George MacDonald.

The Seaboard Parish Volume 2 online

. (page 9 of 12)
Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldThe Seaboard Parish Volume 2 → online text (page 9 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

glorious with the forms which thou hast cloven and carved out of
nothingness, and we shall be worthy to worship thee, O Lord, our God."
For I was carried beyond myself with delight, and with sympathy with
Connie's delight and with the calm worship of gladness in my wife's
countenance. But when my eye fell on Wynnie, I saw a trouble mingled
with her admiration, a self-accusation, I think, that she did not and
could not enjoy it more; and when I turned from her, there were the
eyes of Percivale fixed on me in wonderment; and for the moment I felt
as David must have felt when, in his dance of undignified delight that
he had got the ark home again, he saw the contemptuous eyes of Michal
fixed on him from the window. But I could not leave it so. I said to
him - coldly I daresay:

"Excuse me, Mr. Percivale; I forgot for the moment that I was not
amongst my own family."

Percivale took his hat off.

"Forgive my seeming rudeness, Mr. Walton. I was half-envying and
half-wondering. You would not be surprised at my unconscious behaviour
if you had seen as much of the wrong side of the stuff as I have seen
in London."

I had some idea of what he meant; but this was no time to enter upon a
discussion. I could only say -

"My heart was full, Mr. Percivale, and I let it overflow."

"Let me at least share in its overflow," he rejoined, and nothing more
passed on the subject.

For the next ten minutes we stood in absolute silence. We had set
Connie down on the grass again, but propped up so that she could see
through the doorway. And she lay in still ecstasy. But there was more
to be seen ere we descended. There was the rest of the little islet
with its crop of down-grass, on which the horses of all the knights of
King Arthur's round table might have fed for a week - yes, for a
fortnight, without, by any means, encountering the short commons of
war. There were the ruins of the castle so built of plates of the
laminated stone of the rocks on which they stood, and so woven in or
more properly incorporated with the outstanding rocks themselves, that
in some parts I found it impossible to tell which was building and
which was rock - the walls themselves seeming like a growth out of the
island itself, so perfectly were they in harmony with, and in kind the
same as, the natural ground upon which and of which they had been
constructed. And this would seem to me to be the perfection of
architecture. The work of man's hands should be so in harmony with the
place where it stands that it must look as if it had grown out of the
soil. But the walls were in some parts so thin that one wondered how
they could have stood so long. They must have been built before the
time of any formidable artillery - enough only for defence from arrows.
But then the island was nowhere commanded, and its own steep cliffs
would be more easily defended than any erections upon it. Clearly the
intention was that no enemy should thereon find rest for the sole of
his foot; for if he was able to land, farewell to the notion of any
further defence. Then there was outside the walls the little
chapel - such a tiny chapel! of which little more than the foundation
remained, with the ruins of the altar still standing, and outside the
chancel, nestling by its wall, a coffin hollowed in the rock; then the
churchyard a little way off full of graves, which, I presume, would
have vanished long ago were it not that the very graves were founded on
the rock. There still stood old worn-out headstones of thin slate, but
no memorials were left. Then there was the fragment of arched passage
underground laid open to the air in the centre of the islet; and last,
and grandest of all, the awful edges of the rock, broken by time, and
carved by the winds and the waters into grotesque shapes and
threatening forms. Over all the surface of the islet we carried Connie,
and from three sides of this sea-fortress she looked abroad over "the
Atlantic's level powers." It blew a gentle ethereal breeze on the top;
but had there been such a wind as I have since stood against on that
fearful citadel of nature, I should have been in terror lest we should
all be blown, into the deep. Over the edge she peeped at the strange
fantastic needle-rock, and round the corner she peeped to see Wynnie
and her mother seated in what they call Arthur's chair - a canopied
hollow wrought in the plated rock by the mightiest of all solvents - air
and water; till at length it was time that we should take our leave of
the few sheep that fed over the place, and issuing by the gothic door,
wind away down the dangerous path to the safe ground below.

"I think we had better tie up your eyes again, Connie?" I said.

"Why?" she asked, in wonderment. "There's nothing higher yet, is there?"

"No, my love. If there were, you would hardly be able for it to-day, I
should think. It is only to keep you from being frightened at the
precipice as you go down."

