BY WILBUR DANIEL STEELE
This is not an easy story; not a road for tender or for casual feet.
Better the meadows. Let me warn you, it is as hard as that old man's
soul and as sunless as his eyes. It has its inception in catastrophe,
and its end in an act of almost incredible violence; between them it
tells barely how one long blind can become also deaf and dumb.
He lived in one of those old Puritan sea towns where the strain has
come down austere and moribund, so that his act would not be quite
unbelievable. Except that the town is no longer Puritan and Yankee.
It has been betrayed; it has become an outpost of the Portuguese
This man, this blind cobbler himself, was a Portuguese from St.
Michael, in the Western Islands, and his name was Boaz Negro.
He was happy. An unquenchable exuberance lived in him. When he arose
in the morning he made vast, as it were uncontrollable, gestures
with his stout arms. He came into his shop singing. His voice,
strong and deep as the chest from which it emanated, rolled out
through the doorway and along the street, and the fishermen, done
with their morning work and lounging and smoking along the wharfs,
said, "Boaz is to work already." Then they came up to sit in the shop.
In that town a cobbler's shop is a club. One sees the interior
always dimly thronged. They sit on the benches watching the artizan
at his work for hours, and they talk about everything in the world.
A cobbler is known by the company he keeps.
Boaz Negro kept young company. He would have nothing to do with the
old. On his own head the gray hairs set thickly.
He had a grown son. But the benches in his shop were for the lusty
and valiant young, men who could spend the night drinking, and then
at three o'clock in the morning turn out in the rain and dark to
pull at the weirs, sing songs, buffet one another among the slippery
fish in the boat's bottom, and make loud jokes about the fundamental
things, love and birth and death. Harkening to their boasts and
strong prophecies his breast heaved and his heart beat faster. He
was a large, full-blooded fellow, fashioned for exploits; the flame
in his darkness burned higher even to hear of them.
It is scarcely conceivable how Boaz Negro could have come through
this much of his life still possessed of that unquenchable and
priceless exuberance; how he would sing in the dawn; how, simply
listening to the recital of deeds in gale or brawl, he could easily
forget himself a blind man, tied to a shop and a last; easily make
of himself a lusty young fellow breasting the sunlit and adventurous
tide of life.
He had had a wife, whom he had loved. Fate, which had scourged him
with the initial scourge of blindness, had seen fit to take his
Angelina away. He had had four sons. Three, one after another, had
been removed, leaving only Manuel, the youngest. Recovering slowly,
with agony, from each of these recurrent blows, his unquenchable
exuberance had lived. And there was another thing quite as
extraordinary. He had never done anything but work, and that sort of
thing may kill the flame where an abrupt catastrophe fails. Work in
the dark. Work, work, work! And accompanied by privation; an almost
miserly scale of personal economy. Yes, indeed, he had "skinned his
fingers," especially in the earlier years. When it tells most.
How he had worked! Not alone in the daytime, but also sometimes,
when orders were heavy, far into the night. It was strange for one,
passing along that deserted street at midnight, to hear issuing from
the black shop of Boaz Negro the rhythmical tap-tap-tap of hammer on
Nor was that sound all: no man in town could get far past that shop
in his nocturnal wandering unobserved. No more than a dozen footfalls,
and from the darkness Boaz's voice rolled forth, fraternal,
stentorian, "Good night, Antone!" "Good night to you, Caleb Snow!"
To Boaz Negro it was still broad day.
Now, because of this, he was what might be called a substantial man.
He owned his place, his shop, opening on the sidewalk, and behind it
the dwelling-house with trellised galleries upstairs and down.
And there was always something for his son, a "piece for the pocket,"
a dollar-, five-, even a ten-dollar bill if he had "got to have it."
Manuel was "a good boy." Boaz not only said this, he felt that he
was assured of it in his understanding, to the infinite peace of his
It was curious that he should be ignorant only of the one nearest to
him. Not because he was physically blind. Be certain he knew more of
other men and of other men's sons than they or their neighbours did.
More, that is to say, of their hearts, their understandings, their
idiosyncrasies, and their ultimate weight in the balance-pan of
His simple explanation of Manuel was that Manuel "wasn't too stout."
To others he said this, and to himself. Manuel was not indeed too
robust. How should he be vigorous when he never did anything to make
him so? He never worked. Why should he work, when existence was
provided for, and when there was always that "piece for the pocket"?
Even a ten-dollar bill on a Saturday night! No, Manuel "wasn't too
In the shop they let it go at that. The missteps and frailties of
every one else in the world were canvassed there with the most
shameless publicity. But Boaz Negro was a blind man, and in a sense
their host. Those reckless, strong young fellows respected and loved
him. It was allowed to stand at that. Manuel was "a good boy." Which
did not prevent them, by the way, from joining later in the general
condemnation of that father's laxity—"the ruination of the boy!"
