MoboReader> Literature > Shining Ferry

   Chapter 16 AUNT BUTSON CLOSES SCHOOL.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 25801

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Next morning when Hester arrived at the school she found Mr. Sam waiting for her, with Myra, Clem, and a lanky, freckled youth of about sixteen, whom he introduced as Archelaus Libby. She could not help a smile at this odd name, and the young man himself seemed to be conscious of its absurdity. He blushed, held out his hand and withdrew it again, dropped his hat and caught it awkwardly between his knees. Myra (who had made the sign of the cross as Hester entered) stood and regarded him with a cold, contemptuous interest. Her uncle presented the poor fellow with a proprietary wave of the hand, as though he had been a dumb animal recently purchased.

"I telegraphed to Liskeard on my own responsibility. The Managers may take me to task; but I felt it to be imperative that you should have a male teacher to support you, and at once. At all costs we must prevent a repetition of such scenes as yesterday's."

Doubtless he had done Hester a service, and she tried to express her thanks, but did not succeed very well. To begin with, her spirit being roused, she desired no help; and to judge by Mr. Archelaus Libby's looks, the help he could give promised to be ineffective. She did not say this, of course; and he gazed at her so wistfully that she reproached herself for thinking it.

Mr. Sam had no such scruples. "I telegraphed to Liskeard," he repeated. "There was no time for a personal interview." (He paused, with a deprecating wave of the hand, as who shall say, "And this is what they sent.") "If," he continued, "you find him unequal to maintaining discipline, we-ha-must take other steps. In other respects I find him satisfactory. He tells me he is of the Baptist persuasion, a believer in Total Immersion."

Hester saw Myra's mouth twitching. She herself broke into merry laughter.

"I hope it won't be necessary to go that length," she answered. "We will do our best, at any rate." She held out her hand again, and Archelaus Libby grasped it warmly.

On the whole, Archelaus Libby's best proved to be better than she had expected. The boys made a butt of him from the beginning, but could get no real advantage over one who laughed with them at his own discomfitures. He belonged to those meek ones who (it is promised) shall inherit the earth; and indeed, as the possessor of a two-guinea microscope-bought, as he explained to Hester, with his first earnings-he believed himself to inherit it already. This microscope, and the wonders he showed them under it, earned no little respect from the children. Also he had, without being aware of it, an extraordinary gift of mental arithmetic, and would rattle out the quotients of long compound division sums at alarming speed and with a rapid clicking sound at the back of his throat, as though some preternatural machinery were at work there. But most of all he conquered by sheer love of his kind and of every living creature. The lad seemed to brim over with love: he never arrived at forgiving anyone, being incapable of believing that anyone meant to offend. From the first he yielded to Hester a canine devotion which was inconvenient because it rendered him dumb.

Within a week Hester felt sure of herself and of the school, and confided her joy to Mr. Benny, who always met her at the ferry and accompanied her home to tea; for she was now installed as a lodger with the Benny household, greatly to Nuncey's delight. After tea Mr. Benny always withdrew to a little office overhanging the tideway; a wooden, felt-roofed shed in which he earned money from 6.30 to 8.30 p.m. by writing letters for seamen. In this interval the two girls walked or bathed, returning in time to put the children to bed and help Mrs. Benny with the supper. They talked much, but seldom about the school-all the cares of which Hester left behind her at the ferry crossing.

"And that's what I like about you," Nuncey confided. "You don't give yourself airs like other schoolmistresses."

"How many others do you know?" asked Hester.

"None; but I know what I'm talkin' about. You know more about poetry and such-like than Dad; I daresay you know as much as Uncle Josh; and yet no one would think it, to look at you."

"Thank you." Hester dropped her a curtsey. "And who is Uncle Josh?"

"He's Dad's brother, and well known in London. I believe he writes for the papers; 'connected with the press'-that's how Dad puts it. When Dad writes a poem he hasn't time to polish it; so he sends it up to Uncle Josh, and it comes back beautifully polished by return of post. Now do you know what I want?" asked Nuncey, falling back and eyeing her.

"What?"

"Guess."

"Really I can't." Hester knew by this time that Nuncey's thoughts moved without apparent connection.

"I want to see you out of mourning-well, in half-mourning, then. It ought to be pale grey, and there's a lilac ribbon in Bonaday's shop at this moment. You needn't pretend you don't care about these things, for I know better."

