Mr. Holwood was unable to sleep that night. Before leaving the ferryman’s house he had resolved to depart for town by the coach on the morrow, and he had given orders to be called early, and to have some breakfast got ready for him.
But as he tossed in bed the past rose up before him in vivid colours, bringing with it wafts of old sentiment and tremors of old emotions. Scenes of happiness and of error revealed themselves to him bathed in light. Faces rose out of the past and looked at him reproachfully. Perhaps an old fibre in his heart that had once quivered with love was again in vibration.
‘Poor Jane,’ he said, and turned in his four-post bed. ‘Poor Jane, would that I could but see her, myself unseen, once again.’
Then he racked his brain devising impossible schemes for catching a glimpse of her without allowing himself to be recognised. Next he fell to wondering what his child was like, a child he had never seen, never held in his arms, never kissed, and, in a manner strange to him, he was aware of a void within. He became conscious, as he never had been before, of responsibility, of the terrible truth that not only had he marred his own happiness, but that he had brought about the ruin of another, an innocent victim; and in addition that he would have his child’s soul to answer for.
He turned again in bed. A fire burned in the grate. It made strange figures on the wall. Reflections as eyes winked at him, a shadow like an arm seemed to be warning or reproaching him with extended finger.
He raised himself in bed to draw the curtains to exclude this shadow, but they would not meet, and still between them he could see the hand stretched forth signing to him. Unable to account for it, he left his bed, went to the hearth, and found that the shadow was caused by the handle of a saucepan left on[47] the hob at his desire to furnish him with warm water in the morning.
Having arranged the pan that its shadow should no longer offend him, he returned between the sheets, fell into an aimless, unhappy tangle of hopes and fears, lapsed into sleep, and if, before dawn, he heard the knocking of the maid at the door, took it as a portion of his troubled dream, was not roused, and slept on, not to awake till full two hours after the coach had gone.
There was now no help for it. He must spend another day at Seaton. If he posted to Axmouth, it would not avail him, he would be too late on reaching that place to catch the London mail-coach.
He dressed leisurely, resigned to the situation, and as usual was careful and painstaking about his clothing. He sent for the village barber to shave his lip and chin, to curl his whiskers, and adjust his hair so as to disguise incipient baldness.
Then he descended, very spick-and-span, dangling his gold-rimmed glass on his finger, to the coffee-room, and rang for breakfast.
In the same leisurely fashion he proceeded to eat his egg and chop, and to dip his toast. Occasionally he set his glass to his eye, and raked the walls, to take cognisance of the hunting pictures that decorated them. Having finished his meal, he straightened his back, shook his legs, contemplated himself, and above all the roll of his whiskers, in the mirror; took out a note-book, twisted forward the lead in his gold pencil-case, applied it to his tongue, opened his notes, recollected that he had as yet no account to enter, no remark to jot down, and returned the book to his pocket, and drew back the lead of the pencil.
Then he rang for his beaver and overcoat, was fitted into the latter, ordered lunch, was handed his umbrella, and sallied forth.
He was shy of going to the ferry, and letting Dench see that he had failed to catch the coach, so he engaged a boatman to row him to Lyme Regis.
‘I will walk back along the shore,’ said he.
‘You will find it unpleasant walking, sir,’ said the boatman; ‘there are no sands, nothing but shingle.’
‘Ah, well! Not so far as Lyme. You may set me down short of it. I will walk thence. I rather like shingles. Indeed, I prefer them.’
After he had been on the water for a while, Mr. Holwood said, ‘Put me down at the dip of the cliffs by Rousdon.’
‘You know the coast, sir?’
‘Ah!—hem!—Yes, I have studied a map. When you have set me on shore, row back and await me at the mouth of the Axe opposite the Chesil Ridge. Then carry me across. I do not choose to make use of the ferry.’
‘Very well, sir.’
The row was comparatively short, and Mr. Holwood stepped ashore at a pretty piece of wooded undercliff, where it dipped and allowed a path to descend to the beach.
‘I will pay you on the Chesil Bank, at my return,’ said Mr. Holwood, and the boatman touched his cap and turned.
When the man was at a distance, Mr. Holwood, who had watched his departure, looked around him, and took a few steps along the strand.
6All was much as it had been years agone, save that then the shrubs, the trees, the herbage had been thrilling with life, and now life had ebbed away, leaves were fallen and strewed the ground, and the grass was grey and sapless.
