I had slept but two nights at King's Cobb, when I saw distinctly that the novel with which I was to revolutionize society and my own fortunes, and with the purpose of writing which in an unvexed seclusion I had buried myself in this expedient hamlet on the South Coast, was withered in the bud beyond redemption. To this lamentable canker of a seedling hope the eternal harmony of the sea was a principal contributor; but Miss Whiffle confirmed the blight. I had fled from the jangle of a city, and the worries incidental to a life of threepenny sociabilities; and the result was--
I had rooms on the Parade--a suggestive mouthful. But then the Parade is such a modest little affair. The town itself is flung down a steep hill, at the mouth of a verdurous gorge; and lies pitched so far as the very waterside, a picturesque jumble of wall and roof. Its banked edges bristle and stand up in the bight of a vaster bay, with a crooked breakwater, like a bent finger, beckoning passing sails to its harbourage--an invitation which most are coy of accepting. For the attractions of King's Cobb are--comparatively--limited, and its nearest station is a full six miles distant along a switchback road.
Possibly this last fact may have militated against the popularity of King's Cobb as a holiday resort. If so, all the better; and may enterprise for ever languish in the matter. For vulgarity can claim no commoner purpose with fashion than is shown in that destruction of ancient landmarks and double gilding of new which follows the "opening out" of some unsophisticated colony of simple souls.
King's Cobb, if "remote and unfriended," is neither "melancholy" nor "slow"; but it is small, and all its fine little history--for it has had a stirring one--has ruffled itself out on a liliputian platform.
Than this, its insignificance, I desired nothing better. I wished to feel the comparative importance of the individual, which one cannot do in crowded colonies. I coveted surroundings that should be primitive--an atmosphere in which my thoughts could speak to me coherent. I would be as one in a cave, looking forth on sea, and sky, and the buoyant glory of Nature; unvexed of conventions; untrammelled by social observances; building up my enchanted palace of the imagination against such a background as only the unsullied majesty of sky and ocean could present. For the result was to crown with my name an epoch in literature; and hither in future ages should the pilgrim stand at gaze, murmuring to himself, 'And here he wrote it!'
I laid my head on my pillow, that first night of my stay, with a brimming brain and a heart of high resolve. The two little windows, under a thatched roof, of my sleeping place (that lay over my sitting-room, and both looked oceanwards) were open to the inpour of sweet hot air; and only the regular wash of the sea below broke the close stillness of the night. I say this was all; and, with the memory upon me, I could easily, at any time, break the second commandment.
I had thought myself fortunate in my lodgings. They were in a most charming old-world cottage--as I have said on the Parade--and at high tide I could have thrown a biscuit into the sea with merely a lazy jerk. My sitting-room put forth a semi-circular window--like a lighthouse lantern--upon the very pathway, and it had been soothing during the afternoon to look from out this upon the little world of sea and sky and striding cliff that was temporarily mine. From the Parade four feet of stone wall dipped to a second narrow terrace, and this, in its turn, was but a step above a slope of shingle that ran down to the water.
Veritably had I pitched my tent on the wide littoral of rest. So I thought with a smile, as I composed myself for slumber.
I slept, and I woke, and I lay awake for hours. Every vext problem of my life and of the hereafter presented itself to me, and had to be argued out and puzzled over with maddening reiteration. The reason for this was evident and flagrant. It had woven itself into the tissue of my brief unconsciousness, and was now recognised as, ineradicably, part of myself.
The tide was incoming, that was all, and the waves currycombed the beach with a swishing monotony that would have dehumanized an ostler.
This rings like the undue inflation of a little theme. I ask no pity for it, nor do I make apology for my weakness. Men there may be, no doubt, to whom the unceasing recurrent thump and scream of a coasting tide on shingle speaks, even in sleep, of the bountiful rhythm of Nature. I am not one of them--at least, since I visited King's Cobb. The noise of the waters got into my brain and stayed there. It turned everything else out--sleep, thought, faith, hope, and charity. From that first awakening my skull was a mere globe of stagnant fluid, for any disease germs that listed to propagate in.
