Read CHAPTER VI - THE FEET OF CHILDREN of The Cruise of the Shining Light , free online book, by Norman Duncan, on ReadCentral.com.

Once of a still night at Twist Tickle (when I was grown to be eleven) my uncle abandoned his bottle and came betimes to my room to make sure that I was snug in my sleep.  ’Twas fall weather without, the first chill and frosty menace of winter abroad:  clear, windless, with all the stars that ever shone a-twinkle in the far velvet depths of the sky beyond the low window of my room.  I had drawn wide the curtains to let the companionable lights come in:  to stare, too, into the vast pool of shadows, which was the sea, unquiet and sombre beneath the serenity and twinkling splendor of the night.  Thus I lay awake, high on the pillows, tucked to my chin:  but feigned a restful slumber when I caught the sigh and downcast tread of his coming.

“Dannie,” he whispered, “is you awake?”

I made no answer.

“Ah, Dannie, isn’t you?”

Still I would not heed him.

“I wisht you was,” he sighed, “for I’m wonderful lonely the night, lad, an’ wantin’ t’ talk a spell.”

’Twas like a child’s beseeching.  I was awake at once-wide awake for him:  moved by the wistfulness of this appeal to some perception of his need.

“An’ is you comfortable, Dannie, lyin’ there in your own little bed?”

“Ay, sir.”

“An’ happy?”

“Grand, sir!” said I.

He crept softly to my bed.  “You don’t mind?” he whispered.  I drew my feet away to make room.  He sat down, and for a moment patted me with the tenderness of a woman.  “You don’t mind?” he ventured again, in diffidence.  I did not mind (but would not tell him so); nay, so far was I from any objection that I glowed with content in this assurance of loving protection from the ills of the world.  “No?” said he.  “I’m glad o’ that:  for I’m so wonderful old an’ lonely, an’ you’re sort o’ all I got, Dannie, t’ fondle.  ‘Tis pleasant t’ touch a thing that’s young an’ not yet smirched by sin an’ trouble.  ‘Tis some sort o’ cure for the souls o’ broken folk, I’m thinkin’.  An’ you don’t mind?  I’m glad o’ that.  You’re gettin’ so wonderful old yourself, Dannie, that I was a bit afeared.  A baby yesterday an’ a man the morrow!  You’re near growed up.  ’Leven year old!” with a wry smile, in which was no pride, but only poignant regret.  “You’re near growed up.”  Presently he withdrew a little.  “Ay,” said he, gently; “you is housed an’ clad an’ fed.  So much I’ve managed well enough.”  He paused-distraught, his brows bent, his hand passing aimlessly over the scars and gray stubble of his head.  “You’re happy, Dannie?” he asked, looking up.  “Come, now, is you sure?  You’d not be makin’ game o’ the old man, would you, Dannie?  You’d not tell un you was when you wasn’t, would you?  Is you sure you’re happy?  An’ you’re glad, is you, t’ be livin’ all alone at Twist Tickle with a ol’ feller like Nick Top?”

“Wonderful happy, sir,” I answered, used to the question, free and prompt in response; “happy, sir-with you.”

“An’ you is sure?”

I was sure.

“I’m glad o’ that,” he continued, but with no relief of the anxious gloom upon his face.  “I’m glad you is comfortable an’ happy.  I ’low,” said he, “that poor Tom Callaway would like t’ get word of it.  Poor Tom!  Poor ol’ Tom!  Lord love you, lad! he was your father:  an’ he loved you well-all too well.  I ‘low he’d be wonderful glad just t’ know that you was comfortable an’ happy-an’ good.  You is good, isn’t you?  Oh, I knows you is!  An’ I wisht Tom Callaway could know.  I wisht he could:  for I ’low ’twould perk un up a bit, in the place he’s to, t’ get wind of it that his little Dannie was happy with ol’ Nick Top.  He’ve a good deal t’ bear, I’m thinkin’, where he’s to; an’ ’twould give un something t’ distract his mind if he knowed you was doin’ well.  But, Dannie, lad,” he pursued, with a lively little flash of interest, “they’s a queer thing about that.  Now, lad, mark you! ’tis easy enough t’ send messages Aloft; but when it comes t’ gettin’ a line or two o’ comfort t’ the poor damned folk Below, they’s no mortal way that I ever heared tell on.  Prayer,” says he, “wings aloft, far beyond the stars, t’ the ear o’ God Hisself; an’ I wisht-oh, I wisht-they was the same sort o’ telegraph wire t’ hell!  For,” said he, sadly, “I’ve got some news that I’d kind o’ like t’ send.”

