When Olver Dench reached his cottage, that stood but little removed from the landing-stage of the ferry, on the Seaton side of the water, he was much surprised to find that his fire was made up, and that some one was seated in front of it with hands extended and knees apart warming himself at it.
He stood in his doorway and stared till his eyes were sufficiently accustomed to the light to enable him to distinguish the occupier of his room and chair.
He had not locked his door on leaving. At that period few thought of fastening their houses unless leaving them for a long time, and the ferryman’s cottage was usually free to any one to enter and wait for a passage. A neighbour undertook to attend to the ferry when Dench was away. It was not likely that any one would desire to cross after dark, but it was not impossible that one should.
The individual by the fire was a gentleman in a bottle-green coat with high collar and brass buttons. The coat was short-waisted but long-tailed. His beaver hat, curled at the sides like a leaf attacked by aphis, stood on the table, and a malacca, gold-headed cane lay there also. He wore two waistcoats of differing cut, so as to allow the lower to show. A thick neckcloth enveloped his throat, and was pinned in front.
Hearing the steps of Dench in the doorway he turned and exhibited a gold eyeglass, through which he had been studying the fire.
His lavender trousers were strapped under his boots, and were tight-fitting from the knee down. He was a man of middle age, with slight whiskers elaborately curled, and a forehead apparently high, due to the retreat of his hair. He was a good-looking man decidedly, with mild blue eyes, a well-formed nose,[39] and would have been handsome but for a weak mouth and a retreating chin.
Just before Olver entered he had been peering down the tube of a latchkey, and then blowing into it to expel such dust as might have accumulated in it from residence in his pocket. Having satisfied himself on this score he laid the key on his knee, affixed the glass in his eye, and looked into the flames. The tread of Dench made him turn.
‘Is that you, the Ferryman Dench?’ asked the gentleman. Then placing a hand on each side of the chair he turned it about, so that still sitting he might observe him who entered.
‘What! surely not Mr. Holwood!’ exclaimed the boatman. He took off his glazed hat, turned it about in his hands, and added, ‘Your servant, sir.’
Then he cautiously shut the door behind him. ‘Good Heavens, sir,’ he said in a tone agitated and full of ill-concealed alarm. ‘What ever has brought you here, sir? This is most risky.’
‘I cannot help myself. I know that it is unsafe. But I have been prodigiously uneasy, and I felt it impossible to obtain rest of mind without seeing and speaking with you. I have a few days of liberty; I have taken advantage of them. Where is she?’
‘Oh! she is right enough.’
‘But whereabouts is she?’
‘Oh! not very far off. Housekeeper to a certain person, unmarried of course.’
‘Oh! both.’
A pause—Mr. Holwood felt in his pocket for his latchkey. ‘A—clergyman, I hope?’
‘Bless your soul, a seafaring fellow, a dissolute dog, been a smuggler—mixed up in—but, ahem!—you are in the Government.’
‘No, not exactly,—in the Foreign Office. You—you don’t mean to imply——’
‘Never stir in dirty ponds or you wake bad smells. What can you expect? What is born in the bone comes out in the flesh.’
The gentleman put his latchkey back in his pocket, folded his hands between his knees, and looked down with a troubled face on the floor; his feeble underlip quivered, and his chin went back as though inclined to dive into and conceal itself in the neckcloth.
‘I am very unhappy about this. I—I feel a sort of responsibility in the matter. But, my dear Mr. Dench, what am I to do? Consider how I am placed. I am a gentleman and well connected. My people are tolerably high in life, and I have a Government situation. It may lead—there is no saying to what it may lead. It is a position that necessitates my taking a place in the fashionable world. That single indiscretion in early youth weighs like a millstone attached to my neck. I try to forget, to make light of it. I cannot. The possible consequences are ever before me, and just now anything approaching to a dénoûment would be fatal.’
‘Then why the deuce did you come here and risk all?’
‘That is just what I—I ask myself—you know how one feels on the edge of a precipice, an irresistible desire to cast one’s self down. I really could not help myself. I felt that I must come here and see and hear how matters stand, so as to take my social—my moral bearings—from circumstances. I would do what is right—strictly honourable and right—but I don’t want to hurt my prospects. One must always look to one’s prospects in the regulation of conduct,—moral conduct, you understand. A thing cannot be right which hurts one—can it?’ He put up his eyeglass. ‘I ask you as a moralist.’
4‘My dear sir,’ answered the boatman, ‘you leave all to me. I am your man, devoted body and soul. No one else knows all the ins and outs as I do. Leave me to manage for you.’
‘You have always paid her the annuity in quarterly instalments, or monthly, if preferred. I sent it you quarterly.’
‘Regular as the tides.’
