Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts , by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The Lady of the Ship

[Or so much as is told of her by Paschal Tonkin, steward and major-domo to the lamented John Milliton, of Pengersick Castle, in Cornwall: of her coming in the Portugal Ship, anno 1526; her marriage with the said Milliton and alleged sorceries; with particulars of the Barbary men wrecked in Mount’s Bay and their entertainment in the town of Market Jew.]

My purpose is to clear the memory of my late and dear Master; and to this end I shall tell the truth and the truth only, so far as I know it, admitting his faults, which, since he has taken them before God, no man should now aggravate by guess-work. That he had traffic with secret arts is certain; but I believe with no purpose but to fight the Devil with his own armoury. He never was a robber as Mr. Thomas St. Aubyn and Mr. William Godolphin accused him; nor, as the vulgar pretended, a lustful and bloody man. What he did was done in effort to save a woman’s soul; as Jude tells us, “Of some have compassion, that are in doubt; and others save, having mercy with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh”— though this, alas! my dear Master could not. And so with Jude I would end, praying for all of us and ascribing praise to the only wise God, our Saviour, who is able to guard us from stumbling and set us faultless before His presence with exceeding joy.

It was in January, 1526, after a tempest lasting three days, that the ship called the Saint Andrew, belonging to the King of Portugal, drove ashore in Gunwallo Cove, a little to the southward of Pengersick. She was bound from Flanders to Lisbon with a freight extraordinary rich — as I know after a fashion by my own eyesight, as well as from the inventory drawn up by Master Francis Porson, an Englishman, travelling on board of her as the King of Portugal’s factor. I have a copy of it by me as I write, and here are some of Master Porson’s items:—

8,000 cakes of copper, valued by him at 3,224 pounds. 18 blocks of silver, ‘ ‘ ‘ 2,250 ‘. Silver vessels, plate, patens, ewers and pots, beside pearls, precious stones, and jewels of gold. Also a chest of coined money, in amount 6,240 ‘.

There was also cloth of arras, tapestry, rich hangings, satins, velvets, silks, camlets, says, satins or Bruges, with great number of bales of Flemish and English cloth; 2,100 barber’s basins; 3,200 laten candlesticks; a great chest of shalmers and other instruments of music; four sets of armour for the King of Portugal, much harness for his horses, and much beside — the whole amounting at the least computation to 16,000 pounds in value. 1 And this I can believe on confirmation of what I myself saw upon the beach.

But let me have done with Master Porson and his tale, which runs that the Saint Andrew, having struck at the mouth of the cove, there utterly perished; yet, by the grace and mercy of Almighty God, the greater part of the crew got safely to land, and by help of many poor folk dwelling in the neighbourhood saved all that was most valuable of the cargo. But shortly after (says he) there came on the scene three gentlemen, Thomas Saint Aubyn, William Godolphin, and John Milliton, with about sixty men armed in manner of war with bows and swords, and made an assault on the shipwrecked sailors and put them in great fear and jeopardy; and in the end took from them all they had saved from the wreck, amounting to 10,000 pounds worth of treasure —“which,” says he, “they will not yield up, nor make restitution, though they have been called upon to do so.”

So much then for the factor’s account, which I doubt not he believed to be true enough; albeit on his own confession he had lain hurt and unconscious upon the beach at the time, and his tale rested therefore on what he could learn by hearsay after his recovery; when — the matter being so important — he was at trouble to journey all the way to London and lay his complaint before the Portuguese ambassador. Moreover he made so fair a case of it that the ambassador obtained of the English Court a Commissioner, Sir Nicholas Fleming, to travel down and push enquiries on the spot — where Master Porson did not scruple to repeat his accusation, and to our faces (having indeed followed the Commissioner down for that purpose). I must say I thought him a very honest man — not to say a brave one, seeing what words he dared to use to Mr. Saint Aubyn in his own house at Clowance, calling him a mere robber. I was there when he said it and made me go hot and cold, knowing (if he did not) that for two pins Mr. Saint Aubyn might have had him drowned like a puppy. However, he chose to make nothing of an insult from a factor. “Mercator tantum,” replied he, snapping his fingers, and to my great joy; for any violence might have spoiled the story agreed on between us — that is, between Mr. Saint Aubyn, Mr. Godolphin, and me who acted as deputy for my Master.

This story of ours, albeit less honest, had more colour of the truth than Master Porson’s hearsay. It ran that Mr. Saint Aubyn, happening near Gunwallo, heard of the wreck and rode to it, where presently Mr. Godolphin and my Master joined him and helped to save the men; that, in attempting to save the cargo also, a man of Mr. Saint Aubyn’s — one Will Carnarthur — was drowned; that, in fact, very little was rescued; and, seeing the men destitute and without money to buy meat and drink, we bought the goods in lawful bargain with the master. As for the assault, we denied it, or that we took goods to the value of ten thousand pounds from the sailors. All that was certainly known to be saved amounted to about 20 pounds worth; and, in spite of many trials to recover more, which failed to pay the charges of labour, the bulk of the cargo remained in the ship and was broken up by the seas.

This was our tale, false in parts, yet a truer one than either of us, who uttered it, believed. The only person in the plot (so to say) who knew it to be true in substance was my Master. I, his deputy, took this version from him to Clowance with a mind glad enough to be relieved by my duty from having any opinion on the matter. On the one hand, I had the evidence of my senses that the booty had been saved, and too much wit to doubt that any other man would conclude it to be in my Master’s possession. On the other, I had never known him lie or deceive, or engage me to further any deceit; his word was his bond, and by practice my word was his bond also. Further, of this affair I had already begun to wonder if a man’s plain senses could be trusted, as you will hear reason by-and-by. As for Mr. Saint Aubyn and Mr. Godolphin, they had no doubt at all that my Master was lying, and that I had come wittingly to further his lie. They would have drawn on him (I make no doubt) had he brought the tale in person. From me, his intermediate, they took it as the best to suit with the known truth and present to the Commissioner. All Cornishmen are cousins, you may say. It comes to this, rather: these gentlemen chose to accept my master’s lie, and settle with him afterwards, rather than make a clean breast and be forced to wring their small shares out of the Exchequer. A neighbour can be persuaded, terrified, forced; but London is always a long way off, and London lawyers are the devil. I say freely that (knowing no more than they did, or I) these two gentlemen followed a reasonable policy.