"He should have put him to work, that's what."
"He should have said to Manuel, 'Look here, if you want a dollar, go
earn it first.'"
As a matter of fact, only one man ever gave Boaz the advice direct.
That was Campbell Wood. And Wood never sat in that shop.
In every small town there is one young man who is spoken of as
"rising." As often as not he is not a native, but "from away."
In this town Campbell Wood was that man. He had come from another
part of the state to take a place in the bank. He lived in the upper
story of Boaz Negro's house, the ground floor now doing for Boaz and
the meagre remnant of his family. The old woman who came in to tidy
up for the cobbler looked after Wood's rooms as well.
Dealing with Wood, one had first of all the sense of his
incorruptibility. A little ruthless perhaps, as if one could imagine
him, in defence of his integrity, cutting off his friend, cutting
off his own hand, cutting off the very stream flowing out from the
wellsprings of human kindness. An exaggeration, perhaps.
He was by long odds the most eligible young man in town; good
looking in a spare, ruddy, sandy-haired Scottish fashion; important,
incorruptible, "rising." But he took good care of his heart.
Precisely that; like a sharp-eyed duenna to his own heart. One felt
that here was the man, if ever was the man, who held his destiny in
his own hand. Failing, of course, some quite gratuitous and
Not that he was not human, or even incapable of laughter or passion.
He was, in a way, immensely accessible. He never clapped one on the
shoulder; on the other hand, he never failed to speak. Not even to
Returning from the bank in the afternoon, he had always a word for
the cobbler. Passing out again to supper at his boarding-place, he
had another, about the weather, the prospects of rain. And if Boaz
were at work in the dark when he returned from an evening at the
Board of Trade, there was a "Good night, Mr. Negro!"
On Boaz's part, his attitude toward his lodger was curious and
paradoxical. He did not pretend to anything less than reverence for
the young man's position; precisely on account of that position he
was conscious toward Wood of a vague distrust. This was because he
was an uneducated fellow.
To the uneducated the idea of large finance is as uncomfortable as
the idea of the law. It must be said for Boaz that, responsive to
Wood's unfailing civility, he fought against this sensation of dim
and somehow shameful distrust.
Nevertheless his whole parental soul was in arms that evening, when,
returning from the bank and finding the shop empty of loungers, Wood
paused a moment to propose the bit of advice already referred to.
"Haven't you ever thought of having Manuel learn the trade?"
A suspicion, a kind of premonition, lighted the fires of defence.
"Shoemaking," said Boaz, "is good enough for a blind man."
"Oh, I don't know. At least it's better than doing nothing at all."
Boaz's hammer was still. He sat silent, monumental. Outwardly. For
once his unfailing response had failed him, "Manuel ain't too stout,
you know." Perhaps it had become suddenly inadequate.
He hated Wood; he despised Wood; more than ever before, a
hundredfold more, quite abruptly, he distrusted Wood.
How could a man say such things as Wood had said? And where Manuel
himself might hear!
Where Manuel had heard! Boaz's other emotions—hatred and contempt
and distrust—were overshadowed. Sitting in darkness, no sound had
come to his ears, no footfall, no infinitesimal creaking of a
floor-plank. Yet by some sixth uncanny sense of the blind he was
aware that Manuel was standing in the dusk of the entry joining the
shop to the house.
Boaz made a Herculean effort. The voice came out of his throat, harsh,
bitter, and loud enough to have carried ten times the distance to
his son's ears.
"Manuel is a good boy!"
"Yes—h'm—yes—I suppose so."
Wood shifted his weight. He seemed uncomfortable.
"Well. I'll be running along, I——ugh! Heavens!"
Something was happening. Boaz heard exclamations, breathings, the
rustle of sleeve-cloth in large, frantic, and futile graspings—all
without understanding. Immediately there was an impact on the floor,
and with it the unmistakable clink of metal. Boaz even heard that
the metal was minted, and that the coins were gold. He understood. A
coin-sack, gripped not quite carefully enough for a moment under the
other's overcoat, had shifted, slipped, escaped, and fallen.
And Manuel had heard!
It was a dreadful moment for Boaz, dreadful in its native sense, as
full of dread. Why? It was a moment of horrid revelation, ruthless
clarification. His son, his link with the departed Angelina, that
"good boy"—Manuel, standing in the shadow of the entry, visible
alone to the blind, had heard the clink of falling gold, and—
and Boaz wished that he had not!
There, amazing, disconcerting, destroying, stood the sudden fact.
Sitting as impassive and monumental as ever, his strong, bleached
hands at rest on his work, round drops of sweat came out on Boaz's
forehead. He scarcely took the sense of what Wood was saying. Only
"Government money, understand—for the breakwater
workings—huge—too many people know here, everywhere—don't trust
the safe—tin safe—'Noah's Ark'—give you my word—Heavens, no!"
