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Twixt Life and Death, A Manx Story by Clucas Joughin

 

PART I.

Deborah Shimmin was neither tall nor fair, and yet Nature had been kind to her in many ways. She had wonderful eyes—large, dark, and full of mute eloquence—and if her mouth was too large, her nose too irregular, and her cheeks too much tanned by rude health, and by exposure to the sun as the village gossips said, I, Henry Kinnish, poetic dreamer, and amateur sculptor, thought she had a symmetry of form and a grace of movement which wrought her whole being into harmony and made her a perfect example of beauty with a plain face; and every one knew that Andrew, the young village blacksmith and rural postman, loved her with all the might of his big, brawny soul.

These two ideas of Deborah's beauty and Andrew's love for her, were revealed to me one day when, with Deborah's master, his lumbering sons and comely daughters, and my chum Fred Harcourt, an artist from “across the water,” we were cutting some early grass in May, just before the full bloom of the gorse had begun to fade from the hillsides and from the tops of the hedges where it had made borders of gold for the green of the fields all the spring.

A soft west wind, which blew in from the sea, made waves along the uncut grass to windward of the mowers, and played around the skirts of Deborah, making them flutter about her, while the exertion of the haymaking occasionally let loose her long, strong black hair.

But the face of Deborah was sad; for the village policeman had laid a charge against her before his chief to make her account for her possession of a large number of seagulls' eggs, to take which the law of the Island had made a punishable offence, by an act of Tynwald passed to protect the sea fowl from extinction.

The eggs, all fresh, and newly taken from the nests, had been found on Deborah's dressing-table; but Deborah indignantly denied all knowledge of the means by which they had got there. There was a mystery about it to every one, for fresh clutches were seen there every morning, and the innocent Deborah made no attempt to conceal them. Where, then, could they come from but from some nests of the colony of seagulls which lived in the haughs that dropped down into the sea from Rhaby Hills? But no woman, young or old, could climb the craigs where the gulls had their nests. It was a feat of daring only performed by reckless boys and young men who were reared on the littoral, and who were strong and spirited craigsmen by inheritance and by familiarity with the dangerous sport of egg-collecting among the giddy heights of precipices on which, if they took but one false step, they might be hurled to certain destruction below.

When the mowers had made all but the last swath, and there were only a few more rucks of the early hay to be made in the field, Cubbin, the rural constable, came in from the highroad with Andrew, the smith. The hot and sweated mowers did not stop the swing of their scythes, but they talked loudly amongst themselves in imprecations against the new law which made it a criminal offence for a lad to take a few gull's eggs, which they, and their fathers before them, had gone sporting after in the good old times when men did what they thought right.

The bronzed face of Deborah Shimmin paled, her lips set into a resolve of courage when she saw Andrew in the hands of the police; and I learnt for the first time that Andrew was looked upon as the robber and Deborah as the receiver of the stolen eggs. I saw more than this, I saw, by one look, that the heart of Deborah and the heart of the tall, lithe lad, who now stood before me, were as one heart in love and in determination to stand by each other in the coming trial.

The big hands of the young smith were thrust into his pockets, and a smile played over his honest face; but Deborah looked at the constable with a hard, defiant look, and then bent over her work again as if waiting to hear him say something dreadful which she was resolved to throw back into his face, though her hand trembled as she held the fork, which moved now faster and stronger than before.

But Cubbin was a man of the gospel of peace though he was an officer of the law, and he only looked sadly on the face of Deborah as he asked her whether it would not be better for her to say where she got her supply of eggs from than allow him to get a summons against Andrew.

“I have told you before that Andrew never gave me the eggs!” cried the girl, her face flushed with the crimson setting of the sun, “and I don't know where they came from. I can't say anything different, and I wish you would not trouble me, Mr. Cubbin!”

Fred and I called Cubbin, the constable, to one side, and asked him to allow us a day or two to solve the mystery of the eggs—a little arrangement which may seem strange to dwellers in towns, but which was quite practicable at this time in this far-off place, and which he soon agreed to allow.

I had been out shooting corncrakes that day, and Fred Harcourt had come with me for a day in the meadows, as his brush and palette had wearied him of late, and he longed to stretch his limbs and to see my spaniels work in the weedy hedges and in the meadows, where the grass had stood the test of the dry spring. We had taken off our coats to help our neighbour with his sunburnt grass, and our guns were laid across them. The spaniels had fallen asleep—using the coats as beds. While conversing with Cubbin we had walked quietly to get our coats, and I saw that one of the sleeping dogs was still hunting in his dreams. There was nothing uncommon about this, for dogs will hunt in their sleep; but some inner voice said to me that Deborah Shimmin, being a highly strung, nervous girl, might hunt in her sleep also, and that such things as somnambulists walking the roofs of high houses had been heard of, and I remembered a lad in my own boyhood's days who was awakened early one morning by the riverside with his rod in his hand and his basket slung over his nightshirt. But I did not communicate my theory of the solution of the mystery of the eggs to Cubbin, the constable.

