He looked about him and listened. There was no sound at all but the lap of tide between the ships, and the voice of a preacher travelling over the water from a shed far down the harbour, where the Salvation Army was holding a midnight service. Captain Tangye had snugged down his ship for the night: ropes were coiled, deckhouses padlocked, the spokes of the wheel covered against dew and frost. The boy found the slack of a stout hawser coiled beneath the taffrail—a circular fort into which he crept with his rugs, and nestled down warmly; and then for half an hour lay listening. But only the preacher's voice broke the silence of the harbour. On—on it went, rising and falling. . . .
Away in the little town the church clock chimed the quarter. "It must have missed striking the hour," thought the boy, and he peered over the edge of his shelter. The preacher's voice had ceased; but another was speaking, and close beside him.
"You'd be surprised," it said, "how simple one's pleasures grow with age. This is the twelfth Christmas I've spent at home, and I assure you I quite look forward to it: that's a confession, eh?—from one who has sailed under Nelson and smelt powder in his time." The boy knew that he must be listening to the Touch-me-not, whose keelson came from an old line-of-battle ship. "To be sure," the voice went on graciously, "a great deal depends on one's company."
"Talking of powder," said the Nubian, creaking gently on her stern-moorings, "reminds me of a terrible adventure. My very first voyage was to the mouth of a river on the West Coast of Africa, where two native tribes were at war. Somehow, my owner—a scoundrelly fellow in the Midlands—had wind of the quarrel, and that the tribe nearest the coast needed gunpowder. We sailed from Cardiff with fifteen hundred barrels duly labelled, and the natives came out to meet us at the river-mouth and rafted them ashore; but the barrels, if you will believe me, held nothing but sifted coal-dust. Off we went before the trick was discovered, and with six thousand pounds' worth of ivory in my hold. But the worst villainy was to come; for my owner, pretending that he had opened up a profitable trade, and having his ivory to show for it, sold me to a London firm, who loaded me with real gunpowder and sent me out, six months later, to the same river, but with a new skipper and a different crew. The natives knew me at once, and came swarming out in canoes as soon as we dropped anchor. The captain, who of course suspected nothing, allowed them to crowd on board; and I declare that within five minutes they had clubbed him and every man of the crew and tossed their bodies to the sharks. Then they cut my hawsers and towed me over the river-bar; and, having landed a good half of my barrels, they built and lit a fire around them in derision. I can hear the explosion still; my poor upper-works have been crazy ever since. It destroyed almost all the fighters of the tribe, who had formed a ring to dance around the fire. The rest fled inland, and I never saw them again, but lay abandoned for months as they had anchored me, between the ruined huts and a sandy spit alive with mosquitoes—until somehow a British tramp-steamer heard of me at one of the trading stations up the coast. She brought down a crew to man and work me home. But my owner could not pay the salvage; so the parties who owned the steamer— a Runcorn firm—paid him fifty pounds and kept me for their services. A surveyor examined me, and reported that I should never be fit for much: the explosion had shaken me to pieces. I might do for the coasting trade—that was all; and in that I've remained."
"Owners are rogues, for the most part," commented the Danish barquentine, rubbing against the Touch-me-nots fender as if to nudge her. "There's the Maria Stella Maris yonder can tell us a tale of the food they store us with. She went through a mutiny once, I've heard."
"I'd rather not talk of it," put in the Italian hastily, and a shudder ran through her timbers. "It's a dreadful recollection, and I have that by my mizzen-mast which all the holystone in the world can never scour."
"But I've had a mutiny, too!" said the Dutch galliot, with a voice of great importance; and this time the boy felt sure that the vessels nudged one another.
"It happened," the galliot went on, "between my skipper and his vrauw, who was to all purpose our mate, and as good a mate as ever I sailed with. But she would not believe the world was round. The skipper took a Dutch cheese and tried to explain things: he moved the cheese round, as it might be, from west to east, and argued and argued, until at last, being a persevering man, he did really persuade her, but it took a whole voyage, and by the time he succeeded we were near home again, and in the North Sea Canal. The moment she was convinced, what must the woman do but go ashore to an aunt of hers who lived at Zaandam, and refuse to return on board, though her man went on his bended knees to her! 'I will not,' she said; 'and that's flat, at any rate.' The poor man had to start afresh, undo every one of his arguments, and prove the earth flat again, before she would trust herself to travel. It cost us a week, but for my part I didn't grudge it. Your cliffs and deep-water harbours don't appeal to me. Give me a canal with windmills and summer-houses where you can look in on the families drinking tea as you sail by; give me, above all, a canal on Sundays, when the folks walk along the towing-path in their best clothes, and you feel as if you were going to church with them."
"Give me rather," said the Norwegian barque from Christiansund, "a fiord with forests running straight up to the snow mountains, and water so deep that no ship's anchor can reach it."
"I have seen most waters," the Dane announced calmly and proudly. "As you see, I am very particular about my paint, for a ship ought to keep up her beauty and look as young as she can. But I have an ice-mark around my breast which is usually taken for a proof of experience, and as a philosopher I say that all waters are tolerable enough if one carries the talisman."
"But can a ship be beautiful?" and "What is the talisman?" asked the Italian and the Nubian together.
"One at a time, please. My dear," she addressed the Italian, "the point is, that men, whom we serve, think us beautiful indeed. It seems strange to us, who carry the thought of the forests we have left; and on warm days, when the sap awakes in us and tries to climb again, forgetting its weakness, we miss the green boughs and the moss at our feet and the birds overhead. But I have studied my reflection often enough in calm weather, and begin to see what men have in mind when they admire us."
"And the talisman?" asked the Nubian again.
