Michael's Crag by Grant Allen
Chapter I. A Cornish Landlord.
"Then you don't care for the place yourself, Tyrrel?" Eustace Le Neve said, musingly, as he gazed in front of him with a comprehensive glance at the long gray moor and the wide expanse of black and stormy water.
"It's bleak, of course; bleak and cold, I grant you; all this upland plateau about the Lizard promontory seems bleak and cold everywhere; but to my mind it has a certain wild and weird picturesqueness of its own for all that. It aims at gloominess. I confess in its own way I don't dislike it."
"For my part," Tyrrel answered, clinching his hand hard as he spoke, and knitting his brow despondently, "I simply hate it. If I wasn't the landlord here, to be perfectly frank with you, I'd never come near Penmorgan. I do it for conscience' sake, to be among my own people. That's my only reason. I disapprove of absenteeism; and now the land's mine, why, I must put up with it, I suppose, and live upon it in spite of myself. But I do it against the grain. The whole place, if I tell you the truth, is simply detestable to me."
He leaned on his stick as he spoke, and looked down gloomily at the heather. A handsome young man, Walter Tyrrel, of the true Cornish type--tall, dark, poetical-looking, with pensive eyes and a thick black mustache, which gave dignity and character to his otherwise almost too delicately feminine features. And he stood on the open moor just a hundred yards outside his own front door at Penmorgan, on the Lizard peninsula, looking westward down a great wedge-shaped gap in the solid serpentine rock to a broad belt of sea beyond without a ship or a sail on it. The view was indeed, as Eustace Le Neve admitted, a somewhat bleak and dreary one. For miles, as far as the eye could reach, on either side, nothing was to be seen but one vast heather- clad upland, just varied at the dip by bare ledges of dark rock and a single gray glimpse of tossing sea between them. A little farther on, to be sure, winding round the cliff path, one could open up a glorious prospect on either hand over the rocky islets of Kynance and Mullion Cove, with Mounts Bay and Penzance and the Land's End in the distance. That was a magnificent site--if only his ancestors had had the sense to see it. But Penmorgan House, like most other Cornish landlords' houses, had been carefully placed--for shelter's sake, no doubt--in a seaward hollow where the view was most restricted; and the outlook one got from it, over black moor and blacker rocks, was certainly by no means of a cheerful character. Eustace Le Neve himself, most cheery and sanguine of men, just home from his South American railway-laying, and with the luxuriant vegetation of the Argentine still fresh in his mind, was forced to admit, as he looked about him, that the position of his friend's house on that rolling brown moor was far from a smiling one.
"You used to come here when you were a boy, though," he objected, after a pause, with a glance at the great breakers that curled in upon the cove; "and you must surely have found it pleasant enough then, what with the bathing and the fishing and the shooting and the boating, and all the delights of the sea and the country."
Walter Tyrrel nodded his head. It was clear the subject was extremely distasteful to him.
"Yes--till I was twelve or thirteen," he said, slowly, as one who grudges assent, "in my uncle's time, I liked it well enough, no doubt. Boys don't realize the full terror of sea or cliff, you know, and are perfectly happy swimming and climbing. I used to be amphibious in those days, like a seal or an otter--in the water half my time; and I scrambled over the rocks--great heavens, it makes me giddy now just to think where I scrambled. But when I was about thirteen years old"--his face grew graver still--"a change seemed to come over me, and I began . . . well, I began to hate Penmorgan. I've hated it ever since. I shall always hate it. I learned what it all meant, I suppose--rocks, wrecks, and accidents. I saw how dull and gloomy it was, and I couldn't bear coming down here. I came as seldom as I dared, till my uncle died last year and left it to me. And then there was no help for it. I had to come down. It's a landlord's business, I consider, to live among his tenants and look after the welfare of the soil, committed to his charge by his queen and country. He holds it in trust, strictly speaking, for the nation. So I felt I must come and live here. But I hate it, all the same. I hate it! I hate it!"