It boiled down to this—the money, more money than was good for that
antiquated "Noah's Ark" at the bank—and whose contemplated sojourn
there overnight was public to too many minds—in short, Wood was not
only incorruptible, he was canny. To what one of those minds, now,
would it occur that he should take away that money bodily, under
casual cover of his coat, to his own lodgings behind the
cobbler-shop of Boaz Negro? For this one, this important night!
He was sorry the coin-sack had slipped, because he did not like to
have the responsibility of secret sharer cast upon any one, even
upon Boaz, even by accident. On the other hand, how tremendously
fortunate that it had been Boaz and not another. So far as that went,
Wood had no more anxiety now than before. One incorruptible knows
"I'd trust you, Mr. Negro" (that was one of the fragments which came
and stuck in the cobbler's brain), "as far as I would myself. As
long as it's only you. I'm just going up here and throw it under the
bed. Oh, yes, certainly."
Boaz ate no supper. For the first time in his life food was dry in
his gullet. Even under those other successive crushing blows of Fate
the full and generous habit of his functionings had carried on
unabated; he had always eaten what was set before him. To-night,
over his untouched plate, he watched Manuel with his sightless eyes,
keeping track of his every mouthful, word, intonation, breath. What
profit he expected to extract from this catlike surveillance it is
impossible to say.
When they arose from the supper-table Boaz made another Herculean
effort. "Manuel, you're a good boy!"
The formula had a quality of appeal, of despair, and of command.
"Manuel, you should be short of money, maybe. Look, what's this? A
tenner? Well, there's a piece for the pocket; go and enjoy yourself."
He would have been frightened had Manuel, upsetting tradition,
declined the offering. With the morbid contrariness of the human
imagination, the boy's avid grasping gave him no comfort.
He went out into the shop, where it was already dark, drew to him
his last, his tools, mallets, cutters, pegs, leather. And having
prepared to work, he remained idle. He found himself listening.
It has been observed that the large phenomena of sunlight and
darkness were nothing to Boaz Negro. A busy night was broad day. Yet
there was a difference; he knew it with the blind man's eyes, the
Day was a vast confusion, or rather a wide fabric, of sounds; great
and little sounds all woven together, voices, footfalls, wheels,
far-off whistles and foghorns, flies buzzing in the sun. Night was
another thing. Still there were voices and footfalls, but rarer,
emerging from the large, pure body of silence as definite, surprising,
and yet familiar entities.
To-night there was an easterly wind, coming off the water and
carrying the sound of waves. So far as other fugitive sounds were
concerned it was the same as silence. The wind made little
difference to the ears. It nullified, from one direction at least,
the other two visual processes of the blind, the sense of touch and
the sense of smell. It blew away from the shop, toward the
As has been said, Boaz found himself listening, scrutinizing with an
extraordinary attention, this immense background of sound. He heard
footfalls. The story of that night was written, for him, in footfalls.
He heard them moving about the house, the lower floor, prowling here,
there, halting for long spaces, advancing, retreating softly on the
planks. About this aimless, interminable perambulation there was
something to twist the nerves, something led and at the same time
driven like a succession of frail and indecisive charges.
Boaz lifted himself from his chair. All his impulse called him to
make a stir, join battle, cast in the breach the re-enforcement of
his presence, authority, good will. He sank back again; his hands
fell down. The curious impotence of the spectator held him.
He heard footfalls, too, on the upper floor, a little fainter, borne
to the inner rather than the outer ear, along the solid causeway of
partitions and floor, the legs of his chair, the bony framework of
his body. Very faint indeed. Sinking back easily into the background
of the wind. They, too, came and went, this room, that, to the
passage, the stair-head, and away. About them too there was the same
quality of being led and at the same time of being driven.
Time went by. In his darkness it seemed to Boaz that hours must have
passed. He heard voices. Together with the footfalls, that abrupt,
brief, and (in view of Wood's position) astounding interchange of
sentences made up his history of the night. Wood must have opened the
door at the head of the stair; by the sound of his voice he would be
standing there, peering below perhaps; perhaps listening.
"What's wrong down there?" he called. "Why don't you go to bed?"
After a moment, came Manual's voice, "Ain't sleepy."
"Neither am I. Look here, do you like to play cards?"
"What kind? Euchre! I like euchre all right. Or pitch."
"Well, what would you say to coming up and having a game of euchre
then, Manuel? If you can't sleep?"
"That'd be all right."
The lower footfalls ascended to join the footfalls on the upper floor.
There was the sound of a door closing.
Boaz sat still. In the gloom he might have been taken for a piece of
furniture, of machinery, an extraordinary lay figure, perhaps, for
the trying on of the boots he made. He seemed scarcely to breathe,
only the sweat starting from his brow giving him an aspect of life.
He ought to have run, and leaped up that inner stair and pounded
with his fists on that door. He seemed unable to move. At rare
intervals feet passed on the sidewalk outside, just at his elbow, so
to say, and yet somehow, to-night, immeasurably far away. Beyond the
orbit of the moon. He heard Rugg, the policeman, noting the silence
of the shop, muttering, "Boaz is to bed to-night," as he passed.
The wind increased. It poured against the shop with its deep,
continuous sound of a river. Submerged in its body, Boaz caught the
note of the town bell striking midnight.
Once more, after a long time, he heard footfalls. He heard them
coming around the corner of the shop from the house, footfalls half
swallowed by the wind, passing discreetly, without haste, retreating,
merging step by step with the huge, incessant background of the wind.
Boaz's muscles tightened all over him. He had the impulse to start up,
to fling open the door, shout into the night, "What are you doing?
Stop there! Say! What are you doing and where are you going?"
And as before, the curious impotence of the spectator held him
motionless. He had not stirred in his chair. And those footfalls,
upon which hinged, as it were, that momentous decade of his life,
There was nothing to listen for now. Yet he continued to listen.
Once or twice, half arousing himself, he drew toward him his
unfinished work. And then relapsed into immobility.
As has been said, the wind, making little difference to the ears,
made all the difference in the world with the sense of feeling and
the sense of smell. From the one important direction of the house.
That is how it could come about that Boaz Negro could sit, waiting
and listening to nothing in the shop and remain ignorant of disaster
until the alarm had gone away and come back again, pounding, shouting,
"Fire!" he heard them bawling in the street. "Fire! Fire!"
Only slowly did he understand that the fire was in his own house.
There is nothing stiller in the world than the skeleton of a house
in the dawn after a fire. It is as if everything living, positive,
violent, had been completely drained in the one flaming act of
violence, leaving nothing but negation till the end of time. It is
worse than a tomb. A monstrous stillness! Even the footfalls of the
searchers can not disturb it, for they are separate and superficial.
In its presence they are almost frivolous.
Half an hour after dawn the searchers found the body, if what was
left from that consuming ordeal might be called a body. The
discovery came as a shock. It seemed incredible that the occupant of
that house, no cripple or invalid but an able man in the prime of
youth, should not have awakened and made good his escape. It was the
upper floor which had caught; the stairs had stood to the last. It
was beyond calculation. Even if he had been asleep!
And he had not been asleep. This second and infinitely more
appalling discovery began to be known. Slowly. By a hint, a breath
of rumour here; there an allusion, half taken back. The man, whose
incinerated body still lay curled in its bed of cinders, had been
dressed at the moment of disaster; even to the watch, the
cuff-buttons, the studs, the very scarf-pin. Fully clothed to the
last detail, precisely as those who had dealings at the bank might
have seen Campbell Wood any week-day morning for the past eight
months. A man does not sleep with his clothes on. The skull of the
man had been broken, as if with a blunt instrument of iron. On the
charred lacework of the floor lay the leg of an old andiron with
which Boaz Negro and his Angelina had set up housekeeping in that
It needed only Mr. Asa Whitelaw, coming up the street from that
gaping "Noah's Ark" at the bank, to round out the scandalous circle
"Where is Manuel?"
Boaz Negro still sat in his shop, impassive, monumental, his thick,
hairy arms resting on the arms of his chair. The tools and materials
of his work remained scattered about him, as his irresolute
gathering of the night before had left them. Into his eyes no change
could come. He had lost his house, the visible monument of all those
years of "skinning his fingers." It would seem that he had lost his
son. And he had lost something incalculably precious—that hitherto
unquenchable exuberance of the man.
"Where is Manuel?"
When he spoke his voice was unaccented and stale, like the voice of
a man already dead.
"Yes, where is Manuel?"
He had answered them with their own question.
"When did you last see him?"
Neither he nor they seemed to take note of that profound irony.
"Tell us, Boaz; you knew about this money?"
The cobbler nodded his head.
"And did Manuel?"
He might have taken sanctuary in a legal doubt. How did he know what
Manuel knew? Precisely! As before, he nodded his head.
"After supper, Boaz, you were in the shop? But you heard something?"
