The Ship of Stars/Chapter 29

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The Ship of Stars by A. T. Quiller-Couch
XXIX. The Ship of Stars

XXIX
THE SHIP OF STARS

Taffy guessed nothing of these passions in conflict, these weak agonies. He went about his daily work, a man grown, thinking his own thoughts; and these thoughts were of many things; but they held no room for the problem which meant everything in life to Honoria and Lizzie—yes, and to Humility, though it haunted her in less disturbing shape. Humility pondered it quietly with a mind withdrawn while her hands moved before her on the lace pillow; and pondering it, she resigned the solution to time. But it filled her thoughts constantly, none the less.

One noon Taffy returned from the light-house for his dinner to find a registered postal packet lying on the table. He glanced up and met his mother's gaze; but let the thing lie while he ate his meal, and having done, picked it up and carried it away with him unopened.

On the cliff-side, in a solitary place, he broke the seal. He guessed well enough what the packet contained: the silver medal procured for him by the too officious coroner. And the coroner, finding him obstinate against a public presentation, had forwarded the medal with an effusive letter. Taffy frowned over its opening sentences, and without reading farther crumpled the paper into a tight ball. He turned to examine the medal, holding it between finger and thumb; or rather, his eyes examined it while his brain ran back along the tangled procession of hopes and blunders, wrongs and trials and lessons hardly learnt, of which this mocking piece of silver symbolised the end and the reward. In that minute he saw Honoria and George, himself and Lizzie Pezzack as figures travelling on a road that stretched back to childhood; saw behind them the anxious eyes of his parents, Sir Harry's debonair smile, the sinister face of old Squire Moyle, malevolent yet terribly afraid; saw that the moving figures could not control their steps, that the watching faces were impotent to warn; saw finally beside the road other ways branching to left and right, and down these undestined and neglected avenues the ghosts of ambitions unattempted, lives not lived, all that might have been.

Well, here was the end of it, this ironical piece of silver.… With sudden anger he flung it from him; sent it spinning far out over the waters. And the sea, his old sworn enemy, took the votive offering. He watched it drop—drop; saw the tiny splash as it disappeared.

And with that he shut a door and turned a key. He had other thoughts to occupy him—great thoughts. The light-house was all but built. The Chief Engineer had paid a surprise visit, praised his work, and talked about another sea light soon to be raised on the North Welsh Coast; used words that indeed hinted, not obscurely, at promotion. And Taffy's blood tingled at the prospect. But, out of working hours, his thoughts were not of light-houses. He bought maps and charts. On Sundays he took far walks along the coast, starting at daybreak, returning as a rule long after dark, mired and footsore, and at supper too weary to talk with his mother, whose eyes watched him always.

******

It was a still autumn evening when Honoria came riding to visit Humility; the close of a golden day. Its gold lingered yet along the west and fell on the whitewashed doorway where Humility sat with her lace-work. Behind, in the east, purple and dewy, climbed the domed shadow of the world. And over all lay that hush which the earth only knows when it rests in the few weeks after harvest. Out here, on barren cliffs above the sea, folks troubled little about harvest. But even out here they felt and knew the hush.

In sight of the whitewashed cottages Honoria slipped down from her saddle, removed Aide-de-camp's bridle, and turned him loose to browse. With the bridle on her arm she walked forward alone. She came noiselessly on the turf, and with the click of the gate her shadow fell at Humility's feet. Humility looked up and saw her standing against the sunset, in her dark habit. Even in that instant she saw also that Honoria's face, though shaded, was more beautiful than of old. "More dangerous" she told herself; and rose, knowing that the problem was to be solved at last.

"Good-evening!" she said, rising. "Oh yes—you must come inside, please; but you will have to forgive our untidiness."

Honoria followed, wondering as of old at the beautiful manners which dignified Humility's simplest words.

"I heard that you were to go."

"Yes; we have been packing for a week past. To North Wales it is— a forsaken spot, no better than this. But I suppose that's the sort of spot where light-houses are useful."

