Read THE BEAUTIFUL WRETCH: CHAPTER XVIII of The Beautiful Wretch The Pupil of Aurelius and The Four Macnicols , free online book, by William Black, on ReadCentral.com.

A WHITE WORLD.

Next morning it still snowed and blew hard; no one could go out; it was clearly a day to be devoted to indoor amusements. And then Frank King, despite the state of the streets and the absence of cabs, made his way along, and was eagerly welcomed. As Mr. Tom’s companion he was to spend the whole day there. Billiards, music, lunch, painting they would pass the time somehow. And meanwhile the gusts of wind rattled the windows; and the whirling snow blurred out the sea; and Mr. Tom kept on big fires.

Nan remained in her own room. When Madge went up to bring her down she found her reading Thomas a Kempis.

‘Frank has asked twice where you were,’ Madge remonstrated.

‘But that is not a command,’ said Nan, with a smile. ’I should have thought, judging by the sound, that you were being very well amused below.’

Madge went away, and in about an hour after came back. She found that her sister had put away De Imitatione Christi, and was at her desk.

‘Writing! To whom?’

‘To the Editor of the Times’, said Nan, laughing at her sister’s instantaneous dismay.

‘The Times? Are you going to turn a blue-stocking, Nan?’

’Oh no; it’s only about blankets. You can read the letter; do you think he will print it?’

This was the letter which Madge read, and which was written in a sort of handwriting that some editors would be glad to see oftener:

’Dear Sir The Government interfere to punish a milkman who adulterates milk with water; and I wish to put the question in your columns why they should not also punish the manufacturers who dress blankets with arsenic? Surely it is a matter of equal importance. Poor people can get along without milk, unless there are very small children in the house; but when they have insufficient food, and insufficient fire, and scant clothes, and perhaps also a leaky roof, a good warm pair of blankets is almost a necessity. You cannot imagine what a compensation it is, especially in weather like the present; but how are the charitably disposed to take such a gift to a poor household when it may become the instrument of death or serious illness? Dear Sir, I hope you will call upon the Government to put down this wicked practice; and I am, yours respectfully, AN ENGLISH GIRL.’

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ said Madge, who had feared that her sister had taken to literature; ’that’s quite the right thing for you. Of course, a clergyman’s wife must know all about blankets, and soup-kitchens, and things.’

Nan flushed a little, and said quickly and with an embarrassed smile

’I thought of putting in something about his “eloquent pen” or his “generous advocacy,” but I suppose he gets a great deal of that kind of flattery, and isn’t to be taken in. I think I will leave it as it is. It is really most shameful that such things should be allowed.’

‘When are you coming down to see Frank?’

‘By and by, dear. I am going now to get mamma her egg and port wine.’

‘I know Frank wants to see you.’

‘Oh, indeed,’ she said, quietly, as she folded up the letter.

That memorable snowstorm raged all day; the shops fronting the sea were shut; the whole place looked like some vast deserted white City of the Dead. But towards evening the squalls moderated; that fine, penetrating, crystalline snow ceased to come in whirls and gusts; and people began to get about, the black figures making their way over or through the heavy drifts, or striking for such places as the force of the wind had driven bare. Here and there shovels were in requisition to open a pathway; it was clearly thought that the gale was over; the Beresfords and their guest began to speak of an excursion next day to Stanmer Park, lest peradventure it might be possible to have a lane or two swept on the ice for a little skating.

The next morning proved to be brilliantly beautiful; and they were all up and away betimes on their somewhat hopeless quest. All, that is to say, except Nan: for she had sundry pensioners to look after, who were likely to have fared ill during the inclement weather. Nan put on her thickest boots and her ulster, and went out into the world of snow. The skies were blue and clear; the air was fresh and keen; it was a relief to be out after that monotonous confinement in the house.

Nan went her rounds, and wished she was a millionaire, for the fine snow had penetrated everywhere, and there was great distress. Perhaps she was really trying to imagine herself a cleryman’s wife; at all events, when she had grown tired, and perhaps a little heart-sick, it was no wonder that she should think of going into that church, which was always open, for a little rest, and solace, and soothing quiet.

This was what she honestly meant to do and, moreover, it was with no expectation of meeting Mr. Jacomb there, for it was almost certain that he also would be off on a round of visitations. She had a craving for quiet; perhaps some slow, grateful music would be filling the air; there would be silence in the vast, hushed place.

