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   Chapter 4 ROSEWARNE'S PENANCE.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 21127

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Beside the winding Avon above Warwick bridge there stretches a flat meadow, along the brink of which on a summer evening you may often count a score of anglers seated and watching their floats; decent citizens of Warwick, with a sprinkling of redcoats from the garrison. They say that two-thirds of the Trappist brotherhood are ex-soldiers; and perhaps if we knew the reason we might also know why angling has a peculiar fascination for the military.

Angling was but a pretext, however, with a young corporal of the 6th Regiment, who sat a few yards away on John Rosewarne's right, and smoked his pipe, and cast frequent furtive glances, now along the river path, now back and across the meadow where another path led from the town. Each of these glances ended in a resentful stare at his too-near neighbour, who fished on unregarding.

"Is this a favourite corner of yours?" the corporal asked after a while, with meaning.

"I have fished on this exact spot for thirty-five years," answered John Rosewarne, not lifting his eyes from the float.

The corporal whistled. "Thirty-five years! It's queer, now, that I never set eyes on you before-and I come here pretty often."

Rosewarne let a full minute go by before he answered again. "There's nothing queer about it, Unless you've been stationed long in Warwick."

"Best part of a year."

"Quite so: I fish in Avon once a year only."

"Belong to the town?"

"No; nor within two hundred miles of it."

"You must think better of the sport than I do, to come all that distance."

John Rosewarne lifted his eyes for the first time and turned them upon the young man.

"What sport?" he asked.

"Eh? Why, fishing, to be sure. What else?" stammered the corporal, taken aback.

"Tut!" said the old man curtly. "Here she comes. Now, what are you going to do?"

Without waiting for an answer, he bent his gaze on the float again, and kept it fastened there, as a pretty shop-girl came strolling along the river path. She had taken off her hat, of broad-brimmed straw with artificial poppies and cornflowers, and swung it in her hand as she came. Her eyes roamed the landscape carelessly, avoiding only that particular spot where the corporal, as she approached, scrambled to his feet; then, her start of surprise was admirable.

"Oh, it's you! Good-evening."

"Good-evening, miss."

"Why, whoever-! It seems to me you spend most of your time fishing."

She paused, gathering in her skirt a little-and this obviously was the cue for a gallant soldier. The corporal began, indeed, to wind up his line, but with a foolish grin and a glance at Rosewarne's back.

"It keeps beautiful weather," he answered at length.

"I call it sultry." She held out her hat with a little deprecating laugh. "I took it off for the sake of fresh air," she explained. Then, as he stood stock-still, a flush crept up her cheek to her pretty forehead.

"Well, good-evening; I won't interrupt you by talking," she said, and began to move away.

Come to think of it, it do look like thunder, "the corporal remarked to Rosewarne, staring after her and then up at the sky.

"If you had eyes in your head, you'd have seen that without her telling you. That cloud yonder has been rising against the wind for an hour. Look you along the bank, how every man Jack is unjointing his rod and making for home. Go, and leave me in peace!"

He did not turn his head even when the corporal, having packed together his gear, wished him good-night and hurried after the print frock as it vanished in the twilit shadows. One or two of the departing anglers paused as they went by to promise him that a storm was imminent and the fish had ceased feeding. He thanked them, yet sat on-solitary, in the leaden dusk.

The scene he had just witnessed-how it called up the irremediable past, with all the memories which had drawn him hither, summer after summer! And yet how common it was and minutely unimportant! Nightly by the banks of Avon couples had been courting-thousands in these thirty-five years- each of them dreaming, poor fools, that their moment's passion held the world in its hands. But the world teemed with rivers ten times lordlier than Avon-rivers stretching out in an endless map, with bridges on which lovers met and whispered, with banks down which they went with linked arms into the shadows-

"Were I but young for thee, as I hae been,

We should hae been gallopin' doun in yon green,

And linkin' it owre the lily-white lea-

And wow gin I were but young for thee!"

He had been young, and had loved and wronged a woman, and bitterly repented. He had married her, and marriage had killed neither love nor remorse. The woman was dead long since: he had married again, but never forgotten her nor ceased to repent. She, a pretty tradesman's daughter of Warwick, had collected her savings and taken ship for the West Indies, trusting to his word, facing a winter's passage in the sole hope that he would right her. Until the day of embarking she had never seen the sea; and the sea, after buffeting her to the verge of death, in the end betrayed her. A gale delayed the ship, and in the height of it her child was born. Rosewarne, a private soldier, went to his captain, as soon as she was landed, made a clean breast of it, and married her. But it was too late. She lived to return with him to England; but he knew well enough when she died that her sufferings on the passage out, and the abiding anguish of her shame, had killed her. A common tale! Men and women still go the way of their instinct, by which the race survives. "All the rivers run into the sea, and yet the sea is not full. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be, and that which is done is that which shall be done."

