I SAW THREE SHIPS AND OTHER WINTER TALES.
BY ARTHUR THOMAS QUILLER-COUCH ("Q").
To T. Wemyss Reid.
I SAW THREE SHIPS.
CHAPTER I. The First Ship.
CHAPTER II. The Second Ship.
CHAPTER III. The Stranger.
CHAPTER IV. Young Zeb fetches a Chest of Drawers.
CHAPTER V. The Stranger Dances in Young Zeb's Shoes.
CHAPTER VI. Siege is Lad to Ruby.
CHAPTER VII. The "Jolly Pilchards"
CHAPTER VIII. Young Zeb Sells His Soul.
CHAPTER IX. Young Zeb Wins His Soul Back.
CHAPTER X. The Third Ship.
THE HAUNTED DRAGOON.
A BLUE PANTOMIME.
I. How I Dined at the "Indian Queens".
II. What I Saw in the Mirror.
III. What I Saw in the Tarn.
IV. What I have Since Learnt
THE TWO HOUSEHOLDERS.
THE DISENCHANTMENT OF ELIZABETH.
I SAW THREE SHIPS.
THE FIRST SHIP.
In those west-country parishes where but a few years back the feast of Christmas Eve was usually prolonged with cake and cider, "crowding," and "geese dancing," till the ancient carols ushered in the day, a certain languor not seldom pervaded the services of the Church a few hours later. Red eyes and heavy, young limbs hardly rested from the Dashing White Sergeant and Sir Roger, throats husky from a plurality of causes—all these were recognised as proper to the season, and, in fact, of a piece with the holly on the communion rails.
On a dark and stormy Christmas morning as far back as the first decade of the century, this languor was neither more nor less apparent than usual inside the small parish church of Ruan Lanihale, although Christmas fell that year on a Sunday, and dancing should, by rights, have ceased at midnight. The building stands high above a bleak peninsula on the South Coast, and the congregation had struggled up with heads slanted sou'-west against the weather that drove up the Channel in a black fog. Now, having gained shelter, they quickly lost the glow of endeavour, and mixed in pleasing stupor the humming of the storm in the tower above, its intermittent onslaughts on the leadwork of the southern windows, and the voice of Parson Babbage lifted now and again from the chancel as if to correct the shambling pace of the choir in the west gallery.
"Mark me," whispered Old Zeb Minards, crowder and leader of the musicians, sitting back at the end of the Psalms, and eyeing his fiddle dubiously; "If Sternhold be sober this morning, Hopkins be drunk as a fly, or 'tis t'other way round."
"'Twas middlin' wambly," assented Calvin Oke, the second fiddle—a screw-faced man tightly wound about the throat with a yellow kerchief.
"An' 'tis a delicate matter to cuss the singers when the musicianers be twice as bad."
"I'd a very present sense of being a bar or more behind the fair—that I can honestly vow," put in Elias Sweetland, bending across from the left. Now Elias was a bachelor, and had blown the serpent from his youth up. He was a bald, thin man, with a high leathern stock, and shoulders that sloped remarkably.
"Well, 'taint a suent engine at the best, Elias—that o' yourn," said his affable leader, "nor to be lightly trusted among the proper psa'ms, 'specially since Chris'mas three year, when we sat in the forefront of the gallery, an' you dropped all but the mouthpiece overboard on to Aunt Belovely's bonnet at 'I was glad when they said unto me.'"
"Aye, poor soul. It shook her. Never the same woman from that hour, I do b'lieve. Though I'd as lief you didn't mention it, friends, if I may say so; for 'twas a bitter portion."
Elias patted his instrument sadly, and the three men looked up for a moment, as a scud of rain splashed on the window, drowning a sentence of the First Lesson.
"Well, well," resumed Old Zeb, "we all have our random intervals, and a drop o' cider in the mouthpieces is no less than Pa'son looks for, Chris'mas mornin's."
"Trew, trew as proverbs."
"Howsever, 'twas cruel bad, that last psa'm, I won't gainsay. As for that long-legged boy o' mine, I keep silence, yea, even from hard words, considerin' what's to come. But 'tis given to flutes to make a noticeable sound, whether tunable or false."
"Terrible shy he looks, poor chap!"
The three men turned and contemplated Young Zeb Minards, who sat on their left and fidgeted, crossing and uncrossing his legs.
"How be feelin', my son?"
"Very whitely, father; very whitely, an' yet very redly."
Elias Sweetland, moved by sympathy, handed across a peppermint drop.
"Hee-hee!" now broke in an octogenarian treble, that seemed to come from high up in the head of Uncle Issy, the bass-viol player; "But cast your eyes, good friends, 'pon a little slip o' heart's delight down in the nave, and mark the flowers 'pon the bonnet nid-nodding like bees in a bell, with unspeakable thoughts."
"'Tis the world's way wi' females."
"I'll wager, though, she wouldn't miss the importance of it—yea, not for much fine gold."
"Well said, Uncle," commented the crowder, a trifle more loudly as the wind rose to a howl outside: "Lord, how this round world do spin! Simme 'twas last week I sat as may be in the corner yonder (I sang bass then), an' Pa'son Babbage by the desk statin' forth my own banns, an' me with my clean shirt collar limp as a flounder. As for your mother, Zeb, nuthin 'ud do but she must dream o' runnin' water that Saturday night, an' want to cry off at the church porch because 'twas unlucky. 'Nothin' shall injuce me, Zeb,' says she, and inside the half hour there she was glintin' fifty ways under her bonnet, to see how the rest o' the maidens was takin' it."
"Hey," murmured Elias, the bachelor; "but it must daunt a man to hear his name loudly coupled wi' a woman's before a congregation o' folks."
"'Tis very intimate," assented Old Zeb. But here the First Lesson ended. There was a scraping of feet, then a clearing of throats, and the musicians plunged into "O, all ye works of the Lord."
Young Zeb, amid the moaning of the storm outside the building and the scraping and zooming of the instruments, string and reed, around him, felt his head spin; but whether from the lozenge (that had suffered from the companionship of a twist of tobacco in Elias Sweetland's pocket), or the dancing last night, or the turbulence of his present emotions, he could not determine. Year in and year out, grey morning or white, a gloom rested always on the singers' gallery, cast by the tower upon the south side, that stood apart from the main building, connected only by the porch roof, as by an isthmus. And upon eyes used to this comparative obscurity the nave produced the effect of a bright parterre of flowers, especially in those days when all the women wore scarlet cloaks, to scare the French if they should invade. Zeb's gaze, amid the turmoil of sound, hovered around one such cloak, rested on a slim back resolutely turned to him, and a jealous bonnet, wandered to the bald scalp of Farmer Tresidder beside it, returned to Calvin Qke's sawing elbow and the long neck of Elias Sweetland bulging with the fortissimo of "O ye winds of God," then fluttered back to the red cloak.
These vagaries were arrested by three words from the mouth of Old Zeb, screwed sideways over his fiddle.
Young Zeb started, puffed out his cheeks, and blew a shriller note. During the rest of the canticle his eyes were glued to the score, and seemed on the point of leaving their sockets with the vigour of the performance.
"Sooner thee'st married the better for us, my son," commented his father at the close; "else farewell to psa'mody!"
But Young Zeb did not reply. In fact, what remained of the peppermint lozenge had somehow jolted into his windpipe, and kept him occupied with the earlier symptoms of strangulation.
His facial contortions, though of the liveliest, were unaccompanied by sound, and, therefore, unheeded. The crowder, with his eyes contemplatively fastened on the capital of a distant pillar, was pursuing a train of reflection upon Church music; and the others regarded the crowder.
"Now supposin', friends, as I'd a-fashioned the wondrous words o' the ditty we've just polished off; an' supposin' a friend o' mine, same as Uncle Issy might he, had a-dropped in, in passin', an' heard me read the same. 'Hullo!' he'd 'a said, 'You've a-put the same words twice over.' 'How's that?' 'How's that? Why, here's O ye Whales (pointin' wi' his finger), an' lo! again, O ye Wells.' ''T'aint the same,' I'd ha' said. 'Well,' says Uncle Issy, ''tis spoke so, anyways'—"
"Crowder, you puff me up," murmured Uncle Issy, charmed with this imaginative and wholly flattering sketch. "No—really now! Though, indeed, strange words have gone abroad before now, touching my wisdom; but I blow no trumpet."
"Such be your very words," the crowder insisted. "Now mark my answer. 'Uncle Issy,' says I, quick as thought, 'you dunderheaded old antic,— leave that to the musicianers. At the word 'whales,' let the music go snorty; an' for wells, gliddery; an' likewise in a moving dulcet manner for the holy an' humble Men o' heart.' Why, 'od rabbet us!—what's wrong wi' that boy?"
All turned to Young Zeb, from whose throat uncomfortable sounds were issuing. His eyes rolled piteously, and great tears ran down his cheeks.
"Slap en 'pon the back, Calvin: he's chuckin'."
"Ay—an' the pa'son at' here endeth!'"
"Slap en, Calvin, quick! For 'tis clunk or stuffle, an' no time to lose."
Down in the nave a light rustle of expectancy was already running from pew to pew as Calvin Oke brought down his open palm with a whack! knocking the sufferer out of his seat, and driving his nose smartly against the back-rail in front.
Then the voice of Parson Babbage was lifted: "I publish the Banns of marriage between Zebedee Minards, bachelor, and Ruby Tresidder, spinster, both of this parish. If any of you know cause, or just impediment, why these two persons—"
At this instant the church-door flew open, as if driven in by the wind that tore up the aisle in an icy current. All heads were turned. Parson Babbage broke off his sentence and looked also, keeping his forefinger on the fluttering page. On the threshold stood an excited, red-faced man, his long sandy beard blown straight out like a pennon, and his arms moving windmill fashion as he bawled—
"A wreck! a wreck!"
The men in the congregation leaped up. The women uttered muffled cries, groped for their husbands' hats, and stood up also. The choir in the gallery craned forward, for the church-door was right beneath them. Parson Babbage held up his hand, and screamed out over the hubbub—
"Where's she to?"
