[from Hall Caine The Deemster]

CHAPTER XXVIII

THE CHILD GHOST IN THE HOUSE

AFTER the coroner, Quayle the Gyke, had gone through one part of his dual functions at Ballamona, and thereby discovered that the body of Ewan had been wrapped in a sail-cloth of the Ben-my-Chree, he set out on the other part of his duty, to find the berth of the fishing-boat, and, if need be, to arrest the crew. He was in the act of leaving Ballamona when, at the gate of the high-road, he came upon the women and children of the families of the crew he was in search of, and there, at the moment when the Bishop arrived for the funeral, he heard that the men had been at sea since the middle of the previous day. Confirmed in his suspicions, but concealing them, he returned to the village with the terrified women, and on the way he made his own sinister efforts to comfort them when they mourned as if their husbands had been lost. " Aw, no, no, no, never fear; we'll see them again soon enough, I'll go bail," he said, and in their guileless blindness the women were nothing loath to take cheer from the fellow's dubious smile.

His confidence was not misplaced, for hardly had he got back to the village, and stepped into the houses one after one, making his own covert investigations while he sandwiched his shrewd questions with solace, when the fishermen themselves, old Quilleash, Crennell, Teare, and Corkell, and the lad Davy Fayle, came tramping up the street. Then there was wild joy among the children, who clung to the men's legs, and some sharp nagging among the women, who were by wifely duty bound to conceal their satisfaction under a proper appearance of wrath. "And what for had they been away all night? " and " Didn't they take shame at treating a woman like dirt?" and "Just like a man, just, not caring a ha'p'ortb, and a woman up all night, and taking notions about drowning, and more fool for it."

And when at length there came a cessation of such questions, and the fishermen sat down with an awkward silence, or grunted something in an evasive way about " Women preaching mortal," and "Never no reason in them," then the coroner began his more searching inquiries. When did they run in with the cod and ling that was found lying in the tent ? Was there a real good "strike" on that they went out again at half-flood last night? Doing much outside? No? He wouldn't trust but they were lying off the Mooragh, eh? Yes, you say? Coorse, coorse. And good ground, too. And where was the capt'n? Out with them ? He thought so.

Everything the coroner asked save the one thing on which his mind was set, but at mention of the Mooragh the women forgot their own trouble in the greater trouble that was over the parish, and blurted out with many an expletive the story of the coming to shore of the body of Ewan. And hadn't they heard the jeel ? Aw, shocking, shocking ! And the young pazon had sailed in their boat, so. he had ! Aw, ter'ble, ter'ble !

The coroner kept his eyes fixed on the men's faces, and marked their confusion with con. tent. They on their part tried all their powers of dissembling. First came a fine show of ferocity. Where were their priddhas and herrings? Bad sess to the women, the idle craythurs, did they think a man didn't want never a taste of nothin' comin' in off the say, afther workin' for them day and night same as haythen naygroes, and no thanks for it ?

It would not do, and the men themselves were the first to be conscious that they could not strike fire. One after another slunk out of his house until they were all five on the street in a group, holding their heads together and muttering. And when at length the coroner came out of old Quilleash's house, and leaned against the trammon at the porch, and looked towards them in the darkness, but said not a word, their self-possession left them on the instant, and straightway they took to their heels.

"Let's away at a slant over the Head and give warning to Mastha Dan," they whispered-; and this was the excuse they made to themselves for their flight, just to preserve a little ray of self-respect.

But the coroner understood them, and he set his face back towards the churchyard, knowing that the Deemster would be there by that time.

The Bishop had gone through the ceremony at the graveside with composure, though his voice when he spoke was full of tears, and the hair of his uncovered head seemed to have passed from iron-grey to white. His grand calm face was steadfast, and his .prayer was of faith and hope. Only beneath this white quiet as of a glacier the red riot of a great sorrow was rife within him.

It was then for the first time in its fulness that-undisturbed in that solemn hour by coarser fears-he realised the depth of his grief for the loss of Ewan. That saintly soul came back to his memory, in its beauty and tenderness alone, and its heat and uncontrollable unreason were forgotten. When he touched on the mystery of Ewan's death, his large wan face quivered slightly and he; paused; but when he spoke of the hope of an everlasting reunion, and how all that was dark would be made plain and the Judge of all the earth would do right, his voice grew, bold as with a surety of a brave resignation.

The Deemster listened to the short night, service with alternate restlessness-tramping to and fro by the side of the. grave-and cold self-possession, and with a constant hardness and bitterness of mind, breaking out sometimes into a light trill of laughter, or again into a hoarse gurgle, as if in scorn of the Bishop's misplaced confidence. But the crowds that were gathered around held their breath in awe of the mystery, and when they sang it was with such an expression of emotion and fear that no man knew the sound of his own voice.

