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The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14214

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

At breakfast next morning he saw by his parents' faces that something unusual had happened. Nothing was said to him about it, whatever it might be. But once or twice after this, coming into the parlour suddenly, he found his father and mother talking low and earnestly together; and now and then they would go up to his grandmother's room and talk.

In some way he divined that there was a question of leaving home. But the summer passed and these private talks became fewer. Toward August, however, they began again; and by-and-by his mother told him. They were going to a parish on the North Coast, right away across the Duchy, where his father had been presented to a living. The place had an odd name-Nannizabuloe.

"And it is lonely," said Humility, "the most of it sea-sand, so far as I can hear."

It was by the sea, then. How would they get there?

"Oh, Joby's van will take us most of the way."

Of all the vans which came and went in the Fore Street, none could compare for romance with Joby's. People called it the Wreck Ashore; but its real name, "Vital Spark, J. Job, Proprietor," was painted on its orange-coloured sides in letters of vivid blue, a blue not often seen except on ship's boats. It disappeared every Tuesday and Saturday over the hill and into a mysterious country, from which it emerged on Mondays and Fridays with a fine flavour of the sea renewed upon it and upon Joby. No other driver wore a blue guernsey, or rings in his ears, as Joby did. No other van had the same mode of progressing down the street in a series of short tacks, or brought such a crust of brine on its panes, or such a mixture of mud and fine sand on its wheels, or mingled scraps of dry sea-weed with the straw on its floor.

"Will there be ships?" Taffy asked.

"I dare say we shall see a few, out in the distance. It's a poor, outlandish place. It hasn't even a proper church."

"If there's no church, father can get into a boat and preach; just like the Sea of Galilee, you know."

"Your father is too good a man to mimic the Scriptures in any such way. There is a church, I believe, though it's a tumble-down one. Nobody has preached in it for years. But Squire Moyle may do something now. He's a rich man."

"Is that the old gentleman who came to ask father about his soul?"

"Yes; he says no preaching ever did him so much good as your father's. That's why he came and offered the living."

"But he can't go to heaven if he's rich."

"I don't know, Taffy, wherever you pick up such wicked thoughts."

"Why, it's in the Bible!"

Humility would not argue about it; but she told her husband that night what the child had said. "My dear," he answered, "the boy must think of these things."

"But he ought not to be talking disrespectfully," contended she.

One Tuesday, towards the end of September, Taffy saw his father off by Joby's van; and the Friday after, walked down with his mother to meet him on his return. Almost at once the household began to pack. The packing went on for a week, in the midst of which his father departed again, a waggon-load of books and furniture having been sent forward on the road that same morning. Then followed a day or two during which Taffy and his mother took their meals at the window-seat, sitting on corded boxes; and an evening when he went out to the cannon in the square, and around the little back garden, saying good-bye to the fixtures and the few odds and ends which were to be left behind-the tool-shed (Crusoe's hut, Cave of Adullam, and Treasury of the Forty Thieves), the stunted sycamore-tree which he had climbed at different times as Zacchaeus, Ali Baba, and Man Friday with the bear behind him; the clothes' prop, which, on the strength of its forked tail, had so often played Dragon to his St. George. When he returned to the empty house, he found his mother in the passage. She had been for a walk alone. The candle was lit, and he saw she had been crying. This told him where she had been; for, although he remembered nothing about it, he knew he had once possessed a small sister, who lived with him less than two months. He had, as a rule, very definite notions of death and the grave; but he never thought of her as dead and buried, partly because his mother would never allow him to go with her to the cemetery, and partly because of a picture in a certain book of his, called Child's Play. It represented a little girl wading across a pool among water-lilies. She wore a white nightdress, kilted above her knees, and a dark cloak, which dragged behind in the water. She let it trail, while she held up a hand to cover one of her eyes. Above her were trees and an owl, and a star shining under the topmost branch; and on the opposite page this verse:

"I have a little sister,

They call her Peep-peep,

She wades through the waters,

Deep, deep, deep;

She climbs up the mountains,

High, high, high;

This poor little creature

She has but one eye."

