coarse dripping weed.
On a low rock at its foot, her back resting against the Cyclopean wall, sits a young woman of eight-and-twenty, soberly, almost primly dressed, with three or four tiny children clustering round her. In front of them, on a narrow spit of sand between the rocks, a dozen little girls are laughing, romping, and pattering about, turning the stones for “shannies” and “bullies,” and other luckless fish left by the tide; while the party beneath the pier wall look steadfastly down into a little rock-pool at their feet,–full of the pink and green and purple cut-work of delicate weeds and coralline, and starred with great sea-dahlias, crimson and brown and grey, and with the waving snake-locks of the Cercus, pale blue, and rose-tipped like the fingers of the dawn. One delicate Medusa is sliding across the pool, by slow pantings of its crystal bell; and on it the eyes of the whole group are fixed,–for it seems to be the subject of some story which the village schoolmistress is finishing in a sweet, half-abstracted voice,–
“And so the cruel soldier was changed into a great rough red starfish, who goes about killing the poor mussels, while nobody loves him, or cares to take his part; and the poor little girl was changed into a beautiful bright jelly-fish, like that one, who swims about all day in the pleasant sunshine, with a red cross stamped on its heart.”
“Oh, mistress, what a pretty story!” cry the little ones, with tearful eyes. “And what shall we be changed to when we die?”
“If we will only be good we shall go up to Jesus, and be beautiful angels, and sing hymns. Would that it might be soon, soon; for you and me, and all!” And she draws the children, to her, and looks upward, as if longing to bear them with her aloft.
Let us leave the conversation where it is, and look into the face of the speaker, who, young as she is, has already meditated so long upon the mystery of death that it has grown lovely in her eyes.
Her figure is tall, graceful, and slight, the severity of its outlines suiting well with the severity of her dress, with the brown stuff gown and plain grey whittle. Her neck is long, almost too long: but all defects are forgotten in the first look at her face. We can see it fully, for her bonnet lies beside her on the rock.
The masque, though thin, is perfect. The brow, like that of Greek statue, looks lower than it really is, for the hair springs from below the bend of the forehead. The brain is very long, and sweeps backward and upward in grand curves, till it attains above the ears a great expanse and height. She should be a character more able to feel than to argue; full of all a woman’s veneration, devotion, love of children,–perhaps, too, of a woman’s anxiety.
The nose is slightly aquiline; the sharp-cut nostrils indicate a reserve of compressed strength and passion; the mouth is delicate; the lips, which are full and somewhat heavy, not from coarseness, but rather from languor, show somewhat of both the upper and the under teeth. Her eyes are bent on the pool at her feet; so that we can see nothing of them but the large sleepy lids, fringed with lashes so long and dark that the eye looks as if it had been painted, in the Eastern fashion, with antimony; the dark lashes, dark eyebrows, dark hair, crisped (as West-country hair so often is) to its very roots, increase the almost ghostlike paleness of the face, not sallow, not snow-white, but of a clear, bloodless, waxen hue.
And now she lifts her eyes,–dark eyes, of preternatural largeness; brilliant, too, but not with the sparkle of the diamond; brilliant as deep clear wells are, in which the mellow moonlight sleeps fathom-deep between black walls of rock; and round them, and round the wide-opened lips, and arching eyebrow, and slightly wrinkled forehead, hangs an air of melancholy thought, vague doubt, almost of startled fear; then that expression passes, and the whole face collapses into a languor of patient sadness, which seems to say,–“I cannot solve the mystery. Let Him solve it as seems good to Him.”
The pier has, as usual, two stages; the upper and narrower for a public promenade, the lower and broader one for business. Two rough collier-lads, strangers to the place, are lounging on the wall above, and begin, out of mere mischief, dropping pebbles on the group below.
“Hillo! you young rascals,” calls an old man lounging like them on the wall; “if you don’t drop that, you’re likely to get your heads broken.”
“Will you do it?”
“I would thirty years ago; but I’ll find a dozen in five minutes who will do it now. Here, lads! here’s two Welsh vagabonds pelting our schoolmistress.”
This is spoken to a group of Sea-Titans, who are sitting about on the pier-way behind him, in red caps, blue jackets, striped jerseys, bright brown trousers, and all the picturesque comfort of a fisherman’s costume, superintending the mending of a boat.
Up jump half-a-dozen off the logs and baulkings, where they have been squatting, doubled up knee to nose, after the fashion of their class, and a volley of execrations, like a storm of grape, almost blows the two offenders off the wall. The bolder, however, lingers, anathematising in turn; whereon a black-bearded youth, some six feet four in height, catches up an oar, makes a sweep at the shins of the lad above his head, and brings him writhing down upon the upper pier-way, whence he walks off howling, and muttering threats of “taking the law.” In vain;–there is not a magistrate within ten miles; and custom, Lynch-law, and the coast-guard lieutenant, settle all matters in Aberalva town, and do so easily enough; for the petty crimes which fill our gaols are all unknown among those honest Vikings’ sons; and any man who covets his neighbour’s goods, instead of stealing them has only to go and borrow them, on condition, of course, of lending in his turn.
“What’s that collier-lad hollering about, Captain Willis?” asks Mr. Tardrew, steward to Lord Scoutbush, landlord of Aberalva, as he comes up to the old man.
“Gentleman Jan cut him over, for pelting the schoolmistress below here.”
“Serve him right; he’ll have to cut over that curate next, I reckon.”
“Oh, Mr. Tardrew, don’t you talk so; the young gentleman is as kind a man as I ever saw, and comes in and out of our house like a lamb.”
“Wolf in sheep’s clothing,” growls Tardrew.
“What d’ye think he says to me last week? Wanted to turn the schoolmistress out of her place because she went to chapel sometimes.”
“I know, I know,” replied Willis, in the tone of a man who wished to avoid a painful subject. “And what did you answer, then, Mr. Tardrew?”
“I told him he might if he liked; but he’d make the place too hot to hold him, if he hadn’t done it already, with his bowings and his crossings, and his chantings, and his Popish Gregories,–and tells one he’s no Papist; called him Pope Gregory himself. What do we want with popes’ tunes here, instead of the Old Hundredth and Martyrdom? I should like to see any Pope of the lot make a tune like them.”
Captain Willis listened with a face half sad, half slily amused. He and Tardrew were old friends; being the two most notable persons in the parish, save Jones the lieutenant, Heale the doctor, and another gentleman, of whom we shall speak presently. Both of them too, were thorough-going Protestants, and though Churchmen, walked sometimes into the Brianite Chapel of an afternoon, and thought it no sin. But each took the curate’s “Puseyism” in a different way, being two men as unlike each other as one could well find.
Tardrew–steward to Lord Scoutbush, the absentee landlord,–was a shrewd, hard-bitten, choleric old fellow, of the shape, colour, and consistence of a red brick; one of those English types which Mr. Emerson has so well hit off in his rather confused and contradictory “Traits:”–
“He hides virtues under vices, or, rather, under the semblance of them. It is the misshapen, hairy, Scandinavian Troll again who lifts the cart out of the mire, or threshes the corn which ten day-labourers could not end: but it is done in the dark, and with muttered maledictions. He is a churl with a soft place in his heart, whose speech is a brash of bitter waters, but who loves to help you at a pinch. He says, No; and serves you, and his thanks disgust you.” Such, was Tardrew,–a true British bulldog, who lived pretty faithfully up to his Old Testament, but had, somehow, forgotten the existence of the New.
Willis was a very different and a very much nobler person; the most perfect specimen which I ever have met (for I knew him well, and loved him) of that type of British sailor which good Captain Marryat has painted in his Masterman Ready, and painted far better than I can, even though I do so from life. A tall and graceful old man, though stooping much from lumbago and old wounds; with snow-white hair and whiskers, delicate aquiline features, the manners of a nobleman, and the heart of a child. All children knew that latter fact, and clung to him instinctively. Even “the Boys,” that terrible Berserk-tribe, self-organised, self-dependent, and bound together in common iniquities and the dread of common retribution, who were in Aberalva, as all fishing towns, the torment and terror of all douce fogies, male and female,–even the Boys, I say, respected Captain Willis, so potent was the influence of his gentleness; nailed not up his shutters, nor tied fishing-lines across his doorway; tail-piped not his dog, nor sent his cat to sea on a barrel-stave; nor put live crabs into his pocket, nor dead dog-fish into his well; yea, even when judgment, too long provoked, made bare her red right hand, and the lieutenant vowed by his commission that he would send half-a-dozen of them to the treadmill, they would send up a deputation to “beg Captain Willis to beg the schoolmistress to beg them off.” For between Willis and that fair young creature a friendship had grown up, easily to be understood. Willis was one of those rare natures upon whose purity no mire can cling; who pass through the furnace, and yet not even the smell of fire has passed upon them. Bred, almost born, on board a smuggling cutter, in the old war-times; then hunting, in the old coast-blockade service, the smugglers among whom he had been trained; watching the slow horrors of the Walcheren; fighting under Collingwood and Nelson, and many another valiant Captain; lounging away years of temptation on the West-Indian station, as sailing-master of a ship-of-the-line; pensioned comfortably now for many a year in his native town, he had been always the same gentle, valiant, righteous man; sober in life, strict in duty, and simple in word; a soul as transparent as crystal, and as pure. He was the oracle of Aberalva now; and even Lieutenant Brown would ask his opinion,–non-commissioned officer though he was,–in a tone which was all the more patronising, because he stood a little in awe of the old man.
But why, when the boys wanted to be begged off, was the schoolmistress to be their advocate? Because Grace Harvey exercised, without intending anything of the kind, an almost mesmeric influence on every one in the little town. Goodness rather than talent had given her wisdom, and goodness rather than courage a power of using that wisdom, which, to those simple, superstitious folk, seemed altogether an inspiration. There was a mystery about her, too, which worked strongly on the hearts of the West-country people. She was supposed to be at times “not right;” and wandering intellect is with them, as with many primitive peoples, an object more of awe than of pity. Her deep melancholy alternated with bursts of wild eloquence, with fantastic fables, with entreaties and warnings against sin, full of such pity and pathos that they melted, at times, the hardest hearts. A whole world of strange tales, half false, half true, had grown up around her as she grew. She was believed to spend whole nights in prayer; to speak with visitors from the other world; even to have the power of seeing into futurity. The intensity of her imagination gave rise to the belief that she had only to will, and she could see whom she would, and all that they were doing, even across the seas; her exquisite sensibility, it was whispered, made her feel every bodily suffering she witnessed, as acutely as the sufferer’s self, and in the very limb in which he suffered. Her deep melancholy was believed to be caused by some dark fate–by some agonising sympathy with evil-doers; and it was sometimes said in Aberalva,–“Don’t do that, for poor Grace’s sake. She bears the sins of all the parish.”
