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Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 23383

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Early next morning, having bound Mr. Benny to secrecy, she told him the whole story. At first his face merely expressed horror; but by and by his forehead lost its puckers. When she had done, his first comment took her fairly aback.

"Ay," said he, "I'd half guessed it a'ready. The poor creature's afflicted. It don't stand in nature for a man to deal around cruelty as he's been doing unless his brain is touched."

"Afflicted is he?" Hester answered indignantly. "I'm afraid I keep all my pity for those he afflicts."

"Then you do wrong," replied Mr. Benny, with much gravity. "That man wants help if ever a man did."

"He will get none from me, then," she said, and flushed, remembering the proposal in her pocket. "I won't endure the sight of him, after yesterday's work. I have written a letter resigning my teachership." "That isn't like you, somehow." Mr. Benny stood musing.

"Of course," she went on hastily, "I don't give my real reasons. The letter is addressed to you as Clerk, and you will have to read it to the Board. I am ready to fill the post until another teacher can be found."

"It seemed to me, some while ago, that Mr. Samuel had a fancy for you. Maybe I'm wrong, my dear; but you won't mind my speaking frankly. And if I'm right, and he has begun pestering you, I can't blame you for resigning. The man isn't safe."

His look carried interrogation at once shy and fatherly. She forced herself to meet his eyes and nod the answer which her cheeks already published.

"It is hateful," she murmured. "Yes, he asked me to marry him."

"I told you he was afflicted," said Mr. Benny, still with simple seriousness; then, catching a sudden twinkle in her eyes, "Eh? What did I say? My dear, I didn't mean it that way!"

Mr. Benny had judged at once more charitably and more correctly than Hester. Had she looked up yesterday when she passed Mr. Sam at the foot of the stairs, she might have guessed the truth from his face.

The man was afflicted, and knew it; had suddenly discovered it, and was afraid of himself-for the moment, abjectly afraid. All his life he had been nursing a devil, feeding it on religion, clothing it in self-righteousness, so carefully touching up its toilet that it passed for saint rather than devil-especially in his own eyes, trained as they were in self-deception. For every action, mean or illiberal or tricky or downright cruel, he had a justificatory text; for his few defeats a constant salve in the thought that his vanquishers were carnal men, sons of Belial, and would find, themselves in hell some day. He was Dives or Lazarus as occasion served. If a plan miscarried, the Lord was chastening him; if, as oftener happened, it went prosperously, the Lord was looking after His own; but always the plan itself, being his plan, was certainly righteous, because he was a righteous man. A good tree could not bring forth evil fruit.

But all this while the devil had been growing fat and strong; and now on a sudden it had burst forth like a giant, mad, uncontrollable, flinging away disguise, a devil for all to see. There was no text, even in Solomon, which could be stretched to excuse tying up a small blind child and flogging him with a belt. He had done a thing for which men go to prison. Worse, he had not been far from a crime for which the law puts men to death. In his rage he had been absolutely blind, each blow deadening prudence, calling for another blow. If Hester Marvin had not run in, where would he have ended?

It happened to him now as it has happened to many a man fed upon conventional religion and accustomed to walk an aisle in public and eminent godliness. In the moment that he overbalanced public approval his whole edifice crumbled and collapsed, leaving him no stay. He was down from his eminence-down with the wild beasts; and among them the worst was the wild beast within him.

He had not philosophy enough even to render account with himself why he hated the small blind child. One reason, and perhaps the chief, was that he had already injured Clem; another, that Clem stood all unconsciously between his conscience and his son Calvin. In his fashion Mr. Sam loved his son, doomed to suffer, if the truth should ever be known, for his father's bastardy. But-to his credit perhaps-Mr. Sam forgot all excuses in sheer terror of himself; terror less of what he had done than of what he might hereafter do.

In panic of that devil he had placed himself in Hester's way, hoping against hope that she might help. He had built some hopes on her, and now in an hour or two all these hopes were merged in a desperate appeal to be saved from himself. He almost forgot that he had written asking her to be his wife; he could think only that she might possibly be his salvation. But Hester had passed him by without a glance. After this, meaning no cruelty at all, but merely from the instinct of self-preservation (than which nothing is crueller), he did, as will be seen, the cruellest deed of his life.

