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   Chapter 24 THE RESCUE.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 21335

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Style," said Mr. Joshua Benny, "has been defined as a gift of saying anything, of striking any note in the scale of human feelings, without impropriety. We cannot all have distinction, Mr. Parker-what I may call the je ne sais quoi"-

Mr. Joshua put this with a fine modesty, the distinction of his own style being proverbial-in Spendilove's Press Supply Bureau at any rate. He might have added with a wave of the hand, "You see to what it has advanced me!" for whereas the rest of Spendilove's literary men toiled in two gangs, one on either side of a long high-pitched desk, and wrote slashing leaders for the provincial press, Mr. Joshua exercised his lightness of touch upon 'picturesque middles' in a sort of loose-box partitioned off from the main office by screens of opaque glass. This den-he spoke of it as his 'scriptorium'-had a window looking out upon an elevated railway, along which the trains of the London, Chatham, and Dover line banged and rattled all day long. For Spendilove's (as it was called by its familiars) inhabited the second floor of a building close to the foot of Ludgate Hill. The noise no longer disturbed Mr. Joshua, except when an engine halted just outside to blow off steam.

Mr. Joshua leaned back in his writing-chair, tapped a galley proof with admonitory forefinger, and gazed over his spectacles upon Mr. Parker-a weedy youth with a complexion suggestive of uncooked pastry.

"We cannot all have distinction, Mr. Parker, nor can it be acquired by effort. Vigour we may cultivate, and clearness we must; it is essential. On a level with these I should place propriety. Propriety teaches us to regulate our speech by the occasion; to be incisive at times and at times urbane; to adapt the 'how' to the 'when,' as I might put it. I do not think-I really do not think-that Christmas Eve is a happily chosen moment for calling Mr. Disraeli 'a Jew adventurer.'"

"Mr. Makins, sir, who wrote yesterday's Liberal leader for the syndicate, wound up by saying the time had gone by for mincing our opinion of the front Opposition Bench. He warned me last night, when I took over his job, to pitch it strong. He had it on good authority that the constituencies have been a good deal shaken by Mr. Gladstone's Army Purchase coup, and some straight talk is needed to pull them together, in the eastern counties especially."

"You are young to the work, Mr. Parker. You may depend upon it-you may take it from me-that Spendilove's will not fail in straight talking, on either side of the question. But we must observe what our Gallic neighbours term les convenances. By the way, has Makins gone off for the holidays?"

"He was to have gone off last night, sir; but he turned up this morning to write Sam Collins's 'Tory Squire' column for the Northern Guardian, and a syndicate-middle on 'Christmas Cheer in the Good Old Times.' Collins sent him a wire late last night; his wife is down with pneumonia."

"Tut, tut-send him to me. A good-hearted fellow, Makins! Tell him I've a dozen old articles that will fix him up with 'Christmas Cheer' in less than twenty minutes. I keep them indexed. And if he wants it illustrated I can look him out a dozen blocks to take his choice from-'Bringing in the Boar's Head,' and that sort of thing."

"I beg your pardon, sir, but before I send him there's a party of four in the lower office waiting to see you-one of them a child-and seafaring folk by their talk. They walked in while I was sitting alone there, finishing off my article, and not a word would they tell of their business but that they must speak to you in private. It's my belief they've come straight off a wreck, and with a paragraph at least."

"Seafaring folk, do you say?" It was a cherished hope of Mr. Joshua Benny's that one of these days Spendilove's would attract private information to its door, and not confine itself to decorating so much of the world's news as had already become common property.

"They asked for you, sir, as 'Mr. Joshua Benny, the great writer.'"

"Dear me, I hope you have not kept them waiting long? Show them up, please; and-here, wait a moment-on your way you can take Makins an armful of my commonplace books-eighteen sixty-three to seven; that will do. Tell him to look through the indexes himself; he'll find what he wants under 'Yule.'"

If Mr. Joshua's visitors had come, as Mr. Parker surmised, straight off a wreck, the first to file into his office had assuredly salved from calamity a wonderful headgear. This was Mrs. Purchase, in a bonnet crowned with a bunch of glass grapes; and by the hand she led Myra, who carried one arm in a sling. The child's features were pinched and pale, and her eyes unnaturally bright. Behind followed Mr. Purchase and Tom Trevarthen, holding their caps, and looking around uneasily for a mat to wipe their shoes on.

No such shyness troubled Mrs. Purchase. "Good-morning!" she began briskly, holding out a hand.

Mr. Joshua took it helplessly, his eyes for the moment riveted on her bonnet. It bore no traces of exposure to sea-water, and he transferred his scrutiny to the child.

