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"Are you going home to England? So am I. I'm Johnny; and I've never been to England before, but I know all about it. There's great palaces of gold and ivory--that's for the lords and bishops--and there's Windsor Castle, the biggest of all, carved out of a single diamond--that's for the queen. And she's the most beautiful lady in the whole world, and feeds her peacocks and birds of paradise out of a ruby cup. And there the sun is always shining, so that nobody wants any candles. O, words would fail me if I endeavoured to convey to you one-half of the splendours of that enchanted realm!"
This last sentence tumbled so oddly from the childish lips, that I could not hide a smile as I looked down on my visitor. He stood just outside my cabin-door--a small serious boy of about eight, with long flaxen curls hardly dry from his morning bath. In the pauses of conversation he rubbed his head with a big bath-towel. His legs and feet were bare, and he wore only a little shirt and velveteen breeches, with scarlet ribbons hanging untied at the knees.
I stifled the smile.
"What were you laughing at?"
"Why, you're wrong, little man, on just one or two points," I answered evasively.
"Well, about the sunshine in England. The sun is not always shining there, by any means."
"I'm afraid you know very little about it," said the boy, shaking his head.
"Johnny! Johnny!" a voice called down the companion-ladder at this moment. It was followed by a thin, weary-looking man, dressed in carpet slippers and a suit of seedy black. I guessed his age at fifty, but suspect now that the lines about his somewhat prim mouth were traced there by sorrows rather than by years. He bowed to me shyly, and addressed the boy.
"Johnny, what are you doing here? in bare feet!"
"Father, here is a man who says the sun doesn't always shine in England."
The man gave me a fleeting embarrassed glance, and echoed, as if to shirk answering--
"In bare feet!"
"But it does, doesn't it? Tell him that it does," the child insisted.
Driven thus into a corner, the father turned his profile, avoiding my eyes, and said dully--
"The sun is always shining in England."
"Go on, father; tell him the rest."
"--and the use of candles, except as a luxury, is consequently unknown to the denizens of that favoured clime," he wound up, in the tone of a man who repeats an old, old lecture.
Johnny was turning to me triumphantly, when his father caught him by the hand and led him back to his dressing. The movement was hasty, almost rough. I stood at the cabin-door and looked after them.
We were fellow-passengers aboard the Midas, a merchant barque of near on a thousand tons, homeward bound from Cape Town; and we had lost sight of the Table Mountain but a couple of days before. It was the first week of the new year, and all day long a fiery sun made life below deck insupportable. Nevertheless, though we three were the only passengers on board, and lived constantly in sight of each other, it was many days before I made any further acquaintance with Johnny and his father. The sad-faced man clearly desired to avoid me, answering my nod with a cold embarrassment, and clutching Johnny's hand whenever the child called "Good-morning!" to me cordially. I fancied him ashamed of his foolish falsehood; and I, on my side, was angry because of it. The pair were for ever strolling backwards and forwards on deck, or resting beneath the awning on the poop, and talking--always talking. I fancied the boy was delicate; he certainly had a bad cough during the first few days. But this went away as our voyage proceeded, and his colour was rich and rosy.
One afternoon I caught a fragment of their talk as they passed, Johnny brightly dressed and smiling, his father looking even more shabby and weary than usual. The man was speaking.
"And Queen Victoria rides once a year through the streets of London on her milk-white courser, to hear the nightingales sing in the Tower. For when she came to the throne the Tower was full of prisoners, but with a stroke of her sceptre she changed them all into song-birds. Every year she releases fifty; and that is why they sing so rapturously, because each one hopes his turn has come at last."
I turned away. It was unconscionable to cram the child's mind with these preposterous fables. I pictured the poor little chap's disappointment when the bleak reality came to stare him in the face. To my mind, his father was worse than an idiot, and I could hardly bring myself to greet him next morning, when we met.
My disgust did not seem to trouble him. In a timid way, even, his eyes expressed satisfaction. For a week or two I let him alone, and then was forced to speak.
It happened in this way. We had spun merrily along the tail of the S.E. trades and glided slowly to a standstill on a glassy ocean, and beneath a sun that at noon left us shadowless. A fluke or two of wind had helped us across the line; but now, in 2 deg. 27' north latitude, the Midas slept like a turtle on the greasy sea. The heat of the near African coast seemed to beat like steam against our faces. The pitch bubbled like caviare in the seams of the white deck, and the shrouds and ratlines ran with tears of tar. To touch the brass rail of the poop was to blister the hand, to catch a whiff from the cook's galley was to feel sick for ten minutes. The hens in their coops lay with eyes glazed and gasped for air. If you hung forward over the bulwarks you stared down into your own face. The sailors grumbled and cursed and panted as they huddled forward under a second awning that was rigged up to give them shade rather than coolness; for coolness was not to be had.
