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Chapter IX.

THENCEFORTH, of course, Sylvester's house was haunted. The belated horseman galloped past it fearfully in the deepening dusk; and even by day none ventured within the wicket. The luscious bunches of white lilac, the golden chain of the laburnum, hung over the garden wall untouched. The wall-flowers, basking in the silent blaze of the summer sun, seemed to have meaning in their rusty red,—a bloody secret that the bee entreated them to tell, as it buzzed from blossom to blossom; settling now for a moment upon one, hushed as though listening for the disclosure, and then hurrying off with an impatient, disappointed murmur, to the next. The place had a strange fascination for me. I have stood for hours looking in upon the sweet-williams, the double daisies, the stocks, the cloves, and London-pride, that struggled to the light through the rank growth of weeds that overran the garden-beds. The same tell-tale tinge —so plain, and yet so reticent—was in them all. It affected me like a revelation in an unknown tongue. It blushed, too, in the roses clumped in chubby clusters about the weather-stained trellis-work tumbling from the cottage wall. As they swayed in the sluggish breeze, they appeared, in succession, to be peeping, through the chinks of the shuttered window into the awful room, whispering together of the sight that they had seen, and tremblingly creeping back again to take another view. When on the spot, I could never divest myself of the idea that the murder was then committing, and saw in fancy the sideroom-door fly open—proclaiming that there was a witness there, and the hoary assassin rooted to the ground and blasted before the unknown Avenger.

I had been privy to one of the old man's crimes. I was the last who had seen him and the girl alive. I felt myself, in some shadowy way, connected with them, personally interested in unravelling the mystery of


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their doom. With a vague hope of reding the riddle, I used to linger, too, about their graves. They were buried in the neglected corner of the churchyard of which I have already spoken. The Suicide, the Castaway, the Murderer, and the Magdalen, lie side by side. A dark-boughed tree droops over them; the churchyard-wall just there is broken down— affording, over its mound of mossy mould and slug-slimed stones, a glimpse of a sullen, shaded pond, black as ink, and bristling with brown rushes. It is a dreary sepulchre. I remember plucking a blossom from one of the scores of white nettles that grew amongst the cold, glossy docks and flowerless stinging nettles, over that tomb of loneliness and sin, and inadvertently sucking its honey: a nausea seized me when I thought of what I had done—there was a taste of corpses in my mouth, a flavour of iniquity, so to speak, upon my tongue. I knew nothing then of the sweet chemistry by which Nature distils purity from corruption, and was, of course, as ignorant of Emerson's fanciful analogy: “The divine effort is never relaxed; the carrion in the sun will convert itself to grass and flowers; and man, though in brothels, or jails, or on gibbets, is on his way to all that is good and true.” I cannot say that I have much faith in the latter statement even now—the road appears a strange one.

Beyond the churchyard was another haunt of mine, “the Rocks.” The quarries make a red gap in the green wood on that side of the bay. The “Giant's Footstep” we called the chasm, from its resemblance to a monstrous foot-print on the sloping hill. Beneath the wood and the quarries are the Rocks, a platform bordering, and often covered by, the sea. On the land-side, they form a pavement that might have been laid down by Cyclopean hands; cracks, running almost regularly at right angles to each other, give the huge mass precisely the appearance of an old-world work of art—a quay fit for a fleet of Arks to moor at, for Titanic stevedores to tramp along. Farther out, the mass is more compact, with the fretted, rusty look of iron long exposed to wind and water. Boulders, quaintly carved by the ocean, in Mohammedan mood, into all kinds of nondescript formations; black with “honeycombs” in which you might expect to find soot or blasting-powder stored by negro-bees; white with oyster-shells as if they had been pilloried and pelted by the waves with molluscs; or plumply round, neutral-tinted, and lazily unwieldy as hippopotami taking their siesta in the mud and sun,—are heaped upon the platform, and grouped in miniature archipelagoes in the sea beyond. The old women of the village frequent this wild spot at times in order to gather “lavabread,” an alga of a spinachy hue and taste, which they make into oval cakes and fry with oatmeal. I went to the Rocks, when they were deserted,


