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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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Michael Godwin's Xmas Box

by

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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