I SAW THREE SHIPS
Young Zeb Fetches a Chest of Drawers
The parish of Ruan Lanihale is bounded on the west by Porthlooe, a fishing town of fifteen hundred inhabitants or less, that blocks the seaward exit of a narrow coombe. A little stream tumbles down this coombe towards the "Hauen," divides the folk into parishioners of Lanihale and Landaviddy, and receives impartially the fish offal of both. There is a good deal of this offal, especially during pilchard time, and the towns-folk live on their first storeys, using the lower floors as fish cellars, or "pallaces." But even while the nose most abhors, the eye is delighted by jumbled houses, crazy stairways leading to green doors, a group of children dabbling in the mud at low tide, a congregation of white gulls, a line of fishing boats below the quay where the men lounge and whistle and the barked nets hang to dry, and, beyond all, the shorn outline of two cliffs with a wedge of sea and sky between.
Mr. Zebedee Minards the elder dwelt on the eastern or Lanihale side of the stream, and a good way back from the Hauen, beside the road that winds inland up the coombe. Twenty yards of garden divided his cottage door from the road, and prevented the inmates from breaking their necks as they stepped over its threshold. Even as it was, Old Zeb had acquired a habit of singing out "Ware heads!" to the wayfarers whenever he chanced to drop a rotund object on his estate; and if any small article were missing indoors, would descend at once to the highway with the cheerful assurance, based on repeated success, of finding it somewhere below.
Over and above its recurrent crop of potatoes and flatpoll cabbages, this precipitous garden depended for permanent interest on a collection of marine curiosities, all eloquent of disaster to shipping. To begin with, a colossal and highly varnished Cherokee, once the figure-head of a West Indiaman, stood sentry by the gate and hung forward over the road, to the discomfiture of unwarned and absent-minded bagmen. The path to the door was guarded by a low fence of split-bamboo baskets that had once contained sugar from Batavia; a coffee bag from the wreck of a Dutch barque served for door-mat; a rum-cask with a history caught rain-water from the eaves; and a lapdog's pagoda--a dainty affair, striped in scarlet and yellow, the jetsom of some passenger ship--had been deftly adapted by Old Zeb, and stood in line with three straw bee-skips under the eastern wall.
The next day but one after Christmas dawned deliciously in Porthlooe, bright with virginal sunshine, and made tender by the breath of the Gulf Stream. Uncle Issy, passing up the road at nine o'clock, halted by the Cherokee to pass a word with its proprietor, who presented the very antipodes of a bird's-eye view, as he knocked about the crumbling clods with his visgy at the top of the slope.
"Mornin', Old Zeb; how be 'ee, this dellicate day?"
"Brave, thankee, Uncle."
"An' how's Coden Rachel?"
"She's charmin', thankee."
"Comely weather, comely weather; the gulls be comin' back down the coombe, I see."
"I be jealous about its lastin'; for 'tis over-rathe for the time o' year. Terrible topsy-turvy the seasons begin to run, in my old age. Here's May in Janewarry; an' 'gainst May, comes th' east wind breakin' the ships o' Tarshish."
"Now, what an instructive chap you be to convarse with, I do declare! Darned if I didn' stand here two minnits, gazin' up at the seat o' your small-clothes, tryin' to think 'pon what I wanted to say; for I'd a notion that I wanted to speak, cruel bad, but cudn' lay hand on't. So at last I takes heart an' says 'Mornin', I says, beginnin' i' that very common way an' hopin' 'twould come. An' round you whips wi' 'ships o' Tarshish' pon your tongue; an' henceforth 'tis all Q's an' A's, like a cattykism."
"Well, now you say so, I did notice, when I turned round, that you was lookin' no better than a fool, so to speak. But what's the notion?"
"'Tis a question I've a-been daggin' to ax'ee ever since it woke me up in the night to spekilate thereon. For I felt it very curious there shud he three Zebedee Minardses i' this parish a-drawin' separate breath at the same time."
"Iss, 'tis an out-o'-the-way fact."
"A stirrin' age, when such things befall! If you'd a-told me, a week agone, that I should live to see the like, I'd ha' called 'ee a liar; an' yet here I be a-talkin' away, an' there you be a-listening an' here be the old world a-spinnin' us round as in bygone times--"
"Iss, iss--but what's the question?"