The sky was not so blue, nor the sea so alive with twinkles, nor the gulls so full of jocund play now as then. But the outlines of the cliffs, the features of the shore, were the same; reef and rubble, the line of torn seaweed and pounded shells still marking the receding tide, the savour of the sea, the murmur of the waves, these were the same.
There lay a mass of fallen rock a little way off—chalk with some flints in it, and behind that there was wont of old to be a pool left by the retreating tide, in which delicate pink and green weed-lace floated, and where a few left crabs ran along the bottom.
He looked at it with a swelling heart.
He remembered that rock. A portion of it, facing the sea, was low and level, and formed a seat. On that he had sat many years ago, looking seaward, and then—not alone.
He removed his beaver. There was a holiness in the spot, sanctified by sweet, loving, pure remembrances, when life was an open door, and pulses beat with hope, and the sun was over all.
Mr. Holwood wiped his brow, and let himself down on the stone.
‘Merciful Olympian powers,’ said he in a low tone to himself. ‘It was here—here it all began.’
He set his hat with curved brim on the pebbles at his feet. He looked for the little pool—but it was gone, filled with[49] rounded stones. He rested his head between his palms, and his long white fingers played a tattoo on his temples.
At that moment the past was intensely vivid.
A barbed past can never be cut out of the memory; it leaves behind its fangs, its canker. It may be covered over, and forgotten, but it reasserts itself inevitably, excruciatingly, and the fester begins to ooze forth and the wound to gape.
It was so now. On this piece of chalk he had put his arm round Jane’s waist and spoken his love into her ear. There where now lay pebbles and a ribbon of torn weed, there in a crystal pool he had seen her frightened face reflected—and into it her tears had fallen.
In all this there was naught to sting and stab. But he recalled something further.
It was here, on this same shelf of chalk, that he had sworn—when she confided to him that she would be a mother—that he would stand by herself and her child through life, and he had taken the oath with the deliberate intent of breaking it.
This was the story.
When Joseph Holwood had passed his final examination at Oxford, he had come to Lyme Regis for a change of scene and air. His family possessed some influence, and it was an assured thing that he should have a situation in one of the Government offices. He enjoyed a small income of his own, not sufficient to maintain him in luxury, but this, added to a salary derived from his appointment, would make his position easy.
Till he received his nomination—he was promised one in the Foreign Office—he resolved to recruit after his studies, amuse himself at Lyme, boat, fish, bathe, and think of nothing.
So he went there, and spent some summer months in idleness, and in that summer weather and relaxation from all care met Jane Marley, a beautiful girl with large rich brown eyes, a ripe complexion, glorious dark hair, and a regal carriage. An atmosphere of romance surrounded her. Her father, who was dead, had been a smuggler. Her brother had been quite recently shot in an encounter with a preventive officer, and she had been left alone, without a known relative in the town of Lyme. There were an independence and an intensity of character in Jane that imposed on the young man. She was a girl not to be trifled with, but one to impose respect. Joseph Holwood fell madly in love with this magnificent girl, and on this very stone he now occupied had declared to her his passion, its honourable nature, and had wrung from her consent.
Above, on the heights, was a parish church, St. Pancras, Rousdon, a sinecure, as there was no population within the parish bounds, and the church had been suffered to fall into decay, and nothing remained of it but crumbling walls and unglazed windows.
In this ruined building a disreputable incumbent of the living, who resided in Lyme, and picked up stray guineas for odd duties elsewhere, was induced to marry the couple for a bank note of five guineas, without licence and without banns.
Holwood had enjoined the strictest secrecy on Jane; he had assured her that his relatives would throw him over, do nothing for him to obtain a situation under Government should they get wind of his marriage. Later on he assured her that so soon as he had his foot on the ladder and was independent of his family he would acknowledge his marriage.
The only man in the secret had been Olver Dench, a comrade of Jane’s father.
For a while Holwood had been intoxicated by his happiness, but reflection returned with sobering effect.
He received a summons to return to town. His appointment had been gazetted. He left Lyme with many assurances to Jane that he would shortly be back.
Not till he reached London, and was among his friends and kinsfolk, did he realise how grave had been the step he had taken. He had left Lyme full of generous resolution that became limp directly he arrived in town. Surrounded by old associations, in the cultured drawing-rooms of the capital, he felt the incongruity of his marriage. He dared not bring Jane to London. To do so would be to affront his kindred, to exclude himself from society, and to bar his prospects of advancement.
