Story type: Literature
In Ardevora, a fishing-town on the Cornish coast not far from the Land’s End, lived a merchant whom everybody called ‘Elder’ Penno, or ‘The Elder’–not because he had any right, or laid any claim, to that title. His father and grandfather had worn it as office-bearers in a local religious sect known as the Advent Saints; and it had survived the extinction of that sect and passed on to William John Penno, an orthodox Wesleyan, as a family sobriquet.
He was sixty-three years old, a widower, and childless. His fellow-townsmen supposed him to be rich because he had so many irons in the fire and employed, in one way and another, a great deal of labour. He held a number of shares in coasting vessels, and passed as owner of half a dozen–all of them too heavily in debt to pay dividends. He managed (ostensibly as proprietor, but actually in dependence on the local bank) a shipbuilding-yard to which the fishermen came for their boats. He had an interest in the profit of most of these boats when they were launched, as also in a salt-store, a coal-store, a company for the curing of pilchards, and an agency for buying and packing of fish for the London market. He kept a retail shop and sold almost everything the town needed, from guernseys and hardware to tea, bacon, and tallow candles. He advanced money, at varying rates of interest, on anything from a ship to a frying-pan; and by this means had made himself accurately acquainted with his neighbours’ varying degrees of poverty. But he was not rich, although generally reputed so: for Ardevora’s population was not one out of which any man could make his fortune, and of poor folk who borrow or obtain goods on credit quite a large number do not seriously mean to pay– a fact often overlooked, and always by the borrowers themselves.
Still, and despite an occasional difficulty in keeping so many balls in the air at one time, Elder Penno was–as a widower, a childless man, and in comparison with his neighbours–well-to-do. Also he filled many small public offices–district councillor, harbour commissioner, member of the School Board, and the like. They had come to him–he could not quite tell how. He took pride in them and discharged them conscientiously. He knew that envious tongues accused him of using them to feather his nest, but he also knew that they accused him falsely. He was thick-skinned, and they might go to the devil. In person he was stout of habit, brusque of bearing, with a healthy, sanguine complexion, a double chin, shrewd grey eyes, and cropped hair which stood up straight as the bristles on a brush. He lived abstemiously, rose at six, went to bed at nine, and might be found, during most of the intervening hours, hard at work at his desk in the little office behind his shop. The office had a round window, and the window overlooked the quay, the small harbour (dry at low water), and the curve of a sandy bay beyond.
One morning Elder Penno looked up from his desk and saw, beyond the masts of the fishing-boats lying aslant as the tide had left them, a small figure–a speck, almost–on the sandy beach, about three furlongs away.
He was engaged at the moment in adding up a column of figures. Having entered the total, he looked up again, laid down his pen, frowned with annoyance, and picked up an old pair of field-glasses that stood ready to hand on the sill of his desk beside the ink-well. He glanced at the clock on his chimney-piece before throwing up the window-sash.
The hour was eleven–five minutes after eleven, to be exact; the month April; the day sunny, with a humming northerly wind; the tide drawing far out towards low-ebb, and the air so clear that the small figure standing on the edge of the waves could not be mistaken.
As he threw up the sash Elder Penno caught sight of Tom Hancock, the school attendance officer, lounging against a post on the quay below.
“You’re the very man I want,” said the Elder. “Isn’t that Tregenza’s grandchild over yonder?”
“Looks like her,” said the A.O., withdrawing a short clay pipe from his mouth, and spitting.
“Then why isn’t she at school at this hour?”
“‘Tis a hopeless case, if you ask me.” The A.O. announced this with a fine air of resignation. His pay was 2s. 6d. a week, and he never erred on the side of zeal.
“Better fit you was lookin’ up such cases than idlin’ here and wastin’ baccy. That’s if you ask me,” retorted the Elder.
“I’ve a-talked to the maid, an’ I’ve a-talked to her gran’father, till I’m tired,” said Hancock, and spat again. “She’ll be fourteen next May, an’ then we can wash our hands of her.”
“A nice look-out it’d be if the eddication of England was left in your hands,” said the Elder truthfully, if obviously.
“You can’t do nothin’ with her.” The A.O. was used to censure and wasted no resentment on it. “Nothin’. I give ‘ee leave to try.”
