The Penance of John Emmet


I have thought fit in this story to alter all the names involved and disguise the actual scene of it: and have done this so carefully that, although the story has a key, the reader who should search for it would not only waste his time but miss even the poor satisfaction of having guessed an idle riddle. He whom I call Parson West is now dead. He was an entirely conscientious man; which means that he would rather do wrong himself than persuade or advise another man--above all, a young man--to do it. I am sure therefore that in burying the body of John Emmet as he did, and enlisting my help, he did what he thought right, though the action was undoubtedly an illegal one. Still, the question is one for casuists; and remembering how modest a value my old friend set on his own wisdom, I dare say that by keeping his real name out of the narrative I am obeying what would have been his wish. His small breach of the law he was (I know) prepared to answer for cheerfully, should the facts come to light. He has now gone where their discovery affects him not at all.

Parson West, then, when I made his acquaintance in 188-, had for thirty years been vicar of the coast-parish of Lansulyan. He had come to it almost fresh from Oxford, a young scholar with a head full of Greek, having accepted the living from his old college as a step towards preferment. He was never to be offered another. Lansulyan parish is a wide one in acreage, and the stipend exiguous even for a bachelor. From the first the Parson eked out his income by preparing small annotated editions of the Classics for the use of Schools and by taking occasional pupils, of whom in 188- I was the latest. He could not teach me scholarship, which is a habit of mind; but he could, and in the end did, teach me how to win a scholarship, which is a sum of money paid annually. I have therefore a practical reason for thinking of him with gratitude: and I believe he liked me, while despising my Latinity and discommending my precociousness with tobacco.

His pupils could never complain of distraction. The church-town--a single street of cottages winding round a knoll of elms which hide the Vicarage and all but the spire of St. Julian's Church--stands high and a mile back from the coast, and looks straight upon the Menawhidden reef, a fringe of toothed rocks lying parallel with the shore and half a mile distant from it. This reef forms a breakwater for a small inlet where the coombe which runs below Lansulyan meets the sea. Follow the road downhill from the church-town and along the coombe, and you come to a white-washed fishing haven, with a life-boat house and short sea-wall. The Porth is its only name. On the whole, if one has to live in Lansulyan parish the Porth is gayer than the church-town, where from the Vicarage windows you look through the trees southward upon ships moving up or down Channel in the blue distance and the white water girdling Menawhidden; northward upon downs where herds of ponies wander at will between the treeless farms, and a dun-coloured British earthwork tops the high sky-line. Dwellers among these uplands, wringing their livelihood from the obstinate soil by labour which never slackens, year in and year out, from Monday morning to Saturday night, are properly despised by the inhabitants of the Porth, who sit half their time mending nets, cultivating the social graces, and waiting for the harvest which they have not sown to come floating past their doors. By consequence, if a farmer wishes to learn the spiciest gossip about his nearest neighbour, he must travel down to the Porth for it.

And this makes it the more marvellous that what I am about to tell, happening as it did at the very gates of the Porth, should have escaped the sharpest eyes in the place.

The Vicar's custom was to read with me for a couple of hours in the morning and again for an hour and a half before dinner. We had followed this routine rigidly and punctually for three months or so when, one evening in June, he returned from the Porth a good ten minutes late, very hot and dusty, and even so took a turn or two up and down the room with his hands clasped behind his coat-tails before settling down to correct my iambics.

"John Emmet is dead," he announced, pausing before the window with his back towards me and gazing out upon the ill-kept lawn.

"Wasn't he the coxswain of the life-boat?" I asked.

"Ah, to be sure, you never saw him, did you? He took to his bed before you came . . . a long illness. Well, well, it's all over!" Parson West sighed. "He saved, or helped to save, a hundred and fifteen lives, first and last. A hundred and fifteen lives!"

"I've heard something of the sort down at the Porth. A hundred and fifty, I think they said. They seemed very proud of him down there."

"Why?" The Vicar faced round on me, and added after a moment abruptly-- "He didn't belong to them: he was not even born in this parish."

"Where then?"

He disregarded the question. "Besides, the number was a hundred and fifteen: that's just the pity."

I did not understand: but he had seated himself at table and was running through my iambics. In the third verse he underlined a false quantity with blue pencil and looked up for an explanation. While I confessed the fault, his gaze wandered away from me and fell upon his fingers drumming upon the table's edge. A slant of red sunshine touched the signet-ring on his little finger, which he moved up and down watching the play of light on the rim of the collet. He was not listening. By-and-by he glanced up, "I beg your pardon--" stammered he, and leaving the rest of my verses uncorrected, pointed with his pencil to the concluding one. "That's not Greek," he said.

"It's in Sophocles," I contended: and turning up the word in "Liddell and Scott," I pushed the big lexicon under his nose.

