Part 3 out of 3
"What is it supposed to mean in English?" I said.
"Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it means 'I'm beastly tired.' It's great
nonsence," he repeated, "but all those men in the ship seem as real
people to me. Do do something to the notion soon; I should like
to see it written and printed."
"But all you've told me would make a long book."
"Make it then. You've only to sit down and write it out."
"Give me a little time. Have you any more notions?"
"Not just now. I'm reading all the books I've bought. They're
When he had left I looked at the sheet of note-paper with the
inscription upon it. Then I took my head tenderly between both
hands, to make certain that it was not coming off or turning round.
Then ... but there seemed to be no interval between quitting my
rooms and finding myself arguing with a policeman outside a door
marked Private in a corridor of the British Museum. All I
demanded, as politely as possible, was "the Greek antiquity man."
The policeman knew nothing except the rules of the Museum, and
it became necessary to forage through all the houses and offices
inside the gates. An elderly gentleman called away from his lunch
put an end to my search by holding the note-paper between finger
and thumb and sniffing at it scornfully.
"What does this mean? H'mm," said he. "So far as I can ascertain
it is an attempt to write extremely corrupt Greek on the part"--here
he glared at me with intention--"of an extremely illiterate-ah-person."
He read slowly from the paper, "Pollock, Erckman,
Tauchnitz, Henniker"--four names familiar to me.
"Can you tell me what the corruption is supposed to mean--the gist
of the thing?" I asked.
"I have been--many times--overcome with weariness in this
particular employment. That is the meaning." He returned me the
paper, and I fled without a word of thanks, explanation, or
I might have been excused for forgetting much. To me of all men
had been given the chance to write the most marvelous tale in the
world, nothing less than the story of a Greek galley-slave, as told
by himself. Small wonder that his dreaming had seemed real to
Charlie. The Fates that are so careful to shut the doors of each
successive life behind us had, in this case, been neglectful, and
Charlie was looking, though that he did not know, where never
man had been permitted to look with full knowledge since Time
began. Above all he was absolutely ignorant of the knowledge
sold to me for five pounds; and he would retain that ignorance, for
bank-clerks do not understand metempsychosis, and a sound
commercial education does not include Greek. He would supply
me--here I capered among the dumb gods of Egypt and laughed in
their battered faces--with material to make my tale sure--so sure that
the world would hail it as an impudent and vamped fiction. And
I--I alone would know that it was absolutely and literally true. I--I
alone held this jewel to my hand for the cutting and polishing.
Therefore I danced again among the gods till a policeman saw me
and took steps in my direction.
It remained now only to encourage Charlie to talk, and here there
was no difficulty. But I had forgotten those accursed books of
poetry. He came to me time after time, as useless as a surcharged
phonograph--drunk on Byron, Shelley, or Keats. Knowing now
what the boy had been in his past lives, and desperately anxious
not to lose one word of his babble, I could not hide from him my
respect and interest. He misconstrued both into respect for the
present soul of Charlie Mears, to whom life was as new as it was
to Adam, and interest in his readings; and stretched my patience to
breaking point by reciting poetry--not his own now, but that of
others. I wished every English poet blotted out of the memory of
mankind. I blasphemed the mightiest names of song because they
had drawn Charlie from the path of direct narrative, and would,
later, spur him to imitate them; but I choked down my impatience
until the first flood of enthusiasm should have spent itself and the
boy returned to his dreams.
"What's the use of my telling you what _I_ think, when these chaps
wrote things for the angels to read?" he growled, one evening.
"Why don't you write something like theirs?"
"I don't think you're treating me quite fairly," I said, speaking under
"I've given you the story," he said, shortly replunging into "Lara."
"But I want the details."
"The things I make up about that damned ship that you call a
galley? They're quite easy. You can just make 'em up yourself.
Turn up the gas a little, I want to go on reading."
I could have broken the gas globe over his head for his amazing
stupidity. I could indeed make up things for myself did I only
know what Charlie did not know that he knew. But since the
doors were shut behind me I could only wait his youthful pleasure
and strive to keep him in good temper. One minute's want of guard
might spoil a priceless revelation: now and again he would toss his
books aside--he kept them in my rooms, for his mother would have
been shocked at the waste of good money had she seen them--and
launched into his sea dreams. Again I cursed all the poets of
England. The plastic mind of the bank-clerk had been overlaid,
colored and distorted by that which he had read, and the result as
delivered was a confused tangle of other voices most like the
muttered song through a City telephone in the busiest part of the
He talked of the galley--his own galley had he but known it--with
illustrations borrowed from the "Bride of Abydos." He pointed the
experiences of his hero with quotations from "The Corsair," and
threw in deep and desperate moral reflections from "Cain" and
"Manfred," expecting me to use them all. Only when the talk
turned on Longfellow were the jarring cross-currents dumb, and I
knew that Charlie was speaking the truth as he remembered it.