Perhaps I was too near the coast-line. The highest appreciations of Nature's thunderous forces are conceived, I believe, in the muffled seclusion of the study. I had heard of still-rooms. I did not quite know what they were; but they seemed to me an indispensable part of seaside lodgings, and for the rest of that night I ardently and almost tearfully longed to be in one.
I came down in the morning jaded and utterly unrefreshed. It was patent that I was in no state to so much as outline the preliminaries of my great undertaking. "Use shall accustom me," I groaned. "I shall scarcely notice it to-night."
And it was at this point that Miss Whiffle walked like a banshee into the disturbed chambers of my life, and completed my demoralization.
I must premise that I am an exquisitively nervous man--one who would accept almost ridiculous impositions if the alternative were a "scene." Strangers, I fancy, are quick to detect the signs of this weakness in me; but none before had ever ventured to take such outrageous advantage of it as did Miss Whiffle, with the completest success.
This lady had secured me for a month. My rights extended over the lantern-windowed sitting-room and the bedroom above it. They were to include, moreover, board of a select quality.
"Select" represented Miss Whiffle's brazen mean of morality; and, indeed, it is an elastic and accommodating word. One, for instance, may select an aged gander for its wisdom, knowing that the youthful gosling is proverbially "green." Miss Whiffle selected the aged gander for me, and I gnawed its sinewy limbs without a protest. On a similar principle she appeared to ransack the town shops for prehistoric joints (the locality was rich in fossils), and vegetables that, like eggs, only grew harder the more they were boiled.
I submitted, of course; and should have done no less by a landlady not so obstreperously constituted. But this terrible person gauged and took me in hand from the very morning following my arrival.
She came to receive my orders after breakfast (tepid chicory and an omelette like a fragment of scorched blanket) with her head wrapped up in a towel. Thus habited she had the effrontery to trust the meal had been to my liking. I gave myself away at once by weakly answering, "Oh, certainly!"
"As to dinner, sir," she said faintly, "it is agreed, no kitching fire in the hevening. That is understood."
I said, "Oh, certainly!" again.
"What I should recommend," she said--and she winced obtrusively at every sixth word--"is an 'arty meal at one, and a light supper at height."
"That will suit me admirably," I said.
She tapped her fingers together indulgently.
"So I thought," she murmured. "Now, what do you fancy, sir?"
"Dear me!" I exclaimed, for her face was horribly contorted. "Are you in pain?"
"Agonies!" said Miss Whiffle.
"Neuralgia, sir, for my sins."
"Is there--is there no remedy?"
She was taken with a sharp spasm of laughter, mirthless, but consciously expressive of all the familiar processes of self-effacement under torture.
"I arks nothing but my duty, sir," she said. "That is the myrrh and balsam to a racking 'ed. Not but what I owns to a shrinking like unto death over the thought of what lays before me this very morning. Rest and quiet is needful, but it's little I shall get of either out of a kitching fire in the dog days. And what would you fancy for your dinner, sir?"
"I am sorry," I murmured, "that you should suffer on my account. I suppose there is nothing cold--"
"Not enough, sir, in all the 'ouse to bait a mousetrap. Nor would I inconvenience you, if not for your own kind suggestion. But potted meats is 'andy and ever sweet, and if I might make bold to propose a tin--"
"Very well. Get me what you like, Miss Whiffle."
"I must arks your pardin, sir. But to walk out in this 'eat, and every rolling pebble under my foot a knife through my 'ed--no, sir. I make bold to claim that consideration for myself."
"Leave it to me, then. I will do my own catering this morning."
Then I added, in the forlorn hope of justifying my moral ineptitude to myself, "If you take my advice, you will lie down."
"And where, sir?" she answered, with a particularly patient smile. "The beds is unmade as yet, sir," she went on, in a suffering decline, "and rumpled sheets is thorns to a bursting brain."
Then she looked meaningly at the sitting-room sofa.