‘You tell me that she has asked to have it increased. I cannot say but there may be some reason in this, nevertheless I want to be assured that there are to be no undue exactions which might become insupportable.’ He dropped his glass.
‘It shall go no further.’
‘I hope not.’ Again up went the glass, and he scrutinised the face of the ferryman. ‘But, you see, I am in her hands. She can squeeze me till all my juice runs out. If it became known that I had married her, and she were, par exemple, to arrive in town and assert her rights as my wife, what should I do? What would my people say? What would they think in the office? And especially at present when I have cause to be sanguine. My expectations are so well grounded.’
‘Expectations, Mr. Holwood?’
‘I have a rich aunt, a maiden lady, who thinks very highly of[41] me and my abilities. She is proud and pedigreeish—if I may coin the word. She would never forgive me—never—if she knew that I had united myself to an individual, however well-favoured, without ancestry—a fisherman’s daughter, and not able to read or write!’
‘Sir,’ said Dench, ‘with all due respect be it spoken, but I think you are vastly indiscreet in coming here under these circumstances. It is now eighteen or nineteen years since you have been here, and you ought to have kept away altogether.’
‘I felt—hem!—that I must be satisfied. I did not rest easy, not knowing to what extent demands might grow. I desired greatly to learn something about her, and to find out if some compromise might be effected. Is it possible to get her to leave England?’
‘No, sir. Not now that she has taken up with that smuggling Captain Rattenbury.’
‘You stick a knife into me. Has she gone utterly to the bad? I would have done anything, anything in reason for her, if she could have maintained herself in respectability. I have sent her money regularly, as an annuity, paid through you. You have paid her punctually?’
‘To the day—quarterly.’
‘It would be simply fatal were she to appear on the tapis.’
The gentleman pulled out his breastpin, and poked into the tube of the key in quest of a lodgment there, blew into it again, and replaced the pin. His long white fingers shook nervously.
‘See here, sir,’ said Dench, and drew a seat to the fireside, whereupon Mr. Holwood put one hand behind him, the other between his knees to the chair, and turned the chair and himself about, so as to face the boatman. ‘Jane don’t believe as she was properly married. Says I to her, my dear, he was under age, a mere boy.’
‘But it was not so. I was twenty-one.’
‘Well, well, sir, she supposes you were not, and that suffices. Says I to her, in the eye of the law, that did for you. It was no marriage at all. And then again, says I, where did it take place?’
‘In Rousdon Church.’
‘True you are, sir, but was not the church ruinated? The roof was off, and no service was ever said in it. She knows that, and in the eye of the law, says I, a church don’t hold good if the roof be off.’
‘It is not so.’
‘Never mind. She has been led to think so. Then, said I, that is not all, the parson had been unfrocked by the bishop. And in the eye of the law——’
‘But was he so?’
‘My dear sir, I don’t know. But she thinks it so; that is all we need concern ourselves about. You see, sir, we have her here with that blessed marriage undermined in three ways, and she is convinced it was a take-in and nothing further in the eye of the law.’
‘If it had only been as you say!’ Mr. Holwood put two hands to his chair, lifted it and himself together till he had straightened his legs, then set it down again, with himself upon it. ‘If it had been so, I should have been greatly relieved. But it was a marriage, irregular in law, yet valid——’
‘In the eye of the law,’ put in Olver.
‘Exactly so, exactly. That is my trouble. I move in such good society, and my aunt is worth from two to three thousand a year, and if she came to hear of this she would leave it all to another nephew, a cousin, a curate steeped in Methodistical notions. If he got an inkling of it—he is a very serious man, and wouldn’t dance or go to a theatre to save his soul—he’d go post haste and tell her about me, on principle of course, and spoil all my chances.’
‘Then, sir, there is nothing to be done but leave the matter wholly in my hands, as it has been heretofore.’
Mr. Holwood looked into the fire, and his chin retreated behind his stock. Presently he said dreamily, ‘I should have liked to have seen her—just once more to have seen her, you understand, without being seen.’
‘Impossible,’ said Dench, and struck the floor with his foot. ‘Sheer lunacy.’
‘But—the little girl. What is she like?’
‘Like her mother.’
‘It could not be contrived, I suppose, that I should see her?’
‘It cannot be done, sir, with safety. That girl is as keen as a razor.’
Mr. Holwood fell to further musing, his weak face assumed an expression of profound discouragement. Presently he said, rather to himself than to the ferryman, ‘Like her mother, and getting on to the same age. O my God, after all these years, to see the same face again. Has she her mother’s wonderful eyes?’
‘Just the same.’
‘Dear—dear me! and in her ways, her character——’
‘Her mother all over, headstrong.’
