In the Roar of the Sea/Chapter 38

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In the Roar of the Sea by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter 38

CHAPTER XXXVIII.


A CHANGE OF WIND.


After many years of separation, father and son were together once more. Early in the morning after the wreck in Dover Bar, Oliver Menaida appeared at his father's cottage, bruised and wet through, but in health and with his purse in his hand.

When he had gone overboard with the wrecker, the tide was falling and he had been left on the sands of the Bar, where he had spent a cold and miserable night, with only the satisfaction to warm him that his life and his money were his. He was not floating, like Wyvill, a headless trunk, nor was he without his pouch that contained his gold and valuable papers.

Mr. Menaida was roused from sleep very early to admit Oliver. The young man had recognized where he was, as soon as sufficient light was in the sky, and he had been carried across the estuary of the Camel by one of the boats that was engaged in clearing the wreck, under the direction of the captain of the coast-guard. But three men had been arrested on the wrecked vessel, three of those who had boarded her for plunder, all the rest had effected their escape, and it was questionable whether these three could be brought to justice, as they protested they had come from shore as salvers. They had heard the signals of distress and had put off to do what they could for those who were in jeopardy. No law forbad men coming to the assistance of the wrecked. It could not be proved that they had laid their hands on and kept for their own use any of the goods of the passengers or any of the cargo of the vessel. It was true that from some of the women their purses had been exacted, but the men taken professed their innocence of having done this, and the man who had made the demand—there was but one—had disappeared. Unhappily he had not been secured.

It was a question also whether proceedings could be taken relative to the exhibition of lights that had misguided the merchantman. The coast-guard had come on Mr. Menaida and Judith on the downs with a light, but he was conducting her to her new house, and there could be entertained against them no suspicion of having acted with evil intent.

"Do you know, father," said Oliver, after he was rested, had slept and fed, "I am pretty sure that the scoundrel who attacked me was Captain Coppinger. I cannot swear. It is many years now since I heard his voice, and when I did hear it, it was but very occasionally. What made me suspect at the time that I was struggling with Captain Cruel was that he had my head back over the gunwale and called for an axe, swearing that he would treat me like Wyvill. That story was new when I left home, and folk said that Coppinger had killed the man."

Mr. Menaida fidgeted.

"That was the man who was at the head of the entire gang. He it was who issued the orders which the rest obeyed; and he, moreover, was the man who required the passengers to deliver up their purses and valuables before he allowed them to enter the boat."

"Between ourselves," said Uncle Zachie, rubbing his chin and screwing up his mouth, "between you and me and the poker, I have no doubt about it, and I could bring his neck into the halter if I chose."

"Then why do you not, father? The ruffian would not have scrupled to hack off my head had an axe been handy, or had I waited till he had got hold of one."

Mr. Menaida shook his head.

"There are a deal of things that belong to all things," he said. "I was on the down with my little pet and idol, Judith, and we had the lantern, and it was that lantern that proved fatal to your vessel."

"What, father! We owe our wreck to you?"

"No, and yet it must be suffered to be so supposed, I must allow many hard words to be rapped out against me, my want of consideration, my scatterbrainedness. I admit that I am not a Solomon, but I should not be such an ass, such a criminal, as on a night like the last to walk over the downs above the cliffs with a lantern. Nevertheless I cannot clear myself."

"Why not?"

"Because of Judith."

"I do not understand."

"I was escorting her home, to her husband's——"

"Is she married?"

"Pon my word, I can't say; half and half——"

"I do not understand you."

"I will explain, later," said Mr. Menaida. "It's a perplexing question, and though I was brought up at the law, upon my word I can't say how the law would stand in the matter."

"But how about the false lights?"

"I am coming to that. When the Preventive men came on us, led by Scantlebray—and why he was with them, and what concern it was of his, I don't know—when the guard found us, it is true Judith had the lantern, but it was under her cloak."

"We, however, saw the light for some time."

"Yes, but neither she nor I showed it. We had not brought a light with us. We knew that it would be wrong to do so, but we came on someone driving an ass with a lantern affixed to the head of the brute."

"Then say so."

"I cannot—that person was Judith's brother."

"But he is an idiot."

"He was sent out with the light."

"Well, then, that person who sent him will be punished and the silly boy will come off scot free."