Well, it was by the merest accident that her eyes happened to light on a vessel that was scudding up channel under double-reefed topsails, and she stood for a minute to watch it. Then she, also inadvertently, perceived that the coastguardsman over the way had come out of his little box, and was similarly watching the vessel through his telescope. Nan hesitated for a second. The snow was deep, though a kind of path had been trodden a few yards farther along. Then she walked quickly on till she came to that path, crossed, went back to the coastguardsman, and addressed him, with a roseate glow on her cheek.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon but but I suppose you know Singing Sal?’

‘Yes, Miss,’ said the little Celtic-looking man with the brown beard. He was evidently surprised.

’Do you know where she is? I hope she wasn’t in the storm yesterday? She hasn’t been along this way lately?’

‘No, Miss; not that I knows of.’

‘Thank you, I am very much obliged.’

’Wait a minute, Miss Wednesday yes, it was last night, I believe, as Sal was to sing at a concert at Updene. Yes, it was. Some o’ my mates at Cuckmere got leave to go.’

‘Updene farm?’

‘Yes, Miss,’ said the wiry little sailor with a grin. ’That’s promotion for Sal to sing at a concert.’

‘I don’t see why she should not sing at a concert,’ said Nan, regarding him with her clear gray eyes, so that the grin instantly vanished from his face. ’I’ve heard much worse singing at many a concert. Then, if she was at Updene last night, she would most likely come along here to-day.’

‘I don’t know, Miss,’ said the man, who knew much less about Singing Sal’s ways than did Miss Anne Beresford. ’Mayhap the concert didn’t come off, along of the snow.’

Nan again thanked him, and continued on her way eastward. She was thinking. Somehow she had quite forgotten about the church. The air around her was wonderfully keen and exhilarating; the skies overhead were intensely blue; out there on the downs the soft, white snow would be beautiful. Nan walked on at a brisker pace, and her spirits rose. The sunlight seemed to get into her veins. And then her footing required a great deal of attention, and she had plenty of active exercise; for though here and there the force of the wind had left the roads almost bare, elsewhere the snow had formed long drifts of three to five feet in depth, and these had either to be got round or plunged through. Then, up Kemp-Town way, where there is less traffic, her difficulties increased. The keen air seemed to make her easily breathless. But at all events she felt comfortably warm, and the sun felt hot on her cheek.

She had at length persuaded herself that she was anxious about Singing Sal’s safety. Many people must have perished in that snowstorm caught unawares on the lonely downs. At all events, she could ask at one or two of the coastguard stations if anything had been heard of Sal. It was just possible she might meet her, if the entertainment at Updene farm had come off.

At Black Rock station they had heard nothing; but she went on all the same. For now this was a wonderful and beautiful landscape all around her, up on these high cliffs; and the novelty of it delighted her, though the bewildering white somewhat dazzled her eyes. Towards the edge of the cliffs, where the wind had swept across, there was generally not more than an inch or two of snow hard and crisp, with traceries of birds’ feet on it, like long strings of lace; but a few yards on her left the snow had got banked up in the most peculiar drifts, resembling in a curious manner the higher ranges of the Alps. Sometimes, however, the snow became deep here also; so that she had to betake herself to the road, where the farmers’ men around had already cut a way through the deeper stoppages; and there she found herself going along a white gallery yellow-white on the left, where the sunlight fell on the snow, but an intense blue on the right, where the crystalline snow, in shadow, reflected the blue of the sky overhead. And still she ploughed on her way, with all her pulses tingling with life and gladness; for this wonder of yellow whiteness and blue whiteness, and the sunlight, and the keen air, all lent themselves to a kind of fascination; and she scarcely perceived that her usual landmarks were gone: it was enough for her to keep walking, stumbling, sinking, avoiding the deeper drifts, and farther and farther losing herself in the solitariness of this white, hushed world.

Then, far away, and showing very black against the white, she perceived the figure of a woman, and instantly jumped to the conclusion that that must be Singing Sal. But what was Sal if it were she about? That dark figure was wildly swaying one arm like an orator declaiming to an excited assemblage. Had the dramatic stimulus of the previous night’s entertainment Nan asked herself got into the woman’s brain? Was she reciting poetry to that extravagant gesturing? Nan walked more slowly now, and took breath; while the woman, whoever she was, evidently was coming along at a swinging pace.

