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   Chapter 14 VOICES FROM THE SEA.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14881

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Before winter and the long nights came around again, Taffy had become quite a clever carpenter. From the first his quickness fairly astonished the Bryanite, who at the best was but a journeyman and soon owned himself beaten.

"I doubt," said he, "if you'll ever make so good a man as your father; but you can't help making a better workman." He added, with his eyes on the boy's face, "There's one thing in which you might copy en. He hasn't much of a gift: but he lays it 'pon the altar."

By this time Taffy had resumed his lessons. Every day he carried a book or two in his satchel with his dinner, and read or translated aloud while his father worked. Two hours were allowed for this in the morning, and again two in the afternoon. Sometimes a day would be set apart during which they talked nothing but Latin. Difficulties in the text of their authors they postponed until the evening, and worked them out at home, after supper, with the help of grammar and dictionary.

The boy was not unhappy, on the whole; though for weeks together he longed for sight of George Vyell, who seemed to have vanished into space, or into that limbo where his childhood lay like a toy in a lumber room. Taffy seldom turned the key of that room. The stories he imagined now were not about fairies or heroes, but about himself. He wanted to be a great man and astonish the world. Just how the world was to be astonished he did not clearly see; but the triumph, in whatever shape it came, was to involve a new gown for his mother, and for his father a whole library of books.

Mr. Raymond never went back to his books now, except to help Taffy. The Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews was laid aside. "Some day!" he told Humility. The Sunday congregation had dwindled to a very few, mostly farm people; Squire Moyle having threatened to expel any tenant of his who dared to set foot within the church.

In the autumn two things happened which set Taffy wondering.

During the first three years at Nannizabuloe, old Mrs. Venning had regularly been carried downstairs to dine with the family. The sea-air (she said) had put new life into her. But now she seldom moved from her room, and Taffy seldom saw her except at night, when- after the old childish custom-he knocked at her door to wish her pleasant dreams and pull up the weights of the tall clock which stood by her bed's head.

One night he asked carelessly, "What do you want with the clock? Lying here you don't need to know the time; and its ticking must keep you awake."

"So it does, child; but bless you, I like it."

"Like being kept awake?"

"Dear, yes! I have enough of rest and quiet up here. You mind the litany I used to say over to you?-Parson Kempthorne taught it to us girls when I was in service with him; 'twas made up, he said, by another old Devonshire parson, years and years ago-"

"'When I lie within my bed

Sick in heart and sick in head,

And with doubts discomforted,

Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When the house do sigh and weep-'"

"That's it. You wouldn't think how quiet it is up here all day. But at night, when you're in bed and sleeping, all the house begins to talk; little creakings of furniture, you know, and the wind in the chimney and sometimes the rain in the gutter, running-it's all talk to me. Mostly it's quite sociable, too; but sometimes, in rainy weather, the tune changes and then it's like some poor soul in bed and sobbing to itself. That's when the verse comes in:"

"'When the house do sigh and weep

And the world is drowned in sleep,

Yet my eyes the watch do keep,

Sweet Spirit, comfort me!'"

"And then the clock's ticking is a wonderful comfort. Tick-tack, tick-tack! and I think of you stretched asleep and happy and growing up to be a man, and the minutes running and trickling away to my deliverance-"

"Granny!"

"My dear, I'm as well off as most; but that isn't saying I shan't be glad to go and take the pain in my joints to a better land. Before we came here, in militia-time, I used to lie and listen for the buglers, but now I've only the clock. No more bugles for me, I reckon, till I hear them blown across Jordan."

Taffy remembered how he too had lain and listened to the bugles; and with that he saw his childhood, as it were a small round globe set within a far larger one and wrapped around with other folks' thoughts. He kissed his grandmother and went away wondering; and as he lay down that night it still seemed wonderful to him that she should have heard those bugles, and more wonderful, that night after night for years she should have been thinking of him while he slept, and he never have guessed it.

One morning, some three weeks later, he and his father were putting on their oil-skins before starting to work-for it had been blowing hard through the night and the gale was breaking up in floods of rain-when they heard a voice hallooing in the distance. Humility heard it too and turned swiftly to Taffy. "Run upstairs, dear. I expect it's someone sent from Tresedder farm; and if so, he'll want to see your father alone."

