Read CHAPTER IX. - SALTASH FERRY. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

Apparently the hackney coachman was accustomed to difficulties with the toll-gate; for he rested on the box in profoundest slumber, recumbent, with his chin sunk on his chest; and only woke up ­with a start which shook the vehicle ­when a black hearse with plumes waving went rattling by us and back towards Plymouth.

A minute later Mr. Jope reappeared at the coach door, perspiring copiously, but triumphant.

“Oh, it’s been heavinly!” he announced.  “Why, hallo!  Where’s his Reverence?”

“He couldn’t wait, sir.  He ­he preferred to walk.”

“Eh?  I didn’t see ’en pass the toll-bar.  That’s a pity, too; for I wanted to take his opinion.  Oh, my son, it’s been heavinly!  First of all I tried argyment and called the toll-man a son of a bitch; and then he fetched up a constable, and, as luck would have it, Nan ­she’s in the second coach ­knew all about him; leastways, she talked as if she did.  Well, the toll-man stuck to his card of charges and said he hadn’t made the law, but it was threepence for everything on four wheels.  ‘Four wheels?’ I said.  ’Don’t talk so weak!  We brought nothing into the world and we can’t take it out; but you’d take the breeches off a Highlander,’ I says.  ’He’s on four wheels,’ says the fellow, stubborn as ever.  ‘So was Elijah,’ says I; ‘but if you’re so mighty particular, we’ll try ye another way.’  I paid off the crew of the hearse, gave the word to cast loose, and down we dumped poor Bill slap in the middle of the roadway.  ‘Now,’ says I, ’we’ll leave talking of wheels.  What’s your charge for ‘en on the flat?’ ‘Eight bearers at a ha’penny makes fourpence,’ he says.  ‘No, no, my son,’ I says, ’there ain’t a-going to be no bearers. He’s happy enough if he stops here all night.  You may charge ’en as a covered conveyance, as I see you’ve a right to; but the card says nothing about rate of drivin’, except that it mustn’t be reckless; and, you may lay to it, Bill won’t be that.’  At first the constable talked big about obstructing the traffic:  but Nan was telling the crowd such terrible things about his past that for very shame he grew quiet, and the pair agreed that, by lashin’ Bill a-top of the first coach, we might pass him through gratis as personal luggage ­Why, what’s the boy cryin’ for?  It’s all over now; and a principle’s a principle.”

But still, as the squadron got under way again and moved on amid the cheers of the populace, I sat speechless, dry-eyed, shaken with dreadful sobs.

“Easy, my lad ­don’t start the timbers.  In trouble ­hey?”

I nodded.

“I thought as much, when I shipped ye.  Sit up, and tell me; but first listen to this.  All trouble’s big to a boy, but one o’ your age don’t often do what’s past mendin’, if he takes it honest.  That’s comfort, hey?  Very well:  now haul up and inspect damages, and we’ll see what’s to be done.”

“It’s about a Jew, sir,” I stammered at length.

He nodded.  “Now we’re making headway.”

“He ­he was murdered.  I saw him ­”

“Look here,” said Mr. Jope, very grave but seemingly not astonished:  “hadn’t you best get under the seat?”

“I ­I didn’t do it, sir.  Really, I didn’t.”

“I’m not suggestin’ it,” said Mr. Jope.  “Still, all circumstances considered, I’d get under the seat.”

“If you wish it, sir.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that:  but ’tis my advice.”  And under the seat I crawled obediently.  “Now, then,” said he, with an absurd air of one addressing vacancy; “if you didn’ do it, who did?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Then where’s your difficulty?”

“But I saw a man staring in at the window ­it was upstairs in a room close to the roof; and afterwards I found him on the roof, and he was all of a tremble, and in two minds, so he said, about pitching me over.  I showed him the way down.  If you please, sir,” I broke off, “you’re not to tell anyone about this, whatever happens!”

“Eh?  Why not?”

“Because ­” I hesitated.

“Friend of yours?”

