Copyright
George MacDonald.

The Seaboard Parish Volume 2 online

. (page 3 of 12)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldThe Seaboard Parish Volume 2 → online text (page 3 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


in the fire, and blew the bellows, I stood regarding him. "This man
will do for my work," I said to myself; "though I should not wonder
from the look of him if it was the last piece of work he ever did under
the New Jerusalem." The smith's words broke in on my meditations.

"When I was a little boy," he said, "I once wanted to stay at home from
school. I had, I believe, a little headache, but nothing worth minding.
I told my mother that I had a headache, and she kept me, and I helped
her at her spinning, which was what I liked best of anything. But in
the afternoon the Methodist preacher came in to see my mother, and he
asked me what was the matter with me, and my mother answered for me
that I had a bad head, and he looked at me; and as my head was quite
well by this time, I could not help feeling guilty. And he saw my look,
I suppose, sir, for I can't account for what he said any other way; and
he turned to me, and he said to me, solemn-like, 'Is your head bad
enough to send you to the Lord Jesus to make you whole?' I could not
speak a word, partly from bashfulness, I suppose, for I was but ten
years old. So he followed it up, as they say: 'Then you ought to be at
school,' says he. I said nothing, because I couldn't. But never since
then have I given in as long as I could stand. And I can stand now, and
lift my hammer, too," he said, as he took the horse-shoe from the
forge, laid it on the anvil, and again made a nimbus of coruscating
iron.

"You are just the man I want," I said. "I've got a job for you, down to
Kilkhaven, as you say in these parts."

"What is it, sir? Something about the church? I should ha' thought the
church was all spick and span by this time."

"I see you know who I am," I said.

"Of course I do," he answered. "I don't go to church myself, being
brought up a Methodist; but anything that happens in the parish is
known the next day all over it."

"You won't mind doing my job though you are a Methodist, will you?" I
asked.

"Not I, sir. If I've read right, it's the fault of the Church that we
don't pull all alongside. You turned us out, sir; we didn't go out of
ourselves. At least, if all they say is true, which I can't be sure of,
you know, in this world."

"You are quite right there though," I answered. "And in doing so, the
Church had the worst of it - as all that judge and punish their
neighbours have. But you have been the worse for it, too: all of which
is to be laid to the charge of the Church. For there is not one
clergyman I know - mind, I say, that I know - who would have made such a
cruel speech to a boy as that the Methodist parson made to you."

"But it did me good, sir?"

"Are you sure of that? I am not. Are you sure, first of all, it did not
make you proud? Are you sure it has not made you work beyond your
strength - I don't mean your strength of arm, for clearly that is all
that could be wished, but of your chest, your lungs? Is there not some
danger of your leaving someone who is dependent on you too soon
unprovided for? Is there not some danger of your having worked as if
God were a hard master? - of your having worked fiercely, indignantly,
as if he wronged you by not caring for you, not understanding you?"

He returned me no answer, but hammered momently on his anvil. Whether
he felt what I meant, or was offended at my remark, I could not then
tell. I thought it best to conclude the interview with business.

"I have a delicate little job that wants nice handling, and I fancy you
are just the man to do it to my mind," I said.

"What is it, sir?" he asked, in a friendly manner enough.

"If you will excuse me, I would rather show it to you than talk about
it," I returned.

"As you please, sir. When do you want me?"

"The first hour you can come."

"To-morrow morning?"

"If you feel inclined."

"For that matter, I'd rather go to bed."

"Come to me instead: it's light work."

"I will, sir - at ten o'clock."

"If you please."

And so it was arranged.




CHAPTER IV.

THE LIFE-BOAT.


The next day rose glorious. Indeed, early as the sun rose, I saw him
rise - saw him, from the down above the house, over the land to the east
and north, ascend triumphant into his own light, which had prepared the
way for him; while the clouds that hung over the sea glowed out with a
faint flush, as anticipating the hour when the west should clasp the
declining glory in a richer though less dazzling splendour, and shine
out the bride of the bridegroom east, which behold each other from afar
across the intervening world, and never mingle but in the sight of the
eyes. The clear pure light of the morning made me long for the truth in
my heart, which alone could make me pure and clear as the morning, tune
me up to the concert-pitch of the nature around me. And the wind that
blew from the sunrise made me hope in the God who had first breathed
into my nostrils the breath of life, that he would at length so fill me
with his breath, his wind, his spirit, that I should think only his
thoughts and live his life, finding therein my own life, only glorified
infinitely.

