SUPERSTITION dies hard, and who shall say that when Superstition dies, his twin sister, Veneration, will not droop and languish over his bier? But nowhere does superstition linger longer than among the fisher-folk of the far north. The men who "go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters," not only "see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep," but they leave behind them ashore women sensitive as barometers to every change of wind or weather, keenly susceptible of all that may affect the husbands and fathers and brothers who risk their lives that they and others may live. And they also leave behind them children to be influenced by all they hear and see, and to catch up and transmit every eerie whisper that may fall from their elders.
So from generation to generation the wind has had voices for the fisher-folk the trading townsman could not hear, and the wreathing mist has held shapes the city matron could not see: voices and shapes of awe and mystery, powerful to bless or ban.
Such may have been the "White Woman of the Wreck," of whom the hardy fisher-wives of Slaith to this day speak in undertones, lest the very utterance of her name should bring the ill-omened spirit amongst them.
Yet only once has she been seen within living memory, and a gray-haired woman keeps the record in her heart.
Far back, when this time and grief bowed Hilda Sanderson's grandfather was a boy, when the fishermen's huts were not perched here and there upon the rocks to be out of reach of the tide, but looked out from beneath the cliffs on a fair expanse of sand and shingle and a land-locked bay, was the White Woman seen for the first time, and in the flesh.
Rude and uncultivated as are the fisher-folk of Slaith in these our times, civilisation is yet making its mark on the young; but in those bygone days the dwellers on too many of our coasts looked upon all spoils of the ocean as their legitimate right. So at Slaith when a fierce north-easter ravaged the coast and kept yawls and cobles at home, the storm would bring as sure a harvest as was won from the deep on those moonlight nights when the herring-boats were out. And notwithstanding the abundance of coal in the wild region around, frequent wrecks made wood the common fuel: it was plentiful, and cost nothing but the gathering and stowing away.
Never had come storm to Slaith at once so productive, or so disastrous, as that which spread its lurid banners over the sky one September evening more than a century ago, warning the busy fishermen to put back and haul their craft high and dry upon the beach for safety. Only one boat, which had set sail in advance of its fellows, disregarded the storm-signals of the sky and pursued its course, whether in recklessness or confidence is not known.
The purple clouds gathered over the crimson glare, the wind came howling up, driving blacker masses of cumuli before it, and night set prematurely in over land and sea.
The village, sheltered on the north and west by a steep, stern ironstone cliff which spread its protecting arm far out to sea in a formidable reef or "neb," was all astir. Men and women gathered on the beach intent on hauling up the boats, securing nets and tackle, and speculating what luck the sea had in store for them, as it broke in foam and froth on the hard rocks and ran in almost to their feet.
Yet, mingling with the crowd and these speculations, came one short-skirted fishwife to the beach with wildly anxious eyes, and hands pressed on her throbbing breast, for Robert Blackburn's boat had not come back with the rest, and it held her husband and her boys. Only the youngest clung to her woollen skirt, and added, with his questions, to her fears and agony.
As the waves leapt up to meet the vivid lightning darting from the clouds and dancing on their crests, she could discern through the blinding rain a disabled ship struggling amid the billows, and she felt how little hope there was for her husband's coble in a gale before which so large a vessel was driving to destruction.
Yes, driving helplessly on towards the Neb and never a boat or a hand put forth to the rescue, though the minute gun boomed in solemn appeal above the roar of the elements; though shrieks and cries for help were borne in by the wind as the doomed vessel was hurried nearer and nearer to its fate; and though the lightning flashes revealed the white figure of a woman lashed to the broken mainmast, and hapless sailors clinging to the bowsprit and rigging.
Nearer ran the ship to the outlying reef and nearer to a crowd of stalwart men who knew the coast, were inured to danger, and lacked neither strength nor courage to risk life or limb in saving life - but only the will. True, the danger was imminent, the risk great, the men had families dependent on their lives, and - if none were left to tell the story of the wreck, better luck would be for the village. So cries and shrieks fell on deaf ears. Not even the piteous adjuration '"For God's sake!" which came with strange distinctness across the waters as the vessel struck, had power to move a man. Maggy Blackburn ran from one to another beseeching pity for the lady and the helpless crew, as they might hope for aid in like straits, as her husband and sons might be needing aid even then!
Sullen silence, or gruff admonitions to mind her own business were the only response. Even the women turned away, the greed of gain, the hope of spoil, stronger than womanhood.
Morning dawned on a cold, gray sky, a receding tide, a placid sea, a fishing village nestling under rugged cliffs, with a long reach of smooth sand between the cottages and the narrow strip of boulders and shingle, and the outstretched arm of the Neb, looking innocent as any other benevolent protector.
