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HOME > Inspiring Novel > The Yarn of Old Harbour Town > CHAPTER II WALTER LAWRENCE
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 Lucy Acton made her way towards Old Harbour Town by a lane that struck down off the road used by the coaches and post-chaises. This lane was broad and in places steep and rugged, with long spaces heavily flanked with tall and spacious trees. Elsewhere the low hedge revealed the sloping meadow or ploughed field whose margin where it sank low was defined against the blue water of the ocean.  
It was April, and some birds were in song; the sun shone brightly, and the breeze blowing from the sea sang pleasantly amongst the trees whose boughs were studded with little buds. The lane conducted Lucy to the valley where the river was, and here she stepped upon an old bridge. When half-way across she stopped to look in the direction of Old Harbour. The river flowed prettily under this bridge and melted its brilliance in the waters of the Harbour, where, when the tide was at lowest[Pg 26] ebb, it always had a bed for its discharge into the brine beyond.
Lucy had often viewed this scene: her pause now was dictated by a trifling feeling of curiosity. Against the wharves on the left-hand side and over against the stump-ended projection of pier was moored her father's ship the Minorca, of which she had just now been assured Sir William Lawrence's son was to be offered the command. This vessel lay with two or three others, a brig or two and a schooner, at the wharves, and with her own and the drying sails of the others, the tall spars, the yards across, the complicated lines of the rigging, provided a bold and even ample figure of shipping to the eye. But in addition to these there lay in the harbour a number of fishing craft, and this side the extremity of the wharves within musket shot of where Lucy stood was moored the Saucy brig-of-war of about one hundred and eighty tons armed with thirty-two pounder carronades. She was one of a number of the like sort of brig which were to be found in that year (1805) on the coasts of Sussex, Suffolk, and Norfolk. These brigs were usually hauled into creeks or laid up in snug corners where the Lieutenant, as Sir William had pointed out, had his cabbage garden and pig-sty. They were designed as a provision against[Pg 27] the invasion of the French, and were quite worthless, as they were never ready, and always so anchored or so secured as to demand as much time in getting under weigh as would take a French army of invasion to march from Dover to Ashford.
This cool indifference on the part of the lieutenants in command of the brigs is rendered the more surprising by contrast with the sincere terrors which the prospect of invasion raised in the country. The alarm indeed was very seriously justified, for in that year the French Emperor had at his disposal at the Texel, Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne and Havre, a total of one hundred and eighty thousand men, with a fleet of twenty-one sail of the line, besides frigates and transports at Brest, a squadron at Rochefort, and a powerful fleet at Toulon, and at this time Spain had joined her forces with those of France against us. Nevertheless the lieutenants in charge of the gun-brigs stationed on the coasts took life with that unconcern which is one of the blessings of peace; they cultivated their cabbage gardens, they attended to their pig-stys, and they smoked their pipes and drank strong beer at taverns with sounding names such as "The Coach and Horses," or "The Maid and the Harp"; and one of the worst offenders was[Pg 28] Lieutenant Tupman of the brig Saucy, which lay within gun-shot of where Lucy stood.
The thought of Mr Lawrence having received from her father the offer of the command of yonder little ship was put out of Lucy's mind by the image of placid sun-lighted scenery she contemplated, taking full possession of her. Familiar as the picture was, her beautiful eyes, moving slowly, dwelt in their brooding way upon the objects she directed them at, and her native loveliness seemed to gain by the impulse which visited it, and she and the sweet and restful scene of cliff and distant blue water and quiet haven into which the fabrics that floated shook their lights and the delicate tracery of their gear, were blent, and it was as though she was the spirit of the place.
Close to lay the gun-brig reflecting her white band broken by ports in the calm surface. She looked to be ready for sea; all her yards were across, the white sails furled with that exquisite finish which expresses the pat of the man-o'-warsman's hand; but there was nobody visible aboard of her. Beyond, the eye went to the short length of timber pier, and on this side of it to some smacks which now floated at little buoys or at their own anchors, though at ebb of tide Old Harbour was mainly mud[Pg 29] with the river's bed in the middle and vessels lying high, black and gaunt in several postures, whilst out in the south the ripple of the sea in smooth weather streamed to and fro with long lashings of black weed, and the air was salt and nimble with the smell of marine growths.
