Lucas Malet.

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take ship, with foxy-faced William Jennifer as captain and as crew, cross
to the broken-down wooden jetty and, landing there, climb the crown of
the Bar and look south-east, over the Channel highway, towards far
distant countries of the desert and the dawn.



All which was duly accomplished though with a difference. For on reaching
the head of the shallow sandy gully opening on the tide, where the
flat-bottomed ferry-boat lay, Damaris found not Jennifer but the withered
and doubtfully clean old lobster-catcher, Timothy Proud, in possession.
This disconcerted her somewhat. His appearance, indeed - as he stood
amongst a miscellaneous assortment of sun-bleached and weather-stained
foreshore lumber, leaning the ragged elbows of his blue jersey upon the
top of an empty petroleum barrel and smoking a dirty clay pipe - was so
far from inviting, that the young girl felt tempted to relinquish her
enterprise and go back by the way she had come.

But, as she hesitated, the old man catching sight of her and scenting
custom, first spat and then called aloud.

"Might 'e be wanting the Ferry, Miss?" Thus directly challenged, Damaris
could not but answer in the affirmative.

"Put 'e across to the Bar?" he took her up smartly. "Nat'rally I
will - bean't I here for the very purpose? - Put 'e across I will and on
the tick too."

And, after further expectoration, relinquishing the support of the oil
barrel, he joined her and shambled down the sandy track at her side,
talking. Damaris hastened her step; but bent back and creaking breath
notwithstanding, Proud kept pace with her, his speech and movements alike
animated by a certain malicious glee.

"William 'e give hisself an 'oliday," he explained, "to take the little
dorgs and ferrets up to Butcher Cleave's ratting. Powerful sight of
varmin there allers be round they sheds and places. Comes after the
innards and trimmings they do, as bold as you please."

"Oh, yes - no doubt. I understand," Damaris said, at once anxious to
arrest the flow of his unsavoury eloquence yet to appear civil, since she
was about to make use of his services.

"'Normous great rats they be," he however continued, with evident relish.
"'Normous and fierce as tigers, the rascals, what with feasting on flesh
and fatness like so many lords. So 'mind the ferry for me, will you,
Daddy,' William says, coming round where was I taking my morning pint
over at the Inn. 'You're a wonderful valorous man of your years' - and so
thank the powers, Miss, I be - 'can handle the old scraw as clever as I
can myself,' William says. 'There ain't much about water, salt or fresh,
nor whatsoever moves on the face of it, nor down below in the belly of
it, any man can teach you.' Which may seem putting it a bit high yet
ain't no more than truth and justice, Miss, so you needn't fear to trust
yourself across the ferry along of me."

"I have no fear," Damaris answered curtly and loftily, holding herself
very erect, her face slightly flushed, her eyes war-like.

For he was a repulsive old man, and said repulsive things such as she had
never heard put thus plainly into words before. She felt soiled by even
this brief association with him. She wanted to hear no more of his ugly
high-coloured talk, although of his skill as a waterman she entertained
no doubt. Stepping lightly and quickly up on to the square stern of the
ferry-boat, she went forward and kept her back resolutely turned upon the
old fellow as he scrambled on board after her, shoved off and settled to
the oars. The river was low, and sluggish from the long drought with
consequently easy passage to the opposite bank. It took but a short five
minutes to reach the jetty, crawling like some gigantic, damaged,
many-legged insect out over the smooth gleaming water.

Instead of the legal twopence, Damaris dropped a couple of shillings into
Daddy Proud's eager hand - with a queenly little air; and, without
waiting for his thanks, swung herself up on to the black planking and
turned to go down the sand-strewn wooden steps.

"Pleased to fetch 'e back, Miss, any hour you like to name," Proud called
after her, standing up and fingering the shillings with one hand while
with the other he steered the boat's side away from the slippery
weed-grown piles.

"Thank you, I don't quite know when I shall be back," she answered over
her shoulder.

For her main desire was to get quit of his unpleasant neighbourhood. She
would go for a long walk by the coast-guard path across the sand-hills,
right out to Stone Horse Head. Would stay out till sundown, in the hope
that by then Jennifer might have seen fit to exchange the manly joys of
ratting for his more prosaic duties at the ferry, and so save her from
further association with his displeasing deputy.

