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   Chapter 17 THE SQUIRE'S WEIRD.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 16177

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


He took leave of Mendarva and the Jolls just before Christmas.

The smith was unaffectedly sorry to lose him. "But," said he, "the

Dane will be entered for the championship next summer, so I s'pose I

must look forward to that."

Every one in the Joll household gave him a small present on his leaving. Lizzie's was a New Testament, with her name on the flyleaf, and under it, "Converted April 19, 187-." Taffy did not want the gift, but took it rather than hurt her feelings.

Farmer Joll said, "Well, wish 'ee well! Been pretty comfiable, I hope. Now you'm goin', I don't mind telling 'ee I didn't like your coming a bit. But now 'tis wunnerful to me you've been wi' us less than two year'; we've made such friends."

At home Taffy bought a small forge and set it up in the church at the west end of the north aisle. Mr. Raymond, under his direction, had been purchasing the necessary tools for some months past, and now the main expense was the cost of coal, which pinched them a little. But they managed to keep the fire alight, and the work went forward briskly. Save that he still forbade the parish to lend them the least help, the old Squire had ceased to interfere.

Mr. Raymond's hair was greyer, and Taffy might have observed-but did not-how readily towards the close of a day's laborious carpentry he would drop work and turn to Dindorf's Poetae Scenici Graeci, through which they were reading their way. On Sundays the congregation rarely numbered a dozen. It seemed that, as the end of the Vicar's task drew nearer, so the prospect of filling the church receded and became more shadowy. And if his was a queer plight, Jacky Pascoe's was queerer. The Bryanite continued to come by night and help, but at rarer intervals. He was discomforted in mind, as anyone could see, and at length he took Mr. Raymond aside and made confession.

"I must go away; that's what 'tis. My burden is too great for me to bear."

"Why," said Mr. Raymond, who had grown surprisingly tolerant during the last twelve months, "what cause have you, of all men, to feel dejected? You can set the folk here on fire like flax." He sighed.

"That's azactly the reason-I can set 'em afire with a breath, but I can't hold 'em under. I make 'em too strong for me-and I'm afeard. Parson, dear, it's the gospel truth; for two years I've a been strivin' agen myself, wrastlin' upon my knees, and all to hold this parish in." He mopped his face. "'Tis like fightin' with beasts at Ephesus," he said.

"Do you want to hold them in?"

"I do, and I don't. I've got to try, anyway. Sometimes I tell mysel' 'tis putting a hand to the plough and turning back; and then I reckon I'll go on. But when the time comes I can't. I'm afeard, I tell 'ee." He paused. "I've laid it before the Lord, but He don't seem to help. There's two voices inside o' me. 'Tis a terrible responsibility."

"But the people: what are you afraid of their doing?"

"I don't know. You don't know what a runaway hoss will do, but you're afeared all the same." He sank his voice. "There's wantonness, for one thing-six love-children born in the parish this year, and more coming. They do say that Vashti Clemow destroyed her child. And Old Man Johns-him they found dead on the rocks under the Island-he didn't go there by accident. 'Twas a calm day, too."

As often as not Taffy worked late and blew his forge-fire alone in the church, the tap of his hammer making hollow music in the desolate aisles. He was working thus one windy night in February, when the door rattled open and in walked a totally unexpected visitor-Sir Harry Vyell.

"Good evening! I was riding by and saw your light in the windows dancing up and down. I thought I would hitch up the mare and drop in for a chat. But go on with your work."

Taffy wondered what had brought him so far from his home at that time of night, but asked no questions. And Sir Harry placed a hassock on one of the belfry steps, and taking his seat, watched for a while in silence. He wore his long riding-boots and an overcoat with the collar turned up about a neckcloth less nattily folded than usual.

"I wish," he said at length, "that my boy George was clever like you. You were great friends once-you remember Plymouth, hey? But I dare say you've not seen much of each other lately."

Taffy shook his head.

"George is a bit wild. Oxford might have done something for him; made a man of him, I mean. But he wouldn't go. I believe in wild oats to a certain extent. I have told him from the first he must look after himself and decide for himself. That's my theory. It makes a youngster self-reliant. He goes and comes as he likes. If he comes home late from hunting I ask no questions; I don't wait dinner. Don't you agree with me?"

"I don't know," Taffy answered, wondering why he should be consulted.

"Self-reliance is what a man wants."

"Couldn't he have learnt that at school?"

Sir Harry fidgeted with the riding-crop in his hands. "Well, you see, he's an only son-I dare say it was selfish of me. You don't mind my talking about George?"