But, after we had fitted Sir Nicholas with our common story, and as I was mounting my horse in Clowance courtyard, Mr. Saint Aubyn came close to my stirrup and said this by way of parting:

“You will understand, Mr. Tonkin, that today’s tale is for today. But by God I will come and take my share — you may tell your master — and a trifle over! And the next time I overtake you I promise to put a bullet in the back of your scrag neck.”

For answer to this — seeing that Master Porson stood at an easy distance with his eye on us — I saluted him gravely and rode out of the courtyard.

Now the manner of the wreck was this, and our concern with it. So nearly as I can learn, the Saint Andrew came ashore at two hours after noon: the date, the 20th of January, 1526, and the weather at the time coarse and foggy with a gale yet blowing from the south-west or a good west of south, but sensibly abating, and the tide wanting an hour before low water.

It happened that Mr. Saint Aubyn was riding, with twenty men at his back, homeward from Gweek, where he had spent three days on some private business, when he heard news of the wreck at a farmhouse on the road to Helleston: and so turning aside, he, whose dwelling lay farthest from it, came first to the cove. The news reached us at Pengersick a little after three o’clock; as I remember because my Master was just then settled to dinner. But he rose at once and gave word to saddle in haste, at the same time bidding me make ready to ride with him, and fifteen others.

So we set forth and rode — the wind lulling, but the rain coming down steadily — and reached Gunwallo Cove with a little daylight to spare. On the beach there we found most of the foreigners landed, but seven of them laid out starkly, who had been drowned or brought ashore dead (for the yard had fallen on board, the day before, and no time left in the ship’s extremity to bury them): and three as good as dead — among whom was Master Porson, with a great wound of the scalp; also everywhere great piles of freight, chests, bales, and casks — a few staved and taking damage from salt water and rain, but the most in apparent good condition. The crew had worked very busily at the salving, and to the great credit of men who had come through suffering and peril of death. Mr. Saint Aubyn’s band, too, had lent help, though by this time the flowing of the tide forced them to give over. But the master (as one might say) of their endeavours was neither the Portuguese captain nor Mr. Saint Aubyn, but a young damsel whom I must describe more particularly.

She was standing, as we rode down the beach, nigh to the water’s edge; with a group of men about her, and Mr. Saint Aubyn himself listening to her orders. I can see her now as she turned at our approaching and she and my Master looked for the first time into each other’s eyes, which afterwards were to look so often and fondly. In age she appeared eighteen or twenty; her shape a mere girl’s, but her face somewhat older, being pinched and peaked by the cold, yet the loveliest I have ever seen or shall see. Her hair, which seemed of a copper red, darkened by rain, was blown about her shoulders, and her drenched blue gown, hitched at the waist with a snakeskin girdle, flapped about her as she turned to one or the other, using more play of hands than our home-bred ladies do. Her feet were bare and rosy; ruddied doubtless, by the wind and brine, but I think partly also by the angry light of the sunsetting which broke the weather to seaward and turned the pools and the wetted sand to the colour of blood. A hound kept beside her, shivering and now and then lowering his muzzle to sniff the oreweed, as if the brine of it puzzled him: a beast in shape somewhat like our grey-hounds, but longer and taller, and coated like a wolf.

As I have tried to describe her she stood amid the men and the tangle of the beach; a shape majestical and yet (as we drew closer) slight and forlorn. The present cause of her gestures we made out to be a dark-skinned fellow whom two of Saint Aubyn’s men held prisoner with his arms trussed behind him. On her other hand were gathered the rest of the Portuguese, very sullen and with dark looks whenever she turned from them to Saint Aubyn and from their language to the English. He, I could see, was perplexed, and stood fingering his beard: but his face brightened as he came a step to meet my Master.

“Ha!” said he, “you can help us, Milliton. You speak the Portuguese, I believe?” (For my master was known to speak most of the languages of Europe, having caught them up in his youth when his father’s madness forced him abroad. And I myself, who had accompanied him so far as Venice, could pick my way in the lingua Franca.) “This fellow”— pointing at the prisoner —“has just drawn a knife on the lady here; and indeed would have killed her, but for this hound of hers. My fellows have him tight and safe, as you see: but I was thinking by your leave to lodge him with you, yours being the nearest house for the safe keeping of such. But the plague is,” says he, “there seems to be more in the business than I can fathom: for one half of these drenched villains take the man’s part, while scarce one of them seems too well disposed towards the lady: although to my knowledge she has worked more than any ten of them in salving the cargo. And heaven help me if I can understand a word of their chatter!”

My Master lifted his cap to her; and she lifted her eyes to him, but never a word did she utter, though but a moment since she had been using excellent English. Only she stood, slight and helpless and (I swear) most pitiful, as one saying, “Here is my judge. I am content.”

My Master turned to the prisoner and questioned him in the Portuguese. But the fellow (a man taller than the rest and passably straight-looking) would confess nothing but that his name was Gil Perez of Lagos, the boatswain of the wrecked ship. Questioned of the assault, he shook his head merely and shrugged his shoulders. His face was white: it seemed to me unaccountably, until glancing down I took note of a torn wound above his right knee on the inside, where the hound’s teeth had fastened.

“But who is the captain of the ship?” my Master demanded in Portuguese; and they thrust forward a small man who seemed not over-willing. Indeed his face had nothing to commend him, being sharp and yellow, with small eyes set too near against the nose.

“Your name?” my Master demanded of him too.

“Affonzo Cabral,” he answered, and plunged into a long tale of the loss of his ship and how it happened. Cut short in this and asked concerning the lady, he shrugged his shoulders and replied with an oath he knew nothing about her beyond this, that she had taken passage with him at Dunquerque for Lisbon, paying him beforehand and bearing him a letter from the Bishop of Cambrai, which conveyed to him that she was bound on some secret mission of politics to the Court of Lisbon.