"The talisman? There is no one cure for useless regret, but each must choose his own. With me it is the thought of the child after whom I was christened. The day they launched me was her first birthday, and she a small thing held in the crook of her mother's arm: when the bottle swung against my stem the wine spurted, and some drops of it fell on her face. The mother did not see me take the water—she was too busy wiping the drops away. But it was a successful launch, and I have brought the family luck, while she has brought them happiness. Because of it, and because our names are alike, her parents think of us together; and sometimes, when one begins to talk of 'Thekla,' the other will not know for a moment which of us is meant. They drink my health, too, on her birthday, which is the fourteenth of May; and you know King Solomon's verse for the fourteenth—'She is like the merchants' ships, she bringeth her food from afar.' This is what I have done while she was growing; for King Solomon wrote it for a wife, of course. But now I shall yield up my trust, for when I return she is to be married. She shall bind that verse upon her with a coral necklace I carry for my gift, and it shall dance on her white throat when her husband leads her out to open the wedding-ball."
"Since you are so fond of children," said the Touch-me-not, "tell me, what shall we do for the one I have on my deck? He is the small boy who signalled Christmas to us from the garden above; and he dreams of nothing but the sea, though his parents wish him to stick to his books and go to college."
The Dane did not answer for a moment. She was considering. "Wherever he goes," she said at length, "and whatever he does, he will find that to serve much is to renounce much. Let us show him that what is renounced may yet come back in beautiful thoughts."
And it seemed to the boy that, as she ceased, a star dropped out of the sky and poised itself above the fir-tree on her maintopmast; and that the bare mast beneath it put forth branches, while upon every branch, as it spread, a globe of fire dropped from the star, until a gigantic Christmas-tree soared from the deck away up to heaven. In the blaze of it the boy saw the miracle run from ship to ship—the timber bursting into leaf with the song of birds and the scent of tropical plants. Across the avenue of teak which had been the Nubian's bulwarks he saw the Dutchman's galley, now a summer-house set in parterres of tulips. Beyond it the sails of the Maria Stella Maris, shaken from the yards, were piling themselves into snowy mountains, their foot-ropes and braces trailing down and breaking into leaves and clusters of the vine. He heard the murmur of streams flowing, the hum of bees, the whetting of the scythes—even the stir of insects' wings among the grasses. From truck to keelson the ships were wavering, dissolving part from part into remote but unforgotten hiding-places whence the mastering adventurer had torn them to bind and yoke them in service. Divine the service, but immortal also the longing to return! "But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby."
The boy heard the words; but before he understood them a hand was on his shoulder, and another voice speaking above him.
"God bless us! it's you, is it? Here's a nice tale to tell your father, I must say!" He opened his eyes, and above Captain Tangye's shoulder the branches faded, the lights died out, and the masts stood stripped and bare for service against the cold dawn.
THE KEEPERS OF THE LAMP.
It was in a purple twilight of May that I first saw the lamp shining. For me, a child of seven, the voyage had been a tiring one: it seemed many hours since, with a ringing of bells, and hearts adventurously throbbing with the screw of our small steamboat, we had backed and swung, casting our wash in waves along the quay-walls, and so, after a pause during which we held our breath and drifted from the line of watching faces, had headed away for the great empty sky-line beyond which the islands lay. I knew that they lay yonder; for, the evening before, my father had led me up a tall hill and pointed them out to me— black specks in the red ball of the sun. But to-day, as hour after hour went by with the pant of the engines, the lift and slide of the Atlantic swell, the tonic wind humming against the stays, my eyes grew heavy, and at length my head dropped against my father's shoulder. And then—to me it seemed the next instant—he woke me up and pointed towards the islands as they rose out of the indigo sea. At first they looked rather like low-lying clouds, but after a minute or two there was no mistaking them; for, as if they had just discovered us, they hung out lamp after lamp, some steady, some intermittent, but all of them gleaming yellow along the floor of the sea save one, a crimson light which hid and showed itself again northward of the rest. Crimson was my favourite colour in those days, and even as I dropped back into sleep I decided that I liked this lamp the best of all.
I awoke again to the sound of voices. We were passing a pilot-boat out there on the watch for ships. Her crew hailed us as we went by, and I saw their faces in the green radiance of our starboard light—gaunt, dark faces, altogether foreign. One of the men, the oldest, was bareheaded, with long grey locks, and wore a yellow neckcloth with his shirt open below it, and his naked chest showing. Their voices as they answered our skipper were clear and gay like the voices of children.
And, next, we were alongside a quay. Our seats, our bulwarks, even our decks, shone with dew. A crowd stood on the dim quay-edge and looked down on us, and chattered, but in soft voices. There was a policeman too, and I wondered how he came there. Above this shadowy moving crowd rode the stars I had known at home. I took my father's hand. At the head of the gangway he stooped, hoisted me on his shoulders, and carried me up and up through narrow mysterious streets, around dark corners, past belated islanders hurrying down to the steamer; but always upward, until he pushed open a door and set me down blinking in a whitewashed bedroom lit by a couple of candles: and with that came sleep.