Taffy laughed. "I like it. But-"

Sir Harry laughed too, in an embarrassed way. "But you don't suppose I rode over from Carwithiel for that? Well, well! The fact is-one gets foolish as one grows old-George went out hunting this morning, and didn't turn up for dinner. I kept to my rule and dined alone. Nine o'clock came; half-past; no George. At ten Hoskins locked up as usual, and off I went to bed. But I couldn't sleep. After a while it struck me that he might be sleeping here over at Tredinnis; that is, if no accident had happened. No sleep for me until I made sure; so I jumped out, dressed, slipped down to the stables, saddled the mare and rode over. I left the mare by Tredinnis great gates and crept down to Moyle's stables like a housebreaker, looked in through the window, and sure enough there was George's grey in the loose box to the right. So George is sleeping there, and I'm easy in my mind. No doubt you think me an old fool?"

But Taffy was not thinking anything of the sort.

"I couldn't wish better than that. You understand?"

"Not quite."

"He lost his mother early. He wants a woman to look after him, and for him to think about. If he and Honoria would only make up a match. . . . And Carwithiel would be quite a different house."

Taffy hesitated, with a hand on the forge-bellows.

"I dare say it's news to you, what I'm telling. But it has been in my mind this long while. Why don't you blow up the fire? I bet Miss Honoria has thought of it too: girls are deep. She has a head on her shoulders. I'll warrant she sends half a dozen of my servants packing within a week. As it is, they rob me to a stair. I know it, and I haven't the pluck to interfere."

"What does the old Squire say?" Taffy managed to ask.

"It has never come to saying anything. But I believe he thinks of it, too, when he happens to think of anything but his soul. He'll be pleased; everyone will be pleased. The properties touch, you see."

"I see."

"To tell you the truth, he's failing fast. This religion of his is a symptom: all of his family have taken to it in the end. If he hadn't the constitution of a horse, he'd have been converted ten years before this. What puzzles me is, he's so quiet. You mark my words "-Sir Harry rose, buttoned his coat and shook his riding-crop prophetically-"he's brewing up for something. There'll be the devil of a flare-up before he has done."

It came with the Midsummer bonfires. At nine o'clock on St. John's Eve, Mr. Raymond read prayers in the church. It was his rule to celebrate thus the vigils of all saints in the English calendar and some few Cornish saints besides; and he regularly announced these services on the preceding Sundays: but no parishioner dreamed of attending them.

To-night, as usual, he and Taffy had prayed alone: and the lad was standing after service at the church door, with his surplice on his arm (for he always wore a surplice and read the lessons on these vigils), when the flame of the firs

t bonfire shot up from the headland over Innis village.

Almost on the moment, a flame answered it from the point where the lighthouse stood; and, within ten minutes, the horizon of the towans was cressetted with these beacon-fires: surely (thought Taffy) with many more than usual. And he remembered that Jacky Pascoe had thrown out a hint of a great revival to be held on Baal-fire Night (as he called it).

The night was sultry and all but windless. For once the tormented sands had rest. The flame of the bonfires shone yellow- orange-yellow-and steady. He could see the dark figures of men and women, passing between him and the nearest, on the high wastrel in front of Tredinnis great gates. Their voices reached him in a confused murmur, broken now and then by a child's scream of delight. And yet a hush seemed to hang over sea and land: an expectant hush. For weeks the sky had not rained. Day after day, a dull indigo blue possessed it, deepening with night into duller purple, as if the whole heavens were gathering into one big thundercloud, which menaced but never broke. And in the hush of those nights a listener could almost fancy he heard, between whiles, the rabbits stirring uneasily in their burrows.

By-and-by the bonfire on the wastrel appeared to be giving out sparks of light which blazed independently; yet without decreasing its own volume of flame. The sparks came dancing, nearer and larger: the voices grew more distinct. The revellers had kindled torches and were advancing in procession to visit other bonfires. The torches, too, were supposed to bless the fields they passed across. Small blessing had they ever brought to the barren towans.

The procession rose and sank as it came over the uneven ridges like a fiery snake; topped the nearest ridge and came pouring down past the churchyard wall. At its head danced Lizzie Pezzack, shrieking like a creature possessed, her hair loose and streaming while she whirled her torch. Taffy knew these torches; bundles of canvas steeped in tar and fastened in the middle to a stout stick or piece of chain. Lizzie's was fastened to a chain; and as he watched her uplifted arm swinging the blazing mass he found time to wonder how she escaped setting her hair on fire. Other torch-bearers tossed their arms and shouted as they passed. The smoke was suffocating, and across the patch of quiet graveyard the heat smote on Taffy's face. But in the crowd he saw two figures clearly-Jacky Pascoe and Squire Moyle; and the Bryanite's face was agitated and white in the infernal glare. He had given an arm to the Squire, who was clearly the centre of the procession and tottered forward with jaws working and cavernous eyes.

"He's saved!" a voice shouted.

Others took up the cry. "Saved!" "The Squire's saved!"

"Saved to-night-saved to glory!"

