For, in a night, the best part of my power . . .
Were in the washes, all unwarily,
Devourèd by the unexpected flood.
Shakespeare, “King John.”
The floods of ’52 are still remembered in East Anglia. The worst and most widespread were in November, but “February Fill-Dyke” brought the more localized catastrophe in Little Bradmarsh. The village, lying as it did along the left bank of the Brad, was caught between two waters, the overflow of the streams to the north that ran down silt-laden towards this bank, and the backwash over the bank from the Brad itself, which, already swollen by rain, and by the waters pumped into it from the marsh-mills on its right bank, was prevented overflowing southwards by the dyke that further protected Long Bradmarsh.
It was Nip that brought Jinny the news, though she did not understand its purport till the service was over. For it was to church that he brought it. That ancient building, standing isolated on its green knoll flaked with gravestones, had begun to appeal to him as much as to Jinny, and despite her efforts to dodge or shake him off, he had become a regular churchgoer. Nobody seemed to mind his sitting in her pew or squatting by the stove: perhaps so exiguous a congregation could not be exigent, and in that aching void even a canine congregant was not unwelcome. But his mistress, despite the sense she shared with Mr. Fallow of divine glimmerings in the animal creation, had always an uneasy feeling of indecorum, especially when Nip snored through the sermon like a Christian, and she was congratulating herself that the “Fifthly and Finally” had been safely reached without him, when in he trotted—far wetter and muddier than on the day he had plumped on Will’s knees in the chapel. The sight of him dripping steadily along the aisle towards the stove did not interrupt the hymn: the worshippers, though the morning had begun with a set-back to snow, were in no wise surprised by a return to rain. Only that Saturday night it had rained “cats and dogs”: one dripping dog was therefore no alarming phenomenon. They did not realize that Nip had largely swum to church.
But when, at the church-door, they began to fumble with their umbrellas, they saw with wide eyes of astonishment and dismay that though a mere sleety drizzle misted the air, below the lych-gate a strange expanse of waters awaited their feet. Except for one broad finger of land pointing along the centre of a vast yellow lake, their world was suddenly turned to water, and Jinny had a weird wonder as to what the dead would think could they rise and see the transformation wrought in the earthy spot where they had laid themselves so securely to sleep.
But the first impression of plumbless depth was contradicted by the hedgerows standing up—despite their reflections—much as before, still with a light powder of the morning’s snow, and when Jinny advancing to the gate, amid a chaos of ejaculatory comment that would have done credit to a full-sized congregation, probed the lake with the point of her umbrella, she exhibited barely three inches of moist tip. Reassured except for Sunday shoes, the bulk of the worshippers plashed forwards more or less boldly. But Miss Gentry refused to be comforted: she was already half hysterical and clutching at Jinny, for she recalled her anciently prophesied doom of drowning. What was the use of a lifelong refusal to set foot on the water? The water was come to her, as the Clown opined of Ophelia. Jinny could quiet her only by promising to see her safely to her door. With a jump the girl reached the four steps by which the ladies anciently mounted to their pillions, and running up, she surveyed the vista of waters, amid which the three pollarded lime-trees before Miss Gentry’s cottage rose like a landmark. She could now make a mental map of the driest route. For from this observation-post, though she had a sodden sense of mist and rain and blowiness, the sense of an unbroken aqueous expanse disappeared. She could see water, water, but not everywhere, nor were even the watery parts submerged uniformly. It was like some infallible illustration of the ups and downs of Little Bradmarsh. Never before, not even under the varying strains of Methusalem, had she realized how undulating the village was for all its apparent flatness. She saw now how much a few feet counted, and how the majority of the cottages and the farmhouses—all the ancient ones indeed—had planted themselves along that dry finger: “the Ridge” they called it, she remembered, though the name had hitherto been a mere sound to her ear, for so gradual was its slope that she had never felt the ascent nor put on the brake in descending. But to see it culminating in the Common and her own dear Blackwater Hall was now a cheering spectacle. While a white-flecked, wind-whipped waste of yellow water was spreading where yesterday blackened pastures had stretched, here were brown fields quite untouched by the flood-water, with their furrows chalked out in snow. One field all winter white, with thin blades just peeping up, looked friendly rather than forlorn—such was the effect of contrast. Lower down the Ridge were stretches covered with a deposit of silt and leaf-mould, with plough-handles sticking up, and between these and the flooded regions was a half-and-half world that reminded Jinny of the salt-marshes: a maze of pools and pondlets and water-patterns in a greenish slime mottled with hillocks.
Taking off her precious shoes and stockings, Jinny descended from her observation-post and plunged the “little fitten” admired of her grandfather into the chilling muddy lake, which seemed to have risen since she gauged it. Miss Gentry, clenching her teeth, followed her example, but in the effort to grasp at once her skirt, shoes, and muff (with prayer-book couchant), and to prevent her umbrella from soaring off on adventures of its own, she made more twitter than progress, and when, at their first stile, Nip, plunging through the bars, dived into the field and swam boldly forward, Miss Gentry with a shriek perched herself on the stile and refused to come down. Jinny, baring her legs still higher, strove to laugh away her patron’s fears, but her very precaution of tucking up had driven the dressmaker into a new frenzy.
“There’s no risk so long as we dodge the ditches,” Jinny pointed out, “and you can see those by the hedges. And look up there—there’s your lime-trees signalling their feet are dry.”
“Yes, but I can’t get to them. Oh, Jinny, go and fetch me your cart. Do be a love.”
“It’s a question of life and death.”
“Very well,” Jinny pretended. “If I cut through that field with the cows I shan’t be long,” she said with cunning carelessness.
But she had not gone many yards ere, as she expected, she heard Miss Gentry plashing desperately behind her with cries of “Wait for me, Jinny! Wait!” Miss Gentry did not reflect that the cows would not be out in that weather; to face those fearsome inches under escort was a lesser evil than the possible dangers from panic-stricken cattle that now rose before her mind, and with one horn of the dilemma a bull’s, her choice was precipitated.
At the Four Wantz Way new terrors arose for the poor lady. It was not from the swirl of waters that met there, for her road now stretched visibly upwards, but from the fact that the Pennymoles were occupied in moving their treasures to “the high room.” The genial paterfamilias darting to his doorstep—with the kerchiefed owl he was rescuing in his hand—had his own flood of authoritative lore to pour out, but he could make no headway till Miss Gentry had blushingly apologized for her bare feet, and been assured that no respectable man would look at them. Then, though his hearers stood splashed and blown about, he held even Jinny spellbound with a description of Long Bradmarsh as he had known it in his boyhood before the embankment was put up, and when his parents had often had, even in summer, to open the back door of their cottage to let the water pour out. And what a work it had been, clearing up the muck afterwards! “That’s a terrible thing, the power of water,” he said solemnly. “People don’t know what it means who ain’t seen it. And it’s rising every minute.”
“What did I tell you, Jinny?” cried Miss Gentry. “Oh, Mr. Pennymole, will my house be safe?”
“It’s one thing, mum, to be in the flood and another to be out of it,” he responded oracularly.
“Come along!” said Jinny impatiently. “Your cottage has got two steps to begin with, and even if it gets up to your garden, you’ll be safe inside.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, Jinny,” corrected the oracle. “That fares to sap the foundations, and then crack! bang! you think it’s a big gun, and down comes walls and ceilings. My gran’fer seen a whole row of cottages washed away. And then there’s flotsam what bangs about and smashes you in.”
Miss Gentry clutched wildly at Jinny, dropping shoes and muff into the swirl. “And Squibs does hate to get her feet wet,” she babbled.
