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   Chapter 6 A COCK-FIGHT.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 10847

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


A footpath led Taffy past the church, and out at length upon a high road, in face of two tall granite pillars with an iron gate between. The gate was surmounted with a big iron lantern, and the lantern with a crest-two snakes' heads intertwined. The gate was shut, but the fence had been broken down on either side, and the gap, through which Taffy passed, was scored with wheel-ruts. He followed these down an ill-kept road bordered with furze-whins, tamarisks, and clumps of bannel broom. By-and-by he came to a ragged plantation of stone pines, backed by a hedge of rhododendrons, behind which the hounds were baying in their kennels. It put him in mind of the "Pilgrim's Progress." He heard the stable clock strike three, and caught a glimpse, over the shrubberies, of its cupola and gilt weather-cock. And then a turn of the road brought him under the gloomy northern face of the house, with its broad carriage sweep and sunless portico. Half the windows on this side had been blocked up and painted black, with white streaks down and across to represent framework.

He pulled at an iron bell-chain which dangled by the great door. The bell clanged far within and a dozen dogs took up the note, yelping in full peal. He heard footsteps coming; the door was opened, and the dogs poured out upon him-spaniels, terriers, lurchers, greyhounds, and a big Gordon setter-barking at him, leaping against him, sniffing his calves. Taffy kept them at bay as best he could and waved his letter at a wall-eyed man in a dirty yellow waistcoat, who looked down from the doorstep but did not offer to call them off.

"Any answer?" asked the wall-eyed man.

Taffy could not say. The man took the letter and went to inquire, leaving him alone with the dogs.

It seemed an age before he reappeared, having in the interval slipped a dirty livery coat over his yellow waistcoat. "The Squire says you're to come in." Taffy and the dogs poured together into a high, stone-flagged hall; then through a larger hall and a long dark corridor. The footman's coat, for want of a loop, had been hitched on a peg by its collar, and stuck out behind his neck in the most ludicrous manner; but he shuffled ahead so fast that Taffy, tripping and stumbling among the dogs, had barely time to observe this before a door was flung open and he stood blinking in a large room full of sunlight.

"Hallo! Here's the parson's bantam!"

The room had four high, bare windows through which the afternoon sunshine streamed on the carpet. The carpet had a pattern of pink peonies on a delicate buff ground, and was shamefully dirty. And the vast apartment, with its white paint and gilding and Italian sketches in water-colour and statuettes under glass, might have been a lady's drawing-room. But paint and gilding were tarnished; the chintz chair-covers soiled and torn; the pictures hung askew; and a smell of dog filled the air.

Squire Moyle sat huddled in a deep chair beside the fire-place, facing the middle of the room, where a handsome, high-complexioned gentleman, somewhat past middle age, lounged on a settee and dangled a gold-mounted riding crop. A handsome boy knelt at the back of the settee and leaned over the handsome gentleman's shoulder. On the floor, between the two men, lay a canvas bag; and something moved inside it. At the end of the room, by the farthest window, Honoria knelt over a big portfolio. She wore the grey frock and pink sash which Taffy had seen in church that morning, and she tossed her dark hair back from her eyes as she looked up.

The Squire crumpled up the letter in his hand.

"Put the bag away," he said to the handsome gentleman. "'Tis Sunday, I tell 'ee, and Parson will be here in an hour. This is young six-foot I was telling about." He turned to Taffy-

"Boy, go and shake hands with Sir Harry Vyell."

Taffy did as he was bidden. "This is my son George," said Sir Harry; and Taffy shook hands with him, too, and liked his face.

"Put the bag away, Harry," said the Squire.

"Just to comfort 'ee, now!"

"I tell 'ee I won't look at en."

Sir Harry untied the neck of the bag, and drew out a smaller one; untied this, and out strutted a game-cock.

The old Squire eyed it. "H'm, he don't seem flourishing."

"Don't abuse a bird that's come twelve miles in a bag on purpose to cheer you up. He's a match for anything you can bring."

"Tuts, man, he's dull-no colour nor condition. Get along with 'ee; I wouldn' ask a bird of mine to break the Sabbath for a wastrel like that."

Sir Harry drew out a shagreen-covered case and opened it. Within, on a lining of pale blue velvet, lay two small sharp instruments of steel, very highly polished. He lifted one, felt its point, replaced it, set down the case on the carpet, and fell to toying with the ears of the Gordon setter, which had come sniffing out of curiosity.

"You're a very obstinate man," said Squire Moyle. After a long pause he added, "I suppose you're wanting odds?"

"Evens will do," said Sir Harry.

The old man turned and rang the bell.

"Tell Jim to fetch in the red cock," he shouted to the wall-eyed footman-who must have been waiting in the corridor, so promptly he appeared.

"And Jim won't be long about it either," whispered Honoria. She had come forward quietly, and stood at Taffy's elbow.

