The Golden Age
Part 2 out of 3
unladylike words in any connection at all. "These stories had
their origin, my dear," she explained, "in a mistaken
anthropomorphism in the interpretation of nature. But though
we are now too well informed to fall into similar errors,
there are still many beautiful lessons to be learned from these
"But how can you learn anything," persisted Charlotte, "from what
doesn't exist?" And she left the table defiant, howbeit
"Don't you mind HER," I said, consolingly; "how can she know
anything about it? Why, she can't even throw a stone properly!"
"Edward says they're all rot, too," replied Charlotte,
Edward says everything's rot," I explained, "now he thinks he's
going into the Army. If a thing's in a book it MUST be true,
so that settles it!"
Charlotte looked almost reassured. The room was quieter now, for
Edward had got the dragon down and was boring holes in him with a
purring sound Harold was ascending the steps of the Athenaeum
with a jaunty air--suggestive rather of the Junior Carlton.
Outside, the tall elm-tops were hardly to be seen through the
feathery storm. "The sky's a-falling," quoted Charlotte, softly;
"I must go and tell the king." The quotation suggested a fairy
story, and I offered to read to her, reaching out for the
book. But the Wee Folk were under a cloud; sceptical hints had
embittered the chalice. So I was fain to fetch Arthur--second
favourite with Charlotte for his dames riding errant, and an easy
first with us boys for his spear-splintering crash of tourney and
hurtle against hopeless odds. Here again, however, I proved
unfortunate,--what ill-luck made the book open at the sorrowful
history of Balin and Balan? "And he vanished anon," I read: "and
so he heard an horne blow, as it had been the death of a beast.
`That blast,' said Balin, `is blowen for me, for I am the prize,
and yet am I not dead.'" Charlotte began to cry: she knew the
rest too well. I shut the book in despair. Harold emerged from
behind the arm-chair. He was sucking his thumb (a thing which
members of the Reform are seldom seen to do), and he stared wide-
eyed at his tear stained sister. Edward put off his histrionics,
and rushed up to her as the consoler--a new part for him.
"I know a jolly story," he began. "Aunt Eliza told it me. It
was when she was somewhere over in that beastly abroad"--(he had
once spent a black month of misery at Dinan)--"and there was
a fellow there who had got two storks. And one stork died--it
was the she-stork." ("What did it die of?" put in Harold.) "And
the other stork was quite sorry, and moped, and went on, and got
very miserable. So they looked about and found a duck, and
introduced it to the stork. The duck was a drake, but the stork
didn't mind, and they loved each other and were as jolly as could
be. By and by another duck came along,--a real she-duck this
time,--and when the drake saw her he fell in love, and left the
stork, and went and proposed to the duck: for she was very
beautiful. But the poor stork who was left, he said nothing at
all to anybody, but just pined and pined and pined away, till one
morning he was found quite dead! But the ducks lived happily
This was Edward's idea of a jolly story! Down again went the
corners of poor Charlotte's mouth. Really Edward's stupid
inability to see the real point in anything was TOO annoying!
It was always so. Years before, it being necessary to prepare
his youthful mind for a domestic event that might lead to awkward
questionings at a time when there was little leisure to invent
appropriate answers, it was delicately inquired of him
whether he would like to have a little brother, or perhaps a
little sister? He considered the matter carefully in all its
bearings, and finally declared for a Newfoundland pup. Any boy
more "gleg at the uptak" would have met his parents half-way, and
eased their burden. As it was, the matter had to be approached
all over again from a fresh standpoint. And now, while Charlotte
turned away sniffingly, with a hiccough that told of an
overwrought soul, Edward, unconscious (like Sir Isaac's Diamond)
of the mischief he had done, wheeled round on Harold with a
"I want a live dragon," he announced: "you've got to be my
"Leave me go, will you?" squealed Harold, struggling stoutly.
"I'm playin' at something else. How can I be a dragon and belong
to all the clubs?"
"But wouldn't you like to be a nice scaly dragon, all green,"
said Edward, trying persuasion, "with a curly tail and red eyes,
and breathing real smoke and fire?"
Harold wavered an instant: Pall-Mall was still strong in him.
The next he was grovelling on the floor. No saurian ever
swung a tail so scaly and so curly as his. Clubland was a
thousand years away. With horrific pants he emitted smokiest
smoke and fiercest fire.
"Now I want a Princess," cried Edward, clutching Charlotte
ecstatically; "and YOU can be the doctor, and heal me from the
dragon's deadly wound."
Of all professions I held the sacred art of healing in worst
horror and contempt. Cataclysmal memories of purge and draught
crowded thick on me, and with Charlotte--who courted no barren
honours--I made a break for the door. Edward did likewise, and
the hostile forces clashed together on the mat, and for a brief
space things were mixed and chaotic and Arthurian. The silvery
sound of the luncheon-bell restored an instant peace, even in the
teeth of clenched antagonisms like ours. The Holy Grail itself,
"sliding athwart a sunbeam," never so effectually stilled a riot
of warring passions into sweet and quiet accord.
WHAT THEY TALKED ABOUT
Edward was standing ginger-beer like a gentleman, happening, as
the one that had last passed under the dentist's hands, to be the
capitalist of the flying hour. As in all well-regulated
families, the usual tariff obtained in ours,--half-a-crown a
tooth; one shilling only if the molar were a loose one. This
one, unfortunately--in spite of Edward's interested affectation
of agony--had been shaky undisguised; but the event was good
enough to run to ginger-beer. As financier, however, Edward had
claimed exemption from any servile duties of procurement, and had
swaggered about the garden while I fetched from the village post-
office, and Harold stole a tumbler from the pantry. Our
preparations complete, we were sprawling on the lawn; the
staidest and most self respecting of the rabbits had been let
loose to grace the feast, and was lopping demurely about the
grass, selecting the juiciest plantains; while Selina, as
the eldest lady present, was toying, in her affected feminine
way, with the first full tumbler, daintily fishing for bits of
"Hurry up, can't you?" growled our host; "what are you girls
always so beastly particular for?"
"Martha says," explained Harold (thirsty too, but still just),
"that if you swallow a bit of cork, it swells, and it swells, and
it swells inside you, till you--"
"O bosh!" said Edward, draining the glass with a fine pretence of
indifference to consequences, but all the same (as I noticed)
dodging the floating cork-fragments with skill and judgment.
"O, it's all very well to say bosh," replied Harold, nettled;
"but every one knows it's true but you. Why, when Uncle Thomas
was here last, and they got up a bottle of wine for him, he took
just one tiny sip out of his glass, and then he said, `Poo, my
goodness, that's corked!' And he wouldn't touch it. And they
had to get a fresh bottle up. The funny part was, though, I
looked in his glass afterwards, when it was brought out into the
passage, and there wasn't any cork in it at all! So I drank
it all off, and it was very good!"
"You'd better be careful, young man!" said his elder brother,
regarding him severely. "D' you remember that night when the
Mummers were here, and they had mulled port, and you went round
and emptied all the glasses after they had gone away?"
"Ow! I did feel funny that night," chuckled Harold. "Thought the
house was comin' down, it jumped about so; and Martha had to
carry me up to bed, 'cos the stairs was goin' all waggity!"
We gazed searchingly at our graceless junior; but it was clear
that he viewed the matter in the light of a phenomenon rather
than of a delinquency.
A third bottle was by this time circling; and Selina, who had
evidently waited for it to reach her, took a most unfairly long
pull, and then jumping up and shaking out her frock, announced
that she was going for a walk. Then she fled like a hare; for it
was the custom of our Family to meet with physical coercion any
independence of action in individuals.
"She's off with those Vicarage girls again," said Edward,
regarding Selina's long black legs twinkling down the path. "She
goes out with them every day now; and as soon as ever they start,
all their heads go together and they chatter, chatter, chatter
the whole blessed time! I can't make out what they find to talk
about. They never stop; it's gabble, gabble, gabble right along,
like a nest of young rooks!"
"P'raps they talk about birds'-eggs," I suggested sleepily (the
sun was hot, the turf soft, the ginger-beer potent); "and about
ships, and buffaloes, and desert islands; and why rabbits have
white tails; and whether they'd sooner have a schooner or a
cutter; and what they'll be when they're men--at least, I mean
there's lots of things to talk about, if you WANT to talk."
"Yes; but they don't talk about those sort of things at all,"
persisted Edward. "How CAN they? They don't KNOW
anything; they can't DO anything--except play the piano, and
nobody would want to talk about THAT; and they don't care
about anything--anything sensible, I mean. So what DO they
"I asked Martha once," put in Harold; "and she said, `Never
YOU mind; young ladies has lots of things to talk about
that young gentlemen can't understand.'"
"I don't believe it," Edward growled.
"Well, that's what she SAID, anyway," rejoined Harold,
indifferently. The subject did not seem to him of first-class
importance, and it was hindering the circulation of the ginger-
We heard the click of the front-gate. Through a gap in the hedge
we could see the party setting off down the road. Selina was in
the middle: a Vicarage girl had her by either arm; their heads
were together, as Edward had described; and the clack of their
tongues came down the breeze like the busy pipe of starlings on a
bright March morning.
"What DO they talk about, Charlotte?" I inquired, wishing to
pacify Edward. "You go out with them sometimes."
"I don't know," said poor Charlotte, dolefully. "They make me
walk behind, 'cos they say I'm too little, and mustn't hear. And
I DO want to so," she added.
"When any lady comes to see Aunt Eliza," said Harold, "they both
talk at once all the time. And yet each of 'em seems to hear
what the other one's saying. I can't make out how they do
it. Grown-up people are so clever!"
"The Curate's the funniest man," I remarked. "He's always saying
things that have no sense in them at all, and then laughing at
them as if they were jokes. Yesterday, when they asked him if
he'd have some more tea he said `Once more unto the breach, dear
friends, once more,' and then sniggered all over. I didn't see
anything funny in that. And then somebody asked him about his
button-hole and he said `'Tis but a little faded flower,' and
exploded again. I thought it very stupid."
"O HIM," said Edward contemptuously: "he can't help it, you
know; it's a sort of way he's got. But it's these girls I can't
make out. If they've anything really sensible to talk about, how
is it nobody knows what it is? And if they haven't--and we know
they CAN'T have, naturally--why don't they shut up their jaw?
This old rabbit here--HE doesn't want to talk. He's got
something better to do." And Edward aimed a ginger-beer cork at
the unruffled beast, who never budged.
