E-text prepared by Lionel Sear
A Man's Portrait of a Woman
ARTHUR THOMAS QUILLER-COUCH ('Q')
First Published in 1910.
This story originally appeared in the weekly edition of the "Times," and is now issued in book form by arrangement with the Proprietors of that Journal.
TO My Commodore and old Friend Edward Atkinson, Esq. of Rosebank, Mixtow-by-Fowey.
Some years ago an unknown American friend proposed my writing a story on the loves and adventures of Sir Harry Frankland, Collector of the Port of Boston in the mid-eighteenth century, and Agnes Surriage, daughter of a poor Marble-head fisherman. The theme attracted me as it has attracted other writers—and notably Oliver Wendell Holmes, who built a poem on it. But while their efforts seemed to leave room for another, I was no match for them in knowledge of the facts or of local details; and, moreover, these facts and details cramped my story. I repented, therefore and, taking the theme, altered the locality and the characters—who, by the way, in the writing have become real enough to me, albeit in a different sense. Thus (I hope) no violence has been offered to historical truth, while I have been able to tell the tale in my own fashion.
BOOK I.—PORT NASSAU.
I. THE BEACH.
II. PORT NASSAU.
III. TWO GUINEAS.
IV. FATHER AND SON.
VI. PARENTHETICAL—OF THE FAMILY OF VYELL.
VII. A SABBATH-BREAKER.
VIII. ANOTHER SABBATH-BREAKER.
IX. THE SCOURGE.
X. THE BENCH.
XI. THE STOCKS.
XII. THE HUT BY THE BEACH.
XIII. RUTH SETS OUT.
I. AFTER TWO YEARS.
II. MR. SILK.
III. MR. HICHENS.
V. SIR OLIVER'S HEALTH.
VI. CAPTAIN HARRY AND MR. HANMER.
VII. FIRST OFFER.
VIII. CONCERNING MARGARET.
IX. THE PROSPECT.
X. THREE LADIES.
XI. THE ESPIAL.
XII. LADY CAROLINE.
XIII. DIANA VYELL.
XIV. MR. SILK PROPOSES.
XV. THE CHOOSING.
BOOK III.—THE BRIDALS.
II. THE RETURN.
IV. THE BRIDEGROOM.
V. RUTH'S WEDDING DAY.
VI. "YET HE WILL COME—".
BOOK IV.—LADY GOOD-FOR-NOTHING.
I. BATTY LANGTON, CHRONICLER.
II. SIR OLIVER SAILS.
III. MISCALCULATING WRATH.
IV. THE TERRACE.
V. A PROLOGUE TO NOTHING.
VI. CHILDLESS MOTHER.
BOOK V.—LISBON AND AFTER.
I. ACT OF FAITH.
II. DONNA MARIA.
IV. THE SEARCH.
V. THE FINDING.
VII. THE LAST OFFER.
"An innocent life, yet far astray." Wordsworth's Ruth.
A coach-and-six, as a rule, may be called an impressive Object. But something depends on where you see it.
Viewed from the tall cliffs—along the base of which, on a strip of beach two hundred feet below, it crawled between the American continent and the Atlantic Ocean—Captain Oliver Vyell's coach-and-six resembled nothing so nearly as a black-beetle.
For that matter the cliffs themselves, swept by the spray and humming with the roar of the beach—even the bald headland towards which they curved as to the visible bourne of all things terrestrial—shrank in comparison with the waste void beyond, where sky and ocean weltered together after the wrestle of a two days' storm; and in comparison with the thought that this rolling sky and heaving water stretched all the way to Europe. Not a sail showed, not a wing anywhere under the leaden clouds that still dropped their rain in patches, smurring out the horizon. The wind had died down, but the ships kept their harbours and the sea-birds their inland shelters. Alone of animate things, Captain Vyell's coach-and-six crept forth and along the beach, as though tempted by the promise of a wintry gleam to landward.
A god—if we may suppose one of the old careless Olympians seated there on the cliff-top, nursing his knees—must have enjoyed the comedy of it, and laughed to think that this pert beetle, edging its way along the sand amid the eternal forces of nature, was here to take seizin of them—yes, actually to take seizin and exact tribute. So indomitable a fellow is Man, improbus Homo; and among men in his generation Captain Oliver Vyell was Collector of Customs for the Port of Boston, Massachusetts.
In fairness to Captain Vyell be it added that he—a young English blood, bearing kinship with two or three of the great Whig families at home, and sceptical as became a person of quality—was capable as any one of relishing the comedy, had it been pointed out to him. With equal readiness he would have scoffed at Man's pretensions in this world and denied him any place at all in the next. Nevertheless on a planet the folly of which might be taken for granted he claimed at least his share of the reverence paid by fools to rank and wealth. He was travelling this lonely coast on a tour of inspection, to visit and report upon a site where His Majesty's advisers had some design to plant a fort; and a fine ostentation coloured his progress here as through life. He had brought his coach because it conveyed his claret and his batterie de cuisine (the seaside inns were detestable); but being young and extravagantly healthy and, with all his faults, very much of a man, he preferred to ride ahead on his saddle-horse and let his pomp follow him.
Six horses drew the coach, and to each pair of leaders rode a postillion, while a black coachman guided the wheelers from the box-seat; all three men in the Collector's livery of white and scarlet. On a perch behind the vehicle—which, despite its weight, left but the shallowest of wheel-ruts on the hard sand—sat Manasseh, the Collector's cook and body-servant; a huge negro, in livery of the same white and scarlet but with heavy adornments of bullion, a cockade in his hat, and a loaded blunderbuss laid across his thighs. Last and alone within the coach, with a wine-case for footstool, sat a five-year-old boy.
Master Dicky Vyell—the Collector's only child, and motherless—sat and gazed out of the windows in a delicious terror. For hours that morning the travellers had ploughed their way over a plain of blown sand, dotted with shrub-oaks, bay-berries, and clumps of Indian grass; then, at a point where the tall cliffs began, had wound down to the sea between low foothills and a sedge-covered marsh criss-crossed by watercourses that spread out here and there into lagoons. At the head of this descent the Atlantic had come into sight, and all the way down its echoes had grown in the boy's ears, confusing themselves with a delicious odour which came in fact from the fields of sedge, though he attributed it to the ocean.
But the sound had amounted to a loud humming at most; and it was with a leap and a shout, as they rounded the last foothill and saw the vast empty beach running northward before them, league upon league, that the thunder of the surf broke on them. For a while the boom and crash of it fairly stunned the child. He caught at an arm-strap hanging by the window and held on with all his small might, while the world he knew with its familiar protective boundaries fell away, melted, left him—a speck of life ringed about with intolerable roaring emptiness. To a companion, had there been one in the coach, he must have clung in sheer terror; yes, even to his father, to whom he had never clung and could scarcely imagine himself clinging. But his father rode ahead, carelessly erect on his blood-horse—horse and rider seen in a blur through the salt-encrusted glass. Therefore Master Dicky held on as best he might to the arm-strap.
By degrees his terror drained away, though its ebb left him shivering. Child though he was, he could not remember when he had not been curious about the sea. In a dazed fashion he stared out upon the breakers. The wind had died down after the tempest, but the Atlantic kept its agitation. Meeting the shore (which hereabouts ran shallow for five or six hundred yards) it reared itself in ten-foot combers, rank stampeding on rank, until the sixth or seventh hurled itself far up the beach, spent itself in a long receding curve, and drained back to the foaming forces behind. Their untiring onset fascinated Dicky; and now and again he tasted renewal of his terror, as a wave, taller than the rest or better timed, would come sweeping up to the coach itself, spreading and rippling about the wheels and the horses' fetlocks. "Surely this one would engulf them," thought the child, recalling Pharaoh and his chariots; but always the furious charge spent itself in an edge of white froth that faded to delicate salt filigree and so vanished. When this had happened a dozen times or more, and still without disaster, he took heart and began to turn it all into a game, choosing this or that breaker and making imaginary wagers upon it; but yet the spectacle fascinated him, and still at the back of his small brain lay wonder that all this terrifying fury and uproar should always be coming to nothing. God must be out yonder (he thought) and engaged in some mysterious form of play. He had heard a good deal about God from Miss Quiney, his governess; but this playfulness, as an attribute of the Almighty, was new to him and hitherto unsuspected.
The beach, with here and there a break, extended for close upon twenty miles, still curving towards the headland; and the travellers covered more than two-thirds of the distance without espying a single living creature. As the afternoon wore on the weather improved. The sun, soon to drop behind the cliff-summits on the left, asserted itself with a last effort and shot a red gleam through a chink low in the cloud-wrack. The shaft widened. The breakers—indigo-backed till now and turbid with sand in solution—began to arch themselves in glass-green hollows, with rainbows playing on the spray of their crests. And then—as though the savage coast had become, at a touch of sunshine, habitable—our travellers spied a man.
He came forth from a break in the cliffs half a mile ahead and slowly crossed the sands to the edge of the surf, the line of which he began, after a pause, to follow as slowly northwards. His back was turned thus upon the Collector's equipage, to which in crossing the beach he had given no attention, being old and purblind.
The coach rolled so smoothly, and the jingle of harness was so entirely swallowed in the roar of the sea, that Captain Vyell, pushing ahead and overtaking the old fellow, had to ride close up to his shoulder and shout. It appeared then, for further explanation, that his hearing as well as his eyesight was none of the best. He faced about in a puzzled fashion, stared, and touched his hat—or rather lifted his hand a little way and dropped it again.
"Your Honour will be the Collector," he said, and nodded many times, at first as if proud of his sagacity, but afterwards dully—as though his interest had died out and he would have ceased nodding but had forgotten the way. "Yes; my gran'-darter told me. She's in service at the Bowling Green, Port Nassau; but walks over on Lord's Days to cheer up her mother and tell the news. They've been expectin' you at Port Nassau any time this week."
The Collector asked where he lived, and the old man pointed to a gully in the cliff and to something which, wedged in the gully, might at a first glance be taken for a large and loosely-constructed bird's nest. The Collector's keen eyes made it out to be a shanty of timber roofed with shingles and barely overtopping a wood pile.
"A good amount of it ought to be comin' in, after the gale."
"Then where's your hook?"—for the wreckwood gatherers along this part of the coast carry long gaffs to hook the flotsam and drag it above reach of the waves.