For a moment he paid no heed to the action; did not seem to grasp the meaning of it. Then for the first and last time in my acquaintance with him he broke into a passion of temper.

"What do you mean, Sir? It's offensive, I tell you: a downright offensive, ungentlemanly thing to do! Yes, Sir, ungentlemanly!" He crumpled up my verses and tossed them into the waste-paper basket. "We had better get on with our Tacitus." And "Offensive!" I heard him muttering once more, as he picked up the book and found his place. I began to construe. His outburst had disconcerted me, and no doubt I performed discreditably: but glancing up in some apprehension after a piece of guess-work which even to me carried no conviction, I saw that again he was not attending. After this, by boldly skipping each difficulty as it arose I managed to cover a good deal of ground with admirable fluency.

We dined together in silence that evening, and after dinner strolled out to the big filbert-tree under which, for a few weeks in the year, Parson West had his dessert laid and sipped his thin port--an old common-room fashion to which he clung. To the end of his days he had the white cloth removed before dessert, and the fruits and the one decanter set out upon polished mahogany.

I glanced at him while helping myself to strawberries and cream. He sat nervously folding and refolding the napkin on his knee. By-and-by he spoke, but without looking at me.

"I lost my temper this afternoon, and I beg your pardon, my boy."

I began to stammer my contrition for having offended him: but he cut me short with a wave of the hand. "The fact is," he explained, "I was worried by something quite different."

"By John Emmet's death," I suggested. He nodded, and looked at me queerly while he poured out a glass of Tarragona.

"He was my gardener years ago, before he set up market-gardening on his own account."

"That's queer too," said I.

"What's queer?" He asked it sharply.

"Why, to find a gardener cox'n of a life-boat."

"He followed the sea in early life. But I'll tell you what is queer, and that's his last wish. His particular desire was that I, and I alone, should screw down the coffin. He had Trudgeon the carpenter up to measure him, and begged this of me in Trudgeon's presence and the doctor's. What's more, I consented."

"That's jolly unpleasant," was my comment, for lack of a better.

The Vicar sat silent for a while, staring across the lawn, while I watched a spider which had let itself down from a branch overhead and was casting anchor on the decanter's rim. With his next question he seemed to have changed the subject.

"Where do you keep your boat now?"

"Renatus Warne has been putting in a new strake and painting her. I shall have her down on the beach to-morrow."

"Ah, so that's it? I cast my eye over the beach this afternoon and couldn't see her. You haven't been trying for the conger lately."

"We'll have a try to-morrow evening if you'll come, Sir. I wish you would."

The Vicar, though he seldom found time for the sport, was a famous fisherman. He shook his head; and then, leaning an arm on the table, gazed at me with sudden seriousness.

"Look here: could you make it convenient to go fishing for conger this next night or two--and to go alone?"

I saw that he had something more to say, and waited.

"The fact is," he went on after a glance towards the house, "I have a ticklish job to carry through--the queerest in all my experience; and unfortunately I want help as well as secrecy. After some perplexity I've resolved to ask you: because, upon my word, you're the only person I can ask. That doesn't sound flattering--eh? But it isn't your fitness I doubt, or your nerve. I've hesitated because it isn't fair to drag you into an affair which, I must warn you, runs counter to the law in a small way."

I let out a low whistle. "A smuggling job?" I suggested.

"Good Heavens, boy! What do you take me for?"

"I beg your pardon, then. But when you talk of a row-boat--at night--a job that wants secrecy--breaking the law--"

"I'll have to tell you the whole tale, I see: and it's only fair."

"Not a bit," said I stoutly. "Tell me what you want done and I'll do it. Afterwards tell me your reasons, if you care to. Indeed, Sir, I'd rather have it that way, if you don't mind. I was abominably disrespectful this afternoon--"

"No more about that."

"But I was: and with your leave, Sir, that's the form of apology I'll choose."

And I stood up with my hands in my pockets.

"Nonsense, nonsense," said the Vicar, eyeing me with a twinkle. But I nodded back in the most determined manner.

"Your instructions, sir--that is, unless you prefer to get another helper."

"But I cannot," pleaded he. "That's the mischief."

"Very well, then. Your instructions, please." And thus I had my way.

This happened on a Tuesday. The next evening I walked down to the Porth and launched my boat. A row of idlers watched me from the long bench under the life-boat house, and a small knot on the beach inspected my fishing-gear and lent a hand to push off. "Ben't goin' alone, be 'e?" asked Renatus Warne. "Yes," said I. "The conger'll have 'ee then, sure enough." One or two offered chaffingly to come out and search for me if I shouldn't return before midnight; and a volley of facetious warnings followed me out upon the calm sea.

