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Chapter XXVII: Age's Wisdom


Harold went to and fro on the deserted deck.  All at once the course
he had to pursue opened out before him.  He was aware that what the
noble-minded old man offered him was fortune, great fortune in any
part of the world.  He would have to be refused, but the refusal
should be gently done.  He, believing that the other had done
something very wrong, had still offered to share with him his name,
his honour.  Such confidence demanded full confidence in return; the
unwritten laws which governed the men amongst whom he had been
brought up required it.
And the shape that confidence should take?  He must first disabuse
his new friend's mind of criminal or unworthy cause for his going
away.  For the sake of his own name and that of his dead father that
should be done.  Then he would have to suggest the real cause ...
He would in this have to trust Mr. Stonehouse's honour for secrecy.
But he was worthy of trust.  He would, of course, give no name, no
clue; but he would put things generally in a way that he could
When his mind was so far made up he wanted to finish the matter, so
he turned to the wheelhouse and climbed the ladder again.  It was not
till he sat in the shelter by his companion that he became aware that
he had become wet with the spray.  The old man wishing to help him in
his embarrassment said:
'Well?' Harold began at once; the straightforward habit of his life
stood to him now:
'Let me say first, sir, what will I know give you pleasure.'  The old
man extended his hand; he had been hoping for acceptance, and this
seemed like it.  Harold laid his hand on it for an instant only, and
then raised it as if to say 'Wait':
'You have been so good to me, so nobly generous in your wishes that I
feel I owe you a certain confidence.  But as it concerns not myself
alone I will ask that it be kept a secret between us two.  Not to be
told to any other; not even your wife!'
'I will hold your secret sacred.  Even from my wife; the first secret
I shall have ever kept from her.'
'First, then, let me say, and this is what I know will rejoice you,
that I am not leaving home and country because of any crime I have
committed; not from any offence against God or man, or law.  Thank
God! I am free from such.  I have always tried to live uprightly ... '  Here a burst of pain overcame him, and with a dry sob he added:
'And that is what makes the terrible unfairness of it all!'
The old man laid a kindly hand on his shoulder and kept it there for
a few moments.
'My poor boy!  My poor boy!' was all he said.  Harold shook himself
as if to dislodge the bitter thoughts.  Mastering himself he went on:
'There was a lady with whom I was very much thrown in contact since
we were children.  Her father was my father's friend.  My friend too,
God knows; for almost with his dying breath he gave sanction to my
marrying his daughter, if it should ever be that she should care for
me in that way.  But he wished me to wait, and, till she was old
enough to choose, to leave her free.  For she is several years
younger than I am; and I am not very old yet--except in heart!  All
this, you understand, was said in private to me; none other knew it.
None knew of it even till this moment when I tell you that such a
thing has been.'  He paused; the other said:
'Believe me that I value your confidence, beyond all words!'  Harold
felt already the good effects of being able to speak of his pent-up
trouble.  Already this freedom from the nightmare loneliness of his
own thoughts seemed to be freeing his very soul.
'I honestly kept to his wishes.  Before God, I did!  No man who loved
a woman, honoured her, worshipped her, could have been more
scrupulously careful as to leaving her free.  What it was to me to so
hold myself no one knows; no one ever will know.  For I loved her, do
love her, with every nerve and fibre of my heart.  All our lives we
had been friends; and I believed we loved and trusted each other.
But ... but then there came a day when I found by chance that a
great trouble threatened her.  Not from anything wrong that she had
done; but from something perhaps foolish, harmlessly foolish except
that she did not know ... '  He stopped suddenly, fearing he might
have said overmuch of Stephen's side of the affair.  'When I came to
her aid, however, meaning the best, and as single-minded as a man can
be, she misunderstood my words, my meaning, my very coming; and she
said things which cannot be unsaid.  Things ... matters were so
fixed that I could not explain; and I had to listen.  She said things
that I did not believe she could have said to me, to anyone.  Things
that I did not think she could have thought ... I dare say she was
right in some ways.  I suppose I bungled in my desire to be
unselfish.  What she said came to me in new lights upon what I had
done ... But anyhow her statements were such that I felt I could
not, should not, remain.  My very presence must have been a trouble
to her hereafter.  There was nothing for it but to come away.  There
was no place for me!  No hope for me!  There is none on this side of
the grave! ... For I love her still, more than ever.  I honour and
worship her still, and ever will, and ever must! ... I am content
to forego my own happiness; but I feel there is a danger to her from
what has been.  That there is and must be to her unhappiness even
from the fact that it was I who was the object of her wrath; and this
adds to my woe.  Worst of all is ... the thought and the memory
that she should have done so; she who ... she ... '
He turned away overcome and hid his face in his hands.  The old man
sat still; he knew that at such a moment silence is the best form of
sympathy.  But his heart glowed; the wisdom of his years told him
that he had heard as yet of no absolute bar to his friend's ultimate
'I am rejoiced, my dear boy, at what you tell me of your own conduct.
It would have made no difference to me had it been otherwise.  But it
would have meant a harder and longer climb back to the place you
should hold.  But it really seems that nothing is so hopeless as you
think.  Believe me, my dear young friend who are now as a son to my
heart, that there will be bright days for you yet ... '  He paused
a moment, but mastering himself went on in a quiet voice:
'I think you are wise to go away.  In the solitudes and in danger
things that are little in reality will find their true perspective;
and things that are worthy will appear in their constant majesty.'
