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   Chapter 5 THE CLOSE OF A STEWARDSHIP.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 25099

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A strange impatience haunted Rosewarne on his homeward journey; an almost intolerable longing to arrive and get something over-he scarcely knew what. When at length he stood on the ferry slipway, with but a furlong or two of water between him and home, the very tranquillity of the scene irritated him subtly-the slow strength of the evening tide, the few ships idle at their moorings, the familiar hush of the town resting after its day's business. He tapped his foot on the cobbles as though this fretful action could quicken Uncle Nicky Vro, who came rowing across deliberately as ever, working his boat down the farther shore and then allowing the tide to slant it upstream to the landing-place.

"Eh? So 'tis you?" was Nicky's greeting. "Well, and I hope that you've enjoyed your holiday-not that I know, for my part, what a holiday means."

"It's time you took one, then," Rosewarne answered.

The old man chuckled. "Pretty things would happen if I did! 'Took a day off, one time, to marry my old woman, and another to bury her, and that's all in five-and-forty year. Not a day's sickness in all that time, thank the Lord!"

Rosewarne watched the old fellow's feeble digging stroke. "I preach capability," he said to himself, "and this is the sort of thing I allow!" His gaze travelled from the oar to the oarsman. "You're getting past your work, all the same," he said aloud. "What does it feel like?"

"Eh?"

"To give up life little by little. Some men run till they drop-are still running strong, maybe, when the grave opens at their feet, and in they go. With you 'tis more like the crumbling of rotten timber; a little dribble of sawdust day by day to show where the worms are boring. What does it feel like?"

"I don't feel it at all," Nicky answered cheerfully. "Folks tell me from time to time that I'm getting past. My own opinion is, they're in a greater hurry to get to market than of yore. 'Competition '-that's a cry sprung up since my young days: it used to be 'Religion,' and 'Nicholas Vro, be you a saved man?' The ferry must ply, week-day or Sabbath: I put it to you, What time have I got to be a saved man? The Lord is good, says I. Now I'll tell you a fancy of mine about Him. One day He'll come down to the slip calling 'Over!' and whiles I put Him across-scores of times I've a-seen myself doing it, and 'tis always in the cool of the evening after a spell of summer weather-He'll speak up like a gentleman, and ask, 'Nicholas Vro, how long have you been a-working this here boat?' 'Lord,' I'll answer, 'for maybe a matter of fifty year, calm or blow, week-days and Sabbaths alike; and that's the reason your Honour has missed me up to church, as you may have noticed.' 'You must be middlin' tired of it,' He'll say: and I shall answer up, 'Lord, if you say so, I don't contradict 'ee; but 'tis no bad billet for a man given to chat with his naybours and talk over the latest news and be sociable, and warning to leave don't come from me.' 'You'd best give me over they oars, all the same,' He'll say; and with that I shall hand 'em over and be rowed across to a better world."

Rosewarne was not listening. "Surely, man, the tide's slack enough by this time!" he interrupted, his irritation again overcoming him. "You needn't be fetching across sideways, like a crab."

Nicky Rested on his oars, and stared at him for a moment. As if Rosewarne or any man alive could teach him how to pull the ferry! He disdained to argue.

"Talking about news," said he, resuming his stroke, "the Virtuous Lady arrived yesterday, and began to unload this morning. You can see her top-m'sts down yonder, over the town quay."

"Has Mrs. Purchase been ashore?" Mrs. Purchase was Rosewarne's only sister, who had married a merchant skipper and sailed with him ever since in the Virtuous Lady, in which she held a preponderance of the shares.

"Came ashore this very afternoon in a bonnet as large as St. Paul's, with two-thirds of a great hummingbird a-top. She's balancing up the freight accounts at this moment with Peter Benny. Indeed, master, you'll find a plenty of folk have been inquiring for 'ee. There's the parson for one. To my knowledge he've been down three times to ask when you'd be back, and if you'd forgotten the School Managers' meeting, that's fixed for to-morrow." Uncle Nicky brought his boat at length to shore. "And there's Aun' Butson in terror that you'll be bringing in some stranger to teach the children, and at her door half the day listening for your footstep, to petition 'ee."