As I thought, two or three of the men would have murmured something here, but for a look from her, who, turning to my Master, said quietly in good English:

“That man is a villain. My name is Alicia of Bohemia, and my mission not to be told here in public. But he best knows why he took me for passenger, and how he has behaved towards me. Yourselves may see how I have saved his freight. And for the rest, sir”— here she bent her eyes on my Master very frankly —“I have proved these men, and claim to be delivered from them.”

At this my Master knit his brows: and albeit he was a young man (scarce past thirty) and a handsome, the deep wedge-mark showed between them as I had often seen it show over the nose of the old man his father.

“I think,” said he to Mr. Saint Aubyn, “this should be inquired into at greater leisure. With your leave my men shall take the prisoner to Pengersick and have him there in safe keeping. And if”— with a bow —” the Lady Alicia will accept my poor shelter it will be the handier for our examining of him. For the rest, cannot we be of service in rescuing yet more of the cargo?”

But this for the while was out of question: the Saint Andrew lying well out upon the strand, with never fewer than four or five ugly breakers between her and shore; and so balanced that every sea worked her to and fro. Moreover, her mizzen mast yet stood, as by a miracle, and the weight of it so strained at her seams that (thought I) there could be very little left of her by the next ebb.

By now, too, the night was closing down, and we must determine what to do with the cargo saved. Mr. Godolphin, who had arrived with his men during my Master’s colloquy, was ready with an offer of wains and pack-horses to convey the bulk of it to the outhouses at Godolphin. But this, when I interpreted it, the Portuguese captain would not hear. Nor was he more tractable to Mr. Saint Aubyn’s offer to set a mixed guard of our three companies upon the stuff until daybreak. He plainly had his doubts of such protection: and I could not avoid some respect for his wisdom while showing it by argument to be mere perversity. To my Master’s persuasions and mine he shook his head: asking for the present to be allowed a little fuel and refreshment for his men, who would camp on the beach among their goods. And to this, in the end, we had to consent. Several times before agreeing — and perhaps more often than need was — my Master consulted with the Lady Alicia. But she seemed indifferent what happened to the ship. Indeed, she might well have been overwearied.

At length, the Portugals having it their own way, we parted: Mr. Saint Aubyn riding off to lodge for the night with Mr. Godolphin, who took charge of the three wounded men; while we carried the Lady Alicia off to Pengersick (whither the prisoner Gil Perez had been marched on ahead), she riding pillion behind my Master, and the rest of us at a seemly distance.

On reaching home I had first to busy myself with orders for the victuals to be sent down to the foreigners at the Cove, and afterwards in snatching my supper in the great hall, where already I saw my Master and the strange lady making good cheer together at the high table. He had bidden the housekeeper fetch out some robes that had been his mother’s, and in these antique fittings the lady looked not awkwardly (as you might suppose), but rather like some player in a masque. I know not how ’twas: but whereas (saving my respect) I had always been to my dear Master as a brother, close to his heart and thoughts, her coming did at once remove him to a distance from me, so that I looked on the pair as if the dais were part of some other world than this, and they, pledging each other up there and murmuring in foreign tongues and playing with glances, as two creatures moving through a play or pisky tale without care or burden of living, and yet in the end to be pitied.

My fast broken, I bethought me of our prisoner; and catching up some meats and a flask of wine, hurried to the strong room where he lay. But I found him stretched on his pallet, and turning in a kind of fever: so returned and fetched a cooling draught in place of the victuals, and without questioning made him drink it. He thanked me amid some rambling, light-headed talk — the most of it too quickly poured out for me to catch; but by-and-by grew easier and drowsy. I left him to sleep, putting off questions for the morning.

But early on the morrow — between five and six o’clock — came Will Hendra, a cowkeeper, into our courtyard with a strange tale; one that disquieted if it did not altogether astonish me. The tale — as told before my Master, whom I aroused to hear it — ran thus: that between midnight and one in the morning the Portugals in the Cove had been set upon and beaten from the spoils by a number of men with pikes (no doubt belonging to Saint Aubyn or Godolphin, or both), and forced to flee to the cliffs. But (here came in the wonder) the assailants, having mastered the field, fell on the casks, chests, and packages, only to find them utterly empty or filled with weed and gravel! Of freight — so Will Hendra had it from one of Godolphin’s own men, who were now searching the cliffs and caverns — not twelve-pennyworth remained on the beach. The Portugals must have hidden or made away with it all. He added that their captain had been found at the foot of the cliffs with his head battered in; but whether by a fall or a blow taken in the affray, there was no telling.

My Master let saddle at once and rode away for the Cove without breaking his fast. And I went about my customary duties until full daybreak, when I paid a visit to the strong room, to see how the prisoner had slept.

I found him sitting up in bed and nursing his leg, the wound of which appeared red and angry at the edges. I sent, therefore, for a fomentation, and while applying it thought no harm to tell him the report from the Cove. To my astonishment it threw him into a transport, though whether of rage or horror I could not at first tell. But he jerked his leg from my grasp, and beating the straw with both fists he cried out —

“I knew it! I knew it would be so! She is a witch — a daughter of Satan, or his leman! It is her doing, I tell you. It is she who has killed that fool Affonzo. She is a witch!” He fell back on the straw, his strength spent, but still beat weakly with his fists, gasping “Witch — witch!”

“Hush!” said I. “You are light-headed with your hurt. Lie quiet and let me tend it.”

“As for my hurt,” he answered, “your tending it will do no good. The poison of that hound of hell is in me, and nothing for me but to say my prayers. But listen you”— here he sat up again and plucked me by the shoulder as I bent over his leg. “The freight is not gone, and good reason for why: it was never landed!”

“Hey?” said I, incredulous.

“It was never landed. The men toiled as she ordered — Lord, how they toiled! Without witch-craft they had never done the half of it. I tell you they handled moonshine — wove sand. The riches they brought ashore were emptiness; vain shows that already have turned to chips and straw and rubbish. Nay, sir”— for I drew back before these ravings —“listen for the love of God, before the poison gets hold of me! Soon it will be too late. . . . The evening before we sailed from Dunquerque, we were anchored out in the tide. It was my watch. I was leaning on the rail of the poop when I caught sight of her first. She was running for her life across the dunes — running for the waterside — she and her hound beside her. Away behind her, like ants dotted over the rises of the sand, were little figures running and pursuing. Down by the waterside one boat was waiting, with a man in it — or the Devil belike — leaning on his oars. She whistled; he pulled close in shore. She leapt into the boat with the dog at her heels, and was half-way across towards our ship before the first of those after her reached the water’s edge. When she hailed us I ran and fetched Affonzo the master. The rest I charge to his folly. It was he who handed her up the ship’s side. How the dog came on board I know not: only that I leaned over the bulwarks to have a look at him, but heard a pattering noise, and there he was on deck behind me and close beside his mistress. The boat and rower had vanished — under the ship’s stern, as I supposed, but now I have my doubts. I saw no more of them, anyhow.

