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   Chapter 27 HONORIA.

The Ship of Stars By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 14035

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

She was sitting there rigid, cold as a statue, when the rescuers brought them ashore and helped them up the slope. A small crowd surrounded the carriage. In the rays of their moving lanterns her face altered nothing to all their furtive glances of sympathy opposing the same white mask. Some one said, "There's only two, then!" Another, with a nudge and a nod at the carriage, told him to hold his peace. She heard. Her lips hardened.

Lizzie Pezzack had rushed down to the shore to meet the boat. She was bringing her child along with a fond, wild babble of tender names and sobs and cries of thankfulness. In pauses, choked and overcome, she caught him to her, felt his limbs, pressed his wet face against her neck and bosom. Taffy, supported by strong arms and hurried in her wake, had a hideous sense of being paraded in her triumph. The men around him who had raised a faint cheer sank their voices as they neared the carriage; but the woman went forward, jubilant and ruthless, flaunting her joy as it were a flag blown in her eyes and blindfolding them to the grief she insulted.


It was Honoria's voice, cold, incisive, not to be disobeyed. He had prayed in vain. The procession halted; Lizzie checked her babble and stood staring, with an arm about Joey's neck.

"Let me see the child."

Lizzie stared, broke into a silly, triumphant laugh, and thrust the child forward against the carriage step. The poor waif, drenched, dazed, tottering without his crutch, caught at the plated handle for support. Honoria gazed down on him with eyes which took slow and pitiless account of the deformed little body, the shrunken, puny limbs.

"Thank you. So-this-is what my husband died for. Drive on, please."

Her eyes, as she lifted them to give the order, rested for a moment on Taffy-with how much scorn he cared not, could he have leapt and intercepted Lizzie's retort.

"And why not? A son's a son-curse you!-though he was your man!"

It seemed she did not hear; or hearing, did not understand. Her eyes hardened their fire on Taffy, and he, lapped in their scorn, thanked God she had not understood.

"Drive on, please."

The coachman lowered his whip. The horses moved forward at a slow walk; the carriage rolled silently away into the darkness. She had not understood. Taffy glanced at the faces about him.

"Ah, poor lady!" said someone. But no one had understood.

They found George's body next morning on the sands a little below the foot-bridge. He lay there in the morning sunshine as though asleep, with an arm flung above his head and on his face the easy smile for which men and women had liked him throughout his careless life.

The inquest was held next day, in the library at Carwithiel.

Sir Harry insisted on being present, and sat beside the coroner.

During Taffy's examination his lips were pursed up as though

whistling a silent tune. Once or twice he nodded his head.

Taffy gave his evidence discreetly. The child had been lost; had been found in a perilous position. He and deceased had gone together to the rescue. On reaching the child, deceased-against advice-had attempted to return across the sands and had fallen into difficulties. In these his first thought had been for the child, whom he had passed to witness to drag out of danger. When it came to deceased's turn the crutch, on which all depended, had parted in two, and he had been swept away by the tide.

At the conclusion of the story Sir Harry took snuff and nodded twice. Taffy wondered how much he knew. The jury, under the coroner's direction, brought in a verdict of "death by misadventure," and added a word or two in praise of the dead man's gallantry. The coroner complimented Taffy warmly and promised to refer the case to the Royal Humane Society for public recognition. The jury nodded, and one or two said "Hear, hear!" Taffy hoped fervently he would do nothing of the sort.

The funeral took place on the fourth day, at nine o'clock in the morning. Such-in the day I write of-was the custom of the country. Friends who lived at a distance rose and shaved by candle-light, and daybreak found them horsed and well on their way to the house of mourning, their errand announced by the long black streamers tied about their hats. The sad business over and done with, these guests returned to the house, where until noon a mighty breakfast lasted and all were welcome. Their black habiliments and lowered voices alone marked the difference between it and a hunting-breakfast.

