[from Hall Caine The Deemster]
WHEN he had ceased to breathe, the air of my house became suddenly void and empty. With a great awe upon me I rose and stretched him out on the settle, and covered his white face with a cloth. Then in the silence I sat and tried to think of the strange accident that had that night befallen. One thing I saw with a fearful certainty, that a great burden of responsibility had fallen upon me. I thought of the people of this island perishing in their sickness, and I remembered that I alone of all men here knew how to succour and save them. I alone, and who was I ? The one man accursed among men; the one man cut off for ever from the company of the living; the man without family or kin or name among the people; whose flesh no man might touch with his flesh; whose eye no other eye might look upon.
And thus with the burden of responsibility came a yet more terrible burden of doubt. Was it for me to break through the dread judgment pronounced upon me and go down among the people to heal them? And if I went would the people receive me, even in this their last extreme? Before the face of death would all other fears sink out of their sight? Or, fearing death itself less than the curse, would they rise up and drive me from them ?
Long I sat in the anguish of black misgivings, and then rose and ranged my room from side to side, if perchance I might find some light in my darkness. And oft did the strangeness of that night's accidents so far bewilder me that for an instant it would seem that 1 must be in a dream. Once I lifted the facecloth from the face on the settle, that I might be sure that I was awake.
At length it fixed itself on my mind that whatsoever the judgment upon me, and whatsoever the people's terror of it, I had no choice but to bear the burden that was now mine own. Go down among my sick countrymen I should and must, let the end be what it would 1 Accursed man though I was, yet to fulfil the dead priest's mission was a mission wherewith God Himself seemed to charge me 1
And now I scarce can say how it had escaped me, that my first duty was to take the body of the priest who bad died in my house to one of the (churchyards for Christian burial. There must have been some end of Providence in my strange forgetfulness, for if this thing had but come into my wild thoughts, and I had indeed done what it was fitting that I should do, then must certain wonderful consequences have fallen short of the blessing with which God has blessed them.
What I did, thinking no evil, was to pick up my spade and go out on the moor and delve for the dead man a shallow grave. As I turned to the door I stumbled over something that lay on the floor. Stooping to look at it, I found it to be the poor seamew. It was dead and stiff, and had still its wings outstretched as if in the act of flight.
I had not noted until now, when with a fearful glance backwards I stepped out into the night, that the storm had gone. A thick dew-cloud lay deep over the land, and the round moon was shining through it. I chose a spot a little to the south of the stone circle on the Black Head, and there by the moon's light I howket a barrow of earth. The better part of an hour I wrought, and when my work was done I went back to my house, and then the dead man was cold. I took a piece of old canvas, and put it about the body, from head to feet, wrapping it over the clothes. and covering the face. This done, I lifted the dead in my arms and carried it out.
Very hollow and heavy was the thud of my feet on the turf in that uncertain light. As I toiled along I recalled the promise that I had given to the priest to see my father and speak with him. This memory brought me the sore pain of a wounded tenderness, but it strengthened my resolve. When I had reached the grave which I had made the night was near to morning, the dew-cloud bad lifted away, and out of the unseen, murmuring sea that lay far and wide in front of me a grey streak, like an arrow's barb, was shooting up into the darkness of the sky.
One glance more I took at the dead man's face in that vague fore-dawn, and its swart meagreness seemed to have passed off under death's composing hand.
I covered the body with the earth, and then I said my prayer, for it was nigh to my accustomed hour. Also I sang my psalm, kneeling with my face towards the sea. And while I sang in that dank air the sky lightened and the sun rose out of the deep.
I know not what touched me then, if it was not the finger of God Himself, but suddenly a great burden seemed to fall from me, and my heart grew full of a blessed joy. And, " O Father," I cried, "I am delivered from the
body of the death I lived in I I have lived, I have died, and I live again 1 "
I saw apparently that the night of my long imprisonment was past, that the doors of my dungeon were broken open, and that its air was to be the breath of my nostrils no more.
Then the tears gushed from mine eyes and rained down my bony cheeks, for well I knew that God bad seen that I, even I, had suffered enough.
And when I rose to my feet from beside the dead man's grave I felt of a certainty that the curse had fallen away.
Three days have gone since last I put my hand to this writing, and now I know that though the curse has fallen from me, yet must its earthly penalties be mine to the end. Sorely weary, and more sorely ashamed, I have within these three hours past, escaped from the tumult of the people. How their wild huzzas ring in my ears !" God bless the priest t " "Heaven save the priest I " Their Ioud cries of a blind gratitude, how they follow me I Oh, that I could fly from the memory of them, and wipe them out of my mind ! There were those that appeared to know me among the many that knew me not. The tear-stained faces, the faces hard and stony, the faces abashed and confused-bow they rive before my eyes ! And at the Tynwald, how the children were thrust under my hand for my blessing ! My blessing-mine! and at the Tynwald ! Thank God, it is all over ! I am away from it for ever. Home I am at last and for the last time.
Better than three weeks have passed since the priest died in my house, and I buried him on the moor. What strange events have since befallen, and in what a strange new world ! The Deemster's terrible end, and my own going with the priest's message to the Bishop, my father. But I shall not live to set it down. Nor is it needful so to do, for she whom I write for knows all that should be written henceforward. Everything she knows save one thing only, and if this writing should yet come to her hand that also she will then learn.
God's holy grace be with her I I have not seen her. The Deemster I have seen, the Bishop I have spoken with, and a living vision of our Ewan, his sweet child-daughter, I have held to my knee. But not once these many days has she who is dearest of all to me passed before my eyes. It is better so. I shunned her. Where she was there I would not go. Yet, through all these heavy years I have borne her upon my heart. Day and night she has been with me. Oh, Mona, Mona, my Mona, apart for ever are our paths in this dim world, and my tarnished name is your reproach. My love, my lost love, as a man I yearned for you to bold you to my breast. But I was dead to you, and I would not break in with an earthly love that must be brief and might not be blessed, on a memory that death had purified of its stains. Adieu, adieu, my love, my own Mona ; though we are never to clasp hands again, yet do I know that you will be with me as an unseen presence when the hour comes-ah I how soon -of death's asundering.
For the power of life is low in me. I have taken the sickness. It is from the Deemster that I have taken it. No longer do I fear death. Yet I hesitate to do with myself what I have long thought that I would do when the end should come. "To-morrow," and °` to-morrow," and " to-morrow," I say in my heart, and still I am here.