« AnteriorContinuar »
head held high, her face pale, passed Fielding on the threshold.
A good deal can be said in five minutes.
She went back to the dining-room. Penelope had vanished under the rug. "Penelope!"
At her voice the scared face and roughened hair emerged. Penelope flushed, "I-I thought just a minute I was in the box-room"-her eyes looked up appealingly into Helen's face.
"Never again, dear," Helen said firmly, "I am going to take you away with me
She was interrupted by a sudden surprising disappearance of the sedateness she had thought part and parcel of ner small niece. Penelope flung herself upon her with a choking cry, "With you with you?"
"Yes, dear, for always," said Helen gently.
"To-to live?" Penelope's voice was beyond her control, it shrilled out in quavering excitement. But habit was strong; she looked round anxiously, "I -didn't mean to make such a noise," she said apologetically.
"When you are with me, Penelope, you shall make as much noise as you like,” said Helen recklessly.
Helen never did things by halves. It was one of her attributes that Sir Ralph Bennington dearly loved.
Penelope gasped. Then her arms squeezed Helen's throat spasmodically. "I-I'll sweep your room," she burst out, the eagerness of her longing to give something in return almost choking her voice. "I'll dig up the weeds! I'll do your dresses what do up at the back! I'll-I'll—” her imagination failed her, she halted.
Helen kissed her. "You'll just play and play and play!" she said.
play and noise called up held her silent for awhile.
Helen went to a side table and found note paper and ink.
"P'raps," said Penelope nervously, "p'raps you don't know I are very stupid;" a scarlet flush crept over her small face.
"No," said Helen, "I don't believe it. Never mind if you are."
Penelope drew a big breath. Almost as she drew it she was overcome with sleep.
Then Helen hurried to the kitchen. "When does the last post go?" she asked.
"Seven twenty, Miss, from the orfice."
Helen glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Five minutes past seven. She ran back to the dining-room and dashed off a note.
She addressed it, and then, putting on her hat as she went, took it to the post-office herself. She caught the last post with a minute and a half to spare. That night Penelope slept in a warm bed close beside Helen.
And the little calf who had been the cause of it all slept in a warm barn close beside his mother. Perhaps, after all, he ought not to have been punished. For if he had not enticed Penelope from the path of duty-but then we are told that we must not do evil that good may come. Maybe, though, the laws are different in calf-land. Anyhow the little calf was not punished, so let it rest at that.
The next morning Haywold was electrified by the arrival of a telegram from London. Helen re
I was on skates, and the Zuyder Zee lay before me, ice-bound to the horizon. The glamour of the sunset hour was upon it. The turfy tongues of low land east and west were dark purple shadows with the heavy-roofed farmsteads showing as crimson spots on them. Overhead the sky was still of a clear watery blue, but the mist was rising steadily towards the zenith, a yellow, almost golden vapor with the dull red sun sinking in it, poised on a pointed reed one moment, the next sliding behind it. Before me lay a world of level ice, suffused in a soft violet glow.
Marken Island was but three miles to the east, yet there was no sign of it,-only the quaint shapes of the Marken men and women coming and going through the haze. The vast bag of the men's breeches spread out before the breeze like a sail, and the long flaxen curls (one on each side) with which the blue-eyed Marken dames kindle love in the hearts of mankind swayed fore and aft of their black bodices. Square-cut monstrosities the ladies seemed from their waists downwards; but they were gay, one and all, and confident in the charms of their mellow fashion-plates. When safe ice links Marken to the mainland, life is mere holiday. There is no work to do
outside the black cottages. Ducks and children are soon fed, and while the youngsters slide and tumble about the rather nasty ditches with which the tenements are laced on all sides, the adults link arms and go forth to see the world. The journey costs not a stiver; by sea and canal they may travel even to Amsterdam and back in. the day. For the lazier of them the old red coast town of Monnickendam suffices. A sort of canvas fair is here. rigged up on the ice, with a forest of masts behind, each fluttering a penChocolate and coffee and gingerbread are in the tents, and on the drawbridge which spans the neck of the little harbor the fishermen of Monnickendam loll in thick clothes early and late, exchanging salutations and jests with their island friends. No wonder the Marken folk are happy. With a mainland Sacrament Day thrown in, their bliss, of soul and body, is made complete. They sport in the present like wise ephemera.