The sun slanted in upon the packed trunks and dismantled walls; but it blazed also upon brass window-catches, fender-knobs, door-handles—all polished and flashing like mirrors.

"I am come," said Honoria, "now at the last—to ask your pardon."

"At the last?" Humility seemed to muse, staring down at one of the trunks; then went on as if speaking to herself. "Yes, yes, it has been a long time."

"A long injury—a long mistake; you must believe it was an honest mistake."

"Yes," said Humility gravely. "I never doubted you had been misled. God forbid I should ask or seek to know how."

Honoria bowed her head.

"And," Humility pursued, "we had put ourselves in the wrong by accepting help. One sees now it is always best to be independent; though at the time it seemed a fine prospect for him. The worst was our not telling him. That was terribly unfair. As for the rest— well, after all, to know yourself guiltless is the great thing, is it not? What others think doesn't matter in comparison with that. And then of course he knew that I, his mother, never believed the falsehood—no, not for a moment."


"But it spoiled his life?"

Now Humility had spoken, and still stood, with her eyes resting on the trunk. Beneath its lid, she knew, and on top of Taffy's books and other treasures, lay a parcel wrapped in tissue paper—a dog collar with the inscription "Honoria from Taffy." So, by lifting the lid of her thoughts a little—a very little—more, she might have given Honoria a glimpse of something which her actual answer, truthful as it was, concealed.

"No. I wouldn't say that. If it had spoilt his life—well, you have a child of your own and can understand. As it is, it has strengthened him, I think. He will make his mark—in a different way. Just now he is only a foreman among masons; but he has a career opening. Yes, I can forgive you at last."

And, being Humility, she had spoken the truth. But being a woman, even in the act of pardon she could not forego a small thrust, and in giving must withhold something.

And Honoria, being a woman, divined that something was withheld.

"And Taffy—your son—do you think that he——?"

"He never speaks, if he thinks of it. He will be here presently. You know—do you not? they are to light the great lantern on the new lighthouse to-night for the first time. The men have moved in, and he is down with them making preparations. You have seen the notices of the Trinity Board? They have been posted for months. Taffy is as eager over it as a boy; but he promised to be back before sunset to drink tea with me in honour of the event; and afterwards I was to walk down to the cliff with him to see."

"Would you mind if I stayed?"

Humility considered before answering. "I had rather you stayed. He's like a boy over this business; but he's a man, after all." After this they fell into quite trivial talk, while Humility prepared the tea things.

"Your mother—Mrs. Venning—how does she face the journey?"

"You must see her," said Humility, smiling, and led her into the room where the old lady reclined in bed, with a flush on each waxen cheek. She had heard their voices.

"Bless you"—she was quite cheerful—"I'm ready to go as far as they'll carry me! All I ask is that in the next place they'll give me a window where I can see the boy's lamp when he's built it."

Humility brought in the table and tea-things, and set them out by the invalid's bed. She went out into the kitchen to look to the kettle. In that pause Honoria found it difficult to meet Mrs. Venning's eyes; but the old lady was wise enough to leave grudges to others. It was enough, in the time left to her, to accept what happened and leave the responsibility to Providence.

Honoria, replying but scarcely listening to her talk, heard a footfall at the outer door—Taffy's footfall; then the click of a latch and Humility's voice saying, "There's a visitor inside; come to take tea with you."

"A visitor?" He was standing in the doorway. "You?" He blushed in his surprise.

Honoria rose. "If I may," she said, and wondered if she might hold out a hand.

But he held out his, quite frankly, and laughed. "Why, of course. They will be lighting up in half an hour. We must make haste."

Once or twice during tea he stole a glance from Honoria to his mother; and each time fondly believed that it passed undetected. His talk was all about the light-house and the preparations there, and he rattled on in the highest spirits. Two of the women knew, and the third guessed, that this chatter was with him unwonted.

At length he too seemed to be struck by this. "But what nonsense I'm talking!" he protested, breaking off midway in a sentence and blushing again. "I can't help it, though. I'm feeling just as big as the light-house to-night, with my head wound up and turning round like the lantern!"

