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   Chapter 13 TOM TREVARTHEN INTERVENES.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 15710

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


When the company had departed Hester arranged her small troop at their desks-boys and girls and 'infants'-and made them a speech. It was a very short speech, asking for their affection, and somehow she found herself addressing it to Myra, whose dark eyes rested on her with a stare of unyielding suspicion. On hearing that the two children were to attend the Board School, Aunt Purchase had broken out into vehement protest, the exact purport of which Myra did not comprehend. But she gathered that a wrong of some kind was being done to her and (this was more important) to Clem, and she connected it with the loss of their liberty. Until this moment she had known no schooling. Her grandmother in stray hours had taught her the alphabet and some simple reading, and the rest of her knowledge she had picked up for herself. She well remembered the last of these stray hours. It fell on a midsummer evening, three years before, when she and Clem-then a child of four-had spent a long day riding to and fro in the hay waggons. Now Mrs. Rosewarne for the last few years of her life, and indeed ever since Myra could remember, had been a cripple, confined to the house or to her small garden, save only when she entered an ancient covered vehicle (called 'the Car') and was jogged into Liskeard to visit her dressmaker, or over to Damelioc to attend one of Lady Killiow's famous rose fêtes. It was the hour of sunset, then, and in the shadow of the hedge old Pleasant, the waggon-horse, having Clem on his back, stood tethered, released from his work, contentedly cropping the rank grass between the clusters of meadow-sweet, and whisking his tail to brush off the flies. The horse-flies had been pestilent all day, and Myra was weaving a frontlet of green hazel twigs to slip under Pleasant's headstall, when she happened to turn and caught sight of her grandmother standing by the upper gate, leaning on her ivory-headed staff, and shading her eyes against the level sun. No one ever knew how the old lady had found strength to walk the distance from the house-for walked it she had. It may have been that some sudden fright impelled her; some unreasoning panic for the children's safety. Old Rosewarne, seated on horseback and watching the rick-makers in the far corner, caught sight of her, cantered across to the gate, dismounted there, and led her home on his arm; and the children had followed. So far as Myra could remember, nothing came of this apparition-nothing except that she found herself, a little later, seated in her grandmother's dressing-room and reading aloud; and this must have happened soon after they reached home, for while she read she heard the fowls settling themselves to roost in the hen-house beneath the open window. Three weeks later Mrs. Rosewarne was dead-had faded out like a shadow; and since then the children had run wild, no one constraining them to tasks.

She sat with eyes fixed sullenly on Hester, and fingers ready at any moment to make the sign of the cross. To the other children she paid no heed; they were merely so many victims entrapped, ready to be changed into birds and put into cages, as in Jorinda and Jorindel. "Why was this woman separating the girls from the boys? She should not take away Clem. Let her try!" Hester had too much tact. Having marshalled the others, she set a pen and copy-book before Myra, and bending over Clem, asked him in the gentlest voice to sit and wait; she would come back to him in a moment (she promised) and with a pretty game for him to play.

"Don't you listen to a single word she says," Myra whispered; but Clem had already taken his seat.

Hester had sent for a book of letters in raised type for the blind boy. Before setting him down to this, however, she wished to try the suppleness and accuracy of his touch with some simple reed-plaiting.

The reeds lay within the cupboard across the room. She went to fetch them, and at this moment the schoolroom door opened behind her.

She heard the lift of the latch, and turned with a smile. But the smile faded almost at once as she recognised her visitor. It was Tom Trevarthen, and he entered with a grin and a defiant, jaunty swagger which did not at all become him.

In an instant she scented danger, and felt her cheeks paling; but she lifted her head none the less, looking him straight in the eyes.

"I beg your pardon. Are you in search of someone?"

"Seems I'm too late for the speechifying," said the young sailor, avoiding her gaze, and winking at two or three elder boys on the back benches. "Well, never mind; must do a little speechifyin' of my own, I suppose. By your leave, miss," he added, seating himself on the end of a form and fanning himself with his seaman's cap, which he had duly doffed on entering.

"I think," said Hester quietly, and prayed that he might not hear the tremble in her voice, "I think you have come on purpose to annoy, and that you do not like the business."

"It's this way, miss. I've no grudge at all against you, except to wonder how such a gentle-spoken young lady can have the heart to come here ruinin' an old 'ooman that never done you a ha'p'orth of harm in her life." He was looking at her firmly now, with a rising colour in his tan cheeks, and Hester's heart sank as she noted his growing confidence. "But I've told 'ee that a'ready," he said, and turned to the boys again. "What I wonder at more is you, Billy Sweet-an' you, Dave Polseath- an' you, Rekkub Johns-that'll be growin' up for men in a year or two. Seems to me there's some spirit gone out o' this here parish since I used to be larrupped for minchin'. Seems to me a passel o' boys in my day would have had summat to say afore they sat here quiet, helpin' to steal the bread out of an old 'ooman's mouth, an' runnin' to heel for a furriner."

