[From Captain of the Parish, 1897]

CHAPTER V - THE " AYRE "

THE mid-August weather was serene and settled. The Cairnmore lay in sunshine, its cornfields tinged with autumn yellow. The dark and iron-brown walls under their hood of thatch had lost their sombre hue in the joyous glow of light. A scarcely perceptible film of smoke rose from the chimney. No one was visible about the farm as Molroy rode down across the meadow, but Old Charley, in faded brown homespun, was sunning himself on the stone bench by the window, his hat drawn over his eyes, his hands resting on the crook of his stick, motionless as an inanimate object.

Molroy tied up his horse and came and sat on the bench. "The day is fine. I'm just sitting here enjoying it," said the old man. " Cloudless calm, eternal noon,' they're saying," he continued ruminatingly. "Still and for all, about nine o'clock, or maybe half-past nine in the morning, if eternal so, is the nicest time of day," he continued.

The old man lit his clay and smoked in silence, laying his stick by the wall.

"You had a crowd yesterday," said Molroy.

" Aw, aye," said the old man abruptly, with a tone of irony. " I've been listening to them, but I've done with them, John," he said decisively. "He hasn't got nothing. There's notice served about the mortgage, and me thinking he would clear it. Aw, no ! He hasn't launched a sixpence in this house. What I'm smoking isn't cigars, and he hasn't never bought me as much tobacco as that," and the old man showed a square inch or so that remained of a black cake. "The like of them talking about angels, indeed! It's my belief they're not in, if they ever were in. Right people is all the angels that's in-in this world, anyway. But 'angels,' they're saying. It'll be time enough to talk of angels when people is right," he said, in a low tone of indignation.

Molroy felt a hand on his shoulder, a rustle of movement, a low whispered good morning, and Lizzie was beside him.

"And if people are right, father?" she said, a smile in her fathomless eyes, the quivering movement of health and vigour and joy in every limb.

"Then angels is not wanted, Lizzie, my chree," said old Charley.

She sat on the bench beside Molroy. She was ready to go out, and was putting her gloves on.

"And where are you off to to-day, Lizzie, girl?" said the old man.

"Just for a holiday, father," she said carelessly.

The old man fidgeted and shifted, and at last put his hand on Molroy's knee.

" You've took the thrashing-mill on your own hands? " he said doubtfully.

"I've heard something of it. It isn't my business, you know," said Molroy.

Could you get a word in with himself,' do you think, John? He'll want a man to take charge," said old Charley, nervously and entreatingly.

Lizzie bowed her head and listened. Her arm stole to Molroy's shoulder.

"Yes, I'll speak, Mr. Milvartin," he said.

Old Charley took his hand and shook it tremblingly. His thoughts that morning had been flowing deep and dark under the colourless surface on which the sunlight beamed so quietly. When Lizzie's cob was brought out by Molroy, she was still talking to her father on the stone bench, and when she took her seat in the saddle and turned up to the moor

"She's a farmer's daughter, anyway," said the old man to Molroy.

They were going to the north. With walk and gallop, and gallop and easy, they journeyed on, first by the mountain-road, then through the plains of Lezayre and Andreas, and finally put up their horses and had lunch at Cranstal before setting out on foot to spend the afternoon on the Ayre.

Over a desert of sand and shingle, a level spit stretching far into the sea, the lapse of ages laid a mat of soil and a carpet of grass, intermingled with trefoil and thyme, and tiny flowers of faint hue, and tiny herbs of delicate fragrance. Over this there came a growth of dwarf gorse and heather, leaving only patches of the old turf with its trefoil and thyme around the margin of the desert. The gorse and the heather come into blossom together as autumn approaches. Far as the horizon the waste extends in yellow and purple sweeps. The odours of gorse, and heather, and honey float on the fitful airs that struggle with the heat and calm, and when the breeze fingers the gorse flowers and rings the bells of the heather, the hum of the bees booms like far-away singing to the music of the fairies. Around it all is the gush and sigh of the tide on the shingly beach, breathing and uttering of the pathoses of eternal vicissitude and succession in human existence.

Far out where land and sea and sky are blended rises a white tower, blazing and trembling on a background of hot haze, the horizon blurred and indistinguishable. It is the lighthouse; and thither they walked together, and with the light-keeper climbed up to the lantern, and from the gallery looked down on the shore at their feet. Quite near at hand a schooner drifted in the tideway, rising and falling, her sails swinging and shaking on the jerky roll of the troubled current. The crew were distinguishable on deck, and looked indolently towards the white tower.

