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A Story of the Chalk Cliffs
Illustrator: Edgar Bundy
'MAKE OUT THIS, WILL YOU? WE ARE ALL FRIENDS HERE.'
One grey, uncertain afternoon in November, when the vapour-laden skies were without a rent, and the trailing clouds, without a fringe, were passing imperceptibly into drizzle, that thickened with coming night, when the land was colourless, and the earth oozed beneath the tread, and the sullen sea was as lead—on such a day, at such a time of day, a woman wandered through Seaton, then a disregarded hamlet by the mouth of the Axe, picking up a precarious existence by being visited in the summer by bathers.
The woman drew her daughter about with her. Both were wet and bedraggled.
The wind from the east soughed about the caves, whistled in the naked trees, and hissed through the coarse sea-grass and withered thrift; whilst from afar came the mutter of a peevish sea. The woman was tall, had fine features of a powerful cast, with eyes in which slumbered volcanic fire. Her cheeks were flushed, her rich, dark hair, caught by the wind and sopped by the mist, was dishevelled under her battered hat. She was not above thirty-six years old.
The girl she held and drew along was about eighteen. She partook of her mother's fineness of profile and darkness of eye. If there were in her features some promise or threat of the resolution that characterised her mother's countenance, it was tempered by a lurking humour that would not suffer them to set to hardness.
This woman, holding her daughter with a grip of iron, stood in the doorway of a farm, talking with, or rather at, the farmer.
'Why not? Have I not hands, arms? Can I not work? Will not she work? Prove us. I ask why you cannot take us in?'
'My good woman, we require no one.'
'But you do. You have needed me. When your wife was ill, and your hussy of a maid had run away—did you not send for me? Did I hesitate to go to you? I left then my huckstering that I might be useful in your house. That was the hour of your need. Now it is mine. Did I not at that time do my work well? Perhaps over well. Your wife said I had scrubbed the surface off the table and rubbed into holes the clothes I washed. Anyhow I did naught by halves. And your drones, they guzzle and sleep, and when you are in straits—there is sickness, disaster—then they run away. Take me and Winefred.'
'My dear Mrs. Marley, it is of no avail your persisting to thrust yourself on us. You can't stable more horses than you have stalls. I have no vacancy.'
'Your missus has turned away Louie Herne.'
'And has engaged one in her place.'
'Then give us leave to sleep in your barn, and I'll work in the fields for you, hoeing, weeding, gathering up stones—ay, better than can a man.'
'No, thank you. I do not care to have my barn burnt down. You have too much fire in you to be safe among straw.'
The woman quivered with disappointment and rage. Erect, with rigid arms and stiff neck, she flared out: 'Ay! I could tear down your stacks, or fire them. I am "Dear Jane Marley" when you need me. "Out, you vagabond," when I am in need.'
'If you dared do what you threaten,' said the farmer, suddenly becoming harsh in tone and manner, 'into prison you should go, and then, indeed, your Winefred would be a vagabond, and all through you.'
The woman shut her mouth, but sparks scintillated in her eyes.
'Mother, let us go elsewhere,' said the girl and endeavoured to draw her mother away.
'Not yet,' answered the woman impatiently. 'Do you not know, Moses Nethersole, that I and my Winefred are homeless? My cottage has gone to pieces, and the whole cliff is crumbling away. The wall is down already, and the lime-ash floor is buckled up and splitting. No one now may go nigh the place. It needs but the hopping of a wagtail to send the whole bag of tricks into the sea. And you—you have the heart to deny us shelter and bread, and work whereby to earn both.'
'Bread you shall have and a cup of milk.'
'I will have neither as an alms. I ask no charity. I desire to work for my meat and for my housing. Have I not done so like an honest woman hitherto? Would you make a beggar of me? Give me work, I ask. I seek nothing more.'
'Mother, come away,' pleaded the girl.
'I will,' said the woman curtly, and turned round with an abrupt action. Then suddenly she stooped, stripped off her shoes, and, running forward as the farmer backed, she beat the soles against the doorposts.
'There,' she said, 'there is Scripture for you. I cannot shake off the dust o' my feet as testimony against you, but I can the mud and the oozing of the water from the sodden leather. May that cling there till the Day of Judgment, and bring the blight to your wheat, the rot to your sheep, to your cattle, the worm and canker to your store, and fester into your blood. It is the curse of the widow and the fatherless that will lie on you.'
The farmer slammed his door in her face, and retreated to the kitchen. He was a phlegmatic and amiable man, but the fury of the woman, and her denunciation of woes had shaken him; his ruddy face was mottled, and his hand shook as he let himself down into the settle.
'By my soul, she's a vixen!' he gasped.
'Moses,' said his wife, 'you've done right. If I hadn't been minding ironing of your shirt-front for Sunday, I'd have gone out and given that same vixen a bit of my mind.'
'I wish you had, Mary—I'm no match for the likes o' she.'
'If I had heard the smallest mite o' wavering in your voice, I would have done so for certain,' said Mrs. Nethersole; 'and so you call her "dear Jane," do you? Things come out unexpected at times, and "Mistress Marley" is she? You know as well as I do that she is no honest woman, howsomever she may brag of her honesty. She is just a wild lostrel as has got no belongings, save that girl as never ought to have come into this world of wickedness.'
'Mary, perhaps it's all along of it being a world of a wickedness that she did come. Jane Marley's case is a sad one. She has been driven from her cottage.'
'The cliff has given way. You know where it stood.'
'Not I—it is on the other side of the water.'
'It was on the edge of the cliff, and the rock has been breaking away for some time—that is how she had it cheap. Now it is part down, and they say there be a great crack right along the ground—and the whole cliff will go over, and be munched by the waves.'
'That's no concern of ours, Moses; she does not belong to the parish.'
