A Lost Shepherd by Frank Barrett

Winklehaven was once a very bad place. Roads, trade, drainage—everything was as bad as it could be. The fishermen were bad, and beat their wives, and their wives were bad and deserved all the beating they got, and more. The fish caught there was bad before it went to market. The very parson was bad, and preached the excisemen to sleep whilst Red Robert and Black Bill ran their cargo of smuggled bad brandy.

Families who should have been respectable were not. Parents whipped their children into rebellion and then cut them off with shillings—bad ones, of course. Wards defied their guardians, and invariably fell in love contrary to the arrangements of their seniors. All the young men ran away with all the eligible young women.

The natural result was that after a dozen years from the time when Winklehaven stood at its worst, the population of the town consisted of infirm old people suffering from remorse, gout, and other afflictions proceeding from the excesses of youth, and such spinsters as were rejected by the young rakes of the preceding era. The moral aspect of the place changed in those years; it was no longer unholy, but, indeed, the most virtuous of human settlements.

The fishermen were too old and weak to beat their wives, and their failing memories could supply them with no oaths suitable to express their feelings. The wicked parson and the smugglers were no more; there wasn't a young man in the place, and the ladies who called themselves young were irreproachable.

It might strike the unthinking as an extraordinary peculiarity that a place so very, very good should require a curate in addition to a deaf rector. Nevertheless such was the case—a curate was wanted, and wanted very much by the congregation of St. Tickleimpit's—the unblemished spinsters, who called themselves young. They would have a curate, and Mr. Lillywhite Lambe, B.A., they had.

Now as the snow falls like a veil of purity over the face of the earth, only to melt and besmirch it before the lasting season of blossoming sweetness, so Mr. Lillywhite Lambe, B.A., came to Winklehaven and passed away before it attained to its present buttercup-and-daisy condition of virtue; and the manner of his going this pen shall tell.

Mr. Lillywhite Lambe, B.A., was a curate of the deepest dye. He had not so much principle as a bankrupt, and he came to Winklehaven with the settled purpose of marrying the richest and least objectionable of his congregation. The difficulties in his way were few. In personal appearance and demeanour he was so simple and sweet that even the rector was mistaken and thought him a fool, and what more could a girl of five-and-forty desire?

It was not a question which he could marry from amongst the eighteen or twenty tempting creatures around him, but rather which he should reject. They surrounded him like a glory wherever he went, waiting for him at his coming out and never leaving him until his going in. Seldom less than half-a-dozen spinsters accompanied him; they liked him too much and each other too little to trust him with one alone. And they wrote letters to him marked "private," containing the burning thoughts they dared not express in the presence of their sisters. Each was tantamount to an offer of marriage; but he was yet undecided in his selection, and replied to all with touching yet ambiguous texts. At this time he suffered somewhat from bile, for his most active exercise was wool-winding, and the ladies buttered his toast on both sides and the edges.

But anon there came a man with a black beard and a devil-may-care aspect to Winklehaven, and took for six months the cottage on the deserted West Cliff, which had belonged to Black Bill in the bad old times.

The stranger snubbed the inquisitive tradesman of whom he bought his groceries; he ordered his bacon by the side, his beer by the barrel, and his whisky by the largest of stone bottles. He laughed aloud when he passed in the High Street Mr. Lambe with the three Misses Cockle on one side of him, and the three Misses Crabbe on the other. The ladies had not any doubt that he was a bold bad man, and declared one and all that nothing would tempt them to venture upon that dreadful West Cliff.

But, sinners being so few, they could not but feel interested in this man with the black beard and dark eyes, and when he came not to church on Sunday they implored the rector to visit him.

The rector said he would not go (and privately swore it, in episcopal terms, for he hated walking and sinners equally), but he offered the services of his curate; and the congregation, though it fain would have spared its pet curate so dangerous a mission, could not refuse to accept.

Mr. Lillywhite Lambe, B.A., found it difficult to conceal his delight at the prospect before him, for an excess of ladies and butter was killing him. He had not enjoyed half an hour's freedom in the open air since his arrival at Winklehaven; it seemed to him years since he smoked a morning pipe. His bowels yearned towards beer from the barrel and whiskey from stone jars.

That last evening he was ever to spend in his lodgings at Winklehaven he occupied in preparations for the morrow. He looked up the pipe he had brought with him but never smoked, and tobacco—dry and dusty, yet fragrant as hay new mown, and pipe-lights, and a French novel; these he stuffed into the pockets of his alpaca coat, ingeniously overlaying them with his pamphlet confuting the doctrines of the Primitive Bedlamites. In the morning he rose gaily; and when he had parted with his anxious flock at the foot of the west hill, he ascended the steep path, like a cherub climbing a cloud, without sense of exertion, and as one who is resolved to make a day of it.

A walk of two miles was before him, but he did not hurry himself after he had lost sight of the spinsters and the church weathercock. He stopped, took off his collar and band, bared his shirt front to the breeze, and took a deep inspiration. Then he threw himself on the thymy grass and tasted liberty. He smoked three pipes; he read two chapters and a half of the novel, skipping the moral parts; he dropped the book, turned over on his chest, and with his clerical hat tilted sideways over his eyes, he watched the distant ships for half an hour; after that he lay on his back, drew a handkerchief over his eyes and went to sleep. He slumbered for two blessed hours, and then waking athirst, thought kindly of the sinner who kept his beer in barrels and whisky in cool stoneware.

So he pulled himself into Evangelical shape again and stepped out briskly for the smuggler's cottage, smacking his lips. But, alas, the cottage door was barred, and there was no trace of the black-bearded sinner, save a flitch of bacon and the beer barrel which stood in the most inaccessible of pantries.

