CHAPTER I. THE PLAIN AND THE STARS.
THE Mill here Will lived with his adopted parents stood in a
falling valley between pinewoods and great mountains. Above, hill
after hill, soared upwards until they soared out of the depth of
the hardiest timber, and stood naked against the sky. Some way up,
a long grey village lay like a seam or a ray of vapour on a wooded
hillside; and when the wind was favourable, the sound of the church
bells would drop down, thin and silvery, to Will. Below, the
valley grew ever steeper and steeper, and at the same time widened
out on either hand; and from an eminence beside the mill it was
possible to see its whole length and away beyond it over a wide
plain, where the river turned and shone, and moved on from city to
city on its voyage towards the sea. It chanced that over this
valley there lay a pass into a neighbouring kingdom; so that, quiet
and rural as it was, the road that ran along beside the river was a
high thoroughfare between two splendid and powerful societies. All
through the summer, travelling-carriages came crawling up, or went
plunging briskly downwards past the mill; and as it happened that
the other side was very much easier of ascent, the path was not
much frequented, except by people going in one direction; and of
all the carriages that Will saw go by, five-sixths were plunging
briskly downwards and only one-sixth crawling up. Much more was
this the case with foot-passengers. All the light-footed tourists,
all the pedlars laden with strange wares, were tending downward
like the river that accompanied their path. Nor was this all; for
when Will was yet a child a disastrous war arose over a great part
of the world. The newspapers were full of defeats and victories,
the earth rang with cavalry hoofs, and often for days together and
for miles around the coil of battle terrified good people from
their labours in the field. Of all this, nothing was heard for a
long time in the valley; but at last one of the commanders pushed
an army over the pass by forced marches, and for three days horse
and foot, cannon and tumbril, drum and standard, kept pouring
downward past the mill. All day the child stood and watched them
on their passage - the rhythmical stride, the pale, unshaven faces
tanned about the eyes, the discoloured regimentals and the tattered
flags, filled him with a sense of weariness, pity, and wonder; and
all night long, after he was in bed, he could hear the cannon
pounding and the feet trampling, and the great armament sweeping
onward and downward past the mill. No one in the valley ever heard
the fate of the expedition, for they lay out of the way of gossip
in those troublous times; but Will saw one thing plainly, that not
a man returned. Whither had they all gone? Whither went all the
tourists and pedlars with strange wares? whither all the brisk
barouches with servants in the dicky? whither the water of the
stream, ever coursing downward and ever renewed from above? Even
the wind blew oftener down the valley, and carried the dead leaves
along with it in the fall. It seemed like a great conspiracy of
things animate and inanimate; they all went downward, fleetly and
gaily downward, and only he, it seemed, remained behind, like a
stock upon the wayside. It sometimes made him glad when he noticed
how the fishes kept their heads up stream. They, at least, stood
faithfully by him, while all else were posting downward to the
One evening he asked the miller where the river went.
'It goes down the valley,' answered he, 'and turns a power of mills
- six score mills, they say, from here to Unterdeck - and is none
the wearier after all. And then it goes out into the lowlands, and
waters the great corn country, and runs through a sight of fine
cities (so they say) where kings live all alone in great palaces,
with a sentry walling up and down before the door. And it goes
under bridges with stone men upon them, looking down and smiling so
curious it the water, and living folks leaning their elbows on the
wall and looking over too. And then it goes on and on, and down
through marshes and sands, until at last it falls into the sea,
where the ships are that bring parrots and tobacco from the Indies.
Ay, it has a long trot before it as it goes singing over our weir,
bless its heart!'
'And what is the sea?' asked Will.
'The sea!' cried the miller. 'Lord help us all, it is the greatest
thing God made! That is where all the water in the world runs down
into a great salt lake. There it lies, as flat as my hand and as
innocent-like as a child; but they do say when the wind blows it
gets up into water-mountains bigger than any of ours, and swallows
down great ships bigger than our mill, and makes such a roaring
that you can hear it miles away upon the land. There are great
fish in it five times bigger than a bull, and one old serpent as
lone as our river and as old as all the world, with whiskers like a
man, and a crown of silver on her head.'
Will thought he had never heard anything like this, and he kept on
asking question after question about the world that lay away down
the river, with all its perils and marvels, until the old miller
became quite interested himself, and at last took him by the hand
and led him to the hilltop that overlooks the valley and the plain.
The sun was near setting, and hung low down in a cloudless sky.
Everything was defined and glorified in golden light. Will had
never seen so great an expanse of country in his life; he stood and
gazed with all his eyes. He could see the cities, and the woods
and fields, and the bright curves of the river, and far away to
where the rim of the plain trenched along the shining heavens. An
over-mastering emotion seized upon the boy, soul and body; his
heart beat so thickly that he could not breathe; the scene swam
before his eyes; the sun seemed to wheel round and round, and throw
off, as it turned, strange shapes which disappeared with the
rapidity of thought, and were succeeded by others. Will covered
his face with his hands, and burst into a violent fit of tears; and
the poor miller, sadly disappointed and perplexed, saw nothing
better for it than to take him up in his arms and carry him home in
From that day forward Will was full of new hopes and longings.