Mr. Benny was one of those rare souls who never dream of asking a favour for themselves, but can be shamelessly importunate on behalf of a fellow-creature. On receipt of Hester's resignation, which she submitted to him first in private and then sent to him formally through the post, he panted up the hill to seek an interview with Sir George Dinham.

"Dear me!" said Sir George; "it happens oddly that I was on the point of sending for you for the first time; and yet you have been my tenant for close upon twenty years, I believe?"

Mr. Benny might have seized the occasion to urge that his roof leaked and the quay wall beneath his office badly needed repointing. For years he had submissively relieved Sir George of these and other repairs. But he had come to engage Sir George's interest for Miss Marvin, a young person who had just thrown up her position as schoolmistress across the water, in circumstances perfectly honourable to her. Sir George, perhaps, would not press to know what those circumstances were; but Mr. Benny had chanced to hear that the Matron of the Widows' Almshouses had earned her pension and was resigning, and he ventured to recommend Miss Marvin for the post.

"And that again is odd," said Sir George, "for I was wondering if the situation would be agreeable to her."

Mr. Benny could scarcely believe his ears.

"But I think," pursued Sir George, "we had better take one thing at a time; and I wish to get the first job off my hands, because, strictly speaking, it is not my business. Lady Killiow (as you may have heard) requires a new steward, and has commissioned me to choose him for her. I had thought of you, Mr. Benny."

"Sir George!"

"Why not? You were clerk to the late Mr. Rosewarne and enjoyed his confidence, I believe?"

"Sir George-Sir George!" Mr. Benny could only repeat with stammering lips. If, a while ago, he could not believe his ears, just now he felt as if the sky were tumbling about them.

"There, my friend, go home and think it over. If you think well of the offer, be at the ferry at nine o'clock to-morrow. I will meet you there with the dogcart, and we can talk matters over on our way to Damelioc. From Damelioc, after your interview with Lady Killiow, we will drive straight to Bodmin; for I think you may be able to guess the first task she will lay upon you as her steward."

But Mr. Benny was too far bewildered.

"She will ask you, if I am not mistaken, to make arrangements for bringing home old Nicholas Vro's body and burying him where, as he would have said, he belongs to lie-in his own parish churchyard. There are no relatives to be consulted?"

"Neither chick nor child, kith nor kin, Sir George."

"God forgive me, I had come near saying 'so much the better.' Lady Killiow is a proud woman, as you know, and of a pride that would rejoice in bearing the fullest blame and making fullest amends. But her friends can only be glad to get this scandal over and as quietly as may be. I have written for the necessary order."

Once before we have seen Mr. Benny tempted to keep a secret from his wife. This time he would have told, but could not. He sat down to tea with a choking breast and a heart so big within him that it left no room for food. He strove to eat, but could get no morsel past his lips. At one moment the news seemed to bubble up within him, and his mouth opened to shout it aloud; the next, his courage failed at his own vaunting thoughts, and he reached a hand down to the table-leg, to 'touch wood,' as humble men do to avert Nemesis if by chance they have let slip a boastful word. Once he laughed outright, wildly, at nothing whatever.

Nuncey set down the teapot and eyed her parent with a puzzled frown. That frown had sat too often on her cheerful face during the past three months. In truth, Mr. Benny as a regrater fell disastrously short of success, being prone to sell at monstrous overweights, which ate up the profits. When Nuncey at length forbade him to touch the scales, he gave away apples to every child that chose to edge around the tail of the cart.

"There's something wrong with father to-night," she said. "He's like a thing hurried-in-mind. What's up with 'ee, my dear?-is it verses?" She paused with a sudden dark suspicion. "I see'd William Badgery walkin' after you down the street. Don't tell me you've let 'en persuade you into buying that lot of eggs he was preachin' up for fresh? for, if you have, I get no shoes this Christmas-that's all. Fresh? He've been salting them down these three months, against the Christmas prices, and no size in 'em to start with. I wouldn't sell 'em for sixpence the dozen."

