Read CHAPTER XXII. - MEN AS TOWERS. of The Ship of Stars, free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

It was May morning, and Taffy made one of the group gathered on the roof of Magdalen Tower.  In the groves below and across the river meadows all the birds were singing together.  Beyond the glimmering suburbs, St. Clement’s and Cowley St. John, over the dark rise by Bullingdon Green, the waning moon seemed to stand still and wait, poised on her nether horn.  Below her the morning sky waited, clean and virginal, letting her veil of mist slip lower and lower until it rested in folds upon Shotover.  While it dropped a shaft of light tore through it and smote flashing on the vane high above Taffy’s head, turning the dark side of the turrets to purple and casting lilac shadows on the surplices of the choir.  For a moment the whole dewy shadow of the tower trembled on the western sky, and melted and was gone as a flood of gold broke on the eastward-turned faces.  The clock below struck five and ceased.  There was a sudden baring of heads; a hush; and gently, borne aloft on boys’ voices, clear and strong, rose the first notes of the hymn ­

     “Te Deum Patrem colimus,
      Te laudibus prosequimur,
      Qui corpus cibo reficis,
      Coelesti mentem gratia.”

In the pauses Taffy heard, faint and far below, the noise of cowhorns blown by the street boys gathered at the foot of the tower and beyond the bridge.  Close beside him a small urchin of a chorister was singing away with the face of an ecstatic seraph; whence that ecstasy arose the urchin would have been puzzled to tell.  There flashed into Taffy’s brain the vision of the whole earth lauding and adoring ­ sun-worshippers and Christians, priests and small children; nation after nation prostrating itself and arising to join the chant ­ “the differing world’s agreeing sacrifice.”  Yes, it was Praise that made men brothers; Praise, the creature’s first and last act of homage to his Creator; Praise that made him kin with the angels.  Praise had lifted this tower; had expressed itself in its soaring pinnacles; and he for the moment was incorporate with the tower and part of its builder’s purpose.  “Lord, make men as towers!” ­he remembered his father’s prayer in the field by Tewkesbury, and at last he understood.  “All towers carry a lamp of some kind” ­why, of course they did.  He looked about him.  The small chorister’s face was glowing ­

     “Triune Deus, hominum
      Salutis auctor optime,
      Immensum hoc mysterium
      Ovante lingua canimus!”

Silence ­and then with a shout the tunable bells broke forth, rocking the tower.  Someone seized Taffy’s college cap and sent it spinning over the battlements.  Caps?  For a second or two they darkened the sky like a flock of birds.  A few gowns followed, expanding as they dropped, like clumsy parachutes.  The company ­all but a few severe dons and their friends ­tumbled laughing down the ladder, down the winding stair, and out into sunshine.  The world was pagan after all.

At breakfast Taffy found a letter on his table, addressed in his mother’s hand.  As a rule she wrote twice a week, and this was not one of the usual days for hearing from her.  But nothing was too good to happen that morning.  He snatched up the letter and broke the seal.

“My dearest boy,” it ran, “I want you home at once to consult with me.  Something has happened (forgive me, dear, for not preparing you; but the blow fell on me yesterday so suddenly) ­something which makes it doubtful, and more than doubtful, that you can continue at Oxford.  And something else they say has happened which I will never believe in unless I hear it from my boy’s lips.  I have this comfort, at any rate, that he will never tell me a falsehood.  This is a matter which cannot be explained by letter, and cannot wait until the end of term.  Come home quickly, dear; for until you are here I can have no peace of mind.”

So once again Taffy travelled homewards by the night mail.

“Mother, it’s a lie!”

Taffy’s face was hot, but he looked straight into his mother’s eyes.  She too was rosy-red:  being ever a shamefast woman.  And to speak of these things to her own boy ­

“Thank God!” she murmured, and her fingers gripped the arms of her chair.

“It’s a lie!  Where is the girl?”

“She is in the workhouse, I believe.  I don’t know who spread it, or how many have heard.  But Honoria believes it.”

“Honoria!  She cannot ­” He came to a sudden halt.  “But, mother, even supposing Honoria believes it, I don’t see ­”

He was looking straight at her.  Her eyes sank.  Light began to break in on him.

“Mother!”

Humility did not look up.

“Mother!  Don’t tell me that she ­that Honoria ­”

“She made us promise ­your father and me. . . .  God knows it did no more than repay what your father had suffered. . . .  Your future was everything to us. . . .”

“And I have been maintained at Oxford by her money,” he said, pausing in his bitterness on every word.

“Not by that only, Taffy!  There was your scholarship . . . and it was true about my savings on the lace-work. . . .”

But he brushed her feeble explanations away with a little gesture of impatience.  “Oh why, mother? ­Oh why?”

She heard him groan and stretched out her arms.

“Taffy, forgive me ­forgive us!  We did wrongly, I see ­I see it as plain now as you.  But we did it for your sake.”

“You should have told me.  I was not a child.  Yes, yes, you should have told me.”