Something kept tugging at his heart-strings; the running water
carried his desires along with it as he dreamed over its fleeting
surface; the wind, as it ran over innumerable tree-tops, hailed him
with encouraging words; branches beckoned downward; the open road,
as it shouldered round the angles and went turning and vanishing
fast and faster down the valley, tortured him with its
solicitations. He spent long whiles on the eminence, looking down
the rivershed and abroad on the fat lowlands, and watched the
clouds that travelled forth upon the sluggish wind and trailed
their purple shadows on the plain; or he would linger by the
wayside, and follow the carriages with his eyes as they rattled
downward by the river. It did not matter what it was; everything
that went that way, were it cloud or carriage, bird or brown water
in the stream, he felt his heart flow out after it in an ecstasy of
We are told by men of science that all the ventures of mariners on
the sea, all that counter-marching of tribes and races that
confounds old history with its dust and rumour, sprang from nothing
more abstruse than the laws of supply and demand, and a certain
natural instinct for cheap rations. To any one thinking deeply,
this will seem a dull and pitiful explanation. The tribes that
came swarming out of the North and East, if they were indeed
pressed onward from behind by others, were drawn at the same time
by the magnetic influence of the South and West. The fame of other
lands had reached them; the name of the eternal city rang in their
ears; they were not colonists, but pilgrims; they travelled towards
wine and gold and sunshine, but their hearts were set on something
higher. That divine unrest, that old stinging trouble of humanity
that makes all high achievements and all miserable failure, the
same that spread wings with Icarus, the same that sent Columbus
into the desolate Atlantic, inspired and supported these barbarians
on their perilous march. There is one legend which profoundly
represents their spirit, of how a flying party of these wanderers
encountered a very old man shod with iron. The old man asked them
whither they were going; and they answered with one voice: 'To the
Eternal City!' He looked upon them gravely. 'I have sought it,'
he said, 'over the most part of the world. Three such pairs as I
now carry on my feet have I worn out upon this pilgrimage, and now
the fourth is growing slender underneath my steps. And all this
while I have not found the city.' And he turned and went his own
way alone, leaving them astonished.
And yet this would scarcely parallel the intensity of Will's
feeling for the plain. If he could only go far enough out there,
he felt as if his eyesight would be purged and clarified, as if his
hearing would grow more delicate, and his very breath would come
and go with luxury. He was transplanted and withering where he
was; he lay in a strange country and was sick for home. Bit by
bit, he pieced together broken notions of the world below: of the
river, ever moving and growing until it sailed forth into the
majestic ocean; of the cities, full of brisk and beautiful people,
playing fountains, bands of music and marble palaces, and lighted
up at night from end to end with artificial stars of gold; of the
great churches, wise universities, brave armies, and untold money
lying stored in vaults; of the high-flying vice that moved in the
sunshine, and the stealth and swiftness of midnight murder. I have
said he was sick as if for home: the figure halts. He was like
some one lying in twilit, formless preexistence, and stretching out
his hands lovingly towards many-coloured, many-sounding life. It
was no wonder he was unhappy, he would go and tell the fish: they
were made for their life, wished for no more than worms and running
water, and a hole below a falling bank; but he was differently
designed, full of desires and aspirations, itching at the fingers,
lusting with the eyes, whom the whole variegated world could not
satisfy with aspects. The true life, the true bright sunshine, lay
far out upon the plain. And O! to see this sunlight once before he
died! to move with a jocund spirit in a golden land! to hear the
trained singers and sweet church bells, and see the holiday
gardens! 'And O fish!' he would cry, 'if you would only turn your
noses down stream, you could swim so easily into the fabled waters
and see the vast ships passing over your head like clouds, and hear
the great water-hills making music over you all day long!' But the
fish kept looking patiently in their own direction, until Will
hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.
Hitherto the traffic on the road had passed by Will, like something
seen in a picture: he had perhaps exchanged salutations with a
tourist, or caught sight of an old gentleman in a travelling cap at
a carriage window; but for the most part it had been a mere symbol,
which he contemplated from apart and with something of a
superstitious feeling. A time came at last when this was to be
changed. The miller, who was a greedy man in his way, and never
forewent an opportunity of honest profit, turned the mill-house
into a little wayside inn, and, several pieces of good fortune
falling in opportunely, built stables and got the position of post
master on the road. It now became Will's duty to wait upon people,
as they sat to break their fasts in the little arbour at the top of
the mill garden; and you may be sure that he kept his ears open,
and learned many new things about the outside world as he brought
the omelette or the wine. Nay, he would often get into
conversation with single guests, and by adroit questions and polite
attention, not only gratify his own curiosity, but win the goodwill
of the travellers. Many complimented the old couple on their
serving-boy; and a professor was eager to take him away with him,
and have him properly educated in the plain. The miller and his
wife were mightily astonished and even more pleased. They thought
it a very good thing that they should have opened their inn. 'You
see,' the old man would remark, 'he has a kind of talent for a
publican; he never would have made anything else!' And so life
wagged on in the valley, with high satisfaction to all concerned
but Will. Every carriage that left the inn-door seemed to take a
part of him away with it; and when people jestingly offered him a
lift, he could with difficulty command his emotion. Night after
night he would dream that he was awakened by flustered servants,
and that a splendid equipage waited at the door to carry him down
into the plain; night after night; until the dream, which had
seemed all jollity to him at first, began to take on a colour of
gravity, and the nocturnal summons and waiting equipage occupied a
place in his mind as something to be both feared and hoped for.
One day, when Will was about sixteen, a fat young man arrived at
sunset to pass the night. He was a contented-looking fellow, with
a jolly eye, and carried a knapsack. While dinner was preparing,
he sat in the arbour to read a book; but as soon as he had begun to
observe Will, the book was laid aside; he was plainly one of those
who prefer living people to people made of ink and paper. Will, on
his part, although he had not been much interested in the stranger
at first sight, soon began to take a great deal of pleasure in his
talk, which was full of good nature and good sense, and at last
conceived a great respect for his character and wisdom. They sat
far into the night; and about two in the morning Will opened his
heart to the young man, and told him how he longed to leave the
valley and what bright hopes he had connected with the cities of
the plain. The young man whistled, and then broke into a smile.