After supper, and on their way to and from the ferry, Mr. Benny would talk readily enough about the school. But on one point-the tribulation it was bringing upon Aunt Butson-he kept silence; for the thought of it made him unhappy. He knew that Hester was innocent, but he could not wholly acquit himself of complicity in the poor old woman's fate. Mr. Benny had a troublesome and tender conscience in all matters that concerned his duty towards his neighbour. The School Board was driving Mrs. Butson out of employ, taking away her scanty earnings; and he was Clerk to the School Board. To be sure, if he resigned to-morrow, another man would take his place, and Mrs. Butson be not one penny the better. Mr. Benny saw this, yet it did not ease his conscience wholly.

Hester, too, kept silence. Her way to the school led her past the little shanty (originally a carpenter's workshop) in which Aunt Butson taught. It stood a stone's-throw back from the village street, partly concealed by a clump of elms; but once or twice she had heard and spied children at play between the trees there-children with faces unfamiliar to her-and gathered that the old woman still kept her door open. As the days went by the date for raising Mrs. Trevarthen's rent, and the cottage still showed every sign of habitation, she took it for granted that Mr. Sam had relented-possibly in obedience to his promise not to persecute the young sailor. She did not know that, in serving his notice without consulting Peter Benny, Mr. Sam had made a trifling mistake; that Mrs. Trevarthen held her cottage on a quarterly tenancy, and could neither have her rent raised nor be evicted before Michaelmas. Hester would have been puzzled to say precisely what sealed her lips from inquiry. Partly, no doubt, she shrank from discovering a fresh obligation to Mr. Sam, whose unctuous handshake she was learning to detest. Tom Trevarthen had disappeared. His mother kept house unmolested. Why not let sleeping dogs lie? For the rest, the school absorbed most of her thoughts, and paid back interest in cheerfulness. The children were beginning to show signs of loyalty, and a teacher who has won loyalty has won everything. Myra alone stood aloof, sullen, impervious to kindness.

In truth, Myra was suffering. For the first time in their lives her will and Clem's had come into conflict; and Clem's revealed itself as unexpectedly, almost hopelessly, stubborn. That the Virtuous Lady had sailed for Quebec, carrying away Aunt Hannah, the one other person in the world who understood her, made little difference. A hundred Aunt Hannahs could not console her for this loss-for a loss she called it. "The woman is taking him from me!" She cried the words aloud to herself on her lonely walks, making the cattle in the fields, the horses in the stable, the small greyhound, even the fields and trees, confidants in her woe. "She is stealing you from me," she reproached Clem; "and you can't see that she is a witch! You don't love me any longer!" "I love you better than ever," protested poor Clem. "No, you don't, or you would choose between us. Say 'I hate her!'" But Clem shook his head. "I don't hate her; and besides, she isn't a witch."

She had been forbidden to speak to Calvin for a week. "My dear man," she answered Mr. Sam, to his no small astonishment, "do you think I want to talk to the pimply creature? He tells fibs; and besides, he's a robber."

"You are a wicked child; and if you persist in this talk, I shall have to punish you."

"Are you going to beat me? Beat away. But it's true."

He did not beat her; but one day, meeting Hester on the hill as she walked to school, he went so far as to suggest that Myra's spirit needed taming. She had been allowed to run loose, and her behaviour at home caused him many searchings of heart. He made no doubt that her behaviour in school was scarcely more satisfactory.

Hester admitted that he surmised correctly.

He had never been blessed with a daughter of his own, and hardly knew what to do with an unruly girl. Might he leave the matter in Miss Marvin's hands?

"If," said Hester, "you are speaking of her behaviour in school, you certainly may. She is jealous, poor child, because her brother has taken a fancy to be fond of me. In her place I should be furious. But I think we are going to be friends."

"Some form of punishment-if I might suggest-"

"I don't know of any that meets the case," Hester answered gravely.

"I have often,"-he fastened on her that gaze of his which she most of all disliked-"I have oftentimes, of late especially, felt even Calvin to be a responsibility, without a mother's care." He went on from this to the suggestion he had hinted to Mrs. Purchase. Would Miss Marvin be prepared (for an honorarium) to give his son private lessons? Could she afford the time? "I shrink from exposing him to influences, so often malign, of a boarding-school. What I should most of all desire for him is a steady, sympathetic home influence, a-may I say it?-a motherly influence."

Hester at this moment, averting her eyes, was aware of an old woman a few yards away, coming up the road; a woman erect as a soldier, with strong, almost mannish features, and eyes that glared at her fiercely from under a washed-out blue sunbonnet. Mr. Sam gave her good-morning as she went by, but she neither answered nor seemed to hear him.

"Who is she?" Hester had almost asked, when the woman turned aside into a path leading to the shed among the elms.