'True, but she has worked for us when we were short and in difficulties.'
'And was paid for it—and we wiped our hands of her.'
'Mary, you are over hard.'
'And you like butter on dog-days. I know you men. Dear Jane, indeed!'
Mrs. Marley, with labouring bosom, heaving after the storm, drew her daughter with her into the village street, to the village inn, the Red Lion, kept by Mrs. Warne.
She walked in, with a manner almost defiant, and encountered the landlady issuing from the cosy parlour behind the bar, in which a good fire burnt, and where sat a couple of commercial travellers.
'I have come,' said Jane Marley, 'and have brought my Winefred. Our house is going to pieces under our feet, over our heads, and we are homeless. I desire that you take my child and me. I do not ask it as a favour. Look at my arms. I can work, and will be an ostler for you, and she shall serve in the inn.'
'I really do not require you,' said Mrs. Warne. 'I am sorry for your misfortunes, but I cannot help. You do not belong to this parish.'
'And are love and mercy never to travel beyond parish bounds?' asked the woman, with her vehemence again breaking out. 'Is the tide of charity to flow on one side of the hedge and not on the other? Is the dew of heaven to moisten the wool on the fleece of the parish sheep only?'
'Jane, be reasonable. Our duties are limited by the parish boundaries, but not our charity.'
'Then extend some charity to Winefred and me, not alms, mind you, only consideration.'
'Charity must be governed by circumstances,' said Mrs. Warne.
'Oh, yes,' retorted Jane scornfully. 'It is like a canal, so much of it let out through the sluices as the dock-keeper thinks well.'
'If you will be patient,' said the hostess, a woman rubicund, plump and good-humoured, at the moment impatient to be back with the commercials, especially with one who had an engaging eye and tongue. 'If you will be patient, I will tell you how I can oblige you. I do not mind taking on Winefred.'
'But Tom Man, your ostler, is dead.'
'Well, but I must have a man in the stables, not a woman.'
'No,' said Mrs. Marley, 'I will not leave the child unprotected in a public-house. See me, I have neither father, nor mother—no relation of any sort. What my story is, that concerns none but myself; but, such as it is, it has made me alone, with only my child to love. All the love you have to your mother and sisters and brothers and cousins, that with me is gathered into one great love for the one child I have. Where she is, there am I. She is a handsome girl, blooming as a rose. No, I will not let her be seen in a tavern, unless I be near also to watch over her against your leering bagmen.'
Mrs. Warne bridled up.
'Bagmen, indeed! Tut, woman, surely you may trust me?'
'I can trust none. You are not her mother. You must take us both.'
'I cannot receive you both. I have made you a fair offer. If you will not accept, go over the river to your own parish.'
Then Mrs. Warne retreated into the bar, shut the door, drew down the window, and went to the fire and the commercials. Jane Marley left the Red Lion. The cloud darkened on her brow.
She said no word to her daughter, but directed her way up the street to a small shop, in which already a light was burning.
In the greensand beds about Seaton, or rather on the beach, washed from them, are found chalcedonies, green and yellow, red jasper, and moss agates, also brown petrified wood that takes a high polish. There was a little dealer in these at Seaton, an old man who polished and set them, and sold them as memorials to visitors coming there for sea-bathing and air. To this man, Thomas Gasset by name, the distressed woman betook herself.
He was sitting at his work-table, with a huge pair of spectacles in horn rims over his nose, engaged in mounting a chalcedony as a seal.
He looked up.
'Got some stones for me, Mrs. Marley?' he asked. 'I hope good ones this time. Those Winefred brought last were worthless.'
'No, Mr. Gasset, they were not,' said the girl. 'I know a stone as well as you.'
'Thomas Gasset,' said the mother, 'I come to you with a proposal. Will you take Winefred and me into your service? That is to say, let us both lodge with you. She shall collect the precious pebbles, and as she says she knows one that is good from another that is worthless, she can help polish; turn the grindstone, if you will; and I will go about the country selling them, instead of tapes and papers of pins—or with them.'
'My dear good creature,' gasped the jeweller—as this dealer in such stones as jasper and agate elected to be called—more correctly a lapidary—'the business would not maintain all three. The season here is short, and I sell in that only.'
He looked out of the corners of his eyes at his wife, who was darning where she could profit by his lamp. She pursed up her lips and drew her brows together.
'The business is a starving, not a living,' said Mrs. Marley, 'because it is not pushed. I have just been in at the Red Lion—there are commercials, them travelling for some habberdash or hosiery firm—they work up the trade. It pays to employ them. You make me your traveller, I will go about with your wares to Dorchester, to Weymouth, to Exeter—wherever there be gentlefolk with loose money to spend in such things. It will pay you over and over again. If this sort of working a business can keep those commercials in the lap of luxury in Mrs. Warne's bar, drinking spirits and dining off roast goose, it will keep me who never take anything stronger than milk, and am content with a crust and dripping. Let me travel for you and look to this as my home, where Winefred is.'
'No,' said Mrs. Gasset, snapping the answer from her husband's mouth; 'no, indeed, we take none under our roof who cannot produce her marriage lines.'
'Then I will lodge elsewhere if you will take my child, Mr. Gasset. You may trust her. Your goods will be safe with me. I will render account for every stone. You will have as security what is more to me than silver or gold—my Winefred.'
The man again peered out of the corners of his eyes at his wife, and again she answered for him.
'No,' she said. 'I don't doubt your honesty. You have been honest always save once. But there are reasons why it cannot be. That is final.'
And she snapped her mouth, and at the same moment broke her darning-needle.
Jane Marley left the shop.
When her back was turned Mrs. Gasset flew at her husband.
'You'd have given way—I saw it by the way you twitched the end of your nose.'
