DESPAIR'S LAST JOURNEY
By David Christie Murray
INTRODUCTION—HOW AND WHERE THE STORY OF DESPAIR'S LAST JOURNEY WAS TOLD
A solitary passenger alighted from the train, and many people looked curiously after him. The mulatto porter handed to the platform a well-battered portmanteau, which was plastered thickly over with luggage-labels and the advertising tickets of hotels in every quarter of the globe. A great canvas bag followed, ornamented in like fashion. Then from the baggage-van an invisible person tumbled, a canvas bale. The coffee-coloured mulatto held out a grayish-white palm for the quarter-dollar the passenger was ready to drop into it, and stepped back to the platform of the car. The engine bell tolled slowly, as if it sounded a knell, and the train wound away. The curve of the line carried it out of sight in less than a minute, but in the clear mountain air the quickened ringing of the bell, the pant of the engine, and the roll of the wheels were audible for a long time. Then the engine, with a final wail of good-bye, plunged into the tunnel of a distant snow-shed, and the whole region seemed as quiet as a grave.
The little weatherboard railside station was void of life, and there was not a soul in sight. The passenger had given up the ticket for his sleeping-berth an hour before, and had announced his intention to stop over at this lonely place. An altercation with the conductor as to the possibility of releasing the canvas bale from the baggage-van before it arrived at its expressed destination at Vancouver had reached the ears of other travellers who were on duty in the observation car, painfully conscious of the scenery and the obligations it imposed. To experience some ecstasy, more or less, was imperative, and it was weary work for most of them. They stuck to it manfully and woman-fully, with abysmal furtive yawns; but the skirmish between the conductor and their fellow-passenger came as a sort of godsend, and when the transfer of a dollar bill, incredibly dirty and greasy and tattered, had brought warfare to a close, they still had the voluntary exile to stare at. He was a welcome change from scenery, and they stared hard.
He was a city man to look at, and had the garb of cities—tall silk hat, well worn, but well brushed; frock-coat in similar condition; dark-gray trousers, a little trodden at the heels; patent-leather boots; high collar; silken scarf. Everything he wore was slightly shabby, except his linen; but a millionaire who was disposed to be careless about his dress might have gone so attired. People had a habit of looking twice at this passenger, for he bore an air of being somebody; but the universal stare which fastened on him as the train steamed away was the result of his intent to deliver himself (at evident caprice) at a place so lonely, and so curiously out of accord with his own aspect. What was a clean-shaven man of cities, with silk hat, and frock-coat, and patent leathers, doing at Beaver Tail, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains? Why had he suddenly decided to stay there, of all places in the world? And why had he made up his mind without having so much as seen the place? These questions kept the occupants of the observation car in better talk than scenery long after the lonely passenger had landed, and long after the last wail of the engine had sounded in his ears.
If he had come here in search of landscape splendours, he might have had his fill at once. The railside shanty stood at a height of some four thousand feet above sea-level, but the mountains heaved vast shoulders and white heads about him.
Below, in the tremendous gorge, a torrent ran recklessly, tearing at its rocky confines with raging hands, and crying out in many voices like a multitude bent on some deed of vengeance—hurrying, delaying, turning on itself, maddening itself. Its bellowing seemed a part of universal silence. Silence brooded here, alone, with those wild voices for an emphasis.
Right and left the gorge swept out into dreadful magnificences of height and depth, and glow and shadow. Cliffs of black basalt, scarred and riven by the accidents of thousands of years, frowned like eyeless giant faces. One height, with a supernal leap, had risen from the highest, and stood poised a mile aloft, as if it were a feat to stand so for a second, with a craggy head cut out of the sheet of blue. Mountain torrents, too far away to bring the merest murmur to the ear, spun and plaited their quivering ropes of silver wire. The shadows in the clefts of near hills were like purple wine in a glass. Above and beyond they were bloomed like an ungathered plum. The giant firs looked like orderly pin-rows of decreasing size for half a mile along the climbing heights. Before they reached the snow-line they seemed as smooth as the smallest moss that grows.
The passenger regarded none of these things, but stared thoughtfully at the platform at his feet. He drew a cigarette from amongst a loose handful in a waistcoat pocket, struck a lucifer match upon his thigh, and smoked absently for a minute or so. Then he took the portmanteau in one hand and the brown bag in the other, and, leaving the railway platform, crossed the single line, and made a plunging, careless scramble through a narrow belt of undergrowth. In a minute or less he came upon a moss-grown way cut through the wood along the side of the mountain—the old Cariboo Track men used before the days of the railway. Weighted as he was, he found it warm work here, shut in from the cool breezes of the mountains and yet exposed to the rays of the mid-day sun. He wrestled along, however, for some quarter of a mile, and, reaching a small wooden bridge which crossed a runnel of clear water, set his burden down and looked about him, mopping his brow with a handkerchief.
'This will do, I fancy,' he said aloud, and then began to undress.
He stripped to socks, drawers, and vest before opening the brown bag, from which he took an old black felt hat, a shirt of gray patternless flannel, coat and trousers of gray tweed, a belt of leather, and a pair of mountain boots. Having attired himself in these things, he lit another cigarette, and smoked broodingly until it was finished. Then he walked back to the railside shanty, found the canvas bale, and slowly and with great exertion lugged it down the slope and along the trail. He panted and perspired at this task; for though he was sturdily set, and large of limb and stature, he was obviously unused to that kind of work, and by the time it was over he was fain to throw himself upon the moss and rest for a full half-hour. Being rested, he rolled over, and, stretching out a hand towards the discarded frock-coat, drew from its inner pocket a ball of Canadian and American notes, crushed and tangled together like papers of no value. He smoothed them out, flattening them upon his knee one by one, and, having counted them over, rolled them up tidily, and thrust them to the bottom of the brown bag. Next, he began to untie the cords which fastened the canvas bale, muttering 'Damn the thing!' at intervals, as the knots refused to yield to his unskilful handling. Finally, when the work was two-thirds done, he made search for a pen-knife, and, having found it, severed the remaining knots, and threw the cords away into the runnel.
'That's emblematic,' he said. 'Anything's emblematic if you're on the look-out for emblems.'
The canvas bale, being unrolled, displayed a bundle of gray blankets; a tent-pole, jointed like a fishing-rod, and in three pieces; an axe; a leather gun-case; a small gridiron; a small frying-pan; a tin quart pot, close-packed with loose cartridges; and a pair of folding trestles and a folding board for the construction of a little table. The canvas in which all these things had been packed afforded material for a tent, and the Solitary, with a seeming custom and alertness which no man would have argued from his aspect of an hour ago, began to set up his abiding-place in the narrow natural clearing he had chosen.
In a while everything was tidy and ship-shape, and when he had made a fire, and had constructed a tripod of branches from which to hang the quart pot, newly filled with water from the sparkling runnel near at hand, the lonely man sat down and smoked again, letting his eyes rove here and there, and seeming to scan the scene before him with a dreamy interest. The pot boiled over, and the hissing of the wet embers awoke him from his contemplations. The brown portmanteau, being opened, proved to be filled with packets of provisions of various kinds. He made tea, broke into a tin of sardines and a packet of hard biscuits, and then sat munching and sipping, with his feet stretched wide apart, and his back against a tree—a picture of unthinking idleness.
A rustle near at hand awoke attention, and he rolled his head lazily on one shoulder. The rustle drew nearer yet, and round the bend of the trail came a man in moleskin trousers, a gray shirt, and a shapeless felt hat, which seemed to have no colour but those lent to it by years of sun and rain.
'Hillo, mate!' said the new man.
'Hillo!' said the camper-out.
'Come here by the last train, I suppose?'
'By the last train.'
'Got a mate with you?'
The new-comer stared, and said 'Hm!' doubtfully. He looked from the other man's pale, clean-shaven face to his white hands.
'New to this kind of game, ain't you? he asked, at length.
'For a year or two,' the other answered.
'I spotted the trail you made from the platform,' said the new-comer. 'I seen something had been dragged away. I was bound to follow.' There was a part apology in his tone, as if he knew himself unwelcome. 'You might have been Indians,' he added, 'or any kind of riff-raff.'
'Quite so,' said the man of the camp. 'Not many of 'em hereabouts, I suppose?'
'One or two in a year, perhaps. And harmless, what there is of 'em; but as thievish as a set of jackdaws.'
'You in charge of the station?' asked the man of the camp, looking composedly down the canon and sipping at his tea.
'Yes, I'm in charge.'
'Fond of being alone?'
'So am I.'
'All right.' The man in the moleskin trousers and the shapeless hat laughed, lounged indeterminately for a minute, rolled his quid in his cheek, spat, wiped his bearded mouth with the back of a sunburnt hand, and laughed again. 'There's room enough for both of us. Good-night, mate.'
The keeper of the station strolled away with a backward glance, and the man of the camp sipped his tea and stared straight before him. The sound of the retreating footsteps had died away, when the Solitary raised a powerful voice and cried, 'Hillo!'
'Hillo!' came the answer, so muffled by the trees that it sounded as if from a considerable distance. The two men walked towards each other and met face to face. They had exchanged a greeting of good-night together, but the sun had some two hours to travel before it set upon the plains. Here it was out of sight already behind a monstrous hill, and although the dome of the sky was one translucent quiet splendour, dusk lay in the shadow of the mountain and the nearer shadows of the sombre pines.
'I want to ask you,' said the camper-out, 'if you're a teetotaler?'
'No,' said the station-keeper, 'not in particular.'
'Any whisky about here just now?'
'A gallon,' said the station-keeper; 'new in yesterday. Like a tot?'
The word was snapped out savagely, and the station-keeper said 'Oh!' like an astonished echo.
'It's not at all unlikely that I may ask you for some,' the camper-out went on.
