Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

The Ghost Ship by Richard Middleton

Part 2 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

He said "Good evening" in the grown-up voice that father encouraged,
but father slipped in and shut the door without saying a word. Every
night when he came back from the post-office he brought Jack the
gummed edgings off the sheets of stamps, and Jack held out his hand
for them as a matter of course. Automatically father felt in his
overcoat pocket and pulled out a great handful. "Take care of them,
they're the last you'll get," he said; but when Jack asked why, his
father looked at him with the same hopeless expression that he had
found in his mother's eyes a short while before. Jack felt a little
cross that every one should be so stupid.

When they went into the kitchen everybody looked very strange, and
Jack sat down in the corner and listened for an explanation. As a
rule the conversation of the grown-up people did not amuse him, but
tonight he felt that something had happened, and that if he kept
quiet he might find out what it was. He had noticed before that when
the grown-ups talked they always said the same things over and over
again, and now they were worse than usual. Father said, "It's no
good, I've got to go through it;" the mill-woman said, "Whatever made
you do it, George?" And mother said, "Nothing will ever happen to me
again!" They all went on saying these things till Jack grew tired of
listening, and started plaiting his stamp-paper into a mat. If you
did it very neatly it was almost as good as an ordinary sheet of
paper by the time you had finished. By and by, while he was still at
work, the mill-woman brought him his supper on a plate, and raising
his head he saw that father and mother were sitting close together,
looking at each other, and saying nothing at all. He was very
disappointed that although father had come home they had not had any
jokes all the evening, and as they were all so dull he did not very
much mind being sent to bed when he had finished his supper. When he
said good-night to father, he noticed that his boots were very muddy,
as if he had walked a long way like a common postman. He made a joke
about this, but they all looked at him as if he had said something
wrong, so he hurried out of the room, glad to get away from these
people whose looks had no reasonable significance, and whose words
had no discoverable meaning. It had been a bad day, and he hoped
mother would let him go back to school the next morning.

And yet though he took off his clothes and got into bed, the day was
not quite over. He had only dozed for a few minutes when he was
roused by a noise down below, and slipping out on to the staircase he
heard the mill-woman saying good-night in the passage. When she had
gone and the door had banged behind her, he listened still, and heard
his mother crying and his father talking on and on in a strange,
hoarse voice. Somehow these incomprehensible sounds made him feel
lonely, and he would have liked to have gone downstairs and sat on
his mother's lap and blinked drowsily in his father's face, as he had
done often enough before. But he was always shy in the presence of
strangers, and he felt that he did not know this woman who wept and
this man who did not laugh. His father was his play-friend, the
sharer of all his fun; his mother was a quiet woman who sat and
sewed, and sometimes told them not to be silly, which was the best
joke of all. It was not right for people to alter. But the thought of
his bedroom made him desolate, and at last he plucked up his courage,
and crept downstairs on bare feet. Father and mother had gone back
into the kitchen, and he peeped through the crack of the door to see
what they were doing. Mother was still crying, always crying, but he
had to change his position before he could see father. Then he turned
on his heels and ran upstairs trembling with fear and disgust. For
father, the man of all the jokes, the man of whom burglars were
afraid and compared with whom all other little boys' fathers were as
dirt, was crying like a little girl.

He jumped into bed and pulled the bedclothes over his face to shut
out the ugliness of the world.

III

When Jack woke up the next morning he found that the room was full of
sunshine, and that father was standing at the end of the bed. The
moment Jack opened his eyes, he began telling him something in a
serious voice, which was alone sufficient to prevent Jack from
understanding what he said. Besides, he used a lot of long words, and
Jack thought that it was silly to use long words before breakfast,
when nobody could be expected to remember what they meant. Father's
body neatly fitted the square of the window, and the sunbeams shone
in all round it and made it look splendid; and if Jack had not
already forgotten the unfortunate impression of the night before,
this would have enabled him to overcome it. Every now and then father
stopped to ask him if he understood, and he said he did, hoping to
find out what it was all about later on. It seemed, however, that
father was not going to the post-office any more, and this caused
Jack to picture a series of delightfully amusing days. When father
had finished talking he appeared to expect Jack to say something, but
Jack contented himself with trying to look interested, for he knew
that it was always very stupid of little boys not to understand
things they didn't understand. In reality he felt as if he had been
listening while his father argued aloud with himself, talking up and
down like an earthquake map.

At breakfast they were still subdued, but afterwards, as the morning
wore on, father became livelier and helped Jack to build a hut in
the back garden. They built it of bean-sticks against the wall at the
end, and father broke up a packing-case to get planks for the roof.
Only mother still had a sad face, and it made Jack angry with her,
that she should be such a spoil-fun. After dinner, while Jack was
playing in the hut, Mr. Simmons, of the police-station, and another
gentleman called to take father for a walk, and Jack went down to the
front to see them off. Jack knew Mr. Simmons very well; he had been
to tea with his little boy, but though he thought him a fine sort of
man he could not help feeling proud of his father when he saw them
side by side. Mr. Simmons looked as if he were ashamed of himself,
while father walked along with square shoulders and a high head as if
he had just done something splendid. The other gentleman looked like
nothing at all beside father.

When they were out of sight Jack went into the house and found mother
crying in the kitchen. As he felt more tolerant in his after-dinner
mood, he tried to cheer her up by telling her how fine father had
looked beside the other two men. Mother raised her face, all swollen
and spoilt with weeping, and gazed at her son in astonishment. "They
are taking him to prison," she wailed, "and God knows what will
become of us."

For a moment Jack felt alarmed. Then a thought came to him and he
smiled, like a little boy who has just found a new and delightful
game. "Never mind, mother," he said, "we'll help him to escape."

But mother would not stop crying.

Shepherd's Boy

The path climbed up and up and threatened to carry me over the
highest point of the downs till it faltered before a sudden
outcrop of chalk and swerved round the hill on the level. I was
grateful for the respite, for I had been walking all day and my
knapsack was growing heavy. Above me in the blue pastures of the
skies the cloud-sheep were grazing, with the sun on their snowy
backs, and all about me the grey sheep of earth were cropping
the wild pansies that grew wherever the chalk had won a covering
of soil.

Presently I came upon the shepherd standing erect by the path, a
tall, spare man with a face that the sun and the wind had robbed of
all expression. The dog at his feet looked more intelligent than he.
"You've come up from the valley," he said as I passed; "perhaps
you'll have seen my boy?"

"I'm sorry, I haven't," I said, pausing.

"Sorrow breaks no bones," he muttered, and strode away with his dog
at his heels. It seemed to me that the dog was apologetic for his
master's rudeness.

I walked on to the little hill-girt village, where I had made up my
mind to pass the night. The man at the village shop said he would put
me up, so I took off my knapsack and sat down on a sackful of cattle
cake while the bacon was cooking.

"If you came over the hill, you'll have met shepherd," said the man,
"and he'll have asked you for his boy."

"Yes, but I hadn't seen him."

The shopman nodded. "There are clever folk who say you can see him,
and clever folk who say you can't. The simple ones like you and me,
we say nothing, but we don't see him. Shepherd hasn't got no boy."

"What! is it a joke?"

"Well, of course it may be," said the shop-man guardedly, "though I
can't say I've heard many people laughing at it yet. You see,
shepherd's boy he broke his neck. . . .

"That was in the days before they built the fence above the big
chalk-pit that you passed on your left coming down. A dangerous
place it used to be for the sheep, so shepherd's boy he used to lie
along there to stop them dropping into it, while shepherd's dog he
stopped them from going too far. And shepherd he used to come down
here and have his glass, for he took it then like you or me. He's
blue ribbon now.

"It was one night when the mists were out on the hills, and maybe
shepherd had had a glass too much, or maybe he got a bit lost in the
smoke. But when he went up there to bring them home, he starts
driving them into the pit as straight as could be. Shepherd's boy he
hollered out and ran to stop them, but four-and-twenty of them went
over, and the lad he went with them. You mayn't believe me, but five
of them weren't so much as scratched, though it's a sixty feet drop.
Likely they fell soft on top of the others. But shepherd's boy he was
done.

"Shepherd he's a bit spotty now, and most times he thinks the boy's
still with him. And there are clever folk who'll tell you that
they've seen the boy helping shepherd's dog with the sheep. That
would be a ghost now, I shouldn't wonder. I've never seen it, but
then I'm simple, as you might say.

"But I've had two boys myself, and it seems to me that a boy like
that, who didn't eat and didn't get into mischief, and did his work,
would be the handiest kind of boy to have about the place."

The Passing of Edward

I found Dorothy sitting sedately on the beach, with a mass of black
seaweed twined in her hands and her bare feet sparkling white in the
sun. Even in the first glow of recognition I realised that she was
paler than she had been the summer before, and yet I cannot blame
myself for the tactlessness of my question.

"Where's Edward?" I said; and I looked about the sands for a sailor
suit and a little pair of prancing legs.

While I looked Dorothy's eyes watched mine inquiringly, as if she
wondered what I might see.

"Edward's dead," she said simply. "He died last year, after you
left."

For a moment I could only gaze at the child in silence, and ask
myself what reason there was in the thing that had hurt her so. Now
that I knew that Edward played with her no more, I could see that
there was a shadow upon her face too dark for her years, and that she
had lost, to some extent, that exquisite carelessness of poise which
makes children so young. Her voice was so calm that I might have
thought her forgetful had I not seen an instant of patent pain in her
wide eyes.

"I'm sorry," I said at length "very, very, sorry indeed. I had
brought down my car to take you for a drive, as I promised."

"Oh! Edward _would_ have liked that," she answered thoughtfully; "he
was so fond of motors." She swung round suddenly and looked at the
sands behind her with staring eyes.

"I thought I heard--" she broke off in confusion.

I, too, had believed for an instant that I had heard something
that was not the wind or the distant children or the smooth sea
hissing along the beach. During that golden summer which linked
me with the dead, Edward had been wont, in moments of elation,
to puff up and down the sands, in artistic representation of a
nobby, noisy motor-car. But the dead may play no more, and there
was nothing there but the sands and the hot sky and Dorothy.

