by Emilia Lanza
A tragic story of a young girl ( part 1)
Kennedy Marsden a country doctor and close friend of mine lived in a small community on the shores of a peaceful bay. The high ground rising abruptly behind the red roofs of the little town made the quaint main street look as if it was squashed up against the sea wall, which defends it from the sea. The Village and the surrounding countryside lie well below sea level making the sea wall more of a necessity than a tourist attraction for the village.
Beyond the sea wall the shoreline curves in a vast and regular sweep, a beach that goes on beyond the horizon. The sands so pure and clean it glistens in the sun so you had the need to wear sunglasses or the glare from it would surely blind you.
A slightly larger village, just visible across the other side of the bay, proudly showed it's high church spire among the trees. Still further out the perpendicular column of a lighthouse, looking from this distance no bigger than a lead pencil, marks the vanishing point of the land.
The bay is fairly well sheltered from the open seas making it a natural safe haven for shipping. Occasionally for a number of reasons from stress of weather, in need of repairs or simply wishing to enjoy the area, ships make use of the calmness of the bay anchoring just out of reach of the gentle surf.
The first building they encounter as they pull in to the jetty is the “Anchorage Arms” an old but interesting pub at the end of the pier. The building looks like it should have been demolished years ago but once inside it is clean warm and friendly. The food served there is always good and the beer is always cold.
A dilapidated long neglected windmill stands near by the reason for its existence long forgotten. The still proud but shattered arms reaching up to an overcast sky. A flourmill tower, as old if not older than most of the buildings around it, stands on the corner.
What the locals regard as the main street consists of six houses, a little general store and at the end of the street was a jetty jutting out into the bay. Half a mile to the south stands two cottages both belonging to the Coastguards.
The brow of the upland overtops the square tower of the little Church. The slope is green and looped by a white road. Ascending along this road, you come to a valley broad and shallow, a wide green trough of pastures and hedges merging inland into a vista of purple tints and flowing lines closing the view.
In this valley is the practice of my friend Kennedy. He had begun life as surgeon in the Navy, after leaving the navy he had been the companion of a famous traveler That was back in the days when there were still continents with unexplored interiors. His papers on the fauna and flora made him well known to scientific societies. Now he had come to a country practice - by choice. The penetrating power of his mind, acting like a corrosive fluid, had destroyed his ambition, I fancy. His intelligence is of a scientific order, of an investigating habit, and of that unspeakable curiosity which believes that there is a particle of a general truth in every mystery.
A good many years ago now, on my return from abroad, he invited me to stay with him. I came readily enough, and as he could not neglect his patients to keep me company, he took me on his rounds, sometimes as much as thirty miles or so in one afternoon,. I’d wait for him on the road sitting in the old cart, the horse reaching his neck up reaching for the leafy twigs. Often I could hear Kennedy's laughter waft out through the half-open door of some cottage. He had a big, hearty laugh that would have fitted a man twice his size, a brisk manner, a bronzed face, and a pair of grey, profoundly attentive eyes. He had the talent of making people talk to him openly and freely, and an inexhaustible patience in listening to their tales.
One day, as we trotted out of a large village into a shady bit of road, I saw on our left hand a low, black cottage, with diamond panes in the windows, a creeper on the end wall, a roof of shingle, and some roses climbing on the rickety trellis-work of the tiny porch. Kennedy pulled the horse up to a walk. A woman, in full sunlight, was throwing a dripping blanket over a line stretched between two old apple-trees. And as the bob tailed, long-necked chestnut, trying to get his head, jerked the left hand, covered by a thick kidskin glove, the doctor raised his voice over the hedge: ‘How's your child, Amy?’
I had the time to see her dull face, red but not from the use of a makeup brush, more like her flat cheeks had been vigorously slapped. I noticed the squat figure, the dirty dusty brown hair drawn into a tight knot at the back of the head. She looked quite young. With a distinct catch in her breath, her voice sounded soft almost timid.
‘He's well, thank you.’
‘A young patient of yours,’ I asked as we trotted off. The doctor, flicking the chestnut absently, muttered, ‘Her husband used to be.’
‘She seems a rather dull creature,’ I remarked languidly.
‘Precisely,’ said Kennedy.
