than of cities, born to experiment, to travel and to seafaring round this ever-spinning globe, they instinctively took note of the extensive, keen though sun-gilded prospect—before breaking silence and giving voice to the emotion which possessed them—and, in so doing, found refreshment and a brave cleansing to their souls.
Still holding Faircloth's hand, and still silent, her shoulder touching his now and again in walking, Damaris went down the sloping path, hoary lichen-stained head-and-foot stones set in the vivid churchyard grass—as yet unbleached by the cold of winter—on either side. The sense of his strength, of the fine unblemished vigour of his young manhood, here close beside her—so strangely her possession and portion of her natural inalienable heritage—filled her with confident security and with a restful, wondering calm. So that the shame publicly put on her to shed its bitterness, her horror of the watching crowd departed, fading out into unreality. Though still shaken, still quivering inwardly from the ordeal of the past hour, she already viewed that shame and horror as but accidents to be lived down and disregarded, by no means as essential elements in the adventurous and precious whole. Presently they would altogether lose their power to wound and to distress her, while this freedom and the closer union, gained by means of them, continued immutable and fixed.
It followed that, when in opening the churchyard gate and holding it back for her to pass, Faircloth perforce let go her hand and, the spell of contact severed, found himself constrained to speak at last, saying:
"You know you have done a mighty splendid, dangerous thing—no less than burned your boats—and that in the heat of generous impulse, blind, perhaps—I can't but fear so—to the heavy cost."
Damaris could interrupt him, with quick, sweet defiance:
"But there is no cost!"
And, to drive home the sincerity of her disclaimer, and further reassure him, she took his hand again and held it for an instant close against her bosom, tears and laughter together present in her eyes.
"Ah! you beautiful dear, you beautiful dear," Faircloth cried, brokenly, as in pain, somewhat indeed beside himself. "Before God, I come near blessing that blatant young fool and pharisee of a parson since he has brought me to this."
Then he put her a little way from him, penetrated by fear lest the white love which—in all honour and reverence—he was bound to hold her in, should flush ever so faintly, red.
"For, after all, it is up to me," he said, more to himself than to her, "to make very sure there isn't, and never—by God's mercy—shall be, any cost."
And with that—for the avoidance of the congregation, now streaming rather tumultuously out of church—they went on across the village green, hissed at by slow waddling, hard-eyed, most conceited geese, to the lane which leads down to the causeway and warren skirting the river-bank.
WHEREIN MISS FELICIA VERITY CONCLUSIVELY SHOWS WHAT SPIRIT SHE IS OF
Her attraction consisted in her transparency, in the eager simplicity with which she cast her home-made nets and set her innocuous springes. To-day Miss Felicia was out to wing the Angel of Peace, and crowd that celestial messenger into the arms of Damaris and Theresa Bilson collectively and severally. Such was the major interest of the hour. But, for Miss Felicia the oncoming of middle-age by no means condemned the lesser pleasures of life to nullity. Hence the minor interest of the hour centred in debate as to whether or not the thermometer justified her wearing a coat of dark blue silk and cloth, heavily trimmed with ruchings and passementerie, reaching to her feet. A somewhat sumptuous garment this, given her by Sir Charles and Damaris last winter in Madrid. She fancied herself in it greatly, both for the sake of the dear donors, and because the cut of it was clever, disguising the over-narrowness of her maypole-like figure and giving her a becoming breadth and fulness.
She decided in favour of the coveted splendour; and at about a quarter-past twelve strolled along the carriage-drive on her way to the goose green and the village street. There, or thereabouts, unless her plot lamentably miscarried, she expected to meet her niece and that niece's ex-governess-companion, herded in amicable converse by the pinioned Angel of Peace. Her devious and discursive mind fluttered to and fro, meanwhile, over a number of but loosely connected subjects.
