CHRISTOPHER HIBBAULT, ROADMAKER
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
Copyright, 1908, by Duffield and Company
Set up and electrotyped; published January, 1909 Reprinted March, August, October, December, 1909 May, August, October, 1910
To V. B. and M. B. this Book with my love 1906-1908
Your paths were two when first the tale began And now are one, and still with every year Love, the Divine Roadmaker, works His will. And of these paths he makes one perfect Road Which those who follow after shall find smooth And with more easy steps shall seek the Dawn.
Christopher Hibbault, Roadmaker
It was a hot July day, set in a sky of unruffled blue, with sharp shadows across road and field, and a wind that had little coolness in it playing languidly over the downland. The long white dusty road kept its undeviating course eastward over hill and dale, through hamlet and town, till it was swallowed up in the mesh-work of ways round London, sixty-three miles away according to the mile-stone by which a certain small boy clad in workhouse garb was loitering. He had read the inscription many times and parcelled out the sixty-three miles into various days' journeys, but never succeeded in bringing it within divisionable distance of the few pennies which found their way into his pockets. His precocious little head carried within it too bitter memories of hungry days, and too many impressions of the shifts and contrivances by which fortune's votaries bamboozle from that fickle Goddess a meagre living, to adventure on the journey unprepared. Moreover, Mr. and Mrs. Moss of the Whitmansworth Union were not unkind, and meals were regular, so he did not run away from the house that had opened its doors to him and an exhausted mother six months ago. But he still dreamt of London as the desideratum of his fondest hopes, and that, in spite of a black terror crouching there and carefully nurtured by the poor mother in the days of their wanderings. He saw it all through a haze of people and experiences, of friends and foes, and it was the Place of Liberty.
Therefore, when escape was possible from the somewhat easy rule of the Union, he hurried away to the mile-stone on the "Great Road," as it was called about here. The stone with its clear distinct black lettering, seemed to bring him nearer London, and he would spend his time contentedly flinging pebbles into the river of dust at his feet, or planning out in his active little mind what he would do when old Granny Jane's prophecy came true.
There was a wide strip of turf on each side of the road bejewelled with poppies and daisies, matted with yellow and white bedstraws, carpeted with clovers, and over all lay a coating of fine chalky dust, legacy of passing cart and carriage.
The boy was very hot and very dusty, and a little sleepy. He lay on his back drumming his heels on the turf and watching an exuberant lark tower up into the sky above him. He was not unmindful of the lark's song, but he vaguely wondered if a well-thrown stone could travel as far as the dark mounting speck.
"It's a year ago I am sure since that old woman told me my fortune," he said, suddenly sitting up. "I wonder if it will come true. Mother said it was nonsense."
It was a lonely stretch of road. The mile-stone was on the summit of a rise and the ground sloped away on his right to a reach of green water-meadow through which a chalky trout-stream wandered, and the red roof of an old mill showed through a group of silvery poplars and willows. On the other side of the road were undulating fields that dwindled from sparse cultivation to bare down-land. There was no sign of any house except the distant mill, but directly over the summit of the hill, happily hidden, an ugly little red-brick mushroom of a town asserted itself, overgrowing in its unbeautiful growth the older picturesque village of Whitmansworth.
The faint sharp click of horses' hoofs stepping swiftly and regularly swept up the road towards the boy. He stood up the better to see the approaching vehicle which was coming from out of the east towards him. Two horses, he judged, listening intently. Presently a distant dark spot on the road evolved itself into a carriage—a phaeton and a pair of iron grey horses. It was long before the days of motors, when fine horses and good drivers were common enough in England, but even the small boy recognised that these animals were exceptional and were stepping out at a pace that spoke of good blood, good training and good hands on the reins.
He watched them trot full pace down the opposite hill and breast the steep rise after without a break in the easy rhythm of their movements. It was a matter of their driver's will rather than their pleasure that made them slacken pace as they neared the mile-stone.
The lonely little figure standing there was clearly visible to the travellers in the phaeton. The man who was driving looked at him casually, looked again with sudden sharp scrutiny, and abruptly pulled up his horses. He thrust the reins into his companion's hands, and was off the box before the groom from behind could reach the horses' heads.
The owner of the phaeton came straight towards the small boy who was watching the horses with interest, pleased at the halt and oblivious of his own connection with it. The traveller was a man who looked forty-eight despite his frosted hair, and was in reality ten years older. He was tall, well beyond average height, thin, well-fashioned, with a keen kindly face, clean shaven. His mouth was humorous, and there was a certain serenity of expression and bearing that invited confidence. The boy, casting a hasty glance at him as he approached, thought him a very fine gentleman indeed: as in fact he was, in every possible meaning of the word.
"Is this Whitmansworth?" demanded the owner of the phaeton. His tone was not aggressive. The boy gave him as straight a look of judgment as he himself received.
"Down there it is," with a nod of his head in the direction of the distant townlet.
"And not up here?"
"Dunno, they calls it the Great Road."
The stranger still stood looking down at him fixedly.
"Is your name James Christopher Hibbault?"
Without warning, without time for the canny little morsel of humanity to weigh the wisdom of an answer, the question was shot at him and he was left gasping and speechless after an incriminating "Yes," forced from him by the suddenness of the onslaught, and the truth-compelling power of those keen eyes. "Least it's Hibbault," he added unwillingly. "Jim, they calls me."
"I think it is Christopher as well, and I prefer Christopher. And what are you doing on the Great Road at this hour in the afternoon, Christopher?"
And Jim—or Christopher,—trained and renowned for a useful evasiveness of retort in those far-off London days, answered mechanically: "Waiting for the fortune to come true."
Then the hot blood rushed to his face from sheer shame at his own betrayal of the darling secret of his small existence.
"Your fortune?" echoed the other slowly. "Fortunes do not come for waiting. What do you mean?"
"It was the old woman said so—mother didn't believe it. She said as how my fortune would come to me on the Great Road. There wer'n't no Great Road there, so when I heard as how they called this the Great Road, I just stuck to it."
It was a long speech. The boy had none of the half-stupid stolidity of the country-bred, and yet lacked something of the garrulity of the cute street lad. His voice too was a surprise. The broad vowels seemed acquired and uncertain and jarred on the hearer with a sense of misfit.
"Do you live at Whitmansworth Union?"
There was a faint tinge of resentment in the short "Yes."
How did the gentleman know it, and, anyhow, why should he tell him? Jim felt irritated.
The owner of the phaeton stood still a moment with one hand on the dusty little shoulder, and then looked round at the water-meadows, the distant copses, the more distant shimmering downs. Then he laughed, saying something the boy did not understand, and looked down at the sharp inquiring little face again.
"Which means, Christopher, hide-and-seek is an easy game when it's over," he explained. "Come and show me where you live."
They walked back towards the carriage together. The elderly gentleman holding the reins was looking back at them; so was the groom. The elderly gentleman cast a puzzled, inquiring glance from the boy to his companion as they came near.
"Fortune meets us on the road-side, Stapleton," said the owner of the phaeton. "Let me introduce you to Christopher Hibbault. Get up, child."
Get up? Mount that quietly magnificent carriage, ride behind those beautiful animals with their pawing feet and arched necks? The small boy stood still a moment to appreciate the greatness of the event.
"Are you afraid, Christopher?"
Resentment sprang to life. Yet it was almost well so transcendent a moment should have its pin prick of annoyance. With a "No" of ineffable scorn, Jim—or Christopher—the name was immaterial to him—clambered up into the high carriage and wedged himself between the elderly gentleman and the inquisitive driver, who had regained his seat and the reins.
Christopher's experiences of driving were of a very limited nature, and certainly they did not embrace anything like this. He had no recollection of ever having travelled by train, and it was the question of pace that fascinated him, the rapid, easy swinging movement through the air, the fresh breeze rushing by, the distancing of humbler wayfarers, all gave him a strange sense of exhilaration. Years afterward, when flesh and blood were all too slow for him and he was one of the best motorists in England, if not in Europe, he used to recall the rapturous pleasure of that first drive of his, that first introduction to the mad, tense joy of speed that ever after held him in thrall.
The owner of the phaeton and the elderly gentleman whom he had called Stapleton exchanged no remarks, but they both cast curious, thoughtful glances at their small companion from time to time. They had to rouse him from his rhapsody to ask the way at last. He answered concisely and shortly with no touch of the local burr.
"How came you to be so far away?" demanded Jim's fine gentleman as they were passing through the market-place.
Jim was engaged in superciliously ignoring the amazed stares of the town boys who were apt to look down on the "workhouse kid," though he attended the Whitmansworth school. Once past them he answered the question vaguely.
"The master was out: I hadn't to do anything."
"And you had permission to wander where you liked?"
To this Jim did not reply. He had not permission, but he counted on the good nature of Mrs. Moss, with whom he was a favourite, to plead his cause with her husband.
"Had you permission?" demanded his questioner again, bending down suddenly to look in the boy's face with his disconcerting eyes.
It would have seemed to Jim on reflection a great deal more prudent and quite as easy to have said "yes" as "no," but the "no" slipped out, and the questioner smiled, not ill-pleased.
At last they came to a standstill before the door of the Whitmansworth Union. Jim, with a prodigious sigh, prepared to descend. The glorious adventure was over. Also he prepared to slip away to a more lowly entrance, but was stopped by a retaining hand.
The porter, no friend of Jim's, stared with dull amazement at the apparition of the fine turn-out, and the still finer gentleman waiting on the doorstep with that little "varmint" of a Hibbault. He signed to the boy angrily to begone, as he ushered the visitor in.
