ON THE HILL
FELLOW OF ST. CATHARINE’S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE
AUTHOR OF ‘RONALD AND I’
“Some falls are means the happier to arise.”
—Cymbeline, iv. 2 ad fin
DEIGHTON BELL & CO.
LONDON GEORGE BELL & SONS
“A soul she had on earth.”
“The more I learn to know man, the better I like dogs.”
To those, I think a lessening number, who may find themselves at variance with “my Rector’s” theology, I tender the following quotation from one of the ablest and deepest thinkers of the past century:
“If, instead of the ‘glad tidings’ that there exists a Being in whom all the excellences which the highest human mind can conceive exist in a degree inconceivable to us, I am informed that the world is ruled by a Being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, nor what are the principles of his government, except that ‘the highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving’ does not sanction them; convince me of it, and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this Being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say in plain terms I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures.”—J. S. Mill, Examination of Sir W. Hamilton’s Philosophy, pp. 102, 103 (Criticism of Mansel).
That the Bible is our one and only true guide, we believe; but we are nowhere instructed to make an idol and a fetish of the form in which it is presented. It was written to suit all times; we must read it in the language of to-day.
In the controversy between the Squire and himself the Rector is by no means guiltless of plagiarism. Ford, who knew Spain as intimately as an Englishman can ever know it, advances the self-same arguments in his comments on the national sport.
A word more and I have done. It is reported on good authority that one of our greatest divines—the author of ‘Butler’s Analogy’—held a confident belief in the re-existence of animals. They share our doom of suffering and death: why not our promise of happiness beyond? They have done nothing to forfeit their reward.
Riverdale and I—to wit one Harold Stirling by name—had been close friends almost since life began, at our private school, our public school, and again at college. And we were meeting now for the last time as undergraduates in Riverdale’s rooms at Cambridge. For the choice that comes, once at any rate in a lifetime, to all, had come to us, and we had chosen divergent, to some it would appear antagonistic, careers.
To judge from his personal appearance, Riverdale at any rate had chosen wisely for himself when he elected to become an artist. Smoking at p. 2his ease, in a picturesque environment of flowers and ferns, pictures and statuettes, he looked like what he was—a well-to-do indolent dreamer, who might possibly succeed as a painter, but would never make much of life in any other line. Fortunately for him he had no need to trouble himself about the future. A kindly fate had settled all this in advance, when his only surviving relative, an uncle, had made him a comfortable allowance of a thousand a year, adding the still more comfortable assurance that the family estate of Riverdale should be his when the time came that he himself should have no further use for it.
Study him, as the glow from a reading-lamp falls full on his features, and you will say that his personality is concentrated in his eyes. Sapphire blue they would have been called by a casual observer, but it always seemed to me that they held in them a deeper tint, as of violet or purple. p. 3But whatever their colour, they are about as rare in humanity as is a blue rose or a green chrysanthemum among the creations of the floral world. Not that they betoken much character, I think. It is simply their beauty, and perhaps their rarity, that constitutes the attraction. At any rate, veiled by long lashes, and set in Italian features, as was the case with Riverdale, it is impossible to hold them indicative of energy or activity in life.
It was a strange coincidence that had made bosom friends of two natures so antagonistic, to all appearance, as Riverdale’s and mine. But it was a coincidence that occurs oftener than would at first sight seem possible. Perhaps it is explicable by the well-known theory that every character is on the search for its complement. If so, it may well be that my own sturdy directness found its natural relaxation in the captivating indifferentism of my friend. Anyhow, the companionship had p. 4begun early at school, where a mutual admiration for one’s opposite is often the secret of a lifelong friendship. And as Riverdale’s good looks and careless insouciance had always been found irresistible, it was my own commonplace personality that was envied by my schoolfellows for the dignity it had acquired by his friendship.
And now that I have given you an idea of my friend, let me for once attempt the impossible and try to describe myself. An athlete I think I may call myself, for I have raced and rowed and played cricket and football ever since I was a boy of ten—of the type which is welcomed in all our schools as the recognised trainer of youth. Not so very plain, I hope, and certainly well set up in the way of muscles and sinews. But quite as certainly not in any way striking like Riverdale, and without the faintest pretension to anything remarkable in the direction of beauty. Finally, and to complete p. 5the portrait, fair in complexion, with blue eyes and a slight tendency to freckles, which I abominate. In all respects a worthy foil to Riverdale’s dreamy picturesqueness.
Left an orphan at an early date, with a comfortable income of £300 a year, I had never known the want of money, though I had no large balance to waste on the luxuries that had become necessaries to my friend. Without any real talent, and notwithstanding my devotion to athletics, I had taken a fair degree, and learned something of theology under the guidance of one of the leading minds at Cambridge. Only as yet I had come to no conclusions outside the main doctrines of our faith; and to what end my views were shaping themselves I had never paused on my way to consider. Experience and circumstances, as they developed themselves, would, I supposed, answer the question, and, having been confronted as yet p. 6by no definite difficulties, I had not troubled to bethink me how I should meet them.
“And now tell me, Eric,” I asked, “where are all the Cupids and Psyches and Fauns to go while you are painting dusky Venetians and the fair-haired beauties of Genoa?”
“Oh, I’ve taken a flat, Harold, in a house overlooking Battersea Park, and they’ll all be transferred there as soon as I am off to-morrow. By the way, you must look in on them now and then, and see that they are all right. And you must have that little gladiator I brought from Rome for yourself. It would never do to separate you, for I’m sure you’d never be happy without him. Rather like you, I think he is, with his steady sturdy gaze, as if he knew he had a tough business before him, but intended to make the best of it, and worry through. Lucky we weren’t born in each other’s shoes, any way for me, Harold. I p. 7couldn’t have faced life without funds, but should have drifted down and down till I ended the business with a dose of morphia.”
“What nonsense, Eric. I do wish you wouldn’t cheapen yourself like that. You’ve talent enough for both of us, and will be exhibiting in the Academy while I’m a country curate, and a poor one at that. By the way, if you don’t mind, I’d sooner have that Antinous than the gladiator. I don’t particularly want a replica of myself, if it’s all the same to you, while you might have posed for the Antinous, if you’d been handy; and it will be better than nothing to have it to look at when I haven’t got the original on the other side of the table. And now, old friend, good-bye. It’s past twelve already, and I’ve all my packing to do before the morning. For I shall be off long before a sybarite like you thinks of stirring. Let me hear from you now and then, and don’t let the p. 8foreign signoras and Roman models steal all your heart from me.”
The next day we had parted; he to enjoy life and study art in all the best galleries on the continent, and I to prepare myself for Ordination in a quiet village of the West.
It was a cheerful scene on which my eye rested as I looked out upon it from the Rector’s study, while awaiting my introduction to the Rector himself. Two large bay windows opened on a terrace, from which a short flight of steps led down to a lawn, fringed with gaily-coloured flower beds. Through the open windows streamed into the room a veritable flood of light and air, creating an atmosphere in which sadness and depression would have been hopelessly out of place.
“Impossible,” I murmured, “to write a gloomy Calvinistic sermon in a room like this, though it’s strange, by the way, that his letters should have told me nothing of his views.”
p. 10The emerald lawn in the foreground contrasted pleasantly with the violet haze that rested on the far horizon, and the very air itself seemed steeped in quiet and repose. Only the song of birds and the mysterious hum of insect-life broke the stillness of the summer day, to which the chafing of a trout stream, as it murmured over its rocky bed at the foot of the Rectory garden, sounded a soft accompaniment.
And out past the Rectory grounds, past the cheery meadow-land beyond, where reaping was now in progress, I caught a glimpse of the far off sea and the Isle of Portland lying on the line of the horizon, with a delicate veil of summer gauze folded about its head. The charm of it all wove a spell upon me like a dream.
“If the Rector is as nice as his Rectory, I shall have a pleasant time of it,” I said to myself. And the next moment the unspoken thought was p. 11answered in the affirmative, for I felt my hand warmly grasped by the gentlest-looking and most benevolent of men. And my heart went out to him on the instant, as to one whose help and guidance I knew would never fail me, even when my work under him should be ended, and, whether for good or evil, laid behind me among the retrospects of life.
“Yes, you’ll do,” he said, after studying me keenly for half-a-minute with eyes that pierced me through and through. “You look as if you’d work hard in the right way, and make friends with my villagers and parishioners. They are a queer lot—to be led, not driven. Above all, you look as if you had no foolish fads or fancies—the only things I can’t tolerate when there is so much real work to be done. And you’ll be content to do it closely on the lines laid down for us all in the Sermon on the Mount, before Christianity, as p. 12Christ left it, had lost its identity among a crowd of sects and superstitions. By the way, you must have been surprised, I imagine, that I asked no questions in my letters as to your opinions, and gave you no hints about my own.
“The fact is,” he continued, “I care more for what a man does than for what he thinks, and if you will look after my cottagers, soul and body—beginning with the body first—you and I will get on well together, no matter what opinions you hold on all the open questions of the day. Of course I don’t use the term ‘open’ of anything plainly taught us in the Gospel narrative and the precepts of our Church. Though even the latter, as it seems to me, might have been conceived in a somewhat wider spirit without being wide enough to embrace the Christianity of Christ. And for this reason I am altogether opposed to commissions and enquiries of any kind that might impose p. 13still further limits and restrictions where He Himself has made none. What are wanted for the Church are active energetic workmen, and the wider the doors are thrown open the more of them we shall get for the work. Think what missionary effort itself could accomplish if all its labourers were content to waive, one and all of them, their private specifics, and preach only the clear unquestioned truths which the Master Himself has sanctioned.
“On all questions but these you may hold what theories you will—that the world was created in six days or in six times as many millions of years; that the Old Testament miracles were literal facts, or allegories for the suggestion of much-needed truths. And you may hold, if you will, that no creature that has life will perish. We are told, are we not? that He ‘will save both man and beast,’ which means, if its means anything, that p. 14other creatures besides man will have a portion in the future state.
“But think well and carefully before you teach an Eternity of Punishment. The responsibility of doing so is far too grave to be carelessly incurred in the light of a wider and clearer-sighted knowledge. Almost it seems that the guess which Charlotte Brontë hazarded in the mouth of one of her characters will before long have crystallized into doctrine: ‘No; I cannot believe that. I hold another creed, which no one ever taught me, and which I never mention, but in which I delight, and to which I cling, for it extends hope to all; it makes eternity a rest—a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss.’
“Above all things, do not confuse your mind and paralyse your energies with the question, so all-engrossing now-a-days, of the co-existence of good and evil, of joy and sorrow, in the world, p. 15which is after all no mystery at all. Or, if there be a mystery, surely it lies in the fact that anyone should have thought a world of infinite perfection possible. Why, the fallacy was refuted by Plato himself, to whom it was a self-evident truth that the creations of The Infinite must needs be finite and imperfect: in other words, not ‘infinitely’ but only ‘very’ good.
“Limitation, imperfection and (by consequence) evil, with their natural development in sin and suffering and death, were the inevitable portion of created life, but accompanied (thank heaven!) with a birthright of possibilities for good, that, rightly used here and hereafter, shall make us worthy of association, at the last perhaps of union, with the Infinite Itself.
“Forgive me if my sermon has wearied you. I can at any rate summarise it in brief. Teach mainly what has come to us directly p. 16from our Master’s lips—first and foremost, the paramount duty of unselfishness; it embodies the whole duty of man to man, and a part at least of his duty to his Creator. And remember that those who came after Him were after all but men, not exempt from the bias of inclination and judgment, who sometimes (it is quite possible) may have obscured where they thought to enlighten. To be followed therefore with all care and caution whenever they defined or limited what He left wide enough to embrace the world.
“Of course you will dine with me to-night,” he added cheerily, “and I’ll try to make amends for the penance I have inflicted on you. Besides, I want your opinion on the trout from the Rectory stream.”
Like his brother at the Manor House hard by, my Rector, Mr. Richardson, was a widower, having lost his wife only six months before my arrival. His family was comprised of four children, whose ages descended by even gradations from Reginald, the eldest, a handsome lad of eighteen whose school-life had just ended, down to Aggie the youngest, a wild little maiden of twelve.
As yet their characters were still unformed, and had been entrusted for their development to a clever little Belgian, Josephine Armand by name, p. 18who, in addition to the superintendence of their education, managed the Rector’s household for him, and ruled the domestics with a rod of iron.
On the day after my arrival I was studying the church and the streets of the village, which radiated like a fan from the foot of the hill where I stood, when I was met by Reginald who had dined with us the evening before. He was to start early the next day for the continent, where he was to pick up what foreign languages he could before he entered at Cambridge in the following October.
By the gate of the churchyard, through which we passed to the Rectory, stood a time-worn placard requesting visitors not to touch any of the flowers “excepting those on their own graves.”
“A remarkable instance of realistic prevision,” said Reggie, “and far too good to be improved away. Fortunately our villagers are not keenly appreciative of humour, else the best joke in the p. 19county would have been lost to us long ago. And what are you up to, my children?” he added, looking in at the window of the Rectory schoolroom, where his sisters were busily writing at the untidiest of tables, forgetful for once of the glorious sunshine that blazed down upon the world outside. “Some mischief, I’ll be bound, else you’d never be so abnormally quiet.”
“You go on, and don’t disturb us, Reggie,” said Agnes, a lean wiry girl, with hair much dishevelled under the excitement of composition. “We are busy preparing verses for the Attar competition prize, the new dentifrice, you know; you may hear mine if you like. I go in for plain and simple fact—‘beauty unadorned’ you see:
‘Carbolic, camphor, chalk are done;
Attar is all and all in one.’”
“Admirable, Aggie. Good solid sense, and no foolish striving after the artistic. And now for p. 20yours, Gertie. Being the poetess of the family, you won’t be content with stern simplicity like that. There’s love and lovemaking in yours, I’ll be bound.”
“Well, Reggie, I have tried to add a little romance to it. But somehow or other the teeth don’t seem to lend themselves readily to the genius of poetry:
‘If Attar you had used in time,
Your teeth would have been white—like mine;
But now my love for you is dead:
Another, ’nother girl I’ll wed.’”
“Bravo, Gertie! You’re really brilliant. ‘Time’ rhymes admirably with ‘mine,’ and it’s a stroke of true genius to intensify grief by the simple process of prodelision.”
“I’m glad you like it, Reggie, though I haven’t the faintest notion of what ‘prodelision’ means.”
“Well, mine is rather a bold venture, Reggie. I want, you see, to combine the allied arts of painting and poetry. There’s to be a picture of King Attar at the top, launching thunderbolts at a crowd of flying dentists. Off they go in the distance, with their implements of torture in their hands, and at the bottom of the picture these words are written:
‘King Attar and the dentists see;
Choose Attar—and the dentists flee!’
But I wish I were handier at drawing. King Attar in his chair of state is all out of perspective. And the flying dentists look like a lot of daddy-longlegs; while as for their implements, they might be anything you please. However, I can easily remedy that by drawing lines to the margin with an explanation of each particular instrument—p. 22‘these are tweezers,’ ‘this is a file’—like Melton Prior does in his war pictures, you know.”
“Capital! You’ve got everything cut and dried, I see. Though, by the way, you needn’t talk bad grammar under the stimulus of composition. Didn’t your governess teach you that ‘like Melton Prior does’ is bad grammar? If not, she isn’t worth her salt.”
“It’s our French, Reggie, that troubles her more than our English. At any rate, when she called us in to dinner yesterday, I said, ‘Je suis déjà,’ meaning, of course, ‘I am all ready,’ and she had just the faintest suspicion in the world that I intended it for a joke, and boxed my ears on the chance.”
“And served you jolly well right for your cheek. But I can’t stop chattering here. Give me half the prize if you get it, for the encouragement I’ve given you.”
A dainty little personage she was, to whom her cousin Reggie had long ago given his heart. And a pretty picture she made in the school-room as the sunlight fell on her hair from the window opposite, and warmed its ruddy glow to the famed Venetian tint. Not the very highest type of beauty, perhaps. At any rate the best masters of antiquity would not have sanctioned the tip-tilted nose and over-large mouth. Yet even they could have found no fault with the delicate poise of the head, the shapely neck, above all, with the tawny hazel eyes and slyly drooping lids; and you must have gone direct to the Faun of the Capitol if you had wished to rival the sunny brightness of the face, and the rippling smile that played about her p. 24lips. Almost one expected to catch a glimpse of the pointed ears which Donatello was supposed to conceal behind his curls.
“Well, you pickles,” she exclaimed, “and where’s your guardian angel Josephine gone? Not left you to your own devices if she’s a wise woman.”
“Oh! she’s off to the garden, Cousin Marion, ‘to cut a cabbage to make an apple pie,’ as Verdant Green said. I mean she’s gone to dig up all the weeds and dandelions that lie handy. ‘It must be,’ she said, ‘that I have herbs—savage herbs—to aid the digestion.’ Only the other day she half poisoned herself with celandine roots, which she thought looked promising for the composition of a salad.”
“She’s as good as another gardener,” put in Gertie, “and does all the weeding. Besides, she’s so beautifully tidy, and consumes all that she gets, p. 25like a well-regulated bonfire. But do stay a minute and help us, Marion. We’re making poetry to win the Attar Competition. Do give us a verse or two; we’ve used up all our ideas.”
“What I, my child? Why, I never made a line of poetry in my life, and hardly ever remembered one. See how the very thought of it has made me fly.” At the door she looked back laughing:
“‘Reggie, you kissed me just outside the door;
Use Attar, or don’t kiss me any more!’”
And, laughing still, she fled—fortunately without seeing me, who had watched the proceedings unobtrusively from the shelter of a friendly clematis.
