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   Chapter 23 HESTER WRITES A LOVE-LETTER.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 20594

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Mr. Salt must have been preaching Hester's talent at large among seamen of the port, for when she returned from her interview with Sir George Mr. Benny met her at the kitchen door with news that no less than six sailors awaited her in the office, and that two or three had been patiently expecting her for an hour at least.

"Tis a great tax on you, my dear, and I tried to reason wi' them; but they wouldn't take 'No' for an answer. What's more, when I retire from the business I shan't be honestly able to sell you the goodwill of it, for they won't have my services at any price."

Hester laughed. "You won't even get me to bid," she assured him. "We shall soon be too busy for letter-writing, and must close the office; but to-night I suppose we cannot disappoint them."

So, with a sigh of resignation and an envious glance at the cosy fire, she turned and stepped briskly down the courtyard to the office. There, as Mr. Benny had promised, she found six expectant mariners, and for an hour wrote busily, rapidly. Either she was growing cleverer at the business, or her talk with Sir George had keyed her to this happy pitch. She felt-it happens sometimes, if rarely, to most of us-in tune with all the world; and in those illuminated hours we feel as if our fellow-creatures could bring us no secret too obscure for our understanding, no trouble hopeless of our help. "The light of the body is the eye; if, therefore, thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." Hester found herself divining without effort what her clients wished her to write, and as easily translating the inarticulate message into words. It was superfluous for them to thank her as they did; her own inner voice told her she had done well.

At length they were gone, and she followed them so far as the outer office, to rake out the fire and tidy up for the night. As she stooped over the stove she was startled by a noise from the inner room-a noise as of someone moving the window-sash. But how could this be? Perhaps the sash-cord had parted, letting the pane slip down with a run-

It did not occur to her, though startled for the moment, to be afraid, or even to suspect any cause for fear. Her mind was still busy with this practical explanation when she opened the door and her eyes fell on Tom Trevarthen.

His back was turned towards her as he closed the window by which he had just entered; but he faced about with a smile, ignoring the alarm in her face and the hand she put out against the door-jamb for support.

"Good-evenin', miss! You'll excuse my coming by the shortest way-"

"But-but how did you come?" she gasped.

He laughed. "Easy enough: I swung myself up by the schooner's forestay. Eh? Didn't you know the One-and-All's moored here just underneath? Then I must ha' given you a rare fright."

"Yes," said Hester, slowly getting back her composure, "you certainly frightened me; and I call it a very silly trick."

She said it with a sudden vehemence which surprised herself. It brought the colour back to her face, too. The young sailor stared at her.

"Well," he said admiringly, "you have a temper! But there's times when you make mistakes, I reckon."

She supposed him to allude to her unhappy intrusion upon the tattooing. Her colour deepened to a hot and lively red, and between shame and scorn she turned and walked from him into the outer office.

"Nay, now!" He followed her, suppliant. "Nay, now!" he repeated, as one might coax a child. "Simme I can't open my mouth 'ithout angering you, Miss Marvin; an' yet, ignorant as I be, 'tis plain to me you don't mean no hurt."

Now Hester had meant to walk straight out of the office and leave him. It would be hard to say precisely on what second thought she checked herself and, picking up the poker, sedulously resumed her raking-out of the stove. Partly, no doubt, she repented of having taken offence when he meant none. He had been innocent, and her suspicion of him recoiled back in self-contempt. It was a relief to hear him in turn accusing her unjustly. It gave her fresh ground, on which she really could defend herself.

"Hurt?" she echoed half defiantly, stooping and raking at the cinders.

"Why, of course, you hurt," he insisted. "'Tis so queer to me you can't see it. Just reckon up all the harm this Rosewarne have a-done and is doing: Mother Butson's school closed, and the poor soul bedridden with rheumatics, all through being forced to seek field-work, at her time o' life and in this autumn's weather! My old mother driven into a charity-house. Nicky Vro dead in Bodmin gaol. Where was the fair play? Master Clem, I hear, parted from his sister and packed off this very day to a home in London-lucky if 'tis better'n a gaol-"

"Do you accuse me of all these wrongs?"

"No, I don't. But in most of 'em you've been mixed up, and in all of 'em you might have used power over the man. Where have you put in an oar except to make matters worse?"

It was on her lips to tell him that she had resigned the teachership; but she forbore.