More than once the Deemster stopped in his uneasy perambulations, and cried ` What's that ? " as if arrested by sounds that did not break on the ears of others. But nothing occurred to disturb the ceremony until it had reached the point of its close, and while the Bishop was pronouncing a benediction the company was suddenly thrown into a great tumult.

It was then that the coroner arrived, panting after a long run. He pushed his way through the crowd, and burst in at the graveside between the Bishop and the Deemster.

" They've come ashore," he said eagerly ; ` the boat's in barbour and the men are here."

Twenty voices at once cried "Who?" but the Deemster asked no explanation. " Take them," he said, " arrest them ; " and his voice was a bitter laugh, and his face in the light of the torches was full of malice and uncharity.

Jarvis Kerruish stepped out. "Where are they?" he asked.

"They've run across the Head in the line of the Cross Vein," the coroner answered; but six of us will follow them."

And without more ado he twisted about and impressed the five men nearest to him into service as constables.

"How many of them are there ? " said Jarvis Kerruish.

"Five, sir," said the coroner, "Quilleash, Teare, Corkell, Crennell, and the lad Davy." "Then is he not with them?" cried the Deemster, in a tone that went to the Bishop's heart like iron.

The coroner glanced uneasily at the Bishop, and said, "He was with them, and he is still somewhere about."

" Then away with you ; arrest them, quick," the Deemster cried in another tone.

" But what of the warrant, sir ? " said the coroner.

"Simpleton! are you waiting for that?" the Deemster shouted with a contemptuous sweep of the hand. "Where have you been, that you don't know that your own warrant is enough? Arrest the scoundrels, and you shall have warrant enough when you come back."

But as the six men were pushing their way through the people, and leaping the cobble wall of the churchyard, the Deemster picked from the ground a piece of slate-stone that had come up from the vault, and scraped his initials upon it with a pebble.

"Take this token, and go after them," he said to Jarvis Kerruish, and-instantly Jarvis was following the coroner and his constables with the Deemster's legal warranty for their proceedings.

It was the work of a moment, and the crowd that had stood with drooping heads about the Bishop had now broken up in confusion. The Bishop himself had not spoken ; a shade of bodily pain had passed over his pale face, and a cold damp had started from his forehead. But hardly had the coroner gone, or the people recovered from their bewilderment, when the Bishop lifted one hand to bespeak silence, and then said, in a tone impossible to describe

"Can any man say of his own knowledge that my son was on the Ben-my-Chree last night?"

The Deemster snorted contemptuously, but none made answer to the Bishop's question. At that moment there came the sound of a horse's hoofs on the road, and immediately the old archdeacon drew up. He had been preaching the Christmas sermons at Peeltown that day, and there he had heard of the death of his grandson, and of the suspicions that were in the air concerning it. The dour spirit of the disappointed man had never gone out with too much warmth to the Bishop, but had always been ready enough to cast con. tempt on the "moonstruck ways" of the man who had "usurped" his own place of pre. ferment; and now, without contrition or pity, he was ready to strike his blow at the stricken man.

" I hear that the Ben-my-Chree has put into Peel harbour," he said, and as he spoke he leaned across his saddle-bow, with his russet face towards where the Bishop stood.

"Well, well, well?" cried the Deemster, rapping out at the same time his oaths of impatience as fast as a hen might have pecked.

"And that the crew are not likely to show their faces soon," the archdeacon con. tinued.

" Then you're wrong," said the Deemster im. periously, " for they've done as much already. But what about their owner? Was he with them? Have you seen him? Quick, let us hear what you have to say."

The archdeacon did not shift his gaze from the Bishop's face, but he answered the Deemster nevertheless.

" Their owner was with them," he said, "and woe be to him. I had as lief that a millstone were hung about my neck as that I stood before God as the father of that man."

And with such charity of comfort the old archdeacon alighted and walked away with the Deemster at the horse's head. The good man had preached with unwonted fervour that day from the Scripture which says, " With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

In another instant the Bishop was no longer the same man. Conviction of Dan's guilt had taken hold of him. Thus far he had borne up against all evil shows, by the strength of his great faith in his Maker to bring out all things well. But at length that faith was shattered. When the Deemster and the archdeacon went away together, leaving him in the midst of the people, he stood there, while all eyes were upon him, with the stupid bewildered look of one who has been dealt an unexpected and dreadful blow. The world itself was crumbling under him. At that first instant there was something like a ghastly smile playing over his pale face. Then the truth came rolling over him. The sight was terrible to look upon. He tottered backwards with a low moan. When his faith went down his manhood went down with it.

" Oh, my on, my son !" he cried again, "how have you shortened my days ! How have you clothed me with shame ! Oh, my son, my son !"