'You're sweetly welcome,' said the other; but he was waved down by an impatient gesture.
'It's not at all unlikely that I may come and beg for it. You're not to give me any. You understand?' The station-keeper stared in the dusk, but made no answer or sign of answer. 'It's not at all unlikely that I may come and try to persuade you that this was a joke, and that I didn't mean it. I may offer you ten dollars for a drink—twenty, thirty, a hundred. I'm not to have it. And if you allow yourself to be persuaded to give me so much as one teaspoonful, no matter when or why, I'll shoot you next day, so sure as I am a living sinner.'
'Oh, you will, will you?
'I will, by God!'
'That's all right,' said the station-keeper. 'You're a very pretty neighbour, you are, by George!'
'I am,' the other man assented—'a very pretty neighbour.'
They parted there without another word. The man of the camp went back to his fire, and the man of the station to his shanty. Away below the camp the canon was dense with shade, but far off up the valley one rod of blinding sunlight struck the most distant peak, and made its snows dazzle on the eye. The snow-peak shone for half an hour, and then by imperceptible changes mellowed to a clear pale gold. Then by fine gradations it grew to a pale rose, a deep rose, a cold gray, a solemn purple. By this time the sky beyond the peak was a fiery glory. This faded in turn, first in a gush of liquid amber, then in soft green, then in blue, then violet. A lone star scintillated over the for crest, went out, relit itself, went out again, twinkled for a time, and at last shone steadfast with a diamond lustre.
As the darkness gathered, the fire, which fora while gleamed more brightly, sank to a dull red, fading and brightening at the falling and rising of the wind, but growing with every minute less responsive to that soft influence.
The stars twinkled over the sky in myriads. The man of the camp threw away the stump of his last cigarette, entered his tent, pulled off his boots, rolled himself in a blanket, and lay down, facing the distant peak and the one shining speck of a world above it.
'You have made a hideous muddle of things.' he said at last—'a hideous muddle. Nothing to fear, for everything has happened. Nothing to hope for, for nothing can happen any more. Fortune wasted, friends wasted, genius wasted, heart wasted, life wasted. Ah, well! I ought to sleep to-night; I'm tired.'
The torrent roared in the heart of the primeval silence. The peak and the star swam apart from each other in the solemn spaces of the sky. Under the tent, which showed ghostly in the starlight, the man lay silent for hours, but when next he spoke his voice was choked with tears.
'Not that,' he said—'not that! I can endure the rest, but no repentance. To repent would drive me mad.'
Twice a day the mountains echoed to the clangour of the passing express train, and at intervals less settled and orderly to the slower rumble of luggage-trucks, laden or empty. The iron artery stretched from coast to coast, and here and there touched and fed a ganglion. To one living alone in those mountain fastnesses the roar and shriek and roll brought insistent memories of the world. No inmate of the oubliette could have been more lonely, and yet life was accessible, and even near.
A month went by. The solitary man of the camp fished and shot, ate, drank, wandered, slept, and saw no face and heard no voice. He had run out of supplies, and having pencilled a note to that effect, had slipped it, with a five-dollar bill, under the door of the railside shanty. His wants had been supplied—they extended to tea and biscuit only—and he had taken care to be out of the way. Sometimes he heard a distant shot, and knew that the man of the shanty was afoot in search of game. Within a very little distance of the railway track sport could be had in plenty.
Loneliness was broken at last. The rustle of boughs and the sound of steps and voices reached the Solitary's ears one day as he sat at his favourite outlook staring down the gorge. At the first note of one of the voices he started and changed colour. Nobody would have taken him for a man of cities now, with his beard of a month's growth, and his tanned hands and face. The open-air colour was the stronger for being new. With continued exposure it would fade from a red tan to a yellow. Deep as it was now, it paled at the first-heard sound of the approaching voice. The man threw a soul of anger and hatred into his ears and listened.
'About a month?' the voice said 'Yes. I heard of his leaving Winnipeg on the twentieth. I went on to Vancouver and found he wasn't there. Then I got news of a fellow stopping off here, and, of course, it couldn't be anybody else. He's my brother-in-law, and I've got a letter for him which I'm pledged to put into his hands.'
The answering voice was the voice of the man of the shanty. It sounded very rough and uncultured after the dandified drawl it followed, but it sounded manlier for the contrast, too.
'He's a queer fellow,' said the first speaker; 'but this is the queerest trick I've known him play. Tell me, is he—is he drinking at all?'
'No,' the other answered. 'He's not drinking. The first day he was here he promised to put a load of shot into me if ever I gave him liquor.'
'Did he really? That's Paul all over. Oh, this the tent? Nobody here, apparently. Well, I must wait. I have a book with me, and I must spend four-and-twenty hours here in any case. Good-afternoon. Thank you.'
The listener was within twenty yards, but invisible beyond the crowded undergrowth. The new arrival was perfectly attired, and handsome, in a supercilious, brainless way. He wore a Norfolk Jacket and knickerbockers, and his tanned boots were polished till they shone like glass. For a while he poked about the tent and its neighbourhood, and, having satisfied his curiosity, drew out a cigar-case from one pocket, a silver matchbox from another, and a paper-clad novel from a third. Then he disposed himself so as to command a view of the landscape, and began to smoke and read.
He had occupied himself in this way for perhaps half an hour, when a sudden voice hailed him, and startled him so that he dropped his book.
'Hillo, you there! Come here!'
'Oh,'he said, 'is that you, Paul, old fellow? Where are you?'
'Here,' said the voice ungraciously.
The latest arrival made his way in the direction indicated, but though the voice had sounded not more than a score of yards away, he had to call out twice or thrice, and wait for an answer. The brush was dense and tangled, and he could have lost himself for a lifetime in it.
'Oh, there you are, Paul! Upon my word, I shouldn't have known you.'
'I heard you say you had a letter for me. I'd a good deal rather not have seen you, but since you are here you may as well discharge your commission, and when you've done that you can go.'
'I've got a letter for you, Paul. It's from poor dear Madge, and I'm bound to say that I think she's beastly ill-used, and very unfortunate.'
'Doubly unfortunate,' said the camper-out—'unfortunate in a brute of a husband and a cad of a brother. Give me the letter.'
'Here it is, Paul. You may think what you like about me, of course, but I have travelled something like seven or eight thousand miles to find you.'
'On Madge's money?' asked the other, balancing the letter in a careless grip between thumb and finger. 'Nobody asks you to stop to hear yourself described. You were a cad from your cradle; you were a liar as soon as you could learn to lisp, and a sponge from the happy hour when you found the first fool to lend you half a crown. You needn't wait, George, but so long as you are here I will do my best to tell you what you are. You are a fruitful theme, and I could be fluent for a week or two. Going? Well, luck go with you, of the sort you merit. I'd call you a cur, but there isn't a cur in all the world who wouldn't walk himself blind and lame to bite me in revenge for the insult I put upon him. Go—you infinitesimal! you epitome of unpitiable little shames!'
The bearer of the letter, who had travelled so far for so curious a welcome, had found a beaten trail which led him back to the woodland road. He had gone a score of yards by this time; but the voice pursued him—level, heavy, sonorous, driven by full lungs.
'Put your fingers in your ears, George, or I shall find a word to scorch you. You are the poorest thing in Nature's bag of samples. A well-bred woodlouse wouldn't employ you for a scavenger. If you shrank to your soul's dimensions you might wander lost for a century on the point of a cambric needle. You are the last rarefied essence of the contemptible—the final word of the genius of the mean.'
This was not shouted, but was sent out in a steady trumpet-note that swelled fuller and fuller, like the voice of a great speaker in haranguing a clamorous audience, rising steadily, as if measured just to dominate clamour, and no more. In the pauses of his speech the camper-out had heard the noise of running feet. The sound seemed still faintly audible, though perhaps only fancy caught it. He sent out one clarion cry of 'Good-bye, George!' and surrendered himself to a fit of uncontrolled laughter. This coming to an end of sudden gravity, he took up the letter, which had fallen on the moss between his outstretched legs, and looked at the superscription.
'Madge!' he said. 'Poor little Madge!'
He put the envelope to his bristly lips and kissed it. Then he broke the seal and began to read:
'My own darling Husband,
'You must have the enclosed, and George has promised not to rest until he finds you and lays it in your hands. The last lines your father ever wrote in this world——'
'What?' he said aloud. 'What?
'The last lines your father ever wrote in this world arrived on Saturday, the twentieth, and news of his death reached me by wire on Monday, the twenty-second.'
'That's a big enough dose for one day,' he said. 'I can't stand any more.' He thrust the letter into his breast-pocket. 'Another impossibility. No prodigal's return to end that story. Veal was never a favourite meat of mine. Lord! I could laugh to see what a mess I have made of things. I could cry if anybody else had made it, and had meant as well, and hoped as blindly.
'Monday, the twenty-second. That was the day I came here. Strange it is—strange! I'd have sworn he was alive that night—that first night in the tent here. I seemed to feel him near me. We had that knack—the old governor and I—poor old chap! He could jog my mental elbow when I was a thousand miles away from him, and I could make him talk of me at any time.
'Ghosts? No. Death is death, and there's an end of it. Ah!' He stood suddenly arrested. 'Six hours' difference between here and England. That explains it. His last wish was towards me. He loved nobody as he loved me, I think. Well, I shall vex him no more. His tribulation is over.
'Why cant a wrong-doer have a hell of his own, and be saved from singeing innocent people? The smoke of my torment ascendeth, and even George goes coughing at the smell of brimstone. George would be much more comfortable if I had been virtuous—Madge would have more to lend him.