It dawned also on smoke uprising from cottage fires kept alive during all the storm and tumult; on a sea and beach strewn with wreckage; on men and women wading into the surf to bring ashore boxes and bales within reach of arms or boat-hooks; on boats, well manned, steering among the rocks and shallows, or even into deeper currents around the Neb, to pick up jetsam and flotsam before the coastguard or the lord of the manor should come on the scene with a legal claim.
It dawned on the half-naked bodies of drowned sailors swaying hither and thither with the undulating waves, or lying disfigured among the rocks, among weeds and tangle, and inquisitive lobsters black as undertakers. It dawned, too, on a tall, slim woman in a white clinging garment, her head and shoulders wrapped in a black shawl, from beneath which her fair hair had fluttered and lay in wet, loosened tresses on the sand, where the tide had landed her and the broken mast together. Landed only to lie there unnoted and unregarded, although when the sun kissed the pale lips and eyes they opened to the light and warmth, and perchance a hope of deliverance thrilled through the half-insensate form.
It came not until too late. Maggy Blackburn and her boy retreating to their hut when the ship struck, had spent the intervening hours in weeping for the dear ones they never expected to behold again: and not until the sun was fairly up, and the boy had cried himself to sleep, did she venture forth to see the devastation night and storm and pitiless men had to answer for.
Far along the beach, away from the busy knots of wreckers, she found the White Woman lying to all appearance dead. A compassionate tear fell on the pale upturned face, and a word or two of pity dropped from the rough fishwife's lips - in her own grief sympathetic.
As she spoke, a pair of lovely blue eyes slowly unclosed and rested for an instant on her own in mute thanksgiving.
With a cry of surprise, Maggy strove to loosen the bonds which held the frail form to the mast. In vain! loving hands had tied them too securely, and the wetted cordage would not yield.
She had no knife. Rising to her feet she put her hands to her mouth and sent a loud halloo across the sands for help. Again and again she called. Her call was disregarded. A large cask was being rolled over the grating shingles.
At length an answer, prefaced by an oath, was shouted back.
"Mind thy own business, Maggy Blackburn, an' let th' woman be."
But Maggy, tender in the hour of her own dreaded bereavement, stooped to whisper, in ears which might or might not be conscious, the nature of her errand: and ignoring the belief that ill-luck follows the restoration of the shipwrecked to life, she sped along the sweep of sand to her own home for a knife, lest a churlish refusal might meet her on the beach, where knives were in active use.
Blackburn's cottage was mounted on a ledge of rock above the rest of the village, and was less accessible, and, though Maggy was strong and swift of foot, swifter-footed Death outran her. He had severed invisible cords, released the struggling spirit. It only remained for Maggy to release a stiffening corpse, bear it reverently beyond reach of the tide, and compose the dead limbs for burial, wofully wondering the while who would perform the like office for her Robert and his boys.
Intent on her melancholy occupation, absorbed in her own anguish, she heeded not the noisy group near the Neb quarrelling over their spoil, until a loud "Halloo" arrested her attention. Turning round, she saw a young fisherman's hand pointing seawards, and some instinct prompted her to fall on her knees with uplifted voice and hands. She felt rather than knew the distant sail for their own.
Robert Blackburn and his sons were safe, though their boat had sustained some damage. They had found a haven close at hand on the first outbreak of the tempest.
But what of the good ship that had gone to pieces on the Neb?
What the billows had spared the wreckers had industriously stowed away in secret caves and cellarage, till scarcely a spar remained afloat to tell the mournful story. And after the White Woman and the sailors washed ashore were buried in the sands there was rejoicing and carousal. "That was a lucky day for Slaith," they said, as they sat round fires supplied from the timber of the wreck; "drowned folk were not likely to dispute possession of their harvest, and no man living had put in a claim."
And as the "last lucky day" it was remembered and spoken of with regret as the winter nights drew in; and of all the good ships lost on our northern coasts not one went ashore at Slaith that had not sailed from it. No more luck of the kind came in their way. Even the take of fish grew scanty and precarious; and a rumour got about that a tall woman in a long white clinging robe, whose head was muffled in a black shawl, was sure to stand like a beacon on the uttermost point of the Neb whenever a storm was brewing, and with the motion of her white arms in the air warn approaching vessels of their danger; and that she had been seen to finger the nets as they hung outside the huts to dry, when they would break like tow and let the fish escape.
Certainly the nets were always under repair, and the boats; and when the weird white figure was seen on the Neb, like a wreath of mist or spray, there would be apprehensive whispers in the village of the White Woman of the Wreck, and a sense of ill-luck spread its gloom and discontent over Slaith.
