[from Hall Caine The Deemster]
THUS far have I written these four days past, amid pain and a quick lessening of the powers of life. In sleepless hours of the night I have made this writing, sitting oftenest by the light of my feeble candles until the day has been blue over the sea. And now that I glance back and see my own heart in the mirror I have made for it, I am like to one who has been brought through a fearsome sickness, that has left its marks upon him, to look for the first time at his altered face in the glass. And can it be that I, who have penned these words, am the man of seven years ago? Ah I now I see how profound has been the change that my great punishment has made in me, and perceive the end of God in refusing my poor atonement of life for life, and cutting me off from among men.
I will not say that what I have already written has not cost me some pangs, and perhaps some tears. But now I am come to that place where I must tell of the great turning-point in my sad state, and though the strength fails me wherewith I hold the pen to write of it, my spirit rises before it like as the lark awakened by the dawn.
This year-surely the darkest within the memory of our poor people of Man-began with more than its share of a winter of heavy rains. The spring that followed was also rainy, and when I looked for the summer to begin, the rains were still incessant. Heavy and sodden was the ground even of the moor whereon I lived, so that my feet sank into it as into a morass, and much of the seed I sowed was washed from it and wasted. When at length the long rains ceased to fall, the year was far worn into June, and then the sun came quick and hot. My house stood on a brow descending to the cliffs of the coast, and beneath me were less than two feet of mould above the rock, but when the great heat came after the great rain, out of the ground there arose a thick miasmic mist that filled the air, obscured the light, lay heavy in sweat upon my hair and flesh, and made the walls and floor, the furniture and the bed of my home, damp and dripping with constant dew.
Quickly I set myself to the digging of deep trenches that went vertically down the brow to the cliff head, and soon the ground about me across many acres was drained dry. But though I lived in a clear air, and could now see the sun as well as feel it, yet I perceived that the mists stood in a wide half circle around me like walls of rain seen afar, while the spot whereon you stand is fair and in the sunshine. In my daily walks to the top of the moor I could no longer see the houses of Cregneesh for the cloud of vapour that lay over them, and when I walked to the Kallow Head for the first time since the day I lost my dog, the basin below, where Port-leMary stands, was even as a vast vaporous sea, without one islet of house or hill.
My health suffered little from this unaccustomed humidity, for my bodily strength was ever wonderful; but my spirits sank to a deep depression, and oft did I wonder how the poor souls must fare who lived on the low wet Curraghs, near to where my own home once lay. From day to day, and week to week, the mist continued to rise from the dank ground under the hot sun, and still the earth came up in thick clods to the spade.
The nights alone were clear, and towards midsummer I was witness to strange sights in the heavens. Thus I saw a comet pass close across the island from coast to coast, with a visible motion as of quivering flame. What this visitation could foretell I pondered long and sadly, and much I hungered for knowledge of what was being done in the world of men. But therein it seemed to my wayward mind that I was like a man buried in the churchyard while he is yet alive, who hears the bell in the tower that peals and tolls, but has no window in his tomb from which to see who comes to rejoice, and who to mourn.
When the fleet of fishing-boats should have put out from Port Erin for the ground that lies south of the Calf, scarce a sail could I see, and not a boat had I noted coming from the Poolvash, where Port-le-Mary stands above the bay. From the top of the Mull Hills I could faintly descry the road to Castletown, but never a cart on market-day seemed to pass over it. Groups of people I vaguely saw standing together, and once, at midday, from the middle of a field of new-mown hay, there came to me the sounds of singing and prayer. Oftener than at any period during my solitary life I saw men on the mountains or felt their presence near me, for my senses were grown very keen. Oftener, also, than ever before, the sound of church bells seemed to come through the air. And going to the beach where my shattered boat lay, I one day came upon another boat beating idly down the waters of the sound, her sails flapping in the wind, and no hand at her tiller. I stood to watch while the little craft came drifting on with the flow of the tide. She ran head on to the cliff at Fistard, and then I went down to her, and found never a living soul aboard of her.
From these and other startling occurrences that came to me vaguely, as if by the one sense of the buried man, I felt that with the poor people of this island all was not well. But nothing did I know of a certainty until a day towards the first week of September-as I have reckoned„it-and then a strange thing befell.
The sun was not shining, and when there was no sun there was little mist. A strong wind, too, had got up from the north-east, and the atmosphere over land and sea grew clearer as the day wore on. The wind strengthened after the turn of the ebb, and at half-flood, which was towards three in the afternoon, it had risen to the pitch of a gale, with heavy swirling rain. The rain ceased in a few hours, and in the lift of the heavy clouds I could see from the rising ground above my house a brig with shortened sail toiling heavily to the south-west of the Calf. She was struggling in the strong currents that flow there to get into the lea of the island, but was beaten back and back, never catching the shelter of the cliffs for the rush of the wind that swept over them. The darkness was falling in while I watched her, and when she was swept back and hidden from me by the forehead of the Calf I turned my face home. ward. Then I noticed that on the top of the Mull Hills a great company of people had gathered, and I thought I saw that they were watching the brig that was labouring heavily in the sea.