'My young friend,' he remarked, 'you are a very curious little
fellow to be sure, and wish a great many things which you will
never get. Why, you would feel quite ashamed if you knew how the
little fellows in these fairy cities of yours are all after the
same sort of nonsense, and keep breaking their hearts to get up
into the mountains. And let me tell you, those who go down into
the plains are a very short while there before they wish themselves
heartily back again. The air is not so light nor so pure; nor is
the sun any brighter. As for the beautiful men and women, you
would see many of them in rags and many of them deformed with
horrible disorders; and a city is so hard a place for people who
are poor and sensitive that many choose to die by their own hand.'
'You must think me very simple,' answered Will. 'Although I have
never been out of this valley, believe me, I have used my eyes. I
know how one thing lives on another; for instance, how the fish
hangs in the eddy to catch his fellows; and the shepherd, who makes
so pretty a picture carrying home the lamb, is only carrying it
home for dinner. I do not expect to find all things right in your
cities. That is not what troubles me; it might have been that once
upon a time; but although I live here always, I have asked many
questions and learned a great deal in these last years, and
certainly enough to cure me of my old fancies. But you would not
have me die like a dog and not see all that is to be seen, and do
all that a man can do, let it be good or evil? you would not have
me spend all my days between this road here and the river, and not
so much as make a motion to be up and live my life? - I would
rather die out of hand,' he cried, 'than linger on as I am doing.'
'Thousands of people,' said the young man, 'live and die like you,
and are none the less happy.'
'Ah!' said Will, 'if there are thousands who would like, why should
not one of them have my place?'
It was quite dark; there was a hanging lamp in the arbour which lit
up the table and the faces of the speakers; and along the arch, the
leaves upon the trellis stood out illuminated against the night
sky, a pattern of transparent green upon a dusky purple. The fat
young man rose, and, taking Will by the arm, led him out under the
'Did you ever look at the stars?' he asked, pointing upwards.
'Often and often,' answered Will.
'And do you know what they are?'
'I have fancied many things.'
'They are worlds like ours,' said the young man. 'Some of them
less; many of them a million times greater; and some of the least
sparkles that you see are not only worlds, but whole clusters of
worlds turning about each other in the midst of space. We do not
know what there may be in any of them; perhaps the answer to all
our difficulties or the cure of all our sufferings: and yet we can
never reach them; not all the skill of the craftiest of men can fit
out a ship for the nearest of these our neighbours, nor would the
life of the most aged suffice for such a journey. When a great
battle has been lost or a dear friend is dead, when we are hipped
or in high spirits, there they are unweariedly shining overhead.
We may stand down here, a whole army of us together, and shout
until we break our hearts, and not a whisper reaches them. We may
climb the highest mountain, and we are no nearer them. All we can
do is to stand down here in the garden and take off our hats; the
starshine lights upon our heads, and where mine is a little bald, I
dare say you can see it glisten in the darkness. The mountain and
the mouse. That is like to be all we shall ever have to do with
Arcturus or Aldebaran. Can you apply a parable?' he added, laying
his hand upon Will's shoulder. 'It is not the same thing as a
reason, but usually vastly more convincing.'
Will hung his head a little, and then raised it once more to
heaven. The stars seemed to expand and emit a sharper brilliancy;
and as he kept turning his eyes higher and higher, they seemed to
increase in multitude under his gaze.
'I see,' he said, turning to the young man. 'We are in a rat-
'Something of that size. Did you ever see a squirrel turning in a
cage? and another squirrel sitting philosophically over his nuts?
I needn't ask you which of them looked more of a fool.'
CHAPTER II. THE PARSON'S MARJORY.
After some years the old people died, both in one winter, very
carefully tended by their adopted son, and very quietly mourned
when they were gone. People who had heard of his roving fancies
supposed he would hasten to sell the property, and go down the
river to push his fortunes. But there was never any sign of such
in intention on the part of Will. On the contrary, he had the inn
set on a better footing, and hired a couple of servants to assist
him in carrying it on; and there he settled down, a kind,
talkative, inscrutable young man, six feet three in his stockings,
with an iron constitution and a friendly voice. He soon began to
take rank in the district as a bit of an oddity: it was not much to
be wondered at from the first, for he was always full of notions,
and kept calling the plainest common-sense in question; but what
most raised the report upon him was the odd circumstance of his
courtship with the parson's Marjory.
The parson's Marjory was a lass about nineteen, when Will would be
about thirty; well enough looking, and much better educated than
any other girl in that part of the country, as became her
parentage. She held her head very high, and had already refused
several offers of marriage with a grand air, which had got her hard
names among the neighbours. For all that she was a good girl, and
one that would have made any man well contented.
Will had never seen much of her; for although the church and
parsonage were only two miles from his own door, he was never known
to go there but on Sundays. It chanced, however, that the
parsonage fell into disrepair, and had to be dismantled; and the
parson and his daughter took lodgings for a month or so, on very
much reduced terms, at Will's inn. Now, what with the inn, and the
mill, and the old miller's savings, our friend was a man of
substance; and besides that, he had a name for good temper and
shrewdness, which make a capital portion in marriage; and so it was
currently gossiped, among their ill-wishers, that the parson and
his daughter had not chosen their temporary lodging with their eyes
shut. Will was about the last man in the world to be cajoled or
frightened into marriage. You had only to look into his eyes,
limpid and still like pools of water, and yet with a sort of clear
light that seemed to come from within, and you would understand at
once that here was one who knew his own mind, and would stand to it
immovably. Marjory herself was no weakling by her looks, with
strong, steady eyes and a resolute and quiet bearing. It might be
a question whether she was not Will's match in stedfastness, after
all, or which of them would rule the roast in marriage. But
Marjory had never given it a thought, and accompanied her father
with the most unshaken innocence and unconcern.