The wharves were old platforms black with tar or pitch, and at the back of them were three warehouses for the accommodation of such merchandise as this Old Harbour received or sent afloat. Perched midway on the slope that was terminated by the brow of the cliff where the windmill this morning was peacefully revolving its vans, was Old Harbour Town, a romantic grouping of little grey houses full of sparkling lozenge windows backed by a church spire, the whole looking in the distance like a toy that could be put into a box and set out according to taste upon a table by a child.
Lucy heard a church bell strike: she started from a fit of abstraction, and, turning to move on, confronted an old man who was crossing the bridge. The face of this old man was pale and wrinkled; his hair was long and quite white. His nose streamed down his face in a thin, curling outline; his mouth when his lips were compressed might be expressed by a simple stroke of a pencil.[Pg 30] His eyes were deep-seated and extraordinarily luminous and swift in their motions, and his eyebrows, which were as white as his hair, were so thick and overhanging that they might have passed for a couple of white mice sleeping on his brow. His apparel had that dim and faded look which in fiction is associated with miserliness. His high and dingy white cravat and the tall build of his coat at the back of his head, so sloped his shoulders that they looked to make a line with his arms. He wore a faded red waistcoat which sank very low, and under it dangled a bunch of seals. His knee-breeches left painfully visible the pipe-stem shanks clothed in grey hose and terminating in large shoes, burdened with steel buckles.
He removed his little round hat and bowed low to Lucy.
"Good morning, Mr Greyquill," said the young lady, bestowing upon him one of those sweet and gracious smiles with which she favoured nearly all, thus rendering herself as much beloved for her cordial charm of manner as she was admired by the women and adored by the men for her singular beauty of face and graces of person.
He bade her good-morning with profound respect. Her dog barked in his face, and she silenced it by lifting it under her arm.
[Pg 31]
"I hope your cold is better, Mr Greyquill," said she, making to proceed in her walk.
"Much better—indeed, quite gone, I am greatly obliged to you, ma'am," he answered. "I find nursing of little account. Gruel and foot-baths and a tallow candle for the nose do not help me so much as fresh air. Fresh air seems to dry the cold up."
She agreed with him with a smile, and with a pleasant salutation of the head, walked on.
The old man looked after her, and whispered to himself in admiration of her kindness and person. A wooden-legged sailor just then came up some steps from the river side on to that end of the bridge which the money-lender was approaching, and when Greyquill was close to, the tar, assuming a posture of abject despondency, pulled off his hat, and extending it begged for alms.
"I have bled for my country, your honour," said the man.
"But you don't say you were paid to do so," answered Greyquill.
"Ay, but I wasn't paid to lose my leg," called out the man.
Greyquill, who saw little to fear in the pursuit of a man with a wooden leg, turned his head upon his shoulder and cried back: "There are too many of us."
[Pg 32]
"That ain't my fault!" bawled the man at the receding figure.
"Yes, it is," cried Greyquill. "For people like you who can't get on ought to get out."
The laugh with which the malicious old fellow accompanied this sally caused the sailor to gaze eagerly round the ground as though for a stone to heave at him.
Meanwhile, Lucy crossing the bridge pursued the road to Old Harbour Town. She walked up an incline as gradual and pleasant as the lane which had brought her to the river. The hedges on either side stood thick, and the road was sentinelled by trees which when robed in their foliage transformed a long space of it into a beautiful avenue. The way took her straight to Lower Street, at the corner of which stood "The Swan" Tavern, a posting-house with a signboard that swang rustily through the long dark night, but behind its little lower windows a glimpse of old-world comfort could be caught: a sanded floor, a dark-polished table ringed with impressions of immemorial mugs of ale set down upon it, a little grate high perched in a setting of china, an old Dutch clock, and a black-board for the score.