"And your wit occulting," suggested Honoria, in her old light manner. "What is it?—three flashes to the minute?"

He laughed and hurried them from the tea-table. Mrs. Venning bade them a merry good-bye as they took leave of her.

"Come along, mother."

But Humility had changed her mind. "No," said she. "I'll wait in the doorway. I can just see the lantern from the garden gate, you know. You two can wait by the old light-house, and call to me when the time comes."

She watched them from the doorway as they took the path toward the cliff, toward the last ray of sunset fading across the dusk of the sea. The evening was warm, and she sat bareheaded with her lace-work on her knee; but presently she put it down.

"I must be taking to spectacles soon," she said to herself. "My eyes are not what they used to be."

******

Taffy and Honoria reached the old light-house and halted by its white-painted railing. Below them the new pillar stood up in full view, young and defiant. A full tide lapped its base, feeling this comely and untried adversary as a wrestler shakes hands before engaging. And from its base the column, after a gentle inward curve—enough to give it a look of lissomeness and elastic strength— sprang upright straight and firm to the lantern, ringed with a gallery and capped with a cupola of copper not yet greened by the weather; in outline as simple as a flower, in structure to the understanding eye almost as subtly organised, adapted and pieced into growth.

"So that is your ambition now?" said Honoria, after gazing long. She added, "I do not wonder."

"It does not stop there, I'm afraid." There was a pause, as though her words had thrown him into a brown study.

"Look!" she cried. "There is someone in the lantern—with a light in his hand. He is lighting up!"

Taffy ran back a pace or two toward the cottage and shouted, waving his hand. In a moment Humility appeared at the gate and waved in answer, while the strong light flashed seaward. They listened; but if she called, the waves at their feet drowned her voice.

They turned and gazed at the light, counting, timing the flashes; two short flashes with but five seconds between, then darkness for twenty seconds, and after it a long steady stare.

Abruptly he asked, "Would you care to cross over and see the lantern?"

"What, in the cradle?"

"I can work it easily. It's not dangerous in the least; a bit daunting, perhaps."

"But I'm not easily frightened, you know. Yes, I should like it greatly."

They descended the cliff to the cable. The iron cradle stood ready as Taffy had left it when he came ashore. She stepped in lightly, scarcely touching for a second the hand he put out to guide her.

"Better sit low," he advised; and she obeyed, disposing her skirts on the floor caked with dry mud from the workmen's boots. He followed her, and launched the cradle over the deep twilight.

A faint breeze—there had been none perceptible on the ridge—played off the face of the cliffs. The forward swing of the cradle, too, raised a slight draught of air. Honoria plucked off her hat and veil and let it fan her temples.

Half-way across, she said, "Isn't it like this—in mid-air over running water—that the witches take their oaths?"

Taffy ceased pulling on the rope. "The witches? Yes, I remember something of the sort."

"And a word spoken so is an oath and lasts for ever. Very well; answer me what I came to ask you to-night."

"What is that?" But he knew.

"That when—you know—when I tell you I was deceived … you will forgive." Her voice was scarcely audible.

"I forgive."

"Ah, but freely? It is only a word I want; but it has to last me like an oath."

"I forgive you freely. It was all a mistake."

"And you have found other ambitions! And they satisfy you?"

He laughed and pulled at the rope again. "They ought to," he answered gaily, "they're big enough. Come and see."

The seaward end of the cable was attached to a doorway thirty feet above the base of the lighthouse. One of the under-keepers met them here with a lantern. He stared when he caught sight of the second figure in the cradle, but touched his cap to the mistress of Carwithiel.

"Here's Mrs. Vyell, Trevarthen, come to do honour to our opening night."

"Proudly welcome, ma'am," said Trevarthen. "You'll excuse the litter we're in. This here's our cellar, but you'll find things more ship-shape upstairs. Mind your head, ma'am, with the archway—better let me lead the way perhaps."

