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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
What is called the human interest in fiction is doubtless more absorbing than any other, but other legitimate sources of interest exist. The marvellous always possesses a fascination, and justly; for while it is neither human nature nor fact, it ministers to an æsthetic appetite of the mind which neither fact nor human nature can gratify. Superstition has been well abused; but that were a sad day which should behold the destruction in us of the quality which keeps superstition alive. Fortunately that day can never come — least of all under a Positivist administration.
Such works as “The Tempest,” “Faust,” and “Consuelo” show their authors at their best, because, being obliged by the subject to soar above the level of vulgar possibility, the writers catch a gleam of transcendent sunlight on their wings. And he who would mirror in his works the whole of man must needs include the impossible along with the rest. Whoever has lived thoughtfully feels that there has been something in his experience beyond what appears in “Tom Jones,” “Adam Bede,” and “Vanity Fair.” They are earth without sky. I do not refer to that goody-goody Sunday-school sky which weeps and smirks over the mimic worlds of so many worthy novelists, male and female; but to that unfathomed mystery opening all around us — the sky of Shakespeare and Dante, of Goethe and Georges Sand. A reader with a healthy sense of justice feels that an occasional excursion mystery-ward is no more than he has a right to demand. And such excursions are wholesome for literature no less than for him. For the story-teller, sensible of the risk he runs of making his supernatural element appear crude and ridiculous, exerts himself to the utmost, and his style and method purify and wax artistic under the strain.
These remarks must smooth the way to the confession that in the present volume no “human interest” will be found, or has been attempted. The gist of the work (or at least of three-fourths of it) is to show how the impossible might occur. Now, in order to appreciate the delicate flavour of a ghost, it is indispensable that the palate should not be cloyed by a contemporary diet of flesh and blood. In other words, the reality of the personages amidst whom the disembodied spirit appears should be insisted upon no further than is necessary to the telling them apart; only that side of the human figures which is most in accord with the superhuman should be made prominent. If the writer has managed this part of his business properly, he is open to criticism only in so far as he may have sinned in the way of conception and literary execution; and upon those points he is happily spared the necessity of pronouncing judgment. He may however be permitted to observe that the following stories are among the very lightest and least profound of their class; there are no tears or terrors in them; barely even a smile or a sigh; and, in short, their success — should they achieve any — will be mainly due to the fact that with such small pretensions failure would actually become difficult.
One of the tales, it should be added, is a mere jeu d’esprit, the presence of which in the collection is justifiable only on the plea that it makes believe to be what the others are — relieving a note too monotonously sounded by lowering it to the key of mockery. Possibly, nevertheless, it may turn out to be the float which will save the weightier portion of the cargo from going too speedily to the bottom. All the stories have appeared, during the last four years, in various periodicals, to the editors of which my acknowledgments are due for leave to reproduce them.
* The Preface is from The Laughing Mill and other stories, which contained four stories: The Laughing Mill; Calbot's Rival; Mrs. Gainsborough's Diamonds; and The Christmas Guest.
Among the pleasantest memories of my earlier days is one of an old gabled farmhouse overlooking the sea. It is a July afternoon, calm and hot. The sea is pale blue and its surface glassy smooth; but the passage of a storm somewhere to the eastward causes long slumberous undulations to lapse shorewards. They break upon the Devil’s Ribs — that low black reef about half a mile out — and the sound is borne to our ears some seconds after the white-foam line has marked itself against the blue and vanished. There is a fine throb of sun-loving insects in the air, which we may hear if we listen for it; but more immediately audible is the guttural drawing of old Jack Poyntz’s meerschaum pipe, and the delicate clicking of his sweet daughter Agatha’s polished knitting-needles. From within doors comes the fillip of water and the clink of chinaware — good Mrs. Poyntz washing up the dinner-things. For we have just dined, and the blessing of a good digestion is upon all of us.
Yes; there we three sit, in my memory, side by side upon the stone bench outside the farmhouse door. The projecting eaves throw a quiet, transparent shadow over us. Two or three venerable hens are scratching and nestling in the hot sandy soil near yonder corner, and conversing together in long-drawn comfortable croakings. The fragrant smoke from Poyntz’s pipe-bowl circles upwards on the air, until it takes the sunlight high over head. Truly a pleasant time, whose peacefulness is still present with me after so many years. I am old, who then was young; but that July sunshine is warm in my heart to-day.
Poyntz was an ancient mariner — not lean and uncanny, however; but burly, jovial, and brown; with a huge grizzled beard spreading over his mighty chest, a voice as deep and mellow as a sea-lion’s, and eyes as blue and clear as the ocean upon which they had looked for more than sixty years. He had been a successful sailor, had visited many lands and brought home many cargoes, and was, in a rough simple way, a thorough cosmopolitan. After his last voyage he had settled down in the ancestral farmhouse, and applied himself to agriculture. He was as prosperous, contented, and respected a man as any in the neighbourhood; and during the fortnight or so that I had lodged beneath his roof, I had grown into a hearty liking for him. While as to Agatha — ah, it was not liking that I felt for her! Strange that that fair, finely-moulded, queenly creature was only a sailor’s daughter! Much as I honoured Poyntz, I could not help sometimes feeling surprised at it. At all events, she was as perfect a lady as ever stepped on high-arched feet; and I fancied that the old mariner and his wife treated her in a manner more befitting a distinguished visitor than a child of their own. There was sturdy little Peter, now — he whose brown legs were visible beneath the low spreading bough of a scrub-oak beside the mill-stream yonder — there could be no doubt as to him. But what a brother for Agatha!
How well I recall her aspect, though it is more than twenty years since that day. Her shapely head was bound about with a turban of her bright yellow hair, but her eyes and eyebrows were dark. Her neck was round and slender, and supported its burden in unconscious poses of maidenly dignity. The contours of her figure were full, yet refined; her wrists were small, and her hand was shaped like that which lies on the bosom of Canova’s Venus. Her manners breathed simplicity and sweet composure, yet were reserved and serious withal, and sometimes they were tinged with a shadow of melancholy. At such moments her hands would fall into her lap, her head would droop a little forward, and her dark eyes gravely fix themselves upon some sunlit sail that flecked the pale horizon. So would she remain until, perhaps, the sail sank below the verge, or became invisible in shadow; then, with a sigh, the soft fetters of her preoccupation would seem to fall away from her. What were her thoughts during those reveries? and why should they be sad ones? I had never ventured to question her much as yet; her mystery was itself a fascination.
One thing about her had attracted my particular notice from the first — the curious pearl-shell necklace that she always wore clasped round her smooth throat. It was composed of very small shells of a peculiar species, not found in that part of the world. These were woven into a singular pattern of involved curves, and were fastened with a broad gold clasp, in the centre of which was set a large pearl. Handsome as the ornament was, however, and becoming to its wearer, it would not have so riveted my attention but for a circumstance to which I must here make a passing allusion.
Among my most precious possessions at that time was a fine oil portrait of my great-grandmother, who was a famous beauty in her day. My family, I should have said, is of Danish extraction, though the name — Feuerberg — was, after the emigration of the elder branch to America, translated to the present Firemount. In my great-grandmother’s days there had been a bitter family quarrel; the younger brother had attempted to cast doubts upon the legitimacy of the firstborn, and when he failed to make good his claim, he had fraudulently seized upon a large portion of the inheritance and made his escape — whither was not known, for no effort was made to pursue him. It was believed that he went to Germany and married there; and that afterwards he or his son had made another remove, since which even conjecture had been silent concerning them. But to return to the portrait. It was a half-length, and had the quaint headdress and costume of the period, one detail only being out of the fashion; but this it was that had always possessed most interest for me. It was the curious pearl-shell necklace, woven in a strange pattern, and fastened with a golden clasp, which was represented upon my great-grandmother’s statuesque bosom. This necklace had for centuries been a family heirloom, and many quaint traditions were connected with it. It was said to have been given to the founder of our race by a water-witch, or some such mythologic being; and sundry mysterious virtues were supposed to belong to it. Precisely what these virtues were I cannot tell, nor does it happen to be of much consequence. One saying only I remember — that the wearing of it would ensure us happiness and prosperity so long as no member of the family brought dishonour on the name; but thereafter it would bring ruin. Now the necklace had been handed on from one prosperous generation to another, until the date of the quarrel above alluded to; and then, all at once, it had disappeared; and my great-grandmother was the last person known to have worn it. She mentioned it on her deathbed, and foretold that no good fortune was to be expected for the Feuerbergs until the sacred heirloom was recovered, and made a symbol of the healing of the family feud.
The negative part of the prophecy had certainly been verified. The elder branch of the Feuerbergs never got over the effects of the blow inflicted upon it by the younger brother. They gradually subsided from their original high estate; and were at last compelled to abandon the ancestral homestead, and try their luck in the New World. At the time of my birth we were in decently comfortable circumstances, which improved upon the whole as I grew towards manhood. I passed through college, and was afterwards admitted to the Bar, which by-and-by afforded me a tolerable income. But one spring I fancied myself ailing, and resolved to try the sea air; and so it happened that I became acquainted with Jack Poyntz, and with Agatha, and with her pearl-shell necklace.
Of course, all idea of recovering the original necklace had long ago been abandoned. It had been conjectured that the seceding brother of old times had appropriated it along with many other things that did not belong to him; but there was no proof of this, other than that its disappearance had been simultaneous with his own. Moreover, if the fact must be told, I had outgrown the easy credulity of boyhood, and rather inclined to suspect that the whole picturesque old tradition was three parts imagination to one of truth. It might soothe my family pride to ascribe our decadence to the loss of a trinket, or I might excuse my indolence by declaring that fortune was attainable only on condition of its being found again; but if I descended to hard matter-of-fact, as a lawyer should do, I must admit there was nothing cross-questionable in such an old-wives’ tale.
Cross-questionable or not, it will readily be conceived that the sight of Agatha’s pearl-shells gave me a thrill of surprise, and deepened my interest in one who needed no such accidental attraction to render her irresistible. The necklace so closely resembled the one in the portrait, that the latter might have been painted from it. It was possible, no doubt, that my great-grandmother’s necklace was not unique; that a duplicate — nay, many duplicates — existed. But it was not upon the face of it probable, nor was I disposed to accept any such commonplace solution of the problem. I loved Agatha, and I loved to think (for have I not hinted that I was romantic, though a lawyer?)— I say it suited me to believe that the necklace linked her, however unaccountably, with me. It was evident that she herself looked upon it as a most precious possession. She wore it continually, as she might have worn a talisman, and touched it often, twisting the golden clasp about, or following the woven pattern with meditative finger-tips. Once, when suddenly alarmed, I saw her grasp it quickly in her hand, as if either seeking protection from it, or instinctively yielding it protection; and another time, during a storm, when a vessel was labouring in the offing, and seemed in danger of being carried upon the Devil’s Ribs, I came upon her just as she kissed the great pearl in the clasp, as a Catholic would have kissed the crucifix to avert misfortune.
“Water-witch! water-witch! be thy spells wholesome?” I said in Danish, for a knowledge of the ancestral tongue has always been kept alive in the family.
She turned round, started, and to my no small surprise, answered in the same language: “Doubt not the spell, if the danger be daunted!”
And then, seeming to recollect herself, she blushed, and said in English: “It was a song my old nurse taught me. I should like to be a witch, if I might save people from being shipwrecked.”
I made no reply, and we stood silently watching the struggle of the vessel with the storm for perhaps ten minutes. At length it succeeded in tacking at the very moment when all seemed lost, and bore safely away. Agatha’s eyes met mine for an instant; there were both smiles and tears in them. She kissed her pearl again and moved away. But my digression has already gone farther than I intended. Let us return to the stone bench beneath the eaves, and the hot July sunshine.
“Mr. Poyntz,” said I, clasping my hands behind my head, and crossing one knee over the other, “how happens your house to be set up directly opposite the Devil’s Ribs, and at least a mile and a half from the village? It’s well enough in summer of course, but in winter, when the snow is on the ground, I should think you’d want to be nearer your butcher, not to speak of the meeting-house.”
“Ay, surely!” answered Mr. Poyntz, taking the pipe from his mouth, and smoothing down the great sheaf of his beard. “But, d’ye see, sir, ’twas not I set the house here, nor my father before me, and maybe there was no butcher, nor yet no meeting-house along in those times. And another thing, since you’ve set me a-going, sir; you see the lighthouse on the point yonder?” indicating an abrupt rocky promontory half a mile to the right of our position, which lay athwart the shore like a vast wall, separating us from the little fishing hamlet on the other side. “Ye see the lighthouse on tip-end of Gloam’s Point, don’t ye? Well, sir, old as that lighthouse looks to you now, I, that am a deal older than you are, can remember when ’twa’nt there. And that brings me round to what I was going to say. Along in those times, sir, when there wa’nt no regular lighthouse, but no bit less danger of craft running ashore, they used to rig up a sort of a jury-light, if I might so call it, in the front of our old gable. Ye may see the fixings now if ye steps forward a bit and look up there. Ay, ay, every dark night, more especially every dirty night, some of us would mount the garret shrouds, d’ye see, and show the lantern. And many a ship we saved, no doubt; but they’d come ashore once in a while, for the best we could do.”
“That’s a suggestive name — Devil’s Ribs. I suppose the bones of many a good man and vessel lie swallowed up in them.”
