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   Chapter 1 ROSEWARNE OF HALL.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 12593

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


John Rosewarne sat in his counting-house at Hall, dictating a letter to his confidential clerk. The letter ran-

"Dear Sir,-In answer to yours of the 6th inst., I beg to inform you that in consequence of an arrangement with the Swedish firms, by which barrel-staves will be trimmed and finished to three standard lengths before shipment, we are enabled to offer an additional discount of five per cent, for the coming season on orders of five thousand staves and upwards. Such orders, however, should reach us before the fishery begins, as we hold ourselves free to raise the price at any time after 1st July. A consignment is expected from the Baltic within the next fortnight."

The little clerk looked up. His glance inquired, "Is that all?"

"Wait a minute." His master seemed to be reflecting; then leaning back in his chair and gripping its arms while he stared out of the bow-window before him, he resumed his dictation-

"I hope to be in Plymouth on Wednesday next, and that you will hold yourself ready for a call between two and three in the afternoon at your office."

"I beg your pardon, sir," the clerk interposed, "but Mr. Samuel closes early on Wednesdays.

"I know it. Go on, please-

"I have some matters to discuss alone with you, and they may take a considerable time. Kindly let me know by return if the date suggested is inconvenient."

"That will do." He held out his hand for the paper, and signed it, "Yours truly, John Rosewarne," while the clerk addressed the envelope. This concluded their day's work.

Rosewarne pulled out his watch, consulted it, and fell again to staring out of the open window. A climbing Banksia rose overgrew the sill and ran up the mullions, its clusters of nankeen buds stirred by the breeze and nodding against the pale sunset sky. Beyond the garden lay a small orchard fringed with elms; and below this the slope fell so steeply down to the harbourthat the elm-tops concealed its shipping and all but the chimney-smoke of a busy little town on its farther shore. High over this smoke the rooks were trailing westward and homeward.

Rosewarne heard the clank of mallets in a shipbuilding yard below. Then five o'clock struck from the church tower across the water, and the mallets ceased; but far down by the harbour's mouth the crew of a foreign-bound ship sang at the windlass-

"Good-bye, fare-ye-well-Good-bye, fare-ye-well!"

[In the original text a short length of musical score is shown]

The vessel belonged to him. He controlled most of the shipping and a good half of the harbour's trade. As for the town at his feet, had you examined his ledgers you might fancy its smoke ascending to him as incense. He sat with his strong hand resting on the arms of his chair, with the last gold of daylight touching his white hair and the lines of his firm, clean-shaven face, and overlooked his local world and his possessions. If they brought him happiness, he did not smile.

He aroused himself with a kind of shake of the shoulders, and stretched out a hand to ring, as his custom was after the day's work, for a draught of cider.

"Eh? Anything more?" he asked; for the little clerk, having gathered up his papers, had advanced close to the corner of the writing-table, and waited there with an air of apology.

"I beg your pardon, sir-the 28th of May. I had no opportunity this morning, but if I may take the liberty."-

"My birthday, Benny? So it is; and, begad, I believe you're the only soul to remember it. Stay a moment."-

He rang the bell, and ordered the maidservant to bring in a full jug of cider and two glasses. At the signal, a small Italian greyhound, who had been awaiting it, came forward fawning from her lair in the corner, and, encouraged by a snap of the fingers, leapt up to her master's knee.

"May God send you many, sir, and His mercy follow you all your days!" said little Mr. Benny, with sudden fervour. Relapsing at once into his ordinary manner, he produced a scrap of paper and tendered it shyly. "If you will think it appropriate," he explained.

"The usual compliment? Hand it over, man." Mr. Rosewarne took the paper and read-

"Another year, another milestone past;

Dear sir, I hope it will not be the last:

But more I hope that, when the road is trod,

You find the Inn, and sit you down with God."

"Thank you, Benny. Your own composition?"

"I ventured to consult my brother, sir. The idea-if I may so call it- was mine, however."

Mr. Rosewarne leant forward, and picking up a pen, docketed the paper with the day of the month and the year. He then pulled out a drawer on the left-hand side of his knee-hole table, selected a packet labelled "Complimentary, P. B."-his clerk's initials-slipped the new verses under the elastic band containing similar contributions of twenty years, replaced the packet, and shut the drawer. The little greyhound, displaced by these operations, sprang again to his knees, and he fell to fondling her ears.

"I do not think there will be many more miles, Benny," said he, reaching for the cider-jug. "But let us drink to the rest of the way."

"A great many, I hope, sir," remonstrated Mr. Benny. "And, sir-talking about milestones-you will be pleased to hear that Mrs. Benny was confined this morning. A fine boy."

"That must be the ninth at least."

"The eleventh, sir-six girls and five boys: besides three buried."

"Good Lord!"

"They bring their love with them, sir, as the saying is."

"And as the saying also is, Benny, it would be more to the purpose if they brought their boots and shoes. Man, you must have a nerve, to trust Providence as you do!"

"It's a struggle, sir, as you can guess; but except to your kindness in employing me, I am beholden to no man. I say it humbly-the Lord has been kind to me."

Rosewarne looked up for a moment and with a curious eagerness, as though on the point of putting a question. He suppressed it, however.

