Read CHAPTER V - WHEN FOX WAS FERRYMAN of The Torch and Other Tales, free online book, by Eden Phillpotts, on

We Dittisham folk live beside Dart river and at what you may call a crossing. For there’s a lot of people go back and forth over the water between us and Greenway on t’other bank, and so the ferryman is an important member of the community, and we often date things that happen by such a man who reigned over the ferry at the time, just as we think of what fell out when such a king reigned over the country.

And this curious adventure came to be when Fox was ferryman, and nobody had better cause to remember it than old Jimmy Fox himself, for to him the tale belongs in a manner of speaking, though you may be sure he wasn’t the man who used to tell it.

Jimmy Fox not only ran the ferry, but he was master of the ‘Passage House’ inn, a public that stood just up top of the steps on the Dittisham landing, and as this was the spot where passengers crossed, and there weren’t no beer at Greenway, they naturally took their last drink at the ‘Passage House’ before setting forth, and their first drink there on landing. So it rose to be a prosperous inn enough. Mrs. Fox was the ruling spirit there, because her husband spent most of his daytime working the ferry boat; but Polly Fox most people called her ‘the Vixen’ behind her back had two to help her in the shape of Christie Morrison, a niece of her husband’s, and Alice Chick, the barmaid a good sort of girl enough.

Fox and his wife were a childless couple, and gave out they’d adopted orphan Christie, and claimed a good deal of praise for so doing; but it weren’t a very one-sided bargain, after all, for she worked like a pony, and proved more than worth her keep. In fact, there was little in her days but work, and for a young pretty maiden not turned nineteen, there’s no doubt the toil and trouble of ‘Passage House’ and the money-grubbing passion of her uncle and aunt were a depressing state of life.

But she enjoyed the eternal hope proper to youth and looked forward to a home of her own some day, and better times when the right man came along. She got a little fun into her work also, for the river was her delight, and as Jimmy Fox, among his other irons in the fire, rented a salmon net on Dart, Christie now and then had the pleasure of going out along with the fishers, and spending a few hours on the river. But on these occasions she was expected to work like a man and do her part with the nets. That was labour that gave her pleasure, however, and, thanks to the fishery, there came a day when she met a party who interested her more than any other man had done up to that time.

He was a sailor and a calm sort of chap dark and well-favoured with a lot of fun in him and a lot of character and determination. First mate of a sailing vessel that traded between Dartmouth and Jersey, was Edmund Masters. He had friends at Dittisham, and it was when along with these on the river fishing, that he got acquainted with Christie. Then, as often as his ship, The Provider, came to Dartmouth port, he’d find occasion to be up at Dittisham and drop into “Passage House” for a drink and a glimpse of the girl.

As for Jimmy Fox, he thought nothing of it, because a sailor man was of no account in his eyes, and, indeed, he and his wife had very fixed ideas for Christie, which all too soon for her comfort she had now to hear.

After they’d got to bed one night, Mrs. Fox started the subject in her husband’s ear.

“’Tis time,” she said, “that William Bassett set on to Christie. She’s wife-old now and a good-looking creature, and the men are after her already that Jersey sailor for one. And it’s only making needless trouble for her to go hankering after some worthless youth when you and me and Bassett are all agreed that he must have her.”

They’d planned the maiden’s future to please themselves, not her; and such was the view they took of life, that they seemed to think Christie no more than their slave, to be given in marriage where it suited them best.

“There’ll be a rumpus,” said the ferryman. “But the least said, the soonest mended. William named her to me not long ago, and he brought her a brave dish of plums into the bar only last week. I’ll see him to-morrow and tell him to start on her serious and offer himself and say we will it.”

But even sooner than he expected did Jimmy see Mr. Bassett, for almost the first passenger as he had for Greenway next day was William. This man owned best part of a square mile of the famous Dittisham plum orchards, and he had a bit of house property nigh St. George’s Church also, and was one of our most prosperous people at that time. He was a widower, old enough to be Christie’s father; but after five wifeless years he decided to wed again, and having a cheerful conceit of himself and his cash, and reckoning that he had only to drop the handkerchief to any female, decided on Christie Morrison, because her temper was golden and her figure fine, and her character above reproach. As for Bassett, he had a flat face, like a skate, with a slit for a mouth and little pin-point eyes overhung with red hair. He was forty-five and growing bald and his left leg gave at the knee. He was a good sort really, and did kind things for his poorer neighbours. There was a touch of the romantical in him also, and he liked the thought of marrying a pretty girl and making her mistress of his plum orchards and mother of his heir. Because his first had failed him in that matter.