'Now, if I had a bottle of whisky here, I'd put an end to this for an hour or two. But I haven't, and I must do something. I must drug this down. Bodily labour.' He laid his open palm on the knotted rind of the big tree against which he had leaned his back whilst he read the first phrases of the letter. 'You'll do as well as anything. It took many a score of years to bring you here, but now you must come down. You'll sleep in the gorge before I have done with you, old piny monster, three hundred feet below your roots.'
He walked to the tent, and returning jacketless, axe in hand, fell upon the tree with a measured frenzy. The sun was still high, and before he had been at work ten minutes the sweat poured from his brow like rain. He paused to breathe, and to survey the gash he had made in the side of the tree. Compared with the girth of the forest giant, it looked the merest trifle, but he nodded gaspingly.
'You'll sleep in the gorge before I have done with you, you old goliath of your tribe. I shall have you down.'
He laboured with dogged fury. His hands blistered at the unaccustomed task. The helve of the axe was stained with blood, and clung to his grasp as if his palms were glued. His blows grew altogether ineffectual The axe fell sideways often, and at such times the blow jarred him to the spine. 'You will come down,' he said, 'if I die for it' He went back to the tent, and casting himself on the turf before it, laved his hands in the ice-cold mountain-stream. In half an hour he returned to his task, and worked at it until he could no longer lift a hand. Even then, as he walked brokenly away, he turned with an angry murmur:
'I'll have you down!'
He built his fire, and brewed and sipped his tea and munched his rations in great weariness that night, and it was earlier than usual when he rolled himself in his blanket and lay down. But though he ached with fatigue from neck to heel, there was no sleep for him. He seemed to hang suspended over a great lake of slumber, and to hold, in spite of his own will, to a bar which magnetized his burning palms. He had but to release the bar to fall deep into oblivion, but his grasp was fixed, and he had no power to loose it. So, after many hours of tumbling this way and that, he arose, and fed his fire with dry chips until it flamed; and then, in alternate gushes of light and darkness, he read his father's letter.
'Hendricks has just left me, and I succeeded in getting from him at the last a plain statement of his opinion. I may last a month longer, but he thinks it unlikely. I may go in a week. A chill, or a shock, or any little trifle may precipitate the change, and make an end at any moment. I can write for a few minutes at a time, and I am trying for Paul's sake to say one or two things which will make my future task more likely of success....
'I was fifty when my father died. I had been bred in the strictest Calvinistic school; but my heart had revolted against the creed, and from the time when I was five-and-twenty my mind had rejected it with equal decision and disdain. I looked for no other faith or form of faith. At the centre of the negation in which I lived there was this one thought: There may, for anything I can tell, be a great First Cause. I cannot know. I can neither affirm nor deny, for the whole question is beyond my understanding. But this at least seems clear: If there be a God at all, He is far away. He is great beyond our dreaming—distant beyond our dreaming. If there be a scheme in the universe, there is at least no care for the atoms which compose it. God sits far withdrawn, beyond our prayers, beyond our tears and fears. This fretful insect of an hour, who cannot even measure the terms he uses, speaks of the Eternal, the Immutable, and strives by his prayers to change Its purposes. I am writing now by lamplight, and the agonies of the singed moths whose little bodies encrust my lamp-glass do not move me from my purpose. I realize their anguish at this moment with a deep pity, but I do not stay to save them. My heavier purpose will not wait for them. Thus I dreamed it was, likening smallest things to the greatest, with God.
'At my father's death a change began to work in my opinions. I had convinced myself that this life was all that man enjoyed or suffered, but I began to be conscious that I was under tutelage. I began—at first faintly and with much doubting—to think that my father's spirit and my own were in communion. I knew that he had loved me fondly, and to me he had always seemed a pattern of what is admirable in man. Now he seemed greater, wiser, milder. I grew to believe that he had survived the grave, and that he had found permission to be my guide and guardian. The creed which slowly grew up in my mind and heart, and is now fixed there, was simply this: that as a great Emperor rules his many provinces, God rules the universe, employing many officers—intelligences of loftiest estate, then intelligences less lofty; less lofty still beneath these, and at the last the humbler servants, who are still as gods to us, but within our reach, and His messengers and agents. Then God seemed no longer utterly remote and impossible to belief, and I believed. And whether this be true or false, I know one thing: this faith has made me a better man than I should have been without it My beloved father, wise and kind, has seemed to lead me by the hand. I have not dared in the knowledge of his sleepless love to do many things to which I have been tempted. I have learned from him to know—if I know anything—that life from its lowest form is a striving upward through uncounted and innumerable grades, and that in each grade something is learned that fits us for the next, or something lost which has to be won back again after a great purgation of pain and repentance.
'It is three days since I began to write, and I am so weak that I can barely hold the pen. Send this to Paul. He has gone far wrong. He will come back again to the right. I have asked that I may guide him, and my prayer has been granted. From the hour at which I quit this flesh until he joins me my work is appointed me, and I shall not leave him. Goodbye, dear child. Be at peace, for all will yet be well.
'When Paul sees these last words of mine, he will know that I am with him.'
The letter ended there, and the reader's dazzled eyes looked into the darkness. One flickering flame hovered above the embers of the fire and seemed to leave them and return, to die and break to life again. At last it fluttered upward and was gone.
The runnel, like the greater stream below, had many voices. It chattered light-hearted trifles, lamented child-like griefs, and sobbed itself to sleep over and over and over. In the black canon the river bellowed its rage and triumph and despair. The shadows of the night were deep, and silence brooded within them, and the ears thrilled and tingled to the monitions of its voiceless sea.
'Father!' he whispered.
The night gave no response, but the answer sounded in the lonely man's heart:
'I am here.'
In the broad daylight it was not easy to believe that the experience of the night-time was more than an excitement of the nerves. The tide of habitual conviction set strongly against a superstitious fancy. None the less the Solitary spent many hours in tender and remorseful musings over the lost father, and all day long he wondered at the voice which had seemed to answer him.
'It would be well for me, perhaps,' he said, when he had spent two-thirds of the day under the spell of these clear recollections—'it would be well for me, perhaps, if I could think it true.'
An inward voice said, as if with deliberate emphasis, 'It is true.'
The words did not seem to be his own, and the thought was not his own, and he was startled, almost wildly. But he had been much given to introspection. He was accustomed to the study of his own mind's working, and the inward voice impressed him less than if he had been a man of simpler intellect. The intelligence of man plays many curious tricks upon itself, and he was ready with explanations. He pored upon these, turned them over, criticised them, sat secure in them.
The inward voice said 'Paul,' and nothing more. No call had sounded on the waking ear, and yet an echo seemed to live in the air, as if a real voice had spoken. His heart thrilled and his breast ached with a great longing. He subdued himself, sitting with bowed head and closed eyes, his chin sunk upon his folded hands. There was a bitter pain in his throat.
'No,' he said half aloud, as if he had need to form his thoughts in words; 'it is all at an end, dear old dad It was well for you that you died with that good hope in your mind It shed a ray of peace on your heart in the last dark hour. It would be well for me if I could think that you were here.. I could stand the pain of it I could bear, I think, to turn my whole life's stream back upon itself if that would bring you peace. I could bear to repent if my repentance could avail But you are gone into the great dark. You will be sad no more and glad no more. I broke your heart, and you tried to patch it with that futile hope. And you were not the man to ask me to be a coward, and a liar to my own soul. I will keep what little rag of manliness I have.'
The inward voice seemed to say 'Wait.'
'It would be easy to go mad,' he said, rising wearily. '"They rest from their labours, and their works do follow them."'
He had wandered a mile or two from his tent, along the track, and now turned his footsteps home again. The afternoon light was mellowing. A great range of hills, with a line of cloud shining across the breast of it like a baldric of silver, lifted parcel-coloured masses of white and violet into a rolling billowy glory of cloud which half obscured and half relieved them. The sky above was of an infinite purity. He stood and looked, until his heart yearned.
The yearning spoke itself in words which had been familiar since childhood:
'"Oh that I had wings like a dove, for then would I fly away and be at rest!"'
'Old earth,' he said, 'why is it? You seem to long for me. You seem to stretch out hands to me, as if you would say, "Sleep here!" We belong to one another, I suppose. This flesh and bone, this breathing, thinking apparatus, grew out of the slime of you, old world, and will go back to your dust and flourish in grass and flower, and float in cloud and fall in rain. You have hidden in your green breast all the millions who have gone before me. Fecund mother! kind grave! And you, too, for all so green and kisty as you look, you are dying. Your life is longer than mine, but you are no Immortal. Your hills roll down to your valleys. Every stream that tumbles from their heights wears away a little. The light snow and lighter air are heavy on those heights of steel, and will make them into dust at last. Your inward fires will cool, and the air that clothes you like a delicate robe will shrink and vanish, and leave you naked to the sun. I shall come to your bosom and be quiet, and you will find the bourne of death likewise, and we shall swing together round and round And the fires of the sun will cool, and you will go spinning in blackness, and split in silent explosions of cold in the blind dark. Dying heart, beating strong in full manhood! dying earth, smiling and yearning there with pity and rest in your bosom! we are but creatures of a day—my day the briefer. And that would matter little if I had been worthy of my day. But I have played the fool with life, and have earned my own contempt and creep into my hiding-place with shame.'
He strolled back to the tent, and whether he would have it or no, and whether he would believe it or no, the inward voice spoke now and then. Twice in the wide daylight he stood still, and his hair crisped and his blood tingled. The voice was there, and yet he could not guess what it had to say to him. It was as though it spoke in a language to which he had no key.
As he sat musing his eye fell upon the axe, and he started up and seized it as if suddenly reminded of some forgotten urgent duty. He fell to work at the big tree again, and laboured doggedly till nightfall. Inexperienced as he was, he brought observation and intelligence to the task, and knew already the kind of stroke which told most with the least expenditure of effort. When he could see no longer, he leaned gasping on the axe, and gave a grim nod of the head. 'I shall have you down.'