“By this time Affonzo was reading her letter. The crowd by the water’s edge had found a boat at length — how, I know not; but it was a very little one, holding but six men besides the one rower, and then over-laden. They pulled towards us and hailed just as the lady took the master’s promise and went down to seek her cabin: and one of the men stood up, a tall gentleman with a chain about his neck. Affonzo went to the side to parley with him.

“The tall man with the chain cried out that he was mayor or provost — I forget which — and the woman must be given up as a proved witch who had laid the wickedest spells upon many citizens of Dunquerque. All this he had to shout; for Affonzo, who — either ignorantly or by choice — was already on Satan’s side, would not suffer him to come aboard or even nigh the ship’s ladder. Moreover, he drove below so many of our crew as had gathered to the side to listen, commanding me with curses to see to this. Yet I heard something of the mayor’s accusation; which was that the woman had come to Dunquerque, travelling as a great lady with a retinue of servants and letters of commendation to the religious houses, on which and on many private persons of note she had bestowed relics of our Lord and the saints, pretending it was for a penance that she journeyed and gave the bounties: but that, at a certain hour, these relics had turned into toads, adders, and all manner of abominable offal, defiling the holy places and private shrines, in some instances the very church altars: that upon the outcry her retinue had vanished, and she herself taken to flight as we saw her running.

“At all this Affonzo scoffed, threatening to sink the boat if further troubled with their importunities. And, the provost using threats in return, he gave order to let weigh incontinently and clear with the tide, which by this was turned to ebb. And so, amid curses which we answered by display of our guns, we stood out from that port. Of the master’s purpose I make no guess. Either he was bewitched, or the woman had taken him with her beauty, and he dreamed of finding favour with her.

“This only I know, that on the second morning, she standing on deck beside him, he offered some familiar approach; whereupon the dog flew at him, and I believe would have killed him, but was in time called off by her. Within an hour we met with the weather which after three days drove us ashore. Now whether Affonzo suspected her true nature or not — as I know he had taken a great fear of her — I never had time to discover. But I know her for a witch, and for a witch I tried to make away with her. For the rest, may God pardon me!”

All this the man uttered not as I have written it, but with many gasping interruptions; and afterwards lay back as one dead. Before I could make head or tail of my wonder, I heard cries and a clatter from the courtyard, and ran out to see what was amiss.

In the courtyard I found my Master with a dozen men closing the bolts of the great gate against a company who rained blows and hammerings on the outside of it. My Master had dismounted, and while he called his orders the blood ran down his face from a cut above the forehead. As for the smoking horses on which they had ridden in, these stood huddling, rubbing shoulders, and facing all ways like a knot of frightened colts.

All the bolts being shut, my Master steps to the grille and speaking through it, “Saint Aubyn,” says he, “between gentlemen there are fitter ways to dispute than brawling with servants. I am no thief or robber; as you may satisfy yourself by search and question, bringing, if you will, Mr. Godolphin and three men to help you under protection of my word. If you will not, then I am ready for you at any time of your choosing. But I warn you that, if any man offers further violence to my gate, I send Master Tonkin to melt the lead, of which I have good store. So make your choice.”

He said it in English, and few of those who heard him could understand. And after a moment Saint Aubyn, who was a very courteous gentleman for all his hot temper, made answer in the same tongue.

“If I cannot take your word, Pengersick,” said he, “be sure no searching will satisfy me. But that some of your men have made off with the goods, with or without your knowledge, I am convinced.”

“If they have —” my Master was beginning, when Godolphin’s sneering laugh broke in on his words from the other side of the gate.

“‘If!’ ‘If!’ There are too many if’s in this parley for my stomach. Look ye, Pengersick, will you give up the goods or no?”

Upon this my Master changed his tone. “As for Mr. Godolphin, I have this only to say: the goods are neither his nor mine; they are not in my keeping, nor do I believe them stolen by any of my men. For the words that have passed between us today, he knows me well enough to be sure I shall hold him to account, and that soon: and to that assurance commending him, I wish you both a very good day.”

So having said, he strolled off towards the stables, leaving me to listen at the gate, where by-and-by, after some disputing, I had the pleasure to hear our besiegers draw off and trot away towards Godolphin. Happening to take a glance upwards at the house-front, I caught sight of the strange lady at the window of the guest-chamber, which faced towards the south-east. She was leaning forth and gazing after them: but, hearing my Master’s footsteps as he came from the stables, she withdrew her eyes from the road and nodded down at him gaily.

But as he went indoors to join her at breakfast I ran after, and catching him in the porch, besought him to have his wound seen to. “And after that,” said I, “there is another wounded man who needs your attention. Unless you take his deposition quickly, I fear, sir, it may be too late.”

His eyebrows went up at this, but contracted again upon the twinge of his wound. “I will attend to him first,” said he shortly, and led the way to the strong room. “Hullo!” was his next word, as he came to the door — for in my perturbation and hurry I had forgotten to lock it.

“He is too weak to move,” I stammered, as my poor excuse.

“Nevertheless it was not well done,” he replied, pushing past me.

The prisoner lay on his pallet, gasping, with his eyes wide open in a rigor. “Take her away!” he panted. “Take her away! She has been here!”

“Hey?” I cried: but my Master turned on me sharply. To this day I know not how much of evil he suspected.

“I will summon you if I need you. For the present you will leave us here alone.”

Nor can I tell what passed between them for the next half-an-hour. Only that when he came forth my Master’s face was white and set beneath its dry smear of blood. Passing me, who waited at the end of the corridor, he said, but without meeting my eyes:

“Go to him. The end is near.”