After breakfast and prayers, I would go to the church to await the
arrival of my new acquaintance the smith. In order to obtain entrance,
I had, however, to go to the cottage of the sexton. This was not my
first visit there, so that I may now venture to take my reader with me.
To reach the door, I had to cross a hollow by a bridge, built, for the
sake of the road, over what had once been the course of a rivulet from
the heights above. Now it was a kind of little glen, or what would in
Scotland be called a den, I think, grown with grass and wild flowers
and ferns, some of them, rare and fine. The roof of the cottage came
down to the road, and, until you came quite near, you could not but
wonder where the body that supported this head could be. But you soon
saw that the ground fell suddenly away, leaving a bank against which
the cottage was built. Crossing a garden of the smallest, the principal
flowers of which were the stonecrop on its walls, by a flag-paved path,
you entered the building, and, to your surprise, found yourself, not in
a little cottage kitchen, as you expected, but in a waste-looking
space, that seemed to have forgotten the use for which it had been
built. There was a sort of loft along one side of it, and it was heaped
with indescribable lumber-looking stuff with here and there a hint at
possible machinery. The place had been a mill for grinding corn, and
its wheel had been driven by the stream which had run for ages in the
hollow of which I have already spoken. But when the canal came to be
constructed, the stream had to be turned aside from its former course,
and indeed was now employed upon occasion to feed the canal; so that
the mill of necessity had fallen into disuse and decay. Crossing this
floor, you entered another door, and turning sharp to the left, went
down a few steps of a ladder-sort of stair, and after knocking your hat
against a beam, emerged in the comfortable quaint little cottage
kitchen you had expected earlier. A cheerful though small fire burns in
the grate - for even here the hearth-fire has vanished from the records
of cottage-life - and is pleasant here even in the height of summer,
though it is counted needful only for cooking purposes. The ceiling,
which consists only of the joists and the boards that floor the bedroom
above, is so low, that necessity, if not politeness, would compel you
to take off your already-bruised hat. Some of these joists, you will
find, are made further useful by supporting each a shelf, before which
hangs a little curtain of printed cotton, concealing the few stores and
postponed eatables of the house - forming, in fact, both store-room and
larder of the family. On the walls hang several coloured prints, and
within a deep glazed frame the figure of a ship in full dress, carved
in rather high relief in sycamore.

As I now entered, Mrs. Coombes rose from a high-backed settle near the
fire, and bade me good-morning with a courtesy.

"What a lovely day it is, Mrs. Coombes! It is so bright over the sea,"
I said, going to the one little window which looked out on the great
Atlantic, "that one almost expects a great merchant navy to come
sailing into Kilkhaven - sunk to the water's edge with silks, and ivory,
and spices, and apes, and peacocks, like the ships of Solomon that we
read about - just as the sun gets up to the noonstead."

Before I record her answer, I turn to my reader, who in the spirit
accompanies me, and have a little talk with him. I always make it a
rule to speak freely with the less as with the more educated of my
friends. I never _talk down_ to them, except I be expressly explaining
something to them. The law of the world is as the law of the family.
Those children grow much the faster who hear all that is going on in
the house. Reaching ever above themselves, they arrive at an
understanding at fifteen, which, in the usual way of things, they would
not reach before five-and-twenty or thirty; and this in a natural way,
and without any necessary priggishness, except such as may belong to
their parents. Therefore I always spoke to the poor and uneducated as
to my own people, - freely, not much caring whether I should be quite
understood or not; for I believed in influences not to be measured by
the measure of the understanding.