This house contained a room which caused it to be the haunt of the seafaring men of the place. It was in the second story, and was lighted by a large bow-window with a seat[Pg 33] running round it from which a fine view of Old Harbour was to be obtained and the spacious sea beyond. Here on a table in the middle of the room were to be found telescopes, newspapers, not older perhaps than a week, little sheaves of matchwood for lighting pipes at the fire in winter or at a floating oil-mesh in summer. This room always contained one or more seafaring men, and of a night, if there was a tolerable presence of shipping in the Harbour, it was sometimes full, on which occasions it was so heavily loaded with tobacco fumes that one was at some pains to see one's friend through the fog. Here were battles fought over again, and future victories planned and won. Here you heard the argument running high on the usefulness of certain sails in certain weather, on the best course to adopt when taken by the lee, on the wisest thing to do when chased by an enemy's cruiser. Here were told stories of admirals and captains whose names are shining stars in our national story; yarns of Hawke and Howe and Duncan, Rodney, and others. For this room was frequented by several very old men who lived in Old Harbour Town and had served the King; and one of them, like Tom Tough, had been coxswain to Boscawen.
Of this man, a toothless salt whose face was like an old potato, dark with the weather of[Pg 34] vanished days and covered with warts, an affecting story was told: it was evening, and the room was full of seafaring men, and this man, whose name was John Halliburton, sat at the table with a long clay pipe trembling in one hand and a glass of hot rum and water in reach of the other. Several songs had been sung by members of the company, and some one, by way of a joke, asked old John to oblige. To the amazement of everybody the old man put down his pipe, took off his hat, out of which he drew a large red handkerchief with which he polished his face, and then, fixing his lustreless eyes upon the man who had asked him to sing, broke into a song in a strange, quivering, fitful note, as though you should hear a drunken sailor singing in a vault. The assembly was hushed into deep stillness. It was certainly a most unparalleled circumstance for old John to sing. In the middle of the second verse, some old nautical ballad popular fifty years before, he stopped, put his handkerchief into his hat, and his hat upon his head, and resumed his pipe, gazing vacantly at the man who had asked him to sing.
"Pray, go on," said the man. "We are all delighted, Mr Halliburton. Have you forgot the words? There's some here, no doubt, as are able to remind ye."
"Oh yes," said a voice.
[Pg 35]
"Are ye speaking to me?" said old John.
"Certainly," was the answer.
"What d'ye want?"
"We want you to finish the song you was just now singing and broke off in."
"Me singing!" exclaimed old John.
"Why, yes, of course."
"Me singing!" quavered old John, with a voice of amazement. "Why, I ha'nt sung this twenty year past."
It was easily seen that the poor old man was deeply in earnest and was to be speedily distressed. It was an affecting exhibition of mental decay, and rough as the company were, they had the good taste to change the subject.
Lower Street was not the street in which Lucy shopped. It consisted mainly of little houses with screen doors and bright brass knockers, and lozenged windows which opened and shut in the French style, so that a small piece of the window could be opened at will. These houses were the dwelling-places of pilots, sailors, and fishermen belonging to the district. In the middle of the street was a Nonconformist Chapel with a burial ground spreading out in front of it till its outer confines were half-way upon the footpath; a wonderfully tended resting-place: its billows of grass marked in most cases the silent beds of seafarers; the decoration of flower or[Pg 36] memorial was largely nautical: the anchor, the Liliputian bows of a ship as a headpiece, and here and there the headpiece was a gun. Tombstones whose inscriptions endless discharges of wet and the fretting action of the wind had rendered almost illegible, leaned as though for support in their weariness against the walls of the adjacent houses; so that a few bricks or stones might separate a row of dead men from a little parlour full of cheerful company where the fire crackled briskly, where the oil flame shook in ripples of yellow radiance upon the walls and the ceiling, where the atmosphere was good with the perfume of rum punch, and where a manly voice in an interval of silence might be heard singing a nautical ballad to the accompaniment of a fiddle.
