Few rivers in England are without their “Lovers’ Leap”; but the tradition of this one is singular, I believe. It overhangs a dark pool, midway down a west country valley–a sheer escarpment of granite, its lip lying but a stone’s throw from the high-road, that here finds its descent broken by a stiff knoll, over which it rises and topples again like a wave.
I had drawn two shining peel out of the pool, and sat eating my lunch on the edge of the Leap, with my back to the road. Forty feet beneath me the water lay black and glossy, behind the dotted foliage of a birch-tree. My rod stuck upright from the turf at my elbow, and, whenever I turned my head, neatly bisected the countenance and upper half of Seth Truscott, an indigenous gentleman of miscellaneous habits and a predatory past, who had followed me that morning to carry the landing-net.
It was he who, after lunch, imparted the story of the rock on which we sat; and as it seemed at the time to gain somewhat by the telling, I will not risk defacing it by meddling with his dialect.
“I reckon, sir,” he began, with an upward nod at a belt of larches, the fringe of a great estate, that closed the view at the head of the vale, “you’m too young to mind th’ ould Earl o’ Bellarmine, that owned Castle Cannick, up yonder, in my growin’ days. ‘Ould Wounds’ he was nick-named–a cribbage-faced, what-the-blazes kind o’ varmint, wi’ a gossan wig an’ a tongue like oil o’ vitriol. He’d a-led the fore-half o’ his life, I b’lieve, in London church-town, by reason that he an’ his father couldn’ be left in a room together wi’out comin’ to fisticuffs: an’ by all accounts was fashion’s favourite in the naughty city, doin’ his duty in that state o’ life an’ playing Hamlet’s ghost among the Ten Commandments.
“The upshot was that he killed a young gentleman over a game o’ whist, an’ that was too much even for the Londoners. So he packed up and sailed for furrin’ parts, an’ didn’ show his face in England till th’ ould man, his father, was took wi’ a seizure an’ went dead, bein’ palsied down half his face, but workin’ away to the end at the most lift-your-hair wickedness wi’ the sound side of his mouth.
“Then the new Earl turned up an’ settled at Castle Cannick. He was a wifeless man, an’, by the look o’t, had given up all wish to coax the female eye: for he dressed no better’n a jockey, an’ all his diversion was to ride in to Tregarrick Market o’ Saturdays, an’ hang round the doorway o’ the Pack-Horse Inn, by A. Walters, and glower at the men an’ women passin’ up and down the Fore Street, an’ stand drinkin’ brandy an’ water while the horse-jockeys there my-lord’ed ‘en. Two an’ twenty glasses, they say, was his quantum’ between noon an’ nine o’clock; an’ then he’d climb into saddle an’ ride home to his jewelled four-poster, cursin’ an’ mutterin’, but sittin’ his mare like a man of iron.
“But one o’ these fine market-days he did a thing that filled the mouths o’ the country-side.
“He was loafin’ by the Pack-Horse door, just as usual, at two o’clock, rappin’ the head o’ his crop on the side o’ his ridin’ boots, drawin’ his brows down an’ lookin’ out curses from under ’em across the street to the saddler’s opposite, when two drover-chaps came up the pavement wi’ a woman atween ’em.
“The woman–or maid, to call her by her proper title–was a dark-browed slut, wi’ eyes like sloes, an’ hair dragged over her face till she looked like an owl in an ivy-bush. As for the gown o’ her, ’twas no better’n a sack tied round the middle, wi’ a brave piece torn away by the shoulder, where one o’ the men had clawed her.