But what was the old woman's answer? It was this:

"I know, sir. And when I was as young as you" - I was not so very young,
my reader may well think - "I thought like that about the sea myself.
Everything come from the sea. For my boy Willie he du bring me home the
beautifullest parrot and the talkingest you ever see, and the red shawl
all worked over with flowers: I'll show it to you some day, sir, when
you have time. He made that ship you see in the frame there, sir, all
with his own knife, out on a bit o' wood that he got at the Marishes,
as they calls it, sir - a bit of an island somewheres in the great sea.
But the parrot's gone dead like the rest of them, sir. - Where am I? and
what am I talking about?" she added, looking down at her knitting as if
she had dropped a stitch, or rather as if she had forgotten what she
was making, and therefore what was to come next.

"You were telling me how you used to think of the sea - "

"When I was as young as you. I remember, sir. Well, that lasted a long
time - lasted till my third boy fell asleep in the wide water; for it du
call it falling asleep, don't it, sir?"

"The Bible certainly does," I answered.

"It's the Bible I be meaning, of course," she returned. "Well, after
that, but I don't know what began it, only I did begin to think about
the sea as something that took away things and didn't bring them no
more. And somehow or other she never look so blue after that, and she
give me the shivers. But now, sir, she always looks to me like one o'
the shining ones that come to fetch the pilgrims. You've heard tell of
the _Pilgrim's Progress_, I daresay, sir, among the poor people; for
they du say it was written by a tinker, though there be a power o' good
things in it that I think the gentlefolk would like if they knowed it."

"I do know the book - nearly as well as I know the Bible," I answered;
"and the shining ones are very beautiful in it. I am glad you can think
of the sea that way."

"It's looking in at the window all day as I go about the house," she
answered, "and all night too when I'm asleep; and if I hadn't learned
to think of it that way, it would have driven me mad, I du believe. I
was forced to think that way about it, or not think at all. And that
wouldn't be easy, with the sound of it in your ears the last thing at
night and the first thing in the morning."

"The truth of things is indeed the only refuge from the look of
things," I replied. "But now I want the key of the church, if you will
trust me with it, for I have something to do there this morning; and
the key of the tower as well, if you please."

With her old smile, ripened only by age, she reached the ponderous keys
from the nail where they hung, and gave them into my hand. I left her
in the shadow of her dwelling, and stepped forth into the sunlight. The
first thing I observed was the blacksmith waiting for me at the church
door.

Now that I saw him in the full light of day, and now that he wore his
morning face upon which the blackness of labour had not yet gathered, I
could see more plainly how far he was from well. There was a flush on
his thin cheek by which the less used exercise of walking revealed his
inward weakness, and the light in his eyes had something of the
far-country in them - "the light that never was on sea or shore." But
his speech was cheerful, for he had been walking in the light of this
world, and that had done something to make the light within him shine a
little more freely.

"How do you find yourself to-day?" I asked.

"Quite well, sir, I thank you," he answered. "A day like this does a
man good. But," he added, and his countenance fell, "the heart knoweth
its own bitterness."

"It may know it too much," I returned, "just because it refuses to let
a stranger intermeddle therewith."

He made no reply. I turned the key in the great lock, and the
iron-studded oak opened and let us into the solemn gloom.

It did not require many minutes to make the man understand what I
wanted of him.

"We must begin at the bells and work down," he said.

So we went up into the tower, where, with the help of a candle I
fetched for him from the cottage, he made a good many minute
measurements; found that carpenter's work was necessary for the
adjustment of the hammers and cranks and the leading of the rods,
undertook the management of the whole, and in the course of an hour and
a half went home to do what had to be done before any fixing could be
commenced, assuring me that he had no doubt of bringing the job to a
satisfactory conclusion, although the force of the blow on the bell
would doubtless have to be regulated afterwards by repeated trials.

"In a fortnight, I hope you will be able to play a tune to the parish,
sir," he added, as he took his leave.

I resolved, if possible, to know more of the man, and find out his
trouble, if haply I might be able to give him any comfort, for I was
all but certain that there was a deeper cause for his gloom than the
state of his health.

