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   Chapter 20 AN OUTBURST.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13166

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"I saw the new moon late yestreen,

Wi' the auld moon in her arm."

"Miss Marvin, does 'yestreen' mean 'last night'?"

"It does."

"Then I wish the fellow would say 'last night,'" grumbled Master Calvin. "And how could the new moon have the old moon in her arm?"

Hester explained.

"But moons haven't arms." He pushed the book away pettishly. "I hate this poetry! Why can't you teach me what I want?"

"That," said Hester, "is just what I am trying to discover. Will you tell me what you want?"

To her amazement, he bent his head down upon his arms and broke into sobbing. "I don't know what I want! Everyone hates me, and I-I hate it all!"

Somehow, Hester-who had started by misliking the child, and only with the gravest misgivings (yielding to pressure from his father) had consented to teach him in her spare hours-was beginning to pity him. This new feeling, to be sure, suffered from severe and constant checks; for he was unamiable to the last degree, and seldom awoke a spark of liking but he killed it again, and within five minutes, by doing or saying something odious. He differed from other children, and differed unpleasantly. He had taken the full tinge of his sanctimonious upbringing; he was pharisaical, cruel at times, incurably twisted by his father's creed that wrong becomes right when committed by a pious person from pious motives. (His mother had once destroyed a cat because she found herself growing fond of it and believed that a Christian's soul must be weaned of all earthly affections.) He appealed to Hester's pity because, with all this, he was unhappy.

She had been teaching him languidly and inattentively to-day, being preoccupied with a letter in her pocket; and to this letter, having set him to learn his verses from Sir Patrick Spens, she let her thoughts wander. It ran:-

"My dear Miss Marvin,-After much hesitation I have decided to commit to writing a proposal which has been ripening in my mind during our three months' acquaintance. My age and my convictions alike disincline me to set too much store on the emotion men call 'love,' which in my experience is illusory as the attractions provoking it are superficial. But as a solitary man I have long sighed for the blessings of Christian companionship, or a union founded on mutual esteem and fruitful in well-doing. While from the first not insensible to your charms of person, I have allowed my inclination to grow because I detected in you the superior graces of the mind and a strength of character which could not be other than sustaining to the man fortunate enough to possess you for a helpmeet. In short, my dear Miss Marvin, you would gratify me in the highest degree by consenting to be Mrs. R. I am, as you are probably aware, well-to-do. The circumstances of my being a widower will not, I hope, weigh seriously against this proposal in the mind of one who, while retaining the personal attractions above mentioned, may be reasonably supposed to have set aside the romantic illusions of girlhood. Awaiting your reply, which I trust may be favourable, I remain, yours very truly,"

"S. Rosewarne."

"P.S.-Your exceptional gifts in the handling of children assure me that my son Calvin would receive from you a care no less than motherly. He would meet it, I feel equally sure, with a responsive affection."

The tone of this letter made Hester tingle as if some of its phrases had been thongs to scourge her.

Yet it must be answered.

That this odious man should have dared-and yet for weeks she had seen it coming. Incredible as she found it that a man from whom every nerve of her body recoiled with loathing should complacently ignore the signs, should complacently persevere in assuming himself to be agreeable and in pressing that assumption, she had to admit that the offer did not take her wholly by surprise. What bruised her was the insufferable obtuseness of the wording. How was it possible for a human being to sit down in good faith and pen such sentences without guessing that they hurt or insulted?

Nevertheless she blessed the impulse which had prompted him to write; for in writing he could be answered. All day she had gone in dread of meeting him face to face.

Once or twice, while she pondered her answer, she had glanced up at the child, as if he could explain his father. What fatal unhappy gift had they both, by which in all that they said or did they earned aversion?

When the child broke down, she arose with a pang of self-reproach, crossed to his chair, and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Listen to me, Calvin," she said. "You have told me one thing you want: you want people to like instead of disliking you. Well, the quickest way is to find out what they want, and do it, forgetting yourself; and then, perhaps quite suddenly, you will wake up and discover not only that people like you already, but that you yourself are full of a happiness you can't explain."

The gust of his sobbing grew calmer by degrees. He lifted his head a little, but not to look her in the face.

"Is that puzzling to you?" she asked. "Well, then, just give it a small trial in practice, and see how it works. I want you, for instance, to learn those verses. You don't like them; but by learning them you will please me, and you want to please me. Try now!"

He pulled the book towards him and bent over it, his head between his hands. After three or four minutes he stood up, red-eyed and a little defiant-

"'I saw the new moon late yestreen,

Wi' the auld moon in her arm;

And if we gang to sea, master,

I fear we'll come to harm.'"

"They hadna sail'd a league, a league,

A league but barely ane-"

Hester listened with eyes withdrawn, in delicacy avoiding to meet his tear-reddened ones; and just then from the upper floor a scream rang through the house-a child's scream.

Master Calvin heard it, and broke off with a grin.

"That will be Myra," he announced. "She's catching it!"

Had she been less distraught, Hester might have marked and sighed over his sudden relapse into odiousness. But she had risen with a white face; for scream folllowed scream overhead, and the sound tortured her.

"You don't tell me,"-she began, putting up both hands to her ears. "No, no-there has been some accident! The poor child is calling for help!"

She ran out of the parlour, up the two flights of stairs and along a dark winding corridor, still guided by the screams. At the end of the corridor she found Susannah, pale, wringing her hands, outside a door which, however, she made no attempt

to enter.

"Oh, miss, he's killing her!"

