Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter ii.

Still Life.

I must now, if I am to bring you to “Two years ago,” and to my story, as it was told to me, ask you to follow me into the good old West Country, and set you down at the back of an old harbour pier; thirty feet of grey and brown boulders, spotted aloft with bright yellow lichens, and black drops of tar, polished lower down by the surge of centuries, and towards the foot of the wall roughened with crusts of barnacles, and mussel-nests in crack and cranny, and festoons of coarse dripping weed.

On a low rock at its foot, her back resting against the Cyclopean wall, sits a young woman of eight-and-twenty, soberly, almost primly dressed, with three or four tiny children clustering round her. In front of them, on a narrow spit of sand between the rocks, a dozen little girls are laughing, romping, and pattering about, turning the stones for “shannies” and “bullies,” and other luckless fish left by the tide; while the party beneath the pier wall look steadfastly down into a little rock-pool at their feet — full of the pink and green and purple cut-work of delicate weeds and coralline, and starred with great sea-dahlias, crimson and brown and grey, and with the waving snake-locks of the Cercus, pale blue, and rose-tipped like the fingers of the dawn. One delicate Medusa is sliding across the pool, by slow pantings of its crystal bell; and on it the eyes of the whole group are fixed — for it seems to be the subject of some story which the village schoolmistress is finishing in a sweet, half-abstracted voice —

“And so the cruel soldier was changed into a great rough red starfish, who goes about killing the poor mussels, while nobody loves him, or cares to take his part; and the poor little girl was changed into a beautiful bright jelly-fish, like that one, who swims about all day in the pleasant sunshine, with a red cross stamped on its heart.”

“Oh, mistress, what a pretty story!” cry the little ones, with tearful eyes. “And what shall we be changed to when we die?”

“If we will only be good we shall go up to Jesus, and be beautiful angels, and sing hymns. Would that it might be soon, soon; for you and me, and all!” And she draws the children, to her, and looks upward, as if longing to bear them with her aloft.

Let us leave the conversation where it is, and look into the face of the speaker, who, young as she is, has already meditated so long upon the mystery of death that it has grown lovely in her eyes.

Her figure is tall, graceful, and slight, the severity of its outlines suiting well with the severity of her dress, with the brown stuff gown and plain grey whittle. Her neck is long, almost too long: but all defects are forgotten in the first look at her face. We can see it fully, for her bonnet lies beside her on the rock.

The masque, though thin, is perfect. The brow, like that of Greek statue, looks lower than it really is, for the hair springs from below the bend of the forehead. The brain is very long, and sweeps backward and upward in grand curves, till it attains above the ears a great expanse and height. She should be a character more able to feel than to argue; full of all a woman’s veneration, devotion, love of children — perhaps, too, of a woman’s anxiety.

The nose is slightly aquiline; the sharp-cut nostrils indicate a reserve of compressed strength and passion; the mouth is delicate; the lips, which are full and somewhat heavy, not from coarseness, but rather from languor, show somewhat of both the upper and the under teeth. Her eyes are bent on the pool at her feet; so that we can see nothing of them but the large sleepy lids, fringed with lashes so long and dark that the eye looks as if it had been painted, in the Eastern fashion, with antimony; the dark lashes, dark eyebrows, dark hair, crisped (as West-country hair so often is) to its very roots, increase the almost ghostlike paleness of the face, not sallow, not snow-white, but of a clear, bloodless, waxen hue.

And now she lifts her eyes — dark eyes, of preternatural largeness; brilliant, too, but not with the sparkle of the diamond; brilliant as deep clear wells are, in which the mellow moonlight sleeps fathom-deep between black walls of rock; and round them, and round the wide-opened lips, and arching eyebrow, and slightly wrinkled forehead, hangs an air of melancholy thought, vague doubt, almost of startled fear; then that expression passes, and the whole face collapses into a languor of patient sadness, which seems to say — “I cannot solve the mystery. Let Him solve it as seems good to Him.”

The pier has, as usual, two stages; the upper and narrower for a public promenade, the lower and broader one for business. Two rough collier-lads, strangers to the place, are lounging on the wall above, and begin, out of mere mischief, dropping pebbles on the group below.