"The boy will stay with me," said the owner of the phaeton quietly, and they were accordingly shown into that solemn sanctum, the Board Room. It was a cheerful room with flowers in the window and a long green-covered table with comfortable chairs on each side, but it struck a cold note of discomfort in Jim's heart. The first time he had entered it, about six months ago, the chairs had been occupied by ten more or less portly gentlemen who informed him that his mother, now being dead (she had died two days previously), they had decided to give him a home for the present, and would educate him and teach him a trade, and that he should be very grateful and must be a good boy.
Jim had said tearfully he would rather go back to London and Mrs. Sartin, which appeared to surprise them very much, and they were at some pains to point out the advantages of a country life, which did not appeal to him at all. Then one of them, who had not spoken before, said abruptly, "his mother had wished him to stay there, and there was an end of it."
That was six months ago. Jim remembered it all very distinctly as he waited with his companion in the Board Room.
Mr. Moss bustled in: he was a stout, cheerful man of hasty temper, but withal a man one could deal with—through his wife—in Jim's estimation.
He held the card the visitor had sent in between his fingers and looked flurried and surprised. Jim noticed he bowed to the stranger, but did not offer to shake hands as he did with the doctor and parson and the few rare visitors the boy had observed. So Jim concluded his gentleman was a very great gentleman indeed, as he had all along suspected.
"My name is Aston—Charles Aston"—said the owner of the phaeton in his pleasant voice. "I have driven down from London to make inquiries about a small boy I have reason to believe came under your care about seven months ago: Hibbault by name."
"Yes, sir,—Mr. Aston," said Mr. Moss, assuming an air of importance, "and that is the boy himself."
"A good boy, I hope?" He bestowed on him one of those keen, sharp glances Jim was beginning not to resent.
"Not bad as boys go," Mr. Moss answered dubiously, scratching his chin, "but his bringing up has been against him. London, sir,—and then tramping about the country for a year."
Jim regarded Mr. Aston anxiously to see how this somewhat negative character struck him, but he was still looking at Jim and seemed to pay small heed to Mr. Moss's words.
"We passed him on the road," he said; "I was struck by the likeness to someone I knew, and I thought there could not be two boys so like in Whitmansworth. You were master here when he was admitted?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Aston. It was in November last, on a Thursday night, I remember, because service was on. The mother was clean exhausted, and was taken to the infirmary at once and——"
Mr. Aston interposed.
"Christopher, go out and stay by the carriage till I call you, and ask the gentleman—Mr. Stapleton—to come in here."
And James Christopher Hibbault obeyed without so much as a glance for permission at Mr. Moss.
He delivered his message and then interviewed the groom, who seemed used to waiting. The tea bell rang, but Jim, though hungry, never thought of disobeying his orders. The hall porter came out and went off on his bicycle and presently returned with Mr. Page, one of the Board gentlemen.
The groom eventually grew communicative and told Jim the horses' names were Castor and Pollux, and there wasn't their match in the country, no more in all London, though to be sure Mr. Aston had some fine horses at Marden Court.
"Is that where he lives?" inquired Jim.
It appeared he lived there sometimes, but Mr. Nevil,—Jim did not know who that was—lived there mostly. Mr. Aston spent most of his time in London with Mr. Aymer. They had left London the previous day, Jim learnt, and had been driving to queer out-of-the-way places, always stopping at Unions.
At which point the door opened and Mr. Aston came out, and with him Mr. Page and Mr. and Mrs. Moss and Mr. Stapleton with a bundle of papers in his hand, and all these people looked at Jim in a perplexed way, except Mr. Aston, who appeared quite happy and unconcerned.
"Say good-bye to Mrs. Moss, Christopher," he said authoritatively. "You are coming with me."
"Where to?" demanded the boy with a sudden access of caution.
Christopher began to scramble up into the carriage and was unceremoniously hauled down.
"Manners, Christopher. Mrs. Moss is waiting to say good-bye."
Now, Mrs. Moss had been very kind to the little waif and taken him to her motherly childless heart, and in spite of her excitement over this wonderful event, or because of it, she could not refrain from a few tears. Jim was not indifferent to the fact—any more than he had been to the lark's song, but he secretly thought it very inconsiderate of her to cloud this extraordinary adventure with anything so depressing as tears. He was the more aggrieved as against his will, against all reason and all tradition of manliness, he found objectionable salt drops brimming up in his own eyes. A culminating point was reached, however, when Mrs. Moss fairly embraced him. It should be stated that on occasions and in private Jim had no sort of objection to being cuddled by Mrs. Moss, who was a comfortable, pillowy sort of person.
The ordeal was over at last and he was clambering up into the carriage when Mrs. Moss bethought her he had had no tea.
Mr. Aston protested they were going to stop at Basingstoke, but the good woman insisted on provisioning the boy with a wedge of cake and tucking a clean handkerchief of her own into his pocket.
"We shall sleep at Basingstoke, and I'll send back his clothes by post," said Mr. Aston. "No doubt we can get him some sort of temporary outfit there."
Jim, who had been secretly afraid he would be relegated to the back seat with the groom, breathed a sigh of relief as Mr. Aston mounted to his place. That gentleman apparently understood the innermost soul of the boy, for he gravely asked Mr. Stapleton to find room for a companion, and then with a toss of their proud heads Castor and Pollux moved off. Mr. Aston raised his hat courteously to Mrs. Moss, and Jim, observing, made an attempt to remove his own dingy little cap, a performance everyone took as a matter of course untill he had gone, when Mrs. Moss remembered it and exclaimed to her husband: "Didn't I always say, Joseph, he wasn't like the rest of them?"
But Joseph only said "Umph," and went in doors.
"We will telegraph to Aymer from Basingstoke," said Mr. Aston as they started, and after that there was silence.
The monotonous click-clack of the horses' feet lulled the tired child into blissful drowsiness. He had had too many ups and downs in his eleven years of life to be alarmed at this unexpected turn of fortune, and he was still too young to grasp how great a change had been wrought in that life since the hot hour he had spent lying by the mile-stone on the Great Road.
As they clattered through the narrow streets of the country town in the light of the long July evening Christopher sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"I've been here before," he volunteered.
Mr. Aston effected a skilful pass between a donkey cart and two perambulators.
"Yes, quite right, you have. What do you remember about it, Christopher?"
The boy looked dubious and a little distressed, but just then they passed a chemist's shop.
"We went there," he cried. "Mother got something for her cough, so she couldn't have any supper. We stayed at a horrid old woman's, a nasty, cross thing."
"You did not go to the Union, then?"
"No, we had some money, a whole shilling and some pennies."
Mr. Aston said something under his breath and Mr. Stapleton murmured "tut-tut-tut."
"That's how we first missed the trail, Stapleton," he said, and then as they walked up a steep hill he spoke to the boy.
"Christopher, I want you to tell me anything you remember about your mother and the old days if you wish it, but you must not talk about that to Aymer. It would make him unhappy."
"Who is Aymer?" asked Christopher, not unreasonably.
"Aymer is my son, my eldest son. You are going to live with him."
"Is he a boy like me?"
"No, he is quite big, grown up, but he can't get about as you can, he is—a cripple."
He said the words with a sort of forced jerk and half under his breath, but Christopher heard them and shivered.
"Do you live there, too?" he asked, pressing a little nearer the man who was no longer a stranger.
"With the—your son."
"Yes, I live there too. My boy couldn't get on without me—and here's the White Elephant, which means supper and bed for a tired young man. Jump down, Christopher."
The spirit of waning July hung heavily over London. In mean streets and alleys it was inexpressibly dreary: the fagged inhabitants lacked even energy to quarrel.
But on the high ground westward of the Park, where big houses demand elbow-room and breathing space and even occasionally exclusive gardens, a little breeze sprang up at sundown and lingered on till dusk.
In this region lies one of the most beautiful houses in London, the country seat of some fine gentleman in Queen Anne's day. It hid its beauties, however, from the public gaze, lying modestly back in a garden whose size had no claim to modesty at all. All one could see from the road, through the iron gates, was a glimpse of a wide portico, and a long row of windows. It stood high and in its ample garden the breeze ran riot, shaking the scent from orange and myrtle trees, from jasmine and roses, and wafting it in at the wide open windows of a room which, projecting from the house, seemed to take command of the garden.
It was a large room and the windows went from ceiling to floor. It was also a very beautiful room. In the gathering dusk the restful harmonies of its colours melted into soft, hazy blue, making it appear vaster than it really was. Also, it was unencumbered by much furniture and what there was so essentially fitted its place that it was unobtrusive. Three big canvases occupied the walls, indiscernible in the dim light, but masterpieces of world fame, heirlooms known all over Europe. There was a curious dearth of small objects and unessentials, nothing in all the great space that could fatigue the eye or perplex the brain of the occupant.
The owner of the room was lying on a big sofa near one of the open windows. Within reach was a low bookcase, a table with an electric reading lamp, and a little row of electric bells, some scattered papers and an open telegram.
The man on the sofa lay quite still looking into the garden as it sunk from sight under the slowly falling veil of purple night.
He was evidently a tall man, with the head and shoulders of an athlete, and a face of such precise and unusual beauty that one's instinct called out, "Here, then, God has planned a man."
Aymer Aston, indeed, was not unlike his father, but far more regular in feature, more carefully hewn, and the serenity of the older face was lacking. Here was the face of a fighter, alive with the strong passions held in by a stronger will. There was almost riotous vitality expressed in his colouring, coppery-coloured hair and dark brows, eyes of surprising blueness and a tanned skin, for he spent hours lying in the sun, hatless and unshaded, with the avowed intention of "browning"; and he "browned" well except for a queer white triangled scar almost in the centre of his forehead, an ugly mark that showed up with fresh distinctness when any emotion brought the quick blood to his face. There was indeed nothing in his appearance to suggest a cripple or an invalid.
