[from Hall Caine The Deemster]
THE wind strengthened, and the men hoisted sail and began to beat in to the island. The breeze filled the canvas, and for half-an-hour the jib lay over the side, while the fishingboat scudded along like a startled bird. The sun rose over the land, a thin gauze obscuring it. The red light flashed and died away and fanned the air as if the wind itself were the sunshine. The men's haggard faces caught at moments a lurid glow from it. In the west a mass of bluish cloud rested a little while on the horizon, and then passed into a nimbus of grey rain-c, loud that floated above it. Such was the dawn and sunrise of a fateful day.
Dan stood at the helm. When the speck that had glided along the waters like a spectre boat could be no more seen, he gazed in silence towards the eastern light and the green shores of morning. Then he had a sweet half-hour's blessed respite from terrible thoughts. He saw calmly what he, had done, and in what a temper of blind passion he had done it. "Surely, God is merciful," he thought, and his mind turned to Mona. It relieved him'to think of her. She intertwined herself with his yearning hope of pardon and peace. She became part of his scheme of penitence. His love for her was to redeem him in the Father's eye.
The crew had now recovered from their first consternation, and were no longer obeying Dan's orders mechanically. They had come aboard with no clear purpose before them, except that of saving their friend; but nature is nature, and a pitiful thing at the best, and
now every man began to be mainly concerned about saving himself. One after one they slunk away forward and sat on the thwart, and there they took counsel together. The wind was full on,their starboard beam, the mainsail and yawl were bellied out, and the boat was driving straight for home. But through the men's half-bewildered heads there ran like a cold blast of wind the thought that home could be home no longer. The voices of girls, the prattle of children, the welcome of wife, the glowing hearth-these could be theirs no more. Davy Fayle stayed aft with Dan, but the men fetched him forward and began to question him.
"'Tarprit all this mysterious trouble to us," they said. ,
Davy held down his head and made no answer.
"You were with him-what's it he's afther doin' ? "
Still no answer from the lad.
"Out with it, you cursed young imp," said old Billy. "Damn his fool's face, why doesn't he spake ? "
" It's the mastha's saycret, and I wunnit tell it," said Davy.
"You wunnit, you idiot waistrel ? " "No, I wunnit," said Davy stoutly.
"Look here, ye beachcomber, snappin' yer fingers at your old uncle that's afther bringin' you up, you pauper-what was it goin' doin' in the shed yander ? "
"It's his saycret," repeated Davy.
Old Billy took Davy by the neck as if he had been 'a sack with an open mouth, and brought down his other hand with a heavy slap on the lad's shoulder.
" Gerr out, you young devil," he said.
Davy took the blow quietly, but he stirred not an inch, and he turned on his uncle with great wide eyes.'
" Gerr out, scollop eyes; " and old Billy lifted his hand again.
"Aisy, aisy," said Crennell, interposing; and then, while Davy went back aft, the men compared notes again.
"It's plain to see," said Ned Teare, "it's been a quarrel, and maybe a fight, and he's had a piece more than the better, as is only natheral, and him a big strapping chap as strong as a black ox and as straight as the backbone of a herring, and he's been in hidlins, and now he's afther ;;akin' a second thought, and goin' back and chance it."
This reading of the mystery commended itself to all.
"It's aisy for him to lay high like that," said Ned again. '° If I was the old Bishop's son I'd hould my luff too, and no hidlins neither. But we've got ourselves in for it, so we have, and we're the common sort, so we are, and there's never no sailin' close to the wind for the like of us."
And to this view of the situation there were many gruff assents. They had come out to sea innocently enough and by a kindly impulse, but they had thereby cast in their lot with the guilty man; and the guilty man bad favour in high places, but they had none. Then their tousled heads went togather, again.
What for shouldn't we lay high, too?," wbispered one; which, with other whisper, was as much as to say, why should they not take the high band and mutiny, and put Dan into irons, and turn the boat's head and stand out to sea? Then it would be anywhere, anywhere, away from the crime of one and the guilt of all.
°°Hould hard," said old Billy Quilleash, '"I'll spake to himself."
Dan, at the tiller, had seen when the men went forward, and he had also seen when some of them cast sidelong looks over their shoulders in his direction. He knew-he' thought he knew-the thought wherewith their brave hearts were busy. They were thinking-so thought Dan-that if he meant to throw himself away they must prevent him. But they should see that he could make atonement. Atonement? Empty solace, pitiful unction for a soul in its abasement, but all that remained to him-all, all.
Old Quilleash went aft, sidled up to the helm, and began to speak in a stammering way, splicing a bit of rope while he spoke, and never lifting his eyes to Dan's face.
