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Now, in his twenty-eighth year, Oliver Vyell, handsome of face, standing six feet two inches in his stockings, well built and of iron constitution, might fairly be called a sensual man, but not fairly a sensualist. The distinction lay in his manliness. He was a man, every inch of him.
He enjoyed hard riding even more than hard gaming, and far more than hard drinking; courted fatigue as a form of bodily indulgence; would tramp from twenty to thirty miles in any weather on a chance of sport; loved the bite of the wind, the shock of cold water; and was a bold swimmer in a generation that shunned the exercise.
He awoke next morning to find the sun shining in on his window after a boisterous night. He looked at his watch and rang a small bell that stood on the table by his bed. Within ten seconds Manasseh appeared, and was commanded first to draw up the blind and then, though the hour was early, to bring shaving-water with all speed.
While the negro went on his errand Captain Vyell arose, slipped on his dressing-gown, and strolled to the window. It looked upon the ocean, over a clean stretch of beach that ran north-west, starting from the pier-head of the harbour and fringing the town's outskirt. Half a dozen houses formed this outskirt or suburb--decent weather-boarded houses standing in their own gardens along a curved cliff overlooking the beach. The beach was of hardest sand, and just beneath the Collector's window so level that it served for a second bowling-green, or ten-pin-alley. Thus it ran out for some twenty rods and then shelved abruptly. Captain Vyell, who had an eye for such phenomena, judged that this bank had formed itself quite recently, since the building of the pier.
A heavy sea was running, and evidently with a strong undertow. When Manasseh returned with the hot water, Captain Vyell announced that he would bathe before taking his chocolate.
"Yo' Hon'ah will bathe befor' shaving?"
"You d----d fool, did you ever know me do anything before shaving?"
Manasseh chose a razor, stropped it, and worked the shaving soap into a lather.
"Beggin' yo' Hon'ah's pardon," said he, "it bein' de Lawd's Day, an' these Port Nassau people dam' ig'orant--"
"Hand me the peignoir," commanded his master sharply.
He sat, and was shaved. Then, having sponged his chin, he ordered Manasseh to lay out his bathing-dress, retire, find a back way to the beach and, having opened all doors, attend him below. He indued himself in his bathing-dress very deliberately, standing up for a minute stark naked in the sunshine flooding through the open window--a splendid figure, foretasting battle with the surf.
Then, having drawn on his bathing-dress and thrust his feet into sand-shoes, he cast his dressing-gown again over him and went down the stairs at a run. The doors stood open, and on the beach the negro awaited him in the right attitude of "attention." To him he tossed his wrap and shoes, and ran down to the beach as might swift-footed Achilles have run to be clasped by the Sea-Goddess his mother.
Through the shallow wavelets he ran, stepping high and delicately splashing merry drops against the morning sunlight, leaped over one or two that would have "tilled" him to the knee (to use an old boyish phrase learnt at Carwithiel where he had learnt to swim), and came to the shelf beyond which the first tall comber boomed towards him, more than head high, hissing along its ridge. There, as it overarched him, he launched his body forward and shot through the transparent green, emerging beyond the white smother with a thrill and a laugh of sheer physical delight. Thrice he repeated this,--
"Like a dive-dapper peering through a wave,
Who, being look'd on, ducks as quickly in. . ."
passed the fourth wave, gained deep water, and thrust out to sea with a steady breast-stroke, his eyes all the while on the great embracing flood which, stretch as it might from here to Europe, for the moment he commanded.
Manasseh watched him from the beach. From the cliff above two scandalised householders calling to one another across their gardens' boundary pointed seaward and summoned their families to the windows to note the reprobate swimmer and a Sabbath profaned.
The eyes of a long-shore population are ever on the sea from which comes their livelihood, and nothing on the sea escapes them long. The Collector's head by this time was but a speck bobbing on the waves, but ere he turned back for shore maybe two hundred of Port Nassau's population were watching, from various points. The Port Nassauers, whatever their individual frailties, were sternly religious--nine-tenths of them from conviction or habit, the rest in self-defence--and Sabbatarians to a man. The sight of that heathen slave, Manasseh, waiting on the beach with a bath-gown over his arm, incensed them to fury. Growls were uttered, here and there, that if the authorities knew their business this law-breaker--for Sabbath-breaking was an indictable offence--should be seized on landing, haled naked to justice, and clapped in the town stocks; but fortunately this indignation had no concert and found, for the moment, no leader.
The Collector, having swum out more than half a mile, turned and sped back, using a sharp side-stroke now with a curving arm that cleft the ridges like the fin of a fish. His feet touched earth, and he ran up through the pursuing breakers--a fleet-footed Achilles again, glittering from the bath. Manasseh hurried down to throw his mantle over the godlike man.
