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   Chapter 21 HONORIA'S LETTERS.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 18384

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


1.

"CARWITHIEL, Oct. 25, 18-."

"MY DEAR TAFFY,-Your letter was full of news, and I read it over twice: once to myself, and again after dinner to George and Sir Harry. We pictured you dining in the college hall. Thanks to your description, it was not very difficult: the long tables, the silver tankards, the dark panels and the dark pictures above, and the dons on the dais, aloof and very sedate. It reminded me of Ivanhoe-I don't know why; and no doubt if ever I see Magdalen, it will not be like my fancy in the least. But that's how I see it; and you at a table near the bottom of the hall, like the youthful squire in the story-books-the one, you know, who sits at the feast below the salt until he is recognised and forced to step up and take his seat with honour at the high table. I began to explain all this to George, but found that he had dropped asleep in his chair. He was tired out after a long day with the pheasants."

"I shall stay here for a week or two yet, perhaps. You know how I hate Tredinnis. On my way over, I called at the Parsonage and saw your mother. She was writing that very day, she said, and promised to send my remembrances, which I hope duly reached you. The Vicar was away at the church, of course. There is great talk of the Bishop coming in February, when all will be ready. George sends his love; I saw him for a few minutes at breakfast this morning, before he started for another day with the pheasants."

"Your friend,"

"HONORIA."

2.

"CARWITHIEL, Nov. 19, 18-."

"MY DEAR TAFFY,-Still here, you see! I am slipping this into a parcel containing a fire-screen which I have worked with my very own hands; and I trust you will be able to recognise the shield upon it and the Magdalen lilies. I send it, first, as a birthday present; and I chose the shield-well, I dare say that going in for a demy-ship is a matter-of-fact affair to you, who have grown so exceedingly matter-of-fact; but to me it seems a tremendous adventure; and so I chose a shield-for I suppose the dons would frown if you wore a cockade in your college cap. I return to Tredinnis to-morrow; so your news, whatever it is, must be addressed to me there. But it is safe to be good news."

"Your friend,"

"HONORIA."

3.

"TREDINNIS, Nov. 27, 18-."

"MOST HONOURED SCHOLAR,-Behold me, an hour ago, a great lady, seated in lonely grandeur at the head of my own ancestral table. This is the first time I have used the dining-room; usually I take all my meals in the morning-room, at a small table beside the fire. But to-night I had the great table spread and the plate spread out, and wore my best gown, and solemnly took my grandfather's chair and glowered at the ghost of a small girl shivering at the far end of the long white cloth. When I had enough of this (which was pretty soon) I ordered up some champagne and drank to the health of Theophilus John Raymond, Demy of Magdalen College, Oxford. I graciously poured out a second glass for the small ghost at the other end of the table; and it gave her the courage to confess that she, too, in a timid way, had taken an interest in you for years, and hoped you were going to be a great man. Having thus discovered a bond between us, we grew very friendly; and we talked a great deal about you afterwards in the drawing-room, where I lost her for a few minutes and found her hiding in the great mirror over the fire-place-a habit of hers."

"It is time for me to practise ceremony, for it seems that George and I are to be married some time in the spring. For my part I think my lord would be content to wait longer; for so long as he is happy and sees others cheerful he is not one to hurry or worry. But Sir Harry is the impatient one: and has begun to talk of his decease. He doesn't believe in it a bit, and at times when he composes his features and attempts to be lugubrious I have to take up a book and hide my smiles. But he is clever enough to see that it worries George."

"I saw both your father and mother this morning. Mr. Raymond has been kept to the house by a chill; nothing serious: but he is fretting to be out again and at work in that draughty church. He will accept no help; and the mistress of Tredinnis has no right to press it on him. I shall never understand men and how they fight. I supposed that the war lay between him and my grandfather. But it seems he was fighting an idea all the while; for here is my grandfather beaten and dead and gone; and still the Vicar will give no quarter. If you had not assured me that your demy-ship means eighty pounds a year, I could believe that men fight for shadows only. Your mother and grandmother are both well. . . ."

