TONGUES OF CONSCIENCE
Short Story Index Reprint Series
Books for Libraries Press Freeport, New York
First Published 1900 Reprinted 1971
Printed in the United States of America by New World Book Manufacturing Co., Inc. Hallandale, Florida 33009
PAGE SEA CHANGE— Part I. THE RAINBOW 1 Part II. THE GRAVE 51
"WILLIAM FOSTER" 109
THE CRY OF THE CHILD— Part I. THE DEAD CHILD 183 Part II. THE LIVING CHILD 223
HOW LOVE CAME TO PROFESSOR GUILDEA 267
THE LADY AND THE BEGGAR 341
"Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea change, Into something rich and strange."
In London nightfall is a delirium of bustle, in the country the coming of a dream. The town scatters a dust of city men over its long and lighted streets, powders its crying thoroughfares with gaily dressed creatures who are hidden, like bats, during the hours of day, opens a thousand defiant yellow eyes that have been sealed in sleep, throws off its wrapper and shows its elaborate toilet. The country grows demure and brown, most modest in the shadows. Labourers go home along the damp and silent lanes with heavy weariness. The parish clergyman flits like a blackbird through the twinkling village. Dogs bark from solitary farms. A beautiful and soft depression fills all the air like incense or like evening bells. But whether night reveals or hides the activities of men it changes them most curiously. The difference between man in day, man in night, is acute.
The arrival of darkness always meant something to the Rev. Peter Uniacke, whose cure of souls now held him far from the swarming alleys and the docks in which his early work had been done. He seldom failed to give this visitor, so strange and soft-footed, some slight greeting. Sometimes his welcome was a sigh, sometimes a prayer, sometimes a clenching of the hands, a smile, a pause in his onward walk. Looking backward along his past he could see his tall figure in many different places, aware of the first footfalls of the night, now alone and thinking of night's allegory of man's end, now in company, when the talk insensibly changed its character, flowing into deeper, more mysterious or confidential channels. Peter Uniacke had listened to informal confessions, too, as the night fell, confessions of sin that at first surprised him, that at last could no longer surprise him. And he had confessed himself, before the altar of the twilight, and had wondered why it is that sometimes Nature seems to have the power of absolution, even as God has it.
Now, at the age of thirty-two, he heard the footsteps of night on a windy evening of November. They drew near to the wall of the churchyard in which stood the sturdy and rugged building where now he ministered, on a little isle set lonely in a harsh and dangerous northern sea. He listened to them, leaning his arms along this wall, by which the grey and sleepless waves sang loudly. In the churchyard, growing gradually dim and ethereal, were laid many bodies from which the white vampires of the main had sucked out the souls. Here mouldered fisher lads, who had whistled over the nets, and dreamed rough dreams of winning island girls and breeding hardy children. Here reposed old limbs of salty mariners, who had for so long defied the ocean that when they knew themselves taken at the last, they turned their rugged faces down to their enemy with a stony and an ironic wonder. And here, too, among these cast-up bodies of the drowned, lay many women who had loved the prey of the sea, and kissed the cheeks turned acrid by its winds and waters. Some of them had died from heart-sickness, cursing the sea. Some had faded, withering like the pale sand roses beside the sea. Some had lived to old age by empty hearths, in the sound of the sea.
Inscriptions faded upon the stones that lay above them. Texts of comfort in which the fine, salt films crept, faint verses of sweet hymns defiled by the perching sea-birds, old rhymes like homely ejaculations of very simple hearts, sank into the gathering darkness on every hand. The graves seemed murmuring to the night: "Look on me, I hold a lover;" "And I—I keep fast a maiden;" "And within my arms crumbles a little child caught by the sea;" "And I fold a mother, whose son is in the hideous water foliage of the depths of the sea;" "And I embrace an old captain whom the sea loved even in his hollow age." The last inscription that stood clear to Peter Uniacke's eyes in the dying light ran thus:
"Here lies the body of Jack Pringle, cast up by the sea on December 4th, 1896. He was boy on the schooner 'Flying Fish.' His age seventeen. 'Lead kindly Light.'"
Uniacke watched this history go into the maw of the darkness, and when it was gone he found himself environed by the cool sea noises which seemed to grow louder in the night, wondering whether the "Kindly Light" was indeed leading on Jack Pringle, no longer boy on the schooner "Flying Fish," but—what? The soul of a fisher lad, who had kissed his girl, and drunk his glass, and told many a brave and unfitting tale, and sworn many a lusty oath, following some torch along the radiant ways of Heaven! Was that it? Uniacke had, possibly, preached now and then that so indeed it was. Or, perhaps, was the light-hearted and careless living lad caught fast, like sunk wreckage, in the under sea of Hell, where pain is like a living fire in the moving dimness? "His age seventeen." Could that be true and God merciful? With such thoughts, Uniacke greeted the falling of night. In the broad daylight, full of the songs and of the moving figures of his brawny fisher folk, he had felt less poetically uncertain. He had said like men at sea, "All's well!" More, he had been able to feel it. But now he leaned on the churchyard wall and it was cold to his arms. And the song of the sea was cold in his ears. And the night lay cold upon his heart. And his mind—in the grim, and apparently unmeaning way of minds set to sad music in a sad atmosphere—crept round and round about the gravestone of this boy; bereft of boyhood so early, of manhood ere he won to it, and carried so swiftly into mystery beyond the learning of all philosophy. Ignorance, in jersey and dripping sea-boots, set face to face with all knowledge, and that called a tragedy!
Yet now to Peter Uniacke it was tragedy, and his own situation, left in the safety of ignorance preaching to the ignorant, tragedy too, because of the night, and the winds and the sea noises, and the bareness of this Isle.
Beyond the church a light shone out, and a bearded shadow towered and dwindled upon a white blind. Uniacke, a bachelor, and now almost of necessity a recluse, entertained for the present a visitor. Remembering the substance of the shadow he opened the churchyard gate, threaded his way among the gravestones, and was quickly at the Vicarage door. As he passed within, a yellow glow of lamplight and of firelight streamed into the narrow passage from a chamber on the left hand, and he heard his piano, surprised to learn that it could be taught to deliver passionately long winding melodies from Tristan and Isolde. Uniacke laid down his hat and stick and entered his sitting-room, still companioned by the shadowy thought-form of the boy of the schooner "Flying Fish," who seemed to tramp at his side noiselessly, in long sea-boots that streamed with the salt water.
The man at the piano turned round, showing a handsome and melancholy face, and eyes that looked as if they were tired, having seen too many men and deeds and cities.
"I make myself at home, you see," he said, "as I hope you will some day in my studio, when you visit me at Kensington."
Uniacke smiled, and laid his hand on a bell which tinkled shrewishly.
"It is a great treat for me to hear music and a voice not my own in this room," he answered. "Are you ready for tea?"
"Thank you, I painted till it was dark. I was able to paint."
"I'm glad of that."
"When it was too dim to see, and too cold to feel the brush between my fingers, I came back in the twilight to my new roof tree. I am thankful to be out of the inn, yet I've stayed in worse places in Italy and Greece. But they were gilded by the climate."
He sat down by the fire and stretched his limbs. Uniacke looked at him rather curiously. To the lonely clergyman it was a novel experience to play host to a man of distinction, to a stranger who had filled the world with his fame years ago. Three days before, in one of his island walks, Uniacke had come upon a handsome bearded man in a lane full of mud, between bleak walls of stone. The man stopped him courteously, asked if he were not the clergyman of the Isle, and, receiving an affirmative reply, began to make some enquiries as to lodging accommodation.
"My name is Sir Graham Hamilton," he said presently.
Uniacke started with surprise and looked at the stranger curiously. He had read much of the great sea painter, of his lonely wanderings, of his melancholy, of his extraordinary house in Kensington, and, just recently, of his wretched condition of health, which, it was said, had driven him suddenly from London, the papers knew not whither.
"I thought you were ill," he blurted out.
"I am not very well," the painter said simply, "and the inn here is exceedingly uncomfortable. But I want to stay. This is the very home of the sea. Here I find not merely the body of the sea but also its soul."
"There are no good lodgings, I am afraid," said the clergyman. "Nobody ever wants to lodge here, it seems."
"I do. Well, then, I must keep on at the inn."
"Come to stay with me, will you?" Uniacke suddenly said. "I have a spare room. It is scarcely ever occupied. My friends find this island a far cry, except in the height of summer. I shall be glad of your company and glad to make you as comfortable as I can."
"You are very kind," said the painter, hesitating. "But I scarcely—"
"Come as my guest," said the clergyman, reddening slightly.
"Thank you, I will. And some day you must come to me in London."
Now the painter was installed at the Vicarage, and blessed, each hour, his happy escape from the inn, whose walls seemed expanded by the forcible and athletic smell of stale fish.
Uniacke's servant girl brought in the tea. The two men had it by the fire. Presently Hamilton said:
"Nightfall is very interesting and curious here."