“Ay, surely,” returned the ancient mariner, swathing his head in a haze of tobacco-smoke. “The more since the currents and whirlpools thereabout mostly keep back the floating bits — spars, bodies, and such like — from getting to the beach. Whatever strikes there, sinks there, speaking in a general way. And forasmuch as there’s five-and-thirty fathom clear water there, and always a tidy bit of surf on, ’tain’t very popular work dredging.”
“That’s an ugly thought,” I observed; “a great ship might go down there, and nothing ever be found to show what she was or who sailed in her.”
I happened to glance at Agatha as I made this observation, and noticed that she paled a little and let her hands fall in her lap, and after a few moments she got up and entered the house, leaving Mr. Poyntz and me to ourselves. I fancied — but I may have been mistaken — that as she passed the threshold she laid her finger upon the pearl-shell necklace.
“Miss Agatha doesn’t like to hear of wrecks,” I remarked after a pause.
“Why no, sir,” said Poyntz slowly, his blue eyes fixed upon the surf-whitened reef; “and perhaps ’tis natural she should not — specially those wrecks that the Devil’s Ribs is to blame for.”
“Has that necklace of hers anything to do with it?” I asked — though I cannot tell what possessed me to put so inconsequent a question. Partly to justify myself, I added: “It looks as if it might have been washed up out of the sea.”
Poyntz threw a sharp look at me out of the corner of his weather-eye. “Ye’ve noticed the necklace, have ye?” said he; “and ye’ve a quick wit of your own, as they say is the way with lawyers. Howbeit, I think Jack Poyntz knows an honest man when he sights him, and hoping ye’ll excuse the freedom, sir, methinks you are one. Now there’s a bit of a yarn I’d like to spin ye — you being beknown amongst the great gentlefolks down to New York and elsewhere — about a wreck that once was on the Devil’s Ribs. Maybe some of those you do business for can throw light upon it like; for what the ship was that was wrecked, or whence she sailed, was never known; for only that necklace that Agatha wears — only that and — something else, ever came to land. Ye guessed right, sir, d’ye see, and in hopes of your guessing yet more, I’ll spin ye the yarn, leastways if ye’ve no objection. But afore starting, if ye’ll kindly allow me, sir, I’ll load my pipe, for with me the words come ever easier when there’s smoke behind ’em.”
I said nothing, but Poyntz saw well enough that I was very much interested, and, like all incorrigible yarn-spinners, he found a humorous pleasure in prolonging his hearer’s suspense. It was five minutes before his pipe was cleaned out, refilled, and lighted to his satisfaction, and then, having spread out his great arms along the back of the bench, stretched his mighty legs in front of him, and fixed his gaze upon the lighthouse — his favourite yarn-spinning attitude — he appeared to wait for an inspiration.
“How long ago was it?” I asked at length, to set him going.
“Well, sir, it might be five-and-twenty years ago that that wreck took place. You was hardly more than out of your nursery then, I’m thinking. As for me, I was a chap of maybe forty — or maybe not so much; my old father he had just parted his last cable, as I might say, and I had just come in from a voyage to the Pacific Coast for hides, and was living in this house alone by myself. I’d come home, sir, to find the girl as had given me her word spliced to another man; and so it happened that I stayed a bachelor till after the age when many find themselves grandads. But I wedded at last, sir, as ye see, and never had cause to think the worse of myself for doing it!”
“I should think not, indeed,” I assented, laughing. But meanwhile I was telling myself that Agatha must be nearly twenty years old, and that if Poyntz had wedded only at the age of a grandfather, she could hardly be his own offspring by marriage. Were the doubts which her aspect had already suggested to me well founded, then? I prudently waited, in the hope that this question likewise might find its answer in the course of my host’s story.
“It was along about that time, sir,” Poyntz continued, having acknowledged my compliment with a friendly nod, “that I first came acquainted with Scholar Gloam, as the folks called him; him that yonder point’s named after, and that lived at the Laughing Mill, over there, back of the wood. But now I come for to think on it,” broke off the old yarn-spinner, pulling his meerschaum out of the corner of his mouth and looking round at me, “did I ever chance to speak to ye of Scholar Gloam afore?”
“I don’t think you ever did; but I always like to hear about anything that has a picturesque nickname, as almost everything hereabouts seems to have.”
The hale old man laughed, and raked his brown fingers through his spreading beard. “In an out-of-the-way place like this, sir,” said he, “where’s few enough things anyway, nicknames come natural. Well, now, as touching Scholar Gloam, he died nigh a score of years ago; leastways he knocked off living in the body. For there be those,” lowering his voice and wrinkling his brows, “there be those — superstitious like — ready to take affidavit of having seen him, certain days in the year, a prowling round the Laughing Mill. His grave is near by, right under the Black Oak; and maybe the place is a bit skeery.
“Howsoever, that don’t concern us now. When I knew Scholar Gloam, he was a middling-sized, slender-built young gentleman, having queer hair not all of the same colour, and a trick of talking to himself in a sort of a low mumbling way, as it might be the bubbling of water under a ship’s stern, if ye know what I mean, sir. He was a comely favoured man of the pale sort, and grave and silent, though always the gentleman in his manners, as by blood and breeding. For the Gloams was the great family here fifty years ago, and was landlords of most of the farms roundabout; but they steered a bad course, as I might say, and died out, so as Scholar Gloam was the last of ’em. Old Harold, the Scholar’s father, he was a reckless devil if any man ever was; and when he died ’twas found that Gloam Hall and all belonging thereto must go to the auction. The only bit left was the Laughing Mill itself, and an acre or two of land round about it.”
“What did the mill laugh at, Mr. Poyntz? its own prosperity?”
“Nay, sir!” returned the burly mariner, shaking his head. “I heard it laugh once, and I’d as soon crack jokes with Davy Jones as listen to it again. ’Twas a mad, wild scream more than a laugh, and like nothing human, praise goodness, that ever I heard! There was ugly yarns about that mill, d’ye see; folks said as how it had killed a man, and afterwards had got possessed with his evil spirit that was always roaming about seeking whom it might devour . . . or maybe I’ve got things a bit mixed!”
“Who was it that was killed?” I suggested.
“Ay, surely,” said Mr. Poyntz thoughtfully, “I should have told ye that. It was the man that was married to old Squire Harold’s housekeeper. And that housekeeper, sir, when she was a young one, was about as well-favoured a wench as a man would care to speak with on a week day; and ’twas said,” hitching himself nearer to me on the bench and rumbling in my ear, “that the Squire had a fancy to her, and that after a time she was married off in a hurry and sent to live at the mill, and that her baby was born six months from the wedding. Well, all I know is, little enough that child looked like him as passed for its father; and now comes the ugliest part of it. A year after the child’s birth the miller was found dead one morning underneath his own mill-wheel. Seems he’d fallen in the mill-race by some mishap, and so had the life crushed out of him. But bad things was said . . . and the widow and child they went back to the Hall, and lived there many years, till the Squire died. The child got all his growth and training there, and folks used to say he’d have been more like the Squire if he hadn’t been most like his mother. Well, the Squire being gone at last, and the estate all sold saving just the mill, as I told ye, what does the housekeeper and her son do but go back to the mill again. The son — David he was called — was then a likely young chap of maybe seventeen; and he took right hold and began for to run the mill, and a very fair profit he made out of it, taking one year with another. And Scholar Gloam, he was living in the mill-house along with them, having his room to himself, and his books and instruments quite cosy.”
“Wasn’t that rather an odd thing for him to do, Mr. Poyntz, under the circumstances?”
“Ay, surely; but ye must keep it in mind, sir, that Scholar Gloam was a wondrous odd man. He’d been his whole life shut up with his books and his studies, and no doubt had a vast deal of that sort of learning; but of worldly knowledge, as I might say, he’d none at all whatever, no more than a child. Little he’d heard of his father’s doings, be it with the handsome housekeeper or anything else; and little he dreamed — ye can make affidavit — that her son had any claim to call himself his brother, though ’twas told him once afterwards, as we’ll come to presently. Nay, but my thought of him is, he was a simple, honest gentleman at that time, kind of heart and thinking ill of no one; only a bit strange and distant, d’ye see, as was no harm in the world for him to be. And being quite the same thing to him whether he lived in a palace or a mud hut, so long as he might study his fill, why, likely he’d an easy enough time of it.
“And ’twould have been smooth enough sailing for the whole of them only for one thing, which is to say as how, ever and anon, in the mid of a big run of luck, that there mill would take on a spell of its laughing; and with that folks would be giving it a wide berth, and business would slack up again. It was no use the old woman and David a swearing that a bit of rust on the axle was the cause of it all; for, mind ye, there was no steering round that black fact of the old miller’s having met his death on the wheel; and, too, though they was never done hunting for that bit of a rust spot, they never found it, or if ever they thought they had, lo! there’d be the laugh in their faces again, so to say, the next morning. Ay, ’twas a bad, unholy sound that, sir; but the Scholar, strange to be told, seemed less to mind it than anyone; the cause being, mayhap, as how he was a wondrous absent-minded man anyway, and the only one as had never been told the true story of how the old miller came by his end.
“So now, sir, having dropped ye this bit of a hint of who Scholar Gloam was, I’ll go on with the yarn of the wreck on the Devil’s Ribs and the necklace.
“But, first and foremost,” continued Mr. Poyntz, after having revived his failing pipe with a dozen or so of quick whiffs, “first and foremost I must mention a queer habit he had — Scholar Gloam, I mean — and by which it was as I first came acquainted with him. As long as the sun was over the horizon line he’d stay indoors, behind the lock of his study door; but at nightfall out he’d walk, foul weather or fair, and through the wood back yonder, down across the rocky pasture to the sea, a trip of maybe a mile and over. And often at midnight, as I’ve been pulling shorewards from the offing in my fishing dory, I’ve seen him standing a-top of the point, where the lighthouse stands now, the sky being light behind him, and he looking black, and bigger than any human creature; and sometimes he’d be tossing his arms about, and shouting out some un-Christian lingo, though there was no one there to talk to — leastways that I could see. ’Twas a queer thing, I say, for a slender, delicate-looking gentleman like him to be out so by night, in all weathers, seeming not to know the difference whether it blew, or rained, or snowed, or all three together. Some folks used for to shake their heads over it, and say he was gone daft; others there was (the superstitious kind, d’ye see) would have it as how Davy Jones, whose black bones had been the end of many a good ship and cargo, was in the custom of coming nightly to the point to hold parley with him, as it might be to strike a bargain whereby Davy should get the Scholar his estates and riches again in change for his soul.
“But Jack Poyntz never troubled his head with such fancies, sir; and times, when I’d stowed my boat away, I’d hail him, and have him down to the house; and sitting snug together by the kitchen fire, many a strange yarn has he spun me, the like of which never was heard before — leastways not outside of the books that were hid in his library — and of which many were writ in strange tongues as are not spoken in our Christian times. But it’s not for me to be repeating of ’em now, only, as I was a-telling ye, it was such-like things brought us acquainted; and very good chums we were, allowing for his being a young gentleman scholar, and me a sailor as had no great book-learning, though knowing more of men and things than a hundred such as him. And by the end of a couple of years or so, meeting him that way off and on, I knew him as well as ever anybody knew him — as well, maybe, as he knew himself.
“Well, things being this way, one day, about the last week in September, it came on to blow. There was no rain, but no moon either, and the air was thick; and night coming on, it was as black as my hat. It wasn’t long afore there was a heavy sea running, and ye could have heard the surf on them Devil’s Ribs five miles inland. I shipped the lantern up in the fore gable as usual, though knowing it couldn’t show far in such a night; and, thinks I, see it or not, any ship that gets caught in the tide this weather is bound to wreck; so I’ll hope, says I to myself, that they’ll give us a wide berth. Howbe, I wasn’t sleepy, so I loaded my pipe, and, thinks I, I’ll have a snug smoke and a drop of grog alongside the kitchen fire afore turning in. No chance, thinks I, of my Scholar happening in this night; he never could beat up against that wind, not if he had Davy Jones himself to pilot him. Well, there I sat for maybe an hour, the noise of the storm getting ever louder and louder, so at times I could hardly hear the rattle of my spoon as I stirred up the grog in the tumbler. Then all of a sudden there comes a knocking at the door, quick and heavy, and up I jumps and opens it, and lo! there was the Scholar, with no hat and no coat, and that strange-coloured hair of his blown up wild about his head, and his eyes wide open and bright as a binnacle.
“‘Why don’t you come in, sir?’ shouts I, loud as if I was a-hailing him at the maintop, such a noise the wind made; ‘ye’ll get the heart and lungs blown clean out of ye if ye stop there!’
“Seemed like he answered me something, I couldn’t make out what; but he laid hold on my sleeve with that thin white hand of his, that gripped like a vice, as if he’d pull me out into the storm with him, instead of coming in to me. And by his face I could see there was a storm within him as stirred him more than the one without; and then he pointed down seawards, and, thinks I, ’tis a ship he’s seen or heard on the Devil’s Ribs. And though I knew well we could no more help any poor wrecked souls than if they was in the moon, yet it wasn’t in me to back out of going with him to see what there was to see. So just laying hold of my tarpaulin and a flask of rum, off we starts on the run, dead in the wind’s eye. How he managed for to scud over the ground at that rate is more than I could make out; the wind seemed to take no hold on him, but just let him through easy, though all the time it was near blowing my ears off.
