“I was asking, or axing, as you call it, my man. I said, Is that Dumford, down there in the valley?”
“And I said axe, or arks, as you call it, my man,” was the surly, defiant reply.
The last speaker looked up savagely from the block of stone on which he was seated, and the questioner looked down from where he stood on the rough track. There was a quiet, half-amused twinkle in his clear grey eyes, which did not quit his verbal opponent for an instant, as he remained gazing at him without speaking.
They were men of about the same age – eight-and-twenty or thirty – the one evidently a clergyman by his white tie, and the clerical cut of his clothes, though there was an easy d?gag? look in the soft felt hat cocked a little on one side of his massive head – a head that seemed naturally to demand short crisp curly brown hair. The same free and easy air showed in the voluminous wrinkles of his grey tweed trousers; his thick square-toed rather dusty boots; and his gloveless hands, which were brown, thickly veined, and muscular. He had a small leather bag in one hand, a stout stick in the other, and it was evident that he had walked some distance over the hills, for the nearest town, in the direction he had come, was at least six miles away.
The seated man, who was smoking a very dirty and short clay pipe, was as broad-shouldered, as sturdy, and as well-knit; but while the one, in spite of a somewhat heavy build, was, so to speak, polished by exercise into grace; the other was rough and angular, and smirched as his countenance was by sweat and the grime of some manufacturing trade, he looked as brutal as his words.
“What are yow lookin’ at?” he suddenly growled menacingly.
“At yow,” said the clergyman, in the most unruffled way; and, letting his bag and stick fall in the ferns, he coolly seated himself on a second block of stone on the bright hill-side.
“Now look here,” exclaimed the workman, roughly, “I know what you’re after. You’re going to call me my friend, and finish off with giving me a track, and you may just save yerself the trouble, for it wean’t do.”
He knocked the ashes out of his pipe as he spoke, and looked menacing enough to do any amount of mischief to a man he did not like.
“You’re wrong,” said the traveller, coolly, as he rummaged in the pocket of his long black coat. “I’m going to have a pipe.”
He opened a case, took out a well-blackened meerschaum, scraped the ashes from its interior, filled it from a large india-rubber pouch which he then passed to the workman, before striking a match from a little brass box and beginning to smoke with his hands clasped round his knees.
“Try that tobacco,” he continued. “You’ll like it.”
The workman took the tobacco-pouch in an ill-used way, stared at it, stared at the stranger smoking so contentedly by him, frowned, muttered something uncommonly like an oath, and ended by beginning to fill his pipe.
“Don’t swear,” said the traveller, taking his pipe from his lips for a moment, but only to replace it, and puff away like a practised smoker.
“Shall if I like,” said the other, savagely.
“Don’t,” said the traveller; “what’s the good? It’s weak and stupid. If you don’t like a man, hit him. Don’t swear.”
The workman stared as these strange doctrines were enunciated; then, after a moment’s hesitation, he finished filling his pipe, struck a match which refused to light, threw it down impatiently, tried another, and another, and another, with the same result, and then uttered a savage oath.
“At it again,” said the traveller, coolly, thrusting a hand into his pocket. “Why, what a dirty-mouthed fellow you are.”
“Yow wean’t be happy till I’ve made your mouth dirty,” said the workman, savagely; “and you’re going the gainest way to get it.”
“Nonsense!” said the traveller, coolly, “Why didn’t you ask me for a light?”
He handed his box of vesuvians, and it was taken in a snatchy way. One was lighted, and the few puffs of smoke which followed seemed to have a mollifying effect on the smoker, who confined himself to knitting his brows and staring hard at the stranger, who now took off his hat to let the fresh soft breeze blow over his hot forehead, while he gazed down at the little town, with its square-towered church nestling amidst a clump of elms, beyond which showed a great blank, many-windowed building, with tall chimney shafts, two or three of which were vomiting clouds of black smoke nowise to the advantage of the landscape.
“I thowt you was a parson,” said the young workman at last, in a growl a trifle less surly.
“Eh?” said the other, starting from a reverie, “parson? Yes, to be sure I am.”
“Oh, no, only when I get a little warm.”
“What are you, then?”
“Well, first of all,” said the traveller, quietly, “you’d better answer my question. Is that Dumford?”
The workman hesitated and frowned. It seemed like giving in – being defeated – to answer now, but the clear grey eyes were fixed upon him in a way that seemed to influence his very being, and he said at last, gruffly,
“Well, yes, it is Doomford; and what if it is?”
“Oh, only that I’m the new vicar.”
The workman puffed rapidly at his pipe, his face assuming a look of dislike, and at last he ejaculated, “Ho!”
