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The House on the Beach
by George Meredith
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"It's his furniture, poor man, he sticks to: and nothing gets round the heart so!" resumed Mrs. Crickledon. "There goes his bed-linen!"

The sheet was whirled and snapped away by the wind; distended doubled, like a flock of winter geese changeing alphabetical letters on the clouds, darted this way and that, and finally outspread on the waters breaking against Marine Parade.

"They cannot have thought there was positive danger in remaining," said Annette.

"Mr. Tinman was waiting for the cheapest Insurance office," a man remarked to Mrs. Crickledon.

"The least to pay is to the undertaker," she replied, standing on tiptoe. "And it's to be hoped he 'll pay more to-day. If only those walls don't fall and stop the chance of the boat to save him for more outlay, poor man! What boats was on the beach last night, high up and over the ridge as they was, are planks by this time and only good for carpenters."

"Half our town's done for," one old man said; and another followed him in a pious tone: "From water we came and to water we go."

They talked of ancient inroads of the sea, none so serious as this threatened to be for them. The gallant solidity, of the house on the beach had withstood heavy gales: it was a brave house. Heaven be thanked, no fishing boats were out. Chiefly well-to-do people would be the sufferers—an exceptional case. For it is the mysterious and unexplained dispensation that: "Mostly heaven chastises we."

A knot of excited gazers drew the rest of the field to them. Mrs. Crickledon, on the edge of the crowd, reported what was doing to Annette and Miss Fellingham. A boat had been launched from the town. "Praise the Lord, there's none but coastguard in it!" she exclaimed, and excused herself for having her heart on her husband.

Annette was as deeply thankful that her father was not in the boat.

They looked round and saw Herbert beside them. Van Diemen was in the rear, panting, and straining his neck to catch sight of the boat now pulling fast across a tumbled sea to where Tinman himself was perceived, beckoning them wildly, half out of one of the windows.

"A pound apiece to those fellows, and two if they land Mart Tinman dry; I've promised it, and they'll earn it. Look at that! Quick, you rascals!"

To the east a portion of the house had fallen, melted away. Where it stood, just below the line of shingle, it was now like a structure wasting on a tormented submerged reef. The whole line was given over to the waves.

"Where is his sister?" Annette shrieked to her father.

"Safe ashore; and one of the women with her. But Mart Tinman would stop, the fool! to-poor old boy! save his papers and things; and has n't a head to do it, Martha Cavely tells me. They're at him now! They've got him in! There's another? Oh! it's a girl, who would n't go and leave him. They'll pull to the field here. Brave lads!—By jingo, why ain't Englishmen always in danger!—eh? if you want to see them shine!"

"It's little Jane," said Mrs. Crickledon, who had been joined by her husband, and now that she knew him to be no longer in peril, kept her hand on him to restrain him, just for comfort's sake.

The boat held under the lee of the house-wreck a minute; then, as if shooting a small rapid, came down on a wave crowned with foam, to hurrahs from the townsmen.

"They're all right," said Van Diemen, puffing as at a mist before his eyes. "They'll pull westward, with the wind, and land him among us. I remember when old Mart and I were bathing once, he was younger than me, and could n't swim much, and I saw him going down. It'd have been hard to see him washed off before one's eyes thirty years afterwards. Here they come. He's all right. He's in his dressing-gown!"

The crowd made way for Mr. Van Diemen Smith to welcome his friend. Two of the coastguard jumped out, and handed him to the dry bank, while Herbert, Van Diemen, and Crickledon took him by hand and arm, and hoisted him on to the flint wall, preparatory to his descent into the field. In this exposed situation the wind, whose pranks are endless when it is once up, seized and blew Martin Tinman's dressing-gown wide as two violently flapping wings on each side of him, and finally over his head.

Van Diemen turned a pair of stupefied flat eyes on Herbert, who cast a sly look at the ladies. Tinman had sprung down. But not before the. world, in one tempestuous glimpse, had caught sight of the Court suit.

Perfect gravity greeted him from the crowd.

"Safe, old Mart! and glad to be able to say it," said Van Diemen.

"We are so happy," said Annette.

"House, furniture, property, everything I possess!" ejaculated Tinman, shivering.

"Fiddle, man; you want some hot breakfast in you. Your sister has gone on—to Elba. Come you too, old Man; and where's that plucky little girl who stood by—"

"Was there a girl?" said Tinman.

"Yes, and there was a boy wanted to help." Van Diemen pointed at Herbert.

Tinman looked, and piteously asked, "Have you examined Marine Parade and Belle Vue? It depends on the tide!"

"Here is little Jane, sir," said Mrs. Crickledon.

"Fall in," Van Diemen said to little Jane.

The girl was bobbing curtseys to Annette, on her introduction by Mrs. Crickledon.

"Martin, you stay at my house; you stay at Elba till you get things comfortable about you, and then you shall have the Crouch for a year, rent free. Eh, Netty?"

Annette chimed in: "Anything we can do, anything. Nothing can be too much."

