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  ― 17 ―

Chapter V.

THE autumn leaves were lying, thin and sere, upon that grave; my father, as wasted and as withered, still lingered, like them, on the earth. Only like them; a few more weeks, and the churchyard sods would cover both.

The physician who occasionally attended him had ceased to call, knowing that his visits were in vain, and not wishing to make useless inroads on my father's slender purse. The country “doctor,” who was, also, the coroner for the district, rode over once or twice in the week, and went through the customary form of pulse-feeling and prescribing; talked gossip by way of consolation to my mother, bullied us children, and then rode away again.

He was a coarse, unfeeling, boastful man, who, on the strength of having been an Army Surgeon, gave himself great airs of gentility, and was always wanting to perform some operation. It was easy even for a child to discover that he wasn't a gentleman; he was so perpetually talking about being one. “On the honor of a soldier and a gentleman,” “Sir, I have mingled with the aristocracy, I have been in the Dragoons,” were favourite phrases of his; introducing, or fringing, every second sentence. He was constantly depreciating the surgical skill of other practitioners moreover, and magnifying his own; which, as I have said, he was in an everlasting fever of anxiety to display; eyeing every one with the glare of a butcher looking at a beast into which he longs to plunge his knife. I don't know of what country he was a native; but he talked very queerly, and had a strange habit of altering the pronunciation of a word that he had, by chance, pronounced properly into something that he supposed was more fashionably correct. “Vittles,” he would say, and then add, “I should say, vic-tu-als— these vulgar boors corrupt one's accent!” He was very fond of arguing and meddling, and tried to convince my mother that Marion ought to learn Euclid. Brown had left the parsonage shortly after my brother's death, and taken lodgings some miles away; only visiting Pwldhi to do duty on the Sunday. We had, therefore, no regular lessons at this time, but Marion heard Janet and myself read, and repeat our poetry and Mangnall. Janet was saying the “Child's First Grief” one day, when my mother and the doctor came into the library. He snatched the book out of Marion's hand, exclaiming, “Tut! tut! what trash is this? ‘Oh, call my brother back to me, I cannot play alone!’ Now, really, Mrs. Owen, it is very absurd to let children learn such nonsense. Their brother can't come back, and they can play alone. What's the good of poetry? What use is it? You should exercise their minds—give them


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something they can't understand to learn, to invigorate their faculties. Anybody can understand poetry—understand, that is, that it's rubbish. Read a bit of Paradise Lost! What have you learnt from it? Absolutely nothing. Read a treatise on Trigonometry. You've got something solid there. Let your little girl begin Euclid to-morrow, ma'am. Of course, I learnt the classics. Being a gentleman, I had to be educated as one. But I think it was time wasted. Science is my idol now; and I've mastered all the sciences. I'm not like those ignoramuses at Porteynon and Oystermouth who call themselves surgeons and scientific men, and, ten to one, would open an artery if they attempted venesection; and don't know an obtuse angle—ob-tuse I should say—from a semi-circle (extra-professionally, mathematics is my favorite study, or, rather, amusement). I am an operator and a savant. I have been in the Dragoons, ma'am, and have been called in by members of both Houses of Parliament. The Duke of Dawlish breathed his last in my arms. Had he lived, I should have held a high medical appointment at Court. ‘We want gentlemen, you know, Foster!’ his Grace observed, when he promised it. And I am a member of most of the learned societies. There's not a branch of Natural Science that I'm not a proficient in. In Natural History I'm looked up to as an authority; Zoology, Ornithology, Entomology, Conchology,.”— Of course, in my record of this harangue, in order to give a faithful transcript of what I am sure it was, I have considerably expanded my actual recollections. The last words, however, are given verbatim, for I remember that they reminded me of the grammar, and when he came to Ornithology, and Entomology, I thought that he had made a mistake in the names, and would go on with Syntax and Prosody. Marion interrupted him when he mentioned Conchology. My father had taught her a little of this, and she had lately picked up a peculiar shell of which she wanted to know the name. She brought it out, and asked the doctor. He turned very red, and then made up some hard word or other. I could see that he was making it up. Children have keen eyes for shams, and read grown-up people far better than grown-up people read them. The doctor directly afterwards took out his watch, said it was time for him to be at the inquest, and went away to the Bull.