He said it so energetically, and with such strange earnestness in his voice, that Eustace Le Neve, scanning his face as he spoke, felt sure there must be some good reason for his friend's dislike of his ancestral home, and forebore (like a man) to question him further. Perhaps, he thought, it was connected in Tyrrel's mind with some painful memory, some episode in his history he would gladly forget; though, to be sure, when one comes to think of it, at thirteen such episodes are rare and improbable. A man doesn't, as a rule, get crossed in love at that early age; nor does he generally form lasting and abiding antipathies. And indeed, for the matter of that, Penmorgan was quite gloomy enough in itself, in all conscience, to account for his dislike--a lonely and gaunt-looking granite-built house, standing bare and square on the edge of a black moor, under shelter of a rocky dip, in a treeless country. It must have been a terrible change for a bachelor about town, like Walter Tyrrel, to come down at twenty-eight from his luxurious club and his snug chambers in St. James' to the isolation and desolation of that wild Cornish manor-house. But the Tyrrels, he knew, were all built like that; Le Neve had been with three of the family at Rugby; and conscience was their stumbling- block. When once a Tyrrel was convinced his duty lay anywhere, no consideration on earth would keep him from doing it.
"Let's take a stroll down by the shore," Le Neve suggested, carelessly, after a short pause, slipping his arm through his friend's.
"Your cliffs, at least, must be fine; they look grand and massive; and after three years of broiling on a South American line, this fresh sou'wester's just the thing, to my mind, to blow the cobwebs out of one."
He was a breezy-looking young man, this new-comer from beyond the sea --a son of the Vikings, Tyrrel's contemporary in age, but very unlike him in form and features; for Eustace Le Neve was fair and big-built, a florid young giant, with tawny beard, mustache, and whiskers, which he cut in a becoming Vandyke point of artistic carelessness. There was more of the artist than of the engineer, indeed, about his frank and engaging English face--a face which made one like him as soon as one looked at him. It was impossible to do otherwise. Exuberant vitality was the keynote of the man's being. And he was candidly open, too. He impressed one at first sight, by some nameless instinct, with a certain well-founded friendly confidence. A lovable soul, if ever there was one, equally liked at once by men and women.
"Our cliffs are fine," Walter Tyrrel answered, grudgingly, in the tone of one who, against his will, admits an adverse point he sees no chance of gainsaying. "They're black, and repellant, and iron-bound, and dangerous, but they're certainly magnificent. I don't deny it. Come and see them, by all means. They're the only lions we have to show a stranger in this part of Cornwall, so you'd better make the most of them."
And he took, as if mechanically, the winding path that led down the gap toward the frowning cove in the wall of cliff before them.
Eustace Le Neve was a little surprised at this unexpected course, for he himself would naturally have made rather for the top of the promontory, whence they were certain to obtain a much finer and more extensive view; but he had only arrived at Penmorgan the evening before, so he bowed at once to his companion's more mature experience of Cornish scenery. They threaded their way through the gully, for it was little more--a great water-worn rent in the dark serpentine rocks, with the sea at its lower end--picking their path as they went along huge granite boulders or across fallen stones, till they reached a small beach of firm white sand, on whose even floor the waves were rolling in and curling over magnificently. It was a curious place, Eustace thought, rather dreary than beautiful. On either side rose black cliffs, towering sheer into the air, and shutting out overhead all but a narrow cleft of murky sky. Around, the sea dashed itself in angry white foam against broken stacks and tiny weed-clad skerries. At the end of the first point a solitary islet, just separated from the mainland by a channel of seething water, jutted above into the waves, with hanging tresses of blue and yellow seaweed. Tyrrel pointed to it with one hand. "That's Michael's Crag," he said, laconically. "You've seen it before, no doubt, in half a dozen pictures. It's shaped exactly like St. Michael's Mount in miniature. A marine painter fellow down here's forever taking its portrait."
Le Neve gazed around him with a certain slight shudder of unspoken disapprobation. This place didn't suit his sunny nature. It was even blacker and more dismal than the brown moorland above it. Tyrrel caught the dissatisfaction in his companion's eye before Le Neve had time to frame it in words.
"Well, you don't think much of it?" he said, inquiringly.
"I can't say I do," Le Neve answered, with apologetic frankness. "I suppose South America has spoilt me for this sort of thing. But it's not to my taste. I call it gloomy, without being even impressive."
