"Lady, I fain would tell how evermore Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor Thee from myself, neither our love from God."
A Love Tale
Author of Beggars All, What Necessity Knows, Etc.
New York D. Appleton and Company 1895 Copyright, 1895, by D. Appleton and Company.
I.—THE BENT TWIG 1
II.—THE SAD-EYED CHILD 4
III.—LOST IN THE SEA 11
IV.—A QUIET LIFE 19
V.—SEEN THROUGH BLEAR EYES 24
VI.—"FROM HOUR TO HOUR WE RIPE——" 34
VII.—"A SEA CHANGE" 41
VIII.—BELIEF IN THE IMPOSSIBLE 49
IX.—THE SEA-MAID'S MUSIC 56
X.—TOWED BY THE BEARD 65
XI.—YEARS OF DISCRETION 71
I.—THE HAND THAT BECKONED 75
II.—THE ISLES OF ST. MAGDALEN 85
III.—BETWEEN THE SURF AND THE SAND 90
IV.—WHERE THE DEVIL LIVED 101
VI.—THE SEA-MAID 118
VII.—THE GRAVE LADY 122
VIII.—HOW THEY LIVED ON THE CLOUD 126
IX.—THE SICK AND THE DEAD 136
X.—A LIGHT-GIVING WORD 141
XI.—THE LADY'S HUSBAND 149
XII.—THE MAIDEN INVENTED 155
XIII.—WHITE BIRDS; WHITE SNOW; WHITE THOUGHTS 166
XIV.—THE MARRIAGE SCENE 173
I.—HOW WE HUNTED THE SEALS 183
II.—ONCE MORE THE VISION 188
III.—"LOVE, I SPEAK TO THY FACE" 193
IV.—HOPE BORN OF SPRING 201
V.—TO THE HIGHER COURT 208
VI.—"THE NIGHT IS DARK" 216
VII.—THE WILD WAVES WHIST 227
VIII.—"GOD'S IN HIS HEAVEN" 236
IX.—"GOD'S PUPPETS, BEST AND WORST" 249
X.—"DEATH SHRIVE THY SOUL!" 254
XI.—THE RIDDLE OF LIFE 263
XII.—TO CALL A SPIRIT FROM THE VASTY DEEP 271
XIII.—THE EVENING AND THE MORNING 283
THE BENT TWIG.
Caius Simpson was the only son of a farmer who lived on the north-west coast of Prince Edward's Island. The farmer was very well-to-do, for he was a hard-working man, and his land produced richly. The father was a man of good understanding, and the son had been born with brains; there were traditions of education in the family, hence the name Caius; it was no plan of the elder man that his son should also be a farmer. The boy was first sent to learn in what was called an "Academy," a school in the largest town of the island. Caius loved his books, and became a youthful scholar. In the summer he did light work on the farm; the work was of a quiet, monotonous sort, for his parents were no friends to frivolity or excitement.
Caius was strictly brought up. The method of his training was that which relies for strength of character chiefly upon the absence of temptation. The father was under the impression that he could, without any laborious effort and consideration, draw a line between good and evil, and keep his son on one side of it. He was not austere—but his view of righteousness was derived from puritan tradition.
A boy, if kindly treated, usually begins early to approve the only teaching of which he has experience. As a youth, Caius heartily endorsed his father's views, and felt superior to all who were more lax. He had been born into that religious school which teaches that a man should think for himself on every question, provided that he arrives at a foregone conclusion. Caius, at the age of eighteen, had already done much reasoning on certain subjects, and proved his work by observing that his conclusions tallied with set models. As a result, he was, if not a reasonable being, a reasoning and a moral one.
We have ceased to draw a distinction between Nature and the forces of education. It is a great problem why Nature sets so many young people in the world who are apparently unfitted for the battle of life, and certainly have no power to excel in any direction. The subjective religion which Caius had been taught had nourished within him great store of noble sentiment and high desire, but it had deprived him of that rounded knowledge of actual life which alone, it would appear, teaches how to guide these forces into the more useful channels. Then as to capacity, he had the fine sensibilities of a poet, the facile introspection of the philosophical cast of mind, without the mental power to write good verse or to be a philosopher. He had, at least in youth, the conscience of a saint without the courage and endurance which appear necessary to heroism. In mockery the quality of ambition was bestowed upon him but not the requisites for success. Nature has been working for millions of years to produce just such characters as Caius Simpson, and, character being rather too costly a production to throw away, no doubt she has a precise use for every one of them.
It is not the province of art to solve problems, but to depict them. It is enough for the purpose of telling his story that a man has been endowed with capacity to suffer and rejoice.
THE SAD-EYED CHILD.
One evening in early summer Caius went a-fishing. He started to walk several miles to an inlet where at high tide the sea-trout came within reach of the line. The country road was of red clay, and, turning from the more thickly-settled district, Caius followed it through a wide wood of budding trees and out where it skirted the top of low red cliffs, against which the sea was lapping. Then his way led him across a farm. So far he had been walking indolently, happy enough, but here the shadow of the pain of the world fell upon him.
This farm was a lonesome place close to the sea; there was no appearance of prosperity about it. Caius knew that the farmer, Day by name, was a churl, and was said to keep his family on short rations of happiness. As Caius turned off the public road he was not thinking specially of the bleak appearance of the particular piece of farmland he was crossing, or of the reputation of the family who lived upon the increase of its acres; but his attention was soon drawn to three children swinging on a gate which hung loosely in the log fence not far from the house. The eldest was an awkward-looking girl about twelve years of age; the second was a little boy; the youngest was a round-limbed, blond baby of two or three summers. The three stood upon the lowest bar of the gate, clinging to the upper spars. The eldest leaned her elbows on the top and looked over; the baby embraced the middle bar and looked through. They had set the rickety gate swinging petulantly, and it latched and unlatched itself with the sort of sound that the swaying of some dreary wind would give it. The children seemed to swing there, not because they were happy, but because they were miserable.
As Caius came with light step up the lane, fishing gear over his shoulder, the children looked at him disconsolately, and when he approached the gate the eldest stepped down and pulled it open for him.
"Anything the matter?" he asked, stopping his quick tread, and turning when he had passed through.
The big girl did not answer, but she let go the gate, and when it jerked forward the baby fell.
She did not fall far, nor was she hurt; but as Caius picked her up and patted her cotton clothes to shake the dust out of them, it seemed to him that he had never seen so sad a look in a baby's eyes. Large, dark, dewy eyes they were, circled around with curly lashes, and they looked up at him out of a wistful little face that was framed by a wreath of yellow hair. Caius lifted the child, kissed her, put her down, and went on his way. He only gave his action half a thought at the time, but all his life afterwards he was sorry that he had let the baby go out of his arms again, and thankful that he had given her that one kiss.
His path now lay close by the house and on to the sea-cliff behind. The house stood in front of him—four bare wooden walls, brown painted, and without veranda or ornament; its barns, large and ugly, were close beside it. Beyond, some stunted firs grew in a dip of the cliff, but on the level ground the farmer had felled every tree. The homestead itself was ugly; but the land was green, and the sea lay broad and blue, its breast swelling to the evening sun. The air blew sweet over field and cliff, add the music of the incoming tide was heard below the pine-fringed bank. Caius, however, was not in the receptive mind which appreciates outward things. His attention was not thoroughly aroused from himself till the sound of harsh voices struck his ear.
Between the farmhouse and the barns, on a place worn bare by the feet of men and animals, the farmer and his wife stood in hot dispute. The woman, tall, gaunt, and ill-dressed, spoke fast, passion and misery in all her attitude and in every tone and gesture. The man, chunky in figure and churlish in demeanour, held a horsewhip in his hand, answering his wife back word for word in language both profane and violent.
It did not occur to Caius that the whip was in his hand otherwise than by accident. The men in that part of the world were not in the habit of beating their wives, but no sooner did he see the quarrel than his wrath rose hot against the man. The woman being the weaker, he took for granted that she was entirely in the right. He faltered in his walk, and, hesitating, stood to look. His path was too far off for him to hear the words that were poured forth in such torrents of passion. The boy's strong sentiment prompted him to run and collar the man; his judgment made him doubt whether it was a good thing to interfere between man and wife; a certain latent cowardice in his heart made him afraid to venture nearer. The sum of his emotions caused him to stop, go on a few paces, and stop to look and listen again, his heart full of concern. In this way he was drawing further away, when he saw the farmer step nearer his wife and menace her with the whip; in an instant more he had struck her, and Caius had run about twenty feet forward to interfere, and halted again, because he was afraid to approach so angry and powerful a man.