"But I sha'n't be frightened, papa."

"How do you know that?"

"Because you are going to carry me."

"But what if I should slip? I might, you know."

"I don't mind. I sha'n't mind being tumbled over the precipice, if you
do it. I sha'n't be to blame, and I'm sure you won't, papa." Then she
drew my head down and whispered in my ear, "If I get as much more by
being killed, as I have got by having my poor back hurt, I'm sure it
will be well worth it."

I tried to smile a reply, for I could not speak one. We took her just
as she was, and with some tremor on my part, but not a single slip, we
bore her down the winding path, her face showing all the time that,
instead of being afraid, she was in a state of ecstatic delight. My
wife, I could see, was nervous, however; and she breathed a sigh of
relief when we were once more at the foot.

"Well, I'm glad that's over," she said.

"So am I," I returned, as we set down the litter.

"Poor papa! I've pulled his arms to pieces! and Mr. Percivale's too!"

Percivale answered first by taking up a huge piece of stone. Then
turning towards her, he said, "Look here, Miss Connie;" and flung it
far out from the isthmus on which we were resting. We heard it strike
on a rock below, and then fall in a shower of fragments. "My arms are
all right, you see," he said.

Meantime, Wynnie had scrambled down to the shore, where we had not yet
been. In a few minutes, we still lingering, she came running back to us
out of breath with the news:

"Papa! Mr. Percivale! there's such a grand cave down there! It goes
right through under the island."

Connie looked so eager, that Percivale and I glanced at each other, and
without a word, lifted her, and followed Wynnie. It was a little way
that we had to carry her down, but it was very broken, and insomuch
more difficult than the other. At length we stood in the cavern. What a
contrast to the vision overhead! - nothing to be seen but the cool, dark
vault of the cave, long and winding, with the fresh seaweed lying on
its pebbly floor, and its walls wet with the last tide, for every tide
rolled through in rising and falling - the waters on the opposite sides
of the islet greeting through this cave; the blue shimmer of the rising
sea, and the forms of huge outlying rocks, looking in at the further
end, where the roof rose like a grand cathedral arch; and the green
gleam of veins rich with copper, dashing and streaking the darkness in
gloomy little chapels, where the floor of heaped-up pebbles rose and
rose within till it met the descending roof. It was like a going-down
from Paradise into the grave - but a cool, friendly, brown-lighted
grave, which even in its darkest recesses bore some witness to the wind
of God outside, in the occasional ripple of shadowed light, from the
play of the sun on the waves, that, fleeted and reflected, wandered
across its jagged roof. But we dared not keep Connie long in the damp
coolness; and I have given my reader quite enough of description for
one hour's reading. He can scarcely be equal to more.

My invalids had now beheld the sea in such a different aspect, that I
no longer feared to go back to Kilkhaven. Thither we went three days
after, and at my invitation, Percivale took Turner's place in the



How bright the yellow shores of Kilkhaven looked after the dark sands
of Tintagel! But how low and tame its highest cliffs after the mighty
rampart of rocks which there face the sea like a cordon of fierce
guardians! It was pleasant to settle down again in what had begun to
look like home, and was indeed made such by the boisterous welcome of
Dora and the boys. Connie's baby crowed aloud, and stretched forth her
chubby arms at sight of her. The wind blew gently around us, full both
of the freshness of the clean waters and the scents of the
down-grasses, to welcome us back. And the dread vision of the shore had
now receded so far into the past, that it was no longer able to hurt.

We had called at the blacksmith's house on our way home, and found that
he was so far better as to be working at his forge again. His mother
said he was used to such attacks, and soon got over them. I, however,
feared that they indicated an approaching break-down.

"Indeed, sir," she said, "Joe might be well enough if he liked. It's
all his own fault."

"What do you mean?" I asked. "I cannot believe that your son is in any
way guilty of his own illness."

"He's a well-behaved lad, my Joe," she answered; "but he hasn't learned
what I had to learn long ago."

"What is that?" I asked.

"To make up his mind, and stick to it. To do one thing or the other."

She was a woman with a long upper lip and a judicial face, and as she
spoke, her lip grew longer and longer; and when she closed her mouth in
mark of her own resolution, that lip seemed to occupy two-thirds of all
her face under the nose.

"And what is it he won't do?"