I had found lodgings with one Peggy Ransom, whom I soon discovered to be one of the chief characters in the village, as the Rector had reported her. A tiny old lady she was, with a small and shrivelled face, like a Ribston pippin that had survived well on into April, and bright beady eyes that always reminded me of a squirrel’s. She had, too, something of the same small creature’s animal vivacity, and talked in a queer little chirpy strain that suggested its note of satisfaction when it has lighted upon a particularly fine nut or acorn.
p. 27In dress she was scrupulously neat, though in the dress of some pre-historic age. For example, she never appeared without a silk ’kerchief bound over her head, because, as she said, you never “knew where a draught might find you, and prevention was better than cure.”
On Sundays and holidays she appeared resplendent in a black silk gown, which, she told me with pride, could “stand of itself in the days when the Rector gave it her”—how many years before I had never had the rudeness to enquire. But it was still a fine article of raiment, and had been preserved with such scrupulous care that even in its old age it still retained its dignity.
She was not, I found, a heart-whole admirer of the Rector’s opinions. “As good and kindly a gentleman,” she said, “as ever trod in shoeleather, and a real Christian. But takes things a bit too pleasantly, I allow, and makes out the next world p. 28to be a more comfortable place than some of us, I fear, will find it. Not but what ’tis better that way than to go about, as some of us do, with faces sad enough to sour the cream, finding no pleasure in all the gifts the Almighty has showered upon us.”
She had lost her husband and all her family one by one, and found the joy of her life in the Rector and the Rectory children, who were always in and out of the kitchen, worrying her and hindering her work, it seemed to me, though she would never hear a word from anyone against them. “Bless their hearts,” she would say, “I’d be a lone and dreary old body without them, though I do wish that child Aggie would come up the garden path like a Christian, instead of jumping over the flower-beds and tempting the cats to play hide-and-seek among my lilies of the valley.”
But of all the Rectory children Reginald was p. 29her first and special favourite. This was unfortunate for me. Not but what I liked the lad—what little I had seen of him before he left for the continent. But it was tedious to be reminded so often of his perfections. Besides, I had a lively remembrance of the love-scene that had passed between him and his cousin on the day that followed my arrival, which for some reason or other I had thought out of place and unseasonable. Though of course I had no right to begrudge two cousins the pleasure of a cousinly salutation, and perhaps, if Marion had been old and ill-favoured, I should have found no temptation to do so. As it was, and for whatever reason, I was glad that Reggie was for the moment out of the field of my vision. And I should have tried to forget the liberty, for so I called it, that he had taken in kissing her, if only Peggy had not so strongly insisted on the nearness and intimacy of their relations. She was for ever p. 30harping on Reggie’s good looks—he was well enough I admit, but, after all, nothing to compare with Riverdale—and what a handsome pair they’d make, and how suitable the match would be. “And Master Reginald just worships the ground under her feet,” she would add; as if I couldn’t see that much without Peggy’s interference. And then she would look slyly at me and say, “I suppose you think her good-looking, don’t you, sir? The two curates who were here before you both made eyes at her—really Peggy, I thought, you can be a little vulgar at times—indeed, I may say it was for that reason they left us, and because they saw they had no chance against Master Reginald. It is true they were none too well favoured—short and dark the first was, and the last one thin and scraggy. Not but what he was beautifully fair in complexion.”
For a while after this interview Peggy and I p. 31were at variance. Every scrap of her information had been distasteful to me, especially her reference to the complexion of the curate who had preceded me, in which I detected, however gratuitously, an allusion to that slight tendency to freckles which I thought somewhat marred my own completeness.
But on the whole Peggy and I got on capitally together, and she was in most respects an ideal landlady for a curate who was new and strange to his surroundings. She had lived her life in the parish, and knew its landmarks as no one else knew them. Besides, she amused me with her gossip, especially when I could draw her on the subject of the Rector and his theories, which she was never weary of discussing.
“The worst of it is,” she would say authoritatively, “he’s none too strict, to my way of thinking, in the matter of church-going. Only the other day he said to me ‘Yes, Peggy, church-going is good p. 32for all of us, not but what we may have too much of it’—did ever woman hear the like from her minister?—or rather we may follow it to the exclusion of better things. To do the thing we ought is better than to listen to it, and I’d come down easy on any one who stayed away from Church to do a kind act for a neighbour. Unluckily it’s usually to please ourselves, and not to help our neighbours, that we fight so shy of our Church.’”
In her little peculiarities Peggy was wonderfully diverting. For example, whenever she found herself in difficulties, as when the potatoes were hard, or the meat overdone, she would take refuge in the platitude, “I’ve done my best: I can no more,” thus casting all her care upon Fate as the inscrutable power which had wrought the mischief and must take the responsibility. She was also a firm believer in the guidance of astrology, always planting p. 33her flowers and vegetables when two benign planets were in conjunction, and avoiding with scrupulous care the baleful influence of Mars and Saturn. Only I wish she had abstained more wisely from words of which she had not mastered the meaning, as when she told me they had been “hanging a hamlet” in the Rectory garden, or “keeping the university” of the King’s birthday!
There was something else by the way that gave Peggy Ransom a special interest in my eyes. She had been housekeeper at the Manor House in the days of Marion’s youth, but had left it fifteen years before to form her own ill-fated marriage.
It was not much, but I suppose it was better than nothing, for an incipient lover like myself to learn at first-hand what his lady-love was like in the days of her infancy. But either Peggy’s memory was failing her, or her love for the Rectory children had made her forgetful of her earlier charge, for p. 34her reminiscences of Marion at that age were hardly of absorbing interest, being limited for the most part to a rambling catalogue of childish illnesses, and the skill with which Peggy had treated them. But possibly in the very warmest heart it would be difficult to stimulate raptures by a record of what your lady-love was doing at the early age of five.
This afternoon, for example, I had reached the stage at which Marion was recovering from a vague and mysterious illness called “thrush,” when we were interrupted by Aggie, who, as usual, made a bee-line towards us in flying leaps and bounds across the garden beds. “Here’s a letter for you, Mr. Stirling,” she cried, “from the Manor House. Uncle Edgar wants you to dine with him this evening at eight. I told him you had no engagement; besides, Marion who came with him said she was dying to make your acquaintance. But p. 35you must hurry up and dress for it’s past seven already.” As she spoke, she had pounced on Peggy’s two cats—Toby and Sambo by name—who were reposing peacefully on the porch above our heads, and was off again home down the garden with the pair of them close at her heels, all the three doing their level best to break off as many flowers as possible in their passage down the garden.
There were to be only four of us at dinner that evening. In the ignorance of my heart I rejoiced at Reggie’s absence, little thinking that, before the evening was over, I should have been glad to welcome his cousinly attentions to Marion as a far less dangerous rivalry than the one which was suddenly to burst upon me from a quarter wholly beyond the range of my vision.
The old Manor House was looking its best, as half an hour later I walked up through the avenue by which it was approached.
Planted against the south-west side of a hill, the ground gently falling away in front of it, it caught the evening sun, which burnished the trees on either side, and called up all the lovely shades of colour that lie dormant in old red brick, as the fires that are latent in opal and carbuncle wake up at the touch of light. It is the fashion already to disparage Ruskin, and to find that we have over-rated p. 37him like so many of our heroes, but at any rate he was right in his devotion to the fine red brick of Elizabethan architecture. One marvels how any one who has looked upon Hatfield or Aston can condescend to build in any other medium. There is much stone, I know—Ham Hill by preference—that takes a lovely colouring from age, to which lichen and stonecrop and ivy would seem to have an instinctive affinity. But the setting provided by Nature, and the requirements of our dull uncongenial atmosphere find their proper complement, I think, in a brick-dust red, just as surely as they repudiate its vile twin brother, the white and yellow clay which time in its progress only makes more and more disreputable.
That evening, for the first time, I recognised that I was in love with Marion—a love that must have had in it no steps and no gradations. The p. 38leap must have been taken at a bound on the day that I caught my first glimpse of her in the Rectory nursery, though I suppose time added fresh strength to my devotion by developing fresh features of sympathy and mutual interest.
Our party, as I have said, was limited to four, and as the Rector and his brother at once paired off for the evening, Marion was left to my care, and our acquaintance progressed rapidly.
Squire Richardson was, in character and even in appearance, a replica of his brother—a replica with a single difference. The Squire loved foxhunting with all the devotion of a country gentleman, while to the Rector it was the one sport above all others of which he was intolerant. They had hardly sat down to dinner when the question turned up, and it was nearly over before they had threshed it out without the smallest advantage to either side. The Rector was the assailant.
p. 39“How, Edgar, you can possibly justify the cruelty of hunting an animal which you can’t eat, or use for any purpose when you’ve killed it, I can’t conceive. Talk of a bull-fight—nonsense, why it’s a fair fight by comparison. The bull is Master of Ceremonies up to the time of its death, and then it’s killed painlessly by a single blow. And its flesh serves the best purpose imaginable, for it’s distributed round among the poor of the city, who, but for the chance, would never taste any meat but pork from one year’s end to another. Only the other day I had a specimen of the methods of your sport. A miserable fox that had been kept in agonies of terror for half-an-hour was hunted out of its shelter behind a rock, and deliberately torn to pieces in a shallow lake to which it had taken itself as a last refuge. Justify that, Edgar, if you can.”
“Nonsense, Walter,” was the Squire’s reply. p. 40“The case was one in a thousand. The sport, man, is the making of the British yeoman—breeds pluck and manliness and good riders and good fellowship, and a hundred other virtues. Besides, what of the horses in a bull-fight? Have they any of the sport which you tell me the bull enjoys?”
“Well—no. I grant you have me there. Only unluckily it can’t be avoided, they told me in Spain. There’s no man living, whatever his skill and courage, who could tackle one of those wild Spanish bulls if it came fresh and untired to his hand. And the horses are poor wretched screws whose life is valueless and worse to them. Besides, the bull kills them at least as painlessly as they would die by neglect or in some knacker’s yard. Only it’s a sport that does not bear transplanting to the provinces. You must see it at Seville or Madrid—or nowhere.” And while the argument p. 41between them raged furiously, but in a perfect spirit of friendliness, Marion and I were left to ourselves—an opportunity of which I was not slow to avail myself.
“Butchered to make a British holiday!” shouted the Rector.
“Rather to give mettle to our horses and manliness to our men!” shouted back the Squire.
With a smile of despair, and a nod in my direction that answered my unspoken query for permission to accompany her, Marion slipt quietly through the open window out on to the terrace, and I followed her.
“They’ll go on like that,” she said, “till they’ve finished their wine. And the best of it is they never lose their temper, but end as amicably as they began. It’s a really pretty object-lesson in Christian forbearance.”
p. 42It was a glorious summer evening, soft and still, with a glow in the sky that might have been a reflection of the noontide glare, as we went down the steps of the terrace and across the velvet sward of the old pleasaunce out into the shrubberies beyond.
“I wonder which side of the question you took at dinner?” I asked, anxious to find whether the advanced theories of the Rector had found an echo in herself.
“Oh, on the question of hunting,” she answered, “I’m with him. It savours, I think, of torturing. Of course it’s difficult,” she added, “to see where to draw the line. For I don’t think we were intended to be vegetarians. We haven’t the proper teeth, have we? And so it seems to me that his distinction is a tenable one, and that we may kill animals that are required for our use. If so, one can’t reasonably object to shooting them. It’s as p. 43painless a death as any other, and, for his own credit, the man who wants to shoot his game will collect the most experienced hands he can find to do it.”
“But what about the side-issues,” I slyly asked her, “arising from the possibility that all these animals will live again? How shall we meet in the next world the reproachful glances of the creatures we have slain in this?”
“The matter doesn’t trouble me at all,” she answered, “it’s too remote. Perhaps only the ones we loved will take the forms again in which we knew them. Perhaps that very love itself will be the constraining power that shapes them to our recognition. And, after all, something of the same difficulty meets us in our own case. So far as I can make a guess, it may be a world very like the present one. Only the animals, I hope, will be nice and gentle, with all their bad qualities p. 44eliminated. Anyhow, no one, certainly not my uncle, would pretend to have a cut-and-dried formula for mapping out the future world as they plan an undeveloped city in America. All he says is that life, like matter, is, in all probability, indestructible. Many persons, I know, regard such speculations as worse than unprofitable. To me, on the other hand, they seem elevating and comforting. And no one can say they are unwarrantable, when we have the account of the so-called Millennium to guide us.”
A strange conversation, you will think, for the first evening of our meeting, and certainly not symptomatic of the love-making I foreshadowed. But, after all, a sympathy of interests is not a bad substratum for the growth of love. Already I felt sure that this was no ordinary girl, and that she was deeply interested in her uncle’s theories. Indeed there was perhaps just a trifle of subtlety p. 45in my suggestion that I was not disinclined to accept them.
And so we strolled among the dimly-lighted shrubberies, chatting on less impracticable subjects, till the light faded out of the sky, and the shadows fell, and the Squire shouted a summons to us to join them in the drawing-room.
The ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for and against foxhunting having been exhausted over their wine, the Squire and the Rector were now deep in discussion over matters affecting the village. Now and again I heard references to a certain mysterious council, to a meeting of which my attendance had been requested for the following day. The Rector had only smiled when he gave me the message, advising me to attend, and adding a promise of amusement.
“It’s just because it is old, Edgar, that I tolerate it—and also absolutely harmless. The fact is I’m fearfully conservative, and never meddle with old institutions if I can possibly avoid it. Besides, the members are all of them very old men, who would be sadly at a loss if they missed their weekly reunion. But they are to elect no new members, and, as it is, I revise and reverse their resolutions, when necessary. So it only means they have the pleasure of passing them.”
Something like the above I heard from time to time in the intervals of Marion’s singing. But I had little thought to spare on it. My whole attention was absorbed in a voice and execution that would have held their own in any London concert-room.
It was a pure soprano, of the finest quality, p. 47that had been splendidly trained (I heard afterwards) under the best masters of Leipzig and Dresden. She began with Tosti’s familiar ballad ‘For ever and for ever’—a song of atrociously bad sentiment, but wedded to music that fits it ‘like a glove.’ Only one other writer, within my own range of knowledge, has realised with such pathos the depths of an infinite despair, and, if only for the closing scenes of ‘Cometh up as a Flower’ and ‘Good-bye Sweetheart,’ their authoress should stand not very far lower than the topmost pinnacle of Fame. Then she passed to a higher class of music and sang Blumenthal’s ‘Message’ and ‘Requital.’ And my wonder was that even habituation could have rendered the squire and his brother so insensitive as to prefer the discussion of their parochial trivialities.
I was glad that no conversation followed when she had ended. Almost in silence, which I could p. 48see she appreciated better than words, we parted. It was only as I turned to say good-bye that my eye rested for a moment on a photograph which stood on a small table in a corner near the music stand. It was a portrait of Riverdale, and the companion picture stood always before my eyes on my writing-table at home. So I had gained a fresh lesson in the disquietudes of love. In my case, at any rate, its course was not to lie in smooth untroubled waters.
As soon as we had started on our walk back to the village, I questioned the Rector concerning my discovery. “What, you know Riverdale?” he answered, “and well enough to call him your dearest friend? Verily the world is small indeed, as wiser men than I have said. He’s a distant cousin of Marion’s, and, as soon as his work on the continent is ended, this will be one of the first places that will see him. For we are all devoted p. 49to him, and look forward to some faint reflection of his glory when he shall have become a well-known artist. Besides, he was always rather taken with Marion—a suitable match—very—supposing it comes off, and I think, I may almost say I’m sure, it will.”
The following evening, punctually at eight o’clock, I presented myself at the door of the Council Chamber. But the comedy which I had been promised was not forthcoming. To the surprise of all of us, a tragedy was represented in its place.
It was only a self-constituted Council of four, and had nothing to do with roadways and sanitation. And it met in the village inn of Fleetwater on a Saturday night, as it had met in the same room at the same time for fifty years previously. p. 51It was deliberative rather than executive in character, for its one ostensible function was to select the hymns for the Sunday services. And when this was done it resolved itself into a committee for discussing the affairs of the parish and the nation at large.
“’Twill be a privilege for ye, Master Stirling, to mix for onst wi’ men as be so much older an’ wiser nor yerself. For wi’ all the book-learnin’ that has been yours at school and college, ’tis nowt but age an’ experience as gi’es the true wisdom. Life must be well nigh ended afore as ever we begins to see the drift an’ bearin’ on’t. An’ so the young can’t never be wise, though, ’tis true, the aged may sometimes be foolish.”
You will gather from the above that Joseph Weyman did not begin by flattering me.
The Old Inn where we met was a picturesque thatched cottage, that had crept up beside the p. 52churchyard porch, either to shelter itself beneath the churchyard trees, or to sanctify its reputation by the proximity of things divine. And as it lay embowered in a valley three miles from our western shore, it was cheered rather than saddened by a gentle sighing from the sea, alternating at times with a deep and hollow roar when a storm was on its way towards the coast.
Neither was the Council Chamber without a certain picturesqueness of its own. Bare it undoubtedly was, for it boasted of only one small table, drawn up cosily across the fire, and flanked on either side by two settees with panelled arms and backs, designed apparently to accommodate the number of the Council; or it may have been that the Council pre-arranged its number to suit the accommodation supplied for it. For myself, as the visitor of honour, one of those fine old chairs that surprise one occasionally in the humblest of p. 53cottages had been introduced from the adjoining room.
Of course the Council could not deliberate without the sustenance of beer and tobacco. And the smoke of continuous churchwardens (I include both the man and his pipe) had toned the colouring of the panels into a rich and tawny brown, from which the quivering firelight was reflected as from the ebon mirror favoured by Egyptian palmists.
The proceedings were opened by our drinking the health of the King with solemn enthusiasm. And then, before the business of the sitting was begun, a few words of general conversation were held to be admissible. It was a former Rector who formed the key-note of it, and a strange character he must have been if all the stories were true that I heard of him.
