Egg Stealing, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

It wanted less than an hour to high water when Miss Marty Lear heard her brother's boat take ground on the narrow beach below the garden, and set the knives and glasses straight while she listened for the click of the garden-latch.

A line of stunted hazels ran along the foot of the garden and hid the landing-place from Miss Lear as she stood at the kitchen window gazing down steep alleys of scarlet runners. But above the hazels she could look across to the fruit-growing village of St. Kits, and catch a glimpse at high tide of the intervening river, or towards low water of the mud-banks shining in the sun.

It was Miss Lear's custom to look much on this landscape from this window: had, in fact, been her habit for close upon forty years. And this evening, when the latch clicked at length, and her brother in his market-suit come slouching up the path between the parallels of garden-stuff, her eyes rested all the while upon the line of grey water above and beyond his respectable hat.

Nor, when he entered the kitchen, hitched this hat upon a peg in the wall—where its brim accurately fitted a sort of dull halo in the whitewash—did he appear to want any welcome from her. He was a long-jawed man of sixty-five, she a long-jawed woman of sixty-one; and they understood each other's ways, having kept this small and desolate farm together for thirty years—that is, since their father's death.

A cold turnip-pasty stood on the table, with the cider-jug that Job Lear regularly emptied at supper. These suggested no small-talk, and the pair sat down to eat in silence.

It was only while holding out his plate for a second helping of the pasty that Job spoke with a full mouth.

"Who d'ee reckon I ran across to-day, down in Troy?"

Miss Marty cut the slice without troubling to say that she had not a notion.

"Why, that fellow Amos Trudgeon," he went on.

"Yes?"

"'Pears to me you must be failin' if you disremembers 'en: son of old Sal Trudgeon, that used to keep the jumble-shop 'cross the water: him that stole our eggs back-along, when father was livin'."

"I remember."

"I thought you must. Why, you gave evidence, to be sure. Be dashed! now I come to mind, if you wasn' the first to wake the house an' say you heard a man hollerin' out down 'pon the mud."

"Iss, I was."

"An' saved his life, though you did get 'en two months in Bodmin Gaol by it. Up to the arm-pits he was, an' not five minutes to live, when we hauled 'en out, an' wonderin' what he could be doin' there, found he'd been stealin' our eggs. He inquired after you to-day."

"Did he?"

"Iss. 'How's Miss Marty?' says he. 'Agein' rapidly,' says I. The nerve that some folks have! Comes up to me as cool as my lord and holds out a hand. He've a-grown into a sort of commercial; stomach like a bow-window, with a watch-guard looped across. I'd a mind to say 'Eggs' to 'en, it so annoyed me."

"I hope you didn't."

"No. 'Twould have seemed like bearin' malice. 'Tis an old tale, after all, that feat of his."

"Nine an' thirty year, come seventeenth o' September next. Did he say any more?"

"Said the weather-glass was risin', but too fast to put faith in."

"I mean, did he ask any more about me?"

"Iss: wanted to know if you was married. I reckon he meant that for a bit o' pleasantness."

"Not that! Ah, not that!"

Job laid down knife and fork with their points resting on the rim of his plate, and, with a lump of pasty in one cheek, looked at his sister. She had pushed back her chair a bit, and her fingers were plucking the edge of the table-cloth.

"Not that!" she repeated once more, and hardly above a whisper. She did not lift her eyes. Before Job could speak—

"He was my lover," she said, and shivered.

"Mar—ty—"

She looked up now, hardened her ugly, twitching face, forced her eyes to meet her brother's, and went on breathlessly—

"I swear to you, Job—here, across this table—he was my lover; and I ruined 'en. He was the only man, 'cept you and father, that ever kissed me; and I betrayed 'en. As the Lord liveth, I stood up in the box and swore away his name to save mine. An' what's more, he made me."

"Mar—ty Lear!"

"Don't hinder me, Job. It's God's truth I'm tellin' 'ee. His folks were a low lot, an' father'd have broken every bone o' me. But we used to meet in the orchard 'most every night. Don't look so, brother. I'm past sixty, an' nothin' known; an' now evil an' good's the same to me."

"Go on."

