A COMMON CHORD

Almost before she had recovered her senses, Winefred found herself in a cottage, warm, where a good fire burnt, throwing out waves of yellow light as well as grateful heat, and she was being undressed by her mother and put to bed. She was stupefied, exhausted by her struggle for life.
The thoughts in her head were as straws, leaves, feathers in a swirl of water. She knew not whether what she experienced was a phase of dream or a piece of reality. But when food was forced upon her, and a mug of hot elderberry wine put to her lips, she drew a long breath, rubbed her eyes that were brimming with tears, rain, and sweat, looked about her and asked, ‘Mother, where am I?’
‘With me,’ answered Jane Marley.
‘Where are we both?’
‘Captain Job Rattenbury has taken us in,’ said the woman. ‘Enough for you to know at present. Go to sleep and dream away the past.’
‘O mother, did you really intend to throw me over the cliff?’
‘Winefred, I would have cast myself over with you in my arms. But that is gonebyes. Forget and sleep.’
But none can undergo great excitement of brain, tension of nerve, pass through peril of life, and sleep sweetly after it. The brain continues to start, the nerve to quiver, the horror to come back, perhaps in receding waves, yet with imperceptible decline of force. If the girl fell into a doze it was to again spring up and cry out, under the supposition that she was falling, or to battle with hands and feet, as though wrestling once more to preserve life.
The room in which she had been put to bed was on the ground floor. There was a doorway from it communicating with the front kitchen.
[15]
After one of these recurring spasms of fear, rousing her to full wakefulness, at the girl’s desire, Mrs. Marley left the door partly open between the apartments, so that the firelight might play in at the opening and flicker about the room, and she could hear the murmur of the voices of the speakers, and occasionally catch sight of them as they moved about.
But Winefred was too weary to listen to what they said, and she gradually slipped off into slumber again, once more to rouse with a start, but less terrifying than before, and then again to glide into unconsciousness.
Meanwhile her mother was in the adjoining chamber, and was conversing with the man who was the rescuer of herself and of her child.
This man was broad-shouldered, strongly built, with thick, tangled grey hair.
He wore, what at the time was unusual, a dense bush of the same grizzled hair covering the lower portion of his face. He had bright, keen eyes under penthouse brows, and a bold, beak-like nose. About his throat was bound a scarlet kerchief. He wore a blue shirt under an unbuttoned, long-flapped, white waistcoat with sleeves. His coat he had laid aside.
The room, as already intimated, constituted at once kitchen and parlour, such as in Yorkshire is termed the ‘ha’aze,’ but for which elsewhere a designation is wanting. In it the meals were cooked and also eaten, but the preparations previous to cooking, and the washing-up of the dirty plates after, were carried on in the back premises.
Against the wall, in a recess by the fireside, was an ancient press, quaintly carved, of oak, with brass scutcheons and hinges, but, as though the latter were not deemed of sufficient strength, additional hinges in iron had been added.
On the mantelshelf were skillet, candlesticks, snuffer-tray, a copper mortar, all polished and reflecting the dancing light of the fire. Also a black case that contained gunpowder, there kept to ensure its being dry. Above hung great holster pistols, a pair of cutlasses, and a long Spanish gun.
Suspended against the wall was a framed piece of needlework, representing a cutter in full rig, the wind bellying her white sails, and the sea through which she passed of indigo blue, of uniform colour and hue. Underneath, in rude characters, also formed by the needle, was ‘The Paycock in Her Pride,’ and, indeed, in one corner, in the heavens, was a representation of the Bird of Juno, displayed, as the heralds would describe it,[16] that is to say, with tail spread. The whole, though rudely, was effectively executed. There were sundry curiosities distributed about the room—bits of coral, large shells, turning their pink insides towards the fire, a stuffed and mangy eagle, and, under glass, sea-horses and flying-fish. The man, whose name was Job Rattenbury, belonged to a notorious family, and was himself somewhat noted in the neighbourhood. He had been, like his father, so it was reported, a mighty smuggler in his youth; he had, however, been impressed and taken into the navy, but had left it, disappeared for some years, and when he came again into the neighbourhood, it was to the cottage he now occupied, which he bought; he had then married and settled into a life on land. His wife died, and he was left a widower with one son, Jack; but he lived mostly by himself, and took care to have the lad properly educated. The lad was now lodging at Beer, and was studying with the curate. Captain Rattenbury, as he was called, kept no servant. He cleaned his own house, so that it was beautifully neat and sweet, he cooked his own victuals, knitted and darned his own stockings. He was indeed deft with his fingers and a needle, as ‘The Paycock in Her Pride’ testified.
