Of course the matter came to their minister's ears—he was a "Brianite"—and the minister spoke to them after prayer-meeting, one Wednesday night, and called at the cottage early next morning, to reconcile them. He stayed fifteen minutes and came away, down the street, with a look on his face such as Moses might have worn on his way down from Mount Sinai, if only Moses had seen the devil there, instead of God.
At the end of four years, the neighbours remarked that for two days no smoke had issued from the chimney of this cottage, nor had anyone seen the front door opened. There grew a surmise that the quarrel had flared out at last, and the wedded pair were lying within, in their blood. The anticipated excitement of finding the bodies was qualified, however, by a very present sense of the manner in which the bodies had resented intrusion during life. It was not until sunset on the second day that the constable took heart to break in the door.
There were no corpses. The kitchen was tidy, the hearth swept, and the house empty. On the table lay a folded note, addressed, in the man's handwriting, to the minister.
"Dear Friend in Grace," it began, "we have been married ten years, and neither has broken the other; until which happens, it must be hell between us. We see no way out but to part for ten years more, going our paths without news of each other. When that time's up, we promise to meet here, by our door, on the morning of the first Monday in October month, and try again. And to this we set our names."—here the two names followed.
They must have set out by night; for an extinguished candle stood by the letter, with ink-pot and pen. Probably they had parted just outside the house, the one going inland up the hill, the other down the street towards the harbour. Nothing more was heard of them. Their furniture went to pay the quarter's rent due to the Squire, and the cottage, six months later, passed into the occupation of Simon Hancock, waterman.
At this point Simon shall take up the narrative:—
"I'd been tenant over there"—with a nod towards the ruin—"nine year an' goin' on for the tenth, when, on a Monday mornin', about this time o' year, I gets out o' bed at five o'clock an' down to the quay to have a look at my boat; for 'twas the fag-end of the Equinox, and ther'd been a 'nation gale blowin' all Sunday and all Sunday night, an' I thought she might have broke loose from her moorin's.
"The street was dark as your hat and the wind comin' up it like gas in a pipe, with a brave deal o' rain. But down 'pon the quay day was breakin'—a sort of blind man's holiday, but enough to see the boat by; and there she held all right. You know there's two posts 'pon the town-quay, and another slap opposite the door o' the 'Fifteen Balls'? Well, just as I turned back home-long, I see a man leanin' against thicky post like as if he was thinkin', wi' his back to me and his front to the 'Fifteen Balls' (that was shut, o' course, at that hour). I must ha' passed within a yard of en, an' couldn' figure it up how I'd a-missed seein' en. Hows'ever, 'Good-mornin'!' I calls out, in my well-known hearty manner. But he didn' speak nor turn. 'Mornin'!' I says again. 'Can 'ee tell me what time 'tis? for my watch is stopped'—which was a lie; but you must lie now and then, to be properly sociable.
"Well, he didn' answer; so I went on to say that the 'Fifteen Balls' wudn' be open for another dree hour; and then I walked slap up to en, and says what the Wicked Man said to the black pig. 'You'm a queer Christian,' I says, 'not to speak. What's your name at all? And let's see your ugly face.'
"With that he turned his face; an' by the man! I wished mysel' further. 'Twas a great white face, all parboiled, like a woman's hands on washin' day. An' there was bits o' sticks an' chips o' sea-weed stuck in his whiskers, and a crust o' salt i' the chinks of his mouth; an' his eyes, too, glarin' abroad from great rims o' salt.
"Off I sheered, not azackly runnin', but walkin' pretty much like a Torpointer; an' sure 'nough the fellow stood up straight and began to follow close behind me. I heard the water go squish-squash in his shoon, every step he took. By this, I was fairly leakin' wi' sweat. After a bit, hows'ever, at the corner o' Higman's store, he dropped off; an' lookin' back after twenty yards more, I saw him standin' there in the dismal grey light like a dog that can't make up his mind whether to follow or no. For 'twas near day now, an' his face plain at that distance. Fearin' he'd come on again, I pulled hot foot the few steps between me an' home. But when I came to the door, I went cold as a flounder.
"The fellow had got there afore me. There he was, standin' 'pon my door-step—wi' the same gashly stare on his face, and his lips a lead-colour in the light.
"The sweat boiled out o' me now. I quavered like a leaf, and my hat rose 'pon my head. 'For the Lord's sake, stand o' one side,' I prayed en; 'do'ee now, that's a dear!' But he wudn' budge; no, not though I said several holy words out of the Mornin' Service.
"'Drabbet it!' says I, 'let's try the back door. Why didn' I think 'pon that afore?' And around I runs.
"There 'pon the back door-step was a woman!—an' pretty well as gashly as the man. She was just a 'natomy of a woman, wi' the lines of her ribs showin' under the gown, an' a hot red spot 'pon either cheek-bone, where the skin was stretched tight as a drum. She looked not to ha' fed for a year; an', if you please, she'd a needle and strip o' calico in her hands, sewin' away all the while her eyes were glarin' down into mine.
"But there was a trick I minded in the way she worked her mouth, an' says I, 'Missus Polwarne, your husband's a-waitin' for 'ee, round by the front door.'
"'Aw, is he indeed?' she answers, holdin' her needle for a moment— an' her voice was all hollow, like as if she pumped it up from a fathom or two. 'Then, if he knows what's due to his wife, I'll trouble en to come round,' she says; 'for this here's the door I mean to go in by.'"
But at this point Simon asserts very plausibly that he swooned off; so it is not known how they settled it.
[This story is true, as anyone who cares may assure himself by referring to Robert Hunt's "Drolls of the West of England," p. 357.]
IV.—THE BOY BY THE BEACH.
There are in this small history some gaps that can never be filled up; but as much as I know I will tell you.
The cottage where Kit lived until he was five years old stands at the head of a little beach of white shingle, just inside the harbour's mouth, so that all day long Kit could see the merchant-ships trailing in from sea, and passing up to the little town, or dropping down to the music of the capstan-song, and the calls and the creaking, as their crews hauled up the sails. Some came and went under bare poles in the wake of panting tugs; but those that carried canvas pleased Kit more. For a narrow coombe wound up behind the cottage, and down this coombe came not only the brook that splashed by the garden gate, but a small breeze, always blowing, so that you might count on seeing the white sails take it, and curve out majestically as soon as ever they came opposite the cottage, and hold it until under the lee of the Battery Point.
Besides these delights, the cottage had a plantation of ash and hazel above it, that climbed straight to the smooth turf and the four guns of the Battery; and a garden with a tamarisk hedge, and a bed of white violets, the earliest for miles around, and a fuchsia tree three times as tall as Kit, and a pink climbing rose that looked in at Kit's window and blossomed till late in November. Here the child lived alone with his mother. For there was a vagueness of popular opinion respecting Kit's father; while about his mother, unhappily, there was no vagueness at all. She was a handsome, low-browed woman, with a loud laugh, a defiant manner, and a dress of violent hues. Decent wives clutched their skirts in passing her: but, as a set-off, she was on excellent terms with every sea-captain and mate that put into the port.
All these captains and mates knew Kit and made a pet of him: and indeed there was a curious charm in the great serious eyes and reddish curls of this child whom other children shunned. No one can tell if he felt his isolation; but of course it drove him to return the men's friendship, and to wear a man's solemnity and habit of speech. The woman dressed him carefully, in glaring colours, out of her means: and as for his manners, they would no doubt have become false and absurd, as time went and knowledge came; but at the age of four they were those of a prince.
"My father was a ship's captain, too," he would tell a new acquaintance, "but he was drowned at sea—oh, a long while ago; years and years before I was born."
The beginning of this speech he had learned from his mother; and the misty antiquity of the loss his own childish imagination suggested. The captains, hearing it, would wink at each other, swallow down their grins, and gravely inform him of the sights he would see and the lands he would visit when the time came for him, too, to be a ship's captain. Often and often I have seen him perched, with his small legs dangling, on one of the green posts on the quay, and drinking in their talk of green icebergs, and flaming parrots, and pig-tailed Chinamen; of coral reefs of all marvellous colours, and suns that burnt men black, and monkeys that hung by their tails to the branches and pelted the passers-by with coco-nuts; and the rest of it. And the child would go back to the cottage in a waking dream, treading bright clouds of fancy, with perhaps a little carved box or knick-knack in his hand, the gift of some bearded, tender-hearted ruffian. It was pitiful.
Of course he picked up their talk, and very soon could swear with equal and appalling freedom in English, French, Swedish, German, and Italian. But the words were words to him and no more, as he had no morals. Nice distinctions between good and evil never entered the little room where he slept to the sound only of the waves that curved round Battery Point and tumbled on the beach below. And I know that, one summer evening, when the scandalised townsmen and their wedded wives assembled, and marched down to the cottage with intent to lead the woman in a "Ramriding," the sight of Kit playing in the garden, and his look of innocent delight as he ran in to call his mother out, took the courage out of them and sent them home, up the hill, like sheep.
Of course the truth must have come to him soon. But it never did: for when he was just five, the woman took a chill and died in a week. She had left a little money; and the Vicar, rather than let Kit go to the workhouse, spent it to buy the child admission to an Orphanage in the Midlands, a hundred miles away.
So Kit hung the rose-tree with little scraps of crape, and was put, dazed and white, into a train and whisked a hundred miles off. And everybody forgot him.
Kit spent two years at the Orphanage in an antique, preposterous suit—snuff-coloured coat with lappels, canary waistcoat, and corduroy small-clothes. And they gave him his meals regularly. There were ninety-nine other boys who all throve on the food: but Kit pined. And the ninety-nine, being full of food, made a racket at times; but Kit found it quiet—deathly quiet; and his eyes wore a listening look.
For the truth was, he missed the noise of the beach, and was listening for it. And deep down in his small heart the sea was piping and calling to him. And the world had grown dumb; and he yearned always: until they had to get him a new canary waistcoat, for the old one had grown too big.
At night, from his dormitory window, he could see a rosy light in the sky. At first he thought this must be a pillar of fire put there to guide him home; but it was only the glare of furnaces in a manufacturing town, not far away. When he found this out his heart came near to break; and afterwards he pined still faster.
