I SAW THREE SHIPS
The Third Ship
We return to Ruan church, whence this history started. The parson was there in his surplice, by the altar; the bride was there in her white frock, by the chancel rails; her father, by her side, was looking at his watch; and the parishioners thronged the nave, shuffling their feet and loudly speculating. For the bridegroom had not appeared.
Ruby's face was white as her frock. Parson Babbage kept picking up the heavy Prayer-book, opening it, and laying it down impatiently. Occasionally, as one of the congregation scraped an impatient foot, a metallic sound made itself heard, and the buzz of conversation would sink for a moment, as if by magic.
For beneath the seats, and behind the women's gowns, the whole pavement of the church was covered with a fairly representative collection of cast-off kitchen utensils--old kettles, broken cake-tins, frying-pans, saucepans--all calculated to emit dismal sounds under percussion. Scattered among these were ox-bells, rook-rattles, a fog-horn or two, and a tin trumpet from Liskeard fair. Explanation is simple: the outraged feelings of the parish were to be avenged by a shal-lal as bride and bridegroom left the church. Ruby knew nothing of the storm brewing for her, but Mary Jane, whose ears had been twice boxed that morning, had heard a whisper of it on her way down to the church, and was confirmed in her fears by observing the few members of the congregation who entered after her. Men and women alike suffered from an unwonted corpulence and tightness of raiment that morning, and each and all seemed to have cast the affliction off as they arose from their knees. It was too late to interfere, so she sat still and trembled.
Still the bridegroom did not come.
"A more onpresidented feat I don't recall," remarked Uncle Issy to a group that stood at the west end under the gallery, "not since 'Melia Spry's buryin', when the devil, i' the shape of a black pig, followed us all the way to the porch."
"That was a brave while ago, Uncle."
"Iss, iss; but I mind to this hour how we bearers perspired--an' she such a light-weight corpse. But plague seize my old emotions!--we'm come to marry, not to bury."
"By the look o't 'tis' neither marry nor bury, Nim nor Doll," observed Old Zeb, who had sacrificed his paternal feelings and come to church in order to keep abreast with the age; "'tis more like Boscastle Fair, begin at twelve o'clock an' end at noon. Why tarry the wheels of his chariot?"
"'Tis possible Young Zeb an' he have a-met 'pon the road hither," hazarded Calvin Oke by a wonderful imaginative effort; "an' 'tis possible that feelings have broke loose an' one o' the twain be swelterin' in his own bloodshed, or vicey-versey."
"I heard tell of a man once," said Uncle Issy, "that committed murder upon another for love; but, save my life, I can't think 'pon his name, nor where 't befell."
"What an old store-house 'tis!" ejaculated Elias Sweetland, bending a contemplative gaze on Uncle Issy.
"Mark her pale face, naybours," put in a woman; "an' Tresidder, he looks like a man that's neither got nor lost."
"Quarter past the hour, I make it," said Old Zeb, pulling out his timepiece.
Still the bridegroom tarried.
Higher up the church, in the front pew but one, Modesty Prowse said aloud to Sarah Ann Nan Julian--
"If he doesn' look sharp, we'll be married before she after all."
Ruby heard the sneer, and answered it with a look of concentrated spite. Probably she would have risked her dignity to retort, had not Parson Babbage advanced down the chancel at this juncture.
"Has anyone seen the bridegroom to-day?" he inquired of Tresidder. "Or will you send some one to hurry him?"
"Be danged if I know," the farmer began testily, mopping his bald head, and then he broke off, catching sound of a stir among the folk behind.
"Here he be--here he be at last!" cried somebody. And with that a hush of bewilderment fell on the congregation.
In the doorway, flushed with running and glorious in bridal attire, stood Young Zeb.
It took everybody's breath away, and he walked up the nave between silent men and women. His eyes were fastened on Ruby, and she in turn stared at him as a rabbit at a snake, shrinking slightly on her father's arm. Tresidder's jaw dropped, and his eyes began to protrude.
