Michael's Crag by Grant Allen
Chapter II. Trevennack.
It was a stiff, hot climb to the top of the cliff; but as soon as he reached it, Eustace Le Neve gazed about him, enchanted at the outlook. He was not in love with Cornwall, as far as he'd seen it yet; and to say the truth, except in a few broken seaward glens, that high and barren inland plateau has little in it to attract or interest anyone, least of all a traveler fresh from the rich luxuriance of South American vegetation. But the view that burst suddenly upon Eustace Le Neve's eye as he gained the summit of that precipitous serpentine bluff fairly took his breath away. It was a rich and varied one. To the north and west loomed headland after headland, walled in by steep crags, and stretching away in purple perspective toward Marazion, St. Michael's Mount, and the Penzance district. To the south and east huge masses of fallen rock lay tossed in wild confusion over Kynance Cove and the neighboring bays, with the bare boss of the Rill and the Rearing Horse in the foreground. Le Neve stood and looked with open eyes of delight. It was the first beautiful view he had seen since he came to Cornwall; but this at least was beautiful, almost enough so to compensate for his first acute disappointment at the barrenness and gloom of the Lizard scenery.
For some minutes he could only stand with open eyes and gaze delighted at the glorious prospect. Cliffs, sea, and rocks all blended with one another in solemn harmony. Even the blackness of the great crags and the scorched air of the brown and water-logged moorland in the rear now ceased to oppress him. They fell into their proper place in one consistent and well-blended picture. But, after awhile, impelled by a desire to look down upon the next little bay beyond--for the coast is indented with endless coves and headlands--the engineer walked on along the top by a coastguard's path that threaded its way, marked by whitened stones, round the points and gullies. As he did so, he happened to notice on the very crest of the ridge that overlooked the rock they called St. Michael's Crag a tall figure of a man silhouetted in dark outline against the pale gray skyline. From the very first moment Eustace Le Neve set eyes upon that striking figure this man exerted upon him some nameless attraction. Even at this distance the engineer could see he had a certain indefinite air of dignity and distinction; and he poised himself lightly on the very edge of the cliff in a way that would no doubt have made Walter Tyrrel shudder with fear and alarm. Yet there was something about that poise quite unearthly and uncanny; the man stood so airily on his high rocky perch that he reminded Le Neve at once of nothing so much as of Giovanni da Bologna's Mercury in the Bargello at Florence; he seemed to spurn the earth as if about to spring from it with a bound; his feet were as if freed from the common bond of gravity.
It was a figure that belonged naturally to the Cornish moorland.
Le Neve advanced along the path till he nearly reached the summit where the man was standing. The point itself was a rugged tor, or little group of bare and weather-worn rocks, overlooking the sea and St. Michael's Crag below it. As the engineer drew near he saw the stranger was not alone. Under shelter of the rocks a girl lay stretched at length on a loose camel's-hair rug; her head was hatless; in her hand she held, half open, a volume of poetry. She looked up as Eustace passed, and he noted at a glance that she was dark and pretty. The Cornish type once more; bright black eyes, glossy brown hair, a rich complexion, a soft and rounded beauty.
"Cleer," the father said, warningly, in a modulated voice, as the young man approached, "don't let your hat blow away, dear; it's close by the path there."
The girl he called Cleer darted forward and picked it up, with a little blush of confusion. Eustace Le Neve raised his hat, by way of excuse for disturbing her, and was about to pass on, but the view down into the bay below, with the jagged and pointed crag islanded in white foam, held him spellbound for a moment. He paused and gazed at it. "This is a lovely lookout, sir," he said, after a second's silence, as if to apologize for his intrusion, turning round to the stranger, who still stood poised like a statue on the natural pedestal of lichen- covered rock beside him. "A lovely lookout and a wonderful bit of wild coast scenery."
