AUSTIN AND HIS FRIENDS
FREDERIC H. BALFOUR
Author Of "The Expiation of Eugene," etc.
London Greening & Co., Ltd.
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The old-fashioned ghost-story was always terrifying and ghastly; something that made people afraid to go to bed, or to look over their shoulders, or to enter a room in the dark. It dealt with apparitions in a white sheet, and clanking chains, and dreadful faces that peered out from behind the window curtains in a haunted chamber. And the more blood-curdling it was, the more keenly people enjoyed it—until they were left alone, and then they were apt to wish that they had been reading Robinson Crusoe or Alison's History of Europe instead. Now the present book embodies an attempt to write a cheerful ghost-story; a story in which the ghostly element is of a friendly and pleasant character, and sheds a sense of happiness and sunshine over the entire life of the ghost-seer. Whether the author has succeeded in doing so will be for his readers to decide. It is only necessary to add that he has not introduced a single supernormal incident that has not occurred and been authenticated in the recorded experiences of persons lately or still alive.
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Austin and His Friends
Chapter the First
It was rather a beautiful old house—the house where Austin lived. That is, it was old-fashioned, low-browed, solid, and built of that peculiar sort of red brick which turns a rich rose-colour with age; and this warm rosy tint was set off to advantage by the thick mantle of dark green ivy in which it was partly encased, and by the row of tall white and purple irises which ran along the whole length of the sunniest side of the building. There was an ancient sun-dial just above the door, and all the windows were made of small, square panes—not a foot of plate-glass was there about the place; and if the rooms were nor particularly large or stately, they had that comfortable and settled look which tells of undisturbed occupancy by the same inmates for many years. But the principal charm of the place was the garden in which the house stood. In this case the frame was really more beautiful than the picture. On one side, the grounds were laid out in very formal style, with straight walks, clipped box hedges, an old stone fountain, and a perfect bowling-green of a lawn; while at right angles to this there was a plot of land in which all regularity was set at naught, and sweet-peas, tulips, hollyhocks, dahlias, gillyflowers, wall-flowers, sun-flowers, and a dozen others equally sweet and friendly shared the soil with gooseberry bushes and thriving apple-trees. Taking it all in all, it was a lovable and most reposeful home, and Austin, who had lived there ever since he could remember, was quite unable to imagine any lot in life that could be compared to his.
Now this was curious, for Austin was a hopeless cripple. Up to the age of sixteen, he had been the most active, restless, healthy boy in all the countryside. He used to spend his days in boating, bicycling, climbing hills, and wandering at large through the woods and leafy lanes which stretched far and wide in all directions of the compass. One of his chief diversions had been sheep-chasing; nothing delighted him more than to start a whole flock of the astonished creatures careering madly round some broad green meadow, their fat woolly backs wobbling and jolting along in a compact mass of mild perplexity at this sudden interruption of their never-ending meal, while Austin scampered at their tails, as much excited with the sport as Don Quixote himself when he dispersed the legions of Alifanfaron. Let hare-coursers, otter-hunters, and pigeon-torturers blame him if they choose; the exercise probably did the sheep a vast amount of good, and Austin fully believed that they enjoyed it quite as much as he did. Then suddenly a great calamity befell him. A weakness made itself apparent in his right knee, accompanied by considerable pain. The family doctor looked anxious and puzzled; a great surgeon was called in, and the two shook their heads together in very portentous style. It was a case of caries, they said, and Austin mustn't hunt sheep any more. Soon he had to lie upon the sofa for several hours a day, and what made Aunt Charlotte more anxious than anything else was that he didn't seem to mind lying on the sofa, as he would have done if he had felt strong and well; on the contrary, he grew thin and listless, and instead of always jumping up and trying to evade the doctor's orders, appeared quite content to lie there, quiet and resigned, from one week's end to another. That, thought shrewd Aunt Charlotte, betokened mischief. Another consultation followed, and then a very terrible sentence was pronounced. It was necessary, in order to save his life, that Austin should lose his leg.
What does a boy generally feel under such circumstances? What would you and I feel? Austin's first impulse was to burst into a passionate fit of weeping, and he yielded to it unreservedly. But, the fit once past, he smiled brilliantly through his tears. True, he would never again be able to enjoy those glorious ramps up hill and down dale that up till then had sent the warm life coursing through his veins. Never more would he go scorching along the level roads against the wind on his cherished bicycle. The open-air athletic days of stress and effort were gone, never to return. But there might be compensations; who could tell? Happiness, all said and done, need not depend upon a shin-bone more or less. He might lose a leg, but legs were, after all, a mere concomitant to life—life did not consist in legs. There would still be something left to live for, and who could tell whether that something might not be infinitely grander and nobler and more satisfying than even the rapture of flying ten miles an hour on his wheel, or chevying a flock of agitated sheep from one pasture to another?
Where this sudden inspiration came from, he then had no idea; but come it did, in the very nick of time, and helped him to dry his tears. The day of destiny also came, and his courage was put to the test. He knew well enough, of course, that of the operation he would feel nothing. But the sight of the hard, white, narrow pallet on which he had to lie, the cold glint of the remorseless instruments, the neatly folded packages of lint and cotton-wool, and the faint, horrible smell of chloroform turned him rather sick for a minute. Then he glanced downwards, with a sense of almost affectionate yearning, at the limb he was about to lose. "Good-bye, dear old leg!" he murmured, with a little laugh which smothered a rising sob. "We've had some lovely ramps together, but the best of friends must part."
Afterwards, during the long days of dreary convalescence, he began to feel an interest in what remained of it; and then he found himself taking a sort of aesthetic pleasure in the smooth, beautifully-rounded stump, which really was in its way quite an artistic piece of work. At last, when the flesh was properly healed, and the white skin growing healthily again around his abbreviated member, he grew eager to make acquaintance with his new leg; for of course it was never intended that he should perform the rest of his earthly pilgrimage with only a leg and a half—let the added half be of what material it might. And his excitement may be better imagined than described when, one afternoon, the surgeon came in with a most wonderful object in his arms—a lovely prop of bright, black, burnished wood, set off with steel couplings and the most fascinating straps you ever saw. And the best of all was the socket, in which his soft white stump fitted as comfortably as though they had been made for one another—as, in fact, one of them had been. It was a little difficult to walk just at first, for Austin was accustomed to begin by throwing out his foot, whereas now he had to begin by moving his thigh; this naturally made him stagger, and for some time he could only get along with the aid of a crutch. But to be able to walk again at all was a great achievement, and then, if you only looked at it in the proper light, it really was great fun.
There was, however, one person who, probably from a defective sense of humour, was unable to see any fun in it at all. Aunt Charlotte would have given her very ears for Austin, but her affection was of a somewhat irritable sort, and generally took the form of scolding. She was not a stupid woman by any means, but there was one thing in the world she never could understand, and that was Austin himself. He wasn't like other boys one bit, she always said. He had such a queer, topsy-turvy way of looking at things; would express the most outrageous opinions with an innocent unconsciousness that made her long to box his ears, and support the most arrant absurdities by arguments that conveyed not the smallest meaning to her intellect. Look at him now, for instance; a cripple for life, and pretending to see nothing in it but a joke, and expressing as much admiration for his horrible wooden leg as though it had been a king's sceptre! In Aunt Charlotte's view, Austin ought to have pitied himself immensely, and expressed a hope that God would help him to bear his burden with orthodox resignation to the Divine will; instead of which, he seemed totally unconscious of having any burden at all—a state of mind that was nothing less than impious. Austin was now seventeen, and it was high time that he took more serious views of life. Ever since he was a baby he had been her special charge; for his mother had died in giving him birth, and his father had followed her about a twelvemonth later. She had always done her duty to the boy, and loved him as though he had been her own; but she reminded onlookers rather of a conscientious elderly cat with limited views of natural history condemned by circumstances to take care of a very irresponsible young eaglet. The eaglet, on his side, was entirely devoted to his protectress, but it was impossible for him not to feel a certain lenient and amused contempt for her very limited horizon.
"Auntie," he said to her one day, "you're just like a frog at the bottom of a well. You think the speck of blue you see above you is the entire sky, and the water you paddle up and down in is the ocean. Why can't you take a rather more cosmic view of things?"
This extraordinary remark occurred in the course of a wrangle between the two, because Austin insisted on his pet cat—a plump, white, matronly creature he had christened 'Gioconda,' because (so he said) she always smiled so sweetly—sitting up at the dinner-table and being fed with tit-bits off his own fork; and Aunt Charlotte objected to this proceeding on the ground that the proper place for cats was in the kitchen. Austin, on his side, averred that cats were in many ways much superior to human beings; that they had been worshipped as gods by the philosophical Egyptians because they were so scornful and mysterious; and that Gioconda herself was not only the divinest cat alive, but entitled to respect, if only as an embodiment and representative of cat-hood in the abstract, which was a most important element in the economy of the universe. It was when Aunt Charlotte stigmatised these philosophical reflections as a pack of impertinent twaddle that Austin had had the audacity to say that she was like a frog.