“’Twas a queer christenin’ you had once in p. 54this church, Mr. Weyman, or so at least I’m told.” The speaker was one Ebenezer Higgins, an Evangelical of the most pronounced type. For though he represented only a minority of the parish, it was thought right that all phases of belief within the Church should be represented on the Council.
“Aye, ’twas that indeed, Mr. Higgins. You see, our old Rector was gettin’ aged an’ hard o’ hearin’, an’ when Lucy Stone handed ’n the child, he said in his easy-goin’ pleasant way, ‘An’ what be we to call ’n, Lucy?’
“‘Lucy, Sir,’ she whispered—for ’twas her first, ye see, an’ a terrible shy young ’ooman she were—‘Lucy, Sir—same as me.’
“‘Lucifer!’ he cried, ‘’twill never do; ’tis heathenish, an’ wus than heathenish.’
“An’ I had to shout in his ear, while they was a-titterin’ all round, till I hadn’t no voice left in me to lead the hymn.”
p. 55“Reminds me, it do,” said Samuel Smiley—landlord he was of the Old Inn where we met—“o’ when we was marryin’ Andrew and Rebecca Blake. Andrew was a shy man—a very shy man he were, same as Lucy Stone. You remember ’n well, Mr. Strong. An’ when the time came for unitin’ them in one, he wouldn’t be pushed to the fore, nohow. While his cousin, what was actin’ for ’n, was that forward that any stranger in the church would ha’ taken he for the bridegroom. So between the two on ’m Rector were fairly puzzled, and afore he saw the right on ’t—’tis true as I sit here—he’d married the wrong man to the wrong ’ooman. ’Twas like to ha’ been a troublesome business for all on us, for once ye joins a couple, there’s no man can’t put ’em asunder. An’ they two would never ha’ jogged along in peace an’ harmony, one with t’ other, as I knows, who’ve lived next door to Rebecca ever since she was a gal. Howsomever, p. 56luck was wi’ us that day, for ’twas discovered in the vestry as how his cousin, who was a sailor an’ hadn’t come to Fleetwater not an hour afore, was married already, an’ had two childern. So back us went into Church agin an’ wedded the proper couple. An’ rare an’ thankful we was to ’scape so easily out o’ what might ha’ made a tidy potheration.”
“Aye, you’ve got the story right enough,” said the Chairman approvingly. “An’ now to business, if you please. An’ thank ye kindly, Mr. Higgins, I’ll take another glass afore we begins. It isn’t long that’s left me for the drinkin’ o’ good ale, seein’ I was eighty-four yesterday, an’ (thank God) never a drunkard, an’ not much time for it now. As I told my old gran’mother what died at eighty-six, an’ was real afeard of a spoonful of brandy to stay her stomach: ‘Don’t ye be frettin’ yerself, my dear old soul, ’tis they as p. 57begins sooner nor you did what has cause to fear the drink.’”
All had been peace and amity so far, but the discussion that followed on the choice of the hymns threatened to be acrimonious.
“There be seasons,” said the Chairman reflectively, “when marriage bain’t that satisfaction as it ought to be. ’Twas only just afore I came along that I said to my wife, ‘Mary Ann,’ says I, ‘I be that downhearted an’ low-sperrit’d in my mind, for all the world as if I’d met a buryin’. An’ I see’d a magpie by hisself to-day, an’ I took off my hat to ’n, I did.’
“‘Aye, Joseph,’ said she, when what I wanted was cheerin’ an’ cossettin’ ’long of my downheartedness, ‘Aye, Joseph, we be all on us bound to go, and p’raps ’tis yerself as’ll be the next. ’Tis breakin’ up fast ye be, an’ no mistake, an’ ye looks terrible rough an’ aged, ye does. I doubt as p. 58how ye’ll be much longer wi’ us.’ An’, to make sure as how I doesn’t forget it, nowt’ll satisfy her to-morrow but ‘There’s no repentance in the grave,’ or one o’ they dreary grave-diggin’ tunes as I can’t stomach no how. She says as how the childern of the parish be gettin’ that oudacious that nowt won’t turn ’em from their wickedness but one of they scarin’ terrifyin’ hymns.”
“An’ right she be, to my way o’ thinkin’,” said Ebenezer Higgins. “’Tis nowt we hear now a long but o’ the marcy of the Lord—not a word of His judgments, an’ o’ the fire and brimston’ what’s in store for the wicked. Where be the sense, I axes, o’ strainin’ an’ strivin’ after the narrer gate an’ takin’ no part in the sins an’ wickedness o’ this wurld, if ’tis all one at the end, whether ye’ve been on the Lord’s side or on Satan’s?”
“No, Mr. Higgins; I can’t go wi’ ye so far,” said Andrew Strong, the advanced freethinker of p. 59the parish. “I don’t hold nowise wi’ scarin’ souls into the path o’ peace. An’ ’tis queer to my mind, that the ’oomen of all people, wi’ their tender hearts as wouldn’t hurt a worm, should be so set on punishin’ wi’ out no end to it. An’ there be wiser men nor we, an’ our own passon too, as doesn’t find such doctrine written in the Book, save an’ except you twists an’ turns God’s word to suit yer own imaginin’s. Bain’t reasonable, it seems to I, not to gi ’us another chance, an’ may be more nor one, same as you’d gi’ yer own childern if so be they crossed an’ shamed ye. An’ we be told, bain’t we? as how there’s preachin’ to the sperrits in the wurld below? Now where be the good o’ preachin’, I axes, if so be that no good’s to come to ’m along o’ it? Why, even in this wurld taint no good beatin’ an’ bastin’ yer childern wi’ out ye throws in a word o’ hope to sweeten it.”
p. 60“I think as how ye be right,” said Samuel Smiley, who was a trimmer by nature, and felt sure of his way now that he had a majority to follow. “An’ I gives my vote for ‘O ’twas a joyful sound to hear,’ an’ some o’ they other lively tunes what leaves ye wi’ an appetite for your vittles and doesn’t curdle the very food in yer stomach wi’ terror. An’ ye can tell yer wife, Mr. Weyman, as how we don’t admit no ’oomen on this here Council, no more nor ’postle Paul allowed ’m to be preachers an’ busybodies in the Church. Shame on me to say it, but ’tis my hope as how there’ll be a corner or two in Heaven where th’ ’oomen will ha’ silent tongues.”
It was at this point, when feeling began to run high, that the situation was saved by a remark from the Chairman.
“Heaven help us!” he said, “an’ who be that, I wonder, starin’ in at us through the winder, just p. 61as if ’twere a raree show or a menagerie? I’m blessed if it bain’t old Bob (you knows him well, Mr. Smiley) what has a pension o’ five shillings from the Government—thirteen pound a year it be—an’ how he lives on ’t no man knows. For ’tis too aged he be for work, an’ spends his time now-a-long in pickin’ up odds an’ ends what comes ashore wi’ the tide. ’Tis miles he’ll walk for a few bits of timber or a coil of old rope as bain’t worth sixpence when he’s got ’em. An’ ’tis bits of firewood he’s got on his back now by the look on’t—from the wreck, I allow, what come ashore last week.”
“No, you are wrong there, Mr. Weyman. ’Tain’t wood from the wreck he’s got wi’ ’n now. That be all fine clean planks, new as new can be, for ’twas straight from Norway she came, wi’ as fine a lot of timber in her as ever I see’d in my life. An’ what he’s got on his back be old bits of p. 62blackened wood what’s been floatin’ by the look on ’t for weeks in the water. Though why he should ha’ been at the pains to gather ’m is more nor I can say, wi’ all that fine new stuff afore his feet, what’d keep all the parishes along the coast in firewood for years to come. But wi’ your permission, Mr. Chairman, we’ll call ’n in an’ axe him. ’Tis a quiet God-fearin’ old chap he be, wi’ a friendly word for everyone. An’ ’twere sorry I were when he left us an’ went to Bayview.”
It was Samuel Smiley who left the room in quest of him. “No, he won’t come in, Mr. Weyman. An’ what’s more, I can’t get speech wi ’n. He’s gone down along the road towards th’ old church an’ village. But he turned now an’ agin as if he wanted a word wi’ us. An’ he looks pale an’ frighted like—or so it seem’d to I in the dim light—same as if he’d had a scare. May be he were scared to see us all seated so serious, discussin’ p. 63questions o’ the Church and Parish. For he’s a quiet man what never intrudes hisself, ’cept it be to beg a plug of ’bacca now an’ agin when he meets one on the shore. Seems as how chewin’ be his sole satisfaction. Though why he can’t smoke his ’bacca sensible in a pipe like the rest on us has allus been a puzzle to I. May be he got the notion in the wars agin old Boney, where he gained his pension.”
Not sorry to be interrupted in their deliberations, for the question of the hymns had been practically settled, and discussion could only have tended to further embitterment, the Council sallied forth, and I followed in their wake. We found the old man still lingering by the churchyard porch, but, as soon as he saw we were following him, he turned and continued his walk in the direction of the village, travelling quietly, it is true, but still at a steady rate that surprised me in so old a man, p. 64quicker by far than I should have imagined he could walk, especially when encumbered with so heavy a load.
“Seems queer an’ strange,” said our Chairman, “why he don’t stop an’ talk wi’ us, when we’ve been old friends and neighbours time out o’ memory. An’ ’tis fast he travels for an aged man like he. I be out o’ breath, I be, wi’ follerin’ ’n, an’ seems as how we don’t get no nigher to ’n for all our hurry-in’. An’ where on earth be he bound for? One’d fancy he were makin’ for the shore, unless so be he intends to stop at Widder Russell’s, for there bain’t no other buildin’ along the road, ’cept the old church, an’ ’tain’t likely as how he be makin’ for that.”
But no; it wasn’t Widow Russell’s he was bound for. Past the house he went, still onwards to the shore, ever and again turning to see that we still followed him, until he had reached the gate of the old churchyard.
p. 65Of the old church nothing was left but the chancel. The main building had been swept away by the sea in the hurricane of 1824, and not a stone remained to show where it had formed a continuation of the chancel. Of all the eccentricities that accompany the action of water, none of a surety was ever more surprising than this. Sheared as by a knife from the rest of the building, the nave had vanished; the chancel still stood, wreathed from head to foot in a draping of ivy, but without the displacement of a single stone, and as solid, to all appearance, as on the day of its erection hundreds of years ago. Our parish services had long been transferred to the new church, safe out of harm’s way at the head of the valley. But the old churchyard was—and is to this day—still used for interments. And though the size of the parish has increased since then, there is no fear of its being overcrowded yet.
“Sakes alive,” said old Weyman, “if he bain’t standin’ nigh the very bit o’ ground as I’d mapped out in my mind’s eye for our next buryin’. I’m well nigh scared, I be, by the thought that what we’ve been a-follerin’ ain’t flesh an’ blood at all, but a sperrit. Else why don’t he say a word to I, when he sees I be spent an’ weary wi’ all this traipsin’ after ’n? ’Stead of which ’tis speerin’ an’ pointin’ he be to that plot o’ ground as if to show us ’tis there he be choosin’ a spot for his last restin’ place.”
But no; again he passed on and out of the churchyard through another gate, which opened into the same road, and steadily pursued his way along an old smuggling lane which led straight p. 67downwards to the sea. And when he had reached the water’s edge he paused—and vanished.
Yes; the mystery was solved at last—the quest on which he had led us was ended and explained. For there, in only two feet of water, lay his body, encumbered as we had seen it with its heavy load of timber, collected, it must have been, with infinite toil and, as we now realised, at the cost of his life.
In default of all certainty, the theory was accepted that he had lost his life a fortnight previously, but where and how there was no evidence to show. Probably he had over-balanced himself in reaching for a baulk of floating timber, and had been drifted by the ebb and flow of each recurring tide from the place of his death—no one knew where—to the home of his birth where he had chosen his grave.
It was high time, I felt, to reconsider my position in regard to Eric and Marion. At present the former knew nothing of my residence in the neighbourhood, or of the acquaintance I had formed with his cousin. His letters, always few and intermittent, had for some time ceased altogether. He was no doubt constantly on the move from one place of interest to another; so I had been unable to write to him the news of my appointment to Fleetwater, and, in the light of my recent discovery, I regarded his ignorance of my whereabouts as adding a fresh complication.
p. 70If what the Rector had told me was true, and Riverdale was really inclined towards Marion, then my own position was about as difficult a one as could well be imagined. Even a man more conceited (I hope) than myself might well have paused in the presence of such a rival. The very points in his personality that had won him my devotion—his beauty and charm and careless indifference—might well prove equally attractive to his cousin. Add to which, there was his future and assured position, both likely to tell with her father, if not with herself, to say nothing of the chance that he might one day win fame and distinction as a painter.
And against all these advantages, what had I to offer in competition? Nothing, I assured myself repeatedly, nothing, nothing. Only a poor curacy and a moderate competence, while, of personal attraction, in comparison with Eric, again p. 71nothing, nothing. But this was the least of all my difficulties—far worse was the being brought into competition with my best and earliest friend; in particular, the self-consciousness that I was a gainer by his absence. When she began to talk of him, as assuredly she would do, so soon as she knew of our friendship, how was I to answer her? My own warm love and admiration for his merits would second and stimulate her own. The temptation, I am thankful to say, was gone before it was realised. Never, not for one moment, did my heart fail in its duty to my friend. Never did the thought even enter my mind of depreciating or disparaging his merits that I might better my own position. To have entertained the thought as possible would have seemed to me an act of incomparable baseness.
However, the thought and self-examination induced by the difficulty ended by dissipating it. p. 72The position, I saw, was for the time being irremediable, and I ended where I might have begun—by recognising that my own part must be that of a simple and unprejudiced onlooker, till Fate should have taken the guidance in her hand, and shown me in which direction she intended to turn the scales.
And if my praises of him should help his chances of success—so let it be. Love is not always given to the most attractive and deserving, while if he succeeded, better he, I said to myself, than any other. For him, if for anyone, I could be content, I thought, to stand aside and efface myself, almost without regret.
Meantime my own love, I determined, must be a silent and unsuspected one.
And so, when I met her the day after, I told her frankly of all my love for Riverdale; how he and I had grown up together with every thought p. 73in common, how he had befriended me at school, and stood by me at College, and how the first great grief of my life had been our necessity of parting.
She was pleased, I could see, with all my praise of him; pleased too, I thought, that we had discovered this new bond of sympathy between us, and could discuss his career with a mutual interest in his success.
“I wonder what it was,” she said one day, “that brought you and Eric so closely together,”—thereby reproducing the very difficulty that had often puzzled me. “Your natures are about as far removed as the Antipodes. Unless I’m much mistaken, yours is a strong and uncommonly decided character, with the most practical ideas of what life’s work should be. While he is a dear old indolent dreamer, with all the fascination of modern Alcibiades, but with none of the energy or p. 74ambition that characterised the splendid young Athenian.”
“Ah, there you are wrong, believe me, and will have to admit it before the world has grown much older. He has in him all the fire of the true artist,—latent it may be for a while. But sooner or later it’s bound to come to the fore. Even now he’s seeing things on the continent that will stimulate it into activity, and then he’ll show what’s in him and surprise us all.”
I had hardly entered upon this policy of masterly inactivity before I was tempted to abandon it. On a hot afternoon towards the end of June I was lazily whipping the Rectory stream on the chance of a trout, when Marion came down to me from the terrace, clad—or so it seemed to my uneducated gaze—in a diaphanous cloud of palest lavender, and holding in her hand an open letter. Then and there I became faithless to my p. 75conscience, for never had she appeared to me in prettier guise. Her dress—and I always like those confections of cloud-like tulle or gauze under whatever name they are scientifically known—was in perfect harmony with the cool green tints of the Rectory garden, while excitement, and she was excited now, always showed her at her best. It called up the tawny light that slept in her hazel eyes, and flushed the paleness of her cheeks, while the faintest breath of a summer wind saw its opportunity and played with the tangles of her ruddy hair.
Surely, I thought, I’m hypersensitive, even in respect for a love that has such claims on me as Eric’s. And after all, a man owes a duty to himself no less than to his friend.
“Good news!” she cried, as she floated to me down the steps. “I’m off to the archery fête, and am late already. But I couldn’t go without telling p. 76you that I’d heard at last from Eric, and, what’s more, we shall see him soon. He’s been through all the great galleries—Paris, Dresden, Florence, and Madrid. Since then he has been studying hard at Rome in one of the best studios. He says his master thinks a lot of him, and will dismiss him soon as needing only practice and hard work, which he can manage just as well in England as in Rome. Meantime, he’s having a really good time of it, making excursions between whiles to all the old towns, and especially to Aquila and the Abruzzi, where every step an artist takes gives him a fresh subject.
“But I must be off now,” she ran on. “Goodbye; I wish you were coming to the fête. But perhaps you are well out of it—(I thought the reverse)—for I know you don’t like archery. It’s too statuesque and Apollo-like for you—would suit Eric better, wouldn’t it? You would like p. 77something a little more real and murderous. By the way, I wonder you didn’t make a soldier of yourself.”
She left me almost bewildered by her beauty. And, like a true lover, I abandoned the Rectory trout to their own devices, while I mused and dreamed over my lady’s perfections. “Of course,” I said to myself, “Shakespeare is right, as he always is. Fancy is engendered in the eye; at least it was in my case; born before I had seen any reasons for its birth, in fact, in spite of many reasons to the contrary, as I recalled the well-remembered shock of Reggie’s love-scene. And it may either die in its cradle, or else turn to love, as mine did. Then how is it that the unattractive women find their husbands? I suppose there must be men to whom plainness, and even ugliness, can appear perfection. The answer is not forthcoming, and I give it up. At any rate, love’s a phase of p. 78feeling and an emotion (often untrue and misleading, by the way), not a deduction or an inference.”