"Left it up the bank," said the old man shortly. After a moment he pulled himself together for an explanation, hollowed his palms around his mouth, and bawled above the boom of the surf. "I'm old. I don't carry weight more'n I need to. When a log comes in, my darter spies it an' tells me. She's mons'rous quick-sighted for wood an' such like— though good for nothin' else." (A pause.) "No, I'm hard on her; she can cook clams."
"You were looking for clams?" Captain Vyell scrutinised the man's face. It was a patriarchal face, strikingly handsome and not much wrinkled; the skin delicately tanned and extraordinarily transparent. Somehow this transparency puzzled him. "Hungry?" he asked quickly; and as quickly added, "Starving for food, that's what you are."
"It's the Lord's will," answered the old man.
The coach had come to a halt a dozen paces away. The child within it could hear nothing of this conversation; but to the end of his life his memory kept vivid the scene and the two figures in it—his father, in close-fitting riding-coat of blue, with body braced, leaning sideways a little against the wind, and a characteristic hint of the cavalryman about the slope of the thigh; the old wreck-picker standing just forward of the bay's shoulder and looking up, with blown hair and patient eyes. Memory recalled even the long slant of the bay's shoulder—a perfectly true detail, for the horse was of pure English race and bred by the Collector himself.
After this, as he remembered, some command must have been given, for Manasseh climbed down, opened the coach door and drew from under the seat a box, of which he raised the lid, disclosing things good to eat— among them a pasty with a crisp brown crust.
The wreck-picker broke off a piece of the pasty and wrapped it in a handkerchief—and memory recalled, as with a small shock of surprise, that the handkerchief was clean. The old man, though ragged enough to scare the crows, was clean from his bare head to his bare sea-bleached feet. He munched the rest of the pasty, talking between mouthfuls. To his discourse Dicky paid no heed, but slipped away for a scamper on the sands.
As he came running back he saw the old man, in the act of wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, suddenly shoot out an arm and point. Just beyond the breakers a solitary bird—an osprey—rose with a fish shining in the grip of its claws. It flew northward, away for the headland, for a hundred yards or so; and then by some mischance let slip his prey, which fell back into the sea. The boy saw the splash. To his surprise the bird made no effort to recover the fish—neither stooped nor paused—but went winging sullenly on its way.
"That's the way o' them," commented the old wreck-picker. "Good food, an' to let it go. I could teach him better."
But the boy, years after, read it as another and different parable.
They left the beach, climbed a road across the neck of the promontory, and rattled downhill into Port Nassau. Dusk had fallen before they reached the head of its cobbled street; and here one of the postillions drew out a horn from his holster and began to blow loud blasts on it. This at once drew the townsfolk into the road and warned them to get out of the way.
To the child, drowsed by the strong salt air and the rocking of the coach, the glimmering whitewashed houses on either hand went by like a procession in a dream. The figures and groups of men and women on the side-walks, too, had a ghostly, furtive air. They seemed to the boy to be whispering together and muttering. Now this was absurd; for what with the blare of the postillion's horn, the clatter of hoofs, the jolting and rumbling of wheels, the rattle of glass, our travellers had all the noise to themselves—or all but the voice of the gale now rising again for an afterclap and snoring at the street corners. Yet his instinct was right. Many of the crowd were muttering. These New Englanders had no love to spare for a Collector of Customs, a fine gentlemen from Old England and (rumour said) an atheist to boot. They resented this ostent of entry; the men more sullenly than the women, some of whom in their hearts could not help admiring its high-and-mighty insolence.
The Collector, at any rate, had a crowd to receive him, for it was Saturday evening. On Saturdays by custom the fishing-fleet of Port Nassau made harbour before nightfall, and the crews kept a sort of decorous carnival before the Sabbath, of which they were strict observers. In the lower part of the town, by the quays, much buying and selling went on, in booths of sail-cloth lit as a rule by oil-flares. For close upon a week no boat had been able to put to sea; but the Saturday market and the Saturday gossip and to-and-fro strolling were in full swing none the less, though the salesmen had to substitute hurricane-lamps for their ordinary flares, and the boy—now wide awake again—had a passing glimpse of a couple of booths that had been wrecked by the rising wind and were being rebuilt. He craned out to stare at the helpers, while they, pausing in their work and dragged to and fro by the flapping canvas, stared back as the coach went by.
It came to a halt on a level roadway some few rods beyond this bright traffic, in an open space which, he knew, must be near the waterside, for beyond the lights of the booths he had spied a cluster of masts quite close at hand. Or perhaps he had fallen asleep and in his sleep had been transported far inland. For the wind had suddenly died down, the coach appeared to be standing in a forest glade—at any rate, among trees—and through the trees fell a soft radiance that might well be the moon's were it only a tinge less yellow. In the shine of it stood Manasseh, holding open the coach door; and as the child stepped out these queer impressions were succeeded by one still more curious and startling. For a hand, as it seemed, reached out of the darkness, brushed him smartly across the face, and was gone. He gave a little cry and stood staring aloft at a lantern that hung some feet above him from an arched bracket. Across its glass face ran the legend BOWLING GREEN INN, in orange-coloured lettering, and the ray of its oil-lamp wavered on the boughs of two tall maples set like sentinels by the Inn gateway and reddening now to the fall of the leaf. Yes, the ground about his feet was strewn with leaves: it must be one of these that had brushed by his face.
If the folk in the streets had been sullen, those of the Inn were eager enough, even obsequious. A trio of grooms fell to unharnessing the horses; a couple of porters ran to and fro, unloading the baggage and cooking-pots; while the landlady shouted orders right and left in the porchway. She deemed, honest soul, that she was mistress of the establishment, until Manasseh undeceived her.
Manasseh's huge stature and gold-encrusted livery commanded respect in spite of his colour. He addressed her as "woman." "Woman, if you will stop yo' cacklin' and yo' crowin'? Go in now and fetch me fish, fetch me chickens, fetch me plenty eggs. Fetch me a dam scullion. Heh? Stir yo' legs and fetch me a dam scullion, and the chickens tender. His Exc'llence mos' partic'ler the chickens tender."
Still adjuring her he shouldered his way through the house to the kitchen, whence presently his voice sounded loud, authoritative, above the clatter of cooking-pots. From time to time he broke away from the business of unpacking to reiterate his demands for fish, eggs, chicken—the last to be tender at all costs and at pain of his tremendous displeasure.
"And I assure you, ma'am," said Captain Vyell, standing in the passage at the door of his private room, "his standard is a high one. I believe the blackguard never stole a tough fowl in his life. . . . Show me to my bedroom, please, if the trunks are unstrapped; and the child, here, to his. . . . Eh? What's this?—a rush-light? I don't use rush-lights. Go to Manasseh and ask him to unpack you a pair of candles."
The landlady returned with a silver candlestick in either hand, and candles of real wax. She had never seen the like, and led the way upstairs speculating on their cost. The bedrooms proved to be clean, though bare and more than a little stuffy—their windows having been kept shut for some days against the gale. The Collector commanded them to be opened. The landlady faintly protested. "The wind would gutter the candles—and such wax too!" She was told to obey, and she obeyed.
In the boy's room knelt a girl—a chambermaid—unstrapping his small valise. She had a rush-light on the floor beside her, and did not look up as the landlady thrust open the lattice and left the room with the Collector, the boy remaining behind. His candle stood upon a chest of drawers by the window; and, as the others went out, a draught of wind caught the dimity curtain, blew it against the flame, and in an instant ignited it.
The girl looked up swiftly at the sudden light above her, and as swiftly—before the child could cry out—was on her feet. She caught the fire between her two hands and beat it out, making no noise and scarcely flinching, though her flesh was certainly being scorched.
"That was lucky," she said, looking across at him with a smile.
"Ruth!—Ruth!" called the landlady's voice, up the corridor. "Here, a moment!"
She dropped the charred curtain and hurried to answer the call.
"Ruth! Where's the bootjack? His Honour will take off his riding-boots."
"Bootjack, ma'am?" interrupted the Collector, leaning back in a chair and extending a shapely leg with instep and ankle whereon the riding-boot fitted like a glove. "I don't maul my leather with bootjacks. Send Manasseh upstairs to me; ask him with my compliments what the devil he means by clattering saucepans when he should be attending to his master. . . . Eh, what's this?"
"She can do it, your Honour," said the landlady, catching Ruth by the shoulder and motioning her to kneel and draw off the boot. (It is likely she shirked carrying the message.)
"Oh, very well—if only she won't twist my foot. . . . Take care of the spur, child."
The girl knelt, and with her blistered hand took hold of the boot-heel below the spur. It cost her exquisite pain, but she did not wince; and her head being bent, no one perceived the tears in her eyes.
She had scarcely drawn off the second boot, when Manasseh appeared in the doorway carrying a silver tray with glasses and biscuits; a glass of red wine for his master, a more innocent cordial for the young gentleman, and both glasses filmed over with the chill of crushed ice.
The girl was withdrawing when the Collector, carelessly feeling in his pocket, drew out a coin and put it into her hand. Her fingers closed on it sharply, almost with a snatch. In truth, the touch of metal was so intolerable to the burnt flesh that, but for clutching it so, she must have dropped the coin. Still with bowed head she passed quietly from the room.
Master Dicky munched his macaroon and sipped his cordial. He had a whole guinea in his breeches pocket, and was thinking it would be great fun to step out and explore the town, if only for a little way. To-morrow was Sunday, and all the stores would be closed. But Manasseh was too busy to come with him for bodyguard—and his father's boots were off; and besides, he stood in great awe and shyness of his admired parent. Had the boots been on, it would have cost him a bold effort to make the request. On the whole, the cordial warming him, Master Dicky had a mind to take French leave.
Though the wind hummed among the chimneys and on the back of the roof, on either side of the lamp over the gateway the maples stood in the lee and waved their boughs gently, shedding a leaf now and then in some deflected gust. Beyond and to the left stretched a dim avenue, also of maples; and at the end of this, as he reached the gate, the boy could spy the lights of the fair.
There was no risk at all of losing his way.
He stepped briskly forth and down the avenue. Where the trees ended, and with them the high wall enclosing the inn's stable-yard, the wind rushed upon him with a whoop, and swept him off the side-walk almost to the middle of the road-way. But by this time the lights were close at hand. He pressed his little hat down on his head and battled his way towards them.
