Chapter X. Across the Stepping-Stones

Very good boats were built at this time in the south of England, stout, that is to say, and strong, and fit to ride over a heavy sea, and plunge gallantly into the trough of it. But as the strongest men are seldom swift of foot or light of turn, so these robust and sturdy boats must have their own time and swing allowed them, ere ever they would come round or step out. Having met a good deal of the sea, they knew, like a man who has felt a good deal of the world, that heavy endurance and patient bluffness are safer to get through the waves somehow than sensitive fibre and elegant frame.

But the sea-going folk of Springhaven had learned, by lore of generations, to build a boat with an especial sheer forward, beam far back, and deep run of stern, so that she was lively in the heaviest of weather, and strong enough to take a good thump smiling, when unable to dance over it. Yet as a little thing often makes all the difference in great things, it was very difficult for anybody to find out exactly the difference between a boat built here and a boat built ten or twenty miles off, in imitation of her. The sea, however, knew the difference in a moment between the true thing and the counterfeit, and encouraged the one to go merrily on, while it sent back the other staggering. The secret lay chiefly in a hollow curve forward of nine or ten planks upon either side, which could only be compassed by skilful use of adze and chisel, frame-saw and small tools, after choice of the very best timber, free from knots, tough, and flexible. And the best judge of these points was Zebedee Tugwell.

Not having cash enough just at present (by reason of family expenses, and the high price of bread and of everything else) to set upon the stocks the great smack of the future, which should sail round the Rosalie, Captain Tugwell was easing his mind by building a boat for stormy weather, such as they very seldom have inshore, but are likely to meet with outside the Head. As yet there were not many rowing boats here fit to go far in tumbling water, though the few that could do it did it well, and Tugwell's intention was to beat them all, in power, and spring, and buoyancy. The fame of his meaning was spread for as much as twenty leagues along the coast; and jealous people laughed, instead of waiting for him to finish it.

Young Daniel had been well brought up in the mysteries of his father's craft, and having a vigorous turn of wrist, as well as a true eye and quick brain, he was even outgrowing the paternal skill, with experiments against experience. He had beautiful theories of his own, and felt certain that he could prove them, if any one with cash could be brought to see their beauty. His father admitted that he had good ideas, and might try them, if any fool would find the money.

Wroth as he had been at the sharp rebuff and contumely of his father, young Daniel, after a long strong walk, began to look at things more peaceably. The power of the land and the greatness of the sea and the goodness of the sky unangered him, and the air that came from some oyster beds, as the tide was falling, hungered him. Home he went, in good time for dinner, as the duty of a young man is; and instead of laughing when he came by, the maids of Springhaven smiled at him. This quite righted him in his own opinion, yet leaving him the benefit of the doubt which comes from a shake in that cradle lately. He made a good dinner, and shouldered his adze, with a frail of tools hanging on the neck of it, and troubled with nothing but love--which is a woe of self- infliction--whistled his way to the beach, to let all the women understand that he was not a bit ashamed. And they felt for him all the more, because he stood up for himself a little.

Doubtful rights go cheap; and so the foreshore westward of the brook being claimed by divers authorities, a tidy little cantle of it had been leased by Admiral Darling, lord of the manor, to Zebedee Tugwell, boat-builder, for the yearly provent of two and sixpence sterling. The Admiral's man of law, Mr. Furkettle, had strongly advised, and well prepared the necessary instrument, which would grow into value by-and-by, as evidence of title. And who could serve summary process of ejectment upon an interloper in a manner so valid as Zebedee's would be? Possession was certain as long as he lived; ousters and filibusters, in the form of railway companies and communists, were a bubble as yet in the womb of ages.

This piece of land, or sand, or rush, seemed very unlikely to be worth dispute. If seisin corporeal, user immemorial, and prescription for levance and couchance conferred any title indefeasible, then were the rabbits the owners in fee-simple, absolute, paramount, and source of pedigree. But they, while thoroughly aware of this, took very little heed to go into it, nor troubled their gentle natures much about a few yards of sand or grass, as the two-legged creatures near them did. Inasmuch as they had soft banks of herb and vivid moss to sit upon, sweet crisp grass and juicy clover for unlabored victuals--as well as a thousand other nibbles which we are too gross to understand--and for beverage not only all the abundance of the brook (whose brilliance might taste of men), but also a little spring of their own which came out of its hole like a rabbit; and then for scenery all the sea, with strange things running over it, as well as a great park of their own having countless avenues of rush, ragwort, and thistle-stump--where would they have deserved to be, if they had not been contented? Content they were, and even joyful at the proper time of day. Joyful in the morning, because the sun was come again; joyful in the middle day to see how well the world went; and in the evening merry with the tricks of their own shadows.