The season was still so early that Will's customers were few and
far between; but the lilacs were already flowering, and the weather
was so mild that the party took dinner under the trellice, with the
noise of the river in their ears and the woods ringing about them
with the songs of birds. Will soon began to take a particular
pleasure in these dinners. The parson was rather a dull companion,
with a habit of dozing at table; but nothing rude or cruel ever
fell from his lips. And as for the parson's daughter, she suited
her surroundings with the best grace imaginable; and whatever she
said seemed so pat and pretty that Will conceived a great idea of
her talents. He could see her face, as she leaned forward, against
a background of rising pinewoods; her eyes shone peaceably; the
light lay around her hair like a kerchief; something that was
hardly a smile rippled her pale cheeks, and Will could not contain
himself from gazing on her in an agreeable dismay. She looked,
even in her quietest moments, so complete in herself, and so quick
with life down to her finger tips and the very skirts of her dress,
that the remainder of created things became no more than a blot by
comparison; and if Will glanced away from her to her surroundings,
the trees looked inanimate and senseless, the clouds hung in heaven
like dead things, and even the mountain tops were disenchanted.
The whole valley could not compare in looks with this one girl.
Will was always observant in the society of his fellow-creatures;
but his observation became almost painfully eager in the case of
Marjory. He listened to all she uttered, and read her eyes, at the
same time, for the unspoken commentary. Many kind, simple, and
sincere speeches found an echo in his heart. He became conscious
of a soul beautifully poised upon itself, nothing doubting, nothing
desiring, clothed in peace. It was not possible to separate her
thoughts from her appearance. The turn of her wrist, the still
sound of her voice, the light in her eyes, the lines of her body,
fell in tune with her grave and gentle words, like the
accompaniment that sustains and harmonises the voice of the singer.
Her influence was one thing, not to be divided or discussed, only
to he felt with gratitude and joy. To Will, her presence recalled
something of his childhood, and the thought of her took its place
in his mind beside that of dawn, of running water, and of the
earliest violets and lilacs. It is the property of things seen for
the first time, or for the first time after long, like the flowers
in spring, to reawaken in us the sharp edge of sense and that
impression of mystic strangeness which otherwise passes out of life
with the coming of years; but the sight of a loved face is what
renews a man's character from the fountain upwards.
One day after dinner Will took a stroll among the firs; a grave
beatitude possessed him from top to toe, and he kept smiling to
himself and the landscape as he went. The river ran between the
stepping-stones with a pretty wimple; a bird sang loudly in the
wood; the hill-tops looked immeasurably high, and as he glanced at
them from time to time seemed to contemplate his movements with a
beneficent but awful curiosity. His way took him to the eminence
which overlooked the plain; and there he sat down upon a stone, and
fell into deep and pleasant thought. The plain lay abroad with its
cities and silver river; everything was asleep, except a great eddy
of birds which kept rising and falling and going round and round in
the blue air. He repeated Marjory's name aloud, and the sound of
it gratified his ear. He shut his eyes, and her image sprang up
before him, quietly luminous and attended with good thoughts. The
river might run for ever; the birds fly higher and higher till they
touched the stars. He saw it was empty bustle after all; for here,
without stirring a feet, waiting patiently in his own narrow
valley, he also had attained the better sunlight.
The next day Will made a sort of declaration across the dinner-
table, while the parson was filling his pipe.
'Miss Marjory,' he said, 'I never knew any one I liked so well as
you. I am mostly a cold, unkindly sort of man; not from want of
heart, but out of strangeness in my way of thinking; and people
seem far away from me. 'Tis as if there were a circle round me,
which kept every one out but you; I can hear the others talking and
laughing; but you come quite close. Maybe, this is disagreeable to
you?' he asked.
Marjory made no answer.
'Speak up, girl,' said the parson.
'Nay, now,' returned Will, 'I wouldn't press her, parson. I feel
tongue-tied myself, who am not used to it; and she's a woman, and
little more than a child, when all is said. But for my part, as
far as I can understand what people mean by it, I fancy I must be
what they call in love. I do not wish to be held as committing
myself; for I may be wrong; but that is how I believe things are
with me. And if Miss Marjory should feel any otherwise on her
part, mayhap she would be so kind as shake her head.'
Marjory was silent, and gave no sign that she had heard.
'How is that, parson?' asked Will.
'The girl must speak,' replied the parson, laying down his pipe.
'Here's our neighbour who says he loves you, Madge. Do you love
him, ay or no?'
'I think I do,' said Marjory, faintly.
'Well then, that's all that could be wished!' cried Will, heartily.
And he took her hand across the table, and held it a moment in both
of his with great satisfaction.
'You must marry,' observed the parson, replacing his pipe in his
'Is that the right thing to do, think you?' demanded Will.
'It is indispensable,' said the parson.
'Very well,' replied the wooer.
Two or three days passed away with great delight to Will, although
a bystander might scarce have found it out. He continued to take
his meals opposite Marjory, and to talk with her and gaze upon her
in her father's presence; but he made no attempt to see her alone,
nor in any other way changed his conduct towards her from what it
had been since the beginning. Perhaps the girl was a little
disappointed, and perhaps not unjustly; and yet if it had been
enough to be always in the thoughts of another person, and so
pervade and alter his whole life, she might have been thoroughly
contented. For she was never out of Will's mind for an instant.
He sat over the stream, and watched the dust of the eddy, and the
poised fish, and straining weeds; he wandered out alone into the
purple even, with all the blackbirds piping round him in the wood;
he rose early in the morning, and saw the sky turn from grey to
gold, and the light leap upon the hill-tops; and all the while he
kept wondering if he had never seen such things before, or how it
was that they should look so different now. The sound of his own
mill-wheel, or of the wind among the trees, confounded and charmed
his heart. The most enchanting thoughts presented themselves
unbidden in his mind. He was so happy that he could not sleep at
night, and so restless, that he could hardly sit still out of her
company. And yet it seemed as if he avoided her rather than sought
One day, as he was coming home from a ramble, Will found Marjory in
the garden picking flowers, and as he came up with her, slackened
his pace and continued walking by her side.