“Hillo! you young rascals,” calls an old man lounging like them on the wall; “if you don’t drop that, you’re likely to get your heads broken.”

“Will you do it?”

“I would thirty years ago; but I’ll find a dozen in five minutes who will do it now. Here, lads! here’s two Welsh vagabonds pelting our schoolmistress.”

This is spoken to a group of Sea–Titans, who are sitting about on the pier-way behind him, in red caps, blue jackets, striped jerseys, bright brown trousers, and all the picturesque comfort of a fisherman’s costume, superintending the mending of a boat.

Up jump half-a-dozen off the logs and baulkings, where they have been squatting, doubled up knee to nose, after the fashion of their class, and a volley of execrations, like a storm of grape, almost blows the two offenders off the wall. The bolder, however, lingers, anathematising in turn; whereon a black-bearded youth, some six feet four in height, catches up an oar, makes a sweep at the shins of the lad above his head, and brings him writhing down upon the upper pier-way, whence he walks off howling, and muttering threats of “taking the law.” In vain; — there is not a magistrate within ten miles; and custom, Lynch-law, and the coast-guard lieutenant, settle all matters in Aberalva town, and do so easily enough; for the petty crimes which fill our gaols are all unknown among those honest Vikings’ sons; and any man who covets his neighbour’s goods, instead of stealing them has only to go and borrow them, on condition, of course, of lending in his turn.

“What’s that collier-lad hollering about, Captain Willis?” asks Mr. Tardrew, steward to Lord Scoutbush, landlord of Aberalva, as he comes up to the old man.

“Gentleman Jan cut him over, for pelting the schoolmistress below here.”

“Serve him right; he’ll have to cut over that curate next, I reckon.”

“Oh, Mr. Tardrew, don’t you talk so; the young gentleman is as kind a man as I ever saw, and comes in and out of our house like a lamb.”

“Wolf in sheep’s clothing,” growls Tardrew.

“What d’ye think he says to me last week? Wanted to turn the schoolmistress out of her place because she went to chapel sometimes.”

“I know, I know,” replied Willis, in the tone of a man who wished to avoid a painful subject. “And what did you answer, then, Mr. Tardrew?”

“I told him he might if he liked; but he’d make the place too hot to hold him, if he hadn’t done it already, with his bowings and his crossings, and his chantings, and his Popish Gregories — and tells one he’s no Papist; called him Pope Gregory himself. What do we want with popes’ tunes here, instead of the Old Hundredth and Martyrdom? I should like to see any Pope of the lot make a tune like them.”

Captain Willis listened with a face half sad, half slily amused. He and Tardrew were old friends; being the two most notable persons in the parish, save Jones the lieutenant, Heale the doctor, and another gentleman, of whom we shall speak presently. Both of them too, were thorough-going Protestants, and though Churchmen, walked sometimes into the Brianite Chapel of an afternoon, and thought it no sin. But each took the curate’s “Puseyism” in a different way, being two men as unlike each other as one could well find.

Tardrew — steward to Lord Scoutbush, the absentee landlord — was a shrewd, hard-bitten, choleric old fellow, of the shape, colour, and consistence of a red brick; one of those English types which Mr. Emerson has so well hit off in his rather confused and contradictory “Traits:"—

“He hides virtues under vices, or, rather, under the semblance of them. It is the misshapen, hairy, Scandinavian Troll again who lifts the cart out of the mire, or threshes the corn which ten day-labourers could not end: but it is done in the dark, and with muttered maledictions. He is a churl with a soft place in his heart, whose speech is a brash of bitter waters, but who loves to help you at a pinch. He says, No; and serves you, and his thanks disgust you.” Such, was Tardrew — a true British bulldog, who lived pretty faithfully up to his Old Testament, but had, somehow, forgotten the existence of the New.