"Yes," the stranger answered, in a voice as full of dignity as his presence and his mien. "It's the grandest spot along the Cornish coast. From here you can see in one view St. Michael's Mount, St. Michael's Crag, St. Michael's Church, and St. Michael's Promontory. The whole of this country, indeed, just teems with St. Michael."
"Which is St. Michael's Promontory?" the young man asked, with a side glance at Cleer, as they called the daughter. He wasn't sorry indeed for the chance of having a second look at her.
"Why Land's End, of course," the dignified stranger answered at once, descending from his perch as he spoke, with a light spring more like a boy's than a mature man's. "You must surely know those famous lines in 'Lycidas' about
'The fable of Bellerus old, Where the Great Vision of the guarded mount Looks towards Namancos and Bayona's hold; Look homeward, angel, now, and melt with ruth.'"
"Yes, I know them, of course," Eustace answered with ingenuous shyness; "but as so often happens with poetry, to say the truth, I'm afraid I attached no very definite idea to them. The music so easily obscures the sense; though the moment you suggest it, I see they can't possibly mean anyone but St. Michael."
"My father's very much interested in the antiquities of Cornwall," the girl Cleer put in, looking up at him somewhat timidly; "so he naturally knows all these things, and perhaps he expects others to know them unreasonably."
"We've every ground for knowing them," the father went on, glancing down at her with tender affection. "We're Cornish to the backbone-- Cornish born and bred, if ever there were Cornishmen. Every man of my ancestors was a Tre, Pol, or Pen, to the tenth generation backward; and I'm descended from the Bassets, too--the Bassets of Tehidy. You must have heard of the Bassets in Cornish history. They owned St. Michael's Mount before these new-fangled St. Aubyn people."
"It's Lord St. Levan's now, isn't it?" Le Neve put in, anxious to show off his knowledge of the local aristocracy.
"Yes, they've made him Lord St. Levan," the dignified stranger answered, with an almost imperceptible curl of his delicate lower lip. "They've made him Lord St. Levan. The queen can make one anything. He was plain Sir John St. Aubyn before that, you know; his family bought the Mount from my ancestors--the Bassets of Tehidy. They're new people at Marazion--new people altogether. They've only been there since 1660."
Le Neve smiled a quiet smile. That seemed to him in his innocence a fairly decent antiquity as things go nowadays. But the dignified stranger appeared to think so little of it that his new acquaintance abstained from making note or comment on it. He waited half a moment to see whether Cleer would speak again; he wanted to hear that pleasant voice once more; but as she held her peace, he merely raised his hat, and accepting the dismissal, continued his walk round the cliffs alone. Yet, somehow, the rest of the way, the figure of that statuesque stranger haunted him. He looked back once or twice. The descendant of the Bassets of Tehidy had now resumed his high pedestal upon the airy tor, and was gazing away seaward, like the mystic Great Vision of his own Miltonic quotation, toward the Spanish coast, wrapped round in a loose cloak of most poetic dimensions. Le Neve wondered who he was, and what errand could have brought him there.
At the point called the Rill, he diverged from the path a bit, to get that beautiful glimpse down into the rock-strewn cove and smooth white sands at Kynance. A coastguard with brush and pail was busy as he passed by renewing the whitewash on the landmark boulders that point the path on dark nights to the stumbling wayfarer. Le Neve paused and spoke to him. "That's a fine-looking man, my friend, the gentleman on the tor there," he said, after a few commonplaces. "Do you happen to know his name? Is he spending the summer about here?"
The man stopped in his work and looked up. His eye lighted with pleasure on the dignified stranger. "Yes; he's one of the right sort, sir," he answered, with a sort of proprietary pride in the distinguished figure. "A real old Cornish gentleman of the good old days, he is, if ever you see one. That's Trevennack of Trevennack; and Miss Cleer's his daughter. Fine old crusted Cornish names, every one of them; I'm a Cornishman myself, and I know them well, the whole grand lot of them. The Trevennacks and the Bassets, they was all one, time gone by; they owned St. Michael's Mount, and Penzance, and Marazion, and Mullion here. They owned Penmorgan, too, afore the Tyrrels bought it up. Michael Basset Trevennack, that's the gentleman's full name; the eldest son of the eldest son is always a Michael, to keep up the memory of the times gone by, when they was Guardians of the Mount and St. Michael's Constables. And the lady's Miss Cleer, after St. Cleer of Cornwall--her that gives her name still to St. Cleer by Liskeard."