The beach was deserted, however, when I returned. I had hooked three fine conger; and having hauled up the boat and cleaned her, I made my way back to the vicarage, well pleased, getting to bed as the clock struck two in the morning.

This was Thursday; and in the evening, between seven and eight o'clock, I launched the boat again under the eyes of the population and started fishing on the inner grounds, well in sight of the Porth. Dusk fell, and with it the young moon dropped behind the western headland. Far out beyond Menawhidden the riding-lights of a few drifters sparkled in the darkness: but I had little to fear from them.

The moon had no sooner disappeared than I shifted my ground, and pulling slowly down in the shore's shadow (I had greased the leathers of my oars for silence), ran the boat in by the point under Gunner's Meadow, beached her cunningly between two rocks, and pulled a tarpaulin over to hide her white-painted interior. My only danger now lay in blundering against the coastguard: but by dodging from one big boulder to another and listening all the while for footsteps, I gained the withy bed at the foot of the meadow. The night was almost pitch-black, and no one could possibly detect the boat unless he searched for it.

I followed the little stream up the valley bottom, through an orchard, and struck away from it across another meadow and over the rounded shoulder of the hill to my right. This brought me in rear of a kitchen-garden and a lonely cob-walled cottage, the front of which faced down a dozen precipitous steps upon the road leading from Lansulyan to the Porth. The cottage had but one window in the back, in the upper floor; and just beneath it jutted out a lean-to shed, on the wooden side of which I rapped thrice with my knuckles.

"Hist!" The Vicar leaned out from the dark window above. "Right: it's all ready. We must stow it in the outhouse. Trudgeon is down in the road below, waiting for me to finish."

No more was said. The Vicar withdrew: after a minute I heard the planking creak: then something white glimmered in the opening of the window--something like a long bundle of linen, extruded inch by inch, then lowered on to the penthouse roof and let slide slowly down towards me.

"Got it?"

"Right." I steadied it a moment by its feet, then let it slide into my arms, and lowered it on to the gravelled path. It was the body of John Emmet, in his winding-sheet.

"Carry it into the shed," whispered the Vicar. "I must show Trudgeon the coffin and hand him the keys. When I've got rid of him I'll come round."

Somehow, the second time of handling it was far worse than the first. The chill of the corpse seemed to strike through its linen wrappers. But I lifted it inside, shut the door upon it, and stood wiping my forehead, while the Vicar closed the window cautiously, drew the blind, and pressed-to the clasp.

A minute later I heard him calling from the front, "Mr. Trudgeon--Mr. Trudgeon"; and Trudgeon's hob-nailed boots ascending the steps. Silence followed for many minutes: then a slant of candlelight faded off the fuchsia-bush round the corner, and the two men stumbled down the staircase--stood muttering on the doorstep while a key grated in the lock--stumbled down the steps and stood muttering in the sunken roadway. At length they said "Good-night" and parted. I listened while the sound of their footsteps died away: Trudgeon's down the hill towards the Porth, the Vicar's up towards the church-town.

After this I had some painful minutes. As they dragged by, an abominable curiosity took hold of me, an itch to open the door of the shed, strike a match, and have a look at the dead face I had never seen. Then came into my mind a passage in the Republic which I had read a fortnight before--how that one Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus under the north wall of the city, observed some corpses lying on the ground at the place of execution; and how he fought between his desire to look and his abhorrence until at length, the fascination mastering him, he forced his eyes open with his fingers and ran up exclaiming, "Look, wretches, look! Feed your fill on the fair sight!" . . . My seat was an inverted flower-pot, and clinging to it I began to count. If the Vicar did not arrive before I reached five hundred, why, then . . .

"Hist!" He had fetched his compass round by the back of the garden, treading so softly that the signal sounded almost in my ear and fetched me off my flower-pot in a nervous quake. He wore a heavy pea-jacket, and, as a smell of hot varnish announced, carried a dark lantern beneath it. He had strapped this to his waist-belt to leave both hands free.

We lifted the body out and carried it across the meadow, the Vicar taking the shoulders and I the heels. And now came the real hazard of the night. If the coastguard or any belated wanderer should blunder upon us, we stood convicted of kidnapping a corpse, and (as the Vicar afterwards allowed) there was simply no explanation to be given. When we gained the orchard and pushed through the broken fence, every twig that crackled fetched my heart into my mouth: and I drew my first breath of something like ease when at length, in the withy bed at the foot of Gunner's Meadow, we laid our burden down behind the ruin of an old cob-wall and took a short rest before essaying the beach.