"I find it so almost everywhere," Uniacke said.
"Yes. It can never be dull. But here, in winter at least, it is extraordinarily—" he paused for the exactly right word, in a calm way that was peculiar to him and that seemed to emphasise his fine self-possession—"pathetic, and suggestive of calamity."
"I have noticed that, indeed," Uniacke answered, "and never, I think, more than to-night."
Hamilton looked across at him in the firelight.
"Where did you see it fall?" he asked.
"I was by the wall of the churchyard."
"It was you, then, whom I saw from the window. It seemed to be a mourner looking at the graves."
"I was looking at them. But nobody I care for deeply is buried there. The night, however, in such an island as this, makes every grave seem like the grave of a person one has known. It is the sea, I daresay."
"So close on every hand. Why, this house of yours might be a ship afloat a hundred miles from land, judging by the sounds of the waves."
He sighed heavily.
"I hope the air will do you good," Uniacke remarked, with a sudden relapse into conversational lameness.
"Thank you. But sea air is no novelty to me. Half of my life, at least, has been spent in it. I have devoted all the best of my life, my powers, my very soul to the service of the sea. And now, when I am growing old, I sometimes think that I shall hate it before I go."
"Well—but it has brought you fame."
"H'm. And wealth and a thousand acquaintances. Yes, that's quite true. Sometimes, nevertheless, we learn in the end to hate those who have brought us most. Perhaps, because they have educated us in the understanding of disappointment. You love the sea?"
"You wouldn't be here otherwise."
"I did not come here exactly because of that," Uniacke said slowly.
"No," said the painter.
"Rather to forget something."
"I doubt if this is a place which could teach one to forget. I find it quite otherwise."
The two men looked at each other, the elderly painter on his height of fame, the young clergyman in his depth of obscurity, and each felt that there was a likeness between them.
"I came here to forget a woman," Uniacke said at last, moved by a strange impulse to speak out.
"Yes, I see. It is the old idea of sorrowful men, a hermitage. I have often wondered in London, in Rome, in Athens, whether a hermitage is of any avail. Men went out into the desert in old days. Legend has it that holiness alone guided them there. All their disciples believed that. Reading about them I have often doubted it."
He smiled rather coldly and cynically.
"You don't know what a hermitage can mean. You have only been here three days. Besides, you come in search of—"
"Search!" Hamilton interrupted, with an unusual quickness.
"Of work and health."
"Oh, yes. Do you care, since we are on intimate topics, to tell me any more about yourself and—and—"
"I loved her. She disappeared out of my life. I don't know at all where she is, with whom, how she lives, anything at all about her. I don't suppose I ever shall. She may be dead."
"You don't think you would know it if she were?"
"How could I? Who would tell me?"
"Not something within you? Not yourself?"
Uniacke was surprised by this remark. It did not fit in precisely with his conception of his guest's mind, so far as he had formed one.
"Such an idea never occurred to me," he said. "Do you believe that such an absolute certainty could be put into a man's mind then, without a reason, a scrap of evidence, a hint to eye, or ear?"
"I don't know. I—I want to know."
"That someone's dead?"
"That someone is not dead. How loud the sea is getting!"
"It always sounds much like that at night in winter."
"Does the winter not seem very long to you up here quite alone?"
"Often. But we have times of keen excitement, of violent, even of exhausting activity. I have had to rush from the pulpit up to my shoulders in the sea."
"Yes, there have been many. There was the schooner 'Flying Fish.' She broke up when I was holding service one December morning. Only the skipper was saved alive. And he—"
"What of him?"
"He went what the people here call 'silly' from the shock—not directly. It came on him gradually. He would not leave the island. He would never trust the sea again."
"So he's here still?"
Just then the two plaintive bells of the church began to ring on the wind.
"There he is!" Uniacke said.
"He's our bell-ringer. It's the only thing he takes any pleasure in, ringing the bells for church and at nightfall. I let him do it, poor fellow. He's got a queer idea into his brain that his drowned mates will hear the bells some night and make the land, guided by the sound. When the darkness falls he always rings for a full hour."
"How strange! How terrible!"
They sat by the fire listening to the pathetic chime of the two bells, whose voices were almost hidden in the loud sea voices that enveloped the little island with their cries. Presently the painter shifted in his armchair.
"There is something—I—there is something very eerie to me in the sound of those two bells now I know why they are ringing, and who is ringing them," he said, with a slight irritation. "Don't you find they affect your nerves at all?"
"No. I like to hear them. They tell me that one poor creature is happy. The Skipper—all we Island folk call him so—believes he will bring his mates safe to shore some day. And each time he sets those bells going he thinks the happy hour is perhaps close at hand."
"Poor fellow! And he is summoning the drowned to come up out of their world."
They sat silent again for three or four minutes. Then Sir Graham said:
"Uniacke, you have finished your tea?"
"Yes, Sir Graham."
"Has your day's work tired you very much?"
"Then I wish you would do me a favour. I want to see your skipper. Can I get into the church?"
"Yes. He always leaves the door wide open while he rings the bells—so that his mates can come in from the sea to him."
"Poor fellow! Poor fellow!"
He got up.
"I shall go across to the church now," he said.
"I'll take you there. Wrap yourself up. It's cold to-night."
"It is very cold."
The painter pulled a great cloak over his shoulders and a cap down over his glittering and melancholy eyes, that had watched for many years all the subtle changes of the colour and the movement of the sea. Uniacke opened the Vicarage door and they stood in the wind. The night was not dark, but one of those wan and light grey nights that seemed painted with the very hues of wind and of cloud. It was like a fluid round about them, and surely flowed hither and thither, now swaying quietly, now spreading away, shredded out as water that is split by hard substances. It was full of noise as is a whirlpool, in which melancholy cries resound forever. Above this noise the notes of the two bells alternated like the voices of stars in a stormy sky.
"Even living men at sea to-night would not hear those bells," said the painter. "And the drowned—how can they hear?"
"Who knows?" said the clergyman. "Perhaps they are allowed to hear them and to offer up prayers for their faithful comrade. I think faithfulness is heaven in a human heart."
They moved across the churchyard, and all the graves of the drowned flickered round their feet in the gusty greyness. They passed Jack Pringle's grave, where the "Kindly Light" lay in the stone. When they gained the church Sir Graham saw that the door was set wide open to the night. He stood still.
"And so those dead mariners are to pass in here," he said, "under this porch. Uniacke, cannot you imagine the scene if they came? Those dead men, with their white, sea-washed faces, their dripping bodies, their wild eyes that had looked on the depths of the sea, their hanging hands round which the fishes had nibbled with their oval lips! The procession of the drowned to their faithful captain. If I stood here long enough alone my imagination would hear them, would hear their ghostly boat grate its keel upon the Island beach, and the tramp of their sodden sea-boots. How many were there?"
"I never heard. Only one body was cast up, and that is buried by the churchyard wall. Shall we go in?"
They entered through the black doorway. The church was very dim and smelt musty and venerable, rather as the cover of an old and worn Bible smells. And now that they were within it, the bells sounded different, less magical, more full of human music; their office—the summoning of men to pray, the benediction of the marriage tie, the speeding of the departed on the eternal road—became apparent and evoked accustomed thoughts.
"Where is the belfry?" said Sir Graham in a whisper.
"This way. We have to pass the vestry and go up a stone staircase."
Uniacke moved forward along the uncarpeted pavement, on which his feet, in their big nailed boots, rang harshly. The painter followed him through a low and narrow door which gave on to a tiny stairway, each step of which was dented and crumbled at the uneven edge. They ascended in the dark, not without frequent stumbling, and heard always the bells which seemed sinking down to them from the sky. Presently a turn brought them to a pale ray of light which lay like a thread upon the stone. At the same moment the bells ceased to sound. Both Uniacke and Sir Graham paused simultaneously, the vision of the light and the cessation of the chimes holding them still for an instant almost without their knowledge. There was a silence that was nearly complete, for the tower walls were thick, and kept the sea voices and the blowing winds at bay. And while they waited, involuntarily holding their breath, a hoarse and uneven voice cried out, anxiously and hopefully from above:
"Are ye comin', mates? Are ye comin'? Heave along, boys! D'ye hear me! I'm your skipper. Heave along!"
Uniacke half turned to the painter, whose face was very white.
"What are ye waitin' for?" continued the voice. "I heard ye comin'. I heard ye at the door. Come up, I say, and welcome to ye! Welcome to ye all, mates. Ye've been a damned long time comin'."
"He thinks—he thinks—" whispered Uniacke to his companion.
"I know. It's cruel. What shall we—"
"Ye've made the land just in time, mates," continued the voice. "For there's a great gale comin' up to-night. The 'Flying Fish' couldn't live in her under bare poles, I reckon. I'm glad ye've got ashore. Where are ye, I say? Where are ye?"