I went to him. He lay pretty much as I had left him, in a kind of stupor; out of which, within the hour, he started suddenly and began to rave. Soon I had to send for a couple of our stablemen; and not too soon. For by this he was foaming at the mouth and gnashing, the man in him turned to beast and trying to bite, so that we were forced to strap him to his bed. I shall say no more of this, the most horrible sight of my life. The end came quietly, about six in the evening: and we buried the poor wretch that night in the orchard under the chapel wall.

All that day, as you may guess, I saw nothing of the strange lady. And on the morrow until dinner-time I had but a glimpse of her. This was in the forenoon. She stood, with her hound beside her, in an embrasure of the wall, looking over the sea: to the eye a figure so maidenly and innocent and (in a sense) forlorn that I recalled Gil Perez’ tale as the merest frenzy, and wondered how I had come to listen to it with any belief. Her seaward gaze would be passing over the very spot where we had laid him: only a low wall hiding the freshly turned earth. My Master had ridden off early: I could guess upon what errand.

He returned shortly after noon, unhurt and looking like a man satisfied with his morning’s work. And at dinner, watching his demeanour narrowly, I was satisfied that either he had not heard the prisoner’s tale or had rejected it utterly. For he took his seat in the gayest spirits, and laughed and talked with the stranger throughout the meal. And afterwards, having fetched an old lute which had been his mother’s, he sat and watched her fit new strings to it, rallying her over her tangle. But when she had it tuned and, touching it softly, began the first of those murmuring heathenish songs to which I have since listened so often, pausing in my work, but never without a kind of terror at beauty so far above my comprehending — why, then my Master laughed no more.

He had met Godolphin that morning and run him through the thigh. And that bitterest enemy of ours still wore a crutch a month later, when we faced Master Porson before the Commissioner in Saint Aubyn’s house at Clowance. At that conference (not to linger over the time between) the Commissioner showed himself pardonably suspicious of us all. He was a dry, foxy-faced man, who spoke little and at times seemed scarce to be listening; but rather turning over some deeper matters in his brain behind his grey-coloured eyes. But at length, Mr. Saint Aubyn having twice or thrice made mention of the Lady Alicia and her presence on the beach, this Sir Nicholas looked up at me sharply, and said he —“By all accounts this lady was a passenger shipped by the master at Dunquerque. It seems she was a foreign lady of birth, bearing letters commendatory to the Court of Lisbon.”

“That was his story of it,” Master Porson assented. “I was below and busy with the cargo at the time, and knew nothing of her presence on board until we had cleared the harbour.”

“And at this moment she is a guest of Mr. Milliton’s at Pengersick?” pursued Sir Nicholas, still with his eyes upon mine. I bowed, feeling mightily uneasy. “It is most necessary that I should take her evidence — and Mr. Milliton’s. In all the statements received by me Mr. Milliton bears no small part: his house lies at no distance from Gunwallo Cove: and I have heard much of your Cornish courtesy. It appears to me singular, therefore, that although I have been these four days in his neighbourhood no invitation has reached me to visit his house and have audience with him: and it argues small courtesy that on coming here today in full expectation of seeing him, I should be fobbed off with a deputy.”

“Though but a deputy,” I protested, “I have my Master’s entire confidence.”

“No doubt,” said he drily. “But it would be more to the point if you had mine. It is imperative that I see Mr. Milliton of Pengersick and hear his evidence, as also this Lady Alicia’s: and you may bear him my respects and say that I intend to call upon him tomorrow.”

I bowed. It was all I could do: since the truth (for different reasons) could neither be told to him nor to the others. And the truth was that for two days my Master and the strange lady had not been seen at Pengersick! They had vanished, and two horses with them: but when and how I neither knew nor dared push inquiries to discover. Only the porter could have told me had he chosen; but when I questioned him he looked cunning, shook his head, and as good as hinted that I would be wiser to question nobody, but go about my business as if I shared the secret.

And so I did, imitating the porter’s manner even before Dame Tresize, the housekeeper. But it rankled that, even while instructing me — as he did on the eve of his departing — in the part I was to play at Clowance, my Master had chosen to shut me out of this part of his confidence. And now on the road home from Clowance I carried an anxious heart as well as a sore. To tell the truth — that my Master was away — I had not been able, knowing how prompt Saint Aubyn and Godolphin might be to take the advantage and pay us an unwelcome visit. “And indeed,” thought I, “if my Master hides one thing from me, why not another? The stuff may indeed be stored with us: though I will not believe it without proof.” The Commissioner would come, beyond a doubt. To discover my Master’s absence would quicken his suspicions: to deny him admittance would confirm them.

I reached home, yet could get no sleep for my quandary. But a little before the dawning, while I did on my clothes, there came a knocking at the gate followed by a clatter of hoofs in the courtyard; and hurrying down, with but pause to light my lantern, I found my Master there and helping the strange lady to dismount, with the porter and two sleepy grooms standing by and holding torches. Beneath the belly of the lady’s horse stood her hound, his tongue lolling and his coat a cake of mire. The night had been chilly and the nostrils of the hard-ridden beasts made a steam among the lights we held, while above us the upper frontage of the house stood out clear between the growing daylight and the waning moon poised above the courtlege-wall in the south-west.

“Hey! Is that Paschal?” My Master turned as one stiff with riding. His face was ghastly pale, yet full of a sort of happiness: and I saw that his clothes were disordered and his boots mired to their tops. “Good luck!” cried he, handing the lady down. “We can have supper at once.”

“Supper?” I repeated it after him.

“Or breakfast — which you choose. Have the lights lit in the hall, and a table spread. My lady will eat and drink before going to her room.”

“‘My lady’?” was my echo again.

“Just so — my lady, and my wife, and henceforward your Mistress. Lead the way, if you please! Afterwards I will talk.”

I did as I was ordered: lit the lights about the dais, spread the cloth with my own hands, fetched forth the cold meats and — for he would have no servants aroused — waited upon them in silence and poured the wine, all in a whirl of mind. My Mistress (as I must now call her) showed no fatigue, though her skirts were soiled as if they had been dragged through a sea of mud. Her eyes sparkled and her bosom heaved as she watched my Master, who ate greedily. But beyond the gallant words with which he pledged her welcome home to Pengersick nothing was said until, his hunger put away, he pushed back his chair and commanded me to tell what had happened at Clowance: which I did, pointing out the ticklish posture of affairs, and that for a certainty the Commissioner might be looked for in within a few hours.

