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Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 12550

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Hester's cupboard contained a small case of plasters, lint, ointments, etc., for childish cuts and bruises. She despatched a couple of boys to the playground pump to fetch water, and then glanced at Mrs. Purchase interrogatively.

"Better send for a doctor, I suppose?" said Mrs. Purchase.

"I think, if we bathe the wound, we can tell better what's necessary. Will you-?"

"I reckon the job's more in your line. You've the look o' one able to nurse-yes, and you've the trick of it, I see," Mrs. Purchase went on, as Hester knelt, lifted the sufferer's head, and motioned to the boys to set down their basin of water beside her. "I'll clear the children out to the playground and keep 'em quiet. Call, if you want anything; I'll be close outside." The good lady shepherded them forth with brisk authority; not for nothing had she commanded a ship these thirty years. "But, Lord!" she muttered, "to think of me playing schoolmistress! What'll I do, I wonder, if these varmints of boys break ship and run home?"

She might have spared herself this anxiety. The children were all agog to see the drama out. Would Mr. Samuel recover? And, if not, what would be done to Tom Trevarthen? They discussed this in eager groups. If any of them had an impulse to run downhill and cry the news through the village, Mrs. Purchase's determined slamming and bolting of the playground gate restrained it-that, and perhaps a thought that by running with the news they would start the hue-and-cry after Tom.

Hester, having sponged away the blood, found that the cut on Mr. Sam's temple was nothing to need a doctor, but could be set right by cleansing and a few strips of plaster. Doubtless the fall had stunned him, and doubtless he must be in some pain. Yet when at length he groaned and opened his eyes she could not repress a suspicion (although she hated herself for it) that in some degree he had been shamming.

"Do not move, please," she commanded gently, snipping at the plaster with her scissors. "A couple of strips more, then a bandage, and you will soon be feeling better."

His eyes rolled and fixed themselves on her. "A ministering angel," he muttered. She caught the words, and turned her head aside with a flush of annoyance.

"You have an ugly bruise," she told him sharply. "I am going to put a cool compress on it. You had better close your eyes, or some of the water will be trickling into them."

He closed them obediently, but asked, "He has gone?"


"Then you are safe at least, thank God!"

Yes, he had taken his hurt in protecting her; and yet something in his tone caused her to glance, and as if for protection, to the doorway.

"You are comely," he went on slowly, opening his eyes again, and again rolling that embarrassing gaze upon her. "Your fingers, too, have the gift of healing."

She could not tell him with what repugnance she brought them to touch him. Having fastened the bandage firmly, she turned again to the doorway to summon Mrs. Purchase, but checked herself.

"I want to ask you a favour," she began in a hesitating voice.

"You may ask it confidently."

"I want you to forgive-no, not forgive; that is the wrong word-to be generous, and not to punish."

Mr. Samuel blinked. "Let him off?" he asked. "Why? What's your motive?"

"I don't know that there's any motive." She met his eyes frankly enough, but with a musing air as if considering a new suggestion. "No; it's just a wish, no more. An hour ago it seemed to me that everyone was eager and happy; that there would always be pleasure in looking back upon our opening day." Her voice trembled a little. "Now this has happened, to spoil all; and yet something may be saved if we bear no malice, but take up the work again, and show that we waste no time or thought on punishment, being determined only to win."

"You are asking a great deal of me," he answered. Nevertheless he had instantly resolved to grant her wish, and for many reasons. "I suppose you know the matter is serious enough for a warrant? Still, if I shall oblige you by declining to prosecute-"

"But please don't put it in that way!" she interrupted.

"I really don't see how else to put it." He paused, as if requiring her to suggest a better. "The point is, you want me to let the fellow off- eh? Well then, I will."

"Thank you," said Hester, with a sigh.

Mr. Sam smiled. After being shaken like a rat, a man needs to retrieve his self-respect, and he was retrieving his famously. He could see himself in a magnanimous light: he had laid the girl under an obligation; he had avoided public action which would, to be sure, have given him revenge, but at much cost of dignity; and, for the rest, he had still plenty of ways to get even with Master Tom Trevarthen.

Hester had a mind to tell him that he misconstrued her; that merely to abstain from pursuing the lad with warrant or summons neither fulfilled her request nor touched the kernel of it. But while she cast about for words Mrs. Purchase thrust a cheerful head in at the doorway.

"Hullo, that's famous!" she exclaimed at sight of the bandaging. "You're a clever woman, my dear; and now I'll ask you to bring your cleverness outside here and take these children off my hands. W'st, you little numskulls!"-she turned and addressed them-"keep quiet, I say, with your mountains out of molehills! There's no one killed nor hurt; only a foolish lad lost his temper, and he'll smart for it, and I hope it'll be a warning to you." She poked her head in through the doorway again. "Come along, Sam, and show yourself. And as for you, my dear," she went on hurriedly, lowering her voice, "better get 'em back to their work as if nought had happened. I'll bide a while with you till you have 'em in hand again."

"Thank you," said Hester; "but that wouldn't help me in the long-run. I must manage them alone."

"You mean that?"

"Yes; but I thank you none the less."

"And you're right. You're a plucky woman." She turned to Mr. Sam briskly. "Well, take my arm and put on as light a face as you can. Here's your hat-I've smoothed out the worst of the dents. Eh? Bain't goin' to make a speech, surely!"

