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   Chapter 22 CLEM IS LOST TO MYRA.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 18919

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The post of 'Mistress' to the Widows' Houses was a somewhat singular one. The hospital itself had been founded in 1634 by an ancestor of Sir George Dinham's, and dedicated to St. Peter, as a retreat for eleven poor women, widows of husbands drowned at sea. From a narrow cobbled lane, behind the parish church and in the shadow of its tower, you passed into a quadrangle, two sides of which were formed by the lodgings, twelve in number (the twelfth occupied by the caretaker, or Mistress), the other two by the wash-house and store-buildings. In the centre of this courtyard stood a leaden pump, approached by four pebbled paths between radiating beds of flowers-Provence roses, Madonna lilies, and old perennials and biennials such as honesty, sweet-william, snapdragon, the pink and white everlasting pea, with bushes of fuchsia, southernwood, and rosemary. Along the first floor of the alms-buildings ran a deep open gallery, or upstairs cloister, where in warm weather the old women sat and knitted or gossiped in the shade.

The rule restricting admission to the widows of drowned mariners had been gradually relaxed during the last fifty years, and was now a dead letter; aged spinsters even, such as Aunt Butson, being received in default of applicants with better title. Also Sir George's father, having once on a time been called upon to depose a caretaker for ill-using the inmates, had replaced her by a gentlewoman; and thinking to safeguard them in future by increasing the dignity of the post, had rebuilt and enlarged the new Mistress's lodgings, and increased her salary by endowment to £eighty per annum.

All this Sir George explained very delicately to Hester, on the morning of Nicky Vro's funeral, having called at the school to seek an interview on his way back from the churchyard.

"But I am not a decayed gentlewoman," Hester objected; "at least, not yet. I shall be standing in the way of someone who really wants this post, while I am strong and able to earn my living. Also-please do not think me ungrateful or conceited-to teach is my calling, and I take a pride in it."

"From all I hear, you have a right to take pride in it. But may I say that these objections occurred to me and that I have a scheme for removing them-a very happy scheme, if you will help. Now, in the first place, will you put the personal question out of sight and consider my scheme on its merits? And next, will you, in advising me, take account of my ignorance?"

Hester smiled. "I know," she said, "that kindness can be cunning. I am going to be on my guard."

"Well, but listen at any rate," he pleaded, with an eager stammer. "Won't you agree with me that the education you give these children here is dreadfully wasteful?"

She glanced at him keenly. "If you are taking the ordinary ratepayer's view-" she began.

"I am not taking the ordinary ratepayer's view, except to this extent- that I think the ratepayers' and taxpayers' money should be spent to the best advantage. But is it?-either here or in any parish in England?"

"No, it is not."

"Will you tell me why, Miss Marvin?"

"Because," answered Hester, "we do a little good and then refuse to follow it up. If we were to take a child and say, 'You shall be a farm labourer,' or 'You shall be a domestic servant, and in due time marry a labourer and rear his family; 'and if, content with this, we were to teach these children just enough for their fate-the boy to plough and work a threshing machine and touch his cap to his betters, the girl to cook and sew and keep house on sixteen shillings a week-why, then there might be something to say for us. We have not the heart to do this, and yet in effect we do more cruelly. We are not tyrants enough to take a child of eight and label him for life: we start him on a kind of education which seems to offer him a chance; and then, just as the prospect should be opening, we suddenly lose interest in him, wash our hands of him, turn him adrift. Some few-a very few-have the grit to push on, unhelped by us, and grasp their opportunity. But for one of these a thousand and more fall back on their fate, and of our teaching the one thing they keep is discontent. We have built a porch, to nowhere. We invest millions; and just as our investment begins to repay us splendidly, we sell out, share by share. That is why I think sometimes, Sir George, in my bitterness, that education in England must be the most wasteful thing in the world."

"If, in this corner of England, someone were to set himself to fight this waste, would you help?"

"As Mistress of the Widows' Houses?"