The sound of the voice approached the two men on the stairs. The thread of light broadened and danced on the stone. High up there appeared the great figure of a man in a seaman's jersey with a peaked cap on his head. In his broad rough hands he held a candle, which he shaded with his fingers while he peered anxiously and expectantly down the dark and narrow funnel of the stairway.
"Hulloh!" he cried. "Hulloh, there!"
The hail rang down in the night. Sir Graham was trembling.
"I see ye," cried the Skipper. "It's Jack, eh? Isn't it little Jack, boys? Young monkey! Up to his damned larks that I've reckoned up these many nights while I've stood ringin' here! I'll strike the life out of ye, Jack, I will. Wait till I come down, lads, wait till I come down!"
And he sprang forward, his huge limbs shaking with glad excitement. His feet missed a stair in his hurry of approach, and throwing abroad his hands to the stone walls of the belfry in an effort to save himself, he let fall the candlestick. It dropped on the stones with a dull clatter as the darkness closed in. The Skipper, who had recovered his footing, swore a round oath. Sir Graham and Uniacke heard his heavy tread descending until his breath was warm on their faces.
"Where are ye, lads?" he cried out. "Where are ye? Can't ye throw a word of welcome to a mate?"
He laid his hands heavily on Uniacke's shoulders in the dark, and felt him over with an uncertain touch.
"Is it Jack?" he said. "Why, what 'a ye got on, lad? Is it Jack, I say?"
"Skipper," Uniacke said, in a low voice, "it's not Jack." As he spoke he struck a match. The tiny light flared up unevenly right in the Skipper's eyes. They were sea-blue and blazing with eagerness and with the pitiful glare of madness. Over the clergyman's shoulder the pale painter with his keen eyes swept the bearded face of the Skipper with a rapid and greedy glance. By the time the match dwindled and the blackness closed in again the face was a possession of his memory. He saw it even though it was actually invisible; the rugged features dignified by madness, the clear, blue eyes full of a saddening fire, and—ere the match faded—of a horror of disappointment, the curling brown beard that flowed down on the blue jersey. But he had no time to dwell on it now, for a dreary noise rose up in that confined space. It was the great seaman whimpering pitifully in the dark.
"It isn't Jack," he blubbered, and they could hear his huge limbs shaking. "Ye haven't come back, mates, ye haven't come back. And the great gale comin' up, the great gale comin'."
As the words died away, a gust of wind caught the belfry and tore at its rough-hewn and weather-worn stones.
"Let us go down," said Sir Graham, turning to feel his way into the church.
"Come, Skipper," said Uniacke, "come with us."
He laid hold of the seaman's mighty arm and led him down the stairs. He said nothing. On a sudden all the life and hope had died out of him. When they gained the grey churchyard and could see his face again in the pale and stormy light, it looked shrunken, peaked and childish, and the curious elevation of madness was replaced by the uncertainty and weakness of idiocy. He shifted on his feet and would not meet the pitiful glances of the two men. Uniacke touched him on the shoulder.
"Come to the Vicarage, Skipper," he said kindly. "Come in and warm yourself by the fire and have some food. It's so cold to-night."
But the seaman suddenly broke away and stumbled off among the gravestones, whimpering foolishly like a dog that cannot fight grief with thought.
"The sea—ah, the hatefulness of the sea!" said the painter, "will it ever have to answer for its crimes before God?"
Uniacke and his guest sat at supper that night, and all the windows of the Vicarage rattled in the storm. The great guns of the wind roared in the sky. The great guns of the surf roared on the island beaches. And the two men were very silent at first. Sir Graham ate little. He had no appetite, for he seemed to hear continually in the noises of the elements the shrill whimpering of a dog. Surely it came from the graves outside, from those stone breasts of the dead.
"I can't eat to-night," he said presently. "Do you think that man is lingering about the church still?"
They got up from the table and went over to the fire. The painter lit a pipe.
"I hope not," Uniacke said, "but it is useless attempting to govern him. He is harmless, but he must be left alone. He cannot endure being watched or followed."
"I wish we hadn't gone to the church. I can't get over our cruelty."
"It was inadvertent."
"Cruelty so often is, Uniacke. But we ought to look forward and foresee consequences. I feel that most especially to-night. Remorse is the wage of inadvertence."
As he spoke, he looked gloomily into the fire. The young clergyman felt oddly certain that the great man had more to say, and did not interrupt his pause, but filled it in for himself by priestly considerations on the useless illumination worldly success seems generally to afford to the searchers after happiness. His reverie was broken by the painter's voice saying:
"I myself, Uniacke, am curiously persecuted by remorse. It is that, or partly that, which has affected my health so gravely, and led me away from my home, my usual habits of life, at this season of the year."
"Yes?" the clergyman said, with sympathy, without curiosity.
"And yet, I suppose it would seem a little matter to most people. The odd thing is that it assumes such paramount importance in my life; for I'm not what is called specially conscientious, except as regards my art, of course, and the ordinary honourable dealings one decent man naturally has with his fellows."
"Your conscience, in fact, limits its operations a good deal, I know."
"Precisely. But if it will not bore you, I will tell you something of all this."
"Thank you, Sir Graham."
"How the wind shakes those curtains!"
"Nothing will keep it out of these island houses. You aren't cold?"
"Not in body, not a bit. Well, Uniacke, do you ever go to see pictures?"
"Whenever I can. That's not often now. But when my work lay in cities I had chances which are denied me at present."
"Did you ever see a picture of mine called 'A sea urchin'?"
"Yes, indeed—that boy looking at the waves rolling in!—who could forget him? The soul of the sea was in his eyes. He was a human being, and yet he seemed made of all sea things."
"He had never set eyes upon the sea."
"What?" cried Uniacke, in sheer astonishment, "the boy who sat for that picture? Impossible! When I saw it I felt that you had by some happy chance lit on the one human being who contained the very soul of an element. No merman could so belong of right to the sea as that boy."
"Who was a London model, and had never heard the roar of waves or seen the surf break in the wind."
"Genius!" the clergyman exclaimed.
"Uniacke," continued the painter, "I got L1,000 for that picture. And I call the money now blood-money to myself."
"Blood-money! But why?"
"I had made studies of the sea for that picture. I had indicated the wind by the shapes of the flying foam journeying inland to sink on the fields. I wanted my figure, I could not find him. Yet I was in a sea village among sea folk. The children's legs there were browned with the salt water. They had clear blue eyes, sea eyes; that curious light hair which one associates with the sea and with spun glass sometimes. But they wouldn't do for my purpose. They were unimaginative. As a fact, Uniacke, they knew the sea too well. That was it. They were familiar with it, as the little London clerk is familiar with Fleet Street or Chancery Lane. The twin brother of a prophet thinks prophecy boring table-talk—not revelation. These children chucked the sea under the chin. That didn't do for me, and for what I wanted."
"After a great deal of search and worry I came to this conclusion: that my purpose required of me this—the discovery of an exceptionally imaginative child, who was unfamiliar with the sea, but into whose heart and brain I could pour its narrated wonders, whose soul I could fill to the brim with its awe, its majesty, its murmuring sweetness, its wild romance and its inexhaustible cruelty. I must make this child see and know, but through the medium of words alone, of mental vision. If I took it to the sea the imagination would be stricken down—well, by such banalities as paddling and catching shrimps."
"But on the contrary, in London, far from the sea, I could give to the child only those impressions of the sea that would wake in it the sort of sea-soul I desired to print. I should have it in my power. And a child's soul cannot be governed by a mere painter, when a conflict arises between him and sand-castles and crabs and prawns and the various magicians of the kind that obsess the child so easily and so entirely."
"Yes, children are conquered by trifles."
"And that, too, is part of their beauty. Under this strong impression, I packed up my traps and came back to London with the studies for my picture. I placed them on an easel in my studio and began my search for the child. At first I sought this child among my cultivated friends; married artists, musicians, highly-strung people, whose lives were passed in an atmosphere vibrating with quick impressions. But I went unrewarded. The children of such people are apt to be peevishly receptive, but their moods are often cloudy, and I wished for a pellucid nature. After a time I went lower down, and I began to look about the streets for my wonder-child."
"What a curious quest!" said Uniacke, leaning forward till the firelight danced on his thin face and was reflected in his thoughtful hazel eyes.
"Yes, it was," rejoined the painter, who was gradually sinking into his own narrative, dropping down in the soft realm of old thoughts revived. "It was curious, and to me, highly romantic. I sometimes thought it was like seeking for a hidden sea far inland, watching for the white face of a little wave in the hard and iron city thoroughfares. Sometimes I stopped near Victoria Station, put my foot upon a block, and had a boot half ruined while I watched the bootblack. Sometimes I bought a variety of evening papers from a ragged gnome who might be a wonder-child, and made mistakes over the payment to prolong the interview. I leaned against gaunt houses and saw the dancing waifs yield their poor lives to ugly, hag-ridden music. I endured the wailing hymns of voiceless women on winter days in order that I might observe the wretched ragamuffins squalling round their knees the praise of a Creator who had denied them everything. Ah! forgive me!"
