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   Chapter 4 THE RUNNING SANDS.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 9218

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


He awoke to find the sun shining in at his window. At first he wondered what had happened. The window seemed to be in the ceiling, and the ceiling sloped down to the walls, and all the furniture had gone astray into wrong positions. Then he remembered, jumped out of bed, and drew the blind.

He saw a blue line of sea, so clearly drawn that the horizon might have been a string stretched from the corner eaves to the snow-white light-house standing on the farthest spit of land; blue sea and yellow sand curving round it, with a white edge of breakers; inshore, the sand rising to a cliff ridged with grassy hummocks; farther inshore, the hummocks united and rolling away up to inland downs, but broken here and there on their way with scars of sand; over all, white gulls wheeling. He could hear the nearest ones mewing as they sailed over the house.

Taffy had seen the sea once before, at Dawlish, on the journey to Tewkesbury; and again on the way home. But here it was bluer altogether, and the sands were yellower. Only he felt disappointed that no ship was in sight, nor any dwelling nearer than the light-house and the two or three white cottages behind it. He dressed in a hurry and said his prayers, repeating at the close, as he had been taught to do, the first and last verses of the Morning Hymn:

"Awake, my soul, and with the sun

Thy daily stage of duty run;

Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise

To pay thy morning sacrifice.

"Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;

Praise Him, all creatures here below;

Praise Him above, ye heavenly host,

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."

He ran downstairs. In this queer house the stairs led right down into the kitchen. The front door, too, opened into the kitchen, which was really a slate-paved hall, with a long table set between the doorway and the big open hearth. The floor was always strewn with sand; there was no trouble about this, for the wind blew plenty under the door.

Taffy found the table laid, and his mother busily slicing bread for his bread and milk. He begged for a hot cake from the hearth, and ran out of doors to eat it. Humility lifted the latch for him, for the cake was so hot that he had to pass it from hand to hand.

Outside, the wind came upon him with a clap on the shoulder, quite as if it had been a comrade waiting.

Taffy ran down the path and out upon the sandy hummocks, setting his face to the wind and the roar of the sea, keeping his head low, and still shifting the cake from hand to hand. By-and-by he fumbled and dropped it; stooped to pick it up, but saw something which made him kneel and peer into the ground.

The whole of the sand was moving; not by fits and starts, but constantly; the tiny particles running over each other and drifting in and out of the rushes, like little creatures in a dream. While he looked, they piled an embankment against the edge of his cake. He picked it up, ran forward a few yards, and peered again. Yes, here too; here and yonder, and over every inch of that long shore.

He ate his cake and climbed to the beach, and ran along it, watching the sandhoppers that skipped from under his boots at every step, and were lost on the instant. The beach here was moist and firm. He pulled off his boots and stockings, and ran on, conning his footprints and the driblets of sand split ahead from his bare toes. By-and-by he came to the edge of the surf. The strand here was glassy wet, and each curving wave sent a shadow flying over it, and came after the shadow, thundering and hissing, and chased it up the shore, and fell back, leaving for a second or two an edge of delicate froth which reminded the boy of his mother's lace-work.

He began a sort of game with the waves, choosing one station after another, and challenging them to catch him there. If the edge of froth failed to reach his toes, he won. But once or twice the water caught him fairly, and ran rippling over his instep and about his ankles.

He was deep in this game when he heard a horn blown somewhere high on the towans behind him.

He turned. No one was in sight. The house lay behind the sand-banks, the first ridge hiding even its chimney-smoke. He gazed along the beach, where the perpetual haze of spray seemed to have removed the light-house to a vast distance. A sense of desolation came over him with a rush, and with something between a gasp and a sob he turned his back to the sea and ran, his boots dangling from his shoulders by their knotted laces.

He pounded up the first slope and looked for the cottage. No sign of it! An insane fancy sei

zed him. These silent moving sands were after him.