And now her eaglet had been maimed for life, and whatever he might feel about it himself her own responsibilities were certainly much increased. At this very moment, for instance, after having practised stumping about the room for half-an-hour he insisted on going downstairs. Of course the idea was ridiculous. Even the doctor shook his head, while old Martha, who had tubbed Austin when he was two years old, joined in the general protest. But Austin, disdaining to argue the point with any one of them, had already hobbled out of the room, and before they were well aware of it had begun to essay the descent perilous. Ominous bumps were heard, and then a dull thud as of a body falling. But a bend in the wall had caught the body, and the explorer was none the worse. Then Aunt Charlotte, rushing back into the bedroom, flung open the window wide.
"Lubin!" she shouted lustily.
A young gardener boy, tall, round-faced and curly-haired, glanced up astonished from his work among the sweet-peas.
"Come up here directly and carry Master Austin downstairs. He's got a wooden leg and hasn't learnt how to use it."
The consequence of which was that two minutes later Austin, panting and enraged at the failure of his first attempt at independence, found himself firmly encircled by a pair of strong young arms, lifted gently from the ground, and carried swiftly and safely downstairs and out at the garden door.
"Now you just keep quiet, Master Austin," murmured Lubin, chuckling as Austin began to kick. "No use your starting to run before you know how to walk. Wooden legs must be humoured a bit, Sir; 'twon't do to expect too much of 'em just at first, you see. This one o' yours is mighty handsome to look at, I don't deny, but it's not accustomed to staircases and maybe it'll take some time before it is. Hold tight, Sir; only a few yards more now. There! Here we are on the lawn at last. Now you can try your paces at your leisure."
"You're awfully nice to me, Lubin," gasped Austin, red with mortification, as he slipped from the lad's arms on to the grass, "but I felt just now as if I could have killed you, all the same."
"Lor', Sir, I don't mind," said Lubin. "I doubt that was no more'n natural. Can you stand steady? Here—lay hold o' my arm. Slow and sure's the word. Look out for that flower-bed. Now, then, round you go—that's it. Ah!"—as Austin fell sprawling on the grass. "Now how are you going to get up again, I should like to know? Seems to me the first thing you've got to learn is not to lose your balance, 'cause once you're down 'tain't the easiest thing in creation to scramble up again. You'll have to stick to the crutch at first, I reckon. Up we come! Now let's see how you can fare along a bit all by yourself."
Austin was thankful for the support of his crutch, with the aid of which he managed to stagger about for a few minutes at quite a respectable speed. It reminded him almost of the far-off days when he was learning to ride his bicycle. At last he thought he would like to rest a bit, and was much surprised when, on flinging himself down upon a garden seat, his leg flew up in the air.
"Lively sort o' limb, this new leg o' yours, Sir," commented Lubin, as he bent it into a more decorous position. "You'll have to take care it don't carry you off with it one o' these fine days. Seems to me it wants taming, and learning how to behave itself in company. I heard tell of a cork leg once upon a time as was that nimble it started off running on its own account, and no earthly power could stop it. Wouldn't have mattered so much if it'd had nobody but itself to consider, but unluckily the gentleman it belonged to happened to be screwed on to the top end of it, and of course he had to follow. They do say as how he's following it still—poor beggar! Must be worn to a shadow by this time, I should think. But p'raps it ain't true after all. There are folks as'll say anything."
"I expect it's true enough," replied Austin cheerfully. "If you want a thing to be true, all you've got to do is to believe it—believe it as hard as you can. That makes it true, you see. At least, that's what the new psychology teaches. Thought creates things, you understand—though how it works I confess I can't explain. But never mind. Oh, dear, how drunk I am!"
"Drunk, Sir? No, no, only a bit giddy," said Lubin, as he stood watching Austin with his hands upon his hips. "You're not over strong yet, and that new leg of yours has been giving you too much exercise to begin with. You just keep quiet a few minutes, and you'll soon be as right as ninepence."
Then Austin slid carefully off the seat, and stretched himself full length upon the grass. "I am drunk," he murmured, closing his eyes, "drunk with the scent of the flowers. Don't you smell them, Lubin? The air's heavy with it, and it has got into my brain. And how sweet the grass smells too. I love it—it's like breathing the breath of Nature. What do legs matter? It's much nicer to roll over the grass wherever you want to go than to have the bother of walking. Don't worry about me any more, nice Lubin. Go on tying up your sweet-peas. I'll come and help you when I'm tired of rolling about. Just now I don't want anything; I'm drunk—I'm happy—I'm satisfied—I'm happier than I ever was before. Be kind to the flowers, Lubin; don't tie them too tight. They're my friends and my lovers. Aren't you a little fond of them too?"
Then, left to his own reflections, he lay perfectly peaceful and content staring up into the sky. For months he had been fated to lead an entirely new life, and now it had actually begun. His entrance upon it was not bitter. He had flowers growing by his path, and books that he loved, and one or two friends who loved him. It was all right! And that was how he spent his first day of acknowledged cripplehood.
Chapter the Second
In a very short time Austin had overcome the initial difficulties of locomotion, and now began to take regular exercise out of doors. It would be too much to say that his gait was particularly elegant; but there really was something triumphal about the way in which he learnt to brandish his leg with every step he took, and the majestic swing with which he brought it round to its place in advance of the other. In fact, he soon found himself stumping along the highroads with wonderful speed and safety; though to clamber over stiles, and work a bicycle one-footed, of course took much more practice.
Hitherto I have said nothing about the neighbourhood of Austin's home. Now when I say neighbourhood, I don't mean the topographical surroundings—I use the word in its correcter sense of neighbours; and these it is necessary to refer to in passing. Of course there were several people living round about. There was the MacTavish family, for instance, consisting of Mr and Mrs MacTavish, five daughters and two sons. Mrs MacTavish had a brother who had been knighted, and on the strength of such near relationship to Sir Titus and Lady Clandougal, considered herself one of the county. But her claim was not endorsed, even by the humbler gentry with whom she was forced to associate, while as for the county proper it is not too much to say that that august community had never even heard of her. The Miss MacTavishes, ranging in age from fifteen to five-and-twenty, were rather gawky young persons, with red hair and a perpetual giggle; in fact they could not speak without giggling, even if it was to tell you that somebody was dead. Every now and then Mrs MacTavish would proclaim, with portentous complacency, that Florrie, or Lizzie, or Aggie, was "out"—to the awe-struck admiration of her friends; which meant that the young person referred to had begun to do up her hair in a sort of bun at the back of her head, and had had her frock let down a couple of tucks. Austin couldn't bear them, though he was always scrupulously polite. And the boys were, if anything, less interesting than the girls. The elder of the two—a freckled young giant named Jock—was always asking him strange conundrums, such as whether he was going to put the pot on for the Metropolitan—which conveyed no more idea to Austin's mind than if he had said it in Chinese; while Sandy, the younger, used to terrify him out of his wits by shouting out that Yorkshire had got the hump, or that Jobson was 'not out' for a century, or that wickets were cheap at the Oval. In fact, the entire family bored him to extinction, though Aunt Charlotte, who had been an old school-friend of the mamma, sang their praises perseveringly, and said that the girls were dears.