The first booth displayed sweetmeats; the next hung out lines of sailors' smocks, petticoats, sea-boots, oilskin coats and caps, that swayed according to their weight; the third was no booth but a wooden store, wherein a druggist dispensed his wares; the fourth, also of wood, belonged to a barber, and was capable of seating one customer at a time while the others waited their turn on the side-walk. Here—his shanty having no front—the barber kept them in good humour by chatting to all and sundry while he shaved; but a part of the crowd had good-naturedly drifted on to help his neighbour, a tobacco-seller, whose stall had suffered disaster. A painted wooden statue of a Cherokee Indian lay face downward across the walk, as the wind had blown it: bellying folds of canvas and tarpaulin hid the wreck of the poor man's stock-in-trade. Beyond this wreckage stood, in order, a vegetable stall, another sweetmeat stall, and a booth in which the boy (who cared little for sweetmeats, and, moreover, had just eaten his macaroon) took much more interest. For it was hung about with cages; and in the cages were birds of all kinds (but the most of them canaries), perched in the dull light of two horn lanterns, and asleep with open, shining eyes; and in the midst stood the proprietor, blowing delightful liquid notes upon a bird-call.
It fascinated Dicky; and he no sooner assured himself that the birds were really for sale—although no purchaser stepped forward—than there came upon him an overmastering desire to own a live canary in a cage and teach it with just such a whistle. (He had often wondered at the things upon which grown-up folk spent their money to the neglect of this world's true delights.) Edging his way to the stall, he was summoning up courage to ask the price of a bird, when the salesman caught sight him and affably spared him the trouble.
"Eh! here's my young lord wants a bird. . . . You may say what you like," said he, addressing the bystanders, "but there's none like the gentry for encouragin' trade. . . . And which shall it be sir? Here's a green parrot, now, I can recommend; or if your Honour prefers a bird that'll talk, this grey one. A beauty, see! And not a bad word in his repertory. Your honoured father shall not blame me for sellin' you a swearer."
The boy pointed to a cage on the man's right.
"A canary? . . . Well, and you're right. What is talk, after all, to compare with music? And chosen the best bird of my stock, you have; the pick of the whole crop. That's Quality, my friends; nothing but the best'll do for Quality, an' the instinct of it comes out young." The man, who was evidently an eccentric, ran his eye roguishly over the faces behind the boy and named his price; a high one—a very high one— but one nicely calculated to lie on the right side of public reprobation.
Dicky laid his guinea on the sill. "I want a whistle, too," he said, "and my change, please."
The bird-fancier slapped his breeches pockets.
"A guinea? Bless me, but I must run around and ask one of my neighbours to oblige. Any of you got the change for a golden guinea about you?" he asked of the crowd.
"We ain't so lucky," said a voice somewhere at the back. "We don't carry guineas about, nor give 'em to our bastards."
A voice or two—a woman's among them—called "Shame!" "Hold your tongue, there!"
Dicky had his back to the speaker. He heard the word for the first time in his life, and had no notion of its meaning; but in a dim way he felt it to be an evil word, and also that the people were protesting out of pity. A rush of blood came to his face. He gulped, lifted his chin, and said, with his eyes steady on the face of the blinking fancier,—
"Give it back to me, please, and I will get it changed."
He took the coin, and walked away resolutely with a set white face. He saw none of the people who made way for him.
The bird-fancier stared after the small figure as it walked away into darkness. "Bastard?" he said. "There's Blood in that youngster, though he don't face ye again an' I lose my deal. Blood's blood, however ye come by it; you may take that on the word of a breeder. An' you ought to be ashamed, Sam Wilson—slingin' yer mud at a child!"
The word drummed in the boy's ears. What did it mean? What was the sneer in it? "Brat!" "cry-baby," "tell-tale," "story-teller," these were opprobrious words, to be resented in their degree; and all but the first covered accusations which not only must never be deserved, but obliged a gentleman, however young, to show fight. But "bastard"?
He felt that, whatever it meant, somehow it was worse than any; that honour called for the annihilation of the man that dared speak it; that there was weakness, perhaps even poltroonery, in merely walking away. If only he knew what the word meant!
He came to a halt opposite the drug store. He had once heard Dr. Lamerton, the apothecary at home, described as a "well-to-do" man. The phrase stuck in his small brain, and he connected the sale of drugs with wealth. (How, he reasoned, could any one be tempted to sell wares so nasty unless by prodigious profit?) He felt sure the drug-seller would be able to change the guinea for him, and walked in boldly. His ears were tingling, and he felt a call to assert himself.
There was a single customer in the store—a girl. With some surprise he recognised her for the girl who had beaten the flame out of the curtain.
She stood with her back to the doorway and a little sidewise by the counter, from behind which the drug-seller—a burly fellow in a suit of black—looked down on her doubtfully, rubbing his shaven chin while he glanced from her to something he held in his open palm.
"I'm askin' you," he said, "how you came by it?"
"It was given to me," the girl answered.
"That's a likely tale! Folks don't give money like this to a girl in your position; unless—"
Here the man paused.
"Is it a great deal of money?" she asked. There was astonishment in her voice, and a kind of suppressed eagerness.
"Oh, come now—that's too innocent by half! A guinea-piece is a guinea-piece, and a guinea is twenty-one shillings; and twenty-one shillings, likely enough, is more'n you'll earn in a year outside o' your keep. Who gave it ye?"
"A gentleman—the Collector—at the Inn just now.
"Ho!" said the drug-seller, with a world of meaning.
"But if," she went on, "it is worth so much as you say, there must be some mistake. Give it back to me, please. I am sorry for troubling you." She took a small, round parcel from her pocket, laid it on the counter, and held out her hand for the coin.
The drug-seller eyed her. "There must be some mistake, I guess," said he, as he gave back the gold piece. "No, and you can take up your packet too; I don't grudge two-pennyworth of salve. But wait a moment while I serve this small customer, for I want a word with you later. . . . Well, and what can I do for you, young gentleman?" he asked, turning to Dicky.
Dicky advanced to the shop-board, and as he did so the girl turned and recognised him with a faint, very shy smile.
"If you please," he said politely, "I want change for this—if you can spare it."
"Bless my soul!" exclaimed the man, staring. "What, another?"
"The bird-seller up the road had no change about him. And—and, if you please," went on Dick hardily, with a glance at the girl, "she hurt her hands putting out a fire just now. I expect my father gave her the money for that. But she must have burnt her hands dreffully!"—Dicky had not quite outgrown his infantile lisp—"and if she's come for stuff to put on them, please I want to pay for it."
"But I don't want you to," put in the girl, still hesitating by the counter.
"But I'd rather insisted Dicky.
"Tut!" said the drug-seller. "A matter of twopence won't break either of us. Captain Vyell's boy, are you? Well, then, I'll take your coppers on principle."
He counted out the change, and Dicky—who was not old enough yet to do sums—pretended to find it correct. But he was old enough to have acquired charming manners, and after thanking the drug-seller, gave the girl quite a grown-up little bow as he passed out.
She would have followed, but the man said, "Stay a moment. What's your name?"
"I was sixteen last month."
"Then listen to a word of advice, Ruth Josselin, and don't you take money like that from fine gentlemen like the Collector. They don't give it to the ugly ones. Understand?"
"Thank you," she said. "I am going to give it back;" and slipping the guinea into her pocket, she said "Good evening," and walked swiftly out in the wake of the child.
The drug-seller looked after her shrewdly. He was a moral man.
Ruth, hurrying out upon the side-walk, descried the child a few paces up the road. He had come to a halt; was, in fact, plucking up his courage to go and demand the bird-cage. She overtook him.
"I was sent out to look for you," she said. "I oughtn't to have wasted time buying that ointment; but my hands were hurting me. Please, you are to come home and change your clothes for dinner."
"I'll come in a minute," said Dicky, "if you'll stand here and wait."
He might be called by that word again; and without knowing why, he dreaded her hearing it. She waited while he trotted forward, nerving himself to face the crowd again. Lo! when he reached the booth, all the bystanders had melted away. The bird-seller was covering up his cages with loose wrappers, making ready to pack up for the night.
"Hello!" he said cheerfully. "Thought I'd lost you for good."
He took the child's money and handed the canary cage across the sill; also the bird-whistle, wrapped in a scrap of paper. Many times in the course of a career which brought him much fighting and some little fame, Dicky Vyell remembered this his first lesson in courage—that if you walk straight up to an enemy, as likely as not you find him vanished.
But he had not quite reached the end of his alarms. As he took the cage, a parrot at the back of the booth uplifted his voice and squawked,—
"No prerogative! No prerogative! No prerogative!"
"You mustn't mind him," said the bird-seller genially. "He's like the crowd—picks up a cry an' harps on it without understandin'."
Master Dicky understood it no better; but thanked the man and ran off, prize in hand, to rejoin the girl.
They hurried back to the Inn. At the gateway she paused.
"I let you say what was wrong just now," she explained. "Your father didn't give me that money for putting out the fire."
Here she hesitated. Dicky could not think what it mattered, or why her voice was so timid.
"Oh," said he carelessly, "I dare say it was just because he liked you. Father has plenty of money."
FATHER AND SON.
The dinner set before Captain Vyell comprised a dish of oysters, a fish chowder, a curried crab, a fried fowl with white sauce, a saddle of tenderest mutton, and various sweets over which Manasseh had thrown the elegant flourishes of his art. The wine came from the Rhone valley—a Hermitage of the Collector's own shipment. The candles that lit the repast stood in the Collector's own silver candlesticks. As an old Roman general carried with him on foreign service, packed in panniers on mule-back, a tessellated pavement to be laid down for him at each camping halt and repacked when the troops moved forward, so did Captain Vyell on his progresses of inspection travel with all the apparatus of a good table.
Dicky, seated opposite his father in a suit of sapphire blue velvet with buttons of cut steel, partook only of the fried fowl and of a syllabub. He had his glass of wine too, and sipped at it, not liking it much, but encouraged by his father, who held that a fine palate could not be cultivated too early.
By some process of dishing-up best known to himself (but with the aid, no doubt, of the "dam scullion") Manasseh, who had cooked the dinner, also served it; noiselessly, wearing white gloves because his master abominated the sight of a black hand at meals. These gloves had a fascination for Dicky. They attracted his eyes as might the intervolved play of two large white moths in the penumbra beyond the candle-light, between his father's back and the dark sideboard; but he fought against the attraction because he knew that to be aware of a servant was an offence against good manners at table.