But that breath was hardly drawn before I laid a warning hand on the Vicar's sleeve. Someone was coming down the cliff-track: the coastguard, no doubt. He halted on the wooden footbridge, struck a match and lit his pipe. From our covert not ten yards away I saw the glow on his face as he shielded the match in the hollow of both his hands. It was the coastguard--a fellow called Simms. His match lit, I expected him to resume his walk. But no: he loitered there. For what reason, on earth? Luckily his back was towards us now: but to me, as I cowered in the plashy mud and prayed against sneezing, it seemed that the damnatory smell of the Vicar's lantern must carry for half a mile at least.

And now I heard another footstep, coming from the westward, and a loose stone kicked over the cliff. Another coastguard! The pair hailed each other, and stood on the footbridge talking together for a good three minutes.

Then to our infinite relief they parted with a "So long!" and each made slowly off by the way he had come. It was just a meeting of the patrols after all.

Another ten minutes must have gone by before we dared to lift the body again: and after a nervous while in crossing the beach we found the boat left high and dry by the ebb, and had an interminable job to get her down to the water without noise. I climbed in and took the oars: the Vicar lifted a sizeable stone on board and followed.

"The Carracks," he whispered. "That's the spot he named to me."

So I pulled out towards the Carracks, which are three points of rock lying just within the main barrier of Menawhidden, where it breaks up towards its western end into a maze of islets. While I pulled, the Vicar knelt on the bottom-boards and made fast the stone to John Emmet's feet.

Well, I need not tell the rest of our adventure at length. We reached the Carracks, and there the Vicar pulled out a short surplice from the immense inner pocket of his pea-jacket, donned it, and read the burial service in due form by the light of his dark lantern: and by the light of it, as I arranged John Emmet's shroud, I had my first and last glimpse of his face--a thin face, old and hollow, with grey side-whiskers: a face extraordinarily pallid: in other circumstances perhaps not noticeable unless it were for a look of extreme weariness which had lasted even into the rest of death.

"We therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body (when the sea shall give up her dead), and the life of the world to come. . . ."

Together we balanced it on the gunwale, and with the help of the stern-board tilted it over. It dropped, into fifteen fathoms of water.

There was another funeral next day in Lansulyan churchyard--where so many have come to be buried who never in life heard the name of Lansulyan: the harvest of Menawhidden, commemorated on weather-beaten stones and, within the church, on many tablets which I used to con on Sundays during the Vicar's discourses. The life-boat men had mustered in force, and altogether there was a large attendance at the graveside. At one point a fit of coughing interrupted the Vicar in his recital of the service. I was the one auditor, however, who understood the meaning of it.

That evening we took our dessert again under the great elm. Somehow I felt certain he would choose this hour for his explanation: and in due course it came.

"I'm a truth-speaking man by habit," he began after a long gaze upwards at the rooks now settling to roost and making a mighty pother of it. "But I'm afraid there's no getting round the fact that this afternoon I acted a lie. And yet, on the whole, my conscience is easy."

He sipped his wine, and went on meditatively--

"Morals have their court of equity as well as the law of the land: and with us"--the Vicar was an old-fashioned Churchman--"that court is the private conscience. In this affair you insisted on putting your conscience into my hands. Well, I took the responsibility, and charge myself with any wrong you have committed, letting your confidence stand to your credit, as well as the service you have done for me--and another. Do you know the grey marble tablet on the south wall of the church--the Nerbuddha monument?"

I nodded.

"'Sacred to the memory of Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Stanhope, C.B., and 105 Officers and Men of Her Majesty's 2-th Regiment of Foot, lost in the wreck of the Nerbuddha, East Indiaman, on Menawhidden, January 15th, 1857. . . .' Then follows a list of the officers. Underneath, if you remember, is a separate slab to the officers and crew of the Nerbuddha, who behaved admirably, all the senior officers keeping order to the last and going down with the ship."

I nodded again, for I knew the inscriptions pretty well by heart.

"The wreck happened in the first winter of my incumbency here. Then, as now, I had one pupil living with me, an excellent fellow. Dick Hobart was his name, his age seventeen or thereabouts, and my business to put some polish on a neglected education before he entered the Army. His elder brother had been a college friend of mine, and indeed our families had been acquainted for years.

"Dick slept in the room you now occupy. He had a habit, which I never cured, of sitting up late over a pipe and a yellow-backed novel: and so he happened to be dressed that night when he saw the first signal of distress go up from Menawhidden. He came to my room at once and called me up: and while I tumbled out and began to dress, he ran down to Porth to give the alarm.

"The first signal, however, had been seen by the folks down there, and he found the whole place in a hubbub. Our first life-boat had arrived less than three months before; but the crew got her off briskly, and were pulling away lustily for the reef when it occurred to a few of those left behind that the sea running was not too formidable for a couple of seine-boats lying high on the beach: and within five minutes these were hauled down and manned with scratch crews--Dick Hobart among them.