“Not a friend, sir.  He’s a young man, in the Army; and his aunt ­she used to be very kind to me.  I ran away at first because I was afraid:  but they can’t do anything to me, can they?  I didn’t find the ­the ­the ­Mr. Rodriguez, I mean ­until he was dead.  But if they catch me I shall have to give evidence, and Mr. Archie ­though I don’t believe he did it ­”

“Belay there!” commanded Mr. Jope!  “I’m beginning to see things clearer, though I won’t say ’tis altogether easy to follow ye yet.  Far as I can make out, you’re not a bad boy.  You ran away because you were scared.  Well, I don’t blame ye for that.  I never seen a dead Jew myself, though I often wanted to.  You won’t go back if you can help it, ’cos why?  ’Cos you don’t want to tell on a man:  ’cos his aunt’s a friend o’ yourn:  and ’cos you don’t believe he’s guilty.  What’s your name?”

“Harry, sir:  Harry Revel.”

“Well, then, my name’s Ben Jope, and as such you’ll call me.  I’m sorry, in a way, that it rhymes with ‘rope,’ which it never struck me before in all these years, and wouldn’t now but for thinkin’ ‘pon that ghastly godson o’ mine and how much better I stomach ye.  I promise nothing, mind:  but if you’ll keep quiet under that seat, I’ll think it over.”

Certainly, having made my confession, I felt easier in mind as I lay huddled under the seat, though it seemed to me that Mr. Jope took matters lightly.  For the squadron ahead had resumed the singing of Tom Bowling and he sat humming a bar or two here and there with evident pleasure, and paused only to bow out of window and acknowledge the cheers of the passers-by.

At the end of five minutes, however, he spoke aloud again.

“The first thing,” he announced, “is to stay where you are.  Let me think, now ­Who seen you?  There’s the parson:  he’s gone.  And there’s the jarvey:  he’s drunk as a lord.  Anyone else?”

“There was one of the young ladies that looked out of window.”

“True:  then ’tis too risky.  When the company gets out, you’ll have to get out.  Let the jarvey see you do it:  the rest don’t matter.  You can pretend to walk with us a little way, then slip back and under the seat again ­takin’ care that this time the jarvey don’t see you.  That’s easy enough, eh?”

I assured him I could manage it.

“Then leave the rest to me, and bide still.  I got to think of Bill, now; and more by token here’s the graveyard gate!”

He thrust the door open and motioned me to tumble out ahead of him.  As the rest of the funeral guests alighted, he worked me very skilfully before him into the driver’s view, having taken care to set the coach door wide on the off side.

“It’s understood that you wait, all o’ ye?” said Mr. Jope to the driver.

The man lifted a lazy eye.  “Take your time,” he said:  “don’t mind me.  I hope “ ­he stiffened himself suddenly ­“I knows a gentleman when I sees one.”

Mr. Jope turned away and from that moment ignored my existence.  The coffin was unlashed and lowered from the leading coach; the clergyman at the gate began to recite the sacred office, and the funeral train, reduced to decorum by his voice, followed him as he turned, and trooped along the path towards the mortuary chapel.  I moved with the crowd to its porch, drew aside to make way for a lady in rouge and sprigged muslin, and slipped behind the chapel wall.  The far end of it hid me from the view of the coaches, and from it a pretty direct path led to a gap in the hedge, and a stile.  Reaching and crossing this, I found myself in a by-lane leading back into the high road.  There were no houses with windows to overlook me.  I sauntered around at leisure, took the line of coaches in the rear, and crawled back to my hiding-place ­it astonished me with what ease.  Every driver sat on his box, and every driver slumbered.

The mystery of this was resolved when ­it seemed an hour later; but actually, I dare say, Bill’s obsequies took but the normal twenty minutes or so ­Mr. Jope shepherded his flock back through the gates and, red-eyed, addressed them while he distributed largess along the line of jarveys.

