The Little Waif

On a spring day, in the year 1568, Mistress Talbot sat in her lodging

at Hull, an upper chamber, with a large latticed window, glazed with

the circle and diamond leading perpetuated in Dutch pictures, and

opening on a carved balcony, whence, had she been so minded, she could

have shaken hands with her opposite neighbour. There was a richly

carved mantel-piece, with a sea-coal fire burning in it, for though it

was May,
the sea winds blew cold, and there was a fishy odour about the

town, such as it was well to counteract. The floor was of slippery

polished oak, the walls hung with leather, gilded in some places and

depending from cornices, whose ornaments proved to an initiated eye,

that this had once been the refectory of a small priory, or cell,

broken up at the Reformation.

Of furniture there was not much, only an open cupboard, displaying two

silver cups and tankards, a sauce-pan of the same metal, a few tall,

slender, Venetian glasses, a little pewter, and some rare shells. A

few high-backed chairs were ranged against the wall; there was a tall

"armory," i.e. a linen-press of dark oak, guarded on each side by the

twisted weapons of the sea unicorn, and in the middle of the room stood

a large, solid-looking table, adorned with a brown earthenware

beau-pot, containing a stiff posy of roses, southernwood, gillyflowers,

pinks and pansies, of small dimensions. On hooks, against the wall,

hung a pair of spurs, a shield, a breastplate, and other pieces of

armour, with an open helmet bearing the dog, the well-known crest of

the Talbots of the Shrewsbury line.

On the polished floor, near the window, were a child's cart, a little

boat, some whelks and limpets. Their owner, a stout boy of three years

old, in a tight, borderless, round cap, and home-spun, madder-dyed

frock, lay fast asleep in a big wooden cradle, scarcely large enough,

however, to contain him, as he lay curled up, sucking his thumb, and

hugging to his breast the soft fragment of a sea-bird's downy breast.

If he stirred, his mother's foot was on the rocker, as she sat

spinning, but her spindle danced languidly on the floor, as if "feeble

was her hand, and silly her thread;" while she listened anxiously, for

every sound in the street below. She wore a dark blue dress, with a

small lace ruff opening in front, deep cuffs to match, and a white

apron likewise edged with lace, and a coif, bent down in the centre,

over a sweet countenance, matronly, though youthful, and now full of

wistful expectancy; not untinged with anxiety and sorrow.

Susan Hardwicke was a distant kinswoman of the famous Bess of

Hardwicke, and had formed one of the little court of gentlewomen with

whom great ladies were wont to surround themselves. There she met

Richard Talbot, the second son of a relative of the Earl of Shrewsbury,

a young man who, with the indifference of those days to service by land

or sea, had been at one time a gentleman pensioner of Queen Mary; at

another had sailed under some of the great mariners of the western

main. There he had acquired substance enough to make the offer of his

hand to the dowerless Susan no great imprudence; and as neither could

be a subject for ambitious plans, no obstacle was raised to their


He took his wife home to his old father's house in the precincts of

Sheffield Park, where she was kindly welcomed; but wealth did not so

abound in the family but that, when opportunity offered, he was

thankful to accept the command of the Mastiff, a vessel commissioned by

Queen Elizabeth, but built, manned, and maintained at the expense of

the Earl of Shrewsbury. It formed part of a small squadron which was

cruising on the eastern coast to watch over the intercourse between

France and Scotland, whether in the interest of the imprisoned Mary, or

of the Lords of the Congregation. He had obtained lodgings for

Mistress Susan at Hull, so that he might be with her when he put into

harbour, and she was expecting him for the first time since the loss of

their second child, a daughter whom he had scarcely seen during her

little life of a few months.

Moreover, there had been a sharp storm a few days previously, and

experience had not hardened her to the anxieties of a sailor's wife.

She had been down once already to the quay, and learnt all that the old

sailors could tell her of chances and conjectures; and when her boy

began to fret from hunger and weariness, she had left her serving-man,

Gervas, to watch for further tidings. Yet, so does one trouble drive

out another, that whereas she had a few days ago dreaded the sorrow of

his return, she would now have given worlds to hear his step.

Hark, what is that in the street? Oh, folly! If the Mastiff were in,

would not Gervas have long ago brought her the tidings? Should she

look over the balcony only to be disappointed again? Ah! she had been

prudent, for the sounds were dying away. Nay, there was a foot at the

door! Gervas with ill news! No, no, it bounded as never did Gervas's

step! It was coming up. She started from the chair, quivering with

eagerness, as the door opened and in hurried her suntanned sailor! She

was in his arms in a trance of joy. That was all she knew for a

moment, and then, it was as if something else were given back to her.