"Shoes?" Good Lord, what a question these boots and shoes had been for all these years! Never a Saturday came round (it seemed to him) but one or other of the family wanted soleing or heeling. And henceforth they could all have shoes to their heart's content-and frocks-and new suits- and meat on the table without stint-

He set down his cup and rose hurriedly. In the act of pushing back his chair he met his wife's eyes. They were watching him with anxious concern-not with apparent love; but he alone knew what love lay behind that look which once or twice of late he had surprised in them. His own filled with sudden tears. No, he could not tell her now. To-night, perhaps, when he and she were alone, he would tell her, as so often he had told his worries and listened to hers. He dashed his frayed cuff across his eyes and fairly bolted from the room.

"It's about Nicky Vro that he's troublin'," said Mrs. Benny. "Terrible soft-hearted he is; but you ought to know your father better by this time than to upset 'en so."

An hour later word came to Hester-it was Shake who brought it-that Mr. Benny would be glad to see her in the office. She obeyed at once, albeit with some trepidation when she came to mount the steps and tap at the door. She had learnt, however, from Nuncey that certain nights were set aside for tattooing. Doubtless this would not be one of them.

Four seamen sat within by the stove and under the light of the swinging lamp, smoking, patiently awaiting their turn. In the fog of tobacco smoke, which almost took Hester's breath away, they rose politely and saluted her. Big, shy boys they seemed to her, with the whites of their eyes extraordinarily clear against their swarthy complexions. Somehow she felt at home with them instantly, and no more afraid than if they had been children in her school.

One of them called Mr. Benny from the tiny inner office, or cupboard, where he conducted his confidential business, and the little man came running out in a flurry wit

h one hand grasping a handkerchief and the other nervously thrust in his dishevelled hair.

"You will forgive me, my dear, for sending? The truth is, I am at my wits' end to-night and cannot concentrate myself. I have heard news to-day-no, nothing to distress me-on the contrary."-He gazed round helplessly. "It has upset me, though. I was wondering if you will be very kind and help me?"

"Help you?" echoed Hester. "Oh, Mr. Benny, you surely don't ask me to write your letters for you!"

"Not if you would find it distasteful, my dear."

"But I don't know; I assure you I haven't an idea how to do it!"

"You would find it come easy, for that matter." Mr. Benny drew a quill pen from behind his right ear, eyed its point dejectedly for a moment, and replaced it. "But, of course, if you feel like that, we'll say no more about it, and I'm sorry to have troubled you."

"If it's merely writing down from dictation-"

"You will find it a little more than that," Mr. Benny admitted.

Hester looked around on the faces of the seamen. They said nothing; they even watched her with sympathy, as though, while dumbly backing Mr. Benny's petition, they felt him to be asking too much; yet she divined that they were disappointed.

"I will try," she said with sudden resolve, and their approving murmur at once rewarded her. "Only you must be patient, and forgive my mistakes."

"That's a very good lass," said one of them aloud, as Mr. Benny shook her by the hand and led her triumphantly to the little inner office. Hester heard the words, and in spite of nervousness was glad that she had chosen to be brave.

The inner office contained a desk, a stool, and a deal chair. These, with a swinging lamp, a shelf of books, and a Band of Hope Almanack, completed its furniture. Indeed, it had room for no more, and its narrow dimensions were dwarfed just now by an enormous black-bearded seaman seated in the chair by the window, which stood open to the darkness. Although the month was December, the wind blew softly from the southwest, and night had closed in with a fine warm drizzle of rain. Beyond the window the riding-lights of the vessels at anchor shone across the gently heaving tide.

The black-bearded seaman made a motion to rise, but realising that this would seriously displace the furniture, contented himself with a 'Good-evening, miss,' and dropped back in his seat.

"Good-evening," answered Hester. "Mr. Benny here has asked me to take his place. I hope you don't mind?"