Alarmed at the effect of his pronouncement, the oracle hastened to tone it down and to pick up her things.
“No need to get into a pucker, mum. You’re all right, same as you’re in the high room. And Oi count ye’ve got a grate upstairs, which is more than we’re blessed with this weather. That gre’t ole stove can’t git up.”
“And you could sew in your bedroom,” Jinny added soothingly. “You’ve never known it get higher than the ground floor, have you, Mr. Pennymole?”
“Not in my born days,” answered the oracle.
“But there’s always new things happening,” wailed Miss Gentry.
“That’s wunnerful true,” Mr. Pennymole admitted, smiling. “Oi never thought Oi’d fare to oversleep myself. But the day there was that grand wedding at the church, Oi hadn’t time to make my tea.”
“And then he had two teas!” put in Mrs. Pennymole hilariously.
But before the story had proceeded far, they all became aware of people hastening from every quarter towards the unsubmerged regions, not for safety, but for salvage; carts and even wagons with teams began to come up, and the bustle and cackle recalled Mr. Pennymole to public duty.
Leaving his wife to finish telling the story, as well as transferring the furniture, he joined a party hurrying on to Farmer Gale’s five-acre field, and as Jinny and Miss Gentry passed along, they saw potato clamps being dug up, cattle driven higher, corn and hay unstacked and transported, and even threshing in hasty operation. The Sunday clothes of those who hadn’t stayed to “shiften,” but emphasized the profanity of the scene.
“You see what Dissenters are!” said Miss Gentry in disgust.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” quoted Jinny maliciously. But Miss Gentry did not recognize her own words. Jinny went on to praise the true Christianity of these labourers, who though ground down to a miserable wage, were now dashing to Farmer Gale’s assistance even in his absence—for he had apparently not yet returned from his place of worship at Chipstone. One cornstack saved, she calculated, would be worth more than he had paid Mr. Pennymole in the last five years.
“In this dreadful day of the Lord, it’s souls that want saving, not stacks,” said Miss Gentry.
Arrived at last on her own doorstep, she collapsed in Jinny’s arms. What was the use of not going to Boulogne, she demanded, if she was to be drowned in her bed? At least she might have had the hope of seeing her dear Cleopatra again. And surely the darling must have written, must have sent her address. Bundock must have lost the letters, or, worse, suppressed them! He owed her a grudge because she had resisted his importunities. Yes, Jinny—dead to Passion—had no idea to what lengths people born under other planets would go—even though married! But, extricating herself, Jinny, with that cold blood of hers, left her patron to the consolations of Squibs; she must get home to her grandfather, she explained; he would be worrying over her fate.
She found him at his telescope, as outraged as Miss Gentry, and enjoying himself immensely over the spectacle that shattered his Sunday dullness. His big Bible had been lugged upstairs, and now lay on the bed, open at the Deluge; and the bucket that received his ceiling-drippings had been kicked over in his excitement. “That’s the Lord’s punishment on they Sabbath-breakers,” he said gleefully. Nor could all Jinny’s arguments—as she wiped up his private flood—bring home to him his inverted logic. “The Lord knowed ’twas in their hearts to break it,” he persisted. “ ‘And it repented the Lord that He had made man.’ ”
“Oh, it’s not so bad as the flood of 2352,” said Jinny, airing her Spelling-Book chronology.
“Wait till the Brad flows over the dyke,” he chuckled. “That’ll spill all over Long Bradmarsh, ay, and run down towards Chipstone.”
“Oh, you don’t think it will get over the dyke?” she said anxiously.
“Mebbe to Babylon itself,” he said voluptuously.
“All the more reason they should try to save what they can,” she urged. “Time and tide wait for no man, and why should any man wait for the tide? It’s like with shepherds and stockmen that can’t ever have their Sunday. Come down to dinner.”
But the Gaffer’s eye was glued to his tube. “That’s as good as harvest!” he exclaimed in shocked exhilaration. “Dash my buttons ef they ain’t thatchin’ the stack they carted over from Pipit’s meadow. And they’re makin’ new mangold and potato clamps.”
“So long as they don’t get largesse,” Jinny maintained.
The Gaffer groaned. “Largesse or no largesse, Oi never seen sech a Sunday in all my born days. What a pity Sidrach dedn’t live to see it!”
When she at last got him to surrender the spy-glass, she could not refrain from taking a peep herself. She was astonished at the swift rise of the waters. Already the hedgerows were disappearing, while an avenue of elms rising mysteriously out of a lagoon was the sole indication of a road she had passed on her way to church. A swan and cygnets were now sailing upon it, with darker and less distinguishable objects tossing around. A bed of osiers seemed to be in its natural element as it rose from the waters that islanded a farm. The black, snow-powdered barn looked like the upturned hull of some squat galleon, and the haystacks thatched as with hoar-frost had the air of cliffs crumbling before the sea. One clump of bare trees rose out of the glassy void like the rigging of a sinking ship. Her world had suffered a water-change into something rich and strange in which only the rare protuberances enabled her to trace out the original earth-pattern. Even seagulls were floating, and frank-herons wheeling, and kingfishers diving. Her grandfather watched her like one who had provided the show. “That makes me feel a youngster agen,” he cried. “ ’Tis like the good ole times when there warn’t no drainage-mills ne yet Frog Farms.”
“Frog Farm isn’t swept away?” she cried with a sudden clamminess at her heart.
“Oi wouldn’t give much for the farniture downstairs,” he said, with sinister satisfaction. “That’s the lowest house in the parish. And then ye deny ’tis the Lord’s hand a-chastenin’ the evil-doers. Oi reckon though they’ve packed their waluables in the coach, the pirate thieves, and scuttled off Beacon Hill way.”
Without replying, she gazed through a tremulous telescope at the distant point where the Brad seemed to wind immediately behind the roof of Frog Farm but the convolutions and dip of the land, aided by an intervening copse, hid everything from her except the quaint chimney, though the smoke fluttering in the wind showed that if the Gaffer’s hypothesis was correct, evacuation must have been recent. It was something, though, to see the farmhouse still uncollapsed, though her imagination surrounded it with water like the more visible farm. She was glad to remember that Master Peartree at least would have been in his hut on higher ground, keeping vigil over the lambing ewes.
“Somebody ought to go and see if they’ve really got away,” she said anxiously.
“They’ll be all right ef the Lord don’t want to punish ’em,” he said surlily. “And ef He do, ’tain’t for nobody to baulk Him!”
After dinner he forwent his nap. The Lord had sent him not only a spectacle but a great new eye, and had even denuded the trees that might in summer have blocked his view, and he was not the man to “sin his mercies.” Jinny had ceased to be anxious about his catching cold at the casement—evidently his life of driving had inured him—so, wrapping a blanket round his smock and the new-knitted muffler round his throat, she left him to enjoy himself while she cleared away the frugal meal.
Suddenly she heard a roar as of distant thunder, followed by a great shout from above.
“It’s busted! It’s busted!”
She rushed up in alarm, nearly upsetting his bucket herself.
“Behold!” he cried Biblically, handing her the glass. “That’s busted a piece out of the bank.”
She looked—and beheld indeed! In the embankment that guarded Long Bradmarsh gaped a breach of some fifty yards, while giant blocks of clay that must have weighed tons were swirling like children’s marbles towards the Long Bradmarsh meadows whence panic-stricken labourers were now fleeing backwards.
“It’s caught ’em, the Sabbath-breakers,” said the Gaffer ecstatically. “That didn’t wait to flow over the dyke.”