"You had better let me take you for a run, Dorothy," I said. "The man
will drive, and we can talk as we go along."

She nodded gravely, and began pulling on her sandy stockings.

"It did not hurt him," she said inconsequently.

The restraint in her voice pained me like a blow.

"Oh, don't, dear, don't!" I cried, "There is nothing to do but
forget."

"I have forgotten, quite," she answered, pulling at her shoe-laces
with calm fingers. "It was ten months ago."

We walked up to the front, where the car was waiting, and Dorothy
settled herself among the cushions with a little sigh of contentment,
the human quality of which brought me a certain relief. If only she
would laugh or cry! I sat down by her side, but the man waited by the
open door.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I'm sorry, sir," he answered, looking about him in confusion, "I
thought I saw a young gentleman with you."

He shut the door with a bang, and in a minute we were running through
the town. I knew that Dorothy was watching my face with her wounded
eyes; but I did not look at her until the green fields leapt up on
either side of the white road.

"It is only for a little while that we may not see him," I said; "all
this is nothing."

"I have forgotten," she repeated. "I think this is a very nice
motor."

I had not previously complained of the motor, but I was wishing then
that it would cease its poignant imitation of a little dead boy, a
boy who would play no more. By the touch of Dorothy's sleeve against
mine I knew that she could hear it too. And the miles flew by, green
and brown and golden, while I wondered what use I might be in the
world, who could not help a child to forget, Possibly there was
another way, I thought.

"Tell me how it happened," I said.

Dorothy looked at me with inscrutable eyes, and spoke in a voice
without emotion.

"He caught a cold, and was very ill in bed. I went in to see him,
and he was all white and faded. I said to him, `How are you Edward?'
and he said, `I shall get up early in the morning to catch beetles.'
I didn't see him any more."

"Poor little chap!" I murmured.

"I went to the funeral," she continued monotonously, "It was very
rainy, and I threw a little bunch of flowers down into the hole.
There was a whole lot of flowers there; but I think Edward liked
apples better than flowers."

"Did you cry?" I said cruelly.

She paused. "I don't know. I suppose so. It was a long time ago; I
think I have forgotten."

Even while she spoke I heard Edward puffing along the sands: Edward
who had been so fond of apples.

"I cannot stand this any longer," I said aloud. "Let's get out and
walk in the woods for a change."

She agreed, with a depth of comprehension that terrified me; and the
motor pulled up with a jerk at a spot where hardly a post served to
mark where the woods commenced and the wayside grass stopped. We took
one of the dim paths which the rabbits had made and forced our way
through the undergrowth into the peaceful twilight of the trees.

"You haven't got very sunburnt this year," I said as we walked.

"I don't know why. I've been out on the beach all the days.
Sometimes I've played, too."

I did not ask her what games she had played, or who had been her
play-friend. Yet even there in the quiet woods I knew that Edward was
holding her back from me. It is true that, in his boy's way, he had
been fond of me; but I should not have dared to take her out without
him in the days when his live lips had filled the beach with song,
and his small brown body had danced among the surf. Now it seemed
that I had been disloyal to him.

And presently we came to a clearing where the leaves of forgotten
years lay brown and rotten beneath our feet, and the air was full of
the dryness of death.

"Let's be going back. What do you think, Dorothy?" I said.

"I think," she said slowly,--"I think that this would be a very good
place to catch beetles."

A wood is full of secret noises, and that is why, I suppose, we
heard a pair of small quick feet come with a dance of triumph
through the rustling bracken. For a minute we listened deeply, and
then Dorothy broke from my side with a piercing call on her lips.

"Oh, Edward, Edward!" she cried; "Edward!"

But the dead may play no more, and presently she came back to me with
the tears that are the riches of childhood streaming down her face.

"I can hear him, I can hear him," she sobbed; "but I cannot see him.
Never, never again."

And so I led her back to the motor. But in her tears I seemed to
find a promise of peace that she had not known before.

Now Edward was no very wonderful little boy; it may be that he was
jealous and vain and greedy; yet now, it seemed as he lay in his
small grave with the memory of Dorothy's flowers about him, he had
wrought this kindness for his sister. Yes, even though we heard no
more than the birds in the branches and the wind swaying the scented
bracken; even though he had passed with another summer, and the dead
and the love of the dead may rise no more from the grave.

The Story Of A Book

I. THE WRITER

The history of a book must necessarily begin with the history of its
author, for surely in these enlightened days neither the youngest nor
the oldest of critics can believe that works of art are found under
gooseberry-bushes or in the nests of storks. In truth, I am by no
means sure that everybody knew this before the publication of "The
Man Shakespeare," and for the sake of a mystified posterity it may be
well to explain that there was once a school of criticism that
thought it indecent to pry into that treasure-house of individuality
from which, if we reject the nursery hypotheses mentioned above, it
is clearly obvious that authors derive their works. That the drama
must needs be closely related to the dramatist is just one of those
simple discoveries that invariably elude the subtle professional
mind; but in this wiser hour I may be permitted to assume that the
author was the conscious father of his novel, and that he did not
find it surprisingly in his pocket one morning, like a bad shilling
taken in change from the cabman overnight.

Before he published his novel at the ripe age of thirty-seven the
author had lived an irreproachable and gentlemanly life. Born with at
least a German-silver spoon in his mouth, he passed, after a normally
eventful childhood, through a respectable public school, and spent
several agreeable years at Cambridge without taking a degree. He then
went into his uncle's office in the City, where he idled daily from
ten to four, till in due course he was admitted to a partnership,
which enabled him to reduce his hours of idleness to eleven to three.
These details become important when we reflect that from his
childhood on the author had a great deal of time at his disposal. If
he had been entirely normal, he would have accepted the conventions
of the society to which he belonged, and devoted himself to motoring,
bridge, and the encouragement of the lighter drama. But some
deep-rooted habit of his childhood, or even perhaps some remote
hereditary taint, led him to spend an appreciable fraction of his
leisure time in the reading of works of fiction. Unlike most lovers
of light literature, he read with a certain mental concentration, and
was broad-minded enough to read good novels as well as bad ones.

It is a pleasant fact that it is impossible to concentrate one's mind
on anything without in time becoming wiser, and in the course of
years the author became quite a skilful critic of novels. From the
first he had allowed his reading to colour his impressions of life,
and had obediently lived in a world of blacks and whites, of heroes
and heroines, of villains and adventuresses, until the grateful
discovery of the realistic school of fiction permitted him to believe
that men and women were for the most part neither good nor bad, but
tabby. Moreover, the leisurely reading of many sentences had given
him some understanding of the elements of style. He perceived that
some combinations of words were illogical, and that others were
unlovely to the ear; and at the same time he acquired a vocabulary
and a knowledge of grammar and punctuation that his earlier education
had failed to give him. He read new novels at his writing-table, and
took pleasure in correcting the mistakes of their authors in ink.
When he had done this, he would hand them to his wife, who always
read the end first, and, indeed, rarely pursued her investigation of
a book beyond the last chapter.

We buy knowledge with illusions, and pay a high price for it, for the
acquirement of quite a small degree of wisdom will deprive us of a
large number of pleasant fancies. So it was with the author, who
found his joy in novel-reading diminishing rapidly as his critical
knowledge increased. He was no longer able to lose himself between
the covers of a romance, but slid his paper-knife between the pages
of a book with an unwholesome readiness to be irritated by the
ignorance and folly of the novelist. His destructive criticism of
works of fiction became so acute that it was natural that his
unlettered friends should suggest that he himself ought to write a
novel. For a long while he was content to receive the flattering
suggestion with a reticent smile that masked his conviction that
there was a difference between criticism and creation. But as he grew
older the imperfections in the books he read ceased to give him the
thrill of the successful explorer in sight of the expected, and time
began to trickle too slowly through his idle fingers. One day he sat
down and wrote "Chapter I." at the head of a sheet of quarto paper.

It seemed to him that the difficulty was only one of selection, and
he wrote two-thirds of a novel with a breathless ease of creation
that made him marvel at himself and the pitiful struggles of less
gifted novelists. Then in a moment of insight he picked up his
manuscript and realised that what he had written was childishly
crude. He had felt his story while he wrote it, but somehow or other
he had failed to get his emotions on paper, and he saw quite clearly
that it was worse and not better than the majority of the books which
he had held up to ridicule.

There was a certain doggedness in his character that might have made
him a useful citizen but for that unfortunate hereditary spoon, and
he wrote "Chapter I." at the head of a new sheet of quarto paper long
before the library fire had reached the heart of his first luckless
manuscript. This time he wrote more slowly, and with a waning
confidence that failed him altogether when he was about half-way
through. Reading the fragment dispassionately he thought there were
good pages in it, but, taken as a whole, it was unequal, and moved
forward only by fits and starts. He began again with his late
manuscript spread about him on the table for reference. At the fifth
attempt he succeeded in writing a whole novel.

In the course of his struggles he had acquired a philosophy of
composition. Especially he had learned to shun those enchanted hours
when the labour of creation became suspiciously easy, for he had
found by experience that the work he did in these moments of
inspiration was either bad in itself or out of key with the preceding
chapters. He thought that inspiration might be useful to poets or
writers of short stories, but personally as a novelist he found it a
nuisance. By dint of hard work, however, he succeeded in eliminating
its evil influence from his final draft. He told himself that he had
no illusions as to the merits of his book. He knew he was not a man
of genius, but he knew also that the grammar and the punctuation of
his novel were far above the average of such works, and although he
could not read Sir Thomas Browne or Walter Pater with pleasure, he
felt sure that his book was written in a straightforward and
gentlemanly style. He was prepared to be told that his use of the
colon was audacious, and looked forward with pleasure to an agreeable
controversy on the question.

