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   Chapter 18 RIGHT OF FERRY.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 18645

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"What's the matter with Benny?" asked Nicky Vro as he rowed Hester across that evening. They were alone in the boat. "The man seemed queer in his manner this morning, like as if he was sickenin' for something, and this afternoon I han't seen fur nor feather of 'en." He dug away with his paddles, and resumed with a chuckle, after a dozen strokes, "The man hasn't been quarrellin' with his bread and butter, I hope? I went up to see Mr. Sam on a little business o' my own after dinner, and he fairly snapped my nose off-called me an impident old fool, and gave me the sack. Iss fay, he did! I wasn't goin' to argue with the man. 'You'll think better o' this to-morrow,' I said, and with that I comed away. Something must have occurred to put 'en out before he talked that nonsense to me."

Next morning, Hester-who meanwhile had learned the truth-found the old fellow in the same cheerful, incredulous frame of mind. She might have told him how serious was his case; but it is improbable that she could have convinced him, and, moreover, Mr. Benny, before confiding to her the reason of his own dismissal, had made her promise to keep it a secret.

By Saturday, however, it was generally known that Mr. Sam had found some excuse or other to get rid of his father's confidential clerk. Now Mr. Benny had hitherto brought down Nicky's weekly wages on Saturday evenings as he crossed by the ferry. This week no Mr. Benny appeared, nor any messenger from Hall; and consequently on Sunday morning early Nicky donned a clean shirt-front and marched up to the house to claim his due.

"I make it a rule," said Mr. Sam, "to dispense no moneys on the Sabbath."

"The ferry charges double on the Sabbath, as you call it," answered Nicky, "and always has. I don't see where your squeamishness begins. Hows'ever, I'll call to-morrow rather than hurt any man's conscience; only let's have it clear when the money's to be paid in futur'."

"In future?" echoed Mr. Sam. "I hoped I had made it clear that after this week you cease to be ferryman."

"That's a good joke, now," said Nicky.

"I am glad you take it so pleasantly. Come to me to-morrow, and you shall be paid; and again next Saturday, after you have chained up for the night. That, I warn you, will be the last time."

"Oh, you'll think better of it by Saturday!"

That Mr. Sam did not think better of it scarcely needs to be said; and during the next few days some of Nicky's confidence began to ooze away. His master made no sign; he could not hear that anyone had been engaged in his place, or that anyone had been proposed for the job, but this silence somehow disconcerted rather than reassured him. He discussed it with his neighbour Hosken (one of the few small freeholders in the parish, who along with a cottage and two acres of garden had inherited a deep ancestral suspicion of the Rosewarnes and all their ways), and between them the pair devised a plan to meet contingencies.

The ferry closed at eight p.m. during the winter months. At half-past eight on Saturday night Nicky again presented himself at Hall, and was politely received in the counting-house.

"Take a seat," suggested Mr. Sam.

"Thank 'ee, sir," said Nicky, somewhat reassured. This opening promised at least that Mr. Sam found the situation worth discussing. "Thank 'ee, sir; but 'tis a relief to me to stand, not to mention the trousers."

"Please yourself." Mr. Sam paused, and appeared to be waiting.

"'Tis nice seasonable weather for the time of year," said Nicky cheerfully, producing a large canvas bag and reaching forward to lay it on the writing-table. It contained his week's takings, mostly in coppers. "Three pounds, twelve shillings, and ninepence, sir, if you'll count it. There's one French penny, must have been put upon me just now after dark. I can't swear to the person, though I can guess. The last load but one, I brought across a sailor-looking chap, a bustious, big fellow, with a round hat like a missionary's, and all the rest of him in sea-cloth. Thinks I, 'You've broken ship, my friend.' The man had a drinking face, and altogether I didn't like his looks. So, next trip, I warned the constable across the water, in case he heard of a seaman missing from the west'ard. But this here French penny I only discovered just now, when I counted up the day's takings."

"I fancy you must be mistaken," said Mr. Sam. "The man has a good character for honesty."

"What? You know 'en?"

"He is the new tenant of Mrs. Trevarthen's cottage, and has come to take over the ferry." In the pause that followed, Mr. Sam counted and arranged the coins in small stacks. "Three-twelve-nine, did you say? Right. But excuse me, there's one thing you've forgotten."