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for their feast of beauty, the unflagging amusement, the thrill of mysterious terror, fascinating awe, their marine sights and sounds afforded me. The moist, mottled crabs sporting their gay waistcoats—light buff with fancy sprigs of many colours—were play-fellows for me; sprawling everywhere in a countless swarm, scuttering away awkwardly, when approached, to fall with a flop into some sheltering crevice from which they instantly protruded hostile claws,—peering out over them like little apoplectic old men with their heads upon their arms. And then how lovely were the rock-pools!—The tiny ones, with their subaqueous encampments of tent-like limpet-shells, blue periwinkles with such a plum-like bloom upon them in the water, so dull when taken out, and those strange, soft, tenacious knobs like buttons of black, and green, and claret-coloured velvet: the broad, shallow pools, with their floors of golden sand, and stones as glittering, on which fell the dark shadows of scores of gliding fishkins—far more substantial-looking than their owners; the surface of the water—clear, and yet potentially-solid-seeming (prisoned saltwater always has that look) as molten crystal—chequered with long ribs of brilliance, blending in fantastic, Moresque lattices of light when the freshening breeze changed the steady ripple into a chopping, circling canter: and the deep, emerald pool, with its bigger fish, black, rakish, and solitary as pirate-schooners, lying motionless in midwater, or sullenly cruising round and round, putting in at many a fairy-harbour embosomed in tangle, and straightway, with a noiseless swing of their notched rudder-tails, 'bout ship, and out once more into their main of liquid gem. I think that I am morbidly inclined to suicide. I know that I could never look into that Lilliputian lake without fearfully longing to disturb its calm, to go plunging down—rustling its sea-weed tapestry, green, golden, dusky-brown, and bloody-red—and rest on the smooth silvery sand, dappled with patches of streaked and purple pebbles, that glimmered up at me from the bottom, mocking my hesitation, daring me to the leap. I can quite understand the feeling that peopled the sea with seductive Nereids and Sirens in olden times, and Mermaids in more modern; rivers with luring Lurleys, springs with Undines. There was something eerie, too, in the muffled murmur of the water gurgling up hidden crannies far down beneath my feet, as the surging waves rolled in, and in the tumultuous haste with which it ebbed from the darkness to the light,—to be again forced back into its gloomy cells. And, on stormy days, it was grand to see the green, glassy billows, foam-crested long before they reached the land, galloping on, with their white manes flying behind them in the wind, to break in thunder and in boiling snow—doubly white from its contrast with the back ground of


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leaden sky on which it was embossed—upon the outlying crags. Buried for a moment, with what a sturdy pride they raise their black heads again—grey-tressed with countless cataracts—above the dazzling, dizzying chaos! “Firm as a rock” is, I imagine, the most hackneyed of similes, and yet it always presents itself with a fresh truth about it to one who watches the truceless war of cliff and sea.

I was standing by my Nereid-pool one day, gazing down into its clear depths as a lover looks into the false, fond, liquid eyes of the charmer he knows to be a traitress, when a voice, close at hand, said gently: “And what are you thinking of, my little boy?” I turned, and saw a lady with a lovely face losing its bloom, and a look of sadness and of shame overlying what seemed to have been its original expression, a bold haughtiness. I had seen her several times, but had never been near her before. She lived in the outskirts of the village, and was, in plain English, the discarded mistress of some great man, and had recently come to hide her head in our retired part of the country. No “respectable people”—how I hate the money-grubbing, Pharisaic phrase!—noticed her, and the poor, seeing that, despite her fine clothes, she was slighted by their “betters,” lost no opportunity of manifesting their coarse scorn. Vice—even when, perhaps, repented of—ought, no doubt, to bring the vicious into contempt: in this very virtuous world of ours, however, it is hard to refrain from laughing sometimes when one thinks of the contemners. A wite-beating London mob, emptying the vials of its wrath on Marshal Haynau, is a sight in which I find grim humour; and the Bankside brewers are only exaggerated types of their brother Britons when they take it into their wise heads to play censor. Whatever had been her former life, Mrs. FitzHerbert, as she called herself, led an existence now almost as unworldly as a nun's. Except with the little parish girl, who was her servant, I fancy she scarcely ever exchanged a word. She came regularly to church—often wept quietly beneath her veil, and subscribed liberally to his charities, Brown said: adding, with a sneer, “and so, of course, she ought.” (Brown, not being a sinner, was rather close with his spare cash—seeming to think his piety a very satisfactory set-off against all claims upon his purse.) On week days she generally remained within doors. If she came out, it was to look after her flowers, or to stroll with a book wherever there was least chance of meeting anybody. One of her solitary rambles had brought her to the Rocks.

