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The Ship of Stars
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
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"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

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