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Wastralls: A Novel

Wastralls: A Novel

Author:C. A. Dawson Scott


Trevorrick River was but a little stream to have fretted so deep a cleft between the hills as that which sloped from the main road of Tregols parish to the sea. From the source to..
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  Trevorrick River was but a little stream to have fretted so deep a cleftbetween the hills as that which sloped from the main road of Tregolsparish to the sea. From the source to the engulfing sands was barely amile, and the twinkling waters, if full and fierce in winter, showed asummer fear of their own broad stepping-stones. Nevertheless the sharpdeclivities, the juttings of rock, even the shelves and crags and wallsof Dark Head, had been formed by the gnawing of this tiny but persistentflow.

  The valley ran east and west. The sun, rising beyond St. Cadic Mill,poured its noon warmth over Hember and sank behind the sheltered plateauon which stood the old home of the Rosevears. The dying beams, however,could not reach the deep-set windows of Wastralls, for the crest of DarkHead reared itself between the farmstead and the harsh threat of theAtlantic. The house lay in a fold of land, hidden equally from thosewho moved upon the face of the waters, and those who might be said,though their habitations were at a distance, to neighbour it. As arefuge in troublous times, the position had its value, and there wereindications that this shelf of rock had been, many centuries ago, thenest of some wild brood.

  Upon their heels had followed as descendants or conquerors—the script istoo nearly obliterated to be read—men who in their own strong personrepresented the law. The gate-posts of Wastralls were crowned with theegg-shaped stones which indicated that it was a manor-house, and thatits owner had the right to dispense justice. Within the house, andoccupying a space from wall to wall, was the ancient Justice Room; butits stately uses had long been abated, its irrevocable decisions hadlost their force, in the autumn of its days it had become a lumber-roomand more lately a bedchamber.

  A century ago, from the mill at the head of the valley to the Wreckers’Hut on the foreshore, Trevorrick had been the property of one man. Ofpeasant stock, how Freathy Rosevear came by land and money was matter ofsurmise. ’He had gone out one morning a poor man, and had come homerich.’ Little need, however, to invent tales of hidden treasure,witchcraft, divination, when the caves in Morwen Cove made so safe astore-house: when the Wreckers’ Hut stood behind the teeth of the MadRip: when the lanes that converged upon the towns—the towns in whichqueer commodities could always be sold—were so deep and secret.Whatever the sources of his income, as fortunes went, in that remotedistrict, Freathy Rosevear was accounted wealthy. He was also a man totake the eye. Big, florid, fair, he might have stepped out of a Holbeincanvas, and tales of his unusual strength were told and retold of awinter’s evening in the cottages. Did his wife complain the store ofwreck was running low? Forthwith he had gone out, caught the first ofthe homing donkeys, and carried it, load and all, into her presence,with "A fardel for my Lady"—so the story.

  The man was as Saul to a kingless folk, a head and shoulders above themultitude. Like the last of the Tudor monarchs he brought the peopleamong whom he lived material well-being, and, like other outstandingpersonalities, stamped his impress on the current coin. Before he diedhe was "Old Squire" and, as such, he lived in the long memory of thecountryside. Not that to them his death was the final exit from thestage of his influence and activities. Though they followed him to hisburying, though they saw the sods falling earth to earth, they could notbelieve that abundant, penetrating, imperial vitality could be resolvedinto its elements. Recognizing that neither heaven nor hell was thefitting place for it, they showed their faith in the life after death bya hardy belief that Old Squire, though rendered invisible, was stillamong them.

  When this man’s grip upon Trevorrick relaxed, the land fell to his threelegitimate sons: for his other children, and he had done his part inpeopling the neighbourhood, he had provided during his life. Thelegitimate sons, Freathy, Constantine, and Tom, were good farmers all,but cast in an ordinary mould. They lived, they replenished the earthand, in the fullness of time, went back to it, dust to dust. A youngerConstantine now owned the mill, a younger Tom tilled the fat slopes ofHember, and Wastralls, the cradle of the race, was become the propertyof Freathy’s only child, his daughter Sabina. Every rood of land in thevalley was still Rosevear property, and the cousins, shut in by theirhill boundaries, formed a community conscious at once of its kinship andits isolation.