"O but rabbits DO talk," interposed Harold. "I've
watched them often in their hutch. They put their heads together
and their noses go up and down, just like Selina's and the
Vicarage girls'. Only of course I can t hear what they're
"Well, if they do," said Edward, unwillingly, "I'll bet they
don't talk such rot as those girls do!"--which was ungenerous, as
well as unfair; for it had not yet transpired--nor has it to this
day--WHAT Selina and her friends talked about.
The advent of strangers, of whatever sort, into our circle, had
always been a matter of grave dubiety and suspicion; indeed, it
was generally a signal for retreat into caves and fastnesses of
the earth, into unthreaded copses or remote outlying cowsheds,
whence we were only to be extricated by wily nursemaids, rendered
familiar by experience with our secret runs and refuges. It was
not surprising therefore that the heroes of classic legend, when
first we made their acquaintance, failed to win our entire
sympathy at once. "Confidence," says somebody, "is a plant of
slow growth;" and these stately dark-haired demi-gods, with names
hard to master and strange accoutrements, had to win a citadel
already strongly garrisoned with a more familiar soldiery. Their
chill foreign goddesses had no such direct appeal for us as the
mocking malicious fairies and witches of the North; we missed the
pleasant alliance of the animal--the fox who spread the
bushiest of tails to convey us to the enchanted castle, the frog
in the well, the raven who croaked advice from the tree; and--to
Harold especially--it seemed entirely wrong that the hero should
ever be other than the youngest brother of three. This belief,
indeed, in the special fortune that ever awaited the youngest
brother, as such,--the "Borough-English" of Faery,--had been of
baleful effect on Harold, producing a certain self-conceit and
perkiness that called for physical correction. But even in our
admonishment we were on his side; and as we distrustfully eyed
these new arrivals, old Saturn himself seemed something of a
Even strangers, however, if they be good fellows at heart,
may develop into sworn comrades; and these gay swordsmen, after
all, were of the right stuff. Perseus, with his cap of darkness
and his wonderful sandals, was not long in winging his way to our
hearts; Apollo knocked at Admetus' gate in something of the right
fairy fashion; Psyche brought with her an orthodox palace of
magic, as well as helpful birds and friendly ants. Ulysses, with
his captivating shifts and strategies, broke down the final
barrier, and hence forth the band was adopted and admitted
into our freemasonry.
I had been engaged in chasing Farmer Larkin's calves--his
special pride--round the field, just to show the man we hadn't
forgotten him, and was returning through the kitchen-garden with
a conscience at peace with all men, when I happened upon Edward,
grubbing for worms in the dung-heap. Edward put his worms into
his hat, and we strolled along together, discussing high matters
of state. As we reached the tool-shed, strange noises arrested
our steps; looking in, we perceived Harold, alone, rapt,
absorbed, immersed in the special game of the moment. He was
squatting in an old pig-trough that had been brought in to be
tinkered; and as he rhapsodised, anon he waved a shovel over his
head, anon dug it into the ground with the action of those who
would urge Canadian canoes. Edward strode in upon him.
"What rot are you playing at now?" he demanded sternly.
Harold flushed up, but stuck to his pig-trough like a man.
"I'm Jason," he replied, defiantly; "and this is the Argo. The
other fellows are here too, only you can't see them; and
we're just going through the Hellespont, so don't you come
bothering." And once more he plied the wine-dark sea.
Edward kicked the pig-trough contemptuously.
"Pretty sort of Argo you've got!" said he.
Harold began to get annoyed. "I can't help it," he replied.
"It's the best sort of Argo I can manage, and it's all right if
you only pretend enough; but YOU never could pretend one bit."
Edward reflected. "Look here," he said presently; "why shouldn't
we get hold of Farmer Larkin's boat, and go right away up the
river in a real Argo, and look for Medea, and the Golden Fleece,
and everything? And I'll tell you what, I don't mind your being
Jason, as you thought of it first."
Harold tumbled out of the trough in the excess of his emotion.
"But we aren't allowed to go on the water by ourselves," he
"No," said Edward, with fine scorn: "we aren't allowed; and Jason
wasn't allowed either, I daresay--but he WENT!"
Harold's protest had been merely conventional: he only
wanted to be convinced by sound argument. The next question was,
How about the girls? Selina was distinctly handy in a boat: the
difficulty about her was, that if she disapproved of the
expedition--and, morally considered, it was not exactly a
Pilgrim's Progress--she might go and tell; she having just
reached that disagreeable age when one begins to develop a
conscience. Charlotte, for her part, had a habit of day-dreams,
and was as likely as not to fall overboard in one of her rapt
musings. To be sure, she would dissolve in tears when she found
herself left out; but even that was better than a watery tomb.
In fine, the public voice--and rightly, perhaps--was against the
admission of the skirted animal: spite the precedent of Atalanta,
who was one of the original crew.
"And now," said Edward, "who's to ask Farmer Larkin? I can't;
last time I saw him he said when he caught me again he'd smack my
head. YOU'LL have to."
I hesitated, for good reasons. "You know those precious calves
of his?" I began.
Edward understood at once. "All right," he said; "then we won't
ask him at all. It doesn't much matter. He'd only be
annoyed, and that would be a pity. Now let's set off."
We made our way down to the stream, and captured the farmer's
boat without let or hindrance, the enemy being engaged in the
hayfields. This "river," so called, could never be discovered by
us in any atlas; indeed our Argo could hardly turn in it without
risk of shipwreck. But to us 't was Orinoco, and the cities of
the world dotted its shores. We put the Argo's head up stream,
since that led away from the Larkin province; Harold was
faithfully permitted to be Jason, and we shared the rest of the
heroes among us. Then launching forth from Thessaly, we threaded
the Hellespont with shouts, breathlessly dodged the Clashing
Rocks, and coasted under the lee of the Siren-haunted isles.
Lemnos was fringed with meadow-sweet, dog-roses dotted the Mysian
shore, and the cheery call of the haymaking folk sounded along
the coast of Thrace.
After some hour or two's seafaring, the prow of the Argo embedded
itself in the mud of a landing-place, plashy with the tread of
cows and giving on to a lane that led towards the smoke of human
habitations. Edward jumped ashore, alert for exploration, and
strode off without waiting to see if we followed; but I
lingered behind, having caught sight of a moss-grown water-gate
hard by, leading into a garden that from the brooding quiet
lapping it round, appeared to portend magical possibilities.
Indeed the very air within seemed stiller, as we circumspectly
passed through the gate; and Harold hung back shamefaced, as if
we were crossing the threshold of some private chamber, and
ghosts of old days were hustling past us. Flowers there were,
everywhere; but they drooped and sprawled in an overgrowth
hinting at indifference; the scent of heliotrope possessed the
place, as if actually hung in solid festoons from tall untrimmed
hedge to hedge. No basket-chairs, shawls, or novels dotted the
lawn with colour; and on the garden-front of the house behind,
the blinds were mostly drawn. A grey old sun-dial dominated the
central sward, and we moved towards it instinctively, as the most
human thing visible. An antique motto ran round it, and with
eyes and fingers we struggled at the decipherment.
"TIME: TRYETH: TROTHE:" spelt out Harold at last. "I wonder what
I could not enlighten him, nor meet his further questions as to
the inner mechanism of the thing, and where you wound it up.
I had seen these instruments before, of course, but had never
fully understood their manner of working.
We were still puzzling our heads over the contrivance, when I
became aware that Medea herself was moving down the path from the
house. Dark-haired, supple, of a figure lightly poised and
swayed, but pale and listless--I knew her at once, and having
come out to find her, naturally felt no surprise at all. But
Harold, who was trying to climb on the top of the sun-dial,
having a cat-like fondness for the summit of things, started and
fell prone, barking his chin and filling the pleasance with
Medea skimmed the ground swallow-like, and in a moment was on her
knees comforting him,--wiping the dirt out of his chin with her
own dainty handkerchief,--and vocal with soft murmur of
"You needn't take on so about him," I observed, politely. "He'll
cry for just one minute, and then he'll be all right."
My estimate was justified. At the end of his regulation time
Harold stopped crying suddenly, like a clock that had struck its
hour; and with a serene and cheerful countenance wriggled
out of Medea's embrace, and ran for a stone to throw at an
"O you boys!" cried Medea, throwing wide her arms with
abandonment. "Where have you dropped from? How dirty you are!
I've been shut up here for a thousand years, and all that time
I've never seen any one under a hundred and fifty! Let's play at
something, at once!"
"Rounders is a good game," I suggested. "Girls can play at
rounders. And we could serve up to the sun-dial here. But you
want a bat and a ball, and some more people."
She struck her hands together tragically. "I haven't a bat," she
cried, "or a ball, or more people, or anything sensible whatever.
Never mind; let's play at hide-and-seek in the kitchen garden.
And we'll race there, up to that walnut-tree; I haven't run for a
She was so easy a victor, nevertheless, that I began to doubt, as
I panted behind, whether she had not exaggerated her age by a
year or two. She flung herself into hide-and-seek with all the
gusto and abandonment of the true artist, and as she flitted
away and reappeared, flushed and laughing divinely, the pale
witch-maiden seemed to fall away from her, and she moved rather
as that other girl I had read about, snatched from fields of
daffodil to reign in shadow below, yet permitted once again to
visit earth, and light, and the frank, caressing air.
Tired at last, we strolled back to the old sundial, and Harold,
who never relinquished a problem unsolved, began afresh, rubbing
his finger along the faint incisions, "Time tryeth trothe.
Please, I want to know what that means."
Medea's face drooped low over the sun-dial, till it was almost
hidden in her fingers. "That's what I'm here for," she said
presently, in quite a changed, low voice. "They shut me up
here--they think I'll forget--but I never will--never, never!
And he, too--but I don't know--it is so long--I don't know!"
Her face was quite hidden now. There was silence again in the
old garden. I felt clumsily helpless and awkward; beyond a vague
idea of kicking Harold, nothing remedial seemed to suggest
None of us had noticed the approach of another she-creature--one
of the angular and rigid class--how different from our dear
comrade! The years Medea had claimed might well have belonged to
her; she wore mittens, too--a trick I detested in woman. "Lucy!"
she said, sharply, in a tone with AUNT writ large over it; and
Medea started up guiltily.
"You've been crying," said the newcomer, grimly regarding her
through spectacles. "And pray who are these exceedingly dirty
"Friends of mine, aunt," said Medea, promptly, with forced
cheerfulness. "I--I've known them a long time. I asked them to
The aunt sniffed suspiciously. "You must come indoors, dear,"
she said, "and lie down. The sun will give you a headache. And
you little boys had better run away home to your tea. Remember,
you should not come to pay visits without your nursemaid."