He must wait. Once more he sat upon the short grass, and to beguile the time, drew out the budget of letters sent by his admiring congregation. He read them through, one after another, with the view of forming a comparative estimate of the writer's value, but the difficulty of selecting one seemed greater than ever.

The temporal and spiritual worth of each was represented by x. With the chance of facilitating his choice he had recourse to his pencil, with which he was tolerably skilful, and on the back of each letter he drew a portrait of its sender. These spinsters were beyond flattery, so he caricatured them to find which must certainly be rejected as the worst looking.

In this amusing occupation the time would have passed unheeded but for Mr. Lambe's increasing dryness. There was no water to be had, no, nor wine, and the interior of the young curate's mouth felt like brown paper to his tongue. It suddenly came to his mind that a dip in the cool sea would refresh his body, now suffering from external in addition to internal dryness. For the hour was two, the month July, and the sun unclouded, and he determined at once to bathe, wondering why he had not availed himself of this blessing of freedom. Except in a footbath he had not bathed during the term of his curacy at Winklehaven. How could he, where there was neither seclusion nor bathing machine?

The tide was at ebb, and a long stretch of sand lay between the cliff and the sea; but near the water's edge stood a rock, and thither Mr. Lambe betook himself. On the cliff side was a little shelf dried by the sun, and on this he laid his clothes neatly; then with a smile irradiating his countenance, he slapped his thin legs and ran down into the bursting waves. Quickly he lost all thought of thirst—of everything, save the enjoyment of the moment. He swam in every conceivable position, bent in girlish fashion to meet the coming waves, and floundered about like a porpoise.

It was whilst turning over head and heels that he caught sight of that which, in a moment, sobered him—a petticoat upon the cliff—another, another! yet others, each with a wearer! They were not a thousand yards from the cottage on the cliff—those ladies whose outlines he recognised, even at their remote distance from him. Full well he knew they had come to look for him. What was he to do? How could he face them, how avoid? He had thought to dry himself like a raisin in the sun; that now was impossible. Equally impracticable was it to clothe himself wet; before he had a sock on he would be observed, for there was no ledge upon the sea-ward side of the rock, and the flowing waves already touched its base.

The only place of concealment was behind the rock, and there he must stay until the ladies retired.

He lay in the water, and through a chink in the rock watched his pursuers; their voices, in high-pitched consultation, reached his ear.

They examined the cottage on the cliff, and then descended to the rocks at its base. It was only natural that the ladies should think their beloved curate murdered. They had not seen him for six hours; and his destruction at the hands of the black-bearded man was the worst explanation of his protracted absence that entered their imagination. This fear had led them to follow in his footsteps; and now, as they poked their sun-shades in the fissures of the rocks, it was with the expectation of finding his corpse.

Mr. Lambe was fervently thankful that the rising tide kept them from his place of concealment, and watched their movements fixedly, until the cramp seized his leg; and then, in the limited space of his seclusion, he exercised his ingenuity to keep the vital heat within him.

Occasionally he glanced at the shore. When the ladies were fatigued, they systematically divided their number—one going to search, whilst the other rested. Hour after hour passed, and every minute brought fresh cramps and racking pains to the limbs of the sodden curate. He had to put his lips between his teeth, lest their violent chattering should proclaim his whereabouts; and he cried like a child when he found his body assuming the blue tints of an unboiled lobster.

But still those doting spinsters poked amongst the sea-weed with unceasing zeal.

The sun was wearing the horizon, when he heard a scream, and beheld the second Miss Cockle pointing in the direction of his rock.

Mr. Lambe was perplexed: it was impossible that his eye, peeping through the small chink, had been discovered; but a moment later his perplexity gave place to horror, as he perceived his hat bobbing gaily on the waves between him and the shore. It was followed by his stockings, and behind them in procession his waistcoat, coat—everything! all washed away from the nice little ledge by the rising tide. He had never given his clothes a thought from the moment he neatly packed them. But had that consideration entered his mind, it could only have added to his anxiety: for it would have been impossible to get them from the place where they lay on the coast-side of the rock without displaying himself. Heedless of their boots, the ladies hooked at the oncoming vestments with their sunshades; and, now, one has his collar, another his dear hat, and a third his blessed braces, whilst their cries of woe echo along the coast.

When his coat was fished out, what could be expected, but that the ladies all should dash at his pockets with a view to gratifying their curiosity, and rescuing the letters which betrayed their most private feelings.

With groans, Mr. Lambe beheld his pipe and tobacco brought forth, amidst cries of astonishment, then the French novel; and, finally, the bundle of letters. He could not bear to see the result, when each, seizing the letter in her own handwriting, should find her caricature thereon; and dropping his head, he beat it with his fist—partly in frenzy, partly to promote the circulation of his stagnating blood.

The black-bearded man returned to the cottage as the ladies, carrying the only remains they could find of their curate, were leaving his vicinity. He was not displeased that he was later than usual in returning; for although he loved the beautiful, he did not like the ladies of Winklehaven.

He lived by painting pictures, this pariah of the West Cliff; nevertheless, he had some good qualities, and when half an hour later a nude study, shivering and wet, presented itself in his doorway craving to be taken in out of the night wind, he asked no question until he had wrapped him in warm blankets, and filled him with strong liquors.

Mr. Lillywhite Lambe never returned to his curacy, never married a rich spinster. His disappearance was not inquired into deeply. Some people preferred to think of him as dead and sainted. He was supposed to be drowned, and his ghost was said to be visible at times upon the West Cliff—generally with a pipe in his mouth. And as his costume was that of the black man, who was habitually at his side, it was further supposed that he had, in that first visit to the cottage on the cliff, sold himself to the D——.