"For some purpose that we shall all know at last," said Uniacke gently.
"Possibly. In all these prospectings I was unlucky. By chance at length I found the wonder-child when I was not seeking him."
"How was that?"
"One day the weather, which had been cold, changed and became warm, springlike, and alive with showers. When it was not raining, you felt the rain was watching you from hidden places. You smelt it in the air. The atmosphere was very sweet and depressing, and London was full of faint undercurrents of romance, and of soft and rapidly changing effects of light. I went out in the afternoon and spent an hour in the National Gallery. When I came out my mind was so full of painted canvas that I never looked at the unpainted sky, or at the vaporous Square through which streamed the World, opening and shutting umbrellas. I believe I was thinking over some new work of my own, arranged for the future. Now the rain ceased, I went down the steps and walked across the road into the stone garden of the lions. Round their feet played pigmy children. I heard their cries mingling with the splash of the fountains, but I took no notice of them. Sitting down on a bench, I went on planning a picture—the legendary masterpiece, no doubt. I was certainly very deep in thought and lost to my surroundings, for when a hand suddenly grasped my knee I was startled. I looked up. In front of me stood a very dirty and atrociously-dressed boy, whose head was decorated with a tall, muddy paper cap, funnel-shaped and bending feebly in the breeze. This boy was clutching my knee tightly with one filthy hand, while with the other he pointed to the sky on which his eyes were intently fixed.
"'Look at that there rainbow!' he said. 'Look at that there rainbow!'
"I glanced up and saw that the clouds had partially broken and that London lay under a huge and perfect coloured arch.
"'I never did!' continued the boy.
"He stared at me for an instant with the solemn expression of one who reveals to the ignorant a miracle. Then he took his hand from my knee, hurried to an adjoining seat, woke up a sleeping and partially intoxicated tramp, requested him to observe closely the superb proceedings of Nature, took no heed of his flooding oaths, and passed on in the waving paper cap from seat to seat, rousing from their dreams, and sorrows, and newspapers, the astounded habitues of the Square, that they might share his awe and happiness. Before he had finished teaching a heavy policeman the lessons of the sky, I knew that I had found my wonder-child."
"You followed him?"
"I captured him in the midst of a group of emaciated little girls in the shadow of Lord Nelson. All the childish crowd was looking upward, and every eye was completely round over each widely-opened mouth, while paper-cap repeated his formula. Poor children, looking at the sky! Ah, Uniacke, what do you think of that for a sermon?"
The young clergyman cleared his throat. The red curtains by the narrow window blew outward towards the fire, and sank in again, alternately forcible and weak. The painter looked towards the window and a sadness deepened in his eyes.
"Where is my wonder-child now?" he said.
"You have lost sight of him?"
"Yes—though the blood-money lies at my bank and the paper-cap is in my studio."
"Is he not in London?"
"No, no; I learnt his history, the history of a gamin of fifteen or thereabouts. It was much the same as a history of a London pavement, with this exception, that the gamin had a mother to whom he presented me without undue formality. The impression made upon me by that lady at first was unfavourable, since she was slatternly, drank, and was apparently given to cuffing and kicking the boy—her only child. I considered her an abandoned and unfeeling female. She dwelt in Drury Lane and sold something that most of us have never heard of."
"I can see her."
"I wish to heaven I could not," the painter said, with a sudden outburst of fire.
He was silent a moment and then continued: "I had no difficulty in persuading her to let me paint the boy. I don't think she rightly understood what I meant, except that for some foolish reason I was prepared to give her money, apparently in return for nothing, that I meant to have little Jack decently dressed—"
"Jack—was that his name?"
"Yes, and that he was to spend certain hours—snatched from Trafalgar Square—in my house in Kensington."
"The boy turned up in the jersey and cap and boots I had bought him. And then his education began. On first entering my studio he was numb with surprise, a moving and speechless stare—more overcome than by rainbows."
"Poor little chap!"
"I let him stray about examining everything. He did so completely oblivious of my presence, and of the fact that all the things in the place were mine. By his demeanour one might have supposed him engaged in an examination of works of God never before brought to his notice. While I smoked and pretended to read, he crept about like a little animal, penetrating into corners where statues stood, smelling—so it seemed—the angles of painted walls, touching the petals of flowers, smoothing rugs the wrong—but soon the right—way. I can hear his new boots creaking still. He was a very muscular little chap, but small. When he was able to speak I questioned him. He had never seen the sea. He had never been out of London for a day or slept away from Drury Lane for a night. The flask was empty; now to pour the wine into it. I told him to sit down by the open hearth. He obeyed, staring hard at me before he sat, hard at the chair when he was sitting. I interested him much less than old brocade and lighted wax candles, which inspired him with a solemnity that widened his eyes and narrowed his features. He looked on a new, and never-before-imagined, life. And he was grave to excess, though, later, I found plenty of the London child's impish nature in him."
"That impish quality hides in nearly all street-bred children," said Uniacke. "I have seen larkiness dawn in them for an instant at some recollection, even when they were dying."
"I daresay. I can believe it. But Jack was solemn at first, his brow thunderous with thought, as he examined his chair and the rug under his new boots. Then in the firelight I began my task. I wrought to bring about in this Trafalgar Square soul a sea change. For a time I did not attempt to paint. I merely let the boy come to me day by day, get accustomed to the studio, and listen to my talk—which was often of the sea. I very soon found that my intention had led me to the right mind for my purpose; for the starved gaze that had been fixed on the rainbow could turn itself, with equal wonder, similar rapture, on other things. And the mind also could be brought to see what was not visible to the eye. My studio—you must see it some day—is full of recollections of sea days and nights. Jack explored them. I eliminated from the studio important objects of art which might lead him to think of towns, of villages inland, of wonderful foreign interiors. I fixed all his nature upon this marvellous element which had never murmured round his life before. I played to him music in which the sea could be heard. I described to him the onward gallop of the white horses, racing over impenetrable depths. I painted for him in words the varying colours of waves in different seas, the black purple of tropical waters, the bottle-green turmoil of a Cornish sea on a choppy day, the brown channel waves near shore, the jewelled smoothness of the Mediterranean in early morning sunshine, its silver in moonrise, melting into white and black. I told him of the crowd of voices that cry in the sea, expressing all the emotions which are uttered on land by the voices of men; of the childish voices that may be heard on August evenings in fiords, of the solemn sobbing that fills an autumn night on the Northumbrian coast, of the passionate roaring in mid Atlantic, of the peculiar and frigid whisper of waters struggling to break from the tightening embrace of ice in extreme northern latitudes, of the level moan of the lagoons. I explained to him how this element is so much alive that it is never for a moment absolutely still, even when it seems so to the eyes, as it sleeps within the charmed embrace of a coral reef, extended, like an arm, by some Pacific island far away. I drew for him the thoughts of the sea, its intentions, its desires, its regrets, its griefs, its savage and its quiet joys. I narrated the lives in it, of fishes, of monsters; its wonders of half human lives, too, the mermaids who lie on the rocks at night to see the twinkling lights on land, the mermen who swim round them, wondering what those lights may mean. I made him walk with me on the land under the sea, where go the divers through the wrecks, and ascend the rocky mountains and penetrate the weedy valleys, and glide across the slippery, oozy plains. In fine, Uniacke, I drowned little Jack—I drowned him in the sea, I drowned him in the sea."
The painter spoke the last words in a voice of profound, even of morbid, melancholy, as if he were indeed confessing a secret crime, driven by some wayward and irresistible impulse. Uniacke looked at him in growing surprise.
"And why not?" Uniacke asked.
But the painter did not reply. He continued:
"I made him see the rainbows of the sea and he looked no more at the rainbows of the sky. For at length I had his imagination fast in my net as a salmon that fishermen entice within the stakes. His town mind seemed to fade under my fostering, and, Uniacke, 'nothing of him that did fade but did suffer a sea change into something rich and strange.'"
The painter got up from his chair and walked over to the blowing wind that crept in at the window fastenings. The red curtains flew out towards him. He pushed them back with his hands.
"Into something rich and strange," he repeated, as if to himself. "And strange."
"Ah, but that was said, surely, of one who was actually drowned in the sea," said the clergyman. "It might be suitably placed on many of the memorial slabs in the church yonder," he continued, waving his hand towards the casement that looked on the churchyard. "But your sea-urchin—"
"Oh, I speak only of the fading of the town nature into the sea nature," rejoined the painter quickly, "only of that. The soil of the childish mind was enriched; his eyes shone as if touched with a glow from the sun, swaying in the blue sea. The Trafalgar Square gamin disappeared, and at last my sea-urchin stood before me. As the little Raleigh may have looked he looked at me, and I saw in the face then rather the wonder of the sea itself than the crude dancing desire of the little adventurer who would sail it. And it was the wonder of the sea embodied in a child that I desired to paint, not the wakening of a human spirit of gay seamanship and love of peril. That's for a Christmas number—but that came at last."
