MoboReader> Literature > Shining Ferry

   Chapter 6 THE RAFTERS.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 19596

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Two children came stealing downstairs in the early dawn, carrying their boots in their hands, whispering, lifting their faces as if listening for some sound to come from the upper floors. But the whole house kept silence.

Their plan was to escape by one of the windows on the ground floor. Tiptoeing along the hall to the door of the great parlour, Myra noiselessly lifted the latch (all the doors in the house had old-fashioned latches) and peeped in. The candles on the long table had burned themselves out, and the shuttered room lay in darkness save for one long glint of light along the mahogany table-top. It came from the half-open doorway in the far corner, beyond which, in the counting-house, a ghost of a flame yet trembled in Rosewarne's lamp.

Myra caught at Clem's arm and drew him back into the hall. For the moment terror overcame her-terror of something sinister within-of their grandfather sitting there like Giant Pope in the story, waiting to catch them. She hurried Clem along to the kitchen-passage, which opened out of the hall at right angles to the front door and close beside it. The front door had a fanlight through which fell one broken sunray, filtered to a pale green by the honeysuckle of the porch; and reaching it, she caught her breath in a new alarm. The bolts were drawn.

After a furtive glance behind her, she peered more closely, holding Clem fast by the sleeve. Yes, certainly the bolts were drawn, and the key had not been turned in the lock. Very cautiously she tried the heavy latch. The door opened easily-though with a creak that fetched her heart into her mouth.

But there was no going back. Whatever might be the explanation of the unbolted door, they were free now, at large in the dewy morning with the world at their feet. The brightness of it dazzled Myra. It broke on Clem's ears with the dinning of innumerable birds.

They took hands and hurried down the gravel path. Did ever Madonna lilies, did ever clove carnations smell as did these, lifting their heads from their morning bath? Yet field challenged garden with the fragrance of new-mown hay wafted down through the elms from Parc-an-hal, that great meadow.

On the low wall by the garden-gate Myra found a seat for Clem, helped him to lace his boots, and then did on her own.

"What's the time?" Clem demanded.

"I don't know, but he'll be coming soon. It can't be four o'clock yet, or we should hear Jim Tregay knocking about the milk-pails."

The boy sat silent, nursing his knee, drinking in a thousand scents and sounds. Myra watched the great humble-bees staggering from flower to flower, blundering among their dew-filled cups. She drew down a lily-stem gently, and guided her brother's hand so that it held one heady fellow imprisoned, buzzing under his palm and tickling it. Clem laughed aloud.

"Listen!"

A lad came whistling Up the road from the village. It was Tom Trevarthen, and the sunshine glinted on his silver earrings.

"Good-morning, missy! Good-morning, Master Clem! I'm good as my word, you see; though be sure I never reckoned to find 'ee up and out at this hour."

"Myra woke me," said Clem. "I believe she keeps a clock in her head."

"When I want to wake up at any particular hour, I just do it," Myra announced calmly. "Have they begun the rafting?"

"Bless your life, they've been working all night. There's one raft finished, and the other ought to be ready in a couple or three hours, to save the tide across the bay."

"I don't hear them singing."

"'Tisn't allowed. The Bo-your Aunt Hannah, I mean-says she don't mind what happens to sea, but she won't have her nights in harbour disturbed. Old Billy Daddo hadn't laid hands on the first balk before he began to pipe, 'O for a thousand tongues to sing,' starting on the very first hymn in the collection like as if he meant to sing right through it. He hadn't got to 'music in the sinner's ears' before the old woman pushed her face overside by the starboard cathead, nightcap and all-in that time she must ha' nipped out of her berth, up the companion, and along the length of the deck-and says she, 'I ben't no sinner, William Daddo, but a staid woman that likes her sleep and means to have it.' 'Why, missus,' says Billy, 'you'll surely lev' a man ask a blessing on his labours!' 'Ask quiet then,' she says, 'or you'll get slops.' Since then they be all as mute as mice."

Myra took Clem's hand, and the three hurried down the hill and through the sleeping village to the ferry-slip, where Tom had a ship's boat ready. In fifty strokes he brought her alongside the barque where the rafters- twenty-five or thirty-were at work, busy as flies. The Virtuous Lady had been towed up overnight from her first anchorage to a berth under Hall gardens, and a hatch opened in her bows, through which the long balks of timber were thrust by the stevedores at work in the hold and received by a gang outside, who floated them off to be laid raftwise and lashed together with chains. The sun, already working around to the south, gilded the barque's top-gallant masts and yards, and flung a stream of gold along the raft already finished and moored in midstream. But the great hull lay as yet in the cool shadow of the hillside over which the larks sang.