Willis was a very different and a very much nobler person; the most perfect specimen which I ever have met (for I knew him well, and loved him) of that type of British sailor which good Captain Marryat has painted in his Masterman Ready, and painted far better than I can, even though I do so from life. A tall and graceful old man, though stooping much from lumbago and old wounds; with snow-white hair and whiskers, delicate aquiline features, the manners of a nobleman, and the heart of a child. All children knew that latter fact, and clung to him instinctively. Even “the Boys,” that terrible Berserk-tribe, self-organised, self-dependent, and bound together in common iniquities and the dread of common retribution, who were in Aberalva, as all fishing towns, the torment and terror of all douce fogies, male and female — even the Boys, I say, respected Captain Willis, so potent was the influence of his gentleness; nailed not up his shutters, nor tied fishing-lines across his doorway; tail-piped not his dog, nor sent his cat to sea on a barrel-stave; nor put live crabs into his pocket, nor dead dog-fish into his well; yea, even when judgment, too long provoked, made bare her red right hand, and the lieutenant vowed by his commission that he would send half-a-dozen of them to the treadmill, they would send up a deputation to “beg Captain Willis to beg the schoolmistress to beg them off.” For between Willis and that fair young creature a friendship had grown up, easily to be understood. Willis was one of those rare natures upon whose purity no mire can cling; who pass through the furnace, and yet not even the smell of fire has passed upon them. Bred, almost born, on board a smuggling cutter, in the old war-times; then hunting, in the old coast-blockade service, the smugglers among whom he had been trained; watching the slow horrors of the Walcheren; fighting under Collingwood and Nelson, and many another valiant Captain; lounging away years of temptation on the West–Indian station, as sailing-master of a ship-of-the-line; pensioned comfortably now for many a year in his native town, he had been always the same gentle, valiant, righteous man; sober in life, strict in duty, and simple in word; a soul as transparent as crystal, and as pure. He was the oracle of Aberalva now; and even Lieutenant Brown would ask his opinion — non-commissioned officer though he was — in a tone which was all the more patronising, because he stood a little in awe of the old man.

But why, when the boys wanted to be begged off, was the schoolmistress to be their advocate? Because Grace Harvey exercised, without intending anything of the kind, an almost mesmeric influence on every one in the little town. Goodness rather than talent had given her wisdom, and goodness rather than courage a power of using that wisdom, which, to those simple, superstitious folk, seemed altogether an inspiration. There was a mystery about her, too, which worked strongly on the hearts of the West-country people. She was supposed to be at times “not right;” and wandering intellect is with them, as with many primitive peoples, an object more of awe than of pity. Her deep melancholy alternated with bursts of wild eloquence, with fantastic fables, with entreaties and warnings against sin, full of such pity and pathos that they melted, at times, the hardest hearts. A whole world of strange tales, half false, half true, had grown up around her as she grew. She was believed to spend whole nights in prayer; to speak with visitors from the other world; even to have the power of seeing into futurity. The intensity of her imagination gave rise to the belief that she had only to will, and she could see whom she would, and all that they were doing, even across the seas; her exquisite sensibility, it was whispered, made her feel every bodily suffering she witnessed, as acutely as the sufferer’s self, and in the very limb in which he suffered. Her deep melancholy was believed to be caused by some dark fate — by some agonising sympathy with evil-doers; and it was sometimes said in Aberalva — “Don’t do that, for poor Grace’s sake. She bears the sins of all the parish.”

So it befell that Grace Harvey governed, she knew not how or why, all hearts in that wild simple fishing-town. Rough men, fighting on the quay, shook hands at Grace’s bidding. Wives who could not lure their husbands from the beer-shop, sent Grace in to fetch them home, sobered by shame: and woe to the stranger who fancied that her entrance into that noisy den gave him a right to say a rough word to the fair girl! The maidens, instead of envying her beauty, made her the confidant of all their loves; for though many a man would gladly have married her, to woo her was more than any dared; and Gentleman Jan himself, the rightful bully of the quay, as being the handsomest and biggest man for many a mile, beside owning a tidy trawler and two good mackerel-boats, had said openly, that if any man had a right to her, he supposed he had; but that he should as soon think of asking her to marry him, as of asking the moon.

