Archelaus looked a very old man. He was old even in actual years, and almost ageless if some indefinable look on his seamed face registered more truly the period sustained by the ravaged spirit. He stood staring at Ishmael, then spoke in a husky, uncertain voice that went suddenly from gruffness to a high querulousness.
"Who be you?" he asked. "I be Archelaus Beggoe, and I'm come home to where I was born and reared.... I'm come home, I tell 'ee."
The two old men stood looking at each other.
"Don't you remember me?" asked Ishmael gently. "I'm Ishmael, your brother; you know...." He went forward and took the other's unresisting hand. "Welcome home, Archelaus!"
The elder brother said nothing, but slowly a look of comprehension began to dawn in his bleared old eyes, a look that was inexpressibly sly and yet harmless, so infantine was his whole aspect of helplessness. He shook Ishmael's hand very slowly, then dropped it.
"I'm come home," he repeated obstinately.
ARCHELAUS, NICKY, JIM
The next day it became plain to Ishmael that Archelaus spoke the truth when he announced that he had come home. His legs were old and stiff, but after pottering all the morning after his brother, who suddenly felt years younger through sheer force of contrast, he followed him obstinately out to the four-acre field, where Ishmael had hoped to get away from him. And Ishmael watched the rolling, as he had only the day before watched the sowing, but with a sinking of the heart instead of the lightening that had been his only twenty-four hours earlier. The mere presence of Archelaus, though they were now both old men, past rivalry, held for him an antagonism he could hide but could not keep himself from feeling.
As the ridgy clods flattened out to a level of purplish fawn beneath the one passing of the cumbrous roller, that yet looked so small behind the huge mare, Ishmael felt his spirits being as flattened as the four-acre itself. Yet even as yesterday the two horses had done, so to-day the mare spread her powerful haunches and raised clouds of earth with each firm impact of her gleaming hoofs; but the joy was gone from the sight. Even Hester, the farm-dog, lineal descendant of poor Wanda, seemed to feel the inaction in the air, and, leaving off her slavish following of the roller, flung herself down on a stretch of field where it had already passed, legs outspread, looking so flattened as she lay there, a mere pattern of black and white, that the roller might have passed over her also. Archelaus stood leaning upon a favourite stick of Nicky's that he had taken from the hall, and commented shrewdly enough upon the affairs of the farm. He seemed suddenly to be showing a great interest in them, and during the days that followed this did not diminish. For all his years his wits seemed bright; only whenever the suggestion arose that he might be happier if he took up his quarters elsewhere his eyes seemed actually to film over like a bird's with the blankness that descended on them. Indeed, there seemed no real reason for getting rid of him. He was old and strange, but he behaved himself and played with the children, both Ruth's couple and little Jim; he was a huge success. He ousted the grandfather—so much more vivid were his tales, so much more amusing the things he could do with a penknife and a bit of wood. Whistles, whips, boats, all seemed to grow under his gnarled old hands, with their discoloured and broken nails, as though without effort. And watching his success, knowing by some instinct he would not have told for fear of misconstruction to any but Judy, who always understood, that some malign wish to hurt lay at the springs of his brother's complaisance towards the children, Ishmael felt a stirring of the old unease that he admitted to himself was not without a leaven of jealousy.
For the Easter recess Nicky came down, and no lover ever waited for his mistress with a more high-beating heart than Ishmael did for his son. And at the back of his mind was the haunting fear of Archelaus as affecting his relations with Nicky, a fear such as he might have had had Nicky been a woman and he and Archelaus young men.
Nicky came, charming as ever. He was so full of life that his forty-odd years seemed nothing to him. He had that immense vitality, sparkling but full of reserved strength, that brings with it a sense of completeness apart from youth or age. Ishmael felt the old pang of disappointment that Nicky gave so little, repented of directly some little thing showed how Nicky was thinking of and for him. Nicky drew his brows together when he heard of his uncle's advent. He was a great stickler for the conventions, and did not like this appearance in the flesh of old family scandals that might again become a topic for busy tongues.
Archelaus was out when Nicky arrived, but when the family party was assembled on the lawn for tea he made his appearance. Everyone was there. Ruth had driven over from her Vicarage with her two little girls, with whom Jim was playing and occasionally quarrelling; Marjorie sat by Nicky and waited on him with an indulgence she generally showed him on the first day together after they had been separated for a few weeks; and even the volatile Lissa was there, in a sense, as Ruth had had a long letter from her that morning which she had brought over to read to her father. Ruth's husband, a gentle, kindly, abstracted creature, was there too, pulling his long fingers through his beard and saying very little. Ishmael liked him, but preferred him to come to the Manor rather than himself going to the Vicarage. He had never got over the idea bred in him by association with the Parson that a priest should not be married.
Archelaus wandered on to the lawn looking his most spruce; he had evidently tried to tidy himself, having shaved and put on a clean collar of extraordinarily antiquated make. His clothes might have had "American ready-made" written upon them. He advanced towards them slowly, leaning heavily on his stick.
"Nicky," said Ishmael, "this is your Uncle Archelaus.... This is my boy."
Nicky got to his feet and said rather coldly that he hoped his uncle was well, but it was the old man whose eagerness in holding out his hand made Nicky's advance seem laggard. Nicky had taken a dislike to his uncle; he could not tell why. He flattered himself he was not a snob, but he thought this old Rip Van Winkle a terrible thing to drop into any family out of the blue. Archelaus lowered himself into a chair beside his nephew and began to try and make conversation. There was something pathetic about his evident efforts and Nicky's hidden distaste that was all there was to meet it, masked by courtesy. Ishmael suddenly felt his heart soften towards his brother; he told himself almost with a pang that he need not have been afraid that this old prodigal would have beguiled Nicky as he did the children; his simple wiles were not for grown men busy with affairs. Yet he still watched anxiously, though now the faint feeling of anxiety had rather transferred itself from Nicky to Archelaus.
As the days went on his heart grew no lighter, though in the society of Nicky, busy as he was with showing him all the latest improvements, he had not much time to think of anything else. Archelaus was too old and enfeebled to go all over the estate as Ishmael was still able to do, and gloried in the doing now he saw that there were others less able to than he. Yet, had he had more leisure to observe, his anxiety would have grown, not lessened, for a cloud began to gather upon Archelaus that was like the old brooding of his youth, though less articulate, but perhaps none the less dangerous for that. There had been a softening about him those first days of Nicky's return, as there was still when he played with Jimmy; but now the look that had held a timid eagerness when it was turned on Jimmy's father glowed with something else less good, a something that deepened when it was turned on Ishmael.
About this time Judith brought her visit to a close, and Ishmael was chiefly occupied with getting her off in safety and with as little fatigue as might be. Each year now their parting held something of the quality possessed by his yearly gamble with his crops, only in the former case the chances against them were doubled, for it might be Judy who failed to come again on the long journey from town.
She had a companion, a devoted creature but colourless, whom she could be said rather to suffer gladly than enjoy, and her interests, were divided between the little slum church she lived near in London, her friends at Cloom, and the rare visits of Lissa, of whom she was very fond, and who sometimes went and poured out to her enthusiasms about Futurist paintings, which Judy, who had remained true to the early Impressionist school, could only consider a perverse return to cave art.
"Shall I give your love to Lissa?" asked Judith as Ishmael tucked her into the cosiest seat of Nicky's car, which was to take her to Penzance. "No, I won't," she went on. "I shall tell her she's to come and give it for herself. She is coming, I know, now she's got her International picture off her mind. She's a very gifted woman, but I sometimes think it's a pity for her to fill her life with nothing but paint and canvases. I'm old-fashioned, I suppose!"
"Lissa and I understand each other," said Ishmael. "She is the only other human being beside myself I've ever met who finds the deepest joy in things and places instead of people."
"Do you still? Not you; they've failed you for a long time now, I know, and they'll fail Lissa. I wish I hadn't given her the advice I did when she came to town."
"What was that?" asked Ishmael, stepping back as Nicky climbed into the driver's seat.
"Never to trust a man or offend a woman. She's stuck to it too well. I've got to the age when I think it's better to have trusted too much than too little. Good-bye, my dear! Take care of yourself. I shan't come again."
"What ..." began Ishmael; but at a sign from Judith Nicky had put in the clutch and the car was sliding off down the drive. Ishmael turned and went thoughtfully into the house. He wondered whether Judy too had suffered from that same sense of a shattered atmosphere that he had since the return of Archelaus.