And indeed this morning Squire Willyams, who had taken over the hounds after Squire Moyle's death, had given secret orders to his huntsmen; and the pack was waiting at Three-barrow Turnpike, a couple of miles inland from Carwithiel. At half-past ten the mourners drained their glasses, shook the crumbs off their riding-breeches, and took leave; and after halting outside Carwithiel gates to unpin and pocket their hat-bands, headed for the meet with one accord.

A few minutes before noon Squire Willyams, seated on his grey by the edge of Three-barrow Brake, and listening to every sound within the covert, happened to glance an eye across the valley, and let out a low whistle.

"Well!" said one of a near group of horsemen catching sight of the rider pricking toward them down the farther slope, "I knew en for unbeliever; but this beats all!"

"And his awnly son not three hours under the mould! Brought up in France as a youngster he was, and this I s'pose is what comes of reading Voltaire. My lord for manners, and no more heart than a wormed nut-that's Sir Harry, and always was."

Squire Willyams slewed himself round in his saddle. He spoke quietly at fifteen yards' distance, but each word reached the group of horsemen as clear as a bell.

"Rablin," he said, "as a damned fool oblige me during the next few minutes by keeping your mouth shut."

With this he resumed his old attitude and his business of watching the covert side; removing his eyes for a moment to nod as Sir Harry rode up and passed on to join the group behind him.

He had scarcely done so when deep in the undergrowth of blackthorn a hound challenged.

"Spendigo for a fiver!-and well found, by the tune of it," cried Sir Harry. "See that patch of grey wall, Rablin-there, in a line beyond the Master's elbow? I lay you an even guinea that's where my gentleman comes over."

But honest reprobation mottled the face of Mr. Rablin, squireen; and as an honest man he spoke out. Let it go to his credit, because as a rule he was a snob and inclined to cringe.

"I did not expect"-he cleared his throat-"to see you out to-day,

Sir Harry."

Sir Harry winced, and turned on them all a grey, woeful face.

"That's it," he said. "I can't bide home. I can't bide home."

Honoria bided home with her child and mourned for the dead. As a clever woman-far cleverer than her husband-she had seen his faults while he lived; yet had liked him enough to forgive without difficulty. But now these fau

lts faded, and by degrees memory reared an altar to him as a man little short of divine. At the worst he had been amiable. A kinder husband never lived. She reproached herself bitterly with the half-heartedness of her response to his love; to his love while it dwelt beside her, unvarying in cheerful kindness. For (it was the truth, alas! and a worm that gnawed continually) passionate love she had never rendered him. She had been content; but how poor a thing was contentment! She had never divined his worth, had never given her worship. And all the while he had been a hero, and in the end had died as a hero. Ah, for one chance to redeem the wrong! for one moment to bow herself at his feet and acknowledge her blindness! Her prayer was ancient as widowhood, and Heaven, folding away the irreparable time, returned its first and last and only solace-a dream for the groping arms; waking and darkness, and an empty pillow for her tears.

From the first her child had been dear to her; dearer (so her memory accused her now) than his father; more demonstratively beloved, at any rate. But in those miserable months she grew to love him with a double strength. He bore George's name, and was (as Sir Harry proclaimed) a very miniature of George; repeated his shapeliness of limb, his firm shoulders, his long lean thighs-the thighs of a born horseman; learned to walk, and lo! within a week walked with his father's gait; had smiles for the whole of his small world, and for his mother a memory in each.

And yet-this was the strange part of it; a mystery she could not explain because she dared not even acknowledge it-though she loved him for being like his father, she regarded the likeness with a growing dread; nay, caught herself correcting him stealthily when he developed some trivial trait which she, and she alone, recognised as part of his father's legacy. It was what in the old days she would have called "contradictions," but there it was, and she could not help it; the nearer George in her memory approached to faultlessness, the more obstinately her instinct fought against her child's imitation of him; and yet, because the child was obstinately George's, she loved him with a double love.