"I don't mind whether he does it or not, if he would only
make - up - his - mind - and - stick - to - it."

"What is it you want him to do, then?"

"I don't want him to do it, I'm sure. It's no good to me - and wouldn't
be much to him, that I'll be bound. Howsomever, he must please himself."

I thought it not very wonderful that he looked gloomy, if there was no
more sunshine for him at home than his mother's face indicated. Few
things can make a man so strong and able for his work as a sun indoors,
whose rays are smiles, ever ready to shine upon him when he opens the
door, - the face of wife or mother or sister. Now his mother's face
certainly was not sunny. No doubt it must have shone upon him when he
was a baby. God has made that provision for babies, who need sunshine
so much that a mother's face cannot help being sunny to them: why
should the sunshine depart as the child grows older?

"Well, I suppose I must not ask. But I fear your son is very far from
well. Such attacks do not often occur without serious mischief
somewhere. And if there is anything troubling him, he is less likely to
get over it."

"If he would let somebody make up his mind for him, and then stick to
it - "

"O, but that is impossible, you know. A man must make up his own mind."

"That's just what he won't do."

All the time she looked naughty, only after a self-righteous fashion.
It was evident that whatever was the cause of it, she was not in
sympathy with her son, and therefore could not help him out of any
difficulty he might be in. I made no further attempt to learn from her
the cause of her son's discomfort, clearly a deeper cause than his
illness. In passing his workshop, we stopped for a moment, and I made
an arrangement to meet him at the church the next day.

I was there before him, and found that he had done a good deal since we
left. Little remained except to get the keys put to rights, and the
rods attached to the cranks in the box. To-day he was to bring a
carpenter, a cousin of his own, with him.

They soon arrived, and a small consultation followed. The cousin was a
bright-eyed, cheruby-cheeked little man, with a ready smile and white
teeth: I thought he might help me to understand what was amiss in
Joseph's affairs. But I would not make the attempt except openly. I
therefore said half in a jocular fashion, as with gloomy,
self-withdrawn countenance the smith was fitting one loop into another
in two of his iron rods, -

"I wish we could get this cousin of yours to look a little more
cheerful. You would think he had quarrelled with the sunshine."

The carpenter showed his white teeth between his rosy lips.

"Well, sir, if you'll excuse me, you see my cousin Joe is not like the
rest of us. He's a religious man, is Joe."

"But I don't see how that should make him miserable. It hasn't made me
miserable. I hope I'm a religious man myself. It makes me happy every
day of my life."

"Ah, well," returned the carpenter, in a thoughtful tone, as he worked
away gently to get the inside out of the oak-chest without hurting it,
"I don't say it's the religion, for I don't know; but perhaps it's the
way he takes it up. He don't look after hisself enough; he's always
thinking about other people, you see, sir; and it seems to me, sir,
that if you don't look after yourself, why, who is to look after you?
That's common sense, _I_ think."

It was a curious contrast - the merry friendly face, which shone
good-fellowship to all mankind, accusing the sombre, pale, sad, severe,
even somewhat bitter countenance beside him, of thinking too much about
other people, and too little about himself. Of course it might be
correct in a way. There is all the difference between a comfortable,
healthy inclination, and a pained, conscientious principle. It was a
smile very unlike his cousin's with which Joe heard his remarks on

"But," I said, "you will allow, at least, that if everybody would take
Joe's way of it, there would then be no occasion for taking care of

"I don't see why, sir."

"Why, because everybody would take care of everybody else."

"Not so well, I doubt, sir."

"Yes, and a great deal better."

"At any rate, that's a long way off; and mean time, _who's_ to take
care of the odd man like Joe there, that don't look after hisself?"

"Why, God, of course."

"Well, there's just where I'm out. I don't know nothing about that
branch, sir."

I saw a grateful light mount up in Joe's gloomy eyes as I spoke thus
upon his side of the question. He said nothing, however; and his cousin
volunteering no further information, I did not push any advantage I
might have gained.