But it was in the school, in the duty which lay nearest to her, that Grace’s inward loveliness shone most lovely. Whatever dark cloud of melancholy lay upon her own heart, she took care that it should never overshadow one of those young innocents, whom she taught by love and ruled by love, always tender, always cheerful, even gay and playful; punishing, when she rarely punished, with tears and kisses. To make them as happy as she could in a world where there was nothing but temptation, and disappointment, and misery; to make them “fit for heaven,” and then to pray that they might go thither as speedily as possible, this had been her work for now seven years; and that Manichaeism which has driven darker and harder natures to destroy young children, that they might go straight to bliss, took in her the form of outpourings of gratitude (when the first natural tears were dried), as often as one of her little lambs was “delivered out of the miseries of this sinful world.” But as long as they were in the world, she was their guardian angel; and there was hardly a mother in Aberalva who did not confess her debt to Grace, not merely for her children’s scholarship, but for their characters.

Frank Headley the curate, therefore, had touched altogether the wrong chord when he spoke of displacing Grace. And when, that same afternoon, he sauntered down to the pier-head, wearied with his parish work, not only did Tardrew stump away in silence as soon as he appeared, but Captain Willis’s face assumed a grave and severe look, which was not often to be seen on it.

“Well, Captain Willis?” said Frank, solitary and sad; longing for a talk with, some one, and not quite sure whether he was welcome.

“Well, sir?” and the old man lifted his hat, and made one of his princely bows. “You look tired, sir; I am afraid you’re doing too much.”

“I shall have more to do, soon,” said the curate, his eye glancing towards the schoolmistress, who, disturbed by the noise above, was walking slowly up the beach, with a child holding to every finger, and every fold of her dress.

Willis saw the direction of his eye, and came at once to the point, in his gentle, straightforward fashion.

“I hear you have thoughts of taking the school from her, sir?”

“Why — indeed — I shall be very sorry; but if she will persist in going to the chapel, I cannot overlook the sin of schism.”

“She takes the children to church twice a Sunday, don’t she? And teaches them all that you tell her —”

“Why — yes — I have taken the religious instruction almost into my own hands now.”

Willis smiled quietly.

“You’ll excuse an old sailor, sir; but I think that’s more than mortal man can do. There’s no hour of the day but what she’s teaching them something. She’s telling them Bible stories now, I’ll warrant, if you could hear her.”

Frank made no answer.

“You wouldn’t stop her doing that? Oh, sir,” and the old man spoke with a quiet earnestness which was not without its effect, “just look at her now, like the Good Shepherd with His lambs about His feet, and think whether that’s not much too pretty a sight to put an end to, in a poor sinful world like this.”

“It is my duty,” said Frank, hardening himself. “It pains me exceedingly, Willis; — I hope I need not tell you that.”

“If I know aught of Mr. Headley’s heart by his ways, you needn’t indeed, sir.”

“But I cannot allow it. — Her mother a class leader among these Dissenters, and one of the most active of them, too. — The school next door to her house. The preacher, of course, has influence there, and must have. How am I to instil Church principles into them, if he is counteracting me the moment my back is turned? I have made up my mind, Willis, to do nothing in a hurry. Lady-day is past, and she must go on till Midsummer; then I shall take the school into my own hands, and teach them myself, for I can pay no mistress or master; and Mr. St. Just —”

Frank checked himself as he was going to speak the truth; namely, that his sleepy old absentee rector, Lord Scoutbush’s uncle, would yawn and grumble at the move, and wondering why Frank “had not the sense to leave ill alone,” would give him no manner of assistance beyond his pittance of eighty pounds a-year, and five pounds at Christmas to spend on the poor.

“Excuse me, sir, I don’t doubt that you’ll do your best in teaching, as you always do: but I tell you honestly, you’ll get no children to teach.”

“No children?”

“Their mothers know the worth of Grace too well, and the children too, sir; and they’ll go to her all the same, do what you will; and never a one will enter the church door from that day forth.”

“On their own heads be it!” said Frank, a little testily; “but I should not have fancied Miss Harvey the sort of person to set up herself in defiance of me.”

“The more reason, sir, if you’ll forgive me, for your not putting upon her.”

“I do not want to put upon her or any one. I will do everything. I will — I do — work day and night for these people, Mr. Willis. I tell you, as I would my own father. I don’t think I have another object on earth — if I have, I hope I shall forget it — than the parish: but Church principles I must carry out.”