Happy days followed: blue and white days—days vaulted and floored with blue, flashing with white granite, with the rush of white water beneath the shadow of the leaning sail, with white cirrus clouds, with white wings of seabirds. It was the height of the nesting season, and the birds had brought us to the islands; my father with paint-box and camera—though, our time being short, he relied almost wholly on the latter. A naturalist, and by temper the gentlest of men, in his methods he was a born pioneer. You can hardly imagine how cumbrous and well-nigh hopeless a business it was in those days, not so long past, to pursue after wild life with a camera; but a thousand disheartening failures left him still grasping the inviolable shade, still confident that in photography, if it could only be given with rapidity and precision, lay the naturalist's hope. Blurred negatives were all the spoil, and, sorry enough, we bore back after long days of tossing and climbing among the Outer Islands; but we had the reward of living among the birds. They filled our thoughts, our lives for the time:—great cormorants and northern divers, flitting red-legged oyster-catchers, shags spreading their wings to the wind and sun, sea-parrots, murrs, razor-bills, gannets questing by ones and twos—now poised, now dropping like plummets with a resounding splash; sandpipers and curlews dotting the beaches, and wading; tern, common gulls, herring-gulls, and kittiwakes, and, at nightfall, shearwaters popping from their holes and swimming and skimming around our boat as we headed for home. And then, the nests we discovered!—nay, the nests that at times we walked among, picking our steps like egg-dancers!—nests boldly planted on the bare rock ledges; nests snugly hidden among the clusters of blue thrift and the massed sea-pinks. They bloomed everywhere, these sea-pinks; sheet upon sheet of pale rose-colour, soon to show paler and fade before the rosy splendours of the mesembryanthemum. But the thrift had no rival to fear, condensing blue heaven and blue sea in the flower it lifted against both; and to lie prone and make a frame of it for some winding channel when the tide-rip flashed and tossed was to send the eye plunging into blue like an Eastern diver after pearls.
But when after sunset the blue deepened to violet, always in the heart of it glowed the crimson light upon Off Island. Night after night I watched it from my window, and wondered what manner of people they were who tended it, living out yonder on a rock where no grass grew, and in a roar of tide which the inhabitants of the greater islands heard on still days in the few inland valleys where it was possible to lose sight of the sea. I knew that thousands of puffins bred there, and we were to visit the rock some day; but, what with the tides and an all but ceaseless ground swell, our opportunity was long in coming, and Old Seth (our boatman) kept putting it off until I began to disbelieve in it altogether.
It came, though, at last, with a cloudless morning and a north-easterly breeze, brisk and steady, the clearest day in a fortnight of clear days. We were heading northward close-hauled through a sound dividing two of the greater islands—Old Seth at the tiller, my father tending the sheet, and I perched on the weather gunwale and peering over and down on the purple reefs we seemed to avoid so narrowly—when Seth lifted his voice in a shout, and then, with a word of warning, paid out sheet, brought the boat's nose round and ran her in towards a silver-white beach on our left. As we downed sail, I saw a girl on the bank above the beach, leaning on a hoe and gazing at us over a low hedge of veronica.
Seth hailed her again, and she came running to the waterside. There she stood and eyed us shyly: a dark-haired girl, bare-headed, and with the dust of the potato-patch on her shoes and ankles.
"Any message for Reub Hicks, my dear? We'm bound over to Off Island."
She hesitated, looking from Seth to us; and while she hesitated a flush mounted to her tanned face and deepened there.
"Come," Old Seth coaxed her, "you needn' be afeard to trust us with your little secrets."
She seemed, at all events, to have made up her mind to trust us. From the pocket of her skirt she drew a tattered, paper-covered book, opened it, and was about to tear out a couple of pages, but paused.
"I'd like to send it," said she; but still paused, and at length passed the open book to Seth.
"I see." He nodded. "Seems a pity—don't it?—to tear up good printed stuff. Tell 'ee what," he suggested: "you leave me take the book over as 'tis, and this evenin', if you'll be waitin' here, I'll bring it back safe."
She brightened at once. "That'll do brave. Tell 'en I hope he's keepin' well, and give my love to the others."
"Right you are," promised Seth cheerfully, pushing off.
"And don't you forget!" she called after us.
Seth laughed. "That's a very good girl, now," he commented as he settled himself to the tiller again. "Must be a poor job courtin' with a light-house man: not much walkin' together for they. No harm, I s'pose, in your seem' the maid's book." He handed it to my father, who shook his head.
"Aw," went on Seth, guessing why he hesitated, "there's no writin' in it—only print." He held the book open. It was a nautical almanack, and night by night the girl had pencilled out the hour of sunset. Night by night the first flash of the Off Island lamp carried her lover's message to her, and, as Seth explained (but it needed no explanation), at that signal she blotted out yet one more of the days between her and the marriage day.
Off Island rose from the sea a sheer mass of granite, about a hundred and fifty feet in height, and all but inaccessible had it not been for a rock stair-way hewn out by the Brethren of the Trinity House. The keepers had spied our boat, and a tall young man stood on one of the lower steps to welcome us: not Reuben, but Reuben's younger brother Sam. Reuben met us at the top of the staircase, where the puffins built so thickly that a false step would almost certainly send the foot crashing through the roof of one of their oddly shaped houses. He too was a tall youth; an inch or two taller, maybe, than his brother, whom we had left in charge of the boat. It would have puzzled you to guess their ages. Young they surely were, but much gazing in the face of the salt wind had creased the corners of their eyes, and their faces wore a beautiful gravity, as though they had been captured young and dedicated to some priestly service.
Reuben touched his cap, and, taking the book from Seth without a word, led us to the cottage, where his mother stood scouring a deal table: a little woman with dark eyes like beads, and thin grey hair tucked within a grey muslin cap. She had kilted her gown high and tucked up her sleeves, and looked to me, for all the world, like a doll on a penwiper. But her hands were busy continually; the small room shone and gleamed with her tireless cleansing and polishing; and in the midst of it her eyes sparkled with expectation of news from the outer world.
Seth understood her, and rattled at once into a recital of all the happenings on the islands: births, marriages, and deaths, sickness, courtship, and boat-building, the price of market-stuff, and the names of vessels newly arrived in the roads. But after a minute she turned from him to my father.