“I thank ye, friends,” said he in a muffled voice which at first I attributed to emotion.  “The fare home is paid to the foot of George Street ­I arranged that with the jobmaster, and this here little gift is private, between me and the drivers, to drink Bill’s health.  And now I’ll shake hands.”  Here followed sounds of coughing and choking, and he resumed in feeble gasping sentences, “Thank ye, my dear; I’ve brought up the two guineas, but you’ve a-made me swallow my quid o’ baccy.  Hows’ever, you meant it for the best.  And that’s what I had a mind to say to ye all.”  His voice grew firmer ­“You’re a pleasant lot, and we’ve spent the time very lively and sociable, and you done this here last service to Bill in a way that brings tears to my eyes.  Still, if you won’t mind my saying it, a little of ye lasts a long time, and I’m going home to live clean.  So here’s wishing all well, and good-bye!”

Not one of the party seemed to resent this dismissal.  The women laughed hilariously and called him a darling.  There was a smacking exchange of kisses; and the coaches, having been packed at length, started for home to the strains of the cornet and a chorus of cheers.  Mr. Jope sprang in beside me, and leaning out of the farther window, waved his neckerchief for a while, then pensively readjusted it, and called to the driver ­

“St. Budeaux!”

The driver, after a moment, turned heavily in his seat, and answered, “Nonsense!”

“I tell ye, I want to drive to St. Budeaux, by Saltash Ferry.”

“And I tell you, ‘Get out!’ St. Budeaux?  The idea!”

“Why, what’s wrong with St. Budeaux?”

“Oh, I’m not goin’ to argue with you,” said the driver.  “I’m goin’ home.”

And he began to turn his horse’s head.  Mr. Jope sprang out upon the roadway.  The driver, with sudden and unexpected agility, dropped off ­on the other side.

“Look here, it’s grindin’ the faces of the poor!” he pleaded, breathing hard.

“It will be,” assented Mr. Jope grimly.

“I been up all night:  at a ball.”

“If it comes to that, so’ve I:  at Symonds’s.”

“Mine was at Admiralty House,” said the driver.  “I wasn’ dancin’.”

“What about the horse?”

“The horse? the ho ­Oh, I take your meanin’!  The horse is all right:  he’s a fresh one.  Poor I may be,” he announced inconsecutively, “but I wouldn’ live the life of one of them there women of fashion, not for a million of money.”  He ruminated for a moment.  “Did I say a million?”

“You did.”

“Well I don’t wishaggerate.  I don’t, if you understand me, wish ­to ­exaggerate:  so we’ll put it at half a million.”

“All right:  jump up!”

To my astonishment, no less than to Mr. Jope’s (who had scarcely time to skip back into the coach), the man scrambled up to his seat without more ado, flicked his whip, and began to urge the horse forward.  At the end of five minutes or so, however, he pulled up just as abruptly.

“Eh?” Mr. Jope put forth his head.  “Ah, I see ­public-house!”

He alighted, and entered; returned with a pot of porter in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other; dexterously tipped half the brandy into the porter, and handed up the mixture.  The driver took it down at one steady draught.

The pot and glass were returned and we jogged on again.  We were now well beyond the outskirts of Stoke and between dusty hedges over which the honeysuckle trailed.  Butterflies poised themselves and flickered beside us, and the sun, as it climbed, drew up from the land the fragrance of freshly mown hay and mingled it with the stuffy odour of the coach.  By and by we halted again, by another roadside inn, and again Mr. Jope fetched forth and administered insidious drink.

“If this is going to last,” said the charioteer dreamily, “may I have strength to see the end o’t!”

I did not catch this prayer, but Mr. Jope reported it to me as he resumed his seat, with an ill-timed laugh.  The fellow, who had been gathering up his reins, lurched round suddenly and gazed in through the glass front.

“You was sayin’?” he demanded.

“Nothing,” answered Mr. Jope hastily.  “I was talking to myself, that’s all.”

“The point is, Am I, or am I not, an objic of derision?”