Then there was the inevitable vicar, with a wife who piqued herself on her smart bonnets; a curate, who preached Socialism, wore knickerbockers, and belonged to the Fabian Society; a few unattached elderly ladies who had long outlived the reproach of their virginity; and just two or three other families with nothing particular to distinguish them one way or another. It may readily be inferred, therefore, that Austin had not many associates. There was really no one in the place who interested him in the very least, and the consequence was that he was generally regarded as unsociable. And so he was—very unsociable. The companionship of his books, his bicycle, his flowers and his thoughts was far more precious to him than that of the silly people who bothered him to join in their vapid diversions and unseasonable talk, and he rightly acted upon his preference. His own resources were of such a nature that he never felt alone; and having but few comrades in the flesh, he wisely courted the society of those whom, though long since dead, he held in far higher esteem than all the elderly ladies and curates and MacTavishes who ever lived. His appetite in literature was keen, but fastidious. He devoured all the books he could procure about the Renaissance of art in Italy. The works of Mr Walter Pater were as a treasure-house of suggestion to him, and did much to form and guide his gradually developing mentality. He read Plato, being even more fascinated by the exquisite technique of the dialectic than by the ethical value of the teaching. And there was one small, slim book that he always carried about with him, and kept for special reading in the fields and woods. This was Virgil's Eclogues, the sylvan atmosphere of which penetrated the very depths of his being, and created in him a moral or spiritual atmosphere which was its counterpart. He seemed to live amid gracious pastoral scenes, where beautiful youths and maidens passed a perpetual springtime in a land of dewy lawns, and shady groves, and pools, and rippling streams. Daphnis and Mopsus, Corydon, Alexis, and Amyntas, were all to him real personages, who peopled his solitude, inspired his poetic fancy, and fostered in his imagination the elements of an ideal life where the beauty and purity and freshness of untainted Nature reigned supreme. The accident of his lameness, by incapacitating him for violent exercise out of doors, ministered to the development of this spiritual tendency, and threw him back upon the allurements of a refined idealism. Daphnis became to him the embodiment, the concrete image, of eternal youthhood, of adolescence in the abstract, the attribute of an idealised humanity. To lead the pure Daphnis life of simplicity, stainlessness, communion with beautiful souls, was to lead the highest life. To find one's bliss in sunshine, flowers, and the winds of heaven—in both the physical and moral spheres—was to find the highest bliss. Why should not he, Austin Trevor, cripple as he was, so live the Daphnis life as to be himself a Daphnis?
No wonder a boy like this was voted unsociable. No wonder Sandy and Jock despised him as a muff, and the young ladies deplored his unaccountably elusive ways. The truth was that Austin simply had no use for any of them; his life was complete without them, it contained no niche into which they could ever fit. Lubin was a far more congenial comrade. Lubin never bothered him about football, or cricket, or horse-racing, never worried him with invitations to horrible picnics, never outraged his sensibilities in any way. On the contrary, Lubin rather contributed to his happiness by the care he took of the flowers, and the intelligence he showed in carrying out all Austin's elaborately conveyed instructions. Why, Lubin himself was a sort of Daphnis—in a humble way. But Sandy! No, Austin was not equal to putting up with Sandy.
There was, however, one gentleman in the neighbourhood whom Master Austin was gracious enough to approve. This was a certain Mr Roger St Aubyn, a man of taste and culture, who possessed a very rare collection of fine pictures and old engravings which nobody had ever seen. St Aubyn was, in fact, something of a recluse, a student who seldom went beyond his park gates, and found his greatest pleasure in reading Greek and cultivating orchids. It was by the purest accident that the two came across each other. Austin was lying one afternoon on a bank of wild hyacinths just outside Combe Spinney, lazily admiring the effect of his bright black leg against the bright blue sky, and thinking of nothing in particular. Mr St Aubyn, who happened to be strolling in that direction, was attracted by the unwonted spectacle, and ventured on some good-humoured quizzical remark. This led to a conversation, in the course of which the scholar thought he discovered certain original traits in the modest observations of the youth. One topic drifted into another, and soon the two were engaged in an animated discussion about pursuits in life. It was in the course of this that Austin let drop the one word—Art.
"What is Art?" queried St Aubyn.
Austin hesitated for some moments. Then he said, very slowly:
"That is a question to which a dozen answers might be given. A whole book would be required to deal with it."
St Aubyn was delighted, both at the reply and at the hesitation that had preceded it.
"And are you an artist?" he enquired.
"I believe I am," replied Austin, very seriously. "Of course one doesn't like to be too confident, and I can't draw a single line, but still——"
"Good again," approved the other. "Here as in everything else all depends upon the definition. What is an artist?"
"An artist," exclaimed Austin, kindling, "is one who can see the beauty everywhere."
"The beauty?" repeated St Aubyn.
"The beauty that exists everywhere, even in ugly things. The beauty that ordinary people don't see," returned Austin. "Anybody can see beauty in what are called beautiful things—light, and colour, and grace. But it takes an artist to see beauty in a muddy road, and dripping branches, and drenching rain. How people cursed and grumbled on that rainy day we had last week; it made me sick to hear them. Now I saw the beauty under the ugliness of it all—the wonderful soft greys and browns, the tiny glints of silver between the leaves, the flashes of pearl and orpiment behind the shifting clouds. Do you know, I even see beauty in this wooden leg of mine, great beauty, though everybody else thinks it perfectly hideous! So that is why I hope I am not wrong in imagining that perhaps I may, really, be in some sense an artist."
For a moment St Aubyn did not speak. "The boy's a great artist," he muttered to himself. His interest was now excited in good earnest; here was no common mind. Of art Austin knew practically nothing, but the artistic instinct was evidently tingling in every vein of him. St Aubyn himself lived for art and literature, and was amazed to have come across so curiously exceptional a personality. He drew the boy out a little more, and then, in a moment of impulse, did a most unaccustomed thing: he invited Austin to lunch with him on the following Thursday, promising, in addition, that they should spend the afternoon together looking over his conservatories and picture-gallery.
So great an honour, so undreamt-of a privilege, sent Austin's blood to the roots of his hair. He flourished his leg more proudly than ever as he stumped victoriously home and announced the great news to Aunt Charlotte. That estimable lady was fingering some notepaper on her writing-table as her excited nephew came bursting in upon her with his face radiant.
"Auntie," he cried, "what do you think? You'll never guess. I'm going to lunch with Mr St Aubyn on Thursday!"
Aunt Charlotte turned round, looking slightly dazed.
"Going to lunch with whom?" she asked.
"With Mr St Aubyn. You know—he lives at Moorcombe Court. I met him in the woods and had a long talk with him, and now he's going to show me all his pictures—and his engravings—and his wonderful orchids and things. I'm to spend all the afternoon with him. Isn't it splendid! I could never have hoped for such an opportunity. And he's so awfully nice—so cultured and clever, you know—"
"Really!" said Aunt Charlotte, drawing herself up. "Well, you're vastly honoured, Austin, I must say. Mr St Aubyn is chary of his civilities. It is very kind of him to ask you, I'm sure, but I think it's rather a liberty all the same."
"A liberty!" repeated Austin, aghast.
"He has never called on me," returned Aunt Charlotte, statelily. "If he had wished to cultivate our acquaintance, that would have been at least the usual thing to do. However, of course I've no objection. On Thursday, you say. Well, now just give me your attention to something rather more important. I intend to invite some people here to tea next week, and you may as well write the invitations for me now."
Austin's face lengthened. "Oh, why?" he sighed. "It isn't as though there was anybody worth asking—and really, the horrid creatures that infest this neighbourhood—. Whom do you want to ask?"
"I'm astonished at you, speaking of our friends like that," replied his aunt, severely. "They're not horrid creatures; they're all very nice and kind. Of course we must have the MacTavishes——"
"I knew it," groaned Austin, sinking into a chair. "Those dear MacTavishes! There are nineteen of them, aren't there? Or is it only nine?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Austin," said Aunt Charlotte. "Then there are the Miss Minchins—that'll be eleven; the vicar and his wife, of course; and old Mr and Mrs Cobbledick. Now just come and sit here——"
"The Cobbledicks—those old murderers!" cried Austin. "Do you want us to be all assassinated together?"
"Murderers!" exclaimed Aunt Charlotte, horrified. "I think you've gone out of your mind. A dear kindly old couple like the Cobbledicks! Not very handsome, perhaps, but—murderers! What in the world will you say next?"
"The most sinister-looking old pair of cut-throats in the parish," returned Austin. "I should be sorry to meet them on a lonely road on a dark night, I know that. But really, auntie, I do wish you'd think better of all this. We're quite happy alone; what do we want of all these horrible people coming to bore us for Heaven knows how many hours? Of course I shall be told off to amuse the MacTavishes; just think of it! Seven red-haired, screaming, giggling monsters——"
"Hold your tongue, do, you abominable boy!" cried Aunt Charlotte. "I'm inviting our friends for my pleasure, not for yours, and I forbid you to speak of them in that wicked, slanderous, disrespectful way. Come now, sit down here and write me the invitations at once."
"For the last time, auntie, I entreat you——" began Austin.
"Not a word more!" replied his aunt. "Begin without more ado."
"Well, if you insist," consented Austin, as he dragged himself into the seat. "Have you fixed upon a day?"
"No—any day will do. Just choose one yourself," said Aunt Charlotte, as she dived after an errant ball of worsted. "What day will suit you best?"
"Shall we say the 24th?" suggested Austin.
"By all means," replied his aunt briskly. "If you're sure that that won't interfere with anything else. I've such a wretched memory for dates. To-day is the 19th. Yes, I should say the 24th will do very well indeed."
