Old Dan’l was a character indeed, and for many years a mystery as well.
He was a man of one object in life, and what that object was no one knew
for thirty-five years.
He was by trade a tailor, and throughout the hours of daylight he sat
cross-legged on his table near a very large window, viewed by all who
passed along the road, but scarce looking away from his work to exchange
a nod with a passer-by.
He shaved his face clean, that is to say he shaved it occasionally clean,
but this was once a week only, on Saturday, and during the ensuing week a
dusky shadow stole over cheek and chin that made Dan’l look anything but
clean-shaved. He wore his hair short, but had thick and very protruding
He was a reticent man.
The tailor’s shop is often a place where many villagers congregate to
have a chat, and the tailor is able to go on with his needlework in a
mechanical fashion whilst conversing. But Daniel Coombe did not affect
gossip and prattle; what he undertook he carried through with an almost
As the gamekeeper said: “Bless you, old Coombe, he do lay hold on and
stick to a job just as a ferret do to a rabbit. There ain’t no gettin’
him to quit it.”
Coombe had a wife—the ugliest woman he could have picked up, but they
lived contentedly enough together. They had no children. Had they
possessed a family, a little more brightness and laughter would have
entered into the household. Mrs. Coombe was a grumbler; she grumbled over
her husband, over her house, over her work, over every thing and every
person with which and with whom she was brought in contact. But Dan’l did
not appear to mind it. He lived in a world of his own—his thoughts, his
aspirations; and the mutter of discontent rumbled around him and rolled
over his head, almost without his hearing it, certainly without his being
moved by it.
No sooner was the sun set, and Dan’l could no longer ply his needle, than
he put up his shutters. In these were two round orifices, and till late
at night lamplight streamed forth into the road through these holes, that
were as a pair of eyes glaring down the village street. What was he doing
in his workshop at night? Certainly he was not cutting out and sewing. It
was a well-known saying of his that with the set of sun was the set aside
“I ain’t a-going to try my eyes and wear ’em out with needlework by
lamplight,” said he.
Then what was his occupation after nightfall? Into his workshop he
retired and bolted the door from within as soon as he had taken his
Did he read? Was he a student of English literature? Was he a politician?
He was no buyer of books, and subscribed to no other paper than the local
It puzzled the parish. It roused curiosity. Then some boys climbed up
outside the window to peer in through the holes in the shutters, but the
noise of their scrambling, perhaps the appearance of their visages in
the openings, showed Dan’l that he was having his privacy peered into,
and before the urchins were able to observe what his occupation was, out
went the lamp. He had extinguished it. The married women of the parish
endeavoured to extract the secret from Mrs. Coombe; but she was either
ignorant or uncommunicative.
“How should I know?” said she. “He has his megrims. I don’t meddle wi’
they. All I know is, he ain’t doing nothin’ as is good to nobody. But if
it keeps him out o’ mischief and away from the public-house, naught I’ll
Then the idea took hold that Dan’l was a wise man and could charm, stanch
blood by his blessing, drive away warts, cure milk that would not turn to
butter, and counteract ill wishes.
And to this he lent himself. He had not sought it. It was forced upon
him. It might do good, he argued; it could do no harm. So his fame grew,
and he was regarded with reverential awe. Whether he believed in his own
efficacy as a healer, I cannot say; his gifts of healing were bruited
about, his failures passed into the limbo of oblivion. He did not set
store on his reputed powers, he rather disparaged them, or shrugged his
shoulders and professed scepticism over them, and he always said: “Well,
if good comes of it, it is not from me—you must know that—but from the
great Healer of all. Some cures wi’ drugs, and some wi’ their touch.
There are differences of administration.”
Dan’l Coombe was a regular churchgoer.
Woe betide the parson if, in preaching without a book, he quoted
Scripture inaccurately. He became in time accustomed to find the tailor
standing at the foot of the church steps awaiting him after service. Then
would come the familiar touch of the hat, and, “I beg your pardon, sir,
but did you not put in a _the_ where there oughtn’t to be, in that there
text from St. Paul to the Corinthians?”
Or else: “Please, sir, did you use the right word in that there quotation
from the Acts?”
“Dear Mr. Coombe, I took the marginal rendering.”
“Oh, the margin. I don’t hold by that.”
Mr. Coombe was very much perplexed when the new version of the Scriptures
was issued. It happily was not read in the parish church. I verily
believe it would have driven him from it. “Nasty, lumpy thing,” he said;
“it is like eatin’ bad-made porridge. Nothin’ smooth about it. Bits come
in your mouth and teeth at every moment.”
He resented it as an immoral thing. “And to think,” said he, “that
Christian money should ha’ been spent by Government out of our pockets
to put this here stumbling-block in the way of the blind! It’s wicked,
and I’ll vote against Government next ’lection.”
As already said, there had been an attempt made by scaling to peer in
at the holes in Coombe’s shutter, to see him at his nightly occupation.
It had failed. After that he pasted two pieces of oiled paper over the
openings, and thus prevented any further observations being made.
So time went on, and his neighbours became accustomed to the two yellow
eyes, and no longer actively concerned themselves about his doings,
though still a good deal of puzzlement remained about his nightly doings.
“To my knowing,” said Mrs. Bacon to Mrs. Jones, “he had his lamp burning
till half-past ten at night. Now he don’t burn a lamp all that time for
the sake of wasting oil.”