On the second afternoon of the calm I happened to pass this awning, and glanced in. Pretty well all the men were there, lounging, with shirts open and chests streaming with sweat; and in their midst on a barrel, sat Johnny, with a flushed face.
The boatswain--Gibbings by name--was speaking. I heard him say--"An' the Lord Mayor 'll be down to meet us, sonny, at the docks, wi' his five-an'-fifty black boys all ablowin' blowin' Hallelujarum on their silver key-bugles. An' we'll be took in tow to the Mansh'n 'Ouse an' fed--" here he broke off and passed the back of his hand across his mouth, with a glance at the ship's cook, who had been driven from his galley by the heat. But the cook had no suggestions to make. His soul was still sick with the reek of the boiled pork and pease pudding he had cooked two hours before under a torrid and vertical sun.
"We'll put it at hokey-pokey, nothin' a lump, if you don't mind, sonny," the boatswain went on; "in a nice airy parlour painted white, with a gilt chandelier an' gilt combings to the wainscot." His picture of the Mansion House as he proceeded was drawn from his reading in the Book of Revelations and his own recollections of Thames-side gin-palaces and the saloons of passenger steamers, and gave the impression of a virtuous gambling-hell. The whole crew listened admiringly, and it seemed they were all in the stupid conspiracy. I resolved, for Johnny's sake, to protest, and that very evening drew Gibbings aside and expostulated with him.
"Why," I asked, "lay up this cruel, this certain disappointment for the little chap? Why yarn to him as if he were bound for the New Jerusalem?"
The boatswain stared at me point-blank, at first incredulously, then with something like pity.
"Why, sir, don't you know? Can't you see for yoursel'? It's because he is bound for the New Jeroosalem; because--bless his tender soul!--that's all the land he'll ever touch."
"Good Lord!" I cried. "Nonsense! His cough's better; and look at his cheeks."
"Ay--we knows that colour on this line. His cough's better, you say; and I say this weather's killing him. You just wait for the nor'-east trades."
I left Gibbings, and after pacing up and down the deck a few times, stepped to the bulwarks, where a dark figure was leaning and gazing out over the black waters. Johnny was in bed; and a great shame swept over me as I noted the appealing wretchedness of this lonely form.
I stepped up and touched him softly on the arm.
"Sir, I am come to beg your forgiveness."
Next morning I joined the conspiracy.
After his father, I became Johnny's most constant companion. "Father disliked you at first," was the child's frank comment; "he said you told fibs, but now he wants us to be friends." And we were excellent friends. I lied from morning to night--lied glibly, grandly. Sometimes, indeed, as I lay awake in my berth, a horror took me lest the springs of my imagination should run dry. But they never did. As a liar, I out-classed every man on board.
But by-and-bye, as we caught the first draught of the trades, the boy began to punctuate my fables with that hateful cough. This went on for a week; and one day, in the midst of our short stroll, his legs gave way under him. As I caught him in my arms, he looked up with a smile.
"I'm very weak, you know. But it'll be all right when I get to England."
But it was not till we had passed well beyond the equatorial belt that Johnny grew visibly worse. In a week he had to lie still on his couch beneath the awning, and the patter of his feet ceased on the deck. The captain, who was a bit of a doctor, said to me one day--
"He will never live to see England."
But he did.
It was a soft spring afternoon when the Midas sighted the Lizard, and Johnny was still with us, lying on his couch, though almost too weak to move a limb. As the day wore on we lifted him once or twice to look.
"Can you see them quite plain?" he asked; "and the precious stones hanging on the trees? And the palaces--and the white elephants?"
I stared through my glass at the serpentine rocks and white-washed lighthouse above them, all powdered with bronze and gold by the sinking sun, and answered--
"Yes, they are all there."
All that afternoon we were beside him, looking out and peopling the shores of home with all manner of vain shows and pageants; and when one man broke down another took his place.
As the sun fell, and twilight drew on, the bright revolving lights on the two towers suddenly flashed out their greeting. We were about to carry the child below, for the air was chilly; but he saw the flash, and held up a feeble hand.
"What is that?"
"Those two lights," I answered, telling my final lie, "are the lanterns of Cormelian and Cormoran, the two Cornish giants. They'll be standing on the shore to welcome us. See--each swings his lantern round, and then for a moment it is dark; now wait a moment, and you'll see the light again."
"Ah!" said the child, with a smile and a little sigh, "it is good to be--home!"
And with that word on his lips, as he waited for the next flash, Johnny stretched himself and died.
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