So it befell that Grace Harvey governed, she knew not how or why, all hearts in that wild simple fishing-town. Rough men, fighting on the quay, shook hands at Grace’s bidding. Wives who could not lure their husbands from the beer-shop, sent Grace in to fetch them home, sobered by shame: and woe to the stranger who fancied that her entrance into that noisy den gave him a right to say a rough word to the fair girl! The maidens, instead of envying her beauty, made her the confidant of all their loves; for though many a man would gladly have married her, to woo her was more than any dared; and Gentleman Jan himself, the rightful bully of the quay, as being the handsomest and biggest man for many a mile, beside owning a tidy trawler and two good mackerel-boats, had said openly, that if any man had a right to her, he supposed he had; but that he should as soon think of asking her to marry him, as of asking the moon.
But it was in the school, in the duty which lay nearest to her, that Grace’s inward loveliness shone most lovely. Whatever dark cloud of melancholy lay upon her own heart, she took care that it should never overshadow one of those young innocents, whom she taught by love and ruled by love, always tender, always cheerful, even gay and playful; punishing, when she rarely punished, with tears and kisses. To make them as happy as she could in a world where there was nothing but temptation, and disappointment, and misery; to make them “fit for heaven,” and then to pray that they might go thither as speedily as possible, this had been her work for now seven years; and that Manichaeism which has driven darker and harder natures to destroy young children, that they might go straight to bliss, took in her the form of outpourings of gratitude (when the first natural tears were dried), as often as one of her little lambs was “delivered out of the miseries of this sinful world.” But as long as they were in the world, she was their guardian angel; and there was hardly a mother in Aberalva who did not confess her debt to Grace, not merely for her children’s scholarship, but for their characters.
Frank Headley the curate, therefore, had touched altogether the wrong chord when he spoke of displacing Grace. And when, that same afternoon, he sauntered down to the pier-head, wearied with his parish work, not only did Tardrew stump away in silence as soon as he appeared, but Captain Willis’s face assumed a grave and severe look, which was not often to be seen on it.
“Well, Captain Willis?” said Frank, solitary and sad; longing for a talk with, some one, and not quite sure whether he was welcome.
“Well, sir?” and the old man lifted his hat, and made one of his princely bows. “You look tired, sir; I am afraid you’re doing too much.”
“I shall have more to do, soon,” said the curate, his eye glancing towards the schoolmistress, who, disturbed by the noise above, was walking slowly up the beach, with a child holding to every finger, and every fold of her dress.
Willis saw the direction of his eye, and came at once to the point, in his gentle, straightforward fashion.
“I hear you have thoughts of taking the school from her, sir?”
“Why–indeed–I shall be very sorry; but if she will persist in going to the chapel, I cannot overlook the sin of schism.”
“She takes the children to church twice a Sunday, don’t she? And teaches them all that you tell her–“
“Why–yes–I have taken the religious instruction almost into my own hands now.”
Willis smiled quietly.
“You’ll excuse an old sailor, sir; but I think that’s more than mortal man can do. There’s no hour of the day but what she’s teaching them something. She’s telling them Bible stories now, I’ll warrant, if you could hear her.”
Frank made no answer.
“You wouldn’t stop her doing that? Oh, sir,” and the old man spoke with a quiet earnestness which was not without its effect, “just look at her now, like the Good Shepherd with His lambs about His feet, and think whether that’s not much too pretty a sight to put an end to, in a poor sinful world like this.”
“It is my duty,” said Frank, hardening himself. “It pains me exceedingly, Willis;–I hope I need not tell you that.”
“If I know aught of Mr. Headley’s heart by his ways, you needn’t indeed, sir.”
“But I cannot allow it.–Her mother a class leader among these Dissenters, and one of the most active of them, too.–The school next door to her house. The preacher, of course, has influence there, and must have. How am I to instil Church principles into them, if he is counteracting me the moment my back is turned? I have made up my mind, Willis, to do nothing in a hurry. Lady-day is past, and she must go on till Midsummer; then I shall take the school into my own hands, and teach them myself, for I can pay no mistress or master; and Mr. St. Just–“
Frank checked himself as he was going to speak the truth; namely, that his sleepy old absentee rector, Lord Scoutbush’s uncle, would yawn and grumble at the move, and wondering why Frank “had not the sense to leave ill alone,” would give him no manner of assistance beyond his pittance of eighty pounds a-year, and five pounds at Christmas to spend on the poor.
“Excuse me, sir, I don’t doubt that you’ll do your best in teaching, as you always do: but I tell you honestly, you’ll get no children to teach.”
“Their mothers know the worth of Grace too well, and the children too, sir; and they’ll go to her all the same, do what you will; and never a one will enter the church door from that day forth.”
“On their own heads be it!” said Frank, a little testily; “but I should not have fancied Miss Harvey the sort of person to set up herself in defiance of me.”
“The more reason, sir, if you’ll forgive me, for your not putting upon her.”
“I do not want to put upon her or any one. I will do everything. I will–I do–work day and night for these people, Mr. Willis. I tell you, as I would my own father. I don’t think I have another object on earth–if I have, I hope I shall forget it–than the parish: but Church principles I must carry out.”
“Well, sir, certainly no man ever worked here as you do. If all had been like you, sir, there would not be a Dissenter here now; but excuse me, sir, the Church is a very good thing, and I keep to mine, having served under her Majesty, and her Majesty’s forefathers, and learnt to obey orders, I hope; but don’t you think, sir, you’re taking it as the Pharisees took the Sabbath-day?”
“Why, as if man was made for the Church, and not the Church for man.”
“That is a shrewd thought, at least. Where did you pick it up?”
“‘Tis none of my own, sir; a bit of wisdom that my maid let fall; and it has stuck to me strangely ever since.”
“Yes, Grace there. I always call her my maid; having no father, poor thing, she looks up to me as one, pretty much,–the dear soul. Oh, sir! I hope you’ll think over this again, before you do anything. It’s done in a day: but years won’t undo it again.”
So Grace’s sayings were quoted against him. Her power was formidable enough, if she dare use it. He was silent awhile, and then–
“Do you think she has heard of this–of my–“
“Honesty’s the best policy, sir: she has; and that’s the truth. You know how things get round.”
“Well; and what did she say?”
“I’ll tell you her very words, sir; and they were these, if you’ll excuse me. ‘Poor dear gentleman,’ says she, ‘if he thinks chapel-going so wrong, why does he dare drive folks to chapel? I wonder, every time he looks at that deep sea, he don’t remember what the Lord said about it, and those who cause his little ones to offend.'”
Frank was somewhat awed. The thought was new; the application of the text, as his own scholarship taught him, even more exact than Grace had fancied.
“Then she was not angry?”
“She, sir! You couldn’t anger her if you tore her in pieces with hot pincers, as they did those old martyrs she’s always telling about.”
“Good-bye, Willis,” said Frank, in a hopeless tone of voice, and sauntered to the pier-end, down the steps, and along the lower pier-way, burdened with many thoughts. He came up to the knot of chatting sailors. Not one of them touched his cap, or moved out of the way for him. The boat lay almost across the whole pier-way; and he stopped, awkwardly enough, for there was not room to get by.
“Will you be so kind as to let me pass?” asked he, meekly enough. But no one stirred.
“Why don’t you get up, Tom?” asked one.
“I be lame.”
“So be I.”
“The gentleman can step over me, if he likes,” said big Jan; a proposition the impossibility whereof raised a horse-laugh.
“Ain’t you ashamed of yourselves, lads?” said the severe voice of Willis, from above. The men rose sulkily; and Frank hastened on, as ready to cry as ever he had been in his life. Poor fellow! he had been labouring among these people for now twelve months, as no man had ever laboured before, and he felt that he had not won the confidence of a single human being,–not even of the old women, who took his teaching for the sake of his charity, and who scented popery, all the while, in words in which there was no popery, and in doctrines which were just the same, on the whole, as those of the dissenting preacher, simply because he would sprinkle among them certain words and phrases which had become “suspect,” as party badges. His church was all but empty; the general excuse was, that it was a mile from the town: but Frank knew that that was not the true reason; that all the parish had got it into their heads that he had a leaning to popery; that he was going over to Rome; that he was probably a Jesuit in disguise.
Now, be it always remembered, Frank Headley was a good man, in every sense of the word. He had nothing, save the outside, in common with those undesirable coxcombs, who have not been bred by the High Church movement, but have taken refuge in its cracks, as they would have done forty years ago in those of the Evangelical,–youths who hide their crass ignorance and dulness under the cloak of Church infallibility, and having neither wit, manners, learning, humanity, or any other dignity whereon to stand, talk loud, _pour pis aller_, about the dignity of the priesthood. Such men Frank had met at neighbouring clerical meetings, overbearing and out-talking the elder and the wiser members; and finding that he got no good from them, had withdrawn into his parish-work, to eat his own heart, like Bellerophon of old. For Frank was a gentleman and a Christian, if ever one there was. Delicate in person, all but consumptive; graceful and refined in all his works and ways; a scholar, elegant rather than deep, yet a scholar still; full of all love for painting, architecture, and poetry, he had come down to bury himself in this remote curacy, in the honest desire of doing good. He had been a curate in a fashionable London Church; but finding the atmosphere thereof not over wholesome to his soul, he had had the courage to throw off St. Nepomuc’s, its brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and all its gorgeous and highly-organised appliances for enabling five thousand rich to take tolerable care of five hundred poor: and had fled from “the holy virgins” (as certain old ladies, who do twice their work with half their noise, call them) into the wilderness of Bethnal Green. But six months’ gallant work there, with gallant men (for there are High Churchmen there who are an honour to England), brought him to death’s door. The doctors commanded some soft western air. Frank, as chivalrous as a knight-errant of old, would fain have died at his post, but his mother interfered; and he could do no less than obey her. So he had taken this remote west country curacy; all the more willingly because he knew that nine-tenths of the people were Dissenters. To recover that place to the Church would be something worth living for. So he had come, and laboured late and early; and behold, he had failed utterly; and seemed farther than ever from success. He had opened, too hastily, a crusade against the Dissenters, and denounced where he should have conciliated. He had overlooked–indeed he hardly knew–the sad truth, that the mere fact of his being a clergyman was no passport to the hearts of his people. For the curate who preceded him had been an old man, mean, ignorant, incapable, remaining there simply because nobody else would have him, and given to brandy-and-water as much as his flock.