But, the ridge of the Bar reached, other thoughts and impulses took
possession of her. For the sea this afternoon showed an infinitely
beguiling countenance. Not as highway of the nations, still less as
violent and incalculable, holding cruelties of storm and tempest in its
heart, did it present itself to her view; but rather as some gentle,
softly inviting and caressing creature decked forth in the changeful
colours of a dove's neck and breast. Opaline haze veiled the horizon,
shutting off all unrestful sense of distance. The tide was low and little
waves, as of liquid crystal, chased one another over the gleaming sands.
Out to where the haze met and covered it the smooth expanse of sea was
unbroken by passing boat or ship; nor was any person within sight upon
the long line of the beach. Damaris found herself alone - but deliciously
alone, with this enchanted dream sea for companion in the sunshine, under
the vault of tender blue sky.

And, for the present at least, she asked nothing better, humanity being
at a decided discount with her, thanks first to the extreme tiresomeness
of Theresa Bilson and later the extreme unsavouriness of Timothy Proud.
The element thus eliminated, nothing interfered, nothing jarred; so that
she could yield herself to an ecstasy of contemplation, active rather
than passive, in that imagination, breaking the bounds of personality,
made her strangely one with all she looked on. Consciousness of self was
merged in pure delight. Never could she remember to have felt so
light-hearted, so happy with the spontaneous, unconditioned happiness
which is sufficient to itself, unclouded by thought of what has been or
what may be.

Pushed by her own radiant emotion and an instinct, deriving from it, to
draw even closer to that Everlasting Beauty of Things which is uncreated
by and independent of the will and work of man, she ran down the slope,
and sitting on the shingle slipped off her shoes and stockings. Took off
her hat, too, and leaving the lot lying there, just above high-tide mark,
gathered her skirts in one hand, and, bare-headed thus and bare-footed,
danced out over the wet gleaming sands a graceful flying figure, until
the little waves played and purred about her ankles. Her action was
symbolic, born of the gay worship welling up within her, a giving of
herself to the shining infinite of Nature as just now manifest - things
divine and eternal glimmering through at her - in this fair hour of
solitude and brooding peace.

Till her mood softened, Damaris danced thus alone, unwitnessed on the
shore. Then, as she sobered, happy still though the crisis of ecstasy had
passed, smaller seeings began to charm her fancy and her eyes. - Pinkish
yellow starfish, long ribbons of madder-red or emerald seaweed, their
colours the more living and vivid for the clear water covering them.
Presently a company of five birds - their mottled brown and olive bodies
raised on stilt-like legs thin as a straw - claimed her notice. So
bewitched was she by their quaint and pretty ways, that she could not but
follow them as they chased one another in and out of the rippling waves,
ran quickly and bowed catching something eatable floating upon the tide,
scattered and then joined up into a joyous chorus of association with
gentle twittering cries. Watching them, dreaming, standing now and again
looking out over the sweet wonder of the placid sea, sometimes wading
ankle deep, sometimes walking on the firm floor of uncovered sand,
Damaris passed onward losing count of time.

The birds led her eastward, up channel, to the half-mile distant nose of
the Bar, round which the rivers, released at last from their narrow
channel, sweep out into Marychurch Bay. Here, on a sudden, they took
wing, and Damaris looking after them, bade them an unwilling farewell,
for their innocent society had been sweet. And with that she became aware
she was really quite tired and would be glad to rest awhile, the
afternoon being young yet, before turning homeward. The longer she stayed
the more hope there was of finding Jennifer at the ferry; and more than
ever, the glamour of her wild hour of Nature worship still upon her, did
she recoil from any sort of association with foul old Timothy Proud.

Therefore she went up across the moist gleaming levels to the
tide-line, and picking her way carefully among the black jumble of
seaweed and sea-litter which marked it, sat down in a fan-shaped
depression in the dry, clean, blown sand some few paces above. The
sunshine covered it making it warm to her bare feet. The feel and blond
colour of it brought to mind her reading of this morning - a passage in
E√ґthen telling of the striking of camp at dawn, the desert waiting to
claim its own again and obliterate, with a single gesture, all sign or
token of the passing sojourn of man. Clasping her hands behind her
head, Damaris lay back, the warm sand all around her, giving beneath
her weight, fitted itself into the curves of her body and limbs - only
it visible and the soft blue of the sky above. For a little while she
rested open-eyed in the bright silent stillness, and then, unknowing of
the exact moment of surrender, she stretched with a fluttering sigh,
turned on her side and dreamlessly slept.