'You like flowers?' he said.
'Indeed I love them dearly,' she replied. 'Do you?'
'Why, no,' said he, 'not so much. They are a very small affair,
when all is done. I can fancy people caring for them greatly, but
not doing as you are just now.'
'How?' she asked, pausing and looking up at him.
'Plucking them,' said he. 'They are a deal better off where they
are, and look a deal prettier, if you go to that.'
'I wish to have them for my own,' she answered, 'to carry them near
my heart, and keep them in my room. They tempt me when they grow
here; they seem to say, "Come and do something with us;" but once I
have cut them and put them by, the charm is laid, and I can look at
them with quite an easy heart.'
'You wish to possess them,' replied Will, 'in order to think no
more about them. It's a bit like killing the goose with the golden
eggs. It's a bit like what I wished to do when I was a boy.
Because I had a fancy for looking out over the plain, I wished to
go down there - where I couldn't look out over it any longer. Was
not that fine reasoning? Dear, dear, if they only thought of it,
all the world would do like me; and you would let your flowers
alone, just as I stay up here in the mountains.' Suddenly he broke
off sharp. 'By the Lord!' he cried. And when she asked him what
was wrong, he turned the question off and walked away into the
house with rather a humorous expression of face.
He was silent at table; and after the night hid fallen and the
stars had come out overhead, he walked up and down for hours in the
courtyard and garden with an uneven pace. There was still a light
in the window of Marjory's room: one little oblong patch of orange
in a world of dark blue hills and silver starlight. Will's mind
ran a great deal on the window; but his thoughts were not very
lover-like. 'There she is in her room,' he thought, 'and there are
the stars overhead: - a blessing upon both!' Both were good
influences in his life; both soothed and braced him in his profound
contentment with the world. And what more should he desire with
either? The fat young man and his councils were so present to his
mind, that he threw back his head, and, putting his hands before
his mouth, shouted aloud to the populous heavens. Whether from the
position of his head or the sudden strain of the exertion, he
seemed to see a momentary shock among the stars, and a diffusion of
frosty light pass from one to another along the sky. At the same
instant, a corner of the blind was lifted and lowered again at
once. He laughed a loud ho-ho! 'One and another!' thought Will.
'The stars tremble, and the blind goes up. Why, before Heaven,
what a great magician I must be! Now if I were only a fool, should
not I be in a pretty way?' And he went off to bed, chuckling to
himself: 'If I were only a fool!'
The next morning, pretty early, he saw her once more in the garden,
and sought her out.
'I have been thinking about getting married,' he began abruptly;
'and after having turned it all over, I have made up my mind it's
She turned upon him for a single moment; but his radiant, kindly
appearance would, under the circumstances, have disconcerted an
angel, and she looked down again upon the ground in silence. He
could see her tremble.
'I hope you don't mind,' he went on, a little taken aback. 'You
ought not. I have turned it all over, and upon my soul there's
nothing in it. We should never be one whit nearer than we are just
now, and, if I am a wise man, nothing like so happy.'
'It is unnecessary to go round about with me,' she said. 'I very
well remember that you refused to commit yourself; and now that I
see you were mistaken, and in reality have never cared for me, I
can only feel sad that I have been so far misled.'
'I ask your pardon,' said Will stoutly; 'you do not understand my
meaning. As to whether I have ever loved you or not, I must leave
that to others. But for one thing, my feeling is not changed; and
for another, you may make it your boast that you have made my whole
life and character something different from what they were. I mean
what I say; no less. I do not think getting married is worth
while. I would rather you went on living with your father, so that
I could walk over and see you once, or maybe twice a week, as
people go to church, and then we should both be all the happier
between whiles. That's my notion. But I'll marry you if you
will,' he added.
'Do you know that you are insulting me?' she broke out.
'Not I, Marjory,' said he; 'if there is anything in a clear
conscience, not I. I offer all my heart's best affection; you can
take it or want it, though I suspect it's beyond either your power
or mine to change what has once been done, and set me fancy-free.
I'll marry you, if you like; but I tell you again and again, it's
not worth while, and we had best stay friends. Though I am a quiet
man I have noticed a heap of things in my life. Trust in me, and
take things as I propose; or, if you don't like that, say the word,
and I'll marry you out of hand.'
There was a considerable pause, and Will, who began to feel uneasy,
began to grow angry in consequence.
'It seems you are too proud to say your mind,' he said. 'Believe
me that's a pity. A clean shrift makes simple living. Can a man
be more downright or honourable, to a woman than I have been? I
have said my say, and given you your choice. Do you want me to
marry you? or will you take my friendship, as I think best? or have
you had enough of me for good? Speak out for the dear God's sake!
You know your father told you a girl should speak her mind in these
She seemed to recover herself at that, turned without a word,
walked rapidly through the garden, and disappeared into the house,
leaving Will in some confusion as to the result. He walked up and
down the garden, whistling softly to himself. Sometimes he stopped
and contemplated the sky and hill-tops; sometimes he went down to
the tail of the weir and sat there, looking foolishly in the water.
All this dubiety and perturbation was so foreign to his nature and
the life which he had resolutely chosen for himself, that he began
to regret Marjory's arrival. 'After all,' he thought, 'I was as
happy as a man need be. I could come down here and watch my fishes
all day long if I wanted: I was as settled and contented as my old
Marjory came down to dinner, looking very trim and quiet; and no
sooner were all three at table than she made her father a speech,
with her eyes fixed upon her plate, but showing no other sign of
embarrassment or distress.
