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

“You go upstairs backwards,” said Cherry an hour later.  “It don’t matter our going together, only you mustn’t speak a word for ever so.  You undress in the dark, and turn each thing inside out as you take it off.  Prayers?  Yes, you can say your prayers if you like; but to yourself, mind.  ’Twould be best to say ’em backwards, I reckon; but I never heard no instructions about prayers.”

“And then?”

“Why, then you go to sleep and dream of your sweetheart.”

“Oh! is that all?”

“Plenty enough, I should think!  I dessay it don’t mean much to you; but it means a lot to me, who han’t got a sweetheart yet an’ don’t know if ever I shall have one.”

So the two girls solemnly mounted the stairs backwards, undressed in the dark, and crept into bed.  But Hester could not sleep.  She lay for an hour quite silent, motionless lest she should awake Cherry, with eyes wide open, staring at a ray of moonlight on the ceiling, and from that to the dimity window-curtains and the blind which waved ever so gently in the night breeze.  All the while she was thinking of the dance; and by-and-by she sighed.

“Bain’t you asleep?” asked Cherry.

“No.”

“Nor I. Can’t sleep a wink.  It’s they children overhead:  they ’m up to some devilment, I know, because Matthew Henry isn’t snoring.  He always snores when he’s asleep, and it shakes the house.  I’ll ha’ gone to see, only I was afeard to disturb ‘ee.  I’ll war’n’ they ’m up to some may-games on the roof.”

“Let me come with you,” said Hester.

They rose.  Hester slipped on her dressing-gown, and Cherry an old macintosh, and they stole up the creaking stairs.

“Oh, you anointed limbs!” exclaimed Cherry, coming to a halt on the top.

The door of the children’s garret stood ajar.  On the landing outside a short ladder led up to a trapdoor in the eaves, and through the open trapway a broad ray of moonlight streamed upon the staircase.

“That’s mother again!  Now I know where Amelia got that cold in her head.  I’ll war’n’ the door hasn’t been locked since Tuesday!”

She climbed the ladder, with Hester at her heels.  They emerged through the trap upon a flat roof, where on Mondays Mrs. Mayow spread her family “wash” to dry in the harbour breezes.  Was that a part of the “wash” now hanging in a row along the parapet?

No; those dusky white objects were the younger members of the Mayow family leaning over the tideway, each with a stick and line ­fishing for conger Matthew Henry explained, as Cherry took him by the ear; but Elizabeth Jane declared that, after four nights of it, she, for her part, limited her hopes to shannies.

Cherry swept them together, and filed them indoors through the trap in righteous wrath, taking her opportunity to box the ears of each.  “Come’st along, Hester.”

Hester was preparing to follow, when she heard a subdued laugh.  It seemed to come from the far side of the parapet, and below her.  She drew her dressing-gown close about her and leaned over.

She looked down upon a stout spar overhanging the tide, and thence along a vessel’s deck, empty, glimmering in the moonlight; upon mysterious coils of rope; upon the dew-wet roof of a deck-house; upon a wheel twinkling with brass-work, and behind it a white-painted taffrail.  Her eyes were travelling forward to the bowsprit again, when, close by the foremast, they were arrested, and she caught her breath sharply.

There, with his naked feet on the bulwarks and one hand against the house-wall, in the shadow of which he leaned out-board, stood a man.  His other hand grasped a short stick; and with it he was reaching up to the window above him ­her bedroom window.  The window, she remembered, was open at the bottom ­an inch or two, no more.  The man slipped the end of his stick under the sash and prised it up quietly.  Next he raised himself on tiptoe, and thrust the stick a foot or so through the opening; worked it slowly along the window-ledge, and hesitated; then pulled with a light jerk, as an angler strikes a fish.  And Hester, holding her breath, saw the stick withdrawn, inch by inch; and at the end of it a garment ­her petticoat!

“How dare you!”

The thief whipped himself about, jumped back upon deck, and stood smiling up at her, with the petticoat in his hand.  It was the young sailor she had danced with.

“How dare you?  Oh, I’d be ashamed!”

“Midsummer Eve!” said he, and laughed.

“Give it up at once!” She dared not speak loudly, but felt herself trembling with wrath.

“That’s not likely.”  He unhitched it from the fish-hook he had spliced to the end of his stick.  “And after the trouble I’ve taken!”

“I’ll call your captain, and he’ll make you give it up.”

“The old man’s sleeping ashore, and won’t be down till nine in the morning.  I’m alone here.”  He stepped to the fore-halliards.  “Now I’ll just hoist this up to the topmast head, and you’ll see what a pretty flag it makes in the morning.”

“Oh, please...!”

He turned his back and began to bend the petticoat on the halliards.

“No, no ... please ... it’s cruel!”

He could hear that she was crying softly; hesitated, and faced round again.

“There now ... if it teases you so.  There wasn’ no harm meant.  You shall have it back ­wait a moment!”

He came forward and clambered out on the bowsprit, and from the bowsprit to the jib-boom beneath her.  She was horribly afraid he would fall, and broke off her thanks to whisper him to be careful, at which he laughed.  Standing there, and holding by the fore-topmast stay, he could just reach a hand up to the parapet, and was lifting it, but paused.

“No,” said he, “I must have a kiss in exchange.”

“Please don’t talk like that.  I thank you so much.  Don’t spoil your kindness.”

“You’ve spoilt my joke.  See, I can hoist myself on the stay here.  Bend over as far as you can, I swear you shall have the petticoat at once, but I won’t give it up without.”

“I can’t.  I shall never think well of you again.”

“Oh, yes, you will.  Bend lower.”

“Don’t!” she murmured, but the moonlight, refracted from the water below, glimmered on her face as she leaned towards him.

“Lower!  What queer eyes you’ve got.  Do you know what it means to kiss over running water?” His lips whispered it close to her ear.  And with that, as she bent, some treacherous pin gave way, and her loosely knotted hair fell in dark masses across his face.  She heard him laugh as he kissed her in the tangled screen of it.

The next moment she had snatched the bundle and sprung to her feet and away.  But as she passed by the trapdoor and hurriedly retwisted her hair before descending, she heard him there, beyond the parapet, laughing still.