“The fields breathe sweet, the daisies kiss our feet,
Young lovers meet, old wives a-sunning sit;
In every street these tunes our ears do greet–
Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-wee, to-witta-woo!
Spring, the sweet Spring.”
At two o’clock on May morning a fishing-boat, with a small row-boat in tow, stole up the harbour between the lights of the vessels that lay at anchor. She came on a soundless tide, with her sprit-mainsail wide and drawing, and her foresail flapping idle; and although her cuddy-top and gunwale glistened wet with a recent shower, the man who steered her looked over his shoulder at the waning moon, and decided that the dawn would be a fine one. A furlong below the Town Quay he left the tiller and lowered sail: two furlongs above, he dropped anchor: then, having made all ship-shape, he lit a pipe and pulled an enormous watch from his fob. The vessels he had passed since entering the harbour’s mouth seemed one and all asleep. But a din of horns, kettles, and tea-trays, and a wild tattoo of door-knockers, sounded along the streets behind the stores and houses that lined the water-side. Already the town-boys were ushering in the month of May.
The man waited until the half-hour chimed over the ‘long-shore roofs from the church-tower up the hill; set his watch with care; and sat down to wait for the sun. Upon the wooded cliff that faces the town the birds were waking; and by-and-bye, from the three small quays came the sound of voices laughing, and then a boat or two stealing out of the shadow, each crowded with boys and maids. Before the dawn grew red above the cliff where the birds sang, a dozen boats had gone by him on their way up the river, the chatter and broken laughter returning down its dim reaches long after the rowers had passed out of sight.
For some moments longer he watched the broadening daylight, till the sun, mounting above the cliff, blazed on the watch he had again pulled out and now shut with a brisk snap. His round, shaven face, still boyish in middle age, wore the shadow of a solemn responsibility. He clambered out into the small boat astern, and, casting loose, pulled towards a bright patch of colour in the grey shore wall: a blue quay-door overhung with ivy. The upper windows of the cottage behind it were draped with snowy muslin, and its walls, coated with recent whitewash, shamed its neighbours to right and left.
As the boat dropped under this blue quay-door, its upper flap opened softly, and a voice as softly said–
“Thank you kindly, John. And how d’ye do this May morning?”
“Charming,” the man answered frankly. “Handsome weather ’tis, to be sure.”
He looked up and smiled at her, like a lover.
“I needn’t to ask how you be; for you’m looking sweet as blossom,” he went on.
And yet the woman that smiled down on him was fifty years old at least. Her hair, which usually lay in two flat bands, closely drawn over the temples, had for this occasion been worked into waves by curling-papers, and twisted in front of either ear, into that particular ringlet locally called a kiss-me-quick. But it was streaked with grey, and the pinched features wore the tint of pale ivory.
“D’ye think you can clamber down the ladder, Sarah? The tide’s fairly high.”
“I’m afraid I’ll be showing my ankles.”
“I was hoping so. Wunnerful ankles you’ve a-got, Sarah, and a wunnerful cage o’ teeth. Such extremities ‘d well beseem a king’s daughter, all glorious within!”
Sarah Blewitt pulled open the lower flap of the door and set her foot on the ladder. She wore a white print gown beneath her cloak, and a small bonnet of black straw decorated with sham cowslips. The cloak, hitching for a moment on the ladder’s side, revealed a beaded reticule that hung from her waist, and clinked as she descended.