“Well, down we came to the beach at last, at a place about a cable’s length this side of the point. I’d kept my man in sight up to this time by reason of the white shirt he had on, his coat, as I told ye, being off him, but whither gone I’d not remembered for to ask him. But now, all of a sudden, I found he’d disappeared, and all I could see was the pale froth of the surf that came leaping up the beach, with a sound from the black wave behind it like the going off of a big gun. Howsoever, I presently stumbled round the corner of a big boulder — ye may see it yonder, sir, in a line with the face of the lighthouse and the top of the pine stump — and there he was on his knees beside something wrapped up and still; and when I looked, ’twas seemingly a young girl, about twelve to thirteen years old, with no life in her. She had come ashore on a bit of planking, and the Scholar he had seen her coming, and had scrambled down from the cliff in time to haul her in and under the lea of the boulder. How he did it the Lord only knows, for ten men working together might have failed in it. But there she lay, with no mark of harm or bruise upon her, and yet (as my heart misgave me) lifeless from the washing of the waves through which she had voyaged to land.
“I saw ’twould be no use trying to give her rum yet awhile, so I stoops to lift her up along with the bit of planking that she lay upon; and Scholar Gloam he helped, though neither of us spoke, by reason of the thundering noise of the surf and the wind that half deafened us. It took us maybe a quarter of an hour, and then we were at home, and had her down before the fire, and wrapped in hot blankets, and everything done that could be done; and after nigh a couple of hours’ work, she moved the least mite in the world, and fetched a sigh. With that I sings out like I’d come upon a chest full of gold dollars, and says I, ‘All’s well, Scholar Gloam; she’s a-coming to, and she’ll live to smile on us yet!’ And then what does he do, sir, but just throws his head back with a little laugh, and topples over in a dead faint. ’Twas the exhaustion, ye must understand, as had come on all at once after the suspense of whether she was alive or dead was over. So there was I with the two of ’em to doctor. Well, I soon had the Scholar all right again; but when he saw as how the child was a-doing well, he drops off suddenly to sleep, being tired right out and unable for to keep his eyes open; and I didn’t wake him, but just threw a blanket over him, and let him sleep it out.
“It was, maybe, half an hour after that that the little girl spoke; she had been opening her eyes and then shutting them several times, and wondering where she was got to, I suppose, poor little dear. She was pretty and white, with yellow hair and big blue eyes, and soft little feet and hands, and pointed fingers; and round her neck was the pearl-shell necklace that ye’ve seen Agatha wearing, sir. Well, she looked at me for a bit, and seemed like to cry, not knowing who I was, or where she’d got to, d’ye see; and then she said something, repeating it over twice or thrice; but I couldn’t understand her, by reason of her speaking some foreign lingo as was unknown to me. Howsoever, I took for granted that it must be some of her people she was asking after; so I pointed to the back room, and made believe as they were in there, but asleep, and not to be disturbed then. She believed me, poor little soul, and presently after dropped quietly asleep, with the tears yet under her eyelids, and the firelight flickering over her sweet face and yellow hair.
“Well, I sat there between the two, for I wasn’t sleepy at all myself, and kept the fire alight, and my own pipe a-going, till morning, by which time the storm was mostly cleared off. So I got the old lantern down from the gable, and stirred about to get breakfast ready; and at sunrise, the two being still sleeping, I walked out to see if so be as anything of the wreck was visible. But the Devil’s Ribs was only a bank of foam, and when I came to the beach there was naught there but a few shattered timbers and bits of spars and rigging; whatever else there may have been had gone down within the whirlpool of the Devil’s Ribs, and would never see daylight more; nor was there anything to tell where the wrecked ship hailed from, or what she was, or whither she was bound. Nay, a man might well have doubted whether there’d been any wreck at all; and superstitious folks might have thought that the pretty child we had found was a sea-nymph or a mermaid, who had come on the shoulders of waves to bring us good luck — or bad, maybe! Not that I’d have ye to think, sir, that I’m of the superstitious kind, being a man as has seen much of the world, and lived a number of years in it. But ’twas a strange thing altogether, and stranger yet was to follow, as ye shall hear.
“In my walk I happened by the boulder where I’d been with the Scholar overnight, and there I picked up a small iron box, with a big lock on it; it was lashed to four bits of wood, so as it might float, and I think it must have come ashore along with the raft that brought the little girl. Just as I laid hands on it, and cut away the lashings, I sighted one of the villagers a-coming over the cliff path towards me. So, not caring to be hailed at that time, I slipped the box in the pocket of my jacket, and steered for the house.
“And lo! there was the fair child sitting in the chair, and the Scholar he was kneeling in front of her, with her hands in his, and they were a-talking together in that same foreign lingo as she had spoken in to me; for, d’ye see, he had learnt it all from his books, and understood it as well as she who was born to it. The child was a bit scared and tearful still, and he seemed to be a-comforting of her; and as I came in, says he, ‘Don’t let on that her folks are drowned, Jack; for I’ve told her they’re but borne away to another harbour, and will return one day to claim her. So meanwhile,’ says he, ‘she’ll come to live with me at the mill, and be my little girl; for is she not my little girl now, since ’twas I brought her forth from the ocean that would have robbed her sweet young life?’ With that he kisses her little hands, and says somewhat to her again in her own tongue. It touched my heart to see the two together, sir; for, d’ye see, the Scholar had never seemed to be aware, as I may say, of women or children until now; he had moved through life without seeing them or speaking to them, save at times in an absent, dreamy sort of a way, as though they were in different worlds. But now he was full of earnestness and a kind of joyful trembling surprise, as one who had all of a sudden opened his eyes to a great treasure, and was delighting in it all the more for that he had been unknowing of it before. He was all in all a changed man, and softened, and waked up inside, so that his eyes seemed to be a-seeing the things that was round him, and not things in a dream; and methought there was a difference in his voice, too; it was deeper and tenderer like, and made you feel as how he had grown to be a man more than a scholar. I thought he was as a ship that had long been lingering in cold dark waters, baffled with winds that set towards no pleasant harbour, but which had at last found its sails filled with a fair fresh breeze, as was blowing her to warm southern seas and tropic islands full of heat and life. Ye’ll maybe laugh, sir, to hear an old sailor talk like this; but surely I had loved the man, and pitied him, too, for his loneliness; and it touched me, as I said, to see that he had found a good thing in the world, and could feel the happiness of it.
“‘Pretty soon, Jack,’ says he again, ‘ye must help me carry her to the mill this morning, before the village folks are astir; and don’t tell them that she’s there, or whence she came. She’s my own, and her past is all gone for ever; God has sent her to me for my own. I shall make her love me as I now love her, and no other shall have any part in her. I will be to her all that she has lost, and more; and I will cherish her always and make her happy. And when the village folks find out that I have her (as soon of course they must), they shall be told that she is a good fairy come to bring me fortune and delight. I’d say that she rose up one morning out of the deep clear pool just above the mill-race; and that though appearing as a human being, she is in very truth not mortal, but has consented to live with me so long as I continue worthy of her companionship. But when the time comes — which God forbid it ever should! — that I prove unworthy, then shall she vanish back to her natural abode, and I be more desolate than before she came. And as for this necklace,’ says he, ‘it is a talisman; and should fate ever separate us, yet this be left me, ’twill be a pledge that’. . . . ”
The yarn broke off abruptly enough. Poyntz and I had both started to our feet, our eyes and ears straining towards the mill-stream, where little Peter had during the last hour been quietly fishing. The sound of a quick scramble, a heavy plunge, and simultaneously a lusty scream, had sharply broken the repose of the summer afternoon.
“’Tis the brat has toppled in!” cried Poyntz, the sunburnt ruddiness of his complexion turning to a tawny sallow hue. “He can’t swim; haste ye lower down, sir; I’ll to the pool; but if as he’s carried over the fall, ye’ll stop him at the rapid.”
We had already set off on a run towards the bank, and we now separated in accordance with Poyntz’s suggestion. I saw no more of the latter, being wholly absorbed in carrying out my part of the programme; and in a few moments I was standing panting beside the rushing water, trying to select the best point from which to take my plunge. Just then I heard a swift rustling step behind me, and there was Agatha, her lovely face and eyes aglow with terrified excitement. Then it passed through my mind that she had always evinced a particular tenderness and affection for poor little Peter; and at the thought I must confess that my resolve to save him at all risks became tenfold as strong as it had been before.
It was all a whirl and confusion; and only by comparing notes afterwards did we make out the order of events. Master Peter, it seems, after much unfruitful angling, had at last succeeded in hooking a huge trout, and straightway had lost first his mental and then his bodily balance. The fish being fairly on the hook, and pulling hard, the little man had rather chosen to go in after it, rod and all, than save himself at the cost of losing it. His scream, however, had startled not only his father and myself but Agatha and his mother likewise; and the latter had followed her husband, as Agatha did me. When Poyntz reached the brink of the pool, the young fisherman had just risen for the second time, and was circling helplessly in the eddy. Poyntz sprang forward; but his foot catching in a vine, he fell prone, his head in the water and the rest of his body on dry land.
Before he could disentangle himself (an operation which the well-meant but too convulsive efforts of Mrs. Poyntz only served to retard) the child had drifted into the current and was carried over the fall. It was now that Agatha and I first caught sight of him. She pressed impulsively forward, and had I not retained her would have leaped into the headlong rapids herself. As I caught her arm, I felt rather than saw her glance at me, as though measuring my ability to do what must be done. Apparently her decision was in my favour, for she stepped back; and an instant after I was staggering breast deep in the boiling stream, watching the swift but topsy-turvy onset of Master Peter. Down he swept; and to make a long story short, I succeeded in catching hold of him without losing my footing, and thereby in saving his life and my own. Agatha helping from the bank, we were soon landed high and dry, or rather, very wet. Then ensued a great and indescribable hullaballo, wherein the first distinguishable words burst from Mr. Poyntz:
“Look ye here, wife!” cried he, laughing and weeping in the same breath, “look if the lad hasn’t stuck to his fish through it all!”
And so it proved; Peter had rivalled the childish exploit of his predecessor, stout little Kit North. There was the rod, still lightly gripped in his small fist; and a three-pound trout was flapping and gasping at the end of the line.
“He’s but a chip of the old block, Mr. Poyntz,” said I, when the shouts that greeted the discovery had somewhat subsided. “What is that sticking in the corner of your mouth?”
The old mariner put up his hand and took the thing out, and after staring at it for a moment in comical dismay, he burst into a laugh, in which everybody joined. It was the stem of his well-loved meerschaum, held unconsciously between his teeth throughout the entire turmoil; the bowl had probably been snapped off when he fell on the brink of the pool. So we all retraced our way to the house, the trout resting triumphantly in Peter’s arms, who was himself carried by his father. Agatha and I walked side by side; neither spoke to the other, and I knew not what thoughts were in her mind; but for my own part I had never been more light of heart, and I regarded Peter and his trout as the best friends that ever lover had. My achievement had been trifling enough, Heaven knows; but such as it was, it had been done before her eyes, and partly at least for her sake. When we had reached the house-door, and the others had passed in before us, she paused on the threshold and turned to me, smiling, with her finger upon the necklace-clasp.
“I kissed it to save you . . . and Peter!” she added hastily, and with a light in her dark eyes that was half mischievous, half earnest.
“And now that we’re saved, I suppose you are going to kiss . . . Peter?” I dared to reply, for my ducking had given me courage.
She blushed, but looked straight at me; and the next moment was gone into the house, leaving me uncertain whether I had gone too far or not far enough. But, ah! happy Peter. A few bruises, and the involuntary swallowing of a gallon or two of water, were the extent of his injuries; while his blessings were beyond estimation. When I came downstairs half an hour later, after changing my clothes, I found him bundled up in an old pea-jacket of his father’s, and sitting in Agatha’s arms. He was watching his mother clean the big trout, the prize of his valour; and as I passed by, Agatha glanced up at me and kissed him!
I stole out by the kitchen-door and looked about for Mr. Poyntz; for his yarn had, for several reasons, begun to interest me exceedingly, and I was most anxious to hear the end of it. But he was nowhere to be seen; he had gone off to attend to something on the farm, and would as likely as not be absent till supper-time. It was a long time till then, and meanwhile I was without anything to amuse me. My mind was restless and excited, and I would have been thankful for any distraction. Nothing turned up, however, and at length — without being at the pains even to notice what direction I was taking — I set off on an objectless tramp, and was soon out of sight of the farmhouse.