The boys glanced at one another and grinned, then at the intruder, lastly at Hester. Her look held them, and some habit of discipline learnt from the old woman they were being invited to champion. One or two began shuffling in their seats.

But it was Myra who led the rebellion. She stepped to Tom's side at once, and cried she, pointing a finger at Hester, "She's a witch! Look at her-she's a witch! I know now why Aunt Hannah called it a burning shame. She's robbing Mother Butson, and she's a witch and ought to be burnt. Come along, Clem!"

Hester, turning from the child between pain and disgust, intent only on holding the bigger boys in check while she could, did not note that Clem made no movement to obey his sister.

"Well done, Miss Myra!-though you needn't talk vindictive. There's no need to harm her. Now look here, boys! Mother Butson gives you a holiday, and sent me up with the message. What do 'ee say to it?"

"Stop!" Hester lifted a hand against the now certain mutiny. "Your name is Trevarthen, I believe?"

"Tom Trevarthen, miss."

"Then, Tom Trevarthen, you are a poor coward. Now do your worst and go your way. You have heard the truth."

"'Tidn' best a man said that to me," answered Tom, with a lowering brow.

"A man?" she replied, with a short laugh of contempt which in her own ears sounded like a sob. "There were men here just now; but you waited till they were gone!"

"No, miss; I did not, you'll excuse me. I only knew the school was to open to-day. I came ashore half an hour ago, and walked up here across the fields." He stood for a second or two meditatively twisting his round cap between his hands. "We'll play fair, though," he said, and faced round on the benches. "Sorry to disappoint 'ee, boys, but you must do without your holiday, after all. This here is a man's job, as Miss Marvin says, and 'tis for men to settle it. Only,"-he turned upon Hester again- "you must name your man quick. My ship sails early in the week; let alone that there's cruel wrong being done, and

the sooner 'tis righted the better."

Hester's hand went up to her throat. Was this extraordinary youth actually proposing a wager of battle? His eyes rested on hers seriously; his demeanour had become entirely courteous.

"Ah," she gasped, "but cannot you see that the mischief is done! You behave shamefully, and now you talk childishly. You have made these children disloyal, and what hold can I have on them except through their loyalty? You have thrown me back at the start-I cannot bear to think how far-and you talk as if some foolish violence could mend this for me! Please-please go away! I have no patience to argue with you."

"Yes, go away!" broke in a shrill treble voice. It was Clem's. The child had risen from his bench and stood up, gripping the desk in front and trembling.

"Clem dear, you don't understand-" began Myra.

"Yes, I do understand!" For the first time in his life his will clashed with hers. "Tom Trevarthen is wrong, and ought to go away."

"She's a nasty, deceitful witch!"

"She's not a witch!" The child's eyes turned towards Hester, as if seeking to behold her and be assured. "You're not a witch, are you?" he asked; and at the question Hester's tears, so long held back, brimmed over.

Before she could answer him the door opened, and Mr. Sam stood in the entry with Mrs. Purchase close behind his shoulder, in a sky-blue and orange bonnet.

"Eh? Hullo! what's all this?" demanded Mr. Sam, staring around the schoolroom; and Mrs. Purchase, bustling in and mopping her face, paused too to stare.

For a moment no one spoke. Mr. Sam's eyes passed over Tom Trevarthen in slow, indignant wonder, and rested on Hester's flushed cheeks and tear-reddened lids.

"Why, whatever on earth is Tom Trevarthen doin' here?" cried Mrs. Purchase.

"I've a-come here, ma'am," spoke up Tom, kindling, "to say a word against a cruel shame; for shame it is, to take the food away from a poor old 'ooman's mouth!"

"Meanin' Mother Butson?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"An' your way to set things right is to come here and browbeat a poor girl before the children till her eyes be pink as garden daisies! Go'st 'way home, thou sorry fool! I'm ashamed of 'ee!"

"As for that, ma'am, I did wrong," Tom admitted sullenly, "and I beg her pardon for't. But it don't alter the hurt to Mother Butson."

"You're mistaken, my friend," broke in Mr. Sam, in his rasping voice. "To be sure you haven't closed Mother Butson's school for her, because 'tis closed already. Twopence a week is the lowest she could ever charge, to earn a living, and I leave to judge how many sensible folks will be paying twopence a week for her ignorance when they can get sound teaching up here for a penny. But a worse thing you've done for her. She lodges with your mother, I believe? Very well; you can go home and tell your mother to get rid of her lodger. Eh, what are you staring at?"

