E-text prepared by Lionel Sear
NOUGHTS AND CROSSES
Stories, Studies and Sketches
ARTHUR THOMAS QUILLER-COUCH (Q)
Two of the following stories were first published in Longman's Magazine; the rest are selected from a number contributed to The Speaker. For permission to reprint them I must sincerely thank the two Editors. Q.
TO MY WIFE.
The Outlandish Ladies.
Statement of Gabriel Foot, Highwayman.
The Return of Joanna.
The Countess of Bellarmine.
A Cottage in Troy—
I. A. Happy Voyage.
II. These-An'-That's Wife.
III. "Doubles" and Quits.
IV. The Boy by the Beach.
Stories of Bleakirk—
I. The Affair of Bleakirk-on-Sands.
II. The Constant Post-Boy.
A Dark Mirror.
The Small People.
The Mayor of Gantick.
The Doctor's Foundling.
The Gifts of Feodor Himkoff.
The Paradise of Choice.
Beside the Bee Hives.
The Magic Shadow.
NOUGHTS AND CROSSES.
It was not so much a day as a burning, fiery furnace. The roar of London's traffic reverberated under a sky of coppery blue; the pavements threw out waves of heat, thickened with the reek of restaurants and perfumery shops; and dust became cinders, and the wearing of flesh a weariness. Streams of sweat ran from the bellies of 'bus-horses when they halted. Men went up and down with unbuttoned waistcoats, turned into drinking-bars, and were no sooner inside than they longed to be out again, and baking in an ampler oven. Other men, who had given up drinking because of the expense, hung about the fountains in Trafalgar Square and listened to the splash of running water. It was the time when London is supposed to be empty; and when those who remain in town feel there is not room for a soul more.
We were eleven inside the omnibus when it pulled up at Charing Cross, so that legally there was room for just one more. I had travelled enough in omnibuses to know my fellow-passengers by heart— a governess with some sheets of music in her satchel; a minor actress going to rehearsal; a woman carrying her incurable complaint for the hundredth time to the hospital; three middle-aged city clerks; a couple of reporters with weak eyes and low collars; an old loose-cheeked woman exhaling patchouli; a bald-headed man with hairy hands, a violent breast-pin, and the indescribable air of a matrimonial agent. Not a word passed. We were all failures in life, and could not trouble to dissemble it, in that heat. Moreover, we were used to each other, as types if not as persons, and had lost curiosity. So we sat listless, dispirited, drawing difficult breath and staring vacuously. The hope we shared in common—that nobody would claim the vacant seat—was too obvious to be discussed.
But at Charing Cross the twelfth passenger got in—a boy with a stick, and a bundle in a blue handkerchief. He was about thirteen; bound for the docks, we could tell at a glance, to sail on his first voyage; and, by the way he looked about, we could tell as easily that in stepping outside Charing Cross Station he had set foot on London stones for the first time. When we pulled up, he was standing on the opposite pavement with dazed eyes like a hare's, wondering at the new world—the hansoms, the yelling news-boys, the flower-women, the crowd pushing him this way and that, the ugly shop-fronts, the hurry and stink and din of it all. Then, hailing our 'bus, he started to run across—faltered—almost dropped his bundle—was snatched by our conductor out of the path of a running hansom, and hauled on board. His eyelids were pink and swollen; but he was not crying, though he wanted to. Instead, he took a great gulp, as he pushed between our knees to his seat, and tried to look brave as a lion.
The passengers turned an incurious, half-resentful stare upon him, and then repented. I think that more than one of us wanted to speak, but dared not.
It was not so much the little chap's look. But to the knot of his sea-kit there was tied a bunch of cottage-flowers—sweet williams, boy's love, love-lies-bleeding, a few common striped carnations, and a rose or two—and the sight and smell of them in that frowsy 'bus were like tears on thirsty eyelids. We had ceased to pity what we were, but the heart is far withered that cannot pity what it has been; and it made us shudder to look on the young face set towards the road along which we had travelled so far. Only the minor actress dropped a tear; but she was used to expressing emotion, and half-way down the Strand the 'bus stopped and she left us.
The woman with an incurable complaint touched me on the knee.
"Speak to him," she whispered.
But the whisper did not reach, for I was two hundred miles away, and occupied in starting off to school for the first time. I had two shillings in my pocket; and at the first town where the coach baited I was to exchange these for a coco-nut and a clasp-knife. Also, I was to break the knife in opening the nut, and the nut, when opened, would be sour. A sense of coming evil, therefore, possessed me.
"Why don't you speak to him?"
The boy glanced up, not catching her words, but suspicious: then frowned and looked defiant.
"Ah," she went on in the same whisper, "it's only the young that I pity. Sometimes, sir—for my illness keeps me much awake—I lie at night in my lodgings and listen, and the whole of London seems filled with the sound of children's feet running. Even by day I can hear them, at the back of the uproar—"
The matrimonial agent grunted and rose, as we halted at the top of Essex Street. I saw him slip a couple of half-crowns into the conductor's hand: and he whispered something, jerking his head back towards the interior of the 'bus. The boy was brushing his eyes, under pretence of putting his cap forward; and by the time he stole a look around to see if anyone had observed, we had started again. I pretended to stare out of the window, but marked the wet smear on his hand as he laid it on his lap.
In less than a minute it was my turn to alight. Unlike the matrimonial agent, I had not two half-crowns to spare; but, catching the sick woman's eye, forced up courage to nod and say—
"Good luck, my boy."
"Good day, sir."
A moment after I was in the hot crowd, whose roar rolled east and west for miles. And at the back of it, as the woman had said, in street and side-lane and blind-alley, I heard the footfall of a multitude more terrible than an army with banners, the ceaseless pelting feet of children—of Whittingtons turning and turning again.
At Tregarrick Fair they cook a goose in twenty-two different ways; and as no one who comes to the fair would dream of eating any other food, you may fancy what a reek of cooking fills the narrow grey street soon after mid-day.
As a boy, I was always given a holiday to go to the goose-fair; and it was on my way thither across the moors, that I first made Fortunio's acquaintance. I wore a new pair of corduroys, that smelt outrageously—and squeaked, too, as I trotted briskly along the bleak high road; for I had a bright shilling to spend, and it burnt a hole in my pocket. I was planning my purchases, when I noticed, on a windy eminence of the road ahead, a man's figure sharply defined against the sky.
He was driving a flock of geese, so slowly that I soon caught him up; and such a man or such geese I had never seen. To begin with, his rags were worse than a scarecrow's. In one hand he carried a long staff; the other held a small book close under his nose, and his lean shoulders bent over as he read in it. It was clear, from the man's undecided gait, that all his eyes were for this book. Only he would look up when one of his birds strayed too far on the turf that lined the highway, and would guide it back to the stones again with his staff. As for the geese, they were utterly draggle-tailed and stained with travel, and waddled, every one, with so woe-begone a limp that I had to laugh as I passed.
The man glanced up, set his forefinger between the pages of his book, and turned on me a long sallow face and a pair of the most beautiful brown eyes in the world.
"Little boy," he said, in a quick foreign way—"rosy little boy. You laugh at my geese, eh?"
No doubt I stared at him like a ninny, for he went on—
"Little wide-mouthed Cupidon, how you gaze! Also, by the way, how you smell!"
"It's my corduroys," said I.
"Then I discommend your corduroys. But I approve your laugh. Laugh again—only at the right matter: laugh at this—"
And, opening his book again, he read a long passage as I walked beside him; but I could make neither head nor tail of it.
"That is from the 'Sentimental Journey,' by Laurence Sterne, the most beautiful of your English wits. Ah, he is more than French! Laugh at it."
It was rather hard to laugh thus to order; but suddenly he set me the example, showing two rows of very white teeth, and fetching from his hollow chest a sound of mirth so incongruous with the whole aspect of the man, that I began to grin too.
"That's right; but be louder. Make the sounds that you made just now—"
He broke off sharply, being seized with an ugly fit of coughing, that forced him to halt and lean on his staff for a while. When he recovered we walked on together after the geese, he talking all the way in high-flown sentences that were Greek to me, and I stealing a look every now and then at his olive face, and half inclined to take to my heels and run.
We came at length to the ridge where the road dives suddenly into Tregarrick. The town lies along a narrow vale, and looking down, we saw flags waving along the street and much smoke curling from the chimneys, and heard the church-bells, the big drum, and the confused mutterings and hubbub of the fair. The sun—for the morning was still fresh—did not yet pierce to the bottom of the valley, but fell on the hillside opposite, where cottage-gardens in parallel strips climbed up from the town to the moorland beyond.
"What is that?" asked the goose-driver, touching my arm and pointing to a dazzling spot on the slope opposite.
"That's the sun on the windows of Gardener Tonken's glass-house."
"Eh?—does he live there?"
"He's dead, and the garden's 'to let;' you can just see the board from here. But he didn't live there, of course. People don't live in glass-houses; only plants."
"That's a pity, little boy, for their souls' sakes. It reminds me of a story—by the way, do you know Latin? No? Well, listen to this:— if I can sell my geese to-day, perhaps I will hire that glass-house, and you shall come there on half holidays, and learn Latin. Now run ahead and spend your money."
I was glad to escape, and in the bustle of the fair quickly forgot my friend. But late in the afternoon, as I had my eyes glued to a peep-show, I heard a voice behind me cry "Little boy!" and turning, saw him again. He was without his geese.
"I have sold them," he said, "for 5 pounds; and I have taken the glass-house. The rent is only 3 pounds a year, and I shan't live longer, so that leaves me money to buy books. I shall feed on the snails in the garden, making soup of them, for there is a beautiful stove in the glass-house. When is your next half-holiday?"
"Very well. I am going away to buy books; but I shall be back by Saturday, and then you are to come and learn Latin."
It may have been fear or curiosity, certainly it was no desire for learning, that took me to Gardener Tonken's glass-house next Saturday afternoon. The goose-driver was there to welcome me.
"Ah, wide-mouth," he cried; "I knew you would be here. Come and see my library."
He showed me a pile of dusty, tattered volumes, arranged on an old flower-stand.
