THE UNDERCLIFF

The rain and easterly wind ceased towards dawn. When morning broke a haze hung over sea and land that slowly lifted but never wholly vanished, and left the landscape bathed in the wan sunshine of November, the smile of a dying year.
Jane Marley was afoot early, and went to work immediately. She did what was necessary undirected, lighted the fire, made the kettle boil, and had cleared away the untidy remains of the past day’s occupation of the room.
When Job Rattenbury came down from his room above and found every preparation made for breakfast, then an expression of satisfaction came over his rugged face.
‘Right and fitting,’ said he. ‘For myself I do not care, but I must think of Jack. He does not like to see his dad make the fire and clean the boots. He wants to do it himself, and we have had a tussle over it. Jack is obstinate. Says Jack, “Father, I will not have it. You’re not my fag. I’ll clean my own boots or wear ’em dirty all day.” I say, “There is the difference between us. I was never brought up to be a gentleman, but it is my intent and ambition that you shall be.” And now, Jane Marley, go on as you have begun, and we shall not get across. I’m a rough customer when things go against the grain. You are not one to stand pulling your apron and asking “Please, what next?” but buckle to work at once. I want Jack to be comfortable when he comes home, and I must provide that there be none of the little awkwardnesses there have been when he refuses to let his old dad make his bed, and sew on his waistcoat buttons, and wash the dishes. Stay here you may, you and the kid, so long as you both conduct yourselves.’
But the pact was not concluded till a proviso had been added. ‘Let this be an understanding between us. You make no advances, and do not aim at becoming aught other than my[22] housekeeper. Because I let you put on her gown last night, that is no reason why I should let you step into her shoes. Keep your place, and I am satisfied. Otherwise—there is the door.’
Thus the compact was concluded.
As there was nothing that the girl could do, her mother bade her amuse herself. Winefred was therefore able to spend the beautiful day in rambles.
The river Axe sweeps to the sea through a trough that has been scooped out of the superior beds of chalk and cherty sandstone, and out to the red sands below. But the chalk stands up to right and left in noble cliffs, of which Haven Ball forms the eastern jamb, and White Cliff that to the west. From Haven Ball the coast forms one continuous white precipice to Lyme Regis, above a sea in summer of peacock blue.
But, as every tyro in geology knows, the chalk is built up over the green sand, below which are impervious beds of clay. The rain soaking down through the faults in the chalk reaches the argillaceous stratum, and, unable to descend farther, forms innumerable land springs such as come forth at the base of most chalk hills. But where the chalk cliffs rise out of the sea, the water converts the gravelly stratum into a quicksand, and that is liable to be carried into the sea, and this causes subsidences, much as would occur if you lay on a water-bed that had in it a rent out of which would rush that which swelled the mattress.
There had been no sinkages of any importance along this coast within the memory of man. Nevertheless, an observant eye would have noticed that Captain Rattenbury’s cottage stood on the undercliff, and was on a lower level than the down, but was nevertheless cut off from the sea by a sheer face of precipice. This undercliff formed an irregular terrace that overhung the sea. It was reached by an easy descent from the down above, and lay sufficiently below it to be sheltered from the north winds. His garden was consequently a warm spot even in mid-winter; whenever the sun shone, primroses starred the ground there even at the end of January, and crane’s-bill there was never out of flower. The entire undercliff, raised three hundred feet above the sea, had a ruffled and chopped surface, was broken into ridges and depressed into basins, and was densely overgrown with thorns, brambles of gigantic growth, ivy and thickets of elder. About Rattenbury’s cottage was a patch that had been cleared, which served as kitchen garden, and a good but small orchard.
1Rattenbury occupied himself that languid November day in pruning his apple-trees. The cottage was of chalk and flint cobbles, with a brick chimney, and was thatched. It leaned against a face of rock, in a manner that would have ensured damp had not that rock been chalk.
The entire undercliff, except for the clearing about the cottage, was a jungle, not to be threaded with impunity by any one wearing serge or broadcloth, for the thornbushes were armed with spines of prodigious strength, and the briars threw about their tentacles set with claws to arrest and tear the intruder. The girl wandered about, diving under the arches of the brambles, peering into the thickets of elders, everywhere disturbing countless birds.
After she had rambled to her heart’s content, she returned to the cottage, and saw the captain at his apple-trees, knife in hand.
He made a signal to her to approach.
‘Look here, maid,’ said he; ‘you can bear a letter, I suppose?’
‘Where to?’
‘To Beer.’
‘Across the water?’
‘Naturally. How else get there?’
‘I can go there, certainly. It will not occupy many hours—perhaps two.’