"What do you think of this?" I said one evening, as soon as I
understood the medium in which his memory worked best, and,
before he could expostulate read him the whole of "The Saga of
He listened open-mouthed, flushed his hands drumming on the
back of the sofa where he lay, till I came to the Songs of Emar
Tamberskelver and the verse:
"Emar then, the arrow taking
From the loosened string,
Answered: 'That was Norway breaking
'Neath thy hand, O King.'"
He gasped with pure delight of sound.
"That's better than Byron, a little," I ventured.
"Better? Why it's true! How could he have known?"
I went back and repeated:
"'What was that?' said Olaf, standing
On the quarter-deck,
'Something heard I like the stranding
Of a shattered wreck.'"
"How could he have known how the ships crash and the oars rip
out and go _z-zzp_ all along the line? Why only the other night....
But go back please and read 'The Skerry of Shrieks' again."
"No, I'm tired. Let's talk. What happened the other night?"
"I had an awful nightmare about that galley of ours. I dreamed I
was drowned in a fight. You see we ran alongside another ship in
harbor. The water was dead still except where our oars whipped it
up. You know where I always sit in the galley?" He spoke haltingly
at first, under a fine English fear of being laughed at.
"No. That's news to me," I answered, meekly, my heart beginning
"On the fourth oar from the bow on the right side on the upper
deck. There were four of us at the oar, all chained. I remember
watching the water and trying to get my handcuffs off before the
row began. Then we closed up on the other ship, and all their
fighting men jumped over our bulwarks, and my bench broke and I
was pinned down with the three other fellows on top of me, and
the big oar jammed across our backs."
"Well?" Charlie's eyes were alive and alight. He was looking at the
wall behind my chair.
"I don't know how we fought. The men were trampling all over
my back, and I lay low. Then our rowers on the left side--tied to
their oars, you know--began to yell and back water. I could hear
the water sizzle, and we spun round like a cockchafer and I knew,
lying where I was, that there was a galley coming up bow-on, to
ram us on the left side. I could just lift up my head and see her sail
over the bulwarks. We wanted to meet her bow to bow, but it was
too late. We could only turn a little bit because the galley on our
right had hooked herself on to us and stopped our moving. Then,
by gum! there was a crash! Our left oars began to break as the
other galley, the moving one y'know, stuck her nose into them.
Then the lower-deck oars shot up through the deck-planking, but
first, and one of them jumped clean up into the air and came down
again close to my head."
"How was that managed?"
"The moving galley's bow was plunking them back through their
own oarholes, and I could hear the devil of a shindy in the decks
below. Then her nose caught us nearly in the middle, and we tilted
sideways, and the fellows in the right-hand galley unhitched their
hooks and ropes, and threw things on to our upper deck--arrows,
and hot pitch or something that stung, and we went up and up and
up on the left side, and the right side dipped, and I twisted my head
round and saw the water stand still as it topped the right bulwarks,
and then it curled over and crashed down on the whole lot of us on
the right side, and I felt it hit my back, and I woke."
"One minute, Charlie. When the sea topped the bulwarks, what did it
look like?" I had my reasons for asking. A man of my acquaintance
had once gone down with a leaking ship in a still sea, and had seen
the water-level pause for an instant ere it fell on the deck.
"It looked just like a banjo-string drawn tight, and it seemed to stay
there for years," said Charlie.
Exactly! The other man had said:
"It looked like a silver wire laid down along the bulwarks, and I
thought it was never going to break." He had paid everything
except the bare life for this little valueless piece of knowledge,
and I had traveled ten thousand weary miles to meet him and take
his knowledge at second hand. But Charlie, the bank-clerk, on
twenty-five shillings a week, he who had never been out of sight of
a London omnibus, knew it all. It was no consolation to me that
once in his lives he had been forced to die for his gains. I also
must have died scores of times, but behind me, because I could
have used my knowledge, the doors were shut.
"And then?" I said, trying to put away the devil of envy.
"The funny thing was, though, in all the mess I didn't feel a bit
astonished or frightened. It seemed as if I'd been in a good many
fights, because I told my next man so when the row began. But
that cad of an overseer on my deck wouldn't unloose our chains
and give us a chance. He always said that we'd all he set free after
a battle, but we never were; We never were." Charlie shook his
"What a scoundrel!"
"I should say he was. He never gave us enough to eat, and
sometimes we were so thirsty that we used to drink salt-water. I
can taste that salt-water still."
"Now tell me something about the harbor where the fight was
"I didn't dream about that. I know it was a harbor, though; because
we were tied up to a ring on a white wall and all the face of the
stone under water was covered with wood to prevent our ram
getting chipped when the tide made us rock."