No, it was not a dream! It was substance. In her arms was a little

swaddled baby, in her ears its feeble wail, mingled with the glad shout

of little Humfrey, as he scrambled from the cradle to be uplifted in

his father's arms.

"What is this?" she asked, gazing at the infant between terror and

tenderness, as its weak cry and exhausted state forcibly recalled the

last hours of her own child.

"It is the only thing we could save from a wreck off the Spurn," said

her husband. "Scottish as I take it. The rogues seem to have taken to

their boats, leaving behind them a poor woman and her child. I trust

they met their deserts and were swamped. We saw the fluttering of her

coats as we made for the Humber, and I sent Goatley and Jaques in the

boat to see if anything lived. The poor wench was gone before they

could lift her up, but the little one cried lustily, though it has

waxen weaker since. We had no milk on board, and could only give it

bits of soft bread soaked in beer, and I misdoubt me whether it did not

all run out at the corners of its mouth."

This was interspersed with little Humfrey's eager outcries that little

sister was come again, and Mrs. Talbot, the tears running down her

cheeks, hastened to summon her one woman-servant, Colet, to bring the

porringer of milk.

Captain Talbot had only hurried ashore to bring the infant, and show

himself to his wife. He was forced instantly to return to the wharf,

but he promised to come back as soon as he should have taken order for

his men, and for the Mastiff, which had suffered considerably in the

storm, and would need to be refitted.

Colet hastily put a manchet of fresh bread, a pasty, and a stoup of

wine into a basket, and sent it by her husband, Gervas, after their

master; and then eagerly assisted her mistress in coaxing the infant to

swallow food, and in removing the soaked swaddling clothes which the

captain and his crew had not dared to meddle with.

When Captain Talbot returned, as the rays of the setting sun glanced

high on the roofs and chimneys, little Humfrey stood peeping through

the tracery of the balcony, watching for him, and shrieking with joy at

the first glimpse of the sea-bird's feather in his cap. The spotless

home-spun cloth and the trenchers were laid for supper, a festive capon

was prepared by the choicest skill of Mistress Susan, and the little

shipwrecked stranger lay fast asleep in the cradle.

All was well with it now, Mrs. Talbot said. Nothing had ailed it but

cold and hunger, and when it had been fed, warmed, and dressed, it had

fallen sweetly asleep in her arms, appeasing her heartache for her own

little Sue, while Humfrey fully believed that father had brought his

little sister back again.

The child was in truth a girl, apparently three or four months old. She

had been rolled up in Mrs. Talbot's baby's clothes, and her own long

swaddling bands hung over the back of a chair, where they had been

dried before the fire. They were of the finest woollen below, and

cambric above, and the outermost were edged with lace, whose quality

Mrs. Talbot estimated very highly.

"See," she added, "what we found within. A Popish relic, is it not?

Colet and Mistress Gale were for making away with it at once, but it

seemed to me that it was a token whereby the poor babe's friends may

know her again, if she have any kindred not lost at sea."

The token was a small gold cross, of peculiar workmanship, with a

crystal in the middle, through which might be seen some mysterious

object neither husband nor wife could make out, but which they agreed

must be carefully preserved for the identification of their little

waif. Mrs. Talbot also produced a strip of writing which she had found

sewn to the inmost band wrapped round the little body, but it had no

superscription, and she believed it to be either French, Latin, or High

Dutch, for she could make nothing of it. Indeed, the good lady's

education had only included reading, writing, needlework and cookery,

and she knew no language but her own. Her husband had been taught

Latin, but his acquaintance with modern tongues was of the nautical

order, and entirely oral and vernacular. However, it enabled him to

aver that the letter--if such it were--was neither Scottish, French,

Spanish, nor High or Low Dutch. He looked at it in all directions, and

shook his head over it.

"Who can read it, for us?" asked Mrs. Talbot. "Shall we ask Master

Heatherthwayte? he is a scholar, and he said he would look in to see

how you fared."

"At supper-time, I trow," said Richard, rather grimly, "the smell of

thy stew will bring him down in good time."

"Nay, dear sir, I thought you would be fain to see the good man, and he

lives but poorly in his garret."

"Scarce while he hath good wives like thee to boil his pot for him,"

said Richard, smiling. "Tell me, hath he heard aught of this gear?

thou hast not laid this scroll before him?"