He was at it again next morning light and early. He toiled all day. The great pine leaned somewhat over the cliff, and though the angle was slight, it told as the gash deepened, and when the sun dipped over the top of the western mountain the huge doomed thing gave its first groan and hung a little towards its grave. At this sign the tired worker fell to with a freshened vigour. He was still striking when the royal head bowed, and then swept downward with a rush. He sprang to one side just in time to avoid the backward kick and the enormous flying splinters. Ten feet from its base and a hundred from its lowest branch the trunk caught the edge of the rock. The leverage and the weight of the fall snapped the two or three square feet of stanch fibre the axe had spared. That last strong anchorage broke, and the tree flashed into the rapids. The churning, shooting waters made a plaything of it.
The next day he fell into deep ennui, and to beguile himself he rummaged out of the canvas bag an old note-book and a pencil, and began a clumsy and uninstructed effort to sketch the scene before him. The effort proving quite abortive, he began to scrawl beneath it, 'Paul Armstrong.' 'Yours very truly, Paul Armstrong.' 'Disrespectfully yours, Paul Armstrong.' 'Sacred to the memory of Paul Armstrong, who died of boredom in the Rocky Mountains.' 'Paul Armstrong: the Autobiography of an Ass.'
He was in the very act of throwing the book away from him when he felt suddenly arrested. Why not 'Paul Armstrong: an Autobiography? It would fill the time. But the idea was no sooner formed than it began to pain. What sort of a record would it have to be if it were honest? What a confession of folly, of failure!
But as he sat his thoughts shaped themselves—
THE STORY OF PAUL ARMSTRONG'S LIFE AND OF DESPAIR'S LAST JOURNEY
The first hint of memory showed a hearth, a fire, and a woman sitting in a chair with an outstretched finger. An invisible hand bunched his petticoats behind, and at his feet was a rug made of looped fragments of cloth of various colours. He lurched across the rug and caught the finger with a sense of adventure and triumph. Somebody clapped hands and laughed. Memory gave no more.
Then there was a long, narrow, brick-paved yard, a kind of oblong well, with one of the narrower sides broken down. The bricks of the pavement were of many colours—browns, purples, reds. They were full of breakages and hollows, and in rainy weather small pools gathered in the petty valleys. The loftiest boundary wall had once been whitewashed, but was now streaked green and yellow with old rains. A pump with a worn trough of stone stood half-way up the yard, and near it was a boy—a very little boy, in petticoats, and a yellow straw hat with ribbons. The frock he wore was of some tartan pattern, with red and green in it He had white thread socks, and shoes with straps across the instep. The straps were fastened with round glass buttons, and the child, with his feet planted close together, was looking down at the buttons with a flush of pride. He was conscious of being prettily attired, and this was his first remembered touch of personal vanity.
He was walking and crying in an old-fashioned village street, crying because his fat small thighs were chafing one another. It was Sunday, or a holiday, for his father was in a tall silk hat and black broadcloth and high collar, and a satin stock which fastened with a shiny buckle high up in the neck behind. His father stooped and lifted him, and carried him all the way to an old house with three front-doors, and porches over the doors, and a cage with two doves in it hanging on the lichened wall. There was a hedged garden opposite the house, with four poplars in the hedgerow. Their tops went right into the blue. Inside the old house was an old gentleman who was called Uncle. Round the room he sat in were hung a number of fiddles in green-baize bags. How he had learned what the bags held the child could not tell, but he knew. The old gentleman took him on his knee, and allowed him to touch his whiskers, which were crisp and soft, and snipped pieces of white paper into the shapes of trees and animals and houses, with a little pair of scissors. He had blue veins on the back of his white hands, and little cords the like of which were not on the child's, as examination proved. This was his first memory of any house which was not home.
There he first saw a piano. It was open, and he beat the keys, sounding now one note at a time and now two or three together. This was a fascinating exercise, but he was bidden to desist from it, and was given a picture-book to look at It was full of wiry-looking steel plates of men in cauldrons, and on crucifixes, and on racks, and bound to stakes in fires. He remembered it as Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs,' but by a later knowledge.
There was a well in a yard, with a rope and a windlass, and an old wooden bucket all over trailing green mosses. Off the yard there was a blacksmith's shop, with a disused anvil and disused tools in it, and a cold hearth covered with scattered slack and iron filings. A dog, whose chain allowed him to come within a yard of the door of this workshop, woke up at the clank of the tools and barked. The child cried until his mother came and took him away with some show of angry impatience, not with his father's gentleness. He knew her for his mother, of course, but this was his first remembrance of her.
It was baking-day, and so it could not have been a Sunday. In a big 'jowl' of earthenware—that was the local word for it—a batch of dough was set before a fire to rise. It had a clean cloth spread over it, and the dough had been slashed across and across with a knife. Somebody said the sign of the cross was made to keep the devil out of the bread. There was a vague wonder at that, but it soon died. A portion of the dough was used to make what were called 'rough-and-ready cakes.' Dripping was rolled into the dough, and it was sprinkled with sugar and currants. Then it was pulled into all manner of rough shapes, so as to bake with crisp edges, and was put on a greased dripping-pan into an oven. The cakes were served hot with new milk, and made a regal feast.
It grew dark, which for summer-time was a new experience. The child, tired, but wakeful, stood at the door in fear of the dog. Suddenly he roused the household with screams of joy.
'Mother! mother! Look what I've found!'
There was a rush and a swirl of petticoats. The infant had seen the stars for the first time, and had some trouble in explaining the nature of his find. When it was known that he had discovered the solar system and its neighbouring fragment of the universe, there was a laugh, and he was left alone, humiliated.
'I have made many equally valuable and original discoveries since then,' said Paul Armstrong, and so went on staring down the canon, seeing nothing of what lay before him, but beholding his child-self so clearly that he seemed to be living over again the life of forty years ago.
The child was shy, dreamy, sensitive, inventive, and a liar. He and his brother Dick were together walking in the shabby High Street, and talking about cricket.
'I'll bet you haven't seen what I've seen,' said Paul. He was seven years old by now, breeched in corduroys, which had had time to grow rusty. The middle-aged man, sitting at his tent-door, smelt the odour of the new cords, and heard their disgusting whistle as he moved his limbs in them for the first time. Only the poorest boys went clothed in corduroy, and Paul and brother Dick were bitterly lowered in their own esteem when they were forced by motherly economy into that badge of social servitude. 'I'll bet you haven't seen what I've seen.'
'What have you seen? asked Dick.
He was rather a fatuous boy, with round, innocent eyes, easily opening at tales of marvel, and a temptation to a liar.
'Why, when I was in Scotland three years ago with father,' Paul began, 'I saw the Highlanders play cricket.' He had never in his life been a mile away from his native parish, and Dick knew that as well as he did, but it made no difference. 'They wore kilts, and father wore a kilt, and had a feather in his bonnet, and top-boots like Robin Hood, all loose about the tops, and a bow and arrow. And he smoked a cigar, and gave me a whole lot of vesuvians to strike by myself behind a tent. You could smell vesuvians and cigars and sunshiny trod-on grass everywhere.'
'Tell us about the Highlanders,' said Dick.
'They was all ten foot high,' said Paul. 'They wouldn't have 'em in the eleven without they was ten foot high.'
Dick said that stood to reason.
'And they played in their kilts, and they didn't wear pads, and they had their bats all made of iron, and the ball was iron, too. It was a cannon-ball, and they fired it out of a cannon, and the wickets was a mile and a half apart—no, a mile and a quarter—and one man hit the ball, and the other men shouted, "Run it out!" and he ran sixty-four runs. Then he dropped down stone-dead, and Mr. Murchison read the funeral service.'
Then the talk drifted. Next Sunday the Rev. Roderic Murchison, M.A., read out from the pulpit a text which gave over all liars to fire and brimstone. Paul went quaking all day. Dick and he slept together in a gaunt attic chamber. Mary, their sister, twenty years Paul's elder, saw them to bed, put them through a rough form of prayer, and took away the candle. Dick, with nothing on his conscience, went to sleep. Paul lay and sweated, dreading fire, and wondering with open-eyed horror, 'Why brimstone?' and imagining extraordinary terrors from its addition. At last conscience would have no Nay, and brimful of fear and contrition—for the one was as real as the other—he woke up Dick in the black hollow of the night This was hard work, but he was bent on self-purgation, and would not confess until Dick was really wide awake.
'Dick!' he said, gripping his brother in the dark and straining him in his childish arms. 'Dick! Oh, Dick, I've been a liar, and I daresn't go to sleep. Do you remember what I said about the Highlanders last Thursday?'
'Blow the Highlanders!' said Dick. 'What did ye wake me up for?'
'It wasn't true, Dick,' the penitent whimpered. 'I never saw a Highlander, and father didn't take me to Scotland with him. It was all made up.'
'I know that,' said Dick. 'You are a fool to wake a chap up in the dark to tell him that.'
That was the child's first remembered penitence and confession. The man remembered how he had sobbed himself to sleep. Why had he lied, and was a portion his in the lake of fire and brimstone, and what was the good of being repentant and confessing, and being called a fool for one's pains?