His father encouraged him to talk, and he told of his purchase—but not all the story. Not for worlds—instinct told him—must he mention the word he had heard spoken. Yet he got so far as to say,—
"The people here don't like us—do they, father?"
Captain Vyell laughed. "No, that's very certain. And, to tell you the truth, if I had known you were wandering the street by yourself I might have felt uneasy. Manasseh shall take you for a walk to-morrow. One can never be sure of the canaille."
"What does that mean?"
Captain Vyell explained. The canaille, he said, were the common folk, whose part in this world was to be ruled. He explained further that to belong to the upper or ruling class it did not suffice to be well-born (though this was almost essential); one must also cultivate the manners proper to that station, and appear, as well as be, a superior. Nor was this all; there were complications, which Dicky would learn in time; what was called "popular rights," for instance—rights which even a King must not be allowed to override; and these were so precious that (added the Collector) the upper classes must sometimes fight and lay down their lives for them.
Dick perpended. He found this exceedingly interesting—the more so because it came, though in a curiously different way, to much the same as Miss Quiney had taught him out of the catechism. Miss Quiney had used pious words; in Miss Quiney's talk everything—even to sitting upright at table—was mixed up with God and an all-seeing Eye; and his father—with a child's deadly penetration Dicky felt sure of it—was careless about God.
This, by the way, had often puzzled and even frightened him. God, like a great Sun, loomed so largely through Miss Quiney's scheme of things (which it were more precise, perhaps, to term a fog) that for certain, and apart from the sin of it and the assurance of going to hell, every one removed from God must be sitting in pitch-darkness. But lo! when his father talked everything became clear and distinct; there was no sun at all to be seen, but there was also no darkness. On the contrary, a hundred things grew visible at once, and intelligible and common-sensible as Miss Quiney never contrived to present them.
This was puzzling; and, moreover, the child could not tolerate the thought of his father's going to hell—to the flames and unbearable thirst of it. To be sure Miss Quiney had never hinted this punishment for her employer, or even a remote chance of it, and Dicky's good breeding had kept him from confronting her major premise with the particular instance of his father, although the conclusion of that syllogism meant everything to him. Or it may be that he was afraid. . . . Once, indeed, like Sindbad in the cave, he had seen a glimmering chance of escape. It came when, reading in his Scripture lesson that Christ consorted by choice with publicans and sinners, he had been stopped by Miss Quiney with the information that "publican" meant "a kind of tax-collector." "Like papa?" asked the child, and held his breath for the answer. "Oh, not in the least like your dear papa," Miss Quiney made haste to assure him; "but a quite low class of person, and, I should say, connected rather with the Excise. You must remember that all this happened in the East, a long time ago." Poor soul! the conscientiousness of her conscience (so to speak) had come to rest upon turning such corners genteelly, and had grown so expert at it that she scarcely breathed a sigh of relief. The child bent his head over the book. His eyes were hidden from her, and she never guessed what hope she had dashed.
It was a relief then—after being forced at one time or another to put aside or pigeon-hole a hundred questions on which Miss Quiney's teaching and his father's practice appeared at variance—to find a point upon which the certainty of both converged. Heaven and hell might be this or that; but in this world the poor deserved their place, and must be kept to it.
"That seems fine," said Dicky, after a long pause.
"What seems fine?" His father, tasting the mutton with approval, had let slip his clue to the child's thought.
"Why, that poor people have rights too, and we ought to stand up for them—like you said," answered Dicky, not too grammatically.
"They are our rights too, you see," said his father.
Dicky did not see; but his eagerness jumped this gap in the argument. "Papa," he asked with a sudden flush, "did you ever stand up to a King on the poor people's side, and fight—and all that?"
"Well, you see"—the Collector smiled—"I was never called upon. But it's in the blood. Has Miss Quiney ever told you about Oliver Cromwell?"
"Yes. He cut off King Charles's head. . . . I don't think Miss Quiney liked him for that, though she didn't say so."
The Collector was still smiling. "He certainly helped to cut off King Charles's head, and—right or wrong—it's remembered against him. But he did any amount of great things too. He was a masterful man; and perhaps the reason why Miss Quiney held her tongue is that he happens to be an ancestor of ours, and she knew it."
"Oliver Cromwell?" Dicky repeated the name slowly, with awe.
"He was my great-great-grandfather, and you can add on another 'great' for yourself. I am called Oliver after him. They even say," added Captain Vyell, sipping his wine, "that I have some of his features; and so, perhaps, will you when you grow up. But of your chance of that you shall judge before long. I am having a copy of his portrait sent over from England."
For a moment or two these last remarks scarcely penetrated to the boy's hearing. Like all boys, he naturally desired greatness; unlike most, he was conscious of standing above the crowd, but without a guess that he derived the advantage from anything better than accident. His father had the good fortune to be rich. For himself—well, Dicky was born with one of those simple natures that incline rather to distrust than to overrate their own merits. None the less he desired and loved greatness—thus early, and throughout his life—and it came as a tremendous, a magnificent shock to him that he enjoyed it as a birthright. The repetition of "great"—"he was my great-great-grandfather;" "you can add another 'great' for yourself"— hummed in his ears. A full half a minute ticked by before he grasped at the remainder of his father's speech, and, like a breaking twig, it dropped him to bathos.
"But—but—" Dicky passed a hand over his face—"Miss Quiney said that Oliver Cromwell was covered with warts!"
Captain Vyell laughed outright.
"Women have wonderful ways of conveying a prejudice. Warts? Well, there, at any rate, we have the advantage of old Noll." The Collector, whose sense of hearing was acute and fastidious, broke off with a sharp arching of the eyebrows and a glance up at the ceiling, or rather (since ceiling there was none) at the oaken beams which supported the floor overhead. "Manasseh," he said quickly, "be good enough to step upstairs and inform our landlady that the pitch of her voice annoys me. She would seem to be rating a servant girl above."
"Pray desire her to take the girl away and scold her elsewhere."
Manasseh disappeared, and returned two minutes later to report that "the woman would give no furdah trouble." He removed the white cloth, set out the decanters with an apology for the mahogany's indifferent polish, and withdrew again to prepare his master's coffee.
At once a silence fell between father and son. Dicky had expected to hear more of Oliver Cromwell. He stared across the dull shine of the table at his parent's coat of peach-coloured velvet and shirt front of frilled linen; at the lace ruffle on the wrist, the signet ring on the little finger, the hand—firm, but fine—as it reached for a decanter or fell to playing with a gold toothpick. He loved this father of his with the helpless, concentred love of a motherless child; admired him, as all must admire, only more loyally. To feel constraint in so magnificent a presence was but natural.
It would have astonished him to learn that his father, lolling there so easily and toying with a toothpick, shared that constraint. Yet it was so. Captain Vyell did not understand children. Least of all did he understand this son of his begetting. He could be kind to him, even extravagantly, by fits and starts; desired to be kind constantly; could rally and chat with him in hearing of a third person, though that third person were but a servant waiting at table. But to sit alone facing the boy and converse with him was a harder business, and gave him an absurd feeling of gene; and this (though possibly he did not know it) was the real reason why, having brought Dicky in the coach for a treat, he himself had ridden all day in saddle.
Dicky was the first to resume conversation.
"Papa," he asked, still pondering the problem of rich and poor, "don't some of the old families die out?"
"Then others must come up to take their place, or the people who do the ruling would come to an end."
"That's the way of it, my boy." The Collector nodded and cracked a walnut. "New families spring up; and a devilish ugly show they usually make of it at first. It takes three generations, they say, to breed a gentleman; and, in my opinion, that's under the mark."
"And a lady?"
"Women are handier at picking up appearances; 'adaptable' 's the word. But the trouble with them is to find out whether they have the real thing or not. For my part, if you want the real thing, I believe there are more gentlemen than gentlewomen in the world; and Batty Langton says you may breed out the old Adam, but you'll never get rid of Eve. . . . But, bless my soul, Dicky, it's early days for you to be discussing the sex!"
Dicky, however, was perfectly serious.
"But I do mean what you call the real thing, papa. Couldn't a poor girl be born so that she had it from the start? Oh, I can't tell what I mean exactly—"
"On the contrary, child, you are putting it uncommonly well; at any rate, you are making me understand what you mean, and that's the A and Z of it, whether in talk or in writing. 'Is there—can there be—such a thing as a natural born lady?' that's your question, hey?" The Collector peeled his walnut and smiled to himself. In other company—Batty Langton's, for example—he would have answered cynically that to him the phenomenon of a natural born lady would first of all suggest a doubt of her mother's virtue. "Well, no," he answered after a while; "if you met such a person, and could trace back her family history, ten to one you'd discover good blood somewhere in it. Old stocks fail, die away underground, and, as time goes on, are forgotten; then one fine day up springs a shoot nobody can account for. It's the old sap taking a fresh start. See?"
Dicky nodded. It would take him some time work out the theory, but he liked the look of it.
His drowsed young brain—for the hour was past bedtime—applied it idly to a picture that stood out, sharp and vivid, from the endless train of the day's impressions: the picture of a girl with quiet, troubled eyes, composed lips, and hands that beat upon a blazing curtain, not flinching at the pain. . . . And just then, as it were in a dream, he beat of her hands echoed in a soft tapping, the door behind his father opened gently, and Dicky sat up with a start, wide awake again and staring, for the girl herself stood in the doorway.
"Hey, what is it?" the Collector demanded, slewing himself to the half-about in his chair.
The girl stepped forward into the candle-light. Over her shoulders she wore a faded plaid, the ends of which her left hand clutched and held together at her bosom.
"Your Honour's pardon for troubling," she said, and laying a gold coin on the table, drew back with a slight curtsy. "But I think you gave me this by mistake; and now is my only chance to give it back. I am going home in a few minutes."
The Collector glanced at the coin, and from that to the girl's face, on which his eyes lingered.
"Gad, I recollect!" he said. "You were the wench that pulled off my boots?"
"Well, upon my honour, I forget at this moment if I gave it by mistake or because of your face. No, hang me!" he went on, while she flushed, not angrily, but as though the words hurt her, "it must have been by mistake. I couldn't have forgot so much better a reason."
To this she answered nothing, but put forward her hand as if to push the coin nearer.
"Certainly not," said he, still with eyes on her face. "I wish you to take it. By the way, I heard the landlady's voice just now, letting loose upon somebody. Was it on you?"
"And you are going home to-night, you say. Has she turned you out?"