No; that was no dramatic gesture. It was too monotonous. It looked more as if she were sowing to imperceptible furrows. Nan’s eyes were very long-sighted, but this thing puzzled her altogether. She now certainly looked like a farmer’s man scattering seed-corn.

Singing Sal saw and recognised her young-lady friend at some distance, and seemed to moderate her gestures, though these did not quite cease. When she came up, Nan said to her,

‘What are you doing?’

‘Well, Miss,’ she said, with a bright smile her face was quite red with the cold air, and her hair not so smooth as she generally kept it ’my arm does ache, to tell the truth. And my barley’s nearly done. I have tried to scatter it wide, so as the finches and larks may have a chance, even when the jackdaws and rooks are at it.’

‘Are you scattering food for the birds, then?’

’They’re starved out in this weather, Miss; and then the boys come out wi’ their guns; and the dicky-laggers are after them too ’

‘The what?’

’The bird-catchers, Miss. If I was a farmer now, I’d take a horsewhip, I would, and I’d send those gentry double quick back to Whitechapel. And the gentle-folks, Miss, it isn’t right of them to encourage the trapping of larks when there’s plenty of other food to be got. Well, my three-penn’orth o’ barley that I bought in Newhaven is near done now.’

She looked into the little wallet that she had twisted round in front of her.

‘Oh, if you don’t mind,’ said Nan, eagerly, ’I will give you a shilling or two or three shillings to get some more.’

‘You could do better than that, Miss,’ said Sal. ’Maybe you know some one that lives in Lewes Crescent?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Well, ye see, Miss, there’s such a lot o’ birds as won’t eat grain at all; and if you was to get the key of the garden in Lewes Crescent, and get a man to sweep the snow off a bit of the grass, and your friends might throw down some mutton bones and scraps from the kitchen, and the birds from far and near would find it out being easily seen, as it might be. Half the thrushes and blackbirds along this countryside ’ll be dead before this snow gives out.’

‘Oh, I will go back at once and do that,’ said Nan, readily.

‘Look how they’ve been running about all the morning,’ said this fresh-coloured, dark-eyed woman, regarding the traceries on the snow at her feet. ’Most of them larks you can see the spur. And that’s a rook with his big heavy claws. And there’s a hare, Miss I should say he was trotting as light as could be and there’s nothing uglier than a trotting hare he’s like a race-horse walking all stiff and jolting, because of the high aunches haunches, Miss. They’re all bewildered-like, birds and beasts the same. I saw the pad of a fox close by Rottingdean; he must have come a long way to try for a poultry-yard. And, what’s rarer, I saw a covey of partridges, Miss, settle down on the sea as I was coming along by Saltdean Gap. They was tired out, poor things, and not driven before the wind either, but fighting against it, and going out to sea blind-like; and then I saw them sink down on to the water, and then the waves knocked them about anyway. I hear there was a wonderful sight of brent geese up by Berling Gap yesterday but I’m keeping you standing in the cold, Miss ’

‘I will walk back with you,’ said Nan, turning.

‘No, Miss. No, thank you, Miss,’ said Sal, sturdily.

‘But only as far as Lewes Crescent,’ said Nan, with a gentle laugh. ’You know I am going to stop there for the mutton bones. I want to know what has happened to you since the last time I saw you that’s a good while ago now.’

‘Two things, Miss, has happened that I’m proud of;’ said Sal, as the two set out to face the brisk westerly wind. ’I was taking a turn through Surrey, and when I was at , they told me that a great poet lived close by there Mr. ’

‘Of course every one knows Mr. ,’ said Nan.

‘I didn’t,’ said Sal, rather shamefacedly. ’You see, Miss, the two I showed you are enough company for me; and I haven’t got money to buy books wi’. Well, I was passing near the old gentleman’s house, and he came out, and he spoke to me as we went along the road. He said he had seen me reading the afternoon before, on the common; and he began to speak about poetry; and then he asked me if I had read any of Mr. ’s, without saying he was himself. I was sorry to say no, Miss, for he was such a kind old gentleman; but he said he would send me them; and most like they’re waiting for me now at Goring, where I gave him an address. Lor’, the questions he asked me! about Shakespeare and Burns you know, Miss, I had them in my bag; and then about myself. I shouldn’t wonder if he wrote a poem about me.’