It made itself felt in envious antagonism to the Blackburns, who somehow seemed to prosper where others failed, and to be thriving better without a share of the great wreck's cargo than any of those whose cellars had been filled with her merchandise and stores. Silks had mildewed, casks had leaked, and fruits had been damaged by the sea-water.
"Nothing, however, seemed to go wrong with the Blackburns," was said with a grumble, not only at the firesides, but openly to Maggy and Robert both; and they were so often twitted with being "above their neighbours" in more than their dwelling, that as the ill-feeling spread, whilst the seasons went their round, the elder and younger Blackburns alike ceased to grumble at the extra distance and rugged path to their abode, since it kept them apart from ill neighbours.
A year had almost gone by since the day of the great wreck, when Robert Blackburn lamed his foot stumbling over a coil of cable on the beach, at the same time that his two upgrown sons lay tossing on their pillows in the burning arms of fever.
A sad and anxious week, this, for Maggy, watching her sick, with only Cuthbert, a lad of thirteen, to run to and from the distant apothecary, hew her wood, or draw her water.
His brothers had been three days in bed when he was sent in the early morning for water from the beck-spring. The village lay asleep at the foot of the rock; the boats, which had not been out overnight, were hauled up high on the beach - that beach which seemed to have narrowed so considerably; and a thick haze rested on the slightly heaving sea.
Something of this crossed the boy's mind as he came down the hill with his pail, and noted the high water-mark left by the receding tide.
Suddenly he beheld - as if she came out of the very mist - the White Woman of the Wreck glide over the sands and shingle, and touch the stern of every boat as she passed, with one omission - that of his father; and then, with a sweep of her long arm towards the line of cottages glide away silently as she came, leaving Cuthbert so dazed he could scarcely find words to tell his mother what he had seen.
"Not a word to them inside!" she said, as she met him on the threshold. She too had seen the White Woman from her own door, and her heart sank lest Betty Rae's ill-savoured words should be true and their own luck indeed be on the turn. What if the omen should be to them, and her sons be taken from her?
Private forebodings did not, however, stifle her goodwill to others. Cuthbert was despatched to the awakening village with the intelligence, and a word of advice for the men not to go to sea that day. Her messenger was greeted with incredulity and scorn. The Blackburns were not in favour, Maggy's motives were suspected, her story disbelieved.
"Are our wives to have empty creels because Maggy Blackburn's men-folk are laid by and canna work?" asked Peter Rae, the man who twelvemonths before had bade Maggy "Let the woman be!"
Cuthbert went back with a laugh ringing in his ears, and a hint that his mother had picked a convenient time for ghost-seeing.
Nevertheless, her message had not been wholly thrown away, however much her motive might be suspected. There was an absence of ordinary alacrity in preparing the boats for sea, and a disposition to talk rather than work. One old fisherman, with a weather-beaten face, whose name was Sanderson, declared that neither he nor his sons would put out to sea that day. "Better lose a take of fish than a' our lives, an' there's no kenning what mischief's afloat if th' White Woman has been seen."
There was a sneer at the Sandersons. Nevertheless, one or two young fellows held back at the last, and a yawl or two sailed without the full complement of hands - the Raes' for one.
It was a memorable day for Slaith.
When the sun reached its meridian, sea and sky were all aglow like molten gold, and the women on the shore, led by Betty Rae, laughed the stay-at-homes to scorn as they themselves went about their household ways panting with the unprecedented heat.
Maggy was thankful when a breeze came landward with the returning tide and through the open door to fan the flushed cheeks of fever; and not she only. But with the breeze came a little cloud out of the distant wave, and deepened and darkened and spread as the breeze swelled and mounted to a gale, and the long rollers of the advancing tide swept in on the shore, mounting higher and higher, and breaking on the Neb as though trying their strength on the rock and disputing its right to bar their progress.
The Sandersons said they saw the White Woman on the shore waving her long arms and beckoning to the waves. Calling all hands to help, they drew their own coble and the Blackburns' higher and higher up the beach, now alive with frightened fishwives wading in the surf to secure cables and tackle, nets and creels, hitherto supposed to lie beyond the highest tide. But on came the rushing water, on and on as the daylight went, on and on in the darkness of night, white-lipped and roaring. Then there was a sudden stir within the cottages, as the water crawled in at the open doors and put out fires on the hearth.
A sudden stir, with glancing lanterns and flaring torches, to bear the infant and its cradle, the grandmother in her chair, and household goods anyhow up the rocky pathways to security; a stir all too late and too hurried in the darkness to save all of life or property. The whole shore was invaded by the sea.