Though living in solitude and quiet, yet Rattenbury was an object of mistrust to the Preventive men, who had a station near by. Much was whispered and fabled, but little authentic known relative to his life and pursuits. It was suspected that he acted as a channel of communication between those who imported contraband goods, and those publicans, farmers and gentlemen, over a considerable area of Dorset and Devon, who desired to purchase wines and spirits without paying to the revenue the dues exacted.
But nothing positive was known on this head.
‘I’ll tell you what, Jane,’ said Rattenbury, ‘you have put the maid dry and warm betwixt the blankets, but you are wringing wet yourself and your teeth chattering. Strip off your bedraggled clothes yourself. Don’t you suppose that I have no female tackle here. My missus has been dead these sixteen years, but I have not had an auction over her clothing; don’t you suppose that. I’ll just light the candle and unlock the press, and you shall have a change.’
He took a key from his pocket and opened the wardrobe. He had kindled a tallow candle at the logs that burned on the hearth, and he held this at the open door.
Mrs. Marley saw an assemblage of garments suspended within, none belonging to a man, and of all sorts and materials.
3‘Will you have a stuff or a silken gown?’ he asked, and looked at her. He fumbled dubiously among the garments.
‘But see—suit yourself—there be of all kinds there. They belonged to my wife. She is gone aloft where they dress in gossamer and swansdown. I keep these for Jack’s wife, when he is pleased to marry. But the moth plays the deuce with them. Go either where the maiden sleeps or under the stair, where is a berth. Pass me out your streaming rags, and I’ll hang them up to dry. By the Lord, you will be crippled with rheumatics if you do not shift at once. There is your child crying out again! I’ll take my fiddle. Give a look in on her, and put on dry things. I’ll play her a tune.’
‘That will rouse her.’
‘No, it will soothe her. I’ll give her no hornpipes, but something soft and slumbrous.’
Then he began to hum, ‘Once I loved a maiden fair.’ He stood in the midst of the floor, balancing his arms, and dancing his hands to the rhythm of the air.
‘That will send her to the Land of Dreams. I would play a lullaby, but I know none.’
Thereupon he went to a nail to which was suspended a green baize bag, and from the bag he drew a violin. He seated himself at the fire and began to play:
‘Once I loved a maiden fair,
But she did deceive me;
She with Venus might compare,
If you will believe me.
She was young,
And among
All the maids the sweetest,
Now I say,
Ah! welladay,
Brightest hopes are fleetest!
As he played the air he hummed the words.
For one so rough, so big, so burly, the execution was marvellously tender and graceful.
He was right. With such a hand on the bow, such melody as this, the trouble of the girl’s mind was allayed, as when oil is poured over chafed water. He continued playing, always softly, dreaming himself over this exquisite musical theme, wandering away into changes, as his mind reverted to the one soft and sweet episode of his rude career—the courtship of the woman who had become his wife. And as he played the May[18] sun came out, and the oak was bursting; he saw meadows in which the purple orchis grew and the delicate ‘milk maids’ fluttered, watercourses over which the marsh-marigolds hung their golden chalices, heard the doves coo and the cuckoo call, and looked into the blue heavens of his Mary’s eyes—and the man’s face changed, and his eyes filled—’Now I say—Ah! welladay, Brightest hopes are fleetest!’
Mrs. Marley came out of the inner chamber.
She was vastly changed in appearance. She had washed her face and smoothed her hair, and in a good stuff gown wore a stately appearance. She was certainly a handsome woman still, though tanned by exposure and lined by care. Job winced when he saw a stranger in a dress that had once been worn by his wife, the thought of whom was still playing over him like a breath of violets.
He laid aside his violin.
‘That has not kept the girl awake, I warrant.’
‘No, she has fallen asleep, and there is a smile on her lips.’