'My dear Sarah! It was such an opportunity. The woman is right—my business——'
'Oh! Much you thought of your business. It was her great brown eyes—not your agates.'
'My dear Sarah! Surely at my age——'
'The older a man is, the more of a fool he becomes.'
'Well, well, my honey-bee, I didn't.'
'No, you didn't, because I was by,' retorted the honey-bee, and put forth her sting. 'If I had been underground, you'd have taken her in. I know you; yah!'
And in the little parlour behind the bar, the comfortable Mrs. Warne settled herself before the fire, and drew up her gown so as not to scorch it, and looked smilingly at the more attractive bagman of the two, and said, 'Ah! Mr. Thomson, if you only knew from what I have saved you.'
'From what, my dearest Mrs. Warne?'
'From fascinations you could not have resisted. There has been here a peculiarly handsome woman wanting a situation—as ostler. If she had come, there would have been no drawing you from the stables.'
'Madame—elsewhere perhaps—but assuredly not here.'
The women were all against Jane Marley because she was still good-looking.
Jane Marley wrapped her shawl about her; her head was bowed, her lips set, her grip on her daughter unrelaxed.
She turned from the village, and walked along the shingly way to the water's edge. The Axe flows into the sea through a trough washed out of the blood-red sandstone that comes to the surface between the hills of chalk; but the fresh water does not mingle with the brine unopposed. A pebble ridge has been thrown up by the sea at the mouth, that the waves labour incessantly to complete, so as to debar the Axe from discharging its waters into it. Sometimes high tide and storm combine to all but accomplish the task, and the river is strangled within a narrow throat; but this is for a time only. Once more the effluent tide assists the river to force an opening which the inflowing tide had threatened to seal.
One of the consequences of this struggle ever renewed is that the mouth has shifted. At one time the red Axe discharged to the west, but when a storm blocked that opening it turned and emptied itself to the east.
On the farther side, that to the rising sun, the chalk with dusky sandstone underneath rears itself into a bold headland, Haven Ball, that stands precipitously against the sea, as a white, cold shoulder exposed to it. Up a hollow of this hill, a combe as it is called, a mean track ascends to the downs which overhang the sea, and extend, partly in open tracts, in part enclosed, as far as Lyme Regis.
There is no highway. The old Roman coast-road lies farther to the north, but there is a track, now open, now between blasted hedges, always bad, and exposed to the gale from the sea and the drift of the rain.
But to reach this, the Axe estuary must be crossed. This is nowadays a matter of one penny, as there is a toll-bridge thrown from one bank to the other. But at the time of my story transit was by a ferry-boat, and the boat could ply only when there was a sufficiency of water.
Jane Marley seated herself on a bench by the landing-stage, and drew her daughter down beside her.
The wind was from the south-east, and spat cold rain in their faces. She passed her shawl round Winefred, regardless of herself.
Presently up came the ferryman.
'Good e'en, Mistress Marley. Do you want to cross again?'
'In ten minutes. Will you come under shelter into my cabin?'
The woman shook her head impatiently.
'You will get wet.'
'I am wet already.'
'We shall be colder presently.'
'Poor comfort I call that,' said the boatman. 'But you was always a headstrong, difficult woman, hard to please. Where be you going to, now?'
'Where I shall be better off than I am here.'
Presently Jane raised her face, streaming with rain, and said, 'There are springs hereabouts that turn the moss into stone, and the blades of grass are hardened to needles. I reckon that the spray of these springs has watered the hearts of the people; they are all stone, and the stone is flint. I shall go elsewhere.'
'It is a long way to Lyme—if you be bound thither. And over the cliffs it is exposed as well, and not safe with the falling darkness. I do not say this on your account. You, Jane, are not one who cares for length of way and badness of weather. But I speak for pretty Winefred's sake.'
'I am her mother, and I am the person to consider her, not you, Olver Dench.'
'No offence meant. But my cat had kittens, and when all were drowned but one, she carried that remaining one about in her mouth everywhere, and never let it go till she had nipped the life out of the kitten; and, I swear, you remind me of that cat.'
Then ensued a silence that lasted for some minutes. The ferryman reopened the conversation.
'I suppose you knew it was coming.'
'Knew what?' asked she.
'That the cottage would go to pieces.'
'Yes. I got it cheap because of the risk.'
'And now, I make bold to ask, what have you done with your furniture?'
'There is not much. What I have is there. I have no house into which to move it. In the parish I am refused—in Seaton they cast me back on the parish, and the parish casts me off altogether.'
'You do not belong to it by birth.'
'No. I belong nowhere. I have no home.'
'But are you not afraid your bits of furniture will be stolen?'
'What if they be? If there be no shelter for Winefred and me, what care I for housing a poor bedstead and a rotten chair? The great grey sea has torn away the rock on which I stood. The wall has fallen, and my house is thrown open to all. Whither shall I go? Where shall I shelter my child? We have no place.'
The man shrugged his shoulders. He was a red-faced man with white hair; in the failing light of winter the red looked dull purple and the white a soiled grey.
'Come now!' said the woman, starting up, 'my affairs are none of yours. They touch you in no way. The tide flows.'
She did not notice a peculiar expression that came up into his face and creamed it as she said the words, but Winefred, who was looking wistfully at him, was struck by it.
Without another word, he went to the ferryboat, unfastened the chain, and held out his hand to assist Jane in.
She thrust his hand aside with a gesture of impatience, and stepped in with firm foot, then turned and helped her daughter.
Nothing was said as the man rowed across. The woman was immersed in thought of the most gloomy complexion; the daughter was too wretched to speak. The tears that flowed from her eyes were mingled with the rain that beat on her face.
The rower looked from one to the other with a sinister expression.
After the boat had grounded, when Mrs. Marley left it, he said, 'You'll not go away—right away, I mean—without letting me know where you may be; because it might chance—there's no telling—there is hope yet.'