‘Do you know the Nutalls?—David Nutall?’
‘There are several of the name. I do not know David.’
‘His house lies near where old Starr lived. You know that.’
‘Yes—well.’
‘Then take this letter. Mind this. No going from door to door, showing the letter, and asking where lives David Nutall. The letter is to be given into no other hand, and that not outside his house.’
Rattenbury considered a while. Then he said, ‘It is a private matter, and no notice must be attracted. Get your mother’s box with papers of pins and needles, reels and tapes, and go about Beer with that, selling. And when you are at David Nutall’s, slip the letter into his hand.’
‘I will do it.’
‘And I wish you likewise to find my boy, Jack; he may be at the curate’s, he is studying there—that he may be a gentleman. But I want for a bit, tell him, to take him off from his studies—it is a tickle concern, tell him, and he is to go to David Nutall’s and take instructions from him. Only, mind you, this. Mum[24] as a mouse. My boy, if he is not at the curate’s, will be at his lodgings. No one will think anything of your carrying a message from me to Jack—if they come to know you are staying here. But, to make sure, I will give you a pair of socks I have knitted for him. Do not be a fool—mum as a mouse. I will give you a couple of pence for the ferry.’
‘Shall I go and speak to mother first?’
‘No, I will make it right with her. Go at once.’
Winefred started on her errand. She crossed the down, descended the furrow through which the track led to the landing-stage of the ferry on the Axmouth side of the estuary.
Then she called and waved her hand to attract the attention of the boatman.
Olver Dench did not hurry himself to cross and take over a single passenger, and this one whose capability of paying the toll was doubtful. He sauntered down from his cottage, looked along the road to Seaton, up towards Axmouth, saw no one, slowly launched his boat, and came over leisurely and in bad humour. He took the girl on board, but had got half across before he remarked, ‘I reckon you and your mother crept into a rabbit hole for the night.’
‘Captain Rattenbury has taken us in.’
‘Captain Job!’
Dench paused in his rowing.
‘For how long?’
‘Mother is going to be his housekeeper. We stay there altogether.’
Olver turned blood purple. He said no more, but put the girl on shore.
She stepped lustily along. She had taken her mother’s box of trifles for sale, which had been left the previous evening at a house in Seaton; she crossed the shoulder of the hill that separates the Axe Valley from the ravine of Beer, a shoulder that rises to the magnificent sea-cliff that is a prominent feature in all views of Seaton.
Then she descended the lane into Beer, a village of one street, shut in between steep hills, running down to a small rock-girt cove. It was a village of fishermen, but every fisherman was suspected of being a smuggler. Those in the place who did not get their living by the sea were quarrymen of the famous Beer stone.
In the main and only street was a house of some pretension and antiquity, that had belonged to the Starr family; hereabouts[25] Winefred began hawking her wares, and as she did so she asked the names of the inmates of the several cottages. After going into three or four and vending some of her goods, she entered that of David Nutall.
She saw there an old man, wearing a fisherman’s jersey and hat, seated by the fireside smoking, whilst a woman was ironing by the window. Two younger men lounged by the fire talking.
Winefred was roughly repulsed by the woman when she opened her box, but the old man put in a word: ‘Nay, Bessie! Buy a trifle of the maid just to encourage her.’
‘Are you David Nutall?’ asked the girl.
‘If I’m not mistaken,’ he answered.
Winefred drew the letter from her bosom, and put it into his hand.
‘What?’ he asked quickly. ‘From the cap’n?’
The young men at once brightened.
‘Yes, from the captain.’
The young men drew round the elder, their father. It was too dark at the hearth for them to read the letter, and the old man rose and went to the window. He studied the letter with knitted brows, but could not make much out of it. He called the lads to him.
‘Ah, father,’ said one, ‘I can make out what is printed, but not fist-writing.’
‘Come here,’ said David, signing to the girl with the letter. ‘Can you read what is in writing?’
‘To be sure I can.’
‘Written words, not printed?’
‘I can.’
‘Make out this, will you. We are all friends here. There—that line; I can get hold of the sense of the rest of it—or nigh, about.’
Winefred read: ‘At eleven o’clock on Thursday night, Heathfield Cross.’
‘That will do,’ said David Nutall, snatching the letter from her. ‘Tell the cap’n we shall be there. No more. We shall be there. That is the answer. Take this.’
The old man offered her two shillings.
‘No,’ said she, ‘mother never takes alms. She earns.’
‘Well, and you have earned this—as carrying a letter.’
She held back.
‘Mind, child,’ said the old man, ‘you hold your tongue about this bit of paper. A word might lose us all.’