It seemed absurd that he should, he told himself. He was seventy, Archelaus older; it was surely time they found it possible to live together in harmony.... And yet it was not that there was any definite bad feeling between them, that he could find any holes in the scheme of his brother's behaviour. It was only that Archelaus, old as he was, still retained the quality of a satyr, of something oddly malevolent, that boded ill. Ishmael tried to break himself of the feeling, life-old with him, though for so many years forgotten, but he found that, though he could force himself not to dwell on it, beyond that he was powerless. There was no actual harm Archelaus could do him, and he told himself repeatedly that there must be something rather hateful in himself that he could still feel this profound troubling of aversion.
He called for Jim to go over the farm with him; but the little boy was not to be found, and one of the maids told him she had seen him go off with his new uncle. Ishmael paused to put on a big coat, for the wind was fresh although it was late in May, and then he too went out.
In the four-acre the young corn he had sown on that day of Archelaus's return showed some four or five inches of green blades. Lest it should grow too fast and rank, the roller had been busy over it the day before, and, though the elastic tissue of its frail-looking growth was already springing erect again, the field still showed alternate stripes of light and dark, marking this way and that of the roller's passing, as though some giant finger had brushed the nap of this fine velvety tissue the wrong way.
Ishmael leant upon the gate and looked at the corn, mechanically noting its good condition, but feeling no pleasure at the sight. It was for him as though a blight had come over the Cloom of his idolatry, and he told himself it could never again be the same for him. He felt very old and tired, though it was still early in the day. His brain was working slowly; it took him a long time to register upon it his thoughts about anything at which he was looking, and the knowledge of this distressed him.
Judy had gone and was not coming back—she had said so. That aroused no acute sensation in him, but rather a dreary feeling of being sorry. Judy was old in spite of her vigour and her ever-quick tongue, which age had quickened. She had always been articulate, he always the reverse, and on this morning he felt a dumb impotency even towards himself. He stared out over the acres filmed with that thin, fine green, and past it to the wine-coloured ploughed lands and the pastures, and, turning a little against the gate, he saw the house, a pale pearl-grey on this clear day. He turned to his left and saw cultivated land far as the cliffs where once waste had been; and here and there on the rolling slopes of the moor beyond he saw a little grey farmstead that was his too, whose tenants owed their prosperity to him. And for the first time in his life the sight gave him no joy. Archelaus had drawn a blight over it all. He might tell himself with the resentful anger of old age that the thing was all wrong, absurd even; but that availed nothing. Years had not softened the fact that the presence of Archelaus had power to spoil things for him, now as when he had been a child. Archelaus was somewhere now with little Jimmy, telling him tales of the far places of the earth, which he, Ishmael, had never seen, never would see. Jim was listening entranced, his bright brown eyes shining as Nicky's did when he was moved, as Phoebe's had been wont to do.
A bright whistling sounded from the direction of the house, and Nicky came to the gate leading from the farmyard and stood looking across it. He saw Ishmael, and, waving his hat, began to come over the field towards him. And quite suddenly a certain balm slipped into Ishmael's grieved heart. At least he had Nicky ... and that, after all, was what Cloom meant. Cloom might in all these years have failed him as far as she herself was concerned, leaving him feeling bereft and lost, but it was not in her power or in that of Archelaus to spoil whatever since Nicky's birth had been his chief reason for loving Cloom. This was not a blind love as the mere instinct for acres had been—this was the motive power of love itself. He waited in sudden gladness by the gate.
The day sharpened as it went on, cold rain blew up, and the inmates of the Manor began to be anxious that Archelaus had not yet come in with little Jim. No one seemed to know where he had gone or taken the child. As the day wore on Marjorie, usually a very placid, strong-minded mother, began to grow frantic. She declared that never since he came to the place had she considered Archelaus quite sane or responsible, and that Ishmael ought to have known better to keep such a queer old man on in the same house as a child. Nicky tried to comfort her before he went out for the third time on his horse to try and find some trace of the two missing members of the family. Ishmael could do nothing but wander from room to room, oppressed by a sense of fear such as he had not suffered from since Nicky had gone to South Africa. Once he shook his fist in the air as he waited by himself in the dining-room, whence he could watch the drive, and the facile, burning tears of age ran down his face as he spoke aloud of Archelaus in a cracked old voice he hardly recognised for his own. If Archelaus had let the boy come to any harm, if he had done him any hurt.... Back on his mind came flooding old memories of Archelaus—the night in the wood, for instance.... He had done wrong to believe that even at eighty years old that deep malevolence had faded. His instinct had been the thing all his life long which had made genius for him, and he had been wrong not to trust it now he was old. It was probably the only thing about him which had not aged, and he should have let himself go with it....
Late that night, through wind and sharp rain-shower, Nicky came back, with Jim, sleepy but unhurt and full of his adventure, before him on the horse. Archelaus and the child had been found wandering on the moor by Botallack mine, now long disused; Jim was crying with hunger and alarm and the old man babbling of the days when he had worked there. He was trying to find one particular shaft to show the child, he said. As it was ruined, with an unguarded lip and a sheer drop in the darkness of some five hundred feet, it was as well that the search for it had failed. Archelaus was following with the doctor in his trap, said Nicky briefly. He had seemed as though suddenly broken down, the doctor thought, and would probably never recover. And, indeed, when Archelaus was half-carried, half-helped, into the hall, he looked, save for the two spots of colour on his high cheek-bones, like some huge old corpse galvanised into a shocking semblance of life.
He was taken up to his room, the one with the four-poster bed in which the old Squire had died, with the wide view of the rolling fields. And there, it was soon plain, Archelaus would remain for what was left to him of his earthly course.
A week later there was no doubt that Archelaus was dying. He had passed the week only half-conscious—some spring both in the machinery of his splendid old body and his brain seemed as though they had given way together. He lay dying, and Ishmael, standing day by day beside the bed, looking down on the seamed, battered, gnarled thing that lay there so helplessly, felt a stirring of something new towards Archelaus. It was not any touch of that irrational affection that very easily affected people experience for those they have never really liked and yet towards whom they feel a warm outflow merely because of the approach of death; neither was it any regret that he had not loved Archelaus in life. That would have been absurd; there had been nothing to make him like his brother and everything to make him do the reverse, and he was not of those whose values are upset by approaching death. But his antipathy for Archelaus had all his life been so deep, if not so very violent a thing, that it had hitherto prevented him feeling towards him even as amicably as one human being naturally feels towards another. This was the change that took place now—he was not enabled to yearn over a brother, but he was, for the first time, able to look with the detached impersonal sympathy and kindliness of one man towards another whom he has no particular reason to dislike. A profound pity wrung his heart as he looked—the pity he would have felt from the beginning if Archelaus had ever let him, the pity which had prompted his forbearance at the time of the bush-beating in the wood.
This broken old man had wandered all his days; he had lived all over the earth and called no place his, even as he had possessed many women and yet called none his own. That such had been his nature and would have been even under other circumstances did not at this pass make the wanderings less pitiful. For the whole time that sense of wrong had kept telling him that he ought to have one special place for his own, and that one the place where he was born, which his father had held before him. Looking down on him, Ishmael wondered what it was that had driven him back to it at the latter end, whether it were blind instinct or some more reasoned prompting. He was soon to know, for on the day a week after Archelaus had been brought home he seemed to become himself again in mind and demanded to see his brother alone.
Ishmael went upstairs and into the bedroom.
Archelaus lay in the big bed, looking smaller than seemed possible; his face, deep in the pillows, jutted sharply between the mounds of whiteness with an effect as of some gaunt old bird of prey. His hands and long corded wrists looked discoloured against the sheet. Ishmael went across to the bed and sat down beside it. Archelaus was very still; only his eyes glittered as they stared up at Ishmael from between his thickly veined lids.
"You wanted to see me," said Ishmael. His voice was expressionless, but not from any hard feeling on his part. It seemed to him as he sat there that nothing as vigorous as animosity could be left alive between them—both old, both frail, both drawing near to sleep. And yet, as their eyes stared into each other's, some tremor of the old distaste still seemed to communicate itself....
Archelaus began to speak, very slowly, very low, so that Ishmael had to stoop forward to hear, but each word was distinct, and evidently with that extraordinary clarity that comes sometimes to the dying, even to those whose brains have been troubled, the old man knew what he was saying.
"I want to tell 'ee," said Archelaus. Ishmael stayed bent forward, attentive.
"What do 'ee suppose I came back for?" asked Archelaus—and this time there was definite malice in voice and look; "because I loved 'ee so?"
"No, I never thought that. I wondered rather ... and I thought it was just that—" he broke off. Archelaus finished the sentence for him.
