In the Roar of the Sea/Chapter 46
A SECOND LIE.
Next day, Miss Trevisa being gone, Judith had to attend to the work of the house. It was her manifest duty to do so. Hitherto she had shrunk from the responsibility, because she shrank from assuming a position in the house to which she refused to consider that she had a right. Judith was perfectly competent to manage an establishment, she had a clear head, a love of order, and a power of exacting obedience of servants without incessant reproof. Moreover, she had that faculty possessed by few of directing others in their work so that each moved along his or her own line and fulfilled the allotted work with ease. She had managed her father's house, and managed it admirably. She knew that, as the king's government must be carried on, so the routine of a household must be kept going. Judith had sufficient acquaintance also with servants to be aware that the wheel would stop or move spasmodically, unless an authoritative hand were applied to it to keep it in even revolution. She knew also that whatever happened in a house—a birth, a death, a wedding, an uproar—the round of common duties must be discharged, the meals prepared, the bread baked, the milk skimmed, the beds made, the carpets swept, the furniture dusted, the windows opened, the blinds drawn down, the table laid, the silver and glass burnished. Nothing save a fire which gutted a house must interfere with all this routine. Miss Trevisa was one of those ladies who, in their own opinion, are condemned by Providence never to have good servants. A benign Providence sheds good domestics into every other house, save that which she rules. She is born under a star which inexorably sends the scum and dregs of servantdom under her sceptre. Miss Trevisa regarded a servant as a cat regards a mouse, a dog regards a fox, and a dolphin a flying-fish, as something to be run after, snapped at, clawed, leaped upon, worried perpetually. She was incapable of believing that there could be any good in a servant, that there was any other side to a domestic save a seamy side. She could make no allowance for ignorance, for weakness, for lightheartedness. A servant in her eyes must be a drudge ever working, never speaking, smiling, taking a hand off the duster, without a mind above flue and tea-leaves, and unable to soar above a cobweb; with a temper perfect in endurance of daily, hourly fault-finding, nagging, grumbling, a mind unambitious also of commendation. Miss Trevisa held that every servant that a malign Providence had sent her was clumsy, insolent, slatternly, unmethodical, idle, wasteful, a gossip, a gad-about, a liar, a thief, was dainty, greedy, one of a cursed generation; and when in the Psalms, David launched out in denunciation of the enemies of the Lord, Miss Trevisa, when she heard or read these Psalms, thought of servantdom. Servants were referred to when David said, "Hide me from the insurrection of the wicked doers, who have whet their tongues like a sword, that they may privily shoot at him that is perfect," i.e., me, was Miss Trevisa's comment. "They encourage themselves in mischief; and commune among themselves how they may lay snares, and say, that no man shall see them." "And how," said Miss Trevisa, "can men be so blind as not to believe that the Bible is inspired when David hits the character of servants off to the life!"
And not the Psalms only, but the Prophets were full of servants' delinquencies. What were Tyre and Egypt but figures of servantdom shadowed before. What else did Isaiah lift up his testimony about, and Jeremiah lament over, but the iniquities of the kitchen and the servants' hall. Miss Trevisa read her Bible, and great comfort did it afford her, because it did denounce the servant maids so unsparingly and prepared brimstone and outer darkness for them.
Now Judith had seen and heard much of the way in which Miss Trevisa managed Captain Coppinger's house. Her room adjoined that of her aunt, and she knew that if her aunt were engaged on—it mattered not what absorbing work, embroidery, darning a stocking, reading a novel, saying her prayers, studying the cookery book—if a servant sneezed within a hundred yards, or upset a drop of water, or clanked a dust-pan, or clicked a door-handle, Miss Trevisa would be distracted from her work and rush out of her room, just as a spider darts from its recess, and sweep down on the luckless servant to worry and abuse her.
Judith, knowing this, knew also that the day of Miss Trevisa's departure would be marked with white chalk, and lead to a general relaxation of discipline, to an inhaling of long breaths, and a general stretching and taking of ease. It was necessary, therefore, that she should go round and see that the wheel was kept turning.
To her surprise, on entering the hall, she found Captain Coppinger there.
"I beg your pardon," she said, "I thought you were out."
She looked at him and was struck with his appearance, the clay-like color of his face, the dark lines in it, the faded look in his eyes.
"Are you unwell?" she asked; "you really look ill."
"I am ill."
"Ill—what is the matter?"
"A burning in my throat. Cramp and pains but what is that to you?"
"When did it come on?"
"Will you not have a doctor to see you?"
"Was the porridge as you liked it this morning? I made it."
