Midsummer Fires by Arthur Quiller-Couch
In the course of an eventful life John Penaluna did three very rash things.
To begin with, at seventeen, he ran away to sea.
He had asked his father's permission. But for fifty years the small estate had been going from bad to worse. John's grandfather in the piping days of agriculture had drunk the profits and mortgaged everything but the furniture. On his death, John's father (who had enlisted in a line regiment) came home with a broken knee-pan and a motherless boy, and turned market-gardener in a desperate attempt to rally the family fortunes. With capital he might have succeeded. But market-gardening required labour; and he could neither afford to hire it nor to spare the services of a growing lad who cost nothing but his keep. So John's request was not granted.
A week later, in the twilight of a May evening, John was digging potatoes on the slope above the harbour, when he heard--away up the first bend of the river--the crew of the Hannah Hands brigantine singing as they weighed anchor. He listened for a minute, stuck his visgy into the soil slipped on his coat, and trudged down to the ferry-slip.
Two years passed without word of him. Then on a blue and sunny day in October he emerged out of Atlantic fogs upon the Market Strand at Falmouth: a strapping fellow with a brown and somewhat heavy face, silver rings in his ears, and a suit of good sea-cloth on his back. He travelled by van to Truro, and thence by coach to St. Austell. It was Friday--market day; and in the market he found his father standing sentry, upright as his lame leg allowed, grasping a specimen apple-tree in either hand. John stepped up to him, took one of the apple-trees, and stood sentry beside him. Nothing was said--not a word until John found himself in the ramshackle market-cart, jogging homewards. His father held the reins.
"How's things at home?" John asked.
"Much as ever. Hester looks after me."
Hester was John's cousin, the only child of old Penaluna's only sister, and lately an orphan. John had never seen her.
"If I was you," said he, "I'd have a try with borrowed capital. You could raise a few hundreds easy. You'll never do anything as you'm going."
"If I was you," answered his father, "I'd keep my opinions till they was asked for."
And so John did, for three years; in the course of which it is to be supposed he forgot them. When the old man died he inherited everything; including the debts, of course. "He knows what I would have him do by Hester," said the will. It went on: "Also I will not be buried in consicrated ground, but at the foot of the dufflin apple-tree in the waste piece under King's Walk, and the plainer the better. In the swet of thy face shalt thou eat bread, amen. P.S.--John knows the tree."
But since by an oversight the will was not read until after the funeral, this wish could not be carried out. John resolved to attend to the other all the more scrupulously; and went straight from the lawyer to the kitchen, where Hester stood by the window scouring a copper pan.
"Look here," he said, "the old man hasn' left you nothing."
"No?" said Hester. "Well, I didn't expect anything." And she went on with her scouring.
"But he've a-left a pretty plain hint o' what he wants me to do."
He hesitated, searching the calm profile of her face. Hester's face was always calm, but her eyes sometimes terrified him. Everyone allowed she had wonderful eyes, though no two people agreed about their colour. As a matter of fact their colour was that of the sea, and varied with the sea. And all her life through they were searching, unceasingly searching, for she knew not what--something she never had found, never would find. At times, when talking with you, she would break off as though words were of no use to her, and her eyes had to seek your soul on their own account. And in those silences your soul had to render up the truth to her, though it could never be the truth she sought. When at length her gaze relaxed and she remembered and begged pardon (perhaps with a deprecatory laugh), you sighed; but whether on her account or yours it was impossible to say.
John looked at her awkwardly, and drummed with one foot on the limeash floor.
"He wanted you to marry me," he blurted out. "I--I reckon I've wanted that, too ... oh, yes, for a long time!"
She put both hands behind her--one of them still grasped the polishing-cloth--came over, and gazed long into his face.
"You mean it," she said at length. "You are a good man. I like you. I suppose I must."
She turned--still with her hands behind her--walked to the window, and stood pondering the harbour and the vessels at anchor and the rooks flying westward. John would have followed and kissed her, but divined that she wished nothing so little. So he backed towards the door, and said--
"There's nothing to wait for. 'Twouldn't do to be married from the same house, I expect. I was thinking--any time that's agreeable--if you was to lodge across the harbour for awhile, with the Mayows--Cherry Mayow's a friend of yours--we could put up the banns and all shipshape."