He read his book to his friends, who made suggestions that would have
involved its rewriting from one end to the other. He read it to his
enemies, who told him that it was nearly good enough to publish; he
read it to his wife, who said that it was very nice, and that it was
time to dress for dinner. No one seemed to realise that it was the
most important thing he had ever done in his life. This quickened his
eagerness to get it published--an eagerness only tempered by a very
real fear of those knowing dogs, the critics. He could not forget
that he had criticised a good many books himself in terms that would
have made the authors abandon their profession if they had but heard
his strictures; and he had read notices in the papers that would have
made him droop with shame if they had referred to any work of his.
When these sombre thoughts came to him he would pick up his book and
read it again, and in common fairness he had to admit to himself that
he found it uncommonly good.

One day, after a whole batch of ungrammatical novels had reached him
from the library, he posted his manuscript to his favourite
publisher. He had heard stories of masterpieces many times rejected,
so he did not tell his wife what he had done.

II. The Sleepy Publisher

The publisher to whom our author had confided his manuscript stood,
like all publishers, at the very head of his profession. His business
was conducted on sound conservative lines, which means that though he
had regretfully abandoned the three-volume novel for the novel
published at six shillings, he was not among the intrepid
revolutionaries who were beginning to produce new fiction at a still
lower price. Besides novels he published solid works of biography at
thirty-one and six, art books at a guinea, travel books at fifteen
shillings, flighty historical works at twelve-and-sixpence, and cheap
editions of Montaigne's Essays and "Robinson Crusoe" at a shilling.
Some idea of his business methods may be derived from the fact that
it pleased him to reflect that all the other publishers were
producing exactly the same books as he was. And though he would admit
that the trade had been ruined by competition and the outrageous
royalties demanded by successful authors, and, further, that he made
a loss on every separate department of his business, in some
mysterious fashion the business as a whole continued to pay him very
well. He left the active part of the management to a confidential
clerk, and contented himself with signing cheques and interviewing
authors.

With such a publisher the fate of our author's book was never in
doubt. If it was lacking in those qualities that might be expected to
commend it to the reading public, it was conspicuously rich in those
merits that determine the favourable judgment of publishers' readers.
It was above all things a gentlemanly book, without violence and
without eccentricities. It was carefully and grammatically written;
but it had not that exotic literary flavour which is so tiresome on a
long railway journey. It could be put into the hands of any
schoolgirl, and at most would merely send her to sleep. The only
thing that could be said against it was that the author's dread of
inspiration had made it grievously dull, but it was the publisher's
opinion that after a glut of sensational fiction the six-shilling
public had come to regard dullness as the hall-mark of literary
merit. He had no illusions as to its possible success, but, on the
other hand, he knew that he could not lose any money on it, so he
wrote a letter to the author inviting him to an interview.

As soon as he had read the letter the author told himself that he
had been certain all along that his book would be accepted.
Nevertheless, he went to the interview moved by certain emotional
flutterings against which circumstance had guarded him ever since
his boyhood. He found this mild excitation of the nervous system by
no means unpleasant. It was like digesting a new and subtle liqueur
that made him light-footed and tingled in the tips of his fingers.
He recalled a phrase that had greatly pleased him in the early days
of his novel. "As the sun colours flowers, so Art colours life." It
seemed to him that this was beginning to come true, and that life
was already presenting itself to him in a gayer, brighter dress. He
reached the publisher's office, therefore, in an unwontedly
receptive mood, and was tremendously impressed by the rudeness of
the clerks, who treated authors as mendicants and expressed their
opinion of literature by handling books as if they were bundles of
firewood.

The publisher looked at him under heavy eyelids, recognised his
position in the social scale, and reflected with satisfaction that
his acquaintances could be relied on to purchase at least a hundred
copies. The interview did not at all take the lines that the author
in his innocence had expected, and in a surprisingly short space of
time he found himself bowed out, with the duplicate of a contract in
the pocket of his overcoat. In the outer office the confidential
clerk took him in hand and led him to the door of an enormous cellar,
lit by electricity and filled from one end to the other with bales
and heaps of books. "Books!" said the confidential clerk, with the
smile of a gamekeeper displaying his hand-reared pheasants. "There
are a great many," the author said timidly.

"Of course, we do not keep our stock here," the clerk explained.
"These are just samples." It was sometimes necessary to remind
inexperienced writers that the publication of their first book was
only a trivial incident in the history of a great publishing house.
The author had a sad vision of his novel as a little brick in a
monstrous pyramid built of books, and the clerk mentally decided that
he was not the kind of man to turn up every day at the office to ask
them how they were getting on.

The author was a little dazed when he emerged into the street and the
sunshine. His book, which an hour before had seemed the most
important thing in the world, had, become almost insignificant in the
light of that vast collection of printed matter, and in some subtle
way he felt that he had dwindled with it. The publisher had praised
it without enthusiasm and had not specified any of its merits; he had
not even commented on his fantastic use of the colon. The author had
lived with it now for many months--it had become a part of his
personality, and he felt that he had betrayed himself in delivering
it into the hands of strangers who could not understand it. He had
the reticence of the well-bred Englishman, and though he told himself
reassuringly that his novel in no way reflected his private life, he
could not quite overcome the sentiment that it was a little vulgar to
allow alien eyes to read the product of his most intimate thoughts.
He had really been shocked at the matter-of-fact way in which every
one at the office had spoken of his book, and the sight of all the
other books with which it would soon be inextricably confused had
emphasised the painful impression. This all seemed to rob the
author's calling of its presumed distinction, and he looked at the
men and women who passed him on the pavement, and wondered whether
they too had written books.

This mood lasted for some weeks, at the end of which time he received
the proofs, which he read and re-read with real pleasure before
setting himself to correcting them with meticulous care. He performed
this task with such conscientiousness, and made so many minor
alterations--he changed most of those flighty colons to more
conventional semicolons--that the confidential clerk swore terribly
when he glanced at the proofs before handing them to a boy, with
instructions to remove three-quarters of the offending emendations.
A week or two later there happened one of those strange little
incidents that make modern literary history. It was a bright, sunny
afternoon; the publisher had been lunching with the star author of
the firm, a novelist whose books were read wherever the British flag
waved and there was a circulating library to distribute them, and
now, in the warm twilight of the lowered blinds he was enjoying
profound thoughts, delicately tinted by burgundy and old port. The
shrewdest men make mistakes, and certainly it was hardly wise of the
confidential clerk to choose this peaceful moment to speak about our
author's book. "I suppose we shall print a thousand?" he said. "Five
thousand!" ejaculated the publisher. What was he thinking about? Was
he filling up an imaginary income-tax statement, or was he trying to
estimate the number of butterflies that seemed to float in the amber
shadows of the room? The clerk did not know. "I suppose you mean one
thousand, sir?" he said gently. The publisher was now wide awake. He
had lost all his butterflies, and he was not the man to allow himself
to be sleepy in the afternoon. "I said five thousand!" The clerk bit
his lip and left the room.

The author never heard of this brief dialogue; probably if he had
been present he would have missed its significance. He would never
have connected it with the flood of paragraphs that appeared in the
Press announcing that the acumen of the publisher had discovered a
new author of genius--paragraphs wherein he was compared with
Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, Richardson, Sir Walter Besant, Thomas
Browne, and the author of "An Englishwoman's Love-letters." As it
was, it did not occur to him to wonder why the publisher should spend
so much money on advertising a book of which he had seemed to have
but a half-hearted appreciation. After all it was his book, and the
author felt that it was only natural that as the hour of publication
drew near the world of letters should show signs of a dignified
excitement.

III. The Critic Errant

There are some emotions so intimate that the most intrepid writer
hesitates to chronicle them lest it should be inferred that he
himself is in the confessional. We have endeavoured to show our
author as a level-headed English-man with his nerves well under
control and an honest contempt for emotionalism in the stronger sex;
but his feelings in the face of the first little bundle of reviews
sent him by the press-cutting agency would prove this portrait
incomplete. He noticed with a vague astonishment that the flimsy
scraps of paper were trembling in his fingers like banknotes in the
hands of a gambler, and he laid them down on the breakfast-table in
disgust of the feminine weakness. This unmistakable proof that he had
written a book, a real book, made him at once happy and uneasy. These
fragments of smudged prints were his passport into a new and
delightful world; they were, it might be said, the name of his
destination in the great republic of letters, and yet he hesitated to
look at them. He heard of the curious blindness of authors that made
it impossible for them to detect the most egregious failings in their
own work, and it occurred to him that this might be his malady. Why:
had he published his book? He felt at that moment that he had taken
too great a risk. It would have been so easy to have had it privately
printed and contented himself with distributing it among his friends.
But these people were paid for writing about books, these critics who
had sent Keats to his gallipots and Swinburne to his fig-tree, might
well have failed to have recognised that his book was sacred, because
it was his own.

When he had at last achieved a fatalistic tranquillity, he once more
picked up the notices, and this time he read them through carefully.
The _Rutlandshire Gazette_ quoted Shakespeare, the _Thrums Times_
compared him with Christopher North, the _Stamford-bridge Herald_
thought that his style resembled that of Macaulay, but they were
unanimous in praising his book without reservation. It seemed to the
author that he was listening to the authentic voice of fame. He
rested his chin on his hand and dreamed long dreams.

He could afford in this hour of his triumph to forget the annoyances
he had undergone since his book was first accepted. The publisher,
with a large first edition to dispose of, had been rather more than
firm with the author. He had changed the title of the book from
"Earth's Returns"--a title that had seemed to the author dignified
and pleasantly literary--to "The Improbable Marquis," which seemed
to him to mean nothing at all. Moreover, instead of giving the book
a quiet and scholarly exterior, he had bound it in boards of an
injudicious heliotrope, inset with a nasty little coloured picture
of a young woman with a St. Bernard dog. This binding revolted the
author, who objected, with some reason, that in all his book there
was no mention of a dog of that description, or, indeed, of any dog
at all. The book was wrapped in an outer cover that bore a
recommendation of its contents, starting with a hideous split
infinitive and describing it as an exquisite social comedy written
from within. On the whole it seemed to the author that his book was
flying false and undesirable colours, and since art lies outside the
domesticities, he was hardly relieved when his wife told him that
she thought the binding was very pretty. The author had shuddered no
less at the little paragraphs that the publisher had inserted in the
newspapers concerning his birth and education, wherein he was
bracketed with other well-known writers whose careers at the
University had been equally undistinguished. But now that, like
Byron, he found himself famous among the bacon and eggs, he was in
no mood to remember these past vexations. As soon as he had finished
breakfast he withdrew himself to his study and wrote half an essay
on the Republic of Letters.