It was a raw December afternoon-within a week of the end of term- and Taffy had returned from skating in Christ Church meadow, when he found a telegram lying on his table. There was just time to see the Dean, to pack, and to snatch a meal in hall, before rattling off to his train. At Didcot he had the best part of an hour to wait for the night-mail westward.

"Your father dangerously ill. Come at once."

There was no signature. Yet Taffy knew who had ridden to the office with that telegram. The flying dark held visions of her, and the express throbbed westward to the beat of Aide-de-camp's gallop. Nor was he surprised at all to find her on the platform at Truro Station. The Tredinnis phaeton was waiting outside.

He seemed to her but a boy after all, as he stepped out of the train in the chill dawn: a wan-faced boy, and sorely in need of comfort.

"You must be brave," said she, gathering up the reins as he climbed to the seat beside her.

Surely yes; he had been telling himself this very thing all night. The groom hoisted in his portmanteau, and with a slam of the door they were off. The cold air sang past Taffy's ears. It put vigour into him, and his courage rose as he faced his shattered prospects, shattered dreams. He must be strong now for his mother's sake; a man to work and be leant upon.

And so it was that whereas Honoria had found him a boy, Humility found him a man. As her arms went about him in her grief, she felt his body, that it was taller, broader; and knew in the midst of her tears that this was not the child she had parted from seven short weeks ago, but a man to act and give orders and be relied upon.

"He called for you . . . many times," was all she could say.

For Taffy had come too late. Mr. Raymond was dead. He had aggravated a slight chill by going back to his work too soon, and the bitter draughts of the church had cut him down within sight of his goal. A year before he might have been less impatient. The chill struck into his lungs. On December 1st he had taken to his bed, and he never rallied.

"He called for me?"

"Many times."

They went up the stairs together and stood beside the bed. The thought uppermost in Taffy's mind was-"He called for me. He wanted me. He was my father and I never knew him."

But Humility in her sorrow groped amid such questions as these, "What has happened? Who am I? Am I she who yesterday had a husband and a child? To-day my husband is gone and my child is no longer the same child."

In her room old Mrs. Venning remembered the first days of her own widowhood, and life seemed to her a very short affair, after all.

Honoria saw Taffy beside the grave. It was no season for out-of-door flowers, and she had rifled her hothouses for a wreath. The exotics shivered in the north-westerly wind; they looked meaningless, impertinent, in the gusty churchyard. Humility, before the coffin left the house, had brought the dead man's old blue working-blouse, and spread it for a pall. No flowers grew in the Parsonage garden; but pressed in her Bible lay a very little bunch, gathered, years ago, in the meadows by Honiton. This she divided and, unseen by anyone, pinned the half upon the breast of the patched garment.

On the evening after the funeral and for the next day or two she was strangely quiet, and seemed to be waiting for Taffy to make some sign. Dearly as mother and son loved one another, they had to find their new positions, each toward each. Now Taffy had known nothing of his parents' income. He assumed that it was little enough, and that he must now leave Oxford and work to support the household. He knew some Latin and Greek; but without a degree he had little chance of teaching what he knew. He was a fair carpenter, and a more than passable smith. . . . He revolved many schemes, but chiefly found himself wondering what it would cost to enter an architect's office.

"I suppose," said he, "father left no will?"

"Oh yes, he did," said Humility, and produced it: a single sheet of foolscap signed on her wedding day. It gave her all her husband's property absolutely-whatever it might be.

"Well," said Taffy, "I'm glad. I suppose there's enough for you to rent a small cottage, while I look about for work?"

"Who talks about your finding work? You will go back to Oxford, of course."

"Oh, shall I?" said Taffy, taken aback.

"Certainly; it was your father's wish."

"But the money?"

"With your scholarship there's enough to keep you there for

the four years. After that, no doubt, you will be earning a good income."