“I’ll tell you something more,” said Mrs. Jones; “it isn’t oil only as he
consumes, it is ink as well. He has bought ten penny ink-pots, and one
wi’ red ink, at Miss Buck’s shop in a twelvemonth. What do he want wi’ so
much ink? He can’t drink it.”
“He is writing a book. Take my word for it.”
“A book! What about? He don’t know nothing.”
“Poetry, perhaps. A man may write that with his head empty. Every fool
“He don’t look like a poet—not when he’s unshaved.”
“I’ll tell you what—it may be his cures, and the way to strike wounds and
“Ah! there, that is more likely.”
And this purchase of penny pots of ink continued for thirty-five years.
At the rate of ten a year, that would be three hundred and fifty pots of
black ink. It was amazing. For what could he want so much ink? It was
also ascertained that he sent by the carrier periodically to the market
town for copy-books, and had them out in packets of a dozen at a time.
What could he be putting into all those copy-books?
At last the mystery came out—not indeed to the whole parish, but into the
ear of the rector was it revealed.
One Saturday evening the parson was informed that Mr. Coombe desired to
speak with him very privately. The tailor was shown into the study. He
brought with him a huge parcel strapped to his back.
Of this he relieved himself and placed it on the table.
“There, sir,” said he, “my life’s labour is accomplished. Now it is for
“What is it, Mr. Coombe?”
“You shall see, sir, you shall see. For thirty-five years have I been
engaged on it every night. I have gone over the work most carefully three
and four times, and I am quite certain that there is not an error in it.
It has been my great labour to be strictly correct. I do not believe
there is a _the_ wrong. I began it thirty-five years agone last Friday,
and last Friday I concluded it. Every man has his proper vocation and
work to do. I found mine thirty-five years ago, and I have laboured at it
unflaggingly since. It is done, and when the Lord pleases to call me, I
shall be ready to go. But, sir—I don’t mean to deny it—I should ha’ been
terrible sorry to ha’ submitted to be called away before I’d done the
“I congratulate you on having accomplished what I am sure is a useful
task. But what is it, Mr. Coombe?”
“You shall see, sir. You shall see.”
He went to his parcel and undid the string. There appeared an enormous
pile of copy-books. He took from the heap two of them, and brought them
to the rector.
“There, sir,” said he, “if you’d had this you would not have made—you’ll
excuse my saying it—such a terrible lot o’ mistakes in quoting Scripture.
It is, sir—IT IS—IT IS”—he raised himself and rubbed his hair up, then
smoothed his fresh-shaven chin—“it is, sir, a dictionary of every word in
Scripture, so that you have but to look out the word, and then you find
where it comes in any book of the whole Bible.”
His face glowed with triumph.
“Just think, sir, what a boon to ministers of the Gospel! Just think what
a help to teachers! How ever can English folk have got along for all
this time without such an aid as this? It is better, sir, this, than
conquering the Russians and taking of Sebastopol. It is grander this than
Columbus discovering the New World. Now, what _do_ you think, sir?”
“But, my dear Mr. Coombe——!”
“One moment, sir, and I shall have done. I intend to get it printed. It
shall be ‘Coombe’s Dictionary of Bible Words,’ and will become a handbook
in every library of God-fearing and Scripture-loving men and women. As
for any profits from the sale, of that I care not—that’s no odds to me.
It is the good it will do that I think of.”
“But, my dear Mr. Coombe——”
The rector rose and went to his shelf.
“_The thing has already been done._ Here it is: ‘Cruden’s Concordance
to the Holy Scriptures.’ It was published in 1761, and has gone through
innumerable editions since.”
The old man stood as though turned to stone.
“The thing already done!” he gasped.
The rector had no heart to say more. He bitterly regretted that he had
blurted out the truth so abruptly.
“The thing already done! Thirty-five years spent for naught.”
Then he did up his packet again. But the tears dropped on it. This was to
him a blow more crushing than he could bear.
He hoisted his parcel on his back, touched his forehead, but held the
parson’s hand and wrung it, as speechlessly he left the house. His heart
was too full for mere words.
The old man broke down rapidly after that. The object of his life was
gone. The great ambition of his days was extinguished.
One day when he was being visited by the rector, as he lay on his
death-bed, he said—
“Sir, I ha’ been thinking and worriting over my work o’ thirty-five
years, and axing of myself whether it were all labour lost and time
thrown away. It have fretted me terrible. But I seems to see now as it
was not lost—not to me anyhow, for I got the Scriptur’ that into me that
it became to me like the blood in my veins and the marrow in my bones—and
it is my stand-by now.”
“Mother,” said John French, “you say that everybody has his place in the
world, and his mission. I’d precious like to know what is Tim Slouch’s
place and what his mission. It seems to me there never was such a chap
for tumbling out of his place when he has got one, and bless’d if I know
what good he can or does do, put him where you will.”
John French was a fine young fellow, the only son of a small farmer
lately deceased, unmarried, who carried on the farm and was the pride of
Very much about the same time the Squire, who was riding round his estate
to see how the planting was going on, what cottagers wanted repairs done
to their roofs, torn by a late gale, what farmers needed additional
sheds—for he was a man to see to these things himself—encountered the
parson, who had been parishing. He drew rein.
“How d’ye do, rector? I say, I say. There is that Timothy Slouch out of
work again. Upon my soul, I don’t know how the man could get on, were it
not for Sela; and what the woman was thinking of when she took such a
fellow—that beats my comprehension. They say that to every man there is
a hole in the world into which he may be pegged, but that hole has not
yet been found by Slouch.”