"And do they live here?" Le Neve asked, much interested in the intelligent local tone of the man's conversation.
"Lord bless you, no, sir. They don't live nowhere. They're in the service, don't you see. They lives in Malta or Gibraltar, or wherever the Admiralty sends him. He's an Admiralty man, he is, connected with the Vittling Yard. I was in the navy myself, on the good old Billy Ruffun, afore I was put in the Coastguards, and I knowed him well when we was both together on the Mediterranean Station. Always the same grand old Cornish gentleman, with them gracious manners, so haughty like, an' yet so condescending, wherever they put him. A gentleman born. No gentleman on earth more the gentleman all round than Trevennack of Trevennack."
"Then he's staying down here on a visit?" Le Neve went on, curiously, peering over the edge of the cliffs, as he spoke, to observe the cormorants.
"Don't you go too nigh, sir," the coastguard put in, warningly. "She's slippery just there. Yes, they're staying down in Oliver's lodgings at Gunwalloe. He's on leave, that's where it is. Every three or four years he gets leave from the Vittling and comes home to England; and then he always ups and runs down to the Lizard, and wanders about on the cliffs by himself like this, with Miss Cleer to keep him company. He's a chip of the old rock, he is--Cornish granite to the core, as the saying goes; and he can't be happy away from it. You'll see him any day standing like that on the very edge of the cliff, looking across over the water, as if he was a coastguard hisself, and always sort o' perched on the highest bit of rock he can come nigh anywhere."
"He looks an able man," Le Neve went on, still regarding the stranger, poised now as before on the very summit of the tor, with his cloak wrapped around him.
"Able? I believe you! Why, he's the very heart and soul, the brains and senses of the Vittling Department. The navy'd starve if it wasn't for him. He's a Companion of St. Michael and St. George, Mr. Trevennack is. 'Tain't every one as is a Companion of St. Michael and St. George. The queen made him that herself for his management of the Vittling." "It's a strange place for a man in his position to spend his holiday," Le Neve went on, reflectively. "You'd think, coming back so seldom, he'd want to see something of London, Brighton, Scarborough, Scotland."
The coastguard looked up, and held his brush idle in one hand with a mysterious air. "Not when you come to know his history," he answered, gazing hard at him.
"Oh, there's a history to him, is there?" Le Neve answered, not surprised. "Well, he certainly has the look of it."
The coastguard nodded his head and dropped his voice still lower. "Yes, there's a history to him," he replied. "And that's why you'll always see Trevennack of Trevennack on the top of the cliff, and never at the bottom.--Thank'ee very kindly, sir; it ain't often we gets a chance of a good cigar at Kynance.--Well, it must be fifteen year now --or maybe sixteen--I don't mind the right time--Trevennack came down in old Squire Tyrrel's days, him as is buried at Mullion Church town, and stopped at Gunwalloe, same as he might be stopping there in his lodgings nowadays. He had his only son with him, too, a fine-looking young gentleman, they say, for his age, for I wasn't here then--I was serving my time under Admiral De Horsey on the good old Billy Ruffun-- the very picture of Miss Cleer, and twelve year old or thereabouts; and they called him Master Michael, the same as they always call the eldest boy of the Trevennacks of Trevennack. Aye, and one day they two, father and son, were a-strolling on the beach under the cliffs by Penmorgan--mind them stones on the edge, sir; they're powerful loose-- don't you drop none over--when, just as you might loosen them pebbles there with your foot, over came a shower o' small bits from the cliff on top, and as sure as you're livin', hit the two on 'em right so, sir. Mr. Trevennack himself, he wasn't much hurt--just bruised a bit on the forehead, for he was wearing a Scotch cap; but Master Michael, well, it caught him right on the top of the head, and afore they knowed what it was, it smashed his skull in. Aye, that it did, sir, just so; it smashed the boy's skull in. They carried him home, and cut the bone out, and trepanned him; but bless you, it wa'n't no good; he lingered on for a night, and then, afore morning, he died, insensible."