"Do you know," she answered quietly, "that half-truths may be worse than lies, and a charge which is half-true the most cruelly unjust? We will agree that I have done more harm here than good. But do you accuse me of doing it wilfully, selfishly?"

"That's where I can't make you out," he said. "I can't even make out your doing wrong at all. Thinks I sometimes, ''Tis all a mistake. Go, look at her face, all made for goodness if ever a face was; try her once more, an' you'll be sorry for thinkin' ill of her.' That's the way of it. But then I come and find you mixed up in this miserable business, and all that's kind in you seems to harden, and all that's straight to run crooked. There's times I think you couldn't do wrong if you weren't so sure of doing right; and there's times, when I hear of your being kind to the school-children, I think it must be some curst ill-luck of my own that brings us always ath'art-hawse."

Beneath the lamplight his eyes searched hers appealingly, as a child's might; yet Hester wondered rather at the note of manliness in his voice-a new note to her, but an assured one. Whatever the cause, Tom Trevarthen was a lad no longer.

"Why should you suppose," she asked, "that I have power over Mr. Rosewarne?"

"Haven't you?"

The simple question confounded her, and she blushed again, as one detected in an untruth. It was as Tom said; some perverse fate impelled her at every turn to show at her worst before him.

"Good Lord!" he said slowly, watching her face. "You don't tell me you're going to marry him!"

She should have obeyed her first impulse and said 'No' hotly. The word was on her lips when a second wave of indignation swelled within her and swept over the first, drowning it, and, with it, her speech. What right had he to question her, or what concern with her affairs? She threw back her head proudly, to look him in the face and ask him this. But he had turned from her.

His disgust angered her, and once more she changed her impulse for the worse.

"It seems," said she contemptuously, "that you reserve the right of making terms with Mr. Rosewarne."

He turned at the door of the inner office and regarded her for a moment with a dark frown.

"What do you mean by that?" His voice betrayed the strain on his self-command.

"Mr. Rosewarne owns the One-and-All, does he not? If, after what has happened, you accept his wages, you might well be a little less censorious of other folk's conduct."

If the shaft hit, he made no sign for the moment. "I reckon," he answered, with queer deliberateness, "your knowledge of ships and shipowners don't amount to much, else you wouldn't talk of Rosewarne's doing me a favour." He paused and laughed, not aloud but grimly. "The One-and-All's insured, Miss Marvin, and pretty heavily over her value. I'd take it as a kindness if you found someone fool enough to insure me for a trip in her."

"I don't understand."

"No, I reckon you don't. They finished loading her last night, and we moored her out in the channel, ready for the tug this morning. Before midnight she was leaking there like a basket, and by seven this morning she was leaking worse than a five-barred gate. The tug had just time to pluck us alongside here, or she'd have sunk at her moorings; and when we'd warped her steady and the tide left her, the water poured out of a hole I could shove my hand through-not the seams, mark you, though they leaked bad enough-but a hole where the china-stone had fairly knocked her open; and the timber all round it as rotten as cheese. All day, between tides, they've been sheathing it over, and packing the worst places in her seams; and to-night the crew, being all Troy men, are taking one more sleep ashore than they bargained for. They want it, too, after their spell at the pumps."

"Then why are you left on board?"

"Mainly because I've no home to go to; and somebody must act night-watchman. The skipper himself has bustled ashore with the rest. I reckon this morning's work scared him a bit, hand-in-glove though he is with Rosewarne; but he must be recovering, because just before stepping off he warned me against putting up the riding-light. There's no chance of anyone fouling us where we lie, and we can save two-penn'orth of oil."

"But you don't tell me Mr. Rosewarne sends his ships to sea, knowing them to be rotten?"

He hunched his shoulders. "Maybe he does; maybe he don't. It don't matter to me, the man's going to hell or not. But you seem to think I take his wages as a favour."

"Then why do you take them at all, at such a risk?"

"Because," he burst out, "you've come here and driven my mother to an almshouse, and I must earn money to get her out of it. If I'd a-known you was coming here with your education, I'd have picked up some of it and been prepared for you. A mate's certificate doesn't mean much in these days. Men like Rosewarne want a skipper who'll earn insurance-money and save oil. Still, I could have tried. But, like a fool, I was young and in a good berth, and let my chances slip; and then you came along and spoilt all."

"Did you seek me out to-night to tell me this?" she steadied herself to ask.