The Elder stood for a moment watching the small figure across the sands. Then, with a snort of outraged propriety, he closed the window, reached down his hat from its peg, marched out of his office–through the shop– and forth upon the sunny quay. A flight of stone stairs led down to the bed of the harbour, now deserted by the tide; and across this, picking his way among the boats and their moorings, he made for the beach where the sea broke and glittered on the firm sand in long curves of white.
A tonic northerly breeze was blowing, just strongly enough to lift the breakers in blue-green hollows against the sunshine and waft a delicate film of spray about the figure of the child moving forlornly on the edge of the foam. She was not playing or running races with the waves, but walking soberly and anon halting to scan the beach ahead. Her legs were bare to the knee, and she had hitched up her short skirt high about her like a cockle-gatherer’s. In the roar and murmur of the surf she did not hear the Elder approaching, but faced around with a start as he called to her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
For answer she held up a billet of wood, bleached and frayed with long tossing on the seas, worthless except for firewood, and almost worthless for that. The Elder frowned. “Look here,” he said, “you ought to be in school at this moment instead of minchin idle after a few bits o’ stick, no good to anyone. A girl of your age, too! What’s your name?”
“Please, sir, Liz,” the child stammered, looking down.
“You’re Sam Tregenza’s grandchild, hey?”
“Then do you go home an’ tell your grandfather, with my compliments, he ought to know better than to allow it. It’s robbin’ the ratepayers, that’s what it is.”
“Yes, sir,” she murmured, glancing down dubiously at the piece of wood in her hand.
“You don’t understand me,” said the Elder. “The ratepayers spend money on a school here that the children of Ardevora mayn’t grow up into little dunces. Now, if the children go to school as they ought, the Government up in London gives the ratepayers–me, for instance–some of their money back: so much money for each child. If a child minches, the money isn’ paid. ‘Tisn’ the wood you pick up–that’s neither here nor there–but the money you’re takin’ out of folks’ pockets. Didn’ you know that?”
“Your grandfather knows it, anyway–not,” went on the Elder with sudden anger in his voice, “that Sam Tregenza cares what folks he robs!” He pulled himself up, slightly ashamed of this outburst. The child, however, did not appear to resent it, but stood thoughtful, as if working out the logic of his argument.
“It’s the money,” he insisted. “As for the wood, why you might come to my yard and steal as much as you can carry, an’ ‘twouldn’ amount to what you rob by playin’ truant like this; no, nor half of it. That’s one thing for you to consider; and here’s another: There’s a truant-school, up to Plymouth; a sort of place that’s half a school and half a prison, where the magistrates send children that won’t take warning. How would you like it, if a policeman came, one of these days, and took you off to that kind of punishment?”
He looked down on the child, and saw her under-lip working. She held back her tears bravely, but was shaking from head to foot.
“There now!” said the Elder, in what for him was a soothing voice. “There’s no danger if you behave an’ go to school like other children. You just attend to that, an’ we’ll say no more about it.”
He turned back to his office. On the quay he paused to tell Tom Hancock that he reckoned the child would be more careful in future: he had given her something to think over.
A week later, at nine o’clock, Elder Penno was retiring to rest in his bedroom, which overlooked his boat-building yard, when a clattering noise broke on the night without, and so startled him that he all but dropped his watch in the act of winding it.
The noise suggested an avalanche of falling boxes. The Elder blew out his candle, lit a bull’s-eye lantern which he kept handy by his bed, and, throwing up the window, challenged loudly–“Who’s there?”
For the moment the ray of the bull’s-eye revealed no one. He turned it upon the corner of the yard where, as a rule, stood a pile of empty packing-cases from the shop, ’empties’ waiting to be sorted out and returned, old butter-barrels condemned to be knocked to pieces for kindling-wood. Yes: the sound had come from there, for the pile had toppled over and lay in a long moraine across the entrance gate. “Must ha’ been built up top-heavy,” said the Elder to himself: and with that, running his lantern-ray along the yard wall, he caught sight of a small bare leg and a few inches of striped skirt for an instant before they slid into darkness across the coping. He recognised them.
