Story type: Literature
I.–A HAPPY VOYAGE.
The cottage that I have inhabited these six years looks down on the one quiet creek in a harbour full of business. The vessels that enter beneath Battery Point move up past the grey walls and green quay-doors of the port to the jetties where their cargoes lie. All day long I can see them faring up and down past the mouth of my creek; and all the year round I listen to the sounds of them–the dropping or lifting of anchors, the wh-h-ing! of a siren-whistle cutting the air like a twanged bow, the concertina that plays at night, the rush of the clay cargo shot from the jetty into the lading ship. But all this is too far remote to vex me. Only one vessel lies beneath my terrace; and she has lain there for a dozen years. After many voyages she was purchased by the Board of Guardians in our district, dismasted, and anchored up here to serve as a hospital-ship in case the cholera visited us. She has never had a sick man on board from that day to the present. But once upon a time three people spent a very happy night on her deck, as you shall hear. She is called The Gleaner.
I think I was never so much annoyed in my life as on the day when Annie, my only servant, gave me a month’s “warning.” That was four years ago; and she gave up cooking for me to marry a young watchmaker down at the town–a youth of no mark save for a curious distortion of the left eyebrow (due to much gazing through a circular glass into the bowels of watches), a frantic assortment of religious convictions, a habit of playing the fiddle in hours of ease, and an absurd name–Tubal Cain Bonaday. I noticed that Annie softened it to “Tubey.”
Of course I tried to dissuade her, but my arguments were those of a wifeless man, and very weak. She listened to them with much patience, and went off to buy her wedding-frock. She was a plain girl, without a scintilla of humour; and had just that sense of an omelet that is vouchsafed to one woman in a generation.
So she and Tubal Cain were married at the end of the month, and disappeared on their honeymoon, no one quite knew whither. They went on the last day of April.
At half-past eight in the evening of May 6th I had just finished my seventh miserable dinner. My windows were open to the evening, and the scent of the gorse-bushes below the terrace hung heavily underneath the verandah and stole into the room where I sat before the white cloth, in the lamp-light. I had taken a cigarette and was reaching for the match-box when I chanced to look up, and paused to marvel at a singular beauty in the atmosphere outside.
It seemed a final atonement of sky and earth in one sheet of vivid blue. Of form I could see nothing; the heavens, the waters of the creek below, the woods on the opposite shore were simply indistinguishable–blotted out in this one colour. If you can recall certain advertisements of Mr. Reckitt, and can imagine one of these transparent, with a soft light glowing behind it, you will be as near as I can help you to guessing the exact colour. And, but for a solitary star and the red lamp of a steamer lying off the creek’s mouth, this blue covered the whole firmament and face of the earth.
I lit my cigarette and stepped out upon the verandah. In a minute or so a sound made me return, fetch a cap from the hall, and descend the terrace softly.
My feet trod on bluebells and red-robins, and now and then crushed the fragrance out of a low-lying spike of gorse. I knew the flowers were there, though in this curious light I could only see them by peering closely. At the foot of the terrace I pulled up and leant over the oak fence that guarded the abrupt drop into the creek.
There was a light just underneath. It came from the deck of the hospital-ship, and showed me two figures standing there–a woman leaning against the bulwarks, and a man beside her. The man had a fiddle under his chin, and was playing “Annie Laurie,” rather slowly and with a deal of sweetness.
When the melody ceased, I craned still further over the oak fence and called down, “Tubal Cain!”
The pair gave a start, and there was some whispering before the answer came up to me.
“Is that you, sir?”
“To be sure,” said I. “What are you two about on board The Gleaner?”
Some more whispering followed, and then Tubal Cain spoke again–
“It doesn’t matter now, sir. We’ve lived aboard here for a week, and to-night’s the end of our honeymooning. If ’tis no liberty sir, Annie’s wishful that you should join us.”