I had plenty to think about — so much, indeed, that I could think coherently about nothing. Ideas crowded incongruously upon one another, now this one and now that catching my attention for a moment, and then receding to the background. From the picture of my late adventure in the mill-stream, I slid to a review of Agatha — my relations with her; did she care for me? had my lucky exploit really advantaged me? and ought I to have stolen a kiss upon the doorstep? Instead of considering these questions, I was pondering the tale which Poyntz had begun to tell. Was it all true? would he ever finish it? and what would be its upshot? But now the pearl-shell necklace ruled my thoughts. Was it possibly the same as that which my great-grandmother had lost? and if so, would Agatha be likely to know anything about it? The next moment a vision of Scholar Gloam had risen before me. How had he come to die, and be buried beneath the Black Oak? and why was the old mill considered haunted? David — the handsome housekeeper’s son — what had become of him? and, above all, what had been the fate of the little sea-nymph? Then the necklace once more — how came Agatha to attach such talismanic virtues to it? and was not her doing so evidence that she must know its ancient history? Again, was Agatha Poyntz’s own daughter? and if so, who and what had been her mother? for she must be the child of a union prior to that which had resulted in Peter. The speculation gave place in turn to the idea of the mill-wheel possessed by the devil, or by the soul of the murdered miller — Poyntz had seemed uncertain which. Had its “laugh” really been so terrible? or had not an originally harmless, if disagreeable noise, acquired a supernatural horror only because listened to across a gap of twenty years? Ah well, what matter to me were all these idle, unanswerable queries? Behind all things — before all things, I seemed to meet the sweet fascination of Agatha’s dark eyes, and to catch the gleam of her yellow hair. Yes, ever and ever, as the pendulum swings outwards and returns, does my thought come back to Agatha!
Immersed in such disjointed musings, I had journeyed on I know not how long, when all at once I became conscious, so to speak, of the outward world, and looked up and on all sides of me. Where was I? In no place certainly that I had ever visited before. The sea was nowhere visible; the surface of the ground was rocky and irregular, and in nearly every direction the view was shut in by thick growths of pine, birch, and oak. From beyond a clump of the latter, southward from where I stood, I thought I detected the noise of falling water; and glancing eastwards, I could trace the course of a stream which was itself unseen, by the hedge of stunted timber that fringed its banks. The aspect of the neighbourhood was wild and remote; it seemed to lie apart from men’s ways; and certainly he would have been an unsocial spirit who should have chosen such a spot to live in. On the other hand, anyone in search of a good place to do a murder in, or hold a witch meeting, need not have looked farther. A corpse might lie amongst these rocks and bushes for twenty years without a chance of being discovered; and ghost and witches might scream their eeriest unheard by mortal ear.
Meanwhile I walked on to the other side of the clump of oak trees, when I suddenly found myself gazing on a scene that involuntarily brought me to a standstill.
I was now standing on the bank of a stream which, coming from the west, took its course past my feet eastwards. For some distance its approach was between gradually rising walls of rock, which were highest just where I stood. Thence was a precipitous descent into a small gorge about one hundred paces in length, whose steep sides opened out towards the east, their meeting-point being my present station. Through the natural gateway which it had cut for itself in the face of the precipice, the stream fell cataract-wise into a deep pool below, whence overflowing it rushed down a rugged incline, and, having leapt another fall, raced along the middle of the little glen, and so hurried with foam and noise onward to the sea.
There were vestiges of a rude bridge, long since broken down, across the natural gateway just mentioned; and I even fancied that I could detect traces of an ancient footpath which had its beginning somewhere in the west, and, crossing the stream at this point, had then clambered down the slope to the bottom of the gorge. The bridge had not been entirely of stone; but a stout plank had probably spanned the flood, secured at either end by rough masonry. It must have been a ticklish passage without a handrail, for a false step, followed by a plunge over the cataract, would have been almost certain death. If Master Peter had tumbled in here instead of at the other pool miles lower down, not Poyntz, nor Agatha, nor I, nor all the luck in the world could have got him out alive.
The hollow of the gorge was much overgrown with bushes and brambles, and along the margin of the noisy stream the grass was high and rank. At the opening of the little valley farthest from where I stood rose an immense oak-tree — the only tree of anything like its size to be seen within a mile — whose wide-spreading branches cast a deep shadow on the earth beneath. So thickly clustered the leaves on the stalwart boughs, and so dark was their tint of green, the whole great tree seemed to have been steeped in night. The gorge, though full of sunlight and verdure, and vocal with the splash of the cataracts, wrought on me even at the first glance an impression of loneliness and desolation. The blue sky seemed farther away from this than from other parts of the earth’s surface, and methought the sun shone upon it rather in mockery than in love.
Nearly midway down the hollow, and just under the second cataract, hung a huge water-wheel. It hung there motionless, and plainly many a year had passed since it had revolved upon its ponderous axle. It was built of wood, on a clumsy and old-fashioned model, and had become so blackened by age and weather that one might have fancied it charred by fire. Its parts were fastened together with great nails and clamps of iron, the strength of which, however, was now but a deceptive appearance, for the metal was eaten away by red rust, so that a hearty shake would probably have caused the whole structure to tumble into ruin. The rain and snow of unrecorded seasons had spread the rust in streaks and blotches over the swarthy rottenness of the woodwork until I could almost have believed it dabbled with unsightly stains of blood.
Side by side with these ominous discolorations, however, were growing patches of tender green moss; and thick tufts of grass bent gracefully over the heavy rim of the wheel, where it impended above the rushing water. A delicate vine of convolvulus had become rooted somewhere above, and had wreathed itself in and out among the rigid spokes. It seemed as though Nature were striving, with but partial success, to win back to her own fresh bosom this gaunt relic of man’s handiwork. With but partial success; for all the magic of her beautiful adornments could not annul the odd feeling of repulsion — or was it perverted fascination? — with which this sullen wheel began to affect me. I know not how to interpret, even to my own mind, the nature of this impression. Solitary as I stood there, I yet could not rid myself of the notion that I was not (in the ordinary sense of the word) alone. That wheel — there was something about it more than belongs to mere negative brute matter. It seemed not devoid of a low and evil form of consciousness — almost of personality. I recognised the morbid extravagance of the idea at the same time that I was powerless to do away with it. Everyone, probably, has had some similar experience; and the fact that reason cannot account for the sensation does not lessen its impressiveness.
The wheel had caught my eye from the first, and, as it were, commanded my main attention. But after a few minutes I looked away from it, not without a conscious effort of will, and gave a closer examination to other objects in the glen. The mill to which the wheel appertained stood on the right bank of the stream, but was now little more than a heap of ruins. The wooden part was wholly decayed, and the stone foundations were displaced and shattered, and covered with weeds and rubbish. A few paces farther back, huddled against the southern acclivity of the gorge, was the carcase of a dismantled and deserted house. The roof had fallen in, the window frames and sashes were gone, and the lifeless rooms stood open to the air. The stone walls had formerly been overlaid with plaster, but this had mostly fallen away, and what patches remained here and there were stained with greenish mould. A tall clump of barberry bushes was growing just within the threshold of the doorway, as if to dispute the entrance of any chance intruder; and a vigorous plantation of some species of yellow flowers was waving above the remains of the chimney. The spectacle was in every respect forlorn and depressing; no barren desert, that had never been trodden by the foot of man, could have so repelled and saddened the observer. Man feels no sympathy for what has never known life; but that which once has lived and now is dead, yet retains in death some semblance of its extinct vitality — that it is which brings the true feeling of desolation home to us.
After a time I climbed cautiously down from my coign of vantage, and making my way between loose stones and tangled shrubbery, I passed the black wheel and arrived at length beneath the shadow of the great oak. And here, for the first time, I began to feel very weary, with a weariness as much of the mind as of the body. In fact, what with my adventure with Peter, my long walk, and the excitement produced by old Jack Poyntz’s strange yarn, I had been through a good deal for an invalid, and had earned the right to a little rest. Looking about me for a seat, my eye fell upon a small mound which lay between me and the base of the oak, with a bit of gray stone jutting out from one end of it. It might once have been a bench; at all events it would serve my turn, so I threw myself down at full length and pillowed my head and shoulders against it. As I lay, my face was turned towards the open end of the gorge, and away from the house and mill-wheel. These, however, dwelt in my memory; and on closing my eyes, I found that the scene of the ruin stood distinctly before my mental sight, more weird than the reality, because the phantom sunshine appeared pallid and ineffective.
The sound of a breeze stirring amid the thick leaves over my head mingled with the gurgle of the stream, until it seemed as if some voice were speaking in a low minor key — a tone without passion and without hope. As I listened, and fancifully attempted to fashion words and sentences out of the inarticulate murmur, that odd sensation of not being alone (which had all along been hovering about me) suddenly intensified itself to the pitch of conviction. Sitting up with something of a start, I glanced nervously towards the mill, and at once had the pleasure of seeing my conviction justified. The figure of a man was actually standing on the opposite side of the stream, one hand resting upon the wheel, while he fixed upon me the gaze of a pair of black eyes. He had probably been there from the first, or if not precisely there, then in the near vicinity; there were hiding-places enough amongst the ruins. Nevertheless I felt an unreasonable anger against him. He had come upon me unawares; and a surprise, if it be not agreeable, is apt to be very much the reverse.
He was a person of medium height, perhaps a little below it, and was clad in a shabby old-fashioned coat and small-clothes. He wore no hat, and the black hair which grew thickly upon his high head was curiously variegated with large patches of white. His countenance showed refinement and sensitiveness but the expression stamped upon it was singularly painful. I cannot better describe it than by saying that it seemed to indicate loss, loss beyond remedy either in this world or the next. Its effect upon me resembled that wrought by the desolate house, but was more potent, because humanised. The man seemed beyond middle-age, judging from the furrows on his brow and the stoop on his shoulders; and yet there was a kind of immaturity in his aspect. He was as one whose intellectual much outweighed his actual experience; who had dwelt amidst theories and eschewed reality. Such a combination of age and youth needs a strong seasoning of sincerity and simplicity to make it palatable; but in the present case these qualities were wanting, and instead there was an indefinable flavour of moral perversion.
When we had regarded each other for several moments, the man crossed the mill-race and advanced towards me, making a gesture of greeting with his hand. His manner was well-bred and quiet, and left no doubt that he was a gentleman; notwithstanding which I felt an antipathy against him, and was half-minded to admonish him that his presence was unwelcome. That I did not yield to this impulse was due, perhaps, less to courtesy than to the strong sentiment of curiosity with which the stranger had already inspired me. In other words, he was a magnet that attracted me with one pole while repelling me with the other; and the attraction was, for the moment, the stronger force of the two.
At this juncture it occurred to me — I know not how I had failed to think of it before — that these ruins must be what was left of the Laughing Mill, to which Poyntz had made allusion in his interrupted yarn. The recognition gave me a thrill of a kind not altogether agreeable; I was glad that the sun shone instead of the moon. Nor did I, under these changed conditions, so much regret the presence of a companion. I was in a nervous and abnormal state, and though far from superstitious — no lawyer could venture to be that — I preferred society to solitude in a place which had the reputation of being haunted. It was healthier to converse about such follies — even with an unsympathetic interlocutor — than to brood over them in private. This old-fashioned personage, moreover, had the air of being familiar with the neighbourhood; perhaps he was in the habit of coming here, and could give me some information about its former inhabitants — Scholar Gloam and the rest. I repented my former rude intentions, and resolved to be friends with him, and draw him out. Accordingly I returned his salute, and commanded my features to an expression of affability.
Within about three paces of me he stopped, and passed his hand two or three times through the black and white masses of his hair. He had the air of trying to rouse himself from a mood of painful preoccupation. At length he spoke in a faint, unaccented tone, like a voice heard far off.
“I want your sympathy,” said he.
“Have we met before?” I asked, rather taken aback. “I really don’t remember — but I believe I’ve been half asleep, and am hardly awake yet.”
He shook his head slowly, his black eyes curiously perusing my face. “You have chosen an ill place to sleep in,” he remarked after a pause. “Many a year have I sought repose there — in vain.”
“Indeed? Well, I came here quite by accident, and judging by the aspect of the place, I shouldn’t have supposed it would have been often visited.”
“You are right, few come hither now; but as many as do so are liable to meet with me.”
I looked more narrowly at my queer companion, and all at once the thought struck me, the man is mad! Yes, it must be so. How otherwise could the strangeness of his appearance, behaviour, and conversation be accounted for? He did not look dangerous, probably he was incapable of doing harm, and therefore permitted to wander about as he liked. In the moral atmosphere of these ruins he was sensible of somewhat congenial to his own forlornness, and hence haunted them rather than any more cheerful spot. Certainly, this was an appropriate haunt for a madman — for one whose mind had fallen into that ugliest chaos which was once beauty and order. But I liked the spectacle of mental even less than that of material decay; and though the poor gentleman had asked me for my sympathy, I scarcely knew how to give it to him.
By I know not what faculty of divination, he appeared to suspect what was passing in my mind.
“I am not mad,” he said quietly, but with a tremor of the finely-cut though irresolute lips. “I am not mad, I have passed beyond insanity. Let me sit down here and talk to you. Nay — do not rise! Recline as you were doing, and close your eyes if you will; I need only your ears.”
While speaking thus he passed behind me, and apparently seated himself at the foot of the oak-tree, outside of my range of vision. But no sooner was he out of plain sight, than I was seized with an odd fantasy that he had actually vanished into thin air, and that were I to look round, I should not find him. His voice only was left, and even that now seemed unearthly. Was it a human voice? and not rather the rustling of leaves and the gurgling of water, translated by my feverish imagination into weird speech?
“You were dreaming,” resumed the voice; “what dreams had you of the wheel?”
“What dreams had I of the wheel?” I repeated, leaning back on the mound, and clasping my hands across my eyes. Here was another instance of my new friend’s insight. How had he known that the wheel was in my thoughts at all! Yet it was true that I had given rein to all sorts of fanciful speculations concerning it, and was now, moreover, quite in the mood to give them utterance. And what better auditor could I desire than a madman, whom the wildest extravagance could not disconcert, nor the most palpable absurdities annoy? The opportunity was too fair to lose.