He was panting along in real distress when he heard the baying of dogs, and at the same instant from the top of a hummock caught sight of a figure outlined against the sky, and barely a quarter of a mile away; the figure of a girl on horseback-a small girl on a very tall horse.

Just as Taffy recognised her, she turned her horse, walked him down into the hollow beyond, and disappeared. Taffy ran towards the spot, gained the ridge where she had been standing, and looked down.

In a hollow about twenty feet deep and perhaps a hundred wide were gathered a dozen riders, with five or six couples of hounds and two or three dirty terriers. Two of the men had dismounted. One of these, stripped to his shirt and breeches, was leaning on a long-handled spade and laughing. The other-a fellow in a shabby scarlet coat-held up what Taffy guessed to be a fox, though it seemed a very small one. It was bleeding. The hounds yapped and leapt at it, and fell back a-top of each other snarling, while the Whip grinned and kept them at bay. A knife lay between his wide-planted feet, and a visgy[1] close behind him on a heap of disturbed sand.

The boy came on them from the eastward, and his shadow fell across the hollow.

"Hullo!" said one of the riders, looking up. It was Squire Moyle himself. "Here's the new Passon's boy!"

All the riders looked up. The Whip looked up too, and turned to the old Squire with a wider grin than before.

"Shall I christen en, maister?"

The Squire nodded. Before Taffy knew what it meant, the man was climbing toward him with a grin, clutching the rush bents with one hand, and holding out the blood-dabbled mask with the other. The child turned to run, but a hand clutched his ankle. He saw the man's open mouth and yellow teeth; and, choking with disgust and terror, slung his boots at them with all his small force. At the same instant he was jerked off his feet, the edge of the bank crumbled and broke, and the two went rolling down the sandy slope in a heap. He heard shouts of laughter, caught a glimpse of blue sky, felt a grip of fingers on his throat, and smelt the verminous odour of the dead cub, as the Whip thrust the bloody mess against his face and neck. Then the grip relaxed, and-it seemed to him, amid dead silence-Taffy sprang to his feet, spitting sand and fury.

"You-you devils!" He caught up the visgy and stood, daring all to come on. "You devils!" He tottered forward with the visgy lifted-it was all he could manage-at Squire Moyle. The old man let out an oath, and the curve of his whip-thong took the boy across the eyes and blinded him for a moment, but did not stop him. The grey horse swerved, and half-wheeled, exposing his flank. In another moment there would have been mischief; but the Whip, as he stood wiping his mouth, saw the danger and ran in. He struck the visgy out of the child's grasp, set his foot on it, and with an open-handed cuff sent him floundering into a sand-heap.

"Nice boy, that!" said somebody, and the whole company laughed as they walked their horses slowly out of the hollow.

They passed before Taffy in a blur of tears; and the last rider to go was the small girl Honoria on her tall sorrel. She moved up the broad shelving path, but reined up just within sight, turned her horse, and came slowly back to him.

"If I were you, I'd go home." She pointed in its direction.

Taffy brushed the back of his hand across his eyes. "Go away.

I hate you-I hate you all!"

She eyed him while she smoothed the sorrel's mane with her riding-switch.

"They did it to me three years ago, when I was six. Grandfather called it 'entering' me."

Taffy kept his eyes sullenly on the ground. Finding that he would not answer, she turned her horse again and rode slowly after the others. Taffy heard the soft footfalls die away, and when he looked up she had vanished.

He picked up his boots and started in the direction to which she had pointed. Every now and then a sob shook him. By-and-by the chimneys of the house hove in sight among the ridges, and he ran toward it. But within a gunshot of the white garden-wall his breast swelled suddenly and he flung himself on the ground and let the big tears run. They made little pits in the moving sand; and more sand drifted up and covered them.

"Taffy! Taffy! Whatever has become of the child?"

His mother was standing by the gate in her print frock. He scrambled up and ran toward her. She cried out at the sight of him, but he hid his blood-smeared face against her skirts.

[1] Mattock.

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