A few nights before there had been a fearful storm. The howling winds rushed in from the sea like a host of angels that had kept not their first estate, hurrying wailing to their doom. Trees were blown down, and the spray beat like rain against the parsonage windows. Off the Point, we had seen every now and then a pale blue light, and yellow flashes; and when the gale lulled, we could hear the dull boom of a gun. My sisters


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and I were standing at the bedroom window, in our night-clothes, shivering with fear and cold, watching, by the vivid gleams of the frequent lightning, the fishermen go past in pea-jackets and sou' westers,—bent almost double as they struggled down to the beach against the storm; when the sky seemed to be cracked like a pane of glass; white-hot light streamed out of the fissures, and ran in zigzags along the heavens; everything stood out clear in an unearthly, ghastly blaze; and on the top of a huge billow, just curling for its spring upon the rocks, we saw the black hull of a dismasted vessel. The prospect vanished, as though it had been swallowed by the darkness; and a peal of thunder, directly overhead, sounded like a comet-load of crushed planet, shot by devils for the foundation of a new Pandemonium.

Next morning the beach was strewed with planks, and spars, and barrel-staves, gnawed by the waves as dogs gnaw bones. The sea was fringed with floating wreck, and a corpse lay on the sands; that of a man, black-haired and sunburnt, with golden ear-rings, and an ivory crucifix fastened to a coral chain.

It was on this body that the inquest was to be held. Part of a board with “San Ja—” in white letters on it had been washed ashore, and several hogsheads branded “Oviedo-Cadiz.” It was inferred, therefore, that the cast-away was a Spanish sugar-ship. “Found drowned,” was the verdict of the jury on the man, and he was buried in Pwldhi churchyard, in the part where the docks and nettles grow, next to Farmer Evans who cut his throat. The coroner “took charge” of the ornaments, and Auntie Bevan, who used to go up to his house to help when he had company, declared that she had seen his young housekeeper wearing them. I don't know that she hadn't as good a right to them as any one else; but the village people were horror-struck at the idea of robbing the dead man of his rings, and flaunting them about after that fashion. They would have taken the trinkets—and sold them.

As it was, they got very little except fire-wood from the wreck. The bulk of the cargo had sunk or been carried out to sea.

Old Uncle Syl. was more fortunate.

I hardly ever saw anything of my father now, for I had given up sitting at the bedroom door, because latterly he had never noticed me. He was in that awful state of languor, in which even to breathe appears a weariness—in which there is no strength left to spend in smiles. I made no allowance for this. I thought even my father had deserted me, and my heart grew cold and black towards him as the November sky above my head. I was walking on the sands one dull afternoon, looking, with


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as leaden an eye, upon the leaden waves, when I stumbled against a boat drawn up just above high-water mark. I got into it, covered myself up in some old nets and sails that were lying at the bottom, and fell asleep. When I woke, I pushed off my coverlet—half stifled by the smell of fish and tar—and was startled to see the moon shining full upon my face. I looked round. Instead of the Burrows, there were high cliffs before me, and on each side; some in deep shadow, and some silvered by the moonlight. The boat's head was on shore, but the waves as they rolled gently in, lazily lifted up her stern. An old man was kneeling by a box upon the sand. He turned round, and I saw it was old Syl. He had been abroad in his youth—he said in a man-of-war, other people said in a slaver, or a pirate, or something of that kind—and now lived in a lonely cottage, by himself; professedly a fisherman, but there were all kinds of queer stories about him. He never drew a pension, but old Tom Prhys, who did, had been found in a pond in the road that led by old Syl's cottage, on the morning after quarter-day. There was no money in the dead man's pockets, and Syl. said Tom must have spent it all in Swansea, got drunk, and walked into the pond. The people who went to the fair a short time after, made inquiries at the house where Tom generally stopped. He had left it as sober as a judge. This, and many a tale like it, I had heard. I was, therefore, terribly frightened to find myself I didn't know where, with such a companion. The box, I suppose, was a relic of the wreck that he had found, and hidden to rifle at his leisure. There was a hole beside it, surrounded with sand, that seemed to have been just thrown up. Old Syl. having “prized” open the lid, pulled out the contents. Some clothes he threw upon the ground, and then I heard the rattle and saw the gleam of coin. I had never seen so much money before in my life. I thought he would never have done scooping it out by handfuls, and stowing it away in his pockets. Those in his canvas trousers bulged out like swollen cheeks. At last he had got it all. Then he put back the clothes, smashed in the lid of the chest, and sent it adrift. He came close to the boat to do this, and I cowered down, shaking like a jelly, beneath the nets again. I felt that he would murder me, if he found me there; but how to escape I knew not. He went back to the hole, and began digging up the ground beyond it. I soon heard the sand “swishing” down something smooth and glittering he held in his arms. It was a woman's silk dress. He had pulled out a corpse—was it a corpse when it came ashore? What did that gash upon the forehead mean? He snatched the chains and brooches from her neck and breast, and tore the rings from her ears. Very big and bright they were. They