He stopped abruptly and faced the clergyman.
"Why does the second best succeed so often and so closely the best, I wonder," he said. "It is very often so in the art life of a man, even of a great man. And it is so sometimes—perhaps you know this better than I—in the soul life of a nature. Must we always sink again after we have soared? Must we do that? Is it an immutable law?"
"Perhaps for a time. Surely, surely, not forever," said Uniacke.
His guest's conversation and personality began to stir him more and more powerfully. It seemed so new and vital an experience to be helped to think, to have suggestion poured into him now, after his many lonely island evenings.
"Ah, well, who can say?" said the painter. "I had the best for a time—long enough for my immediate purpose; for now I painted, and I felt that I was enabled by little Jack to do fine work. It seems he told his drinking mother in Drury Lane, in his lingo, of the wonders of the sea. This I learnt later. And, in his occasional, and now somewhat fleeting visits to Trafalgar Square, he explained to the emaciated little girls, in the shadow of Nelson, the fact that there was to be found, and seen, somewhere, water of a very different kind from that splashing and churning in the dingy basins guarded by the lions. Meanwhile I painted little Jack, all the time keeping alive in his nature the sea change, which was, in the end, to bring into my pocket L1,000 in hard cash."
Sir Graham said this with an indescribable cold irony and bitterness.
"I can hear that money jingling in the wind, upon my soul, Uniacke," he added, frowning heavily.
The young clergyman was touched by a passing thought of the painter's notorious ill-health.
"Before the picture was finished—quite completed—the impish child began to waken in the wonder-child, and I had to comply with the demands of this new-born youngster. Our conversation—little Jack's and mine—drifted from the sea itself to the men and ships that travel it, to the deeds of men that are done upon it; raidings of Moorish pirates, expeditions to the Spanish Main in old days, to the whaling grounds in new, and so forth. When we got to this sort of thing my work was nearly done and could not be spoiled. So I let myself go, and talked several boys' books in those afternoons. I was satisfied, damnably satisfied—your pardon, Uniacke—with my work, and I was heedless of all else. That is the cursed, selfish instinct of the artist; that is the inadvertence of which we spoke formerly. You remember?"
"My picture was before me and a child's budding soul, and I thought of nothing at all but my picture. That's sin, if you like. Little Jack, in his jersey and squeaky boots, with his pale face and great eyes, was my prey on canvas and my L1,000. I hugged myself and told him wild stories of bold men on the sea. Uniacke, do you believe in a personal devil?"
"I do," replied the young clergyman, simply.
"Well, if there is one, depend upon it he sometimes requires an introduction before he can make a soul's acquaintance. I effected the introduction between him and my wonder-child when I sat in the twilight and told Jack those tales of the sea. The devil came to the boy in my studio, and I opened the door and bowed him in. And once he knew the boy, he stayed with him, Uniacke, and whispered in his ear—'Desert your duty. Life calls you. The sea calls you. Go to it. Desert your duty!' Even a dirty little London boy can have a duty and be aware of it, I suppose. Eh?"
"Yes. I think that. But—"
"Wait a moment. I've nearly finished my tale, though I'm living the sequel to it at this moment. One day I completed my picture; the last touch was given. I stood back, I looked at my canvas. I felt I had done well; my sea urchin was actually what I had imagined. I had succeeded in that curious effort—to accomplish which many of us give our lives—in the effort to project perfectly my thought, to give the exactly right form to my imagination. I exulted. Yes, I had one grand overwhelming moment of exultation. Then I turned from my completed picture. 'Jack,' I cried out, 'little Jack, I've made you famous. D'you know what that means?'
"I took the little chap by the shoulders and placed him before the picture. 'See yourself,' I added. The boy stared at the sea urchin, at those painted eyes full of the sea wonder, at those parted lips, that mouth whispering to the sea. His nose twisted slightly.
"'That ain't me,' he said. 'That ain't me.'
"I looked down at him, and knew that he spoke the truth; for already the wonder-child was fading, even had faded. And a little adventurer, a true boy, stood before me, a boy to pull ropes, lend a hand at an oar, whistle in the rigging, gaze with keen dancing eyes through a cold dawn to catch the first sight of a distant land. I looked, understood, didn't care; although the poetry of wonder had faded into the prose of mere desire.
"'It isn't you, Jack?' I answered. 'Well, perhaps not. But it is what you were, what you may be again some day.'
"He shook his head.
"'No, it ain't me. Go on tellin' about them pirits.'
"And, full of gladness, a glory I had never known before, I went on till it was dark. I said good-by to little Jack on the doorstep. When he had gone, I stood for a moment listening to the sound of his footsteps dying away down the road. I did not know that I should never hear them again. For, although I did not want Jack any more as a model, I was resolved not to lose sight of him. To him I owed much. I would pay my debt by making the child's future very different from his past. I had vague thoughts of educating him carefully for some reasonable life. I believe, Uniacke, yes, on my soul, I believe that I had bland visions of the sea-urchin being happy and prosperous on a high stool in an office, at home with ledgers, a contented little clerk, whose horizon was bounded by an A B C shop, and whose summer pastime was fly-killing. My big work finished, a sort of eager idiocy seized me. I was as a man drugged. My faculties must have been besotted, I was in a dream. Three days afterwards I woke from it and learnt that there may be grandeur, yes, grandeur, dramatic in its force, tragic in its height and depth, in a tipsy old woman of Drury Lane."
The painter nodded. All the time he had been talking the wind had steadily increased, and the uproar of the embracing sea had been growing louder. The windows rattled like musketry, the red curtains shook as if in fear. Now there came a knock at the door.
"Come in," said the clergyman.
The maid appeared.
"Do you want anything more to-night, sir?"
"No, thank you, Kate. Good-night."
The door shut.
"Is it late?" said the painter.
"Nearly eleven. That is all."
"Are you tired, Uniacke? perhaps you are accustomed to go to bed early?"
"Not very. Besides to-night the gale would keep me awake; and I want to hear the end of your story."
"Then—Drury Lane invaded me one evening, smelling of gin, with black bonnet cocked over one eye, an impossible umbrella, broken boots, straying hair, a mouth full of objurgation, and oaths, and crying between times, 'Where's Jack? Where's my boy? What 'a yer done with my boy,—yer!' I received Drury Lane with astonishment but, I hope, with courtesy, and explained that my picture was finished, that Jack had left me to go home, that I meant to take care of his future.
"My remarks were received with oaths, and the repeated demand to know where Jack was. 'Isn't he at home?' I asked. 'No, nor he ain't been 'ome.' After a while I gathered that Jack had disappeared in darkness from my house on the night when I put the last touch to my picture, and had not been seen by his mother since. She now began to soften and to cry, and I observed that maternity was in her as well as cheap gin. I endeavoured to comfort her and promised that little Jack should be found.
"'If he ain't found,' she sobbed, 'I'm done for, I am; 'e's my hall.'
"There was something horribly genuine in the sound of this cry. I began to see beyond the gin in which this poor woman was soaked; I began to see her half-drowned soul that yet had life, had breath.
"'We'll find him,' I said.
"'Never, never,' she wailed, rocking her thin body to and fro, 'I know 'e's gone to sea, 'e 'as. Jack's run away fur a sailor.'
"At these words I turned cold, for I felt as if they were true. I saw in a flash the result of my experiment. I had shown the boy the way that led to the great sea. Perhaps that night, even as he left my door, he had seen in fancy the white waves playing before him in the distance, the ships go sailing by. He had heard siren voices calling his youth and he had heeded them. His old mother kept on cursing me at intervals. Instinct, rather than actual knowledge, led her to attribute this disappearance to my initiative. I did not attempt to reason her out of the belief, for alas! I began to hold it myself, Uniacke."
"You thought Jack had run away to sea, prompted by all that you had told him of the sea?"
"Yes. And I think it still."
"Think—then you don't—"
"I don't know it, you'd say? Do I not? Uniacke, a little while ago, when you told me of that—that woman for whom you cared much, you remember my saying to you, was there not something within you that would tell you if she were dead?"
"Yes, I remember."
"That something which makes a man know a thing without what is generally called knowledge of it. Well, that something within me makes me know that little Jack did run away to sea. I searched for him, I strove, as far as one can do such a thing, to sift all the innumerable grains of London through my fingers to find that one little grain I wanted. I spared no pains in my search. Conceive, even, that I escorted Drury Lane in the black bonnet to the Docks, to ships lying in the Thames, to a thousand places! It was all in vain; the wonder-child was swallowed up. I had indeed drowned little Jack in the sea. I have never set eyes on him since he left me on the evening of the day when I completed my picture. Shall I ever set eyes on him again? Shall I, Uniacke? Shall I?"
Sir Graham put this strange question with a sort of morose fierceness, getting up from his chair as he spoke. The young clergyman could think of no reply.
"Why not?" he said at last. "He may be well, happy, active in a life that he loves, that he glories in."
