The Ship of Stars/Chapter 15

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The Ship of Stars by A. T. Quiller-Couch
XV. Taffy's Apprenticeship


They could manage the carpentering now. And Jacky Pascoe, who, in addition to his other trades, was something of a glazier, had taken the damaged east window in hand. For six months it had remained boarded up, darkening the chancel. Mr. Raymond removed the boards and fixed them up again on the outside, and the Bryanite worked behind them night after night. He could only be spied upon through two lancet windows at the west end of the church, and these they curtained.

But what continually bothered them was their ignorance of iron-work. Staples, rivets, hinges were for ever wanted. At length, one evening, toward the end of March, the Bryanite laid down his tools.

"Tell 'ee what 'tis, Parson. You must send the boy to someone that'll teach en smithy-work. There's no sense in this cold hammering."

"Wheelwright Hocken holds his shop and cottage from the Squire."

"Why not put the boy to Mendarva the Smith, over to Benny Beneath? He's a first-rate workman."

"That is more than six miles away."

"No matter for that. There's Joll's Farm close by; Farmer Joll would board and lodge en for nine shillings a week, and glad of the chance; and he could come home for Sundays."

Mr. Raymond, as soon as he reached home, sat down and wrote a letter to Mendarva the Smith and another to Farmer Joll. Within a week the bargains were struck, and it was settled that Taffy should go at once.

"I may be calling before long, to look you up," said the Bryanite, "but mind you do no more than nod when you see me."

Joll's Farm lay somewhere near Carwithiel, across the moor where Taffy had gone fishing with George and Honoria. On the Monday morning when he stepped through the white front gate, with his bag on his shoulder, and paused for a good look at the building, it seemed to him a very comfortable farmstead, and vastly superior to the tumble-down farms around Nannizabuloe. The flagged path, which led up to the front door between great bunches of purple honesty, was swept as clean as a dairy.

A dark-haired maid opened the door and led him to the great kitchen at the back. Hams wrapped in paper hung from the rafters, and strings of onions. The pans over the fire-place were bright as mirrors, and through the open window he heard the voices of children at play as well as the clacking of poultry in the town-place.

"I'll go and tell the mistress," said the maid; but she paused at the door. "I suppose you don't remember me, now?"

"No," said Taffy truthfully.

"My name's Lizzie Pezzack. You was with the young lady, that day, when she bought my doll. I mind you quite well. But I put my hair up last Easter, and that makes a difference."

"Why, you were only a child!"

"I was seventeen last week. And—I say, do you know the Bryanite, over to St. Ann's—Preacher Jacky Pascoe?"

He nodded, remembering the caution given him.

"I got salvation off him. Master and mis'-ess they've got salvation too; but they take it very quiet. They're very fond of one another; if you please one, you'll please 'em both. They let me walk over to prayer-meetin' once a week. But I don't go by Mendarva's shop— that's where you work—though 'tis the shortest way; because there's a woman buried in the road there, with a stake through her, and I'm a terrible coward for ghosts."

She paused as if expecting him to say something; but Taffy was staring at a "neck" of corn, elaborately plaited, which hung above the mantel-shelf. And just then Mrs. Joll entered the kitchen.

Taffy—without any reason—had expected to see a middle-aged housewife. But Mrs. Joll was hardly over thirty; a shapely woman, with a plain, pleasant face and auburn hair, the wealth of which she concealed by wearing it drawn straight back from the forehead and plaited in the severest coil behind. She shook hands.

"You'll like a drink of milk before I show you your room?"

Taffy was grateful for the milk. While he drank it, the voices of the children outside rose suddenly to shouts of laughter.

"That will be their father come home," said Mrs. Joll, and going to the side door called to him. "John, put the children down! Mr. Raymond's son is here."

Mr. Joll, who had been galloping round the farmyard with a small girl of three on his back, and a boy of six tugging at his coat-tails, pulled up, and wiped his good-natured face.

"Kindly welcome," said he, coming forward and shaking hands, while the two children stared at Taffy.

After a minute the boy said, "My name's Bob. Come and play horses, too."

Farmer Joll looked at Taffy with a shyness that was comic. "Shall we?"

