Author: Pearce, J. H. (Joseph Henry), 1856-
Cornwall (England : County) — Fiction
Drolls From Shadowland
|The Man who Coined his Blood into Gold||1|
|An Unexpected Journey||15|
|The Man who could Talk with the Birds||27|
|A Pleasant Entertainment||49|
|The Man who Desired to be a Tree||61|
|The Man who Had Seen||73|
|The Unchristened Child||85|
|The Man who Met Hate||95|
|The Haunted House||109|
|Gifts and Awards||119|
|Friend or Foe?||133|
|The Fields of Amaranth||145|
|The Comedy of a Soul||155|
THE MAN WHO COINED HIS
BLOOD INTO GOLD.
The yoke of Poverty galled him exceedingly, and he hated his taskmistress with a most rancorous hatred.
As he climbed up or down the dripping ladders, descending from sollar to sollar towards the level where he worked, he would set his teeth grimly that he might not curse aloud—an oath underground being an invitation to the Evil One—but in his heart the muffled curses were audible enough. And when he was at work in the dreary level, with the darkness lying on his shoulder like a hand, and the candles shining unsteadily through the gloom, like little evil winking eyes, he brooded so moodily over his bondage to Poverty, that he desired to break from it at any cost.
“I’d risk a lem for its weight in gowld: darned ef I wedn’!” he muttered savagely, as he dug at the stubborn rock with his pick.
He could hear the sounds of blasting in other levels—the explosions travelling to him in a muffled boom—and above him, for he was working beneath the bed of the ocean, he could faintly distinguish the grinding of the sea as the huge waves wallowed and roared across the beach.
“I’m sick to death o’ this here life,” he grumbled; “I’d give a haand or a’ eye for a pot o’ suvrins. Iss, I’d risk more than that,” he added darkly: letting the words ooze out as if under his breath.
At that moment his pick detached a piece of rock which came crashing down on the floor of the level, splintering into great jagged fragments as it fell.
He started back with an exclamation of uncontrollable surprise. The falling rock had disclosed the interior of a cavern whose outlines were lost in impenetrable gloom, but which here and there in a vague fashion, as it caught the light of the candle flickering in his hat, seemed to sparkle as if its walls were crusted with silver.
“Lor’ Jimmeny, this es bra’ an’ queer!” he gasped.
As he leaned on his pick, peering into the cavern with covetous eyes, but with a wildly-leaping heart, he was aware of an odd movement among the shadows which were elusively outlined by the light of his dip.
It was almost as though some of them had an independent individuality, and could have detached themselves from their roots if they wished.
It was certain a squat, hump-backed blotch, that was sprawling blackly beside a misshapen block, was either wriggling on the floor as if trying to stand upright . . . or else there was something wrong with his eyes.
He stared at the wavering gloom in the cavern, with its quaint, angular splashes of glister, where heads of quartz and patches of mundic caught the light from the unsteady flame of the candle, and presently he was certain that the shadows were alive.
Most of all he was sure that the little hump-backed oddity had risen to its feet and was a veritable creature: an actual uncouth, shambling grotesque, instead of a mere flat blotch of shadow.
Up waddled the little hump-back to the hole in the wall where Joel stood staring, leaning on his pick.
“What can I do for’ee, friend?” he asked huskily: his voice sounding faint, hoarse, and muffled, as if it were coming from an immense distance, or as if the squat little frame had merely borrowed it for the nonce.
Joel stared at the speaker, with his lower jaw dropping.
“What can I do for’ee, friend?” asked the hump-back; peering at the grimy, half-naked miner, with his little ferrety eyes glowing luminously.
Joel moistened his lips with his tongue before he answered. “Nawthin’, plaise, sir,” he gasped out, quakingly.
“Nonsense, my man!” said the hump-back pleasantly, rubbing his hands cheerfully together as he spoke. And Joel noticed that the fingers, though long and skinny—almost wrinkled and lean enough, in fact, to pass for claws—were adorned with several sparkling rings. “Nonsense, my man! I’m your friend—if you’ll let me be. O never mind my hump, if it’s that that’s frightening you, I got that through a fall a long while ago,” and the lean brown face puckered into a smile. “Come! In what way can I oblige’ee, friend? I can grant you any wish you like. Say the word—and it’s done! Just think what you could do if you had heaps of money, now—piles of suvrins in that owld chest in your bedroom, instead o’ they paltry two-an’-twenty suvrins which you now got heeded away in the skibbet.”
