Read CHAPTER XVI of The Daughters of Danaus , free online book, by Mona Caird, on ReadCentral.com.

“... when the steam

Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die.”

Tithonius, TENNYSON.

A countryman with stooping gait touched his cap and bid good-day to a young woman who walked rapidly along the crisp high road, smiling a response as she passed.

The road led gradually upward through a country blazing with red and orange for rolling miles, till the horizon closed in with the far-off blue of English hills.

The old man slowly turned to watch the wayfarer, whose quick step and the look in her eyes of being fixed on objects beyond their owner’s immediate ken, might have suggested to the observant, inward perturbation. The lissom, swiftly moving figure was almost out of sight before the old man slowly wheeled round and continued on his way towards the hamlet of Craddock Dene, that lay in the valley about a mile further on. Meanwhile the young woman was speeding towards the village of Craddock on the summit of the gentle slope before her. A row of broad-tiled cottages came in sight, and on the hill-side the Vicarage among trees, and a grey stone church which had seen many changes since its tower first looked out from the hill-top over the southern counties.

The little village seemed as if it had forgotten to change with the rest of the country, for at least a hundred years. The spirit of the last century lingered in its quiet cottages, in the little ale-house with half-obliterated sign, in its air of absolute repose and leisure. There was no evidence of contest anywhere except perhaps in a few mouldy advertisements of a circus and of a remarkable kind of soap, that were half peeling off a moss-covered wall. There were not even many indications of life in the place. The sunshine seemed to have the village street to itself. A couple of women stood gossiping over the gate of one of the cottages. They paused in their talk as a quick step sounded on the road.

“There be Mrs. Temperley again!” one matron exclaimed. “Why this is the second time this week, as she’s come and sat in the churchyard along o’ the dead. Don’t seem nat’ral to my thinking.”

Mrs. Dodge and Mrs. Gullick continued to discuss this gloomy habit with exhaustive minuteness, involving themselves in side issues regarding the general conduct of life on the part of Mrs. Temperley, that promised solid material for conversation for the next week. It appeared from the observations of Mrs. Gullick, whose husband worked on Lord Engleton’s model farm, that about five years ago Mr. Temperley had rented the Red House at Craddock Dene, and had brought his new wife to live there. The Red House belonged to Professor Fortescue, who also owned the Priory, which had stood empty, said Mrs. Gullick, since that poor Mrs. Fortescue killed herself in the old drawing-room. Mr. Temperley went every day to town to attend to his legal business, and returned by the evening train to the bosom of his family. That family now consisted in his wife and two small boys; pretty little fellows, added Mrs. Dodge, the pride of their parents’ hearts; at least, so she had heard Mr. Joseph Fleming say, and he was intimate at the Red House. Mrs. Gullick did not exactly approve of Mrs. Temperley. The Red House was not, it would seem, an ever-flowing fount of sustaining port wine and spiritually nourishing literature. The moral evolution of the village had proceeded on those lines. The prevailing feeling was vaguely hostile; neither Mrs. Gullick nor Mrs. Dodge exactly knew why. Mrs. Dodge said that her husband (who was the sexton and gravedigger) had found Mrs. Temperley always ready for a chat. He spoke well of her. But Dodge was not one of many. Mrs. Temperley was perhaps too sensitively respectful of the feelings of her poorer neighbours to be very popular among them. At any rate, her habits of seclusion did not seem to village philosophy to be justifiable in the eyes of God or man. Her apparent fondness for the society of the dead also caused displeasure. Why she went to the churchyard could not be imagined: one would think she had a family buried there, she who was, “as one might say, a stranger to the place,” and could not be supposed to have any interest in the graves, which held for her nor kith nor kin!

Mrs. Temperley, however, appeared to be able to dispense with this element of attraction in the “grassy barrows.” She and a company of youthful Cochin-China fowls remained for hours among them, on this cheerful morning, and no observer could have determined whether it was the graves or the fowls that riveted her attention. She had perched herself on the stile that led from the churchyard to the fields: a slender figure in serviceable russet and irresponsible-looking hat, autumn-tinted too, in sympathy with the splendid season. In her ungloved left hand, which was at once sensitive and firm, she carried a book, keeping a forefinger between the pages to mark a passage.

Her face bore signs of suffering, and at this moment, a look of baffled and restless longing, as if life had been for her a festival whose sounds came from a hopeless distance. Yet there was something in the expression of the mouth, that suggested a consistent standing aloof from herself and her desires. The lines of the face could never have been drawn by mere diffusive, emotional habits. Thought had left as many traces as feeling in the firm drawing. The quality of the face was of that indefinable kind that gives to all characteristic things their peculiar power over the imagination. The more powerful the quality, the less can it be rendered into terms. It is the one marvellous, remaining, musical fact not to be defined that makes the Parthenon, or some other masterpiece of art, translate us to a new plane of existence, and inspire, for the time being, the pessimist with hope and the sceptic with religion.