“I beg your pardon, Squire, he has found too many holes, and has never
remained pegged into any one of them.”
“True, true. But, I say, I say. They must not starve. Though, bless my
soul, a little starving might drive Timothy home into the first peg-hole
that offers; but Sela—my wife has a great regard for her. So I have set
the fellow a job.”
“And—what is that?”
“Well, I have given him the rhododendrons on the roadside and along the
drives to peg down. It must be done, and now is the time. Surely he can
do that. Fifteen shillings a week; and Sela picks up something.”
“I hear he has had notice to leave his cottage.”
“Yes—it is not mine, and—well, my agent has been peremptory with me. He
says, ‘Give him work if you will, but I forewarn you it is throwing good
money away; but do not get him rooted in the parish, or you will never be
rid of him.’”
“Well,” said the rector, “he is not one of my sheep. He is in another
parish, but Sela was—and why she married him——”
“Just what I say. But I say, I say—she was a poor girl, an orphan, and,
I suppose, thought the man must find work, and would labour to maintain
“And now she has to maintain him. Whatever can be the meaning of heaven
in sending such men into the world?”
It was the rector who said that, and next moment he reproached himself
for having said it.
Timothy—Slouch was not his surname, it was Luppencott, but every one
called him Slouch, as expressive of the man, his walk and way, not only
on the road and at his work, but throughout life’s course—Timothy had
been brought up as a blacksmith, but had never advanced beyond blowing
the bellows and hammering. He could do both, but not make a screw or bend
a bar into a crook. All his experience had had no other effect than to
convince his masters of his incapacity.
He lamed every horse he attempted to shoe, so that he was at once
dismissed by the farrier to whom he offered his services. For a while he
held a place as bellows-blower, at twelve shillings, but the blacksmith
saw that he could get a boy at six who could do as well, and when Tim had
the impudence to demand a full wage of fifteen the master dismissed him.
“Tim,” said he, “I only took you on because I thought I might get some
work out of you at the anvil. Why, confound you, you cannot even make a
Then Slouch heard that there was a new line being made at a distance, and
he offered his services on that. As blacksmith he was not needed, but he
was engaged as a navvy. But he did not remain long there; he was speedily
dismissed. He did not arrive in time of a morning, he loitered over his
work, and made other men loiter. What work he did, he did so badly that
it had to be undone. So he came back, and brought no accumulation of wage
in his pocket.
Next he offered himself to a blacksmith in a town distant ten miles, and
was engaged. He kept the place about four months, returning to his wife
every Saturday, and going back to his lodgings in the town on Sunday
evenings. Then he was again out of work. He asked the Squire of the
adjoining parish to give him employment. The reason why he was out of
work was, said he, that what with the heavy rent he had to pay for his
lodgings in the town, and what with the shoe-leather he wore out in his
trudges to and fro, and on account of a sore foot, caused by an ingrowing
nail on one of his toes, he was obliged to abandon his situation.
Very likely this was all true, but it is also just as likely that the
situation was closed up against him. His allegation was not inquired
into. The Squire gave him his rhododendrons to peg.
“My dear,” said the Squire to his wife, “I think he cannot go wrong
there—and for Sela’s sake we will give him the chance.”
Sela had been a poor girl who had attended to her mother, a widow
confined for six years to her bed, or to a chair, and who had been
maintained by the parish and such alms as were sent from the rectory and
When, finally, the mother died and Sela was left alone, she went into
service at a farmhouse, where the mistress was somewhat of a termagant.
She did not long remain there, for Timothy Luppencott offered her his
hand, his heart, and his hearth, and she accepted him. Sela had always
been accustomed to poverty, and therefore did not shrink from the
prospect of being the wife of a poor man. She had attended to a helpless
mother; she found, when wedded, that she was tied to an almost helpless
Sela had been a good daughter, she was a good wife, and, in time, also a
good mother. She had first one child and then another, and one of these
proved rickety; very probably this was due to insufficiency of food. For
Timothy when in work, and earning good wage, could not be relied upon
to bring home a sufficiency for the support of his family. He was not
a drunken man, but he went to the public-house, and he liked to enjoy
himself. If there were a ploughing match, a harvest festival, a cricket
match, a wild-beast show, a bazaar, Tim would be there. The work might go
hang, he said, he must see the fun.
If Sela had seven shillings a week on which to clothe and feed herself
and the children, she thought herself in luck’s way. When she was able
she went out charing; but when the children arrived she could not do
this, and then dire distress came on her.
She had been a particularly pretty girl, and she was a very sweet-looking
woman, with great, soft brown eyes; but there was firmness about her
Every one pitied Sela. She was as one born to trouble. She had a patient,
suffering look about her brow and temples that told a tale of years of
endurance and privation. But she did not murmur. She did not scold Tim.
There was not the excuse for him, if he stayed at the tavern, that he was
“jawed” at home.
“Really,” said the rector’s wife, “it is a satisfaction to give Sela any
of the children’s old garments. She is wonderful with her needle. I did
feel almost ashamed to let her have little Mary’s old school-dress, it
was so frayed, so spotted, and so untidy. And will you believe it—her
child was at church on Sunday in that identical gown! She had turned it,
and contrived it in such a manner, that I could hardly believe my eyes.
That is a woman to help, because every little help is put out to usury.
But Timothy; oh, what a man he is!”
One Sunday, after service, the Squire awaited the rector as he left the
No sooner had the latter descended the avenue and the churchyard
steps, than the Squire—without any other salutation than, “I say! I
say!”—plunged into the matter that occupied his mind, and of which he
desired to disburden himself.