There came a day when he told her a childish falsehood. She did not whip him, but stood him in front of her and began to reason with him and explain the wickedness of an untruth. By-and-by she broke off in the midst of a sentence, appalled by the shrillness of her own voice. From argument she had passed to furious scolding. And the little fellow quailed before her, his contrition beaten down under the storm of words that whistled about his ears without meaning, his small faculties disabled before this spectacle of wrath. Her fingers were closing and unclosing. They wanted a riding-switch; they wanted to grip this small body they had served and fondled, and to cut out- what? The lie? Honoria hated a lie. But while she paused and shook, a light flashed, and her eyes were open and saw-that it was not the lie.

She turned and ran, ran upstairs to her own room, flung herself on her knees beside the bed, dragged a locket from her bosom and fell to kissing George's portrait, passionately crying it for pardon. She was wicked, base; while he lived she had misprised him; and this was her abiding punishment, that not even repentance could purge her heart of dishonouring thoughts, that her love for him now could never be stainless though washed with daily tears. "'He that is unjust, let him be unjust still.' Must that be true, Father of all mercies? I misjudged him, and it is too late for atonement. But I repent and am afflicted. Though the dead know nothing-though it can never reach or avail him-give me back the power to be just!"

Late that afternoon Honoria passed an hour piously in turning over the dead man's wardrobe, shaking out and brushing the treasured garments and folding them, against moth and dust, in fresh tissue paper. It was a morbid task, perhaps, but it kept George's image constantly before her, and this was what her remorseful mood demanded. Her nerves were unstrung and her limbs languid after the recent tempest. By-and-by she locked the doors of the wardrobe, and passing into her own bedroom, flung herself on a couch with a bundle of papers-old bills, soiled and folded memoranda, sporting paragraphs cut from the newspapers-scraps found in his pockets months ago and religiously tied by her with a silken ribbon. They were mementoes of a sort, and George had written few letters while wooing-not half a dozen first and last.

Two or three receipted bills lay together in the middle of the packet-one a saddler's, a second a nurseryman's for pot-plants (kept for the sake of its queer spelling), a third the reckoning for an hotel luncheon. She was running over them carelessly when the date at the head of this last one caught her eye. "August 3rd "-it fixed her attention because it happened to be the day before her birthday.

August 3rd-such and such a year-the August before his death; and the hotel a well-known one in Plymouth-the hotel, in fact, at which he had usually put up. . . . Without a prompting of suspicion she turned back and ran her eye over the bill. A steak, a pint of claret, vegetables, cheese, and attendance-never was a more innocent bill.

Suddenly her attention stiffened on the date. George was in Plymouth the day before her birthday. But no; as it happened, George had been in Truro on that day. She remembered, because he had brought her a diamond pendant, having written beforehand to the Truro jeweller to get a dozen down from London to choose from. Yes, she remembered it clearly, and how he had described his day in Truro. And the next morning-her birthday morning-he had produced the pendant, wrapped in silver paper. He had thrown away the case; it was ugly, and he would get her another. . . .

But the bill? She had stayed once or twice at this hotel with George, and recognised the handwriting. The bookkeeper, in compliment perhaps to a customer of standing, had written "George Vyell, Esq." in full on the bill-head, a formality omitted as a rule in luncheon-reckonings. And if this scrap of paper told the truth- why, then George had lied!

But why? Ah, if he had done this thing nothing else mattered, neither the how nor the why! If George had lied? . . . And the pendant-had that been bought in Plymouth and not (as he had asserted) in Truro? He had thrown away the case. Jewellers print their names inside such cases. The pendant was a handsome one. Perhaps his cheque-book would tell.

She arose, stepped half-way to the door, but came back and flung herself again upon the couch. No; she could not . . . this was the second time to-day . . . she could not face the torture again.

Yet . . . if George had lied!

She sat up; sat up with both hands pressed to her ears to shut out a sudden voice clamouring through them-

"And why not? A son's a son-curse you!-though he was your man!"

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