"She'll have to shut up shop next week," said Mr. Sam, following Hester's gaze. "I declare, Miss Marvin, one would think the old woman had ill-wished you, by the way you are staring after her. Don't believe in witchcraft, I hope?"

"I have never seen her till now, and I do feel sorry for her."

"She's not fit to teach, and never was."

"She's setting me a lesson in punctuality, at any rate," said Hester, forcing a little laugh, glad of an excuse to end the conversation. But along the road and at intervals during the first and second lesson-hours the face of Mrs. Butson haunted her.

In the hour before dinner, while she sat among the little ones correcting their copy-books, the door-latch clicked, and she looked up with a start- to see the woman herself standing upon the threshold! Archelaus Libby, who had been chalking on the blackboard at lightning speed a line of figures for his mental arithmetic class, turned to announce them, and paused with a click in his throat which seemed to answer that of the latch. In the sudden hush Hester felt her cheek paling. Somehow she missed the courage with which she had met Tom Trevarthen.

"Good-morning!" said Mrs. Butson harshly. "'Tisn't forbidden to come in, I hope?"

"Good-morning," Hester found voice to answer. "You may come in, and welcome, if you wish us well."

"I'm Sarah Butson. As for wishing well or ill to 'ee, we'll leave that alone. I've come to listen, not to interrup'." She advanced into the room and pointed a finger at Archelaus Libby. "Is that your male teacher? He bain't much to look at, but I'm told he's terrible for sums."

"You shall judge for yourself. Go on with your lesson, Archelaus; and you, Mrs. Butson, take a seat if you will."

"No; I'll stand." Mrs. Butson shut her jaws firmly and treated the small scholars around her to a fierce, unwavering stare. Many winced, remembering her mercies of old. "Go on, young man," she commanded Archelaus.

He plunged into figures again, nervously at first. Soon he recovered his volubility, and, calling on one of the elder boys to name two rows of figures for division, wrote them out and dashed down the quotient; then flung in the working at top speed, showing how the quotient was obtained; next rubbed out all but the original divisor and dividend, and, swinging round upon the boys, raced them through the sum, his throat clicking as he appealed from o

ne boy to another, urging them to answer faster and faster yet. "Yes, yes-but try to multiply in double figures-twice sixteen, thirty-two: it's no harder than four times eight-the tables don't really stop at twelve times. Now then-seventy-eight into three-twenty-six? You-you-you-what's that, Sunny Pascoe? Four times? Right-how many over? Fourteen. Now then, bring down the next figure, and that makes the new dividend."

Mrs. Butson passed her hand over Hester's desk. "You keep 'em well dusted," she observed, turning her back upon Archelaus and his calculations. Her angry-looking eyes travelled over desks, floor, walls, and the maps upon the walls, then back to the children.

"How many?" she asked.

"We have sixty-eight on the books."

"How many here to-day?"

"Sixty-six. There are two absent, with certificates. Would you like me to call the roll?"

"No. You've got 'em in hand, too, I see." She picked up a copy-book from the desk before her, examined it for a moment, and laid it down. "You like this work?" she asked, turning her eyes suddenly upon Hester.

"How else could one do it at all?"

"I hate it-yes, hate it," the old woman went on. "Though 'twas my living, I've hated it always. Yet I taught 'em well-you cross the ferry and ask schoolmaster Penrose if I did not. I taught 'em well; but you beat me-fair and square you do. Only there'll come a time-I warn you- when the hope and pride'll die out of you, and you'll wake an' wonder how to live out the day. I don't know much, but I know that time must come to all teachers. They never can tell when 'tis coming. After some holiday, belike, it catches 'em sudden. The new lot of children be no worse than the last, but they get treated worse because the teacher's come to end of tether. You take my advice and marry before that time comes."

"I don't think I shall ever marry."

"Oh yes, you will!" Aunt Butson's eyes seemed to burn into Hester's. "You're driving me out to work in the fields; but, marry or not, you'll give me all the revenge I look for." The old woman hunched her shoulders and made abruptly for the door. As it slammed behind her a weight seemed to fall upon Hester's heart and a sudden shadow across her day.

Down in the little cottage Aunt Butson found Mrs. Trevarthen standing beside a half-filled packing-case and contemplating a pair of enormous china spaniels which adorned the chimney-piece, one on either side of Chinese junk crusted with sea-shells.

"What's to be done with 'em?" Mrs. Trevarthen asked. "They'll take up more room than they're worth, and I doubt they'll fetch next to nothing if I leave 'em behind for the sale. My old man got 'em off a pedlar fellow for two-and-threepence apiece, back-along when we first set up house. A terrible extravagance, as I told 'en at the time; but he took such a fancy to the things, I never had the heart to say what I thought about their looks."