Harold had been tugging nervously at my jacket for some time, and
I only waited till Medea turned and kissed a white hand to us as
she was led away. Then I ran. We gained the boat in safety; and
"What an old dragon!" said Harold.
"Wasn't she a beast!" I replied. "Fancy the sun giving any one a
headache! But Medea was a real brick. Couldn't we carry her
"We could if Edward was here," said Harold, confidently.
The question was, What had become of that defaulting hero? We
were not left long in doubt. First, there came down the lane the
shrill and wrathful clamour of a female tongue, then Edward,
running his best, and then an excited woman hard on his heel.
Edward tumbled into the bottom of the boat, gasping, "Shove her
off!" And shove her off we did, mightily, while the dame abused
us from the bank in the self same accents in which Alfred hurled
defiance at the marauding Dane.
"That was just like a bit out of Westward Ho!" I remarked
approvingly, as we sculled down the stream. "But what had you
been doing to her?"
"Hadn't been doing anything," panted Edward, still breathless.
"I went up into the village and explored, and it was a very nice
one, and the people were very polite. And there was a
blacksmith's forge there, and they were shoeing horses, and
the hoofs fizzled and smoked, and smelt so jolly! I stayed there
quite a long time. Then I got thirsty, so I asked that old woman
for some water, and while she was getting it her cat came out of
the cottage, and looked at me in a nasty sort of way, and said
something I didn't like. So I went up to it just to--to teach it
manners, and somehow or other, next minute it was up an apple-
tree, spitting, and I was running down the lane with that old
thing after me."
Edward was so full of his personal injuries that there was no
interesting him in Medea at all. Moreover, the evening was
closing in, and it was evident that this cutting-out expedition
must be kept for another day. As we neared home, it gradually
occurred to us that perhaps the greatest danger was yet to come;
for the farmer must have missed his boat ere now, and would
probably be lying in wait for us near the landing-place. There
was no other spot admitting of debarcation on the home side; if
we got out on the other, and made for the bridge, we should
certainly be seen and cut off. Then it was that I blessed my
stars that our elder brother<149> was with us that day,--he might
be little good at pretending, but in grappling with the stern
facts of life he had no equal. Enjoining silence, he waited till
we were but a little way from the fated landing-place, and then
brought us in to the opposite bank. We scrambled out
noiselessly, and--the gathering darkness favouring us--crouched
behind a willow, while Edward pushed off the empty boat with his
foot. The old Argo, borne down by the gentle current, slid and
grazed along the rushy bank; and when she came opposite the
suspected ambush, a stream of imprecation told us that our
precaution had not been wasted. We wondered, as we listened,
where Farmer Larkin, who was bucolically bred and reared, had
acquired such range and wealth of vocabulary. Fully realising at
last that his boat was derelict, abandoned, at the mercy of wind
and wave,--as well as out of his reach,--he strode away to the
bridge, about a quarter of a mile further down; and as soon as we
heard his boots clumping on the planks, we nipped out, recovered
the craft, pulled across, and made the faithful vessel fast to
her proper moorings. Edward was anxious to wait and exchange
cour<150>tesies and compliments with the disappointed farmer,
when he should confront us on the opposite bank; but wiser
counsels prevailed. It was possible that the piracy was not yet
laid at our particular door: Ulysses, I reminded him, had reason
to regret a similar act of bravado, and--were he here--would
certainly advise a timely retreat. Edward held but a low opinion
of me as a counsellor; but he had a very solid respect for
THE ROMAN ROAD
ALL the roads of our neighbourhood were cheerful and friendly,
having each of them pleasant qualities of their own; but this one
seemed different from the others in its masterful suggestion of a
serious purpose, speeding you along with a strange uplifting of
the heart. The others tempted chiefly with their treasures of
hedge and ditch; the rapt surprise of the first lords-and-ladies,
the rustle of a field-mouse, splash of a frog; while cool noses
of brother-beasts were pushed at you through gate or gap. A
loiterer you had need to be, did you choose one of them,--so many
were the tiny hands thrust out to detain you, from this side and
that. But this other was of a sterner sort, and even in its
shedding off of bank and hedgerow as it marched straight and full
for the open downs, it seemed to declare its contempt for
adventitious trappings to catch the shallow-pated. When the
sense of injustice or disappointment was heavy on me, and
things were very black within, as on this particular day, the
road of character was my choice for that solitary ramble, when I
turned my back for an afternoon on a world that had unaccountably
declared itself against me.
"The Knights' Road," we children had named it, from a sort of
feeling that, if from any quarter at all, it would be down this
track we might some day see Lancelot and his peers come pacing on
their great war-horses,--supposing that any of the stout band
still survived, in nooks and unexplored places. Grown-up people
sometimes spoke of it as the "Pilgrims' Way"; but I didn't know
much about pilgrims,--except Walter in the Horselberg story. Him
I sometimes saw, breaking with haggard eyes out of yonder copse,
and calling to the pilgrims as they hurried along on their
desperate march to the Holy City, where peace and pardon were
awaiting them. "All roads lead to Rome," I had once heard
somebody say; and I had taken the remark very seriously, of
course, and puzzled over it many days. There must have been some
mistake, I concluded at last; but of one road at least I
intuitively felt it to be true. And my belief was clinched
by something that fell from Miss Smedley during a history lesson,
about a strange road that ran right down the middle of England
till it reached the coast, and then began again in France, just
opposite, and so on undeviating, through city and vineyard, right
from the misty Highlands to the Eternal City. Uncorroborated,
any statement of Miss Smedley's usually fell on incredulous ears;
but here, with the road itself in evidence, she seemed, once, in
a way, to have strayed into truth.
Rome! It was fascinating to think that it lay at the other end
of this white ribbon that rolled itself off from my feet over the
distant downs. I was not quite so uninstructed as to imagine l
could reach it that afternoon; but some day, I thought, if things
went on being as unpleasant as they were now,--some day, when
Aunt Eliza had gone on a visit,--we would see.
I tried to imagine what it would be like when I got there. The
Coliseum I knew, of course, from a woodcut in the history-book:
so to begin with I plumped that down in the middle. The rest had
to be patched up from the little grey market-town where twice a
year we went to have our hair cut; hence, in the result,
Vespasian's amphitheatre was approached by muddy little streets,
wherein the Red Lion and the Blue Boar, with Somebody's Entire
along their front, and "Commercial Room" on their windows; the
doctor's house, of substantial red-brick; and the facade of the
New Wesleyan Chapel, which we thought very fine, were the chief
architectural ornaments: while the Roman populace pottered about
in smocks and corduroys, twisting the tails of Roman calves and
inviting each other to beer in musical Wessex. From Rome I
drifted on to other cities, dimly heard of--Damascus, Brighton
(Aunt Eliza's ideal), Athens, and Glasgow, whose glories the
gardener sang; but there was a certain sameness in my conception
of all of them: that Wesleyan chapel would keep cropping up
everywhere. It was easier to go a-building among those dream-
cities where no limitations were imposed, and one was sole
architect, with a free hand. Down a delectable street of cloud-
built palaces I was mentally pacing, when I happened upon the
He was seated at work by the roadside, at a point whence the cool
large spaces of the downs, juniper-studded, swept grandly
westwards. His attributes proclaimed him of the artist tribe:
besides, he wore knickerbockers like myself,--a garb confined, I
was aware, to boys and artists. I knew I was not to bother him
with questions, nor look over his shoulder and breathe in his
ear--they didn't like it, this genus irritabile; but there was
nothing about staring in my code of instructions, the point
having somehow been overlooked: so, squatting down on the grass,
I devoted myself to a passionate absorbing of every detail. At
the end of five minutes there was not a button on him that I
could not have passed an examination in; and the wearer himself
of that homespun suit was probably less familiar with its pattern
and texture than I was. Once he looked up, nodded, half held out
his tobacco pouch,--mechanically, as it were,--then, returning it
to his pocket, resumed his work, and I my mental photography.
After another five minutes or so had passed he remarked, without
looking my way: "Fine afternoon we're having: going far to-day?"
"No, I'm not going any farther than this," I replied; "I WAS
thinking of going on to Rome but I've put it off."
"Pleasant place, Rome," he murmured; "you'll like it." It was
some minutes later that he added: "But I wouldn't go just now,
if I were you,--too jolly hot."
"YOU haven't been to Rome, have you?" I inquired.
"Rather," he replied, briefly; "I live there."
This was too much, and my jaw dropped as I struggled to grasp the
fact that I was sitting there talking to a fellow who lived in
Rome. Speech was out of the question: besides, I had other
things to do. Ten solid minutes had I already spent in an
examination of him as a mere stranger and artist; and now the
whole thing had to be done over again, from the changed point of
view. So I began afresh, at the crown of his soft hat, and
worked down to his solid British shoes, this time investing
everything with the new Roman halo; and at last I managed to get
out: "But you don't really live there, do you?" never doubting
the fact, but wanting to hear it repeated.
"Well," he said, good-naturedly overlooking the slight rudeness
of my query, "I live there as much as l live anywhere,--about
half the year sometimes. I've got a sort of a shanty there.
You must come and see it some day."
"But do you live anywhere else as well?" I went on, feeling the
forbidden tide of questions surging up within me.
"O yes, all over the place," was his vague reply. "And I've got
a diggings somewhere off Piccadilly."
"Where's that?" I inquired.
"Where's what?" said he. "Oh, Piccadilly! It's in London."
"Have you a large garden?" I asked; "and how many pigs have you
"I've no garden at all," he replied, sadly, "and they don't allow
me to keep pigs, though I'd like to, awfully. It's very hard."
"But what do you do all day, then," I cried, "and where do you go
and play, without any garden, or pigs, or things?"
"When I want to play," he said, gravely, "I have to go and play
in the street; but it's poor fun, I grant you. There's a goat,
though, not far off, and sometimes I talk to him when I'm feeling
lonely; but he's very proud."
"Goats ARE proud," I admitted. "There's one lives near
here, and if you say anything to him at all, he hits you in the
wind with his head. You know what it feels like when a fellow
hits you in the wind?"
"I do, well," he replied, in a tone of proper melancholy, and
"And have you been to any other places," I began again,
presently, "besides Rome and Piccy-what's-his-name?"
"Heaps," he said. "I'm a sort of Ulysses--seen men and cities,
you know. In fact, about the only place I never got to was the
I began to like this man. He answered your questions briefly and
to the point, and never tried to be funny. I felt I could be
confidential with him.
"Wouldn't you like," I inquired, "to find a city without any
people in it at all?"