Sir Harry shook a finger at her and laid it on his lips. But the old Squire did not hear. He sat g

lum, pulling a whisker and keeping a sour eye on the bird, which was strutting about in rather foolish bewilderment at the pink peonies on the carpet.

"I'm giving you every chance," he grumbled at length.

"Oh, as for that," Sir Harry replied, equably, "have it out in the yard, if you please, on your own dunghill."

"No. Indoors is bad enough."

Jim appeared just then, and turned out to be Taffy's old enemy, the Whip, bearing the Squire's game-cock in a basket. He took it out; a very handsome bird, with a hackle in which gold, purple and the richest browns shone and were blended.

Sir Harry had picked up his bird and was heeling it with the long steel spurs; a very delicate process, to judge by the time occupied and the pucker on his good-tempered brow.

"Ready?" he asked at length.

Jim, who had been heeling the Squire's bird, nodded and the pair were set down. They ruffled and flew at each other without an instant's hesitation. The visitor, which five minutes before had been staring at the carpet so foolishly, was prompt enough now. For a moment they paused, beak to beak, eye to eye, furious, with necks outstretched and hackles stiff with the rage of battle. They began to rise and fall like two feathers tossing in the air, very quietly. But for the soft whir of wings there was no sound in the room. Taffy could scarcely believe they were fighting in earnest. For a moment they seemed to touch-to touch and no more, and for a moment only-but in that moment the stroke was given. The home champion fluttered down, stood on his legs for a moment, as if nothing had happened, then toppled over and lay twitching, as his conqueror strutted over him and lifted his throat to crow.

Squire Moyle rose, clutching the corner of his chair. His mouth opened and shut, but no words came. Sir Harry caught up his bird, whipped off his spurs, and thrust him back into the bag. The old man dropped back, letting his chin sink on his high stock-collar.

"It serves me right. Who shall deliver me from the wrath to come?"

"Oh! as for that-" Sir Harry finished tying the neck of the bag, and lazily fell to fingering the setter's ear.

The old man was muttering to himself. Taffy looked at the dead bird, then at Honoria. She was gazing at it too, with untroubled eyes.

"But I will be saved! I tell you, Harry, I will! Take those birds away. Honoria, hand me my Bible. It's all here"-he tapped the heavy book-"miracles, redemption, justification by faith-I will have faith. I will believe, every damned word of it!"

Sir Harry broke in with a peal of laughter. Taffy had never heard a laugh so musical.

The old man was adjusting his spectacles; but he took them off and laid them down, his hands shaking with rage.

"You came here to taunt me"-his voice shook as his hand-"me, an old man, with no son to my house. You think, because I'm seeking higher things, there's no fight left in us or in the parish. I tell you what; make that boy of yours strip and stand up, and I'll back the Parson's youngster for doubles or quits. Off with your coat, my son, and stand up to him!"

Taffy turned round in a daze. He did not understand. His eyes met Honoria's, and they were fastened on him curiously. He was white in the face; the sight of the murdered game-cock had sickened him.

"He doesn't look flourishing." Sir Harry mimicked the Squire's recent manner.

Taffy turned with the look of a hunted animal. He did not want to fight. He hated this house and its inhabitants. The other boy was stripping off his jacket with a good-humoured smile.

"I-I don't want-" Taffy began fumbling with a button. "Please-"

"Off with your coat, boy! You were game enough t'other day. If you lick en, I'll put a new roof on your father's church."

Taffy was still fumbling with his jacket-button when a bell sounded, clanging through the house.

"The parson!"

Squire Moyle clutched at his Bible like a child who has been caught playing in school. Sir Harry stepped to the window and flung up the sash. "Out you tumble, youngsters-you too, Miss, if you like. Pick up your coat, George-cut and run to the stables; I'll be round in a minute-quick, out you go!"

The children scrambled over the sill and dropped on to the stone terrace. As his father closed the sash behind him, George Vyell laughed out. Then Taffy began to laugh; he laughed all the way as they ran. When they reached the stables he was swaying with laughter. There was a hepping-stock by the stable-wall, and he flung himself on to the slate steps. He could not stop laughing. The two others stared at him. They thought he had gone mad.

"Here comes Dad!" cried George Vyell.

This sobered Taffy. He sat up and brushed his eyes. Sir Harry whistled for Jim, and told him to saddle the horses.

George and Honoria stood by the stable-door and watched the saddling. The horses were led out; Sir Harry's, a tall grey, George's, a roan cob.

"Look here!" Sir Harry said to Jim; "you take my bird, and comfort your master with him. I don't want him any more."

The two rode out of the yard and away up the avenue. Honoria planted herself in front of Taffy.

"Would you have fought just now?" she asked.

"I-I don't know. That's my father calling."

"But, would you have fought?"

"I must go to him." He would not look her in the face.

"Tell me."

"Don't bother! I don't know."

He ran out of the yard.

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