The certified course across the sea was indicated by a winding avenue of tall grass-tufts set in the ice; but who was likely to keep to this dishevelled and powdery track when on both hands there was such ample choice of surface? The sky-blue blocks sawn out here and there showed a good five
inches of thickness, which surely was guarantee for anybody; and besides, knowing the history of this mere flooded meadow of a sea, I at least was tempted to despise its perils. Nor was I punished for my temerity this night at all events. I sped on in the last rosy flush of the day, till a dusky shape rose in front, broke into shadowy cubes, opened out into suggestions of faint amber lines, where Marken, like the rest of Holland, fights the tides with embankments, and a sheaf of motionless masts appeared.
Very bad was the going for the last quarter of a mile. Here the islanders had evidently held revel, and there was a suspicious amount of moisture in the cold slush. A short but dismal trudge through it brought me to the solid harbor, already mantled by the dusk. A curious track meandering along embankments, over little bridges and up rugged streets as narrow as sheepruns, led to the inn. The gorgeous bodices of the Marken dames brightened the thresholds of their houses, and their loud and somewhat shrill chatter and laughing broke the stillness.
Cold was the night that followed. The mist filed and Marken was canopied with stars. The yellow light of lamps by the brickset little road which connects the harbor-village with the town proper, and far away across the grassy interior, twinkled crudely in the blackness. Peat-reek sweetened the strong air.
Indoors I was waited upon by a Marken maid with wonderful cheeks. She wore the fly-away local curls and the costume of the photographs, and she left her shoes outside the room whenever she herself entered it. Marken does not profess to receive visitors in winter, and lone customers, therefore, get but a coarse and chilly welcome. I ate venerable beefsteaks in a ECLECTIC. VOL. LXXVII. 449
temperature only eight degrees above freezing-point; and I slept in a room of five windows, all heavily frosted, with a temperature lower still. Ere then, however, it seemed well to view the town and its precincts under the lustrous young moon which was striving to silver the landscape. The ditches were crowded with children, some of a goodly size. Courtships, too, were plainly in progress on those long-toed skates which the Dutchman still uses in defiance of modern improvements. The smoke of the pipes of Marken's adults rose in the air from the sheltered street-corners; little these seasoned salts seemed to care for the cold.
By polite invitation of a rubicund man in a thick blue jersey, I entered his house in the main street of the town. I had fancied he mentioned the word coffee, but it was not coffee at all; he merely wished me to see the graces of his domestic interior. Hospitality of this kind is common in Marken. Ere leaving the island I accepted two other such invitations, one of which eventuated, I am sorry to add, in an earnest plea for five-cent pieces, after I had admired, somewhat unduly, the array of cheap and chipped china with which the walls were hidden, and the really charming old tiles that encompassed the hearth. A coffee-pot, bright as a new penny, hung over two or three peat-embers set so precisely that one could have sworn no speck of fuel had a chance to escape from the general combustion. The idiot boy of the family sat huddled in the chimney corner, and when his mother had drawn attention to his misfortunes and the fact that there was nothing in the pot but potatoes,. and nothing else edible in the houseexcept bread and salt, his picturesque and garrulous little sisters unblushingly begged. The damsels were not easy to satisfy either, which seemed a
startling pity in such a spot. But this is the way of things since artists have taken to come here in the summer time. The average Marken girl knows the
exact value of her complexion. Thirty years ago she would have run from the stranger as from a bear; now she bargains with him.
ceiling of which were enamelled so purely white that, with the bracing atmosphere to boot, I could have fancied I was in a chamber of snow. There was an icy draught besides, for the door was a summer door and declined to shut. It was a shivering night. I had helped myself liberally to mustard at dinner to see if that would warm me; and now I longed again for the mustard-pot.
The next morning opened with abundant promise of a perfect winter's day. The sun's fiery radiance fought at the lower panes of my eastern window while I dressed; but the frost on the glass was dense and stoutly blocked the sun. Below, the sound of hearty scrubbing was to be heard, and I was soon in the midst of it. Two red-armed and red-cheeked girls were on their knees in a cloud of steam. They scrubbed before I was down, while I ate my breakfast on a dry patch, and I left them at it hissing over their clouts like an industrious hostler. Winter and summer this is their much-loved morning pastime. The flea that can live a month in this Marken inn must be of untiring vigilance and profoundly acquainted with its chinks and corners.