"Gloomy," Tyrrel answered; "oh, yes, gloomy, certainly. But impressive; well, yes. For myself, I think so. To me, it's all terribly, unspeakably, ineffably impressive. I come here every day, and sit close on the sands, and look out upon the sea by the edge of the breakers. It's the only place on this awful coast one feels perfectly safe in. You can't tumble over here, or...roll anything down to do harm to anybody."
A steep cliff path led up the sheer face of the rock to southward. It was a difficult path, a mere foothold on the ledges; but its difficulty at once attracted the engineer's attention. "Let's go up that way!" he said, waving his hand toward it carelessly. "The view from on top there must be infinitely finer."
"I believe it is," Tyrrel replied, in an unconcerned voice, like one who retails vague hearsay evidence. "I haven't seen it myself since I was a boy of thirteen. I never go along the top of the cliffs on any account."
Le Neve gazed down on him, astonished. "You believe it is!" he exclaimed, unable to conceal his surprise and wonder. "You never go up there! Why, Walter, how odd of you! I was reading up the Guidebook this morning before breakfast, and it says the walk from this point on the Penmorgan estate to Kynance Cove is the most magnificent bit of wild cliff scenery anywhere in Cornwall."
"So I'm told," Tyrrel answered, unmoved. "And I remember, as a boy, I thought it very fine. But that was long since. I never go by it."
"Why not?" Le Neve cried.
Tyrrel shrugged his shoulders and shook himself impatiently. "I don't know." he answered, in a testy sort of voice. "I don't like the cliff top... It's so dangerous, don't you know? So unsafe. So unstable. The rocks go off so sheer, and stones topple over so easily."
Le Neve laughed a little laugh of half-disguised contempt. He was moving over toward the path up the cliff side as they spoke. "Why, you used to be a first-class climber at school," he said, attempting it, "especially when you were a little chap. I remember you could scramble up trees like a monkey. What fun we had once in the doctor's orchard! And as to the cliffs, you needn't go so near you have to tumble over them. It seems ridiculous for a landowner not to know a bit of scenery on his own estate that's celebrated and talked about all over England."
"I'm not afraid of tumbling over, for myself," Tyrrel answered, a little nettled by his friend's frank tone of amusement. "I don't feel myself so useful to my queen and country that I rate my own life at too high a figure. It's the people below I'm chiefly concerned about. There's always someone wandering and scrambling about these cliffs, don't you see?--fishermen, tourists, geologists. If you let a loose stone go, it may fall upon them and crush them."
The engineer looked back upon him with a somewhat puzzled expression. "Well, that's carrying conscience a point too far," he said, with one strong hand on the rock and one sure foot in the first convenient cranny. "If we're not to climb cliffs for fear of showering down stones on those who stand below, we won't dare to walk or ride or drive or put to sea for fear of running over or colliding against somebody. We shall have to stop all our trains and keep all our steamers in harbor. There's nothing in this world quite free from risk. We've got to take it and lump it. You know the old joke about those dangerous beds--so many people die in them. Won't you break your rule just for once, and come up on top here to see the view with me?"
Tyrrel shook his head firmly. "Not to-day," he answered, with a quiet smile. "Not by that path, at any rate. It's too risky for my taste. The stones are so loose. And it overhangs the road the quarrymen go to the cave by."
Le Neve had now made good his foothold up the first four or five steps. "Well, you've no objection to my going, at any rate?" he said, with a wave of one hand, in his cheerful good-humor. "You don't put a veto on your friends here, do you?"
"Oh, not the least objection," Tyrrel answered, hurriedly, watching him climb, none the less, with nervous interest. "It's...it's a purely personal and individual feeling. Besides," he added, after a pause," I can stop below here, if need be, and warn the quarrymen."
"I'll be back in ten minutes," Le Neve shouted from the cliff.
"No, don't hurry," his host shouted back. "Take your own time, it's safest. Once you get to the top you'd better walk along the whole cliff path to Kynance. They tell me its splendid; the view's so wide; and you can easily get back across the moor by lunch-time. Only, mind about the edge, and whatever you do, let no stones roll over."
"All right," Le Neve made answer, clinging close to a point of rock. "I'll do no damage. It's opening out beautifully on every side now. I can see round the corner to St. Michael's Mount; and the point at the end there must be Tol-Pedn-Penwith."