‘She is very passive. It's enough to look at the red hands hanging at the end of those short arms and those sad prominent brown eyes. To know the inertness of her mind, an inertness that one would think made it everlastingly safe from all the surprises of imagination.
Yet which of us is safe?
At any rate, she is as you see her, somehow though she had enough imagination to fall in love. She's the daughter of one Isaac Foster, who had managed to sink down from being a small farm owner to tending someone else’s sheep. The beginning of all his misfortunes started with his runaway marriage with the cook of his widowed father, a well to do apoplectic landowner who passionately struck his sons name off his will. Many times he had been heard to utter threats against his fathers life. But this old affair, scandalous enough to serve as a motive for a Greek tragedy, arose from the similarity of their characters. There are other tragedies, less scandalous and of a subtler poignancy, arising from irreconcilable differences and from that fear of the incomprehensible that hangs over all our heads.
The tired chestnut dropped into a walk while the rim of the sun, all red in a cloudless sky, touched familiarly the smooth top of a ploughed rise near the road as
I had seen it many times before touch the distant horizon of the sea. The uniform brownness of the harrowed fields glowed with a rosy tinge, as though the powdered clods had sweated out in minute pearls of blood the toil of uncounted plowmen.
From the edge of a copse a wagon with two horses was rolling gently along the ridge. Raised above our heads upon the skyline, it loomed up against the red sun, triumphantly big, enormous almost, like a chariot of giants drawn by two slow-stepping steeds of legendary proportions. And the clumsy figure of the man plodding at the head of the leading horse projected itself on the background of the Infinite with a heroic uncouthness. The end of his carter's whip quivered high up in the blue.
Kennedy went on with his story.
‘She's the eldest of a very large family. At the age of fifteen they put her out to service at the New Barns Farm. I attended Mrs. Smith, the tenant's wife, and saw the girl there for the first time. Mrs. Smith, a genteel person with a sharp nose, made her put on a black dress, covered by a crisp white full apron, every afternoon.
I don't know what induced me to notice her at all. There are faces that call your attention by a curious want of definiteness in their whole aspect, like standing in a mist when you peer attentively at a vague shape, which after all may be nothing more curious or strange than a signpost.
The only peculiarity I perceived in her was a slight hesitation in her utterance, a preliminary stammer that passes away with the first word. When sharply spoken to, she was apt to lose her head at once; but her heart was of the kindest. She had never been heard to express a dislike for a single human being, and she was tender to every living creature.
She was devoted to both Mr. & Mrs. Smith, their dogs, cats, canaries; and as to Mrs. Smith's grey parrot, its peculiarities exercised upon her a positive fascination. Nevertheless, when that outlandish bird, attacked by the cat, shrieked for help in deafening tones, she ran out into the yard stopping her ears with her fingers and did not prevent the crime.
For Mrs. Smith this was just more evidence of her stupidity. On the other hand, her want of charm, in view of the Smith's well-known frivolousness, was a great recommendation.
Her eyes would swim in a pool of tears with pity for a poor mouse in a trap, she had once been seen, by some boys, on her knees in the wet grass helping a toad in difficulties. Some German fellow once said that without phosphorus there is no thought. I for one think it is still more to the truth that there is no kindness of heart without a certain amount of imagination. She had some. She had even more than is necessary to understand suffering and to be moved by pity.
She fell in love under circumstances that leave no room for doubt in the matter; for you need imagination to form a notion of beauty at all, and still more to discover your ideal in an unfamiliar shape.’
‘How this aptitude came to her, what it fed upon, is an inscrutable mystery. She was born in the village, and had never been very far away from it.
She lived for four years with the Smiths. New Barns, the name of the farm, is very isolated being a mile or more away from the road. Yet she was content to spend day after day looking at the same fields, the trees, gardens and the rows of box hedges surrounding them.
The only other faces apart from the Smith’s she saw about the farm were the farm hands. Everything was always the same, day after day, month after month, year after lonely year. She never showed a desire for conversation and I became convinced that she did not know how to smile.
Sometimes of a fine Sunday afternoon she would put on her best dress, a pair of stout boots, a large grey hat trimmed with a black feather. I've seen her in that finery, protected by a slender parasol, climb over two stiles, tramp over three fields and along two hundred yards of road, never further.