"You don't remember me," pursued Mrs. Purchase cheerfully. "But I'd have picked you out from a thousand, though I han't seen you since you was so high." She spread out a palm some three feet or less from the floor. "I'm Hannah Purchase, that used to be Hannah Rosewarne, daughter of John Rosewarne of Hall. You know now who I be, I reckon; and this here's my niece, and that there's my husband. The young man in the doorway ain't no relation; but he comes from Hall too. He's Sal Trevarthen's son. You remember Sal Trevarthen?"

"Ah, yes-yes, to be sure. Delighted to see you, madam-delighted," stammered Mr. Joshua, who, however, as yet showed signs only of bewilderment. "And you wish to see me?"-

"Wish to see you? Man alive, we've been hunting all Fleet Street for you! Talk about rabbit warrens! Well, when 'tis over 'tis over, as Joan said by her wedding, and here we be at last."

She paused and looked around.

"Place wants dusting," she observed. "Never married, did 'ee? I reckoned I'd never heard of your marrying. Your brother now has eleven of 'em- children, I mean; and yet you feature him wonderful, though fuller in the face. But the Lord's ways be past finding out."

"Amen," said her husband, paying his customary tribute to a scriptural quotation, and added, "They don't keep over many chairs in this office." He addressed this observation to Tom Trevarthen with an impartial air as one announcing a scientific discovery.

"Thank you," said Mrs. Purchase, seating herself in a chair which Mr. Joshua made haste to provide. "You will oblige me by paying no attention to 'Siah. Well, as I was saying, it's a mercy the Lord has made you the man you be; for we're in want of your help, all four of us."

"If I can be of service,"-Mr. Joshua murmured.

"I remember," said Mrs. Purchase, arranging her bonnet with an air of one coming to business, "when I was a little girl, reading in a history book about a man called Bucket, who fell in love with a black woman in foreign parts; or she may have been brown or whitey-brown for all I can remember at this distance of time. But, anyway, he was parted from her, and came home to London here, and all she knew about him was his name 'Bucket.' Well, she took ship and kept on saying 'Bucket' till somewhere in London she found him. And if that happened once, it ought to be able to happen again, especially in these days of newspapers, and when we've got the address."

Mrs. Purchase produced a crumpled slip of paper, and handed it to Mr. Joshua, who adjusted his spectacles.

"An institution for the blind, and near Bexley, apparently." He glanced up in mild interrogation.

"What sort of place is it? Nice goings-on there, I'll promise you; and if 'tis better than penal servitude I shall be surprised, seeing that Sam Rosewarne is hand-in-glove with it. Never you mind, my dear," she added, turning to Myra, who shivered, holding her hand. "We'll get him out of it, or there's no law in England."

Mr. Joshua, still hopelessly fogged, wheeled his chair round to the bookcase behind him, and took down a Directory, with a smaller reference work upon Hospitals and Charitable Institutions.

"H'm," said he, coming to a halt as he turned the pages; "here it is-'Huntingdon Orphanage for the Blind'-'mainly supported by voluntary contributions'-address, 52 Conyers Road, Bexley, S.E. It seems to have an influential list of patrons, mainly Dissenters, as I should guess."

"It may keep 'em," said Mrs. Purchase, "so long as you get that poor child out of it."

"My dear lady, if you would be more explicit!" cried Mr. Joshua. "To what poor child do you allude? And what is the help you ask of me?"

"If the worst comes to the worst, you can denounce 'em." Mrs. Purchase untied her bonnet strings, and then slowly crossed her legs-an unfeminine habit of hers. "Tis like a story out of a book," she pursued. "This very morning as we was moored a little above Deptford in the Virtuous Lady- that's my husband's ship-and me making the coffee for breakfast as usual, comes off a boy with a telegram, saying, 'Meet me and Miss Myra by the foot of the Monument. Most important.-Tom Trevarthen.' You might have knocked me down with a feather, and even then I couldn't make head nor tail of it."

To this extent her experience seemed to be repeating itself in Mr. Joshua.

