‘and who was she?’ asked nance, and laughed in spite of herself, an empty and embarrassed laugh, that sounded in mr. archer’s ears, indeed, like music, but to her own like the last grossness of rusticity.
‘she was a princess of the grecian islands,’ he replied. ‘a king, being shipwrecked, found her washing by the shore. certainly i, too, was shipwrecked,’ he continued, plucking at the grass. ‘there was never a more desperate castaway—to fall from polite life, fortune, a shrine of honour, a grateful conscience, duties willingly taken up and faithfully discharged; and to fall to this— idleness, poverty, inutility, remorse.’ he seemed to have forgotten her presence, but here he remembered her again. ‘nance,’ said he, ‘would you have a man sit down and suffer or rise up and strive?’
‘nay,’ she said. ‘i would always rather see him doing.’
‘ha!’ said mr. archer, ‘but yet you speak from an imperfect knowledge. conceive a man damned to a choice of only evil— misconduct upon either side, not a fault behind him, and yet naught before him but this choice of sins. how would you say then?’
‘i would say that he was much deceived, mr. archer,’ returned nance. ‘i would say there was a third choice, and that the right one.’
‘i tell you,’ said mr. archer, ‘the man i have in view hath two ways open, and no more. one to wait, like a poor mewling baby, till fate save or ruin him; the other to take his troubles in his hand, and to perish or be saved at once. it is no point of morals; both are wrong. either way this step-child of providence must fall; which shall he choose, by doing or not doing?’
‘fall, then, is what i would say,’ replied nance. ‘fall where you will, but do it! for o, mr. archer,’ she continued, stooping to her work, ‘you that are good and kind, and so wise, it doth sometimes go against my heart to see you live on here like a sheep in a turnip-field! if you were braver—’ and here she paused, conscience-smitten.
‘do i, indeed, lack courage?’ inquired mr. archer of himself. ‘courage, the footstool of the virtues, upon which they stand? courage, that a poor private carrying a musket has to spare of; that does not fail a weasel or a rat; that is a brutish faculty? i to fail there, i wonder? but what is courage, then? the constancy to endure oneself or to see others suffer? the itch of ill-advised activity: mere shuttle-wittedness, or to be still and patient? to inquire of the significance of words is to rob ourselves of what we seem to know, and yet, of all things, certainly to stand still is the least heroic. nance,’ he said, ‘did you ever hear of hamlet?’
‘never,’ said nance.
‘’tis an old play,’ returned mr. archer, ‘and frequently enacted. this while i have been talking hamlet. you must know this hamlet was a prince among the danes,’ and he told her the play in a very good style, here and there quoting a verse or two with solemn emphasis.
‘it is strange,’ said nance; ‘he was then a very poor creature?’
‘that was what he could not tell,’ said mr. archer. ‘look at me, am i as poor a creature?’
she looked, and what she saw was the familiar thought of all her hours; the tall figure very plainly habited in black, the spotless ruffles, the slim hands; the long, well-shapen, serious, shaven face, the wide and somewhat thin-lipped mouth, the dark eyes that were so full of depth and change and colour. he was gazing at her with his brows a little knit, his chin upon one hand and that elbow resting on his knee.
‘ye look a man!’ she cried, ‘ay, and should be a great one! the more shame to you to lie here idle like a dog before the fire.’
‘my fair holdaway,’ quoth mr. archer, ‘you are much set on action. i cannot dig, to beg i am ashamed.’ he continued, looking at her with a half-absent fixity, ‘’tis a strange thing, certainly, that in my years of fortune i should never taste happiness, and now when i am broke, enjoy so much of it, for was i ever happier than today? was the grass softer, the stream pleasanter in sound, the air milder, the heart more at peace? why should i not sink? to dig— why, after all, it should be easy. to take a mate, too? love is of all grades since jupiter; love fails to none; and children’—but here he passed his hand suddenly over his eyes. ‘o fool and coward, fool and coward!’ he said bitterly; ‘can you forget your fetters? you did not know that i was fettered, nance?’ he asked, again addressing her.
but nance was somewhat sore. ‘i know you keep talking,’ she said, and, turning half away from him, began to wring out a sheet across her shoulder. ‘i wonder you are not wearied of your voice. when the hands lie abed the tongue takes a walk.’
mr. archer laughed unpleasantly, rose and moved to the water’s edge. in this part the body of the river poured across a little narrow fell, ran some ten feet very smoothly over a bed of pebbles, then getting wind, as it were, of another shelf of rock which barred the channel, began, by imperceptible degrees, to separate towards either shore in dancing currents, and to leave the middle clear and stagnant. the set towards either side was nearly equal; about one half of the whole water plunged on the side of the castle, through a narrow gullet; about one half ran ripping past the margin of the green and slipped across a babbling rapid.
‘here,’ said mr. archer, after he had looked for some time at the fine and shifting demarcation of these currents, ‘come here and see me try my fortune.’
‘i am not like a man,’ said nance; ‘i have no time to waste.’
‘come here,’ he said again. ‘i ask you seriously, nance. we are not always childish when we seem so.’ she drew a little nearer.
‘now,’ said he, ‘you see these two channels—choose one.’
‘i’ll choose the nearest, to save time,’ said nance.
‘well, that shall be for action,’ returned mr. archer. ‘and since i wish to have the odds against me, not only the other channel but yon stagnant water in the midst shall be for lying still. you see this?’ he continued, pulling up a withered rush. ‘i break it in three. i shall put each separately at the top of the upper fall, and according as they go by your way or by the other i shall guide my life.’
‘this is very silly,’ said nance, with a movement of her shoulders.
‘i do not think it so,’ said mr. archer.
‘and then,’ she resumed, ‘if you are to try your fortune, why not evenly?’
‘nay,’ returned mr. archer with a smile, ‘no man can put complete reliance in blind fate; he must still cog the dice.’
by this time he had got upon the rock beside the upper fall, and, bidding her look out, dropped a piece of rush into the middle of the intake. the rusty fragment was sucked at once over the fall, came up again far on the right hand, leaned ever more and more in the same direction, and disappeared under the hanging grasses on the castle side.
‘one,’ said mr. archer, ‘one for standing still.’
but the next launch had a different fate, and after hanging for a while about the edge of the stagnant water, steadily approached the bleaching-green and danced down the rapid under nance’s eyes.
‘one for me,’ she cried with some exultation; and then she observed that mr. archer had grown pale, and was kneeling on the rock, with his hand raised like a person petrified. ‘why,’ said she, ‘you do not mind it, do you?’
‘does a man not mind a throw of dice by which a fortune hangs?’ said mr. archer, rather hoarsely. ‘and this is more than fortune. nance, if you have any kindness for my fate, put up a prayer before i launch the next one.’
‘a prayer,’ she cried, ‘about a game like this? i would not be so heathen.’
‘well,’ said he, ‘then without,’ and he closed his eyes and dropped the piece of rush. this time there was no doubt. it went for the rapid as straight as any arrow.
‘action then!’ said mr. archer, getting to his feet; ‘and then god forgive us,’ he added, almost to himself.
‘god forgive us, indeed,’ cried nance, ‘for wasting the good daylight! but come, mr. archer, if i see you look so serious i shall begin to think you was in earnest.’
‘nay,’ he said, turning upon her suddenly, with a full smile; ‘but is not this good advice? i have consulted god and demigod; the nymph of the river, and what i far more admire and trust, my blue-eyed minerva. both have said the same. my own heart was telling it already. action, then, be mine; and into the deep sea with all this paralysing casuistry. i am happy today for the first time.’