Nevertheless, Aymer Aston, aged thirty-five, the best polo-player, the best fencer, the best athlete of his day at College, possessing more than his share of the vigour of youth and glory of life, had, for over ten years, never moved without help from the sofa on which he lay, and the strange scar and a certain weakness in the left hand and arm were the only visible signs of the catastrophe that had broken his life.
A thin, angular man entered, and crossed the room with an apologetic cough.
"Is that you, Vespasian?" demanded his master without moving. "Have they come?"
"No, sir, but there is a message from the House. I believe Mr. Aston is wanted particularly."
"What a nuisance. Why can't they let him alone? He might as well be in office."
The man, without asking permission, rearranged his master's cushions with a practised hand.
"The young gentleman had better have some supper upstairs, sir, as it's so late," he suggested. "I'll see to it myself."
"Send him in to me directly they come, Vespasian."
He withdrew as quietly as he had entered and Aymer continued to look out at the dark, and think over the change he, of his own will, was about to make in his monotonous existence. He was so lost in thought he did not hear the door open again or realise the "change" was actually an accomplished fact till a half-frightened gasp of "Oh!" caught his ear. He turned as well as he could, unaided.
"Is that you, Christopher?"
The voice was so singularly like Mr. Aston's that Christopher felt reassured. The dim vastness of the room had frightened him, also he had thought it empty.
"Come over here to me," said Aymer, holding out his hand, "I can't come to you."
Christopher nervously advanced. The brightness of the corridor outside left his eyes confused in this dim light. Aymer suddenly remembered this and turned on a switch. The vague shadowy space was flooded with soft radiance. It was like magic to the small boy.
He was first aware of a gorgeous glint of colouring in a rug flung across the sofa, and then of a man lying on a pile of dull-tinted pillows, a man with red hair and blue eyes, watching him eagerly.
Children as a rule are not susceptible to physical beauty, turning with undeviating instinct to the inner soul of things, with a fine disregard for externals, but Christopher, in this, was rather abnormal. He was very actively alive to outward form.
Since Mr. Aston had told him Aymer was a cripple Christopher had been consumed with unspeakable dread. His idea of a cripple was derived from a distorted, evil-faced old man who had lived in the same house that had once sheltered his mother and him. The mere thought of it made him sick with horror. And when the tall gentleman in black, who had met them in the entrance hall and escorted him here, had opened the door and put him inside, he had much ado not to rush out again. He conquered his fear with unrecognised heroism, and this was his reward.
He stood staring, with all his worshipful admiration writ large on his little tired white face. Aymer Aston saw it and laughed. He was quite aware of his own good looks and perfectly unaffected thereby, though he took some pains to preserve them. But his vanity had centred itself on one thing in his earlier life, and that, his great strength, and it died when that was no more.
"Little Christopher," he said, "come and sit down by me: you must be tired to death."
"Are you Mr. Aymer?" demanded Christopher, still staring.
"Yes, only you mustn't call me that, I think. I wonder what you will call me?"
Christopher offered no solution to the problem.
"Would you like to live here with me?"
He looked round. A dim sense of alarm crept back. The room looked so empty and unreal, so "alone." Without knowing why, Christopher, who had never had a real home to pine for, felt miserably homesick.
Aymer watched him closely and did not press the question. Instead, he asked him in a matter-of-fact way to shut the window for him.
The boy did so without blundering. The window-fastening was new to him, and Aymer noticed he looked at it curiously and shut it twice to see how it went. Then he sat down again and continued to gaze at Aymer.
"I forgot, I was to tell you something," he said suddenly, his face wrinkling with distress. "The other one—the gentleman who brought me——"
Christopher nodded. "I oughtn't to have forgotten. He said he had to go to the House, but he'd be back quite soon, he hoped."
"He's had no dinner, I suppose," grumbled Aymer.
"Yes, we had dinner at—I forget the name of the place—and tea. And yesterday we had dinner too."
"That was wise," said Aymer gravely. "Where's Mr. Stapleton?"
"He went home by train this morning. I sat in his place all the time, not at the back."
He paused thoughtfully. An idea that had been dimly forming in his brain, took alarming shape. A small companion at the Union had lately been sent out as a page to a kindly family. Christopher wondered if that was the meaning of all these strange adventures for him. At the same time he was conscious of so vast a sense of disappointment that he was compelled to put his Fate to the test at once. He jerked out the inquiry with breathless abruptness.
"Am I going to be your page?"
"Page?" Aymer Aston echoed the words with consternation; then held out his hand to the child.
"Didn't my father tell you?" he asked.
A kind of nervous exasperation seized on Christopher. He was tired, overwrought, puzzled and baffled.
"No one tells me anything," he said petulantly, blinking hard to keep back the tears; "they just took me."
"Do you want to be a page boy?"
"No." It was emphatic to the point of rudeness.
Aymer put his arm round him and drew him near, laughing.
"You are not going to be a page," he said, "you are going to be"—he hesitated—"to be my own boy—just as if you were my son. I've adopted you."
Christopher's dark eyes were fixed on the blue ones and then he saw the scar for the first time. It interested him so much he hardly heard Aymer's slow answer when it came.
"I have a great deal of time on my hands, and I should have liked a son of my own. As I can't have that I've adopted you. Don't you think you can like me?"
Christopher looked round the room and back at the sofa. The voice was kind and the arm that was round him gripped him firmly; also, Mr. Aston had said he lived here too. That was reassuring. He was not quite certain how he felt towards this strangely fascinating man, but he was quite sure of his sentiments towards Mr. Aston.
"Mr. Aston lives here, doesn't he?"
"Yes; do you like him best?"
"I like him very much," said Christopher truthfully, and added considerately, "You see, I've known him longer, haven't I?"
"You must like me too."
Christopher was too young to read the passionate hunger in the voice and the look. It was gone in a moment.
Aymer released him, laughing.
"Is there anyone else?" asked the boy, looking vaguely round.
"Anyone else living here? Only the servants."
"I don't mean that." A puzzled look came into his face. "I mean—there was Mrs. Moss and Grannie Jane, and Mrs. Sartin and Jessy and mother." Then he recollected Mr. Aston's prohibition and got red and embarrassed.
"You mean—a woman," said Aymer in a strangely quiet voice.
Christopher noticed the scar again, clear and distinct. Aymer took out a cigarette and lit it carefully. Christopher watched dumbly. He wanted to cry: for no reason that he could discover. Presently Aymer turned to him as he sat on a low chair by the side of the wide sofa and put his arm round him again.
"I'm sorry, little Christopher," he said rather huskily, perhaps because he was smoking, "but I'm afraid I can't give you that, old chap. We only—remember them here."
The tired child yielded to the slight pressure of the arm—his head dropped against his new friend—the room was very quiet—only Mr. Aymer must have been mistaken. It seemed to Christopher a thin black-clad woman was in the room—somewhere—she was looking at Aymer and would not see him at first—then she turned her head—he called "Mother," and opened his eyes to find Mr. Aymer bending over him.
When Mr. Aston had returned and found Aymer smoking composedly with one arm round the sleeping boy, he had pointed out with great care the enormity of a small child being out of bed at eleven o'clock.
Aymer put down his cigarette and looked at his charge.
"Vespasian did come for him," he confessed; "I thought it a pity to wake him till you came. It's just as I feared," he added with assumed pathos, "you have had first innings and I shall have to take a second place."
"It's only just that he got used to me: I hardly talked to him at all," pleaded Mr. Aston humbly, and Aymer laughed. Whereupon Christopher woke up, rubbing his eyes, and smiled sleepily at Mr. Aston.
"I gave him the message, not just at once, but almost."
His first friend sat down and drew him to his knee.
"Well, what do you think of my big boy?" asked Mr. Aston. "I've been scolding him for not sending you to bed."
Christopher looked from one to the other with solemn eyes, blinking in the light.
"Scolding him? Isn't he too big to be scolded?"
The men laughed and involuntarily glanced at each other in a curiously conscious manner.
"He does not think anyone too big to scold," sighed Aymer resignedly. "Father, about the name: I'd rather tell him to-night." His voice was a little hurried. Mr. Aston glanced at him questioningly.
"As you like, Aymer—if he's not too sleepy to listen. Are you, Christopher?"
"I'm not tired," answered Christopher, valiantly blinking sleep out of his eyes.
It was Aymer who spoke, slowly and directly. Mr. Aston kept his eyes on the boy and tried not to see his son.
"What is your real name, Christopher, do you know?"
"James Christopher Hibbault, but they calls me Jim, except him."
In his sleepiness and agitation the boy had dropped back into country dialect. Aymer winced.
"That is the only name you know? Well, Christopher, it's a good name, but all the same I want you to forget it at present. I want you to call yourself always, Christopher Aston. Do you think you can remember?"
The newly-named one stood silent, puzzling out something in his mind.
"Will it make me not belong to mother?" he said at last.
There was a faint movement on the sofa. It was Mr. Aston who answered, putting his hand gently on the boy's head.
"No, little Christopher, nothing will make you cease to belong to her; we do not wish that. But it will be more easy for you to have our name. We want Christopher Aston to have a better time than poor little Jim Hibbault. Only, Christopher, remember Aston is my name, and I am only lending it to you, and you must take very great care of it."
"Isn't it his name too?" The child edged a little nearer his friend, and looked at Aymer.