"'Tis all so narrow, sir—Seth's news. I want to know what's happenin' in the world."
Now, much was happening in those May weeks—much all over Europe, but much indeed in France, where Paris was passing through the sharp agonies of the Commune. The latest my father had to tell was almost a week old; but two days before we set sail for the islands the Versaillais troops had swept the boulevards, and every steamer had brought newspapers from the mainland. Mrs. Hicks' eyes grew bigger and rounder as she listened; but she had listened a very short while before she cried—
"Father must hear this! He's up polishin' the lantern, sir. Begging your pardon, but he must hear you tell it; he must indeed." With immense pride she added, "He was over to France, one time."
She marched us off to the lantern, up the winding stairway, up the ladder, and into the great glass cage, where stood an old man busily polishing the brass reflector.
"Father, here's a gentleman come, with news from France!"
As the old man came forward with a fumbling step, my father drew a thick bundle from his coat pocket. "I've brought you some newspapers," said he; "they will tell you more than I can."
He held them out, but the wife interposed hurriedly. "Not to him, sir. Give them to Reuben, if you please, and thank you. But he, sir—he's blind."
I looked, as my father looked. A film covered both pupils of the old man's eyes.
"He've been blind these seven years," Reuben explained in a low voice. "Me and Sam are the regular keepers now; but the Board lets him live on here, and he's terrible clever at polishing."
"He knows the lamp so well as ever he did," broke in the old woman; "the leastest little scratch, he don't miss it. How he doesn' break his poor neck is more'n I can tell; but he don't—though 'tis a sore trial."
While they explained, the old man's hand went out to caress the lamp, but stopped within an inch of the sparkling lenses.
"Iss," said he musingly, "with this here cataract I misses a brave lot. There's a lot to be seen up here, for a man with eyesight. Will 'ee tell me, please sir, what's the news from France? I was over there, one time."
It turned out he had once paid a visit to one of the small Breton ports: Roscoff I think it was, and have a suspicion that smuggling lay at the bottom of the business there.
"Well now," he commented as my father told something of his tale, "I wouldn' have thought it of the Johnnies. They treated me very pleasant, and I speak of a man as I find en." He turned his sightless eyes on the family he had brought up to think well of Frenchmen.
"They are different folk in Paris."
"Iss, that's a big place. Cherbourg's a big place, too, they tell me. I came near going there, one time; but my travellin's over. It do give a man something to think over, though. I wish my son here could have travelled a bit before settlin' down."
But Reuben, on the far side of the lantern, was turning the pages of the tattered almanack.
"Well-a-well!" said the old woman. "A body must be thankful for good sons, and mine be that. But I'd love to end my days settin' in a window and watchin' folks go by to church."
It was past seven o'clock when we hoisted sail again, and as we drew near the greater islands a crimson flash shot out over the sea in our wake. On a dim beach ahead stood a girl waiting.
I daresay they never saw, and perhaps never will see, one another. I met them on separate railway journeys, and the dates are divided by five years almost. One boy was travelling third-class, the other first. The age of each when I made his very slight acquaintance (with the one I did not even exchange a word) was about fourteen. Almost certainly their lives and their stories have no connection outside of my thoughts. But I think of them often, and together. They have grown up; the younger will be a man by this time; if I met them now, their altered faces would probably be quite strange to me. Yet the two boys remain my friends, and that is why I take leave to include them among these stories of my friends.
The first boy (I never heard his name) was seated in the third-class smoking-carriage when I joined my train at Plymouth; seated beside his mother, an over-heated countrywoman in a state of subsiding fussiness. We had a good five minutes to wait, but, as such women always will, she had made a bolt for the first door within reach. Of course she found herself in a smoking compartment, and of course she disliked tobacco, but could not, although she made two false starts, make up her mind to change. She had dropped upon one of the middle seats and dragged her boy down into the next, thus leaving me the only vacant corner. The others were occupied by a couple of drovers and a middle-aged man with a newspaper, which he read column by column, advertisements and all, without raising his eyes for a moment.
The guard just outside the carriage door had his whistle to his lips, and his green flag lifted ready to wave, when the woman asked— "Can anyone tell me if this train goes to London?"
The drovers and I assured her that it did.
"It stops at Bristol, doesn't it? My ticket is for Bristol."
The train was in motion by this time. We set her mind at ease. She opened a limp basket (called a "frail" I believe), produced an apple and offered it to the boy. He shook his head.
He was a passably good-looking coltish boy, in a best suit which he had outgrown, and a hard black hat, the brim of which annoyed him when he leaned back. A binding of black braid advertised what it was meant to conceal—that the cuffs of his jacket had been lengthened; yet as he sat with his hands crossed in his lap he displayed a deal of wrist.
His eyes took my liking at once; eyes of a good grey-black—or, shall I say, of a grey with fine glooms in it. They looked at you straight but without staring; neither furtively nor with embarrassment, nor curiously, nor again sleepily, but with that rare blend of candour and reserve which allowed you to see that he was thinking his own thoughts, and had no reason to be ashamed of them. Having taken stock of us, he gazed thoughtfully out of window. His mother sighed from time to time, and searched her basket to make sure that this, that, or the other trifle had not been left behind. The drovers conversed apart; the middle-aged man (who sat facing the engine) read away pertinaciously at his newspaper, which he kept folded small by reason of the strong southerly breeze playing in through the open window; and I divided my attention between the landscape and the map at the beginning of Stevenson's Kidnapped—then barely a week old, a delight to be approached with trepidation.