"No, Uniacke, no, for he's far away from his duty. That hideous old woman, in her degradation, in her cruelty, in her drunkenness, loved that boy, loves him still, with an intensity, a passion, a hunger, a feverish anxiety that are noble, that are great. Her hatred of me proves it. I honour her for her hatred. I respect her for it! She shows the beauty of her soul in her curses. She almost teaches me that there is indeed immortality—at least for women—by her sleepless horror of me. Her hatred, I say, is glorious, because her love shines through it. I feed her. She doesn't know it. She'd starve rather than eat my bread. She would kill me, I believe, if she didn't fancy in her vague mind, obscured by drink, that the man who had sent her boy from her might bring him back to her. For weeks she came every day—walking all the way from Drury Lane, mind you—to ask if the boy had returned. Then she endured the nightmare of my company, as I told you, while we searched in likely places for the vanished sea urchin. Jack did nothing for the support of his mother. It was she who kept him. She beat him. She cursed him. She fed him. She loved him; like an animal, perhaps, like a mother, certainly. That says all, Uniacke. It was I who sent that boy away. I must give him back to that old woman. Till I do so I can never find peace. This thing preys upon my life, eats into my heart. It's the little worm gnawing, always gnawing at me. The doctors tell me I am morbid because I am in bad health, that my bad health makes the malady in my mind. On the contrary, it is my mind that makes the malady in my body. Ah! you are wondering! You are wondering, too, whether it's not the other way! I see you are!"
"I cannot deny it," Uniacke said gently.
"You are wrong. You are wrong, I assure you. And surely you, a clergyman, ought to be the very man to understand me, to know how what seems a slight thing, a small selfishness, well, the inadvertence we spoke of lately, may punish the soul, may have a long and evil train of consequences. I was careless of that child, careful only of my ambition. I ground the child in the mortar of my ambition; is it not natural that I should suffer now? Does not your religion tell you that it is right? Answer me that?"
Uniacke hesitated. A conviction had been growing up in him all the evening that his guest was suffering severely under some nervous affliction; one of those obscure diseases which change the whole colour of life to the sufferer, which distort all actions however simple and ordinary, which render diminutive trials monstrous, and small evils immense and ineffably tragic. It seemed to Uniacke to be his duty to combat Sir Graham's increasing melancholy, which actually bordered upon despair. At the same time, the young clergyman could not hide from his mind—a mind flooded with conscience—that the painter was slightly to blame for the action which had been followed by so strange a result.
"I see you hesitate, Uniacke," said Sir Graham. "Ah, you agree with me!"
"No; I think you may have been careless. But you magnify a slight error into a grievous sin; and I do indeed believe that it must be your present bad state of health which acts as the magnifying glass. That is my honest opinion."
"No, no," said the painter, almost with anger, "my illness is all from the mind. If I could find that boy, if I could give him back to his mother, I should recover my peace, I should recover my health—I should no longer be haunted, driven as I am now. But, Uniacke, do you know what it is that I fear most of all, what it is that dogs me, night and day; though I strive to put it from me, to tell myself that it is a chimera?"
"The belief that little Jack is dead; that he has been drowned at sea, perhaps lately, perhaps long ago."
"Why should you think that? You do not even know for certain that he ran away to sea."
"I am sure of it. If he is dead! If he is dead!"
The painter, as if in an access of grief, turned abruptly from the fire, walked over to the window, pulled one of the blowing curtains aside and approached his face to the glass.
"In spite of the storm it is still so light that I can see those graves," he said in a low voice.
"Don't look at them, Sir Graham. Let us talk of other things."
"And—and—yes, Uniacke, that poor, mad Skipper is still out there, lingering among them. He is by the churchyard wall, where you were standing this evening in the twilight: one would say he was watching."
The clergyman had also risen from his seat. He moved a step or two across the little room, then stood still, looking at Sir Graham, who was half concealed by the fluttering curtains.
"He is just where I stood?" Uniacke asked.
"Then he is watching."
"By a grave?"
"Yes. Only one of his crew ever gained the land. He gained it—a corpse. He is buried by that wall. I was reading the inscription upon his tombstone, and wondering—"
"Where he is, how he is now, far away from the voice of the sea which took his life, the wind which roared his requiem."
"Poor man! You were here when he was washed up on the beach?"
"Yes. I buried him. The Skipper—sane then, though in terrible grief—was able to identify him, to follow the drowned body as chief mourner, to choose the inscription for the stone."
"What was it?" asked Sir Graham, without curiosity, idly, almost absently.
"'Lead, kindly light.' He would have that put. I think he had heard the boy sing it, or whistle the tune of it, at sea one day."
"The boy? It was a boy then?"
The clergyman spoke with a certain hesitation, a sudden diffidence. He looked at the painter, and an abrupt awkwardness, almost a shamefacedness, crept into his manner, even showed itself in his attitude. The painter did not seem to be aware of it. He was still engrossed in his own sorrow, his own morbid reflections. He looked out again in the night.
"Poor faithful watch-dog," he murmured.
Then he turned away from the window.
"The Skipper does not wait for that boy," he said. "He knows at least that he can never come to him from the sea."
"Strangely—no. Indeed, he always looks for the boy first."
"First, do you say? Was it so to-night?"
Again Uniacke hesitated. He was on the verge of telling a lie, but conscience intervened.
"Yes," he said.
"Didn't he speak of little Jack?" said Sir Graham slowly, and with a sudden nervous spasm of the face.
"Yes, Sir Graham."
"The same name—my wonder-child's name."
"And the name of a thousand children."
"Of course, of course. And—and, Uniacke, the other name, the other name upon that tomb?"
"What other name?"
"Why—why the surname. What is that?"
The painter was standing close to the clergyman and staring straight into his eyes. For a moment Uniacke made no reply. Then he answered slowly:
"There is no other name."
"Why—the—the Skipper would only have Jack put, that was all. Jack—he was the boy on the schooner 'Flying Fish'—'Lead, kindly light.'"
The exclamation came in a sigh, that might have been a murmur of relief or of disappointment. Then there was a silence. The painter went over again to the fire. Uniacke stood still where he was and looked on the ground. He had told a deliberate lie. It seemed to grow as he thought of it. And why had he told it? A sudden impulse, a sudden fear, had led him into sin. A strange fancy had whispered to him, "What if that boy buried by the wall yonder should be the wonder-child, the ragamuffin who looked at the rainbow, the sea urchin, the spectre haunting your guest?" How unlikely that was! And yet ships go far, and the human fate is often mysteriously sad. It might be that the wonder-child was born to be wrecked, to be cast up, streaming with sea-water on the strand of this lonely isle. It might be that the eyes which worshipped the rainbow were sightless beneath that stone yonder; that the hands which pointed to it were folded in the eternal sleep. And, if so, was not the lie justified? If so, could Peter Uniacke regret it? He saw this man who had come into his lonely life treading along the verge of a world that made him tremble in horror. Dared he lead him across the verge into the darkness? And yet his lie troubled him, and he saw a stain spreading slowly out upon the whiteness of his ardent soul. The painter turned from the fire. His face was haggard and weary.
"I will go to bed," he said. "I must try to get some sleep even in the storm."
He held out his thin hand. Uniacke took it.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night. I am sorry I have troubled you with my foolish history."
"It interested me deeply. By the way—what did you say your wonder-child's name was, his full name?"
"Jack—Jack Pringle. What is it?"
"Nothing. That gust of wind startled me. Good-night."
The painter looked at Uniacke narrowly, then left the room.
The clergyman went over to the fire, leaned his arms on the mantelpiece, and rested his head on them.
Presently he lifted his head, went softly to the door, opened it and listened. He heard the tread of his guest above stairs, moving to and fro about the spare room. He waited. After a while there was silence in the house. Only the wind and the sea roared outside. Then Uniacke went into the kitchen, pulled out a drawer in a dresser that stood by the window, and took from it a chisel and a hammer. He carried them into the passage, furtively put on his coat and hat, and, with all the precaution of a thief, unlocked the front door and stole out into the storm.
In the morning the storm was still fierce. Clouds streamed across a sky that bent lower and lower towards the aspiring sea blanched with foam. There was little light, and the Rectory parlour looked grim and wintry when Sir Graham and Uniacke met there at breakfast time. The clergyman was pale and seemed strangely discomforted and at first unable to be natural. He greeted his guest with a forcible, and yet flickering, note of cheerfulness, abrupt and unsympathetic, as he sat down behind the steaming coffee-pot. The painter scarcely responded. He was still attentive to the storm. He ate very little.
"You slept?" asked Uniacke presently.
"Only for a short time towards dawn. I sat at my window most of the night."
"At your window?" Uniacke said uneasily.
"Yes. Somebody—a man—I suppose it must have been the Skipper—came out from the shadow of this house soon after I went to my bedroom, and stole to that grave by the churchyard wall."
"Really," said Uniacke. "Did he stay there?"
