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   Chapter 17 PETER BENNY'S DISMISSAL.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13294

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Although Master Calvin Rosewarne, by telling tales, first set the persecution going against Nicky Vro, he did so without any special malevolence. It was an instance of Satan's finding mischief for idle hands. The child, in fact, had no playmates, and little to do; and happening to pass Mrs. Trevarthen's cottage as her household stuff and sticks of furniture were being removed in a hand-cart, he followed downhill to the ferry to watch the transhipment.

Some minutes later, Mrs. Trevarthen, having locked her door for the last time, laid the key under a geranium-pot on the window-sill. There was no sentiment in her leave-taking. A few late blossoms showed on the jasmine which, from a cutting planted by her in the year of Tom's birth, had over-run and smothered the cottage to its very chimney. Her Michaelmas daisies and perennial phloxes-flowers of her anxious care-were in full bloom. But the old soul had no eyes for them, now at the last, being flustered by the importance of her journey and the thought of many things, hastily packed, which might take harm in crossing the ferry. Mr. Toy (a neighbourly fellow with all his failings, and one of that not innumerous class of men who delight in any labour, so it be unprofitable) had undertaken to load the ferry-boat; but having in mere exuberance of good-nature imbibed more beer than was good for him, he could not be trusted with the chinaware.

Neighbours appeared at every doorway-the more emotional ones with red eyes-to wish Mrs. Trevarthen good-bye. She answered them tremulously; but her mind, all the way down the street, ran on a hamper of chinaware, the cover of which she could not remember to have tied. Her left arm rested in Aunt Butson's (who carried the parrot's cage swathed in an old petticoat); on her right she bore a covered basket.

At the slip Mr. Toy handed her on board. He himself would cross later in the horse-boat, with his handcart and the heavier luggage.

"Better count the parcels, missus," he advised. "There's fifteen, as I make out; and Mr. Vro'll hand 'em out careful 'pon t'other side. You'd best wait there till I come across with the rest."

Instead of taking her seat at once, Mrs. Trevarthen stood for a moment bewildered amid the packages crowding the thwarts and the sternsheets; and most unfortunately Old Vro selected this moment to thrust off from shore with his paddle. The impetus took her at unawares, and she fell forward; her basket struck against the boat's gunwale, its cover flew open, and forth from it, half-demented with fright, sprang her tabby cat, Methuselah. The poor brute lit upon the parrot's cage, which happened to be balanced upon an unstable pile of cooking utensils at the end of Nicky Vro's thwart. Cat, cage and parrot, a gridiron, two cake tins, a bundle of skewers, and a cullender, went overboard in one rattling avalanche, and Master Calvin laughed aloud from the shore.

Nicky Vro, with a wild clutch, grabbed hold of the cage before it sank, and dragged it and the screaming bird out of danger. The gridiron and skewers went down at once-luckily in four feet of water, whence they could be recovered at low-ebb. The cullender sank slowly and with dignity. The cat headed straight for shore, and, defying all attempts of Mr. Toy and Aunt Butson to head him off, slipped between them and dashed up the hill on a bee-line for home. Master Calvin, seated astride the low wall above the slipway, almost rolled off his perch with laughter. Uncle Vro, cage in hand, turned on him with sudden fury.

"Better fit you was at your lessons," he called back, shaking his fist, "than grinning there at your father's dirty work! Toy, run an' pull the ears of 'en!-'twon't be noticed if you pull 'em an inch longer than they be."

The boy, as Mr. Toy ran towards him with a face that meant business, dropped off the wall on its far side, and charged up the hill for home in a terror scarcely less urgent than Methuselah's. Nor did he feel safe until, at the gate of Hall, he tumbled into his father's arms and panted out his story.

"Talked about my 'dirty work,' did he?" mused Mr. Sam, pulling at his under-lip. He wheeled about and walked straight to the counting-house, where Mr. Benny sat addressing Michaelmas bills.

"Put those aside for a moment," he commanded. "I want a letter written."