"--All the same when that furriner chap looks up in Tresidder's kitchen an' says 'My name is Zebedee Minards,' you might ha' blown me down wi' a puff; an' says I to mysel', wakin' up last night an' thinkin'--'I'll ax a question of Old Zeb when I sees en, blest if I don't.'"
"Then why in thunder don't 'ee make haste an' do it?"
Uncle Issy, after revolving the question for another fifteen seconds, produced it in this attractive form--
"Old Zeb, bein' called Zeb, why did 'ee call Young Zeb, Zeb?"
Old Zeb ceased to knock the clods about, descended the path, and leaning on his visgy began to contemplate the opposite slope of the coombe, as if the answer were written, in letters hard to decipher, along the hill-side.
"Well, now," he began, after opening his mouth twice and shutting it without sound, "folks may say what they like o' your wits, Uncle, an' talk o' your looks bein' against 'ee, as they do; but you've a-put a twister, this time, an' no mistake."
"I reckoned it a banger," said the old man, complacently.
"Iss. But I had my reasons all the same."
"To be sure you had. But rabbet me it I can guess what they were."
"I'll tell 'ee. You see when Zeb was born, an' the time runnin' on for his christ'nin', Rachel an' me puzzled for days what to call en. At last I said, 'Look 'ere, I tell 'ee what: you shut your eyes an' open the Bible, anyhow, an' I'll shut mine an' take a dive wi' my finger, an' we'll call en by the nearest name I hits on.' So we did. When we tuk en to church, tho', there was a pretty shape. 'Name this cheeld,' says Pa'son Babbage. 'Selah,' says I, that bein' the word we'd settled. 'Selah?' says he: 'pack o' stuff! that ain't no manner o' name. You might so well call en Amen.' So bein' hurried in mind, what wi' the cheeld kickin', an' the water tricklin' off the pa'son's forefinger, an' the sacred natur' of the deed, I cudn' think 'pon no name but my own; an' Zeb he was christened."
"Deary me," commented Uncle Issy, "that's a very life-like history. The wonder is, the self-same fix don't happen at more christ'nin's, 'tis so very life-like."
A silence followed, full of thought. It was cut short by the rattle of wheels coming down the road, and Young Zeb's grey mare hove in sight, with Young Zeb's green cart, and Young Zeb himself standing up in it, wide-legged. He wore a colour as fresh as on Christmas morning, and seemed none the worse for his adventure.
"Hello!" he called, pulling up the mare; "'mornin', Uncle Issy-- 'mornin', father."
"Same to you, my son. Whither away?--as the man said once."
"Aye, whither away?" chimed Uncle Issy; "for the pilchards be all gone up Channel these two months."
"To Liskeard, for a chest-o'-drawers." Young Zeb, to be ready for married life, had taken a house for himself--a neat cottage with a yard and stable, farther up the coombe. But stress of business had interfered with the furnishing until quite lately.
"Rate meogginy, I suppose, as befits a proud tradesman."
"No: painted, but wi' the twiddles put in so artfully you'd think 'twas rale. So, as 'tis a fine day, I'm drivin' in to Mister Pennyway's shop o' purpose to fetch it afore it be snapped up, for 'tis a captivatin' article. I'll be back by six, tho', i' time to get into my clothes an' grease my hair for the courant, up to Sheba."
"Zeb," said his father, abruptly, "'tis a grand match you'm makin', an' you may call me a nincom, but I wish ye wasn'."
"'Tis lookin' high," put in Uncle Issy.
"A cat may look at a king, if he's got his eyes about en," Old Zeb went on, "let alone a legacy an' a green cart. 'Tain't that: 'tis the maid."
"How's mother?" asked the young man, to shift the conversation.
"Hugly, my son. Hi! Rachel!" he shouted, turning his head towards the cottage; and then went on, dropping his voice, "As between naybours, I'm fain to say she don't shine this mornin'. Hi, mother! here's Zebedee waitin' to pay his respects."
Mrs. Minards appeared on the cottage threshold, with a blue check duster round her head--a tall, angular woman, of severe deportment. Her husband's bulletin, it is fair to say, had reference rather to her temper than to her personal attractions.
"Be the Frenchmen landed?" she inquired, sharply.
"Why, no; nor yet likely to."
"Then why be I called out i' the midst o' my clanin'? What came I out for to see? Was it to pass the time o' day wi' an aged shaken-by-the-wind kind o' loiterer they name Uncle Issy?"