"That's curious. Our hero commanded the galley? Didn't he?"
"Didn't he just! He stood by the bows and shouted like a good 'un.
He was the man who killed the overseer."
"But you were all drowned together, Charlie, weren't you?"
"I can't make that fit quite," he said with a puzzled look. "The
galley must have gone down with all hands and yet I fancy that the
hero went on living afterward. Perhaps he climbed into the
attacking ship. I wouldn't see that, of course. I was dead, you
He shivered slightly and protested that he could remember no
I did not press him further, but to satisfy myself that he lay in
ignorance of the workings of his own mind, deliberately
introduced him to Mortimer Collins's "Transmigration," and gave
him a sketch of the plot before he opened the pages.
"What rot it all is!" he said, frankly, at the end of an hour. "I don't
understand his nonsense about the Red Planet Mars and the King,
and the rest of it. Chuck me the Longfellow again."
I handed him the book and wrote out as much as I could remember
of his description of the sea-fight, appealing to him from time to
time for confirmation of fact or detail. He would answer without
raising his eyes from the book, as assuredly as though all his
knowledge lay before flint on the printed page. I spoke under the
normal key of my voice that the current might not be broken, and I
know that he was not aware of what he was saying, for his
thoughts were out on the sea with Longfellow.
"Charlie," I asked, "when the rowers on the galleys mutinied how
did they kill their overseers?"
"Tore up the benches and brained 'em. That happened when a
heavy sea was running. An overseer on the lower deck slipped
from the centre plank and fell among the rowers. They choked him
to death against the side of the ship with their chained hands quite
quietly, and it was too dark for the other overseer to see what had
happened. When he asked, he was pulled down too and choked,
and the lower deck fought their way up deck by deck, with the
pieces of the broken benches banging behind 'em. How they
"And what happened after that?"
"I don't know. The hero went away--red hair and red beard and all.
That was after he had captured our galley, I think"
The sound of my voice irritated him, and he motioned slightly with
his left hand as a man does when interruption jars.
"You never told me he was redheaded before, or that he captured
your galley," I said, after a discreet interval.
Charlie did not raise his eyes.
"He was as red as a red bear," said he, abstractedly. "He came
from the north; they said so in the galley when he looked for
rowers--not slaves, but free men. Afterward--years and years
afterward--news came from another ship, or else he came back----"
His lips moved in silence. He was rapturously retasting some poem
"Where had he been, then?" I was almost whispering that the
sentence might come gentle to whichever section of Charlie's brain
was working on my behalf.
"To the Beaches--the Long and
Wonderful Beaches!" was the reply, after a minute of silence.
"To Furdurstrandi?" I asked, tingling from head to foot.
"Yes, to Furdurstrandi," he pronounced the word in a new fashion
"And I too saw----" The voice failed.
"Do you know what you have said?" I shouted, incautiously.
He lifted his eyes, fully roused now. "No!" he snapped. "I wish
you'd let a chap go on reading. Hark to this:
"'But Othere, the old sea captain,
He neither paused nor stirred
Till the king listened, and then
'Once more took up his pen
And wrote down every word.
"'And to the King of the Saxons
In witness of the truth,
Raising his noble head,
He stretched his brown hand and said,
"Behold this walrus tooth."
By Jove, what chaps those must have been, to go sailing all over
the shop never knowing where they'd fetch the land! Hah!"
"Charlie," I pleaded, "if you'll only he sensible for a minute or two
I'll make our hero in our tale every inch as good as Othere."
"Umph! Longfellow wrote that poem. I don't care about writing
things any more. I want to read." He was thoroughly out of tune
now, and raging over my own ill-luck, I left him.
Conceive yourself at the door of the world's treasure-house
guarded by a child--an idle irresponsible child playing knuckle-bones--on
whose favor depends the gift of the key, and you will
imagine one-half my torment. Till that evening Charlie had
spoken nothing that might not lie within the experiences of a
Greek galley-slave. But now, or there was no virtue in books, he
had talked of some desperate adventure of the Vikings, of Thorfin
Karlsefne's sailing to Wineland, which is America, in the ninth or
tenth century. The battle in the harbor he had seen; and his own
death he had described. But this was a much more startling plunge
into the past. Was it possible that he had skipped half a dozen
lives and was then dimly remembering some episode of a thousand
years later? It was a maddening jumble, and the worst of it was
that Charlie Mears in his normal condition was the last person in
the world to clear it up. I could only wait and watch, but I went to
bed that night full of the wildest imaginings. There was nothing
that was not possible if Charlie's detestable memory only held
I might rewrite the Saga of Thorfin Karlsefne as it had never been
written before, might tell the story of the first discovery of
America, myself the discoverer. But I was entirely at Charlie's
mercy, and so long as there was a three-and-six-penny Bohn
volume within his reach Charlie would not tell. I dared not curse
him openly; I hardly dared jog his memory, for I was dealing with
the experiences of a thousand years ago, told through the mouth of
a boy of to-day; and a boy of to-day is affected by every change of
tone and gust of opinion, so that he lies even when he desires to
speak the truth.