“I’ve got to go and give help on the Ridge,” she said resolutely. And not all his arguments or threats could stay her cart. “Christ said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” she urged, and the text silenced him. But it was not so easy to dispose of the pietism of Methusalem, whose blank incredulity before her threatened disturbance of the holy day was only overcome by the convincing commonplaceness with which Nip barked around. The poor horse must have imagined that he had overslept himself and that it was Tuesday. Fortunately “the Ridge” lay downwards for him, and the crowds and the everyday bustle finally disillusioned him of his Sunday feeling, and he allowed his cart to be laden with the carrots, swedes, and mangolds that had lain in such snug rows packed betwixt hurdles and a sort of straw thatch kept down by long poles. At first Jinny kept looking round for the rival carrier, but either he would not demean his coach to such service, or he was water-bound.
Jinny asked several people whether they had seen the Flynts and whether Frog Farm would be safe, but if nobody could supply any information, nobody thought there would be any serious danger.
“They’ll be all right,” said Farmer Gale bitterly. “It’s my land there that’s drowned, and my stacks that are floating.” He was on the scene now, directing operations, cursing his looker. For the first time the breezy Cornishman doubted his father’s cuteness in buying up soil whose fatness was only due to its centuries of repose under water. “The land’ll be out of heart for years,” he lamented. Jinny could not help a secret satisfaction in seeing the hard-hearted farmer confronted by a force as remorseless as that which had swept Uncle Lilliwhyte out of his cottage. Nor could she escape a still subtler pleasure in thus heaping coals of fire on his head. But both these joys as well as her anxiety about Frog Farm were soon lost in the glow of service. It was such a delight to be no longer shamming work, while to give had become an almost forgotten pleasure.
When she returned to the field for a second load, the flood was already creeping over it, and the early darkness and a pale quarter-moon threw a new weirdness over these unknown waters. She found the lane outside still more flooded, and as Methusalem plashed homewards, she encountered Uncle Lilliwhyte rising from the waters like a disreputable river-god. He was dexterously spearing mangolds as they floated past, and stacking them, mixed with drowned hares, in a wheelbarrow, itself apparently flotsam. He had an air of legal operations, there was none of the furtive look that goes with bulges in smock-frocks, and Jinny, too, thought he was justly avenged on his evictor, though she refused to desecrate the Sabbath by buying any of his spoils. She could not help feeling rewarded when Nip appeared with a rabbit gratis. As he had not killed it, she refrained from rebuking him, and he came in subsequently for the bones. But his pride at having thus at last achieved his ideal almost turned his head, and all the more bitter was his humiliation when his next epoch-making capture—a dead rat—was rejected with reproach.
If Jinny had much to tell her grandfather over the rabbit stew, he in his turn had no lack of material for excited conversation. Both were exhilarated, rejuvenated by the metamorphosis of their landscape; it seemed, more pungently even than snow, to re-create the wonder of the world. It was a gay young grandfather that rattled off the farces and tragedies of the day’s drama: a sodden haystack hurled into the Brad, a cart of mangolds overturned in a watery field, a bullock swimming for dear life and landing safely on a mound where stampeded horses cowered; dead ewes floating—and just in the lambing season too!—men in boats rescuing pigs and poultry from the grounds of water-logged cottages, and hauling clothes and bedding through the windows.
“There’s hundreds o’ Farmer Gale’s acres drowned what was cropped with seed,” he said with gloomy relish, “and regiments o’ rats ha’ saved theirselves atop of his stacks. When they’ve goffled their fill they wentures down for a drink, the warmints, and then up again. Same as ’twixt the devil and the deep sea for they onfortunit stacks.”
That night a white mist rising from the waters blotted out everything, but the next morning, when Jinny went up to induce her grandfather to descend to breakfast, she found to her surprise and relief that though the Brad was still hurling itself through the breach, the bulk of Long Bradmarsh was still unflooded, still alive with salvage parties. The low arms of the marsh-mills were still working with frantic efficiency. What miracle had saved this village? Her grandfather explained that there must still be some righteous men there. But Jinny, looking through his glass for herself, discovered—after a preliminary peep at the Frog Farm chimney, whose smokelessness was a fresh relief—that the breach-water instead of flowing evenly over Long Bradmarsh had half found, half scooped out for itself, a sort of river-bed. Turning aside before a slight rise, it had veered round sharply eastward, and then curving back westward, when it met another obstacle three hundred yards later, it had finally poured itself over the dyke back into the Brad.
“That’s a mercy,” she said, expounding it.
“But now there’s a chance of both they rivers flowin’ over,” he pointed out hopefully.
But as she gazed, she grew aware of a new phenomenon.
“Why, the Brad’s going backwards!” she said.
He snatched the glass from her hand. “So it be!” he agreed. “But that’s onny where the little river busts in agen the wrong way and pours along the top o’ the real river.”
Jinny was thrilling all down her spine. Again the sibylline prophecy of Miss Gentry rang in her ears:
When the Brad in opposite ways shall course,
Lo! Jinny’s husband shall come on a horse,
And Jinny shall then learn Passion’s force.
Overwhelmed by the uncanny divination of the dressmaker—a “wise woman” in good sooth it now appeared—she sank into a chair, her whole being aquiver with a premonition that she had reached the crucial point of her destiny. Who was it coming on a horse? Who but Will, that incarnation of equestrian grace? He was coming to rescue her, the dear silly, imagining her menaced by the flood. As if she had not got Methusalem! As if Blackwater Hall was not an Ararat! But his foolishness was part of the Fate—might he not even ride his horse through the doorway, lying along its back to avoid the lintel, and thus be practically “on his hands and knees”? In her grandfather’s present happy mood, the old man might very well accept that solution. And Will himself would be “carried in,” and might equally accept the compromise. Absorbed in her sophistic day-dream, she sat there till even the old man at his tube remembered breakfast. Nor did she again volunteer to help in the fields. All day she stayed at home over her Monday housework and wash-tub, awaiting the horseman, afraid to stir out.
And with equal patience her grandfather sat at his all-day show. Engineers and gesticulating figures appeared on the broken bank for his delectation, and a mile or so lower down labourers began to shovel gault (culch, he called it to Jinny), and lighters laden with it tried to sink themselves in the breach, but some were swirled away like bandboxes and others turned turtle—a comical sight that made him roar with laughter. At last exciting operations with ropes, stretched across the river, succeeded in keeping some in place. After that a big-sailed barge came to the rescue—he could even recognize the two punters with long poles who eked out the sail. Ravens’ grandson, that ne’er-do-well, and Ephraim Bidlake, whose grandfather’s barge used to “competition wuss than coaches,” he told Jinny. They had brought a cargo of the blue-grey stuff—hundreds of sacks—and “dinged” it into the breach, wellnigh clogging it up. And then—oh side-splitting drollery!—the dyke had gone and “busted” in another weak place—near the bridge. And they were left “like dickies” with empty sacks, while the folk in the new-swamped fields went scurrying like rats.
So continuous were her grandfather’s shouts of glee that Jinny ceased to attend to them, and would not come up to see even the new gap. She was the more amazed when at supper he talked of having seen “ ’Lijah Skindle” fishing from the window of Frog Farm. “Oi called ye to come and see,” he said reproachfully when she expressed incredulity. “He got his line danglin’ from a broomstick!”
The sight of Miss Gentry astride a broomstick seemed far likelier to Jinny. In the first place, no window of the farmhouse was visible from theirs; in the second, how could Elijah Skindle be living there?
“What would Mr. Skindle be doing at Frog Farm?” she said.