The young man had fallen back, and stared from face to face, incredulous. There was a bewildered horror in his eyes, and it cut Hester to the heart. Her own eyes sank as he challenged them.

"No, Sam-no!" Mrs. Purchase interposed. "Don't 'ee go to punish the lad that way. He've made a mistake; but he's a well-meanin' lad for all, and I'll wage he'll tell you he's sorry."

"Well-meaning, is it, to come here bullying a young lady? Sorry, is he? I promise he'll be sorrier before I've done. Answer me, sir. Did Mrs. Butson know of your visit here to-day?"

"I told her I was coming," Tom answered dully.

"That settles it. Heaven is my witness," said Mr. Sam, with sudden unction, "I was willing to let the old woman wind up her affairs in peace. But mutiny I don't stand, nor molesting. You go home, sir, to your mother, and tell her my words. I give her till Saturday-"

The words ended in a squeal as Tom, with a sharp intake of breath like a sob, sprang and gripped him by the throat, bearing him back and overturning Hester's desk with a crash. One or two of the girls began to scream. The boys scrambled on top of their forms, craning, round-eyed with excitement. The little ones stood up with white faces, shrinking with terror, as Hester ran and placed herself between them and the struggle.

"You cur! You miserable-dirty-cur!" panted Tom, shaking Mr. Sam to and fro. "Leave me alone, missus!"-for Mrs. Purchase was attempting to clutch him by the collar. "Leave me deal with him, I tell you! Stand clear, there!"

With a sharp thrust he loosened his hold, and Mr. Sam went flying backwards, missed his footing, and fell, his head striking the corner of a form with a thud.

"Get up! Up on your legs, and have it out like a man!"

But Mr. Sam lay where he had fallen in a heap, with the blood oozing from an ugly cut across the left temple.

"Get up?" vociferated Mrs. Purchase. "Lucky for you if he ever gets up! You've gone nigh to killing 'en, mean it or no. Out of my sight, you hot-headed young fool! Be off to the ship, pack up your kit, and run. 'Tis a jailin' matter, this; and now you've done for yourself as well as your mother."

For a moment the young man stared at her, not seeming to comprehend. "Eh, missus?" he muttered. "Be you agen' me too?"

Mrs. Purchase positively laughed, and a weird cackling sound it made in Hester's ears as she bent to support one of the smaller girls, who had fainted. "Agen' you? Take an' look around on your mornin's work! You've struck down my brother's son, Tom Trevarthen-isn't that enough? Go an' pack your kit; I'll have no jail-birds aboard my ship."

He turned and went. On the way his foot encountered Mr. Sam's tall silk hat, and he kicked it viciously through the doorway before him.

"Tom!"

Until the call had been repeated twice behind him Tom Trevarthen did not hear. When, after a stupid stare at his hands (as though there had been blood on his knuckles), he turned to the voice, he saw Myra speeding bareheaded to overtake him. She beckoned him to stop.

"What will you do, Tom?" she panted, as he waited for her to come up.

"Me, missy? Well, I hadn't given it a thought; but now you mention it, I s'pose I'd better cut. 'Tis a police job, most like, as your aunt said. But never you mind for me."

The name of the police sounded terribly in Myra's ears.

"The Good Intent will be sailing to-night; I heard Peter Benny say so," she suggested; "and the Mary Rowett to-morrow, if the weather holds."

Tom Trevarthen nodded. "That's so, missy. Old man Hancock of the Good Intent wants a hand, to my knowledge. I'll try 'en, or else walk to Falmouth. Don't you fret for me," he repeated.

They had reached the gate of Hall, over which a gigantic chestnut spread its branches. As Myra faced Tom Trevarthen a laugh sounded overhead; and, looking up, she saw Master Calvin's legs and elastic-sided boots depending from a green bough.

"Hullo, Myra!" Master Calvin called down. "How d'you get on up at the Board School?"

"He don't go to Board School," said Tom Trevarthen, jerking his thumb up towards the bough. "In training to be a gentleman, he is; not like Master Clem. Well, good-bye, missy!"

Myra watched him down the road, and, as he disappeared at the bend, flung a glance up at the chestnut tree.

"Come down," she commanded, in no loud voice, but firmly.

"Shan't."

"What are you doing up there?" She sniffed the air, her sense of smell alive to a strange scent in it. "You nasty, horrid boy, you're smoking!"

"I'm not," answered Master Calvin untruthfully, concealing a pipe. "I'm up here pretending to be Zacch?us."

Myra without more ado pushed open the gate and went up the path to the house. In less than two minutes she was back again.

"Come down."

"Shan't."

"Very well. I'm going to Zacch?us you."

"What's that in your hand?"

"It's grandfather's powder-flask; and I've a box of matches, too."

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