There stood the Foster's cottage. She would spend her precious time off helping her mother prepare their tea for the younger children, wash up the crockery, kiss the little ones as she tucked them up in bed then follow the same route back to the farm.’ ‘That was it that was the only rest, the only change and all the relaxation that she got once a week if she was lucky. She never seemed to wish for anything more.
Then she fell in love. She fell in love silently, obstinately perhaps even helplessly.
It came slowly, but when it came it worked like a powerful spell. It was a love, as the Ancients understood it, an irresistible and fateful impulse - a possession!
Yes, it was in her to become haunted and possessed by a face, by a presence, fatally, as though she had been a pagan worshiper of form under a joyous sky, to be awakened at last from that mysterious forgetfulness of self, from that enchantment, by a fear resembling the unaccountable terror of a brute.’
With the sun hanging low on its western limit, the expanse of the grasslands framed in the counter scarps of the rising ground took on a gorgeous and somber aspect. A sense of penetrating sadness, like that inspired by a grave strain of music, disengaged itself from the silence of the fields. The men we met walked past slow, unsmiling, with downcast eyes, as if the melancholy of an over-burdened earth had weighted their feet, bowed their shoulders, borne down their glances.
One would think the earth is under a curse, since of all her children those that cling to her the closest are uncouth in body and as leaden of gait as if their very hearts were loaded with chains. But here on this same road you might have seen amongst these heavy men a being lithe, supple, and long-limbed, straight like a pine with something striving upwards in his appearance as though the heart within him had been buoyant.
Perhaps it was only the force of the contrast, but when he was passing one of these villagers here, the soles of his feet did not seem to me to touch the dust of the road. He vaulted over the stiles, paced these slopes with a long elastic stride that made him noticeable at a great distance, and had lustrous black eyes. He was so different from the mankind around that, with his freedom of movement, his soft glance, his olive complexion and graceful bearing, his very being gave him the
appearance in nature of a woodland creature. He came from there.’
The doctor pointed with his whip, and from the summit of the descent seen over the rolling tops of the trees in a park by the side of the road, appeared the level sea far below us, like the floor of an immense edifice inlaid with bands of dark ripple, with still trails of glitter, ending in a belt of glassy water at the foot of the sky. The light wisp of smoke, from an invisible steamer, faded on the great clearness of the horizon like the mist of a breath on a mirror.
Inshore, the white sails of a coaster, with the appearance of disentangling themselves slowly from under the branches, floated clear of the foliage of the trees.
‘Shipwrecked in the bay?’ I asked.
‘Yes, he was a castaway. A poor emigrant from somewhere in Central Europe bound for America and washed ashore here in a storm it was a miracle he survived.’
‘He knew nothing about geography so had no idea where he was for him this was an undiscovered country. For all I know he might have expected to find wild beasts or wild men here, when, crawling in the dark over the sea-wall, he rolled down the other side into a dyke, where it was another miracle he didn't drown. But he struggled instinctively like an animal under a net and this blind struggle brought him out into a field.
He must have been made of a tougher fiber than he looked to withstand, without expiring, such buffetings the violence of his exertions and so much fear. Later on, in his broken English that resembled curiously like the speech of a young child, he told me himself that he put his trust in God, believing he was no longer of this world. And truly how was he to know?
He fought his way against the rain and the gale on all fours, and crawled at last among some sheep huddled close under the lee of a hedge. They ran off in all directions, bleating in the darkness, and he welcomed the first familiar sound he heard on these shores. It must have been around two in the morning by then.
This is all we know of the manner of his landing, though he did not arrive unattended by any means. Only his grisly company did not begin to come ashore till much later in the day...’
Kennedy gathered the reins, clicked his tongue and we started to slowly move down the hill. At the bottom he negotiated a sharp corner into the main street, we rattled over the stones reaching his house moments later.
Late in the evening Kennedy, breaking a spell of moodiness that had come over him, returned to the story. Smoking his pipe, he paced the long room from end to end. A reading-lamp concentrated all its light upon the papers on his desk. Sitting by the open window, I saw, after the windless scorching day, the frigid splendour of a hazy sea lying motionless under the moon. Not a whisper, not a splash, not a stir of the shingle, not a footstep, not a sigh came up from the earth below.
