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   Chapter 25 BUT TOM CAN WRITE.

Shining Ferry By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 20804

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"A letter for you, Mrs. Trevarthen!"

Spring had come. The flight and finding of Myra had long since ceased to be a nine days' wonder, and she and Clem and Tom Trevarthen-received back into favour, and in some danger of being petted by Mrs. Purchase, who had never been known to pet a seaman-were shipmates now on board the Virtuous Lady, and had passed for many weeks now beyond ken of the little port. A new schoolmistress reigned in Hester's stead, since Hester, with the New Year, had taken over the care of the Widows' Houses. In his counting-house at Hall Samuel Rosewarne sat day after day transacting his business without a clerk, speaking seldom, shunned by all-even by his own son; a man afraid of himself. Susannah declared that the house was like a tomb, and vowed regularly on Monday mornings to give 'warning' at the next week-end. The villagers, accustomed to the Rosewarne tyranny for generations, had found it hard to believe in their release. Lady Killiow was little more than a name to them, Rosewarne a very present steward and master of their lives; and at first, when Peter Benny engaged workmen to pull down Nicky Vro's cottage and erect a modest office on its site, they admired his temerity, but awoke each morning to fresh wonder that no thunderbolt from Hall had descended during the night and razed his work to the ground. The new ferryman had vanished too, paid off and discharged for flagrant drunkenness, and his place was taken by old Billy Daddo the Methodist-a change so comfortable and (when you come to think of it) a choice so happy, that the villagers, after the shock of surprise, could hardly believe they had not suggested it. If they did not quite forget Nicky and his sorrows-if in place of Nicky's pagan chatter they listened to Billy's earnest, gentle discourse, and might hardly cross to meal or market without being reminded of God-why, after all, the word of God was good hearing, and everyone ought to take an interest in it. Stop your ears for a moment, and you could almost believe 'twas Nicky come back to life again. Nobody could deny the man was cheerful and civil. He rowed a stroke, too, amazingly like Nicky's.

As for Rosewarne, in the revulsion of their fears they began to despise him. They Had done better to pity him.

Across the water, in her lodging in the Widows' Houses, Hester found work to be done which, to her surprise, kept her busier than she had ever been in her life before-so busy that the quiet quadrangle seemed to hold no room for news of the world without. She found that, if she were to satisfy her conscience in the service of these old women, she could seldom save more than an hour's leisure from the short spring days; and in that hour maybe Sir George would call with his plans, or she would put on her bonnet and walk down the hill for a call on the Bennys and a chat with Nuncey. But oftener it was Nuncey who came for a gossip; Nuncey having sold her cart and retired from business.

Spring had come. Within the almshouse quadrangle, around the leaden pump, the daffodils were in flower and the tulip buds swelling. A blast from the first of those golden trumpets could hardly have startled her more than did her first sight of it flaunting in the sun. It had stolen upon her like a thief.

"A letter for you, Mrs. Trevarthen!"

The postman, as he crossed the quadrangle to the Matron's door, glanced up and spied Mrs. Trevarthen bending over a wash-tub in the widows' gallery. He pulled a letter from his pocket and held it aloft gaily.

"I'll run up the steps with it if you can't reach."

"No need to trouble you, my dear, if you'll wait a moment."

Mrs. Trevarthen dried her hands in her coarse apron, leaned over the balustrade, and just contrived to reach the letter with her finger-tips. They were bleached with soap and warm water, and they trembled a little.

"'Tis from your son Tom, I reckon," said the postman, while she examined the envelope. "Foreign paper and the Quebec postmark."

"From Tom? O' course 'tis from Tom! Get along with 'ee do! What other man would be writing to me at my time o' life?"

The postman walked on, laughing. Mrs. Trevarthen stood for some while irresolute, holding the envelope between finger and thumb, and glancing from it to a closed door at the back of the gallery. A slant low sun-ray almost reached to the threshold, and was cut short there by the shadow of the gallery eaves.

"Best not disturb her, I s'pose," said the old woman, with a sigh. She laid the letter down, but very reluctantly, beside the wash-tub, and plunged both hands among the suds again. "Quebec!" The word recalled a silly old song of the sailors; she had heard her boy hum it again and again-

"Was you ever to Quebec,

Bonnie lassie, bonnie lassie?

Was you ever to Quebec,

Rousing timber over the deck."-

A door opened at the end of the gallery, and Hester came through.

"Good-morning, Mrs. Trevarthen!"

"'Mornin', my dear."

These two were friends now on the common ground of nursing Aunt Butson, who had been bedridden almost from the day of her admission to the almshouse, her gaunt frame twisted with dire rheumatics.