"I made bold to think, if you 'ad 'appened to been a-going to bathe, the only quiet place in the 'ouse--" she murmured, in semi-detached sentences, and put her hand to her brow.
Five minutes later (I fear no one will credit it) I was outside the house, and Miss Whiffle was installed, towel and all, upon my sofa.
For a moment I really think the outrageous absurdity of the situation did goad me to the tottering point of rebellion. I had not the courage, however, to let myself go, and, as usual, succumbed to the tyranny of circumstances.
It was a blazing morning. The flat sea lay panting on its coasts, as if, for all its liquid sparkle, it were athirst; and the town, under the oven of its hills, burned red-hot, like pottery in a kiln.
I went and bought my tinned meat (a form of preserve quite odious to me) and strolled back disconsolately to the Parade. Occasionally, flitting past the lantern window, I would steal a side glance into the cool luminosity of my own inaccessible parlour; and there always, reclining at her ease upon my sofa, was the ineradicable presentment of Miss Whiffle.
At one o'clock I ventured to reclaim my own, and sat me down at table, a scorched and glutinous wreck, too overcome with lassitude to tackle the obnoxious meal of my own providing. And to the sofa, already made familiar of that dishonoured towel, I was fain presently to confide the empty problem of my own aching head.
All this was but the forerunner and earnest of a month's long martyrdom. That night the sea had me by the nerves again, and for many nights after; and, although I grew in time to a certain tolerance of the booming monotony, it was the tolerance of a dully resigned, not an indifferent, brain.
When it came to the second morning, not only the novel, but the mere idea of my ever having contemplated writing one, was a thing with me to feebly marvel over. And from that time I set myself down to exist and broil only, doling out a languid interest to the locality, the shimmer of whose baking hill-sides made all life a quivering, glaring phantom of itself.
Miss Whiffle tyrannized over me more or less according to her mood; but she did not usurp my sitting-room again. I used to sit by the hour at the lantern window, in a sort of greasy blankness, like a meat pudding, and vacantly scrutinize the loiterers who passed by on the hot asphalt of the Parade. Screened by the window curtains, I could see and hear without endangering my own privacy; and many were the odd interchanges of speech that fell from strangers unconscious of a listener.
One particularly festering day after dinner I had the excitement of quite a pretty little quarrel for dessert. Miss Whiffle had stuffed me with suet, in meat and pudding, to a point of stupefaction that stopped short only of absolute insensibility; and in this state I took up my usual post at the window, awaiting in swollen vacuity the possibilities of the afternoon.
On the horizon violet-hot sea and sky showed scarce a line of demarcation between them. Nearer in the waves snored stertorously from exhausted lungs, as if the very tide were in extremis. Not a breath of air fanned the pitiless Parade, and the sole accent on life came from a droning, monotonous voice pitched from somewhere in querulous complaint.
"Frarsty!" it wailed, "Frarsty! I warnt thee!" and again, "I warnt thee, Frarsty! Frarsty! Frar--r--r--rsty!" drawn out in an inconceivable passionlessness of desire again and again, till I felt myself absorbing the ridiculous yearning for an absurd person and inclined to weep hysterical tears at his unresponsiveness.
Then through the suffocating miasma thridded another sound--the whine of a loafing tramp slowly pleading along the house fronts--vainly, too, as it appeared.
"Friends," went his formula, nasal and forcibly spasmodic in the best gull-catcher style, "p'raps you will ask why I, a able-bodied man, are asking for ass--ist--ance in your town. Friends, I answer, becorse I cannot get work and becorse I cannot starve. Any honest work I would be thankful for; but no one will give it to me."
Then followed an elaborate presentation, in singsong verse, of his own undeserved indigence and the brutality of employers, and so the recitation again:--
"Friends, the least ass--ist--ance would be welcome. I am a honest British workman, and employ--ment I cannot ob--tain. You sit in your com--for--ta--ble 'ouses, and I ask you to ass--ist a fellow creature, driven to this for no fault of his own--for many can 'elp one where one cannot 'elp many."