Morning broke on desolation. Weeping women and children up on the cliffs looked in vain for their homes down below. The village had been swept from the sands.
The two cobles had held to their moorings and were but little damaged; of the picturesquely grouped cottages only ruins mingled with weeds and tangle were visible. No four walls were standing that were not, like the Blackburns', perched on the cliff.
There ran at last a shuddering reminder through the shelterless crowd that it was the anniversary of the "great wreck," as Betty Rae was missed from their midst, and a bundle of blue and red that had once been a woman was found amidst the debris of the Raes' dwelling. And as hour after hour, and day after day went by, and never yawl or coble came back to tell the secrets of the night or of the devastating storm, the homeless women, whose orphaned children clung wailing to their skirts, in their own agony envied the lot of Maggy Blackburn, whose men-folk were spared to her. And not a few remembered that, of all the village, she alone had shown compassion towards the White Woman of the Wreck.
Slaith - the original Slaith - was gone; homes and people: and the White Woman was seen no more by that generation.
A NEW Slaith arose. Not immediately, and not on the sands. In spring and autumn the sea had possession of the old site at flood-tide. Of the bereaved families who had found refuge in holes and caves among the rocks, some wandered inland; others, who had means or a man left, began to build cabins here and there on the irregular hillside. Buxom or energetic widows attracted husbands from other stations on the coast. There were marriages and intermarriages, notably between the Blackburns and the Sandersons. Even Rae's only surviving son (the one who had stayed ashore), having wherewith to purchase a new boat - secret spoil of the great wreck - had not far to seek a wife, who scouted the suggestion of ill-luck.
The new village rose under other auspices. The patriarchs of Slaith would have no wreckers in their midst, the awful visitation of the White Woman of the Wreck serving as a deterrent so long as an eye-witness remained to verify the story he handed down to future generations. So long as Cuthbert Blackburn, the last survivor of the great storm, sat in the chimney nook, and related to his listening grandchildren how, with his own young eyes, he had seen the white woman with the black shawl cut away from the broken mast to be buried; and how, a year after, to a day, he had beheld the shadowy form of the dead and buried woman glide over the sands, shake a threatening hand at the village, and touch the stern of every foredoomed boat; the listening children would edge closer to each other, look fearfully around and hold their breaths with awe.
And so long as the old man could totter about with the wind playing amongst his grey locks, never a Blackburn or a Sanderson was known to bring other than a legitimate cargo ashore, although smuggling was openly connived at by people of note and respectability on the coast and inland.
But when the old grandfather was laid to rest, the White Woman might have been laid to rest also. She had lapsed into the airy region of tradition, and, in the daily duties and anxieties of fishermen's lives, the very awe her name had inspired was fast dying out. And no wonder. Seventy years had almost rounded their circuit since the sea made its obliterating inroad upon Slaith. Cuthbert's youngest grandchild, Hilda Sanderson, was a blooming maiden of eighteen - golden haired, fresh coloured, firm of foot, and round of limb - as ready to wade in the surf as a water nymph, and she carried on her shoulders the wicker fish creel, suspended by its strap across her forehead, with a grace peculiarly her own.
Eighteen. And nine years had gone since she, her grandfather's pet, had, for the last time, wandered with him on the shore, and drunk in his never-failing recital, as, with his stick, he pointed to the end of the Neb where the ship went down; marked out, as on a map, every detail of the scenes he had witnessed; and cautioned her, as she hoped to prosper, never to form a friendship or have any dealings with a Rae.
Eighteen - and the youngest representative of the Raes had come a wooing to her!
During his lifetime Cuthbert Blackburn's own children, in obedience to his behest, had held aloof from the Raes. But his grandchildren had felt his interdict a hardship; since avoidance of the Raes meant (to the lads at least) exclusion from companionship and from such sports and games as called for numbers, and of which one or other of the two Raes was almost sure to be leader.
Certainly Hilda's brothers held out the right hand of fellowship to Stephen Rae almost over their grandfather's grave, but surreptitiously, and no one at home was the wiser.
Hilda, seeing the lads together, put in a protest in memory of her grandfather, and their cousin, Robert Blackburn, set his face against the new friendship; but all to no purpose. He himself had, in time, to go with the stream or be left in a minority. And even Hilda, when she grew old enough and strong enough to be sent to the beck for water, was not sorry to find a stronger arm ready to carry the full pail down the hill in her stead.
The Blackburns' cottage no longer looked down from an elevation on the village. It now stood with the Sandersons', almost in the front rank, with a sea-wall as a protection at the edge of the rock.