"No, Colet brought it to me only now, having found it when washing the

swaddling-bands, stitched into one of them."

"Then hark thee, good wife, not one word to him of the writing."

"Might he not interpret it?"

"Not he! I must know more about it ere I let it pass forth from mine

hands, or any strange eye fall upon it-- Ha, in good time! I hear his

step on the stair."

The captain hastily rolled up the scroll and put it into his pouch,

while Mistress Susan felt as if she had made a mistake in her

hospitality, yet almost as if her husband were unjust towards the good

man who had been such a comfort to her in her sorrow; but there was no

lack of cordiality or courtesy in Richard's manner when, after a short,

quick knock, there entered a figure in hat, cassock, gown, and bands,

with a pleasant, though grave countenance, the complexion showing that

it had been tanned and sunburnt in early youth, although it wore later

traces of a sedentary student life, and, it might be, of less genial

living than had nourished the up-growth of that sturdily-built frame.

Master Joseph Heatherthwayte was the greatly underpaid curate of a

small parish on the outskirts of Hull. He contrived to live on some

(pounds)10 per annum in the attic of the house where the Talbots

lodged,--and not only to live, but to be full of charitable deeds,

mostly at the expense of his own appetite. The square cut of his

bands, and the uncompromising roundness of the hat which he doffed on

his entrance, marked him as inclined to the Puritan party, which, being

that of apparent progress, attracted most of the ardent spirits of the


Captain Talbot's inclinations did not lie that way, but he respected

and liked his fellow-lodger, and his vexation had been merely the

momentary disinclination of a man to be interrupted, especially on his

first evening at home. He responded heartily to Master

Heatherthwayte's warm pressure of the hand and piously expressed

congratulation on his safety, mixed with condolence on the grief that

had befallen him.

"And you have been a good friend to my poor wife in her sorrow," said

Richard, "for the which I thank you heartily, sir."

"Truly, sir, I could have been her scholar, with such edifying

resignation did she submit to the dispensation," returned the

clergyman, uttering these long words in a broad northern accent which

had nothing incongruous in it to Richard's ears, and taking advantage

of the lady's absence on "hospitable tasks intent" to speak in her


Little Humfrey, on his father's knee, comprehending that they were

speaking of the recent sorrow, put in his piece of information that

"father had brought little sister back from the sea."

"Ah, child!" said Master Heatherthwayte, in the ponderous tone of one

unused to children, "thou hast yet to learn the words of the holy

David, 'I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.'"

"Bring not that thought forward, Master Heatherthwayte," said Richard,

"I am well pleased that my poor wife and this little lad can take the

poor little one as a solace sent them by God, as she assuredly is."

"Mean you, then, to adopt her into your family?" asked the minister.

"We know not if she hath any kin," said Richard, and at that moment

Susan entered, followed by the man and maid, each bearing a portion of

the meal, which was consumed by the captain and the clergyman as

thoroughly hungry men eat; and there was silence till the capon's bones

were bare and two large tankards had been filled with Xeres sack,

captured in a Spanish ship, "the only good thing that ever came from

Spain," quoth the sailor.

Then he began to tell how he had weathered the storm on the

Berwickshire coast; but he was interrupted by another knock, followed

by the entrance of a small, pale, spare man, with the lightest possible

hair, very short, and almost invisible eyebrows; he had a round ruff

round his neck, and a black, scholarly gown, belted round his waist

with a girdle, in which he carried writing tools.

"Ha, Cuthbert Langston, art thou there?" said the captain, rising.

"Thou art kindly welcome. Sit down and crush a cup of sack with Master

Heatherthwayte and me."

"Thanks, cousin," returned the visitor, "I heard that the Mastiff was

come in, and I came to see whether all was well."

"It was kindly done, lad," said Richard, while the others did their

part of the welcome, though scarcely so willingly. Cuthbert Langston

was a distant relation on the mother's side of Richard, a young

scholar, who, after his education at Oxford, had gone abroad with a

nobleman's son as his pupil, and on his return, instead of taking Holy

Orders, as was expected, had obtained employment in a merchant's

counting-house at Hull, for which his knowledge of languages eminently

fitted him. Though he possessed none of the noble blood of the

Talbots, the employment was thought by Mistress Susan somewhat

derogatory to the family dignity, and there was a strong suspicion both

in her mind and that of Master Heatherthwayte that his change of

purpose was due to the change of religion in England, although he was a

perfectly regular church-goer. Captain Talbot, however, laughed at all

this, and, though he had not much in common with his kinsman, always

treated him in a cousinly fashion. He too had heard a rumour of the

foundling, and made inquiry for it, upon which Richard told his story

in greater detail, and his wife asked what the poor mother was like.