The Cochin-Chinas pecked about with a contented mien among the long grass, finding odds and ends of nourishment, and here and there eking out their livelihood with a dart at a passing fly. Their long, comic, tufted legs, which seemed to form a sort of monumental pedestal whereon the bird itself was elevated, stalked and scratched about with an air of industrious serenity.

There were few mornings in the year which left unstirred the grass which grew long over the graves, but this was one of the few. Each blade stood up still and straight, bearing its string of dewdrops. There were one or two village sounds that came subdued through the sunshine. The winds that usually haunted the high spot had fallen asleep, or were lying somewhere in ambush among the woodlands beyond.

The look of strain had faded from the face of Mrs. Temperley, leaving only an expression of sadness. The removal of all necessity for concealing thought allowed her story to write itself on her face. The speculative would have felt some curiosity as to the cause of a sadness in one seemingly so well treated by destiny. Neither poverty nor the cares of great wealth could have weighed upon her spirit; she had beauty, and a quality more attractive than beauty, which must have placed many things at her command; she had evident talent her very attitude proclaimed it and the power over Fortune that talent ought to give. Possibly, the observer might reflect, the gift was of that kind which lays the possessor peculiarly open to her outrageous slings and arrows. Had Mrs. Temperley shown any morbid signs of self-indulgent emotionalism the problem would have been simple enough; but this was not the case.

The solitude was presently broken by the approach of an old man laden with pickaxe and shovel. He remarked upon the fineness of the day, and took up his position at a short distance from the stile, where the turf had been cleared away in a long-shaped patch. Here, with great deliberation he began his task. The sound of his steady strokes fell on the stillness. Presently, the clock from the grey tower gave forth its announcement eleven. One by one, the slow hammer sent the waves of air rolling away, almost visibly, through the sunshine, their sound alternating with the thud of the pickaxe, so as to produce an effect of intentional rhythm. One might have fancied that clock and pickaxe iterated in turn, “Time, Death! Time, Death! Time, Death!” till the clock had come to the end of its tale, and then the pickaxe went on alone in the stillness “Death! Death! Death! Death!”

A smile, not easy to be accounted for, flitted across the face of Mrs. Temperley.

The old gravedigger paused at last in his toil, leaning on his pickaxe, and bringing a red cotton handkerchief out of his hat to wipe his brow.

“That seems rather hard work, Dodge,” remarked the onlooker, leaning her book upright on her knee and her chin on her hand.

“Ay, that it be, mum; this clay’s that stiff! Lord! folks is almost as much trouble to them as buries as to them as bears ’em; it’s all trouble together, to my thinkin’.”

She assented with a musing nod.

“And when a man’s not a troublin’ o’ some other body, he’s a troublin’ of hisself,” added the philosopher.

“You are cursed with a clear-sightedness that must make life a burden to you,” said Mrs. Temperley.

“Well, mum, I do sort o’ see the bearin’s o’ things better nor most,” Dodge modestly admitted. The lady knew, and liked to gratify, the gravedigger’s love of long-worded discourse.

“Some people,” she said, “are born contemplative, while others never reflect at all, whatever the provocation.”

“Yes’m, that’s just it; folks goes on as if they was to live for ever, without no thought o’ dyin’. As you was a sayin’ jus’ now, mum, there’s them as contemflecs natural like, and there’s them as is born without provocation

“Everlastingly!” assented Mrs. Temperley with a sudden laugh. “You evidently, Dodge, are one of those who strive to read the riddle of this painful earth. Tell me what you think it is all about.”

Gratified by this appeal to his judgment, Dodge scratched his head, and leant both brawny arms upon his pickaxe.

“Well, mum,” he said, “I s’pose it’s the will o’ th’ Almighty as we is brought into the world, and I don’t say nothin’ agin it ’tisn’t my place but it do come over me powerful at times, wen I sees all the vexin’ as folks has to go through, as God A’mighty might ’a found somethin’ better to do with His time; not as I wants to find no fault with His ways, which is past finding out,” added the gravedigger, falling to work again.

A silence of some minutes was broken by Mrs. Temperley’s enquiry as to how long Dodge had followed this profession.

“Nigh on twenty year, mum, come Michaelmas,” replied Dodge. “I’ve lain my couple o’ hundred under the sod, easy; and a fine lot o’ corpses they was too, take ’em one with another.” Dodge was evidently prepared to stand up for the average corpse of the Craddock district against all competitors.

“This is a very healthy neighbourhood, I suppose,” observed Mrs. Temperley, seemingly by way of supplying an explanation of the proud fact.

“Lord bless you, as healthy as any place in the kingdom. There wasn’t one in ten as was ill when he died, as one may say.”

“But that scarcely seems an unmixed blessing,” commented the lady musingly, “to go off suddenly in the full flush of health and spirits; it would be so discouraging.”