Quite fifteen stepping-stones stepped up--if you counted three that were made of wood--to soothe the dignity of the brook in its last fresh-water moments, rather than to gratify the dry-skin'd soles of gentlefolk. For any one, with a five-shilling pair of boots to terminate in, might skip dry-footed across the sandy purlings of the rivulet. And only when a flood came down, or the head of some springtide came up, did any but playful children tread the lichened cracks of the stepping-stones. And nobody knew this better than Horatia Dorothy Darling.

The bunnies who lived to the west of the brook had reconciled their minds entirely now to the rising of that boat among them. At first it made a noise, and scratched the sand, and creaking things came down to it; and when the moon came through its ribs in the evening, tail was the quarter to show to it. But as it went on naturally growing, seldom appearing to make much noise, unless there was a man very near it, and even then keeping him from doing any harm-- outside the disturbance that he lives in--without so much as a council called, they tolerated this encroachment. Some of the bolder fathers came and sat inside to consider it, and left their compliments all round to the masters of the enterprise. And even when Daniel came to work, as he happened to do this afternoon, they carried on their own work in its highest form--that of play--upon the premises they lent him.

Though not very large, it was a lively, punctual, well-conducted, and pleasant rabbit-warren. Sudden death was avoidable on the part of most of its members, nets, ferrets, gins, and wires being alike forbidden, foxes scarcely ever seen, and even guns a rare and very memorable visitation. The headland staves the southern storm, sand-hills shevelled with long rush disarm the western fury, while inland gales from north and east leap into the clouds from the uplands. Well aware of all their bliss, and feeling worthy of it, the blameless citizens pour forth, upon a mild spring evening, to give one another the time of day, to gaze at the labors of men upon the sea, and to take the sweet leisure, the breeze, and the browse. The gray old conies of curule rank, prime senators of the sandy beach, and father of the father-land, hold a just session upon the head borough, and look like brown loaves in the distance. But these are conies of great mark and special character, full of light and leading, because they have been shot at, and understand how to avoid it henceforth. They are satisfied to chew very little bits of stuff, and particular to have no sand in it, and they hunch their round backs almost into one another, and double up their legs to keep them warm, and reflect on their friends' gray whiskers. And one of their truest pleasures is, sitting snug at their own doors, to watch their children's gambols.

For this is the time, with the light upon the slope, and the freshness of salt flowing in from the sea, when the spirit of youth must be free of the air, and the quickness of life is abounding. Without any heed of the cares that are coming, or the prick-eared fears of the elders, a fine lot of young bunnies with tails on the frisk scour everywhere over the warren. Up and down the grassy dips and yellow piles of wind-drift, and in and out of the ferny coves and tussocks of rush and ragwort, they scamper, and caper, and chase one another, in joy that the winter is banished at last, and the glorious sun come back again.

Suddenly, as at the wave of a wand, they all stop short and listen. The sun is behind them, low and calm, there is not a breath of wind to stir their flax, not even the feather of a last year's bloom has moved, unless they moved it. Yet signal of peril has passed among them; they curve their soft ears for the sound of it, and open their sensitive nostrils, and pat upon the ground with one little foot to encourage themselves against the panting of their hearts and the traitorous length of their shadows.

Ha! Not for nothing was their fear this day. An active and dangerous specimen of the human race was coming, lightly and gracefully skimming the moss, above salt-water reach, of the stepping-stones. The steps are said to be a thousand years old, and probably are of half that age, belonging to a time when sound work was, and a monastery flourished in the valley. Even though they come down from great Hercules himself, never have they been crossed by a prettier foot or a fairer form than now came gayly over them. But the rabbits made no account of that. To the young man with the adze they were quite accustomed, and they liked him, because he minded his own business, and cared nothing about theirs; but of this wandering maiden they had no safe knowledge, and judged the worst, and all rushed away, some tenscore strong, giving notice to him as they passed the boat that he also had better be cautious.