When the childish Paul came out of the kitchen-door into that three-sided well of a brick-paved yard, and walked towards the printing-office at the far end of the narrow strip of garden, the first door beyond the pump-trough led him to a flight of stairs. The flight of stairs, dirty and littered, mounted to a lumber-room, where there were great piles of waste-paper, refuse from the shop and office. There were many torn and battered old books here, and most of them were deserving of the neglect into which they had fallen. The father had bought old books literally by the cart-load at auction, and had weeded from the masses of rubbish such things as promised to be saleable. The rest were Paul's prey, and there were scraps of romance here and there, and fugitive leaves of Hone's 'Everyday Book,' and the Penny Magazine, with dingy woodcuts. One inestimable bundle of leaves unbound held the greater part of 'Peregrine Pickle,' the whole of 'Robinson Crusoe,' and part of 'The Devil on Two Sticks.' Brother Bob, dead and gone these many years, had once kept pigeons in that lumber-room, and had driven a hole in the wall, so that the birds might have free going out and in. This was one of the family remembrances. Before there had been so many mouths to fill and so many small figures to be clothed, there had been room in the Armstrong household for some things which were not wholly utilitarian. This keeping of pigeons was, as it were, a link with a golden past, a bright thread in the tapestry of the bygone, which hung on the eye of imagination in contrast with the sordid present, where few of the threads were bright except to the inexhaustible fancy of a child, who can see brightness almost anywhere.
The lumber-room had many memories for the dreamer in the tent-door. He was often banished there for punishment, and he sometimes confessed to faults which were not his, if they were not of too dark a dye, in the hope of being sent thither. There he would grub amongst the mouldy refuse of the place, and would find treatises of forgotten divines on Daniel and the end of the world, and translations of Ovid on the Art of Love sadly mutilated by rats, and nautical almanacs of a long bygone date, and much other doubtful treasure.
The mother came into the brick-paved yard and shrilled 'Paul! Paul lay quiet. The voice called up and down, and was lost in the recesses of the heaped timber in the yard which lay beside the ill-kempt strip of garden. The hedge which had once divided the neighbouring domains was broken down in many places, and Paul and his brother played often on the timber-stacks, and in the aromatic groves of sawn planks which inclined towards each other in row on row, making an odorous cloistered shade, excellent for enacted memories of Chingachgook and Uncas and the Pathfinder. There was a sawpit in the yard, a favourite hiding-place for the boys, and the turpentiny scent of fresh sawdust had always been a thing to conjure with in the Solitary's memory. The smell of printer's ink which hung about the dowdy, untidy, bankrupt printing-office had a hint of it. Years afterwards and years ago in the studio of the President of the Belgian Academy, when Paul was famous and on easy terms with famous people, a servant uncorked a tin of turpentine to clean his master's palette, and the sawpit yawned again, and every broken brick in the floor of the old office showed so clear that he could have drawn the finest crevice. The odour was in his nostrils now as he sat at the tent-door, and he did not dream that it sweated from the sun-smitten pines. It was all memory to his fancy, and the voice went shrilling 'Paul!' among the timber-stacks, and was lost in the cavernous shed at the far-end of the yard. Then everything went quiet for an hour, and Paul made acquaintance with the poverty-stricken artist who could not take his mistress to the ball because she had no stockings fit to go in, and who hit on the expedient of painting stockings on her legs. How simply and innocently comic the episode was to the child's mind, to be sure! and how harmless were the naughtiest adventures exposed under the lifted roofs when the lame devil waved his crutch from the top of the steeple!
But in the full tide of this retired joy Paul hears a step at the bottom of the lumber-room stairs, and knows it for his mother's. She is coming here, and there is no hiding-place for anything bigger than a rat. The motherly temper is sharp, and the motherly hand is heavy. He has been called and has not answered—a crime deserving punishment, and sure to earn it. The step grows nearer and trouble more assured. Suddenly a ray of hope darts through him, and he feigns sleep. His heart labours, but he keeps his breath regular by a great effort. Mother gazes for a minute, and goes away on tiptoe. There is quiet for five minutes, and Paul is back in fairyland. But mother is here again on tiptoe, and the voice of doom sounds on his ear.
'I thought you was foxing, you little beast!'
Then Paul takes his thrashing as well as he can, aiming to receive most of it on his elbows, and is in bitter disgrace for days and days. The phenomenally guilty and degraded young ruffian who acted a lie!—-a far viler thing, it would seem, than to speak one!
This is the worst of the household, to the Solitary's mind, that all combine in prolonged reprobation for any crime of his. He has no memory for Dick's offences or Jack's or David's; but Dick and Jack and David are unforgetting, and the girls sniff unutterable holiness and contempt. He knows he is a liar, and he knows that liars have their portion in that awful lake, but he is high-spirited and fanciful, and he forgets, sealing his doom weekly at the least, and making it more sure. This reputation of liar began when Wombwell's Menagerie of Wild Beasts first visited the parish, and the neighbourhood of lions and tigers so flushed his imagination that he saw them everywhere. He came home one day with a story of a tiger running away with the shop-shutters of a neighbouring grocer on his back. He was chastised for this gratuitous unwarrantable yarn, and stuck to it Perhaps he had dreamed it and believed it true, but on that point memory was silent. Anyway it was fixed and decided that he was a liar, and 'A liar we can ne'er believe, though he should speak the thing that's true.' So nobody believed Paul under any conditions, not even when truth was crystalline.
He was a little older, a very little older, and he lay in bed one moonlight night in summer. He had been to chapel that Sunday evening, and the Rev. Roderic Murchison had preached a sermon from the text, 'To depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.' Paul's small soul was filled to the brim with a sort of yearning peace. The moon yearned at him through the uncurtained window of the bare attic chamber, and he longed back to it. Oh how sweet, how sweet to pass to peace for ever, to lie asleep for ever, with the grass and the daisies for a counterpane, and yet to be somewhere and wideawake and happy! 'Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.' Paul was of the kingdom for a time, but he had the blundering ill-luck to mention it. He put his arms round Dick, who lay awake there, and he cried and said good-bye, and told Dick that he was going to die and be an angel. And in his heart he forgave Dick—nebulously but with sincerity—not particularizing things, but offering plenary grace for all offences. And Dick took fright and ran with bare legs projecting from his scanty nightshirt, and blubbered that Paul was dying—that he said so, that he was sure of it. And Paul, listening at the top of the stairs, heard the news given and forgave everybody, and went back to bed again and was filled with inexpressible joy of assured longing. The good mother came upstairs carrying Dick, who had been solaced with unaccustomed supper of bread and treacle—he was sticky and crumby with it hours afterwards when Paul still lay crying—and she gave Paul such a hiding for his heartless wickedness as he had never had in all his days till then. It was not the pain of the flogging, though he had been chastened with a liberal hand, that kept him in tears throughout that wretched night. It was the bitter sense of injustice, for Paul had imputed his dream to himself for holiness, and had believed so truly and had meant so well.
And the matter did not end there Paul had slept on his trouble and had forgotten it, as children can. He was stripped to the waist, and was taking his morning wash at the sink in the back-kitchen when his father came, carrying in his left hand an instrument called the 'tawse,' a broad flat leathern strap, cut into strips at one end. The strips had been hardened in the fire, and the 'tawse 'was a holy horror to the boys, who saw it often and were threatened with it sometimes, but who had felt it never. Armstrong the father came in pale and gray, his hands quivering, and he gave Paul a little sermon. The ineradicable Ayrshire accent shook out in his voice more strongly than common, for he was an idle dreamer, and a man who hated to see pain, and to whom it was an agony to inflict it.
'This will hurt me far more than it will hurt you, my lad, said Armstrong senior; and Paul, by a swift, sidelong movement of the mind, decided that he had been born a liar because his father was one before him.
Then the father expanded upon the enormity of his wickedness, and told him how he had shamefully trifled with the thought of death, which was the most serious of all things, and how in his vanity he had tried to alarm his brother, and how this evil lying spirit must be beaten out of him. Paul was silent, for how could he explain? And the kindly father, who had had to work himself up to this cold-blooded severity, went half hysterical when he had once begun, and overdid the thing. Paul's flesh ached and stung and quivered on his bones for days. A fortnight afterwards, when he went to bathe, having forgotten his flogging, his stripes were seen, and a schoolmate christened him Tiger on account of them. To that day there were people who knew him as Tiger Armstrong, though they had forgotten the reason of the nickname.
This was one of the inconveniences of having a reputation. There were more such doleful comedies in the lonely man's mind as he looked down the gorge.
The scenes came back as if they were enacted before him. The old eight-day dock ticked in its recess; the fire rustled and dropped a cinder; the cat purred on the hearth; Paul sat reading, absorbed, and yet in memory he knew of the cat and the dock and the fire, and even of a humming fly somewhere, and a gleam of sunshine on the weather-stained whitewash of the wall outside.
In came Mrs. Armstrong, with the little household servant at her heels, and laid something on the ledge of the old clock face. She was an uncommonly tall woman, and had a knack of putting things on high out of other people's reach.
'That's for the potatoes,' she said; 'run and get 'em as soon as ever you've peeled the turnips.'
'Yes, ma'am,' said the girl; and they both went out together.
Two or three minutes later Paul went out. His father sat behind the counter of the shop, and Paul was afraid that if he went that way he would be seized upon and compelled to take his place. So he ran up the garden, climbed a wall or two, and dropped into Badger's field. He had not gone twenty yards when he found a halfpenny lying on the grass. He laid hands on it, and made for the confectioner's, where he expended it on a sickly sweet called 'paper-suck'—a treacly, sticky abomination with a spiral of old newspaper twined about it Brother Dick appeared by chance, and shared the treat. Paul at this time had taken to making verses on his own account, incited by a great deal of miscellaneous reading. This was an exercise which demanded quiet and retirement, and he got away into the fields, and, lying face downwards on the grass, gave himself over hand and foot to fancy. It was quite late in the afternoon when appetite brought him to himself. He had forgotten his dinner, but relying on his ability to filch something, he walked home with a light heart He marched innocently through the open door of the shop.
'Paul!' His father stopped him, his spectacles tipped up into his white hair, and his gray eyes half hidden under eyebrows like a shaggy Scotch deer-hound's. The portrait of Sir Walter's 'Maida' had a strong suggestion of the Scottish face, wistful, affectionate, and full of simple sagacity. Just now the gray eyes looked doom. Paul knew he had done something awful, and felt guilty, though he knew nothing as yet of the charge against him. 'What ha' ye dune wi' the threepenny-bit ye stole this morning?'