When he was gone I stood with the key of the church in my hand, and
looked about me. Nature at least was in glorious health - sunshine in
her eyes, light fantastic cloud-images passing through her brain, her
breath coming and going in soft breezes perfumed with the scents of
meadows and wild flowers, and her green robe shining in the motions of
her gladness. I turned to lock the church door, though in my heart I
greatly disapproved of locking the doors of churches, and only did so
now because it was not my church, and I had no business to force my
opinions upon other customs. But when I turned I received a kind of
questioning shock. There was the fallen world, as men call it, shining
in glory and gladness, because God was there; here was the way into the
lost Paradise, yea, the door into an infinitely higher Eden than that
ever had or ever could have been, iron-clamped and riveted, gloomy and
low-browed like the entrance to a sepulchre, and surrounded with the
grim heads of grotesque monsters of the deep. What did it mean? Here
was contrast enough to require harmonising, or if that might not be,
then accounting for. Perhaps it was enough to say that although God
made both the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of grace, yet the
symbol of the latter was the work of man, and might not altogether
correspond to God's idea of the matter. I turned away thoughtful, and
went through the churchyard with my eye on the graves.

As I left the churchyard, still looking to the earth, the sound of
voices reached my ear. I looked up. There, down below me, at the foot
of the high bank on which I stood, lay a gorgeous shining thing upon
the bosom of the canal, full of men, and surrounded by men, women, and
children, delighting in its beauty. I had never seen such a thing
before, but I knew at once, as by instinct, which of course it could
not have been, that it was the life-boat. But in its gorgeous colours,
red and white and green, it looked more like the galley that bore
Cleopatra to Actium. Nor, floating so light on the top of the water,
and broad in the beam withal, curved upward and ornamented at stern and
stem, did it look at all like a creature formed to battle with the
fierce elements. A pleasure-boat for floating between river banks it
seemed, drawn by swans mayhap, and regarded in its course by fair eyes
from green terrace-walks, or oriel windows of ancient houses on verdant
lawns. Ten men sat on the thwarts, and one in the stern by the yet
useless rudder, while men and boys drew the showy thing by a rope
downward to the lock-gates. The men in the boat, wore blue jerseys, but
you could see little of the colour for strange unshapely things that
they wore above them, like an armour cut out of a row of organ pipes.
They were their cork-jackets; for every man had to be made into a
life-boat himself. I descended the bank, and stood on the edge of the
canal as it drew near. Then I saw that every oar was loosely but firmly
fastened to the rowlock, so that it could be dropped and caught again
in a moment; and that the gay sides of the unwieldy-looking creature
were festooned with ropes from the gunwale, for the men to lay hold of
when she capsized, for the earlier custom of fastening the men to their
seats had been quite given up, because their weight under the water
might prevent the boat from righting itself again, and the men could
not come to the surface. Now they had a better chance in their freedom,
though why they should not be loosely attached to the boat, I do not
quite see.

They towed the shining thing through the upper gate of the lock, and
slowly she sank from my sight, and for some moments was no more to be
seen, for I had remained standing where first she passed me. All at
once there she was beyond the covert of the lock-head, abroad and free,
fleeting from the strokes of ten swift oars over the still waters of
the bay towards the waves that roared further out where the
ground-swell was broken by the rise of the sandy coast. There was no
vessel in danger now, as the talk of the spectators informed me; it was
only for exercise and show that they went out. It seemed all child's
play for a time; but when they got among the broken waves, then it
looked quite another thing. The motion of the waters laid hold upon
her, and soon tossed her fearfully, now revealing the whole of her
capacity on the near side of one of their slopes, now hiding her whole
bulk in one of their hollows beyond. She, careless as a child in the
troubles of the world, floated about amongst them with what appeared
too much buoyancy for the promise of a safe return. Again and again she
was driven from her course towards the low rocks on the other side of
the bay, and again and again, returned to disport herself, like a
sea-animal, as it seemed, upon the backs of the wild, rolling, and
bursting billows.

"Can she go no further?" I asked of the captain of the coastguard, whom
I found standing by my side.

"Not without some danger," he answered.

"What, then, must it be in a storm!" I remarked.

"Then of course," he returned, "they must take their chance. But there
is no good in running risks for nothing. That swell is quite enough for
exercise."

"But is it enough to accustom them to face the danger that will come?"
I asked.

"With danger comes courage," said the old sailor.

"Were you ever afraid?"