Nicky understood. Very slowly he drew a chain from his left trouser pocket, detached two keys, and laid them on the table. His face worked, and for the moment he seemed on the verge of an outburst; but, when he spoke, it was with dignity, albeit his voice trembled.

"Mr. Samuel, you try to go where the devil can't, between the oak and the rind. Your father fought with men of his own size, and gave an' took what the fightin' brought; but as for you, you fight with women and children, and old worn-out men, such as the Lord helps because they can't help themselves. You han't beat us yet-not by a long way. I warn you to pray that the way may be lengthened; for 'tis when you've overcome us, an' the Lord takes up our cause, that your troubles'll begin."

Small sleep came to Nicky Vro that night. What troubled him most in the prospect of the struggle ahead-for a struggle he meant it to be-was his position as Rosewarne's tenant. Mean as was his hovel above the ferry- rented by him at £four a year-he clung to it, and Mr. Samuel would certainly turn him out. By good luck he paid his rent quarterly, and could not be evicted before Christmas. He had talked this over with his neighbour, Hosken, who had encouraged him to be cheerful. "Drat it all, uncle," said Hosken, himself the cheeriest of men, "if the worst comes to the worst, I'll take you in myself, and give you your meals and a crib."

Nicky shook his head. "You'd best talk it over with your wife," said he, "afore you make free with your promises. She's a good woman, but afflicted with tidiness. I doubt my ways be too messy for her."

While he lay on his straw mattress thinking of these things, a distant gallop of hoofs woke the night, and by and by, with much clattering of loose stones, a horse came plunging down the village street.

Old Nicky, who slept in his clothes, was out of bed and ready before the rider drew rein.

"'Tis young Tregenza from Kit's Harbour," he muttered. "I heard that his missus was expectin'. Lord, how a man will ride for his first! All right! all right!" he sung out, fumbling with the bar as the butt of a riding-whip rattled on the shutter. "Be that you, Mr. Tregenza?"

"For the Lord's sake, uncle!" an agitated voice made answer out of the darkness.

"There, there! Yours ben't the first case that have happened, my lad, and you'll ride easier next time. Hitch up the horse, and I'll have the boat out in two two's."

"Why can't you fetch out the horse-boat?"

"Because, my son, I ben't the proper ferryman. You must ride back up the hill if you want he; and even so, I doubt he'll have to knock up the folks at Hall to get at the keys."

Mr. Tregenza broke out into impatient swearing on all who delayed travel on the king's highway.

"You may leave your curses, young man, to them with a better right to use 'em. Thank the Almighty there's a boat to put you across. Hosken's blue boat it is; you'll find her ready to launch, down 'pon the slip. Take her and pull for the doctor. Tell 'en 'tis no use his bringing a horse, for there's no boat to fetch a horse over. But there's Tank's grey mare up to the inn. I'll have her ready saddled for him, if he'll promise to ride steady and mind the sore 'pon her near shoulder."

All the village had heard the midnight gallop of hoofs; all the village had guessed accurately who the rider was, and why he rode. But Nicky's dismissal was known to a few only. Soon after daybreak the news of this spread too, with the circumstance that only Nicky's good-nature had kept clear the king's highway for a message which above all others needs to be carried with speed.

Nicky sat complacent off the ferry-slip in Hosken's blue boat when the new ferryman arrived (twenty minutes late, by reason of his having to fetch the keys from Hall), and stolidly undid the padlock fastening the official craft.

"Aw, good-mornin'!" Nicky hailed him.

"Mornin'," said the new ferryman.

"We're in opposition, it seems."

"Darned if I care." The new ferryman lit his pipe and spat. "My name's Elijah Bobe."

"Then, Elijah Bobe, you may as well go home. 'Tis Sunday, and a slack day; but, were it Saturday and full business, your takings wouldn't cover your keep."

"Darned if I care," Mr. Bobe repeated. "I'm paid by the week." He sucked at his pipe for a while. "Ticklish job, ain't it?-interferin' with a private ferry?" he asked.