On a higher level the Raes had built, and their footpath to the beach skirted the tumbling mountain stream; and so it came about that, without design, Stephen was so often at hand to do her a service.
That he proffered his services might be due to her pretty face; that she accepted them might be set down as much to the careless, matter-of-fact, yet masterful manner in which he had possessed himself of her pail in the first instance, as to his black eyes and curly head.
He was five years her senior, and the girl of fifteen, taken by surprise, submitted with something akin to fear in her breast, following him down the steep path with an eerie misgiving of evil to come, and answering his few brief remarks with mere monosyllables. She scarcely said "Thank you" as he set down the pail almost at her own door, and, without waiting even for those curt thanks, proceeded on his way to the beach with a net over his shoulder, whistling as he went.
His shadow darkened the cottage window as he stooped to set down the pail.
"Who was that?" asked Maggy Sanderson, looking up from her wash-tub.
"Stephen Rae, mother," she answered, half afraid of a rebuke.
"And what brought thee with Stephen Rae? Thy gronfeyther Blackburn would have given thee a word of a sort had he seen thee wi' one o' them folk, for a' they be better off than ourselves."
Hilda was conscious of this.
"I could not help it, mother. He took up the bucket, and was off with it down the hill before I could get out a word."
"Weel, lass, it was but neighbourly; an' if thou didn't throw thyself in the lad's way, thou'rt noan to blame." And the energetic woman made the soapsuds fly as she rubbed away at a blue guernsey, and went on saying: "Will and Cuddy say we ha' no right to cast up to Peter and Steve what their great-gronfeyther was, an' that thy gronfeyther's tale was half superstition an' half prejudice, an' that it's time old animosities died out. May be it is. Me an' thy feyther have talked it over mony a time; an' though it did look like a judgment when old Peter was drowned, as his forbears were afore him, thy feyther said that, forbye a bit o' smuggling, nobody knew aught again him. An' it's noan Christian-like to turn a cold shoulder to the lads, seeing they're so good to the poor mother, though they do come of a bad stock. But, surely lass, thou needn't stand still while I talk. You might have had them potatoes peeled by this time, an' ready for the pot."
The bustling matron's reproof was not ill-timed. Hilda's knife went round the roots somewhat mechanically and slowly. She was thinking more of her mother's speech than of her occupation. It was a tolerant reversal of all preconceived notions and old beliefs - a doubt thrown on Grandfather Blackburn's theory of ill-luck as the White Woman's legacy to the Raes - a blow struck at the roots of prejudice and superstitious fear.
She hurried over the potatoes; set them to boil, and with them a dish of silvery fresh herrings, then carried the basket of newly-washed clothes to the beach, and spread them out on the shingle to dry, strewing pebbles over them to keep them down. But all the while her mother's speech was in her mind, and consequently Stephen Rae: a conjunction Maggy Sanderson had scarcely contemplated.
When next she, on her way from the spring, in her pink half-gown and blue woollen petticoat, was overtaken by Stephen, much of her eerie dread had disappeared, and something of girlish shyness, which kept her tongue-tied, had taken its place. Whatever her mood, if he chanced to overtake her on her way from the spring, he was certain to possess himself of her pail, and carry it down the hill, no matter what other burden he might have, and he was seldom empty-handed.
And he always stepped on briskly in advance, as if to show that, though willing to serve her, he had no desire to obtrude in the way of conversation. After a time she caught herself admiring the manliness of his bearing, the careless ease with which he bore the brimming pail down the rugged path, nor spilled a drop, though, it might be, a cable or a net was slung across his shoulder; and she was prone to contrast his black curls with her brothers' red locks. At such times she would take herself to task and resolve to avoid him as her dead grandfather had enjoined. But she could neither shut her eyes nor her ears, and she found herself looking and listening for his step, and when he was not there feeling a sense of disappointment which made her angry with herself.
Her brothers had long rallied her on her sweetheart, heedless of her angry disclaimer, and her cousin, Robert Blackburn, had provoked her even to tears with his bitter taunts of barefaced impropriety in running after one of the Raes. But neither her brother nor Robert would accept her challenge to fetch water in her stead. Robert tried it for a week or ten days, but he soon found the task incompatible with his daily duty.
She was nearly seventeen before she would admit to herself that Stephen was more to her than a friend, and quite seventeen before he claimed a higher privilege.
He had watched her step by step on her way to womanhood, noted her modesty, her industry, and made himself sure of a place in her heart before he asked for it. Nay, he might have waited longer still had he not seen Robert Blackburn haunting her like a shadow, with all the facilities which cousinship and adjoining dwellings could give.