  Of the three farms, Wastralls was the largest and most important.Across the valley were wide commons—the wastralls—once bare, blown sand,but now converted by spire grass into turf for the fattening ofred-brown bullocks. On the heavy land between the house and the littlestream were orchards and cornfields, while behind the cliffs, tetheredin pairs to prevent them being blown over the edge, a flock of sheepnibbled the short grass. The manor itself was a low two-storied oblongof country stone and, with its courts and outhouses, seemed as much anexcrescence of the rocky ground as more solid outcroppings. A greyirregularity by day, it sank, when twilight fell, into its surroundings.At dawn St. Cadic Mill was a black tower against the saffron; at duskHember windows flamed with reflections of the west; but both at dawn anddusk Wastralls was more a presumption than a fact. The house was olderthan Hember, older than the mill, and its obscurity suggested that theforgotten builder had hoped the Storm-god might take Wastralls in hisstride, that Death might fail, among so many grey swells and hummocks,to distinguish it.

  The place had been built to house two families. A dividing wall cut thefine chambers on the western front from the low-pitched rooms thatlooked across the yard. A green door, stout and with a heavy lock, wasset in the dividing wall to allow of communication between the old-timelord of the manor and the bailiff who tilled his fields; but thefamilies, living back to back, having different modes of egress andingress, the one taking the field path, the other the road, preservedeach its privacy. When Old Squire brought a wife to Wastralls, she,preferring the homeliness of the farmstead, had made it theirdwelling-place. From thenceforward the life of the house centred in theroomy, whitewashed kitchen; and the fine chambers, swept and shuttered,were only used on ceremonial occasions. Old Squire had no use for stateor trappings and when his son Freathy reigned in his stead, the lesserman asked no greater luxury than had satisfied his sire.

  This second Freathy married a woman so indistinct that it was a wonderhe had seen her sufficiently well to fall in love. She ruled Wastrallswith a boneless hand, and used her knees for praying rather thanscrubbing. Of this vague, colourless creature was born the vitalbright-haired Sabina. Her father welcomed her as a beginning, "first amaid and then a child," but his wife’s effort left her exhausted. Thetonic air of the valley made it difficult for her to die, but she faileda little, month by month, until, unnoticed, she was able to slip intoher grave. Freathy’s thought was "must marry again, try to get a boy;’twon’t do to let a maid be heir of the land." But he was comfortableas a widower, more comfortable than he had been during Dusha’s pious,slatternly existence and, Time, the inexorable, drew the daisy quiltabout his neck, while he yet procrastinated.

  For lack of a son Freathy had taken his daughter with him about thefarm. His thoughts being of the cattle-market, of soils and crops, itwas of such matters that he spoke; and Sabina picked up the lore of theseasons as naturally as another child learns to sew and cook. Herfather was a man who drank, not continuously, but at intervals which,like a perspective of posts, showed diminishing interspaces. The childaccepted his habits as she accepted rain and shine and, when he wasunder the influence of liquor, did her young best to grapple with hisduties. By the time he died—from the effects of a night spentinadvertently in the open—she had gathered a little store of experience,had indeed been farming Wastralls for over a year. Freathy, intendingto remarry and leave hearty sons, had not troubled to make a will andthe girl of one-and-twenty succeeded to an unencumbered freehold of fivehundred acres, the manor-house and what remained of Old Squire’ssavings.

  Offers of help came from both Hember and St. Cadic. Each was willing towork Wastralls with his own land, each hoped Sabina might listen to acousinly tale of love. She, however, having inherited the robustconfidence of her grandfather, was determined to undertake on her ownaccount the adventure of farming. Nor were Tom and Constantine Rosevearaltogether surprised. They had not played with her as children withoutrecognizing her quality; and if they wondered ’what hand she’d make ofit,’ it was as those whose hearts prophesy unto them.

