Noughts and Crosses/The Gifts of Feodor Himkoff
THE GIFTS OF FEODOR HIMKOFF.
It is just six years ago that I first travelled the coast from Gorrans Haven to Zoze Point.
Since then I have visited it in fair weather and foul; and in time, perhaps, shall rival the coastguardsmen, who can walk it blindfold. But to this day it remains in my recollection the coast I trod, without companion, during four dark days in December. It was a rude introduction. The wind blew in my face, with scuds of cold rain; a leaden mist hung low on the left, and rolled slowly up Channel. Now and then it thinned enough to reveal a white zigzag of breakers in front, and a blur of land; or, far below, a cluster of dripping rocks, with the sea crawling between and lifting their weed. But for the most part I saw only the furze-bushes beside the path, each powdered with fine raindrops, that in the aggregate resembled a coat of grey frieze, and the puffs of spray that shot up over the cliff's lip and drenched me.
Just beyond the Nare Head, where the path dipped steeply, a bright square disengaged itself from the mist as I passed, and, around it, the looming outline of a cottage, between the footpath and the sea. A habitation more desolate than this odd angle of the coast could hardly have been chosen; on the other hand, the glow of firelight within the kitchen window was almost an invitation. It seemed worth my while to ask for a drink of milk there, and find out what manner of folk were the inmates.
An old woman answered my knock. She was tall, with a slight stoop, and a tinge of yellow pervading her face, as if some of the complexion had run into her teeth and the whites of her eyes. A clean white cap, tied under the chin with tape, concealed all but the edge of her grey locks. She wore a violet turnover, a large wrapper, a brown stuff gown that hardly reached her ankles, and thick worsted stockings, but no shoes.
"A drink o' milk? Why not a dish o' tea?"
"That will be troubling you," said I, a bit ashamed for feeling so little in want of sustenance.
"Few they be that troubles us, my dear. Too few by land, an' too many by sea, rest their dear souls! Step inside by the fire. There's only my old man here, an' you needn't stand 'pon ceremony wi' he: for he's stone-deaf an' totelin'. Isaac, you poor deaf haddock, here's a strange body for 'ee to look at; tho' you'm past all pomp but buryin', I reckon." She sighed as I stepped past into the warmth.
The man she called Isaac was huddled and nodding in a chair, before the bluish blaze of a wreck- wood fire. He met me with an incurious stare, and began to doze again. He was clearly in the last decline of manhood, the stage of utter childishness and mere oblivion; and sat there with his faculties collapsed, waiting for release.
My mired boots played havoc with the neatly sanded floor; but the old woman dusted a chair for me as carefully as if I had worn robes of state, and set it on the other side of the hearth. Then she put the kettle to boil, and unhitching a cup from the dresser, took a key from it, and opened a small cupboard between the fireplace and the wall. That which she sought stood on the top shelf, and she had to climb on a chair to reach it. I offered my help; but no—she would get it herself. It proved to be a small green canister.
The tea that came from this canister I wish I could describe. No sooner did the boiling water touch it than the room was filled with fragrance. The dotard in the chair drew a long breath through his nostrils, as though the aroma touched some quick centre in his moribund brain. The woman poured out a cup, and I sipped it.
"Smuggled," I thought to myself; for indeed you cannot get such tea in London if you pay fifty shillings a pound.
"You like it?" she asked. Before I could answer, a small table stood at my elbow, and she was loading it with delicacies from the cupboard. The contents of that cupboard! Caviare came from it, and a small ambrosial cheese; dried figs and guava jelly; olives, cherries in brandy, wonderful filberts glazed with sugar; biscuits and all manner of queer Russian sweets. I leant back with wide eyes.
"Feodor sends us these," said the old woman, bringing a dish of Cornish cream and a home-made loaf to give the feast a basis.
"Feodor Himkoff." She paused a moment, and added, "He's mate on a Russian vessel."
The question went unnoticed. "Is there any you fancy?" she asked. "Some o't may be outlandish eatin'."
"Do you like these things?" I looked from her to the caviare.
"I don't know. I never tried. We keeps 'em, my man an' I, for all poor come-by-chance folks that knocks."
"But these are dainties for rich men's tables."
"May be. I've never tasted—they'd stick in our ozels if we tried."