Not a sign of life only the scent of climbing jasmine and Kennedy's voice,
speaking from behind me, passed through the wide casement, to vanish outside in a chill and sumptuous stillness.
‘... The relations of shipwrecks in the olden days tell us of much suffering. Often the castaways were only saved from drowning to die miserably from starvation on a barren coast. Others suffered violent death or else slavery, passing through years of precarious existence with people to whom their strangeness was an object of suspicion, dislike or fear. We read about these things, and they are very pitiful.
It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger, helpless and incomprehensible of a mysterious origin in some obscure corner of the earth. Yet amongst all the adventurers shipwrecked in all the wild parts of the world there is not one, it seems to me, that ever had to suffer a fate so simply tragic as the man I am speaking of, the most innocent of adventurers cast out by the sea in the bight of this bay, almost within sight from this very window.’
‘He did not know the name of his ship. Indeed, in the course of time we discovered he did not even know that ships had names like people. Finally one day when he was able to get out of bed, looking out of a window he beheld the sea lying open to his view, his eyes roamed afar, lost in an air of wild surprise, as though he had never seen such a sight before and more than likely he had not.
As far as I could make out, he had been hustled together with many others on board an emigrant ship, too bewildered to take note of his surroundings, too weary to see anything and too anxious to care. They were driven below like cattle, down into the bowls of the ship and battened down from the very start.
It was a low timber dwelling he later related with wooden beams overhead, like the houses in his country, but you went into it down a ladder. It was one big room, very cold, damp and somber, with places in the manner of wooden boxes where people had to sleep, one above another. He recalled that the ship kept on rocking all ways at once all the time. He crept into one of these boxes and laid down there in the clothes in which he had left his home many days before, keeping his bundle and his stick by his side. People groaned, children cried, water dripped, the lights went out, the walls of the place creaked, and everything was being shaken. He lay in his box shaking he dared not lift his head he just lay there in fear.
He had lost touch with his only companion (a young man from the same valley, he told us) and all the time a terrible noise of wind went on outside and heavy blows fell. An awful sickness overcame him, to the point of making him neglect his prayers. Besides, no one could not tell whether it was morning or evening. It was always very dark in that place and above the noise of the wind and the crashing, not to mention the moaning of the passengers; no other sounds could be heard.
‘Before they got to be on board this ship he told us he had been traveling a long, long time on the iron track. He’d looked out of the window, which had a wonderfully
clear glass in it and watched in amazement as trees, houses, fields, and the long roads flew passed him so fast it made his head spin.
He gave me to understand that he had on his passage beheld uncounted multitudes of people from many nations dressed in many different clothes from rich to poor. Once he was made to get out of the train carriage and slept a night on a bench in a house of bricks with his bundle under his head. Another time he had to sit on a floor of flat stones many hours, he spent the time dozing with his knees up and with his bundle between his feet. There was a roof over him, which seemed made of glass, and was so high that the tallest mountain-pine he had ever seen would have had room to grow under it. Steam-machines rolled in at one end and out at the other.
People swarmed more than you can see on a feast-day round the miraculous Holy Image in the yard of the Carmelite Convent. This was down in the plains where, before leaving home, he drove his mother, a pious old woman who wanted to offer prayers and make a vow for his safety, in a wooden cart. He could not give me an idea of how large and lofty and full of noise the place was, but some one had told him it was called Berlin. Then they rang a bell, and another steam-machine came in, and again he was taken on and on through a land that wearied his eyes by its flatness without a single hill or rise to be seen anywhere.
One more night he spent shut up in a building like a stable with a lot of straw on the floor. Guarding his bundle carefully he found himself amongst a lot of men, of whom not one could understand a single word he said. In the morning they were all led down to the stony shores of an extremely broad muddy river, flowing not between hills but between houses that seemed dirty and immense.
There was a steam machine that went on the water, they all stood upon it’s deck packed tightly together they were joined by many women and children who made so much noise crying and wailing. A cold rain fell and the wind blew in his face; he was wet through, and his teeth chattered. He and the young man from the same valley took each other by the hand without speaking a word.
‘They thought they were being taken to America straight away, but suddenly the steam-machine bumped against the side of a thing like a house on the water. The walls were smooth and black and there rose up from the roof growing as it were, bare trees in the shape of crosses, extremely high. That's how it appeared to him then, for he had never seen a ship before. This was the ship that was going to take them all the way to America. Voices shouted, everything swayed; there was a ladder dipping up and down into the water. He made his way slowly up on his hands and knees in mortal fear of falling into the water below.