"Under Bradden Point, an' comin' full tilt for the Raney!"
"Then God forgive all poor sinners aboard!" spoke up a woman's voice, in the moment's silence that followed.
"Is that all you know, Gauger Hocken?"
"Iss, iss: can't stop no longer—must be off to warn the Methodeys! 'Stablished Church first, but fair play's a jewel, say I."
He rushed off inland towards High Lanes, where the meeting-house stood. Parson Babbage closed the book without finishing his sentence, and his audience scrambled out over the graves and forth upon the headland. The wind here came howling across the short grass, blowing the women's skirts wide and straining their bonnet-strings, pressing the men's trousers tight against their shins as they bent against it in the attitude of butting rams and scanned the coast-line to the sou'-west. Ruby Tresidder, on gaining the porch, saw Young Zeb tumble out of the stairway leading from the gallery and run by, stowing the pieces of his flute in his pocket as he went, without a glance at her. Like all the rest, he had clean forgotten the banns.
Now, Ruby was but nineteen, and had seen plenty of wrecks, whereas these banns were to her an event of singular interest, for weeks anticipated with small thrills. Therefore, as the people passed her by, she felt suddenly out of tune with them, especially with Zeb, who, at least, might have understood her better. Some angry tears gathered in her eyes at the callous indifference of her father, who just now was revolving in the porch like a weathercock, and shouting orders east, west, north, and south for axes, hammers, ladders, cart-ropes, in case the vessel struck within reach.
"You, Jim Lewarne, run to the mowhay, hot-foot, an' lend a hand wi' the datchin' ladder, an'—hi! stop!—fetch along my second-best glass, under the Dook o' Cumberland's picter i' the parlour, 'longside o' last year's neck; an'-hi! cuss the chap—he's gone like a Torpointer! Ruby, my dear, step along an' show en—Why, hello!—"
Ruby, with head down, and scarlet cloak blown out horizontally, was already fighting her way out along the headland to a point where Zeb stood, a little apart from the rest, with both palms shielding his eyes.
She had to stand on tip-toe and bawl this into his ear. He faced round with a start, nodded as if pleased, and bent his gaze on the Channel again.
Ruby looked too. Just below, under veils of driving spray, the seas were thundering past the headland into Ruan Cove. She could not see them break, only their backs swelling and sinking, and the puffs of foam that shot up like white smoke at her feet and drenched her gown. Beyond, the sea, the sky, and the irregular coast with its fringe of surf melted into one uniform grey, with just the summit of Bradden Point, two miles away, standing out above the wrack. Of the vessel there was, as yet, no sign.
In Ruby's present mood the bitter blast was chiefly blameworthy for gnawing at her face, and the spray for spoiling her bonnet and taking her hair out of curl. She stamped her foot and screamed again—
"What is't, my dear?" he bawled back in her ear, kissing her wet cheek in a preoccupied manner.
She was about to ask him what this wreck amounted to, that she should for the moment sink to nothing in comparison with it. But, at this instant, a small group of men and women joined them, and, catching sight of the faces of Sarah Ann Nanjulian and Modesty Prowse, her friends, she tried another tack—
"Well, Zeb, no doubt 'twas disappointing for you; but don't 'ee take on so. Think how much harder 'tis for the poor souls i' that ship."
This astute sentence, however, missed fire completely. Zeb answered it with a point-blank stare of bewilderment. The others took no notice of it whatever.
"Hav'ee seen her, Zeb?" called out his father.
"Nor I nuther. 'Reckon 'tis all over a'ready. I've a-heard afore now," he went on, turning his back to the wind the better to wink at the company, "that 'tis lucky for some folks Gauger Hocken hain't extra spry 'pon his pins. But 'tis a gift that cuts both ways. Be any gone round by Cove Head to look out?"
"Iss, a dozen or more. I saw 'em 'pon the road, a minute back, like emmets runnin'."
"'Twas very nice feelin', I must own—very nice indeed—of Gauger Hocken to warn the church-folk first; and him a man of no faith, as you may say. Hey? What's that? Dost see her, Zeb?"
For Zeb, with his right hand pressing down his cap, now suddenly flung his left out in the direction of Bradden Point. Men and women craned forward.
Below the distant promontory, a darker speck had started out of the medley of grey tones. In a moment it had doubled its size—had become a blur—then a shape. And at length, out of the leaden wrack, there emerged a small schooner, with tall, raking masts, flying straight towards them.
"Dear God!" muttered some one, while Ruby dug her finger-tips into Zeb's arm.
The schooner raced under bare poles, though a strip or two of canvas streamed out from her fore-yards. Yet she came with a rush like a greyhound's, heeling over the whitened water, close under the cliffs, and closer with every instant. A man, standing on any one of the points she cleared so narrowly, might have tossed a pebble on to her deck.
"Hey, friends, but she'll not weather Gaffer's Rock. By crum! if she does, they may drive her in 'pon the beach, yet!"
"What's the use, i' this sea? Besides, her steerin' gear's broke," answered Zeb, without moving his eyes.
This Gaffer's Rock was the extreme point of the opposite arm of the cove—a sharp tooth rising ten feet or more above high-water mark. As the little schooner came tearing abreast of it, a huge sea caught her broadside, and lifted as if to fling her high and dry. The men and women on the headland held their breath while she hung on its apex. Then she toppled and plunged across the mouth of the cove, quivering. She must have shaved the point by a foot.
"The Raney! the Raney!" shouted young Zeb, shaking off Ruby's clutch. "The Raney, or else—"
He did not finish his sentence, for the stress of the flying seconds choked down his words. Two possibilities they held, and each big with doom. Either the schooner must dash upon the Raney—a reef, barely covered at high water, barring entrance to the cove—or avoiding this, must be shattered on the black wall of rock under their very feet. The end of the little vessel was written—all but one word: and that must be added within a short half-minute.
Ruby saw this: it was plain for a child to read. She saw the curded tide, now at half-flood, boiling around the Raney; she saw the little craft swoop down on it, half buried in the seas through which she was being impelled; she saw distinctly one form, and one only, on the deck beside the helm—a form that flung up its hands as it shot by the smooth edge of the reef, a hand's-breadth off destruction. The hands were still lifted as it passed under the ledge where she stood.
It seemed, as she stood there shivering, covering her eyes, an age before the crash came, and the cry of those human souls in their extremity.
When at length she took her hands from her face the others were twenty yards away, and running fast.
THE SECOND SHIP.
Fate, which had freakishly hurled a ship's crew out of the void upon this particular bit of coast, as freakishly preserved them.
The very excess of its fury worked this wonder. For the craft came in on a tall billow that flung her, as a sling might, clean against the cliff's face, crumpling the bowsprit like paper, sending the foremast over with a crash, and driving a jagged tooth of rock five feet into her ribs beside the breastbone. So, for a moment it left her, securely gripped and bumping her stern-post on the ledge beneath. As the next sea deluged her, and the next, the folk above saw her crew fight their way forward up the slippery deck, under sheets of foam. With the fifth or six wave her mizen-mast went; she split open amidships, pouring out her cargo. The stern slipped off the ledge and plunged twenty fathoms down out of sight. And now the fore-part alone remained—a piece of deck, the stump of the foremast, and five men clinging in a tangle of cordage, struggling up and toppling back as each successive sea soused over them.
Three men had detached themselves from the group above the cliff, and were sidling down its face cautiously, for the hurricane now flattened them back against the rock, now tried to wrench them from it; and all the way it was a tough battle for breath. The foremost was Jim Lewarne, Farmer Tresidder's hind, with a coil of the farmer's rope slung round him. Young Zeb followed, and Elias Sweetland, both similarly laden.
Less than half-way down the rock plunged abruptly, cutting off farther descent.
Jim Lewarne, in a cloud of foam, stood up, slipped the coil over his head, and unwound it, glancing to right and left. Now Jim amid ordinary events was an acknowledged fool, and had a wife to remind him of it; but perch him out of female criticism, on a dizzy foothold such as this, and set him a desperate job, and you clarified his wits at once. This eccentricity was so notorious that the two men above halted in silence, and waited.
Jim glanced to right and left, spied a small pinnacle of rock about three yards away, fit for his purpose, sidled towards it, and, grasping, made sure that it was firm. Next, reeving one end of the rope into a running noose, he flung it over the pinnacle, and with a tug had it taut. This done, he tilted his body out, his toes on the ledge, his weight on the rope, and his body inclined forward over the sea at an angle of some twenty degrees from the cliff.
Having by this device found the position of the wreck, and judging that his single rope would reach, he swung back, gained hold of the cliff with his left hand, and with his right caught and flung the leaded end far out. It fell true as a bullet, across the wreck. As it dropped, a sea almost swept it clear; but the lead hitched in a tangle of cordage by the port cathead; within twenty seconds the rope was caught and made fast below.
All was now easy. At a nod from Jim young Zeb passed down a second line, which was lowered along the first by a noose. One by one the whole crew—four men and a cabin-boy—were hauled up out of death, borne off to the vicarage, and so pass out of our story.
Their fate does not concern us, for this reason—men with a narrow horizon and no wings must accept all apparent disproportions between cause and effect. A railway collision has other results besides wrecking an ant-hill, but the wise ants do not pursue these in the Insurance Reports. So it only concerns us that the destruction of the schooner led in time to a lovers' difference between Ruby and young Zeb—two young people of no eminence outside of these pages. And, as a matter of fact, her crew had less to do with this than her cargo.
She had been expressly built by Messrs. Taggs & Co., a London firm, in reality as a privateer (which explains her raking masts), but ostensibly for the Portugal trade; and was homeward bound from Lisbon to the Thames, with a cargo of red wine and chestnuts. At Falmouth, where she had run in for a couple of days, on account of a damaged rudder, the captain paid off his extra hands, foreseeing no difficulty in the voyage up Channel. She had not, however, left Falmouth harbour three hours before she met with a gale that started her steering-gear afresh. To put back in the teeth of such weather was hopeless; and the attempt to run before it ended as we know.