Leaving the lighthouse, they followed the shore westwards, watching the turbulent tideway like a river hurrying through the placid field of the milky sea. Seagulls lifted themselves on indolent wing, and dropped again to rock on the undulat ing surface. The beach sloped steeply into treacherous deeps, and the tide swirled softly but cruelly at their feet. Farther on, half buried in the beach, was the hull of a wrecked vessel. The frame remained; the planking of deck and sides had been rent and broken by the sea. Through the submerged timbers the water swayed and gurgled into the hold, half filled with sand and gravel. They passed the wreck, strolling on and on, the sky and the sea enveloping them, their grassy path marked by the drift of the highest tides. The wash of the tide on the shingly shores resounded like a distant cataract. On the sward between the heather and the beach they sat down.

"Well, this is a queer place, Lizzie," said Molroy.

"It's a sort of lonely place. One loses one's way. See ' where the lighthouse is. I was looking for it in quite another direction. And isn't it a long way off ? Is it the haze?" "It must be a mile away at least," said Molroy, calculating. "It is much lonelier than on the mountains," said Lizzie. Molroy stretched himself on the grass and looked into the palpitating blue overhead. There were skylarks up there, right over the sea, and the invisible air throbbed with their songs.

" Do you hear the skylarks, Lizzie ? "

She lifted her face to the blue sky and listened.

" There seems to be a great number," she said. "What is the sky? Is it anything? Is it farther off than all the stars ? "

"There is nothing but air, Lizzie, thinner and thinner, colder and colder, till there isn't anything but coldness and emptiness."

" And where are the stars? "

Far beyond all that." Molroy lay musingly still. I'm not a reader," she said, looking over the sea.

She turned, and with her riding-whip tilted his hat off his forehead, and watched him as he blinked with half-closed eyes at the dazzling sky.

" You've been looking at our books. You know all I've read, I daresay."

"There's a dream-book," he said.

"Yes, and the 'Language of Flowers,' and 'Etiquette for Gentlemen,' which mother says Enos used to read when he was a local preacher before he went abroad."

"And what others?"

"' Baxter's Saints' Rest,' ' Romance of the Forest,'' Pilgrim's Progress,' ' Castle of Otranto,' ' Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul,' 'Pirates and Sea-Robbers,' 'News from the Invisible World."'

He turned his head towards her. "Have you read them all, Lizzie ? "

" That's not all. I've read the religious books to mother and the stories to myself. 'What do they mean exactly by a lover,' John?" she said gravely. "Is it when they're engaged? I think it's something more like you and me." They looked in each other's eyes. "You are my 'lover,' aren't you?" she said playfully, patting his hand with her whip. "You don't really love anybody at all, and I, of course, couldn't possibly care for anybody else. Isn't that the kind of thing meant in the books?"

She sprang up lightly.

" Come along down to the water again. I'm going out on the wreck," she said. "Come along," and she took his hand and pulled him up, "and if I fall off the ship into the sea, you'll be at hand."

It was a schooner that had come ashore end on, and lay with the foot of the prow wedged in the beach, the sternpost far out in the water. On broken planking and projecting boltheads they climbed to the foredeck, peered into the forecastle and aft in the hold, swaying with transparent green water. Lizzie stepped from timber to timber till she reached the stern, where the softly pulsating waves lunged through the wreck, almost touching her feet. She sat on the rent and broken bulwark and looked over.

" Come here, John," she called, and pointed to the deep water over the stern.

When he came aft she put her hand in his, as if to share each other's thoughts. Thus they sat quite a long time. "You can swim? " she asked.

"Yes."

" I can swim, too," she said carelessly.

"You? And where did you learn?"

" With Ellen," she said carelessly, "in Narradale long ago." "In the pools?" he said incredulously.

"Yes. The tide is rising. I don't want to wet my boots.

Not a moment longer here. Give me a hand."

The tide was creeping up the beach around the schooner's prow as they stood on the sward. With idle steps, pausing and moving on intermittently, they passed the lighthouse and entered the two-mile path to Cranstal gate. They walked slowly and in step.

"Don't you think I am worth trusting a little more?" she said.

"You speak as if I was distrusting you, Lizzie. Am I?"

"Yes; well, and so you are. You think that I'm always expecting you to tell me you love me; that I'm just waiting till you speak; that, if you spoke a single word, you would compromise yourself, and couldn't draw back. You are always on your guard-with me."