Somehow Rosewarne had promised himself that the restlessness would leave him as soon as he reached his own side of the water. He stepped ashore and began to walk up the slipway at a brisk pace; and then on a sudden his brain harked backward to Uncle Nicky's talk, to which a minute before he had listened so inattentively. In his hurry he had let an opportunity pass. The old man had talked of death; had been on the point of saying something important, perhaps-for all that concerned death and men's views of death had become important now. He halted and turned irresolutely. But the moment had gone by.

"Good-night!" he called back, and resumed his way up the village street.

Uncle Nicky, bending to replace a worn thole-pin with a new one, dropped the pair with a clatter. In all his experience Rosewarne had never before flung him a salutation.

"And a minute ago trying to tell me how to work the ferry!" the old man muttered, staring after him. "The man must be ailing."

As a hunted deer puts the water between him and the hounds, Rosewarne had hoped to shake off his worry at the ferry-crossing. But no; it dogged him yet as he mounted the hill. Only, as a dreamer may suffer the horror of nightmare, yet know all the while that it is a dream, he felt the impatience and knew it for a vain thing. All his life he had been hurrying desperately, and all his life the true moments had offered themselves and been left ungrasped.

Before the doorway of a cottage halfway up the hill an old woman waited to intercept him-Aunt Butson, the village schoolmistress. She was a spinster well over sixty, and lodged with a widow woman, Sarah Trevarthen, to whom the cottage belonged.

Rosewarne frowned at the sight of her. She wore her best cap and shawl, and her cheeks were flushed. Behind her in the doorway sat a young sailor, with a cage on the ground beside him and a parrot perched on his forefinger close against his cheek. He glanced up with a shy, very good-natured smile, touched his forelock to Rosewarne, and went on whispering to the bird.

Aunt Butson stepped out into the roadway. "Good-evening, Mr. Rosewarne, and glad to see you back and in health!" She dropped him a curtsey. "If you've a minute to spare, sir."-

Confound the woman!-he had no minutes to spare. Still frowning, he looked over her head at the young sailor, Sarah Trevarthen's boy Tom, home from his Baltic voyage in the Virtuous Lady. Yes, it was Tom Trevarthen, now a man grown. Rosewarne remembered him as a child in frocks, tumbling about the roadway; as an urchin straddling a stick; as a lad home (with this same parrot) from his first voyage. Who, in a world moving at such a pace, could have a minute to spare?

Aunt Butson had plunged into her petition, and was voluble. It concerned the new schools, of course. "She had taught reading, writing, and ciphering for close on forty years. All the children in the village, and nine-tenths of their parents for that matter, owed their education to her. A little she could do, too, in navigation-as Mr. Rosewarne well knew: enough to prepare a lad for schoolmaster Penrose across the water. Mr. Penrose would rather teach two boys from her school than one from any other parish. Surely-surely-the new Board wouldn't take the bread out of an old woman's mouth and drive her to the workhouse? She didn't believe, as some did, in this new-fangled education, and wouldn't pretend to. Arithmetic up to practice-sums and good writing and spelling- anything up to five syllables-were education enough to her mind for any child that knew his station in life. The rest of it only bred Radicals. Still, let her have a trial at least; let them decide to-morrow to give her a chance; 'twould be no more than neighbourly. Her ways might be old-fashioned; but she could learn. And with Mrs. Trevarthen to keep the grand new schoolroom dusted-if they would give her the job-and look after the fires and lighting."-

Rosewarne pretended to listen. The poor soul was inefficient, and he knew it: beneath all her flow of speech ran an undercurrent of wrath against the new learning and all its works. Poverty-sheer terror of a dwindling cupboard and the workhouse to follow-drove her to plead with that which she hated worse than the plague. He heard, and all the while his mind was miles away from her petition; for some chance word or words let fall by her had seemed for an instant to offer him a clue. Somewhere in the past these words had made part of a phrase or sentence which, could he but find it again, would resolve all this brooding trouble. He searched his memory-in vain; the words drew together like dancers in a figure, and then, on the edge of combining, fell apart and were lost.

Aloud he kept saying, "You mustn't count on it. Some provision will be made for you, no doubt-in these days one must march with the times." This was all the comfort she could win from him, and the poor old creature gazed after him forlornly when at length he broke from her and went his way up the hill.