And now, as Fox ferried William over the water on a crisp October morning, he bade him waste no more time, but begin to court Christie like a lover if so be he wanted her.

“We’re your side as you know,” said Jimmy Fox, “and my wife and I are very wishful to see it happen; but you’ve got to set on to her, for she’s young and a fine sight in the eyes of her own generation. In fact she may fall in love any minute with something better to look at than you.”

But William weren’t frightened of that.

“She’s got a lot of sense, and knows which side her bread is buttered,” he said. “She won’t trouble about another when she hears I want her. Because she knows my character, and can count on having a very good time along with me. I’ll ax her to tea Sunday, and tell her I’ll wed her when she pleases. No need to waste time love-making with a shrewd piece like her. She’ll come to me and we’ll be married afore Christmas. Then she’ll know what it is to wed a romantical man.”

“I hope you’ll find it as easy as you think for,” answered Jimmy, “but you can’t take nothing for granted with a maiden girl. However, as you wish it and I wish it, so it’s got to be. We’ve brought her up, and her future lies with us.”

“And me,” added Bassett, and then the boat touched and he was across.

Christie got her invite to tea that evening and agreed to go. Her aunt had given her an inkling of what was coming; but she hadn’t given her aunt an inkling of what had already come, though she might have, and when Polly Fox told her that William wanted her on a very delicate errand, and she must put on her best and look her best, Christie said nothing of the big matter in her own mind. For she very well knew that the Saturday before she went to tea at Mr. Bassett’s big red house in the plum orchards, she was promised for a walk to Edmund Master’s, and she had a certain belief that before that walk was done Master Teddy would ask her a vital question.

He came, and they went along beside the river, where the wild cherry’s leaves fell blood red on the water, and where the hanging woods flamed in afternoon sunshine and made a brave glow. For Dart at autumn time is a fine sight, and the beauty of the scene and the blue of the distant, clear and still beyond all that crimson and gold, tuned Christie to a melting mood. She loved the sailor man very well indeed by now, and knew he loved her; and his calm manner and honest opinions, reposeful sort of nature and unconscious strength won her all the way. For his part he’d never met a girl like her in his travels, and being now twenty-six and wishful to wed, felt that he’d be a very fortunate man to have such a wife as she promised to make. He’d got his eye on a nice little house at St. Helier’s, where his relations dwelt, and he’d learned from Christie that she’d be well pleased to dwell there, or anywhere, out of sight and sound of her uncle and aunt Fox. So, when he put the question, she answered it in a way to bring his arms round her and his lips on hers. And though autumn was in the air, spring was in their hearts, no doubt, and they talked the usual hopeful talk, and dreamed the usual cheerful dreams, and knew themselves to be the happiest man and woman walking earth at that particular moment.

Nothing would do, but that Master Ted went off that instant to tell Jimmy Fox the news, and though Christie warned him that her uncle had very different ideas for her, he said, truly enough, that in these cases it was the woman’s view of a husband and not her uncle’s that ought to count.

But Jimmy very soon showed he wasn’t going to take Ted, and had no manner of use for him. In fact, he let go pretty hot, and told Edmund Masters that the likes of him a sea-faring man with a wife in every port, no doubt wasn’t going to have Christie. He blustered and he bullied and he insulted the young man shocking: but the sailor kept his temper very well, and the quieter he was the fiercer old man Jimmy got. And Polly Fox wasn’t no better. She spit out her temper on Christie, and wanted to know how a girl, brought up with the fear of God in her eyes, could think twice of a common seafarer.

So seeing they were beyond reason, Masters took up his cap, and left.

“Keep your nerve, my gal,” he said to Christie, “and bide my time. Let ’em see we mean what we say; and next voyage I come along, I’ll bring my credentials, and if Mr. Fox knows a man with better, then I’ll throw up the sponge, but not before.”

He took it in that calm and gentlemanlike fashion, but he didn’t know his company, or their ideas of proper behaviour; and he didn’t know the power her uncle had got over Christie, or the savage nature of the man, that would stick at nothing if crossed.

When he was gone, Fox ordered his niece to her chamber, and when she hesitated, he took her by the scruff of the neck, drove her upstairs to the dormer attic that was hers, pushed her in and locked the door on her. “And there you shall bide, and there you shall starve till you beg my pardon and your aunt’s pardon, and take Mr. Bassett, as we will for you to do,” he said.