Somehow, the invitation, coming through this mysterious atmosphere, seemed at once natural and happy. The fiddle began again as I stepped away from the fence and went down to get my boat out. In three minutes I was afloat, and a stroke or two brought me to the ship’s ladder. Annie and Tubal Cain stood at the top to welcome me.
But if I had felt no incongruity in paying this respectful visit to my ex-cook and her lover, I own that her appearance made me stare. For, if you please, she was dressed out like a lady, in a gown of pale blue satin trimmed with swansdown–a low-necked gown, too, though she had flung a white shawl over her shoulders. Imagine this and the flood of blue light around us, and you will hardly wonder that, half-way up the ladder, I paused to take breath. Tubal Cain was dressed as usual, and tucking his fiddle under his arm, led me up to shake hands with his bride as if she were a queen. I cannot say if she blushed. Certainly she received me with dignity: and then, inverting a bucket that lay on the deck, seated herself; while Tubal Cain and I sat down on the deck facing her, with our backs against the bulwarks.
“It’s just this, sir,” explained the bridegroom, laying his fiddle across his lap, and speaking as if in answer to a question: “it’s just this:–by trade you know me for a watchmaker, and for a Plymouth Brother by conviction. All the week I’m bending over a counter, and every Sabbath-day I speak in prayer-meeting what I hold, that life’s a dull pilgrimage to a better world. If you ask me, sir, to-night, I ought to say the same. But a man may break out for once; and when so well as on his honeymoon? For a week I’ve been a free heathen: for a week I’ve been hiding here, living with the woman I love in the open air; and night after night for a week Annie here has clothed herself like a woman of fashion. Oh, my God! it has been a beautiful time–a happy beautiful time that ends to-night!”
He set down the fiddle, crooked up a knee and clasped his hands round it, looking at Annie.
“Annie, girl, what is it that we believe till to-morrow morning? You believe–eh?–that ’tis a rare world, full of delights, and with no ugliness in it?”
“And you love every soul–the painted woman in the streets no less than your own mother?”
Annie nodded again. “I’d nurse ’em both if they were sick,” she said.
“One like the other?”
“And there’s nothing shames you?” Here he rose and took her hand. “You wouldn’t blush to kiss me before master here?”
“Why should I?” She gave him a sober kiss, and let her hand rest in his.
I looked at her. She was just as quiet as in the old days when she used to lay my table. It was like gazing at a play.
I should be ashamed to repeat the nonsense that Tubal Cain thereupon began to talk; for it was mere midsummer madness. But I smoked four pipes contentedly while the sound of his voice continued, and am convinced that he never performed so well at prayer-meeting. Down at the town I heard the church-clock striking midnight, and then one o’clock; and was only aroused when the youth started up and grasped his fiddle.
“And now, sir, if you would consent to one thing, ‘twould make us very happy. You can’t play the violin, worse luck; but you might take a step or two round the deck with Annie, if I strike up a waltz-tune for you to move to.”
It was ridiculous, but as he began to play I moved up to Annie, put my arm around her, and we began to glide round and round on the deck. Her face was turned away from mine, and looked over my shoulder; if our eyes had met, I am convinced I must have laughed or wept. It was half farce, half deadly earnest, and for me as near to hysterics as a sane man can go. Tubal Cain, that inspired young Plymouth Brother, was solemn as a judge. As for Annie, I would give a considerable amount, at this moment, to know what she thought of it. But she stepped very lightly and easily, and I am not sure I ever enjoyed a waltz so much. The blue light–that bewitching, intoxicating blue light–paled on us as we danced. The grey conquered it, and I felt that when we looked at each other the whole absurdity would strike us, and I should never be able to face these lovers again without a furious blush. As the day crept on, I stole a glance at Tubal Cain. He was scraping away desperately–with his eyes shut. For us the dance had become weariness, but we went on and on. We were afraid to halt.
Suddenly a string of the violin snapped. We stopped, and I saw Tubal Cain’s hand pointing eastward. A golden ripple came dancing down the creek, and, at the head of the combe beyond, the sun’s edge was mounting.