One evening a lecture was given in the dining-room of the Orphanage. The subject was "The Holy Land," and the lecturer illustrated it with views from the magic-lantern.
Kit, who sat in one of the back rows, was moderately excited at first. But the views of barren hills, and sands, and ruins, and palm-trees, and cedars, wearied him after a while. He had closed his eyes, and the lecturer's voice became a sing-song in which his heart searched, as it always searched, for the music of the beach; when, by way of variety—for it had little to do with the subject—the lecturer slipped in a slide that was supposed to depict an incident on the homeward voyage—a squall in the Mediterranean.
It was a stirring picture, with an inky sky, and the squall bursting from it, and driving a small ship heeling over white crested waves. Of course the boys drew their breath.
And then something like a strangling sob broke out on the stillness, frightening the lecturer; and a shrill cry—
"Don't go—oh, damn it all! don't go! Take me—take me home!"
And there at the back of the room a small boy stood up on his form, and stretched out both hands to the painted ship, and shrieked and panted.
There was a blank silence, and then the matron hurried up, took him firmly in her arms, and carried him out.
"Don't go—oh, for the Lord A'mighty's sake, don't go!"
And as he was borne down the passages his cry sounded among the audience like the wail of a little lost soul.
The matron carried Kit to the sick-room and put him to bed. After quieting the child a bit she left him, taking away the candle. Now the sick-room was on the ground floor, and Kit lay still a very short while. Then he got out of bed, groped for his clothes, managed to dress himself, and, opening the window, escaped on to the quiet lawn. Then he turned his face south-west, towards home and the sea— and ran.
How could he tell where they lay? God knows. Ask the swallow how she can tell, when in autumn the warm south is a fire in her brain. I believe that the sea's breath was in the face of this child of seven, and its scent in his nostrils, and its voice in his ears, calling, summoning all the way. I only know that he ran straight towards his home, a hundred miles off, and that next morning they found his canary waistcoat and snuff-coloured coat in a ditch, two miles from the Orphanage, due south-west.
Of his adventures on the road the story is equally silent, as I warned you. But the small figure comes into view again, a week later, on the hillside of the coombe above his home. And when he saw the sea and the white beach glittering beneath him, he did not stop, even for a moment, but reeled down the hill. The child was just a living skeleton; he had neither hat, coat, nor waistcoat; one foot only was shod, the other had worn through the stocking, and ugly red blisters showed on the sole as he ran. His face was far whiter than his shirt, save for a blue welt or two and some ugly red scratches; and his gaunt eyes were full of hunger and yearning, and his lips happily babbling the curses that the ships' captains had taught him.
He reeled down the hill to the cottage. The tenant was a newcomer to the town, and had lately been appointed musketry-instructor to the battery above. He was in the garden pruning the rose-tree, but did not particularly notice the boy. And the boy passed without turning his head.
The tide on the beach was far out and just beginning to flow. There was the same dull plash on the pebbles, the same twinkle as the sun struck across the ripples. The sun was sinking; in ten minutes it would be behind the hill.
No one knows what the waves said to Kit. But he flung himself among them with a choking cry, and drank the brine and tossed it over his head, and shoulders and chest, and lay down and let the small waves play over him, and cried and laughed aloud till the sun went down.
Then he clambered on to a rock, some way above them, and lay down to watch the water rise; and watching it, fell asleep; and sleeping, had his wish, and went out to the wide seas.
Judge between me and my guest, the stranger within my gates, the man whom in his extremity I clothed and fed.
I remember well the time of his coming, for it happened at the end of five days and nights during which the year passed from strength to age; in the interval between the swallow's departure and the redwing's coming; when the tortoise in my garden crept into his winter quarters, and the equinox was on us, with an east wind that parched the blood in the trees, so that their leaves for once knew no gradations of red and yellow, but turned at a stroke to brown, and crackled like tin-foil.
At five o'clock in the morning of the sixth day I looked out. The wind still whistled across the sky, but now without the obstruction of any cloud. Full in front of my window Sirius flashed with a whiteness that pierced the eye. A little to the right, the whole constellation of Orion was suspended clear over a wedge-like gap in the coast, wherein the sea could be guessed rather than seen. And, travelling yet further, the eye fell on two brilliant lights, the one set high above the other—the one steady and a fiery red, the other yellow and blazing intermittently—the one Aldebaran, the other revolving on the lighthouse top, fifteen miles away.
Half-way up the east, the moon, now in her last quarter and decrepit, climbed with the dawn close at her heels. And at this hour they brought in the Stranger, asking if my pleasure were to give him clothing and hospitality.
Nobody knew whence he came—except that it was from the wind and the night—seeing that he spoke in a strange tongue, moaning and making a sound like the twittering of birds in a chimney. But his journey must have been long and painful; for his legs bent under him, and he could not stand when they lifted him. So, finding it useless to question him for the time, I learnt from the servants all they had to tell—namely, that they had come upon him, but a few minutes before, lying on his face within my grounds, without staff or scrip, bareheaded, spent, and crying feebly for succour in his foreign tongue; and that in pity they had carried him in and brought him to me.
Now for the look of this man, he seemed a century old, being bald, extremely wrinkled, with wide hollows where the teeth should be, and the flesh hanging loose and flaccid on his cheek-bones; and what colour he had could have come only from exposure to that bitter night. But his eyes chiefly spoke of his extreme age. They were blue and deep, and filled with the wisdom of years; and when he turned them in my direction they appeared to look through me, beyond me, and back upon centuries of sorrow and the slow endurance of man, as if his immediate misfortune were but an inconsiderable item in a long list. They frightened me. Perhaps they conveyed a warning of that which I was to endure at their owner's hands. From compassion, I ordered the servants to take him to my wife, with word that I wished her to set food before him, and see that it passed his lips.
So much I did for this Stranger. Now learn how he rewarded me.
He has taken my youth from me, and the most of my substance, and the love of my wife.
From the hour when he tasted food in my house, he sat there without hint of going. Whether from design, or because age and his sufferings had really palsied him, he came back tediously to life and warmth, nor for many days professed himself able to stand erect. Meanwhile he lived on the best of our hospitality. My wife tended him, and my servants ran at his bidding; for he managed early to make them understand scraps of his language, though slow in acquiring ours—I believe out of calculation, lest someone should inquire his business (which was a mystery) or hint at his departure. I myself often visited the room he had appropriated, and would sit for an hour watching those fathomless eyes while I tried to make head or tail of his discourse. When we were alone, my wife and I used to speculate at times on his probable profession. Was he a merchant?—an aged mariner?—a tinker, tailor, beggarman, thief? We could never decide, and he never disclosed.
Then the awakening came. I sat one day in the chair beside his, wondering as usual. I had felt heavy of late, with a soreness and languor in my bones, as if a dead weight hung continually on my shoulders, and another rested on my heart. A warmer colour in the Stranger's cheek caught my attention; and I bent forward, peering under the pendulous lids. His eyes were livelier and less profound. The melancholy was passing from them as breath fades off a pane of glass. He was growing younger. Starting up, I ran across the room, to the mirror.
There were two white hairs in my fore-lock; and, at the corner of either eye, half a dozen radiating lines. I was an old man.
Turning, I regarded the Stranger. He sat phlegmatic as an Indian idol; and in my fancy I felt the young blood draining from my own heart, and saw it mantling in his cheeks. Minute by minute I watched the slow miracle—the old man beautified. As buds unfold, he put on a lovely youthfulness; and, drop by drop, left me winter.
I hurried from the room, and seeking my wife, laid the case before her. "This is a ghoul," I said, "that we harbour: he is sucking my best blood, and the household is clean bewitched." She laid aside the book in which she read, and laughed at me. Now my wife was well-looking, and her eyes were the light of my soul. Consider, then, how I felt as she laughed, taking the Stranger's part against me. When I left her, it was with a new suspicion in my heart. "How shall it be," I thought, "if after stealing my youth, he go on to take the one thing that is better?"
In my room, day by day, I brooded upon this—hating my own alteration, and fearing worse. With the Stranger there was no longer any disguise. His head blossomed in curls; white teeth filled the hollows of his mouth; the pits in his cheeks were heaped full with roses, glowing under a transparent skin. It was Aeson renewed and thankless; and he sat on, devouring my substance.
Now having probed my weakness, and being satisfied that I no longer dared to turn him out, he, who had half-imposed his native tongue upon us, constraining the household to a hideous jargon, the bastard growth of two languages, condescended to jerk us back rudely into our own speech once more, mastering it with a readiness that proved his former dissimulation, and using it henceforward as the sole vehicle of his wishes. On his past life he remained silent; but took occasion to confide in me that he proposed embracing a military career, as soon as he should tire of the shelter of my roof.
And I groaned in my chamber; for that which I feared had come to pass. He was making open love to my wife. And the eyes with which he looked at her, and the lips with which he coaxed her, had been mine; and I was an old man. Judge now between me and this guest.
One morning I went to my wife; for the burden was past bearing, and I must satisfy myself. I found her tending the plants on her window-ledge; and when she turned, I saw that years had not taken from her comeliness one jot. And I was old.
So I taxed her on the matter of this Stranger, saying this and that, and how I had cause to believe he loved her.
"That is beyond doubt," she answered, and smiled.
"By my head, I believe his fancy is returned!" I blurted out.
And her smile grew radiant, as, looking me in the face, she answered, "By my soul, husband, it is."
Then I went from her, down into my garden, where the day grew hot and the flowers were beginning to droop. I stared upon them and could find no solution to the problem that worked in my heart. And then I glanced up, eastward, to the sun above the privet-hedge, and saw him coming across the flower beds, treading them down in wantonness. He came with a light step and a smile, and I waited for him, leaning heavily on my stick.
"Give me your watch!" he called out, as he drew near.
"Why should I give you my watch?" I asked, while something worked in my throat.
"Because I wish it; because it is gold; because you are too old, and won't want it much longer."
"Take it," I cried, pulling the watch out and thrusting it into his hand. "Take it—you who have taken all that is better! Strip me, spoil me—"
A soft laugh sounded above, and I turned. My wife was looking down on us from the window, and her eyes were both moist and glad.
"Pardon me," she said, "it is you who are spoiling the child."
STORIES OF BLEAKIRK.
