Strange it is and wonderful to mark how upon this planet of ours the
smallest and most insignificant of events set a train of consequences in
motion which act and react until their final results are portentous and
incalculable. Set a force rolling, however small; and who can say where it
shall end, or what it may lead to! Trifles develop into tragedies, and the
bagatelle of one day ripens into the catastrophe of the next. An oyster
throws out a secretion to surround a grain of sand, and so a pearl comes
into being; a pearl diver fishes it up, a merchant buys it and sells it to
a jeweller, who disposes of it to a customer. The customer is robbed of it
by two scoundrels who quarrel over the booty. One slays the other, and
perishes himself upon the scaffold. Here is a direct chain of events with
a sick mollusc for its first link, and a gallows for its last one. Had
that grain of sand not chanced to wash in between the shells of the
bivalve, two living breathing beings with all their potentialities for
good and for evil would not have been blotted out from among their
fellows. Who shall undertake to judge what is really small and what is
Thus when in the year 1821 Don Diego Salvador bethought him that if it
paid the heretics in England to import the bark of his cork oaks, it would
pay him also to found a factory by which the corks might be cut and sent
out ready made, surely at first sight no very vital human interests would
appear to be affected. Yet there were poor folk who would suffer, and
suffer acutely—women who would weep, and men who would become sallow
and hungry-looking and dangerous in places of which the Don had never
heard, and all on account of that one idea which had flashed across him as
he strutted, cigarettiferous, beneath the grateful shadow of his limes. So
crowded is this old globe of ours, and so interlaced our interests, that
one cannot think a new thought without some poor devil being the better or
the worse for it.
Don Diego Salvador was a capitalist, and the abstract thought soon took
the concrete form of a great square plastered building wherein a couple of
hundred of his swarthy countrymen worked with deft nimble fingers at a
rate of pay which no English artisan could have accepted. Within a few
months the result of this new competition was an abrupt fall of prices in
the trade, which was serious for the largest firms and disastrous for the
smaller ones. A few old-established houses held on as they were, others
reduced their establishments and cut down their expenses, while one or two
put up their shutters and confessed themselves beaten. In this last
unfortunate category was the ancient and respected firm of Fairbairn
Brothers of Brisport.
Several causes had led up to this disaster, though Don Diego's debut as a
corkcutter had brought matters to a head. When a couple of generations
back the original Fairbairn had founded the business, Brisport was a
little fishing town with no outlet or occupation for her superfluous
population. Men were glad to have safe and continuous work upon any terms.
All this was altered now, for the town was expanding into the centre of a
large district in the west, and the demand for labour and its remuneration
had proportionately increased. Again, in the old days, when carriage was
ruinous and communication slow, the vintners of Exeter and of Barnstaple
were glad to buy their corks from their neighbour of Brisport; but now the
large London houses sent down their travellers, who competed with each
other to gain the local custom, until profits were cut down to the
vanishing point. For a long time the firm had been in a precarious
position, but this further drop in prices settled the matter, and
compelled Mr. Charles Fairbairn, the acting manager, to close his
It was a murky, foggy Saturday afternoon in November when the hands were
paid for the last time, and the old building was to be finally abandoned.
Mr. Fairbairn, an anxious-faced, sorrow-worn man, stood on a raised dais
by the cashier while he handed the little pile of hardly-earned shillings
and coppers to each successive workman as the long procession filed past
his table. It was usual with the employees to clatter away the instant
that they had been paid, like so many children let out of school; but
to-day they waited, forming little groups over the great dreary room, and
discussing in subdued voices the misfortune which had come upon their
employers, and the future which awaited themselves. When the last pile of
coins had been handed across the table, and the last name checked by the
cashier, the whole throng faced silently round to the man who had been
their master, and waited expectantly for any words which he might have to
say to them.
Mr. Charles Fairbairn had not expected this, and it embarrassed him. He
had waited as a matter of routine duty until the wages were paid, but he
was a taciturn, slow-witted man, and he had not foreseen this sudden call
upon his oratorical powers. He stroked his thin cheek nervously with his
long white fingers, and looked down with weak watery eyes at the mosaic of
upturned serious faces.
"I am sorry that we have to part, my men," he said at last in a crackling
voice. "It's a bad day for all of us, and for Brisport too. For three
years we have been losing money over the works. We held on in the hope of
a change coming, but matters are going from bad to worse. There's nothing
for it but to give it up before the balance of our fortune is swallowed
up. I hope you may all be able to get work of some sort before very long.
Good-bye, and God bless you!"
"God bless you, sir! God bless you!" cried a chorus of rough voices.
"Three cheers for Mr. Charles Fairbairn!" shouted a bright-eyed, smart
young fellow, springing up upon a bench and waving his peaked cap in the
air. The crowd responded to the call, but their huzzas wanted the true
ring which only a joyous heart can give. Then they began to flock out into
the sunlight, looking back as they went at the long deal tables and the
cork-strewn floor—above all at the sad-faced, solitary man, whose
cheeks were flecked with colour at the rough cordiality of their farewell.