Caius saw the woman clearly now, and how she received this attack. She stood quite still at her full stature, ceasing to speak or to gesticulate, folded her arms and looked at her husband. The look in her hard, dark face, the pose of her gaunt figure, said more clearly than any passionate words, "Hold, if you value your life! you have gone too far; you have heaped up punishment enough for yourself already." The husband understood this language, vaguely, it might be, but still he understood enough to make him draw back, still growling and menacing with the whip. Caius was too young to understand what the woman expressed; he only knew strength and weakness as physical things; his mind was surging with pity for the woman and revenge against the man; yet even he gathered the knowledge that for the time the quarrel was over, that interference was now needless. He walked on, looking back as he went to see the farmer go away to his stables and the wife stalk past him up toward the byre that was nearest the sea.
As Caius moved on, the only relief his mind could find at first was to exercise his imagination in picturing how he could avenge the poor woman. In fancy he saw himself holding Day by the throat, throwing him down, belabouring him with words and blows, meting out punishment more than adequate. All that he actually did, however, was to hold on his way to the place of his fishing.
The path had led him to the edge of the cliff. Here he paused, looking over the bank to see if he could get down and continue his walk along the shore, but the soft sandy bluff here jutted so that he could not even see at what level the tide lay. After spending some minutes in scrambling half-way down and returning because he could descend no further, he struck backwards some paces behind the farm buildings, supposing the descent to be easier where bushes grew in the shallow chine. In the top of the cliff there was a little dip, which formed an excellent place for an outside cellar or root-house for such farm stores as must be buried deep beneath the snow against the frost of winter. The rough door of such a cellar appeared in the side of this small declivity, and as Caius came round the back of the byre in sight of it, he was surprised to see the farmer's wife holding the latch of its door in her hand and looking vacantly into the dark interior. She looked up and answered the young man's greeting with apathetic manner, apparently quite indifferent to the scene she had just passed through.
Caius, his mind still in the rush of indignation on her behalf, stopped at the sight of her, wondering what he could do or say to express the wild pity that surged within him.
But the woman said, "The tide's late to-night," exactly as she might have remarked with dry civility that it was fine weather.
"Yes," said Caius, "I suppose it will be."
She was looking into the cellar, not towards the edge of the bank.
"With a decent strong tide," she remarked, "you can hear the waves in this cave."
Whereupon she walked slowly past him back toward her house. Caius took the precaution to step after her round the end of the byre, just to see that her husband was not lying in wait for her there. There was no one to be seen but the children at a distance, still swinging on the gate, and a labourer who was driving some cows from the field.
Caius slipped down on to the red shore, and found himself in a wide semicircular bay, near the point which ended it on this side. He crept round the bay inwards for half a mile, till he came to the mouth of the creek to which he was bound. All the long spring evening he sat angling for the speckled sea-trout, until the dusk fell and the blue water turned gray, and he could no longer see the ruddy colour of the rock on which he sat. All the long spring evening the trout rose to his fly one by one, and were landed in his basket easily enough, and soft-throated frogs piped to him from ponds in the fields behind, and the smell of budding verdure from the land mingled with the breeze from the sea. But Caius was not happy; he was brooding over the misery suggested by what he had just seen, breathing his mind after its unusual rush of emotion, and indulging its indignant melancholy. It did not occur to him to wonder much why the object of his pity had made that quick errand to the cellar in the chine, or why she had taken interest in the height of the tide. He supposed her to be inwardly distracted by her misery. She had the reputation of being a strange woman.
LOST IN THE SEA.
There was no moon that night. When the darkness began to gather swiftly, Caius swung his basket of fish and his tackle over his shoulder and tramped homeward. His preference was to go round by the road and avoid the Day farm; then he thought it might be his duty to go that way, because it might chance that the woman needed protection as he passed. It is much easier to give such protection in intention than in deed; but, as it happened, the deed was not required. The farmstead was perfectly still as he went by it again.
He went on half a mile, passing only such friendly persons as it was natural he should meet on the public road. They were few. Caius walked listening to the sea lapping below the low cliff near which the road ran, and watching the bats that often circled in the dark-blue dusk overhead. Thus going on, he gradually recognised a little group walking in front of him. It was the woman, Mrs. Day, and her three children. Holding a child by either hand, she tramped steadily forward. Something in the way she walked, in the way the children walked—a dull, mechanical action in their steps—perplexed Caius.
He stepped up beside them with a word of neighbourly greeting.
The woman did not answer for some moments; when she did, although her words were ordinary, her voice seemed to Caius to come from out some far distance whither her mind had wandered.
"Going to call on someone, I suppose, Mrs. Day?" said he, inwardly anxious.
"Yes," she replied; "we're going to see a friend—the children and me."
Again it seemed that there was some long distance between her and the young man who heard her.
"Come along and see my mother," he urged, with solicitude. "She always has a prime welcome for visitors, mother has."
The words were hearty, but they excited no heartiness of response.
"We've another place to go to to-night," she said. "There'll be a welcome for us, I reckon."
She would neither speak to him any more nor keep up with his pace upon the road. He slackened speed, but she still shrank back, walking slower. He found himself getting in advance, so he left her.
A hundred yards more he went on, and looked back to see her climbing the log fence into the strip of common beside the sea.
His deliberation of mind was instantly gone. Something was wrong now. He cast himself over the low log fence just where he was, and hastened back along the edge of the cliff, impelled by unformulated fear.
It was dark, the dark grayness of a moonless night. The cliff here was not more than twenty feet above the high tide, which surged and swept deep at its base. The grass upon the top was short; young fir-trees stood here and there. All this Caius saw. The woman he could not see at first. Then, in a minute, he did see her—standing on the edge of the bank, her form outlined against what light there was in sea and sky. He saw her swing something from her. The thing she threw, whatever it was, was whirled outwards, and then fell into the sea. With a splash, it sank.
The young man's mind stood still with horror. The knowledge came to him as he heard the splash that it was the little child she had flung away. He threw off his basket and coat. Another moment, and he would have jumped from the bank; but before he had jumped he heard the elder girl groaning as if in desperate fear, and saw that mother and daughter were grappled together, their figures swaying backwards and forwards in convulsive struggle. He did not doubt that the mother was trying to drown this child also. Another low wild groan from the girl, and Caius flung himself upon them both. His strength released the girl, who drew away a few paces; but the woman struggled terribly to get to her again. Both the girl and little boy stood stupidly within reach.
"Run—run—to the road, and call for help!" gasped Caius to the children, but they only stood still.
He was himself shouting with all his strength, and holding the desperate woman upon the ground, where he had thrown her.
Every moment he was watching the dark water, where he thought he saw a little heap of light clothes rise and sink again further off.
"Run with your brother out of the way, so that I can leave her," he called to the girl. He tried with a frantic gesture to frighten them into getting out of the mother's reach. He continued to shout for aid as he held down the woman, who with the strength of insanity was struggling to get hold of the children.
A man's voice gave answering shout. Caius saw someone climbing the fence. He left the woman and jumped into the sea.
Down under the cold black water he groped about. He was not an expert swimmer and diver. He had never been under water so long before, but so strong had been his impulse to reach the child that he went a good way on the bottom in the direction in which he had thought he saw the little body floating. Then he knew that he came up empty-handed and was swimming on the dark surface, hearing confused cries and imprecations from the shore. He wanted to dive and seek again for the child below, but he did not know how to do this without a place to leap from. He let himself sink, but he was out of breath. He gasped and inhaled the water, and then, for dear life's sake, he swam to keep his head above it.
The water had cooled his excitement; a feeling of utter helplessness and misery came over him. So strong was his pity for the little sad-eyed child that he was almost willing to die in seeking her; but all hope of finding was forsaking him. He still swam in the direction in which he thought the child drifted as she rose and sank. It did not occur to him to be surprised that she had drifted so far until he realized that he was out of hearing of the sounds from the shore. His own swimming, he well knew, could never have taken him so far and fast. There was a little sandy island lying about three hundred yards out. At first he hoped to strike the shallows near it quickly, but found that the current of the now receding tide was racing down the channel between the island and the shore, out to the open sea. That little body was, no doubt, being sucked outward in this rush of water—out to the wide water where he could not find her. He told himself this when he found at what a pace he was going, and knew that his best chance of ever returning was to swim back again.
So he gave up seeking the little girl, and turned and swam as best he could against the current, and recognised slowly that he was making no headway, but by using all his strength could only hold his present place abreast of the outer point of the island, and a good way from it. The water was bitterly cold; it chilled him. He was far too much occupied in fighting the current to think properly, but certain flashes of intelligence came across his mind concerning the death he might be going to die. His first clear thoughts were about a black object that was coming near on the surface of the water. Then a shout reached him, and a stronger swimmer than he pulled him to the island.
"Now, in the devil's name, Caius Simpson!" The deliverer was the man who had come over the fence, and he shook himself as he spoke. His words were an interrogation relating to all that had passed. He was a young man, about the same age as Caius; the latter knew him well.
