THE LITTLE MOTHER.
‘LAST Christmas twelvemonth,’ said Ignatius Jordan slowly, ‘I was on the moor—Morwell Down it is called. Night was falling. The place—where the road comes along over the down, from Beer Alston and Beer Ferris. I dare say you came along it, you took boat from Plymouth to Beer Ferris, and thence the way runs—the packmen travel it—to the north to Launceston. It was stormy weather, and the snow drove hard; the wind was so high that a man might hardly face it. I heard cries for help. I found a party of players who were on their way to Launceston, and were caught by the storm and darkness on the moor. They had a sick girl with them——’ His voice broke down.
‘Eve?’ asked Ezekiel Babb.
Jordan nodded. After a pause he recovered himself and went on. ‘She could walk no further, and the party was distressed, not knowing whither to go or what to do. I invited them to come here. The house is large enough to hold a score of people. Next day I set them on their way forward, as they were pressed to be at Launceston for the Christmas holidays. But the girl was too ill to proceed, and I offered to let her remain here till she recovered. After a week had passed the actors sent here from Launceston to learn how she was, and whether she could rejoin them, as they were going forward to Bodmin, but she was not sufficiently recovered. Then a month later, they sent again, but though she was better I would not let her go. After that we heard no more of the players. So she remained at Morwell, and I loved her, and she became my wife.’
‘You said that you did not marry her.’
‘No, not exactly. This is a place quite out of the world, a lost, unseen spot. I am a Catholic, and no priest comes this way. There is the ancient chapel here where the Abbot of Tavistock had mass in the old time. It is bare, but the altar remains, and though no priest ever comes here, the altar is a Catholic altar. Eve and I went into the old chapel and took hands before the altar, and I gave her a ring, and we swore to be true to each other’—his voice shook, and then a sob broke from his breast. ‘We had no priest’s blessing on us, that is true. But Eve would never tell me what her name was, or whence she came. If we had gone to Tavistock or Brent Tor to be married by a Protestant minister, she would have been forced to tell her name and parentage, and that, she said, nothing would induce her to do. It mattered not, we thought. We lived here out of the world, and to me the vow was as sacred when made here as if confirmed before a minister of the established religion. We swore to be all in all to each other.’
He clasped his hands on his knees, and went on with bent head: ‘But the play-actors returned and were in Tavistock last week, and one of them came up here to see her, not openly, but in secret. She told me nothing, and he did not allow me to see him. She met him alone several times. This place is solitary and sad, and Eve of a lively nature. She tired of being here. She wearied of me.’
Babb laughed bitterly. ‘And now she is flown away with a play-actor. As she deserted her father, she deserts her husband and child, and the house that housed her. See you,’ he put out his hand and grasped the cradle: ‘Here lies vanity of vanities, the pomps of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, nestled in that crib, that self-same strain of leaping, headlong, wayward blood, that never will rest till poured out of the veins and rolled down into the ocean, and
Jordan sprang from his seat with a gasp and a stifled cry, and fell back against the wall.
Babb stooped over the cradle and plucked out the child. He held it in the sunlight streaming through the window, and looked hard at it. Then he danced it up and down with a scoffing laugh.
‘See, see!’ he cried; ‘see how the creature rejoices and throws forth its arms. Look at the shadow on the wall, as of a Salamander swaying in a flood of fire. Ha! Eve—blood! wanton blood! I will crucify thee too!’ He raised the babe aloft against the black cross made by the shadow of the mullion and transom, as the child had thrown up its tiny arms.
‘See,’ he exclaimed, ‘the child hangs also!’
Ignatius Jordan seized the babe, snatched it away from the rude grasp of Babb, clasped it passionately to his breast, and covered it with kisses. Then he gently replaced it, crowing and smiling, in its cradle, and rocked it with his foot.
‘You fool!’ said Babb; ‘you love the strange blood in spite of its fickleness and falseness. I will tell you something further. When I heard from the players that Eve was here, at Morwell, I did not come on at once, because I had business that called me home. But a fortnight after I came over Dartmoor to Tavistock. I did not come, as you supposed, up the river to Beer Ferris and along the road over your down; no, I live at Buckfastleigh by Ashburton, right away to the east across Dartmoor. I came thence as far as Tavistock, and there I found the players once more, who had come up from Plymouth to make sport for the foolish and ungodly in Tavistock. They told me that they had heard you lived with my Eve, and had not married her, so I did not visit you, but waited about till I could speak with her alone, and I sent a message to her by one of the players that I was wanting a word with her. She came to me at the place I had appointed once—ay! and twice—and she feigned to grieve that she had left me, and acted her part well as if she loved me—her father. I urged her to leave you and come back to her duty and her God and to me, but she would promise nothing. Then I gave her a last chance. I told her I would meet her finally on that rocky platform that rises as a precipice above the river, last night, and there she should give me her answer.’
Ignatius Jordan’s agitation became greater, his lips turned livid, his eyes were wide and staring as though with horror, and he put up his hands as if warding off a threatened blow.
‘You—you met her on the Raven Rock?’
‘I met her there twice, and I was to have met her there again last night, when she was to have given me her final answer, what she would do—stay here, and be lost eternally, or come back with me to Salvation. But I was detained, and I could not keep the engagement, so I sent one of the player-men to inform her that I would come to-day instead. So I came on to-day, as appointed, and she was not there, not on the Raven Rock, as you call it, and I have arrived here, —but I am too late.’
Jordan clasped his hands over his eyes and moaned. The babe began to wail.