"What a terrible story!" Le Neve exclaimed, with a face of horror, recoiling instinctively from the edge of the cliff that had wrought this evil. "Aye, you may well say so. It was rough on him," the coastguard went on, with the calm criticism of his kind. "His only son--and all in a minute like, as you may term it--such a promising young gentleman! It was rough, terrible rough on him. So from that day to this, whenever Trevennack has a holiday, down he comes here to Gunwalloe, and walks about the cliffs, and looks across upon the rocks by Penmorgan Point, or stands on the top of Michael's Crag, just over against the spot where his boy was hurted. An' he never wants to go nowhere else in all England, but just to stand like that on the very edge of the cliff, and look over from atop, and brood, and think about it."
As the man spoke, it flashed across Le Neve's mind at once that Trevennack's voice had quivered with a strange thrill of emotion as he uttered that line, no doubt pregnant with meaning for him. "Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth." He was thinking of his own boy, most likely, not of the poet's feigned Lycidas.
"He'll stand like that for hours," the coastguard went on confidentially, "musing like to himself, with Miss Cleer by his side, reading in her book or doing her knitting or something. But you couldn't get him, for love or money, to go below the cliffs, no, not if you was to kill him. He's afraid of going below--that's where it is; he always thinks something's sure to tumble from the top on him. Natural enough, too, after all that's been. He likes to get as high as ever he can in the air, where he can see all around him, and be certain there ain't anyone above to let anything drop as might hurt him. Michael's Crag's where he likes best to stand, on the top there by the Horse; he always chooses them spots. In Malta it was San Mickayly; and in Gibraltar it was the summit of Europa Point, by the edge of the Twelve Apostles' battery."
"How curious!" Le Neve exclaimed. "It's just the other way on now, with my friend Mr. Tyrrel. I'm stopping at Penmorgan, but Mr. Tyrrel won't go on top of the cliffs for anything. He says he's afraid he might let something drop by accident on the people below him."
The coastguard grew suddenly graver. "Like enough," he said, stroking his chin. "Like enough; and right, too, for him, sir. You see, he's a Tyrrel, and he's bound to be cautious.'
"Why so?" Le Neve asked, somewhat puzzled. "Why a Tyrrel more than the rest of us?"
The man hesitated and stared hard at him.
"Well, it's like this, sir," he answered at last, with the shamefaced air of the intelligent laboring man who confesses to a superstition. "We Cornish are old-fashioned, and we has our ideas. The Tyrrels are new people like, in Cornwall, as we say; they came in only with Cromwell's folk, when he fought the Grenvilles; but it's well beknown in the county bad luck goes with them. You see, they're descended from that Sir Walter Tyrrel you'll read about in the history books, him as killed King William Rufious in the New Forest. You'll hear all about it at Rufious' Stone, where the king was killed; Sir Walter, he drew, and he aimed at a deer, and the king was standing by; and the bullet, it glanced aside--or maybe it was afore bullets, and then it'd be an arrow; but anyhow, one or t'other, it hit the king, and he fell, and died there. The stone's standing to this day on the place where he fell, and I've seen it, and read of it when I was in hospital at Netley. But Sir Walter, he got clear away, and ran across to France; and ever since that time they've called the eldest son of the Tyrrels Walter, same as they've called the eldest son of the Trevennacks Michael. But they say every Walter Tyrrel that's born into the world is bound, sooner or later, to kill his man unintentional. So he do right to avoid going too near the cliffs, I say. We shouldn't tempt Providence. And the Tyrrels is all a conscientious people."