AS to what the Boy will become, that is still with his stars; and though once we thought he was much impressed by the dignity of the man controlling a road roller, for it seemed it would be well to be that slow herald in front with a little red flag, he has shown but the faintest regard for the offices of policeman, engine-driver, and soldier. It is clear there is but one good thing left for his choice, and so the house is littered with drawings of ships. There has been some advance from that early affair of black angles which, without explanation, might have stood for anything, but was meant for a cutter. Now, in a manner which a careless visitor could think was the hauteur of an artist who is too sure of himself to care what you think of his work, but is really acute shyness, he will present you at short notice with a sketch in colours of a topsail schooner beating off a lee shore, if your variety of beard does not rouse his suspicion. As art, such paintings have their faults; but as delineations of that sort of ship they have technical exactitude not common even in the studios.
In fact, he has found an old manual of seamanship, and the illustrations get more attention than some people give to Biblical subjects. During vacant afternoons there is an uncanny calm in the house, a silence which makes people think they have forgotten something important; but it is only that the Boy is absent with the argonauts. He is in tow of Argo, as it were, one of its heroes, surging astern in a large easy-chair, viewing golden landfalls that are still under their early spell in seas that ships have never sailed. There are no such voyages in later life, none with quite that glamour, for we have tried and know. Lucky Boy, sailing the greatest voyage of his life! Occasionally, when a real ship is home again, and someone calls to see if we still live there, the Boy is allowed to go to bed late, and there he sits and fills his mind.
"And what," said this deponent one evening, " about taking His Nibs with me (There was some sea to be crossed.) Most certainly not! Well--! still--! Would he be all right? But as he got to hear about this it was hardly so certainly not as it seemed. There are times when he can concentrate on a subject with awful pertinacity, though the occasions are infrequent. This was one, however. He went. I knew he would go--when he heard about it.
A day came when we were at the railway station, and he was to cross the sea for the first time. He was quite collected. His quiet eye enumerated the baggage in one careless side-glance which detected there was a strap undone and that a walking-stick was missing. In all that crowded tumult converging on the stroke of the hour his seemed to be the only apart and impassive face, and I began to think he was indifferent; he merely looked at the cover of one magazine, and then turned to the window and observed the world leaping past with the detachment of a small immortal who was watching man's fleeting affairs. Nothing to do with him.
Once he caught my intent eye--for I thought he was a trifle pale--and then he passed a radiant wink, and one of his dangling legs began to swing as though that were the sole limb to be joyful. An hour later, his face still to the glass, he was shaking with internal mirth. I asked him to let me share it with him. "Did you see that old man at the station when the train was starting?" he whispered. "He couldn't find the carriage where his things were--he was running up and down without a hat. Perhaps he was left behind." What do man's misfortunes matter to the gods who live for ever?
Through sections of the quayside sheds he caught sight of near funnels, businesslike with smoke, and a row of ports. It was then I had to tell him there was plenty of time. "Two funnels," I heard him say in surprise, and there is no doubt at that moment some of the importance of the occasion was reflected on myself. That extra funnel told him, I hope, I was doing this business in no meagre spirit. None of your single-funnel ships for our affairs. At the quay end of the gangway he stopped me, interrupting the whole concourse to do so. "Where's that other bag?" he demanded severely. I was annoyed--like the people who were following us--but I had to admire him all the same. At his age no doubt it may be demanded that a ship be put about for a bag left behind. When this childish egoism is maintained well into life, large fortunes may be made. It is, perhaps, the only way. As soon as a man can relate his personal affairs to those of the world, and understands how unimportant he really is, from that moment he becomes a failure. Some men never do it, and thus succeed. Therefore I allowed the Boy to lead me aboard, and so secured a good berth at once, to the envy of those who were unaided by a child. Already I was informed that, after due inspection, the steamer had plenty of boats, "so it won't matter if we sink." In five minutes we had discovered the companions to everywhere on that ship, and were, I believe, the only passengers who could find our way about her before she left port.
But a glance seaward, and a word with an officer, gave me a thought or two, and I broke off the Boy's interesting conversation with a fatherly French quartermaster to take him where he could at least begin with some food. " What a lark if there's a storm," laughed His Nibs, removing a sandwich to say so. The fiddles were on the tables. We were off.
The ship gave a lurch, a ham leaped to the floor, some plates crashed, and then the row of ports alongside us were darkened by the run of a wave. The Boy made an exclamation partly stifled, and looked at me quickly. I did not look at him, but went on with the food. He stopped eating, and remained with his gaze fixed on the ports, gripping his chair whenever they went dark. He said nothing about it, but he must have been thinking pretty hard. "I suppose this is a strong ship, isn't it?" he questioned once.
As we were about to emerge into the open, the wet, deserted deck fell away, and a grey wave which looked as aged as death, its white hair streaming in the wind, suddenly reared over the ship's side, as though looking for us, and then fled phantom-like, with dire cries. The Boy shrank back for a moment, horrified, but then moved on. I think I heard him sigh. It was no summer sea. The dark bales of rain were speeding up from the south-west, low over waters which looked just what the sea really is.
I am glad he saw it like that. He hung on in a shelter with a needlessly tight grip, and there was something of consternation in his eye. But I enjoyed the cry of surprise he gave once when we were getting used to it. A schooner passed us, quite close, a midget which fairly danced over the running hills, lifting her bows and soaring upwards, light as a bird, and settling in the hollows amid a white cloud. "Isn't she brave!" said the Boy.