Mr. Benny took a sheet of notepaper from the rack, dipped his pen, and looked up attentively.

"It's for the ferryman below here-Old Vro, as you call him. Write that after Saturday next his services will not be required."

Mr. Benny laid down his pen slowly and stared at his master.

"I beg your pardon, sir-you can't mean that you're dismissing him?"

"Why not?"

"What, old Nicky Vro?" Mr. Benny shook his head, as much as to say that the thing could not be done.

"He has been grossly impudent. Apart from that, his incompetence is a scandal, and I have wondered more than once how my father put up with it. In justice to the public using the ferry, and to Lady Killiow as owner of the ferry rights-But, excuse me, I prefer not to argue the matter. He must go. Will you, please, write the letter, and deliver it when you cross the ferry at dinner-time."

"But, indeed, Mr. Samuel-you must forgive me, sir-old Nicky may be cantankerous at times, but he means no harm to any living soul. The passengers make allowances: he's a part of the ferry, as you might say. As for impudence-if he really has been impudent-will you let me talk to him, sir? I'll engage he asks pardon and promises not to offend again. But think, before in your anger you turn him adrift-where can the old man go, but to the workhouse? What can he have saved, on twelve shillings a week? For every twelve shillings he's earned Lady Killiow three to five pounds, week by week, these forty years; and not one penny of it, I'll undertake to say, has he kept back from her ladyship. What wage is it, after all, for the years of a man's strength that now, with a few more years to live, he should lose it?"

"Have you done?"

Mr. Benny stood up. "I should never have done, sir, until you listened to me."

"You refuse to write the letter?"

"I humbly beg you, sir, not to ask me to write it."

"But I do ask you to write it."

Mr. Benny thrust both hands nervously beneath his coat-tails, walked to the window and stood for a second or two, staring out upon the garden. His cheeks were flushed. He had arrived at one of those moments in life which prove a man; but of heroism he was not conscious at all.

"I am very sorry, Mr. Samuel," said he, turning again to the table. "If your father had told me to wr

ite such a letter, I should have used an old servant's liberty and warned him that he was acting unjustly. Though it made him angry, he would have understood. But I see, sir, that I have no right to argue with you; and so let us have no more words. I cannot write what you wish."

"My father," answered Mr. Sam, wagging a finger at him, "tolerated many things I do not propose to tolerate. He suffered this old dotard to annoy the public, though long past work. I am not surprised to learn that he suffered you to forget your place."

Mr. Benny gathered up his papers without answering.

"Look here, Benny," Mr. Sam resumed, after watching him for a while, "I don't wish to be hard on you; I only require obedience. It's a bit foolish of you-eh?-to be quarrelling with your bread and butter."

"May be, sir."

"If you leave me, I wish it to be understood that 'tis by your own choice."

The little man met his master's eyes now with a look of something like contempt. "If that salves your conscience, sir, by all means have it so. But if 'tis to be plain truth between us, you want a younger clerk."

"Did I ever complain of your incompetence?"

"My incompetence, sir? 'Tis my competence you surely mean? I reckon no man can be sure of being a good servant till he has learnt to advise for his master's good against his master's will."

"What's the matter with 'ee, Peter?" asked Nicky Vro as he rowed Mr. Benny across the ferry at dinnertime. "You're looking as downcast as a gib cat."

"I was wondering," answered Mr. Benny gently, "how many times we two have crossed this ferry together."

