The house known as Vellan’s Rents stands in the Chy-pons over the waterside, a stone’s throw beyond the ferry and the archway where the toll-keeper used to live. You may know it by its exceeding dilapidation and by the clouds of steam that issue on the street from one of its windows. The sill of this window stands a bare foot above the causeway, and glancing down into the room as you pass, you will see the shoulders of a woman stooping over a wash-tub. When first I used to pass this window the woman was called Naomi Bricknell; later it was Sarah Ann Polgrain; and now it is (euphemistically) Pretty Alice. One goes and makes way for another, but the wash-tub is always there and the rheumatic fever; and while these remain they will never lack, as they have never lacked yet, for a woman to do battle for dear life between them.
But my story concerns the first of these only, Naomi Bricknell. She and her mother occupied two rooms in Vellan’s Rents as far back as I can remember, and were twisted with the fever about once in every six months. For this they paid one shilling a week rent. If you lift the latch and push the front door open, you seem at first to be looking down a well; for a flight of thirty-two steps plunges straight from the threshold to the quay door and a square of green water there. And when the sun is on the water at the bottom of this funnel, the effect is pretty. But taking note of the cold wind that rushes up this stairway and into the steaming room where the wash-tub stands, you will understand how it comes that each new tenant takes over the rheumatic fever as one of the fixtures.
In a room to the right of the stairway, and facing Naomi’s, lived a middle-aged man who was always known as Long Oliver. This man was a native of the port, and it was understood that he and Naomi had been well acquainted, years ago, before he started on his first voyage and some time before Naomi married. Tiring of the sea in time, he had found work on the jetties and rented this room for sixpence a week. In these days he and Naomi rarely spoke to each other beyond exchanging a “Good-morning” when they met on the stairway, nor did he show any friendliness beyond tapping at her mother’s door and inquiring about her once a day whenever she happened to be down with the fever. I have made researches and find that the rest of the house was tenanted at that time by a working block-maker, with his wife and four children; a widow and her son just returned from sea with an injured spine; a young couple without children. But these do not come into the tale.
Now the history of Naomi was this. She was married at three-and-twenty to Abe Bricknell, a young sailor of the port, and as steady as a woman could wish. In the third year of their married life, and a week after obtaining his certificate, he sailed out of Troy as mate of a fruit-ship, a barque, that never came back, nor was sighted again after passing the Lizard lights.
Naomi–a tall up-standing woman with deep, gentle eyes, like a cow’s, and a firm mouth that seldom spoke–took her affliction oddly. She neither wailed nor put on mourning. She looked upon it as a matter between herself and her Maker, and said:
“God has done this thing to me; therefore I have finished with Him. I am no man to go and revenge myself by breaking all the Commandments. But I am a woman and can suffer. Let Him do His worst: I defy Him.”
So she never set foot inside church again, nor offered any worship. The week long she worked as a laundress, and sat through the Sundays with her arms folded, gloomily fighting her duel. When the fever wrenched her arms and lips as she stood by the wash-tub, she set her teeth and said, “I can stand it. I can match all this with contempt. He can kill, but that’s not beating me.”