A Pariah by Henry Seton Merriman

     "I have heard that there is corn in Egypt."

Slyne's Chare is in South Shields, and Mason's Chop House stands at the lower corner of Slyne's Chare—Mason's Chop House, where generations of honest Tyneside sailors have consumed pounds of honest mutton and beef, and onions therewith. For your true salt loves an onion ashore, which makes him a pleasanter companion at sea. Mason's Chop House is a low-roofed, red-tiled, tarred cottage with a balcony—a "balcohny" overhanging the river. It is quite evident that the "balcohny" was originally built, and has subsequently been kept in repair, by ships' carpenters. It is so glaringly ship-shape, so redolent of tar, so ridiculously strong.

The keen fresh breeze—and there is nothing keener, fresher, stronger, and wholesomer in the world than that which comes roaring up between the two piers of the Tyne—this breeze blows right through Mason's, and blows the fume of cooking out into Slyne's Chare.

It is evening—tea-time—and the day's work is almost done; for Mason's does little in suppers. A bullet-headed boy is rubbing pewter pots at the door. Mrs. Mason, comfortably somnolent at the entrance of the little kitchen, watches her daughter—comely, grave-faced Annie Mason—"our Annie," as she is called, who is already folding the table-cloths. A few belated customers linger in the partitioned loose-boxes which lend a certain small privacy to the tables, and often save a fight. They are talking in gruff, North-country voices, which are never harsh.

A man comes in, after a moment's awkward pause at the open door, and seeks a secluded seat where the gas overhead hardly affords illumination. He is a broad-built man—a Tynesider; not so very big for South Shields; a matter of six feet one, perhaps. He carries a blue spotted handkerchief against his left cheek, and the boy with the pewter pots stares eagerly at the other. A boy of poor tact this; for the customer's right cheek is horribly disfigured. It is all bruised and battered in from the curve of a square jaw to the cheek-bone, which is broken. But the eye is intact; a shrewd, keen eye, accustomed to the penetration of a Northern mist—accustomed to a close scrutiny of men's faces. It is painfully obvious that this sailor—for gait and clothes and manner set aside all other crafts—is horribly conscious of his deformity.

"Got the toothache?" inquires the tactless youth.

The new-comer replies in the negative and orders a cup of tea and a herring. It is Annie who brings the simple meal and sets it down without looking at the man.

"Thanks," he growls in his brown beard, and the woman pauses suddenly. She listens, as if hearing some distant sound. Then she slowly turns—for she has gone a step or two from the table—and makes a pretence of setting the salt and pepper closer to him.

Three ships had come up with the afternoon tide—a coaster, a Norwegian barque in ballast, and a full-rigged ship with nitrate from the West Coast of South America.

"Just ashore?" inquired Annie—economical with her words, as they mostly are round the Northern river.

"Ay!"

"From the West Coast?"

"Ay," grumbles the man. He holds the handkerchief to his cheek, and turns the herring tentatively with a fork.

"You'll find it's a good enough fish," says the woman, bluntly. Her two hands are pressed to her comely bosom in a singular way.

"Ay!" says the man again, as if he had no other word.

The clock strikes six, and the boy, more mindful of his own tea than his neighbour's ailments, slips on his jacket and goes home. The last customers dawdle out with a grunt intended for a salutation. Mrs. Mason is softly heard to snore. And all the while Annie Mason—all the colour vanished from her wholesome face—stands with her hands clutching her dress, gazing down at the man, who still examines the herring with a self-conscious awkwardness.

"Geordie!" she says. They are all called Geordie in South Shields.

"Ay, lass!" he answers, shamefacedly.

Annie Mason sits down suddenly—opposite to him. He does not look up but remains, his face half hidden by the spotted blue handkerchief, a picture of self-conscious guilt and shame.

"What did ye did it for, Geordie?" she asks, breathlessly. "Eleven years, come March—oh, it was cruel!"

"What did I do it for?" he repeats. "What did I do it for? Why, lass, can't ye see my face?"