When Ruby looked up, after the crash, and saw her friends running along the headland to catch a glimpse of the wreck, her anger returned. She stood for twenty minutes at least, watching them; then, pulling her cloak closely round her, walked homewards at a snail's pace. By the church gate she met the belated Methodists hurrying up, and passed a word or two of information that sent them panting on. A little beyond, at the point where the peninsula joins the mainland, she faced round to the wind again for a last glance. Three men were following her slowly down the ridge with a burden between them. It was the first of the rescued crew—a lifeless figure wrapped in oil-skins, with one arm hanging limply down, as if broken. Ruby halted, and gave time to come up.
"Hey, lads," shouted Old Zeb, who walked first, with a hand round each of the figure's sea-boots; "now that's what I'd call a proper womanly masterpiece, to run home to Sheba an' change her stockings in time for the randivoose."
"I don't understand," said his prospective daughter-in-law, haughtily.
"O boundless depth! Rest the poor mortal down, mates, while I take breath to humour her. Why, my dear, you must know from my tellin' that there hev a-been such a misfortunate goin's on as a wreck, hereabouts."
He paused to shake the rain out of his hat and whiskers. Ruby stole a look at the oil-skin. The sailor's upturned face was of a sickly yellow, smeared with blood and crusted with salt. The same white crust filled the hollows of his closed eyes, and streaked his beard and hair. It turned her faint for the moment.
"An the wreck's scat abroad," continued Old Zeb; an' the interpretation thereof is barrels an' nuts. What's more, tide'll be runnin' for two hour yet; an' it hasn' reached my ears that the fashion of thankin' the Lord for His bounty have a-perished out o' this old-fangled race of men an' women; though no doubt, my dear, you'd get first news o' the change, with a bed-room window facin' on Ruan Cove."
"Thank you, Old Zeb; I'll be careful to draw my curtains," said she, answering sarcasm with scorn, and turning on her heel.
The old man stooped to lift the sailor again. "Better clog your pretty ears wi' wax," he called after her, "when the kiss-i'-the-ring begins! Well-a-fine! What a teasin' armful is woman, afore the first-born comes! Hey, Sim Udy? Speak up, you that have fifteen to feed."
"Ay, I was a low feller, first along," answered Sim Udy, grinning. "'Sich common notions, Sim, as you do entertain!' was my wife's word."
"Well, souls, we was a bit tiddlywinky last Michaelmas, when the Young Susannah came ashore, that I must own. Folks blamed the Pa'son for preachin' agen it the Sunday after. 'A disreppitable scene,' says he, ''specially seein' you had nowt to be thankful for but a cargo o' sugar that the sea melted afore you could get it.' (Lift the pore chap aisy, Sim.) By crum! Sim, I mind your huggin' a staved rum cask, and kissin' it, an' cryin', 'Aw, Ben—dear Ben!' an' 'After all these years!' fancyin' 'twas your twin brother come back, that was killed aboard the Agamemny—"
"Well, well—prettily overtook I must ha' been. (Stiddy, there, Crowder, wi' the legs of en.) But to-day I'll be mild, as 'tis Chris'mas."
"Iss, iss; be very mild, my sons, as 'tis so holy a day."
They tramped on, bending their heads at queer angles against the weather, that erased their outlines in a bluish mist, through which they loomed for a while at intervals, until they passed out of sight.
Ruby, meanwhile, had hurried on, her cloak flapping loudly as it grew heavier with moisture, and the water in her shoes squishing at every step. At first she took the road leading down-hill to Ruan Cove, but turned to the right after a few yards, and ran up the muddy lane that was the one approach to Sheba, her father's farm.
The house, a square, two-storeyed building of greystone, roofed with heavy slates, was guarded in front by a small courtlage, the wall of which blocked all view from the lower rooms. From the narrow mullioned windows on the upper floor, however, one could look over it upon the duck-pond across the road, and down across two grass meadows to the cove. A white gate opened on the courtlage, and the path from this to the front door was marked out by slabs of blue slate, accurately laid in line. Ruby, in her present bedraggled state, avoided the front entrance, and followed the wall round the house to the town-place, stopping on her way to look in at the kitchen window.
"Mary Jane, if you call that a roast goose, I cull it a burning shame!"
Mary Jane, peeling potatoes with her back to the window, and tossing them one by one into a bucket of water, gave a jump, and cut her finger, dropping forthwith a half-peeled magnum bonum, which struck the bucket's edge and slid away across the slate flooring under the table.
"Awgh—awgh!" she burst out, catching up her apron and clutching it round the cut. "Look what you've done, Miss Ruby! an' me miles away, thinkin' o' shipwrecks an' dead swollen men."
"Look at the Chris'mas dinner, you mazed creature!"
In truth, the goose was fast spoiling. The roasting apparatus in this kitchen was a simple matter, consisting of a nail driven into the centre of the chimney-piece, a number of worsted threads depending therefrom, and a steel hook attached to these threads. Fix the joint or fowl firmly on the hook, give it a spin with the hand, and the worsted threads wound, unwound, and wound again, turning it before the blaze—an admirable jack, if only looked after. At present it hung motionless over the dripping-pan, and the goose wore a suit of motley, exhibiting a rich Vandyke brown to the fire, an unhealthy yellow to the window.
"There now!" Mary Jane rushed to the jack and gave it a spin, while Ruby walked round by the back door, and appeared dripping on the threshold. "I declare 'tis like Troy Town this morning: wrecks and rumours o' wrecks. Now 'tis 'Ropes! ropes!' an' nex' 'tis 'Where be the stable key, Mary Jane, my dear?' an' then agen, 'Will'ee be so good as to fetch master's second-best spy-glass, Mary Jane, an' look slippy?'—an' me wi' a goose to stuff, singe, an' roast, an' 'tatties to peel, an' greens to cleanse, an' apples to chop for sauce, an' the hoarders no nearer away than the granary loft, with a gatherin' 'pon your second toe an' the half o' 'em rotten when you get there. The pore I be in! Why, Miss Ruby, you'm streamin'-leakin'!"
"I'm wet through, Mary Jane; an' I don't care if I die." Ruby sank on the settle, and fairly broke down.
"Hush 'ee now, co!"
"I don't, I don't, an' I don't! I'm tired o' the world, an' my heart's broke. Mary Jane, you selfish thing, you've never asked about my banns, no more'n the rest; an' after that cast-off frock, too, that I gave you last week so good as new!"
"Was it very grand, Miss Ruby? Was it shuddery an' yet joyful— lily-white an' yet rosy-red—hot an' yet cold—'don't lift me so high,' an' yet 'praise God, I'm exalted above women'?"
"'Twas all and yet none. 'Twas a voice speakin' my name, sweet an' terrible, an' I longed for it to go on an' on; and then came the Gauger stunnin' and shoutin' 'Wreck! wreck!' like a trumpet, an' the church was full o' wind, an' the folk ran this way an' that, like sheep, an' left me sittin' there. I'll—I'll die an old maid, I will, if only to s—spite such ma—ma—manners!"
"Aw, pore dear! But there's better tricks than dyin' unwed. Bind up my finger, Miss Ruby, an' listen. You shall play Don't Care, an' change your frock, an' we'll step down to th' cove after dinner an' there be heartless and fancy-free. Lord! when the dance strikes up, to see you carryin' off the other maids' danglers an' treating your own man like dirt!"
Ruby stood up, the water still running off her frock upon the slates, her moist eyes resting beyond the window on the midden-heap across the yard, as if she saw there the picture Mary Jane conjured up.
"No. I won't join their low frolic; an' you ought to be above it. I'll pull my curtains an' sit up-stairs all day, an' you shall read to me."
The other pulled a wry face. This was not her idea of enjoyment. She went back to the goose sad at heart, for Miss Ruby had a knack of enforcing her wishes.
Sure enough, soon after dinner was cleared away (a meal through which Ruby had sulked and Farmer Tresidder eaten heartily, talking with a full mouth about the rescue, and coarsely ignoring what he called his daughter's "faddles"), the two girls retired to the chamber up-stairs; where the mistress was as good as her word, and pulled the dimity curtains before settling herself down in an easy-chair to listen to extracts from a polite novel as rendered aloud, under dire compulsion, by Mary Jane.
The rain had ceased by this, and the wind abated, though it still howled around the angle of the house and whipped a spray of the monthly-rose bush on the quarrels of the window, filling the pauses during which Mary Jane wrestled with a hard word. Ruby herself had taught the girl this accomplishment—rare enough at the time—and Mary Jane handled it gingerly, beginning each sentence in a whisper, as if awed by her own intrepidity, and ending each in a kind of gratulatory cheer. The work was of that class of epistolary fiction then in vogue, and the extract singularly well fitted to Ruby's mood.
"My dearest Wil-hel-mina," began Mary Jane, "racked with a hun-dred conflicting em-otions, I resume the nar-rative of those fa-tal moments which rapt me from your affec-tion-ate em-brace. Suffer me to re—to re-cap—"
"Better spell it, Mary Jane."
"To r.e., re—c.a.p., cap, recap—i.t, it, re—capit—Lor'! what a twister!—u, recapitu—l.a.t.e, late, re-cap-it-u-late the events de-tailed in my last letter, full stop—there! if I han't read that full stop out loud! Lord Bel-field, though an ad-ept in all the arts of dis-sim-u-la-tion (and how of-ten do we not see these arts al-lied with un-scru-pu-lous pas-sions?), was un-able to sus-tain the gaze of my in-fu-ri-a-ted pa-pa, though he com-port-ed himself with suf-fic-ient p.h.l.e.g.m—Lor'! what a funny word!"
Ruby yawned. It is true she had drawn the dimity curtains—all but a couple of inches. Through this space she could see the folk busy on the beach below like a swarm of small black insects, and continually augmented by those who, having run off to snatch their Christmas dinner, were returning to the spoil. Some lined the edge of the breakers, waiting the moment to rush in for a cask or spar that the tide brought within reach; others (among whom she seemed to descry Young Zeb) were clambering out with grapnels along the western rocks; a third large group was gathered in the very centre of the beach, and from the midst of these a blue wreath of smoke began to curl up. At the same instant she heard the gate click outside, and pulling the curtain wider, saw her father trudging away down the lane.