"What for shouldn't we gerr away to Shetlands?" he said.'
"Why to Shetlands?" asked Dan.
"Aw, it's safe and well we'll be when we're there. Aw, yes, I've been there afore to-day. They're all poor men there, but right kind; and what's it sayin', `When one poor man helps another poor man, God laughs."'
Dan, thought he saw into the heart of the old fellow. His throat grew hard and his eyes dim, and he twisted his face away, keeping one hand on the tiller. They should yet be justified of their loyalty, these stout sea-dogs -yes, God helping him.
"No, no, Billy," he said, "there's to be no running away. We're going back to see it out."
At that old Quilleash threw off some of his reserve.
"Mastha Dan," he said, "we came out to sea just to help you out of this jeel, and because we've shared work, shared meat with you, and a frien' should stand to a frien' ; but now we're in for it too, so we are, and what you'll have to stand to we'll have to stand to, and it'll be unknownst to the law as we are innocent as kittens; and so it's every man for himself and God for us all."
Then Dan understood them-how bad he been blind so long to their position?
" You want me to put about ; is that it?" he asked.
Old Quilleash nodded his head, still keeping his eyes down.
" You think you'll be taken with me ? "
Old Quilleash made an abashed mutter of assent. "Aw, yes, as 'cessories before the faces," he added.
At that Dan's great purpose began- to waver.
"Don't fear, Billy," he said; "I'll speak up for you."
"And what'll that go for? Nothin'. Haven't we been tryin' to put it away?"
It was a fearful situation. The cold sweat rose in big, beads on Dan's forehead. What had he done? He had allowed these brave fellows to cast in their lot with him. They were with him now for good or ill. He might say they were innocent, but what would his word avail? And be had no proof. They had tried to cover up his crime; they could not cover it; God bad willed that the crime
should not be hidden. And now, if he wished to lose his life to save his soul, what right had he to take the lives of these men also? The brave fellows had wives that waited for them, and children that claimed their knees. Atonement ? Empty heroics, to be bought at the price of the blood of five loyal fellows whose only crime was that they had followed him. He had dressed himself in a proud armour of self-sacrifice, but a righteous God, that sees into the heart of man and hates pride and brings it to the dust, had stripped him naked.
Dan's soul was in a turmoil. What should be do? On the one hand were love, honour, Mona, even everlasting life, and on the other were five innocent men. The agony of that moment was terrible. Atonement? God must have set His face against it.
Dan's band rested on the tiller, but there was no strength in his arm, because there was now no resolve in his heart. The fishingboat was about three miles west of Jurby Point, going well before the wind. In half. an-hour more it would run into the creek. It was now to act or never. What was he to do ? What ? What?
It was then, in that moment of awful doubt, when the will of a strong man might have shrivelled up, that nature herself seemed to give the answer.
All at once the wind fell again to a dead calm. Then Dan knew, or seemed to know, that God was with the men, and againsthim. There was to be no atonement. No, there was to be no proud self-sacrifice.
Dan's listless hand dropped from the tiller, and he flung himself down in his old seat by the hatches. The men looked into each other's faces and smiled a grisly smile. The sails flapped idly ; the men furled them, and the boat drifted south.
The set of the tide was still to ebb, and every boat's length, south took the boat a fathom farther out to sea. This was what the men, wanted, and they gathered in the cockpit, and gave way to more cheerful spirits.
Dan lay by the hatches, helpless and hopeless, and more haggard and pale than before. An unearthly light now fired his eyes, and that was the first word of a fearful tale. A witch's Sabbath, a devil's revelry, had begun in his distracted brain. It was as though he were already a being of another world. In a state of wild hallucination he saw his own spectre, and he was dead. He lay on the deck; he was cold; his face was white, and it stared straight up at the sky. The crew were busy about him; they were bringing up the canvas and the weights. He knew what they were going to do; they were going to bury him in the sea..
Then a film overspread his sight, and when he awoke he knew that he had slept. He had seen his father and Mona in a dream. His father was very old; the white head was bent, and the calm, saintly gaze was fixed upon him. There was a happy thought in Mona's face. Everything around her spoke of peace. The dream was fresh, and sweet, and peaceful to Dan when he woke where he lay on the deck. It was like the sunshine, and the carolling of birds, and the smell of new-cut grass. Was there no dew in heaven for parched lips, no balm for the soul of a man accursed ?
Hours went by. The day wore cn. A passing breath sometimes stirred the waters, and again all was dumb, dead, pulseless peace. Hearing only the faint flap of the rippling tide, they drifted, drifted, drifted.
