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   Chapter 8 HESTER ARRIVES.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 11740

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Hester Marvin stood on the windy platform gazing after the train. Her limbs were cramped and stiff after the long night journey; the grey morning hour discouraged her; and the landscape-a stretch of grey-green marsh with a horizon-line of slate-roofed cottages terminated by a single factory chimney-was not one to raise the spirits. Even the breeze blowing across the marsh had an unfamiliar edge. She felt it, and shivered.

She had been the only passenger to alight here from the train, which had brought her almost all the way from the Midlands; and as it steamed off, its smoke blown level along the carriage roofs, her gaze followed it wistfully, almost forlornly, with a sense of lost companionship. She knew this to be absurd, and yet she felt it.

Between the chimney and this ridge the train passed out of sight; but still her gaze followed the long curve of the metals across the marsh. They stretched away, and with them the country seemed to expand and flatten itself, yielding to the sky an altogether disproportionate share of the prospect-at any rate in eyes accustomed to the close elms and crooked hedgerows of Warwickshire.

She withdrew her gaze at last, and glancing up the long platform spied her solitary trunk, as absurdly forlorn as herself. A tall man-the stationmaster-bent over it, examining the label, and she walked towards him, glancing up as she passed the station clock.

"No use your looking at him," said the station-master, straightening himself up in time to observe the glance. "He never kept time yet, and don't mean to begin. Breaks my heart, he do."

"How far is it from here to Troy?"

"Three miles and a half, we reckon it; but you may call it four, counting the hills."

"Oh, there are hills, are there?" said Hester, and looking around she blushed; for indeed the country was hilly on three sides of her and flat only in the direction whither she had been staring after the train.

The stationmaster did not observe her confusion. "Were you expecting anyone to meet you, miss?" he asked.

"Yes, from Troy. A Mr. Benny-Mr. Peter Benny." She felt for the letter in her pocket.

The stationmaster's smile broadened. "Peter Benny? To be sure-a punctual man, too, but with a terrible long family. And when a man has a long family, and leaves these little things to 'em-But someone will be here, miss, sooner or later. And this will be your luggage?"

"Three miles and a half, you say?-or four at the most?" Hester stood considering, while her eyes wandered across to a siding beyond the up-platform, where three men stood in talk before a goods van. Two of them were porters; the third-a young fellow in blue jersey, blue cloth trousers, and a peaked cap-was apparently persuading them to open the van, which they no sooner did than he leapt inside. Hester heard him calling from within the van and the two porters laughing. "Four miles?" She turned to the station-master again. "I can walk that easily. You have a cloak-room, I suppose, where I can leave my trunk?"

"I'll take it home with me, miss, for safety: that is, if you're really bent on walking." He jerked his thumb toward a cottage on the slope behind. "No favour at all. I'm just going back to breakfast, and it won't take me a minute to fetch out a barrow and run it home. Whoever comes for your luggage will know where to call. You'd best give me your handbag too."

"Thank you, but I can carry that easily."

"The Bennys always turn up sooner or later," he went on musingly. "If they miss one train, they catch the next. Really, miss, there's no occasion to walk. But if you must, and I may make so bold, why not step over to my house and have a cup of tea before starting? The kettle's on the boil, and my wife would make you welcome. We've a refreshment-room here in the station," he added apologetically, "but it don't open till the nine-twenty-seven."

Hester thanked him again, but would not accept the invitation. He fetched the barrow for her trunk, and walked some little distance with her, wheeling it. Where their ways parted he gave her the minutest directions, and stood in the middle of the roadway to watch her safely past her first turning.

The aspect of the land was strange to her yet, but the stationmaster's kindness had made it less unhomely. The road ran under the base of a hill to her left, between it and the marsh. It rose a little before reaching the line of slate-roofed cottages; and as she mounted this rise the wind met her more strongly, and with more of that tonic sharpness she had shrunk from a while ago. It was shrewd, yet she felt that it was also wholesome. Above the cottage roofs she now perceived many masts of vessels clustered near the base of the tall chimney. She bent her head against the breeze. When she raised it again after a short stiff climb, she looked-and for the first time in her life-upon the open sea.

It stretched-another straight line-beyond the cottage roofs, in colour a pale, unvaried grey-blue; and her first sensation was wonder at its bare simplicity. She rested her bag upon the low hedge, and stood beside it at gaze, her body bent forward to meet the wind.

For five minutes and more she stood there, so completely absorbed that the sound of footsteps on the road drew near and passed her unheard. A few paces beyond they came to a halt.

"Begging your pardon, miss, but that bag is heavy for you," said a voice.

She turned with a start, and, as she did so, was aware of a scent about her, not strong, but deliciously clean and fragrant. It came from a tuft of wild thyme on which her palm had been pressing while she leaned.

"Thank you, it is not heavy," she answered, in some confusion. "I-I just rested it here while I looked out to sea."

She knew him at once for the blue-jerseyed young man she had seen in talk with the porters; and apparen

tly he had prevailed, for he stooped under the weight of a great burden, in which Hester recognised a blackboard, an easel, a coloured globe, and sundry articles of school furniture very cleverly lashed together and slung across his shoulder by a stout cord. He was smiling, and she smiled too, moved perhaps by the sight of these familiar objects in a strange land.