"Huxford," said the cashier, touching on the shoulder the young fellow who
had led the cheering; "the governor wants to speak to you."
The workman turned back and stood swinging his cap awkwardly in front of
his ex-employer, while the crowd pushed on until the doorway was clear,
and the heavy fog-wreaths rolled unchecked into the deserted factory.
"Ah, John!" said Mr. Fairbairn, coming suddenly out of his reverie and
taking up a letter from the table. "You have been in my service since you
were a boy, and you have shown that you merited the trust which I have
placed in you. From what I have heard I think I am right in saying that
this sudden want of work will affect your plans more than it will many of
my other hands."
"I was to be married at Shrovetide," the man answered, tracing a pattern
upon the table with his horny forefinger. "I'll have to find work first."
"And work, my poor fellow, is by no means easy to find. You see you have
been in this groove all your life, and are unfit for anything else. It's
true you've been my foreman, but even that won't help you, for the
factories all over England are discharging hands, and there's not a
vacancy to be had. It's a bad outlook for you and such as you."
"What would you advise, then, sir?" asked John Huxford.
"That's what I was coming to. I have a letter here from Sheridan and
Moore, of Montreal, asking for a good hand to take charge of a workroom.
If you think it will suit you, you can go out by the next boat. The wages
are far in excess of anything which I have been able to give you."
"Why, sir, this is real kind of you," the young workman said earnestly.
"She—my girl—Mary, will be as grateful to you as I am. I know
what you say is right, and that if I had to look for work I should be
likely to spend the little that I have laid by towards housekeeping before
I found it. But, sir, with your leave I'd like to speak to her about it
before I made up my mind. Could you leave it open for a few hours?"
"The mail goes out to-morrow," Mr. Fairbairn answered. "If you decide to
accept you can write tonight. Here is their letter, which will give you
John Huxford took the precious paper with a grateful heart. An hour ago
his future had been all black, but now this rift of light had broken in
the west, giving promise of better things. He would have liked to have
said something expressive of his feelings to his employer, but the English
nature is not effusive, and he could not get beyond a few choking awkward
words which were as awkwardly received by his benefactor. With a scrape
and a bow, he turned on his heel, and plunged out into the foggy street.
So thick was the vapour that the houses over the way were only a vague
loom, but the foreman hurried on with springy steps through side streets
and winding lanes, past walls where the fishermen's nets were drying, and
over cobble-stoned alleys redolent of herring, until he reached a modest
line of whitewashed cottages fronting the sea. At the door of one of these
the young man tapped, and then without waiting for a response, pressed
down the latch and walked in.
An old silvery-haired woman and a young girl hardly out of her teens were
sitting on either side of the fire, and the latter sprang to her feet as
"You've got some good news, John," she cried, putting her hands upon his
shoulders, and looking into his eyes. "I can tell it from your step. Mr.
Fairbairn is going to carry on after all."
"No, dear, not so good as that," John Huxford answered, smoothing back her
rich brown hair; "but I have an offer of a place in Canada, with good
money, and if you think as I do, I shall go out to it, and you can follow
with the granny whenever I have made all straight for you at the other
side. What say you to that, my lass?"
"Why, surely, John, what you think is right must be for the best," said
the girl quietly, with trust and confidence in her pale plain face and
loving hazel eyes. "But poor granny, how is she to cross the seas?"
"Oh, never mind about me," the old woman broke in cheerfully. "I'll be no
drag on you. If you want granny, granny's not too old to travel; and if
you don't want her, why she can look after the cottage, and have an
English home ready for you whenever you turn back to the old country."
"Of course we shall need you, granny," John Huxford said, with a cheery
laugh. "Fancy leaving granny behind! That would never do! Mary! But if you
both come out, and if we are married all snug and proper at Montreal,
we'll look through the whole city until we find a house something like
this one, and we'll have creepers on the outside just the same, and when
the doors are shut and we sit round the fire on the winter's nights, I'm
hanged if we'll be able to tell that we're not at home. Besides, Mary,
it's the same speech out there, and the same king and the same flag; it's
not like a foreign country."
"No, of course not," Mary answered with conviction. She was an orphan with
no living relation save her old grandmother, and no thought in life but to
make a helpful and worthy wife to the man she loved. Where these two were
she could not fail to find happiness. If John went to Canada, then Canada
became home to her, for what had Brisport to offer when he was gone?
"I'm to write to-night then and accept?" the young man asked. "I knew you
would both be of the same mind as myself, but of course I couldn't close
with the offer until we had talked it over. I can get started in a week or
two, and then in a couple of months I'll have all ready for you on the
"It will be a weary, weary time until we hear from you, dear John," said
Mary, clasping his hand; "but it's God's will, and we must be patient.
