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   Chapter 23 THE SERVICE OF THE LAMP.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13282

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The Chief Engineer of the Trinity House was a man of few words. He and Taffy had spent the afternoon clambering about the rocks below the light-house, peering into its foundations. Here and there, where weed coated the rocks and made foothold slippery, he took the hand which Taffy held out. Now and then he paused for a pinch of snuff. The round of inspection finished, he took an extraordinarily long pinch.

"What's your opinion?" he asked, cocking his head on one side and examining the young man much as he had examined the light-house. "You have one, I suppose?"

"Yes, sir; but of course it doesn't count for much."

"I asked for it."

"Well, then, I think, sir, we have wasted a year's work; and if we go on tinkering we shall waste more."

"Pull it down and rebuild, you say?"

"Yes, sir; but not on the same rock."

"Why?"

"This rock was ill-chosen. You see, sir, just here a ridge of elvan crops up through the slate; the rock, out yonder, is good elvan, and that is why the sea has made an island of it, wearing away the softer stuff inshore. The mischief here lies in the rock, not in the light-house."

"The sea has weakened our base?"

"Partly: but the light-house has done more. In a strong gale the foundations begin to work, and in the chafing the rock gets the worst of it."

"What about concrete?"

"You might fill up the sockets with concrete; but I doubt, sir, if the case would hold for any time. The rock is a mere shell in places, especially on the north-western side."

"H'm. You were at Oxford for a time, were you not?"

"Yes, sir," Taffy answered, wondering.

"I've heard about you. Where do you live?"

Taffy pointed to the last of a line of three whitewashed cottages behind the light-house.

"Alone?"

"No, sir; with my mother and my grandmother. She is an invalid."

"I wonder if your mother would be kind enough to offer me a cup of tea?"

In the small kitchen, on the walls of which, and even on the dresser, Taffy's books fought for room with Humility's plates and tin-ware, the Chief Engineer proved to be a most courteous old gentleman. Towards Humility he bore himself with an antique politeness which flattered her considerably. And when he praised her tea she almost forgave him for his detestable habit of snuff-taking.

He had heard something (it appeared) from the President of Taffy's college, and also from-(he named Taffy's old friend in the velvet college-cap). In later days Taffy maintained not only that every man must try to stand alone, but that he ought to try the harder because of its impossibility; for in fact it was impossible to escape from men's helpfulness. And though his work was done in lonely places where in the end fame came out to seek him, he remained the same boy who, waking in the dark, had heard the bugles speaking comfort.

As a matter of fact his college had generously offered him a chance which would have cost him nothing or next to nothing, of continuing to read for his degree. But he had chosen his line, and against Humility's entreaties he stuck to it. The Chief Engineer took a ceremonious leave. He had to drive back to his hotel, and Taffy escorted him to his carriage.

"I shall run over again to-morrow," he said at parting; "and we'll have a look at that island rock." He was driven off, secretly a little puzzled.

Well, it puzzled Taffy at times why he should be working here with Mendarva's men for twenty shillings a week (it had been eighteen, to begin with) when he might be reading for his degree and a fellowship. Yet in his heart he knew the reason. That would be building, after all, on the foundations which Honoria had laid.

Pride had helped chance to bring him here, to the very spot where Lizzie Pezzack lived. He met her daily, and several times a day. She, and his mother and grandmother, were all the women-folk in the hamlet-if three cottages deserve that name. In the first cottage Lizzie lived with her father, who was chief light-houseman, and her crippled child; two under-keepers, unmarried men, managed together in the second; and this accident allowed Taffy to rent the third from the Brethren of the Trinity House and live close to his daily work. Unless brought by business, no one visited that windy peninsula; no one passed within sight of it; no tree grew upon it or could be seen from it. At daybreak Taffy's workmen came trudging along the track where the short turf and gentians grew between the wheel-ruts; and in the evening went trudging back, the level sun flashing on their empty dinner-cans. The eight souls left behind had one common gospel- Cleanliness. Very little dust found its way thither; but the salt, spray-laden air kept them constantly polishing window-panes and brass-work. To wash, to scour, to polish, grew into the one absorbing business of life. They had no gossip; even in their own dwellings they spoke but little; their speech shrank and dwindled away in the continuous roar of the sea. But from morning to night, mechanically, they washed and scoured and polished. Paper was not whiter than the deal table and dresser which Humility scrubbed daily with soap and water, and once a week with lemon-juice as well. Never was cleaner linen to sight and smell than that which she pegged out by the furze-brake on the ridge. All the life of the small colony, though lonely, grew wholesome as it was simple of purpose in cottages thus sweetened and kept sweet by limewash and the salt wind.

And through it moved the forlorn figure of Lizzie Pezzack's child. Somehow Lizzie had taught the boy to walk, with the help of a crutch, as early as most children; but the wind made cruel sport with his first efforts in the open, knocking the crutch from under him at every third step, and laying him flat. The child had pluck, however; and when autumn came round again, could face a fairly stiff breeze.

It was about this time that word came of the Trinity Board's intention to replace the old lighthouse with one upon the outer rock. For the Chief Engineer had visited it and decided that Taffy was right. To be sure no mention was made of Taffy in his report; but the great man took the first opportunity to offer him the post of foreman of the works, so there was certainly nothing to be grumbled at. The work did not actually start until the following spring; for the rock, to receive the foundations, had to be bored some feet below high-water level, and this could only be attempted on calm days or when a southerly wind blew from the high land well over the workmen's heads, leaving the inshore water smooth. On such days Taffy, looking up fr

om his work, would catch sight of a small figure on the cliff-top leaning aslant to the wind and watching.

