The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter I. New Horizons
Towards the sky-line, across the level country, stumbling and crawling over the deep-hewn dikes, wading sometimes through the mud-oozing swamp, Tavernake, who had left the small railway terminus on foot, made his way that night steadily seawards, as one pursued by some relentless and indefatigable enemy. Twilight had fallen like a mantle around him, fallen over that great flat region of fens and pastureland and bog. Little patches of mist, harbingers of the coming obscurity, were being drawn now into the gradual darkness. Lights twinkled out from the far-scattered homesteads. Here and there a dog barked, some lonely bird seeking shelter called to its mate, but of human beings there seemed to be no one in sight save the solitary traveler.
Tavernake was in grievous straits. His clothes were caked with mud, his hair tossed with the wind, his cheeks pale, his eyes set with the despair of that fierce upheaval through which he had passed. For many hours the torture which had driven him back towards his birthplace had triumphed over his physical exhaustion. Now came the time, however, when the latter asserted itself. With a half-stifled moan he collapsed. Sheer fatigue induced a brief but merciful spell of uneasy slumber. He lay upon his back near one of the broader dikes, his arms outstretched, his unseeing eyes turned toward the sky. The darkness deepened and passed away again before the light of the moon. When at last he sat up, it was a new world upon which he looked, a strange land, moonlit in places, yet full of shadowy somberness. He gazed wonderingly around--for the moment he had forgotten. Then memory came, and with memory once more the stab at his heart. He rose to his feet and went resolutely on his way.
Almost until the dawn he walked, keeping as near as he could to that long monotonous line of telegraph posts, yet avoiding the road as much as possible. With the rising of the sun, he crept into a wayside hovel and lay there hidden for hours. Hunger and thirst seemed like things which had passed him by. It was sleep only which he craved, sleep and forgetfulness.
Dusk was falling again before he found himself upon his feet, starting out once more upon this strangely thought-of pilgrimage. This time he kept to the road, plodding along with tired, dejected footsteps, which had in them still something of that restless haste which drove him ceaselessly onward as though he were indeed possessed of some unquiet spirit. He was recovering now, however, a little of his natural common sense. He remembered that he must have food and drink, and he sought them from the wayside public-house like an ordinary traveler, conquering without any apparent effort that first invincible repugnance of his toward the face of any human being. Then on again across this strange land of windmills and spreading plains, until the darkness forced him to take shelter once more. That night he slept like a child. With the morning, the fever had passed from his blood. A great wind blew in his face even as he opened his eyes, touched to wakefulness by the morning sun, a wind that came booming over the level places, salt with the touch of the ocean and fragrant with the perfume of many marsh plants. He was coming toward the sea now, and within a very short distance from where he had spent the night, he found a broad, shining river stealing into the land. With eager fingers he stripped himself and plunged in, diving again and again below the surface, swimming with long, lazy strokes backwards and forwards. Afterwards he lay down in the warm, dry grass, dressed himself slowly, and went on his way. The wind, which had increased now since the early morning, came thundering across the level land, bending the tops of the few scattered trees, sending the sails of the windmills spinning, bringing on its bosom now stronger than ever the flavor of the sea itself, salt and stimulating. Tavernake told himself that this was a new world into which he was coming. He would pass into its embrace and life would become a new thing.
Towards evening with many a thrill of reminiscence, he descended a steep hill and walked into a queer time-forgotten village, whose scattered red-tiled cottages were built around an arm of the sea. Boldly enough now he entered the one inn which flaunted its sign upon the cobbled street, and, taking a seat in the stone-floored kitchen, ate and drank and bespoke a bed. Later on, he strolled down to the quay and made friends with the few fishermen who were loitering there. They answered his questions readily, although he found it hard at first to pick up again the dialect of which he himself had once made use. The little place was scarcely changed. All progress, indeed, seemed to have passed it by. There were a handful of fishermen, a boat-builder and a fish-curer in the village. There was no other industry save a couple of small farmhouses on the outskirts of the place, no railway within twelve miles. Tourists came seldom, excursionists never. In the half contented, half animal-like expression which seemed common to all the inhabitants, Tavernake read easily enough the history of their uneventful days. It was such a shelter as this, indeed, for which he had been searching.
On the second night after his arrival, he walked with the boatbuilder upon the wooden quay. The boatbuilder's name was Nicholls, and he was a man of some means, deacon of the chapel, with a fair connection as a jobbing carpenter, and possessor of the only horse and cart in the place.
"Nicholls," Tavernake said, "you don't remember me, do you?"
The boat-builder shook his head slowly and ponderously.
"There was Richard Tavernake who farmed the low fields," he remarked, reminiscently. "Maybe you're a son of his. Now I come to think of it, he had a boy apprenticed to the carpentering."
"I was the boy," Tavernake answered. "I soon had enough of it and went to London."
"You'm grown out of all knowledge," Nicholls declared, "but I mind you now. So you've been in London all these years?"
"I've been in London," Tavernake admitted, "and I think, of the two, that Sprey-by-the-Sea is the better place."
"Sprey is well enough," the boat-builder confessed, "well enough for a man who isn't set on change."