I.—THE AFFAIR OF BLEAKIRK-ON-SANDS.
[The events, which took place on November 23, 186-, are narrated by Reuben Cartwright, Esq., of Bleakirk Hall, Bleakirk-on-Sands, in the North Riding of Yorkshire.]
A rough, unfrequented bridle-road rising and dipping towards the coast, with here and there a glimpse of sea beyond the sad-coloured moors: straight overhead, a red and wintry sun just struggling to assert itself: to right and left, a stretch of barren down still coated white with hoar-frost.
I had flung the reins upon my horse's neck, and was ambling homewards. Between me and Bleakirk lay seven good miles, and we had come far enough already on the chance of the sun's breaking through; but as the morning wore on, so our prospect of hunting that day faded further from us. It was now high noon, and I had left the hunt half an hour ago, turned my face towards the coast, and lit a cigar to beguile the way. When a man is twenty-seven he begins to miss the fun of shivering beside a frozen cover.
The road took a sudden plunge among the spurs of two converging hills. As I began to descend, the first gleam of sunshine burst from the dull heaven and played over the hoar-frost. I looked up, and saw, on the slope of the hill to the right, a horseman also descending.
At first glance I took him for a brother sportsman who, too, had abandoned hope of a fox. But the second assured me of my mistake. The stranger wore a black suit of antique, clerical cut, a shovel hat, and gaiters; his nag was the sorriest of ponies, with a shaggy coat of flaring yellow, and so low in the legs that the broad flaps of its rider's coat all but trailed on the ground. A queerer turnout I shall never see again, though I live to be a hundred.
He appeared not to notice me, but pricked leisurably down the slope, and I soon saw that, as our paths ran and at the pace we were going, we should meet at the foot of the descent: which we presently did.
"Ah, indeed!" said the stranger, reining in his pony as though now for the first time aware of me: "I wish you a very good day, sir. We are well met."
He pulled off his hat with a fantastic politeness. For me, my astonishment grew as I regarded him more closely. A mass of lanky, white hair drooped on either side of a face pale, pinched, and extraordinarily wrinkled; the clothes that wrapped his diminutive body were threadbare, greasy, and patched in all directions. Fifty years' wear could not have worsened them; and, indeed, from the whole aspect of the man, you might guess him a century old, were it not for the nimbleness of his gestures and his eyes, which were grey, alert, and keen as needles.
I acknowledged his salutation as he ranged up beside me.
"Will my company, sir, offend you? By your coat I suspect your trade: venatorem sapit—hey?"
His voice exactly fitted his eyes. Both were sharp and charged with expression; yet both carried also a hint that their owner had lived long in privacy. Somehow they lacked touch.
"I am riding homewards," I answered.
"Hey? Where is that?"
The familiarity lay rather in the words than the manner; and I did not resent it.
His eyes had wandered for a moment to the road ahead; but now he turned abruptly, and looked at me, as I thought, with some suspicion. He seemed about to speak, but restrained himself, fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, and producing a massive snuff-box, offered me a pinch. On my declining, he helped himself copiously; and then, letting the reins hang loose upon his arm, fell to tapping the box.
"To me this form of the herb nicotiana commends itself by its cheapness: the sense is tickled, the purse consenting—like the complaisant husband in Juvenal: you take me? I am well acquainted with Bleakirk-super-sabulum. By the way, how is Squire Cartwright of the Hall?"
"If," said I, "you mean my father, Angus Cartwright, he is dead these twelve years."
"Hey?" cried the old gentleman, and added after a moment, "Ah, to be sure, time flies—quo dives Tullus et—Angus, eh? And yet a hearty man, to all seeming. So you are his son." He took another pinch. "It is very sustaining," he said.
"You have construed me, sir. Since I set out, just thirteen hours since, it has been my sole viaticum." As he spoke he put his hand nervously to his forehead, and withdrew it.
"Then," thought I, "you must have started in the middle of the night," for it was now little past noon. But looking at his face, I saw clearly that it was drawn and pinched with fasting. Whereupon I remembered my flask and sandwich-box, and pulling them out, assured him, with some apology for the offer, that they were at his service. His joy was childish. Again he whipped off his hat, and clapping it to his heart, swore my conduct did honour to my dead father; "and with Angus Cartwright," said he, "kindness was intuitive. Being a habit, it outran reflection; and his whisky, sir, was undeniable. Come, I have a fancy. Let us dismount, and, in heroic fashion, spread our feast upon the turf; or, if the hoar-frost deter you, see, here are boulders, and a running brook to dilute our cups; and, by my life, a foot-bridge, to the rail of which we may tether our steeds."
Indeed, we had come to a hollow in the road, across which a tiny beck, now swollen with the rains, was chattering bravely. Falling in with my companion's humour, I dismounted, and, after his example, hitched my mare's rein over the rail. There was a raciness about the adventure that took my fancy. We chose two boulders from a heap of lesser stones close beside the beck, and divided the sandwiches, for though I protested I was not hungry, the old gentleman insisted on our sharing alike. And now, as the liquor warmed his heart and the sunshine smote upon his back, his eyes sparkled, and he launched on a flood of the gayest talk—yet always of a world that I felt was before my time. Indeed, as he rattled on, the feeling that this must be some Rip Van Winkle restored from a thirty years' sleep grew stronger and stronger upon me. He spoke of Bleakirk, and displayed a knowledge of it sufficiently thorough—intimate even—yet of the old friends for whom he inquired many names were unknown to me, many familiar only through their epitaphs in the windy cemetery above the cliff. Of the rest, the pretty girls he named were now grandmothers, the young men long since bent and rheumatic; the youngest well over fifty. This, however, seemed to depress him little. His eyes would sadden for a moment, then laugh again. "Well, well," he said, "wrinkles, bald heads, and the deafness of the tomb—we have our day notwithstanding. Pluck the bloom of it—hey? a commonplace of the poets."
"But, sir," I put in as politely as I might, "you have not yet told me with whom I have the pleasure of lunching."
"Gently, young sir." He waved his hand towards the encircling moors. "We have feasted more Homerico, and in Homer, you remember the host allowed his guest fourteen days before asking that question. Permit me to delay the answer only till I have poured libation on the turf here. Ah! I perceive the whisky is exhausted: but water shall suffice. May I trouble you—my joints are stiff—to fill your drinking-cup from the brook at your feet?"
I took the cup from his hands and stooped over the water. As I did so, he leapt on me like a cat from behind. I felt a hideous blow on the nape of the neck: a jagged flame leapt up: the sunshine turned to blood—then to darkness. With hands spread out, I stumbled blindly forward and fell at full length into the beck.
When my senses returned, I became aware, first that I was lying, bound hand and foot and securely gagged, upon the turf; secondly, that the horses were still tethered, and standing quietly at the foot-bridge; and, thirdly, that my companion had resumed his position on the boulder, and there sat watching my recovery.
Seeing my eyes open, he raised his hat and addressed me in tones of grave punctilio.
"Believe me, sir, I am earnest in my regret for this state of things. Nothing but the severest necessity could have persuaded me to knock the son of my late esteemed friend over the skull and gag his utterance with a stone—to pass over the fact that it fairly lays my sense of your hospitality under suspicion. Upon my word, sir, it places me in a cursedly equivocal position!"
He took a pinch of snuff, absorbed it slowly, and pursued.
"It was necessary, however. You will partly grasp the situation when I tell you that my name is Teague—the Reverend William Teague, Doctor of Divinity, and formerly incumbent of Bleakirk-on-Sands."
His words explained much, though not everything. The circumstances which led to the Reverend William's departure from Bleakirk had happened some two years before my birth: but they were startling enough to supply talk in that dull fishing village for many a long day. In my nursery I had heard the tale that my companion's name recalled: and if till now I had felt humiliation, henceforth I felt absolute fear, for I knew that I had to deal with a madman.
"I perceive by your eyes, sir," he went on, "that with a part of my story you are already familiar: the rest I am about to tell you. It will be within your knowledge that late on a Sunday night, just twenty-nine years ago, my wife left the Vicarage-house, Bleakirk, and never returned; that subsequent inquiry yielded no trace of her flight, beyond the fact that she went provided with a small hand-bag containing a change of clothing; that, as we had lived together for twenty years in the entirest harmony, no reason could then, or afterwards, be given for her astonishing conduct. Moreover, you will be aware that its effect upon me was tragical; that my lively emotions underneath the shock deepened into a settled gloom; that my faculties (notoriously eminent) in a short time became clouded, nay, eclipsed—necessitating my removal (I will not refine) to a madhouse. Hey, is it not so?"
I nodded assent as well as I could. He paused, with a pinch between finger and thumb, to nod back to me. Though his eyes were now blazing with madness, his demeanour was formally, even affectedly, polite.
"My wife never came back: naturally, sir—for she was dead."
He shifted a little on the boulders, slipped the snuff-box back into his waistcoat pocket, then crossing his legs and clasping his hands over one knee, bent forward and regarded me fixedly.
"I murdered her," he said slowly, and nodded.
A pause followed that seemed to last an hour. The stone which he had strapped in my mouth with his bandanna was giving me acute pain; it obstructed, too, what little breathing my emotion left me; and I dared not take my eyes off his. The strain on my nerves grew so tense that I felt myself fainting when his voice recalled me.
"I wonder now," he asked, as if it were a riddle—"I wonder if you can guess why the body was never found?"
Again there was an intolerable silence before he went on.
"Lydia was a dear creature: in many respects she made me an admirable wife. Her affection for me was canine—positively. But she was fat, sir; her face a jelly, her shoulders mountainous. Moreover, her voice!—it was my cruciation—monotonously, regularly, desperately voluble. If she talked of archangels, they became insignificant—and her themes, in ordinary, were of the pettiest. Her waist, sir, and my arm had once been commensurate: now not three of Homer's heroes could embrace her. Her voice could once touch my heart-strings into music; it brayed them now, between the millstones of the commonplace. Figure to yourself a man of my sensibility condemned to live on these terms!"
He paused, tightened his grasp on his knee, and pursued.