He looked puzzled. "I'm afraid I don't quite understand," said
"I mean," I went on eagerly, "a city where you walk in at the
gates, and the shops are all full of beautiful things, and the
houses furnished as grand as can be, and there isn't anybody
there whatever! And you go into the shops, and take
anything you want--chocolates and magic lanterns and injirubber
balls--and there's nothing to pay; and you choose your own house
and live there and do just as you like, and never go to bed
unless you want to!"
The artist laid down his brush. "That WOULD be a nice city,"
he said. "Better than Rome. You can't do that sort of thing in
Rome,--or in Piccadilly either. But I fear it's one of the
places I've never been to."
"And you'd ask your friends," I went on, warming to my subject,--
"only those you really like, of course,--and they'd each have a
house to themselves,--there'd be lots of houses,--and no
relations at all, unless they promised they'd be pleasant, and if
they weren't they'd have to go."
"So you wouldn't have any relations?" said the artist. "Well,
perhaps you're right. We have tastes in common, I see."
"I'd have Harold," I said, reflectively, "and Charlotte. They'd
like it awfully. The others are getting too old. Oh, and
Martha--I'd have Martha, to cook and wash up and do things.
You'd like Martha. She's ever so much nicer than Aunt
Eliza. She's my idea of a real lady."
"Then I'm sure I should like her," he replied, heartily, "and
when I come to--what do you call this city of yours? Nephelo--
something, did you say?"
"I--I don't know," I replied, timidly. "I'm afraid it hasn't got
The artist gazed out over the downs. "`The poet says, dear city
of Cecrops;'" he said, softly, to himself, "`and wilt not thou
say, dear city of Zeus?' That's from Marcus Aurelius," he went
on, turning again to his work. "You don't know him, I suppose;
you will some day."
"Who's he?" I inquired.
"Oh, just another fellow who lived in Rome," he replied, dabbing
"O dear!" I cried, disconsolately. "What a lot of people seem to
live at Rome, and I've never even been there! But I think I'd
like MY city best."
"And so would I," he replied with unction. "But Marcus Aurelius
wouldn't, you know."
"Then we won't invite him," I said, "will we?"
"_I_ won't if you won't," said he. And that point being
settled, we were silent for a while.
"Do you know," he said, presently, "I've met one or two fellows
from time to time who have been to a city like yours,--perhaps it
was the same one. They won't talk much about it--only broken
hints, now and then; but they've been there sure enough. They
don't seem to care about anything in particular--and every
thing's the same to them, rough or smooth; and sooner or later
they slip off and disappear; and you never see them again. Gone
back, I suppose."
"Of course," said I. "Don't see what they ever came away for;
_I_ wouldn't,--to be told you've broken things when you haven't,
and stopped having tea with the servants in the kitchen, and not
allowed to have a dog to sleep with you. But _I've_ known
people, too, who've gone there."
The artist stared, but without incivility.
"Well, there's Lancelot," I went on. "The book says he died, but
it never seemed to read right, somehow. He just went away, like
Arthur. And Crusoe, when he got tired of wearing clothes
and being respectable. And all the nice men in the stones who
don't marry the Princess, 'cos only one man ever gets married in
a book, you know. They'll be there!"
"And the men who never come off," he said, "who try like the
rest, but get knocked out, or somehow miss,--or break down or get
bowled over in the melee,--and get no Princess, nor even a
second-class kingdom,--some of them'll be there, I hope?"
"Yes, if you like," I replied, not quite understanding him; "if
they're friends of yours, we'll ask 'em, of course."
"What a time we shall have!" said the artist, reflectively; "and
how shocked old Marcus Aurelius will be!"
The shadows had lengthened uncannily, a tide of golden haze was
flooding the grey-green surface of the downs, and the artist
began to put his traps together, preparatory to a move. I felt
very low; we would have to part, it seemed, just as we were
getting on so well together. Then he stood up, and he was very
straight and tall, and the sunset was in his hair and beard as he
stood there, high over me. He took my hand like an equal.
"I've enjoyed our conversation very much," he said. "That was an
interesting subject you started, and we haven't half exhausted
it. We shall meet again, I hope."
"Of course we shall," I replied, surprised that there should be
any doubt about it.
"In Rome, perhaps?" said he.
"Yes, in Rome," I answered, "or Piccy-the-other-place, or
"Or else," said he, "in that other city,--when we've found the
way there. And I'll look out for you, and you'll sing out as
soon as you see me. And we'll go down the street arm-in-arm, and
into all the shops, and then I'll choose my house, and you'll
choose your house, and we'll live there like princes and good
"Oh, but you'll stay in my house, won't you?" I cried; "wouldn't
ask everybody; but I'll ask YOU."
He affected to consider a moment; then "Right!" he said: "I
believe you mean it, and I WILL come and stay with you. I
won't go to anybody else, if they ask me ever so much. And I'll
stay quite a long time, too, and I won't be any trouble."
Upon this compact we parted, and I went down-heartedly from the
man who understood me, back to the house where I never could do
anything right. How was it that everything seemed natural and
sensible to him, which these uncles, vicars, and other grown-up
men took for the merest tomfoolery? Well, he would explain this,
and many another thing, when we met again. The Knights' Road!
How it always brought consolation! Was he possibly one of those
vanished knights I had been looking for so long? Perhaps he
would be in armour next time,--why not? He would look well in
armour, I thought. And I would take care to get there first, and
see the sunlight flash and play on his helmet and shield, as he
rode up the High Street of the Golden City.
Meantime, there only remained the finding it,--an easy
THE SECRET DRAWER
IT must surely have served as a boudoir for the ladies of old
time, this little used, rarely entered chamber where the
neglected old bureau stood. There was something very feminine in
the faint hues of its faded brocades, in the rose and blue of
such bits of china as yet remained, and in the delicate old-world
fragrance of pot-pourri from the great bowl--blue and white, with
funny holes in its cover--that stood on the bureau's flat top.
Modern aunts disdained this out-of-the-way, back-water, upstairs
room, preferring to do their accounts and grapple with their
correspondence in some central position more in the whirl of
things, whence one eye could be kept on the carriage drive, while
the other was alert for malingering servants and marauding
children. Those aunts of a former generation--I sometimes felt--
would have suited our habits better. But even by us children, to
whom few places were private or reserved, the room was
visited but rarely. To be sure, there was nothing particular in
it that we coveted or required,--only a few spindle-legged gilt-
backed chairs; an old harp, on which, so the legend ran, Aunt
Eliza herself used once to play, in years remote, unchronicled; a
corner-cupboard with a few pieces of china; and the old bureau.
But one other thing the room possessed, peculiar to itself; a
certain sense of privacy,--a power of making the intruder feel
that he WAS intruding,--perhaps even a faculty of hinting that
some one might have been sitting on those chairs, writing at the
bureau, or fingering the china, just a second before one entered.
No such violent word as "haunted" could possibly apply to this
pleasant old-fashioned chamber, which indeed we all rather liked;
but there was no doubt it was reserved and stand-offish, keeping
itself to itself.
Uncle Thomas was the first to draw my attention to the
possibilities of the old bureau. He was pottering about the
house one afternoon, having ordered me to keep at his heels for
company,--he was a man who hated to be left one minute alone,--
when his eye fell on it. H'm! Sheraton!" he remarked. (He had
a smattering of most things, this uncle, especially the
vocabularies.) Then he let down the flap, and examined the empty
pigeon-holes and dusty panelling. "Fine bit of inlay," he went
on: "good work, all of it. I know the sort. There's a secret
drawer in there somewhere." Then, as I breathlessly drew near,
he suddenly exclaimed: "By Jove, I do want to smoke!" and
wheeling round he abruptly fled for the garden, leaving me with
the cup dashed from my lips. What a strange thing, I mused, was
this smoking, that takes a man suddenly, be he in the court, the
camp, or the grove, grips him like an Afreet, and whirls him off
to do its imperious behests! Would it be even so with myself, I
wondered, in those unknown grown-up years to come?
But I had no time to waste in vain speculations. My whole being
was still vibrating to those magic syllables, "secret drawer;"
and that particular chord had been touched that never fails to
thrill responsive to such words as CAVE, TRAP-DOOR, SLIDING-
PANEL, BULLION, INGOTS, or SPANISH DOLLARS. For, besides its
own special bliss, who ever heard of a secret drawer with nothing
in it? And oh, I did want money so badly! I mentally ran
over the list of demands which were pressing me the most
First, there was the pipe I wanted to give George Jannaway.
George, who was Martha's young man, was a shepherd, and a great
ally of mine; and the last fair he was at, when he bought his
sweetheart fairings, as a right-minded shepherd should, he had
purchased a lovely snake expressly for me; one of the wooden
sort, with joints, waggling deliciously in the hand; with yellow
spots on a green ground, sticky and strong-smelling, as a fresh-
painted snake ought to be; and with a red-flannel tongue, pasted
cunningly into its jaws. I loved it much, and took it to bed
with me every night, till what time its spinal cord was loosed
and it fell apart, and went the way of all mortal joys. I
thought it so nice of George to think of me at the fair, and
that's why I wanted to give him a pipe. When the young year was
chill and lambing-time was on, George inhabited a little wooden
house on wheels, far out on the wintry downs, and saw no faces
but such as were sheepish and woolly and mute; ant when he and
Martha were married, she was going to carry his dinner out
to him every day, two miles; and after it, perhaps he would smoke
my pipe. It seemed an idyllic sort of existence, for both the
parties concerned; but a pipe of quality, a pipe fitted to be
part of a life such as this, could not be procured (so Martha
informed me) for a less sum than eighteen pence. And meantime--!
Then there was the fourpence I owed Edward; not that he was
bothering me for it, but I knew he was in need of it himself, to
pay back Selina, who wanted it to make up a sum of two shillings,
to buy Harold an ironclad for his approaching birthday,--H. M. S.
Majestic, now lying uselessly careened in the toyshop window,
just when her country had such sore need of her.
And then there was that boy in the village who had caught a young
squirrel, and I had never yet possessed one, and he wanted a
shilling for it, but I knew that for ninepence in cash--but what
was the good of these sorry, threadbare reflections? I had wants
enough to exhaust any possible find of bullion, even if it
amounted to half a sovereign. My only hope now lay in the magic
drawer, and here I was standing and letting the precious
minutes slip by. Whether "findings" of this sort could, morally
speaking, be considered "keepings," was a point that did not
occur to me.
The room was very still as I approached the bureau,--possessed,
it seemed to be, by a sort of hush of expectation. The faint
odour of orris-root that floated forth as I let down the flap,
seemed to identify itself with the yellows and browns of the old
wood, till hue and scent were of one quality and interchangeable.
