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THE PHANTOM RICKSHAW AND OTHER GHOST STORIES (Rudyard Kipling) online
"THE FINEST STORY IN THE WORLD"
The sound of my voice irritated him, and he motioned slightly with his left hand as a man does when interruption jars.
"You never told me he was redheaded before, or that he captured your galley," I said, after a discreet interval.
Charlie did not raise his eyes.
"He was as red as a red bear," said he, abstractedly. "He came from the north; they said so in the galley when he looked for rowers--not slaves, but free men. Afterward--years and years afterward--news came from another ship, or else he came back----" His lips moved in silence. He was rapturously retasting some poem before him.
"Where had he been, then?" I was almost whispering that the sentence might come gentle to whichever section of Charlie's brain was working on my behalf.
"To the Beaches--the Long and Wonderful Beaches!" was the reply, after a minute of silence.
"To Furdurstrandi?" I asked, tingling from head to foot.
"Yes, to Furdurstrandi," he pronounced the word in a new fashion "And I too saw----" The voice failed.
"Do you know what you have said?" I shouted, incautiously.
He lifted his eyes, fully roused now. "No!" he snapped. "I wish you'd let a chap go on reading. Hark to this:
"'But Othere, the old sea captain,
"'And to the King of the Saxons
By Jove, what chaps those must have been, to go sailing all over the shop never knowing where they'd fetch the land! Hah!"
"Charlie," I pleaded, "if you'll only he sensible for a minute or two I'll make our hero in our tale every inch as good as Othere."
"Umph! Longfellow wrote that poem. I don't care about writing things any more. I want to read." He was thoroughly out of tune now, and raging over my own ill-luck, I left him.
Conceive yourself at the door of the world's treasure-house guarded by a child--an idle irresponsible child playing knuckle-bones--on whose favor depends the gift of the key, and you will imagine one-half my torment. Till that evening Charlie had spoken nothing that might not lie within the experiences of a Greek galley-slave. But now, or there was no virtue in books, he had talked of some desperate adventure of the Vikings, of Thorfin Karlsefne's sailing to Wineland, which is America, in the ninth or tenth century. The battle in the harbor he had seen; and his own death he had described. But this was a much more startling plunge into the past. Was it possible that he had skipped half a dozen lives and was then dimly remembering some episode of a thousand years later? It was a maddening jumble, and the worst of it was that Charlie Mears in his normal condition was the last person in the world to clear it up. I could only wait and watch, but I went to bed that night full of the wildest imaginings. There was nothing that was not possible if Charlie's detestable memory only held good.
I might rewrite the Saga of Thorfin Karlsefne as it had never been written before, might tell the story of the first discovery of America, myself the discoverer. But I was entirely at Charlie's mercy, and so long as there was a three-and-six-penny Bohn volume within his reach Charlie would not tell. I dared not curse him openly; I hardly dared jog his memory, for I was dealing with the experiences of a thousand years ago, told through the mouth of a boy of to-day; and a boy of to-day is affected by every change of tone and gust of opinion, so that he lies even when he desires to speak the truth.