I could not help him.

“I’m tired!” he complained, with a quick-drawn sigh.  “I’m all wore out; an’ I wisht I could tell Tom Callaway.”

I, too, sighed.

“But I ’low,” was my uncle’s woe-begone conclusion, “that that there poor ol’ Tom Callaway ‘ll just have t’ wait till I sees un.”

’Twas with a start of horror that I surmised the whereabouts of my father’s soul.

We were but newly come from St. John’s:  a long sojourn in the water-side tap-rooms-a dissipation protracted beyond the habit (and will) of my uncle.  I had wearied, and had wondered, but had found no explanation.  There was a time when the rage and stagger of his intoxicated day had been exceeded past my remembrance and to my terror.  I forgave him the terror:  I did, I am sure! there was no fright or humiliation the maimed ape could put upon me but I would freely forgive, remembering his unfailing affection.  ’Twas all plain now:  the course of his rascality had not run smooth.  I divined it; and I wished, I recall, lying there in the light of the untroubled stars, that I might give of myself-of the ease and placid outlook he preserved for me-some help to his distress and melancholy.  But I was a child:  no more than a child-unwise, unhelpful, in a lad’s way vaguely feeling the need of me from whom no service was due:  having intuitive discernment, but no grown tact and wisdom.  That he was scarred, two-fingered, wooden-legged, a servant of the bottle, was apart:  and why not? for I was nourished by the ape that he was; and a child loves (this at least) him who, elsewhere however repugnant, fosters him.  I could not help with any spoken word, but still could have him think ’twas grateful to me to have him sit with me while I fell asleep; and this I gladly did.

My uncle looked up.  “Dannie,” said he, “you don’t mind me sittin’ here for a spell on your little bed, do you?  Honest, now?”

’Twas woful supplication:  the voice a child’s voice; the eyes-dimly visible in the starlight-a child’s beseeching eyes.

“Jus’ for a little spell?” he pleaded.

I said that I was glad to have him.

“An’ you isn’t so wonderful sleepy, is you?”

“No, sir,” I yawned.

He sighed.  “I’m glad,” said he.  “An’ I’m grateful t’ you, lad, for bein’ kind t’ ol’ Nick Top.  He ain’t worth it, Dannie-he’s no good; he’s jus’ a ol’ fool.  But I’m lonely the night-most wonderful lonely.  I been thinkin’ I was sort o’ makin’ a mess o’ things.  You is happy, isn’t you, Dannie?” he asked, in a flash of anxious mistrust.  “An’ comfortable-an’ good?  Ah, well! maybe:  I’m glad you’re thinkin’ so.  But I ‘low I isn’t much on fetchin’ you up.  I’m a wonderful poor hand at that.  I ‘low you’re gettin’ a bit beyond me.  I been feelin’ sort o’ helpless an’ scared; an’ I was wishin’ they was somebody t’ lend a hand with the job.  I overhauled ol’ Chesterfield, Dannie, for comfort; but somehow I wasn’t able t’ put my finger on a wonderful lot o’ passages t’ tie to.  He’ve wonderful good ideas on the subjeck o’ manners, an’ a raft of un, too; but the ideas he’ve got on souls, Dannie, is poor an’ sort o’ damned scarce.  So when I sot down there with the bottle, I ‘lowed that if I come up an’ you give me leave t’ sit on the side o’ your little bed for a spell, maybe you wouldn’t mind recitin’ that there little piece you’ve fell into the habit o’ usin’ afore you goes t’ bed.  That wee thing about the Shepherd.  You wouldn’t mind, would you, just sort o’ givin’ it a light overhaulin’ for me?  I’d thank you, Dannie, an you would be so kind; an’ I’ll be as quiet as a mouse while you does it.”

