The girl was Winefred.
Engaged in the selection of pebbles, she did not observe the approach of Mr. Holwood; and the rush of the inflowing wave, and the under rattle of the retreat, as the water drew the shingle after it, served to drown the footfall.
When he addressed her, she was taken by surprise, and started.
He saw before him a tall, handsome girl, flushed with her walk, with dark hair slightly dispersed by the wind from the sea, with hale cheeks, brown, agate-like, honest eyes, fresh flexible lips, and a well-moulded lower jaw and chin.
‘Why are you picking and choosing among the stones?’ he asked.
‘Please, sir, I be looking for chalcedony.’
‘You should say I am and not I be. But let that pass. Chalcedony——’
‘And jasper; what do you know about them? Are you deficient in grammar and a proficient in mineralogy?’
Winefred looked at him with an odd expression of perplexity and humour in her brown eyes and a dimple forming in one cheek.
Now he saw that she had the eyes and features of Jane, but there was in her face something more—a reminiscence of a dearly loved and lost sister, who had been his companion in boyhood, his confidante, but who had died of decline just as she attained the age of this child.
‘Tell me, my girl, what is your name?’ There was a catch in his voice as he asked the question.
‘And your surname?’
‘Marley. That is what my mother is called.’
He paused before speaking again. A warm flow, as from a broken vein, suffused his heart. He would have liked to clasp the child to him and have said, ‘I am your father, kiss me, put your arms about me and let me cry.’ But he dared not do so.
Presently he spoke again.
‘Will you sit by me on this rock and tell me about these pebbles? I do not understand. Why do you gather them? What is done with them?’
She at once took the place indicated, without shyness, with no awkwardness. But he did not seat himself, he stood leaning against the larger bulk of the chalky mass so that he might study her face as she spoke.
‘About these pebbles?’
‘Please, sir, they are chalcedony. Sometimes I get moss agates.’
‘I understand. But I protest, to my uninitiated eyes they look vastly uninteresting.’
‘If wet and held to the light you can see through them and note markings in them; if I find some of good colour and very clear, with veins and silklike twists, then the gentlefolk buy them.’
‘Oh! the pebbles.’
‘No. Not the pebbles as they are, they have to be polished first. When we had our cottage, there was a grinding stone there, and mother turned the handle and I rubbed down the stone, and then with a little powder and some oil I got polish enough to see whether they really was good for anything.’
‘Whether they were. Excuse me, I interrupt.’
‘Are you a schoolmaster, sir?’
‘I—oh dear, no.’
‘I thought you might be, and were turning the grinding stone on me.’
There was a twinkle in her eyes.
‘Well, sir,’ she continued, ‘then I take them to Mr. Thomas Gasset, at Seaton, and he gives me a shilling for a very beautiful specimen, but generally eightpence or a groat.’
‘Ah! That is your pocket money?’
‘I don’t know about pocket money; it generally goes into my mouth.’
‘In bread and butter. Well, sir, Mr. Gasset works the stones up into seals or brooches, or paper weights, or just as so many specimens; and these the visitors buy. And if you be going——’
‘You are——’ corrected Mr. Holwood.
Winefred made a slight movement with her arm, as though turning a grindstone.
‘If you are going to Seaton, sir, you’ll find Mr. Gasset’s shop on the right-hand side of the street, about a hundred paces above the Red Lion.’
He nodded. He was without his hat; now he stooped laboriously—for he was tightly strapped, and wore stays—and picked it up.
‘And so—she turns the handle of the grindstone.’
‘What—my mother? Yes, sir. But our cottage has fallen down, and now we have not got the grindstone where we are.’
‘Where is that?’
‘With Captain Rattenbury.’
‘Of the Royal Navy?’
‘No, sir. I don’t reckon he was a proper captain, nowhere——’
‘I beg your pardon—anywhere.’
‘Never mind the grinding, sir.’
‘My dear, polish is everything—you see it in the pebbles.’
She considered a moment, then smiled: ‘Yes, sir, polish is a great deal. I suppose we are all of us rolled up by the great sea of time, alike on the beach, but some are smoothed and shaped—and those are the ladies and gentlemen, and some are left in the rough, and those are such as mother and me.’
‘You are a shrewd observer. Now about this grinding stone?’
‘We shall move it to the captain’s house. Will you come and see it on the undercliff? Mother is there.’
‘I—I—no—no!’ replied Mr. Holwood hastily. ‘My avocations call me. I cannot to-day. On some future occasion, perhaps. Pray, how long have you been with this Captain Rattenbury?’
‘Two days only.’
‘Two days only,’ he repeated with an air of relief. ‘I was led to understand—that is to say, I understood you to have said—longer. You are there temporarily, I suppose?’
‘No, sir, mother is going to be his housekeeper.’
‘Oh!——’ His countenance fell. He righted his hat on his head. ‘Does your mother ever speak to you about your father who is dead?’
‘He is not dead.’
‘Indeed; he is not dead. You are sure of that?’
‘Yes, sir. He is away somewhere at the other end of the world, I am told.’
‘Then she speaks to you about him?’
‘No, sir, never.’
There ensued a long pause, which became painful.
Winefred said: ‘But she thinks of him—a lot.’
‘She thinks of him!’
‘Yes, sir, I can see it, when she sits on the cliff and looks away to sea. She has her mind on him then; I know by the way she loses herself; and if I speak to her she does not hear me. She seems to me to be seeking that place beyond the ocean—they call it Tierra del Fuego, where he is. And at night, by the fire, she puts her cheek in her hand and looks into the coals. I have to shake her to bring her round.’