"That I was old and wandering in my wits, and came home as a dog does? No; it wasn't that. I came home to tell 'ee something—something I've hid in my heart for years past, something that'll make I laugh if I find myself in hell!"
Ishmael waited in silence. When he again began to speak it was as though Archelaus were wandering away from the point which he had in mind.
"You've set a deal of store by Cloom, haven't you, Ishmael?" he asked.
Ishmael nodded. Archelaus went on:
"Not just for Cloom, is it? To hand it on better'n you got it—to have your own flesh and blood to give it to? To a man as is a man it wouldn't be so much after all wi'out that?"
Again Ishmael assented. Again Archelaus went on without any fumbling after words, as though all his life he had known what he was going to say at this moment. He lifted his hand and began fumbling at the neck of his nightshirt. Ishmael guessed what he was wanting, for when he had been undressed they had found a little flat oilskin bag slung around his neck which they had left there. Now he bent forward, and, loosening the shirt, lifted out the bag. In obedience to a nod from Archelaus, he took out his knife and, cutting the dark, greasy string that looked as though it had rested there for years, slipped the bag from off it. Then, still in obedience to Archelaus, he slit the oil-silk and a few discoloured letters fell out. He gathered them up from off the coverlet and waited.
"Read," said Archelaus. Ishmael dived into a pocket for his spectacles, found them, adjusted them, and began to turn over the letters. Archelaus pointed to one with his trembling old finger. "That first," he whispered; "take that one first." Then, as Ishmael settled himself to read, he added with a low chuckle: "Knaw the writen', do 'ee?"
It had seemed vaguely familiar to Ishmael, but no more, and not even now could he say whose it was. It was very old-fashioned writing and very characterless, the hand which had in his youth been called "Italian," and it seemed to him to have nothing distinctive about it. "Never mind," said Archelaus as he shook his head; "you'll knaw fast enough. Read."
This is what Ishmael read by the evening light that flooded the room:
"Dear Archelaus," ran the letter, "I don't know whatever I shall do. I wish I was dead. Why did you come back and trouble me? There were plenty of women where you came from. You have told me about them often enough. I never wanted you to make love to me. I never liked it, only I couldn't help it. And now there's a baby coming and he hasn't been near me for over two months. He seems as though he didn't want me any more, and I don't know what to do, because now he'll have to know...."
Ishmael read so far, and though he did not understand what he read, and it sent no rush of knowledge over his soul, yet a deadly sense of fear, of yet he knew not what, sent his heart pounding through his frame. The letter fell to his knee and Archelaus, watching, said:
"I told her to speak 'ee soft and let her lil' body lie against 'ee...."
Ishmael picked up the letter again, looked from the date—the month of January, in 1868—to the signature, "Phoebe Ruan," before he let the letter drop again. Still he said nothing, and after a minute Archelaus went on.
"Read the next," he said.
The next was but a further plaint, signed with Phoebe's name, in a rather more uneven hand. Ishmael found himself remembering, as his eye met them again, her little tricks with the pen—the wandering tails to her words, the elaborate capitals which gave a touch of individuality to the regular slanting lines. He picked up the last letter.
"Dear Archelaus," it began—Phoebe would never have suffered sufficiently from a sense of fitness to alter the conventional beginning, whatever the stress under which she wrote—"I have done it, and now he need never know unless you tell him, and you won't ever, will you, dear, dear Archelaus? Please promise me."
"Did you promise?" was all Ishmael's voice asked.
Archelaus stirred a little in the bed.
"I promised never to hurt her by tellen' 'ee," he said. There was a moment of silence, and then he broke into vehement speech. Even his voice had gathered strength; it was as though in the full flood of what was sweeping out of him, after being dammed for so many years, all physical disabilities were washed away.
"Aw, what do 'ee think I ded it for?" he asked; "for love of Phoebe? Her!... I could have got as good at any brothel to Penzance.... It wasn't for love I ded it; it was for hate. Hate of 'ee, Ishmael! To get my revenge, and for you not to knaw till it was too late, much too late, to cast her off or the child. I wanted to wait till the boy should be the warld to 'ee ... till he had grown as your own soul, and you saw his son ready to come after him and thought it was your own flesh and blood you was leaving behind you, and you too old to leave any other.... Cloom's been yours all your life, but when you and I are both on us dead and rotting, it'll be I and not you who's living on at Cloom. So 'tes mine, after all, not yours...."
A moment later and the triumphant voice went on again.
"There's another letter," it said, "from your old Parson. I wrote to he after I'd met Nicky—my son—casual-like once in Canada. That's what he answered."
Again Ishmael picked up the letter, almost mechanically, and read:
"I have received your letter dated July, 1891. I cannot find words to write to you as I would wish. If what you tell me is true—and I do not think you could have invented the letters of which you send me copies—it would matter very little if I found the pen of men and of angels to tell you what I thought. I can only tell you that even if the wish is wicked I hope with all my heart, and pray it too, that you may never be allowed to come home to tell your brother what it is in your heart to tell him. That the boy may never in his turn have a son to gratify you with the sight of your grandchild at Cloom. That this weapon you have forged against your brother may be under Providence to your own undoing. And since the ways of God are mysterious—though I am tempted to say not as past finding out as the ways of man—even if you carry out your threat it may be that Ishmael will be given strength to withstand the horror of what you tell him, and that the Lord has a comfort for him in ways you could not understand, so that you will be robbed of all but an empty victory...."
As Ishmael slowly and with meticulous care put the letters safely on to the bed a step was heard coming along the passage, the step of Nicky, the only step in that house which was both that of a man and vigorous. Archelaus turned his head a little on the pillow, and Ishmael, for the first time showing any emotion, leant towards him. "If you say a word to him—" he began. The steps paused at the door and then went on again. Ishmael stayed bent forward, eyes sidelong. Archelaus began to speak, as though his mind had drifted backwards from the acuteness of the present.
"All these years ..." he muttered, "all these years ... wandering auver the earth, I've thought on it.... Phoebe, she was a light woman and many was the time I'd held her lil' body to mine, but she was soft as a lil' lamb fresh from its mother, so she was.... The likes of you wants too much from a woman; I was never one of they chaps. If a woman was lil' and soft, said I—"
"Archelaus," said Ishmael, speaking very distinctly and bending over the old man to try and attract his wandering attention, "when you came back from California, had you it in your mind to do this thing?"
He had to repeat the question, and at last Archelaus showed a gleam of knowledge. "When I came back from Californy ..." he murmured, "I came back, so I ded.... No, I'd forgot all about her then, sure enough; she was but a soft lil' thing. But he'd got her, him as had taken all of mine, got the wench as had been mine, that I might ha' wanted again, and I was mad as fire. And then I was glad of it, for I saw my way, if so be as I could only get a cheild by her...." He turned a little on his pillows towards Ishmael and became confidential. "That was my fear," he went on, "that I'd go wi' her again and no cheild 'ud come any more than it had afore. But there's often a change in women after a few years, and besides ... I'd not wanted to get 'en afore. I knew I'd get 'en that time, and I ded. She was some whisht, she was, weth you and your fine gentleman ways of not sleeping along o' she, when she found the way she was in...." He laughed, a tiny, little old thread-like laugh, as out of the trough of the years there floated up to him Phoebe's predicament and his advice as to how to meet it—a thin little thread of laughter that spanned the years and connected that time of which he spoke with this present moment by the bed of death. The laugh died away and fell again into the abysses from which it had been evoked, and there only hung a silence in the room, but it was a silence thin, brittle as glass.
His lids drooped. Over his fast dimming brain the films of approaching dissolution began to swirl, now thick and fast, now tenuous again, so that he recognised Ishmael and what had happened for a fleeting moment during which the old glee peeped out of his blurred eyes. Then he drifted into sleep with the suddenness of an infant, a sleep quite peaceful, as of one who has accomplished well his task and now may rest. Ishmael sat on by the bed; sometimes he looked at him, even laid his fingers on his pulse to make sure, with as much mechanical care as ever, that he was indeed only sleeping. He sat on where he was, but with his eyes staring out of the window, though they hardly saw the rolling fields that lay, a burnished green, beneath the evening light. Once a step came again to the door, and a voice asked if everything were all right. Ishmael answered "Yes," bidding the questioner go away, and he never knew that it had been Nicky's voice which asked.
