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Title: Michael Godwin's Xmas Box
Author: Katharine Tynan
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1000251.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: June 2010
Date most recently updated: June 2010

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Michael Godwin's Xmas Box
Author: Katharine Tynan

***

Published in The Brisbane Courier
16 December, 1911.

***

Michael Godwin's farm lay tucked away comfortably in a hollow of the
South Downs. The downs swept up-wards in all directions around it, and on
one side beyond was the sea. The sound of it as it beat against the face
of the cliff and tore the shingle screaming from the little strands,
only to fling it high as it came back again, reached Godwin's Farm as a
subdued murmur. The farm was a pretty place, especially in summer, when
the chalk downs were covered with a thick carpet of beautiful wild
flowers. But it was very lonely. Mr. Hurst, the Vicar, coming to see
Michael at rare intervals, had said to him that such a solitude was only
fit for a beast or a god. His kindly eyes, directed on Michael as he
said it, took out of the words any suggestion of offence.

Michael Godwin only answered that the solitude did him well enough.
There was old Nance in the kitchen to care for the house and him, and
when he wanted talk there weren't many had more interesting things to
tell than old Simon, who had kept the sheep on Godwin's Farm, man and
boy, for 50 years.

It was quite true. No one knew better than the Vicar how wise old Simon
was and what things he could impart once he was won out of his silence.
Still, it didn't seem right that Michael Godwin should not marry. He was
a big, handsome giant of a fellow, showing his Saxon ancestry by his
mass of fair hair, his blue eyes and fair skin, as well as by his name.
Of course there had been a trouble in his past. The girl he had loved
and would have married had deserted him on his wedding eve for a life of
gilded disgrace up in London. It had made a misogynist of the man; yet,
oddly enough, it had not soured the sweetness of his nature. Solitary he
might be, and forbidding to his fellow men; but the beasts could have
told of his gentleness; and there was something in his face--wise with
the wisdom of the fields and the open spaces--that forbade fear in the
hearts of children or animals or wandering beggars or old people.

When he was not engaged in his farming work he liked to dig and plant in
his garden, and he had made it a rich place of flowers. His little
house, ivy covered, the diamond-paned windows looking out from the
overhanging eaves like kind old eyes under beetling brows, was as clean
and comfortable as the heart of man or woman could desire. A thousand
pities that because he lad been ill-treated by a worthless hussy Michael
Godwin should condemn himself to a life of loneliness, and shut the door
of his little paradise against the woman and the children who might have
made his life happy for him.

The Vicar sighed to himself, remembering how the girls would look after
Michael's stalwart figure as it strode through the villages of the town
on market days. But Michael had no eyes for them. He would transact his
business as quickly as might be, and back to his solitude again.

There were very often wrecks on that coast, and then no one could say
that Michael Godwin led a selfish existence, for he was always out as
soon as the bomb summoned the lifeboat men, and he was among the first
in the boats. But when he was looked for to receive praise and thanks he
was not to be found.

A good many people besides Mr. Hurst were of opinion that it was a
thousand pities Michael Godwin could not forget the past and find a good
girl to console him.

Only he himself knew that there was a core of bitterness in the peace he
had acquired in his beloved solitude. He was not the healthy, sane
person he was to be cut off from the human needs and desires. He wanted
his children about his knees, like any other man. Only Lizzie had given
him a sickening of life, and of women above all. No other woman should
play him such a trick again. He had no belief in the general badness of
women, as another man might have had in his place. His memory of his
mother forbade that. Only his heart had shut fast against women. He had
locked it and flung away the key. He could never love a woman again, he
said to himself; and so he must grow old, and die alone, and Godwin's
Farm, which had been Godwin's from Saxon times, must pass to strangers.

One evening of late September the sea fog came in and covered all the
downs, shrouding Godwin's Farm and its lit windows in a soft clinging
haze. It was nothing so unusual, but on this afternoon the fog had come
suddenly. About 5 o'clock in the evening Simon reported a sheep missing.
He had been out on the downs searching, he and Buller, the finest
sheep-dog in those parts but for once Buller had failed. The sheep must
be lying in some deep ditch or other--perhaps fallen over the cliffs into
the sea; perhaps on her back somewhere, poor lass, unable to get up
because of the weight of wool.