Of precisely what, upon a certain memorable occasion, had taken place between her brother, Sir Charles, and poor Theresa—causing the latter to send up urgent signals of distress to which she, Miss Felicia, instantly responded—she still was ignorant. Theresa had, she feared, been just a wee bit flighty, leaving Damaris unattended while herself mildly gadding. But such dereliction of duty was insufficient to account for the arbitrary fashion in which she had been sent about her business, literally—the word wasn't pretty—chucked out! Miss Felicia always suspected there must be something, she would say worse—it sounded harsh—but something more than merely that. Her interpretations of peculiar conduct were liable to run in terms of the heart. Had Theresa, poor thing, by chance formed a hopeless attachment?—Hopeless, of course, almost ludicrously so; yet what more natural, more comprehensible, Charles being who and what he was? Not that he would, in the faintest degree, lend himself to such misplaced affection. Of that he was incapable. The bare idea was grotesque. He, of course, was guiltless. But, assuming there was a feeling on Theresa's side, wasn't she equally guiltless? She could not help being fascinated.—Thus Miss Felicia was bound to acquit both. Alike they left the court without a stain on their respective characters.
Not for worlds would she ever dream of worrying Charles by attempting to reintroduce poor Theresa to his notice. But with Damaris it was different. The idea that any persons of her acquaintance were at sixes and sevens, on bad terms, when, with a little good will on their part and tactful effort upon hers, they might be on pleasant ones was to her actively afflicting. To drop an old friend, or even one not conspicuously friendly if bound to you by associations and habit, appeared to her an offence against corporate humanity, an actual however fractional lowering of the temperature of universal charity. The loss to one was a loss to all—in some sort. Therefore did she run to adjust, to smooth, to palliate.
Charles was away—it so neatly happened—and Theresa Bilson here, not, it must be owned, altogether without Miss Felicia's connivance. If darling Damaris still was possessed of a hatchet she must clearly be given, this opportunity to bury it. To have that weapon safe underground would be, from every point of view, so very much nicer.
At this point in her meditations beneath the trees bordering the carriage drive, their bare tops swaying in the breeze and bright sunshine, Miss Felicia fell to contrasting the present exhilarating morning with that dismally rainy one, just over three years ago, when—regardless of her sister, Mrs. Cowden's remonstrances—she had come here from Paulton Lacy in response to Theresa's signals of distress. Just at the elbow of the drive, so she remembered, she had met a quite astonishingly good-looking young man, brown-gold bearded, his sou'wester and oilskins shining with wet. She vaguely recalled some talk about him with her brother, Sir Charles, afterwards during luncheon.—What was it?—Oh! yes, of course, it was he who had rescued Damaris when she was lost out on the Bar, and brought her home down the tide-river by boat. She had often wanted to know more about him, for he struck her at the time as quite out of the common, quite remarkably attractive. But on the only occasion since when she had mentioned the subject, Damaris drew in her horns and became curiously uncommunicative. It was all connected, of course, with the dear girl's illness and the disagreeable episode of Theresa's dismissal.—How all the more satisfactory, then, that the Theresa business, in any case, was at this very hour in process of being set right! Miss Felicia had advised Theresa how to act—to speak to Damaris quite naturally and affectionately, taking her good-will for granted. Damaris would be charming to her, she felt convinced.
Felicia Verity held the fronts of her long blue coat together, since the wind sported with them rather roughly, and went forward with her quick, wavering gait.
It was a pity Damaris did not marry she sometimes felt. Of course, Charles would miss her quite terribly. Their love for one another was so delightful, so really unique. On his account she was glad.—And yet—with a sigh, while the colour in her thin cheeks heightened a little—lacking marriage a woman's life is rather incomplete. Not that she herself had reason for complaint, with all the affection showered upon her! The last two years, in particular, had been abundantly blessed thanks to Charles and Damaris. She admired them, dear people, with all her warm heart and felt very grateful to them.
Here it should be registered, in passing, that the resilience of Felicia Verity's inherent good-breeding saved her gratitude from any charge of grovelling, as it saved her many enthusiasms from any charge of sloppiness. Both, if exaggerated, still stood squarely, even gallantly upon their feet.
Her mind switched back to the ever fertile question of the married and the single state. She often wondered why Charles never espoused a second wife. He would have liked a son surely? But then, were it possible to find a fault in him, it would be that of a little coldness, a little loftiness in his attitude towards women. He was too far above them in intellect and experience, she supposed, and through all the remarkable military commands he had held, administrative posts he had occupied, quite to come down to their level. In some ways Damaris was very like him—clever, lofty too at moments. Possibly this accounted for her apparent indifference to affairs of the heart and to lovers. Anyhow, she had ample time before her still in relation to all that.