Hester, arriving to take up her duties and finding Mrs. Trevarthen outworn with nursing, had packed her off to rest and taken her place by the invalid's bedside. In this service she had been faithful ever since; and it was no light one, for affliction did not chasten Mrs. Butson's caustic tongue.

"Is she still sleeping?" Hester glanced at the door.

"Ay, ever since you left. Her pains have wore her out, belike. A terrible night! Why didn' you call me sooner?"

"You have a letter, I see."

Mrs. Trevarthen nodded, obviously embarrassed. "Keeping it for her, I was," she explained. "She do dearly like to look my letters over. She gets none of her own, you see."

But Hester was not deceived, having observed (without appearing to detect it) Mrs. Trevarthen's difficulty with the written instructions on the medicine bottles.

"But she will not wake for some time, we'll hope; and you haven't even broken the seal! If you would like me to read it to you-it would save your eyes; and I am very discreet-really I am."

Mrs. Trevarthen hesitated. "My eyes be bad, sure enough," she said, weakening. "But you mustn't blame me if you come across a word or two you don't like."

"I shall remember no more of it than you choose," said Hester, slightly puzzled.

"My Tom han't ever said a word agen' you, and the odds are he'll say nothing now. Still, there's the chance, and you can't rightly blame him."

"Tom?" Hester's eyes opened wide.

"I know my own boy's writing, I should hope!" said Mrs. Trevarthen, with pardonable pride. "And good writing it is. Sally Butson says she never taught a boy whose hand did her more credit. But what's the matter? You'm as pale as a sheet almost!"

"I-I didn't know,"-stammered Hester, and checked herself.

"You've been over-tiring yourself, and to-night you'll just go off to bed early and leave the nursing to me. What didn' you know? That Tom was a scholar? A handsome scholar he'd have been, but for going to sea early when his father died. I wonder sometimes if he worries over it and the chances he missed. But Quebec's the postmark; and that means he's right and safe, thank the Lord! I don't fret so long as he's aboard a well-found ship. 'Twas his signing aboard the One-and-All-' Rosewarne's coffin,' they call her-that nigh broke me. He didn' let me know till two nights afore he sailed. 'Beggars can't be choosers,' he said; and afterwards I found out from Peter Benny that he'd covered his poor body with tattoo marks-his body that I've a-washed hundreds o' times, and loved to feel his legs kickin' agen' me. Beautiful skin he had as a child; soft as satin the feel of it, and not a blemish anywhere. 'Tis hard to think of it criss-crossed with them nasty marks. But there! thank the Lord God he's safe, this passage! Read me what he says, there's a kind soul; but you'll have to bear a child afore you know what I've a-been going through wi' that letter starin' me in the face."

Hester, resting a shoulder against one of the oaken pillars of the gallery, where the sunshine touched her face with colour, broke the seal.

"Here is an enclosure-a post-office order for fifty shillings."

"God bless him! 'tis Welcome; though I could have made shift at a pinch. Peter Benny manages these things for me," said Mrs. Trevarthen, folding it lengthwise and inserting it between the buttons of her bodice. What she meant was that Mr. Benny as a rule attested her mark and brought her the money from the post-office. But Hester, busy with her own thoughts, scarcely heard. Why had Tom Trevarthen pretended to her that he could not write? Why had he trapped her into writing a letter for him-and to this Harriet, whoever she might be? She unfolded the letter and read, in bold, clear penmanship-

Quebec, 14th February 1872.

"My dear Mother,-This is to enclose what I can, and to tell you we arrived yesterday after a fair passage, and dropped hook in the Basin below Quebec; all on board well and hearty, including Miss Myra and Master Clem. But between ourselves the old man won't last many more trips. His head is weakening, and Mrs. Purchase, though she won't own to it, is fairly worn with watching him. We hadn't scarcely cleared the Channel before we ran into dirty weather, with the wind to N.W. and rising. We looked, of course, for the old man to shorten sail and send her along easy, he being noted for caution. But not a bit of it. The second day out he comes forward to me, that stood cocking an eye aloft and waiting for him to speak, and says he, 'This is not at all what I expected, but the Lord will provide;' and with that he pulled out a Bible from his pocket and tapped it, looking at me very knowing, and so walked aft and shut himself up in his cabin. Not another glimpse did we get of him for thirty-six hours, and no message on earth could fetch him up or persuade him to let us take a stitch off her. As for old Hewitt, that has been mate of her these fifteen years, and forgotten all he ever knew, except to do what he's told, not a rag would he shift on his own responsibility. There she was, with a new foretop-sail never stretched before, and almost all her canvas less than two years old, playing the mischief w