Michael Godwin took the lantern from the shepherds hand and bidding him
have his supper, called the dog to him and went out. It was not a safe
night to be abroad unless one knew one's way very well. Even then if one
lost one's head and forgot to listen for the boom of the sea one might
quite easily stumble over the cliff's edge.

Michael Godwin and the dog went along with careful footsteps quietly
through the fog, pausing now and again to listen for the bleating of a
sheep. It seemed to Michael Godwin that be had been hours in the fog.
The air was pierced now and again by the sound of foghorns and signals
from the vessels going down the Channel, and the great siren at the
lighthouse blared her melancholy note at intervals while he moved hither
and thither, he and the dog, in a solitude of fog.

He was on the point of giving it up when he came upon the sheep. She was
held fast by her wool and her horns in a thorny thicket. It took some
time to extricate her, but once she was set free she was nothing the
worse. As soon as she was released she set off running in the direction
of home. Before Michael Godwin could lift the lantern at his feet the
fog had swallowed her up. The sound of her bleating was faint in the
distance. The dog made no attempt to follow her. Indeed, while Michael
had been working to extricate the sheep he had disappeared, gone off on
some expedition of his own. But he had come back again, and was rubbing
himself against the man's legs. When Michael Godwin turned in the
direction the sheep had taken, away from the noises of the sea, the dog
intercepted him with so evident an intention of turning him back that
the man could not but take notice.

"What is it, old Buller?" he asked. "What is it?" and felt that the dog
must have some meaning for his behaviour, being always so wise and
reasonable.

The dog ran a little way into the white obscurity towards the cliffs,
came back and fawned on his master, then repeated the performance.

"There must be something," Michael Godwin said to himself, and followed
the dog.

It required care and surefootedness to take the way the dog led, for the
path went down precipitously under Michael's feet and he suspected that
he was going down the side of one of the fissures in the chalk that made
a little bay or chine. Below him, in the dark, he could hear the sea
churning and he was very glad that he had brought with him the
shepherd's crook, which was a help to him in making the precipitous
descent.

Although he was well-used to these narrow and steep paths, yet he
stumbled once or twice as he felt for the path in the darkness under his
feet. The lantern threw fitful shadows on the face of the chine as he
went down. Now and again the dog came back to look for him, and then ran
on before into the darkness.

At last the path ended on a floor of mixed sand and shingle, with great
lumps of chalk scattered about it. The sea only entered at high tide. It
was now up to the mouth of the chine, and the air was filled with the
thunder and reverberation of it against the cliff, and the noise made as
it dragged down the stones of the beach.

Now he saw by the lantern light the thing the dog had led him to--at
first a dark heap--of seaweed it might be; then, as he came nearer a
white face with a bleeding cut upon it revealed by the lantern light.
Good heavens! it was a drowned woman. One arm was flung out, the other
held something closely against her breast; her long black hair lay over
the pale cheek. The waves as they came up caught her--half set her
floating and receded from her.

He stooped over the woman. Then he set down the lantern, and putting his
two hands under her arms lifted her a little higher beyond the reach of
the waves. Why, poor soul, it was a child she had in her arms, a baby
of, as Michael judged, about a year old.

She could not have been very long in the water, else she had been more
battered and bruised. Except for the cut upon her forehead, from which
the blood slowly oozed, she was apparently uninjured. Her cold cheek was
smooth under her heavy hair. Her eyes were closed, and her face had a
terrified expression. Was she dead? He had no means of knowing, but he
said to himself that if she had any life remaining in her, or if the
child had, the little spark would soon be extinguished unless they were
taken to shelter and a fire.

He swung the lantern on the handle of the crook, and began the ascent
again by one of the innumerable paths the sheep had been making from
time immemorial. It was no easy task to drag the woman on his one arm up
the steep ascent, but he did not dare relinquish the lantern lest he
should wander round in the fog all night.

When at last be reached the top of the cliff he was panting, and all but
exhausted. Strong as he was the woman in her wet clothing with the child
added, had been no light burden. But as he reached the top he felt the
wind in his face. It had veered to westward. The fog was shifting and
changing. A little more, and he saw the stars. A little further and he
could see in the distance the lights of his own farm.