“So long as he ain’t taken Annie there!” he answered. “Oi shouldn’t wonder ef the whole place comes tumblin’ down like they fir-trees. For the more Oi set thinkin’ on it, the more Oi see as it’s to punish that competitioning pirate that the flood’s been sent.”
“Don’t talk like that, Gran’fer. I expect you’ve been dozing.”
“Oi tell you Oi seen him and his broomstick,” he cried angrily. “And when he couldn’t catch nawthen, he tied his han’kercher on it and signalled with it, too.”
She did remember now that Elijah and Will had become thicker than their respective relations to Blanche seemed to warrant, and she had shrewdly divined that Will wanted to flaunt his indifference to his rejection, and Elijah to pose as the magnanimous conqueror. It was not impossible, therefore, that the horse-doctor, summoned to Snowdrop or Cherry-blossom on the Saturday afternoon, had been caught by the torrential rain and the gale and persuaded to stay the night in that spare bedroom once occupied by Mr. Flippance. But more probably it was only another of the old man’s illusions. “Why, there wasn’t even any smoke from the chimney,” she reminded him.
“Mebbe there was too much water in it,” he chuckled.
Jinny’s blood ran cold, but not on account of the Flynts. She was still too obsessed with the vision of Will arriving on a horse to imagine him or his parents immured by the waters. No, the feeling that stole over her was that Elijah Skindle was not living at the farm, but that while the occupants had evacuated it, he had been drowned outside it—swept away with his trap—and that her grandfather had seen yet another ghost.
“If anybody was signalling,” she pointed out, “the engineers and the wherrymen would have seen him.”
“They can’t see through a brick wall,” he retorted crushingly. “Frog Farm ain’t got no eyes on the Brad. Depend on’t, ’tis the Lord’s finger.”
She was still incredulous. But the moment supper was over, she ran up to examine the farmhouse afresh. The wind had “sobbed down”; the sky was sprinkled with stars, seen through frequent rifts in the clouds; and the moon, though only a crescent, emerging through a cloud-rack, shed a silver radiance over the watery waste, and cast over it black rippling bands of shadow from the bare elms and poplars rising from it in such unearthly beauty. And there in the region of Frog Farm, perceptible even to the naked eye, a mysterious reddish-yellow light, like some new star, threw its far-reaching beams upon the softened flood. A closer examination revealed that some of the trees of the fir-copse had been sapped and now lay heaving gently—the old man, she remembered, had alluded to fallen firs—and that the ruddy rays came from a farm bedroom, no longer shut out by the foliage. The smoke, too, was rising again. It was clear that the house was not uninhabited, and that her grandfather might very well have seen Elijah Skindle, while the absence of smoke all day might be traceable to the inability of the occupants to get a light earlier from sodden matches.
“But if they are starving and signalling,” she cried agitatedly, “we must tell people. We must send a boat.”
“We can’t get no boat,” he said philosophically.
“But you’ve seen plenty of boats,” she urged. “I saw two myself rowing over the five-acre field. And there’s that fowling-punt on the bank.”
“That! Oi seen that fleetin’ bottom up! Ye can’t goo out to-night. Ye’d be drownded. Why, look there! That’s a dead cow from the Farm meadow!”
“Where? I can’t see anything.”
“There! Bobbin’ near the copse.” He pointed and snatched the glass from her. “Why, that’s a hoss,” he shouted exultantly, “a black hoss! That should be Snowdrop, ef it ain’t Cherry-blossom!” He was on his feet now, quivering with excitement, his blanket falling from his shoulders.
“Why, how can you be sure in this light?” she said, trembling no less. “It may be a brown horse, or even a plough-horse.”
“That’s a black coach-hoss sure enough, black as his heart, the pirate thief. What did Oi tell ye? ‘Wengeance is mine, saith the Lord. Oi will repay.’ ” He looked so solemn in the moonlight, with his white beard, and his white-sleeved arm pointing starward, that she almost felt his standpoint had a prophetic justification. But she shook off the spell.
“Sit down, Gran’fer,” she pleaded, readjusting his blanket. “Mr. Flynt was in his right.”
“Ef he was in his right, why has the Lord drownded his hoss?” he demanded fiercely. “Do ye set down, yerself.” And he clutched her wrist with his bony hand.
“Let me go!” she cried. “There’s Mr. Skindle to be saved too.”
“There ain’t no danger for them—’tis your boat what ’ud come into colloosion with trees and cattle and fences and—why, just look at that!”
He dropped her hand to scrutinize the strange object awash. “Hallelujah!” he cried hysterically. “That’s the top o’ the coach! Dedn’t Oi say ’twas a funeral coach?”
She shivered, and a cloud, coming just then over the moon, seemed to eclipse her resolution to rouse the neighbours. The sudden pall of darkness made the old man clutch her again—his own evocation of the funeral coach had frightened him. “Oi won’t be left alone by night,” he quavered and wiped a watery eye. Jinny refused to take it as pathos. “You’ll blind yourself with that telescope,” she said sternly. But inwardly she felt he was not so wrong. In that dim fitful light there was more danger to the would-be rescuers than to the party so snugly gathered round some bedroom hearth in Frog Farm. That ruddy lamplight, still brighter by the extinction of the moon, beamed reassuringly over the waters. Skindle’s broomstick-rod might have represented merely an effort to break the monotony of imprisonment—it was no proof that they had been cut off from their larder. And with the waters now calmer, the house that had stood the gale was not likely to subside in the night. No, they were probably safer where they were than if “rescued.” She must wait till the morning.
A loud thumping at the kitchen-door shattered her speculations. Jinny’s heart beat almost as loudly. So the horseman had come at last, unheard in their excitement, choosing the back door as less of a surrender. Will had escaped then. He was not water-logged. She flew down the stairs three at a time. Poor Will! Poor Snowdrop—or was it Snowdrop that was saved and was now bearing his master to the heart that would give him compensation for all his shattered fortunes? Alas, no proud cavalier waited to bear her off clasped to his breast, no smoking steed—only a tatterdemalion before whose malodorous corduroys and battered beaver she recoiled in as much disgust as disappointment, though Uncle Lilliwhyte bore in his grimy claws a plump partridge, for which he demanded only twopence.
“But the season’s over,” she murmured.
“That’s onny the tother day and ’twarnt me as killed it,” he said. “The Lord don’t seem to care about they game laws; He killed even on Sunday.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” Jinny rebuked him. “We can’t understand His ways.”
“They do seem wunnerful odd,” admitted the nondescript. “Ever since Oi was a brat Oi’ve tried to puzzle ’em out, but it git over me. Same as a man now perished in this here flood, and went straight to hell. Wouldn’t that be a cur’ous change for the chap—like the Lord larkin’ with him!”
“Perhaps there’ll be a flood that will put out hell one day,” said Jinny evasively.
“Martha Flynt should be sayin’ there ain’t no hell to put out. That looks as if ye’ve got to goo to Heaven, do what ye will.”
“Oh, I don’t think she means that,” said Jinny, smiling despite her heavy heart.
“That’s what the humes sounded like as her and the looker used to sing of a Sunday afore Master Will come home and stopped ’em. Oi used to listen to ’em chance times—put me in mind of my young days like—but Oi don’t howd with their doctrines.”
“With whose then?” asked Jinny, interested.
“With nobody’s. Dedn’t Oi say, git over me? Ef the Lord was to offer me Heaven or Hell, which d’ye think Oi’d choose?”
“Is there a catch in it?” she asked cautiously.
“We’ve got to be catched in one or the tother,” he said, misunderstanding. “But Oi mislikes ’em both. Will you be buyin’ the bird?”