He went on to tell them what he had heard: the footfalls, below and
above, the extraordinary conversation which had broken for a moment
the silence of the inner hall. The account was bare, the phrases
monosyllabic. He reported only what had been registered on the
sensitive tympanums of his ears, to the last whisper of footfalls
stealing past the dark wall of the shop. Of all the formless tangle
of thoughts, suspicions, interpretations, and the special and
personal knowledge given to the blind which moved in his brain, he
He shut his lips there. He felt himself on the defensive. Just as he
distrusted the higher ramifications of finance (his house had gone
down uninsured), so before the rites and processes of that
inscrutable creature, the Law, he felt himself menaced by the
invisible and the unknown, helpless, oppressed; in an abject sense,
"Keep clear of the Law!" they had told him in his youth. The monster
his imagination had summoned up then still stood beside him in his
Having exhausted his monosyllabic and superficial evidence, they
could move him no farther. He became deaf and dumb. He sat before
them, an image cast in some immensely heavy stuff, inanimate. His
lack of visible emotion impressed them. Remembering his exuberance,
it was only the stranger to see him unmoving and unmoved. Only once
did they catch sight of something beyond. As they were preparing to
leave he opened his mouth. What he said was like a swan-song to the
years of his exuberant happiness. Even now there was no colour of
expression in his words, which sounded mechanical.
"Now I have lost everything. My house. My last son. Even my honour.
You would not think I would like to live. But I go to live. I go to
work. That cachorra, one day he shall come back again, in the dark
night, to have a look. I shall go to show you all. That cachorra!"
(And from that time on, it was noted, he never referred to the
fugitive by any other name than cachorra, which is a kind of dog.
"That cachorra!" As if he had forfeited the relationship not only
of the family, but of the very genus, the very race! "That cachorra!")
He pronounced this resolution without passion. When they assured him
that the culprit would come back again indeed, much sooner than he
expected, "with a rope around his neck," he shook his head slowly.
"No, you shall not catch that cachorra now. But one day—"
There was something about its very colourlessness which made it
sound oracular. It was at least prophetic. They searched, laid their
traps, proceeded with all their placards, descriptions, rewards,
clues, trails. But on Manuel Negro they never laid their hands.
Months passed and became years. Boaz Negro did not rebuild his house.
He might have done so, out of his earnings, for upon himself he
spent scarcely anything, reverting to his old habit of an almost
miserly economy. Yet perhaps it would have been harder after all.
For his earnings were less and less. In that town a cobbler who sits
in an empty shop is apt to want for trade. Folk take their boots to
mend where they take their bodies to rest and their minds to be
No longer did the walls of Boaz's shop resound to the boastful
recollections of young men. Boaz had changed. He had become not only
different, but opposite. A metaphor will do best. The spirit of Boaz
Negro had been a meadowed hillside giving upon the open sea, the sun,
the warm, wild winds from beyond the blue horizon. And covered with
flowers, always hungry and thirsty for the sun and the fabulous wind
and bright showers of rain. It had become an entrenched camp, lying
silent, sullen, verdureless, under a gray sky. He stood solitary
against the world. His approaches were closed. He was blind, and he
was also deaf and dumb.
Against that what can young fellows do who wish for nothing but to
rest themselves and talk about their friends and enemies? They had
come and they had tried. They had raised their voices even higher
than before. Their boasts had grown louder, more presumptuous, more
preposterous, until, before the cold separation of that unmoving and
as if contemptuous presence in the cobbler's chair, they burst of
their own air, like toy balloons. And they went and left Boaz alone.
There was another thing which served, if not to keep them away, at
least not to entice them back. That was the aspect of the place. It
was not cheerful. It invited no one. In its way that fire-bitten
ruin grew to be almost as great a scandal as the act itself had been.
It was plainly an eyesore. A valuable property, on the town's main
thoroughfare—and an eyesore! The neighbouring owners protested.
Their protestations might as well have gone against a stone wall.
That man was deaf and dumb. He had become, in a way, a kind of
vegetable, for the quality of a vegetable is that, while it is
endowed with life, it remains fixed in one spot. For years Boaz was
scarcely seen to move foot out of that shop that was left him, a
small square, blistered promontory on the shores of ruin.
He must indeed have carried out some rudimentary sort of domestic
programme under the débris at the rear (he certainly did not sleep
or eat in the shop). One or two lower rooms were left fairly intact.
The outward aspect of the place was formless; it grew to be no more
than a mound in time; the charred timbers, one or two still standing,
lean and naked against the sky, lost their blackness and faded to a
silvery gray. It would have seemed strange, had they not grown
accustomed to the thought, to imagine that blind man, like a mole,
or some slow slug, turning himself mysteriously in the bowels of
that gray mound—that time-silvered "eye-sore."
When they saw him, however, he was in the shop. They opened the door
to take in their work (when other cobblers turned them off), and
they saw him seated in his chair in the half darkness, his whole
person, legs, torso, neck, head, as motionless as the vegetable of
which we have spoken—only his hands and his bare arms endowed with
visible life. The gloom had bleached the skin to the colour of damp
ivory, and against the background of his immobility they moved with
a certain amazing monstrousness, interminably. No, they were never
still. One wondered what they could be at. Surely he could not have
had enough work now to keep those insatiable hands so monstrously in
motion. Even far into the night. Tap-tap-tap! Blows continuous and
powerful. On what? On nothing? On the bare iron last? And for what
purpose? To what conceivable end?
Well, one could imagine those arms, growing paler, also growing
thicker and more formidable with that unceasing labour; the muscles
feeding themselves omnivorously on their own waste, the cords
toughening, the bone-tissues revitalizing themselves without end.
One could imagine the whole aspiration of that mute and motionless
man pouring itself out into those pallid arms, and the arms taking it
up with a kind of blind greed. Storing it up. Against a day!
"That cachorra! One day—"
What were the thoughts of the man? What moved within that motionless
cranium covered with long hair? Who can say? Behind everything, of
course, stood that bitterness against the world—the blind
world—blinder than he would ever be. And against "that cachorra."
But this was no longer a thought; it was the man.
Just as all muscular aspiration flowed into his arms, so all the
energies of his senses turned to his ears. The man had become, you
might say, two arms and two ears. Can you imagine a man listening,
intently, through the waking hours of nine years?
Listening to footfalls. Marking with a special emphasis of
concentration the beginning, rise, full passage, falling away, and
dying of all the footfalls. By day, by night, winter and summer and
winter again. Unravelling the skein of footfalls passing up and down
For three years he wondered when they would come. For the next three
years he wondered if they would ever come. It was during the last
three that a doubt began to trouble him. It gnawed at his huge moral
strength. Like a hidden seepage of water, it undermined (in
anticipation) his terrible resolution. It was a sign perhaps of age,
a slipping away of the reckless infallibility of youth.
Supposing, after all, that his ears should fail him. Supposing they
were capable of being tricked, without his being able to know it.
Supposing that that cachorra should come and go, and he, Boaz,
living in some vast delusion, some unrealized distortion of memory,
should let him pass unknown. Supposing precisely this thing had
Or the other way around. What if he should hear the footfalls coming,
even into the very shop itself? What if he should be as sure of them
as of his own soul? What, then, if he should strike? And what then,
if it were not that cachorra after all? How many tens and hundreds
of millions of people were there in the world? Was it possible for
them all to have footfalls distinct and different?
Then they would take him and hang him. And that cachorra might
then come and go at his own will, undisturbed.
As he sat there sometimes the sweat rolled down his nose, cold as
Sometimes, quite suddenly, in broad day, in the booming silence of
the night, he would start. Not outwardly. But beneath the pale
integument of his skin all his muscles tightened and his nerves sang.
His breathing stopped. It seemed almost as if his heart stopped.
Was that it? Were those the feet, there, emerging faintly from the
distance? Yes, there was something about them. Yes! Memory was in
travail. Yes, yes, yes! No! How could he be sure? Ice ran down into
his empty eyes. The footfalls were already passing. They were gone,
swallowed up already by time and space. Had that been that cachorra?
Nothing in his life had been so hard to meet as this insidious drain
of distrust in his own powers; this sense of a traitor within the
walls. His iron-gray hair had turned white. It was always this now,
from the beginning of the day to the end of the night: how was he to
know? How was he to be inevitably, unshakably, sure?
Curiously, after all this purgatory of doubts, he did know them. For
a moment at least, when he had heard them, he was unshakably sure.
It was on an evening of the winter holidays, the Portuguese festival
of Menin' Jesus. Christ was born again in a hundred mangers on a
hundred tiny altars; there was cake and wine; songs went shouting by
to the accompaniment of mandolins and tramping feet. The wind blew
cold under a clear sky. In all the houses there were lights; even in
Boaz Negro's shop a lamp was lit just now, for a man had been in for
a pair of boots which Boaz had patched. The man had gone out again.
Boaz was thinking of blowing out the light. It meant nothing to him.
He leaned forward, judging the position of the lamp-chimney by the
heat on his face, and puffed out his cheeks to blow. Then his cheeks
collapsed suddenly, and he sat back again.
It was not odd that he had failed to hear the footfalls until they
were actually within the door. A crowd of merry-makers was passing
just then; their songs and tramping almost shook the shop.
Boaz sat back. Beneath his passive exterior his nerves thrummed; his
muscles had grown as hard as wood. Yes! Yes! But no! He had heard
nothing; no more than a single step, a single foot-pressure on the
planks within the door. Dear God! He could not tell!
Going through the pain of an enormous effort, he opened his lips.
"What can I do for you?"
"Well, I—I don't know. To tell the truth—"
The voice was unfamiliar, but it might be assumed. Boaz held himself.
His face remained blank, interrogating, slightly helpless. "I am a
little deaf," he said. "Come nearer."