“Well, sir, certainly no man ever worked here as you do. If all had been like you, sir, there would not be a Dissenter here now; but excuse me, sir, the Church is a very good thing, and I keep to mine, having served under her Majesty, and her Majesty’s forefathers, and learnt to obey orders, I hope; but don’t you think, sir, you’re taking it as the Pharisees took the Sabbath-day?”

“How then!”

“Why, as if man was made for the Church, and not the Church for man.”

“That is a shrewd thought, at least. Where did you pick it up?”

“’Tis none of my own, sir; a bit of wisdom that my maid let fall; and it has stuck to me strangely ever since.”

“Your maid?”

“Yes, Grace there. I always call her my maid; having no father, poor thing, she looks up to me as one, pretty much — the dear soul. Oh, sir! I hope you’ll think over this again, before you do anything. It’s done in a day: but years won’t undo it again.”

So Grace’s sayings were quoted against him. Her power was formidable enough, if she dare use it. He was silent awhile, and then —

“Do you think she has heard of this — of my —”

“Honesty’s the best policy, sir: she has; and that’s the truth. You know how things get round.”

“Well; and what did she say?”

“I’ll tell you her very words, sir; and they were these, if you’ll excuse me. ‘Poor dear gentleman,’ says she, ‘if he thinks chapel-going so wrong, why does he dare drive folks to chapel? I wonder, every time he looks at that deep sea, he don’t remember what the Lord said about it, and those who cause his little ones to offend.’”

Frank was somewhat awed. The thought was new; the application of the text, as his own scholarship taught him, even more exact than Grace had fancied.

“Then she was not angry?”

“She, sir! You couldn’t anger her if you tore her in pieces with hot pincers, as they did those old martyrs she’s always telling about.”

“Good-bye, Willis,” said Frank, in a hopeless tone of voice, and sauntered to the pier-end, down the steps, and along the lower pier-way, burdened with many thoughts. He came up to the knot of chatting sailors. Not one of them touched his cap, or moved out of the way for him. The boat lay almost across the whole pier-way; and he stopped, awkwardly enough, for there was not room to get by.

“Will you be so kind as to let me pass?” asked he, meekly enough. But no one stirred.

“Why don’t you get up, Tom?” asked one.

“I be lame.”

“So be I.”

“The gentleman can step over me, if he likes,” said big Jan; a proposition the impossibility whereof raised a horse-laugh.

“Ain’t you ashamed of yourselves, lads?” said the severe voice of Willis, from above. The men rose sulkily; and Frank hastened on, as ready to cry as ever he had been in his life. Poor fellow! he had been labouring among these people for now twelve months, as no man had ever laboured before, and he felt that he had not won the confidence of a single human being — not even of the old women, who took his teaching for the sake of his charity, and who scented popery, all the while, in words in which there was no popery, and in doctrines which were just the same, on the whole, as those of the dissenting preacher, simply because he would sprinkle among them certain words and phrases which had become “suspect,” as party badges. His church was all but empty; the general excuse was, that it was a mile from the town: but Frank knew that that was not the true reason; that all the parish had got it into their heads that he had a leaning to popery; that he was going over to Rome; that he was probably a Jesuit in disguise.