“What dreamt I of the wheel?” I exclaimed again: “I dreamt it was the mighty Wheel of Fortune, who, weary of trundling it about the world, had left it here amidst the sedge and spray of the waterfall. Henceforth, therefore, there shall be no more ups and downs in life, but mankind shall move for ever across one level plain, unchecked by darkness and uncheered by light!”
“Would you have it thus?”
“Oh no — not I! Come back, fair goddess! come back and wrest thy wheel from amidst those clinging vines and brambles — the arms wherewith reluctant nature strives to hold it back! Bring it forth once again upon the dusty road, and turn it as you go, lest our sluggish hearts forget to beat, and we cease to draw the very breath of life, and our souls, torpid and uninspired, grovel earthwards, nor dream of climbing higher than themselves! Bring forth thy wheel, and turn it for ever even as the world turns; for thy fickleness is the life of our lives!”
“Methinks the wheel of misfortune were its truer title; for it turns ever between a fool above and a corpse beneath; and the laugh of madness sounds before, and behind is a track of blood!”
“Nay, name it how you will; since all of human joy and grief, and life and death, have clustered round its course, as the moss and the vines cluster about it now. See how Nature seeks to make the awful symbol of destiny into a plaything for her own beautiful idleness! How fearlessly the light and shadow rest upon it! Yet it is bloodstained. Those rank ferns bend and peer in quest of some lurking horror? What is it? I feel its influence upon me.”
“Aye, you feel it!” murmured my unseen companion, tremulously; “and how could you help but feel it? Do not the tragedies of human life instil their essence into the things we call inanimate? You have shuddered when handling the rack and the Iron Virgin of the Inquisition, and felt faint at the sight of the guillotine and the gallows. You were awed by an evil influence breathed from the actual wood and iron — not by the mere knowledge of ghastly scenes in which they had borne a part.”
“How came the influence there?” I asked, humouring his grotesque theory.
“That which has existed in an atmosphere of revenge, hatred, and despair, becomes at last impregnated with a malignant intelligence derived from them; an intelligence both devilish in itself and able to endow you with its own deformity. And if you hold not aloof from it, you shall surely be destroyed — in soul, if not in body likewise!”
“But do we feel this influence unless aware beforehand that it is there?”
“Fix your thought constantly upon yonder wheel,” was the reply, “and mark if it does not answer you.”
Still with my hands clasped across my eyes, I concentrated my mind as directed, and presently felt my veins crawl with a slow chill of dismay — a chill which deprived me of control over my faculties, while awakening them to unnatural activity. That the wheel had a conscious personality, instinct with evil, seemed no longer open to doubt. Now the plash and gurgle of the water changed to the stealthy drip of blood; and I shrank from the breeze that moved my hair as from a pestilential breath. Was I going mad too? My will seemed to falter; a tremor which I could not repress passed through me from head to foot.
“Aye, you feel it,” murmured the voice again. “You are answered!”
By a determined effort I regained command of myself. Perhaps it was none too soon. Nothing is easier than to indulge this morbid vein, and few indulgences, I believe, are more perilous. With my change of mood came a change of tone; I cast aside the hysteric style, and adopted one more brusque and matter-of-fact, to which the reaction from sentimentality may have added a touch of asperity.
“Come, come!” I said. “We are overdoing this folly. I know well enough what place this is; Mr. Poyntz began to tell me about it this afternoon. An amusing story — all about the Laughing Mill, and the fellow who was drowned, and the nymph of the pearl-shell necklace. You see, I know what I am talking about! But the tale broke off in the middle; perhaps you can finish it?”
“It is you who must finish it!” returned the other. “But I want your sympathy; so let me tell my part.”
“Do so,” said I, “by all means. When I know you better, I shall be better able to sympathise with you. As to my finishing the story, I think I’m more likely to succeed as a listener than as a narrator; however, if it must be so, I’ll give it the best ending I can. And I do sympathise with you already,” I added, after a pause, in a less flippant tone. “I am a man, and I believe in human brotherhood.”
My eccentric companion made no rejoinder, though I fancied he gave a sigh. Presently he began to speak in the same evenly-pitched, far-away voice that he had used throughout. The effect was rather as of a weary reader reading from a book than as of one who talks spontaneously, there was no hesitation, no rise and fall, no fire, no faltering. Yet the recital moved me more deeply than if it had been delivered with impassioned eloquence. Through the sad colourless medium I seemed to behold the direct movement of events, and almost to take part in them. Moreover, as the narrator proceeded, the notion more than once possessed me that his words reached my ears from some inward source — that I was merely thinking the things I seemed to hear. His tone was so attuned to the desolateness of the surroundings, as to appear like the mystic interpretation of their significance, such as might result from intense brooding over them. Indeed, taking into consideration all that I had seen, heard, and fancied that day, I almost believe I could have fallen asleep and dreamed just such a story as he told me. Certainly no dream could have been stranger than the things he told.
They brought the yellow-haired little maiden to the mill (ran the story), and Gloam called her Swanhilda. Jael, the old housekeeper, looked at her sharply, and asked what good such a little creature could be among poor people? the girl was of no use herself, and would only hinder those who had to work.
Gloam answered, “Heaven has sent her to us. She shall be our inspiration, and the symbol of our good. Treat her with reverence, and tenderly, as you would treat the best and purest aspiration of your heart. If we wrong her, it will be our deadliest sin. If we cherish her, the sins we have committed may be forgiven us.”
“She is a gentleman’s daughter, at all events,” said Jael. “Look at the shape of her hands and feet! No, she never worked, nor did her mother before her. Well, maybe her family will come after her some day, and pay us well for taking care of her. Or who knows but she may turn out heiress to some great estate, when she grows up? If that were so. . . . David, son, come hither. See — she’s a pretty little thing.”
Handsome David stooped down and took the child’s small soft hand. “And so she is — a little beauty!” he exclaimed, looking into her blue eyes. “Can’t speak English, eh? That’s a pity; but live and learn. Right glad am I that you brought her here, sir,” he added to Gloam. “Where did you pick her up?”
“She’s the rainbow after the storm,” Gloam answered, smiling. “But I shall not teach her English. Let her speak only the language which she has brought with her.” And he led the child away.
“That may do for him,” muttered David, “but it won’t do for me. He can talk with her and I can’t; so if he won’t teach her English I will. Devil take me if she isn’t a sweet little fairy; and she’s quite enchanted the Scholar already. He’s a changed man since yesterday. But he shan’t have all the fun to himself.”
“She looks thirteen, don’t you think?” said Jael. “She won’t be a child much longer, David. Why, come three years or so, she’ll be old enough to be married.”
“Ay, old woman; but I shall be too old to marry her,” he answered, with a keen look and a laugh.
“I tell you, son, she’s a lady, and good enough to mate with any man.”
“That’s your notion, and likely enough it’s true. But good blood isn’t all I want — I’ve got that already, thanks to your good looks; what I want and haven’t got is money. And Miss Swanhilda, pretty as she is, has less money even than I.”
“But she has relations — rich relations; her own father and mother may be alive for all we know. If she was saved off a ship where all the rest were lost, of course there’ll be no telling for some time to come. But it’s worth waiting for.”
“Did no papers come ashore — nothing to help identify her?”
“I asked Poyntz that,” said Jael, “and so far as I can make out, I think there hasn’t been anything.”
“Well, I’ll make sure of that next time I go over. We might advertise in the foreign papers after awhile. A right pretty little thing she is, and no mistake. But I’m not a-going to run any risks, old woman. Supposing I was to get tied down to her for life, and then find out that she’d got nothing, what would I do then?”
“There’s no need of supposing any such thing, David. As if you couldn’t make the girl fond of you so as she wouldn’t marry any but you; then you’d have her safe, and if all turned out well, ’twould be time enough to put the ring on her finger.”
“Ay, that’s about the idea, I suppose. Well, the Scholar’s got the start of us now; and ’twon’t do to let him see what we’re up to; luckily he never did see what’s going on under his nose. By-the-way, that’s a quaint bit of a necklace the child wears; mayhaps that’ll help us to find out something ——”
He broke off suddenly, with an oath, and he and his mother stood listening, pale-faced. His eyes were angry, but terror lurked in those of the woman.
A strange jarring sound filled the air; it seemed to come from every side, and screamed harshly into the listeners’ ears. If a fiend had burst into a long fit of malignant laughter close at hand the effect could not have been more hateful and discordant.
“The laugh again!” David muttered between his teeth. “It would be just our luck if it scared our best customer away. Devil take me if I don’t begin to believe it is the soul of that cursed husband of yours, that you treated so affectionately. I’ll swear there’s not a spot of rust on the machinery as big as a pin’s head.”
“Oh, son, don’t look that way at me,” said the woman, in a shaken voice. “I would prevent it if I could; what can I do?”
“You might jump in and follow your husband; that’s what he wants, I suppose,” returned the son, angrily. “It’s you that wronged him, not I; and as long as you’re here we’ll have no luck. That’s the long and short of it!”
The laugh had died away, and Jael, pressing her hand above her heart, turned aside and passed out. She loved her son, and would have shed her blood for him; but this was not the first time he had spoken thus.
After she was gone, David stood at the window, biting his lips and muttering to himself. Suddenly he heard Gloam’s step behind him, and looked round in surprise.
“What was that noise?” Gloam asked.
“Why, nothing new, sir. The same old story. Something wrong with the wheel again, I suppose.”
“I remember no such sound before,” said Gloam, excitedly. “It is hideous, like the shriek of an evil spirit. Let it never come again; it frightens Swanhilda, and comes between us like a prophecy of woe. Let it never come again!”
“You have taken to hearing through her ears and feeling through her senses — that’s all the matter,” answered David, smiling. “It sounds bad to you because it makes her head ache. As to stopping it, I’d do so, and gladly, if I but knew how. It loses us half our custom, for folks say the devil’s at the bottom of it, sure enough.”
“It is a wicked sound!” exclaimed Gloam again, “full of mockery and bitterness. Swanhilda was born to hear divine harmonies, and she will leave us if we greet her with such hideous discord.”
“She was born to take her chance with the rest of the world, Mr. Gloam,” replied the younger man, in a harder tone. Then he smiled again and added, in his muttering way, as he left the room, “She’ll get used to it fast enough, never fear.”
But a long time passed without the recurrence of the hateful sound, and meanwhile Swanhilda was recovering from her first melancholy and home-sickness. Gloam had told her that she would see her father and mother again some day, and by degrees her anxiety calmed down to a quiet and not uncheerful expectation. She seemed to know little of the history of her family, or else was averse from discussing it; for amidst all her winning sweetness and pure sincerity she retained a maidenly reserve and dignity not lightly to be overcome. But the guileless fascination which she unconsciously exercised upon all she met was impossible to resist. She gladdened all eyes and hearts, and the mill became a storehouse of beauty and gladness as well as of grain and meal. People came from all the surrounding neighbourhood to see Scholar Gloam’s water-nymph; and at last, when the Laughing Mill was mentioned, they thought of Swanhilda’s airy merriment — not of the ill-omened sound that had first given it that name, but was already being fast forgotten. So the prosperity of handsome David increased, and was greater than it had ever been before; he had as many customers as the mill could supply, and bade fair, in the course of years, to become a wealthy man. He and Jael treated the little water-nymph with every kindness, as well they might; and what Gloam had said seemed likely to come true — that she would be the means of their regeneration.
And Gloam himself was as a man transfigured. He lived no longer amidst his books, but made himself free to all; and the neighbours wondered to find him so genial and gladsome. He and Swanhilda were constantly together; they played and laughed like children; they went on long rambles hand-in-hand; in winter they pelted each other with snow-balls; in summer and autumn they gathered flowers and berries and nuts. He treated her with the most reverent and entire affection; he was ready to sacrifice anything for her sake, to give her anything — unless it were, perhaps, the freedom to be to another all that she was to him. But apparently she was well content. Gloam was the only one who spoke her language, and the only one, therefore, with whom she could converse unrestrainedly. He would not teach her English, and if others attempted to do so it was without his knowledge or consent. He believed, it may be, that no one but himself could appreciate her full worth, and thought it would be a kind of desecration to let another approach her too nearly. Certainly they were happy together. That part of his nature to which she appealed was not less youthful than she was herself; and in her society he felt himself immortally young. He forgot that there were lines upon his brow, and that his figure was bent, and that his hair had begun to be prematurely white. And he doubted not that as he felt so he seemed to her.
Was his confidence justified? Had this child who was just beginning to be a young woman, penetration to see the fresh soul within the imperfect body? A more experienced man would have had misgivings, knowing that young women are apt to judge by appearances, and to be more swayed by downright power and passion than by abstract right and beauty. But Gloam’s experience had not taught him this. He did not dream that she could ever learn to deceive him, or to give him less than the first place in her heart. But he dreamed that some day, distant perhaps, at least indefinite — they would be married. By all rights they belonged to each other, and when they had played their childish games to the end, and had wearied of them, then would they enter upon that new phase of life. Meanwhile he would not speak to her of the deeper love, lest she should be startled, and the frankness of their present intercourse be impaired. But women have been lost ere now through fear of startling them.