“Morning!” said the bridegroom.
“It’s all done,” said Annie, holding out a hand to me, without looking up. “And thank you, sir.”
“We danced through the grey,” I answered; and that was all I could find to say, as I stepped towards the ladder.
Half an hour later as I looked out of the window before getting into bed I saw in the sunlight a boat moving down the creek towards the town. Tubal Cain was rowing, and Annie sat in the stern. She had changed her gown.
They have been just an ordinary couple ever since, and attend their chapel regularly. Sometimes Annie comes over to make me an omelet; and, as a matter of fact, she is now in the kitchen. But not a word has ever been spoken between us about her honeymoon.
In the matter of These-an’-That himself, public opinion in Troy is divided. To the great majority he appears scandalously careless of his honour; while there are just six or seven who fight with a suspicion that there dwells something divine in the man.
To reach the town from my cottage I have to cross the Passage Ferry, either in the smaller boat which Eli pulls single-handed, or (if a market-cart or donkey, or drove of cattle be waiting on the slip) I must hang about till Eli summons his boy to help him with the horse-boat. Then the gangway is lowered, the beasts are driven on board, the passengers follow at a convenient distance, and the long sweeps take us slowly across the tide. It was on such a voyage, a few weeks after I settled in the neighbourhood, that I first met These-an’-That.
I was leaning back against the chain, with my cap tilted forward to keep off the dazzle of the June sunshine on the water, and lazily watching Eli as he pushed his sweep. Suddenly I grew aware that by frequent winks and jerks of the head he wished to direct my attention to a passenger on my right–a short, round man in black, with a basket of eggs on his arm.
There was quite a remarkable dearth of feature on this passenger’s face, which was large, soft, and unhealthy in colour: but what surprised me was to see, as he blinked in the sunlight, a couple of big tears trickle down his cheeks and splash among the eggs in his basket.
“There’s trouble agen, up at Kit’s,” remarked Eli, finishing his stroke with a jerk, and speaking for the general benefit, though the words were particularly addressed to a drover opposite.
“Ho?” said the drover: “that woman agen?”
The passengers, one and all, bent their eyes on the man in black, who smeared his face with his cuff, and began weeping afresh, silently.
“Beat en blue las’ night, an’ turned en to doors–the dirty trollop.”
“Eli, don’t ‘ee–” put in the poor man, in a low, deprecating voice.
“Iss, an’ no need to tell what for,” exclaimed a red-faced woman who stood by the drover, with two baskets of poultry at her feet. “She’s a low lot; a low trapesin’ baggage. If These-an’-That, there, wasn’ but a poor, ha’f-baked shammick, he’d ha’ killed that wife o’ his afore this.”
“Naybours, I’d as lief you didn’t mention it,” appealed These-an’-That, huskily.
“I’m afeard you’m o’ no account, These-an’-That: but sam-sodden, if I may say so,” the drover observed.
“Put in wi’ the bread, an’ took out wi’ the cakes,” suggested Eli.
“Wife!–a pretty loitch, she an’ the whole kit, up there!” went on the market-woman. “If you durstn’t lay finger ‘pon your wedded wife, These-an’-That, but let her an’ that long-legged gamekeeper turn’ee to doors, you must be no better’n a worm,–that’s all I say.”
I saw the man’s face twitch as she spoke of the gamekeeper. But he only answered in the same dull way.
“I’d as lief you didn’ mention it, friends,–if ’tis all the same.”
His real name was Tom Warne, as I learnt from Eli afterwards; and he lived at St. Kit’s, a small fruit-growing hamlet two miles up the river, where his misery was the scandal of the place. The very children knew it, and would follow him in a crowd sometimes, pelting him with horrible taunts as he slouched along the road to the kitchen garden out of which he made his living. He never struck one; never even answered; but avoided the school-house as he would a plague; and if he saw the Parson coming would turn a mile out of his road.