Joel stared at the speaker with distended eyes: the great beads of perspiration gathering on his forehead.
“How ded’ee come to knaw they was there?” he asked.
“I knaw more than that,” said the hump-back, laughing. “I could tell’ee a thing or two, b’leeve, if I wanted to. I knaw tin,[A] cumraade, as well as the next.” And with that he began to chuckle to himself.
“Wedn’ee like they two-an’-twenty suvrins in the skibbet made a hunderd-an’-twenty?” asked the hump-back insinuatingly.
“Iss, by Gosh, I should!” said Joel.
“Then gi’me your haand on it, cumraade; an’ you shall have ’em!”
“Here goes, then!” said Joel, thrusting out his hand.
The hump-back seized the proffered hand in an instant, covering the grimy fingers with his own lean claws.
“Oh, le’go! le’go!” shouted Joel.
The hump-back grinned; his black eyes glittering.
“I waan’t be niggardly to’ee, cumraade,” said he. “Every drop o’ blood you choose to shed for the purpose shall turn into a golden suvrin for’ee—there!”
“Darn’ee! thee ben an’ run thy nails in me—see!”
And Joel shewed a drop of blood oozing from his wrist.
“Try the charm, man! Wish! Hold un out, an’ say, Wan!”
Joel held out his punctured wrist mechanically.
There was a sudden gleam—and down dropped a sovereign: a bright gold coin that rang sharply as it fell.
“Try agen!” said the hump-back, grinning delightedly.
Joel stooped first to pick up the coin, and bit it eagerly.
“Ay, good Gosh! ‘tes gowld, sure ’nuff!”
“Try agen!” said the hump-back “Make up a pile!”
Joel held out his wrist and repeated the formula.
And another coin clinked at his feet.
“I needn’ wait no longer, s’pose?” said the hump-back.
“Wan!” cried Joel. And a third coin dropped.
He leaned on his pick and kept coining his blood eagerly, till presently there was quite a little pile at his feet.
The hump-back watched him intently for a time: but Joel appeared to be oblivious of his presence; and the squat little figure stealthily disappeared.
The falling coins kept chiming melodiously, till presently the great stalwart miner had to lean against the wall of the level to support himself. So tired as he was, he had never felt before. But give over his task he either could not, or would not. The chink of the gold-pieces he must hear if he died for it. He looked down at them greedily. “Wan! . . . Wan! . . . Wan! . . .”
Presently he tottered, and fell over on his heap.
At that same moment the halting little hump-back stole out from the shadows immediately behind him, and leaned over Joel, rubbing his hands gleefully.
“I must catch his soul,” said the little black man.
And with that he turned Joel’s head round sharply, and held his hand to the dying man’s mouth.
Just then there fluttered up to Joel’s lips a tiny yellow flame, which, for some reason or other, seemed as agitated as if it had a human consciousness. One might almost have imagined it perceived the little hump-back, and knew full well who and what he was.
But there on Joel’s lips the flame hung quivering. And now a deeper shadow fell upon his face.
Surely the tiny thing shuddered with horror as the hump-back’s black paws closed upon it!
But, in any case, it now was safely prisoned. And the little black man laughed long and loudly.
“Not so bad a bargain after all!” chuckled he.
[A] To “knaw tin” is among the miners of Cornwall a sign of, and a colloquial euphemism for, cleverness.
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.
The performance was over: the curtain had descended and the spectators had dispersed.
There had been a slight crush at the doors of the theatre, and what with the abrupt change from the pleasant warmth and light of the interior to the sharp chill of the night outside, Preston shivered, and a sudden weakness smote him at the joints.
The crowd on the pavement in front of the theatre melted away with unexampled rapidity, in fact, seemed almost to waver and disappear as if the mise en scène had changed in some inexplicable way.
A hansom drove up, and Preston stepped into it heavily, glancing drowsily askance at the driver as he did so.
Seated up there, barely visible in the gloom, the driver had an almost grisly aspect, humped with waterproof capes, and with such a lean, white face. Preston, as he glanced at him, shivered again.
The trap-door above him opened softly, and the colourless face peered down at him curiously.
“Where to, sir?” asked the hollow voice.
Preston leaned back wearily. “Home,” he replied.