She had now to take her part with the women on the narrowed beach in unloading and preparing the fish for market and the curing-house: and as he saw red-haired Robert always at her side to lighten her labours, and was conscious she had avoided him of late, he had a salutary reminder that he might dally a little too long.
Accordingly he loitered on the path by the beach, and saw more than one damsel fill her pail and cast coquettish glances his way; but Hilda came not. He saw her busy on the beach, or leaning over the sea-wall in conversation with her brothers or Robert; but she scarcely looked towards him, and only nodded when he called to her.
In fact, she was avoiding him, fetching water when the boats were out or preparing to sail, having taken herself to task with a will.
Stephen was not easily baffled. He had gone down to the shore in his sea-boots and sailing gear, and was helping Peter to make all trim aboard the yawl, with an eye on Sanderson's cottage, when he suddenly professed to have left something at home, and set off in a hurry, leaving Peter, the two men, and the boy to get all right and tight without him.
He did not slacken his pace until he was fairly out of sight; then he stepped along at leisure and, where practicable, on the soft turf. Hilda was some paces in advance, toiling along in the hot sun with her empty pail as wearily as if it had been filled to the brim with lead.
The spring gushed cold and clear from the rock in a sheltered nook among heather and hart's-tongue fern, a few paces from the beck to which it was tributary, and here Hilda seated herself on a stone in a drooping attitude, sighed heavily, and clasped her knees with both hands as if forgetful of her errand.
A hand upon her shoulder made her start. She turned, and met the gaze of Stephen with eyes that sank before the new light in his.
"Where have you hid yourself, Hilda, the last fortnight? I had a fairing for you, and had never a chance to offer it."
"I do not want a fairing. I-I would rather not have it," faltered she, going alternately cold and hot, as he pulled a gay silk kerchief from his pocket and proceeded to tie it under her chin, saying as he did so, "Yes, you do, and will give me a kiss for it." And holding her face between his two hands, as if to look how her new head-gear became her, he lifted it up to meet the kiss he had ready for her lips.
Her modesty took fright. Never before had he by act or word overstepped the bounds of propriety. She struggled to free herself.
His arm was around her, but the clasp was that of tenderness, not power.
"Nay, Hilda," said he, "I have brought you something more than a fairing. I have brought you a true heart and honest love, and I want yours in return. And now, my lass, how is it to be?"
Hilda was not a fine lady to swoon in her lover's arms, but she had been caught in a melancholy mood, and she certainly grew sick and dizzy, half doubting her own happiness, half dreading the evils her grandsire had prognosticated. She was, however, too honest to keep him very long in doubt, and had coyly given him back his kiss, when a loud halloo farther down the beck reminded him that the tide was on the turn, and that Hilda's pail was still empty.
Home went Hilda in a sort of dream, to be taken sharply to task for loitering; but Hilda's ears were impervious to sharp words since the magical sweetness of love had been breathed into them. It was not until the bright kerchief on her head attracted her mother's eye that she was awakened from her trance of new delight.
"Where did thee get that thing?"
There was not a colour in the silken square so brilliant as that which flushed her face, as with a sudden flash of recollection, her hand went up to her head. She had forgotten her adornment in thinking of the giver.
There was no longer hope of concealment.
"Steve Rae gave it me for a fairing," she faltered.
"An' what business had thou to take fairings from Steve Rae. Pull the thing off this minute. What would Robert say if he saw thee wearing aught that had come through Steve's fingers?"
"It's naught to Robert what I wear," jerked out Hilda, conscious that her cousin had assumed a right of dictatorship not conceded by herself; but she removed the offending head-gear nevertheless.
When the boats came in the next morning with a great take of fish, the goodwife was too busy to think of the "fairing." And by the time Maggy Sanderson bethought to broach the matter to her good man, as he smoked his long pipe in the nook, their two sons were in Steve's confidence and prepared to do battle in his behalf.
It was not so tough a contest as Hilda had expected. Her father puffed away, asked for a sight of the handkerchief, turned it over, held it to the light, felt its texture, and with the air of a connoisseur decided "that were noan bought at a fair, and it's never been smuggled in thy time or mine, Maggy."
"I only hope he came by it honestly," suggested Maggy, with an expressive jerk of the head.
"That I'm sure he did!" put in Hilda promptly, resenting the impeachment of her sweetheart."So am I," supplemented Cuthbert. "Peter and Steve overhauled everything when their father was drowned, and they came across lots of queer things stowed away in a sort of cellar in the rock, that had never seen daylight in their memory, or their mother's either - a mouldy box of women's tackle amongst the rest. It fell to pieces as they moved it, the fastenings were so eaten away with rust. They thought it had been in the water. I'll be bound the handkercher came out o' that."