The rector for the last fifteen years, Lord Scoutbush’s uncle, was a cypher. The rector before him had notoriously earned the living by a marriage with a lady who stood in some questionable relation to Lord Scoutbush’s father, and who had never had a thought above his dinner and his tithes; and all that the Aberalva fishermen knew of God or righteousness, they had learnt from the _soi-disant_ disciples of John Wesley. So Frank Headley had to make up, at starting, the arrears of half-a-century of base neglect; but instead of doing so, he had contrived to awaken against himself that dogged hatred of popery which lies inarticulate and confused, but deep and firm, in the heart of the English people. Poor fellow! if he made a mistake, he suffered for it. There was hardly a sadder soul than poor Frank, as he went listlessly up the village street that afternoon, to his lodging at Captain Willis’s, which he had taken because he preferred living in the village itself to occupying the comfortable rectory a mile out of town.
However we cannot set him straight;–after all, every man must perform that office for himself. So the best thing we can do, as we landed, naturally, at the pier-head, is to walk up-street after him, and see what sort of a place Aberalva is.
Beneath us, to the left hand, is the quay-pool, now lying dry, in which a dozen trawlers are lopping over on their sides, their red sails drying in the sun, the tails of the trawls hauled up to the topmast heads; while the more handy of their owners are getting on board by ladders, to pack away the said red sails; for it will blow to night. In the long furrows which their keels have left, and in the shallow muddy pools, lie innumerable fragments of exenterated maids (not human ones, pitiful reader, but belonging to the order Pisces, and the family Raia), and some twenty non-exenterated ray-dogs and picked dogs (Anglice, dog-fish), together with a fine basking shark, at least nine feet long, out of which the kneeling Mr. George Thomas, clothed in pilot cloth patches of every hue, bright scarlet, blue and brown (not to mention a large square of white canvas which has been let into that part of his trousers which is now uppermost), is dissecting the liver for the purpose of greasing his “sheaves” with the fragrant oil thereof. The pools in general are bedded with black mud, and creamed over with oily flakes which may proceed from the tar on the vessels’ sides, and may also from “decomposing animal matter,” as we euphemise it now-a-days. The hot pebbles, at high-tide mark,–crowned with a long black row of herring and mackerel boats, laid up in ordinary for the present–are beautifully variegated with mackerels’ heads, gurnets’ fins, old hag, lobworm, and mussel-baits, and the inwards of a whole ichthyological museum; save at one spot where the Cloaca maxima and Port Esquiline of Aberalva town (small enough, considering the place holds fifteen hundred souls) murmurs from beneath a grey stone arch toward the sea, not unfraught with dead rats and cats, who, their ancient feud forgotten, combine lovingly at last in increasing the health of the blue-trousered urchins who are sailing upon that Acherontic stream bits of board with a feather stuck in it, or of their tiny sisters who are dancing about in the dirtiest pool among the trawlers in a way which (if your respectable black coat be seen upon the pier) will elicit from one of the balconied windows above, decked with reeking shirts and linen, some such shriek as–
“Patience Penberthy, Patience Penberthy–a! You nasty, dirty, little ondecent hussy–a! What be playing in the quay-pool for–a! A pulling up your pesticoats before the quality–a!” Each exclamation being followed with that groaning grunt, with which the West-country folk, after having screamed their lungs empty through their noses, recover their breath for a fresh burst.
Never mind; it is no nosegay, certainly as a whole: but did you ever see sturdier, rosier, nobler-looking children,–rounder faces, raven hair, bright grey eyes, full of fun and tenderness? As for the dirt, that cannot harm them; poor people’s children must be dirty–why not? Look on fifty yards to the left. Between two ridges of high pebble bank, some twenty yards apart, comes Alva river rushing to the sea. On the opposite ridge, a low white house, with three or four white canvas-covered boats, and a flag-staff with sloping cross-yard, betokens the coast-guard station. Beyond it rise black jagged cliffs; mile after mile of iron-bound wall; and here and there, at the glens’ mouths, great banks and denes of shifting sand. In front of it, upon the beach, are half-a-dozen great green and grey heaps of Welsh limestone; behind it, at the cliff foot, is the lime-kiln, with its white dusty heaps, and brown dusty men, its quivering mirage of hot air, its strings of patient hay-nibbling donkeys, which look as if they had just awakened out of a flour bin. Above, a green down stretches up to bright yellow furze-crofts far aloft. Behind a reedy marsh, covered with red cattle, paves the valley till it closes in; the steep sides of the hills are clothed in oak and ash covert, in which, three months ago, you could have shot more cocks in one day than you would in Berkshire in a year. Pleasant little glimpses there are, too, of grey stone farm-houses, nestling among sycamore and beech; bright-green meadows, alder-fringed; squares of rich red fallow-field, parted by lines of golden furze; all cut out with a peculiar blackness, and clearness, soft and tender withal, which betokens a climate surcharged with rain. Only in the very bosom of the valley, a soft mist hangs, increasing the sense of distance, and softening back one hill and wood behind another, till the great brown moor which backs it all seems to rise out of the empty air. For a thousand feet it ranges up, in rude sheets of brown heather, and grey cairns and screes of granite, all sharp and black-edged against the pale blue sky; and all suddenly cut off above by one long horizontal line of dark grey cloud, which seems to hang there motionless, and yet is growing to windward, and dying to leeward, for ever rushing out of the invisible into sight, and into the invisible again, at railroad speed. Out of nothing the moor rises, and into nothing it ascends,–a great dark phantom between earth and sky, boding rain and howling tempest, and perhaps fearful wreck–for the groundswell moans and thunders on the beach behind us, louder and louder every moment.
Let us go on, and up the street, after we have scrambled through the usual labyrinth of timber-baulks, rusty anchors, boats which have been dragged, for the purpose of mending and tarring, into the very middle of the road, and old spars stowed under walls, in the vain hope that they may be of some use for something some day, and have stood the stares and welcomes of the lazy giants who are sitting about upon them, black-locked, black-bearded, with ruddy, wholesome faces, and eyes as bright as diamonds; men who are on their own ground, and know it; who will not touch their caps to you, or pull the short black pipe from between their lips as you pass, but expect you to prove yourself a gentleman, by speaking respectfully to them; which, if you do, you will find them as hearty, intelligent, brave fellows as ever walked this earth, capable of anything, from working the naval-brigade guns at Sevastopol, down to running up to … a hundred miles in a cockleshell lugger, to forestall the early mackerel market. God be with you, my brave lads, and with your children after you; for as long as you are what I have known you, Old England will rule the seas, and many a land beside!
But in going up Aberalva Street, you remark several things; first, that the houses were all white-washed yesterday, except where the snowy white is picked out by buttresses of pink and blue; next, that they all have bright green palings in front, and bright green window-sills and frames; next, that they are all roofed with shining grey slate, and the space between the window and the pales flagged with the same; next, that where such space is not flagged, it is full of flowers and shrubs which stand the winter only in our greenhouses. The fuchsias are ten feet high, laden with ripe purple berries running over (for there are no birds to pick them off); and there in the front of the coast-guard lieutenant’s house, is Cobaea scandens, covered with purple claret-glasses, as it has been ever since Christmas: for Aberalva knows no winter: and there are grown-up men in it who never put on a skate, or made a snowball in their lives. A most cleanly, bright-coloured, foreign-looking street, is that long straggling one which runs up the hill towards Penalva Court: only remark, that this cleanliness is gained by making the gutter in the middle street the common sewer of the town, and tread clear of cabbage-leaves, pilchard bones, _et id genus omne_. For Aberalva is like Paris (if the answer of a celebrated sanitary reformer to the Emperor be truly reported), “fair without but foul within.”
However, the wind is blowing dull and hollow from south-west; the clouds are rolling faster and faster up from the Atlantic; the sky to westward is brassy green; the glass is falling fast; and there will be wind and rain enough to-night to sweep even Aberalva clean for the next week.
Grace Harvey sees the coming storm, as she goes slowly homewards, dismissing her little flock; and she lingers long and sadly outside her cottage door, looking out over the fast blackening sea, and listening to the hollow thunder of the groundswell, against the back of the point which shelters Aberalva Cove.
Far away on the horizon, the masts of stately ships stand out against the sky, driving fast to the eastward with shortened sail. They, too, know what is coming; and Grace prays for them as she stands, in her wild way, with half outspoken words.
“All those gallant ships, dear Lord! and so many beautiful men in them, and so few of them ready to die; and all those gallant soldiers going to the war;–Lord, wilt thou not have mercy? Spare them for a little time before–. Is not that cruel, man-devouring sea full enough, Lord; and brave men’s bones enough, strewn up and down all rocks and sands? And is not that dark place full enough, O Lord, of poor souls cut off in a moment, as my two were? Oh, not to-night, dear Lord! Do not call any one to-night–give them a day more, one chance more, poor fellows–they have had so few, and so many temptations, and, perhaps, no schooling. They go to sea so early, and young things will be young things, Lord. Spare them but one night more–and yet He did not spare my two–they had no time to repent, and have no time for ever, evermore!”
And she stands looking out over the sea; but she has lost sight of everything, save her own sad imaginations. Her eyes open wider and wider, as if before some unseen horror; the eyebrows contract upwards; the cheeks sharpen; the mouth parts; the lips draw back, showing the white teeth, as if in intensest agony. Thus she stands long, motionless, awe-frozen, save when a shudder runs through every limb, with such a countenance as that “fair terror” of which Shelley sang–
“Its horror and its beauty are divine; Upon its lips and eyelids seem to lie
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shine, Fiery and lucid, struggling underneath, The agonies of anguish and of death.”
Her mother comes out from the cottage door behind, and lays her hand upon the girl’s shoulder. The spell is broken; and hiding her face in her hands, Grace bursts into violent weeping.
“What are you doing, my poor child, here in the cold night air?”
“My two, mother, my two!” said she; “and all the poor souls at sea to-night!”
“You mustn’t think of it. Haven’t I told you not to think of it? One would lose one’s wits if one did too often.”
“If it is all true, mother, what else is there worth thinking of in heaven or earth?”
And Grace goes in with a dull, heavy look of utter exhaustion, bodily and mental, and quietly sets the things for supper, and goes about her cottage work as one who bears a heavy chain, but has borne it too long to let it hinder the daily drudgery of life.
Grace had reason to pray at least, for the soldiers who were going to the war. For as she prayed, the Orinoco, Ripon, and Manilla, were steaming down Southampton Water, with the Guards on board; and but that morning little Lord Scoutbush, left behind at the depot, had bid farewell to his best friend, opposite Buckingham Palace, while the bearskins were on the bayonet-points, with–
“Well, old fellow, you have the fun, after all, and I the work;” and had been answered with–
“Fun? there will be no fighting; and I shall only have lost my season in town.”