‘Yes, she was headstrong and passionate. She frightened me.’ He put his hand to his brow. ‘Merciful powers, one early indiscretion has been the ruin of my life, of my prospects. I have been unable to marry, and very desirable matches have presented themselves. One in particular—highly connected, a family of great influence with the Government, and with a handsome fortune. My attentions have been marked and remarked upon, they have possibly been too pointed; but nothing has come of it, because nothing can. I am obliged to hold back. I cannot contract a new alliance, lest this affair here should transpire, and if that Methodistical cousin of mine had but an inkling of a suspicion he would rout about it till he had turned everything hidden to the surface; on principle of course.—I suppose had I ventured to brave the chances and to marry again I might have incurred transportation. I am debarred happiness, preferment. I am in danger of losing my aunt’s inheritance. I am tortured by these incessant demands, and by not knowing how to impose a limit. Would you mind holding a light? I am confident there is a comfit in this key. I had some loose in my pocket, flavoured with roses, pink in colour, to keep the breath sweet.’
Olver lighted a candle, and held it whilst his visitor explored the key with his breastpin after the comfit. Then the gentleman blew into the tube again.
Dench observed him attentively as he was thus engaged, and a slight curl expressive of contempt formed on his lips.
‘No,’ said Mr. Holwood, raising himself and the chair together, ‘there is nothing in the key. It is with me also as though something—a lump, not a comfit, not at all rose-flavoured—were in me, and I cannot get it out. It was sweet, too, once. Tell me something about Jane. Has she got to look old?’
‘Well, sir, she is still a fine woman, a very fine woman. She has lived in a cottage on the cliff, but you know what our chalk cliffs are, how given to crumble. Hers was so near the edge that it was unsafe; she has been forced to leave it. I have not been there, but I believe a wall gave way.’
‘Poor Jane, poor Jane,’ said Mr. Holwood dolorously. ‘I am listening, Dench; tell me more. Has she been—on the whole—steady?—I would say—broadly speaking, respectable?’
‘Well, yes, sir, so far. She has had the girl properly educated,[44] thanks to your liberality. She has also sent her to church. Jane herself cannot read nor write. You may remember, in the register she set a cross for her mark. I can’t say I have seen her much at church myself.’
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Holwood, ‘I always go to church; but,’ he sighed, ‘the lump is still there, like the comfit in the key, and will not out.’
‘Where are you staying, sir, if I may be so bold as to ask?’
‘At the Red Lion.’
The ferryman smiled. ‘With Mrs. Warne,’ said he, ‘that is the hostess who has had some trouble with Jane.’
‘You don’t mean to hint that she—she was—hem! was in drink?’
‘I can’t say what it was. I was not there at the time, but I heard talk about it. Mrs. Warne had to threaten to send for the constable to remove her.’
Mr. Holwood sighed. ‘Bless my soul, how sad!’
‘And at Nethersole’s farm it was wusser. They had a to-do to prevent her from firing the ricks.’
‘Under the influence of—of liquor?’
‘I did not inquire. I hear she made a bobbery as well at Thomas Gasset’s. I am pretty sure, sir, that the best course for you is to leave Seaton as speedily as possible. Mrs. Warne does not know your name, I suppose?’
‘Oh, no! I have given no name.’
‘Well, sir, leave everything to me. Why should you, a gentleman, and connected with the Government, be troubled about such scurvy matters as these? I will continue to act as go-between, and Jane Marley shall never know that you have been here, and doing her the honour to inquire about her. She thinks you still abroad, Governor of—what is the place—Australia?’
‘Tierra del Fuego. To this we agreed it should be,’ said the gentleman dejectedly. Then, after a long pause, he said, ‘Does she now happen to entertain any hopes, any desires, of seeing me again? Does she ever express a wish for renewal of our old relations?’
He had his key against his tongue twisting it about.
Verily the only thing about the man that was braced and taut was his lavender trousers, strained by the straps under his soles.
‘Mr. Holwood, sir,’ said Dench, ‘no; frankly, no. Not a wish, not a thought but to fasten her nails in your face, and tear your bottle-green coat off your back, as a wild cat might do. She loves you no more, she just about hates you with all her[45] flambustical temper. Certainly she don’t want to see you again, least of all since she’s took up with this Captain Rattenbury.’
Mr. Holwood winced. He wiped his lips with a silk kerchief and then his tall brow.
‘If she were to see you, sir, it would be just like the sons of Sceva the Jew, as we read of in Scripture, and the possessed of the devil.’
‘Merciful Heavens! Such an incident! if it should get into the papers! If that curate cousin of mine were to hear the faintest whisper of it his ears would go up like windsails.’
‘Then, sir, go back to the Red Lion, and at daybreak take the coach to Axminster, and thence to town. Leave me to manage matters, prudently, secretly, economically, And trust to no one else.’