As Jinny produced two of her only three pennies, she began to realize for the first time the revolution in her fortunes implicit in the destruction of the coach. But her heart was aching too poignantly for any joy of victory. She could not savour, as her grandfather was savouring, the miraculous collapse of the competition. Victory or defeat—heaven or hell—she thought ruefully, she misliked them both. She was consumed with yearning, anxiety and compassion for the young rival who had failed to “come on a horse,” who had perhaps no longer even a single horse to come on. Nor did the fate of Snowdrop or Cherry-blossom—that superb vitality turned into a floating carcase—leave her jubilant. In the morning, indeed, she was to awake to a sense of her triumph. But what endless hours of insomnia and nightmare had first to be lived through! Again Queen Victoria, who was also quite intelligibly Miss Jinny Boldero, was saved by “The Father of the Fatherless” from the gins and stratagems of the red-haired villain who cut away London Bridge just as Her Majesty was going over it in her gold coronation coach with its six black ponies and its canvas tilt. Struggling in the cold waters, she was held up by Henry Brougham, Esq., who helped her to scramble athwart the naked carcase of a black pony on which she floated to shore, when it stood upon its feet, and with Queen Jinny astride the saddle and Miss Gentry (in bridal attire) not at all surprisingly on the pillion, galloped towards Blackwater Hall across the dry Common where anglers sat with broomsticks. And while she was lying along the pony’s mane to get through the door to the red-haired young man (now become the hero), just as she was beginning to feel Passion’s force, that stupid Miss Gentry came crack with her neck against the lintel, and off rolled her head on the floor, its moustache dabbled in blood. Picking herself up, and her scattered bedclothes, and rubbing her bruised crown, Jinny congratulated herself on sleeping in a chest of drawers in such proximity to the floor.
But the bang, slight as it was, had cleared away the vapours of sleep and she awoke to a consciousness of victory brimming her veins with vital joy. Song, so long strange to her lips, unless simulated to lull Gran’fer, came back to them as she dressed, and when she prayed “Give us this day our daily bread,” it was no longer an almost despairing cry to a deaf heaven.
Running upstairs to see if Frog Farm was safe, she was relieved to find it smoking imperturbably, though up to its bedrooms in water, and a glimpse of Caleb at the casement serenely lowering a bucket into the flood was still more reassuring. But she was thunderstruck when her grandfather gleefully pointed out that the bridge to Long Bradmarsh had broken down, almost as in her dream, and she half looked round for the coronation coach. Doubtless, she felt, surveying the broken bankside arch, which lay in uncouth masses impeding the current and sending it swirling through the still-standing central arch, the breach hard by in the dyke had helped to sap the bridge, and she was glad to see this breach being already repaired by her friends, Bidlake and Ravens, with a gang of labourers, for they were clearly heaven-sent minions for the expedition to Frog Farm.
But if she sang on as she cleared the breakfast things, her grandfather was in still higher feather. Not only had the morning brought to him as to Jinny a keener realization of the collapse of their mushroom rival, but he had discovered floating near the bridge a black horse which he persisted was the second horse, and though Jinny maintained it was the same horse, the old man had more faith in heaven. So occupied was he in gloating over this distant horse swirling against the ruined brickwork, with its stiffened leg pointing skywards, that he had not seen Methusalem harnessing under his nose, and it was not till Nip started his hysteric prelude to departure that Mr. Quarles was aroused to Jinny’s proceedings.
“Ye can’t goo out in the flood,” he called down in alarm.
“It’s Tuesday,” she called up. The blood was dancing gaily in her veins. The frosty morning air was fresh and invigorating. She was young and unconquered. The long anxiety was over. Methusalem had survived the coach, even as he had survived the murderous wiles of Elijah! She put her horn to her lips and blew a challenge to the world.
“But there bain’t no bridge,” cried her grandfather.
“Daniel Quarles hasn’t been downed by a coach,” she said, “and he isn’t going to be downed by a flood.”
“No, by God, he ain’t!” cried the old Carrier delightedly. “Oi’ll goo round miles by the next bridge sooner than miss my day. And they false customers’ll ha’ to come to me on their hands and knees ere Oi takes ’em back. Goo to the coach, ye warmints, Oi’m done wi’ ye! And Oi wish ye joy of your fine black hosses all a-jinglin’ and a-tinklin’. He, he, he! Make muddles, do Oi? Oi never made no muddle like that, stablin’ my hosses with the frogs. Do ye give a squint at that carcase, Jinny, as ye pass by and ye’ll see it ain’t the one but the tother.”
“And do ye don’t squint into that spy-glass no more,” she called up in merry earnest. “Do, ye’ll get a glass eye.”
He laughed. “No fear. Have they writ ye yet about Sidrach’s stone?”
Annoyed with herself at having called up that memory, she feigned deafness. “You’ll find partridge for your dinner,” she called out, and flicking playfully at Methusalem she burst forth joyously: “There is Hey——”
“There is Ree!” responded the sepulchral bass from above, and then as the old horse stepped out, both voices declared in duet that ’twas Methusalem bore the bells away. Jinny, waving her whip with a last backward glance at her grandfather, saw him wildly agitating his telescope, to which his coloured handkerchief was tied like a flag of victory.
Methusalem waded stolidly towards the river, his cart nearly floating in places. On the drier artificial slope leading up to the bridge she drew rein, and, jumping down, walked cautiously over the two still standing arches to hail Ephraim Bidlake, now some hundred yards down the opposite bank. As she put her horn to her lips to summon him, she saw, quanted up-stream, another barge with a reinforcement of sacks, and as it must pass under the bridge she moved to the other side to send her message by it as it came along. But the posse of mud-grimed men with a last push of their submerged poles fell prostrate before her, as in some Oriental obeisance, and she heard the tops of the gault-sacks scraping against the brickwork of the arch as the boat passed under it, so high was the water. It reminded her again of her nightmare. But no heads came crack as they glided through, and running to the other side, she spoke the rising crew.
Turning, she became aware of Bundock standing, bag-bowed, on the dyke, amid a mass of sodden straw, gazing in horror at the ruins and the dead horse bashing against them, swathed in yellow weed. She advanced to the edge of the void and hailed him across some fifteen feet of eddying water.
“For God’s sake, Jinny!” he cried, startled. “Go back! That’ll give way.”
“Not with my weight!” she laughed. “You going across?”
“How can I?”
“There’s boats, barges, wherries, lighters, punts, and swimming,” called Jinny, “and you’ve got to do your duty to the Queen.”
“And haven’t I done it?” he said pathetically, exhibiting his soused leggings. “But there’s only three letters for Little Bradmarsh and all for the same man.”
“I can guess who that is,” she said. “And yet you won’t kill three frogs with one stone.”
Bundock burst into laughter. “So you’ve heard my joke,” he said happily. “I do liven folks up, don’t I, though few have the brains to appreciate aught beyond the Bellman’s silly puns.” Then his ruddy, pitted countenance resumed its melancholy mien. “But I can’t joke about the flood, Jinny, you mustn’t expect me to. There’s poor Charley Mott!”
“Why, what’s he got to do with water?” Jinny jested.
“Haven’t you heard? He’s drowned.”
Jinny’s laugh froze on her lips. Charley had obstinately gone to fish in the troubled waters of the Brad, the postman related, despite the weather. All the Sunday morning he had fished from the dyke, and was just walking off to dine with some pals at “The King of Prussia” when the bank burst, and he was caught by the torrent and smashed among the whirling blocks. It was exactly like the moral of the Spelling-Book, and Jinny saw before her as on a scroll of judgment the grey blurred type of Lesson XV: “Harry’s Downfall.” True, Harry had been torn by wild beasts as well as shipwrecked on the coast of Barbary, but in a country without the larger carnivora a complete analogy could not be expected.