Was there, then, no man among them that day, who
“As the trees began to whisper, and the wind began to roll, Heard in the wild March morning the angels call his soul”?
* * * * *
Verily they are gone down to Hades, even many stalwart souls of heroes.
ANYTHING BUT STILL LIFE.
Penalva Court, about half a mile from the quay, is “like a house in a story;”–a house of seven gables, and those very shaky ones; a house of useless long passages, useless turrets, vast lumber attics where maids see ghosts, lofty garden and yard walls of grey stone, round which the wind and rain are lashing through the dreary darkness; low oak-ribbed ceilings; windows which once were mullioned with stone, but now with wood painted white; walls which were once oak-wainscot, but have been painted like the mullions, to the disgust of Elsley Vavasour, poet, its occupant in March 1854, who forgot that, while the oak was left dark, no man could have seen to read in the rooms a yard from the window.
He has, however, little reason to complain of the one drawing-room, where he and his wife are sitting, so pleasant has she made it look, in spite of the plainness of the furniture. A bright log-fire is burning on the hearth. There are a few good books too, and a few handsome prints; while some really valuable nick-nacks are set out, with pardonable ostentation, on a little table covered with crimson velvet. It is only cotton velvet, if you look close at it; but the things are pretty enough to catch the eye of all visitors; and Mrs. Heale, the Doctor’s wife (who always calls Mrs. Vavasour “my lady,” though she does not love her), and Mrs. Trebooze, of Trebooze, always finger them over when they have any opportunity, and whisper to each other half contemptuously,–“Ah, poor thing! there’s a sign that she has seen better days.”
And better days, in one sense, Mrs. Vavasour has seen. I am afraid, indeed, that she has more than once regretted the morning when she ran away in a hack-cab from her brother Lord Scoutbush’s house in Eaton Square, to be married to Elsley Vavasour, the gifted author of “A Soul’s Agonies and other Poems.” He was a lion then, with foolish women running after him, and turning his head once and for all; and Lucia St. Just was a wild Irish girl, new to London society, all feeling and romance, and literally all; for there was little real intellect underlying her passionate sensibility. So when the sensibility burnt itself out, as it generally does; and when children, and the weak health which comes with them, and the cares of a household, and money difficulties were absorbing her little powers, Elsley Vavasour began to fancy that his wife was a very commonplace person, who was fast losing even her good looks and her good temper. So, on the whole, they were not happy. Elsley was an affectionate man, and honourable to a fantastic nicety; but he was vain, capricious, over-sensitive, craving for admiration and distinction; and it was not enough for him that his wife loved him, and bore him children, kept his accounts, mended and moiled all day long for him and his; he wanted her to act the public for him exactly when he was hungry for praise; and that not the actual, but an altogether ideal, public; to worship him as a deity, “live for him and him alone,” “realise” his poetic dreams of marriage bliss, and talk sentiment with him, or listen to him talking sentiment to her, when she would much sooner be safe in bed burying all the petty cares of the day, and the pain in her back too, poor thing! in sound sleep; and so it befell that they often quarrelled and wrangled, and that they were quarrelling and wrangling this very night.
Who cares to know how it began? Who cares to hear how it went on,–the stupid, aimless skirmish of bitter words, between two people who had forgotten themselves? I believe it began with Elsley’s being vexed at her springing up two or three times, fancying that she heard the children cry, while he wanted to be quiet, and sentimentalise over the roaring of the wind outside. Then–she thought of nothing but those children. Why did she not take a book and occupy her mind? To which she had her pert, though just answer, about her mind having quite enough to do to keep clothes on the children’s backs, and so forth,–let who list imagine the miserable little squabble;–till she says,–“I know what has put you out so to-night; nothing but the news of my sister’s coming.” He answers,–“That her sister is as little to him as to any man; as welcome to come now as she has been to stay away these three years.”
“Ah, it’s very well to say that; but you have been a different person ever since that letter came.” And so she torments him into an angry self-justification (which she takes triumphantly as a confession) that “it is very disagreeable to have his thoughts broken in on by one who has no sympathy with him and his pursuits–and who” and at that point he wisely stops short, for he was going to throw down a very ugly gage of battle.
Thrown down or not, Lucia snatches at it.
“Ah, I understand; poor Valentia! You always hated her.”
“I did not: but she is so brusque, and excited, and–“
“Be so kind as not to abuse my family. You may say what you will of me; but–“
“And what have your family done for me, pray?”
“Why, considering that we are now living rent-free in my brother’s house, and–” She stops in her turn; for her pride and her prudence also will not let her tell him that Valentia has been clothing her and the children for the last three years. He is just the man to forbid her on the spot to receive any more presents, and to sacrifice her comfort to his own pride. But what she has said is quite enough to bring out a very angry answer, which she expecting, nips in the bud by–
“For goodness’ sake, don’t speak so loud; I don’t want the servants to hear.”
“I am not speaking loud”–(he has not yet opened his lips). “That is your old trick to prevent my defending myself, while you are driving one mad. How dare you taunt me with being a pensioner on your brother’s bounty? I’ll go up to town again and take lodgings there. I need not be beholden to any aristocrat of them all. I have my own station in the real world,–the world of intellect; I have my own friends; I have made myself a name without his help; and I can live without his help, he shall find!”
“Which name were you speaking of?” rejoins she looking up at him, with all her native Irish humour flashing up for a moment in her naughty eyes. The next minute she would have given her hand not to have said it; for, with a very terrible word, Elsley springs to his feet and dashes out of the room.
She hears him catch up his hat and cloak, and hurry out into the rain, slamming the door behind him. She springs up to call him back, but he is gone;–and she dashes herself on the floor, and bursts into an agony of weeping over “young bliss never to return”? Not in the least. Her principal fear is, lest he should catch cold in the rain. She takes up her work again, and stitches away in the comfortable certainty that in half an hour she will have recovered her temper, and he also; that they will pass a sulky night; and to-morrow, by about mid-day, without explanation or formal reconciliation, have become as good friends as ever. “Perhaps,” says she to herself, with a woman’s sense of power, “if he be very much ashamed and very wet, I’ll pity him and make friends to-night.”
Miserable enough are these little squabbles. Why will two people, who have sworn to love and cherish each other utterly, and who, on the whole, do what they have sworn, behave to each other as they dare for very shame behave to no one else? Is it that, as every beautiful thing has its hideous antitype, this mutual shamelessness is the devil’s ape of mutual confidence? Perhaps it cannot be otherwise with beings compact of good and evil. When the veil of reserve is withdrawn from between two souls, it must be withdrawn for evil, as for good, till the two natures, which ought to seek rest, each in the other’s inmost depths, may at last spring apart, confronting each other recklessly with,–“There, you see me as I am; you know the worst of me, and I of you; take me as you find me–what care I?”
Elsley and Lucia have not yet arrived at that terrible crisis: though they are on the path toward it,–the path of little carelessnesses, rudenesses, ungoverned words and tempers, and, worst of all, of that half-confidence, which is certain to avenge itself by irritation and quarrelling; for if two married people will not tell each other in love what they ought, they will be sure to tell each other in anger what they ought not. It is plain enough already that Elsley has his weak point, which must not be touched; something about “a name,” which Lucia is to be expected to ignore,–as if anything which really exists could be ignored while two people live together night and day, for better for worse. Till the thorn is out, the wound will not heal; and till the matter (whatever it may be) is set right, by confession and absolution, there will be no peace for them, for they are living in a lie; and, unless it be a very little one indeed, better, perhaps, that they should go on to that terrible crisis of open defiance. It may end in disgust, hatred, madness; but it may, too, end in each falling again upon the other’s bosom, and sobbing out through holy tears,–“Yes, you do know the worst of me, and yet you love me still. This is happiness, to find oneself most loved when one most hates oneself! God, help us to confess our sins to Thee, as we have done to each other, and to begin life again like little children, struggling hand in hand out of this lowest pit, up the steep path which leads to life, and strength, and peace.”
Heaven grant that it may so end! But now Elsley has gone raging out into the raging darkness; trying to prove himself to himself the most injured of men, and to hate his wife as much as possible: though the fool knows the whole time that he loves her better than anything on earth, even than that “fame,” on which he tries to fatten his lean soul, snapping greedily at every scrap which falls in his way, and, in default, snapping at everybody and everything else. And little comfort it gives him. Why should it? What comfort, save in being wise and strong? And is he the wiser or stronger for being told by a reviewer that he has written fine words, or has failed in writing them; or to have silly women writing to ask for his autograph, or for leave to set his songs to music? Nay,–shocking as the question may seem,–is he the wiser and stronger man for being a poet at all, and a genius?–provided, of course, that the word genius is used in its modern meaning, of a person who can say prettier things than his neighbours. I think not. Be it as it may, away goes the poor genius; his long cloak, picturesque enough in calm weather, fluttering about uncomfortably enough, while the rain washes his long curls into swabs; out through the old garden, between storm-swept laurels, beneath dark groaning pines, and through a door in the wall which opens into the lane.
The lane leads downward, on the right, into the village. He is in no temper to meet his fellow-creatures,–even to see the comfortable gleam through their windows, as the sailors close round the fire with wife and child; so he turns to the left, up the deep stone-banked lane, which leads towards the cliff, dark now as pitch, for it is overhung, right and left, with deep oak-wood.
It is no easy matter to proceed, though, for the wind pours down the lane as through a funnel, and the road is of slippery bare slate, worn here and there into puddles of greasy clay, and Elsley slips back half of every step, while his wrath, as he tires, oozes out of his heels. Moreover, those dark trees above him, tossing their heads impatiently against the scarcely less dark sky, strike an awe into him,–a sense of loneliness, almost of fear. An uncanny, bad night it is; and he is out on a bad errand; and he knows it, and wishes that he were home again. He does not believe, of course, in those “spirits of the storm,” about whom he has so often written, any more than he does in a great deal of his fine imagery; but still in such characters as his, the sympathy between the moods of nature and those of the mind is most real and important; and Dame Nature’s equinoctial night wrath is weird, gruesome, crushing, and can be faced (if it must be faced) in real comfort only when one is going on an errand of mercy, with a clear conscience, a light heart, a good cigar, and plenty of Mackintosh.
So, ere Elsley had gone a quarter of a mile, he turned back, and resolved to go in, and take up his book once more. Perhaps Lucia might beg his pardon; and if not, why, perhaps he might beg hers. The rain was washing the spirit out of him, as it does out of a thin-coated horse.
Stay! What was that sound above the roar of the gale? a cannon?
