Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/Back o' the Moon/Chapter 4

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pp. 46–60.

CHAPTER IV.

EASTWOOD ELLAH.

He was certainly a heartless man who could, in that house, find mirth in such a matter. For five months the key had not been turned in Sally Northrop's door, nor had an evening passed but Sally had set her husband's slippers on the oven and laid his supper lest the door should suddenly open to his push. Week by week the slips of the pillow beside her own had been changed; and in all other particulars Jim Northrop might have left his house but for an afternoon.

When it became necessary that Sally should have help, Cicely Eastwood had left her carding-wheel and the care of her father's new-dropped lambs and had made her home in the inn, taking on herself the ruling of the house. This arrangement had commended itself to Big Monjoy. She was big, fair, well-nourished and handsome, and so softly embrowned was her skin that her fair hair seemed of a paler yellow than it really was, and her clear eyes and the flash between her lips were conspicuously white. Her movements were those of a free-limbed lad; her clothing seemed, in some odd way, not something to be doffed for the night, but assumed for the day; and the sight of her had filled Arthur Monjoy with an increasing trouble.

And so, apparently, it had her cousin, deaf Eastwood Ellah, who lived with her father in the house under Wadsworth Scout. He was a short-necked man, with a choleric face, prominent choleric grey eyes, and light hair so closely cropped and so nearly matching his complexion, that, save for a metallic glint on scalp and brow and chin, all would have been of one angry orange hue. His deafness had long isolated him from most society; and he went once in a while into violent “iggs” or unreasonable moods.

There were winks and glances when Cicely Eastwood came to be in Horwick with Sally Northrop. Now, instead of Monjoy's trudges to Wadsworth in order (as they said) to “wind Jim Eastwood's clock up,” the boot was on the other leg, and Ellah must come to the “Cross Pipes.” It was thought, too, that James Eastwood had taken to heart the parson's parable of the fighting dogs, and that Monjoy would be like to be served before Ellah. And it puzzled folk that the rivalry of the two men should be bound up in a curious off-and-on sort of intimacy.

One of the first signs of this intimacy was that Monjoy fashioned for Ellah an ear-trumpet of brass. Apart from his trade of engraving, he had some skill in the related crafts of metal-work, and none knew much of how he occupied himself of a night in the garret chamber of Matthew Moon's warehouse up the Fullergate. The low houghing of a pair of bellows could sometimes be heard, and the grinding of a pestle and mortar; but from below nothing could be seen but a pair of closed crane-doors, and the crane-arm above them. When Ellah gave a grunt of thanks for the ear-trumpet, Monjoy laughed and said:

“We'll have a finer one than that when the hazels push on a bit.”

The spring was in truth coming nicely forward, and the gardens and closes of Horwick were budding with plum and cherry and pear. The pear-tree in front of Cope's house had begun to hide the dormers, and a sprinkling of petals lay on the grass-grown cobbles below. In yards, cloth dried on the tenter-hooks; weavers broke their work at midday to lean over walls and watch the fattening of their neighbours' pigs or the fluffy cletches of chickens; and the primroses were out in the deans and on the scanty farms the crows and starlings followed the plough.

It was during this mild and promising weather that, almost every day, Monjoy took the road to Wadsworth, picked up Eastwood Ellah on the way, and ascended the Scout by straggling sheep-tracks to the high Causeway. Spring, spare and delicate, had touched the moors too, and in the leagues of bloomless heather the birds were nesting, and the dainty white bedstraw and the tiny yellow portantilla peeped among the grey bents. But the two men recked little of the harmonies of russet and grey and airy blue. Monjoy carried in his pocket a hammer and a short iron gavelock, and they grubbed sometimes in the choked bellpits, where the rain still trickled and whispered to the shaft below, sometimes at the dean-heads where the rills slipped down to the valleys, sometimes south over rocky Soyland and the Ridges of Brotherton and Holdsworth, and sometimes up the High Moor itself, where nothing stirred but the sheep and birds and the world seemed to end beyond the next undulation of the waist-high heather. At nightfall they would return to Horwick together, dusty and thirsty, and so lost in earth or lime-rubbings, that Sally Northrop would not have them in her kitchen till they had scraped or drenched themselves. Then they would sit for a couple of hours watching Cicely as she stitched or nursed. Monjoy often left first, and as he put on his coat the muffled knocking of stones would come from his pockets.