“This beats Old Harry!” muttered the Elder. “Bringin’ up the child to be a gaol-bird now–and on my premises! As if Sam Tregenza hadn’ done me injury enough without that!”
For two years the Elder had been unable to think of Sam Tregenza or to hear his name mentioned, but a mixture of rage and indignation boiled up within him. To be sure, the old man was ruined, had fallen on evil days, subsisted now with the help of half a crown a week parish relief. But he had behaved disgracefully, and his fall was a signal vindication of God’s justice. How else could one account for it? The man had been a wise fisherman, as knowledgable as any in Ardevora. He had been bred to the fishing, and had followed it all his life, but always–until his sixtieth year–as a paid hand, with no more than a paid hand’s share of the earnings. For this his wife had been to blame–an unthrifty woman, always out at heel and in debt to the shop; but with her death he started on a new tack, began to hoard, and within five years owned a boat of his own–the Pass By lugger–bought with his own money, save for a borrowed seventy-five pounds. He worked her with his one son Seth, a widow-man of forty, and Seth’s son, young Eli, aged fifteen, Liz’s father and brother. The boat paid well from the first, and the Tregenzas–the three generations–took a monstrous pride in her.
It was Elder Penno who had advanced the borrowed seventy-five pounds, of course taking security in the boat and upon an undertaking that Tregenza kept her insured. But on the morrow of the black day when she foundered, drowning Seth and Eli, and leaving only the old man to be picked up by a chance drifter running for harbour, it was discovered that the Tregenzas had missed by two months the date of renewing her premium of insurance. The boat was gone, and with it the Elder’s seventy-five pounds.
To think of recovering it upon Tregenza’s sticks of furniture was idle. The Elder threatened it, but the whole lot would not have fetched twenty pounds, and there were other creditors for small amounts. The old man, too, was picked up half crazy. He had been clinging to a fish-box for five and twenty minutes in the icy-cold water; but whether his craziness came of physical exhaustion or the shock of losing boat, son, and grandchild all in a few minutes, no one could tell. He never set foot on board a boat again, but sank straight into pauperism and dotage.
The Elder, for his part, considered such an end no more than the due of one who had played him so inexcusable a trick over the insurance. From the first he had suspected this weakening of Tregenza’s intellect to be something less than genuine–a calculated infirmity, to excite public compassion and escape the blame his dishonest negligence so thoroughly deserved.
As he closed the window that night and picked up his watch to resume the winding of it, the Elder felt satisfied that there were depths in Tregenza’s craziness which needed sounding. He would pay him a visit to-morrow. He had not exchanged a word with him for two years. Indeed, the old scoundrel seldom or never showed his face in the street.
At eleven o’clock next morning he rapped at the door of Tregenza’s hovel, which lay some way up the hill above the harbour, in a nexus of mean alleys and at the back of a tenement known as Ugnot’s. His knock appeared to silence a hammering in the rear of the cottage. By and by the door opened–but a very little way–and through the chink old Tregenza peered out at him–gaunt, shaggy, grey of hair and of face, his beard and his very eyebrows powdered with sawdust.
“Kindly welcome,” said Tregenza, blinking against the light.
“You won’t say that when I’ve done wi’ you,” said the Elder to himself.
“Won’t you step inside?” asked Tregenza.
“Yes,” said the Elder, “I will. I’ve a-got something serious to talk about.”
The sight of Tregenza irritated him more than he had expected, and irritated him the worse because the old man appeared neither confused with shame nor contrite.
“I’ve a-got something serious to talk about,” the Elder repeated in the kitchen; “though, as between you and me, any talk couldn’t well be pleasant. No, I won’t sit down–not in this house. ‘Tis only a sense o’ duty brings me to-day, though I daresay you’ve wondered often enough why I ha’n’t been here before an’ told you straight what I think o’ you.”
“No,” said Tregenza simply, as the Elder paused for an answer. “I ha’n’t wondered at all. I knowed ‘ee better.”
“What’s that you’re sayin’?”
“I knowed ‘ee better. First along–” the old man spoke as if with a painful effort of memory–“first along, to be sure, I reckined you might ha’ come an’ spoke a word o’ comfort; not that speakin’ comfort could ha’ done any good, an’ so I excused ‘ee.”