Stunned and frightened out of her life, the girl very near fainted after such treatment; but the night came and passed, and not a sound of her people did she hear; and in the morning Sunday ’twas Fox tramped up over the stairs and opened her door and asked if she’d changed her mind. She said “No,” of course, and begged him for honour and the love of God to be reasonable; but he only cursed her and locked her in again and went his way.

Later her aunt came, but Christie won no comfort from her tongue, and presently stared out at the shocking truth, that in a Christian country among Christian folks, she was going to be starved to death, because she wouldn’t wed William Bassett. On Sunday night Ted would sail again, and she doubted if he’d come to see her till he returned, for his papers were at Jersey along with his mother. Then she thought what lay in her power to do about it, and if it was possible to get at Alice Chick, the barmaid a very clever creature and very fond of Christie. But there was no chance of that, and she felt sure that Alice had been told she was ill and must not be seen.

But it happened that the other girl knew all about the tragedy, because Mr. Bassett had come in the night before, and Mrs. Fox, who was in the bar, had spoken with him and told what was going forward, and William hadn’t liked it none too well. So Alice, though she seemed busy and bustled about as usual, heard the ugly truth, or enough of it to guide her actions.

She thought first of going to William Bassett herself, but she couldn’t be sure of him, and so went to her own lover instead. Andrew Beal he was a fisherman that worked for Fox and that night Andrew Beal tackled a task somewhat out of the common, for Alice saw him for ten minutes in the road after closing time, and bade him be off to Dartmouth so quick as his legs would carry him with a letter that she’d wrote to Masters. Andrew was to get aboard The Provider somehow, and see Ted, and bring his answer in the morning by cock-light. Which things Andrew Beal did do, and before Fox and his wife were stirring, Alice crept to Christie’s door and slipped a letter under it.

And a very clever letter it was.

I hear they’ve locked you up and mean to starve you if you won’t take another man (wrote the sailor). Well, keep quite calm and save yourself all fear. People who break the rule of law and order and do such devilish deeds as this must be treated to their own high-handed ways, my dear. I’ll call for you to-morrow at dusk, Christie, so be ready, and have your things packed, for you’ll say good-bye to ‘Passage House’ a few hours after you get this letter. And if Alice Chick is allowed to see you, tell her I’ll not forget her goodness nor yet her man’s. We’ll have the weather of ’em before nightfall. Cheer O!

Your loving,

Well, that was better than breakfast, no doubt, for the hungry girl, and when her uncle stormed up again, to know if she’d come to her senses and would go over and see Bassett, she said she’d never left her senses, and told him, very bravely, that there was a time coming when his Maker would reckon with him and her aunt also.

He gnashed what teeth he’d got left at her, and told her that he’d break her and make her howl for mercy afore she was many hours older. And then he went down house and dared his wife, who was getting a bit skeared over it, to take the girl a crust.

“’Tis my will against hers,” he said, “and I’ve got the whip hand. Another day without food will soon bring her to heel; and if it don’t, I’ll try what a touch of my leather belt will do for the young devil.”

Then he went to work, and the few folk he ferried that Sabbath day all said that Jimmy was getting no better than a bear with a sore head, for he hadn’t a word to throw at man, or woman, but mumbled in his beard to himself and scowled at the folk as if they were all his natural enemies.

And meantime the hours passed and Christie, though cruel distressed for want of food, did as Ted bade her, and packed her little box with her few treasures, and put on her Sunday clothes, and wondered with all her might however Edmund Masters would be so good as his word.

But she trusted him and doubted not that things would fall out as he said. She knew that The Provider sailed for home that night, and guessed her lover meant taking her along with him. Indeed, once out of ’Passage House,’ she didn’t intend to lose sight of him again. She kept calm and watchful as the sun turned west and the day began to sink. Not a sound had come up to her, but she’d heard her aunt shuffling about the passage once or twice; and once, the old woman, fearful of her silence, had looked in and found her rayed in her Sunday best.

She thought Christie had changed her mind, and was going to William Bassett. So she locked her in again and ran down to tell Jimmy, who was below just going to have his tea.

But a good many hours passed before her husband heard the news after all, for, when his wife got below, he’d just heard the ferry bell calling him from t’other side the river and gone down to his boat and put across.

For when folk came to the little landing-stage at Greenway they rang the ferry bell, lifted up on the high post there, and that brought Fox across to ’em till the hour of dusk. And if they called him after that, they had got to pay double.