Sally, during her own courtship, had known how to set the lamp in the window and to go loitering long ways to the milking or the taking-in of weft; and she favoured Monjoy's wooing scandalously. She was a merry little body still, save when a word or a look or less put her in mind of Jim; and she delighted to whisper sly words to Cicely and to watch the flush deepen on her cheek.

“A great red bear!” she would whisper. “I've seen him watching your foot o' the wheel-truddle, and d'ye know what he thinks? 'A cradle-rocker, not a truddle,' thinks Arthur; and you dandling Jimmy as if men hadn't eyes an' that!”

“Nay, then, you shall dandle him yourself,” Cicely would reply, reddening; “men needs little 'ticing on in such matters.”

“Ye didn't find that out from Arthur, I'll be bound! Who was it? ... Who was it, puss? ... Ellah, I'll swear, and I can guess when and where!”

But, though Sally knew well enough that once in a while, of a December or January night, Cicely had taken a watch at her father's lambing-sheds on the moor, not even to Sally would Cicely speak of a certain hour of her cousin's infirmity when, all her nature suddenly disordered and ajar, she had saved herself from his mood, blundering through the dark heather and hearing behind her in the lonely cabin the sounds by which he did violence to himself. Nothing but pure pity for his alienation had entered her heart; but from that night had dated occasional quick changes in her cheek, as if she surprised something in her own thoughts that her modesty would not have had there.

The pack-horses that entered Back o' th' Mooin from the Trawden side had to pass, a mile south of Booth, a place called Noon Nick; and Noon Nick marked the horses of the Trawden pack unmistakably. This Nick was a deep stony gap in the hill where the land had slipped and settled, and the horses had to wind for a quarter of a mile along the extreme edge of a ledge scarce six foot wide, one pack overhanging the gloomy bottom. The trick they picked up from this place was that they would never approach within four foot of any wall. Sometimes a stone, dislodged from the ledge, would roll down the gap, filling the Nick with rattling echoes; and sometimes the grey stones would start and roll of themselves, with a prolonged and dreary sound.

On a sunny May afternoon there moved down in this bottom Eastwood Ellah and Arthur Monjoy. The grey boulders were bright under the blue sky, and their shadows harshly defined, and near at hand the fractured pieces glinted with tiny metallic pin-points. A few pewits wheeled and piped; save for them, only the crunch and rattle of the stones underfoot broke the stillness.

Eastwood Ellah's appearance was extraordinary. He was hatless and unbraced, and his feet were bare and cut and covered with blood. His face was crimson, and his prominent glassy eyes stared unnaturally before him. From out of his pocket peeped his brass ear-trumpet. He perspired violently; the whole of his scalp twitched with the corrugation of his brows. One hand was outstretched to balance his painful steps; and in the other he bore that of which Arthur Monjoy, at the meeting of the Executive, had refused to speak—(for the methodical Matthew, who scoffed at ballads, would have ranked this as mere full-moon madness)—the fork of green hazel, the virgula divina, the rod that will curl and turn in a man's hands and drip out its sap over the spot where silver lies.

All at once Ellah gave an inarticulate cry, shrill as the crying of the wheeling pewits, and shouted hoarsely: “I can't—I can't—I tell ye I can't bide it!”

“Can't bide what?” Monjoy demanded, turning in an ill humour.

“The sight o' my own blood. I say I can't—'twill madden me——

Monjoy led him to a grey boulder, bade him turn his face away, and made such a cleansing of his wounded feet as he was able with a handkerchief. Ellah moaned miserably the while. Monjoy drew on his stockings for him and flung him his boots; then he began to stride frowning up and down on the harshly grating stones. Presently he returned, plucked the trumpet from Ellah's pocket, and thrust it into his hand.

“I'll not quarrel,” he shouted curtly, “but the Lord made a womanish piece when He made you!”