He listened, turning his head right and left to escape the howling of the wind in his ears. A minute, and another boom rose and rang aloft. It was near, too. He almost fancied that he felt the concussion of the air.
Another, and another; and then, in the village below, he could see lights hurrying to and fro. A wreck at sea? He turned again up the lane. He had never seen a wreck. What an opportunity for a poet; and on such a night too: it would be magnificent if the moon would but come out! Just the scene, too, for his excited temper! He will work on upward, let it blow and rain as it may. He is not disappointed. Ere he has gone a hundred yards, a mass of dripping oil-skins runs full butt against him, knocking him against the bank; and, by the clank of weapons, he recognises the coast-guard watchman.
“Hillo!–who’s that? Beg your pardon, sir,” as the man recognises Elsley’s voice.
“What is it?–what are the guns?”
“God knows, sir! Overright the Chough and Crow; on ’em, I’m afeard. There they go again!–hard up, poor souls! God help them!” and the man runs shouting down the lane.
Another gun, and another; but long ere Elsley reaches the cliff, they are silent; and nothing is to be heard but the noise of the storm, which, loud as it was below among the wood, is almost intolerable now that he is on the open down.
He struggles up the lane toward the cliff, and there pauses, gasping, under the shelter of a wall, trying to analyse that enormous mass of sound which fills his ears and brain, and flows through his heart like maddening wine. He can bear the sight of the dead grass on the cliff-edge, weary, feeble, expostulating with its old tormentor the gale; then the fierce screams of the blasts as they rush up across the layers of rock below, like hounds leaping up at their prey; and far beneath, the horrible confused battle-roar of that great leaguer of waves. He cannot see them, as he strains his eyes over the wall into the blank depth,–nothing but a confused welter and quiver of mingled air, and rain, and spray, as if the very atmosphere were writhing in the clutches of the gale: but he can hear,–what can he not hear? It would have needed a less vivid brain than Elsley’s to fancy another Badajos beneath. There it all is:–the rush of columns to the breach, officers cheering them on,–pauses, breaks, wild retreats, upbraiding calls, whispering consultations,–fresh rush on rush, now here, now there,–fierce shouts above, below, behind,–shrieks of agony, choked groans and gasps of dying men,–scaling-ladders hurled down with all their rattling freight,–dull mine-explosions, ringing cannon-thunder, as the old fortress blasts back its besiegers pell-mell into the deep. It is all there: truly enough there, at least, to madden yet more Elsley’s wild angry brain, till he tries to add his shouts to the great battle-cries of land and sea, and finds them as little audible as an infant’s wail.
Suddenly, far below him, a bright glimmer;–and, in a moment, a blue-light reveals the whole scene, in ghastly hues,–blue leaping breakers, blue weltering sheets of foam, blue rocks, crowded with blue figures, like ghosts, flitting to and fro upon the brink of that blue seething Phlegethon, and rushing up towards him through the air, a thousand flying blue foam-sponges, which dive over the brow of the hill and vanish, like delicate fairies fleeing before the wrath of the gale:–but where is the wreck? The blue-light cannot pierce the grey veil of mingled mist and spray which hangs to seaward; and her guns have been silent for half an hour and more.
Elsley hurries down, and finds half the village collected on the long sloping point of down below. Sailors wrapped in pilot-cloth, oil-skinned coast-guardsmen, women with their gowns turned over their heads, staggering restlessly up and down, and in and out, while every moment some fresh comer stumbles down the slope, thrusting himself into his clothes as he goes, and asks, “Where’s the wreck!” and gets no answer, but a surly advice to “hold his noise,” as if they had hope of hearing the wreck which they cannot see; and kind women, with their hearts full of mothers’ instincts, declare that they can hear little children crying, and are pooh-poohed down by kind men, who, man’s fashion, don’t like to believe anything too painful, or, if they believe it, to talk of it.
“What were the guns from, then, Brown?” asks the Lieutenant of the head-boatman.
“Off the Chough and Crow, I thought, sir. God grant not!”
“You thought, sir!” says the great man, willing to vent his vexation on some one. “_Why_ didn’t you make sure?”
“Why, just look, Lieutenant,” says Brown, pointing into the “blank height of the dark;” “and I was on the pier too, and couldn’t see; but the look-out man here says–” A shift of wind, a drift of cloud, and the moon flashes out a moment.–“There she is, sir!”
Some three hundred yards out at sea lies a long curved black line, beautiful, severe, and still, amid those white wild leaping hills. A murmur from the crowd, which swells into a roar, as they surge aimlessly up and down.
Another moment, and it is cut in two by a white line–covered–lost–all hold their breaths. No; the sea passes on, and still the black curve is there; enduring.
“A terrible big ship!”
“A Liverpool clipper, by the lines of her.”
“God help the poor passengers, then!” sobs a woman. “They’re past our help: she’s on her beam ends.”
“And her deck upright toward us.”
“Silence! Out of the way you loafing long-shores!” shouts the Lieutenant. “Brown–the rockets!”
What though the Lieutenant be somewhat given to strong liquors, and stronger language? He wears the Queen’s uniform; and what is more, he knows his work, and can do it; all make a silent ring while the fork is planted; the Lieutenant, throwing away the end of his cigar, kneels and adjusts the stick; Brown and his mates examine and shake out the coils of line.
Another minute, and the magnificent creature rushes forth with a triumphant roar, and soars aloft over the waves in a long stream of fire, defiant of the gale.
Is it over her? No! A fierce gust, which all but hurls the spectators to the ground; the fiery stream sweeps away to the left, in a grand curve of sparks, and drops into the sea.
“Try it again!” shouts the Lieutenant, his blood now up. “We’ll see which will beat, wind or powder.”
Again a rocket is fixed, with more allowance for the wind; but the black curve has disappeared, and he must wait awhile.
“There it is again! Fly swift and sure,” cries Elsley, “thou fiery angel of mercy, bearing the saviour-line! It may not be too late yet.”
Full and true the rocket went across her; and “three cheers for the Lieutenant!” rose above the storm.
“Silence, lads! Not so bad, though;” says he, rubbing his wet hands. “Hold on by the line, and watch for a bite, Brown.”
Five minutes pass. Brown has the line in his hand, waiting for any signal touch from the ship: but the line sways limp in the surge.
Ten minutes. The Lieutenant lights a fresh cigar, and paces up and down, smoking fiercely.
A quarter of an hour; and yet no response. The moon is shining clearly now. They can see her hatchways, the stumps of her masts, great tangles of rigging swaying and lashing down across her deck; but that delicate upper curve is becoming more ragged after every wave; and the tide is rising fast.
“There’s a pull!” shouts Brown…. “No, there ain’t … God have mercy, sir! She’s going!”
The black curve boils up, as if a mine had been sprung on board, leaps into arches, jagged peaks, black bars crossed and tangled; and then all melts away into the white seething waste; while the line floats home helplessly, as if disappointed; and the billows plunge more sullenly and sadly towards the shore, as if in remorse for their dark and reckless deed.
All is over. What shall we do now? Go home, and pray that God may have mercy on all drowning souls? Or think what a picturesque and tragical scene it was, and what a beautiful poem it will make, when we have thrown it into an artistic form, and bedizened it with conceits and analogies stolen from all heaven and earth by our own self-willed fancy?
Elsley Vavasour–through whose spectacles, rather than with my own eyes, I have been looking at the wreck, and to whose account, not to mine, the metaphors and similes of the last two pages must be laid–took the latter course; not that he was not awed, calmed, and even humbled, as he felt how poor and petty his own troubles were, compared with that great tragedy: but in his fatal habit of considering all matters in heaven and earth as bricks and mortar for the poet to build with, he considered that he had “seen enough;” as if men were sent into the world to see and not to act; and going home too excited to sleep, much more to go and kiss forgiveness to his sleeping wife, sat up all night, writing “The Wreck,” which may be (as the reviewer in “The Parthenon” asserts) an exquisite poem; but I cannot say that it is of much importance.
So the delicate genius sate that night, scribbling verses by a warm fire, and the rough Lieutenant settled himself down in his Mackintoshes, to sit out those weary hours on the bare rock, having done all that he could do, and yet knowing that his duty was, not to leave the place as long as there was a chance of saving–not a life, for that was past all hope–but a chest of clothes, or a stick of timber. There he settled himself, grumbling, yet faithful; and filled up the time with sleepy maledictions against some old admiral, who had–or had not–taken a spite to him in the West Indies thirty years before, else he would have been a post captain by now, comfortably in bed on board a crack frigate, instead of sitting all night out on a rock, like an old cormorant, etc. etc. Who knows not the woes of ancient coast-guard lieutenants?
But as it befell, Elsley Vavasour was justly punished for going home, by losing the most “poetical” incident of the whole night.
For with the coast-guardsmen many sailors stayed. There was nothing to be earned by staying: but still, who knew but they might be wanted? And they hung on with the same feeling which tempts one to linger round a grave ere the earth is filled in, loth to give up the last sight, and with it the last hope. The ship herself, over and above her lost crew, was in their eyes a person to be loved and regretted. And Gentleman Jan spoke, like a true sailor–
“Ah, poor dear! And she such a beauty, Mr. Brown; as any one might see by her lines, even that way off. Ah, poor dear!”
“And so many brave souls on board; and, perhaps, some of them not ready, Mr. Beer,” says the serious elderly chief boatman. “Eh, Captain Willis?”
“The Lord has had mercy on them, I don’t doubt.” answers the old man, in his quiet sweet voice. “One can’t but hope that he would give them time for one prayer before all was over; and having been drowned myself, Mr. Brown, three times, and taken up for dead–that is, once in Gibraltar Bay, and once when I was a total wreck in the old Seahorse, that was in the hurricane in the Indies; after that when I fell over quay-head here, fishing for bass,–why, I know well how quick the prayer will run through a man’s heart, when he’s a-drowning, and the light of conscience, too, all one’s life in one minute, like–“
“It arn’t the men I care for,” says Gentleman Jan; “they’re gone to heaven, like all brave sailors do as dies by wreck and battle: but the poor dear ship, d’ye see, Captain Willis, she ha’n’t no heaven to go to, and that’s why I feel for her so.”
Both the old men shake their heads at Jan’s doctrine, and turn the subject off.
“You’d better go home, Captain, ‘fear of the rheumatics. It’s a rough night for your years; and you’ve no call, like me.”
“I would, but my maid there; and I can’t get her home; and I can’t leave her.” And Willis points to the schoolmistress, who sits upon the flat slope of rock, a little apart from the rest, with her face resting on her hands, gazing intently out into the wild waste.