He carried in the woman and child and laid them down on Nance's clean,
sanded floor in front of the fire. Then he set out to look for a doctor.

When at length he came back the woman and child wrapped in blankets,
were lying in the firelight. Old Nance, the widow and the daughter of
fishermen, knew what to do in case of drowning. She and Simon were
rubbing the child's little hands and feet.

"He's comin' to," said Nance in a whisper. "He can't ha' been in the say
very long. Her's drownded, fast enough."

Michael gave one look at the child, a beautiful, round, plump child with
darkly clustering curls--not like an English child, more like the child
in the pictures Mr. Hurst had brought from abroad and hung up in the
Vicarage, which some of the parishioners were inclined to regard as
Papistical. He strode over, after the glance at the child to where the
woman lay on a mattress on the floor, her hands meekly folded, her long
hair laid either side her bosom.

Why, the woman was beautiful--as beautiful as the child! A dark face of
a Madonna sweetness, the olive colour of the South, the hair blue-black.
He could only guess at the eyes under the shadowed lids. But she was
beautiful--a round, soft, graceful shape under the blanket. Suddenly his
heart begin to bleed within him that anything so beautiful could be
dead.

The door opened and the doctor came in. He knelt down beside the drowned
woman, lifted one eyelid and looked at the eye, listened for the
breathing, felt for the pulse, then, flinging off his coat, began to work
like a madman.

Five full hours they worked, Michael Godwin and the doctor--fortunately
he was a young doctor and zealous, or he might have given up
earlier--before they were sure she breathed. A little more, and the lips
began to regain colour. By this time the child was asleep in Michael
Godwin's old cradle of roughly carved oak, which had come down through
many centuries. At last the drowned woman opened her eyes. They were
like dark stars, so mournful and so splendid were they. She sighed
lightly, and the eyes closed again. She was asleep.

Michael Godwin had an hour or two of sleep and awoke from a dream, in
which Lizzie had been ill he had thought her and her children and his
were playing on his floor to the sound of the child's laughter. He went
downstairs with an unwonted sense of exhilaration to find the child
sitting in a high chair, being fed by old Nance, while Simon looked in
at the open door, and Buller, lying on the hearth, thumped his tail as
though the presence of the child made him happy.

The child--a beautiful little creature--pushed his way into all their
hearts at once. But the mother--the mother lay in one of the flowery
little rooms upstairs, and seemed to have no will to live. For days and
weeks she had a wasting low fever. When she came out of it she still
seemed comfortless. She would lie on her pillow with the tears oozing
from between her closed lids, except when the child was brought to her,
and then she would clasp him to her and seem to find consolation in the
feel of him in her arms.

It was quite a long time before she was downstairs. Indeed, it was a
scolding from Nance that seemed to rouse her out of her apathy, and turn
her thoughts to getting well.

"Would you leave the blessed lamb an orphan?" said Nance.

The woman seemed to understand, though she had only a little English.
That very day she insisted on getting up. It was already November by
this time, but the climate was pleasant enough in the kitchen of
Godwin's Farm, where the fire of logs in the great chimney-place was
enough to roast an ox.

"For all she's a heathen foreigner," said Nance to Michael Godwin that
night, "she's got no idle flesh about her."

Presently the woman--her name was Maddalena, and the child was Beppo--was
doing all manner of things about the house. With the occupation and
returning health the colour came to her cheek and the light to her eye.
Mr. Hurst, coming in one day, and sitting down to talk with her in her
own tongue, discovered that she was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.
Her hair purple-black and silky, surmounted a face of a pure oval.

Her beautiful eyes, her gentle expression, the glowing ardour of her
gaze as she heard Michael's footsteps coming round the house, frightened
Mr. Hurst.

He went away perturbed. Poor Maddalena had told him the truth about
herself. She had trusted him as a padre. Poor child, there was only
sinlessness, he felt sure, behind that face. She had told him her
pitiful story--how she had come to England with her husband who was one
of a troupe of acrobats travelling from place to place. There had been a
shrinking look in Maddalena's face when she talked of her husband which
made Mr. Hurst feel that he had not been good to her. However, Luigi had
been taken ill and left behind by the troupe, and, in the dreary
lodgings on the slum of the manufacturing town, he had died and left
Maddalena and Beppo alone in the world.