"No, sir. I don't think I ever was afraid. Yes, I believe I was once
for one moment, no more, when I fell from the maintop-gallant yard, and
felt myself falling. But it was soon over, for I only fell into the
maintop. I was expecting the smash on deck when I was brought up there.
But," he resumed, "I don't care much about the life-boat. My rockets
are worth a good deal more, as you may see, sir, before the winter is
over; for seldom does a winter pass without at least two or three
wrecks close by here on this coast. The full force of the Atlantic
breaks here, sir. I _have_ seen a life-boat - not that one - _she's_ done
nothing yet - pitched stern over stem; not capsized, you know, sir, in
the ordinary way, but struck by a wave behind while she was just
hanging in the balance on the knife-edge of a wave, and flung a
somerset, as I say, stern over stem, and four of her men lost."

While we spoke I saw on the pier-head the tall figure of the painter
looking earnestly at the boat. I thought he was regarding it chiefly
from an artistic point of view, but I became aware before long that
that would not have been consistent with the character of Charles
Percivale. He had been, I learned afterwards, a crack oarsman at
Oxford, and had belonged to the University boat, so that he had some
almost class-sympathy with the doings of the crew.

In a little while the boat sped swiftly back, entered the lock, was
lifted above the level of the storm-heaved ocean, and floated up the
smooth canal calmly as if she had never known what trouble was. Away up
to the pretty little Tudor-fashioned house in which she lay - one could
almost fancy dreaming of storms to come - she went, as softly as if
moved only by her "own sweet will," in the calm consolation for her
imprisonment of having tried her strength, and found therein good hope
of success for the time when she should rush to the rescue of men from
that to which, as a monster that begets monsters, she a watching
Perseis, lay ready to offer battle. The poor little boat lying in her
little house watching the ocean, was something signified in my eyes,
and not less so after what came in the course of changing seasons and
gathered storms.

All this time I had the keys in my hand, and now went back to the
cottage to restore them to their place upon the wall. When I entered
there was a young woman of a sweet interesting countenance talking to
Mrs. Coombes. Now as it happened, I had never yet seen the daughter who
lived with her, and thought this was she.

"I've found your daughter at last then?" I said, approaching them.

"Not yet, sir. She goes out to work, and her hands be pretty full at
present. But this be almost my daughter, sir," she added. "This is my
next daughter, Mary Trehern, from the south. She's got a place near by,
to be near her mother that is to be, that's me."

Mary was hanging her head and blushing, as the old woman spoke.

"I understand," I said. "And when are you going to get your new mother,
Mary? Soon I hope."

But she gave me no reply - only hung her head lower and blushed deeper.

Mrs. Coombes spoke for her.

"She's shy, you see, sir. But if she was to speak her mind, she would
ask you whether you wouldn't marry her and Willie when he comes home
from his next voyage."

Mary's hands were trembling now, and she turned half away.

"With all my heart," I said.

The girl tried to turn towards me, but could not. I looked at her face
a little more closely. Through all its tremor, there was a look of
constancy that greatly pleased me. I tried to make her speak.

"When do you expect Willie home?" I said.

She made a little gasp and murmur, but no articulate words came.

"Don't be frightened, Mary," said her mother, as I found she always
called her. "The gentleman won't be sharp with you."

She lifted a pair of soft brown eyes with one glance and a smile, and
then sank them again.

"He'll be home in about a month, we think," answered the mother. "She's
a good ship he's aboard of, and makes good voyages."

"It is time to think about the bans, then," I said.

"If you please, sir," said the mother.

"Just come to me about it, and I will attend to it - when you think
proper."

I thought I could hear a murmured "Thank you, sir," from the girl, but
I could not be certain that she spoke. I shook hands with them, and
went for a stroll on the other side of the bay.




CHAPTER V.

MR. PERCIVALE.


When I reached home I found that Connie was already on her watch-tower.
For while I was away, they had carried her out that she might see the
life-boat. I followed her, and found the whole family about her couch,
and with them Mr. Percivale, who was showing her some sketches that he
had made in the neighbourhood. Connie knew nothing of drawing; but she
seemed to me always to catch the feeling of a thing. Her remarks
therefore were generally worth listening to, and Mr. Percivale was


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldThe Seaboard Parish Volume 2 → online text (page 3 of 12)