Mary Jane, glancing up, and seeing her mistress crane forward with curiosity, stole behind and peeped over her shoulder.
"I declare they'm teening a fire!"
"Who gave you leave to bawl in my ear so rudely? Go back to your reading, this instant." (A pause.) "Mary Jane, I do believe they'm roastin' chestnuts."
"What a clever game!"
"Father said at dinner the tide was bringin' 'em in by bushels. Quick! put on your worst bonnet an' clogs, an' run down to look. I must know. No, I'm not goin'—the idea! I wonder at your low notions. You shall bring me word o' what's doin'—an' mind you're back before dark."
Mary Jane fled precipitately, lest the order should be revoked. Five minutes later, Ruby heard the small gate click again, and with a sigh saw the girl's rotund figure waddling down the lane. Then she picked up the book and strove to bury herself in the woes of Wilhelmina, but still with frequent glances out of window. Twice the book dropped off her lap; twice she picked it up and laboriously found the page again. Then she gave it up, and descended to the back door, to see if anyone were about who might give her news. But the town-place was deserted by all save the ducks, the old white sow, and a melancholy crew of cocks and hens huddled under the dripping eaves of the cow-house. Returning to her room, she settled down on the window-seat, and watched the blaze of the bonfire increase as the short day faded.
The grey became black. It was six o'clock, and neither her father nor Mary Jane had returned. Seven o'clock struck from the tall clock in the kitchen, and was echoed ten minutes after by the Dutch clock in the parlour below. The sound whirred up through the planching twice as loud as usual. It was shameful to be left alone like this, to be robbed, murdered, goodness knew what. The bonfire began to die out, but every now and then a circle of small black figures would join hands and dance round it, scattering wildly after a moment or two. In a lull of the wind she caught the faint sound of shouts and singing, and this determined her.
She turned back from the window and groped for her tinder-box. The glow, as she blew the spark upon the dry rag, lit up a very pretty but tear-stained pair of cheeks; and when she touched off the brimstone match, and, looking up, saw her face confronting her, blue and tragical, from the dark-framed mirror, it reminded her of Lady Macbeth. Hastily lighting the candle, she caught up a shawl and crept down-stairs. Her clogs were in the hall; and four horn lanterns dangled from a row of pegs above them. She caught down one, lit it, and throwing the shawl over her head, stepped out into the night.
The wind was dying down and seemed almost warm upon her face. A young moon fought gallantly, giving the massed clouds just enough light to sail by; but in the lane it was dark as pitch. This did not so much matter, as the rain had poured down it like a sluice, washing the flints clean. Ruby's lantern swung to and fro, casting a yellow glare on the tall hedges, drawing queer gleams from the holly-bushes, and flinging an ugly, amorphous shadow behind, that dogged her like an enemy.
At the foot of the lane she could clearly distinguish the songs, shouts, and shrill laughter, above the hollow roar of the breakers.
"They're playin' kiss-i'-the-ring. That's Modesty Prowse's laugh. I wonder how any man can kiss a mouth like Modesty Prowse's!"
She turned down the sands towards the bonfire, grasping as she went all the details of the scene.
In the glow of the dying fire sat a semicircle of men—Jim Lewarne, sunk in a drunken slumber, Calvin Oke bawling in his ear, Old Zeb on hands and knees, scraping the embers together, Toby Lewarne (Jim's elder brother) thumping a pannikin on his knee and bellowing a carol, and a dozen others—in stages varying from qualified sobriety to stark and shameless intoxication—peering across the fire at the game in progress between them and the faint line that marked where sand ended and sea began.
"Zeb's turn!" roared out Toby Lewarne, breaking off The Third Good Joy midway, in his excitement.
"Have a care—have a care, my son!" Old Zeb looked up to shout. "Thee'rt so good as wed already; so do thy wedded man's duty, an' kiss th' hugliest!"
It was true. Ruby, halting with her lantern a pace or two behind the dark semicircle of backs, saw her perfidious Zeb moving from right to left slowly round the circle of men and maids that, with joined hands and screams of laughter, danced as slowly in the other direction. She saw him pause once—twice, feign to throw the kerchief over one, then still pass on, calling out over the racket:—
"I sent a letter to my love, I carried water in my glove, An' on the way I dropped it—dropped it—dropped it—"
He dropped the kerchief over Modesty Prowse.
Young Zeb whipped the kerchief off Modesty's neck, and spun round as it shot.
The dancers looked; the few sober men by the fire turned and looked also.
"'Tis Ruby Tresidder!" cried one of the girls; "'Wudn' be i' thy shoon, Young Zeb, for summatt."
Zeb shook his wits together and dashed off towards the spot, twenty yards away, where Ruby stood holding the lantern high, its ray full on her face. As she started she kicked off her clogs, turned, and ran for her life.
Then, in an instant, a new game began upon the sands. Young Zeb, waving his kerchief and pursuing the flying lantern, was turned, baffled, intercepted—here, there, and everywhere—by the dancers, who scattered over the beach with shouts and peals of laughter, slipping in between him and his quarry. The elders by the fire held their sides and cheered the sport. Twice Zeb was tripped up by a mischievous boot, floundered and went sprawling; and the roar was loud and long. Twice he picked himself up and started again after the lantern, that zigzagged now along the fringe of the waves, now up towards the bonfire, now off along the dark shadow of the cliffs.
Ruby could hardly sift her emotions when she found herself panting and doubling in flight. The chase had started without her will or dissent; had suddenly sprung, as it were, out of the ground. She only knew that she was very angry with Zeb; that she longed desperately to elude him; and that he must catch her soon, for her breath and strength were ebbing.
What happened in the end she kept in her dreams till she died. Somehow she had dropped the lantern and was running up from the sea towards the fire, with Zeb's feet pounding behind her, and her soul possessed with the dread to feel his grasp upon her shoulders. As it fell, Old Zeb leapt up to his feet with excitement, and opened his mouth wide to cheer.
But no voice came for three seconds: and when he spoke this was what he said—
"Good Lord, deliver us!"
She saw his gaze pass over her shoulder; and then heard these words come slowly, one by one, like dropping stones. His face was like a ghost's in the bonfire's light, and he muttered again—"From battle and murder, and from sudden death—Good Lord, deliver us!"
She could not understand at first; thought it must have something to do with Young Zeb, whose arms were binding hers, and whose breath was hot on her neck. She felt his grasp relax, and faced about.
Full in front, standing out as the faint moon showed them, motionless, as if suspended against the black sky, rose the masts, yards, and square-sails of a full-rigged ship.
The men and women must have stood a whole minute—dumb as stones—before there came that long curdling shriek for which they waited. The great masts quivered for a second against the darkness; then heaved, lurched, and reeled down, crashing on the Raney.
As the ship struck, night closed down again, and her agony, sharp or lingering, was blotted out. There was no help possible; no arm that could throw across the three hundred yards that separated her from the cliffs; no swimmer that could carry a rope across those breakers; nor any boat that could, with a chance of life, put out among them. Now and then a dull crash divided the dark hours, but no human cry again reached the shore.
Day broke on a grey sea still running angrily, a tired and shivering group upon the beach, and on the near side of the Raney a shapeless fragment, pounded and washed to and fro—a relic on which the watchers could in their minds re-build the tragedy.
The Raney presents a sheer edge to seaward—an edge under which the first vessel, though almost grazing her side, had driven in plenty of water. Shorewards, however, it descends by gradual ledges. Beguiled by the bonfire, or mistaking Ruby's lantern for the tossing stern-light of a comrade, the second ship had charged full-tilt on the reef and hung herself upon it, as a hunter across a fence. Before she could swing round, her back was broken; her stern parted, slipped back and settled in many fathoms; while the fore-part heaved forwards, toppled down the reef till it stuck, and there was slowly brayed into pieces by the seas. The tide had swept up and ebbed without dislodging it, and now was almost at low-water mark.
"'May so well go home to breakfast," said Elias Sweetland, grimly, as he took in what the uncertain light could show.
"Here, Young Zeb, look through my glass," sang out Farmer Tresidder, handing the telescope. He had been up at the vicarage drinking hot grog with the parson and the rescued men, when Sim Udy ran up with news of the fresh disaster; and his first business on descending to the Cove had been to pack Ruby and Mary Jane off to bed with a sound rating. Parson Babbage had descended also, carrying a heavy cane (the very same with which he broke the head of a Radical agitator in the bar of the "Jolly Pilchards," to the mild scandal of the diocese), and had routed the rest of the women and chastised the drunken. The parson was a remarkable man, and looked it, just now, in spite of the red handkerchief that bound his hat down over his ears.
"Nothing alive there—eh?"
Young Zeb, with a glass at his left eye, answered—
"Nothin' left but a frame o' ribs, sir, an' the foremast hangin' over, so far as I can see; but 'tis all a raffle o' spars and riggin' close under her side. I'll tell 'ee better when this wave goes by."
But the next instant he took down the glass, with a whitened face, and handed it to the parson.
The parson looked too. "Terrible!—terrible!" he said, very slowly, and passed it on to Farmer Tresidder.
"What is it? Where be I to look? Aw, pore chaps—pore chaps! Man alive—but there's one movin'!"
Zeb snatched the glass.
"'Pon the riggin', Zeb, just under her lee! I saw en move— a black-headed chap, in a red shirt—"
"Right, Farmer—he's clingin', too, not lashed." Zeb gave a long look. "Darned if I won't!" he said. "Cast over them corks, Sim Udy! How much rope have 'ee got, Jim?" He began to strip as he spoke.
"Lashins," answered Jim Lewarne.
"Splice it up, then, an' hitch a dozen corks along it."
"Zeb, Zeb!" cried his father, "What be 'bout?"
"Swimmin'," answered Zeb, who by this time had unlaced his boots.
