I SAW THREE SHIPS
The Stranger Dances in Zeb's Shoes
It was close upon midnight, and in the big parlour at Sheba the courant, having run through its normal stages of high punctilio, artificial ease, zest, profuse perspiration, and supper, had reached the exact point when Modesty Prowse could be surprised under the kissing-bush, and Old Zeb wiped his spectacles, thrust his chair back, and pushed out his elbows to make sure of room for the rendering of "Scarlet's my Colour." These were tokens to be trusted by an observer who might go astray in taking any chance guest as a standard of the average conviviality. Mr. and Mrs. Jim Lewarne, for example, were accustomed on such occasions to represent the van and rear-guard respectively in the march of gaiety; and in this instance Jim had already imbibed too much hot "shenachrum," while his wife, still in the stage of artificial ease, and wearing a lace cap, which was none the less dignified for having been smuggled, was perpending what to say when she should get him home. The dancers, pale and dusty, leant back in rows against the wall, and with their handkerchiefs went through the motions of fanning or polishing, according to sex. In their midst circulated Farmer Tresidder, with a three-handled mug of shenachrum, hot from the embers, and furred with wood-ash.
"Take an' drink, thirsty souls. Niver do I mind the Letterpooch so footed i' my born days."
"'Twas conspirator--very conspirator," assented Old Zeb, screwing up his A string a trifle, and turning con spirito into a dark saying.
"Greek for elbow-grease. Phew!" He rubbed his fore-finger round between neck and shirt-collar. "I be vady as the inside of a winder."
"Such a man as you be to sweat, crowder!" exclaimed Calvin Oke. "Set you to play six-eight time an' 'tis beads right away."
"A slice o' saffern-cake, crowder, to stay ye. Don't say no. Hi, Mary Jane!"
"Thank 'ee, Farmer. A man might say you was in sperrits to-night, makin' so bold."
"I be; I be."
"Might a man ax wherefore, beyond the nat'ral hail-fellow-well-met of the season?"
"You may, an' yet you mayn't," answered the host, passing on with the mug.
"Uncle Issy," asked Jim Lewarne, lurching up, "I durstn' g-glint over my shoulder--but wud 'ee mind tellin' me if th' old woman's lookin' this way--afore I squench my thirst?"
"Iss, she be."
Jim groaned. "Then wud 'ee mind a-hofferin' me a taste out o' your pannikin? an' I'll make b'lieve to say 'Norronany' count.' Amazin' 'ot t' night," he added, tilting back on his heels, and then dipping forward with a vague smile.
Uncle Issy did as he was required, and the henpecked one played his part of the comedy with elaborate slyness. "I don't like that strange chap," he announced, irrelevantly.
"Nor I nuther," agreed Elias Sweetland, "tho' to be sure, I've a-kept my eye 'pon en, an' the wonders he accomplishes in an old pair o' Tresidder's high-lows must be seen to be believed. But that's no call for Ruby's dancin' wi' he a'most so much as wi' her proper man."
"The gel's takin' her fling afore wedlock. I heard Sarah Ann Nanjulian, just now, sayin' she ought to be clawed."
"A jealous woman is a scourge shaken to an' fro," said Old Zeb; "but I've a mind, friends, to strike up 'Randy my dandy,' for that son o' mine is lookin' blacker than the horned man, an' may be 'twill comfort 'en to dance afore the public eye; for there's none can take his wind in a hornpipe."
In fact, it was high time that somebody comforted Young Zeb, for his heart was hot. He had brought home the chest of drawers in his cart, and spent an hour fixing on the best position for it in the bedroom, before dressing for the dance. Also he had purchased, in Mr. Pennyway's shop, an armchair, in the worst taste, to be a pleasant surprise for Ruby when the happy day came for installing her. Finding he had still twenty minutes to spare after giving the last twitch to his neckerchief, and the last brush to his anointed locks, he had sat down facing this chair, and had striven to imagine her in it, darning his stockings. Zeb was not, as a rule, imaginative, but love drew this delicious picture for him. He picked up his hat, and set out for Sheba in the best of tempers.
But at Sheba all had gone badly. Ruby's frock of white muslin and Ruby's small sandal shoes were bewitching, but Ruby's mood passed his intelligence. It was true she gave him half the dances, but then she gave the other half to that accursed stranger, and the stranger had all her smiles, which was carrying hospitality too far. Not a word had she uttered to Zeb beyond the merest commonplaces; on the purchase of the chest of drawers she had breathed no question; she hung listlessly on his arm, and spoke only of the music, the other girls' frocks, the arrangement of the supper-table. And at supper the stranger had not only sat on the other side of her, but had talked all the time, and on books, a subject entirely uninteresting to Zeb. Worst of all, Ruby had listened. No; the worst of all was a remark of Modesty Prowse's that he chanced to overhear afterwards.