Lucy walked on to High Street, into which she turned, and from nearly every person that she passed, she received a respectful salute or a ducking curtsy; and for all she had a kindly word and a smile as lovely as a fine May day, and sometimes she would stop and speak to a child, on which occasions she generally took a penny from her pocket.
This High Street was pleasantly furnished with shops: the butcher's, the owner of which shouted in talk to his customers as he dexterously chopped on his block; the baker's,[Pg 37] with its little bow-window choice with buns and cakes, and pretty shapes of bread; here too was the post-office, which was like a pedlar's tray for variety of contents.
After Lucy had done her shopping—and the few articles were to be delivered punctually that afternoon—she walked along High Street, so as to return by the road she had come by. When her steps had brought her abreast of "The Swan," she saw two men standing in conversation in the doorway of that old hostelry. They both bowed low to her, but it might have been noticed that after she had saluted them in return, the fine natural glow of her cheeks slightly deepened and her step appreciably quickened. If her object was to escape these men she must either run, which would not have been seemly, or submit to being overtaken if pursued, which happened in the case of one of them, and within a few minutes a gentleman was walking at her side.
"Good morning, Miss Acton! I am going over to my father's. Are you returning to Old Harbour House? If so, I hope you will allow me to do myself the pleasure of accompanying you as far."
"No, sir," she answered. "I am not returning to Old Harbour House—not immediately. I am going to the Harbour—I am going for a little walk."
[Pg 38]
"How I am always being disappointed!" he exclaimed, and she might by the note in his voice, by a smile which did not show perfect self-control, and by a heated colour of complexion, have by this time suspected that this gentleman and his companion, who was Lieutenant Tupman, had not looked in at "The Swan" Inn only to find out what o'clock it was.
He was Mr Walter Lawrence, a son of Admiral Lawrence, and down to a recent period a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He was something over thirty years of age, but drink, dissipation, the hard life of the sea and some fever which had got into his blood and proved intermittent, had worked in his face like time, and he might have passed for any age between thirty-five and forty-five. Nevertheless he was an extremely handsome man, of the classic Greek type in lineament, but improved, at least to the British eye, by the Saxon colouring of hair, skin, and eyes. His teeth were extraordinarily white and good for a sailor who had lived on gun-room fare in times when the ship's biscuit was flint, and the peas which rolled about in the discoloured hot water called soup, fit only for loading a blunderbuss with to shoot men dead. His eyes told their tale of drink, but they were large and fine and spirited; his light brown hair, according to the fashion of[Pg 39] the age, was combed down his back and lay in a rope-shaped tail there. He wore a wide-brimmed round hat, and his attire, a little the worse for wear, consisted of a blue coat, white waistcoat, sage-green kerseymere breeches, and, needless to say, the cravat was high and full. He stood about six feet, his figure was extremely well proportioned, and in addition to these merits his carriage had the easy elegance which the flow of the billow and the heave of the deck infuse into all human figures not radically vile and deformed. His voice was soft, winning, and somewhat plaintive, and no man, whether on or off the stage, not even Incledon, sang a song with more exquisite feeling and sweeter sincerity of passion.
His companionship, however, in spite of his beauty, for more reasons than one, must prove, then, as it had proved on other occasions, extremely embarrassing to Miss Acton. Shortly after he had obtained his promotion he arrived home on a visit to his father, and meeting her, fell in love and offered her marriage. But Lucy had much good sense, which is not often allied with so much beauty as she possessed. Her heart admitted his fascination, and she had heard things of him that did him honour; moreover, he was a member of a profession which she adored. But it had come to her knowledge, by avenues difficult to determine,[Pg 40] that he was a gambler and drank without moderation, and that his theory of life and morals was such as deserved severe condemnation as it would surely end in provoking heavy punishment.