“Rector, that Timothy Slouch.”
“I say—I say, you know that I set him the rhododendrons to pin down.”
“I know it.”
“Will you believe me—he has made a mess of the job.”
“I can believe a good deal of Slouch.”
“He has actually split them so as to get the refractory branches
down, and where he has pegged, and not torn asunder, has done it so
inefficiently that when his work is effected, in twenty-five minutes they
have slipped their pegs out, and are erect as before.”
“Yes, and he has half-ruined some of my choicest and most expensive
varieties. He has riven and wrenched them about and knocked off the
flowering buds. I was so angry I dismissed him. Not another day’s work
shall he have from me. I am sorry—for Sela’s sake. But it cannot be
For three weeks Tim lounged about, said he was looking for work; but if
he did, looked for it in the wrong quarters. Then he appeared before the
rector—not of his own parish, but the parson whose wife had befriended
Sela, and said that he had heard of work in South Wales. He had a cousin
there who was in a colliery, and who wrote that there was always a place
for a handy man, and above all for a blacksmith.
“Well,” said the rector hesitatingly—he saw what Tim was aiming at—“but
exactly, are you the handy man?”
“I can turn my hand to anything. I have been in so many different
situations. I have been blacksmith, and I have done farm-work, and
recently, I may say, I have been a gardener.”
“I daresay you can turn your hand to anything, but can you keep it where
“One can but try. Luck so far has been against me. My notion is, sir, if
you would draw me up a brief, I will try to collect money to take me to
Wales, and when there and have got a situation, I will send for my wife
and children to live there with me; one must first have a nest into which
to put one’s doves.”
“Quite so. Well, we will give you one chance more.”
So the rector drew out a brief. It was cautiously worded; it contained a
statement in accordance with Timothy’s representations.
Then he headed the subscription list with a pound. The Squire was next
approached, and he gave thirty shillings, and his wife another ten.
Timothy spent a fortnight in rambling about the country asking for money,
and he probably collected something like ten pounds.
Then off he started and was not heard of for a month. Inquiries were made
about him from Sela. She had received no letter from him. Moreover, it
leaked out that Slouch had carried away with him in his pocket all the
money subscribed, and had not left a penny with his wife.
This made the neighbourhood very angry, the most angry were those who had
not subscribed. Those who had, began to fear they had been hoaxed, but
kept quiet; because no man likes to have it thought he has been imposed
Presently, however, up turned Timothy. Work was slack in South Wales, he
had been unable to find employ. The rector, very irate, sent for him,
questioned him, and was convinced that the fellow had not been to Wales
at all. He may have started with the intention of going there, that
was all. The rector taxed him with it. Slouch was obliged, at last, to
admit that he had not reached his destination. “You see, sir,” said he,
“I got half-way and then heard such bad accounts, as hands was bein’
dismissed—that I thought it would be wasting money to go on.”
“Then you have brought some money back?”
“Well, no, sir, I can’t say I have. It comes very expensive travelling.
But if your honour would be so good as to draw me up another brief——”
Then the parson flushed very red and bade the man be gone. Not another
scrap of help should Slouch have from him.
And, indeed, Timothy found the whole district up in arms against him, and
ready to kick him out of it, and would have done so—only that it pitied
and respected Sela.
“Out he must go,” said the Squire. “He had notice to quit at Lady Day,
and on Lady Day he goes and into no cottage of mine shall he come.”
Whither did he go? He wandered seeking shelter; every house was refused,
till he came to John French.
A few hours later, Mrs. French exclaimed: “John! you don’t mean to tell
me that you have let those good-for-naughts—the Slouches—into your
“I have, mother, they cannot lie in the road under a hedge, and they were
turned out to-day. Timothy has, at last, found an occupation—he is taken
on to break stones for the road. He cannot go wrong in that. It is what
any fool can do. As to the cottage, it is unoccupied, and has been for a
twelvemonth. I have let him move his few sticks of furniture into it, and
he is to pay me a weekly rent of a shilling. There is a bit of garden——”
“Which he will neglect.”
“Sela kept the garden where they were before, and she will attend to
this. She has poultry.”
“Well—may you not regret it.”
So Sela and Tim and the children were admitted into French’s cottage,
and with them moved a great number of cocks and hens, geese and ducks.
Sela was a clever woman with fowls. Indeed, it was through her poultry
that she had maintained herself and children, and had paid the rent. She
sold eggs to the regrater every week, and spring chickens were readily
purchased by the gentry around.
When it was known that the Luppencotts were given a new spell of
occupation in the neighbourhood, that neighbourhood sighed, and said with
one voice, “Well, we _did_ think we were quit of Slouch, but we should
have been sorry to lose Sela.”
Now it might have been supposed that on the roads, cleaning water-tables,
scraping, in winter breaking stones, in autumn spreading them, gave work
that it was not possible for Slouch to fail to execute satisfactorily. In
fact, he was seen for one entire winter engaged on stone heaps, with a
long-handled hammer cracking stones.
But then the heaps knew him no more. He was again out of work. He had
thrown it up in a fit of spleen, because an old man was employed as
well, to save his “coming on the parish,” and this Timothy regarded as
a slight. Added to this, he heard that a new blacksmithery was being
started in an adjoining parish, and, sanguine that he could obtain
occupation there, he threw up his engagement on the roads before he had
secured that at the forge.
And, naturally, he did not get the place on which he had calculated. He
was too well known to be given it. Then ensued the familiar ramble in
quest of employment, but no farmer, no landowner would give him any.
