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’.”