‘Well, that’s modest,’ said Nan, with another quiet laugh.

Sal did not at all like that gentle reproof.

‘It isn’t my pride, Miss; it’s what he said to me that I go by,’ she retorted. ‘I didn’t ask him.’

‘If he does, all England will hear about you then,’ said Nan. ’And now, what was the other thing?’

Sal again grew shamefaced a little. She opened the inner side of her wallet, took out a soiled, weather-beaten copy of the Globe Shakespeare, and from it extracted a letter.

‘Perhaps you would like to read it yourself, Miss,’ she suggested.

Nan took it, and had little difficulty in deciphering its contents, though the language was occasionally a trifle hyperbolical. It contained nothing less than an offer of marriage addressed to Sal by a sailor in one of Her Majesty’s ironclads, who said that he was tired of the sea, and that, if Sal would give up her wandering life, so would he, and he would retire into the coastguard. He pointed out the sacrifices he was ready to make for her; for it appeared that he was a petty officer. No matter; he was willing to become simple A.B. again; for he had his ‘feelin’s;’ and if so be as she would become his wife, then they would have a good weather-proof cottage, a bit of garden, and three-and-fourpence a day. It was a most business-like, sensible offer.

‘And I’m sure I could do something for him,’ Nan eagerly said. ’I think I could get him promotion. The Senior Naval Lord of the Admiralty is a friend of mine. And wouldn’t it be better for you?’

‘No, Miss,’ said Sal, with an odd kind of smile. ’I was glad to get the letter, for it shows I’m respected. But I’m not going to be caged yet. I never saw or heard of the man I would marry except it might have been Robbie Burns, if he was still alive. Sometimes when I’ve been reading a bit, coming along the downs all by myself like, I’ve seen somebody in the distance; and I’ve said to myself, “Well, now, if that was only to turn out to be that black-a-vised Ayrshire ploughman, it would be all over with me; it would be ’Whistle and I’ll come to ye, my lad.’” And then some shambling fellow of a labourer has come along, straw-haired, bent-backed, twisted-kneed, and scarcely enough spirit in him to say, “Marnin t’ ye good marnin t’ ye, wench!"’

‘You are very independent,’ said the sage Nan. ’And that’s all very well, as long as your health lasts. But you might become ill. You would want relatives and friends, and a home. And in the coastguard houses you would have a very comfortable home, and a garden to look after; and your husband might get promotion.’

‘If ever I marry,’ said Sal, shaking her head, ’it won’t be one of the man-of-war’s men. They’ve just as little spirit or independence as the day labourers. They’ve had it all crushed out of them by the hard usage of the officers.’

‘Oh, how can you say so!’ said Nan, warmly. ’The officers are English gentlemen. In former days there may have been cruelty, but I am certain that exists no longer. I know several officers: kinder-hearted men don’t exist. Why, there is a captain in the navy ’

She stopped in great embarrassment. But Singing Sal, not heeding, said, laconically

’It ain’t the captain, Miss. He’s too great a gentleman to interfere. It’s the first lieutenant, who can make the ship a hell upon earth if he has a mind to. Ah! Miss, it’s little you know of the discipline that goes on on board a man-o’-war. There’s no human being could stand it who wasn’t brought up to it. The merchantmen can’t stand it, and won’t stand it; that’s where the officers find a difficulty when the Reserves are called out. You wouldn’t find a man-o’-war’s man marching up to the First Lord of the Admiralty with a lump of salt beef in his hand and asking him if it was fit to eat. And this Lord, Miss, being a civilian like, he never thought of having the man clapped in irons: “Throw it overboard,” says he. “I will see that no more o’ that kind of stuff is issued to Her Majesty’s fleet.” That was the story I heard, Miss; the men were laughing about it at Beachy Head. And then, in the merchantmen Jack has a better chance, if he is a smart fellow ’

And so forth. They had once more got on to the subject of sailors and officers, regarded from their different points of view; and it was not until they had reached Brighton that the sight of Lewes Crescent reminded Nan that she had now to part from her companion and go in search of mutton bones for the thrushes and blackbirds.