Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Chapter that Had to be Written
By William De Morgan (1839–1917)
From ‘Joseph Vance’, Chapter XLI.

IF you remember anything of the great wrecks of from twenty to thirty years ago you will remember the spring of 1874—and the news that reached London three days after the departure from Southampton of the Glascatherick of the Glass Line. It came from a lighthouse station on the Portuguese coast, and told how the great ship with almost all on board had gone down in a gale, having foundered on a reef within gunshot of the coast. Whether from an error in navigation, from misapprehension of the lighthouse, or from some failure of the engines, no one ever knew. The few who survived could tell nothing, their only testimony being that the voyage had all gone well till some twelve hours before the catastrophe, when the glass fell steadily and the wind rose to a gale. Some time after midnight, when those who were sleeping were in their deepest sleep, came a sudden stoppage of the screw, shouted orders and panic of aroused alarm, then again the screw and then the hideous crash as the ship drove stem on to the rock of destruction. Then a scene utterly indescribable, utterly inconceivable, by those who have never known the like. Husbands forsaking wives, and fathers children, in the agony of self-preservation, strong men thrusting weaker ones and women aside in the fight for the boats; Religious Faith stricken with despair and screaming with terror of Death; and in unexpected quarters, sudden Heroism. Then forlorn hopes of departing overloaded boats, the cruel task of choice of who should be allowed to go, the dreadful cry of despair as they swamped before the eyes of survivors. And then the terrible word of the strong to the weak, who look to them for help to the last, that now no help is left to the powers of man. If, as may be, those that die pass beyond Death from a scene like this, it may be too that the memory of it is happily short, and even that other things we once accounted gain seem worse, a thousand times. For those who survive there is no escape from the knowledge of the past, and the memory of it is present with them till the end.  1
  Of the few survivors of the Glascatherick almost the only one who could give any coherent particulars was a young engineer who with his wife was on his way to Italy. He told how she and he were awakened by the sudden stoppage of the screw, followed by the roar of the steam-trumpet, and heard the shouting of orders, and strained rapid action of the rudder chains which passed close to their berths. Then the resumed movement of the machinery, which he was able to recognize as reversed. He anticipated collision with another ship, thinking that to a certainty land was distant. But the instant after came the crash, and he knew it was a rock.  2
  He was so prompt in snatching the life-belts from the cabin ceiling, so prompt in getting them onto himself and his wife, that when they made for the stairway leading onto the promenade deck there were still belated sleepers coming out of their cabins to know if anything was the matter. Otherwise he could only tell that they reached the deck, forcing their way through a half-choked passage, that the officers and the crew were even then unlashing the boats and slacking them down ready for those who might prefer that slender chance of life to the certainty of death. They heard the voice of the Captain above the turmoil,—“Women and children first—men stand back,”—and saw him knock down a man who thrust himself unduly forward. The first mate came to them and tried to persuade the lady to leave her husband and go in the first boat, but she refused. “We go together,” said she, and they remained and saw boat after boat get clear, all but two that were swamped almost as soon as they touched the water. They stayed on some while, he could not say how long, after the last boat had gone, and then the ship gave a lurch and seemed to go head down—at least, said he, it was the end towards the land.  3
  Then the first mate came again to them and said, “Now is your time to go. The land is not a mile away. Good luck to both!” And then he and she were in the cold dark water. The life-belts floated them and he swam with her left hand in his. The wind had fallen and the sea was less, and he was not without hope. He even spoke to cheer her, and she replied—and then once more. The third time he spoke she did not answer. Still, if he could only reach the land! He himself had been drowned and revived, and that made him hope.  4
  But the great black promontory came no nearer, to all seeming. And the hand he held was lifeless. And his senses were failing fast—and then his power died in his own hands, and he could hold hers no longer. And it slipped away from him and the darkness closed in upon him, and he knew no more.  5