“Most was chills, took sudden,” Dodge explained; “chills is wot chokes up yer churchyards for yer. If we has another hard winter this year, we shall have a job to find room in here. There’s one or two in the village already, as I has my eye on, wot

“Was this one a chill?” interrupted Mrs. Temperley, with a nod towards the new grave.

“Wot, this here? Lord bless you, no, mum. This here’s our schoolmarm. Didn’t you never hear tell about her?” This damning proof of his companion’s aloofness from village gossip seemed to paralyse the gravedigger.

“Why everybody’s been a talkin’ about it. Over varty, she war, and ought to ’a knowed better.”

“But, with advancing years, it is rare that people do get to know better about dying,” Mrs. Temperley suggested, in defence of the deceased schoolmistress.

“I means about her conduc’,” Dodge explained; “scand’lous thing. Why, she’s been in Craddock school since she war a little chit o’ sixteen.”

“That seems to me a trifle dull, but scarcely scandalous,” Mrs. Temperley murmured.

“... And as steady and respectable a young woman as you’d wish to see ... pupil teacher she was, and she rose to be schoolmarm,” Dodge went on.

“It strikes me as a most blameless career,” said his companion. “Perhaps, as you say, considering her years, she ought to have known better, but

“She sort o’ belongs to the place, as one may say,” Dodge proceeded, evidently quite unaware that he had omitted to give the clue to the situation. “She’s lived here all her life.”

“Then much may be forgiven her,” muttered Mrs. Temperley.

“And everybody respected of her, and the parson he thought a deal o’ her, he did, and used to hold her up as a sample to the other young women, and nobody dreamt as she’d go and bring this here scandal on the place; nobody knows who the man was, but it is said as there’s someone not twenty miles from here as knows more about it nor he didn’t ought to,” Dodge added with sinister meaning. This dark hint conveyed absolutely no enlightenment to the mind of Mrs. Temperley, from sheer lack of familiarity, on her part, with the rumours of the district. Dodge applied himself with a spurt to his work.

“When she had her baby, she was like one out of her mind,” he continued; “she couldn’t stand the disgrace and the neighbours talkin’, and that. Mrs. Walker she went and saw her, and brought her nourishin’ things, and kep’ on a-telling her how she must try and make up for what she had done, and repent and all that; but she never got up her heart again like, and the poor soul took fever from grievin’, the doctor says, and raved on dreadful, accusin’ of somebody, and sayin’ he’d sent her to hell; and then Wensday morning, ten o’clock, she died. Didn’t you hear the passing bell a-tolling, mum?”

“Yes, the wind brought it down the valley; but I did not know whom it was tolling for.”

“That’s who it was,” said Dodge.

“This is an awfully sad story,” cried Mrs. Temperley.

Dodge ran his fingers through his hair judicially. “I don’t hold with them sort o’ goings on for young women,” he observed.

“Do you hold with them for young men?”

Dodge puckered up his face into an odd expression of mingled reflection and worldly wisdom. “You can’t prevent young fellers bein’ young fellers,” he at length observed.

“It seems almost a pity that being young fellows should also mean being blackguards,” observed Mrs. Temperley calmly.

“Well, there’s somethin’ to be said for that way o’ lookin’ at it,” Dodge was startled into agreeing.

“I suppose she gets all the blame of the thing,” the lady went on, with quiet exasperation. Dodge seemed thrown off his bearings.

“Everybody in Craddock was a-talking about it, as was only to be expected,” said the gravedigger. “Well, well, we’re all sinners. Don’t do to be too hard on folks. ‘Pears sad like after keepin’ ’spectable for all them years too sort o’ waste.”

Mrs. Temperley gave a little laugh, which seemed to Dodge rather eccentric.

“Who is looking after the baby?” she asked.

“One of the neighbours, name o’ Gullick, as her husband works for Lord Engleton, which she takes in washing,” Dodge comprehensively explained.

“Had its mother no relatives?”

“Well, she had an aunt down at Southampton, I’ve heard tell, but she didn’t take much notice of her, not she didn’t. Her mother only died last year, took off sudden before her daughter could get to her.”

“Your schoolmistress has known trouble,” observed Mrs. Temperley. “Had she no one, no sister, no friend, during all this time that she could turn to for help or counsel?”

“Not as I knows of,” Dodge replied.

There was a long pause, during which the stillness seemed to weigh upon the air, as if the pressure of Fate were hanging there with ruthless immobility.

“She ain’t got no more to suffer now,” Dodge remarked, nodding with an aspect of half apology towards the grave. “They sleeps soft as sleeps here.”

“Good heavens, I hope so!” Mrs. Temperley exclaimed.

The grave had made considerable progress before she descended from the stile and prepared to take her homeward way. On leaving, she made Dodge come with her to the gate, and point out the red-roofed cottage covered with monthly roses and flaming creeper, where the schoolmistress had passed so many years, and where she now lay with her work and her days all over, in the tiny upper room, at whose latticed window the sun used to wake her on summer mornings, or the winter rain pattered dreary prophecies of the tears that she would one day shed.