'Father,' she began, 'Mr. Will and I have been talking things over.
We see that we have each made a mistake about our feelings, and he
has agreed, at my request, to give up all idea of marriage, and be
no more than my very good friend, as in the past. You see, there
is no shadow of a quarrel, and indeed I hope we shall see a great
deal of him in the future, for his visits will always be welcome in
our house. Of course, father, you will know best, but perhaps we
should do better to leave Mr. Will's house for the present. I
believe, after what has passed, we should hardly be agreeable
inmates for some days.'
Will, who had commanded himself with difficulty from the first,
broke out upon this into an inarticulate noise, and raised one hand
with an appearance of real dismay, as if he were about to interfere
and contradict. But she checked him at once looking up at him with
a swift glance and an angry flush upon her cheek.
'You will perhaps have the good grace,' she said, 'to let me
explain these matters for myself.'
Will was put entirely out of countenance by her expression and the
ring of her voice. He held his peace, concluding that there were
some things about this girl beyond his comprehension, in which he
was exactly right.
The poor parson was quite crestfallen. He tried to prove that this
was no more than a true lovers' tiff, which would pass off before
night; and when he was dislodged from that position, he went on to
argue that where there was no quarrel there could be no call for a
separation; for the good man liked both his entertainment and his
host. It was curious to see how the girl managed them, saying
little all the time, and that very quietly, and yet twisting them
round her finger and insensibly leading them wherever she would by
feminine tact and generalship. It scarcely seemed to have been her
doing - it seemed as if things had merely so fallen out - that she
and her father took their departure that same afternoon in a farm-
cart, and went farther down the valley, to wait, until their own
house was ready for them, in another hamlet. But Will had been
observing closely, and was well aware of her dexterity and
resolution. When he found himself alone he had a great many
curious matters to turn over in his mind. He was very sad and
solitary, to begin with. All the interest had gone out of his
life, and he might look up at the stars as long as he pleased, he
somehow failed to find support or consolation. And then he was in
such a turmoil of spirit about Marjory. He had been puzzled and
irritated at her behaviour, and yet he could not keep himself from
admiring it. He thought he recognised a fine, perverse angel in
that still soul which he had never hitherto suspected; and though
he saw it was an influence that would fit but ill with his own life
of artificial calm, he could not keep himself from ardently
desiring to possess it. Like a man who has lived among shadows and
now meets the sun, he was both pained and delighted.
As the days went forward he passed from one extreme to another; now
pluming himself on the strength of his determination, now despising
his timid and silly caution. The former was, perhaps, the true
thought of his heart, and represented the regular tenor of the
man's reflections; but the latter burst forth from time to time
with an unruly violence, and then he would forget all
consideration, and go up and down his house and garden or walk
among the fir-woods like one who is beside himself with remorse.
To equable, steady-minded Will this state of matters was
intolerable; and he determined, at whatever cost, to bring it to an
end. So, one warm summer afternoon he put on his best clothes,
took a thorn switch in his hand, and set out down the valley by the
river. As soon as he had taken his determination, he had regained
at a bound his customary peace of heart, and he enjoyed the bright
weather and the variety of the scene without any admixture of alarm
or unpleasant eagerness. It was nearly the same to him how the
matter turned out. If she accepted him he would have to marry her
this time, which perhaps was, all for the best. If she refused
him, he would have done his utmost, and might follow his own way in
the future with an untroubled conscience. He hoped, on the whole,
she would refuse him; and then, again, as he saw the brown roof
which sheltered her, peeping through some willows at an angle of
the stream, he was half inclined to reverse the wish, and more than
half ashamed of himself for this infirmity of purpose.
Marjory seemed glad to see him, and gave him her hand without
affectation or delay.
'I have been thinking about this marriage,' he began.
'So have I,' she answered. 'And I respect you more and more for a
very wise man. You understood me better than I understood myself;
and I am now quite certain that things are all for the best as they
'At the same time - ,' ventured Will.
'You must be tired,' she interrupted. 'Take a seat and let me
fetch you a glass of wine. The afternoon is so warm; and I wish
you not to be displeased with your visit. You must come quite
often; once a week, if you can spare the time; I am always so glad
to see my friends.'
'O, very well,' thought Will to himself. 'It appears I was right
after all.' And he paid a very agreeable visit, walked home again
in capital spirits, and gave himself no further concern about the
For nearly three years Will and Marjory continued on these terms,
seeing each other once or twice a week without any word of love
between them; and for all that time I believe Will was nearly as
happy as a man can be. He rather stinted himself the pleasure of
seeing her; and he would often walk half-way over to the parsonage,
and then back again, as if to whet his appetite. Indeed there was
one corner of the road, whence he could see the church-spire wedged
into a crevice of the valley between sloping firwoods, with a
triangular snatch of plain by way of background, which he greatly
affected as a place to sit and moralise in before returning
homewards; and the peasants got so much into the habit of finding
him there in the twilight that they gave it the name of 'Will o'
the Mill's Corner.'
At the end of the three years Marjory played him a sad trick by
suddenly marrying somebody else. Will kept his countenance
bravely, and merely remarked that, for as little as he knew of
women, he had acted very prudently in not marrying her himself
three years before. She plainly knew very little of her own mind,
and, in spite of a deceptive manner, was as fickle and flighty as
the rest of them. He had to congratulate himself on an escape, he
said, and would take a higher opinion of his own wisdom in
consequence. But at heart, he was reasonably displeased, moped a
good deal for a month or two, and fell away in flesh, to the
astonishment of his serving-lads.