Even so, ere this, the pot-pourri had mixed itself with the tints
of the old brocade, and brocade and pot-pourri had long been one.
With expectant fingers I explored the empty pigeon-holes and
sounded the depths of the softly-sliding drawers. No books that
I knew of gave any general recipe for a quest like this; but the
glory, should I succeed unaided, would be all the greater.
To him who is destined to arrive, the fates never fail to afford,
on the way, their small encouragements; in less than two minutes,
I had come across a rusty button-hook. This was truly
magnificent. In the nursery there existed, indeed, a general
button-hook, common to either sex; but none of us possessed
a private and special button-hook, to lend or refuse as suited
the high humour of the moment. I pocketed the treasure carefully
and proceeded. At the back of another drawer, three old foreign
stamps told me I was surely on the highroad to fortune.
Following on these bracing incentives, came a dull blank period
of unrewarded search. In vain I removed all the drawers and felt
over every inch of the smooth surfaces, from front to back.
Never a knob, spring or projection met the thrilling finger-tips;
unyielding the old bureau stood, stoutly guarding its secret, if
secret it really had. I began to grow weary and disheartened.
This was not the first time that Uncle Thomas had proved shallow,
uninformed, a guide into blind alleys where the echoes mocked
you. Was it any good persisting longer? Was anything any good
whatever? In my mind I began to review past disappointments, and
life seemed one long record of failure and of non-arriral.
Disillusioned and depressed, I left my work and went to the
window. The light was ebbing from the room, and outside seemed
to be collecting itself on the horizon for its concentrated
effort of sunset. Far down the garden, Uncle Thomas was holding
Edward in the air reversed, and smacking him. Edward, gurgling
hysterically, was striking blind fists in the direction where he
judged his uncle's stomach should rightly be; the contents of his
pockets--a motley show--were strewing the lawn. Somehow, though
I had been put through a similar performance an hour or two ago,
myself, it all seemed very far away and cut off from me.
Westwards the clouds were massing themselves in a low violet
bank; below them, to north and south, as far round as eye could
reach, a narrow streak of gold ran out and stretched away,
straight along the horizon. Somewhere very far off, a horn was
being blown, clear and thin; it sounded like the golden streak
grown audible, while the gold seemed the visible sound. It
pricked my ebbing courage, this blended strain of music and
colour, and I turned for a last effort; and Fortune thereupon, as
if half-ashamed of the unworthy game she had been playing with
me, relented, opening her clenched fist. Hardly had I put my
hand once more to the obdurate wood, when with a sort of
small sigh, almost a sob--as it were--of relief, the secret
drawer sprang open.
I drew it out and carried it to the window, to examine it in the
failing light. Too hopeless had I gradually grown, in my
dispiriting search, to expect very much; and yet at a glance I
saw that my basket of glass lay in fragments at my feet. No
ingots or dollars were here, to crown me the little Monte Cristo
of a week. Outside, the distant horn had ceased its gnat-song,
the gold was paling to primrose, and everything was lonely and
still. Within, my confident little castles were tumbling down
like card-houses, leaving me stripped of estate, both real and
personal, and dominated by the depressing reaction.
And yet,--as I looked again at the small collection that lay
within that drawer of disillusions, some warmth crept back to my
heart as I recognised that a kindred spirit to my own had been at
the making of it. Two tarnished gilt buttons,--naval,
apparently,--a portrait of a monarch unknown to me, cut from some
antique print and deftly coloured by hand in just my own bold
style of brush-work,--some foreign copper coins, thicker and
clumsier of make than those I hoarded myself,--and a list of
birds' eggs, with names of the places where they had been found.
Also, a ferret's muzzle, and a twist of tarry string, still
faintly aromatic. It was a real boy's hoard, then, that I had
happened upon. He too had found out the secret drawer, this
happy starred young person; and here he had stowed away his
treasures, one by one, and had cherished them secretly awhile;
and then--what? Well, one would never know now the reason why
these priceless possessions still lay here unreclaimed; but
across the void stretch of years I seemed to touch hands a moment
with my little comrade of seasons long since dead.
I restored the drawer, with its contents, to the trusty bureau,
and heard the spring click with a certain satisfaction. Some
other boy, perhaps, would some day release that spring again. I
trusted he would be equally appreciative. As I opened the door
to go, I could hear from the nursery at the end of the passage
shouts and yells, telling that the hunt was up. Bears,
apparently, or bandits, were on the evening bill of fare, judging
by the character of the noises. In another minute I would be in
the thick of it, in all the warmth and light and laughter.
And yet--what a long way off it all seemed, both in space and
time, to me yet lingering on the threshold of that old-world
The eventful day had arrived at last, the day which, when first
named, had seemed--like all golden dates that promise anything
definite--so immeasurably remote. When it was first announced, a
fortnight before, that Miss Smedley was really going, the
resultant ecstasies had occupied a full week, during which we
blindly revelled in the contemplation and discussion of her past
tyrannies, crimes, malignities; in recalling to each other this
or that insult, dishonour, or physical assault, sullenly endured
at a time when deliverance was not even a small star on the
horizon; and in mapping out the golden days to come, with special
new troubles of their own, no doubt, since this is but a work-a-
day world, but at least free from one familiar scourge. The time
that remained had been taken up by the planning of practical
expressions of the popular sentiment. Under Edward's masterly
direction, arrangements had been made for a flag to be run
up over the hen-house at the very moment when the fly, with Miss
Smedley's boxes on top and the grim oppressor herself inside,
began to move off down the drive. Three brass cannons, set on
the brow of the sunk-fence, were to proclaim our deathless
sentiments in the ears of the retreating foe: the dogs were to
wear ribbons, and later--but this depended on our powers of
evasiveness and dissimulation--there might be a small bonfire,
with a cracker or two, if the public funds could bear the
I was awakened by Harold digging me in the ribs, and "She's going
to-day!" was the morning hymn that scattered the clouds of sleep.
Strange to say, it was with no corresponding jubilation of
spirits that I slowly realised the momentous fact. Indeed, as I
dressed, a dull disagreeable feeling that I could not define grew
within me--something like a physical bruise. Harold was
evidently feeling it too, for after repeating "She's going to-
day!" in a tone more befitting the Litany, he looked hard in my
face for direction as to how the situation was to be taken. But
I crossly bade him look sharp and say his prayers and not
bother me. What could this gloom portend, that on a day of days
like the present seemed to hang my heavens with black?
Down at last and out in the sun, we found Edward before us,
swinging on a gate, and chanting a farm-yard ditty in which all
the beasts appear in due order, jargoning in their several
tongues, and every verse begins with the couplet--
"Now, my lads, come with me,
Out in the morning early!"
The fateful exodus of the day had evidently slipped his memory
entirely. I touched him on the shoulder. "She's going to-day!"
I said. Edward's carol subsided like a water-tap turned off.
"So she is!" he replied, and got down at once off the gate: and
we returned to the house without another word.
At breakfast Miss Smedley behaved in a most mean and uncalled-for
manner. The right divine of governesses to govern wrong includes
no right to cry. In thus usurping the prerogative of their
victims, they ignore the rules of the ring, and hit below
the belt. Charlotte was crying, of course; but that counted for
nothing. Charlotte even cried when the pigs' noses were ringed
in due season; thereby evoking the cheery contempt of the
operators, who asserted they liked it, and doubtless knew. But
when the cloud-compeller, her bolts laid aside, resorted to
tears, mutinous humanity had a right to feel aggrieved, and
placed in a false and difficult position. What would the Romans
have done, supposing Hannibal had cried? History has not even
considered the possibility. Rules and precedents should be
strictly observed on both sides; when they are violated, the
other party is justified in feeling injured.
There were no lessons that morning, naturally--another grievance!
The fitness of things required that we should have struggled to
the last in a confused medley of moods and tenses, and parted for
ever, flushed with hatred, over the dismembered corpse of the
multiplication table. But this thing was not to be; and I was
free to stroll by myself through the garden, and combat, as best
I might, this growing feeling of depression. It was a wrong
system altogether, I thought, this going of people one had
got used to. Things ought always to continue as they had been.
Change there must be, of course; pigs, for instance, came and
went with disturbing frequency--
"Fired their ringing shot and passed,
Hotly charged and sank at last,"--
but Nature had ordered it so, and in requital had provided for
rapid successors. Did you come to love a pig, and he was taken
from you, grief was quickly assuaged in the delight of selection
from the new litter. But now, when it was no question of a
peerless pig, but only of a governess, Nature seemed helpless,
and the future held no litter of oblivion. Things might be
better, or they might be worse, but they would never be the same;
and the innate conservatism of youth asks neither poverty nor
riches, but only immunity from change.
Edward slouched up alongside of me presently, with a hang-dog
look on him, as if he had been caught stealing jam. "What a lark
it'll be when she's really gone!" he observed, with a swagger
"Grand fun!" I replied, dolorously; and conversation flagged.
We reached the hen-house, and contemplated the banner of freedom
lying ready to flaunt the breezes at the supreme moment.
"Shall you run it up," I asked, "when the fly starts, or--or wait
a little till it's out of sight?"
Edward gazed around him dubiously. "We're going to have some
rain, I think," he said; "and--and it's a new flag. It would be
a pity to spoil it. P'raps I won't run it up at all."
Harold came round the corner like a bison pursued by Indians.
"I've polished up the cannons," he cried, "and they look grand!
Mayn't I load 'em now?"
"You leave 'em alone," said Edward, severely, "or you'll be
blowing yourself up" (consideration for others was not usually
Edward's strong point). "Don't touch the gunpowder till you're
told, or you'll get your head smacked."
Harold fell behind, limp, squashed, obedient. "She wants me to
write to her," he began, presently. "Says she doesn't mind the
spelling, it I'll only write. Fancy her saying that!"
"Oh, shut up, will you?" said Edward, savagely; and once
more we were silent, with only our thoughts for sorry company.
"Let's go off to the copse," I suggested timidly, feeling that
something had to be done to relieve the tension, "and cut more
new bows and arrows."
"She gave me a knife my last birthday," said Edward, moodily,
never budging. "It wasn't much of a knife--but I wish I hadn't
"When my legs used to ache," I said, "she sat up half the night,
rubbing stuff on them. I forgot all about that till this
"There's the fly!" cried Harold suddenly. "I can hear it
scrunching on the gravel."
Then for the first time we turned and stared one another in the
. . . . .