My kindly friend of the town really did, however, seem to require nothing from me save admiration and plenty of it. His room was in the half light Gerard Dou loved to paint. A very small candle was set artfully to yield pictorial effects. An amiable old lady in a white cap nestled to the peats of a tiny fire, with more old blue and white tiles to its hearth. Burnished articles of copper and brass and innumerable platters were strung on all sides; and a stately cat (or the effigy of one) sat solemn and motionless on the charcoal-box which ought, strictly speaking, to have been under the old lady's petticoats. I praised the prospect and, sorry for the mistake about the coffee, would have withdrawn with a few commonplaces; but there was something special here to see and it was now produced. “The Bible of my great-grandmother!" The old lady haled it forth reverently from a cupboard and held the candle while I looked at it. A beautiful book it was, indeed, with its filigreed silver corners and clasp and a long chain, also of silver, for the worshipper's neck on her way to church. "You understand, mynheer, her great-grandmother," said the good man. "Take it in your hands." I praised and praised, asked as delicately as possible if by chance so beautiful a book was being offered to me as, maybe, a travelling merchant in antiquities, and praised louder than before, and with much more conscience, when I found I had imagined grumbled a good-morning, as if after a vain thing.
And so off I went to my cold bed in the five-windowed room, the walls and
Under its white blanket of rime and the blue sky the island looked cheerful enough,-more cheerful than the loungers at the street-corners. These bore the characteristic congealing tear to their nose-tips, and bore it as if it were an inevitable indignity rather than a decoration. Their pipes could not melt it, nor yet put comfort into their rugged countenances, beetroot and damson in hue. Why they thus braved it idly in the open was not apparent, but probably their wives could have given the reason. They
thirty or forty years of married life they were not yet quite reconciled to the tyranny of domestic ordinances.
I was soon at sea again, with my face this time towards Volendam. A sign-post stuck in the ice, with the town's name done in tar on it, had attracted me on the previous evening. The Marken innkeeper did not care for my programme. He believed the ice was safe, but it was reported bad in quality. A mere league of indifferent ice, however, seemed no such severe trial and I proceeded to open my oyster.
I had the route much to myself. Already there was a fair traffic of skaters on the Monnickendam thoroughfare, a black figure every two or three hundred yards; here were only one eager boy in a vast blue comforter, who attached himself to me to speculate at his leisure about my Sheffield skates, a sweeper or two, shaking in the keen cold, earning their fifths of a penny hardly, poor souls, and that was all. The Zuyder Zee still kept its distances cloaked; Volendam was as invisible as Monnickendam. I might, from all appearances, have been bound for the North Pole. The boy with the blue comforter left me at the end of the first mile or so, a greater spectacle being in the offing. It was only an ice-yacht from the mainland, but a pretty sight nevertheless as it curved at the will of its helmsman and the wind, skimming the surface like a gigantic albatross. It came and went, shooting finally for Marken with delirious speed, my late companion all arms and legs as he chased it with loud cries from his guarded throat.
There was one more sweeper, this time a wry little parody of a man, unfortunate (as the phrase goes), like the idiot boy in the Marken chimney corner; and then I had a bare horizon before me. Something led me to pause and exchange words with this poor fellow. He had a very red face, but his lack of intellect was his most con
spicuous quality. As good luck would have it, I gave him two copper coins instead of the usual, though not imperative, dole of one. At least, I suppose it was good luck; it might at any rate have been fatal if I had passed him by at the run without taking hand from pocket. One cannot be axiomatic about the brains of an unfortunate. Be that as it may, a minute or two later I was through the ice and no one but the unfortunate was in sight.
I deserved the accident. Had I kept to the route sketched out by the reedtufts, I should have had my safety assured. There was, however, a seducing patch away to the left, black and glassy, virgin ice in fact; and when I was in the very middle of it, crack it went, and my feet lost bottom. It was quite a comfortable let-down, all things considered, and free from any violent shock. I found myself surveying the Zuyder Zee from my elbows, interested at first rather than alarmed by the new nature of the prospect.
minutes of careful changed the 'situa
But some five struggling much tion. Twice I managed to get one leg out, once both legs to the very tip of my skates. Discreet spread-eagling might, I hoped, do the business and enable me to crawl to the sound margin and so home somewhere, in dismal plight enough, yet whole in bone and wind. But each effort ended in failure and an enlargement of the black, and now, forbidding pool behind me. Then, with shortening breath, I understood that I was in a mess. The half-witted sweeper was in sight of course, but he seemed unreasonably remote, and moreover he was plying his broom with his back toward me.
Clearly it was advisable to shout. I felt numb already and, which troubled me more, the ice on each side was gradually dipping from the horizontal