" Go on, Lizzie," said Molroy quietly, when she paused. "The very least word, the tone of a word, which you couldn't take back, because you wouldn't; so you never say anything even that you might say."

"But that is not because I distrust you," he said.

"Well, yes; and you seem as if you knew me through and through-but do you? I'm not cautious, like you. I'm not afraid of what you'll think, nor of what any one may think. But whatever you think-but do not distrust me in that-do not think I'm just waiting for a pledge, waiting to hear you say something you couldn't take back."

He was silent. They came to the boundary of the Ayre, where the path becomes a road, and passes between fences with fields on either side.

Who ever left the Ayre and did not turn to look back from the Ayre gate? Not even the light-keeper going to Kirk Bride Church on Sunday morning. The simplicity of its scene fascinates. Molroy and Lizzie stood looking across the purple and gold sweeps, with hot haze slow descending into evening's clearness.

" I very seldom say things that you might think confidences, only because I try to act truthfully, and to respect and honour you, Lizzie."

"Yes, John; but you think I have no mind of my own, as if it was only you that could have consideration for me and I could have none for you, as if I was just brittle glass that would break at a touch."

There was a pause between their utterances. They spoke very deliberately and with a touch of perceptible emotion.

"But, Lizzie, I have more responsibility-say, that I am older, for instance."

"Have I none at all? And do I never think of it?" "Yes, but that does not lessen mine," said Molroy.

"Very well," she said gently; "but now you will believe that I know I have a responsibility towards you as well as you towards me?"

"I will think of it far more, Lizzie."

"But why this talk of mine just now?" she said, putting her hand on his arm. "Because I know you're in some kind of trouble. Now, you are," she said, looking into his eyes,-" you are, and you won't let me know anything about it. What is it that is wrong? If I knew-if you would tell me-if I was educated and a lady-" she said, putting her hand on his shoulder.

"You could not be more to me than you are," he said abruptly.

Her eyes flashed in silence, considering how much he meant by his words.

"I didn't know you thought so much of me; that is a great deal," she said, sweetly and sincerely. She reflected and resumed-" You don't like Enos?"

"No, Lizzie; I don't mind telling you-I don't."

"Didn't you think she did right to become engaged to him?" she said, almost in a whisper, looking at the heathbells clustering about the gate-post, a worm-eaten block of timber from some old wreck on the Ayre coast.

" Right, Lizzie ? How can I tell?-that is, it is no business of mine what she does in that way."

"You are not annoyed about that, John?"

He had leant his elbows on the gate, and for a moment did not answer.

"Since we are here, Lizzie, talking about things in this way, you don't mind our lingering a little longer," he said, turning to her, and with one elbow on the gate rested his head on his hand. She looked, in the expectation of a more open confidence.

"I cannot tell you what I have thought about it; but I suppose his being a Dipper means her becoming a Dipper. I don't think she ever will; and with people like him it will mean life-long unpleasantness." Her eyes fell reflectively. Ere she had time to answer he continued

" Lizzie, I want to talk to you about yourself." She looked up with a flush almost of passionate joy.

"What would you think of becoming a schoolmistress ?" he said.

" A schoolmistress ? Me?" she said wonderingly.

"Yes, I want to persuade you. There's to be a new school at the Tops, with a new mistress. Nell is giving up."

"Yes, I heard of that; but how could I ? I know nothing, John-nothing. Do I know enough, do you think? "

He took her hand in his. It trembled. Tears gathered in her eyes.

"They're only children, and I could help you, perhaps. Couldn't you go?"

"You would teach me more?" she said, through a transparent tear.

"Yes."

"And come to the school to help me, or at home ?"

"Yes. I don't think you'll need much help. But I'll teach you as much as you'll need."

"And you want me to go? It's a queer step for me, isn't it? " she said, still doubtfully. " But if you-"

" Lizzie, I want you to promise, and we shall not be less in each other's confidence." He turned as if to leave the gate. "Don't go yet, John," she said, half playfully, half passionately.

With almost irresistible violence there came to him an emotion to speak to her "even things that he might say." He underrated his own rectitude. He had said already- we shall not be less in each other's confidence."

"True," he said, with kindly firmness and nonchalance, "not till you have promised."

"You know the changes at home," she said. "Yes, John, I will go."

The stars shone luminous over the dark valleys as they approached Cairnmore by way of the moors. They heard the waterfall as they rode noiselessly on the sward, and reined up to listen to it. Their thoughts were at liberty. But scarce had he left her at Cairnmore ere he relapsed into dismal reflections, and despairingly longed to drown all consciousness of them.


 

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