“Poor Mr. Mott,” she sighed. And then, remembering the case put by Uncle Lilliwhyte, had the luckless young man indeed gone straight from water to fire, she wondered. “It’ll be a relief for Mrs. Mott anyhow,” she said.
“A relief?” gasped Bundock. “Why, she’s carrying on like mad. Says it’s all her fault for trying to drive him to chapel. And that it was Deacon Mawhood that egged her on to drive him on the curb. And that he was worth a dozen Deacons, and she won’t have any more to do with you Peculiars. Why, when I brought her the letters this morning, if she hadn’t kept me such a time pouring out all Charley’s virtues, I might have got across before this bridge broke down. Not that I could have delivered my letters anyhow.”
“I think it broke in the night,” said Jinny. Then she fell silent, disconcerted by these illogical manifestations of human nature, and she did not remember where she was till she found Nip tugging at her dress and cowering on the brink of the abyss, as if afraid she would be walking on. The wherry, she perceived too, was now coming up, and young Ravens’ voice was floating melodiously across the waters:
“’Tis my delight of a shiny night
In the season of the year!”
“There’s your ferry, Bundock!” she called.
“And what’s the good of going across?” he asked. “By what I see I couldn’t possibly get to Frog Farm.”
“But I’m going there!”
“What!” He gazed towards her side of the river, the willows surging from which alone marked the former bank. Plover were flying with dismal cries over the unseen pastures.
He shook his head: “One inquest’s enough for Chipstone.”
“I’ll take your letters,” she said with a sudden thought that made her happier.
Bundock resisted the offer. His repugnance to seeing the Queen’s mail sacrilegiously carried by a member of Her Majesty’s sex was deep-seated, and it was only because he took seriously Jinny’s threat to write to his sovereign that he finally handed the three letters by a compromise to Ephraim Bidlake. Needless to say that as soon as Bundock’s pouched back was turned, that faithful henchman transferred them to Jinny.
When he took her little horse and cart on board his broad-built wherry, he imagined she only wanted to be ferried across, but she had soon spurred him to the great adventure across the “drowned” meadows. It was a question of life-saving, she said, and for the British Navy as embodied in Bidlake and Ravens, this was enough. Fortunately the females were now lodged on shore, awaiting Mrs. Bidlake’s annual event. Moreover the wherry, relieved by the other barge, had a slack moment, and with Jinny to guide them from the vantage-point of her driving-board over hidden snags in the shape of submerged stiles, sheds, mounds or bushes, the two men punted boldly over the left bank. The mast had been lowered, for apart from the danger of boughs catching in the sail, the trees made a wind-screen to the pastures.
It was odd as the barge passed between two willows on the margin of the river, to see these trees reflected doubly, at once in stream and in flood. There was no difficulty in avoiding the larger flotsam, though one of Farmer Gale’s haystacks was only staved off with Bidlake’s pole, and it was not till they had quanted to the farmhouse itself that the steering became troublesome, for there were no windows at the back, at which they were arriving, there were farm-buildings and floating stacks waiting to embarrass them at the front, the so-called Frog Cottage presented a blank black wall at one side, while the windowed side-wall, from which Martha had once beheld Bundock marching through morasses, was encumbered, not only by the wreckage of the stable and the mangled body of the coach, but by Caleb’s wild “orchard,” in whose mystically rising oak-branches and pear-tree-tops poultry, to which fear had restored wings, were seen to be roosting. But by taking a wide course over the wheat-patch so as to avoid the stacks, the barge was able to double Frog Cottage safely, to glide triumphantly into dock, and lie alongside Frog Farm. The exciting manœuvre had been accomplished in grim silence—even Ravens forgetting to sing as they bumped over the chaotic remains of the old log-dyke and raised wagon-road—and it was not till it was over that Jinny found breath to blow her horn. And as she did so, she was startled to see behind the diamond panes of the closed casement of the central bedroom—now on a level with her driving-board and almost opposite it—a head that vaguely recalled Mr. Duke’s.
But the next instant she recognized Maria, and the old black sow was pushed aside, the casement flung open and a red-haired head flung out. And if Jinny had stared incredulously at the sight of the pig, what word can convey the dilatation of Will’s eyes as they now beheld the little Carrier perched on her accustomed seat, whip in hand, as though on the solid road! It was some seconds before he even perceived the barge sustaining her cart.
“What do you want?” broke harshly from his lips.
Such ungraciousness after the perils of her voyage jarred upon her. “Don’t you want anything from Chipstone?” she asked, with a malice she had not intended.
“No,” he barked.
“Well, here’s your letters I’ve carried,” she said demurely. “The postal service, like the coach service, has broken down.” She hurled the letters through the window just as he was banging it to, but ere it could close it was thrown open again, and Elijah, Maria, Martha, and Caleb were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to greet her.
“Jinny!” came from all their mouths, even, it seemed, from Maria’s, and she saw through dimming eyes that the bedroom was a chaos of furniture and fowls.
“Here, catch hold of that rope, one of ye,” cried Ephraim Bidlake. “Tie it to a bedpost.” He had already fastened the stem of the boat to an oak, but the current was swinging out the stern.
It was with a thrill that Jinny found herself gazing for the first time into Will’s bedroom, though its normal character was disturbed by its emergency use as a sitting-room, poultry-run, pigsty, and salvage store. The wet crinkled motto: “When He giveth quietness, who then can make trouble?” was lying as if in ironic questioning atop a pile of parlour ornaments, and Martha’s silk sampler lay stained and sodden on the very chair on which Mr. Flippance had sat admiring it. “Unstable as water,” human destinies seemed to Jinny as she surveyed the jumble in the whitewashed attic. But there was too much bustle for reflection, nor could she even see clearly what Will himself was doing, for Maria and Elijah were jostling each other at the window in their efforts to get through, and the vet.’s cap fell on the deck in his agitation.
“Pigs first!” called Jinny, and as though obediently, Elijah clutching at the edge of her tilt scrambled on the foot-board of the cart and thence to the deck. “Nice behaviour, leaving us to starve,” he grumbled in the same pachydermatous spirit, as he clapped his cap on his chilled cranium.
“How could you starve with all those fowls?” said Jinny.
“They weren’t for weekday eating, the old woman said. Nothing since Sunday but dry bread!”
“As long as it was dry,” Jinny laughed.
“It wasn’t even that! Simply sopping.”
“Well, all prisoners get bread and water,” said Jinny in mock consolation. Ravens had hastened to pull out a greasy package. Elijah waved it aside with a sniffy air. “Thanks—I’ll wait till we land now.”
“Elijah not fed by Ravens,” laughed Jinny. Outwardly she was in the gayest of moods, bandying words again in quite her old vein. But it was a feverish gaiety—underneath, every nerve was astrain for Will’s reappearance with all it forboded of ecstasy and conflict. “Come along, Maria,” she called, for the barge had drifted out a little on its window-rope, and the sow’s eagerness was damped. Now encouraged, she allowed herself to be helped into the cart by Caleb above and Bidlake below. After the fowls had been chivied beside her, there was a delay.
“The missus be in our bedroom packin’ some things for the night,” apologized Caleb, returning to the window. “She can’t sleep without her nightcap, it wouldn’t be decent, and she likes me to change my red shirt for bed.”
“But where will you sleep?” Jinny now asked, feeling suddenly responsible as for an eviction.
“Mr. Skindle’s kindly offered to put us all up till we looks round,” said Caleb.
