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- JEREMY - 20/48 -


"Keep your eyes open. I'll be round again," and had vanished.

Directly after Jeremy heard Miss Jones's unwelcome voice: "Why, Jeremy, we couldn't find you anywhere. It's turning cold--tea-time - -"

With a thump and a thud and a bang he fell back into the homely world.

III

Jeremy was a perfectly normal little boy, and I defy anyone to have discovered in him at this stage in his progress, those strange morbidities and irregular instincts that were to be found in such unhappy human beings as Dostoieffsky's young hero in "Podrostok," or the unpleasant son and heir of Jude and Sue. Nevertheless, eight years old is not too early for stranger impulses and wilder dreams than most parents ever conceive of, and the fortnight that followed Jeremy's meeting with the Sea-Captain was as peculiar and fantastic a fortnight as he was ever, in all his later life, to know.

For he was haunted--really haunted in the good old solid practical meaning of the term--haunted with the haunting that pursued Sintram and many another famous hero. And he was haunted not only by the Sea-Captain, but by a thousand things that attended in that hero's company. He was haunted by a picture--whence it had come to him he did not know--of a dead-white high road, dropping over the hill into shadow, the light fading around it, black, heavy hedges on every side of it. From below the hill came the pounding of the sea, exactly as he had heard it so many many times on the hill above Rafiel, and he knew, although his eyes could not catch it, that in the valley round the head of the road was the fishing village with the lights just coming in the windows, and beyond the village the sloping shingly Cove. But he could see only the dead- white road, and upon this his eyes were always fixed as though he were expecting someone. And he could smell the sea-pinks and the grass damp with evening dew, and the cold dust of the road, and the sea-smell in the wind. And he waited, knowing that the time would come when he would be told to descend the hill, pass through the village, and step out, under the heavy grey clouds, upon the little shingly beach. He was aware then that out at sea a dark, black ship was riding, slipping a little with the tide, one light gleaming and swinging against the pale glow of the dusky horizon. The church clock struck four below the hill; he was still on the high road waiting, his eyes straining for figures. . . He was prepared for some journey, because he had at his feet a bundle. And he knew that he ought not to be there. He knew that something awful was about to happen and that, when it had occurred, he would be committed always to something or someone. . . A little cold breeze then would rise in the hedges and against the silence that followed the chiming of the clock he could hear first the bleating of a sheep, then a sudden pounding of the sea as though the breakers responded to the sudden rising of the wind, then the hoofs of a horse, clear and hard, upon the road. . . At that moment the picture clouded and was dim. Had this been a dream? Was it simply a confusion of summer visits to Rafiel, stories told him by Mary, pictures in books (a fine illustrated edition of "Redgauntlet" had been a treasure to him since he was a baby), the exciting figure of the Captain, and the beginning of spring? And yet the vision was so vividly detailed that it was precisely like a remembered event. He had always seen things in pictures; punishment meant standing in the corner counting the ships on the wallpaper; summer holidays meant the deep green meadows of Cow Farm, or a purple pool under an afternoon sun; religion meant walking up the great wide aisle of the Cathedral in creaking boots and clean underclothes, and so on. It was nothing new for him to make a picture, and to let that picture stand for a whole complex phase of life. But this? What had it to do with the Sea-Captain, aud why was it, as he knew in his heart that it was, wicked and wrong and furtive? For this had begun as a high adventurous romance. There had been nothing wrong in that first talk in the Meads, when the Captain had shown him the tatooes. The wickedness of it had developed partly with his growing longing to see the Captain again, partly with the meeting that actually followed, and partly with the sense that grew and grew as the days passed that the Captain was always watching him.