For the child was adventurous and took no account of his lameness. Perhaps if he thought of it at all, having no chance to compare himself with other children, he accepted his lameness as a condition of childhood-something he would grow out of. His mother could not keep him indoors; he fidgeted continually. But he would sit or stand quiet by the hour on the cliff-top watching the men as they drilled and fixed the dynamite, and waiting for the bang of it. Best of all, however, were the days when his grandfather allowed him inside the light-house, to clamber about the staircase and ladders, to watch the oiling and trimming of the great lantern, and the ships moving slowly on the horizon. He asked a thousand questions about them.

"I think," said he one day before he was three years old, "that my father is in one of those ships."

"Bless the child!" exclaimed old Pezzack. "Who says you have a father?"

"Everybody has a father. Dicky Tregenza has one; they both work down at the rock. I asked Dicky, and he told me."

"Told 'ee what?"

"That everybody has a father. I asked him if mine was out in one of those ships, and he said very likely. I asked mother, too, but she was washing-up and wouldn't listen."

Old Pezzack regarded the child grimly. "'Twas to be, I s'pose," he muttered.

Lizzie Pezzack had never set foot inside the Raymonds' cottage. Humility, gentle soul as she was, could on some points be as unchristian as other women. As time went on it seemed that not a soul beside herself and Taffy knew of Honoria's suspicion. She even doubted, and Taffy doubted too, if Lizzie herself knew such an accusation had been made. Certainly never by word or look had Lizzie hinted at it. Yet Humility could not find it in her heart to forgive her. "She may be innocent," was the thought; "but through her came the injury to my son." Taffy by this time had no doubt at all. It was George who poisoned Honoria's ear; George's shame and Honoria's pride would explain why the whisper had never gone further; and nothing else would explain.

Did his mother guess this? He believed so at times, but they never spoke of it.

The lame child was often in the Raymonds' kitchen. Lizzie did not forbid or resent this. And he liked Humility, and would talk to her at length while he nibbled one of her dripping-cakes. "People don't tell the truth," he observed sagely on one of these occasions. (He pronounced it "troof," by the way.) "I know why we live here. It's because we're near the sea. My father's on the sea somewhere looking for us, and grandfather lights the lamp every night to tell him where we are. One night he'll see it and bring his ship in and take us all off together."

"Who told you all this?"

"Nobody. People won't tell me nothing (nofing). I has to make it out in my head."

At times, when his small limbs grew weary (though he never acknowledged this) he would stretch himself on the short turf of the headland and lie staring up at the white gulls. No one ever came near enough to surprise the look which then crept over the child's face. But Taffy, passing him at a distance, remembered another small boy, and shivered to remember and compare-

"A boy's will is the wind's will,

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

-But how when the boy is a cripple?

One afternoon he was stooping to inspect an obstinate piece of boring when the man at his elbow said:

"Hullo! edn' that young Joey Pezzack in diffities up there? Blest if the cheeld won't break his neck wan of these days!"

Taffy caught up a coil of rope, sprang into a boat, and pushed across to land. "Don't move!" he shouted. At the foot of the cliff he picked up Joey's crutch and ran at full speed up the path worn by the workmen. This led him round to the verge ten feet above the ledge where the child clung white and silent. He looped the rope in a running noose and lowered it.

"Slip this under your arms. Can you manage, or shall I come down?

I'll come if you're hurt."

"I've twisted my foot. It's all right, now you're come," said the little man bravely; and slid the rope round himself in the most business-like way.

"The grass was slipper-" he began, as soon as his feet touched firm earth: and with that he broke down and fell to sobbing in Taffy's arms.

Taffy carried him-a featherweight-to the cottage where Lizzie stood by her table washing up. She saw them at the gate and came running out.

"It's all right. He slipped-out on the cliff. Nothing more than a scratch or two, and perhaps a sprained ankle."

He watched while she set Joey in a chair and began to pull off his stockings. He had never seen the child's foot naked. She turned suddenly, caught him looking, and pulled the stocking back over the deformity.

"Have you heard?" she asked.

"What?"

"She has a boy! Ah!" she laughed harshly, "I thought that would hurt you. Well, you have been a silly!"

"I don't think I understand."

"You don't think you understand!" she mimicked. "And you're not fond of her, eh? Never were fond of her, eh? You silly-to let him take her, and never tell!"

"Tell?"

She faced him, hardening her gaze. "Yes, tell-" She nodded slowly; while Joey, unobserved by either, looked up with wide, round eyes.

"Men don't fight like that." The words were out before it struck him that one man had, almost certainly, fought like that. Her face, however, told him nothing. She could not know. "You have never told," he added.

"Because-" she began, but could not tell him the whole truth. And yet what he said was true. "Because you would not let me," she muttered.

"In the churchyard, you mean-on her wedding day?"

"Before that."

"But before that I never guessed."

"All the same I knew what you were. You wouldn' have let me. It came to the same thing. And if I had told-Oh, you make it hard for me!" she wailed.

He stared at her, understanding this only-that somehow he could control her will.

"I will never let you tell," he said gravely.

"I hate her!"

"You shall not tell."

"Listen"-she drew close and touched his arm. "He never cared for her; it's not his way to care. She cares for him now, I dessay-not as she might have cared for you-but she's his wife, and some women are like that. There's her pride, any way. Suppose-suppose he came back to me?"

"If I caught him-" Taffy began: but the poor child, who for two minutes had been twisting his face heroically, interrupted with a wail:

"Oh, mother! my foot-it hurts so!"

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