“It’s the big house I’m furnishing for my wedding regardless,” Elijah explained. “And I’m going to give them their food, too, and it isn’t the sort of food they’ve given me either. But when you’re cooped up with folks in danger of your life, you get closer to them and don’t grudge expense, especially when they’re in low water.”
“In low water?” echoed Jinny. “Oh, Mr. Skindle!”
“You know what I mean,” Elijah replied. “Poor Will’s lost his horses—such a come-down. Not that he ever had enough to appeal to a girl brought up to be a lady. In my new house now there’s three spare bedrooms—I’ll get my mother to make ’em all ready—that’ll be one apiece for ’em if they care to spread themselves.”
“But then how about Maria?” Jinny jested.
“Maria!” he grunted. “It’s all her fault. I always said she was the fussiest pig I ever attended. A mere cramp, through not taking exercise all this rainy weather; fright cured her in a jiffy. But think of the valuable time she’s cost me! I wouldn’t have come but to oblige Will. No wonder they call the place Frog Farm.”
“I don’t hear any croaking but yours,” flashed Jinny. “Why, if time is all you’ve lost, you’re lucky. Where’s your horse?”
“You didn’t think I’d risk Jess on these roads in the weather we’ve been having? I only agreed to come in the coach Saturday night and go back Sunday morning with Farmer Gale and his wife when they drove in to chapel. Poor Blanche! She must have been in a terrible twitter when I didn’t turn up at the Sunday dinner!”
“I wonder she didn’t come out for you in a boat?” said Jinny slyly.
“She’d be thinking I’d been called to another patient. We medical gents can never call our time our own,” he explained, but there was a tremor of uneasiness in his words. He pulled out his empty pipe and stuck it between his blackened teeth. Caleb here appeared with uncouth bundles, and Martha (embellished by sudden Sunday clothes) with a last frightened chicken, and as the barge had now quite tautened its window-rope and left a watery gap, Martha’s descent was a fluttering episode.
“Not so easy as the New Jerusalem coming down,” gasped Caleb, when she was safely installed inside the cart with Maria and the poultry and the dazed Nip.
Ephraim Bidlake, intimating he could not wait on this jaunt to lower any of the furniture, had gone off—in a little dinghy he carried—to rescue the fowls in the orchard branches, and their fearful cackling and the excitement of his perilous quest now drew all eyes, except Jinny’s, which remained furtively bent on the window, from which the drifting of the barge had carried her away. It was with relief that she heard Martha suddenly exclaim:
“But where’s the boy?”
“Oi count he’s got such a mort o’ new-fangled things,” scoffed Caleb. “Tooth-brushes and underclothes and shavin’-strops—happen he’ll want a whole portmantle. Oi offered to help him with his poor arm, but he’s that fiery and sperrited—ye remember, Jinny, how he lugged his great ole box all the way Chipstone!”
“But what’s the matter with his arm?” Jinny asked anxiously.
“Didn’t you see his sling?” called Elijah proudly.
“Broken?” Jinny murmured, paling.
“Only a simple fracture.” He puffed complacently at his pipe, forgetting it was empty.
“You’ve got to go back, Caleb, and help the poor lad,” said Martha, with renewed agitation.
“Then you might as well get my hand-bag from my room,” Elijah added. “I didn’t think of it in the rush.”
Ravens, labouring mightily with his pole to larboard, pushed the barge back to the window, and as Caleb obediently clambered in again, Martha, growing calmer, began telling Jinny how Will had swum out to the stable to save the horses, but had only got his arm kicked for his pains. And then, of course, he couldn’t help her in carrying any of her furniture upstairs—it was a mercy he got back at all—and, it being Sunday, “Flynt” would help only to save life, though you’d have thought from Maria’s squeals, as she was haled upstairs, that she was being slaughtered rather than saved. As for Mr. Skindle, he seemed stricter with the Sabbath than even the Peculiars, and would do nothing but try to light the fire.
“You were at home. I hadn’t got but the clothes I stood in,” Elijah explained. “What should I have done if I’d gone up to my neck in water?”
“Here’s your bag,” Caleb’s voice broke in from the window, “but Will won’t come, Martha!”
“Won’t come?” shrilled Martha, and before Jinny could stop her, she was on the footboard and had disappeared through the casement.
“He’s an ungrateful, ill-tempered fellow,” Elijah commented, picking up his bag, and changing his collar as he talked. “I don’t call him a gentleman. He can’t forgive that his arm was set by a vet., and he sits about like a broody hen. Asked me not to mention it, which, of course, as a gentleman, I won’t. What good do you suppose it would do me to have it known—I said to him—seeing I’ve already got the family connexion with Maria? But he got very cross,” Elijah wound up innocently, “though I said I wouldn’t even charge pig’s price, but would swap the fee and Maria’s too against his horses, provided I could recover the carcases.”
“I’ve got to stay here,” cried Martha, reappearing hysterically at the window. “He won’t come.”
“What nonsense!” cried Jinny, losing her temper. “We’ll all go and pull him out.”
“He’s locked himself in my bedroom—the one with the side window—you can’t get in from here.” She wrung her hands; these days of durance and danger had evidently told upon her nerves.
“I’ll smash the door in and his head too!” growled Ravens, his foot on the window-sill.
“No, no,” Jinny commanded, swinging herself suddenly past him. “You take your wife down, Mr. Flynt. She’s too excited. I’ll rout him out.”
Martha protested shrilly that where she had failed, a stranger could not succeed. No, she must stay with her boy, tend his poor arm! But the men overruled her and were returning her gently but firmly to the footboard of the cart when she cried desperately:
“Wait! Wait! I’ve forgotten something under my pillow.” “I’ll get it!” Jinny promised. “What is it?”
But Martha refused to say. It was very precious. It was in an envelope. It wasn’t for Jinny to see. In vain Jinny declared she wouldn’t open the envelope. Martha’s hysteric protests mingled with the frenzied cackling of the fowls that Ephraim Bidlake was still chasing.
Leaving the males to pacify Martha and deposit her in the cart, Jinny stooped under the barge-rope and threaded the litter betwixt the bed and the right-hand door—the other door, she knew, gave on the bedroom bisected by Frog Cottage. Pausing but a moment to look down the now literal well of the staircase, in which dead mice floated, she rapped imperiously at the connubial chamber under the gable.
“Go away, mother!” came the fretful answer.
“I’m not your mother—if I were I’d slap you. A nice state you’ve got her into!”
“What do you want?” he said in a changed tone.
“Your mother’s left something precious in an envelope under her pillow.”
“I thought you said you’d never cross my doorstep.”
“I didn’t—I came by the window-sill.” But even as her lips gave the obvious repartee, her mind beheld her grandfather scrambling into the room of the Angel-Mother, and it all seemed ineffably silly in view of the tragic realities of life. As if she would not have crossed even an enemy’s threshold to bind up a broken arm!
“Well, suppose you return the same way,” he retorted.
“That’s what I mean to do,” she said, angry again. “I’ve got my rounds.”
“What! In the barge?”
“I don’t want a boat. Long Bradmarsh has kept its head above water and Methusalem’s going just as strong as before the flood.” Then, afraid she had recalled his own dead horses, she added hurriedly: “How’s your arm?”
“That’s nothing, thank you. Good-bye.”
“Not without the envelope.”
Their words came muffled through the door-panels, and a barrier as obstructive seemed to divide their spirits, though they yearned dumbly towards each other.
“I’ll put it under the door,” he said surlily.
“I don’t wonder you’re ashamed to look me in the face.”