"It was good enough."
"Would you like more now?"
"And to-morrow morning, will you have the same?"
"I will make it again. Aunt said the new cook did not understand how to mix and boil it to your liking."
Judith remained standing and observing him. Some faces when touched by pain and sickness are softened and sweetened. The hand of suffering passes over the countenance and brushes away all that is frivolous, sordid, vulgar; it gives dignity, purity, refinement, and shows what the inner soul might be were it not entangled and degraded by base association and pursuit. It is different with other faces, the hand of suffering films away the assumed expression of good nature, honesty, straightforwardness, and unmasks the evil inner man. The touch of pain had not improved the expression of Cruel Coppinger. It cannot, however, with justice be said that the gentler aspect of the man, which Judith had at one time seen, was an assumption. He was a man in whom there was a certain element of good, but it was mixed up with headlong wilfulness, utter selfishness, and resolution to have his own way at any cost.
Judith could see, now that his face was pain-struck, how much of evil there was in the soul that had been disguised by a certain dash of masculine overbearing and brusqueness.
"What are you looking at?" asked Coppinger, glancing up.
"I was thinking," answered Judith.
"Of you—of Wyvill, of the wreck on Doom Bar, of the jewels of Lady Knighton, and last of all of Jamie's maltreatment."
"And what of all that?" he said in irritable scorn.
"That I need not say. I have drawn my own conclusions."
"You torment me, you—when I am ill? They call me Cruel, but it is you who are cruel."
Judith did not wish to be drawn into discussion that must be fruitless. She said, quietly, in altered tone, "Can I get you anything to comfort you?"
"No—go your way. This will pass. Besides, it is naught to you. Go; I would be left alone."
Judith obeyed, but she was uneasy. She had never seen Coppinger look as he looked now. It was other, altogether, after he had broken his arm. Other, also, when for a day he was crippled with bruises, after the wreck. She looked into the hall several times during the day. In the afternoon he was easier, and went out; his mouth had been parched and burning, and he had been drinking milk. The empty glass was on the table. He would eat nothing at mid-day. He turned from food, and left the room for his own chamber.
Judith was anxious. She more than once endeavored to draw Coppinger into conversation relative to himself, but he would not speak of what affected him. He was annoyed and ashamed at being out of his usual rude health.
"It is naught," he said, "but a bilious attack, and will pass. Leave me alone."
She had been so busy all day, that she had seen little of Jamie. He had taken advantage of Captain Coppinger not being about, to give himself more license to roam than he had of late, and to go with his donkey on the cliffs. Anyhow Judith on this day did not have him hanging to her skirts. She was glad of it, for, though she loved him, he would have been an encumbrance when she was so busy.
The last thing at night she did was to go to Coppinger to inquire what he would take. He desired nothing but spirits and milk. He thought that a milk-punch would give him ease and make him sleep. That he was weak and had suffered pain she saw, and she was full of pity for him. But this she did not like to exhibit, partly because he might misunderstand her feelings, and partly because he seemed irritated at being unwell, and at loss of power; irritated, at all events, at it being observed that he was not in his usual plenitude of strength and health.
That night the Atlantic was troubled, and the wind carried the billows against the cliffs in a succession of rhythmic roars that filled the air with sound and made the earth quiver. Judith could not sleep, she listened to the thud of the water-heaps flung against the rocks; there was a clock on the stairs and in her wakefulness she listened to the tick of the clock, and the boom of the waves, now coming together, then one behind the other, now the wave-beat catching up the clock-tick, then falling in arrear, the ocean getting angry and making up its pace by a double beat. Moreover flakes of foam were carried on the wind and came, like snow, against her window that looked seaward striking the glass and adhering to it.
As Judith lay watchful in the night her mind again recurred to the packet of arsenic that had been abstracted from her workbox. It was inconsiderate of her to have left it there; she ought to have locked her box. But who could have supposed that anyone would have gone to the box, raised the tray and searched the contents of the compartment beneath? Judith had been unaccustomed to lock up anything, because she had never had any secrets to hide from any eye. She again considered the probability of her aunt having removed it, and then it occurred to her that perhaps Miss Trevisa might have supposed that she—Judith—in a fit of revolt against the wretchedness of her life might be induced to take the poison herself and finish her miseries. "It was absurd if Aunt Dunes thought that," said Judith to herself; "she can little have known how my dear Papa's teaching has sunk into my heart, to suppose me capable of such a thing—and then—to run away like a coward and leave Jamie unprotected. It was too absurd."