"Mebbe so, Cuddy. When I were a lad, folks told queer tales of the old Raes and what they had in hiding-holes. But I've heard naught again the lads, though they do come of a bad crew. And as for Steve, if it were not for Robert ..."
Here both Cuddy and Will launched out in praise of Steve; the end being tacit permission for Hilda to retain possession of her fairing, and to wear it openly with her best clothes on Sundays, greatly to the chagrin of Robert Blackburn, who counted over his savings with a rueful perception of their inadequacy to compete with Stephen Rae in the way of love-gifts.
Certainly a countess might have envied Hilda that Oriental kerchief worn by the fisher-maid in all simplicity, its value to her being only estimable as a token of Stephen's love.
Had she known whence it came, or by whom it had been worn, she would have cast it from her with a shudder. Blissfully ignorant, she walked from church, with Stephen by her side, in a flutter of pride and joy, damped - but only for the moment - by the sight of Robert Blackburn's mournful aspect as he leaned over the low parapet wall, looking drearily out to sea.
"Happy the wooing that's not long a doing! When's it to be, Hilda, lass? There's our Peter married, and Bet - it's quite time thee and me were spliced."
Steve was lying at full length, chest downwards, on the shingle as he spoke; his elbows buried in the smooth pebbles; his upturned chin resting on his brown palms, his black eyes fixed on the face of Hilda as she - the week's work over - leaned against the stern of a boat turned keel uppermost.
"I don't know;" answered Hilda irresolutely. "Mother says there's no room under Peter's roof for me. Two sons' wives and their mother on one hearth would make it too hot for the men."
"Aye aye, like enough. But there'd be room enough for thee and me on our own hearth, dearie. I know where there's a snug cottage to be had, so you've only to say the word, and by the time the banns are out, there shall be a home ready for us. What dost say? Shall I put up the banns next week?"
"Ask father. I don't mind," replied Hilda shyly.
"Do you mind trying on these? You see, Hilda, when a fellow has made up his mind it's best to have everything ready," and he held up a massive wedding ring and keeper, the latter of curious workmanship, though neither was new.
He had her hand in his clasp, had slipped both rings upon her finger, and was raising himself to snatch a kiss, when she suddenly started to her feet, with her eyes fixed on the point of the Neb, and the startled cry, "What's that?"
The evening shades had been deepening unheeded whilst they lingered on the beach, but there on the summit of the bleak promontory she beheld a shadowy shape which thrilled her soul with fear. "What is that?" she repeated in a whisper, pointing with her finger as she spoke.
"What? Where?" questioned Stephen, in perplexity.
"That figure on the Neb?"
"I see nothing but the mist and spray. We'd best go in. The wind's rising, and we're like to have a rough night of it."
A rough night it was, but Stephen laughed at her belief that she had seen the White Woman, and said he knew the thing had never been more than mist and foam and fancy; he thought she had had more sense than to believe old women's tales.
His masterful manner kept her silent, but she could not conquer her impressions; and though she carried the two gold rings sewn in her bodice, and loved him, if possible, with a deeper and stronger affection, she put off the actual date of her marriage from time to time as if afraid to venture.
Robert Blackburn had something to do with this. Never a stormy night came but he protested he saw the White Woman hovering about the Neb, but as "nothing came of it," and no one else saw more than a wreath of mist, the village laughed him to scorn, until he held his peace, and kept his previsions to himself. Yet neither Hilda Sanderson nor Hilda's mother joined the coarse mirth at his expense.
Steve had taken a pretty cottage, had fitted it up to receive his bride, not only with common appliances, but with one or two rare old things brought from some secret hoard, a carved oak coffer among the rest; had put up the banns and waited impatiently for her to fix the day. And as she put it off and put it off from time to time, for no earthly reason but that she "was afraid," he began to grow jealous of Robert Blackburn and his influence.
On Peter's marriage there had been some talk of having a new yawl built; and now it lay at its moorings on the beach; the finest and largest craft that had ever belonged to Slaith.
In proof of good will, and the better to bring Hilda to reason, the Rae brothers offered to take the Sanderson brothers into partnership, an offer Cuddy and Willy were only too glad to accept, having long aspired to something beyond their father's coble.
Their generosity overpowered Hilda; banished Maggy's last objection; the wedding-day was fixed; they were to be married on the Sunday.
On the previous Thursday the yawl called the "United Brothers" was to make its trial trip, an extra man and boy completing the crew, with Peter as master.