Daniel was in a sweet temper now, by virtue of hard labor and gratified wit. By skill and persistence and bodily strength he had compassed a curve his father had declared impossible without a dock-yard. Three planks being fixed, he was sure of the rest, and could well afford to stop, to admire the effect, and feel proud of his work, and of himself the worker. Then the panic of the conies made him turn his head, and the quick beat of his heart was quickened by worse than bodily labor.

Miss Dolly Darling was sauntering sweetly, as if there were only one sex in the world, and that an entirely divine one. The gleam of spring sunset was bright in her hair, and in the soft garnish of health on her cheeks, and the vigorous play of young life in her eyes; while the silvery glance of the sloping shore, and breezy ruffle of the darkening sea, did nothing but offer a foil for the form of the shell-colored frock and the sky-blue sash.

Young Daniel fell back upon his half-shaped work, and despised it, and himself, and everything, except what he was afraid to look at. In the hollow among the sand-hills where the cradle of the boat was, fine rushes grew, and tufts of ragwort, and stalks of last year's thistles, and sea-osiers where the spring oozed down. Through these the white ribs of the rising boat shone forth like an elephant's skeleton; but the builder entertained some hope, as well as some fear, of being unperceived.

But a far greater power than his own was here. Curved and hollow ships are female in almost all languages, not only because of their curves and hollows, but also because they are craft--so to speak.

"Oh, Captain Tugwell, are you at work still? Why, you really ought to have gone with the smacks. But perhaps you sent your son instead. I am so glad to see you! It is such nice company to hear you! I did not expect to be left alone, like this."

"If you please, miss, it isn't father at all. Father is gone with the fishing long ago. It is only me, Daniel, if you please, miss."

"No, Daniel, I am not pleased at all. I am quite surprised that you should work so late. It scarcely seems respectable."

At this the young man was so much amazed that he could only stare while she walked off, until the clear duty of righting himself in her good opinion struck him. Then he threw on his coat and ran after her.

"If you please, Miss Dolly--will you please, Miss Dolly?" he called, as she made off for the stepping-stones; but she did not turn round, though her name was "Miss Dolly" all over Springhaven, and she liked it. "You are bound to stop, miss," he said, sternly; and she stopped, and cried, "What do you mean by such words to me?"

"Not any sort of harm, miss," he answered, humbly, inasmuch as she had obeyed him; "and I ask your pardon for speaking so. But if you think twice you are bound to explain what you said concerning me, now just."

"Oh, about your working so late, you mean. I offered good advice to you. I think it is wrong that you should go on, when everybody else has left off long ago. But perhaps your father makes you."

"Father is a just man," said young Tugwell, drawing up his own integrity; "now and then he may take a crooked twist, or such like; but he never goeth out of fair play to his knowledge. He hath a- been hard upon me this day; but the main of it was to check mother of her ways. You understand, miss, how the women-folk go on in a house, till the other women hear of it. And then out-of-doors they are the same as lambs."

"It is most ungrateful and traitorous of you to your own mother to talk so. Your mother spoils you, and this is all the thanks she gets! Wait till you have a wife of your own, Master Daniel!"

"Wait till I am dead then I may, Miss Dolly," he answered, with a depth of voice which frightened her for a moment; and then he smiled and said, "I beg your pardon," as gracefully as any gentleman could say it; "but let me see you safe to your own gate; there are very rough people about here now, and the times are not quite as they used to be, when we were a-fighting daily."

He followed her at a respectful distance, and then ran forward and opened the white gate. "Good-night, Daniel," the young lady said, as he lifted his working cap to her, showing his bright curls against the darkening sea; "I am very much obliged to you, and I do hope I have not said anything to vex you. I have never forgotten all you did for me, and you must not mind the way I have of saying things."

"What a shame it does appear--what a fearful shame it is," she whispered to herself as she hurried through the trees--"that he should be nothing but a fisherman! He is a gentleman in everything but birth and education; and so strong, and so brave, and so good- looking!"