"The notion! Look here, friends—take a look at the bufflehead! Not three months back his mother's brother goes dead an' leaves en a legacy, 'pon which, he sets up as jowter—han'some painted cart, tidy little mare, an' all complete, besides a bravish sum laid by. A man of substance, sirs—a life o' much price, as you may say. Aw, Zeb, my son, 'tis hard to lose 'ee, but 'tis harder still now you're in such a very fair way o' business!"
"Hold thy clack, father, an' tie thicky knot, so's it won't slip."
"Shan't. I've a-took boundless pains wi' thee, my son, from thy birth up: hours I've a-spent curin' thy propensities wi' the strap—ay, hours. D'ee think I raised 'ee up so carefully to chuck thyself away 'pon a come-by-chance furriner? No, I didn'; an' I'll see thee jiggered afore I ties 'ee up. Pa'son Babbage—"
"Ye dundering old shammick!" broke in the parson, driving the ferule of his cane deep in the sand, "be content to have begotten a fool, and thank heaven and his mother he's a gamey fool."
"Thank'ee, Pa'son," said Young Zeb, turning his head as Jim Lewarne fastened the belt of corks under his armpits. "Now the line—not too tight round the waist, an' pay out steady. You, Jim, look to this. R-r-r—mortal cold water, friends!" He stood for a moment, clenching his teeth—a fine figure of a youth for all to see. Then, shouting for plenty of line, he ran twenty yards down the beach and leapt in on the top of a tumbling breaker.
"When a man's old," muttered the parson, half to himself, "he may yet thank God for what he sees, sometimes. Hey, Farmer! I wish I was a married man and had a girl good enough for that naked young hero."
"Ruby an' he'll make a han'some pair."
"Ay, I dare say: only I wasn't thinking o' her. How's the fellow out yonder?"
The man on the wreck was still clinging, drenched twice or thrice in the half-minute and hidden from sight, but always emerging. He sat astride of the dangling foremast, and had wound tightly round his wrist the end of a rope that hung over the bows. If the rope gave, or the mast worked clear of the tangle that held it and floated off, he was a dead man. He hardly fought at all, and though they shouted at the top of their lungs, seemed to take no notice—only moved feebly, once or twice, to get a firmer seat.
Zeb also could only be descried at intervals, his head appearing, now and again, like a cork on the top of a billow. But the last of the ebb was helping him, and Jim Lewarne, himself at times neck-high in the surf, continued to pay out the line slowly. In fact, the feat was less dangerous than it seemed to the spectators. A few hours before, it was impossible; but by this there was little more than a heavy swell after the first twenty yards of surf. Zeb's chief difficulty would be to catch a grip or footing on the reef where the sea again grew broken, and his foremost dread lest cramp should seize him in the bitterly cold water. Rising on the swell, he could spy the seaman tossing and sinking on the mast just ahead.
As it happened, he was spared the main peril of the reef, for in fifty more strokes he found himself plunging down into a smooth trough of water with the mast directly beneath. As he shot down, the mast rose to him, he flung his arms out over it, and was swept up, clutching it, to the summit of the next swell.
Oddly enough, his first thought, as he hung there, was not for the man he had come to save, but for that which had turned him pale when first he glanced through the telescope. The foremast across which he lay was complete almost to the royal-mast, though the yards were gone; and to his left, just above the battered fore-top, five men were lashed, dead and drowned. Most of them had their eyes wide open, and seemed to stare at Zeb and wriggle about in the stir of the sea as if they lived. Spent and wretched as he was, it lifted his hair. He almost called out to them at first, and then he dragged his gaze off them, and turned it to the right. The survivor still clung here, and Zeb—who had been vaguely wondering how on earth he contrived to keep his seat and yet hold on by the rope without being torn limb from limb—now discovered this end of the mast to be so tightly jammed and tangled against the wreck as practically to be immovable. The man's face was about as scaring as the corpses'; for, catching sight of Zeb, he betrayed no surprise, but only looked back wistfully over his left shoulder, while his blue lips worked without sound. At least, Zeb heard none.
He waited while they plunged again and emerged, and then, drawing breath, began to pull himself along towards the stranger. They had seen his success from the beach, and Jim Lewarne, with plenty of line yet to spare, waited for the next move. Zeb worked along till he could touch the man's thigh.
"Keep your knee stiddy," he called out; "I'm goin' to grip hold o't."
For answer, the stranger only kicked out with his foot, as a pettish child might, and almost thrust him from his hold.
"Look'ee here: no doubt you'm 'mazed, but that's a curst foolish trick, all the same. Be that tangle fast, you'm holding by?"
The man made no sign of comprehension.
"Best not trust to't, I reckon," muttered Zeb: "must get past en an' make fast round a rib. Ah! would 'ee, ye varment?"
For, once more, the stranger had tried to thrust him off; and a struggle followed, which ended in Zeb's getting by and gripping the mast again between him and the wreck.
"Now list to me," he shouted, pulling himself up and flinging a leg over the mast: "ingratitood's worse than witchcraft. Sit ye there an' inwardly digest that sayin', while I saves your life."
He untied the line about his waist, then, watching his chance, snatched the rope out of the other's hand, threw his weight upon it, and swung in towards the vessel's ribs till he touched one, caught, and passed the line around it, high up, with a quick double half-hitch. Running a hand down the line, he dropped back upon the mast. The stranger regarded him with a curious stare, and at last found his voice.
"You seem powerfully set on saving me."
His teeth chattered as he spoke, and his face was pinched and hollow-eyed from cold and exposure. But he was handsome, for all that— a fellow not much older than Zeb, lean and strongly made. His voice had a cultivated ring.
"Yes," answered Zeb, as, with one hand on the line that now connected the wreck with the shore, he sat down astride the mast facing him; "I reckon I'll do't."
"Unlucky, isn't it?"
"To save a man from drowning."
"Maybe. Untie these corks from my chest, and let me slip 'em round yourn. How your fingers do shake, to be sure!"
"I call you to witness," said the other, with a shiver, "you are saving me on your own responsibility."
"Can 'ee swim?"
"I could yesterday."
"Then you can now, wi' a belt o' corks an' me to help. Keep a hand on the line an' pull yoursel' along. Tide's runnin' again by now. When you'm tired, hold fast by the rope an' sing out to me. Stop; let me chafe your legs a bit, for how you've lasted out as you have is more than I know."
"I was on the foretop most of the night. Those fools—" he broke off to nod at the corpses.
"They'm dead," put in Zeb, curtly.
"They lashed themselves, thinking the foremast would stand till daylight. I climbed down half an hour before it went. I tell you what, though; my legs are too cramped to move. If you want to save me you must carry me."
"I was thinkin' the same. Well, come along; for tho' I don't like the cut o' your jib, you'm a terrible handsome chap, and as clean-built as ever I see. Now then, one arm round my neck and t'other on the line, but don't bear too hard on it, for I doubt 'tis weakish. Bless the Lord, the tide's running."
So they began their journey. Zeb had taken barely a dozen strokes when the other groaned and began to hang more heavily on his neck. But he fought on, though very soon the struggle became a blind and horrible nightmare to him. The arm seemed to creep round his throat and strangle him, and the blackness of a great night came down over his eyes. Still he struck out, and, oddly enough, found himself calling to his comrade to hold tight.
When Sim Udy and Elias Sweetland dashed in from the shore and swam to the rescue, they found the pair clinging to the line, and at a standstill. And when the four were helped through the breakers to firm earth, Zeb tottered two steps forward and dropped in a swoon, burying his face in the sand.
"He's not as strong as I," muttered the stranger, staring at Parson Babbage in a dazed, uncertain fashion, and uttering the words as if they had no connection with his thoughts. "I'm afraid—sir—I've broken—his heart."
And with that he, too, fainted, into the Parson's arms.
"Better carry the both up to Sheba," said Farmer Tresidder.
Ruby lay still abed when Mary Jane, who had been moving about the kitchen, sleepy-eyed, getting ready the breakfast, dashed up-stairs with the news that two dead men had been taken off the wreck and were even now being brought into the yard.
"You coarse girl," she exclaimed, "to frighten me with such horrors!"
"Oh, very well," answered Mary Jane, who was in a rebellious mood, "then I'm goin' down to peep; for there's a kind o' what-I-can't-tell-'ee about dead men that's very enticin', tho' it do make you feel all-overish."
By and by she came back panting, to find Ruby already dressed.
"Aw, Miss Ruby, dreadful news I ha' to tell, tho' joyous in a way. Would 'ee mind catchin' hold o' the bed-post to give yoursel' fortitude? Now let me cast about how to break it softly. First, then, you must know he's not dead at all—"
"Who is not?"
"Your allotted husband, miss—Mister Zeb."
"Why, who in the world said he was?"
"But they took en up for dead, miss—for he'd a-swum out to the wreck, an' then he'd a-swum back with a man 'pon his back—an' touchin' shore, he fell downward in a swound, marvellous like to death for all to behold. So they brought en up here, 'long wi' the chap he'd a-saved, an' dressed en i' the spare room blankets, an' gave en clane sperrits to drink, an' lo! he came to; an' in a minnit, lo! agen he went off; an'—"
Ruby, by this time, was half-way down the stairs. Running to the kitchen door she flung it open, calling "Zeb! Zeb!"
But Young Zeb had fainted for the third time, and while others of the group merely lifted their heads at her entrance, the old crowder strode towards her with some amount of sternness on his face.
"Kape off my son!" he shouted. "Kape off my son Zebedee, and go up-stairs agen to your prayers; for this be all your work, in a way—you gay good-for-nuthin'!"
"Indeed, Mr. Minards," retorted Ruby, firing up under this extravagant charge and bridling, "pray remember whose roof you're under, with your low language."
"Begad," interposed a strange voice, "but that's the spirit for me, and the mouth to utter it!"
Ruby, turning, met a pair of luminous eyes gazing on her with bold admiration. The eyes were set in a cadaverous, but handsome, face; and the face belonged to the stranger, who had recovered of his swoon, and was now stretched on the settle beside the fire.
"I don't know who you may be, sir, but—"
"You are kind enough to excuse my rising to introduce myself. My name is Zebedee Minards."
YOUNG ZEB FETCHES A CHEST OF DRAWERS.
