What was known of Captain Hagberd in the little seaport of Colebrook was
not exactly in his favor. He did not belong to the place. He had come
to settle there under circumstances not at all mysterious–he used to
be very communicative about them at the time–but extremely morbid and
unreasonable. He was possessed of some little money evidently, because
he bought a plot of ground, and had a pair of ugly yellow brick cottages
run up very cheaply. He occupied one of them himself and let the other
to Josiah Carvil–blind Carvil, the retired boat-builder–a man of evil
repute as a domestic tyrant.
These cottages had one wall in common, shared in a line of iron railing
dividing their front gardens; a wooden fence separated their back
gardens. Miss Bessie Carvil was allowed, as it were of right, to throw
over it the tea-cloths, blue rags, or an apron that wanted drying.
“It rots the wood, Bessie my girl,” the captain would remark mildly,
from his side of the fence, each time he saw her exercising that
She was a tall girl; the fence was low, and she could spread her elbows
on the top. Her hands would be red with the bit of washing she had
done, but her forearms were white and shapely, and she would look at her
father’s landlord in silence–in an informed silence which had an air of
knowledge, expectation and desire.
“It rots the wood,” repeated Captain Hagberd. “It is the only unthrifty,
careless habit I know in you. Why don’t you have a clothes line out in
your back yard?”
Miss Carvil would say nothing to this–she only shook her head
negatively. The tiny back yard on her side had a few stone-bordered
little beds of black earth, in which the simple flowers she found time
to cultivate appeared somehow extravagantly overgrown, as if belonging
to an exotic clime; and Captain Hagberd’s upright, hale person, clad in
No. 1 sail-cloth from head to foot, would be emerging knee-deep out of
rank grass and the tall weeks on his side of the fence. He appeared,
with the color and uncouth stiffness of the extraordinary material in
which he chose to clothe himself–“for the time being,” would be his
mumbled remark to any observation on the subject–like a man roughened
out of granite, standing in a wilderness not big enough for a decent
billiard-room. A heavy figure of a man of stone, with a red handsome
face, a blue wandering eye, and a great white beard flowing to his waist
and never trimmed as far as Colebrook knew.
Seven years before, he had seriously answered, “Next month, I think,”
to the chaffing attempt to secure his custom made by that distinguished
local wit, the Colebrook barber, who happened to be sitting insolently
in the tap-room of the New Inn near the harbor, where the captain had
entered to buy an ounce of tobacco. After paying for his purchase with
three half-pence extracted from the corner of a handkerchief which he
carried in the cuff of his sleeve, Captain Hagberd went out. As soon
as the door was shut the barber laughed. “The old one and the young one
will be strolling arm in arm to get shaved in my place presently. The
tailor shall be set to work, and the barber, and the candlestick maker;
high old times are coming for Colebrook, they are coming, to be sure. It
used to be ‘next week,’ now it has come to ‘next month,’ and so on–soon
it will be next spring, for all I know.”
Noticing a stranger listening to him with a vacant grin, he explained,
stretching out his legs cynically, that this queer old Hagberd, a
retired coasting-skipper, was waiting for the return of a son of his.
The boy had been driven away from home, he shouldn’t wonder; had run
away to sea and had never been heard of since. Put to rest in Davy
Jones’s locker this many a day, as likely as not. That old man came
flying to Colebrook three years ago all in black broadcloth (had lost
his wife lately then), getting out of a third-class smoker as if the
devil had been at his heels; and the only thing that brought him down
was a letter–a hoax probably. Some joker had written to him about a
seafaring man with some such name who was supposed to be hanging about
some girl or other, either in Colebrook or in the neighborhood.
ain’t it?” The old chap had been advertising in the London papers for
Harry Hagberd, and offering rewards for any sort of likely information.
And the barber would go on to describe with sardonic gusto, how that
stranger in mourning had been seen exploring the country, in carts, on
foot, taking everybody into his confidence, visiting all the inns
and alehouses for miles around, stopping people on the road with his
questions, looking into the very ditches almost; first in the greatest
excitement, then with a plodding sort of perseverance, growing slower
and slower; and he could not even tell you plainly how his son looked.
The sailor was supposed to be one of two that had left a timber
ship, and to have been seen dangling after some girl; but the old man
described a boy of fourteen or so–“a clever-looking, high-spirited
boy.” And when people only smiled at this he would rub his forehead in
a confused sort of way before he slunk off, looking offended. He found
nobody, of course; not a trace of anybody–never heard of anything worth
belief, at any rate; but he had not been able somehow to tear himself
away from Colebrook.
“It was the shock of this disappointment, perhaps, coming soon after the
loss of his wife, that had driven him crazy on that point,” the barber
suggested, with an air of great psychological insight. After a time the
old man abandoned the active search. His son had evidently gone away;
but he settled himself to wait. His son had been once at least in
Colebrook in preference to his native place. There must have been some
reason for it, he seemed to think, some very powerful inducement, that
would bring him back to Colebrook again.
“Ha, ha, ha! Why, of course, Colebrook. Where else? That’s the only
place in the United Kingdom for your long-lost sons. So he sold up his
old home in Colchester, and down he comes here. Well, it’s a craze,
like any other. Wouldn’t catch me going crazy over any of my youngsters
clearing out. I’ve got eight of them at home.” The barber was showing
off his strength of mind in the midst of a laughter that shook the
Strange, though, that sort of thing, he would confess, with the
frankness of a superior intelligence, seemed to be catching. His
establishment, for instance, was near the harbor, and whenever a
sailor-man came in for a hair-cut or a shave–if it was a strange face he
couldn’t help thinking directly, “Suppose he’s the son of old Hagberd!”
He laughed at himself for it. It was a strong craze. He could remember
the time when the whole town was full of it. But he had his hopes of the
old chap yet. He would cure him by a course of judicious chaffing. He
was watching the progress of the treatment. Next week–next month–next
year! When the old skipper had put off the date of that return till next
year, he would be well on his way to not saying any more about it. In
other matters he was quite rational, so this, too, was bound to come.
Such was the barber’s firm opinion.