Here's pen and ink. You can sit at the table and write the letter which is
to take the three of us across the Atlantic." Strange how Don Diego's
thoughts were moulding human lives in the little Devon village.
The acceptance was duly despatched, and John Huxford began immediately to
prepare for his departure, for the Montreal firm had intimated that the
vacancy was a certainty, and that the chosen man might come out without
delay to take over his duties. In a very few days his scanty outfit was
completed, and he started off in a coasting vessel for Liverpool, where he
was to catch the passenger ship for Quebec.
"Remember, John," Mary whispered, as he pressed her to his heart upon the
Brisport quay, "the cottage is our own, and come what may, we have always
that to fall back upon. If things should chance to turn out badly over
there, we have always a roof to cover us. There you will find me until you
send word to us to come."
"And that will be very soon, my lass," he answered cheerfully, with a last
embrace. "Good-bye, granny, good-bye." The ship was a mile and more from
the land before he lost sight of the figures of the straight slim girl and
her old companion, who stood watching and waving to him from the end of
the grey stone quay. It was with a sinking heart and a vague feeling of
impending disaster that he saw them at last as minute specks in the
distance, walking townward and disappearing amid the crowd who lined the
From Liverpool the old woman and her granddaughter received a letter from
John announcing that he was just starting in the barque St. Lawrence, and
six weeks afterwards a second longer epistle informed them of his safe
arrival at Quebec, and gave them his first impressions of the country.
After that a long unbroken silence set in. Week after week and month after
month passed by, and never a word came from across the seas. A year went
over their heads, and yet another, but no news of the absentee. Sheridan
and Moore were written to, and replied that though John Huxford's letter
had reached them, he had never presented himself, and they had been forced
to fill up the vacancy as best they could. Still Mary and her grandmother
hoped against hope, and looked out for the letter-carrier every morning
with such eagerness, that the kind-hearted man would often make a detour
rather than pass the two pale anxious faces which peered at him from the
cottage window. At last, three years after the young foreman's
disappearance, old granny died, and Mary was left alone, a broken
sorrowful woman, living as best she might on a small annuity which had
descended to her, and eating her heart out as she brooded over the mystery
which hung over the fate of her lover.
Among the shrewd west-country neighbours there had long, however, ceased
to be any mystery in the matter. Huxford arrived safely in Canada—so
much was proved by his letter. Had he met with his end in any sudden way
during the journey between Quebec and Montreal, there must have been some
official inquiry, and his luggage would have sufficed to have established
his identity. Yet the Canadian police had been communicated with, and had
returned a positive answer that no inquest had been held, or any body
found, which could by any possibility be that of the young Englishman. The
only alternative appeared to be that he had taken the first opportunity to
break all the old ties, and had slipped away to the backwoods or to the
States to commence life anew under an altered name. Why he should do this
no one professed to know, but that he had done it appeared only too
probable from the facts. Hence many a deep growl of righteous anger rose
from the brawny smacksmen when Mary with her pale face and sorrow-sunken
head passed along the quays on her way to her daily marketing; and it is
more than likely that if the missing man had turned up in Brisport he
might have met with some rough words or rougher usage, unless he could
give some very good reason for his strange conduct. This popular view of
the case never, however, occurred to the simple trusting heart of the
lonely girl, and as the years rolled by her grief and her suspense were
never for an instant tinged with a doubt as to the good faith of the
missing man. From youth she grew into middle age, and from that into the
autumn of her life, patient, long-suffering, and faithful, doing good as
far as lay in her power, and waiting humbly until fate should restore
either in this world or the next that which it had so mysteriously
deprived her of.
In the meantime neither the opinion held by the minority that John Huxford
was dead, nor that of the majority, which pronounced him to be faithless,
represented the true state of the case. Still alive, and of stainless
honour, he had yet been singled out by fortune as her victim in one of
those strange freaks which are of such rare occurrence, and so beyond the
general experience, that they might be put by as incredible, had we not
the most trustworthy evidence of their occasional possibility.
Landing at Quebec, with his heart full of hope and courage, John selected
a dingy room in a back street, where the terms were less exorbitant than
elsewhere, and conveyed thither the two boxes which contained his worldly
goods. After taking up his quarters there he had half a mind to change
again, for the landlady and the fellow-lodgers were by no means to his
taste; but the Montreal coach started within a day or two, and he consoled
himself by the thought that the discomfort would only last for that short
time. Having written home to Mary to announce his safe arrival, he
employed himself in seeing as much of the town as was possible, walking
about all day, and only returning to his room at night.
