Read CHAPTER XXIV. - FACE TO FACE. of The Ship of Stars, free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

The first winter had interrupted all work upon the rock; but Taffy and his men had used the calm days of the following spring and summer to such purpose that before the end of July the foundations began to show above high-water neaps, and in September he was able to report that the building could be pushed forward in any ordinary weather.  The workmen were carried to and from the mainland by a wire hawser and cradle, and the rising breastwork of masonry protected them from the beat of the sea.  Progress was slow, for each separate stone had to be dovetailed above, below, and on all sides with the blocks adjoining it, besides being cemented; and care to be taken that no salt mingled with the fresh water, or found its way into the joints of the building.  Taffy studied the barometer hour by hour, and kept a constant look-out to windward against sudden gales.

On November 16th the men had finished their dinner, and sat smoking under the lee of the wall, when Taffy, with his pocket-aneroid in his hand, gave the order to snug down and man the cradle for shore.  They stared.  The morning had been a halcyon one; and the northerly breeze, which had sprung up with the turn of the tide and was freshening, carried no cloud across the sky.  Two vessels, abrigantine and a three-masted schooner, were merrily reaching down-channel before it, the brigantine leading; at two miles’ distance they could see distinctly the white foam running from her bluff bows, and her forward deck from bulwark to bulwark as she heeled to it.

One or two grumbled.  Half a day’s work meant half a day’s pay to them.  It was all very well for the Cap’n, who drew his by the week.

“Come, look alive!” Taffy called sharply.  He pinned his faith to the barometer, and as he shut it in its case he glanced at the brigantine and saw that her crew were busy with the braces, flattening the forward canvas.  “See there, boys.  There’ll be a gale from the west’ard before night.”

For a minute the brigantine seemed to have run into a calm.  The schooner, half a mile behind her, came reaching along steadily.

“That there two-master’s got a fool for a skipper,” grumbled a voice.  But almost at the moment the wind took her right aback ­or would have done so had the crew not been preparing for it.  Her stern swung slowly around into view, and within two minutes she was fetching away from them on the port tack, her sails hauled closer and closer as she went.  Already the schooner was preparing to follow suit.

“Snug down, boys!  We must be out of this in half an hour.”

And sure enough, by the time Taffy gained the cliff by the old light-house, the sky had darkened, and a stiff breeze from the north-west, crossing the tide, was beginning to work up a nasty sea around the rock and lop it from time to time over the masonry and the platforms where half an hour before his men had been standing.  The two vessels had disappeared in the weather; and as Taffy stared in their direction a spit of rain ­the first ­took him viciously in the face.

He turned his back to it and hurried homeward.  As he passed the light-house door old Pezzack called out to him: 

“Hi! wait a bit!  Would ‘ee mind seein’ Joey home?  I dunno what his mother sent him over here for, not I. He’ll get hisself leakin’.”

Joey came hobbling out, and put his right hand in Taffy’s with the fist doubled.

“What’s that in your hand?”

Joey looked up shyly.  “You won’t tell?”

“Not if it’s a secret.”

The child opened his palm and disclosed a bright half-crown piece.

“Where on earth did you get that?”

“The soldier gave it to me.”

“The soldier? nonsense!  What tale are you making up?”

“Well, he had a red coat, so he must be a soldier.  He gave it to me, and told me to be a good boy and run off and play.”

Taffy came to a halt.  “Is he here ­up at the cottages?”

“How funnily you say that!  No, he’s just rode away.  I watched him from the light-house windows.  He can’t be gone far yet.”

“Look here, Joey ­can you run?”

“Yes, if you hold my hand; only you mustn’t go too fast.  Oh, you’re hurting!”

Taffy took the child in his arms, and with the wind at his back went up the hill with long stride.  “There he is!” cried Joey as they gained the ridge; and he pointed; and Taffy, looking along the ridge, saw a speck of scarlet moving against the lead-coloured moors ­half a mile away perhaps, or a little more.  He sat the child down, for the cottages were close by.  “Run home, sonny.  I’m going to have a look at the soldier, too.”

The first bad squall broke on the headland just as Taffy started to run.  It was as if a bag of water had burst right overhead, and within a quarter of a minute he was drenched to the skin.  So fiercely it went howling inland along the ridge that he half expected to see the horse urged into a gallop before it.  But the rider, now standing high for a moment against the sky-line, went plodding on.  For a while horse and man disappeared over the rise; but Taffy guessed that on hitting the cross-path beyond it they would strike away to the left and descend toward Langona Creek; and he began to slant his course to the left in anticipation.  The tide, he knew, would be running in strong; and with this wind behind it he hoped ­and caught himself praying ­that it would be high enough to cover the wooden foot-bridge and make the ford impassable; and if so, the horseman would be delayed and forced to head back and fetch a circuit farther up the valley.