Once on board he got separated from his companion and when he had finally descended into the bottom of the ship his heart seemed to die suddenly within him.
For it was then as he told me, that he realized he was truly alone among many strangers.
He had lost contact for good with the only person who he had known from back in their village. His mind wandered back to the summer before when they had passed through all the little towns in the foothills of his country. The two of them would arrive on market days driving in a peasant's cart and would go straight to an office in an inn or some other Jew's house. There sat three men they had red cloth collars round their necks and gold lace on their sleeves like Government officials. They sat proudly behind a long table and in the next room, so that the common people shouldn't hear, they kept a cunning telegraph machine, through which they could talk to the Emperor of America.
The fathers hung about the door, but the young men of the mountains would crowd up to the table asking many questions. We were told that there was work to be got all the year round for three dollars a day in America, and no military service to do.’
‘But the American Kaiser would not take everybody. Oh, no! He himself had great difficulty in getting accepted. One of the men in uniform had to go out of the room several times to work the telegraph on there behalf. However this new American boss engaged him at last at three dollars, he being young and strong. But many other able young men backed out, afraid of the vast distance.
Besides, only those who had some money would be taken to this great land. There were those who sold their huts and their land because it cost a lot of money to get to America. But once there, you received three dollars a day and if you were clever you could find places where true gold could be picked up on the ground.
His father's house was getting over full, two of his brothers were married and had children all living in the same house. He had promised to send money home from America by post twice a year. The old man had sold a cow, a pair of piebald mountain ponies of his own raising, and a cleared plot of fair pasture land on the sunny slope of a pine-clad pass to a Jew inn-keeper in order to pay the owners of the shipping company that took the men to America to get rich in a short time.
‘He must have been a real adventurer at heart, for how many of the greatest enterprises in the conquest of the earth had for their beginning just such a bargaining away of the paternal cow for the mirage or true gold far away!
I have been telling you more or less in my own words what I learned fragmentary in the course of two or three years, during which I seldom missed an opportunity of a friendly chat with him.
He told me this story of his adventure with many flashes of white teeth and lively twinkling of his big black eyes. At first his relating of the story was in a sort of anxious child like way then, as he learned the language, with greater fluency. But always with that singing, soft, and at the same time vibrating intonation that instilled a strangely penetrating power into the sound of the most familiar English words, as if they had been the words of an unearthly language.
He would always come to an end, with many emphatic shakes of his head, upon that awful sensation of his heart melting within him as soon as he set foot on board
that ship. Afterwards there seemed to come for him a period of blank ignorance, at any rate as to facts. No doubt he must have been incredibly sea sick and terribly unhappy. This soft and passionate adventurer, taken thus away from his world knowledge feeling miserable as he lay in his emigrant bunk in utter loneliness, it was all too much for this sensitive young man.
The next thing we know of him for certain is that he had been hiding in Hammond's pigsty on a side road approximately six miles, as the crow flies, from the sea. Of these experiences however he was unwilling to speak, it seemed to have seared into his soul a somber sort of wonder and indignation.
Through the rumours of the people around the area, which lasted for a good many days after his arrival, we know that the fishermen to the west had been disturbed and startled by heavy knocks against the walls of their weatherboard cottages and by a voice crying piercingly strange words in the night. Several of them turned on lights and carefully opened their doors but by then, no doubt, he had fled in sudden alarm at their rough and angry tones hailing each other in the darkness.
It was he, without a doubt, who early the following morning had been seen lying in the tall grass on the roadside by passers-by, who actually got down to have a closer look, but drew back, intimidated by the perfect immobility. They thought there was something rather queer in the aspect of this particular tramp, sleeping so still. As the day advanced, some children came dashing into the classroom of a nearby school in such a fright that the schoolmistress went out and spoke indignantly to a horrid looking man standing at the school gate.
He edged away, for a few steps hanging his head, suddenly he ran off with extraordinary fleetness.