Sir George laughed. "As Mistress of the Widows' Houses-and of a school attached. I am thinking of a Charterhouse or a Christ's Hospital in a small way; a foundation, that is, to include the old charity and a new and efficient school; modern education worked on lines of the old collegiate medi?val systems-eh, Miss Marvin? To me, a high Tory, those old foundations are still our best models."

"Three or four of them have survived," said Hester gravely, and with as little of irony as she could contrive. "Forgive me, Sir George-once more I am going to speak ungratefully-but though neglect be our chief curse just now, a worse may follow when rich folks wake up and endow education in a hurry."

"You condemn me offhand for a faddist?"

"If you would only see that these things need an apprenticeship! Take this very combination of school and hospital. Three or four have survived, and are lodged in picturesque buildings, where they keep picturesque old customs, and seem to you very noble and venerable. So indeed they are. But what of the hundreds that have perished? And of these survivors can you tell me one in which either the school or the alms-house has not gone to the wall? The school, we will say, grows into an expensive one for the sons of rich men; the almshouse dwindles from a college for poor gentlemen down to a home into which wealthy men job their retired servants. I grant you that our modern attempts to combine almsgiving with teaching are not much better as a rule-are, perhaps, even a little worse. If you have ever walked through one of our public orphanages, for instance-"

Sir George's face fell. "I have never visited one, Miss Marvin, and I subscribe perhaps to half a dozen-out of sheer laziness, and because to subscribe comes easier than to say 'No.' Yes; I am an incurable amateur, and you are right, no doubt, in laughing at my scheme and refusing to look at it."

"But I don't, Sir George. I even think it may succeed, as it deserves, and reward your kindness. Yes, and I have been arguing against myself as much as against you, to warn myself against hoping too much. For there must be disappointments."

"What disappointments?"

"Well, to begin with, you rich folks are impatient; you expect your money to buy success at once and of itself. And then you expect gratitude."

"I do not," Sir George asserted stoutly.

"At least," said Hester, "it is only too plain that you are not getting it." She dropped him a small deprecatory curtsey and laughed. "And yet I am grateful."

"Yes," he answered gravely; "I understand. But since you do not quite despise my scheme, will you come and discuss it with me, believing only that I am in earnest?"

So it was arranged that Hester should call on him next evening and go through the plans he had been preparing for a week past. That such an interview defied convention scarcely crossed her mind or his, Sir George being one of those men who can neglect convention because their essential honour stands above question. He received her in his library, and for an hour they talked as might two men of business in friendly committee for some public good.

"By the way," said he, glancing up from his papers, "you were talking yesterday of public orphanages. Have you heard that your little friend Clem-the blind child-has been packed off to one?"

"To an orphanage?" Hester echoed. "The children were not at school to-day, but I had not heard a sound of this."

"It is true; for I happened to call in at the station this morning, and there on the platform I met Rosewarne with the child. The man was taking his ticket to Paddington-a single ticket half-fare; and overhearing this as we stood together by the booking-office, I made bold to ask him a few questions. The child was to travel alone, in charge of the guard; to be met at the journey's end, I suppose, by an official, and taken out to the orphanage-I forget its name-an institution for the blind somewhere out in the south-eastern suburbs."

"Poor Myra!"

"'Poor Clem!' I should rather say. He was not crying over it, but he looked pretty forlorn and white, and his blindness made it pitiable. I call it brutal; the man at least might have travelled up for company. A journey of three hundred miles!"

Nevertheless, Hester chiefly pitied Myra. As for Clem, the news relieved her mind in part; since after witnessing Mr. Sam's outburst, she had more than once shivered at the thought of child and uncle continuing to live under one roof.