And, while she thus slept, two events took place eminently germane to the
further unfolding of this history. - The weather changed, and the local
degenerate, Abram Sclanders' half-idiot son - the poor "lippity-lop" who,
according to Jennifer, had far better been "put away quiet-like at
birth" - committed theft.

Of the first event, Damaris gradually became sensible, before her actual
awakening. She grew restless, her bed of sand seeming robbed of comfort,
bleak and uneasy, so that she started up, presently, into a sitting
position, rubbing her eyes with her fists baby-fashion, unable for the
minute to imagine how or why she came to be lying like this out on the
Bar, hatless, shoe and stockingless. Looking about her, still in
questioning bewilderment, she observed that in the south-west a great
bank of cloud had risen. It blotted out the sun, deadening all colour.
The opaline haze, turned to a dull falling mist, closed down and in,
covering the sand-hills and the dark mass of Stone Horse Head and even
blurring the long straight lines of the sandbank and nearer shingle. The
sea had risen, but noiselessly, creeping up and up towards her, no line
of white marking the edge of its slothful oncoming.

Damaris stood up, pulling her white jersey - the surface of it already
furred with moisture - low over her hips. For she felt shivery, and the
air was thick and chill to breathe causing a tightness in her throat.

"The glory has departed, very much departed, so I had best make haste to
depart also," she told herself; but told herself gallantly, smiling at
her own strange plight in a spirit of adventure, discovering in it the
excitement of novel experience.

She picked her way over the shingle and black sea litter of high-water
mark, and started to run along the narrow strip between it and the
advancing tide. To run would circulate her blood, warm her through and
keep her gallant humour up; still she had to own she found this heavy
going, for her feet were numb and the sand seemed to pluck at and weigh
them down. Her run slackened to a walk. Then she ventured a yard or two
out into the shallow water, hoping there to meet with firmer foothold;
but here it proved altogether too cold. She had the misfortune, moreover,
to tread on the top end of a razor shell, buried upright, which cut the
skin making her limp from pain and sharpness of smarting. So perforce,
she took to the deep blown sand again above high-water mark, and ploughed
along slowly enough in growing weariness and discomfort.

Never, surely, was any half-mile so long as this between the place of her
farewell to the mottled stilt-legged birds and subsequent sleeping, and
the place where she left her hat and shoes and stockings! In the dimness
and chill of the falling mist, it seemed to lengthen and lengthen to an
altogether incomprehensible extent. Time and again she stopped and
scanned the ground immediately before her, certain she should see there
those so lightly discarded and now so earnestly desired items of
clothing. Once in possession of them she would simply scurry home. For
visions of warm, dry pretty garments, of Mary's, comely ministering
presence, of tea, of lamp-light and - yes, she would allow herself that
culminating luxury - of a fine log fire in the long sitting-room,
presented themselves to her imagination in most alluring sequence - the
spirit of adventure, meanwhile, as must be owned, beginning to sing small
and hang a diminished head.

But on a sudden, raising her eyes from their persistent search, Damaris
realized she must have missed and already passed the spot. For she was
close upon the tract of sand-hills - a picture of desolation in the sullen
murk, the winding hollows between their pale formless elevations bearing
a harsh growth of neutral tinted sword-like grasses.

She had come too far by a quarter of a mile at least, so she judged, and
must turn her face eastward again and laboriously plough her way back.
But the return journey was crowned with no better success than the
outward one. Carefully, methodically she quartered the beach; but simply
her things weren't there, had vanished, leaving neither token or trace.

She was confronted moreover by the unpleasant fact that it grew late.
Soon the dusk would fall, its coming hastened by the mist, now settling
into a steady drizzle of rain precursor of a dark and early night. To
hunt any longer would be useless. She must give it up. Yet her maidenly
pride, her sense of what is seemly and becoming, revolted from exposing
herself to Timothy Proud's coarse leering glances or even - should he by
luck be her waterman - to Jennifer's more respectful curiosity,
dishevelled and but half-dressed as she was. And then the actual distance
to be traversed appeared to her dishearteningly great. For she was
weary - quite abominably weary now she came to think of it. Her feet were
bruised and blistered. They ached. Her throat ached too, and she
shivered. Cold, though it was, she must wait a minute or two and rest
before attempting the ascent of the slope.