"I saw her not," he answered, "but Goatley thought the poor woman to

whom she was bound more like to be nurse than mother, judging by her

years and her garments."

"The mother may have been washed off before," said Susan, lifting the

little one from the cradle, and hushing it. "Weep not, poor babe, thou

hast found a mother here."

"Saw you no sign of the crew?" asked Master Heatherthwayte.

"None at all. The vessel I knew of old as the brig Bride of Dunbar,

one of the craft that ply between Dunbar and the French ports."

"And how think you? Were none like to be saved?"

"I mean to ride along the coast to-morrow, to see whether aught can be

heard of them, but even if their boats could live in such a sea, they

would have evil hap among the wreckers if they came ashore. I would

not desire to be a shipwrecked man in these parts, and if I had a

Scottish or a French tongue in my head so much the worse for me."

"Ah, Master Heatherthwayte," said Susan, "should not a man give up the

sea when he is a husband and father?"

"Tush, dame! With God's blessing the good ship Mastiff will ride out

many another such gale. Tell thy mother, little Numpy, that an English

sailor is worth a dozen French or Scottish lubbers."

"Sir," said Master Heatherthwayte, "the pious trust of the former part

of your discourse is contradicted by the boast of the latter end."

"Nay, Sir Minister, what doth a sailor put his trust in but his God

foremost, and then his good ship and his brave men?"

It should be observed that all the three men wore their hats, and each

made a reverent gesture of touching them. The clergyman seemed

satisfied by the answer, and presently added that it would be well, if

Master and Mistress Talbot meant to adopt the child, that she should be


"How now?" said Richard, "we are not so near any coast of Turks or

Infidels that we should deem her sprung of heathen folk."

"Assuredly not," said Cuthbert Langston, whose quick, light-coloured

eyes had spied the reliquary in Mistress Susan's work-basket, "if this

belongs to her. By your leave, kinswoman," and he lifted it in his

hand with evident veneration, and began examining it.

"It is Babylonish gold, an accursed thing!" exclaimed Master

Heatherthwayte. "Beware, Master Talbot, and cast it from thee."

"Nay," said Richard, "that shall I not do. It may lead to the

discovery of the child's kindred. Why, my master, what harm think you

it will do to us in my dame's casket? Or what right have we to make

away with the little one's property?"

His common sense was equally far removed from the horror of the one

visitor as from the reverence of the other, and so it pleased neither.

Master Langston was the first to speak, observing that the relic made

it evident that the child must have been baptized.

"A Popish baptism," said Master Heatherthwayte, "with chrism and taper

and words and gestures to destroy the pure simplicity of the sacrament."

Controversy here seemed to be setting in, and the infant cause of it

here setting up a cry, Susan escaped under pretext of putting Humfrey

to bed in the next room, and carried off both the little ones. The

conversation then fell upon the voyage, and the captain described the

impregnable aspect of the castle of Dumbarton, which was held for Queen

Mary by her faithful partisan, Lord Flemyng. On this, Cuthbert

Langston asked whether he had heard any tidings of the imprisoned

Queen, and he answered that it was reported at Leith that she had

well-nigh escaped from Lochleven, in the disguise of a lavender or

washerwoman. She was actually in the boat, and about to cross the

lake, when a rude oarsman attempted to pull aside her muffler, and the

whiteness of the hand she raised in self-protection betrayed her, so

that she was carried back. "If she had reached Dumbarton," he said,

"she might have mocked at the Lords of the Congregation. Nay, she

might have been in that very brig, whose wreck I beheld."

"And well would it have been for Scotland and England had it been the

will of Heaven that so it should fall out," observed the Puritan.

"Or it may be," said the merchant, "that the poor lady's escape was

frustrated by Providence, that she might be saved from the rocks of the


"The poor lady, truly! Say rather the murtheress," quoth


"Say rather the victim and scapegoat of other men's plots," protested


"Come, come, sirs," says Talbot, "we'll have no high words here on what

Heaven only knoweth. Poor lady she is, in all sooth, if sackless;

poorer still if guilty; so I know not what matter there is for falling

out about. In any sort, I will not have it at my table." He spoke with

the authority of the captain of a ship, and the two visitors, scarce

knowing it, submitted to his decision of manner, but the harmony of the

evening seemed ended. Cuthbert Langston soon rose to bid good-night,

first asking his cousin at what hour he proposed to set forth for the

Spurn, to which Richard briefly replied that it depended on what had to

be done as to the repairs of the ship.