"Yes, it's Aymer's name too. And, Christopher, if we were both to give you everything we possess we could not give you anything we value more than the name we lend you, so you must be very good to it. Now, Aymer, I insist on your ringing for Vespasian: the child should have been in bed hours ago. I must really buy you a book of nursery rules."
Vespasian was apparently of the same mind as Mr. Aston. Disapproval was plainly expressed on his usually impassive face when he entered.
"Is that Vespasian?" demanded Christopher.
"Yes, and you will have to do just what he tells you, Christopher, just as I have to," said Aymer severely.
Christopher regarded him doubtfully: he was not quite sure if he were serious or not. He did not look as if people would tell him to do things, yet the grave man in black did not smile.
"It's a funny name," he said at last, not meaning to be rude.
"Vespasian was a great general," remarked Aymer, and then added hastily, seeing the boy's bewilderment increased, "Not this one, the General's dead, but this is a good second."
"Aymer, you are incorrigible," expostulated Mr. Aston. "Good-night, little Christopher."
He kissed him and Christopher's eyes grew large with wonder. He did not know men did kiss little boys, and he ventured slyly to rub his cheek against the black sleeve.
"Good-night, Christopher." Aymer held out his hand, and then suddenly, half shyly, and half ashamed, kissed him also, and Vespasian bore him off to bed.
The two men sat silently smoking, avoiding for the moment the subject nearest their hearts, Aymer, because he was fighting hard to get some mastering emotion under control, and he loathed showing his feelings even to his father; Mr. Aston, because he was aware of this and wanted Aymer to have time.
All that day he had been secretly dreading to-night, shrinking like a coward from a situation which must arouse in his son memories better forgotten. He was not a man given to shirking unpleasing experiences to save his own heart a pang, but he was a veritable child in the way that he studied to preserve his eldest son from the like.
It was Aymer who first spoke in his usual matter-of-fact tone.
"Had you any difficulties?"
"None whatever," answered his father, crossing his legs and preparing to be communicative. "Stapleton had been all over the ground before and knew every point. We went first to Surbiton Workhouse, since she told Felton she stayed there. They found the entry for us. Then we went on to Hartley, which is quite a small village and off the main road. We stayed the night there, and went to the cottage where Felton had seen her. It was quite true, all he said. The old woman remembered distinctly a tramp-looking man stopping and calling to her over the gate. They sat in the garden and talked together for some time. She and the boy had been there a month, but they went the day after Felton's visit—seemed frightened, the old lady said. Apparently they meant to go to Southampton, for she had asked the way there. Basingstoke must have been the next stop, but we did not know where until the boy told us. They were in funds, so did not go to the House. We got to Whitmansworth the next afternoon. Then a strange thing happened, one of those chance coincidences that put to rout all our schemes. There is a hill going into Whitmansworth with a milestone on the top. I drove slowly, as I wanted to see if it really were the place, and by the stone was a small boy. The likeness was so absurd that it might have been ..." he stopped abruptly and examined his cigar, "had I not been seeking him I should have seen it. I found out his name, and that I was right, and took him up and drove to the Union. They raised no objections—it was only a matter of form. The master and his wife seem to be good people, and to have been kind to the boy."
He came to a pause again. Aymer still waited. Mr. Aston walked to the window and looked out at the night, and then went on without turning:
"She had never left the slightest clue or given any hint whatever as to her identity. She was going to Southampton, she said. But she was dying of exhaustion then. They could do nothing for her. She asked them to keep the boy. The Mosses took a fancy to him, and it was managed. She would not say where she came from."
Aymer lay very still, his face set and immovable.
"The strength of her purpose: think of it, in a woman!" said Mr. Aston a little unsteadily; "the boy should have grit in him, Aymer."
"What did they say of the boy?"
"Ah." Mr. Aston resumed his seat with a sigh.
"Well, what's your own impression, Aymer?"
"I am satisfied."
Mr. Aston leant forward with a wealth of affection in his kind eyes, and straightened the edge of the gorgeous sofa cover. "Aymer, old chap, you are too sensible, I know, to imagine it is going to run easily and smoothly from the first. The boy will come out all right: he is young enough to shape, and worth shaping. But he has had everything against him except one thing. It means many troubles and disappointments for you, but I believe it will have its compensations. It will help fill your life, at least."
"I understand," said Aymer, steadily. "I should like to tell you just how I feel about it, father. Putting aside entirely the question of it being—Christopher—. That was a stroke of Providence, shall we say? I had you and Nevil, and the children. Life was not altogether empty, sir. But I felt I had learnt something from life,—from myself,—mostly from you,—that might be useful to a man. Not to pass this on," the steady voice lost its main quality for a moment, "seemed a waste. I told you all this when I first spoke of adopting someone; and at that precise moment the clue which led us to Christopher was put into our hands. There was no choice then. I say this again because I want you to remember that the idea that first started my plan is still the main one. Christopher, being Christopher, does not alter it. There is only this thing certain," he raised himself a very little on his right arm and laid down his cigarette deliberately, "I've taken the boy and I mean to do my best by him, but he is mine now. If the fate that—she died to save him from—comes to him, it must come. I will not stand in his way, but I will have no hand in bringing it to pass, I will raise no finger to summon it, nor will I call him from it, if it come. Until, and unless it comes, he is mine. I think even she would let me have him on those conditions." He lay back again, his flushed face still witnessing to the force of his feeling.
"On any conditions," said his father, "if she knew you now. Only you must bear the chance in mind in dealing with him. And it's only fair to tell you the Union Master's report on him."
"Let's have it."
"Fairly docile, but inclined to argue the point. Truthful,—I discovered that myself—but either through lack of training or—according to the Master—through bad training in London, he is—" Mr. Aston stumbled over a word, half laughed, and then said, "well, he has a habit of acquisitiveness, shall we call it? When you think of her history it seems at once natural and strange. They had not known him to actually take things—money, that is,—but if he found any—and he appears to have luck in finding things—he was not particular to discover the real owner. It may be a difficulty, Aymer."
"Hereditary instinct," said Aymer a little shortly.
"Well, my own theory is that acquisitiveness is generosity inverted," concluded Mr. Aston thoughtfully, "and that heredity is merely a danger signal, though it may mean fighting. I believe you can do it, my dear boy, but it is a big job."
"I hope so, I was a born fighter, you know."
"You have not done badly that way, son Aymer," returned his father quietly.
"You mean you have not. You are very gracious to a vanquished man, sir."
It was one of his rare confessions of his indebtedness to his father, and perhaps Mr. Aston was more embarrassed at receiving it than Aymer in confessing it. For the indebtedness was undeniable. The Aymer Aston of the present day was not the Aymer Aston of the first bitter years of his imprisonment. The fight had been a long one: but whether the love, the patience, the forbearance of the elder man had regenerated the fierce nature, or whether he had only assisted the true Aymer to work out his own salvation was an open question. Certainly those dark years had left their mark on Mr. Aston, but, for a certainty they were honourable scars, and he, the richer for his spent strength. He had sacrificed much for him, but the reward reaped for his devotion was the knowledge that of their friendship was woven a curtain of infinite beauty that helped to shut away the tragedy of Aymer's life.
The question that chiefly occupied Mr. Aston's mind during the first days of Christopher's advent was whether Aymer had gathered in those ten long years of captivity sufficient strength of purpose to set aside once and for all the sharp emotions and memories the boy's presence must inevitably awake.
When Aymer had first approached him on the subject of adopting a boy he had consented willingly enough, but when, coincident with this, Fate—or Providence—had pointed out to them the person of Christopher Hibbault, he, Mr. Aston, though he agreed it was impossible to disregard the amazing chance, had sighed to himself and trembled lest the carefully erected edifice of control and endurance that hedged in his son should be unequal to the strain.
But after the first evening Aymer Aston betrayed by no sign whatever that the past had any power to harm him through the medium of little Christopher, and his father grew daily more satisfied and content over the wisdom of their joint action. They stayed in town all that summer. Mr. Aston was acting as Secretary to a rather important Commission and even when it was not sitting he was employed in gathering in information which could only be obtained in London. Nothing would induce Aymer to go away without his father. He hated the publicity of a railway journey even after ten years of helplessness, and the long drive to Marden Court could not be undertaken lightly. So they stayed where they were, a proceeding which seemed less strange to Christopher than to such part of the outside world who chose to interest itself in Mr. Aston's doings.
The August sun dealt gently with the beautiful garden, and not a few hardworking men, tied, like Mr. Aston, to town, congratulated themselves on his presence, when they shared its restful beauty in the hot summer evenings.
Christopher meanwhile adapted himself to his new life with amazing ease. He accepted his surroundings without question, but with quiet appreciation, and if certain customs, such as a perpetual changing of clothes and washing of hands were irksome, he took the good with the bad, and accommodated himself to the ways of his new friends resignedly. But he was haunted with the idea that the present state of things would not and could not last, and it was hardly worth while to do more than superficially conform to the regulations of the somewhat monotonous existence.