"It will suit me admirably," said Austin, sitting down and beginning to write with great alacrity, while his aunt busied herself with her knitting. As soon as the envelopes were addressed, he slipped them into his coat pocket, and, rising, said he might as well go out and post them there and then.
"Do," said Aunt Charlotte, well pleased at Austin's sudden capitulation. "That is, unless you're too tired with your walk. Martha can always give them to the milkman if you are."
"Not a bit of it," said Austin hastily, as he swung himself out of the room. "I shall be back in time for dinner."
"He certainly is the very oddest boy," soliloquised Aunt Charlotte, as she settled herself comfortably on the sofa and went on clicking her knitting-needles. "Why he dislikes the MacTavishes so I can't imagine; nice, cheerful young persons as anyone would wish to see. It really is very queer. And then the way he suddenly gave in at last! It only shows that I must be firm with him. As soon as he saw I was in earnest he yielded at once. He's got a sweet nature, but he requires a firm hand. He's different, too, since he lost his leg—more full of fancies, it seems to me, and a great deal too much wrapped up in those books of his. I suppose that when one's body is defective, one's mind feels the effects of it. I shall have to keep him up to the mark, and see that he has plenty of cheerful society. Nothing like nice companions for maintaining the brain in order."
Thus did Aunt Charlotte decide to her own satisfaction what she thought would be best for Austin.
Chapter the Third
He stood leaning against the old stone fountain on the straight lawn under the noonday sun. The bees hummed slumberously around him, sailing from flower to flower, and the hot air, laden with the scents of the soil, seemed to penetrate his body at every pore, infusing a sense of vitality into him which pulsed through all his veins. Austin always said that high noon was the supreme moment of the day. To some folks the most beautiful time was dawn, to others sunset, but at noon Nature was like a flower at its full, a flower in the very zenith of its strength and glory. He had always loved the noon.
"The world seems literally palpitating with life," he thought, as he rested his arm on the rim of the time-worn fountain. "I'm sure it's conscious, in some way or other. How it must enjoy itself! Look at the trees; so strong, and calm, and splendid. They know well enough how strong they are, and when there's a storm that tries to blow them down, how they do revel in battling with it! And then the hot air, embracing the earth so voluptuously—playing with the slender plants, and caressing the upstanding flowers. They stand up because they want to be caressed, the amorous creatures. How wonderful it is—the different characters that flowers have. Some are shrill and fierce and passionate, while others are meek and sly, and pretend to shrink when they are even noticed. Some are wicked—shamelessly, insolently, magnificently wicked—like those scarlet anthuriums, with their curling yellow tongues. That flower is the very incarnation of sin; no, not incarnation—what's the word? I can't think, but it doesn't matter. Incarnation will do, for the thing is exactly like recalcitrant human flesh. Lubin!"
"Yes, Sir?" responded Lubin, who was digging near.
"What are the wickedest flowers you know?" asked Austin.
"Well, Sir, I should say them as had most thorns," said Lubin feelingly.
"I wonder," mused Austin. Then he relapsed into his meditations. "How thick with life the air is. I'm sure it's populated, if we only had eyes to see. I feel it throbbing all round me—full of beings as much alive as I am, only invisible. People used to see them once upon a time—why can't we now? Naiads, and dryads, and fauns, and the great god Pan everywhere; oh, to think we may be actually surrounded by these wonders of beauty, and yet unable to talk to any of them! Nothing but wicked old women, and horrible young men in plaid knickerbockers and bowler hats, who worry one about odds and handicaps. It's all very sad and ugly."
"Aren't you rather hot, standing there in the sun, Sir, all this time?" said Lubin, looking up.
"Very hot," replied Austin. "I wonder what time it is?"
Lubin glanced up at the sundial. "Just five minutes past the hour, or thereabouts, I make it."
"Oh, Lubin, let's go and bathe!" cried Austin suddenly. "You must be far hotter than I am. There's plenty of time—we don't lunch till half-past one. How long would it take us to get to the bathing-pool just at the bend of the river?"
"Well—not above ten minutes, I should say," was Lubin's answer. "I'd like a dip myself more'n a little, but I'm not quite sure if I ought to—you see the mistress wants all this finished up by the afternoon, and then——"
"But you must!" insisted Austin. "You forget that I've only got one leg, so I can't swim as I used, and you've got to come and take care I don't get drowned. 'O weep for Adonais—he is dead!' How angry Aunt Charlotte would be. And then she'd cry, poor dear, and go into hideous mourning for her poor Austin. Come along, Lubin—but wait, I must just go and get a couple of towels. Oh, I'm simply mad for the water. I'll be back in less than a flash."
Lubin drove his spade into the earth, turned down his sleeves, and rested—a fair-skinned, bronzed, wholesome object, good to look at—while Austin stumped away. In less than five minutes the two youths started off together, tramping through the long, lush meadow-grass which lay between the end of the garden and the river. The sun burned fiercely overhead, and the air quivered in the heat.
"Isn't it wonderful!" cried Austin, when they reached the edge of the water, and were standing under the shade of some trees that overhung the towing-path. "Come, Lubin, strip—I'm half undressed already. Look at the white and purple lights in the water—aren't they marvellous? Now we're going right down into them. Oh the freedom of air, and colour, and body—how I do hate clothes! I say, how funny my stump looks, doesn't it? Just like a great white rolling-pin. You must go in first, Lubin, and then you'll be prepared to catch me when I begin drowning."
Lubin, standing nude and shapely, like a fair Greek statue, for a moment on the bank, took a silent header and disappeared. Then Austin prepared to follow. He tumbled rather than plunged into the water, and, unable to attain an erect position owing to his imperfect organism, would have fared badly if Lubin had not caught him in his arms and turned him deftly over on his back.
"You just content yourself with floating face upwards, Sir," he said. "There's no sort of use in trying to strike out, you'd only sink to the bottom like a boat with a hole in it. There—let me hold you like this; one hand'll do it. Look out for the river-weeds. Now try and work your foot. Seems to be making you go round and round, somehow. But that don't matter. A bathe's a bathe, all said and done. How jolly cool it is!"
"Isn't it exquisite?" murmured Austin, with closed eyes. "I do think that drowning must be a lovely death. We're like the minnows, Lubin, 'staying their wavy bodies 'gainst the streams, to taste the luxury of sunny beams tempered with coolness.' That's what our wavy bodies are doing now. Don't you like it? 'Now more than ever it seems rich to die——'"
But the next moment, owing probably to Lubin having lost his equilibrium, the young rhapsodist found himself, spluttering and half-choked, nearer to the bed of the river than the surface, while his leg was held in chancery by a network of clinging water-weeds. Lubin had some slight difficulty in extricating him, and for the moment, at least, his poetic fantasies came to an abrupt and unromantic finish.
"Here, get on my back, and I'll swim you out as far as them water-lilies," said Lubin, giving him a dexterous hoist. "I'm awfully keen on the yellow sort, and they look wonderful fine ones. That's better. Now, Sir, you can just imagine yourself any drownded heathen as comes into your head, only hold tight and don't stir. If you do you'll get drownded in good earnest, and I shall have to settle accounts with your aunt afterwards. Are you ready? Right, then. And now away we go."
He struck out strongly and slowly, with Austin crouching on his shoulders. They arrived in safety at the point aimed at, and managed to tear away a grand cluster of the great, beautiful yellow flowers; but the process was a very ticklish one, and the struggle resulted, not unnaturally, in Austin becoming dislodged from his not very secure position, and floundering head foremost into the depths. Lubin caught him as he rose again, and, taking him firmly by one hand, helped him to swim alongside of him back to the shore. It was a difficult feat, and by the time they had accomplished the distance they were both pretty well exhausted.
"You have been good to me, Lubin," gasped Austin, as he flung himself sprawling on the grass. "I've had a lovely time—haven't you too? Was I very heavy? Perhaps it is rather a bore to have only one leg when one wants to swim. But now you can always say you've saved me from drowning, can't you. I should have gone under a dozen times if you hadn't held me up and lugged me about. Oh, dear, now we must put on our clothes again—what a barbarism clothes are! I do hate them so, don't you? But I suppose there's no help for it.
"Rise, Lubin, rise, and twitch thy mantle blue; To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
"Oh, do help me to screw on my leg. That's it. I say, it's a quarter-past one! We must hurry up, or Aunt Charlotte will be cursing. What does it matter if one eats at half-past one or at a quarter to two? I really am very fond of Aunt Charlotte, you know, though I find it awfully difficult to educate her. I sometimes despair of ever being able to bring her up properly at all, she is so hopelessly Early Victorian, poor thing. But, then, so many people are, aren't they? Now animals are never Early Victorian; that's why I respect them so. If you weren't a human being, Lubin—and a very nice one, as you are—what sort of an animal would you like to be?"