He found himself outside the door, mopping his forehead.
This was the second rash thing that John Penaluna did.
It was Midsummer Eve, and a Saturday, when Hester knocked at the Mayows' green door on the Town Quay. The Mayows' house hung over the tideway, and the Touch-me-not schooner, home that day from Florida with a cargo of pines, and warped alongside the quay, had her foreyard braced aslant to avoid knocking a hole in the Mayows' roof.
A Cheap Jack's caravan stood at the edge of the quay. The Cheap Jack was feasting inside on fried ham rasher among his clocks and mirrors and pewter ware; and though it wanted an hour of dusk, his assistant was already lighting the naphtha-lamps when Hester passed.
Steam issued from the Mayows' doorway, which had a board across it to keep the younger Mayows from straggling. A voice from the steam invited her to come in. She climbed over the board, groped along the dusky passage, pushed open a door and looked in on the kitchen, where, amid clouds of vapour, Mrs. Mayow and her daughter Cherry were washing the children. Each had a tub and a child in it; and three children, already washed, skipped around the floor stark naked, one with a long churchwarden pipe blowing bubbles which the other two pursued. In the far corner, behind a deal table, sat Mr. Mayow, and patiently tuned a fiddle--a quite hopeless task in that atmosphere.
"My gracious!" Mrs. Mayow exclaimed, rising from her knees; "if it isn't Hester already! Amelia, get out and dry yourself while I make a cup of tea."
Hester took a step forward, but paused at a sound of dismal bumping on the staircase leading up from the passage.
"That's Elizabeth Ann," said Mrs. Mayow composedly, "or Heber, or both. We shall know when they get to the bottom. My dear, you must be perishing for a cup of tea. Oh, it's Elizabeth Ann! Cherry, go and smack her, and tell her what I'll do if she falls downstairs again. It's all Matthew Henry's fault." Here she turned on the naked urchin with the churchwarden pipe. "If he'd only been home to his time--"
"I was listening to Zeke Penhaligon," said Matthew Henry (aged eight). "He's home to-day in the Touch-me-not."
"He's no good to King nor country," said Mrs. Mayow.
"He was telling me about a man that got swallowed by a whale--"
"Go away with your Jonahses!" sneered one of his sisters.
"It wasn't Jonah. This man's name was Jones--Captain Jones, from Dundee. A whale swallowed him; but, as it happened, the whale had swallowed a cask just before, and the cask stuck in its stomach. So whatever the whale swallowed after that went into the cask, and did the whale no good. But Captain Jones had plenty to eat till he cut his way out with a clasp-knife--"
"How could he?"
"That's all you know. Zeke says he did. A whale always turns that way up when he's dying. So Captain Jones cut his way into daylight, when, what does he see but a sail, not a mile away! He fell on his knees--"
"How could he, you silly? He'd have slipped."
But at this point Cherry swept the family off to bed. Mrs. Mayow, putting forth unexpected strength, carried the tubs out to the back-yard, and poured the soapy water into the harbour. Hester, having borrowed a touzer,[A] tucked up her sleeves and fell to tidying the kitchen. Mr. Mayow went on tuning his fiddle. It was against his principles to work on a Saturday night.
[Footnote A: Tout-serve, apron.]
"Your wife seems very strong," observed Hester, with a shade of reproach in her voice.
"Strong as a horse," he assented cheerfully. "I call it wonnerful after what she've a-gone through. 'Twouldn' surprise me, one o' these days, to hear she'd taken up a tub with the cheeld in it, and heaved cheeld and all over the quay-door. She's terrible absent in her mind."
Mrs. Mayow came panting back with a kettleful of water, which she set to boil; and, Cherry now reappearing with the report that all the children were safe abed, the three women sat around the fire awaiting their supper, and listening to the voice of the Cheap Jack without.
"We'll step out and have a look at him by-and-by," said Cherry.
"For my part," Mrs. Mayow murmured, with her eyes on the fire, "I never hear one of those fellers without wishing I had a million of money. There's so many little shiny pots and pans you could go on buying for ever and ever, just like Heaven!"