Nobody had ever contradicted him; his own hair had gone grey since
that time, and Captain Hagberd’s beard had turned quite white, and had
acquired a majestic flow over the No. 1 canvas suit, which he had made
for himself secretly with tarred twine, and had assumed suddenly, coming
out in it one fine morning, whereas the evening before he had been seen
going home in his mourning of broadcloth. It caused a sensation in the
High Street–shopkeepers coming to their doors, people in the houses
snatching up their hats to run out–a stir at which he seemed strangely
surprised at first, and then scared; but his only answer to the
wondering questions was that startled and evasive, “For the present.”
That sensation had been forgotten, long ago; and Captain Hagberd
himself, if not forgotten, had come to be disregarded–the penalty of
dailiness–as the sun itself is disregarded unless it makes its power
felt heavily. Captain Hagberd’s movements showed no infirmity: he walked
stiffly in his suit of canvas, a quaint and remarkable figure; only his
eyes wandered more furtively perhaps than of yore. His manner abroad had
lost its excitable watchfulness; it had become puzzled and diffident,
as though he had suspected that there was somewhere about him something
slightly compromising, some embarrassing oddity; and yet had remained
unable to discover what on earth this something wrong could be.
He was unwilling now to talk with the townsfolk. He had earned for
himself the reputation of an awful skinflint, of a miser in the matter
of living. He mumbled regretfully in the shops, bought inferior scraps
of meat after long hesitations; and discouraged all allusions to his
costume. It was as the barber had foretold. For all one could tell, he
had recovered already from the disease of hope; and only Miss Bessie
Carvil knew that he said nothing about his son’s return because with him
it was no longer “next week,” “next month,” or even “next year.” It was
In their intimacy of back yard and front garden he talked with her
paternally, reasonably, and dogmatically, with a touch of arbitrariness.
They met on the ground of unreserved confidence, which was authenticated
by an affectionate wink now and then. Miss Carvil had come to look
forward rather to these winks. At first they had discomposed her: the
poor fellow was mad. Afterwards she had learned to laugh at them: there
was no harm in him. Now she was aware of an unacknowledged, pleasurable,
incredulous emotion, expressed by a faint blush. He winked not in the
least vulgarly; his thin red face with a well-modeled curved nose, had
a sort of distinction–the more so that when he talked to her he looked
with a steadier and more intelligent glance. A handsome, hale, upright,
capable man, with a white beard. You did not think of his age. His son,
he affirmed, had resembled him amazingly from his earliest babyhood.
Harry would be one-and-thirty next July, he declared. Proper age to get
married with a nice, sensible girl that could appreciate a good home. He
was a very high-spirited boy. High-spirited husbands were the easiest
to manage. These mean, soft chaps, that you would think butter
wouldn’t melt in their mouths, were the ones to make a woman thoroughly
miserable. And there was nothing like a home–a fireside–a good roof:
no turning out of your warm bed in all sorts of weather. “Eh, my dear?”
Captain Hagberd had been one of those sailors that pursue their calling
within sight of land. One of the many children of a bankrupt farmer, he
had been apprenticed hurriedly to a coasting skipper, and had remained
on the coast all his sea life. It must have been a hard one at first:
he had never taken to it; his affection turned to the land, with its
innumerable houses, with its quiet lives gathered round its firesides.
Many sailors feel and profess a rational dislike for the sea, but his
was a profound and emotional animosity–as if the love of the stabler
element had been bred into him through many generations.
“People did not know what they let their boys in for when they let them
go to sea,” he expounded to Bessie. “As soon make convicts of them at
once.” He did not believe you ever got used to it. The weariness of such
a life got worse as you got older. What sort of trade was it in which
more than half your time you did not put your foot inside your house?
Directly you got out to sea you had no means of knowing what went on
at home. One might have thought him weary of distant voyages; and the
longest he had ever made had lasted a fortnight, of which the most part
had been spent at anchor, sheltering from the weather. As soon as his
wife had inherited a house and enough to live on (from a bachelor uncle
who had made some money in the coal business) he threw up his command of
an East-coast collier with a feeling as though he had escaped from the
galleys. After all these years he might have counted on the fingers of
his two hands all the days he had been out of sight of England. He
had never known what it was to be out of soundings. “I have never been
further than eighty fathoms from the land,” was one of his boasts.
Bessie Carvil heard all these things. In front of their cottage grew an
under-sized ash; and on summer afternoons she would bring out a chair
on the grass-plot and sit down with her sewing. Captain Hagberd, in his
canvas suit, leaned on a spade. He dug every day in his front plot. He
turned it over and over several times every year, but was not going to
plant anything “just at present.”
To Bessie Carvil he would state more explicitly: “Not till our Harry
comes home to-morrow.” And she had heard this formula of hope so often
that it only awakened the vaguest pity in her heart for that hopeful old
Everything was put off in that way, and everything was being prepared
likewise for to-morrow. There was a boxful of packets of various
flower-seeds to choose from, for the front garden. “He will doubtless let
you have your say about that, my dear,” Captain Hagberd intimated to her
across the railing.
Miss Bessie’s head remained bowed over her work. She had heard all this
so many times. But now and then she would rise, lay down her sewing, and
come slowly to the fence. There was a charm in these gentle ravings. He
was determined that his son should not go away again for the want of a
home all ready for him. He had been filling the other cottage with all
sorts of furniture. She imagined it all new, fresh with varnish, piled
up as in a warehouse. There would be tables wrapped up in sacking; rolls
of carpets thick and vertical like fragments of columns, the gleam of
white marble tops in the dimness of the drawn blinds. Captain Hagberd
always described his purchases to her, carefully, as to a person having
a legitimate interest in them. The overgrown yard of his cottage could
be laid over with concrete . . . after to-morrow.
“We may just as well do away with the fence. You could have your
drying-line out, quite clear of your flowers.” He winked, and she would
This madness that had entered her life through the kind impulses of her
heart had reasonable details. What if some day his son returned? But she
could not even be quite sure that he ever had a son; and if he existed
anywhere he had been too long away. When Captain Hagberd got excited in
his talk she would steady him by a pretense of belief, laughing a little
to salve her conscience.
Only once she had tried pityingly to throw some doubt on that hope
doomed to disappointment, but the effect of her attempt had scared her
very much. All at once over that man’s face there came an expression of
horror and incredulity, as though he had seen a crack open out in the
“You–you–you don’t think he’s drowned!”