So more than two years slipped away, and the child Swanhilda had grown to be a tall and graceful maiden; which seemed half a miracle, so quickly had the time passed. Her blue eyes had waxed larger and deeper, and in moments of excitement they became almost black. Her hair was yellow as an evening cloud; her face and bearing full of life and warmth. Her nature was strengthening and expanding; she was beginning to measure herself against her associates. Though so gentle, she was all untamed; no one had ever mastered or controlled her. She knew neither her own strength nor weakness, but the time approached when she would seek to know them. Every woman is both weaker and stronger than she believes, and it is well for her, when the trial comes, if her strength be not the betrayer of her weakness.
At this point in the story the voice of the narrator grew fainter and then made a pause. I still kept my reclining position, with my hands clasped above my closed eyes. In fact, it would have required a greater effort than I at the moment cared to make to have sat up and looked about me. The sun, I knew, had already sunk below the crest of the slope; the gorge lay in shadow, and beneath the oak it was almost dark. As I lay waiting for the tale to recommence, the sombre influence of the wheel asserted itself more strongly than ever. There it loomed, in my imagination, black, grim, and portentous. Its huge spokes stretched out like rigid arms, and the long grass which streamed along the gurgling water resembled the hair of a drowned woman’s head. . . . But now the voice began again.
One summer afternoon Gloam and Swanhilda were sitting on the wooden bench beside the mill, watching the heavy revolutions of the great wheel. They were alone. David was in the mill-room finishing the day’s work, and Jael was preparing supper in the kitchen. For several minutes neither of them had spoken.
“Do you remember,” said Swanhilda at last, using her native tongue, “the first day I came here, how there came a terrible sound that made me miserably frightened? I have never heard it since then. What was it?”
“Only a rusty axle; at least, so I suppose. That careless David had forgotten to oil it properly. But I gave him such a scolding that there has been no more trouble.”
“David is not careless — he works very hard, and I love him,” retorted Swanhilda, tossing back her yellow hair. “Besides, such a noise could not be made by an axle.”
“You may like David, but you mustn’t love him; you are a little princess, and he is only the housekeeper’s son.”
“What is the difference between loving and liking?” inquired Swanhilda, folding her hands in her lap, and turning round on her companion.
He took her hand and answered, “I shall teach you that when you are older.”
“I am not so young as you think. I am old enough to be taught now.”
“No, no, no!” said Gloam, shaking his head and laughing; “you are nothing but a child yet. There is plenty of time, little water-nymph.”
“If you will not teach me, I’ll find someone else who will teach me. I will ask David; he has taught me some things already.”
“He? What have you learnt from him?” cried Gloam.
Swanhilda hesitated. “I should not have said that — but it’s nothing, only that I am learning to speak English. He didn’t want you to know until I was quite perfect, so as to make it a surprise to you.”
“He had no right to do it. Why should you learn to speak with anyone but me?” exclaimed Gloam passionately.
“Do you think I belong to you?” demanded Swanhilda, lifting her head in half-earnest, half-laughing defiance. “No; I am my own, and there are other places besides this in the world, and other people. I will go back to my own country.”
“Oh, Swanhilda,” said Gloam, his voice husky with dismay, “you will never leave us? I cannot live without you.”
“I will, if you are unkind to me. . . . Well, then, you must not be angry because David taught me English; and you must let him teach me the difference between liking and loving; I’m sure he knows what it is!”
“Do not ask him — do not ask him! That is my right; no one can take it from me! I saved you, Swanhilda; I brought you back to life, and that new life belongs to me!” The hand that held hers had turned cold, and he was pale and trembling. “I have kept you for myself; I have given up my own life — the life that I used to live — for you. But I cannot return to it, if you leave me.”
“I did not ask you to give it up,” she returned, waywardly. Then she relented, and said, “Well, you may teach me about loving, if you want to. Only, afterwards, you must let me love anyone I please!”
Gloam looked upon her for several moments, his black eyes lingering over every line of her face and figure. “You belong to me,” he repeated at last. “If you left me for another, I should wish that your pearl-shells had drawn you down ——”
Before he could finish uttering the thought that was in his heart, the words were drowned in a throbbing yell as of demoniac laughter. The evil spirit of the wheel, after biding its time so long in silence, had seemingly leapt exultingly into life at the first premonition of meditated wrong. Swanhilda shuddered, and hid her face in her hands. David thrust his head out of the mill-room window, and saw Gloam make a gesture of rage and defiance.
“Aha!” he muttered to himself, “so the children’s games are over, are they? Can it be the devil’s game that my beloved brother thinks of beginning now?”
Another year passed, and again a man and a woman were sitting together on the bench beside the mill. It was night, and a few stars twinkled between the rifts of cloud overhead. The gorge was so dark that the mill-stream gurgled past invisibly, save where occasionally a rising eddy caught the dim starlight. The tall wheel, motionless now, and only discernible as a blacker imprint on the darkness, lurked like a secret enemy in ambush. The man’s arm was clasped round the woman’s waist; her head rested on his shoulder, and her soft fingers were playing with the pearl-shell necklace that encircled her neck. They spoke together in whispers, as though fearful of being overheard.
“You silly little goose!” the man said; “a few months ago nothing would make you happy but learning what love was; and now you have found out you must ever be whimpering and paling. Why, what are you afraid of?”
“You know I am happy in loving you, David,” was the tremulous answer; “but must lovers always hide their love, and pretend before others that they do not feel it? When I first dreamed of love, it seemed to me like the blue sky and the sunshine, and the songs of birds; but our love is secret and silent, like the night.”
“Pooh! nonsense, and so much the better! Our love is nobody’s business but our own, my lass. You wouldn’t have Gloam find it out, would you, and part us? What! have you forgotten the fit he was in at my teaching you English a year ago? He wants you all to himself, the old miser! You weren’t happier with him than you have been with me, were you?”
“Oh, David,” whispered the girl, clinging to him, “that was so different! I was happy, then, like a wave on the beach in summer. I had no deep thoughts, and my heart never beat as you make it beat, and my breath never came in long sighs as it does often now. Gloam used to say that he had brought me back from death to life; but it was not so. I lived first when I loved you. And the old happiness was not real happiness, for there was no sadness in it; it never made me cry, as this does.”
He drew her to him with a little laugh. “When you’ve lived a little more and got used to it, you’ll stop sighing and crying, and be as bright and saucy as you were with Gloam. But you won’t want to tell him . . . eh?”
She hid her face on his shoulder. “Oh no, no, no; I could not; I should feel ashamed. But why do I feel ashamed, David? Is not loving right?”
“Right? to be sure it is. Nothing more so! And the pleasantest kind of right, too, to my thinking. Eh, little one?”
“David, I have heard — are not people who love each other married — at least sometimes? and after that they are not afraid, or sad, or ashamed?”
A smile hovered on David’s handsome lips. “Married, yes, stupid people get married. Timid folks, who are afraid to manage their own affairs, and can’t be easy till they’ve called in the parson to help them out. They’re the folks that don’t love each other right down hard, as you and I do. They’re suspicious, and afraid of being left in the lurch; so they stand up in a church and tie themselves together by a troublesome knot they call marriage. No, no; we’ve nothing to do with that; we’re much better off as it is.”
“But my father and mother were married, and they were not suspicious,” ventured Swanhilda again, after a pause.
“Oh, ay, they were married,” assented David; adding, half to himself, “and if they were alive, too, and anxious to fill a son-in-law’s pockets, I’d open mine, and gladly. But my father and mother were not married,” he resumed to Swanhilda, with another smile, “so you see we’ve a good example either way.”
She made no reply, but lifted her head from his shoulder and sat twisting the necklace between her restless fingers, her eyes fixed absently on the darkness. The clasps of the necklace came unawares apart, and it slipped from her bosom to the ground. She uttered a little cry, and stood up with her hands clasped, all of a tremble.
“I have lost it!” she said. “David, some harm is coming to me!”
“Nonsense! here it is, as good as ever.” He picked it up as he spoke, and drawing her down beside him, fastened it again round her neck, and then kissed her face and lips. “There, there, you’re all right. Did you think it was dropped in the mill-race?”
“Some harm is coming,” she repeated. “It has never fallen from me since my mother put it on my shoulders, and said it would keep me from being hurt or drowned, but that I must never part from it. But I trust you, oh, my love! I trust you. Something seems wrong somehow; I have given you all myself. . . . ”
“Lean close up to me, little one; rest that soft little cheek of yours against mine, and have done with crying now, or I’ll think you mean to melt all away and leave me; and what would I do then?”
She turned and clasped her arms around him with a kind of fierceness. “I leave you, David? Oh — ha, ha, ha! Oh, but you must never leave me, my love — love — love! Oh, what should I do if you were to leave me?”
“Hush, girl; hush! you’ll rouse the house, laughing and crying in the same minute! Don’t you know I won’t leave you? There — hush! You’ll wake Gloam else.”
“He loved me, too; he wouldn’t leave me; but he thought I wasn’t old enough — not old enough, ha, ha! . . . David, does God know about us?”
“Not enough to trouble Him much, I expect,” said the young man, with a short laugh. “If anything knows about us, it’s the old wheel there, waiting like a black devil to carry us off. Come, we must creep back to the house.”
They rose, Swanhilda stood before him, her sweet sad face glimmering shadowy pale through the darkness. “Say, ‘I love you, Swanhilda, and I will never leave you!’” she whispered.
He hesitated, laughed, stroked her hair, and stooping, gazed deep into her eyes, as on the day when they first met. Did his heart falter for a moment, realising how utterly she was his own? “You trusted me just now,” said he; “are you getting suspicious again?”
“No; but I am afraid — always afraid now. When you are not with me, I am afraid of everyone I meet; I think they will see our secret in my eyes. When I lie alone at night I am afraid to pray to God, as I used to do. What is it? Why do I feel so? It must be that we have done some wrong. My poor love! have I made you do any wrong? I would rather be dead.”
“Little darling — no! You couldn’t do wrong if you tried. There is no wrong — I swear there isn’t. Listen, now in your ear: I love you, Swanhilda, and I will never leave you! Satisfied now?”
Low as the words were whispered, they were heard beyond the stars, and stamped themselves upon the eternal records. But their only palpable witness was the mill wheel. A log of wood, carried over the fall, came forcibly in contact with the low-impending rim. It swung the heavy structure partly round upon its axle. And straightway, upon the hollow night, echoed a faint yet appalling sound as of jeering laughter. Slowly it died away, and silence closed in once more, like darkness after a midnight lightning flash. But it vibrated still in the startled hearts of the man and the woman, who crept so stealthily back to the house, and vanished in the blackness of the doorway, and it revisited their unquiet dreams.
Summer and winter came and went, and were followed by a gloomy and dismal spring. The late-lying snow was dissolved by heavy rains so that the mill stream was swollen beyond precedent, and rolled thundering through the gorge with the force of a full-grown cataract. But the mill was idle, and the wheel stood still. None came for flour now, nor to bring grist; for many a week all work had been foregone.
Yet the house was not deserted. An elderly woman, with a forbidding face that had once been handsome, moved to and fro behind the windows; and a man, bent and feeble, with strangely-grizzled hair, sat motionless for hours at a time in his study-chair. Sometimes, in his loneliness, he would set his teeth edge to edge, and clench his thin hands desperately, and utter an inarticulate sound of menace. But at a certain hour of the evening he would arise and walk with noiseless steps to the door of a darkened chamber. There he would pause and lean and listen. Presently from within would be heard the shrill, petulant crying of an infant, and anon the voice of its young mother, sad and tender, soothing and pathetic: “Baby, baby, don’t cry; hush, hush, hush! father will come to us soon; he will come, he will come! he loves us and will never leave us; hush, hush, hush!”
At these sounds the pallid visage of the man would quiver and darken, and he would press his clenched hands upon his breast. Returning at length to his study, he got upon his knees and stretched his arms upwards.
“God — God of evil or of good, whichever you are — give my enemy into my power! Let my curse work upon him till it destroy him: let my eyes see him perish! He has robbed me of my love, and my hope, and my salvation; he has defiled and dishonoured that which was mine; he has made my life a desert and an abomination! Yet I would live, and suffer all this and more, if he might perish by my curse, body and soul, for ever! Grant me this, God or Devil, and after do with me what you will!”
Such was his prayer. But he never entered the darkened chamber where the child and its young mother lay; he never looked upon them or spoke to them, nor did his heart forgive them. He could not forgive till he had had revenge. Since that hour in which he had first learnt the truth, and with hysteric fury had sprung at the seducer’s throat, his soul had been empoisoned against them and all the world. He was possessed by that devil to which he prayed, and good was evil to him.
One day he was standing in a kind of stupor at his window staring out at the black mill-wheel, which was now the only object in the world with which he felt himself in sympathy. There came a knock at the door, and Jael, the housekeeper, entered. Since the calamity which had befallen, her manner towards Gloam had undergone a change. She had before exercised a kind of authority over him, such as a compact and unsympathetic nature easily acquires over one of wider culture but more sensitive than itself. But Gloam had become more terrible in his desolation than a less naturally gentle man would have been; and Jael feared him. She felt that he might murder her; and minded her steps, lest in some sudden paroxysm he should leap out upon her.