Miss Felicia passed into the road. About fifty yards distant she saw the servants—Mary, Mrs. Cooper and Patch—standing close together in a quaint, solemn, little bunch. The two small Patches circled round the said bunch, patiently expectant, not being admitted evidently to whatever deliberations their elders and betters had in hand.
Felicia Verity's relations with the servants were invariably excellent. Yet, finding them in mufti, outside the boundaries of her brother's demesne thus, she was conscious of a certain modesty, hesitating alike to intrude upon their confabulations and to pass onward without a trifle amiable of talk. She advanced, smiling, nodded to the two women, then—
"A delicious day, isn't it, Patch?" she said, adding, for lack of a more pertinent remark—"What kind of sermon did the new curate, Mr. Sawyer, give you?—A good one, I hope?"
A pause followed this guileless question, during which Mary looked on the ground, Mrs. Cooper murmured: "Oh! dear, oh, dear!" under her breath, and Patch swallowed visibly before finding voice to reply:
"One, I regret to say, ma'am, he never ought to have preached."
"Poor young man!" she laughed it off. "You're a terribly severe critic, I'm afraid, Patch. Probably he was nervous."
"And reason enough. You might think Satan himself stood at his elbow, the wicked things he said."
This statement, coming from the mild and cow-like Mrs. Cooper, caused Felicia Verity the liveliest surprise. She glanced enquiringly from one to the other of the little group, reading constraint and hardly repressed excitement in the countenance of each. Their aspect and behaviour struck her, in fact, as singular to the point of alarm.
"Mary," she asked, a trifle breathlessly, "has anything happened? Where is Miss Damaris?"
"Hadn't she got back to The Hard, ma'am, before you came out?"
"No—why should she? You and the other servants always reach home first."
"Miss Damaris went out before the rest," Mrs. Cooper broke forth in dolorous widowed accents. "And no wonder, pore dear young lady, was it, Mr. Patch? My heart bled for her, ma'am, that it did."
Miss Felicia, gentle and eager, so pathetically resembling yet not resembling her famous brother, grew autocratic, stern as him almost, for once.
"And you allowed Miss Damaris to leave church alone—she felt unwell, I suppose—none of you accompanied her? I don't understand it at all," she said.
"Young Captain Faircloth went out with Miss Damaris. She wished it, ma'am," Mary declared, heated and resentful at the unmerited rebuke. "She as good as called to him to come and take her out of church. It wasn't for us to interfere, so we held back."
"Captain Faircloth? But this becomes more and more extraordinary! Who is Captain Faircloth?"
"Ah! there you touch it, you must excuse my saying, ma'am." Mrs. Cooper gasped.
But at this juncture, Patch, rising to the height of masculine responsibility, flung himself gallantly—and how unwillingly—into the breach. He was wounded in his respect and respectability alike, wounded for the honour of the family whom he had so long and faithfully served. He was fairly cut to the quick—while these three females merely darkened judgment by talking all at cross purposes and all at once. Never had the solid, honest coachman found himself in a tighter or, for that matter, in anything like so tight a place. But, looking in the direction of the village, black of clothing, heavy of walk and figure, he espied, as he trusted, approaching help.
"If you please, ma'am," he said, touching his black bowler as he spoke, "I see Canon Horniblow coming along the road. I think it would be more suitable for him to give you an account of what has passed. He'll know how to put it with—with the least unpleasantness to all parties. It isn't our place—Mrs. Cooper's, Mary's, or mine—if you'll pardon my making so free with my opinion, to mention any more of what's took place."
Felicia Verity, now thoroughly frightened, darted forward. The fronts of her blue coat again flew apart, and that rich garment stood out in a prodigious frill around and behind her from the waist, as she leaned on the wind, almost running in her agitation and haste.
"My dear Canon," she cried, "I am in such anxiety. I learn something has happened to my niece, who I had come to meet. Our good servants are so distractingly mysterious. They refer me to you. Pray relieve my uncertainty and suspense."
But, even while she spoke, Miss Felicia's anxiety deepened, for the kindly, easy-going clergyman appeared to suffer, like the servants, from some uncommon shock. His large fleshy nose and somewhat pendulous cheeks were a mottled, purplish red. Anger and deprecation struggled in his glance.