“Like that tobacco?” said the new vicar, quietly.
There was a pause, during which the workman seemed to be debating within himself whether he should answer or not. At last he condescended to reply, “’taint bad.”
“No; it’s really good. I always get the best.”
The last speaker took in at a glance what was going on in his companion’s breast, and that was a fight between independent defiance and curiosity, but he seemed not to notice it.
“Give him time,” he said to himself; and he smoked on, amused at the fellow’s rough independence. He had been told that he would find Dumford a strange place, with a rough set of people; but nothing daunted, he had accepted the living, and had made up his mind how to act. At last the workman spoke:
“I never see a parson smoke afore!”
“Didn’t you? Oh, I like a pipe.”
“Ain’t it wicked?” said the other, with a grin.
“Wicked? Why should it be? I see nothing wrong in it, or I should not do it.”
There was another pause, during which pipes were refilled and lighted once more.
“Ever drink beer?” said the workman at last.
“Beer? By Samson!” exclaimed the new vicar, “how I should like a good draught now, my man. I’m very thirsty.”
“Then there ain’t none nigher than the Bull, an that’s two mile away. There’s plenty o’ watter.”
“Round the corner in the beck.”
A short nod accompanied this, and the vicar rose.
“Then we’ll have a drop of water – qualified,” he said, taking a flask from his pocket. “Scotch whisky,” he added, as he saw the stare directed at the little flask, whose top he was unscrewing.
A dozen paces down the path, hidden by some rocks, ran the source of a tiny rivulet or beck, with water like crystal, and filling the cup he took from his flask, the vicar qualified it with whisky, handed it to his rough companion, and then drank a draught himself with a sigh of relief.
“I’ve walked across the hills from Churley,” he said, as they re-seated themselves. “I wanted to see what the country was like.”
“Ho!” said the workman. “Say, you ain’t like the owd parson.”
“I suppose not. Did you know him?”
“Know him? Not I. He warn’t our sort.”
“You used to go and hear him, I suppose?”
“Go and hear him? Well, that’s a good one,” said the workman; and a laugh transformed his face, driving away the sour, puckered look, which, however, began rapidly to return.
“What’s the matter?” said the vicar, after a few minutes’ silent smoking.
“Matter? matter wi’ who?”
“Why, with you. What have you come up here for, all by yourself?”
“Nothing,” was the reply, in the surliest of voices.
“Nonsense, man! Do you think I can’t tell that you’re put out – hipped – and that something has annoyed you?”
The young man’s face gave a twitch or two, and he shuffled half round in his seat. Then, leaping up, he began to hurry off.
The new vicar had caught him in a dozen strides, putting away his pipe as he walked.
“There,” he said, “I won’t ask any more questions about yourself. I’m going down into the town, and we may as well walk together.”
The young workman turned round to face him, angrily, but the calm unruffled look of his superior disarmed him, and he gave a bit of a gulp and walked on.
“I never quarrel with a man for being cross when he has had something to put him out,” said the vicar, quietly. Then seeing that he was touching dangerous ground, he added, “By the way, where’s the vicarage?”
“That’s it, next the church,” was the reply.
“Yes, I see; and what’s that big building with the smoking chimneys?”
“Foundry,” was said gruffly.
“To be sure, yes. Bell foundry, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Then after a pause, “I work theer.”
“Tell you what,” said the young man, growing sociable in spite of himself; “yow get leave and I’ll show you all about the works. No I wean’t, though,” he exclaimed, abruptly. “Cuss the works, I’ll never go there no more.”
The new vicar looked at him, tightening his lips a little.
“Another sore place, eh?” he said to himself, and turned the conversation once more.
“What sort of people are you at Dumford, my lad?”
“Hey? what sort o’ people? Why, men and women and bairns, of course. What did you expect they weer?”
“I mean as to conduct,” said the vicar, laughing. “What will they say to me, for instance?”
The young man’s face grew less cloudy for a few moments, a broad, hearty, honest grin extending it so that he looked a frank, even handsome young fellow.
“They’ll make it a bit warm for you, parson,” he said at last.
“Eh? will they?” said the vicar, smiling. “Rough as you were, eh?”
“Oh no,” said the other, quickly. “Don’t you take no notice o’ that. I ain’t always that how. I was a bit popped this morning.”
“Yes, I could see you were a bit popped,” said the vicar. “We all have our troubles, my lad; but it’s your true man that gets the strong hand of his anger and masters it.”
“You look as if you never had nought to make you waxy in your life,” said the workman. “I say, what do they call you?”
“Call me? A parson, I suppose.”
“No; I mean call you. What’s your name?”
“Oh! Selwood – Murray Selwood.”
“Murray Selwood,” said the questioner, repeating it to himself. “It’s a curus sort o’ name. Why didn’t they call you Tom, or Harry, or Sam when thou wast a bairn?”
“Can’t say,” said the vicar, smiling. “I was too young to have a voice in the matter.”
“You couldn’t help it, of course. Say, can yow play cricket?”
“Bowl a bit, I suppose!”
“Yes; I’m best with the ball.”
“Yes, and pretty sharp.”
“Give’s yer hand, parson, I like yow, hang me if I don’t; and I’ll come and hear you fust Sunday as you preaches.”
The two men joined hands, and the grasp was long, earnest, and friendly, for the Reverend Murray Selwood, coming down freshly to his new living amongst people who had been described to him as little better than savages, felt that he had won one rough heart to his side, and was gladdened by the frank open gaze that met his own.
It was a different man that walked on now by his side, talking freely, in the rough independent way of the natives of his part; people who never thought of saying Sir, or touching their hat to any man – save and excepting the tradespeople, who contrived a salute to the wealthier families or clergy of the neighbourhood. He laughed as he talked of the peculiarities of Jacky this or Sammy that, and was in the midst of a speech about how parson would find “some of ’em rough uns to deal wi’,” when he stopped short, set his teeth, drew in a long breath, and was in an instant an altered man.
The Reverend Murray Selwood saw and interpreted the change in a moment.
“Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round,” he said to himself; and he looked curiously at the little group upon which they had suddenly come on turning round by a group of weather-beaten, grey-lichened rocks.
There were two girls, one of whom was more than ankle-deep in a soft patch of bog, while the other was trying very hard to reach her and relieve her from her unpleasant predicament.
Danger there was none: a good wetting from the amber-hued bog water being all that need be feared; but as the corner by the rocks was turned it was evident that the spongy bog was now rapidly giving way, and if help were to be afforded it must be at once.
The young workman hesitated for a moment, and then half turned away his head, but the vicar ran forward as the maiden in distress cried sharply —
“Oh Daisy, Daisy, what shall I do?”
“Let me help you out,” said the vicar, smiling. “Why, it is soft here,” he cried, as he went in over his knees, but got one foot on a tuft of dry heath and dragged out the other, to plant it upon a patch of grass. “Don’t be alarmed. There, both hands on my shoulder. That’s right. Hold tight, I’ve got you. Why you were sinking fast, and planting yourself as a new kind of marsh flower – and – there, don’t shrink away, or we shall be both planted – to blossom side by side. It is soft – that’s better – now lean all your weight on me, my dear – not that you’re heavy – now I have you – steady it is – that’s better.”
As he kept up this running fire of disconnected words, he contrived to drag the girl out of the soft bog, placing his arm well round her waist, and then carried her in his arms, stepping cautiously from tussock to tussock till he placed her blushing and trembling beside her companion, who had retreated to the firm ground.
“Oh, thank you. I am so much obliged,” stammered the girl, as her long lashes were lowered over her pretty hazel eyes, which shrank from the honest admiring gaze directed upon them.
And truly there was something to admire in the pretty, innocent, girlish face with its creamy complexion, and wavy dark brown hair, several little tresses of which had been blown loose by the breeze on the hill-side.
She was very plainly dressed, and wore a simple coarse straw hat, but there was an air of refinement about her which, before she opened her lips, told the new vicar that he was in the presence of one who had been born in a sphere of some culture.
Not so her companion, who, though as well favoured by nature, was cast in quite another mould. Plump, peachy, and rounded of outline, she was a thorough specimen of the better class English cottage girl, spoiled by her parents, and imbued with a knowledge that she was the pretty girl of the place.
“I am so much obliged – it was so good of you,” stammered the heroine of the bog.
“Not at all, my dear; don’t mention it,” said the vicar, in a quiet way that helped to put the discomfited maiden at her ease. “I see: gathering bog-flowers and went too far. For shame,” he continued, loudly. “You, a county young lady, and not to know it was dangerous to go where the cotton rushes grow. You wanted some, eh? Yes, and left the basket out there – half full.”
“Oh, pray don’t go – never mind the basket – it does not matter,” faltered the girl; but the vicar was already stepping from tussock to tussock, ending by hooking up the basket with his stick, and pausing to pick some of the best silky topped rushes within his reach.
“There,” he said, returning the basket and its contents; “there are your cotton rushes – earth’s fruit. I ought to scold you for behaving like a daughter of Eve, and trying to get what you ought not to touch.”
The girl crimsoned to the roots of her hair at the word Eve, and exchanged glances with her companion, who was standing before her, looking hot, frowning, and cross, with her eyes fixed on the ground, and her nose in the air, as if being scourged by the angry look directed at her by the young workman, who stood a few yards off scowling, with his hands thrust into the very bottoms of his pockets.
“I did not think the bog was so treacherous,” said the girl, stealing a look at the frank, manly face before her. “It looked so safe.”
“So do many things in this world, my dear; but you must not trust them any the more for their fair seeming.”
The girl started a little, and looked indignant at the familiar way in which she was addressed by so young a man – a perfect stranger. She had already tried to sting him in the bog with two or three furious darts from her bright eyes for daring to put his arms round her. In fact she had felt for a moment that she would rather sink into the earth than be touched like that, but she was helpless and had to resign herself to her fate.
“Ah!” said the vicar, “you are looking angry at me for speaking in such a free way.”
“I – I indeed – I – ”
“Ah, my dear, I can read that pretty innocent face of yours like a book. There – there – don’t blush so. We are strangers: well, let’s be strangers no more. Let me introduce myself. I am Murray Selwood, your new parson, and you are – ?”
“Eve Pelly – Mrs Glaire’s – ”
“Niece. I know, my dear. Very, very glad to make your acquaintance. You see I know something about the place, though I have not been there yet.”
As he spoke he took the timidly extended hand and gave it a warm, frank pressure, which again heightened the blush; but in a few moments Eve Pelly felt more at her ease in the presence of this stranger, who, with all his freedom, had an atmosphere of gentlemanly truth and candour which won upon all with whom he came in contact.
“Now,” he said, “you must introduce me to my other little friend here. Who is this?”
“This is Daisy Banks, Mr Selwood. Mr Banks is my aunt’s foreman at the Foundry. Daisy comes with me sometimes when I go for a walk. We have known each other from children.”
“To be sure,” said the vicar, smiling. “I might have known your name was Daisy. Shake hands, my dear. You’ll never change that name, but some day you’ll be coming to me to change the other for you.”
“Which I’m sure I never shall,” cried Daisy, with an indignant stamp, and a hot angry glance at the young workman, who ground his teeth, and savagely kicked the top off a tuft of heather.
“Don’t be angry, my dear,” said the vicar, kindly, as, red-faced, choking, and hardly able to restrain her angry tears, the girl snatched away her hand and turned away.
“It’s one of my weaknesses to touch tender chords unwittingly,” he said in a low tone to Eve; and, how it was she knew not, the girl felt herself drawn into a feeling of confidence with this stranger, who, however, half affronted her susceptibilities the next moment by saying,
“But come, you must not stand here with wet feet. If you were a sister of mine I should make you take off those dripping boots.”
“They are not wet – not very wet,” she stammered, correcting herself.
“I think I know,” said the vicar, smiling. “But come, you must walk home sharply. I’m a bit of a doctor in my way. You won’t mind my company, I hope. We must be very good friends.”
“I’m sure we shall,” said Eve, frankly, as she glanced once more at her companion, and the next minute he was chatting to her about the contents of her basket.
“Then you understand botany?” she said, eagerly, and he looked down with pleasure at the bright, animated countenance at his side.
“Oh, yes, a little. And you do, I see?”
“Oh, a very little,” said Eve; “the hard Latin words are so puzzling.”
“But you can learn plenty of botany without troubling yourself over the long names; they will come to you imperceptibly.”
Meanwhile Daisy, who had been forgotten, had followed on a few yards behind, looking very angry and indignant at the way in which she was neglected, while the young workman walking by her side seemed as angry, but with a dash of the savage in his face.
Both looked straight before them, and neither spoke, each going on as if in utter ignorance of the companions presence.
“I shall have to give you some lessons when I begin making my collection of specimens,” said the vicar, after a few more observations.
“Will you?” exclaimed Eve, eagerly; and then, retailing the fact that she had known this stranger but a few minutes, she tried to qualify her remark, failed dismally, and began to feel exceedingly hot and conscious, when there was a diversion. They had been gradually nearing the town, and had reached a spot where the moorland gave place to cultivated soil, when a young man, dressed in a rather fast style, and with a cigar in his mouth, suddenly leaped over a stile, and started and looked quite awkward on finding himself face to face with this group.
He was a slight fair young fellow, of some four-and-twenty, with rather pale downy whiskers, and a blonde silky moustache, which was carefully waxed into points. His dress was a light tweed suit, but to condone for the sombre hue of it and his grey deerstalker hat, he wore a brilliant scarlet tie slipped through a massive gold ring, and wore several rings on his thin effeminate fingers.
The effect upon the party caused by the sudden appearance of this personage was varied.