"But-" He remembered what had been said about the lace-money, and could not help wondering.

"Taffy," said his mother, touching his hand, "leave all this to me until your degree is taken. You have a race to run and must not start unprepared. If you could have seen his joy when the news came of the demy-ship!"

Taffy kissed her and went up to his room. He found his books laid out on the little table there.

4.

"TREDINNIS, February 13, 18-."

"MY DEAR TAFFY,-I have a valentine for you, if you care to accept it; but I don't suppose you will, and indeed I hope in my heart that you will not. But I must offer it. Your father's living is vacant, and my trustees (that is to say, Sir Harry; for the other, a second cousin of mine who lives in London, never interferes) can put in someone as a stop-gap, thus allowing me to present you to it when the time comes, if you have any thought of Holy Orders. You will understand exactly why I offer it; and also, I hope, you will know that I think it wholly unworthy of you. But turn it over in your mind and give me your answer."

"George and I are to be married at the end of April. May is an unlucky month. It shall be a week-even a fortnight-earlier, if that fits in with your vacation, and you care to come. See how obliging I am! I yield to you what I have refused to Sir Harry. We shall try to persuade the Bishop to come and open the church on the same day."

"Always your friend,"

"HONORIA."

5.

"TREDINNIS, February 21. 18-."

"My Dear Taffy,-No, I am not offended in the least; but very glad. I do not think you are fitted for the priesthood; but my doubts have nothing to do with your doubts, which I don't understand, though you tried to explain them so carefully. You will come through them, I expect. I don't know that I have any reasons that could be put on paper: only, somehow, I cannot see you in a black coat and clerical hat."

"You complain that I never write about George. You don't deserve to hear, since you refuse to come to our wedding. But would you talk, if you happened to be in love? There, I have told you more than ever I told George, whose conceit has to be kept down. Let this console you."

"Our new parson, when he comes, is to lodge down in Innis Village. Your mother-but no doubt she has told you-stays in the Parsonage while she pleases. She and your grandmother are both well. I see her every day: I have so much to learn, and she is so wise. Her beautiful eyes-but oh, Taffy, it must be terrible to be a widow! She smiles and is always cheerful; but the look in them! How can I describe it? When I find her alone with her lace-work, or sometimes (but it is not often) with her hands in her lap, she seems to come out of her silence with an effort, as others withdraw themselves from talk. I wonder if she does talk in those silences of hers. Another thing, it is only a few weeks now since she put on a widow's cap, and yet I cannot remember her-can scarcely picture her-without it. I am sure that if I happened to call one day when she had laid it aside, I should begin to talk quite as if we were strangers."

"Believe me, yours sincerely,"

"HONORIA."

But the wedding, after all, did not take place until the beginning of October, a week before the close of the Long Vacation; and Taffy, after all, was present. The postponement had been enforced by many delays in building and furnishing the new wing at Carwithiel; for Sir Harry insisted that the young couple must live under one roof with him, and Honoria (as we know) hated the very stones of Tredinnis.

The Bishop came to spend a week in the neighbourhood; the first three days as Honoria's guest. On the Saturday he consecrated the work of restoration in the church, and in the afternoon held a confirmation service. Taffy and Honoria knelt together to receive his blessing. It was the girl's wish. The shadow of her responsibility to God and man lay heavy on her during the few months before her marriage: and Taffy, already weary and dispirited with his early doubtings, suffered her mood of exaltation to overcome him like a wave and sweep him back to rest for a while on the still waters of faith. Together they listened while the Bishop discoursed on the dead Vicar's labours with fluency and feeling; with so much feeling, indeed, that Taffy could not help wondering why his father had been left to fight the battle alone.