"I was on my way to The Hard," he began, "to express my regrets—offer my apologies would hardly be too strong a phrase—to your niece, Miss Verity, and to yourself. For I felt compelled, without any delay, to dissociate myself from the intemperate procedure of my colleague—of my curate. He has used, or rather misused, his official position, has grievously misused the privileges of the pulpit—the pulpit of our parish church—to attack the reputation of private individuals and resuscitate long-buried scandals."
The speaker was, unquestionably, greatly distressed. Miss Felicia, though more than ever bewildered, felt for him warmly. It pained her excessively to observe how his large hands clasped and unclasped, how his loose lips worked.
"Let me assure you," he went on, "though I trust that is superfluous—"
"I am certain it is, dear Dr. Horniblow," she feelingly declared.
"Thanks," he replied. "You are most kind, most indulgent to me, Miss Verity.—Superfluous, I would say, to assure you that my colleague adopted this deplorable course without my knowledge or sanction. He sprang it on me like a bomb-shell. As a Christian my conscience, as a gentleman my sense of fair play, condemns his action."
"Yes—yes—I sympathize.—I am convinced you are incapable of any indiscretion, any unkindness, in the pulpit or out of it. But why, my dear Canon, apologize to us? How can this unfortunate sermon affect me or my niece? How can the scandal you hint at in any respect concern us?"
"Because," he began, that mottling of purple increasingly deforming his amiable face.—And there words failed him, incontinently he stuck. He detested strong language, but—heavens and earth—how could he put it to her, as she gazed at him with startled, candid eyes, innocent of guile as those of a babe? Only too certainly no word had reached her of the truth. The good man groaned in spirit for, like Patch, he found himself in a place of quite unexampled tightness, and with no hope of shunting the immense discomfort of it on to alien shoulders such as had been granted the happier Patch.
"Because," he began again, only to suffer renewed agony of wordlessness. In desperation he shifted his ground.
"You have heard, perhaps, that your niece, Miss Damaris, left the church before the conclusion of the sermon? I do not blame her"—
He waved a fatherly hand. Miss Verity acquiesced.
"Or rather was led out by—by Captain Faircloth—a young officer in the mercantile marine, whose abilities and successful advance in his profession this village has every reason to respect."
He broke off.
"Let us walk on towards The Hard. Pray let us walk on.—Has no rumour ever reached you, Miss Verity, regarding this young man?"
The wildest ideas flitted through Miss Felicia's brain.
—The figure in shiny oilskins—yet preposterous, surely?—After all, an affair of the heart—misplaced affection—Damaris?—Did this account for the apparent indifference?
—How intensely interesting; yet how unwise.—How—but she must keep her own counsel. The wind, now at her back, glued the blue coat inconveniently against and even between her legs, unceremoniously whisking her forward.
"Rumours—oh, none," she protested.
"None?" he echoed despairingly. "Pray let us walk on."
A foolish urgency on his part this, she felt, since she was already almost on the run.
"None that, by birth, Captain Faircloth is somewhat nearly related to your family—to your—your brother, Sir Charles, in fact?"
There, the incubus was off his straining chest at last! He felt easier, capable of manipulating the situation to some extent, smoothing down its rather terrible ascerbities.
"Such connections do," he hastened to add, "as we must regretfully admit, exist even in the highest, the most exalted circles. Irregularities of youth, doubtlessly deeply repented of. I repeat sins of youth, at which only the sinless—and they, alas! to the shame of my sex are lamentably few—can be qualified to cast a stone.—You, you follow me?"
"You mean me to understand"—
"Yes, yes—exactly so—to understand that this young man is reputed to be"—
"Thank you, my dear Canon—thank you," Felicia Verity here interposed quickly, yet with much simple dignity, for on a sudden she became singularly unflurried and composed.
"I do, I believe, follow you," she continued.—"You have discharged your difficult mission with a delicacy and consideration for which I am grateful; but I am unequal to discussing the subject in further detail just now.—To me, you know, my brother is above criticism. Whatever incidents may—may belong to former years, I accept without cavil or question, in silence—dear Dr. Horniblow—in silence. His wishes upon this matter—should he care to confide them to me—and those of my niece, will dictate my conduct to—towards my nephew, Captain Faircloth.—Believe me, in all sincerity, I thank you. I am very much indebted to you for the information you have communicated to me. It simplifies my position. And now," she gave him her hand, "will you pardon my asking you to leave me?"