"Yes." The girl's hand moved as if gathering the plaid closer over her bosom. Her voice held no resentment. Her eyes were fixed upon the coin, which, however, she made no further motion to touch; and this downward glance showed at its best the lovely droop of her long eyelashes.
The Collector continued to take stock of her, and with a growing wonder.
The lower half of the face's oval was perhaps Unduly gaunt and a trifle overweighted by the broad brow. The whole body stood a thought too high for its breadth, with a hint of coltishness in the thin arms and thick elbow-joints. So judged the Collector, as he would have appraised a slave or any young female animal; while as a connoisseur he knew that these were faults pointing towards ultimate perfection, and at this stage even necessary to it.
For assurance he asked her, "How old are you?"
"That's as I guessed," said he, and added to himself, "My God, this is going to be one of the loveliest things in creation!" Still, as she bent her eyes to the coin on the table, he ran his appraising glance over her neck and shoulders, judging—so far as the ugly shawl permitted—the head's poise, the set of the coral ear, the delicate wave of hair on the neck's nape.
"Why is she turning you out?"
"A window curtain took fire. She said it was my fault."
"But it was not your fault at all!" cried Dicky. "Papa, the curtain took fire in my room, and she beat it out. The whole house might have been burnt down but for her. She beat it out, and made nothing of it, though it hurt her horribly. Look at her hands, papa!"
"Hold out your hands," his father commanded.
She stretched them out. The ointment, as she turned them palms upward, shone under the candle rays.
"Turn them the other way," he commanded, after a long look at them. The words might mean that the sight afflicted him, but his tone scarcely suggested this. She turned her hands, and he scrutinised the backs of them very deliberately. "It's a shame," said he at length.
"Of course it's a shame!" the boy agreed hotly. "Papa, won't you ring for the landlady and tell her so, and then she won't be sent away."
"My dear Dicky," his father answered, "you mistake. I was thinking that it was a shame to coarsen such hands with housework." He eyed the girl again, and she met him with a straight face—flushed a little and plainly perturbed, but not shrinking, although her bosom heaved—for his admiration was entirely cool and critical. "What is your name?" he asked.
He appeared to consider this for a moment, and then, reaching out a hand for the decanter, to dismiss the subject. "Well, pick up your guinea," he said. "No doubt the woman outside has treated you badly; but I can't intercede for you, to keep you a drudge here among the saucepans; no, upon my conscience, I can't. The fact is, Ruth Josselin, you have the makings of a beauty, and I'll be no party to spoiling 'em. What is more, it seems you have spirit, and no woman with beauty and spirit need fail to win her game in this world. That's my creed." He sipped his wine.
"If your Honour pleases," said the girl quietly, picking up the coin, "the woman called me bad names, and I was not wanting you at all to speak for me."
"Oho!" The Collector set down his glass and laughed. "So that's the way of it—'Nobody asked you, sir, she said.' Dicky, we sit rebuked."
"But—" she hesitated, and then went on rapidly in the lowest of low tones—"if your Honour wouldn't mind giving me silver instead of gold? They won't change gold for me in the town; they'll think I have stolen it. Most Sundays I'm allowed to take home broken meats to mother and grandfather, and to-night I shan't be given any, now that I'm sent away. They'll be expecting me, and indeed, sir, I can't bear to face them—or I wouldn't ask you. I beg your Honour's pardon for saying so much."
"Hullo!" exclaimed the Collector. "Why, yes, to be sure, you must be grandchild to the old man of the sea—him that I met on the beach this afternoon, t'other side of the headland. Lives in a hovel with a wood pile beside it, and a daughter that looks out for wreckage?"
"Your Honour spoke with them?" Into Ruth's face there mounted a deeper tide of colour. But whereas the first flush had been dark with distress, this second spread with a glow of affection. Her eyes seemed to take light from it, and shone.
"I spoke with the old man. Since you have said so much, I may say more. I gave him food; he was starving."
She bent her head. Her hands moved a little, with a gesture most pitiful to see. "I was afraid," she muttered, "with these gales, and no getting to the oyster beds."
"He took some food, too, to his daughter, with a bottle of wine, as I remember."
A bright tear dropped. In the candle-light Dicky saw it splash on the back of her hand, by the wrist.
"God bless your Honour!" Dicky could just hear the words.
The door opened and Manasseh entered, bearing the coffee on a silver tray.
"Manasseh," said his master, "take that guinea and bring me change for it. If you have no silver in the treasury get the landlady to change it for you."
Manasseh was affronted. His hand came near to shaking as he poured and handed the coffee.
"Yo' Hon'ah doan off'n use de metal," he answered. "Dat's sho'. But whiles an' again yo' Hon'ah condescends ter want it. Dat bein' so, I keep it by me—an' polished. I doan fetch yo' Hon'ah w'at any low trash has handled."
He withdrew, leaving this fine shaft to rankle, and by-and-by entered with a small velvet bag, from the neck of which he shook a small cascade of silver coins, all exquisitely polished.
"Count me out change for a guinea," commanded his master.
"Now empty the bag, put into it what you have counted, and sweep up the rest."
Manasseh dropped in the coins one by one, and tied the neck of the bag with its silken ribbon. The Collector took it from him and tossed it to the girl.
"Here—catch!" said he carelessly.
But her burnt hands shrank from closing on if, and it fell to the floor. She stooped, recovered it, and slipped it within her bodice. As she rose erect again her eyes rested in wonder on the black servant who with a crumb-brush was sweeping the rest of the money off the table and catching it upon the coffee-salver. The rain and clash of the coins appeared to confuse her for a moment. Then with another curtsy and a "Thank your Honour," she moved to the door.
"But wait," said the Collector sharply, on a sudden thought. "You are not meaning to walk all the way home, surely?"
"At this hour?"
"The wind has gone down. I do not mind the dark, and the distance is nothing. . . . Oh, I forgot: your Honour thinks that, with all this money, some one will try to rob me?"
The Collector smiled. "You would appear to be a very innocent young woman," he said. "I was not, as a fact, thinking of the money."
"Nobody will guess that I am carrying so much," she said simply; "so it will be quite safe."
"Nevertheless this may help to give you confidence," said he. Feeling in the breast pocket of his laced satin waistcoat, he drew forth a diminutive pistol—a delicate toy, with a pattern of silver foliated over the butt. "It is loaded," he explained, "and primed; though it cannot go off unless you pull back the trigger. At close quarters it can be pretty deadly. Do you understand firearms?"
"Grandfather has a fowling-piece," she answered; "and, now that his sight has failed, on Sundays I try to shoot sea-birds for him. He says that I have a good eye. But last week the birds had all flown inland, because of the gale."
"Then take this. It is nothing to carry, and you may feel the safer for it."
She put up a hand to decline. "Why should I need it?"
"We'll hope you will not. But do as I bid you, girl. I shall be passing back along the beach in two days' time, and will call for it."
She resisted no longer.
"I will take it," she said. "By that time I may have thought of words to thank your Honour."
She curtsied again.
"Manasseh!" Captain Vyell pointed to the door. The negro opened it and stood aside majestically as she passed out and was gone.
Let moralists perpend. Ruth Josselin had knocked at that door after a sharp struggle between conscience and crying want. The poverty known to Ruth was of the extreme kind that gnaws the entrails with hunger. It had furthermore starved her childhood of religion, and her sole code of honour came to her by instinct. Yet she had knocked at the door with no thought but that the Collector's guinea had come to her hand by mistake, and no expectancy but that the Collector would thank her and take it back. She was shy, moreover. It had cost courage.
"Honesty is the best policy." True enough, no doubt. Yet, when all is said, but for some radical instinct of honesty, untaught, brave to conquer a more than selfish need, Ruth had never brought back her guinea. And, yet again, from that action all the rest of this story flows. When we have told it, let the moralists decide.
PARENTHETICAL—OF THE FAMILY OF VYELL.
Captain Oliver Vyell, as we have seen, set store upon pedigree: and here, as well in compliment to him as to make our story clearer, we will interrupt it with a brief account of his family and descent.
The tomb of Sir Thomas Vyell, second Baronet, at whose house of Carwithiel in Cornwall our Collector spent some years of his boyhood, may yet be seen in the church of that parish, in the family transept. It bears the coat of the Vyells (gules, a fesse raguly argent) with no less than twenty-four quarterings: for an Odo of the name had fought on the winning side at Hastings, and his descendants, settling in the West, had held estates there and been people of importance ever since.
The Wars of the Roses, to be sure, had left them under a cloud, shorn of the most of their wealth and a great part of their lands. Yet they kept themselves afloat (if this riot of metaphor may be pardoned) and their heads moderately high, until Sir William, the first Baronet, by developing certain tin mines on his estate and working them by new processes, set up the family fortunes once more.
His son, Sir Thomas, steadily bettered them. A contemporary narrative describes him as "chief of a very good Cornish family, with a very good estate. His marrying a grand-daughter of the Lord Protector (Oliver) first recommended him to King William, who at the Revolution made him Commissioner of the Excise and some years after Governor of the Post Office. . . . The Queen, by reason of his great capacity and honesty, hath continued him in the office of Postmaster. He is a gentleman of a sweet, easy, affable disposition—a handsome man, of middle stature, towards forty years old." This was written in 1713. Sir Thomas died in 1726, of the smallpox, having issue (by his one wife, who survived him but a few years) seven sons and three daughters.
1. Thomas, the third Baronet: of whom anon.
2. William, who became a Senior Student of Christ Church, Oxford, a page to Queen Mary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. A memoir of the time preserves him for us as "a tall sanguineman, with a merry eye and talkative in his cups." He married a Walpole, but his children died young.
3. John, who, going on a diplomatic mission to Hamburg, took a fever and died there, unmarried.
4. Henry, the father of our Collector. He married Jane, second daughter of the Marquis of Lomond; increased his wealth in Bengal as governor of the East India Company's Factory, and while yet increasing it, died at Calcutta in 1728. His children were two sons, Oliver and Henry, with both of whom our story deals.
5. Algernon, who went to Jesus College, Cambridge, became a Fellow there, practised severe parsimony, and dying unmarried in 1742, had his eyes closed by his college gyp and weighted with two penny pieces—the only coins found in his breeches pocket. He left his very considerable savings to young Oliver, whom he had never seen.
6. Frederick Penwarne, barrister-at-law. We shall have something to do with him.
7. Roger, who traded at Calcutta and making an expedition to the Persian Gulf, was killed there in a chance affray with some Arabs.