In a country wherein fifteen novels--or is it fifty?--are
published every day of the year, the publisher's account of the
goods he sells is bound to have a certain value. Money talks,
as Mr. Arnold Bennett once observed--indeed today it is grown
quite garrulous--and when a publisher spends a lot of money on
advertising a book, the inference is that some one believes the
book to be good. This will not secure a book good notices, but
it will secure it notices of some kind or other, and that, as
every publisher knows, is three-quarters of the battle. The
average critic today is an old young man who has not failed in
literature or art, possibly because he has not tried to
accomplish anything in either. By the time he has acquired some
skill in criticism he has generally ceased to be a critic,
through no fault of his own, but through sheer weariness of
spirit. When a man is very young he can dance upon everyone who
has not written a masterpiece with a light heart, but after
this period of joyous savagery there follows fatigue and a
certain pity. The critic loses sight of his first magnificent
standards, and becomes grateful for even the smallest merit in
the books he is compelled to read. Like a mother giving a
powder to her child, he is at pains to disguise his timid
censure with a teaspoonful of jam. As the years pass by he
becomes afraid of these books that continue to appear in
unreasonable profusion, and that have long ago destroyed his
faith in literature, his love of reading, his sense of humour,
and the colouring matter of his hair. He realises, with a
dreadful sense of the infinite, that when he is dead and buried
this torrent of books will overwhelm the individualities of his
successors, bound like himself to a lifelong examination of the
insignificant.

Timidity is certainly the note of modern criticism, which is rarely
roused to indignation save when confronted by the infrequent outrage
of some intellectual anarchist. If the critics of the more important
journals were not so enthusiastic as their provincial confreres,
they were at least gentle with "The Improbable Marquis." A critic of
genius would have said that such books were not worth writing, still
less worth reading. An outspoken critic would have said that it was
too dull to be an acceptable presentation of a life that we all find
interesting. As it was, most of the critics praised the style in
which it was written because it was quite impossible to call it an
enthralling or even an entertaining book. Some of the younger
critics, who still retained an interest in their own personalities,
discovered that its vacuity made it a convenient mirror by means of
which they would display the progress of their own genius. In common
gratitude they had to close these manifestations of their merit with
a word or two in praise of the book they were professing to review.
"The Improbable Marquis" was very favourably received by the Press
in general.

It was, as the publisher made haste to point out in his
advertisements, a book of the year, and, reassured by its flippant
exterior, the libraries and the public bought it with avidity. The
author pasted his swollen collection of newspaper-cuttings into an
album, and carefully revised his novel in case a second edition
should be called for. There was one review which he had read more
often than any of the others, and nevertheless he hesitated to
include it in his collection. "This book," wrote the anonymous
reviewer, "is as nearly faultless a book may be that possesses no
positive merit. It differs only from seven-eighths of the novels
that are produced today in being more carefully written. The author
had nothing to say, and he has said it." That was all, three
malignant lines in a paper of no commercial importance, the sort of
thing that was passed round the publisher's office with an
appreciative chuckle. In the face of the general amiability of the
Press, such a notice in an obscure journal could do the book no
harm.

Only the author sat hour after hour in his study with that diminutive
scrap of paper before him on the table, and wondered if it was
true.

IV. Fame

It was some little time before the public, the mysterious section of
the public that reads works of fiction, discovered that the
publisher, aided by the normal good-humour of the critics, had
persuaded them to sacrifice some of their scant hours of intellectual
recreation on a work of portentous dullness. Therefor the literary
audience has its sense of humour--they amused themselves for a while
by recommending the book to their friends, and the sales crept
steadily up to four thousand, and there stayed with an unmistakable
air of finality. If the book had had any real literary merit its life
would have started at that point, for the weary comments of reviewers
and the strident outcries of publishers tend to obscure rather than
reveal the permanent value of a book. But six months after
publication "The Improbable Marquis" was completely forgotten, save
by the second-hand booksellers, who found themselves embarrassed with
a number of books for which no one seemed anxious to pay six-pence,
in spite of the striking heliotrope binding. The publisher, who was
aware of this circumstance, offered the author five hundred copies at
cost price, and the author bought them, and sent them to public
libraries, without examining the motive for his action too closely.
There were moments when he regarded the success of his book with
suspicion. He would have preferred the praise that had greeted it to
have been less violent and more clearly defined. Of all the
criticisms, the only one that lingered in his mind was the curt
comment, "The author had nothing to say, and he has said it." He
thought it was unfair, but he had remembered it. At the same time, in
examining his own character, he could not find that masterfulness
that seemed to him necessary in a great man. But for the most part he
was content to accept his new honours with a placid satisfaction, and
to smile genially upon a world that was eager to credit him with
qualities that possibly he did not possess. For if his book was no
longer read his fame as an author seemed to be established on a rock.
Society, with a larger S than that which he had hitherto adorned, was
delighted to find after two notable failures that genius could still
be presentable, and the author was rather more than that. He was
rich, he had that air of the distinguished army officer which falls
so easily to those who occupy the pleasant position of sleeping
partner in the City, and he had just the right shade of amused
modesty with which to meet inquiries as to his literary intentions.
In a word, he was an author of whom any country--even France, that
prolific parent of presentable authors--would have been proud. Even
his wife, who had thought it an excellent joke that her husband
should have written a book, had to take him seriously as an author
when she found that their social position was steadily improving.
With feminine tact she gave him a fountain-pen on his birthday, from
which he was meant to conclude that she believed in his mission as an
artist.

Meanwhile, with the world at his feet, the author spent an
appreciable part of his time in visiting the second-hand bookshops
and buying copies of his book absurdly cheap. He carried these waifs
home and stored them in an attic secretly, for he would have found it
hard to explain his motives to the intellectually childless. In the
first flush of authorship he had sent a number of presentation copies
of his book to writers whom he admired, and he noticed without
bitterness that some of these volumes with their neatly turned
inscriptions were coming back to him through this channel. At all the
second-hand bookshops he saw long-haired young men looking over the
books without buying them, and he thought these must be authors, but
he was too shy to speak to them, though he had a great longing to
know other writers. He wanted to ask them questions concerning their
methods of work, for he was having trouble with his second book. He
had read an article in which the writer said that the great fault of
modern fiction was that authors were more concerned to produce good
chapters than to produce good books. It seemed to him that in his
first book he had only aimed at good sentences, but he knew no one
with whom he could discuss such matters.

One day he found a copy of "The Improbable Marquis" in the Charing
Cross Road, and was glancing through it with absent-minded interest,
when a voice at his elbow said, "I shouldn't buy that if I were you,
sir. It's no good!" He looked up and saw a wild young man, with
bright eyes and an untidy black beard. "But it's mine; I wrote it,"
cried the author. The young man stared at him in dismay. "I'm sorry;
I didn't know," he blurted out, and faded away into the crowd. The
author gazed after him wistfully, regretting that he had not had
presence of mind enough to ask him to lunch. Perhaps the young man
could have told him how he ought to write his second book.

For somehow or other, at the very moment when his literary position
seemed most secure in the eyes of his wife and his friends, the
author had lost all confidence in his own powers. He shut himself up
in his study every night, and was supposed by an admiring and almost
timorous household to be producing masterpieces, when in reality he
was conducting a series of barren skirmishes between the critical
and the creative elements of his nature. He would write a chapter or
two in a fine fury of composition, and then would read what he had
written with intense disgust. He felt that his second book ought to
be better than his first, and he doubted whether he would even be
able to write anything half so good. In his hour of disillusionment
he recalled the anonymous critic who had treated "The Improbable
Marquis" with such scant respect, and he wrote to him asking him to
expand his judgment. He was prepared to be wounded by the answer,
but the form it took surprised him. In reply to his temperate and
courteous letter the critic sent a postcard bearing only five short
words--"Why did you write it?"

This was bad manners, but the author was sensible enough to see that
it might be good criticism, especially as he found some difficulty in
answering the question. Why had he written a book? Not for money, or
for fame, or to express a personality of which he saw no reason to be
proud. All his friends had said that he ought to write a novel, and
he had thought that he could write a better one than the average. But
he had to admit that such motives seemed to him insufficient. There
was, perhaps, some mysterious force that drove men to create works of
art, and the critic had seen that his book had lacked this necessary
impulse. In the light of this new theory the author was roused by a
sense of injustice. He felt that it should be possible for anyone to
write a good book if they took sufficient pains, and he set himself
to work again with a savage and unproductive energy.

It seemed to him that in spite of his effort to bear in mind that the
whole should be greater than any part, his chapters broke up into
sentences and his sentences into forlorn and ungregarious words. When
he looked to his first book for comfort he found the same horrid
phenomenon taking place in its familiar pages. Sometimes when he was
disheartened by his fruitless efforts he slipped out into the
streets, fixing his attention on concrete objects to rest his tired
mind. But he could not help noticing that London had discovered the
secret which made his intellectual life a torment. The streets were
more than a mere assemblage of houses, London herself was more than a
tangled skein of streets, and overhead heaven was more than a
meeting-place of individual stars. What was this secret that made
words into a book, houses into cities, and restless and measurable
stars into an unchanging and immeasurable universe?

The Bird In The Garden

The room in which the Burchell family lived in Love Street, S.E., was
underground and depended for light and air on a grating let into the
pavement above.