I saw no more of him for nearly a week. When next I met him it
was in Gracechurch Street with a billbook chained to his waist.
Business took him over London Bridge and I accompanied him.
He was very full of the importance of that book and magnified it.
As we passed over the Thames we paused to look at a steamer'
unloading great slabs of white and brown marble. A barge drifted
under the steamer's stern and a lonely cow in that barge bellowed.
Charlie's face changed from the face of the bank-clerk to that of an
unknown and--though he would not have believed this--a much
shrewder man. He flung out his arm across the parapet of the
bridge, and laughing very loudly, said:
"When they heard _our_ bulls bellow the Skroelings ran away!"
I waited only for an instant, but the barge and the cow had
disappeared under the bows of the steamer before I answered.
"Charlie, what do you suppose are Skroelings?"
"Never heard of 'em before. They sound like a new kind of
seagull. What a chap you are for asking questions!" he replied.
"I have to go to the cashier of the Omnibus Company yonder. Will
you wait for me and we can lunch somewhere together? I've a
notion for a poem."
"No, thanks. I'm off. You're sure you know nothing about
"Not unless he's been entered for the Liverpool Handicap." He
nodded and disappeared in the crowd.
Now it is written in the Saga of Eric the Red or that of Thorfin
Karlsefne, that nine hundred years ago when Karlsefne's galleys
came to Leif's booths, which Leif had erected in the unknown
land called Markland, which may or may not have been Rhode
Island, the Skroelings--and the Lord He knows who these may or
may not have been--came to trade with the Vikings, and ran away
because they were frightened at the bellowing of the cattle which
Thorfin had brought with him in the ships. But what in the world
could a Greek slave know of that affair? I wandered up and down
among the streets trying to unravel the mystery, and the more I
considered it, the more baffling it grew. One thing only seemed
certain and that certainty took away my breath for the moment. If
I came to full knowledge of anything at all, it would not be one life
of the soul in Charlie Mears's body, but half a dozen--half a dozen
several and separate existences spent on blue water in the morning
of the world!
Then I walked round the situation.
Obviously if I used my knowledge I should stand alone and
unapproachable until all men were as wise as myself. That would
be something, but manlike I was ungrateful. It seemed bitterly
unfair that Charlie's memory should fail me when I needed it most.
Great Powers above--I looked up at them through the fog smoke--did
the Lords of Life and Death know what this meant to me?
Nothing less than eternal fame of the best kind; that comes from
One, and is shared by one alone. I would be content--remembering
Clive, I stood astounded at my own moderation,--with the mere
right to tell one story, to work out one little contribution to the
light literature of the day. If Charlie were permitted full
recollection for one hour--for sixty short minutes--of existences that
had extended over a thousand years--I would forego all profit and
honor from all that I should make of his speech. I would take no
share in the commotion that would follow throughout the
particular corner of the earth that calls itself "the world." The thing
should be put forth anonymously. Nay, I would make other men
believe that they had written it. They would hire bull-hided
self-advertising Englishmen to bellow it abroad. Preachers
would found a fresh conduct of life upon it, swearing that it was
new and that they had lifted the fear of death from all mankind.
Every Orientalist in Europe would patronize it discursively with
Sanskrit and Pali texts. Terrible women would invent unclean
variants of the men's belief for the elevation of their sisters.
Churches and religions would war over it. Between the hailing
and re-starting of an omnibus I foresaw the scuffles that would
arise among half a dozen denominations all professing "the
doctrine of the True Metempsychosis as applied to the world and
the New Era"; and saw, too, the respectable English newspapers
shying, like frightened kine, over the beautiful simplicity of the
tale. The mind leaped forward a hundred--two hundred--a thousand
years. I saw with sorrow that men would mutilate and garble the
story; that rival creeds would turn it upside down till, at last, the
western world which clings to the dread of death more closely than
the hope of life, would set it aside as an interesting superstition
and stampede after some faith so long forgotten that it seemed
altogether new. Upon this I changed the terms of the bargain that I
would make with the Lords of Life and Death. Only let me know,
let me write, the story with sure knowledge that I wrote the truth,
and I would burn the manuscript as a solemn sacrifice. Five
minutes after the last line was written I would destroy it all.
But I must be allowed to write it with absolute certainty.