And then a trout took my fly, and I left off dreaming dreams and landed it.
But her news had left me in a happier frame of mind, and I was already beginning to look forward to Eric’s arrival with a wistful eagerness, as certain to determine, in one direction or the other, this wearing period of anxiety and doubt. As a matter of fact, the issue was nearer than I anticipated, and events that followed rapidly had practically settled the decision before he came.
I had now been some months with Mr. Richardson, and had gained a closer acquaintance with his methods and means of influence. To all sinners and backsliders who admitted their frailties he was lenity itself; albeit the sworn enemy, by instinct and persuasion, of those prim respectabilities who never do a wrong thing or (worse still in his eyes) never a foolish one.
For example. To a lad who had lapsed into p. 80vice with the hot-headedness of youth, he was a kindly adviser; but hard as the nether millstone to the lad’s father, when he found he had ejected the prodigal from house and home, and then taken credit to himself for having re-adjusted his household with the wisdom of Solomon.
Of his boldness in dealing with the difficulties of his creed, I had a notable experience in the summer days that were with us.
The evening was an exceptionally warm one, and he and I were lingering till late on the terrace, watching them carry the last loads of hay from the glebe that lay beyond the Rectory stream. Everyone was working his hardest, for it was clear to the least experienced eye that the fine weather was nearing its end. Thick rain clouds were gathering in the west, and occasionally dull muffled roars, heralded by distant flashes, ran round us on the level of the horizon.
p. 81The Rector, I thought, looked perturbed and anxious. At last he spoke. “I detest more than I can say that new machine which my tenant has introduced this year.” And he pointed to what looked like a threshing-machine that was piling the hay from a huge elevator on to the rick. “Of course it saves labour, but I’m sure it’s most horribly dangerous. It gives the men not a moment of peace to secure their footing, which is never too safe. If they stop for an instant, their work overpowers them. And what with the dust and the noise, and the hay-cloud in which they are buried, I wonder we’ve got along so far without an accident. It isn’t fair to ask a man to work under such conditions. Of course with a threshing-machine it’s different. The straw delivers itself slowly, giving the men time to place and arrange it.”
All at once, and even as he was speaking, the p. 82din was suddenly hushed by the stoppage of the engine, and a silence, all the more palpable for the tumult that preceded it, fell on the crowd of busy workers.
The scene of intense unresting energy had been transformed in a moment into a still picture of arrested life. Like figures that the wand of some Arabian magician had charmed into statues, each labourer stood rigid at his post, except in the immediate neighbourhood of the rick where the nearest of them had gathered and closed round something that lay prone and motionless on the ground. Only the voice of the engine was heard through the stillness, where it stood panting under a full head of steam, as if in protest against the indignity which had so abruptly arrested its forces.
“Something of what I feared,” said the Rector, who was already leaving my side. “Pray God not p. 83the worst. Will you wait for me here? Later on you may be able to help me. But for the moment I had better go to them alone. As yet, you see, you are a stranger among us, but one, I am sure, who will soon be a friend.”
“‘The only son of his mother, and she was a widow,’” I heard him whispering on his return, “and, what is more, the best of sons.”
“It was Harry Hayman,” he added aloud, “the lad I loved most in all the village, a splendid type of what is noblest and manliest in our country rustics. And the accident has happened precisely as I had expected. The boy had his station at the edge of the rick where the pressure is keenest and most dangerous, and at the last it overpowered him. He had called to them—just one minute too late, and I’m afraid in angry words—to stop the engine. Another victim to the press and hurry of existence, which counts a life well lost to save a p. 84load of hay. But you and I must see what comfort we can give to his mother. Thank Heaven, he was a good and blameless lad, and ‘as the tree falls there it lies,’ which means, I take it, nothing more than that death has worked no violent change on him, and that he has started anew with what advantage he had gained from a useful and unselfish life.”
The cottage for which we were bound stood at the edge of the village, midway between the Rectory garden and the scene of the accident. And as we crossed the Rectory bridge, intermittent flashes from the clouds that had gathered overhead threw into strong relief the half-completed rick, the engine that still sent upwards a thin thread of smoke, with the gaunt elevator at its side, out of which the wind flung casual wisps of hay, as if in futile effort to continue its arrested task.
What I saw in reality was a stern hard-visaged woman, who met us with a clear unflinching gaze, suggesting a spirit that was up in arms against fate, and with no thought left in her for mourning or for tears.
“I am glad you be come, passon,” she said, “though ’tis little help you can give me, I allow. Kind and true-hearted you be to us all, and well enough we knows it. But even you can’t tell us, wi’ all your new-fangled notions, that the soul which passes to its God wi’ a curse upon its lips shall be saved in the Day of Judgment.”
It was the first and only time I was to see the Rector angry—angry and yet ‘sinning not.’
“Woman,” he said, “the wickedness is yours,” p. 86and his voice was hard and stern. “Stay your words before you utter that of which all the life that is left you will be too little for repentance. Have you no greater faith in God’s love and mercy than in your own? Nay—less, far less, for even you would have pardoned him. An angry word, that dropt from him in great stress of terror and excitement—is that to weigh against the record of a life that was a model to all of us in brave unselfish effort? And, remember, he has left his good name in your keeping.”
I confess that I thought him hard and unfeeling, hard almost to cruelty. But he knew—none better—the requirements of the case, and that it is worse than useless to treat with salves a wound that needs the knife.
At the door he turned and said, “I will try and do for you what Harry would have wished, and what he so well began. The lodge at the Manor p. 87House is vacant, and I think I can promise you the post. But never forget that it is for Harry’s sake I give it you—the lad I loved and valued most in all the parish.”
That same night the change we had been expecting came on us, and a storm raged furiously till the dawn. Sometimes, but very occasionally, a summer gale will carry as much weight in it as one of its winter brethren. And, when this is so, it works far wider damage both by sea and land. It will catch our seamen, unprepared and unsuspecting, on a lee shore of dangerous approach, with some headland or cape to windward that bars their only path to safety.
Less dangerous it may be to dwellers on the shore, but not less dreaded. For it destroys, p. 89almost in a moment, the wealth of emerald foliage which Nature in her thriftiness had meant to last for six long months, to perish gradually in greater glory still of gold and scarlet, orange and russet-brown. And then one morning she wakes to find her handiwork destroyed, at a time when it is just too late for her to repair the damage. Nothing left of all she has been secretly and silently creating through the long months of winter, except a few torn and tattered leaves, which she will make all speed she can to discard, seeing that theirs can only be a discredited old age of uniform withered brown.
It was over a foreground like this that I looked seawards that morning.
Under my bedroom window two men were talking. “Aye, she’s done for,” said one of them; “it won’t be more than half-an-hour before she strikes. With only a rag of canvas upon her, and one of her masts gone, he’d better give it up and p. 90put her on shore as soon as he can find a quiet place. Though, for the matter of that, one place is no better than another, so far as their chance of saving her goes.”
“That’s just what he’s doing,” his neighbour answered. “Don’t you see he’s trying to push her along just outside the breakers till he can bring her about opposite the coastguard station, and then he’ll shove her on shore. I can see them watching and waiting for her; and they’ve got the rockets ready on the beach.” And they moved off quickly in the direction of their gaze.
Long before our party, which included the Squire and Marion, had reached the scene of the disaster, the busiest part of the proceedings was over. When she first struck, a heavy sea had canted her round and laid her broadside to the shore, where she lay, heaving and groaning like some living creature, under the weight of the seas p. 91as they struck her and then flung themselves over her in sheets of foam.
A rocket had carried a guiding rope well across the wreck and into the hands of the crew. Having secured it to the one remaining mast, they had attached the travelling cradle, and, as we came upon the scene, were one by one escaping to the shore.
Not a minute too soon. For the seas were growing heavier with the rising of the tide, and as each one struck her, the ship shuddered through all her length, while jets of foam that burst up through her decks showed that her timbers were yielding to the strain. Even as we stood watching her she rose on the top of a huge breaker, and, as she settled down again upon the bottom, her sole remaining mast cracked and fell, and with it went the rope and cradle that had wrought the safety of the crew.
p. 92Another moment, and, above the rush of wind and water, the plaintive howl of a dog reached us from the deck. A large black retriever had been fastened to the mast, and in the hurry and confusion of their own escape the crew had forgotten to loose him. He had waited most patiently, poor beast, while the crew were saving themselves, waited in the belief that his own turn would come at last. And all the while he had never uttered a sound, though the seas that swept over the wreck must almost have drowned or strangled him.
But now that he felt he was abandoned by the crew, fear had fallen on him, which became panic when the mast to which he was tethered crashed down at his side, leaving only the stump standing to which he had been chained. We could see him struggling violently as the seas swept over him, while now and again he uttered a piteous howl, looking appealingly landwards as if to call attention p. 93to his despair. His terror wrought painfully on all our hearts. It was no sight for a woman to see, and I shuddered to think that Marion was there to see it.
“Oh! it’s too cruel,” she cried. “Will no one, no one save him? I would give anything to see him safe.”
“Anything? really anything?” I asked, bending my head to hers, for the roar of wind and water made speech and hearing difficult.
She looked me steadily in the face, as if trying to read my meaning in my eyes. And then her own eyes fell before mine. “Yes, anything,” she said, and the word came to me like an echo of the question I had asked her, “anything that friend may claim and I can give.”
It may be that her answer determined me though I think I should have tried it, even without the incentive she had given. It was intolerable to p. 94see the poor brute drowning before our eyes without an effort being made to save him, especially when he had faced the danger so bravely, while he had watched us rescuing the crew and felt there was still a chance for him of life. Only, if it was to be done at all, I saw it must be quickly done. Each sea as it came in was higher than the last, and a seam that had opened in her side towards us showed us that the ship was going fast.
My only chance, I saw, was to follow a spent wave and gain the deck if possible before the next one broke on her. It was all in my favour that she lay broadside to the shore, for her bulk acted as a breakwater against the sea, making it fairly calm water on the side of her that faced us. This would save me, I saw, from the worst danger of all, that of being carried out to sea by the retreating wave, though it brought with it another and almost graver peril in the risk that I might be p. 95caught and crushed against her side by the force of its retreat.
In any case now, if ever, my muscular training must stand me in good stead. First of all I wound a rope about me, leaving the shore-end of it in the hands of the coastguards, as I relied on their help to ensure my safety in case I should be overpowered by the rush of the retiring wave. Then I watched and waited my time while one, two, three seas broke over her; but none of them retreated far enough to serve my purpose. The fourth was the heaviest of all, and when it had spent itself, retreated further in proportion. Seizing the opportunity, I dashed through the lake of foam that lay between us and the wreck, and, grasping a rope that hung adrift over her side, and which I had long marked as my one hope on the chance of its being well secured at the further end, I swung myself by means of it up and on to the deck.
p. 96Only just in time; for as I landed on the deck a plank broke loose at my feet, through which I saw that her whole side seawards was gone, and that the cargo had nearly all washed out of her. The next blow, I saw, would finish her. So, loosing the dog and dropping him over the side, I hung for a moment while the wave surged round me before I lowered myself. And on the calm that followed the wave’s retreat the watchers drew me to the shore. And then, with a crash that echoed high above the storm, she parted amidships, and the sea poured in volumes through the rent in the severed hull.
I walked straight to the place where Marion was sitting with the dog at her feet.
A word of thanks—no more. But it satisfied me, for a light had sprung into her eyes that told me I had won her love.
Peggy had come to my study in sore dismay.
There was to be a break and interlude, it seemed, in the monotony of our household arrangements, which, for myself, I was inclined to welcome. Peggy, however, regarded it with extreme displeasure, not unmixed with anxiety.
“You see, sir,” she said, “’tis Miss Gertie’s birthday next Tuesday, and the Rectory’s to be full of the visitors they’ve invited to come for it. Now, you’d think that woman Josephine would know better,”—Peggy always had a shy shot at p. 98Josephine whom she detested as a foreigner and interloper—“but no, not she. She’s chosen this very time to invite her brother—I hope he is her brother—no doubt because she thinks it will be fine and lively for him with all these rejoicings. And as they can’t find room for him at the Rectory, what does my lady do but coolly propose that you and I should take him in? Now, if he were a healthy honest Englishman I wouldn’t mind. But I can’t abide these foreigners who wont trouble to talk our language,”—Peggy always premised that to speak English by intuition was the birthright of every baby both at home and abroad—“and who live on toads and snails so that one don’t know how to cook for them.”
“Now, my dear Peggy, don’t worry yourself and me; I’m just in the middle of my sermon. Let him come by all means. I know a smattering of French, and shall be rather glad of a chance of p. 99improving my accent. Besides, I’ll order the dinners and take all the responsibility off your hands.” Never was heavy charge undertaken with so light a heart.
So Peggy retired, muttering her discontent in the little querulous tones, that, as usual, reminded me of a squirrel when it finds that it has been robbed of its hoard. “I’ll do my best; I can no more; but I’m not going to cook frogs and snails for any foreigner,” was what I heard more and more faintly as her voice receded to the kitchen.
In one respect, at any rate, Peggy was hopelessly astray. Josephine’s friend was an American, and came from Chicago, so that the hopes I had formed of furbishing up my French were doomed to disappointment. It was in a dialect which suggested no possible connection with the French that he opened the conversation immediately on his arrival.
So he began.
In my ignorance I read the word “serials,” and imagined that what he wanted was intellectual nourishment while he dined, so I promptly offered him the choice between “Pearson’s” and the “Strand.” “Perhaps,” thought I, “he wishes to study the statistics—amply supplied by these periodicals—of how large an animal would be forthcoming if all the oxen consumed by England in a year were rolled into one.”
But he wanted nothing of the kind. “It is absurd,” he said, “the way you Britishers tamper with your digestions, filling yourselves with heavy, heating food, when all that nature requires is corn and oil and wine—and the less of the latter the better,” he added as an after-thought.
He had arrived late in the afternoon, and in my innocence I had ordered for him a typical English repast—soup, roast beef, and a ‘fondu’ of cheese.
He waved the soup aside impatiently. “I never touch soup,” he said, “it interferes with my digestion.” It was the same with the roast beef. But the Yorkshire pudding saved me. “I can eat the fat of the beef,” he said condescendingly—“spread on the pudding, it is highly digestible.”
“Rich,” I thought, “much too rich for the ordinary stomach.” But I resigned it to him willingly, yes, all of it—and it was a remarkably fat sirloin—if only because my own inclination did not lie that way. So we got on well for the first day.
A clear soup, red mullet, ptarmigan, with a savoury to follow, was the not un-appetising fare I set before him.
The soup he declined as before, with the air of one who refuses to re-open a question.
When the mullet followed I felt sure of his approval. Not the veriest epicure could have resisted the tempting aroma and the sight of the nut-brown envelopes which enshrouded the “woodcock of the sea.” But no. “This fish has not been cleaned,” was the objection; “how careless of your cook.”
“The fact is,” he repeated—this time a little angrily—“I can’t dine without cereals.”
My heart sank within me but I said with assumed confidence, “The cereals will follow later on. You see we outsiders like something a little more solid to begin with.” But my bravery was all on the surface. For how was he to sustain nature on one small savoury, even if he sampled the whole of it? If only I had ordered Peggy to supply the ample rice pudding or elegant dumplings of nursery tradition! But it was too late now, for the ptarmigan was already on the table.
“What, no greens?” he said, “broccoli, or beans, or at any rate cabbage?”
I represented to him with deference that none of these dainties were regarded by epicures as the natural concomitants of ptarmigan.
Whereupon a happy thought struck me, and I commandeered from the kitchen the vegetables which I knew were even then simmering to perfection for Peggy’s supper. A noble broccoli was the result—the very largest I ever saw—and reposing on the very largest dish. How his eyes glistened! It was transferred bodily to his plate, and, drenched in a bottle of salad oil, was, he admitted, no bad substitute for the “cereals” of commerce.
Again I followed up my fortunate idea, and defrauded Peggy of five noble apple dumplings, four of which he accounted for on the spot, and begged (with a smile of repletion which comforted me exceedingly) that the remaining one might be reserved to furnish forth his breakfast p. 105table before he went his way in the morning. But the attempt to reorganise my kitchen on a system to suit his digestion proved too heavy a problem for Peggy and me. So for the remainder of his visit he and I went our separate ways, as far as the meals were concerned. At dinner he seemed happy with vegetables and puddings, and for the rest of the day he drank tea unlimited, and refreshed himself at intervals with apples, bananas, nuts and cakes, with which I was careful to garnish the sideboard during the remainder of his stay. “Monkey Brand,” I called him, and he did not resent the title, “being proud,” he said, “to resemble his ancestors.” For he was a kindly genial fellow, and never took a joke amiss.
Indeed, his simplicity and cheeriness quite won my heart, and reconciled me almost to the trouble of catering for him.
p. 106But Peggy was far less amenable, and never became tolerant of his ways. I believe she persuaded herself to the end that he was a Frenchman, who for some evil purpose was masquerading as an American, and pretended, from sheer ‘contrariness’ or worse, to have forgotten his mother-tongue.
It was Gertie’s birthday at the Rectory, and there was a sound of merry-making in the air, but what form it would take was held a secret from all of us who were not required to take an active part in its celebration. Only I saw great signs of preparation in progress both at the Rectory and the Manor House. Peggy’s aid was called in to help in the cutting and sewing of many mysterious garments. Music, too, I saw was to be held in requisition, for there was a sound of constant rehearsals in the Rectory and Manor House drawing-rooms.
p. 108But what puzzled me most was the refurbishing of an enormous array of old lanterns—not adapted to illumination or calculated to add lustre to the festivities of the day. No; lanterns these of a past and antiquated type, resembling in some degree the lanterns of horn which, as illuminators, have long ago passed out of fashion, and are only to be found occasionally in some stable or cowshed that has lapsed far behind the progress of the age.