The Squire paused, still leaning on the Bryanite's arm. While the procession swayed around him, he gazed across the gate as a man who had lost his bearings. No glint of torchlight reached his cavernous eyes; but the sight of Mr. Raymond's surpliced figure standing behind Taff's shoulder in the full glare seemed to rouse him. He lifted a fist and shook it slowly.

"Com'st along, sir!" urged the Bryanite. But the Squire stood irresolute, muttering to himself.

"Com'st along, sir!"

"Lev' me be, I tell 'ee!" He laid both hands on the gate and spoke across it to Mr. Raymond, his head nodding while his voice rose.

"D'ee hear what they say? I'm saved. I'm the Squire of this parish, and I'm goin' to Heaven. I make no account of you and your church. Old Satan's the fellow I'm after, and I'm going to have him out o' this parish to-night or my name's not Squire Moyle."

"That's of it, Squire!" "Hunt 'en!" "Out with 'en!"

He turned on the crowd.

"Hunt 'en? Iss fay I will! Come along, boys-back to Tredinnis! No, no"-this to the Bryanite-"we'll go back. I'll show 'ee sport- we'll hunt th' old Divvle by scent and view to-night. I'm Squire Moyle, ain't I? And I've a pack o' hounds, ha'n't I? Back, boys- back, I tell 'ee!"

Lizzie Pezzack swung her torch. "Back-back to Tredinnis!" The crowd took up the cry, "Back to Tredinnis!" The old man shook off the Bryanite's hand, and as the procession wheeled and reformed itself confusedly, rushed to the head of it, waving his hat-

"Back!-Back to Tredinnis!"

"God help them!" said Mr. Raymond; and taking Taffy by the arm, drew him back into the church.

The shouting died away up the road. For three-quarters of an hour father and son worked in silence. The reddened sky shed its glow gently through the clear glass windows, suffusing the shadows beneath the arched roof. And in the silence the lad wondered what was happening up at Tredinnis.

Jim the Whip took oath afterward that it was no fault of his. He had suspected three of the hounds for a day or two-Chorister, White Boy, and Bellman-and had separated them from the pack. That very evening he had done the same with Rifler, who was chewing at the straw in a queer fashion and seemed quarrelsome. He had said nothing to the Squire, whose temper had been ugly for a week past. He had hoped it was a false alarm-had thought it better to wait, and so on.

The Squire went down to the kennels with a lantern, Jim shivering behind him. They had their horses saddled outside and ready, and the crowd was waiting along the drive and up by the great gates. The Squire saw at a glance that two couples were missing, and in two seconds had their names on his tongue. He was like a madman. He shouted to Jim to open the doors. "Better not, maister!" pleaded Jim. The old man cursed, smote him across the neck with the butt-end of his whip, and unlocked the doors himself. Jim, though half stunned, staggered forward to prevent him, and took another blow, which felled him. He dropped across the threshold of Chorister's kennel; the doors of all opened outwards, and the weight of his body kept this one shut. But he saw the other three hounds run out, saw the Squire turn with a ghastly face, drop the lantern, and run for it as White Boy snapped at his boot. Jim heard the crash of the lantern and the snap of teeth, and with that he fainted off in the darkness. He had cut his forehead against the bars of the big kennel, and when he came to himself one of the hounds was licking his face through the grating.

Men told for years after how the old Squire came galloping up the drive that night, hoof to belly, his chin almost on mare Nonsuch's neck, his face like a man's who hears hell cracking behind him, and of the three dusky hounds which followed (the tale said) with clapping jaws and eyes like coach-lamps.

Down in the quiet church Taffy heard the outcry, and, laying down his plane, looked up and saw that his father had heard it too. Mr. Raymond's mild eyes, shining through his spectacles, asked as plainly as words: "What was that?"

"Listen!"

For a minute-two minutes-they heard nothing more. Then out of the silence broke a rapid, muffled beat of hoofs, and Mr. Raymond clutched Taffy's arm as a yell-a cry not human, or if human, insane-ripped the night as you might rip linen, and fetched them to their feet. Taffy gained the porch first; and just at that moment a black shadow heaved itself on the churchyard wall and came hurling over with a thud-a clatter of dropping stones-then a groan.

Before they could grasp what was happening the old Squire had extricated himself from the fallen mare, and came staggering across the graves.

"Hide me!-"

He came with both arms outstretched, his face turned sideways. Behind him, from the far side of the wall, came sounds-horrible shuffling sounds-and in the dusk they saw the head of one of the hounds above the coping and his forepaws clinging as he strained to heave himself over.

"Off! Keep 'en off!"

They caught him by both hands, dragged him within, and slammed the door.

"Hide me! Hi-!"

The word ended with a thud as he pitched headlong on the slate pavement. Through the barred door the scream of the mare Nonesuch answered it.

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