Then he hove into sight--a gastropodous tub of a fellow, with a rascally red eye; and I shrank behind my curtains, for I never court parley with such gentlemen.
He spotted me, of course,--rogues of his feather have a hawk's eye for timid quarry,--and his bloated face appeared at the window.
"Sir--friend," he said, in a confidential, hoarse whisper, "won't you 'elp a starvin' British workman?"
I gave him sixpence, cursing inwardly this my concession to pure timorousness, and the bestial mask of depravity vanished with a grin.
After that I was left to myself, heat and haze alone reigning without; and presently, I think, I must have fallen into a suetty doze, for I was semi-conscious of voices raised in dispute for a length of time, before I roused to the fact that two people were quarrelling just outside my window.
They were a young man--almost a boy--and a girl of about his own age; and both evidently belonged to the labouring classes.
She was, I took occasion to notice, aggressively pretty in that hot red and black style that finds its warmest admirers in a class cultivated above that to which she belonged; and she was scorning and flouting her slow, perplexed swain with that over-measure of vehemence characteristic of a sex devoid of the sense of proportion.
"Aw!" she was saying, as I came into focus of their dispute. "That's the moral of a mahn, it is. Yer ter work when ye like an' ter play when ye like, and the girls hahs ter sit and dangle their heels fer yer honours' convenience."
"I doan't arlays get my likes, Jenny, or I shud a' met you yesterday."
"Ay, as yer promused."
"We worked ower late pulling the lias, I tell yer. 'Twould 'a' meant half a day's wages garn if I'd com', and theer, my dear, 'ud been reason for another delay in oor getting spliced."
"You're fine and vulgar, upon my word! A little free, too, and a little mistook. I've no mind ter get spliced, as yer carls it, wi' a chap as cannot see's way ter keep tryst."
"Yer doan't mean thart?"
"Doan't I? Yer'll answer fer me in everything, 't seems. But yer've got enough ter answer fer yerself, Jack Curtice. I'm none of the sort ter go or stay at anny mahn's pleasure. There's kerps and dabs in the sea yet, Jack Curtice; and fatter ones ter fish fer, too."
"But yer doan't understand."
"I understand my own vally; and that isn't ter be kep' drarging my toes on the Parade half an a'rtenoon fer a chap as thinks he be better engaged summer else."
"And yer gone ter break wi' me fer thart?"
"Good-bye, Mr. Curtice," she said, and jerked her nose high and walked off.
Now here was an inconsistent jade, and I felt sorry and relieved for the sake of the young fellow.
He stood, after the manner of his kind, amazed and speechless. Man's saving faculty of logic was in him, but tongue-tied; and he could not express his intuitive recognition of the self-contradictory. Such natures frequently make reason articulate through a blow--a rough way of knocking her into shape, but commonly effectual. Jack, however, was evidently a large gentle swain of the dumb-suffering type--one of those unresisting leviathans of good-humour, upon whom a woman loves to vent that passion of the illogical which an antipathetic sex has vainly tried to laugh her out of conceit with.
I peered a little longer, and presently saw Mr. Curtice walk off in a state compound of bewilderment and abject depression.
This was the beginning to me of an interest apart from that which had brought me to King's Cobb. A real nutshell drama had usurped the place of that fictitious one that had as yet failed to mark an epoch by so much as a scratch. I accepted the former as some solace for the intolerable wrong inflicted upon me by the sea and Miss Whiffle.
I happened across my unconscious friends fairly frequently after that my first introduction to them; so often, indeed, that, judged by what followed, it would almost seem as if Fate, desiring record of an incident in the lives of these two, had intentionally worked to discomfit me from a task more engrossing.
Apart, and judged on their natural merits, I took Jack for a good stolid fellow, innately and a little aggravatingly virtuous, and perhaps a trifle more just than generous.
Jenny, I felt, had the spurious brilliancy of that division of her sex that claims as intuition an inability to master the processes of thought, and attributes to this faculty all fortunate conclusions, but none that is faulty. I thought, with some commiseration for him, that at bottom her manner showed some real leaning towards the lover she had discarded--that she felt the need of a pincushion, as it were, into which to stick the little points of her malevolence. I think I was inclined to be hard on her. I have felt the same antagonism many times towards beauty that was unattainable by me. For she was richly pretty, without doubt.
