Read MIDSUMMER FIRES II of The Laird's Luck and other Fireside Tales, free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

It was Midsummer Eve, and a Saturday, when Hester knocked at the Mayows’ green door on the Town Quay.  The Mayows’ house hung over the tideway, and the Touch-me-not schooner, home that day from Florida with a cargo of pines, and warped alongside the quay, had her foreyard braced aslant to avoid knocking a hole in the Mayows’ roof.

A Cheap Jack’s caravan stood at the edge of the quay.  The Cheap Jack was feasting inside on fried ham rasher among his clocks and mirrors and pewter ware; and though it wanted an hour of dusk, his assistant was already lighting the naphtha-lamps when Hester passed.

Steam issued from the Mayows’ doorway, which had a board across it to keep the younger Mayows from straggling.  A voice from the steam invited her to come in.  She climbed over the board, groped along the dusky passage, pushed open a door and looked in on the kitchen, where, amid clouds of vapour, Mrs. Mayow and her daughter Cherry were washing the children.  Each had a tub and a child in it; and three children, already washed, skipped around the floor stark naked, one with a long churchwarden pipe blowing bubbles which the other two pursued.  In the far corner, behind a deal table, sat Mr. Mayow, and patiently tuned a fiddle ­a quite hopeless task in that atmosphere.

“My gracious!” Mrs. Mayow exclaimed, rising from her knees; “if it isn’t Hester already!  Amelia, get out and dry yourself while I make a cup of tea.”

Hester took a step forward, but paused at a sound of dismal bumping on the staircase leading up from the passage.

“That’s Elizabeth Ann,” said Mrs. Mayow composedly, “or Heber, or both.  We shall know when they get to the bottom.  My dear, you must be perishing for a cup of tea.  Oh, it’s Elizabeth Ann!  Cherry, go and smack her, and tell her what I’ll do if she falls downstairs again.  It’s all Matthew Henry’s fault.”  Here she turned on the naked urchin with the churchwarden pipe.  “If he’d only been home to his time ­”

“I was listening to Zeke Penhaligon,” said Matthew Henry (aged eight).  “He’s home to-day in the Touch-me-not.”

“He’s no good to King nor country,” said Mrs. Mayow.

“He was telling me about a man that got swallowed by a whale ­”

“Go away with your Jonahses!” sneered one of his sisters.

“It wasn’t Jonah.  This man’s name was Jones ­Captain Jones, from Dundee.  A whale swallowed him; but, as it happened, the whale had swallowed a cask just before, and the cask stuck in its stomach.  So whatever the whale swallowed after that went into the cask, and did the whale no good.  But Captain Jones had plenty to eat till he cut his way out with a clasp-knife ­”

“How could he?”

“That’s all you know.  Zeke says he did.  A whale always turns that way up when he’s dying.  So Captain Jones cut his way into daylight, when, what does he see but a sail, not a mile away!  He fell on his knees ­”

“How could he, you silly?  He’d have slipped.”

But at this point Cherry swept the family off to bed.  Mrs. Mayow, putting forth unexpected strength, carried the tubs out to the back-yard, and poured the soapy water into the harbour.  Hester, having borrowed a touzer, tucked up her sleeves and fell to tidying the kitchen.  Mr. Mayow went on tuning his fiddle.  It was against his principles to work on a Saturday night.

“Your wife seems very strong,” observed Hester, with a shade of reproach in her voice.

“Strong as a horse,” he assented cheerfully.  “I call it wonnerful after what she’ve a-gone through.  ‘Twouldn’ surprise me, one o’ these days, to hear she’d taken up a tub with the cheeld in it, and heaved cheeld and all over the quay-door.  She’s terrible absent in her mind.”

Mrs. Mayow came panting back with a kettleful of water, which she set to boil; and, Cherry now reappearing with the report that all the children were safe abed, the three women sat around the fire awaiting their supper, and listening to the voice of the Cheap Jack without.

“We’ll step out and have a look at him by-and-by,” said Cherry.

“For my part,” Mrs. Mayow murmured, with her eyes on the fire, “I never hear one of those fellers without wishing I had a million of money.  There’s so many little shiny pots and pans you could go on buying for ever and ever, just like Heaven!”

She sighed as she poured the boiling water into the teapot.  On Saturday nights, when the children were packed off, a deep peace always fell upon Mrs. Mayow, and she sighed until bed-time, building castles in the air.

Their supper finished, the two girls left her to her musings and stepped out to see the fun.  The naphtha-lamps flared in Hester’s face, and for a minute red wheels danced before her eyes, the din of a gong battered on her ears, and vision and hearing were indistinguishably blurred.  A plank, like a diving-board, had been run out on trestles in front of the caravan, and along this the assistant darted forwards and backwards on a level with the shoulders of the good-humoured crowd, his arms full of clocks, saucepans, china ornaments, mirrors, feather brushes, teapots, sham jewellery.  Sometimes he made pretence to slip, recovered himself with a grin on the very point of scattering his precious armfuls; and always when he did this the crowd laughed uproariously.  And all the while the Cheap Jack shouted or beat his gong.  Hester thought at first there were half-a-dozen Cheap Jacks at least ­he made such a noise, and the mirrors around his glittering platform flashed forth so many reflections of him.  Trade was always brisk on Saturday night, and he might have kept the auction going until eleven had he been minded.  But he had come to stay for a fortnight (much to the disgust of credit-giving tradesmen), and cultivated eccentricity as a part of his charm.  In the thickest of the bidding he suddenly closed his sale.