"See," said he, "no sorrowful books, only Aristophanes and Lucian, Horace, Rabelais, Moliere, Voltaire's novels, 'Gil Blas,' 'Don Quixote,' Fielding, a play or two of Shakespeare, a volume or so of Swift, Prior's Poems, and Sterne—that divine Sterne! And a Latin Grammar and Virgil for you, little boy. First, eat some snails."
But this I would not. So he pulled out two three-legged stools, and very soon I was trying to fix my wandering wits and decline mensa.
After this I came on every half-holiday for nearly a year. Of course the tenant of the glass-house was a nine days' wonder in the town.
A crowd of boys and even many grown men and women would assemble and stare into the glass-house while we worked; but Fortunio (he gave no other name) seemed rather to like it than not. Only when some wiseacres approached my parents with hints that my studies with a ragged man who lived on snails and garden-stuff were uncommonly like traffic with the devil, Fortunio, hearing the matter, walked over one morning to our home and had an interview with my mother. I don't know what was said; but I know that afterwards no resistance was made to my visits to the glass-house.
They came to an end in the saddest and most natural way. One September afternoon I sat construing to Fortunio out of the first book of Virgil's "Aeneid"—so far was I advanced; and coming to the passage—
"Tum breviter Dido, vultum demissa, profatur". . .
I had just rendered vultum demissa "with downcast eyes," when the book was snatched from me and hurled to the far end of the glass-house. Looking up, I saw Fortunio in a transport of passion.
"Fool—little fool! Will you be like all the commentators? Will you forget what Virgil has said and put your own nonsense into his golden mouth?"
He stepped across, picked up the book, found the passage, and then turning back a page or so, read out—
"Saepta armis solioque alte subnixa resedit."
"Alte! Alte!" he screamed: "Dido sat on high: Aeneas stood at the foot of her throne. Listen to this:—'Then Dido, bending down her gaze . . . '"
He went on translating. A rapture took him, and the sun beat in through the glass roof, and lit up his eyes. He was transfigured; his voice swelled and sank with passion, swelled again, and then, at the words—
"Quae te tam laeta tulerunt Saecula? Qui tanti talem genuere parentes?"
It broke, the Virgil dropped from his hand, and sinking down on his stool he broke into a wild fit of sobbing.
"Oh, why did I read it? Why did I read this sorrowful book?" And then checking his sobs, he put a handkerchief to his mouth, took it away, and looked up at me with dry eyes.
"Go away, little one, Don't come again: I am going to die very soon now."
I stole out, awed and silent, and went home. But the picture of him kept me awake that night, and early in the morning I dressed and ran off to the glass-house.
He was still sitting as I had left him.
"Why have you come?" he asked, harshly. "I have been coughing. I am going to die."
"Then I'll fetch a doctor."
But I ran for the doctor.
Fortunio lived on for a week after this, and at length consented to see a clergyman. I brought the vicar, and was told to leave them alone together and come back in an hour's time.
When I returned, Fortunio was stretched quietly on the rough bed we had found for him, and the Vicar, who knelt beside it, was speaking softly in his ear.
As I entered on tiptoe, I heard—
". . . in that kingdom shall be no weeping—"
"Oh, Parson," interrupted Fortunio, "that's bad. I'm so bored with laughing that the good God might surely allow a few tears."
The parish buried him, and his books went to pay for the funeral. But I kept the Virgil; and this, with the few memories that I impart to you, is all that remains to me of Fortunio.
THE OUTLANDISH LADIES.
A mile beyond the fishing village, as you follow the road that climbs inland towards Tregarrick, the two tall hills to right and left of the coombe diverge to make room for a third, set like a wedge in the throat of the vale. Here the road branches into two, with a sign-post at the angle; and between the sign-post and the grey scarp of the hill there lies an acre of waste ground that the streams have turned into a marsh. This is Loose-heels. Long before I learnt the name's meaning, in the days when I trod the lower road with slate and satchel, this spot was a favourite of mine—but chiefly in July, when the monkey-flower was out, and the marsh aflame with it.
There was a spell in that yellow blossom with the wicked blood-red spots, that held me its mere slave. Also the finest grew in desperate places. So that, day after day, when July came round, my mother would cry shame on my small-clothes, and my father take exercise upon them; and all the month I went tingling. They were pledged to "break me of it"; but they never did. Now they are dead, and the flowers—the flowers last always, as Victor Hugo says. When, after many years, I revisited the valley, the stream had carried the seeds half a mile below Loose-heels, and painted its banks with monkey-blossoms all the way. But the finest, I was glad to see, still inhabited the marsh.
Now, it is rare to find this plant growing wild; for, in fact, it is a garden flower. And its history here is connected with a bit of mud wall, ruined and covered with mosses and ragwort, that still pushed up from the swampy ground when I knew it, and had once been part of a cottage. How a cottage came here, and how its inhabitants entered and went out, are questions past guessing; for the marsh hemmed it in on three sides, and the fourth is a slope of hill fit to break your neck. But there was the wall, and here is the story.
One morning, near the close of the last century, a small child came running down to the village with news that the cottage, which for ten years had stood empty, was let; there was smoke coming out at the chimney, and an outlandish lady walking in the garden. Being catechised, he added that the lady wore bassomy bows in her cap, and had accosted him in a heathen tongue that caused him to flee, fearing worse things. This being told, two women, rulers of their homes, sent their husbands up the valley to spy, who found the boy had spoken truth.
Smoke was curling from the chimney, and in the garden the lady was still moving about—a small yellow creature, with a wrinkled but pleasant face, white curls, and piercing black eyes. She wore a black gown, cut low in the neck, a white kerchief, and bassomy (or purplish) bows in her cap as the child had stated. Just at present she was busy with a spade, and showed an ankle passing neat for her age, as she turned up the neglected mould. When the men plucked up gallantry enough to offer their services, she smiled and thanked them in broken English, but said that her small forces would serve.
So they went back to their wives; and their wives, recollecting that the cottage formed part of the glebe, went off to inquire of Parson Morth, "than whom," as the tablet to his memory relates, "none was better to castigate the manners of the age." He was a burly, hard-riding ruffian, and the tale of his great fight with Gipsy Ben in Launceston streets is yet told on the countryside.
Parson Morth wanted to know if he couldn't let his cottage to an invalid lady and her sister without consulting every wash-mouth in the parish.
"Aw, so there's two!" said one of them, nodding her head. "But tell us, Parson dear, ef 'tes fitty for two unmated women to come trapesing down in a po'shay at dead o' night, when all modest flesh be in their bed-gowns?"
Upon this the Parson's language became grossly indelicate, after the fashion of those days. He closed his peroration by slamming the front door on his visitors; and they went down the hill "blushing" (as they said) "all over, at his intimate words."
So nothing more was known of the strangers. But it was noticed that Parson Morth, when he passed the cottage on his way to meet or market, would pull up his mare, and, if the outlandish lady were working in the garden, would doff his hat respectfully.
"Bon jour, Mdmzelle Henriette"—this was all the French the Parson knew. And the lady would smile back and answer in English.
"Good-morning, Parson Morth."
"And Mamzelle Lucille?"
"Ah, just the same, my God! All the day stare—stare. If you had known her before!—so be-eautiful, so gifted, si bien elevee! It is an affliction: but I think she loves the flowers."
And the Parson rode on with a lump in his throat.
So two years passed, during which Mademoiselle Henriette tilled her garden and turned it into a paradise. There were white roses on the south wall, and in the beds mignonette and boy's-love, pansies, carnations, gillyflowers, sweet-williams, and flaming great hollyhocks; above all, the yellow monkey-blossoms that throve so well in the marshy soil. And all that while no one had caught so much as a glimpse of her sister, Lucille. Also how they lived was a marvel. The outlandish lady bought neither fish, nor butcher's meat, nor bread. To be sure, the Parson sent down a pint of milk every morning from his dairy; the can was left at the garden-gate and fetched at noon, when it was always found neatly scrubbed, with the price of the milk inside. Besides, there was a plenty of vegetables in the garden.
But this was not enough to avert the whisper of witchcraft. And one day, when Parson Morth had ridden off to the wrestling matches at Exeter, the blow fell.
Farmer Anthony of Carne—great-grandfather of the present farmer—had been losing sheep. Now, not a man in the neighbourhood would own to having stolen them; so what so easy to suspect as witchcraft? Who so fatally open to suspicion as the two outlandish sisters? Men, wives, and children formed a procession.
The month was July; and Mademoiselle Henriette was out in the garden, a bunch of monkey-flowers in her hand, when they arrived. She turned all white, and began to tremble like a leaf. But when the spokesman stated the charge, there was another tale.
"It was an infamy. Steal! She would have them know that she and her sister were of good West Indian family—tres bien elevees." Then followed a torrent of epithets. They were laches-poltrons. Why were they not fighting Bonaparte, instead of sending their wives up to the cliffs, dressed in red cloaks, to scare him away, while they bullied weak women?
They pushed past her. The cottage held two rooms on the ground floor. In the kitchen, which they searched first, they found only some garden-stuff and a few snails salted in a pan. There was a door leading to the inner room, and the foremost had his hand on it, when Mademoiselle Henriette rushed before him, and flung herself at his feet. The yellow monkey-blossoms were scattered and trampled on the floor.
"Ah—non, non, messieurs! Je vous prie—Elle est si—si horrible!"
They flung her down, and pushed on.
The invalid sister lay in an arm-chair with her back to the doorway, a bunch of monkey-flowers beside her. As they burst in, she started, laid both hands on the arms of her chair, and turned her face slowly upon them.
She was a leper!
They gave one look at that featureless face, with the white scales shining upon it, and ran back with their arms lifted before their eyes. One woman screamed. Then a dead stillness fell on the place, and the cottage was empty.
On the following Saturday Parson Morth walked down to the inn, just ten minutes after stalling his mare. He strode into the tap-room in his muddy boots, took two men by the neck, knocked their skulls together, and then demanded to hear the truth.