The Parson had called at the cottage a score of times at least: for the business was quite intolerable. Two evenings out of the six, the long-legged gamekeeper, who was just a big, drunken bully, would swagger easily into These-an’-That’s kitchen and sit himself down without so much as “by your leave.” “Good evenin’, gamekeeper,” the husband would say in his dull, nerveless voice. Mostly he only got a jeer in reply. The fellow would sit drinking These-an’-That’s cider and laughing with These-an’-That’s wife, until the pair, very likely, took too much, and the woman without any cause broke into a passion, flew at the little man, and drove him out of doors, with broomstick or talons, while the gamekeeper hammered on the table and roared at the sport. His employer was an absentee who hated the Parson, so the Parson groaned in vain over the scandal.
Well, one Fair-day I crossed in Eli’s boat with the pair. The woman–a dark gipsy creature–was tricked out in violet and yellow, with a sham gold watch-chain and great aluminium earrings: and the gamekeeper had driven her down in his spring-cart. As Eli pushed off, I saw a small boat coming down the river across our course. It was These-an’-That, pulling down with vegetables for the fair. I cannot say if the two saw him: but he glanced up for a moment at the sound of their laughter, then bent his head and rowed past us a trifle more quickly. The distance was too great to let me see his face.
I was the last to step ashore. As I waited for Eli to change my sixpence, he nodded after the couple, who by this time had reached the top of the landing-stage, arm in arm.
“A bad day’s work for her, I reckon.”
It struck me at the moment as a moral reflection of Eli’s, and no more. Late in the afternoon, however, I was enlightened.
In the midst of the Fair, about four o’clock, a din of horns, beaten kettles, and hideous yelling, broke out in Troy. I met the crowd in the main street, and for a moment felt afraid of it. They had seized the woman in the taproom of the “Man-o’-War”–where the gamekeeper was lying in a drunken sleep–and were hauling her along in a Ram Riding. There is nothing so cruel as a crowd, and I have seen nothing in my life like the face of These-an’-That’s wife. It was bleeding; it was framed in tangles of black, dishevelled hair; it was livid; but, above all, it was possessed with an awful fear–a horror it turned a man white to look on. Now and then she bit and fought like a cat: but the men around held her tight, and mostly had to drag her, her feet trailing, and the horns and kettles dinning in her wake.
There lay a rusty old ducking-cage among the lumber up at the town-hall; and some fellows had fetched this down, with the poles and chain, and planted it on the edge of the Town Quay, between the American Shooting Gallery and the World-Renowned Swing Boats. To this they dragged her, and strapped her fast.
There is no heed to describe what followed. Even the virtuous women who stood and applauded would like to forget it, perhaps. At the third souse, the rusty pivot of the ducking-pole broke, and the cage, with the woman in it, plunged under water.
They dragged her ashore at the end of the pole in something less than a minute. They unstrapped and laid her gently down, and began to feel over her heart, to learn if it were still beating. And then the crowd parted, and These-an’-That came through it. His face wore no more expression than usual, but his lips were working in a queer way.
He went up to his wife, took off his hat, and producing an old red handkerchief from the crown, wiped away some froth and green weed that hung about her mouth. Then he lifted her limp hand, and patting the back of it gently, turned on the crowd. His lips were still working. It was evident he was trying to say something.
“Naybours,” the words came at last, in the old dull tone; “I’d as lief you hadn’ thought o’ this.”
He paused for a moment, gulped down something in his throat, and went on–
“I wudn’ say you didn’ mean it for the best, an’ thankin’ you kindly. But you didn’ know her. Roughness, if I may say, was never no good wi’ her. It must ha’ been very hard for her to die like this, axin your parden, for she wasn’ one to bear pain.”
Another long pause.
“No, she cudn’ bear pain. P’raps he might ha’ stood it better– though o’ course you acted for the best, an’ thankin’ you kindly. I’d as lief take her home now, naybours, if ’tis all the same.”
He lifted the body in his arms, and carried it pretty steadily down the quay steps to his market-boat, that was moored below. Two minutes later he had pushed off and was rowing it quietly homewards.