"Lord bless you, I like it."

"But I shall make a poor hand of it, I'm afraid."

The man eyed her solemnly for five or six seconds, slowly turned the quid of tobacco in his cheek, and spat out of window. "We'll get along famous," he said.

"He likes the window open," explained Mr. Benny, "because-"

"I see." Hester nodded.

"But I'll run and fetch a cloak for you." Without waiting for an answer, Mr. Benny hurried from the office.

To be deserted thus was more than Hester had bargained for, and for a moment she felt helplessly dismayed. A sheet of paper, half-covered with writing, lay on the desk, and she put out a hand for it.

"Is this your letter? Perhaps you'll allow me to read it and see how far you and Mr. Benny have gone."

"That's the way. Only you mustn' give me no credit for it: I sits and looks on. 'Never take a hand in a business you don't know'-that's my motto."

Hester wished devoutly that it had also been hers. She picked up the paper and read-

"Dear Wife,-This comes hoping to find you in health as it leaves me at present, and the children hearty. We made a good passage, and arrived at Troy on the 14th inst., a romantic little harbour picturesquely situated on the south coast of Cornwall. Once a flourishing port, second only to London and Bristol, and still retaining in its ivy-clad fort some vestiges of its former glories, it requires the eye of imagination to summon back the days when (as Hals tells us) it manned and sent forth more than forty ships to the siege of Calais, A.D. 1347-"

Hester glanced at her client dubiously.

"That's all right, ain't it?" he asked.

"Ye-es." "Far as I remember, it tallies with the last letter he fixed up for me. Something about 'grey old walls' there was, too."

"Yes, that comes two sentences below-

"Confronted with these evidences of decay, the visitor instinctively exclaims to himself, 'If these grey old walls could speak, what a tale might they not unfold!'-"

"So he've put that in again? There's what you might call a sameness about Benny, though he do write different to anybody else."

"And here are more dates, and an epitaph from one of the tombstones in the churchyard! Indeed, Mr."-

"Salt. Tobias Salt-and by natur'."

"Indeed, Mr. Salt, I can't write a letter like this. To begin with, I haven't the knowledge."

"The Lord forbid!"

"But I suppose your wife likes to read about these things?"

"She can't read a word, bless you. She gets the parson to spell it out to her, or the seamen's missionary. Yarmouth our home is."

"She likes to hear about them, then?"

"What? Sarah? Lord love ye, miss, you should see the woman!" Mr. Salt chuckled heavily, and wound up by sending a squirt of tobacco-juice out into darkness. "Mother of eight children, she is, and makes 'em toe the mark at school and Sunday school. A woman like that don't bother about grey old walls."

"You are proud of her, I see."

"Ought to be, I reckon. Why, to-day she can pick up two three-gallon pitchers o' water and heft 'em along for a mile and more without turning a hair."

"And the children? How old are they?"

"Eldest just turned eleven."

"Why, then he must be able to read?"

"'Tisn't a he, 'tis a her. Ay, I reckon 'Melia Jane should read well before this."

Hester took a fresh sheet of paper and began to write.

"Listen to this, please," she said after a few sentences, "and tell me if it will do-"

"Dear Wife,-This comes hoping to find you in health, as it leaves me at present, and the children hearty. I am sending this from Troy, and I daresay you will take it to some friend to read; but tell Amelia Jane, with my love, that in future she shall read her father's letters to you. She must be getting a scholar by this time; and if there's anything she can't explain, why you can take it to a friend afterwards. We reached this port last Tuesday (the 14th) after a good passage-"

"Now tell me about your passage, please."

At first Mr. Salt could only tell her that the passage had been a good one, as passages go. But by feeding him with a suggestion or two, as men feed a pump with a little water to make it work, by and by she found herself listening to information in a flood. Now and then she interposed a question, asking mainly about his wife and the home at Yarmouth. She had picked up her pen again, and he, absorbed in his confidences, did not perceive at what a rate she was making it travel over the paper.