Nicky Vro pondered. "Now that's the sort o' question I leave alone o' set purpose, and I'll tell 'ee for why. One night, years ago, and just as we was off to bed, my poor wife says to me, 'I wonder how many times you've crossed the ferry, first and last.' 'Hundreds and thousands,' I says, just like so. She'd a-put the question in idleness, an' in idleness I answered it. Will you believe it?-between twelve and one in the morning I woke up with my head full o' figgers. Not another wink o' sleep could I get, neither. Soon as ever I shook up the bolster an' settled down for another try, I see'd myself whiskin' back and forth over this here piece o' water like a piston-rod in a steamship, and off I started countin' for dear life. Count? I tell you it lasted for nights, and by the end o' the week I had to see the doctor about it. I was losin' flesh. Doctor, he gave me a bottle o' trade-very flat-tasted stuff it was, price half a crown, with a sediment if you let it stand; and after a few days the trouble wore off. They tell me there's a new pupil teacher up to the school can answer questions like that while you're countin' his buttons. I've seen the fellow: a pigeon-chested poor creatur', with his calves put on the wrong way. I'd a mind to tell 'en that with figgers, as with other walks o' life, a man's first business is to look after his own. But I didn't like to, he looked so harmless. Puttin' one thing with another, Peter Benny, I'd advise you to leave these speckilations alone. Be it a thousand times or ten thousand, there's only one time that counts -the last; and only the Lord A'mighty knows when that'll be."

Mr. Benny sighed. "When the Lord sets a man free of his labour, Nicky, He does it gently. But we have to deal with an earthly master, we two, and his mercies aren't so gentle."

Nicky Vro nodded. "You'm thinkin' of they two poor souls up the hill. A proper tyrant Mister Sam can be, and so I told that ugly-featured boy of his, when I put Mrs. Trevarthen across this mornin'. 'Twas a shame, too, to lose my temper with the cheeld; for a cat couldn't help laughin'- supposin' he wasn't the partickler cat consarned." The old man told the story, chuckling wheezily.

"You went too far, Nicky. I have the best reasons for knowing that you went too far. Now listen to me. As soon as you get back, hitch up your boat, walk straight up to Hall, and tell Mr. Sam that you're sorry."

"Well, so I am in a way, though the fellow do turn my stomach. Still there wasn' no sense in rappin' out on the boy."

"It doesn't help the old woman, you know," said Mr. Benny, and sighed again, bethinking himself how vain had been his own protest.

"Not a bit," assented Mr. Vro cheerfully. "Well, I'll go back and make it up with the varmint. I reckon he means to give me a bad few minutes; but 'tis foolish to quarrel when folks can't do without one another, and so I'll tell 'en."

Half an hour ago Mr. Benny had been a brave man, but as he neared his home a sudden cowardice seized him. It was not that he shirked breaking the news to his wife; nay, he fiercely desired to tell her, and get the worst over. But in imagination he saw the children seated around the table, all hungry as hunters for the meal which, under God's grace, he had never yet failed to earn; and the thought that they might soon hunger and not be fed, for a moment unmanned him. He hurried past the ope leading to his door. The dinner-hour's quiet rested on the little town, and there was no one in the street to observe him as he halted by the church-gate, half-minded to return. The gate stood open, and as he glanced up at the tower the clock there rang out its familiar chime. He passed up the path, entered, and cast himself on his knees.

For half an hour he knelt, and, although he prayed but by fits and starts, by degrees peace grew within him and possessed his soul. He waited until the clock struck two-by which time the children would be back at school- and walked resolutely homeward.

Mrs. Benny and Nuncey were alone in the kitchen, where the board had been cleared of all but the tablecloth and his own knife and fork. They cried out together upon his dilatoriness; but while his wife turned to fetch his dinner from the oven, Nuncey took a step forward, scanning his face.

"Father?"

He put out a hand as he dropped into his seat, and stared along the empty table.

"I am dismissed."

Mrs. Benny faced about, felt for a chair, and sat down trembling. Nuncey took her father's hand.

"Tell us all about it," she commanded; and he told them.

His wife cast her apron over her head.

"But he'll take you back," she moaned. "If you go to 'en and ask 'en properly, he'll surely take you back!"

"Don't be foolish, mother." Nuncey laid a hand on her father's shoulder, and he looked up at her with brimming eyes. "'Tis Rosewarne that shall send to us before we go to him!"

She patted the tired shoulders, now bent again over the table.

"But what a brave little father it is, after all!"

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