ON THE VERGE

Jane Marley wrapped her shawl about her; her head was bowed, her lips set, her grip on her daughter unrelaxed.
She turned from the village, and walked along the shingly way to the water’s edge. The Axe flows into the sea through a trough washed out of the blood-red sandstone that comes to the surface between the hills of chalk; but the fresh water does not mingle with the brine unopposed. A pebble ridge has been thrown up by the sea at the mouth, that the waves labour incessantly to complete, so as to debar the Axe from discharging its waters into it. Sometimes high tide and storm combine to all but accomplish the task, and the river is strangled within a narrow throat; but this is for a time only. Once more the effluent tide assists the river to force an opening which the inflowing tide had threatened to seal.
One of the consequences of this struggle ever renewed is that the mouth has shifted. At one time the red Axe discharged to the west, but when a storm blocked that opening it turned and emptied itself to the east.
On the farther side, that to the rising sun, the chalk with dusky sandstone underneath rears itself into a bold headland, Haven Ball, that stands precipitously against the sea, as a white, cold shoulder exposed to it. Up a hollow of this hill, a combe as it is called, a mean track ascends to the downs which overhang the sea, and extend, partly in open tracts, in part enclosed, as far as Lyme Regis.
There is no highway. The old Roman coast-road lies farther to the north, but there is a track, now open, now between blasted hedges, always bad, and exposed to the gale from the sea and the drift of the rain.
But to reach this, the Axe estuary must be crossed. This is nowadays a matter of one penny, as there is a toll-bridge thrown[9] from one bank to the other. But at the time of my story transit was by a ferry-boat, and the boat could ply only when there was a sufficiency of water.
Jane Marley seated herself on a bench by the landing-stage, and drew her daughter down beside her.
The wind was from the south-east, and spat cold rain in their faces. She passed her shawl round Winefred, regardless of herself.
Presently up came the ferryman.
‘Good e’en, Mistress Marley. Do you want to cross again?’
‘Yes—when possible.’
‘In ten minutes. Will you come under shelter into my cabin?’
The woman shook her head impatiently.
‘You will get wet.’
‘I am wet already.’
‘And cold.’
‘We shall be colder presently.’
‘Poor comfort I call that,’ said the boatman. ‘But you was always a headstrong, difficult woman, hard to please. Where be you going to, now?’
‘Where I shall be better off than I am here.’
Presently Jane raised her face, streaming with rain, and said, ‘There are springs hereabouts that turn the moss into stone, and the blades of grass are hardened to needles. I reckon that the spray of these springs has watered the hearts of the people; they are all stone, and the stone is flint. I shall go elsewhere.’
‘It is a long way to Lyme—if you be bound thither. And over the cliffs it is exposed as well, and not safe with the falling darkness. I do not say this on your account. You, Jane, are not one who cares for length of way and badness of weather. But I speak for pretty Winefred’s sake.’
‘I am her mother, and I am the person to consider her, not you, Olver Dench.’
‘No offence meant. But my cat had kittens, and when all were drowned but one, she carried that remaining one about in her mouth everywhere, and never let it go till she had nipped the life out of the kitten; and, I swear, you remind me of that cat.’
Then ensued a silence that lasted for some minutes. The ferryman reopened the conversation.
‘I suppose you knew it was coming.’
‘Knew what?’ asked she.
tumblr_ogr4cjguzt1ri4e1vo1_1280‘That the cottage would go to pieces.’
‘Yes. I got it cheap because of the risk.’
‘And now, I make bold to ask, what have you done with your furniture?’
‘There is not much. What I have is there. I have no house into which to move it. In the parish I am refused—in Seaton they cast me back on the parish, and the parish casts me off altogether.’
‘You do not belong to it by birth.’
‘No. I belong nowhere. I have no home.’
‘But are you not afraid your bits of furniture will be stolen?’
‘What if they be? If there be no shelter for Winefred and me, what care I for housing a poor bedstead and a rotten chair? The great grey sea has torn away the rock on which I stood. The wall has fallen, and my house is thrown open to all. Whither shall I go? Where shall I shelter my child? We have no place.’
The man shrugged his shoulders. He was a red-faced man with white hair; in the failing light of winter the red looked dull purple and the white a soiled grey.
‘Come now!’ said the woman, starting up, ‘my affairs are none of yours. They touch you in no way. The tide flows.’
She did not notice a peculiar expression that came up into his face and creamed it as she said the words, but Winefred, who was looking wistfully at him, was struck by it.
Without another word, he went to the ferryboat, unfastened the chain, and held out his hand to assist Jane in.
She thrust his hand aside with a gesture of impatience, and stepped in with firm foot, then turned and helped her daughter.
Nothing was said as the man rowed across. The woman was immersed in thought of the most gloomy complexion; the daughter was too wretched to speak. The tears that flowed from her eyes were mingled with the rain that beat on her face.
The rower looked from one to the other with a sinister expression.
After the boat had grounded, when Mrs. Marley left it, he said, ‘You’ll not go away—right away, I mean—without letting me know where you may be; because it might chance—there’s no telling—there is hope yet.’
He did not complete his sentence.
‘There is no hope,’ said the woman coldly, ‘no more than there is sun above these clouds and this dribbling rain. The sun has gone down. After nineteen years hope dies.’
[11]
Then she left him, and extending her arm, again grasped the wrist of her daughter.
‘Mother,’ said Winefred, ‘Mr. Dench hates us.’