Uncle John, who was a queer one, had filled the area with green
plants and creepers in boxes and tins hanging from the grating, so
that the room itself obtained very little light indeed, but there
was always a nice bright green place for the people sitting in it to
look at. Toby, who had peeped into the areas of other little boys,
knew that his was of quite exceptional beauty, and it was with a
certain awe that he helped Uncle John to tend the plants in the
morning, watering them and taking the pieces of paper and straws
that had fallen through the grating from their hair. "It is a great
mistake to have straws in ones hair," Uncle John would say gravely;
and Toby knew that it was true.

It was in the morning after they had just been watered that the
plants looked and smelt best, and when the sun shone through the
grating and the diamonds were shining and falling through the forest,
Toby would tell the baby about the great bird who would one day come
flying through the trees--a bird of all colours, ugly and beautiful,
with a harsh sweet voice. "And that will be the end of everything,"
said Toby, though of course he was only repeating a story his Uncle
John had told him.

There were other people in the big, dark room besides Toby and Uncle
John and the baby; dark people who flitted to and fro about secret
matters, people called father and mother and Mr. Hearn, who were apt
to kick if they found you in their way, and who never laughed except
at nights, and then they laughed too loudly.

"They will frighten the bird," thought Toby; but they were kind to
Uncle John because he had a pension. Toby slept in a corner on the
ground beside the baby, and when father and Mr. Hearn fought at
nights he would wake up and watch and shiver; but when this happened
it seemed to him that the baby was laughing at him, and he would
pinch her to make her stop. One night, when the men were fighting
very fiercely and mother had fallen asleep on the table, Uncle John
rose from his bed and began singing in a great voice. It was a song
Toby knew very well about Trafalgar's Bay, but it frightened the two
men a great deal because they thought Uncle John would be too mad to
fetch the pension any more. Next day he was quite well, however, and
he and Toby found a large green caterpillar in the garden among the
plants.

"This is a fact of great importance," said Uncle John, stroking it
with a little stick. "It is a sign!"

Toby used to lie awake at nights after that and listen for the bird,
but he only heard the clatter of feet on the pavement and the
screaming of engines far away.

Later there came a new young woman to live in the cellar--not a dark
person, but a person you could see and speak to. She patted Toby on
the head; but when she saw the baby she caught it to her breast and
cried over it, calling it pretty names.

At first father and Mr. Hearn were both very kind to her, and mother
used to sit all day in the corner with burning eyes, but after a time
the three used to laugh together at nights as before, and the woman
would sit with her wet face and wait for the coming of the bird, with
Toby and the baby and Uncle John, who was a queer one.

"All we have to do," Uncle John would say, "is to keep the garden
clean and tidy, and to water the plants every morning so that they
may be very green." And Toby would go and whisper this to the baby,
and she would stare at the ceiling with large, stupid eyes.

There came a time when Toby was very sick, and he lay all day in his
corner wondering about wonder. Sometimes the room in which he lay
became so small that he was choked for lack of air, sometimes it was
so large that he screamed out because he felt lonely. He could not
see the dark people then at all, but only Uncle John and the woman,
who told him in whispers that her name was "Mummie." She called him
Sonny, which is a very pretty name, and when Toby heard it he felt a
tickling in his sides which he knew to be gladness. Mummie's face was
wet and warm and soft, and she was very fond of kissing. Every
morning Uncle John would lift Toby up and show him the garden, and
Toby would slip out of his arms and walk among the trees and plants.
And the place would grow bigger and bigger until it was all the
world, and Toby would lose himself; amongst the tangle of trees and
flowers and creepers. He would see butterflies there and tame
animals, and the sky was full of birds of all colours, ugly and
beautiful; but he knew that none of these was the bird, because their
voices were only sweet. Sometimes he showed these wonders to a little
boy called Toby, who held his hand and called him Uncle John,
sometimes he showed them to his mummie and he himself was Toby; but
always when he came back he found himself lying in Uncle John's arms,
and, weary from his walk, would fall into a pleasant dreamless sleep.

It seemed to Toby at this time that a veil hung about him which, dim
and unreal in itself, served to make all things dim and unreal. He
did not know whether he was asleep or awake, so strange was life, so
vivid were his dreams. Mummie, Uncle John, the baby, Toby himself
came with a flicker of the veil and disappeared vaguely without
cause. It would happen that Toby would be speaking to Uncle John, and
suddenly he would find himself looking into the large eyes of the
baby, turned stupidly towards the ceiling, and again the baby would
be Toby himself, a hot, dry little body without legs or arms, that
swayed suspended as if by magic a foot above the bed.

Then there was the vision of two small feet that moved a long way
off, and Toby would watch them curiously as kittens do their tails,
without knowing the cause of their motion. It was all very wonderful
and very strange, and day by day the veil grew thicker; there was no
need to wake when the sleeptime was so pleasant; there were no dark
people to kick you in that dreamy place.

And yet Toby woke--woke to a life and in a place which he had never
known before.

He found himself on a heap of rags in a large cellar which depended
for its light on a grating let into the pavement of the street
above. On the stone floor of the area and swinging from the grating
were a few sickly, grimy plants in pots. There must have been, a
fine sunset up above, for a faint red glow came through the bars and
touched the leaves of the plants.

There was a lighted candle standing in a bottle on the table, and the
cellar seemed full of people. At the table itself two men and a woman
were drinking, though they were already drunk, and beyond in a corner
Toby could see the head and shoulders of a tall old man. Beside him
there crouched a woman with a faded, pretty face, and between Toby
and the rest of the room there stood a box in which lay a baby with
large, wakeful eyes.

Toby's body tingled with excitement, for this was a new thing; he had
never seen it before, he had never seen anything before.

The voice of the woman at the table rose and fell steadily without a
pause; she was abusing the other woman, and the two drunken men were
laughing at her and shouting her on; Toby thought the other woman
lacked spirit because she stayed crouching on the floor and said
nothing.

At last the woman stopped her abuse, and one of the men turned and
shouted an order to the woman on the floor. She stood up and came
towards him, hesitating; this annoyed the man and he swore at her
brutally; when she came near enough he knocked her down with his
fist, and all the three burst out laughing.

Toby was so excited that he knelt up in his corner and clapped his
hands, but the others did not notice because the old man was up and
swaying wildly over the woman. He seemed to be threatening the man
who had struck her, and that one was evidently afraid of him, for he
rose unsteadily and lifted the chair on which he had been sitting
above his head to use as a weapon.

The old man raised his fist and the chair fell heavily on to his
wrinkled forehead and he dropped to the ground.

The woman at the table cried out, "The pension!" in her shrill voice,
and then they were all quiet, looking.

Then it seemed to Toby that through the forest there came flying,
with a harsh sweet voice and a tumult of wings, a bird of all
colours, ugly and beautiful, and he knew, though later there might be
people to tell him otherwise, that that was the end of everything.

Children Of The Moon

The boy stood at the place where the park trees stopped and the
smooth lawns slid away gently to the great house. He was dressed only
in a pair of ragged knickerbockers and a gaping buttonless shirt, so
that his legs and neck and chest shone silver bare in the moonlight.
By day he had a mass of rough golden hair, but now it seemed to brood
above his head like a black cloud that made his face deathly white by
comparison. On his arms there lay a great heap of gleaming dew-wet
roses and lilies, spoil of the park flower-beds. Their cool petals
touched his cheek, and filled his nostrils with aching scent. He felt
his arms smarting here and there, where the thorns of the roses had
torn them in the dark, but these delicate caresses of pain only
served to deepen to him the wonder of the night that wrapped him
about like a cloak. Behind him there dreamed the black woods, and
over his head multitudinous stars quivered and balanced in space; but
these things were nothing to him, for far across the lawn that was
spread knee-deep, with a web of mist there gleamed for his eager eyes
the splendour of a fairy palace. Red and orange and gold, the lights
of the fairy revels shone from a hundred windows and filled him with
wonder that he should see with wakeful eyes the jewels that he had
desired so long in sleep. He could only gaze and gaze until his
straining eyes filled with tears, and set the enchanted lights
dancing in the dark. On his ears, that heard no more the crying of
the night-birds and the quick stir of the rabbits in the brake, there
fell the strains of far music. The flowers in his arms seemed to sway
to it, and his heart beat to the deep pulse of the night.

So enraptured were his senses that he did not notice the coming of
the girl, and she was able to examine him closely before she called
to him softly through the moonlight.

"Boy! Boy!"

At the sound of her voice he swung round and looked at her with
startled eyes. He saw her excited little face and her white dress.

"Are you a fairy?" he asked hoarsely, for the night-mist was in his
voice.

"No," she said, "I'm a little girl. You're a wood-boy, I suppose?"

He stayed silent, regarding her with a puzzled face. Who was this
little white creature with the tender voice that had slipped so
suddenly out of the night?

"As a matter of fact," the girl continued, "I've come out to have a
look at the fairies. There's a ring down in the wood. You can come
with me if you like, wood-boy."

He nodded his head silently, for he was afraid to speak to her, and
set off through the wood by her side, still clasping the flowers to
his breast.

"What were you looking at when I found you?" she asked.

"The palace--the fairy palace," the boy muttered.

"The palace?" the girl repeated. "Why, that's not a palace; that's
where I live."

The boy looked at her with new awe; if she were a fairy---- But the
girl had noticed that his feet made no sound beside her shoes.

"Don't the thorns prick your feet, wood-boy?" she asked; but the boy
said nothing, and they were both silent for a while, the girl looking
about her keenly as she walked, and the boy watching her face.
Presently they came to a wide pool where a little tinkling fountain
threw bubbles to the hidden fish.

"Can you swim?" she said to the boy.

He shook his head.

"It's a pity," said the girl; "we might have had a bathe. It would be
rather fun in the dark, but it's pretty deep there. We'd better get
on to the fairy ring."

The moon had flung queer shadows across the glade in which the ring
lay, and when they stood on the edge listening intently the wood
seemed to speak to them with a hundred voices.