Never did I imagine that female tongues—girlish tongues more especially—could keep a secret so rigidly. Not a word was let slip by Marion or the Rectory party in explanation of their proceedings, so all I could do was to possess my soul in patience, thankful that my own presence was not a necessary part in the due performance of these mysteries.
I have told you, I think, something of the p. 109position of the Manor House. But of its greatest, and perhaps unique attraction, I have said nothing. In olden times a monastery of large dimensions had held possession of the ground that lay between the Manor House and the Rectory. Of this the Refectory was the only perfect fragment, a magnificent vaulted building just visible from the Manor House windows where it lay in the valley beneath. Built of some fine grey stone that had taken to itself all the colouring of which lichens are capable, it was tinted now with soft-toned yellows in every possible gradation, and, in the sunlight of an autumn evening, literally glowed in the warmth of the reflected rays. Only a barn now, and the labourers who went in and out of it, to store and stack the produce of the glebe, never bethought themselves of the glory from which it had fallen.
The river that brought us the Rectory trout p. 110lower down in its course had been arrested on its way by the monks, and formed a lake, with a tree-clad island in the midst, from which they supplied themselves with Lenten fare. On the ground that rose between the lake and the Manor, scattered fragments of ruins—here an unsupported arch, hard by a standing column or fragment of wall—with sarcophagi, at intervals, that had been removed from their niches and desecrated of their contents, all testified to the power and wide extent of the original community. These ruins lay within the precincts of the Manor House. But just outside the boundary, on the summit of an adjoining hill, there rose into the thin air the wondrous shape of a tiny chapel, beside the perfection of which even the Refectory itself looked coarse and material. Coloured by a growth of lichen of the same soft tones, and with all its delicate tracery untouched by the lapse of some five hundred p. 111years, it seemed the product of some fairy hand. But the hand must have known its business well, for, in spite of the delicate workmanship, every needless point and pinnacle had been rigidly cut down, that the gales which fell full upon it from the broad Atlantic might find no grip or holding ground. Even the buttresses and gargoyles had been allowed no useless ornamentation or finish; all the adornment had wisely been lavished on the interior. It had been fashioned in one single nave, and the fans which sprang from the columns on either side gave a lightness and delicacy to the roof that minuter decoration would have only impaired, while a tiny tower, uprising at the end that over-looked the sea and pierced by a narrow winding stair, supplied just what was needed to break the monotony of the exterior outline.
It was to this wondrous place, I found, that the birthday festivities were directed.
p. 112As evening approached, all who were to take part in the ceremonial assembled at the Refectory. In what took place within, no outsider was allowed to participate. But at eight o’clock, and just as the moon was rising, a long procession of robed and cowled monks issued from the building, and holding, each of them, a lantern in his hand, entered on the slow and winding ascent that led to the chapel on the hill. And as they wended their way round and round the grass-clad cone, their voices came to us in slow and solemn hymns for the sailors on the sea. The course of time had been reversed, and once again, as in the days when the chapel was built, we saw re-enacted before us the ritual for which it was intended. It was difficult even for ourselves, who knew well and intimately every one of those cowled monks, to believe that we were not living five centuries before our time, and assisting once again in a p. 113ceremonial that, in the early days of the monastery, must have taken place again and again when storm and tempest were raging. Only to-night there was no storm and tempest. The necessities of modern comfort and convention had so far interfered with the celebration, that it was re-enacted at a time when the chief requirements for its enactment were obtrusively wanting. And when the summit of the hill had been reached, we watched and waited till the final development came.
On a sudden from the tower that crowned the chapel a light flashed out and burned steadily from a brazier on its summit. Any sailors who were voyaging along that calm and moonlit sea must have been startled by a light that warned them they were approaching a rough and inhospitable coast, of which, in a brightness that was clear as the day, no ship could by any possibility have p. 114been ignorant, unless the look-out had been hopelessly and disgracefully incapable.
The light burned on for an hour, then vanished.
And the festivities of Gertie’s birthday were ended.
* * * * *
I was beginning to descend the hill among the more belated of the revellers, when a gentle hand was laid on my shoulder, and I turned and saw Marion.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Harold,” she said, “but in all the crowd and confusion you were undiscoverable. Birthday festivities for Gertie, and birthday festivities for you and me, dear—the birthday of our love.”
And then we dropped purposely behind the crowd, who were sweeping in all directions down the hill.
“No, that they couldn’t, dearest. What is it the poet says?—
‘Come away! the heavens above
Just have light enough for love.’
Well, the heavens have been kinder still to you and me, Marion, and lighted us a lamp by which I can read every glance in your eye, and every smile on your lips. And are you really happy, dear, I wonder? I can never hear you say it too often.”
“Yes, Harold, happy as I never expected or deserved to be.” And then she would say no more—only drew closer to my side—for she was new and strange to the expression of her love. “By the way,” she added, “don’t you wonder how they got up the turret-stairs to light the lamp? p. 116I’ve tried them again and again and could never manage more than half of them, even in the daylight. Many of them are gone altogether, and all of them are crumbling and dangerous.”
“Ah! that was part of the secret, dear, they kept so well, though I thought that you at any rate had been entrusted with it. The girls, you see, wanted a man to manage that for them, and so they condescended to trust me with the business. There have been carpenters at work in the tower for days, but always in the late evening and when no one was about. And they’ve made quite a decent flight of wooden steps. Suppose we try them. The view from the top will be finer even than this; and, better still, we shall be alone together for once in the day.”
We did well to climb the turret, for the panorama all around us was clear as on the clearest day.
The chapel hill, on which we stood, rose from p. 117the centre of a valley which was itself encompassed by a ring of distant hills, except on the side towards the sea, on which two or three small steamers were passing, like flies across a silver shield.
All the deep places of the valley were shrouded in a moonlit mist. Only here and there a tree-top, or some ruined fragment of the monastery beneath, rose high enough to pierce the silver cloud. In the distance the hills shone bright and clear, their smooth and regular outline broken at intervals by rounded tumuli, fit emblems of the Mighty Mother who had taken her children back again to her bosom for their last sleep.
On the velvet sward below us lay the form of another chapel, designed, or so it might have seemed, in ebony or jet. So black and well-defined was the shadow that it seemed more real and substantial than the fabric on which we stood. Each point and parapet of the building was reproduced p. 118in clearest silhouette, even to the outline of the hideous gargoyles, of which our own two figures where we leaned upon the parapet might have been modern imitations in a less outlandish form.
At our feet stood the brazier, its weird and slender form reprinted on the platform of the tower, wherein a few live coals, remnant of the spent beacon-fire, still showed a dull and lurid glare. In the moonlight they shone like coloured fruits piled in a basket of ribbed and frosted silver.
“It might be the tripod of the Delphic shrine,” I said, “ready prepared for some solemn incantation. Suppose we try its efficacy, Marion, by swearing fealty to our love.” And then, with only the solemn hills around us and the silence of the moonlit night, my love and I crossed hands above the glowing embers and prayed that the flame of p. 119our love might burn undimmed till the change which men call death should renew it in another and more perfect form.
“Love’s pious flame for ever burneth;
From Heaven it came, to Heaven returneth,”
quoted Marion, “which is true enough, though Southey was no poet; else he’d have put such a pretty idea in more poetic form.”
“I wonder how you came to love me, Marion,” I said, “especially as I am sure that Eric was my rival. And you know I’m nothing to him in looks or prospects or anything.”
“What, fishing for compliments already, are you? Though perhaps it’s true. He’s a dear old fellow and I love him almost as much as I do you. Only, you see, in another way. And perhaps for a husband one wants something to lean upon—something more manly, it may be, and less picturesque. You aren’t offended, are you, by the p. 120implied compliment? And there was the wreck, and that settled it. You didn’t give me a chance. Why, I never look at Bruno,”—this was the name of the dog, for the captain had given him to her—“without thinking how you risked your life to please my idle fancy. Though indeed it was no fancy, for I should always have been dreaming of him if that poor dog had died. And yet, perhaps—perhaps—I cannot tell. Sometimes I think I might have ended by marrying Eric, if you had stayed away.”
A footstep sounded on the platform behind us, and there, confronting us as we turned to go, stood Riverdale himself. He had heard, I felt sure, Marion’s concluding words.
I had won my mistress, but my mind misgave me that I had lost my friend. Not from any signs of disappointment on his part, or any token that the world outside us could have recognised. Even to myself, who had known his innermost soul for years, there were times when I could cheat myself into the belief that all was well between us. But, just as there are times and seasons when Nature’s face and influence seem out of harmony with our mental and physical being, even so, and quite as surely, it p. 122was borne in upon me that his love for me was gone.
He had taken the news of my engagement well—too well, or so it seemed to me.
Perhaps the greatest charm of our friendship in the good old days had been the thought that I, alone of all his friends, had gained admission to his innermost heart. By all the rest of the world his easy-going air of calm indifference had been accepted for the reality. I alone knew what deep intensities of passion burned beneath that calm exterior.
And this, I take it, is the very highest crown and glory of a love—to feel that you alone have gained admission where no one else may tread.
Now, something, an indefinite something, had come between us. To all but me the change was impalpable; only, if possible, an added charm and courtesy in his relations with Marion and me. p. 123Nothing, I think, that she herself could realise or detect, for his manner towards her had always held in it a studied gentleness; only the gentleness was accentuated now.
But between him and me the veil had fallen. To those who did not know him, it would seem strange, no doubt, that Eric had not long ago declared his love. That he had never done so, I knew from Marion herself. Most affectionate, she said, most devoted he had been; but never a word that bordered upon love. At the last she had begun to doubt whether it really existed at all, especially when his letters that reached her were so few and silent on the subject.
But I, who knew him better than she did, saw in this very self-restraint and reticence concerning his feelings only an additional indication of their strength. His, I knew, was a singularly proud temperament, that would never have ventured to p. 124risk the final issue till he had well assured himself that failure was impossible. And for this assurance he had been waiting—waiting through all his studentship at Rome, rarely writing and never allowing an intimation of it to betray him in his letters. Simply waiting, till the artist-fire within him should have realised itself in action, and then offering his first great picture, together with the gift of his love, at Marion’s feet.
And then, just when he had realised his heart’s desire of fame, and saw the world’s honours placed within his grasp, he had come home only to find that he had been forestalled by me, and that he had lost beyond recall the greater prize of Marion’s love. Truly a test that might imperil even the friendship of a life.
I would have given much to prevent him, had it been possible, from hearing Marion’s last words on the chapel tower. Not that I could blame p. 125myself in any wise. I had acted loyally to him throughout, and should have continued to do so, had not Fate on a sudden taken the arbitrament into her own hands, and left me no faintest loophole for deciding otherwise than I did. But considering that I had satisfied my conscience, I felt strangely disquieted by the result. Of the reticence I had imposed on myself through long months, and of my determination to await his return for the decision of the issue, he could know nothing. And if he had gained the faintest suspicion that I knew of his love, my action, I felt sure, must wear the appearance of one who had been deliberately working to supplant his friend; worse still, had precipitated the issue so soon as the rumour was forthcoming of his probable return. Worse, too, than all was the possibility that he had heard nothing of my residence at Fleetwater or my growing love for Marion. All this, though wholly p. 126unavoidable, as I neither knew nor could discover his address, must needs in his eye seem the very silence of premeditation, which had been waiting to make the disclosure till the result should be irremediable.
But if he had indeed heard our conversation, of which I could feel no doubt, he never by a word alluded to it. With the warmth with which we had parted, with the same he met me again. “He was glad,” he said, “that his two best friends were to be drawn closer to him still,” and, laughing in his old frank way, had added that “we two had not been long in discovering the affinity between us.” This faintest gleam of satire was the only intimation he allowed himself of the feeling that lay buried in his heart.
Eric had hurried his departure from Rome, because the summer heat had set in earlier than usual that year, and because the work still left for p. 127him to do could be done equally well at home as abroad. Then he entered with spirit into the history of his travels. And how it was the Museum at Madrid, and the work of Velasquez in particular, that had fired his imagination and stimulated his activity to try and do likewise.
“You should just see his pictures,” he said, “and what that man can do. Why, his horses and riders come galloping to you out of the canvas! Even that scoundrel Philip II., perhaps the worst and basest coward that ever lived in history, gains something of distinction and nobility by the touch of his pencil. And he can paint you an atmosphere and distance in which a man can breathe and walk. And what does he do it all with? No flaming, gorgeous colours like Titian’s and Tintoret’s, but all in quiet greens and greys and browns that would be dull as ditchwater in any other hand. Opinions, I know, differ, but to me p. 128at any rate he has always seemed the greatest of Art’s great Trinity—Titian, Rembrandt, and himself. And to him I owe everything. He it was who read me the lesson that I have tried to learn—to decide what I wanted to paint, and then go straight for it, letting all the accessories and inessentials come in at the end where they can.”
Yes; it was another and a different Eric who was talking to us now from the one with whom I had parted nearly two years ago. The indolent dreamer of those days had been transfigured into the man with a purpose. And I hoped, as I heard him, that he had made a mistress of his art, and might find in his devotion to her the happiness which we are told she always gives to those who worship her with a whole and undivided purpose.
Three days later he left us, to finish, he told us, the first great picture he had attempted. It was already too late for the Academy, but competent p. 129judges thought so highly of its merits that he intended to risk its first appearance in the almost fiercer light of a London show-room. “Of course,” he added, “you two must be the first to see it.”
In the general chorus of congratulation that welcomed our engagement I must include a letter I received from my erstwhile rival, Reggie. We had found time during his vacations to become fast friends, and he wrote to me from my old rooms in Trinity, where, by some strange freak of fortune, he was now installed.
“I congratulate you heartily on your engagement to Marion, and think you lucky beyond the majority of mankind. If I hadn’t been her cousin, and much too infantine in years, I p. 131would have done my level best to supplant you. Peggy, I fancy, would have co-operated with me, as I am sure she believes even now that, if you had only gone the way of the other curates and left me a fair field, I should have won easily in a canter.
“Not only do I congratulate you, but I also send you a wedding-present, which is unlike ordinary presents of the kind in that it will be valuable to you while it will cost me nothing. In fact, I am only presenting to you what is already your own property. The picture which I forward herewith was found in the cupboard of your gyp-room. If age is valuable as well as venerable, there is little doubt that I have been happy in the choice of my wedding-present.
“You will forgive me, I hope, for my unseasonable jocularity. It is intended to comfort your heart by proving to you that my youthful affections p. 132have not been so seriously blighted as at one time you had cause to imagine.
“Yours, without envy or uncharitableness,
“The young rascal,” I muttered. “He must have known all the time—perhaps his sisters told him—that I had been a witness of his youthful escapade. Well, the lad’s got a sense of humour in him at any rate. But I wonder what picture he means? Oh, no doubt it’s the one that’s been in our family for a hundred years at least. My grandfather, I think it was, brought it from Spain, and thought a lot of it too; though why and wherefore, passes my comprehension. But it’s certainly old and dirty enough, as Reggie says, to be valuable. I was always intending to have it re-framed and always forgot it.”
When the picture arrived a day later, the first thing I did was to carry out my intention of p. 133having it cleaned and re-framed. We had always supposed it to be the portrait of some cardinal, a faint glow of red being the only colour that had power in it to pierce the dirt of ages.
But now at last was revealed a face of marvellous beauty, and (strange to say) of a pronounced English type. The pale refined features and sunny hair resembled nothing that one encounters among the native types of Italy and Spain.
I should have put him down from his dress as an acolyte or choir boy, or, it might be, some cardinal’s page. But who he was, or how he found himself in Spain, or why he should have clothed himself from head to foot in scarlet, even to his very cap, it was beyond my power to fathom. It was a remarkable coincidence, too, that he much reminded me of a famous portrait by Bronzino that had taken my fancy at Madrid, in connection with which I had been met years p. 134before by the self-same difficulty, when the official catalogue, so far as I remembered, had been equally incompetent to solve it.
It was a mystery, furthermore, how my grandfather could have secured so good a copy. For the possession of the finest gallery in the world has never tempted the Spaniard of to-day to cultivate art, nor has he established in his capital city a community of copyists like that which flourishes at Rome. With such fine traditions of painting to his credit, he is therewith content, and a copy of real excellence, which this undoubtedly was, would, I felt sure, be wholly beyond the range of his capacity.
With the difficulties of the picture still unsolved, I dismissed it from my thoughts, merely telling Peggy to hang it in my sitting-room, where it would find itself in congenial harmony with Eric’s Antinous. Peggy, I could see, resented its p. 135introduction altogether, as savouring of Papistry and the Scarlet Woman, and would have preferred to turn it with its face to the wall; only I declined to consider her feelings. “I wonder what Eric would say of the picture? I’ll ask him some day,” I said to Marion, who was in raptures over the delicate beauty of the portrait.
My happiness during all this period, but for my anxiety about Riverdale, would have been whole and unalloyed. No one was more surprised than myself to find how many friends I had made during my short residence at Fleetwater. Peggy was the only one who held aloof and was chary of congratulation.
Naturally the Rectory girls were wild with delight. Hardly had they recovered their equanimity after the excitement of Gertie’s birthday, when, lo and behold, they foresaw in the near distance a vision of other and greater festivities p. 136that promised to outrival even the ceremonial on Chapel Hill.
From the first the Rector had shown himself a warm friend, and whenever I was free of my duties in the parish, the chances were you would have found me in his company, either helping him to keep down the trout in the Rectory stream, or taking lessons from him in gardening, whereat Marion and I formed the students of his class.