  Why do I write all this of this young engineer and his wife? Because I was he, and she was Janey. And I can scarcely bear to write or think of that dreadful time; and could not bear to speak of it, now that I cannot see Lossie, and Dr. Thorpe is gone, to any living creature. Yet it is twenty-three years this November—twenty-three long years!—since I passed a second time through the shadow of Death, and was a second time dragged back to life again—oh, how unwillingly! at a monastery on the coast of Portugal where I was washed ashore, with still a spark of Life.  6
  Why could they not have left me as I was? “Ah, mon fils,” said a very old Spanish monk who could speak French, “si on avait su que c’était ta femme, on aurait su te laisser mourir.” As I revived slowly my first words had been, strangely enough, “Is the child safe?” The force of the revived sensation had carried me back to the old days in Devon, and I was again asking after Lossie’s boy. Then slowly came back the agony of life, and I began to understand that I was alone.  7
  It was a long time before I recovered more than the merest fragments of speech. It was not grief—that was going to come later—but a complete prostration that, perhaps happily, left no room for grief. I could only pass a dumb, stunned, unquestioning existence. I believe it was the old Padre Pablo who set going the first real revival of conscious life. When I replied to him that I should have welcomed death, he said: “Je le comprends bien. Moi aussi, j’ai perdu une épouse. Mais pour moi, mon fils, c’était plus cruel—” He paused a moment; then continued: “Oui vraiment, bien plus cruel! Enfin, c’est moi-même qui l’ai tuée.” And then in reply to my look of surprise: “Vous ne m’avez pas tout-à-fait compris, mon fils? Je parle de moi-même. Je l’ai tuée.” He then went on to tell how, being a young man of twenty, he had had exactly Othello’s experience, but never knew till long after how groundless his jealousy had been. He had fled, and it was supposed she had killed herself. “C’était encore pis pour moi, mon fils, que pour vous,” he repeated quietly. “Chaque jour—chaque heure—j’entends le cri de ma mourante. J’ai quatre-vingt-dix-neuf ans. Ça me durera jusqu’à la mort.”  8
  Nearly eighty years! The blow had been struck in Paris, in the days, say, of the Directory. And the cry of his murdered victim, so Father Paul said, and I believed him, had never died away.  9
  A day elapsed before I was able to give any intelligible account of myself. I then wrote the words, “On shore alone—tell her family,” and told them to write to Macallister, Chelsea, England. I felt that would be sufficient—and was glad to be brief, for exertion to think was terrible, and torpor alone seemed welcome. I then charged Father Paul to give in reply to official enquiry when it came, or to newsmongers, simply my name and what I had been able to tell him of the wreck, and then resigned myself to stupefaction. With the exception of a few words with him, and now and then thanks for some expression of sympathy in an unknown tongue, from the others, I was silent, until one early morning as I lay awaiting the dawn and listening to the long-drawn thunder of the swell on the precipice below, my ear was caught by an unwonted sound of voices that came nearer, mixed with the ring of hoofs upon the rock road. Was one of the voices English, or not? No, it was not! Yes—surely it was! And it said loudly and cheerfully as one who encourages another, “Keep up—keep up—we are here at last.”  10
  Then I remember rising from the couch with a new life, and running out to meet Archie Macallister, and then my brain swam and I tottered forward. He was just in time to catch me as I fell, and he picked me up and carried me back like a child. Then I remember lying again on the bed, having found my own weakness, and seeing on one side of me Bony, and on the other her father. I have told enough.  11
  Man has to live, or die. If he chooses the former, he has to discover a modus vivendi after any crushing blow. According to my experience, strong natures invest their capital, so to speak, in self-defense, but make up their minds to a long siege. I knew, even as Father Paul knew that the cry of the dying woman would last till death, that I should have to live with the touch of my darling’s rings on the fingers of my left hand as hers slipped away forever. But I had to find out a way of doing it, and I think I was as brave as most.  12
  My partner, and her father, both of whom had left the conduct of business matters in good hands, were able to stay on with me for a while. It may seem strange, but I did not wish to get away from the sea that had engulfed her. It presented itself to me only as the scene of our last farewell. And the last words she said were still in my ears. “Now, Jacky, recollect!” and then when I next spoke, no answer came.  13