"Towel me here," was the panting command. And, lo! slipping off his bathing-dress and standing naked to the sea. Captain Vyell was towelled under the eyes of Port Nassau, and flesh-brushed until he glowed (it may be) as healthily as did the cheeks of those who spied on him. On this question the Muse declines to take sides. For certain his naked body, after these ministrations, glowed delicious within the bath-gown as he mounted again to his Olympian chamber. There he allowed Manasseh to wash out his locks in fresh water (the Collector had a fine head of hair, of a waved brown, and detested a wig), to anoint them, and tie them behind with a fresh black ribbon. This done, he took his clothes one by one as Manasseh handed them, and arrayed himself, humming the while an air from Opera, and thus unconsciously committing a second offence against the Sabbath.
He descended to find Dicky already seated at table, awaiting him. Dicky had slept like a top in spite of the strange bed; and awaking soon after daybreak, had lain cosily listening to the boom of the sea. To him this holiday was a glorious interlude in the regime of Miss Quiney. His handsome father did not kiss him, but merely patted him on the shoulder as he passed to his chair; and to Dick (though he would have liked a kiss) it seemed just the right manly thing to do.
They talked merrily while Manasseh brought in the breakfast dishes--for Master Dicky bread-and-milk followed by a simple steak of cod; a bewildering succession of chowder, omelet, devilled kidneys, cold ham, game pie, and fruit for the Collector, who professed himself keen-set as a hunter, and washed down the viands with a tankard of cider. He described his bathe, and promised Dicky that he should have his first swimming lessons next summer. "I must talk about you to your Uncle Harry. Craze for the sea? At your age if he saw a puddle of water he must stick his toes in it. He's cruising just now, off South Carolina, keeping a look-out for guarda-costas. He'll render an account of them, you may be sure. He writes that he may be coming up Boston way any time now. Oh, I can swim, but for diving you should see your Uncle Harry-- off the yard-arm--body taut as a whip--nothing like it in any of the old Greeks' statues. Plenty of talk about bathing; but diving? No. In the east, must go south to the Persian Gulf to see diving. The god Hermes descending on Ogygia--if you could imagine that, you had Uncle Harry-- the shoot outwards, the delicate curve to a straight slant, heels rising above rigid body while you counted, begad! holding your breath. Then the plumb drop, like a gannet's--"
Dicky listened, glorious vistas opening before him. With the fruit Manasseh brought coffee; and still the boy sat entranced while his father chatted, glowing with exercise and enjoying a breakfast at every point excellent.
It was in merest thoughtlessness, no doubt, that having arranged for Dicky's morning walk, and after smoking a tobacco leaf rolled with an art of which Manasseh possessed the secret, the Collector so timed his message to the stables that his groom brought the horse Bayard around to the Inn door just as the Sabbath bells began tolling for divine worship. For as a sceptic he was careless rather than militant; ridiculing religion only in his own set, and when occasion arose, and then without fanaticism. For such piety as his mother's he had even a tolerant respect; and in any event had too much breeding to affront of set purpose the godly townsfolk of Port Nassau. At the first note of the bells he frowned and blamed himself for not having started earlier. But he had already made appointment by letter to meet the Surveyor and the Assistant Surveyor at noon on the headland, to measure out and discuss the site of the proposed fortification; and he was a punctilious man in observing engagements.
It may be asked how, if civil to other men's scruples, he had come to make such an appointment for the Sabbath. He had answered this and (as he hoped) with suitable apologies in his letter to the surveyor, Mr. Wapshott: explaining that as His Majesty's business was bringing him to Port Nassau, so it obliged him to be back at Boston by such-and-such a date. He was personally unacquainted with this Mr. Wapshott, who had omitted the courtesy of calling upon him at the Bowling Green, and whom by consequence he was inclined to set down as a person of defective manners. But Mr. Wapshott was, after all, in the King's service and would understand its exigencies.
He mounted therefore and rode up the street. The roadway was deserted; but along the side-walk, sober families, marching by twos and threes, turned their heads at the sound of Bayard's hoofs on the cobbles. The Collector set his face and passed them with a grave look, as of one absorbed in affairs of moment. Nevertheless, coming to the whitewashed Church where the streams of worshippers converged and choking the porchway overflowed upon the street, he added the courtesy of doffing his hat as he rode by. He did this still with a set face, looking straight between Bayard's ears; but with the tail of his eye caught one glimpse of a little comedy which puzzled and amused him.
A small rotund, red-gilled man, in bearing and aspect not unlike a turkey-cock, was mounting the steps of the portico. Behind this personage sailed an ample lady of middle age, with a bevy of younger damsels--his spouse and daughters doubtless. Suddenly--and as if, at sight of the Collector, a whisper passed among them--the middle-aged lady shot out a hand, arrested her husband by the coat-tail and drew him down a step, while the daughters ranged themselves in semicircle around him, spreading their skirts and together effacing him from view, much as a hen covers her offspring.
The Collector laughed inwardly as he replaced his hat, and rode on speculating what this bit of by-play might mean. But it had passed out of his thoughts before he came to the outskirts of the town.
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