ith it all, let alone putting the ship in danger. At last, when she was fairly smothering herself and her topmasts bending like whips, up he pops, Bible in hand, and says he, with a look aloft and around, like a man more hurt than angry, 'Heavenly Father, this won't do! This here's a pretty state of things, Heavenly Father!' When the boys had eased her down a bit-at the risk of their lives it was-and the old man had disappeared below again, Mrs. Purchase came crawling aft to me in the wheelhouse, wet as a drowned rat; and there we had a talk-very confidential, though 'twas mostly carried on by shouting. The upshot was, she couldn't trust the old man's head. In his best days he'd have threaded the Virtuous Lady through a needle, and was capable yet; but with this craze upon him he was just as capable of casting the ship away for the fun of it. As for Hewitt, we found out his quality in the fogs of the Banks, when the skipper struck work again and let the dead-reckoning go to glory, telling us to consider the lilies. Hewitt took it over, and in two days had worked us south of our course by eighty odd miles. By the Lord's mercy, on the third day we could take our bearings, and so hauled up and fetch the Gulf; and here we are right and tight, and Mrs. Purchase gone ashore to ship a navigating officer for the passage home. But mates' certificates don't run cheap in these parts, as they do on Tower Hill, and the pilots tell me she'll be lucky if she gets what she wants for love or money.

"Dear mother, remember me to all the folks, and give my love to Granny Butson. Master Clem is putting on flesh wonderful, and I reckon the pair of them are in no hurry to get home to school.

"Talking of that, I would like to hear how the school gets along, and Miss Marvin-"

"Eh?" Mrs. Trevarthen interrupted. "Why, come to think of it, he's never heard of your coming to look after us, but reckons you'm still at the school-mistressing. And you standing there and reading out his very words! I call that a proper joke."

"-And that limb of ugliness, Rosewarne. But by the time this reaches you we shall be loaded and ready for sailing; so no news can I hear till I get home, and perhaps it is lucky. Good-bye now. If the world went right, it is not you would be living in the Widows' Houses, nor I that would be finding it hard to forgive folks; but as Nicky Vro used to say, 'Must thank the Lord, I reckon, that we be so well as we be.' No more at present from your loving son,"

"Tom."

"I don't understand the tail-end o' that," said Mrs. Trevarthen. "Would you mind reading it over again, my dear?-Well, well, you needn't to flush up so, that he finds it hard to forgive folks. Meanin' you, d'ee think? He don't speak unkindly of any but Rosewarne; and I don't mind that I've heard news of that varmint for a month past. Have you?"

Hester did not answer-scarcely even heard. The hand in which she held the letter fell limp at her side as she stood gazing across the quadrangle facing the sun, but with a soft, new-born light in her eyes, that did not owe its kindling there. Why had he played this trick on her? She could not explain, and yet she understood. For her he had meant that letter- yes, she was sure of it! To her, as though for another, he had spoken those words-she remembered every one of them. He had not dared to speak directly. And he had made her write them down. Foolish boy that he was, he had been cunning. Did she forgive him? She could not help forgiving; but it was foolish-foolish!

She put on her bonnet that evening and walked down to see Nuncey and have a talk with her; not to confide her secret, but simply because her elated spirit craved for a talk.

Greatly to her disappointment, Nuncey was out; nor could Mrs. Benny tell where the girl had gone, unless (hazarding a guess) she had crossed the ferry to her father's fine new office, to discuss fittings and furniture. Nuncey had dropped into the habit, since the days began to lengthen, of crossing the ferry after tea-time.

Hester decided to walk as far as the Passage Slip, on the chance of meeting her. Somewhat to her surprise, as she passed Broad Quay she almost ran into Master Calvin Rosewarne, idling there with his hands in his pockets, and apparently at a loose end.

"Calvin! Why, whatever are you doing here, on this side of the water?"

The boy-he had not the manners to take off his cap-eyed her for a moment with an air half suspicious and half defiant. "That's telling," he answered darkly, and added, after a pause, "Were you looking for anyone?"

"I was hoping to meet Nuncey Benny. She has gone across to her father's new office-or so Mrs. Benny thinks."

The boy grinned. "She won't be coming this way just yet, and she's not at the new office. But I'll tell you where to find her, if you'll let me come along with you." On their way to the ferry he looked up once or twice askance at her, as if half-minded to speak; but it was not until old Daddo had landed them on the farther shore that he seemed to find his tongue.

"Look here," he said abruptly, halting in the roadway, and regarding her from under lowering brows; "the last time you took me in lessons you told me to think less of myself and more of other people. Didn't you, now?"