‘I thought so. Sit down, Jane. I will have my pipe and grog, and you shall sip the latter if I cannot win you to have a pull at the first. It will be the most sovereign medicine after the chill. Sit down and tell me all.’
‘There is nothing to tell.’
‘There is everything to tell. If I had not chanced to arrive at the right moment, you would have thrown your child into the sea.’
‘I would have cast myself over the cliffs with her in my arms.’
‘Why so?’
‘Because no one would take us in. I knocked at every door, I told my case in every ear, I appealed to every heart. It was all of no avail; so I knew there was no place for us in the world. We were to be squeezed out of it. Look outside your door and see. Listen to the wind and rain against your window. What sort of a night is this? Not fit for a dog to be out in—yet into it homeless and hungry the widow and the fatherless are thrust. Answer me, which were best? To end our miseries with one gasp, or to lie in the wet and whistle of the wind, shiver and die of a November night behind some dripping hedge in a ditch half full of water? There was but a choice of deaths. It was not a picking between life and death. Which would be worst—the short pang or the prolonged wretchedness? Which would you choose if it were to be your lot—the lot of you and Jack?’
[19]
‘Jack and I are men. Men do not lie down in ditches to die, or chuck themselves over cliffs. If what they desire and need be not given them they take it by main force.’
He poured himself out a stiff glass of grog, then recollecting the woman, gave her some, much diluted, sufficient to drive out the cold and induce sleep.
‘Why did you not go to Mrs. Jose at Bindon? Everybody who is in distress seeks her.’
‘Mrs. Jose is away at Honiton with her sister nursing her. She is sick.’
‘Whither do you propose to go to-morrow?’
‘I have nowhere before me.’
‘You do not belong to this parish?’
‘No, I was not born here. I have not lived here long enough. But, captain, do not misunderstand me. I ask alms of none; all I require is work to be given me so that I may earn my livelihood, and I will not be separated from my child. See you,’ her voice softened, and the lines in her face relaxed, as her eyes melted and her lips quivered, ‘I am a lonely woman. I have neither father nor mother nor sister nor kin. No, nor husband neither. He whom I had has abandoned me; maybe, by this time, has taken up with another woman, and dresses and feeds and comforts her.’ Again her voice and features became hard. She looked before her into the fire. But then again a wave of softer feeling swept over her.
‘For eighteen years,’ she said, with her eyes on the fire, and speaking rather to herself than to the man, ‘for eighteen years Winefred has lain at my heart. I fed her from my bosom. When she cried, all the fibres of my being trembled. From me she has the very blood that flows in her veins, and her soul is a part of mine, and her first breath she drew out of my lungs. I have done everything for her. I love nothing, care for nothing, hope for nothing apart from her. I have nothing but my child—no, not a clot of earth, not a brick out of a wall, not a guinea of gold; I have nothing my own but her.’
She began to cry, not noisily, but with great tears stealing down her cheeks. Then she was silent.
All at once she burst forth, ‘O God in heaven, Who has put such love into a mother’s heart, Thou alone canst understand me. What if aught should befall me, and she were left alone? She is a handsome girl. I was handsome once, and having no father, no mother to care for me, I came into such sorrow as never was. I cannot endure to think that she—my[20] Winefred, my all—should be kicked about from place to place, friendless, or taken up by such as would only blight her whole life. I had rather that she died.’ She sprang up and her eye flashed. ‘Rather than this I would do it again. I will do it again, and not let the evil soil and rot my pretty flower.’
‘Be still, good woman,’ said Job, and he spoke with a gulp in his throat. He took up his violin, and played the same air as before.
Presently he laid the instrument on his knees.
‘I understand you. You speak as I feel about my Jack. I am a rough old sea-dog, and I have been—I won’t say what. But all I have saved is for my Jack. I shall make a gentleman of him. All my thoughts are on my Jack.’ He touched his breast with the end of his bow. ‘When you talk like that, Jane, you touch a chord here as begins to chime. You and your kid shall remain here. I am getting old, and require a woman to mind the house. As to the pay—we will talk of that to-morrow.’
She caught his hand and kissed it.
‘Nay,’ said he, ‘don’t thank me. It is the fellow-feeling as does it. I am a father with one child, and you a mother also with one—that is it, woman, that is it.’