The Domain Of Ceres
"S' y' want t' merry m' gel, Bella!" remarked Captain Huxham, rubbing his stout knees slowly, and repeating the exact words of the clerical suitor. "S' thet she may be yer handmaiden, an' yer spouse, and yer sealed fountain, es y' put it in yer flowery pulpit lingo. Jus' so! Jus' so!" and shifting the quid which bulged his weather-beaten cheek, he stared with hard blue eyes. "Jus' so, Mr. Pence!"
The young minister and the elderly skipper discussed the subject of marriage in a shabby antique room of small size, which had the appearance of having been used to more aristocratic company. The dark-oak panelled walls, the grotesquely-carved ceiling-beams, the Dutch-tiled fire-place, with its ungainly brass dogs, and the deep slanting embrasure of the lozenge-paned casement, suggested Georgian beaux and belles dancing buckram minutes, or at least hard-riding country squires plotting Jacobite restoration. But these happenings were in the long-ago, but this stately Essex manor-house had declined woefully from its high estate, and now sheltered a rough and ready mariner, who camped, rather than dwelt, under its roof.
Captain Huxham, seated on the broad, low window-sill, thrust his hands into the pockets of his brass-buttoned pea-jacket, and swung his short, sturdy legs, which were enveloped in wide blue-cloth trousers. He was a squat man, with lengthy arms and aggressively square shoulders, and his large, flat face was as the winter sun for redness. Clean-shaven, save for a fringe of white hair which curved under his stubborn chin from one large ear to the other, his tough skin was seamed with innumerable wrinkles, accumulating particularly thickly about his eyes. He had gold rings in his ears, and plenteous grey hair hung like seaweed from under a peaked cap, pushed back from his lined forehead. He looked what he truly was--a rough, uneducated, imperious old sea-dog, whose knowledge of strong drink and stronger language was only exceeded by his strenuous grip of the purse which held the savings of many rapacious years. In this romantic room he looked entirely out of place. Nevertheless it was his own property, and while considering his answer to Mr. Pence, he examined it mechanically.
To the left he beheld a large open fire-place, which gaped under an ornate oak mantel-piece, carved with the crest and motto of the dispossessed family. A door appeared on the right, leading to the entrance hall, and this also was elaborately carved with wreaths of fruit and flowers, and with fat, foolish Cupids, entangled in knots of ribbon. The fourth wall was unbroken, and faced the window, but against it stood a common deal table covered incongruously with an embroidered Indian cloth. Above this, and leaning forward, was a round convex mirror, surmounted by a Napoleonic eagle. This was flanked on one side by an oilskin coat and a sou'-wester, and on the other by a sextant and a long brass telescope. A Louis Quinze sofa, with a gilt frame, and covered with faded brocade, fitted into the space between the fire-place and the casement. In the opposite corner, with its back to the outer wall, stood a large modern office-desk of mahogany, with a flexible curved lid, which was drawn down and fastened, because a visitor was in the room. Captain Huxham never received anyone in his sanctum unless he first assured himself that the desk was closed, and a small, green-painted safe near it fast-locked.
There were three or four rush-bottomed chairs, which looked plebeian even on the dusty, uncarpeted floor. On the mantel-shelf stood a lyre-shaped clock, bearing the sun symbol of Louis XIV.; several cheap and gaudy vases, and many fantastic shells picked up on South Sea beaches. Here and there were Japanese curios, Polynesian mats and war weapons; uncouth Chinese idols, stuffed birds, Indian ivory carvings, photographs and paintings of various ships, and all the flotsam and jetsam which collects in a sailor's sea-chest during endless voyages. The deal table was littered with old magazines, yellow-backed novels, and navigation books with ragged covers; while the fire-place was a species of dust-bin for matches, cigar-ends, torn papers, orange peel, and such like. Everywhere the dust lay thick. It was an odd room--at once sumptuous and dingy, markedly chaotic, yet orderly in an untidy way. It reflected more or less the mind of its present owner, who, as has been before remarked, camped, rather than lived, amidst his surroundings. In the same way do Eastern nomads house in the ruined palaces of kings.