  What was it that I was to recollect? It was a promise, repeated more than once after I made it when we walked that time from Poplar Villa after Beppino’s literary collapse; repeated in the ship’s cabin as I drew the life-belt on, repeated again in the water that drowned her. A promise not to grieve should she go first, lest it should break her heart to see my grief. “Promise again,” she had said, and I replied, “I promise, my darling.” It was a promise easy to make—but, oh, how hard to keep!  14
  Which is the worse off, I wonder—the one that is left, or the one that is gone—the one that sees no longer or the one that still sees, or it may be sees more than ever before? If there be risk of this, how well worth the effort to hang as lightly as may be on the newfound freedom of the departed! Of what profit to oneself is the indulgence of grief at the best? Of how much less if each pang adds a new pang to other pain elsewhere.  15
  It was all such speculation, and the darkness seems so real to him who only guesses in the dark at an unseen sun. But a promise was a promise, and I fought hard and truly to keep mine. There was no fear to my succeeding too well.  16
  It was I then, and neither of my companions, who may be said to have taken the lead towards a resumption of life—the life we had to finish before each could get on to his extinction or his knowledge of the next. It took me a week of nursing and another of convalescence before I was able to look plans for the future in the face. Had it not been for my companions I might have stayed on indefinitely, wandering about and watching the great white rollers live their life and die. I had no definite expectation of any trace of the body, but I suppose some such thought made part of my motives. I was, however, distinctly relieved when I heard that, though so near the shore, the ship was in such deep water that no attempt at salvage would be made. I had dreaded and avoided details of the wreck as much as possible. It is still rather strange to me why I found it so hard to break away. But there was Bony, and there was her father. I knew they would not go and leave me. Neither would they, either of them, begin upon the task of settling the future. So I took the matter into my own hands.  17
  “I say Bony,” said I. “Jeannie will want you back.”  18
  “Yes, old chap, we’ll settle all that presently. What a queer old boy the old padre is!”  19
  “You had better take care—he understands some English. Do you know, in his novitiate, or something of that sort, he passed a year at a place near London called Foolham. Do you know it?”  20
  “I know there is now an establishment of Catholics at Fulham, but I should hardly have thought it was so old.”  21
  “He speaks of another at Amsmeedza. Do you know that one?”  22
  “The one at Hammersmith may be older. But they can’t be older than the century. He is.”  23
  “Five-and-twenty years older. More. He was actually living in Paris, and married, in the days of the National Convention—before Napoleon—before everything.”  24
  “I didn’t know Monks married.”  25
  “He wasn’t a Monk then. He became one after her death. Don’t be frightened, Bony, I won’t become a Monk.”  26
  Poor Bony! I could not break down. He could, and did. When he spoke again I could hear it in his voice.  27
  “Perhaps it wasn’t in his novitiate he was at Fulham. It may have been later.”  28
  “Very likely! When he told me, I wasn’t quite so——”  29
  “I understand.”  30
  “As I am now. But, Bony dear, you have got off from the point. Jeannie will want you back.”  31
  “Yes—and you too. I know what you are driving at, Partner. You want to run away, and travel about and distract your mind and all that sort of thing.”  32
  “Nothing of the sort, Partner.” We called each other “partner” by fits and starts, unreasonably. “I mean to do exactly whatever Janey likes.”  33
  Bony looked anxious. He felt my hand to see if it was hot. He felt my pulse to see if it was quick. Neither was either. He gave up diagnosis. But he couldn’t accept the form of my speech without a protest.  34
  “I see what you mean, dear old chap. Exactly what Janey would like if she were here. Quite right.”  35
  But the form of a hypothesis did not suit my mood. “Exactly what Janey likes if she is here,” said I, obstinately; and Bony replied as one who yields to a patient’s whim, “All right, old boy.”  36
  He was so gentle, acquiescent to my every impulse that I felt I had been dictatorial and overbearing. So I thought I would soften it by discussing hypotheses.  37
  “Do you remember old Dr. Serocold of Magdalen? Oh no—of course, you were at Cambridge. How one forgets!” And Bony asked about the old party, nevertheless.  38
  “Only what we were saying made me think of the nature of an hypothesis—and of course that made me think of old Serocold. When I told him how long it took to scull to Iffley and back, he twinkled and said he supposed Iffley was the place where they made the hypotheses.”  39