The parish of Ruan Lanihale is bounded on the west by Porthlooe, a fishing town of fifteen hundred inhabitants or less, that blocks the seaward exit of a narrow coombe. A little stream tumbles down this coombe towards the "Hauen," divides the folk into parishioners of Lanihale and Landaviddy, and receives impartially the fish offal of both. There is a good deal of this offal, especially during pilchard time, and the towns-folk live on their first storeys, using the lower floors as fish cellars, or "pallaces." But even while the nose most abhors, the eye is delighted by jumbled houses, crazy stairways leading to green doors, a group of children dabbling in the mud at low tide, a congregation of white gulls, a line of fishing boats below the quay where the men lounge and whistle and the barked nets hang to dry, and, beyond all, the shorn outline of two cliffs with a wedge of sea and sky between.
Mr. Zebedee Minards the elder dwelt on the eastern or Lanihale side of the stream, and a good way back from the Hauen, beside the road that winds inland up the coombe. Twenty yards of garden divided his cottage door from the road, and prevented the inmates from breaking their necks as they stepped over its threshold. Even as it was, Old Zeb had acquired a habit of singing out "Ware heads!" to the wayfarers whenever he chanced to drop a rotund object on his estate; and if any small article were missing indoors, would descend at once to the highway with the cheerful assurance, based on repeated success, of finding it somewhere below.
Over and above its recurrent crop of potatoes and flatpoll cabbages, this precipitous garden depended for permanent interest on a collection of marine curiosities, all eloquent of disaster to shipping. To begin with, a colossal and highly varnished Cherokee, once the figure-head of a West Indiaman, stood sentry by the gate and hung forward over the road, to the discomfiture of unwarned and absent-minded bagmen. The path to the door was guarded by a low fence of split-bamboo baskets that had once contained sugar from Batavia; a coffee bag from the wreck of a Dutch barque served for door-mat; a rum-cask with a history caught rain-water from the eaves; and a lapdog's pagoda—a dainty affair, striped in scarlet and yellow, the jetsom of some passenger ship—had been deftly adapted by Old Zeb, and stood in line with three straw bee-skips under the eastern wall.
The next day but one after Christmas dawned deliciously in Porthlooe, bright with virginal sunshine, and made tender by the breath of the Gulf Stream. Uncle Issy, passing up the road at nine o'clock, halted by the Cherokee to pass a word with its proprietor, who presented the very antipodes of a bird's-eye view, as he knocked about the crumbling clods with his visgy at the top of the slope.
"Mornin', Old Zeb; how be 'ee, this dellicate day?"
"Brave, thankee, Uncle."
"An' how's Coden Rachel?"
"She's charmin', thankee."
"Comely weather, comely weather; the gulls be comin' back down the coombe, I see."
"I be jealous about its lastin'; for 'tis over-rathe for the time o' year. Terrible topsy-turvy the seasons begin to run, in my old age. Here's May in Janewarry; an' 'gainst May, comes th' east wind breakin' the ships o' Tarshish."
"Now, what an instructive chap you be to convarse with, I do declare! Darned if I didn' stand here two minnits, gazin' up at the seat o' your small-clothes, tryin' to think 'pon what I wanted to say; for I'd a notion that I wanted to speak, cruel bad, but cudn' lay hand on't. So at last I takes heart an' says 'Mornin', I says, beginnin' i' that very common way an' hopin' 'twould come. An' round you whips wi' 'ships o' Tarshish' pon your tongue; an' henceforth 'tis all Q's an' A's, like a cattykism."
"Well, now you say so, I did notice, when I turned round, that you was lookin' no better than a fool, so to speak. But what's the notion?"
"'Tis a question I've a-been daggin' to ax'ee ever since it woke me up in the night to spekilate thereon. For I felt it very curious there shud he three Zebedee Minardses i' this parish a-drawin' separate breath at the same time."
"Iss, 'tis an out-o'-the-way fact."
"A stirrin' age, when such things befall! If you'd a-told me, a week agone, that I should live to see the like, I'd ha' called 'ee a liar; an' yet here I be a-talkin' away, an' there you be a-listening an' here be the old world a-spinnin' us round as in bygone times—"
"Iss, iss—but what's the question?"
"—All the same when that furriner chap looks up in Tresidder's kitchen an' says 'My name is Zebedee Minards,' you might ha' blown me down wi' a puff; an' says I to mysel', wakin' up last night an' thinkin'—'I'll ax a question of Old Zeb when I sees en, blest if I don't.'"
"Then why in thunder don't 'ee make haste an' do it?"
Uncle Issy, after revolving the question for another fifteen seconds, produced it in this attractive form—
"Old Zeb, bein' called Zeb, why did 'ee call Young Zeb, Zeb?"
Old Zeb ceased to knock the clods about, descended the path, and leaning on his visgy began to contemplate the opposite slope of the coombe, as if the answer were written, in letters hard to decipher, along the hill-side.
"Well, now," he began, after opening his mouth twice and shutting it without sound, "folks may say what they like o' your wits, Uncle, an' talk o' your looks bein' against 'ee, as they do; but you've a-put a twister, this time, an' no mistake."
"I reckoned it a banger," said the old man, complacently.
"Iss. But I had my reasons all the same."
"To be sure you had. But rabbet me it I can guess what they were."
"I'll tell 'ee. You see when Zeb was born, an' the time runnin' on for his christ'nin', Rachel an' me puzzled for days what to call en. At last I said, 'Look 'ere, I tell 'ee what: you shut your eyes an' open the Bible, anyhow, an' I'll shut mine an' take a dive wi' my finger, an' we'll call en by the nearest name I hits on.' So we did. When we tuk en to church, tho', there was a pretty shape. 'Name this cheeld,' says Pa'son Babbage. 'Selah,' says I, that bein' the word we'd settled. 'Selah?' says he: 'pack o' stuff! that ain't no manner o' name. You might so well call en Amen.' So bein' hurried in mind, what wi' the cheeld kickin', an' the water tricklin' off the pa'son's forefinger, an' the sacred natur' of the deed, I cudn' think 'pon no name but my own; an' Zeb he was christened."
"Deary me," commented Uncle Issy, "that's a very life-like history. The wonder is, the self-same fix don't happen at more christ'nin's, 'tis so very life-like."
A silence followed, full of thought. It was cut short by the rattle of wheels coming down the road, and Young Zeb's grey mare hove in sight, with Young Zeb's green cart, and Young Zeb himself standing up in it, wide-legged. He wore a colour as fresh as on Christmas morning, and seemed none the worse for his adventure.
"Hello!" he called, pulling up the mare; "'mornin', Uncle Issy— 'mornin', father."
"Same to you, my son. Whither away?—as the man said once."
"Aye, whither away?" chimed Uncle Issy; "for the pilchards be all gone up Channel these two months."
"To Liskeard, for a chest-o'-drawers." Young Zeb, to be ready for married life, had taken a house for himself—a neat cottage with a yard and stable, farther up the coombe. But stress of business had interfered with the furnishing until quite lately.
"Rate meogginy, I suppose, as befits a proud tradesman."
"No: painted, but wi' the twiddles put in so artfully you'd think 'twas rale. So, as 'tis a fine day, I'm drivin' in to Mister Pennyway's shop o' purpose to fetch it afore it be snapped up, for 'tis a captivatin' article. I'll be back by six, tho', i' time to get into my clothes an' grease my hair for the courant, up to Sheba."
"Zeb," said his father, abruptly, "'tis a grand match you'm makin', an' you may call me a nincom, but I wish ye wasn'."
"'Tis lookin' high," put in Uncle Issy.
"A cat may look at a king, if he's got his eyes about en," Old Zeb went on, "let alone a legacy an' a green cart. 'Tain't that: 'tis the maid."
"How's mother?" asked the young man, to shift the conversation.
"Hugly, my son. Hi! Rachel!" he shouted, turning his head towards the cottage; and then went on, dropping his voice, "As between naybours, I'm fain to say she don't shine this mornin'. Hi, mother! here's Zebedee waitin' to pay his respects."
Mrs. Minards appeared on the cottage threshold, with a blue check duster round her head—a tall, angular woman, of severe deportment. Her husband's bulletin, it is fair to say, had reference rather to her temper than to her personal attractions.
"Be the Frenchmen landed?" she inquired, sharply.
"Why, no; nor yet likely to."
"Then why be I called out i' the midst o' my clanin'? What came I out for to see? Was it to pass the time o' day wi' an aged shaken-by-the-wind kind o' loiterer they name Uncle Issy?"
Apparently it was not, for Uncle Issy by this time was twenty yards up the road, and still fleeing, with his head bent and shoulders extravagantly arched, as if under a smart shower.
"I thought I'd like to see you, mother," said Young Zeb.
"Well, now you've done it."
"Best be goin', I reckon, my son," whispered Old Zeb.
"I be much the same to look at," announced the voice above, "as afore your legacy came. 'Tis only up to Sheba that faces ha' grown kindlier."
Young Zeb touched up his mare a trifle savagely.
"Well, so long, my son! See 'ee up to Sheba this evenin', if all's well."
The old man turned back to his work, while Young Zeb rattled on in an ill humour. He had the prettiest sweetheart and the richest in Lanihale parish, and nobody said a good word for her. He tried to think of her as a wronged angel, and grew angry with himself on finding the effort hard to sustain. Moreover, he felt uneasy about the stranger. Fate must be intending mischief, he fancied, when it led him to rescue a man who so strangely happened to bear his own name. The fellow, too, was still at Sheba, being nursed back to strength; and Zeb didn't like it. In spite of the day, and the merry breath of it that blew from the sea upon his right cheek, black care dogged him all the way up the long hill that led out of Porthlooe, and clung to the tail-board of his green cart as he jolted down again towards Ruan Cove.
After passing the Cove-head, Young Zeb pulled up the mare, and was taken with a fit of thoughtfulness, glancing up towards Sheba farm, and then along the high-road, as if uncertain. The mare settled the question after a minute, by turning into the lane, and Zeb let her have her way.