Mr. Raymond frowned. "No," he said; "the time is past for that."

A fist hammered on the door. Mr. Raymond threw it open.

"Brigantine-on the sands! Half a mile this side of the light-house!" Taffy saw across his father's shoulder a gleam of yellow oilskins and a flapping sou'-wester hat. The panting voice belonged to Sam Udy-son of old Bill Udy-a labourer at Tresedder.

"I'll go at once," said Mr. Raymond. "Run you for the coast-guard!"

The oilskins went by the window; the side gate clashed to.

"Is it a wreck?" cried Taffy. "May I go with you?"

"Yes, there may be a message to run with."

From the edge of the towans, where the ground dipped steeply to the long beach, they saw the wreck, about a mile up the coast, and as well as they could judge a hundred or a hundred and twenty yards out. She lay almost on her beam ends, with the waves sweeping high across her starboard quarter and never less than six ranks of ugly breakers between her and dry land. A score of watchers-in the distance they looked like emmets-were gathered by the edge of the surf. But the coast-guard had not arrived yet.

"The tide is ebbing, and the rocket may reach. Can you see anyone aboard?"

Taffy spied through his hands, but could see no one. His father set off running, and he followed, half-blinded by the rain, now floundering in loose sand, now tripping in a rabbit hole. They had covered three-fourths of the distance when Mr. Raymond pulled up and waved his hat as the coast-guard carriage swept into view over a ridge to the right and came plunging across the main valley of the towans. It passed them close-the horses fetlock-deep in sand, with heads down and heaving, smoking shoulders; the coast-guardsmen with keen strong faces like heroes'-and the boy longed to copy his father and send a cheer after them as they went galloping by. But something rose in his throat.

He ran after the carriage, and reached the shore just as the first rocket shot singing out towards the wreck. By this time at least a hundred miners had gathered, and between their legs he caught a glimpse of two figures stretched at length on the wet sand. He had never looked on a dead body before. The faces of these were hidden by the crowd; and he hung about the fringe of it dreading, and yet courting, a sight of them.

The first r

ocket was swept down to leeward of the wreck. The chief officer judged his second beautifully, and the line fell clean across the vessel and all but amidships. A figure started up from the lee of the deckhouse, and springing into the main shrouds, grasped it and made it fast. The beach being too low for them to work the cradle clear above the breakers, the coast-guardsmen carried the shore end of the line up the shelving cliff and fixed it. Within ten minutes the cradle was run out, and within twenty the first man came swinging shoreward.

Four men were brought ashore alive, the captain last. The rest of the crew of six lay on the sands with Mr. Raymond kneeling beside them. He had covered their faces, and now gave the order to lift them into the carriage. Taffy noticed that he was obeyed without demur or question. And there flashed on his memory a grey morning, not unlike this one, when he had missed his father at breakfast: "He had been called away suddenly," Humility explained, "and there would be no lessons that day," and she kept the boy indoors all the morning and busy with a netting-stitch he had been bothering her to teach him.

"Father," he asked as they followed the cart, "does this often happen?"

"Your mother hasn't thought it well for you to see these sights."

"Then it has happened, often?"

"I have buried seventeen," said Mr. Raymond.

That afternoon he showed Taffy their graves. "I know the names of all but two. The bodies have marks about them-tattooed, you know- and that helps. And I write to their relatives or friends and restore whatever small property may be found on them. I have often wished to put up some gravestone, or a wooden cross at least, with their names."

He went to his chest in the vestry and took out a book-a cheap account book, ruled for figures. Taffy turned over the pages.

Nov. 3rd, 187-. Brig "James and Maria": J. D., fair-haired, height 5 ft. 8 in., marked on chest with initials and cross swords, tattooed, also anchor and coil of rope on right fore-arm: large brown mole on right shoulder-blade. Striped flannel drawers: otherwise naked: no property of any kind.

Ditto. Grown man, age 40 or thereabouts: dark; iron grey beard: lovers' knot tattooed on right forearm, with initials R. L., E. W., in the loops: clad in flannel shirt, guernsey, trousers (blue sea-cloth), socks (heather-mixture), all unmarked. Silver chain in pocket, with Freemason's token: a half-crown, a florin, and fourpence-

And so on. On the opposite page were entered the full names and details afterwards discovered, with notes of the Vicar's correspondence, and position of the grave.