  Another time I should have followed this on with more of old Dr. Serocold’s absurd sayings. But now I was aware of a web of strange filaments of pain that kept my eyes dim and my lips still, and I knew I could not laugh. I plunged straight back into the heart of the conversation.  40
  “Grant it’s a billion to one against Janey hearing and seeing me now. It’s better to catch at the chance and be mistaken than to neglect it and find my mistake after. I know what she would say, almost as if she said it. ‘Think of the Lord Chancellor.’” This was the name we had got into the way of calling her Father. “That’s what I shall do. Look at him out there.”  41
  Poor old Spencer did not look the same man. The prosperous, responsible lawyer that had bid Janey and me Godspeed less than three weeks since had disappeared, and now a broken-down old man wandered some fifty yards from where we sat on the cliffside, looking out over the sea. He had a pocket telescope with which he scanned the horizon and the rock island some miles out, or the nearer rocks below. Whether he thought to detect a sad addition to the scraps of scattered wreck that were still left, which would have been his and mine to claim, I know not. But he spent much of his time in this way, and did not seem to care for talk. Janey had been his special daughter, and his heart was wrapped up in her. Sarry had practically vanished to Colombo, only reappearing at intervals. His wife was nil. I saw that his decadence had begun. As I finished speaking to Bony, he looked over to the grief-worn figure that made, upon a rock-eminence near us, a silhouette against the sea.  42
  “Yes,” said he. “The journey was awful. Too much for the old gentleman. I thought I shouldn’t ever get him here!”  43
  “Oh, Bony! What a job you must have had!”  44
  “It was pretty stiff. But we got here, somehow. It will be a lot easier to go back.”  45
  “But you see what I mean. Janey would like me to keep near him.”  46
  “I expect she would be right. All go back together—eh, Joe?” and I assented.  47
  I can well remember how desperately weak I was as Bony helped me up the steep pathway when we returned to the monastery, not four hundred yards away. And how a thought crossed my mind, as I leaned on his strong arm, that had I not been eight months his senior it would have gone ill with me in the old days at St. Withold’s. But it all seemed a dream, and I had hardly strength to think—least of all of the great riddle of time and change. I let the memory slip from mere fatigue.  48
  “You sit down a minute, Joe, while I go back and lend Mr. Spencer a hand,” said Bony. But just then Father Paul’s voice came from behind us, saying, “Permettez, Messieurs. Je suis assez fort, malgré mon âge,” and offered me his arm on my right. Seeing that I had looked round to my left, as expecting him to come on that side, he added explanatorily: “Voici ma main forte—à gauche—la mano izquierda. J’ai toujours été gaucher ce que nous nommons ici—nous autres—zurdo.” And then my weak mind, stirring again towards its old zest for inquiry, must needs be thinking how long was it before that deadly battle at Helstaple that this other hand I leaned on had struck the life out of the helpless girl. Half a century, and more, though I could not fix the figure. Surely this old man had expiated his crime! But my mind reeled again, and fell baffled from the thought.  49
  And Father Paul himself might be as little in my memory now as any of the crowd of monks who gathered to bid us farewell a fortnight later (I could not move sooner) but that he himself was not among them. He had got his release. And the last I saw of him was what lay on a wooden pallet under a huge crucifix in the cell to which they summoned me to see the Padre, who had died in the night. That was what had held him near upon a century; and now it seemed an effigy in alabaster, small and clear-cut, on which the hand that had struck the blow eighty years since lay moveless. The ears had heard for the last time the cry of the murdered woman, and Father Paul himself knew very much more, or verily nothing.  50
  And I said to myself, but in vain, that my own lot, matched against his, should seem happy. To go with my darling to the very gate of death, to know above all that I had shared every pang to the moment of parting, that what she had suffered I had suffered, that her last words still reached me almost like a voice from the other side—was I not surely the better off of the two? At any rate, if no consolation came from thinking another worse off than I was, the pity for him took me out of myself and gave me a better courage to look back on the past and forward to the days to come.  51

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