So we were sitting when the train crawled over the metals beyond Teignmouth Station, gathered speed, and swung into full view of the open sea. As the first strong breath of it came rushing in at the window I heard a shuffle of feet. The boy had risen, and with his eyes was asking our leave to stand by the door. I drew in my knees to make way for him, and so, after a moment, did the middle-aged man. He did not thank us, but stepped past politely enough and stood with his hand on the leathern window-strap. I stared out of the little side window, wondering what had caught his attention.
And while I wondered, suddenly the child broke into song!
It was the queerest artless performance: it had no tune in it, no intelligible words—it was just a chant rising and falling as the surf at the base of the sea-wall boomed and tossed its spray on the wind fanning his face. And while he chanted, his serious eyes devoured the blue leagues right away to the horizon.
The drovers at the far end of the compartment turned their faces inward and grinned. The middle-aged man looked across at me behind the boy's back with half a smile and resumed his reading. The mother laughed apologetically—
"'Tis his way. He won't be so crazed for it in a few weeks' time, I reckon. He's goin' up to Bristol to be bound apprentice to his uncle. His uncle's master of a sailing ship."
But the boy did not hear. There are four or five tunnels in the red sandstone between Teignmouth and Dawlish, and through these he sang on in a low repressed voice, which broke out high and clear and strong as we swept again into the large wind and sunshine. At Dawlish Station we drew up for a minute, and a porter on the up platform nodded to one of the drovers and asked, "What's the matter with 'ee, in there?" "Nothin', nothin'; we've got a smokin'-concert on," said the drover. Across the rails a group waiting for the down train stood and stared at the boy, whispered, and smiled; and I can still recall the fascinated gaze of a plump urchin of six as he gripped with one hand a wooden spade and with the other his mother's skirt.
But the boy sang on heedless, and still sang on as we left Dawlish behind. There was no jubilation in his chant, but through it all there ran and rang out from time to time a note of high challenge. Perhaps I read too much in it, for in the heart of a boy many thoughts sing together before they come to birth,—and to the destinies we see so distinctly he marches through a haze, drawn onward by incommunicable yearnings. But as, unseen by him, I glanced up at his blown hair and eager parted lips, the chant seemed to grow articulate—
"O Sea, I am coming! O fate, waiting and waited for, I salute you! Friend or adversary, we meet to try each other: for your wonders I have eyes, for your trials a heart. Use me, for I am ready!"
As we turned inland and ran beside the shore of the Exe, his song died down and ceased. For a while he stood conning the river, the boats, the red cliffs and whitewashed towns on the farther bank; and so, as we came in sight of the cathedral towers, stepped back and dropped into his seat.
"Well now," said his mother, "you be a funny boy!"
For a moment he did not seem to hear; then started and came out of his day-dream with a furious blush. I looked away.
The second boy wore a well-cut Eton suit, and sat in the smoking compartment of a padded corridor carriage, with a silk-lined overcoat beside him and a silver-mounted suit-case in the rack above. He was not smoking, nor was he reading; but he sat on a great pile of papers and magazines, and stared straight in front of him—that is to say, straight at me.
His stare, though constant and unrelenting, was not in the least offensive—it had no curiosity in it: he had obviously been contemplating the cushions before I intruded, and since I had chosen to occupy his field of vision he contemplated me.
I had no speaking acquaintance with the boy; but he bore the features of his family, and his initials were on the suit-case above. So I knew him for the only son of a man who had once shown me civility, the youngest and least extravagantly wealthy of three rich brothers. Since one of these brothers had never married and now was not likely to, it lay beyond guessing what wealth the boy would inherit some day.
He was by no means ill-looking, and quite certainly no fool. His face carried the stamp of his father's ability. It puzzled me what he could be doing with that pile of papers and magazines; or why, having burdened himself with them, he should choose to sit and stare instead of reading them. For his station lay but a twenty minutes' run below mine, and it was impossible that in the time he could have glanced through the half of them.
He had been staring at me, or through me, maybe for half an hour, when our train slowed down and came to a standstill above the steep valley between Bodmin Road and Doublebois. After a couple of minutes' wait, the boy rose and went to the window in the corridor to see what was happening; and I took this opportunity to glance across at the papers scattered on the vacant seat. They included three or four sixpenny and threepenny magazines; a large illustrated paper (Black and White, I think); half a dozen penny weeklies—Tit-bits, Answers, Pearson's Weekly, Cassell's Saturday Journal; I forget what others: halfpenny papers in a heap—all kinds of Cuts, Snippets, Siftings, Echoes, Snapshots, and Side-lights; Pars about People, Christian Sweepings, Our Happy Fireside, and The Masher. Many lay face downward, coyly hiding their titles but disclosing such headlines as "Facts about the Flag," "Books which have influenced the Bishop of London," "He gave 'em Fits!" "Our Unique Competition," "Mr. Cecil Rhodes: a Powerful Personality," "What becomes of old Stage Scenery."
In the midst of my survey the train began to move forward again, and the boy came back to his seat.
"It's only some platelayers on the viaduct," he explained. "They held up their flag against us. I suppose they were just finishing a job."
"Nasty place to leave the rails," said I, glancing over the parapet upon the green tree-tops fifty feet below us."
"I was thinking that," said he, and a queer tremor in his young voice made me glance at him sharply. Then suddenly I understood—or thought I did.
"You, at any rate, are pretty well insured," said I.
"Twenty thousand pounds, and a little over: the coupons cost four and twopence altogether, and then at the end of the journey you can use up all the reading."
"Wonderful!" I kept a serious face. "And I suppose all this time you've been staring at me, amazed by the recklessness of your elders."