There was no answer. The flaming colors of an Aquarium poster
caught my eye and I wondered whether it would be wise or prudent
to lure Charlie into the hands of the professional mesmerist, and
whether, if he were under his power, he would speak of his past
lives. If he did, and if people believed him ... but Charlie would
be frightened and flustered, or made conceited by the interviews.
In either case he would begin to lie, through fear or vanity. He was
safest in my own hands.
"They are very funny fools, your English," said a voice at my
elbow, and turning round I recognized a casual acquaintance, a
young Bengali law student, called Grish Chunder, whose father
had sent him to England to become civilized. The old man was a
retired native official, and on an income of five pounds a month
contrived to allow his son two hundred pounds a year, and the run
of his teeth in a city where he could pretend to be the cadet of a
royal house, and tell stories of the brutal Indian bureaucrats who
ground the faces of the poor.
Grish Chunder was a young, fat, full-bodied Bengali dressed with
scrupulous care in frock coat, tall hat, light trousers and tan gloves.
But I had known him in the days when the brutal Indian
Government paid for his university education, and he contributed
cheap sedition to _Sachi Durpan_, and intrigued with the wives of his
"That is very funny and very foolish," he said, nodding at the
poster. "I am going down to the Northbrook Club. Will you come
I walked with him for some time. "You are not well," he said.
"What is there in your mind? You do not talk."
"Grish Chunder, you've been too well educated to believe in a God,
"Oah, yes, _here_! But when I go home I must conciliate popular
superstition, and make ceremonies of purification, and my women
will anoint idols."
"And bang up _tulsi_ and feast the _purohit_, and take you back into
caste again and make a good _khuttrj_ of you again, you advanced
social Free-thinker. And you'll eat _desi_ food, and like it all, from
the smell in the courtyard to the mustard oil over you."
"I shall very much like it," said Grish Chunder, unguardedly.
"Once a Hindu--always a Hindu. But I like to know what the
English think they know."
"I'll tell you something that one Englishman knows. It's an old tale
I began to tell the story of Charlie in English, but Grish Chunder
put a question in the vernacular, and the history went forward
naturally in the tongue best suited for its telling. After all it could
never have been told in English. Grish Chunder heard me, nodding
from time to time, and then came up to my rooms where I finished
"_Beshak_," he said, philosophically. "_Lekin darwaza band hai._
(Without doubt, but the door is shut.) I have heard of this
remembering of previous existences among my people. It is of
course an old tale with us, but, to happen to an Englishman--a
cow-fed _Malechk_--an outcast. By Jove, that is _most_ peculiar!"
"Outcast yourself, Grish Chunder! You eat cow-beef every day.
Let's think the thing over. The boy remembers his incarnations."
"Does he know that?" said Grish Chunder, quietly, swinging his
legs as he sat on my table. He was speaking in English now.
"He does not know anything. Would I speak to you if he did? Go
"There is no going on at all. If you tell that to your friends they will
say you are mad and put it in the papers. Suppose, now, you
prosecute for libel."
"Let's leave that out of the question entirely. Is there any chance of
his being made to speak?"
"There is a chance. Oah, yes! But if he spoke it would mean that
all this world would end now--_instanto_--fall down on your head.
These things are not allowed, you know. As I said, the door is
"Not a ghost of a chance?"
"How can there be? You are a Christi-�n, and it is forbidden to
eat, in your books, of the Tree of Life, or else you would never die.
How shall you all fear death if you all know what your friend does
not know that he knows? I am afraid to be kicked, but I am not
afraid to die, because I know what I know. You are not afraid to be
kicked, but you are afraid to die. If you were not, by God! you
English would be all over the shop in an hour, upsetting the
balances of power, and making commotions. It would not be
good. But no fear. He will remember a little and a little less, and
he will call it dreams. Then he will forget altogether. When I
passed my First Arts Examination in Calcutta that was all in the
cram-book on Wordsworth. 'Trailing clouds of glory,' you know."
"This seems to be an exception to the rule."
"There are no exceptions to rules. Some are not so hard-looking as
others, but they are all the same when you touch. If this friend of
yours said so-and-so and so-and-so, indicating that he remembered
all his lost lives, or one piece of a lost life, he would not be in the
bank another hour. He would be what you called sack because he
was mad, and they would send him to an asylum for lunatics. You
can see that, my friend."
"Of course I can, but I wasn't thinking of him. His name need
never appear in the story."
"Ah! I see. That story will never be written. You can try."
"I am going to."
"For your own credit and for the sake of money, of course?"
"No. For the sake of writing the story. On my honor that will be
"Even then there is no chance. You cannot play with the Gods. It is
a very pretty story now. As they say, Let it go on that--I mean at
that. Be quick; he will not last long."
"How do you mean?"
"What I say. He has never, so far, thought about a woman."
"Hasn't he, though!" I remembered some of Charlie's confidences.