“Make her go; it’s her duty–we all have our duties. Why does her mother let her out at this time of night? I keep my maids tighter than that, I warrant.” And disciplinarian Mr. Brown makes a step towards her.
“Ah, Mr. Brown, don’t now! She’s not one of us. There’s no saying what’s going on there in her. Maybe she’s praying; maybe she sees more than we do, over the sea there.”
“What do you mean? There’s no living body in those breakers, be sure!”
“There’s more living things about on such a night than have bodies to them, or than any but such as she can see. If any one ever talked with angels, that maid does; and I’ve heard her, too; I can say I have–certain of it. Those that like may call her an innocent: but I wish I were such an innocent, Mr. Brown. I’d be nearer heaven then, here on earth, than I fear sometimes I ever shall be, even after I’m dead and gone.”
“Well, she’s a good girl, mazed or not; but look at her now! What’s she after?”
The girl had raised her head, and was pointing, with one arm stretched stiffly out toward the sea.
Old Willis went down to her, and touched her gently on the shoulder.
“Come home, my maid, then, you’ll take cold, indeed;” but she did not move or lower her arm.
The old man, accustomed to her fits of fixed melancholy, looked down under her bonnet, to see whether she was “past,” as he called it. By the moonlight he could see her great eyes steady and wide open. She motioned him away, half impatiently, and then sprang to her feet with a scream.
“A man! A man! Save him!”
As she spoke, a huge wave rolled in, and shot up the sloping end of the point in a broad sheet of foam.
And out of it struggled, on hands and knees, a human figure. He looked wildly up, and round, and then his head dropped again on his breast; and he lay clinging with outspread arms, like Homer’s polypus in the Odyssey, as the wave drained back, in a thousand roaring cataracts, over the edge of the rock.
“Save him!” shrieked she again, as twenty men rushed forward–and stopped short. The man was fully thirty yards from them: but close to him, between them and him, stretched a long ghastly crack, some ten feet wide, cutting the point across. All knew it: its slippery edge, its polished upright sides, the seething cauldrons within it; and knew, too, that the next wave would boil up from it in a hundred jets, and suck in the strongest to his doom, to fall, with brains dashed out, into a chasm from which was no return.
Ere they could nerve themselves for action, the wave had come. Up the slope it went, one half of it burying the wretched mariner, and fell over into the chasm. The other half rushed up the chasm itself, and spouted forth again to the moonlight in columns of snow, in time to meet the wave from which it had just parted, as it fell from above; and then the two boiled up, and round, and over, and swirled along the smooth rock to their very feet.
The schoolmistress took one long look; and as the wave retired, rushed after it to the very brink of the chasm, and flung herself on her knees.
“No, she’s not!” almost screamed old Willis, in mingled pride and terror, as he rushed after her. “The wave has carried him across the crack and she’s got him!” And he sprang upon her, and caught her round the waist.
“Now, if you be men!” shouted he, as the rest hurried down.
“Now, if you be men; before the next wave comes!” shouted Big Jan. “Hands together, and make a line!” And he took a grip with one hand of the old man’s waistband, and held out the other for who would to seize.
Who took it? Frank Headley, the curate, who had been watching all sadly apart, longing to do something which no one could mistake.
“Be you man enough?” asked big Jan doubtfully.
“Try,” said Frank.
“Really, you ben’t, sir,” said Jan, civilly enough. “Means no offence, sir; your heart’s stout enough, I see; but you don’t know what’ll be.” And he caught the hand of a huge fellow next him, while Frank shrank sadly back into the darkness.
Strong hand after hand was clasped, and strong knee after knee dropped almost to the rock, to meet the coming rush of water; and all who knew their business took a long breath,–they might have need of one.
It came, and surged over the man, and the girl, and up to old Willis’s throat, and round the knees of Jan and his neighbour; and then followed the returning out-draught, and every limb quivered with the strain: but when the cataract had disappeared, the chain was still unbroken.
“Saved!” and a cheer broke from all lips, save those of the girl herself; she was as senseless as he whom she had saved. They hurried her and him up the rock ere another wave could come; but they had much ado to open her hands, so firmly clenched together were they round his waist.
Gently they lifted each, and laid them on the rock; while old Willis, having recovered his breath, set to work crying like a child, to restore breath to “his maiden.”
“Run for Dr. Heale, some good Christian!” But Frank, longing to escape from a company who did not love him, and to be of some use ere the night was out, was already half-way to the village on that very errand.
However, ere the Doctor could be stirred out of his boozy slumbers, and thrust into his clothes by his wife, the schoolmistress was safe in bed at her mother’s house; and the man, weak, but alive, carried triumphantly up to Heale’s door; which having been kicked open, the sailors insisted in carrying him right upstairs, and depositing him on the best spare bed.
“If you won’t come to your patients, Doctor, your patients shall come to you. Why were you asleep in your liquors, instead of looking out for poor wratches, like a Christian? You see whether his bones be broke, and gi’un his medicines proper; and then go and see after the schoolmistress; she’m worth a dozen of any man, and a thousand of you! We’ll pay for ‘un like men; and if you don’t, we’ll break every bottle in your shop.”
To which, what between bodily fear and real good-nature, old Heale assented; and so ended that eventful night.
FLOTSOM, JETSOM, AND LAGEND.
About nine o’clock the next morning, Gentleman Jan strolled into Dr. Heale’s surgery, pipe in mouth, with an attendant satellite; for every lion, poor as well as rich,–in country as in town, must needs have his jackal.
Heale’s surgery–or, in plain English, shop–was a doleful hole enough; in such dirt and confusion as might be expected from a drunken occupant, with a practice which was only not decaying because there was no rival in the field. But monopoly made the old man, as it makes most men, all the more lazy and careless; and there was not a drug on his shelves which could be warranted to work the effect set forth in that sanguine and too trustful book, the Pharmacopoeia, which, like Mr. Pecksniff’s England, expects every man to do his duty, and is, accordingly (as the Lancet and Dr. Letheby know too well), grievously disappointed.
In this kennel of evil savours, Heale was slowly trying to poke things into something like order; and dragging out a few old drugs with a shaky hand, to see if any one would buy them, in a vague expectation that something must needs have happened to somebody the night before, which would require somewhat of his art.
And he was not disappointed. Gentleman Jan, without taking his pipe out of his mouth, dropped his huge elbows on the counter, and his black-fringed chin on his fists; took a look round the shop, as if to find something which would suit him; and then–
“I say, Doctor, gi’s some tackleum.”
“Some diachylum plaster, Mr. Beer?” says Heale, meekly. “What for, then?”
“To tackle my shins. I barked ’em cruel against King Arthur’s nose last night. Hard in the bone he is;–wish I was as hard.”
“How much diachylum will you want, then, Mr. Beer?”
“Well, I don’t know. Let’s see!” and Jan pulls up his blue trousers, and pulls down his grey rig and furrows, and considers his broad and shaggy shins.
“Matter of four pennies broad: two to each leg;” and then replaces his elbows, and smokes on.
“I say, Doctor, that ‘ere curate come out well last night. I shall go to church next Sunday.”
“What,” asks the satellite, “after you upset he that fashion yesterday?”
“I don’t care what you thinks;” says Jan, who, of course, bullies his jackal, like most lions: “but I goes to church. He’s a good ‘un, say I,–little and good, like a Welshman’s cow; and clapped me on the back when we’d got the man and the maid safe, and says,–‘Well done our side, old fellow!’ and stands something hot all round, what’s more, in at the Mariner’s Rest.–I say, Doctor, where’s he as we hauled ashore? I’ll go up and see ‘un.”
“Not now, then, Mr. Beer; not now, then. He’s sleeping, indeed he is, like any child.”
“So much the better. We wain’t be bothered with his hollering. But go up I will. Do ye let me now; I’ll be as still as a maid.”
And Jan kicked off his shoes, and marched on tip-toe through the shop, while Dr. Heale, moaning professional ejaculations, showed him the way.
The shipwrecked man was sleeping sweetly; and little was to be seen of his face, so covered was it with dark tangled curls and thick beard.
“Ah! a ‘Stralian digger, by the beard of him, and his red jersey,” whispered Jan, as he bent tenderly over the poor fellow, and put his head on one side to listen to his breathing. “Beautiful he sleeps, to be sure!” said Jan: “and a tidy-looking chap, too. ‘Tis a pity to wake ‘un, poor wratch; and he, perhaps, with a sweetheart aboard, and drownded; or else all his kit lost.–Let ‘un sleep so long as he can: he’ll find all out soon enough, God help him!”
And big Jan stole down the stairs gently and reverently, like a true sailor; and took his diachylum, and went off to plaster his shins.
About ten minutes afterwards, Heale was made aware that his guest was awake, “by sundry grunts and ejaculations, which ended in a series of long and doleful whistles, and then broke out into a song. So he went up, and found the stranger sitting upright in bed, combing his curls with his fingers, and chaunting unto himself a cheerful ditty.
“Good morning, Doctor,” quoth he, as his host entered. “Very kind of you, this. Hope I haven’t turned a better man than myself out of his bed.”
“Delighted to see you so well. Very near drowned, though. We were pumping at your lungs for a full half hour.”
“Ah? nothing, though, for an experienced professional man like you!”
“Hum! speaks well for your discrimination,” says Heale, flattered. “Very well-spoken young person, though his beard is a bit wild.–How did you know, then, that I was a doctor?”
“By the reverend looks of you, sir. Besides, I smelt the rhubarb and senna all the way up-stairs, and knew that I’d fallen among professional brethren;–
“‘Oh, then this valiant mariner,
Which sailed across the sea,
He came home to his own sweetheart, With his heart so full of glee;
With his heart so full of glee, sir, And his pockets full of gold,
And his bag of drugget, with many a nugget, As heavy as he could hold.’
“Don’t you wish yours was, Doctor?”
“Eh, eh, eh,” sniggered Heale.
“Mine was last night. Now, Doctor, let’s have a glass of brandy-and-water, hot with, and an hour’s more sleep; and then kick me out, and into the workhouse. Was anybody else saved from the wreck last night?”
“Nobody, sir,” said Heale; and said “sir,” because, in spite of the stranger’s rough looks, his accent,–or rather, his no-accent,–showed him that he had fallen in with a very different, and probably a very superior stamp of man to himself; in the light of which conviction (and being withal a good-natured old soul), he went down and mixed him a stiff glass of brandy-and water, answering his wife’s remonstrances by–
“The party up-stairs is a bit of a frantic party, certainly; but he is certainly a very superior party, and has the true gentleman about him, any one can see. Besides, he’s shipwrecked, as you and I may be any day; and what’s like brandy-and-water?”