“You excused me? Word of comfort! Word of comf–” The Elder gasped for a moment, his mouth opening and shutting without sound. “An’ what about my seventy-five pounds?–all lost to me through your not keepin’ up the insurance!”
“Ay,” assented old Tregenza. “Ay, to be sure. Terrible careless, that was.”
For a moment the Elder felt tempted to strike him. “Look here,” he said, tapping his stick sharply on the floor; “as it happens, I didn’ come here to lose my temper nor to talk about your conduct–leastways, not that part of it. ‘Tis about your granddaughter. She’ve been stealin’ my wood.”
“Yes; I caught her in my yard at nine o’clock last night. No mistakin’ what she was after. There, in the dark–she was stealin’ my wood.”
“What sort o’ wood?”
“Man alive! Does it matter what sort o’ wood, when I tell you the child was thievin’. You encourage her to play truant, defyin’ the law; an’ now she’s doin’ what’ll bring her to Bodmin Gaol, as sure as fate. A child scarce over thirteen–an’ you’re makin’ a gaol-bird o’ her! The Lord knows, Sam Tregenza, I think badly enough of you, but will you stand there an’ tell me ’tis no odds to you that your grandchild’s a thief?”
“Liz wouldn’ steal your wood, nor nobody’s-else’s, unless some person had put her up to it,” answered the old man, knitting his brows to which the sawdust still adhered. “Come to think, now, the maid told me the other day that you’d been speakin’ to her, sayin’ that minchin’ from school was robbin’ the public, an’ she’d do honester to be stealin’ it from you than pickin’ it up along the foreshore durin’ school-hours. You may depend that’s what put it into her head. She’s a very well-meanin’ child.”
The Elder shook like a ship in stays. The explanation was monstrous–yet it was obviously the true one. What could he say to it? What could any sane man say to it?
While he stood and cast about for words, his face growing redder and redder, a breeze of air from the hill behind the cottage blew open the upper flap of its back door–which Tregenza had left on the latch–and passing through the kitchen, slammed-to the door leading into the street. The noise of it made the Elder jump. The next moment he was gasping again, as his gaze travelled out to the back-court.
“Good Lord, what’s that?”
“Eh?”–Tregenza followed his gaze–“You mean to tell me you ha’n’t heard? Well, well. . . . You live too much alone, Elder; you take my word. That’s the terrible thing about riches. They cut you off from your fellows. But only to think you never heard tell o’ my boat!”
The old man led the way out into the yard; and there, indeed, amid an indescribable litter of timber–wreckwood in balks and boards, worthless lengths of deck-planking, knees, and transoms, stem-pieces and stern-posts, and other odds and ends of bygone craft, condemned spars, barrel-staves, packing-cases–a boat reposed on the stocks; but such a boat as might make a sane man doubt his eyesight. The Elder stared at her slowly, incapable of speech; stared and pulled out a bandanna handkerchief and slowly wiped the back of his neck. She measured, in fact, nineteen or twenty feet over-all, but to the eye she appeared considerably longer, having (as the Elder afterwards put it) as many lines in her as a patchwork quilt. Her ribs, rising above the unfinished top-strakes, claimed ancestry in a dozen vessels of varying sizes; and how the builder had contrived to fix them into one keelson passed all understanding or guess. For over their unequal curves he had nailed a sheath of packing-boards, eked out with patches of sheet-tin. Here and there the eye, roaming over the structure, came to rest on a piece of scarfing or dovetailing which must have cost hours of patient labour and contrivance, cheek-by-jowl with work which would have disgraced a boy of ten. The whole thing, stuck there and filling the small back-court, was a nightmare of crazy carpentry, a lunacy in the sun’s eye.
“Why, bless your heart!” said Tregenza, laying a hand on the boat’s transom with affectionate pride, “you must be the only man in Ardevora that don’t know about her. Scores of folk comes here, Sunday afternoons, an’ passes me compliments upon her.” He passed a hand caressingly over her stern board. “There’s a piece o’ timber for you! Inch-an’-a-quarter teak, an‘ seasoned! That’s where her name’s to go–the Pass By. No; I couldn’t fancy any other name.”