It happened, however, that the house on which the unfortunate youth had
pitched was one which was notorious for the character of its inmates. He
had been directed to it by a pimp, who found regular employment in hanging
about the docks and decoying new-comers to this den. The fellow's specious
manner and proffered civility had led the simple-hearted west-countryman
into the toils, and though his instinct told him that he was in unsafe
company, he refrained, unfortunately, from at once making his escape. He
contented himself with staying out all day, and associating as little as
possible with the other inmates. From the few words which he did let drop,
however, the landlady gathered that he was a stranger without a single
friend in the country to inquire after him should misfortune overtake him.
The house had an evil reputation for the hocussing of sailors, which was
done not only for the purpose of plundering them, but also to supply
outgoing ships with crews, the men being carried on board insensible, and
not coming to until the ship was well down the St. Lawrence. This trade
caused the wretches who followed it to be experts in the use of stupefying
drugs, and they determined to practise their arts upon their friendless
lodger, so as to have an opportunity of ransacking his effects, and of
seeing what it might be worth their while to purloin. During the day he
invariably locked his door and carried off the key in his pocket, but if
they could render him insensible for the night they could examine his
boxes at their leisure, and deny afterwards that he had ever brought with
him the articles which he missed. It happened, therefore, upon the eve of
Huxford's departure from Quebec, that he found, upon returning to his
lodgings, that his landlady and her two ill-favoured sons, who assisted
her in her trade, were waiting up for him over a bowl of punch, which they
cordially invited him to share. It was a bitterly cold night, and the
fragrant steam overpowered any suspicions which the young Englishman may
have entertained, so he drained off a bumper, and then, retiring to his
bedroom, threw himself upon his bed without undressing, and fell straight
into a dreamless slumber, in which he still lay when the three
conspirators crept into his chamber, and, having opened his boxes, began
to investigate his effects.
It may have been that the speedy action of the drug caused its effect to
be evanescent, or, perhaps, that the strong constitution of the victim
threw it off with unusual rapidity. Whatever the cause, it is certain that
John Huxford suddenly came to himself, and found the foul trio squatted
round their booty, which they were dividing into the two categories of
what was of value and should be taken, and what was valueless and might
therefore be left. With a bound he sprang out of bed, and seizing the
fellow nearest him by the collar, he slung him through the open doorway.
His brother rushed at him, but the young Devonshire man met him with such
a facer that he dropped in a heap upon the ground. Unfortunately, the
violence of the blow caused him to overbalance himself, and, tripping over
his prostrate antagonist, he came down heavily upon his face. Before he
could rise, the old hag sprang upon his back and clung to him, shrieking
to her son to bring the poker. John managed to shake himself clear of them
both, but before he could stand on his guard he was felled from behind by
a crashing blow from an iron bar, which stretched him senseless upon the
"You've hit too hard, Joe," said the old woman, looking down at the
prostrate figure. "I heard the bone go."
"If I hadn't fetched him down he'd ha' been too many for us," said the
young villain sulkily.
"Still, you might ha' done it without killing him, clumsy," said his
mother. She had had a large experience of such scenes, and knew the
difference between a stunning blow and a fatal one.
"He's still breathing," the other said, examining him; "the back o' his
head's like a bag o' dice though. The skull's all splintered. He can't
last. What are we to do?"
"He'll never come to himself again," the other brother remarked. "Sarve
him right. Look at my face! Let's see, mother; who's in the house?"
"Only four drunk sailors."
"They wouldn't turn out for any noise. It's all quiet in the street. Let's
carry him down a bit, Joe, and leave him there. He can die there, and no
one think the worse of us."
"Take all the papers out of his pocket, then," the mother suggested; "they
might help the police to trace him. His watch, too, and his money—L3
odd; better than nothing. Now carry him softly and don't slip."
Kicking off their shoes, the two brothers carried the dying man down
stairs and along the deserted street for a couple of hundred yards. There
they laid him among the snow, where he was found by the night patrol, who
carried him on a shutter to the hospital. He was duly examined by the
resident surgeon, who bound up the wounded head, but gave it as his
opinion that the man could not possibly live for more than twelve hours.
Twelve hours passed, however, and yet another twelve, but John Huxford
still struggled hard for his life. When at the end of three days he was
found to be still breathing, the interest of the doctors became aroused at
his extraordinary vitality, and they bled him, as the fashion was in those
days, and surrounded his shattered head with icebags. It may have been on
account of these measures, or it may have been in spite of them, but at
the end of a week's deep trance the nurse in charge was astonished to hear
a gabbling noise, and to find the stranger sitting up upon the couch and
staring about him with wistful, wondering eyes. The surgeons were summoned
to behold the phenomenon, and warmly congratulated each other upon the
success of their treatment.
"You have been on the brink of the grave, my man," said one of them,
pressing the bandaged head back on to the pillow; "you must not excite
yourself. What is your name?"
No answer, save a wild stare.
"Where do you come from?"
Again no answer.