When the policeman left the field I entered into a kindly talk with Deborah Shimmin, and was not long in learning what the girl herself had probably never thought of, that on the public reading of the Act for the protection of sea-fowl, on the Tynwald day of the previous year, she had been impressed by the thought that Andrew would now be forbidden to employ his agility and his courage in a form of sport she often tried to dissuade him from.

I knew before this that she had recently lost her mother, and had suffered a bereavement through a favourite brother being lost at sea one stormy night at the back-end herring fishing off Howth Head.

“Poor Deborah,” I said to Fred, “she is all nerves, and the hand of life's troubles is holding her; surely she must be innocent of encouraging her lover in risking his life—the only precious life left to her now!”

“And the jolly Andrew,” said Fred, “certainly looked the most amusing picture of innocence, as Cubbin trotted him along the grass! But your theory of the somnambulant business is a bit fanciful, all the same.”

PART II.

At ten o'clock that night Fred Harcourt and I were bivouaced within sight of the only door of the house where Deborah Shimmin worked as a domestic help in the family of her uncle. The night was not dark, it seldom is dark in these northern islands so late in May, but there was a light of the moon at its first quarter, and a glint of some stars shone down upon us as we hearkened to the stillness of the air and to a frequent movement of a tired horse in the stable.

Our bivouac was a clump of trammon trees (elders) at the corner of the orchard which adjoined the farm buildings. Between us and the dwelling house there was a disused pigsty. At about a quarter to eleven o'clock a man, with a red setter dog at his heels and a fowling piece on his arm, came sneaking up, and crept into the sty.

Then there was another long spell of silence, not broken, but rather intensified, by the words which I whispered to Fred Harcourt that the fellow who crept into the sty was Kit Kermode, and that he could be after no good.

At midnight a cock crew at the far end of the village, and a dog barked. Then there was silence again, save that every now and again a sedge warbler, far away by the stream near Shenvarla, sang a faintly audible song. Our position on the slope of the foot-hill at Gordon House was between the village and the hills which girt the sea coast. This made my theory of the sleep-walking to the cliffs more plausible. But while we lay low in the clump of trammon trees the appearance of Kit Kermode, with his cat-like walk and his eyes that could wink slander faster than any old woman's tongue could wag it, gave me a theory, or at least a speculation, in another direction.

In soft whispers to Fred Harcourt, who was new to the village, I told him how the rascal Kermode hated Andrew the blacksmith. “He hates him,” I said, “I do verily believe, for his good honest face, his manly outspoken tongue, his courage, and his power of arm, but most of all he hates him since Andrew, years ago as an innocent and unthinking lad, ran after him in the village street and handed him a reminder of some money which he owed his master.”

“But what can that have to do with Deborah Shimmin's gulls' eggs?” asked Fred, whose mind never seemed to see anything but pictures of divers colours and inspiring outlines in the happy dreamland he lived in, all unconscious of the world's cruelty, and hate, and love of evil.

I had just finished telling him that a man like Kermode might bribe a boy to get him gulls' eggs, and sneak up to Deborah's window and quietly reach in and place the eggs on her dressing-table, as a means of getting Deborah and Andrew into trouble. I had just finished giving this outline of the thought in my mind, I say, when the door of the farmhouse opened and Deborah Shimmin, clad only in her nightdress, stepped lightly forth and started up the hillside.

The next moment the man, his gun in the hollow of his arm and the red setter dog at his heels, crawled forth from the pigsty, looked round as if to make certain he was not watched, and followed the white figure of the girl as she glided up the zig-zag path in the direction of the haughs which formed the wild sea coast.

It did not take Fred and me very long to take off our boots and noiselessly follow, guided by the figure in white, rather than by the man who went before us, for the dim light of the moon and the northern night made his dark dress difficult to see in the shadows of the hedges and trees.

I knew that Deborah would take the usual path to the rocks, and bade Fred follow close behind me while I took a shorter route. In ten minutes we were again under cover when the girl passed close by us, her long hair knotted roughly into a mass of rolls about her large and well-formed head. Her eyes were open, and fixed in a glassy stare straight ahead. She seemed to move along, rather than walk, and had no appearance of either hesitation or haste; and Kermode, with his dog and his gun, stealthily followed in her wake not twenty yards behind.

While we were crossing the field bordering the Gordon haughs, keeping under the shadow of a gorse-clad hedge, Deborah disappeared over the cliff, and the man, watched by Fred and myself, crept up to the edge of the cliffs down which the poor girl had descended.

Before another minute had elapsed, Kermode had stretched himself out his full length on a craig which overlooked the precipitous rocks down which Deborah had disappeared. We then secured the cover of a mound not thirty feet away from him.

The dog gave a low whine when he saw the head of his master craned out to watch the movements of the white figure descending the rocks, and then all was quiet as before.

Fred's suspense and anxiety for the safety of the girl was apparent in his hard breathing; but my own were inconsiderable, for I knew that if undisturbed by any noise unusual to the night, or any interference by the fellow who now held the future happiness of Andrew, the smith, in his hands she would safely climb up the haugh and make her way home to bed, all unconscious of the awful position she had placed herself in.

Wicked as I knew the man to be, I did not now imagine that he had any other intention in watching around the house than to try to discover Andrew paying a nocturnal visit, with some gulls' eggs for his sweetheart. This would have been a mean enough act, but it seems a small thing beside the cruel and murderous deed he would have committed but for the providential presence and prompt action of Fred Harcourt and myself.

Fred and I lay low, with our chins resting on our hands, not daring even to whisper. The dog whined a little now and again, and we heard the subdued cries of seagulls as they flew off, alarmed in the darkness, over the sea. Still Deborah did not make her appearance on the top of the cliff. It seemed a long time that we lay and watched thus, but it could not have been so long as it seemed.

Then Kermode, without raising himself from watching the climbing girl, reached back for the gun which he had placed on the ground by his side. He raised it to the level of his face, resting his left elbow on the ground, and I heard the click of the hammer as he cocked it. Then I saw his thumb and finger go into his waistcoat pocket.

“Good God!” I said in a loud whisper, as I sprang to my feet, for I knew in one awful moment that the villain was feeling for a cap to discharge a shot in the air above the head of Deborah, who would wake up at the shock, and fall to the base of the craig in her terrible fright. So intent was Kermode in his fell design of frightening the girl to her destruction that he did not hear me, or notice the growl of his dog, or feel the vibration of our tread as we both bore down upon him. We should have been too late if it had not been for the life-long habit of the wretch to secure himself from danger or suspicion. With his finger on the trigger, all ready to pull, he paused one moment to raise himself and look about. That moment saved the life of Deborah Shimmin, for the would-be murderer was the next instant under the knee of Fred Harcourt and his throat in his grip, while my hand was over the nipples of the gun. While we were all on the ground together, and the setter dog had a hold of Harcourt's leg, the tall form of Cubbin, the policeman, bent over us. I had lowered the hammers of the gun and thrown it to one side to grasp the dog, for Harcourt would not let go his hold of Kermode's throat lest he should shout and wake the girl.

“Gag Kermode,” I said to Cubbin, as I hit the dog just above the snout with a stone, killing him by one blow.

Then Deborah Shimmin, holding something in a fold of her nightdress with one hand, and climbing with the other, came up over the edge of the cliff a few yards away from us.

She looked very beautiful as she stepped up on the sloping sward above the haugh, with the pale moonlight just lighting her airy dress, and her face all sad and careworn.

Leaving Kermode to the care of the constable, Fred and I noiselessly followed the girl home, and saw her step over the obstacles in her path as by instinct, turning her face neither to the right nor left.

We decided to awaken her before she reached the door of the farmhouse, so that, according to the popular notion, she might never again become somnambulent.

With this view I stepped before her as she approached the door, but was astonished to find that she paused as if my presence blocked the way before she yet saw me or touched me. But there was no misunderstanding the blank stare in her wonderful eyes.

I gently put out my hand and took hers, as she put it out before her to feel the influence of a presence she could not see.

She did not scream or faint. She awoke with a start, and let the eggs fall on the ground.

At first she could not understand where she was, and just thought she was dreaming; but by degrees it came to her that she was standing before me in the pale moonlight when she thought she ought to be in bed.

Then I softly told her where she had been in her sleep, keeping back all knowledge of Kermode's attempted revenge on Andrew, and how we had decided to awake her. Then, with a little pleasant laugh, we both told her that the mystery of the seagulls' eggs was solved, and that neither Andrew nor she would be troubled again.

She fell to sobbing a little, and for the first time seemed to shiver with the cold; then she lifted the latch and we bade her good night.

Nothing was done to Kermode, for the fellow swore he had no intention of discharging the gun, and we could not prove he had, though the case was clear enough in our eyes, and the deed would have been done had we not, in God's providence, been there to prevent it.

Cubbin, the constable, it transpired afterwards, had overheard me giving my theory of the sleep-walking to Fred in the hayfield, and he, too, had been in hiding at the farm, and had watched and followed us all.

So there was a wonderful story for him to tell of how Deborah had made good her defence against the charge he had laid against Andrew and her. And the beautiful Deborah with the plain face became the bride of the jolly Andrew, who was neither an artist nor an amateur sculptor, but only a village blacksmith who had an eye for beauty of form and character.

 
 
 

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