"Mr. Raymond will be tired enough already," his wife suggested.

"Not a bit," declared Taffy; and hoisting Bob on his back, he set off furiously prancing after the farmer.

By dinner-time he and the family were fast friends, and after dinner the farmer took him off to be introduced to Mendarva the Smith.

Mendarva's forge stood on a triangle of turf beside the high-road, where a cart-track branched off to descend to Joll's Farm in the valley. And Mendarva was a dark giant of a man with a beard like those you see on the statues of Nineveh. On Sundays he parted his beard carefully and tied the ends with little bows of scarlet ribbon; but on week days it curled at will over his mighty chest. He had one assistant whom he called "the Dane"; a red-haired youth as tall as himself and straighter from the waist down. Mendarva's knees had come together with years of poising and swinging his great hammer.

"He's little, but he'll grow," said he, after eyeing Taffy up and down. "Dane, come fore and tell me if we'll make a workman of en."

The Dane stepped forward and passed his hands over the boy's shoulders and down his ribs. "He's slight, but he'll fill out. Good pair o' shoulders. Give's hold o' your hand, my son."

Taffy obeyed; not very well liking to be handled thus like a prize bullock.

"Hand like a lady's. Tidy wrist, though. He'll do, master."

So Taffy was passed, given a leathern apron, and set to his first task of keeping the forge-fire raked and the bellows going, while the hammers took up the music he was to listen to for a year to come.

This music kept the day merry; and beyond the window along the bright high-road there was usually something worth seeing— farm-carts, jowters' carts, the doctor and his gig, pedlars and Johnny-fortnights, the miller's waggons from the valley-bottom below Joll's Farm, and on Tuesdays and Fridays the market-van going and returning. Mendarva knew or speculated upon everybody, and with half the passers-by broke off work and gave the time of day, leaning on his hammer. But down at the farm all was strangely quiet, in spite of the children's voices; and at night the quietness positively kept him awake, listening to the pur-r of the pigeons in their cote against the house-wall, thinking of his grandmother awake at home and harkening to the tick-tack of her tall clock. Often when he awoke to the early summer daybreak and saw through his attic-window the grey shadows of the sheep still and long on the slope above the farmstead, his ear was wanting something, asking for something; for the murmur of the sea never reached this inland valley. And he would lie and long for the chirruping of the two children in the next room and the drawing of bolts and clatter of milk-pails below stairs.

He had plenty to eat, and that plenty simple and good, and clean linen to sleep between. The kitchen was his except on Saturday nights, when Mrs. Joll and Lizzie tubbed the children there, and then he would carry his books off to the best parlour or stroll around the farm with Mr. Joll and discuss the stock. There were no loose rails in Mr. Joll's gates, no farm implements lying out in the weather to rust. Mr. Joll worked early and late, and his shoulders had a tell-tale stoop—for he was a man in the prime of life, perhaps some five years older than his wife.

One Saturday evening he unburdened his heart to Taffy. It happened at the end of the hay-harvest, and the two were leaning over a gate discussing the yet unthatched rick.

"What I say is," declared the farmer quite in-consequently, "a man must be able to lay his troubles 'pon the Lord. I don't mean his work, but his troubles; and go home and shut the door and be happy with his wife and children. Now, I tell you that for months—iss, years—after Bob was born I kept plaguing myself in the fields, thinking that some harm might have happened to the child. Why, I used to make an excuse and creep home, and then if I see'd a blind pulled down you wouldn't think how my heart'd go thump; and I'd stand wi' my head on the door-hapse an' say, 'If so be the Lord have took'n, I must go and comfort Susan—not my will, but Thine, Lord— but, Lord, don't 'ee be cruel this time!' And then find the cheeld right as ninepence and the blind only pulled down to keep the sun off the carpet. After a while my wife guessed what was wrong—I used to make up such poor twiddling pretences. She said, 'Look here, the Lord and me'll see after Bob; and if you can't keep to your own work without poking your nose into ours, then I married for worse and not for better.' Then it came upon me that by leaving the Lord to look after my job I'd been treating Him like a farm labourer. It's the things you can't help he looks after—not the work."

A few evenings later there came a knock at the door, and Lizzie, who went to open it, returned with the Bryanite skipping behind her.