“The tender Shepherd?”

“Ay,” said he; “the Shepherd o’ the lambs.”

“’Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me;
Bless thy little lamb to-night;
Through the darkness be Thou near me;
Keep me safe till morning light.

“’All this day Thy hand has led me,
And I thank Thee for Thy care;
Thou hast warmed me, clothed and fed me: 
Listen to my evening prayer.

“’Let my sins be all forgiven;
Bless the friends I love so well;
Take us all at last to heaven,
Happy there with Thee to dwell.
’”

And now the lower stars were paling in a far-off flush of light.  I had been disquieted, but was by this waxing glow made glad that the sea and rock of the world were to lie uncovered of their shadows while yet I was awake.  ’Twas a childish prayer-too simple in terms and petition (as some may think) for the lad that was I to utter, grown tall and broad and lusty for my years; but how sufficient (I recall) to still the fears of night!  They who are grown lads, like the lad that was I, got somewhat beyond the years of tenderness, cling within their hearts to all the lost privileges of love they must by tradition affect to despise.  My prayer for the little lamb that was I presented no aspect of incongruity to my uncle; it left him silent and solemnly abstracted:  the man being cast into a heavy muse upon its content, his head fallen over his breast, as was his habit, and his great gray brows drawn down.  How still the night-how cold and clear:  how unfeeling in this frosty calm and silence, save, afar, where the little stars winked their kindly cognizance of the wakeful dwellers of the earth!  I sat up in my bed, peering through the window, to catch the first glint of the moon and to watch her rise dripping, as I used to fancy, from the depths of the sea.

“But they stray!” my uncle complained.

’Twas an utterance most strange.  “Uncle Nick,” I asked, “what is it that strays?”

“The feet o’ children,” he answered.

By this I was troubled.

“They stray,” he repeated.  “Ay; ’tis as though the Shepherd minded not at all.”

“Will my feet stray?”

He would not answer:  and then all at once I was appalled-who had not feared before.

“Tell me!” I demanded.

He reached out and touched my hand-a fleeting, diffident touch-and gently answered, “Ay, lad; your feet will stray.”

“No, no!” I cried.

“The feet of all children,” said he. “‘Tis the way o’ the world.  They isn’t mothers’ prayers enough in all the world t’ change the Shepherd’s will.  He’s wise-the Shepherd o’ the lambs.”

“’Tis sad, then,” I expostulated, “that the Shepherd haves it so.”

“Sad?”

“Ay-wondrous sad.”

“I’m not able t’ think ’tis sad,” said he. “’Tis wise, Dannie, I’m thinkin’, t’ have the lads wander in strange paths.  I’d not have un suffer fear an’ sorrow, God knows! not one poor lad of all the lads that ever was.  I’d suffer for their sins meself an’ leave un go scot free.  Not one but I’d be glad t’ do it for.  But still ’tis wise, I’m thinkin’, that they should wander an’ learn for theirselves the trouble o’ false ways.  I wisht,” he added, simply, “that they was another plan-some plan t’ save un sorrow while yet it made un men.  But I can’t think o’ none.”

“But an they’re lost?”

He scratched his head in a rush of anxious bewilderment.  “Why, Dannie,” cries he, “it cannot be!  Lost?  Some poor wee lads lost? You lost, Dannie?  My God! You, Dannie-you that lies there tender an’ kind an’ clean o’ soul in your little bed?  You that said the little prayer t’ the tender Shepherd? You lost!  God! it could not be.  What’s this you’re tellin’ me?  I’m not able t’ blaspheme the Lord God A’mighty in a way that’s vile as that.  Not you, lad-not you!  Am I t’ curse the God that would have it so?” cries he, in wrath.  “Am I t’ touch your young body here in the solemn night, am I t’ look into your unspoiled eyes by day, an’ feel that you fare into the dark alone, a child, an’ without hope? Me think that?  Öl’ Nick Top?  Not I!  Sin?  Ay; you’ll sin.  God knows so well as I you’ll sin.  He made you, lad, an’ knows full well.  You’ll be sore hurt, child.  For all he learns o’ righteousness, Dannie, a man suffers; an’ for all he learns o’ sin he pays in kind:  ‘tis all the same-he learns o’ good an’ evil an’ pays in the same coin o’ sorrow.  I’m not wishin’ you sorrow:  I’m wishin’ you manhood.  You’ll wander, like all lads, as God knows, who made un an’ the world they walks in; but the Shepherd will surely follow an’ fetch home all them that stray away upon hurtful roads accordin’ t’ the will He works upon the sons o’ men.  They’s no bog o’ sin in all the world He knows not of.  He’ll seek the poor lads out, in patience an’ love; an’ He’ll cure all the wounds the world has dealt un in dark places, however old an’ bleared an’ foul they’ve growed t’ be, an’ He’ll make un clean again, rememberin’ they was little lads, once-jus’ like you. Why, by God!  Dannie,” cried he, “I’d do as much meself!