The clergyman tarried behind him to say, "Master Talbot, I marvel that

so godly a man as you have ever been should be willing to harbour one

so popishly affected, and whom many suspect of being a seminary priest."

"Master Heatherthwayte," returned the captain, "my kinsman is my

kinsman, and my house is my house. No offence, sir, but I brook not


The clergyman protested that no offence was intended, only caution, and

betook himself to his own bare chamber, high above. No sooner was he

gone than Captain Talbot again became absorbed in the endeavour to

spell out the mystery of the scroll, with his elbows on the table and

his hands over his ears, nor did he look up till he was touched by his

wife, when he uttered an impatient demand what she wanted now.

She had the little waif in her arms undressed, and with only a woollen

coverlet loosely wrapped round her, and without speaking she pointed to

the little shoulder-blades, where two marks had been indelibly made--on

one side the crowned monogram of the Blessed Virgin, on the other a

device like the Labarum, only that the upright was surmounted by a


Richard Talbot gave a sort of perplexed grunt of annoyance to

acknowledge that he saw them.

"Poor little maid! how could they be so cruel? They have been branded

with a hot iron," said the lady.

"They that parted from her meant to know her again," returned Talbot.

"Surely they are Popish marks," added Mistress Susan.

"Look you here, Dame Sue, I know you for a discreet woman. Keep this

gear to yourself, both the letter and the marks. Who hath seen them?"

"I doubt me whether even Colet has seen this mark."

"That is well. Keep all out of sight. Many a man has been brought

into trouble for a less matter swelled by prating tongues."

"Have you made it out?"

"Not I. It may be only the child's horoscope, or some old wife's charm

that is here sewn up, and these marks may be naught but some sailor's

freak; but, on the other hand, they may be concerned with perilous

matter, so the less said the better."

"Should they not be shown to my lord, or to her Grace's Council?"

"I'm not going to run my head into trouble for making a coil about what

may be naught. That's what befell honest Mark Walton. He thought he

had seized matter of State, and went up to Master Walsingham, swelling

like an Indian turkey-cock, with his secret letters, and behold they

turned out to be a Dutch fishwife's charm to bring the herrings. I can

tell you he has rued the work he made about it ever since. On the

other hand, let it get abroad through yonder prating fellow,

Heatherthwayte, or any other, that Master Richard Talbot had in his

house a child with, I know not what Popish tokens, and a scroll in an

unknown tongue, and I should be had up in gyves for suspicion of

treason, or may be harbouring the Prince of Scotland himself, when it

is only some poor Scottish archer's babe."

"You would not have me part with the poor little one?"

"Am I a Turk or a Pagan? No. Only hold thy peace, as I shall hold

mine, until such time as I can meet some one whom I can trust to read

this riddle. Tell me--what like is the child? Wouldst guess it to be

of gentle, or of clownish blood, if women can tell such things?"

"Of gentle blood, assuredly," cried the lady, so that he smiled and

said, "I might have known that so thou wouldst answer."

"Nay, but see her little hands and fingers, and the mould of her dainty

limbs. No Scottish fisher clown was her father, I dare be sworn. Her

skin is as fair and fine as my Humfrey's, and moreover she has always

been in hands that knew how a babe should be tended. Any woman can tell

you that!"

"And what like is she in your woman's eyes? What complexion doth she


"Her hair, what she has of it, is dark; her eyes--bless them--are of a

deep blue, or purple, such as most babes have till they take their true

tint. There is no guessing. Humfrey's eyes were once like to be

brown, now are they as blue as thine own."

"I understand all that," said Captain Talbot, smiling. "If she have

kindred, they will know her better by the sign manual on her tender

flesh than by her face."

"And who are they?"

"Who are they?" echoed the captain, rolling up the scroll in despair.

"Here, take it, Susan, and keep it safe from all eyes. Whatever it may

be, it may serve thereafter to prove her true name. And above all, not

a word or breath to Heatherthwayte, or any of thy gossips, wear they

coif or bands."

"Ah, sir! that you will mistrust the good man."

"I said not I mistrust any one; only that I will have no word of all

this go forth! Not one! Thou heedest me, wife?"

"Verily I do, sir; I will be mute."