"Well, I don't rightly know as I ever considered the point," said Lubin, passing his fingers through his drenched curls. "Perhaps I'd as lief be a squirrel as anything. I'm awfully fond o' nuts, and when I was a kid I used to spend half my time a-climbing trees. A squirrel must have rather a jolly life of it, when one comes to think."
"What a splendid idea!" cried Austin, as they prepared to start. "You are clever, Lubin. It would be lovely to live in a tree, curtained all round with thousands of quivering green leaves. I wish I knew what animals think about all day. It must be very dull for them never to have any thoughts, poor dears, and yet they seem happy enough somehow. Perhaps they have something else instead to make up for it—something that we've no idea of. I say—it's half-past one!"
So Austin was late for lunch after all, and got a scolding from Aunt Charlotte, who told him that it was exceedingly ill-bred to inconvenience other people by habitual unpunctuality. Austin was very penitent, and promised he'd never be unpunctual again if he lived to be a hundred. Then Aunt Charlotte was mollified, and regaled him with an improving account of a most excellent book she had just been reading, upon the importance of instilling sound principles of political economy into the mind of the agricultural labourer. It was so essential, she explained, that people in that position should understand something about the laws which govern prices, the relations of capital and labour, the metayer system, and the ratio which should exist between an increase of population and the exhaustion of the soil by too frequent crops of wheat; and she wound up by propounding a series of hypothetical problems based on the doctrines she had set forth, for Austin to solve offhand.
Austin listened very dutifully for some time, but the subject bored him atrociously, and his attention began to wander. At last he made some rather vague and irrelevant replies, and then announced boldly that he thought all politicians were very silly old gentlemen, particularly economists; for his own part, he hated economy, especially when he wanted to buy something beautiful to look at; he further considered that political economists would be much better employed if they sat contemplating tulips instead of writing horrid books, and that Lubin was a great deal wiser than the whole pack of them put together. Then Aunt Charlotte got extremely angry, and a great wrangle ensued, in the course of which she said he was a foolish, ignorant boy, who talked nonsense for the sake of talking it. Austin replied by asking if she knew what a quincunx was, or what Virgil was really driving at when he composed the First Eclogue, and whether she had ever heard of Lycidas; and when she said that she had something better to do than stuff her head with quidnunxes and all such pagan rubbish, he remarked very politely that ignorance was evidently not all of the same sort. Which sent Aunt Charlotte bustling away in a huff to look after her household duties.
"It's all very sad and very ugly, isn't it, Gioconda?" sighed Austin, as he lifted the large, white, fluffy animal upon his lap. "You're a great philosopher, my dear; I wish I were as wise as you. You're so scornful, so dignified, so divinely egoistic. But you don't mind being worshipped, do you, Gioconda? Because you know it's your right, of course. There—she's actually condescending to purr! Now we'll come and disport ourselves under the trees, and you shall watch the birds from a safe distance. I know your wicked ways, and I must teach you how to treat your inferiors with proper benignity and toleration."
But Gioconda had plans of her own for the afternoon, and declined the proposed discipline; so Austin strolled off by himself, and lay down under the trees with a large book on Italian gardens to console him. His improvised exertions in the water had produced a certain fatigue, and he felt lazy and inert. Gradually he dropped off into a doze, which lasted more than an hour. And he had a curious dream. He thought he was in some strange land—a land like a garden seen through yellow glass—where everything was transparent, and people glided about as though they were skating, without any conscious effort. Then Aunt Charlotte appeared upon the scene, and he saw by her eyes that she was very angry because Lycidas had been drowned while bathing; but Austin assured her that it was Lubin who was drowned, and that it really was of no consequence, because Lubin was only a squirrel after all. At this point things got extremely mixed, and the sound of voices broke in upon his slumbers. He opened his eyes, and saw Aunt Charlotte herself in the act of walking away with a toss of her head that betokened a ruffled temper.
Austin's interest was immediately aroused. "Lubin!" he called softly, motioning the lad to come nearer. "What was she rowing you about? Was she blowing you up about this morning?"
"Well," confessed Lubin with a broad smile, "she didn't seem over-pleased. Said you might have lost your life, going out o' your depth with only one leg to stand on, and that if you'd been drownded I should have had to answer for it before a judge and jury."
"What a wicked, abandoned old woman!" cried Austin. "Only one leg to stand on, indeed!—she hasn't a single leg to stand on when she says such things. She ought to have gone down on her knees and thanked you for taking such care of me. But I shall never make anything of her, I'm afraid. The more I try to educate her the worse she gets."
"I shouldn't wonder," replied Lubin sagely. "The old hen feels herself badly off when the egg teaches her to cackle. That's human nature, that is. And then she was riled because she was afraid I shouldn't have time to get the garden-things in order by to-morrow, when it seems there's some sort o' company expected. I told her 'twould be all right."
"Oh, those brutes! Of course, they're coming to-morrow. I'd nearly forgotten all about it. It's just like Aunt Charlotte to be so fond of all those hideous people. You hate the MacTavishes, don't you, Lubin? Do hate the MacTavishes! Fancy—nine of them, no less, counting the old ones, and all of them coming together. What a family! I despise people who breed like rabbits, as though they thought they were so superlative that the rest of the world could never have enough of them."
"Ay, fools grow without watering," assented Lubin. "Can't say I ever took to 'em myself—though it's not my place to say so. The young gents make a bit too free with one, and when they opens their mouths no one else may so much as sneeze. Think they know everything, they do. There's a saying as I've heard, that asses sing badly 'cause they pitch their voices too high. Maybe it's the same wi' them."
"Well, I hope Aunt Charlotte will enjoy their conversation," said Austin comfortably. "I say, Lubin, do you know anything about a Mr St Aubyn, who lives not far from here?"
"What, him at the Court?" replied Lubin. "I don't know him myself, but they say as he's a gentleman, and no mistake. Keeps himself to himself, he does, and has always got a civil word for everybody. Fine old place, too, that of his."
"Have you ever been inside?" asked Austin.
"Lor' no, Sir," answered Lubin. "Don't know as I'm over anxious to, either. The garden's a sight, it's true—but it seems there's something queer about the house. Can't make out what it can be, unless the drains are a bit out of order. But it ain't that neither. Sort o' frightening—so folks say. But lor', some folks'll say anything. I never knew anybody as ever saw anything there. It's only some old woman's yarn, I reckon."
"Oh, is it haunted? Are there any ghosts?" cried Austin, in great excitement. "I'd give anything in this world to see a ghost!"
"I don't know as I'd care to sleep in a haunted house myself," said Lubin, beginning to sweep the lawn. "Some folks don't mind that sort o' thing, I s'pose; must have got accustomed to it somehow. Then there's those as is born ghost-seers, and others as couldn't see one, not if it was to walk arm-in-arm with 'em to church. Let's hope Mr St Aubyn's one o' that sort, seeing as he's got to live there. It's poor work being a baker if your head's made of butter, I've heard say."
"Then it is haunted!" exclaimed Austin. "What a bit of luck. You see, Lubin, I know Mr St Aubyn just a little, and soon I'm going to lunch with him. How I shall be on the look-out! I wonder how it feels to see a ghost. You've never seen one, have you?"
"Oh no, Sir," replied Lubin, shaking his head. "I doubt I'm not put together that way. A blind man may shoot a crow by mistake, but he ain't no judge o' colours. Though ghosts are mostly white, they say. Well, it may be different with you, and when you go to lunch at the Court, I'm sure I hope you'll see all the ghosts on the premises if you've a fancy for that kind of wild fowl. Let ghosts leave me alone and I'll leave them alone—that's all I've got to say. I never had no hankering after gentry as go flopping around without their bodies. 'Tain't commonly decent, to my thinking. Don't hold with such goings on myself."
"Oh, but you must make allowances for their circumstances," answered Austin. "If they've got no bodies of course they can't put them on, you know. Besides, there are ghosts and ghosts. Some are mischievous, and some are very, very unhappy, and others come to do us good and help us to find wills, and treasures, and all sorts of pleasant things. I'd love to talk with one, and have it out with him. What wonderful things one might learn!"
"Ay, there's more in the world than what's taught in the catechism," said Lubin. "Let's hope you'll have picked up a few crumbs when you've been to lunch at the Court. Every little helps, as the sow said when she swallowed the gnat. I confess I'm not curious myself."
"Well, I'm awfully curious," replied Austin, as he began to get up. "But now I must stir about a bit. You know my wooden leg gets horribly lazy sometimes, and I've got to exercise it every now and then for its own good. I know Aunt Charlotte wants me to go into the town with her to buy provender for this bun-trouble of hers to-morrow. It's very curious what different ideas of pleasure different people have."