He did not complete his sentence.
'There is no hope,' said the woman coldly, 'no more than there is sun above these clouds and this dribbling rain. The sun has gone down. After nineteen years hope dies.'
Then she left him, and extending her arm, again grasped the wrist of her daughter.
'Mother,' said Winefred, 'Mr. Dench hates us.'
'It matters nothing to us whether he hate or love. Why should he hate us?'
'That I cannot say, but hate us he does.'
'All the world hates us, for all the world has money, comforts, shelter, and,' she muttered in her bosom, 'there are some who have a husband to care for them, and a father to watch over them. We have neither, and the sight of us, as we are, in our need, our nakedness, our desolation, is an offence, like garbage, to be swept aside and cast on the dunghill. Seaton says, Away, across the water! You do not belong to us. And Axmouth says, Away! You were not born here, and we are not responsible for you. Let us warm our feet at a sea-coal fire, and drink mulled ale, and turn into our downy beds—go you wanderers in night and cold and wet—die, but do not trouble us.'
Up the steep path that led through the crease in the hillside pushed the weary mother, drawing along her yet more weary child. Yet in the passion of her heart at the contrast her imagination drew she pressed forward fast till arrested by shortness of breath.
Thus in silence they continued to mount. It was a climb of four hundred feet. The woman looked neither to right nor to left. Wet, trailing brambles caught at her garments with their claws. As she passed under a stunted thorn it shuddered and sent down a shower. The flints in the way lay in beds of water; the grass was slippery with rain. Dank and rotting sting-nettles, oozy, but poisonous in their decay, struck at their knees as they mounted.
'O mother,' sobbed the girl, when the summit was attained, and the cruel east wind slashed in their faces, splashing them with ice-cold rain, 'O mother, I can go no farther.'
'How—where can we stay? Answer me that.'
'Why should we go on if we go nowheres?'
'No—we go nowhere, for we have nowhere to go to for shelter and food.'
'Let us go home.'
'The sea has taken it from us.'
'Let us shelter somewhere.'
'We must find first someone who will take us in.'
'There is the Poor House.'
'Not for us—we do not belong to the place. And, further, it is full.'
'Let us creep into some hay-loft.'
'They will turn us out.'
'Into the church.'
'That at Axmouth is locked; that at Rousdon the roof has fallen in.'
'Mother, we must go somewhere.'
'So we shall—to the only shelter open.'
'Is it far?'
She still hurried the girl along, now at a faster pace, for they walked on fairly level down.
The day had completely closed in; all, however, was not inky darkness. On looking behind, seen through a blur of mist, could be caught some glimmer of lights from Seaton. There was, perhaps, a moon above the clouds, but the light sufficed only to show that there was not absolute obscurity above.
It was to Winefred as though life was being left behind, and they were plunging into boundless and black despair.
A wheeling gull screamed in her ear.
Suddenly the mother halted.
The wind lashed her hair, and flapped her sodden gown. She gripped Winefred now with both hands, and turning her back to the blast and splashing rain, said, 'Child! You shall know all now, now that there is no place whatever left for us. Your father has deserted you, he has abandoned me. He did this nineteen years ago. Not a word, not a shilling has he sent me. I know neither where he is, nor what he has been doing. He may be rich, he may be poor. He may be in blustering health, he may be sick or dead. Neither by letter nor by messenger have I been told—and I care not. I love him no more. I hate the man who has suffered us to come to this. Child, if a father can be stone to his own child, if a hus——if a man who has loved a woman can forget her who loved him with her whole young fresh heart—then is it a marvel that other men on whom we have no claim, to whom bound by no ties, are stone also? Child—you and I are alone. We are everything to each other. I have none but you; you have none but me. If I go, you are lost. If you go—I am no more. We are tied up in one another, to live and die together. Come on.'
Again she turned and faced the tearing, rain-laden wind.
'Mother, I cannot take another step,' sobbed the girl.
'We have not far to go.'
'Mother, I hear the sea; you have lost the way.'
'I know my course.'
'There is no path here.'
'I know it; paths lead to men and their homes—to firesides and warm beds.'
'We are on the cliff.'
'I came to the cliff.'
'We are drawing to the edge!'
'I know it: we are at the very brow.'
'But what if we fall over?'
Then with a hoarse voice Jane Marley said, as she held her child with a firmer grasp, 'Why, then, we shall not feel the wind and the cold and the rain and our weariness, we shall say good-bye to a stony world. There is no other refuge for us outcasts. Locked in each other's arms, mother and child must die.'
For a moment Winefred was petrified with horror. For a moment she was unresisting as the powerful woman gathered her up and strode with her to the verge, the water oozing about her from the soaked garments under the pressure.
But it was for a moment only. In that moment it was to Winefred as though she heard the sea in louder tone, multiplied five-fold, laugh and smack its lips, conscious that living beings with human souls were to be given to it to tumble and mumble, to pound on the pebbles and hack on the reefs. It was as though she saw through the darkness the cruel ocean throw up spray-draped arms to catch and clutch her as she fell.
But the moment of pause and paralysis was over. With a shriek and a knotting together of all her powers, and a concentration of all her faculties, she writhed in her mother's arms and fought her. She smote in her face, she tore at her hair, she turned and curled, and gathered herself into one muscular ball, she straightened herself, and threw herself backward in hopes of over-balancing her mother. 'I will not!' she shrieked. 'Let go! I will not.' Instead of freezing rain trickling down her brow, the sweat broke out in scalding drops. Her blood surged and roared in her veins and hammered in her ears. Fire danced before her eyes—then there came a falling. O God!—a falling——
And then a stillness.
'What is this?'
And a light smote into her face.