It was perhaps a year after this marriage that Will was awakened
late one night by the sound of a horse galloping on the road,
followed by precipitate knocking at the inn-door. He opened his
window and saw a farm servant, mounted and holding a led horse by
the bridle, who told him to make what haste he could and go along
with him; for Marjory was dying, and had sent urgently to fetch him
to her bedside. Will was no horseman, and made so little speed
upon the way that the poor young wife was very near her end before
he arrived. But they had some minutes' talk in private, and he was
present and wept very bitterly while she breathed her last.
CHAPTER III. DEATH
Year after year went away into nothing, with great explosions and
outcries in the cities on the plain: red revolt springing up and
being suppressed in blood, battle swaying hither and thither,
patient astronomers in observatory towers picking out and
christening new stars, plays being performed in lighted theatres,
people being carried into hospital on stretchers, and all the usual
turmoil and agitation of men's lives in crowded centres. Up in
Will's valley only the winds and seasons made an epoch; the fish
hung in the swift stream, the birds circled overhead, the pine-tops
rustled underneath the stars, the tall hills stood over all; and
Will went to and fro, minding his wayside inn, until the snow began
to thicken on his head. His heart was young and vigorous; and if
his pulses kept a sober time, they still beat strong and steady in
his wrists. He carried a ruddy stain on either cheek, like a ripe
apple; he stooped a little, but his step was still firm; and his
sinewy hands were reached out to all men with a friendly pressure.
His face was covered with those wrinkles which are got in open air,
and which rightly looked at, are no more than a sort of permanent
sunburning; such wrinkles heighten the stupidity of stupid faces;
but to a person like Will, with his clear eyes and smiling mouth,
only give another charm by testifying to a simple and easy life.
His talk was full of wise sayings. He had a taste for other
people; and other people had a taste for him. When the valley was
full of tourists in the season, there were merry nights in Will's
arbour; and his views, which seemed whimsical to his neighbours,
were often enough admired by learned people out of towns and
colleges. Indeed, he had a very noble old age, and grew daily
better known; so that his fame was heard of in the cities of the
plain; and young men who had been summer travellers spoke together
in CAFES of Will o' the Mill and his rough philosophy. Many and
many an invitation, you may be sure, he had; but nothing could
tempt him from his upland valley. He would shake his head and
smile over his tobacco-pipe with a deal of meaning. 'You come too
late,' he would answer. 'I am a dead man now: I have lived and
died already. Fifty years ago you would have brought my heart into
my mouth; and now you do not even tempt me. But that is the object
of long living, that man should cease to care about life.' And
again: 'There is only one difference between a long life and a good
dinner: that, in the dinner, the sweets come last.' Or once more:
'When I was a boy, I was a bit puzzled, and hardly knew whether it
was myself or the world that was curious and worth looking into.
Now, I know it is myself, and stick to that.'
He never showed any symptom of frailty, but kept stalwart and firm
to the last; but they say he grew less talkative towards the end,
and would listen to other people by the hour in an amused and
sympathetic silence. Only, when he did speak, it was more to the
point and more charged with old experience. He drank a bottle of
wine gladly; above all, at sunset on the hill-top or quite late at
night under the stars in the arbour. The sight of something
attractive and unatttainable seasoned his enjoyment, he would say;
and he professed he had lived long enough to admire a candle all
the more when he could compare it with a planet.
One night, in his seventy-second year, he awoke in bed in such
uneasiness of body and mind that he arose and dressed himself and
went out to meditate in the arbour. It was pitch dark, without a
star; the river was swollen, and the wet woods and meadows loaded
the air with perfume. It had thundered during the day, and it
promised more thunder for the morrow. A murky, stifling night for
a man of seventy-two! Whether it was the weather or the
wakefulness, or some little touch of fever in his old limbs, Will's
mind was besieged by tumultuous and crying memories. His boyhood,
the night with the fat young man, the death of his adopted parents,
the summer days with Marjory, and many of those small
circumstances, which seem nothing to another, and are yet the very
gist of a man's own life to himself - things seen, words heard,
looks misconstrued - arose from their forgotten corners and usurped
his attention. The dead themselves were with him, not merely
taking part in this thin show of memory that defiled before his
brain, but revisiting his bodily senses as they do in profound and
vivid dreams. The fat young man leaned his elbows on the table
opposite; Marjory came and went with an apronful of flowers between
the garden and the arbour; he could hear the old parson knocking
out his pipe or blowing his resonant nose. The tide of his
consciousness ebbed and flowed: he was sometimes half-asleep and
drowned in his recollections of the past; and sometimes he was
broad awake, wondering at himself. But about the middle of the
night he was startled by the voice of the dead miller calling to
him out of the house as he used to do on the arrival of custom.
The hallucination was so perfect that Will sprang from his seat and
stood listening for the summons to be repeated; and as he listened
he became conscious of another noise besides the brawling of the
river and the ringing in his feverish ears. It was like the stir
of horses and the creaking of harness, as though a carriage with an
impatient team had been brought up upon the road before the
courtyard gate. At such an hour, upon this rough and dangerous
pass, the supposition was no better than absurd; and Will dismissed
it from his mind, and resumed his seat upon the arbour chair; and
sleep closed over him again like running water. He was once again
awakened by the dead miller's call, thinner and more spectral than
before; and once again he heard the noise of an equipage upon the
road. And so thrice and four times, the same dream, or the same
fancy, presented itself to his senses: until at length, smiling to
himself as when one humours a nervous child, he proceeded towards
the gate to set his uncertainty at rest.