"Three days of east wind had knocked up a heavy swell: but the wind was blowing a moderate gale only--nothing to account for a big ship (as she was already reported to be) finding herself on Menawhidden. Three signals only had been shown, and these in quick succession. We learned afterwards that she went down within twelve minutes of striking. She had dashed straight on the Carracks, with the wind well behind her beam, topmasts housed for the night, but, barring that, canvassed like a well-found ship sure of her sea-room. And the Carracks had torn the bottom out of her.

"The difficulty with the life-boat and two seine-boats was to find the position of the wreck, the night being pitch dark and dirty, and the calls and outcries of the poor creatures being swept down the wind to the westward. Our fellows pulled like Trojans, however, hailing and ahoying as they went; and about half-way down the line of Menawhidden they came on the first of the Nerbuddha's boats, laden with women and children, in charge of the fourth officer and half-a-dozen seamen. From her they learned the vessel's name and whereabouts, and having directed her on her way to the Porth, hurried forward again. They passed another boat similarly laden, and presently heard the distracting cries of swimmers, and drove straight into the wreckage and the struggling crowd of bodies. The life-boat rescued twenty-seven, and picked up four more on a second journey: the first seine-boat accounted for a dozen: the second (in which Hobart pulled an oar) was less fortunate, saving five only--and yet, as I shall tell you, my young friend had (and, for that matter, still has) abundant reason to be thankful for his voyage in her; for on that night he plucked from the sea the greatest treasure of his life.

"She--for it was a small girl of seven, and he took her from the arms of a seaman who died soon after being lifted into the boat-turned out to be the Colonel's daughter. She had stood by her mother's side above the gangway while the women passed down the side into the boats: for that noble English lady had insisted that as it was the Colonel's duty to follow his men, so it was for the Colonel's wife to wait until every other woman and every child had filed past. The Nerbuddha had gone down under her as she stood there beside her husband, steadied by his hand on her shoulder. Both bodies were afterwards recovered.

"Altogether fifty-two were buried in this parish: other bodies were washed ashore or picked up from time to time, some at great distances up and down the Channel. In the end the list of those unaccounted for came to forty, or by other accounts thirty-six. That was my first experience of what Menawhidden could do. I have had many since: but to this day our little church--yes, even when we decorate it for harvest-festival and pile the sheaves within the Communion rails--remains for me the dark little building where the bodies lay in rows waiting to be identified, and where I and half-a-dozen volunteers took turns in keeping watch day and night while the windows shook and the damp oozed down the walls.

"The cause of the wreck was never made clear. The helmsman had gone, and the captain (his body was among the missing), and the first, second, and third officers. But two seamen who had been successively relieved at the wheel in the early hours of the night agreed on the course set by the captain. It was a course which must finally bring them straight on Menawhidden. Yet there was no evidence to show that the captain changed it. The men knew nothing of Channel navigation, and had simply obeyed orders. She had struck during the first mate's watch. The fourth officer (survivor) had also been on deck. He gave evidence that his superior, Mr. Rands, had said nothing about the course. For his own part he had supposed the ship to be a good fifteen miles from the coast. They had sighted no shore-lights to warn them: but the weather was hazy. Five minutes before the catastrophe Mr. Rands had remarked that the wind was increasing, but had deferred shortening sail. The ship was an old one, but newly rigged throughout. Her compasses had been adjusted and the ship swung at Greenhithe, just before the voyage. Mr. Murchison, the captain, was a trusted commander of the H.E.I.C.: he came originally from Liverpool, and had worked his way up in the company's service: a positive man and something of a disciplinarian, almost a martinet--not a man who would bear crossing easily. He was in his cabin, but came on deck at once, ready dressed; and had, with Colonel Stanhope's assistance, kept admirable order, getting out the three boats as promptly as possible. A fourth had actually been launched, and was being manned when the vessel plunged and stove her in as she went down.

"That is as much as needs be told about the Nerbuddha. Let me get on to the happier part of the story, that which concerns Dick Hobart and the small girl whom by Heaven's mercy he helped to save. Her name was Felicia--Felicia Rose Derwent Stanhope in full. Her uncle and guardian, Sir John Derwent, came down and fetched her home, with the bodies of her father and mother. I have told you that Dick was just then waiting for his commission, which, by the way, his family could poorly afford to purchase. Well, in recognition of his 'gallantry' (as the old gentleman was good enough to term it) Sir John, who possessed a good deal of influence, had him gazetted within six weeks, and to the 2-th Regiment-- 'for which,' so ran the gracious letter bringing the news, 'you have performed the first of what I hope will be a long list of distinguished services.'

"Pretty, was it not? Yes, but there's prettier to come. Felicia, who was an only child and quite an heiress in a small way, kept up from the first a steady correspondence with her 'preserver': childish letters, to begin with, but Dick kept them all. In Bombay, in Abyssinia, for a few weeks in England (when he saw her for the first time since the wreck), then back in India again, he has told me since that the world held but one woman for him, and that was the little girl growing up to womanhood in her Bedfordshire home.