The fly and its contents had finally disappeared through the
gate: the rumble of its wheels had died away; and no flag floated
defiantly in the sun, no cannons proclaimed the passing of a
dynasty. From out the frosted cake of our existence Fate had cut
an irreplaceable segment; turn which way we would, the void was
present. We sneaked off in different directions, mutually
undesirous of company; and it seemed borne in upon me that I
ought to go and dig my garden right over, from end to end. It
didn't actually want digging; on the other hand, no amount of
digging could affect it, for good or for evil; so I worked
steadily, strenuously, under the hot sun, stifling thought in
action. At the end of an hour or so, I was joined by Edward.
"I've been chopping up wood," he explained, in a guilty sort of
way, though nobody had called on him to account for his doings.
"What for?" I inquired, stupidly. "There's piles and piles of it
chopped up already."
"I know," said Edward; "but there's no harm in having a bit over.
You never can tell what may happen. But what have you been doing
all this digging for?"
"You said it was going to rain," I explained, hastily; "so I
thought I'd get the digging done before it came. Good gardeners
always tell you that's the right thing to do."
"It did look like rain at one time," Edward admitted; "but it's
passed off now. Very queer weather we're having. I suppose
that's why I've felt so funny all day."
"Yes, I suppose it's the weather," I replied. "_I've_ been
feeling funny too."
The weather had nothing to do with it, as we well knew. But we
would both have died rather than have admitted the real
THE BLUE ROOM
That nature has her moments of sympathy with man has been noted
often enough,--and generally as a new discovery; to us, who had
never known any other condition of things, it seemed entirely
right and fitting that the wind sang and sobbed in the poplar
tops, and in the lulls of it, sudden spirts of rain
spattered the already dusty roads, on that blusterous March day
when Edward and I awaited, on the station platform, the arrival
of the new tutor. Needless to say, this arrangement had been
planned by an aunt, from some fond idea that our shy, innocent
young natures would unfold themselves during the walk from the
station, and that on the revelation of each other's more solid
qualities that must then inevitably ensue, an enduring friendship
springing from mutual respect might be firmly based. A pretty
dream,--nothing more. For Edward, who foresaw that the brunt of
tutorial oppression would have to be borne by him, was
sulky, monosyllabic, and determined to be as negatively
disagreeable as good manners would permit. It was therefore
evident that I would have to be spokesman and purveyor of hollow
civilities, and I was none the more amiable on that account; all
courtesies, welcomes, explanations, and other court-chamberlain
kind of business, being my special aversion. There was much of
the tempestuous March weather in the hearts of both of us, as we
sullenly glowered along the carriage-windows of the slackening
One is apt, however, to misjudge the special difficulties of a
situation; and the reception proved, after all, an easy and
informal matter. In a trainful so uniformly bucolic, a tutor was
readily recognisable; and his portmanteau had been consigned to
the luggage-cart, and his person conveyed into the lane, before I
had discharged one of my carefully considered sentences. I
breathed more easily, and, looking up at our new friend as we
stepped out together, remembered that we had been counting on
something altogether more arid, scholastic, and severe. A boyish
eager face and a petulant pince-nez,--untidy hair,--a head
of constant quick turns like a robin's, and a voice that kept
breaking into alto,--these were all very strange and new, but not
in the least terrible.
He proceeded jerkily through the village, with glances on this
side and that; and "Charming," he broke out presently; "quite too
charming and delightful!"
I had not counted on this sort of thing, and glanced for help to
Edward, who, hands in pockets, looked grimly down his nose. He
had taken his line, and meant to stick to it.
Meantime our friend had made an imaginary spy-glass out of his
fist, and was squinting through it at something I could not
perceive. "What an exquisite bit!" he burst out; "fifteenth
century,--no,--yes, it is!"
I began to feel puzzled, not to say alarmed. It reminded me of
the butcher in the Arabian Nights, whose common joints,
displayed on the shop-front, took to a startled public the
appearance of dismembered humanity. This man seemed to see the
strangest things in our dull, familiar surroundings.
"Ah!" he broke out again, as we jogged on between hedgerows:
"and that field now--backed by the downs--with the rain-cloud
brooding over it,--that's all David Cox--every bit of it!"
"That field belongs to Farmer Larkin," I explained politely, for
of course he could not be expected to know. "I'll take you over
to Farmer Cox's to-morrow, if he's a friend of yours; but there's
nothing to see there."
Edward, who was hanging sullenly behind, made a face at me, as if
to say, "What sort of lunatic have we got here?"
"It has the true pastoral character, this country of yours," went
on our enthusiast: "with just that added touch in cottage and
farmstead, relics of a bygone art, which makes our English
landscape so divine, so unique!"
Really this grasshopper was becoming a burden. These familiar
fields and farms, of which we knew every blade and stick, had
done nothing that I knew of to be bespattered with adjectives in
this way. I had never thought of them as divine, unique, or
anything else. They were--well, they were just themselves, and
there was an end of it. Despairingly I jogged Edward in the
ribs, as a sign to start rational conversation, but he only
grinned and continued obdurate.
"You can see the house now," I remarked, presently; "and that's
Selina, chasing the donkey in the paddock,--or is it the donkey
chasing Selina? I can't quite make out; but it's THEM,
Needless to say, he exploded with a full charge of adjectives.
"Exquisite!" he rapped out; "so mellow and harmonious! and so
entirely in keeping!" (I could see from Edward's face that he
was thinking who ought to be in keeping.) "Such possibilities of
romance, now, in those old gables!"
"If you mean the garrets," I said, "there's a lot of old
furniture in them; and one is generally full of apples; and the
bats get in sometimes, under the eaves, and flop about till we go
up with hair-brushes and things and drive 'em out; but there's
nothing else in them that I know of."
"Oh, but there must be more than bats," he cried. "Don't tell me
there are no ghosts. I shall be deeply disappointed if there
aren't any ghosts."
I did not think it worth while to reply, feeling really unequal
to this sort of conversation; besides, we were nearing the house,
when my task would be ended. Aunt Eliza met us at the door, and
in the cross-fire of adjectives that ensued--both of them talking
at once, as grown-up folk have a habit of doing--we two slipped
round to the back of the house, and speedily put several solid
acres between us and civilisation, for fear of being ordered in
to tea in the drawing-room. By the time we returned, our new
importation had gone up to dress for dinner, so till the morrow
at least we were free of him.
Meanwhile the March wind, after dropping a while at sundown, had
been steadily increasing in volume; and although I fell asleep at
my usual hour, about midnight I was wakened by the stress and cry
of it. In the bright moonlight, wind-swung branches tossed and
swayed eerily across the blinds; there was rumbling in chimneys,
whistling in keyholes, and everywhere a clamour and a call.
Sleep was out of the question, and, sitting up in bed, I looked
round. Edward sat up too. "I was wondering when you were going
to wake," he said. "It's no good trying to sleep through
this. I vote we get up and do something."
"I'm game," I replied. "Let's play at being in a ship at sea"
(the plaint of the old house under the buffeting wind suggested
this, naturally); "and we can be wrecked on an island, or left on
a raft, whichever you choose; but I like an island best myself,
because there's more things on it."
Edward on reflection negatived the idea. "It would make too much
noise," he pointed out. "There's no fun playing at ships, unless
you can make a jolly good row."
The door creaked, and a small figure in white slipped cautiously
in. "Thought I heard you talking," said Charlotte. "We don't
like it; we're afraid--Selina too. She'll be here in a minute.
She's putting on her new dressing-gown she's so proud of."
His arms round his knees, Edward cogitated deeply until Selina
appeared, barefooted, and looking slim and tall in the new
dressing-gown. Then, "Look here," he exclaimed; "now we're all
together, I vote we go and explore!"
"You're always wanting to explore," I said. "What on earth
is there to explore for in this house?"
"Biscuits!" said the inspired Edward.
"Hooray! Come on!" chimed in Harold, sitting up suddenly. He
had been awake all the time, but had been shamming asleep, lest
he should be fagged to do anything.
It was indeed a fact, as Edward had remembered, that our
thoughtless elders occasionally left the biscuits out, a prize
for the night-walking adventurer with nerves of steel.
Edward tumbled out of bed, and pulled a baggy old pair of
knickerbockers over his bare shanks. Then he girt himself with a
belt, into which he thrust, on the one side a large wooden
pistol, on the other an old single-stick; and finally he donned a
big slouch-hat--once an uncle's--that we used for playing Guy
Fawkes and Charles-the-Second-up-a-tree in. Whatever the
audience, Edward, if possible, always dressed for his parts with
care and conscientiousness; while Harold and I, true
Elizabethans, cared little about the mounting of the piece, so
long as the real dramatic heart of it beat sound.
Our commander now enjoined on us a silence deep as the
grave, reminding us that Aunt Eliza usually slept with an open
door, past which we had to file.
"But we'll take the short cut through the Blue Room," said the
"Of course," said Edward, approvingly. "I forgot about that.
Now then! You lead the way!"
The Blue Room had in prehistoric times been added to by taking in
a superfluous passage, and so not only had the advantage of two
doors, but enabled us to get to the head of the stairs without
passing the chamber wherein our dragon-aunt lay couched. It was
rarely occupied, except when a casual uncle came down for the
night. We entered in noiseless file, the room being plunged in
darkness, except for a bright strip of moonlight on the floor,
across which we must pass for our exit. On this our leading lady
chose to pause, seizing the opportunity to study the hang of her
new dressing-gown. Greatly satisfied thereat, she proceeded,
after the feminine fashion, to peacock and to pose, pacing a
minuet down the moonlit patch with an imaginary partner. This
was too much for Edward's histrionic instincts, and after a
moment's pause he drew his single-stick, and with flourishes meet
for the occasion, strode onto the stage. A struggle ensued on
approved lines, at the end of which Selina was stabbed slowly and
with unction, and her corpse borne from the chamber by the
ruthless cavalier. The rest of us rushed after in a clump, with
capers and gesticulations of delight; the special charm of the
performance lying in the necessity for its being carried out with
the dumbest of dumb shows.
Once out on the dark landing, the noise of the storm without told
us that we had exaggerated the necessity for silence; so,
grasping the tails of each other's nightgowns even as Alpine
climbers rope themselves together in perilous places, we fared
stoutly down the staircase-moraine, and across the grim glacier
of the hall, to where a faint glimmer from the half-open door of
the drawing-room beckoned to us like friendly hostel-lights.