Poor Myra had spent the day pacing up and down her room like a caged beast. The fate decreed and overhanging Clem had been concealed from her. Had it been less incredible, instinct surely would have wakened her suspicions before the last moment. At the last moment Susannah, having to dress the child for his journey, met inqui

ries with the half-hearted lie that he was bound on a trip to Plymouth with his uncle, to meet Aunt Hannah, and return after a day or two in the Virtuous Lady. Susannah- weak soul-had furthered the conspiracy because she too had begun to fear for Clem, and wished him well clear of his uncle's roof. She acted 'for the best,' but broke down in the act of tearing the children asunder, and told her lie shamefacedly. The result was that Mr. Sam, hearing Myra's screams overhead as he paced the hall, had rushed upstairs, caught her by both wrists as she clung to her brother, forced her into her own bedroom, and turned and pocketed the key.

Four times since, in that interminable day of anguish, Susannah had come pleading and whimpering to the door with food. Mr. Sam, on returning from the station, had given her the key with instructions to release the girl on a promise of good behaviour.

"Be sensible, Miss Myra-now, do! 'Tis to a home he's gone, where he'll be looked after and taught and tended, and you'll see him every holidays. A fine building, sure 'nough! Look, I've brought you a picture of it!"

Susannah, defying instructions, had unlocked and opened the door. Myra snatched the paper from her-it was, in fact, a prospectus of the institution-crumpled it up and thrust it in her pocket. With that, the last gust of her passion seemed to spend itself. She turned, and walking straight to the window-seat, coiled herself among the cushions with face averted and chin upon hand. To Susannah the traitress she deigned no word.

Thrice again Susannah came pleading, each time with a tray and something to tempt Myra's appetite. Myra did not turn her head. Departing for the fourth time, Susannah left the door ajar. The siege, then, was raised, the imprisonment over. Myra listened to her footsteps descending the stairs, walked to the door, shifted the key from the outer to the inner keyhole, and locked herself in. By this time the wintry dusk had begun to fall. Resuming her seat by the window, she fell to watching the courtyard again, her body motionless, her small brain working.

Dusk had deepened to darkness in the courtyard when she heard a footfall she recognised. It was Archelaus Libby's, on his way home from school to his loft, to deposit his books there and wash before seeking his tea in the kitchen.

Myra straightened her body, and opened the window softly.

"Archelaus!" she called as loudly as she dared.

"Miss Myra?" The footsteps halted.

"Hush, Archelaus, and come nearer. I want you to do something for me."

"Yes, Miss Myra."

"It may get you into trouble. I want you to fetch the short ladder from under the linhay, and fix it against the window here, without making a noise."

For a moment he made no answer. But he had understood; for she heard him walking away toward the linhay, and by and by he returned panting, and sloped the ladder against the sill as she bade him. By this time Myra had found a plateful of biscuits, and crammed her pocket full, and was ready to descend.

"But what is the meaning of it?" asked Archelaus, as she clambered down to him.

"They have stolen away Clem, and this morning they locked me in. Now take the ladder back and hang it in its place, and I will thank you for ever and ever."

"But I don't understand!" protested Archelaus. "Stolen away Master Clem? Who has stolen him? And what are you going to do?"

"I am going to find him-that's all," said Myra, and ran off into the darkness.

She could reckon on two friends in the world-Mr. Benny and Tom Trevarthen. Aunt Hannah was far away, and Miss Marvin (though now forgiven, and indeed worshipped for having interfered to protect Clem from his flogging) could not be counted on for effective help.

Tom Trevarthen and Mr. Benny-it was on Tom that she pinned her hope; for Tom (she had heard) was shipped on board the One-and-All schooner; and the One-and-All was ready to sail for London; and somewhere near London-so the paper in her pocket had told her-lay the dreadful place in which Clem was hidden. She could find the vessel; the One-and-All was moored-or had been moored last night-at the buoy under the hill, ready for sea. But to find the vessel and to find Tom Trevarthen were two very different things. To begin with, Tom would be useless unless she contrived to speak with him alone; to row straight to the schooner and hail her would spoil all. Moreover, on the night before sailing he would, most likely, be enjoying himself ashore. But where? Peter Benny might be able to tell. Peter Benny had a wonderful knack of knowing the movements of every seaman in the port.

