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The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13369

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

This window looked upon the Town Square, and across it to the Mayoralty. The square had once been the Franciscans' burial-ground, and was really no square at all, but a semicircle. The townspeople called it Mount Folly. The chord of the arc was formed by a large Assize Hall, with a broad flight of granite steps, and a cannon planted on either side of the steps. The children used to climb about these cannons, and Taffy had picked out his first letters from the words Sevastopol and Russian Trophy, painted in white on their lead-coloured carriages.

Below the Assize Hall an open gravelled space sloped gently down to a line of iron railings and another flight of granite steps leading into the main street. The street curved uphill around the base of this open ground, and came level with it just in front of the Mayoralty, a tall stuccoed building where the public balls were given, and the judges had their lodgings in assize time, and the Colonel his quarters during the militia training.

Fine shows passed under Taffy's window. Twice a year came the judges, with the sheriff in uniform and his chaplain, and his coach, and his coachman and lackeys in powder and plush and silk stockings, white or flesh-coloured; and the barristers with their wigs, and the javelin men and silver trumpets. Every spring, too, the Royal Rangers Militia came up for training. Suddenly one morning, in the height of the bird-nesting season, the street would swarm with countrymen tramping up to the barracks on the hill, and back, with bundles of clothes and unblackened boots dangling. For the next six weeks the town would be full of bugle calls, and brazen music, and companies marching and parading in suits of invisible green, and clanking officers in black, with little round forage caps, and silver badges on their side-belts; and, towards evening, with men lounging and smoking, or washing themselves in public before the doors of their billets.

Usually too, Whitsun Fair fell at the height of the militia training; and then for two days booths and caravans, sweet-standings and shooting-galleries lined the main street, and Taffy went out with a shilling in his pocket to enjoy himself. But the bigger shows-the menagerie, the marionettes, and the travelling Theatre Royal-were pitched on Mount Folly, just under his window. Sometimes the theatre would stay a week or two after the fair was over, until even the boy grew tired of the naphtha-lamps and the voices of the tragedians, and the cornet wheezing under canvas, and began to long for the time when they would leave the square open for the boys to come and play at prisoners' bars in the dusk.

One evening, a fortnight before Whitsun Fair, he had taken his book to the open window, and sat there with it. Every night he had to learn a text which he repeated next morning to his mother. Already, across the square, the Mayoralty house was brightly lit, and the bandsmen had begun to arrange their stands and music before it; for the Colonel was receiving company. Every now and then a carriage arrived, and set down its guests.

After a while Taffy looked up and saw two persons crossing the square-an old man and a little girl. He recognised them, having seen them together in church the day before, when his father had preached the sermon. The old man wore a rusty silk hat, cocked a little to one side, a high stock collar, black cutaway coat, breeches and gaiters of grey cord. He stooped as he walked, with his hands behind him and his walking-stick dangling like a tail-a very positive old fellow, to look at. The girl's face Taffy could not see; it was hidden by the brim of her Leghorn hat.

The pair passed close under the window. Taffy heard a knock at the door below, and ran to the head of the stairs. Down in the passage his mother was talking to the old man, who turned to the girl and told her to wait outside.

"But let her come in and sit down," urged Humility.

"No, ma'am; I know my mind. I want one hour with your husband."

Taffy heard the door shut, and went back to his window-seat.

The little girl had climbed the cannon opposite, and sat there dangling her feet and eyeing the house.

"Boy," said she, "what a funny window-seat you've got! I can see your legs under it."

"That's because the window reaches down to the floor, and the bench is fixed across by the transom here."

"What's your name?"

"Theophilus; but they call me Taffy."


"Father says it's an imperfect example of Grimm's Law."

"Oh! Then, I suppose you're quite the gentleman? My name's


"Is that your father downstairs?"

"Bless the boy! What age do you take me for? He's my grandfather. He's asking your father about his soul. He wants to be saved, and says if he's not saved before next Lady-day, he'll know the reason why. What are you doing up there?"


"Reading what?"

"The Bible."

"But, I say, can you really?"

"You listen." Taffy rested the big Bible on the window-frame; it just had room to lie open between the two mullions-"Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, after they were come to Mysia they assayed to go into Bithynia; but the Spirit suffered them not. And they, passing by Mysia, came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. . . ."

"I don't wonder at it. Did you ever have the whooping-cough?"

"Not yet."

"I've had it all the winter. That's why I'm not allowed in to play with you. Listen!"

She coughed twice, and wound up with a terrific whoop.

"Now, if you'd only put on your nightshirt and preach, I'd be the congregation and interrupt you with coughing."

"Very well," said Taffy, "let's do it."

"No; you didn't suggest it. I hate boys who have to be told."

Taffy was huffed, and pretended to return to his book. By-and-by she called up to him:

"Tell me, what's written on this gun of yours?"

"Sevastopol-that's a Russian town. The English took it by storm."

"What! the soldiers over there?"

"No, they're only bandsmen; and they're too young. But I expect the

Colonel was there. He's upstairs in the Mayoralty, dining.

He's quite an old man, but I've heard father say he was as brave as a

lion when the fighting happened."

The girl climbed off the gun.

