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   Chapter 10 NUNCEY.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 17783

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The driver of the spring-cart was a brown-skinned, bright-eyed, and exceedingly pretty damsel of eighteen or twenty, in a pink print frock with a large crimson rose pinned in its bodice, and a pink sun-bonnet, under the pent of which her dark hair curtained her temples in two ample rippling bands.

"Why, hullo!" She reined up. Hester and the young sailor had fallen apart to let her pass, and from her perch she stared down from one side of the road to the other with a puzzled, jolly smile. "Mornin', Tom!"

"Mornin', Nuncey!"

"Sakes alive! What be carryin' there 'pon your back?"

"School furnitcher."

The girl's eyes wandered from the bundle to Hester, and grew wide with surmise.

"You don't mean to tell me you're the new schoolmistress!"

"Yes, I'm Hester Marvin."

"And I pictered 'ee a frump! But, my dear soul," she asked with sudden solemnity, "what makes 'ee do it?"

"Do what?"

"Why, teach school? I al'ays reckoned that a trade for old persons- toteling poor bodies, 'most past any use except to worrit the children."

"And so 'tis," put in the young sailor angrily.

"Han't been crossed in love, have 'ee? But there! what be I clackin' about, when better fit I was askin' your pardon for bein' so late? I'm sent to fetch you over to Troy. Ought to have been here more'n a half-hour ago; but when you've five children to wash an' dress an' get breakfast for an' see their boots is shined, and after that to catch the hoss and put'n to cart-well, you'll have to forgive it. That's your luggage Tom's carryin', I s'pose?-and a funny passel of traps school teachers travel with, I will say. You must be clever, though; else you couldn't have coaxed Tom Trevarthen to shoulder such a load. He wouldn't lift his little finger for me." She shot this unrighteous shaft with a mischievous side-glance, and laughed. She had beautiful teeth, and laughing became her mightily.

"But that is not my luggage."

"Not your luggage! Then where-Hullo! have you two been quarrellin'? Well, I never! You can't have lost much time about it."

"I left my trunk at the station," Hester went on, flushing yet redder with annoyance.

"And this here belongs to Mother Butson," declared Tom Trevarthen, red also. "I'm fetchin' it home for her."

"Then take and pitch it into the tail of the trap; and you, my dear, hand up your bag and climb up alongside o' me. We'll drive back to station, fetch your trunk, and be back in time to overtake Tom at the top o' the hill and give him a lift home. There's plenty room for three on the seat-that is, by squeezin' a bit."

"You're very kind, Nuncey," said Tom Trevarthen sullenly. "But I'll not take a lift alongside o' she; and I'll not trouble you with my load, neither."

"Please yourself, you foolish mortal, you. But-I declare! You must have had a tiff!"

"No tiff at all," corrected Tom, sturdily wrathful. "It's despise her I do-comin' here and drivin' an old 'ooman to the workhouse!"

He turned on his heel and trudged away stubbornly up the hill.

Nuncey gazed back at him for a moment over her shoulder.

"Never saw Tom in such a tear in all my life," she commented cheerfully. "Take 'en all the week round, you couldn't find a better-natered boy. Well, jump up, my dear, and we'll fit and get your trunk. He may be cured of his sulks by time we overtake 'en."

Undoubtedly Hester had excuses enough for feeling hurt and annoyed; yet what mainly hurt and annoyed her (though she would not confess it) was that this sailor and this girl had each taken her as one on equal terms with themselves. She was a sensible girl, by far too sensible to nurse on second thoughts a conceit that she was their superior simply because she spoke better English. Yet habit had taught her to expect some degree of deference from those who spoke incorrectly; and we are all touchier upon our vaguely reasoned claims than upon those of which we have perfect assurance.

"J'p, Pleasant!" Nuncey called to the grey horse, flicking him lightly with the whip. The ill-balanced trap seesawed down the slope, and soon was spinning along the cliff-road, across which the wind blew with such force that Hester caught at her hat.

