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   Chapter 5 CORONA COMES.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 16549

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


When Nurse Branscome reached the docks and inquired at what hour the Carnatic might be expected, the gatekeeper pointed across a maze of dock-basins, wharves, tramway-lines, to a far quay where the great steamship lay already berthed.

"She've broken her record by five hours and some minutes," he explained. "See that train just pulling out of the station? That carries her mails."

Nurse Branscome-a practical little woman with shrewd grey eyes- neither fussed over the news nor showed any sign of that haste which is ill speed. Scanning the distant vessel, she begged to be told the shortest way alongside, and noted the gatekeeper's instructions very deliberately, nodding her head. They were intricate. At the close she thanked him and started, still without appearance of hurry, and reached the Carnatic without a mistake. She arrived, too, a picture of coolness, though the docks lay shadeless to the afternoon sun, and the many tramway-lines radiated a heat almost insufferable.

The same quiet air of composure carried her unchallenged up a gangway and into the great ship. A gold-braided junior officer, on duty at the gangway-head, asked politely if he could be of service to her. She answered that she had come to seek a steerage passenger-a little girl named Bonaday.

"Ach!" said a voice close at her elbow, "that will be our liddle Korona!"

Nurse Branscome turned. The voice belonged to a blond, middle-aged German, whose gaze behind his immense spectacles was of the friendliest.

"Yes-Corona: that is her name."

"So!" said the middle-aged German. "She is with my wive at this moment. If I may ascort you?… We will not then drouble Mister Smid' who is so busy."

He led the way forward. Once he turned, and in the faint light between-decks his spectacles shone palely, like twin moons.

"I am habby you are come," he said. "My wive will be habby.… I told her a dozzen times it will be ol' right-the ship has arrived before she is agspected.… But our liddle Korona is so agscited, so imbatient for her well-belovèd England."

He pronounced "England" as we write it.

"So!" he proclaimed, halting before a door and throwing it open.

Within, on a cheap wooden travelling-trunk, sat a stout woman and a child. The child wore black weeds, and had-as Nurse Branscome noted at first glance-remarkably beautiful eyes. Her right hand lay imprisoned between the two palms of the stout woman, who, looking up, continued to pat the back of it softly.

"A friendt-for our Mees Korona!"

"Whad did I not tell you?" said the stout woman to the child, cooing the words exultantly, as she arose to meet the visitor.

The two women looked in each other's eyes, and each divined that the other was good.

"Good afternoon," said Nurse Branscome. "I am sorry to be late."

"But it is we who are early.… We tell the liddle one she must have bribed the cabdain, she was so craved to arr-rive!"

"Are you related to her?"

"Ach, no," chimed in husband and wife together as soon as they understood. "But friendts-friendts, Korona-hein?"

The husband explained that they had made the child's acquaintance on the first day out from New York, and had taken to her at once, seeing her so forlorn. He was a baker by trade, and by name Müller; and he and his wife, after doing pretty well in Philadelphia, were returning home to Bremen, where his brother (also a baker) had opened a prosperous business and offered him a partnership.

-"Which he can well afford," commented Frau Müller. "For my husband is beyond combetition as a master-baker; and at the end all will go to his brother's two sons.… We have not been gifen children of our own."

"Yet home is home," added her husband, with an expansive smile, "though it be not the Vaterland, Mees Korona-hein?" He eyed the child quizzically, and turned to Nurse Branscome. "She is badriotic so as you would nevar think-

"'Brit-ons nevar, nevar, nev-ar-will be Slavs!'"

He intoned it ludicrously, casting out both hands and snapping his fingers to the tune.

The child Corona looked past him with a gaze that put aside these foolish antics, and fastened itself on Nurse Branscome.

"I think I shall like you," she said composedly and with the clearest English accent. "But I do not quite know who you are. Are you fetching me to Daddy?"

"Yes," said Nurse Branscome, and nodded.

She seldom or never wasted words. Nods made up a good part of her conversation always.

Corona stood up, by this action conveying to the grown-ups-for she, too, economised speech-that she was ready to go, and at once. Youth is selfish, even in the sweetest-born of natures. Baker Müller and his good wife looked at her wistfully. She had come into their childless life, and had taken unconscious hold on it, scarce six days ago-the inside of a week. They looked at her wistfully. Her eyes were on Nurse Branscome, who stood for the future. Yet she remembered that they had been kind. Herr Müller, kind to the last, ran off and routed up a seaman to carry her box to the gangway. There, while bargaining with a porter, Nurse Branscome had time to observe with what natural good manners the child suffered herself to be folded in Frau Müller's ample embrace, and how prettily she shook hands with the good baker. She turned about, even once or twice, to wave her farewells.