Ishmael sat and watched his own thoughts pass before him. It is not given to every man to see all that he has lived by lying broken around him, and this was what had happened to Ishmael. He could see, now that he had lost him, how it was the thought of his son at Cloom, far more than Cloom itself, which had held ever deepening place in his heart and soul. He remembered the night when Phoebe had whispered to him that she was going to have a baby ... how she had clung about his neck and how happy she had seemed. He remembered too—the recollection swam up to him through years of blurred forgetting—an earlier night, when Phoebe had won him back to her ... that night of passion which must have been on her side a calculated thing, a trap for him to fall in blindly—as he had. Phoebe—who had seemed so transparent, and whom, as he now realised, no one but Archelaus had ever really known.... Yet none of that hurt or even outraged him. What Phoebe had been was of supreme unimportance. Not at this distance of years could he conjure up the emotions of an outraged husband which even at the time would have seemed to him both inadequate and ridiculous. Not the realisation that that night of passion had been a faked thing on her part—a set-piece on a stage—touched him. He took, as he was guiltily aware, too little to it himself, beyond animal appetite, for him to dare judge of that.
But that other night, after she had told him he was to expect a child to be born to him, that night when he had gone out into the scented garden and felt drowning and yet uplifted on the tide of the deepest emotion of his life—to know that that had all been based on a delusion was what upset the whole of life now.
Could truth be built on untruth? If what he had felt then was all the time based upon a lie, how could there be anything worth the living for in that which he had left? The rapture, the deep and sacred joy, when through his fatherhood he had felt kin to God Himself—what of that? What of the life, the religion, the love, the hopes, that had gone on piling up upon that one thing from that day on? Were they all as valueless as what they had been built on? If so, then he was bereft indeed, left in an empty world, that only echoed mockery to the plaints of men and the quiet eternal laughter of the Being who made them for ends of supreme absurdity.
It was not his relationship towards Nicky that Ishmael was weighing as he sat in the still room; it was his whole relationship towards life. It was not his fatherhood that he felt reeling; it was the fatherhood of God. It was not love that he felt slipping from his grasp; it was truth: not Nicky that he was despairing of, but the figure of Christ Himself.
If all that emotion, that love, that faith, that ardent passion of joy and work, were founded, caused by, built upon what had never been, could they really exist either?
Once he did hear his voice saying aloud "My boy ... mine ..."; but even then, his passion for truth outweighing indulgence to self, he knew that it was the mere mechanical speech of the situation rising to his lips unconsciously. He said the words again to try and get at exactly what their import was. "Mine...."
All that had struck him while Archelaus had been lying watching him read the letters was "This couldn't happen to a woman ... how unfairly it's arranged ... it's only a man this could happen to ..."; and that had shown him how small, after all, was the man's share, that such a thing could be possible. Him or another, it really did not seem to matter so very much. Both he and Archelaus had had Phoebe. That this spark of life should have been from him or from Archelaus ... was that, after all, so important? It seemed such a small share. Fatherhood, looked at dispassionately, seemed to him a thing very artificial in its convention. Life, that there should be life—yes, that was different, but not that it should have been from him or another on that particular occasion.... When one thought that both had equally possessed the woman they seemed to merge so in her personality as to lose individual personalities of their own.
If he had not kept away from Phoebe for those two months, thus, in the light of her letter, putting the matter beyond doubt, how would any of the three of them ever have known whose son Nicky was? Women always said they knew, even when they were going equally with two men; but did they? Was it not rather that they always decided it was the child of the man they cared for most? And if conditions had all along been normal between him and Phoebe, then how would he have felt in the light of his brother's avowal? It would have been impossible to say whether the child had been his or his brother's; and yet Nicky would have been himself, even as he was now, and he, Ishmael, would have felt the same about him, and nothing would have been really different any more than if he had never known; or, knowing that there was doubt, still could not have told for certain which of the two it was who had fathered Nicky. How, then, was it different now that he did know beyond a doubt? Nicky was the same....
Ishmael clung on to that. Nicky was the same. Then—and the light came sliding into his heart with a sensation of easing—if Nicky were the same, then the truth might be the same too; all that he had lived by not be the more overset than was the Nicky he had known and loved all these years. Though Nicky was not what was called his son, all he had built upon Nicky might not be valueless any more than Nicky himself had become valueless, or one jot of his character or personality been overthrown.... Nicky stood where he had; then why not more than Nicky? These were the eternal verities, not the mere accident of fatherhood.
Ishmael gave a long, tired sigh, and his body slipped a little down into his chair; his eyes still stared at the light in the sky. He felt suddenly terribly tired, so tired that his body grew very heavy and his mind of a thistledown lightness, which refused any more to concentrate. Yet he knew that there were certain things he must face for the sake of Nicky, certain things he must ensure. He made a violent effort and forced his mind and body to respond to his will. To him, on the far rim of life, it might be vouchsafed to see how little certain things mattered after all; but there was Nicky, still in the midst of it, with a mind that lived more in the present than Ishmael's had ever done. It was important for Nicky's peace of mind that he should never know he was in fact, if not in law, what so many of his family had been, what he would have thought of as "base-born." And Nicky so disliked Archelaus and all he stood for.... Nicky's happiness—that was what mattered now, what must be ensured.
Slowly Ishmael turned in his chair and faced Archelaus once more. He bent down and spoke into his ear, but Archelaus did not stir beyond a muttering in his sleep. As he looked at him Ishmael saw how easy it would be to slip a pillow over his mouth and hold it there till he had been put beyond the reach to hurt Nicky. Yet he felt no temptation to do it, not because of any scruple of conscience—the suggestion did not get as far as arousing that—but simply for the reason that most people do not commit crime, because it does not seem a possible thing in the scheme of life as it is normally known. Things horribly unbelievable, out of the ordinary course, did happen in life, even as this thing that had happened to him; but the angle of life was not thereby changed, it was still the things that were abnormal. Ishmael saw the impossibleness of killing his brother even while he saw the possibility.
"Archelaus!..." he said again, speaking clearly and insistently. "You are not to tell anyone else. You are not to tell Nicky. Do you hear me!"
Archelaus stirred and opened his eyes; they stared at Ishmael for a long moment without recognition. Then a flame of understanding came into their dimmed look.
"I'm come home to tell my son," he said. "He'm my flesh and blood; I'm come home to tell en."
"No—no!" Ishmael put out his hand to take the letters which Archelaus had gathered into his grasp again. With surprising strength Archelaus rolled his body over on to them, and his voice was raised in a cry before Ishmael could stop him. At the same moment a step sounded in the corridor. It was Nicky, doubtless anxious, coming along for a third time to listen if all were well. At the cry he hurried and opened the door and came quickly in.
Hester the dog was with him and, bounding forward in the boisterous manner of the well-meaning foolish creatures of her type, she sprang upon the bed. Nicky ran forward as Archelaus uttered another cry, but unlike the first. This was of pure high terror. Nicky seized the dog by the scruff of the neck, so that she hung suspended for a moment in his grasp above the bed, before he bore her to the door. Archelaus stared as though he saw a ghost; his old mouth fell open, showing slack and curved inwards like the mouth of a very young baby. His eyes glazed with his terror; his cheeks had in that one minute assumed a pale, purplish hue, on which the deep lines and darker veins stood out like a network laid over his shrunken skin. He sat up in bed—he who had not lifted his head for a week—and stayed rigid so for a few beating moments. Then he fell back, crumpled up amid the pillows. Nicky had flung the dog outside, and came to bend over him, casting a watchful eye towards Ishmael to see how he was standing it. Ishmael's hand was slipped into the bed under his brother's body; his eyes were fixed on his face.
"Go for the doctor, quickly, Nicky!" he said. "Go yourself."
The dying man opened his eyes and fixed them on Ishmael.
"No," he said, so faintly that Nicky had to bend low to hear; "no. You don't need to send him away.... I've had a sign, Ishmael; I've had a sign.... Oh, my soul, I've had a sign!..."
Ishmael bent over to him, trembling, waiting, wondering.
"All these years I've tried to forget ..." said Archelaus, "and the Lard hasn't forgotten.... Phoebe, Phoebe, keep the dog from off me!..." His voice cracked on arising scream. Then he fell into an exhausted silence, but his eyes still sought Ishmael's. Profoundly stirred, knowing that, at what was literally for him the last hour, Archelaus was agreeing to forego the full cup of his revenge, wondering why and yet too shaken to wonder intelligently, Ishmael called to him in sudden passion:
"Archelaus ... brother! Try and think one thought of love, only one, don't think of your fear. There's nothing there to hurt you. There's only me and Nicky...." But Archelaus never spoke again. He lay and gazed as though he were struggling for speech; in his eyes struggled the tortured questioning of the inarticulate.