"Well it all happened as you are guessing. Dick, who had inherited a little money by this time, and was expecting his majority, returned to England in '72 on a long furlough. Needless to say he paid a visit to Cressingham, where Felicia lived under the wing of a widowed aunt: equally needless to say what happened there. The engagement was a short one--six weeks: and Dick flattered me immensely with an invitation to come up and perform the ceremony."

The Vicar paused, refilled his glass, and leaning back gazed up at the now silent nests. "All this," thought I, "may be mighty interesting in its way, but what--"

"But what, you'll be asking, has all this to do with John Emmet? I'm coming to that. On the evening of my arrival at Cressingham, Dick, who was lodging at the village inn where I too had a room, took me over to pay my respects to the ladies. We had taken our leave and were passing down the pretty avenue of limes to the entrance gates, when he paused and hailed a man stooping over a fountain in the Italian garden on our left, and apparently clearing it of dead leaves.

"'Hi! John Emmet!'

"The man straightened his back, faced round, and came towards us, touching his hat.

"'This is the gentleman, John, who has come expressly to tie the knot next Wednesday. You must know,' said Dick, turning to me, 'that Miss Felicia and John Emmet are sworn friends, and he owes me a mighty grudge for taking her away. He's been gardener here for fifteen--sixteen--how many years is it, John?'

"'Then,' said I, 'I suppose you were here before the wreck of the Nerbuddha, and knew Miss Felicia's parents?'

"The man gave a start, and his hat, which he had pulled off, and with the brim of which he was fumbling, slipped from his fingers and rolled on the turf.

"'Oh, yes, I forgot!' put in Dick. 'I ought to have told you that Mr. West here is the Rector of Lansulyan, and was at the time of the wreck."

"'Indeed, Sir!' John Emmet had recovered his hat, and confronted me with a face for which I spared a glance before bending my eyes on the daisies at my feet. 'I--I took service here some months after that event.'

"'Come, Padre'--these were the next words I heard--'if you wish to prod up all the daisies on Felicia's property, arise early to-morrow and begin. But if we're to dine at the Hall to-night it's time to be getting back to the inn and changing our clothes.'

"I looked up, and my eyes fell on the retreating back of John Emmet, already half-way towards the Italian garden."

"'Queer fellow, that--what's his name?--John Emmet,' said I late that night on our return to the inn, as Dick and I mixed our whiskey and prepared for a smoke before his sitting-room fire.

"'Tile loose, I fancy,' answered Dick, pausing with a lighted match in his hand. 'I've an idea that he owes me a grudge for coming here and carrying off Felicia.'

"'What gives you that notion?'

"'Well, you see he has always been a favourite of hers. She tells me that the hours she managed to steal and spend in the garden, chatting with John Emmet while he worked, were the happiest in her childhood. He seems to have been a kind of out-of-door protector to her, and I'll bet she twisted him round her small thumb.'

"'That's little enough to go upon,' was my comment. 'It struck me, on the contrary, that the man eyed you with some affection, not to say pride.'

"'Well, it's a small thing, but I can't help remembering how he took the news of Felicia's--of our engagement. You see, it happened at a fancy-dress dance.'

"'What happened?'

"'Don't be dense, Padre. Why, it--the engagement. The dance was given by some people who live two miles from here--people called Bargrave. Felicia and I drove over. She wore an old Court dress of her grandmother's or great-grand-mother's: I'm no hand at costumes, and can only tell you that she looked particularly jolly in it. I went in uniform--mess uniform, that is. It's one of the minor advantages of the service that on these occasions a man hasn't to put on a cavalier's wig and look like a goat out for a holiday. Well, as I was saying, at this particular dance it happened. It was daybreak when we started to drive home; a perfect midsummer morning, sun shining, dew on the hedges, and the birds singing fit to split themselves. Felicia and I had a lot to say to each other, naturally; and it occurred to us to stop the carriage at the gates and send it on while we walked up to the house together. We took the path leading through the Italian garden, and there--pretty well in the same place where you saw him this afternoon-- we came on John Emmet, already out and at work: or rather he was leaning on a hoe and staring after the carriage as it moved up the avenue behind the limes. We came on him from behind, and, I suppose, suddenly. Anyhow, we scared him. I never saw such a face in my life as he turned on us! It went all white in an instant, and then slowly whiter. No doubt our dress was unusual: but I'm not accustomed to be taken for a ghost--'

"'Was it you who frightened him?'