  The brothers who had inherited Hember and St. Cadic had died young, buteach had left a son. Tom, the owner of Hember, thought that as itsfields marched with those of Wastralls, he ought to marry his cousin;while Constantine sought her because the glint of her bright hair haddazzled him. A fine maid was Sabina, blue eyes flush with roundedcheeks, not the passionate eyes of Old Squire, but the blue ofice-depths when the sun is shining in a clear sky; and when it was aquestion of marriage she found the straight sticks who offeredthemselves for weapon and support were of a too familiar wood. Shewould go a little farther into the forest.

  _Arise up, Maid, all in your gown of green__For summer is a-come into day;__You are as fine a lady as wait upon the queen__In the merry morning of May.__Arise up, Maid, out of your bed__For summer is a-come into day;__Your chamber shall be strewed with the white rose and the red__In the merry morning of May_ [*]

  [*] Padstow Hobby-horse song.

  The green waves of the Atlantic roll strange flotsam into the sandy baysof that bitter coast; and the sea, hungry though it be, can give up morethan the dead. One summer on the bosom of a forgotten sunset, a boat haddrifted into Morwen Cove, to strand, when the tide turned, amid the weedand rubbish of the foreshore. In it, swollen with cold, unconscious,nearly dead, lay a waif, the survivor of some obscure wreck. LeadvilleByron, a hind who with his childless wife lived over the disusedfish-cellars at Wastralls, chanced upon the boat. Its contents stirredthe father in him and, as he carried home the bit of human waste, hisanxiety was lest it might be reclaimed; indeed he never quite lost hisfear that what the sea had given the land, that unknown of towns andcountry beyond the hills, might take. If inquiries were made, however,they did not reach Trevorrick and the child, a lusty, black-browedyoungster, grew to manhood, without further change in his surroundings.

  His native tongue had been unintelligible to the villagers and he couldnot give himself a name. His foster-parents, therefore, felt themselvesjustified in calling him Leadville. If his name were ever discovered hecould return to it, meanwhile he was buttressed against the curiosity ofstrangers. As was only natural the Byrons bred him to work on the land;and at eighteen, Wastralls—the delectable hillside, the edge of cliff,the tumuli of the ancient folk—were all he knew; indeed, it required acataclysm to prove to him that he was not a clod of Wastralls earth.

  In outward seeming the lad was not unlike the people among whom helived. A little more swarthy, with a more sombre expression in his darkeyes, a broader chest than was often seen, he might have passed for aCornishman. The difference was one of temperament and it was adifference so great, that never to the end of his life was he to beother to them than a ’foreigner.’

  One autumn, after a rainy, reedy summer, a summer of losses, Mr.Rosevear was forced to believe he could work the farm with fewerlabourers; and young Byron, being the last to join the little band ofhinds, must be the first to go. The lad took his dismissal hardly. Bydewing the land with his sweat he had made it his and, against his will,a deep and narrow will, he could not be disinherited. He consideredhimself as much part of Wastralls as a bush of tamarisk in the hedge.As, however, he must go, he listened to his foster-father’s suggestionand returned temporarily to the great waters which had spewed him up.He went, but in every ship’s wake, in the reek of foreign cities, in thewind that blew from home, he saw visions of those few fields which tohim were the world. He had the inward eye of the dreamer and, as theyear turned, saw spring drawing her green skirts over the hillside andhanging the orchard with her gossamers. He saw the dandelions starringthe thick grass by the river, the lush dark grass in which he had rolledhimself moved by the ecstasy of life; and to him the salt sea was barrenand unprofitable, a desert upon which he must go to and fro until thedays of his pilgrimage were accomplished. The death of old Byronbrought the wanderer back to Hindoo Cottage—as the fish-cellars werecalled—only to find that the wife had followed her man; and thathe—Leadville the younger—was again without even the semblance of a humantie. He had not loved the old couple, love did not at any time comeeasily to him and all the emotion of which he was capable had long beenconcentrated upon Wastralls; but he was anxious to secure hisfoster-father’s berth as teamster. To the outpourings of the neighbourshe listened unheeding and presently took his way to the farmhouse, thereto learn that Rosevear had been laid in a neater ditch than that of hisinadvertent choice and that Sabina—big, ripe, fair, a woman who mighthave stepped out of the Elizabethan age—reigned in his stead.