Damaris sat down, pulling her skirts as low as they would come over her
bare legs, and clasping her hands round her knees, bowed, huddled
together to gain, if it might be, some sensation of warmth. For a little
she thought of that only - warmth - her mind otherwise a blank. But soon
the consuming sadness of the place in the waning light penetrated her
imagination, penetrated, indeed, her whole being. Only a few hours ago
she had danced here, in ecstasy born of the sunshine, the colour, the
apparently inexhaustible beauty of things uncreated by, and independent
of, the will and work of man. Contrast that scene, and the radiant
emotion evoked by it, with this? Which was real, the enduring revelation?
Was this truth; the other no more than mirage - an exquisite dissembling
and lovely lie?

Such thoughts are hardly wholesome at eighteen - hardly wholesome perhaps
at any age, if life is to be lived sweetly, with honest profit to one's
own soul and to the souls of others. Yet remembering back, down the dim
avenues of childhood, Damaris knew she did not formulate the question,
entertain the suspicion, for the first time. Only, until now, it had
stayed in the vague, a shapeless nightmare horror, past which she could
force herself to run with shut eyes. It didn't jump out of the vague,
thank goodness, and bar her passage. But now no running or shutting of
eyes availed. It had jumped out. She stared at it, and, in all its
undermining power of discouragement, it stared back. - What if the deepest
thing, the thing which alone lasted, the thing which, therefore, you
were bound in the end to accept, to submit to, was just darkness, sorrow,
loneliness of worn body and shrinking spirit, by the shore of a cold,
dumb, and tenantless, limitless sea - what then?

From which undesirable abyss of speculation she was aroused by the sound
of her own name - "Damaris Verity, hey - Damaris Verity" - shouted, not
roughly though in tones of urgent command, from above and behind her on
the crest of the Bar. Along with it came the rattle of shifting shingle
under a strong active tread.

Hearing which the young girl's senses and faculties alike sprang to
attention. She rose from her dejected attitude, stood up and faced round,
forgetful of aches and weariness and of woeful ultimate questionings,
while in glad surprise her heart went out to meet and welcome the - to
her - best beloved being in this, no longer, sorry world.

For even thus, at some fifty yards distant through the blur of falling
rain, the figure presented to her gaze, in height, build, and fashion of
moving, was delightfully familiar, as were the tones of the voice which
had hailed her - if in not quite equal degree the manner of that hail.
Some change in his plans must have taken place, or some letter miscarried
advising her of her father's earlier return. Finding her out he had come
to look for her. - This was perfectly as it should be. Had Colonel
Carteret come home with him, she wondered. And then there flashed through
her, with a singular vividness, recollection of another, long, long ago
escapade - when as a still almost baby child she had stepped off alone, in
daring experiment, and fallen asleep, in the open as to-day. But in
surroundings how amazingly different! - A place of fountains, cypresses
and palms, she curled up in a black marble chair, set throne fashion,
upon a platform of blood red sandstone, an age-old Oriental garden
outstretched below. Colonel Carteret - "the man with the blue eyes" as she
always had called him - awakened her, bringing an adorable and, as it
proved in the sequel, a tragic birthday gift. - Tragic because to it
might, actually if indirectly, be traced the breaking up of her
childhood's home in the stately Indian pleasure palace of the
Sultan-i-bagh at Bhutpur, her separation from her father and exile - as
she had counted it - to Europe.

It is among the doubtful privileges of highly sensitized natures, such as
Damaris', that, in hours of crisis, vision and pre-vision go hand in
hand. As there flashed through her remembrance of that earlier sleep in
the open, there flashed through her also conviction that history would
still further repeat itself. Now, as then, the incident of sleep preluded
the receipt of a gift, adorable perhaps, yet freighted with far-reaching
consequences to herself and her future. Of just what that gift might
consist she had no idea; but of its approach she felt as certain as of
the approach of the man swinging down through the rain over the rattling
pebbles. And her gladness of welcome declined somewhat. She could have
cried off, begged for postponement. For she was very tired, after all.
She didn't want anything now, anything which - however delightful in
itself - demanded effort, demanded even the exertion of being very
pleased. She shied away, in short. And then commendably rallied her
forces, resolute not to be found unworthy or ungrateful.