“I should like to know when I’m like to be shipwrecked, or you either;” says Mrs. Heale, in a tone slightly savouring of indignation and contempt. “You think of nothing but brandy-and-water.” But she let the doctor take the glass upstairs, nevertheless.
A few minutes afterwards, Frank came in, and inquired for the shipwrecked man.
“Well enough in body, sir; and rather requires your skill than mine,” said the old time-server. “Won’t you walk up?”
So up Frank was shown.
The stranger was sitting up in bed. “Capital, your brandy is, Doctor,–Ah, sir,” seeing Frank, “it is very kind of you, I am sure, to call on me! I presume you are the clergyman?”
But before Frank could answer, Heale had broken forth into loud praises of him, setting forth how the stranger owed his life entirely to his superhuman strength and courage.
“‘Pon my word, sir,” said the stranger,–looking them both over and over, through and through, as if to settle how much of all this he was to believe,–“I am deeply indebted to you for your gallantry. I only wish it had been employed on a better subject.”
“My good sir,” said Frank, blushing, “you owe your life not to me. I would have helped if I could; but was not thought worthy by our sons of Anak here. Your actual preserver was a young girl.”
And Frank told him the story.
“Whew! I hope she won’t expect me to marry her as payment.–Handsome?”
“Beautiful,” said Frank.
“The village schoolmistress.”
“A sort of half-baked body,” said Heale.
“A very puzzling intellect,” said Frank
“Ah–well–that’s a fair excuse for declining the honour. I can’t be expected to marry a frantic party, as you called me down stairs just now, Doctor.”
“Yes, I heard; no offence, though, my good sir,–but I’ve the ears of a fox. I hope really, though, that she is none the worse for her heroic flights.”
“How is she this morning, Mr. Heale?”
“Well–poor thing, a little light-headed last night: but kindly when I went in last.”
“Whew! I hope she has not fallen in love with me. She may fancy me her property–a private waif and stray. Better send for the Coast-guard officer, and let him claim me as belonging to the Admiralty, as flotsom, jetsom, and lagend; for I was all three last night.”
“You were, indeed, sir,” said Frank, who began to be a little tired of this levity; “and very thankful to Heaven you ought to be.”
Frank spake this in a somewhat professional tone of voice; at which the stranger arched his eyebrows, screwed his lips up, and laid his ears back, like a horse when he meditates a kick,
“You must be better acquainted with my affairs than I am, my dear sir, if you are able to state that fact.–Doctor! I hear a patient coming into the surgery.”
“Extraordinary power of hearing, to be sure,” said Heale, toddling down stairs, while the stranger went on, looking Frank full in the face.
“Now that old fogy’s gone down stairs, my dear sir, let us come to an understanding at the beginning of our acquaintance. Of course, you’re bound by your cloth to say that sort of thing to me, just as I am bound by it not to swear in your company: but you’ll allow me to remark, that it would be rather trying even to your faith, if you were to be thrown ashore with nothing in the world but an old jersey and a bag of tobacco, two hundred miles short of the port where you hoped to land with fifteen hundred well-earned pounds in your pocket.”
“My dear sir,” said Frank, after a pause, “whatsoever comes from our Father’s hand must be meant in love. ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.'”
A quaint wince passed over the stranger’s face.
“Father, sir? That fifteen hundred pounds was going to my father’s hand, from whosesoever hand it came, or the loss of it. And now what is to become of the poor old man, that hussy Dame Fortune only knows–if she knows her own mind an hour together, which I very much doubt. I worked early and late for that money, sir; up to my knees in mud and water. Let it be enough for your lofty demands on poor humanity, that I take my loss like a man, with a whistle and a laugh, instead of howling and cursing over it like a baboon. Let’s talk of something else; and lend me five pounds, and a suit of clothes. I shan’t run away with them, for as I’ve been thrown ashore here, here I shall stay.”
Frank almost laughed at the free and easy request, though he felt at once pained by the man’s irreligion, and abashed by his Stoicism;–would he have behaved even as well in such a case?
“I have not five pounds in the world.”
“Good! we shall understand each other better.”
“But the suit of clothes you shall have at once.”
“Good again! Let it be your oldest; for I must do a little rock-scrambling here, for purposes of my own.”
So off went Frank to fetch the clothes, puzzling over his new parishioner. The man was not altogether well bred, either in voice or manner; but there was an ease, a confidence, a sense of power, which made Frank feel that he had fallen in with a very strong nature; and one which had seen many men, and many lands, and profited by what it had seen.
When he returned, he found the stranger busy at his ablutions, and gradually appearing as a somewhat dapper, handsome fellow, with a bright grey eye, a short nose, a firm, small mouth, a broad and upright forehead, across the left side of which ran a fearful scar.
“That’s a shrewd mark,” said he, as he caught Frank’s eye fixed on it, while he sat coolly arranging himself on the bedside. “I got it in fair fight, though, by a Crow’s tomahawk in the Rocky Mountains. And here’s another token (lifting up his black curls), which a Greek robber gave me in the Morea. I’ve another under my head, for which I have to thank a Tartar, and one or two more little remembrances of flood and field up and down me. Perhaps they may explain to you why I take life and death so coolly. I’ve looked too often at the little razor-bridge which parts them, to care much for either. Now, don’t let me trouble you any longer. You have your flock to see to, I don’t doubt. You’ll find me at church on Sunday. I always do at Rome as Rome does.”
“Then you will stay away,” said Frank, with a sad smile.
“Ah? No. Church is respectable and aristocratic; and there one don’t get sent to a place unmentionable, ten times an hour, by some inspired tinker. Beside, country people like the Doctor to go to church with their betters; and the very fellows who go to the Methodist meeting themselves would think it _infra dig._ in me to walk in there. Now, good-bye–though I haven’t introduced myself–not knowing the name of my kind preserver.”
“My name is Frank Headley, Curate of the Parish,” said Frank, smiling: though he saw the man was rattling on for the purpose of preventing his talking on serious matters.
“And mine is Tom Thurnall, F.R.C.S., Licentiate of the Universities of Paris, Glasgow, and whilome surgeon of the good clipper Hesperus, which you saw wrecked last night. So, farewell!”
“Come over with me, and have some breakfast.”
“No, thanks; you’ll be busy. I’ll screw some out of old bottles here.”
“And now,” said Tom Thurnall to himself, as Frank left the room, “to begin life again with an old penknife and a pound of honeydew. I wonder which of them got my girdle. I’ll stick here till I find out that one thing, and stop the notes by to-day’s post if I can but recollect them all;–if I could but stop the nugget, too!”
So saying, he walked down into the surgery, and looked round. Everything was in confusion. Cobwebs were over the bottles, and armies of mites played at bo-peep behind them. He tried a few drawers, and found that they stuck fast; and when he at last opened one, its contents were two old dried-up horse-balls, and a dirty tobacco-pipe. He took down a jar marked Epsom salts, and found it full of Welsh snuff; the next, which was labelled cinnamon, contained blue vitriol. The spatula and pill-roller were crusted with deposits of every hue. The pill-box drawer had not a dozen whole boxes in it; and the counter was a quarter of an inch deep in deposit of every vegetable and mineral matter, including ends of string, tobacco ashes, and broken glass.
Tom took up a dirty duster, and set to work coolly to clear up, whistling away so merrily that he brought in Heale.
“I’m doing a little in the way of business, you see.”
“Then you really are a professional practitioner, sir, as Mr. Headley informs me: though, of course, I don’t doubt the fact?” said Heale, summoning up all the little courage he had, to ask the question with.
“F.R.C.S. London, Paris, and Glasgow. Easy enough to write and ascertain the fact. Have been medical officer to a poor-law union, and to a Brazilian man-of-war. Have seen three choleras, two army fevers, and yellow-jack without end. Have doctored gunshot wounds in the two Texan wars, in one Paris revolution, and in the Schleswig-Holstein row; beside accident practice in every country from California to China, and round the world and back again. There’s a fine nest of Mr. Weekes’s friend (if not creation), Acarus Horridus,” and Tom went on dusting and arranging.
Heale had been fairly taken aback by the imposing list of acquirements, and looked at his guest awhile with considerable awe: suddenly a suspicion flashed across him, which caused him (not unseen by Tom) a start and a look of self-congratulatory wisdom. He next darted out of the shop, and returned as rapidly, rather redder about the eyes, and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“But, sir, though, though”–began he–“but, of course you will allow me, being a stranger–and as a man of business–all I have to say is, if–that is to say–“
“You want to know why, if I’ve had all these good businesses, why I haven’t kept them?”
“Ex–actly,” stammered Heale much relieved.
“A very sensible and business-like question: but you needn’t have been so delicate about asking it as to want a screw before beginning.”
“Ah, you’re a wag, sir,” keckled the old man,
“I’ll tell you frankly; I have an old father, sir,–a gentleman, and a scholar, and a man of science; once in as good a country practice as man could have, till, God help him, he went blind, sir–and I had to keep him, and have still. I went over the world to make my fortune and never made it; and sent him home what I did make, and little enough too. At last, in my despair, I went to the diggings, and had a pretty haul–I needn’t say how much. That matters little now; for I suppose it’s at the bottom of the sea. There’s my story, sir, and a poor one enough it is,–for the dear old man, at least.” And Tom’s voice trembled so as he told it, that old Heale believed every word, and, what is more, being–like most hard drinkers–not “unused to the melting mood,” wiped his eyes fervently, and went off for another drop of comfort; while Tom dusted and arranged on, till the shop began to look quite smart and business-like.
“Now, sir!”–when the old man came back–“business is business, and beggars must not be choosers. I don’t want to meddle with your practice; I know the rules of the profession: but if you’ll let me sit here and mix your medicines for you, you’ll have the more time to visit your patients, that’s clear,”–and, perhaps (thought he), to drink your brandy-and-water,–“and when any of them are poisoned by me, it will be time to kick me out. All I ask is, bed and board. Don’t be frightened for your spirit-bottle, I can drink water; I’ve done it many a time, for a week together, in the prairies, and been thankful for a half-pint in the day.”
“But, sir, your dignity as a–“
“Fiddlesticks for dignity; I must live, sir. Only lend me a couple of sheets of paper and two queen’s heads, that I may tell my friends my whereabouts,–and go and talk it over with Mrs. Heale. We must never act without consulting the ladies.”
That day Tom sent off the following epistle:–
“_To_ CHARLES SHUTER, Esq., M.D, _St. Mumpsimus’s Hospital, London_.