"He is mad," one suggested. "Or a foreigner," said another. "There were no
papers on him when he came in. His linen is marked 'J. H.' Let us try him
in French and German."
They tested him with as many tongues as they could muster among them, but
were compelled at last to give the matter over and to leave their silent
patient, still staring up wild-eyed at the whitewashed hospital ceiling.
For many weeks John lay in the hospital, and for many weeks efforts were
made to gain some clue as to his antecedents, but in vain. He showed, as
the time rolled by, not only by his demeanour, but also by the
intelligence with which he began to pick up fragments of sentences, like a
clever child learning to talk, that his mind was strong enough in the
present, though it was a complete blank as to the past. The man's memory
of his whole life before the fatal blow was entirely and absolutely
erased. He neither knew his name, his language, his home, his business,
nor anything else. The doctors held learned consultations upon him, and
discoursed upon the centre of memory and depressed tables, deranged
nerve-cells and cerebral congestions, but all their polysyllables began
and ended at the fact that the man's memory was gone, and that it was
beyond the power of science to restore it. During the weary months of his
convalescence he picked up reading and writing, but with the return of his
strength came no return of his former life. England, Devonshire, Brisport,
Mary, Granny—the words brought no recollection to his mind. All was
absolute darkness. At last he was discharged, a friendless, tradeless,
penniless man, without a past, and with very little to look to in the
future. His very name was altered, for it had been necessary to invent
one. John Huxford had passed away, and John Hardy took his place among
mankind. Here was a strange outcome of a Spanish gentleman's
John's case had aroused some discussion and curiosity in Quebec, so that
he was not suffered to drift into utter helplessness upon emerging from
the hospital. A Scotch manufacturer named M'Kinlay found him a post as
porter in his establishment, and for a long time he worked at seven
dollars a week at the loading and unloading of vans. In the course of
years it was noticed, however, that his memory, however defective as to
the past, was extremely reliable and accurate when concerned with anything
which had occurred since his accident. From the factory he was promoted
into the counting-house, and the year 1835 found him a junior clerk at a
salary of L120 a year. Steadily and surely John Hardy fought his way
upward from post to post, with his whole heart and mind devoted to the
business. In 1840 he was third clerk, in 1845 he was second, and in 1852
he became manager of the whole vast establishment, and second only to Mr.
There were few who grudged John this rapid advancement, for it was
obviously due to neither chance nor favouritism, but entirely to his
marvellous powers of application and industry. From early morning until
late in the night he laboured hard in the service of his employer,
checking, overlooking, superintending, setting an example to all of
cheerful devotion to duty. As he rose from one post to another his salary
increased, but it caused no alteration in his mode of living, save that it
enabled him to be more open-handed to the poor. He signalised his
promotion to the managership by a donation of L1000 to the hospital in
which he had been treated a quarter of a century before. The remainder of
his earnings he allowed to accumulate in the business, drawing a small sum
quarterly for his sustenance, and still residing in the humble dwelling
which he had occupied when he was a warehouse porter. In spite of his
success he was a sad, silent, morose man, solitary in his habits, and
possessed always of a vague undefined yearning, a dull feeling of
dissatisfaction and of craving which never abandoned him. Often he would
strive with his poor crippled brain to pierce the curtain which divided
him from the past, and to solve the enigma of his youthful existence, but
though he sat many a time by the fire until his head throbbed with his
efforts, John Hardy could never recall the least glimpse of John Huxford's
On one occasion he had, in the interests of the firm, to journey to
Quebec, and to visit the very cork factory which had tempted him to leave
England. Strolling through the workroom with the foreman, John
automatically, and without knowing what he was doing, picked up a square
piece of the bark, and fashioned it with two or three deft cuts of his
penknife into a smooth tapering cork. His companion picked it out of his
hand and examined it with the eye of an expert. "This is not the first
cork which you have cut by many a hundred, Mr. Hardy," he remarked.
"Indeed you are wrong," John answered, smiling; "I never cut one before in
my life." "Impossible!" cried the foreman. "Here's another bit of cork.
Try again." John did his best to repeat the performance, but the brains of
the manager interfered with the trained muscles of the corkcutter. The
latter had not forgotten their cunning, but they needed to be left to
themselves, and not directed by a mind which knew nothing of the matter.
Instead of the smooth graceful shape, he could produce nothing but
rough-hewn clumsy cylinders. "It must have been chance," said the foreman,
"but I could have sworn that it was the work of an old hand!"
As the years passed John's smooth English skin had warped and crinkled
until he was as brown and as seamed as a walnut. His hair, too, after many
years of iron-grey, had finally become as white as the winters of his
adopted country. Yet he was a hale and upright old man, and when he at
last retired from the manager-ship of the firm with which he had been so
long connected, he bore the weight of his seventy years lightly and
bravely. He was in the peculiar position himself of not knowing his own
age, as it was impossible for him to do more than guess at how old he was
at the time of his accident.