Jinny was thinking of his behaviour to his mother. But it was an unfortunate remark. Will was ashamed, mortally ashamed of his defeat. He had come along from over the seas, he felt, swelling and strutting and jeering! Poor little Jinny! Poor, comical little village carrier! Oho, he’d soon crush her! Oho, he’d soon make an end of her! And now! His coach smashed up, his horses drowned, his capital gone, his savings—the bulk spent on his fine clothes—barely sufficient to carry him along while seeking some new employment, even his parents impoverished by the flood, their very roof perhaps about to collapse over his head! While she—! Here she was with her invincible old cart, walking the waters, posing as the saviour of the whole family, carrying on the postal service and the coach service, blowing her triumphant trumpet on her immemorial Tuesday round, her old clients doubly at her mercy! What humiliation could be more bitter?
And the worst of it all was that the ache of passion, nourished by her rejection of his new advances, had become intolerably poignant. Jinny! Jinny! He seemed to hear it all around him, Jinny! Jinny! from morning to night—and even all through the night, floating through his dreams like a strain of music. And Jinny herself was ever before him night and day, with her eyes laughing and her tongue stinging.
But now that she was there in the flesh, with only a door between them, he felt he could not open it. He must never look in her face again till he had rehabilitated his fortunes. No word of love had ever been spoken between them. But could he see her, stand near her now, and not speak it? And a fine story it would sound, even if his lips proved spiritless enough to attempt it. He had loved her from the first moment he had seen her in the courtyard of “The Black Sheep,” nay, from childhood, and had tried to steal her business! Had loved her and might have driven her, with the grandfather she supported, to die in a ditch! And now that it was he who was in the ditch, could he come prating of love, add her enhanced scorn to his self-contempt? No, he had missed his opportunities! A nice hand to offer her—even if there was any chance of her taking it—a hand swathed in a sling, symbol of his crippled fortunes! He must set out on his travels again—that was clear—work his passage—as soon as his bones had grown together—to those new Australian goldfields that everybody was talking of, and then, when his self-respect had grown together too, he would write to her and ask her to wait for him. And if she still said “No”—or had already said “Yes” to a better man—why what else had he deserved, monkeying around with a flirt who was not worthy even of Elijah!
As Jinny now heard him moving speechlessly to get the envelope, the voice of Ravens carolling the popular “Gipsy King,” told her that Martha had been quieted down—unlike the fowls, which were still squawking under Bidlake’s coaxings.
“I confess I am but a man,
My feelings, who pleases may know,
I am fond of my girl and my can,
And jolly companions a row!”
Suddenly she heard Will laughing.
“What’s up?” she called, more brightly.
“Well of all the—!” And then an envelope was pushed under the door. “She hasn’t opened it yet!”
Jinny stooped down. It was the letter from Will that Martha would not let her read in the Spring of ’51!
“Well, she knew what was in it,” said Jinny, her eyes misting. “And you oughtn’t to laugh at such a proof of love. Nobody else would call that a precious treasure.”
The word “love” sent vibrations through them both, despite the woodwork between.
“Well, there’s money in the others anyhow,” he said, and three opened envelopes came unexpectedly under the door—the letters she had just brought to him.
“What are these for?” she asked.
“You may as well have them—commissions for the coach.”
“For me?” Jinny said, touched.
“Yes, I’d be obliged if you helped me out.”
“Oh, Will!” Her voice was as broken as his pride seemed to be. But his mood was less of meekness than of self-scourging.
“Well, you said the coach service had broken down,” he reminded her.
“I didn’t mean to twit you—I’m sorry——”
“What for? You told me I’d get stuck and come to you to pull me out.”
“But I’m so sorry, really. Poor Snowdrop! Poor Cherry-blossom!”
“Didn’t you call it a funeral coach? Good-bye, you’ve got the treasure.”
“You’d better come too.”
“No, thank you.”
“You needn’t be beholden to the cart if that’s what’s sticking in your gizzard. You can get off at the dyke.”
“Not me. You won’t see me again—not for a long time.”
“Rubbish! I can see you now through the keyhole.”
“So long as I don’t see you,” he said gruffly.
“You’ll see me before you’re a day older.”
“Bet my bottom dollar I won’t.”
“A dashing young lad from Canada,” she carolled. “Once a great wager did lay— Why have you buried your face in your hands?” she broke off.
“I haven’t—it’s to shut you out!”
“Aha! So I do come in all the same.”
Loud cries of “Jinny! Jinny!” now intimated, like the silence of the rescued poultry, that the barge was preparing to cast off.
“Just coming!” she called loudly. “Good-bye, you sullen, runty idiot. They can’t wait any longer.”
“Good-bye!” he growled.
Her look was mischievous as she ran off. But that he could not see: he could only hear the noisy banging of the opposite door. He had already forgotten his wager. But by hook or crook she meant to lure him out, if only for an instant. That was why she came as noisily back and thumped at his door again. “You can’t be left without food,” she said.
“That’s my business. Let me be.”
“Not till I know you won’t starve. There’s Ravens’ dinner-packet you can have.”
“Take it away,” he roared.
Her eyes twinkled. He had played into her hands, empty as they were. “I won’t take it away,” she said. There was a sound as of angry dumping outside his door. Then the opposite door banged and silence fell.
After a moment Will, drawing a sigh, half of relief, half of despair, opened his door and the next moment—he never knew how it had happened exactly (still less did he realize that there was no dinner-packet there at all), but since he had only one arm it seemed to him afterwards it could not be he that had enfolded her, even if he had done so with his eyes when her merry mocking face shone so trickily upon the landing, while Jinny always felt that it was precisely the arm out of action that had come round her, just as it was his not coming on a horse that had made her feel Passion’s force—but there they were (by some irresistible flood) in each other’s arms, with Jinny’s flower-soft cheek pressed with a wonderful warmth to his own, and her silvery little voice crooning: “Oh, my poor Will! Oh, my poor Will!” He knew immediately that there had been nothing like this in all his motley experience, nothing at once so pure, so sweet, so tender. This was the love that lifted, not degraded.
But Jinny, though she had no comparative lore of love and was all the more absorbed in the absolute wonder, uniqueness and completeness of it, knew more swiftly than her lover that this was no time for dallying. In what seemed to him a mere flash of lightning the whole episode was cruelly over, he was being helped into the barge, while Bidlake was in his bedroom untying the rope, and Jinny with motherly zeal and uncanny knowledge was scrambling together his things for the night. For her, too, the moment of breaking away had been hard, and as her face moved from his, it seemed like passing from a sunny clime to a polar world. But as she now busied herself with his little equipment, the glow was back again at her heart, and the transfigured world of that magic moment was hers again.
As the wherry began to move off at last, and Frog Cottage was doubled again, Martha, who had been laid snugly inside the cart surrounded by her live stock, with blankets from the bed thrown over her, threw them off, stretched her arms to her receding farm and burst into a new passion of tears.
“Dear heart! Dear heart!” cried Caleb, almost as agitated.
“Shall we ever see our things again?” she sobbed.
“That’s nawthen to cry over, dear heart, even ef we don’t. We’ve got to thank the Lord for givin’ us the use of Frog Farm all they long years.”
But Martha sobbed on, unconsoled.
“And Will’s been taken from me too.”
“No, no, Martha,” Caleb reassured her. “There he is by the starn, smokin’ his pipe. ’Tis middlin’ clever to my thinkin’ to fill it one-handed.”
Still Martha refused to be comforted. So spasmodic were her gulpings that Nip set up a sympathetic howl and Maria a perturbed squeal. But none of these sounds—not even Ravens’ singing—could drown the celestial music Will and Jinny heard in their hearts.
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