She ran down the dark street to the alley over which poor Nicky Vro's signboard yet glimmered in the light of the oil lamp at the entrance. The cottage still lacked a tenant, and it had been nobody's business to take the board down. On the frape at the alley's end his ferryboat lay moored as he had left it. Myra tugged at the rope and drew the boat in.

As it drew alongside out of the darkness she leapt on board and cast off. The paddles, as she laboriously shipped them between the thole-pins, were unconscionably heavy; she knew little of rowing, and nothing of double-sculling. But the tide helped her. By pulling now one paddle, now another, she worked the boat across and down towards the ladder and the quay-door at the end of Mr. Benny's yard.

Nearing it, she found herself in slack water, and the boat became more manageable, giving her time between the strokes to glance over her shoulder and scan the dark shadow under the longshore wall, where each garden and alley-way had its quay-door and its ladder reaching down into the tide. Now the most of these quay-doors were painted green or blue, but Mr. Benny's a light grey, which in the darkness should have made it easily discernible. Yet for some while she could not find it.

Suddenly, as she threaded her way along, scarcely using her paddles now except to fend off the boats which, lying peaceably at their moorings, seemed to crowd around with intent to impede her, a schooner's masts and spars loomed up before her high against the inky night. Then she understood. The vessel-her name, the One-and-All, in white letters on her forward bulwarks, glimmered into sight as Myra passed-lay warped alongside the wall, with her foreyard braced aslant to avoid chafing the roof of Mr. Benny's office, and her mainmast and standing rigging all but entirely hiding Mr. Benny's quay-door, the approach to which she completely obstructed. A little above her forestay a small window, uncurtained and brightly lit, broke the long stretch of featureless black wall. This was the window of Mr. Benny's inner office, and within, as she checked her way, catching at the gunwale of one among the tethered boats, Myra could see the upper half of a hanging lamp and the shadow of its reflector on the smoky ceiling.

Mr. Benny would be seated under that lamp, no doubt. But how could she reach him?

The One-and-All lay head-to-stream, and so deep in the water that the tide all but washed her bulwarks, still grey with the dust of china-stone as she had come from her loading. Nowadays no British ship so scandalously overladen would be allowed to put to sea; but the Plimsoll-mark had not yet been invented to save seamen from their employers.

She lay so low that Myra, peering into the darkness, could almost see across decks to the farther bulwarks; and the decks were deserted. She mounted no riding-lamp, and no glimmer of light showed from hatchway, deckhouse, or galley.

Minutes passed, and, as still no sign of life appeared on board, Myra grew bolder and pushed across for a nearer view. Yes; the deck was deserted, and only the deck intervened between her and Mr. Benny's quay-door, by the sill of which the tide ran lapping and sucking at the crevices of the wall. She hardened her heart. Even if her footstep gave the alarm below, she could dash across and through the doorway before being seized or even detected. She laid both hands on the clay-dusted bulwarks and hoisted herself gently. The boat-she had done with it-slipped away noiselessly from under her and away into darkness.

She had meant to clear the ship with a rush; but as her feet touched the deck her courage failed her, and she tiptoed forward stealthily, gaining the shadow of the deckhouse and pausing there.

And there, in the act of crouching to spring across the few remaining yards, she drew back, crouching lower yet; for, noiseless as she, the dark form of a man had stepped forward and framed itself in the grey glimmering doorway.

For an instant she made sure that he was about to step on board. But many seconds passed, and still he waited there-as it seemed to her, in the attitude of a man listening; though to what he listened she could not guess. She herself heard no sound but the lapping of the tide.

By and by, gripping the ladder-rail and setting one foot against the One-and-All's bulwarks to steady himself, the man leaned outboard and sideways until a faint edge of light from the office window fell on his upturned face.

It was the face of her uncle.

Fascinated by terror, following his gaze-by instinct seeking for help, if any might be found-Myra lifted her face to the window. That too was darkened for the instant by a man's form; and as he crossed the room to the chair beside the desk, she recognised Tom Trevarthen.

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