There is no more to say, except that the woman recovered. She had fainted, I suppose, as they pulled her out. Anyhow, These-an’-That restored her to life–and she ran away the very next week with the gamekeeper.
III–“DOUBLES” AND QUITS.
Here is a story from Troy, containing two ghosts and a moral. I found it, only last week, in front of a hump-backed cottage that the masons are pulling down to make room for the new Bank. Simon Hancock, the outgoing tenant, had fetched an empty cider-cask, and set it down on the opposite side of the road; and from this Spartan seat watched the work of demolition for three days, without exhaustion and without emotion. In the interval between two avalanches of dusty masonry, he spoke to this effect:–
Once upon a time the cottage was inhabited by a man and his wife. The man was noticeable for the extreme length of his upper lip and gloom of his religious opinions. He had been a mate in the coasting trade, but settled down, soon after his marriage, and earned his living as one of the four pilots in the port. The woman was unlovely, with a hard eye and a temper as stubborn as one of St. Nicholas’s horns. How she had picked up with a man was a mystery, until you looked at him.
After six years of wedlock they quarrelled one day, about nothing at all: at least, Simon Hancock, though unable to state the exact cause of strife, felt himself ready to swear it was nothing more serious than the cooking of the day’s dinner. From that date, however, the pair lived in the house together and never spoke. The man happened to be of the home-keeping sort–possessed no friends and never put foot inside a public-house. Through the long evenings he would sit beside his own fender, with his wife facing him, and never a word flung across the space between them, only now and then a look of cold hate. The few that saw them thus said it was like looking on a pair of ugly statues. And this lasted for four years.
Of course the matter came to their minister’s ears–he was a “Brianite”–and the minister spoke to them after prayer-meeting, one Wednesday night, and called at the cottage early next morning, to reconcile them. He stayed fifteen minutes and came away, down the street, with a look on his face such as Moses might have worn on his way down from Mount Sinai, if only Moses had seen the devil there, instead of God.
At the end of four years, the neighbours remarked that for two days no smoke had issued from the chimney of this cottage, nor had anyone seen the front door opened. There grew a surmise that the quarrel had flared out at last, and the wedded pair were lying within, in their blood. The anticipated excitement of finding the bodies was qualified, however, by a very present sense of the manner in which the bodies had resented intrusion during life. It was not until sunset on the second day that the constable took heart to break in the door.
There were no corpses. The kitchen was tidy, the hearth swept, and the house empty. On the table lay a folded note, addressed, in the man’s handwriting, to the minister.
“Dear Friend in Grace,” it began, “we have been married ten years, and neither has broken the other; until which happens, it must be hell between us. We see no way out but to part for ten years more, going our paths without news of each other. When that time’s up, we promise to meet here, by our door, on the morning of the first Monday in October month, and try again. And to this we set our names.”–here the two names followed.
They must have set out by night; for an extinguished candle stood by the letter, with ink-pot and pen. Probably they had parted just outside the house, the one going inland up the hill, the other down the street towards the harbour. Nothing more was heard of them. Their furniture went to pay the quarter’s rent due to the Squire, and the cottage, six months later, passed into the occupation of Simon Hancock, waterman.
At this point Simon shall take up the narrative:–
“I’d been tenant over there”–with a nod towards the ruin–“nine year an’ goin’ on for the tenth, when, on a Monday mornin’, about this time o’ year, I gets out o’ bed at five o’clock an’ down to the quay to have a look at my boat; for ’twas the fag-end of the Equinox, and ther’d been a ‘nation gale blowin’ all Sunday and all Sunday night, an’ I thought she might have broke loose from her moorin’s.