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reminded me of the drops hanging from the lustres at the Hall. He tried to pull off the finger-rings, but the hands were puffed by the sea-water; so not being able to slip the rings along, he felt behind him for his knife, and cut five of the fingers off. Frightened as I was, I could not help counting them. The corpse's eyes were open, and seemed to dare him to do it, as they stared full at him in the moonlight. Having got the plunder, the despoiler dug a deep grave, into which he put the body. He was patting down the sand with the flat of his spade, when I dropped over the boat's side, and crawled on my hands and knees to a limestone boulder that was half buried in the beach. Under the lee of this I lay, until Syl. had finished his labour. Then he stept into his boat again, and pulled out into the deep water. I now found that I was in a creek, walled in on three sides with crags; and that the tide was coming in. Farther and farther up the beach it crept, driving me before it. I thought I should soon be drowned, and yet I was glad when the water covered the grave. It seemed to protect me from the dead woman lying down there, with those wide, glaring eyes of hers. At length, at the very head of the creek, I found the sand loose and white, as though the sea never came thither. I lay down and covered myself with sand, and some dry seaweed. The long nap that I had had, and my present fright, prevented me from going to sleep for hours. It was very, very dreary lying there, listening to the waves' monotonous wash, as they rolled in and broke in rings of creamy foam, each bubble bright in the moonlight. However, I dozed at last, and finally fell into deep slumber. When I woke, it was morning. The sun looked like a red ball through the raw mist that lay upon the waters. Gradually it broke—slowly gathered itself into bunches, like brailed up sails, and disappeared—and then I discovered that I was on the rocky side of the harbour, nearly opposite the church. After many slips and tumbles, I escaped from my prison, and got down, scratched and numb and aching, and very hungry, on to the open beach once more.

I reached home about noon. I had been missed, and some search had been made for me; but very little alarm had been excited, as I often hid myself, when in my sullen humours. I contrasted Jenny's quiet “Oh, there you are, Master Arthur!” with the raving way in which she ran about when Willie was lost; and loved neither her nor my brother the better for it. I told some lie about having missed my way, and sat down to a huge plateful of gapra, the Welsh porridge, that had been put aside for me.

My secret lay heavy on my heart. I was continually in fear lest I might inadvertently reveal it; and then I was convinced old Syl. would kill me.




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I didn't see him about the village for some days after this. He soon, however, made his appearance again at his favourite haunt, the Bull; where the servants said he was “drinkin' like mad, and goin' on awful.” He had given Mrs. Davis an “outlandish coin,” by mistake, for a half-crown, too, they said; and they guessed, “if the truth was known, that he had plenty more where that came from. Some people did say, as he had lured the furrin ship ashore with a false light.” I used to tremble every time I heard the old villain's name; and if, by chance, I met him, and saw his snake's eye glancing sideways at me, over his wrinkled, parchment cheek, it seemed to look into my very heart, and say “you know you'd better hold your tongue, young shaver!” He haunted my dreams. So did the hidden creek; and by day I was always looking at the distant cliffs, and wondering whereabouts it was; and whether the woman heard the water rippling over her head, and there were any chance of her getting up, when the tide was down, and coming to make me appear as a witness against the robber. My nerves were so shaken, that I started at a shadow.

Meanwhile the Ghostly Shadow drew nearer and nearer to my father's room.

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