"'Yes, I think so. He kept his eyes on me, anyway: and at first, when Felicia asked him to congratulate her, he didn't seem to hear. After a bit, however, he picked up his speech and muttered something about fate, and wishing her joy--I forget what. Felicia confessed afterwards that his face had fairly frightened her.'

"'Look here,' I asked; 'it may seem an irrelevant question, but has the 2-th made any changes in its uniform lately?--any important changes, I mean.'

"'No: the War Office has been obliging enough to leave us alone in that respect: out of sight out of mind, I suppose. In point of fact we've kept the same rig--officers and men--for something like a quarter of a century.' He paused. 'I see what you're driving at. The man, you think, may be an old deserter!'

"'Not so fast, please. Now here's another question. You remember the night after the wreck of the Nerbuddha: the night you took a turn in Lansulyan Church, watching the bodies? You came to me in the morning with a story which I chose to laugh at--'

"'About the face at the window, you mean?' Dick gave a mock shudder. 'I suppose my nerves were shaken. I've been through some queer things since: but upon my soul I'd as soon face the worst of them again as take another spell with a line of corpses in that church of yours.'

"'But--the face?'

"'Well, at the time I'd have sworn I saw it: peering in through the last window westward in the south aisle--the one above the font. I ran out, you remember, and found nobody: then I fetched a lantern and flashed it about the churchyard.'

"'There were gravestones in plenty a man could hide behind. Should you remember the face?'

"Dick considered for a while. 'No: it didn't strike me as a face so much as a pair of eyes; I remember the eyes only. They were looking straight into mine."

"'Well, now. I've always guessed there was something queer about that Nerbuddha business: though till now I've never told a soul my chief reason for believing so. After you left me that night, and while I was dressing, it occurred to me from the last of the three signals--the only one I saw--that the wreck must be somewhere near the Carracks, and that Farmer Tregaskis had a seine-boat drawn up by the old pallace [1] at Gunner's Meadow, just opposite the Carracks.'"

"'It struck me that if it were possible to knock up Tregaskis and his boys and the farmhand who slept on the premises, and get this boat launched through the surf, we should reach the wreck almost as soon as the life-boat. So I took a lantern and ran across the fields to the farm. Lights were burning there in two or three windows, and Mrs. Tregaskis, who answered my knock, told me that her husband and the boys had already started off--she believed for Gunner's Meadow, to launch their boat. There had been talk of doing so, anyhow, before they set out. Accordingly, off I pelted hot-foot for the meadow, but on reaching the slope above it could see no lanterns either about the pallace or on the beach. It turned out afterwards that the Tregaskis family had indeed visited the beach, ten minutes ahead of me, but judging it beyond their powers to launch the boat short-handed through the surf, were by this time on their way towards the Porth. I thought this likely enough at the time, but resolved to run down and make sure.

"'Hitherto I had carried my lantern unlit: but on reaching the coombe bottom I halted for a moment under the lee of the pallace-wall to strike a match. In that moment, in a sudden lull of the breakers, it seemed to me that I heard a footstep on the loose stones of the beach; and having lit my candle hastily I ran round the wall and gave a loud hail. It was not answered: the sound had ceased: but hurrying down the beach with my lantern held high, I presently saw a man between me and the water's edge. I believe now that he was trying to get away unobserved: but finding this hopeless he stood still with his hands in his pockets, and allowed me to come up. He was bare-headed, and dressed only in shirt and trousers and boots. Somehow, though I did not recognise him, I never doubted for a moment that the man belonged either to my own or the next parish. I was a newcomer in those days, you remember.

"'"Hulloa!" said I, "where do you come from?"'

"'He stared at me stupidly and jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the west. I inferred that he came from one of the shore-farms in that direction. He looked like a middle-aged farmer--a grizzled man with a serious, responsible face. "But you're wet through," I said, for his clothes were drenched.

"'For answer he pointed towards the surf, and lifting my lantern again, I detected a small cask floating a little beyond the breakers. Now before coming to Lansulyan I had heard some ugly tales of the wrecking done in these parts, and at the sight of this I fairly lost my temper. 'It seems to me,' said I, "a man of your age should be ashamed of himself, lurking here for miserable booty when there are lives to save! In God's name, if you have a spark of manhood in you, follow me to the Porth!" I swung off in a rage, and up the beach: after a moment I heard him slowly following. On the cliff track I swallowed down my wrath and waited for him to come up, meaning to expostulate more gently. He did not come up. I hailed twice, but he had vanished into the night.

"'Now this looked ugly. And on reflection, when I reached the Porth and heard men wondering how on earth a fine ship found herself on Menawhidden in such weather, it looked uglier yet. The fellow--now I came to think it over--had certainly shrunk from detection. Then, thirty hours later, came your story of the face, and upset me further. I kept my suspicions to myself, however. The matter was too grave for random talking: but I resolved to keep eyes and ears open, and if this horrible practice of wrecking did really exist, to expose it without mercy.