“The street was dark as your hat and the wind comin’ up it like gas in a pipe, with a brave deal o’ rain. But down ‘pon the quay day was breakin’–a sort of blind man’s holiday, but enough to see the boat by; and there she held all right. You know there’s two posts ‘pon the town-quay, and another slap opposite the door o’ the ‘Fifteen Balls’? Well, just as I turned back home-long, I see a man leanin’ against thicky post like as if he was thinkin’, wi’ his back to me and his front to the ‘Fifteen Balls’ (that was shut, o’ course, at that hour). I must ha’ passed within a yard of en, an’ couldn’ figure it up how I’d a-missed seein’ en. Hows’ever, ‘Good-mornin’!’ I calls out, in my well-known hearty manner. But he didn’ speak nor turn. ‘Mornin’!’ I says again. ‘Can ‘ee tell me what time ’tis? for my watch is stopped’–which was a lie; but you must lie now and then, to be properly sociable.
“Well, he didn’ answer; so I went on to say that the ‘Fifteen Balls’ wudn’ be open for another dree hour; and then I walked slap up to en, and says what the Wicked Man said to the black pig. ‘You’m a queer Christian,’ I says, ‘not to speak. What’s your name at all? And let’s see your ugly face.’
“With that he turned his face; an’ by the man! I wished mysel’ further. ‘Twas a great white face, all parboiled, like a woman’s hands on washin’ day. An’ there was bits o’ sticks an’ chips o’ sea-weed stuck in his whiskers, and a crust o’ salt i’ the chinks of his mouth; an’ his eyes, too, glarin’ abroad from great rims o’ salt.
“Off I sheered, not azackly runnin’, but walkin’ pretty much like a Torpointer; an’ sure ‘nough the fellow stood up straight and began to follow close behind me. I heard the water go squish-squash in his shoon, every step he took. By this, I was fairly leakin’ wi’ sweat. After a bit, hows’ever, at the corner o’ Higman’s store, he dropped off; an’ lookin’ back after twenty yards more, I saw him standin’ there in the dismal grey light like a dog that can’t make up his mind whether to follow or no. For ’twas near day now, an’ his face plain at that distance. Fearin’ he’d come on again, I pulled hot foot the few steps between me an’ home. But when I came to the door, I went cold as a flounder.
“The fellow had got there afore me. There he was, standin’ ‘pon my door-step–wi’ the same gashly stare on his face, and his lips a lead-colour in the light.
“The sweat boiled out o’ me now. I quavered like a leaf, and my hat rose ‘pon my head. ‘For the Lord’s sake, stand o’ one side,’ I prayed en; ‘do’ee now, that’s a dear!’ But he wudn’ budge; no, not though I said several holy words out of the Mornin’ Service.
“‘Drabbet it!’ says I, ‘let’s try the back door. Why didn’ I think ‘pon that afore?’ And around I runs.
“There ‘pon the back door-step was a woman!–an’ pretty well as gashly as the man. She was just a ‘natomy of a woman, wi’ the lines of her ribs showin’ under the gown, an’ a hot red spot ‘pon either cheek-bone, where the skin was stretched tight as a drum. She looked not to ha’ fed for a year; an’, if you please, she’d a needle and strip o’ calico in her hands, sewin’ away all the while her eyes were glarin’ down into mine.
“But there was a trick I minded in the way she worked her mouth, an’ says I, ‘Missus Polwarne, your husband’s a-waitin’ for ‘ee, round by the front door.’
“‘Aw, is he indeed?’ she answers, holdin’ her needle for a moment– an’ her voice was all hollow, like as if she pumped it up from a fathom or two. ‘Then, if he knows what’s due to his wife, I’ll trouble en to come round,’ she says; ‘for this here’s the door I mean to go in by.’”
But at this point Simon asserts very plausibly that he swooned off; so it is not known how they settled it.
[This story is true, as anyone who cares may assure himself by referring to Robert Hunt’s “Drolls of the West of England,” p. 357.]
IV.–THE BOY BY THE BEACH.
There are in this small history some gaps that can never be filled up; but as much as I know I will tell you.