“Well,” said my Master, “I see no harm in his coming, nor any profit. The goods are not with us: never were with us: and there’s the end of it.”

But I was looking from him to my Mistress, who with bent brows sat studying the table before her.

“Master Paschal,” said she after a while, as one awaking from thought, “has done his business zealously and well. I will go to my room now and rest: but let me be aroused when this visitor comes, for I believe that I can deal with him.” And she rose and walked away to the stair, with the hound at her heels.

A little later I saw my Master to his room: and after that had some hours of leisure in which to fret my mind as well over what had happened as what was likely to. It was hard on noon when the Commissioner arrived: and with him Master Porson. I led them at once to the hall and, setting wine before them, sent to learn when my Master and Mistress would be pleased to give audience. The lady came down almost at once, looking very rosy and fresh. She held a packet of papers, and having saluted the Commissioner graciously, motioned me to seat myself at the table with paper and pen.

Sir Nicholas began with some question touching her business on board the Saint Andrew: and in answer she drew a paper from the top of her packet. It was spotted with sea-water, but (as I could see) yet legible. The Commissioner studied it, showed it to Master Porson (who nodded), and handing it back politely, begged her for some particulars concerning the wreck.

Upon this she told the story clearly and simply. There had been a three days’ tempest: the ship had gone ashore in such and such a manner: a great part of the cargo had undoubtedly been landed. It was on the beach when she had left it under conduct of Mr. Milliton, who had shown her great kindness. On whomsoever its disappearance might be charged, of her host’s innocence she could speak.

My Master appearing just now saluted the Commissioner and gave his version very readily.

“You may search my cellars,” he wound up, “and, if you please, interrogate my servants. My livery is known by everyone in this neighbourhood to be purple and tawny. The seamen can tell you if any of their assailants wore these colours.”

“They assure me,” said Sir Nicholas, “that the night was too dark for them to observe colours: and for that matter to disguise them would have been a natural precaution. There was a wounded man brought to your house — one Gil Perez, the boatswain.”

“He is dead, as you doubtless know, of a bite received from this lady’s hound as he was attacking her with a knife.”

“But why, madam”— the factor turned to my Mistress —“should this man have attacked you?”

She appeared to be expecting this question, and drew from her packet a second paper, which she unfolded quietly and spread on the table, yet kept her palm over the writing on it while she answered, “Those who engage upon missions of State must look to meet with attacks, but not to be asked to explain them. The mob at Dunquerque pursued me upon a ridiculous charge, yet was wisely incited by men who invented it, knowing the true purpose of my mission.” She glanced from the Commissioner to Master Porson. “Sir Nicholas Fleming — surely I have heard his name spoken, as of a good friend to the Holy Father and not too anxious for the Emperor’s marriage with Mary Tudor?” The Commissioner started in his chair, while she turned serenely upon his companion. “And Master Porson,” she continued, “as a faithful servant of His Majesty of Portugal will needs be glad to see a princess of Portugal take Mary Tudor’s place. Eh?”— for they were eyeing each the other like two detected schoolboys —“It would seem, sirs, that though you came together, you were better friends than you guessed. Glance your eye, Master Porson, over this paper which I shall presently entrust to you for furtherance; and you will agree with Sir Nicholas that the prudent course for both of you is to forget, on leaving this house, that any such person as I was on board the Saint Andrew.

The two peered into the parchment and drew back. “The Emperor —” I heard the Commissioner mutter with an intake of breath.

“And, as you perceive, in his own handwriting.” She folded up the paper and, replacing it, addressed my Master. “Your visitors, sir, deserve some refreshment for their pains and courtesy.”

And that was the end of the conference. What that paper contained I know as little as I know by what infernal sorcery it was prepared. Master Porson folded it up tight in his hand, glancing dubiously at Sir Nicholas. My lady stood smiling upon the both for a moment, then dismissed me to the kitchens upon a pretended errand. They were gone when I returned, nor did I again set eyes upon the Commissioner or the factor. It is true that the Emperor did about this time break his pledge with our King Henry and marry a princess of Portugal; and some of high office in England were not sorry therefore. But of this enough.

As the days wore on and we heard no more of the wreck, my Master and Mistress settled down to that retirement from the world which is by custom allowed to the newly married, but which with them was to last to the end. A life of love it was; but — God help us! — no life of happiness; rather, in process of days, a life of torment. Can I tell you how it was? At first to see them together was like looking through a glass upon a picture; a picture gallant and beautiful yet removed behind a screen and not of this world. Suppose now that by little and little the glass began to be flawed, or the picture behind it to crumble (you could not tell which) until when it smiled it smiled wryly, until rocks toppled and figures fell askew, yet still kept up their pretence of play against the distorted woodland. Nay, it was worse than this: fifty times worse. For while the fair show tottered, my Master and Mistress clung to their love; and yet it was just their love which kept the foundations rocking.

They lived for each other. They neither visited nor received visits. Yet they were often, and by degrees oftener, apart; my Master locked up with his books, my Mistress roaming the walls with her hound or seated by her lattice high on the seaward side of the castle. Sometimes (but this was usually on moonlit nights or windless evenings when the sun sank clear to view over our broad bay) she would take up her lute and touch it to one of those outlandish love-chants with which she had first wiled my Master’s heart to her. As time went on, stories came to us that these chants, which fell so softly on the ears of us as we went about the rooms and gardens, had been heard by fishermen riding by their nets far in the offing — so far away (I have heard) as the Scillies; and there were tales of men who, as they listened, had seen the ghosts of drowned mariners rising and falling on the moon-rays, or floating with their white faces thrown back while they drank in the music; yea, even echoing the words of the song in whispers like the flutter of birds’ wings.