"You can take hold of my hand, if you like," said the girl, in a
whisper.

The boy dropped his flowers about his white feet and felt for the
girl's hand in the dark. Soon it lay in his own, a warm live thing,
that stirred a little with excitement.

"I'm not afraid," the girl said; and so they waited.

* * * * *

The man came upon them suddenly from among the silver birches. He had
a knapsack on his back and his hair was as long as a tramp's. At
sight of him the girl almost screamed, and her hand trembled in the
boy's. Some instinct made him hold it tighter.

"What do you want?" he muttered, in his hoarse voice.

The man was no less astonished than the children.

"What on earth are you doing here?" he cried. His voice was mild and
reassuring, and the girl answered him promptly.

"I came out to look for fairies."

"Oh, that's right enough," commented the man; "and you," he said,
turning to the boy, "are you after fairies, too? Oh, I see; picking
flowers. Do you mean to sell them?"

The boy shook his head.

"For my sister," he said, and stopped abruptly.

"Is your sister fond of flowers?"

"Yes; she's dead."

The man looked at him gravely.

"That's a phrase," he said, "and phrases are the devil. Who told you
that dead people like flowers?"

"They always have them," said the boy, blushing for shame of his
pretty thought.

"And what are _you_ looking for?" the girl interrupted.

The man made a mocking grimace, and glanced around the glade as if he
were afraid of being overheard.

"Dreams," he said bluntly.

The girl pondered this for a moment.

"And your knapsack?" she began.

"Yes," said the man, "it's full of them."

The children looked at the knapsack with interest, the girl's fingers
tingling to undo the straps of it.

"What are they like?" she asked.

The man gave a short laugh.

"Very like yours and his, I expect; when you grow older, young woman,
you'll find there's really only one dream possible for a sensible
person. But you don't want to hear about my troubles. This is more in
your line!" He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a flageolet,
which he put to his lips.

"Listen!" he said.

To the girl it seemed as though the little tune had leapt from the
pipe, and was dancing round the ring like a real fairy, while echo
came tripping through the trees to join it. The boy gaped and said
nothing.

At last, when the fairy was beginning to falter and echo was quite
out of breath, the man took the flageolet from his lips.

"Well," he said, with a smile.

"Thank you very much," said the girl politely. "I think that was very
nice indeed. Oh, boy!" she broke off, "you're hurting my hand!"

The boy's eyes were shining strangely, and he was waving his arms in
dismay.

"All the wasted moonlight!" he cried; "the grass is quite wet with
it."

The girl turned to him in surprise.

"Why, boy, you've found your voice."

"After that," said the man gravely, as he put his flageolet back in
his pocket, "I think I will show you the inside of my knapsack."

The girl bent down eagerly, while he loosened the straps, but gave a
cry of disappointment when she saw the contents.

"Pictures!" she said.

"Pictures," echoed the man drily,--"pictures of dreams. I don't know
how you're going to see them. Perhaps the moon will do her best."

The girl looked at them nicely, and passed them on one by one to the
boy. Presently she made a discovery.

"Oh, boy!" she cried, "your tears are spoiling all the pictures."

"I'm sorry," said the boy huskily; "I can't help it."

"I know," the man said quickly; "it doesn't matter a bit. I expect
you've seen these pictures before."

"I know them all," said the boy, "but I have never seen them."

The man frowned.

"It's the devil," he said to himself, "when boys speak English." He
turned suddenly to the girl, who was puzzling over the boy's tears.
"It's time you went back to bed," he said; "there won't be any
fairies tonight. It's too cold for them."

The girl yawned.

"I shall get into a row when I get back if they've found it out. I
don't care."

"The moon is fading," said the boy suddenly; "there are no more
shadows."

"We will see you through the wood," the man continued, "and say
good-night."

He put his pictures back in his knapsack and then walked silently
through the murmuring wood. At the edge of the wood the girl stopped.

"You are a wood-boy," she said to the boy, "and you mustn't come any
farther. You can give me a kiss if you like."

The boy did not move, but stayed regarding her awkwardly.

"I think you are a very silly boy," said the girl, with a toss of her
head, and she stalked away proudly into the mist.

"Why didn't you kiss her?" asked the man.

"Her lips would burn me," said the boy.

The man and the boy walked slowly across the park.

"Now, boy," said the man, "since civilisation has gone to bed the
time has come for you to hear your destiny."

"I am only a poor boy," the boy replied simply. "I don't think I have
any destiny."

"Paradox," said the man, "is meant to conceal the insincerity of the
aged, not to express the simplicity of youth. But I wander. You have
made phrases tonight."

"What are phrases?"

"What are dreams? What are roses? What, in fine, is the moon? Boy, I
take you for a moon-child. You hold her pale flowers in your arms,
her white beams have caressed your limbs, you prefer the kisses of
her cool lips to those of that earth-child; all this is very well.
But, above all, you have the music of her great silence; above all,
you have her tears. When I played to you on my pipe you recognised
the voice of your mother. When I showed you my pictures you recalled
the tales with which she hushed you to sleep. And so I knew that you
were her son and my little brother."

"The moon has always been my friend," said the boy; "but I did not
know that she was my mother."

"Perhaps your sister knows it; the happy dead are glad to seek her
for a mother; that is why they are so fond of white flowers."

"We have a mother at home. She works very hard for us."

"But it is your mother among the clouds who makes your life
beautiful, and the beauty of your life is the measure of your days."

While the boy reflected on these things they had reached the gates of
the park, and they stole past the silent lodge on to the high road. A
man was waiting there in the shadows, and when he saw the boy's
companion he rushed out and seized him by the arm.

"So I've got you," he said; "I don't think I'll let you go again in a
hurry."

The son of the moon gave a queer little laugh.

"Why, it's Taylor!" he said pleasantly; "but, Taylor, you know
you're making a great mistake."

"Very possibly," said the keeper, with a laugh.

"You see this boy here, Taylor; I assure you he is much madder than I
am."

Taylor looked at the boy kindly.

"Time you were in bed, Tommy," he said.

"Taylor," said the man earnestly, "this boy has made three phrases.
If you don't lock him up he will certainly become a poet. He will
set your precious world of sanity ablaze with the fire of his mother,
the moon. Your palaces will totter, Taylor, and your kingdoms become
as dust. I have warned you."

"That's right, sir; and now you must come with me."

"Boy," said the man generously, "keep your liberty. By grace of
Providence, all men in authority are fools. We shall meet again under
the light of the moon."

With dreamy eyes the boy watched the departure of his companion. He
had become almost invisible along the road when, miraculously as it
seemed, the light of the moon broke through the trees by the wayside
and lit up his figure. For a moment it fell upon his head like a
halo, and touched the knapsack of dreams with glory. Then all was
lost in the blackness of night.

As he turned homeward the boy felt a cold wind upon his cheek. It was
the first breath of dawn.

The Coffin Merchant

I

London on a November Sunday inspired Eustace Reynolds with a
melancholy too insistent to be ignored and too causeless to be
enjoyed. The grey sky overhead between the house-tops, the cold wind
round every street-corner, the sad faces of the men and women on the
pavements, combined to create an atmosphere of ineloquent misery.
Eustace was sensitive to impressions, and in spite of a
half-conscious effort to remain a dispassionate spectator of the
world's melancholy, he felt the chill of the aimless day creeping
over his spirit. Why was there no sun, no warmth, no laughter on the
earth? What had become of all the children who keep laughter like a
mask on the faces of disillusioned men? The wind blew down
Southampton Street, and chilled Eustace to a shiver that passed away
in a shudder of disgust at the sombre colour of life. A windy Sunday
in London before the lamps are lit, tempts a man to believe in the
nobility of work.

At the corner by Charing Cross Telegraph Office a man thrust a
handbill under his eyes, but he shook his head impatiently. The
blueness of the fingers that offered him the paper was alone
sufficient to make him disinclined to remove his hands from his
pockets even for an instant. But, the man would not be dismissed so
lightly.

"Excuse me, sir," he said, following him, "you have not looked to
see what my bills are."

"Whatever they are I do not want them."

"That's where you are wrong, sir," the man said earnestly. "You will
never find life interesting if you do not lie in wait for the
unexpected. As a matter of fact, I believe that my bill contains
exactly what you do want."

Eustace looked at the man with quick curiosity. His clothes were
ragged, and the visible parts of his flesh were blue with cold, but
his eyes were bright with intelligence and his speech was that of an
educated man. It seemed to Eustace that he was being regarded with a
keen expectancy, as though his decision I on the trivial point was of
real importance.

"I don't know what you are driving at," he said, "but if it will give
you any pleasure I will take one of your bills; though if you argue
with all your clients as you have with me, it must take you a long
time to get rid of them."

"I only offer them to suitable persons," the man said, folding up one
of the handbills while he spoke, "and I'm sure you will not regret
taking it," and he slipped the paper into Eustace's hand and walked
rapidly away.

Eustace looked after him curiously for a moment, and then opened the
paper in his hand. When his eyes comprehended its significance, he
gave a low whistle of astonishment. "You will soon be warning a
coffin!" it read. "At 606, Gray's Inn Road, your order will be
attended to with civility and despatch. Call and see us!!"

Eustace swung round quickly to look for the man, but he was out of
sight. The wind was growing colder, and the lamps were beginning to
shine out in the greying streets. Eustace crumpled the paper into
his overcoat pocket, and turned homewards.

"How silly!" he said to himself, in conscious amusement. The sound of
his footsteps on the pavement rang like an echo to his laugh.

II

Eustace was impressionable but not temperamentally morbid, and he was
troubled a little by the fact that the gruesomely bizarre handbill
continued to recur to his mind. The thing was so manifestly absurd,
he told himself with conviction, that it was not worth a second
thought, but this did not prevent him from thinking of it again and
again. What manner of undertaker could hope to obtain business by
giving away foolish handbills in the street? Really, the whole thing
had the air of a brainless practical joke, yet his intellectual
fairness forced him to admit that as far as the man who had given him
the bill was concerned, brainlessness was out of the question, and
joking improbable. There had been depths in those little bright
eyes which his glance had not been able to sound, and the man's
manner in making him accept the handbill had given the whole
transaction a kind of ludicrous significance.