"Change," Tavernake asserted, grimly, "is an overrated joy. I have had too much of it in my life. I think that I should like to stay here for some time."
The boat-builder was surprised, but he was a man of heavy and deliberate turn of mind and he did not commit himself to speech. Tavernake continued.
"I used to know something of carpentering in my younger days," he said, "and I don't think that I have forgotten it all. I wonder if I could find anything to do down here?"
Matthew Nicholls stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"The folk round about are not over partial to strangers," he observed, "and you'm been away so long I reckon there's not many as'd recollect you. And as for carpentering jobs, there's Tom Lake over at Lesser Blakeney and his brother down at Brancaster, besides me on the spot, as you might say. It's a poor sort of opening there'd be, if you ask my opinion, especially for one like yourself, as 'as got education."
"I should be satisfied with very little," Tavernake persisted. "I want to work with my hands. I should like to forget for a time that I have had any education at all."
"That do seem mightily queer to me," Nicholls remarked, thoughtfully.
"Come," he said, "it isn't altogether unnatural. I want to make something with my hands. I think that I could build boats. Why do you not take me into your yard? I could do no harm and I should not want much pay."
Matthew Nicholls stroked his beard once more and this time he counted fifty, as was his custom when confronted with a difficult matter. He had no need to do anything of the sort, for nothing in the world would have induced him to make up his mind on the spot as to so weighty a proposal.
"It's not likely that you're serious," he objected. "You are a young man and strong-limbed, I should imagine, but you've education--one can tell it by the way you pronounce your words. It's but a poor living, after all, to be made here."
"I like the place," Tavernake declared doggedly. "I am a man of small needs. I want to work all through the day, work till I am tired enough to sleep at night, work till my bones ache and my arms are sore. I suppose you could give me enough to live on in a humble way?"
"Take a bite of supper with me," Nicholls answered. "In these serious affairs, my daughter has always her say. We will put the matter before her and see what she thinks of it."
They lingered about the quay until the light from Wells Lighthouse flashed across the sea, and until in the distance they could hear the moaning of the incoming tide as it rippled over the bar and began to fill the tidal way which stretched to the wooden pier itself. Then the two men made their way along the village street, through a field, and into the little yard over which stood the sign of "Matthew Nicholls, Boat-Builder." At one corner of the yard was the cottage in which he lived.
"You'll come right in, Mr. Tavernake," he said, the instincts of hospitality stirring within him as soon as they had passed through the gate. "We will talk of this matter together, you and me and the daughter."
Tavernake seemed, on his introduction to the household, like a man unused to feminine society. Perhaps he did not expect to find such a type of her sex as Ruth Nicholls in such a remote neighborhood. She was thin, and her cheeks were paler than those of any of the other young women whom he had seen about the village. Her eyes, too, were darker, and her speech different. There was nothing about her which reminded him in the least of the child with whom he had played. Tavernake watched her intently. Presently the idea came to him that she, too, was seeking shelter.
Supper was a simple meal, but it was well and deftly served. The girl had the gift of moving noiselessly. She was quick without giving the impression of haste. To their guest she was courteous, but her recollection of him appeared to be slight, and his coming but a matter of slight interest. After she had cleared the cloth, however, and produced a jar of tobacco, her father bade her sit down with them.
"Mr. Tavernake," he began, ponderously, "is thinking some of settling down in these parts, Ruth."
She inclined her head gravely.
"It appears," her father continued, "that he is sick and tired of the city and of head-work. He is wishful to come into the yard with me, if so be that we could find enough work for two."
The girl looked at their visitor, and for the first time there was a measure of curiosity in her earnest gaze. Tavernake was, in his way, good enough to look upon. He was well-built, his shoulders and physique all spoke of strength. His features were firmly cut, although his general expression was gloomy. But for a certain moroseness, an uncouthness which he seemed to cultivate, he might even have been deemed good-looking.
"Mr. Tavernake would make a great mistake," she said, hesitatingly. "It is not well for those who have brains to work with their hands. It is not a place for those to live who have been out in the world. At most seasons of the year it is but a wilderness. Sometimes there is little enough to do, even for father."
"I am not ambitious for over-much work or for over-much money, Miss Nicholls," Tavernake replied. "I will be frank with you both. Things out in the world there went ill with me; it was not my fault, but they went ill with me. What ambitions I had are finished--for the present, at any rate. I want to rest, I want to work with my hands, to grow my muscles again, to feel my strength, to believe that there is something effective in the world I can do. I have had a shock, a disappointment,--call it what you like."
The old man Nicholls nodded deliberately.
"Well," he pronounced, "it's a big change to make. I never thought of help in the yard before. When there's been more than I could do, I've just let it go. Come for a week on trial, Leonard Tavernake. If we are of any use to one another, we shall soon know of it."
The girl, who had been looking out into the night, came back.
"You are making a mistake, Mr. Tavernake," she said. "You are too young and strong to have finished your battle."
He looked at her steadily and sighed. It was only too obvious that hers had been fought and lost.
"Perhaps," he replied softly, "you are right. Perhaps it is only the rest I want. We shall see."