'What threepenny-bit?' said Paul. 'I haven't seen no threepenny-bit, father.'
The verse he hammered out in his lonely moments was grammatical, because his exemplars would have it so; but to have been grammatical in common speech would have seemed like a pedantry.
'The threepenny-bit your mother put on the clock-ledge, ye pelferin' vag'bond!' said his father sternly.
'I never seen it,' Paul declared.
'There, there!' said Armstrong; 'it comes natural to lie, and I'll not tempt ye. Not another word. Ye'll go to your chamber, and ye'll stop there till ye're in the mind to confess. There's the fruits of your crime marked on your lips this minute, and Dick saw ye at the sweet-stuff shop. Away with ye, before I lay hands on ye!'
Paul's hob-nailed boots went lingeringly up the uncarpeted stairs to the attic room, and there he spent the long, long afternoon. There was nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing to read. He stared at the tinman's shop opposite, and at the cheesemonger's fat widow, and at the window of the Berlin wool shop next door to the cheesemonger's, and when a customer went in he speculated idly on his purchase. He was very hungry and lonely and dull, and the three other attic rooms which were open to him were as uninteresting as his own. Evening came on, and he seemed to be forgotten. He took off his boots, and crept to the lower flight of stairs and listened. Everything was going on just as it would have done if he had not been alone and miserable and martyred Well, he could starve and die and go to heaven, and then perhaps they would all be sorry, and discover some little good in him. Evening deepened into night, and still he sat there. A little insect behind the wall-paper against which he leaned his disconsolate head ticked and ticked like a watch. Paul had heard of the death-watch, and this, of course, was it, and its token was, of course, of his own untimely end. He wept luxuriously.
By-and-by he got up, and crept on tiptoe past the door of the best bedroom, which stood a little open, and invited him inwards by the mysterious gleam on the ceiling and the thrilling shadows of the great four-poster with its dusky hangings—a family heirloom, hint of far-off family prosperity, big enough for a hearse and quite as gloomy to look at. A heavy, solid mahogany chest of drawers stood near the window, and Paul, aided by the gaslights glistening amongst the polished tinware in the shop opposite, went through every drawer. His hands lighted on something done up in tissue-paper—an oblong parcel. He investigated it, and it turned out to be a big sponge loaf. He had seen one like it before, and guessed that it came as a gift from the old-maid cousins at the farm. He pinched off a bit from one of the bottom corners, and nibbled it He had not known till then how hungry he was, and the cake was more than delicious. He pinched off more, and was frightened to find how much he had taken. Detection was sure, and who but he could be suspected? Nothing could save him now, and though he had never heard either proverb, he acted on both—'In for a penny, in for a pound,' and 'As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.' A voice and a footstep below startled him, and he fled guiltily. Now he was a thief, and then he was a beleaguered citizen, forced to make excursions by night, and live at risk of life on the provisions of the foe. He lay on the bed, and watched the lights on the ceiling until the cheesemonger's shop and the tinman's were closed; then he went to sleep, and in a while Dick came and awoke him.
'You'll get nothing to eat till you confess,' said Dick, 'and then you'll get a licking.'
'Then I shall die,' said Paul. 'I shan't confess what I never done.'
He undressed and got into bed, and was more of a Christian martyr than he had ever been before. He slept fairly well, all things considered; but when in the morning his father's deep, asthmatic cough sounded on the stairs, he felt as if his heart had slipped through his spine and had dropped upon the floor. He sat up in bed as his father entered the room.
'Well, sir, are ye in any mind to tell the truth yet?'
'I didn't take it, father; I never seen it' 'Vary good; yell just stay there.'
Dick, with his hair staring from his head in all directions, pulled on his boots and trousers, and, gathering his other belongings in both arms, went off to make his toilet in the back-kitchen. The heavy day began for Paul, and when he had dressed he prowled disconsolately about his prison limits. In the ceiling of one of the back rooms there was a trap-door, and he began to wonder if he could open it There was a crippled three-legged table in the next apartment, and two old chairs, the rush bottoms of which had given way. He lugged these beneath the trap and mounted. He had two or three tumbles, and anything but a cat or a boy would have broken its neck several times over; but at last he succeeded in forcing the trap, and scrambled up. The joists of the roof and the rough inside of the slates were all he saw at first; but in a while he discerned a solid-looking shadow in the near distance, and made towards it. It proved to be a small table, and on it, covered thick with dust, were a broken jug, a broken cup, and a broken table-knife. What brought these things in so curious a place Paul never knew; but there they were, and the spot in an instant was a robber's cave, and full of the most palpitating and delicious fears. He seized the broken table-knife as a weapon, and dashed back towards the trap-door. His movement towards the table must have taken him over some protected place—some region where a wall or beam made the lath-and-plaster flooring sound beneath his feet. But in his backward dash he missed this. The thin and fragile stuff gave way beneath him, and he came through with a tearing crash, and fell on the floor of the room beneath with a shock which snapped his teeth together and left him dizzy and half stunned. There was a big rent in the ceiling, and the floor was covered for a square yard or two with hairy plaster and fragments of wood.
Paul thought at first that he was broken all over, but, coming to gather himself together, found himself whole. He transferred the crippled table and the chairs to their original places, and stowed away the knife between the cords and the mattress of his bed. Then he listened dreadfully to discover if the noise of his fall had awakened any answering commotion below stairs. Growing easy on this point, he began to be aware that he was hungry again, and bethought him of the remnant of the sponge loaf. Nothing much worse than had already happened could befall him, and after brief temptation he kicked off his unlaced hobnails and stole downstairs. With some such vague idea of disguising crime as a thievish monkey might have had, he packed up a pair of neatly folded towels in the paper which had once held the loaf, and so retreated to his prison. All day long the familiar noises of the house, exaggerated into importance by his own loneliness, went on. Feet travelled here and there, voices called, the tingling shop-bell rang. The little servant came to make the bed, and treated him with the disdain which befitted a convicted criminal. In a while she went away, and left him lonelier than before. Even disdain had something of human companionship in it.
And now, hunger's pangs having been fairly well appeased by the remnant of the sponge loaf, Paul had time to surrender himself to the thought of impending starvation. He convinced himself that a boy could die of starvation in two days. Morrow at noontide would see him stark and cold. He grew newly holy at this reflection, and forgave everybody afresh with flattering tears. It became a sort of essential that he should leave a memorial on the wall of the cell in which he was about to perish, and so he got out the broken knife from under the mattress, and carved a big cross in the papered plaster of the wall. It was less artistic in its outline than he could have hoped; but its symbolism, at least, was clear, and he wept and exulted as he worked at it.
The heavy day went by and the heavy night, and he began to be really hollow, and to believe with less than his original sense of comfort that his end was near. With the morning came his father with yesterday's question. Paul broke into wild tears and protests. He wasn't, wasn't, wasn't guilty.
'Vary good. Yell just stay there.'
Dick, touched by the agony of despair with which Paul threw himself upon the bed, advised surrender.
'What's a lickin'?' said Dick. 'Have it over.'
'Oh, Dick,' cried Paul, clipping at the air between them, 'plead for me!'
'Not me,' said Dick, who was less literary than Paul, and misunderstood the unfamiliar word—'bleed for yourself.'
And again the heavy day went on, and Paul wept and wept alone. But it happened that this was scouring day; and a sort of wooden fender which fenced in the foot of the eight-day clock being moved, the missing bit of silver was found behind it, and the martyr was released. There were no apologies; but Paul was told to clean himself, and was whispered by Dick that there was a tea-party that afternoon, and that he was to be allowed to be present at it.
Then fell misery. He knew why the sponge loaf had been saved, and though everybody was kind now, and seemed to feel in an unspeaking way that he had been ill-used, he foresaw the near future and trembled.
He had been made to black his Sunday boots, he had been washed with such desperate earnestness that his face and neck tingled, and he diffused an atmosphere of yellow soap as he walked. He was in his best clothes, which fitted him as a sausage is fitted by its skin; he was guillotined in a white collar with a serrated inside edge, and guilt filled every crevice of his soul.
'Fanny Ann,' said Mrs. Armstrong, putting the last finishing touches to the tea-table, 'fetch the sponge loaf.'
A rollicking shout of laughter rose from the tent door, and went rolling down the gorge, and the dream was over for the time.
It was mid-July, and even at an altitude of four thousand feet the sun could scorch at noonday. The lonely man sat at his outlook, gazing down the valley. There was a faint haze abroad, a thickening of the air so apparently slight, and in itself so imperceptible, that he would not have noticed it but for the fact that it blotted out many familiar distant peaks, and narrowed his horizon to some four or five miles. He waited for the sun to pierce this impalpable fog, but waited in vain. The sun itself was red and angry in colour, and shrunk to half its common size. Even at noontide the eye could look on it for a second or two without being unbearably dazzled.
The shade in which he sat moved slowly eastward, and had almost deserted him, when his hand felt a sudden fierce pang of pain as if an insect had stung him. He moved hastily and examined the mark of what he took for a sting. It was round, small, and red, as if the end of a hot knitting-needle had been pressed upon the skin. Whilst he sat sucking at the place to draw the pain away, and looking round in search of the insect foe, the same quick burning pang struck him on the cheek. He moved hastily again, and stared and listened keenly. There was not a buzz of wings anywhere near at hand, and not an insect in sight. But as he looked and harkened he was enlightened. A great tear of resinous gum had caught and hardened in a fork of the branches, and the sun's rays falling on and through this were concentrated as if by a burning-glass. The fiery point had stung him.