That night I had close employment at my fireside, for I was finishing a coat that I had someways fashioned with my undeft fingers from the best pieces of many garments that of themselves would no longer hold together. Rough as a monk's long sack it was, and all but as shapeless, but nevertheless a fit companion for the curranes on my feet, which I had made some time before from the coat of my hapless Millish-veg-veen.
While I wrought with my great sailmaker's needle and twine, the loud wind moaned about the walls of my house and whistled through its many crevices, and made the candle whereby I worked to flicker and gutter. Yet my mind was more cheerful than had lately been its wont, and I sang to myself with my face to the glow of the fire.
But when towards ten o'clock the sea below sent up a louder hiss than before, followed by a deeper under-groan, suddenly there was a clash at my window, and a poor, panting seamew, with open beak, came through it and fell helpless on the floor. I picked up the storm-beaten creature, and calmed it, and patched with the needle the skin of the window which it had broken by its entrance.
Then all at once my mind went back to the brig labouring in the sea behind the Calf. Almost at the same moment, and for the first time these seven years, a quick knock came to my door. I was startled, and made no answer, but stood stock-still in the middle of the floor with the frightened bird in my hand. Before I was yet fully conscious of what was happening, the wooden latch of the door had been lifted, and a man had stepped across the threshold. In another moment he had closed the door behind him, and was speaking to me.
" You will never find heart to deny me shelter on such a night as this 7" he said.
I answered him nothing. Surely with my mind I did not hear him, but only with mine ears. I was like one who is awakened suddenly out of a long dream, and can scarce be sure which is the dream and which the reality, what is behind and what is before.
The man stumbled a step forward, and said, speaking falteringly, "I am faint from a blow."
He staggered another pace forward, and would have fallen, but I, recovering in some measure my self-command, caught him in my arms, and put him to sit on the settle before the hearth.
Scarce had he gained this rest when his eyelids trembled and closed, and he became insensible. He was a large, swart, and bony man, bearing in his face the marks of life's hard storms. His dress was plainly the dress of a priest, but of an order of priesthood quite unknown to me. A proud poverty sat upon the man, and before I yet knew wherefor, my heart went out to him in a strange, uncertain reverence.
Loosening the hard collar that bound his neck, I made bare his throat, and then moistened his lips with water. Some other offices I did for him, such as with difficulty removing his great boots, which were full of water, and stretching his feet towards the fire. I stirred the peats, too, and the glow was full and grateful. Then I looked for the mark of the blow he spoke of, and found it where most it was to be feared, on the hinder part of the head. Though there was no blood flowing, yet was the skull driven in upon the brain, leaving a hollow spot over a space that might have been covered by a copper token.
He did not soon return to consciousness, but toiled hard at intervals to regain it, and then lapsed back to a breathless quiet. And.I, not knowing what else to do, took a basin of lukewarm water and bathed the wound with it, damping the forehead with water that was cold. All this time the seamew, which I had cast from my hand when the priest stumbled, lay in one corner panting, its head down, its tail up, and its powerless wings stretched useless on either side.
Then the man, taking a long breath, opened his eyes, and seeing me, he made some tender of gratitude. He told me that in being put ashore out of the brig Bridget, from Cork, in Ireland, he had been struck on the head by the boom as it shifted with the wind, but that heeding not his injury, and thinking he could make Port-le-Mary to lie there that night, he had set out over the moor, while his late comrades of the brig put off from our perilous coast for England, whither they were bound.
So much had he said, speaking painfully, when again he fell to unconsciousness, and this time a strong delirium took hold of him. I tried not to hear what then he said, for it seemed to me an awful thing that in such an hour of reason's vanquisbment the eye of man might look into the heart which only God's eye should see. But hear him I must, or leave him alone in his present need. And he talked loudly of some great outrage, wherein helpless women were thrown on the roads without shelter, and even the dead in their graves were desecrated. When he came to himself again he knew that his mind had wandered, and he told me that four years before he had been confessor at the convent of Port Royal in France. He said that in that place they had been men and women of the Order of Jansenists, teaching simple goodness and piety. But their convent had been suppressed by commission of the Jesuits, and being banished from France, he had fled to his native country of Ireland, where now he held the place of parish priest. More in this manner he said, but my mind was sorely perplexed, and I cannot recall his words faithfully, or rightly tell of the commerce of conversation between us, save that he put to me some broken questions in his moments of ease from pain, and muttered many times to himself after I had answered him briefly, or when I had answered him not at all.