The family would have starved, but for Sela and her poultry. She did not
make much by her fowls, as corn was dear, but they had, and were allowed,
the run of the fields and arishes of John French. Then, also, she got
plenty of skimmed milk from the farm, that was only a halfpenny per
quart, and with milk none can starve. Sela had gleaned at harvest, and
gleaned sufficient wheat to make bread for herself and children.
Mrs. French often saw her—sent for her to assist in cleaning the house,
gave her a spare-rib when she killed a pig—showed her many little
kindnesses. But the old woman had, as she said, no patience with Tim, and
with him would not change a word.
Sela had a cool and clean hand, and was invaluable in butter-making. That
Mrs. French ascertained; so in this new cottage the Slouches got on well,
but no credit attached to Tim for that.
One day Tim was climbing along a rafter of an old outhouse in quest
of eggs, as one of his wife’s hens had stolen a nest, when the rafter
snapped—it was rotten—and down fell Tim on his head, and broke his neck.
He was taken up dead.
The entire neighbourhood at once rushed to one conclusion: “It is just as
well. He never was of any use to any one when alive.”
And once again John French said to his mother: “There’s an end of him,
and I’d precious like to know what was Tim’s place in the world, and what
And the rector said to the Squire, after the funeral, “Well, at last poor
Slouch has found the hole in which he must stick. I have wondered, and do
wonder still, what he was sent here for.”
* * * * *
A year passed, and to the surprise of most people, John French married
“It’s a wonderful lift in life for her,” said some.
“But it is such a come down for him,” said others.
What John French said of it was this. He said it to his mother: “Do you
mind what I asked some time agone about that Tim Slouch; whatever could
have been his work and mission in the world? It often puzzled me. But
I have found it out. He was the making of Sela. His very helplessness
made her industrious, his thriftlessness made her saving, his dreadfully
trying ways made her patient and enduring, his imprudence made her
foreseeing. I do believe the work and mission of that fellow was just
this—to make for me the very model and perfection of a farmer’s wife, and
then to break his neck.”
“Aye,” said Mrs. French; “and the way he shifted about till he’d settled
down close by us. ’Twere all ordained, I believe.”
“Upon my word,” said the rector one day to the Squire, “the proper thing
to do, Tim has done at last: to break his neck and leave his widow to
“Aye,” replied the Squire, “and Tim has found his hole at last into which
he will remain pegged.”
Doble Drewe was plumber, glazier, paperhanger, and house-painter; chiefly
plumber, but also a most excellent house-painter.
Whatever Doble undertook in his profession he executed in the very best
manner. If any fault appeared, it was in the quality of the material
used, not in his use of it; and, consciously, he never would employ
for his work any material but what he believed to be the very best. He
spared himself no pains, he cut no time short over his work. The work
he undertook, he undertook to do as well as it was possible for him to
execute it, and I really believe he had not his superior in his own line
in England, and if not in England then certainly not in Europe, and if
not in Europe then—it goes without saying—not in the round world.
But he took, it must be conceded, a very long time over his task. Most
persons who employed him lost patience because he was so slow. But slow
he was not when one considered the quality of his workmanship. He scamped
nothing. When he painted even a railing, he took infinite pains to
holystone the wood till he had cleaned off every particle of old paint
and had got the wood perfectly smooth. And each coat of paint was laid
on with the greatest nicety. There was a carved oak table that once stood
in our drawing-room. The fashion had set in for satin-wood, so the room
was done up, doors, cabinets, tables, all to look like satin-wood. And
all was done by Doble Drewe.
Most lovely make-believe satin-wood he produced. That was before the
days of the “Seven Lamps of Architecture,” when Mr. Ruskin turned his
bull’s-eye on shams, and showed that they were morally wrong. At the
period of which I write everything _must_ be a sham or it was not
fashionable. Wood was painted to look like marble, and cement to imitate
Well—about this carved table.
The other day I sent it to a furniture-dealer to remove the paint and
develop the oak.
After a while it returned to me, and with it came the bill.
“Really, sir,” said the dealer, “I am ashamed at having asked so much,
but it is incredible what labour it has taken my men to clean that table.
Never saw nothing like it before. The paint simply wouldn’t come off. It
was like taking the skin off a living man.”
“Ah!” said I, “Doble Drewe’s work.”
But if Doble was slow over his tasks, he was slower in sending in his
bills. Why he did not make them out and transmit them to his customers
till three, four, even six years had elapsed, I cannot tell, but it is a
fact. And this lost him customers who could pay, because they did not
relish having to give out money over items every one of which had passed
from their memories. The only customers he gained were those thriftless
creatures who did not want to pay there and then, and who hoped they
might be more flush of money in a few years’ time than they were in the
present. And some of his customers died, others became bankrupt, or left
the neighbourhood without leaving their addresses, before Doble Drewe’s
bills were ready. I know that mine came in for work done for my father
five years after my father was dead, and I had thought all had been
settled, probate paid, with deductions for bills, and Doble’s, of course,
not deducted because I did not know it was due.
Now although scrupulously conscientious over his plumbing and glazing,
his paper-hanging and painting, and though whilst on his work he had all
his faculties engaged upon it, yet Doble had a soul for something very
much above lead and paint and putty.
I found it out one day in this wise.
My mother had a marvellously lovely voice, and she was sitting in the
drawing-room that had been satin-wooded, at the piano playing and
singing, whilst Drewe was in the hall labouring at painting the panels
to look like pollard willow, stippling, brushing, graining, putting in
plenty of knots where no knots really were, and running the grain across
the direction where its course by nature lay.
