And while I wondered, suddenly the child broke into song!
It was the queerest artless performance: it had no tune in it, no intelligible words—it was just a chant rising and falling as the surf at the base of the sea-wall boomed and tossed its spray on the wind fanning his face. And while he chanted, his serious eyes devoured the blue leagues right away to the horizon.
The drovers at the far end of the compartment turned their faces inward and grinned. The middle-aged man looked across at me behind the boy’s back with half a smile and resumed his reading. The mother laughed apologetically—
“‘Tis his way. He won’t be so crazed for it in a few weeks’ time, I reckon. He’s goin’ up to Bristol to be bound apprentice to his uncle. His uncle’s master of a sailing ship.”
But the boy did not hear. There are four or five tunnels in the red sandstone between Teignmouth and Dawlish, and through these he sang on in a low repressed voice, which broke out high and clear and strong as we swept again into the large wind and sunshine. At Dawlish Station we drew up for a minute, and a porter on the up platform nodded to one of the drovers and asked, “What’s the matter with ’ee, in there?” “Nothin’, nothin’; we’ve got a smokin’-concert on,” said the drover. Across the rails a group waiting for the down train stood and stared at the boy, whispered, and smiled; and I can still recall the fascinated gaze of a plump urchin of six as he gripped with one hand a wooden spade and with the other his mother’s skirt.
But the boy sang on heedless, and still sang on as we left Dawlish behind. There was no jubilation in his chant, but through it all there ran and rang out from time to time a note of high challenge. Perhaps I read too much in it, for in the heart of a boy many thoughts sing together before they come to birth,—and to the destinies we see so distinctly he marches through a haze, drawn onward by incommunicable yearnings. But as, unseen by him, I glanced up at his blown hair and eager parted lips, the chant seemed to grow articulate—
“O Sea, I am coming! O fate, waiting and waited for, I salute you! Friend or adversary, we meet to try each other: for your wonders I have eyes, for your trials a heart. Use me, for I am ready!”
As we turned inland and ran beside the shore of the Exe, his song died down and ceased. For a while he stood conning the river, the boats, the red cliffs and whitewashed towns on the farther bank; and so, as we came in sight of the cathedral towers, stepped back and dropped into his seat.
“Well now,” said his mother, “you be a funny boy!”
For a moment he did not seem to hear; then started and came out of his day-dream with a furious blush. I looked away.
The second boy wore a well-cut Eton suit, and sat in the smoking compartment of a padded corridor carriage, with a silk-lined overcoat beside him and a silver-mounted suit-case in the rack above. He was not smoking, nor was he reading; but he sat on a great pile of papers and magazines, and stared straight in front of him—that is to say, straight at me.