The door opened, and Mr. Benny reappeared with a shawl on his arm. He glanced around nervously. "Mr. Salt, Mr. Salt! I put it to you, this isn't quite fair. A fine talk I can hear you're having; but our friends outside are getting impatient, and want to know when you'll let Miss Marvin begin."

"All right, boss. I've had a yarn here that's worth all the money. Here's your shilling for it, and the letter can stand over till to-morrow."

"But I've written it!" Hester exclaimed.

"Written it!" Mr. Salt's jaw dropped in amazement.

"I don't know if it will do. Shall I read it over?"

"Well, but this beats conjuring!" The reading ended, Mr. Salt slapped his massive thigh.

"You have done very well, my dear," said Mr. Benny; "very well indeed. You have caught, as I might say, the note. Now I myself have great difficulty in being literary and at the same time catching the note."

There was something in the little man's confession-so modest, so generous withal-which drew tears to her eyes, though her own elation may have had some share in them.

"Though there's one thing she've forgotten," said Mr. Salt, with a twinkle. "My poor Sarah will get shock enough over this letter as 'tis; but she'll get a worse one if we leave out the money order."

The order having been made out in form, ready for him to take to the post office, Mr. Salt bade farewell. They could hear him extolling, on his way through the outer office, the talent of the operator within.

"I feel like a dentist!" whispered Hester, turning to Mr. Benny with a smile. The little man was looking at her wistfully.

"Shall I call in the next?" he asked. "I am afraid, my dear, you are finding this a longer job than you bargained for."

"But I am enjoying it," she protested. "That is, if-Mr. Benny, you are not annoyed by his foolish praises?"

"My dear," he answered gravely, "they say that all literary persons are jealous. If I were jealous it would not be because Mr. Salt praised you, but because my own sense tells me that you do better than I what I have been doing for twenty years."

"If you feel like that, I won't write another letter," declared Hester.

"That would be very foolish, my dear. And now I will tell you another thing. Suppose that this discovery hurt me a little, yet see how good God is in keeping back all these years until a moment when my heart happens to be so full of good news that it forgets the soreness in a moment; and again, how wise in gently correcting and reminding me of weakness when I might be puffing myself up and believing that all my good fortune came of my own merit."

"What is your good news, dear Mr. Benny?"

"You shall hear later on when I have told my wife."

More than an hour later, having dismissed her clients (for the last of whom she had to compose a love-letter, the first she had written in her life), Hester stepped across to the cottage to announce that her work was over and ask if she might now turn down the lamps and rake out the stove.

The Bennys' kitchen at first glance was uninhabited; and yet, as she opened the door, she had heard voices within. Dropping her eyes to a lower level, she halted on the threshold and would have withdrawn without noise. In the penumbra beyond the circle of the lamp and the white tablecloth Mr. and Mrs. Benny, Nuncey, and Shake were kneeling by their chairs on the limeash, giving thanks.

While Hester hesitated, the little man lifted his head, and, catching sight of her, sprang to his feet. "Step ye in, my dear, and join with us! For you, too, have news to hear and be thankful for."

"But tell me your own good news and let me first be thankful for that."

"Do'ee really feel like that towards us?" asked Nuncey, rising and coming forward with joy and eager love in her eyes.

"I ought to, surely, after these months of kindness."

"Well, then-but first of all I must kiss 'ee, you dear thing!-well, then, Dad's been offered Damelioc stewardship, and you're to be Mistress of the Widows' Houses, and we're all going to be rich as Creases for ever and ever, Amen!"

"Croesus, my dear-besides, we're going to be nothing of the sort," protested her father.

Nuncey swept down upon him, caught him in her strong embrace, implanted a sound kiss on the top of his head, and held him at arms' length with a hand on either shoulder.

"You're a dear little well-to-do father, and the best in the world. But oh! you've come nigh breaking my heart these three months-for a worse regrater there never was, an' couldn' be!"

"Upon my word," said Mr. Benny, glancing over her shoulder at Hester with a twinkle, "I seem to be getting good fortune with a heap of chastening."

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