Now, be it always remembered, Frank Headley was a good man, in every sense of the word. He had nothing, save the outside, in common with those undesirable coxcombs, who have not been bred by the High Church movement, but have taken refuge in its cracks, as they would have done forty years ago in those of the Evangelical — youths who hide their crass ignorance and dulness under the cloak of Church infallibility, and having neither wit, manners, learning, humanity, or any other dignity whereon to stand, talk loud, pour pis aller, about the dignity of the priesthood. Such men Frank had met at neighbouring clerical meetings, overbearing and out-talking the elder and the wiser members; and finding that he got no good from them, had withdrawn into his parish-work, to eat his own heart, like Bellerophon of old. For Frank was a gentleman and a Christian, if ever one there was. Delicate in person, all but consumptive; graceful and refined in all his works and ways; a scholar, elegant rather than deep, yet a scholar still; full of all love for painting, architecture, and poetry, he had come down to bury himself in this remote curacy, in the honest desire of doing good. He had been a curate in a fashionable London Church; but finding the atmosphere thereof not over wholesome to his soul, he had had the courage to throw off St. Nepomuc’s, its brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and all its gorgeous and highly-organised appliances for enabling five thousand rich to take tolerable care of five hundred poor: and had fled from “the holy virgins” (as certain old ladies, who do twice their work with half their noise, call them) into the wilderness of Bethnal Green. But six months’ gallant work there, with gallant men (for there are High Churchmen there who are an honour to England), brought him to death’s door. The doctors commanded some soft western air. Frank, as chivalrous as a knight-errant of old, would fain have died at his post, but his mother interfered; and he could do no less than obey her. So he had taken this remote west country curacy; all the more willingly because he knew that nine-tenths of the people were Dissenters. To recover that place to the Church would be something worth living for. So he had come, and laboured late and early; and behold, he had failed utterly; and seemed farther than ever from success. He had opened, too hastily, a crusade against the Dissenters, and denounced where he should have conciliated. He had overlooked — indeed he hardly knew — the sad truth, that the mere fact of his being a clergyman was no passport to the hearts of his people. For the curate who preceded him had been an old man, mean, ignorant, incapable, remaining there simply because nobody else would have him, and given to brandy-and-water as much as his flock.

The rector for the last fifteen years, Lord Scoutbush’s uncle, was a cypher. The rector before him had notoriously earned the living by a marriage with a lady who stood in some questionable relation to Lord Scoutbush’s father, and who had never had a thought above his dinner and his tithes; and all that the Aberalva fishermen knew of God or righteousness, they had learnt from the soi-disant disciples of John Wesley. So Frank Headley had to make up, at starting, the arrears of half-a-century of base neglect; but instead of doing so, he had contrived to awaken against himself that dogged hatred of popery which lies inarticulate and confused, but deep and firm, in the heart of the English people. Poor fellow! if he made a mistake, he suffered for it. There was hardly a sadder soul than poor Frank, as he went listlessly up the village street that afternoon, to his lodging at Captain Willis’s, which he had taken because he preferred living in the village itself to occupying the comfortable rectory a mile out of town.

However we cannot set him straight; — after all, every man must perform that office for himself. So the best thing we can do, as we landed, naturally, at the pier-head, is to walk up-street after him, and see what sort of a place Aberalva is.

Beneath us, to the left hand, is the quay-pool, now lying dry, in which a dozen trawlers are lopping over on their sides, their red sails drying in the sun, the tails of the trawls hauled up to the topmast heads; while the more handy of their owners are getting on board by ladders, to pack away the said red sails; for it will blow to night. In the long furrows which their keels have left, and in the shallow muddy pools, lie innumerable fragments of exenterated maids (not human ones, pitiful reader, but belonging to the order Pisces, and the family Raia), and some twenty non-exenterated ray-dogs and picked dogs (Anglice, dog-fish), together with a fine basking shark, at least nine feet long, out of which the kneeling Mr. George Thomas, clothed in pilot cloth patches of every hue, bright scarlet, blue and brown (not to mention a large square of white canvas which has been let into that part of his trousers which is now uppermost), is dissecting the liver for the purpose of greasing his “sheaves” with the fragrant oil thereof. The pools in general are bedded with black mud, and creamed over with oily flakes which may proceed from the tar on the vessels’ sides, and may also from “decomposing animal matter,” as we euphemise it now-a-days. The hot pebbles, at high-tide mark — crowned with a long black row of herring and mackerel boats, laid up in ordinary for the present — are beautifully variegated with mackerels’ heads, gurnets’ fins, old hag, lobworm, and mussel-baits, and the inwards of a whole ichthyological museum; save at one spot where the Cloaca maxima and Port Esquiline of Aberalva town (small enough, considering the place holds fifteen hundred souls) murmurs from beneath a grey stone arch toward the sea, not unfraught with dead rats and cats, who, their ancient feud forgotten, combine lovingly at last in increasing the health of the blue-trousered urchins who are sailing upon that Acherontic stream bits of board with a feather stuck in it, or of their tiny sisters who are dancing about in the dirtiest pool among the trawlers in a way which (if your respectable black coat be seen upon the pier) will elicit from one of the balconied windows above, decked with reeking shirts and linen, some such shriek as —

“Patience Penberthy, Patience Penberthy — a! You nasty, dirty, little ondecent hussy — a! What be playing in the quay-pool for — a! A pulling up your pesticoats before the quality — a!” Each exclamation being followed with that groaning grunt, with which the West-country folk, after having screamed their lungs empty through their noses, recover their breath for a fresh burst.