Yes; there lay the truth.  They had treated him as a child when he was no longer a child.  They had swathed him round with love, forgetting that boys grow and demand to see with their own eyes and walk on their own feet.  To every mother of sons there comes sooner or later the sharp lesson which came to Humility that morning; and few can find any defence but that which Humility stammered, sitting in her chair and gazing piteously up at the tall youth confronting her:  “I did it for your sake.”  Be pitiful, oh accusing sons, in that hour!  For, terrible as your case may be against them, your mothers are speaking the simple truth.

Taffy took her hand.  “The money must be paid back, every penny of it.”

“Yes, dear.”

“How much?”

Humility kept a small account-book in the work-box beside her.  She opened the pages, but, seeing his outstretched hand, gave it obediently to Taffy, who took it to the window.

“Almost two hundred pounds.”  He knit his brows and began to drum with his fingers on the window-pane.  “And we must put the interest at five per cent. . . .  With my first in Moderations I might find some post as an usher in a small school. . . .  There’s an agency which puts you in the way of such things:  I must look up the address. . . .  We will leave this house, of course.”

“Must we?”

“Why of course we must.  We are living here by her favour.  A cottage will do ­only it must have four rooms, because of grandmother. . . .  I will step over and talk with Mendarva.  He may be able to give me a job.  It will keep me going, at any rate, until I hear from the agency.”

“You forget that I have over forty pounds a year ­or, rather, mother has.  The capital came from the sale of her farm, years ago.”

“Did it?” said Taffy grimly.  “You forget that I have never been told.  Well, that’s good, so far as it goes.  But now I’ll step over and see Mendarva.  If only I could catch this cowardly lie somewhere on my way!”

He kissed his mother, caught up his cap, and flung out of the house.  The sea breeze came humming across the sandhills.  He opened his lungs to it, and it was wine to his blood; he felt strong enough to slay dragons.  “But who could the liar be?  Not Lizzie herself, surely!  Not ­”

He pulled up short in a hollow of the towans.

“Not ­George?”

Treachery is a hideous thing; and to youth so incomprehensibly hideous that it darkens the sun.  Yet every trusting man must be betrayed.  That was one of the lessons of Christ’s life on earth.  It is the last and severest test; it kills many, morally, and no man who has once met and looked it in the face departs the same man, though he may be a stronger one.

Not George?

Taffy stood there so still that the rabbits crept out and, catching sight of him, paused in the mouths of their burrows.  When at length he moved on it was to take, not the path which wound inland to Mendarva’s, but the one which led straight over the higher moors to Carwithiel.

It was between one and two o’clock when he reached the house and asked to see Mr. and Mrs. George Vyell, They were not at home, the footman said; had left for Falmouth the evening before to join some friends on a yachting cruise.  Sir Harry was at home; was, indeed, lunching at that moment; but would no doubt be pleased to see Mr. Raymond.

Sir Harry had finished his lunch, and sat sipping his claret and tossing scraps of biscuits to the dogs.

“Hullo, Raymond! ­thought you were in Oxford.  Sit down, my boy; delighted to see you.  Thomas, a knife and fork for Mr. Raymond.  The cutlets are cold, I’m afraid; but I can recommend the cold saddle, and the ham ­it’s a York ham.  Go to the sideboard and forage for yourself.  I wanted company.  My boy and Honoria are at Falmouth yachting, and have left me alone.  What, you won’t eat?  A glass of claret, then, at any rate.”

“To tell the truth, Sir Harry,” Taffy began awkwardly.  “I’ve come on a disagreeable business.”

Sir Harry’s face fell.  He hated disagreeable business.  He flipped a piece of biscuit at his spaniel’s nose and sat back, crossing his legs.

“Won’t it keep?”

“To me it’s important.”

“Oh, fire away then:  only help yourself to the claret first.”

“A girl ­Lizzie Pezzack, living over at Langona ­has had a child born ­”

“Stop a moment.  Do I know her? ­Ah, to be sure ­daughter of old Pezzack, the light-keeper ­a brown-coloured girl with her hair over her eyes.  Well, I’m not surprised.  Wants money, I suppose?  Who’s the father?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, but ­damn it all! ­somebody knows.”  Sir Harry reached for the bottle and refilled his glass.

“The one thing I know is that Honoria ­Mrs. George, I mean ­has heard about it, and suspects me.”

Sir Harry lifted his glass and glanced at him over the rim.  “That’s the devil.  Does she, now?” He sipped.  “She hasn’t been herself for a day or two ­this explains it.  I thought it was change of air she wanted.  She’s in the deuce of a rage, you bet.”

“She is,” said Taffy grimly.

“There’s no prude like your young married woman.  But it’ll blow over, my boy.  My advice to you is to keep out of the way for a while.”

“But ­but it’s a lie!” broke in the indignant Taffy.  “As far as I am concerned there’s not a grain of truth in it!”