“No arrangement—none, Stirling,” he said, “could have been more in accordance with my plans for the future. So soon as I am too old for work—and I’ve had a twinge or two of gout already—you and Marion will come to the Rectory, while I retire to a little property lower down the river, where I’ll catch all the trout that you allow to escape you in their travels past the garden. You know, of course, that the Park and Manor House are strictly entailed, and will go to a distant p. 137cousin. So, for the present, I shall consider that I only hold the living in keeping for you.”
Information privately received from Marion had left me in no fear concerning the result of my proposed interview with the Squire. From the first he had shown a warm liking for me—all the warmer, perhaps, because I was staunch, from his point of view, on the question of fox-hunting; thinking, as I honestly did, that the Rector was hardly so fair as usual in his denunciation of the sport.
I was to dine alone with him that evening, and when Marion had left us to our wine he came at once to the subject. “I am perfectly satisfied, Stirling,” he said, “with Marion’s choice. Personally I have a strong liking for you, and have no ambition whatever that she should make what is called a great marriage. Though I honestly confess I am somewhat disappointed that she has p. 138thrown over Riverdale, who I am sure is devoted to her, and would infallibly have proposed later on. Indeed, it’s been a puzzle to me and to all of us why he’s held back so long. However, all this is none of our business. I would never prejudice a girl’s inclination by so much as a word. But, to speak candidly, I could not have given her to you or to any man who had not a small fortune of his own to start with. And this, not so much for her sake—she will have enough and to spare—as her husband’s. There is nothing that places a man in a more false situation than the fact of his being entirely dependent on his wife’s property. Indeed, no man of any spirit would accept the position.
“There is only one thing more, and then I will dismiss you to join Marion in the drawing-room. To make your income secure, I would suggest to you—simply as a friend—that you remove the part of your capital which you have in the bank—p. 139these new concerns are none of them too safe—and place it in some good security that can be recognised by trustees. And now, for I know you are longing to join Marion, I’ll only say that I congratulate you on your success as heartily as I congratulate myself.”
In the drawing-room Marion sang to me my favourite songs, amongst them, of course, ‘The Message’ and ‘The Requital.’ Last of all I asked for ‘My Queen,’ the song which above all others realises the entire self-abandonment which is the very hall-mark of love. For a love that is true and worth the name will impose on itself no restrictions and no limitations, giving itself wholly and unreservedly, without asking the reason why and wherefore, to the object of its worship.
And then we wandered out through the gardens and the park down to the site of the monastery beyond, strolling in and out between the ruined p. 140walls and arches, while a nightingale, who night after night gave a concert to his mate at the same hour from the same tree, sang to us his own idea of love.
Not talking this time, either of us, as to the mysteries or pleasures of a world to come—too happy, I am afraid, with this one. And certainly dreaming nothing of a danger that was already drawing nearer and still nearer with the intent to wreck our happiness.
Meanwhile the wreck still lay in shattered fragments on the beach, and had brought discredit and disaster to at least one family in the village before it disappeared in another and still heavier gale.
It was the best-looking young woman in the parish and the best-looking young man whom I had united to-day in the holy bond of matrimony. And now the wedding-dance was being held in a room twelve feet by twelve, while the wedding-feast of light refreshments was spread in the wash-house adjoining.
p. 142Ned Baker was a young fellow of the pale, refined type, looking younger even than his years, and they numbered only twenty-four—a type rarely met with in a country village, with clean and well-cut features, light wavy hair, and the slim hand and tapering fingers that one assigns to a musician, and associates not at all with the rough training of a village carpenter. More fitted, you would say, to stand behind a London counter and minister yards of drapery to some west-end beauty. Perhaps his refinement may have been partially due to delicate health since boyhood; nothing serious his friends would tell you, but just sufficient to unfit him for out-door labour, and direct the tenor of his life to the comparative ease of a carpenter’s workshop.
His wife in all probability, judging from her appearance, would rule the roost. A woman of the strong, well-bosomed order, outcome oftener p. 143of the village than the town, with the wild westerly breezes and salt sea air of the Atlantic mantling in her cheek.
Truth to say, Ned was hardly a popular inmate of what was now his native village. In appearance and refinement he was far above the tribe of fishermen who inhabited the scattered hamlet, and won a precarious livelihood from fishing and boating—sometimes, ’twas said, from the jetson cast up by the sea beyond, when a wreck, such as still lay in fragments not one hundred yards from their doors, would strew the shore for miles and miles with drift of freight and timber.
It was natural, perhaps, that they should resent a superiority which contrasted only too strongly with their own rough and rugged natures. Besides, he was an alien—literally a drift from the sea—cast up and laid for dead upon the sand some twenty years ago.
p. 144No one knew aught of him—he did not know anything of himself—though his wavy sun-locks and bright blue eyes might have proclaimed him of the north, the fragile incarnation of some Viking of the past. But all was guess-work and mystery, for he was a little lad of three years old when the sea laid him at their doors, after claiming for its own the ship and everything, dead or living, that it had carried for its freight.
Kindly hands had welcomed him. An old fisherman and his wife, without children or relations of their own, had loved and cherished the boy to manhood. But they were dead and gone, and for years since he had lived his life alone, till Arabella Bond, the beauty of the village, had been won by the very grace and refinement which had made him alien and outcast from the other villagers.
Indeed, with the single exception of the couple who had reared him, Arabella had been his first p. 145and only friend. Three or four years older than himself, she had, as a child, taken him under her special protection, comforting him in all his troubles, and waging incessant war with the lads of the village on his behalf. Her strong motherly instincts, fired as time went on by a warm passion of love, had gone out in pity to the youth who had been flung, alien and isolated, among a world of strangers. And her devotion never wavered. Even now her feeling towards him was rather that of the mother than the wife, and, but for her, his prayer would have been that the sea might yet reclaim its gift of life. Nameless and unknown, he was from the first an object of suspicion to the villagers. Add to which, he had been cast up by the sea, and the awe which clings round such a one, and the peril that it foreshadows to his preservers, were for ever present in their minds.
With a race of men animated by their traditions p. 146King Arthur himself, if he had been cast upon their shore, would never have gained their confidence. And with Ned’s growth in years the feeling against him had only become stronger and more accentuated. A high regard for honour—honour in every word and deed—was the dominant characteristic of his life, shown in nothing more conspicuously than in his scrupulous honesty respecting all property recovered from the sea. Such views were in hopeless antagonism to all the traditions of the neighbourhood, where the villagers, whose ancestors may have smuggled a little in the days gone by, held a rooted belief that the sea was their property, placed where it was by a beneficent Providence to afford them a livelihood, and sometimes, though not half so often as they wished, to present them with an unearned increment in the shape of a wreck and the perquisites that followed from it.
p. 147And, most unfortunately for Ned, no one held this faith with stronger persistence than Arabella’s mother. To discover, if possible, the owner of such property, or to report it to the recognised authorities would have been judged by her a superlative act of folly, a wanton flying in the face of Providence, which sent them such windfalls, as it did the mackerel and the herrings—only with less regularity. It may be, I fancy, that the northern nations, from whom Ned inherited his birthright, are as punctilious in the practice of honour as southerners are in the profession of it.
Anyhow, Ned and his folly were perpetual irritants to Arabella’s mother. And matters were in no wise improved when he became a suitor for her daughter’s hand. Even his personal appearance and his love-locks, “clustering o’er his fair forehead like a girl’s,” came in for her abuse. “A fine gen’elman you be,” she would say, “to teach p. 148us all our duties, and make out as how we be thieves an’ liars. Why, you bain’t no better nor a gal—an’ a poor ’un at that—wi’ all your long hair a-danglin’ about your forehead, an’ no strength in ye to pull an oar or gi’ a hand to the fishin’-tackle or the lobster-pots. Blest if I can tell what Arabella sees in ye. But there—there’s no accountin’ for tastes. ’Twas sommat liker to a man that would ha’ suited I, when I was lookin’ round me for a husband.”
Then Arabella would heal the wound and say: “Never ’e mind, Ned. ’Tis because ye be so much better than they that they hates ye so cruel. Wi’ yer fine language and looks that shames ’em all every time they meets ye, no wonder they can’t stomach ye. Not but what you be learnin’ a lot of our talk now along, and ye clips yer words fine, same a’ most as we does. May be they’ll think the better of ye by and bye, when you gets a bit p. 149liker to ’em. Not that I wishes it, my dear, never think it. ’Tisn’t I that would have loved ye so fondly if ye hadn’t been better an’ cleverer an’ handsomer than all the rest of ’m.”
But to-day all past animosities were forgotten, and the company who had been called to the festivities could only bethink themselves of the arrangements provided for their comfort.
“’Tis a rare sight this, granfer, for a weddin’. I only wish as how my old mother what’s bedridden upstairs—her’s ninety, come Thursday—could crawl down along and glad her aged eyes wi’ it. But that’s more a’most than we can claim o’ the Almighty, seein’ she’s kept her bed now for nigh on five years. Not but what she’s rare and hearty still, and can eat her bread an’ cheese and drain a pot of beer most as well as I can. ’Tis a wonderful strong and lusty constitution, to be sure. Her eyesight don’t fail her—only p. 151her limbs ain’t so strong as once they was. And no wonder, what wi’ lyin’ a-bed all this ’ere time, which she thinks more comferable and gives less trouble. Wi’ her pipe, too, most allus a goin’, and some day there’ll be the ’ouse o’ fire along o’ it, I’m afeard. And how cleverly she do hid’ en, to be sure—right under piller or blanket ’e goes, smokin’ hot—soon as ever she hears passon’s footstep on the stairs. Talk of good ’bacca hurtin’ a man. They Lunnon doctors should come and ha’ a look at she, and they’ll see an ole woman what’s smoked her ounce of shag a day for twenty years to my sure and sartain knowledge.”
“Aye, ’tis a grand sight truly this ’ere weddin’, and a credit to the village and yerself, Michael. Such a company o’ rare young maids and lusty young fellows I don’t know as ever I see’d congregated together in one room. And the beer and the sperrits you’ve provided for ’em! I’ve been p. 152into that there wash-house of yourn, and made glad my eyes wi’ as rare a cask of strong beer—none of your fourpenny ale, I allow—and as neat a keg o’ sperrits as ever I cast eyes on. The wenches to-night need have comeliness and grace to tempt the young fellows out o’ that there shed. For ale and sperrits is better nor beauty, Michael; ’tis so at least when men be gettin’ in the vale, the likes o’ you and I. And what’s more, I’ll go and sample it, just that I may tell the others what ’tis like, ’fore as ever the dancin’ begins. Not but what I likes a funeral better nor a weddin’. ’Tis quieter and more sober-like, and you takes your vittles more peaceable. None of this ’ere het an’ dust an’ potheration what comes o’ the dancin’. No, gi’ I a funeral for comfort, specially when ye be a bit aged. Not but what ’tis disperitin’, and craves a mortal lot of stimmilent to carry one thro’ wi’ it. An’ some there be what doesn’t hold wi’ feastin’ on p. 153the dead. But ’tis mostly they of a savin’ sullen nature, what grudges the vittles, an’ finds no comfort in thanksgivin’ an’ the voice o’ merriment.”
The fun was at its height, and the ale cask and the spirit keg would have been valued at one half their original cost, when the company were startled by two hurriedly-repeated knocks at the door, and a young girl stood panting in their midst. No wedding guest this—rather a ghost in all but the strong and youthful grace of budding womanhood.
“Heaven help us! What’s happened to ’e, Meg? Why on earth do you bust in upon a house o’ merriment lookin’ like a corpse? Out wi’ it, lass, and don’t stand gapin’ there, scarin’ us out of our wits, for all the world like a frighted owl.”
“’Tis the p’leece!” she cried.
“Be ye gone stark starin’ mad, you fule of a girl? We ain’t that drunk and disorderly yet that we need fear to look a p’leeceman in the face. p. 154P’leece indeed—to a decent respectable woman what’s had no dealin’s wi’ such truck, time out of memory.”
“’Tain’t the drink—’tis the copper off the ship that was wrecked while ago on the Rudge. Some of us ha’ been handlin’ it, and they’re a-comin’ round to every house in the village, wi’ a search-warrant they calls it, and they’re at top o’ street now, an’ ’ll be punchin’ at your door afore you can say Jack Robinson.”
Fear—was it fear for themselves or for others?—had sobered the guests on the instant. Silent and shamed they slunk away into corners, as if they prayed for the earth to swallow them, or were assisting at a funeral instead of a wedding.
Only the mistress of the house retained her self-possession. With a nod at her husband to follow her she retreated with him for consultation into an adjoining room. When they returned—p. 155“We’ve been thinkin’ this ’ere matter over,” she said, “and there’s nowt to be done but a corpse in the house.”
“Sakes alive!” cried grandfer, “and whose is the corpse? Not mine, I tell ’e straight. I be as full o’ life and health as the youngest among ’e. Not but what they tell I that I be nearin’ life’s end. Not a bit of it, says I; I be younger and lustier, I be, than this time last year, and lustier then than the year afore. I be intended, I allow, to follow Methusalum, and show what we can do now-along when we sets ourselves serious to the job of livin’.”
“Stop yer silly nonsense, you old fule,” cried the dame, “we’ve no time to listen to your fulery, and none of us wants yer corpse. Not but what a corpse we must have—or maybe a dyin’ man’ll do. Then they wont dare search the house, and we’ll ha’ time to pick up the odds and ends of p. 156copper and bury it in the garden. Bad luck that ever I set eyes on it. And ’tis young Ned there that must be the dyin’ man. He’s far and away the most nesh and tender-lookin’ of all of us. And crop his hair short, and lay him in bed wi’ a bandage full over his face, and no one’ll know whether he’s dyin’ or dead. And he was allus that weakly and bad in his breath that we can say he was taken wi’ heart disease, or summat, along o’ the dancin’, and no one’ll be the wiser. Besides, ’tis he what took the copper, so ’tis only fair as he should be at the trouble o’ savin’ on’t. An’ we’ll put ye in Arabella’s room, Ned—sure ’tis no shame to do so for as how ye be a wedded couple. An’ ’tis safer the copper’ll be, seein’ it be stored under her bed, the main of it; not but what there’s two sheets as was flatter nor the rest, an’ they lies ’twixt mattress and blanket. Rare an’ uncomferable ’twill be for ye to lay on, but ’tis yourself p. 157what made the bed an’ you must lay on’t. An’ we’ll come an’ let ’e out as soon as ever the p’leece be gone, an’ ’twon’t be long as they’ll stay, soon as ever they hears we’ve dead an’ dyin’ in the house. Up wi’ ’e, Ned, and we’ll have ’e tucked up afore as ever they come nigh the place. Sure ’tis no falsity neither, for what wi’ the scare and the fright ye looks most dead already, so help me, ye does.”
It was not till the end of this harangue that Ned’s temper broke loose, though an angry flush that flamed on his delicate cheek had showed he was nearing the end of his self-control.
“Shame on ye, woman,” he cried, as the last of the guests filed out of the room, “shame on ye to belie me thus afore the face of your own daughter, and her my wedded wife. I’d a’ saved the copper for ye willingly—rot the stuff—and I’ll save it now if I can. An’ I’ve kept silence afore all your company rather than let ’em know you was lying. p. 158But I’ll not begin wedded life wi’ disgrace ’twixt me an’ my wife. So I tell ye, Arabella, where ye stand, and glad I am of the chance, that I never fingered aught of the copper—only to help ’em in hidin’ it—and ’twas your own father and mother what stript it and stored it, and you needn’t be afeared but what you’ve wedded an honest man. And now,” turning to his mother-in-law, “I’m ready to go along wi’ ye. May be I’ll save your honour; we can’t make worse o’ mine.”
In ten minute’s time the house that had been ablaze with lights was shrouded in darkness, and resumed its ordinary well-conditioned aspect. The blinds were drawn, articles of furniture that had been ousted and piled to meet the requirements of the dancing had been re-placed in position. The guests had slunk away, more or less disquieted according to the state of each man’s inner consciousness, and, to the onlooker from without, it p. 159was as reposeful and undisturbed as any of its neighbours in the quiet well-ordered street.
Scarcely had this transformation scene been effected when the expected summons came. “Sorry to disturb ye, Mrs. Bond, when ye be all arranged so quiet for the night. But ’tis our bounden duty, ma’am, and we’ve a very particular reason here (exhibiting the warrant) for wishin’ to look through your premises, if so be as you has no objection.”
“Aye, ye can come in, Bob Davis. An’ if I can’t gi’ ye a hearty welcome, ’tis only yerself you has to thank for it. ’Twould ha’ been more neighbour-like, I’m thinkin’, if ye’d come in open daylight, ’stead o’ disturbin’ a peaceful family at this hour o’ the night. An’ we wi’ sickness in the house that’s like to be death afore the mornin’. For sure as ever Ned sees yer face an’ that great lout you’ve brought in wi’ ye, ’twill scare the life p. 160breath out on ’m. An’ ’tis more nor that scrap o’ paper you’ll be needin’ then to make yer peace, wi’ murder on yer soul.”
“Come, old lady, none of that gammon; it’s too good for us. Don’t we know that your daughter has been married this very day, and that you was a-keepin’ the weddin’ wi’ a fiddle and dancin’ till half-an-hour ago? Besides, there’s a strong suspicion that some of the copper we’re a-lookin’ for is to be found in this here house—and perhaps that’s why you shut up so sharp, hearin’ that we were comin’ along to have a look at ye.”
But when the search elsewhere was ended, and the door of Arabella’s room had been opened to admit them, Mrs. Bond enjoyed a short-lived triumph. Not the most strenuous of officials, urged by the strongest sense of duty, but would have paused in the presence of what looked like death.
p. 161“No, ma’am—though thank you kindly—we’ll not intrude. We’ve done our duty, an’ the law itself can’t call on us for more. An’ you’ll look after that lad of yourn, Mrs. Bond; you’ll excuse me for sayin’ it. ’Tis close on death he looks, though glad I’d be to be mistaken. An’ if so be ’twill ease your mind, I’ll make time to go an’ fetch the doctor for ye afore as ever I goes home to-night.”