By this time the squalls were coming fast on each other’s heels, and the strength of them flung him forward at each stride.  He had lost his hat, and the rain poured down his back and squished in his boots.  But all he felt was the hate in his heart.  It had gathered there little by little for three years and a half, pent up, fed by his silent thoughts as a reservoir by small mountain streams; and with so tranquil a surface that at times ­poor youth! ­he had honestly believed it reflected God’s calm, had been proud of his magnanimity, and said “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.”  Now as he ran he prayed to the same God to delay the traitor at the ford.

Dusk was falling when George, yet unaware of pursuit, turned down the sunken lane which ended beside the ford.  And by the shore, when the small waves lapped against his mare’s fore-feet, he heard Taffy’s shout for the first time and turned in his saddle.  Even so it was a second or two before he recognised the figure which came plunging down the low cliff on his left, avoiding a fall only by wild clutches at the swaying elder boughs.

“Hello!” he shouted cheerfully.  “Looks nasty, doesn’t it?”

Taffy came down the beach, near enough to see that the mare’s legs were plastered with mud, and to look up into his enemy’s face.

“Get down,” he panted.

“Hey?”

“Get down, I tell you.  Come off your horse and put up your fists!”

“What the devil is the matter?  Hello! . . .  Keep off, I tell you!  Are you mad?”

“Come off and fight.”

“By God, I’ll break your head in if you don’t let go. . . .  You idiot!” ­as the mare plunged and tore the stirrup-leather from Taffy’s grip ­“She’ll brain you, if you fool round her heels like that!”

“Come off, then.”

“Very well.”  George backed a little, swung himself out of the saddle and faced him on the beach.  “Now perhaps you’ll explain.”

“You’ve come from the headland?”

“Well?”

“From Lizzie Pezzack’s.”

“Well, and what then?”

“Only this, that so sure as you’ve a wife at home, if you come to the headland again I’ll kill you; and if you’re a man, you’ll put up your fists now.”

“Oh, that’s it?  May I ask what you have to do with my wife, or with Lizzie Pezzack?”

“Whose child is Lizzie’s?”

“Not yours, is it?”

“You said so once; you told your wife so; liar that you were.”

“Very good, my gentleman.  You shall have what you want.  Woa, mare!” He led her up the beach and sought for a branch to tie his reins to.  The mare hung back, terrified by the swishing of the whipped boughs and the roar of the gale overhead:  her hoofs, as George dragged her forward, scuffled with the loose-lying stones on the beach.  After a minute he desisted and turned on Taffy again.

“Look here; before we have this out there’s one thing I’d like to know.  When you were at Oxford, was Honoria maintaining you there?”

“If you must know ­yes.”

“And when ­when this happened, she stopped the supplies?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, I didn’t know it.  She never told me.”

“She never told me.”

“You don’t say ­”

“I do.  I never knew it until too late.”

“Well, now, I’m going to fight you.  I don’t swallow being called a liar.  But I tell you this first, that I’m damned sorry.  I never guessed that it injured your prospects.”

At another time, in another mood, Taffy might have remembered that George was George, and heir to Sir Harry’s nature.  As it was, the apology threw oil on the flame.

“You cur!  Do you think it was that? And you are Honoria’s husband!” He advanced with an ugly laugh.  “For the last time, put up your fists.”

They had been standing within two yards of each other; and even so, shouted at the pitch of their voices to make themselves heard above the gale.  As Taffy took a step forward George lifted his whip.  His left hand held the bridle on which the reluctant mare was dragging, and the action was merely instinctive, to guard against sudden attack.

But as he did so his face and uplifted arm were suddenly painted clear against the darkness.  The mare plunged more wildly than ever.  Taffy dropped his hands and swung round.  Behind him, the black contour of the hill, the whole sky welled up a pale blue light which gathered brightness while he stared.  The very stones on the beach at his feet shone separate and distinct.

“What is it?” George gasped.

“A ship on the rocks!  Quick, man!  Will the mare reach to Innis?”

“She’ll have to.”  George wheeled her round.  She was fagged out with two long gallops after hounds that day, but for the moment sheer terror made her lively enough.

“Ride, then!  Call up the coast-guard.  By the flare she must be somewhere off the creek here.  Ride!”

A clatter of hoofs answered him as the mare pounded up the lane.