But Nicky had taken opinion upon this. So far as he could discover, the case lay thus: Of the ferry itself nothing belonged to Lady Killiow but the slipway on the near shore. The

farther slipway was not precisely no-man's-land, for the foreshore belonged to the Duchy, and the soil immediately above it to Sir George Dinham; but here half a dozen separate interests came into conflict. Sir George, while asserting ownership of the land, would do nothing to repair or maintain the slip on it, arguing very reasonably that he derived no profit from the dues, and that since these went to Lady Killiow, she was bound to maintain her own landing-places. Rosewarne, on the other hand, as Lady Killiow's steward, flatly refused to execute repairs upon another person's property. The Duchy, being appealed to, told the two parties (in effect) to fight it out. The Highway Board was ready enough to maintain the road down to high-water mark, but, on legal advice, declined to go farther. The Harbour Commissioners held that to repair a private ferry was no business of theirs, and, although the condition of the slipway had for years been a scandal, refused to meddle. The whole dispute raised the nice legal points, What is a ferry? Does the term include not only the boat but access to the boat? And, incidentally, if anyone broke a leg on the town shore on his way between highwater mark and the boat, from whom could he recover damages?

In short, Nicky felt easy enough about landing and embarking his passengers on the town shore. Rosewarne could not challenge him without raising the whole question of the slipway. But on the near shore he must act circumspectly. To be sure the approach to the water here was part of the king's highway. The whole village used it, and moored their boats without let or hindrance off the slip which (since the land belonged to the Killiow estate) the Rosewarnes had kept in good repair, and without demur. But it was clearly understood-and Nicky, a few hours ago, would have asserted it as stubbornly as anyone-that the sole right of taking a passenger on board here for hire and conveying him across to the town appertained to the Killiow ferryman.

As it happened, however, at the back of Nicky's cottage a narrow lane, public though seldom used, ran down to the waterside, to a shelf of rock less than a stone's throw from the slip, and, when cleared of weed below the tide-mark, by no means inconvenient for embarking passengers. A rusty ring, clamped into the living rock, survived to tell of days before steam-tugs were invented, when vessels had painfully to warp their way up and down the river. Through this ring, no man forbidding him, Mr. Hosken had run a frape, on which he kept his blue boat, now leased to Nicky for a nominal rent of sixpence a week.

"And why not use this for your ferry-landing?" Mr. Hosken suggested. "Rosewarne can't touch ye here."

"Sure?"

"I reckon I ought to know the tithe-maps by heart; and, by them, this parcel of shore belongs to nobody, unless it be to Her Majesty."

Nicky chuckled with a wheezy cunning.

It happened as he had promised the new ferryman. Mr. Sam's unpopularity had been growing in the village since the eviction of Mrs. Trevarthen. Aunt Butson, after a vain attempt to find labour in the fields, had followed her to the almshouse across the water. The cause of Mr. Benny's dismissal had been freely canvassed and narrowly guessed at. Against this new stroke of tyranny the public revolted. Living so far from their own church and a mile from the nearest chapel, numbers of the villagers were wont on Sundays to cross over to the town for their religion, and to-day with one consent they stepped into Nicky's blue boat, while Mr. Bobe smoked and spat, and regarded them with a lazy interest. Towards evening the old man jingled a pocketful of coppers.

"Why ever didn't I think o' this before?" he asked aloud. "Here I've a-been near upon fifty years earnin' twelve shillings a week, and all the while might ha' been a rich man and my own master!"

Next day he sought out Mr. Toy, and Mr. Toy obligingly painted and lettered a board for him, and helped to fix it against the wall of his hovel overlooking the lane-

THIS WAY TO

N. VRO FERRYMAN

THE OLD FIRM

Here was defiance indeed, a flaunted banner of revolt! The villagers, who had hitherto looked upon the old man as half-witted but harmless, suddenly discovered him to be a hero, and Mr. Toy gave himself a holiday to stand beneath the board and explain it to all the country folk coming to use the ferry. So well did he succeed that between sunset and sunrise the only passenger by the official boat was Mr. Sam himself, on his way to seek and take counsel with Lawyer Tulse.