When first the word crept about that she was a witch I cannot certainly say. But in time it did; and, what is more — though I will swear that no word of Gil Perez’ confession ever passed my lips — the common folk soon held it for a certainty that the cargo saved from the Saint Andrew had been saved by her magic only; that the plate and rich stuffs seen by my own eyes were but cheating simulacra, and had turned into rubbish at midnight, scarce an hour before the assault on the Portuguese.

I have wondered since if ’twas this rumour and some belief in it which held Messrs. Saint Aubyn and Godolphin from offering any further attack on us. You might say that it was open to them, so believing, to have denounced her publicly. But in our country Holy Church had little hold — scarce more than the King’s law itself in such matters; and within my memory it has always come easier to us to fear witch-craft than to denounce it. Also (and it concerns my tale) the three years which followed the stranding of the Saint Andrew were remarkable for a great number of wrecks upon our coast. In that short time we of our parish and the men of St. Hilary upon our north were between us favoured with no fewer than fourteen; the most of them vessels of good burden. Of any hand in bringing them ashore I know our gentry to have been innocent. Still, there were pickings; and finding that my Master held aloof from all share in such and (as far as could be) held his servants aloof, our neighbours, though not accepting this for quittance, forbore to press the affair of the Saint Andrew further than by spreading injurious tales and whispers.

The marvel was that we of Pengersick (who reaped nothing of this harvest) fell none the less under suspicion of decoying the vessels ashore. More than once in my dealings with the fishermen and tradesmen of Market Jew, I happened on hints of this; but nothing which could be taken hold of until one day a certain Peter Chynoweth of that town, coming drunk to Pengersick with a basket of fish, blurted out the tale. Said he, after I had beaten him down to a reasonable price, “Twould be easy enough, one would think, to spare an honest man a groat of the fortune Pengersick makes on these dark nights.”

“Thou lying thief!” said I. “What new slander is this?”

“Come, come,” says he, looking roguish; “that won’t do for me that have seen the false light on Cuddan Point more times than I can count; and so has every fisherman in the bay.”

Well, I kicked him through the gate for it, and flung his basket after him; but the tale could not be so dismissed. “It may be,” thought I, “some one of Pengersick has engaged upon this wickedness on his own account”; and for my Master’s credit I resolved to keep watch.

I took therefore the porter into my secret, who agreed to let me through the gate towards midnight without telling a soul. I took a sheepskin with me and a poignard for protection; and for a week, from midnight to dawn, I played sentinel on Cuddan Point, walking to and fro, or stretched under the lee of a rock whence I could not miss any light shown on the headland, if Peter Chynoweth’s tale held any truth.

By the eighth trial I had pretty well made up my mind (and without astonishment) that Peter Chynoweth was a liar. But scarcely had I reached my post that night when, turning, I descried a radiance as of a lantern, following me at some fifty paces. On the instant I gripped my poignard and stepped behind a boulder. The light drew nearer, came, and passed me. To my bewilderment it was no lantern, but an open flame, running close along the turf and too low for anyone to be carrying it: nor was the motion that of a light which a man carries. Moreover, though it passed me within half-a-dozen yards and lit up the stone I stood behind, I saw nobody and heard no footstep, though the wind (which was south-westerly) blew from it to me. In this breeze the flame quivered, though not violently but as it were a ball of fire rolling with a flickering crest.

It went by, and I followed it at something above walking pace until upon the very verge of the head-land, where I had no will to risk my neck, it halted and began to be heaved up and down much like the poop-light of a vessel at sea. In this play it continued for an hour at least; then it came steadily back towards me by the way it had gone, and as it came I ran upon it with my dagger. But it slipped by me, travelling at speed towards the mainland; whither I pelted after it hot-foot, and so across the fields towards Pengersick. Strain as I might, I could not overtake it; yet contrived to keep it within view, and so well that I was bare a hundred yards behind when it came under the black shadow of the castle and without pause glided across the dry moat and so up the face of the wall to my lady’s window, which there overhung. And into this window it passed before my very eyes and vanished.

I know not what emboldened me, but from the porter’s lodge I went straight up to my Master’s chamber, where (though the hour must have been two in the morning or thereabouts) a light was yet burning. Also — but this had become ordinary — a smell of burning gums and herbs filled the passage leading to his door. He opened to my knock, and stood before me in his dressing-gown of sables — a tall figure of a man and youthful, though already beginning to stoop. Over his shoulder I perceived the room swimming with coils of smoke which floated in their wreaths from a brazier hard by the fireplace.

I think his first motion was to thrust me away; but I caught him by the hand, and with many protestations broke into my tale, giving him no time to forbid me. And presently he drew me inside, and shutting the door, stood upright by the table, facing me with his fingers on the rim as if they rested there for support.

“Paschal,” said he, when at length I drew back, “this must not come to my lady’s ears. She has been ailing of late.”

“Ay, sir, and long since: of a disease past your curing.”

“God help us! I hope not,” said he; then broke out violently: “She is innocent, Paschal; innocent as a child!”

“Innocent!” cried I, in a voice which showed how little I believed.

“Paschal,” he went on, “you are my servant, but my friend also, I hope. Nay, nay, I know. I swear to you, then, these things do but happen in her sleep. In her waking senses she is mine, as one day she shall be mine wholly. But at night, when her will is dissolved in sleep, the evil spirit wakes and goes questing after its master.”

“Mahound?” I stammered, quaking.

“Be it Satan himself,” said he, very low and resolute, “I will win her from him, though my own soul be the ransom.”

“Dear my Master,” I began, and would have implored him on my knees; but he pointed to the door. “I will win her,” he repeated. “What you have seen to-night happens more rarely now. Moreover, the summer is beginning —”

He paused: yet I had gathered his meaning. “There will be less peril for the ships for a while,” said I.

Said he: “To them she intends no harm. It is for her master the light waves. Paschal, I am an unhappy man!” He flung a hand to his forehead, but recovering himself peered at me under the shadow of it. “If you could watch — often — as you have done to-night — you might protect others from seeing —”

The wisdom of this at least I saw, and gave him my promise readily. Upon this understanding (for no more could be had) I withdrew me.