“Ay,” quoth I; “but the parsons says they’re lost for good an’ all.”

“Does they?” he asked, his eyes blank.

“Deed so-an’ often!”

“Ah, well, Dannie!” said he, “bein’ cut off from the discussion o’ parsons by misdeeds, I’m not able t’ say.  But bein’ on’y a lost soul I’m ‘lowed t’ think; an’ I’ve thunk a idea.”

I wondered concerning it.

“Which is, speakin’ free an’ easy,” said he, “that they lie!”

“’Twill be hard,” I argued, “’t save un all.”

“’Twould be a mean poor God,” he replied, “that couldn’t manage a little thing like that.”

My uncle’s soul, as I had been taught (and but a moment gone informed), was damned.

“Uncle Nick,” I inquired, “will the Shepherd find you?”

“Me?” cries he.

“Ay,” I persisted; “will he not seek till he finds you, too?”

“Hist!” he whispered.  “I’m damned, Dannie, for good an’ all.”

“You?”

“Good Lord, yes!” said he, under his breath.  “Hist!  Certain sure, I is-damned t’ hell for what I’m doin’.”

At this distant day I know that what he did was all for me, but not on that moonlit night of my childhood.

“What’s that?” said I.

“I’m damned for it, anyhow,” he answered.  “Say no more, Dannie.”

I marvelled, but could make nothing of it at all.  ’Tis strange (I have since thought) that we damn ourselves without hesitation:  not one worthy man in all the world counting himself deserving of escape from those dreadful tortures preached for us by such apostles of injustice as find themselves, by the laws they have framed, interpreting without reverence or fear of blunder, free from the common judgment.  Ay, we damn ourselves; but no man among us damns his friend, who is as evil as himself.  And who damns his own child?  ’Tis no doubt foolish to be vexed by any philosophy comprehending what is vulgarly called hell; but still (as I have thought) this is a reasonable view:  there is no hell in the philosophy of a mother for her own child; and as by beneficent decree every man is the son of his mother, consequently there is no hell; else ’twould make such unhappiness in heaven.  Ah, well!  I looked out of the window where were the great works of the Lord:  His rock and sea and sky.  The moon was there to surprise me-half risen:  the sea shot with a glistening pathway to the glory of the night.  And in that vast uncertain and inimical place, far out from shore, there rode a schooner of twenty tons, dawdling unafraid, her small sails spread for a breeze, in hope.  Whither bound?  Northward:  an evil coast for sailing-craft-cruel waters:  rock and fog and ice and tempestuous winds.  Thither bound, undaunted, with wings wide, abroad in the teeth of many perils, come wreck or not.  At least (I thought) she had ventured from snug harbor.

“Dannie,” said my uncle, “you’re all alone in the world.”

Alone?  Not I!  “Why, sir,” said I, “I’ve you!

He looked away.

“Isn’t I?” I demanded.

“No, lad,” he answered; “you isn’t.”

’Twas the first step he had led me from dependence upon him.  ’Twas as though he had loosened my hand a little from its confident clasp of his own.  I was alarmed.

“Many’s the lad,” said he, “that thinks he’ve his mother; an’ many’s the mother that thinks she’ve her lad.  But yet they is both alone-all alone.  ’Tis the queerest thing in the world.”

“But, Uncle Nick, I haves you!”