He stood, and laying once again his hand on the young man's shoulder
'I recognise that I--that we, for my wife and little girl would be at
one with me in my wish, did they know of it, must not keep you from
your purpose of fighting out your trouble alone.  Every man, as the
Scotch proverb says, must "dree his own weird."  I shall not, I must
not, ask you for any promise; but I trust that if ever you do come
back you will make us all glad by seeing you.  And remember that what
I said of myself and of all I have--all--holds good so long as I
shall live!'
Before Harold could reply he had slipped down the ladder and was
During the rest of the voyage, with the exception of one occasion, he
did not allude to the subject again by word or implication, and
Harold was grateful to him for it.
On the night before Fire Island should be sighted Harold was in the
bow of the great ship looking out with eyes in which gleamed no hope.
To him came through the darkness Mr. Stonehouse.  He heard the
footsteps and knew them; so with the instinct of courtesy, knowing
that his friend would not intrude on his solitude without purpose, he
turned and met him.  When the American stood beside him he said,
studiously avoiding looking at his companion:
'This is the last night we shall be together, and, if I may, there is
one thing I would like to say to you.'
'Say all you like, sir,' said Harold as heartily as he could, 'I am
sure it is well meant; and for that at any rate I shall be grateful
to you.'
'You will yet be grateful, I think!' he answered gravely.  'When it
comes back to you in loneliness and solitude you will, I believe,
think it worth being grateful for.  I don't mean that you will be
grateful to me, but for the thing itself.  I speak out of the wisdom
of many years.  At your time of life the knowledge cannot come from
observation.  It may my poor boy, come through pain; and if what I
think is correct you will even in due time be grateful to the pain
which left such golden residuum.'  He paused, and Harold grew
interested.  There was something in the old man's manner which
presaged a truth; he, at least, believed it.  So the young man
listened at first with his ears; and as the other spoke, his heart
listened too:
'Young men are apt to think somewhat wrongly of women they love and
respect.  We are apt to think that such women are of a different clay
from ourselves.  Nay! that they are not compact of clay at all, but
of some faultless, flawless material which the Almighty keeps for
such fine work.  It is only in middle age that men--except scamps,
who learn this bad side of knowledge young--realise that women are
human beings like themselves.  It may be, you know, that you may have
misjudged this young lady!  That you have not made sufficient
allowance for her youth, her nature, even the circumstances under
which she spoke.  You have told me that she was in some deep grief or
trouble.  May it not have been that this in itself unnerved her,
distorted her views, aroused her passion till all within and around
was tinged with the jaundice of her concern, her humiliation--
whatever it was that destroyed for the time that normal self which
you had known so long.  May it not have been that her bitterest
memory even since may be of the speaking of these very words which
sent you out into the wide world to hide yourself from men.  I have
thought, waking and sleeping, of your position ever since you
honoured me with your confidence; and with every hour the conviction
has strengthened in me that there is a way out of this situation
which sends a man like you into solitude with a heart hopeless and
full of pain; and which leaves her perhaps in greater pain, for she
has not like you the complete sense of innocence.  But at present
there is no way out but through time and thought.  Whatever may be
her ideas or wishes she is powerless.  She does not know your
thoughts, no matter how she may guess at them.  She does not know
where you are or how to reach you, no matter how complete her
penitence may be.  And oh! my dear young friend, remember that you
are a strong man, and she is a woman.  Only a woman in her passion
and her weakness after all.  Think this all over, my poor boy!  You
will have time and opportunity where you are going.  God help you to
judge wisely!'  After a pause of a few seconds he said abruptly:
'Good night!' and moved quickly away.

When the time for parting came Pearl was inconsolable.  Not knowing
any reason why The Man should not do as she wished she was persistent
in her petitions to Harold that he should come with her, and to her
father and mother that they should induce him to do so.  Mrs.
Stonehouse would have wished him to join them if only for a time.
Her husband, unable to give any hint without betraying confidence,
had to content himself with trying to appease his little daughter by
vague hopes rather than promises that her friend would join them at
some other time.
When the Scoriac was warped at the pier there was a tendency on the
part of the passengers to give Harold a sort of public send-off; but
becoming aware of it he hurried down the gangway without waiting.
Having only hand luggage, for he was to get his equipment in New
York, he had cleared and passed the ring of customs officers before
the most expeditious of the other passengers had collected their
baggage.  He had said good-bye to the Stonehouses in their own cabin.
Pearl had been so much affected at saying good-bye, and his heart had
so warmed to her, that at last he had said impulsively:
'Don't cry, darling.  If I am spared I shall come back to you within
three years.  Perhaps I will write before then; but there are not
many post-offices where I am going to!'
Children are easily satisfied.  Their trust makes a promise a real
thing; and its acceptance is the beginning of satisfaction.  But for
weeks after the parting she had often fits of deep depression, and at
such times her tears always flowed.  She took note of the date, and
there was never a day that she did not think of and sigh for The Man.
And The Man, away in the wilds of Alaska, was feeling, day by day and
hour by hour, the chastening and purifying influences of the
wilderness.  Hot passions cooled before the breath of the snowfield
and the glacier.  The moaning of a tortured spirit was lost in the
roar of the avalanche and the scream of the cyclone.  Pale sorrow and
cold despair were warmed and quickened by the fierce sunlight which
came suddenly and stayed only long enough to vitalise all nature.
And as the first step to understanding, The Man forgot himself.