Mr. Sam, leaning slightly on his aunt's arm, pulled himself up on the threshold and surveyed the

children's wondering faces.

"Boys and girls," he said, "our opening day has been spoilt by a scene on which I won't dwell, because I desire you not to dwell on it. If you treat it lightly, as I intend to do, bearing no malice, we shall show the world all the more clearly that we are in earnest about things which really matter."

He cleared his throat and looked around with a challenging smile at Hester, who watched him, wondering to hear her own words so cleverly repeated.

"We wish," he proceeded, "to remember our opening day as a pleasant one. Miss Marvin especially wishes to look back on it with pleasure; and I think we all ought to help her. Now if I say no more about this foolish young man-whom I could punish very severely-will you promise me to go back to your books? To-day, as you know, is a half-holiday; but there remains an hour for work before you disperse. I want your word that you will employ it well, and honestly try to do all that Miss Marvin tells you."

He paused again, and chose to take a slight murmur among the children for their assent.

"I thank you. There is an old saying that he who conquers himself performs a greater feat than he who takes a city. Some of us, Miss Marvin, may hereafter associate the lesson with this our opening day."

He seemed to await some reply to this; but Hester could not speak, even to thank him. Her spirit recoiled from him; she could not reconcile egoism so inordinate with such cleverness in turning it to account. She watched him with a certain fascination, as one watches some trained monster in a show displaying its deformity for public applause. He shook hands with her and made his exit, not without dignity, leaning on Mrs. Purchase's arm and turning at the playground gate to wave farewell.

It is doubtful if the children understood his speech. But they were awed. At the word of command they trooped into school, settled themselves at their desks, and took up their interrupted lessons with a docility at which Hester wondered, since for the moment she herself had lost all power to interest or amuse them.

For her that was a dreadful hour. A couple of humble-bees zoomed against the window pane, and the sound, with the ticking of the schoolroom clock, took possession of her brain. Z-zoom! Tick-tack, tick-tack! Would lesson-time never come to an end? She went about automatically correcting sums, copies, exercises, because the sight of the pencilled words or figures steadied her faculties, whereas she felt that if she called the children up in class her wits would wander and all answers come alike to her, right or wrong. Her will, too, had fallen into a strange drowsiness. She wanted the window open, to get rid of the humble-bees; a word to one of the elder boys and it would be done. Yet the minutes passed and the word remained unspoken. So a sick man will lie and debate with himself so small a thing as the lifting of a hand.

At length the clock hands pointed to five minutes to noon. She ordered books to be shut and slates to be put away; and going to the harmonium, gave out the hymn, "Lord, dismiss us with Thy blessing." The Managers had agreed upon this hymn; the Nonconformist majority insisting, however, that the concluding 'Amen' should be omitted. Omitted accordingly it was on the slips of paper printed for school use.

"Lord, dismiss us with Thy blessing,

Thanks for mercies past receive;

Pardon all their faults confessing;

Time that's lost may all retrieve;

May Thy children

Ne'er again Thy Spirit grieve."

The children, released from the dull strain of watching the clock, sang with spirit. Hester played on, inattentive to the words. At the end, without considering what she did, she pressed down the chords of the 'Amen,' and the singers joined in, all unaware of transgressing.

In the silence that followed she suddenly remembered her instructions to omit the word, and sat for a moment flushed and confused. But the deed was done. The children stood shuffling their feet, awaiting the signal of dismissal.

"You may go," she said. "We will do better to-morrow."

When their voices had died away down the road she closed the harmonium softly, and fell to walking to and fro, musing, tidying up the schoolroom by fits and starts. She wanted to sit down and have a good cry; but always as the tears came near to flowing she fell to work afresh and checked them. Not until the room looked neat again did she remember that she was hungry. Nuncey had cooked a pasty for her, and she fetched it from the cupboard, where it lay in a basket covered by a spotless white cloth. As she did so, her eyes fell on a damp spot on the floor, where, after bandaging Mr. Sam, she had carefully washed out the stain of his blood.

She looked at her hands. They were clean; and yet having set down the basket on the desk, and turned her stool so that she might not see the spot on the floor, she continued to stare at them, and from them to the white cloth. A while she stood thus, irresolute, still listening to the bees zooming against the pane. Then with a sudden effort of will she walked out and across the yard, to the pump in the far corner.

She was stooping to raise the pump handle, but straightened herself up again at the sound-as it seemed to her-of a muffled sob.

She looked behind her and around. The playground was empty, the air across its gravelled surface quivering under the noonday heat. She listened.

Two long minutes passed before the sound was repeated; and this time she knew it for the sob of a child. It came from behind an angle of the building which hid a strip of the playground from view. She ran thither at once, and as she turned the corner her eyes fell on little Clem.

She had missed him from his place when the children returned to the schoolroom. His sister, she supposed, had taken him home.

He stood sentry now in the shade under the north wall of the building. He stood there so resolutely that, for the instant, Hester could scarcely believe the sobs had come from him. But he had heard her coming; and the face he turned to her, though tearless, was woefully twisted and twitching.

"My poor child!"

He stretched out both hands.

"Where is Myra? I want Myra, please!"

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