For a moment he seemed to her ready to go out of his mind, for in his
ordinary state she thought him more sane than people gave him credit
for. On that occasion the violence of the emotion was followed by a most
paternal and complacent recovery.
“Don’t alarm yourself, my dear,” he said a little cunningly: “the sea
can’t keep him. He does not belong to it. None of us Hagberds ever did
belong to it. Look at me; I didn’t get drowned. Moreover, he isn’t
a sailor at all; and if he is not a sailor he’s bound to come back.
There’s nothing to prevent him coming back. . . .”
His eyes began to wander.
She never tried again, for fear the man should go out of his mind on
the spot. He depended on her. She seemed the only sensible person in
the town; and he would congratulate himself frankly before her face
on having secured such a levelheaded wife for his son. The rest of the
town, he confided to her once, in a fit of temper, was certainly queer.
The way they looked at you–the way they talked to you! He had never got
on with any one in the place. Didn’t like the people. He would not have
left his own country if it had not been clear that his son had taken a
fancy to Colebrook.
She humored him in silence, listening patiently by the fence;
crocheting with downcast eyes. Blushes came with difficulty on her
dead-white complexion, under the negligently twisted opulence of
mahogany-colored hair. Her father was frankly carroty.
She had a full figure; a tired, unrefreshed face. When Captain Hagberd
vaunted the necessity and propriety of a home and the delights of one’s
own fireside, she smiled a little, with her lips only. Her home delights
had been confined to the nursing of her father during the ten best years
of her life.
A bestial roaring coming out of an upstairs window would interrupt their
talk. She would begin at once to roll up her crochet-work or fold her
sewing, without the slightest sign of haste. Meanwhile the howls and
roars of her name would go on, making the fishermen strolling upon the
sea-wall on the other side of the road turn their heads towards the
cottages. She would go in slowly at the front door, and a moment
afterwards there would fall a profound silence. Presently she would
reappear, leading by the hand a man, gross and unwieldy like a
hippopotamus, with a bad-tempered, surly face.
He was a widowed boat-builder, whom blindness had overtaken years before
in the full flush of business. He behaved to his daughter as if she
had been responsible for its incurable character. He had been heard to
bellow at the top of his voice, as if to defy Heaven, that he did not
care: he had made enough money to have ham and eggs for his breakfast
every morning. He thanked God for it, in a fiendish tone as though he
Captain Hagberd had been so unfavorably impressed by his tenant, that
once he told Miss Bessie, “He is a very extravagant fellow, my dear.”
She was knitting that day, finishing a pair of socks for her father, who
expected her to keep up the supply dutifully. She hated knitting,
and, as she was just at the heel part, she had to keep her eyes on her
“Of course it isn’t as if he had a son to provide for,” Captain
Hagberd went on a little vacantly. “Girls, of course, don’t require so
much–h’m-h’m. They don’t run away from home, my dear.”
“No,” said Miss Bessie, quietly.
Captain Hagberd, amongst the mounds of turned-up earth, chuckled. With
his maritime rig, his weather-beaten face, his beard of Father Neptune,
he resembled a deposed sea-god who had exchanged the trident for the
“And he must look upon you as already provided for, in a manner. That’s
the best of it with the girls. The husbands . . .” He winked. Miss
Bessie, absorbed in her knitting, colored faintly.
“Bessie! my hat!” old Carvil bellowed out suddenly. He had been sitting
under the tree mute and motionless, like an idol of some remarkably
monstrous superstition. He never opened his mouth but to howl for her,
at her, sometimes about her; and then he did not moderate the terms of
his abuse. Her system was never to answer him at all; and he kept up
his shouting till he got attended to–till she shook him by the arm, or
thrust the mouthpiece of his pipe between his teeth. He was one of the
few blind people who smoke. When he felt the hat being put on his head
he stopped his noise at once. Then he rose, and they passed together
through the gate.
He weighed heavily on her arm. During their slow, toil-ful walks she
appeared to be dragging with her for a penance the burden of that infirm
bulk. Usually they crossed the road at once (the cottages stood in the
fields near the harbor, two hundred yards away from the end of the
street), and for a long, long time they would remain in view, ascending
imperceptibly the flight of wooden steps that led to the top of the
sea-wall. It ran on from east to west, shutting out the Channel like a
neglected railway embankment, on which no train had ever rolled within
memory of man. Groups of sturdy fishermen would emerge upon the sky,
walk along for a bit, and sink without haste. Their brown nets, like the
cobwebs of gigantic spiders, lay on the shabby grass of the slope; and,
looking up from the end of the street, the people of the town would
recognize the two Carvils by the creeping slowness of their gait.
Captain Hagberd, pottering aimlessly about his cottages, would raise his
head to see how they got on in their promenade.
He advertised still in the Sunday papers for Harry Hagberd. These sheets
were read in foreign parts to the end of the world, he informed Bessie.
At the same time he seemed to think that his son was in England–so
near to Colebrook that he would of course turn up “to-morrow.” Bessie,
without committing herself to that opinion in so many words, argued that
in that case the expense of advertising was unnecessary; Captain Hagberd
had better spend that weekly half-crown on himself. She declared she did
not know what he lived on. Her argumentation would puzzle him and cast
him down for a time. “They all do it,” he pointed out. There was a whole
column devoted to appeals after missing relatives. He would bring the
newspaper to show her. He and his wife had advertised for years; only
she was an impatient woman. The news from Colebrook had arrived the very
day after her funeral; if she had not been so impatient she might have
been here now, with no more than one day more to wait. “You are not an
impatient woman, my dear.”
“I’ve no patience with you sometimes,” she would say.
If he still advertised for his son he did not offer rewards for
information any more; for, with the muddled lucidity of a mental
derangement he had reasoned himself into a conviction as clear as
daylight that he had already attained all that could be expected in that
way. What more could he want? Colebrook was the place, and there was no
need to ask for more. Miss Carvil praised him for his good sense, and
he was soothed by the part she took in his hope, which had become his
delusion; in that idea which blinded his mind to truth and probability,
just as the other old man in the other cottage had been made blind, by
another disease, to the light and beauty of the world.