Van Diemen was praising little Jane for her devotion to her master.

"Master have been so kind to me," said little Jane.

"Now, march; it is cold," Van Diemen gave the word, and Herbert stood by Mary rather dejectedly, foreseeing that his prospects at Elba were darkened.

"Now then, Mart, left leg forward," Van Diemen linked his arm in his friend's.

"I must have a look," Tinman broke from him, and cast a forlorn look of farewell on the last of the house on the beach.

"You've got me left to you, old Mart; don't forget that," said Van Diemen.

Tinman's chest fell. "Yes, yes," he responded. He was touched.

"And I told those fellows if they landed you dry they should have—I'd give them double pay; and I do believe they've earned their money."

"I don't think I'm very wet, I'm cold," said Tinman.

"You can't help being cold, so come along."

"But, Philip!" Tinman lifted his voice; "I've lost everything. I tried to save a little. I worked hard, I exposed my life, and all in vain."

The voice of little Jane was heard.

"What's the matter with the child?" said Van Diemen.

Annette went up to her quietly.

But little Jane was addressing her master.

"Oh! if you please, I did manage to save something the last thing when the boat was at the window, and if you please, sir, all the bundles is lost, but I saved you a papercutter, and a letter Horse Guards, and here they are, sir."

The grateful little creature drew the square letter and paper-cutter from her bosom, and held them out to Mr. Tinman.

It was a letter of the imposing size, with THE HORSE GUARDS very distinctly inscribed on it in Tinman's best round hand, to strike his vindictive spirit as positively intended for transmission, and give him sight of his power to wound if it pleased him; as it might.

"What!" cried he, not clearly comprehending how much her devotion had accomplished for him.

"A letter to the Horse Guards!" cried Van Diemen.

"Here, give it me," said little Jane's master, and grasped it nervously.

"What's in that letter?" Van Diemen asked. "Let me look at that letter. Don't tell me it's private correspondence."

"My dear Philip, dear friend, kind thanks; it's not a letter," said Tinman.

"Not a letter! why, I read the address, 'Horse Guards.' I read it as it passed into your hands. Now, my man, one look at that letter, or take the consequences."

"Kind thanks for your assistance, dear Philip, indeed! Oh! this? Oh! it's nothing." He tore it in halves.

His face was of the winter sea-colour, with the chalk wash on it.

"Tear again, and I shall know what to think of the contents," Van Diemen frowned. "Let me see what you've said. You've sworn you would do it, and there it is at last, by miracle; but let me see it and I'll overlook it, and you shall be my house-mate still. If not!——"

Tinman tore away.

"You mistake, you mistake, you're entirely wrong," he said, as he pursued with desperation his task of rendering every word unreadable.

Van Diemen stood fronting him; the accumulation of stores of petty injuries and meannesses which he had endured from this man, swelled under the whip of the conclusive exhibition of treachery. He looked so black that Annette called, "Papa!"

"Philip," said Tinman. "Philip! my best friend!"

"Pooh, you're a poor creature. Come along and breakfast at Elba, and you can sleep at the Crouch, and goodnight to you. Crickledon," he called to the houseless couple, "you stop at Elba till I build you a shop."

With these words, Van Diemen led the way, walking alone. Herbert was compelled to walk with Tinman.

Mary and Annette came behind, and Mary pinched Annette's arm so sharply that she must have cried out aloud had it been possible for her to feel pain at that moment, instead of a personal exultation, flying wildly over the clash of astonishment and horror, like a sea-bird over the foam.

In the first silent place they came to, Mary murmured the words: "Little Jane."

Annette looked round at Mrs. Crickledon, who wound up the procession, taking little Jane by the hand. Little Jane was walking demurely, with a placid face. Annette glanced at Tinman. Her excited feelings nearly rose to a scream of laughter. For hours after, Mary had only to say to her: "Little Jane," to produce the same convulsion. It rolled her heart and senses in a headlong surge, shook her to burning tears, and seemed to her ideas the most wonderful running together of opposite things ever known on this earth. The young lady was ashamed of her laughter; but she was deeply indebted to it, for never was mind made so clear by that beneficent exercise.

ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:

Adversary at once offensive and helpless provokes brutality Causes him to be popularly weighed Distinguished by his not allowing himself to be provoked Eccentric behaviour in trifles Excited, glad of catastrophe if it but killed monotony Generally he noticed nothing Good jokes are not always good policy I make a point of never recommending my own house Indulged in their privilege of thinking what they liked Infants are said to have their ideas, and why not young ladies? Lend him your own generosity Men love to boast of things nobody else has seen Naughtily Australian and kangarooly Not in love—She was only not unwilling to be in love Rich and poor 's all right, if I'm rich and you're poor She began to feel that this was life in earnest She dealt in the flashes which connect ideas She sought, by looking hard, to understand it better Sunning itself in the glass of Envy That which fine cookery does for the cementing of couples The intricate, which she takes for the infinite Tossed him from repulsion to incredulity, and so back Two principal roads by which poor sinners come to a conscience

THE END

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