The Franco-German War came round, and while the two great rivals were
destroying each other, their more peaceful neighbours were quietly ousting
them out of their markets and their commerce. Many English ports benefited
by this condition of things, but none more than Brisport. It had long
ceased to be a fishing village, but was now a large and prosperous town,
with a great breakwater in place of the quay on which Mary had stood, and
a frontage of terraces and grand hotels where all the grandees of the west
country came when they were in need of a change. All these extensions had
made Brisport the centre of a busy trade, and her ships found their way
into every harbour in the world. Hence it was no wonder, especially in
that very busy year of 1870, that several Brisport vessels were lying in
the river and alongside the wharves of Quebec.
One day John Hardy, who found time hang a little on his hands since his
retirement from business, strolled along by the water's edge listening to
the clanking of the steam winches, and watching the great barrels and
cases as they were swung ashore and piled upon the wharf. He had observed
the coming in of a great ocean steamer, and having waited until she was
safely moored, he was turning away, when a few words fell upon his ear
uttered by some one on board a little weather-beaten barque close by him.
It was only some commonplace order that was bawled out, but the sound fell
upon the old man's ears with a strange mixture of disuse and familiarity.
He stood by the vessel and heard the seamen at their work, all speaking
with the same broad, pleasant jingling accent. Why did it send such a
thrill through his nerves to listen to it? He sat down upon a coil of rope
and pressed his hands to his temples, drinking in the long-forgotten
dialect, and trying to piece together in his mind the thousand half-formed
nebulous recollections which were surging up in it. Then he rose, and
walking along to the stern he read the name of the ship, The Sunlight,
Brisport. Brisport! Again that flush and tingle through every nerve. Why
was that word and the men's speech so familiar to him? He walked moodily
home, and all night he lay tossing and sleepless, pursuing a shadowy
something which was ever within his reach, and yet which ever evaded him.
Early next morning he was up and down on the wharf listening to the talk
of the west-country sailors. Every word they spoke seemed to him to revive
his memory and bring him nearer to the light. From time to time they
paused in their work, and seeing the white-haired stranger sitting so
silently and attentively, they laughed at him and broke little jests upon
him. And even these jests had a familiar sound to the exile, as they very
well might, seeing that they were the same which he had heard in his
youth, for no one ever makes a new joke in England. So he sat through the
long day, bathing himself in the west-country speech, and waiting for the
light to break.
And it happened that when the sailors broke off for their mid-day meal,
one of them, either out of curiosity or good nature, came over to the old
watcher and greeted him. So John asked him to be seated on a log by his
side, and began to put many questions to him about the country from which
he came, and the town. All which the man answered glibly enough, for there
is nothing in the world that a sailor loves to talk of so much as of his
native place, for it pleases him to show that he is no mere wanderer, but
that he has a home to receive him whenever he shall choose to settle down
to a quiet life. So the seaman prattled away about the Town Hall and the
Martello Tower, and the Esplanade, and Pitt Street and the High Street,
until his companion suddenly shot out a long eager arm and caught him by
the wrist. "Look here, man," he said, in a low quick whisper. "Answer me
truly as you hope for mercy. Are not the streets that run out of the High
Street, Fox Street, Caroline Street, and George Street, in the order
named?" "They are," the sailor answered, shrinking away from the wild
flashing eyes. And at that moment John's memory came back to him, and he
saw clear and distinct his life as it had been and as it should have been,
with every minutest detail traced as in letters of fire. Too stricken to
cry out, too stricken to weep, he could only hurry away homewards wildly
and aimlessly; hurry as fast as his aged limbs would carry him, as if,
poor soul! there were some chance yet of catching up the fifty years which
had gone by. Staggering and tremulous he hastened on until a film seemed
to gather over his eyes, and throwing his arms into the air with a great
cry, "Oh, Mary, Mary! Oh, my lost, lost life!" he fell senseless upon the
The storm of emotion which had passed through him, and the mental shock
which he had undergone, would have sent many a man into a raging fever,
but John was too strong-willed and too practical to allow his strength to
be wasted at the very time when he needed it most. Within a few days he
realised a portion of his property, and starting for New York, caught the
first mail steamer to England. Day and night, night and day, he trod the
quarter-deck, until the hardy sailors watched the old man with
astonishment, and marvelled how any human being could do so much upon so
little sleep. It was only by this unceasing exercise, by wearing down his
vitality until fatigue brought lethargy, that he could prevent himself
from falling into a very frenzy of despair. He hardly dared ask himself
what was the object of this wild journey? What did he expect? Would Mary
be still alive? She must be a very old woman. If he could but see her and
mingle his tears with hers he would be content. Let her only know that it
had been no fault of his, and that they had both been victims to the same
cruel fate. The cottage was her own, and she had said that she would wait
for him there until she heard from him. Poor lass, she had never reckoned
on such a wait as this.