He flushed slightly. "Have I been staring? I beg your pardon, I'm sure: it's a trick I have. I begin thinking of things, and then—"
"Thinking, I suppose, of how it would feel to be in a collision, or what it would be like to leap such a parapet as that and find ourselves dropping—dropping—into space? But you shouldn't, really. It isn't healthy in a boy like you: and if you'll listen to one who has known what nerves are, it may too easily grow to mean something worse."
"But it isn't that—exactly," he protested; "though of course all that comes into it. I'm not a—a funk, sir! I was thinking more of the —of what would come afterwards, you know."
"Oh dear!" I groaned to myself. "It's worse than ever: here's a little prig worrying about his soul. I shouldn't advise you to trouble about that, either," I said aloud.
"But I don't trouble about it." He hesitated, and stumbled into a burst of confidence. "You see, I'm no good at games—athletics and that sort of thing—"
Again he stopped, and I nodded to encourage him.
"And I'm no swell at schoolwork, either. I went to school late, and after home it all seems so young—if you understand?"
I thought I did. With his polite grown-up manner I could understand his isolation among the urchins, the masters, and all the interests of an ordinary school.
"But my father—you know him, don't you?—he's disappointed about it. He'd like me to bring home prizes or cups. I don't think he'd mind what it was, so long as he could be proud about it. Of course he never says anything: but a fellow gets to know."
"I daresay you're right," I said. "But what has this to do with insuring yourself for twenty thousand pounds?"
"Well, you see, I'm to go into the Bank some day: and I expect my father thinks I shall be just as big a duffer at that. I know he does. But I'm not, if he'd only trust me a bit. So now if we were to smash up—collide, go off the rails, run over a bridge, or something of that sort—just think how he'd feel when he found out I'd cleared twenty thousand by it!"
"So that's what you were picturing to yourself?"
He nodded. "That, and the smash, and all. I kept saying, 'Now—if it comes this moment?' And I wondered a little how it would take you suddenly: whether you'd start up or fall forward—and if you would say anything."
"You are a cheerful companion!"
He grinned politely. "And afterwards—just before the train stopped I had a splendid idea. I began making my will. You see, I know something about investments. I read about them every day."
"In the Boy's Own Paper?"
"We take in the Standard in our school library, and I have it all to myself unless there's a war on. I've heard my father say often that it's a very reliable paper, and so it is, for I've tried it for two years now. So if I left a will telling just how the twenty thousand ought to be invested, it would open my father's eyes more than ever."
"My dear sir," said I, "don't be in a hurry. Serve out your time among the barbarians at school, and I'll promise you in time your father's respectful astonishment."
These were my two boys; and you may wonder why I always think of them together. I do, though: and, what is more, I find that together they help to explain to me my country's greatness.
THE SENIOR FELLOW.
There is at Oxford a small college, with a small bursar's garden that in spring is ablaze with laburnum and scented with lilac; and in the old wall of this garden, just beneath the largest laburnum-tree, you may still find a stone with this inscription: "Jesus have mercy on Miles Tonken, Fellow. Anno 1545."
This college, in the days when I knew it, had three marks of distinction:—It turned out, on hunting mornings, more "pinks" for its size than any other in Oxford; its boat was head of the river; and its Senior Fellow was the Rev. Theobald Pumfrey, who knew more of Athenaeus than any man in the world. He seldom lectured; but day by day, year after year, sat in the window above this same small garden, and accumulated notes for the great edition of his pet author that some day—nobody quite knew when—was to make him famous. He was the son of a Cumberland farmer; had come up to the University from a local grammar-school; and since then (it was said) had revisited his native village twice only—to bury his father and mother. His mother's death— and that had happened five-and-twenty years before—left him without a single relative on earth: nor could he be said to have a friend, even among the dons. He rose early, took a solitary walk in the parks, and would spend the rest of the day at his desk by the window. People marvelled sometimes why he had taken Holy Orders. It was hinted that his scout knew, perhaps; but, if so, his scout never divulged the reasons.
The scholar was a man, nevertheless; had a humorously wrinkled mouth, and an eye that twinkled responsive to a jest; and was the best judge of wine in Oxford. On the strength of this undeniable gift the dons had long since elected him steward of Common-room; and he valued the responsibility, abstaining from tobacco—which he loved—to keep pure his taste for vintages, and preserve a discriminating palate among sweets. An utterance of his would hint that even his avoidance of physical exercise was a matter of duty.
"A man," he said, "may work his body, may work his head, and may enjoy his dinner. Any two of these things he may do, but not all three. For me, I wish to work my head, and must enjoy my dinner." And once, when I dined with him, it was made clear to me that his life was ordered after a plan. It was a summer evening, and he held a glass of claret against the sunset. "Wife and children!" he cried suddenly, "wife and children!" Then, with a wave of his left hand from the claret to the still lawn below us and the lilacs, "These are my wife and children!"
It was whispered at length that his commentary on the first book of the Deipnosophists was all but ready. All through a golden summer and a quiet Long Vacation it had been maturing, and on the first night of the October term he arranged his piles of notes about him, set a quire of clean manuscript paper on his table, dipped pen in inkpot, and began to muse on the first sentence.
An hour passed, and the page was not soiled. Across the still garden came the sound of cab-wheels rattling over the distant streets. The undergraduates were coming up for a fresh term. He had heard the sound a hundred times, almost; and it did not concern him. He had no lectures to prepare.
Another hour passed, and another. The noise of the cabs had died out, and over him was creeping a sick fear, a certainty, that he could not write a word. The subject was too immense. He had given his life to Athenaeus, and now Athenaeus was a monster that one man's life and knowledge would not suffice for. Having withheld his pen till he might write adequately, he awoke to find that writing was impossible. A horror took him as he pushed back his chair among the litter of note-books, and, stepping to the window, threw the sash open.