He reached the entrance-gate. As it clashed behind him, two children at play in the garden lifted their heads. The girl whispered to the boy, and the pair stole away out of sight. From the porch the small greyhound caught sight of him, and, bounding to him, fawned about his feet. In the counting-house he found his sister closeted with Mr. Benny, and a pile of bills on the table between. Mrs. Purchase rose and greeted him with a little pecking kiss. She was a cheerful body, by some five or six years his junior, with a handsome weather-tanned face, eyes wrinkled at the corners like a seaman's, and two troubles in the world-the first being that she had borne no children. She shared her husband's voyaging, kept the ship's accounts, was known to all on board as "The Bos'un," and when battened under hatches in foul weather spent her time in trimming the most wonderful bonnets. Her coquetry stopped short at bonnets. To-day indeed-the weather being warm-in lieu of bodice she had slipped on a grey alpaca coat of her husband's.

"Good-evening, John!" She plunged at once into a narrative of the passage home-how they had picked up a slant off Heligoland and carried it with them well past the Wight; how on this side of Portland they had met with slight and baffling head-winds, and for two days had done little more than drift with the tides. The vessel was foul with weed, and must go into dock. "You could graze a cow on her for a fortnight," Mrs. Purchase declared. "Benny and I have just finished checking the bills. You'd like to run through them?"

"Let be," said Rosewarne. "I'll cast an eye over them to-night maybe." He stepped to the bell-rope and rang for his jug of cider.

Some touch of fatigue in the movement, some slight greyness in his face, caught Mrs. Purchase's sisterly eye.

"It's my belief you're unwell, John."

"Weary, my dear Hannah-weary; that's all." He turned to the little clerk. "That will do for to-night, Benny. You can leave all the papers as they are, just putting these bills together in a heap. Is that the correspondence? Very well; I'll deal with it."

"In all my life I never heard you own to feeling tired," persisted Mrs. Purchase, as Mr. Benny closed the door behind him. "You may take my word for it, you're unwell; been sleeping in some damp bed, belike."

Rosewarne moved to the window and gazed out across the garden. Down by the yew-hedge, where a narrow path of turf wound in and out among beds of tall Madonna lilies and Canterbury bells, the two children were playing a solemn game of follow-my-leader, the blind boy close on his sister's heels, she turning again and again to watch that he came to no harm.

"I wonder if that boy could be trained and made fit for something?" mused Rosewarne aloud.

"Eh? Is it Clem?" She had followed and stood now by his elbow. "My dear man, he has the brains of the family! Leave Myra to teach him for a while. See how she's teaching him now, alt

hough she doesn't know it; and that goes on from morning to night."

"Where's the use of it? What's a blind man, at the best?"

"What God means him to be. If God means him to do better-ay, or to see clearer-than other men, 'tisn't a pair of darkened eyes will prevent it."

"Woman's argument, Hannah. I take you on your own ground-God could cure the child's eyes; but God doesn't, you see. On the contrary, God chose to blind 'em. If I'd your religion, it would teach me that Clem's misfortune was a punishment designed-the sins of the fathers."-

"Ay, you're a hard man, like your father and mine. Haven't I cause to know it? Hadn't she cause to know it-the mother of that pretty pair?"

"She made her bed."

"-And lies in it, poor soul. But I tell you, John, there's a worse blindness than Clem's, and you and father have suffered from it. I mean the blindness of thinking you know God's business so much better than God that you take it out of His hands. 'Punishment,' you say, and 'sins of the fathers'? I'd have you beware how you visit the past on poor Clem, or happen you may find some day that out of the sins of his fathers you have chosen your own to lay on him."

Rosewarne turned on her with a harsh glance of suspicion. No, her eyes were candid-she had spoken so by chance-she did not guess.

Had he been blind all his life? It was certain that now at the last his eyes saw the world differently, and all things in it. Those children yonder-a hundred times from this window he had watched them at play without heeding. To-night they moved against the dark yew-hedge like figures in a toy theatre, withdrawn within a shadowy world of their own, celebrating a ritual in which he had no concern. The same instant revealed their beauty and removed them beyond his reach. Did he wish to make amends? He could not tell. He only knew it was too late. The world was slipping away from him-these children with it-dissolving into the shadow that climbed about him.

