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THE PHANTOM RICKSHAW AND OTHER GHOST STORIES (Rudyard Kipling) online
"THE FINEST STORY IN THE WORLD"
The gas-jet went out, a burned coal gave way, and the fire settled down with a tiny crash to the bottom of the grate. Charlie ceased speaking, and I said no word.
"By Jove!" he said, at last, shaking his head. "I've been staring at the fire till I'm dizzy. What was I going to say?"
"Something about the galley."
"I remember now. It's 25 per cent. of the profits, isn't it?"
"It's anything you like when I've done the tale."
"I wanted to be sure of that. I must go now. I've, I've an appointment." And he left me.
Had my eyes not been held I might have know that that broken muttering over the fire was the swan-song of Charlie Mears. But I thought it the prelude to fuller revelation. At last and at last I should cheat the Lords of Life and Death!
When next Charlie came to me I received him with rapture. He was nervous and embarrassed, but his eyes were very full of light, and his lips a little parted.
"I've done a poem," he said; and then quickly: "it's the best I've ever done. Read it." He thrust it into my hand and retreated to the window.
I groaned inwardly. It would be the work of half an hour to criticise--that is to say praise--the poem sufficiently to please Charlie. Then I had good reason to groan, for Charlie, discarding his favorite centipede metres, had launched into shorter and choppier verse, and verse with a motive at the back of it. This is what I read:
"The day is most fair, the cheery wind
"She gave me herself, O Earth, O Sky;
"Mine! I have won her, O good brown earth,
"Yes, it's the early harrowing, past a doubt," I said, with a dread at my heart. Charlie smiled, but did not answer.
"Red cloud of the sunset, tell it abroad;
"Well?" said Charlie, looking over my shoulder.
I thought it far from well, and very evil indeed, when he silently laid a photograph on the paper--the photograph of a girl with a curly head, and a foolish slack mouth.
"Isn't it--isn't it wonderful?" he whispered, pink to the tips of his ears, wrapped in the rosy mystery of first love. "I didn't know; I didn't think--it came like a thunderclap."
"Yes. It comes like a thunderclap. Are you very happy, Charlie?"
"My God--she--she loves me!" He sat down repeating the last words to himself. I looked at the hairless face, the narrow shoulders already bowed by desk-work, and wondered when, where, and how he had loved in his past lives.
"What will your mother say?" I asked, cheerfully.
"I don't care a damn what she says."
At twenty the things for which one does not care a damn should, properly, be many, but one must not include mothers in the list. I told him this gently; and he described Her, even as Adam must have described to the newly named beasts the glory and tenderness and beauty of Eve. Incidentally I learned that She was a tobacconist's assistant with a weakness for pretty dress, and had told him four or five times already that She had never been kissed by a man before.
Charlie spoke on, and on, and on; while I, separated from him by thousands of years, was considering the beginnings of things. Now I understood why the Lords of Life and Death shut the doors so carefully behind us. It is that we may not remember our first wooings. Were it not so, our world would be without inhabitants in a hundred years.
"Now, about that galley-story," I said, still more cheerfully, in a pause in the rush of the speech.
Charlie looked up as though he had been hit. "The galley--what galley? Good heavens, don't joke, man! This is serious! You don't know how serious it is!"
Grish Chunder was right. Charlie had tasted the love of woman that kills remembrance, and the finest story in the world would never be written.