The archway was indeed low, and they were forced to crouch and almost crawl up the first short flight of steps. But after this Honoria, following Trevarthen's lantern round and up the spiral way, found the roof heightening above her, and soon emerged into a gloomy chamber fitted with cupboards and water-tanks—the provision room. From this a ladder led straight up through a man-hole in the ceiling to the light-room store, set round with shining oil-tanks and stocked with paint-pots, brushes, cans, signalling flags, coils of rope, bags of cotton waste, tool-chests.… A second ladder brought them to the kitchen, and a third to the sleeping-room; and here the light of the lantern streamed down on their heads through the open man-hole above them. They heard, too, the roar of the ventilator, and the ting-ting, regular and sharp, of the small bell reporting that the machinery revolved.

Above, in the blaze of the great lenses, old Pezzack and the second under-keeper welcomed them. The pair had been watching and discussing the light with true professional pride; and Taffy drew up at the head of the ladder and stared at it, and nodded his slow approbation. The glare forced Honoria back against the glass wall, and she caught at its lattice for support.

But she pulled herself together, ashamed of her weakness, and glad that Taffy had not perceived it.

"This satisfies you?" she whispered.

He faced round on her with a slow smile. "No," he said, "this light-house is useless."

"Useless?"

"You remember the wreck—that wreck—the Samaritan? She came ashore beneath here; right beneath our feet; by no fault or carelessness. A light-house on a coast like this—a coast without a harbour—is a joke set in a death-trap, to make game of dying men."

"But since the coast has no harbour——"

"I would build one. Look at this," he pulled a pencil and paper from his pocket and rapidly sketched the outlines of the Bristol Channel. "What is that? A bag. Suppose a vessel taken in the mouth of it; a bag with death along the narrowing sides and death waiting at the end—no deep-water harbour—no chance anywhere. And the tides! You know the rhyme—

'From Padstow Point to Lundy Light
Is a watery grave by day or night.'

Yes, there's Lundy"—he jotted down the position of the island— "Hit off the lee of Lundy, if you can, and drop hook, and pray God it holds!"

"But this harbour? What would it cost?"

"I dare say a million of money; perhaps more. But I work it out at less—at Porthquin, for instance, or Lundy itself, or even at St. Ives."

"A million!" she laughed. "Now I see the boy I used to know—the boy of dreams."

He turned on her gravely. She was exceedingly beautiful, standing there in her black habit, bareheaded in the glare of the lenses, standing with head thrown back, with eyes challenging the past, and a faint glow on either cheek. But he had no eyes for her beauty.

He opened his lips to speak. Yes, he could overwhelm her with statistics and figures, all worked out; of shipping and disasters to shipping; of wealth and senseless waste of wealth. He could bury her beneath evidence taken by Royal Commission and Parliamentary Committee, commissioners' reports, testimony of shipowners and captains; calculated tables of tides, sets of currents, prevailing winds; results of surveys hydrographical; all the mass of facts he had been accumulating and brooding over for eighteen long months. But the weight of it closed his lips, and when he opened them again it was to say, "Yes, that is my dream."

At once he turned his talk upon the light revolving in their faces; began to explain the lenses and their working in short, direct sentences. She heard his voice, but without following.

Pezzack and the under-keeper had drawn apart to the opposite side of the cage and were talking together. The lantern hid them, but she caught the murmur of their voices now and again. She was conscious of having let something slip—slip away from her for ever. If she could but recall him, and hold him to his dream! But this man, talking in short sentences, each one so sharp and clear, was not the Taffy she had known or could ever know.

In the blaze of the lenses suddenly she saw the truth. He and she had changed places. She who had used to be so practical—she was the dreamer now; had come thither following a dream, walking in a dream. He, the dreaming boy, had become the practical man, firm, clear-sighted, direct of purpose; with a dream yet in his heart, but a dream of great action, a dream he hid from her, certainly a dream in which she had neither part nor lot. And yet she had made him what he was; not willingly, not by kindness, but by injustice. What she had given he had taken; and was a stranger to her.

Muffled wings and white breasts began to beat against the glass. A low-lying haze—a passing stratum of sea-fog—had wrapped the light-house for a while, and these were the wings and breasts of sea-birds attracted by the light. To her they were the ghosts of dead thoughts—stifled thoughts—thoughts which had never come to birth—trying to force their way into the ring of light encompassing and enwrapping her; trying desperately, but foiled by the transparent screen.