Next morning he saddled his horse and rode. His way led him past the new school-buildings; and he reined up for a minute, while his eyes dwelt on them with a certain pride. As chairman of the new School Board he had chosen the architect, supervised the plans, and seen to it that the contractor used none but the best material. The school would compare with any in the Duchy, and should have a teacher worthy of it-one to open the children's eyes and proclaim and inculcate the doctrine of progress. John Rosewarne was a patriot in his unemotional way. He hated the drift of the rural population into the towns, foreseeing that it sapped the strength of England. He despised it too; his own experience telling him that a countryman might amass wealth if he had brains and used them. As for the brainless herd, they should be kept on the land at all cost, to grow strong, breed strong children, and, when the inevitable hour came, be used as fighters to defend England's wealth.

He rode on pondering, past uplands where the larks sang and the mowers whetted their scythes; down between honeysuckle-hedges to a small village glassing itself in the head waters of a creek, asleep, since all its grown inhabitants had climbed the hill to toil in the hay-harvest, and silent but for a few clucking fowls and a murmur of voices within the infants' school; thence across a bridge, and up and along a winding valley to the park gates at Damelioc. Beyond these the valley narrowed to a sylvan gorge, and the speckless carriage-road mounted under forest trees alongside a river tumbling in miniature cascades, swirling under mossy footbridges, here and there artfully delayed to form a trout-pool, or as artfully veiled by thickets of trailing wild roses and Traveller's Joy. For a mile and more he rode upward under soft green shadows, then lifted his eyes to wide daylight as the coombe opened suddenly upon a noble home-park, smooth as a lawn, rising in waves among the folds of the hills to a high plateau whence Damelioc House looked seaward-a house of wide prospect and in aspect stately, classical in plan, magnificently filling the eye with its bold straight lines and ample symmetries prolonged in terraces and rows of statues interset with pointed yews.

The mistress of this palace gave him audience as usual in her blue-and-white morning-room, from the ceiling of which, from the centre of a painting, "The Nuptials of Venus and Vulcan," her own youthful face smiled down, her husband having for a whim instructed the painter to depict the goddess in her likeness. It smiled down now on a little shrunken lady huddled deep in an easy-chair. Only her dark eyes kept some of their old expressiveness, and her voice an echo of its old full tone.

She asked Rosewarne a polite question or two concerning his holiday, and they fell at once to ordinary talk-of repairs, rents, game, and live-stock generally, the hiring of a couple of under-keepers, the likeliest tenant for a park-lodge which had fallen empty; of investments too, and the money market, since Rosewarne was her man of business as well as steward.

Lady Killiow trusted him absolutely; but only because she had long since proved him. He on his part yielded her the deepest respect, both for her sagacity in business and for the fine self-command with which she, an actress of obscure birth, had put the stage behind her, assumed her rank, and borne it through all these years with something more than adequacy. John Rosewarne, like a true Briton, venerated rank, and had a Briton's instinct for the behaviour proper to rank. About his mistress there could be no question. She was a great lady to the last drop of her blood.

His devotion to her had a touch of high chivalry. It came of long service; of pity for her early widowhood, for her childlessness, for the fate ordaining that all these great possessions must be inherited by strangers; but most of all it was coloured by a memory of which he had never dared, and would never dare, to speak.

He had seen her on the stage. Once, in his wild days, and not long before he enlisted, he had spent a week in Plymouth, where she was acting, the one star in a touring company. Night after night she had laid a spell on him; it was not Rosalind, not Imogen, not Mrs. Haller, not Lady Teazle, that he watched from the pit; but one divine woman passing from avatar to avatar. So, when the last night revealed her as Lady Macbeth, as little could he condemn her of guilt as understand her remorse. He saw her suffering because for so splendid a creature nothing less could be decreed by the jealous gods. It tortured him; and when the officer announced her death, for the moment he could believe no less. 'The queen, my lord, is dead.' 'She should have died hereafter.' How well he remembered the words and Macbeth's reply-those two strokes upon the heart, strokes of a muffled bell following the outcry of women.

He was no reader of poetry. He had bought the book afterwards, and flung it away; it tangled him in words, but showed him nothing of the woman he sought.