8. Anne, who married Sackville.
9. Frances Elizabeth, who married Pelham.
10. Arabella, whose affections went astray upon a young Cornish yeoman. Her family interfering, the match was broken off and she died unmarried.
Oliver and Henry, born at Calcutta, were for their health's sake sent home together—he one aged four, the other three—to be nurtured at Carwithiel. Here under the care of their grandparents, Sir Thomas and Lady Vyell (the Protector's grand-daughter), they received instruction at the hands—often very literally at the hands—of the Rev. Isaac Toplady, Curate in Charge of Carwithiel, a dry scholar, a wet fly-fisher, and something of a toad-eater. They had for sole playmate and companion their Cousin Diana, or Di, the seven-year-old daughter of their eldest uncle, Thomas, heir to the estates and the baronetcy.
This Thomas—a dry, peevish man, averse from country pursuits, penurious and incurably suspicious of all his fellow-men—now occupied after a fashion and with fair diligence that place in public affairs from which his father had, on approach of age, withdrawn. He sat in Parliament for the family borough of St. Michael, and by family influence had risen to be a Lord of the Admiralty. He had married Lady Caroline Pett, a daughter of the first Earl of Portlemouth, and the pair kept house in Arlington Street, where during the session they entertained with a frugality against which Lady Caroline fought in vain. They were known (and she was aware of it) as "Pett and Petty," and her life was embittered by the discovery, made too late, that her husband was in every sense a mean man, who would never rise and never understand why not, while he nursed an irrational grudge against her for having presented him with a daughter and then ceased from child-bearing.
Unless she repented and procured him a male heir, the baronetcy would come to him only to pass at his death to young Oliver; and the couple, who spent all the Parliamentary recesses at Carwithiel because Mr. Thomas found it cheap, bore no goodwill to that young gentleman. He en revanche supplied them with abundant food for censure, being wilful from the first, and given in those early years to consorting with stable-boys and picking up their manners and modes of speech. The uncle and aunt alleged—and indeed it was obvious—that the unruly boys passed on the infection to Miss Diana. Miss Diana never accompanied her parents to London, but had grown up from the first at Carwithiel—again because Mr. Thomas found it cheap.
In this atmosphere of stable slang, surrounded by a sort of protective outer aura in their grandparents' godliness, the three children grew up: mischievous indeed and without rein, but by no means vicious. Their first separation came in 1726 when Master Oliver, now rising ten, left for London, to be entered at Westminster School. Harry was to follow him; and did, in a twelve-month's time; but just before this happened, in Oliver's summer holidays. Sir Thomas took the smallpox and died and went to his tomb in the Carwithiel transept. Harry took it too; but pulled through, not much disfigured. Oliver and Diana escaped.
The boys, to whom their grandfather—so far as they regarded him at all—had mainly presented himself as a benevolent old proser, were surprised to find that they sincerely regretted him; and the events of the next few weeks threw up his merits (now that the time was past for rewarding them) into a sharp light which memory overarched with a halo. Tenderly into that halo dissolved his trivial faults—his trick, for example, of snoring between the courses at dinner, or of awaking and pulling his fingers till they cracked with a distressing sound. These and other small frailties were forgotten as the new Sir Thomas and his spouse took possession and proceeded in a few weeks to turn the place inside out, dismissing five of the stable-boys, cutting down the garden staff by one-third, and carrying havoc into the housekeeper's apartments, the dairy, the still-room.
In these dismissals I have no doubt that Sir Thomas and Lady Caroline hit (as justice is done in this world) upon the chief blackguards. But the two boys, asking one another why So-and-so had been marked down while This-other had been spared, and observing that the So-and-so's included an overbalancing number of their own cronies, found malice in the discrimination, and a malice directed with intent upon themselves.
Young Oliver, as soon as Harry was convalescent, discussed this vehemently with him. Harry, weak with illness, took it passively. He was destined for the Navy. To him already the sea meant everything: as a child of three, on his voyage home in the Mogul East Indiaman, he had caught the infection of it; on it, as offering the only career fit for a grown man, his young thoughts brooded, and these annoyances were to him but as chimney-pots and pantiles falling about the heads of folks ashore. But he agreed that Di's conduct needed explaining. She had taken a demure turn, and was not remonstrating with her parents as she ought—not playing fair, in short. "It must be pretty difficult for her," said Harry. "I don't see," said Oliver.
The two boys went back to Westminster together. They spent the Christmas holidays with their Uncle Frederick, the barrister, who practised very little at the law either in court or in chambers, hut dwelt somewhat luxuriously in the Inner Temple and lived the life of a man-about-town. Their summer vacation was to be spent at Carwithiel; but, as it happened, they were not to see Carwithiel again, for before summer came news of their father's death at Calcutta. He had amassed a fortune which, translated out of rupees, amounted to 400,000 pounds. To his widow, in addition to her jointure, he left a life interest of a thousand pounds per annum; a sum of 20,000 pounds was set aside for Harry, to accumulate until his twenty-first birthday; while the magnificent residue in like manner accumulated for young Oliver, the heir.
Lady Jane returned to England, to live in decent affluence at Bath; and at Bath, of course, Oliver and Harry spent their subsequent holidays, while their Uncle Frederick continued by occasional dinners and gifts of pocket money, by outings down the river to Greenwich, by seats at the theatre or at state shows and pageants, to mitigate the rigours of school. Had it occurred to Oliver Vyell in later life to set down his "Reflections" in the style of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, he might have begun them in some such words as these: "From my mother, Lady Jane Vyell, I learned to be proud of good birth, to esteem myself a gentleman, and to regulate my actions by a code proper to my station in life. This code she reconciled with the Gospels, and indeed, she rested it on the rock of Holy Scripture. From my Uncle Frederick I learned that self-interest was the key of life; that the teachings of the priest-hood were more or less conscious humbug; that all men could be bought; that their god was vanity, and the Great Revolution the noblest event in English history. . . ."
The sane infusion of Father Neptune in Master Harry's blood preserved him from these doctrines, and before long indeed removed him out of the way of hearing them. Soon after his fifteenth birthday he sailed to learn his profession shipping (by a fiction of the service), as "cabin boy" under his mother's brother. Lord Robert Soules, then commanding the Merope frigate.
Oliver proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, and thence (without waiting for a degree) to make the Grand Tour; in the course of which and in company with his cousin, Dick Pelham, and a Mr. Batty Langton, a Christ Church friend, he visited Florence, Rome, Naples, Athens, and Constantinople, returning through Rome again and by way of Venice, Switzerland, Paris. He reached home to find that his mother, who believed in keeping young men employed, had procured him a cornetcy in Lord Lomond's Troop of Horse. He was now in possession of an ample fortune. He would certainly succeed to the baronetcy, and to the Vyell acres, which were mostly entailed.
But the grave itself could not give lessons in greed to a true Whig family of that period. Lady Jane had it in her blood, every tradition of it. Her son (though within a few months he rose to command of a troop) detested all military routine save active service. He despised the triumphs of the Senate. To keep him out of mischief—or, rather, as you shall hear, to extricate him from it—the good dame made application to the Duke of Newcastle; and so in the year 1737, at the age of twenty-one, Captain Oliver Vyell was appointed to the lucrative post of Collector to the port of Boston.
He had held it, now, for close upon seven years.
Now, in his twenty-eighth year, Oliver Vyell, handsome of face, standing six feet two inches in his stockings, well built and of iron constitution, might fairly be called a sensual man, but not fairly a sensualist. The distinction lay in his manliness. He was a man, every inch of him.
He enjoyed hard riding even more than hard gaming, and far more than hard drinking; courted fatigue as a form of bodily indulgence; would tramp from twenty to thirty miles in any weather on a chance of sport; loved the bite of the wind, the shock of cold water; and was a bold swimmer in a generation that shunned the exercise.
He awoke next morning to find the sun shining in on his window after a boisterous night. He looked at his watch and rang a small bell that stood on the table by his bed. Within ten seconds Manasseh appeared, and was commanded first to draw up the blind and then, though the hour was early, to bring shaving-water with all speed.
While the negro went on his errand Captain Vyell arose, slipped on his dressing-gown, and strolled to the window. It looked upon the ocean, over a clean stretch of beach that ran north-west, starting from the pier-head of the harbour and fringing the town's outskirt. Half a dozen houses formed this outskirt or suburb—decent weather-boarded houses standing in their own gardens along a curved cliff overlooking the beach. The beach was of hardest sand, and just beneath the Collector's window so level that it served for a second bowling-green, or ten-pin-alley. Thus it ran out for some twenty rods and then shelved abruptly. Captain Vyell, who had an eye for such phenomena, judged that this bank had formed itself quite recently, since the building of the pier.
A heavy sea was running, and evidently with a strong undertow. When Manasseh returned with the hot water, Captain Vyell announced that he would bathe before taking his chocolate.
"Yo' Hon'ah will bathe befor' shaving?"
"You d——d fool, did you ever know me do anything before shaving?"
Manasseh chose a razor, stropped it, and worked the shaving soap into a lather.
"Beggin' yo' Hon'ah's pardon," said he, "it bein' de Lawd's Day, an' these Port Nassau people dam' ig'orant—"
"Hand me the peignoir," commanded his master sharply.
He sat, and was shaved. Then, having sponged his chin, he ordered Manasseh to lay out his bathing-dress, retire, find a back way to the beach and, having opened all doors, attend him below. He indued himself in his bathing-dress very deliberately, standing up for a minute stark naked in the sunshine flooding through the open window—a splendid figure, foretasting battle with the surf.
Then, having drawn on his bathing-dress and thrust his feet into sand-shoes, he cast his dressing-gown again over him and went down the stairs at a run. The doors stood open, and on the beach the negro awaited him in the right attitude of "attention." To him he tossed his wrap and shoes, and ran down to the beach as might swift-footed Achilles have run to be clasped by the Sea-Goddess his mother.
Through the shallow wavelets he ran, stepping high and delicately splashing merry drops against the morning sunlight, leaped over one or two that would have "tilled" him to the knee (to use an old boyish phrase learnt at Carwithiel where he had learnt to swim), and came to the shelf beyond which the first tall comber boomed towards him, more than head high, hissing along its ridge. There, as it overarched him, he launched his body forward and shot through the transparent green, emerging beyond the white smother with a thrill and a laugh of sheer physical delight. Thrice he repeated this,—
"Like a dive-dapper peering through a wave, Who, being look'd on, ducks as quickly in. . ."
passed the fourth wave, gained deep water, and thrust out to sea with a steady breast-stroke, his eyes all the while on the great embracing flood which, stretch as it might from here to Europe, for the moment he commanded.