"I'm going to have a look at him," she said; and turning her back on Taffy, she sauntered off across the square, just as the band struck up the first note of the overture from Semiramide. A waltz of Strauss followed, and then came a cornet solo by the bandmaster, and a medley of old English tunes. To all of these Taffy lis

tened. It had fallen too dark to read, and the boy was always sensitive to music. Often when he played alone broken phrases and scraps of remembered tunes came into his head and repeated themselves over and over. Then he would drop his game and wander about restlessly, trying to fix and complete the melody; and somehow in the process the melody always became a story, or so like a story that he never knew the difference. Sometimes his uneasiness lasted for days together. But when the story came complete at last-and this always sprang on him quite suddenly-he wanted to caper and fling his arms about and sing aloud; and did so, if nobody happened to be looking.

The bandmaster, too, had music, and a reputation for imparting it. Famous regimental bands contained pupils of his; and his old pupils, when they met, usually told each other stories of his atrocious temper. But he kept his temper to-night, for his youngsters were playing well, and the small crowd standing quiet.

The English melodies had scarcely closed with "Come, lasses and lads," when across in Mayoralty a blind was drawn, and a window thrown open, and Taffy saw the warm room within, and the officers and ladies standing with glasses in their hands. The Colonel was giving the one toast of the evening:

"Ladies and gentlemen-The Queen!"

The adjutant leaned out and lifted his hand for signal, and the band crashed out with the National Anthem. Then there was silence for a minute. The window remained open. Taffy still caught glimpses of jewels and uniforms, and white necks bending, and men leaning back in their chairs, with their mess-jackets open, and the candle-light flashing on their shirt-fronts. Below, in the dark street, the bandmaster trimmed the lamp by his music-stand. In the rays of it he drew out a handkerchief and polished the keys of his cornet; then passed the cornet over to his left hand, took up his baton, and nodded.

What music was that, stealing, rippling, across the square? The bandmaster knew nothing of the tale of Tannhauser, but was wishing that he had violins at his beck, instead of stupid flutes and reeds. And Taffy had never heard so much as the name of Tannhauser. Of the meaning of the music he knew nothing-nothing beyond its wonder and terror. But afterward he made a tale of it to himself.

In the tale it seemed that a vine shot up and climbed on the shadows of the warm night; and the shadows climbed with it and made a trellis for it right across the sky. The vine thrust through the trellis faster and faster, dividing, throwing out little curls and tendrils; then leaves and millions of leaves, each leaf unfolding about a drop of dew, which trickled and fell and tinkled like a bird's song.

The beauty and scent of the vine distressed him. He wanted to cry out, for it was hiding the sky. Then he heard the tramp of feet in the distance, and knew that they threatened the vine, and with that he wanted to save it. But the feet came nearer and nearer, tramping terribly.

He could not bear it. He ran to the stairs, stole down them, opened the front door cautiously, and slipped outside. He was half-way across the square before it occurred to him that the band had ceased to play. Then he wondered why he had come, but he did not go back. He found Honoria standing a little apart from the crowd, with her hands clasped behind her, gazing up at the window of the banqueting-room.

She did not see him at once.

"Stand on the steps, here," he whispered, "then you can see him. That's the Colonel-the man at the end of the table, with the big, grey moustache."

He touched her arm. She sprang away and stamped her foot.

"Keep off with you! Who told you?-Oh! you bad boy!"

"Nobody. I thought you hated boys who wait to be told."

"And now you'll get the whooping-cough, and goodness knows what will happen to you, and you needn't think I'll be sorry!"

"Who wants you to be sorry! As for you," Taffy went on sturdily, "I think your grandfather might have more sense than to keep you waiting out here in the cold, and giving your cough to the whole town!"

"Ha! you do, do you?"

It was not the girl who said this. Taffy swung round, and saw an old man staring down on him. There was just light enough to reveal that he had very formidable grey eyes. But Taffy's blood was up.

"Yes, I do," he said, and wondered at himself.

"Ha! Does your father whip you sometimes?"

"No, sir."

"I should if you were my boy. I believe in it. Come, Honoria!"

The child threw a glance at Taffy as she was led away. He could not be sure whether she took his side or her grandfather's.

That night he had a very queer dream.

His grandmother had lost her lace-pillow, and after searching for some time, he found it lying out in the square. But the pins and bobbins were darting to and fro on their own account, at an incredible rate, and the lace as they made it turned into a singing beanstalk, and rose and threw out branches all over the sky. Very soon he found himself climbing among those branches, up and up until he came to a Palace, which was really the Assize Hall, with a flight of steps before it and a cannon on either side of the steps. Within sat a giant, asleep, with his head on the table and his face hidden; but his neck bulged at the back just like the bandmaster's during a cornet solo. A harp stood on the table. Taffy caught this up, and was stealing downstairs with it, but at the third stair the harp-which had Honoria's head and face-began to cough, and wound up with a whoop! This woke the giant-he turned out to be Honoria's grandfather-who came roaring after him. Glancing down below as he ran, Taffy saw his mother and the bandmaster far below with axes, hacking at the foot of the beanstalk. He tried to call out and prevent them, but they kept smiting. And the worst of it was, that down below, too, his father was climbing into a pulpit, quite as if nothing was happening. The pulpit grew and became a tower, and his father kept calling, "Be a tower! Be a tower, like me!"

But Taffy couldn't for the life of him see how to manage it. The beanstalk began to totter; he felt himself falling, and leapt for the tower. . . . And awoke in his bed shuddering, and, for the first time in his life, afraid of the dark. He would have called for his mother, but just then down by the turret clock in Fore Street the buglers began to sound the "Last Post," and he hugged himself and felt that the world he knew was still about him, companionable and kind.

Twice the buglers repeated their call, in more distant streets, each time more faintly; and the last flying notes carried him into sleep again.

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