Entering, we found that our thriftless seniors had left the sound
red heart of a fire, easily coaxed into a cheerful blaze; and
biscuits--a plateful--smiled at us in an encouraging sort of way,
together with the halves of a lemon, already once squeezed
but still suckable. The biscuits were righteously shared, the
lemon segments passed from mouth to mouth; and as we squatted
round the fire, its genial warmth consoling our unclad limbs, we
realised that so many nocturnal perils had not been braved in
"It's a funny thing," said Edward, as we chatted, "how; I hate
this room in the daytime. It always means having your face
washed, and your hair brushed, and talking silly company talk.
But to-night it's really quite jolly. Looks different, somehow."
"I never can make out I said, "what people come here to tea for.
They can have their own tea at home if they like,--they're not
poor people,--with jam and things, and drink out of their saucer,
and suck their fingers and enjoy themselves; but they come here
from a long way off, and sit up straight with their feet off the
bars of their chairs, and have one cup, and talk the same sort of
stuff every time."
Selina sniffed disdainfully. "You don't know anything about it,"
she said. "In society you have to call on each other. It's the
proper thing to do."
"Pooh! YOU'RE not in society," said Edward, politely; "and,
what's more, you never will be."
"Yes, I shall, some day," retorted Selina; "but I shan't ask you
to come and see me, so there!"
"Wouldn't come if you did," growled Edward.
"Well, you won't get the chance," rejoined our sister, claiming
her right of the last word. There was no heat about these little
amenities, which made up--as we understood it--the art of polite
"I don 't like society people," put in Harold from the sofa,
where he was sprawling at full length,--a sight the daylight
hours would have blushed to witness. "There were some of 'em
here this afternoon, when you two had gone off to the station.
Oh, and I found a dead mouse on the lawn, and I wanted to skin
it, but I wasn't sure I knew how, by myself; and they came out
into the garden and patted my head,--I wish people wouldn't do
that,--and one of 'em asked me to pick her a flower. Don't know
why she couldn't pick it herself; but I said, `All right, I
will if you'll hold my mouse.' But she screamed, and threw it
away; and Augustus (the cat) got it, and ran away with it. I
believe it was really his mouse all the time, 'cos he'd been
looking about as if he had lost something, so I wasn't angry with
HIM; but what did SHE want to throw away my mouse for?"
"You have to be careful with mice," reflected Edward; "they're
such slippery things. Do you remember we were playing with a
dead mouse once on the piano, and the mouse was Robinson Crusoe,
and the piano was the island, and somehow Crusoe slipped down
inside the island, into its works, and we couldn't get him out,
though we tried rakes and all sorts of things, till the tuner
came. And that wasn't till a week after, and then--"
Here Charlotte, who had been nodding solemnly, fell over into the
fender; and we realised that the wind had dropped at last, and
the house was lapped in a great stillness. Our vacant beds
seemed to be calling to us imperiously; and we were all glad when
Edward gave the signal for retreat. At the top of the staircase
Harold unexpectedly turned mutinous, insisting on his right
to slide down the banisters in a free country. Circumstances did
not allow of argument; I suggested frog's-marching instead, and
frog's-marched he accordingly was, the procession passing
solemnly across the moonlit Blue Room, with Harold horizontal and
limply submissive. Snug in bed at last, I was just slipping off
into slumber when I heard Edward explode, with chuckle and snort.
"By Jove!" he said; "I forgot all about it. The new tutor's
sleeping in the Blue Room!"
"Lucky he didn't wake up and catch us," I grunted, drowsily; and
both of us, without another thought on the matter, sank into
Next morning we came down to breakfast braced to grapple with
fresh adversity, but were surprised to find our garrulous friend
of the previous day--he was late in making his appearance--
strangely silent and (apparently) preoccupied. Having polished
off our porridge, we ran out to feed the rabbits, explaining to
them that a beast of a tutor would prevent their enjoying so much
of our society as formerly.
On returning to the house at the fated hour appointed for
study, we were thunderstruck to see the station-cart disappearing
down the drive, freighted with our new acquaintance. Aunt Eliza
was brutally uncommunicative; but she was overheard to remark
casually that she thought the man must be a lunatic. In this
theory we were only too ready to concur, dismissing thereafter
the whole matter from our minds.
Some weeks later it happened that Uncle Thomas, while paying us a
flying visit, produced from his pocket a copy of the latest
weekly, Psyche: a Journal of the Unseen; and proceeded
laborously to rid himself of much incomprehensible humour,
apparently at our expense. We bore it patiently, with the forced
grin demanded by convention, anxious to get at the source of
inspiration, which it presently appeared lay in a paragraph
circumstantially describing our modest and humdrum habitation.
"Case III.," it began. "The following particulars were
communicated by a young member of the Society, of undoubted
probity and earnestness, and are a chronicle of actual and recent
experience." A fairly accurate description of the house
followed, with details that were unmistakable; but to this
there succeeded a flood of meaningless drivel about apparitions,
nightly visitants, and the like, writ in a manner betokening a
disordered mind, coupled with a feeble imagination. The fellow
was not even original. All the old material was there,--the
storm at night, the haunted chamber, the white lady, the murder
re-enacted, and so on,--already worn threadbare in many a
Christmas Number. No one was able to make head or tail of the
stuff, or of its connexion with our quiet mansion; and yet
Edward, who had always suspected the man, persisted in
maintaining that our tutor of a brief span was, somehow or other,
at the bottom of it.
A FALLING OUT
Harold told me the main facts of this episode some time later,--
in bits, and with reluctance. It was not a recollection he cared
to talk about. The crude blank misery of a moment is apt to
leave a dull bruise which is slow to depart, if it ever does so
entirely; and Harold confesses to a twinge or two, still, at
times, like the veteran who brings home a bullet inside him from
martial plains over sea.
He knew he was a brute the moment he had done it; Selina had not
meant to worry, only to comfort and assist. But his soul was one
raw sore within him, when he found himself shut up in the
schoolroom after hours, merely for insisting that 7 times 7
amounted to 47. The injustice of it seemed so flagrant. Why not
47 as much as 49? One number was no prettier than the other to
look at, and it was evidently only a matter of arbitrary taste
and preference, and, anyhow, it had always been 47 to him, and
would be to the end of time. So when Selina came in out of
the sun, leaving the Trappers or the Far West behind her, and
putting off the glory of being an Apache squaw in order to hear
him his tables and win his release, Harold turned on her
venomously, rejected her kindly overtures, and ever drove his
elbow into her sympathetic ribs, in his determination to be left
alone in the glory of sulks. The fit passed directly, his eyes
were opened, and his soul sat in the dust as he sorrowfully began
to cast about for some atonement heroic enough to salve the
Of course poor Selina looked for no sacrifice nor heroics
whatever: she didn't even want him to say he was sorry. If he
would only make it up, she would have done the apologising part
herself. But that was not a boy's way. Something solid, Harold
felt, was due from him; and until that was achieved, making-up
must not be thought of, in order that the final effect might not
be spoilt. Accordingly, when his release came, and poor Selina
hung about, trying to catch his eye, Harold, possessed by the
demon of a distorted motive, avoided her steadily--though he was
bleeding inwardly at every minute of delay--and came to me
instead. Needless to say, I approved his plan highly; it
was so much more high-toned than just going and making-up tamely,
which any one could do; and a girl who had been jobbed in the
ribs by a hostile elbow could not be expected for a moment to
overlook it, without the liniment of an offering to soothe her
"I know what she wants most," said Harold. "She wants that set
of tea-things in the toy-shop window, with the red and blue
flowers on 'em; she's wanted it for months, 'cos her dolls are
getting big enough to have real afternoon tea; and she wants it
so badly that she won't walk that side of the street when we go
into the town. But it costs five shillings!"
Then we set to work seriously, and devoted the afternoon to a
realisation of assets and the composition of a Budget that might
have been dated without shame from Whitehall. The result worked
out as follows:--
By one uncle, unspent through having been
lost for nearly a week--turned up at last
in the straw of the dog-kennel . . . . 2 6
Carry forward, 2 6
Brought forward, 2 6
By advance from me on security of next
uncle, and failing that, to be called in at
Christmas . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 0
By shaken out of missionary-box with the
help of a knife-blade. (They were our
own pennies and a forced levy) . . . . . 0 4
By bet due from Edward, for walking across
the field where Farmer Larkin's bull was,
and Edward bet him twopence he wouldn't
--called in with difficulty . . . . . . 0 2
By advance from Martha, on no security at
all, only you mustn't tell your aunt . . . 1 0
Total 5 0
and at last we breathed again.
The rest promised to be easy. Selina had a tea-party at five on
the morrow, with the chipped old wooden tea-things that had
served her successive dolls from babyhood. Harold would slip off
directly after dinner, going alone, so as not to arouse
suspicion, as we were not allowed to go into the town by
ourselves. It was nearly two miles to our small metropolis, but
there would be plenty of time for him to go and return, even
laden with the olive-branch neatly packed in shavings; besides,
he might meet the butcher, who was his friend and would give
him a lift. Then, finally, at five, the rapture of the new tea-
service, descended from the skies; and, retribution made, making-
up at last, without loss of dignity. With the event before us,
we thought it a small thing that twenty-four hours more of
alienation and pretended sulks must be kept up on Harold's part;
but Selina, who naturally knew nothing of the treat in store for
her, moped for the rest of the evening, and took a very heavy
heart to bed.
When next day the hour for action arrived, Harold evaded Olympian
attention with an easy modesty born of long practice, and made
off for the front gate. Selina, who had been keeping her eye
upon him, thought he was going down to the pond to catch frogs, a
joy they had planned to share together, and made after him; but
Harold, though he heard her footsteps, continued sternly on his
high mission, without even looking back; and Selina was left to
wander disconsolately among flower-beds that had lost--for her--
all scent and colour. I saw it all, and although cold reason
approved our line of action, instinct told me we were brutes.