Tom Trevarthen found the children a corner on the half-finished raft, out of the way of the workmen, and a spare tarpaulin to keep their clothes dry; and there they sat happily, the boy listening and Myra explaining, until Mrs. Purchase, having slept her sleep and dressed herself (partly), emerged on deck with a teapot to fill at the cook's galley, and, looking over the bulwarks, caught sight of them.

"Hullo! You don't tell me that Susannah,"-this was the housekeeper at Hall-"allows you abroad at this hour!"

Now the risk of Susannah's discovering their escape and pursuing was the one bitter drop in the cup of these truants' happiness. Susannah-a middle-aged, ill-favoured spinster, daughter of a yeoman-farmer, with whose second wife she could not agree-scorned the sea and all sailors. Once, as a girl, she had committed her ample person to a sailing boat, and, thank God! that one lesson had been enough. Ships came and went under the windows of Hall, but in the children's eyes they and their crews belonged to an unknown world. Things real to them were the farm and farm stock, harvests and harvest-homes, the waggoners' teams, byres, orchards, garden, and cool dairy. Ships' captains arrived out of fairyland sometimes, and crossed the straw-littered townplace to hold audience with their grandfather; magic odours of hemp and pitch, magic chanty songs and clanking of windlasses called to them up the hill; but until this morning they had never dared to obey the call. Had Clem been as other boys-. But, being blind, he trusted to Myra, and Myra was a girl.

"Come aboard and have a drink of something cordial!" continued Mrs. Purchase, holding the teapot aloft. She walked forward and looked down on the workers. "Now you may sing, boys, if't pleases 'ee."

"Thank'ee, ma'am," answered up Billy Daddo; "then lev' us make a start with Wrestling Jacob, Part Two-"

'Lame as I am, I take the prey'-

"'Tis a pleasant old tune and never comes amiss, but for choice o' seasons give me the dew o' the mornin'."

He pitched the note in high falsetto, and after a couple of bars five or six near comrades joined in together-

"Speak to me now, for I am weak,

But confident in self-despair:

Speak to my heart, in blessings speak;

Be conquer'd by my instant prayer!

Speak, or thou never hence shall move,

And tell me if thy name is Love."

Billy Daddo's gang hailed from a parish, three miles up the coast, noted for containing "but one man that couldn't preach, and that was the parson." Their fellow-labourers-the crew of the barque and half-a-score longshoremen belonging to the port-heard without thought of deriding. Though themselves unconverted-for life in a town, especially in a seaport town, makes men curious and critical rather than intense, and life in a ship ruled by Mrs. Purchase did not encourage visionaries-they were accustomed to the fervours of the redeemed.

"'Tis Love! 'tis Love! thou diedst for me:

I hear thy whisper in my heart-!"

"Brayvo! 'tis workin'! 'tis workin'! Give it tongue, brother Langman!" cried Billy, as a stevedore within the hold broke forth into a stentorian bass that made the ship rumble-

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

Pure universal Love thou art:

To me, to me thy bowels move,

Thy nature and thy name is Love!"

Meanwhile young Tom Trevarthen had brought the children under the vessel's side, and was helping Clem up the ladder. Mrs. Purchase greeted them with a kiss apiece, and carried them off to the cabin, where they found Mr. Purchase eating bread and cream.

Skipper Purchase, a smart seaman in his day and a first-class navigator, had for a year or two been gradually weakening in the head; a decline which his wife noted, though she kept her anxiety to herself. She foresaw with a pang the end of their voyaging, and watched him narrowly, having made a compact with herself to interfere before he imperilled the Virtuous Lady. Hitherto, however, his wits had unfailingly cleared to meet an emergency. While she could count upon this, she knew herself competent to rule the ship in all ordinary weather.

"Help yourselves to cream," said Mr. Purchase, after giving them good-morning. "Clever men tell me there's more nourishment in a pound o' cream than in an ox. Now that may seem marvellous in your eyes?" He paused with a wavering, absent-minded smile. "'Tis the most nourishing food in the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms,-unless you count parsnips."