But anything he could interpret as a doubt–any coldness of assent, or
even a simple inattention to the development of his projects of a home
with his returned son and his son’s wife–would irritate him into flings
and jerks and wicked side glances. He would dash his spade into
the ground and walk to and fro before it. Miss Bessie called it his
tantrums. She shook her finger at him. Then, when she came out again,
after he had parted with her in anger, he would watch out of the corner
of his eyes for the least sign of encouragement to approach the iron
railings and resume his fatherly and patronizing relations.
For all their intimacy, which had lasted some years now, they had never
talked without a fence or a railing between them. He described to her
all the splendors accumulated for the setting-up of their housekeeping,
but had never invited her to an inspection. No human eye was to behold
them till Harry had his first look. In fact, nobody had ever been
inside his cottage; he did his own housework, and he guarded his son’s
privilege so jealously that the small objects of domestic use he bought
sometimes in the town were smuggled rapidly across the front garden
under his canvas coat. Then, coming out, he would remark apologetically,
“It was only a small kettle, my dear.”
And, if not too tired with her drudgery, or worried beyond endurance by
her father, she would laugh at him with a blush, and say: “That’s all
right, Captain Hagberd; I am not impatient.”
“Well, my dear, you haven’t long to wait now,” he would answer with a
sudden bashfulness, and looking uneasily, as though he had suspected
that there was something wrong somewhere.
Every Monday she paid him his rent over the railings. He clutched
the shillings greedily. He grudged every penny he had to spend on his
maintenance, and when he left her to make his purchases his bearing
changed as soon as he got into the street. Away from the sanction of her
pity, he felt himself exposed without defense. He brushed the walls with
his shoulder. He mistrusted the queerness of the people; yet, by then,
even the town children had left off calling after him, and the tradesmen
served him without a word. The slightest allusion to his clothing had
the power to puzzle and frighten especially, as if it were something
utterly unwarranted and incomprehensible.
In the autumn, the driving rain drummed on his sailcloth suit saturated
almost to the stiffness of sheet-iron, with its surface flowing with
water. When the weather was too bad, he retreated under the tiny porch,
and, standing close against the door, looked at his spade left planted
in the middle of the yard. The ground was so much dug up all over, that
as the season advanced it turned to a quagmire. When it froze hard, he
was disconsolate. What would Harry say? And as he could not have so much
of Bessie’s company at that time of the year, the roars of old Carvil,
that came muffled through the closed windows, calling her indoors,
exasperated him greatly.
“Why don’t that extravagant fellow get you a servant?” he asked
impatiently one mild afternoon. She had thrown something over her head
to run out for a while.
“I don’t know,” said the pale Bessie, wearily, staring away with her
heavy-lidded, grey, and un-expectant glance. There were always smudgy
shadows under her eyes, and she did not seem able to see any change or
any end to her life.
“You wait till you get married, my dear,” said her only friend, drawing
closer to the fence. “Harry will get you one.”
His hopeful craze seemed to mock her own want of hope with so bitter an
aptness that in her nervous irritation she could have screamed at him
outright. But she only said in self-mockery, and speaking to him as
though he had been sane, “Why, Captain Hagberd, your son may not even
want to look at me.”
He flung his head back and laughed his throaty affected cackle of anger.
“What! That boy? Not want to look at the only sensible girl for miles
around? What do you think I am here for, my dear–my dear–my dear? . . .
What? You wait. You just wait. You’ll see to-morrow. I’ll soon–”
“Bessie! Bessie! Bessie!” howled old Carvil inside. “Bessie!–my pipe!”
That fat blind man had given himself up to a very lust of laziness. He
would not lift his hand to reach for the things she took care to leave
at his very elbow. He would not move a limb; he would not rise from his
chair, he would not put one foot before another, in that parlor (where
he knew his way as well as if he had his sight), without calling her to
his side and hanging all his atrocious weight on her shoulder. He would
not eat one single mouthful of food without her close attendance. He had
made himself helpless beyond his affliction, to enslave her better. She
stood still for a moment, setting her teeth in the dusk, then turned and
walked slowly indoors.
Captain Hagberd went back to his spade. The shouting in Carvil’s cottage
stopped, and after a while the window of the parlor downstairs was lit
up. A man coming from the end of the street with a firm leisurely step
passed on, but seemed to have caught sight of Captain Hagberd, because
he turned back a pace or two. A cold white light lingered in the western
sky. The man leaned over the gate in an interested manner.
“You must be Captain Hagberd,” he said, with easy assurance.
The old man spun round, pulling out his spade, startled by the strange
“Yes, I am,” he answered nervously.
The other, smiling straight at him, uttered very slowly: “You’ve been
advertising for your son, I believe?”
“My son Harry,” mumbled Captain Hagberd, off his guard for once. “He’s
coming home tomorrow.”
“The devil he is!” The stranger marveled greatly, and then went on,
with only a slight change of tone: “You’ve grown a beard like Father
Captain Hagberd drew a little nearer, and leaned forward over his
spade. “Go your way,” he said, resentfully and timidly at the same time,
because he was always afraid of being laughed at. Every mental
state, even madness, has its equilibrium based upon self-esteem. Its
disturbance causes unhappiness; and Captain Hagberd lived amongst a
scheme of settled notions which it pained him to feel disturbed by
people’s grins. Yes, people’s grins were awful. They hinted at something
wrong: but what? He could not tell; and that stranger was obviously
grinning–had come on purpose to grin. It was bad enough on the streets,
but he had never before been outraged like this.
The stranger, unaware how near he was of having his head laid open with
a spade, said seriously: “I am not trespassing where I stand, am I? I
fancy there’s something wrong about your news. Suppose you let me come
“_You_ come in!” murmured old Hagberd, with inexpressible horror.
“I could give you some real information about your son–the very latest
tip, if you care to hear.”
“No,” shouted Hagberd. He began to pace wildly to and fro, he shouldered
his spade, he gesticulated with his other arm. “Here’s a fellow–a
grinning fellow, who says there’s something wrong. I’ve got more
information than you’re aware of. I’ve all the information I want.
I’ve had it for years–for years–for years–enough to last me till
to-morrow. Let you come in, indeed! What would Harry say?”