Silas Pence, who was the minister of the Little Bethel Chapel in Marshely village, curled his long thin legs under his chair and looked anxiously at his meditative host. That portion of the light from the casement not intercepted by Huxham's bulky figure, revealed a lean, eager face, framed in sparse, fair hair, parted in the centre and falling untidily on the coat collar. The young preacher's features were sharply defined and somewhat mean, while a short and scanty beard scarcely concealed his sensitive mouth. His forehead was lofty, his chin weak, and his grey eyes glittered in a strange, fanatical fashion. There were exceptional possibilities both for good and evil in that pale countenance, and it could be guessed that environment would have much to do with the development of such possibilities. Mr. Pence was arrayed in a tightly-fitting frock coat and loose trousers, both of worn broadcloth. He wore also a low collar with a white tie, bow-fashion, white socks, and low-heeled shoes, and every part of his attire, although neat and well-brushed and well-mended, revealed dire poverty. On the whole, he had the rapt ascetic gaze of a mediæval saint, and a monkish robe would have suited him better than his semi-ecclesiastical garb as a Non-conformist preacher.
But if Pence resembled a saint, Huxham might have passed for a grey old badger, sullen and infinitely wary. Having taken stock of his worldly possessions, recalling meanwhile a not altogether spotless past, he brought his shrewd eyes back again to his visitor's attentive face. Still anxious to gain time for further consideration, he remarked once more, "So' y' want t' merry m' gel, Bella, Mr. Pence? Jus' so! Jus' so!"
The other replied, in a musical but high-pitched voice almost feminine in its timbre, "I am not comely; I am not wealthy; nor do I sit in the seat of the rulers. But the Lord has gifted me with a pleading tongue, an admiring eye, and an admonishing nature. With Isabella by my side, Brother Huxham, I can lead more hopefully our little flock towards the pleasant land of Beulah. What says Isaiah?"
"Dunno!" confessed the mariner. "Ain't bin readin' Isaiaher's log lately."
"Thou shalt be called Hephzibah," quoted Mr. Pence shrilly, "and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land will be married."
"Didn't know es Isaiaher knew of m' twenty acres," growled Huxham, with another turn of his quid; "'course ef it be, es y' merry Bella, th' land goes with her when I fits int' m' little wooden overcoat. Y' kin take yer davy on thet, Mr. Pence, fur I've a conscience, I hev,--let 'em say contrary es likes."
It must have been an uneasy conscience, for Captain Huxham glared defiantly at his visitor, and then cast a doubtful look over his left shoulder, as though he expected to be tapped thereon. Pence was puzzled as much by this behaviour as by the literal way in which the sailor had taken the saying of the prophet. "Isaiah spoke in parables," he explained, lamely.
"Maybe," grunted Huxham, "but y' speak sraight 'nough, Mr. Pence. Touching this merrage. Y' love Bella, es I take it?"
"I call her Hephzibah," burst out the young minister enthusiastically, "which, being interpreted, means--my delight is in her."
"Jus' so! Jus' so! But does th' gel love you, Mr. Pence?"
The face of the suitor clouded. "I have my doubts," he sighed, "seeing that she has looked upon vanity in the person of a man from Babylon."
"Damn your parables!" snapped the captain; "put a blamed name t' him."
"Mr. Cyril Lister," began Pence, and was about to reprove his host for the use of strong language, when he was startled by much worse. And Huxham grew purple in the face when using it.
It is unnecessary to set down the exact words, but the fluency and originality and picturesqueness of the retired mariner's speech made Silas close his scandalised ears. With many adjectives of the most lurid description, the preacher understood Huxham to say that he would see his daughter grilling in the nethermost pit of Tophet before he would permit his daughter to marry this--adjective, double adjective--swab from London.
"I ain't seen th' blighter," bellowed the captain, furiously, "but I've heard of his blessed name. Bella met him et thet blamed Miss Ankers', the school-mistress', house, she did. Sh' wanted him t' kim an' see this old shanty, 'cause he writes fur the noospapers, cuss him. But I up an' tole her, es I'd twist her damned neck ef she spoke agin with the lop-sided--"
"Stop! stop!" remonstrated Pence feebly. "We are all brothers in----"
"The lubber ain't no relative o' mine, hang him; an' y' too, fur sayin' so. Oh, Lister, Lister!" Huxham swung two huge fists impotently. "I hate him."