At noon I made them leave their work, and come home with me to have
their dinner; they hoped to finish the job before dusk. Harry Cobb and
I dropped behind, and Joe Harper walked on in front, apparently sunk in

Scarcely were we out of the churchyard, and on the road leading to the
rectory, when I saw the sexton's daughter meeting us. She had almost
come up to Joe before he saw her, for his gaze was bent on the ground,
and he started. They shook hands in what seemed to me an odd,
constrained, yet familiar fashion, and then stood as if they wanted to
talk, but without speaking. Harry and I passed, both with a nod of
recognition to the young woman, but neither of us had the ill-manners
to look behind. I glanced at Harry, and he answered me with a queer
look. When we reached the turning that would hide them from our view, I
looked back almost involuntarily, and there they were still standing.
But before we reached the door of the rectory, Joe got up with us.

There was something remarkable in the appearance of Agnes Coombes, the
sexton's daughter. She was about six-and-twenty, I should imagine, the
youngest of the family, with a sallow, rather sickly complexion,
somewhat sorrowful eyes, a smile rare and sweet, a fine figure, tall
and slender, and a graceful gait. I now saw, I thought, a good
hair's-breadth further into the smith's affairs. Beyond the
hair's-breadth, however, all was dark. But I saw likewise that the well
of truth, whence I might draw the whole business, must be the girl's

After the men had had their dinner and rested a while, they went back
to the church, and I went to the sexton's cottage. I found the old man
seated at the window, with his pot of beer on the sill, and an empty
plate beside it.

"Come in, sir," he said, rising, as I put my head in at the door. "The
mis'ess ben't in, but she'll be here in a few minutes."

"O, it's of no consequence," I said. "Are they all well?"

"All comfortable, sir. It be fine dry weather for them, this, sir. It
be in winter it be worst for them."

"But it's a snug enough shelter you've got here. It seems such, anyhow;
though, to be sure, it is the blasts of winter that find out the weak
places both in house and body."

"It ben't the wind touch _them_" he said; "they be safe enough from the
wind. It be the wet, sir. There ben't much snow in these parts; but
when it du come, that be very bad for them, poor things!"

Could it be that he was harping on the old theme again?

"But at least this cottage keeps out the wet," I said. "If not, we must
have it seen to."

"This cottage du well enough, sir. It'll last my time, anyhow."

"Then why are you pitying your family for having to live in it?"

"Bless your heart, sir! It's not them. They du well enough. It's my
people out yonder. You've got the souls to look after, and I've got the
bodies. That's what it be, sir. To be sure!"

The last exclamation was uttered in a tone of impatient surprise at my
stupidity in giving all my thoughts and sympathies to the living, and
none to the dead. I pursued the subject no further, but as I lay in bed
that night, it began to dawn upon me as a lovable kind of hallucination
in which the man indulged. He too had an office in the Church of God,
and he would magnify that office. He could not bear that there should
be no further outcome of his labour; that the burying of the dead out
of sight should be "the be-all and the end-all." He was God's vicar,
the gardener in God's Acre, as the Germans call the churchyard. When
all others had forsaken the dead, he remained their friend, caring for
what little comfort yet remained possible to them. Hence in all changes
of air and sky above, he attributed to them some knowledge of the same,
and some share in their consequences even down in the darkness of the
tomb. It was his way of keeping up the relation between the living and
the dead. Finding I made him no reply, he took up the word again.

"You've got your part, sir, and I've got mine. You up into the pulpit,
and I down into the grave. But it'll be all the same by and by."

"I hope it will," I answered. "But when you do go down into your own
grave, you'll know a good deal less about it than you do now. You'll
find you've got other things to think about. But here comes your wife.
She'll talk about the living rather than the dead."

"That's natural, sir. She brought 'em to life, and I buried 'em - at
least, best part of 'em. If only I had the other two safe down with the

I remembered what the old woman had told me - that she had two boys _in_
the sea; and I knew therefore what he meant. He regarded his drowned
boys as still tossed about in the weary wet cold ocean, and would have
gladly laid them to rest in the warm dry churchyard.

He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye with the back of his hand,
and saying, "Well, I must be off to my gardening," left me with his
wife. I saw then that, humorist as the old man might be, his humour,
like that of all true humorists, lay close about the wells of weeping.

"The old man seems a little out of sorts," I said to his wife.

"Well, sir," she answered, with her usual gentleness, a gentleness
which obedient suffering had perfected, "this be the day he buried our
Nancy, this day two years; and to-day Agnes be come home from her work
poorly; and the two things together they've upset him a bit."