What it was that had struck home to his brother at the last Ishmael was never to know, but he recognised that in that minute's space was all of remorse and understanding and forbearance, of a blind effort towards something not wholly self, that Archelaus had ever known. The dying man flung a failing hand out to Nicky, and his eyes were on him when what light still lingered in them faded and went out.
Nicky wanted to take Ishmael away, but the old man insisted on being left alone with his dead brother for a while, and when Nicky, determined not to go far or be more than a few minutes away, had left the room, Ishmael went to the fire and dropped the letters in it one by one. He watched them burn away, and then crossing over to the bed again he sat down slowly in the chair beside it.
Nicky had to send for the doctor, give the news to Marjorie, parry Jim's questionings; and when at last he went upstairs again it was to find Ishmael, in a deep sleep, slipped forward in his chair as though he had never left it, his head against the edge of the bed, so that the outflung dead hand of Archelaus almost touched his white hair.
August came in hot and clear, all over the countryside the crops ripened well, and now, in the last quarter of the moon, they were ripe to cut. Ishmael went down to the four-acre with Nicky to see the men at work, and Jim, who for days had been on the tiptoe of excitement over the advent of "the machine," as the binder was always called, ran in front of them.
The men had cleared a path some five feet wide all round the field with their scythes, and now the clattering thing, crimson painted, blatant, was going on with the work, and the great square of oats and barley stood up compact and close; while round and round it, diminishing it every time, went the machine, drawn by three glossy horses harnessed unicorn fashion.
Up the slope of the field they went, heads nodding, swelling sides glistening in the sun, while Jimmy, proudly perched upon the leader, his legs sticking out straight on either side, chirruped an encouragement lost in the clatter. Up they came, till the three brown heads, the forelocks blown about their rolling eyes, were clear cut against the blue of the sea; then the man perched on his high iron seat tugged at the reins, and the three horses and the clamorous machine came swirling round the bend of the field and past the waiting knot of people. The huge wheel, made of flail-like pieces set horizontally on spidery arms, went thrashing round, scooping the standing corn on to the knife, which cut it and thrust it into the mysterious recesses of the machine in the twinkling of the blade. The next instant the bound bundle, neatly knotted round with string, was vomited forth on the far side....
So the machine—capable, crimson, noisy—went on its magic way with a glitter of whirling metal and a rhythmic clatter, the white blades of the wheel flashing up against the sky. And a quiet little old man in shirt-sleeves and trousers all of a soft faded blue bent about in the stubble at its wake, leaning the bundles up, three together, against each other, the delicate heads interlacing, and the fresh green of the "lug"—the clover and other green things cut with the crop that make it so rich a food for the cattle—showing through the stems here and there.
"How d'you find it, John-Willy?" asked Ishmael of the little old man, who rolled an ear of barley in his horny fingers and answered:
"Rich, Maister Ishmael, rich!..."
So it had come to the time of the harvest at Cloom, and the crops were sound and sweet, and, if the weather held, the threshing would soon follow. Life and harvest went on as they had for years, and Ishmael saw that all things were done as they should be, and now the House had adjourned and Nicky had come down to help him. For this, after all, was life, Ishmael told himself—this seeing to the earth and her fulness, this dealing with men and their wages and their work. This was definite; about it there could be no illusion, no shattering of beliefs.
Nicky, who for all his years was still occasionally swept by the impulse to play, now when he saw Jimmy riding so triumphantly upon the leader stopped the machine as it came past, and, bidding the driver dismount, took his place upon the high iron seat and started off. Jimmy shrieked with delight, and urged on his horse so fast that Nicky had to shout to him to keep quiet. Jimmy kept on turning his head to see the completed bundles being emitted from the back of the binder, and at every one he gave a whoop of joy as though it were a result of his and his father's cleverness. Nicky cracked his whip neatly round the boy's head without ever touching him, as he had learnt to do in Canada, and every time the little group of men and women standing beside Ishmael, his tenants, applauded, admiringly. "They make a handsome pair, so they do!" said old John-Willy Jacka. "I reckon you'm rare proud of your son and grandson, Maister Ishmael!"
Ishmael nodded. His eyes were fixed on the two of them as they appeared up the slope—Jim coming in view first, so young and glowing against the sunlit blue of the sky, so small upon the big powerful horse; then Nicky, lean and handsome, his grave face lit to mirth, looking, with his slouch felt hat and bare neck and chest exposed by the loose open shirt he wore, like some brown god of the harvest—not a young deity of spring, but the fulfilled presentment of life at the height of attainment, at harvest.
Yet he had been as young as Jim, would be as old as himself—so thought Ishmael, with that impotency the watching of the flight of time evokes in the heart. To Ishmael it seemed such a mere flash as he looked back to the evening when the Neck had been cried in that field, and he had thought the moment so vivid it must last for ever. That moment seemed hardly further ago than when he had first broken his own earth in this field with his new iron plough. Neither seemed really long ago at all—time had gone too swiftly for that—yet both seemed very far away, not set there by period, but by being in another life. What seemed furthest away of anything was the morning last spring when he had sown these acres with the dredge-corn now being reaped, and when the figure of an old man in slaty-grey clothes had paused by the gate and stared across the farmyard.... Archelaus now lay in six feet of earth, while he himself still walked free upon these broad acres; and yet—what was it Archelaus had said? "It'll be I, and not you, who's living on at Cloom; 'tes my flesh and blood'll be there, so 'tes mine, after all...."
How much did that affect it? thought Ishmael now, as he watched for them to come round once more, and gave a nod and a wave of the hand as they breasted the slope. It was not, it occurred to him, not for the first time, but more deeply than ever before, as though Archelaus had been some stranger. He had built to make Cloom a good place for his descendants, for his flesh and blood, but the same blood ran in Nicky whether he or Archelaus had fathered him. Not one jot of it was different. And this, which to Archelaus, had he been in Ishmael's position, would have been the sharpest pang—which he had meant to be the sharpest—was to Ishmael the saving element. For it prevented Cloom being made in his eyes a thing of no account, the mere vehicle of strangers. Cloom was more to him than his dislike of Archelaus—that was what it amounted to. Nicky was more to him as himself than his idea of him as his son. Jim was everything to him as the future of Cloom, not as his grandson any more than that of Archelaus. But sonship struck more nearly than any matter of a generation twice removed, and not so simply as all that could the thing be harmonised with his groping soul. For he was still tormented by doubts as to whether all he had lived on and by must not be valueless since they were conceived on what did not exist, still feeling lost, without anything definite to hold to, without any solution of the riddle. He refused to believe that the whole riddle of life might be without an answer, that there could be no pattern, only a blind mingling of threads; that was a supposition everything in him, inborn and learned, failed to tolerate.
This summer had been a ghastly effort for him, who, for all his reserve, had never been any use at deception; he had felt as though he took about with him all day a sensation as of a hollow weight—something that bore him down and yet had no solidity, that was rather the nightmare heaviness of a dream. Also he was obsessed by the triumphant face of Archelaus that leered at him, that stared at Nicky and Jim with a deadly possessiveness in his eyes while they went their unconscious ways, that said, as plainly as words could have, "I have won ... I have won!..."
Life was not simple even at seventy, when such a mixture of motives and sensations could hold sway—the old fear of Archelaus crystallised into a definite writhing under this triumph of his, the aching sense of personal loss in his son, and, sharpest pang of any, the fear that all of life lay hollow behind and before.... Ever since Nicky's birth it had seemed to him that every revelation had come to him through his fatherhood of Nicky—ecstasies he had otherwise not touched.... Never, much as he loved his girls, could they have given him hours such as Nicky had; neither when Georgie had told him of the advent of each, nor at the time of birth, had there been for him the deep significance of the night when Phoebe had whispered to him.... There the fact that he could only feel a thing at its height for the first time had stepped in, preventing ever again a renewal of such ecstasy.
And what was ecstasy worth if based on a lie? Back to the old question he came, turning it over and over, aware of it in the back of his mind even when he was thrusting it sternly away from the forefront of his attention.
He turned it over again now as the clattering binder went round and round, diminishing the square of waving gold, littering the stubble with swathes; and at every passing of it he waved to Jimmy, even when the child had forgotten his presence and was showing off for the benefit of some newcomer in the little group. The machine was nearing the tall monolith of granite that stood up amid the corn, and Nicky was driving carefully so as not to scrape the flails against its stone side. High as he sat on his iron perch, it towered above him, and he turned the horses carefully round it with a swirl that made Jimmy shriek for pleasure. Jimmy leant sideways from his steed to try and slap the grey granite in passing, but could not reach it save with the end of his little whip.