But love-was uppermost even in that bitter hour, and the good God sent the stricken man the gift of tears.

" He is dead, he is dead I " he cried; "now is my heart smitten and withered like grass. Ewan is dead. My son is dead. Can it be true ? Yes, dead and worse than dead. Lord, Lord, now let me eat ashes for bread and mingle my drink with weeping."

And so he poured out his broken spirit in a torrent of wild laments. The disgrace that had bent his head heretofore was but a dream to this deadly reality.

" Oh, my son, my son! Would God I had died before I saw this day ! "

The people stood by while the unassuageable grief shook the Bishop to the soul. Then one of them-it was Thormod Mylechreest, the bastard son of the rich man who had left his offspring to public charity-took the old man by the hand, and the crowd parted for them. Together they passed out of the churchyard, and out of the hard glare of the torchlight, and set off for Bishop's Court. It was a pitiful thing to see. How the old father, stricken into age by sorrow rather than years, tottered feebly on the way. How tow his white head was bent, as if the darkness itself bad eyes to peer into his darkened soul.

And yet more pitiful was it to see how the old man's broken spirit, reft of its great bulwark, which lay beneath it like an idol that was broken, did yet struggle with a vain effort to glean comfort from its fallen faith. But every stray text that rose to his heart seemed to wound it afresh.

"As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are children of the youth. . . They shall not be ashamed. . . Oh, Absalom, my son, my son ! . . For thy sake I have borne reproach; shame hath covered my face. . . I am poor and needy; make haste unto me, O God. . . Hide not Thy face from Thy servant, for I am in trouble. . . . O God, Thou knowest my foolishness. . . . And Eli said, It is the Lord, let Him do as seemeth Him good. . . The waters have overwhelmed me, the streams have gone over my sold; the proud waters have gone over my soul."

Thus tottering feebly at the side of Mylechreest and leaning on his arm, the Bishop went his way, and thus the poor dead soul of the man, whose faith was gone, poured forth its barren grief. The way was long, but they reached Bishop's Court at last, and at sight of it a sudden change seemed to come over the Bishop. He stopped and turned to Mylechreest, and said with a strange resignation

"I will be quiet. Ewan is dead, and Dan is dead. Surely I shall quiet myself as a child that is weaned of its mother. Yes, my soul is even as a weaned child."

And, with the simple calmness of a little child, he held out his hand to Mylechreest to bid him farewell, and when Mylechreest, with swimming eyes and a throat too full for speech, bent over the old man's hand and put his lips to it, the Bishop placed the other hand on his head, as if he had asked for a blessing, and blessed him.

"Good-night, my son," he said simply, but Mylechreest could answer nothing.

The Bishop was turning into his house when the memory that had gone from him for one instant of blessed respite returned, and his sorrow bled afresh, and he cried piteously. The inanimate old place was in a moment full of spectres. For that night Bishop's Court had gone back ten full years, and if it was not now musical with children's voices, the spirit of one happy boy still lived in it.

Passing his people in the hall and on the stairs, where, tortured by suspense, bewildered, distracted, they put their doubts and rumours together, the Bishop went up to the little room above the library that had once been little Danny's room. The door was locked, but the key was where it had been for many a daythough Dan in his headstrong waywardness had known nothing of that-it was in the Bishop's pocket. Inside the room the muggy odour was of a chamber long shut up. The little bed was still in the corner, and its quilted counterpane lay thick in dust. Dust covered the walls, and the floor also, and the table under the window was heavy with it. Shutting himself in this dusty crib, the Bishop drew from under the bed a glass-covered case, and opened it, and lifted out one by one the things it contained. They were a child's playthings -a whip, a glass marble, a whistle, an old Manx penny, a tomtit's mossy nest with three speckled blue eggs in it, some pearly shells, and a bit of shrivelled seaweed. And each poor relic as it came up awoke a new memory and a new grief, and the fingers trembled that held them. The sense of a boy's sport and a boy's high spirits, long dumb and dead, touched the old man to the quick within these heavy walls.

The Bishop replaced the glass-covered case, locked the room, and went down to his library. But the child ghost that lived in that gaunt old house did not keep to the crib upstairs. Into this book-clad room it followed the Bishop, with blue eyes and laughter on the red lips; with a hop, skip, and a jump, and a pair of spectacles perched insecurely on the diminutive nose.

Ten years had rolled back for the broken. hearted father that night, and Dan, who was lost to him in life, lived in his remembrance only as a beautiful, bright, happy, spirited, innocent child, that could never grow older, but must be a child for ever.

The Bishop could endure the old house no longer. It was too full of spectres. He would go out and tramp the roads the long night through. Up and down, up and down, through snow or rain, under the moonlight or the stars, until the day dawned, and the pitiless sun should rise again over the heedless sleeping world.


 

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