"Why? why? why?" babbled the visitor incoherently.
The surprise in his tones brought Huxham to his calmer senses, like the cunning old badger he was.
"'Cause I jolly well do," he snorted, wiping his perspiring face with a flaunting red and yellow bandana. "But it don't matter nohow, and I arsk yer pardon fur gittin' up steam. My gel don't merry no Lister, y' kin lay yer soul t' thet, Mr. Pence. Lister! Lister!" He slipped off the sill in his excitement. "I hates the whole damned breed of 'em; sea-cooks all, es oughter t' hev their silly faces in the slush tub."
"Do you know the Lister family then?" asked Pence, open-mouthed at this vehemence.
This remark cooled the captain still further. "Shut yer silly mouth," he growled, rolling porpoise-fashion across the room, "and wait till I git m' breath back int' m' bellers."
Being a discreet young man, Pence took the hint and silently watched the squat, ungainly figure of his host lunging and plunging in the narrow confines of the apartment. Whatever may have been the reason, it was evident that the name of Lister acted like a red rag to this nautical bull. Pence ran over in his mind what he knew of the young stranger, to see if he could account for this outbreak. He could recall nothing pertinent. Cyril Lister had come to remain in Marshely some six months previously, and declared himself to be a journalist in search of quiet, for the purpose of writing a novel. He occupied a tiny cottage in the village, and was looked after by Mrs. Block, a stout, gossiping widow, who spoke well of her master. So far as Pence knew, Captain Huxham had never set eyes on the stranger, and could not possibly know anything of him or of his family. Yet, from his late outburst of rage, it was apparent that he hated the young man.
Lister sometimes went to London, but for the most part remained in the village, writing his novel and making friends with the inhabitants. At the house of the board-school mistress he had met Bella Huxham, and the two had been frequently in one another's company, in spite of the captain's prohibition. But it was evident that Huxham knew nothing of their meetings. Pence did, however, and resented that the girl should prefer Lister's company to his own. He was very deeply in love, and it rejoiced his heart when he heard how annoyed the captain was at the mere idea of a marriage between Lister and his daughter. The preacher was by no means a selfish man, or a bad man, but being in love he naturally wished to triumph over his rival. He now knew that his suit would be supported by Huxham, if only out of his inexplicable hatred for the journalist.
Meanwhile Huxham stamped and muttered, and wiped his broad face as he walked off his anger. Finally he stopped opposite his visitor and waved him to the door. "Y' shell merry m' gel, Bella," he announced hoarsely; "m' conscience won't let me merry her t' thet--thet--oh, cuss him! why carn't he an' the likes o' he keep away!" He paused, and again cast an uncomfortable look over his left shoulder. "Kim up on th' roof," he said abruptly, driving Pence into the entrance hall. "I'll show y' wot I'll give y' with m' gel--on conditions."
"Conditions!" The preacher was bewildered.
Huxham vouchsafed no reply, but mounted the shallow steps of the grand staircase. The manor-house was large and rambling, and of great age, having been built in the reign of Henry VII. The rooms were spacious, the corridors wide, and the ceilings lofty. The present possessor led his guest up the stairs into a long, broad passage, with many doors leading into various bedrooms. At the end he opened a smaller door to reveal a narrow flight of steep steps. Followed by the minister, Huxham ascended these, and the two emerged through a wooden trap-door on the roof. Silas then beheld a moderately broad space running parallel with the passage below, and extending from one parapet to the other. On either side of this walk--as it might be termed--the red-tiled roofs sloped abruptly upward to cover the two portions of the mansion, here joined by the flat leads forming the walk aforesaid. On the slope of the left roof, looking from the trap-door, was a wooden ladder which led up to a small platform, also of wood, built round the emerging chimney stack. This was Captain Huxham's quarter deck, whither he went on occasions to survey his property. He clambered up the ladder with the agility of a sailor, in spite of his age, and was followed by the preacher with some misgivings. These proved to be correct, for when he reached the quarter-deck, the view which met his startled eyes so shook his nerve, that he would have fallen but that the captain propped him up against the broad brick-work of the chimney.