Bessie Carvil’s figure appeared in black silhouette on the parlor
window; then, with the sound of an opening door, flitted out before the
other cottage, all black, but with something white over her head.
These two voices beginning to talk suddenly outside (she had heard them
indoors) had given her such an emotion that she could not utter a sound.
Captain Hagberd seemed to be trying to find his way out of a cage. His
feet squelched in the puddles left by his industry. He stumbled in the
holes of the ruined grass-plot. He ran blindly against the fence.
“Here, steady a bit!” said the man at the gate, gravely stretching his
arm over and catching him by the sleeve. “Somebody’s been trying to get
at you. Hallo! what’s this rig you’ve got on? Storm canvas, by George!”
He had a big laugh. “Well, you _are_ a character!”
Captain Hagberd jerked himself free, and began to back away shrinking.
“For the present,” he muttered, in a crestfallen tone.
“What’s the matter with him?” The stranger addressed Bessie with the
utmost familiarity, in a deliberate, explanatory tone. “I didn’t want
to startle the old man.” He lowered his voice as though he had known
her for years. “I dropped into a barber’s on my way, to get a two penny
shave, and they told me there he was something of a character. The old
man has been a character all his life.”
Captain Hagberd, daunted by the allusion to his clothing, had retreated
inside, taking his spade with him; and the two at the gate, startled
by the unexpected slamming of the door, heard the bolts being shot, the
snapping of the lock, and the echo of an affected gurgling laugh within.
“I didn’t want to upset him,” the man said, after a short silence.
“What’s the meaning of all this? He isn’t quite crazy.”
“He has been worrying a long time about his lost son,” said Bessie, in a
low, apologetic tone.
“Well, I am his son.”
“Harry!” she cried–and was profoundly silent.
“Know my name? Friends with the old man, eh?”
“He’s our landlord,” Bessie faltered out, catching hold of the iron
“Owns both them rabbit-hutches, does he?” commented young Hagberd,
scornfully; “just the thing he would be proud of. Can you tell me who’s
that chap coming to-morrow? You must know something of it. I tell you,
it’s a swindle on the old man–nothing else.”
She did not answer, helpless before an insurmountable difficulty,
appalled before the necessity, the impossibility and the dread of an
explanation in which she and madness seemed involved together.
“Oh–I am so sorry,” she murmured.
“What’s the matter?” he said, with serenity. “You needn’t be afraid
of upsetting me. It’s the other fellow that’ll be upset when he least
expects it. I don’t care a hang; but there will be some fun when he
shows his mug to-morrow. I don’t care _that_ for the old man’s pieces,
but right is right. You shall see me put a head on that coon–whoever he
He had come nearer, and towered above her on the other side of the
railings. He glanced at her hands. He fancied she was trembling, and it
occurred to him that she had her part perhaps in that little game that
was to be sprung on his old man to-morrow. He had come just in time
to spoil their sport. He was entertained by the idea–scornful of the
baffled plot. But all his life he had been full of indulgence for all
sorts of women’s tricks. She really was trembling very much; her wrap
had slipped off her head. “Poor devil!” he thought. “Never mind about
that chap. I daresay he’ll change his mind before to-morrow. But what
about me? I can’t loaf about the gate till the morning.”
She burst out: “It is _you_–you yourself that he’s waiting for. It is
_you_ who come to-morrow.”
He murmured. “Oh! It’s me!” blankly, and they seemed to become
breathless together. Apparently he was pondering over what he had heard;
then, without irritation, but evidently perplexed, he said: “I don’t
understand. I hadn’t written or anything. It’s my chum who saw the paper
and told me–this very morning. . . . Eh? what?”
He bent his ear; she whispered rapidly, and he listened for a while,
muttering the words “yes” and “I see” at times. Then, “But why won’t
today do?” he queried at last.
“You didn’t understand me!” she exclaimed, impatiently. The clear
streak of light under the clouds died out in the west. Again he stooped
slightly to hear better; and the deep night buried everything of the
whispering woman and the attentive man, except the familiar contiguity
of their faces, with its air of secrecy and caress.
He squared his shoulders; the broad-brimmed shadow of a hat sat
cavalierly on his head. “Awkward this, eh?” he appealed to her.
“To-morrow? Well, well! Never heard tell of anything like this. It’s all
to-morrow, then, without any sort of to-day, as far as I can see.”
She remained still and mute.
“And you have been encouraging this funny notion,” he said.
“I never contradicted him.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“What for should I?” she defended herself. “It would only have made him
miserable. He would have gone out of his mind.”
“His mind!” he muttered, and heard a short nervous laugh from her.
“Where was the harm? Was I to quarrel with the poor old man? It was
easier to half believe it myself.”
“Aye, aye,” he meditated, intelligently. “I suppose the old chap got
around you somehow with his soft talk. You are good-hearted.”
Her hands moved up in the dark nervously. “And it might have been true.
It was true. It has come. Here it is. This is the to-morrow we have been
She drew a breath, and he said, good-humoredly: “Aye, with the door
shut. I wouldn’t care if . . . And you think he could be brought round
to recognize me . . . Eh? What? . . . You could do it? In a week you
say? H’m, I daresay you could–but do you think I could hold out a
week in this dead-alive place? Not me! I want either hard work, or an
all-fired racket, or more space than there is in the whole of England. I
have been in this place, though, once before, and for more than a week.
The old man was advertising for me then, and a chum I had with me had
a notion of getting a couple quid out of him by writing a lot of silly
nonsense in a letter. That lark did not come off, though. We had to
clear out–and none too soon. But this time I’ve a chum waiting for me
in London, and besides . . .”
Bessie Carvil was breathing quickly.
“What if I tried a knock at the door?” he suggested.
“Try,” she said.
Captain Hagberd’s gate squeaked, and the shadow of the son moved on,
then stopped with another deep laugh in the throat, like the father’s,
only soft and gentle, thrilling to the woman’s heart, awakening to her
“He isn’t frisky–is he? I would be afraid to lay hold of him. The chaps
are always telling me I don’t know my own strength.”
“He’s the most harmless creature that ever lived,” she interrupted.
“You wouldn’t say so if you had seen him chasing me upstairs with a hard
leather strap,” he said; “I haven’t forgotten it in sixteen years.”