He broke away the cause of mischief, and then looked about him with a new understanding. The forest fires had begun, and it was the smoke which so closed in the view. He could detect now a faintly aromatic smell of burning, and wondered that he had not noticed it before.
There was not a breath of air stirring, and not a hint of flame in all the haze which on every side blotted out the far-off hills, and changed to a dull tint of smoke those which still loomed upon him. At night the moon hung in the starless sky like a globe of blood, and day by day the dimness of the air increased. The cloud took no form of cloud, and not a sound came through it except for the voice of the water, and the occasional roll and clangour of the trains. The distances in view grew briefer and more brief, and within a week of the date of his discovery the nearest peaks were obliterated, and the air had grown pungent with its charge of invisible burned atoms.
He sat in the midst of this narrowed and darkened world, this world of silence and solitude, as he sat in the middle of his own despairs. His life had fallen away to this—an aching heart in a world where no man came. Had it not been for pride, he could have wept for pity of himself. Had it not been for a sense of rebellion against fate and the world, he could have died of his own disdain. He had played the fool, but the world had taken an unjust advantage of his folly. He loathed himself and it.
Thus trebly banished—from friends, from the world, from Nature—he dreamed his dreams. The past came back again.
Paul was keeping shop. The door, rarely passed by the foot of a customer, stood open to invite the world at large. Armstrong came in with his spectacles resting on his shaggy brows. Paul, who had been wool-gathering, went back to nominative, dative, and ablative. He hated the Eton Latin grammar as he had not learned to hate anything else in life.
'Any custom?' asked the father.
'Nobody,' said Paul.
'Paul, lad,' said Armstrong, after a lengthy pause. He cleared his throat, and laid a hand on the boy's shoulder. 'Yell reach your twalth birthday next week. It's time ye were doing something in the warld.' He pulled down his glasses and looked at the lad gravely. 'I've tauld Mester Reddy ye'll not be going back to school after the holidays. There's over-many mouths to keep, and over-many backs to clothe, lad. Ye'll have to buckle to, like the rest of us.'
'Yes, father,' said Paul. The prospect looked welcome, as almost any change does to a boy.
'What would ye like to be?' his father asked
'I dunno,' said Paul, rubbing his nose hard with the back of one freckled hand.
'Well, I'll thenk it over. Ye can get away to your plays now, but the serious purpose o' life's beginnin' for ye.'
Paul needed no further leave. He snatched his cap and was away up the High Street before anybody could find time to tell him that his neck was unwashed, his boots unblacked or unlaced, or his collar disarranged. These reminders were an unfailing grievance to him when they came, and they seemed to hail upon him all day long. With the thought that he was entering the world and beginning his career in earnest, he thrust his hands into his corduroy pockets, swaggering in his walk, and so absorbed that he forgot to touch the street lamp-posts for two or three hundred yards. He stood overcome by this discovery, retraced his steps almost to the shop-door, in spite of his fear of being recalled, and then raced on his original way, laying a hand on each lamp-post as he passed it In this fashion he arrived at the gate of an unpretentious little house which had many reasons for looking glorious and palatial in his eyes. For one thing, it was a private house. No business of any sort was done there, and its inhabitants lived on their own money. Then it stood back from the road, behind iron railings, and had a gravel pathway leading to the front door, and a little bit of orderly garden with one drooping laburnum in it, which in its season hung clear gold blossoms over the roadway. There was a small coach-house beside the main building. It held no vehicle of any sort, but it was a coach-house all the same. Inside the house everything was neat and clean, and to Paul's mind luxurious. There were carpets in all the living-rooms and bedrooms. There was a piano, there were marble mantelpieces with gold-framed mirrors over them, one to each front-room, and the chambers which held these splendours were familiarly used, and not merely kept for show. Paul had the run of this house, for the orphan children of his mother's second cousin lived there, and the relationship was recognised.
He rang the bell, and a fresh-coloured, prettyish girl in a smart cap came to the door.
'Oh,' she said, 'it's you, is it! Come to see the young ladies, are you?' Paul nodded with his hands in his pockets.
'You're in pretty fettle!' said the girl. 'Look at your boots! Look at your hair! Look at the smut on your nose!'
Paul looked at his boots, tried to look at his hair, squinted downwards in search of the smut, and said: 'Bother!'
'All right,' the girl responded. 'You'll find 'em in the garden. They'll be rare and proud to see you.'
Paul, somewhat shamefaced, took the familiar way into the garden, and stood rooted. A small striped tent of pink and white had been set up on the unshaven grass-plot, and five or six girls, all in white dresses, were seated near it round a tea-table. One, who had black hair and dark eyes, wore a crimson sash, and the rest had blue sashes with prodigious bows. Paul knew them all with one exception, but after the first glance he had eyes for the exception only. She was a lackadaisical young person of eighteen, with pale sandy ringlets and a cold-boiled-veal complexion; but he thought her a creature of another sphere, and his heart shivered with a strange, delicious sense of worship. He stood and stared, and his inward thoughts were poorly translated by his aspect, as happens with most people How long the dream held him he did not know, but the Vision turned, and he met the young person's eye.
'Who is that dirty boy? asked the Vision. 'I suppose he wants to speak to you, Zillah.'
Zillah, who was the elder of the two orphan girls, turned, and blushed till she looked the colour of her sash. But she rose from her seat and came to Paul and whispered to him:
'You mustn't come here to-day, Paul We've got company. And goodness gracious, child, how untidy you are to be sure!'
Then shame fell like an avalanche, and Paul went altogether dizzy and silly under the shock of it How he got home he never knew, but an hour later he was in the back-kitchen, standing on a mat in his stocking-feet, with his shirt-sleeves turned up to his elbows, and was polishing his boots until the leather grew hot beneath the brush. He washed himself in a frenzy of remorse and resolve, and scoured his hands with yellow soap, silver sand, and a stubbly scrubbing-brush until they tingled. Then he fell upon the family stock of hair-oil, which was kept in a medicine-bottle in the kitchen cupboard, and, except on Sundays, was held sacred to the girls. Then he put on a clean collar (which was a daring and outrageous defiance of authority, which allowed but two a week), and prepared to face consequences. The family brush and comb were kept in a small bag which hung on a nail beside the scratched and defaced old family looking-glass, and Paul was artistically at work upon his hair when his mother entered the kitchen. The excellent woman sat down to laugh, and Armstrong came in with his customary vague air of patient thinking.
'William,' said Mrs. Armstrong, 'look at our Paul. Niver tell me the hage of merricles is past Why, I believe he's fell in love!'
It was the perpetual astonishment of Paul's life that his mother always knew and understood the things he would not have her know and understand. Even now, at his tent-door, seeing all these dead hours so clearly that he forgot his present existence altogether, he thought of her half-malicious, wholly-humorous intuition with wonder. Why had she never understood the things he would have given so much to have her understand?
Armstrong smiled with a melancholy, tired sweetness.
'Larn to be tidy, lad,' he said. 'I like a self-respecting fellow that honours his own person.'
'M'm,' said Mrs. Armstrong. 'You've got a five days' beard on, William.'
He looked at her, stroking his own bristly chin.
'Ay,' he said. 'This'll be Thursday. Paul, just be getting me my razor and the brush and soap-box, there's a good lad.'
Paul obeyed, and then betook himself to the timber-grove, where he sat rapt into meditations on the Vision. He had read whatever came within his reach, good, bad, or indifferent, and his conscious thoughts were always a patchwork of phrases. When he was put to mind the shop he read the penny weeklies. He was fresh from one of the works of J. F. Smith, the un-remembered prose laureate of the London Journal, who would have been reckoned a giant of invention if he had lived in these days, and a sentence from his latest chapter got into Paul's head and went round and round: 'There lay the fair, gifted, almost idolized girl.' In Mr. Smith's moving page the fair, gifted, almost idolized girl was dying, and Paul did not as yet know enough of the story-teller's craft of that day to be sure that she would recover in the next chapter. She mixed herself with the lady of the sandy ringlets who had described him as a dirty boy, and the pathos of the situation lent an added anguish to his thoughts. How beautiful was the lady of the ringlets, how ethereal in aspect, how far removed, how worshipful, how adorable! How refined was her voice, how elegant her accent! She had spoken of him as a b'y, but that was a local fashion, and Paul knew no better. She was far and far away—a being of the skies, at once an aristocrat and an angel. He began to make verses about her, of course—ghastly, fustian stuff, at the recollection of which the Solitary shuddered, and then laughed. But from that day forward Paul had spasmodic rages of personal cleanliness and adornment.
There was a jar of goose-oil always kept on the top of the baking-oven in the back-kitchen, and, learning that goose-oil was an unfailing specific for the growth of whiskers and moustache, he began to rub his lip and cheeks with this unguent Many a time when he was left alone he lit a candle, and getting his face between it and the mirror, tried to trace on the outline a fringe of hair. He found an occasional momentary satisfaction in burned cork, but the joy was futile, and impermanent.
He met the Vision in the street one day when he was carrying a parcel, and the shame of his menial employment, and the sense of the coarseness of his clothes made him long for the earth to open. The fact that the young person did not know him, or look at him, or think about him, made no difference. The young head was filled with absurd dreams. Sometimes he was a prince in disguise. He was being bred up to know nothing of his princedom, so that he might be splendidly and properly astonished when the revelation came. At other times he recognised his lowly origin, and went away into the boy's Somewhere—a noble country full of beneficent chances—and came back great and glorious, in gloves and patent-leather boots, and a hat and moustache, and conquered the Vision and married her. At other times he died, with his great heart unspoken, and was buried in the parish churchyard.