Curious and very touching were the changes that came over the feelings of the men. They had rejoiced when they were first becalmed, but now another sense was uppermost. The day was cold to starvation. Death was before them-slow, sure, relentless death. There could be no jugglery. Then let it be death at home rather than death on this desert sea ! Anything, anything but this blind end, this dumb end, this dying bit by bit on still waters. To see the darkness come again, and the sun rise afresh, and once more the sun sink and the darkness deepen, and still to lie there with nothing around but the changeless sea, and nothing above but the empty sky, and only the eye of God upon them, while the winds and the waters lay in His avenging hands-let it rather be death, swift death, just or unjust.
Thus despair took hold of them, and drove away all fear, and where there is no fear there is no grace.
" ° Share yn elk shione dooin na yn elk nagh nhione dooi;a," said old Billy, and that was the old Manx proverb that says that better is the evil we know than the evil we do not know.
And with such shifts they deceived themselves, and changed their poor purposes, and comforted their torn hearts.
The cold, thick, winter day was worn far towards sunset, and still not a breath of wind was stirring. Gilded by the sun's hazy rays, the waters to the west made a floor of bleared red. The fishing-boat had drifted nearly ten miles to the south. If she should drift two miles more she must float into the southeastern current that flows under Contrary Head. At the thought of that, and the bare chance of drifting into Peeltown Harbour, a little of the vague sense of the hopelessness seemed to lift away. The men glanced across at Dan, and one murmured, "Let every her ring hang by its own gill; " and another muttered, "Every man to the mill with his own sack."
Davy Fayle lay on the deck a few paces from Dan. The simple lad tried to recall the good words that he had heard in the course of his poor, neglected, battered life. One after one they came back to him, most of them from some far-away dreamland, strangely bright with the vision of a face that looked fondly upon him, and even kissed him tenderly. "Gentle Jesus," and, "Now I lay me down to sleep"-he could remember them both pretty well, and their simple words went up with the supplicatory ardour of his great. grown heart to the sky on which his eyes were bent.
The men lounged about and were half frozen. No one cared to go below. None thought of a fire. Silence and death were in their midst. Once again their hearts turned to home, and now with other feelings. They could see the island through the haze, and a sprinkling of snow dotted its purple hills. This brought to mind the bright days of summer, and out of their hopelessness they talked of the woods, and the birds, and the flowers. "D'ye mind my ould mother's bit of a place up the glen," said Crennell, " an' the wee croft afore it swaying and a-flowing same as the sea in the softest taste of a south breeze, and the red ling like a rod of goold running up the hedge, and the fuchsia stretchin' up the wall of the loft, and dropping its red wrack like blood, and the green trainmen atop of the porch-d'ye mind it?" And the men said "Ay," and brushed their eyes with their sleeves. Each hard man, with despair seated on his rugged face, longed, like a sick child, to lay his head in the lap of home.
It was Christmas Day. Old Quilleash remembered this, and they talked of Christmas Days gone by, and what happy times they had been. Billy began to tell a humorous story of the two deaf men, Hominy-beg, the gardener, and Jemmy Quirk, the schoolmaster, singing against each other at Oiel Verree ; and the old fellow's discoloured teetb, with their many gaps between, grinned horribly like an ape's between his frozen jaws when he laughed so hard. But this was too tender a chord, and soon the men were silent once more. Then, while the waters lay cold and clear and still, and the sun was sinking in the west, there came floating to them from the land, through the breathless air, the sound of the church bells ringing at home.
It was the last drop in their cup. The poor fellows could bear up no longer. More than one dropped his head to his knees and sobbed aloud. Then old Quilleash, in a husky voice, and coarsely, almost swearing as be spoke, just to hide his shame in a way, said, spitting from his quid, " Some chap pray a spell." "Ay, ay," said another. "Aw, yes," said a third. But no one prayed. "You, Billy," said Ned Teare. Billy shook his head. The old man had never known a prayer. "It was Pazon Ewan that was powerful at prayer," said Crennell. " You, Crennell." Crennell could not pray.
All lay quiet as death around them, and only the faint sound of the bells was borne to them as a mellow whisper. Then, from near where Dan sat by the hatches, Davy Fayle rose silently to his feet. None had thought of him. With his sad longing in his big, simple eyes, he began to sing. This was what he sang:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending, Once for favoured sinners slain.
The lad's voice, laden with tears, floated away over the great waters. The men hung their heads, and were mute. The dried-up well of Dan's eyes moistened at last, and down his hard face ran the glistening tears in gracious drops like dew.