“I’ve a weak chest,” he roared.  “Even to make your fortunes ­which is my constant joy and endeavour, as you know ­I mustn’t expose it too much to the night air.  Now I’ve a pianner here, but it’s not for sale.  And I’ve an assistant here ­a bit worn, but he’s not for sale neither.  I got him for nothing, to start with ­from the work’us” (comic protest here from the assistant, and roars of laughter from the crowd) ­“and I taught him a lot o’ things, and among ’em to play the pianner.  So as ‘tis Midsummer’s Eve, and I see some very nice-lookin’ young women a tip-tapping their feet for it, and Mr. Mayow no further away than next door, and able to play the fiddle to the life ­what I say is, ladies and gentlemen, let’s light up a fire and see if, with all their reading and writing, the young folks have forgot how to dance!”

In the hubbub that followed, Cherry caught Hester by the arm and whispered –­

“Why I clean forgot ’twas Midsummer Eve!  We’ll try our fortun’s afterwards.  Aw, no need to look puzzled ­I’ll show ’ee.  Here, feyther, feyther!...”  Cherry ran down the passage and returned, haling forth Mr. Mayow with his fiddle.

And then ­as it seemed to Hester, in less than a minute ­empty packing-cases came flying from half-a-dozen doors ­from the cooper’s, the grocer’s, the ship-chandler’s, the china-shop, the fruit-shop, the “ready-made outfitter’s,” and the Cheap Jack’s caravan; were seized upon, broken up, the splinters piled in a heap, anointed with naphtha and ignited almost before Mr. Mayow had time to mount an empty barrel, tune his “A” string by the piano, and dash into the opening bars of the Furry Dance.  And almost before she knew it, Hester’s hands were caught, and she found herself one of the ring swaying and leaping round the blaze.  Cherry held her left hand and an old waterman her right.  The swing of the crowd carried her off her feet, and she had to leap with the best.  By-and-by, as her feet fell into time with the measure, she really began to enjoy it all ­the music, the rush of the cool night air against her temples, even the smell of naphtha and the heat of the flames on her face as the dancers paused now and again, dashed upon the fire as if to tread it out, and backed until the strain on their arms grew tense again; and, just as it grew unbearable, the circular leaping was renewed.  Always in these pauses the same face confronted her across the fire:  the face of a young man in a blue jersey and a peaked cap, a young man with crisp dark hair and dark eyes, gay and challenging.  In her daze it seemed to Hester that, when they came face to face, he was always on the side of the bonfire nearest the water; and the moon rose above the farther hill as they danced, and swam over his shoulder, at each meeting higher and higher.

It was all new to her and strange.  The music ceased abruptly, the dancers unclasped their hands and fell apart, laughing and panting.  And then, while yet she leaned against the Mayows’ door-post, the fiddle broke out again ­broke into a polka tune; and there, in front of her stood the young man in the blue jersey and peaked cap.

He was speaking.  She scarcely knew what she answered; but, even while she wondered, she had taken his arm submissively.  And, next, his arm was about her and she was dancing.  She had never danced before; but, after one or two broken paces, her will surrendered to his, her body and its movements answered him docilely.  She felt that his eyes were fixed on her forehead, but dared not look up.  She saw nothing of the crowd.  Other dancers passed and re-passed like phantoms, neither jostling nor even touching ­so well her partner steered.  She grew giddy; her breath came short and fast.  She would have begged for a rest, but the sense of his mastery weighed on her ­held her dumb.  Suddenly he laughed close to her ear, and his breath ruffled her hair.

“You dance fine,” he said.  “Shall us cross the fire?”

She did not understand.  In her giddiness they seemed to be moving in a wide, empty space among many fires, nor had she an idea which was the real one.  His arm tightened about her.

“Now!” he whispered.  With a leap they whirled high and across the bonfire.  Her feet had scarcely touched ground before they were off again to the music ­or would have been; but, to her immense surprise, her partner had dropped on his knees before her and was clasping her about the ankles.  She heard a shout.  The fire had caught the edge of her skirt and her frock was burning.

It was over in a moment.  His arms had stifled, extinguished the flame before she knew of her danger.  Still kneeling, holding her fast, he looked up, and their eyes met.  “Take me back,” she murmured, swaying.  He rose, took her arm, and she found herself in the Mayows’ doorway with Cherry at her side.  “Get away with you,” said Cherry, “and leave her to me!” And the young man went.

Cherry fell to examining the damaged skirt.  “It’s clean ruined,” she reported; “but I reckon that don’t matter to a bride.  John Penaluna’ll not be grudging the outfit.  I must say, though ­you quiet ones!”

“What have I done?”

“Done?  Well, that’s good.  Only danced across the bonfire with young Zeke Penhaligon.  Why, mother can mind when that was every bit so good as a marriage before parson and clerk! ­and not so long ago neither.”