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The Peacock Feather


It was sunset.

The sea, which all day long had lain blue and sparkling, was changing slowly to a warm grey shot with moving purple and gold. The sky flamed with crimson and amber. But gradually the vivid warmth sank and faded; day slowly withdrew into the soft embrace of night, and a blue-grey mantle covered sea and sky and land. One by one the stars shone forth till overhead the mantle was thickly powdered with their twinkling eyes.

Away across the water the gleam from the lantern of a lightship appeared at intervals, while every now and then a stronger flash from a distant lighthouse lit up the darkness. It flung its rays broadcast, across the water, across the land, bringing 

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momentarily into startling prominence a great mass of building standing on the top of the cliffs.

In the building a man was clinging with both hands to a couple of iron bars that guarded the narrow opening of his cell window. He could see across the water and up to the star-embroidered mantle of the sky.

Night after night for three years he had looked at that moving water. He had seen it lying calm and peaceful as it lay to-night; he had seen it rearing angry foam-crested waves from inky blackness. He had heard its soft, sighing music; he had heard its sullen roar.

Three years! More than a thousand nights he had looked from that narrow slit of a window, his hands fast clutching the bars, his feet finding slight and precarious foothold in the uneven surface of the wall!

And to-night he looked for the last time. To-morrow he would be free, free as the sea-gulls which circled and dipped in the water along the rocky coast or rose screaming and battling against the tearing wind.

He slipped down from the window and crossed to his pallet bed.

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Free! Until to-night he had never dared even to whisper that word to his inmost soul. Throughout the long three years he had refused to let himself think for more than the day, the moment. He had held his mind in close confinement, a confinement even more stringent than that to which his body was subjected.

Now in that little cell he opened the windows of his soul and let his mind go forth. Radiant, exuberant, it escaped from its cage. It came forth singing a Te Deum. Only a few more hours and dawn would break. His body would know the liberty he had already given to his mind. He was too happy to sleep. He lay wakeful and very still on his bed, the silence only occasionally broken by the footfall of a warder in the passage outside.

The night wore on. Gradually the stars dropped back one by one into the sky, and away in the east a streak of saffron light appeared. It was day at last.

Six hours later a man was walking along a country road. His step was light and his face held up to meet the fresh March wind that was blowing across the fields and hedges.

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Daffodils nodded their golden heads at him from the banks as he passed, and tiny green buds on the brown branches were pushing forward to the light. The whole world was vital, radiant, teeming with growth.

The man held one hand in the pocket of his grey flannel coat, his fingers pressing on two envelopes which lay there. They had been handed to him just before he left the great grey prison. He had not yet opened them. For one thing, he wanted to put a certain distance between his present self and the past three years before he broke the seals. For another thing, he was denying himself, prolonging the pleasure of anticipation.

Now he saw a stile before him, set in the hedge a little way back from the road, and with a patch of grass before it. In the grass gleamed a few pink-tipped daisies.

The man went across the grass and sat down on the stile. He pulled the two letters from his pocket and looked at them. One was addressed in a masculine handwriting, small, square, and very firm. The other writing was delicate but larger. It was evidently that of a woman.

He opened the firmly addressed envelope first, 

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and pulled out its contents. A strip of pink paper fluttered to the ground, falling among the daisies. He picked it up without looking at it while he read the contents of the letter.

“I have no desire that you should starve, and therefore send you the enclosed. Kindly understand, however, that I do not wish to see you for the present. When you have partially blotted out the past by obtaining decent work and proving your repentance, I will reconsider this decision.

“Richard Carden.”

The cheque was for two hundred pounds.

The man laughed, but the sound of his laugh was not very pleasant.

He broke the seal of the second letter.

“I did not write before,” the letter ran, “because I did not want you to brood over what I have to say, though you must have known that my saying it was inevitable. Of course you have known from the first that you have by your own conduct put an end to our engagement. I did not write at once and tell you so myself, for fear 

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of adding to your pain. But you must have understood. You will not attempt to see me, or write to me. It would be quite useless. I am going to be married in three weeks’ time. I am very sorry for you and I would have helped you if I could, but you must see for yourself it is impossible. There is nothing now to say but good-bye.


When the man had finished reading he sat very still, so still that a robin hopped down near him and began investigating the toe of his boot. Finding nothing in a piece of black leather of interest, it flew up to the hedge, and regarded the motionless figure with round beady eyes. At last the figure moved. The robin flew a couple of yards farther away, then perched again to watch.

It saw the man tearing white and pink paper into very small pieces. Then it saw him bend down and dig a hole in the earth with a clasp-knife. It saw him place the pieces of torn paper in the hole and replace the earth, which he pressed firmly down. Then it heard the man speak.

“At least I will give the past decent burial.”

The robin did not understand the words. What 

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has a gay little redbreast to do with either the past or the future? The moment is quite enough.

Then the man stood up, and the robin saw his face. It had grown much older in the last twenty minutes.

“And now,” said the man jauntily, though his eyes belied the carelessness of the words, “for the open road.”

Perhaps the robin understood that speech. At any rate it sang a sweet sturdy song of Amen.

18 de agosto
Rectory Print