She sighed as she poured the boiling water into the teapot. On Saturday nights, when the children were packed off, a deep peace always fell upon Mrs. Mayow, and she sighed until bed-time, building castles in the air.
Their supper finished, the two girls left her to her musings and stepped out to see the fun. The naphtha-lamps flared in Hester's face, and for a minute red wheels danced before her eyes, the din of a gong battered on her ears, and vision and hearing were indistinguishably blurred. A plank, like a diving-board, had been run out on trestles in front of the caravan, and along this the assistant darted forwards and backwards on a level with the shoulders of the good-humoured crowd, his arms full of clocks, saucepans, china ornaments, mirrors, feather brushes, teapots, sham jewellery. Sometimes he made pretence to slip, recovered himself with a grin on the very point of scattering his precious armfuls; and always when he did this the crowd laughed uproariously. And all the while the Cheap Jack shouted or beat his gong. Hester thought at first there were half-a-dozen Cheap Jacks at least--he made such a noise, and the mirrors around his glittering platform flashed forth so many reflections of him. Trade was always brisk on Saturday night, and he might have kept the auction going until eleven had he been minded. But he had come to stay for a fortnight (much to the disgust of credit-giving tradesmen), and cultivated eccentricity as a part of his charm. In the thickest of the bidding he suddenly closed his sale.
"I've a weak chest," he roared. "Even to make your fortunes--which is my constant joy and endeavour, as you know--I mustn't expose it too much to the night air. Now I've a pianner here, but it's not for sale. And I've an assistant here--a bit worn, but he's not for sale neither. I got him for nothing, to start with--from the work'us" (comic protest here from the assistant, and roars of laughter from the crowd)--"and I taught him a lot o' things, and among 'em to play the pianner. So as 'tis Midsummer's Eve, and I see some very nice-lookin' young women a tip-tapping their feet for it, and Mr. Mayow no further away than next door, and able to play the fiddle to the life--what I say is, ladies and gentlemen, let's light up a fire and see if, with all their reading and writing, the young folks have forgot how to dance!"
In the hubbub that followed, Cherry caught Hester by the arm and whispered---
"Why I clean forgot 'twas Midsummer Eve! We'll try our fortun's afterwards. Aw, no need to look puzzled--I'll show 'ee. Here, feyther, feyther!..." Cherry ran down the passage and returned, haling forth Mr. Mayow with his fiddle.
And then--as it seemed to Hester, in less than a minute--empty packing-cases came flying from half-a-dozen doors--from the cooper's, the grocer's, the ship-chandler's, the china-shop, the fruit-shop, the "ready-made outfitter's," and the Cheap Jack's caravan; were seized upon, broken up, the splinters piled in a heap, anointed with naphtha and ignited almost before Mr. Mayow had time to mount an empty barrel, tune his "A" string by the piano, and dash into the opening bars of the Furry Dance. And almost before she knew it, Hester's hands were caught, and she found herself one of the ring swaying and leaping round the blaze. Cherry held her left hand and an old waterman her right. The swing of the crowd carried her off her feet, and she had to leap with the best. By-and-by, as her feet fell into time with the measure, she really began to enjoy it all--the music, the rush of the cool night air against her temples, even the smell of naphtha and the heat of the flames on her face as the dancers paused now and again, dashed upon the fire as if to tread it out, and backed until the strain on their arms grew tense again; and, just as it grew unbearable, the circular leaping was renewed. Always in these pauses the same face confronted her across the fire: the face of a young man in a blue jersey and a peaked cap, a young man with crisp dark hair and dark eyes, gay and challenging. In her daze it seemed to Hester that, when they came face to face, he was always on the side of the bonfire nearest the water; and the moon rose above the farther hill as they danced, and swam over his shoulder, at each meeting higher and higher.
It was all new to her and strange. The music ceased abruptly, the dancers unclasped their hands and fell apart, laughing and panting. And then, while yet she leaned against the Mayows' door-post, the fiddle broke out again--broke into a polka tune; and there, in front of her stood the young man in the blue jersey and peaked cap.
He was speaking. She scarcely knew what she answered; but, even while she wondered, she had taken his arm submissively. And, next, his arm was about her and she was dancing. She had never danced before; but, after one or two broken paces, her will surrendered to his, her body and its movements answered him docilely. She felt that his eyes were fixed on her forehead, but dared not look up. She saw nothing of the crowd. Other dancers passed and re-passed like phantoms, neither jostling nor even touching--so well her partner steered. She grew giddy; her breath came short and fast. She would have begged for a rest, but the sense of his mastery weighed on her--held her dumb. Suddenly he laughed close to her ear, and his breath ruffled her hair.
"You dance fine," he said. "Shall us cross the fire?"
She did not understand. In her giddiness they seemed to be moving in a wide, empty space among many fires, nor had she an idea which was the real one. His arm tightened about her.
"Now!" he whispered. With a leap they whirled high and across the bonfire. Her feet had scarcely touched ground before they were off again to the music--or would have been; but, to her immense surprise, her partner had dropped on his knees before her and was clasping her about the ankles. She heard a shout. The fire had caught the edge of her skirt and her frock was burning.
It was over in a moment. His arms had stifled, extinguished the flame before she knew of her danger. Still kneeling, holding her fast, he looked up, and their eyes met. "Take me back," she murmured, swaying. He rose, took her arm, and she found herself in the Mayows' doorway with Cherry at her side. "Get away with you," said Cherry, "and leave her to me!" And the young man went.
Cherry fell to examining the damaged skirt. "It's clean ruined," she reported; "but I reckon that don't matter to a bride. John Penaluna'll not be grudging the outfit. I must say, though--you quiet ones!"
"What have I done?"
"Done? Well, that's good. Only danced across the bonfire with young Zeke Penhaligon. Why, mother can mind when that was every bit so good as a marriage before parson and clerk!--and not so long ago neither."
"You go upstairs backwards," said Cherry an hour later. "It don't matter our going together, only you mustn't speak a word for ever so. You undress in the dark, and turn each thing inside out as you take it off. Prayers? Yes, you can say your prayers if you like; but to yourself, mind. 'Twould be best to say 'em backwards, I reckon; but I never heard no instructions about prayers."
"Why, then you go to sleep and dream of your sweetheart."
"Oh! is that all?"
"Plenty enough, I should think! I dessay it don't mean much to you; but it means a lot to me, who han't got a sweetheart yet an' don't know if ever I shall have one."
So the two girls solemnly mounted the stairs backwards, undressed in the dark, and crept into bed. But Hester could not sleep. She lay for an hour quite silent, motionless lest she should awake Cherry, with eyes wide open, staring at a ray of moonlight on the ceiling, and from that to the dimity window-curtains and the blind which waved ever so gently in the night breeze. All the while she was thinking of the dance; and by-and-by she sighed.
"Bain't you asleep?" asked Cherry.
"Nor I. Can't sleep a wink. It's they children overhead: they 'm up to some devilment, I know, because Matthew Henry isn't snoring. He always snores when he's asleep, and it shakes the house. I'll ha' gone to see, only I was afeard to disturb 'ee. I'll war'n' they 'm up to some may-games on the roof."
"Let me come with you," said Hester.
They rose. Hester slipped on her dressing-gown, and Cherry an old macintosh, and they stole up the creaking stairs.
"Oh, you anointed limbs!" exclaimed Cherry, coming to a halt on the top.
The door of the children's garret stood ajar. On the landing outside a short ladder led up to a trapdoor in the eaves, and through the open trapway a broad ray of moonlight streamed upon the staircase.
"That's mother again! Now I know where Amelia got that cold in her head. I'll war'n' the door hasn't been locked since Tuesday!"
She climbed the ladder, with Hester at her heels. They emerged through the trap upon a flat roof, where on Mondays Mrs. Mayow spread her family "wash" to dry in the harbour breezes. Was that a part of the "wash" now hanging in a row along the parapet?
No; those dusky white objects were the younger members of the Mayow family leaning over the tideway, each with a stick and line--fishing for conger Matthew Henry explained, as Cherry took him by the ear; but Elizabeth Jane declared that, after four nights of it, she, for her part, limited her hopes to shannies.
Cherry swept them together, and filed them indoors through the trap in righteous wrath, taking her opportunity to box the ears of each. "Come'st along, Hester."
Hester was preparing to follow, when she heard a subdued laugh. It seemed to come from the far side of the parapet, and below her. She drew her dressing-gown close about her and leaned over.
She looked down upon a stout spar overhanging the tide, and thence along a vessel's deck, empty, glimmering in the moonlight; upon mysterious coils of rope; upon the dew-wet roof of a deck-house; upon a wheel twinkling with brass-work, and behind it a white-painted taffrail. Her eyes were travelling forward to the bowsprit again, when, close by the foremast, they were arrested, and she caught her breath sharply.
There, with his naked feet on the bulwarks and one hand against the house-wall, in the shadow of which he leaned out-board, stood a man. His other hand grasped a short stick; and with it he was reaching up to the window above him--her bedroom window. The window, she remembered, was open at the bottom--an inch or two, no more. The man slipped the end of his stick under the sash and prised it up quietly. Next he raised himself on tiptoe, and thrust the stick a foot or so through the opening; worked it slowly along the window-ledge, and hesitated; then pulled with a light jerk, as an angler strikes a fish. And Hester, holding her breath, saw the stick withdrawn, inch by inch; and at the end of it a garment--her petticoat!
"How dare you!"
The thief whipped himself about, jumped back upon deck, and stood smiling up at her, with the petticoat in his hand. It was the young sailor she had danced with.
"How dare you? Oh, I'd be ashamed!"
"Midsummer Eve!" said he, and laughed.
"Give it up at once!" She dared not speak loudly, but felt herself trembling with wrath.
"That's not likely." He unhitched it from the fish-hook he had spliced to the end of his stick. "And after the trouble I've taken!"
"I'll call your captain, and he'll make you give it up."
"The old man's sleeping ashore, and won't be down till nine in the morning. I'm alone here." He stepped to the fore-halliards. "Now I'll just hoist this up to the topmast head, and you'll see what a pretty flag it makes in the morning."
He turned his back and began to bend the petticoat on the halliards.
"No, no ... please ... it's cruel!"
He could hear that she was crying softly; hesitated, and faced round again.
"There now ... if it teases you so. There wasn' no harm meant. You shall have it back--wait a moment!"
He came forward and clambered out on the bowsprit, and from the bowsprit to the jib-boom beneath her. She was horribly afraid he would fall, and broke off her thanks to whisper him to be careful, at which he laughed. Standing there, and holding by the fore-topmast stay, he could just reach a hand up to the parapet, and was lifting it, but paused.
"No," said he, "I must have a kiss in exchange."
"Please don't talk like that. I thank you so much. Don't spoil your kindness."
"You've spoilt my joke. See, I can hoist myself on the stay here. Bend over as far as you can, I swear you shall have the petticoat at once, but I won't give it up without."
"I can't. I shall never think well of you again."
"Oh, yes, you will. Bend lower."
"Don't!" she murmured, but the moonlight, refracted from the water below, glimmered on her face as she leaned towards him.
"Lower! What queer eyes you've got. Do you know what it means to kiss over running water?" His lips whispered it close to her ear. And with that, as she bent, some treacherous pin gave way, and her loosely knotted hair fell in dark masses across his face. She heard him laugh as he kissed her in the tangled screen of it.
The next moment she had snatched the bundle and sprung to her feet and away. But as she passed by the trapdoor and hurriedly retwisted her hair before descending, she heard him there, beyond the parapet, laughing still.
Three weeks later she married John Penaluna. They spent their honeymoon at home, as sober folks did in those days. John could spare no time for holiday-making. He had entered on his duties as master of Hall, and set with vigour about improving his inheritance. His first step was to clear the long cliff-garden, which had been allowed to drop out of cultivation from the day when he had cast down his mattock there and run away to sea. It was a mere wilderness now. But he fell to work like a navvy.