"Never mind a bit of breeze, my dear. And as for the touch of damp, 'tis nobbut the pride o' the mornin'. All for heat and pilchar's, as the saying is: we shall have it broiling hot afore noon. Now I come to think of it, 'tis high time we made our introductions. I'm Nuncey Benny-that's short for Annunciation. This here hoss and trap belongs to my mother. She's a regrater when in health; but there's a baby come. That makes eleven of us. You'll find us a houseful."

"Your father was kind enough to offer me,"-began Hester.

"Iss," broke in Nuncey; "father's kind, whatever else he may be. As for considerin' where to stow you, that never crossed his head. You mustn't think, my dear, that you bain't welcome. Only-well, I may so well get it over soon as late-you'll have to put up with a bed in the room with me. Shall you mind?"

"Of course I shall not mind," said Hester, conquered at once.

"Well, that's uncommon nice of you; and I don't mind tellin' 'ee 'tis the second load you've a-lifted off my mind. For, to start with, I made sure you was goin' to be a frump."

"But why?"

Nuncey had no time to explain, for they were now arrived at the stationmaster's cottage. The station-master himself welcomed them at the door, wiping his mouth.

"You'll step in and have a dish of tea, the both of you. It'll take off the edge of the mornin'."

Nuncey declined, after a glance at Hester, and at once fell to discussing the weather with the station-master while he hoisted in the trunk. Two of Hester's earliest discoveries in this strange land were that everyone talked about the weather, and everyone addressed everyone else as 'My dear.'

"Well, so long!" said the stationmaster. "Wind's going round wi' the sun, I see, same as yesterday. We're in for a hot spell, you mark my words."

"So long!" Nuncey shook the reins, and they started again. "Is that how sleeves are wearin', up the country?" she asked, after two or three glances at Hester's jacket.

"They are worn fuller than this, mostly," Hester answered gravely. "But you mustn't take me for an authority."

"I can see so far into a brick wall as most. Don't tell me! You're one to think twice about your clothes, for all you look so modest. Boots like yours cost more than I can spend on mine in a month o' Sundays; iss, and a trifle o' vanity thrown in. You've a very pretty foot-an' I like your face-an' your way o' dressin', if you weren't so sad-coloured. What's that for, makin' so bold?"

"It's for my father."

"There now, I'm sorry!-Always was a clumsy fool, and always will be. I thought it might be for old Rosewarne, you bein' hand-in-glove with him."

"But I scarcely knew him. It was only just now I heard the news."- Hester broke off, colouring again with annoyance. What did these people mean, that they persisted in taking for granted her complicity in some mysterious plot?

By and by, at the top of the hill, they overtook the young sailor.

"Got over your sulks, Tom?" inquired Nuncey cheerfully. "If so, climb up and be sociable-there's plenty room."

But Tom shook his head without answering, though he drew close to the hedge to let the trap pass. It is difficult to look dignified with a blackboard, an easel, and a coloured globe on one's back. The globe absurdly reminded Hester of a picture of Atlas in one of her schoolbooks, and she could not help a smile. A moment later she would have given all her pocket-money to recall that smile, for he had glanced up, glowering, and observed it.

Nuncey laughed outright.

"But all the same," she remarked meditatively as they drove on, "I like the lad for't. 'Tisn' everyone would do so much for the sake of an old 'ooman that never has a good word to fling at nobody, and maybe spanked 'en blue when he was a tacker and went to school wi' her. He's terrible simple; and decent, too, for a sailor. I reckon there's a many think Mother Butson hardly used that wouldn't crack their backs for her as he's a-doing."

"He spoke to me," said Hester, "quite as if I were doing a wickedness in coming-as if, at least, I were selfish and unjust. And I never heard of this Mother Butson till half an hour ago! Do you think I'm unjust?"

"Well," Nuncey answered judiciously, "if any person had asked me that an hour ago, I'd have agreed with Tom. But 'tis different now I've seen your face."