Ellah, the trumpet at his ear, chewed at his lip and whimpered:

“You know I ha' my iggs—you ought to pity me, same as others; the sight of my own blood's like a flame i' my brain——

“Pity you!” Monjoy said contemptuously; “you'd have more pity from me if your iggs didn't always suit your own ends so pat. I know your head-knocking on walls; how much of it do you do when there's nobody watching you? It goes down with women and fools that Ellah's iggs must be humoured, but in two words, Ellah, my man, you're a lazy devil, and if you can contrive it to live without working you will. I know your iggs; you're the sort that shapes to drown themselves and puts their hands in the water first.”

Ellah, crouched on the boulder, looked stupidly at the stones at his feet. Saliva bubbled at his lips.

“The rod turned my stomach an' all,” he complained.

“Would I ask you to do it if I could do it myself? Didn't it twist nearly out of your hands over Holdsworth Head?”

“That was me—I made it,” Ellah moaned.

“You're a liar, and you lie now. Will you tell me you vomited on purpose?—(That's it, clutch at your face and make as if you were mad!)—Here are hills that ring with metal to your tread, riddled with old workings, chambers and veins and galleries of it, and only a lazy rogue that's trying to make himself out mad to find it!”

“I can't abide moors,” murmured Ellah, monotonously. “And th' rod ought to ha' been cut afore sunrise, o' Ladyday, wi' prayers and such. And ye can find it wi'out it, for the grass won't grow over metal, and the trees has blue leaves——” He put the trumpet into his pocket and rocked himself on the boulder.

Monjoy began to stride up and down again. He himself understood nothing of the virtues of the mystic twig save that its operation was not fruitless, and for the rest he had gone to work methodically enough. He knew that the thing had been done before. Patents had been prayed for and granted. Already, by the cunning letting-down of noble ores with inferior, not every mine that was royal in quality had become a Mine Royal; there was history for it as well as tradition. This was Back o' th' Mooin, too, that had already mulcted the king in his most jealously-guarded prerogative.—Back o' th' Mooin? A Peru, for all he knew; and for much less than that his desperate fortunes already involved the stricture of his neck by the hangman's halter. And had he not already proofs in his garret over the warehouse in the Fullergate? ... He thrust the trumpet into the deaf man's hand again.

“See!” he bawled; “we're going home now. We're going home, and I'll show you whether we've wasted our time. I'll show you how I've passed my nights this many a month. Do charcoal fumes give you iggs, too? Up!—And mind, it's little more than chance-found stuff so far, poor ore; but poor stuff as it is, with the setting up of crushers and stampers in caves and holes and tunnels, and a furnace sunk in a deep shaft.... Up! You shall be the first to see it. Cram these stones into your pockets.—Let me once get going, and Bloody Cumberland himself couldn't rout me out!”

He thrust Ellah roughly down the ravine. They climbed to the Causeway beyond the Nick, and the sheep scampered before them and stood to watch them as they passed. When they reached the bellpits, Monjoy flung out his arm as if he would have spoken, then muttered to himself instead; and he almost carried Ellah along in his haste. It was clear evening before they descended the Scout and passed through Wadsworth; and when they reached Horwick they strode past the “Cross Pipes” and passed quickly up the Fullergate. At the door of Matthew Moon's warehouse Monjoy produced a key.

The cautious merchant had allowed Monjoy the use of the garret at the top of the winding stairs only on certain conditions, the first of which became apparent as soon as the two men entered the chamber. In the middle of the floor lay what seemed to be a broken bench, for it was without legs at one end, had a couple of strong hooked angle-irons instead, and lay tilted up on the floor. The garret was dark, without window, fireplace, cupboard or shelves. Two sets of double crane-doors only, the one set towards the Fullergate, and the other towards the crofts and gardens and waste ground at the back of the building, made the place anything but four bare walls; but on a sheet of iron opposite the door a hearth of bricks and a small furnace had been built, and from this proceeded fumes of charcoal for which there was no outlet. Ellah choked immediately; and Monjoy barred the door.

It was the broken table that was the first of Matthew's precautions. Monjoy dragged it to the door and set the angle-hooks over the heavy bar, making it apparent that he himself could under no circumstances leave the garret without first clearing away the table and all that might lie on it. Monjoy lighted a candle; then, binding a handkerchief over his own mouth and another over Ellah's, he gave the deaf man to understand that for a few minutes he must submit to have his eyes bandaged. Ellah heard him moving about; and when, in a few minutes, the bandage was removed again, Ellah saw that the bench that secured and was secured by the door was spread with various appliances, obtained he knew not whence. No engraver's sandbag, no water globe and burins, however, were there. First, there was a delicate balance; then a number of test-rings of iron and calcined bone; then a pestle and mortar; and after these, pipkins and crucibles, a bowl of quicksilver, a number of small leaden cubes like badly-made dice, and other things. Monjoy emptied his pockets of stones; then he stripped to his shirt and breeches, and, passing to his hearth, began to revive it with a pair of bellows. The coughing of the bellows and a red glow began to fill the chamber, and Ellah, for all the tight, stifling breathing, watched sharply and eagerly.

Monjoy went about his work in silence, pressing now and then the muffler more closely about his mouth. When the hearth glowed brightly, he set a beam of wood across it, shaped a place in the ashes underneath the billet, and introduced an empty test-ring. He made signs for Ellah to take a turn at the bellows. He began to busy himself at his bench, now grinding small stones with the pestle and mortar muffled in a cloth, now seeing to other matters. The garret became bright as the bellows roared, and unbearably hot, and Ellah dropped the bellows and made for the door, through the chink of which a little air entered. By and by, into the test-ring in the glowing furnace Monjoy introduced one of the little leaden cubes, and plied the bellows more gently. He paid no heed when Ellah stooped over him, and presently Ellah returned to the door again. Half an hour passed; Monjoy's face streamed, and his eyes were drowsy; and Ellah nodded against the bench by the door. Monjoy roused himself, and with a pair of tongs drew the test from the furnace, setting it to cool. Ellah dozed, and Monjoy crossed over and listened to his breathing. Then he weighed out from his mortar a pound or so of crushed ore, added iron filings to it, set it in a melting-pot in the furnace, and began with the bellows again. An hour passed. The air was well nigh insupportable. He rose again, tottered to his bench, took a deep gulp of water, and stripped off even his shirt. He returned to the bellows; rivulets ran down his giant back; he blundered heavily to the table with the crucible in a pair of tongs and began to dig out the slag; and with the small residue in another ring he crossed again to the furnace and continued mechanically with the bellows. Ellah had fallen across the bench, and slept among the tests and crucibles.

*****

By two o'clock in the morning Monjoy had allowed the furnace to die down again, had extinguished his candle for a few minutes, and had flung open the double doors at the back for air. The cool night restored him, and presently he closed the doors and lighted the candle again. He shook Ellah, who opened his eyes sluggishly, and Monjoy's voice wheezed as he handed him his trumpet and bade him draw near the candle.

Ranged along the end of the bench were six test-rings. In the little hollow that had been scraped in the bone of each a bead of grey metal lay. The smallest was no more than a sparrow-pellet; two of them would weigh perhaps a couple of pennyweights each; but one dull globule could hardly have drawn on a balance less than half an ounce, while another was only a grain or two smaller. Monjoy's hand was tapping with a regular movement on the first of the rings.

“This,” he whispered—for his constricted throat barely emitted a sound, “this—listen your best, for I can't speak louder—this was that blackish clay with the flints, Fluett way, a pound of it—they're all pounds. This one—this is that red earth with pyrites, a mile below the bellpits—I had to get that out with quicksilver—we can throw both those away.... Wait a minute.... Throw this away, too—that's from Booth—no, Soyland. They're nothing—not one in a hundred, you understand.... But this, that's three and more in the hundred, is what we picked up to-day—three in the hundred, with all the lead consumed too—you scratched your feet a bit getting this.... And the biggest of all, eighty pounds to the ton—Holdsworth Head, where your stomach turned—take it ....”

He was utterly exhausted, but Ellah had drawn so near to the candle that his cropped hair singed. His prominent eyes gleamed with an avaricious light.

“Have ye made these to-night?” he said hoarsely.

“No—weeks—weeks—I'll build a furnace, two furnaces, in the Slack ... a mill to crush it ... for fuel we'll open up the coal again ....”

“And is Holdsworth Head made o' this? Did ye say Holdsworth Head?—Ay, lie down a bit.”

Monjoy had stretched himself, half-naked as he was, on the floor; he broke immediately into loud snoring. Ellah continued to look, now at him, and now at the beads of silver.

After a while he blew out the candle and stretched himself on the floor by the side of his companion.