He lowered his eyes. "I want you to

write a letter for me," he said, and added, after a pause. "That's what comes of wanting education."

Another and a very awkward pause followed. This discovery of his illiteracy shocked and hurt her inexpressibly. She could not even say why. Good sense warned her even in the instant of disappointment that a man might not know how to read or write and yet be none the less a good man and trustworthy. And even though the prejudice of her calling made her treat the defect too seriously, why in Tom Trevarthen should that shock her which in other seamen she took as a matter of course?

Yet in her shame for him she could lift her eyes; and he still kept his lowered upon the floor.

"To whom do you want me to write?" she asked.

"It's to a girl," he answered doggedly; and the words seemed to call up a dark flush in his face, which a moment before had been unwontedly pale- though this she did not perceive.

"A girl?"

"That's so; a girl, miss, if you don't mind-a girl as it happens I'm fond of."

"A love-letter? Is that what you mean?"

"If you don't mind, Miss Marvin?"

"Why on earth should I mind?" she asked, with a heat unintelligible to herself as to him.

A suspicion crossed her mind that the young woman might not be over-respectable; but she dismissed it. If the message were such as she could indite, she had no warrant to inquire further; and yet, "Is it quite fair to her?" she added.

The question plainly confused him. "Fair, miss?"

"You told me a minute ago that you found it hard to earn money for your mother; and now it seems you think of marrying."

"No, miss," said he simply; "I can't think of it at all. And that's partly what I want to tell her."

Hester frowned. "It's queer you should come to me, whom you accuse of interfering to your harm. If I am guilty on other counts, I am guilty too of coming between you and this young woman."

He smiled faintly. "And that's true in a way," he allowed; "but you'll see I don't bear malice. The letter'll prove that, if so be you'll kindly write it for me."

He said it appealingly, with his hand on the doorhandle. She bent her head in consent. Flinging the door open, he stood aside to let her pass.

It was a moment later as he crossed over to the client's chair that Myra caught sight of him from the schooner's deck. The child cowered back into the shadow of the deck-house, her eyes intent again on the listener leaning out from the quay-door. He could not even see what she had seen; and if Tom was in talk with anyone inside her own ears caught no sound of it. Nevertheless her uncle's attitude left no room to doubt that he was playing the spy, and trying, at least, to listen.

"What name?" asked Hester, dipping her pen.

"What name? Eh, to be sure,"-Tom Trevarthen hesitated for a moment. "Put down Harriet Sands." She glanced up, and he nodded. "Yes, that'll do-Harriet Sands, of Runcorn."

"She must have some nearer address than that. Runcorn is a large town, is it not?"

He pondered, or seemed to ponder. "Then we'll put down 'Sailors' Return Inn, Quay Street, Runcorn.' That'll find her, as likely as anywhere."

Hester wrote the address and glanced up inquiringly; but his eyes were fastened on the desk where her hand rested, and on the virgin sheet of notepaper placed ready for use.

"A public-house? It wanted only that!" she told herself. Aloud she said, "'My dearest Harriet'-Is that how you begin?"

He appeared to consider this slowly. "I suppose so," he answered at length, with a shade of disappointment in his voice.

"And next, I suppose, you say, 'This comes hoping to find you well as it leaves me at present.'"

"Don't 'ee-don't 'ee, co!" he implored her almost with a cry of pain; and then, scarcely giving her time to be ashamed of her levity, he broke out, "They tell me you can guess a man's thoughts and write 'em down a'most before he speaks. Why won't you guess 'em for me? Write to her that when we parted she was unkind; but be she unkind for ever and ever, in my thoughts she will be the best woman in the world. Tell her that whatever she may do amiss, in my eyes she'll last on as the angel God A'mighty meant her to be, and all because I love her and can't help it. Say that to her, and say that there's degrees between us never to be crossed, and I know it, and have never a hope to win level with her; but this once I will speak and be silent all the rest o' my days. Tell her that there's bars between us, but the only real one is her own self; that for nothing would she be beyond my reach but for being the woman she is."

Hester laid down the pen and looked up at him with eyes at once dim and shining.

"I cannot write this," she said, her lips stammering on the words. "I am not worthy-I laughed at you."

"Tell her," he went on, "that I'm a common seaman, earnin' two pound a month, with no book-learning and no hopes to rise; tell her that I've an old mother to keep-that for years to come there's no chance of my marryin'; and then tell her I'm glad of it, for it keeps me free to think only of her. Write all that down, Miss Marvin."