The cottage where Kit lived until he was five years old stands at the head of a little beach of white shingle, just inside the harbour’s mouth, so that all day long Kit could see the merchant-ships trailing in from sea, and passing up to the little town, or dropping down to the music of the capstan-song, and the calls and the creaking, as their crews hauled up the sails. Some came and went under bare poles in the wake of panting tugs; but those that carried canvas pleased Kit more. For a narrow coombe wound up behind the cottage, and down this coombe came not only the brook that splashed by the garden gate, but a small breeze, always blowing, so that you might count on seeing the white sails take it, and curve out majestically as soon as ever they came opposite the cottage, and hold it until under the lee of the Battery Point.
Besides these delights, the cottage had a plantation of ash and hazel above it, that climbed straight to the smooth turf and the four guns of the Battery; and a garden with a tamarisk hedge, and a bed of white violets, the earliest for miles around, and a fuchsia tree three times as tall as Kit, and a pink climbing rose that looked in at Kit’s window and blossomed till late in November. Here the child lived alone with his mother. For there was a vagueness of popular opinion respecting Kit’s father; while about his mother, unhappily, there was no vagueness at all. She was a handsome, low-browed woman, with a loud laugh, a defiant manner, and a dress of violent hues. Decent wives clutched their skirts in passing her: but, as a set-off, she was on excellent terms with every sea-captain and mate that put into the port.
All these captains and mates knew Kit and made a pet of him: and indeed there was a curious charm in the great serious eyes and reddish curls of this child whom other children shunned. No one can tell if he felt his isolation; but of course it drove him to return the men’s friendship, and to wear a man’s solemnity and habit of speech. The woman dressed him carefully, in glaring colours, out of her means: and as for his manners, they would no doubt have become false and absurd, as time went and knowledge came; but at the age of four they were those of a prince.
“My father was a ship’s captain, too,” he would tell a new acquaintance, “but he was drowned at sea–oh, a long while ago; years and years before I was born.”
The beginning of this speech he had learned from his mother; and the misty antiquity of the loss his own childish imagination suggested. The captains, hearing it, would wink at each other, swallow down their grins, and gravely inform him of the sights he would see and the lands he would visit when the time came for him, too, to be a ship’s captain. Often and often I have seen him perched, with his small legs dangling, on one of the green posts on the quay, and drinking in their talk of green icebergs, and flaming parrots, and pig-tailed Chinamen; of coral reefs of all marvellous colours, and suns that burnt men black, and monkeys that hung by their tails to the branches and pelted the passers-by with coco-nuts; and the rest of it. And the child would go back to the cottage in a waking dream, treading bright clouds of fancy, with perhaps a little carved box or knick-knack in his hand, the gift of some bearded, tender-hearted ruffian. It was pitiful.
Of course he picked up their talk, and very soon could swear with equal and appalling freedom in English, French, Swedish, German, and Italian. But the words were words to him and no more, as he had no morals. Nice distinctions between good and evil never entered the little room where he slept to the sound only of the waves that curved round Battery Point and tumbled on the beach below. And I know that, one summer evening, when the scandalised townsmen and their wedded wives assembled, and marched down to the cottage with intent to lead the woman in a “Ramriding,” the sight of Kit playing in the garden, and his look of innocent delight as he ran in to call his mother out, took the courage out of them and sent them home, up the hill, like sheep.
Of course the truth must have come to him soon. But it never did: for when he was just five, the woman took a chill and died in a week. She had left a little money; and the Vicar, rather than let Kit go to the workhouse, spent it to buy the child admission to an Orphanage in the Midlands, a hundred miles away.
So Kit hung the rose-tree with little scraps of crape, and was put, dazed and white, into a train and whisked a hundred miles off. And everybody forgot him.
Kit spent two years at the Orphanage in an antique, preposterous suit–snuff-coloured coat with lappels, canary waistcoat, and corduroy small-clothes. And they gave him his meals regularly. There were ninety-nine other boys who all throve on the food: but Kit pined. And the ninety-nine, being full of food, made a racket at times; but Kit found it quiet–deathly quiet; and his eyes wore a listening look.