Of their interview no result appeared for ten days, during which Nicky saw himself acquiring wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Already he despised what at first had been so terrible, the prospect of being turned out of house and home. He could snap his fingers, and let Mr. Sam do his worst. He no longer thought of hiring a bedroom; he would rent a small cottage from Hosken, and perhaps engage a housekeeper. It is to be feared that in these days Nicky gave way to boasting; but much may be forgiven to a man who blossoms out into a hero at eighty.

On the twelfth day of his prosperity, as he rested on his oars off the town-landing and dreamed of a day when, by purchasing a horse-boat, he would deprive the official ferry of its only source of revenue, and close all competition, a seedy-looking man in a frayed overcoat stepped down the slipway and accosted him.

"Is your name Nicholas Vro?"

"It is; and you'm askin' after the right boat, stranger though you be. Step aboard, mister."

"Thank you," said the seedy-looking man, "but I don't need to cross. The fact is, I've a paper to deliver to you."

Nicky, as he did not mind confessing, was 'no scholar'; he could read at the best with great difficulty, and he had left his spectacles at home.

"What's the meaning o' this?" he asked, turning the document over.

"It's an injunction."

"That makes me no wiser, my son."

"It's a paper to restrain you from plying this ferry for hire pending a suit Killow versus Vro in which you are named as defendant."

"'Suit'-'verses'? Darn the fellow, what's to do with verses? Come to me with your verses!" Nicky tossed the injunction contemptuously down in the sternsheets.

"You'll find 'tis the law," said the stranger warningly.

"The law? I've a-seen the law, my friend, over to Bodmin, and 'tis a very different looking chap from you, I can assure 'ee. The law rides in a gilt coach with trumpets afore it, and two six-foot fellows up behind in silk stockings and powder. The law be that high and mighty it can't even wear its own nat'ral hair. And you come to me stinkin' of beer in a reach-me-down overcoat, and pretend you be the law! You'll be tellin' me next you're Queen Victoria. But it shows what a poor kind o' case Rosewarne must have, that he threatens me wi' such a make-believe."

That Nicky had been alarmed for the moment cannot be denied. His uneasiness died away, however, as the days passed and nothing happened. The paper he stowed away at home in the skivet of his chest, and very foolishly said nothing about it even to his neighbour Hosken.

Indeed he had almost forgotten it when, just before Christmas, the stranger appeared again on the slip with another paper.

"Hullo! More verses?"

"You've to show cause why you shouldn't be committed for contempt."

"Oh, have I? Well, a man can't help his feelin's, but I'm sorry if I said anything the other day to hurt yours; for a man can't help his appearance, neither, up to a point."

"You've none too civil a tongue," answered the stranger, "but I think it a kindness to warn you. By continuing to ply this ferry you're showing contempt for the law, and the law is going to punish you."

Nicky thought this out, but could not understand it at all. If Mr. Sam had a legal right to stop him, why hadn't he sent the police, or at least a 'summons'? As for going to prison, that only happened to thieves and criminals. No man could be locked up for pulling a boat to and fro; the notion was absurd on the face of it.

Two days later he sought out Mr. Benny, and showed him the documents.

"I wish you'd make head or tail of 'em for me. They're pretendin' somehow that Queen Victoria herself is mixed up in it. God bless her! and me that have never clapped eyes on her nor wished her aught but in health an' wealth long to live, Amen."

"Oh, Nicky, Nicky!" Mr. Benny leapt up from his chair. "What have you done! and what a criminal fool was I not to keep an eye on you!"

"From all I hear," said Nicky, "you've had enough to do lookin' after yourself. Be it true, as I hear tell, that Rosewarne gave you the sack on my account?"

"Never talk of that," commanded Mr. Benny. "Go you home now, lock up your boat, get a night's rest, and expect me early to-morrow morning. Between this and then I will see what can be done." But his heart sank as he glanced again at the date on the document.

Indeed he was too late. After an ineffectual interview with Mr. Tulse, the little man rushed off to the ferry, intent on facing Mr. Sam in his den and pleading for mercy. But as he reached the slip the official ferryboat came alongside, and in the sternsheets beside the town policeman sat Nicky Vro, on his way to Bodmin gaol.

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