She declined his offer, yet with a maiden's secret fretfulness over the perception that her judgment compelled her into a step against the wishes and sighs of her heart.
He went to sea again and did not return for two years, and when he arrived he came broken, to the grief and shame of his father. He had been court-martialled and dismissed his ship. His offence was singular and characteristic: he was in a foreign port, and at night-fall he walked to the quay to return to his ship. He was intoxicated, and on being challenged by a sentry, tumbled the fellow into the water and immediately sprang after him and saved his life. Some in the face of his gallant career thought the sentence too severe: others regarded it as lenient. His own view of it he betokened by conceiving a bitter hatred against the Service and by resigning his commission.
He returned to England, and went to his father ostensibly to seek a berth ashore, but for many months past he had been hanging about Old Harbour Town, an idler and a tippler, and handsome as he was, and brilliant[Pg 41] as had been his short naval story, he was not the man to commend himself to Lucy Acton as a husband whatever may have been her secret feelings in regard to his person and some points of his character.
"How," he exclaimed, "I am always being disappointed! If you turn off at the bridge I shall not be allowed more than ten minutes' talk with you."
"I shall turn off at the bridge," she answered. "It is not long since that I was with your father. I left him in conversation with Captain Acton at Old Harbour House. I believe I heard your name mentioned as I passed away from them."
"What would they have to say about me?" he exclaimed, with a rather unmeaning smile. "I can believe that Sir William grows weary of my presence, and that he sometimes wishes me at the bottom of the sea. 'Tis a pity that he did so ill in prize money. He was born to no fortune, and married a moneyless lady, and here is my father, an Admiral in the British Navy, obliged to dwell in a cottage fit only to make a dwelling-house for a poet, whose calling is, I believe, the poorest paid of any. I am much troubled," he continued in a maudlin way, "to think that I should continue to be a burthen upon the old gentleman. But I assure you on my honour, madam, if I am[Pg 42] not independent of him this moment 'tis not because I have not been as diligent as Old Nick himself in looking about me. But go where I will and ask where I will, the door is shut, the place is full, the answer is nay. What a sweet little dog is that! How happy to be for ever frisking about you and often lifted and caressed!"
Here he sighed so loudly that she could not fail to hear him, and looked at her a little while with a somewhat tipsy steadfastness.
"There should be plenty to be done," said she. "There is the Army."
"The Army!" he cried. "Could you put a greater indignity upon a sailor than to compel him to shoulder a handspike and march up and down as though he were a soldier?"
She fell a-laughing at his sottish indignation, but quickly recollected herself. He burst into a loud guffaw when he saw that he had amused her, and said: "I was just now with Tupman. I wish I had his berth." Here he looked behind him to see if the lieutenant was following, but as a matter of fact Tupman had re-entered "The Swan." "He is stationed here to guard us against being invaded by the French, which he provides for so carefully by lying a-bed until ten in the morning, then sulking over his breakfast of ale, new bread, and[Pg 43] tobacco, then doing some work in his bit of garden—he is a great lover of vegetables—then lurching up to Old Harbour Town, where of an afternoon he may commonly be found sitting over a pot reading the newspaper and yarning with any man that will take a chair over against him, that I protest when I met him at 'The Swan' not an hour gone by he had not heard that a French privateersman had been chased ashore by one of our frigates last evening, and burnt after ten thousand pounds had been taken out of her."
"I think if the French intend to invade us, they will not be stopped by Mr Tupman and his brig."
"He thinks highly of his brig, though: says to me a day or two ago, 'I wish an enemy's cruiser would look in. She will not know that the Saucy is lying here. I believe I could make my carronades talk to her, and it would please me to see the pier and the shore dark with figures whilst I was towing my capture into Old Harbour.' I doubt if he would rise out of bed to give an order to chase even if a suspicious sail hove in sight. Here we are coming to the bridge, and you are going for a walk to the pier. Will you pluck me a daisy before you go? See, there are several amongst the grass just there. I have nothing to remember you by. I will wrap it in silver[Pg 44] paper, and it shall be the only sacred thing I possess."