"'Well I have lived some years since in Lansulyan: and I am absolutely sure now that no such horrors exist, if they ever existed.'

"'But the man?' was Dick's query.

"'That's what I'm coming to. You may be sure I looked out for him: for, unlike you, I remembered the face I saw. Yet until to-day I have never seen it since.'

"'Until to-day?'

"'Yes. The man I saw on the beach was Miss Felicia's gardener, John Emmet. He has shaved his beard; but I'll swear to him.'

"All that Dick could do was to pull the pipe from his mouth and give a long whistle. 'But what do you make of it?' he asked with a frown.

"'As yet, nothing. Where does the man live?'

"'In a small cottage at the end of the village, just outside the gate of the kitchen-garden.'


"'No: a large family lives next door and he pays the eldest girl to do some odd jobs of housework.'

"'Then to-morrow,' said I, 'I'll pay him a call.'

"'Seen your man?' asked Dick next evening, as we walked up towards the house, where again we were due for dinner.

"'I have just come from him: and what's more I have a proposition to make to Miss Felicia, if you and she can spare me an hour this evening.'

"The upshot of our talk was that, a week later, as I drove home from the station after my long railway journey, John Emmet sat by my side. He had taken service with me as gardener, and for nine years he served me well. You'll hardly believe it"--here the Vicar's gaze travelled over the unkempt flower-beds--"but under John Emmet's hand this garden of mine was a picture. The fellow would have half a day's work done before the rest of the parish was out of bed. I never knew a human creature who needed less sleep--that's not the way to put it, though-- the man couldn't sleep: he had lost the power (so he said) ever since the night the Nerbuddha struck.

"So it was that every afternoon found the day's work ended in my garden, and John Emmet, in my sixteen-foot boat, exploring the currents and soundings about Menawhidden. And almost every day I went with him. He had become a learner--for the third time in his life; and the quickest learner (in spite of his years) I have ever known, for his mind was bent on that single purpose. I should tell you that the Trinity House had discovered Menawhidden at last and placed the bell-buoy there --which is and always has been entirely useless: also that the Lifeboat Institution had listened to some suggestions of mine and were re-organising the service down at the Porth. And it was now my hope that John Emmet might become coxswain of the boat as soon as he had local knowledge to back up the seamanship and aptitude for command in which I knew him to excel every man in the Porth. There were jealousies, of course: but he wrangled with no man, and in the end I had my way pretty easily. Within four years of his coming John Emmet knew more of Menawhidden than any man in the parish; possibly more than all the parish put together. And to-day the parish is proud of him and his record.

"But they do not know--and you are to be one of the four persons in the world who know--that John Emmet was no other than John Murchison, the captain who lost the 'Nerbuddha'! He had come ashore in the darkness some five minutes before I had surprised him on the beach: had come ashore clinging to the keg which I saw floating just beyond the breakers. Then and there, stunned and confounded by the consequences of his carelessness, he had played the coward for the first and last time in his life. He had run away--and Heaven knows if in his shoes I should not have done the same. For two nights and a day a hideous fascination tied him to the spot. It was his face Dick had seen at the window. The man had been hiding all day in the trench by the north wall of the churchyard; as Dick ran out with a lantern he slipped behind a gravestone, and when Dick gave up the search, he broke cover and fled inland. He changed his name: let this be his excuse, he had neither wife nor child. The man knew something of gardening: he had a couple of pounds and some odd shillings in his pocket--enough to take him to one of the big midland towns--Wolverhampton, I think--where he found work as a jobbing gardener. But something of the fascination which had held him lurking about Lansulyan, drove him to Cressingham, which--he learned from the newspaper accounts of the wreck--was Colonel Stanhope's country seat. Or perhaps he had some vague idea that Heaven would grant him a chance to make amends. You understand now how the little Felicia became his idol.

"At Lansulyan he had but two desires. The first was to live until he had saved as many lives as his carelessness had lost in the Nerbuddha. For it was nothing worse, but mere forgetfulness to change the course: one of those dreadful lapses of memory which baffle all Board of Trade inquiry. You may light, and buoy, and beacon every danger along the coast, and still you leave that small kink in the skipper's brain which will cast away a ship for all your care. The second of his desires you have helped me to fulfil. He wished in death to be John Murchison again, and lie where his ship lies: lie with his grand error atoned for. John Emmet needs no gravestone: for John Emmet lived but to earn John Murchison's right to a half-forgotten tablet describing him as a brave man. And I believe that Heaven, which does not count by tally, has granted his wish."

[1] Pilchard store.


facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest

Add The Penance of John Emmet to your library.

Return to the Arthur Quiller-Couch library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Return of Joanna

© 2022