"Oh, me," moaned the unfortunate Silas, holding on tightly to the iron clamps of the brick-work. "I am throned on a dangerous eminence," and closed his eyes.
"Open 'em, open 'em," commanded the captain gruffly, "an' jes' look et them twenty acres of corn, es y'll git with m' gel when I'm a deader."
Pence slipped into a sitting position and looked as directed. He beheld from his dizzy elevation the rolling marshland, extending from the far-distant stream of the Thames to the foot of low-lying inland hills. As it was July, and the sun shone strongly, the marshes were comparatively dry, but here and there Pence beheld pools and ditches flashing like jewels in the yellow radiance. Immediately before him he could see the village of Marshely, not so very far away, with red-roofed houses gathered closely round the grey, square tower of the church; he could even see the tin roof of his own humble Bethel gleaming like silver in the sunlight. And here and there, dotted indiscriminately, were lonely houses, single huts, clumps of trees, and on the higher ground rising inland, more villages similar to Marshely. The flat and perilously green lands were divided by hedges and ditches and fences into squares and triangles and oblongs and rectangles, all as emerald-hued as faery rings. The human habitations were so scattered, that it looked as though some careless genii had dropped them by chance when flying overhead. Far away glittered the broad stream of the Thames, with ships and steamers and boats and barges moving, outward and inward bound, on its placid surface. The rigid line of the railway shot straightly through villages and trees and occasional cuttings, across the verdant expanse, with here and there a knot representing a station. Smoke curled from the tall chimneys of the dynamite factories near the river, and silvery puffs of steam showed that a train was on its way to Tilbury. All was fresh, restful, beautiful, and so intensely green as to be suggestive of early Spring buddings.
"When I took command of this here farm, ten years back," observed Captain Huxham, drawing in a deep breath of moist air, "it were water-logged like a derelict, es y' might say. Cast yer weather-eye over it now, Mr. Pence, an' wot's yer look-out: a gardin of Edin, smilin' with grain."
"Yet it's a derelict still," remarked the preacher, struggling to his feet and holding on by the chimney; "let me examine your farm of Bleacres."
Bleacres--a corruption of bleakacres--consisted of only twenty acres not at all bleak, but a mere slice out of the wide domains formerly owned by the aristocratic family dispossessed by Huxham. It extended all round the ancient manor-house, which stood exactly in the centre, and every foot of it was sown with corn. On every side waved the greenish-bluish crop, now almost breast high. It rolled right up to the walls of the house, so that this was drowned, so to speak, in the ocean of grain. The various fields were divided and sub-divided by water-ways wide and narrow, which drained the land, and these gave the place quite a Dutch look, as fancy might picture them as canals. But the corn grew everywhere so thick and high, in contrast to the barren marshes, that the farm looked almost aggressively cultivated. Bleacres was widely known as "The Solitary Farm," for there was not another like it for many miles, though why it should have been left to a retired sailor to cultivate the soil it is hard to say. But Huxham for many years had sown corn on his twenty acres, so that the mansion for the most part of the year was quite shut off from the world. Only a narrow path was left, which meandered from the front door and across various water-ways to Marshely village, one mile distant. In no other way save by this path could the mansion be approached. And as guardian of the place a red-coated scarecrow stood sentinel a stone-throw from the house. The bit of brilliant colour looked gay amidst the rolling acres of green.
"The domain of Ceres," said Pence dreamily, and recalling his meagre classical studies; "here the goddess might preside. Yet," he added again, with a side glance at his rugged host, "a derelict still."
"Mr. Pence don't know the English langwidge, apparently," said Huxham, addressing the landscape with a pitying smile. "A derelict's a ship abandoned."
"And a derelict," insisted Pence, "can also be described as a tract of land left dry by the sea, and fit for cultivation or use. You will find that explanation in Nuttall's Standard Dictionary, captain."
"Live an' larn; live an' larn," commented Huxham, accepting the explanation without question; "but I ain't got no use for dix'onaries m'self. Made m' dollars to buy this here farm without sich truck."