"Then," said Maddalena simply, "I was mad, most revered padre, and there
was no sun, but only rain. And no one understood what I said. But I
thought they would keep me there by force. Oh, but they looked wicked,
the horrible men and women. So I stole out with Beppo, and I ran all
night, hiding in the shadows when I heard a foot. And so I reached green
fields; and we wandered on, Beppo and I all day. I had no money, and I
was afraid of the people. But a woman at a cottage door gave me a little
bread and some milk for Beppo. Then a man spoke to me, and I was afraid.
And I ran on again, nearly fainting because I was hungry and frightened.
And then we came to the sea. Oh, reverend padre, was it very wicked? I
was afraid of the people and there was no sun, and I thought that if
Beppo and I were dead we should be with God. So I walked into the sea.
But the little one fought for life. He was too young to die. And when
the wave had taken us and carried us out I came to my senses, and I
fought so hard to save him. He is so strong my pretty one, and he would
not die. And I fought so hard to save him, but the sea carried us out.
And so we were drowned, till we came back to life in this dear place, to
which the blessed Mother of God and all the Saints brought me despite my
sin."

Mr. Hurst went away thoughtful. He was a bachelor, and had no wife to
take into his confidence. What was to be done? He knew his world, and he
knew full well that the tongues of scandal would soon be in full cry.
What was to be done?

There was a sense of idyllic happiness at Godwin Farm in those days.
Even old Nance had intercepted him to say that Maddalena was a good,
poor lass, for all her heathenish ways; and as for the young child, why,
Beppo had made them all young again. Was he to send the poor soul out
into the unfriendly world again with her child? There has been something
in Michael Godwin's face. If he let things alone they might settle
themselves in the most natural way in the world. But how would it work?
A child of the sun like Maddalena! After all, what did he know of her?
An innocent-seeming thing; but then her beauty and her charm might
obfuscate his middle-aged sense as they had dazzled Michael--and Simon
and Nance for the matter of that. Old Buller, too. The last time he had
visited the farm he had noticed Buller, who was a reserved dog usually,
sitting with his head on Maddalena's knee looking up with adoring love
into her face. She had bewitched them all. Not so easy to judge such a
woman fairly, to see clearly what would be best for Michael.

In the midst of the Vicar's perplexity there came elucidation. And yet
he was not sure he was pleased about it. His unmarried sister, Miss
Caroline Hurst, had swooped down upon him for one of her visits--during
which there was a deal of turning out and reform at the Vicarage
invariably ending in the servants giving notice.

Miss Caroline soon had it out of her brother what was giving him the
pucker between the eyebrows, the worried look when his face was in
repose. She was a direct, abrupt person, quite kind-hearted, though the
subjects of her domineering were not always ready to acknowledge the
good intention.

"My dear Algernon," she said. "What do you hesitate about? Of course, it
is quite impossible that the woman and child should stay there. I'll go
and see her at once."

She lifted her hand when the Vicar would have protested.

"Wait till you hear my proposal, Algernon, before you object. What I
suggest is that the woman and child should leave the farm at once and go
straight to Myddleton-square. The house is shut up, of course, but the
char--a very decent woman--will look after them for the present. I propose
to take them with me when I go abroad in January, unless, indeed, the
woman cares to find employment and put the child out."

Secretly the Vicar was very sorry he had told his sister anything about
it; but--he hardly knew why he disliked it so much--the suggestion was
quite a reasonable one--in part at least--the only part he would consider.

"Take them home," he said. "That will be kindest. But--Myddleton-square
in the depths of winter! At Christmas, too! It seems rather dreary."

Miss Caroline whisked away to the farm. As it happened Michael Godwin
was absent for a few days. She had an interview with Maddalena. She
talked Italian excellently, with a hard intonation which somehow made
the softest of tongue harsh and metallic. Whatever she said, it had the
effect of reducing Maddalena, who of late had been as bright as Beppo
himself, to tears and helplessness. Nance stood by grumbling while
Maddalena gathered her few belongings. They were few enough, in all
conscience. Within an hour of the moment when Miss Hurst had descended
on Godwin's Farm Maddalena and Beppo were flown as though they had never
been--the light of the house departed. It was going to be a queer
Christmas, old Nance grumbled, without the woman and the child and she
wondered what at all the master was going to say when he came back.