“‘I do adjure thee, by old pleasant days, Quartier Latin, and neatly-shod grisettes By all our wanderings in quaint by-ways, By ancient frolics, and by ancient debts,’
“Go to the United Bank of Australia forthwith, and stop the notes whose numbers–all, alas! which I can recollect–are enclosed. Next, lend me five pounds. Next, send me down, as quick as possible, five pounds’ worth of decent drugs, as per list; and–if you can borrow me one–a tolerable microscope, and a few natural history books, to astound the yokels here with: for I was shipwrecked here last night, after all at a dirty little west-country port, and what’s worse, robbed of all I had made at the diggings, and start fair, once more, to run against cruel Dame Fortune, as Colston did against the Indians, without a shirt to my back. Don’t be a hospitable fellow, and ask me to come up and camp with you. Mumpsimus’s and all old faces would be a great temptation: but here I must stick till I hear of my money, and physic the natives for my daily bread.”
To his father he wrote thus, not having the heart to tell the truth:–
“_To_ EDWARD THURNALL, Esq., M.D., _Whitbury_.
“My Dearest Old Father–I hope to see you again in a few weeks, as soon as I have settled a little business here, where I have found a capital opening for a medical man. Meanwhile let Mark or Mary write and tell me how you are–and for sending you every penny I can spare, trust me. I have not had all the luck I expected; but am as hearty as a bull, and as merry as a cricket, and fall on my legs, as of old, like a cat. I long to come to you; but I mustn’t yet. It is near three years since I had a sight of that blessed white head, which is the only thing I care for under the sun, except Mark and little Mary–big Mary I suppose she is now, and engaged to be married to some ‘bloated aristocrat.’ Best remembrances to old Mark Armsworth.
“Your affectionate son,
“Mr. Heale,” said Tom next, “are we Whigs or Tories here?”
“Why–ahem, sir, my Lord Scoutbush, who owns most hereabouts, and my Lord Minchampstead, who has bought Carcarrow moors above,–very old Whig connections, both of them; but Mr. Trebooze, of Trebooze, he, again, thorough-going Tory–very good patient he was once, and may be again–ha! ha! Gay young man, sir–careless of his health; so you see as a medical man, sir–“
“Which is the liberal paper? This one? Very good.” And Tom wrote off to the liberal paper that evening a letter, which bore fruit ere the week’s end, in the shape of five columns, headed thus:–
WRECK OF THE “HESPERUS.”
“The following detailed account of this lamentable catastrophe has been kindly contributed by the graphic pen of the only survivor, Thomas Thurnall, Esquire, F.R.C.S., &c. &c. &c., late surgeon on board the ill-fated vessel.” Which five columns not only put a couple of guineas into Tom’s pocket, but, as he intended they should, brought him before the public as an interesting personage, and served as a very good advertisement to the practice which Tom had already established in fancy.
Tom had not worked long, however, before the Coast-guard Lieutenant bustled in. He had trotted home to shave and get his breakfast, and was trotting back again to the shore.
“Hillo, Heale! can I see the fellow who was saved last night?”
“I am that fellow,” says Tom.
“The dickens you are! you seem to have fallen on your legs quickly enough.”
“It’s a trick I’ve had occasion to learn, sir,” says Tom. “Can I prescribe for you this morning?”
“Medicine?” roars the Lieutenant, laughing. “Catch me at it! No; I want you to come down to the shore, and help to identify goods and things. The wind has chopped up north, and is blowing dead on; and, with this tide, we shall have a good deal on shore. So, if you’re strong enough–“
“I’m always strong enough to do my duty,” said Tom.
“Hum! Very good sentiment, young man. Always strong enough for duty.–Hum! worthy of Nelson; said pretty much the same, didn’t he? something about duty I know it was, and always thought it uncommon fine.–Now, then, what can you tell me about this business?”
It was a sad story; but no sadder than hundreds beside. They had been struck by the gale to the westward two days before, with the wind south; had lost their foretopmast and boltsprit, and become all but unmanageable; had tried during a lull to rig a jury-mast, but were prevented by the gale, which burst on them with fresh fury from the south-west, with very heavy rain and fog; had passed a light in the night, which they took for Scilly, but which must have been the Longships; had still fancied that they were safe, running up Channel with a wide berth, when, about sunset, the gale had chopped again to north-west;–and Tom knew no more. “I was standing on the poop with the captain about ten o’clock. The last words he said to me were,–‘If this lasts, we shall see Brest harbour to-morrow,’ when she struck, and stopped dead. I was chucked clean off the poop, and nearly overboard; but brought up in the mizen rigging. Where the captain went, poor fellow, Heaven alone knows; for I never saw him after. The mainmast went like a carrot. The mizen stood. I ran round to the cabin-doors. There were four men steering; the wheel had broke out of the poor fellows’ hands, and knocked them over,–broken their limbs, I believe. I was stooping to pick them up, when a sea came into the waist, and then aft, washing me in through the saloon-doors, among the poor half-dressed women and children. Queer sight, Lieutenant! I’ve seen a good many, but never worse than that. I bolted to my cabin, tied my notes and gold round me, and out again.”
“Didn’t desert the poor things?”
“Couldn’t if I’d tried; they clung to me like a swarm of bees. ‘Gad, sir, that was hard lines! to have all the pretty women one had waltzed with every evening through the Trades, and the little children one had been making playthings for, holding round one’s knees, and screaming to the doctor to save them. And how the —- was I to save them, sir?” cried Tom, with a sudden burst of feeling, which, as in so many Englishmen, exploded in anger to avoid melting in tears.
“Ought to be a law against it, sir,” growled the Lieutenant; “against women-folk and children going to sea. It’s murder and cruelty. I’ve been wrecked, scores of times; but it was with honest men, who could shift for themselves, and if they were drowned, drowned; but didn’t screech and catch hold–I couldn’t stand that! Well?”
“Well, there was a pretty little creature, an officer’s widow, and two children. I caught her under one arm, and one of the children under the other;–said ‘I can’t take you all at once; I’ll come back for the rest, one by one.’–Not that I believed it; but anything to stop the screaming; and I did hope to put some of them out of the reach of the sea, if I could get them forward. I knew the forecastle was dry, for the chief officer was firing there. You heard him?”
“Yes, five or six times; and then he stopped suddenly.”
“He had reason.–We got out. I could see her nose up in the air forty feet above us, covered with fore-cabin passengers. I warped the lady and the children upward–Heaven knows how; for the sea was breaking over us very sharp–till we were at the mainmast stump, and holding on by the wreck of it. I felt the ship stagger as if a whale had struck her, and heard a roar and a swish behind me, and looked back–just in time to see mizen, and poop, and all the poor women and children in it, go bodily, as if they had been shaved off with a knife. I suppose that altered her balance; for before I could turn again she dived forward, and then rolled over upon her beam ends to leeward, and I saw the sea walk in over her from stem to stern like one white wall, and I was washed from my hold, and it was all over.”
“What became of the lady?”
“I saw a white thing flash by to leeward,–what’s the use of asking?”
“But the child you held?”
“I didn’t let it go till there was good reason.”
Tom tapped the points of his fingers smartly against the side of his head, and then went on, in the same cynical drawl, which he had affected throughout–
“I heard that–against a piece of timber as we went overboard And, as a medical man, I considered after that, that I had done my duty. Pretty little boy it was, just six years old: and such a fancy for drawing.”
The Lieutenant was quite puzzled by Tom’s seeming nonchalance.
“What do you mean, sir? Did you leave the child to perish?”
“Confound you, sir! If you will have plain English, here it is. I tell you I heard the child’s skull crack like an egg-shell! There, let’s talk no more about it, or the whole matter. It’s a bad business, and I’m not answerable for it, or you either; so let’s go and do what we are answerable for, and identify–“
“Sir! you will be so good as to recollect,” said the Lieutenant, with ruffled plumes.
“I do; I do! I beg your pardon a thousand times, I’m sure, for being so rude: but you know as well as I, sir, there are a good many things in the world which won’t stand too much thinking over; and last night was one.”
“Very true, very true; but how did you get ashore?”
“I get ashore? Oh, well enough! Why not?”
“‘Gad, sir, you were near enough being drowned at last; only that girl’s pluck saved you.”
“Well; but it did save me: and here I am, as I knew I should be when I first struck out from the ship.”
“Knew!–that is a bold word for mortal man at sea.”
“I suppose it is: but we doctors, you see, get into the way of looking at things as men of science; and the ground of science is experience; and, to judge from experience, it takes more to kill me than I have yet met with. If I had been going to be snuffed out, it would have happened long ago.”
“Hum! It’s well to carry a cheerful heart; but the pitcher goes often to the well, and comes home broken at last.”
“I must be a gutta-percha pitcher, I think, then, or else–
“‘There’s a sweet little cherub who sits up aloft,’ etc.
as Dibdin has it. Now, look at the facts yourself, sir,” continued the stranger, with a recklessness half true, half assumed to escape from the malady of thought. “I don’t want to boast, sir; I only want to show you that I have some practical reason for wearing as my motto–‘Never say die.’ I have had the cholera twice, and yellow-jack beside: five several times I have had bullets through me; I have been bayoneted and left for dead; I have been shipwrecked three times–and once, as now, I was the only man who escaped; I have been fatted by savages for baking and eating, and got away with a couple of friends only a day or two before the feast. One really narrow chance I had, which I never expected to squeeze through: but, on the whole, I have taken full precautions to prevent its recurrence.”
“What was that, then?”
“I have been hanged, sir,” said the doctor quietly.
“Hanged?” cried the Lieutenant, facing round upon his strange companion with a visage which asked plainly enough–“You hanged? I don’t believe you; and if you have been hanged, what have you been doing to get hanged?”
“You need not take care of your pockets, sir,–neither robbery nor murder was it which brought me to the gallows; but innocent bug-hunting. The fact is, I was caught by a party of Mexicans, during the last war, straggling after plants and insects, and hanged as a spy. I don’t blame the fellows: I had no business where I was; and they could not conceive that a man would risk his life for a few butterflies.”
“But if you were hanged, sir–“
“Why did I not die?–By my usual luck. The fellows were clumsy, and the noose would not work; so that the Mexican doctor, who meant to dissect me, brought me round again; and being a freemason, as I am, stood by me,–got me safe off, and cheated the devil.”
The worthy Lieutenant walked on in silence, stealing furtive glances at Tom, as if he had been a guest from the other world, but not disbelieving his story in the least. He had seen, as most old navy men, so many strange things happen, that he was prepared to give credit to any tale when told, as Tom’s was, with a straightforward and unboastful simplicity.
“There lives the girl who saved you,” said he, as they passed Grace Harvey’s door.
“Ah? I ought to call and pay my respects.”
But Grace was not at home. The wreck had emptied the school; and Grace had gone after her scholars to the beach.