The Elder was dumb. He understood now, and pitied the man, who nevertheless (he told himself) deserved his affliction.
“No, I couldn’ fancy any other name,” went on Tregenza in a musing tone. “If the Lord has a grievance agen me for settin’ too much o’ my heart on the old Pass By, He’ve a-took out o’ me all the satisfaction He’s likely to get. ‘Tisn’ like the man that built a new Jericho an’ set up the foundations thereof ‘pon his first-born an’ the gates ‘pon his youngest. The cases don’t tally; for my son an’ gran’son went down together in th’ old boat, an’ I got nobody left.”
“There’s your gran’daughter,” the Elder suggested.
“Liz?” Tregenza shook his head. “I reckon she don’t count.”
“She’ll count enough to get sent to gaol,” said the Elder tartly, “if you encourage her to be a thief. And look here, Sam Tregenza, it seems to me you’ve very loose notions o’ what punishment means, an’ why ’tis sent. The Lord takes away the Pass By, an’ your son an’ gran’son along with her, an’ why? (says you). Because (says you) your heart was too much set ‘pon the boat. Now to my thinkin’ you was a deal likelier punished because you’d forgot your duty to your neighbour an’ neglected to pay up the insurance.”
Tregenza shook his head again, slowly but positively. “‘Tis curious to me,” he said, “how you keep harkin’ back to that bit o’ money you lost. But ’tis the same, I’ve heard, with all you rich fellows. Money’s the be-all and end-all with ‘ee.”
The Elder at this point fairly stamped with rage; but before he could muster up speech the street-door opened and the child Lizzie slipped into the kitchen. Slight noise though she made, her grandfather caught the sound of her footsteps. A look of greed crept into his face, as he made hurriedly for the back-doorway.
“Liz!” he called.
“Where’ve yer been?”
“Been to school.”
“Brought any wood?”
“How could I bring any wood when–” Her voice died away as she caught sight of the Elder following her grandfather into the kitchen; and in a flash, glancing from her to Tregenza, the Elder read the truth–that the child was habitually beaten if she failed to bring home timber for the boat.
She stood silent, at bay, eyeing him desperately.
“Look here,” said the Elder, and caught himself wondering at the sound of his own voice; “if ’tis wood you want, let her come and ask for it. I’m not sayin’ but she can fetch away an armful now an’ then–in reason, you know.”
The longer Elder Penno thought it over, the more he confessed himself puzzled, not with Tregenza, but with his own conduct.
Tregenza was mad, and madness would account for anything.
But why should he, Elder Penno, be moved to take a sudden interest, unnecessary as it was inquisitive, in this mad old man, who had fooled him out of seventy-five pounds?
Yet so it was. The Elder came again, two days later, and once again before the end of the week. By the end of the second week the visit had become a daily one. What is more, day by day he found himself looking forward to it.
That Tregenza also looked forward to it might be read in the invariable eagerness of his welcome; and this was even harder to explain, because the Elder never failed to harp–seldom, indeed, relaxed harping–on old misdeeds and the lost insurance money. Nay, perhaps in scorn of his own weakness, he insisted on this more and more offensively; rehearsing each day, as he climbed the hill, speeches calculated to offend or hurt. But in the intervals he would betray–as he could not help feeling–some curiosity in the boat.
One noonday–a few minutes after the children had been dismissed from school–he walked out into the yard, in the unconfessed hope of finding Lizzie there: and there she was, engaged in filling her apron with wood.
“Listen to me,” he said–for the two by this time had, without parley, grown into allies. “Your grandfather’ll get along all right till he’ve finished buildin’. But what’s to happen when the boat’s ready to launch? Have you ever thought ‘pon that?”
“Often an’ often,” said Lizzie.
“If ‘twould even float–which I doubt–” said the Elder–“the dratted thing couldn’ be got down to the water, without pullin’ down seven feet o’ wall an’ the butt-end of Ugnot’s pigsty.”
“We must lengthen out the time,” said the practical child. “Please God, he’ll die afore it’s finished.”
