MoboReader> Literature > Shining Ferry

   Chapter 11 HESTER IS ACCEPTED.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 19284

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Well?" Mr. Sam lifted his eyes from his writing-table.

"Miss Marvin has arrived, sir, and is waiting in the morning-parlour," Mr. Benny announced.

"Let her wait a moment. I suppose she takes the line that we've definitely engaged her?"

"I don't know, sir, that she takes what you might call a line; but there's no doubt she believes herself engaged. She talks very frankly, and is altogether a nice, pleasant-spoken young person."

"You didn't happen to find out what my father wrote to her?"

"Of her own accord she offered to show me his letter."

"Well, and what did it say?"

"I didn't read it, sir."

"You didn't read it?" Mr. Sam repeated in slow astonishment.

"No, sir. I felt it wasn't fair to her," said Mr. Benny.

His employer regarded him for a moment with sourly meditative eyes.

"You had best show her in at once," he commanded sharply.

He reseated himself, and did not rise when Hester entered, but slewed his chair around, nodded gloomily in response to her slight bow, and, tapping his knees with a paper-knife, treated her to a long, deliberate stare.

"Take a seat, please."

Hester obeyed with a quiet 'Thank you.'

"You have come, I believe, in answer to a letter of my father's? Might I ask you what he said, exactly?"

Hester's hand went towards her pocket, but paused. She had taken an instant aversion from this man.

"My father," he went on, noting her hesitation, "has since died suddenly, as you know. His affairs are in some confusion, of course." This was untrue, but Mr. Sam had no consciousness of telling a lie. The phrase was commonly used of dead men's affairs. "In this matter of your engagement, for instance, I am moving in the dark. I can find no record of it among his papers."

"I answered him, sir; but my letter arrived, it seems, after his death. Mr. Benny replied to it."

"Yes, to be sure, I saw your letter, but it did not tell me how far the negotiations had gone."

"You are one of the Managers, sir?"

"Well, not precisely; but you will find that makes little difference. I am to be placed on the Board as my father's successor."

"The offer was quite definite," said Hester calmly. "I would show you the letter, but some parts of it are private."

"Now why in the world was she ready to show it to Benny?" he asked himself. Aloud he said, "You were a friend, then, of my father's? Is it for him, may I ask, that you wear mourning?"

"No, sir; for my own father. Mr. Rosewarne and he were friends-oh, for many years. I asked about it once, when I was quite a girl, and why Mr. Rosewarne came to visit us once every year as he did. My father told me that it had begun in a quarrel, when they were young men; it may have been when my father served in the army, in the barracks at Warwick. I don't remember that he said so, yet somehow I have always had an idea that the quarrel went back to that time; but he said that they had hated one another, and made friends after a long time, and that your father had the most to forgive, being in the wrong. I remember those words, because they sounded so queer to me and I could not understand them. When I was eighteen, I went out to get my living, and did not see Mr. Rosewarne for many years until the other day, though he came regularly."

"The other day?" Mr. Sam stared at her blankly.

"On the 5th. Mr. Rosewarne always paid his visit on the 5th of June."

"I don't understand you in the least. A minute ago you told me that your father was dead!"

"Yes; he died almost two months ago. But Mr. Rosewarne wrote and asked leave to come, since it was for the last time."

"Your mother entertained him?"

Hester shook her head. "I have no mother. He came as my guest, and that evening-for he never spent more than one night with us-we talked for a long while. He knew, of course, that I was a schoolmistress; and he began to mock at some things in which I believe very deeply. He did it to try me, perhaps. I don't know whether he came meaning to try me, or seeing me alone in the world, and making ready to leave the old home, he suddenly took this notion into his head. At any rate, I did not guess for a moment; and when he spoke scorn of girls' teaching, I answered him-too hotly, I thought at the time; but it seems that he forgave me." She rose. "I have told you all this, sir, because you say you are in the dark. I am here because Mr. Rosewarne offered me the post. But you seem disposed to deny this; and so in fairness I must consult a friend, if I can find one, or a lawyer perhaps, before showing you the letter."

"Wait a moment, please." Hester's story had held a light as it were, though but a faint one, to an unexplored passage in old Rosewarne's life; and to Mr. Sam every unexplored corner in that life was now to be suspected. "You jump to conclusions, Miss Marvin. I merely meant to say that as my father's executor I have to use reasonable caution. Might I inquire your age? Excuse me, I know that ladies-"

"I am twenty-five," she struck in sharply.

"Married, or unmarried?"

"Unmarried."

"You will excuse me for saying that I am surprised. A young person of your attractiveness-"

"Have you any more questions, sir?"

"Eh?-ah, to be sure! Qualifications?"

Hester briefly enumerated these. He did not appear to be listening, but sat eyeing her abstractedly, while he rattled the point of the paper-knife between his Upper and lower teeth.

"Yes, yes-quite satisfactory. Religious views?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Religious views?"

"If you really think that a necessary question, I was baptised and brought up in the Church of England."

"Not a bigoted Churchwoman, I hope?"

"Not bigoted, I certainly hope," Hester answered demurely.

"I feel sure of it," said Mr. Sam, rising gallantly. "In the matter of so-called apostolic succession, for instance-"

But here there came a tap at the door, and Elizabeth Jane, the housemaid, announced that Parson Endicott had called. "Show him in," ordered Mr. Sam promptly, and at the same time-having suddenly made up his mind-he flung Hester an insufferably confidential glance, which seemed to say, "Never mind him; you and I are in the same boat."

Parson Endicott suffered from shortness of sight and a high parsonic manner. He paused on the threshold to wipe his eyeglasses, adjusted them on his nose, and gazing around the room, cleared his throat as if about to address a congregation.

"Good-day, parson." Mr. Sam saluted him amiably, still without rising. "You've come in the nick of time. I have just been chatting with Miss Marvin here-our new schoolmistress."

Hester divined that, for some reason, Mr. Samuel had decided to accept her claim; and that for some reason equally occult he meant to give the clergyman no choice but to accept it.

"Indeed?-er-yes, to be sure, I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Marvin," said Parson Endicott mellifluously, with a glance which seemed to distinguish Hester kindly from the ordinary furniture of the room. This was his habitual way of showing cordial goodwill to his social inferiors, and the poor man had lived to the age of fifty-six without guessing that they invariably saw through it. Having bestowed this glance of kindness upon Hester, he turned to Mr. Sam with another, which plainly asked how far (as one person of importance conferring with another) he might take it that the creature before them was a satisfactory creature.

"You're in luck's way," said Mr. Sam, answering this look. "She's a Churchwoman."

"My dear Mr. Rosewarne,"-Parson Endicott pressed the finger-tips of both hands together, holding them in front of his stomach-"I am gratified- deeply gratified; but you must not suppose for one moment-h'm-whatever my faults, I take some credit to myself for broad-mindedness. A Churchwoman, eh?"-he beamed on Hester-"and in other respects, I hope, satisfactory?"

"Quite." Mr. Sam turned to Hester. "Would you mind running over your qualifications again? To tell the truth, I've forgotten 'em."

Hester, with an acute sense of shame, again rehearsed the list.

"Quite so," said Parson Endicott, who had obviously not been listening. He turned to Mr. Sam with inquiry in his eye. "I think, perhaps-if Miss Marvin-"

"I daresay she won't mind stepping into the next room," said Mr. Sam, turning his back on her, and calmly reseating himself. The parson glanced at Hester with polite inquiry, and, as she bowed, stepped to open the door for her. With head bent to hide the flush on her cheeks, she passed out into the great parlour.

Now the great parlour overlooked the garden through three tall windows, of which Susannah had drawn down the blinds half-way and opened the lower sashes, so that the room seemed to Hester deliciously fresh and cool. It was filled, too, with the fragrance of a jarful of peonies, set accurately in the middle of the long bare table; and she stood for a moment-her sight yet misty with indignant, wounded pride-staring at the reflection of their crimson blooms in the polished mahogany.

These two men were intolerable: and yet they only translated into meaner terms the opinion which everyone in this strange country seemed to have formed of her. She thought of the young sailor, of Nuncey, of Mr. Benny. All these were simple souls, and patently willing to believe the best of a fellow-creature; yet each in a different way had treated her with suspicion, as though she were here to seek her own interests, and with a selfish disregard of others'. The young sailor had openly and hotly accused her of it. Nuncey and her father, though kind, and

even delicately eager to make her welcome, as clearly held some disapproval in reserve-were puzzled somehow to account for her. And she was guiltless. She had come in response to a plain invitation, thinking only of good work to be done. No; what she found intolerable was not these two men, but the whole situation.