Although I was too young to understand the cause of her disgrace, I could see very well that she was shunned by every one; and this excommunication had made me like her. It was my own lot, and I felt for her


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the regard—is it selfish, or is it not?—that springs from common suffering.

She sat down on the raised rim of the pool, and began to talk to me.

“Why don't people like you?” I asked after a few minutes, for I thought she looked very beautiful and kind as I watched the reflection of her noble face and shimmering silks in the still, green water.

“Did n't you say just now that they don't like you?

“Ah, but I'm very ugly.”

“And I've been very——never mind the foolish people, Arthur! I want you to tell me something about Papa.”

“He's dead,—he died before you came.”

“Yes, I know, my poor boy; but tell me all you remember of him.”

And I did, and she listened as though she could never weary of the story.

At last she said:

“Let us go and see his grave, Arthur!”

We went. She stooped over the rich summer flowers that waved upon it, and gathered one, and put it in her bosom, and pressed my hand so hard that I looked up at her in astonishment—she was crying.

“I was afraid to come before,” she sobbed out to herself; and then, catching me in her arms, she told me not to forget her when I said my prayers, and talked of my father just as though she had known him long ago.

“Come and see Mamma.”

But she shook her head—the haughty look in her face leaping up through the sadness—and turned to my brother's and my sister's grave. She made me tell her all about them, too—especially what Willie was like.

“Oh, he was very pretty,” I answered. “You wouldn't have talked to me, if you could have talked to him. Ma loved him eversomuch better than me.”

“Indeed, but I would have talked to you, my poor little neglected fellow, andyou must often come to my cottage and talk to me now.” Then shekissed me again, and gave me a picture-book and some sweet-meats that she had in her bag, done up in a little parcel with my name upon it. The outer paper was creased, as though she had carried the packet about with her for some time.

As we were leaving the churchyard, a quarry-woman, drunk and swearing at the horse that dragged the rough, primitive stone-sledge—two unbarked shafts with battens nailed across them—passed us. Taking her pipe out of her mouth, and sticking it under the pack-saddle of straw and sacking on which she sat, with her head nodding to her knees, she beckoned


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to me when she had got a little in front; and, as I was in no haste to obey the summons, called out in the queer form of the imperative in use in Glamorganshire:

“Come he, come he!”

Her communication, when I did go to her, was a caution not to let my mammy see me with you hussy. Having stuttered out this piece of tipsy counsel, she replaced her pipe, patted down her brimless, battered, greasy old beaver hat upon her crown, jerked up the head of her horse, which was cropping the long grass by the roadside, hit him over his galled shoulder with the end of the halter, and looking back the very incarnation of gravity and consummate virtue, jogged on in the direction of the Bull.

My companion had heard the warning, and seemed pleased by the alacrity with which I ran back to her side. She walked with me up to the door of our house, and said to my mother, who happened to be coming out:

“I have brought back your little boy. It is hardly safe for him to wander about so much alone.”

My mother made her some cold answer, and when she was gone, I was forbidden ever to speak to that “bad woman” again.

“She's not bad,” I cried: “She's given me lots of nice things, and she——”

But a feeling that I could not fathom prevented me from adding that she had known Papa.

I meant to disobey, in this instance, my mother's orders; but I had no opportunity of doing so, as in a few days' time we left for England.

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