"What's the meanin' o' this?" he stammered.
"I've come to marry your daughter," answered Zeb, very slow and distinct. "She was to wed Zebedee Minards to-day, an' I'm Zebedee Minards."
"I've a note to hand to each of 'ee. Better save your breath till you've read 'em."
He delivered the two notes, and stood, tapping a toe on the tiles, in the bridegroom's place on the right of the chancel-rails.
"Mr. Tresidder," interrupted the parson, "I like a man to swear off his rage if he's upset, but I can't allow it in the church."
"I don't care if you do or you don't."
"Then do it, and I'll kick you out with this very boot."
The farmer's face was purple, and big veins stood out by his temples.
"I've been cheated," he growled. Zeb, who had kept his eyes on Ruby, stepped quickly towards her. First picking up the paper that had drifted to the pavement, he crushed it into his pocket. He then took her hand. It was cold and damp.
"Parson, will 'ee marry us up, please?"
"You haven't asked if she'll have you."
"No, an' I don't mean to. I didn't come to ax questions--that's your business--but to answer."
"Will you marry this man?" demanded the parson, turning to Ruby.
Zeb's hand still enclosed hers, and she felt she was caught and held for life. Her eyes fluttered up to her lover's face, and found it inexorable.
"Yes," she gasped out, as if the word had been suffocating her. And with the word came a rush of tears--helpless, but not altogether unhappy.
"Dry your eyes," said Parson Babbage, after waiting a minute; "we must be quick about it."
So it happened that the threatened shal-lal came to nothing. Susan Jago, the old woman who swept the church, discovered its forgotten apparatus scattered beneath the pews on the following Saturday, and cleared it out, to the amount (she averred) of two cart-loads. She tossed it, bit by bit, over the west wall of the churchyard, where in time it became a mound, covered high with sting-nettles. If you poke among these nettles with your walking-stick, the odds are that you turn up a scrap of rusty iron. But there exists more explicit testimony to Zeb's wedding within the church--and within the churchyard, too, where he and Ruby have rested this many a year.
Though the bubble of Farmer Tresidder's dreams was pricked that day, there was feasting at Sheba until late in the evening. Nor until eleven did the bride and bridegroom start off, arm in arm, to walk to their new home. Before them, at a considerable distance, went the players and singers--a black blur on the moonlit road; and very crisply their music rang out beneath a sky scattered with cloud and stars. All their songs were simple carols of the country, and the burden of them was but the joy of man at Christ's nativity; but the young man and maid who walked behind were well pleased.
"Now then," cried the voice of Old Zeb, "lads an' lasses all together an' wi' a will--"
In the midst of this carol Ruby, with a light pull on Zeb's arm, brought him to a halt.
"How lovely it all is, Zeb!" She looked upwards at the flying moon, then dropped her gaze over the frosty sea, and sighed gently. "Just now I feel as if I'd been tossin' out yonder through many fierce days an' nights an' were bein' taken at last to a safe haven. You'll have to make a good wife of me, Zeb. I wonder if you'll do 't."
Zeb followed the direction of her eyes, and seemed to discern off Bradden Point a dot of white, as of a ship in sail. He pressed her arm to his side, but said nothing.
"Clear your throats, friends," shouted his father, up the road, "an' let fly--"
And to this measure Zeb and Ruby stepped home.
At the cottage door Zeb thanked the singers, who went their way and flung back shouts and joyful wishes as they went. Before making all fast for the night, he stood a minute or so, listening to their voices as they died away down the road. As he barred the door, he turned and saw that Ruby had lit the lamp, and was already engaged in setting the kitchen to rights; for, of course, no such home-coming had been dreamt of in the morning, and all was in disorder. He stood and watched her for a while, then turned to the window.
After a minute or two, finding that he did not speak, she too came to the window. He bent and kissed her.
For he had seen, on the patch of sea beyond the haven, a white frigate steal up Channel like a ghost. She had passed out of his sight by this time, but he was still thinking of one man that she bore.