"T'cht!" his wife put in

briskly, banging down a couple of clean teacups on the swing-table. "Children don't want a passel o' science in their insides. Milk or weak tea, my dears?"

"I don't know," the skipper went on after another long pause, bringing his Uncertain eyes to bear on Clem, "if you've ever taken note what astonishing things folks used to eat in the Bible. There's locusts, and wild honey, and unleavened bread-I made out a list of oddments one time. Nebbycannezzar don't count, of course; but Ezekiel took down a whole book in the shape of a roll."

Mrs. Purchase signed to Myra to pay no heed, and engaged Clem in a sort of quick-firing catechism on the cabin fittings, their positions and uses. The boy, who had been on board but once in his life before, stretched out a hand and touched each article as she named it.

"The lamp, now?"

Clem reached up at once and laid his fingers on it, gently as a butterfly alights on a flower.

"How does it swing?"

"On gimbals."

"Eh? and what may gimbals be?"

"There's a ring fastened here,"-the boy's fingers found it-"and swinging to and fro; and inside the ring is a bar, holding the lamp so that it tips to and fro crossways to the ring. You weight the bottom of the lamp, and then it keeps plumb upright however the ship moves."

"Wunnerful memory you've got, to be sure-and your gran'father tells me you can't even read!"

"But he knows his letters," Myra announced proudly; "and when the new teacher comes he's to go to school with me. Susannah says so."

"How in the world did you teach'n his letters, child?"

"I cut them on the match-boarding inside the summer-house, and he traces them out with his fingers. If you go up you can see for yourself-the whole lot from A to Ampassy! He never makes a mistake-do you, Clem? And I've begun to cut out 'Our Father,' but it's slow work."

"Did ever you hear tell!" Mrs. Purchase turned to her husband, who had come out of his reverie and sat regarding Clem with something like lively interest. He had, in fact, opened his mouth to utter a scriptural quotation, but, checked on the verge of it, dropped back into pensiveness.

At this point Mrs. Purchase's practised ear told her that the stevedores were ceasing work, and she bustled up the ladder to summon her crew to swab decks. The old man, left alone with the children, leaned forward, jerked a thumb after her, and said impressively, "I named her myself."

"Who? Aunt Hannah?" stammered Myra, taken aback.

"No, the ship. I named her after your aunt. 'Who can find a virtuous woman?' says Solomon. 'I can,' says I; 'and, what's more, I done it: only I changed the word to lady, as more becoming to one of her haveage. Proverbs thirty-one, fourteen-turn it up when you get home, and you'll find these words: 'She is like the merchant ships, she bringeth her food from afar.'"

"Uncle," put in Myra breathlessly, "I want you to listen for a moment! Clem and I have run away this morning, and by this time Susannah will have found it out and be searching. If she sends down here, couldn't you hide us-just for a little while? The-the fact is, we've set our hearts on going with the rafts. There's no danger in this weather, and Tom Trevarthen has promised to look after us. I don't dare to ask Aunt Hannah; but if you could have a boat ready just when the rafts are starting, and hide us somewhere till then."-

Mr. Purchase did not seem to hear, but rose and opened a small Dutch corner-cupboard, inlaid with parrots and tulips, and darkly varnished. From it he took a large Bible.

"I'll show you the text I was speaking of."

"But, uncle."-

"They'm washing-down already," said he, lifting his head to the sound of rushing water on deck. "Your aunt will be back in a moment, and 'tis time for prayers."

Sure enough, at that instant the feet and ankles of Mrs. Purchase appeared on the ladder. "Tide's on the turn," she announced. "Keep your seats, my dears; the Lord knows there's no room to kneel, and He makes allowance." She set a small packed basket on the table, and turned to her husband. "You'll have to pray short, too, if the children are going with the rafts."

"Going?-Oh, Aunt Hannah!"

"Why, I'd a notion you wanted to! To be sure, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong, and 'tisn' the first time; but young Tom Trevarthen didn' seem to reckon so. There, get your prayers over and cut along; I'll make it all right with your grandfather and Susannah."