"Where's Miss Ruby?" he asked, driving into the town-place, and coming on Mary Jane, who was filling a pig's-bucket by the back door.
"Gone up to Pare Dew 'long wi' maister an' the very man I seed i' my tay-cup, a week come Friday."
"Iss, fay; an' a great long-legged stranger he was. So I stuck en 'pon my fist an' gave en a scat. 'To-day,' says I, but he didn' budge. 'To-morrow,' I says, an' gave en another; and then 'Nex' day;' and t' third time he flew. 'Shall have a sweet'eart, Sunday, praise the Lord,' thinks I; 'wonder who 'tis? Anyway, 'tis a comfort he'll be high 'pon his pins, like Nanny Painter's hens, for mine be all the purgy-bustious shape just now.' Well, Sunday night he came to Raney Rock, an' Monday mornin' to Sheba farm; and no thanks to you that brought en, for not a single dare-to-deny-me glance has he cast this way."
"Which way, then?"
"'Can't stay to causey, Master Zeb, wi' all the best horn-handled knives to be took out o' blue-butter 'gainst this evenin's courant. Besides, you called me a liar last week."
"So you be. But I'll believe 'ee this time."
"Well, I'll tell 'ee this much—for you look a very handsome jowter i' that new cart. If I were you, I'd be careful that gay furriner didn steal more'n my name"
Meantime, a group of four was standing in the middle of Parc Dew, the twenty-acred field behind the farmstead. The stranger, dressed in a blue jersey and outfit of Farmer Tresidder's, that made up in boots for its shortcomings elsewhere, was addressing the farmer, Ruby, and Jim Lewarne, who heard him with lively attention. In his right hand he held a walking-stick armed with a spud, for uprooting thistles; and in his left a cake of dark soil, half stone, half mud. His manner was earnest.
". . . . I see," he was saying, "that I don't convince you; and it's only for your own sakes I insist on convincing you. You'll grant me that, I suppose. To-morrow, or the next day, I go; and the chances are that we never meet again in this world. But 'twould be a pleasant thought to carry off to the ends of the earth that you, my benefactors, were living in wealth, enriched (if I may say it without presumption) by a chance word of mine. I tell you I know something of these matters—"
"I thought you'd passed your days privateerin'," put in Jim Lewarne, who was the only hostile listener, perhaps because he saw no chance of sharing in the promised wealth.
"Jim, hold your tongue!" snapped Ruby.
"I ask you," went on the stranger, without deigning to answer, "I ask you if it does not look like Providence? Here have you been for years, dwelling amid wealth of which you never dreamed. A ship is wrecked close to your doors, and of all her crew the one man saved is, perhaps, the one man who could enlighten you. You feed him, clothe him, nurse him. As soon as he can crawl about, he picks a walking-stick out of half-a-dozen or more in the hall, and goes out with you to take a look at the farm. On his way he notes many things. He sees (you'll excuse me, Farmer, but I can't help it) that you're all behind the world, and the land is yielding less than half of what it ought. Have you ever seen a book by Lord Dundonald on the connection between Agriculture and Chemistry? No? I thought not. Do you know of any manure better than the ore-weed you gather down at the Cove? Or the plan of malting grain to feed your cattle on through the winter? Or the respective merits of oxen and horses as beasts of draught? But these matters, though the life and soul of modern husbandry, are as nothing to this lump in my hand. What do you call the field we're now standing in?"
"Exactly—the 'black field,' or the 'field of black soil': the very name should have told you. But you lay it down in grass, and but for the chance of this spud and a lucky thistle, I might have walked over it a score of times without guessing its secret. Man alive, it's red gold I have here—red, wicked, damnable, delicious gold—the root of all evil and of most joys."
"If you lie, you lie enticingly, young man."
"By gold, I mean stuff that shall make gold for you. There is ore here, but what ore exactly I can't tell till I've streamed it: lead, I fancy, with a trace of silver—wealth for you, certainly; and in what quantity you shall find out—"
At this juncture a voice was heard calling over the hedge, at the bottom of the field. It came from Young Zeb, the upper part of whose person, as he stood up in his cart, was just visible between two tamarisk bushes.
"Drat the chap!" exclaimed Ruby's father, wheeling round sharply. "What d'ye wa-a-a-nt?" he yelled back.
"Come to know 'bout that chest o' dra-w-w-ers!"
"Then come 'long round by th' ga-a-ate!"
"Can't sta-a-ay! Want to know, as I'm drivin' to Liskeard, if Ruby thinks nine-an'-six too mu-u-ch, as the twiddles be so very cle-v-ver!"
"How ridiculous!" muttered the stranger, just loud enough for Ruby to hear. "Who is this absurd person?"
Jim Lewarne answered—"A low-lived chap, mister, as saved your skin awhile back."
"Dear, dear—how unpardonable of me! I hadn't, the least idea at this distance. Excuse me, I must go and thank him at once."
He moved towards the hedge with a brisk step that seemed to cost him some pain. The others followed, a pace or two behind.
"You'll not mind my interruptin', Farmer," continued Young Zeb, "but 'tis time Ruby made her mind up, for Mister Pennyway won't take a stiver less. 'Mornin', Ruby, my dear."
"And you'll forgive me if I also interrupt," put in the stranger, with the pleasantest smile, "but it is time I thanked the friend who saved my life on Monday morning. I would come round and shake hands if only I could see the gate."
"Don't 'ee mention it," replied Zeb, blushing hotly. "I'm glad to mark ye lookin' so brave a'ready. Well, what d'ye say, Ruby?"
"I say 'please yoursel'.'"
For of the two men standing before Ruby (she did not count her father and Jim Lewarne), the stranger, with his bold features and easy conciliating carriage, had the advantage. It is probable that he knew it, and threw a touch of acting into his silence as Zeb cut him short.
"That's a fair speech," replied Zeb. "Iss, turn it how you will, the words be winnin' enow. But be danged, my dear, if I wudn' as lief you said, 'Go to blazes!'"
"Fact is, my son," said Farmer Tresidder, candidly, "you'm good but untimely, like kissin' the wrong maid. This here surpassin' young friend o' mine was speech-makin' after a pleasant fashion in our ears when you began to bawl—"
"Then you don't want to hear about the chest o' drawers?" interrupted Zeb in dudgeon, with a glance at Ruby, who pretended not to see it.
"Well, no. To tell 'ee the slap-bang truth, I don't care if I see no trace of 'ee till the dancin' begins to commence to-night."
"Then good-day t' ye, friends," answered Young Zeb, and turned the mare. "Cl'k, Jessamy!" He rattled away down the lane.
"What an admirable youth!" murmured the stranger, falling back a pace and gazing after the back of Zeb's head as it passed down the line of the hedge. "What a messenger! He seems eaten up with desire to get you a chest of drawers that shall be wholly satisfying. But why do you allow him to call you 'my dear'?"
"Because, I suppose, that's what I am," answered Ruby; "because I'm goin' to marry him within the month."
But, as a matter of fact, the stranger had known before asking.
THE STRANGER DANCES IN ZEB'S SHOES.
It was close upon midnight, and in the big parlour at Sheba the courant, having run through its normal stages of high punctilio, artificial ease, zest, profuse perspiration, and supper, had reached the exact point when Modesty Prowse could be surprised under the kissing-bush, and Old Zeb wiped his spectacles, thrust his chair back, and pushed out his elbows to make sure of room for the rendering of "Scarlet's my Colour." These were tokens to be trusted by an observer who might go astray in taking any chance guest as a standard of the average conviviality. Mr. and Mrs. Jim Lewarne, for example, were accustomed on such occasions to represent the van and rear-guard respectively in the march of gaiety; and in this instance Jim had already imbibed too much hot "shenachrum," while his wife, still in the stage of artificial ease, and wearing a lace cap, which was none the less dignified for having been smuggled, was perpending what to say when she should get him home. The dancers, pale and dusty, leant back in rows against the wall, and with their handkerchiefs went through the motions of fanning or polishing, according to sex. In their midst circulated Farmer Tresidder, with a three-handled mug of shenachrum, hot from the embers, and furred with wood-ash.
"Take an' drink, thirsty souls. Niver do I mind the Letterpooch so footed i' my born days."
"'Twas conspirator—very conspirator," assented Old Zeb, screwing up his A string a trifle, and turning con spirito into a dark saying.
"Greek for elbow-grease. Phew!" He rubbed his fore-finger round between neck and shirt-collar. "I be vady as the inside of a winder."
"Such a man as you be to sweat, crowder!" exclaimed Calvin Oke. "Set you to play six-eight time an' 'tis beads right away."
"A slice o' saffern-cake, crowder, to stay ye. Don't say no. Hi, Mary Jane!"
"Thank 'ee, Farmer. A man might say you was in sperrits to-night, makin' so bold."
"I be; I be."
"Might a man ax wherefore, beyond the nat'ral hail-fellow-well-met of the season?"
"You may, an' yet you mayn't," answered the host, passing on with the mug.
"Uncle Issy," asked Jim Lewarne, lurching up, "I durstn' g-glint over my shoulder—but wud 'ee mind tellin' me if th' old woman's lookin' this way—afore I squench my thirst?"
"Iss, she be."
Jim groaned. "Then wud 'ee mind a-hofferin' me a taste out o' your pannikin? an' I'll make b'lieve to say 'Norronany' count.' Amazin' 'ot t' night," he added, tilting back on his heels, and then dipping forward with a vague smile.
Uncle Issy did as he was required, and the henpecked one played his part of the comedy with elaborate slyness. "I don't like that strange chap," he announced, irrelevantly.
"Nor I nuther," agreed Elias Sweetland, "tho' to be sure, I've a-kept my eye 'pon en, an' the wonders he accomplishes in an old pair o' Tresidder's high-lows must be seen to be believed. But that's no call for Ruby's dancin' wi' he a'most so much as wi' her proper man."
"The gel's takin' her fling afore wedlock. I heard Sarah Ann Nanjulian, just now, sayin' she ought to be clawed."