"They ought to have gravestones," said Mr. Raymond. "But as it is, I can only get about thirty shillings for the funeral from the county rate. The balance has come out of my pocket-from two to three pounds for each. From the beginning the Squire refused to help to bury sailors. He took the ground that it wasn't a local claim."

"Hullo!" said Taffy, for as he turned the leaves his eye fell on this entry:-

Jan 30th, 187-. S.S. "Rifleman" (all hands). Cargo, China clay: W. P., age about eighteen, fair skin, reddish hair, short and curled, height 5ft. 10 and 3/4 in. Initials tattooed on chest under a three-masted ship and semicircle of seven stars; clad in flannel singlet and trousers (cloth): singlet marked with same initials in red cotton: pockets empty-

"But he was in the Navy!" cried Taffy, with his finger on the entry.

"Which one? Yes, he was in the Navy. You'll see it on the opposite page. He deserted, poor boy, in Cork Harbour, and shipped on board a tramp steamer as donkey-man. She loaded at Fowey and was wrecked on the voyage back. William Pellow he was called: his mother lives but ten miles up the coast: she never heard of it until six weeks after."

"But we-I, I mean-knew him. He was one of the sailor boys on Joby's van. You remember their helping us with the luggage at Indian Queens'? He showed me his tattoo marks that day."

And again he saw his childhood as it were set about with an enchanted hedge, across which many voices would have called to him, and some from near, but all had hung muted and arrested.

The inquest on the two drowned sailors was held next day at the Fifteen Balls, down in Innis village. Later in the afternoon, the four survivors walked up to the church, headed by the Captain.

"We've been hearing," said the Captain, "of your difficulties, sir: likewise your kindness to other poor seafaring chaps. We'd have liked to make ye a small offering for your church, but sixteen shillings is all we can raise between us. So we come to say that if you can put us on to a job, why we're staying over the funeral, and a day's work or more after that won't hurt us one way or another."

Mr. Raymond led them to the chancel and pointed out a new beam, on which he and Jacky Pascoe had been working a week past, and over which they had been cudgelling their brains how to get it lifted and fixed in place.

"I can send to one of the miners and borrow a couple of ladders."

"Ladders? Lord love ye, sir, and begging your pardon, we don't want ladders. With a sling, Bill, hey?-and a couple of tackles. You leave it to we, sir."

He went off to turn over the gear salved from his vessel, and early next forenoon had the apparatus rigged up and ready. He was obliged to leave it at this point, having been summoned across to Falmouth to report to his agents. His last words, before starting were addressed to his crew. "I reckon you can fix it now, boys. There's only one thing more, and don't you forget it: Hats off; and any man that wants to spit must go outside."

That afternoon Taffy learnt for the first time what could be done with a few ropes and pulleys. The seamen seemed to spin ropes out of themselves like spiders. By three o'clock the beam was hoisted and fixed; and they broke off their work to attend their shipmates' funeral. After the funeral they fell to again, though more silently, and before nightfall the beam shone with a new coat of varnish.

They left early next morning, after a good deal of handshaking, and Taffy looked after them wistfully as they turned to wave their caps and trudged away over the rise towards the cross-roads. Away to the left in the wintry sunshine a speck of scarlet caught his eye against the blue-grey of the towans. He watched it as it came slowly towards him, and his heart leapt-yet not quite as he had expected it to leap.

For it was George Vyell. George had lately been promoted to "pink" and made a gallant figure on his strapping grey hunter. For the first time Taffy felt ashamed of his working-suit, and would have slipped back to the church. But George had seen him, and pulled up.

"Hullo!" said he.

"Hullo!" said Taffy; and, absurdly enough, could find no more to say.

"How are you getting on?"

"Oh, I'm all right." There was another pause. "How's Honoria?"

"Oh, she's all right. I'm riding over there now: they meet at

Tredinnis to-day." He tapped his boot with his hunting crop.

"Don't you have any lessons now?" asked Taffy, after a while.

"Dear me, yes; I've got a tutor. He's no good at it. But what made you ask?"

Really Taffy could not tell. He had asked merely for the sake of saying something. George pulled out a gold watch.

"I must be getting on. Well, good-bye!"

"Good-bye!"

And that was all.

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