"Very well," he said, on hearing the tale; "to-morrow I march every man Jack of you up to the valley, if it's by the scruff of your necks, and in the presence of both of those ladies—of both, mark you—you shall kneel down and ask them to come to church. I don't care if I empty the building. Your fathers (who were men, not curs) built the south transept for those same poor souls, and cut a slice in the chancel arch through which they might see the Host lifted. That's where you sit, Jim Trestrail, churchwarden; and by the Lord Harry, they shall have your pew."
He marched them up the very next morning. He knocked, but no one answered. After waiting a while, he put his shoulder against the door, and forced it in.
There was no one in the kitchen. In the inner room one sister sat in the arm-chair. It was Mademoiselle Henriette, cold and stiff. Her dead hands were stained with earth.
At the back of the cottage they came on a freshly-formed mound, and stuck on the top of it a piece of slate, such as children erect over a thrush's grave.
On it was scratched—
Ci-Git Lucille, Jadis si Belle; Dont dix-neuf Jeunes Hommes, Planteurs de Saint Domingue. ont demande la Main. Mais La Petite ne Voulait Pas. R.I.P.
This is the story of Loose-heels, otherwise Lucille's.
STATEMENT OF GABRIEL FOOT, HIGHWAYMAN.
The jury re-entered the court after half an hour's consultation.
It all comes back to me as vividly as though I stood in the dock at this very moment. The dense fog that hung over the well of the court; the barristers' wigs that bobbed up through it, and were drowned again in that seething cauldron; the rays of the guttering candles (for the murder-trial had lasted far into the evening) that loomed through it and wore a sickly halo; the red robes and red face of my lord judge opposite that stared through it and outshone the candles; the black crowd around, seen mistily; the voice of the usher calling "Silence!"; the shuffling of the jurymen's feet; the pallor on their faces as I leant forward and tried to read the verdict on them; the very smell of the place, compounded of fog, gaol-fever, the close air, and the dinners eaten earlier in the day by the crowd—all this strikes home upon me as sharply as it then did, after the numb apathy of waiting.
As the jury huddled into their places I stole a look at my counsel. He paused for a moment from his task of trimming a quill, shot a quick glance at the foreman's face, and then went on cutting as coolly as ever.
"Gentlemen of the jury"—it was the judge's voice—"are you agreed upon your verdict?"
"Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?"
It must have been full a minute, as I leant back clutching the rail in front of me, before I saw anything but the bleared eyes of the candles, or heard anything but a hoarse murmur from the crowd. But as soon as the court ceased to heave, and I could stare about me, I looked towards my counsel again.
He was still shaping his pen. He made no motion to come forward and shake hands over my acquittal, for which he had worked untiringly all day. He did not even offer to speak. He just looked up, nodded carelessly, and turned to his junior beside him; but in that glance I had read something which turned my heart cold, then sick, within me, and from that moment my hatred of the man was as deep as hell.
In the fog outside I got clear of the gaping crowd, but the chill of the night after that heated court pierced my very bones. I had on the clothes I had been taken in. It was June then, and now it was late in October. I remember that on the day when they caught me I wore my coat open for coolness. Four months and a half had gone out of my life. Well, I had money enough in my pocket to get a greatcoat; but I must put something warm inside me first, to get out the chill that cursed lawyer had laid on my heart.
I had purposely chosen the by-lanes of the town, but I remembered a certain tavern—the "Lamb and Flag"—which lay down a side alley. Presently the light from its windows struck across the street, ahead. I pushed open the door and entered.
The small bar was full of people newly come from the court, and discussing the trial in all its bearings. In the babel I heard a dozen different opinions given in as many seconds, and learnt enough, too, to make me content with the jury I had had. But the warmth of the place was pleasant, and I elbowed my way forward to the counter.
There was a woman standing by the door as I entered, who looked curiously at me for a moment, then turned to nudge a man at her side, and whisper. The whisper grew as I pressed forward, and before I could reach the counter a hand was laid on my shoulder from behind. I turned.
"Well?" said I.
It was a heavy-looking drover that had touched me.
"Are you the chap that was tried to-day for murder of Jeweller Todd?" he asked.
"Well?" said I again, but I could see the crowd falling back, as if I was a leper, at his question.
"Well? 'Taint well then, as I reckon, to be making so free with respectable folk."
There was a murmur of assent from the mouths turned towards me. The landlord came forward from behind the bar.
"I was acquitted," I urged defiantly.
"Ac-quitted!" said he, with big scorn in the syllables. "Hear im now—'ac-quitted!' Landlord, is this a respectable house?"
The landlord gave his verdict.
"H'out yer goes, and damn yer impudence!"
I looked round, but their faces were all dead against me.
"H'out yer goes!" repeated the landlord. "And think yerself lucky it aint worse," added the drover.
With no further defence I slunk out into the night once more.
A small crowd of children (Heaven knows whence or how they gathered) followed me up the court and out into the street. Their numbers swelled as I went on, and some began to hoot and pelt me; but when I gained the top of the hill, and a lonelier district, I turned and struck among them with my stick. It did my heart good to hear their screams.
After that I was let alone, and tramped forward past the scattered houses, towards the open country and the moors. Up here there was scarcely any fog, but I could see it, by the rising moon, hanging like a shroud over the town below. The next town was near upon twelve miles off, but I do not remember that I thought of getting so far. I could not have thought at all, in fact, or I should hardly have taken the high-road upon which the jeweller had been stopped and murdered.
There was a shrewd wind blowing, and I shivered all over; but the cold at my heart was worse, and my hate of the man who had set it there grew with every step. I thought of the four months and more which parted the two lives of Gabriel Foot, and what I should make of the new one. I had my chance again—a chance gained for me beyond hope by that counsel but for whom I should be sleeping to-night in the condemned cell; a chance, and a good chance, but for that same cursed lawyer. Ugh! how cold it was, and how I hated him for it!
There was a little whitewashed cottage on the edge of the moorland just after the hedgerows ceased—the last house before the barren heath began, standing a full three hundred yards from any other dwelling. Its front faced the road, and at the back an outhouse and a wretched garden jutted out on the waste land. There was a light in each of its windows tonight, and as I passed down the road I heard the dismal music of a flute.
Perhaps it was this that jogged my thoughts and woke them up to my present pass. At any rate, I had not gone more than twenty yards before I turned and made for the door. The people might give me a night's lodging in the outhouse; at any rate, they would not refuse a crust to stay the fast which I had not broken since the morning. I tapped gently with my knuckles on the door, and listened.
I waited five minutes, and no one answered. The flute still continued its melancholy tune; it was evidently in the hands of a learner, for the air (a dispiriting one enough at the best) kept breaking off suddenly and repeating itself. But the performer had patience, and the sound never ceased for more than two seconds at a time. Besides this, nothing could be heard. The blinds were drawn in all the windows. The glow of the candles through them was cheerful enough, but nothing could be seen of the house inside. I knocked a second time, and a third, with the same result. Finally, tired of this, I pushed open the low gate which led into the garden behind, and stole round to the back of the cottage.
Here, too, the window on the ground floor was lit up behind its blinds, but that of the room above was shuttered. There was a hole in the shutter, however, where a knot of the wood had fallen out, and a thin shaft of light stretched across the blackness and buried itself in a ragged yew-tree at the end of the garden. From the loudness of the sounds I judged this to be the room where the flute-playing was going on. The crackling of my footsteps on the thin soil did not disturb the performer, so I gathered a handful of earth and pitched it up against the pane. The flute stopped for a minute or so, but just as I was expecting to see the shutter open, went on again: this time the air was "Pretty Polly Oliver."
I crept back again, and began to hammer more loudly at the door. "Come," said I, "whoever this may be inside, I'll see for myself at any rate," and with that I lifted the latch and gave the door a heavy kick. It flew open quite easily (it had not even been locked), and I found myself in a low kitchen. The room was empty, but the relics of supper lay on the deal table, and the remains of what must have been a noble fire were still smouldering on the hearthstone. A crazy, rusty blunderbuss hung over the fireplace. This, with a couple of rough chairs, a broken bacon-rack, and a small side-table, completed the furniture of the place. No; for as I sat down to make a meal off the remnants of supper, something lying on the lime-ash floor beneath this side-table caught my eye. I stepped forward and picked it up.
It was a barrister's wig.
"This is a queer business," thought I; and I laid it on the table opposite me as I went on with my supper. It was a "gossan" wig, as we call it in our parts; a wig grown yellow and rusty with age and wear. It looked so sly and wicked as it lay there, and brought back the events of the day so sharply that a queer dread took me of being discovered with it. I pulled out my pistol, loaded it (they had given me back both the powder and pistol found on me when I was taken), and laid it beside my plate. This done, I went on with my supper—it was an excellent cold capon—and all the time the flute up-stairs kept toot-tootling without stopping, except to change the tune. It gave me "Hearts of Oak," "Why, Soldiers, why?" "Like Hermit Poor," and "Come, Lasses and Lads," before I had fairly cleared the dish.
"And now," thought I, "I have had a good supper; but there are still three things to be done. In the first place I want drink, in the second I want a bed, and in the third I want to thank this kind person, whoever he is, for his hospitality. I'm not going to begin life No. 2 with housebreaking."
I rose, slipped the pistol into my tail-pocket, and followed the sound up the ramshackle stairs. My footsteps made such a racket on their old timbers as fairly to frighten me, but it never disturbed the flute-player. He had harked back again to "Like Hermit Poor" by this time, and the dolefulness of it was fit to make the dead cry out, but he went whining on until I reached the head of the stairs and struck a rousing knock on the door.
The playing stopped. "Come in," said a cheery voice; but it gave me no cheerfulness. Instead of that, it sent all the comfort of my supper clean out of me, as I opened the door and saw him sitting there.
There he was, the man who had saved my neck that day, and whom most I hated in the world, sitting before a snug fire, with his flute on his knee, a glass of port wine at his elbow, and looking so comfortable, with that knowing light in his grey eyes, that I could have killed him where he sat.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" he said, just the very least bit surprised and no more. "Come in."
I stood in the doorway hesitating.
"Don't stay letting in that monstrous draught, man; but sit down. You'll find the bottle on the table and a glass on the shelf."