She got warm from head to foot under another soft, subdued laugh. At the
rat-tat-tat of the knocker her heart flew into her mouth.
“Hey, dad! Let me in. I am Harry, I am. Straight! Come back home a day
One of the windows upstairs ran up.
“A grinning, information fellow,” said the voice of old Hagberd, up in
the darkness. “Don’t you have anything to do with him. It will spoil
She heard Harry Hagberd say, “Hallo, dad,” then a clanging clatter. The
window rumbled down, and he stood before her again.
“It’s just like old times. Nearly walloped the life out of me to stop me
going away, and now I come back he throws a confounded shovel at my head
to keep me out. It grazed my shoulder.”
“I wouldn’t care,” he began, “only I spent my last shillings on the
railway fare and my last two pence on a shave–out of respect for the old
“Are you really Harry Hagberd?” she asked. “Can you prove it?”
“Can I prove it? Can any one else prove it?” he said jovially. “Prove
with what? What do I want to prove? There isn’t a single corner in the
world, barring England, perhaps, where you could not find some man, or
more likely woman, that would remember me for Harry Hagberd. I am more
like Harry Hagberd than any man alive; and I can prove it to you in a
minute, if you will let me step inside your gate.”
“Come in,” she said.
He entered then the front garden of the Carvils. His tall shadow strode
with a swagger; she turned her back on the window and waited, watching
the shape, of which the footfalls seemed the most material part. The
light fell on a tilted hat; a powerful shoulder, that seemed to cleave
the darkness; on a leg stepping out. He swung about and stood still,
facing the illuminated parlor window at her back, turning his head from
side to side, laughing softly to himself.
“Just fancy, for a minute, the old man’s beard stuck on to my chin. Hey?
Now say. I was the very spit of him from a boy.”
“It’s true,” she murmured to herself.
“And that’s about as far as it goes. He was always one of your domestic
characters. Why, I remember how he used to go about looking very sick
for three days before he had to leave home on one of his trips to South
Shields for coal. He had a standing charter from the gas-works. You
would think he was off on a whaling cruise–three years and a tail. Ha,
ha! Not a bit of it. Ten days on the outside. The Skimmer of the Seas
was a smart craft. Fine name, wasn’t it? Mother’s uncle owned her. . . .”
He interrupted himself, and in a lowered voice, “Did he ever tell you
what mother died of?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Miss Bessie, bitterly; “from impatience.”
He made no sound for a while; then brusquely: “They were so afraid I
would turn out badly that they fairly drove me away. Mother nagged at me
for being idle, and the old man said he would cut my soul out of my
body rather than let me go to sea. Well, it looked as if he would do it
too–so I went. It looks to me sometimes as if I had been born to them
by a mistake–in that other hutch of a house.”
“Where ought you to have been born by rights?” Bessie Carvil interrupted
“In the open, upon a beach, on a windy night,” he said, quick as
lightning. Then he mused slowly. “They were characters, both of them, by
George; and the old man keeps it up well–don’t he? A damned shovel on
the–Hark! who’s that making that row? ‘Bessie, Bessie.’ It’s in your
“It’s for me,” she said, with indifference.
He stepped aside, out of the streak of light. “Your husband?” he
inquired, with the tone of a man accustomed to unlawful trysts. “Fine
voice for a ship’s deck in a thundering squall.”
“No; my father. I am not married.”
“You seem a fine girl, Miss Bessie, dear,” he said at once.
She turned her face away.
“Oh, I say,–what’s up? Who’s murdering him?”
“He wants his tea.” She faced him, still and tall, with averted head,
with her hands hanging clasped before her.
“Hadn’t you better go in?” he suggested, after watching for a while the
nape of her neck, a patch of dazzling white skin and soft shadow above
the somber line of her shoulders. Her wrap had slipped down to her
elbows. “You’ll have all the town coming out presently. I’ll wait here a
Her wrap fell to the ground, and he stooped to pick it up; she had
vanished. He threw it over his arm, and approaching the window squarely
he saw a monstrous form of a fat man in an armchair, an un-shaded lamp,
the yawning of an enormous mouth in a big flat face encircled by a
ragged halo of hair–Miss Bessie’s head and bust. The shouting stopped;
the blind ran down. He lost himself in thinking how awkward it was.
Father mad; no getting into the house. No money to get back; a hungry
chum in London who would begin to think he had been given the go-by.
“Damn!” he muttered. He could break the door in, certainly; but
they would perhaps bundle him into chokey for that without asking
questions–no great matter, only he was confoundedly afraid of being
locked up, even in mistake. He turned cold at the thought. He stamped
his feet on the sodden grass.
“What are you?–a sailor?” said an agitated voice.
She had flitted out, a shadow herself, attracted by the reckless shadow
waiting under the wall of her home.
“Anything. Enough of a sailor to be worth my salt before the mast. Came
home that way this time.”
“Where do you come from?” she asked.
“Right away from a jolly good spree,” he said, “by the London
train–see? Ough! I hate being shut up in a train. I don’t mind a house
“Ah,” she said; “that’s lucky.”
“Because in a house you can at any time open the blamed door and walk
away straight before you.”
“And never come back?”
“Not for sixteen years at least,” he laughed. “To a rabbit hutch, and
get a confounded old shovel . . .”
“A ship is not so very big,” she taunted.
“No, but the sea is great.”
She dropped her head, and as if her ears had been opened to the voices
of the world, she heard, beyond the rampart of sea-wall, the swell
of yesterday’s gale breaking on the beach with monotonous and solemn
vibrations, as if all the earth had been a tolling bell.
“And then, why, a ship’s a ship. You love her and leave her; and a
voyage isn’t a marriage.” He quoted the sailor’s saying lightly.
“It is not a marriage,” she whispered.
“I never took a false name, and I’ve never yet told a lie to a woman.
What lie? Why, _the_ lie–. Take me or leave me, I say: and if you take
me, then it is . . .” He hummed a snatch very low, leaning against the
“Oh, ho, ho Rio!
And fare thee well,
My bonnie young girl,
We’re bound to Rio Grande.”
“Capstan song,” he explained. Her teeth chattered.
“You are cold,” he said. “Here’s that affair of yours I picked up.” She
felt his hands about her, wrapping her closely. “Hold the ends together
in front,” he commanded.