But in the bedroom upstairs, as the steps of the officers were heard retreating down the street, the bride was saying: “Up wi’ you, Ned! You’ll be glad, I allow, that I be come to release you. ’Tain’t becomin’ no wise that a bridegroom on the night of his weddin’ should be lyin’ all stark an’ streaked like a corpse. Not but what you look finer and grander-like than ever you’ll do in life agin. Up wi’ you, man, though I be most sorry, that I be, to untie ye.”
p. 162But no voice or sound made answer from the bed. Only the jaw had fallen, and the eyes stared full on the speaker, and the silence of death—death itself—was in the room. Fear and excitement had done their work on an enfeebled heart, and Ned had crossed the narrow borderland—the “space between the spears” the ancients called it—which separates God’s great twin armies, the living and the dead.
The villagers will tell you that Death came to him in anger, because of the jest that travestied his grim prerogative. Rather, I think, it was in pity for the lad, and to save him from disillusions sadder still, that
“God’s finger touched him, and he slept.”
So the marriage was followed by a death, and the lighter refreshments of the dance were merged in the splendours of a funeral feast. And the soul of granfer Wiseman was satisfied withal.
But of the events that had led up to it he was strangely tolerant. “It’s heredity,” he said, “and you can’t fight against it. Not an angel from heaven could persuade them that the sea has not made over to them all the property it lays at their doors. It mayn’t be good law,” he added, “but, after all, there’s something to be said in favour of their view.”
And now, during the calm and quiet summer months that followed, my life took its tone from the harmony of Nature, and rested itself for a while in one great calm. Taking its rest like Nature, the better to prepare itself against the advent of stress and storm.
Hardly a day passed during this halcyon time that I did not see Marion. Sometimes it would be at the Rectory, sometimes at the Manor House; oftener still in some cottage where there was sickness p. 165or trouble which she could comfort and relieve. To ourselves, at any rate, life in those days was full of interest; it may be, for that very reason, void of interest to those who only watched its progress from without.
One day the rooks re-appeared in the trees of the Manor House farm. I suppose it was one of the periodical visits which they are accustomed to pay, off and on, before they close their summer establishment finally to take up their abode in some mysterious winter residence. In my boyish days it seemed to me the height of unwisdom to abandon your city of habitation just when the winter gales were due. But perhaps a rook lives his real life elsewhere, and only comes down to rusticate in the country as a volunteer or militiaman goes into camp, i.e. for duty’s sake, which, in the case of the rook, means the fatigue duty of rearing and raising a family. Somewhere (in the pages of the p. 166‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ for example) and some day I will look up their winter address. In this neighbourhood it is probably among the cliffs of Portland or on the rock-bound promontory of St. Aldhelm’s Head that a letter would find them. Anyhow, they were with us again to-day.
“Do you think they talk to one another, Peggy?” I said, as they were making a great to-do in the trees adjoining our garden.
“I can’t say, sir, I’m sure; but if they do, it’s pretty much, I allow, on the same subject. Seems like a warning of some kind to my ears.”
“Perhaps it may be, Peggy, and, so far as I can read it, couched in very classical language. It sounds to me exactly like the Latin word ‘cave,’ which your favourite Reggie must often have told you means ‘take care.’ We pronounce the word now-a-days ‘caue,’ which, in the clipt pronunciation of an excited rook, might easily have degenerated p. 167into ‘caw.’ If so, they are very lavish of their presentiments at the present moment.”
“And no wonder,” was Peggy’s reply, “for there’s trouble enough and to spare in the village to-day. And will be through all the country round for the matter of that. You know, I suppose, sir, that the bank has failed? There were whispers of it in the street last evening, and to-day the postman tells me that the shutters are up.”
I glanced at the letters on the table before me—at an aggressive-looking blue one in particular, which might possibly contain a bill—a letter of the kind that one ordinarily leaves unopened till the last. In it was a short circular, confirming the fact of the failure in the plain unsympathetic language with which a disaster that spells ruin to hundreds is officially announced.
There are many ways in which a bank may fail, though the result in all of them is pretty much p. 168the same in the end. Sometimes it dies of inanition, by a slow decay of life and credit, and this is the form of suicide that novelists and journalists prefer. For it offers a fine field for sensational writing—the whispers in the air, the mysteries and doubts; then the ‘run,’ with all its train of interesting incidents, the reinforcements of gold that are hurried down post haste from London, the noise and tumult of desperate claimants, with the cashier’s final announcement that his resources are exhausted.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the suicide is sudden, without preliminary word or warning—‘foudroyant,’ as the French would call it. And this is how our bank elected to fall. To the last it drew in money and paid it out, and then on a grey November morning the shutters were up, for the bank had died in the night. But for us in Fleetwater there was not even the poor satisfaction p. 169of watching its last hours or gazing upon the closed shutters. For the bank had died elsewhere, at the county town some miles away, and the news had only filtered to us at second hand (as Peggy told me) through the postman.
Most people, I suppose, were stunned at first by the novelty of the disaster. I can remember that for some definite period, how long I never knew, I studied the circular before me dreamily, with a strange feeling that it would be bad for some other people, but never realising what it meant for me. “What will Peggy do?” I asked myself. “She had all her savings, I know, invested in it. And what again of Richard Smiley, who only two days ago placed in it all that the Old Inn has earned for him in twenty years?”
Worse still, I thought, for Andrew Strong and his widowed mother, before whom I saw nothing but the refuge of the Union, for they were old and p. 170feeble now, and had been living, I knew, for years on the slender pittance they drew in driblets from the bank. And so by degrees, and through many vague wanderings of thought, by realising all that it meant for others, I came at last to realise all that it meant for me.
At this point in my meditations I did what it would have been wiser for me to do a few months earlier, when I should have been in time to act upon the Squire’s advice. I bethought me of turning up the original prospectus of the bank where it had lain forgotten among a number of old papers, mostly unimportant, that had come into my possession at the time of my father’s death. The information that I gained from it was startling. It was to the effect that the company had been registered in shares of £50 each, only half of which had been as yet called up. So I had no need to go to London to win the knowledge that I was a ruined man.
p. 171This time I did not lose myself in vain misgivings. I had become, I suppose, already somewhat callous to surprise. But I set myself the task of looking the future in the face by thinking and working out my plans on the basis of this new discovery. And I took the business in hand with something of that strange unquestioning instinct which leads the fatalist to work out his destiny in a crisis that has come upon him suddenly, and over which he has lost the control.
Whereby I saw that, under the best possible conditions, I had no right to continue my claim to Marion’s hand. Even now there were rumours afloat in the village that the failure was a bad one, and that the bank would only pay a small dividend. And, though I could not satisfy myself on this point till I had been to London to consult my agents, as I intended to do on the following day, it was already perfectly clear that the company p. 172would have to call up all its capital, and that, dividend or no dividend, the result to me would be the loss of most of my small fortune.
And this meant, first of all, the loss of Marion. How could I ask her father to consent to our marriage, even if his opinion on a contingency which was now realised had been less plainly given at the time of our engagement?
No; neither he nor I could have consented to it. And so the failure meant to me the loss of all that, for the time at any rate, made life worth living. Other work I could get, of course; possibly other friends. But a love like Marion’s never again. And, for the time, I could bring myself to think of nothing save the loss of her. I was young, it is true, but not weak, I think, in character; and I could never picture myself in the future as loving another with such love as I had given her. Yet she and I must surely part. The clearest and most p. 173decisive judgment dictated it. And I must be the one to go.
Even if I had been content to remain among my present surroundings, every smallest detail of which reminded me of her, yet for her sake my continuance in Fleetwater was impossible. If I stayed, it would mean for her nothing less than banishment from her father and her home.
I had asked the Rector to tell her of my discovery and of the changes that must follow from it. Not yet could I see her personally. Only I asked her to meet me a few hours later for a walk in the adjoining forest. Perhaps that few hours’ interval might tell me in what words to greet her.
With the Rector my arrangements were quickly made. Once put in possession of the facts he saw, clearly as I had done, that I had decided on the only course that was open to me under the circumstances p. 174of the case. “No honourable man could have done otherwise,” he said, and, as he grasped my hand at parting, the same kindly look came into his eye that had welcomed me on the first day we met in the Rectory study. Only time and our warm friendship had strengthened it into the look with which a father greets his well-beloved son.
The Squire was wise enough not to embitter my position by attempting to alter my resolution. He had meant what he said at our former interview, and remembered it too. It was too late for him to retract now, even if he had been tempted to do so from a false regard for his daughter’s happiness.
The walk with Marion, to which I had looked forward with something of dread, was made almost a happiness by her quiet fortitude. I need not, I found, have steeled my heart and strengthened my mind with arguments for leaving her. She was p. 176not the woman to make of my sorrow a burden heavier still to bear. She might have told her love in the words of which quotation has made a platitude:—
“I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.”
Not by so much as a suggestion would she have made the path before me more difficult. She had realised, almost before I had told her my intention, that not only my honour, but even my very love for her, necessitated our parting. Only, instead of the parting almost without hope as I had pictured it, she made of it a parting that had in it sure promise that we should meet again.
We knew each other’s love too well by now for need of speech. Our walk was almost a silent one, except for the words with which she ever and again encouraged my despondency, and directed it, by p. 177her own strong confidence, towards the hopefulness she was determined I should share.
Instinctively, and without acknowledged purpose, our steps led us to a spot that we had visited again and again in the earlier part of the summer that was gone.
It was a miniature forest, embedded in a sheltered valley that lay beyond the outskirts of the village between the elbows of two mighty hills. Protected by these watchful guardians, it was safe from the withering gales that swept up from the Atlantic. When all the surrounding trees stood bare and blighted by recurrent storms, Nature, in this quiet nook, was permitted to fulfil her perfect work, changing her garb, as month by month passed on, from emerald to sober green, but always keeping her brightest tints to weave her funeral robe, folding it at last upon her bosom with the air of one who has lived her life and done her p. 178work, and now falls peacefully to sleep in painless, restful weariness.
It was one of those perfect days in latest autumn that seem intended to give us, just once or twice in the year, and especially before it leaves us, an idea of all the glorious adornments Nature has in her keeping. Perhaps the brightest beds in a nobleman’s parterre might suggest the colouring. But the stiff arrangement and orderly rows of bloom are the very antipodes of Nature’s handiwork. A flush of crimson mountain-ash, thrusting itself in irregular patches between groups of dusky pines, and these in their turn lost among beeches of burnished gold, with oak and hornbeam and ash to give the softer intermediate tones is, at best, a poverty-stricken catalogue of the colours that flamed all round us on that autumn day. No marvel that to a dweller by our storm-swept seas, when a gale in August will wither all the rest of p. 179our foliage two months before it falls, the scene I am describing should be the one we chose to close around our parting.
It was in the depths of this fairy forest that we lost ourselves—Marion and I. We met no one by the way. Nothing but the silent trees above us with their mist of tangled colours, and at our feet a maze of undergrowth only just less brilliant in colouring than the tree-tops overhead, with an occasional squirrel or blackbird or thrush to suggest the life with which the scene had palpitated in the sweltering summer heat. Even the voices of the birds were silent. They would only have marred the peaceful stillness of that wondrous day. Till the early autumn evening began to close about us, and it was time to set our faces homewards.
And after we had left the forest we turned aside through a bye-lane of the village to mount p. 180once more the Chapel hill, feeling, both of us, that the spot which had seen the consecration of our love would be the fitting witness of its untimely end. And there we said good-bye. “I shall never marry, Harold,” Marion said, “till you come back again to claim me. For come again you surely will. And never think I blame you for this parting. In honour you could not have done otherwise than leave me now. And hard as it is, dear, for us to part so soon, my love (if that be possible) is only made the stronger by the parting.”
And so she left me—with none of the prayers and protests that would only have made my duty harder for me. With nothing but a confident hope, in which I could not bring myself as yet to share, that time in its course would smooth away all difficulties in the fulfilment of our love.
“When that day comes,” and these were her last words, “we will meet once more, Harold, in p. 181this same place, and dedicate anew the love which chances like this will have been powerless to change.”
The next day we parted: I on my visit to Eric in London, and she to a relative in the Midlands, with whom she was to stay during the month I should remain at Fleetwater.
“Of course you’re going to stay with me, old man?” said Eric, when he met me at Waterloo station next day. “You surely didn’t imagine I should let you go to an hotel?”
Nothing in these few words of the studied tone of unimpeachable politeness to which he had accustomed me at our last meeting. This was the hearty undergraduate greeting of old, and I needed no more to tell me that his sorrow on my account had dispersed the cloud that lay between us.
It was good to see him again; to feel the grasp p. 183of his strong hand, and read the look of welcome in his troubled eyes. And then we went to dine at ‘Simpson’s’ in reminiscence of the past, when I had had a pleasant balance to draw upon, and banks had not taken to breaking. And then for a long stroll and back again to his rooms.
“You see I’ve got them all ready for you, and the lobster supper that you always favoured, though how on earth you manage to sleep after it, passes my comprehension. And then we’ll chat on as in the good old days, and fancy ourselves undergraduates again, and that all this trouble is an evil dream. And remember that a room will always be kept ready for you in the future. Send me a wire when you want to use it, and the oftener you come and the longer you stay the better for me. But it’s late in the day of our friendship to be telling you all this, as if you hadn’t known it years and years ago.”
p. 184All my vague misgivings had vanished before his welcome, and it has dwelt with me since as a pleasurable thought that Eric, I am sure, meant fairly by me then, and that for what happened later on between us, the blame in part must rest with me, who had spread, however unwittingly, a snare before his feet.
After supper we drew up our chairs side-by-side before the fire—for the autumn evenings had become chilly now in town—and discussed the situation from every possible view and bearing, without, I candidly admit, finding any means of bettering it.
Eric was far too wise to offer me monetary help. But his hand-grasp told me I might have had it for the asking—aye, anything he could have given me. And I grew cheerier and more hopeful of the future, and thought with thankfulness how much it means to any man to have just one true p. 185friend in life. How few of us can say as much, especially when life’s sun begins to verge towards its setting, and the friends we have made are gone before us, and ourselves have lost the will and opportunity to win us new ones.
To-night I was tasting this cup of happiness in fullest measure. Time for me had rolled backwards, and he and I were together again—the friend in whom I could see no change; the lad who in days gone by had slipped up with me from Cambridge for many an evening just like this.
The next morning I went to call upon my agents, after arranging with Eric to meet him in the Strand at the private gallery where his picture was on view.
In those early days there was little information, I knew, to be expected from them, and such as it was it only went to confirm my gloomy forecast. The bank, they told me, was irretrievably ruined, and p. 186all the capital it could command would infallibly be called up.
Afterwards I joined Eric in the Strand, and he took me into a room from which all natural light had been carefully excluded. And as I stood looking at a curtain which shrouded the farther wall, it suddenly rolled back, and under a perfect light, and with all the accessories that art could lend to its environment, I saw before me the picture that had made him famous.
It was in no wise a sensational subject. Only a precipitous rock, rent in twain by a huge fissure, through which I looked down upon a valley which opened and fell away in front of me. From its foot a mountain stream foamed and fretted down a steep incline. And on either side of the valley, wherever a projection or an eminence promised safety from the torrents that scored the declivities, tiny sparks of fire, few and far between, flickered p. 187from the cottage windows, with a pleasant suggestion of the cheeriness within. Crowning the precipice which occupied the foreground on the right hand of the picture, I could see the outline of the village church, where glowed a larger, ruddier flame, from the lamp, no doubt, which burned before the altar of the sanctuary.
It was a wonderful piece of work for a lad so young in years. I am no painter, and the defects there may have been in it were all invisible to me. But the cleverness of the composition, and the marvellous adjustment of the lights and shadows, flung by the afterglow upon the surrounding hills, could only have been inspired by genius. No wonder that his work had made him famous.
He had entitled it “Val Verde.”
“It commemorates a story, Harold,” he whispered—for there were visitors besides ourselves—“that has grown up around a picture which forms p. 188the altar-piece of the church. Whether the legend rests on any historic ground-work, I could never satisfactorily determine. I only know that versions of it, in many various forms, are current in most of the adjoining villages. But this evening, if you like, I will tell it to you precisely as it was told to me by the curé of the parish. True or untrue, it is interesting enough as a story, though I could wish we had fallen upon a more cheerful topic for the enlivenment of our last evening.”
As we were leaving the gallery, I bethought me of the picture which Reggie had unearthed for me at Cambridge.
“By the way, Eric,” I said, “I’ve got a picture, too, in my possession, on which I want your opinion. If you don’t mind the trouble, old man, I’ll send it up to you when I get home to-morrow. It’s only a copy, for I’ve seen the original. But it’s a fairly good one, unless I am much mistaken. p. 189And in these days, when I don’t know where to look for a five-pound note, anything, however small, will come in handy. So, if you think it’s worth a few pounds, please do the best you can for me, and I’ll be awfully grateful.”
In the evening, as we sat before the fire, Eric told me the story. 
“I had lost my way in the Abruzzi. All the day long I had wandered in fruitless quest of a subject to complete my series of Italian sketches. And now the twilight had fallen upon me with the suddenness of an Italian autumn. Up to this time I had followed the guidance of a faint bridle-path, but on a sudden the ground shelved downwards, and I found myself at the entrance of a narrow ravine, confronted by a blank, precipitous rock, p. 191while the path I had been following wandered off to the left, and was lost in the obscurity of the moor beyond. Nothing in the shape of a village, nothing that promised me a shelter for the night, was visible on the moorland I had been traversing. So my only hope lay in the chance of what might lie beyond the rock that barred my progress.