"Yes - come. I am here," she called in response to that lately heard
calling of her name, desiring to make an act of faith whereby to assure
herself she was indeed ready, and assure her hearer of her readiness to
accept the impending gift.

"I am here," she began again to affirm, but stopped abruptly, the words
choking in her throat.

For, as with decreasing distance the figure grew distinct, she saw, to
her blank amazement, not Sir Charles Verity, her father, as she expected,
but the blue reefer jacket, peaked cap, and handsome bearded face of
Darcy Faircloth, the young merchant sea-captain, emerge from the blur of
the wet. And the revulsion of feeling was so sharp, the shock at once so
staggering and intimate - as summing up all the last ten days confused
experience - that Damaris could not control herself. She turned away with
a wail of distress, threw out her hands, and then, covering her eyes with
them, bowed her head.

The young man came forward and stood near her; but an appreciable time
elapsed before he spoke. When he presently did so, his voice reached
her as again singularly familiar in tone, though strange in diction and
in accent.

"I'm sorry if I startled you," he began, "but I hailed you just now, and
you told me to come. - I concluded you meant what you said. Not, I'm
afraid, that your giving your permission or withholding it would have
made much difference in the upshot. Timothy Proud let on, in my hearing,
that he set you across the river soon after two o'clock, and that there'd
been no call for the ferry since. So I took one of my own boats and just
came over to look for you - in case you might have met with some mishap or
strayed among the sand-hills and couldn't find your" -

Thus far he spoke with studied calm and restraint. But here, as though
struck by a fresh and very objectionable idea, he broke out:

"Nothing has happened has it? No cowardly brute has interfered with
you or upset you? Dear God alive, don't tell me I'm too late, don't
tell me that."

Upon Damaris this sudden, though to her unaccountable, violence and heat
acted as a cordial. She raised her head, pushing back the damp hair from
her forehead, and displaying a proud if strained and weary face.

"No," she said, "of course not. Who would venture to be rude to me? I
have not seen anyone all the afternoon - until now, when you came. And,"
she added by way of further explanation - she didn't want to be ungracious
or unkind, but she did want, in justice to herself, to have this
understood - "in the distance I didn't recognize you. I mistook you for
someone else" -

"Who else?" he took her up, and with a queer flicker - if of a smile, then
one with a keenish edge to it - in his eyes and about his mouth.

"For my father," Damaris answered. "It was a stupid mistake, because he
is away staying in Norfolk for partridge shooting, and I have not any
real reason to expect him home for several days yet."

"But in this deceptive light," Faircloth took her up again, while - as she
could not help observing - that flicker became more pronounced. It seemed
silently to laugh and to mock. - "Oh! to be sure that accounts for your
mistake as to my identity. One sees how it might very well come about."

He took off his cap, and threw back his head looking up into the
low wet sky.

"At night all cats are grey, aren't they," he went on, "little ones as
well as big? And it's close on night now, thanks to this dirty weather.
So close on it, that - though personally I'm in no hurry - I ought to get
you back to The Hard, or there'll be a regular hue and cry after
you - rightly and probably too, if your servants and people have any
notion of their duty."

"I am quite ready," Damaris said.

She strove to show a brave front, to keep up appearances; but she felt
helpless and weak, curiously confused by and unequal to dealing with
this masterful stranger - who yet, somehow did not seem like a stranger.
Precisely in this was the root of her confusion, of her inability to
deal with him.

"But hardly as you are," he commented, on her announcement she was ready.
"Let me help to put on your shoes and stockings for you first." And this
he said so gently and courteously, that Damaris' lips began to quiver,
very feminine and youthful shame at the indignity of her present plight
laying hold on her.

"I can't find them," she pitifully declared. "I have looked and looked,
but I can't find them anywhere. I left my things just here. Can anyone
have stolen them while I was out at the end of the Bar? It is so
mysterious and so dreadfully tiresome. I should have gone home long ago,
before the rain began, if I could have found them."

Online LibraryLucas MaletDeadham Hard → online text (page 9 of 39)