From the arbour to the gate was no great distance, and yet it took
Will some time; it seemed as if the dead thickened around him in
the court, and crossed his path at every step. For, first, he was
suddenly surprised by an overpowering sweetness of heliotropes; it
was as if his garden had been planted with this flower from end to
end, and the hot, damp night had drawn forth all their perfumes in
a breath. Now the heliotrope had been Marjory's favourite flower,
and since her death not one of them had ever been planted in Will's
'I must be going crazy,' he thought. 'Poor Marjory and her
And with that he raised his eyes towards the window that had once
been hers. If he had been bewildered before, he was now almost
terrified; for there was a light in the room; the window was an
orange oblong as of yore; and the corner of the blind was lifted
and let fall as on the night when he stood and shouted to the stars
in his perplexity. The illusion only endured an instant; but it
left him somewhat unmanned, rubbing his eyes and staring at the
outline of the house and the black night behind it. While he thus
stood, and it seemed as if he must have stood there quite a long
time, there came a renewal of the noises on the road: and he turned
in time to meet a stranger, who was advancing to meet him across
the court. There was something like the outline of a great
carriage discernible on the road behind the stranger, and, above
that, a few black pine-tops, like so many plumes.
'Master Will?' asked the new-comer, in brief military fashion.
'That same, sir,' answered Will. 'Can I do anything to serve you?'
'I have heard you much spoken of, Master Will,' returned the other;
'much spoken of, and well. And though I have both hands full of
business, I wish to drink a bottle of wine with you in your arbour.
Before I go, I shall introduce myself.'
Will led the way to the trellis, and got a lamp lighted and a
bottle uncorked. He was not altogether unused to such
complimentary interviews, and hoped little enough from this one,
being schooled by many disappointments. A sort of cloud had
settled on his wits and prevented him from remembering the
strangeness of the hour. He moved like a person in his sleep; and
it seemed as if the lamp caught fire and the bottle came uncorked
with the facility of thought. Still, he had some curiosity about
the appearance of his visitor, and tried in vain to turn the light
into his face; either he handled the lamp clumsily, or there was a
dimness over his eyes; but he could make out little more than a
shadow at table with him. He stared and stared at this shadow, as
he wiped out the glasses, and began to feel cold and strange about
the heart. The silence weighed upon him, for he could hear nothing
now, not even the river, but the drumming of his own arteries in
'Here's to you,' said the stranger, roughly.
'Here is my service, sir,' replied Will, sipping his wine, which
somehow tasted oddly.
'I understand you are a very positive fellow,' pursued the
Will made answer with a smile of some satisfaction and a little
'So am I,' continued the other; 'and it is the delight of my heart
to tramp on people's corns. I will have nobody positive but
myself; not one. I have crossed the whims, in my time, of kings
and generals and great artists. And what would you say,' he went
on, 'if I had come up here on purpose to cross yours?'
Will had it on his tongue to make a sharp rejoinder; but the
politeness of an old innkeeper prevailed; and he held his peace and
made answer with a civil gesture of the hand.
'I have,' said the stranger. 'And if I did not hold you in a
particular esteem, I should make no words about the matter. It
appears you pride yourself on staying where you are. You mean to
stick by your inn. Now I mean you shall come for a turn with me in
my barouche; and before this bottle's empty, so you shall.'
'That would be an odd thing, to be sure,' replied Will, with a
chuckle. 'Why, sir, I have grown here like an old oak-tree; the
Devil himself could hardly root me up: and for all I perceive you
are a very entertaining old gentleman, I would wager you another
bottle you lose your pains with me.'
The dimness of Will's eyesight had been increasing all this while;
but he was somehow conscious of a sharp and chilling scrutiny which
irritated and yet overmastered him.
'You need not think,' he broke out suddenly, in an explosive,
febrile manner that startled and alarmed himself, 'that I am a
stay-at-home, because I fear anything under God. God knows I am
tired enough of it all; and when the time comes for a longer
journey than ever you dream of, I reckon I shall find myself
The stranger emptied his glass and pushed it away from him. He
looked down for a little, and then, leaning over the table, tapped
Will three times upon the forearm with a single finger. 'The time
has come!' he said solemnly.
An ugly thrill spread from the spot he touched. The tones of his
voice were dull and startling, and echoed strangely in Will's
'I beg your pardon,' he said, with some discomposure. 'What do you
'Look at me, and you will find your eyesight swim. Raise your
hand; it is dead-heavy. This is your last bottle of wine, Master
Will, and your last night upon the earth.'
'You are a doctor?' quavered Will.
'The best that ever was,' replied the other; 'for I cure both mind
and body with the same prescription. I take away all plain and I
forgive all sins; and where my patients have gone wrong in life, I
smooth out all complications and set them free again upon their
'I have no need of you,' said Will.
'A time comes for all men, Master Will,' replied the doctor, 'when
the helm is taken out of their hands. For you, because you were
prudent and quiet, it has been long of coming, and you have had
long to discipline yourself for its reception. You have seen what
is to be seen about your mill; you have sat close all your days
like a hare in its form; but now that is at an end; and,' added the
doctor, getting on his feet, 'you must arise and come with me.'
'You are a strange physician,' said Will, looking steadfastly upon
'I am a natural law,' he replied, 'and people call me Death.'
'Why did you not tell me so at first?' cried Will. 'I have been
waiting for you these many years. Give me your hand, and welcome.'
'Lean upon my arm,' said the stranger, 'for already your strength
abates. Lean on me as heavily as you need; for though I am old, I
am very strong. It is but three steps to my carriage, and there
all your trouble ends. Why, Will,' he added, 'I have been yearning
for you as if you were my own son; and of all the men that ever I
came for in my long days, I have come for you most gladly. I am
caustic, and sometimes offend people at first sight; but I am a
good friend at heart to such as you.'
'Since Marjory was taken,' returned Will, 'I declare before God you
were the only friend I had to look for.' So the pair went arm-in-
arm across the courtyard.
One of the servants awoke about this time and heard the noise of
horses pawing before he dropped asleep again; all down the valley
that night there was a rushing as of a smooth and steady wind
descending towards the plain; and when the world rose next morning,
sure enough Will o' the Mill had gone at last upon his travels.