The next day, therefore, I moved my bed to a turret-chamber on the angle of the south-eastern wall whence I could keep my lady’s window in view. I was never a man to need much sleep: but if, through the year which followed, the apparition escaped once or twice without my cognisance, I dare take oath this was the extent of it. It appeared more rarely, as my Master had promised: and in the end (I think) scarce above once a month. In form it never varied from the cresseted globe of flame I had first seen, and always it took the path across the fields towards Cuddan Point. No sound went with it, or announced its going or return: and while it was absent, my lady’s chamber would be utterly dark and silent. My custom was not to follow it (which I had proved to be useless), but to let myself out and patrol the walls, satisfying myself that no watchers lurked about the castle. I understood now that Pengersick was reported throughout the neighbourhood to be haunted: and such a report is not the worst protection. These vague tales kept aloof the country people who, but for them, had almost certainly happened on the secret. And night after night while I watched, my Master wrestled with the Evil One in his room.

The last time I saw the apparition was on the night of May 10th, 1529, more than three years after my lady’s first coming to Pengersick. I was prepared for it: for she had been singing at her window a great part of the afternoon, and I had learnt to be warned by this mood. The night was a dark one, with flying clouds and a stiff breeze blowing up from the south-east. The flame left my lady’s window at the usual hour — a few minutes after midnight — but returned some while before its due time. In ordinary it would be away for an hour and a half, or from that to two hours, but this night I had scarcely begun my rounds before I saw it returning across the fields. Nor was this the only surprise. For as I watched it up the wall and saw it gain my lady’s window, I heard the hound within lift up its voice in a long, shuddering howl.

I lost no time, but made my way to my Master’s room. He, too, had heard the dog’s howl, and was strangely perturbed. “It means something. It means something,” he kept repeating. He had already run to his wife’s chamber, but found her in a deep slumber and the hound (which always slept on the floor at her bed’s foot) composing itself to sleep again, with jowl dropped on its fore-paws.

The next morning I had fixed to ride into the Market Jew to fetch a packet of books which was waiting there for my Master. But at the entrance of the town I found the people in great commotion, the cause of which turned out to be a group of Turk men gathered at the hither end of the causeway leading to the Mount. One told me they were Moslems (which indeed was apparent at first sight) and that their ship had run ashore that night, under the Mount; but with how much damage was doubtful. She lay within sight, in a pretty safe position, and not so badly fixed but I guessed the next tide would float her if her bottom were not broken. The Moslems (nine in all) had rowed ashore in their boat and landed on the causeway; but with what purpose they had no chance to explain: for the inhabitants, catching sight of their knives and scymeters, could believe in nothing short of an intent to murder and plunder; and taking courage in numbers, had gathered (men and women) to the causeway-head to oppose them. To be sure these fears had some warrant in the foreigners’ appearance: who with their turbans, tunics, dark faces and black naked legs made up a show which Market Jew had never known before nor (I dare say) will again.

Nor had the mildness of their address any effect but to raise a fresh commotion. For, their leader advancing with outstretched hands and making signals that he intended no mischief but rather sued for assistance, at once a cry went up, “The Plague!” “The Plague!” at which I believe the crowd would have scattered like sheep had not a few sturdy volunteers with pikes and boat-hooks forbidden his nearer approach.

Into this knot the conference had locked itself when I rode up and — the crowd making way for me — addressed the strangers in the lingua Franca, explaining that my Master of Pengersick was a magistrate and would be forward to help them either with hospitality or in lending aid to get their ship afloat; further that they need have no apprehension of the crowd, which had opposed them in fear, not in churlishness; yet it might be wise for the main body to stay and keep guard over the cargo while their spokesman went with me to Pengersick.

To this their leader at once consented; and we presently set forth together, he walking by my horse with an agile step and that graceful bearing which I had not seen since my days of travel: a bearded swarthy man, extraordinarily handsome in Moorish fashion and distinguished from his crew not only by authority as patron of the ship, but by a natural dignity. I judged him about forty. Me he treated with courtesy, yet with a reticence which seemed to say he reserved his speech for my Master. Of the wreck he said nothing except that his ship had been by many degrees out of her bearings: and knowing that the Moorish disasters in Spain had thrown many of their chiefs into the trade of piracy I was contented to smoke such an adventurer in this man, and set him down for one better at fighting than at navigation.

With no more suspicion than this I reached Pengersick and, bestowing the stranger in the hall, went off to seek my Master. For the change that came over my dear lord’s face as he heard my errand I was in no way prepared. It was terrible.

“Paschal,” he cried, sinking into a chair and spreading both hands helplessly on the table before him, “it is he! Her time is come, and mine!”

It was in vain that I reasoned, protesting (as I believed) that the stranger was but a chance pirate cast ashore by misadventure; and as vain that, his fears infecting me, I promised to go down and get rid of the fellow on some pretence.

“No,” he insisted, “the hour is come. I must face it: and what is more, Paschal, I shall win. Another time I shall be no better prepared. Bring him to my room and then go and tell my lady that I wish to speak with her.”

I did so. On ushering in the stranger I saw no more than the bow with which the two men faced each other: for at once my Master signalled me to run on my further errand. Having delivered my message at my lady’s door, I went down to the hall, and lingering there, saw her pass along the high gallery above the dais towards my lord’s room, with the hound at her heels.

Thence I climbed the stair to my own room: locked the door and anon unlocked it, to be ready at sudden need. And there I paced hour after hour, without food, listening. From the courtyard came the noise of the grooms chattering and splashing: but from the left wing, where lay my Master’s rooms, no sound at all. Twice I stole out along the corridors and hung about the stair head: but could hear nothing, and crept back in fear to be caught eavesdropping.

It was about five in the afternoon (I think), all was still in the courtyard, when I heard the click of a latch and, running to the window, saw the porter closing his wicket gate. A minute later, on a rise beyond the wall, I spied the Moor. His back was towards the castle and he was walking rapidly towards Market Jew: and after him padded my lady’s hound.

I hurried along the passages and knocked at my Master’s door. No one answered. I could not wait to knock again, but burst it open.

On the floor at my feet lay my Master, and hard by the window my Mistress with her hands crossed upon a crucifix. My Master had no crucifix: but his face wore a smile — a happier one than it had worn for years.

1 About 150,000 pounds in present money.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/q/quiller-couch/arthur_thomas/old-fires-and-profitable-ghosts/chapter5.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:15