I happened to be in another part of the hall to that where was the
painter on his knees engaged at his work. He did not know that I was
there—so quiet was I, engaged on Captain Maryatt’s “Snarley Yow, or the
If I remember aright my mother was singing Haynes Bayley’s “We met, ’twas
in a crowd.”
It was not a song for a soprano or for a woman, and though she went
through with it, seemed unsatisfied, put the book away and was for a
while engaged in finding another piece.
I thought I heard a sound from the corner where the painter was. I looked
up from “Snarley Yow,” but seeing nothing particular, looked again at the
Then my mother broke out in the song from the “Creation,” “With verdure
Before she had got half-way through I was sure that I heard something
from Doble. It was a sob.
I stood up—but he put back his hand to stay me as I approached.
I waited till my mother’s singing and the chords of the piano had ceased
to vibrate, and then I said to him:
“Are you unwell, Mr. Drewe? Is there anything I can get for you?”
He had a choke in his voice, and I saw as he turned that his cheeks were
wet with tears.
“Excuse me, young gentleman,” said he. “Don’t mind me. I cannot help it.
Indeed, indeed, I cannot refrain. When I hear music, good, beautiful
music, it makes me cry like a woman—like a woman. You’ll excuse me. Go
on with your book and don’t mind me.”
I had many a talk with the plumber after this, and I found that it was
so with him. When he heard good music he passed into a transport, an
ecstasy. But then, how seldom it was that he did hear and could hear good
music! He lived in a little village some ten miles from a town, and that
a sleepy, stagnant country town, and no railway within thirty miles.
Nowadays we have in our little centres all over England good choral
societies, and concerts are given not only by amateurs, that may
sing well, but often only think that they do so, but also by touring
It was not so when I was a boy. Then there were no such things as
choral unions and concerts, out of the capital of the county, that was
accessible only by coach.
Then locomotion was not easy; and the utmost length of a villager’s
journey was to the market town and that only on a market day.
At that time the parish church indeed had its orchestra and its choir,
but oh! what appalling, agonising productions were the concerted pieces
Poor Doble Drewe suffered acutely when an instrument was out of tune, and
a piece played out of time; and when were all the instruments in the west
gallery either in tune or in time the one with the other?
Doble’s sole ambition was to obtain a piano, and he did purchase one out
of the savings of many years, to discover that he was powerless to play
it, that his ardent musical soul could not relax his stiff fingers and
enable them to play even a simple piece. He had not learned as a boy, and
now it was too late. “Now look you here,” said Doble. “This is a terrible
disappointment to me, but I’ll not be beat. I’ll have good music in my
house somehow. I’ll marry a wife, and get a little boy or girl; it don’t
matter which, and I’ll have that there child taught so soon as ever it
has the sense to know its notes; and when I’m an old man I’ll just sit by
the fire and listen, and my lad or my little maid shall play to me by the
hour. I’ll have Handel, and Haydn, and Bishop, and Mozart. Ah! them will
be times worth living for. I’ll go about it at once.”
And he did. He married a young woman, not because she could play a piano,
for at that period there were none to be had in his walk of life who
could finger an instrument, but with the prospect of becoming a parent of
one who could be educated into a skilful player.
“You see,” said he, “there is the piano. All it wants is some one to play
on it. It is only a matter of waiting some fifteen or eighteen years, and
then—then my time of enjoyment will have come. Then—then I shall have
But no. Again he encountered disappointment. No child was given to him,
and the wife he had selected, instead of producing harmony in the home,
was a fruitful source of discord. She had a tongue and she had a temper,
and she was no idealist, and could not abide just those two things which
made Doble what he was—a painstaking, scrupulous workman, and withal a
“Why, Doble,” she would say, “what’s the good of your doing your jobs so
slow and so fine? There’s other chaps get twice the work you do by just
“I cannot do other. It would go against my conscience.”
“And as to your dratted music. You ain’t got none, and you can’t have
none, so just lump it and be joyful.”
To that he made no reply. No answer he could have made would have been
comprehensible by her.
So time went on.
Doble’s back became bent. His look became more abstracted. His was an
earnest face, with a questioning, craving, seeking look upon it.
Then came a chance.
In the cathedral city the “Messiah” was to be performed, and the choir
of the minster were to take part, also sundry amateurs, and Formes and
Albani were to sing.
I gave myself a treat. I went up, and took the plumber with me.
I do not think that Drewe had any conception of what massive chorus
singing could be, or what cultured voices could effect in solos.
Remember, he never had heard good music in his own village; only direful
failures to achieve something that was supposed to be music. His only—I
really believe his only previous acquaintance with good singing was his
hearing my mother sing.
As to describing how Doble looked through that concert, I cannot. He was
as one not himself, rigid, rapt, not of this earth, with the great tears
rolling down his thin, worn cheeks; he sat with his hands folded between
his knees and never moved—no more than had he been of stone.
Nor did Doble speak much after it; he went back to his lodging as in a
And as we returned by coach next day he was reticent. I knew what was
passing within the man, and did not tease him with questions, but as he
left the coach at his door, he squeezed my hand and said: “Sir, I shall
live on _that_ all the rest of my days.”