A tale as common as sunset! Yet upon all rivers and upon every bridge and willow-walk along their courses the indifferent sun shines for each pair of fools with a difference, lighting their passion with a separate flame. The woman was dead; and he-he that had been young-sat face to face with death.

He leaned forward, oblivious of the clouded dusk, with his half-shut eyes watching the grey gleam of the river; but his mind's eye saw the shadowy mead behind him, and a girlish figure crossing it with feet that seemed to faint, holding her back from doom, yet to be impelled against their will.

They drew nearer. He heard their step, and faced about with a start. An actual woman stood there on the river path, most like in the dusk to that other of thirty-five years ago; but whereas she had worn a print frock, this one was clad in total black.

"Mr. Rosewarne,"-she began; but her words came to a halt, checked by a near flash of lightning and by what it revealed.

He was in the act of rising-had risen, in fact, on one knee-when a spasm of pain took him, and his hand went up to his breast. For a moment he knelt so, turning on her a face of anguish; then sank and dropped in a heap at her feet.

Quick as thought she was down on her knees beside him, and, slipping an arm beneath his head, drew it upon her lap. While with swift fingers she loosened his collar and neckcloth, a peal of thunder rumbled out, and the first large raindrops fell splashing on her hand. She recalled that last gesture of his, and with sudden inspiration searched in his breast-pocket, found and drew out a small phial, uncorked it, and forced the liquid between his teeth before they clenched in a second spasm. Two or three sharp flashes followed the first. In the glare of them her eyes searched along the river-bank, if haply help might be near; but all the anglers had departed. Rosewarne's face stared up at her, blue as a dead man's in the dazzling light. At first it seemed to twitch with each opening of the heavens; but this must have been a trick of eyesight, for his head lay quiet against her arm as she raised him a little, shielding him against the torrential rain which now hissed down, in ten seconds drenching her to the skin, blotting out river and meadow in a sheet of grey. It forced her to stoop her shoulders, and, so covering him, she put out a hand and laid it over his heart. Yes, it beat, though feebly. Once more she picked up the phial and gave him to drink, and in a little while he stirred feebly and found his voice.

"Rain? Is it rain?" he muttered.

"Yes; but I can spread my skirt over you. It will keep off a little. Are you better?"

"Better? Yes, better. Let me feel the rain-it does me good." He lay silent for a minute or so. "I shall be right again in a few minutes. Did you find the phial?"

"Yes."

"Good girl. It was touch and go." By and by he made a movement to sit up. "Let us get home quickly. You can throw the rod into the river. I shan't want it again."

But she stood up, and, groping for the rod, drew the float ashore, and untackled it, still in the hissing rain. The storm, after a brief lull, had redoubled its rage. The darkness opened and shut as with a rapidly moving slide, the white battlements of Caesar's Tower gleaming and vanishing above the castle elms, and reappearing while their fierce candour yet blinded the eye. The thunder-peals, blending, wrapped Warwick as with one roar of artillery. Rosewarne had risen, and stood panting. He grasped her shoulder. "Come!" he commanded. The girl, dazzled by the lightning, puzzled by his sudden renewal of strength, turned and peered at him. He declined her arm. They walked back across the sodden meadow to the town, over the roofs of which, as the storm passed away northward, the lightning yet glimmered at intervals, turning the gaslights to a dirty orange.

At the summit of the High Street, hard by the Leycester Hospital, they came to the doorway of a small shuttered shop, over which by the light of a street lamp one could read the legend, "J. Marvin, Secondhand Bookseller." The girl opened the door with a latchkey. An oil lamp burned in an office at the back of the shop-if that can be spoken of as a separate room which was, in fact, entirely walled off with books laid flat and rising in stacks from the floor. The place, in fact, suggested a cave or den rather than a shop, with stalagmites of piled literature and a subtle pervading odour of dust and decayed leather. The girl, after shutting the bolts behind her, led the way cautiously, and, crossing a passage at the rear of the shop, opened a door upon a far more cheerful scene. Here, in a neat parlour hung with old prints and mezzotints and water-colours, a hanging lamp shed its rays on a Chi

na bowl heaped with Warwickshire roses, and on a white cloth and a table spread for supper.