"I cannot—he who sent the boy was Judith's husband."

"Judith's husband! Who is that?"

"Captain Coppinger."

"Well, what of that? The man is a double-dyed villain. He ought to be brought to justice. Consider the crimes of which he has been guilty. Consider what he has done this past night. I cannot see, father, that merely because you esteem a young person, who may be very estimable, we should let a consummate scoundrel go free, solely because he is her husband. He has brought a fine ship to wreck, he has produced much wretchedness and alarm. Indeed, he has been the occasion of some lives being lost, for one or two of the sailors, thinking we were going to Davy Jones's locker, got drunk and were carried overboard. Then, consider, he robbed some of the unhappy, frightened women as they were escaping. Bless me!" Oliver sprang up and paced the room. "It makes my blood seethe. The fellow deserves no consideration. Give him up to justice; let him be hung or transported."

Mr. Menaida passed his hand through his hair, and lit his pipe.

"Pon my word," said he, "there's a good deal to be said on your side—and yet——"

"There is everything to be said on my side," urged Oliver, with vehemence. "The man is engaged on his nefarious traffic. Winter is setting in. He will wreck other vessels as well, and if you spare him now, then the guilt of causing the destruction of other vessels and the loss of more lives will rest in a measure on you."

"And yet," pleaded Menaida, senior, "I don't know—I don't like—you see——"

"You are moved by a little sentiment for Miss Judith Travisa, or—I beg her pardon—Mrs. Cruel Coppinger. But it is a mistake, father. If you had had this sentimental regard for her, and value for her, you should not have suffered her to marry such a scoundrel, past redemption."

"I could not help it. I told her that the man was bad—that is to say—I believed he was a smuggler, and that he was generally credited with being' a wrecker as well. But there were other influences—other forces at work—I could not help it."

"The sooner we can rid her of this villain the better," persisted Oliver. "I cannot share your scruples, father."

Then the door opened and Judith entered.

Oliver stood up. He had reseated himself on the opposite side of the fire to his father, after the ebullition of wrath that had made him pace the room.

He saw before him a delicate, girlish figure—a child in size and in innocence of face, but with a woman's force of character in the brow, clear eyes, and set mouth. She was ivory white; her golden hair was spread out about her face—blown by the wind, it was a veritable halo, such as is worn by an angel of La Fiesole in Cimabue. Her long, slender, white throat was bare; she had short sleeves, to the elbows, and bare arms. Her stockings were white, under the dark-blue gown. Oliver Menaida had spent a good many years in Portugal, and had seen flat faces, sallow complexions, and dark hair—women without delicacy of bone and grace of figure—and, on his return to England, the first woman he saw was Judith—this little, pale, red-gold-headed creature, with eyes iridescent and full of a soul that made them sparkle and change color with every change of emotion in the heart and of thought in the busy brain.

Oliver was a fine man, tall, with a bright and honest face, fair hair, and blue eyes. He started back from his seat and looked at this child-bride who entered his father's cottage. He knew at once who she was, from the descriptions he had received of her from his father in letters from home.

He did not understand how she had become the wife of Cruel Coppinger. He had not heard the story from his father, still less could he comprehend the enigmatical words of his father relative to her half-and-half marriage. As now he looked on this little figure, that breathed an atmosphere of perfect purity, of untouched innocence, and yet not mixed with that weakness which so often characterizes innocence—on the contrary blended with a strength and force beyond her years—Oliver's heart rose with a bound and smote against his ribs. He was overcome with a qualm of infinite pity for this poor, little, fragile being, whose life was linked with that of one so ruthless as Coppinger. Looking at that anxious face, at those lustrous eyes, set in lids that were reddened with weeping, he knew that the iron had entered into her soul, that she had suffered and was suffering then; nay, more, that the life opening before her would be one of almost unrelieved contrariety and sorrow.

At once he understood his father's hesitation when he urged him to increase the load of shame and trouble that lay on her. He could not withdraw his eyes from Judith. She was to him a vision so wonderful, so strange, so thrilling, so full of appeal to his admiration and to his chivalry.