"I met Agnes coming this way. Where is she?"

"I believe she be in the churchyard, sir. I've been to the doctor about

"I hope it's nothing serious."

"I hope not, sir; but you see - four on 'em, sir!"

"Well, she's in God's hands, you know."

"That she be, sir."

"I want to ask you about something, Mrs. Coombes."

"What be that, sir? If I can tell, I will, you may be sure, sir."

"I want to know what's the matter with Joe Harper, the blacksmith."

"They du say it be a consumption, sir."

"But what has he got on his mind?"

"He's got nothing on his mind, sir. He be as good a by as ever stepped,
I assure you, sir."

"But I am sure there is something or other on his mind. He's not so
happy as he should be. He's not the man, it seems to me, to be unhappy
because he's ill. A man like him would not be miserable because he was
going to die. It might make him look sad sometimes, but not gloomy as
he looks."

"Well, sir, I believe you be right, and perhaps I know summat. But it's
part guessing. - I believe my Agnes and Joe Harper are as fond upon one
another as any two in the county."

"Are they not going to be married then?"

"There be the pint, sir. I don't believe Joe ever said a word o' the
sort to Aggy. She never could ha' kep it from me, sir."

"Why doesn't he then?"

"That's the pint again, sir. All as knows him says it's because he be
in such bad health, and he thinks he oughtn't to go marrying with one
foot in the grave. He never said so to me; but I think very likely that
be it."

"For that matter, Mrs. Coombes, we've all got one foot in the grave, I

"That be very true, sir."

"And what does your daughter think?"

"I believe she thinks the same. And so they go on talking to each
other, quiet-like, like old married folks, not like lovers at all, sir.
But I can't help fancying it have something to do with my Aggy's pale

"And something to do with Joe's pale face too, Mrs. Coombes," I said.
"Thank you. You've told me more than I expected. It explains
everything. I must have it out with Joe now."

"O deary me! sir, don't go and tell him I said anything, as if I wanted
him to marry my daughter."

"Don't you be afraid. I'll take good care of that. And don't fancy I'm
fond of meddling with other people's affairs. But this is a case in
which I ought to do something. Joe's a fine fellow."

"That he be, sir. I couldn't wish a better for a son-in-law."

I put on my hat.

"You won't get me into no trouble with Joe, will ye, sir!"

"Indeed I will not, Mrs. Coombes. I should be doing a great deal more
harm than good if I said a word to make him doubt you."

I went straight to the church. There were the two men working away in
the shadowy tower, and there was Agnes standing beside, knitting like
her mother, so quiet, so solemn even, that it did indeed look as if she
were a long-married wife, hovering about her husband at his work. Harry
was saying something to her as I went in, but when they saw me they
were silent, and Agnes gently withdrew.

"Do you think you will get through to-night?" I asked.

"Sure of it, sir," answered Harry.

"You shouldn't be sure of anything, Harry. We are told in the New
Testament that we ought to say _If the Lord will_," said Joe.

"Now, Joe, you're too hard upon Harry," I said. "You don't think that
the Bible means to pull a man up every step like that, till he's afraid
to speak a word. It was about a long journey and a year's residence
that the Apostle James was speaking."

"No doubt, sir. But the principle's the same. Harry can no more be sure
of finishing his work before it be dark, than those people could be of
going their long journey."

"That is perfectly true. But you are taking the letter for the spirit,
and that, I suspect, in more ways than one. The religion does not lie
in not being sure about anything, but in a loving desire that the will
of God in the matter, whatever it be, may be done. And if Harry has not
learned yet to care about the will of God, what is the good of coming
down upon him that way, as if that would teach him in the least. When
he loves God, then, and not till then, will he care about his will. Nor
does the religion lie in saying, _if the Lord will_, every time
anything is to be done. It is a most dangerous thing to use sacred
words often. It makes them so common to our ear that at length, when
used most solemnly, they have not half the effect they ought to have,
and that is a serious loss. What the Apostle means is, that we should
always be in the mood of looking up to God and having regard to his
will, not always writing D.V. for instance, as so many do - most
irreverently, I think - using a Latin contraction for the beautiful

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12

Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldThe Seaboard Parish Volume 2 → online text (page 9 of 12)