When in the neighbourhood of one another, however, they were wont to assume an elaborate artificiality of speech and manner in communion with their friends, that was designed with each to point the moral of a complete indifference and forgetfulness. But the girl was by far the better actor; and not only did she play her own part convincingly, but she generally managed to show up in her rival that sense of mortification that it was his fond hope he was effectually concealing.
A fortnight passed; and, lo! there came the end of the lovers' quarrel in all dramatic appropriateness.
By that time the doings of Jack and Jenny had come to be my mind's only refuge from such a vacancy of outlook as I had never before experienced. "All down the coast," that summer, "the languid air did swoon." The earth broiled, and very thought perspired; and Miss Whiffle's voice was like a steam-whistle.
One day, as I was exhaustedly trifling with my meridian meal, and balancing the gratification against the trouble of eating lumpy tapioca pudding, a muffled, rolling thud broke upon my ears, making the window and floor vibrate slightly. It seemed so distant and unimportant that I took no notice of it; and it was only when, ten minutes later, I became aware that certain excited townsfolk were scurrying past outside that I roused slowly to the thought that here was something unusual toward. Then, indeed, a sort of insane abandon flashed into life in me, and I leapt to my feet with maniac eyes. Something stirring in King's Cobb! I should have thought nothing less than the last trump could have pricked it out of its accustomed grooves; and that even then it would have slipped back into them with a sluggish sense of grievance after the first flourish.
I left my congealing dish, snatched up my hat, and joined the attenuated chase. It was making in one direction--a point, apparently, to the east of the town. As I sped excited through the narrow and tortuous streets, a great bulge of acrid dust bellied upon me suddenly at a corner; and, turning the latter, I plunged into a perfect fog of the same gritty smoke. In this, phantom figures moved, appeared, and vanished; hoarse cries resounded, and a general air of wild confusion and alarm prevailed. For the moment, I felt as if some history of the town's past were re-enacting, as if a sudden swoop of Frank or Dutchman upon the coast had called forth all the defensive ardour of its people. There was nothing of gunpowder in the stringent opacity, however; but, rather, a strong suggestion of ancient and disintegrated mortar.
A shape sped by me in the fog, and I managed to stay and question it.
"What is it all?" I asked.
"House fell down," was the breathless answer; "and a poor chap left aloft on the ruins."
Then I grew as insane as the rest of the company. I strode aimlessly to and fro, striving at every coign to pierce with my eyesight the white drift. I pushed back my hat; I gnawed my knuckles; I felt that I could not stay still, yet knew not for what point to make. Almost I felt that in another moment I should screech out--when a breath of sea air caught the skirt of the cloud, and rolled the bulk of it up and away over the house-tops.
Then, at once, was revealed to me the cause and object of all this gaggle, and confusion, and outcry. It was revealed to the crowd, too, that stood about me, and, in the revelation, the noise of its mouthing went off and faded, till a tense silence reigned and the murmur of one's breathing seemed a sacrilege.
I saw before me a ruinous space--a great ragged gap in a lofty block of brick and mortar. This block had evidently, at one time, consisted of two high semi-detached houses, and of these, one lay a monstrous heap of tumbled and shattered debris. A ruin, but not quite; for, as the course of a landslip will often tower with great spires and pinnacles of rock and ragged earth that have withstood the pull and onset of the moving hill-side, so here a high sheet of shattered wall, crowned with a cluster of toppling chimneys, stood up stark in the midst of the general overthrow. And there aloft, clinging to the crumbling stack, that might at any moment part, and fling and crush him into the savage ruin below, stood the figure of a solitary man. And the man was my friend of the Parade, Jack Curtice.
I could see and recognise him plainly--even the frantic clutch of his hands and the deadly pallor of his face.