Never mind; it is no nosegay, certainly as a whole: but did you ever see sturdier, rosier, nobler-looking children — rounder faces, raven hair, bright grey eyes, full of fun and tenderness? As for the dirt, that cannot harm them; poor people’s children must be dirty — why not? Look on fifty yards to the left. Between two ridges of high pebble bank, some twenty yards apart, comes Alva river rushing to the sea. On the opposite ridge, a low white house, with three or four white canvas-covered boats, and a flag-staff with sloping cross-yard, betokens the coast-guard station. Beyond it rise black jagged cliffs; mile after mile of iron-bound wall; and here and there, at the glens’ mouths, great banks and denes of shifting sand. In front of it, upon the beach, are half-a-dozen great green and grey heaps of Welsh limestone; behind it, at the cliff foot, is the lime-kiln, with its white dusty heaps, and brown dusty men, its quivering mirage of hot air, its strings of patient hay-nibbling donkeys, which look as if they had just awakened out of a flour bin. Above, a green down stretches up to bright yellow furze-crofts far aloft. Behind a reedy marsh, covered with red cattle, paves the valley till it closes in; the steep sides of the hills are clothed in oak and ash covert, in which, three months ago, you could have shot more cocks in one day than you would in Berkshire in a year. Pleasant little glimpses there are, too, of grey stone farm-houses, nestling among sycamore and beech; bright-green meadows, alder-fringed; squares of rich red fallow-field, parted by lines of golden furze; all cut out with a peculiar blackness, and clearness, soft and tender withal, which betokens a climate surcharged with rain. Only in the very bosom of the valley, a soft mist hangs, increasing the sense of distance, and softening back one hill and wood behind another, till the great brown moor which backs it all seems to rise out of the empty air. For a thousand feet it ranges up, in rude sheets of brown heather, and grey cairns and screes of granite, all sharp and black-edged against the pale blue sky; and all suddenly cut off above by one long horizontal line of dark grey cloud, which seems to hang there motionless, and yet is growing to windward, and dying to leeward, for ever rushing out of the invisible into sight, and into the invisible again, at railroad speed. Out of nothing the moor rises, and into nothing it ascends — a great dark phantom between earth and sky, boding rain and howling tempest, and perhaps fearful wreck — for the groundswell moans and thunders on the beach behind us, louder and louder every moment.

Let us go on, and up the street, after we have scrambled through the usual labyrinth of timber-baulks, rusty anchors, boats which have been dragged, for the purpose of mending and tarring, into the very middle of the road, and old spars stowed under walls, in the vain hope that they may be of some use for something some day, and have stood the stares and welcomes of the lazy giants who are sitting about upon them, black-locked, black-bearded, with ruddy, wholesome faces, and eyes as bright as diamonds; men who are on their own ground, and know it; who will not touch their caps to you, or pull the short black pipe from between their lips as you pass, but expect you to prove yourself a gentleman, by speaking respectfully to them; which, if you do, you will find them as hearty, intelligent, brave fellows as ever walked this earth, capable of anything, from working the naval-brigade guns at Sevastopol, down to running up to . . . a hundred miles in a cockleshell lugger, to forestall the early mackerel market. God be with you, my brave lads, and with your children after you; for as long as you are what I have known you, Old England will rule the seas, and many a land beside!