Walking slowly—for he felt played out, pretty thoroughly done for, as he put it, and beat—back to the vicarage and his belated Sunday dinner:—
"And of such are the Kingdom of Heaven," James Horniblow said to himself—perhaps truly.
He also said other things, distinctly other things, in which occurred the name of Reginald Sawyer whose days as curate of Deadham were numbered. If he did not resign voluntarily, well then, pressure must, very certainly, be employed to make him resign.
Meanwhile that blue-coated, virginal member of the Kingdom of Heaven sped homeward at the top of her speed. She was conscious of immense upheaval. Never had she felt so alive, so on the spot. The portals of highest drama swung wide before her. She hastened to enter and pour forth the abounding treasures of her sympathy at the feet of the actors in this most marvellous piece. That her own part in it must be insignificant, probably not even a speaking one, troubled her not the least. She was out for them, not for herself. It was, also, characteristic of Miss Felicia that she felt in nowise shocked. Not the ethical, still less the social aspects of the drama affected her, but only its human ones. These dear people had suffered, and she hadn't known it. They suffered still. She enclosed them in arms of compassion.—If to the pure all things are pure, Felicia Verity's purity at this juncture radiantly stood the test. And that, not through puritanical shutting of the eyes or juggling with fact. As she declared to Canon Horniblow, she accepted the incident without question or cavil—for her brother. For herself, any possibility of stepping off the narrow path of virtue, and exploring the alluring, fragrant thickets disposed to left of it and to right, had never, ever so distantly, occurred to her.
She arrived at The Hard with a bright colour and beating heart. Crossed the hall and waited at the drawing-room door. A man's voice was audible within, low-toned and grave, but very pleasant. It reminded her curiously of Charles—Charles long ago on leave from India, lightening the heavy conventionalities of Canton Magna with his brilliant, enigmatic, and—to her—all too fugitive presence. Harriet had never really appreciated Charles—though she was dazzled by his fame at intervals—didn't really appreciate him to this day. Well, the loss was hers and the gain indubitably Felicia's, since the elder sister's obtuseness had left the younger sister a free field.—At thought of which Felicia softly laughed.
Again she listened to the man's voice—her brother Charles's delightful young voice. It brought back the glamour of her girlhood, of other voices which had mingled with his, of dances, picnics, cricket matches, days with the hounds. She felt strangely moved, transported; also strangely shy—so that she debated retirement. Did not, of course, retire, but went into the drawing-room with a gentle rush, a dart between the stumpy pillars.
"I hoped that I should find you both," she said. "Yes," to Damaris' solemn and enquiring eyes—"I happened to meet our good, kind Canon and have a little conversation with him. I hope"—to Faircloth—"you and I may come to know one another better, know one another as friends. You are not going?—No, indeed, you must stay to luncheon. It would grieve me—and I think would grieve my brother Charles also, if you refused to break bread in this house."
DEALING WITH EMBLEMS, OMENS AND DEMONSTRATIONS
Deadham resembled most country parishes in this, that, while revelling in internal dissensions, when attacked from without its inhabitants promptly scrapped every vendetta and, for the time being, stood back to back against the world.
As one consequence of such parochial solidarity, the village gentry set in a steady stream towards The Hard on the Monday afternoon following the historic Sunday already chronicled. Commander and Mrs. Battye called. Captain and Mrs. Taylor called, bringing with them their daughter Louisa, a tight-lipped, well instructed High School mistress, of whom her parents stood—one couldn't but notice it—most wholesomely in awe. As is the youthful cuckoo in the nest of the hedge sparrow, so was Louisa Taylor to the authors of her being.—Mrs. Horniblow called also, flanked by her two girls, May and Doris—plain, thick-set, energetic, well-meaning young persons, whom their shrewd mother loved, sheltered, rallied, and cherished, while perfectly aware of their limitations as to beauty and to brains. Immediately behind her slipped in Mrs. Cripps. The doctor abstained, conscious of having put a match to the fuse which had exploded yesterday's astounding homiletic torpedo. The whole affair irritated him to the point of detestable ill-temper. Still, if only to throw dust in the public eye, the house of Cripps must be represented. He therefore deputed the job—like so many another ungrateful one—to his forlorn-looking and red-eyed spouse. This vote of confidence, if somewhat crudely proposed and seconded, was still so evidently sincere and kindly meant that Damaris and Miss Felicia felt constrained to accept it in good part.