The block--an ancient one--had been, as I afterwards learned, in course of demolition when the catastrophe took place. At the moment the poor fellow had been alone at his work, and now his destruction seemed a mere matter of seconds.
White dust rose from the heap, like smoke from an extinguished fire; and ever, as we looked, spars and splinters of brick tore away from the high fragment yet standing, and plunged with a thud into the wrack underneath.
It was glaringly evident that not long could elapse before wall and man would come down with a hideous, shattering run. A slip, a wilder clutch at his frail support, might in an instant precipitate the calamity.
Then from the upturned faces of the women cries of pity and anguish broke forth, and men nipped one another's arms and gasped, and knew not what counsel to offer.
"Do summut! do summut!" cried the women; and their mates only shook off their pleadings with a peevish show of callousness, that was merely the dumb anguish of undemonstrativeness. For, while their throats were thick, their practical brains were busy.
Some one suggested a ladder, and in a moment there was an aimless scurrying and turning amongst the women.
"Why don't 'ee stir theeself and hunt for un, Jarge?" panted one that stood near me, twisting hysterically upon a slow youth at her side.
"Shut up, 'Liza!" he answered gruffly; then, with a sort of indrawn gasp--"Look art the wall, lass--look art the wall!"
It was obvious to the least knowing what he meant. To lean so much as a broomstick, it seemed, against that tottering ruin would infallibly complete its destruction.
One foot of the clinging figure high up was seen to move slightly, and a little bomb of mortar span out into the air and burst into dust on a projecting brick. A long shrill sigh broke from the crowd.
Then the male wiseheads came together, and, desperate to snap the chord of impotent suspense, mooted and rejected plan after plan that their sane judgment knew from the first to be impracticable.
At the outset it was plainly impossible for a soul to approach the ruins. Apart from the almost certain mangling such a venture would entail upon the explorer, the least stirring or shifting of the great heap of rubbish flung about the base of the wall would certainly risk the immediate collapse of the latter.
Success, it was evident, must come, if at all, from a distance--but how?
One suggested slinging a rope from window to window of adjacent houses across the path of the broken chimney-stack--a good method of rescue had circumstances lent themselves to it. They did not. On the ruin side a wide space intervened; on the other, the sister house to that which had fallen, and which was also included in the order of demolition, was itself affected by the loss of its support, and leaned in a sinister manner, its party walls bulged and rent towards the scene of devastation.
Nothing short of the great Roc itself could, it seemed, snatch the poor fellow from his death perch.
There came suddenly an ominous silence. Then strode out in front of his fellows--and he moved so close to the ruin that the women whimpered and held one another--an old, rough-bearded chap in stained corduroy.
"Whart's he gone to do?" gasped the sibilant voices.
He hollowed his hands to his mouth, he cleared his hoarse throat two or three times. Only a little trailing screech came from it at first. Then he cursed his weakness, and pulled himself together.
"Jark! Jark Curtus!" he hailed, in an explosive voice.
The weak, small response floated down.
"My lard! my poor lard! we've thought oor best, arnd we can do nothun fower 'ee."
Instantly a shrill protest of horror went up from the women. This was not what they had expected.
"What! leave the mis'rable boy to his fate!"
There followed a storm of hisses from them--absolutely unreasonable, of course. The old fellow turned to retire, with hanging head.
At the moment a girl, flushed, blowzed, breathless, broke through the skirt of the mob and barred his retreat.
"Oh!" she panted, shaking her jet-black noddle at him--"here's a parcel o' gor-crows for discussin' help to a Christian marn! What! a score o' wiselings, and not one to hit oot the means and the way?"
She had only just heard, and had run a mile to the rescue of her old lad.
The women caught her enthusiasm, and jeered and cheered formlessly, as their manner is; for each desired for her own voice a separate recognition.
Jenny pushed rudely past the abashed gaffer. She was hatless, and her hair had tumbled abroad. She raised her face, with the eyes shining.
"Jack!" she cried, in a shrill voice--"Jack!"
The little weak response wailed down again.
"Jenny! I'm anigh done."