Apparently it was not, for Uncle Issy by this time was twenty yards up the road, and still fleeing, with his head bent and shoulders extravagantly arched, as if under a smart shower.
"I thought I'd like to see you, mother," said Young Zeb.
"Well, now you've done it."
"Best be goin', I reckon, my son," whispered Old Zeb.
"I be much the same to look at," announced the voice above, "as afore your legacy came. 'Tis only up to Sheba that faces ha' grown kindlier."
Young Zeb touched up his mare a trifle savagely.
"Well, so long, my son! See 'ee up to Sheba this evenin', if all's well."
The old man turned back to his work, while Young Zeb rattled on in an ill humour. He had the prettiest sweetheart and the richest in Lanihale parish, and nobody said a good word for her. He tried to think of her as a wronged angel, and grew angry with himself on finding the effort hard to sustain. Moreover, he felt uneasy about the stranger. Fate must be intending mischief, he fancied, when it led him to rescue a man who so strangely happened to bear his own name. The fellow, too, was still at Sheba, being nursed back to strength; and Zeb didn't like it. In spite of the day, and the merry breath of it that blew from the sea upon his right cheek, black care dogged him all the way up the long hill that led out of Porthlooe, and clung to the tail-board of his green cart as he jolted down again towards Ruan Cove.
After passing the Cove-head, Young Zeb pulled up the mare, and was taken with a fit of thoughtfulness, glancing up towards Sheba farm, and then along the high-road, as if uncertain. The mare settled the question after a minute, by turning into the lane, and Zeb let her have her way.
"Where's Miss Ruby?" he asked, driving into the town-place, and coming on Mary Jane, who was filling a pig's-bucket by the back door.
"Gone up to Pare Dew 'long wi' maister an' the very man I seed i' my tay-cup, a week come Friday."
"Iss, fay; an' a great long-legged stranger he was. So I stuck en 'pon my fist an' gave en a scat. 'To-day,' says I, but he didn' budge. 'To-morrow,' I says, an' gave en another; and then 'Nex' day;' and t' third time he flew. 'Shall have a sweet'eart, Sunday, praise the Lord,' thinks I; 'wonder who 'tis? Anyway, 'tis a comfort he'll be high 'pon his pins, like Nanny Painter's hens, for mine be all the purgy-bustious shape just now.' Well, Sunday night he came to Raney Rock, an' Monday mornin' to Sheba farm; and no thanks to you that brought en, for not a single dare-to-deny-me glance has he cast this way."
"Which way, then?"
"'Can't stay to causey, Master Zeb, wi' all the best horn-handled knives to be took out o' blue-butter 'gainst this evenin's courant. Besides, you called me a liar last week."
"So you be. But I'll believe 'ee this time."
"Well, I'll tell 'ee this much--for you look a very handsome jowter i' that new cart. If I were you, I'd be careful that gay furriner didn steal more'n my name"
Meantime, a group of four was standing in the middle of Parc Dew, the twenty-acred field behind the farmstead. The stranger, dressed in a blue jersey and outfit of Farmer Tresidder's, that made up in boots for its shortcomings elsewhere, was addressing the farmer, Ruby, and Jim Lewarne, who heard him with lively attention. In his right hand he held a walking-stick armed with a spud, for uprooting thistles; and in his left a cake of dark soil, half stone, half mud. His manner was earnest.
". . . . I see," he was saying, "that I don't convince you; and it's only for your own sakes I insist on convincing you. You'll grant me that, I suppose. To-morrow, or the next day, I go; and the chances are that we never meet again in this world. But 'twould be a pleasant thought to carry off to the ends of the earth that you, my benefactors, were living in wealth, enriched (if I may say it without presumption) by a chance word of mine. I tell you I know something of these matters--"
"I thought you'd passed your days privateerin'," put in Jim Lewarne, who was the only hostile listener, perhaps because he saw no chance of sharing in the promised wealth.
"Jim, hold your tongue!" snapped Ruby.
"I ask you," went on the stranger, without deigning to answer, "I ask you if it does not look like Providence? Here have you been for years, dwelling amid wealth of which you never dreamed. A ship is wrecked close to your doors, and of all her crew the one man saved is, perhaps, the one man who could enlighten you. You feed him, clothe him, nurse him. As soon as he can crawl about, he picks a walking-stick out of half-a-dozen or more in the hall, and goes out with you to take a look at the farm. On his way he notes many things. He sees (you'll excuse me, Farmer, but I can't help it) that you're all behind the world, and the land is yielding less than half of what it ought. Have you ever seen a book by Lord Dundonald on the connection between Agriculture and Chemistry? No? I thought not. Do you know of any manure better than the ore-weed you gather down at the Cove? Or the plan of malting grain to feed your cattle on through the winter? Or the respective merits of oxen and horses as beasts of draught? But these matters, though the life and soul of modern husbandry, are as nothing to this lump in my hand. What do you call the field we're now standing in?"
"Exactly--the 'black field,' or the 'field of black soil': the very name should have told you. But you lay it down in grass, and but for the chance of this spud and a lucky thistle, I might have walked over it a score of times without guessing its secret. Man alive, it's red gold I have here--red, wicked, damnable, delicious gold--the root of all evil and of most joys."
"If you lie, you lie enticingly, young man."
"By gold, I mean stuff that shall make gold for you. There is ore here, but what ore exactly I can't tell till I've streamed it: lead, I fancy, with a trace of silver--wealth for you, certainly; and in what quantity you shall find out--"
At this juncture a voice was heard calling over the hedge, at the bottom of the field. It came from Young Zeb, the upper part of whose person, as he stood up in his cart, was just visible between two tamarisk bushes.
"Drat the chap!" exclaimed Ruby's father, wheeling round sharply. "What d'ye wa-a-a-nt?" he yelled back.
"Come to know 'bout that chest o' dra-w-w-ers!"
"Then come 'long round by th' ga-a-ate!"
"Can't sta-a-ay! Want to know, as I'm drivin' to Liskeard, if Ruby thinks nine-an'-six too mu-u-ch, as the twiddles be so very cle-v-ver!"
"How ridiculous!" muttered the stranger, just loud enough for Ruby to hear. "Who is this absurd person?"
Jim Lewarne answered--"A low-lived chap, mister, as saved your skin awhile back."
"Dear, dear--how unpardonable of me! I hadn't, the least idea at this distance. Excuse me, I must go and thank him at once."
He moved towards the hedge with a brisk step that seemed to cost him some pain. The others followed, a pace or two behind.
"You'll not mind my interruptin', Farmer," continued Young Zeb, "but 'tis time Ruby made her mind up, for Mister Pennyway won't take a stiver less. 'Mornin', Ruby, my dear."
"And you'll forgive me if I also interrupt," put in the stranger, with the pleasantest smile, "but it is time I thanked the friend who saved my life on Monday morning. I would come round and shake hands if only I could see the gate."
"Don't 'ee mention it," replied Zeb, blushing hotly. "I'm glad to mark ye lookin' so brave a'ready. Well, what d'ye say, Ruby?"
"I say 'please yoursel'.'"
For of the two men standing before Ruby (she did not count her father and Jim Lewarne), the stranger, with his bold features and easy conciliating carriage, had the advantage. It is probable that he knew it, and threw a touch of acting into his silence as Zeb cut him short.
"That's a fair speech," replied Zeb. "Iss, turn it how you will, the words be winnin' enow. But be danged, my dear, if I wudn' as lief you said, 'Go to blazes!'"
"Fact is, my son," said Farmer Tresidder, candidly, "you'm good but untimely, like kissin' the wrong maid. This here surpassin' young friend o' mine was speech-makin' after a pleasant fashion in our ears when you began to bawl--"
"Then you don't want to hear about the chest o' drawers?" interrupted Zeb in dudgeon, with a glance at Ruby, who pretended not to see it.
"Well, no. To tell 'ee the slap-bang truth, I don't care if I see no trace of 'ee till the dancin' begins to commence to-night."
"Then good-day t' ye, friends," answered Young Zeb, and turned the mare. "Cl'k, Jessamy!" He rattled away down the lane.
"What an admirable youth!" murmured the stranger, falling back a pace and gazing after the back of Zeb's head as it passed down the line of the hedge. "What a messenger! He seems eaten up with desire to get you a chest of drawers that shall be wholly satisfying. But why do you allow him to call you 'my dear'?"
"Because, I suppose, that's what I am," answered Ruby; "because I'm goin' to marry him within the month."
But, as a matter of fact, the stranger had known before asking.