Nuncey and the stationmaster were wise weather prophets. Here on the uplands the grey veil of morning fell apart, and dissolved so suddenly that before Hester had time to wonder the miracle was accomplished. A flood of sunshine broke over the ripening cornfields to right and left; the song of larks rang forth almost with a sho

ut; beyond the golden ridges of the wheat the grey vapour faded as breath off a mirror, and lo! a clear line divided the turquoise sky from a sea of intensest iris-blue. As she watched the transformation her heart gave a lift, and the past few hours fell from her like an evil dream. The stuffy compartment, the blear-eyed lamp, the train's roar and rattle, the forlorn arrival on the windy platform-all slipped away into a remote past. She had passed the gates of fear and entered an enchanted land.

As she looked abroad upon it she marvelled at a hundred differences between it and her native Midlands. It was wilder-infinitely wilder-than Warwickshire, and at the same time less unkempt; far more savage in outline, yet in detail sober almost to tidiness. It seemed to acknowledge the hand of some great unknown gardener; and this gardener was, of course, the sea-breeze now filling her lungs and bracing her strength. The shaven, landward-bending thorns and hollies, the close-trimmed hedgerow, the clean-swept highroad, alike proclaimed its tireless attentions. It favoured its own plants, too-the tamarisk on the hedge, the fuchsia and myrtle in the cottage garden. As the spring-cart nid-nodded down the hill towards Troy, the grey roofs of the town broke upon Hester's sight beyond a cloud of fuchsia blossoms in a garden at the angle of the road.

So steep was the hill, and so closely these roofs and chimneys huddled against it, that Hester leaned back with a catch of the breath that set Nuncey laughing. For the moment she verily supposed herself on the edge of a precipice. She caught one glimpse of a blue water and the masts of shipping, and clutched at the cart-rail as the old grey began to slither at a businesslike jog-trot down a street so narrow that, to make way for them, passers-by on foot ran hastily to the nearest doorways, whence one and all nodded good-naturedly at Nuncey. Of some houses the doors were reached by steep flights of steps tunnelled through the solid rock; of others by wooden stairways leading to balconies painted blue or green and adorned with pot-plants-geraniums, fuchsias, lemon-verbenas-on ledges imminent over Hester's head. The most of the passers-by were women carrying pails of water, or country folks with baskets of market stuff. The whole street seemed to be cleaning up and taking in provisions for the day, and all amid a buzz of public gossip, one housewife pausing on her balcony as she shook a duster, and leaning over to discuss market prices with her neighbour chaffering below. The cross-fire of talk died down as the dealers dispersed, snatching up their wares from under the wheels of the spring-cart, while the women took long, silent stock of Hester's appearance and dress. Behind her it broke forth again, louder than ever.

At the foot of the hill they swung round a corner, and passing a public-house and the rails of the parish church, threaded their way round two more corners, and entered a street scarcely less narrow than the other, but level. Here Nuncey drew up before an ope through which Hester caught another glimpse of blue-green water. They had arrived.

A grinning lad lifted out Hester's trunk and bore it down the ope to a green-painted doorway, where a rosy-faced, extremely solemn child stared out on the world over a green-painted board, fixed across with the evident purpose of confining him to the house. Having despatched this urchin to warn his mother that 'the furriner was come,' the lad heaved his burden over the board, dumped it down inside with a bang, and returned, still grinning amiably, to take charge of horse and cart.

"If you want to know t'other from which in our family," said Nuncey, "there's nothing like beginning early. This is Shake."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Father had him christened Shakespeare, but we call him Shake for short. It sounds more natural, somehow. And this here is Robert Burns," she went on, leading the way to the green-painted doorway where the small urchin had resumed his survey of the world beyond home. "That's another of father's inventions; but the poor cheeld pulled down the kettle when he was eighteen months old and scalded hisself all over, so he's gone by his full name ever since. Mother!" Nuncey called aloud, stepping over the barrier. "Here's the new school-teacher!"

A middle-aged, fair-haired woman, with a benign but puzzled smile, appeared in the passage, holding a baby at the breast.

