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My Beautiful Neighbour.
LIFFEGATE lies in a sloping hollow of a line of swart granite coast. When the tide is high, the waves boil on the shingle beneath the short wooden pier and lick the strings of sea-weed which hang from the perpendicular wall of the esplanade.
Cliffegate consists of a single street and a few fishermen's cottages which stray to right and left of it. At the top of the street is the church, a quaint but not inelegant pile, green in its envelopment of ivy, through which a faded clock stares like a bleared eye through matted hair. The ground shadowed by this structure is thick with graves. The stones droop with age. They resemble old garrulous women who incline to one another and whisper.
I had driven over eight miles of road from Cornpool and had halted the gig near the church. The air was tart with a smell of salt and sea-weed. The sun poured its splendour from an element radiant and deep. From an adjacent forge the regular strokes of a hammer sent a busy music that mingled with a chorus rising and falling from the open window of an ale-house parlour. Afar, the sea sang her pauseless undersong.
"This will do," I mused. "I like this church with its sober colouring of grey and green; this quaint street of flint-houses and angular roofs; this air which fills my mouth with the flavour of a wine at once sweet and acid. If Elmore Court is half as good as Mr. Short affirms it, Cliffegate shall be my home."
I called to a seaman, "Will you tell me the way to Elmore Court?"
"Ay, ay," he responded. "Go round yon church and keep th' road till you coom t'a toornin'. Take it, an' you'll fetch th' house. It's stowed away oonder a big brick wall."
I thanked him, flipped the horse and started.
On passing the church the country opened. It stretched a green. sweep and swell of cultivated soil. The sheen of a river made a silver thread among the meadows. Here and there the foliage of small groups of trees veiled without obliterating the red roofs and white fronts of farm-houses. The road was hard and level. The horse trotted bravely. In a quarter of an hour Elmore Court was reached.
I threw the reins to the lad who accompanied me and rang the gatebell. A woman sauntered from the house; I saw her through the barred gate. She probably mistook the summons for that of a tradesman. Catching sight of the gig she hurried forward and swung open the gate.
"I am come," said I, "with an order from Mr. Short, of Cornpool, to inspect this house. I shall be glad if you will show me over it."
She curtseyed, and I entered.
The front grounds were large but greatly neglected. The grass had grown to the level of the marble basin in the centre of the lawn. Sticky parasites crawled round the trees and poisoned the bushes. Slender rose-trees hung their heads blushing with unfolding buds. A rich smell of decay, almost autumnal, haunted the place.
I passed in, gained the steps of the house and paused.
"This place," I said, "is much neglected. How long has it been unoccupied ?"
"Nearly four years, sir."
"So long! a poor look-out for the landlord. The garden wants a hundred pounds spent upon it. Of course that fountain doesn't play? A good hall, at all events," I continued, as I pushed open the door. It was large and arched and well-lighted at the extremity by a handsome window inlet with coloured glass. On either side were rooms. I entered them. They were at least in striking contrast with the garden; for they were newly-papered, the mouldings had been regilt, and the relievos in the centre of the ceilings repaired and whitewashed. I mounted the stone staircase, inspected the bedrooms, about which I noticed hung a faint perfume of lavender, like that which makes aromatic the atmosphere of old drawing-rooms, and pronounced myself satisfied.
"They are well wooded, at all events."
They are beautiful in summer, sir. You can't judge of them yet.
There's enough fruit yielded to pay the rent, was you minded to sell it."
"That is an advantage to be sure. It is bad policy to spend money on other men's belongings. I am quite aware that the neglected state of these grounds has served to cheapen the rent; so I must not cavil. By the way, I see a small house through the trees yonder. Is it occupied ?"
"A pity! I have come here to study and for quiet. Now if there are any boys in that house, I may as well abandon the notion of taking this place. For I know what boys are when they reside within a stone's throw of other people's fruit-trees."
"You need have no fear of boys, sir. The house is a mere cottage -it looks bigger than it is through the trees-and is occupied by a widow and one servant. She is an uncommonly quiet person."
"Oh, very well. And now, how goes the reputation of the place? I mean, how many house-robberies are there here on an average during the year?"
"I've never heard of a robbery at Cliffegate since I've lived here, and that'll be forty years, please God, come October the tenth, my birthday," she answered, a little indignantly.
"Are you troubled with rats."
"If I take this house then, it is your honest conviction that I shall be comfortable?"
"I am quite sure of it, sir. The basement is in excellent order, the oven bakes nicely, there's a good boiler as draws with the best of the chimneys, and the house is as dry and warm as a blanket."
Whilst she spoke I examined her. Her face was pleasant and even comely, the eye good-humoured and intelligent, the mouth firm, the teeth white and even. She had named her age, but I should have thought her younger.
"I see a wedding-ring on your finger," I remarked; married?"
"I have been a widow these ten years, sir," she answered. husband was a boatman, and was drowned whilst helping one bad night,
"Should I take Elmore Court, what will you do?"
"Go and live with mother at Cliffegate until I get work."
"What is your name?"
"Mrs. Williams, sir."
"Well, now, Mrs. Williams, I am a bachelor and propose to reside in this house, which suits me, chiefly because of its repose. I shall
want servants, of course, and I shall also want some one to look after them. Your appearance pleases me. You look good-tempered, you don't talk loud, and I have an idea that you can be brisk and industrious without noise. If you like I will retain your services here as housekeeper."
She answered with a curtsey,
"I am greatly obliged to you, sir."
"You are a woman of few words, and that pleases me. Any unnecessary chattering is to me dreadful at all times; here it would be doubly dreadful. For I propose to apply myself to study, and it must therefore be your business to keep my mind free from the trifling troubles of house-keeping. My reveries must never be perplexed, my studies must never be disturbed by any intrusion of home-worries. You will administer my affairs, adjust the kitchen squabbles, procure me good servants, see that my bed is aired, that my food is properly cooked, and that my books and papers are never disturbed for the tables and shelves to be dusted. You understand ?"
"Quite, sir," she answered with a faint smile; "I shall like my duties, sir; and you may depend upon my having everything ready for your arrival whenever you choose to come."
I bade her good-bye, and departed.
From the foregoing you will have no difficulty in concluding that I was a bachelor. Yet my celibacy was not due to the compulsion of woman's neglect or aversion. I was a bachelor of my own resolute contrivance; who had had chances, but had austerely missed them ; who was deeply sensible of the advantages of matrimony, but who preferred on the whole the disadvantages of a single life. I was not cynical. Indeed I was not ugly enough to be cynical. My past, so far as love went, was a piece of white paper-a virgin blank. I could contemplate it without prejudice. Upon it fate had drawn no strange characters; no pierced heart, no weeping cupid, no stain of tear, no pensive profile disturbed its white purity. Hence Recollection was armed with no sharp weapon to prick me into grimacing at the life connubial.
Let me here briefly recur to my early life.
When my father was about eighteen years old, he took it into his head to rebel against his ill-treatment at the hands of his mother's second husband. He conceived and executed a severe reprisal, of what nature I forget, and then ran away.
Australia was in those days thinly peopled. Emigrants were needed, and to procure them grants of land were freely offered to those who were not too proud to dig for a livelihood. My father procured a grant, worked his passage out and took possession of the land. He toiled with unremitting industry for thirty years, and then found him