But in going up Aberalva Street, you remark several things; first, that the houses were all white-washed yesterday, except where the snowy white is picked out by buttresses of pink and blue; next, that they all have bright green palings in front, and bright green window-sills and frames; next, that they are all roofed with shining grey slate, and the space between the window and the pales flagged with the same; next, that where such space is not flagged, it is full of flowers and shrubs which stand the winter only in our greenhouses. The fuchsias are ten feet high, laden with ripe purple berries running over (for there are no birds to pick them off); and there in the front of the coast-guard lieutenant’s house, is Cobaea scandens, covered with purple claret-glasses, as it has been ever since Christmas: for Aberalva knows no winter: and there are grown-up men in it who never put on a skate, or made a snowball in their lives. A most cleanly, bright-coloured, foreign-looking street, is that long straggling one which runs up the hill towards Penalva Court: only remark, that this cleanliness is gained by making the gutter in the middle street the common sewer of the town, and tread clear of cabbage-leaves, pilchard bones, et id genus omne. For Aberalva is like Paris (if the answer of a celebrated sanitary reformer to the Emperor be truly reported), “fair without but foul within.”

However, the wind is blowing dull and hollow from south-west; the clouds are rolling faster and faster up from the Atlantic; the sky to westward is brassy green; the glass is falling fast; and there will be wind and rain enough to-night to sweep even Aberalva clean for the next week.

Grace Harvey sees the coming storm, as she goes slowly homewards, dismissing her little flock; and she lingers long and sadly outside her cottage door, looking out over the fast blackening sea, and listening to the hollow thunder of the groundswell, against the back of the point which shelters Aberalva Cove.

Far away on the horizon, the masts of stately ships stand out against the sky, driving fast to the eastward with shortened sail. They, too, know what is coming; and Grace prays for them as she stands, in her wild way, with half outspoken words.

“All those gallant ships, dear Lord! and so many beautiful men in them, and so few of them ready to die; and all those gallant soldiers going to the war; — Lord, wilt thou not have mercy? Spare them for a little time before —. Is not that cruel, man-devouring sea full enough, Lord; and brave men’s bones enough, strewn up and down all rocks and sands? And is not that dark place full enough, O Lord, of poor souls cut off in a moment, as my two were? Oh, not to-night, dear Lord! Do not call any one to-night — give them a day more, one chance more, poor fellows — they have had so few, and so many temptations, and, perhaps, no schooling. They go to sea so early, and young things will be young things, Lord. Spare them but one night more — and yet He did not spare my two — they had no time to repent, and have no time for ever, evermore!”

And she stands looking out over the sea; but she has lost sight of everything, save her own sad imaginations. Her eyes open wider and wider, as if before some unseen horror; the eyebrows contract upwards; the cheeks sharpen; the mouth parts; the lips draw back, showing the white teeth, as if in intensest agony. Thus she stands long, motionless, awe-frozen, save when a shudder runs through every limb, with such a countenance as that “fair terror” of which Shelley sang —

“Its horror and its beauty are divine;

Upon its lips and eyelids seem to lie

Loveliness like a shadow, from which shine,

Fiery and lucid, struggling underneath,

The agonies of anguish and of death.”

Her mother comes out from the cottage door behind, and lays her hand upon the girl’s shoulder. The spell is broken; and hiding her face in her hands, Grace bursts into violent weeping.

“What are you doing, my poor child, here in the cold night air?”

“My two, mother, my two!” said she; “and all the poor souls at sea to-night!”

“You mustn’t think of it. Haven’t I told you not to think of it? One would lose one’s wits if one did too often.”

“If it is all true, mother, what else is there worth thinking of in heaven or earth?”

And Grace goes in with a dull, heavy look of utter exhaustion, bodily and mental, and quietly sets the things for supper, and goes about her cottage work as one who bears a heavy chain, but has borne it too long to let it hinder the daily drudgery of life.

Grace had reason to pray at least, for the soldiers who were going to the war. For as she prayed, the Orinoco, Ripon, and Manilla, were steaming down Southampton Water, with the Guards on board; and but that morning little Lord Scoutbush, left behind at the depôt, had bid farewell to his best friend, opposite Buckingham Palace, while the bearskins were on the bayonet-points, with —

“Well, old fellow, you have the fun, after all, and I the work;” and had been answered with —

“Fun? there will be no fighting; and I shall only have lost my season in town.”

Was there, then, no man among them that day, who

“As the trees began to whisper, and the wind began to roll,

Heard in the wild March morning the angels call his soul”?

Verily they are gone down to Hades, even many stalwart souls of heroes.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter2.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:48