"H'm!" grunted Rosewarne, glancing in through the doorway, while she lit a candle for him at the foot of the stairs. "Your father and I used to sup in the kitchen, with old Selina to wait on us."

"But since there is no longer any Selina! I had to pension her off, poor old soul, and she is gone to the almshouse."

She handed him the light.

"Now, if you will go up to your room, I will fetch the hot water, and then you must give me your change of clothes. They shall be warmed for a few minutes at the kitchen fire, and you shall have them hot-and-hot."

"It seems to me that while all this is doing, you will stand an excellent chance of rheumatic fever."

"Oh, I shall be all right," she announced cheerfully. "No-don't look at me, please. I know very well that the dye has run out of these crapes, and my face is beautifully streaked with black! Can you walk upstairs alone? Very well. And if you feel another attack coming, you are to call me at once."

She must have been expeditious; for when he came downstairs again he found her awaiting him in the parlour, clad in a frock of duffel-grey, which, with her damp, closely plaited hair, gave her a Quakerish look. Yet the frock became her; the natural wave of her hair, defying moisture, showed here and there rebelliously, and her cheeks glowed after a vigorous towelling.

Rosewarne drew from under his coat a bottle of champagne, and set it on the table, where the lamp's ray fell full on its gold foil. Her eyes opened wide; for he had always visited this house in his oldest clothes and passed for a poor man.

"Since you insist upon the parlour," said he, "I must try to live up to it." He produced a knife from his pocket, with a pair of nippers, and began to cut the wire. "Why are you wearing grey?" he demanded.

She flushed. "This is my school frock. I have only one suit of mourning as yet."

"And you sent away Selina. You wanted money, I suppose?"

"No," she answered, after a moment, meeting his eyes frankly; "at least, not in the way you mean. The doctor's bills were heavy, and for years father had done business enough to keep the roof over him and no more. So at first there was-well, a pinch. The books will sell, of course; two honest men are already bidding for them-one at Birmingham and the other at Bristol. But meanwhile I must pinch a little or run in debt. I hate debt."

"And afterwards?" Rosewarne broke off sharply, with a glance around the table. "But, excuse me, you have laid for one only."

"If it is your pleasure, Mr. Rosewarne."-

"Say that I claim it as an honour, Miss Hester," he answered, with a mock-serious bow.

She laughed, and ran off to the pantry.

"And afterwards?" he resumed, as they seated themselves.

"Afterwards? Oh, I go back to the teaching. I like it, you know."

He brimmed her glass with champagne, then filled his own. "You saved my life just now, Miss Hester; and life is good to look forward to, even when a very little remains. I drink to your happiness."

"Thank you, sir."

"How old are you?"

"I shall be twenty-five in August."

"And how long have you been teaching?"

"Eight years."

"Ah! is it eight years since I came and missed you? I remember, the last time we three supped together-you and your father and I-I remember taking note of you, and telling myself, 'She will be married before I return next year.' Why haven't you married?"

It was the essence of Hester Marvin's charm that she dealt straightly with all people.

"It takes two to make even that quarrel," she answered frankly and gaily. "Will you believe that nobody has ever asked me?"

"Make light of it if you will, but I bid you to beware. You were a good-looking missie, and you have grown-yes, one can say it without making you simper-into a more than good-looking woman. But the days slip by, child, and your looks will slip away with them. You are wasting your life in worrying over other folk's children. Those eyes of yours were meant for children of your own. What's more, you are muddling the world's work. Which do you teach now-boys or girls?"

"Girls for the most part; but I have a class of small boys."

"And what do you teach 'em-I mean, as the first and most important thing?"

Hester knit her brows for a moment before answering. "Well, I suppose, to be honourable to one another and gentle to their sisters."

"Just so. In other words, you relieve a mother of her proper duty. Who but a mother ought to teach a boy those things, if he's ever to learn 'em? That's what I call muddling the world's work. By the time a boy gets to school he ought to be ripe for a harder lesson, and learn that life's a fight in which brains and toil bring a man to the top. As for girls, one-half of present-day teaching is time and money thrown away. Teach 'em to be wives and mothers-to sew and cook."-

"Does your supper displease you, Mr. Rosewarne?"

He set down knife and fork with a comical stare around the board.

"Eh? No-but did you really-?"

