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The Penance Of John Emmet
by [?]

And this makes it the more marvellous that what I am about to tell, happening as it did at the very gates of the Porth, should have escaped the sharpest eyes in the place.

The Vicar’s custom was to read with me for a couple of hours in the morning and again for an hour and a half before dinner. We had followed this routine rigidly and punctually for three months or so when, one evening in June, he returned from the Porth a good ten minutes late, very hot and dusty, and even so took a turn or two up and down the room with his hands clasped behind his coat-tails before settling down to correct my iambics.

“John Emmet is dead,” he announced, pausing before the window with his back towards me and gazing out upon the ill-kept lawn.

“Wasn’t he the coxswain of the life-boat?” I asked.

“Ah, to be sure, you never saw him, did you? He took to his bed before you came . . . a long illness. Well, well, it’s all over!” Parson West sighed. “He saved, or helped to save, a hundred and fifteen lives, first and last. A hundred and fifteen lives!”

“I’ve heard something of the sort down at the Porth. A hundred and fifty, I think they said. They seemed very proud of him down there.”

“Why?” The Vicar faced round on me, and added after a moment abruptly– “He didn’t belong to them: he was not even born in this parish.”

“Where then?”

He disregarded the question. “Besides, the number was a hundred and fifteen: that’s just the pity.”

I did not understand: but he had seated himself at table and was running through my iambics. In the third verse he underlined a false quantity with blue pencil and looked up for an explanation. While I confessed the fault, his gaze wandered away from me and fell upon his fingers drumming upon the table’s edge. A slant of red sunshine touched the signet-ring on his little finger, which he moved up and down watching the play of light on the rim of the collet. He was not listening. By-and-by he glanced up, “I beg your pardon–” stammered he, and leaving the rest of my verses uncorrected, pointed with his pencil to the concluding one. “That’s not Greek,” he said.

“It’s in Sophocles,” I contended: and turning up the word in “Liddell and Scott,” I pushed the big lexicon under his nose.

For a moment he paid no heed to the action; did not seem to grasp the meaning of it. Then for the first and last time in my acquaintance with him he broke into a passion of temper.

“What do you mean, Sir? It’s offensive, I tell you: a downright offensive, ungentlemanly thing to do! Yes, Sir, ungentlemanly!” He crumpled up my verses and tossed them into the waste-paper basket. “We had better get on with our Tacitus.” And “Offensive!” I heard him muttering once more, as he picked up the book and found his place. I began to construe. His outburst had disconcerted me, and no doubt I performed discreditably: but glancing up in some apprehension after a piece of guess-work which even to me carried no conviction, I saw that again he was not attending. After this, by boldly skipping each difficulty as it arose I managed to cover a good deal of ground with admirable fluency.

We dined together in silence that evening, and after dinner strolled out to the big filbert-tree under which, for a few weeks in the year, Parson West had his dessert laid and sipped his thin port–an old common-room fashion to which he clung. To the end of his days he had the white cloth removed before dessert, and the fruits and the one decanter set out upon polished mahogany.

I glanced at him while helping myself to strawberries and cream. He sat nervously folding and refolding the napkin on his knee. By-and-by he spoke, but without looking at me.