At last the Irish lights were sighted and passed, Land's End lay like a
blue fog upon the water, and the great steamer ploughed its way along the
bold Cornish coast until it dropped its anchor in Plymouth Bay. John
hurried to the railway station, and within a few hours he found himself
back once more in his native town, which he had quitted a poor corkcutter,
half a century before.
But was it the same town? Were it not for the name engraved all over the
station and on the hotels, John might have found a difficulty in believing
it. The broad, well-paved streets, with the tram lines laid down the
centre, were very different from the narrow winding lanes which he could
remember. The spot upon which the station had been built was now the very
centre of the town, but in the old days it would have been far out in the
fields. In every direction, lines of luxurious villas branched away in
streets and crescents bearing names which were new to the exile. Great
warehouses, and long rows of shops with glittering fronts, showed him how
enormously Brisport had increased in wealth as well as in dimensions. It
was only when he came upon the old High Street that John began to feel at
home. It was much altered, but still it was recognisable, and some few of
the buildings were just as he had left them. There was the place where
Fairbairn's cork works had been. It was now occupied by a great brand-new
hotel. And there was the old grey Town Hall. The wanderer turned down
beside it, and made his way with eager steps but a sinking heart in the
direction of the line of cottages which he used to know so well.
It was not difficult for him to find where they had been. The sea at least
was as of old, and from it he could tell where the cottages had stood. But
alas, where were they now! In their place an imposing crescent of high
stone houses reared their tall front to the beach. John walked wearily
down past their palatial entrances, feeling heart-sore and despairing,
when suddenly a thrill shot through him, followed by a warm glow of
excitement and of hope, for, standing a little back from the line, and
looking as much out of place as a bumpkin in a ballroom, was an old
whitewashed cottage, with wooden porch and walls bright with creeping
plants. He rubbed his eyes and stared again, but there it stood with its
diamond-paned windows and white muslin curtains, the very same down to the
smallest details, as it had been on the day when he last saw it. Brown
hair had become white, and fishing hamlets had changed into cities, but
busy hands and a faithful heart had kept granny's cottage unchanged and
ready for the wanderer.
And now, when he had reached his very haven of rest, John Huxford's mind
became more filled with apprehension than ever, and he came over so deadly
sick, that he had to sit down upon one of the beach benches which faced
the cottage. An old fisherman was perched at one end of it, smoking his
black clay pipe, and he remarked upon the wan face and sad eyes of the
"You have overtired yourself," he said. "It doesn't do for old chaps like
you and me to forget our years."
"I'm better now, thank you," John answered. "Can you tell me, friend, how
that one cottage came among all those fine houses?"
"Why," said the old fellow, thumping his crutch energetically upon the
ground, "that cottage belongs to the most obstinate woman in all England.
That woman, if you'll believe me, has been offered the price of the
cottage ten times over, and yet she won't part with it. They have even
promised to remove it stone by stone, and put it up on some more
convenient place, and pay her a good round sum into the bargain, but, God
bless you! she wouldn't so much as hear of it."
"And why was that?" asked John.
"Well, that's just the funny part of it. It's all on account of a mistake.
You see her spark went away when I was a youngster, and she's got it into
her head that he may come back some day, and that he won't know where to
go unless the cottage is there. Why, if the fellow were alive he would be
as old as you, but I've no doubt he's dead long ago. She's well quit of
him, for he must have been a scamp to abandon her as he did."
"Oh, he abandoned her, did he?"
"Yes—went off to the States, and never so much as sent a word to bid
her good-bye. It was a cruel shame, it was, for the girl has been
a-waiting and a-pining for him ever since. It's my belief that it's fifty
years' weeping that blinded her."
"She is blind!" cried John, half rising to his feet.
"Worse than that," said the fisherman. "She's mortal ill, and not expected
to live. Why, look ye, there's the doctor's carriage a-waiting at her
At this evil tidings old John sprang up and hurried over to the cottage,
where he met the physician returning to his brougham.
"How is your patient, doctor?" he asked in a trembling voice.
"Very bad, very bad," said the man of medicine pompously. "If she
continues to sink she will be in great danger; but if, on the other hand,
she takes a turn, it is possible that she may recover," with which
oracular answer he drove away in a cloud of dust.
John Huxford was still hesitating at the doorway, not knowing how to
announce himself, or how far a shock might be dangerous to the sufferer,
when a gentleman in black came bustling up.
"Can you tell me, my man, if this is where the sick woman is?" he asked.
John nodded, and the clergyman passed in, leaving the door half open. The
wanderer waited until he had gone into the inner room, and then slipped
into the front parlour, where he had spent so many happy hours. All was
the same as ever, down to the smallest ornaments, for Mary had been in the
habit whenever anything was broken of replacing it with a duplicate, so
that there might be no change in the room. He stood irresolute, looking
about him, until he heard a woman's voice from the inner chamber, and
stealing to the door he peeped in.