"The child, Jim!" shivered Caius hoarsely. "She threw it into the water!"
"In there?" asked Jim, pointing to the flowing darkness from which they had just scrambled. He shook his head as he spoke. "There's a sort of a set the water's got round this here place——" He shook his head again; he sat half dressed on the edge of the grass, peering into the tide, a dark figure surrounded by darkness.
It seemed to Caius even then, just pulled out as he was from a sea too strong for him, that there was something horribly bad and common in that they two sat there taking breath, and did not plunge again into the water to try, at least, to find the body of the child who a few minutes before had lived and breathed so sweetly. Yet they did not move.
"Did someone else come to hold her?" Caius asked this in a hasty whisper. They both spoke as if there was some need for haste.
"Noa. I tied her round with your fish-cord. If yo'd have done that, yo' might have got the babby the same way I got yo'."
The heart of Caius sank. If only he had done this! Jim Hogan was not a companion for whom he had any respect; he looked upon him as a person of low taste and doubtful morals, but in this Jim had shown himself superior.
"I guess we'd better go and look after them," said Jim. He waded in a few paces. "Come along," he said.
As they waded round to the inner side of the island, Caius slowly took off some of his wet clothes and tied them round his neck. Then they swam back across the channel at its narrowest.
While the water was rushing past their faces, Caius was conscious of nothing but the animal desire to be on the dry, warm shore again; but when they touched the bottom and climbed the bank once more to the place where he had seen the child cast away, he forgot all his fight with the sea, and thought only with horror of the murder done—or was there yet hope that by a miracle the child might be found somewhere alive? It is hope always that causes panic. Caius was panic-stricken.
The woman lay, bound hand and foot, upon the grass.
"If I couldn't ha' tied her," said Jim patronizingly, "I'd a quietened her by a knock on the head, and gone after the young un, if I'd been yo'."
The other children had wandered away. They were not to be seen.
Jim knelt down in a business-like way to untie the woman, who seemed now to be as much stunned by circumstances as if she had been knocked as just suggested.
A minute more, and Caius found himself running like one mad in the direction of home. He cared nothing about the mother or the elder children, or about his own half-dressed condition. The one thought that excited him was a hope that the sea might have somewhere cast the child on the shore before she was quite dead.
Running like a savage under the budding trees of the wood and across his father's fields, he leaped out of the darkness into the heat and brightness of his mother's kitchen.
Gay rugs lay on the yellow painted floor; the stove glistened with polish at its every corner. The lamp shone brightly, and in its light Caius stood breathless, wet, half naked. The picture of his father looking up from the newspaper, of his mother standing before him in alarmed surprise, seemed photographed in pain upon his brain for minutes before he could find utterance. The smell of an abundant supper his mother had set out for him choked him.
When he had at last spoken—told of the blow Farmer Day had struck, of his wife's deed, and commanded that all the men that could be collected should turn out to seek for the child—he was astonished at finding sobs in the tones of his words. He became oblivious for the moment of his parents, and leaned his face against the wooden wall of the room in a convulsion of nervous feeling that was weeping without tears.
It did not in the least surprise his parents that he should cry—he was only a child in their eyes. While the father bestirred himself to get a cart and lanterns and men, the mother soothed her son, or, rather, she addressed to him such kindly attentions as she supposed were soothing to him. She did not know that her attention to his physical comfort hardly entered his consciousness.
Caius went out again that night with those who went to examine the spot, and test the current, and search the dark shores. He went again, with a party of neighbours, to the same place, in the first faint pink flush of dawn, to seek up and down the sands and rocks left bare by the tide. They did not find the body of the child.
A QUIET LIFE.
In the night, while the men were seeking the murdered child, there were kindly women who went to the house of the farmer Day to tend his wife. The elder children had been found asleep in a field, where, after wandering a little while, they had succumbed to the influence of some drug, which had evidently been given them by the mother to facilitate her evil design. She herself, poor woman, had grown calm again, her frenzy leaving her to a duller phase of madness. That she was mad no one doubted. How long she might have been walking in the misleading paths of wild fancy, whether her insane vagaries had been the cause or the result of her husband's churlishness, no one knew. The husband was a taciturn man, and appeared to sulk under the scrutiny of the neighbourhood. The more charitable ascribed his demeanour to sorrow. The punishment his wife had meted out for the blow he struck her had, without doubt, been severe.
As for Caius Simpson, his mind was sore concerning the little girl. It was as if his nature, in one part of it, had received a bruise that did not heal. The child had pleased his fancy. All the sentiment in him centred round the memory of the little girl, and idealized her loveliness. The first warm weather of the year, the exquisite but fugitive beauties of the spring, lent emphasis to his mood, and because his home was not a soil congenial to the growth of any but the more ordinary sentiments, he began at this time to seek in natural solitudes a more fitting environment for his musings. More than once, in the days that immediately followed, he sought by daylight the spot where, in the darkness, he had seen the child thrown into the sea. It soon occurred to him to make an epitaph for her, and carve it in the cliff over which she was thrown. In the noon-day hours in which his father rested, he worked at this task, and grew to feel at home in the place and its surroundings.
The earth in this place, as in others, showed red, the colour of red jasper, wherever its face was not covered by green grass or blue water. Just here, where the mother had sought out a precipice under which the tide lay deep, there was a natural water-wall of red sandstone, rubbed and corrugated by the waves. This wall of rock extended but a little way, and ended in a sharp jutting point.
The little island that stood out toward the open sea had sands of red gold; level it was and covered with green bushes, its sandy beach surrounding it like a ring.
On the other side of the jutting point a bluff of red clay and crumbling rock continued round a wide bay. Where the rim of the blue water lay thin on this beach there showed a purple band, shading upward into the dark jasper red of damp earth in the lower cliff. The upper part of the cliff was very dry, and the earth was pink, a bright earthen pink. This ribbon of shaded reds lay all along the shore. The land above it was level and green.
At the other horn of the bay a small town stood; its white houses, seen through the trembling lens of evaporating water, glistened with almost pearly brightness between the blue spaces of sky and water. All the scene was drenched in sunlight in those spring days.
The town, Montrose by name, was fifteen miles away, counting miles by the shore. The place where Caius was busy was unfrequented, for the land near was not fertile, and a wooded tract intervened between it and the better farms of the neighbourhood. The home of the lost child and one other poor dwelling were the nearest houses, but they were not very near.
Caius did not attempt to carve his inscription on the mutable sandstone. It was quite possible to obtain a slab of hard building-stone and material for cement, and after carting them himself rather secretly to the place, he gradually hewed a deep recess for the tablet and cemented it there, its face slanting upward to the blue sky for greater safety. He knew even then that the soft rock would not hold it many years, but it gave him a poetic pleasure to contemplate the ravages of time as he worked, and to think that the dimpled child with the sunny hair and the sad, beautiful eyes had only gone before, that his tablet would some time be washed away by the same devouring sea, and that in the sea of time he, too, would sink before many years and be forgotten.
The short elegy he wrote was a bad mixture of ancient and modern thought as to substance, figures, and literary form, for the boy had just been dipping into classics at school, while he was by habit of mind a Puritan. His composition was one at which pagan god and Christian angel must have smiled had they viewed it; but perhaps they would have wept too, for it was the outcome of a heart very young and very earnest, wholly untaught in that wisdom which counsels to evade the pains and suck the pleasures of circumstance.
There were only two people who discovered what Caius was about, and came to look on while his work was yet unfinished.
One was an old man who lived in the one poor cottage not far away and did light work for Day the farmer. His name was Morrison—Neddy Morrison he was called. He came more than once, creeping carefully near the edge of the cliff with infirm step, and talking about the lost child, whom he also had loved, about the fearful visitation of the mother's madness, and, with Caius, condemning unsparingly the brutality, known and supposed, of the now bereaved father. It was a consolation to them both that Morrison could state that this youngest child was the only member of his family for whom Day had ever shown affection.
The other visitor Caius had was Jim Hogan. He was a rough youth; he had a very high, rounded forehead, so high that he would have almost seemed bald if the hair, when it did at last begin, had not been exceedingly thick, standing in a short red brush round his head. With the exception of this peculiar forehead, Jim was an ordinary freckled, healthy young man. He saw no sense at all in what Caius was doing. When he came he sat himself down on the edge of the cliff, swung his heels, and jeered unfeignedly.
When the work was finished it became noised that the tablet was to be seen. The neighbours wondered not a little, and flocked to gaze and admire. Caius himself had never told of its existence; he would have rather no one had seen it; still, he was not insensible to the local fame thus acquired. His father, it was true, had not much opinion of his feat, but his mother, as mothers will, treasured all the admiring remarks of the neighbours. All the women loved Caius from that day forth, as being wondrously warm-hearted. Such sort of literary folk as the community could boast dubbed him "The Canadian Burns," chiefly, it seemed, because he had been seen to help his father at the ploughing.