But whilst he was full of all manner of ambitions and yearnings, and dreams which nobody else in the wide world dreamed about, a family conclave was held to decide what Paul should be. One Simmons, a dapper, perky draper in the High Street, wanted a shop-boy, and Mrs. Armstrong was for asking the place for Paul There was not a grain of ambition in the household, and the melancholy fact was that there was no money to bind Paul apprentice anywhere. But Paul would have none of the draper. He was cuffed in corners by the maternal hand, but he held his own. He would run away, he declared, he would drown himself, he would do anything rather than submit to that. So finally he was turned into the ramshackle old printing-office, where all his elder brothers had been before him, and learned to sort pie, and to roll at press, and to sweep the floors, and to blow old dusty type-cases clean. He wore a brown-paper apron tied about his waist with string, and lived so obscured in printer's ink, for which he seemed to have a natural affinity, that he hardly looked like a white boy at all.
He was still a liar, but he told his lies on paper now, and hid them. He told them in prose and verse—prose which was measled with 'Oh's,' and 'Alas's,' and full of great windblown phrases of bombast, like inflated bladders, each with one little parched pea of meaning to rattle inside it The verse was mainly such as might have been written by a moderately illiterate absurd old man who had found life a vanity, and had deserved his discovery.
There was one idle and worthless journeyman in the ramshackle office, and one only. He kept the place like a pigsty, and the floor was littered with boards on which unlocked formes of type fell about into confusion. Paul could pick his way through these blindfold, and many and many a night in the dark he raged out his verses, marching to and fro with the four big dim windows staring dully at him, wall-eyed with countless paper patches, seen as darker blots on the darkness.
One night he was there in hiding. He had played truant from Sunday-school and chapel, and had been all day in the fields, hungry, but happy beyond all dreaming. And, oh! the Sundays! the dreary, bestial days, with Sunday-school at half-past nine and chapel at eleven, and Sunday-school at half-past two and chapel at half-past six and family prayers at nine, and bed at half-past nine, and books forbidden, and speech a crime, and whistling a felony. Paul had broken loose, and knew not what to look for, and cared little for the hour. For his head was full of verses, and his heart was full of the summer day, and for the first time in his life he had gone to Nature, and forgotten his thrice-thirty-times copied emotions, and had dared to speak in his own voice. The lines he had made that day were unutterably sacred and sweet to him. The dreaming Solitary, staring down the gorge, heard the boy's awestruck whisper, and, forgetting all the rest of the verses, remembered this one only:
'Why, all is happy! Not a worm that crawls, Or grasshopper that chirps about the grass, Or beetle basking on the sunny walls, Or mail-clad fly that skims the face of glass The river wears in summer;—not a bird That sings the tranquil glory of the fields, Or single sight is seen or sound is heard, But some new pleasure to my full soul yields!'
Paul, standing there in the darkness, whispered this many times as if struck with awe by it, and indeed the boy wondered, and thought it an inspiration.
'That is poetry,' said Paul 'I am a poet—a poet—a poet!'
He fell on his knees, with his face on his hands in the open quoin drawer, feeling as if he had uttered a blasphemy. How long he was there he never knew, but he was disturbed by the grating of a door below, and his father's voice called up the stairs:
'Paul! Where are ye?'
'Here, father,' Paul answered
A sob met his voice half-way, and Armstrong came stumbling up the stairs.
'What's the matter, lad?' he asked, in a tone between concern and impatience.
'Nothing,' said Paul.
'Why is't ye're here alaun?' his father demanded 'And whaur have ye been the livelong day? And what are ye cryin' for?
'Nothing,' said Paul again.
'Ye're not such a fule,' said Armstrong, 'as to be cryin' an' hidin' for naething, an' I'm not such a fule as to believe it.'
He paused, but Paul made no reply. The old man struck a lucifer match and lit the gas. The boy stood blinking in the light, his face stained with tears, his eyelids red and a little swollen. To the father's eye he looked sullen and defiant Of course he was neither, but he was entirely hopeless of being understood, and therefore helpless to explain.
'Noo, Paul,' said Armstrong, with a severity which he felt to be justified, 'I'm goin' to the bottom o' this business. Ye've absented yourself the haul day from the House o' God. Ye've not been seen since morning's light, and it's nigh-hand on midnight Whaur have ye been? Answer me that at once, sir.'
'In the Hoarstone Fields,' said Paul.
'And wha's been with ye, helping ye to desecrate God's day?'
'Nobody, father. I've been by myself all the while.'
'And what's been your work, my lad?' There was silence, and the silence began to have a threat in it 'I'm goin' to the bottom o' this affeer, Paul,' said the father. He meant that honestly, but he was not taking the right way. 'I'm not to be put off by ony lies or inventions. Ye've been alaun in the Hoarstone Fields all day? What took ye there? And hoo have ye passed the time? I'll know!' he added, after another long pause.
Perhaps there was nobody in the world who stood less chance of knowing, but how should Armstrong have guessed that? He was a just man, and as kind-hearted a father as might have been found within a hundred miles. If he could have known the truth, he would not only have been disarmed, but proud and glad. But Paul at this time had a holy terror of him. It grew to a close and reverent affection later on, and there was such a confidence between this pair as is not often found. But now? Paul would have suffered anything rather than tell the truth. It was not that he would not. He could not His tongue was fettered.
'Noo, Paul,' said Armstrong. 'Let's have a luik at this. Ye're not supposin' in your inmost mind that I'm in the least small degree likely to believe the yarn ye've tauld me. Ye've been in the lonely fields all day, doing naething and speaking to naebody. And for that ye've stayed away from your meals, an' noo ye're in hiding like a creminal? It hasn't an air o' pro-babeelity, Paul; it has no air o' pro-babeelity. You see that?
Paul saw it—quite as clearly as his father. But how was it to be explained? Could Paul say, 'My good sir, I am a boy of genius. I have been filled with the Divine afflatus, and have been driven into solitude by my own thoughts. I have been so held by dreams of beauty that I have forgotten everything'? Could Paul offer that intolerable cheeky boast? And yet to offer to explain was to do that, and nothing less than that.
'Vary well,' said Armstrong. 'Ye'll go to your bed, and I'd advise ye to thenk the matter over. I'll gev ye till morning. But I'll have the truth, or I'll know the reason why.'
The gas went out under Armstrong's thumb and finger on the tap, and in the sudden darkness the gray, patient, reproachful face still burned in the boy's eyes.
'Father!' said Paul, and stretching out both hands, he caught hold of him by the sleeve.
'Well!' answered Armstrong sternly.
He thought it his duty to be stern, but the tone killed the rising impulse of courage in Paul's heart He could have stammered a hint of the truth then, and the darkness would have been friendly to him. A caress, a hand on head or shoulder, would have done the business, but caresses were not in fashion in the Armstrong household. There was another silence, and Armstrong said:
'I gev ye till morning, and then Paul, my lad, ye'll have yourself to thank for what may happen. I'll be at the bottom o' this matter, or I'll know the reason why. I'm no friend to the rod, but I'll not stand by open-eyed an' see you walkin' straight to the deevil without an effort to turn ye. An' I'll have naething less than a full confession. Ye may luik for a flogging if I don't get it, and a daily flogging till I do. For, my lad, if I flay your back, and break my heart to do it, I'll win at the truth.'
They went down the long dark garden together, and at the kitchen-door Armstrong paused.
'It's a sore thing,' he said, 'for a man to have to misuse his ain flesh an' blood. But ye're not of an age to understand that. Remember, Paul, this is not my seeking; but I'll have the truth by foul means or fair. And it's just you to choose.'
Paul entered the kitchen, and his mother was for instant justice, as she saw it, but Armstrong intervened.
'This matter is in my hands,' he said.
He was a very quiet and yielding man in many things, but when he chose to speak in that way he made his word law.
Then came the lonely night. The wretched poet, a weedy lad who had overgrown his strength, lay in bed and cried in anguish. He topped his father by a head already, though he was but three months beyond his fifteenth birthday, and if he had chosen to fight he might perhaps have held his own. But a thought so impious never entered his mind. He was helpless, and he lay blubbering, undignified, with a breaking heart. He did not think much or often of the coming pain, but he brooded on the indignity and injustice until he writhed with yelps of wrath and hatred and agony of heart, and awoke Dick, who wanted to know what was the matter, and was roughly sympathetic for a time, until, finding he could make out nothing, he turned and went to sleep again.
There were black looks in the morning everywhere, for Paul was known to be in deep disgrace again. He swallowed a cup of the thin, washy coffee—its flavour of chicory and coarse brown sugar was nauseous on the palate of the man at the tent door—and then his father, pale as himself, rose amidst the affrighted boys and girls, and motioned him silently to the sitting-room. This was a sort of family vault, with its scanty furniture in grave-clothes, and a smell of damp disuse about it always, even in summer-time.
'Are ye ready with the truth?' asked Armstrong. Paul looked at him like a dumb thing in a trap, but said never a word. 'Very well,' The gray man's hands shook and his voice, and his face was of the colour of gray paper. 'Go to the back-kitchen and strip.'
Paul, dry-eyed, gloomy, and desperate, walked before, and his father followed. The girls clung to each other. There had been no such scene as this in the house for years. The tawse had hung idle even for Paul for many and many a day. Armstrong took the instrument of justice from its hook, and laid it on the table He took off his coat, and rolled up his left shirt-sleeve. He was left-handed. The arm he bared was corded and puny. It shook as if he had the palsy. His wife had a sudden pity for him, and ran at him with a gush of tears.
'William,' she said, 'don't break your heart for the young vil'in; he isn't worth it Oh, God! I wish he was no child o' mine.'
She dropped into a chair and cried. Armstrong passed out of the kitchen. The girls listened, and Dick, chalky white, with his mouth open, as Paul had seen him on his way through. They heard the swish, swish, swish of the tawse, and not another sound but hard breathing for a full minute; then Paul began to groan, and then to shriek.