"Well?" said Hester, preoccupied, dimly remembering that talk.

"Well, you seemed to forget your own teaching pretty easily when you walked out of Hall and left me there on the stream. Nice company you left me to, didn't you?"

"Your father,"-began Hester lamely.

"We won't talk of Dad. He's altered-I don't know how. I can't get on with him, though he's the only person hereabouts that don't hate me; I'll give him that credit. But I ask you, wasn't it pretty rough on a chap to haul him over the coals for selfishness, and then march out and leave him without another thought? And that's what you did."

"I am sorry." Hester's conscience accused her, and she was contrite. The child must have found life desperately dull.

"I forgive you," said Master Calvin, magnanimously, and resumed his walk. "I forgive you on condition you'll do a small job for me. When Myra turns up again-and sooner or later she'll turn up-I want you to give her a message."

"Very well; but why not give it yourself?"

"She don't speak to me, you know," he answered, stooping to pick up a stone and bowl it down the hill. It scattered a trio of ducks, gathered a few yards below and cluttering with their bills in the village stream, and he laughed as they waddled off in panic. "That's how I'm left to amuse myself," he said after a moment apologetically, but again half defiantly. "You've to tell Myra," he went on, picking up another stone, eyeing for an aim, and dropping it, "that I like her pluck, but she needn't have been in such a hurry to teach the head of the family. Will you remember that?"

"I will, although I don't know what you mean by it."

"Never you mind, but take her that message; Myra will understand."

He stepped ahead a few paces, as if unwilling to be questioned further. They passed the gate of Hall. Beyond it, at the foot of the Jacob's Ladder leading up to Parc-an-Hal, he whispered to her to halt, climbed with great caution, and disappeared behind the hedge of the great meadow; but by and by he came stealing back and beckoned to her.

"It's all right," he whispered; "only step softly."

Keeping close alongside the lower hedge, he led the way towards the great rick at the far corner of the field.

As they drew close to it he caught her arm and pulled her aside, pointing to her shadow, which the level sun had all but thrown beyond the rick.

"But what is the meaning of it?"

The question was on her lips when her ear caught the note of a voice- Nuncey's voice-and these words, low, and yet distinct-

"At the call 'Attention!' the whole body and head must be held erect, the chin slightly dropped, chest well open, shoulders square to the front, eyes looking straight forward. The arms must hang easily, with fingers and thumbs straight, close to one another and touching the thighs; the feet turned out at right angles or nearly. Now, please-'Tention!"-(a pause)-"You break my heart, you do! Eyes, I said, looking straight forward; and the weight of the body ought to rest on the front part of the foot-not tilted back on your heels and looking like a china cat in a thunderstorm. Now try again, that's a dear!"

Hester gazed around wildly at Calvin, who was twisting himself in silent contortions of mirth.

"Take a peep!" he gasped. "She's courting Archelaus Libby, and teaching him to look like a man."

"You odious child!" Hester, ashamed of her life to have been trapped into eavesdropping, and yet doubting her ears, strode past the edge of the rick and into full view.

Nuncey drew back with a cry.

"Hester Marvin!"

Hester's eyes travelled past her and rested on Archelaus. He, rigid at attention, caught and held there spellbound, merely rolled a pair of agonized eyes.

"Nuncey! Archelaus! What on earth are you two doing?"

"Learnin' him to be a Volunteer, be sure!" answered Nuncey, her face the colour of a peony. After an instant she dropped her eyes, her cheeks confessing the truth.

"But-but why?" Hester stared from one to the other.

"If he'd only be like other men!" protested Nuncey.

Hester ran to her with a happy laugh. "But you wouldn't wish him like other men!"

"I do, and I don't." Nuncey eluded her embrace, having caught the sound of ribald laughter on the other side of the rick. Darting around, she was in time to catch Master Calvin two cuffs, right and left, upon the ears. He broke for the gate and she pursued, but presently returned breathless.

"'Tis wonderful to me," she said, eyeing Archelaus critically and sternly, "how ever I come to listen to him. But he softened me by talking about you. He's a deal more clever than he seems, and I believe at this moment he likes you best."

"I don't!" said Archelaus firmly; "begging your pardon, Miss Marvin."

"I am sure you don't," laughed Hester.

"Well, anyway, I'll have to tell father now," said Nuncey; "for that imp of a boy will be putting it all round the parish."

But here Archelaus asserted himself. "That's my business," he said quietly. "It isn't any man's 'yes' or 'no' I'm afraid of, Miss Marvin, having stood up to her."

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