In due course the wife of the farmer Day was tried for murder, and pronounced insane. She had before been removed to an asylum: she now remained there.
SEEN THROUGH BLEAR EYES.
It was foreseen by the elder Simpson that his son would be a great man. He looked forth over the world and decided on the kind of greatness. The wide, busy world would not have known itself as seen in the mind of this gray-haired countryman. The elder Simpson had never set foot off the edge of his native island. His father before him had tilled the same fertile acres, looked out upon the same level landscape—red and green, when it was not white with snow. Neither of them had felt any desire to see beyond the brink of that horizon; but ambition, quiet and sturdy, had been in their hearts. The result of it was the bit of money in the bank, the prosperous farm, and the firm intention of the present farmer that his son should cut a figure in the world.
This stern man, as he trudged about at his labour, looked upon the activities of city life with that same inward eye with which the maiden looks forth upon her future; and as she, with nicety of preference, selects the sort of lover she will have, so he selected the sort of greatness which should befall his son. The stuff of this vision was, as must always be, of such sort as had entered his mind in the course of his limited experience. His grandfather had been an Englishman, and it was known that one of the sons had been a notable physician in the city of London: Caius must become a notable physician. His newspaper told him of honours taken at the University of Montreal by young men of the medical school; therefore, Caius was to study and take honours. It was nothing to him that his neighbours did not send their sons so far afield; he came of educated stock himself. The future of Caius was prearranged, and Caius did not gainsay the arrangement.
That autumn the lad went away from home to a city which is, without doubt, a very beautiful city, and joined the ranks of students in a medical school which for size and thorough work is not to be despised. He was not slow to drink in the new ideas which a first introduction to modern science, and a new view of the relations of most things, brought to his mind.
In the first years Caius came home for his summer vacations, and helped his father upon the farm. The old man had money, but he had no habit of spending it, and expenditure, like economy, is a practice to be acquired. When Caius came the third time for the long summer holiday, something happened.
He did not now often walk in the direction of the Day farm; there was no necessity to take him there, only sentiment. He was by this time ashamed of the emblazonment of his poetic effort upon the cliff. He was not ashamed of the sentiment which had prompted it, but he was ashamed of its exhibition. He still thought tenderly of the little child that was lost, and once in a long while he visited the place where his tablet was, as he would have visited a grave.
One summer evening he sauntered through the wood and down the road by the sea on this errand. Before going to the shore, he stopped at the cottage where the old labourer, Morrison, lived.
There was something to gossip about, for Day's wife had been sent from the asylum as cured, and her husband had been permitted to take her home again on condition that no young or weak person should remain in the house with her. He had sent his two remaining children to be brought up by a relative in the West. People said he could get more work out of his wife than out of the children, and, furthermore, it saved his having to pay for her board elsewhere. The woman had been at home almost a twelvemonth, and Caius had some natural interest in questioning Morrison as to her welfare and general demeanour. The strange gaunt creature had for his imagination very much the fascination that a ghost would have had. We care to hear all about a ghost, however trivial the details may be, but we desire no personal contact. Caius had no wish to meet this woman, for whom he felt repulsion, but he would have been interested to hear Neddy Morrison describe her least action, for Neddy was almost the only person who had constant access to her house.
Morrison, however, had very little to tell about Mrs. Day. She had come home, and was living very much as she had lived before. The absence of her children did not appear to make great difference in her dreary life. The old labourer could not say that her husband treated her kindly or unkindly. He was not willing to affirm that she was glad to be out of the asylum, or that she was sorry. To the old man's imagination Mrs. Day was not an interesting object; his interest had always been centred upon the children. It was of them he talked chiefly now, telling of letters that their father had received from them, and of the art by which he, Morrison, had sometimes contrived to make the taciturn Day show him their contents. The interest of passive benevolence which the young medical student gave to Morrison's account of these children, who had grown quite beyond the age when children are pretty and interesting, would soon have been exhausted had the account been long; but it happened that the old man had a more startling communication to make, which cut short his gossip about his master's family.
He had been standing so far at the door of his little wooden house. His old wife was moving at her household work within. Caius stood outside. The house was a little back from the road in an open space; near it was a pile of firewood, a saw-horse and chopping-block, with their accompanying carpet of chips, and such pots, kettles, and household utensils as Mrs. Morrison preferred to keep out of doors.
When old Morrison came to the more exciting part of his gossip, he poked Caius in the breast, and indicated by a backward movement of his elbow that the old wife's presence hampered his talk. Then he came out with an artfully simulated interest in the weather, and, nudging Caius at intervals, apparently to enforce silence on a topic concerning which the young man as yet knew nothing, he wended his way with him along a path through a thicket of young fir-trees which bordered the road.
The two men were going towards that part of the shore to which Caius was bound. They reached the place where the child had been drowned before the communication was made, and stood together, like a picture of the personification of age and youth, upon the top of the grassy cliff.
"You'll not believe me," said the old man, with excitement obviously growing within him, "but I tell you, young sir, I've sat jist here behind those near bushes like, and watched the creatur for an hour at a time."
"What was it you watched?" asked Caius, superior to the other's excitement.
"I tell you, it was a girl in the sea; and more than that—she was half a fish."
The mind of Caius was now entirely scornful.
"You don't believe me," said the old man, nudging him again.
But Caius was polite.
"Well, now"—good-humouredly—"what did you see?"
"I'll tell you jist what I saw." (The old man's excitement was growing.) "You understand that from the top here you can see across the bay, and across to the island and out to sea; but you can't see the shore under the rocky point where it turns round the farm there into the bay, and you can't see the other shore of the island for the bushes on it."
"In other words, you can see everything that's before your eyes, but you can't see round a corner."
The old man had some perception that Caius was humorous. "You believe me that far," he said, with a weak, excited cackle of a laugh. "Well, don't go for to repeat what I'm going to tell you further, for I'll not have my old woman frightened, and I'll not have Jim Hogan and the fellows he gets round him belabouring the thing with stones."
"Heaven forbid!" A gleam of amusement flitted through the mind of Caius at the thought of the sidelight this threw on Jim's character. For Jim was not incapable of casting stones at even so rare a curiosity as a mermaid.
"Now," said the old man, and he laughed again his weak, wheezy laugh, "if you told me, I'd not believe it; but I saw it as sure as I stand here, and if this was my dying hour, sir, I'd say the same. The first time it was one morning that I got up very early—I don't jist remember the reason, but it was before sun-up, and I was walking along here, and the tide was out, and between me and the island I saw what I thought was a person swimming in the water, and I thought to myself, 'It's queer, for there's no one about these parts that has a liking for the water.' But when I was younger, at Pictou once, I saw the fine folks ducking themselves in flannel sarks, at what they called a 'bathing-place,' so the first thing I thought of was that it was something like that. And then I stood here, jist about where you are now, and the woman in the water she saw me—"
"Now, how do you know it was a woman?" asked Caius.
"Well, I didn't know for certain that day anything, for she was a good way off, near the island, and she no sooner saw me than she turned and made tracks for the back of the island where I couldn't see her. But I tell you this, young sir, no woman or man either ever swam as she swam. Have you seen a trout in a quiet pool wag its tail and go right ahead—how, you didn't know; you only knew that 'twasn't in the one place and 'twas in t'other?"
"Well," asked the old man with triumph in his voice, as one who capped an argument, "did you ever see man or woman swim like that?"
"No," Caius admitted, "I never did—especially as to the wagging of the tail."
"But she hadn't a tail!" put in the old man eagerly, "for I saw her the second day—that I'm coming to. She was more like a seal or walrus."
"But what became of her the first day?" asked Caius, with scientific exactitude.
"Why, the end of her the first day was that she went behind the island. Can you see behind the island? No." The old man giggled again at his own logical way of putting things. "Well, no more could I see her; and home I went, and I said nothink to nobody, for I wasn't going to have them say I was doting."
"Yet it would be classical to dote upon a mermaid," Caius murmured. The sight of the dim-eyed, decrepit old man before him gave exquisite humour to the idea.
Morrison had already launched forth upon the story of the second day.