"Here, Ju! here is my Oliver, of whom I have told you so much!" said Menaida, running up to Judith. "Oliver, boy! she has read your letters, and I believe they gave her almost as great pleasure as they did me. She was always interested in you. I mean ever since she came into my house, and we have talked together about you, and upon my word it really seemed as if you were to her as a brother."

A faint smile came on Judith's face; she held out her hand and said:

"Yes, I have come to love your dear father, who has been to me so kind, and to Jamie also; he has been full of thought—I mean kindness. What has interested him has interested me. I call him uncle, so I will call you cousin. May it be so?"

He touched her hand; he did not dare to grasp the frail, slender white hand. But as he touched it, there boiled up in his heart a rage against Coppinger, that he—this man steeped in iniquity—should have obtained possession of a pearl set in ruddy gold—a pearl that he was, so thought Oliver, incapable of appreciating.

"How came you here?" asked Judith. "Your father has been expecting you some time, but not so soon."

"I am come off the wreck."

She started back and looked fixedly on him.

"What—you were wrecked?—in that ship last night?"

"Yes. After the fog lifted we were quite lost as to where we were, and ran aground."

"What led you astray?"

"Our own bewilderment and ignorance as to where we were."

"And you got ashore?"

"Yes. I was put across by the Preventive men. I spent half the night on Doom Bar."

"Were any lives lost?"

"Only those lost their lives who threw them away. Some tipsy sailors, who got at the spirits, and drank themselves drunk."

"And—did any others—I mean did any wreckers come to your ship?"

"Salvors? Yes; salvors came to save what could be saved. That is always so."

Judith drew a long breath of relief; but she could not forget Jamie and the ass.

"You were not led astray by false lights?"

"Any lights we might have seen were sure to lead us astray, as we did not in the least know where we were."

"Thank you," said Judith. Then she turned to Uncle Zachie.

"I have a favor to ask of you."

"Anything you ask I will do."

"It is to let Jamie live here, he is more likely to be well employed, less likely to get in wrong courses, than at the Glaze. Alas! I cannot be with him always and everywhere, and I cannot trust him there. Here he has his occupation; he can help you with the birds. There he has nothing, and the men he meets are not such as I desire that he should associate with. Besides, you know, uncle, what occurred last night, and why I am anxious to get him away."

"Yes," answered the old man; "I'll do my best. He shall be welcome here."

"Moreover, Captain Coppinger dislikes him. He might in a fit of anger maltreat him; I cannot say that he would, but he makes no concealment of his dislike."

"Send Jamie here."

"And then I can come every day and see him, how he is getting on, and can encourage him with his work, and give him his lessons as usual."

"It will always be a delight to me to have you here."

"And to me—to come." She might have said, "to be away from Pentyre," but she refrained from saying that. With a faint smile—a smile that was but the twinkle of a tear—she held out her hand to say farewell.

Uncle Zachie clasped it, and then, suddenly, she bent and kissed his hand.

"You must not do that," said he, hastily.

She looked piteously into his eyes, and said, in a whisper that he alone could hear—"I am so lonely."

When she was gone the old man returned to the ingle nook and resumed his pipe. He did not speak, but every now and then he put one finger furtively to his cheek, wiped off something, and drew very vigorous whiffs of tobacco.

Nor was Oliver inclined to speak; he gazed dreamily into the fire, with contracted brows, and hands that were clenched.

A quarter of an hour thus passed. Then Oliver looked up at his father, and said: "There is worse wrecking than that of ships. Can nothing be done for this poor little craft, drifting in fog—aimless!—and going on to the rocks?"

Uncle Zachie again wiped his cheek, and in his thoughtlessness wiped it with the bowl of his pipe and burnt himself. He shook his head.

"Now tell me what you meant when you said she was but half married," said Oliver.

Then his father related to him the circumstances of Judith's forced engagement, and of the incomplete marriage of the day before.

"By my soul!" exclaimed Oliver. "He must—he shall not treat her as he did our vessel."

"Oh, Oliver! if I had had my way—I had designed her for you."

"For me!"

Oliver bent his head and looked hard into the fire, where strange forms of light were dancing—dancing and disappearing.

Then Mr. Menaida said, between his whiffs: "Surely a change of wind, Oliver. A little while ago, and she was not to be considered; justice above all, and Judith sacrificed, if need be—now it is Judith above all."

"Yes," musingly, "above all."