‘Still the yowl of that child!’ exclaimed Babb. ‘I tell you this as a last instance of her perfidy.’ He raised his voice above the cry of the child. ‘What think you was the reason she alleged why she would not return with me at once—why did she ask time to make up her mind? She told me that you were a Catholic, she told me of the empty, worthless vow before an old popish altar in a deserted chapel, and I knew her soul would be lost if she remained with you; you would drag her into idolatry. And I urged her, as she hoped to escape hell fire, to flee Morwell and not cast a look behind, desert you and the babe and all for the Zoar of Buckfastleigh. But she was a dissembler. She loved neither me nor you nor her child. She loved only idleness and levity, and the butterfly career of a player, and some old sweetheart among the play company. She has gone off with him. Now I wipe my hands of her altogether.’
Jordan swayed himself, sitting as one stunned, with an elbow on each knee and his head in the hollow of his hands.
‘Can you not still the brat?’ cried Ezekiel Babb, ‘now that the mother is gone, who will be the mother to it?’
‘I—I—I!’ the cry of an eager voice. Babb looked round, and saw a little girl of six, with grey eyes and dark hair, a quaint, premature woman, in an old, long, stiff frock. Her little arms were extended; ‘Baby-sister!’ she called, ‘don’t cry!’ She ran forward, and, kneeling by the cradle, began to caress and play with the infant.
‘Who is this?’ asked Ezekiel.
‘My Barbara,’ answered Ignatius in a low tone; ‘I was married before, and my wife died, leaving me this little one.’
The child, stooping over the cradle, lifted the babe carefully out. The infant crowed and made no resistance, for the arms that held it, though young, were strong. Then Barbara seated herself on a stool, and laid the infant on her lap, and chirped and snapped her fingers and laughed to it, and snuggled her face into the neck of the babe. The latter quivered with excitement, the tiny arms were held up, the little hands clutched in the child’s long hair and tore at it, and the feet kicked with delight. ‘Father! father!’ cried Barbara, ‘see little Eve; she is dancing and singing.’
‘Dancing and singing!’ echoed Ezekiel Babb, ‘that is all she ever will do. She comes dancing and singing into the world, and she will go dancing and singing out of it—and then—then,’ he brushed his hand through the air, as though drawing back a veil. The girl-nurse looked at the threatening old man with alarm.
‘Keep the creature quiet,’ he said impatiently; ‘I cannot sit here and see the ugly, evil sight. Dancing and singing! she begins like her mother, and her mother’s mother. Take her away, the sight of her stirs my bile.’
At a sign from the father Barbara rose, and carried the child out of the room, talking to it fondly, and a joyous chirp from the little one was the last sound that reached Babb’s ears as the door shut behind them.
‘Naught but evil has the foreign blood, the tossing fever-blood, brought me. First it came without a dower, and that was like original sin. Then it prevented me from marrying Tamsine Bovey and getting Buncombe. That was like sin of malice. Now Tamsine is dead and her husband, Joseph Warmington, wants to sell. I did not want Tamsine, but I wanted Buncombe; at one time I could not see how Buncombe was to be had without Tamsine. Now the property is to be sold, and it joins on to mine as if it belonged to it. What Heaven has joined together let not man put asunder. It was wicked witchcraft stood in the way of my getting my rightful own.’
‘How could it be your rightful own?’ asked Ignatius; ‘was Tamsine Bovey your kinswoman?’
‘No, she was not, but she ought to have been my wife, and so Buncombe have come to me. I seem as if I could see into the book of the Lord’s ordinance that so it was written. There’s some wonderful good soil in Buncombe. But the Devil allured me with his Eve, and I was bewitched by her beautiful eyes and little hands and feet. Cursed be the day that shut me out of Buncombe. Cursed be the strange blood that ran as a dividing river between Owlacombe and Buncombe, and cut asunder what Providence ordained to be one. I tell you,’ he went on fiercely, ‘that
so long as all that land remains another’s and not mine, so long shall I feel only gall, and no pity nor love, for Eve, and all who have issued from her—for all who inherit her name and blood. I curse——’ his voice rose to a roar, and his grey hair bristled like the fell of a wolf, ‘I curse them all with——’
The pale man, Jordan, rushed at him and thrust his hand over his mouth.
‘Curse not,’ he said vehemently; then in a subdued tone, ‘Listen to reason, and you will feel pity and love for my little one who inherits the name and blood of your Eve. I have laid by money: I am in no want. It shall be the portion of my little Eve, and I will lend it you for seventeen years. This day, the 24th of June, seventeen years hence, you shall repay me the whole sum without interest. I am not a Jew to lend on usury. I shall want the money then for my Eve, as her dower. _She_’—he held up his head for a moment—‘_she_ shall not be portionless. In the meantime take and use the money, and when you walk over the fields you have purchased with it,—bless the name.’
A flush came in the sallow face of Ezekiel Babb. He rose to his feet and held out his hand.
‘You will lend me the money, two thousand pounds?’
‘I will lend you fifteen hundred.’
‘I will swear to repay the sum in seventeen years. You shall have a mortgage.’
‘On this day.’
‘This 24th day of June, so help me God.’
A ray of orange light, smiting through the window, was falling high up the wall. The hands of the men met in the beam, and the reflection was cast on their faces,—on the dark hard face of Ezekiel, on the white quivering face of Ignatius.
‘And you bless,’ said the latter, ‘you bless the name of Eve, and the blood that follows it.’
‘I bless. Peace be to the restless blood.’