"If you'm bound for Troy, you may so well let me carry it, miss. There's a terrible steep hill to go up, and a pound or two's weight won't make no difference to what I got here."

She had taken up her bag resolutely and was moving on. The young man-it was most awkward-also moved on, and in step with her. She compressed her lip, wondering how to hint that she did not desire his company. A glance told her that he was entirely without guile, that he had made his offer in mere good-nature. How might she dismiss him and yet avoid hurting his feelings?

"They argued me down at the station," he went on. "Would have it the traps couldn' possibly be in the van. But I wasn't going to have my walk for nothing if I could help it. 'Give me leave to look,' said I; and I was right, you see!"

He nodded his head as triumphantly as his burden allowed. It weighed him down, and the stoop gave his eyes, when he smiled, an innocent roguish slant. Hester noted that he wore rings in his brown ears, and somehow these ornaments made him appear the more boyish.

"But what are you doing with a blackboard and easel?" she asked.

"They're for old Mother Butson. She lives with my mother and keeps school. Tidy little outlay for her, all this parcel! but she must move with the times, poor soul."

"Then hers is not a Board School?-since she is buying these things for herself."

"Board School? Not a bit of it. You're right there, miss: we're the Opposition." He laughed, showing two rows of white regular teeth.

"Are you a teacher too?"

She had no sooner asked the question than she knew it to be ridiculous. A teacher, in blue jersey and earrings! He laughed, more merrily than ever.

"Me, miss? My name's Trevarthen-Tom Trevarthen: and I'm a seaman; ordinary till last voyage, but now A.B." He said this with pride: of what it meant she had not the ghost of a notion. "A man don't need scholarship in my way o' life; but, being on shore for a spell, you see, miss, I'm helping the old gal to fight the School Board. 'Tis hard on her, too."

"What is hard?" Hester asked, her professional interest aroused.

"Why, to have the bread taken out of her mouth at her time of life. She sent in an application, but the Board wouldn't look at it. Old Rosewarne, they say, had another teacher in his eye, and got her appointed-some up-country body. Ne'er a man on the Board had the pluck to say 'Bo' when he opened his mouth."

"Rosewarne?" Hester came to a halt.

"That bag is too heavy for you, miss. Hand it over-do'ee now!"

"Are you talking of Mr. John Rosewarne?"

"Ay, Rosewarne of Hall-he did it. If you was a friend of his, miss, I beg your pardon; but a raspin' old tyrant he was. Sing small, you might be let off and call yourself lucky; stand up to 'en, and he'd have you down and your face in the dust if it cost a fortune."

"Wait a moment, please!" Hester commanded, halting for breath. They had reached a steep hill, and the tall hedgerows shut out the sea; but its far roar sounded in her ears. She nodded toward the bundle on his shoulders. "Are those things meant to fight the new schoolmistress?"

"That's of it. The old woman has pluck enough for a hunderd. But, as I tell her, she may get the billet now, after all, since the old fellow's gone, and Mr. Sam-they do say-favours the Dissenters."

"I don't understand. 'Gone'? Who is gone?"

"Why, old Rosewarne. Who else?"

"You are not telling me that Mr. Rosewarne is dead?"

"Beggin' your pardon, miss-but he's dead, and buried last Saturday. There! I han't upset you, have I? I took it for certain that everyone knew. And you seeming an acquaintance of his, and being, so to speak, in black."-

"But I heard from him only last Thursday-less than a week ago!" Hester's hand went to her pocket. To be sure she possessed, with Rosewarne's letter, a second from a Mr. Peter Benny, acknowledging her acceptance of the post, and promising that she should be met on her arrival, on the day and hour suggested by her. But Mr. Benny's letter had been cautiously worded, and said nothing of his master's death.

The young sailor had come to a halt with her, evidently puzzled, and for the fourth time at least was holding out a hand to relieve her of her bag.

"No!" she said. "You must walk on, please; I am the new schoolmistress."

It took him aback, but not in the way she had expected. His face became grave at once, but still wore its puzzled look, into which by degrees there crept another look of pity.

"You can't know what you'm doing then, miss; I'm sure of that. They haven't told you. She's a very old woman, and 'tis all the bread she has."

He stared at her, seeking reassurance.

"You are certainly right, so far: I have tumbled, it seems, into mysteries. But for aught I know, I am the new schoolmistress, and we are enemies, it seems. Now will you walk ahead, or shall I?"

Still he paused, considering her face.

"But if you knew what a shame it is!" he stammered. "And you look good, too!"

With a movement of the hand she begged him to leave her and walk ahead. But as she did so she caught sound of hoofs and wheels on the road above. They drew apart to let the vehicle pass, she to one side of the road, the young sailor to the other. A light spring-cart came lurching round the corner; and its driver, glancing from one to the other, drew rein sharply, dragging the rough-coated cob back with a slither on the splashboard, and bringing him to a stand between them.

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