"I mean no woman has thought about him. When that comes;
_bus_--_hogya_--all up! I know. There are millions of women here.
Housemaids, for instance."
I winced at the thought of my story being ruined by a housemaid.
And yet nothing was more probable.
Grish Chunder grinned.
"Yes--also pretty girls--cousins of his house, and perhaps not of his
house. One kiss that he gives back again and remembers will cure
all this nonsense, or else----"
"Or else what? Remember he does not know that he knows."
"I know that. Or else, if nothing happens he will become
immersed in the trade and the financial speculations like the rest.
It must be so. You can see that it must be so. But the woman will
come first, _I_ think."
There was a rap at the door, and Charlie charged in impetuously.
He had been released from office, and by the look in his eyes I
could see that he had come over for a long talk; most probably
with poems in his pockets. Charlie's poems were very wearying,
but sometimes they led him to talk about the galley.
Grish Chunder looked at him keenly for a minute.
"I beg your pardon," Charlie said, uneasily; "I didn't know you had
any one with you."
"I am going," said Grish Chunder.
He drew me into the lobby as he departed.
"That is your man," he said, quickly. "I tell you he will never speak
all you wish. That is rot-bosh. But he would be most good to
make to see things. Suppose now we pretend that it was only
play"--I had never seen Grish Chunder so excited--"and pour the
ink-pool into his hand. Eh, what do you think? I tell you that he
could see _anything_ that a man could see. Let me get the ink and the
camphor. He is a seer and he will tell us very many things."
"He may be all you say, but I'm not going to trust him to your Gods
"It will not hurt him. He will only feel a little stupid and dull when
he wakes up. You have seen boys look into the ink-pool before."
"That is the reason why I am not going to see it any more. You'd
better go, Grish Chunder."
He went, declaring far down the staircase that it was throwing
away my only chance of looking into the future.
This left me unmoved, for I was concerned for the past, and no
peering of hypnotized boys into mirrors and ink-pools would help
me do that. But I recognized Grish Chunder's point of view and
sympathized with it.
"What a big black brute that was!" said Charlie, when I returned
to him. "Well, look here, I've just done a poem; did it instead of
playing dominoes after lunch. May I read it?"
"Let me read it to myself."
"Then you miss the proper expression. Besides, you always make
my things sound as if the rhymes were all wrong.
"Read it aloud, then. You're like the rest of 'em."
Charlie mouthed me his poem, and it was not much worse than the
average of his verses. He had been reading his book faithfully, but
he was not pleased when I told him that I preferred my Longfellow
undiluted with Charlie.
Then we began to go through the MS. line by line; Charlie
parrying every objection and correction with:
"Yes, that may be better, but you don't catch what I'm driving at."
Charlie was, in one way at least, very like one kind of poet.
There was a pencil scrawl at the back of the paper and "What's
that?" I said.
"Oh that's not poetry 't all. It's some rot I wrote last night before I
went to bed and it was too much bother to hunt for rhymes; so I
made it a sort of a blank verse instead."
Here is Charlie's "blank verse":
"We pulled for you when the wind was against us and the sails
_Will you never let us go?_
We ate bread and onions when you took towns or ran aboard
quickly when you were beaten back by the foe.
The captains walked up and down the deck in fair weather singing
songs, but we were below.
We fainted with our chins on the oars and you did not see that we
were idle for we still swung to and fro.
_Will you never let us go?_
The salt made the oar handles like sharkskin; our knees were cut to
the bone with salt cracks; our hair was stuck to our foreheads; and
our lips were cut to our gums and you whipped us because we
could not row.
_Will you never let us go?_
But in a little time we shall run out of the portholes as the water
runs along the oarblade, and though you tell the others to row after
us you will never catch us till you catch the oar-thresh and tie up
the winds in the belly of the sail. Aho!
_Will you never let us go?_"
"H'm. What's oar-thresh, Charlie?"
"The water washed up by the oars. That's the sort of song they
might sing in the galley, y'know. Aren't you ever going to finish
that story and give me some of the profits?"
"It depends on yourself. If you had only told me more about your
hero in the first instance it might have been finished by now.
You're so hazy in your notions."
"I only want to give you the general notion of it--the knocking
about from place to place and the fighting and all
that. Can't you fill in the rest yourself? Make the hero save a girl
on a pirate-galley and marry her or do something."
'You're a really helpful collaborator. I suppose the hero went
through some few adventures before he married."
"Well then, make him a very artful card--a low sort of man--a sort of
political man who went about making treaties and breaking them--a
black-haired chap who hid behind the mast when the fighting
"But you said the other day that he was red-haired."
"I couldn't have. Make him black-haired of course. You've no
Seeing that I had just discovered the entire principles upon which
the half-memory falsely called imagination is based, I felt entitled
to laugh, but forbore, for the sake of the tale.