"But she is naturally reserved," Nurse Branscome decided. "Well, she'll be none the worse for that."

She had hardly formed this judgment when Corona went a straight way to upset it. A tuft of groundsel had rooted itself close beside the traction rails a few paces from the waterside. With a little cry- almost a sob-the child swooped upon the weed, and plucking it, pressed it to her lips.

"I promised to kiss the first living thing I met in England," she explained.

"Then you might have begun with me," said Nurse Branscome, laughing.

"Oh, that's good-I like you to laugh! This is real England, merry England, and I used to 'spect it was so good that folks went about laughing all the time, just because they lived in it."

"Look here, my dear, you mustn't build your expectations too high. If you do, we shall all disappoint you; which means that you will suffer."

"But that was a long time ago. I've grown since.… And I didn't kiss you at first because it makes me feel uncomfortable kissing folks out loud. But I'll kiss you in the cars when we get to them."

But by and by, when they found themselves seated alone in a third-class compartment, she forgot her promise, being lost in wonder at this funny mode of travelling. She examined the parcels' rack overhead.

"'For light articles only,'" she read out. "But-but how do we manage when it's bedtime?"

"Bless the child, we don't sleep in the train! Why, in little over an hour we shall be at Merchester, and that's home."

"Home!" Corona caught at the word and repeated it with a shiver of excitement. "Home-in an hour?"

It was not that she distrusted; it was only that she could not focus her mind down to so small a distance.

"And now," said Nurse Branscome cheerfully, as they settled themselves down, "are you going to tell me about your passage, or am I to tell you about your father and the sort of place St. Hospital is? Or would you," added this wise woman, "just like to sit still and look out of window and take it all in for a while?"

"Thank you," answered Corona, "that's what I want, ezactly."

She nestled into her corner as the train drew forth beyond the purlieus and dingy suburbs of the great seaport and out into the country-our south country, all green and glorious with summer. Can this world show the like of it, for comfort of eye and heart?

Her eyes drank, devoured it.-Cattle knee-deep in green pasture, belly-deep in green water-flags by standing pools; cattle resting their long flanks while they chewed the cud; cattle whisking their tails amid the meadow-sweet, under hedges sprawled over with wild rose and honeysuckle.-White flocks in the lengthening shade of elms; wood and copse; silver river and canal glancing between alders, hawthorns, pollard willows; lichened bridges of flint and brick; ancient cottages, thatched or red-tiled, timber-fronted, bulging out in friendliest fashion on the

high road; the high road looping its way from village to village, still between hedges. Corona had never before set eyes on a real hedge in the course of her young life; but all this country-right away to the rounded chalk hills over which the heat shimmered-was parcelled out by hedges-hedges by the hundred-and such hedges!

"It's-it's like a garden," she stammered, turning around and meeting a question in Nurse Branscome's eyes. "It's all so lovely and tiny and bandboxy. However do they find the time for it?"

"Eh, it takes time," said Nurse Branscome, amused. "You'll find that's the main secret with us over here. But-disappointed, are you?"

"Oh, no-no-no!" the child assured her. "It's ten times lovelier than ever I 'spected-only," she added, cuddling down for another long gaze, "it's different-different in size."

"England's a little place," said Nurse Branscome. "In the colonies- I won't say anything about the States, for I've never seen them; but I've been to Australia in my time, and I expect with Canada it's much the same or more so-in the colonies everything's spread out; but home here, I heard Brother Copas say, if you want to feel how great anything is, you have to take it deep-ways, layer below layer."

Corona knit her small brow.

"But Windsor Castle is a mighty big place?" she said hopefully.

"Oh, yes!"

"Well, I'm glad of that anyway."

"But why, dear?"

"Because," said Corona, "that is where the King lives. I used to call him my King over on the Other Side, because my name is Corona, and means I was born the year he was crowned. They make out they don't hold much stock in kings, back there; but that sort of talk didn't take me in, because when you have a King of your own you know what it feels like. And, anyway, they had to allow that King Edward is a mighty big one, and that he is always making peace for all the world.… So now you know why I'm glad about Windsor Castle."

"I'm afraid it is not quite clear to me yet," said Nurse Branscome, leading her on.

"I can't 'splain very well."-The child could never quite compass the sound "ex" in words where a consonant followed.-"I'm no good at 'splaining. But I guess if the job was up to you to make peace for all-over-the-world, you'd want to sit in a big place, sort of empty an' quiet, an' feel like God." Corona gazed out of window again. "You can tell he's been at it, too, hereabouts; but somehow I didn't 'spect it to be all lying about in little bits."