Their eyes met, and they both broke into a laugh.

"I should very much like to know," said Hester, resting her elbows on the table and gazing at him over her folded hands, "if you have treated life as a fight in which men get the better of their neighbours."

He eyed her with sudden, sharp suspicion.

"You have at any rate a woman's curiosity," said he. "When you wrote to me that your father was dead, but that I might have, for the last time, my usual lodging here, had you any reason to suppose me a rich man?"

"I think," answered Hester slowly, after a pause, "that I must have spoken so as to hurt you somehow. If so, I am sorry; but you must hear now just why I wrote. I knew that, ever since I was born, and long before, you had come once a year and lodged here for a night. I knew that you came because my father was the parish clerk and let you spend the night in St Mary's Church; and I know that, though he allowed it secretly, you did no harm there, else he would never have allowed it. Now he is dead, and meanwhile I keep the keys by the parson's wish until a new parish clerk is appointed. And so I wrote, thinking to serve you for one year more as my father had served you for many."

"I thank you, Miss Hester, and I beg your pardon. Yet there is a question I need to ask, though you may very properly refuse to answer it. Beyond my name and address and my yearly visits, what do you know of me?"

"Nothing at all."

"You must have wondered why I should do this strange thing, year by year?"

"To wonder is not to be inquisitive. Of course I have wondered; but I supposed that you came to strengthen yourself in some purpose, or to keep alive a memory-of someone dear to you, perhaps. Into what has brought you to us year after year I have no wish at all to pry. But there is a look on your face-and when children come to me with that look they are unhappy with some secret, and want to be understood without having to tell all particulars. A schoolmistress gets to know that look, and recognises it sometimes in grown-up folk, even in quite old persons. Yes, and there is another look on your face. You are not strong enough to go alone to the church to-night, and you know it."

"I am going, I tell you."

He had pushed back his chair, and answered her, after a long pause, during which he watched her removing the cloth.

"To-morrow you may have recovered; but to-night you are faint from that attack. If you really must go, will you not let me go too, and take my promise neither to look nor to listen?"

"Get me the key," he commanded, and walked obstinately to the door. But there his strength betrayed him. He put out a hand against the jamb. "I am no better than a child," he groaned, and turned weakly to her. "Come if you will, girl. There is nothing to see, nothing to overhear."

She fetched cloak and bonnet and found the great keys. He and she stepped out by a back entrance upon a lane leading to the church. The storm had passed. Aloft, in a clear space of the sky, the moon rode and a few stars shone down whitely, as if with freshly washed faces. Hester carried a dark lantern under her cloak; but, within, the church was light enough for Rosewarne to grope his way to his accustomed pew. Hester saw him take his seat there, and choosing a pew at some distance, in the shadow of the south aisle, dropped on her knees.

Nothing happened. The tall figure in the chancel sat motionless. Rosewarne did not even pray-since he did not believe in God. But because a woman, now long dead, had believed and had implored him to believe also, that they two might one day meet in heaven, he consecrated this night to her, sitting in the habitation of her faith, keeping his gaze upon that spot in the darkness where on a bright Sunday morning a young soldier had caught sight of her and met her eyes for the first time. Year after year he had kept this vigil, concentrating his thought upon her and her faith; but never for an instant had that faith come near to touching him, except with a sentimental pity which he rejected, despising it; never had he come near to piercing the well of that mysterious comfort and releasing its waters. To him the dust of the great dead yonder in the Beauchamp Chapel-dust of men and women who had died in faith-was dust merely, arid, unbedewed by any promise of a life beyond. They had played their parts, and great tombs and canopies covered their final nothingness. This was the last time he would watch, and to-night he knew there was less chance than ever of any miracle; for weariness weighed on him, and the thought of coming annihilation held no terror, but only an invitation to be at rest.

From the tower overhead the airy chimes floated over Warwick, beating out a homely tune to mingle with homely dreams. He sat on, nor stirred.

The June dawn broke, with the twittering of birds in the churchyard. He stood up and stretched himself, with a frown for the painted windows with their unreal saints and martyrs. His footsteps as he walked down the aisle did not arouse the girl, who slept in the corner of the pew, with her loosened hair pencilling, as the dawn touched it, lines of red-gold light upon the dark panels. Her face was pale, and sleep gave it a childlike beauty. He understood, as he stooped and touched her shoulder, why the apparition of her on the river-bank had so startled him.

"Come, child," he said; "the night is over."

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