The footfalls came half way across the intervening floor, and there
appeared to hesitate. The voice, too, had a note of uncertainty.
"I was just looking around. I have a pair of—well, you mend shoes?"
Boaz nodded his head. It was not in response to the words, for they
meant nothing. What he had heard was the footfalls on the floor.
Now he was sure. As has been said, for a moment at least after he
had heard them he was unshakably sure. The congestion of his muscles
had passed. He was at peace.
The voice became audible once more. Before the massive preoccupation
of the blind man it became still less certain of itself.
"Well, I haven't got the shoes with me. I was—just looking around."
It was amazing to Boaz, this miraculous sensation of peace.
"Wait!" Then, bending his head as if listening to the winter wind,
"It's cold to-night. You've left the door open. But wait!" Leaning
down, his hand fell on a rope's end hanging by the chair. The
gesture was one continuous, undeviating movement of the hand. No
hesitation. No groping. How many hundreds, how many thousands of
times, had his hand schooled itself in that gesture!
A single strong pull. With a little bang the front door had swung
to and latched itself. Not only the front door. The other door,
leading to the rear, had closed too and latched itself with a little
bang. And leaning forward from his chair, Boaz blew out the light.
There was not a sound in the shop. Outside, feet continued to go by,
ringing on the frozen road; voices were lifted; the wind hustled
about the corners of the wooden shell with a continuous, shrill note
of whistling. All of this outside, as on another planet. Within the
blackness of the shop the complete silence persisted,
Boaz listened. Sitting on the edge of his chair, half-crouching, his
head, with its long, unkempt, white hair, bent slightly to one side,
he concentrated upon this chambered silence the full powers of his
senses. He hardly breathed.
The other person in that room could not be breathing at all, it
No, there was not a breath, not the stirring of a sole on wood, not
the infinitesimal rustle of any fabric. It was as if in this utter
stoppage of sound, even the blood had ceased to flow in the veins
and arteries of that man, who was like a rat caught in a trap.
It was appalling even to Boaz; even to the cat. Listening became
more than a labour. He began to have to fight against a growing
impulse to shout out loud, to leap, sprawl forward without aim in
that unstirred darkness—do something. Sweat rolled down from behind
his ears, into his shirt-collar. He gripped the chair-arms. To keep
quiet he sank his teeth into his lower lip. He would not! He would
And of a sudden he heard before him, in the centre of the room, an
outburst of breath, an outrush from lungs in the extremity of pain,
thick, laborious, fearful. A coughing up of dammed air.
Pushing himself from the arms of the chair, Boaz leaped.
His fingers, passing swiftly through the air, closed on something.
It was a sheaf of hair, bristly and thick. It was a man's beard.
On the road outside, up and down the street for a hundred yards,
merry-making people turned to look at one another. With an abrupt
cessation of laughter, of speech. Inquiringly. Even with an
unconscious dilation of the pupils of their eyes.
"What was that?"
There had been a scream. There could be no doubt of that. A single,
long-drawn note. Immensely high-pitched. Not as if it were human.
"God's sake! What was that? Where'd it come from?"
Those nearest said it came from the cobbler-shop of Boaz Negro.
They went and tried the door. It was closed; even locked, as if for
the night. There was no light behind the window-shade. But Boaz
would not have a light. They beat on the door. No answer.
But from where, then, had that prolonged, as if animal, note come?
They ran about, penetrating into the side lanes, interrogating,
prying. Coming back at last, inevitably, to the neighbourhood of
Boaz Negro's shop.
The body lay on the floor at Boaz's feet, where it had tumbled down
slowly after a moment from the spasmodic embrace of his arms; those
ivory-coloured arms which had beaten so long upon the bare iron
surface of a last. Blows continuous and powerful. It seemed
incredible. They were so weak now. They could not have lifted the
But that beard! That bristly, thick, square beard of a stranger!
His hands remembered it. Standing with his shoulders fallen forward
and his weak arms hanging down, Boaz began to shiver. The whole
thing was incredible. What was on the floor there, upheld in the
vast gulf of darkness, he could not see. Neither could he hear it;
smell it. Nor (if he did not move his foot) could he feel it. What
he did not hear, smell, or touch did not exist. It was not there.
But that beard! All the accumulated doubtings of those years fell
down upon him. After all, the thing he had been so fearful of in his
weak imaginings had happened. He had killed a stranger. He, Boaz
Negro, had murdered an innocent man!
And all on account of that beard. His deep panic made him
light-headed. He began to confuse cause and effect. If it were not
for that beard, it would have been that cachorra.
On this basis he began to reason with a crazy directness. And to act.
He went and pried open the door into the entry. From a shelf he took
down his razor. A big, heavy-heeled strop. His hands began to hurry.