“What did you come here for?” she asked, repressing a shudder.
“Five quid,” he answered, promptly. “We let our spree go on a little too
long and got hard up.”
“You’ve been drinking?” she said.
“Blind three days; on purpose. I am not given that way–don’t you think.
There’s nothing and nobody that can get over me unless I like. I can be
as steady as a rock. My chum sees the paper this morning, and says he to
me: ‘Go on, Harry: loving parent. That’s five quid sure.’ So we scraped
all our pockets for the fare. Devil of a lark!”
“You have a hard heart, I am afraid,” she sighed.
“What for? For running away? Why! he wanted to make a lawyer’s clerk of
me–just to please himself. Master in his own house; and my poor mother
egged him on–for my good, I suppose. Well, then–so long; and I went.
No, I tell you: the day I cleared out, I was all black and blue from his
great fondness for me. Ah! he was always a bit of a character. Look at
that shovel now. Off his chump? Not much. That’s just exactly like my
dad. He wants me here just to have somebody to order about. However,
we two were hard up; and what’s five quid to him–once in sixteen hard
“Oh, but I am sorry for you. Did you never want to come back home?”
“Be a lawyer’s clerk and rot here–in some such place as this?” he cried
in contempt. “What! if the old man set me up in a home to-day, I would
kick it down about my ears–or else die there before the third day was
“And where else is it that you hope to die?”
“In the bush somewhere; in the sea; on a blamed mountain-top for choice.
At home? Yes! the world’s my home; but I expect I’ll die in a hospital
some day. What of that? Any place is good enough, as long as I’ve lived;
and I’ve been everything you can think of almost but a tailor or a
soldier. I’ve been a boundary rider; I’ve sheared sheep; and humped my
swag; and harpooned a whale. I’ve rigged ships, and prospected for gold,
and skinned dead bullocks,–and turned my back on more money than the
old man would have scraped in his whole life. Ha, ha!”
He overwhelmed her. She pulled herself together and managed to utter,
“Time to rest now.”
He straightened himself up, away from the wall, and in a severe voice
said, “Time to go.”
But he did not move. He leaned back again, and hummed thoughtfully a bar
or two of an outlandish tune.
She felt as if she were about to cry. “That’s another of your cruel
songs,” she said.
“Learned it in Mexico–in Sonora.” He talked easily. “It is the song of
the Gambucinos. You don’t know? The song of restless men. Nothing could
hold them in one place–not even a woman. You used to meet one of them
now and again, in the old days, on the edge of the gold country, away
north there beyond the Rio Gila. I’ve seen it. A prospecting engineer
in Mazatlan took me along with him to help look after the wagons.
A sailor’s a handy chap to have about you anyhow. It’s all a
desert: cracks in the earth that you can’t see the bottom of; and
mountains–sheer rocks standing up high like walls and church spires,
only a hundred times bigger. The valleys are full of boulders and black
stones. There’s not a blade of grass to see; and the sun sets more red
over that country than I have seen it anywhere–blood-red and angry. It
“You do not want to go back there again?” she stammered out.
He laughed a little. “No. That’s the blamed gold country. It gave me the
shivers sometimes to look at it–and we were a big lot of men together,
mind; but these Gambucinos wandered alone. They knew that country before
anybody had ever heard of it. They had a sort of gift for prospecting,
and the fever of it was on them too; and they did not seem to want the
gold very much. They would find some rich spot, and then turn their
backs on it; pick up perhaps a little–enough for a spree–and then be
off again, looking for more. They never stopped long where there were
houses; they had no wife, no chick, no home, never a chum. You couldn’t
be friends with a Gambucino; they were too restless–here to-day, and
gone, God knows where, to-morrow. They told no one of their finds, and
there has never been a Gambucino well off. It was not for the gold they
cared; it was the wandering about looking for it in the stony country
that got into them and wouldn’t let them rest; so that no woman yet born
could hold a Gambucino for more than a week. That’s what the song says.
It’s all about a pretty girl that tried hard to keep hold of a Gambucino
lover, so that he should bring her lots of gold. No fear! Off he went,
and she never saw him again.”
“What became of her?” she breathed out.
“The song don’t tell. Cried a bit, I daresay. They were the fellows:
kiss and go. But it’s the looking for a thing–a something . . .
Sometimes I think I am a sort of Gambucino myself.”
“No woman can hold you, then,” she began in a brazen voice, which
quavered suddenly before the end.
“No longer than a week,” he joked, playing upon her very heartstrings
with the gay, tender note of his laugh; “and yet I am fond of them all.
Anything for a woman of the right sort. The scrapes they got me into,
and the scrapes they got me out of! I love them at first sight. I’ve
fallen in love with you already, Miss–Bessie’s your name–eh?”
She backed away a little, and with a trembling laugh:
“You haven’t seen my face yet.”
He bent forward gallantly. “A little pale: it suits some. But you are a
fine figure of a girl, Miss Bessie.”
She was all in a flutter. Nobody had ever said so much to her before.
His tone changed. “I am getting middling hungry, though. Had no
breakfast to-day. Couldn’t you scare up some bread from that tea for me,
She was gone already. He had been on the point of asking her to let him
come inside. No matter. Anywhere would do. Devil of a fix! What would
his chum think?
“I didn’t ask you as a beggar,” he said, jestingly, taking a piece
of bread-and-butter from the plate she held before him. “I asked as a
friend. My dad is rich, you know.”
“He starves himself for your sake.”
“And I have starved for his whim,” he said, taking up another piece.
“All he has in the world is for you,” she pleaded.
“Yes, if I come here to sit on it like a dam’ toad in a hole. Thank you;
and what about the shovel, eh? He always had a queer way of showing his
“I could bring him round in a week,” she suggested, timidly.
He was too hungry to answer her; and, holding the plate submissively to
his hand, she began to whisper up to him in a quick, panting voice.
He listened, amazed, eating slower and slower, till at last his jaws
stopped altogether. “That’s his game, is it?” he said, in a rising tone
of scathing contempt. An ungovernable movement of his arm sent the plate
flying out of her fingers. He shot out a violent curse.
She shrank from him, putting her hand against the wall.
“No!” he raged. “He expects! Expects _me_–for his rotten money!