"In what way, captain?" asked Silas absently, and looked at the view.
Had he looked instead at Huxham's weather-beaten face he might have been surprised. The captain grew a little trifle paler under his bronze, an uneasy look crept into his hard blue eyes, and he threw another anxious glance over his shoulder. But a stealthy examination of the minister's indifferent countenance assured him that the question, although a leading one, had been asked in all innocence. And in all innocence the captain replied, for the momentary pause had given him time to frame his reply.
"I arned m' dollars, Mr. Pence, es an honest man should, by sweatin' on th' high an' narrer seas these forty year'. Ran away fro' m' father, es wos a cobbler," added Huxham, addressing the landscape once more, "when I wos ten year old, an' a hop-me-thumb et thet, es y' could hev squeezed int' a pint pot. Cabin boy, A.-B., mate, fust an' second, and a skipper by m' own determination t' git top-hole. Likewise hard tack, cold quarters, kickin's an' brimstone langwidge es would hev made thet hair of yours curl tremenjous, Mr. Pence. I made 'nough when fifty an' more, t' buy this here farm, an' this here house, th' roof of which I've walked quarter-deck fashion, es y' see, these ten years--me bein' sixty odd, so t' speak. Waitin' now fur a hail t' jine th' angels, an' Mrs. Arabeller Huxham, who is a flier with a halo, an' expectin' me aloft, es she remarked frequent when chokin' in her engine pipes. Asthma et wos," finished the widower, spitting out some tobacco juice, "es settled her hash."
This astonishing speech, delivered with slow gruffness, did not startle Silas, as he had known Captain Huxham for at least five years, and had before remarked upon his eccentric way of talking. "Very interesting; very commendable," he murmured, and returned to the object of his visit. "And your daughter, sir?"
"Y' shell hev her, an' hev this here," the captain waved his hand to the four points of the compass, "when I jine the late Mrs. Arabeller Huxham, ef y'--ef y'--thet is----" he halted dubiously.
"If what?" demanded Pence, unsuspiciously.
"Ef y' chuck thet Lister int' one of them water-ways," said Huxham.
"What?" cried the preacher, considerably startled.
"I want him dead," growled Huxham gruffly, "drown dead an' buried."
Perhaps his sojourn in distant lands on the fringes of the empire had familiarised the captain with sudden death and murder, for he made this amazing proposition in a calm and cheerful voice. But the minister was not so steeled to horrors.
"What?" he repeated in a shaking voice and with dilated eyes.
"All fur you," murmured the tempter persuasively, "every blamed acre of et, t' say nothing of Bella es is a fine gel, an'----"
"No, no, no!" cried Silas vehemently, spreading his hands across his lean, agitated face, "how dare you ask such a thing?"
"Jus' a push," went on Huxham softly, "he bein' on the edge of one of them ditches, es y' might say. Wot th' water gits th' water holds. He'd go down int' the black slime an' never come up. It 'ud choke him. Cuss me," murmured Huxham softly, "I'd like t' see the black slime choke a Lister."
Pence gasped again and recalled how the Evil One had taken the Saviour of men up to an exceedingly high mountain, to show Him the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. "All these things will I give thee," said Satan, "if----"
"No!" shouted Silas, his eyes lighting up with wrath. "Get thee behind me----" Before finishing his sentence, and before Huxham could reply, he scrambled down the ladder to rush for the open trap. The captain leaned from his quarter-deck scornfully. "Y' needn't say es I gave y' the chance, fur no one 'ull believe y'," he cried out, coolly, "an' a milksop y' are. Twenty acres, a house, an' a fine gel--y'd be set up for life, ef y'd only push----"
Pence heard no more. In a frenzy of horror he dropped through the trap-door, inwardly praying that he might be kept from temptation. Huxham saw him vanish and scowled. "Blamed milky swab," he grumbled, then turned to survey the bribe he had offered for wilful murder. He looked at the corn and across the corn uneasily, as though he saw danger in the distance. "No cause to be afeared," muttered the ex-mariner; "he can't get through the corn. It keeps me safe anyhow."
But who the "he" referred to might be, Huxham did not say.