Most of the ten years of his life had been spent under the dominant influence of a devoted woman. All that he had learnt from mankind had been a cunning dishonesty that had nearly ruined his own small existence and indirectly caused his mother's death. Women, indeed, had always been near him, and there were times when he thought regretfully of Mrs. Moss. There were none but menservants at Aston house, and the only glimpse of femininity was afforded by the flying visits of Constantia, Mr. Aston's married daughter. She would at times invade Aymer's room, a vision of delicate colourings and marvellous gowns. She was a tall, dark, lovely woman who carried on the traditional family beauty with no poverty of detail. She seemed to Christopher to be ever going on somewhere or returning from somewhere. He liked to sit and watch her when she flashed into the quiet room, and spent perhaps half an hour making her brother laugh with her witty accounts of people and matters strange to Christopher. She was kind to the boy, when she remembered him, lavish with her smiles and nonsense and presents, but it was like entertaining a rainbow, an elusive, shadowy thing of beauty. She could not be said to denote the Woman in the House. Christopher, as he wandered about the big silent rooms and long corridors, was perforce obliged to take with him for company a more shadowy presence, an imaginary vision of another woman, also tall and dark, but without Constantia Wyatt's irresponsible gaiety and dazzling smile. He would escort this phantom Woman through his favourite rooms, pointing out the treasures to her. He even apportioned her a room for herself, behind a closed door at the end of the wing opposite to which Aymer Aston lived. For it was here he had first discovered with what ease the image of his dead mother fitted into the surroundings he had never shared with her. It was rather an uncanny, eerie idea, and had Christopher been at all morbid or of a dreamy disposition it might have been a very injudicious fancy: but he was the personification of good health and robust spirits. His vivid imagination flitted as naturally and easily round the memory of his dead mother as it rejoiced in the adventures of the Robinson family, or thrilled over the history of John Silver. It was just a deliberate fancy that he indulged in at will, and the only really fantastical thing about it was that he invariably started his tour with the imaginary Woman from the door of the closed room. At the end of October, when he had fairly settled into the regular routine of Aston House, a tutor was procured for him. School, for more reasons than one, was out of the question. Christopher's previous existence would hardly have stood the inquisition of the playground, and Aymer, moreover, wanted to keep him under his own eye. The boy's education had been of a somewhat desultory nature. He could read and write, and possessed a curious store of out-of-the-way knowledge that would upset the most carefully prepared plan of his puzzled tutor. That poor gentleman was alternately scandalised by the boy's ignorance and amazed at his appetite for knowledge. He showed an astonishing aptitude for figures while he evinced a shameful contempt for history and languages. Indeed, he could only be made to struggle with Latin Grammar by Aymer's stories of Roman heroes in the evening and the ultimate reward of reading them for himself some day.
The year wore on, ran out, with the glories of pantomime and various holiday joys with Mr. Aston. Christopher by this time had accepted his surroundings as permanent, with regard to Mr. Aston and Aymer, though he still, in his heart of hearts, had no belief that so far as he was concerned they might not any day vanish away and leave him again prey to a world of privations, wants and disagreeables generally.
He was forever trying to make provision against that possible day, and laid up a secret hoard of treasure he deemed might be useful on emergency. With the same idea he made really valiant attempts to put aside a portion of his ample pocket-money for the same purpose, but it generally dwindled to an inconsiderable sum by Saturday. Aymer kept him well supplied and encouraged him to spend freely. He was told again and again the money was given him to spend and not to keep, and that the day of need would not come to him. He would listen half convinced, until the vision of some street arabs racing for pennies would remind him of positive facts that had been and therefore might be again, and cold prudence had her say. But this trait was the result of experience and not of nature, for he was generous enough. Not infrequently the whole treasury went to the relief of already existing needs outside the garden railings, and he could be wildly extravagant. Aymer never questioned him. He sometimes laughed at him when he had wasted a whole week's money on some childish folly, and told him he was a silly baby, which Christopher did not like. However, he found he had to buy his own experiences, and he soon learnt that no folly however childish annoyed "Caesar" so much as accumulated wealth for no particular object but a possible future need.
Christopher had christened Aymer "Caesar" shortly after his introduction to the literary remains of one, Julius, from some fanciful resemblance, and the name stuck and solved a difficulty.
In the same manner he bestowed the distinctive title of St. Michael on Mr. Aston, from his likeness to a famous picture of that great saint in a stained glass window he had seen, and it also was generally adopted.
No one made any further attempt to explain his introduction into the family, or the general history of that family. He was just "grafted in," and left to discover what he could for himself, and he certainly gathered some fragmentary disconnected facts together.
"What is a Secletary?" demanded Christopher one day from the hearth-rug, where he lay turning over old volumes of the Illustrated London News.
"A Secretary, I suppose you mean. A Secretary is a man who writes letters for someone else."
"Who does St. Michael write letters for?"
"He used to write letters for the Queen, or rather on the Queen's business. What book have you got there?"
"There is a picture of him. Only he hasn't got grey hair: and underneath Perma n-e-n-t, Permanent Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs. What does it mean, Caesar?"
Caesar, otherwise Aymer, considered a moment.
"Permanent means lasting, going on. You ought to know that, Christopher."
"But he isn't going on."
"He could have done so."
"Why didn't he? Didn't he like it?"
"Yes, very much. He was trained for that kind of thing."
"Did he get tired of writing letters, then?"
Aymer was apt to become monosyllabic when a certain train of thought was forced on him. Also a short deep line of frown appeared under the white scar: but Christopher had not yet learnt to pay full heed to these signs: also he had a predilection for getting at the root of any matter he had once begun to investigate, so he began again:
"Why didn't he go on being permanent, then?"
"He thought he had something else he ought to do."
"Was the Queen angry?"
"I don't know."
"What was it?"
Aymer cut the leaves of the book he was trying to read rather viciously.
"Taking care of me," he said shortly.
Christopher got up on his knees and stared.
"Hadn't you got Vespasian then?"
"Good heavens, Christopher, are you a walking inquisition? My father gave up his appointment—if you must know, because of my——" he stopped, and went on doggedly, "of my accident. I wasn't particularly happy when I found I had to stay on a sofa all the rest of my life, and he had to teach me not to make an idiot of myself. Now you know all about it and need not bother anyone else with questions."
Christopher thought he knew very little about it, but he had learnt what he set out to know and was moreover now aware that the subject was distasteful to Aymer, so he politely changed it. "Robert's brother has got some very nice guinea-pigs," he said thoughtfully.
"Who is Robert?"
"Robert is the under footman. I forgot you don't know him."
Christopher recollected with momentary embarrassment Aymer's inaccessibility to the general domestic staff.
"He wants to find a home for them," he added hastily; "he doesn't mind where, so long as it's a happy home."
Aymer guarded a smile. Christopher was already notorious for ingenious methods of getting what he wanted.
"It would be a pity for them to be ill-treated, of course," he agreed gravely.
Christopher shuffled across the floor to the side of the big sofa.
"It's rather a happy home here, you know," he remarked suggestively, touching Aymer's arm tentatively with one finger.
"I am glad you think so. Do you consider the atmosphere equally suitable for guinea-pigs?"
"I should like them." He rubbed his cheek caressingly on Aymer's hand. "May I, Caesar?"
"Not to keep in your bedroom as you did the bantam."
"But in the garden—or yard. Please, dear Caesar."
"You ridiculous baby, yes. If you make a house for them yourself."
Christopher flew off in a transport of joy to consult with Vespasian, who, from mere tolerance of his beloved master's last "fad," had become the most ardent if unemotional partisan of the same "fad."
It was Vespasian who had provided Christopher with more clothes than he deemed it possible for one mortal boy to wear, who taught him how to put them on, and struggled with him figuratively and literally over the collar question. Vespasian's taste running to a wide margin of immaculate white closely fastened, while Christopher had a predilection for a free and open expanse of neck.
"Look at Mr. Aymer," pointed out the great general's successor sternly. "You never see him with even a turn-down collar, and he lying on his back all the time, when most gentlemen would consider their own comfort."
Christopher, hot, angry and uncomfortable, wondered if Vespasian had insisted on the wearing of those instruments of torture, or if Caesar really preferred it.
But in spite of small differences of opinion, Vespasian and he were good friends, and he received much instruction from the mouth of that inestimable man. It was he who drilled him in Mr. Aymer's little ways, warned him how he hated to be reminded of his helplessness, and could not endure anyone but Vespasian himself to move him from sofa to chair, and that only in the strictest privacy. How he disliked meeting anyone when wheeled from his own room to the dining-room for dinner, which was the only meal he took in public, and that only in company with his father or very intimate friends. How he avoided asking anyone to hand him things though he did not object to unsolicited help, which Christopher soon learnt to render as unostentatiously as Vespasian himself. Also it was Vespasian who explained to him woodenly, in answer to his direct question, that the scar on Mr. Aymer's forehead was the result of a shooting accident. His revolver had gone off as he was cleaning it, said Vespasian, had nearly killed him, had left him paralysed on one side, so he'd never be better. He added, Mr. Aymer didn't like it talked about. All this and more did the boy learn from this discreet man, but never did Vespasian hint at those dark years when to serve poor Aymer Aston was a work for which no money could pay, when the patient father and much-tried man had secretly wondered whether that fight for mere life that had followed on the ghastly accident had indeed been worth the winning. There was no word of this in Vespasian's revelations. He only impressed on Christopher the necessity of avoiding any expression of pity or commiseration with the paralysed man, and a warning that a somewhat casual manner towards the world, and his entirely undemonstrative way, was no true index of Mr. Aymer's real feelings.