It did not strike him as anything strange or unusual, that the driver asked no questions but drove off without a word. He was very weary, and he wanted to rest.
The sleepless hum of the city was abidingly in his ears, and the lamps that dotted the misty pavements stared at him blinkingly all along the route. The tall black buildings rose up grimly into the night; the faces that flitted to and fro along the pavements, kept ever sliding past him, melting into the darkness; and the cabs and ‘buses, still astir in the streets, had a ghostly air as they vanished in the gloom.
Preston lay back, weary in every joint, a drowsy numbness settling on his pulse. He had faith in his driver: he would bring him safely home.
Presently they were at one of the wharves beside the river: Preston could hear the gurgle of the water around the piles.
Not this way had he ever before gone homeward. He looked out musingly on the swift, black stream.
“Just in time: we can go down with the tide,” said a voice.
Preston would have uttered some protest, but this sluggishness overpowered him: it was as if he could neither lift hand nor foot. The inertia of indifference had penetrated into his bones.
Presently he was aware that he had entered a barge that lay close against the wharf, heaving on the tide. And, as if it were all a piece of the play, the lean old driver, with his dead-white face, had the oars in his hands and stood quietly facing him, guiding the dark craft down the stream.
The panorama of the river-bank kept changing and shifting in the most inexplicable manner, and Preston was aware of a crowd of pictures ever coming and going before his eyes: as if some subtle magician, standing behind his shoulder, were projecting for him, on the huge black screen of night, the most marvellous display of memories he had ever contemplated. For they were all memories, or blends of memories, that now rose here on the horizon of his consciousness. There was nothing new in essentials presented to him: but the grouping was occasionally novel to a fault.
The dear old home—the dear old folks! Green hills, with the little white-washed cottage in a dimple of them, and in the foreground the wind-fretted plain of the sea. The boyish games—marbles and hoop-trundling—and the coming home at dusk to the red-lighted kitchen, where the mother had the tea ready on the table and the sisters sat at their knitting by the fire.
The dear, dear mother! how his pulse yearned towards her! there were tears in his eyes as he thought of her now. Yet, all the same, the quiet of his pulse was profound.
And there was the familiar scenery of his daily life: the ink-stained desks, the brass rails for the books, the ledgers and bank-books, and the files against the walls; and the faces of his fellow-clerks (even the office boy) depicted here before him to the very life.
The wind across the waters blew chilly in his face: he shivered, a numbness settling in his limbs.
His sweet young wife, so loving and gentle—how shamefully he had neglected her, seeking his own pleasure selfishly—there she sat in the familiar chair by the fireside with dear little Daisy dancing on her knee. What a quiet, restful interior it was! He wondered: would they miss him much if he were dead? . . . Above all, would little Daisy understand what it meant when some one whispered to her “favee is dead“?
The wavering shadows seemed to thicken around the boat. And the figure at the oars—how lean and white it was: and yet it seemed a good kind of fellow, too, he thought. Preston watched it musingly as the stream bore them onward: the rushing of the water almost lulling him to sleep.
Were they sweeping outward, then, to the unknown sea?
It was an unexpected journey. . . . And he had asked to be taken home!
Presently the air grew full of shapes: shadowy shapes with mournful faces; shapes that hinted secrets, with threatenings in their eyes.
If a man’s sins, now, should take to themselves bodies, would it not be in some such guise as this they would front and affright him at dead of night?
Preston shivered, sitting there like a mere numb lump.
How much of his wrong-doing is forgiven to a man—and how much remembered against him in the reckoning?
How awful this gruesome isolation was becoming!
Was it thus a man went drifting up to God?
The figure at the oars was crooning softly. It was like the lullaby his mother used to sing to him when he was a child.
There was a breath of freer air—humanity lay behind them—they were alone with Nature on the vast, dim sea.
The numbness crept to the roots of his being. He had no hands to lift; he had no feet to move. His heart grew sluggish: there was a numbness in his brain.
Death stood upright now in the bow before him: and in the east he was aware of a widening breadth of grey.
Would the blackness freshen into perfect day for him . . . or would the night lie hopelessly on him for ever? . . .
The figure drew near—and laid its hand across his eyes. . . .
“Thrown out of the hansom, and the wheels went over him, sir. He was dead in less than five minutes, I should think.”
“Cover his face . . . and break it gently to his wife.”
THE MAN WHO COULD TALK
WITH THE BIRDS.
A TALE TOLD BY THE FIRESIDE.
Wance upon a time there was a youngster in Zennor who was all’ys geekin'[B] into matters that warn’t no use in the world. Some do say ‘a was cliver, too, weth it all, an’ cut out that there mermaid in the church[C] what the folks do come from miles round to see. Anyway, ‘a warn’t like ‘es brawthers an’ sesters, an’ ‘es folks dedn’ knaw what to maake of un, like.
Well, wan day when ‘a was wand’rin’ about, down to Nancledrea or some such plaace, ‘a got ‘mong lots o’ trees an’ bushes an’ heerd the cuckoos callin’ to ayche awther, an’ awther kinds o’ birds what was singin’ or talkin,’ an’ all as knawin’ as humans, like. So no rest now cud ‘a git, poor chuckle-head! for wantin’ to larn to spayke weth they.
Well, it warn’t long arter that ‘a was geekin’ as usual round some owld ruined crellas[D] up to Choon, when ‘a seed a man weth a long white beard settin’ on wan o’ the burrows[E] on the hill that are ‘longside that owld Quoit[F] up there.
‘A was a bowldish piece o’ goods, was the youngster, simmin’ly, for ‘a dedn’ mind the stranyer a dinyun,[G] though ‘a was like an owld black witch,[H] they do say. Anyhow, the two beginned jawin’ together, soon got thick as Todgy an’ Tom. An’ by-an’-by the stranyer wormed out of un how ‘a was all’ys troubled in ‘es mind ’cause ‘a cudn’ onderstaand what the birds was sayin’.
“I’d give anything in the world,” says the bucca-davy,[I] “ef I cud onnly larn to spayke weth they.”
“Aw, es it so, me dear,” said the stranyer: “well, I’ll tayche’ee to talk to they, sure ’nuff, ef thee’ll come up to that owld Quoit weth me.”
“What must I pay’ee?” axed the youngster, bowld-like. For he’d heerd o’ cureyus bargains o’ this kind, an’ ‘a dedn’ want to risk ‘es sawl.
“Nawthin’! Nawthin’, me dear!” said the stranyer. “I shall git paid for’t in a way o’ me awn.”
Well, the end of it was, accordin’ to the story, that the youngster ‘greed to go ‘long weth un: so up the two of ’em went to the Quoit.
When they come up to un the stones seemed to oppen, an’ they went inside an’ found un like a house. But that was hunderds o’ years ago. The owld Quoit now es more like a crellas, though ‘a still got a bra’ gayte rock for a roof.
Anyhow, they went in, ‘cordin’ to the story; an’ there they lived for a number o’ years.
But, somehow, when they was wance got in, the youngster cudn’ git out agen nohow. ‘A cud geek through the cracks, an’ see the country an’ the people, but the stones wedn’ oppen, an’ ‘a cudn’ git out.
But the owld black witch keeped ‘es promise to un, an’ tayched un all that ‘a wanted to knaw.
The craws that croaked on the Quoit in the sunshine, an’ the sparrers an’ wagtails an’ awther kinds o’ birds that come flittin’ round an’ cheepin’ to ayche awther, the owld witch tayched un (‘cordin’ to the story) to onderstaand everything any of ’em said.
Well, at laast ‘a got so cliver, ded the youngster, that there warn’t no bird but what ‘a cud talk to; from the owld black raven, wha’s all’ys cryin’ “corpse!” to the putty li’l robins what wedn’ hurt a worm.
But aw! lor’ Jimmeny! warn’t ‘a disappointed when ‘a found what ‘a’d ben so hankerin’ arter warn’t wuth givin’ a snail’s shill to knaw.
He’d ben thinkin’, ‘fore ‘a cud onderstaand them, that what they’d be talkin’ about to ayche awther wed be somethin’ cureyus an’ mighty cliver, all sorts o’ strange owld saycrets, s’pose. But ‘a found, when ‘a come to spayke their language, that instead o’ tellin’ ’bout haypes o’ treasures, an’ hunted housen, an’ owld queer ways, they was all the time talkin’ ’bout their mait or their nestes, an’ awther silly jabber like that.
So ‘a was mighty disappointed, an’ got very law-sperrited, though ‘a dedn’ like to confess it to the witch.
An’ now, thinks the youngster, he’d like to go home agen: an’ shaw off ‘fore the na