For the truth was, he missed the noise of the beach, and was listening for it. And deep down in his small heart the sea was piping and calling to him. And the world had grown dumb; and he yearned always: until they had to get him a new canary waistcoat, for the old one had grown too big.
At night, from his dormitory window, he could see a rosy light in the sky. At first he thought this must be a pillar of fire put there to guide him home; but it was only the glare of furnaces in a manufacturing town, not far away. When he found this out his heart came near to break; and afterwards he pined still faster.
One evening a lecture was given in the dining-room of the Orphanage. The subject was “The Holy Land,” and the lecturer illustrated it with views from the magic-lantern.
Kit, who sat in one of the back rows, was moderately excited at first. But the views of barren hills, and sands, and ruins, and palm-trees, and cedars, wearied him after a while. He had closed his eyes, and the lecturer’s voice became a sing-song in which his heart searched, as it always searched, for the music of the beach; when, by way of variety–for it had little to do with the subject–the lecturer slipped in a slide that was supposed to depict an incident on the homeward voyage–a squall in the Mediterranean.
It was a stirring picture, with an inky sky, and the squall bursting from it, and driving a small ship heeling over white crested waves. Of course the boys drew their breath.
And then something like a strangling sob broke out on the stillness, frightening the lecturer; and a shrill cry–
“Don’t go–oh, damn it all! don’t go! Take me–take me home!”
And there at the back of the room a small boy stood up on his form, and stretched out both hands to the painted ship, and shrieked and panted.
There was a blank silence, and then the matron hurried up, took him firmly in her arms, and carried him out.
“Don’t go–oh, for the Lord A’mighty’s sake, don’t go!”
And as he was borne down the passages his cry sounded among the audience like the wail of a little lost soul.
The matron carried Kit to the sick-room and put him to bed. After quieting the child a bit she left him, taking away the candle. Now the sick-room was on the ground floor, and Kit lay still a very short while. Then he got out of bed, groped for his clothes, managed to dress himself, and, opening the window, escaped on to the quiet lawn. Then he turned his face south-west, towards home and the sea– and ran.
How could he tell where they lay? God knows. Ask the swallow how she can tell, when in autumn the warm south is a fire in her brain. I believe that the sea’s breath was in the face of this child of seven, and its scent in his nostrils, and its voice in his ears, calling, summoning all the way. I only know that he ran straight towards his home, a hundred miles off, and that next morning they found his canary waistcoat and snuff-coloured coat in a ditch, two miles from the Orphanage, due south-west.
Of his adventures on the road the story is equally silent, as I warned you. But the small figure comes into view again, a week later, on the hillside of the coombe above his home. And when he saw the sea and the white beach glittering beneath him, he did not stop, even for a moment, but reeled down the hill. The child was just a living skeleton; he had neither hat, coat, nor waistcoat; one foot only was shod, the other had worn through the stocking, and ugly red blisters showed on the sole as he ran. His face was far whiter than his shirt, save for a blue welt or two and some ugly red scratches; and his gaunt eyes were full of hunger and yearning, and his lips happily babbling the curses that the ships’ captains had taught him.
He reeled down the hill to the cottage. The tenant was a newcomer to the town, and had lately been appointed musketry-instructor to the battery above. He was in the garden pruning the rose-tree, but did not particularly notice the boy. And the boy passed without turning his head.
The tide on the beach was far out and just beginning to flow. There was the same dull plash on the pebbles, the same twinkle as the sun struck across the ripples. The sun was sinking; in ten minutes it would be behind the hill.
No one knows what the waves said to Kit. But he flung himself among them with a choking cry, and drank the brine and tossed it over his head, and shoulders and chest, and lay down and let the small waves play over him, and cried and laughed aloud till the sun went down.
Then he clambered on to a rock, some way above them, and lay down to watch the water rise; and watching it, fell asleep; and sleeping, had his wish, and went out to the wide seas.