He drops the handkerchief, and holds up his poor scarred countenance. He does not look at her, but away past her with the pathetic shame of a maimed dog. The cheek thus suddenly exposed to view is whole and brown and healthy. Beneath the mahogany-coloured skin there is a glow singularly suggestive of a blush.

"Ay, I see your face," she answers, with a note of tenderness for the poor scarred cheek. "I hope you haven't been at the drink."

He shakes his head with a little sad smile that twists up his one-sided mouth.

"Is it because you wanted to get shot of me?" asks the woman, with a sort of breathlessness. She has large grey-blue eyes with a look of constant waiting in them—a habit of looking up at the open door at the sound of every footstep.

"D—n it, Annie. Could I come back to you with a face like this; and you the prettiest lass on the Tyneside?"

She is fumbling with her apron string. There is a half-coquettish bend of her head—with the grey hairs already at the temple—awakened perhaps by some far-off echo in his passionate voice. She looks up slowly, and does not answer his question.

"Tell us," she says slowly. "Tell us where ye've been."

"Been?—oh, I don't know, lass! I don't rightly remember. Not that it matters. Up the West Coast, trading backwards and forwards. I've got my master's certificate now. Serving first mate on board the Mallard to Falmouth for orders, and they ordered us to the Tyne. I brought her round—I knew the way. I thought you'd be married, lass. But maybe ye are?"

"Maybe I'm daft," puts in Annie coolly.

"I greatly feared," the man goes on with the slow self-consciousness of one unaccustomed to talk of himself. "I greatly feared I'd meet up with a bairn of yours playing in the doorway. Losh! I could not have stood THAT! But that's why I stayed away, Annie, lass! So that you might marry a man with a face on him. I thought you would not know me if I held up my handkerchief over my other cheek!"

There is a strange gleam in the woman's eyes—a gleam that one or two of the old masters have succeeded in catching and imparting to the face of their Madonnas, but only one or two.

"How did you come by your hurt?" she asks in her low voice.

"Board the old Walleroo going out. You mind the old ship? We had a fire in the hold, and the skipper he would go down alone to locate it before we cut a hole in the deck and shipped the hose in. The old man did not come up again. Ye mind him. Old Rutherford of Jarrow. And I went down and looked for him. It was a hell of smoke and fire, and something in the cargo stinking like—like hell fire as it burnt. I got a hold of the old man, and was fetching him out on my hands and knees, when something busts up and sends us all through the deck. I had three months in Valparaiso hospital; but I saved old Jack Rutherford of Jarrow. And when I got up and looked at my face I saw that it was not in the nature of things that I could ever ask a lass to have me. So I just stayed away and made believe that—that I had changed my mind."

The man pauses. He is not glib of speech, though quick enough at sea. As he takes up the little teapot and shakes it roundwise, after the manner of the galley, his great brown hand shakes too.

"I would not have come back here," he goes on after a silence; "but the Mallard was ordered to the Tyne. And a chap must do his duty by his shipmates and his owners. And I thought it would be safe—after eleven years. When I saw the old place and smelt the smell of the old woman's frying-pan, I could not get past the door. But I hung around, looking to make sure there were no bairns playing on the floor. I have only come in, lass, to pass the time of day and to tell you ye're a free woman."

He is not looking at her. He seems to find that difficult. So he does not see the queer little smile—rather sadder, in itself, than tears.

"And you stayed away eleven years—because o' THAT?" says the woman, slowly.

"Ay, you know, lass, I'm no great hand at the preaching and Bibles and the like; but it seems pretty clear that them who's working things did not think it fit that we should marry. And so it was sent. I got to think it so in time—least, I think it's that sometimes. And no woman would like to say, 'That's my man—him with only half a face.' So I just stayed away."

"All for that?" asks the woman, her face, which is still, pretty and round and rosy, working convulsively.

"Ay, lass."

"Then, honey," she cries softly, "you dinna understand us women!"