On the Sunday and Monday two near parishes claimed the Bishop. On the Tuesday he sent his luggage over to Carwithiel, whither he was to follow after the wedding service, to spend a day or two with Sir Harry. It had been Honoria's wish that George should choose Taffy for his best man; but George had already invited one of his sporting friends, a young Squire Philpotts from the eastern side of the Duchy; and as the date fell at the beginning of the hunting season, he insisted on a "pink" wedding. Honoria consulted the Bishop by letter. "Did he approve of a 'pink' wedding so soon after the bride's confirmation?" The Bishop saw no harm in it.

So a "pink" wedding it was, and the scarlet coats made a lively patch of colour in the gray churchyard: but it gave Taffy a feeling that he was left out in the cold. He escorted his mother to the church, and left her for a few minutes in the Vicarage pew. The bridegroom and his friends were gathered in a showy cluster by the chancel step, but the bride had not arrived, and he stepped out to help in marshalling the crowd of miners and mine-girls, fishermen, and mothers with unruly children-a hundred or so in all, lining the path or straggling among the graves.

Close by the gate he came on a girl who stood alone.

"Hullo, Lizzie-you here?"

"Why not?" she asked, looking at him sullenly.

"Oh, no reason at all."

"There might ha' been a reason," said she, speaking low and hurriedly. "You might ha' saved me from this, Mr. Raymond; and her too; one time, you might."

"Why, what on earth is the matter?" He looked up. The Tredinnis carriage and pair of grays came over the knoll at a smart trot, and drew up before the gate.

"Matter?" Lizzie echoed with a short laugh. "Oh, nuthin'.

I'm goin' to lay the curse on her, that's all."

"You shall not!" There was no time to lose.

Honoria's trustee-the second cousin from London, a tall, clean-shaven man with a shiny bald head, and a shiny hat in his hand-had stepped out and was helping the bride to alight. What Lizzie meant Taffy could not tell; but there must be no scene. He caught her hand. "Mind-I say you shall not!" he whispered.

"Lemme go-you're creamin' my fingers."

"Be quiet then."

At that moment Honoria passed up the path. Her wedding gown almost brushed him as he stood wringing Lizzie's hand. She did not appear to see him; but he saw her face beneath the bridal veil, and it was hard and white.

"The proud toad!" said Lizzie. "I'm no better'n dirt, I suppose, though from the start she wasn' above robbin' me. Aw, she's sly … Mr. Raymond, I'll curse her as she comes out, see if I don't!"

"And I swear you shall not," said Taffy. The scent of Honoria's orange-blossom seemed to cling about them as they stood.

Lizzie looked at him vindictively. "You wanted her yourself, I know. You weren't good enough, neither. Let go my fingers!"

"Go home, now. See, the people have all gone in."

"Go'st way in too, then, and leave me here to wait for her."

Taffy shut his teeth, let go her hand, and taking her by the shoulders, swung her round face toward the gate.

"March!" he commanded, and she moved off whimpering. Once she looked back. "March!" he repeated, and followed her down the road as one follows and threatens a mutinous dog.

The scene by the church gate had puzzled Honoria, and in her first letter (written from Italy) she came straight to the point, as her custom was:

"I hope there is nothing between you and that girl who used to be at Joll's. I say nothing about our hopes for you, but you have your own career to look to; and as I know you are too honourable to flatter an ignorant girl when you mean nothing, so I trust you are too wise to be caught by a foolish fancy. Forgive a staid matron (of one week's standing) for writing so plainly, but what I saw made me uneasy-without cause, no doubt. Your future, remember, is not yours only. And now I shall trust you, and never come back to this subject."

"We are like children abroad, George's French is wonderful, but not so wonderful as his Italian. When he goes to take a ticket he first of all shouts the name of the station he wishes to arrive at (for some reason he believes all foreigners to be deaf), then he begins counting down francs one by one, very slowly, watching the clerk's face. When the clerk's face tells him he has doled out enough, he shouts 'Hold hard!' and clutches the ticket. It takes time; but all the people here are friends with him at once-especially the children, whom he punches in the ribs and tells to 'buck up.' Their mothers nod and smile and openly admire him; and I-well, I am happy and want everyone else to be happy."

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