"He's a rare sort o' boy, the young master," soliloquised Lubin as Austin went pegging along towards the house. "Game for no end of mischief when the fit takes him, for all he's only got one leg. One'd think he was half daft to hear him talk sometimes, too. Seems like as if it galled him a bit to rub along with the old auntie, and I shouldn't wonder if the old auntie herself felt about as snug as a bell-wether tied to a frisky colt. However, I s'pose the A'mighty knows what He's about, and it's always the old cow's notion as she never was a calf herself."
With which philosophical reflection Lubin slipped on his green corduroy jacket, shouldered his broom, and trudged cheerfully home to tea.
Chapter the Fourth
The next day the great heat had moderated, and the sky was covered with a thin pearly veil of gossamer greyness which afforded a delightful relief after the glare of the past week. A smart shower had fallen during the night, and the parched earth, refreshed after its bath, appeared more fragrant and more beautiful than ever. Aunt Charlotte busied herself all the morning with various household diversions, while Austin, swaying lazily to and fro in a hammock under an old apple tree, read 'Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight.' At last he looked at his watch, and found that it was about time to go and dress.
"Well, you have made yourself smart," commented Aunt Charlotte complacently, as Austin, sprucely attired in a pale flannel suit, with a lilac tie and a dark-red rose in his button-hole, came into the morning-room to say good-bye. "But why need you have dressed so early? Our friends aren't coming till three o'clock at the very earliest, and it's not much more than twelve—at least, so says my watch. You needn't have changed till after lunch, at any rate."
"My dear auntie, have you forgotten?" asked Austin, in innocent surprise. "To-day's Thursday, and I'm engaged to lunch and spend the afternoon with Mr St Aubyn. You know I told you all about it the very day he asked me."
"Mr St Aubyn?—I don't understand," said Aunt Charlotte, with a bewildered air. "I have a recollection of your telling me a few days ago that you were lunching out some day or other, but——"
"On Thursday, you know, I said."
"Did you? Well, but—but our friends are coming here to-day! You must have been dreaming, Austin," cried Aunt Charlotte, sitting bolt upright. "How can you have made such a blunder? Of course you can't possibly go!"
"Do you really propose, auntie, that I should break my engagement with Mr St Aubyn for the sake of entertaining people like the MacTavishes and the Cobbledicks?" replied Austin, quite unmoved.
"But why did you fix on the same day?" exclaimed Aunt Charlotte desperately. "I cannot understand it. I left the date to you, you know I did—I told you I didn't care what day it was, and said you might choose whichever suited yourself best. What on earth induced you to pitch on the very day when you were invited out?"
"For the very reason you yourself assign—that you let me choose any day that suited me best. For the very reason that I was invited out. You see, my dear auntie——"
"Oh, you false, cunning boy!" cried Aunt Charlotte, who now saw how she had been trapped. "So you let me agree to the 24th, and took care not to tell me that the 24th was Thursday because you knew quite well I should never have consented if you had. What abominable deception! But you shall suffer for it, Austin. Of course you'll remain at home now, if only as a punishment for your deceit. I shouldn't dream of letting you go, after such disgraceful conduct. To think you could have tricked me so!"
"My dear auntie, of course I shall go," said Austin, drawing on his gloves. "Why you should wish me to stay, I cannot imagine. What on earth makes you so insistent that I should meet these friends of yours?"
"It's for your own good, you ungrateful little creature," replied Aunt Charlotte, quivering. "You know what I've always said. You require more companionship of your own age, you want to mix with other young people instead of wasting and dreaming your time away as you do, and it was for your sake, for your sake only, that I asked our friends——"
"Oh, no, auntie, it wasn't. You told me so yourself," Austin reminded her. "You told me distinctly that it was for your own pleasure and not for mine that you were going to invite them. So that argument won't do. And you were perfectly right. If you find intellectual joy in the society of Mrs Cobbledick and Shock-headed Peter——"
"Shock-headed Peter? Who in the name of fortune is that?" interrupted Aunt Charlotte, amazed.
"One of the MacTavish enchantresses—Florrie, I think, or perhaps Aggie. How am I to know? Everybody calls her Shock-headed Peter. But as I was saying, if you find happiness in the society of such people, invite them by all means. I only ask you not to cram them down my throat. I wouldn't mind the others so much, but the MacTavishes I bar. I will not have them forced upon me. I detest them, and I've no doubt they despise me. We simply bore each other out of our lives. There! Let that suffice. I'm very fond of you, auntie, and I don't want anyone else. Do you perfectly understand?"
"I shall evidently never understand you, Austin," replied Aunt Charlotte. "You have treated me shockingly, shockingly. And now you leave me in the most heartless way with all these people on my hands——"
"Then why did you insist on inviting them?" put in Austin. "I entreated you not to. I'd have gone down on my knees to you, only unfortunately I've only one. And when I entreated you for the last time, you said you wouldn't listen to another word. I saw that further appeal was useless, so I was compelled by you yourself to play for my own safety. So now good-bye, dear auntie. It's time I was off. Cheer up—you'll all enjoy yourselves much more without an awkward unsympathetic creature like me among you, see if you don't. And you can make any excuse for me you like," he added with a smile as he left the room. Aunt Charlotte remained transfixed.
"I suppose he must go his own gait," she muttered, as she picked up her knitting again. "There's no use in trying to force him this way or that; if he doesn't want to do a thing he won't do it. Of course what he says is true enough—I did let him choose the date, and I did ask these people because I thought it would be good for him, and I did insist on doing so when he begged me not to. Well, I'm hoist with my own petard this time, though I wouldn't confess as much to him if my life depended on it. But the trickery of the little wretch! It's that I can't get over."
Meanwhile Austin meditated on the little episode on his side, as he made his way along the road. "I daresay dear old auntie was a bit put out," he thought, "but she brought it all upon herself. She doesn't see that everybody must live his own life, that it's a duty one owes to oneself to realise one's own individuality. Now it's bad for me to associate with people I detest—bad for my soul's development; just as bad as it is for anyone's body to eat food that doesn't agree with him. Those MacTavishes poison my soul just as arsenic poisons the body, and I won't have my soul poisoned if I can help it. It's very sad to see how blind she is to the art and philosophy of life. But she'll have to learn it, and the sooner she begins the better."
Here he left the high road, and turned into a long, narrow lane enclosed between high banks, which led into a pleasant meadow by the river side. This shortened the way considerably, and when he reached the stile at the further end of the meadow he found himself only some ten minutes' walk from the park gates. Then a subdued excitement fell upon him. He was going to see the beautiful picture-gallery and the great collection of engravings, and the gardens with conservatories full of lovely orchids. He was going to hold delightful converse with the cultured and agreeable man to whom all these things belonged. And—well, he might possibly even see a ghost! But now, in the genial daylight, with the prospect of luncheon immediately before him, the idea of ghosts seemed rather to retire into the background. Ghosts did not appear so attractive as they had done yesterday afternoon, when he had talked about them with Lubin. However—here he was.
Mr St Aubyn, tall and middle-aged, with a refined face set in a short, pointed beard, received him with exquisite cordiality. How seldom does a man realise the positive idolatry he can inspire by treating a well-bred youth on equal terms, instead of assuming airs of patronage and condescension! The boy accepts such an attitude as natural, perhaps, but he resents it nevertheless, and never gives the man his confidence. The perfect manners of St Aubyn won Austin's heart at once, and he responded with a modest ardour that touched and gratified his host. The Court, too, exceeded his expectations. It was a grand old mansion dating from the reign of Elizabeth, with mullioned casements, and carved doorways, and cool, dim rooms oak-panelled, and broad fireplaces; and around it lay a shining garden enclosed by old monastic walls of red brick, with shaped beds of carnations glowing redly in the sunlight, and, beyond the straight lines of lawn, a wilderness of nut-trees, with a pool of yellow water-lilies, where wild hyacinths and pale jonquils rioted when it was spring. On one side of the garden, at right angles to the house, the wall shelved into a great grass terrace, and here stood a sort of wing, flanked by two glorious old towers, crumbling and ivy-draped, forming entrances to a vast room, tapestried, which had been a banqueting hall in the picturesque Tudor days. Meanwhile, Austin was ushered by his host into the library—a moderate-sized apartment, lined with countless books and adorned with etchings of great choiceness; whence, after a few minutes' chat on indifferent subjects, they adjourned to the dining-room, where a luncheon, equally choice and good, awaited them.
