Seven An Six, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The old fish-market at Troy was just a sagged lean-to roof on the northern side of the Town Quay, resting against the dead wall of the harbour-master's house, and propped in front by four squat granite columns. This roof often let in rain enough to fill the pits worn in the paving-stones by the feet of gossiping generations; and the whole was wisely demolished a few years back to make place for a Working Men's Institute—a red building, where they take in all the chief London newspapers. Nevertheless I have, in some moods, caught myself hankering after the old shelter, where the talk was unchartered always, and where no notices were suspended against smoking; and I know it used to be worth visiting on dirty evenings about the time of the Equinox, when the town-folk assembled to watch the high tide and the chances of its flooding the streets about the quay.

Early one September afternoon, about two years before its destruction, a small group of watermen, a woman or two, and a fringe of small children were gathered in the fish-market around a painter and his easel. The painter—locally known as Seven-an'-Six—was a white-haired little man, with a clean-shaven face, a complexion of cream and roses, a high unwrinkled brow, and blue eyes that beamed an engaging trustfulness on his fellow-creatures, of whom he stood ready to paint any number at seven shillings and sixpence a head. As this method of earning a livelihood did not allow him to sojourn long in one place—which, indeed, was far from his desire—he spent a great part of his time upon the cheaper seats of obscure country vehicles. He delighted in this life of perennial transience, and enjoyed painting the portraits which justified it; and was, on the whole, one of the happiest of men.

Just now he was enjoying himself amazingly, being keenly alive not merely to the crowd's admiration, but to the rare charm of that which he was trying to paint. Some six paces before him there leant against one of the granite pillars a woman of exceeding beauty: her figure tall, supple, full of strength, in every line, her face brown and broad-browed, with a heavy chin that gave character to the rest of her features, and large eyes, black as sloes, that regarded the artist and the group at his elbow with a sombre disdain. The afternoon sunshine slanted down the pillar, was broken by the mass of dark hair she rested against it, and ran down again along her firm and rounded arm to the sun-bonnet she dangled by its strings. Behind her, the quay's edge shone bright against the green water of the harbour, where, half a cable's length from shore, a small three-masted schooner lay at anchor, with her Blue Peter fluttering at the fore.

"He's gettin' her to-rights," observed one of the crowd.

A woman said, "I wish I'd a-been took in my young days, when I was comely."

"Then, whyever wasn't 'ee, Mrs. Slade?"

"Well-a-well, my dear, I'm sure I dunno. Three ha'af-crowns is a lot o' money to see piled in your palm, an' say 'Fare thee well; increase!' Store 's no sore, as my old mother used to say."

"But," argued a man, "when once you've made up your mind to the gallant speckilation, you never regret it—danged if you do!"

"Then why hasn't 'ee been took, Thomas, in all these years?"

"Because that little emmet o' doubt gets the better o' me every time. 'Tis like holdin' back from the Fifteen Balls: you feel sure in your own mind you'll be better wi'out the drink, but for your life you durstn't risk the disapp'intment. Over this matter I'll grant ye that I preaches what I can't practise. But my preachin' is sound. Therefore, I bid ye all follow the example o' Cap'n Hosken here, who, bein' possessed wi' true love for 'Liza Saunders, is havin' her portrait took for to hang up in his narrow cabin out to sea, an' remind hissel' o' the charms that bide at home a-languishin'."

"That's not my reason, though," said Captain Hosken, a sunburnt and serious man, at the painter's elbow.

"Then what may it be, makin' so bold?"

"I'll tell ye when the painting's done."

"A couple of strokes, and it's finished," said the artist, cocking his head on one side and screwing up his blue eyes. "There, I'll tell you plainly, friend, that my skill is but a seven-and-sixpenny matter, or a trifle beyond. It does well enough what it pretends to do; but this is a subject I never ought to have touched. I know my limits. You'll see, sir," he went on, in a more business-like tone, "I've indicated your ship here in the middle distance. I thought it would give the portrait just that touch of sentiment you would desire."

The faces gathered closer to stare. 'Liza left the pillar, stretched herself to her full height, and came forward, tying the strings of her sun-bonnet.

