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
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
"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."