“No,” he persisted; “you is all alone.  Why, Lord!  Dannie, you is ’leven.  What does I know about you?”

Not enough.

“An’ what does you know about me?”

I wondered.

“All children is alone,” said he.  “Their mothers doesn’t think so; but they is.  They’re alone-all alone.  They got t’ walk alone.  How am I t’ help you, Dannie?  What can I do for you?  Of all the wisdom I’ve gathered I’d give you all an’ go beggared, but you cannot take one jot.  You must walk alone; ‘tis the way o’ the world.  An’, Dannie, could I say t’ the evil that is abroad, ’Stand back!  Make way!  Leave this child o’ mine t’ walk in holiness!’ I would not speak the word.  ‘Twould be hard t’ stand helpless while you was sore beset.  I’m not knowin’ how I’d bear it.  ’Twould hurt me, Dannie, God knows!  But still I’d have you walk where sin walks.  ‘Tis a man’s path, an’ I’d have you take it, lad, like a man.  I’d not have you come a milk-sop t’ the Gate.  I’d have you come scathless, an that might be with honor; but I’d have you come a man, scarred with a man’s scars, an need be.  You walk alone, Dannie, God help you! in the world God made:  I’ve no knowledge o’ your goings.  You’ll wander far on they small feet.  God grant you may walk manfully wherever they stray.  I’ve no more t’ hope for than just only that.”

“I’ll try, sir,” said I.

My uncle touched me again-moving nearer, now, that his hand might lie upon me.  “Dannie,” he whispered, “if you must sin the sins of us-”

“Ay, sir?”

“They’ll be some poor folk t’ suffer.  An’ Dannie-”

I was very grave in the pause.

“You’ll not forget t’ be kind, will you,” he pleaded, “t’ them that suffer for your sins?”

“I will not sin,” I protested, “t’ the hurt of any others.”

He seemed not to hear.  “An’ you’ll bear your own pain,” he continued, “like a man, will you not?”

I would bear it like a man.

“That’s good,” said he.  “That’s very good!”

The moon was now risen from the sea:  the room full of white light.

“They is a Shepherd,” said my uncle.  “God be thanked for that. He’ll fetch you home.”

“An’ you?” said I.

“Me?  Oh no!”

“He’ll remember,” said I, confidently, “that you was once a little lad-jus’ like me.”

“God knows!” said he.

I was then bade go to sleep....

Presently I fell asleep, but awoke, deep in the night, to find my uncle brooding in a chair by my bed.  The moon was high in the unclouded heaven.  There was no sound or stirring in all the world-a low, unresting, melancholy swish and sighing upon the rocks below my window, where the uneasy sea plainted of some woe long forgot by all save it, which was like a deeper stillness and silence.  The Lost Soul was lifted old and solemn and gray in the cold light and shadow of the night.  I was troubled:  for my uncle sat in the white beam, striking in at my window, his eyes staring from cavernous shadows, his face strangely fixed and woful-drawn, tragical, set in no incertitude of sorrow and grievous pain and expectation.  I was afraid-’twas his eyes:  they shook me with fear of the place and distance from which it seemed he gazed at me.  ’Twas as though a gulf lay between, a place of ghostly depths, of echoes and jagged rock, dark with wind-blown shadows.  He had brought me far (it seemed) upon a journey, leading me; and having now set my feet in other paths and turned my face to a City of Light, lifted in glory upon a hill, was by some unworthiness turned back to his own place, but stayed a moment upon the cloudy cliff at the edge of darkness, with the night big and thick beyond, to watch me on my way.

“Uncle Nick,” said I, “’tis wonderful late in the night.”

“Ay, Dannie,” he answered; “but I’m wantin’ sore t’ sit by you here a spell.”

“I’ll not be able,” I objected, “t’ go t’ sleep.”

“‘Twill do no hurt, lad,” said he “if I’m wonderful quiet.  An’ I’ll be quiet-wonderful quiet.”

“But I’m wantin’ t’ go t’ sleep!”

“Ah, well,” said he, “I’ll not trouble you, then.  I would not have you lie awake.  I’ll go.  Good-night.  God bless you, lad!”

I wish I had not driven him away....