The last film of standing crop fell away from before the monolith, and it reared up grim and gaunt, but sparkling with a thousand little points of light as the bright flecks in the stone caught the sun. Nicky, who had grown rather tired of his freak, undertaken to please Jimmy, brought it, to an end with the successful negotiation of the monolith, and, getting down, went to lift Jimmy also from his perch.
"Dinner-time," he told him, and let him sit upon his shoulder, big boy as he was, to ride to the gate.
"Come along, father," said Nicky, slipping one hand upon Ishmael's arm, and keeping the other folded over the slim brown ankles crossed against his chest; "I promised Lissa I wouldn't let you tire yourself."
They set off towards the house, the three of them, but it was Nicky who answered Jim's eager talk as they went, and Ishmael who in silence tried to answer his own thoughts. To one thing only he clung just then, with a blind, almost superstitious, clinging, and that to his determination to taste every moment of this harvesting, to see that everything was done in the way he liked, to watch the rhythmic procession of it while yet he could say that it was all his own. Physically also he had not been the same man these months since the death of Archelaus. With his uncertainty of mind as to the whole meaning of life went a feeling of insecurity about everything. Often he had to keep a firm hold on himself not to cry aloud that the world was slipping, slipping....
When the corn was all built into the great arishmows that stood bowing towards each other like the giant dancers in some stately minuet, he was there to watch. All day he went from field to field and watched the strong young labourers building; those on the ground tossing to those on the stooks, while the air was full of a deep rustling. One man would crawl about on the growing mow, arranging each sheaf as it was tossed up to him, so that its feathery crown lay towards the centre, away from chance of rain. At last it was all finished—all the precious grain tucked away out of possible harm in the heart of the arishmows, save for the feathery bunch at the crest that fastened all off with a flourish. It had been a lovely task, the building of the arishmows, for, like all work to do with the land, it was the perfection of rhythm, and this, added to the unending flow of tossing and packing, held always that lovely rustling of stalk and ear as an accompaniment of music to the action.
Not many days later and the stately arishmows were destroyed and the sheaves brought in on waggons and built into great stacks in the field which lay next to the farmyard, where the threshing would take place. There was a pile of the dredge-corn, another of deeply-golden oats, a third of the greyer-tinted wheat, which was a little smaller than the other two, though that also was as high as the roof of the barn.
In the cleared space between the stacks the great steam thresher would be brought; but now the men who would help in that work were still all part of the weaving pattern of stacking; one man tossed from the high-piled waggon, another, on the highest point of the growing stack, caught it with his pitchfork and threw it on, with a sideways twist, to the man on the lower end who got further and further along as he packed the sheaves, so that the thrower had to increase the tangent of his twist at every throw. Each of the men caught and tossed and placed, always to the moment, with the unending flow of machinery. And again —so often before, but never so keenly as now—was Ishmael struck with the pattern of it all.... This could not surely be the only thing that moved so rhythmically towards harvest; this inevitable flow, this deeply necessary procession of events, of sowing and ripening, of cutting and building and threshing, must surely hold its counterpart in the garnering of men's lives ...; or did they alone reap the whirlwind, and when the swirl of that was past, subside into formless dust?
That day had come to which the whole of the farming year leads up—the day of the threshing, when the grain is at last released from danger and made ready to be stored in barns, to be ground in mills. "Guldise," as it is still called in West Cornwall, is an epic occasion, when all the months, from the first breaking of the land to the piling of the reaped sheaves, culminate at the apex of achievement.
In the field, between the waiting stacks, was the thresher; the traction-engine which had dragged it there stood beyond, only harnessed to it now by the long driving-belt that would, when the time came, make of the thresher a living creature. Presently all the men began to arrive, not only the labourers who always worked on the Manor farm, but the men from the neighbouring farms, from those owned by Ishmael and from others, for every threshing is a festival with a great dinner and refreshments in the field and good cheer, even for the crowds of children and stray dogs that always turn up out of nowhere. In the kitchen the maids were busy with the preparations for the dinner, and in the breakfast-room even Lissa, always late, was hurrying through her breakfast so as to go out and start work on the series of quick sketches she meant to do of the thresher at work and the groups around it.
Lissa was a young-looking woman for her thirty-five years, no more pretty than she had ever been, but graceful, and with a strong charm in her lazy voice and long grey eyes and in the mouth that was so like Georgie's, only less regular. Her chin and jaw had the clear sharpness of Ishmael's; she was far more like him both in character and aspect than the sweet round Ruth, and Ishmael had grown to feel more and more that no matter how long a time elapsed between the occasions when he and Lissa saw each other, yet they could always pick up where they had left off, that there was never need for more than half-sentences between them. She, who was supposed to be the selfish one of the family because she lived in London most of the year and seldom wrote—she was still the only member of the household who had known something was wrong with Ishmael. She had found him uncommunicative on the subject, but she watched him with her clear understanding eyes that always made him think her so restful.
"Come on, do Auntie Lissa!" urged Jim. "It's begun; I can hear it."
"So can I," said Lissa drily; for the great moaning hum of the thresher filled the air, went on and on as it would all day except at food-times, sounding like some vast wasp held captive and booming unceasingly—some great dragon of a wasp, as Jimmy put it.
They went out together, but Lissa insisted on going to find grandpa first and helping him on with his light coat; then they all three went out across the farmyard and through the open gate into the field.
The thresher stood humming and palpitant, its great bulk painted a dull pinkish colour like a locust, but faded and stained with rust. Upon its trembling roof the piles of oats, thrown by the men on the stack alongside, showed a pure golden; above the sky was dazzlingly blue, and in it the white cumuli rode brilliantly. The men working on the top of the thresher showed bronzed against the luminous blue, their shirts as brightly white as the clouds, the shadows under their slouched hats lying soft and blue across their clear eyes.
Poised on the stacks the men were busy feeding the sheaves to the men on the thresher, who in their turn tilted them into the great concave drum in its hidden heart. From one end poured out steady streams of golden grain, into the hanging sacks that boys took away as they filled, bringing in their place empty sacks that hung limply for a minute and then began to fill, swelling and puffing out to sudden solidity. The sieves beneath the thresher shook back and forth, back and forth, tirelessly, while chaff poured away from the open jaws at the side in a fine dusty column of pale gold, from which the topmost husks blew up into the air, so that it was always filled with a whirling cloud that danced and gleamed in the sunlight like a swarm of golden bees.
At the far end of the thresher, away from the traction-engine, the fumbling lips of the shakers, mouthing in and out beneath their little penthouse, pushed out the beaten straw into the maw of an automatic trusser, which Ishmael had only bought that year and which he was watching eagerly. For one moment the formless tumble of straw, pushed out by those waggling wooden lips above, was lost in the trusser, then it shot forth below in bound bundles that had been made and tied by the hidden hands of the machinery within, to the never-ceasing wonder of the gaping children, who stared at the solemnly revolving spools of string in the little pigeon-holes on either side and from them back to where the string was perpetually disappearing, sucked into the interstices of the trusser, as though, if only they stared hard enough, they must eventually see how the miracle was accomplished. And from the ground yet more men picked up the bundles on their pitchforks and tossed them to men who were building the straw-ricks at the same time as the corn-stacks were diminishing. Little boys bore away the chaff gathered into sacks or swept it into a golden pile, feather-soft, from which smoke-like whirls wreathed in the little breezes.
In line with the thresher stood the engine, looped to it by trembling curves of driving-belt, that wavered like a great black ribbon from the driving-wheel of the traction-engine to that of the thresher, and that showed a line of quivering light along its edge. A trail of dark smoke blew ceaselessly from the traction-engine, staining the blue of the sky, against which it faded and died away. The engine rocked a little unceasingly upon its wheels as it stood, even as the thresher did, and its governor whirled round and round like a demented spirit, so fast that its short arms with the blobs on their ends made a little dark circle in the air. A pool of steamy water lying in the grass beneath the waste-pipe gave off white wreaths that wavered upwards and fell again, while from a huge black butt upon wheels the greedy boiler sucked up more and more through a coiling tube that glittered like a serpent.
It was dark, ugly, smelly, the traction-engine, but it was what endowed the murmurous thresher with life. In spite of its dirt and oil and dripping secretions, it kept going that wonderful life which was filling the world, the rising and falling hum, the streams of pouring grain, the swelling sacks, the great glossy bundles of straw, the blown column of chaff, the cloud of dancing golden magic bees that made of the air an element transmuted, glorified.