"It seems to me," he said slowly, "in this question of many children or few there's a natural conflict between the private man and the citizen; yes, that's how I put it-a natural conflict. I don't believe in Malthus or any talk about over-population. A nation can't breed too many sons. Sons are her strength, and if she is to whip her ri

vals it will be by the big battalions. Therefore, as I argue it out, a good citizen should beget many children. But now turn to the private side of it. A man wants to do the best for his own; and whatever his income, he can do better for two children than for half a dozen. To be sure, he mayn't turn 'em out as he intended."-

Here Rosewarne paused for a while unwittingly, as his eyes fell on the packet of letters in Mr. Benny's hand. The uppermost-the business letter which he had just signed-was addressed to his only son.

"-But all the same," he went on, "he has fitted them out and given them a better chance in the struggle for life. The devil takes the hindmost in this world, Benny. I'd like to lend you a book of Darwin's-the biggest book of this century, and a new gospel for the next to think out. The conclusion is that the spoils go to the strongest. You may help a man for the use you can make of him, but in the end every man's your natural enemy."

"A terrible gospel, sir! I shall have to get along with the old one, which says, 'Bear ye one another's burdens.'"

"I won't lend you the book. 'Twouldn't be fair to a man of your age, with eleven children. And after all, as I said, the new gospel has a place for patriots. They breed the raw material by which a nation crushes all rivals; then, when the fighting is over, along comes your man with money and a trained wit, and collars the spoils."

Mr. Benny stood shuffling his weight from one foot to the other. "Even if yours were the last word in this world, sir, there's another to reckon with."

"And meanwhile you're on pins and needles to be off to your wife's bedside. Very well, man-drink up your cider; and many thanks for your good wishes!"

As Mr. Benny hurried towards the wicket-gate and the street leading down to the ferry, he caught sight, across the hedge, of two children seated together in a corner of the garden on the step of a summer arbour, and paused to wave a hand to them.

They were a girl and a boy-the girl about eight years old and the boy a year or so younger-and the pair were occupied in making a garland such as children carry about on May-morning-two barrel-hoops fixed crosswise and mounted on a pole. The girl had laid the pole across her lap, and was binding the hoops with ferns and wild hyacinths, wallflowers, and garden tulips, talking the while with the boy, who bent his head close by hers and seemed to peer into the flowers. But in fact he was blind.

"You're late!" the girl called to Mr. Benny. At the sound of her voice, the boy too waved a hand to him.

"It's your grandfather's birthday, and I've been drinking his health." He beckoned them over to the hedge. "And it's another person's birthday," he announced mysteriously.

"Bless the man! you don't tell me you've gone and got another!" exclaimed the girl.

Mr. Benny nodded, no whit abashed.

"Boy or girl?"

"Boy."

"What is he like?" asked the boy. His blindness came from some defect of the optic nerve, and did not affect the beauty of his eyes, which were curiously reflective (as though they looked inwards), and in colour a deep violet-grey.

"I hadn't much time to take stock of him this morning," Mr. Benny confessed; "but the doctor said he was a fine one." He nodded at the garland. "Birthday present for your grandfather?" he asked.

"Grandfather doesn't bother himself about us," the girl answered. "Besides, what would he do with it?"

"I know-I know. It's better be unmannerly than troublesome, as they say; and you'd like to please him, but feel too shy to offer it. That's like me. I had it on my tongue just now to ask him to stand godfather-the child's birthday being the same as his own. 'Twas the honour of it I wanted; but like as not (thought I) he'll set it down that I'm fishing for something else, and when it didn't strike him to offer I felt I couldn't mention it."

"I'll ask him, if you like."

"Not on any account! No, please, you mustn't! Promise me."

"Very well."

"I oughtn't to have mentioned it, but,"-Mr. Benny rubbed the back of his head. "You don't know how it is-no, of course you wouldn't; somehow, when a child's born, I want to be talking all day."

"Like a hen. Well, run along home, and some day you shall ask us to tea with it."

But Mr. Benny had reached the wicket. It slammed behind him, and he ran down the street to the ferry at a round trot. He might have spared his haste, for he had to cool his heels for a good ten minutes on the slipway, and fill up the time in telling his news to half a dozen workmen gathered there and awaiting the boat. Old Nicky Vro, the ferryman, had pulled the same leisurable stroke for forty years now, and was not to be hurried.

The workmen were carpenters, all engaged upon the new schoolhouse above the hill, and returning from their day's job. They discussed the building as Nicky Vro tided them over. Its fittings, they agreed, were something out of the common.

"'Tis the old man's whim," said one. "He's all for education now, and the latest improvements. 'Capability'-that's his word."

"A poor lookout it'll be for Aunt Butson and her Infant School."

"He'll offer her the new place, maybe," it was suggested.

But all laughed at this. "What? with his notions? He's a darned sight more likely to offer her Nicky's job, here!"

Nicky smiled complacently in his half-witted way. "That's a joke, too," said he. He knew himself to be necessary to the ferry.

He pulled on-still with the same digging stroke which he could not have altered for a fortune-while his passengers discussed Rosewarne and Rosewarne's ways.

"Tis a hungry gleaning where he've a-reaped," said the man who had spoken of capability; "but I don't blame the old Greek-not I. 'Do or be done, miss doing and be done for'-that's the world's motto nowadays; and if I hadn't learnt it for myself, I've a son in America to write it home. Here we be all in a heap, and the lucky one levers himself a-top."

Mr. Benny said good-night to them on the landing-slip, and broke into a trot for home.

"'Tisn't true," he kept repeating to himself, almost fiercely for so mild a little man. "'Tisn't true, whatever it sounds. There's another world; and in this one-don't I know it?-there's love, love, love!"

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