Almost before she had recovered her senses, Winefred found herself in a cottage, warm, where a good fire burnt, throwing out waves of yellow light as well as grateful heat, and she was being undressed by her mother and put to bed. She was stupefied, exhausted by her struggle for life.
The thoughts in her head were as straws, leaves, feathers in a swirl of water. She knew not whether what she experienced was a phase of dream or a piece of reality. But when food was forced upon her, and a mug of hot elderberry wine put to her lips, she drew a long breath, rubbed her eyes that were brimming with tears, rain, and sweat, looked about her and asked, 'Mother, where am I?'
'With me,' answered Jane Marley.
'Where are we both?'
'Captain Job Rattenbury has taken us in,' said the woman. 'Enough for you to know at present. Go to sleep and dream away the past.'
'O mother, did you really intend to throw me over the cliff?'
'Winefred, I would have cast myself over with you in my arms. But that is gonebyes. Forget and sleep.'
But none can undergo great excitement of brain, tension of nerve, pass through peril of life, and sleep sweetly after it. The brain continues to start, the nerve to quiver, the horror to come back, perhaps in receding waves, yet with imperceptible decline of force. If the girl fell into a doze it was to again spring up and cry out, under the supposition that she was falling, or to battle with hands and feet, as though wrestling once more to preserve life.
The room in which she had been put to bed was on the ground floor. There was a doorway from it communicating with the front kitchen.
After one of these recurring spasms of fear, rousing her to full wakefulness, at the girl's desire, Mrs. Marley left the door partly open between the apartments, so that the firelight might play in at the opening and flicker about the room, and she could hear the murmur of the voices of the speakers, and occasionally catch sight of them as they moved about.
But Winefred was too weary to listen to what they said, and she gradually slipped off into slumber again, once more to rouse with a start, but less terrifying than before, and then again to glide into unconsciousness.
Meanwhile her mother was in the adjoining chamber, and was conversing with the man who was the rescuer of herself and of her child.
This man was broad-shouldered, strongly built, with thick, tangled grey hair.
He wore, what at the time was unusual, a dense bush of the same grizzled hair covering the lower portion of his face. He had bright, keen eyes under penthouse brows, and a bold, beak-like nose. About his throat was bound a scarlet kerchief. He wore a blue shirt under an unbuttoned, long-flapped, white waistcoat with sleeves. His coat he had laid aside.
The room, as already intimated, constituted at once kitchen and parlour, such as in Yorkshire is termed the 'ha'aze,' but for which elsewhere a designation is wanting. In it the meals were cooked and also eaten, but the preparations previous to cooking, and the washing-up of the dirty plates after, were carried on in the back premises.
Against the wall, in a recess by the fireside, was an ancient press, quaintly carved, of oak, with brass scutcheons and hinges, but, as though the latter were not deemed of sufficient strength, additional hinges in iron had been added.
On the mantelshelf were skillet, candlesticks, snuffer-tray, a copper mortar, all polished and reflecting the dancing light of the fire. Also a black case that contained gunpowder, there kept to ensure its being dry. Above hung great holster pistols, a pair of cutlasses, and a long Spanish gun.
Suspended against the wall was a framed piece of needlework, representing a cutter in full rig, the wind bellying her white sails, and the sea through which she passed of indigo blue, of uniform colour and hue. Underneath, in rude characters, also formed by the needle, was 'The Paycock in Her Pride,' and, indeed, in one corner, in the heavens, was a representation of the Bird of Juno, displayed, as the heralds would describe it, that is to say, with tail spread. The whole, though rudely, was effectively executed. There were sundry curiosities distributed about the room—bits of coral, large shells, turning their pink insides towards the fire, a stuffed and mangy eagle, and, under glass, sea-horses and flying-fish. The man, whose name was Job Rattenbury, belonged to a notorious family, and was himself somewhat noted in the neighbourhood. He had been, like his father, so it was reported, a mighty smuggler in his youth; he had, however, been impressed and taken into the navy, but had left it, disappeared for some years, and when he came again into the neighbourhood, it was to the cottage he now occupied, which he bought; he had then married and settled into a life on land. His wife died, and he was left a widower with one son, Jack; but he lived mostly by himself, and took care to have the lad properly educated. The lad was now lodging at Beer, and was studying with the curate. Captain Rattenbury, as he was called, kept no servant. He cleaned his own house, so that it was beautifully neat and sweet, he cooked his own victuals, knitted and darned his own stockings. He was indeed deft with his fingers and a needle, as 'The Paycock in Her Pride' testified.
Though living in solitude and quiet, yet Rattenbury was an object of mistrust to the Preventive men, who had a station near by. Much was whispered and fabled, but little authentic known relative to his life and pursuits. It was suspected that he acted as a channel of communication between those who imported contraband goods, and those publicans, farmers and gentlemen, over a considerable area of Dorset and Devon, who desired to purchase wines and spirits without paying to the revenue the dues exacted.
But nothing positive was known on this head.
'I'll tell you what, Jane,' said Rattenbury, 'you have put the maid dry and warm betwixt the blankets, but you are wringing wet yourself and your teeth chattering. Strip off your bedraggled clothes yourself. Don't you suppose that I have no female tackle here. My missus has been dead these sixteen years, but I have not had an auction over her clothing; don't you suppose that. I'll just light the candle and unlock the press, and you shall have a change.'
He took a key from his pocket and opened the wardrobe. He had kindled a tallow candle at the logs that burned on the hearth, and he held this at the open door.
Mrs. Marley saw an assemblage of garments suspended within, none belonging to a man, and of all sorts and materials.
'Will you have a stuff or a silken gown?' he asked, and looked at her. He fumbled dubiously among the garments.