"For to begin with," she went on, "how did I know that Tom Trevarthen was in London? let alone that last time we met we parted in anger. But he'd picked us out among the shipping as he was towed up last night in the One-and-All to anchor in the Pool. And I defy anyone to guess that he'd got Myra here on board, who's my own niece by a second marriage, and shipped herself as a stowaway, but was hurt by a fall down the hold, and might have lain there and starved to death, poor child-and all for love of her brother that his uncle had shipped off to a blind orphanage. But there's a providence, Mr. Benny, that watches over children-and you may lay to that." Mrs. Purchase took breath. "Well, naturally, as you may guess, my first thought was to set it down for a hoax, though not in the best of taste. But with Myra's name staring me in the face in the telegram, and blood being thicker than water, on second thoughts I told 'Siah to put on his best clothes and come to the Monument with me, not saying more for fear of upsetting him. 'Why the Monument?' says 'Siah. 'Why not?' says I; 'it was put up against the Roman Catholics.' So that determined him; and I wanted company, for in

London you can't be too careful. Sure enough, when we got to it, there was Tom waiting, with this poor child holding his hand; and then the whole story came out. 'But what's to be done?' I said, for my very flesh rebelled against such cruelty to the child, let alone that he was flogged black and blue at home. And then Tom Trevarthen had a thought even cleverer than his telegram. 'Peter Benny,' says he, 'has a brother here in London connected with the press; the press can do anything, and by Peter's account his brother can do anything with the press. If we can only find him, our job's as good as done.' So we hailed a cab, and told the man to drive us to the Shipping Gazette. But I reckon we must have started someways at the wrong end, for the Shipping Gazette passed us on to a place called the Times, where they kept us waiting forty minutes, and then said they didn't know you, but advised us to try the Cheshire Cheese, where I asked for the editor, and this caused another delay. But a gentleman there drinkin' whisky-and-water said he'd heard of you in connection with the Christian World, and the Christian World gave us over to a policeman, who brought us here; and now the question is, what would you advise?"

"I should advise," said Mr. Joshua, pulling out his watch, "your coming off to lunch with me."

"You're a practical man, I see," said Mrs. Purchase, "and I say again 'tis a pity you never married. We'll leave the whole affair in your hands."

In his published writings Mr. Joshua had often descanted on the power of the Fourth Estate; and in his addresses to young aspirants he ever laid stress on the crucial faculty of sifting out the essentials, whether in narrative or argument, from whatever was of secondary importance, circumstantial, or irrelevant. The confidence and accuracy with which Mrs. Purchase challenged him to put his faith and his method into instant practice, staggered him not a little. He felt himself hit, so to speak, with both barrels.

It will be allowed that he rose to the test admirably. Under an arch of the railway bridge at the foot of Ludgate Hill there is a restaurant where you may eat and drink and hear all the while the trains rumbling over your head. To this he led the party; and while Mrs. Purchase talked, he sifted out with professional skill the main points of her story, and discovered what she required of him. To be sure, the Power of the Press remained to be vindicated, and as yet he was far from seeing his way clear. The woman required him to storm the doors of an orphanage and rescue without parley the body of a child consigned to it by a legal guardian (which was absurd); or if not instantly successful, to cow the officials with threats of exposure (which again was absurd; since, for aught he knew, the institution thoroughly deserved the subscriptions of the public).

Yet while his own heart sank, the confidence of his guests, and their belief in him, sensibly increased. He had chosen this particular restaurant not deliberately, but with the instinct of a born journalist; for it is the first secret of journalism to appear to be moving at high speed even when standing absolutely still, and here in the purlieus of the clanging station, amid the thunder of trains and the rush of hundreds of feet to bookstalls and ticket-offices; here where the clash of knives and forks and plates mingled with the rumble of cabs and the calls of porters and newspaper boys, the impression of activity was irresistible. Here, as Mrs. Purchase had declared, was a practical man. Their business promised well with all these wheels in motion.

"And now," said Mr. Joshua, as he paid the bill, "we will take the train for Bexley, and see."

In his own heart he hoped that a visit to the Orphanage would satisfy them. He would seek the governor or matron in charge; they would be allowed an interview with the child, and finding him in good hands, contented and well cared for, would shed some natural tears perhaps, but return cheerful and reassured. This was as much as Mr. Joshua dared to hope. While piecing together Mrs. Purchase's narrative he had been sincerely touched-good man-by some of its details; particularly when Tom Trevarthen struck in and related how on the second night out of port he had been kept awake by a faint persistent knocking on the bulkhead separating the fo'c'sle from the schooner's hold; how he had drawn his shipmates' attention to it; how he had persuaded the skipper to uncover one of the hatches; and how he had descended with a lantern and found poor Myra half dead with sickness and hunger. Mr. Joshua did not understand children; but he had a good heart nevertheless. He eyed Myra from time to time with a sympathetic curiosity, shy and almost timid, as the train swung out over the points, and the child, nestling down in a corner by the window, gazed out across the murky suburbs with eyes which, devouring the distance, regarded him not at all.