"Well, as I was telling you, I was that curious that next morning at daybreak I comes here and squats behind those bushes, and a dreadful fright I was in for fear my old woman would come and look for me and see me squatting there." His old frame shook for a moment with the laugh he gave to emphasize the situation, and he poked Caius with his finger. "And I looked and I looked out on the gray water till I had the cramps." Here he poked Caius again. "But I tell you, young sir, when I saw her a-coming round from behind the bank, where I couldn't see jist where she had come from, like as if she had come across the bay round this point here, I thought no more of the cramps, but I jist sat on my heels, looking with one eye to see that my old woman didn't come, and I watched that 'ere thing, and it came as near as I could throw a stone, and I tell you it was a girl with long hair, and it had scales, and an ugly brown body, and swum about like a fish, jist moving, without making a motion, from place to place for near an hour; and then it went back round the head again, and I got up, and I was that stiff all day I could hardly do my work. I was too old to do much at that game, but I went again next morning, and once again I saw her; but she was far out, and then I never saw her again. Now, what do you think of that?"
"I think"—after a moment's reflection—"that it's a very remarkable story."
"But you don't believe it," said the old man, with an air of excited certainty.
"I am certain of one thing; you couldn't have made it up."
"It's true, sir," said the old man. "As sure as I am standing here, as sure as the tide goes in and out, as sure as I'll be a-dying before long, what I tell you is true; but if I was you, I'd have more sense than to believe it." He laughed again, and pressed Caius' arm with the back of his hard, knotted hand. "That's how it is about sense and truth, young sir—it's often like that."
This one gleam of philosophy came from the poor, commonplace mind as a beautiful flash may come from a rough flint struck upon the roadside. Caius pondered upon it afterwards, for he never saw Neddy Morrison again. He did not happen to pass that place again that summer, and during the winter the old man died.
Caius thought at one time and another about this tale of the girl who was half a fish. He thought many things; the one thing he never happened to think was that it was true. It was clear to him that the old man supposed he had seen the object he described, but it puzzled him to understand how eyes, even though so dim with age, could have mistaken any sea-creature for the mermaid he described; for the man had lived his life by the sea, and even the unusual sight of a lonely white porpoise hugging the shore, or of seal or small whale, or even a much rarer sea-animal, would not have been at all likely to deceive him. It would certainly have been very easy for any person in mischief or malice to have played the hoax, but no locality in the wide world would have seemed more unlikely to be the scene of such a game; for who performs theatricals to amuse the lonely shore, or the ebbing tide, or the sea-birds that poise in the air or pounce upon the fish when the sea is gray at dawn? And certainly the deception of the old man could not have been the object of the play, for it was but by chance that he saw it, and it could matter to no one what he saw or thought or felt, for he was one of the most insignificant of earth's sons. Then Caius would think of that curious gleam of deeper insight the poor old mind had displayed in the attempt to express, blunderingly as it might be, the fact that truth exceeds our understanding, and yet that we are bound to walk by the light of understanding. He came, upon the whole, to the conclusion that some latent faculty of imagination, working in the old man's mind, combining with the picturesque objects so familiar to his eyes, had produced in him belief in this curious vision. It was one of those things that seem to have no reason for coming to pass, no sufficient cause and no result, for Caius never heard that Morrison had related the tale to anyone but himself, nor was there any report in the village that anyone else had seen an unusual object in the sea.
"FROM HOUR TO HOUR WE RIPE——"
The elder Simpson gradually learned to expend more money upon his son; it was not that the latter was a spendthrift or that he took to any evil courses—he simply became a gentleman and had uses for money of which his father could not, unaided, have conceived. Caius was too virtuous to desire to spend his father's hardly-gathered stores unnecessarily; therefore, the last years of his college life in Montreal he did not come home in summer, but found occupation in that city by which to make a small income for himself.
In those two years he learned much of medical and surgical lore—this was of course, for he was a student by nature; but other things that he learned were, upon the whole, more noteworthy in the development of his character. He became fastidious as to the fit of his coat and as to the work of the laundress upon his shirt-fronts. He learned to sit in easy attitude by gauzily-dressed damsels under sparkling gaslight, and to curl his fair moustache between his now white fingers as he talked to them, and yet to moderate the extent of the attention that he paid to each, not wishing that it should be in excess of that which was due. He learned to value himself as he was valued—as a rising man, one who would do well not to throw himself away in marriage. He had a moustache first, and at last he had a beard. He was a sober young man: as his father's teaching had been strict, so he was now strict in his rule over himself. He frequented religious services, going about listening to popular preachers of all sorts, and critically commenting upon their sermons to his friends. He was really a very religious and well-intentioned man, all of which stood in his favour with the more sober portion of society whose favour he courted. As his talents and industry gained him grace in the eyes of the dons of his college, so his good life and good understanding made him friends among the more worthy of his companions. He was conceited and self-righteous, but not obviously so.
When his college had conferred upon him the degree of doctor of medicine, he felt that he had climbed only on the lower rungs of the ladder of knowledge. It was his father, not himself, who had chosen his profession, and now that he had received the right to practise medicine he experienced no desire to practise it; learning he loved truly, but not that he might turn it into golden fees, and not that by it he might assuage the sorrows of others; he loved it partly for its own sake, perhaps chiefly so; but there was in his heart a long-enduring ambition, which formed itself definitely into a desire for higher culture, and hoped more indefinitely for future fame.
Caius resolved to go abroad and study at the medical schools of the Old World. His professors applauded his resolve; his friends encouraged him in it. It was to explain to his father the necessity for this course of action, and wheedle the old man into approval and consent, that the young doctor went home in the spring of the same year which gave him his degree.
Caius had other sentiments in going home besides those which underlay the motive which we have assigned. If as he travelled he at all regarded the finery of all that he had acquired, it was that he might by it delight the parents who loved him with such pride. Though not a fop, his hand trembled on the last morning of his journey when he fastened a necktie of the colour his mother loved best. He took an earlier train than he could have been expected to take, and drove at furious rate between the station and his home, in order that he might creep in by the side door and greet his parents before they had thought of coming to meet him. He had also taken no breakfast, that he might eat the more of the manifold dainties which his mother had in readiness.
For three or four days he feasted hilariously upon these dainties until he was ill. He also practised all the airs and graces of dandyism that he could think of, because he knew that the old folks, with ill-judging taste, admired them. When he had explained to them how great a man he should be when he had been abroad, and how economical his life would be in a foreign city, they had no greater desire than that he should go abroad, and there wax as great as might be possible.
One thing that consoled the mother in the heroism of her ambition was that it was his plan first to spend the long tranquil summer by her side. Another was that, because her son had set his whole affection upon learning, it appeared he had no immediate intention of fixing his love upon any more material maid. In her timid jealousy she loved to come across this topic with him, not worldly-wise enough to know that the answers which reassured her did not display the noblest side of his heart.
"And there wasn't a girl among them all that you fancied, my lad?" With spotless apron round her portly form she was serving the morning rasher while Caius and his father sat at meat.
"I wouldn't say that, mother: I fancied them all." Caius spoke with generous condescension towards the fair.
"Ay," said the father shrewdly, "there's safety in numbers."
"But there wasn't one was particular, Caius?" continued the dame with gleeful insinuation, because she was assured that the answer was to be negative. "A likely lad like you should marry; it's part of his duty."
Caius was dense enough not to see her true sentiment. The particular smile that, in the classification of his facial expressions, belonged to the subject of love and marriage, played upon his lips while he explained that when a man got up in the world he could make a better marriage than he could when comparatively poor and unknown.
Her woman's instinct assured her that the expression and the words arose from a heart ignorant of the quality of love, and she regarded nothing else.
The breakfast-room in which they sat had no feature that could render it attractive to Caius. Although it was warm weather, the windows were closely shut and never opened; such was the habit of the family, and even his influence had not strength to break through a regulation which to his parents appeared so wise and safe. The meadows outside were brimful of flowers, but no flower found its way into this orderly room. The furniture had that desolate sort of gaudiness which one sees in the wares of cheap shops. Cleanliness and godliness were the most conspicuous virtues exhibited, for the room was spotless, and the map of Palestine and a large Bible were prominent objects.
The father and mother were in the habit of eating in the kitchen when alone, and to the son's taste that room, decorated with shining utensils, with its door open to earth and sky, was infinitely more picturesque and cheery; but the mother had a stronger will than her son, and she had ordained that his rise in the world should be marked by his eating in the dining-room, where meals were served whenever they had company. Caius observed also, with a pain to which his heart was sensitive, that at these meals she treated him to her company manners also, asking him in a clear, firm voice if he "chose bread" or if he would "choose a little meat," an expression common in the country as an elegant manner of pressing food upon visitors. It was not that he felt himself unworthy of this mark of esteem, but that the bad taste and the bad English grated upon his nerves.