"You're kindly welcome, my dear; that is, if you'll excuse my hair being in curl-papers. Dear me, now!" Mrs. Benny regarded Hester with a look of honest perplexity. "And I was expectin' an older-lookin' person altogether!"

Hester followed her into a kitchen which, though untidy and dim, struck her as more than passably clean; and it crossed her mind at once that its cleanliness must be due to Nuncey and its untidiness to Mrs. Benny. The dimness was induced by a crowd of geraniums in the window and a large bird-cage blocking out the light above them. A second large bird-cage hung from a rafter in the middle of the ceiling.

"And you've been travellin' all night? You must be pinin' for a dish of tea."-

But here a voice screamed out close to Hester's ear-

"What's your name? What's your name? Oh, rock and roll me over, what's your darned name?"

"Hester Marv-" she had begun to answer in a fright, when Nuncey broke out laughing.

"Don't 'ee be afraid of 'en-'tis only the parrot;" and Hester laughed too, recovering herself at sight of a grey and scarlet bird eyeing her with angry inquisitiveness from the cage over Mrs. Benny's head. Her gaze wandered apprehensively to the second cage by the window.

"Oh, he won't speak!" Nuncey assured her. "He's only a cat."

"A cat?"

"Iss. He ate the last parrot afore this one, and I reckon he died of it. Father had 'en stuffed and put 'en in the cage instead. Just go and look for yourself; he's as natural as life."

"I was thinkin' a ham rasher," suggested Mrs. Benny, with her kindly, unsettled smile. "Nuncey, will you hold the baby, or shall I?"

"You give me the frying-pan," commanded Nuncey, turning up her sleeves. "What's the matter with you, Robert Burns? And what's become of your manners?" she demanded of the urchin who had followed them in from the passage, and now stood gripping Hester's skirts and gazing up at her, as she in turn gazed up at the absurd cat in the parrot's cage.

"What great eyes she've got!" exclaimed Robert Burns in an awe-stricken voice.

"'All the better to see you with,'" quoted Hester, laughing and looking down on him.

"That's in Red Riding Hood. She knows about stories!" The child clapped his hands.

"Well," put in Mrs. Benny, seating herself with a sigh as the ham rasher began to frizzle, "you may say what you like about education, but mothers ought to thank the Lord for it. Sometimes, as 'tis, I feel as if the whole world was on my shoulders, and I can't be responsible for it any longer; but what would happen if 'twasn't for the school bell at nine o'clock there's no knowing. You'd like a wash, my dear?"

"I should indeed," answered Hester.

"Sometimes I loses count," went on Mrs. Benny, not pursuing her invitation, but standing with a faraway gaze bent upon the geraniums in the window; "but there's eleven of 'em, and three buried, and five at school this moment. I began with two boys-two years between each-and then came Nuncey. There's four years between her and Shake, but after that you may allow two years to each again, quite like Jacob's ladder."

"Lord bless 'ee, mother!" interrupted Nuncey, glancing up from the frying-pan, "she don't want to be told I'm singular. She've found out that already. Here's the kettle boilin'-fit and give her a cup of tea, and take her upstairs. 'Tis near upon half-past nine already, and at half-past ten father was to be here to fetch her across to see Mr. Samuel-though, for my part, I hold 'twould be more Christian to put her to bed and let her sleep the forenoon out."

When Hester descended to breakfast Mr. Benny had already arrived; and he too could not help showing astonishment at her youthful appearance.

"But twenty-five is not so young, after all," she maintained, laughing. "I feel my years, I assure you. Why are you all in conspiracy to add to them?"

"The late Mr. Rosewarne had given us no particulars," began Mr. Benny.

"He wrote at length to me about the school and his hopes for it."

"You knew him, then, Miss Marvin?"

"He was, in a fashion, a friend of my father's. He used to visit us regularly once a year.-But let me show you his letter."

"Not on any account!" Mr. Benny put up a flurried hand. "It-it wouldn't be right." He said it almost sharply. Hester, puzzled to know what offence she had nearly committed, and in some degree hurt by his tone, thrust the letter back in her pocket.

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