‘And you believe she is thinking of him!’
‘I know she is, though she never mentions him.’
Again a pause.
The girl’s searching eyes were on him. He could not bear their penetrating light, and he dropped his on the shingle, which he stirred with the ferule of his umbrella.
Presently Mr. Holwood said, ‘Do you consider, candidly, that your mother is happy? Is she of a cheerful disposition?’
‘Not over-cheerful, I reckon.’ He winced. ‘It is only when I am at my Tomfool tricks that I can get her to smile. I never heard her laugh outright. How can she? Just you think, sir, how it would be with you if your wife had run away and gone to Tierra del Fuego, and you did not know what games she was up to there.’
The gentleman was visibly agitated. He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket for his latchkey, drew it forth and blew into it. ‘Some sand has got in,’ he explained.
He was uneasy. He desired to hear more, but was afraid to ask. He desired to see more of that honest fresh face, but he was afraid to meet the clear eyes.
‘I suppose Captain Rattenbury is a respectable person?’
‘What do you mean by respectable? He is not what you call a gentleman. He’s rough on all sides.’
‘I did not mean that—a—a good man?’
‘He has been very kind to us, and is teaching me to dance.’
‘Oh!’ Again his face fell.
‘That is a bit of polish, I suppose?’
He did not answer. Presently he said, ‘My child,’ and his heart bounded as he used the term. ‘Your name is Winefred, you say. Does your mother have no shorter, more endearing name for you than that?’
‘She calls me Winnie.’
‘Well, Winnie, my dear, I trust you are a good girl and say your prayers.’
‘I say my prayers.’
‘What has your mother taught you to say?’
‘I say, Our Father’
‘Yes, I say God bless dear mother, for ever and ever, Amen.’
‘And do you never pray God to bless your dear father, who is—in Tierra del Fuego?’
‘He may be my father, but he cannot be my dear father. I have never seen him to love him, and he does not care for me, as he never writes or asks anything about me. If he has been in England he has never come to see either of us. He has never sent me a kiss.’
Suddenly Holwood stooped, caught the girl’s head between his hands, and pressed his lips to her brow.
‘Suppose, my child, that he has sent you this from the far-away world in which he lives. Why should you not pray for your father? He may need your prayers in Tierra del Fuego.’
‘What is the good of my saying God bless him when God cannot do it?’
‘He is a bad man; he has left mother and me.’
‘Perhaps it was unavoidable. Tierra del Fuego is a long way off.’
‘No, it is not that. If he had not cut mother to the heart that she has never recovered, she would have taught me to use his name. But he went away wilfully to be rid of her and me.’
‘You think so?’
‘I know it.’
‘And you have not thought much about him, I suppose?’
‘I do not know what he is like. I know nothing about him because mother will not speak about him. But I know he is a heartless, wicked man to desert mother and me.’
Holwood said nothing to this. His head had fallen. He took off his nodding hat and set it on the stone. He folded his arms and looked pensively, broodingly at the pebbles.
SUDDENLY HOLWOOD STOOPED AND PRESSED HIS LIPS TO HER BROW.
What would he not now have given had the past been different? Had it been possible now to go back and reconsider his conduct? How happy he could have been in a humble dwelling by the seaside with his simple, beautiful, loving wife, and this glorious child to take to his arms as his own flesh and blood, and for whom to scheme and build castles in the air.
But over eighteen years ago he had taken a wrong direction, and to retrace his steps was now impossible.
‘Please, sir, you have dropped your key.’
‘Bless my soul,’ exclaimed he, rousing himself, ‘it will become choked with sand.’
‘There is no sand here, only small gravel.’
He proceeded to stoop. But this was a slow and painful process, attended with strainings and creakings. Winefred forestalled him. She had picked up the key and presented it to him, lying across her rosy palm, before his person had described a right angle.
‘Winnie,’ said Holwood in a low tone, ‘will you do me a pleasure? I am a man of principle—in the abstract. I subscribe to schools for the education of children in the elements of morality. It is to me a shocking thought that a young person of your age, and sex, should not invoke the blessing of heaven upon the author of your being. Would you like to possess a watch—a Geneva watch?’
He drew from his fob a delicate timepiece of gold, with a gold face.
‘This,’ said he, ‘is a watch that I no longer have occasion for, as I possess a gentleman’s repeater that belonged to my father, and which I value accordingly. Would you like to have this bauble? It is a lady’s watch.’
‘I am not a lady.’
‘Only a little grindstone and shammy leather wanted, perhaps. But no more of this. Will you accept this from an entire stranger, unknown to you by name, but a Patron of Virtue. Include, henceforth, the name of your father in your devotions.’
The girl flushed with pleasure and surprise.
She put forth her hand—then withdrew it again.
‘I cannot pray for my dear father, but I will ask God to bless my poor father.’
‘Poor!—hem—yes, poor—in Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire.’
He thrust watch and chain into her hand, caught up his beaver, and walked hastily away, that is to say as hastily as it is possible to walk over a beach of sliding rounded cobble stones.
Her poor father! Poor—not in income, comforts, waistcoats, and hats—but poor in all that makes life rich, love surrounding, and within trust and strength, and self-respect.
Had he remained another moment facing his child, had she seen the tears flow over his cheeks, then, as surely as she discerned the chalcedony or the agate in the moistened pebble, so surely would she have seen in the weeping man—one not wholly worthless, not one altogether flint.