“If you don’t drive on this moment, I’ll step around and punch your head.”

“Tha’s all right.  Tha’s right as ninepence.  It’s not much I arsk ­ only to have things clear.”  He drove on.

We halted at yet another public-house ­I remember its name, the Half a Face ­and must have journeyed a mile or so beyond it when the end came.  We had locked wheels in the clumsiest fashion with a hay-wagon; and the wagoner, who had quartered to give us room and to spare, was pardonably wroth.  Mr. Jope descended, pacified him, and stepped around to the back of the coach, the hinder axle of which, a moment later, I felt gently lifted beneath me and slewed clear of the obstruction.

“My word, mister, but you’ve a tidy strength!” exclaimed the wagoner.

“No more than you, my son ­if so much:  ’tain’t the strength, but the application.  That’s ‘Nelson’s touch.’  Ever heard of it?”

“I’ve heard of him, I should hope.  Look y’ here, mister, did you ever know him?  Honour bright, now!”

“Friends, my son:  dear, dear friends!  And the gentleman ’pon the box, there, drunk some of the very rum he was brought home in.  He’s never recovered it.”

“And to think of my meeting you!”

“Ay, ’tis a small world,” agreed Mr. Jope cheerfully:  “like a cook’s galley, small and cosy and no time to chat in it.  Now then, my slumb’ring ogre!”

The driver, who from the moment of the mishap had remained comatose, shook his reins feebly and we jogged forward.  But this was his last effort.  At the next sharp bend in the road he lurched suddenly, swayed for a moment, and toppled to earth with a thud.  The horse came to a halt.

Mr. Jope was out in a moment.  He glanced up and down the road.

“Tumble out, youngster!  There’s no one in sight.”

“Is ­is he hurt?”

“Blest if I know.”  He stooped over the prostrate body.  “Hurt?” he asked, and after a moment reported, “No, I reckon not:  talkin’ in his sleep, more like ­for the only word I can make out is ‘Jezebel.’  That don’t help us much, do it?” He scanned the road again.  “There’s only one thing to do.  I can’t drive ye:  I never steered yet with the tiller lines in front ­it al’ays seemed to me un-Christian.  We must take to the fields.  I used to know these parts, and by the bearings we can’t be half a mile above the ferry.  Here, through that gate to the left!”

We left the man lying and his horse cropping the hedgerow a few paces ahead; and struck off to the left, down across a field of young corn interspersed with poppies.  The broad estuary shone at our feet, with its beaches uncovered ­for the tide was low ­and across its crowded shipping I marked and recognised (for Mr. Trapp had often described them to me) a line of dismal prison-hulks, now disused, moored head to stern off a mudbank on the farther shore.

“Plain sailing, my lad,” panted Mr. Jope, as the cornfield threw up its heat in our faces.  “See, yonder’s Saltash!” He pointed up the river to a small town which seemed to run toppling down a steep hill and spread itself like a landslip at the base.  “I got a sister living there, if we can only fetch across; a very powerful woman; widowed, and sells fish.”

We took an oblique line down the hillside, and descended, some two or three hundred yards below the ferry, upon a foreshore firm for the most part and strewn with flat stones, but melting into mud by the water’s edge.  A small trading ketch lay there, careened as the tide had left her; but at no great angle, thanks to her flat-bottomed build.  A line of tattered flags, with no wind to stir them, led down from the truck of either mast, and as we drew near I called Mr. Jope’s attention to an immense bunch of foxgloves and pink valerian on her bowsprit end.

“Looks like a wedding, don’t it?” said he; and turning up his clean white trousers he strolled down to the water’s edge for a closer look.  “Scandalous,” he added, examining her timbers.

“What’s scandalous?”

He pointed with his finger.  “Rotten as touch”; and he pensively drew out an enormous clasp-knife.  “A man ought to be fined for treating human life so careless.  See here!”

He drove the knife at a selected spot, and the blade sank in to the hilt.

From the interior, prompt on the stroke, arose a faint scream.