She was a strong, comely woman, this housemother, portly in person and large of face, with plentiful gray hair brushed smooth; from the face the colour had faded, but the look of health and strong purpose remained. The father, on the other hand, tended to leanness; his large frame was beginning to be obviously bowed by toil; his hair and beard were somewhat long, and had a way of twisting themselves as though blown by the wind. When the light of the summer morning shone through the panes of clean glass upon this family at breakfast, it was obvious that the son was physically somewhat degenerate. Athletics had not then come into fashion; Caius was less in stature than might have been expected from such parents; and now, after his years of town life, he had an appearance of being limp in sinew, nor was there the same strong will and alert shrewdness written upon his features. He was a handsome fellow, clear-eyed and intelligent, finer far, in the estimation of his parents, than themselves; but that which rounded out the lines of his figure was rather a tendency to plumpness than the development of muscle, and the intelligence of his face suggested rather the power to think than the power to utilize his thought.
After the first glad days of the home-coming, the lack of education and taste, and the habits that this lack engendered, jarred more and more upon Caius. He loved his parents too well to betray his just distress at the narrow round of thought and feeling in which their minds revolved—the dogmatism of ignorance on all points, whether of social custom or of the sublime reaches of theology; but this distress became magnified into irritation, partly because of this secrecy, partly because his mind, wearied by study, had not its most wholesome balance.
Jim Hogan at this time made overtures of renewed friendship to Caius. Jim was the same as of old—athletic, quick-witted, large and strong, with his freckled face still innocent of hair; the red brush stood up over his unnaturally high forehead in such fashion as to suggest to the imaginative eye that wreath of flame that in some old pictures is displayed round the heads of villains in the infernal regions. Jim was now the acknowledged leader of the young men of that part who were not above certain low and mischievous practices to which Caius did not dream of condescending. Caius repulsed the offer of friendship extended to him.
The households with which his parents were friendly made great merrymakings over his return. Dancing was forbidden, but games in which maidens might be caught and kissed were not. Caius was not diverted; he had not the good-nature to be in sympathy with the sort of hilarity which was exacted from him.
"A SEA CHANGE."
In the procession of the swift-winged hours there is for every man one and another which is big with fate, in that they bring him peculiar opportunity to lose his life, and by that means find it. Such an hour came now to Caius. The losing and finding of life is accomplished in many ways: the first proffer of this kind which Time makes to us is commonly a draught of the wine of joy, and happy is he who loses the remembrance of self therein.
The hour which was so fateful for Caius came flying with the light winds of August, which breathed over the sunny harvest fields and under the deep dark shade of woods of fir and beech, waving the gray moss that hung from trunk and branch, tossing the emerald ferns that grew in the moss at the roots, and out again into light to catch the silver down of thistles that grew by the red roadside and rustle their purple bloom; then on the cliff, just touching the blue sea with the slightest ripple, and losing themselves where sky and ocean met in indistinguishable azure fold.
Through the woods walked Caius, and onward to the shore. Neddy Morrison was dead. The little child who was lost in the sea was almost forgotten. Caius, thinking upon these things, thought also upon the transient nature of all things, but he did not think profoundly or long. In his earlier youth he had been a good deal given to meditation, a habit which is frequently a mere sign of mental fallowness; now that his mind was wearied with the accumulation of a little learning, it knew what work meant, and did not work except when compelled. Caius walked upon the red road bordered by fir hedges and weeds, amongst which blue and yellow asters were beginning to blow, and the ashen seeds of the flame-flower were seen, for its flame was blown out. Caius was walking for the sake of walking and in pure idleness, but when he came near Farmer Day's land he had no thought of passing it without pausing to rest his eyes for a time upon the familiar details of that part of the shore.
He scrambled down the face of the cliff, for it was as yet some hours before the tide would be full. A glance showed him that the stone of baby Day's tablet yet held firm, cemented in the niche of the soft rock. A glance was enough for an object for which he had little respect, and he sat down with his back to it on one of the smaller rocks of the beach. This was the only place on the shore where the sandstone was hard enough to retain the form of rock, and the rock ended in the small, sharp headland which, when he was down at the water's level, hid the neighbouring bay entirely from his sight.
The incoming tide had no swift, unexpected current as the outgoing water had. There was not much movement in the little channel upon which Caius was keeping watch. The summer afternoon was all aglow upon shore and sea. He had sat quite still for a good while, when, near the sunny island, just at the point where he had been pulled ashore on the adventurous night when he risked his life for the child, he suddenly observed what appeared to be a curious animal in the water.
There was a glistening as of a scaly, brownish body, which lay near the surface of the waves. Was it a porpoise that had ventured so near? Was it a dog swimming? No, he knew well that neither the one nor the other had any such habit as this lazy basking in sunny shallows. Then the head that was lying backwards on the water turned towards him, and he saw a human face—surely, surely it was human!—and a snow-white arm was lifted out of the water as if to play awhile in the warm air.
The eyes of the wonderful thing were turned toward him, and it seemed to chance to see him now for the first time, for there was a sudden movement, no jerk or splash, but a fish-like dart toward the open sea. Then came another turn of the head, as if to make sure that he was indeed the man that he seemed, and then the sea-maid went under the surface, and the ripples that she left behind subsided slowly, expanding and fading, as ripples in calm waters do.
Caius stood up, watching the empty surface of the sea. If some compelling fate had said to him, "There shalt thou stand and gaze," he could not have stood more absolutely still, nor gazed more intently. The spell lasted long: some three or four minutes he stood, watching the place with almost unwinking eyes, like one turned to stone, and within him his mind was searching, searching, to find out, if he might, what thing this could possibly be.
He did not suppose that she would come back. Neddy Morrison had implied that the condition of her appearing was that she should not know that she was seen. It was three years since the old man had seen the same apparition; how much might three years stand for in the life of a mermaid? Then, when such questioning seemed most futile, and the spell that held Caius was loosing its hold, there was a rippling of the calm surface that gave him a wild, half-fearful hope.
As gently as it had disappeared the head rose again, not lying backward now, but, with pretty turn of the white neck, holding itself erect. An instant she was still, and then the perfect arm which he had seen before was again raised in the air, and this time it beckoned to him. Once, twice, thrice he saw the imperative beck of the little hand; then it rested again upon the rippled surface, and the sea-maid waited, as though secure of his obedience.
The man's startled ideas began to right themselves. Was it possible that any woman could be bathing from the island, and have the audacity to ask him to share her sport?
He tarried so long that the nymph, or whatever it might be, came nearer. Some twelve feet or so of the water she swiftly glided through, as it seemed, without twist or turn of her body or effort; then paused; then came forward again, until she had rounded the island at its nearest point, and half-way between it and his shore she stopped, and looked at him steadily with a face that seemed to Caius singularly womanly and sweet. Again she lifted a white hand and beckoned him to come across the space of water that remained.
Caius stood doubtful upon his rock. After a minute he set his feet more firmly upon it, and crossed his arms to indicate that he had no intention of swimming the narrow sea in answer to the beckoning hand. Yet his whole mind was thrown into confusion with the strangeness of it. He thought he heard a woman's laughter come across to him with the lapping waves, and his face flushed with the indignity this offered.
The mermaid left her distance, and by a series of short darts came nearer still, till she stopped again about the width of a broad highroad from the discomforted man. He knew now that it must be truly a mermaid, for no creature but a fish could thus glide along the surface of the water, and certainly the sleek, damp little head that lay so comfortably on the ripple was the head of a laughing child or playful girl. A crown of green seaweed was on the dripping curls; the arms playing idly upon the surface were round, dimpled, and exquisitely white. The dark brownish body he could hardly now see; it was foreshortened to his sight, down slanting deep under the disturbed surface. If it had not been for the indisputable evidence of his senses that this lovely sea thing swam, not with arms or feet, but with some snake-like motion, he might still have tried to persuade himself that some playful girl, strange to the ways of the neighbourhood, was disporting herself at her bath.
It was of no avail that his reason told him that he did not, could not, believe that such a creature as a mermaid could exist. The big dark eyes of the girlish face opened wide and looked at him, the dimpled mouth smiled, and the little white hand came out from the water and beckoned to him again.
He was suffering from no delirium; he had not lost his wits. He stamped his foot to make sure that the rock was beneath him; he turned about on it to rest his eyes from the water sparkles, and to recall all sober, serious thought by gazing at the stable shore. His eye stayed on the epitaph of the lost child. He remembered soberly all that he knew about this dead child, and then a sudden flash of perception seemed to come to him. This sweet water-nymph, on whom for the moment he had turned his back, must be the baby's soul grown to a woman in the water. He turned again, eager not to lose a moment of the maiden's presence, half fearful that she had vanished, but she was there yet, lying still as before.
Of course, it was impossible that she should be the sea-wraith of the lost child; but, then, it was wholly impossible that she should be, and there she was, smiling at him, and Caius saw in the dark eyes a likeness to the long-remembered eyes of the child, and thought he still read there human wistfulness and sadness, in spite of the wet dimples and light laughter that bespoke the soulless life of the sea-creature.