I wanted to ask a dozen questions, but thought it politer to accept this strange hospitality in silence. Glancing up presently, however, I saw her eyes still fixed on me, and laid down my knife.
"I can't help it," I said, "I want to know about Feodor Himkoff."
"There's no secret," she answered. "Leastways, there was one, but either God has condemned or forgiven afore now. Look at my man there; he's done all the repentin' he's likely to do."
After a few seconds' hesitation she went on—
"I had a boy, you must know—oh! a straight young man—that went for a soldier, an' was killed at Inkerman by the Rooshians. Take another look at his father here; you think 'en a bundle o' frailties, I dessay. Well, when the news was brought us, this poor old worm lifts his fist up to the sun an' says, 'God do so to me an' more also,' e says, 'if ever I falls across a Rooshian!' An' 'God send me a Rooshian—just one!' he says, meanin' that Rooshians don't grow on brambles hereabouts. Now the boy was our only flesh.
"Well, sir, nigh sixteen year' went by, an' we two were sittin', one quakin' night, beside this very fire, hearkenin' to the bedlam outside: for 'twas the big storm in 'Seventy, an' even indoors we must shout to make ourselves heard. About ten, as we was thinkin' to alley-couchey, there comes a bangin' on the door, an' Isaac gets up an' lets the bar down, singin' out, 'Who is it?'
"There was a big young man 'twixt the doorposts, drippin' wet, wi' smears o' blood on his face, an' white teeth showin' when he talked. 'Twas a half-furrin talk, an' he spoke a bit faint too, but fairly grinned for joy to see our warm fire,—an' his teeth were white as pearl.
"'Ah, sir,' he cried, 'you will help? Our barque is ashore below—fifteen poor brothers! You will send for help?—you will aid?'
"Then Isaac stepped back, and spoke very slow—'What nation?' he asked. 'She is Russ—we are all Russ; sixteen poor brothers from Archangel,' said the young man, as soon as he took in the question. My man slewed round on his heel, and walked to the hearth here; but the sailor stretched out his hands, an' I saw the middle finger of his right hand was gone. 'You will aid, eh? Ah, yes, you will aid. They are clingin'—so—fifteen poor brothers, and many have wives.' But Isaac said, 'Thank Thee, God,' and picked up a log from the hearth here. 'Take 'em this message,' said he, facin' round; an', runnin' on the sailor, who was faint and swayin', beat him forth wi' the burnin' stick, and bolted the door upon him.
"After that we sat quiet, he an' I, all the night through, never takin' our clothes off. An' at daybreak Isaac walked down to the shore. There was nothin' to see but two bodies, an' he buried them an' waited for more. That evenin' another came in, an' next day, two; an' so on for a se'nnight. Ten bodies in all he picked up and buried i' the meadow below. An' on the fourth day he picked up a body wi' one finger missin', under the Nare Head. 'Twas the young man he had driven forth, who had wandered there an' broke his neck. Isaac buried him too. An' that was all, except two that the coastguard found an' held an inquest over an' carr'd off to churchyard.
"So it befell; an' for five year' neither Isaac nor me opened mouth 'pon it, not to each other even. An' then, one noonday, a sailor knocks at the door; an' goin' out, I seed he was a furriner, wi' great white teeth showin' dro' his beard. 'I be come to see Mister Isaac Lenine,' he says, in his outlandish English. So I called Isaac out; an' the stranger grips 'en by the hand an' kisses 'en, sayin', 'Little father, take me to their graves. My name is Feodor Himkoff, an' my brother Dmitry was among the crew of the Viatka. You would know his body, if you buried it, for the second finger was gone from his right hand. I myself—wretched one!—chopped it by bad luck when we were boys, an' played at wood cuttin' wi' our father's axe. I have heard how they perished, far from aid, and how you gave 'em burial in your own field: and I pray to all the saints for you,' he says.
"So Isaac led 'en to the field and showed 'en the grave that was staked off 'long wi' the rest. God help my poor man! he was too big a coward to speak. So the man stayed wi' us till sundown, an' kissed us 'pon both cheeks, an' went his way, blessin' us. God forgi'e us—God forgi'e us!
"An' ever since he's been breaking our heads dro' the post-office wi' such-like precious balms as these here." She broke off to settle Isaac more comfortably in his chair. "'Tis all we can do to get rid of 'em on poor trampin' fellows same as yourself."