"You're right. _You're_ the man with imagination. A black-haired
chap in a decked ship," I said.
"No, an open ship--like a big boat."
This was maddening.
"Your ship has been built and designed, closed and decked in; you
said so yourself," I protested.
"No, no, not that ship. That was open, or half decked because----. By
Jove you're right. You made me think of the hero as a red-haired
chap. Of course if he were red, the ship would be an open one
with painted sails."
Surely, I thought he would remember now that he had served in
two galleys at least--in a three-decked Greek one under the
black-haired "political man," and again in a Viking's open
sea-serpent under the man "red as a red bear" who went to
Markland. The devil prompted me to speak.
"Why, 'of course,' Charlie?" said I.
"I don't know. Are you making fun of me?"
The current was broken for the time being. I took up a notebook
and pretended to make many entries in it.
"It's a pleasure to work with an imaginative chap like yourself," I
said after a pause. "The way that you've brought out the character
of the hero is simply wonderful."
"Do you think so?" he answered, with a pleased flush. "I often tell
myself that there's more in me than my mo--than people think."
"There's an enormous amount in you."
"Then, won't you let me send an essay on The Ways of Bank
Clerks to Tit-Bits, and get the guinea prize?"
"That wasn't exactly what I meant, old fellow: perhaps it would be
better to wait a little and go ahead with the galley-story."
"Ah, but I sha'n't get the credit of that. 'Tit-Bits' would publish my
name and address if I win. What are you grinning at? They
"I know it. Suppose you go for a walk. I want to look through my
notes about our story."
Now this reprehensible youth who left me, a little hurt and put
back, might for aught he or I knew have been one of the crew of
the Argo--had been certainly slave or comrade to Thorfin
Karlsefne. Therefore he was deeply interested in guinea
competitions. Remembering what Grish Chunder had said I
laughed aloud. The Lords of Life and Death would never allow
Charlie Mears to speak with full knowledge of his pasts, and I
must even piece out what he had told me with my own poor
inventions while Charlie wrote of the ways of bank-clerks.
I got together and placed on one file all my notes; and the net
result was not cheering. I read them a second time. There was
nothing that might not have been compiled at second-hand from
other people's books--except, perhaps, the story of the fight in the
harbor. The adventures of a Viking had been written many times
before; the history of a Greek galley-slave was no new thing, and
though I wrote both, who could challenge or confirm the accuracy
of my details? I might as well tell a tale of two thousand years
hence. The Lords of Life and Death were as cunning as Grish
Chunder had hinted. They would allow nothing to escape that
might trouble or make easy the minds of men. Though I was
convinced of this, yet I could not leave the tale alone. Exaltation
followed reaction, not once, but twenty times in the next few
weeks. My moods varied with the March sunlight and flying
clouds. By night or in the beauty of a spring morning I perceived
that I could write that tale and shift continents thereby. In the wet,
windy afternoons, I saw that the tale might indeed be written, but
would be nothing more than a faked, false-varnished, sham-rusted
piece of Wardour Street work at the end. Then I blessed Charlie in
many ways--though it was no fault of his. He seemed to be busy
with prize competitions, and I saw less and less of him as the
weeks went by and the earth cracked and grew ripe to spring, and
the buds swelled in their sheaths. He did not care to read or talk of
what he had read, and there was a new ring of self-assertion in his
voice. I hardly cared to remind him of the galley when we met;
but Charlie alluded to it on every occasion, always as a story from
which money was to be made.
"I think I deserve twenty-five per cent., don't I, at least," he said,
with beautiful frankness. "I supplied all the ideas, didn't I?"
This greediness for silver was a new side in his nature. I assumed
that it had been developed in the City, where Charlie was picking
up the curious nasal drawl of the underbred City man.
"When the thing's done we'll talk about it. I can't make anything of
it at present. Red-haired or black-haired hero are equally difficult."
He was sitting by the fire staring at the red coals. "_I_ can't
understand what you find so difficult. It's all as clean as mud to
me," he replied. A jet of gas puffed out between the bars, took
light and whistled softly. "Suppose we take the red-haired hero's
adventures first, from the time that he came south to my galley and
captured it and sailed to the Beaches."