"Is the door locked?" panted Hester, at the same time flinging her weight against it as she turned the handle. It flew open, and she confronted- not Myra, but Mr. Sam.

He stood between her and the window with an arm uplifted and in his hand a leathern strap; and while she recoiled for an instant, the strap descended across the naked back and shoulders of little Clem, who drooped under it with bowed knees, helpless, his arms extended, his wrists bound together and lashed to the bed-post. The child made no sound. The piercing screams came not from him, but from an inner room-Myra's bedroom-and from behind a closed door.

"You shall not!" Hester flung herself forward, shielding the child from another blow. "Oh, what wickedness are you doing! What horrible wickedness!"

Mr. Sam had raised his arm again. The man indeed seemed to be transported with passion, with sheer lust of cruelty. It is doubtful if he had heard her enter. His dark face twitched distortedly in the fading light.

"I'll teach him-I'll teach him!" he panted.

"You shall not!" Hester, covering the child's limp body, could not see his face, but her eyes fell on his little shirt, ripped from neckband to flap, and lying on the floor as it had been torn from his body and tossed aside. She called to Susannah, still lingering doubtfully outside upon the mat, and pointed to the door behind Mr. Sam. Susannah plucked up courage, stepped across and turned the key. An instant later, like a small wild beast uncaged, Myra came springing and crouched beside her brother, facing his tormentor with blazing eyes.

Hester, catching sight of the housekeeper's scissors which Susannah wore at her waist, motioned to her to cut the cords binding Clem's wrists. Mr. Sam made no effort to oppose her, but stood panting, with one hand resting on the dressing-table. Susannah managed indeed to detach the scissors, but held them out falteringly, as though in sheer terror declining all responsibility.

"Give them to me, then."

But as Susannah held them out Myra leapt up and, snatching them, dashed upon her uncle. His hand still rested palm downwards on the dressing-table, and she struck at it. Undoubtedly the child would have stabbed it through-for, strange to say, he made no effort to fend her off or to avoid the stroke-had not Hester run in time to push her smartly by the shoulder in the very act of striking. As it was the scissor-point drove into the table, missing him by a bare two inches. Then and then only he lifted his hand and stared at it stupidly. He seemed about to speak, but turned with a click of the throat-a queer dry sound, as though a sudden thirst parched him-and walked heavily from the room. Hester gazed after him and back at the scissors on the dressing-table. She was reaching forward to pick them up when a cry from Susannah bade her hurry. Clem had fainted, his legs doubled beneath him, his head falling horribly back from his upstretched arms, which still, like ropes, held him fast to the bed-post.

Twenty minutes later Hester descended the stairs. Clem was in bed with his sister's arms about him; and Myra's last look at parting had been one of dumb gratitude, pitifully asking pardon for old jealousies, old misunderstandings. At any other time Hester would have rejoiced over the winning of a friend.

But the sight of the weals on Clem's back had for the moment killed all feeling in her but disgust and horror. So deep was her disgust that the sight of Master Calvin, whom she surprised in the act of listening outside the door, scarcely ruffled it afresh. So complete was her horror that it left no room for astonishment when, reaching the foot of the stairs, she found Mr. Sam himself lingering in the hall, apparently awaiting her.

She walked past him with set face. All the smooth, pietistic phrases of his letter rang a chime in her brain, to be retorted upon him as soon as he dared to speak. But he did not speak. He looked up, as if awaiting her; took half a step forward; then drew aside and let her pass. She went by with set face, not sparing a look for him. In the open air she drew a long breath.

Above all things she desired to consult with Peter Benny. In this there was nothing surprising, for everyone in trouble went to Peter Benny. He himself-honest man-had to admit that the number of confidences which came his way were, no doubt, extraordinary. He explained it on the simple ground that he wrote letters for seamen and made it a rule never to divulge their secrets. "Not that anyone would dream of it," he added; "but my secrecy, happening to be professional, gets its credit advertised."

It appeared that these professional duties were heavier than usual to-night. At any rate, when Hester reached the little cottage by the quayside, it was to find that he had made a hasty tea and departed for the office. In her urgency, after merely telling Mrs. Benny that she would be back in a few minutes, Hester ran down the court to the office, tapped hurriedly at the door, and pushed it open.

Within, with his back towards her, erect and naked to the waist under the rays of an oil lamp swinging from the beam, stood a young man. The light falling on his firm shoulders and the muscles along his spine showed the gleaming flesh tattooed with interwoven patterns, delicate as lacework; and in the midst, reaching from shoulder-blade to shoulder-blade, a bright blue tree with a cross above, and beneath it, the figures of Adam and Eve.

As she drew back, Mr. Benny, on the far side of the office, raised his eyes from a table over which he bent to dip a needle in a saucer of Indian ink; and at the same moment the young man under the lamp, suddenly aware of a visitor, faced about with a shy laugh. It was Tom Trevarthen. Hester, with a short cry of dismay, backed into the darkness, shutting the door as she retreated. When Mr. Benny returned to supper he forbore from alluding to the incident until Hester-her trouble still unconfided-shook hands with him for the night.

"I've heard," he said, "folks laugh at sailors for tattooing themselves. But 'tis done in case they're drowned, that their bodies may be known; and, if you look at that, 'tis a sacrament surely."

That night Hester awoke from a terrifying dream; and still, as she dreamed again, she saw a lash descending on a child's naked back, leaving at each stroke the mark of a cross interwoven with a strange and delicate pattern; and at each stroke heard a girl's voice which screamed, "It is a sacrament!"

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