So when the fiddles struck up the air of "Randy my dandy," Zeb, knowing that the company would call upon him, at first felt his heart turn sick with loathing. He glanced across the room at Ruby, who, with heightened colour, was listening to the stranger, and looking up at his handsome face. Already one or two voices were calling "Zeb!" "Young Zeb for a hornpipe!" "Now then, Young Zeb!"
He had a mind to refuse. For years after he remembered every small detail of the room as he looked down it and then across to Ruby again: the motion of the fiddle-bows; the variegated dresses of the women; the kissing-bush that some tall dancer's head had set swaying from the low rafter; the light of a sconce gleaming on Tresidder's bald scalp. Years after, he could recall the exact poise of Ruby's head as she answered some question of her companion. The stranger left her, and strolled slowly down the room to the fireplace, when he faced round, throwing an arm negligently along the mantel-shelf, and leant with legs crossed, waiting.
Then Young Zeb made up his mind, and stepped out into the middle of the floor. The musicians were sawing with might and main at high speed. He crossed his arms, and, fixing his eyes on the stranger's, began the hornpipe.
When it ceased, he had danced his best. It was only when the applause broke out that he knew he had fastened, from start to finish, on the man by the fireplace a pair of eyes blazing with hate. The other had stared back quietly, as if he noted only the performance. As the music ended sharply with the click of Young Zeb's two heels, the stranger bent, took up a pair of tongs, and rearranged the fire before lifting his head.
"Yes," he said, slowly, but in tones that were extremely distinct as the clapping died away, "that was wonderfully danced. In some ways I should almost say you were inspired. A slight want of airiness in the double-shuffle, perhaps--"
"Could you do't better?" asked Zeb, sulkily.
"That isn't the fair way to treat criticism, my friend; but yes--oh, yes, certainly I could do it better--in your shoes."
"Then try, i' my shoes." And Zeb kicked them off.
"I've a notion they'll fit me," was all the stranger answered, dropping on one knee and beginning to unfasten the cumbrous boots he had borrowed of Farmer Tresidder.
Indeed, the curious likeness in build of these two men--a likeness accentuated, rather than slurred, by their contrast in colour and face, was now seen to extend even to their feet. When the stranger stood up at length in Zeb's shoes, they fitted him to a nicety, the broad steel buckles lying comfortably over the instep, the back of the uppers closing round the hollow of his ankle like a skin.
Young Zeb, by this, had crossed shoeless to the fireplace, and now stood in the position lately occupied by his rival: only, whereas the stranger had lolled easily, Zeb stood squarely, with his legs wide apart and his hands deep in his pockets. He had no eyes for the intent faces around, no ears for their whispering, nor for the preliminary scrape of the instruments; but stood like an image, with the firelight flickering out between his calves, and watched the other man grimly.
"Ready?" asked his father's voice. "Then one--two--three, an' let fly!"
The fiddle-bows hung for an instant on the first note, and in a twinkling scampered along into "Randy my dandy." As the quick air caught at the listeners' pulses, the stranger crossed his arms, drew his right heel up along the inner side of his left ankle, and with a light nod towards the chimney-place began.
To the casual eye there was for awhile little to choose between the two dancers, the stranger's style being accurate, restrained, even a trifle dull. But of all the onlookers, Zeb knew best what hornpipe-dancing really was; and knew surely, after the first dozen steps, that he was going to be mastered. So far, the performance was academic only. Zeb, unacquainted with the word, recognised the fact, and was quite aware of the inspiration--the personal gift--held in reserve to transfigure this precise art in a minute or so, and give it life. He saw the force gathering in the steady rhythmical twinkle of the steel buckles, and heard it speak in the light recurrent tap with which the stranger's heels kissed the floor. It was doubly bitter that he and his enemy alone should know what was coming; trebly bitter that his enemy should be aware that he knew.
The crowder slackened speed for a second, to give warning, and dashed into the heel-and-toe. Zeb caught the light in the dancer's eyes, and still frowning, drew a long breath.
"Faster," nodded the stranger to the musicians' corner.
Then came the moment for which, by this time, Zeb was longing. The stranger rested with heels together while a man might count eight rapidly, and suddenly began a step the like of which none present had ever witnessed, Above the hips his body swayed steadily, softly, to the measure; his eyes never took their pleasant smile off Zeb's face, but his feet--
The steel buckles had become two sparkling moths, spinning, poising, darting. They no longer belonged to the man, but had taken separate life: and merely the absolute symmetry of their loops and circles, and the click-click-click on boards, regular as ever, told of the art that informed them.
They crossed and re-crossed now like small flashes of lightning, or as if the boards were flints giving out a score of sparks at every touch of the man's heel.
They seemed suddenly to catch the light out of every sconce, and knead it into a ball of fire, that spun and yet was motionless, in the very middle of the floor, while all the rest of the room grew suddenly dimmed.
Zeb with a gasp drew his eyes away for a second and glanced around. Fiddlers and guests seemed ghostly after the fierce light he had been gazing on. He looked along the pale faces to the place where Ruby stood. She, too, glanced up, and their eyes met.
What he saw fetched a sob from his throat. Then something on the floor caught his attention: something bright, close by his feet.