She advanced a little way into the room, and stopped. He did not turn, or show that he was aware of her presence. After a few moments she said:
“Master, he is coming back; David’s coming home again, sir. He’s going to make it all right with Swanhilda — he means to marry her!”
Gloam did not stir; but as Jael watched him narrowly, she fancied that his limbs and body slowly stiffened, until they became quite rigid; only his head had a slight shivering motion. The woman shrank back a step, with a feeling of alarm.
It seemed a long while before Gloam spoke, and the same slight, involuntary shiver pervaded his voice. He still kept his face carefully averted.
“David coming back?”
“Yes, sir; I had a message from him this morning.”
“To . . . marry her!”
“Yes, indeed, sir; he’ll make an honest woman of her. What he has done has laid heavy on his conscience ever since. And so he says he hopes you’ll forgive and forget, and that we’ll all prosper and be happy in the future.”
Gloam’s chest began to heave, and he folded his arms tightly across it. There was another long pause, as though he feared to trust his voice to speak. Finally the words came between his shut teeth:
“When — when — when?”
“Did you mean, when will he be here, sir? Well, he was expecting to reach the next town late this afternoon; and from there he’d foot it over here; and that wouldn’t bring him here till nigh midnight. But likely he’ll wait over, and get here to-morrow morning. Luckily though there’s a moon to-night, to show him where to step, in case he comes right on.”
Gloam unfolded his arms, and raising his hands to his head, passed them several times slowly through his hair; staring downwards, meanwhile, at the wheel. The rigidity had passed away, and he seemed to be recovering from the agitation into which the first shock of the news had thrown him. Jael’s mind was a good deal relieved at the absence of any signs of hostility on his part against David; and she was just about withdrawing, when Gloam turned quickly about and stepped after her.
For the first time in the interview she now saw his face; and the sight so far startled her firm nerves as to draw from her a short low cry. It was not that the face was pallid, furrowed, and wasted; it had been all that from the first; but what appalled her was the ghastly expression of the mouth and eyes. It was not a smile, unless an evil spirit smiles, foreseeing the destruction of its victim. Evil it was — delightedly evil, like the triumph of long-baffled hate. It was a cruel, hungry, debased expression, hideously at variance with the passionate and ill-regulated but refined character of the man. It suggested the idea that Gloam was possessed by a strange spirit, more potent and more wicked than his own, which commanded his body to what uses it pleased, in spite of all that he could do.
For it was evident that he himself understood the cause of Jael’s dismay; and he made a violent effort to drive the awful look out of his face. So far from succeeding, however, he was forced to break out into a frantic laugh, which echoed shrilly through the silent house, and seemed, to Jael’s scared ears, a copy of the infernal cachinnation which was wont to issue from the bewitched mill!
“Don’t mind it, Jael,” he said, as soon as he could speak; “it’s nervousness — it’s the reaction from suspense! Wait — have you told . . .?”
“Swanhilda, sir? not yet — I thought I’d best break it gradually ——”
“Don’t tell her! don’t hint it to her!” He spoke in a harsh whisper, bending forwards towards her: “Because — because he might not come after all!” Then the mocking devil seized upon him again; and though he folded his arms and held down his head, the unholy laughter which he strove to suppress shook his whole body and turned his white face dark.
The housekeeper was glad to escape from the room; for she thought Gloam must have gone mad, and knew not what insane violence he might commit. Her first impulse was to run out and summon help, but after her immediate panic had cooled down, she thought better of such a proceeding. The explanation of his behaviour which Gloam himself had given seemed, upon reflection, reasonable enough. The abrupt manner in which she had told the news had thrown him for the moment off his balance. It was, upon the whole, rather a good sign than a bad one, for it showed him not so much deadened by suffering as he had appeared to be. When he had had time to rally, he would be his own gentle and manageable self once more.
Meanwhile she made preparations to receive David on his return. The young man’s conduct towards Swanhilda had so angered his mother that she had more than acquiesced in the banishment which Gloam’s rage had forced upon him. Not that she loved Swanhilda much; nor did the mere immorality of her son’s deed greatly afflict her. But she had never ceased to have faith that, sooner or later, news would come of the yellow-haired maiden’s relatives beyond the sea. It would come, perhaps, in the form of a wealthy and open-hearted gentleman; or of a lady, with diamonds sparkling on her hands and bosom. They would say, “We have learnt that the little niece or cousin whom we had thought lost, was saved, and is living here with you.” “Yes,” Jael would reply; “and she has been brought up as true a lady as if she were in a queen’s palace; for we knew she had blue blood in her veins, and would come by her own at last.” Then Swanhilda would appear, and captivate them with her beauty and simplicity. But when they offered to take her away, the girl would say, “Not without David, for I love him!” Whereupon, no doubt, there would be objections and remonstrances; but David’s handsome face and engaging manners would half disarm them; and at the last Jael herself would arise, and sacrificing the woman to the mother, would declare openly, “He too is of gentle blood; his father was old Harold Gloam; he is the descendant of gentlemen, and not unworthy of the girl who loves him.” So would resistance finally be overcome, and all concerned be enriched.
Such had been Jael’s dream; and her resentment at the revelation of David’s crime had been mainly aroused by the fact that it involved the frustration of a chance of fortune her own espousal of which had rendered especially dear to her. When the scheme was first conceived, the young man had, indeed, acquiesced in it, but as time went on, and inquiries proved fruitless, he had abandoned the hope of obtaining wealth and station through Swanhilda’s means. Yet the girl loved him, and was very beautiful; much of their time was of necessity passed in each other’s society; and in the end the sin was sinned. Doubtless he had regretted her ruin; but to make her honourable amends had not been compatible with the projects of his ambition: and when Gloam’s unexpectedly violent outbreak had driven him forth upon the world, he had perhaps deemed his banishment a not inconvenient pretext for freeing himself from the encumbrances, such as they were, which might otherwise have impeded him. He left Swanhilda behind, to pass her dark hour alone.
But, this being so, what was the occasion of his sudden change of purpose? Was he penitent? or had he found that honour and expediency could be made compatible after all? The letter which he had written to Jael did not explicitly answer this question; but from hints which it contained, the housekeeper had drawn favourable inferences; and she looked forward to his coming with agreeable anxiety. She had told Gloam the news, intending (should he refuse a reconciliation) to acknowledge to him that his father was David’s likewise. But his strange behaviour had frightened this purpose out of her head; and when she recollected it again, it seemed most advisable that the revelation should for the present be postponed.
About sunset Jael was surprised by the beginning of a jarring and rumbling noise, the like of which had not been heard in the gorge for a number of weeks past. Half incredulous of the evidence of her own ears, she paused to listen. Certainly there was no mistake — the mill was going! She stepped to the window and looked out. Yes, there revolved the great black wheel heavily upon its axle, churning the headlong torrent into foam, and hurling the white froth from its rigid rims. As she gazed, astonished, she saw Gloam issue from the mill and stand beside the boiling mill-race, watching, with manifest excitement, the sullen churning of the huge machine. He wore no hat, his hair was tossed and tangled, his bearing reckless and wild. All at once (for the machinery, having been so long out of use, had doubtless become very rusty) an unearthly peal of laughter — or what seemed such — was launched upon the evening air. It partly died away; then it again burst forth, clinging to the listener’s ears and stabbing them, and leaving a sting that rankled there long afterwards. In the midst of the infernal din, Jael saw Gloam toss up his arms and abandon himself to a sympathetic paroxysm of grisly merriment. The man and the machinery were possessed by one and the same demon.
“Master — Master Gloam!” cried the woman, throwing open the window and lifting her voice to her shrillest pitch, “what is the matter? Why have you set the mill going?”
He glanced up at her with wild eyes, and waved his hand. “It is a season of rejoicing,” he answered. “The prayer that I prayed is coming to pass. Therefore let the wheel go round. Hear it, how it laughs and rejoices!”
“But there is no grist — the mill is empty.”
“It will not be empty long; the grist is coming. It comes! it comes! Let the great wheel go round and grind it to powder!”
Jael drew back with a sickening apprehension at her heart. Gloam was too plainly in a state of delirious frenzy, if he were not actually mad. She longed for David’s appearance, and yet dreaded it; she knew not whether the meeting between the two men would issue well or ill. And then her mind reverted to Swanhilda, and she asked herself what the effect of her lover’s presence would be upon her. Ever since the first week following upon his departure the young mother had maintained a singularly passive demeanour, only occasionally disturbed by seasons of vague and tremulous anxiety. The housekeeper had looked in upon her several times that afternoon. She lay quietly in one position, her eyes open and fixed, save when the baby claimed her attention. She did not speak, and seemed scarcely aware of outward things. Even the uproar of the mill, when that began, commanded her notice but for a short time, and appeared rather to gratify than to distress her. She perhaps associated it with the thought of David, and fancied it in some way indicative of that home-return which she had all along never allowed herself to despair of. But she was as one partly entranced, whose ears and eyes, as some believe, are opened to things beyond the ordinary ken of human senses.
The evening was cloudy, and night came on apace. Gloam had re-entered the house shortly after dark, and Jael presently went to his room to ask him where he would take his evening meal. But he met her in the upper passage-way. He seemed to carry something in his hand. She could not make out what it was, and he immediately hid it beneath his coat. To her inquiries he replied that he was going forth to resume his old practice of walking, and that he would sup with David after his return. Jael, in her uneasiness, would gladly have persuaded him to remain at home; but he was obstinate against all entreaties, and finally pushed roughly by her and was gone.
Meanwhile the mill was still in motion. The housekeeper had an impulse, soon after Gloam’s departure, to go out and uncouple the machinery; but she feared lest he might resent her interference, and forebore. The noise, and the suspense she was in, combined to keep her in a state of feverish restlessness. Her thoughts busied themselves, against her will, with all manner of gloomy and painful memories and speculations. The vision of her youth rose up before her, and filled her with vain, remorseful terrors. She strove to cheer herself with picturing her son’s arrival; but even that had now become a source of apprehension rather than of comfort. All the time she was oppressed by an indefinable sensation that someone was prowling about outside the house; and once, after the wheel had delivered itself of an outpouring of inhuman mirth, Jael fancied the strain was taken up in a no less wild, though not so penetrating key. Was it possible that Gloam was lurking in the gorge? And, if so, what could he be doing there? Cautiously she peered out of the window; but the moon was as yet obscured by clouds, and nothing was certainly distinguishable. She returned to the fireside; yet paused and listened again, because — or else her excited imagination deceived her — another and a different sound had reached her from without: a sharp, grating sound, like that made by a rusty saw eating its way through close-grained timber. Ere she could be certain about the matter, however, the noise stopped, and returned no more.
An hour or so later, it wanting then only a few minutes of midnight, Swanhilda suddenly awoke from her half-trance, and sat upright in her bed. The house resounded dully to the muffled throbbing of the machinery, but otherwise there was no stir. The little baby had fallen sound asleep, and lay at its mother’s side, with its tiny hands folded beneath its chin, and grasping the pearl-shell necklace, which was its favourite plaything. After sitting tense and still for a moment, Swanhilda got out of bed, huddled on some clothes, kissed the unconscious baby twice or thrice, and then silently left the room. In another minute she had stolen down the stairs, and was standing between the house and the stream in the open air. She looked first one way and then another, and finally, without any hesitation in her manner, but with an assured and joyful bearing, bent her steps towards the top of the gorge. A narrow footpath led up thither, and at the highest point turned to the right, and was carried across the torrent by a narrow bridge formed of a single plank. When Swanhilda came to the turn, she did not go over the bridge, but sat down upon a stone amidst the shrubbery, and waited.
How had she known that there was anyone to wait for? Jael, certainly, had told her nothing; still less could she have learned anything from Gloam. Nevertheless, there she sat, waiting, and knowing beyond question that her lover was near, and was rapidly coming nearer. In a few minutes she would hear his steps; then he would be upon the bridge, and she would rise and meet him there. Had he not promised, months ago, that he would never leave her? and though he had been driven away for a time, she had never doubted that he would return. He loved her; soon, soon she would feel his arms about her, his kisses on her lips. Ah! what happiness after all this pain; what measureless content! How glad would be their meeting; and when she showed him their little baby, the cup of joy would be full. Nay, it was so already. In all Swanhilda’s life she had never known a moment so free from all earthly trouble as was this!
It was near the end. She stood up; she had heard a footstep; yes, there again! He must be close at hand; if it were not so dark she would have already seen him. And now the clouds which had so long obscured the moon broke away, and the pale sphere hung poised in dark purple space, and shed a dim lustre over the little gorge. The light glanced on the curve of the cataract, and twinkled in the eddies of the pool, and danced along the tumultuous rapid, and glistened upon the froth of the mill-race. There the black wheel still plunged to its work, whirling its gaunt arms about as if grasping for a victim. In the bushes close beside it crouched a man with white face and staring eyes. He had laid his trap, and was waiting the issue. He had not seen Swanhilda leave the house and climb the little path; his eyes and thoughts had been turned elsewhither.
David came swiftly along the upland path, whistling to himself as he walked. We will not search his thoughts, seeing he was so near the end of his journey. When he arrived at the brow of the gorge, and was within a few paces of the bridge, he halted and peered forward earnestly. What figure was that that seemed to stand expectantly on the other side? It could not be Swanhilda — ay, but it was! He gave a little laugh, and then his hard heart softened and warmed towards her. “How she does love me, poor little thing!” he muttered. “And I’ve treated her devilish badly, no mistake. Well, well, I’ll make it up to her, if all goes well, see if I don’t!”