With all the threshings he had seen, it seemed to Ishmael that he had still never seen any quite so wonderful, so radiant, so rich to eye and ear and nostril, as this; and to little Jimmy, who had never been there for guldise before, it was a golden miracle. He stood, silent for once, transfixed, fronting the wondrous monster who did so many different things at once with such perfect ease, never making a mistake or getting out of time....
He helped, too, to carry out "crowse"—the midmorning lunch—to the men, and he wandered about with the crowds of stray children and patted the unresponsive dogs, and was admired by the women and bored by them, and himself partook of big saffron buns, that Marjorie said would spoil his dinner, but that didn't. Nothing, he felt, could have spoilt anything that day.
With evening and the last whirring of the thresher Ishmael, watching him at play, felt, as he always had, that it is impossible to watch children without an ache for the inevitable pity of it that they should have to grow up. It was not, he felt, because they are particularly happy—for never again can there be griefs blacker than those which darken all a child's horizon, but simply because they stand for something beautiful which can never come again. Now, looking at Jim and the other children, he felt the old pity, but tinged with something new. For the first time he saw that it was only by realising that children were symbols, the mere passing exponents of a lovely thing which was itself ever present, that it became possible to look at them without that aching. There would always be, he supposed, some people who could look at children and feel, not so much pity that these young things must age as self-pity that they themselves had lost childhood; but others looked as he always had, with a more impersonal pang, sorry that so beautiful a thing should fade. And it was for the comfort of such as he to realise that it did not matter in the least, because, though children grew up and away, childhood remained—a bright banner carried from hand to hand, always in a new grasp before the old one could tarnish it. More, he saw that it was this very evanescence which had for him given childhood its sadness that also gave it its beauty; if there were anywhere on earth a race of perpetual children it would not be beautiful. For he saw that it was the inevitable slipping-away of all life which gave poignancy to loveliness.
He spoke something of his thought to Lissa, and she nodded in comprehension.
"That's why no picture or sculpture can be as beautiful as the human model," she said, "not because of any necessary inferiority, but simply in the terrible permanence of man's work as compared with God's."
They stood a while longer side by side, and then Jimmy, who with the last whirring note of the thresher suddenly felt very tired, came and leant up against his grandfather. Ishmael stooped over the boy, and with a great heave, despite Marjorie's protests—she had come out to take her son to bed—he hoisted him up to his old bowed shoulder.
"Say good-night to the thresher," he told him. "You are going to bed, and it is going to bed too."
"Is it very tired?" asked Jimmy.
"Yes, nicely tired, like you when you have been running about all day."
"Not nasty tired like I am after lessons?"
"No, not nasty tired."
"Are you tired, Grandad?"
"Yes," said Ishmael.
"Nice tired or nasty tired?"
"Nice tired," said Ishmael; "old men and little boys both go nice tired."
"Like the thresher?" persisted Jimmy, and, receiving an answer that satisfied him, allowed his grandfather to carry him in to bed, though he could have gone in so much more quickly himself, for grandpapa could not run with him on his shoulder as his father could. But Jimmy was in no hurry, because every minute gained was a minute out of bed and in this wonderful world where threshers hummed and golden clouds wove themselves ceaselessly in the air.
Ishmael too felt very tired, as he had said; but, as he had also said, it was a pleasant tiredness. His day had been too full for thought other than of what was happening before his eyes. An exquisite sense of fitness, of something that was falling into place as everything in the history of the harvest had done, a sense as of gathered sheaves and stored grain, was with him, though sub-consciously. His brain felt filled with visual impressions, his old eyes held a riot of blue and gold, and a humming was still in his ears. As he closed his lids that night golden motes danced within them.
He sank off into sleep, and then drifted, half-awake again, to that state when the mind is not fully aware of where it is or of what has happened. It seemed to him, for one blurred moment, that he was a little boy again, falling to sleep on that evening when the Neck was cried ...; and then, out of the far past, came back to him the remembrance that it was at the Vicarage he had slept that night. Something told him he was not there now.... Vaguely, in the darkness, he put up his hand to feel if the plaster Christ were above his head. His groping old fingers found it, and he stayed, half-reared up against his pillows for an instant, while he touched the drooping head with its thorny crown, and on that familiar touch he let his hand fall, and with it fell asleep.
The next morning he was found lying as though worn out suddenly, never to move or speak again. Only his brain was still alert as he lay there and watched them all from under his heavy lids. Three days he lay, and they could not even tell how much he understood, for he was past the effort that communicating with them would have meant; but all the while he was feeling his brain was clearer than it had ever been in his life, that at last he knew many things he could have told them if he could have spoken, only they were things that cannot be taught by one man to another, for every man must find them for himself.
At first it seemed to him he was floating very peacefully on a clear sea, untroubled in mind or body, though seeing he was drifting, because he was also aware that whither he was drifting was the inevitable direction of a kindly current. Then after a little or long while, he could not have told which, he seemed himself to become stationary, while past him flowed the pattern of his life as he remembered it—scenes grey and many-coloured, blurred at the edges, but sharp with an aching clarity at the core. They had all gone, these happenings, but it was not that which gave the poignancy; it was that the Ishmael who had taken part in them was gone too, and each had borne something of himself away with it.
Those first childish years after he had known Cloom was to be his, that he had to regenerate it; then those years at St. Renny ... Killigrew floated past him, joyous and pagan. There was Hilaria, joyous also ... he had forgotten her for years now. At St. Renny life was always just ahead, and he only had the sense of preparing for it, of being ready to leap into it as into some golden cool stream of running waters.... In those days it had been Cloom, the place made for him in life, that had held so much of glamour in its grey walls and hard acres. Yet even then there had been something else, some recognition of the fact that even this was not an end to itself alone.... Then youth—the first years at Cloom and that wonderful incursion into the London that was as past as he was, that London that had been half-wonder, half-nightmare, and that had held his love for Blanche. There had been a brief spell when he had told himself that this was the chief thing, that in that passionate fusing of two spirits, that absorption in some one other loved being, lay the end in life, but the mirage had dissolved then even as the image of it wavered and faded now. While he was lost and groping in the wastes it had left him in, there swam up the memory of Hilaria again, but no horror went with it. And though this second impinging of her life on his bore the far-off memory of fear, yet it now seemed as vital and natural as the first. She had shown him something long ago which he was fully understanding now.
He passed on, and again there lifted its head the thing which, in his clean, boyish horror, he had taken to hold a terror which he now saw it did not of necessity. He had learnt to mistrust it because it had led him into what had at the time been such a mistaken marriage with poor little Phoebe; but that, too, seemed to matter very little now. He saw again how in that one hectic year he had tried to tell himself that physical passion was at least the chief drug of life, that the wonder and the intoxication of it made all else pale, that it made even sordidness and strain worth while; and he saw again his revulsion from it, his effort to break away.
He drifted into the blackness he supposed was night, and came up out of it at the hour of his life when for the first time he had found something which, however it had modified or changed, had yet never entirely been swamped by anything else, which in some ways had strengthened—the wonder of fatherhood that he had felt, the ecstasy of creation, which had dawned for him on that night when Phoebe had whispered to him.... What now of that hour, that hour which had seemed so utterly broken by what Archelaus had told him all these years after? He still could not see quite clearly, though now it was with no sense of being hopelessly baffled that he fell back awhile from before that curtain. He went on passing again through his life, and he saw the harder years that came crowding along, those definite, clear-cut years of young manhood when he had somehow drifted a little away from Boase, when he had first begun to be a man in the country, when all his schemes and working out of them had filled the hours—still with Nicky as the chief personal interest.
In his childhood he had lived by what would happen in a far golden future, in his youth by what might happen any dawning day; but in his years of manhood, and from then till he began to feel the first oncoming of age, he had lived by what he did. Then he came again to Georgie, and saw how insensibly he had been won to softer ways, though never to the glamour-ridden ways of first youth. They had been sweet, those years, and the sweeter for the outside things—the friendship with Killigrew that had vivified his life, the pleasant intermittent times with Judith, the renascence of intimacy with Boase and the growth of his children, growing away from him every year, but none the less to be loved for that. What had he lived by during those years? Not, consciously, by anything, except a mere going on and a determination to make the best of things, to get the most out of everything. When the Parson died he had a glimpse of a world he had lost sight of since his youth, but not then could he give up this one sufficiently to do more than glimpse it. And when Nicky was in South Africa he had suffered that second violent onslaught of the personal which racked him this way and that. Vassie—the horror that her death had held now seemed to him as empty of all save peace as Hilaria's. But all the while he had been living by what he found in that passionate moment when he stood, a man of sixty, at the top of the hill above the seaward valley and had seen the rainbow arching over Cloom and the distant sea. Beauty, the actual joy of the world, that had been feeding his soul all the time, giving him those moments of ecstasy without which Killigrew had always said the soul could not be saved alive. From that moment the slope of the ten years down to the present seemed so swift that he found his vision of them less clear than of preceding periods. What of these last years, each of which was bringing him with, it seemed, such increasing momentum, towards the end?