"You can leave 'em bide," answered Aunt Butson. "Unpack that there case agen an' turn it over to me. I'm goin' to quit."

"There's too much red-tape about the Widows' Houses," Mrs. Trevarthen pursued. "The Matron says, if I want to bring Tom's parrot, I must speak to Sir George an get leave: 'tis agen the rules, seemingly."

"Be quiet with your parrot, an' listen to me! I'm goin' to shut up school, an' quit. Go an' make your peace wi' that Judas Rosewarne: tell 'en you're gettin' the rids of me, an' he'll let you down easy enough."

Mrs. Trevarthen for a moment did not seem to hear, but stood meditatively fingering the china ornaments. Suddenly she swung round upon her lodger.

"You're goin' to give in? After all your talk, you're goin' to let that slave-driver ride roughshod over you?"

"My dear,"-Aunt Butson hunched her shoulders-"'tis no manner of good. Who's goin' to pay me tuppence a week, when that smooth-featured girl up the hill teaches ten times better for a penny? I've been up there to see, and I ben't a fool. She teaches ten times better than ever I did in my life. How many children do 'ee think turned up this mornin'? Five. And I've taught five-an'-thirty at one time. I sent 'em away; told 'em to come again to-morrow, and take word to their fathers and mothers to step around at twelve o'clock. They'll think 'tis to come to an arrangement about the fees; but what I have to tell is that the school's wound up."

"You may do as it pleases you, Sally Butson. You may go, if you choose, and ask Rosewarne to put his foot on your neck. But if you think I make any terms with 'en, you're mistaken. He've a-driven my Tom from home an' employ; he've a-cast a good son out o' my sight and knowledge, and fo'ced 'en, for all I know, into wicked courses-for Tom's like his father before 'en; you can lead 'en by a thread, but against ill-usage he'll turn mad. Will I forgive Rosewarne for this? He may put out the fire in my grate and fling my bed into the street, and I'll laugh and call it a little thing; but for what he've a-done to the son of a widow I'll put on him the curse of a widow, and not all his wrath shall buy it off by an ounce or shorten it by one inch."

Mrs. Trevarthen-ordinarily a mild-tempered woman-shook with her passion as an aspen shakes and whitens in the wind. Aunt Butson laid a hand on her shoulder.

"There-there! Put on the kettle, my dear, and let's have a drink of tea. It takes a woman different when she've a-got children. But it don't follow, because I'm a single woman, I can't read a lad's fortune. You mark my words, Tom'll fall on his feet."

Early next morning Mrs. Butson left the cottage with a small pile of books, disinterred from the depths of the box which contained all her belongings-cheap books in gaudy covers of red, blue, and green cloth, lavishly gilded without, execrably printed within: The Wide, Wide World; Caspar; Poor John, or Nature's Gentleman; The Parents' Assistant. Her system of education recognised merit, but rewarded it sparingly. As a rule, she had distributed three prizes per annum, before the Christmas holidays, and at a total cost of two shillings and sixpence. To-day she spread out no fewer than ten upon her desk, covering them out of sight with a duster before her scholars arrived.

A few minutes before nine she heard them at play outside among the elms, and at nine o'clock punctually called them in to work by ringing her handbell-the clapper of which (vain extravagance!) had recently been shortened by the village tinsmith to prevent its wearing the metal unequally. Five scholars answered its summons-'Thaniel Langmaid, Maudie Hosken, Ivy Nancarrow, Jane Ann Toy and her four-year-old brother Luke. Their fathers, one and all, though dwelling in the village, were employed in trades on the other side of the ferry, and therefore could risk offending Mr. Rosewarne; but their independence had not yet translated itself into steady payment of the fees, and Mr. Toy (for example) notoriously practised dilatoriness of payment as part of his scheme of life.

Without a twitch of her fierce features she ranged up her attenuated class, distributed the well-thumbed books-with a horn-book for little Luke Toy-and for two hours taught them with the same joyless severity under which their fathers and mothers had suffered. For spelling 'lamb' without the final b, Ivy Nancarrow underwent the punishment invariably meted out for such errors-mounted the dunce's bench, and wore the dunce's cap; nor did 'Thaniel Langmaid's knuckles escape the ruler when he dropped a blot upon his copy, 'Comparisons are Odious'-a proposition of which he understood the meaning not at all. The cane and the birch-rod on Mrs. Butson's desk served her now but as insignia. She had not wielded them as weapons of justice since the day (four years ago) when a struggle with Ivy Nancarrow's elder brother had taught her that her natural strength was abating.

At twelve o'clock she told the children to close their books, dismissed them to play, and sat down to await the invited company.