Next morning Judith was in her room getting a large needle with which to hem a bit of carpet edge that had been fraying for the last five years, and which no one had thought of putting a thread to, and so arresting the disintegration. Jamie was in the room. Judith said to him:
"My dear, you have not been skinning and stuffing any birds lately, have you?"
"Because I have missed—but, Jamie, I hope you have not been at my workbox?"
"What about your workbox, Ju?"
She knew the boy so well, that her suspicions were at once aroused by this answer. When he had nothing to hide he replied with a direct negative or affirmative, but when he had done what his conscience would not quite allow was right, he fell into equivocation, and shuffled awkwardly.
"Jamie," said Judith, looking him straight in the face, "have you been to my box?"
"Only just looked in."
Then he ran to the window. "Oh, do see, Ju, how patched the glass is with foam!—and is it not dirty?"
"Jamie, come back. I want an answer."
He had opened the casement and put his hand out and was wiping off the patches of froth.
"What a lot of it there is, Ju."
"Come here, instantly, Jamie, and shut the window." The boy obeyed, creeping toward her sideways, with his head down.
"Jamie, did you lift the tray?"
"Only on one side, just a little bit."
"Did you take anything from under the tray?"
He did not answer immediately. She looked at him searchingly and in suspense. He never could endure this questioning look of hers, and he ran to her, put his arms round her waist, and clasped to her side, hid his face in her gown.
"Only a little."
"A little what?"
"I don't know."
"Jamie, no lies. There was a blue paper there containing poison, that you were not to have unless there were occasion for it—some bird-skin to be preserved and dressed with it. Now, did you take that?"
"Go and bring it back to me immediately."
"Why not? Where is it?"
The boy fidgeted, looked up in his sister's face to see what expression it bore, buried his head again, and said:
"Ju! he is rightly called Cruel. I hate him, and so do you, don't you, Ju? I have put the arsenic into his oatmeal, and we will get rid of him and be free and go away. It will be jolly."
"Jamie!" with a cry of horror.
"He won't whip me and scold you any more."
"Jamie! Oh, my Lord, have pity on him! have pity on us!"
She clasped her hands to her head, rushed from the room, and flew down the stairs.
But ten minutes before that Judith had given Coppinger his bowl of porridge. He had risen late that morning. He was better, he said, and he looked more himself than the preceding day. He was now seated at the table in the hall, and had poured the fresh milk into the bowl, had dipped the spoon, put some of the porridge to his mouth, tasted, and was looking curiously into the spoon, when the door was flung open, Judith entered, and without a word of explanation, caught the bowl from him and dashed it on the floor.
Coppinger looked at her with his boring, dark eyes intently, and said: "What is the meaning of this?"
"It is poisoned."
Judith was breathless. She drew back relieved at having cast away the fatal mess.
Coppinger rose to his feet, and glared at her across the table, leaning- with his knuckles on the board. He did not speak for a moment, his face became livid, and his hands resting on the table shook as though he were shivering in an ague.
"There is arsenic in the porridge," gasped Judith.
She had not time to weigh what she should say, how explain her conduct; but one thought had held her to save Coppinger's life while there was yet time.
The Captain's dog that had been lying at his master's feet rose, went to the spilt porridge, and began to lap the milk and devour the paste. Neither Judith nor Coppinger regarded him.
"It was an accident," faltered Judith.
"You lie," said Coppinger, in thrilling tones, "you lie, you murderess! You sought to kill me."
Judith did not answer for a moment. She also was trembling. She had to resolve what course to pursue. She could not, she would not, betray her brother, and subject him to the worst brutality of treatment from the infuriated man whose life he had sought.
It were better for her to take the blame on herself.
"I made the porridge—I and no one else."
"You told me so, yesterday." He maintained his composure marvellously, but he was stunned by the sudden discovery of treachery in the woman he had loved and worshipped.
"You maddened me by your treatment, but I did not desire that you should die. I repented and have saved your life."
As Judith spoke she felt as though the flesh of her face stiffened, and the skin became as parchment. She could hardly open her mouth to speak and stir her tongue.
"Go!" said Coppinger, pointing to the door. "Go, you and your brother. Othello cottage is empty. Go, murderess, poisoner of your husband, there and wait till you hear from me. Under one roof, to eat off one board, is henceforth impossible. Go!" he remained pointing, and a sulphurous fire flickered in his eyes.
Then the hound began to howl, threw itself down, its limbs were contracted, it foamed at the mouth, and howled again.
To the howlings of the poisoned and dying dog Judith and Jamie left Pentyre.