"You remember, sir, the story of the baker in Langius? He narrates that a certain woman conceived a violent desire to bite the naked shoulders of a baker who used to pass underneath her window with his wares. So imperative did this longing become, that at length the woman appealed to her husband, who (being a good-natured man, and unwilling to disoblige her) hired the baker, for a certain price, to come and be bitten. The man allowed her two bites, but denied a third, being unable to contain himself for pain. The author goes on to relate that, for want of this third bite, she bore one dead child, and two living. My own case," continued the Reverend William, "was somewhat similar. Lydia's unrelieved babble reacted upon her bulk, and awoke in me an absorbing, fascinating desire to strike her. I longed to see her quiver. I fought against the feeling, stifled it, trod it down: it awoke again. It filled my thoughts, my dreams; it gnawed me like a vulture. A hundred times while she sat complacently turning her inane periods, I had to hug my fist to my breast, lest it should leap out and strike her senseless. Do I weary you? Let me proceed:—
"That Sunday evening we sat, one on each side of the hearth, in the Vicarage drawing-room. She was talking—talking; and I sat tapping my foot and whispering to myself, 'You are too fat, Lydia, you are too fat.' Her talk ran on the two sermons I had preached that day, the dresses of the congregation, the expense of living, the parish ailments—inexhaustible, trivial, relentless. Suddenly she looked up and our eyes met. Her voice trailed off and dropped like a bird wounded in full flight. She stood up and took a step towards me. 'Is anything the matter, William?' she asked solicitously. 'You are too fat, my dear,' I answered, laughing, and struck her full in the face with my fist.
"She did not quiver much—not half enough—but dropped like a half-full sack on to the carpet. I caught up a candle and examined her. Her neck was dislocated. She was quite dead."
The madman skipped up from his boulder, and looked at me with indescribable cunning.
"I am so glad, sir," he said, "that you did not bleed when I struck you; it was a great mercy. The sight of blood affects me—ah!" he broke off with a subtle quiver and drew a long breath. "Do you know the sands by Woeful Ness—the Twin Brothers?" he asked.
I knew that dreary headland well. For half a mile beyond the grey Church and Vicarage of Bleakirk it extends, forming the northern arm of the small fishing-bay, and protecting it from the full set of the tides. Towards its end it breaks away sharply, and terminates in a dorsal ridge of slate-coloured rock that runs out for some two hundred feet between the sands we call the Twin Brothers. Of these, that to the south, and inside the bay, is motionless, and bears the name of the 'Dead-Boy;' but the 'Quick-Boy,' to the north, shifts continually. It is a quicksand, in short; and will swallow a man in three minutes.
"My mind," resumed my companion, "was soon made up. There is no murder, thought I, where there is no corpse. So I propped Lydia in the armchair, where she seemed as if napping, and went quietly upstairs. I packed a small hand-bag carefully with such clothes as she would need for a journey, descended with it, opened the front door, went out to be sure the servants had blown out their lights, returned, and hoisting my wife on my shoulder, with the bag in my left hand, softly closed the door and stepped out into the night. In the shed beside the garden-gate the gardener had left his wheelbarrow. I fetched it out, set Lydia on the top of it, and wheeled her off towards Woeful Ness. There was just the rim of a waning moon to light me, but I knew every inch of the way.
"For the greater part of it I had turf underfoot; but where this ended and the rock began, I had to leave the barrow behind. It was ticklish work, climbing down; for footing had to be found, and Lydia was a monstrous weight. Pah! how fat she was and clumsy—lolling this way and that! Besides, the bag hampered me. But I reached the foot at last, and after a short rest clambered out along the ridge as fast as I could. I was sick and tired of the business.
"Well, the rest was easy. Arrived at the furthest spit of rock, I tossed the bag from me far into the northern sand. Then I turned to Lydia, whom I had set down for the moment. In the moonlight her lips were parted as though she were still chattering; so I kissed her once, because I had loved her, and dropped her body over into the Quick-Boy Sand. In three minutes or so I had seen the last of her.
"I trundled home the barrow, mixed myself a glass of whisky, sat beside it for half an hour, and then aroused the servants. I was cunning, sir; and no one could trace my footprints on the turf and rock of Woeful Ness. The missing hand-bag, and the disarray I had been careful to make in the bed-room, provided them at once with a clue—but it did not lead them to the Quick-Boy. For two days they searched; at the end of that time it grew clear to them that grief was turning my brain. Your father, sir, was instant with his sympathy—at least ten times a day I had much ado to keep from laughing in his face. Finally two doctors visited me, and I was taken to a madhouse.
"I have remained within its walls twenty-nine years; but no—I have never been thoroughly at home there. Two days ago I discovered that the place was boring me. So I determined to escape; and this to a man of my resources presented few difficulties. I borrowed this pony from a stable not many yards from the madhouse wall; he belongs, I think, to a chimney-sweep, and I trust that, after serving my purpose, he may find a way back to his master."
I suppose at this point he must have detected the question in my eyes, for he cried sharply.
"You wish to know my purpose? It is simple." He passed a thin hand over his forehead. "I have been shut up, as I say, for twenty-nine years, and I now discover that the madhouse bores me. If they re-take me—and the hue and cry must be out long before this—I shall be dragged back. What, then, is my proposal? I ride to Bleakirk and out along the summit of Woeful Ness. There I dismount, turn my pony loose, and, descending along the ridge, step into the sand that swallowed Lydia. Simple, is it not? Excessi, evasi, evanui. I shall be there before sunset—which reminds me," he added, pulling out his watch, "that my time is nearly up. I regret to leave you in this plight, but you see how I am placed. I felt, when I saw you, a sudden desire to unbosom myself of a secret which, until the past half-hour, I have shared with no man. I see by your eyes again that if set at liberty you would interfere with my purpose. It is unfortunate that scarcely a soul ever rides this way—I know the road of old. But to-morrow is Sunday: I will scribble a line and fix it on the church-door at Bleakirk, so that the parish may at least know your predicament before twenty-four hours are out. I must now be going. The bandanna about your mouth I entreat you to accept as a memento. With renewed apologies, sir, I wish you good-day; and count it extremely fortunate that you did not bleed."
He nodded in the friendliest manner, turned on his heel, and walked quietly towards the bridge. As he untethered his pony, mounted, and ambled quietly off in the direction of the coast, I lay stupidly watching him. His black coat for some time lay, a diminishing blot, on the brown of the moors, stood for a brief moment on the sky-line, and vanished.
I must have lain above an hour in this absurd and painful position, wrestling with my bonds, and speculating on my chances of passing the night by the beck-side. My ankles were tied with my own handkerchief, my wrists with the thong of my own whip, and this especially cut me. It was knotted immovably; but by rolling over and rubbing my face into the turf, I contrived at length to slip the gag down below my chin. This done, I sat up and shouted lustily.
For a long time there was no reply but the whinnying of my mare, who seemed to guess something was wrong, and pulled at her tether until I thought she would break away. I think I called a score of times before I heard an answering "Whoo-oop!" far back on the road, and a scarlet coat, then another, and finally a dozen or more appeared on the crest of the hill. It was the hunt returning.
They saw me at once, and galloped up, speechless from sheer amazement. I believe my hands were loosened before a word was spoken. The situation was painfully ridiculous; but my story was partly out before they had time to laugh, and the rest of it was gasped to the accompaniment of pounding hoofs and cracking whips.
Never did the Netherkirk Hunt ride after fox as it rode after the Rev. William Teague that afternoon. We streamed over the moor, a thin red wave, like a rank of charging cavalry, the whip even forgetting his tired hounds that straggled aimlessly in our wake. On the hill above Bleakirk we saw that the tide was out, and our company divided without drawing rein, some four horsemen descending to the beach, to ride along the sands out under Woeful Ness, and across the Dead-Boy, hoping to gain the ridge before the madman and cut him off. The rest, whom I led by a few yards, breasted the height above and thundered past the grey churchyard wall. Inside it I caught a flying glimpse of the yellow pony quietly cropping among the tombs. We had our prey, then, enclosed in that peninsula as in a trap; but there was one outlet.
I remember looking down towards the village as we tore along, and seeing the fisher-folk run out at their doors and stand staring at the two bodies of horsemen thus rushing to the sea. The riders on the beach had a slight lead of us at first; but this they quickly lost as their horses began to be distressed in the heavy sand. I looked back for an instant. The others were close at my heels; and, behind again, the bewildered hounds followed, yelping mournfully. But neither man nor hound could see him whom they hunted, for the cliff's edge hid the quicksand in front.
Presently the turf ceased. Dismounting, I ran to the edge and plunged down the rocky face. I had descended about twenty feet, when I came to the spot where, by craning forward, I could catch sight of the spit of rock, and the Quick-Boy Sand to the right of it.
The sun—a blazing ball of red—was just now setting behind us, and its level rays fell full upon the man we were chasing. He stood on the very edge of the rocks, a black spot against the luminous yellow of sea and sand. He seemed to be meditating. His back was towards us, and he perceived neither his pursuers above nor the heads that at this moment appeared over the ridge behind him, and not fifteen yards away. The party on the beach had dismounted and were clambering up stealthily. Five seconds more and they could spring upon him.
But they under-estimated a madman's instinct. As if for no reason, he gave a quick start, turned, and at the same instant was aware of both attacking parties. A last gleam of sunlight fell on the snuff-box in his left hand; his right thumb and fore-finger hung arrested, grasping the pinch. For fully half a minute nothing happened; hunters and hunted eyed each other and waited. Then carrying the snuff to his nose, and doffing his hat, with a satirical sweep of the hand and a low bow, he turned again and tripped off the ledge into the jaws of the Quick-Boy.
There was no help now. At his third step the sand had him by the ankles. For a moment he fought it, then, throwing up his arms, sank forward, slowly and as if bowing yet, upon his face. Second by second we stood and watched him disappear. Within five minutes the ripples of the Quick-Boy Sand met once more above him.
In the course of the next afternoon the Vicar of Bleakirk called at the Hall with a paper which he had found pinned to the church door. It was evidently a scrap torn from an old letter, and bore, scribbled in pencil by a clerkly hand, these words: "The young Squire Cartwright in straits by the foot-bridge, six miles toward Netherkirk. Orate pro anima Guliemli Teague."
II.—THE CONSTANT POST-BOY.