Still she heard his voice, level and masterful, sure of his subject. In the middle of one of his sentences a sharp thud sounded on the pane behind her, as sudden as the crack of a pebble and only a little duller.

"Ah, what is that?" she cried, and touched his arm.

He thrust open one of the windows, stepped out upon the gallery, and returned in less than a minute with a small dead bird in his hand.

"A swallow," he said. "They have been preparing to fly for days. Summer is done, with our work here."

She shivered. "Let us go back," she said.

They descended the ladders. Trevarthen met them in the kitchen and went before them with his lantern. In a minute they were in the cradle again and swinging toward the cliff. The wisp of sea-fog had drifted past the light-house to leeward, and all was clear again. High over the cupola Cassiopeia leaned toward the pole, her breast flashing its eternal badge—the star-pointed W. Low in the north—as the country tale went—tied to follow her emotions, externally separate, eternally true to the fixed star of her gaze, the Waggoner tilted his wheels and drove them close and along and above the misty sea.

Taffy, pulling on the rope, looked down upon Honoria's upturned face and saw the glimmer of starlight in her eyes; but neither guessed her thoughts nor tried to.

It was only when they stood together on the cliff-side that she broke the silence. "Look," she said, and pointed upward. "Does that remind you of anything?"

He searched his memory. "No," he confessed: "that is, if you mean Cassiopeia up yonder."

"Think!—the Ship of Stars."

"The Ship of Stars?—Yes, I remember now. There was a young sailor— with a ship of stars tattooed on his chest. He was drowned on this very coast."

"Was that a part of the story you were to tell me?"

"What story? I don't understand."

"Don't you remember that day—the morning when we began lessons together? You explained the alphabet to me, and when we came to W— you said it was a ship—a ship of stars. There was a story about it, you said, and promised to tell me some day."

He laughed. "What queer things you remember!"

"But what was the story?"

"I wonder! If I ever knew, I've forgotten. I dare say I had something in my head. Now I think of it, I was always making up some foolish tale or other, in those days."

Yes; he had forgotten. "I have often tried to make up a story about that ship," she said gravely, "out of odds and ends of the stories you used to tell. I don't think I ever had the gift to invent anything on my own account. But at last, after a long while——"

"The story took shape? Tell it to me, please."

She hesitated, and broke into a bitter little laugh. "No," said she, "you never told me yours." Again it came to her with a pang that he and she had changed places. He had taken her forthrightness and left her, in exchange, his dreams. They were hers now, the gaily coloured childish fancies, and she must take her way among them alone. Dreams only! but just as a while back he had started to confess his dream and had broken down before her, so now in turn she knew that her tongue was held.

******

Humility rose as they entered the kitchen together. A glance as Honoria held out her hand for good-bye told her all she needed to know.

"And you are leaving in a day or two?" Honoria asked.

"Thursday next is the day fixed."

"You are very brave."

Again the two women's eyes met, and this time the younger understood. Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall he my people, and thy God my God—that which the Moabitess said for a woman's sake women are saying for men's sakes by thousands every day.

Still holding her hand, Humility drew Honoria close. "God deal kindly with you, my dear," she whispered, and kissed her.

At the gate Honoria blew a whistle, and after a few seconds Aide-de-camp came obediently out of the darkness to be bridled. This done, Taffy lent his hand and swung her into the saddle. "Good-night and good-bye!"

Taffy was the first to turn back from the gate. The beat of Aide-de-camp's hoofs reminded him of something—some music he had once heard; he could not remember where.

Humility lingered a moment longer, and followed to prepare her son's supper.

But Honoria, fleeing along the ridge, hugged one fierce thought in her defeat. The warm wind sang by her ears, the rhythm of Aide-de-camp's canter thudded upon her brain; but her heart cried back on them and louder than either—

"He is mine, mine, mine! He is mine, and always will be. He is lost to me, but I possess him. For what he is I have made him, and at my cost he is strong."


THE END