He fought it single-handed. He had no money hire extra labour, and apparently had lost his old belief in borrowed capital, or perhaps had grown timid with home-keeping. A single labourer--his father's old hind--managed the cows and the small farmstead. Hester superintended the dairy and the housework, with one small servant-maid at her beck and call. And John tackled the gardens, hiring a boy or two in the fruit-picking season, or to carry water in times of drought. So they lived for two years tranquilly. As for happiness--well, happiness depends on what you expect. It was difficult to know how much John Penaluna (never a demonstrative man) had expected.
As far as folks could judge, John and Hester were happy enough. Day after day, from sunrise to sunset, he fought with Nature in his small wilderness, and slowly won--hewing, digging, terracing, cultivating, reclaiming plot after plot, and adding it to his conquests. The slope was sunny but waterless, and within a year Hester could see that his whole frame stooped with the constant rolling of barrels and carriage of buckets and waterpots up and down the weary incline. It seemed to her that the hill thirsted continually; that no sooner was its thirst slaked than the weeds and brambles took fresh strength and must be driven back with hook and hoe. A small wooden summer-house stood in the upper angle of the cliff-garden. John's father had set it there twenty years before, and given it glazed windows; for it looked down towards the harbour's mouth and the open sea beyond. Before his death the brambles grew close about it, and level with the roof, choking the path to it and the view from it. John had spent the best part of a fortnight in clearing the ground and opening up the view again. And here, on warm afternoons when her house work was over, Hester usually sat with her knitting. She could hear her husband at work on the terraces below; the sound of his pick and mattock mingled with the clank of windlasses or the tick-tack of shipwrights' mallets, as she knitted and watched the smoke of the little town across the water, the knots of idlers on the quay, the children, like emmets, tumbling in and out of the Mayows' doorway, the ships passing out to sea or entering the harbour and coming to their anchorage.
One afternoon in midsummer week John climbed to his wife's summer-house with a big cabbage-leaf in his hand, and within the cabbage-leaf a dozen strawberries. (John's strawberries were known by this time for the finest in the neighbourhood.) He held his offering in at the open window, and was saying he would step up to the house for a dish of cream; but stopped short.
"Hullo!" said he; for Hester was staring at him rigidly, as white as a ghost. "What's wrong, my dear?" He glanced about him, but saw nothing to account for her pallor--only the scorched hillside, alive with the noise of grasshoppers, the hot air quivering above the bramble-bushes, and beyond, a line of sunlight across the harbour's mouth, and a schooner with slack canvas crawling to anchor on the flood-tide.
"You--you came upon me sudden," she explained.
"Stupid of me!" thought John; and going to the house, fetched not only a dish of cream but the tea-caddy and a kettle, which they put to boil outside the summer-house over a fire of dried brambles. The tea revived Hester and set her tongue going. "'Tis quite a picnic!" said John, and told himself privately that it was the happiest hour they had spent together for many a month.
Two evenings later, on his return from St. Austell market, he happened to let himself in by the door of the walled garden just beneath the house, and came on a tall young man talking there in the dusk with his wife.
"Why, 'tis Zeke Penhaligon! How d'ee do, my lad? Now, 'tis queer, but only five minutes a-gone I was talkin' about 'ee with your skipper, Nummy Tangye, t'other side o' the ferry. He says you'm goin' up for your mate's certificate, and ought to get it. Very well he spoke of 'ee. Why don't Hester invite you inside? Come'st 'long in to supper, my son."
Zeke followed them in, and this was the first of many visits. John was one of those naturally friendly souls (there are many in the world) who never go forth to seek friends, and to whom few friends ever come, and these by accident. Zeke's talk set his tongue running on his own brief Wanderjahre. And Hester would sit and listen to the pair with heightened colour, which made John wonder why, as a rule, she shunned company--it did her so much good. So it grew to be a settled thing that whenever the Touch-me-not entered port a knife and fork awaited Zeke up at Hall, and the oftener he came the pleasanter was John's face.
Three years passed, and in the summer of the third year Captain Nummy Tangye, of the Touch-me-not, relinquished his command. Captain Tangye's baptismal name was Matthias, and Bideford, in Devon, his native town. But the Touch-me-not, which he had commanded for thirty-five years, happened to carry for figurehead a wooden Highlander holding a thistle close to his chest, and against his thigh a scroll with the motto, Noli Me Tangere, and this being, in popular belief, an effigy of the captain taken in the prime of life, Mr. Tangye cheerfully accepted the fiction with its implication of Scottish descent, and was known at home and in various out-of-the-way parts of the world as Nolim or Nummy. He even carried about a small volume of Burns in his pocket; not from any love of poetry, but to demonstrate, when required, that Scotsmen have their own notions of spelling.