‘It matters nothing to us whether he hate or love. Why should he hate us?’
‘That I cannot say, but hate us he does.’
‘All the world hates us, for all the world has money, comforts, shelter, and,’ she muttered in her bosom, ‘there are some who have a husband to care for them, and a father to watch over them. We have neither, and the sight of us, as we are, in our need, our nakedness, our desolation, is an offence, like garbage, to be swept aside and cast on the dunghill. Seaton says, Away, across the water! you do not belong to us. And Axmouth says, Away! you were not born here, and we are not responsible for you. Let us warm our feet at a sea-coal fire, and drink mulled ale, and turn into our downy beds—go you wanderers in night and cold and wet—die, but do not trouble us.’
Up the steep path that led through the crease in the hillside pushed the weary mother, drawing along her yet more weary child. Yet in the passion of her heart at the contrast her imagination drew she pressed forward fast till arrested by shortness of breath.
Thus in silence they continued to mount. It was a climb of four hundred feet. The woman looked neither to right nor to left. Wet, trailing brambles caught at her garments with their claws. As she passed under a stunted thorn it shuddered and sent down a shower. The flints in the way lay in beds of water; the grass was slippery with rain. Dank and rotting sting-nettles, oozy, but poisonous in their decay, struck at their knees as they mounted.
‘O mother,’ sobbed the girl, when the summit was attained, and the cruel east wind slashed in their faces, splashing them with ice-cold rain, ‘O mother, I can go no farther.’
‘How—where can we stay? Answer me that.’
‘Why should we go on if we go nowheres?’
‘No—we go nowhere, for we have nowhere to go to for shelter and food.’
‘Let us go home.’
‘The sea has taken it from us.’
‘Let us shelter somewhere.’
‘We must find first some one who will take us in.’
‘There is the Poor House.’
‘Not for us—we do not belong to the place. And, further, it is full.’
‘Let us creep into some hay-loft.’
‘They will turn us out.’
‘Into the church.’
‘That at Axmouth is locked; that at Rousdon the roof has fallen in.’
‘Mother, we must go somewhere.’
‘So we shall—to the only shelter open.’
‘Is it far?’
‘No.’
She still hurried the girl along, now at a faster pace, for they walked on fairly level down.
The day had completely closed in; all, however, was not inky darkness. On looking behind, seen through a blur of mist, could be caught some glimmer of lights from Seaton. There was, perhaps, a moon above the clouds, but the light sufficed only to show that there was not absolute obscurity above.
It was to Winefred as though life was being left behind, and they were plunging into boundless and black despair.
A wheeling gull screamed in her ear.
Suddenly the mother halted.
The wind lashed her hair, and flapped her sodden gown. She gripped Winefred now with both hands, and turning her back to the blast and splashing rain, said, ‘Child! you shall know all now, now that there is no place whatever left for us. Your father has deserted you, he has abandoned me. He did this nineteen years ago. Not a word, not a shilling has he sent me. I know neither where he is, nor what he has been doing. He may be rich, he may be poor. He may be in blustering health, he may be sick or dead. Neither by letter nor by messenger have I been told—and I care not. I love him no more. I hate the man who has suffered us to come to this. Child, if a father can be stone to his own child, if a hus——if a man who has loved a woman can forget her who loved him with her whole young fresh heart—then is it a marvel that other men on whom we have no claim, to whom bound by no ties, are stone also? Child—you and I are alone. We are everything to each other. I have none but you; you have none but me. If I go, you are lost. If you go—I am no more. We are tied up in one another, to live and die together. Come on.’
Again she turned and faced the tearing, rain-laden wind.
‘Mother, I cannot take another step,’ sobbed the girl.
‘We have not far to go.’
‘Mother, I hear the sea; you have lost the way.’
[13]
‘I know my course.’
‘There is no path here.’
‘I know it; paths lead to men and their homes—to firesides and warm beds.’
‘We are on the cliff.’
‘I came to the cliff.’
‘We are drawing to the edge!’
‘I know it: we are at the very brow.’
‘But what if we fall over?’
Then with a hoarse voice Jane Marley said, as she held her child with a firmer grasp, ‘Why, then, we shall not feel the wind and the cold and the rain and our weariness, we shall say good-bye to a stony world. There is no other refuge for us outcasts. Locked in each other’s arms, mother and child must die.’
For a moment Winefred was petrified with horror. For a moment she was unresisting as the powerful woman gathered her up and strode with her to the verge, the water oozing about her from the soaked garments under the pressure.
But it was for a moment only. In that moment it was to Winefred as though she heard the sea in louder tone, multiplied five-fold, laugh and smack its lips, conscious that living beings with human souls were to be given to it to tumble and mumble, to pound on the pebbles and hack on the reefs. It was as though she saw through the darkness the cruel ocean throw up spray-draped arms to catch and clutch her as she fell.
But the moment of pause and paralysis was over. With a shriek and a knotting together of all her powers, and a concentration of all her faculties, she writhed in her mother’s arms and fought her. She smote in her face, she tore at her hair, she turned and curled, and gathered herself into one muscular ball, she straightened herself, and threw herself backward in hopes of over-balancing her mother. ‘I will not!’ she shrieked. ‘Let go! I will not.’ Instead of freezing rain trickling down her brow, the sweat broke out in scalding drops. Her blood surged and roared in her veins and hammered in her ears. Fire danced before her eyes—then there came a falling. O God!—a falling——
And then a stillness.
‘What is this?’
And a light smote into her face.