  The opportunity was self-evident and Byron, back in his place and oncemore happy, soon realized that his heart’s desire was within reach. Itwas not Sabina that he wanted but Wastralls; and that, again, not forambition’s sake, but because his late experience had taught him thevalue of security. Asking no more of life than permission to spend hisyouth, his strength, his passion on the land, he found consent inSabina’s awakening interest. She had disdained the easy-kindled firesof Tom, of Constantine, and of the Tregols lads, but the sombre glow inByron’s eyes was disturbing. It moved her as something unknown and fullof a strange promise, that promise which is in the rising sap andgerminating seed. The neighbours expressed a kindly apprehension, forthough marriage between persons of different race may be eugenicallysound, it seldom brings happiness to the individual; but Sabina wasbeyond reason, for in the stranger she had found her mate.

  Within a month the banns were called and a little later the oddlyassorted couple pushed off into matrimony. Whereas, however, Byronbelieved himself to be marrying Wastralls—the good farm and the wastelands by the sea—making it for ever flesh of his flesh, his inindissoluble union, Sabina did not intend to endow her lover with herworldly goods. She held the land by right of inheritance and by aworthier right, that of the farmer who deals understandingly with herfields. Although she cultivated the farm in the way that had broughtprosperity to the family, her stock was pedigree and realized goodprices, her seed was the best procurable and she was always ready to trynew manures and dressings. She was not a woman of ideas, neither wasshe reactionary but a fold of Old Squire’s mantle hung from hershoulders and, as the neighbours said, "to give the maid her due, her’sa first-rate farmer." She loved her farm, but as a sportsman loves agood dog. She exacted from it the utmost it could give and was itsconsiderate master, but she could have no conception of Leadville’sattitude. If it had been explained to her that he loved the land as aman loves a woman, she would have doubted her informant, and ifconvinced have thought her husband a fool for his pains. As it was,when he attempted to assert his new rights, as he did immediately aftertheir marriage, she stared in surprise.

  "’Oo told you to give the orders to the ’inds when I’ve got a tongue ofme own?"

  "I thought I was savin’ of ’ee a lot of trouble."

  "I don’t want yer to do my work for me. I can do it meself."

  "I should think you got enough to do indoors without goin’ outdoorsworkin’. I don’t see what a woman want to be out in all weathers for."

  Sabina laughed good-humouredly. "My dear feller, I always bin outdoor.Rain or fine don’t make any difference to me."

  "Well, my dear, you’ll lose all they good looks o’ yours. I don’t liketo see women all burned up. You’ll be an old woman before you’m a youngone."

  "I don’t care what I be, and I don’t believe a word you say is true.Ony’ow I shall chance it."

  "Well, ’tis the man’s place to teel the land."

  "A fine mess you’d make of it, too. Look at the Mill fields! If Conturned the ditches out they wouldn’t be so wet; even Tom don’t keep ’isfields so clean as mine."

  "I don’t care ’bout that, ’bain’t a woman’s work."

  "Aw, git away. ’Tidn’t all women that want to farm; but those that do,let’m ’av it. ’Tis just whether they can farm or can’t."

  "Well, I think it’s my business as I’m yer ’usband. You ought to let me’av it."

  "What’s the good to let you ’av it, you dunno nothing about farmin’.You bin to sea most all yer life. ’Tis years an’ years since youploughed a bit o’ ground."

  A dark colour came into the bridegroom’s cheek. "’Ow can you say thatwhen I was brought up on the land. I knaw all about farm work. ’Avingmarried you, to ’av the farm’s my due."

  Sabina sat very straight in her chair. "Now once for all," said she,"let’s settle this matter. Wastralls is mine, and I dare you to so muchas lay a finger on it. If you want to farm so much as all that, HigherPolnevas is to let, and its fields are joinin’ ours. Why don’t you goover and take that? I’ll let you ’av the money for that, but you won’t’av Wastralls."

  Byron had not expected opposition. Sabina, being a woman, wouldnaturally be glad to have the outdoor work taken off her hands. Hissurprise at her attitude was so intense that he stared at her in ahelpless silence, until she clinched the matter by exclaiming in herhearty, fresh-air voice, "’Tis no good for ’ee to think anything aboutit."

  This phrase opened the flood-gates. Usually somewhat silent, he hadmoods when the words tumbled over each other in a multitude beyondcounting. Perceiving he had miscalculated he set to work to retrievehis error and, during the course of the evening, learnt many things butnot how to make Sabina change her mind. The poor man, desperatelyafraid, did all he knew. He entreated and she smiled, he blustered andshe laughed, he cajoled and she warmed to him but, though she warmed,she did not weaken. Her first word was her last: "’Tis no good for ’eeto think anything about it."

  Byron was helpless. He could not win her to his will, neither could hebreak her. She was capable, as she let him see, of separating from him.If he appealed to the hinds, they would side with her. Her cousins atHember and St. Cadic, the neighbours in the adjacent valleys, would takeher part.

  Turning the matter over, however, he perceived that time, by givingSabina fresh interests, fresh cares, might prove his friend. Nurslingstie the mother to the house and when the babies came his wife would haveher hands full. She must let go what she could not hold; and he wouldbe ready to pick up, bit by bit, what she let fall.

  In this hope he settled to his new life. It was unthinkable that heshould attempt to farm Higher Polnevas, when his mind was filled withWastralls. Of a brooding nature, through which at times flames ofemotion broke, he was content to spend his days thinking out anddwelling on the changes he would make when his opportunity came.Sabina’s farming, cautious and well-considered, chafed him. He wantedthe land to bring forth a hundredfold where she now gave a mere return.He was her lover asking of her all that she could give, eager only tohave the exploiting of her possibilities. To make her fruitful was tobe his work. He saw the seed swell in her bosom, the silent marvel ofgrowth, the harvest that should reward his husbandry; and, because outof the heart the mouth speaketh, when he talked it was of intensivefarming, of the money that lay in sugar-beet, strawberries, asparagus,of market-gardening and the use of glass. Thereby he damaged his cause;for Sabina, listening, came to the conclusion that she had married anunpractical dreamer. If he believed in his theories why did he not rentland and prove them? That he only talked, satisfied her that she hadbeen right in her refusal to let him farm Wastralls and her grip on theland tightened. The kindly fields deserved better of her than that sheshould put them at the mercy of a dreamer.

  Whether or no the man’s life that she led did her disservice, it iscertain that no children came to modify the situation. In the loft, thecarved wooden cradle lay with only the wind to set it a-rock; below, therooms were as empty of new life as is a whispering conch. The bustle ofthe farm was like the swish of water about a rock islet, that littlespot of sterility and stagnation at the heart of multitudinous life.Sabina, who had natural instincts, who had mothered a bibulous fatherand many a bit of life from the fields and hedges, was disappointed; buther feeling was mild compared with that of her husband. His childrenwere to have delivered Wastralls into his hand, assuaged at last thelong ache of his passion; but the years turned on their axes, going asthey had come. At first Byron bore himself with a good courage. Afterthe unprofitable days of his seafaring it was enough to watch thetamarisk stems warming into red life, to spend the daylight wanderingover the well-known ground, to return at night to the grey house on itsshelf of rock. If, after a while, these delights palled, it was becausethey led nowhither.

