Beside the Plymouth road, as it plunges down-hill past Ruan Lanihale church towards Ruan Cove, and ten paces beyond the lych-gate–where the graves lie level with the coping, and the horseman can decipher their inscriptions in passing, at the risk of a twisted neck–the base of the churchyard wall is pierced with a low archway, festooned with toad-flax and fringed with the hart’s-tongue fern. Within the archway bubbles a well, the water of which was once used for all baptisms in the parish, for no child sprinkled with it could ever be hanged with hemp. But this belief is discredited now, and the well neglected: and the events which led to this are still a winter’s tale in the neighbourhood. I set them down as they were told me, across the blue glow of a wreck-wood fire, by Sam Tregear, the parish bedman. Sam himself had borne an inconspicuous share in them; and because of them Sam’s father had carried a white face to his grave.
My father and mother (said Sam) married late in life, for his trade was what mine is, and ’twasn’t till her fortieth year that my mother could bring herself to kiss a gravedigger. That accounts, maybe, for my being born rickety and with other drawbacks that only made father the fonder. Weather permitting, he’d carry me off to churchyard, set me upon a flat stone, with his coat folded under, and talk to me while he delved. I can mind, now, the way he’d settle lower and lower, till his head played hidey-peep with me over the grave’s edge, and at last he’d be clean swallowed up, but still discoursing or calling up how he’d come upon wonderful towns and kingdoms down underground, and how all the kings and queens there, in dyed garments, was offering him meat for his dinner every day of the week if he’d only stop and hobbynob with them– and all such gammut. He prettily doted on me–the poor old ancient!
But there came a day–a dry afternoon in the late wheat harvest–when we were up in the churchyard together, and though father had his tools beside him, not a tint did he work, but kept travishing back and forth, one time shading his eyes and gazing out to sea, and then looking far along the Plymouth road for minutes at a time. Out by Bradden Point there stood a little dandy-rigged craft, tacking lazily to and fro, with her mains’le all shiny-yellow in the sunset. Though I didn’t know it then, she was the Preventive boat, and her business was to watch the Hauen: for there had been a brush between her and the Unity lugger, a fortnight back, and a Preventive man shot through the breast-bone, and my mother’s brother Philip was hiding down in the town. I minded, later, how that the men across the vale, in Farmer Tresidder’s wheat-field, paused every now and then, as they pitched the sheaves, to give a look up towards the churchyard, and the gleaners moved about in small knots, causeying and glancing over their shoulders at the cutter out in the bay; and how, when all the field was carried, they waited round the last load, no man offering to cry the Neck, as the fashion was, but lingering till sun was near down behind the slope and the long shadows stretching across the stubble.
“Sha’n’t thee go underground to-day, father?” says I, at last.
He turned slowly round, and says he, “No, sonny. ‘Reckon us’ll climb skywards for a change.”
And with that, he took my hand, and pushing abroad the belfry door began to climb the stairway. Up and up, round and round we went, in a sort of blind-man’s-holiday full of little glints of light and whiff’s of wind where the open windows came; and at last stepped out upon the leads of the tower and drew breath.