He could not pluck up courage to acknowledge what he had done; he postponed doing so till more convenient. The cowardice which interfered with his doing what was right induced boldness in doing that which was wrong. He returned to Lyme more than once, but was no longer happy with his wife, and under the plea that his duties recalled him, made but short stays with her. He dared not even hint his unwillingness to acknowledge her. His restless manner, his decay of cheerfulness, filled her with apprehension.
One day, on this very stone, she had told him of her expectations, thinking thereby to give him pleasure, and to bring from his heart a new wave of tenderness. Then he had sworn to her[51] to stand by her and her child, and he had taken this oath after having already arranged with Dench to forsake her. He had talked over his embarrassment with Olver, and had settled with him to be his paymaster, and give quarterly to Jane such sums as would be forwarded to him.
Jane had sufficient sense to recognise that the social conditions of herself and her husband were very different, and she had plucked up sufficient courage to speak to him about it.
‘Joseph,’ she said, ‘I understand that you are a gentleman and a scholar, and have grand relations. I should be miserable among them. They would laugh at me and my country ways. That would make you angry, and in defending me you would get across with them. Joseph,’ she continued, and laid her hand on his arm, and looked into his face with tear-brimming eyes, ‘Joseph, let it be thought that I am not your wife, only come often to me; come to me and to your child. I do not ask for more. I know that I am an honest woman: but it is no odds to me if my good name suffer rather than that you should be put into difficulties. I can bear that, but I cannot bear to lose you.’
It was on her saying this that he had protested fidelity whilst falsehood was in his heart, and from that hour he had not set eyes on her.
Olver Dench acted throughout as intermediary. In the first place, he induced Jane to remove from Lyme Regis, and out of Dorsetshire into the adjoining county, and to settle in a cottage on the cliff above the sea. That was one thing gained.
Then he told her, what was false, that the marriage was invalid, as Joseph Holwood was under age, as the parson was under suspension, and as the church was no longer employed for divine service.
She had believed him, and had submitted, but she was restive and incredulous at the suggestion that she was abandoned.
Olver Dench brought her money when the first payment arrived, and she had taken it without scruple, as she clung to the belief that Joseph was detained by his official duties, and that his absence was not premeditated.
But when, slowly yet surely, the conviction was formed in her that he had deserted her and would never return, never acknowledge her or his child, then she refused to receive any more money sent from him. No—if Joseph Holwood repudiated her, in her wrath, her resentment, she declared she would accept thenceforth nothing from him.
When the next quarterly payment arrived, Dench brought the money to her; it was rejected with scorn by the proud and suffering woman. Then the temptation to appropriate it to himself had been too strong for the boatman to resist, and thenceforth, as it arrived, he had retained it for his own use.
Once, some years later, a qualm of conscience had come over Olver, and he had sought Jane Marley, with a proposal to supply her with money for her child from Mr. Holwood. He, so he said, was settled far from England as Deputy-Governor in Tierra del Fuego. But again, and finally, she had refused. Thenceforth he had felt no further scruples.
Joseph Holwood was unaware, as he sat brooding on the chalk shelf, that his conduct towards Jane had done him more serious mischief than if he had acknowledged his union. This might have damaged his prospects, but that had blighted his character.
As a young man he had exhibited some talent and a certain amount of energy. He had taken a good place in the schools. His conduct at the University had been irreproachable. He had right inclinations, an amiable disposition, and no vicious propensities. Under favourable circumstances he would have become a useful public servant. But his treatment of a confiding and innocent woman, his broken promises, had permanently lamed his character. He had lost clearness of moral perception, and his resolution was radically enfeebled. Thenceforth infirmity of purpose had become a feature in his character. He had not been pushed on in his department, because he had proved himself to be capable only as a hack.
He had never married, to the surprise of his friends, but had stumbled into not a few sentimentalities with ladies, had tottered almost to the point of proposing, and then had, abruptly and inexplicably, retreated without committing himself.
He was sensible of the insecureness of his position, and indulged in a sneaking regret that his relation to Jane had been no other than a passing intrigue.
As he thus mused and was unhappy, maundering over the past, he observed a girl engaged on the shore picking up and examining pebbles. She kept close to the line of the retreating tide, so as to be able to select amongst the stones whilst they were wet. Some of these she cast aside after a cursory glance; over others she hesitated, holding them to the sun, and then dipping them again in a hissing wavelet that swept to her feet. A few she retained and deposited in a pouch slung at her waist. As she[53] drew nearer, something in her appearance, something in her manner, something in her gesture arrested, then riveted the attention of Mr. Holwood, and starting up and advancing towards her he gasped:
‘Gods of Olympus! Oh! if it should be her child and mine!’