Christopher was himself warm-hearted and given to expressing his joyous feelings with engaging frankness. It could hardly have been otherwise, brought up as he had been by a woman of ardent nature and passionate love for him, but in contradiction to this he had learnt to be very silent over the disagreeables of life and to keep his own small troubles to himself, so that he readily entered into Aymer's attitude towards his own misfortune, and the relationship between the two passed from admiration on Christopher's part to passionate devotion, and from the region of experimental interest on Aymer's part to personal uncalculated affection, and to an easing of a sharp heartache he had tried valiantly to hide from his father. Aymer never questioned him on the past, never even alluded to it. Partly because he hoped the memory of it would dwindle from the boy's mind, and partly for his own sake. But Christopher did not forget. There were few days when he did not contrast the old times with the new, and gaze for a moment across the big gulf that separated Christopher Aston from little Jim Hibbault and the quiet woman absorbed in a struggle for existence in an unfriendly world. He occasionally spoke of his mother to Mr. Aston when they were out together, but he kept his implied promise faithfully with regard to Aymer and made no mention of his former experiences, or of his mother, until one day an event occurred which recalled the black terror under whose shadow they had left London, and necessitated an elucidation of knotty points.
There was in one corner of the garden far away from the house a gap in the high belt of shrubs that jealously guarded the grounds from the curious passerby. In fact the gap had once meant a gateway, but it had been disused so long that it had forgotten it was a gate and merely pretended it was part of the big railings; only it had not got a little wall to stand on. Christopher was fond of viewing life from this sequestered corner. The road that ran by was a main thoroughfare—an ever-varying picture of moving shapes. One morning as he stood there counting the omnibuses—he had nearly made a record count—his attention was attracted by a small boy about his own age or possibly older, who was dawdling along, hands in pockets, with a dejected air. He appeared to be whistling, but if he were, without doubt it was also a dejected air. His was a shabby tidiness that spoke of a Woman and little means. He had sandy hair and light eyes and—but Christopher did not know this—an uncommonly shrewd little face and a good square head, and as he passed by the boundaries of Aston House he glanced at the small fellow-citizen gazing through the railings—rather compassionately, be it said—for he knew for certain the boy inside was longing to get through the gate. That one glance carried him beyond the gate, but he suddenly spun round on his heel, collided with an indignant lady laden with parcels, and stared hard at Christopher. Christopher stared hard at him. Then the boy outside went on his way.
"Jolly like Jim," he ruminated, "but a swell toff, I reckon. Poor little kid."
Christopher, after one shout as the boy went on, tore back through the garden towards the entrance gate, meaning to intercept him there. Such at least was his laudable intention, but half way there his pace slackened; he stood irresolute, kicking a loose stone in the gravel path, and finally strolled off to the stable yard to feed his guinea-pigs.
He was preoccupied and thoughtful for the rest of that day. Mr. Aston was absent, and when evening came and Christopher was still a prey to harassing ideas he decided he must appeal to Caesar even at the cost of disregarding Mr. Aston's prohibition. He came to this decision as he lay in his usual position on the hearth-rug and was goaded thereto by the approach of bed time.
"Caesar, could anyone be taken to prison for something he had done ever so long ago—I mean for—for stealing, and things like that?"
"Yes, if he had not been already tried for it. Why do you ask?"
"And if anyone met the person suddenly who had done something would they have to give him up?" persisted Christopher.
Aymer regarded him curiously. He had an unreasonable impulse to check the coming revelation, as he might the unguarded confidence of a weak man, but common-sense prevailed.
"It would depend on circumstances entirely, and the relationship of the two. Are you wanted, Christopher?" he asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I was," returned Christopher slowly. "That's why we left London, you know. It was Marley Sartin. He took me out with him. You see," he broke off parenthetically, "I stayed with Martha, that's Mrs. Sartin, all the day while mother took care of a gentleman's house, and sometimes Marley was there, and he taught me things."
Christopher shifted his position a bit, and tossed a piece of wood into the fire.
"Oh, lots of things," he repeated at last, "tricks, and how not to answer, and how to avoid coppers and how to get money. Mother said it was stealing."
The scar on Aymer's forehead was very visible. He took up a paper-knife and ran his fingers along the edge slowly.
The boy looked round, suddenly aware of where he was, of the beauty and comfort around him, of Caesar's personality, and the incongruity of his admission. However, so it was: facts were facts: it was imperative he should know his own position, even if it was an unpleasing subject. So he went on hastily. "Oh, well, one day he took me out with him for a walk. We went into a big sort of shop with lots of people buying things and he knocked up 'accidental like' (this was evidently a reminiscence of a phrase often used), against a lady and she dropped her parcels and purse and things, and I pretended to pick them up, and if there were only parcels or pennies I really did, but if the money spilt and it was gold I put my foot on it and picked it up for Marley when I could. We made a lot that way. Of course mother didn't know," he added hurriedly, "or Martha. Then one day there was a row and Marley was caught, and I ran away. You see I was pretty small, and could slip in anywhere. I got back and told Martha, and she cried and told mother, and said as how I should be sure to be took too. So we went away from London that night. I don't know what happened to Martha, but mother said I mustn't go back to London or I'd be taken too."
The grim tragedy of it all, the miserable fate from which the woman had fought so hard to save her child, and the same child's dim appreciation of it struck Aymer with the sharpness of physical pain.
"Marley told me it was only keeping what one found, but mother said it was just stealing, and that Marley was bad. He was good to me anyhow. Martha—Mrs. Sartin—you know—used often to cry about Marley's ways. She was always very respectable; her father kept a linen-draper's shop, and she meant to put Sam into a shop. Sam didn't like his father. I saw Sam go by to-day—he's bigger, but it was him and he knew me—and I asked about the being taken up because I thought it wouldn't be safe for me to go about perhaps."
So level and even was his voice that Aymer did not guess the agony of apprehension and fear the boy was holding back behind his almost abnormal self-control, but he did his best to reassure him.
"They would not know you, Christopher, and if they did they would not take you away from me. You were a very little boy then. I could let them know how it happened, and how it could never happen again."
Christopher hid his face in his arms and the room became very silent. The fire crackled cheerfully and strange shadows lived uncertain lives on the ceiling. Aymer put the paper-knife down at last and looked at his charge. He was aware it was a critical moment for them both: also he was quite suddenly aware he was more fond of the child than he had previously imagined. But mostly in his mind was the sickening appreciation of what hours of torture that solitary silent woman must have endured.
"Christopher, old boy, come here," he said quietly.
The boy got up. His face was flushed, hot with his efforts to control himself.
"Do you want the light, Caesar?"
"No, I want you."
He came unwillingly and sat down on the edge of the sofa, playing with a piece of string.
"You need not be frightened at all," said Aymer. "It is all utterly impossible now, we both of us know that."
"I suppose so."
"You know it. You only did what Marley told you to do. You didn't steal because you wanted money yourself."
But Christopher was doggedly truthful.
"Marley used to give me some for myself, Caesar, and I liked it and I didn't think it was stealing. It was just keeping what one found."
"But you knew to whom it belonged."
"Not certain sure, Marley said."
"What did your mother say?"
"Just that it was stealing. She said, too, lots of people in the world were thieves who didn't know, and Marley was no worse than many rich men, who just knocked people down to get the best of them. What did she mean, Caesar?"
"She thought it was as wrong for a rich man to take advantage of a poor man, as for a strong man to attack a weak one, or a cunning man to cheat a simpleton."
Christopher was conscious he had heard something like this before. He nodded his small head sagely. Aymer went on.
"It really means you must never get money at someone else's expense. If you can give them something in return, something equal, it's all right, but it must be equal. That is what your mother believed, and I do too—now."
Christopher regarded Caesar thoughtfully. He was speculating what he did in return for the golden sovereigns that seemed so plentiful with him.
"We try to give fair exchange," explained Caesar, answering his thoughts. "The money comes to us out of the big world. And my father gives the world good service in return. You will know how good, some-day."
"Does everybody do things?" sighed his listener, much perplexed.
"Everyone should. You are wondering what I do. My money comes to me before I earn it, from houses—land—I have to see the people who live in my houses have all that is fair and necessary, that the land is in order. Then sometimes we lend other people our money, and they find work for many others, and make more of it. Money is a very difficult thing to explain, Christopher. What I want you to remember now is that you must never take money from other people without giving something in return, because it's stealing."
Christopher, with his usual disconcerting shrewdness, found an unsatisfactory point.
"I don't do anything for the money you give me every week, Caesar."
Aymer was fairly caught, and wanted desperately to laugh, only the boy's face was so grave and concerned he did not dare. He thought for a moment to find a way out of the difficulty without upsetting the somewhat vague theories he had just crystallised into words.
"But I owe something to the world, and you are a small atom of the world, Christopher, so I choose to pay a mite of my debt that way. Besides, it is a part of your education to learn how to spend money, as much a part as Latin grammar."
Christopher thought it a much pleasanter part and looked relieved.
"I am glad you aren't paying me," he said slowly; "of course it's just my good luck that it happened to be me you pay your debts to. Lots of people aren't lucky like that."
Which was a truth that remained very deeply indented in Christopher's mind. Aymer ordered him to bed, but when he said good-night he kept grip of his hand.
"Why wouldn't you like me to pay you?" he demanded, almost roughly.
The boy got red and embarrassed, but Aymer waited remorselessly.
"I can't do anything," he said, "and if I did I'd hate you to pay me like that. Some day I'll have to pay you, won't I?"
"I should hate that worse than you would," returned Aymer shortly. "There's no question of money between us. I get all I want out of you. Go to bed."
Marden Court lay bathed in the mellow October sunshine. Late Michaelmas daisies, fuchsias, and milky anemones stood smiling bravely in the borders under the red brick walls, trails of crimson creepers flung a glowing glory round grey stone pillar and coping, and in the neighbouring woods the trees seemed to hold their breath under the weight of the rich robes they wore. Marden looked its best in late autumn. The ripeness of the air, the wealth of colour, and the harmonious dignity of the season seemed a fit setting to the old Tudor mansion, with its reposeful beauty just touched with renaissance grace. The glory of the world passes, but it is none the less a glory worth observing.