"Well, the last night he came over 'twas spring tides, an' past the flood. I was waitin' for 'en in the orchard, down in the corner by the Adam's Pearmain. We could see the white front o' the house from there, and us in the dark shadow: and there was the gap handy, that Amos could snip through at a pinch—you fenced it up yoursel' the very summer that father died in the fall. That night, Amos was late an' the dew heavy, an' no doubt I lost my temper waitin' out there in the long grass. We had words, I know; an' I reckon the tide ran far out while we quarrelled. Anyway, he left me in wrath, an' I stood there under the appletree, longin' for 'en to come back an' make friends again. But the time went on, an' I didn' hear his footstep—no, nor his oars pullin' away—though hearkenin' with all my ears.

"An' then I heard a terrible sound." Miss Marty paused and drew the back of her hand across her dry lips before proceeding.

"—a terrible sound—a sort of low breathin', but fierce; an' something worse, a suck-suckin' of the mud below; an' I ran down. I suppose, in his anger, he took no care how he walked round the point (for he al'ays moored his boat round the point, out o' sight), an' went wide an' was taken. There he was, above his knees in it, and far out it seemed to me, in the light o' the young moon. For all his fightin', he heard me, and whispers out o' the dark—

"'Little girl, it's got me. Hush! don't shout, or they'll catch you.'

"'Can't you get out?' I whispered back.

"'No,' says he, 'I'm afraid I can't, unless you run up to the linhay an' fetch a rope.'

"It was no more I stayed to hear, but ran up hot-foot to the linhay and back inside the minute, with the waggon rope.

"'Hold the end,' he panted, 'and throw with all your strength.' And I threw, but the rope fell short. Twice again I threw, but missed each cast by a yard and more. He wouldn't let me come near the mud.

"Then I fell to runnin' to an' fro on the edge o' the firm ground, an' sobbin' between my teeth because I could devise nothin'. And all the while he was fightin' hard.

"'I'll run an' call father an' Job,' says I.

"'Hush'ee now! Be you crazed? Do you want to let 'em know all?'

"'But it'll kill you, dear, won't it?'

"'Likely it will,' said he. Then, after a while of battlin', he whispers again, 'Little girl, I don't want to die. Death is a cold end. But I reckon you shall save me an' your name as well. Take the rope, coil it as you run, and hang it back in the linhay, quick! Then run you to the hen-house an' bring me all the eggs you can find. Be quick and ax no questions, for it's little longer I can hold up. It's above my waist,' he says.

"I didn' know what he meant, but ran for my life to the linhay, and hung up the rope, an' then to the hen-house. I could tell prety well where to find a dozen eggs or more in the dark, an' in three minutes I'd groped about an' gathered 'em in the lap o' my dress. Then back I ran. I could just spy 'en—a dark spot out there in the mud.

"'How many?' he axed, an' his voice was like a rook's.

"'A dozen, or near.'

"'Toss 'em here. Don't come too nigh, an' shy careful, so's I can catch.'

"I stepped down pretty nigh to the brim o' the mud an' tossed 'em out to him. Three fell short in my hurry, but the rest he got hold of somehow.

"'That's right,' he calls, hoarse and low, 'they'll think egg-stealin' nateral to a low family like our'n. Now back to your room—undress—an' cry out, sayin', there's a man shoutin' for help down 'pon the mud; and, dear, be quick! When you wave your candle twice at the window, I'll shout like a Trojan.'

"An' I did it, Job; for the cruelty in a fearful woman passes knowledge. An' you rescued 'en an' he went to gaol. For he said 'twas the only way. An' his mother took it as quite reasonable that her husband's son should take to the bad—'twas the way of all them Trudgeons. Father to son, they was of no account. Egg-stealin' was just the little hole-an'-corner wickedness that 'd come nateral to 'em."

"I rec'lect now," said Job Lear very slowly, "that the wain-rope was wet i' my hands when I unhitched 'en that night from the hook, an' I wondered, it bein' the end of a week's dryth. But in the dark an' the confusion o' savin' the wastrel's life it slipped my thoughts, else—"

"Else you'd ha' wetted it wi' the blood o' my back, Job. But the rope's been frayed to powder this many year. An' you needn't look at me like that. I'm past sixty, an' I've done my share of repentin'. He didn't say if he was married, did he?"