Manasseh watched him from the beach. From the cliff above two scandalised householders calling to one another across their gardens' boundary pointed seaward and summoned their families to the windows to note the reprobate swimmer and a Sabbath profaned.
The eyes of a long-shore population are ever on the sea from which comes their livelihood, and nothing on the sea escapes them long. The Collector's head by this time was but a speck bobbing on the waves, but ere he turned back for shore maybe two hundred of Port Nassau's population were watching, from various points. The Port Nassauers, whatever their individual frailties, were sternly religious—nine-tenths of them from conviction or habit, the rest in self-defence—and Sabbatarians to a man. The sight of that heathen slave, Manasseh, waiting on the beach with a bath-gown over his arm, incensed them to fury. Growls were uttered, here and there, that if the authorities knew their business this law-breaker—for Sabbath-breaking was an indictable offence—should be seized on landing, haled naked to justice, and clapped in the town stocks; but fortunately this indignation had no concert and found, for the moment, no leader.
The Collector, having swum out more than half a mile, turned and sped back, using a sharp side-stroke now with a curving arm that cleft the ridges like the fin of a fish. His feet touched earth, and he ran up through the pursuing breakers—a fleet-footed Achilles again, glittering from the bath. Manasseh hurried down to throw his mantle over the godlike man.
"Towel me here," was the panting command. And, lo! slipping off his bathing-dress and standing naked to the sea. Captain Vyell was towelled under the eyes of Port Nassau, and flesh-brushed until he glowed (it may be) as healthily as did the cheeks of those who spied on him. On this question the Muse declines to take sides. For certain his naked body, after these ministrations, glowed delicious within the bath-gown as he mounted again to his Olympian chamber. There he allowed Manasseh to wash out his locks in fresh water (the Collector had a fine head of hair, of a waved brown, and detested a wig), to anoint them, and tie them behind with a fresh black ribbon. This done, he took his clothes one by one as Manasseh handed them, and arrayed himself, humming the while an air from Opera, and thus unconsciously committing a second offence against the Sabbath.
He descended to find Dicky already seated at table, awaiting him. Dicky had slept like a top in spite of the strange bed; and awaking soon after daybreak, had lain cosily listening to the boom of the sea. To him this holiday was a glorious interlude in the regime of Miss Quiney. His handsome father did not kiss him, but merely patted him on the shoulder as he passed to his chair; and to Dick (though he would have liked a kiss) it seemed just the right manly thing to do.
They talked merrily while Manasseh brought in the breakfast dishes—for Master Dicky bread-and-milk followed by a simple steak of cod; a bewildering succession of chowder, omelet, devilled kidneys, cold ham, game pie, and fruit for the Collector, who professed himself keen-set as a hunter, and washed down the viands with a tankard of cider. He described his bathe, and promised Dicky that he should have his first swimming lessons next summer. "I must talk about you to your Uncle Harry. Craze for the sea? At your age if he saw a puddle of water he must stick his toes in it. He's cruising just now, off South Carolina, keeping a look-out for guarda-costas. He'll render an account of them, you may be sure. He writes that he may be coming up Boston way any time now. Oh, I can swim, but for diving you should see your Uncle Harry— off the yard-arm—body taut as a whip—nothing like it in any of the old Greeks' statues. Plenty of talk about bathing; but diving? No. In the east, must go south to the Persian Gulf to see diving. The god Hermes descending on Ogygia—if you could imagine that, you had Uncle Harry— the shoot outwards, the delicate curve to a straight slant, heels rising above rigid body while you counted, begad! holding your breath. Then the plumb drop, like a gannet's—"
Dicky listened, glorious vistas opening before him. With the fruit Manasseh brought coffee; and still the boy sat entranced while his father chatted, glowing with exercise and enjoying a breakfast at every point excellent.
It was in merest thoughtlessness, no doubt, that having arranged for Dicky's morning walk, and after smoking a tobacco leaf rolled with an art of which Manasseh possessed the secret, the Collector so timed his message to the stables that his groom brought the horse Bayard around to the Inn door just as the Sabbath bells began tolling for divine worship. For as a sceptic he was careless rather than militant; ridiculing religion only in his own set, and when occasion arose, and then without fanaticism. For such piety as his mother's he had even a tolerant respect; and in any event had too much breeding to affront of set purpose the godly townsfolk of Port Nassau. At the first note of the bells he frowned and blamed himself for not having started earlier. But he had already made appointment by letter to meet the Surveyor and the Assistant Surveyor at noon on the headland, to measure out and discuss the site of the proposed fortification; and he was a punctilious man in observing engagements.
It may be asked how, if civil to other men's scruples, he had come to make such an appointment for the Sabbath. He had answered this and (as he hoped) with suitable apologies in his letter to the surveyor, Mr. Wapshott: explaining that as His Majesty's business was bringing him to Port Nassau, so it obliged him to be back at Boston by such-and-such a date. He was personally unacquainted with this Mr. Wapshott, who had omitted the courtesy of calling upon him at the Bowling Green, and whom by consequence he was inclined to set down as a person of defective manners. But Mr. Wapshott was, after all, in the King's service and would understand its exigencies.
He mounted therefore and rode up the street. The roadway was deserted; but along the side-walk, sober families, marching by twos and threes, turned their heads at the sound of Bayard's hoofs on the cobbles. The Collector set his face and passed them with a grave look, as of one absorbed in affairs of moment. Nevertheless, coming to the whitewashed Church where the streams of worshippers converged and choking the porchway overflowed upon the street, he added the courtesy of doffing his hat as he rode by. He did this still with a set face, looking straight between Bayard's ears; but with the tail of his eye caught one glimpse of a little comedy which puzzled and amused him.
A small rotund, red-gilled man, in bearing and aspect not unlike a turkey-cock, was mounting the steps of the portico. Behind this personage sailed an ample lady of middle age, with a bevy of younger damsels—his spouse and daughters doubtless. Suddenly—and as if, at sight of the Collector, a whisper passed among them—the middle-aged lady shot out a hand, arrested her husband by the coat-tail and drew him down a step, while the daughters ranged themselves in semicircle around him, spreading their skirts and together effacing him from view, much as a hen covers her offspring.
The Collector laughed inwardly as he replaced his hat, and rode on speculating what this bit of by-play might mean. But it had passed out of his thoughts before he came to the outskirts of the town.
The road—the same by which he had arrived last night—mounted all the way and led across the neck of the headland. His business, however, lay out upon the headland itself and almost at its extremest verge; and a mile above the town he struck off to the left where a bridle-path climbed by a long slant to the ridge. Half an hour's easy riding brought him to the top of the ascent, whence he looked down on the long beach he had travelled yesterday. The sea lay spread on three sides of him. Its salt breeze played on his face; and the bay horse, feeling the tickle of it in his nostrils, threw up his head with a whinny. "Good, old boy—is it not?" asked the Collector, patting his neck. "Suppose we try a breather of it?"
The chine of the headland—of turf, short-cropped by the unceasing wind—stretched smooth as a racecourse for close upon a mile, with a gentle dip midway much like the hollow of a saddle. The Collector ran his eye along it in search of the two men he had come to meet, but could spy neither of them.
"Sheltering somewhere from the breeze, maybe," he decided. "We don't mind it, hey? Come along, lad—here's wine for heroes!"
He touched Bayard with the spur, and the good horse started at a gallop—a rollicking gallop and in the very tune of his master's mood; and if all Port Nassau had not been at its devotions, the chins of its burghers might have tilted themselves in wonder at the apparition—a Centaur, enlarged upon the skyline.
Man and horse at full stretch of the gallop were launching down the dip of the hollow—the wind singing past on the top note of exhilaration— when the bay, too well trained to shy, faltered a moment and broke his stride, as a figure started up from the lee-side of the ridge.
The Collector sailing past and throwing a glance over his shoulder, saw the figure and lifted a hand. In another ten strides he reined up Bayard, turned, and came back at a walk.
He confronted a lean, narrow-chested young man, black-suited, pale of face, with watery eyes, straw-coloured eyelashes and an underbred smile that twitched between timidity and assurance.
"Ah?" queried the Collector, eyeing him and disliking him at sight. "Are you "—doubtfully—"by any chance Mr. Wapshott, the Surveyor?"
"No such luck," answered the watery-eyed young man with an offhand attempt at familiarity. "I'm his Assistant—name of Banner—Wapshott's unwell."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Mr.—Mr. Wapshott—sends word that he's unwell." Under the Collector's eye the youth suddenly shifted his manner and became respectful.
"I beg your pardon?" the Collector repeated slowly. "He 'sends word,' do you say? I had not the honour at my Inn—from which I have ridden straight—to be notified of Mr. Wapshott's indisposition."
Mr. Banner attempted a weak grin and harked back again to familiarity.
"No, I guess not. The fact is—"
"Excuse me; but would you mind taking your hands out of your pockets?"
"Oh, come! Why?" But none the less Mr. Banner removed them.
"Thank you. You were saying?"
"Well, I guess, between you and me"—Mr. Banner's hands were slipping to his pockets again but he checked the motion and rested a palm nonchalantly on either hip—"the old man was a bit too God-fearing to sign to it."
"You mean," the Collector asked slowly, "that he is not, in fact, unwell, but has asked you to convey an untruth?"
"You've a downright way of putting it—er—sir" Mr. Banner confessed; "but you get near enough, I shouldn't wonder. You see, the old—the Surveyor is strict upon Lord's Day Observance."
The Collector bent his brows slightly while he smoothed Bayard's mane. Of a sudden the small scene by the Church porch recurred to him. "Stay," he said. "I have not the pleasure of knowing Mr. Wapshott, but may I attempt to describe him to you? He is, perhaps, a gentleman of somewhat stunted growth, but of full habit, and somewhat noticeably red between the ear and the neck-stock?"
"That hits him."
"—with a wife inclining to portliness and six grown daughters, taller than their parents and not precisely in their first bloom. I speak," added the Collector, still eyeing his victim, "as to a man of the world."
"You've seen him anyhow," Mr. Banner nodded. "That's Wapshott."