"Oh no, sir, you can do without a daisy from me," she answered, though her cheeks were warm with one of those sudden blushes which seemed to glow as though to prove that her lovely bloom was entirely due to nature and not to art, as the suspicious eye might fancy or the cynical eye desire.
"You will deny me even a daisy?" he cried, with a sudden passion in his manner which alarmed her, as he was not sober. He sprang to the side of the road, and picking a daisy returned to her, pulled off his hat, and said earnestly—indeed in a voice of emotion and sincerity that put a fine and appealing meaning into the expression of his eyes which by the power of the impulse then governing him were superior to the drink in his head: "Let me entreat you, madam, to put this little flower to your sweet lips, and return it to me. It is but a trifle I ask: you are too good and generous to refuse me."
She took the flower, put it to her lips, and handed it to him. His passion for her was very visible as he received the flower with his eyes fixed upon her face. He gave her a low bow, and then put on his hat, and going to the hedge pulled a leaf in which he wrapped[Pg 45] the daisy, and carefully placed both in his waistcoat pocket.
"To prove my sincerity, madam," said he, "I could wish that the possession of this little flower might depend upon the result of a conflict between yonder brig with your humble obedient servant in command of her, and the biggest corvette the Frenchman has afloat."
"Why, sir, do not you think that a great deal of nonsense is talked by young men and old men to young women? But I believe your father will be glad to see you. I may have a reason to suppose he is waiting for you to return. Here we part, Mr Lawrence, and I wish you a good morning," and, sinking her figure in a curtsy fashionable in those days, she crossed the road and went down the little flight of wooden steps that led to the path by the river's bank and so to Old Harbour.
She had not intended to take this walk. At Old Harbour House dinner was served at two o'clock, and if she was not punctual Aunt Caroline would grow alarmed, and probably send the coachman on horseback in search of her. But it was only just noon, and there was time enough for her to arrive home at the dinner-hour, and also to make this little diversion to escape Mr Lawrence, who, she suspected, would have forced his company upon her even in this further walk had not she[Pg 46] excited his curiosity by saying that his father was waiting to see him. He was not too far gone in liquor to understand that something of significance to him lay in her reference to Sir William, and when presently she was upon the river-side footpath and took a cautious peep over her shoulder, she observed him through the trees mounting the lane and walking somewhat fast.
"It is a very great pity," she thought to herself, "that so handsome a young man, and one so spirited and daring as he has proved, should abandon himself to his vicious tastes. The longer he remains here the more sottish he will become, and the lower will his manhood sink till he will be at no pains to relieve his father from the obligation of supporting or helping him, and the gallant creature who, if he took the right path, would march easily to fame and dignity and affluence, must end as a drunken, trembling, degraded wretch, the object of pity or scorn, and who has pity for such people?" The beautiful girl sighed.
She had no intention of crossing the river by the ferry to gain the pier. When Mr Lawrence had advanced well ahead, she intended to resume the road he was taking and go home. Her mind, however, was occupied by him, and yonder, lying at the wharves, was the Minorca, of which she understood he was to receive the[Pg 47] command. She walked towards the vessel; she supplied an object for the little excursion, and the walk would give Mr Lawrence time enough to put the necessary distance between them. The river widened rapidly when it passed under the bridge. The smooth water at the mouth of it reflected the chequered band of the Saucy brig-of-war. Two or three smacks were hoisting their coloured canvas and sailing out to sea. On either hand the banks of the ravine sloped, well dressed in shrubs and wood, and here and there stood a little house. Some small boats lay in black specks away out between the two Heads fishing. Business was not very brisk in the Harbour just then, and the wharves were quiet. They were three; each of well-pitched timber long enough to supply berths stem and stern to two or three small vessels apiece. They were backed by a row of warehouses, some of which were Captain Acton's, and in these were stowed the rum, sugar, and tobacco which his two ships brought from the West Indies.

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