Between his out-spread legs, as it seemed, a thin streak of silver was creeping along the flooring. He rubbed his eyes, and looked again.
He was straddling across a stream of molten metal.
As Zeb caught sight of this, the stranger twirled, leapt a foot in the air, and came down smartly on the final note, with a click of his heels. The music ceased abruptly.
A storm of clapping broke out, but stopped almost on the instant: for the stranger had flung an arm out towards the hearth-stone.
"A mine--a mine!"
The white streak ran hissing from the heart of the fire, where a clod of earth rested among the ashen sticks.
"Witchcraft!" muttered one or two of the guests, peering forward with round eyes.
"Fiddlestick-end! I put the clod there myself. 'Tis lead!"
"Ay, naybours all," broke in Farmer Tresidder, his bald head bedewed with sweat, "I don't want to abash 'ee, Lord knows; but 'tis trew as doom that I be a passing well-to-do chap. I shudn' wonder now"--and here he embraced the company with a smile, half pompous and half timid-- "I shudn' wonder if ye was to see me trottin' to Parlyment House in a gilded coach afore Michaelmas--I be so tremenjous rich, by all accounts."
"You'll excoose my sayin' it, Farmer," spoke up Old Zeb out of the awed silence that followed, "for doubtless I may be thick o' hearin', but did I, or did I not, catch 'ee alludin' to a windfall o' wealth?"
"You'll excoose me sayin' it, Farmer; but was it soberly or pleasantly, honest creed or light lips, down-right or random, 'out o' the heart the mouth speaketh' or wantonly and in round figgers, as it might happen to a man filled with meat and wine?"
"'Twas the cold trewth."
"By what slice o' fortune?"
"By a mine, as you might put it: or, as between man an' man, by a mine o' lead."
"Farmer, you're either a born liar or the darlin' o' luck."
"Aye: I feel it. I feel that overpowerin'ly."
"For my part," put in Mrs. Jim Lewarne, "I've given over follerin' the freaks o' Fortune. They be so very undiscernin'."
And this sentence probably summed up the opinion of the majority.
In the midst of the excitement Young Zeb strode up to the stranger, who stood a little behind the throng.
"Give me back my shoes," he said.
The other kicked them off and looked at him oddly.
"With pleasure. You'll find them a bit worn, I'm afraid."
"I'll chance that. Man, I'm not all sorry, either."
"'Cause they'll not be worn agen, arter this night. Gentleman or devil, whichever you may be, I bain't fit to dance i' the same parish with 'ee--no, nor to tread the shoeleather you've worn."
"By the powers!" cried the stranger suddenly, "two minutes ago I'd have agreed with you. But, looking in your eyes, I'm not so sure of it."
"That you won't wear the shoes again."
Then Zeb went after Ruby.
"I want to speak a word with 'ee," he said quietly, stepping up to her.
"I' the hall."
"But I can't come, just now."
"But you must."
She followed him out.
"Zeb, what's the matter with you?"
"Look here"--and he faced round sharply--"I loved you passing well."
"Well?" she asked, like a faint echo.
"I saw your eyes, just now. Don't lie."
"That's right. And now listen: if you marry me, I'll treat 'ee like a span'el dog. Fetch you shall, an' carry, for my pleasure. You shall be slave, an' I your taskmaster; an' the sweetness o' your love shall come by crushin', like trodden thyme. Shall I suit you?"
"I don't think you will."
"Then good-night to you."
"Good-night, Zeb. I don't fancy you'll suit me; but I'm not so sure as before you began to speak.".
There was no answer to this but the slamming of the front door.
At half-past seven that morning, Parson Babbage, who had risen early, after his wont, was standing on the Vicarage doorstep to respire the first breath of the pale day, when he heard the garden gate unlatched and saw Young Zeb coming up the path.
The young man still wore his festival dress; but his best stockings and buckled shoes were stained and splashed, as from much walking in miry ways. Also he came unsteadily, and his face was white as ashes. The parson stared and asked--
"Young Zeb, have you been drinking?"
"Then 'tis trouble, my son, an' I ask your pardon."
"A man might call it so. I'm come to forbid my banns."
The elder man cocked his head on one side, much as a thrush contemplates a worm.
"I smell a wise wit, somewhere. Young man, who taught you so capital a notion?"
"Pack o' stuff! Ruby hadn't the--stop a minute! 'twas that clever fellow you fetched ashore, on Monday. Of course--of course! How came it to slip my mind?"
Young Zeb turned away; but the old man was after him, quick as thought, and had laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Is it bitter, my son?"
"It is bitter as death, Pa'son."
"My poor lad. Step in an' break your fast with me--poor lad, poor lad! Nay, but you shall. There's a bitch pup i' the stables that I want your judgment on. Bitter, eh? I dessay. I dessay. I'm thinking of walking her--lemon spot on the left ear--Rattler strain, of course. Dear me, this makes six generations I can count back that spot--an' game every one. Step in, poor lad, step in: she's a picture."