Yet to-day, as he stood before Lady Killiow discussing the petty question of a lease, the scene and words flashed upon him together, and he grasped the clue for which his brain had been searching yesterday while he listened to old Mrs. Butson. It was Lady Killiow who called the lease a 'petty' one, and that word unlocked his memory. "This petty pace-

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time-

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death."

"I beg your pardon," said Lady Killiow, lifting her eyes to him in some astonishment-for he had muttered a word or two-and meeting his fixed stare. "You are not attending, I believe."

"Excuse me, my lady. It is true that I have not been well of late-and that reminds me: in case of illness, my son will post down from Plymouth. He holds himself ready at call. If I may say it, you will find him less of a fool than he looks."

Lady Killiow put up her hands with a little laugh, half comfortable, half wistful. "My good Mr. Rosewarne, I am a very old woman! In a short while you may do as you like; but until I am gone, please understand that you cannot possibly fall ill."

He bowed with a grave smile. Of his mistress's grateful affection he took away these light words only: but they were enough.

He had thought by this visit to Damelioc to lay his demon of restlessness; had supposed this monthly account of his stewardship, punctually rendered, to be the business weighing on his mind. But no: as he passed out through the park gates, the imp perched itself again behind his crupper, urging him forward, tormenting him with the same vague sense of duty neglected and clamorous.

Towards evening it grew so nearly intolerable that he had much ado to sit patiently and preside at the School Board meeting, convened, as usual, in the great parlour at Hall. All the Board was there: the Clerk, Mr. Benny, and the six Managers; two Churchmen, three Dissenters, and himself-a Gallio with a casting vote. He was used to reflecting cynically that these opponents trusted him precisely because he cared less than a tinker's curse for their creeds, and reconciled all religious differences in a broad, impartial contempt. But to-night, as Parson Endicott approached the crucial difficulty-the choice of a new teacher-with all the wariness of a practised committee-man, laying his innocent parallels and bringing up his guns under cover of a pleasant disavowal to which the three Dissenters responded with "Hear, hear!" John Rosewarne listened not at all, nor to the fence of debate that followed as Church and Dissent grew heated and their friction struck out the familiar sparks- 'sectarian,' 'undoctrinal,' 'arrogance,' 'broad-mindedness.' At length came the equally familiar pause, when the exhausted combatants turned by consent and waited on their chairman. He sat tapping his fingers upon the polished mahogany, watching the reflected candle-lights along its surface, wondering when these fretful voices would cease, these warring atoms release him to obey the summons of his soul-still incomprehensible, still urgent.

Their sudden hush recalled him with a start. He had heard nothing of their debate. Slowly he lifted his eyes and let them rest upon Mr. Benny, who sat on his right, patiently waiting to take down the next entry for the minutes.

"If you will trust me," he said, "I can find you a teacher-a woman-whom you will all accept."

He had spoken without premeditation, and paused now, doubtful of the sound of his own voice. The five Managers were looking at him with respectful attention. Apparently, then, he was speaking sense; and he spoke on, still wondering by what will (not his own) the words came.

"If you leave her and the children alone, I think her religion will not trouble you. She is accustomed to boys, and teaches them to be honourable to one another and gentle to their sisters."

He paused again and drummed with his fingers on the table. He heard the voices break out again, and gathered that the majority assented. Mechanically he put the resolution, declared it carried, and closed the meeting; as mechanically he shook hands with all the Managers and wished them good-night. "And on your way, Benny, you may tell the maids they may go to bed. I'll blow out the candles myself."

When all had taken their leave he sat for a while, still staring at the reflected lights along the board. Then he arose and passed into his counting-house, where an oil lamp burned upon his writing-table.

He took pen and paper and wrote, addressed the letter, sealed it carefully, and leaned back in his chair, studying the address.

"There is to-morrow," he muttered. "I can reconsider it before post-time to-morrow."

But the restlessness had vanished and left in its stead a deep peace. If Death waited for him in the next room, he felt that he could go quietly now and take it by the hand. He remembered the candles still burning there, and stood up with a slight shiver-a characteristic shake of his broad shoulders. As he did so his eyes fell again upon the addressed letter. He turned them slowly to the door-and there, between him and the lights on the long table, a vision moved towards him-the figure of a girl dressed all in black. His hand went up to the phial in his breast-pocket, but paused half-way as he gazed into the face and met her eyes….

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