The Astons regarded Marden as the metropolis of their affections. It was "Home" and any member of the family wanting to go "Home" did so regardless of who might be in immediate possession. Nevil Aston, his wife and two small children and his young sister-in-law lived there permanently, but their position was that of fortunate caretakers, and both the elder Aston and the Wyatts went to and fro at their will.
Nevil Aston was at thirty-two a brilliant essayist and rising historian, and there was a magnificent library at Marden which he professed to find useful in his work. He also was wont to say "Marden was an excellent place in which to work, but a far better place in which to play." He himself did both in turn. A few weeks of furious energy and copious achievement would be followed by weeks of serene idleness from which little Renata, his wife, would arouse him by sheer bullying, as he himself expressed it, driving him by main force of will to the library, setting pen and paper to hand and then placidly consenting to weeks of irregular meals, of absent-minded vagaries, a seeming indifference to her presence, in place of the wholly dependent lovable boyish Nevil of the days of indolence.
It was not till the second autumn after Christopher's introduction to the menage that the senior Astons decided to desert London for a few months and go "Home." Mr. Aston had been to and fro not infrequently and Nevil Aston had made a few brief visits to town, when Constantia Wyatt had made it her business to see that her gifted brother did not hide his light under a bushel, but little Christopher failed to connect either Nevil or his beautiful sister very closely with his own particular Astons. They were a part of an outside existence with which he was unacquainted, and Marden Court was to him but a name, an unreal place that got photographed occasionally and that Mr. Aston seemed to like. The Astons, probably quite unconsciously, pursued their usual course of leaving Christopher to drift into the stream of their existence without any explanation or attempt to make that existence a clear cut and dried affair to him. He was pleased enough with the idea of the change, once he had ascertained his guinea-pigs might accompany him, and was still more pleased when he was told he would at all events for a time have no lessons to do.
"You'll have plenty to learn though," Aymer had remarked drily when he made the announcement. Christopher refrained from asking for an explanation with difficulty.
Towards the middle of October Nevil Aston, just in the midst of a period of blissful laziness, sauntered down the long walks of the south garden in Renata's wake, occasionally stopping to pick up one or other of the two fat babies who struggled along after their mother, interrupting more or less effectually the business on which she was engaged. A pathetic-eyed yard or so of brown dachshund and a tortoise-shell kitten completed the party. Renata Aston was small and dark, gentle and deliberate of movement, and possessing an elf-like trick of shrinking her entrancing personality into comparative invisibility that bereft one of further vision. She moved from border to border choosing her flowers with care, and looking even smaller than she was in the proximity of her lanky husband, and the plump little babies toddling after.
Presently she came to a stop. All her satellites stopped too. She regarded her trophies critically.
"This is very good for the end of October, you know." She remarked to all the assembled court. "I only want some violets now. Nevil, I wish you'd stop Charlotte picking the heads off the fuchsias: there are no more to come out."
Nevil hoisted his small daughter on his shoulder as the safest way to avoid an altercation and humbly asked if he must pick violets, "they grow so low down."
"You grow so far up," she retorted scornfully. "Max can help me. You can watch with Charlotte. You are very good at watching people work."
"It is not a common virtue," pleaded Nevil, "watchers generally tell the workers how to do it. I never do. Why don't you tell a gardener to pick them, Renata?"
"A gardener! For Aymer?"
"All this trouble for Aymer?"
"It is a pleasure."
"I know just how it will be," he complained mournfully, "the moment Aymer is here you will hound me off to work and I shall see nothing of you at all. You won't even give me new pens. Charlotte, I should look horrid if I had no hair: be merciful."
Renata smiled and shook her head. "I shall get no more work out of you this side of Christmas, sir. I have no such impossible dreams. Perhaps Aymer won't want either of us now he has got Christopher."
"I wonder now," remarked Nevil, depositing Miss Charlotte on a seat while he took out his cigarette case, "I wonder if you are jealous, Renata."
She flushed indignantly and denied the fact with most unnecessary emphasis, so her husband told her in his gentle teasing way. He turned her face up to his and professed to look stern, which he never could do.
"Confess now," he insisted. "Just a little jealous of Christopher?"
"Well," she admitted, laughing and still pink, "Aymer has never stayed away from us for so long before. I don't know what was the use of his having those rooms done up for himself if he never means to use them."
Renata continued to pick violets, and Max to decapitate those he could find. The dachshund and kitten continued to watch with absorbing interest, and Nevil continued to smoke and to let Charlotte investigate his cigarette case till her mother turned round and saw her.
"You dreadful child!" she cried, "Nevil, just look. Charlotte is sucking the ends of your horrid cigarettes! How can you let her?"
Charlotte was rescued from the cigarettes, or the cigarettes from Charlotte, with considerable difficulty and at the cost of many tears. Indeed her protestations were so loud that nurse appeared and bore her and Max away and silence again reigned in the warm garden between the sunny borders.
The dachshund gave a sigh and flopped down on the path, and the kitten began a toilet for want of better employment. Renata, who had stood aside during the small domestic storm, gazed at her violets gravely as if she were counting them.
Nevil watched her contentedly and did not observe the trouble in her face.
"Nevil," she said at last, "about Charlotte I wonder—do you think——" she stopped and edged a little nearer her husband and slipped her hand in his.
"You don't think, do you, Nevil, that Charlotte is—is getting like Patricia?"
He put his arm round her and drew her down on the seat.
"You dear silly child, no," he said, kissing her.
She seemed only half assured and leant her head against him, sighing.
"It is quite, quite different," he insisted. "Charlotte's temper is just like anyone else's, yours or mine, or anyone's."
"Yours—you haven't got one," she returned with pretended contempt and then lapsed back into her troubled mien, "but I feel so frightened sometimes."
"My dear, be reasonable. Patricia's temper isn't a temper at all. It's—it's a possession—a wretched family inheritance. She can't help it, poor child, any more than she could help a squint or a crooked nose, and she doesn't inherit it from your mother but only from your step-father, so why on earth you should imagine it likely to crop up in our family I can't conceive. It's absurd."
He tilted her pretty face up to his again and kissed her. Nevil would like to have killed all his wife's cares with a caress. It is not always a successful method, but it is more efficacious than the world believes.
"Of course I know all that, though Patricia always seems quite like my own sister. I do hope Christopher won't tease her."
"Aymer will see to that."
"Not unless he is reminded. You know he rather loves teasing the poor darling himself."
"Here is the poor darling, herself. Storm over, I suppose, sky serene."
The little girl coming down the path to them was barely twelve, but she looked older. The features were too set, if anything, too regular for her to be called pretty as yet, but an observer must have been very blind to beauty not to see the possibilities shadowed in her face. She had quantities of smooth gold hair, one plait of which, for convenience's sake, was twisted round her little head that was at present too small for its rich burden. Her great dark grey eyes and long lashes had a curiously expectant look as if ever on the watch for some joy or pain to come. In the clearness of her complexion and the good modelling of her little white hands, she did resemble her half-sister, but it was the only likeness between them. She came to them not running, as a child should, but slowly and deliberately.
"Patricia, do come and hear what this dreadful Nevil has let Charlotte do," cried Renata, still under shelter of her husband's long arm. For some reason she seemed anxious to let the child know she was seen and wanted. Nevil smiled and made room on the seat for her to sit by his side.
Patricia stood in front of them, her great pathetic eyes looking from one to the other. She finally addressed herself to Nevil.
"I'm ever so sorry, Nevil," she said with a dejected sigh.
"Of course, of course, it's all right, child," he answered hastily, "come and hear my short-comings. I'm in deep disgrace."
She sat down obediently and the dachshund immediately shifted its quarters and wedged itself in between her feet. She leant forward with her elbows on her knees and gazed absently at the brown head.
"What have you been doing, Nevil, darling?"
"I? Not I, but Charlotte. Don't you know by this time, Patricia, I'm only a scapegoat for the autocrat of the nursery."
"He let Charlotte nibble a cigarette," explained Renata.
"One of my very best."
"It might have been one of his worst, Rennie," suggested Patricia consolingly.
"They are all 'worst' for Charlotte," cried Renata springing up. "I must go and put up my flowers or they'll be here before I'm ready."
She flitted away in the direction of the house. Her husband looked after her with mute sorrow at his own incapacity to melt from vision in that intangible manner—from situations that were too difficult.
He glanced at his little companion, who was making attempts to tie the dachshund's ears round his own neck.
"You won't be able to treat Christopher that way, Patricia," he said contemplatively, "but it will be jolly for you to have a companion of your own age, won't it?"
"Perhaps he won't like me."
"He is quite likely to like you."
"Oh, yes, at first, because I'll make him," she returned with engaging candour, but then her mouth drooped a little, "but when he knows what I'm really like, he won't."
Nevil examined another cigarette carefully to see it had not been nibbled. He was really very fond of his little sister-in-law though occasionally at a loss how to deal with her strange moods.
"Well, we are all very fond of you, anyway, child," he said easily; "as for the temper, you can't really help it, you know, and you'll grow out of it. I'm sure you try to, my dear."
"But I don't try," cried poor Patricia wildly, "I haven't time, I don't know anything about it till it's there and then it's too late. I might just as well have flung that plate at Charlotte as at you to-day. I wonder Renata lets me go in the nursery."
"No, no. You wouldn't be angry with a baby."
She turned to him with a sort of exasperated patience. "That's just it. You don't any of you understand. It does not make any difference, why, who or where. It just comes. I can't help it." She kicked her heel on the gravel fiercely.