In after years I have often pondered over Doble. It has seemed to me
one of those unfathomable mysteries of life that there should be in a
poor little country village a man created by God, endowed by God with
high-strung musical faculties, yet absolutely incapacitated by position
and circumstances for making any use of his great gift, for deriving any
enjoyment from it. Why was not Doble placed somewhere else? Why was Doble
given a faculty he could not use?
Many years passed, and I was cast into a far distant portion of England,
yet I may say that this problem continually troubled me.
Once I came across a farmer’s wife in a low and peculiarly ugly portion
of the East coast of England, and she had the same sort of craving soul
after beautiful scenery. “I feel,” she said to me once, “as though I
would like to look on the Alps—and die.”
It is the same throughout the world of men. It must have been so through
countless ages. There must have been Mozarts and Purcells in the ages
that were before musical instruments were made, and the laws of harmony
laid down and concerted music was made possible. Hundreds and thousands
of Doble Drewes over all the earth and in all time. A mystery! A
perplexing problem I could not solve. It haunted me. It distressed me.
A few years ago I was at my old home, and I was talking to the curate of
the parish in which Doble Drewe had lived.
“So,” said I, “poor old Drewe is dead.”
“Yes, and buried.”
“You were not in this neighbourhood then?”
“No. Tell me something about the old fellow.”
“I really do not think I have anything to tell.”
“Was his wife a little less nagging as he grew older and faded away?”
He shook his head. “Tongues grow sharper the more they are used.”
“And—at the last? Had he much pain?”
“I was with him when he died. The woman was quiet then. He lay for some
hours as though insensible, and I thought the end might be at any
moment. All at once he moved, held up his hand, assumed a listening
attitude, a wonderful light and smile broke out over his face; he seemed
to be hearkening attentively. Then he said, ‘NOW,’ laid his head on the
pillow, and was dead.”
That night, after the curate was gone, I rocked in my chair, musing,
looking into the fire. I muttered, “Poor old Doble!” then after a pause,
said, “Happy Doble!” and then, “Now I also understand.”
Thereupon I took down a little book I had of Dr. Alexander’s poems, and
“Down below, a sad mysterious music,
Wailing through the woods and on the shore,
Burdened with a grand majestic secret,
That keeps sweeping from us evermore.
Up above, a music that entwineth
With eternal threads of golden sound,
The great poem of this strange existence,
All whose wondrous meaning hath been found.”
This is a sketch—no more—of a woman who was to me, and is still, a
problem for a casuist to solve. How so, you shall hear in the sequel.
But, to begin, you must know her life’s story.
Mary was, when a young married woman in a Cornish fishing-village,
occupying a cottage at some little distance from the harbour. She must
have been a fine woman then, she is fine in her old age.
“Ah!” said she, “you have been to Maker? Did you go about in a boat
“Yes.” I had boated whilst staying in the place.
“And did you see the Lady Rock?”
“Yes, it was pointed out to me.”
“And the Dead Man’s Rock?”
“I think so.”
“Well, it is all along of the Lady Rock that I was a widow.”
“You have heard tell about the Lady?”
I had. The Lady is a little piece of white feldspar in a cliff that rises
out of the sea, with a shelf before it, and this piece of quartz or
feldspar bears a singular resemblance to the shape of a woman draped in
white. Whenever the fishermen return with their trawls, they cast a few
of the mackerel or herring they have caught on to the shelf before the
White Lady, and, unless this be done, this oblation made, ill-luck will
attend the fishermen on their next expedition; their nets will be caught
and torn as by invisible hands in the deep, or no fish will enter the
seines, or, worse still, the boat will capsize and possibly the fishermen
on board will be drowned. The Dead Man’s Rock is another portion of cliff
nearly horizontal, sometimes washed by the waves, and on this lies a
mass of the same white spar, bearing something approaching the form of a
corpse. But it demands more fancy to distinguish the corpse than the Lady.
“I will tell you the whole story, sir,” said Mary. “My husband, Thomas
Trembath, was a fine standing-up man as you’d see anywhere. He was a
fisherman, and a daring fellow. I don’t say he did not do a bit of
smuggling now and then, but, lor’, sir! they all did, and if they didn’t,
more shame to them, with their opportunities. Well, sir, I don’t say he
was a Free-thinker, because he wasn’t, but he was a sort of no-thinker—no
ways, if you can understand me. Well then, one day, as they was coming
in after there had been a shoal, there was a lot of boats out that day,
and as the boats went by, all the cap’ns threw a few whiting on to the
ledge afore the Lady. But my Thomas he was a daring unconsiderate chap,
and they’d caught a young dog-fish that day—the fishermen sometimes bring
’em home and gets a few pence by showing ’em, for they’re terrible
mischievous beasts, and eat a lot of mackerel and whiting and just
anything they can. Well, sir, will you believe it, when Thomas comes
alongside of the Lady Rock, what did he do, in a fit o’ daring, but heave
the dog-fish on to the shelf afore her!”
Mary paused and looked at me, expecting me to appear aghast at such an
“The other men, they was astounded and afraid after that—no man would go
in the boat with him. And next time he wanted to go, they shook their
heads, and said they weren’t going to court ill-luck. So Thomas—he was
that reckless and regardless—he said he would go alone. And go alone he
did. There was no wind and the sea was smooth—but he never came back. I
reckon he alone couldn’t manage the boat and something went wrong. What
it was I can’t tell—but he never came back. That’s what followed chucking
of a dog-fish at the White Lady.”