I poured out a glassful and drank it off. The stuff was rare (I can remember its trick on the tongue to this day), but somehow it did not drive the cold out of my heart. I took another glass, and sat sipping it and staring from the fire to my companion.
He had taken up the flute again, and was blowing a few deep notes out of it, thoughtfully enough. He was a small, squarely-built man, with a sharp ruddy face like a frozen pippin, heavy grey eyebrows, and a mouth like a trap when it was not pursed up for that everlasting flute. As he sat there with his wig off, the crown of his bald head was fringed with an obstinate-looking patch of hair, the colour of a badger's. My amazement at finding him here at this hour, and alone, was lost in my hatred of the man as I saw the depths of complacent knowledge in his face. I felt that I must kill him sooner or later, and the sooner the better.
Presently he laid down his flute again and spoke:—
"I scarcely expected you."
I grunted something in answer.
"But I might have known something was up, if I'd only paid attention to my flute. It and I are not in harmony to-night. It doesn't like the secrets I've been blowing into it; it has heard a lot of queer things in its time, but it's an innocent-minded flute for all that, and I'm afraid that what I've told it to-night is a point beyond what it's prepared to go."
"I take it, it knows a damned deal too much," growled I.
He looked at me sharply for an instant, rose, whistled a bar or two of "Like Hermit Poor," reached down a couple of clay pipes from the shelf, filled one for himself, and gravely handed the other with the tobacco to me.
"Beyond what it is prepared to go," he echoed quietly, sinking back in his chair and puffing at the pipe. "It's a nice point that we have been discussing together, my flute and I, and I won't say but that I've got the worst of it. By the way, what do you mean to do now that you have a fresh start?"
Now I had not tasted tobacco for over four months, and its effect upon my wits was surprising. It seemed to oil my thoughts till they worked without a hitch, and I saw my plan of action marked out quite plainly before me.
"Do you want to know the first step of all?" I asked.
"To be sure; the first step at any rate determines the direction."
"Well then," said I, very steadily, and staring into his face, "the first step of all is that I am going to kill you."
"H'm," said he after a bit, and I declare that not so much as an eyelash of the man shook, "I thought as much. I guessed that when you came into the room. And what next?"
"Time enough then to think of 'what next,'" I answered; for though I was set upon blowing his brains out, I longed for him to blaze out into a passion and warm up my blood for the job.
"Pardon me," he said, as coolly as might be, "that would be the very worst time to think of it. For, just consider: in the first place you will already be committed to your way of life, and secondly, if I know anything about you, you would be far too much flurried for any thought worth the name."
There was a twinkle of frosty humour in his eye as he said this, and in the silence which followed I could hear him chuckling to himself, and tasting the words over again as though they were good wine. I sat fingering my pistol and waiting for him to speak again. When he did so, it was with another dry chuckle and a long puff of tobacco smoke.
"As you say, I know a deal too much. Shall I tell you how much?"
"Yes, you may if you'll be quick about it."
"Very well, then, I will. Do you mind passing the bottle? Thank you. I probably know not only too much, but a deal more than you guess. First let us take the case for the Crown. The jeweller is travelling by coach at night over the moors. He has one postillion only, Roger Tallis by name, and by character shady. The jeweller has money (he was a niggardly fool to take only one postillion), and carries a diamond of great, or rather of an enormous and notable value (he was a bigger fool to take this). In the dark morning two horses come galloping back, frightened and streaming with sweat. A search party goes out, finds the coach upset by the Four Holed Cross, the jeweller lying beside it with a couple of pistol bullets in him, and the money, the diamond, and Roger Tallis—nowhere. So much for the murdered man. Two or three days after, you, Gabriel Foot, by character also shady, and known to be a friend of Roger Tallis, are whispered to have a suspicious amount of money about you, also blood-stains on your coat. It further leaks out that you were travelling on the moors afoot on the night in question, and that your pistols are soiled with powder. Case for the Crown closes. Have I stated it correctly?"
I nodded; he took a sip or two at his wine, laid down his pipe as if the tobacco spoiled the taste of it, took another sip, and continued:—
"Case for the defence. That Roger Tallis has decamped, that no diamond has been found on you (or anywhere), and lastly that the bullets in the jeweller's body do not fit your pistols, but came from a larger pair. Not very much of a case, perhaps, but this last is a strong point."
"Well?" I asked, as he paused.
"Now then for the facts of the case. Would you oblige me by casting a look over there in the corner?"
"I see nothing but a pickaxe and shovel."
"Ha! very good; 'nothing but a pickaxe and shovel.' Well, to resume: facts of the case—Roger Tallis murders the jeweller, and you murder Roger Tallis; after that, as you say, 'nothing but a pickaxe and shovel.'"
And with this, as I am a living sinner, the rosy-faced old boy took up his flute and blew a stave or two of "Come, Lasses and Lads."
"Did you dig him up?" I muttered hoarsely; and although deathly cold I could feel a drop of sweat trickling down my forehead and into my eye.
"What, before the trial? My good sir, you have a fair, a very fair, aptitude for crime, but believe me, you have much to learn both of legal etiquette and of a lawyer's conscience." And for the first time since I came in I saw something like indignation on his ruddy face.
"Now," he continued, "I either know too much or not enough. Obviously I know enough for you to wish, and perhaps wisely, to kill me. The question is, whether I know enough to make it worth your while to spare me. I think I do; but that is for you to decide. If I put you to-night, and in half an hour's time, in possession of property worth ten thousand pounds, will that content you?"
"Come, come," I said, "you need not try to fool me, nor think I am going to let you out of my sight."
"You misunderstand. I desire neither; I only wish a bargain. I am ready to pledge you my word to make no attempt to escape before you are in possession of that property, and to offer no resistance to your shooting me in case you fail to obtain it, provided on the other hand you pledge your word to spare my life should you succeed within half an hour. And, my dear sir, considering the relative value of your word and mine, I think it must be confessed you have the better of the bargain."
I thought for a moment. "Very well then," said I, "so be it; but if you fail—"
"I know what happens," replied he.
With that he blew a note or two on his flute, took it to pieces, and carefully bestowed it in the tails of his coat. I put away my pistol in mine.
"Do you mind shouldering that spade and pickaxe, and following me?" he asked. I took them up in silence. He drained his glass and put on his hat.
"Now I think we are ready. Stop a moment."
He reached across for the glass which I had emptied, took it up gingerly between thumb and forefinger, and tossed it with a crash on to the hearthstone. He then did the same to my pipe, after first snapping the stem into halves. This done, he blew out one candle, and with great gravity led the way down the staircase. I shouldered the tools and followed, while my heart hated him with a fiercer spite than ever.
We passed down the crazy stairs and through the kitchen. The candles were still burning there. As my companion glanced at the supper-table, "H'm," he said, "not a bad beginning of a new leaf. My friend, I will allow you exactly twelve months in which to get hanged."
I made no answer, and we stepped out into the night. The moon was now up, and the high-road stretched like a white ribbon into the gloom. The cold wind bore up a few heavy clouds from the north-west, but for the most part we could see easily enough. We trudged side by side along the road in silence, except that I could hear my companion every now and then whistling softly to himself.
As we drew near to the Four Holed Cross and the scene of the murder I confess to an uneasy feeling and a desire to get past the place with all speed. But the lawyer stopped by the very spot where the coach was overturned, and held up a finger as if to call attention. It was a favourite trick of his with the jury.
"This was where the jeweller lay. Some fifteen yards off there was another pool of blood. Now the jeweller must have dropped instantly for he was shot through the heart. Yet no one doubted but that the other pool of blood was his. Fools!"
With this he turned off the road at right angles, and began to strike rapidly across the moor. At first I thought he was trying to escape me, but he allowed me to catch him up readily enough, and then I knew the point for which he was making. I followed doggedly. Clouds began to gather over the moon's face, and every now and then I stumbled heavily on the uneven ground; but he moved along nimbly enough, and even cried "Shoo!" in a sprightly voice when a startled plover flew up before his feet. Presently, after we had gone about five hundred yards on the heath, the ground broke away into a little hollow, where a rough track led down to the Lime Kilns and the thinly wooded stream that washed the valley below. We followed this track for ten minutes or so, and presently the masonry of the disused kilns peered out, white in the moonlight, from between the trees.
There were three of these kilns standing close together beside the path; but my companion without hesitation pulled up almost beneath the very arch of the first, peered about, examined the ground narrowly, and then motioned to me.
"If we both know well enough what is underneath, what is the use of digging?"
"I very much doubt if we do," said he. "You had better dig."
I can feel the chill creeping down my back as I write of it; but at the time, though I well knew the grisly sight which I was to discover, I dug away steadily enough. The man who had surprised my secret set himself down on a dark bank of ferns at about ten paces' distance, and began to whistle softly, though I could see his fingers fumbling with his coat-tails as though they itched to be at the flute again.
The moon's rays shone fitfully upon the white face of the kiln, and lit up my work. The little stream rushed noisily below. And so, with this hateful man watching, I laid bare the lime-burnt remains of the comrade whom, almost five months before, I had murdered and buried there. How I had then cursed my luck because forced to hide his corpse away before I could return and search for the diamond I had failed to find upon his body! But as I tossed the earth and lime aside, and discovered my handiwork, the moon's rays were suddenly caught and reflected from within the pit, and I fell forward with a short gasp of delight.
For there, kindled into quick shafts and points of colour—violet, green, yellow, and fieriest red—lay the missing diamond among Roger's bones. As I clutched the gem a black shadow fell between the moon and me. I looked up. My companion was standing over me, with the twinkle still in his eye and the flute in his hand.
"You were a fool not to guess that he had swallowed it. I hope you are satisfied with the bargain. As we are not, I trust, likely to meet again in this world, I will here bid you Adieu, though possibly that is scarcely the word to use. But there is one thing I wish to tell you. I owe you a debt to-night for having prevented me from committing a crime. You saw that I had the spade and pickaxe ready in the cottage. Well, I confess I lusted for that gem. I was arguing out the case with my flute when you came in."
"If," said I, "you wish a share—"
"Another word," he interrupted very gravely, "and I shall be forced to think that you insult me. As it is, I am grateful to you for supporting my flute's advice at an opportune moment. I will now leave you. Two hours ago I was in a fair way of becoming a criminal. I owe it to you, and to my flute, that I am still merely a lawyer. Farewell!"