For years Taffy believed that this was his little sister, one-eyed, and always wandering; and that his mother went out in the dusk to persuade her to return; but she never would.

When he woke next morning his mother was in the room; and while he washed and dressed she folded his bed-clothes and carried them down to a waggon which stood by the door, with horses already harnessed. It drove away soon after. He found breakfast laid on the window-seat. A neighbour had lent the crockery, and Taffy was greatly taken with the pattern on the cups and saucers. He wanted to run round again and repeat his good-byes to the house, but there was no time. By-and-by the door opened, and two men, neighbours of theirs, entered with an invalid's litter; and, Humility directing, brought down old Mrs. Venning. She wore the corner of a Paisley shawl over her white cap, and carried a nosegay of flowers in place of her lace-pillow; but otherwise looked much as usual.

"Quite the traveller, you see!" she cried gaily to Taffy.

Then the woman who had lent the breakfast-ware came running to say that Joby was getting impatient. Humility handed the door-key to her, and so the little procession passed out and down across Mount Folly.

Joby had drawn his van up close to the granite steps. They were the only passengers, it seemed. The invalid was hoisted in and laid with her couch across the seats, so that her shoulders rested against one side of the van and her feet against the other. Humility climbed in after her; but Taffy, to his joy, was given a seat outside the box.

"C'k!"-they were off.

As they crawled up the street a few townspeople paused on the pavement and waved farewells. At the top of the town they overtook three sailor-boys, with bundles, who climbed up and perched themselves a-top of the van, on the luggage.

On they went again. There were two horses-a roan and a grey. Taffy had never before looked down on the back of a horse, and Joby's horses astonished him; they were so broad behind, and so narrow at the shoulders. He wanted to ask if the shape were at all common, but felt shy. He stole a gla

nce at the silver ring in Joby's left ear, and blushed when Joby turned and caught him.

"Here, catch hold!" said Joby handing him the whip. "Only you mustn't use it too fierce."

"Thank you."

"I suppose you'll be a scholar, like your father? Can ee spell?"




"That's more than I can. I counts upon my fingers. When they be used up, I begins upon my buttons. I ha'n't got no buttons-visible that is-'pon my week-a-day clothes; so I keeps the long sums for Sundays, and adds 'em up and down my weskit during sermon. Don't tell any person."

"I won't."

"That's right. I don't want it known. Ever see a gipsy?"

"Oh, yes-often."

"Next time you see one you'll know why he wears so many buttons.

You've a lot to learn."

The van zigzagged down one hill and up another, and halted at a turnpike. An old woman in a pink sun-bonnet bustled out and handed Joby a pink ticket. A little way beyond they passed the angle of a mining district, with four or five engine-houses high up like castles on the hillside, and rows of stamps clattering and working up and down like ogres' teeth. Next they came to a church town, with a green and a heap of linen spread to dry (for it was Tuesday), and a flock of geese that ran and hissed after the van, until Joby took the whip and, leaning out, looped the gander by the neck and pulled him along in the dust. The sailor-boys shouted with laughter and struck up a song about a fox and a goose, which lasted all the way up a long hill and brought them to a second turnpike, on the edge of the moors. Here lived an old woman in a blue sun-bonnet; and she handed Joby a yellow-ticket.

"But why does she wear a blue bonnet and give yellow tickets?" Taffy asked, as they drove on.

Joby considered for a minute. "Ah, you're one to take notice, I see.

That's right, keep your eyes skinned when you travel."

Taffy had to think this out. The country was changing now. They had left stubble fields and hedges behind, and before them the granite road stretched like a white ribbon, with moors on either hand, dotted with peat-ricks and reedy pools and cropping ponies, and rimmed in the distance with clay-works glistening in the sunny weather.

"What sort of place is Nannizabuloe?"

"I don't go on there. I drop you at Indian Queens."

"But what sort of place is it?"

"Well, I'll tell you what folks say of it:"

'All sea and san's,

Out of the world and into St. Ann's.'