"Hold on a bit longer, Jack!" she screamed. "Don't move till I tell 'ee. I'm agone to save thee, Jack!"
Again from the women a rapturous cry broke out. What incompetent noodles appeared their masters in juxtaposition with this fearless, defiant creature.
The man up aloft seemed to shiver in the shock of the outcry; and once more some fragments of mortar rolled from under his feet and bounded into the depths. The girl rounded upon the voicers.
"Hold thee blazing tongues!" she cried in fury. "D'ee warnt to shake un from his perch?"
She turned to the foremost group of men.
"A couple o' long scaffold poles fro' yonder!" she cried hurriedly, "and twenty fathom o' rope!"
Her quick eyes and intelligence had found what she wanted in a builder's yard no great distance away.
"Follow, a dozen o' you!" she cried; and sped off in the direction she had indicated.
Just twelve men, and no more, obeyed her. She was mistress of the situation, and the crowd felt it. They made room for the dominant intellect, and awaited developments, watching, in suppressed excitement and trepidation, the figure--whom exhaustion was slowly mastering--high up above them.
Suddenly a sort of huge L-shaped structure moved down the street, until it stood opposite the ruined house. Then, twisting and rearing itself aloft, it took to itself the form of a lofty, slender gallows.
It was formed of a couple of forty-foot scaffolding poles, stoutly bound and corded together, the base of one to the top of the other, so that they stood at right angles. Five or six feet of the butt of the horizontal one was projected beyond its lashings, and to this three lengths of rope were fastened, and trailed long ends in the dust as the structure was held aloft and pushed and dragged into position.
"Now!" shrieked the girl, red-hot, reliant, never still for a moment; "as marny as can hold to each end there, and swing the blessed boom out towards him!"
Fifty may have responded. They swarmed like ants about the upraised pole, and she drove them into position--a black knot of men hauling on the triple cordage--left, right, and middle, like the ribs of a tent.
They saw her meaning and fell into place with a shout. To hold the projecting pole levered up at that height was a test of weight and muscle, even without their man on the end of it; but there were plenty more to help pull, did their united force waver.
"Jack!" screamed the girl again, in a wildness of excitement. "Only a second longer, Jack! Hold on by your eyelids, and snatch the stick the moment it comes agen thee!"
The horizontal spar pointed down the street. Slowly the men worked round with the ropes, and slowly the point of the pole turned in the direction of the chimney-stack and its forlorn burden. There was room and to spare for the process in the wide gap made by the tumbled house.
The crowd held its breath. Here and there a strangled sob was rent from overstrained lungs; here and there the wailing voice of a baby whined up and subsided.
The pole swung round with the toiling men--neared him on the ruin. He turned his head and saw, shifted his position and staggered. Jenny gave a piercing screech. The men, thinking something was wrong, paused a moment.
On the instant there came a crackling, tearing sound--a heaving roll--a splintering crash and uproar. The man aloft was seen to make a flying leap--or was it only a hurled fragment of the falling chimney?--and white dust rose in a fog once more and blotted out all the tragedy that might be enacting behind it.
A horrible silence succeeded, then a single woman yelled, and her cry was echoed by fifty hoarse voices.
The noise came from those at the ropes. They were straining and tugging, and some of them bobbed up and down like peas on a drum.
"More on ye! more on ye! We've hooked un, and he's got the pull of a sea sarpint!"
The ropes became thick with striving men. The whole street resounded with a medley of cries.
Then the point of the boom swung slowly out of the fog, and there was the rescued man swinging and swaying at the end of it.
They lowered him gradually into the street. But the strain upon them was awful, and he came down with a run the last few yards.
Then they let the angle of the gallows wheel over as it listed, and stood and mopped their hot foreheads, while the crowd rushed for the poor shaky subject of all its turmoil.
I could not get within fifty feet of him; or, I think, I should have given him and Jenny then and there all my fortune.
Later, I made their acquaintance in a casual way, and compromised with my conscience by presenting them with a very pretty tea-service to help them set up house with.