With that he turned on his heel and was gone with a swinging stride up the path and across the moor. His figure stood out upon the sky-line for a moment, and then vanished. But I could hear for some time the tootle-tootle of his flute in the distance, and it struck me that its note was unusually sprightly and clear.
THE RETURN OF JOANNA.
High and low, rich and poor, in Troy Town there are seventy-three maiden ladies. Under this term, of course, I include only those who may reasonably be supposed to have forsworn matrimony. And of the seventy-three, the two Misses Lefanu stand first, as well from their age and extraction (their father was an Admiral of the Blue) as because of their house, which stands in Fore Street and is faced with polished Luxulyan granite—the same that was used for the famous Duke of Wellington's coffin in St. Paul's Cathedral.
Miss Susan Lefanu is eighty-five; Miss Charlotte has just passed seventy-six. They are extremely small, and Miss Bunce looks after them. That is to say, she dresses them of a morning, arranges their chestnut "fronts," sets their caps straight, and takes them down to breakfast. After dinner (which happens in the middle of the day) she dresses them again and conducts them for a short walk along the Rope-walk, which they call "the Esplanade." In the evening she brings out the Bible and sets it the right way up for Miss Susan, who begins to meditate on her decease; then sits down to a game of ecarte with Miss Charlotte, who as yet has not turned her thoughts upon mortality. At ten she puts them to bed. Afterwards, "the good Bunce "—who is fifty, looks like a grenadier, and wears a large mole on her chin—takes up a French novel, fastened by a piece of elastic between the covers of Baxter's "Saint's Rest," and reads for an hour before retiring. Her pay is fifty-two pounds a year, and her attachment to the Misses Lefanu a matter of inference rather than perception.
One morning in last May, at nine o'clock, when Miss Bunce had just arranged the pair in front of their breakfast-plates, and was sitting down to pour out the tea, two singers came down the street, and their voices—a man's and a woman's—though not young, accorded very prettily:—
"Citizens, toss your pens away! For all the world is mad to-day— Cuckoo—cuckoo! The world is mad to-day."
"What unusual words for a pair of street singers!" Miss Bunce murmured, setting down the tea-pot. But as Miss Charlotte was busy cracking an egg, and Miss Susan in a sort of coma, dwelling perhaps on death and its terrors, the remark went unheeded.
"Citizens, doff your coats of black, And dress to suit the almanack— Cuckoo—"
The voices broke off, and a rat-tat sounded on the front door.
"Say that we never give to beggars, under any circumstances," murmured Miss Susan, waking out of her lethargy.
The servant entered with a scrap of crumpled paper in her hand. "There was a woman at the door who wished to see Miss Lefanu."
"Say that we never give—" Miss Susan began again, fumbling with the note. "Bunce, I have on my gold-rimmed spectacles, and cannot read with them, as you know. The black-rimmed pair must be up-stairs, on the—"
"How d'ye do, my dears?" interrupted a brisk voice. In the doorway stood a plump middle-aged woman, nodding her head rapidly. She wore a faded alpaca gown, patched here and there, a shawl of shepherd's plaid stained with the weather, and a nondescript bonnet. Her face was red and roughened, as if she lived much out of doors.
"How d'ye do?" she repeated "I'm Joanna."
Miss Bunce rose, and going discreetly to the window, pretended to gaze into the street. Joanna, as she knew, was the name of the old ladies' only step-sister, who had eloped from home twenty years before, and (it was whispered) had disgraced the family. As for the Misses Lefanu, being unused to rise without help, they spread out their hands as if stretching octaves on the edge of the table, and feebly stared.
"Joanna," began the elder, tremulously, "if you have come to ask charity—"
"Bless your heart, no! What put that into your head?" She advanced and took the chair which Miss Bunce had left, and resting her elbows on the table, regarded her sisters steadily. "What a preposterous age you both must be, to be sure! My husband's waiting for me outside."
"Your husband?" Miss Charlotte quavered.
"Why, of course. Did you suppose, because I ran away to act, that I wasn't an honest woman?" She stretched out her left hand; and there was a thin gold ring on her third finger. "He isn't much of an actor, poor dear. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he has been hissed off two-and-thirty stages in Great Britain alone. Indeed, he's the very worst actor I ever saw, although I don't tell him. But as a husband he's sublime."
"Are there—" Miss Charlotte began, and broke down. "Are there," she tried again, "are there—any—children?"
"Ah, my dear, if there were, I might be tempted to repent."
"Don't you?" jerked out Miss Bunce, turning abruptly from the window. There was a certain sharp emotion in the question, but her face was in the shadow. Joanna regarded her for a moment or two and broke into a laugh.
"My dears, I have been an actress and a mother. I retain the pride of both,—though my little one died at three months, and no manager will engage me now, because I refuse to act unless my husband has a part. Theoretically, he is the first of artists; in practice— You were asking, however, if I repent. Well, having touched the two chief prizes within a woman's grasp, I hardly see how it is likely. I perceive that the object of my visit has been misinterpreted. To be frank, I came to gloat over you."
"Your step-sisters are at least respectable," Miss Bunce answered.
"Let us grant that to be a merit," retorted Joanna: "Do I understand you to claim the credit of it?"
"They are very clean, though," she went on, looking from one to the other, "and well preserved. Susan, I notice, shows signs of failing; she has dropped her spectacles into the teacup. But to what end, Miss—"
"To what end, Miss Bunce, are you preserving them?"
"Madam, when you entered the room I was of your way of thinking. Book after book that I read"—Miss Bunce blushed at this point— "has displayed before me the delights of that quick artistic life that you glory in following. I have eaten out my heart in longing. But now that I see how it coarsens a women—for it is coarse to sneer at age, in spite of all you may say about uselessness being no better for being protracted over much time—"
"You are partly right," Joanna interrupted, "although you mistake the accident for the essence. I am only coarse when confronted by respectability. Nevertheless, I am glad if I reconcile you to your lot."
"But the point is," insisted Miss Bunce, "that a lady never forgets herself."
"And you would argue that the being liable to forget myself is only another development of that very character by virtue of which I follow Art. Ah, well"—she nodded towards her stepsisters—"I ask you why they and I should be daughters of one father?"
She rose and stepped to the piano in the corner. It was a tall Collard, shaped, above the key-board, like a cupboard. After touching the notes softly, to be sure they were in tune, she drew over a chair, and fell to playing Schumann's "Warum?" very tenderly. It was a tinkling instrument, but perhaps her playing gained pathos thereby, before such an audience. At the end she turned round: there were tears in her eyes.
"You used to play the 'Osborne Quadrilles' very nicely," observed Miss Susan, suddenly. "Your playing has become very—very—"
"Disreputable," suggested Joanna.
"Well, not exactly. I was going to say 'unintelligible.'"
"It's the same thing." She rose, kissed her step-sisters, and walked out of the room without a look at Miss Bunce.
"Poor Joanna!" observed Miss Susan, after a minute's silence. "She has aged very much. I really must begin to think of my end."
Outside, in the street, Joanna's husband was waiting for her—a dark, ragged man, with a five-act expression of face.
"Don't talk to me for a while," she begged. "I have been among ghosts."
"They were much too dull to be real: and yet—Oh, Jack, I feel glad for the first time that our child was taken! I might have left him there."
"What shall we sing?" asked the man, turning his face away.
"Something pious," Joanna answered with an ugly little laugh, "since we want our dinner. The public has still enough honesty left to pity piety." She stepped out into the middle of the street, facing her sisters' windows, and began, the man's voice chiming in at the third bar—
"In the sweet by-and-bye We shall meet on that be-yeautiful shore." . . .
"Among these million Suns how shall the strayed Soul find her way back to earth?"
The man was an engine-driver, thick-set and heavy, with a short beard grizzled at the edge, and eyes perpetually screwed up, because his life had run for the most part in the teeth of the wind. The lashes, too, had been scorched off. If you penetrated the mask of oil and coal-dust that was part of his working suit, you found a reddish-brown phlegmatic face, and guessed its age at fifty. He brought the last down train into Lewminster station every night at 9.45, took her on five minutes later, and passed through Lewminster again at noon, on his way back with the Galloper, as the porters called it.
He had reached that point of skill at which a man knows every pound of metal in a locomotive; seemed to feel just what was in his engine the moment he took hold of the levers and started up; and was expecting promotion. While waiting for it, he hit on the idea of studying a more delicate machine, and married a wife. She was the daughter of a woman at whose house he lodged, and her age was less than half of his own. It is to be supposed he loved her.
A year after their marriage she fell into low health, and her husband took her off to Lewminster for fresher air. She was lodging alone at Lewminster, and the man was passing Lewminster station on his engine, twice a day, at the time when this tale begins.
People—especially those who live in the West of England—remember the great fire at the Lewminster Theatre; how, in the second Act of the Colleen Bawn, a tongue of light shot from the wings over the actors' heads; how, even while the actors turned and ran, a sheet of fire swept out on the auditorium with a roaring wind, and the house was full of shrieks and blind death; how men and women were turned to a white ash as they rose from their seats, so fiercely the flames outstripped the smoke. These things were reported in the papers, with narratives and ghastly details, and for a week all England talked of Lewminster.
This engine-driver, as the 9.45 train neared Lewminster, saw the red in the sky. And when he rushed into the station and drew up, he saw that the country porters who stood about were white as corpses.
"What fire is that?" he asked one.
"'Tis the theayter! There's a hundred burnt a'ready, and the rest treadin' each other's lives out while we stand talkin', to get 'pon the roof and pitch theirselves over!"
Now the engine-driver's wife was going to the play that night, and he knew it. She had met him at the station, and told him so, at midday.
But there was nobody to take the train on, if he stepped off the engine; for his fireman was a young hand, and had been learning his trade for less than three weeks.
So when the five minutes were up—or rather, ten, for the porters were bewildered that night—this man went on out of the station into the night. Just beyond the station the theatre was plain to see, above the hill on his left, and the flames were leaping from the roof; and he knew that his wife was there. But the train was never taken down more steadily, nor did a single passenger guess what manner of man was driving it.