"'Tis the very daps of her!" was Captain Hosken's comment as he pulled out his three half-crowns. "As for the Rare Plant, what you've put in might be took for a vessel; and if a man took it for a vessel, he might go on to take it for a schooner; but I'd be tolerable sorry if he took it for a schooner o' which I was master. Hows'ever, you've put in all 'Liza's good looks an' enticingness. 'Tis a picture I'm glad to own, an' be dashed to the sentiment you talked about!"

He took the portrait carefully from the easel, and held it before him, between his open palms.

"Neighbours all," he began, his rather stupid face overspread with an expression of satisfied cunning, "I promised to tell 'ee my reasons for havin' 'Liza's portrait took. They're rather out o' the common, an' 'Liza hersel' don't guess what they be, no more than the biggest fool here present amongst us."

He looked from the man Thomas, from whose countenance this last innuendo glanced off as from a stone wall, to 'Liza, who answered him with a puzzled scowl. Her foot began to tap the paving-stone impatiently.

"When I gazes 'pon 'Liza," he pursued, "my eyes be fairly dazzled wi' the looks o' her. I allow that. She's got that build, an' them lines about the neck an' waist, an' them red-ripe lips, that I feels no care to look 'pon any other woman. That's why I took up wi' her, an' offered her my true heart. But strike me if I'd counted 'pon her temper; an' she's got the temper of Old Nick! Why, only last evenin'—the very evenin' before I sailed, mark ye—she slapped my ear. She did, though! Says I, down under my breath, 'Right you are my lady! we'll be quits for that.' But, you see, I couldn' bear to break it off wi' her, because I didn' want to miss her beautiful looks."

The women began to titter, and 'Liza's face to flame, but her lover proceeded with great complacency:

"Well, I was beset in my mind till an hour agone, when—as I walked down here with 'Liza, half mad to take leave of her, and sail for Rio Grande, and likewise sick of her temper—I sees this gentleman a-doin' pictures at seven-an'-six; and thinks I, 'If I can get 'en to make a copy of 'Liza's good looks, then I shall take off to sea as much as I want of her, an' the rest, temper included, can bide at home till I calls for it. That's all I've got to say. 'Liza's a beauty beyond compare, an' her beauty I worships, an' means to worship. But if any young man wants to take her, I tell him he's welcome. So long t' ye all!"

Still holding the canvas carefully a foot from his waistcoat, to avoid smearing it, he sauntered off to the quay-steps, and hailed his boat to carry him aboard the Rare Plant. As he passed the girl he had thus publicly jilted, her fingers contracted for a second like a hawk's talons; but she stood still, and watched him from under her brows as he descended the steps. Then with a look that, as it travelled in a semi-circle, obliterated the sympathy which most of the men put into their faces, and the sneaking delight which all the women wore on theirs, she strode out of the fish-market and up the street.

Seven-an'-Six squeezed the paint out of his brushes, packed up his easel and japanned box, wished the company good-day, and strolled back to his inn. He was sincerely distressed, and regretted a hundred times in the course of that evening that he had parted with the portrait and received its price before Captain Hosken had made that speech. He would (he told himself) have run his knife through the canvas, and gladly forfeited the money. As it was, he lingered long over the supper it procured, and ate heartily.

A mile beyond the town, next morning, Boutigo's van, in which he was the only passenger, pulled up in front of a roadside cottage. A bundle and a tin box were hoisted up by Boutigo, and a girl climbed in. It was 'Liza.

"Oh, good morning!" stammered the little painter.

"I'm going to stay with my aunt in Truro, and seek service," the girl announced, keeping her eye upon him, and her colour down with an effort. "Where are you bound?"

"I? Oh, I travel about, now in one place, next day in another—always moving. It's the breath of life to me, moving around."

"That must be nice! I often wonder why men tie themselves up to a wife when they might be free to move about like you, and see the world. What does a man want to tack a wife on to him when he can always carry her image about?" She laughed, without much bitterness.

"But—" began the amiable painter, and checked himself. He had been about to confess that he himself owned a wife and four healthy children. He saw this family about once in two months, and it existed by letting out lodgings in a small unpaintable town. He was sincerely fond of his wife, who made every allowance for his mercurial nature; but it suddenly struck him that her portrait hung in the parlour at home, and had never accompanied him on his travels.

He was silent for a minute or two, and then began to converse on ordinary topics.