"Blessings be upon this here house!" he cried, cutting a sort of double shuffle on the threshold. He shook hands with the farmer and his wife, and nodded toward Taffy. "So you've got Parson Raymond's boy here!"

"Yes," said Mrs. Joll; and turned to Taffy. "He've come to pray a bit: perhaps you would rather be in the parlour?"

Taffy asked to be allowed to stay; and presently Mr. Pascoe had them all down on their knees. He began by invoking God's protection on the household; but his prayer soon ceased to be a prayer. It broke into ejaculations of praise—"Friends, I be too happy to ask for anything—Glory, glory! The blood! The precious blood! O deliverance! O streams of redemption running!" The farmer and his wife began to chime in—"Hallelujah!" "Glory!" and Lizzie Pezzack to sob. Taffy, kneeling before a kitchen chair, peeped between his palms, and saw her shoulders heaving.

The Bryanite sprang to his feet, overturning the settle with a crash. "Tid'n no use. I must skip! Who'll dance wi' me?"

He held out his hands to Mrs. Joll. She took them, and skipped once shamefacedly. Lizzie, with flaming cheeks, pushed her aside. "Leave me try, mis'ess; I shall die if I don't." She caught the preacher's hands, and the two leapt about the kitchen. "I can dance higher than mis'ess!" Farmer Joll looked on with a dazed face. "Hallelujah!" "Amen!" he said at intervals, quite mechanically. The pair stood under the bacon rack and began to whirl like dervishes—hands clasped, toes together, bodies leaning back and almost rigid. They whirled until Taffy's brain whirled with them.

With a louder sob Lizzie let go her hold and tottered back into a chair, laughing hysterically. The Bryanite leaned against the table, panting.

There was a long pause. Mrs. Joll took a napkin from the dresser and fell to fanning the girl's face, then to slapping it briskly. "Get up and lay the table," she commanded; "the preacher'll stay to supper."

"Thank 'ee, ma'am, I don't care if I do," said he; and ten minutes later they were all seated at supper and discussing the fall in wheat in the most matter-of-fact voices. Only their faces twitched now and again.

"I hear you had the preacher down to Joll's last night," said Mendarva the Smith. "What'st think of en?"

"I can't make him out," was Taffy's colourless but truthful answer.

"He's a bellows of a man. I do hear he's heating up th' old Squire Moyle's soul to knack an angel out of en. He'll find that a job and a half. You mark my words, there'll be Dover over in your parish one o' these days."

During work-hours Mendarva bestowed most of his talk on Taffy. The Dane seldom opened his lips except to join in the anvil chorus—

Here goes one—
Sing, sing, Johnny!
Here goes two—
Sing, Johnny, sing!
Whack'n till he's red,
Whack'n till he's dead,
And whop! goes the widow with
A brand new ring!

And when the boy took a hammer and joined in he fell silent. Taffy soon observed that a singular friendship knit these two men, who were both unmarried. Mendarva had been a famous wrestler in his day, and his great ambition now was to train the other to win the County belt. Often after work the pair would try a hitch together on the triangle of turf, with Taffy for stickler, Mendarva illustrating and explaining, the Dane nodding seriously whenever he understood, but never answering a word. Afterwards the boy recalled these bouts very vividly—the clear evening sky, the shoulders of the two big men shining against the level sun as they gripped and swayed, their long shadows on the grass under which (as he remembered) the poor self-murdered woman lay buried.

He thought of her at night, sometimes, as he worked alone at the forge; for Mendarva allowed him the keys and use of the smithy overtime, in consideration of a small payment for coal. And then he blew his fire and hammered, with a couple of candles on the bench and a Homer between them; and beat the long hexameters into his memory. The incongruity of it never struck him. He was going to be a great man, and somehow this was going to be the way. These scraps of iron—these tools of his forging—were to grow into the arms and shield of Achilles. In its own time would come the magic moment, the shield find its true circumference and swing to the balance of his arm, proof and complete.

en d etithei thotamoio mega stheuos okeanoio
antuga pad pumatev sakeos puka poietoi… [1]

  1. Transcriber's note: Verse in Greek in the scan (p. 151)