For the sense that I was a man awakening out of a dream, a long dream of seven lonesome years, grew stronger as he told of what traffic the world had lately seen, and he himself been witness to. And my old creeping terror of the judgment upon me that forbade that any man should speak with me, or that I should speak with any man, struggled hard with the necessity now before me to make a swift choice whether I should turn away and leave this man, who had sought the shelter of my house, or break through the curse that bound me.
Choice of any kind I did not make with a conscious mind, but before I was yet aware I was talking with the priest, and he with me.
The Priest : He said, t am the Catholic priest that your good Bishop sent for out of Ireland, as you have heard, I doubt not?
Myself: I answered, No, that I had not heard.
The Priest : He asked me did I live alone in this house, and how long I had been here ? Myself : I said, Yes, and that I had been seven years in this place come Christmas.
The Priest: He asked, What, and do you never go up to the towns ?
Myself : I answered, No.
The Priest : Then, said the priest, thinking long before he spoke, you have not heard of the great sickness that has broken out among your people.
Myself - I told him I had heard nothing.
The Priest: He said it was the sweating sickness, and that vast numbers had fallen to it and many had died. I think he saidI cannot be sure-that after fruitless efforts of his own to combat the disease, the Bishop of the island had sent to Ireland a message for him, having beard that the Almighty had blessed his efforts in a like terrible scourge that broke out two years before over the bogs of western Ireland.
I listened with fear, and began to comprehend much that had of late been a puzzle to me. But before the priest had gone 'far his sickness overcame him afresh, and he fell to another long unconsciousness. While be lay thus, very silent, or rambling afresh through the ways of the past, I know not what feelings possessed me, for my heart was in a great turmoil. But when he opened his eyes again, very peaceful in their quiet light, but with less than before of the power of life in them, he said he perceived that his errand bad been fruitless, and that he had but come to my house to die. At that word I started to my feet with a cry, but be-thinking that my thoughts were of our poor people, who would lose a deliverer by his death-told me to have patience, for that God who had smitten him down would surely raise up in his stead a far mightier saviour of my afflicted countrymen.
Then in the lapses of his pain he talked of the sickness that bad befallen his own people: how it was due to long rains that soaked the soil, and was followed by the hot sun that drew out of the earth its foul sweat ; how the sickness fell chiefly on such as had their houses on bogs and low-lying ground; and how the cure for it was to keep the body of the sick person closely wrapped in blankets, and to dry the air about him with many fires. He told me, too, that all medicines he had yet seen given for this disease were useless, and being oftenest of a cooling nature went sometimes deadly. He said that those of his own people who had lived on the mountains had escaped the malady. Much he also said of how men had fled from their wives, and women from their children, in terror of the infection, but that, save only in the worst cases, contagion from the sweating sickness there could be none. More of this sort he said than I can well set down in this writing. Often he spoke with sore labour, as though a strong impulse prompted him. And I who listened eagerly heard what he said with a mighty fear, for well I knew that if death came to him as he foretold, I had now that knowledge which it must be sin to hide.
After he had said this the lapses into unconsciousness were more frequent than before, and the intervals of cool reason and sweet respite from pain were briefer. But a short while after midnight he came to himself with a smile on his meagre face and peace in his eyes. He asked me would I promise to do one thing for him, for that he was a dying man ; and I told him yes before I had heard what it was that he wished of me. Then he asked did I know where the Bishop lived, and at first I made no answer.
"Bishop's Court they call his house," he said, "and it lies to the north-west of this island by the land they have named the Curraghs. Do you know it ? "
I bent my head by way of assent.
The Priest: I would have you go to him, he said, and say-The Catholic priest you sent for out of Ireland, Father Dalby,fulfilled his pledge to you and came to your island, but died by the visitation of God on the night of his landing on your shores. Will you deliver me this message ?
I did not make him an answer, and he put the question again. Still my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth and I could not speak.
The Priest : You need not fear, he said, to go to the Bishop, for he is a holy man, as I have heard, without pride of worldly place, and the poor and outcast are his constant guests.
Even yet I answered nothing, but only held down my head while my heart surged within me. The Priest : The fame of him as a righteous servant of God had gone far into other lands, and therefore it was I, who love Protestantism not at all, and hold no dalliance with it, came to your island at his call.
He took my hand in his hands and asked me again if I would go to the Bishop to say the words which he had given me, and 1, with swimming eyes that saw nothing of the dying face before me, bowed my head, and answered, " I will go."
Near three hours longer he lived, and much of that time he passed in a feeble delirium. But just before the end came he awoke, and motioned to a, small bag that hung about his waist. I guessed his meaning, and drawing out a crucifix I placed it in his hands.
Then he passed silently away, and Death, the black camel that had knelt at the gate of my lone house these seven years of deathin-life, had entered it at last to take another man than me.