Caius stooped on the rock, putting his hand near the water as he might have done had he been calling to a kitten or a baby.
"Come, my pretty one, come," he called softly in soothing tones.
The eyes of the water-nymph blinked at him through wet-fringed lids.
"Come near; I will not hurt you," urged Caius, helpless to do aught but offer blandishment.
He patted the rock gently, as if to make it by that means more inviting.
"Come, love, come," he coaxed. He was used to speak in the same terms of endearment to a colt of which he was fond; but when a look of undoubted derision came over the face of the sea-maiden, he felt suddenly guilty at having spoken thus to a woman.
He stood erect again, and his face burned. The sea-girl's face had dimpled all over with fun. Colts and other animals cannot laugh at us, else we might not be so peaceful in our assumption that they never criticise. Caius before this had always supposed himself happy in his little efforts to please children and animals; now he knew himself to be a blundering idiot, and so far from feeling vexed with the laughing face in the water, he wondered that any other creature had ever permitted his clumsy caresses.
Having failed once, he now knew not what to do, but stood uncertain, devouring the beauty of the sprite in the water as greedily as he might with eyes that were not audacious, for in truth he had begun to feel very shy.
"What is your name?" he asked, throwing his voice across the water.
The pretty creature raised a hand and pointed at some object behind him. Caius, turning, knew it to be the epitaph. Yes, that was what his own intelligence had told him was the only explanation.
Explanation? His reason revolted at the word. There was no explanation of an impossibility. Yet that the mermaid was the lost child he had now little doubt, except that he wholly doubted the evidence of his senses, and that there was a mermaid.
He nodded to her that he understood her meaning about the name, and she gave him a little wave of her hand as if to say good-bye, and began to recede slowly, gliding backward, only her head seen above the disturbed water.
"Don't go," called Caius, much urgency in his words.
But the slow receding motion continued, and no answer came but another gentle wave of the hand.
The hand of Caius stole involuntarily to his lips, and he wafted a kiss across the water. Then suddenly it seemed to him that the cliff had eyes, and that it might be told of him at home and abroad that he was making love to a phantom, and had lost his wits.
The sea-child only tossed her head a little higher out of the water, and again he saw, or fancied he saw, mirth dancing in her eyes.
She beckoned to him and turned, moving away; then looked back and beckoned, and darted forward again; and, doing this again and again, she made straight for the open sea.
Caius cursed himself that he had not the courage to jump in and swim after her at any cost. But then he could not swim so fast—certainly not in his clothes. "There was something so wonderfully human about her face," he mused to himself. His mind suggested, as was its wont, too many reasonable objections to the prompt, headlong course which alone would have availed anything.
While he stood in breathless uncertainty, the beckoning hand became lost in the blur of sparkling ripples; the head, lower now, looked in the water at a distance as like the muzzle of a seal or dog as like a human head. By chance, as it seemed, a point of the island came between him and the receding creature, and Caius found himself alone.
BELIEF IN THE IMPOSSIBLE.
Caius clambered up the cliff and over the fence to the highroad. A man with a cartload of corn was coming past. Caius looked at him and his horse, and at the familiar stretch of road. It was a relief so to look. On a small green hillock by the roadside thistles grew thickly; they were in flower and seed at once, and in the sunshine the white down, purple flowers, and silver-green leaves glistened—a little picture, perfect in itself, of graceful lines and exquisite colour, having for its background the hedge of stunted fir that bordered the other side of the road. Caius feasted his eyes for a minute and then turned homeward, walking for awhile beside the cart and talking to the carter, just to be sure that there was nothing wild or strange about himself to attract the man's attention. The cart raised no dust in the red clay of the road; the monotonous creak of its wheels and the dull conversation of its owner were delightful to Caius because they were so real and commonplace.
Caius felt very guilty. He could not excuse himself to himself for the fact that he had not only seen so wild a vision but now felt the greatest reluctance to make known his strange adventure to anyone. He could not precisely determine why this reluctance was guilty on his part, but he had a feeling that, although a sensible man could not be much blamed for seeing a mermaid if he did see one, such a man would rouse the neighbourhood, and take no rest till the phenomenon was investigated; or, if that proved impossible, till the subject was at least thoroughly ventilated. The ideal man who acted thus would no doubt be jeered at, but, secure in his own integrity, he could easily support the jeers. Caius would willingly have changed places with this model hero, but he could not bring himself to act the part. Even the reason of this unwillingness he could not at once lay his hand upon, but he felt about his mind far it, and knew that it circled round and round the memory of the sea-maid's face.
That fresh oval face, surrounded with wet curls, crowned with its fantastic wreath of glistening weed—it was not alone because of its fresh girlish prettiness that he could not endure to make it the talk of the country, but because, strange as it seemed to him to admit it, the face was to him like the window of a lovely soul. It was true that she had laughed and played; it was true that she was, or pretended to be, half a fish; but, for all that, he would as soon have held up to derision his mother, he would as soon have derided all that he held to be most worthy in woman and all that he held to be beautiful and sacred in ideal, as have done despite to the face that looked at him out of the waves that afternoon. His memory held this face before him, held it lovingly, reverently, and his lips shut firmly over the tale of wonder he might have told.
At the gate of one of the fields a girl stood waiting for him. It was his cousin Mabel, and when he saw her he knew that she must have come to pay them a visit, and he knew too that she must have come because he was at home. He was not attached to his cousin, who was an ordinary young person, but hitherto he had always rather enjoyed her society, because he knew that it was her private ambition to marry him. He did not attribute affection to Mabel, only ambition; but that had pleased his vanity. To-day he felt exceedingly sorry that she had come.
Mabel held the gate shut so that he could not pass.
"Where have you been?" asked she, pretending sternness.
"Just along by the shore." He noticed as he said it that Mabel's frock had a dragged look about the waist, and that the seams were noticeable because of its tightness. He remembered that her frocks had this appearance frequently, and he wished they were not so ill-made.
"I shan't let you in," cried Mabel sportively, "till you tell me exactly what you've been doing for this age."
"I have not been serving my age much," he said, with some weariness in his tone.
"What?" said Mabel.
"You asked me what I had been doing for this age," said he. It was miserably stupid to explain.
When Caius and Mabel had sauntered up through the warm fields to the house, his mother met them in the front parlour with a fresh cap on. Her cap, and her presence in that room, denoted that Mabel was company. She immediately began to make sly remarks concerning Mabel's coming to them while Caius was at home, about her going to meet him, and their homeward walk together.
The mother was comparatively at ease about Mabel; she had little idea that Caius would ever make love to her, so she could enjoy her good-natured slyness to the full. What hurt Caius was that she did enjoy it, that it was just her natural way never to see two young people of opposite sex together without immediately thinking of the subject of marriage, and sooner or later betraying her thought. Heretofore he had been so accustomed to this cast of mind that, when it had tickled neither his sense of humour nor his vanity, he had been indifferent to it. To-night he knew it was vulgar; but he had no contempt for it, because it was his mother who was betraying vulgarity. He felt sorry that she should be like that—that all the men and women with whom she was associated were like that. He felt sorry for Mabel, because she enjoyed it, and consequently more tenderhearted towards her than he had ever felt before.
He had not, however, a great many thoughts to give to this sorrow, for he was thinking continually of the bright apparition of the afternoon.
When he went to his room to get ready for tea he fell into a muse, looking over the fields and woods to the distant glimpse of blue water he could see from his window. When he came down to the evening meal, he found himself wondering foolishly upon what food the child lost in the sea had fed while she grew so rapidly to a woman's stature. The present meal was such as fell to the daily lot of that household. In homely blue delft cups a dozen or more eggs were ranged beside high stacks of buttered toast, rich and yellow. The butter, the jugs of yellow cream, the huge platter heaped with wild raspberries—as each of these met his eye he was wondering if the sea-maid ever ate such food, or if her diet was more delicate.
"Am I going mad?" he thought to himself. The suspicion was depressing.
Three hours after, Caius sough his father as the old man was making his nightly tour of the barns and stables. By way of easing his own sense of responsibility he had decided to tell his father what he had seen, and his telling was much like such confession of sins as many people make, soothing their consciences by an effort that does not adequately reveal the guilt to the listener.
Caius came up just as his father was locking the stable door.
"Look here, father; wait a minute. I have something to say. I saw a very curious thing down at the shore to-day, but I don't want you to tell mother, or Mabel, or the men."
The old man stood gravely expectant. The summer twilight just revealed the outline of his thin figure and ragged hair and beard.
"It was in the water swimming about, making darts here and there like a big trout. Its body was brown, and it looked as if it had horny balls round its neck; and its head, you know, was like a human being's."
"I never heard tell of a fish like that, Caius. Was it a porpoise?"