At Drakeport, where his run ended, he stepped off the engine, walked from the railway-sheds to his mother-in-law's, where he still lodged, and went up-stairs to his bed without alarming a soul.
In the morning, at the usual hour, he was down at the station again, washed and cleanly dressed. His fireman had the Galloper's engine polished, fired up, and ready to start.
"Mornin'," he nodded, and looking into his driver's eyes, dropped the handful of dirty lint with which he had been polishing. After shuffling from foot to foot for a minute, he ended by climbing down on the far side of the engine.
"Oldster," he said, "'tis mutiny p'raps; but s'help me, if I ride a mile longside that new face o' your'n!"
"Maybe you're right," his superior answered wearily. "You'd best go up to the office, and get somebody sent down i' my place. And while you're there, you might get me a third-class for Lewminster."
So this man travelled up to Lewminster as passenger, and found his young wife's body among the two score stretched in a stable-yard behind the smoking theatre, waiting to be claimed. And the day after the funeral he left the railway company's service. He had saved a bit, enough to rent a small cottage two miles from the cemetery where his wife lay. Here he settled and tilled a small garden beside the high-road.
Nothing seemed to be wrong with the man until the late summer, when he stood before the Lewminster magistrates charged with a violent and curiously wanton assault.
It appeared that one dim evening, late in August, a mild gentleman, with Leghorn hat, spectacles, and a green gauze net, came sauntering by the garden where the ex-engine-driver was pulling a basketful of scarlet runners: that the prisoner had suddenly dropped his beans, dashed out into the road, and catching the mild gentleman by the throat had wrenched the butterfly net from his hand and belaboured him with the handle till it broke.
There was no defence, nor any attempt at explanation. The mild gentleman was a stranger to the neighbourhood. The magistrates marvelled, and gave his assailant two months.
At the end of that time the man came out of gaol and went quietly back to his cottage.
Early in the following April he conceived a wish to build a small greenhouse at the foot of his garden, by the road, and spoke to the local mason about it. One Saturday afternoon the mason came over to look at the ground and discuss plans. It was bright weather, and while the two men talked a white butterfly floated past them—the first of the year.
Immediately the mason broke off his sentence and began to chase the butterfly round the garden: for in the West country there is a superstition that if a body neglect to kill the first butterfly he may see for the season, he will have ill luck throughout the year. So he dashed across the beds, hat in hand.
"I'll hat 'en—I'll hat 'en! No, fay! I'll miss 'en, I b'lieve. Shan't be able to kill 'n if hor's wunce beyond th' gaate—stiddy, my son! Wo-op!"
Thus he yelled, waving his soft hat: and the next minute was lying stunned across a carrot-bed, with eight fingers gripping the back of his neck and two thumbs squeezing on his windpipe.
There was another assault case heard by the Lewminster bench; and this time the ex-engine-driver received four months. As before, he offered no defence: and again the magistrates were possessed with wonder.
Now the explanation is quite simple. This man's wits were sound, save on one point. He believed—why, God alone knows, who enabled him to drive that horrible journey without a tremor of the hand—that his wife's soul haunted him in the form of a white butterfly or moth. The superstition that spirits take this shape is not unknown in the West; and I suppose that as he steered his train out of the station, this fancy, by some odd freak of memory, leaped into his brain, and held it, hour after hour, while he and his engine flew forward and the burning theatre fell further and further behind. The truth was known a fortnight after his return from prison, which happened about the time of barley harvest.
A harvest-thanksgiving was held in the parish where he lived; and he went to it, being always a religious man. There were sheaves and baskets of vegetables in the chancel; fruit and flowers on the communion-table, with twenty-one tall candles burning above them; a processional hymn; and a long sermon. During the sermon, as the weather was hot and close, someone opened the door at the west end.
And when the preacher was just making up his mind to close the discourse, a large white moth fluttered in at the west door.
There was much light throughout the church; but the great blaze came, of course, from the twenty-one candles upon the altar. And towards this the moth slowly drifted, as if the candles sucked her nearer and nearer, up between the pillars of the nave, on a level with their capitals. Few of the congregation noticed her, for the sermon was a stirring one; only one or two children, perhaps, were interested—and the man I write of. He saw her pass over his head and float up into the chancel. He half-rose from his chair.
"My brothers," said the preacher, "if two sparrows, that are sold for a farthing, are not too little for the care of this infinite Providence—"
A scream rang out and drowned the sentence. It was followed by a torrent of vile words, shouted by a man who had seen, now for the second time, the form that clothed his wife's soul shrivelled in unthinking flames. All that was left of the white moth lay on the altar-cloth, among the fruit at the base of the tallest candlestick.
And because the man saw nothing but cruelty in the Providence of which the preacher spoke, he screamed and cursed, till they overpowered him and took him forth by the door. He was wholly mad from that hour.
THE COUNTESS OF BELLARMINE.
Few rivers in England are without their "Lovers' Leap"; but the tradition of this one is singular, I believe. It overhangs a dark pool, midway down a west country valley—a sheer escarpment of granite, its lip lying but a stone's throw from the high-road, that here finds its descent broken by a stiff knoll, over which it rises and topples again like a wave.
I had drawn two shining peel out of the pool, and sat eating my lunch on the edge of the Leap, with my back to the road. Forty feet beneath me the water lay black and glossy, behind the dotted foliage of a birch-tree. My rod stuck upright from the turf at my elbow, and, whenever I turned my head, neatly bisected the countenance and upper half of Seth Truscott, an indigenous gentleman of miscellaneous habits and a predatory past, who had followed me that morning to carry the landing-net.
It was he who, after lunch, imparted the story of the rock on which we sat; and as it seemed at the time to gain somewhat by the telling, I will not risk defacing it by meddling with his dialect.
"I reckon, sir," he began, with an upward nod at a belt of larches, the fringe of a great estate, that closed the view at the head of the vale, "you'm too young to mind th' ould Earl o' Bellarmine, that owned Castle Cannick, up yonder, in my growin' days. 'Ould Wounds' he was nick-named—a cribbage-faced, what-the-blazes kind o' varmint, wi' a gossan wig an' a tongue like oil o' vitriol. He'd a-led the fore-half o' his life, I b'lieve, in London church-town, by reason that he an' his father couldn' be left in a room together wi'out comin' to fisticuffs: an' by all accounts was fashion's favourite in the naughty city, doin' his duty in that state o' life an' playing Hamlet's ghost among the Ten Commandments.
"The upshot was that he killed a young gentleman over a game o' whist, an' that was too much even for the Londoners. So he packed up and sailed for furrin' parts, an' didn' show his face in England till th' ould man, his father, was took wi' a seizure an' went dead, bein' palsied down half his face, but workin' away to the end at the most lift-your-hair wickedness wi' the sound side of his mouth.
"Then the new Earl turned up an' settled at Castle Cannick. He was a wifeless man, an', by the look o't, had given up all wish to coax the female eye: for he dressed no better'n a jockey, an' all his diversion was to ride in to Tregarrick Market o' Saturdays, an' hang round the doorway o' the Pack-Horse Inn, by A. Walters, and glower at the men an' women passin' up and down the Fore Street, an' stand drinkin' brandy an' water while the horse-jockeys there my-lord'ed 'en. Two an' twenty glasses, they say, was his quantum' between noon an' nine o'clock; an' then he'd climb into saddle an' ride home to his jewelled four-poster, cursin' an' mutterin', but sittin' his mare like a man of iron.
"But one o' these fine market-days he did a thing that filled the mouths o' the country-side.
"He was loafin' by the Pack-Horse door, just as usual, at two o'clock, rappin' the head o' his crop on the side o' his ridin' boots, drawin' his brows down an' lookin' out curses from under 'em across the street to the saddler's opposite, when two drover-chaps came up the pavement wi' a woman atween 'em.
"The woman—or maid, to call her by her proper title—was a dark-browed slut, wi' eyes like sloes, an' hair dragged over her face till she looked like an owl in an ivy-bush. As for the gown o' her, 'twas no better'n a sack tied round the middle, wi' a brave piece torn away by the shoulder, where one o' the men had clawed her.
"There was a pretty dido goin' on atween the dree, an' all talkin' together—the two men mobbin' each other, an' the girl i' the middle callin' em every name but what they was chris'ened, wi'out distinction o' persons, as the word goes.
"'What's the uproar?' asks Ould Wounds, stoppin' the tap-tap o' his crop, as they comes up.
"'The woman b'longs to me,' says the first. 'I've engaged to make her my lawful wife; an' I won't go from my word under two gallon o' fourpenny.'
"'You agreed to hand her over for one gallon, first along,' says t'other,' an' a bargain's a bargain.'
"Says the woman, 'You're a pair o' hair-splitting shammicks, the pair of 'ee. An' how much beer be I to have for my weddin' portion?' (says she)—'for that's all I care about, one way or t'other.'
"Now Ould Wounds looked at the woman; an' 'tis to be thought he found her eyeable, for he axed up sharp—
"'Would 'ee kick over these two, an' marry me, for a bottle o' gin?'
"'That would I.'
"'An' to be called My Lady—Countess o' Bellarmine?'
"'Better an' better.'
"'I shall whack 'ee.'
"'I don't care.'
"'I shall kick an' cuff an' flog 'ee like a span'el dog,' says he: 'by my body! I shall make 'ee repent.'
"'Give 'ee leave to try,' says she.
"An' that's how th' Earl o' Bellarmine courted his wife. He took her into the bar an' treated her to a bottle o' gin on the spot. At nine o'clock that evenin' she tuk hold of his stirrup-leather an' walked beside 'en, afoot, up to Castle Cannick. Next day, their banns were axed in church, an' in dree weeks she was My Ladyship.