"Poor little Patricia," said Nevil gently. "I can only say we all love you just the same, and I believe you'll grow out of it." She changed suddenly and flung herself into his arms in a wild transport of tears and childish abandonment. He was in no wise taken aback and soothed her with adroitness born of practice. When she was calm again he sat with his arm round her talking of indifferent things till a clock somewhere near struck three.
"They should be here directly," he said, but made no effort to rise.
"Would Aymer really mind being met?" she questioned.
"He'd rather be left to Vespasian and Tollens."
Tollens was the old butler.
"Won't he ever get used to it?"
"He is afraid of becoming an invalid if he gets hardened to it."
"But he is, isn't he?"
"Not a bit of it. He has perfectly wonderful health. He has massage and all sorts of things to keep him up to the mark. Aymer's as vain as a girl."
"I don't call it vanity. I call it pluck."
Nevil groaned, "Oh, you women, old and young! But you are right—and there are my father and Christopher himself."
Christopher to his great joy had been allowed to drive down with Aymer and Mr. Aston, and had found the journey not one mile too long. Indeed towards the end his early curiosity as to the termination had evaporated and the mile-stones had come in sight and vanished all too quickly. It had been reassuring to find Vespasian awaiting them at the door with the old butler to whom he was formally introduced as Mr. Aymer's ward. Then having inquired of Tollens of the family's whereabouts, Mr. Aston bore off Christopher for further introductions.
At the entrance to the garden on the long terrace and by the gate leading to the south garden he had paused and looked round with the slow comprehensive glance of one acquainted with every detail. He spoke nothing of his thoughts to Christopher, but the boy was quite acutely aware that Mr. Aston loved this place and was happy to see it again, while he calmly discussed the possibilities of fishing in the lake that lay below like a silver mirror in the clear sunlight.
And in the south garden Nevil and Patricia met them. Patricia, still white and shaken with the past storm, greeted Mr. Aston shyly, but had no qualms about greeting Christopher. He, for his part, was far too shy and too unused to girls' society to notice her mien. He did, however, remember afterwards that she was standing by a great clump of purple starlike flowers and that he thought her the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, excepting, of course, Constantia Wyatt. He made that mental reservation as they walked along together in front of their elders, and then glancing sideways at the wonderful hair again, decided he liked fair hair best. Constantia's was dark. They soon outdistanced the two men who followed at a leisurely pace. Mr. Aston looked after them and said kindly:
"The little girl still gives trouble, I see."
"Occasionally." Nevil made the admission with reluctance. "There was a scene this morning. I don't know what started it. Perhaps I teased her. She flung a plate at me. I don't believe she can help it, poor child."
"You mustn't tell her so, Nevil."
"You'd tell her anything you could if you saw her after. She'll grow out of it."
"I hope so."
They fell to talking of the estate, which Nevil was supposed to look after. He did, when he remembered it, but that was not often, and not of late. His father, half exasperated, half laughing, told him he would defer his lecture till later on. Nevil penitently agreed it was only fitting to do so, and slipping his arm through his father's, began to explain to him the rights of a controversy just started in the Historical Review. No one was ever angry with Nevil long. His unchangeable sweet temper and gentle judgment of mankind, his entire lack of vanity and the very real ability that was concealed under his elusive personality outweighed the exasperation his irresponsibility and indolence sometimes awoke. He had no enemies among those who knew him, and the bitterest controversy with pen and ink could be brought to a close in an interview. It must, however, be confessed that with pen in hand Nevil was more dangerous than the unwary might imagine. He knew his power with that weapon and when he chose to use it, did so to good purpose with a polished finish to his scathing periods, that made men twenty years his senior hate with fierce passion Aston the writer, as surely as they would end by appreciation of Aston the man after a personal encounter.
Patricia and Christopher having outdistanced their elders proceeded to make friends in their own way. The girl began operations by asking if he would like to see the stables and found it aroused no enthusiasm in him, which was a point to the bad. But he was polite enough to say he would like to go if she wished it, which nearly equalised matters again. She confessed it might be nice to have someone to play with, which Christopher thought very friendly of her, and told her of his guinea-pigs, which would arrive in the evening with Robert and the luggage. That was distinctly a point to the good; they both waxed eloquent over the special qualities of guinea-pigs. Christopher's original two had already increased alarmingly in numbers. He hinted some might even be left at Marden—in a good home. Also he told her he had christened the family by the names of great painters.
"Caesar taught me the names," he explained, "there is Velasquez—he painted the Don Carlos in Caesar's room, you know—he's brown all over except for one spot—my Velasquez, I mean—and there's Watteau—an awful frisky little beast—and Sir Joshua, who sleeps in my pocket. You'll like Sir Joshua, he's awfully good tempered."
"I know," nodded Patricia wisely, "and he painted Nevil's great grandmother. It's in the drawing-room. Why do you call Aymer 'Caesar'?"
"Because he always does what he means to do, or gets it done; besides he is—just Caesar."
"It isn't bad," she said condescendingly, "perhaps I shall call him so myself. I do hope we are going to have tea in his room. It's such a lovely, lovely room."
"So it is in London. The beautifulest room I've seen."
"It's just as nice here," she maintained stoutly, "he planned how it was to be done, and Nevil saw to it. I like this best."
Christopher was too polite or too shy to insist, but he felt doubtful and became impatient to see for himself, so they went indoors to find Patricia's hopes were justified. Tea was served in "Mr. Aymer's" room.
And Christopher was obliged to allow that Patricia had some ground for her statement. It was a smaller room than the one in London, and singularly like it, only the prevailing note was lighter and gayer in tone. Aymer was there, lying on a similar sofa to his usual one, with the familiar cover across his feet.
Renata was making tea, and making Caesar laugh also. Christopher was uncomfortably conscious it was all new to him and the familiarity only superficial, while it was a well-recognised phase in Caesar's life. Even Nevil Aston seemed a different person in his easy country dress, and Christopher failed at first to connect the dark little lady at the tea table with him, and only noted she took Aymer his tea, which was his, Christopher's, special privilege, and treated him with a friendly familiarity that nearly bordered on contempt in Christopher's eyes.
Aymer saw the children and called to them. Patricia greeted him with the air of a young princess and drew herself up when he said she had grown, and would soon be a child instead of a baby. Then he faced Christopher round towards Renata, who had suddenly become grave and shy.
"Here is Christopher, so you can approve or condemn Nevil by your own judgment, Renata. Christopher, shake hands with Mrs. Aston."
Christopher did as he was told, but he realised they had been speaking of him and felt on the defensive. However, he sat down as near to Caesar as he could. They talked of all manner of people and things of which he knew nothing, traditional jokes cropped up, and Aymer's propensity for teasing asserted itself in a prominent manner. Renata never failed to respond and never failed to claim Nevil's protection and to look delightfully shy and dignified and feminine. Presently the children were sent for. To Christopher's indignant amazement they were plumped down on Aymer and allowed to treat him much as if he was a new species of giant plaything. Charlotte, in her efforts to burrow under Aymer's arm, rolled off the edge of the sofa and was deftly caught by Christopher, who deposited her on the floor. She immediately tried to clamber up again, but Aymer could not second her efforts with his left arm.
"Put her up again, Christopher," he said.
But Christopher apparently did not hear, and Mr. Aston, who had been watching, came to the rescue. Christopher slipped away to the window.
"A question of a third baby, I think," said Mr. Aston softly as he rearranged Charlotte, and Aymer, looking sharply at Christopher, laughed.
When Christopher went to bid him good-night, he found Caesar alone, looking tired and doing nothing, not even reading.
Christopher said good-night gravely.
"It's not very late," remarked Aymer. "Stay with me a bit."
He patted the chair beside him. Christopher with rather a hot face obeyed.
"How do you like Marden?"
"I—I don't know yet. There seems to be a lot of people here."
"It's home, you see. We all come home when we want to see each other and have people round."
"Yes, I suppose everyone wants to see their people sometimes."
"Don't you like seeing people?"
"I haven't any of my own," said Christopher, without looking at him.
"That's unkind. You have us."
Christopher changed the subject.
"Do those—those little children live here?"
"Yes. It's their home. They are rather jolly little kids. What's the matter, Christopher?"
Christopher assured him nothing was the matter.
Aymer continued in his most matter-of-fact voice.
"I'm fond of those babies. To begin with they are Nevil's and they are the only youngsters I am likely to know well. But I'm a greedy person. I had Nevil, Renata, the kiddies—and that delightfully odd Patricia, and it wasn't enough for me. They were all as good as could be to me, but I wanted to be more than an extra in someone's life, so I must needs encumber myself with a troublesome little boy who's even more greedy than myself, apparently."
Christopher sat with his curly head on his hands trying not to give in to the smile that was struggling to express some undefined sense of content which had sprung to life.
"You are a bad, silly boy to be jealous," said Aymer, watching him, half laughing, half affectionately, "you ought to have known for yourself, if they had been enough for me, you wouldn't be here at all."
Two events wrote themselves indelibly on Christopher's memory in connection with this first visit to Marden, while the one great matter that began there and influenced his whole after life merged itself into a general hazy sense of happiness and companionship. For it is given to few of us even when we have reached years of discretion to recognise those moments in our lives which are of real, supreme, and eternal importance: moments when the great doors of experience open slowly on silent hinges and we pass in, unconscious even that we have crossed the threshold. But all that happens to our familiar selves, that touches our well-known emotions, and rubs or eases the worn grooves of existence, is heavily underscored in our recollection, and not infrequently we take for mile-stones on the way what were but pebbles on the road.