Many stars were shining; and between them and the sleeping garden echoed the clamour of a distant supper-party. He heard no words, only the noise; but it filled his brain with a sense of the many thousand supper-parties that the garden had listened to, of the generations that had come and gone since his own first term, of the boys who had grown into men while he was working at Athenaeus—always Athenaeus. His forehead was burning, and as he pushed his hand across it, he seemed to read in the darkness under the laburnum-tree, "_Jesus have mercy on Miles Tonken, Fellow. Anno 1545," and found a new meaning—an irony—in the words.
Then, because more and more the task of his life became a hopeless weight, he gave a look at his notebooks and escaped out of the room, downstairs into the fresh air of the quad, and across it towards the porter's lodge. He found the porter napping, and, having a private key, he let himself through the big gate and out into the street. No soul was abroad: only the gas-lamps threw queer shadows of him on the pavement, and the night-breeze struck coldly into him as he hurried along, hating whatever he saw.
Soon, under a window in St. Giles's, he pulled up. There was a party of young men inside—perhaps the same supper-party whose voices he had heard just now. The light from the room flared across the street; but by keeping close under the sill he stood in darkness, and he paused, listening eagerly. Above, they were singing a chorus, noted in those days—
It was pale dawn, and the sun was touching St. Mary's spire into flame when the heavy-eyed porter heard a key turn in the wicket. It was the Senior Fellow, and in about half an hour he appeared again at the lodge, carrying a small bag, and handed the porter a letter addressed to the President of the College. He then stepped out into the street, and hurried off towards the railway station.
For a fortnight we heard nothing of him. Then suddenly he appeared again—on an evening when the College, having won the "Fours," was commemorating its success by a bonfire in the big quad. A certain freshman, stealing down his staircase with a can of colza oil to feed the flames, was confronted by our missing Senior Fellow.
"No," said the great scholar, "don't be afraid, and don't seek to hide that oil-can; but come in here." And he led the way to his room.
This much is mere rumour; for the freshman was always reticent on the encounter, and what followed. But many who were present that night can bear witness that a big portmanteau appeared suddenly on the summit of the bonfire, and blazed merrily to ashes, having clearly been saturated with oil. Not until long after were its contents divined.
The Senior Fellow went back to his window above the bursar's garden, though henceforward he dined but rarely in Common-room; and year by year scholars expected his edition of Athenaeus, until he died and left his desk full of notebooks to the youth who had carried the oil-can, and who in course of years had become junior don. Also his will expressed a wish that this, his favourite pupil, might be elected to succeed him as steward of Common-room.
The new steward, eager to fulfil his duties, made it his first business to inspect the college cellars. He found there abundance of old port, much fair claret, a bin of inestimable Madeira, several casks of more curious wines, and among them one labelled "For the Poor."
It struck him as a pleasant trait in his dead friend, thus to have dispensed in charity that wine which doubtless had gone beyond its age, and become unfit for the Fellows' palates. He drew a glassful and tasted it.
The first sip was a revelation. He returned to his rooms, wrote a score of letters inviting to dinner all the acknowledged connoisseurs of other colleges. When they had dined with him, and fallen into easy attitudes around the table, he introduced this wine casually among half a dozen others, and watched the result.
Not a man who tasted it would taste any other.
As for the notebooks—those priceless materials for the final edition of Athenaeus—they were empty, mere blank pages! Only in that labelled "No. 1" was there a scrap of the old scholar's handwriting, and it began—
"Dulce cum sodalibus Sapit vinum bonum: Osculari virgines Dulcius est donum: Donum est dulcissimum Musica tironum— Qui tararaboomdeat, Spernit regis thronum!"
Under the green shore that faces the port, and at a point that, as the meeting-place of river and harbour, may be called indifferently by either name, lay a slim-waisted barque at anchor, with a sand-barge alongside. The time was a soft and sunny morning in early January— a day that was Nature's breathing space after a week of sleet and boisterous winds. The gulls were back again from their inland shelters. Across the upland above the cliff a ploughman drove leisurably forth and back, and always close behind his heels the earth was white with these birds inspecting the fresh-turned furrow. The furze-bushes below him were braided with cobwebs, and the stays, lifts, and braces of the barque might have passed also for threads of gossamer spun from her masts and yards, so delicately were the lines indicated against the hillside. In the sand-barge, three men were chanting as they worked; and their song, travelling across still sky and water, rose audibly above the stir of traffic even in the narrow streets of the town.
The barque was taking in ballast; and the three men sang as they shovelled,—for three reasons. It helped them to keep time; it kept each from shirking his share of the work; and lastly, perhaps, the song cheered them. They knew it as "The Long Hundred," and it ran—
"There goes one. One there is gone. Oh, the rare one! And many more to come For to make up the sum Of the hundred so long."
"There goes two—"
—and so on, up to twenty. With each line, a shovelful of ballast was pitched on board by every man; so that, when the twenty six-line stanzas were ended, each man had thrown one hundred and twenty (a "long hundred") shovelfuls of sand. Thereupon they paused, "touched pipe" for a minute or two, and, brushing the back of the hand across their foreheads to wring off the sweat, started afresh.