It was a stifling August afternoon. Not a breath of wind came over the downs, and the sky was just a great flaming oven inverted over them. I sat down under a dusty gorse-bush (no tree could be seen) beside the high-road, and tugging off a boot, searched for a prickle that somehow had got into it. Then, finding myself too hot to pull the boot on again, I turned out some crumbs of tobacco from a waistcoat pocket, lit my pipe, and unbuckled my pack.
I "travel" in Tracts, edifying magazines, and books on the Holy Land; but in Tracts especially. As Watteau painted the ladies and cavaliers of Versailles so admirably, because he despised them, so I will sell a Tract against any man alive. Also, if there be one kind of Tract that I loathe more than another, it is the Pink Tract. Paper of that colour is sacred to the Loves—to stolen kisses and assignations—and to see it with a comminatory text tacked on at the foot of the page turns my stomach. I have served in my time many different masters, and mistresses; and it still pleases me, after quitting their service, to recognise the distinction between their dues. So it must have been the heat that made me select a Pink Tract. I leant back with my head in the shadow to digest its crude absurdity.
It was entitled, "How infernally Hot!" I doubt not the words were put in the mouth of some sinner, and the moral dwelt on their literal significance. But half-way down the first page sleep must have descended on me: and I woke up to the sound of light footsteps.
Pit-a-pat—pit-a-pat-a-pit-pat. I lifted my head.
Two small children were coming along the road towards me, hand-in-hand, through the heat—a boy and a girl; who, drawing near and spying my long legs sprawling out into the dust, came to a stand, finger in mouth.
"Hullo, my dears!" I called out, "what are you doing out in this weather?"
The children stared at one another, and were silent. The girl was about eight years old, wore a smart pink frock and sash, a big pink sun-bonnet, and carried an apple with a piece bitten out. She seemed a little lady; whereas the boy wore corduroys and a battered straw hat, and was a clod. Both children were exceedingly dusty and hot in the cheeks.
Finally, the girl disengaged her hand and stepped forward—
"If you please, sir, are you a clergyman?"
Now this confused me a good deal; for, to tell the truth, I had worn a white tie in my younger days, before. . . So I sat up and asked why she wished to know.
"Because we want to be married."
I drew a long breath, looked from her to the boy, and asked—
"Is that so?"
"She's wishful," answered he, nodding sulkily.
"Oho!" I thought; "Adam and Eve and the apple, complete. Do you love each other?" I asked.
"I adore Billy," cried the little maid "he's the stable-boy at the 'Woolpack' in Blea-kirk—"
"So I am beginning to smell," I put in.
—"and we put up there last night—father and I. We travel in a chaise. And this morning in the stable I saw Billy for the first time, and to see him is to love. He is far below me in station, —ain't you, Billy dear? But he rides beautifully, and is ever so strong, and not so badly ed—educated as you would fancy: he can say all his 'five-times.' And he worships me,—don't you, Billy?"
"Washups," said Billy, stolidly.
"Do you mean to tell me you have trotted in this sun all the way from Bleakirk?" I inquired.
The girl nodded. She was a splendid child—dark-haired, proud of chin, and thoroughbred down to her very toes. And the looks of fondness she threw at that stable-urchin were as good as a play.
"And what will you do," I asked, "when you are married?"
"Go home and ask my father's forgiveness. He is proud; but very, very kind."
I told them I was a clergyman, and began to cast round in my mind what to do next; for the marriage service of the Church isn't exactly the thing to repeat to two babes, and the girl was quick enough to detect and resent any attempt at fooling. So at last I persuaded them to sit together under the gorse-bush, and told them that matrimony was a serious matter, and that a long exhortation was necessary. They settled themselves to listen.
Having been twice married, I did not lack materials for a discourse. Indeed, when I talk of married life, it is a familiar experience with me to be carried away by my subject. Nor was I altogether surprised, on looking up after half an hour's oratory, to find the little ones curled in each other's arms, fast asleep.
So I spread my coat over them, and next (because the fancy took me, and not a breath of air was stirring) I treated them much as the robins treated the Babes in the Wood, strewing all my Tracts, pink and white, over them, till all but their faces was covered. And then I set off for the "Woolpack."
One spring morning, ten years later, I was standing outside the "Woolpack," drinking my mug of beer with a tall recruiting sergeant, and discussing the similarity of our professions, when a post-chaise appeared at the head of the street, and a bobbing red postillion's jacket, and a pair of greys that came down the hill with a rattle, and drew up at the inn-door.
A young lady and a young gentleman sat in the chaise, and the first glance told they were newly married. They sat in the chaise, and held each other by the hand, while the horses were changing. And because I had a bundle of tracts that fitted their condition, and because the newly married often pay for a thing beyond its worth, I approached the chaise-door.
The fresh horses were in as I began my apologies; and the post-boy was settling himself in the saddle. Judge of my astonishment when he leant back, cut me sharply across the calves with his long whip, and before I could yell had started his horses up the opposite hill at a gallop. The hind wheel missed my toes by an inch. In three minutes the carriage and red coat were but a speck on the road that led up to the downs.
I returned to my mug, emptied it moodily, broke a fine repartee on the sergeant's dull head (he was consumed with mirth), and followed the same road at a slow pace; for my business took me along it.
I was on the downs, and had walked, perhaps, six miles, when again I saw the red speck ahead of me. It was the post-boy—a post-boy returning on foot, of all miracles. He came straight up to meet me, and then stood in the road, barring my path, and tapping his riding-boot with the butt of his whip—a handsome young fellow, well proportioned and well set up.
"I want you," he said, "to walk back with me to Bleakirk."
"Upon my word!" I cried out. "Considering that Bleakirk is six miles away, that I am walking in the other direction, and that, two hours back, you gave me a cursed cut over the legs with that whip, I fancy I see myself obliging you!"
He regarded me moodily for about a minute, but did not shift his position.
"Why are you on foot?" I asked.
"Oh, my God!" he cried out quickly, as a man might that was stabbed; "I couldn't trust myself to ride; I couldn't." He shuddered, and put a hand over his eyes. "Look here," he said, "you must walk home with me, or at least see me past the Chalk-pit."
Now the Chalk-pit, when spelt with a capital letter, is an especially deep and ugly one on the very edge of the Bleakirk road, about two miles out of the village. A weak fence only separates its lip from the macadam. It is a nasty place to pass by night with a carriage; but here it was broad day, and the fellow was walking. So I didn't take him at all.
"Listen to me," he went on in a dull voice; "do you remember sitting beside this road, close on ten years back? And a boy and girl who came along this road together and asked you to marry them?"
"Bless my soul! Were you that boy?"
He nodded. "Yes: and the young lady in the chaise to-day was that girl. Old man, I know you reckon yourself clever,—I've heard you talk: but that when I met her to-day, three hours married, and she didn't know me, I had a hell in my heart as I drove past the Chalk-pit, is a thing that passes your understanding, perhaps. They were laughing together, mark you, and yet they weren't a hair's breadth from death. And, by the Lord, you must help me past that pit!"
"Young man," I said, musing, "when first I met you, you were ten years old, and I thought you a fool. To-day you have grown into an unmitigated ass. But you are dangerous; and therefore I respect you, and will see you home."
I turned back with him. When we came to the Chalk-pit, I kept him on the farther side of the road, though it cost me some terror to walk between him and the edge; for I have too much imagination to be a thoroughly brave man.
The sun was sinking as we walked down to Bleakirk; and the recruiting sergeant sat asleep outside the "Woolpack," with his head on the window-sill. I woke him up; and within half an hour my post-boy wore a bunch of ribbons on his cap—red, white, and blue.
I believe he has seen some fighting since then; and has risen in the ranks.
A DARK MIRROR.
In the room of one of my friends hangs a mirror. It is an oblong sheet of glass, set in a frame of dark, highly varnished wood, carved in the worst taste of the Regency period, and relieved with faded gilt. Glancing at it from a distance, you would guess the thing a relic from some "genteel" drawing-room of Miss Austen's time. But go nearer and look into the glass itself. By some malformation or mere freak of make, all the images it throws back are livid. Flood the room with sunshine; stand before this glass with youth and hot blood tingling on your cheeks; and the glass will give back neither sun nor colour; but your own face, blue and dead, and behind it a horror of inscrutable shadow.
Since I heard this mirror's history, I have stood more than once and twice before it, and peered into this shadow. And these are the simulacra I seem to have seen there darkly.
I have seen a bleak stone parsonage, hemmed in on two sides by a grave-yard; and behind for many miles nothing but sombre moors climbing and stretching away. I have heard the winds moaning and wuthering night and morning, among the gravestones, and around the angles of the house; and crossing the threshold, I know by instinct that this mirror will stand over the mantelpiece in the bare room to the left. I know also to whom those four suppressed voices will belong that greet me while yet my hand is on the latch. Four children are within—three girls and a boy—and they are disputing over a box of wooden soldiers. The eldest girl, a plain child with reddish-brown eyes, and the most wonderfully small hands, snatches up one of the wooden soldiers, crying, "This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!" and her soldier is the gayest of all, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. The second girl makes her choice, and they call him "Gravey" because of the solemnity of his painted features. And then all laugh at the youngest girl, for she has chosen a queer little warrior, much like herself; but she smiles at their laughter, and smiles again when they christen him "Waiting Boy." Lastly the boy chooses. He is handsomer than his sisters, and is their hope and pride; and has a massive brow and a mouth well formed though a trifle loose. His soldier shall be called Bonaparte.
Though the door is closed between us, I can see these motherless children under this same blue mirror—the glass that had helped to pale the blood on their mother's face after she left the warm Cornish sea that was her home, and came to settle and die in this bleak exile. Some of her books are in the little bookcase here. They were sent round from the West by sea, and met with shipwreck. For the most part they are Methodist Magazines—for, like most Cornish folk, her parents were followers of Wesley—and the stains of the salt water are still on their pages.
I know also that the father will be sitting in the room to my right— sitting at his solitary meal, for his digestion is queer, and he prefers to dine alone: a strange, small, purblind man, full of sorrow and strong will. He is a clergyman, but carries a revolver always in his pocket by day, and by night sleeps with it under his pillow. He has done so ever since some one told him that the moors above were unsafe for a person with his opinions.