They alighted from the idling train at a small country station embowered in roses, the next on this side of Merchester and but a short three-quarters of a mile from St. Hospital, towards which they set out on foot by a meadow-path and over sundry stiles, a porter following (or rather making a détour after them along the high road) and wheeling Corona's effects on a barrow. From the first stile Nurse Branscome pointed out the grey Norman buildings, the chapel tower, the clustering trees; and supported Corona with a hand under her elbow as, perched on an upper bar with her knees against the top rail, she drank in her first view of home.

Her first comment-it shaped itself into a question, or rather into two questions-gave Nurse Branscome a shock: it was so infantile in comparison with her talk in the train.

"Does daddy live there? And is he so very old, then?"

Then Nurse Branscome bethought her that this mite had never yet seen her father, and that he was not only an aged man but a broken-down one, and in appearance (as they say) older than his years. A great pity seized her for Corona, and in the rush of pity all her oddities and grown-up tricks of speech (Americanisms apart) explained themselves. She was an old father's child. Nurse Branscome was midwife enough to know what freakishness and frailty belong to children begotten by old age. Yet Corona, albeit gaunt with growing, was lithe and well-formed, and of a healthy complexion and a clear, though it inclined to pallor.

"Your father is not a young man," she said gently. "You must be prepared for that, dear.… And of course his dress-the dress of the Beauchamp Brethren-makes him look even older than he is."

"What is it?" asked Corona, turning about as well as she could on the stile and putting the direct question with direct eyes.

"It's a long gown, a gown of reddish-purple, with a silver rose at the breast."

"Save us!" exclaimed this unaccountable child. "'Seems I'd better start right in by asking what news of the Crusades."

In the spare room pertaining to Brother Bonaday he and Brother Copas were (as the latter put it) making very bad weather with their preparations. They supposed themselves, however, to have plenty of time, little guessing that the captain of the Carnatic had been breaking records. In St. Hospital one soon learns to neglect mankind's infatuation for mere speed; and yet, strange to say, Brother Copas was discoursing on this very subject.

He had produced certain purchases from his wallet, and disposed them on the chest of drawers which was to serve Corona for dressing-table. They included a cheap mirror, and here he felt himself on safe ground; but certain others-such as a gaudily-dressed doll, priced at 1s. 3d., a packet of hairpins, a book of coloured photographs, entitled Souvenir of Royal Merchester-he eyed more dubiously. He had found it hard to bear in mind the child's exact age. "But she was born in Coronation Year. I have told you that over and over," Brother Bonaday would protest. "My dear fellow, I know you have; but the devil is, that means something different every time."

-"The purpose of all right motion," Brother Copas was saying, "is to get back to the point from which you started. Take the sun itself, or any created mass; take the smallest molecule in that mass; take the world whichever way you will-"

'Behold the world, how it is whirlèd round!

And, for it so is whirl'd, is namèd so.'

"(There's pretty etymology for you!) All movement in a straight line is eccentric, lawless, or would be were it possible, which I doubt. Why this haste, then, in passing given points? If man did it in a noble pride, as a tour de force, to prove himself so much the cleverer than the brute creation, I could understand it; but if that's his game, a speck of radium beats him in a common canter. I read in a scientific paper last week, in a signed article which bore every impress of truth, that there's a high explosive that will run a spark from here to Paris while you are pronouncing its name. Yet extend that run, and run it far and fast as you will, it can only come back to your hand.… Which," continued Brother Copas, raising his voice, for Brother Bonaday had toddled into the sitting-room to see if the kettle boiled, "reminds me of a story I picked up in the Liberal Club the other day, the truth of it guaranteed. Ten or eleven years ago the Mayor of Merchester died on the very eve of St. Giles's Fair. The Town Council met, and some were for stopping the shows and steam roundabouts as a mark of respect, while others doubted that the masses (among whom the Mayor had not been popular) would resent this curtailing of their fun. In the end a compromise was reached. The proprietor of the roundabouts was sent for, and the show-ground granted to him, on condition that he made his steam-organ play hymn tunes. He accepted, and that week the merrymakers revolved to the strains of 'Nearer, my God, to Thee.' It sounds absurd; but when you come to reflect-"

Brother Copas broke off, hearing a slight commotion in the next room. Brother Bonaday, kneeling and puffing at the fire which refused to boil the water, had been startled by voices in the entry. Looking up, flushed of face, he beheld a child on the threshold, with Nurse Branscome standing behind her.

"Daddy!"

Brother Copas from one doorway, Nurse Branscome from the other, saw Brother Bonaday's face twitch as with a pang of terror. He arose slowly from his knees, and very slowly-as if his will struggled against some invisible, detaining force-held out both hands. Corona ran to them; but, grasped by them, drew back for a moment, scanning him before she suffered herself to be kissed.

"My, what a dear old dress!… Daddy, you are a dude!"

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