I knew better now than to interrupt Charlie. I was out of reach of
pen and paper, and dared not move to get them lest I should break
the current. The gas-jet puffed and whinnied, Charlie's voice
dropped almost to a whisper, and he told a tale of the sailing of
an open galley to Furdurstrandi, of sunsets on the open sea, seen
under the curve of the one sail evening after evening when the
galley's beak was notched into the centre of the sinking disc, and
"we sailed by that for we had no other guide," quoth Charlie. He
spoke of a landing on an island and explorations in its woods,
where the crew killed three men whom they found asleep under
the pines. Their ghosts, Charlie said, followed the galley,
swimming and choking in the water, and the crew cast lots and
threw one of their number overboard as a sacrifice to the strange
gods whom they had offended. Then they ate sea-weed when their
provisions failed, and their legs swelled, and their leader, the
red-haired man, killed two rowers who mutinied, and after a year
spent among the woods they set sail for their own country, and a
wind that never failed carried them back so safely that they all
slept at night. This and much more Charlie told. Sometimes the
voice fell so low that I could not catch the words, though every
nerve was on the strain. He spoke of their leader, the red-haired
man, as a pagan speaks of his God; for it was he who cheered them
and slew them impartially as he thought best for their needs; and it
was he who steered them for three days among floating ice, each
floe crowded with strange beasts that "tried to sail with us," said
Charlie, "and we beat them back with the handles of the oars."
The gas-jet went out, a burned coal gave way, and the fire settled
down with a tiny crash to the bottom of the grate. Charlie ceased
speaking, and I said no word.
"By Jove!" he said, at last, shaking his head. "I've been staring at
the fire till I'm dizzy. What was I going to say?"
"Something about the galley."
"I remember now. It's 25 per cent. of the profits, isn't it?"
"It's anything you like when I've done the tale."
"I wanted to be sure of that. I must go now. I've, I've an
appointment." And he left me.
Had my eyes not been held I might have know that that broken
muttering over the fire was the swan-song of Charlie Mears. But I
thought it the prelude to fuller revelation. At last and at last I
should cheat the Lords of Life and Death!
When next Charlie came to me I received him with rapture. He
was nervous and embarrassed, but his eyes were very full of light,
and his lips a little parted.
"I've done a poem," he said; and then quickly: "it's the best I've
ever done. Read it." He thrust it into my hand and retreated to the
I groaned inwardly. It would be the work of half an hour to
criticise--that is to say praise--the poem sufficiently to please
Charlie. Then I had good reason to groan, for Charlie, discarding
his favorite centipede metres, had launched into shorter and
choppier verse, and verse with a motive at the back of it. This is
what I read:
"The day is most fair, the cheery wind
Halloos behind the hill,
Where he bends the wood as seemeth good,
And the sapling to his will!
Riot O wind; there is that in my blood
That would not have thee still!
"She gave me herself, O Earth, O Sky;
Grey sea, she is mine alone!
Let the sullen boulders hear my cry,
And rejoice tho' they be but stone!
"Mine! I have won her, O good brown earth,
Make merry! 'Tis hard on Spring;
Make merry; my love is doubly worth
All worship your fields can bring!
Let the bind that tills you feel my mirth
At the early harrowing."
"Yes, it's the early harrowing, past a doubt," I said, with a dread at
my heart. Charlie smiled, but did not answer.
"Red cloud of the sunset, tell it abroad;
I am victor. Greet me, O Sun,
Dominant master and absolute lord
Over the soul of one!"
"Well?" said Charlie, looking over my shoulder.
I thought it far from well, and very evil indeed, when he silently
laid a photograph on the paper--the photograph of a girl with a
curly head, and a foolish slack mouth.
"Isn't it--isn't it wonderful?" he whispered, pink to the tips of his
ears, wrapped in the rosy mystery of first love. "I didn't know; I
didn't think--it came like a thunderclap."
"Yes. It comes like a thunderclap. Are you very happy, Charlie?"
"My God--she--she loves me!" He sat down repeating the last words
to himself. I looked at the hairless face, the narrow shoulders
already bowed by desk-work, and wondered when, where, and how
he had loved in his past lives.
"What will your mother say?" I asked, cheerfully.
"I don't care a damn what she says."
At twenty the things for which one does not care a damn should,
properly, be many, but one must not include mothers in the list. I
told him this gently; and he described Her, even as Adam must
have described to the newly named beasts the glory and tenderness
and beauty of Eve. Incidentally I learned that She was a
tobacconist's assistant with a weakness for pretty dress, and had
told him four or five times already that She had never been kissed
by a man before.
Charlie spoke on, and on, and on; while I, separated from him by
thousands of years, was considering the beginnings of things. Now
I understood why the Lords of Life and Death shut the doors so
carefully behind us. It is that we may not remember our first
wooings. Were it not so, our world would be without inhabitants
in a hundred years.
"Now, about that galley-story," I said, still more cheerfully, in a
pause in the rush of the speech.
Charlie looked up as though he had been hit. "The galley--what
galley? Good heavens, don't joke, man! This is serious! You don't
know how serious it is!"
Grish Chunder was right. Charlie had tasted the love of woman
that kills remembrance, and the finest story in the world would
never be written.