'But see—suit yourself—there be of all kinds there. They belonged to my wife. She is gone aloft where they dress in gossamer and swansdown. I keep these for Jack's wife, when he is pleased to marry. But the moth plays the deuce with them. Go either where the maiden sleeps or under the stair, where is a berth. Pass me out your streaming rags, and I'll hang them up to dry. By the Lord, you will be crippled with rheumatics if you do not shift at once. There is your child crying out again! I'll take my fiddle. Give a look in on her, and put on dry things. I'll play her a tune.'
'That will rouse her.'
'No, it will soothe her. I'll give her no hornpipes, but something soft and slumbrous.'
Then he began to hum, 'Once I loved a maiden fair.' He stood in the midst of the floor, balancing his arms, and dancing his hands to the rhythm of the air.
'That will send her to the Land of Dreams. I would play a lullaby, but I know none.'
Thereupon he went to a nail to which was suspended a green baize bag, and from the bag he drew a violin. He seated himself at the fire and began to play:
'Once I loved a maiden fair,
But she did deceive me;
She with Venus might compare,
If you will believe me.
She was young,
All the maids the sweetest,
Now I say,
Brightest hopes are fleetest!
As he played the air he hummed the words.
For one so rough, so big, so burly, the execution was marvellously tender and graceful.
He was right. With such a hand on the bow, such melody as this, the trouble of the girl's mind was allayed, as when oil is poured over chafed water. He continued playing, always softly, dreaming himself over this exquisite musical theme, wandering away into changes, as his mind reverted to the one soft and sweet episode of his rude career—the courtship of the woman who had become his wife. And as he played the May sun came out, and the oak was bursting; he saw meadows in which the purple orchis grew and the delicate 'milk maids' fluttered, watercourses over which the marsh-marigolds hung their golden chalices, heard the doves coo and the cuckoo call, and looked into the blue heavens of his Mary's eyes—and the man's face changed, and his eyes filled—'Now I say—Ah! welladay, Brightest hopes are fleetest!'
Mrs. Marley came out of the inner chamber.
She was vastly changed in appearance. She had washed her face and smoothed her hair, and in a good stuff gown wore a stately appearance. She was certainly a handsome woman still, though tanned by exposure and lined by care. Job winced when he saw a stranger in a dress that had once been worn by his wife, the thought of whom was still playing over him like a breath of violets.
He laid aside his violin.
'That has not kept the girl awake, I warrant.'
'No, she has fallen asleep, and there is a smile on her lips.'
'I thought so. Sit down, Jane. I will have my pipe and grog, and you shall sip the latter if I cannot win you to have a pull at the first. It will be the most sovereign medicine after the chill. Sit down and tell me all.'
'There is nothing to tell.'
'There is everything to tell. If I had not chanced to arrive at the right moment, you would have thrown your child into the sea.'
'I would have cast myself over the cliffs with her in my arms.'
'Because no one would take us in. I knocked at every door, I told my case in every ear, I appealed to every heart. It was all of no avail; so I knew there was no place for us in the world. We were to be squeezed out of it. Look outside your door and see. Listen to the wind and rain against your window. What sort of a night is this? Not fit for a dog to be out in—yet into it homeless and hungry the widow and the fatherless are thrust. Answer me, which were best? To end our miseries with one gasp, or to lie in the wet and whistle of the wind, shiver and die of a November night behind some dripping hedge in a ditch half full of water? There was but a choice of deaths. It was not a picking between life and death. Which would be worst—the short pang or the prolonged wretchedness? Which would you choose if it were to be your lot—the lot of you and Jack?'
'Jack and I are men. Men do not lie down in ditches to die, or chuck themselves over cliffs. If what they desire and need be not given them they take it by main force.'
He poured himself out a stiff glass of grog, then recollecting the woman, gave her some, much diluted, sufficient to drive out the cold and induce sleep.
'Why did you not go to Mrs. Jose at Bindon? Everybody who is in distress seeks her.'
'Mrs. Jose is away at Honiton with her sister nursing her. She is sick.'
'Whither do you propose to go to-morrow?'
'I have nowhere before me.'
'You do not belong to this parish?'
'No, I was not born here. I have not lived here long enough. But, captain, do not misunderstand me. I ask alms of none; all I require is work to be given me so that I may earn my livelihood, and I will not be separated from my child. See you,' her voice softened, and the lines in her face relaxed, as her eyes melted and her lips quivered, 'I am a lonely woman. I have neither father nor mother nor sister nor kin. No, nor husband neither. He whom I had has abandoned me; maybe, by this time, has taken up with another woman, and dresses and feeds and comforts her.' Again her voice and features became hard. She looked before her into the fire. But then again a wave of softer feeling swept over her.
'For eighteen years,' she said, with her eyes on the fire, and speaking rather to herself than to the man, 'for eighteen years Winefred has lain at my heart. I fed her from my bosom. When she cried, all the fibres of my being trembled. From me she has the very blood that flows in her veins, and her soul is a part of mine, and her first breath she drew out of my lungs. I have done everything for her. I love nothing, care for nothing, hope for nothing apart from her. I have nothing but my child—no, not a clot of earth, not a brick out of a wall, not a guinea of gold; I have nothing my own but her.'
She began to cry, not noisily, but with great tears stealing down her cheeks. Then she was silent.
All at once she burst forth, 'O God in heaven, Who has put such love into a mother's heart, Thou alone canst understand me. What if aught should befall me, and she were left alone? She is a handsome girl. I was handsome once, and having no father, no mother to care for me, I came into such sorrow as never was. I cannot endure to think that she—my Winefred, my all—should be kicked about from place to place, friendless, or taken up by such as would only blight her whole life. I had rather that she died.' She sprang up and her eye flashed. 'Rather than this I would do it again. I will do it again, and not let the evil soil and rot my pretty flower.'
'Be still, good woman,' said Job, and he spoke with a gulp in his throat. He took up his violin, and played the same air as before.