And in a flash he saw what he had, all unknowingly, lived by since the decline of his powers had fallen upon swiftness, and he saw it as what alone makes life bearable. He had lived by the knowledge of death, by the blessed certainty that life could not go on for ever, that there must be an end to all the wanderings and pain, to all the dulnesses and unsatisfactory driftings, to all the joys that would otherwise fall upon sluggishness or cloy themselves. This it was that gave its fine edge to pleasure, its sweet sharpness to happiness, and their possible solace to pain and grief. He had lived, as all men do, knowingly or not, by death. This was the secret bread that all men shared.
Again came that period of unconsciousness which corresponded to night, and the third day dawned. Again his brain felt of a crystal clearness; he was undistressed by the fact he could not speak to those around him or even return the pressure of their hands, for he was feeling all the old intoxicating joy of discovery at breaking into new lands. He even felt a mischievous elation that all this secret pageant, this retrospective wonder that was life, should be his to watch and enjoy, while all around thought him past emotion already.
If, then, men lived by death, what was death? Not a mere cessation—then a going-on.... He made no definite images of it in his mind, did not even wonder whether he should see those others he had known and loved who had passed into these tracts before him. That seemed to him now, as it always had when he had thought of it, rather unimportant. What mattered, he had always known, was the adjustment of the soul to something beyond it, to which it and the whole of life stood in inextricably close and vital relationship. Those other relationships, those other meetings, might be included in that as an added pleasure, but the other thing, if there at all, would necessarily be of such supreme importance as in its bright light to drown all minor effulgence. And that it was there, always, in this world and the next, he knew, for he had always felt his soul breathe it as surely as his lungs had inhaled the free airs of the earth. That the first meeting with it might not be all happiness, that as, in the Parson's creed, inevitable pains would have to be worked through before the soul could be sufficiently purged to meet it clearly upon its ultimate levels, mattered very little. At least, the pains would be different pains, not the same old wearying ones of earth—the disappointments and the mortifications, the burning anxieties and the bitter losses, the overwhelming physical disasters, that everyone had to go through sooner or later.
It lay before him, not as a darkness, but a brightness, that he knew. He felt an exquisite easing, even of the very muscles of his stricken body, as he thought of it—a brightness which every soul went to swell, which gained a glowing, luminous pulse of light from each one that slipped into its shining spaces....
And with that came light on all that puzzled and tormented him since he had known the facts about Nicky, and the mere physical paternity of him seemed a small thing beside such light as this. That passion of joy he had felt when he had heard of Nicky's coming had not been wasted: it had gone to make something in himself he would never otherwise have known; it had gone on in him as a living force, and had helped him to make Nicky what he was as much as one human being can make another. Archelaus had "won" in that Cloom would belong, though no man knew it, to his son and his grandson after him, but it no longer seemed to Ishmael to matter whether Archelaus "won" or not. There was at last no striving, no unacknowledged but hidden combat, no feeling of lingering unfairness.
Ishmael knew how, with all his elusiveness, Nicky had been very malleable, immensely open to impressions, to what was held before him, and he knew how different Nicky would have been if Archelaus had had the moulding of him. Just as even at this hour he was reverting to all he had learnt—more from watching and imbibing it than any other way—from Boase, so Nicky had absorbed from him what made him what he was. And yet, so till the end did the deep inherited instinct of the man who lives by land hold him, Ishmael took pleasure in the thought that, after all, Nicky was of Ruan blood.... So much of earth held by him as everything else began to slip away.
Then towards evening thought fell away too, leaving him only with what he had called to Jimmy a "nice tiredness." So do children feel after a day's play, so do old, old men feel after a life's work....
He was dimly but certainly aware that Nicky was beside his pillow, his hand upon him, that other figures were beyond, of Nicky's bent head, but in his drowsy mind it was confused with the head of the plaster Christ that had leaned forward from the wall behind and was drooping low over him. The hair fell softly over his eyes like the falling of a shadow, and under it he could see the Divine eyes, that had beamed at him now and again throughout his life, but never as brightly as in boyhood, smiling into his. He smiled back, and then, with a queer little apology in his mind, he turned his eyes away to take a last look at the soft dusk through the window.
Later, when Nicky had closed the sightless eyes, the young moon swam up upon her back. She who had just gone through her full round scarred maturity and died of old age was now virgin once again, with that renascent virginity some of the greatest courtesans have known, a remoteness of spirit, a chill freshness that is in itself eternal youth.
Jimmy Ruan went through the farmyard and climbed upon the gate that led into the field. He saw the big straw stacks that had been built up only four days ago at the time of the threshing; he saw the black and sodden patch upon the turf where the steamy water had dripped ceaselessly, the ruts where the heavy thresher and the traction engine had driven deep into the soil. He saw, too, the last little scales of chaff, still palely golden, that had lain hidden till this frolicsome wind had come to whirl them up in one last mad dance before it lost them for ever. For it was a morning of clear and windy brightness, one of those first days of autumn which are also a last flicker of the summer.
The wind was everywhere—high in the flocculent clouds, low between the closest grass-blades; scattering the seeded flowers in the hedgerows, rippling under the tarpaulin covers of the stacks so that they seemed to be drawing deep breaths, twisting the golden straws upon the cobbled yard until they seemed to be playing together—playing mad games of wrestling, each slim golden combatant writhing from beneath his fellow at the last moment of contact. The wind lifted also the collar of Jim's tunic, making it flap about his rosy cheeks, and it sent streaming out the black silk tie that his mother had knotted there herself.
Jim put up his hand to make sure the black tie was still safe. He was sorry that his grandfather was what people called dead, but with his sorrow went a tiny thrill. Nothing so important had ever happened to Jimmy before. He wondered if he would be put into black altogether so that the other children he met would know he was in mourning.
He swayed back and forth upon the gate. First he pretended he was a soldier riding on horseback like his father had been in South Africa-on-the-map. Next he was a sailor in a storm at sea, and the wind was shaking his good ship under him, and the waves were mounting, high, high, as they often had over the ship of old Uncle Archelaus, whom he had met long ago.
Thought of the sea and sight of the tiny ripples on the surface of the horse-trough suggested a new game to him. He had been told to run away out of doors and not bother, so it was very quietly that he crept into the empty breakfast-room, which was also his playroom, and began to search in his toy chest for something he could pretend was a ship. With a cry of joy he pounced upon a walnut shell that lay tucked away in a corner. He sat upon his heels, the shell in his little brown hand. He was remembering that it was one his grandfather had cracked for him and made into a boat by the addition of matches for seats and mast. He loved it until his uncle Archelaus had made him a real boat of wood, and then he had thrown it aside and forgotten it. In this corner it must have lain ever since while he played with and broke the other ship of wood.
He took it out now into the sunny, windy yard and on into the lane, on the other side of which there was a tiny thread of water that trickled down the slope to the stream which raced along the bottom of the rock garden. Jim was not allowed to go down to the real stream by himself, so he stayed in the lane and carefully launched his recovered treasure upon the tiny rivulet. He watched anxiously—yes, it floated. He bent forward and poked with a twig to dislodge it from a tiny tangle of weed; then his foot slipped and he splashed his clean socks. Bother! He had promised not to be a nuisance. He soon was wetter still, and began to feel happier.
When the little boat was fairly caught in the current it went bobbing away out of his reach, and he saw it disappear in the pipe under the road. He pictured it emerging, being hurtled down to the real stream and then hurried upon that right out to sea.... He felt no pang at losing it in his excitement at its adventurous career. Soon he was busy upon other matters; he was by turns a pirate, an engineer who built a dam, and an airman who jumped off a boulder and had one intoxicating moment in mid-air.... Then for a while he played at being grandfather and lying still with his eyes shut.
But that was dull, and he was glad when he heard his mother's voice calling him in to dinner. He shook off the earth with which he had tried to besprinkle himself and scrambled up. It was dull being dead. He would never be dead, but he would be anything and everything else—when he was a man.