Mr. Bradley the driver of the milk-cart made no secret of the fact that he had lashed with his whip at a hairy sort of gypsy fellow who, jumping up at a turn of the road by the Vents, made a snatch at the pony's bridle. He had caught him a good one too, right over the face he said, the blow had made gypsy drop back down in the mud a jolly sight quicker than he had jumped up; but it was a good half-a-mile before he could stop the pony. Maybe in his desperate endeavours to get help and in his need to get in touch with some one, the poor devil had tried to stop the cart.
Three boys confessed later to throwing stones at a funny looking tramp, hanging around all wet and muddy in the narrow deep lane by the lime kilns and they seemed sure that he was very drunk. All this was the talk of three villages for days. But we have Mrs. Finn's, the wife of one of the Smith’s farm hands, unimpeachable testimony that she saw an odd looking man get over the low wall of Hammond's pigsty and lurch straight at her, babbling aloud in a voice that was enough to make one die of fright. Having the baby with her in a pram, Mrs. Finn called out to him to go away but as he persisted in coming nearer, she hit him courageously over the head with her umbrella and without once looking back, ran as fast as the pram allowed her to go to the first house she came to.
Finally, completely out of breath, she was able to relate her story to old Lewis, who was there hammering at a heap of stones. The old chap, taking off his immense black wire goggles, got up on his shaky legs to look where she pointed. Together they followed with their eyes the figure of the man running over a field; they saw him fall down pick himself up and run on again, staggering and waving his
long arms above his head, in the direction of the New Barns Farm.
There is no doubt after this of what happened to him.
Mrs. Smith's intense terror at being confronted by him and that Amy Foster's stolid conviction held against the other's nervous attack, that the man meant no harm. Mr. Smith's exasperation at finding the dog barking himself into a fit, the back door locked and his wife in hysterics; and all for an unfortunate dirty tramp, supposedly even then to be lurking around the haystack. Mr. Smith by this time very annoyed by all the commotion grabbed his gun and headed towards the haystack and was heard to say he would teach this bum to frighten women.
‘Smith is notoriously hot-tempered, but the sight of some nondescript and miry creature sitting cross-legged amongst a lot of loose straw, and swinging itself to and fro like a bear in a cage, made him pause. Then this tramp stood up silently before him, one mass of mud and filth from head to foot. Smith, alone amongst his stacks with this apparition in the stormy twilight made noisy by the infuriating barking of the dog, felt the dread of an inexplicable strangeness. But when that being, parting the long matted locks that hung before his face with his black hands, like you would part the two halves of a curtain, looked out at him with glistening yet wild black eyes, the weirdness of this silent encounter fairly staggered him.
He had admitted since, for the story has been a legitimate subject of conversation about here for years that he made more than one step backwards. Then a sudden burst of rapid, senseless speech convinced him at once that he had on his hand an escaped lunatic. In fact, that impression never wore off completely for Smith has not in his heart given up his secret conviction of the man's essential insanity to this very day.
As the creature approached him, jabbering in a most discomposing manner, Smith unaware that he was being addressed as “gracious lord” and adjured in God's name to afford food and shelter kept on speaking firmly but gently to the mad man, retreating all the time into the other yard. At last, watching his chance, by a sudden charge he bundled him headlong into the wood shed and instantly bolted the door.
Taking a deep breath he wiped his brow, though the day was cold he was sweating profusely. He had done his duty to the community by shutting up a wandering and probably dangerous maniac. Smith isn't a hard man at all, but he had convinced himself that he had a total nut case on his hands. He was not imaginative enough to ask himself whether the man might not be suffering with cold and hunger. At first our young man made a great deal of noise in the wood shed and Mrs. Smith was screaming upstairs, where she had locked herself in her bedroom. Amy Foster on the other hand sobbed piteously at the kitchen door, wringing her hands and muttering, 'don't, please don't!'
I daresay Smith had a very rough time of it that evening with one noise and another. An insane, disturbing voice crying obstinately through the door only added
to his irritation. He couldn't possibly have connected this troublesome lunatic with the sinking of a ship in the bay, of which there had been only a slight rumour in marketplace, the insane man in his wood shed taking precedence over any other rumour.
I hazard a guess that our young man inside had indeed been very near to insanity on that night. Before his excitement collapsed and he became unconscious he was throwing himself violently about in the dark, rolling on some dirty sacks, and biting his fists in rage, cold, hunger, amazement, and despair.’