"I saw him entering his place of worship; and I note that he thinks what you call the Lord's Day well worth keeping at the cost of a falsehood. May I ask, Mr.—" The Collector hesitated.
"Ah, yes—pardon me! May I ask, Mr. Banner, how it comes that you have a nicer sense than your superior of what is due to His Majesty's Service?"
Mr. Banner laughed uneasily. "Well, you mightn't guess it from my looks," he answered with an attempt to ingratiate himself by way of self-deprecation, "but I am pretty good at working out levels. I really am."
"That was not my point, though I shall test you on it presently. You are, it appears, a somewhat less rigid Sabbatarian than Mr. Wapshott?"
Hereupon Mr. Banner became cryptic. "You needn't fear about that," he answered. "I have what they call a dispensation; and until you startled me, I was up here keeping the Lord's Day as well as the best of 'em. Better, perhaps."
"We will get to business," said the Collector. "Follow me, please."
He wheeled his horse and, with Mr. Banner walking at his stirrup, rode slowly out to the end of the headland and as slowly back. The Collector asked a question now and then and to every question the young man responded pat. He was no fool. It soon appeared that he had studied the trajectory of guns, that he had views—and sound ones—on coast defences, and that by some study of the subject he had come, a while ago, to a conclusion the Collector took but a few minutes to endorse; that to build a fort on this headland would be waste of public money.
Professionally, Mr. Banner was tolerable. The Collector, consulting with him, forgot the pertness of his address, the distressing twang of his accent. He had dismounted, and the pair were busy with a tape, calling out and checking measurements, when from the southward there was borne to the Collector's ears the distant crack of a shot-gun.
At the sound of it he glanced up, in time to see Mr. Banner drop the other end of the tape and run. Almost willy-nilly he followed, vaguely wondering if there had happened some accident that called for aid.
Mr. Banner, when the Collector overtook him, had come to a halt overlooking the long beach, and pointed to a figure—a speck almost—for it was distant more than a mile.
"That Josselin girl!" panted Mr. Banner. "I call you to witness!"
The Collector unstrapped his field-glass, which he carried in a bandolier, adjusted it, and through it scanned the beach. Yes, in the distant figure he recognised Ruth Josselin. She carried a gun—or rather, stood with the gun grounded and her hands folded, resting on its muzzle—and appeared to be watching the edge of the breakers, perhaps waiting for them to wash to her feet a dead bird fallen beyond reach.
"See her, do you? I call you to witness!" repeated the voice at his elbow.
"Why, what is the matter?"
"Sabbath breakin'," answered Mr. Banner with a curious leer.
"But you yourself don't take much account of the Lord's Day, seemingly. Bathin', f'r instance."
"Indeed!" The Collector eyed his companion reflectively. "You honoured me with your observation this morning?"
Mr. Banner grinned. "Better say the whole of Port Nassau was hon'rin' you. Oh, there'd be no lack of evidence!—but I guess the magistrates were lookin' the other way. They allowed, no doubt, that even a Sabbath-breaker might be havin' friends at Court!"
The Collector could not forbear smiling at the youth's impudence.
"May I ask what punishment I have probably escaped by that advantage?"
"Well," said Mr. Banner, "for lighter cases it's usually the stocks."
Still the Collector smiled. "I am trying to picture it," said he, after a pause. "But you don't tell me they would put a young girl in the stocks, merely for firing a gun on the Lord's Day, as you call it?"
"Wouldn't they!" Mr. Banner chuckled. "That, or the pillory."
"You are a strange folk in Port Nassau." The Collector frowned, upon a sudden suspicion, and his eyes darkened in their scrutiny of Mr. Banner's unpleasant face. "By the way, you told me just now that you were here upon some sort of a dispensation. Forgive me if I do you wrong, but was it by any chance that you might play the spy upon this girl?"
"Shadbolt asked me to keep an eye liftin' for her."
"Who is Shadbolt?"
"The Town Beadle. He's watchin' somewhere along the cliffs." Mr. Banner waved a hand towards the neck of the headland. "It's a scandal, and by all accounts has been goin' on for weeks."
"So that is why you called me to witness? Well, Mr. Banner, I have a horsewhip lying on the turf yonder, and I warn you to forget your suggestion. . . . Shall we resume our measurements?—and, if you please, in silence. Your presence is distasteful to me."
They turned from the cliff and went back to their work, in which—for they both enjoyed it—they were soon immersed. It may have been, too, that the wind had shifted. At any rate they missed to hear, ten minutes later, a second shot fired on the beach, not more distant but fainter than the first.
Next morning, at ten o'clock, the Collector's coach-and-six stood at the Inn gate, harnessed up and ready for the return journey. In the road-way beyond one of the grooms waited with a hand on Bayard's bridle.
The Collector, booted and spurred, with riding-whip tucked under his arm, came up the pebbled pathway, drawing on his gauntleted gloves. Dicky trotted beside him. Manasseh followed in attendance. Behind them in the porchway the landlady bobbed unregarded, like a piece of clockwork gradually running down.
"Hey!" The Collector, as he reached the gate, lifted his chin sharply— threw up his head as a finely bred animal scents battle or danger. "What's this? A riot, up the street?"
The grooms could not tell him, for the sound had reached their ears but a second or two before the question; a dull confused murmur out of which, as it increased to a clamour and drew nearer, sharper outcries detached themselves, and the shrill voices of women. A procession had turned the corner of the head of the avenue—a booing, howling rabble.
The Collector stepped to his horse's rein, flung himself into saddle, and rode forward at a foot's pace to meet the tumult.
Suddenly his hand tightened on the rein, and Bayard came to a halt; but his master did not perceive this. The hand's movement had been nervous, involuntary. He sat erect—stood, rather, from the stirrup—his nostril dilated, his brain scarcely believing what his eyes saw.
"The swine!" he said slowly, to himself. His teeth were shut and the words inaudible. "The swine!" he repeated.
Men have done, in the name of religion and not so long ago—indeed are perhaps doing now and daily—deeds so vile that mere decency cannot face describing them. It is a question if mere decency (by which I mean the good instinct of civilised man) will not in the end purge faith clean of religion; if, while men dispute and hate and inflict cruelty for religion, they are not all the while outgrowing it. Libraries, for example, are written to prove that unbaptized infants come out of darkness to draw a fleeting breath or two and pass to hell-fire; the dispute occupies men for generations—and lo! one day the world finds it has no use for any such question. Time—no thanks to the theologians— has educated it, and this thing at any rate it would no longer believe if it could, as it certainly cannot. Faith never yet has burnt man or woman at the stake. Religion has burnt its tens of thousands.
Behind the first two or three ranks of the mob—an exultant mob of grown men, grown women, and (worst of all) little children—plodded a grey horse, drawing a cart. Behind the cart, bound to it, with a thong tight about her fire-scorched wrists—But no; it is not to be written.
They had stripped her to the waist, and then for decency—their decency!—had thrown a jacket of coarse sacking over her, lacing it loosely in front with pack-thread. But, because their work required it, this garment had been gathered up into a rope at the neck, whence it dangled in folds over her young breast.
She walked with wide eyes, uttering no sound. She alone of that crowd uttered no sound. A brute with a bandaged jaw walked close behind her. Oliver Vyell saw his forearm swing up—saw the scourge whirl in his fist—met the girl's eyes. . . . She, meeting his, let escape the first and last cry she uttered that day. He could have sworn that her face was scarlet; but no, he was wrong; while he looked he saw his mistake-she was white as death. Then with that one pitiful cry she sank among the close-pressing crowd; but her hands, by the cord's constraint, still lifted themselves as might a drowning swimmer's; and the grey horse—the one other innocent creature in that procession—plodded forward, dragging her now senseless body at the cart's tail.
It does a man good sometimes to get in his blow. It did Oliver Vyell good, riding in, to slash twice crosswise on the brute's bandaged face; to feel the whalebone bite and then, as he swung out of saddle, to ram fist and whip-butt together on the ugly mouth, driving in its fore-teeth.
"Stop the horse, some one!" he commanded, as the Beadle reeled back. "She has fainted." He added, "The first man that interferes, I shoot."
The crowd growled. He turned on the nearest mutterer—"Your knife!" The fellow handed it; so promptly, he might have been holding it ready to proffer. The Collector stooped and cut the thongs. This done, he stood up and saw the Beadle advancing again, snarling through the bloody gap in his mouth.
"You had best take that man away," said the Collector quietly, pulling out his small pistol. "If you don't, I am going to kill him." They heard and saw that he meant it. He added in the same tone, "I am going to take all responsibility for this. Will you make way, please?"
His first intention was to lift the body lying unconscious in the roadway, carry it to the coach and drive out of Port Nassau with it, defying the law to interfere. For the moment he "saw red," as we say nowadays, and was quite capable of shooting down, or bidding his servants shoot down, any man who offered to hinder. It is even possible that had he acted straightway upon the impulse, he might, with his momentary mastery of the mob, have won clean away; possible, but by no means likely, for already a couple of constables were pushing forward to support the Beadle, and half a dozen broad-shouldered fellows—haters of "prerogative"—had recovered themselves and were ranging up to support the law. Had he noted this, it would not have daunted him. What he noted, and what gave him pause, was the girl's white back at his feet, upturning its hideous weals. He stooped to lift her, and drew back, shivering delicately at the thought of hurting the torn flesh in his arms—a vain scruple, since she had passed for the moment beyond pain. He picked up the scourge, and stood erect again, crushing it into his pocket.
"Will you make way, please," he ordered, "while I fetch a cover to hide your blasted handiwork?"
He strode through them, and they fell back to give him passage. He walked straight to the coach, pulled the door open, and, in the act of dragging forth a rug, caught sight of Dicky's small, scared face.
"Oh papa, what has happened?"
"An accident, child. Jump inside; I will explain by-and-by."
"Begging your Honour's pardon"—a heavy-featured fellow, who had followed the Collector to the coach, put out a hand and touched the child's shoulder—"I don't hold in whipping maidens, and if it's a fight I'm with you. But you can't carry her out of it, the way you're meaning. They've seen blood, same as yourself. This child of yours—he stands as much chance to be hurt as any, if you push it. Your Honour'll have to find some other way."
The Collector glanced over his shoulder, and saw that the man spoke truth.
"Dicky," he said easily, but in a voice the child durst not disobey, "there has been an accident. Go you down and amuse yourself on the sands till Manasseh calls you."