He came on to the bridge, and Swanhilda also hurried forward. Then the man below among the bushes started up, dry-mouthed and breathless. In an instant he sent forth a great, terrible cry of warning and agony; but before it could be uttered the lovers had met upon the narrow plank, and Swanhilda had received her kiss. While their lips yet touched, the plank, sawn in two all but a finger’s breadth, broke downwards, and they fell, clasped in each other’s arms — headlong down over the fall, down to the bottom of the eddying pool; up again, and over in the rapids, whirling round and round, dashed against the jagged stones, bleeding piteously; stunned, let us trust, already, but still clinging to each other. Now the last plunge: and so, at length, with a final shriek of heaven-defying laughter, the hungry demon of the wheel grappled its prey. Ay, snatch at them, tear, break, grind them down and hold them there; they are past feeling now. But not so the man upon the bank, with uncovered hair showing black and white in the moonlight, who has looked on at this scene, powerless to help, but awake to every swift phase of the tragedy, losing not a struggle or a pang, realising his own unspeakable horror and anguish, and foreseeing no comfort or pardon through all time to come.
The wheel stopped suddenly. Jael came breathless out of the mill-house, and shrinkingly approached the margin. A formless mass of something was wedged beneath the lower rim of the wheel and the bed of the stream, and a long mass of yellow hair floated out along the black water, and gleamed in the lustre of the untroubled moon. The man on the other side was kneeling down, and seemed to be gazing idly into the current.
“He was your brother,” said Jael, sobbing with rage and misery. “Your father was his. You have murdered him. God curse you! I wish you lay where he is.”
“Why, Jael,” returned Gloam, smiling at her, “you invoke a curse and a blessing in the same breath! My brother? — well. Swanhilda loved him and not me. Thank God I was the brother of the man she loved; the same blood ran in our veins — she loved a part of me in him. But why do you trouble yourself to curse me, Jael? I ask the charity of all men, and their sympathy!” . . .
I unclasped my hands from above my eyes, and started to my feet. No, there was no one near me; I was quite alone. It was deep twilight, but objects were still discernible: yet nowhere, neither beneath the Black Oak, nor beside the Laughing Wheel, nor anywhere in the gorge, could I see a trace of my late companion — of him whose last words were even then ringing in my ears: “I ask the charity of all men, and their sympathy!”
The next morning I was down late to breakfast. It was glorious weather, and the blue sparkle of the sea came through the open window, bringing with it a limitless inspiration of hope and wholesomeness. It was difficult to believe that there had ever been any sorrow or wrong in the world.
“Ye’re not looking right hearty,” said Mr. Poyntz, with bluff geniality, while his good wife set before me a huge plate of daintily fried bacon and eggs, and a smoking cup of coffee. “Maybe ye walked a bit too far last night? ’Twas powerful late afore ye got home, anyhow.”
“Yes,” said I, glancing at Agatha, who was knitting a pair of stockings for Peter in the eastern window, the morning sun glistening on the broad plaits of her yellow hair. “Yes, Mr. Poyntz, I think I must have made a very long journey last evening. By-the-way, is not to-day Sunday?”
“Ay, surely!” exclaimed husband and wife in a breath; and then the former added, “Ye’ll be wanting to go to church, I suppose?”
“No, not this Sunday; though I hope to go before long, if Miss Agatha is willing to show me the way.” I glanced at her again as I said this, but she would not look up, and I could not even be sure whether she were listening. “What I want,” I continued, “is for you, Mr. Poyntz, since you’ll be at leisure, to take a stroll with me a little way up the stream. It will be a novelty, perhaps almost as much so to you as to me.”
“Up the stream, is it?” returned he, pausing in the operation of cutting up a piece of tobacco, and turning his blue eyes on me; “why, truly, sir, that’s a trip I’ve not made for a number of years. Howsoever, none knows the road better than I do, and if so be as naught else ’ll do ye, why, I’m your man!”
Accordingly, so soon as I had done breakfast, the sturdy old mariner mounted a wonderful glazed hat and a new pea-jacket of blue pilot cloth, took a fresh clay pipe from the mantelpiece, with a sigh and a shake of the head over the destruction of his beloved meerschaum, and professed himself ready.
“Good-bye, Agatha,” I said, passing the window. “Is there anything you would like me to bring you when we come back?”
“Oh, a great many!” answered she, looking up gravely; “but nothing, I’m afraid, that you can get for me. Though — you’ll bring yourself back to dinner, I suppose, won’t you?”
She bent over her knitting as she said it, and her mouth and downcast eyelids were very demure. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to fancy that my former remark about church-going had not fallen so entirely unheeded as it had appeared to do. Before I could hammer out a fitting answer (my brain always seemed to work with really abnormal sluggishness when I most wanted to do myself credit with Agatha), Poyntz rolled out in his deep, jovial voice, “Back to Sunday dinner? Well, I should hope so. Why, the old woman is baking a pie as I’d sail round the Horn to get a snack of! Come on, Mr. Firemount; it’ll go hard but we fetches back an appetite as ’ll warm the women’s hearts to look at.”
We trudged off at a tolerably round pace, and soon struck into a narrow grass-grown lane which led towards the east; and had proceeded some distance along it before I said:
“Do you know, Mr. Poyntz, that your daughter is one of the loveliest women in the world?”
“Ye mean Agatha? Ay, surely, that she is, heaven bless her! She was always that. A tiny bit of a lass, I remember her, not so long as my arm; as pretty a baby she was then as she’s a woman now.”
“Has she any thought of getting married soon? Such a face and character must have suitors enough.”
“Well, as touching that, sir,” said Poyntz, taking his pipe out of his mouth and looking at it carefully, “ye mustn’t think of Agatha just the same as of the fishermen’s girls you meet round about. Good, honest girls they all are, I’m saying naught against that; but Agatha, d’ye see, is a bit different. Ye’ll maybe think it queer I should say it, sir; but say it I will that Agatha is a lady. She may live in our house, and put up with our ways — nay, and love us too, which sure I am she does; but all the same, if ye notice, she don’t speak the same as me and the old woman do, nor she don’t think the same neither. She’s built on other lines, as I may say — a clipper yacht, while we’re but fishing smacks, or trading schooners at best. And that being so as it is, the young fellows of our neighbourhood don’t find they’ve got much show alongside of her somehow. They’re afraid of her, that’s the long and short of it. Not but she treats ’em kind enough, ye understand, as a lady should; but ’tis the kindness of a lady, and not of an equal, and there’s not one of ’em staunch enough to hold out against it. And how be they’re fine lads, many of them, I can’t truly say as I’m sorry for it, if so as Agatha is content.”
“Nor can I,” I echoed to myself, with devout earnestness. “She does seem of a different stock from most I see here,” I said aloud. “I have seen women somewhat like her at Copenhagen; though I don’t know whether I should have thought of that if I hadn’t happened to say something in Danish, yesterday, and she answered me in the same language.”
“Did she now!” said Poyntz, tipping forward his hat and scratching the back of his head. “And if I might ask it, sir, how came ye to speak Danish your own self?”
“My family was Danish before I was born; and I was taught the language almost before I knew English. Our name used to be Feuerberg; but we’ve translated it since we’ve emigrated, you see.”
“Ay, surely — Feuerberg,” said Poyntz, puffing his pipe preoccupiedly.
We walked on for awhile in silence. So great was my desire that the evidence I had been arranging in my mind should be borne out by the facts, that I was almost afraid to put the matter definitely to the proof; while Poyntz, on the other hand, was evidently taken by surprise, and had not got his ideas quite settled. At length, however, I thought I would hazard one hint more.
“I’ve been thinking of that yarn you were spinning yesterday afternoon — in fact, I believe I dreamt of it last night; and I should imagine that the little yellow-haired girl, if she grew up, would have looked enough like Agatha to be her sister — or her mother, at any rate.”
“And I’ve been thinking, sir, of the accident that stopped me from finishing that there yarn ye speak of, and of the hearty thanks I owe ye for the stout heart and ready hand that saved my Peter. But thanks is easily said; and I mean more than words come to. I’d not have ye suppose as I’d give all trust and confidence to a man just because he’s done a brave act for me and mine. But as I told you once afore, and speaking out man to man, I like the looks of ye, and ever did; and seeing as how ye’ve found out a good bit of our little secret already, and seem like you’d an interest to know more of it; for that, and likewise because of another thing, as I’ve just found out myself, and it may be as important as any — well, I’ll tell ye what about Agatha there is to tell.”
At this moment, however, we passed round a clump of oak trees, and found ourselves right at the entrance of the little gorge where I had had my adventure the night before. Poyntz halted, and fixed his eyes gravely upon the scene for several moments. “Ay, the same old harbour,” said he; “it’s changed a bit now, but it brings it all back to me the last time I was here. This is the Laughing Mill, Mr. Feuerberg. And this here is the Black Oak, and here is poor Gloam’s grave, d’ye see? with the bit of gray stone a-sticking out of the end of it.”
“Why was he buried here?”
“Well, ’twas his wish; that’s all. He was crazed the last years of his life, with grieving on the death of the young girl as he’d picked up on the beach, that I was telling you of. A sad thing it was altogether. She went wrong, d’ye see, with the fellow David, the Scholar’s brother, and was drowned here along with him; but how that came to pass was never rightly known. ’Tis thought the Scholar had meant for to marry the girl himself. And so would David have married her, I doubt, if he’d known what I know.”
“About the family?”
“Ay, sir, that. Ye maybe ’ll remember the iron box as I picked up? Well, I didn’t tell anyone about it then, not even the Scholar; and soon after the night of the storm I shipped for Rio, and was away a matter of two years. When I came back I heard as how David was thick with the girl — Swanhilda they called her. Then I opened the box, not having done it before, and found papers in it telling who she was, and that folks of hers were living in Germany, having emigrated there from Denmark; and from what I could make out — for ’twas in a foreign lingo, and I was forced to borrow a lexicon to it — it seemed likely as how they was well off. Now, I had my opinion of David, that he was a worthless sort of a chap, though clever and handsome; so thinks I, I won’t tell him of this, for if so be as I do, he’ll wed the girl in the hope of money, and not for true love of her, who was worthy the love of better than he. But what I’ll do, I’ll write to those her folks in Germany, telling them as how she’s here; and when they come, then they can do for her as they find best, and it’ll be out of my hands. And so I did, but had never an answer, why I don’t know. But it never came in my mind, sir, that the fellow David would ever be so black a scoundrel as to lead the poor innocent girl wrong. How be, when he had done it, thinks I, I’ll tell him of her folks now, because now the best can happen will be that they marry, though the best is bad enough; and if I tell him, maybe he’ll make her an honest woman, as the saying is. And tell him I did, with a piece of my mind touching my thought of him, into the bargain. And he promised me as he’d go and make it right the next day — this being spoke in the town above here, whither I’d gone for to see him. And it can’t be said but what he kept his word; only he and she was drowned in the night, and crushed under that there wheel, as never has turned since, to this day.”
“What became of her baby — she had a baby?”
“Ay, and so she did, sir. Well, ’twas cared for by the housekeeper — she being grandmother to it and so having first right, the more as the Scholar was crazed, though not dangerous, but mild and melancholy-like. But in years the old woman she came to the poor-house, and there died; and I took the baby, and gave her what best I had to give, and better schooling than the lasses care for hereabouts. And as luck would have it, an elderly woman of Danish blood being come by a chance to the village, I got her to be nurse to the little one, and so grew up to a knowledge of her native tongue, d’ye see, and the fairy tales and such like thereto belonging. And — ay, I see you’ve guessed it long already, sir — that’s Agatha.”
I had intended relating my vision to Mr. Poyntz on the spot where it occurred; but I know not what reluctance prevented me. It was too solemn and inexplicable an experience to bear discussion so soon. So, instead of that, I told him, as we trudged homewards together, the history of the Feuerberg family, and how all tended to ratify my conviction that Agatha and I were cousins, though far removed. And I may remark here that he and I between us had afterwards no difficulty (what with his documents and my knowledge) in establishing the relationship beyond a doubt. “But,” I added, as we stood on the brow of the slope overlooking the old house, and saw Agatha appear round the corner and kiss her hand to us, “but she and I are the last of our race, and there is no great fortune awaiting us, that I know of. Only, Mr. Poyntz, I love her with my whole heart; if she can love me, will you trust her to me?”
“Nay, ye mustn’t ask me,” replied the ancient mariner, grasping my hand, with tears in his old blue eyes. “I doubt she loves you well, already. And so do we all, for ye’re a man, all be a quiet one. ’Twill be hard parting with her, as has been sunshine to us this many a year; but ye’ll bring her to see the old folks, as time serves; and I’m bold for to believe ye’ll be as happy as the day is long.”
It is twenty years since then, and old Jack Poyntz’s prophecy has proved true. My wife is wont to say, with a smile in her dark eyes, that our prosperity is due to the restored virtue of the pearl-shell necklace, which still rests upon her bosom. To me, however, the necklace seems but as the symbol of the true love whose radiance has blessed our lives, and brought us better luck than any witchcraft can bestow.
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