“Stumbling and halting at every step, for the night was falling rapidly and progress rendered difficult by boulders and watercourses, I at length made my way past the obstruction through a fissure at the side, and found to my delight that the subject of my picture lay before me. What it was you have seen to-day.
“Cheered by my good fortune, for the wind was rising rapidly, and there was every suggestion of an autumn gale, I made for one of the larger cottages that faced me. I had chosen well, as the event proved, for I found it to be the residence of p. 192the village priest—a kindly and refined old man—who met me at the door with outstretched hands, and with a welcome that in England we accord only to long-established friends.
“‘You are welcome, my son, most welcome,’ he began. ‘Few visitors reach me in this Val Verde—for so I have christened it, not very appropriately, I fear, but in memory of my home in Spain—and when they do come we keep them, be assured, for as long as they will stay. But now let me show you my guest-chamber. Poor as it is, it is better than would have fallen to your lot if you had missed the entrance to our valley. And in an hour Annetta will be ready with our evening meal, and afterwards we will sit and talk over a flask of Chianti till late into the night. Or rather, you shall talk and I will listen, for news of the outer world is the payment we exact from our visitors for such welcome as we can give them.’
p. 193“Annetta was still busy with her preparations when I rejoined him in the little sitting-room, so comfortable in its contrast with the world outside, where a hurricane raged and roared through the ravines that fell away from either side of the house.
“I went to the window and looked out at the tiny lights blinking from the cottages like glow-worms that had lost their confidence. And right on the top of the grim rock facing me gleamed the red light from the church that crowned its summit.
“‘The story of a terrible tragedy attaches to that lamp,’ said my host, who had come forward to join me. And his words, by a strange coincidence, came almost as an answer to my thought. ‘When we settle down,’ he added, ‘for our evening chat, my contribution to our entertainment shall be the story of the tragedy that it commemorates. Meanwhile, as Annetta is behindhand with her preparations, and will not serve us p. 194yet awhile, do you feel bold enough to climb that hill with me in face of the storm, and see for yourself what my church contains? It can boast, at any rate, of one good picture, which, by the way, you ought to study before you hear the story I have promised you, and with which it is connected.’
“‘With pleasure,’ was my reply, ‘though surely it is hardly fair to judge a picture on a night like this, and by what looks like the glimmer of one feeble lamp. It would be difficult, I imagine, to devise worse conditions for appreciating an artist’s work.’
“‘As a rule, no doubt. But remember that pictures, like music, may be composed to suit certain accompaniments; and this is one of them, as I think you will admit, if you are content to take my words on trust and brave the storm in faith of them.’
p. 195“Lantern in hand, the old man sallied forth, and I followed him. The distance was not so great as I had anticipated, nor the wind so overpowering. The church was really nearer than I had judged it to be in the twilight of the approaching night, and the precipice up which our pathway lay acted as a barrier to the wind, which had gathered in the moorland beyond, and, parted into two currents, swept the defiles on either side of us.
“On entering the church I saw at once that the main building was in darkness, save for the glimmering flame before the sanctuary. But from a side chapel that opened on the choir streamed another and fuller radiance, which had been concentrated by a careful adjustment on the picture I had come to study.
“It was a ‘Descent from the Cross,’ left by the artist, as I gathered at a glance, in an unfinished state. Nothing indeed had been attempted except p. 196the central Figure, which lay unattended and alone at the foot of the Cross. One weak and wavering line, visible only to the expert’s eye, might have been taken to imply that, worn out by his task, the painter had flung down his brush, and, satisfied or dissatisfied with the result, had never cared to re-touch his work.
“Yet satisfied he surely must have been, for, in spite of numerous faults, it was great, immeasurably great, in rough untutored power. What most impressed me was the terrible truthfulness with which he had realised the details. Surely, such total collapse, such limp and inert limbs, such lights and shadows on the livid skin, were never the outcome of the painter’s consciousness? Death alone, and death that was only just not life, had been the model from which he drew.
“And then, as I studied it more closely, other minor details grew out of the obscurity and impressed p. 197themselves upon me. It was unfinished, as I said, and had been painted with lightning rapidity, probably at a single sitting. It had been painted, too, by artificial light—the tone of the colouring proved it—but painted certainly to suit its surroundings, and probably on the very spot where we stood to view it. Now and again, as the wind forced its way through the time-worn casement, it swayed the draperies that hung around the picture—only another accessory, or so it seemed, to which the painter had attuned his work.
“‘Strong and terrible as a Ribera,’ was my verdict, ‘but a Ribera inspired and glorified.’ For this was no morbid study of Death the Destroyer’s handiwork. No; the artist had carried his subject far beyond the dominion of Death, when he transfigured the Face on the canvas with the light of an Everlasting Love.”
In the evening after supper Eric told me the story of the picture as he had heard it from his friend the priest.
“Years ago,” he said—“for so I heard the story on my arrival in the parish—a rich Englishman, travelling for pleasure, found his way to our village, and, intending to stay three weeks, was detained for eight. For he had caught the fever which prevails in the lower valleys, and only recovered from it thanks to the care he received from my predecessor in the house to which it has p. 199been my pleasure to welcome you. On his departure he left a hundred pounds with the priest as a thank-offering for his recovery, on the understanding that it was to be employed in the purchase of an altar-piece for our church, painted, if possible, by some local artist from the surrounding district. Many competed, but it was felt from the first that the honour was as good as won by Agostino Villari, a young painter of extraordinary talent, who lived in the house I showed you at the further end of the village. At that time he was only twenty—hardly more than a boy—and his talent was almost wholly undeveloped. But he only wanted time and teaching. The power was there, as you have seen for yourself to-day. Well, Agostino had but one great friend, a cousin, who shared his house, sat for his model, and whose single hope and assurance was that Agostino would live to be a famous painter. Cecco, for so he was p. 200called, was about thirty, a pale sedate man, of a gentle loving nature. But why describe him? You have seen him to-day, pictured by his friend’s hand as no words of mine could paint him.
“As the time for the competition drew on, the two friends were wholly absorbed in anticipating the result. Agostino was to be immortalised as the painter, Cecco as the model. And their love for each other made them wholly unselfish; each hoped for success solely in the interest of his friend. Nothing short of a perfect likeness would satisfy Agostino, nothing short of a perfect picture would satisfy Cecco’s ambition for his friend.
“On the night before the pictures were to be sent in, the two went up together to the church, to place the painting in position and to judge of its effect, taking with them the materials for retouching it if it should be required. It was a wild night—p. 201a night like this (for the story is precise in its details)—and the two friends had a hard climb up the hill to the church, where they placed the picture in the side chapel, because they could utilise the stronger light to throw into relief the details of the composition.
“You ask for the result? Well, Cecco was in raptures. ‘It is immortality, ’Tino,’ he cried, ‘for both of us. How great you are! It is I—I myself, and to the very life—only grander, nobler, spiritualised.’ ‘Yes, it is you,’ said ’Tino hesitatingly, ‘you, no doubt, and to the very life, as you say. But will that do? Look at that face, that chest, those firm and muscular limbs. True to life, I admit, well-drawn and well-painted. But life, not death, and death is what we wanted. Strip yourself, Cecco, and lie at the foot of the Cross; see if you can help me. You know I can never paint the smallest detail without a model. There—p. 202fling yourself down in a heap as if you had lost all strength, all energy. Yes, that is well. You have given me the attitude. But the blood, the rich colouring in your face and limbs—it is life, vigorous life, all of it—and I cannot even picture what they would be like, shrunk and colourless and lifeless. If you could only faint, Cecco, I might do something. Can’t you faint—just for one moment—just to oblige me?’ ‘No, ’Tino, but I will do more for you and the picture than that. Only promise to finish it—here, this evening, before you leave the church. ’Tino, remember, I count upon your promise.’
“One short swift stroke, and he had dealt himself the blow before ’Tino’s hand could stay him.
“But ’Tino set up his easel beside the corpse, and all the night through he painted—painted as if the Furies were upon him—till the dawn looked in at the window and his friend’s form took shape p. 203on the canvas, and the task that had been appointed him was done.
“Then ’Tino, too, vanished from among us, leaving the story of Cecco’s death in writing beside the corpse.
“And it was said by some, but never believed by those who knew him, that ’Tino had slain his friend.”
* * * * *
It was some time before I or Eric spoke.
“I wonder what became of ’Tino,” I murmured. “Stay; do not tell me, even if the legend has recorded it. I can picture it without words. Lonely he must have been, for he had seen that which must have built a barrier for ever between him and the world outside. And I can assume with equal certainty that he never handled brush or palette again. And sometimes—always at night—he would reappear at the church and watch through p. 204the darkness in company with his friend. Yes, lonely he must have been—but not unhappy, brightened by a great love here and by a vision of the Greater beyond.”
When I returned to Fleetwater, Marion was gone. It was better so, I felt, much as I missed her. Indeed, our last good-bye had been said in the place she had chosen for it,—on the Chapel Hill where she had turned and left me.
Two days later Eric’s verdict on the picture came. It was short and to the point.
“Why, it’s a Bronzino (he wrote), the great Bronzino at Madrid. I mean, of course, a copy. But a remarkably good one, and worth something if only for the excellence of the work. I’ll do what I can with it. The original is safe, p. 206as you know, in the Museum at Madrid—at least it was, unless you have stolen it since I left the place last autumn.
I do not know what other answer we could have expected. But notwithstanding, it was a disappointment to all of us. Most fortunate it proved that I had seen the original at Madrid, and been able, in consequence, to repress the growing confidence of those around me in the value of the picture. Indeed, I had been obliged to insist on this point again and again in my conversations with the Rector and Marion, neither of whom could in any wise be persuaded that it was only a copy. Marion, if possible, had been the more obstinate of the two, and had almost succeeded in convincing me that I had never seen the original at all. “I believe it was a dream, Harold,” she p. 207would say, “and that you only fancied you saw it. Why, I’ve had the same feeling a hundred times over. Dreams with me often take such a real and tangible form that I’ve found myself hunting again and again for some article which I was sure I had in my possession, and which very possibly never existed at all. Reason in such cases is absolutely powerless. Even to this very day I constantly wake up with a belief that I’ve bought a whole gallery of pictures, and am short of the money to pay for them. And so real is the fancy that I could describe to you at this moment the shop where I bought them, the man who sold them to me, and the subject of each picture in detail.
“Besides, you must have been picture-blind by the time you got to Madrid. By your own showing it came at the end of a long round of galleries, and I suspect that this dream-picture of yours is a sort of blend of all the best pictures p. 208you’d been seeing at Rome and Florence and Dresden. A cardinal gave you the dress, and Bindo Altoviti the face, and lo and behold you had your portrait complete.”
And the Rector, who had a fine eye for drawing and colouring, had been not one whit more easy to persuade. “I can’t solve the mystery, Stirling. But of one thing I’m certain—that no copyist did it. Do you mean to tell me that a painter who could do work like that would waste his time on the slavish task of copying? Why, the man who painted that picture might command the Royal Academy. It’s no such easy matter, remember, to reproduce a picture in flaming scarlet, without a touch of any other colour to relieve it. Try it, my boy—you’re a dabbler in the art yourself—and see if you can produce anything on the same lines that will be worth hanging as a signboard on the village Inn.”
p. 209Even Peggy, too, had had her fling at my unbelief. “Why, it’s simply lovely, Mr. Stirling,” she’d tell me, “though I say it as shouldn’t, for it goes sore against my conscience to praise that idolatrous young heathen, who, but for the cut of his dress, might be the Scarlet Woman herself. And even she couldn’t have chosen herself a more beautiful material; I will say that for it, scarlet or no scarlet. You can’t find such a texture as that in a shop now-a-days for love or money. Look at the gloss and sheen on it, and the beautiful folds that it makes, that’ll never show a crease in them till years after that young jackanapes has grown out of it.”
Well, I had my revenge on all of them at last when Eric’s letter came, confirming my statement that I had left the original at Madrid.
But I question whether revenge is ever at any time satisfactory; it certainly was not so to me.
In the days that followed, my life took a dull sad monotone, lightened at intervals by the reflection of past memories, which lay along its path like the sunlit pools left on a shore by the receding tide.
Leave-takings are bad enough at any time, unless they form the prelude to a brighter future. And future before me I had none, except a grim monotony of work in a curacy at the East End, into which I intended to throw all the energy I could command, if only to keep my thoughts from brooding on the past.
p. 211And yet of quiet happiness there was something left me still. For everyone at Fleetwater seemed sorry at my going. Even Higgins, our one great Calvinist, with whom on questions of theology the Rector and I had found ourselves at bitter feud, was troubled at my leaving. He had hoped, I think, to convert me to his theories. But as his arguments went chiefly to prove that one of the great pleasures of the righteous in the world to come would be to listen to the tortures of the wicked, I declined his ministrations, and became to him in his own words as “the deaf adder that stoppeth her ears.”
Stranger still, even Peggy was sorry, now that the time had come for me to go the way of all the curates, even though I was fulfilling my preordained destiny, and going on the question of Marion’s love. Not even the knowledge that Reggie would soon be home again, to find a fair p. 212field and plenty of her own favour, could reconcile her wholly to the parting.
And at the Rectory all was sadness and dismay. The Rector seldom alluded to my going; I think he could not trust himself. But the children, who had been always fond of me, were less reticent of their grief, especially as they saw before them a blank future, from which the wedding and its attendant festivities had been suddenly withdrawn.
And still the dreary days went on. Each day a Good-bye said to some one who had become a kindly friend, and each day a Good-bye to some haunt in which Marion and I had walked and loved.
If only I could have shared in her firm confidence, the task before me would have been lightened. But each day I heard news of the bank that increased more and more my hopelessness. p. 213Already I had been obliged to borrow funds to meet the calls that were in prospect, and, when they should have been paid in full, I foresaw myself starting anew in life with a load of encumbrances about my neck that, out of a curate’s slender pittance, there was small hope of reducing, granted that I could find the means of paying the annual interest.
Even now I found myself hampered by the expenses necessitated by my leaving. And it was in the hope of getting something to relieve my present embarrassment that I wrote again to Eric, reminding him of his promise, and asking him in so many words if he had been able to do anything towards finding me a market for the picture.
He delayed his answer for many days, from the difficulty, I thought, he had found in getting any offer that he would be warranted in accepting.
“I have been behaving like a cad.
Your picture is an original Bronzino, worth quite enough to free you from all the difficulties brought about by the bank. Any copyist who could do such work could expend his time more profitably on a picture of his own. Besides, it’s a tour de force in colouring that no sane copyist would dream of imitating. Bronzino, I suppose, fancied his subject, and, like some other great painters, reproduced it in duplicate, with just the smallest p. 216amount of alteration that would serve to characterize and identify it.
“And now for my own part in this sorry business. It was a mean trick, but, thank Heaven, I hadn’t the strength, and, I hope, not the will to carry it through. You see I wanted her so badly that I couldn’t give her up even to you. And then the question of the picture turned up, and, unluckily, I found in it my opportunity. Till then, believe me, I had kept my honour safe. All of a sudden, the words she had used of me on Chapel hill, the night of the show, flashed across my mind, and I thought that, if you were out of the way for a time, I might win her still. And it was hard for me, you know, when I had waited for her all these years, and had come home at last to claim her, to find that you had won her love.
“Believe me, Harold, when I say I am sorry. I have sinned against the friend of my youth and p. 217the woman of my love. But try, old friend—not now but in the future—to win my pardon from Marion and yourself. You will have time to do so, for I leave England to-morrow for the East, and shall not return, if I ever do, till I can face your happiness without a thought of envy or regret. Don’t tell Marion more than you can help. Old friend, good-bye.
“P.S.—I enclose Christie and Manson’s receipt for your picture, which will go into their next sale. ‘Bronzino at his best’ the critics pronounce it, which in his case means a big difference. I am forwarding you my own picture of ‘Val Verde,’ which I always intended for Marion.”
Eric, I fancy, will never marry. At least, he says so, and the words mean more with him than they would do on the lips of other men.
His was not a character—I recognised at last—to love lightly, or to change the object easily where once it had given its love. In every single point he had falsified the career which I had mapped out for him at starting. Not always, it is clear, does Cicero’s rule hold good—“Imago animi vultus; indices oculi.” Eric, for one, had demonstrated its incompleteness. I had thought him p. 219weak and vacillating. And his weakness, if ever it existed, had become his strength. Strong he had shown himself (in spite of his own words) both for the friend of his youth and the woman of his choice; strong to build himself a grand career; strong above all to conquer a temptation before which the strongest might have fallen; strong finally to fall and rise again, which is greater and grander, I take it, than not to fall. True of him, if of anyone—
“That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.”
Thank Heaven! there is no shadow of a cloud between us now. And though I cannot look for him at Fleetwater as yet, where the tantalising proximity of all he held most dear would make life for a time unbearable; yet surely, most surely, I know that we shall see him there some time, some day.
p. 220In appearance he is not altered much from the lad I loved at school and college, and from whom I parted not quite three years ago in his rooms at Trinity, starting, each of us, so confidently on the journey of a life for which I had made forecast of such different results. Only a weary look in his eyes, which time, I think, will surely lighten; only a line or two on his forehead, which time, I think, will surely smooth away.
And when he left us again for a long round of travel in Italy, Egypt, and the East, to enlarge his ideas and find fresh subjects for his pencil, it was with a heart full of hope and thankfulness that I bade him Godspeed.
For surely, most surely, I know that we shall have him once again with us—the Eric of the past, the dearest friend, save one, I ever knew—to share in and complete the happiness he had won for us out of the strong heart that only failed him once, and p. 221made out of failure a greater and far more glorious recovery. For time has been quietly perfecting its work, and when he comes to us again, we shall meet, I know, the Eric of the future, too, uprising from the Eric of the past.
 The following legend formed the subject of a short story in the “Cambridge Review,” June 1903.
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