Who wants his home? Mad–not he! Don’t you think. He wants his own way.
He wanted to turn me into a miserable lawyer’s clerk, and now he wants
to make of me a blamed tame rabbit in a cage. Of me! Of me!” His subdued
angry laugh frightened her now.
“The whole world ain’t a bit too big for me to spread my elbows in, I
can tell you–what’s your name–Bessie–let alone a dam’ parlor in a
hutch. Marry! He wants me to marry and settle! And as likely as not he
has looked out the girl too–dash my soul! And do you know the Judy, may
She shook all over with noiseless dry sobs; but he was fuming and
fretting too much to notice her distress. He bit his thumb with rage at
the mere idea. A window rattled up.
“A grinning, information fellow,” pronounced old Hagberd dogmatically,
in measured tones. And the sound of his voice seemed to Bessie to make
the night itself mad–to pour insanity and disaster on the earth. “Now
I know what’s wrong with the people here, my dear. Why, of course!
With this mad chap going about. Don’t you have anything to do with him,
Bessie. Bessie, I say!”
They stood as if dumb. The old man fidgeted and mumbled to himself at
the window. Suddenly he cried, piercingly: “Bessie–I see you. I’ll tell
She made a movement as if to run away, but stopped and raised her hands
to her temples. Young Hagberd, shadowy and big, stirred no more than a
man of bronze. Over their heads the crazy night whimpered and scolded in
an old man’s voice.
“Send him away, my dear. He’s only a vagabond. What you want is a good
home of your own. That chap has no home–he’s not like Harry. He can’t
be Harry. Harry is coming to-morrow. Do you hear? One day more,” he
babbled more excitedly; “never you fear–Harry shall marry you.”
His voice rose very shrill and mad against the regular deep soughing of
the swell coiling heavily about the outer face of the sea-wall.
“He will have to. I shall make him, or if not”–he swore a great
oath–“I’ll cut him off with a shilling to-morrow, and leave everything
to you. I shall. To you. Let him starve.”
The window rattled down.
Harry drew a deep breath, and took one step toward Bessie. “So it’s
you–the girl,” he said, in a lowered voice. She had not moved, and she
remained half turned away from him, pressing her head in the palms of
her hands. “My word!” he continued, with an invisible half-smile on his
lips. “I have a great mind to stop.”
Her elbows were trembling violently.
“For a week,” he finished without a pause.
She clapped her hands to her face.
He came up quite close, and took hold of her wrists gently. She felt his
breath on her ear.
“It’s a scrape I am in–this, and it is you that must see me through.”
He was trying to uncover her face. She resisted. He let her go then, and
stepping back a little, “Have you got any money?” he asked. “I must be
She nodded quickly her shamefaced head, and he waited, looking away from
her, while, trembling all over and bowing her neck, she tried to find
the pocket of her dress.
“Here it is!” she whispered. “Oh, go away! go away for God’s sake! If I
had more–more–I would give it all to forget–to make you forget.”
He extended his hand. “No fear! I haven’t forgotten a single one of you
in the world. Some gave me more than money–but I am a beggar now–and
you women always had to get me out of my scrapes.”
He swaggered up to the parlor window, and in the dim light filtering
through the blind, looked at the coin lying in his palm. It was a
half-sovereign. He slipped it into his pocket. She stood a little on
one side, with her head drooping, as if wounded; with her arms hanging
passive by her side, as if dead.
“You can’t buy me in,” he said, “and you can’t buy yourself out.”
He set his hat firmly with a little tap, and next moment she felt
herself lifted up in the powerful embrace of his arms. Her feet lost the
ground; her head hung back; he showered kisses on her face with a silent
and over-mastering ardor, as if in haste to get at her very soul. He
kissed her pale cheeks, her hard forehead, her heavy eyelids, her faded
lips; and the measured blows and sighs of the rising tide accompanied
the enfolding power of his arms, the overwhelming might of his caresses.
It was as if the sea, breaking down the wall protecting all the homes
of the town, had sent a wave over her head. It passed on; she staggered
backwards, with her shoulders against the wall, exhausted, as if she had
been stranded there after a storm and a shipwreck.
She opened her eyes after awhile; and listening to the firm, leisurely
footsteps going away with their conquest, began to gather her skirts,
staring all the time before her. Suddenly she darted through the open
gate into the dark and deserted street.
“Stop!” she shouted. “Don’t go!”
And listening with an attentive poise of the head, she could not tell
whether it was the beat of the swell or his fateful tread that seemed
to fall cruelly upon her heart. Presently every sound grew fainter, as
though she were slowly turning into stone. A fear of this awful silence
came to her–worse than the fear of death. She called upon her ebbing
strength for the final appeal:
Not even the dying echo of a footstep. Nothing. The thundering of the
surf, the voice of the restless sea itself, seemed stopped. There was
not a sound–no whisper of life, as though she were alone and lost in
that stony country of which she had heard, where madmen go looking for
gold and spurn the find.
Captain Hagberd, inside his dark house, had kept on the alert. A window
ran up; and in the silence of the stony country a voice spoke above
her head, high up in the black air–the voice of madness, lies and
despair–the voice of inextinguishable hope. “Is he gone yet–that
information fellow? Do you hear him about, my dear?”
She burst into tears. “No! no! no! I don’t hear him any more,” she
He began to chuckle up there triumphantly. “You frightened him away.
Good girl. Now we shall be all right. Don’t you be impatient, my dear.
One day more.”
In the other house old Carvil, wallowing regally in his arm-chair, with
a globe lamp burning by his side on the table, yelled for her, in a
fiendish voice: “Bessie! Bessie! you Bessie!”
She heard him at last, and, as if overcome by fate, began to totter
silently back toward her stuffy little inferno of a cottage. It had no
lofty portal, no terrific inscription of forfeited hopes–she did not
understand wherein she had sinned.
Captain Hagberd had gradually worked himself into a state of noisy
happiness up there.
“Go in! Keep quiet!” she turned upon him tearfully, from the doorstep
He rebelled against her authority in his great joy at having got rid at
last of that “something wrong.” It was as if all the hopeful madness of
the world had broken out to bring terror upon her heart, with the voice
of that old man shouting of his trust in an everlasting to-morrow.