After her husband’s death, Mary took to peddling. She was a middle-aged
woman when I knew her, stoutly built, broad shouldered, with a hale and
ruddy face; she wore short skirts, a man’s long greatcoat over her back,
and a man’s hat on her head. Slung across her shoulder by a strap was a
case that contained needles, thread, pins, and tape. She carried a staff,
some four feet long, in her hand, not of bamboo but of ash, and she
strode along the roads faster than a horse could walk.
There was not a farm, not a cottage within miles around, in which Mary
was not known, and where she did not do business.
How she picked up a living on the things she sold was a marvel to me. The
profits on each item can have been only small, and the amount of country
she travelled over to sell these little articles was so great, that she
must have worn out much shoe-leather.
She was abroad in all weathers and at all hours.
I said to her one day: “Why, Mary, are not you afraid in the lone lanes,
“Lor’, sir, not I. If there were a man as were imperent, I’d lay my stick
across him, and he’d bite the dust. And as to spirits, I never meddles
with them, and so they don’t meddle with me.”
“Spirits! Why, you never have the chance of interfering with their little
She shook her head. “I won’t say that, sir,” she answered. “There’s queer
things about at night, but I always gives ’em a good word and a text of
Scriptur’, and they don’t hurt me.”
It used to be thought that a comet presaged war, that its tail tickled
all the elements of irritation in the world and sent nations and kingdoms
flying at one another. But this human comet, Mary Trembath, revolving in
her elliptical orbits through the country, left peace and goodwill after
her. She was an inveterate gossip, a chatterbox. She loved, when she had
sold a paper of pins or a knot of tape, to sit and have a dish of tea and
a bit of cake and talk, but never, so far as I am aware, did evil spring
from what she said; on the contrary, she left those she had been with
better disposed towards one another than they had been before.
A somewhat singular instance of this occurs to my memory.
There were two old ladies, spinsters both, who lived within a mile and a
half of each other. One was the housekeeper to her brother, a farmer, who
was a widower, and the other resided in a pleasant cottage of her own,
surrounded by trees, smothered in laurels and snowberries that cut off
sun and air, and made garden and house smell of mildew and moth. Now this
old lady had a sharp tongue and a lively imagination, and had the credit
of being a mischief-maker.
All at once a tremendous feud broke out between these spinsters. It
involved more than themselves, their relations, their acquaintances also,
in the village. Miss Spindle had said something very nasty and galling of
Miss Shank that was absolutely untrue, but so injurious that Miss Shank
vowed she would have the law of her.
Hearing of this, and finding the entire village agitated by the
controversy, I tried to discover the truth—whether Miss Spindle really
had spoken such cruel things of Miss Shank. I tracked the story from one
to another, and found that gradually every objectionable expression and
statement fell off _en route_ as an assertion, and that what had actually
been said was entirely harmless, for it was not said of Miss Shank at
all, but of the shank-bone of mutton on which Miss Spindle had been
making her meal. In fact, all this good lady had said was, that the shank
had been served so often that it was becoming high and discoloured, and
had best be hashed. Out of this a mountain of malignant insinuation and
defamatory assertion had been evolved.
When I had got to the bottom of the story, I rushed off to Miss Shank
to explain that the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and ought to be
put aside, and peace made. But the lady was furious; she turned on me as
a mischief-maker and a meddlesome person for having dared to interfere.
She knew that what Miss Spindle meant was to cast slurs at her, and she
employed the mutton-bone as a subterfuge so as to avoid prosecution.
There it was, worse than ever. I was out with one. I went to Miss
Spindle. She was exasperated because Miss Shank had dared to believe that
what she had spoken about the mutton applied to her, and she broke into a
torrent of abuse of me for interfering in the matter.
There it was; I was out with the other.
As I retired disconsolately, I ran across Mary Trembath, and somehow, for
my heart was full, I told her of my ill success.
“Leave it to me,” said Mary.
What was my amazement next Sunday to see Miss Spindle and Miss Shank
embracing in the churchyard after service, and walking off arm-in-arm and
chatting affectionately together!
How had this transformation in the women, this change in the situation,
been brought about? Only with difficulty did I get at the bottom of
it. Mary, whilst selling a hank of coloured wool to Miss Spindle, had
contrived to hint to her that Farmer Shank, the widower, was terribly
concerned over the quarrel, as he was actually much enamoured of the fair
spinster who lived in the bower of laurels.
Then, Mary Trembath had gone to the farm of the Shanks, and had let out
in confidence that Miss Spindle’s conscience so pained her over the
mischief done, that she was sending for the lawyer to alter her will and
make over Laurel Cottage and her few hundreds in the Three per Cents. to
the woman she had so grievously injured.
When I learned this, I thought I would have it out with Mary. She pulled
a face as I reproached her.
“Please, sir, I didn’t say it was so; I merely hinted such a thing might
be. They jumped at the conclusion, and turned what might be into it is
“But, Mary, it was not true.”
“How do you know that, sir?—all things are possible.”
That was Mary Trembath’s secret way of making smooth water wherever she
went. She was not a deliberate liar, even for a good purpose; but she
managed somehow to create impressions that served to bring quarrels to an
end, to make people once indifferent to each other become fast friends,
and to dispel pretty nearly every cloud that hung over a parish in which
And now you will see how it is that, as I said, she provided me with
a problem only a casuist can solve. Of course, it is never right to
speak an untruth even for a good end. Mary was too conscientious to say
straight out what was false, but she had a clever, subtle manner of
bewildering people through her hints and suggestions, till she induced
them to deceive themselves, and that always with a good object in view.
She was a peacemaker, eminently a peacemaker, but was she justified in
the method she employed to make peace?