It was two days before Christmas, and there was a black fog in London.
It was the third day of the fog and Maddalena, in the underground
kitchens at Myddleton-square thought the end of the world had come. A
world in which it was always night--how dreadful that was! And Maddalena
did not know in the least what was going to happen to her, except that
the lady who had said such terrible things to her had spoken of taking
her back to Italy.

She was not sure she wanted to go back to Italy--now. She wanted to go
back to Godwin's Farm. She wanted to see Michael Godwin. He had shown
her how tender a man could be to a woman and a child.

She sat, cowering in the underground kitchen with the flaming gas-jet.
Mrs. Evans the charwoman, had given up trying to make her understand.
Maddalena was quite sure it was the end of the world--that the Judgment
was coming. How else could it be that night was spread over the earth
for three days?

Beppo too was languid--sickening for something perhaps--perhaps withering,
like Maddalena for the sun and the air and the love.

Maddalena began to think enviously of the sea--when it had caught her and
Beppo and carried them out. After they had ceased to struggle it had
been quite gentle, rocking them to and fro on its breast to a sleepy
lullaby. She pulled herself up with a start. She must never think of it
again. It had been borne in upon her that it was wicked, though she had
not known it at the time, being half-distraught, poor child!

She glanced through the uncurtained kitchen window. Darkness--darkness
everywhere. It pressed upon her and strangled her as though she were
buried alive. Her tears began to flow--heavy, slow tears of acute misery.

Beppo came and stood by her knee. She picked him up and rocked him to
and fro in her arms, hiding her face from him, lest she should frighten
him, on the head of black curls that was so like the little Christ-Child
of Raphael.

She did not hear the thundering knock that resounded through the house,
nor notice that Mrs. Evans had shambled away upstairs to answer it. She
was murmuring her voiceless prayers to the Mother of all the Sorrows to
console her, to take care of her and Beppo in this dreadful day of
darkness, to open the lights of heaven to them, when a voice spoke her
name.

"Maddalena, my poor girl!"

Wonderful how she and Michael Godwin had come to understand each other,
although she had still only a few phrases of English, and he the few
phrases of Italian which she had been able to impart to him.

"Maddalena! My child! You should not have left Godwin's Farm; you should
not indeed. You are coming home with me, you and Beppo. We hall be
married as soon as possible. That was the business which took me away.
There is a carriage at the door. And the little Beppino! What a stifling
place! Why, it has been killing you, my girl."

Some time late that evening they were at Godwin's Farm, but long before
that they had escaped from the dreadful, unnatural night of London,
which had only ceased to terrify Maddalena when she was in her lover's
arms. So Christmas Day was a happy day at Godwin's Farm, where Maddalena
sat smiling, with a ring on her finger soon to be replaced by the
wedding ring; and Beppo played and shouted about the house again, as
though the flight to London had never been, clean forgetting apparently
that nightmare of the three days when the sun never rose. As for Michael
Godwin, he was goldener, fairer than ever, Mr. Hurst decided when he
came to pay them a visit in the course of the afternoon. Miss Caroline
Hurst came with him. She had been inclined to be offended over the way
her arrangements had been set aside; but, after all, every woman loves
a romance, and she was ready to say that, of course, she had not
understood the situation clearly, had not known that a marriage was in
question, else she would never have kidnapped Maddalena and Beppo.

There sat Michael, Beppo in his arms, looking at the beautiful round
baby with as much happiness as though he were the child's father. And
there was Maddalena, with the look of amazed happiness, about her as
though she had lain down in utter darkness and awoke in heaven.

They were to be married early in the New Year.

Miss Caroline had had her way so far that Maddalena and Beppo were to
spend the intervening days at the Vicarage under her wing.

"It is so idyllic," she said to her brother, "that it would be a pity if
there were talk."

"It is a happy Christmas for you, Michael," she said.

"The sea brought me my Christmas-box," he answered, looking from
Maddalena to Beppo.

That was how the happiness came to, Godwin's Farm at Christmas.



THE END



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