"'Twas a battle-royal that began then. Ould Wounds dressed the woman up to the nines, an' forced all the bettermost folk i' the county to pay their calls an' treat her like one o' the blood; and then, when the proud guests stepped into their chariots an' druv away, he'd fall to, an' lick her across the shoulders wi' his ridin'-whip, to break her sperrit. 'Twas the happiest while o' th' ould curmudgeon's life, I do b'lieve; for he'd found summat he cudn' tame in a hurry. There was a noble pond afore the house, i' those days, wi' urns an' heathen gods around the brim, an' twice he dragged her through it in her night-gown, I've heerd, an' always dined wi' a pistol laid by his plate, alongside the knives an' prongs, to scare her. But not she!
"An' next he tried to burn her in her bed: an' that wasn' no good.
"An' last of all he fell i' love wi' her: an' that broke her."
"One day—the tale goes—she made up her mind an' ordered a shay an' pair from the Pack-Horse. The postillion was to be waitin' by the gate o' the deer-park—the only gate that hadn't a lodge to it—at ten o'clock that night. 'Twas past nine afore dinner was done, an' she got up from her end o' the table an' walked across to kiss th' ould fellow. He, 'pon his side, smiled on her, pleased as Punch; for 'twas little inore'n a fortni't since he'd discovered she was the yapple of his eye. She said 'Good night' an' went up-stairs to pack a few things in a bag, he openin' the door and shuttin' it upon her. Then he outs wi' his watch, waits a couple o' minutes, an' slips out o' the house.
"At five minutes to ten comes my ladyship, glidin' over the short turf o' the deer-park, an' glancin' over her shoulder at the light in his lordship's libery window. 'Twas burnin' in true watch-an'-fear-nothin' style, an' there, by the gate, was the shay and horses, and postillion, wrapped up and flapping his arms for warmth, who touched his cap and put down the steps for her.
"'Drive through Tregarrick,' says she, 'an' don't spare whip-cord.'
"Slam went the door, up climbed the postillion, an' away they went like a house afire. There was half-a-moon up an' a hoar frost gatherin', an' my lady, lean in' back on the cushions, could see the head and shoulders of the postillion bob-bobbing, till it seemed his head must work loose and tumble out of his collar.
"The road they took, sir, is the same that runs down the valley afore our very eyes. An' 'pon the brow o't, just when it comes in sight, the off horse turned restive. In a minute 'twas as much as the post-boy could ha' done to hold 'en. But he didn' try. Instead, he fell to floggin' harder, workin' his arm up an' down like a steam-engin'.
"'What the jiminy are 'ee doin?' calls out her ladyship—or words to that effec'—clutchin' at the side o' the shay, an' tryin' to stiddy hersel'.
"'I thought I wasn' to spare whip-cord,' calls back the post-boy.
"An' with that he turned i' the saddle; an' 'twas the face o' her own wedded husband, as ghastly white as if 't burned a'ready i' the underground fires.
"Seem' it, her joints were loosed, an' she sat back white as he; an' down over the hill they swung at a breakneck gallop, shay lurchin' and stones flyin'.
"About thirty yards from where we'm sittin', sir, Ould Wounds caught the near rein twice round his wrist an lean't back, slowly pullin' it, till his face was slewed round over his left shoulder an' grinnin' in my lady's face.
"An' that was the last look that passed atween 'em. For now feeling the wheels on grass and the end near, he loosed the rein and fetched the horse he rode a cut atween the ears—an' that's how 'twas," concluded Seth, lamely.
Like most inferior narrators, he shied at the big fence, flinched before the climax. But as he ended, I flung a short glance downward at the birches and black water, and took up my rod again with a shiver.
FROM A COTTAGE IN TROY.
I.—A HAPPY VOYAGE.
The cottage that I have inhabited these six years looks down on the one quiet creek in a harbour full of business. The vessels that enter beneath Battery Point move up past the grey walls and green quay-doors of the port to the jetties where their cargoes lie. All day long I can see them faring up and down past the mouth of my creek; and all the year round I listen to the sounds of them—the dropping or lifting of anchors, the wh-h-ing! of a siren-whistle cutting the air like a twanged bow, the concertina that plays at night, the rush of the clay cargo shot from the jetty into the lading ship. But all this is too far remote to vex me. Only one vessel lies beneath my terrace; and she has lain there for a dozen years. After many voyages she was purchased by the Board of Guardians in our district, dismasted, and anchored up here to serve as a hospital-ship in case the cholera visited us. She has never had a sick man on board from that day to the present. But once upon a time three people spent a very happy night on her deck, as you shall hear. She is called The Gleaner.
I think I was never so much annoyed in my life as on the day when Annie, my only servant, gave me a month's "warning." That was four years ago; and she gave up cooking for me to marry a young watchmaker down at the town—a youth of no mark save for a curious distortion of the left eyebrow (due to much gazing through a circular glass into the bowels of watches), a frantic assortment of religious convictions, a habit of playing the fiddle in hours of ease, and an absurd name—Tubal Cain Bonaday. I noticed that Annie softened it to "Tubey."
Of course I tried to dissuade her, but my arguments were those of a wifeless man, and very weak. She listened to them with much patience, and went off to buy her wedding-frock. She was a plain girl, without a scintilla of humour; and had just that sense of an omelet that is vouchsafed to one woman in a generation.
So she and Tubal Cain were married at the end of the month, and disappeared on their honeymoon, no one quite knew whither. They went on the last day of April.
At half-past eight in the evening of May 6th I had just finished my seventh miserable dinner. My windows were open to the evening, and the scent of the gorse-bushes below the terrace hung heavily underneath the verandah and stole into the room where I sat before the white cloth, in the lamp-light. I had taken a cigarette and was reaching for the match-box when I chanced to look up, and paused to marvel at a singular beauty in the atmosphere outside.
It seemed a final atonement of sky and earth in one sheet of vivid blue. Of form I could see nothing; the heavens, the waters of the creek below, the woods on the opposite shore were simply indistinguishable—blotted out in this one colour. If you can recall certain advertisements of Mr. Reckitt, and can imagine one of these transparent, with a soft light glowing behind it, you will be as near as I can help you to guessing the exact colour. And, but for a solitary star and the red lamp of a steamer lying off the creek's mouth, this blue covered the whole firmament and face of the earth.
I lit my cigarette and stepped out upon the verandah. In a minute or so a sound made me return, fetch a cap from the hall, and descend the terrace softly.
My feet trod on bluebells and red-robins, and now and then crushed the fragrance out of a low-lying spike of gorse. I knew the flowers were there, though in this curious light I could only see them by peering closely. At the foot of the terrace I pulled up and leant over the oak fence that guarded the abrupt drop into the creek.
There was a light just underneath. It came from the deck of the hospital-ship, and showed me two figures standing there—a woman leaning against the bulwarks, and a man beside her. The man had a fiddle under his chin, and was playing "Annie Laurie," rather slowly and with a deal of sweetness.
When the melody ceased, I craned still further over the oak fence and called down, "Tubal Cain!"
The pair gave a start, and there was some whispering before the answer came up to me.
"Is that you, sir?"
"To be sure," said I. "What are you two about on board The Gleaner?"
Some more whispering followed, and then Tubal Cain spoke again—
"It doesn't matter now, sir. We've lived aboard here for a week, and to-night's the end of our honeymooning. If 'tis no liberty sir, Annie's wishful that you should join us."
Somehow, the invitation, coming through this mysterious atmosphere, seemed at once natural and happy. The fiddle began again as I stepped away from the fence and went down to get my boat out. In three minutes I was afloat, and a stroke or two brought me to the ship's ladder. Annie and Tubal Cain stood at the top to welcome me.
But if I had felt no incongruity in paying this respectful visit to my ex-cook and her lover, I own that her appearance made me stare. For, if you please, she was dressed out like a lady, in a gown of pale blue satin trimmed with swansdown—a low-necked gown, too, though she had flung a white shawl over her shoulders. Imagine this and the flood of blue light around us, and you will hardly wonder that, half-way up the ladder, I paused to take breath. Tubal Cain was dressed as usual, and tucking his fiddle under his arm, led me up to shake hands with his bride as if she were a queen. I cannot say if she blushed. Certainly she received me with dignity: and then, inverting a bucket that lay on the deck, seated herself; while Tubal Cain and I sat down on the deck facing her, with our backs against the bulwarks.
"It's just this, sir," explained the bridegroom, laying his fiddle across his lap, and speaking as if in answer to a question: "it's just this:—by trade you know me for a watchmaker, and for a Plymouth Brother by conviction. All the week I'm bending over a counter, and every Sabbath-day I speak in prayer-meeting what I hold, that life's a dull pilgrimage to a better world. If you ask me, sir, to-night, I ought to say the same. But a man may break out for once; and when so well as on his honeymoon? For a week I've been a free heathen: for a week I've been hiding here, living with the woman I love in the open air; and night after night for a week Annie here has clothed herself like a woman of fashion. Oh, my God! it has been a beautiful time—a happy beautiful time that ends to-night!"
He set down the fiddle, crooked up a knee and clasped his hands round it, looking at Annie.
"Annie, girl, what is it that we believe till to-morrow morning? You believe—eh?—that 'tis a rare world, full of delights, and with no ugliness in it?"
"And you love every soul—the painted woman in the streets no less than your own mother?"
Annie nodded again. "I'd nurse 'em both if they were sick," she said.
"One like the other?"
"And there's nothing shames you?" Here he rose and took her hand. "You wouldn't blush to kiss me before master here?"
"Why should I?" She gave him a sober kiss, and let her hand rest in his.
I looked at her. She was just as quiet as in the old days when she used to lay my table. It was like gazing at a play.
I should be ashamed to repeat the nonsense that Tubal Cain thereupon began to talk; for it was mere midsummer madness. But I smoked four pipes contentedly while the sound of his voice continued, and am convinced that he never performed so well at prayer-meeting. Down at the town I heard the church-clock striking midnight, and then one o'clock; and was only aroused when the youth started up and grasped his fiddle.
"And now, sir, if you would consent to one thing, 'twould make us very happy. You can't play the violin, worse luck; but you might take a step or two round the deck with Annie, if I strike up a waltz-tune for you to move to."