Conversation ran upon the weather, the crops, the migratory wild fowl now peopling the Haven, the Royal Family—invariably a favourite topic this, in genteel circles furthest removed from the throne—in anecdotes of servants and of pets interspersed with protests against the rise in butcher Cleave's prices, the dullness of the newspapers and the surprising scarcity of eggs.—Ran on any and every subject, in short, save that of sermons preached by curates enamoured of the Decalogue.
Alone—saving and excepting Dr. Cripps—did the Miss Minetts fail to put in an appearance. This of necessity, since had not they, figuratively speaking, warmed the viper in their bosoms, cradled the assassin upon their hearth? They were further handicapped, in respect of any demonstration, by the fact of Theresa Bilson's presence in their midst. Owing to the general combustion, Miss Felicia and the Peace Angel's joint mission had gone by the wall. Theresa was still an exile from The Hard, and doomed to remain so as the event proved. With that remarkable power—not uncommon in her sex—of transmuting fact, granted the healing hand of time, from defeat to personal advantage, she had converted her repulse by Sir Charles Verity into a legend of quite flattering quality. She had left The Hard because—But—
"She must not be asked to give chapter and verse. The position had been extremely delicate. Even now she could barely speak of it—she had gone through too much. To be more explicit"—she bridled—"would trench upon the immodest, almost. But just this she could say—she withdrew from The Hard three years ago, because she saw withdrawal would be best for others. Their peace of mind had been her object."
The above guarded confidences the Miss Minetts, hanging upon her lips, received with devout admiration and fully believed. And, the best of it was, Theresa had come by now, thanks to frequent rehearsal, fully to believe this version herself. At the present juncture it had its convenience, since she could declare her allegiance to her former employer unimpaired. Thereby was she at liberty to join in the local condemnation of Reginald Sawyer and his sermon. She did so with an assumption of elegant, if slightly hysterical, omniscience. This was not without its practical side. She regretted her inability to meet him at meals. In consequence the Miss Minetts proposed he should be served in his own sitting-room, until such time as it suited him to find another place of residence than the Grey House. For their allegiance went on all fours with Theresa's. It was also unimpaired. Propriety had been outraged on every hand; matters, heretofore deemed unmentionable, rushed into the forefront of knowledge and conversation; yet never had they actually enjoyed themselves so greatly. The sense of being a storm centre—inasmuch as they harboured the viper assassin—produced in them an unexampled militancy. Latent sex-antagonism revealed itself. The man, by common consent was down; and, being down, the Miss Minetts jumped on him, pounded him, if terms so vulgar are permissible in respect for ladies so refined. For every sin of omission, committed against their womanhood by the members of his sex, they made him scapegoat—unconsciously it is true, but effectively none the less. From being his slaves they became his tormentors. Never was young fellow more taken aback. Such revulsions of human feeling are instructive—deplorable or diverting according as you view it.
Meanwhile that portion of the local gentry aforesaid, whom awkward personal predicament—as in the case of Dr. Cripps and the Miss Minetts—did not preclude from visiting The Hard, having called early on Monday afternoon also left early, being anxious to prove their civility of purest water, untainted by self-seeking, by ulterior greed of tea and cakes. It followed that Damaris found herself relieved of their somewhat embarrassed, though kindly and well-intentioned, presence before sunset. And of this she was glad, since the afternoon had been fruitful of interests far more intimate and vital in character.
While Captain and Mrs. Taylor, with their highly superior offspring Louisa, still held the floor, Damaris received a telegram from her father announcing a change of plans involving his immediate return.
"Send to meet the seven-thirty at Marychurch," so the pink paper instructed her. "Carteret comes with me. When we arrive will explain."
On reception of the above, her first thought was of the letter forwarded yesterday from the India Office, bearing the signature of the Secretary of State. And close on the heels of that thought, looking over its shoulder, indeed, in the effort—which she resisted—to claim priority, was the thought of the dear man with the blue eyes about to be a guest, once again, under this roof. This gave her a little thrill, a little gasp, wrapping her away to the borders of sad inattention to Louisa Taylor's somewhat academic discourse.—The girl's English was altogether too grammatical for entire good-breeding. In that how very far away from Carteret's!—Damaris tried to range herself with present company. But the man with the blue eyes indubitably held the centre of the stage. She wore the pearls to-day he gave her at St. Augustin. In what spirit did he come?—She hoped in the earlier one, that of the time when she so completely trusted him. For his counsel, dared she claim it in that earlier spirit, would be of inestimable value just now. She so badly needed someone in authority to advise with as to the events of yesterday, both in their malign and their beneficent aspects. Aunt Felicia had risen to the height of her capacity—dear thing, had been exquisite; but she would obey orders rather than issue them. Her office was not to lead, but rather to be led. And that the events of yesterday opened a new phase of her own and Faircloth's relation to one another appeared beyond dispute. Where exactly did the curve of duty towards her father touch that relation, run parallel with or intersect it? She felt perplexed.
After tea, Miss Felicia having vanished on some affair of her own—Damaris asked no question, but supposed it not unconnected with the now, since Sir Charles was about to return, permanently exiled Theresa—our maiden went upstairs, in the tender evening light, on domestic cares intent. She wished to assure herself that the chintz bedroom, opening off the main landing and overlooking the lawn and front garden, had been duly made ready for Colonel Carteret. She took a somewhat wistful pleasure in silently ministering to his possible small needs in the matter of sufficient wealth of towels, candles and soap. She lengthened out the process. Lingered, rearranged the ornaments upon the mantelpiece, the bunch of sweet-leafed geranium—as yet unshrivelled by frost—and belated roses, placed in a vase upon the toilet-table.
In so doing she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror, and paused, studying it. Her looks were not at their best. She was wan.—That might, in part, be owing to the waning light. Around her eyes were dark circles, making them appear unnaturally large and solemn. So yesterday's emotions had left their mark! The nervous strain had been considerable and she showed it. One cannot drink the cup of shame, however undeserved, with physical any more than with mental impunity. She still felt a little shattered, but hoped neither her father nor Carteret would remark her plight. If the whole affair of yesterday could, in its objectionable aspects, be kept from Sir Charles's knowledge she would be infinitely glad. And why shouldn't it be? Without permission, Aunt Felicia certainly would not tell. Neither would the servants. The parish had given testimony, this afternoon, both of its good faith and its discretion.
So much for the objectionable side of the matter. But there was another side, far from objectionable, beautiful in sentiment and in promise. And, still viewing her reflection in the glass, she saw her eyes lose their solemnity, lighten with a smile her lips repeated. This was where Carteret's advice would be of so great value. How much ought she to tell her father of all that?
For, from amidst the shame, the anger, the strain and effort, Faircloth showed, to her thinking, triumphant, satisfying alike to her affection and her taste. In no respect would she have asked him other than he was.
She moved across to the window, and sat down there, looking out over the garden and battery, with its little cannons, to the Bar, and sea beyond which melted into the dim primrose and silver of the horizon. Such colour as existed was soft, soothing, the colour of a world of dreams, of subdued and voiceless fancies. It was harmonious, restful as an accompaniment to vision.—Damaris let it lap against her consciousness, encircling, supporting this, as water laps, also encircling and supporting—while caressing, mysteriously whispering against a boat's side—a boat lying at its moorings, swinging gently upon an even keel.—And her vision was of Faircloth, exclusively of him, just now.
For he had stayed to luncheon yesterday. A meal, to him in a sense sacred, as being the first eaten by him in his father's house. So graciously invited, how, indeed, could he do otherwise than stay? And, the initial strangeness, the inherent wonder of that sacred character wearing off, he found voice and talked not without eloquence. Talked of his proper element, the sea, gaining ease and self-possession from the magnitude and manifold enchantments of his theme.
To him, as to all true-born sailor-men—so Damaris divined—the world is made of water, with but accident of land. Impeding, inconvenient accident at that, too often blocking the passage across or through, and constraining you to steer a foolishly, really quite inordinately divergent course. Under this obstructive head the two Americas offend direfully, sprawling their united strength wellnigh from pole to pole. The piercing of their central isthmus promised some mitigation of this impertinence of emergent matter; though whether in his, the speaker's lifetime, remained—so he took it—open to doubt. The "roaring forties," and grim blizzard-ridden Fuegian Straits would long continue, as he feared, to bar the way to the Pacific. Not that his personal fancy favoured West so much as East. Not into the sunset but into the sunrising did he love to sail some goodly black-hulled ship.—And as he talked, more especially at his mention of this eastward voyaging, those manifold enchantments of his calling stirred Damaris' imagination, making her eyes bright as the fabled eyes of danger, and fathomless as well.
But the best came later. For, Mary having served coffee, Miss Felicia, making an excuse of letters to be written, with pretty tact left them to themselves. And Faircloth, returning after closing the door behind her fluttering, gently eager figure, paused behind Damaris' chair.—Jacobean, cane-panelled, with high-carved back and arms to it. Thomas Clarkson Verity had unquestionably a nice taste in furniture.—The young sea-captain rested his right hand on the dark terminal scroll-work, and bending down, laid his left hand upon Damaris' hand, covering it as it lay on the white damask table-cloth.
"Have I done what I should, and left undone what I shouldn't do, my dear and lovely sister?" he asked her, half-laughing and half-abashed. "It's a tricky business being here, you know—to put it no higher than that. And it might, with truth, be put far higher. I get so horribly fearful of letting you down in any way—however trivial—before other people. I balance on a knife-edge all the while."
"Have no silly fears of that sort," Damaris said quickly, a trifle distressed.
For it plucked at her sisterly pride in him that he should, even by implication, debase himself, noting inequality of station between himself and her. She held the worldly aspects of the matter in contempt. They angered her, so that she impulsively banished reserve. Leaning forward, she bent her head, putting her lips to the image of the flying sea-bird—which so intrigued her loving curiosity—and those three letters tattooed in blue and crimson upon the back of his hand.
"There—there"—she murmured, as soothing a child—"does this convince you?"
But here broke off, her heart contracting with a spasm of wondering tenderness. For under that pressure of her lips she felt his flesh quiver and start. She looked up at the handsome bearded face, so close above her, in swift enquiry, the potion—as once before—troubling her that, in touching this quaint stigmata, she inflicted bodily suffering. And, as on that earlier occasion, asked the question:
"Ah! but have I hurt you?"
Faircloth shook his head, smiling. Words failed him just then and he went pale beneath the overlay of clear brown sunburn.
"Then tell me what this stands for?" she said, being herself strangely moved, and desirous to lower the temperature of her own emotion—possibly of his as well. "Tell me what it means."
"Just a boy's fear and a boy's superstition—a bit morbid, both of them, perhaps—that is as I see things now. For I hold one should leave one's body as it pleased the Almighty to make it, unblemished by semi-savage decorations which won't wash off."
Faircloth moved away, drew his chair up nearer the head of the table, the corner between them, so that his hand could if desire prompted again find hers.
"By the way, I'm so glad you don't wear ear-rings, Damaris," he said. "They belong to the semi-savage order of decoration. I hate them. You never will wear them? Promise me that."
And she had promised, somewhat diverted by his tone of authority and of insistence.
"But about this?" she asked him, indicating the blue and crimson symbol.
"As I say, fruit of fear and superstition—a pretty pair in which to put one's faith! All the same, they went far to save my life, I fancy—for which I thank them mightily being here, with you, to-day."
And he told her—softening the uglier details, as unfit for a gently-nurtured woman's hearing—a brutal story of the sea. Of a sailing ship becalmed in tropic waters, waiting, through long blistering days and breathless sweltering nights, for the breeze which wouldn't come—a floating hell, between glaring skies and glaring ocean—and of bullyings, indignities and torments devised by a brain diseased by drink.
"But was there no one to interfere, no one to protect you?" Damaris cried, aghast.
"A man's master in his own ship," Faircloth answered. "And short of mutiny there's no redress. Neither officers nor men had a stomach for mutiny. They were a poor, cowed lot. Till this drunken madness came on him he had been easy going enough. They supposed, when it passed, he'd be so again. And then as he reserved his special attentions for me, they were willing to grin and bear it—or rather let me bear it, just stupidly letting things go. It was my first long voyage. I'd been lucky in my skippers so far, and was a bit soft still. A bit conceited, I don't doubt, as well. He swore he'd break my spirit—for my own good, of course—and he came near succeeding.—But Damaris, Damaris, dear, don't take it to heart so. What does it matter? It did me no lasting harm, and was all over and done with—would have been forgotten too, but for the rather silly sign of it—years and years ago. Let us talk no more about it."