"For some time, bending down. It seemed to me as if he were at some work, some task—or perhaps he was only praying in his mad way, poor fellow!"
"Praying—yes, yes, very likely. A little more coffee?"
"No, thank you. The odd thing was that after a while he ceased and returned to this house. One might have thought it was his home."
"You could not see if it was the Skipper?"
"No, the figure was too vague in the faint stormy light. But it must have been he. Who else would be out at such a time in such a night?"
"He never heeds the weather," said Uniacke.
His pale face had suddenly flushed scarlet, and he felt a pricking as of needles in his body. It seemed to him that he was transparent like a thing of glass, and that his guest must be able to see not merely the trouble of his soul, but the fact that was its cause. And the painter did now begin to observe his host's unusual agitation.
"And you—your night?" he asked.
"I did not sleep at all," said Uniacke quickly, telling the truth with a childish sense of relief, "I was excited."
"Excited!" said Sir Graham.
"The unwonted exercise of conversation. You forget that I am generally a lonely man," said the clergyman, once more drawn into the sin of subterfuge, and scorching in it almost like a soul in hell.
He got up from the breakfast-table, feeling strangely unhappy and weighed down with guilt. Yet, as he looked at the painter's worn face and hollow eyes, his heart murmured, perhaps deceitfully, "You are justified."
"I must go out. I must go into the village," he said.
"In this weather?"
"We islanders think nothing of it. We pursue our business though the heavens crack and the sea touches the clouds."
He went out hurriedly and with the air of a man painfully abashed. Once beyond the churchyard, in the plough-land of the island road, he continued his tormented reverie of the night. Never before had he done evil that good might come. He had never supposed that good could come out of evil, but had deemed the supposition a monstrous and a deadly fallacy, to be combated, to be struck down to the dust. Even now he was chiefly conscious of a mental weakness in himself which had caused him to act as he had acted. He saw himself as one of those puny creatures whose so-called kind hearts lead them into follies, into crimes. Like many young men of virtuous life and ascetic habit, Uniacke was disposed to worship that which was uncompromising in human nature, the slight hardness which sometimes lurks, like a kernel, in the saint. But he was emotional. He was full of pity. He desired to bandage the wounded world, to hush its cries of pain, to rock it to rest, even though he believed that suffering was its desert. And to the individual, more especially, he was very tender. Like a foolish woman, perhaps, he told himself to-day as he walked on heavily in the wild wind, debating his deed of the night and its consequences.
He had erased the name of Pringle from the stone that covered little Jack, the wonder-child. And he felt like a criminal. Yet he dreaded the sequel of a discovery by the painter, that his fears were well founded, that his sea urchin had indeed been claimed by the hunger of the sea. Uniacke had worked in cities and had seen much of sad men. He had learnt to read them truly for the most part, and to foresee clearly in many instances the end of their journeys. And his ministrations had taught him to comprehend the tragedies that arise from the terrible intimacy which exists between the body and its occupant the soul. He could not tell, as a doctor might have been able to tell, whether the morbid condition into which Sir Graham had come was primarily due to ill-health of the mind acting upon the body or the reverse. But he felt nearly sure that if the painter's fears were proved suddenly to him to be well founded, he might not improbably fall into a condition of permanent melancholia, or even of active despair. Despite his apparent hopelessness, he was at present sustained by ignorance of the fate of little Jack. He did not actually know him dead. The knowledge would knock a prop from under him. He would fall into some dreadful abyss. The young clergyman's deceit alone held him back. But it might be discovered at any moment. One of the islanders might chance to observe the defacement of the tomb. A gossiping woman might mention to Sir Graham the name that had vanished. Yet these chances were remote. A drowned stranger boy is naught to such folk as these, bred up in familiarity with violent death. Long ago they had ceased to talk of the schooner "Flying Fish," despite the presence of the mad Skipper, despite the sound of church bells in the night. Fresh joys, or tragedies, absorbed them. For even the island world has its record. Time plants his footsteps upon the loneliest land. And the dwellers note his onward tour.
Uniacke reckoned the chances for and against the discovery of his furtive act of mercy and its revelation to his guest. The latter outnumbered the former. Yet Uniacke walked nervously as one on the verge of disaster. In the Island cottages that morning he bore himself uneasily in the presence of his simple-minded parishioners. Sitting beside an invalid, whose transparent mind was dimly, but with ardent faith, set on Heaven, he felt hideously unfitted to point the way to that place into which no liar shall ever come. He was troubled, and prayed at random for the dying—thinking of the dead. At the same time he felt himself the chief of sinners and knew that there was a devil in him capable of repeating his nocturnal act. Never before had he gathered so vital a knowledge of the complexity of man. He saw the threads of him all ravelled up. When he finished his prayers at the bedside, the invalid watched him with the critical amazement of illness.
He went out trembling and conscience-stricken. When he reached the churchyard on his way homewards, he saw Sir Graham moving among the graves. He had apparently just come out from the Rectory and was making his way to the low stone wall, over which shreds of foam were being blown by the wind. Uniacke hastened his steps, and hailed Sir Graham in a loud and harsh voice. He paused, and shading his eyes with his arched hands, gazed towards the road.
Uniacke hurried through the narrow gate and joined his guest, who looked like a man startled out of some heavy reverie.
"Oh, it is you," he said. "Well, I—"
"You were going to watch the sea, I know. It is worth watching to-day. Come with me. I'll take you to the point—to the nigger."
"The fishermen call the great black rock at the north end of the Island by that name. The sea must be breaking magnificently."
Uniacke took Sir Graham's arm and led him away, compelling him almost as if he were a child. They left the churchyard behind them, and were soon in solitary country alone with the roar of wind and sea. Branching presently from the road they came into a narrow, scarcely perceptible, track, winding downward over short grass drenched with moisture. The dull sheep scattered slowly from them on either side of the way. Presently the grass ceased at the edge of an immense blunt rock, like a disfigured head, that contemplated fixedly the white turmoil of the sea.
"A place for shipwreck," said Sir Graham. "A place of death."
Uniacke nodded. The painter swept an arm towards the sea.
"What a graveyard! One would say the time had come for it to give up its dead and it was passionately fighting against the immutable decree. Is Jack somewhere out there?"
He turned and fixed his eyes upon Uniacke's face. Uniacke's eyes fell.
"Is he?" repeated Sir Graham.
"How can I tell?" exclaimed Uniacke, almost with a sudden anger. "Let us go back."
Towards evening the storm suddenly abated. A pale yellow light broke along the horizon, almost as the primroses break out along the horizon of winter. The thin black spars of a hurrying vessel pointed to the illumination and vanished, leaving the memory of a tortured gesture from some sea-thing. And as the yellow deepened to gold, the Skipper set the church bells ringing. Sir Graham opened the parlour window wide and listened, leaning out towards the graves. Uniacke was behind him in the room. Vapour streamed up from the buffeted earth, which seemed panting for a repose it had no strength to gain. Ding dong! Ding dong! The wild and far-away light grew to flame and faded to darkness. In the darkness the bells seemed clearer, for light deafens the imagination. Uniacke felt a strange irritability coming upon him. He moved uneasily in his chair, watching the motionless, stretched figure of his guest. Presently he said:
There was no reply.
He got up, crossed the little room and touched the shoulder of the dreamer. Sir Graham started sharply and turned a frowning face.
"What is it?"
"The atmosphere is very cold and damp after the storm."
"You wish me to shut the window? I beg your pardon."
He drew in and shut it, then moved to the door.
"You are going out?" said Uniacke uneasily.
"I—I would not speak to the Skipper, if I were you. He is happier when he is let quite alone."
"I want to see him. I want him to sit for me."
"To sit!" Uniacke repeated, with an accent almost of horror.
"Yes," said Sir Graham doggedly. "I have a great picture in my mind."
"The Skipper's meeting with his drowned comrades, in that belfry tower. He will stand with the ropes dropping from his hands, triumph in his eyes. They will be seen coming up out of the darkness, grey men and dripping from the sea, with dead eyes and hanging lips. And first among them will be my wonder-child, on whom will fall a ray of light from a wild moon, half seen through the narrow slit of the deep-set window."
"What do you say?"
"Your wonder-child must not be there. Why should he? He is alive."
"You think so?"
Uniacke made no reply.
"I say, do you think so?"
"How can I know? It is impossible. But—yes, I think so."
The clergyman turned away. A sickness of the conscience overtook him like physical pain. Sir Graham was by the door with his hand upon it.
"And yet," he said, "you do not believe in intuitions. Nothing tells you whether that woman you loved is dead or living. You said that."
"Then what should tell you whether Jack is dead or living?"
