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THE next morning he sighted land. Coming out on the bridge, the whole face of things was changed. The sea-colour had lightened to a tawny green; gulls dipped and hovered; away on the horizon lay a soft blue contour. "Land Ho!" he shouted superbly, and wondered what new country he had discovered. He ran up a hoist of red and yellow signal flags, and steered gaily toward the shore.
It had grown suddenly cold: he had to fetch Captain Scottie's pea-jacket to wear at the wheel. On the long spilling crests, that crumbled and spread running layers of froth in their hurry shoreward, the Pomerania rode home. She knew her landfall and seemed to quicken. Steadily swinging on the jade-green surges, she buried her nose almost to the hawse-pipes, then lifted until her streaming forefoot gleamed out of a frilled ruffle of foam.
Gissing, too, was eager. A tingling buoyancy and impatience took hold of him: he fidgeted with sheer eagerness for life. Land, the beloved stability of our dear and only earth, drew and charmed him. Behind was the senseless, heartbreaking sea. Now he could discern hills rising in a gilded opaline light. In the volatile thin air was a quick sense of strangeness. A 'new world was close about him: a world that he could see, and feel, and inhale, and yet knew nothing of.
Suddenly a great humility possessed him. He had been froward and silly and vain. He had shouted arrogantly at Beauty, like a noisy tourist in a canyon; and the only answer, after long waiting, had been the paltry diminished echo of his own voice. He thought shamefully of his follies. What matter how you name God or in what words you praise Him? In this new foreign land he would quietly accept things as he found them. The laughter of God was too strange to understand.
No, there was no answer. He was doubly damned, for he had made truth a mere sport of intellectual riddling. The mind, like a spinning flywheel of fatigued steel, was gradually racked to bursting by the conflict of stresses. And yet: every equilibrium was an opposure of forces. Rotation, if swift enough, creates amazing stability: he had seen how the gyroscope can balance at apparently impossible angles. Perhaps it was so of the mind. If it twirls at high speed it can lean right out over the abyss without collapse. But the stationary mind — he thought of Bishop Borzoi — must keep away from the edge. Try to force it to the edge, it raves in panic. Every mind, very likely, knows its own frailties, and does well to safeguard them. At any rate, that was the most generous interpretation. Most minds, undoubtedly, were uneasy in high places. They doubted their ability to refrain from jumping off. How many bones of fine intellects lay whitening at the foot of the theological cliff —
It seemed to be a lonely coast, and wintry. Patches of snow lay upon the hills, the woods were bare and brown. A bottle-necked harbour opened out before him. He reduced the engines to Dead Slow and glided gaily through the strait. He had been anxious lest his navigation might not be equal to the occasion: he did not want to disgrace himself at this final test. But all seemed to arrange itself with enchanted ease. A steep ledge of ground offered a natural pier, with tree-stumps for bollards. He let her come gently beyond the spot; reversed the propellers just at the right time, and backed neatly alongside. He moved the telegraph handle to FINISHED WITH ENGINES; ran out the gangplank smartly, and stepped ashore. He moored the vessel fore and aft, and hung out fenders to prevent chafing.
The first thing to do, he said to himself, is to get the lie of the land, and find out whether it is inhabited.
A hillside rising above the water promised a clear view. The stubble grass was dry and frosty, after the warm days at sea the chill was nipping; but what an elixir of air! If this is a desert island, he thought, it will be a glorious discovery. His heart was jocund with anticipation. A curious foreign look in the landscape, he thought; quite unlike anything —
Suddenly, where the hill arched against pearly sky, he saw a narrow thread of smoke rising. He halted in alarm. Who might this be, friend or foe? But eager agitation pushed him on. Burning to know, he hurried up to the brow of the hill.
The smoke mounted from a small bonfire of sticks in a sheltered thicket, where a miraculous being — who was, as a matter of fact, a rather ragged and dingy vagabond — was cooking a tin of stew over the blaze.
Gissing stood, quivering with emotion. Joy such as he had never known darted through all the cords of his body. He ran, shouting, in mirth and terror. In fear, in a passion of love and knowledge and understanding, he abased himself and yearned before this marvel. Impossible to have conceived, yet, once seen, utterly satisfying and the fulfilment of all needs. He laughed and leaped and worshipped. When the first transport was over, he laid his head against this being's knee, he nestled there and was content. This was the inscrutable perfect answer.
"Cripes!" said the puzzled tramp, as he caressed the nuzzling head. "The purp's loco. Maybe he's been lost. You might think he'd never seen a man before."
He was right.
And Gissing sat quietly, his throat resting upon the soiled knee of a very old and spicy trouser.
"I have found God," he said.
Presently he thought of the ship. It would not do to leave her so insecurely moored. Reluctantly, with many a backward glance and a heart full of glory, he left the Presence. He ran to the edge of the hill to look down upon the harbour.
The outlook was puzzlingly altered. He gazed in astonishment. What were those poplars, rising naked into the bright air? — there was something familiar about them. And that little house beyond . . . he stared bewildered.
The great shining breadth of the ocean had shrunk to the roundness of a tiny pond. And the Pomerania? He leaned over, shaken with questions. There, beside the bank, was a little plank of wood, a child's plaything, roughly fashioned shipshape: two chips for funnels; red and yellow frosted leaves for flags; a withered dogwood blossom for propeller. He leaned closer, with whirling mind. In the clear cool surface of the pond he could see the sky mirrored, deeper than any ocean, pellucid, infinite, blue.
He ran up the path to the house. The scuffled ragged garden lay naked and hard. At the windows, he saw with surprise, were holly wreaths tied with broad red ribbon. On the porch, some battered toys. He opened the door.
A fluttering rosy light filled the room. By the fireplace the puppies — how big they were! — were sitting with Mrs. Spaniel. Joyous uproar greeted him: they flung themselves upon him. Shouts of "Daddy! Daddy!" filled the house, while the young Spaniels stood by more bashfully.
Good Mrs. Spaniel was gratefully moved. Her moist eyes shone brightly in the firelight.
"I knew you'd be home for Christmas, Mr. Gissing," she said. "I've been telling them so all afternoon. Now, children, be still a moment and let me speak. I've been telling you your Daddy would be home in time for a Christmas Eve story. I've got to go and fix that plum pudding."
In her excitement a clear bubble dripped from the tip of her tongue. She caught it in her apron, and hurried to the kitchen.