She turned with a start. Something had flown in through the open midmost window, and fallen with a thud on the floor a few yards from her feet.

She stepped across and stooped to examine it. It was the upper half of a tattered and somewhat grimy rag doll.

To account for this apparition we must cross the garden, to the summer-house, where Myra and Clem had hidden themselves away from the heat with a book, and, for the twentieth time perhaps, were lost in the adventures of Jack the Tinker and the Giant Blunderbuss. As a rule Myra would read a portion of the story, and the pair then fell to acting it over together. In this way Clem had slain, in the course of his young life, many scores of giants, wizards, dragons, and other enemies of mankind, his sister the while keeping watch over his blindness, and calling to him when and where to deliver the deadly stroke. But to-day the heat disinclined them for these dramatic exertions, and they sat quiet, even on reaching the point at which Jack the Tinker, his friend Tom, the good-natured giant, and Tom's children, young Tom and Jane, fare forth with slings for their famous hunting.

"'They soon knocked down as many kids, hares, and rabbits as they desired. They caught some colts, placed the children on two of them and the game on the others, and home they went.'"

Myra glanced up at Clem, for this was a passage which ever called to him like a trumpet. But to-day Clem spread out both hands, protesting.

"'On their return, whilst waiting for supper, Jack wandered around the castle, and was struck by seeing a window which he had not before observed. Jack was resolved to discover the room to which this window belonged; so he very carefully noticed its position and then threw his hammer in through it, that he might be certain of the spot when he found his tool inside the castle. The next day, after dinner.'"-

"Wait a moment, Clem dear!"

"Oh, but we must!" Clem had jumped to his feet.

"It's too dreadfully hot. Very well, then; but wait for the end.

"'The next day, after dinner, when Tom was having his snooze, Jack took Tom's wife Jane with him, and they began a search for the hammer near the spot where Jack supposed the window should be; but they saw no signs of one in any part of the walls. They discovered, however, a strangely fashioned worm-eaten oak hanging-press. They carefully examined this, but found nothing. At last Jack, striking the back of it with his fist, was convinced from the sound that the wall behind it was hollow. He and Jane went steadily to work, and with some exertion they moved the press aside and disclosed a stone door. They opened this, and there was Jack's hammer lying amidst a pile of bones, evidently the relics of some of old Blunderbuss's wives, whom he had imprisoned in the wall and left to perish there!'"

Myra shut the book with a slam, and, groping beneath the seat of the summer-house, found and handed to Clem the torso of an old rag doll, which, because it might be thrown against a window without breaking the glass, served as their wonted substitute for the Tinker's hammer.

"O-oh!" cried Myra, clutching at Clem and drawing him back from the sudden apparition in the window; and so for a dozen seconds she and Hester stared at one another.

"Good-morning!"

"Good-morning!" Myra hesitated a moment. "Though I don't know who you are. Oh, but yes I do! You're the new teacher, and it's no use your pretending."

"Am I pretending?" asked Hester.

"Yes; but I know what to do." The child nodded her head defiantly and made an elaborate sign of the cross, first over Clem and then upon the front of her own bodice. "That's against witches," she announced.

"Please don't take me for a witch!" It was absurd, but really Hester began to wonder where these misunderstandings would end. The look, too, on the boy's face puzzled her.

"I always wondered," said Myra, unmoved, "if the new teacher would turn out a witch. Witches always start by making themselves into young and beautiful ladies; that's their trick. Whoever heard of a teacher being a young and beautiful lady?"

"Well," answered Hester, between a sigh and a smile, "a compliment's a compliment, however it comes. I am the witch, then; and who may you be?- Hansel and Grethel, I suppose? I don't think, though, that Hansel really believes me a witch, by the way he's looking at me."

"He isn't looking at you at all. Come away, Clem!" She led the boy away by the hand, which he gave to her obediently, but left him when half-way across the turf and came swiftly back. "He wasn't looking at you. He's blind."

"Ah, poor child! I am sorry-please tell me your name, and believe that I am sorry."

"If you were sorry, you'd go away, and not come teaching here." Myra delivered this Parthian shaft over her shoulder as she walked off. At the same moment Hester heard a door open in the room behind her, and Parson Endicott came forth from the counting-house.

"Ah-er-Miss Marvin "-He paused with a lift of his eyebrows at the sight of the rag doll in Hester's hand. She, on her part, felt a sudden hysterical desire to laugh wildly.

"It-it isn't mine!" she managed to say in a faint voice and with a catch in her throat.

"I had not supposed so," Parson Endicott answered gravely. "I came to tell you, Miss Marvin, that Mr. Samuel Rosewarne and I have agreed to recognise your claim. By so doing we shall be piously observing his father's wishes, and-er-I anticipate no opposition from my fellow-members on the Board. The school-you have already paid it a visit, perhaps? No? It will, I venture to think, exceed your expectations. The school is furnished and ready. I suggest-if the other Managers consent-that we open it formally on Tuesday next, with a short religious service, consecrating, so to speak, your future labours. Yours is a wonderful sphere of usefulness, Miss Marvin; and may I say what pleasure it gives me to learn that you are a Churchwoman. A regular communicant, I hope?"

Hester was silent. She disliked this man, and saw no reason to be hurried into making any confession to him.

"It is a point upon which I am accustomed to lay great stress. In these days, with schismatics on all hands to contend against, it behoves all members of the true Church to show a bold and united front." He leaned his head on one side and looked at her interrogatively. "Do you play the harmonium?" he asked.

But at this point Mr. Sam thrust his head out through the counting-house doorway, and the parson coughed discreetly, as much as to say that the answer might wait.

"Well, Miss Marvin," said Mr. Sam jocosely, "we've fixed it up for you between us!"

Hester thanked them both briefly, and wished them good-day.

"She dresses respectably," said the parson, when the two were left alone. "I detect a certain earnestness in her, though I cannot say as yet how far it is based on genuine religious principles."

"She is more comely than I expected," said Mr. Sam.

At the ferry Hester found Nuncey awaiting her with a boat-load of the Benny children.

"I reckoned you'd be here just-about-now," Nuncey hailed her. "Come'st along for a bathe wi' the children! I've a-brought a bathin' suit for 'ee."

"But I can't swim," Hester answered in alarm, and added, as she stepped into the boat, "Nuncey, don't laugh at me, but until to-day I had never seen the sea in my life."

Nuncey looked her up and down quizzically. "And I've never seen Lunnon! Never mind, my dear; 'tisn' too late to begin. There's none of this crew knows how to swim but me and Tenny here," she pointed out a boy of eleven or twelve. "We'll just row out to harbour's mouth; there's a cove where we can put the littlest ones to paddle. And after that I'll larn 'ee how to strike out and use your legs, if you've a mind to. It'll do 'ee good to kick a bit, I'll wage, after a dose of Mister Sam. Well, and how did you like 'en?"

"I didn't like him at all." Hester almost broke down. "Please, Nuncey, be good to me! It-it seems as everyone was banded against me to-day, to think badly of me."

"Be good to 'ee? Why, to be sure I will! Sit 'ee down and unlace your boots, while me and Tenny pulls. Care killed the cat-'cos why? He wouldn't wash it off in salt water."

They rowed down past the quays and out beyond the ancient fort at the harbour's mouth. On the opposite shore a reef of rock ran out, and on the ridge stood a white wooden cross, "put up," so Nuncey informed her, "because Pontius Pilate landed here one time." Beyond this ridge they found a shingly beach secluded from the town, warmed by the full rays of the westering sun. There they undressed, one and all, and for half an hour were completely happy. To be sure, Hester's happiness contained a fair admixture of fright when Nuncey took her hand and led her out till the water rose more than waist-high about her.

"Now trust to me; lean forward, and see if you can't lift your feet off the ground," said Nuncey, slipping a hand under her breast. Hester tried her hardest to be brave, and although no swimming was accomplished that day, the trial ended in peals of laughter. She splashed ashore at length, gleeful, refreshed in body and mind, and resolved to make herself as good a swimmer as Nuncey, who swam like a duck.

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