Harold reached the town--so he recounted afterwards--in
record time, having run most of the way for fear the tea-things,
which had reposed six months in the window, should be snapped up
by some other conscience-stricken lacerator of a sister's
feelings; and it seemed hardly credible to find them still there,
and their owner willing to part with them for the price marked on
the ticket. He paid his money down at once, that there should be
no drawing back from the bargain; and then, as the things had to
be taken out of the window and packed, and the afternoon was yet
young, he thought he might treat himself to a taste of urban joys
and la vie de Boheme. Shops came first, of course, and he
flattened his nose successively against the window with the
india-rubber balls in it, and the clock-work locomotive; and
against the barber's window, with wigs on blocks, reminding him
of uncles, and shaving-cream that looked so good to eat; and the
grocer's window, displaying more currants than the whole British
population could possibly consume without a special effort; and
the window of the bank, wherein gold was thought so little of
that it was dealt about in shovels. Next there was the market-
place, with all its clamorous joys; and when a runaway calf came
down the street like a cannon-ball, Harold felt that he had
not lived in vain. The whole place was so brimful of excitement
that he had quite forgotten the why and the wherefore of his
being there, when a sight of the church clock recalled him to his
better self, and sent him flying out of the town, as he realised
he had only just time enough left to get back in. If he were
after his appointed hour, he would not only miss his high
triumph, but probably would be detected as a transgressor of
bounds,--a crime before which a private opinion on multiplication
sank to nothingness. So he jogged along on his homeward way,
thinking of many things, and probably talking to himself a good
deal, as his habit was, and had covered nearly half the distance,
when suddenly--a deadly sinking in the pit of his stomach--a
paralysis of every limb--around him a world extinct of light and
music--a black sun and a reeling sky--he had forgotten the tea-
It was useless, it was hopeless, all was over, and nothing could
now be done; nevertheless he turned and ran back wildly, blindly,
choking with the big sobs that evoked neither pity nor comfort
from a merciless mocking world around; a stitch in his side,
dust in his eyes, and black despair clutching at his heart. So
he stumbled on, with leaden legs and bursting sides, till--as if
Fate had not yet dealt him her last worst buffet--on turning a
corner in the road he almost ran under the wheels of a dog-cart,
in which, as it pulled up, was apparent the portly form of Farmer
Larkin, the arch-enemy, whose ducks he had been shying stones at
that very morning!
Had Harold been in his right and unclouded senses, he would have
vanished through the hedge some seconds earlier, rather than pain
the farmer by any unpleasant reminiscences which his appearance
might call up; but as things were, he could only stand and
blubber hopelessly, caring, indeed, little now what further ill
might befall him. The farmer, for his part, surveyed the
desolate figure with some astonishment, calling out in no
unfriendly accents, "Why, Master Harold! whatever be the matter?
Baint runnin' away, be ee?"
Then Harold, with the unnatural courage born of desperation,
flung himself on the step, and climbing into the cart, fell in
the straw at the bottom of it, sobbing out that he wanted to go
back, go back! The situation had a vagueness; but the
farmer, a man of action rather than words, swung his horse round
smartly, and they were in the town again by the time Harold had
recovered himself sufficiently to furnish some details. As they
drove up to the shop, the woman was waiting at the door with the
parcel; and hardly a minute seemed to have elapsed since the
black crisis, ere they were bowling along swiftly home, the
precious parcel hugged in a close embrace.
And now the farmer came out in quite a new and unexpected light.
Never a word did he say of broken fences and hurdles, of trampled
crops and harried flocks and herds. One would have thought the
man had never possessed a head of live stock in his life.
Instead, he was deeply interested in the whole dolorous quest of
the tea-things, and sympathised with Harold on the disputed point
in mathematics as if he had been himself at the same stage of
education. As they neared home, Harold found himself, to his
surprise, sitting up and chatting to his new friend like man to
man; and before he was dropped at a convenient gap in the garden
hedge, he had promised that when Selina gave her first public
tea-party, little Miss Larkin should be invited to come and
bring ha whole sawdust family along with her; and the farmer
appeared as pleased and proud as if he hat been asked to a
garden-party at Marlborough House. Really, those Olympians have
certain good points, far down in them. I shall have to leave off
abusing them some day.
At the hour of five, Selina, having spent the afternoon searching
for Harold in all his accustomed haunts, sat down disconsolately
to tea with her dolls, who ungenerously refused to wait beyond
the appointed hour. The wooden tea-things seemed more chipped
than usual; and the dolls themselves had more of wax and sawdust,
and less of human colour and intelligence about them, than she
ever remembered before. It was then that Harold burst in, very
dusty, his stockings at his heels, and the channels ploughed by
tears still showing on his grimy cheeks; and Selina was at last
permitted to know that he had been thinking of her ever since his
ill-judged exhibition of temper, and that his sulks had not been
the genuine article, nor had he gone frogging by himself. It was
a very happy hostess who dispensed hospitality that evening to a
glassy-eyed stiff-kneed circle; and many a dollish
gaucherie, that would have been severely checked on ordinary
occasions, was as much overlooked as if it had been a birthday.
But Harold and I, in our stupid masculine way, thought all her
happiness sprang from possession of the long-coveted tea-
"LUSISTI SATIS "
Among the many fatuous ideas that possessed the Olympian noddle,
this one was pre-eminent; that, being Olympians, they could talk
quite freely in our presence on subjects of the closest import to
us, so long as names, dates, and other landmarks were ignored.
We were supposed to be denied the faculty for putting two and two
together; and, like the monkeys, who very sensibly refrain from
speech lest they should be set to earn their livings, we were
careful to conceal our capabilities for a simple syllogism. Thus
we were rarely taken by surprise, and so were considered by our
disappointed elders to be apathetic and to lack the divine
capacity for wonder.
Now the daily output of the letter-bag, with the mysterious
discussions that ensued thereon, had speedily informed us that
Uncle Thomas was intrusted with a mission,--a mission, too,
affecting ourselves. Uncle Thomas's missions were many and
various; a self-important man, one liking the business while
protesting that he sank under the burden, he was the missionary,
so to speak, of our remote habitation. The matching a ribbon,
the running down to the stores, the interviewing a cook,--these
and similar duties lent constant colour and variety to his vacant
life in London and helped to keep down his figure. When the
matter, however, had in our presence to be referred to with nods
and pronouns, with significant hiatuses and interpolations in the
French tongue, then the red flag was flown, the storm-cone
hoisted, and by a studious pretence of inattention we were not
long in plucking out the heart of the mystery.
To clinch our conclusion, we descended suddenly and together on
Martha; proceeding, however, not by simple inquiry as to facts,--
that would never have done,--but by informing her that the air
was full of school and that we knew all about it, and then
challenging denial. Martha was a trusty soul, but a bad witness
for the defence, and we soon had it all out of her. The word had
gone forth, the school had been selected; the necessary
sheets were hemming even now; and Edward was the designated and
It had always been before us as an inevitable bourne, this
strange unknown thing called school; and yet--perhaps I should
say consequently--we had never seriously set ourselves to
consider what it really meant. But now that the grim spectre
loomed imminent, stretching lean hands for one of our flock, it
behoved us to face the situation, to take soundings in this
uncharted sea and find out whither we were drifting.
Unfortunately, the data in our possession were absolutely
insufficient, and we knew not whither to turn for exact
information. Uncle Thomas could have told us all about it, of
course; he had been there himself, once, in the dim and misty
past. But an unfortunate conviction, that Nature had intended
him for a humourist, tainted all his evidence, besides making it
wearisome to hear. Again, of such among our contemporaries as we
had approached, the trumpets gave forth an uncertain sound.
According to some, it meant larks, revels, emancipation, and a
foretaste of the bliss of manhood. According to others,--the
majority, alas!--it was a private and peculiar Hades, that
could give the original institution points and a beating. When
Edward was observed to be swaggering round with a jaunty air and
his chest stuck out, I knew that he was contemplating his future
from the one point of view. When, on the contrary, he was
subdued and unaggressive, and sought the society of his sisters,
I recognised that the other aspect was in the ascendant. "You
can always run away, you know," I used to remark consolingly on
these latter occasions; and Edward would brighten up wonderfully
at the suggestion, while Charlotte melted into tears before her
vision of a brother with blistered feet and an empty belly,
passing nights of frost 'neath the lee of windy haystacks.
It was to Edward, of course, that the situation was chiefly
productive of anxiety; and yet the ensuing change in my own
circumstances and position furnished me also with food for grave
reflexion. Hitherto I had acted mostly to orders. Even when I
had devised and counselled any particular devilry, it had been
carried out on Edward's approbation, and--as eldest--at his
special risk. Henceforward I began to be anxious of the
bugbear Responsibility, and to realise what a soul-throttling
thing it is. True, my new position would have its compensations.
Edward had been masterful exceedingly, imperious, perhaps a
little narrow; impassioned for hard facts, and with scant
sympathy for make-believe. I should now be free and
untrammelled; in the conception and carrying out of a scheme, I
could accept and reject to better artistic purpose.
It would, moreover, be needless to be a Radical any more.
Radical I never was, really, by nature or by sympathy. The part
had been thrust on me one day, when Edward proposed to foist the
House of Lords on our small Republic. The principles of the
thing he set forth learnedly and well, and it all sounded
promising enough, till he went on to explain that, for the
present at least, he proposed to be the House of Lords himself.
We others were to be the Commons. There would be promotions, of
course, he added, dependent on service and on fitness, and open
to both sexes; and to me in especial he held out hopes of speedy
advancement. But in its initial stages the thing wouldn't work
properly unless he were first and only Lord. Then I put my foot
down promptly, and said it was all rot, and I didn't see the
good of any House of Lords at all. "Then you must be a low
Radical! said Edward, with fine contempt. The inference seemed
hardly necessary, but what could I do? I accepted the situation,
and said firmly, Yes, I was a low Radical. In this monstrous
character I had been obliged to masquerade ever since; but now I
could throw it off, and look the world in the face again.
And yet, did this and other gains really out-balance my losses?
Henceforth I should, it was true, be leader and chief; but I
should also be the buffer between the Olympians and my little
clan. To Edward this had been nothing; he had withstood the
impact of Olympus without flinching, like Teneriffe or Atlas
unremoved. But was I equal to the task? And was there not
rather a danger that for the sake of peace and quietness I might
be tempted to compromise, compound, and make terms? sinking thus,
by successive lapses, into the Blameless Prig? I don't mean, of
course, that I thought out my thoughts to the exact point here
set down. In those fortunate days of old one was free from the
hard necessity of transmuting the vague idea into the
mechanical inadequate medium of words. But the feeling was
there, that I might not possess the qualities of character for so
delicate a position.
The unnatural halo round Edward got more pronounced, his own
demeanour more responsible and dignified, with the arrival of his
new clothes. When his trunk and play-box were sent in, the
approaching cleavage between our brother, who now belonged to the
future, and ourselves, still claimed by the past, was accentuated
indeed. His name was painted on each of them, in large letters,
and after their arrival their owner used to disappear
mysteriously, and be found eventually wandering round his
luggage, murmuring to himself, "Edward----, in a rapt, remote
sort of way. It was a weakness, of course, and pointed to a soft
spot in his character; but those who can remember the sensation
of first seeing their names in print will not think hardly of
As the short days sped by and the grim event cast its shadow
longer and longer across our threshold, an unnatural politeness,
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