"You will soon be wanting a coffin----!"

Eustace found himself turning the words over and over in his mind.
If he had had any near relations he might have construed the thing
as an elaborate threat, but he was practically alone in the world,
and it seemed to him that he was not likely to want a coffin for
anyone but himself.

"Oh damn the thing!" he said impatiently, as he opened the door of
his flat, "it isn't worth worrying about. I mustn't let the whim of
some mad tradesman get on my nerves. I've got no one to bury,
anyhow."

Nevertheless the thing lingered with him all the evening, and when
his neighbour the doctor came in for a chat at ten o'clock, Eustace
was glad to show him the strange handbill. The doctor, who had
experienced the queer magics that are practised to this day on the
West Coast of Africa, and who, therefore, had no nerves, was
delighted with so striking an example of British commercial
enterprise.

"Though, mind you," he added gravely, smoothing the crumpled paper on
his knee, "this sort of thing might do a lot of harm if it fell into
the hands of a nervous subject. I should be inclined to punch the
head of the ass who perpetrated it. Have you turned that address up
in the Post Office Directory?"

Eustace shook his head, and rose and fetched the fat red book which
makes London an English city. Together they found the Gray's Inn
Road, and ran their eyes down to No. 606.

"'Harding, G. J., Coffin Merchant and Undertaker.' Not much
information there," muttered the doctor.

"Coffin merchant's a bit unusual, isn't it?" queried Eustace.

"I suppose he manufactures coffins wholesale for the trade. Still, I
didn't know they called themselves that. Anyhow, it seems, as though
that handbill is a genuine piece of downright foolishness. The idiot
ought to be stopped advertising in that way."

"I'll go and see him myself tomorrow," said Eustace bluntly.

"Well, he's given you an invitation," said the doctor, "so it's only
polite of you to go. I'll drop in here in the evening to hear what
he's like. I expect that you'll find him as mad as a hatter."

"Something like that," said Eustace, "or he wouldn't give handbills
to people like me. I have no one to bury except myself."

"No," said the doctor in the hall, "I suppose you haven't. Don't let
him measure you for a coffin, Reynolds!"

Eustace laughed.

"We never know," he said sententiously.

III

Next day was one of those gorgeous blue days of which November gives
but few, and Eustace was glad to run out to Wimbledon for a game of
golf, or rather for two. It was therefore dusk before he made his way
to the Gray's Inn Road in search of the unexpected. His attitude
towards his errand despite the doctor's laughter and the prosaic
entry in the directory, was a little confused. He could not help
reflecting that after all the doctor had not seen the man with the
little wise eyes, nor could he forget that Mr. G. J. Harding's
description of himself as a coffin merchant, to say the least of it,
approached the unusual. Yet he felt that it would be intolerable to
chop the whole business without finding out what it all meant. On the
whole he would have preferred not to have discovered the riddle at
all; but having found it, he could not rest without an answer.

No. 606, Gray's Inn Road, was not like an ordinary undertaker's shop.
The window was heavily draped with black cloth, but was otherwise
unadorned. There were no letters from grateful mourners, no little
model coffins, no photographs of marble memorials. Even more
surprising was the absence of any name over the shop-door, so that
the uninformed stranger could not possibly tell what trade was
carried on within, or who was responsible for the management of the
business. This uncommercial modesty did not tend to remove Eustace's
doubts as to the sanity of Mr. G. J. Harding; but he opened the
shop-door which started a large bell swinging noisily, and stepped
over the threshold. The shop was hardly more expressive inside than
out. A broad counter ran across it, cutting it in two, and in the
partial gloom overhead a naked gas-burner whistled a noisy song.
Beyond this the shop contained no furniture whatever, and no
stock-in-trade except a few planks leaning against the wall in one
corner. There was a large ink-stand on the counter. Eustace waited
patiently for a minute or two, and then as no one came he began
stamping on the floor with his foot. This proved efficacious, for
soon he heard the sound of footsteps ascending wooden stairs, the
door behind the counter opened and a man came into the shop.

He was dressed quite neatly now, and his hands were no longer blue
with cold, but Eustace knew at once that it was the man who had given
him the handbill. Nevertheless he looked at Eustace without a sign of
recognition.

"What can I do for you, sir?" he asked pleasantly.

Eustace laid the handbill down on the counter.

"I want to know about this," he said. "It strikes me as being in
pretty bad taste, and if a nervous person got hold of it, it might be
dangerous."

"You think so, sir? Yet our representative," he lingered
affectionately on the words, "our representative told you, I believe,
that the handbill was only distributed to suitable cases."

"That's where you are wrong," said Eustace sharply, "for I have no
one to bury."

"Except yourself," said the coffin merchant suavely.

Eustace looked at him keenly. "I don't see----" he began. But the
coffin merchant interrupted him.

"You must know, sir," he said, "that this is no ordinary undertaker's
business. We possess information that enables us to defy competition
in our special class of trade."

"Information!"

"Well, if you prefer it, you may say intuitions. If our
representative handed you that advertisement, it was because he knew
you would need it."

"Excuse me," said Eustace, "you appear to be sane, but your words do
not convey to me any reasonable significance. You gave me that
foolish advertisement yourself, and now you say that you did so
because you knew I would need it. I ask you why?"

The coffin merchant shrugged his shoulders. "Ours is a sentimental
trade," he said, "I do not know why dead men want coffins, but they
do. For my part I would wish to be cremated."

"Dead men?"

"Ah, I was coming to that. You see Mr.----?"

"Reynolds."

"Thank you, my name is Harding--G. J. Harding. You see, Mr. Reynolds,
our intuitions are of a very special character, and if we say that
you will need a coffin, it is probable that you will need one."

"You mean to say that I----"

"Precisely. In twenty-four hours or less, Mr. Reynolds, you will need
our services."

The revelation of the coffin merchant's insanity came to Eustace
with a certain relief. For the first time in the interview he had a
sense of the dark empty shop and the whistling gas-jet over his
head.

"Why, it sounds like a threat, Mr. Harding!" he said gaily.

The coffin merchant looked at him oddly, and produced a printed form
from his pocket. "If you would fill this up," he said.

Eustace picked it up off the counter and laughed aloud. It was an
order for a hundred-guinea funeral.

"I don't know what your game is," he said, "but this has gone on long
enough."

"Perhaps it has, Mr. Reynolds," said the coffin merchant, and he
leant across the counter and looked Eustace straight in the face.

For a moment Eustace was amused; then he was suddenly afraid. "I
think it's time I----" he began slowly, and then he was silent, his
whole will intent on fighting the eyes of the coffin merchant. The
song of the gas-jet waned to a point in his ears, and then rose
steadily till it was like the beating of the world's heart. The eyes
of the coffin merchant grew larger and larger, till they blended in
one great circle of fire. Then Eustace picked a pen off the counter
and filled in the form.

"Thank you very much, Mr. Reynolds," said the coffin merchant,
shaking hands with him politely. "I can promise you every civility
and despatch. Good-day, sir."

Outside on the pavement Eustace stood for a while trying to recall
exactly what had happened. There was a slight scratch on his hand,
and when he automatically touched it with his lips, it made them
burn. The lit lamps in the Gray's Inn Road seemed to him a little
unsteady, and the passers-by showed a disposition to blunder into
him.

"Queer business," he said to himself dimly; "I'd better have a cab."

He reached home in a dream.

It was nearly ten o'clock before the doctor remembered his promise,
and went upstairs to Eustace's flat. The outer door was half-open so
that he thought he was expected, and he switched on the light in the
little hall, and shut the door behind him with the simplicity of
habit. But when he swung round from the door he gave a cry of
astonishment. Eustace was lying asleep in a chair before him with
his face flushed and drooping on his shoulder, and his breath
hissing noisily through his parted lips. The doctor looked at him
quizzically, "If I did not know you, my young friend," he remarked,
"I should say that you were as drunk as a lord."

And he went up to Eustace and shook him by the shoulder; but Eustace
did not wake.

"Queer!" the doctor muttered, sniffing at Eustace's lips; "he hasn't
been drinking."

The Soul Of A Policeman

I

Outside, above the uneasy din of the traffic, the sky was glorious
with the far peace of a fine summer evening. Through the upper pane
of the station window Police-constable Bennett, who felt that his
senses at the moment were abnormally keen, recognised with a sinking
heart such reds and yellows as bedecked the best patchwork quilt at
home. By contrast the lights of the superintendent's office were
subdued, so that within the walls of the police-station sounds seemed
of greater importance. Somewhere a drunkard, deprived of his boots,
was drumming his criticism of authority on the walls of his cell.
From the next room, where the men off duty were amusing themselves,
there came a steady clicking of billiard-balls and dominoes, broken
now and again by gruff bursts of laughter. And at his very elbow the
superintendent was speaking in that suave voice that reminded Bennett
of grey velvet.

"You see, Bennett, how matters stand. I have nothing at all against
your conduct. You are steady and punctual, and I have no doubt that
you are trying to do your duty. But it's very unfortunate that as far
as results go you have nothing to show for your efforts. During the
last three weeks you have not brought in a charge of any description,
and during the same period I find that your colleagues on the beat
have been exceptionally busy. I repeat that I do not accuse you of
neglecting your duty, but these things tell with the magistrates and
convey a general suggestion of slackness."

Bennett looked down at his brightly polished boots. His fingers were
sandy and there was soft felt beneath his feet.

"I have been afraid of this for some time, sir," he said, "very much
afraid."

The superintendent looked at him questioningly.

"You have nothing to say?" he said.

"I have always tried to do my duty, sir."

"I know, I know. But you must see that a certain number of charges,
if not of convictions, is the mark of a smart officer."