All this the glass shows me, and more. I see the children growing up. I see the girls droop and pine in this dreary parsonage, where the winds nip, and the miasma from the churchyard chokes them. I see the handsome promising boy going to the devil—slowly at first, then by strides. As their hope fades from his sisters' faces, he drinks and takes to opium-eating—and worse. He comes home from a short absence, wrecked in body and soul. After this there is no rest in the house. He sleeps in the room with that small, persistent father of his, and often there are sounds of horrible strugglings within it. And the girls lie awake, sick with fear, listening, till their ears grow heavy and dull, for the report of their father's pistol. At morning, the drunkard will stagger out, and look perhaps into this glass, that gives him back more than all his despair. "The poor old man and I have had a terrible night of it," he stammers; "he does his best—the poor old man! but it's all over with me."
I see him go headlong at last and meet his end in the room above after twenty minutes' struggle, with a curious desire at the last to play the man and face his death standing. I see the second sister fight with a swiftly wasting disease; and, because she is a solitary Titanic spirit, refuse all help and solace. She gets up one morning, insists on dressing herself, and dies; and the youngest sister follows her but more slowly and tranquilly, as beseems her gentler nature.
Two only are left now—the queer father and the eldest of the four children, the reddish-eyed girl with the small hands, the girl who "never talked hopefully." Fame has come to her and to her dead sisters. For looking from childhood into this livid glass that reflected their world, they have peopled it with strange spirits. Men and women in the real world recognise the awful power of these spirits, without understanding them, not having been brought up themselves in front of this mirror. But the survivor knows the mirror too well.
"Mademoiselle, vous etes triste."
"Monsieur, j'en ai bien le droit."
With a last look I see into the small, commonplace church that lies just below the parsonage: and on a tablet by the altar I read a list of many names. . .
And the last is that of Charlotte Bronte.
THE SMALL PEOPLE.
To a Lady who had asked for a Fairy Tale.
You thought it natural, my dear lady, to lay this command on me at the dance last night. We had parted, two months ago, in London, and we met, unexpectedly and to music, in this corner of the land where (they say) the piskies still keep. And certainly, when I led you out upon the balcony (that you might not see the new moon through glass and lose a lucky month), it was not hard to picture the Small People at their play on the turf and among the dim flower-beds below us. But, as a matter of fact, they are dead, these Small People. They were the long-lived but not immortal spirits of the folk who inhabited Cornwall many thousands of years back—far beyond Christ's birth. They were "poor innocents," not good enough for heaven yet too good for the eternal fires; and when they first came, were of ordinary stature. But after Christ's birth they began to grow smaller and smaller, and at length turned into emmets and vanished from the earth.
The last I heard of them was a sad and serious little history, very different from the old legends. Part of it I was told by a hospital surgeon, of all people in the world. Part I learnt by looking at your beautiful gown last night, as you leant on the balcony-rail. You remember how heavy the dew was, and that I fetched a shawl for your shoulders. You did not wrap it so tightly round but that four marguerites in gold embroidery showed on the front of your bodice; and these come into the tale, the remainder of which I was taught this morning before breakfast, down among the cairns by the sea where the Small People's Gardens still remain—sheltered spots of green, with here and there some ferns and cliff-pinks left. For me they are libraries where sometimes I read for a whole summer's day; and with the help of the hospital surgeon, I bring you from them a story about your ball-gown which is perfectly true.
Twenty years ago—before the fairies had dwindled into ants, and when wayfarers were still used to turn their coats inside out, after nightfall, for fear of being "pisky-led"—there lived, down at the village, a girl who knew all the secrets of the Small People's Gardens. Where you and I discover sea-pinks only, and hear only the wash of the waves, she would go on midsummer nights and find flowers of every colour spread, and hundreds of little lights moving among them, and fountains and waterfalls and swarms of small ladies and gentlemen, dressed in green and gold, walking and sporting among them, or reposing on the turf and telling stories to the most ravishing soft music. This was as much as she would relate; but it is certain that the piskies were friends of hers. For, in spite of her nightly wanderings, her housework was always well and cleanly done before other girls were dressed—the morning milk fresh in the dairy, the step sanded, the fire lit and the scalding-pans warming over it. And as for her needlework, it was a wonder.
Some said she was a changeling; others that she had found the four-leaved clover or the fairy ointment, and rubbed her eyes with it. But it was her own secret; for whenever the people tried to follow her to the "Gardens," whir! whir! whir! buzzed in their ears, as if a flight of bees were passing, and every limb would feel as if stuck full of pins and pinched with tweezers, and they were rolled over and over, their tongues tied as if with cords, and at last, as soon as they could manage, they would pick themselves up, and hobble home for their lives.
Well, the history—which, I must remind you, is a true one—goes on to say that in time the girl grew ambitious, or fell in love (I cannot remember which), and went to London. In any case it must have been a strong call that took her: for there are no fairies in London. I regret that my researches do not allow me to tell you how the Small People at home took her departure; but we will suppose that it grieved them deeply. Nor can I say precisely how the girl fared for many years. I think her fortune contained both joy and sorrow for a while; and I suspect that many passages of her life would be sadly out of place in this story, even if they could be hunted out. Indeed, fairy-tales have to omit so much nowadays, and therefore seem so antiquated, that one marvels how they could ever have been in fashion.
But you may take it as sure that in the end this girl met with more sorrow than joy; for when next she comes into sight it is in London streets and she is in rags. Moreover, though she wears a flush on her cheeks, above the wrinkles it does not come of health or high spirits, but perhaps from the fact that in the twenty years' interval she has seen millions of men and women, but not one single fairy.
In those latter days I met her many times. She passed under your windows shortly before dawn on the night that you gave your dance, early in the season. You saw her, I think?—a woman who staggered a little, and had some words with the policeman at the corner: but, after all, a staggering woman in London is no such memorable sight. All day long she was seeking work, work, work; and after dark she sought forgetfulness. She found the one, in small quantities, and out of it she managed to buy the other, now and then, over the counter. But she had long given up looking for the fairies. The lights along the Embankment had ceased to remind her of those in the Small People's Gardens; nor did the noise bursting from music-hall doors as she passed, recall the old sounds; and as for the scents, there were plenty in London, but none resembling that of the garden which you might smell a mile out at sea.
I told you that her needlework had been a marvel when she lived down at the village. Curiously enough, this was the one gift of the fairies that stayed by her, and it remained as wonderful as ever. Her most frequent employer was a flat-footed Jew with a large, fleshy face; and because she had a name for honesty, she was not seldom entrusted with costly pieces of stuff, and allowed to carry them home to turn into ball-dresses under the roof through the gaps of which, as she stitched, she could see the night pass from purple to black, and from black to the lilac of daybreak. There, with a hundred pounds' worth of silk and lace on her knee, she would sit and work a dozen hours to earn as many pence. With fingers weary and—But you know Hood's song, and no doubt have taken it to heart a dozen times.
It came to this, however, that one evening, when she had not eaten for forty hours, her employer gave her a piece of embroidery to work against time. The fact is, my dear lady, that you are very particular about having your commissions executed to the hour, and your dressmakers are anxious to oblige, knowing that you never squabble over the price. To be sure, you have never heard of the flat-footed Jew man—how should you? And we may believe that your dressmakers knew just as little of the poor woman who had used to be the friend of the Small People. But the truth remains that, in the press of your many pleasures, you were pardonably twenty-four hours late in ordering the gown in which you were to appear an angel.
Ah, madam! will it comfort you to hear that you were the one to reconcile the Small People with that poor sister of yours who had left them, twenty years before, and wanted them so sorely? The hospital doctor gave her complaint a long name, and I gather that it has a place by itself in books of pathology. But the woman's tale was that, after she had been stitching through the long night, the dawn came through the roof and found her with four marguerites still left to be embroidered in gold on the pieces of satin that lay in her lap. She threaded her needle afresh, rubbed her weary eyes, and began—when, lo! a miracle.
Instead of one hand, there were four at work—four hands, four needles, four lines of thread. The four marguerites were all being embroidered at the same time! The piskies had forgiven, had remembered her at last, after these many years, and were coming to her help, as of old. Ah, madam, the tears of thankfulness that ran from her hot eyes and fell upon those golden marguerites of yours!
Of course her eyes were disordered. There was only one flower, really. There was only one embroidered in the morning, when they found her sobbing, with your bodice still in her lap, and took her to the hospital; and that is why the dressmakers failed to keep faith with you for once, and made you so angry.
Dear lady, the piskies are not easily summoned, in these days.
THE MAYOR OF GANTICK.
One of these days I hope to write a treatise on the Mayors of Cornwall—dignitaries whose pleasant fame is now night, remembered only in some neat by-word or saying of the country people. Thus you may hear, now and again, of "the Mayor of Falmouth, who thanked God when the town gaol was enlarged," "the Mayor of Market Jew, sitting in his own light," or "the Mayor of Calenich, who walked two miles to ride one." But the one whose history perplexed me most, till I heard the truth from an eye-witness, was "the mad Mayor of Gantick, who was wise for a long day, and then died of it."
It was an old tin-streamer who told me—a thin fellow with a shrivelled mouth, and a back bent two-double. And I heard it on the very hearthstone of the Mayor's cottage, one afternoon, as we sat and smoked in the shadow of the crumbling mud wall, with a square of blue sky for roof, and for carpet a tangle of brambles, nettles, and rank grass.
It seems that the village of Gantick, half a mile away, was used once in every year to purge itself of evil. To this end the villagers prepared a huge dragon of pasteboard and marched out with it to a sandy common, since cut up by tin-works, but still known as Dragon's Moor. Here they would choose one of their number to be Mayor, and submit to him all questions of conscience, and such cases of notorious evil living as the law failed to provide for. Summary justice waited on all his decisions; and as the village wag was usually chosen for the post, you may guess that the horse-play was rough at times. When this was over, and the public conscience purified, the company fell on the pasteboard dragon with sticks and whacked him into small pieces, which they buried in a small hollow called Dragon Pit; and so returned gladly to their homes to start on another twelve months of sin.
This feast of purification fell always on the 12th of July; and in the heyday of its celebration there lived in this cottage a widow-woman and her only son, a demented man about forty years old. There was no harm in the poor creature, who worked at the Lanihorne slate-quarries, six miles off, as a "hollibubber"—that is to say, in carting away the refuse slate. Every morning he walked to his work, mumbling to himself as he went; and though the children followed him at times, hooting and flinging stones, they grew tired at last, finding that he never resented it. His mother—a tall, silent woman with an inscrutable face—had supper ready for him when he returned, and often was forced to feed him, while he unlocked his tongue and babbled over the small adventures of the day. He was not one of those gifted idiots who hear voices in the wind and know the language of the wild birds. His talk was merely imbecile; and, for the rest, he had large grey eyes, features of that regularity which we call Greek, and stood six foot two in his shoes.
One hot morning—it was the 12th of July—he was starting for his work when an indescribable hubbub sounded up the road, and presently came by the whole rabble of Gantick with cow-horns and instruments of percussion, and in their midst the famous dragon—all green, with fiery, painted eyes, and a long tongue of red flannel. Behind it the prisoners were escorted—a pale woman or two with dazed, terrified eyes, an old man suspected of egg-stealing, a cow addicted to trespass, and so on.
The Mayor was not chosen yet, this ceremony being deferred by rule till the crowd reached Dragon's Moor. But drawing near the cottage door and catching sight of the half-witted man with his foot on the threshold, a village wit called out and proposed that they should take "the Mounster" (as he was called) along with them for Mayor.
It hit the mob's humour, and they cheered. The Mounster's mother, standing in the doorway, went white as if painted.
"Man in the lump's a hateful animal," she said to herself, hoarsely. "Come indoors, Jonathan, an' let 'em go by."
"Come an' rule over us," the crowd invited him, and a gleam of proud delight woke in his silly face.
"The heat—his head won't stand it." The woman looked up at the cloudless sky. "For God's sake take your fun elsewhere!" she cried.
The women who were led to judgment looked at her stupidly. They too suffered, without understanding, the heavy sport of men. At last one said—
"Old woman, let him come. We'll have more mercy from a mazed man."
"Sister, you've been loose, they tell me," answered the old woman, "an' must eat the bitter fruit o't. But my son's an innocent. Jonathan, they'll look for you at the works."
"There's prouder work for me 'pon Dragon's Moor," the Mounster decided, with smiling eyes. "Come along, mother, an' see me exalted."
The crowd bore him off at their head, and the din broke out again. The new Mayor strutted among them with lifted chin and a radiant face. He thought it glorious. His mother ran into the cottage, fetched a bottle and followed after the dusty tail of the procession. Once, as they were passing a running stream, she halted and filled the bottle carefully, emptying it again and again until the film outside the glass was to her liking. Then she followed again, and came to Dragon's Moor.
They sat the Mayor on a mound, took off his hat, placed a crown on his head and a broomstick in his hand, and brought him the cases to try.
The first was a grey mare, possessed (they alleged) with a devil. Her skin hung like a sack on her bones.
"'Tis Eli Thoms' mare. What's to be done to cure her?" they asked.
"Let Eli Thoms buy a comb, an' comb his mare's tail while she eats her feed. So Eli'll know if 'tis the devil or no that steals oats from his manger."
They applauded his wisdom and brought forward the woman who had pleaded just now with his mother.
"Who made her?" he asked, having listened to the charge.
"God, 'tis to be supposed."
"God makes no evil."
"The Devil, then."
"Then whack the Devil."
They fell on the pasteboard dragon and belaboured him. The sun poured down on the Mayor's throne; and his mother, who sat by his right hand wondering at his sense, gave him water to drink from the bottle. They brought a third case—a boy who had been caught torturing a cow. He had taken a saw, and tried to saw off one of her horns while she was tethered in her stall.
The Mayor leapt up from his seat.
"Kill him!" he shouted, "take him off and kill him!" His face was twisted with passion, and he lifted his stick. The crowd fell back for a second, but the old woman leant forward and touched her son softly on the leg. He stopped short: the anger died out of his face, and he shivered.
"No," he said, "I was wrong, naybours. The boy is mad, I think; an' 'tis a terrible lot, to be mad. This is the Devil's doing, out o' doubt. Beat the Devil."
"Simme," said one in the crowd, "the sins o' Gantick be wearin' out the smoky man at a terrible rate."
"Ay," answered another, "His Naughtiness bain't ekal to Gantick." And this observation was the original of a proverb, still repeated— "As naughty as Gantick, where the Devil struck for shorter hours."
There was no cruelty that day on Dragon's Moor. All the afternoon the mad Mayor sat in the sun's eye and gave judgment, while his mother from time to time wiped away the froth that gathered on his lips, and moistened them with water from her bottle. From first to last she never spoke a word, but sat with a horror in her eyes, and watched the flushed cheeks of this grown-up, bearded son. And all the afternoon the men of Gantick brayed the Devil into shreds.
I said there was no cruelty on Dragon's Moor that day. But at sundown the Mayor turned to his mother and said—
"We've been over-hasty, mother. We ought to ha' found out who made the Devil what he is." At last the sun dropped; a shadow fell on the brown moors and crept up the mound where the mother and son sat. The brightness died out of the Mayor's face.
Three minutes after, he flung up his hands and cried, "Mother—my head, my head!"
She rose, still without a word, pulled down his arms, slipped one within her own, and led him away to the road. The crowd did not interfere; they were burying the broken dragon, with shouts and rough play.
A woman followed them to the road, and tried to clasp the Mayor's knees as he staggered. His mother beat her away. "Off wi' you!" she cried; "'tis your reproach he's bearin'."
She helped him slowly home. In the shadow of the cottage the inspired look that he had worn all day returned for a moment. Then a convulsion took him, casting him on the floor.
At nine o'clock he died, with his head on her lap.
She closed his eyes, smoothed the wrinkles on his tired face, and sat watching him for some time. At length she lifted and laid him on the deal table at full length, bolted the door, put the heavy shutter on the low window, and began to light the fire.
For fuel she had a heap of peat-turves and some sticks. Having lit it, she set a crock of water to warm, and undressed the man slowly. Then, the water being ready, she washed and laid him out, chafing his limbs and talking to herself all the while.
"Fair, straight legs," she said; "beautiful body that leapt in my side, forty years back, and thrilled me! How proud I was! Why did God make you beautiful?"
All night she sat caressing him. And the smoke of the peat-turves, finding no exit and no draught to carry them up the chimney, crept around and killed her quietly beside her son.
THE DOCTOR'S FOUNDLING.
There are said to be many vipers on the Downs above the sea; but it was so pleasant to find a breeze up there allaying the fervid afternoon, that I risked the consequences and stretched myself at full length, tilting my straw hat well over my nose.
Presently, above the tic-a-tic-tick of the grasshoppers, and the wail of a passing gull, a human sound seemed to start abruptly out of the solitude—the voice of a man singing. I rose on my elbow, and pushed the straw hat up a bit. Under its brim through the quivering atmosphere, I saw the fellow, two hundred yards away, a dark obtrusive blot on the bronze landscape. He was coming along the track that would lead him down-hill to the port; and his voice fell louder on the still air—
"Ho! the prickly briar, It prickles my throat so sore— If I get out o' the prickly briar, I'll never get in any more."
"Ho! just loosen the rope"—
At this point I must have come within his view, for he halted a moment, and then turned abruptly out of the track towards me,— a scare-crow of a figure, powdered white with dust. In spite of the weather, he wore his tattered coat buttoned at the throat, with the collar turned up. Probably he possessed no shirt; certainly no socks, for his toes protruded from the broken boots. He was quite young.
Without salutation he dropped on the turf two paces off and remarked—
"It's bleedin' 'ot."
There was just a pause while he cast his eyes back on the country he had travelled; then, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the port, he inquired—
"'Ow's the old lot?"
Said I, "Look here; you're Dick Jago. How far have you walked to-day?"
He had turned on me as if ready with a sharp question, but changed his mind and answered doggedly—
"All the way from Drakeport."
"Very well; then it's right-about-face with you and back to Drakeport before I let you go. Do you see this stick? If you attempt to walk a step more towards the port, I'll crack your head with it."
He gulped down something in his throat. "Is the old man ill?" he asked.
"He's dead," said I, simply.
The fellow turned his eyes to the horizon, and began whistling the air of "The Prickly Briar" softly to himself. And while he whistled, my memory ran back to the day when he first came to trouble us, and play the fiend's mischief with a couple of dear honest hearts.
The day I travelled back to was one in the prime of May, when the lilacs were out by Dr. Jago's green gate, and the General from Drakeport Barracks, with the red and white feathers in his cocked-hat, had just cantered up the street, followed by a dozen shouting urchins, on his way to the Downs. For it was the end of the militia-training, when the review was always held; and all the morning the bugles had been sounding at the head of every street and lane where the men were billeted.
When the gold-laced General disappeared, he left the streets all but empty; for the townspeople by this time had flocked to the Downs. Only by Dr. Jago's gate there stood a small group in the sunshine. Kitty, the doctor's mare that had pulled his gig for ten years, was standing saddled in the roadway, with a stable-boy at her head; just outside the gate, the little doctor himself in regimentals and black cocked-hat with black feathers, regarding her; behind, the pleasant old face of his wife, regarding him; and, behind again, the two maid-servants regarding the group generally from behind their mistress's shoulder.
"Maria, I shall never do it," said the doctor, measuring with his eye the distance between the ground and the stirrup.
"Indeed, John, I don't think you will."
"There was a time when I'd have vaulted it. I'm abominably late as it is, Maria."
"Shall I give master a leg up?" suggested one of the maids.
"No, Susan, you will do nothing of the kind." Mrs. Jago paused, her brow wrinkled beneath her white lace cap. Then an inspiration came— "The chair—a kitchen chair, Susan!"
The maid flew; the chair was brought; and that is how the good old doctor mounted for the review. Three minutes later he was trotting soberly up the street, pausing twice to kiss his hand to his wife, who watched him proudly from the green gate, and took off her spectacles and wiped them, the better to see him out of sight.
By the time Dr. Jago reached the Downs, the review was in full swing. The colonel shouted, the captains shouted, the regiment formed, re-formed, marched, charged at the double, and fired volleys of blank cartridges. The General and orderlies galloped from spot to spot without apparent object; and all was very martial. At last the doctor grew tired of trotting up and down without being wanted. He thought with longing of some pools, half a mile away, in a hollow of the Downs, that contained certain freshwater shells about which he held a theory. The afternoon was hot. He glanced round—no one seemed to want him: so he turned Kitty into a grassy defile that led to the pools, and walked her leisurely away.
Half an hour later he stood, ankle-deep in water, groping for his shells and oblivious of the review, the firing that echoed far away, the flight of time—everything. Kitty, with one fore-leg through the bridle, was cropping on the brink. Minutes passed, and the doctor raised his head, for the blood was running into it. At that moment his eye was caught by a scarlet object under a gorse-bush on the opposite bank. He gave a second look, then waded across towards it.
It was a baby: a baby not a week old, wrapped only in a red handkerchief.
The doctor bent over it. The infant opened its eyes and began to wail. At this instant an orderly appeared on the ridge above, scanning the country. He caught sight of the doctor and descended to the opposite shore of the pool, where he saluted and yelled his message. It appeared that some awkward militiaman had blown his thumb off in the blank cartridge practice and surgical help was wanted at once.
Doctor Jago dropped the corner of the handkerchief, returned across the pool, was helped on to Kitty's back and cantered away, the orderly after him.
In an hour's time, having put on a tourniquet and bandaged the hand, he was back again by the pool. The baby was still there. He lifted it and found a scrap of paper underneath. . . .
The doctor returned by devious ways to his home, a full hour before he was expected. He rode in at the back gate, where to his secret satisfaction he found no stable-boy. So he stabled Kitty himself, and crept into his own house like a thief. Nor was it like his habits to pay, as he did, a visit to the little cupboard (where the brandy-bottle was kept) underneath the stairs, before entering the drawing-room, with his face full of guilt and diplomacy.
"Gracious, John!" cried out Mrs. Jago, dropping her knitting. "Is the review over already?"
"No, I don't think it is—at least, I don't know," stammered the doctor.
"John, you have had another attack of that vertigo."
"Upon my honour I have not, Maria." The doctor was vehement; for the vertigo necessitated brandy, and a visit to the little cupboard below the stairs meant hideous detection.
So he sat up and tried to describe the review to his wife, and made such an abject mess of it, that after twenty minutes she made up her mind that he must have a headache, and, leaving the room quietly, went to the little cupboard below the stairs. She found the door ajar. . . .
When, after a long absence, she reappeared in the drawing-room, she had forgotten to bring the brandy, and wore a look as guilty as her husband's. So they sat together and talked in the twilight on trivial matters; and each had a heart insufferably burdened, and each was waiting desperately for an opportunity to lighten it.
"John," said Mrs. Jago at last, "we are getting poor company for each other.
The doctor leapt to his feet: and these old souls, who knew each other so passing well, looked into each other's eyes, half in terror.
At that instant a feeble wail smote on their ears. It came from the cupboard underneath the stairs.
"Maria! I put it there myself, two hours ago. I picked it up on the downs. I've been—"
"You! I thought it was some beggar-woman's doing. John, John—why didn't you say so before!"
And she rushed out of the room.
This seedy scamp who reclined beside me was the child that she brought back with her from the little cupboard. They had adopted him, fed him, educated him, wrapped him round with love; and he had lived to break their hearts. Possibly there was some gipsy blood in him that defied their nurture. But the speculation is not worth going into. I only know that I felt the better that afternoon as I watched his figure diminishing on the road back to Drakeport. He had a crown of mine in his pocket, and was still singing—
"Ho! just loosen the rope, If it's only just for a while; I fancy I see my father coming Across from yonder stile."
I had lied in telling him that the old doctor was dead. As a matter of fact he lay dying that afternoon. Half-way down the hill I saw the small figure of Jacobs, the sexton, turn in at the church-gate. He was going to toll the passing-bell.
THE GIFTS OF FEODOR HIMKOFF.
It is just six years ago that I first travelled the coast from Gorrans Haven to Zoze Point.
Since then I have visited it in fair weather and foul; and in time, perhaps, shall rival the coastguardsmen, who can walk it blindfold. But to this day it remains in my recollection the coast I trod, without companion, during four dark days in December. It was a rude introduction. The wind blew in my face, with scuds of cold rain; a leaden mist hung low on the left, and rolled slowly up Channel. Now and then it thinned enough to reveal a white zigzag of breakers in front, and a blur of land; or, far below, a cluster of dripping rocks, with the sea crawling between and lifting their weed. But for the most part I saw only the furze-bushes beside the path, each powdered with fine raindrops, that in the aggregate resembled a coat of grey frieze, and the puffs of spray that shot up over the cliff's lip and drenched me.
Just beyond the Nare Head, where the path dipped steeply, a bright square disengaged itself from the mist as I passed, and, around it, the looming outline of a cottage, between the footpath and the sea. A habitation more desolate than this odd angle of the coast could hardly have been chosen; on the other hand, the glow of firelight within the kitchen window was almost an invitation. It seemed worth my while to ask for a drink of milk there, and find out what manner of folk were the inmates.
An old woman answered my knock. She was tall, with a slight stoop, and a tinge of yellow pervading her face, as if some of the complexion had run into her teeth and the whites of her eyes. A clean white cap, tied under the chin with tape, concealed all but the edge of her grey locks. She wore a violet turnover, a large wrapper, a brown stuff gown that hardly reached her ankles, and thick worsted stockings, but no shoes.
"A drink o' milk? Why not a dish o' tea?"
"That will be troubling you," said I, a bit ashamed for feeling so little in want of sustenance.
"Few they be that troubles us, my dear. Too few by land, an' too many by sea, rest their dear souls! Step inside by the fire. There's only my old man here, an' you needn't stand 'pon ceremony wi' he: for he's stone-deaf an' totelin'. Isaac, you poor deaf haddock, here's a strange body for 'ee to look at; tho' you'm past all pomp but buryin', I reckon." She sighed as I stepped past into the warmth.
The man she called Isaac was huddled and nodding in a chair, before the bluish blaze of a wreck-wood fire. He met me with an incurious stare, and began to doze again. He was clearly in the last decline of manhood, the stage of utter childishness and mere oblivion; and sat there with his faculties collapsed, waiting for release.
My mired boots played havoc with the neatly sanded floor; but the old woman dusted a chair for me as carefully as if I had worn robes of state, and set it on the other side of the hearth. Then she put the kettle to boil, and unhitching a cup from the dresser, took a key from it, and opened a small cupboard between the fireplace and the wall. That which she sought stood on the top shelf and she had to climb on a chair to reach it. I offered my help: but no—she would get it herself. It proved to be a small green canister.
The tea that came from this canister I wish I could describe. No sooner did the boiling water touch it than the room was filled with fragrance. The dotard in the chair drew a long breath through his nostrils, as though the aroma touched some quick centre in his moribund brain. The woman poured out a cup, and I sipped it.
"Smuggled," I thought to myself; for indeed you cannot get such tea in London if you pay fifty shillings a pound.
"You like it?" she asked. Before I could answer, a small table stood at my elbow, and she was loading it with delicacies from the cupboard. The contents of that cupboard! Caviare came from it, and a small ambrosial cheese; dried figs and guava jelly; olives, cherries in brandy, wonderful filberts glazed with sugar; biscuits and all manner of queer Russian sweets. I leant back with wide eyes.
"Feodor sends us these," said the old woman, bringing a dish of Cornish cream and a home-made loaf to give the feast a basis.
"Feodor Himkoff." She paused a moment, and added, "He's mate on a Russian vessel."
The question went unnoticed. "Is there any you fancy?" she asked. "Some o't may be outlandish eatin'."
"Do you like these things?" I looked from her to the caviare.
"I don't know. I never tried. We keeps 'em, my man an' I, for all poor come-by-chance folks that knocks."
"But these are dainties for rich men's tables."
"May be. I've never tasted—they'd stick in our ozels if we tried."
I wanted to ask a dozen questions, but thought it politer to accept this strange hospitality in silence. Glancing up presently, however, I saw her eyes still fixed on me, and laid down my knife.
"I can't help it," I said, "I want to know about Feodor Himkoff."
"There's no secret," she answered. "Leastways, there was one, but either God has condemned or forgiven afore now. Look at my man there; he's done all the repentin' he's likely to do."
After a few seconds' hesitation she went on—
"I had a boy, you must know—oh! a straight young man—that went for a soldier, an' was killed at Inkerman by the Rooshians. Take another look at his father here; you think 'en a bundle o' frailties, I dessay. Well, when the news was brought us, this poor old worm lifts his fist up to the sun an' says, 'God do so to me an' more also,' he says, 'if ever I falls across a Rooshian!' An' 'God send me a Rooshian—just one!' he says, meanin' that Rooshians don't grow on brambles hereabouts. Now the boy was our only flesh.
"Well, sir, nigh sixteen year' went by, an' we two were sittin', one quakin' night, beside this very fire, hearkenin' to the bedlam outside: for 'twas the big storm in 'Seventy, an' even indoors we must shout to make ourselves heard. About ten, as we was thinkin' to alley-couchey, there comes a bangin' on the door, an' Isaac gets up an' lets the bar down, singin' out, 'Who is it?'
"There was a big young man 'twixt the doorposts, drippin' wet, wi' smears o' blood on his face, an' white teeth showin' when he talked. 'Twas a half-furrin talk, an' he spoke a bit faint too, but fairly grinned for joy to see our warm fire,—an' his teeth were white as pearl.
"'Ah, sir,' he cried, 'you will help? Our barque is ashore below— fifteen poor brothers! You will send for help?—you will aid?'
"Then Isaac stepped back, and spoke very slow—'What nation?' he asked. 'She is Russ—we are all Russ; sixteen poor brothers from Archangel,' said the young man, as soon as he took in the question. My man slewed round on his heel, and walked to the hearth here; but the sailor stretched out his hands, an' I saw the middle finger of his right hand was gone. 'You will aid, eh? Ah, yes, you will aid. They are clingin'—so—fifteen poor brothers, and many have wives.' But Isaac said, 'Thank Thee, God,' and picked up a log from the hearth here. 'Take 'em this message,' said he, facin' round; an', runnin' on the sailor, who was faint and swayin', beat him forth wi' the burnin' stick, and bolted the door upon him.