Ah, but it was bliss, and blissful to remember! The rafts dropped down past the town quay, past the old lock-houses, past the ivied fort at the harbour's mouth, and out to the open sea that twinkled for leagues under the faint northerly breeze, dazzling Myra's eyes. Tom Trevarthen grinned as he tugged at an enormous sweep with two other men, Methodists both, and sang with them and with Billy Daddo, who steered with another sweep, rigged aft upon a crutch-

"Praise ye the Lord! 'Tis good to raise

Your hearts and voices in His praise."-

"Now what should put it in my noddle to take up with that old hemn?" asked Billy aloud, coming to a halt at the close of the first verse and scratching his head. "'Tidn' one of my first fav'rites-nothing in it about the Blood o' the Lamb-an' I can't call to mind havin' pitched it for years. Well, never mind! The Lord hev done it with some purpose, you may be sure."

"I call it a very pretty hymn," said Myra, for he seemed to be addressing her. "And isn't it reason enough that you're glad to be alive?"

"But I bain't," Billy argued, shaking his head. "You wouldn' understand it at your age, missy; but as a saved soul I counts the days. Long after I was a man grown, the very sound of 'He comes, He comes! the Judge severe,' or 'Terrible thought, shall I alone,' used to put me all of a twitter. Now they be but weak meat, is you might say. 'Ah, lovely appearance of death'-that's more in my line-

"Ah, lovely appearance of death!

What sight upon earth is so fair?

Not all the gay pageants that breathe

Can with a dead body compare."-

"Don't!" Myra put both hands up to her ears. "Oh, please don't, Mr. Daddo! And I call it wicked to stand arguing when the Lord, as you say, put a cheerfuller tune in your head."

"Well, here goes, then!" Billy resumed "Praise ye the Lord." At the fifth verse his face began to kindle-

"What is the creature's skill or force?

The sprightly man, or warlike horse?

The piercing wit, the active limb,

Are all too mean delights to Him.

But saints are lovely in His sight,

He views His children with delight;

He sees their hope, he knows their fear,

And looks and loves His image there."

"Ay, now," he broke out, "to think I didn' remember that verse about children when I started to sing! And 'twas of you, missy, and the young master here the dear Lord was thinkin' all the time!"

He dropped his eyes and, leaning back against the handle of the sweep, suddenly burst into prayer. "Suffer little children, O dear Jesus! suffer little children. Have mercy on these two tender lambs, and so bring them, blessed Lord, to Thy fold!"

As his fervour took hold of him he left the sweep to do its own steering, and strode up and down the raft, picking his way from balk to balk, skipping aside now and again as the water rose between them under his weight and overflowed his shoes. To Myra, unaccustomed to be prayed for aloud and by name, the whole performance was absurd and embarrassing. She blushed hotly under the eyes of the other men, and glanced at Clem, expecting him to be no less perturbed.

But Clem did not hear. The two children had taken off their boots, and he sat with the water playing over his naked insteps and his eyes turned southward to the horizon as if indeed he saw. With his blind gaze fastened there he seemed to wait patiently until Billy's prayer exhausted itself and Billy returned to the steering; and then his lips too began to move, and he broke into a curious song.

It frightened Myra, who had never heard the like of it; for it had no words, but was just a sing-song-a chant, low at first, then rising shrill and clear and strong, and reaching out as though to challenge the waters twinkling between raft and horizon. Through it there ran a note of high courage touched with tremulous yearning-yearning to escape yonder and be free.

She touched his hand. So well she loved and understood him, that even this strange outbreak she could interpret, though it caught her at unawares. For the moment he did not feel the touch; he was far away. He had forgotten her-alas!-with his blindness. She belonged to his weakness, not to his strength. For the while he dwelt in the vision of his true manhood, which only his one infirmity forbade his inheriting; and she had no place in it.

He came back to reality with a pitiful break and quaver of the voice, and turned his eyes helplessly toward her. She answered his gaze timidly, as though he could see her. She was searching his eyes for tears. But there was no trace of tears in them. He took the food she handed him from Aunt Purchase's basket; and, having eaten, laid his head in her lap and fell asleep.

Slowly under the noonday heat and through the long afternoon the two rafts moved across the bay, towing each its boat in which the rafters would return in the cool of the evening.

But the children did not return in them; for on the quay, where the balks were due, to be warped ashore unlashed and conveyed inland to the mines, stood Jim Tregay waiting with their grandfather's blood-mare Actress harnessed in a spring-cart. How came Jim here, at this distance from home?

"Been waiting for you these two hours!" he called to the children. "Jump into the boat there and come ashore. You'm wanted to home, and at once!"

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