"Well, I suppose I know what a porpoise is like."
"About how large was it?" said the elder man, abandoning the porpoise theory.
"I should think about five or six feet long."
"As long as that? Did it look as if it could do any harm?"
"No; I should think it was harmless; but, father, I tell you its head looked like a person's head."
"Was it a shark with a man stuck in its throat?"
"N—n—no." Not liking to deny this ingenious suggestion too promptly, he feigned to consider it. "It wasn't a dead man's head; it was like a live woman's head."
"I never heard of sharks coming near shore here, any way," added the old man. "What distance was it off—half a mile?"
"It came between me and the little island off which we lost baby Day. It lay half-way between the island and the shore."
The old man was not one to waste words. He did not remark that in that case Caius must have seen the creature clearly, for it went without saying.
"Pity you hadn't my gun," he said.
Caius inwardly shuddered, but because he wished to confide as far as he might, he said outwardly: "I shouldn't have liked to shoot at it; its face looked so awfully human, you know."
"Yes," assented the elder, who had a merciful heart "it's wonderful what a look an animal has in its eyes sometimes." He was slowly shuffling round to the next door with his keys. "Well, I'm sure, my lad, I don't know what it could ha' been, unless 'twas some sort of a porpoise."
"We should be quite certain to know if there was any woman paying a visit hereabout, shouldn't we? A woman couldn't possibly swim across the bay."
"Woman!" The old man turned upon him sternly. "I thought you said it was a fish."
"I said she swam like a fish. She might have been a woman dressed in a fish-skin, perhaps; but there isn't any woman here that could possibly be acting like that—and old Morrison told me the same thing was about the shore the summer before he died."
His father still looked at him sharply. "Well, the question is, whether the thing you saw was a woman or a fish, for you must have seen it pretty clear, and they aren't alike, as far as I know."
Caius receded from the glow of confidence. "It lay pretty much under the water, and wasn't still long at a time."
The old man looked relieved, and in his relief began to joke. "I was thinking you must have lost your wits, and thought you'd seen a mermaid," he chuckled.
"I'd think it was a mermaid in a minute"—boldly—"if there were such things."
Caius felt relieved when he had said this, but the old man had no very distinct idea in his mind attached to the mythical word, so he let go the thought easily.
"Was it a dog swimming?"
"No," said Caius, "it wasn't a dog."
"Well, I give it up. Next time you see it, you'd better come and fetch the gun, and then you can take it to the musee up at your college, and have it stuffed and put in a case, with a ticket to say you presented it. That's all the use strange fish are that I know of."
When Caius reflected on this conversation, he knew that he had been a hypocrite.
THE SEA-MAID'S MUSIC.
At dawn Caius was upon the shore again, but he saw nothing but a red sunrise and a gray sea, merging into the blue and green and gold of the ordinary day. He got back to breakfast without the fact of his matutinal walk being known to the family.
He managed also in the afternoon to loiter for half an hour on the same bit of shore at the same hour as the day before without anyone being the wiser, but he saw no mermaid. He fully intended to spend to-morrow by the sea, but he had made this effort to appear to skip to-day to avoid awaking curiosity.
He had a horse and buggy; that afternoon he was friendly, and made many calls. Wherever he went he directed the conversation into such channels as would make it certain that he would hear if anyone else had seen the mermaid, or had seen the face of a strange woman by sea or land. Of one or two female visitors to the neighbourhood within a radius of twenty miles he did hear, but when he came to investigate each case, he found that the visit was known to everyone, and the status, lineage and habits of the visitors all of the same humdrum sort.
He decided in his own mind that ten miles was the utmost length that a woman could possibly swim, but he talked boldly of great swimming feats he had seen in his college life, and opined that a good swimmer might even cross the bay from Montrose or from the little port of Stanhope in the other direction; and when he saw the incredulity of his listeners, he knew that no one had accomplished either journey, for the water was overlooked by a hundred houses at either place, and many a small vessel ploughed the waves.
When he went to sleep that night Caius was sure that the vision of the mermaid was all his own, shared only by old Morrison, who lay in his grave. It was perhaps this partnership with the dead that gave the matter its most incredible and unreal aspect. Three years before this lady of the sea had frequented this spot; none but the dead man and himself had been permitted to see her.
"Well, when all's said and done," said Caius to himself, rolling upon a sleepless bed, "it's a very extraordinary thing."
Next morning he hired a boat, the nearest that was to be had; he got it a mile and a half further up the shore. It was a clumsy thing, but he rowed it past the mouth of the creek where he used to fish, all along the water front of Day's farm, past the little point that was the beginning of the rocky part of the shore, and then he drew the boat up upon the little island. He hid it perfectly among the grass and weeds. Over all the limited surface, among the pine shrubs and flowering weeds, he searched to see if hiding-place for the nymph could be found. Two colts were pastured on the isle. He found no cave or hut. When he had finished his search, he sat and waited and watched till the sun set over the sea; but to-day there was no smiling face rearing itself from the blue water, no little hand beckoning him away.
"What a fool I was not to go where she beckoned!" mused Caius. "Where? Anywhere into the heart of the ocean, out of this dull, sordid life into the land of dreams."
For it must all have been a dream—a sweet, fantastic dream, imposed upon his senses by some influence, outward or inward; but it seemed to him that at the hour when he seemed to see the maid it might have been given him to enter the world of dreams, and go on in some existence which was a truer reality than the one in which he now was. In a deliberate way he thought that perhaps, if the truth were known, he, Dr. Caius Simpson, was going a little mad; but as he sat by the softly lapping sea he did not regret this madness: what he did regret was that he must go home and—talk to Mabel.
He rowed his boat back with feelings of blank disappointment. He could not give another day to idleness upon the shore. It was impossible that such an important person as himself could spend long afternoons and evenings thus without everyone's knowledge. He had a feeling, too, born, as many calculations are, of pure surmise, that he would have seen the mermaid again that afternoon, when he had made such elaborate arrangements to meet her, if Fate had destined them to meet again at all. No; he must give her up. He must forget the hallucination that had worked so madly on his brain.
Nevertheless, he did not deny himself the pleasure of walking very frequently to the spot, and this often, in the early hours before breakfast, a time which he could dispose of as he would without comment. As he walked the beach in the beauty of the early day, he realized that some new region of life had been opened to him, that he was feeling his way into new mysteries of beatified thought and feeling.
A week passed; he was again upon the shore opposite the island at the sunrise hour. He sat on the rock which seemed like a home to his restless spirit, so associated it was with the first thoughts of those new visions of beauty which were becoming dear to him.
He heard a soft splashing sound in the water, and, looking about him, suddenly saw the sea-child's face lifted out of the water not more than four or five yards from him. All around her was a golden cloud of sand; it seemed to have been stirred up by her startled movement on seeing him. For a moment she was still, resting thus close, and he could see distinctly that around her white shoulders there was a coil of what seemed like glistening rounded scales. He could not decide whether the brightness in her eye was that of laughing ease or of startled excitement. Then she turned and darted away from him, and having put about forty feet between them, she turned and looked back with easy defiance.
His eyes, fascinated by what was to him an awful thing, were trying to penetrate the sparkling water and see the outlines of the form whose clumsy skin seemed to hang in horrid folds, stretching its monstrous bulk under the waves. His vision was broken by the sparkling splash which the maiden deliberately made with her hands, as if divining his curiosity and defying it. He felt the more sure that his senses did not play him false because the arrangement of the human and fishy substance of the apparition did not tally with any preconceived ideas he had of mermaids.
Caius felt no loathing of the horrid form that seemed to be part of her. He knew, as he had never known before, how much of coarseness there was in himself. His hands and feet, as he looked down at them, seemed clumsy, his ideas clumsy and gross to correspond. He knew enough to know that he might, by the practice of exercises, have made his muscles and brain the expression of his will, instead of the inert mass of flesh that they now seemed to him to be. He might—yes, he might, if he had his years to live over again, have made himself noble and strong; as it was, he was mutely conscious of being a thing to be justly derided by the laughing eyes that looked up at him from the water, a man to be justly shunned and avoided by the being of the white arms and dimpled face.
And he sat upon the rock looking, looking. It seemed useless to rise or speak or smile; he remembered the mirth that his former efforts had caused, and he was dumb and still.
Perhaps the sea-child found this treatment more uninteresting than that attention he had lavished on her on the former occasion; perhaps she had not so long to tarry. As he still watched her she turned again, and made her way swift and straight toward the rocky point. Caius ran, following, upon the shore, but after a minute he perceived that she could disappear round the point before, either by swimming or wading, he could get near her. He could not make his way around the point by the shore; his best means of keeping her in sight was to climb the cliff, from which the whole bay on the other side would be visible.