At first they played a little at cross-purposes. St Aubyn, with the tact of an accomplished man entertaining a clever youth, tried to draw Austin out; while Austin, modest in the presence of one whom he recognised as infinitely his superior in everything he most valued, was far more anxious to hear St Aubyn talk than to talk himself. The result was that Austin won, and St Aubyn soon launched forth delightfully upon art, and books, and travel. He had been a great traveller in his day, and the boy listened with enraptured ears to his description of the magnificent gardens in the vicinity of Rome—the Lante, the Torlonia, the Aldobrandini, the Falconieri, and the Muti—architectural wonders that Austin had often read of, but of course had never seen; and then he talked of Viterbo and its fountains, Vicenza the city of Palladian palaces, every house a gem, and Sicily, with its hidden wonders, hidden from the track of tourists because far in the depths of the interior. He had travelled in Burma too, and inflamed the boy's imagination by telling him of the gorgeous temples of Rangoon and Mandalay; he had been—like everybody else—to Japan; and he had lived for six weeks up country in China, in a secluded Buddhist monastery perched on the edge of a precipice, like an eagle's nest, where his only associates were bonzes in yellow robes, and the stillness was only broken by the deep-toned temple bell, booming for vespers. Then, somehow, his thoughts turned back to Europe, and he began a disquisition upon the great old masters—Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Tiziano, and Peter Paul—with whose immortal works he seemed as familiar as he subsequently showed himself with the pictures in his own house. He described the Memlings at Bruges, the Botticellis at Florence and the Velasquezes in Spain—averring in humorous exaggeration that beside a Velasquez most other paintings were little better than chromolithographs. Austin put in a word now and then, asked a question or two as occasion served, and so suggested fresh and still more fascinating reminiscences; but he had no desire whatever to interrupt the illuminating stream of words by airing any opinions of his own. It was not until the meal was drawing to a close that the conversation took a more personal turn, and Austin was induced to say something about himself, his tastes, and his surroundings. Then St Aubyn began deftly and diplomatically to elicit something in the way of self-disclosure; and before long he was able to see exactly how things stood—the boy of ideals, of visionary and artistic tastes, of crude fresh theories and a queer philosophy of life, full of a passion for Nature and a contempt for facts, on one hand; and the excellent, commonplace, uncomprehending aunt, with her philistine friends and blundering notions as to what was good for him, upon the other. It was an amusing situation, and psychologically very interesting. St Aubyn listened attentively with a sympathetic smile as Austin stated his case.
"I see, I see," he said nodding. "You feel it imperative to lead your own life and try to live up to your own ideals. That is good—quite good. And you are not in sympathy with your aunt's friends. Nothing more natural. Of course it is important to be sure that your ideals are the highest possible. Do you think they are?"
"They seem so. They are the highest possible for me," replied Austin earnestly.
"That implies a limitation," observed St Aubyn, emitting a stream of blue smoke from his lips. "Well, we all have our limitations. You appear to have a very strong sense that every man should realise his own individuality to the full; that that is his first duty to himself. Tell me then—does it never occur to you that we may also have duties to others?"
"Why, yes—certainly," said Austin. "I only mean that we have no right to sacrifice our own individualities to other people's ideas. For instance, my aunt, who has always been the best of friends to me, is for ever worrying me to associate with people who rasp every nerve in my body, because she thinks that it would do me good. Then I rebel. I simply will not do it."
"What friends have you?" asked St Aubyn quietly.
"I don't think I have any," said Austin, with great simplicity. "Except Lubin. My best companionship I find in books."
"The best in the world—so long as the books are good," replied St Aubyn. "But who is Lubin?"
"He's a gardener," said Austin. "About two years older than I am. But he's a gentleman, you understand. And if you could only see the sort of people my poor aunt tries to force upon me!"
"I think you may add me to Lubin—as your friend," observed St Aubyn; at which Austin flushed with pleasure. "But now, one other word. You say you want to realise your highest self. Well, the way to do it is not to live for yourself alone; it is to live for others. To save oneself one must first lose oneself—forget oneself, when occasion arises—for the sake of other people. It is only by self-sacrifice for the sake of others that the supreme heights are to be attained."
For the first time Austin's face fell. He tossed his long hair off his forehead, and toyed silently with his cigarette.
"Is that a hard saying?" resumed St Aubyn, smiling. "It has high authority, however. Think it over at your leisure. Have you finished? Come, then, and let me show you the pictures. We have the whole afternoon before us."
They explored the fine old house well-nigh from roof to basement, while St Aubyn recounted all the associations connected with the different rooms. Then they went into the picture-gallery. Austin, breathless with interest, hung upon St Aubyn's lips as he pointed out the peculiarities of each great master represented, and explained how, for instance, by a fold of the drapery or the crook of a finger, the characteristic mannerisms of the painter could be detected, and the school to which a given work belonged could approximately be determined; drew attention to the unifying and grouping of the different features of a composition; spoke learnedly of textures, qualities, and tactile values; and laid stress on the importance of colour, light, atmosphere, and the sense of motion, as contrasted with the undue preponderance too often attached by critics to mere outline. All this was new to Austin, who had really never seen any good pictures before, and his enthusiasm grew with what it fed on. St Aubyn was an admirable cicerone; he loved his pictures, and he knew them—knew everything that could be known about them—and, inspired by the intelligent appreciation of his guest, spared no pains to do them justice. A good half-hour was then spent over the engravings, which were kept in a quaint old room by themselves; and afterwards they adjourned to the garden. St Aubyn's conservatories were famous, and his orchids of great variety and beauty. Austin seemed transported into a world where everything was so arranged as to gratify his craving for harmony and fitness, and he moved almost silently beside his host in a dream of satisfaction and delight.
"By the way, there's still one room you haven't seen," remarked St Aubyn, as they were strolling at their leisure through the grounds. "We call it the Banqueting Hall—in that wing between the two old towers. Queen Elizabeth was entertained there once, and it contains some rather beautiful tapestries. I should like to have them moved into the main building, only there's really no place where they'd fit, and perhaps it's better they should remain where they were originally intended for. Are you fond of tapestry?"
"I've never seen any," said Austin, "but of course I've read about it—Gobelin, Bayeux, and so on. I should love to see what it looks like in reality."
"Come, then," said St Aubyn, crossing the lawn. "I have the key in my pocket."
He flung open the door. Austin found himself in the vast apartment, groined and vaulted, measuring about a hundred and twenty feet by fifty, and lighted by exquisite pointed windows enriched with coats-of-arms and other heraldic devices in jewel-like stained glass. The walls were completely hidden by tapestries of rare beauty, woven into the semblance of gardens, palaces, arcades and bowers of clipped hedges and pleached trees with slender fountains set meetly in green shade; while some again were crowded with swaying Gothic figures of saints and kings and warriors and angels, all far too beautiful, thought Austin, to have ever lived. Yet surely there must be some prototypes of all these wonderful conceptions somewhere. There must be a world—if we could only find it—where loveliness that we only know as pictured exists in actual reality. What a dream-like hall it was, on that still summer afternoon. Yet there was something uncanny about it too. St Aubyn had stepped out of sight, and Austin left by himself began to experience a very extraordinary sensation. He felt that he was not alone. The immense chamber seemed full of presences. He could see nothing, but he felt them all about him. The place was thickly populated, but the population was invisible. Everything looked as empty as it had looked when the door was first thrown open, and yet it was really full of ghostly palpitating life, crowded with the spirits of bygone men and women who had held stately revels there three hundred years before. He was not frightened, but a sense of awe crept over him, rooting him to the spot and imparting a rapt expression to his face. Did he hear anything? Wasn't there a faint rustling sound somewhere in the air behind him? No. It must have been his fancy. Everything was as silent as the grave.
He turned and saw St Aubyn close beside him. "The place is haunted!" he exclaimed in a husky voice.
"What makes you think so?" asked St Aubyn, without any intonation of surprise.
"I feel it," he replied.
"Come out," said the other abruptly. "It's curious you should say that. Other people seem to have felt the same. I'm not so sensitive myself. You're looking pale. Let's go into the library and have a cup of tea."
The hot stimulant revived him, and he was soon talking at his ease again. But the curious impression remained. It seemed to him as if he had had an experience whose effects would not be easily shaken off. He had seen no ghosts, but he had felt them, and that was quite enough. The sensation he had undergone was unmistakable; the hall was full of ghosts, and he had been conscious of their presence. This, then, was apparently what Lubin had alluded to. Oh, it was all real enough—there was no room left for any doubt whatever.
It was a quarter to five when he took leave of his entertainer, responding warmly to an injunction to look in again whenever he felt disposed. He walked very thoughtfully homewards, revolving many questions in his busy brain. How much he had seen and learnt since he left home that morning! Worlds of beauty, of art, of intellect had dawned upon his consciousness; a world of mystery too. Even now, tramping along the road, he felt a different being. Even now he imagined the presence of unseen entities—walking by his side, it might be, but anyhow close to him. Was it so? Could it be that he really was surrounded by intelligences that eluded his physical senses and yet in some mysterious fashion made their existence known?