"A jealous woman is a scourge shaken to an' fro," said Old Zeb; "but I've a mind, friends, to strike up 'Randy my dandy,' for that son o' mine is lookin' blacker than the horned man, an' may be 'twill comfort 'en to dance afore the public eye; for there's none can take his wind in a hornpipe."
In fact, it was high time that somebody comforted Young Zeb, for his heart was hot. He had brought home the chest of drawers in his cart, and spent an hour fixing on the best position for it in the bedroom, before dressing for the dance. Also he had purchased, in Mr. Pennyway's shop, an armchair, in the worst taste, to be a pleasant surprise for Ruby when the happy day came for installing her. Finding he had still twenty minutes to spare after giving the last twitch to his neckerchief, and the last brush to his anointed locks, he had sat down facing this chair, and had striven to imagine her in it, darning his stockings. Zeb was not, as a rule, imaginative, but love drew this delicious picture for him. He picked up his hat, and set out for Sheba in the best of tempers.
But at Sheba all had gone badly. Ruby's frock of white muslin and Ruby's small sandal shoes were bewitching, but Ruby's mood passed his intelligence. It was true she gave him half the dances, but then she gave the other half to that accursed stranger, and the stranger had all her smiles, which was carrying hospitality too far. Not a word had she uttered to Zeb beyond the merest commonplaces; on the purchase of the chest of drawers she had breathed no question; she hung listlessly on his arm, and spoke only of the music, the other girls' frocks, the arrangement of the supper-table. And at supper the stranger had not only sat on the other side of her, but had talked all the time, and on books, a subject entirely uninteresting to Zeb. Worst of all, Ruby had listened. No; the worst of all was a remark of Modesty Prowse's that he chanced to overhear afterwards.
So when the fiddles struck up the air of "Randy my dandy," Zeb, knowing that the company would call upon him, at first felt his heart turn sick with loathing. He glanced across the room at Ruby, who, with heightened colour, was listening to the stranger, and looking up at his handsome face. Already one or two voices were calling "Zeb!" "Young Zeb for a hornpipe!" "Now then, Young Zeb!"
He had a mind to refuse. For years after he remembered every small detail of the room as he looked down it and then across to Ruby again: the motion of the fiddle-bows; the variegated dresses of the women; the kissing-bush that some tall dancer's head had set swaying from the low rafter; the light of a sconce gleaming on Tresidder's bald scalp. Years after, he could recall the exact poise of Ruby's head as she answered some question of her companion. The stranger left her, and strolled slowly down the room to the fireplace, when he faced round, throwing an arm negligently along the mantel-shelf, and leant with legs crossed, waiting.
Then Young Zeb made up his mind, and stepped out into the middle of the floor. The musicians were sawing with might and main at high speed. He crossed his arms, and, fixing his eyes on the stranger's, began the hornpipe.
When it ceased, he had danced his best. It was only when the applause broke out that he knew he had fastened, from start to finish, on the man by the fireplace a pair of eyes blazing with hate. The other had stared back quietly, as if he noted only the performance. As the music ended sharply with the click of Young Zeb's two heels, the stranger bent, took up a pair of tongs, and rearranged the fire before lifting his head.
"Yes," he said, slowly, but in tones that were extremely distinct as the clapping died away, "that was wonderfully danced. In some ways I should almost say you were inspired. A slight want of airiness in the double-shuffle, perhaps—"
"Could you do't better?" asked Zeb, sulkily.
"That isn't the fair way to treat criticism, my friend; but yes—oh, yes, certainly I could do it better—in your shoes."
"Then try, i' my shoes." And Zeb kicked them off.
"I've a notion they'll fit me," was all the stranger answered, dropping on one knee and beginning to unfasten the cumbrous boots he had borrowed of Farmer Tresidder.
Indeed, the curious likeness in build of these two men—a likeness accentuated, rather than slurred, by their contrast in colour and face, was now seen to extend even to their feet. When the stranger stood up at length in Zeb's shoes, they fitted him to a nicety, the broad steel buckles lying comfortably over the instep, the back of the uppers closing round the hollow of his ankle like a skin.
Young Zeb, by this, had crossed shoeless to the fireplace, and now stood in the position lately occupied by his rival: only, whereas the stranger had lolled easily, Zeb stood squarely, with his legs wide apart and his hands deep in his pockets. He had no eyes for the intent faces around, no ears for their whispering, nor for the preliminary scrape of the instruments; but stood like an image, with the firelight flickering out between his calves, and watched the other man grimly.
"Ready?" asked his father's voice. "Then one—two—three, an' let fly!"
The fiddle-bows hung for an instant on the first note, and in a twinkling scampered along into "Randy my dandy." As the quick air caught at the listeners' pulses, the stranger crossed his arms, drew his right heel up along the inner side of his left ankle, and with a light nod towards the chimney-place began.
To the casual eye there was for awhile little to choose between the two dancers, the stranger's style being accurate, restrained, even a trifle dull. But of all the onlookers, Zeb knew best what hornpipe-dancing really was; and knew surely, after the first dozen steps, that he was going to be mastered. So far, the performance was academic only. Zeb, unacquainted with the word, recognised the fact, and was quite aware of the inspiration—the personal gift—held in reserve to transfigure this precise art in a minute or so, and give it life. He saw the force gathering in the steady rhythmical twinkle of the steel buckles, and heard it speak in the light recurrent tap with which the stranger's heels kissed the floor. It was doubly bitter that he and his enemy alone should know what was coming; trebly bitter that his enemy should be aware that he knew.
The crowder slackened speed for a second, to give warning, and dashed into the heel-and-toe. Zeb caught the light in the dancer's eyes, and still frowning, drew a long breath.
"Faster," nodded the stranger to the musicians' corner.
Then came the moment for which, by this time, Zeb was longing. The stranger rested with heels together while a man might count eight rapidly, and suddenly began a step the like of which none present had ever witnessed, Above the hips his body swayed steadily, softly, to the measure; his eyes never took their pleasant smile off Zeb's face, but his feet—
The steel buckles had become two sparkling moths, spinning, poising, darting. They no longer belonged to the man, but had taken separate life: and merely the absolute symmetry of their loops and circles, and the click-click-click on boards, regular as ever, told of the art that informed them.
They crossed and re-crossed now like small flashes of lightning, or as if the boards were flints giving out a score of sparks at every touch of the man's heel.
They seemed suddenly to catch the light out of every sconce, and knead it into a ball of fire, that spun and yet was motionless, in the very middle of the floor, while all the rest of the room grew suddenly dimmed.
Zeb with a gasp drew his eyes away for a second and glanced around. Fiddlers and guests seemed ghostly after the fierce light he had been gazing on. He looked along the pale faces to the place where Ruby stood. She, too, glanced up, and their eyes met.
What he saw fetched a sob from his throat. Then something on the floor caught his attention: something bright, close by his feet.
Between his out-spread legs, as it seemed, a thin streak of silver was creeping along the flooring. He rubbed his eyes, and looked again.
He was straddling across a stream of molten metal.
As Zeb caught sight of this, the stranger twirled, leapt a foot in the air, and came down smartly on the final note, with a click of his heels. The music ceased abruptly.
A storm of clapping broke out, but stopped almost on the instant: for the stranger had flung an arm out towards the hearth-stone.
"A mine—a mine!"
The white streak ran hissing from the heart of the fire, where a clod of earth rested among the ashen sticks.
"Witchcraft!" muttered one or two of the guests, peering forward with round eyes.
"Fiddlestick-end! I put the clod there myself. 'Tis lead!"
"Ay, naybours all," broke in Farmer Tresidder, his bald head bedewed with sweat, "I don't want to abash 'ee, Lord knows; but 'tis trew as doom that I be a passing well-to-do chap. I shudn' wonder now"—and here he embraced the company with a smile, half pompous and half timid— "I shudn' wonder if ye was to see me trottin' to Parlyment House in a gilded coach afore Michaelmas—I be so tremenjous rich, by all accounts."
"You'll excoose my sayin' it, Farmer," spoke up Old Zeb out of the awed silence that followed, "for doubtless I may be thick o' hearin', but did I, or did I not, catch 'ee alludin' to a windfall o' wealth?"
"You'll excoose me sayin' it, Farmer; but was it soberly or pleasantly, honest creed or light lips, down-right or random, 'out o' the heart the mouth speaketh' or wantonly and in round figgers, as it might happen to a man filled with meat and wine?"
"'Twas the cold trewth."
"By what slice o' fortune?"
"By a mine, as you might put it: or, as between man an' man, by a mine o' lead."
"Farmer, you're either a born liar or the darlin' o' luck."
"Aye: I feel it. I feel that overpowerin'ly."
"For my part," put in Mrs. Jim Lewarne, "I've given over follerin' the freaks o' Fortune. They be so very undiscernin'."
And this sentence probably summed up the opinion of the majority.
In the midst of the excitement Young Zeb strode up to the stranger, who stood a little behind the throng.
"Give me back my shoes," he said.
The other kicked them off and looked at him oddly.
"With pleasure. You'll find them a bit worn, I'm afraid."
"I'll chance that. Man, I'm not all sorry, either."
"'Cause they'll not be worn agen, arter this night. Gentleman or devil, whichever you may be, I bain't fit to dance i' the same parish with 'ee—no, nor to tread the shoeleather you've worn."
"By the powers!" cried the stranger suddenly, "two minutes ago I'd have agreed with you. But, looking in your eyes, I'm not so sure of it."
"That you won't wear the shoes again."
Then Zeb went after Ruby.
"I want to speak a word with 'ee," he said quietly, stepping up to her.
"I' the hall."
"But I can't come, just now."
"But you must."
She followed him out.
"Zeb, what's the matter with you?"
"Look here"—and he faced round sharply—"I loved you passing well."
"Well?" she asked, like a faint echo.
"I saw your eyes, just now. Don't lie."
"That's right. And now listen: if you marry me, I'll treat 'ee like a span'el dog. Fetch you shall, an' carry, for my pleasure. You shall be slave, an' I your taskmaster; an' the sweetness o' your love shall come by crushin', like trodden thyme. Shall I suit you?"