He turned and went out. Presently Uniacke saw his dark figure pass, like a shadow, across the square of the window. The night grew more quiet by slow degrees. The hush after the storm increased. And to the young clergyman's unquiet nerves it seemed like a crescendo in music instead of like a diminuendo, as sometimes seems the falling to sleep of a man to a man who cannot sleep. The noise of the storm had been softer than the sound of this increasing silence in which the church bells presently died away. Uniacke was consumed by an apprehension that was almost like the keen tooth of jealousy. For he knew that the Skipper had ceased from his patient task and Sir Graham did not return. He imagined a colloquy. But the Skipper's madness would preserve the secret which he no longer knew, and, therefore, could not reveal. He made the bells call Jack Pringle. He would never point to the defaced grave and say, "Jack Pringle lies beneath this stone." And yet sanity might, perhaps, return, a rush of knowledge of the past and recognition of its tragedy.
Uniacke took his hat and went to the door. He stood out on the step. Sea-birds were crying. The sound of the sea withdrew moment by moment, as if it were stealing furtively away. Behind, in the rectory passage, the servant clattered as she brought in the supper.
"Sir Graham!" Uniacke called suddenly. "Sir Graham!"
The voice came from somewhere in the shadow of the church.
"Will you not come in? Supper is ready."
In a moment the painter came out of the gloom.
"That churchyard draws me," he said, mounting the step.
"You saw the Skipper?"
"Did he speak to you?"
"Not a word."
The clergyman breathed a sigh of relief.
In the evening Uniacke turned his pipe two or three times in his fingers and said, looking down:
"That picture of yours—"
"Yes. What of it?"
"You will paint it in London, I suppose?"
"How can I do that? The imagination of it came to me here, is sustained and quickened by these surroundings."
"You mean to paint it here?" the clergyman faltered.
Sir Graham was evidently struck by his host's air of painful discomfiture.
"I beg your pardon," he said hastily. "Of course I do not mean to inflict myself upon your kind hospitality while I am working. I shall return to the inn."
Uniacke flushed red at being so misunderstood.
"I cannot let you do that. No, no! Honestly, my question was only prompted by—by—a thought—"
"Do not think me impertinent. But, really, a regard for you has grown up in me since you have allowed me to know you—a great regard indeed."
"Thank you, thank you, Uniacke," said the painter, obviously moved.
"And it has struck me that in your present condition of health, and seeing that your mind is pursued by these—these melancholy sea thoughts and imaginings, it might be safer, better for you to be in a place less desolate, less preyed upon by the sea. That is all. Believe me, that is all."
He spoke the last words with the peculiar insistence and almost declamatory fervour of the liar. But he was now embarked upon deceit and must crowd all sail. And with the utterance of his lie he took an abrupt resolution.
"Let us go away together somewhere," he exclaimed, with a brightening face. "I need a holiday. I will get a brother clergyman to come over from the mainland and take my services. You asked me some day to return your visit. I accept your invitation here and now. Let me come with you to London."
Sir Graham shook his head.
"You put me in the position of an inhospitable man," he said. "In the future you must come to me. I look forward to that. I depend upon it. But I cannot go to London at present. My house, my studio are become loathsome to me. The very street in which I live echoes with childish footsteps. I cannot be there."
"Sir Graham, you must learn to look upon your past act in a different light. If you do not, your power of usefulness in the world will be crushed."
The clergyman spoke with an intense earnestness. His sense of his own increasing unworthiness, the fighting sense of the necessity laid upon him to be unworthy for this sick man's sake, tormented him, set his heart in a sea of trouble. He strove to escape out of it by mental exertion. His eyes shone with unnatural fervour as he went on:
"When you first told me your story, I thought this thing weighed upon you unnecessarily. Now I see more and more clearly that your unnatural misery over a very natural act springs from ill-health. It is your body which you confuse with your conscience. Your remorse is a disease removable by medicine, by a particular kind of air or scene, by waters even it may be, or by hard exercise, or by a voyage."
"A voyage!" cried Sir Graham bitterly.
"Well, well—by such means, I would say, as come to a doctor's mind. You labour under the yoke of the body."
"Do you think that whenever your conscience says, 'You have done wrong'? Tell me!"
Uniacke, who had got up in his excitement, recoiled at these words which struck him hard.
"I—I!" he almost stammered. "What have I got to do with it?"
"I ask you to judge yourself, to put yourself in my place. That is all. Do you tell me that all workings of conscience are due to obscure bodily causes?"
"How could I? No, but yours—"
"Are not. They hurt my body. They do not come from my body's hurt. And they increase upon me in this place, yes, they increase upon me."
"I knew it," cried Uniacke.
"Why is that?" said Sir Graham, with a melancholy accent. "I feel, I begin to feel that there must be some powerful reason—yes, in this island."
"There cannot be. Leave it! Leave it!"
"I am held here."
"Something intangible, invisible—"
"All-powerful. I cannot go. If I would go, I cannot. Perhaps—perhaps Jack is coming here."
The painter's eyes were blazing. Uniacke felt himself turn cold.
"Jack coming here!" he said harshly. "Nonsense, Sir Graham. Nobody ever comes here."
"Dead bodies come on the breast of the sea."
The painter looked towards the window, putting himself into an attitude of horrible expectation.
"Is it not so?" he asked, in a voice that quivered slightly as if with an agitation he was trying to suppress.
Uniacke made no reply. He was seized with a horror he had not known before. He recognised that the island influence mysteriously held his guest. After an interval he said abruptly:
"What is your doctor's name, did you say?"
"Did I ever say whom I had consulted?" said Sir Graham, almost with an invalid's ready suspicion, and peering at the clergyman under his thick eyebrows.
"Surely. But I forget things so easily," said Uniacke calmly.
"Braybrooke is the man—Cavendish Square. An interesting fellow. You may have heard of his book on the use of colour as a sort of physic in certain forms of illness."
"I have. What sort of man is he?"
"Very small, very grey, very indecisive in manner."
"In manner. In reality a man of infinite conviction."
"May I ask if you told him your story?"
"The story of my body—naturally. One goes to a doctor to do that."
"And did that narrative satisfy him?"
"Not at all. Not a bit."
"I did not tell him my mental story. I explained to him that I suffered greatly from melancholy. That was all. I called it unreasoning melancholy. Why not? I knew he could do no more than put my body a little straight. He did his best."
"I see," said Uniacke, slowly.
That night, after Sir Graham had gone to bed, Uniacke came to a resolution. He decided to write to Doctor Braybrooke, betray, for his guest's sake, his guest's confidence, and ask the great man's advice in the matter, revealing to him the strange fact that fate had led the painter of the sea urchin to the very edge of the grave in which he slept so quietly. No longer did Uniacke hesitate, or pause to ask himself why he permitted the sorrow of a stranger thus to control, to upset, his life. And, indeed, is the man who tells us his sorrow a stranger to us? Uniacke's creed taught him to be unselfish, taught him to concern himself in the afflictions of others. Already he had sinned, he had lied for this stricken man. He, a clergyman, had gone out in the night and had defaced a grave. All this lay heavy on his heart. His conscience smote him. And yet, when he saw before him in the night the vision of this tortured man, he knew that he would repeat his sin if necessary.
The next day was Sunday. He sat down and tried to think of the two sermons he had to preach. The sea lay very still on the Sabbath morning, still under a smooth and pathetic grey sky. The atmosphere seemed that of a winter fairyland. All the sea-birds were in hiding. Small waves licked the land like furtive tongues seeking some dainty food with sly desire. Across the short sea-grass the island children wound from school to church, and the island lads gathered in knots to say nothing. The whistling of a naughty fisherman attending to his nets unsabbatically pierced the still and magically cruel air with a painful sharpness. People walked in silence without knowing why they did not care to speak. And even the girls, discreet in ribbons and shining boots, thought less of kisses than they generally did on Sunday. The older people, sober by temperament, became sombre under the influence of sad, breathless sky, and breathless waters. The coldness that lay in the bosom of nature soon found its way to the responsive bosom of humanity. It chilled Uniacke in the pulpit, Sir Graham in the pew below. The one preached without heart. The other listened without emotion. All this was in the morning. But at evening nature stirred in her repose and turned, with the abruptness of a born coquette, to pageantry. A light wind got up. The waves were curved and threw up thin showers of ivory spray playfully along the rocks. The sense of fairyland, wrapped in ethereal silences, quivered and broke like disturbed water. And the grey womb of the sky swelled in the west to give up a sunset that became tragic in its crescendo of glory. Bursting forth in flame—a narrow line of fire along the sea—it pushed its way slowly up the sky. Against the tattered clouds a hidden host thrust forth their spears of gold. And a wild-rose colour descended upon the gentle sea and floated to the island, bathing the rocks, the grim and weather-beaten houses, the stones of the churchyard, with a radiance so delicate, and yet so elfish, that enchantment walked there till the night came down, and in the darkness the islanders moved on their way to church. The pageant was over. But it had stirred two imaginations. It blazed yet in two hearts. The shock of its coming, after long hours of storm, had stirred Uniacke and his guest strangely. And the former, leaving in the rectory parlour the sermon he had composed, preached extempore on the text, "In the evening there shall be light."