Jimmy reckoned it was dusk enough by now to make the fare pay twice over, and he was well used to having arguments on that subject as the evenings began to draw in. But this time he had a surprise the surprise of his life, in fact for coming alongside the Greenway steps and telling whoever ’twas to hurry up, a voice from above bade him to moor the boat, and come and lend a hand with a box.

“’Twill be a shilling more if you’ve got a box,” said Jimmy, and the man up top answered.

“You can charge what you please.”

Then Fox made fast and went up the steps, to find the biggest chap he ever set eyes upon waiting for him.

“You ought to pay double fare yourself,” he said, “and where’s your box?”

Then the big man calmly gripped him by his neck-cloth as if he was a kitten and, while he did so, another chap appeared from behind the post that held the ferry bell.

’Twas Edmund Masters, and he explained the situation to Fox in a few words.

“Being an old blackguard above law and order, Jimmy Fox, you give honest men the trouble to teach you manners and explain that you can’t starve young women, and treat ’em like dogs and think you’re going to have your wicked way with ’em when and how you please. So now your niece will be took away from you for ever, and as she’s got no particular wish for you to kiss her ‘good-bye,’ you can stop here and think over your cowardly sins and cool your heels a bit till morning, I hope. And this is my best friend, Captain Le Cornu, of The Provider, and the strongest man in the Channel Isles. So now you’ll know what it feels like to be in mightier hands than your own, you dirty scoundrel. And if you wasn’t so old, I’d give you a dozen of the best before we go.”

Then he turned to the other.

“Trice him up, skipper.”

In half a shake Jimmy Fox found himself bound hand and foot to the ferry bell post. The bell-pull was knotted high out of his reach and a handkerchief tied pretty tight round his mouth.

Two minute sufficed for this job, because no men knew better than those how to handle rope.

“’Tis a very good bit of Manila hemp,” said the captain of The Provider.

“And you can use it to hang yourself when you get free again,” added Ted.

Half a minute later they were in the ferry boat and away.

Then it was the turn of Jimmy’s lady.

The big man stopped in the boat, and Christie’s lover, knowing there was no time to lose, bustled into the parlour of the ‘Passage House,’ and asked Mrs. Fox for the girl.

Whereupon Polly told him to be off, or she’d call her husband to him.

“Give her up, or take the consequences,” said Ted, and counting Jimmy would be back every moment, the woman defied him. Luck was on the sailor’s side, for the house-place happened to be empty and the bar closed for church hour. So he had it to himself and acted prompt.

“Sorry to touch a woman, though she is a bad old witch that did ought to be drowned,” he said, and with that he popped the creature into a big armchair and tied her there.

“Now we all know where we are, Mrs. Fox,” he said, “and it won’t help you to yowl, because you and your husband are breaking the law and doing a fearful outrage that might send you both to clink for the rest of your evil lives, so you’ll do best to keep quiet and thank me for saving you from the wrath to come.”

With that he left her, and Alice Chick, who knew all about it and was hiding outside the door, showed him up to Christie’s chamber.

The girl was ready for him, and before I can tell it he had her box on his back and was down and away with her at his heels.

A minute later they were in the ferry boat and off to Dartmouth. The tide was just on the turn and helped ’em.

They heard Polly screaming the top of her head off one side the river; while a muffled noise, like a bull-frog croaking, came from the ferry steps at Green way.

“The owls are making a funny noise to-night sure enough!” said the skipper of The Provider.

But Ted was busy. He’d forgot nothing, and now pulled a lot of food out of his pocket for the starving woman.

“Eat and say nought,” he ordered, and then he took an oar and helped his friend.

Before dawn the schooner was hull down on her way to the Islands, and folk at Dartmouth stared to see the Dittisham ferry boat adrift in the harbour; but presently there came Jimmy Fox calling on all the law and the prophets for vengeance; and then the nation heard about his troubles and the terrible adventure that had overtook the poor man and his wife. But both were tolerably well known up and down the river, and I didn’t hear that anybody went out of the way to show sympathy.

In fact, when the story leaked out, which it did do next time The Provider was over, most people agreed with Edmund Masters that he’d done very clever.

Christie was married to Ted at St. Heliers when he came back to her after the next voyage, and Fox and his good lady got wind of it, of course; but ’tis generally allowed they didn’t send her no wedding present.

Somebody did, however, for when William Bassett heard how things had fallen out, his romantical character came to his aid, and, such are the vagaries of human nature, that he sent Mrs. Masters a five-pound note.

“Just to show you the sort of man you might have took, my dear,” he wrote to her.