"That's what they say, and if I'm wrong you may call me a liar."

"And Squire Moyle?" Taffy persevered. "What kind of man is he?"

Joby turned and eyed him severely. "Look here, sonny. I got my living to get."

This silenced Taffy for a long while, but he picked up his courage again by degrees. There was a small window at his back, and he twisted himself round, and nodded to his mother and grandmother inside the van. He could not hear what they answered, for the sailor-boys were singing at the top of their voices:

"I will sing you One, O!

What is your One, O?

Number One sits all alone, and ever more shall be-e so."

"They're home 'pon leave," said Joby. The song went on and reached

Number Seven:

"I will sing you Seven, O!

What is your Seven, O?

Seven be seven stars in the ship a-sailing round in Heaven, O!"

One of the boys leaned from the roof and twitched Taffy by the hair. "Hullo, nipper! Did you ever see a ship of stars?" He grinned and pulled open his sailor's jumper and singlet; and there, on his naked breast, Taffy saw a ship tattooed, with three masts, and a half-circle of stars above it, and below it the initials W. P.

"D'ee think my mother'll know me again?" asked the boy, and the other two began to laugh.

"Yes, I think so," said Taffy gravely; which made them laugh more than ever.

"But why is he painted like that?" he asked Joby, as they took up their song again.

"Ah, you'll larn over to St. Ann's, being one to notice things." The nearer he came to it, the more mysterious this new home of Taffy's seemed to grow. By-and-by Humility let down the window and handed out a pasty. Joby searched under his seat and found a pasty, twice the size of Taffy's, in a nose-bag. They ate as they went, holding up their pasties from time to time and comparing progress. Late in the afternoon they came to hedges again, and at length to an inn; and in front of it Taffy spied his father waiting with a farm-cart. While Joby baited his horses, the sailor-boys helped to lift out the invalid and trans-ship the luggage; after which they climbed on the roof again, and were jogged away northward in the dusk, waving their caps and singing.

The most remarkable thing about the inn was its signboard. This bore on either side the picture of an Indian queen and two blackamoor children, all with striped parasols, walking together across a desert. The queen on one side wore a scarlet turban and a blue robe; but the queen on the other side wore a blue turban and a scarlet robe. Taffy dodged from side to side, comparing them, and had not made up his mind which he liked best when Humility called him indoors to tea.

They had ham and eggs with their tea, which they took in a great hurry; and then his grandmother was lifted into the cart and laid on a bed of clean straw beside the boxes, and he and his mother clambered up in front. So they started again, his father walking at the horse's head. They took the road toward the sunset. As the dusk fell closer around, Mr. Raymond lit a horn lantern and carried it before them. The rays of it danced and wheeled upon the hedges and gorse bushes. Taffy began to feel sleepy, though it was long before his usual bedtime. The air seemed to weigh his eyelids down. Or was it a sound lulling him? He looked up suddenly. His mother's arm was about him. Stars flashed above, and a glimmer fell on her gentle face-a dew of light, as it were. Her dark eyes appeared darker than usual as she leaned and drew her shawl over his shoulder.

Ahead, the rays of the lantern kept up their dance, but they flared now and again upon stone hedges built in zigzag layers, and upon unknown feathery bushes, intensely green and glistening like metal.

The cart jolted and the lantern swung to a soundless tune that filled the night. When Taffy listened it ceased; when he ceased listening, it began again.

The lantern stopped its dance and stood still over a ford of black water. The cart splashed into it and became a ship, heaving and lurching over a soft, irregular floor that returned no sound. But suddenly the ship became a cart again, and stood still before a house with a narrow garden-path and a light streaming along it from an open door.

His father lifted him down; his mother took his hand. They seemed to wade together up that stream of light. Then came a staircase and room with a bed in it, which, oddly enough, turned out to be his own. He stared at the pink roses on the curtains. Yes; certainly it was his own bed. And satisfied of this, he nestled down in the pillows and slept, to the long cadence of the sea.

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