It was ridiculous, but as he began to play I moved up to Annie, put my arm around her, and we began to glide round and round on the deck. Her face was turned away from mine, and looked over my shoulder; if our eyes had met, I am convinced I must have laughed or wept. It was half farce, half deadly earnest, and for me as near to hysterics as a sane man can go. Tubal Cain, that inspired young Plymouth Brother, was solemn as a judge. As for Annie, I would give a considerable amount, at this moment, to know what she thought of it. But she stepped very lightly and easily, and I am not sure I ever enjoyed a waltz so much. The blue light—that bewitching, intoxicating blue light—paled on us as we danced. The grey conquered it, and I felt that when we looked at each other the whole absurdity would strike us, and I should never be able to face these lovers again without a furious blush. As the day crept on, I stole a glance at Tubal Cain. He was scraping away desperately—with his eyes shut. For us the dance had become weariness, but we went on and on. We were afraid to halt.
Suddenly a string of the violin snapped. We stopped, and I saw Tubal Cain's hand pointing eastward. A golden ripple came dancing down the creek, and, at the head of the combe beyond, the sun's edge was mounting.
"Morning!" said the bridegroom.
"It's all done," said Annie, holding out a hand to me, without looking up. "And thank you, sir."
"We danced through the grey," I answered; and that was all I could find to say, as I stepped towards the ladder.
Half an hour later as I looked out of the window before getting into bed I saw in the sunlight a boat moving down the creek towards the town. Tubal Cain was rowing, and Annie sat in the stern. She had changed her gown.
They have been just an ordinary couple ever since, and attend their chapel regularly. Sometimes Annie comes over to make me an omelet; and, as a matter of fact, she is now in the kitchen. But not a word has ever been spoken between us about her honeymoon.
In the matter of These-an'-That himself, public opinion in Troy is divided. To the great majority he appears scandalously careless of his honour; while there are just six or seven who fight with a suspicion that there dwells something divine in the man.
To reach the town from my cottage I have to cross the Passage Ferry, either in the smaller boat which Eli pulls single-handed, or (if a market-cart or donkey, or drove of cattle be waiting on the slip) I must hang about till Eli summons his boy to help him with the horse-boat. Then the gangway is lowered, the beasts are driven on board, the passengers follow at a convenient distance, and the long sweeps take us slowly across the tide. It was on such a voyage, a few weeks after I settled in the neighbourhood, that I first met These-an'-That.
I was leaning back against the chain, with my cap tilted forward to keep off the dazzle of the June sunshine on the water, and lazily watching Eli as he pushed his sweep. Suddenly I grew aware that by frequent winks and jerks of the head he wished to direct my attention to a passenger on my right—a short, round man in black, with a basket of eggs on his arm.
There was quite a remarkable dearth of feature on this passenger's face, which was large, soft, and unhealthy in colour: but what surprised me was to see, as he blinked in the sunlight, a couple of big tears trickle down his cheeks and splash among the eggs in his basket.
"There's trouble agen, up at Kit's," remarked Eli, finishing his stroke with a jerk, and speaking for the general benefit, though the words were particularly addressed to a drover opposite.
"Ho?" said the drover: "that woman agen?"
The passengers, one and all, bent their eyes on the man in black, who smeared his face with his cuff, and began weeping afresh, silently.
"Beat en blue las' night, an' turned en to doors—the dirty trollop."
"Eli, don't 'ee—" put in the poor man, in a low, deprecating voice.
"Iss, an' no need to tell what for," exclaimed a red-faced woman who stood by the drover, with two baskets of poultry at her feet. "She's a low lot; a low trapesin' baggage. If These-an'-That, there, wasn' but a poor, ha'f-baked shammick, he'd ha' killed that wife o' his afore this."
"Naybours, I'd as lief you didn't mention it," appealed These-an'-That, huskily.
"I'm afeard you'm o' no account, These-an'-That: but sam-sodden, if I may say so," the drover observed.
"Put in wi' the bread, an' took out wi' the cakes," suggested Eli.
"Wife!—a pretty loitch, she an' the whole kit, up there!" went on the market-woman. "If you durstn't lay finger 'pon your wedded wife, These-an'-That, but let her an' that long-legged gamekeeper turn'ee to doors, you must be no better'n a worm,—that's all I say."
I saw the man's face twitch as she spoke of the gamekeeper. But he only answered in the same dull way.
"I'd as lief you didn' mention it, friends,—if 'tis all the same."
His real name was Tom Warne, as I learnt from Eli afterwards; and he lived at St. Kit's, a small fruit-growing hamlet two miles up the river, where his misery was the scandal of the place. The very children knew it, and would follow him in a crowd sometimes, pelting him with horrible taunts as he slouched along the road to the kitchen garden out of which he made his living. He never struck one; never even answered; but avoided the school-house as he would a plague; and if he saw the Parson coming would turn a mile out of his road.
The Parson had called at the cottage a score of times at least: for the business was quite intolerable. Two evenings out of the six, the long-legged gamekeeper, who was just a big, drunken bully, would swagger easily into These-an'-That's kitchen and sit himself down without so much as "by your leave." "Good evenin', gamekeeper," the husband would say in his dull, nerveless voice. Mostly he only got a jeer in reply. The fellow would sit drinking These-an'-That's cider and laughing with These-an'-That's wife, until the pair, very likely, took too much, and the woman without any cause broke into a passion, flew at the little man, and drove him out of doors, with broomstick or talons, while the gamekeeper hammered on the table and roared at the sport. His employer was an absentee who hated the Parson, so the Parson groaned in vain over the scandal.
Well, one Fair-day I crossed in Eli's boat with the pair. The woman—a dark gipsy creature—was tricked out in violet and yellow, with a sham gold watch-chain and great aluminium earrings: and the gamekeeper had driven her down in his spring-cart. As Eli pushed off, I saw a small boat coming down the river across our course. It was These-an'-That, pulling down with vegetables for the fair. I cannot say if the two saw him: but he glanced up for a moment at the sound of their laughter, then bent his head and rowed past us a trifle more quickly. The distance was too great to let me see his face.
I was the last to step ashore. As I waited for Eli to change my sixpence, he nodded after the couple, who by this time had reached the top of the landing-stage, arm in arm.
"A bad day's work for her, I reckon."
It struck me at the moment as a moral reflection of Eli's, and no more. Late in the afternoon, however, I was enlightened.
In the midst of the Fair, about four o'clock, a din of horns, beaten kettles, and hideous yelling, broke out in Troy. I met the crowd in the main street, and for a moment felt afraid of it. They had seized the woman in the taproom of the "Man-o'-War"—where the gamekeeper was lying in a drunken sleep—and were hauling her along in a Ram Riding. There is nothing so cruel as a crowd, and I have seen nothing in my life like the face of These-an'-That's wife. It was bleeding; it was framed in tangles of black, dishevelled hair; it was livid; but, above all, it was possessed with an awful fear—a horror it turned a man white to look on. Now and then she bit and fought like a cat: but the men around held her tight, and mostly had to drag her, her feet trailing, and the horns and kettles dinning in her wake.
There lay a rusty old ducking-cage among the lumber up at the town-hall; and some fellows had fetched this down, with the poles and chain, and planted it on the edge of the Town Quay, between the American Shooting Gallery and the World-Renowned Swing Boats. To this they dragged her, and strapped her fast.
There is no heed to describe what followed. Even the virtuous women who stood and applauded would like to forget it, perhaps. At the third souse, the rusty pivot of the ducking-pole broke, and the cage, with the woman in it, plunged under water.
They dragged her ashore at the end of the pole in something less than a minute. They unstrapped and laid her gently down, and began to feel over her heart, to learn if it were still beating. And then the crowd parted, and These-an'-That came through it. His face wore no more expression than usual, but his lips were working in a queer way.
He went up to his wife, took off his hat, and producing an old red handkerchief from the crown, wiped away some froth and green weed that hung about her mouth. Then he lifted her limp hand, and patting the back of it gently, turned on the crowd. His lips were still working. It was evident he was trying to say something.
"Naybours," the words came at last, in the old dull tone; "I'd as lief you hadn' thought o' this."
He paused for a moment, gulped down something in his throat, and went on—
"I wudn' say you didn' mean it for the best, an' thankin' you kindly. But you didn' know her. Roughness, if I may say, was never no good wi' her. It must ha' been very hard for her to die like this, axin your parden, for she wasn' one to bear pain."
Another long pause.
"No, she cudn' bear pain. P'raps he might ha' stood it better— though o' course you acted for the best, an' thankin' you kindly. I'd as lief take her home now, naybours, if 'tis all the same."
He lifted the body in his arms, and carried it pretty steadily down the quay steps to his market-boat, that was moored below. Two minutes later he had pushed off and was rowing it quietly homewards.
There is no more to say, except that the woman recovered. She had fainted, I suppose, as they pulled her out. Anyhow, These-an'-That restored her to life—and she ran away the very next week with the gamekeeper.
III—"DOUBLES" AND QUITS.
Here is a story from Troy, containing two ghosts and a moral. I found it, only last week, in front of a hump-backed cottage that the masons are pulling down to make room for the new Bank. Simon Hancock, the outgoing tenant, had fetched an empty cider-cask, and set it down on the opposite side of the road; and from this Spartan seat watched the work of demolition for three days, without exhaustion and without emotion. In the interval between two avalanches of dusty masonry, he spoke to this effect:—
Once upon a time the cottage was inhabited by a man and his wife. The man was noticeable for the extreme length of his upper lip and gloom of his religious opinions. He had been a mate in the coasting trade, but settled down, soon after his marriage, and earned his living as one of the four pilots in the port. The woman was unlovely, with a hard eye and a temper as stubborn as one of St. Nicholas's horns. How she had picked up with a man was a mystery, until you looked at him.
After six years of wedlock they quarrelled one day, about nothing at all: at least, Simon Hancock, though unable to state the exact cause of strife, felt himself ready to swear it was nothing more serious than the cooking of the day's dinner. From that date, however, the pair lived in the house together and never spoke. The man happened to be of the home-keeping sort—possessed no friends and never put foot inside a public-house. Through the long evenings he would sit beside his own fender, with his wife facing him, and never a word flung across the space between them, only now and then a look of cold hate. The few that saw them thus said it was like looking on a pair of ugly statues. And this lasted for four years.