The Captain, during these weeks, seemed to be everywhere. Never was there an afternoon that Jeremy walked out with Miss Jones and his sisters that he did not appear. It was not very difficult to snatch a conversation with him. Because the beauty of the spring weather continued, the children went every day for a walk in the Meads, and on at least three separate occasions Jeremy and the Captain enjoyed quite long conversations together. These were, none of them, so good as that first one had been. The Captain was not so genial, nor so light-hearted; it seemed that he had something on his mind. Sometimes he put his hand on Jeremy's shoulder, and the heavy pressure of his great fingers made Jeremy tremble, partly with terror, partly with pleasure. His face, also, was scarcely so agreeable as it had seemed at first sight. His tremendous nose seemed to burn down upon Jeremy like a malignant fire. His eyes were so small that sometimes they disappeared under his fat cheeks altogether, or only gleamed like little sharp points of light from under his heavy, shaggy eyebrows. Then, although he tried to make his voice pleasant, Jeremy felt that that complaisant friendliness was not his natural tone. Sometimes there would be a sharp, barking note that made Jeremy jump and his cheek pale. The Captain told him no more fascinating stories, and when Jeremy wanted to know about the ship with the diamonds and rubies and the little sea village where she lay hid and the Caribbees natives, and the chances of becoming a cabin boy, and the further exploitation of the tatooes-- all these things the Captain brushed aside as though they no longer interested him in the least. He, on the other hand, wanted now to know exactly where Jeremy lived, what the house was like, where the back doors were, how the windows opened, where Jeremy slept, and so on. Jeremy, pleased at this interest in his daily life, told him as many things as he could, hoping to pass on afterwards to more exciting topics; how, for instance, the kitchen windows were fastened always last thing at night, but you could undo them from the garden if you liked with your knife, and Jeremy knew this because Uncle Samuel had done it once on a Sunday afternoon when the maids were all out and he'd forgotten his door key. He would have told the Captain all about the schoolroom and the toy village and the Jampot and the fun they had had teasing Miss Jones had not, the Captain fiercely told him that these things did not interest him, and that he had better just answer the questions that were put to him. It was indeed strange to see how, with every interview, the Captain grew fiercer and fiercer and sharper and sharper. He made no allusions now to "'is little nipper," said nothing about that holy soul his mother, and never mentioned his liking for Jeremy. There was evidently something on his mind, and if he had seemed mysterious at their first meeting it was nothing to the secrecy that he practised now.

And yet, in spite of all this, his hold over Jeremy grew and grew. That dream of the bending white road was always with Jeremy. He could think of nothing but the Captain, and while he was certainly afraid and would jump at the slightest sound, he was also certainly excited beyond all earlier experience. He longed, as he lay awake at night, to see the Captain. He seemed to have always in front of his eyes the great wall of a chest with the blue ship on it, and the bolster legs, and the gigantic hands. Strangest of all was the sense of evil that came with the attraction.

He longed to be in the man's company as he longed to do something that he had been always told not to do, and when he caught sight of him a sudden, hot, choking hand was pressed upon his heart, and he was terrified, delighted, frightened, ashamed, all in one. The Captain always alluded to the things that he would tell him, would show him one day--"When you come to my little place I'll teach yer a thing or two"--and Jeremy would wonder for hours what this little place would be like and what the Captain would teach him. Meanwhile, he saw him everywhere, even when he was not there--behind lamp- posts, at street corners, behind the old woman's umbrella in the market-place, peering round the statues in the Cathedral, jerking up his head from behind chimney pots, looking through the nursery windows just when dusk was coming on, in the passages, under stairs, out in the dark garden--and always behind him that horrid dream of the dead- white road and the shingly Cove. . . Yes, poor Jeremy was truly haunted.

IV

That Miss Jones suspected nothing of these meetings must be attributed partly to that lady's habit of wrapping herself in her own thoughts on her walks abroad, and partly to her natural short- sightedness. Once Mary said that she had noticed "a horrid man with a red face" staring at them; but Miss Jones, although she was not a vain woman, thought it nevertheless quite natural that men should stare, and fancied more frequently that they did so than was strictly the truth.

Jeremy, meanwhile, was occupied now with the thought as to what he would do did the Captain really want him to go away with him. He discussed it with himself, but he did not doubt what he would do; he would go. And he would go, he knew, with fear and dread, and with a longing to stay, and be warm in the schoolroom, and have jam for tea, and half an hour before bedtime downstairs, and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays. But the Captain could make him do anything. . . Yes, the Captain could make him do anything. . .

His afternoon walks now were prolonged agonies. He would turn his head at every moment, would stare into dark corners, would start at the sound of steps. His sleep now was broken with horrid dreams, and he would jump up and cry out; and one night he actually dreamt of his dead-white road and the sounds that came up from below the hill, the bell and the sea, and the distant rattle of the little carts.

Then the Captain drew near to the very house itself. He haunted Orange Street, could be seen lounging against a lamp-post opposite the High School, looked once into the very garden of the Coles, Jeremy watching him with beating heart from the schoolroom window. It was incredible to Jeremy that no one else of the house perceived him; but no one ever mentioned him, and this made it appear all the more a dream, as though the Captain were invisible to everyone save himself. He began to hate him even more than he feared him, and yet with that hatred the pleasure and excitement remained. I remember how, years ago in Polchester, when I could not have been more than six years old, I myself was haunted with exactly that same mixture of pleasure and horror by the figure of a hunch-backed pedlar who used to come to our town. Many years after I heard that he had been hung for the murder of some wretched woman who had accompanied him on some of his journeys. I was not surprised; but when I heard the story I felt then again the old thrill of mingled pleasure and fear.


JEREMY - 20/48

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