Presently he laid the instrument on his knees.
'I understand you. You speak as I feel about my Jack. I am a rough old sea-dog, and I have been—I won't say what. But all I have saved is for my Jack. I shall make a gentleman of him. All my thoughts are on my Jack.' He touched his breast with the end of his bow. 'When you talk like that, Jane, you touch a chord here as begins to chime. You and your kid shall remain here. I am getting old, and require a woman to mind the house. As to the pay—we will talk of that to-morrow.'
She caught his hand and kissed it.
'Nay,' said he, 'don't thank me. It is the fellow-feeling as does it. I am a father with one child, and you a mother also with one—that is it, woman, that is it.'
The rain and easterly wind ceased towards dawn. When morning broke a haze hung over sea and land that slowly lifted but never wholly vanished, and left the landscape bathed in the wan sunshine of November, the smile of a dying year.
Jane Marley was afoot early, and went to work immediately. She did what was necessary undirected, lighted the fire, made the kettle boil, and had cleared away the untidy remains of the past day's occupation of the room.
When Job Rattenbury came down from his room above and found every preparation made for breakfast, then an expression of satisfaction came over his rugged face.
'Right and fitting,' said he. 'For myself I do not care, but I must think of Jack. He does not like to see his dad make the fire and clean the boots. He wants to do it himself, and we have had a tussle over it. Jack is obstinate. Says Jack, "Father, I will not have it. You're not my fag. I'll clean my own boots or wear 'em dirty all day." I say, "There is the difference between us. I was never brought up to be a gentleman, but it is my intent and ambition that you shall be." And now, Jane Marley, go on as you have begun, and we shall not get across. I'm a rough customer when things go against the grain. You are not one to stand pulling your apron and asking "Please, what next?" but buckle to work at once. I want Jack to be comfortable when he comes home, and I must provide that there be none of the little awkwardnesses there have been when he refuses to let his old dad make his bed, and sew on his waistcoat buttons, and wash the dishes. Stay here you may, you and the kid, so long as you both conduct yourselves.'
But the pact was not concluded till a proviso had been added. 'Let this be an understanding between us. You make no advances, and do not aim at becoming aught other than my housekeeper. Because I let you put on her gown last night, that is no reason why I should let you step into her shoes. Keep your place, and I am satisfied. Otherwise—there is the door.'
Thus the compact was concluded.
As there was nothing that the girl could do, her mother bade her amuse herself. Winefred was therefore able to spend the beautiful day in rambles.
The river Axe sweeps to the sea through a trough that has been scooped out of the superior beds of chalk and cherty sandstone, and out to the red sands below. But the chalk stands up to right and left in noble cliffs, of which Haven Ball forms the eastern jamb, and White Cliff that to the west. From Haven Ball the coast forms one continuous white precipice to Lyme Regis, above a sea in summer of peacock blue.
But, as every tyro in geology knows, the chalk is built up over the green sand, below which are impervious beds of clay. The rain soaking down through the faults in the chalk reaches the argillaceous stratum, and, unable to descend farther, forms innumerable land springs such as come forth at the base of most chalk hills. But where the chalk cliffs rise out of the sea, the water converts the gravelly stratum into a quicksand, and that is liable to be carried into the sea, and this causes subsidences, much as would occur if you lay on a water-bed that had in it a rent out of which would rush that which swelled the mattress.
There had been no sinkages of any importance along this coast within the memory of man. Nevertheless, an observant eye would have noticed that Captain Rattenbury's cottage stood on the undercliff, and was on a lower level than the down, but was nevertheless cut off from the sea by a sheer face of precipice. This undercliff formed an irregular terrace that overhung the sea. It was reached by an easy descent from the down above, and lay sufficiently below it to be sheltered from the north winds. His garden was consequently a warm spot even in mid-winter; whenever the sun shone, primroses starred the ground there even at the end of January, and crane's-bill there was never out of flower. The entire undercliff, raised three hundred feet above the sea, had a ruffled and chopped surface, was broken into ridges and depressed into basins, and was densely overgrown with thorns, brambles of gigantic growth, ivy and thickets of elder. About Rattenbury's cottage was a patch that had been cleared, which served as kitchen garden, and a good but small orchard.
Rattenbury occupied himself that languid November day in pruning his apple-trees. The cottage was of chalk and flint cobbles, with a brick chimney, and was thatched. It leaned against a face of rock, in a manner that would have ensured damp had not that rock been chalk.
The entire undercliff, except for the clearing about the cottage, was a jungle, not to be threaded with impunity by any one wearing serge or broadcloth, for the thornbushes were armed with spines of prodigious strength, and the briars threw about their tentacles set with claws to arrest and tear the intruder. The girl wandered about, diving under the arches of the brambles, peering into the thickets of elders, everywhere disturbing countless birds.
After she had rambled to her heart's content, she returned to the cottage, and saw the captain at his apple-trees, knife in hand.
He made a signal to her to approach.
'Look here, maid,' said he; 'you can bear a letter, I suppose?'
'Across the water?'
'Naturally. How else get there?'
'I can go there, certainly. It will not occupy many hours—perhaps two.'
'Do you know the Nutalls?—David Nutall?'
'There are several of the name. I do not know David.'
'His house lies near where old Starr lived. You know that.'
'Then take this letter. Mind this. No going from door to door, showing the letter, and asking where lives David Nutall. The letter is to be given into no other hand, and that not outside his house.'
Rattenbury considered a while. Then he said, 'It is a private matter, and no notice must be attracted. Get your mother's box with papers of pins and needles, reels and tapes, and go about Beer with that, selling. And when you are at David Nutall's, slip the letter into his hand.'
'I will do it.'