The invalid was reclining upon a couch, propped up with pillows, and her
face was turned full towards John as he looked round the door. He could
have cried out as his eyes rested upon it, for there were Mary's pale,
plain, sweet homely features as smooth and as unchanged as though she were
still the half child, half woman, whom he had pressed to his heart on the
Brisport quay. Her calm, eventless, unselfish life had left none of those
rude traces upon her countenance which are the outward emblems of internal
conflict and an unquiet soul. A chaste melancholy had refined and softened
her expression, and her loss of sight had been compensated for by that
placidity which comes upon the faces of the blind. With her silvery hair
peeping out beneath her snow-white cap, and a bright smile upon her
sympathetic face, she was the old Mary improved and developed, with
something ethereal and angelic superadded.
"You will keep a tenant in the cottage," she was saying to the clergyman,
who sat with his back turned to the observer. "Choose some poor deserving
folk in the parish who will be glad of a home free. And when he comes you
will tell him that I have waited for him until I have been forced to go
on, but that he will find me on the other side still faithful and true.
There's a little money too—only a few pounds—but I should like
him to have it when he comes, for he may need it, and then you will tell
the folk you put in to be kind to him, for he will be grieved, poor lad,
and to tell him that I was cheerful and happy up to the end. Don't let him
know that I ever fretted, or he may fret too."
Now John listened quietly to all this from behind the door, and more than
once he had to put his hand to his throat, but when she had finished, and
when he thought of her long, blameless, innocent life, and saw the dear
face looking straight at him, and yet unable to see him, it became too
much for his manhood, and he burst out into an irrepressible choking sob
which shook his very frame. And then occurred a strange thing, for though
he had spoken no word, the old woman stretched out her arms to him, and
cried, "Oh, Johnny, Johnny! Oh dear, dear Johnny, you have come back to me
again," and before the parson could at all understand what had happened,
those two faithful lovers were in each other's arms, weeping over each
other, and patting each other's silvery heads, with their hearts so full
of joy that it almost compensated for all that weary fifty years of
It is hard to say how long they rejoiced together. It seemed a very short
time to them and a very long one to the reverend gentleman, who was
thinking at last of stealing away, when Mary recollected his presence and
the courtesy which was due to him. "My heart is full of joy, sir," she
said; "it is God's will that I should not see my Johnny, but I can call
his image up as clear as if I had my eyes. Now stand up, John, and I will
let the gentleman see how well I remember you. He is as tall, sir, as the
second shelf, as straight as an arrow, his face brown, and his eyes bright
and clear. His hair is well-nigh black, and his moustache the same—I
shouldn't wonder if he had whiskers as well by this time. Now, sir, don't
you think I can do without my sight?" The clergyman listened to her
description, and looking at the battered, white-haired man before him, he
hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry.
But it all proved to be a laughing matter in the end, for, whether it was
that her illness had taken some natural turn, or that John's return had
startled it away, it is certain that from that day Mary steadily improved
until she was as well as ever. "No special license for me," John had said
sturdily. "It looks as if we were ashamed of what we are doing, as though
we hadn't the best right to be married of any two folk in the parish." So
the banns were put up accordingly, and three times it was announced that
John Huxford, bachelor, was going to be united to Mary Howden, spinster,
after which, no one objecting, they were duly married accordingly. "We may
not have very long in this world," said old John, "but at least we shall
start fair and square in the next."
John's share in the Quebec business was sold out, and gave rise to a very
interesting legal question as to whether, knowing that his name was
Huxford, he could still sign that of Hardy, as was necessary for the
completion of the business. It was decided, however, that on his producing
two trustworthy witnesses to his identity all would be right, so the
property was duly realised and produced a very handsome fortune. Part of
this John devoted to building a pretty villa just outside Brisport, and
the heart of the proprietor of Beach Terrace leaped within him when he
learned that the cottage was at last to be abandoned, and that it would no
longer break the symmetry and impair the effect of his row of aristocratic
And there in their snug new home, sitting out on the lawn in the
summer-time, and on either side of the fire in the winter, that worthy old
couple continued for many years to live as innocently and as happily as
two children. Those who knew them well say that there was never a shadow
between them, and that the love which burned in their aged hearts was as
high and as holy as that of any young couple who ever went to the altar.
And through all the country round, if ever man or woman were in distress
and fighting against hard times, they had only to go up to the villa to
receive help, and that sympathy which is more precious than help. So when
at last John and Mary fell asleep in their ripe old age, within a few
hours of each other, they had all the poor and the needy and the
friendless of the parish among their mourners, and in talking over the
troubles which these two had faced so bravely, they learned that their own
miseries also were but passing things, and that faith and truth can never
miscarry, either in this existence or the next.