Mr. Toy was the first to arrive. He came straight from the jetties-that is to say, as straight as a stevedore can be expected to come at noon on Saturday, after receiving his week's pay. He wore his accustomed mask of clay-dust, and smelt powerfully of beer, two pints of which he had consumed in an unsocial hurry at the Ferry Inn on his way.

"Good-morning." Mrs. Butson welcomed him with a nod. "Your wife is coming, I hope?"

"You bet she is," Mr. Toy answered cheerfully, smacking the coins in his trousers pocket. "She don't miss looking me up this day of the week." Recollecting that certain of the shillings he so lightly jingled were due to Mrs. Butson, he suddenly grew confused, and his embarrassment was not lightened by the entrance of Maudie Hosken's parents. Mr. Hosken tilled a small freehold garden in his spare hours, and Mr. Toy owed him four shillings and sixpence for potatoes, and had reason to believe that Mrs. Hosken took a stern view of the debt.

Next came Mrs. Langmaid, a seaman's widow, and lastly Mrs. Toy, who noted that all the others had made themselves tidy for the ceremony, and at once began to apologise for her husband's appearance.

Aunt Butson cut her short, however, by ringing the school bell, and marshalling her five pupils back to their seats. The parents dropped themselves here and there among the many empty benches in the rear, and the schoolmistress, after rapping the desk with her cane, from force of habit, mounted the platform, uncovered the row of books, and began to arrange them with hands that trembled a little.

"Friends and neighbours, the reason I've called 'ee together is for a prize-giving. I'll have to say a word or two when that's done; but just now a prize-giving it is, and we'd best get to business. Girls: Maudie Hosken, first prize for good conduct; Ivy Nancarrow, consolation prize, ditto; Jane Ann Toy, extra consolation prize, ditto. Step up, girls, and take your books."

Until Mrs. Hosken leaned forward and nudged her daughter in the back, the children did not budge, so bewildered were they by these sudden awards. When Maudie, however, picked up courage, the other two bravely bore her company, and each received a book.

"Boys: 'Thaniel Langmaid, first prize for good conduct; Luke Toy, consolation prize for ditto."

"Seemin' to me," remarked Mr. Toy audibly, nudging his wife, "there's a deal o' consolation for our small family."

"Hush!" answered his wife. "There's as much gilt 'pon Lukey's book as 'pon any; an' 'tis almost as big."

"Girls: English prize, Ivy Nancarrow-and I hope that in futur', whoever teaches her, she won't think L-A-M spells 'lamb.' Sums and geography prize, Maudie Hosken; junior prize, Jane Ann Toy."

"Boys: General knowledge, 'Thaniel Langmaid; general improvement, Luke Toy."

"That makes four altogether." Mr. Toy jingled his shillings furtively. "Look here, Selina," he whispered, "we'll have to pay the old 'ooman something on account. How else to get out o' this, I don't see."

"An' now, friends an' neighbours," began Aunt Butson resolutely, "I've a-fetched 'ee together to say that 'tis all over; the school's come to an end. You've stuck by me while you could, and I thank you kindly. But 'tis hard for one of my age to fight with tyrants, and tyrants and Government together be too much for me. I've a-taught this here village for getting-up three generations. Lord knows I never loved the work; but Lord knows I was willing to go on with it till He called me home. Take a look at thicky there blackboard an' easel, bought but the other week; and here's a globe now, cost me fifteen shillin'-an' what'll I do with it?" She detached it from its frame, and before passing it round for inspection, held it between her trembling palms. "Here be all the nations o' the earth, civilised and uncivilised; and here be I, Sarah Butson, with no place upon it, after next Monday, to lay my head."

She looked up with fierce, tearless eyes, and looking up, caught sight of Mr. Samuel Rosewarne in the doorway.

"Oh, good-morning, Mrs. Butson!" nodded Mr. Sam easily. "I looked in to see if you'd collected your school-fees this week, as the law requires. You are doing so, it seems?"

"Rosewarne-" Mrs. Butson stepped down from her platform, globe in hand.

"Eh? I beg your pardon?" But before the mischief in her eyes he turned and fled.

She followed him to the door.

"Take that, you thievin' Pharisee!"

The globe missed his head by a few inches, and went flying down the roadway toward the ferry. Aunt Butson strode back among her astonished audience.

"That's my last word to he," she said, panting; "and here's my last to you." She picked up her chalk, advanced to the blackboard, and wrote rapidly, in bold, clear hand-

BLAST ALL EDUCATION!

"You may go, friends," said she. "I'd like to be alone, if you please."

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares