Twixt Life and
Death, A Manx
Story by Clucas
Deborah Shimmin was neither tall nor fair, and yet Nature had been
kind to her in many ways. She had wonderful eyeslarge, dark, and full
of mute eloquenceand 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 eggsa 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 asleepusing 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
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 lifethe 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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