'And I wish you likewise to find my boy, Jack; he may be at the curate's, he is studying there—that he may be a gentleman. But I want for a bit, tell him, to take him off from his studies—it is a tickle concern, tell him, and he is to go to David Nutall's and take instructions from him. Only, mind you, this. Mum as a mouse. My boy, if he is not at the curate's, will be at his lodgings. No one will think anything of your carrying a message from me to Jack—if they come to know you are staying here. But, to make sure, I will give you a pair of socks I have knitted for him. Do not be a fool—mum as a mouse. I will give you a couple of pence for the ferry.'
'Shall I go and speak to mother first?'
'No, I will make it right with her. Go at once.'
Winefred started on her errand. She crossed the down, descended the furrow through which the track led to the landing-stage of the ferry on the Axmouth side of the estuary.
Then she called and waved her hand to attract the attention of the boatman.
Olver Dench did not hurry himself to cross and take over a single passenger, and this one whose capability of paying the toll was doubtful. He sauntered down from his cottage, looked along the road to Seaton, up towards Axmouth, saw no one, slowly launched his boat, and came over leisurely and in bad humour. He took the girl on board, but had got half across before he remarked, 'I reckon you and your mother crept into a rabbit hole for the night.'
'Captain Rattenbury has taken us in.'
Dench paused in his rowing.
'For how long?'
'Mother is going to be his housekeeper. We stay there altogether.'
Olver turned blood purple. He said no more, but put the girl on shore.
She stepped lustily along. She had taken her mother's box of trifles for sale, which had been left the previous evening at a house in Seaton; she crossed the shoulder of the hill that separates the Axe Valley from the ravine of Beer, a shoulder that rises to the magnificent sea-cliff that is a prominent feature in all views of Seaton.
Then she descended the lane into Beer, a village of one street, shut in between steep hills, running down to a small rock-girt cove. It was a village of fishermen, but every fisherman was suspected of being a smuggler. Those in the place who did not get their living by the sea were quarrymen of the famous Beer stone.
In the main and only street was a house of some pretension and antiquity, that had belonged to the Starr family; hereabouts Winefred began hawking her wares, and as she did so she asked the names of the inmates of the several cottages. After going into three or four and vending some of her goods, she entered that of David Nutall.
She saw there an old man, wearing a fisherman's jersey and hat, seated by the fireside smoking, whilst a woman was ironing by the window. Two younger men lounged by the fire talking.
Winefred was roughly repulsed by the woman when she opened her box, but the old man put in a word: 'Nay, Bessie! Buy a trifle of the maid just to encourage her.'
'Are you David Nutall?' asked the girl.
'If I'm not mistaken,' he answered.
Winefred drew the letter from her bosom, and put it into his hand.
'What?' he asked quickly. 'From the cap'n?'
The young men at once brightened.
'Yes, from the captain.'
The young men drew round the elder, their father. It was too dark at the hearth for them to read the letter, and the old man rose and went to the window. He studied the letter with knitted brows, but could not make much out of it. He called the lads to him.
'Ah, father,' said one, 'I can make out what is printed, but not fist-writing.'
'Come here,' said David, signing to the girl with the letter. 'Can you read what is in writing?'
'To be sure I can.'
'Written words, not printed?'
'Make out this, will you. We are all friends here. There—that line; I can get hold of the sense of the rest of it—or nigh, about.'
Winefred read: 'At eleven o'clock on Thursday night, Heathfield Cross.'
'That will do,' said David Nutall, snatching the letter from her. 'Tell the cap'n we shall be there. No more. We shall be there. That is the answer. Take this.'
The old man offered her two shillings.
'No,' said she, 'mother never takes alms. She earns.'
'Well, and you have earned this—as carrying a letter.'
She held back.
'Mind, child,' said the old man, 'you hold your tongue about this bit of paper. A word might lose us all.'
Winefred went down the street in the direction of the curate's house. She encountered the reverend gentleman. He was somewhat shabby in dress, his boots were worn, and his neckcloth far from fresh starched. He had a depressed, crushed look.
The girl went up to him confidently, and asked for Jack Rattenbury.
'My child,' answered the parson, 'he is not at my house, nor at his lodgings.'
'I have a pair of socks for him knitted by his father.'
'I can give them to him.'
'Thank you, a message goes with them. Where is he, sir?'
'I believe on the White Cliff.'
'What, wool-gathering? Is he doing that when supposed to be at his studies?'
'You have a pert tongue. He likes to watch the birds.'
'Thank you, sir. I will look for him there. It is all on my way back.'
Winefred, instead of taking the short lane, now made the circuit of the down, ascending by the last house of the long street above the tiny bay, where were a flagstaff and benches, on which latter in almost all weathers fishermen and boys sat and yarned, disputed and smoked.
She asked them about Jack, and learned that he was on the down. 'I have socks for him from his father,' she explained.
Her way led under and around fragmentary masses of chalk crag belted with flints; and where the flints had fallen out, leaving the surface pockmarked, gulls and guillemots flew about chattering and screaming, and now and again a nimble tern, the swallow of the sea, glanced by.
White Cliff was, in fact, a paradise of birds. The tooth of the storm had gnawed into its friable surface, and bitten out chunks, and scooped caves so as to afford for the birds dry and abundant, and, above all, secure lodging-places where to breed. The brow overhung, rendering their nesting shelves inaccessible from above, and from below a scramble up the lower sandstone beds was absolutely impracticable owing to their friability.
The white face of the cliff was incessantly changing, though by slow degrees; masses fell off, fresh indentations were formed, and at the base lay a mass of broken rock about which the waves churned; under which and over which, by tunnels and by furrows, the water rushed and returned of a milky tinge.
Upon the headland, looking seaward, was the youth of whom the girl was in quest. He paid no attention to her as she approached, indeed did not appear to observe her till she named him, when he turned and confronted her.
'What! Winny, the peddler woman's child?'