And the mug, half full of soap. And water. It would have to be cold
water. But after all, he thought (light-headedly), at this time of
Outside, they were at the shop again. The crowd's habit is to forget
a thing quickly, once it is out of sight and hearing. But there had
been something about that solitary cry which continued to bother them,
even in memory. Where had it been? Where had it come from? And those
who had stood nearest the cobbler-shop were heard again. They were
certain now, dead certain. They could swear!
In the end they broke down the door.
If Boaz heard them he gave no sign. An absorption as complete as it
was monstrous wrapped him. Kneeling in the glare of the lantern they
had brought, as impervious as his own shadow sprawling behind him,
he continued to shave the dead man on the floor.
No one touched him. Their minds and imaginations were arrested by
the gigantic proportions of the act. The unfathomable presumption of
the act. As throwing murder in their faces to the tune of a jig in a
barber-shop. It is a fact that none of them so much as thought of
touching him. No less than all of them, together with all other men,
shorn of their imaginations—that is to say, the expressionless and
imperturbable creature of the Law—would be sufficient to touch that
On the other hand, they could not leave him alone. They could not go
away. They watched. They saw the damp, lather-soaked beard of that
victimized stranger falling away, stroke by stroke of the flashing,
heavy razor. The dead denuded by the blind!
It was seen that Boaz was about to speak. It was something important
he was about to utter; something, one would say, fatal. The words
would not come all at once. They swelled his cheeks out. His razor
was arrested. Lifting his face, he encircled the watchers with a
gaze at once of imploration and of command. As if he could see them.
As if he could read his answer in the expressions of their faces.
"Tell me one thing now. Is it that cachorra?"
For the first time those men in the room made sounds. They shuffled
their feet. It was as if an uncontrollable impulse to ejaculation,
laughter, derision, forbidden by the presence of death, had gone
down into their boot-soles.
"Manuel?" one of them said. "You mean Manuel?"
Boaz laid the razor down on the floor beside its work. He got up
from his knees slowly, as if his joints hurt. He sat down in his
chair, rested his hands on the arms, and once more encircled the
company with his sightless gaze.
"Not Manuel. Manuel was a good boy. But tell me now, is it that
Here was something out of their calculations; something for them,
mentally, to chew on. Mystification is a good thing sometimes. It
gives the brain a fillip, stirs memory, puts the gears of
imagination in mesh. One man, an old, tobacco-chewing fellow, began
to stare harder at the face on the floor. Something moved in his
"No, but look here now, by God——"
He had even stopped chewing. But he was forestalled by another.
"Say now, if it don't look like that fellow Wood, himself. The bank
fellow—that was burned—remember? Himself."
"That cachorra was not burned. Not that Wood. You darned fool!"
Boaz spoke from his chair. They hardly knew his voice, emerging from
its long silence; it was so didactic and arid.
"That cachorra was not burned. It was my boy that was burned. It
was that cachorra called my boy upstairs. That cachorra killed
my boy. That cachorra put his clothes on my boy, and he set my
house on fire. I knew that all the time. Because when I heard those
feet come out of my house and go away, I knew they were the feet of
that cachorra from the bank. I did not know where he was going to.
Something said to me—you better ask him where he is going to. But
then I said, you are foolish. He had the money from the bank. I did
not know. And then my house was on fire. No, it was not my boy that
went away; it was that cachorra all the time. You darned fools!
Did you think I was waiting for my own boy?"
"Now I show you all," he said at the end. "And now I can get hanged."
No one ever touched Boaz Negro for that murder. For murder it was in
the eye and letter of the Law. The Law in a small town is sometimes
a curious creature; it is sometimes blind only in one eye.
Their minds and imaginations in that town were arrested by the
romantic proportions of the act. Simply, no one took it up. I
believe the man, Wood, was understood to have died of heart-failure.
When they asked Boaz why he had not told what he knew as to the
identity of that fugitive in the night, he seemed to find it hard to
say exactly. How could a man of no education define for them his own
but half-denied misgivings about the Law, his sense of oppression,
constraint and awe, of being on the defensive, even, in an abject way,
his skepticism? About his wanting, come what might, to "keep clear
of the Law"?
He did say this, "You would have laughed at me."
And this, "If I told folk it was Wood went away, then I say he would
not dare come back again."
That was the last. Very shortly he began to refuse to talk about the
thing at all. The act was completed. Like the creature of fable, it
had consumed itself. Out of that old man's consciousness it had
departed. Amazingly. Like a dream dreamed out.
Slowly at first, in a makeshift, piece-at-a-time, poor man's way,
Boaz commenced to rebuild his house. That "eyesore" vanished.
And slowly at first, like the miracle of a green shoot pressing out
from the dead earth, that priceless and unquenchable exuberance of
the man was seen returning. Unquenchable, after all.