“Oh ­I beg your pardon, I’m sure.”  Here Honoria’s terrier (the one which George had bought for her at Plymouth) interrupted by begging for a biscuit, and Sir Harry balanced one carefully on its nose.  “On trust ­good dog!  What does the girl say herself?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve not seen her.”

“Then, my dear fellow ­it’s awkward, I admit ­but I’m dashed if I see what you expect me to do.”  The baronet pulled out a handkerchief and began flicking the crumbs off his knees.

Taffy watched him for a minute in silence.  He was asking himself why he had come.  Well, he had come in a hot fit of indignation, meaning to face Honoria and force her to take back the insult of her suspicion.  But after all ­suppose George were at the bottom of it?  Clearly Sir Henry knew nothing, and in any case could not be asked to expose his own son.  And Honoria?  Let be that she would never believe ­that he had no proof, no evidence even ­this were a pretty way of beginning to discharge his debt to her!  The terrier thrust a cold muzzle against his hand.  The room was very still.  Sir Harry poured out another glassful and held out the decanter.  “Come, you must drink; I insist!”

Taffy looked up.  “Thank you, I will.”

He could now and with a clear conscience.  In those quiet moments he had taken the great resolution.  The debt should be paid back, and with interest; not at five per cent., but at a rate beyond the creditor’s power of reckoning.  For the interest to be guarded for her should be her continued belief in the man she loved.  Yes, but if George were innocent? Why, then the sacrifice would be idle; that was all.

He swallowed the wine, and stood up.

“Must you be going?  I wanted a chat with you about Oxford,” grumbled Sir Harry; but noting the lad’s face, how white and drawn it was, he relented, and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t take it too seriously, my boy.  It’ll blow over ­it’ll blow over.  Honoria likes you, I know.  We’ll see what the trollop says:  and if I get a chance of putting in a good word, you may depend on me.”

He walked with Taffy to the door ­good, easy man ­and waved a hand from the porch.  On the whole, he was rather glad than not to see his young friend’s back.

From his smithy window Mendarva spied Taffy coming along the road, and stepped out on the green to shake hands with him.

“Pleased to see your face, my son!  You’ll excuse my not asking ’ee inside; but the fact is” ­he jerked his thumb towards the smithy ­” we’ve a-got our troubles in there.”

It came on our youth with something of a shock that the world had room for any trouble beside his own.

“‘Tis the Dane.  He went over to Truro yesterday to the wrastlin’, an’ got thrawed.  I tell’n there’s no call to be shamed.  ’Twas Luke the Wendron fella did it ­in the treble play ­inside lock backward, and as pretty a chip as ever I see.”  Mendarva began to illustrate it with foot and ankle, but checked himself, and glanced nervously over his shoulder.  “Isn’ lookin’, I hope?  He’s in a terrible pore about it.  Won’t trust hissel’ to spake, and don’t want to see nobody.  But, as I tell’n, there’s no call to be shamed; the fella took the belt in the las’ round, and turned his man over like a tab.  He’s a proper angletwitch, that Wendron fella.  Stank ’pon en both ends, and he’ll rise up in the middle and look at ’ee.  There was no one a patch on en but the Dane; and I’ll back the Dane next time they clinch.  ’Tis a nuisance, though, to have’n like this ­with a big job coming on, too, over to the light-house.”

Taffy looked steadily at the smith.  “What’s doing at the light-house?”

“Ha’n’t ’ee heerd?” Mendarva began a long tale, the sum of which was that the light-house had begun of late to show signs of age, to rock at times in an ominous manner.  The Trinity House surveyor had been down and reported, and Mendarva had the contract for some immediate repairs.  “But ’tis patching an old kettle, my son.  The foundations be clamped down to the rock, and the clamps have worked loose.  The whole thing’ll have to come down in the end; you mark my words.”

“But, these repairs?” Taffy interrupted:  “You’ll be wanting hands.”

“Why, o’ course.”

“And a foreman ­a clerk of the works ­”

While Mendarva was telling his tale, over a hill two miles to the westward a small donkey-cart crawled for a minute against the sky-line and disappeared beyond the ridge which hid the towans.  An old man trudged at the donkey’s head; and a young woman sat in the cart with a bundle in her arms.

The old man trudged along so deep in thought that when the donkey without rhyme or reason came to a halt, half-way down the hill, he too halted, and stood pulling a wisp of grey side-whiskers.

“Look here,” he said.  “You ent goin’ to tell?  That’s your las’ word, is it?”

The young woman looked down on the bundle and nodded her head.

“There, that’ll do.  If you weant, you weant; I’ve tek’n ’ee back, an’ us must fit and make the best o’t.  The cheeld’ll never be good for much ­born lame like that.  But ’twas to be, I s’pose.”

Lizzie sat dumb, but hugged the bundle closer.

“’Tis like a judgment.  If your mother’d been spared, ‘twudn’ have happened.  But ’twas to be, I s’pose.  The Lord’s ways be past findin’ out.”

He woke up and struck the donkey across the rump.

“Gwan you!  Gee up!  What d’ee mean by stoppin’ like that?”