That morning early Hilda wakened with a shiver. She had dreamed that Stephen placed the wedding-ring and its keeper on her finger, when the White Woman came between them and plucked it off. There was no more chance of sleep. The very moonlight streaming through her lattice seemed to mock her. For the first time the atmosphere of the narrow room seemed to stifle her.
To breathe more freely and shake off her fears she lifted the latch of the front door and stepped across the path to the sea wall.
Was she still dreaming, or had her fancy conjured up a ghost to haunt her? There in the pale moonlight the tall, ethereal form of a woman robed in white, with a hood or shawl of densest black, was slowly making the circuit of the "United Brothers," one shadowy hand gliding over the smooth surface of the hull. Too much appalled to scream, Hilda gasped for breath. Her head swam. She clutched the low wall for support. Another moment and the weird figure was gone.
Back to her bed she crept, stunned and terrified. A sort of stupor bound her senses. Then she slept so heavily, the shrill voice of her mother rebuking laziness could scarcely rouse her.
Once awake all the terrors of the night came back to her. Her first impulse was to seek her brothers and Steve, tell them all she had dreamed and seen, and implore them not to launch the new yawl that day.
Her brothers listened and looked one at another in doubt. Peter Rae frowned, and asked her how fishermen were to live and keep their families if they stayed ashore when their wives had bad dreams. He scouted the idea that it was anything more than a dream.
Her appeal had more effect on Steve, to whom she clung in entreaty, though he too held that she was the dupe of her own fancy. Her pale face and tearful eyes unnerved him. He was half inclined to hold back, and induce the others to put off the trial of the new boat until after the wedding.
She saw her advantage, and to clinch her argument reminded him that Robert Blackburn had seen the White Woman, more than once.
Jealous Steve set his teeth sternly.
"Oh! Robert Blackburn! There, that's enough, my lass. I want none of Robert Blackburn's hand on our tiller; and shall not wait his breath for a fair wind. You'd best go up to our house and have all put to rights for the wedding; and remember you're mistress there till I come back - or, if I never come back." He said this with his ordinary lightness; drew from his pocket a curious necklet, with a heart-shaped locket, clasped it round her throat as a wedding gift and with a hearty kiss said she was to wear it for his sake. But he would hear no more of keeping back the boat, either for Robert Blackburn or the White Woman, whilst the sky was clear and wind and tide in their favour.
Wind and tide in their favour. The "United Brothers" slipped her cable, set her helm, spread her brown sails to the breeze, and with all her nets in readiness, breasted the dancing waves as if proud that the antipathies of generations were at an end, and she bore the proof.
Wind and tide in their favour. A peaceful twilight. A promising nightfall. Only a low mist creeping over the waters. Women and children sleeping calmly as the waves.
What was that?
The invisible hand of a hurricane shaking the windows and doors of Slaith. Billows battering and breaking over the sea-wall in foam. A blacker midnight never roused a population to wait in fear and trembling for the morn.
And there, on the extreme point of the Neb, the only thing distinctly visible in the darkness, clearly outlined, stood the White Woman, slowly and majestically waving her arms as if in exultation.
Other eyes than Hilda's saw, other hearts than Hilda's sank with apprehension.
The swift storm was over; the turbulent wreck-strewn sea was at rest. One by one the fishing-boats came home, some laden, some empty; all in sorry plight, and all late.
All? No, not all. Robert Blackburn had piloted old Sanderson's coble safely mid the rocks and shallows. But what of the "United Brothers"? There was never a wedding-day for Hilda. Brothers and betrothed had sailed together and sunk together, and with them had perished all her hopes.
Grey-haired as her own mother, she wept as she recalled, too late, her grandfather Cuthbert's warning for all of his honest kith and kin to "steer clear of the Raes," and bitterly reiterated that her "dream had indeed come true - the White Woman had torn her wedding-ring from her finger!"
"Aye, and wrecked the last of the Raes and those who dared to claim brotherhood with them," cried Robert Blackburn remorselessly. "You knew the White Woman's silent curse lay on those who let her die unaided, and the good ship go down with every human soul for the sake of spoil. Yet you suffered Steve Rae to adorn you with finery from the wreck, and bind you to himself with the rings his forbear Peter Rae cut from the dead woman's fingers. You did not know it? You knew they were never honest gains, and the Raes were a bad lot. You had better have been content with a poorer mate and a good name."
"I shall never mate. Poor or rich, good or bad, I shall take no man's name," said Hilda with a shudder.
She kept her word, and, keeping it, has kept alive the dread of the White Woman of the Wreck among the fisher-folk of Slaith.
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