Captain Tangye owned a preponderance of shares in the Touch-me-not, and had no difficulty in getting Zeke (who now held a master's certificate) appointed to succeed him. The old man hauled ashore to a cottage with a green door and a brass knocker and a garden high over the water-side. In this he spent the most of his time with a glittering brass telescope of uncommon length, and in the intervals of studying the weather and the shipping, watched John Penaluna at work across the harbour.
The Touch-me-not made two successful voyages under Zeke's command, and was home again and discharging beside the Town Quay, when, one summer's day, as John Penaluna leaned on his pitchfork beside a heap of weeds arranged for burning he glanced up and saw Captain Tangye hobbling painfully towards him across the slope. The old man had on his best blue cut-away coat, and paused now and then to wipe his brow.
"I take this as very friendly," said John.
Captain Tangye grunted. "P'rhaps 'tis, p'rhaps 'tisn'. Better wait a bit afore you say it."
"Stay and have a bit of dinner with me and the missus."
"Dashed if I do! 'Tis about her I came to tell 'ee."
"Yes?" John, being puzzled, smiled in a meaningless way.
"Zeke's home agen."
"Yes; he was up here two evenin's ago."
"He was here yesterday; he'll be here again to-day. He comes here too often. I've got a telescope, John Penaluna, and I sees what's goin' on. What's more, I guess what'll come of it. So I warn 'ee--as a friend, of course."
John stared down at the polished steel teeth of his pitchfork, glinting under the noonday sun.
"As a friend, of course," he echoed vaguely, still with the meaningless smile on his face.
"I b'lieve she means to be a good 'ooman; but she's listenin' to 'en. Now, I've got 'en a ship up to Runcorn. He shan't sail the Touch-me-not no more. 'Tis a catch for 'en--a nice barquentine, five hundred tons. If he decides to take the post (and I reckon he will) he starts to-morrow at latest. Between this an' then there's danger, and 'tis for you to settle how to act."
A long pause followed. The clock across the harbour struck noon, and this seemed to wake John Penaluna up. "Thank 'ee," he said. "I think I'll be going in to dinner. I'll--I'll consider of it. You've took me rather sudden."
"Well, so long! I mean it friendly, of course."
"Of course. Better take the lower path; 'tis shorter, an' not so many stones in it."
John stared after him as he picked his way down the hill; then fell to rearranging his heaps of dried rubbish in an aimless manner. He had forgotten the dinner-hour. Something buzzed in his ears. There was no wind on the slope, no sound in the air. The shipwrights had ceased their hammering, and the harbour at his feet lay still as a lake. They were memories, perhaps, that buzzed so swiftly past his ears--trivial recollections by the hundred, all so little, and yet now immensely significant.
It was Hester, standing at the top of the slope and calling him. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground, picked up his coat, and went slowly in to dinner.
Next day, by all usage, he should have travelled in to market: but he announced at breakfast that he was too busy, and would send Robert, the hind in his stead. He watched his wife's face as he said it. She certainly changed colour, and yet she did not seem disappointed. The look that sprang into those grey eyes of her was more like one of relief, or, if not of relief, of a sudden hope suddenly snatched at; but this was absurd, of course. It would not fit in with the situation at all.
At dinner he said: "You'll be up in the summer-house this afternoon? I shouldn't wonder if Zeke comes to say good-bye. Tangye says he've got the offer of a new berth, up to Runcorn."
"Yes, I know."
If she wished, or struggled, to say more he did not seem to observe it, but rose from his chair, stooped and kissed her on the forehead, and resolutely marched out to his garden. He worked that afternoon in a small patch which commanded a view of the ferry and also of the road leading up to Hall: and at half-past three, or a few minutes later, dropped his spade and strolled down to the edge of his property, a low cliff overhanging the ferry-slip.