Along the barque's side ran a narrow line of blue paint, signifying that the vessel was in mourning, that somebody belonging to captain or owner was lately dead. But in this case it was the captain and owner himself: and his chief mourner was a bright-eyed woman with a complexion of cream and roses, who now leant over the bulwarks and looked down contemplatively upon the three labourers. She was a Canadian, and her husband, too, had been a Canadian—rich, more than twice her age, and luxurious. Since his marriage she had accompanied him on all his voyages. Three months ago his vessel had brought him, sick and suffering from congestion of the lungs, into this harbour, where his cargo of timber was to be unloaded: and in this harbour, a week later, he had died, without a doubt of his wife's affection. From the deck where she stood she could see between the elms on the hill above the port the white wall of the cemetery where he lay. The vessel was hers, and a snug little fortune in Quebec: and she was going back to enjoy it. For the homeward voyage she had deputed the captain's responsibilities to the first mate, and had raised his pay slightly, but the captain's dignity she reserved for herself.
She wore a black gown, of course, but not a widow's cap: and, though in fact a widow of twenty-five, had very much more the appearance of a maid of nineteen as she looked down over the barque's side. Her lips were parted as if to smile at the first provocation. On either side of her temples a short brown curl had rebelled and was kissing her cheek. The sparkle in her eyes told of capacity to enjoy life. Behind her a coil of smoke rose from the deck-house chimney. She had left the midday meal she was cooking, and ought to be back looking after it. Instead, she lingered and looked upon the three men at work below.
Two of them were old, round-shouldered with labour, their necks burnt brown with stooping in the sun. The third was a young giant—tall, fair, and straight—with yellowish hair that curled up tightly at the back of his head, and lumbar muscles that swelled and sank in a pretty rhythm as he pitched his ballast and sang—
"There goes nine. Nine there is gone . . ."
It was upon this man that the woman gazed as she lingered. His shirt-collar was cut low at the back, and his freckled neck was shining with sweat. She wanted him to look up, and yet she was afraid of his looking up. She wondered if he were married—"at his age," she phrased it to herself—and, if so, what manner of wife he had. She told herself after a while that she really dreaded extremely being caught observing these three labourers; that she hated even in seeming to lose dignity. And still she bent and heard the song to the twentieth and last verse.
The young giant, when the spell was over, leant on his shovel for a moment and then reached out a hand for the cider-keg. One of his comrades passed it to him. He wiped the orifice, tilted his head back and drank as a man drinks at midday after a long morning. Some of the cider trickled down his crisp yellow beard and he shook his head, scattering the drops off. Then the keg was tilted again, and suddenly lowered as he was on the point of drinking. His eyes had encountered those of the woman on deck.
As they did so, the woman recovered all her boldness. Without in the least knowing what prompted her, she bent a little further forward and asked—
"What is your name, young man?"
"William Udy, ma'am."
"Do you mind breaking off work for a moment and stepping up here?"
"Cert'nly, ma'am." William Udy laid down his shovel at once.
A shiver of fear went through the young widow. Why had she asked him up? Why, on a mere impulse; because she wanted to see him closer— nothing more. What possible excuse could she give? She heard the sound of his heavy boots on the ship's ladder: he would be before her in a moment, expecting, of course, to be set to work on some odd job or other. She cast about wildly and could think of no job that wanted doing. It was appalling: she could not possibly explain—
As has happened before now to women, her very weakness saved her in extremity. William Udy, clambering heavily over the ship's side, found her leaning against the deck-house, with a face as white as the painted boards against which her palm rested.
"What be I to do, ma'am?" he inquired, after a pause, and then added slowly, "Beggin' your pardon, but be you taken unwell?"
"Yes," she panted, speaking very faintly, "I was over there—by the bulwarks, and suddenly—I felt queer—a faintness—I looked over and saw you—I called the first person I saw. I wanted help."
William Udy was puzzled. He had not noticed any pallor in the face that had looked down on him from the ship's side. On the contrary, he seemed to remember that it struck him as remarkably fresh and rosy. But he saw no reason for doubting he had been mistaken.
"Can I do aught for 'ee? Fetch a doctor?"
"If you wouldn't mind helping me down—down to my cabin—"
William took her arm gently and led her aft to the companion ladder. At the top of it she put out a hand vaguely and closed her eyes.
"I don't think," she murmured, "that I can walk. My head is going round so. Could you—would it be too heavy—if you carried me?"
At any other time William would have considered this a good joke. As it was he took her up like a feather in his arms and carried her down to the cabin. There he set her down on the sofa and was about to withdraw, blushing. He was a very shy youth and had never carried a woman before, let alone one who was his superior in station.
"Thank you," she said in a voice that was little above a whisper. "How easily you carried me. It's plain to see you're a married man."
William started. "There you're wrong, ma'am, pardon me for sayin' it."
"No? You were so gentle: so gentle although so big"—she smiled faintly. "Would you mind stepping to the cupboard there and pouring me out a wineglassful of sherry? It's in the decanter just inside."
William poured out a glassful and set it on the table in front of her. She put it to her lips, and having scarcely moistened them, set it down again.
"A glass for yourself," she said. "Come now—do! I see you are shocked at the number of bottles I keep here. But they were my husband's. He died, you know, a week after we came into harbour."
William's face worked to express mute sympathy.
"It's a fearful responsibility," she went on, "being left alone like this with a vessel to look after, and all his property waiting over there, on the other side of the water; and I daresay the lawyers, there, waiting, too, to take advantage of me. I think it's having all this on my mind that makes my head so giddy at times. . ."
William stood opposite to her, and thought. It is not known at what moment the brilliant idea struck him, that as a husband he might be a tower of strength to the fragile young creature on the sofa. His comrades after waiting some time for him began their chant again—
"There goes one. One there is gone . . ."
And while they sang it William began that courtship which ended, three weeks later, in his sailing for Canada. He went as a bridegroom; or perhaps (if we must reckon him as part of the ship's equipment), as ballast.