The child did not doubt. She followed with the others as he shepherded them through the station to the train which came, as if to his call, from among half a dozen others, all ready at hand. He was a magician, benevolent as any in her fairy-tales, and when all was over she would thank him, even with tears. But just now she could think only of Clem and her journey's end. Clem!-Clem!-the train clanked out his name over and over. Would these lines of dingy houses, factories, smoky gardens, rubbish-heaps, broken palings, never come to an end?

They trailed past the window in meaningless procession; empty phenomena, and as dull as they were empty. But the glorious golden certainty lay beyond. "Just look to the poor mite!" whispered Mrs. Purchase, nudging her husband. Myra's ears caught the words distinctly, but Myra did not hear.

Bexley at last! with two or three cabs outside the station. Later on she remembered them, and the colour of the horse in the one which Mr. Joshua chose, and the driver's face, and Mr. Joshua leaning out of the window and shouting directions. She remembered also the mist on the glass window of the four-wheeler, and the foggy houses, detached and semi-detached, looming behind their roadway walls and naked fences of privet; the clapping sound of the horse, trotting with one loose shoe; Aunt Hannah's clutch at her arm as they drew up in the early dusk before a gate with a clump of evergreens on either side; and a glimpse of a tall red-brick building as Mr. Joshua opened the door and alighted.

He was gone, and they sat in the cab, and waited for him a tedious while. She did not understand. Why should they wait now, with Clem so near at hand? But she was patient, not doubting at all of the result.

He came running back at length, and radiant. As though the issue had ever been in doubt! The cab moved through the gateway and halted before a low flight of steps, and everyone clambered out. The dusk had deepened, and she blinked as she stepped into a lighted hall. A tall man met them there; whispered, or seemed to whisper, a moment with Mr. Joshua; and beckoned them to follow. They followed him, turning to the right down a long corridor not so brightly lit as the hall had been. At the end he halted for a moment and gently opened a door.

They passed through it into what, for a moment, seemed to be total darkness. They stood, in fact, at the head of a tall platform of many steps, semicircular in shape, looking down upon a long hall, unlit as yet (for the blind need no lamps); and below, on the floor of the hall, ranged at their desks in the fading light, sat row upon row of children. The murmur of many voices rose from that shadowy throng, as Myra, shaking off Aunt Hannah's grasp, stepped forward to the edge of the platform with both arms extended, her hurt forgotten.

"MYRA!"

The opening of the door could scarcely have been audible amid the murmur below. She herself had stretched out her arms, uttering no sound, not yet discerning him among the dim murmuring shadows. What telegraphy of love reached, and on the instant, that one child in the throng and fetched him to his feet, crying out her name? And he was blind. From the way he ran to her, heeding no obstacles, stumbling against desks, breaking his shins cruelly against the steps of the platform as he stretched up both hands to her, all might see that he was blind. Yet he came, as she had known he would come.

"CLEM!"

They were in each other's arms, sobbing, laughing, crooning soft words together, but only these articulate-

"You knew me?"

"Yes, you have come-I knew you would come!"

"Now I ask you," said Aunt Hannah to the Matron, who, unobserved by the visitors, had followed them down the corridor, "I don't know you from Adam, ma'am, but I ask you, as a Christian woman, if you'd part them two lambs? And, if so, how?"

The Matron's answer went near to abashing her; for the Matron turned out to be not only a Christian woman, as challenged, but an extremely tender-hearted one.

"I like the child," she answered. "I like him so much that I'd be thankful if you could get him removed; for, to tell the truth, he's ailing here. We try to feed him well, and we try to make him happy; but he's losing flesh, and he's not happy. Indeed we are not tyrants, ma'am, and if it pleases you his sister shall stay with him overnight, and I promise to take care of her; but he came to us from his legal guardian, and without leave we can't give him up."

It was at this point that inspiration came to Mr. Joshua.

"Why not a telegram?" he suggested. "As his aunt, ma'am, you might suggest a sea voyage for the child, and leave it to me to word it strongly."

"If I wasn't a married woman," said Mrs. Purchase, "I could openly bless the hour I made your acquaintance."

Between the despatch of Mr. Joshua's telegram and the receipt of his answer there was weary waiting for all but the two children. They, content in the moment's bliss, secure of the future, being reunited, neither asked nor doubted.

Yet they missed something-the glad, astounded surprise of their elders as Mr. Joshua, having taken the yellow envelope from Mrs. Purchase, whose courage failed her, broke it open, and read aloud, "Leave child in your hands. Only do not bring him home."

It was a happy party that travelled back that night to Blackfriars; and Mr. Joshua, after shaking hands with everybody many times over, and promising to eat his Christmas dinner on board the Virtuous Lady, walked homeward to his solitary lodgings elate, treading the frosty pavement with an unaccustomed springiness of step. He had vindicated the Power of the Press.

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