“You mustn’ talk irreligious,” said her elderly friend. “Besides, there’s nothin’ amiss with him, settin’ aside his foolishness. I’ve a-thought sometimes, now, o’ buildin’ a boat down here, an’, when the time came, makin’ believe to exchange. Boat-buildin’ is slack just now, but I might trust to tradin’ her off on someone–when he’d done with her–which in the natur’ of things can’t be long. I’ve a model o’ the old Pass By hangin’ up somewhere in the passage behind the shop. We might run her up in two months, fit to launch, an’ finish her at leisure, call her the Pass By, and I daresay the Lord’ll send along a purchaser in good time.”
Lizzie shook her head. She would have liked to call Mr. Penno the best man in the world; but luckily–for it would have been an untruth–she found herself unequal to it.
Their apprehensions were vain. The whole town had entered into the fun of Tregenza’s boat, and she was no sooner felt to be within measureable distance of completion than committees–composed at first of the younger fishermen (but, by and by, the elders joined shamefacedly), held informal meetings, and devised a royal launch for her. What though she could not, as Mr. Penno had foreseen, be extricated from the yard but at the expense of seven feet of wall and the butt-end of Ugnot’s pigsty? Half a dozen young masons undertook to pull the wall down and rebuild it twice as strong as before; and the landlord of Ugnot’s, being interviewed, declared that he had been exercised in mind for thirty years over the propinquity of the pigsty and the dwelling-house, and would readily accept thirty shillings compensation for all damage likely to be done.
Report of these preparations at length reached Elder Penno’s ears, and surprised him considerably. He sent for the ringleaders and remonstrated with them.
“I’ve no cause to be friends with Tregenza, the Lord knows,” he said. “Still, the man’s ailin’ and weak in his mind. Such a shock as you’re makin’ ready to give ‘en, as like as not may land the fellow in his grave.”
“Land ‘en in his grave?” they answered. “Why the old fool knows the whole programme! He’ve a-sent down to the Ship Inn to buy a bottle o’ wine for the christenin’ an’ looks forward to enjoyin’ hisself amazin’.”
The Elder went straight to Tregenza, and found this to be no more than the truth.
“And here have I been lyin’ awake thinkin’ how to spare your feelin’s!” he protested.
“‘Tis a very funny thing,” answered Tregenza, “that you, who in the way o’ money make it your business to know every man’s affairs in Ardevora, should be the last to get wind of a little innercent merrymakin’. That’s your riches, again.”
After this one must allow that it was handsome of the Elder to summon the committee again and point out to them the uncertainty of the Pass By‘s floating when they got her down to the water. Had they considered this? They had not. So he offered them five hundredweight of lead to ballast and trim her; more, if it should be needed; and suggested their laying down moorings for her, well on the outer side of the harbour, where from his garden the old man would have a good sight of her. He would, if the committee approved, provide the moorings gratis.
On the day of the launch Ardevora dressed itself in all its bunting. A crowd of three hundred assembled in and around Tregenza’s backyard and lined the adjacent walls to witness the ceremony and hear the speeches; but Elder Penno was neither a speech-maker nor a spectator. He could not, for nervousness, leave the quay, where he stood ready beside a cauldron of bubbling tar and a pile of lead pegs, to pay the ship over before she took the water, and trim her as soon as ever she floated. But when, amid cheers and to the strains of the Temperance Brass Band, she lay moored at length upon a fairly even keel, with the red ensign drooping from a staff over her stern, he climbed the hill to find Tregenza contemplating her with pride through the gap in his ruined wall.
“I missed ‘ee at the christ’nin’,” said the old man. “But it went off very well. Lev’ us go into the house an’ touch pipe.”
“It surprises me,” said the Elder, “to find you so cheerful as you be. An occupation like this goin’ out o’ your life–I reckoned you might feel it, a’most like the loss of a limb.”
“A man o’ my age ought to wean hisself from things earthly,” said the old man; “an’ besides, I’ve a-got you.”
“Henceforth I’ve a-got you, an’ all to yourself.”
“Seems a funny thing,” mused the Elder; “an’ you at this moment owin’ me no less than seventy-five pound!”
Sam Tregenza settled himself down in his chair and nodded as he lit pipe. “Nothin’ like friendship, after all,” he said. “Now you’re talkin’ comfortable!”
 Playing truant.