Zeke, as he stepped out of the ferry-boat, looked with some confusion on his face. He wore his best suit, with a bunch of sweet-william in his button-hole.
"Come to bid us good-bye, I s'pose? We've heard of your luck. Here, scramble up this way if you can manage, and shake hands on your fortune."
Zeke obeyed. The climb seemed to fluster him; but the afternoon was a hot one, in spite of a light westerly breeze. The two men moved side by side across the garden-slope, and as they did so John caught sight of a twinkle of sunshine on Captain Tangye's brass telescope across the harbour.
They paused beside one of the heaps of rubbish. "This is a fine thing for you, Zeke."
"Ay, pretty fair."
"I s'pose we sha'n't be seein' much of you now. 'Tis like an end of old times. I reckoned we'd have a pipe together afore partin'." John pulled out a stumpy clay and filled it. "Got a match about you?"
Zeke passed him one, and he struck it on his boot. "There, now," he went on, "I meant to set a light to these here heaps of rubbish this afternoon, and now I've come out without my matches." He waited for the sulphur to finish bubbling, and then began to puff.
Zeke handed him half-a-dozen matches.
"I dunno how many 'twill take," said John. "S'pose we go round together and light up. 'Twont' take us a quarter of an hour, an' we can talk by the way."
Ten minutes later, Captain Tangye, across the harbour, shut his telescope with an angry snap. The smoke of five-and-twenty bonfires crawled up the hillside and completely hid John Penaluna's garden--hid the two figures standing there, hid the little summer-house at the top of the slope. It was enough to make a man swear, and Captain Tangye swore.
John Penaluna drew a long breath.
"Well, good-bye and bless 'ee, Zeke. Hester's up in the summer-house. I won't go up with 'ee; my back's too stiff. Go an' make your adoos to her; she's cleverer than I be, and maybe will tell 'ee what we've both got in our minds."
This was the third rash thing that John Penaluna did.
He watched Zeke up the hill, till the smoke hid him. Then he picked up his spade. "Shall I find her, when I step home this evening? Please God, yes."
And he did. She was there by the supper-table? waiting for him. Her eyes were red. John pretended to have dropped something, and went back for a moment to look for it. When he returned, neither spoke.
Years passed--many years. Their life ran on in its old groove.
John toiled from early morning to sunset, as before--and yet not quite as before. There was a difference, and Captain Tangye would, no doubt, have perceived it long before had not Death one day come on him in an east wind and closed his activities with a snap, much as he had so often closed his telescope.
For a year or two after Zeke's departure, John went on enlarging his garden-bounds, though more languidly. Then followed four or five years during which his conquests seemed to stand still. And then little by little, the brambles and wild growth rallied. Perhaps--who knows?--the assaulted wilderness had found its Joan of Arc. At any rate, it stood up to him at length, and pressed in upon him and drove him back. Year by year, on one excuse or another, an outpost, a foot or two, would be abandoned and left to be reclaimed by the weeds. They were the assailants now. And there came a time when they had him at bay, a beaten man, in a patch of not more than fifty square feet, the centre of his former domain. "Time, not Corydon," had conquered him.
He was working here one afternoon when a boy came up the lower path from the ferry, and put a telegram into his hands. He read it over, thought for a while, and turned to climb the old track towards the summer-house, but brambles choked it completely, and he had to fetch a circuit and strike the grass walk at the head of the slope.
He had not entered the summer-house for years, but he found Hester knitting there as usual; and put the telegram into her hands.
"Zeke is drowned." He paused and added--he could not help it--"You'll not need to be looking out to sea any more."
Hester made as if to answer him, but rose instead and laid a hand on his breast. It was a thin hand, and roughened with housework. With the other she pointed to where the view had lain seaward. He turned. There was no longer any view. The brambles hid it, and must have hidden it for many years.
"Then what have you been thinkin' of all these days?"
Her eyes filled; but she managed to say, "Of you, John."
"It's with you as with me. The weeds have us, every side, each in our corner." He looked at his hands, and with sudden resolution turned and left her.
"Where are you going?"
"To fetch a hook. I'll have that view open again before nightfall, or my name's not John Penaluna."