  Meanwhile, under Sabina’s judicious management, the farm prospered.Neither cared to spend, the one because she had no wants, the otherbecause what he desired could not be bought. With every year the bankstocking grew heavier, also the man’s heart; and every year found histhoughts fixed more bitterly upon his disappointment. Sabina saw butwithout understanding. Her man was moody, foolish too with his perpetualharping on his rights, but she was not thereby alienated, for, wise orunreasonable, he was her man. Though she envied Tom his houseful ofdaughters and Constantine his big sons, her own lack left her the moreleisure to care for her husband’s comfort. The standard of living atWastralls was higher than that of the surrounding farms. Byron ateaccording to his fancy and lay soft; was given indeed those things towhich he was indifferent, and denied that after which he hungered.

  "I’m kep’ like a prize bullock," he said morosely, "when what I want isto be workin’ and doin’ for meself."

  "Well, my dear, ’oo told you not to work? There’s plenty to do, there’sthat four-acre field, why don’t yer go and plough up that, ’stead of in’ere mumpin’ about?"

  "As though I was yer ’ind?"

  "What, still wantin’ to be maister?"

  "Iss, an’ shall be till I die."

  "Now look ’ere. If you want money to buy Polnevas you can ’av it, butWastralls you will never ’av."

  "Well, if I can’t ’av Wastralls I won’t ’av nothing; but you mark mywords"—he bent towards her and brought one hand with a thump into thepalm of the other—"if I can’t ’av it by ’itch, I will by crook."

  "Not so long as I live then, any’ow."

  Byron was slightly underhung, a formation which gives the face a look ofstrength and purpose. "We shall see, some day, which of us is thestrongest of the two."

  The woman, happy in her work and with her main affection satisfied,could answer with reasonable good-humour: "Well, my dear feller, ’tis myland and I must do my duty by it. ’Tis I’m responsible, not you, to thefolks up yonder," and a movement of her bright head indicated theburial-ground at Church Town. "I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but Ican’t ’elp it."

  "Oh, hang it—sorry?"

  "Well, I be sorry. I’d like for ’ee to ’av everything to make yer’appy; but Wastralls I can’t give." She smiled at him in her friendlyfashion, a sweet inviting smile. "I do my best to make it up to yer inother ways and that you know."

  "Iss, I want bread and you do give me a stone." He turned away, leavingher, as ever, uncomprehending. It was impossible for her to think of himas other than a child, who for his own sake must be denied andprevented, who was hers to care for and, in ways that could not harmhim, to indulge. The truth to her, as to so many of us, would have beenunbelievable.

  The break-up of the situation was due to an accident. Sabina had drivena young horse to the fair at St. Columb Major and this animal, excitedby the unwonted traffic, the smells and the noise, became unmanageable.

  Plunging down the hill, he came into collision with a heavy van. Theprancing feet slipped and he fell, shooting his driver over the shafts.Though clear of horse and cart, she was flung with considerable violenceagainst the front wheel of the van. This startled the van horses andthe heavy lumbersome creatures, with a prodigious clatter, started upthe street. Sabina, rendered unconscious by the blow she had received,had fallen between the wheels and the van, lurching forward, passed overher.

  It was thought at first that she was killed but the crushed woman who,later that afternoon, was admitted to the little hospital at Stowe, wasstill breathing. As the case seemed hopeless, the husband was sent for,and Byron, in a ferment of excitement, came pounding in on the heels ofthe messenger. His horse was in a lather when he checked him at thehospital gate. "Poor Sabina, poor old girl, it was a terrible thing forher to die as she lived; away from home like that. No doubt ’er ’eadwas full of the farmin’, never once thought of dyin’, but the Lorrdwould be merciful."

  "If she’s goin’ to die, don’t ’ee keep it from me," he said to Dr.Derek, who was in charge of the case. "I’d rather knaw the worst."

  "And," as he explained to the neighbours, on his return home, afterbeing allowed to glance at the unconscious face on the pillow, "the poordoctor ’ee couldn’t give me no encouragement."