"I cannot," she protested.

Very gently but firmly he laid a brown strong hand over hers as it rested on the letter. In a second he withdrew it, but in that second she felt herself mastered, commanded. She took up the pen and wrote.

"I have used your own words and none of mine," she said, when she had finished. "Shall I read them over to you?"

"No." He took the letter, folded it, and placed it in the envelope she handed him. "Why didn't you put it into better words?" he asked.

"Because I could not. Trust a woman to know what a woman likes. If I were this-this Harriet."-Her voice faltered and came to a halt.

"Yes?" He waited for her to continue.

"Why, then, that letter would make me a proud woman."

"Though it came from a common sailor?"

"She would not think first of that. She would be proud to be so loved."

"Thank you," said he slowly, and, drawing a shilling from his pocket, laid it on the desk. "Good-night and good-bye, Miss Marvin."

He moved to the window and flung up the sash. Seated astride the ledge, he looked back at her with a smile which seemed to say, "At last we are friends!" The next moment he had reached out a hand, caught hold of the One-and-All's forestay, and swung himself out into the darkness.

Hester, standing alone in the little office, heard a soft sliding sound which puzzled her, followed by the light thud of his feet as he dropped upon deck. She leaned out for a moment before closing the window. All was silent below, save for the lap of the tide between the schooner and the quay-wall.

As Tom Trevarthen opened the window and leaned out to grasp the forestay, Myra, still cowering by the deck-house, saw her uncle swing himself hurriedly back into the shadow of the quay-door. She too retreated a pace; and with that, her foot striking against the low coaming of an open hatchway, with a clutch at air she pitched backward and down into the vessel's hold.

She did not fall far, the One-and-All being loaded to within a foot or two of the hatches. Her tumble sent her sprawling upon a heap of loose china-clay. She felt it sliding under her and herself sliding with it, softly, down into darkness. She was bruised. She had wrenched her shoulder terribly, but she clenched her teeth and kept back the cry she had all but uttered.

The sliding ceased, and she tried to raise herself on an elbow out of the choking smother of clay-dust. The effort sent a stab of pain through her, exquisite, excruciating. She dropped forward upon her face, and there in the darkness she fainted.

Hester, having closed the window, put out the lights quietly, pausing in the outer office for a glance at the raked-out stove. Outside, as she locked the door behind her, she paused again at the head of the step for an upward look at the sky, where, beyond the clouds, a small star or two twinkled in the dark square of Pegasus. She never knew how close in that instant she stood to death. Within six paces of her crouched a man made desperate by the worst of terrors-terror of himself; and maddened by the worst of all provocatives-jealousy.

He had come to her on a forlorn hope, believing that she only-if any helper in the world-could be his salvation from the devil within him. Not in cruelty, but in fear-which can be crueller than cruelty itself-he had packed off the helpless blind boy beyond his reach. He had promised himself that by dismissing the temptation he could lay the devil at a stroke and finally. On his way back from the station he had heard whispered within him the horrible truth: that he was a lost man, without self-control.

He had sought her merely by the instinct of self-preservation. She had cowed and mastered him once. In awful consciousness of his infirmity he craved only to be mastered again, to be soothed, quieted. He nodded to the men and women he passed in the streets. They saw nothing amiss with him-nothing more than his habitual straight-lipped visage and ill-fitting clothes.

He had dogged her to the office and listened outside for one, two, three hours. In the end, as he believed, he had caught her at tryst with his worst enemy-with the man who had knocked him down and humiliated him. Yet in his instant need he hated Tom Trevarthen less as a rival in love, less from remembered humiliation, than as a robber of the sole plank which might have saved him from drowning.

So long had the pair been closeted together that a saner jealousy might have suggested more evil suspicions. His jealousy passed these by as of no account. He could think only of his need and its foiled chance: his need was more urgent than any love. He had come for help, and found her colloguing with his enemy.

In his abject rage he could easily have done her violence and as easily have run forward and cried her pity. Between the two impulses he crouched irresolute and let her pass.

Hester came down the steps slowly, passed within a yard of him, and as slowly went up the dark courtyard. For the last time she paused, with her hand on Mr. Benny's door-latch; and this was what she said there to herself, silently-

"But why Harriet?-of all the hateful names!"

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