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   Chapter 1 THE BOY IN THE GATE-HOUSE.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 7903

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Until his ninth year the boy about whom this story is written lived in a house which looked upon the square of a county town. The house had once formed part of a large religious building, and the boy's bedroom had a high groined roof, and on the capstone an angel carved, with outspread wings. Every night the boy wound up his prayers with this verse which his grandmother had taught him:

"Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

Four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head;

One to watch, one to pray,

Two to bear my soul away."

Then he would look up to the angel and say: "Only Luke is with me." His head was full of queer texts and beliefs. He supposed the three other angels to be always waiting in the next room, ready to bear away the soul of his grandmother (who was bed-ridden), and that he had Luke for an angel because he was called Theophilus, after the friend for whom St. Luke had written his Gospel and the Acts of the Holy Apostles. His name in full was Theophilus John Raymond, but people called him Taffy.

Of his parents' circumstances he knew very little, except that they were poor, and that his father was a clergyman attached to the parish church. As a matter of fact, the Reverend Samuel Raymond was senior curate there, with a stipend of ninety-five pounds a year. Born at Tewkesbury, the son of a miller, he had won his way to a servitorship at Christ Church, Oxford; and somehow, in the course of one Long Vacation, had found money for travelling expenses to join a reading party under the Junior Censor. The party spent six summer weeks at a farmhouse near Honiton, in Devon. The farm belonged to an invalid widow named Venning, who let it be managed by her daughter Humility and two paid labourers, while she herself sat by the window in her kitchen parlour, busied incessantly with lace-work of that beautiful kind for which Honiton is famous. He was an unassuming youth; and although in those days servitors were no longer called upon to black the boots of richer undergraduates, the widow and her daughter soon divined that he was lowlier than the others, and his position an awkward one, and were kind to him in small ways, and grew to like him. Next year, at their invitation, he travelled down to Honiton alone, with a box of books; and, at twenty-two, having taken his degree, he paid them a third visit, and asked Humility to be his wife. At twenty-four, soon after his admission to deacon's orders, they were married. The widow sold the small farm, with its stock, and followed to live with them in the friary gate-house; this having been part of Humility's bargain with her lover, if the word can be used of a pact between two hearts so fond.

About ten years had gone since these things happened, and their child

Taffy was now past his eighth birthday.

It seemed to him that, so far back as he could remember, his mother and grandmother had been making lace continually. At night, when his mother took the candle away with her and left him alone in the dark, he was not afraid; for, by closing his eyes, he could always see the two women quite plainly; and always he saw them at work, each with a pillow on her lap, and the lace upon it growing, growing, until the pins and bobbins wove a pattern that was a dream, and he slept. He could not tell what became of all the lace, though he had a collar of it which he wore to church on Sundays, and his mother had once shown him a parcel of it, wrapped in tissue-paper, and told him it was his christening robe.

His father was always reading, except on Sundays, when he preached sermons. In his thoughts nine times out of ten Taffy associated his father with a great pile of books; but the tenth time with something totally different. One summer-it was in his sixth year-they had all gone on a holiday to Tewkesbury, his father's old home; and he recalled quite clearly the close of a warm afternoon which he

and his mother had spent there in a green meadow beyond the abbey church. She had brought out a basket and cushion, and sat sewing, while Taffy played about and watched the haymakers at their work. Behind them, within the great church, the organ was sounding; but by-and-by it stopped, and a door opened in the abbey wall, and his father came across the meadow toward them with his surplice on his arm. And then Humility unpacked the basket and produced a kettle, a spirit-lamp, and a host of things good to eat. The boy thought the whole adventure splendid. When tea was done, he sprang up with one of those absurd notions which come into children's heads:

"Now let's feed the poultry," he cried, and flung his last scrap of bun three feet in air toward the gilt weather-cock on the abbey tower. While they laughed, "Father, how tall is the tower?" he demanded.

"A hundred and thirty-two feet, my boy, from ground to battlements."

"What are battlements?"

He was told.

"But people don't fight here," he objected.

Then his father told of a battle fought in the very meadow in which they were sitting; of soldiers at bay with their backs to the abbey wall; of crowds that ran screaming into the church; of others chased down Mill Street and drowned; of others killed by the Town Cross; and how-people said in the upper room of a house still standing in the High Street-a boy prince had been stabbed.

Humility laid a hand on his arm.

"He'll be dreaming of all this. Tell him it was a long time ago, and that these things don't happen now."

But her husband was looking up at the tower.

"See it now with the light upon it!" he went on. "And it has seen it all. Eight hundred years of heaven's storms and man's madness, and still foursquare and as beautiful now as when the old masons took down their scaffolding. When I was a boy-"

He broke off suddenly. "Lord, make men as towers," he added quietly after a while, and nobody spoke for many minutes.

To Taffy this had seemed a very queer saying; about as queer as that other one about "men as trees walking." Somehow-he could not say why-he had never asked any questions about it. But many times he had perched himself on a flat tombstone under the church tower at home, and tilted his head back and stared up at the courses and pinnacles, wondering what his father could have meant, and how a man could possibly be like a tower. It ended in this-that whenever he dreamed about his father, these two towers, or a tower which was more or less a combination of both, would get mixed up with the dream as well.

The gate-house contained a sitting-room and three bedrooms (one hardly bigger than a box-cupboard); but a building adjoined it which had been the old Franciscans' refectory, though now it was divided by common planking into two floors, the lower serving for a feoffee office, while the upper was supposed to be a muniment-room, in charge of the feoffees' clerk. The clerk used it for drying his garden-seeds and onions, and spread his hoarding apples to ripen on the floor. So when Taffy grew to need a room of his own, and his father's books to cumber the very stairs of the gate-house, the money which Humility and her mother made by their lace-work, and which arrived always by post, came very handy for the rent which the clerk asked for his upper chamber.

Carpenters appeared and partitioned it off into two rooms, communicating with the gate-house by a narrow doorway pierced in the wall. All this, whilst it was doing, interested Taffy mightily; and he announced his intention of being a carpenter one of these days.

"I hope," said Humility, "you will look higher, and be a preacher of

God's Word, like your father."

His father frowned at this and said: "Jesus Christ was both."

Taffy compromised: "Perhaps I'll make pulpits."

This was how he came to have a bedroom with a vaulted roof and a window that reached down below the floor.

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