At last he arrived at the stile leading into the meadow, and prepared to clamber over. Then he hesitated. Why? He could not tell. A queer, invincible repugnance to cross that stile suddenly came over him. The meadow looked fresh and green, and the road—hot, dusty, and white—was certainly not alluring; besides, he longed to saunter along the grass by the river and think over his experiences. But something prevented him. With a sense of irritation he took a few steps along the road; then the thought of the cool field reasserted itself, and with a determined effort he retraced his steps and threw one leg over the top bar of the stile. It was no use. Gently, but unmistakably, something pushed him back. He could not cross. He wanted to, and he was in full possession of both his physical and mental faculties, but he simply could not do it.
In great perplexity, not unmixed with some natural sense of umbrage, Austin set off again along the ugly road. The sun had come out once more, and it was very hot. What could be the matter with him? Why had he been so silly as to take the highway, with its horrid dust and glare, when the field and the lane would have been so much more pleasant? He felt puzzled and annoyed. How Mr St Aubyn would have laughed at him could he but have known. This long tramp along the disagreeable road was the only jarring incident that had befallen him that day. Well, it would soon be over. And what a day it had been, after all. How marvellous the pictures were, and the gardens; what an acquisition to his life was the friendship—not only the acquaintanceship—of St Aubyn; and then the tapestries, the great mysterious hall, and the strange revelations that had come upon him in the hall itself! At last his thoughts reverted, half in self-reproach, to Aunt Charlotte. How had she fared, meanwhile? Had she enjoyed her Cobbledicks and her MacTavishes as much as he had enjoyed his experiences at the Court?
For all his theories about living his own life and developing his own individuality, Austin was not a selfish boy. Egoistic he might be, but selfish he was not. His impulses were always generous and kindly, and he was full of thought for others. He was for ever contriving delicate little gifts for those in want, planning pleasant little surprises for people whom he loved. And now he hoped most ardently that dear Aunt Charlotte had not been very dull, and for the moment felt quite kindly towards the Cobbledicks and the MacTavishes as he reflected that, no doubt, they had helped to make his auntie happy on that afternoon.
At last he came to the entrance of the lane through which he had passed in the morning. At that moment a crowd of men and boys, most of them armed with heavy sticks and all looking terribly excited, rushed past him, and precipitated themselves into the narrow opening. He asked one of them what was the matter, but the man took no notice and ran panting after the others. So Austin pursued his way, and in a few minutes arrived at the garden gate, where to his great surprise he found Aunt Charlotte waiting for him—the picture of anxiety and terror.
"Well, auntie!—why, what's the matter?" he exclaimed, as Aunt Charlotte with a cry of relief threw herself into his arms.
"Oh, my dear boy!" she uttered in trembling agitation. "How thankful I am to see you! Which way did you come back?"
"Which way? Along the road," said Austin, much astonished. "Why?"
"Thank God!" ejaculated Aunt Charlotte. "Then you're really safe. I've been out of my mind with fear. A most dreadful thing has happened. Let us sit down a minute till I get my breath, and I'll tell you all about it."
Austin led her to a garden seat which stood near, and sat down beside her. "Well, what is it all about?" he asked.
"My dear, it was like this," began Aunt Charlotte, as she gradually recovered her composure. "Our friends were just going away—oh, I forgot to tell you that of course they came; we had a most delightful time, and dear Lottie—no, Lizzie—I always do forget which is which—I can't remember, but it doesn't matter—was the life and soul of the party; however, as I was saying, they were just going away, and I was there at the gate seeing them off, when the butcher's boy came running up and warned them on no account to venture into the road, as Hunt's dog—that's the butcher, you know—I mean Hunt is—had gone raving mad, and was loose upon the streets. Of course we were all most horribly alarmed, and wanted to know whether anybody had been bitten; but the boy was off like a shot, and two minutes afterwards the wretched dog itself came tearing past, as mad as a dog could be, its jaws a mass of foam, and snapping right and left. As soon as ever it was safe our friends took the opportunity of escaping—of course in the opposite direction; and then a crowd of villagers came along in pursuit, but not knowing which turning to take till some man or other told them that the dog had gone up the lane. Then imagine my terror! For I felt perfectly convinced that you'd be coming home that way, as the road was hot and dusty, and I know how fond you are of lanes and fields. Oh, my dear, I can't get over it even now. How was it you chose the road?"
For a moment Austin did not speak. Then he said very slowly:
"I don't know how to tell you. Of course I could tell you easily enough, but I don't think you'd understand. Auntie, I intended to come home by the lane. Twice or three times I tried to cross the stile into the meadows, and each time I was prevented. Something stopped me. Something pushed me back. Naturally I wanted to come by the meadow—the road was horrid—and I wanted to stroll along on the grass and enjoy myself by the river. But there it was—I couldn't do it. So I gave up trying, and came by the road after all."
"What do you mean, Austin?" asked Aunt Charlotte. "I never heard such a thing in my life. What was it that pushed you back?"
"I don't know," replied the boy deliberately. "I only know that something did. And as the lane is very narrow, and enclosed by excessively steep banks, the chances are that I should have met the dog in it, and that the dog would have bitten me and given me hydrophobia. And now you know as much as I do myself."
"I can't tell what to think, I'm sure," said Aunt Charlotte. "Anyhow, it's most providential that you escaped, but as for your being prevented, as you say—as for anything pushing you back—why, my dear, of course that was only your fancy. What else could it have been? I'm far too practical to believe in presentiments, and warnings, and nonsense of that sort. I'd as soon believe in table-rapping. No, my dear; I thank God you've come back safe and sound, but don't go hinting at anything supernatural, because I simply don't believe in it."
"Then why do you thank God?" asked Austin, "Isn't He supernatural? Why, He's the only really supernatural Being possible, it seems to me."
That was a poser. Aunt Charlotte, having recovered her equanimity, began to feel argumentative. It was incumbent on her to prove that she was not inconsistent in attributing Austin's preservation to the intervention of God, while disclaiming any belief in what she called the supernatural. And for the moment she did not know how to do it.
"By the supernatural, Austin," she said at last, in a very oracular tone, "I mean superstition. And I call that story of yours a piece of superstition and nothing else."
"Auntie, you do talk the most delightful nonsense of any elderly lady of my acquaintance," cried Austin, as he laughingly patted her on the back. "It's no use arguing with you, because you never can see that two and two make four. It's very sad, isn't it? However, the thing to be thankful for is that I've got back safe and sound, and that we've both had a delightful afternoon. And now tell me all your adventures. I'm dying to hear about the vicar, and the Cobbledicks, and the ingenious Jock and Sandy. Did all your friends turn up?"
"Indeed they did, and a most charming time we had," replied Aunt Charlotte briskly. "Of course they were astonished to find that you weren't here to welcome them, and I was obliged to say how unfortunate it was, but a most stupid mistake had arisen, and that you were dreadfully sorry, and all the rest of it. Ah, you don't know what you missed, Austin. The boys were full of fun as usual, and dear Lizzie—or was it Florrie? well, it doesn't matter—said she was sure you'd gone to the Court in preference because you were expecting to meet a lot of girls there who were much prettier than she was. Of course she was joking, but——"
"The vulgar, disgusting brute!" cried Austin, in sudden anger. "And these are the creatures you torment me to associate with. Well——"
"Austin, you've no right to call a young lady a brute; it's abominably rude of you," said Aunt Charlotte severely. "There was nothing vulgar in what she said; it was just a playful sally, such as any sprightly girl might indulge in. I assured her you were going to meet nobody but Mr St Aubyn himself, and then she said it was a shame that you should have been inveigled away to be bored by——"
"I don't want to hear what the woman said," interrupted Austin, with a gesture of contempt. "Such people have no right to exist. They're not worthy for a man like St Aubyn to tread upon. It's a pity you know nothing of him yourself, auntie. You wouldn't appreciate your Lotties and your Florries quite so much as you do now, if you did."
"Then you enjoyed yourself?" returned Aunt Charlotte, waiving the point. "Oh, I've no doubt he's an agreeable person in his way. And the gardens are quite pretty, I'm told. Hasn't he got a few rather nice pictures in his rooms? I'm very fond of pictures myself. Well, now, tell me all about it. How did you amuse yourself all the afternoon, and what did you talk to him about?"
But before Austin could frame a fitting answer the butcher's boy looked over the gate to tell them that the rabid dog had been found in the lane and killed.