"Surely you would not have me arrest innocent persons?"

"That is a most improper observation," said the superintendent
severely. "I will say no more to you now. But I hope you will take
what I have said as a warning. You must bustle along, Bennett, bustle
along."

Outside in the street, Police-constable Bennett was free to reflect
on his unpleasant interview. The superintendent was ambitious and
therefore pompous; he, himself, was unambitious and therefore modest.
Left to himself he might have been content to triumph in the
reflection that he had failed to say a number of foolish things, but
the welfare of his wife and children bound him, tiresomely enough for
a dreamer, tightly to the practical. It was clear that if he did not
forthwith produce signs of his efficiency as a promoter of the peace
that welfare would be imperilled. Yet he did not condemn the chance
that had made him a policeman or even the mischance that brought no
guilty persons to his hands. Rather he looked with a gentle curiosity
into the faces of the people who passed him, and wondered why he
could not detect traces of the generally assumed wickedness of the
neighbourhood. These unkempt men and women were thieves and even
murderers, it appeared; but to him they shone as happy youths and
maidens, joyous victims of love's tyranny.

As he drew near the street in which he lived this sense of universal
love quickened in his blood and stirred him strangely. It did not
escape his eyes that to the general his uniform was an unfriendly
thing. Men and women paused in their animated chattering till he had
passed, and even the children faltered in their games to watch him
with doubtful eyes. And yet his heart was warm for them; he knew that
he wished them well.

Nevertheless, when he saw his house shining in a row of similar
houses, he realised that their attitude was wiser than his. If he was
to be a success as a breadwinner he must wage a sterner war against
these happy, lovable people. It was easy, he had been long enough in
the force to know how easy, to get cases. An intolerant manner, a
little provocative harshness, and the thing was done. Yet with all
his heart he admired the poor for their resentful independence of
spirit. To him this had always been the supreme quality of the
English character; how could he make use of it to fill English gaols?

He opened the door of his house, with a sigh on his lips. There came
forth the merry shouting of his children.

II

Above the telephone wires the stars dipped at anchor in the cloudless
sky. Down below, in one of the dark, empty streets, Police-constable
Bennett turned the handles of doors and tested the fastenings of
windows, with a complete scepticism as to the value of his labours.
Gradually, he was coming to see that he was not one of the few who
are born to rule--to control--their simple neighbours, ambitious only
for breath. Where, if he had possessed this mission, he would have
been eager to punish, he now felt no more than a sympathy that
charged him with some responsibility for the sins of others. He
shared the uneasy conviction of the multitude that human justice, as
interpreted by the inspired minority, is more than a little unjust.
The very unpopularity with which his uniform endowed him seemed to
him to express a severe criticism of the system of which he was an
unwilling supporter. He wished these people to regard him as a kind
of official friend, to advise and settle differences; yet, shrewder
than he, they considered him as an enemy, who lived on their mistakes
and the collapse of their social relationships.

There remained his duty to his wife and children, and this rendered
the problem infinitely perplexing.

Why should he punish others because of his love for his children; or,
again, why should his children suffer for his scruples? Yet it was
clear that, unless fortune permitted him to accomplish some notable
yet honourable arrest, he would either have to cheat and tyrannise
with his colleagues or leave the force. And what employment is
available for a discharged policeman?

As he went systematically from house to house the consideration of
these things marred the normal progress of his dreams. Conscious as
he was of the stars and the great widths of heaven that made the
world so small, he nevertheless felt that his love for his family and
the wider love that determined his honour were somehow intimately
connected with this greatness of the universe rather than with the
world of little streets and little motives, and so were not lightly
to be put aside. Yet, how can one measure one love against another
when all are true?

When the door of Gurneys', the moneylenders, opened to his touch,
and drew him abruptly from his speculations, his first emotion was a
quick irritation that chance should interfere with his thoughts. But
when his lantern showed him that the lock had been tampered with,
his annoyance changed to a thrill of hopeful excitement. What if
this were the way out? What if fate had granted him compromise, the
opportunity of pitting his official virtue against official crime,
those shadowy forces in the existence of which he did not believe,
but which lay on his life like clouds?

He was not a physical coward, and it seemed quite simple to him to
creep quietly through the open door into the silent office without
waiting for possible reinforcements. He knew that the safe, which
would be the, natural goal of the presumed burglars, was in Mr.
Gurney's private office beyond, and while he stood listening intently
he seemed to hear dim sounds coming from the direction of that room.
For a moment he paused, frowning slightly as a man does when he is
trying to catalogue an impression. When he achieved perception, it
came oddly mingled with recollections of the little tragedies of his
children at home. For some one was crying like a child in the little
room where Mr. Gurney brow-beat recalcitrant borrowers. Dangerous
burglars do not weep, and Bennett hesitated no longer, but stepped
past the open flaps of the counter, and threw open the door of the
inner office.

The electric light had been switched on, and at the table there sat a
slight young man with his face buried in his hands, crying bitterly.
Behind him the safe stood open and empty, and the grate was filled
with smouldering embers of burnt paper. Bennett went up to the
young man and placed his hand on his shoulder. But the young man wept
on and did not move.

Try as he might Bennett could not help relaxing the grip of outraged
law, and patting the young man's shoulder soothingly as it rose and
fell. He had no fit weapons of roughness and oppression with which to
oppose this child-like grief; he could only fight tears with tears.

"Come," he said gently, "you must pull yourself together."

At the sound of his voice the young man gave a great sob and then was
silent, shivering a little.

"That's better," said Bennett encouragingly, "much better."

"I have burnt everything," the young man said suddenly, "and now the
place is empty. I was nearly sick just now."

Bennett looked at him sympathetically, as one dreamer may look at
another, who is sad with action dreamed too often for scatheless
accomplishment. "I'm afraid you'll get into serious trouble," he
said.

"I know," replied the young man, "but that blackguard Gurney--" His
voice rose to a shrill scream and choked him for a moment. Then
he went on quietly "But it's all over now. Finished! Done with!"

"I suppose you owed him money?"

The young man nodded. "He lives on fools like me. But he threatened
to tell my father, and now I've just about ruined him. Pah! Swine!"

"This won't be much better for your father," said Bennett gravely.

"No, it's worse; but perhaps it will help some of the others. He kept
on threatening and I couldn't wait any longer. Can't you see?"

Over the young man's shoulder the stars becked and nodded to Bennett
through the blindless window.

"I see," he said; "I see."

"So now you can take me."

Bennett looked doubtfully at the outstretched wrists. "You are only a
fool," he said, "a dreaming fool like me, and they will give you
years for this. I don't see why they should give a man years for
being a fool."

The young man looked up, taken with a sudden hope. "You will let me
go?" he said, in astonishment. "I know I was an ass just now. I
suppose I was a bit shaken. But you will let me go?"

"I wish to God I had never seen you!" said Bennett simply. "You have
your father, and I have a wife and three little children. Who shall
judge between us?"

"My father is an old man."

"And my children are little. You had better go before I make up my
mind."

Without another word the young man crept out of the room, and Bennett
followed him slowly into the street. This gallant criminal whose
capture would have been honourable, had dwindled to a hysterical
foolish boy; and aided by his own strange impulse this boy had ruined
him. The burglary had taken place on his beat; there would be an
inquiry; it did not need that to secure his expulsion from the force.
Once in the street he looked up hopefully to the heavens; but now the
stars seemed unspeakably remote, though as he passed along his beat
his wife and his three little children were walking by his side.

III

Bennett had developed mentally without realising the logical result
of his development until it smote him with calamity. Of his betrayal
of trust as a guardian of property he thought nothing; of the
possibility of poverty for his family he thought a great deal--all
the more that his dreamer's mind was little accustomed to gripping
the practical. It was strange, he thought, that his final declaration
of war against his position should have been a little lacking in
dignity. He had not taken the decisive step through any deep
compassion of utter poverty bravely borne. His had been no more than
trivial pity of a young man's folly; and this was a frail thing on
which to make so great a sacrifice. Yet he regretted nothing. His
task of moral guardian of men and women had become impossible to him,
and sooner or later he must have given it up. And there was also his
family. "I must come to some decision," he said to himself firmly.

And then the great scream fell upon his ears and echoed through his
brain for ever and ever. It came from the house before which he was
standing, and he expected the whole street to wake aghast with the
horror of it. But there followed a silence that seemed to emphasise
the ugliness of the sound. Far away an engine screamed as if in
mocking imitation; and that was all. Bennett had counted up to a
hundred and seventy before the door of the house opened, and a man
came out on to the steps.

"Oh, constable," he said coolly, "come inside, will you? I have
something to show you."

Bennett mounted the steps doubtfully.

"There was a scream," he said.

The man looked at him quickly. "So you heard it," he said. "It was
not pretty."

"No, it was not," replied Bennett.

The man led him down the dim passage into the back sitting-room. The
body of a man lay on the sofa; it was curled like a dry leaf.

"That is my brother," said the man, with a little emphatic nod; "I
have killed him. He was my enemy."

Bennett stared dully at the body, without believing it to be really
there.

"Dead!" he said mechanically.

"And anything I say will be used against me in evidence! As if you
could compress my hatred into one little lying notebook."

"I don't care a damn about your hatred," said Bennett, with heat. "An
hour ago, perhaps, I might have arrested you; now I only find you
uninteresting."

The man gave a long, low whistle of surprise.

"A philosopher in uniform," he said, "God! sir, you have my
sympathy."

"And you have my pity. You have stolen your ideas from cheap
melodrama, and you make tragedy ridiculous. Were I a policeman, I
would lock you up with pleasure. Were I a man, I should thrash you
joyfully. As it is I can only share your infamy. I too, I suppose, am
a murderer."

"You are in a low, nervous state," said the man; "and you are doing
me some injustice. It is true that I am a poor murderer; but it
appears to me that you are a worse policeman."

"I shall wear the uniform no more from tonight."

Book of the day: