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Living Alone
by Stella Benson
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LIVING ALONE

BY

STELLA BENSON

AUTHOR OF "I POSE," "THIS IS THE END"

MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED ST. MARTIN'S STREET, LONDON 1920



First Edition 1919 Reprinted 1920 (twice)



This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.



I have to thank the Editor of the Athenaeum for allowing me to reprint the poem "Detachment" and the first chapter of this book. The courtesy of the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette in permitting me to use again any of my contributions to his paper also enables me to include in the fifth chapter the tragic incident of the Mad 'Bus.

S.B.



CONTENTS

CHAPTER I

MAGIC COMES TO A COMMITTEE 1

CHAPTER II

THE COMMITTEE COMES TO MAGIC 19

CHAPTER III

THE EVERLASTING BOY 53

CHAPTER IV

THE FORBIDDEN SANDWICH 75

CHAPTER V

AN AIR RAID SEEN FROM BELOW 97

CHAPTER VI

AN AIR RAID SEEN FROM ABOVE 129

CHAPTER VII

THE FAERY FARM 155

CHAPTER VIII

THE REGRETTABLE WEDNESDAY 195

CHAPTER IX

THE HOUSE OF LIVING ALONE MOVES AWAY 221

CHAPTER X

THE DWELLER ALONE 257



THE DWELLER ALONE

My Self has grown too mad for me to master. Craven, beyond what comfort I can find, It cries: "Oh, God, I am stricken with disaster." Cries in the night: "I am stricken, I am blind...." I will divorce it. I will make my dwelling Far from my Self. Not through these hind'ring tears Will I see men's tears shed. Not with these ears Will I hear news that tortures in the telling.

I will go seeking for my soul's remotest And stillest place. For oh, I starve and thirst To hear in quietness man's passionate protest Against the doom with which his world is cursed. Not my own wand'rings—not my own abidings— Shall give my search a bias and a bent. For me is no light moment of content, For me no friend, no teller of the tidings.

The waves of endless time do sing and thunder Upon the cliffs of space. And on that sea I will sail forth, nor fear to sink thereunder, Immeasurable time supporting me: That sea—that mother of a million summers, Who bore, with melody, a million springs, Shall sing for my enchantment, as she sings To life's forsaken ones, and death's newcomers.

Look, yonder stand the stars to banish anger, And there the immortal years do laugh at pain, And here is promise of a blessed languor To smooth at last the seas of time again. And all those mothers' sons who did recover From death, do cry aloud: "Ah, cease to mourn us. To life and love you claimed that you had borne us, But we have found death kinder than a lover."

I will divorce my Self. Alone it searches Amid dark ruins for its yesterday; Beats with its hands upon the doors of churches, And, at their altars, finds it cannot pray. But I am free—I am free of indecision, Of blood, and weariness, and all things cruel. I have sold my Self for silence, for the jewel Of silence, and the shadow of a vision....



CHAPTER I

MAGIC COMES TO A COMMITTEE

There were six women, seven chairs, and a table in an otherwise unfurnished room in an unfashionable part of London. Three of the women were of the kind that has no life apart from committees. They need not be mentioned in detail. The names of two others were Miss Meta Mostyn Ford and Lady Arabel Higgins. Miss Ford was a good woman, as well as a lady. Her hands were beautiful because they paid a manicurist to keep them so, but she was too righteous to powder her nose. She was the sort of person a man would like his best friend to marry. Lady Arabel was older: she was virtuous to the same extent as Achilles was invulnerable. In the beginning, when her soul was being soaked in virtue, the heel of it was fortunately left dry. She had a husband, but no apparent tragedy in her life. These two women were obviously not native to their surroundings. Their eyelashes brought Bond Street—or at least Kensington—to mind; their shoes were mudless; their gloves had not been bought in the sales. Of the sixth woman the less said the better.

All six women were there because their country was at war, and because they felt it to be their duty to assist it to remain at war for the present. They were the nucleus of a committee on War Savings, and they were waiting for their Chairman, who was the Mayor of the borough. He was also a grocer.

Five of the members were discussing methods of persuading poor people to save money. The sixth was making spots on the table with a pen.

They were interrupted, not by the expected Mayor, but by a young woman, who came violently in by the street door, rushed into the middle of the room, and got under the table. The members, in surprise, pushed back their chairs and made ladylike noises of protest and inquiry.

"They're after me," panted the person under the table.

All seven listened to thumping silence for several seconds, and then, as no pursuing outcry declared itself, the Stranger arose, without grace, from her hiding-place.

To anybody except a member of a committee it would have been obvious that the Stranger was of the Cinderella type, and bound to turn out a heroine sooner or later. But perception goes out of committees. The more committees you belong to, the less of ordinary life you will understand. When your daily round becomes nothing more than a daily round of committees you might as well be dead.

The Stranger was not pretty; she had a broad, curious face. Her clothes were much too good to throw away. You would have enjoyed giving them to a decayed gentlewoman.

"I stole this bun," she explained frankly. "There is an uninterned German baker after me."

"And why did you steal it?" asked Miss Ford, pronouncing the H in "why" with a haughty and terrifying sound of suction.

The Stranger sighed. "Because I couldn't afford to buy it."

"And why could you not afford to buy the bun?" asked Miss Ford. "A big strong girl like you."

You will notice that she had had a good deal of experience in social work.

The Stranger said: "Up till ten o'clock this morning I was of the leisured classes like yourselves. I had a hundred pounds."

Lady Arabel was one of the kindest people in the world, but even she quivered at the suggestion of a common leisure. The sort of clothes the Stranger wore Lady Arabel would have called "too dretful." If one is well dressed one is proud, and may look an angel in the eye. If one is really shabby one is even prouder, one often goes out of one's way to look angels in the eye. But if one wears a squirrel fur "set," and a dyed dress that originally cost two and a half guineas, one is damned.

"You have squandered all that money?" pursued Miss Ford.

"Yes. In ten minutes."

A thrill ran through all six members. Several mouths watered.

"I am ashamed of you," said Miss Ford. "I hope the baker will catch you. Don't you know that your country is engaged in the greatest conflict in history? A hundred pounds ... you might have put it in the War Loan."

"Yes," said the Stranger, "I did. That's how I squandered it."

Miss Ford seemed to be partially drowned by this reply. One could see her wits fighting for air.

But Lady Arabel had not committed herself, and therefore escaped this disaster. "You behaved foolishly," she said. "We are all too dretfully anxious to subscribe what we can spare to the War Loan, of course. But the State does not expect more than that of us."

"God bless it," said the Stranger loudly, so that everybody blushed. "Of course it doesn't. But it is fun, don't you think, when you are giving a present, to exceed expectations?"

"The State—" began Lady Arabel, but was nudged into silence by Miss Ford. "Of course it's all untrue. Don't let her think we believe her."

The Stranger heard her. Such people do not only hear with their ears. She laughed.

"You shall see the receipt," she said.

Out of her large pocket she dragged several things before she found what she sought. The sixth member noticed several packets labelled MAGIC, which the Stranger handled very carefully. "Frightfully explosive," she said.

"I believe you're drunk," said Miss Ford, as she took the receipt. It really was a War Loan receipt, and the name and address on it were: "Miss Hazeline Snow, The Bindles, Pymley, Gloucestershire."

Lady Arabel smiled in a relieved way. She had not long been a social worker, and had not yet acquired a taste for making fools of the undeserving. "So this is your name and address," she said.

"No," said the Stranger simply.

"This is your name and address," said Lady Arabel more loudly.

"No," said the Stranger. "I made it up. Don't you think 'The Bindles, Pymley,' is too darling?"

"Quite drunk," repeated Miss Ford. She had attended eight committee meetings that week.

"S—s—s—sh, Meta," hissed Lady Arabel. She leaned forward, not smiling, but pleasantly showing her teeth. "You gave a false name and address. My dear, I wonder if I can guess why."

"I dare say you can," admitted the Stranger. "It's such fun, don't you think, to get no thanks? Don't you sometimes amuse yourself by sending postal orders to people whose addresses look pathetic in the telephone book, or by forgetting to take away the parcels you have bought in poor little shops? Or by standing and looking with ostentatious respect at boy scouts on the march, always bearing in mind that these, in their own eyes, are not little boys trotting behind a disguised curate, but British Troops on the Move? Just two pleased eyes in a crowd, just a hundred pounds dropped from heaven into poor Mr. Bonar Law's wistful hand...."

Miss Ford began to laugh, a ladylike yet nasty laugh. "You amuse me," she said, but not in the kind of way that would make anybody wish to amuse her often.

Miss Ford was the ideal member of committee, and a committee, of course, exists for the purpose of damping enthusiasms.

The Stranger's manners were somehow hectic. Directly she heard that laughter the tears came into her eyes. "Didn't you like what I was saying?" she asked. Tears climbed down her cheekbones.

"Oh!" said Miss Ford. "You seem to be—if not drunk—suffering from some form of hysteria."

"Do you think youth is a form of hysteria?" asked the Stranger. "Or hunger? Or magic? Or—"

"Oh, don't recite any more lists, for the Dear Sake!" implored Miss Ford, who had caught this rather pretty expression where she caught her laugh and most of her thoughts—from contemporary fiction. She had a lot of friends in the writing trade. She knew artists too, and an actress, and a lot of people who talked. She very nearly did something clever herself. She continued: "I wish you could see yourself, trying to be uplifting between the munches of a stolen bun. You'd laugh too. But perhaps you never laugh," she added, straightening her lips.

"How d'you mean—laugh?" asked the Stranger. "I didn't know that noise was called laughing. I thought you were just saying 'Ha—ha.'"

At this moment the Mayor came in. As I told you, he was a grocer, and the Chairman of the committee. He was a bad Chairman, but a good grocer. Grocers generally wear white in the execution of their duty, and this fancy, I think, reflects their pureness of heart. They spend their days among soft substances most beautiful to touch; and sometimes they sell honest-smelling soaps; and sometimes they chop cheeses, and thus reach the glory of the butcher's calling, without its painfulness. Also they handle shining tins, marvellously illustrated.

Mayors and grocers were of course nothing to Miss Ford, but Chairmen were very important. She nodded curtly to the Mayor and grocer, but she pushed the seventh chair towards the Chairman.

"May I just finish with this applicant?" she asked in her thin inclusive committee voice, and then added in the direction of the Stranger: "It's no use talking nonsense. We all see through you, you cannot deceive a committee. But to a certain extent we believe your story, and are willing, if the case proves satisfactory, to give you a helping hand. I will take down a few particulars. First your name?"

"M—m," mused the Stranger. "Let me see, you didn't like Hazeline Snow much, did you? What d'you think of Thelma ... Thelma Bennett Watkins?... You know, the Rutlandshire Watkinses, the younger branch——"

Miss Ford balanced her pen helplessly. "But that isn't your real name."

"How d'you mean—real name?" asked the Stranger anxiously. "Won't that do? What about Iris ... Hyde?... You see, the truth is, I was never actually christened ... I was born a conscientious objector, and also——"

"Oh, for the Dear Sake, be silent!" said Miss Ford, writing down "Thelma Bennett Watkins," in self-defence. "This, I take it, is the name you gave at the time of the National Registration."

"I forget," said the Stranger. "I remember that I put down my trade as Magic, and they registered it on my card as 'Machinist.' Yet Magic, I believe, is a starred profession."

"What is your trade really?" asked Miss Ford.

"I'll show you," replied the Stranger, unbuttoning once more the flap of her pocket.

* * * * *

She wrote a word upon the air with her finger, and made a flourish under the word. So flowery was the flourish that it span her round, right round upon her toes, and she faced her watchers again. The committee jumped, for the blind ran up, and outside the window, at the end of a strange perspective of street, the trees of some far square were as soft as thistledown against a lemon-coloured sky. A sound came up the street....

The forgotten April and the voices of lambs pealed like bells into the room....

Oh, let us flee from April! We are but swimmers in seas of words, we members of committees, and to the song of April there are no words. What do we know, and what does London know, after all these years of learning?

Old Mother London crouches, with her face buried in her hands; and she is walled in with her fogs and her loud noises, and over her head are the heavy beams of her dark roof, and she has the barred sun for a skylight, and winds that are but hideous draughts rush under her door. London knows much, and every moment she learns a new thing, but this she shall never learn—that the sun shines all day and the moon all night on the silver tiles of her dark house, and that the young months climb her walls, and run singing in and out between her chimneys....

* * * * *

Nothing else happened in that room. At least nothing more important than the ordinary manifestations attendant upon magic. The lamp had tremulously gone out. Coloured flames danced about the Stranger's head. One felt the thrill of a purring cat against one's ankles, one saw its green eyes glare. But these things hardly counted.

It was all over. The Mayor was heard cracking his fingers, and whispering "Puss, Puss." The lamp relighted itself. Nobody had known that it was so gifted.

The Mayor said: "Splendid, miss, quite splendid. You'd make a fortune on the stage." His tongue, however, seemed to be talking by itself, without the assistance of the Mayor himself. One could see that he was shaken out of his usual grocerly calm, for his feverish hand was stroking a cat where no cat was.

Black cats are only the showy properties of magic, easily materialised, even by beginners, at will. It must be confusing for such an orderly animal as the cat to exist in this intermittent way, never knowing, so to speak, whether it is there or not there, from one moment to another.

The sixth member took a severely bitten pen from between her lips, and said: "Now you mention it, I think I'll go down there again for the week-end. I can pawn my ear-rings."

Nobody of course took any notice of her, yet in a way her remark was logical. For that singing Spring that had for a moment trespassed in the room had reminded her of very familiar things, and for a few seconds she had stood upon a beloved hill, and had looked down between beech trees on a far valley, like a promised land; and had seen in the valley a pale river and a dark town, like milk and honey.

As for Miss Ford, she had become rather white. Although the blind had now pulled itself down, and dismissed April, Miss Ford continued to look at the window. But she cleared her throat and said hoarsely: "Will you kindly answer my questions? I asked you what your trade was."

"It's too dretful of me to interrupt," said Lady Arabel suddenly. "But, do you know, Meta, I feel we are wasting this committee's time. This young person needs no assistance from us." She turned to the Stranger, and added: "My dear, I am dretfully ashamed. You must meet my son Rrchud.... My son Rrchud knows...."

She burst into tears.

The Stranger took her hand.

"I should like awfully to meet Rrchud, and to get to know you better," she said. She grew very red. "I say, I should be awfully pleased if you would call me Angela."

It wasn't her name, but she had noticed that something of this sort is always said when people become motherly and cry.

Then she went away.

"Lawdy," said the Mayor. "I didn't expect she'd go out by the door, somehow. Look—she's left some sort of hardware over there in the corner."

It was a broomstick.



CHAPTER II

THE COMMITTEE COMES TO MAGIC

I don't suppose for a moment that you know Mitten Island: it is a difficult place to get to; you have to change 'buses seven times, going from Kensington, and you have to cross the river by means of a ferry. On Mitten Island there is a model village, consisting of several hundred houses, two churches, and one shop.

It was the sixth member who discovered, after the committee meeting, that the address on the forsaken broomstick's collar was: Number 100 Beautiful Way, Mitten Island, London.

The sixth member, although she was a member of committees, was neither a real expert in, nor a real lover of, Doing Good. In Doing Good, I think, we have got into bad habits. We try in groups to do good to the individual, whereas, if good is to be done, it would seem more likely, and more consonant with precedent, that the individual might do it to the group. Without the smile of a Treasurer we cannot unloose our purse-strings; without the sanction of a Chairman we have no courage; without Minutes we have no memory. There is hardly one of us who would dare to give a flannelette nightgown to a Factory Girl who had Stepped Aside, without a committee to lay the blame on, should the Factory Girl, fortified by the flannelette nightgown, take Further Steps Aside.

The sixth member was only too apt to put her trust in committees. Herself she did not trust at all, though she thought herself quite a good creature, as selves go. She had come to London two years ago, with a little trunk and a lot of good intentions as her only possessions, and she had paid the inevitable penalty for her earnestness. It is a sad thing to see any one of naturally healthy and rebellious tendency stray into the flat path of Charity. Gay heedless young people set their unwary feet between the flowery borders of that path, the thin air of resigned thanks breathed by the deserving poor mounts to their heads like wine; committees lie in wait for them on every side; hostels and settlements entice them fatally to break their journey at every mile; they run rejoicing to their doom, and I think shall eventually find themselves without escape, elected eternal life-members of the Committee that sits around the glassy sea.

The sixth member was saved by a merciful inefficiency of temperament from attaining the vortex of her whirlpool of charity. To be in the vortex is, I believe, almost always to see less. The bull's eye is generally blind.

The sixth member was a person who, where Social Work was concerned, did more or less as she was told, without doing it particularly well. The result, very properly, was that all the work which a committee euphemistically calls "organising work" was left to her. Organising work consists of sitting in 'buses bound for remote quarters of London, and ringing the bells of people who are almost always found to be away for a fortnight. The sixth member had been ordered to organise the return of the broomstick to its owner.

Perhaps it would be more practical to call the sixth member Sarah Brown.

The bereaved owner of the broomstick was washing her hair at Number 100 Beautiful Way, Mitten Island. She was washing it behind the counter of her shop. She was the manageress of the only shop on Mitten Island. It was a general shop, but made a speciality of such goods as Happiness and Magic. Unfortunately Happiness is rather difficult to get in war-time. Sometimes there was quite a queue outside the shop when it opened, and sometimes there was a card outside, saying politely: "Sorry, it's no use waiting. I haven't any." Of course the shop also sold Sunlight Soap, and it was with Sunlight Soap that the shop-lady was washing her hair, because it was Sunday, and this was a comparatively cheap amusement. She had no money. She had meant to go down to the offices of her employer after breakfast, to borrow some of the salary that would be due to her next week. But then she found that she had left her broomstick somewhere. As a rule Harold—for that was the broomstick's name—was fairly independent, and could find his way home alone, but when he got mislaid and left in strange hands, and particularly when kindly finders took him to Scotland Yard, he often lost his head. You, in your innocence, are suggesting that his owner might have borrowed another broomstick from stock. But you have no idea what arduous work it is, breaking in a wild broomstick to the saddle. It sometimes takes days, and is not really suitable work for a woman, even in war-time. Often the brutes are savage, and always they are obstinate. The shop-lady could not afford to go to the City by Tube, not to mention the ferry fare, which was rather expensive and erratic, not being L.C.C. Of course a flash of lightning is generally available for magic people. But it is considered not only unpatriotic but bad form to use lightning in war-time.

The shop was not expecting customers on Sunday, but its manageress had hardly got her head well into the basin when somebody entered. She stood up dripping.

"Is Miss Thelma Bennett Watkins at home?" asked Sarah Brown, after a pause, during which she made her characteristic effort to remember what she had come for.

"No," said the other. "But do take a seat. We met last night, you may remember. Perhaps you wouldn't mind lending me one-and-twopence to buy two chops for our luncheon. I've got an extra coupon. There's tinned salmon in stock, but I don't advise it."

"I've only got sevenpence, just enough to take me home," answered Sarah Brown. "But I can pawn my ear-rings."

I dare say you have never been in a position to notice that there is no pawn-shop on Mitten Island. The inhabitants of model villages always have assured incomes and pose as lilies of the field. Sarah Brown and her hostess sat down on the counter without regret to a luncheon consisting of one orange, found by the guest in her bag and divided, and two thin captain biscuits from stock. They were both used to dissolving visions of impossible chops, both were cheerfully familiar with the feeling of light tragedy which invades you towards six o'clock P.M., if you have not been able to afford a meal since breakfast.

"Now look here," said Sarah Brown, as she plunged her pocket-knife into the orange. "Would you mind telling me—are you a fairy, or a third-floor-back, or anything of that sort? I won't register it, or put it on the case-paper, I promise, though if you are superhuman in any way I shall be seriously tempted."

"I am a Witch," said the witch.

Now witches and wizards, as you perhaps know, are people who are born for the first time. I suppose we have all passed through this fair experience, we must all have had our chance of making magic. But to most of us it came in the boring beginning of time, and we wasted our best spells on plesiosauri, and protoplasms, and angels with flaming swords, all of whom knew magic too, and were not impressed. Witches and wizards are now rare, though not so rare as you think. Remembering nothing, they know nothing, and are not bored. They have to learn everything from the very beginning, except magic, which is the only really original sin. To the magic eye, magic alone is commonplace, everything else is unknown, unguessed, and undespised. Magic people are always obvious—so obvious that we veteran souls can rarely understand them,—they are never subtle, and though they are new, they are never Modern. You may tell them in your cynical way that to-day is the only real day, and that there is nothing more unmentionable than yesterday except the day before. They will admire your cleverness very much, but the next moment you will find the witch sobbing over Tennyson, or the wizard smiling at the quaint fancies of Sir Edwin Landseer. You cannot really stir up magic people with ordinary human people. You and I have climbed over our thousand lives to a too dreadfully subtle eminence. In our day—in our many days—we have adored everything conceivable, and now we have to fall back on the inconceivable. We stand our idols on their heads, it is newer to do so, and we think we prefer them upside down. Talking constantly, we reel blindfold through eternity, and perhaps if we are lucky, once or twice in a score of lives, the blindfolding handkerchief slips, and we wriggle one eye free, and see gods like trees walking. By Jove, that gives us enough to talk about for two or three lives! Witches and wizards are not blinded by having a Point of View. They just look, and are very much surprised and interested.

All witches and wizards are born strangely and die violently. They are descended always from old mysterious breeds, from women who wrought domestic magic and perished for its sake, and from men who wrought other magic among lost causes and wars without gain, and fell and died, still surprised, still interested, with their faces among flowers. All men who die so are not wizards, nor are all martyred and adventuring women witches, but all such bring a potential strain of magic into their line.

"A witch," said Sarah Brown. "Of course. I have been trying to remember what broomsticks reminded me of. A witch, of course. I have always wished to be friends with a witch."

The witch was unaware that the proper answer to this was: "Oh, my Dear, do let's. Do you know I had quite a crush on you from the first minute." She did not answer at all, and Sarah Brown, who was tired of proper answers, was not sorry. Nevertheless the pause seemed a little empty, so she filled it herself, saying pedantically: "Of course I don't believe friendship is an end in itself. Only a means to an end."

"I don't know what you mean," said the witch, after wrestling conscientiously with this remark for a minute. "Do tell me—do you know yourself, or are you just saying it to see what it means?"

Sarah Brown was obviously damped by this, and the witch added kindly: "I bet you twopence you don't know what this place is."

"A shop," said Sarah Brown, who was sitting on the counter.

"It is a sort of convent and monastery mixed," replied the witch. "I am connected with it officially. I undertook to manage it, yet I forget what the proper word for me is. Not undertaker, is it?"

"Superintendent or secretary," suggested Sarah Brown moodily.

"Superintendent, I think," said the witch. "At least I know Peony calls me Soup. Do you live alone?"

"Yes."

"Then you ought to live here. This is the only place in the world of its kind. The name of this house is Living Alone. I'll read you the prospectus."

She fell suddenly upon her knees and began fighting with a drawer. The drawer was evidently one of the many descendants of the Sword Excalibur—none but the appointed hand could draw it forth. The witch, after a struggle, passed this test, and produced a parchment covered with large childish printing in red ink.

"My employer made up this," said the witch. "And the ferryman wrote it out for us."

This is the prospectus:

The name of this house is Living Alone.

It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to 'bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.

There are six cells in this house, and no common sitting-room. Guests wishing to address each other must do so on the stairs, or in the shop. Each cell has whitewashed walls, and contains a small deal table, one wooden chair, a hard bed, a tin bath, and a little inconvenient fireplace. No guest may bring into the house more than can be carried out again in one large suit-case. Carpets, rugs, mirrors, and any single garment costing more than three guineas, are prohibited. Any guest proved to have made use of a taxi, or to have travelled anywhere first class, or to have bought cigarettes or sweets costing more than three shillings a hundred or eighteenpence a pound respectively, or to have paid more than three and sixpence (war-tax included) for a seat in any place of entertainment, will be instantly expelled. Dogs, cats, goldfish, and other superhuman companions are encouraged.

Working guests are preferred, but if not at work, guests must spend at least eighteen hours out of the twenty-four entirely alone. No guest may entertain or be entertained except under special license obtainable from the Superintendent.

There is a pump in the back yard. There is no telephone, no electric light, no hot water system, no attendance, and no modern comfort whatever. Tradesmen are forbidden to call. There is no charge for residence in this house.

"It certainly sounds an unusual place," admitted Sarah Brown. "Is the house always full?"

"Never," said the witch. "A lot of people can swallow everything but the last clause. We have at present one guest, called Peony."

She replaced the prospectus in the drawer, which she then tried to shut. While she was engaged in this thundering endeavour, Sarah Brown noticed that the drawer was full of the little paper packets which she had seen the day before in the witch's possession.

"What do you do with your magic?" she asked.

"Oh, many things. Chiefly I use it as an ingredient for happiness, sometimes to remind people, and sometimes to make them forget. It seems to me that some people take happiness rather tragically."

"I find," said Sarah Brown, rather sententiously, "that I always owe my happiness to earth, never to heaven."

"How d'you mean heaven?" said the witch. "I know nothing about heaven. When I used to work in the City, I bought a little book about heaven to read in the Tube every morning. I thought I should grow daily better. But I couldn't see that I did."

Sarah Brown was naturally astonished to meet any one who did not know all about heaven. But she continued the pursuit of her ideas on happiness. Sarah Brown meant to write a book some day, if she could find a really inspiring exercise-book to start in. She thought herself rather good at ideas—poor Sarah Brown, she simply had to be confident about something. She was only inwardly articulate, I think, not outwardly at all, but sometimes she could talk about herself.

"Heaven has given me wretched health, but never gave me youth enough to make the wretchedness adventurous," she went on. "Heaven gave me a thin skin, but never gave me the natural and comforting affections. Heaven probably meant to make a noble woman of me by encrusting me in disabilities, but it left out the necessary nobility at the last moment; it left out, in fact, all the compensations. But luckily I have found the compensations for myself; I just had to find something. Men and women have given me everything that such as I could expect. I have never met with reasonless enmity, never met with meanness, never met with anything more unbearable than natural indifference, from any man or woman. I have been, I may say, a burden and a bore all over the world; I have been an ill and fretful stranger within all men's gates; I have asked much and given nothing; I have never been a friend. Nobody has ever expected any return from me, yet nothing was grudged. Landladies, policemen, chorus girls, social bounders, prostitutes, the natural enemies, one would say, of such as I, have given me kindness, and often much that they could not easily spare, and always amusement and distraction...."

"Ah, how you interest and excite me," said the witch, whose attention had been frankly wandering. "You are exactly the sort of person we want in this house."

"But—ill?" said Sarah Brown pessimistically. "Oh, witch, I have been so wearisome to every one, so constantly ill. The first thing I get to know about a new hostess or a landlady is always the colour of her dressing-gown by candlelight, or whether she has one."

"Illnesses are never bad here," said the witch. "I bet you twopence I've got something in the shop that would make you well. Three fingers of happiness, neat and hot, at night—"

"But, witch—oh, witch—this is the worst of all. My ears are failing me—I think I am going deaf...."

"You can hear what I say," said the witch.

"Yes, I can hear what you say, but when most people talk I am like a prisoner locked up; and every day there are more and more locked doors between me and the world. You do not know how horrible it is."

"Oh, well," said the witch, "as long as you can hear magic you will not lack a key to your prison. Sometimes it's better not to hear the other things. You are the ideal guest for the House of Living Alone."

"I'll go and fetch David my Dog and Humphrey my Suit-case," said Sarah Brown.

At that moment a taxi was heard to arrive at the other side of the ferry, and the ferryman's voice was heard shouting: "All right, all right, I'll be there in half a tick."

"I hope this isn't Peony in a taxi," said the witch. "I get so tired of expelling guests. She's been drawing her money, which may have been tempting."

They listened.

They heard someone alight from the ferry-boat, and the voice of Miss Meta Mostyn Ford asking the ferryman: "Do you know anything about a young woman of the name of Watkins, living at Number 100 Beautiful Way——"

"No, he doesn't," shouted the witch, opening the shop door. "But do step in. We met yesterday, you may remember. I'll ask the ferryman to get half-a-dozen halfpenny buns for tea, if you will be so kind as to lend me threepence. We don't bake ourselves."

"I have had tea, thank you," said Miss Ford. "I have just come from a little gathering of friends on the other side of the river, and I thought I would call here on my way home. I had noted your address——"

She started as she came in and saw Sarah Brown, and added in her committee voice: "I had noted your address, because I never mind how much trouble I take in following up a promising case."

Sarah Brown, on first hearing that trenchant voice, had lost her head and begun to hide under the counter. But the biscuit-tins refused to make room, so she drew herself up and smiled politely.

"How good of you to go to a little gathering of friends," said the witch, obviously trying to behave like a real human person. "I never do, except now and then by mistake. And even then I only stay when there are grassy sandwiches to eat. Once there were grassy sandwiches mixed with bits of hard-boiled egg, and then I stayed to supper. You didn't have such luck, I see, or you would look happier."

"I don't go to my friends for their food, but for their ideas," said Miss Ford.

Sarah Brown was gliding towards the door.

"Oh, don't go," said the witch, who did not recognise tact when she met it. "I have sent Harold the Broomstick for your Dog David and your Suit-case Humphrey. He is an excellent packer and very clean in his person and work. Please, please, don't go. Do you know, I live in constant dread of being left alone with a clever person."

"I must apologise for my intrusion, in that case," said Miss Ford, with dignity. "I repeat, I only came because I saw yours was an exceptional case."

There was a very long silence in the growing dusk. The moon could already be seen through the glass door, rising, pushing vigorously aside the thickets of the crowded sky. A crack across the corner of the glass was lighted up, and looked like a little sprig of lightning, plucked from a passing storm and preserved in the glass.

Miss Ford suddenly began to talk in a very quick and confused way. Any sane hearer would have known that she was talking by mistake, that she was possessed by some distressingly Anti-Ford spirit, and that nothing she might say in parenthesis like this ought to be remembered against her.

"Oh, God," said Miss Ford, "I have come because I am hungry, hungry for what you spoke of last night, in the dark.... You spoke of an April sea—clashing of cymbals was the expression you used, wasn't it? You spoke of a shore of brown diamonds flat to the ruffled sea ... and white sandhills under a thin veil of grass ... and tamarisks all blown one way...."

"Well?" said the witch.

"Well," faltered Miss Ford. "I think I came to ask you ... whether you knew of nice lodgings there ... plain wholesome bath ... respectable cooking, hot and cold ..."

Her voice faded away pathetically.

There was a sudden shattering, as the door burst open, and a dog and a suit-case were swept in by a brisk broomstick.

"I am so sorry, Miss Watkins," said Miss Ford stiffly. Her face was scarlet—neat and formal again now, but scarlet.—"I am so sorry if I have talked nonsense. I am rather run down, I think, too much work, four important meetings yesterday. I sometimes think I shall break down. I have such alarming nerve-storms."

She looked nervously at Sarah Brown. It is always tiresome to meet fellow-members of committees in private life, especially if one is in a mood for having nerve-storms. People may be excellent in a philanthropic way, of course, and yet impossible socially.

But Sarah Brown had heard very little. She always found Miss Ford's voice difficult. She was on her knees asking her dog David what it had felt like, coming. But David was still too much dazed to say much.

"You must not think," said Miss Ford, "that because I am a practical worker I have no understanding of Inner Meanings. On the contrary, I have perhaps wasted too much of my time on spiritual matters. That is why I take quite a personal and special interest in your case. I had a great friend, now in the trenches, alas, who possessed Power. He used to come to my Wednesdays—at least I used to invite him to come, but he was dreamy like you and constantly mistook the date. He helped me enormously, and I miss him.... Well, the truest charity should be anything but formal, I think, and I saw at a glance that your case was exceptional, and that you also were Occult——"

"How d'you mean—occult?" asked the witch. "Do you mean just knowing magic?"

"A strange mixture," mused Miss Ford self-consciously. It is impossible to muse aloud without self-consciousness. "A strange and rather interesting mixture of naivete and power. The question is—power to what extent? Miss Watkins, I want you to come to one of my Wednesdays to meet one or two people who might possibly help you to a job—lecturing, you know. Lectures on hypnotism or spiritualism, with experiments, are always popular. You certainly have Power, you only want a little advertisement to be a real help to many people."

"How d'you mean—advertisement?" asked the witch. "This new advertisement stunt is one of the problems that tire my head. I am awfully worried by problems. The world seems to be ruled by posters now. People look to the hoardings for information about their duty. Why don't we paste up the ten commandments on all the walls and all the 'buses, and be done with it?"

"Now listen, Miss Watkins," persisted Miss Ford. "I want you to meet Bernard Tovey, the painter, and Ivy MacBee, who founded the Aspiration Club, and Frere, the editor of I Wonder, and several other regular Wednesday friends of mine, all interested in the Occult. It would be a real opportunity for you."

"I am afraid you will be very angry with me," said the witch presently in a hollow voice. "If I was occult last night—I'm awfully sorry, but it must have been a fluke. I seem to have said so much last night without knowing it. I'm afraid I was showing off a little."

The painful tears of confession were in her eyes, but she added, changing the subject: "Do you live alone?"

"Yes, absolutely," said Miss Ford. "My friends call me a perfect hermit. I hardly ever have visitors in my spare room, it makes so much work for my three maids."

"I suppose you wouldn't care to divorce your three maids and come and live here," suggested the witch. "I could of course cure you of the nerve-storms you speak of. Or rather I could help you to have nerve-storms all the time, without any stagnant grown-upness in between. Then you wouldn't notice the nerve-storms. This house is a sort of nursing home and college combined. I'll read you the prospectus."

* * * * *

"Very amusing," said Miss Ford, after waiting a minute to see if there was any more of the prospectus. She had quite recovered herself, and was wearing the brisk acute expression that deceived her into claiming a sense of humour. "But why all those uncomfortable rules? And why that discouragement of social intercourse? I am afraid the average person of the class you cater for does not recognise the duty of social intercourse."

"This house," replied the witch, "caters for people who are outside averages. The ferryman says that people who are content to be average are lowering the general standard. I wish you could have met Peony, the only guest up to now, but she is out, and may be a teeny bit drunk when she comes in. She has gone to draw her money."

"What sort of money?" asked Miss Ford, who was always interested in the sources of income of the Poor.

"Soldier's allotment. Unmarried wife."

The expression of Miss Ford's face tactfully wiped away this bald unfortunate statement from the surface of the conversation. "And how do you make your boarding-house pay," she asked, "if there is no charge for residence?"

"How d'you mean—pay?" asked the witch. "Pay whom? And what with? Look here, if you will come and live here you shall have a little Wednesday every week on the stairs, under license from me. Harold the Broomstick is apt to shirk cleaning the stairs, but as it happens, he is keeping company with an O-Cedar Mop in Kentish Town, and I've no doubt she would come over and do the stairs thoroughly every Tuesday night. Besides, we have overalls in stock at only two and eleven three——"

"Oh, I like your merry mood," said Miss Ford, laughing heartily. "You must remember to talk like that when you come to my Wednesdays. Most of my friends are utter Socialists, and believe in bridging as far as possible the gulf between one class and another, so you needn't feel shy or awkward."

The splashing of the ferry-boat was once more heard, and then the shop quaked a little as a heavy foot alighted on the landing-stage. The ferryman was heard saying: "I don't know any party of that name, but I believe the young woman at the shop can help you."

Lady Arabel Higgins entered the shop.

"What, Meta, you here? And Sarah Brown? What a too dretfully funny coincidence. Well, Angela dear, I made a note of your address yesterday, and then lost the note—too dretfully like me. So I rang up the Mayor, and he said he also had made a note, and he would come and show me the way. But I didn't wait for him. I wanted to talk to you about——"

"Well, I must truly be going," interrupted Sarah Brown. "I'll just nip across to the Brown Borough and find a pawn-shop, being hungry."

"There is no need for any one to move on my account," said Lady Arabel. "You all heard what Angela said last night in her little address to the committee in the dark. I don't know why she addressed her remarks particularly at me, but as she did so, there is no secret in the matter. Of course, just at first, it seemed dretful to me that any one should know or speak about it. I cannot understand how you knew, Angela; I am trying not to understand...."

She took up a thin captain biscuit and bit it absent-mindedly. It trembled in her hand like a leaf.

"Yes, it is true that Rrchud isn't like other women's boys. You know it, Meta. Angela evidently knows it, and—at least since yesterday—I know that I know it. His not being able to read or write—I always knew in my heart that my old worn-out tag—'We can't all be literary geniuses'—didn't meet the case. His way of disappearing and never explaining.... Do you know, I have only once seen him with other boys, doing the same as other boys, and that was when I saw him marching with hundreds of real boys ... in 1914.... It was the happiest day I ever had, I thought after all that I had borne a real boy. Well, then, as you know, he couldn't get a commission, couldn't even get his stripe, poor darling. He deserted twice—pure absence of mind—it was always the same from a child—'I wanted to see further,' he'd say, and of course worse in the trenches. Why, you know it all, Angela dear—at least, perhaps not quite all. I should like to tell you—because you said that about the splendour of being the mother of Rrchud....

"Pinehurst—my husband, he is a doctor, you know—had that same passion for seeing further. He was often ill in London. I said it was asthma, but he said it was not being able to see far enough. We were in America for Rrchud's birth, and Pinehurst insisted on going West. I took the precaution of having a good nurse with me. Pinehurst said the East was full of little obstacles, and people's eyes had sucked all the secrets out of the horizon, he said. I like Cape Cod, but he said there was always a wall of sea round those flat wet places. We stayed in a blacksmith's spare room on the desert of Wyoming, but even that horizon seemed a little higher than we, and one clear day, in a pink sunrise, we saw something that might have been a dream, my dears, and might have been the Rockies. Pinehurst couldn't stand that, we pushed west—so tahsome. We climbed a little narrow track up a mountain, in a light buggy that a goldminer lent us. Oh, of course, you'll think us mad, Meta, but, do you know, we actually found the world's edge, a place with no horizon; we looked between ragged pine trees, and saw over the shoulders of great old violet mountains—we saw right down into the stars for ever.... There was a tower of rocks—rose-red rocks in sloping layers—sunny hot by day, my dears, and a great shelter by night. You know, the little dark clouds walk alone upon the mountain tops at sunset—as you said, Angela—they are like trees, and sometimes like faces, and sometimes like the shadows of little bent gipsies.... I used to look at the mountains and think: 'What am I about, to be so worried and so small, in sight of such an enormous storm of mountains under a gold sky?' I think of those rocks often at night, standing just as we left them, all by themselves, under that unnatural moon,—it was an unnatural moon on the edge of the world there,—all by themselves, with no watching eyes to spoil them, as Pinehurst used to say, not even one's own eyes.... You'll say that adventure—my one adventure—was impossible, Meta. Yes, it was. Rrchud was an impossible boy, born on an impossible day, in an impossible place. Ah, my poor Rrchud.... My dears, I am talking dretful nonsense. We were mad. You'd have to know Pinehurst, really, to understand it. Ah, we can never find our mountain again. I can never forgive Pinehurst...."

"You can never repay Pinehurst," said the witch.

Lady Arabel did not seem to hear. For a long time there was nothing to be heard but Sarah Brown, murmuring to her Dog David. You must excuse her, and remember that she lived most utterly alone. She was locked inside herself, and the solitary barred window in her prison wall commanded only a view of the Dog David.

Rrchud's mother said at last: "I really came to tell you that Rrchud came back on leave unexpectedly last night. Of course you must meet him—"

"Rrchud home!" exclaimed Miss Ford. "How odd! I was just telling Miss Watkins about his Power, and how strongly she reminded me of him. Do tell him to keep Wednesday afternoon free."

Lady Arabel, ignoring Miss Ford by mistake, said to the witch: "Will you come on Tuesday to tea or supper?"

"Supper, please," said the witch instantly. Tact, I repeat, was a stranger to her, so she added: "I will bring Sarah Brown too. I bet you twopence she hasn't had a decent meal for days."

And then the Mayor arrived. The witch saw at once that there was some secret understanding between him and her that she did not understand. Her magic escapades often left her in this position. However, she winked back hopefully. But she was not a skilled winker. Everybody—even the Dog David—saw her doing it, and Miss Ford looked a little offended.



CHAPTER III

THE EVERLASTING BOY

Mitten Island is a place of fine weather, its air is always like stained glass between you and perfection. Always you will find in the happy ways of Mitten Island a confidence that the worst is left behind, and that even the worst was not so very bad. You can afford to remember the winter, for even the winter was beautiful; you can smile in the sun and think of the grey flush that used to overspread the island under its urgent crises of snow, and it seems that always there was joy running quickly behind the storms, joy looking with the sun through a tall window in a cloud. Even the most dreadful curtain of a winter's day was always drawn up at sunset; its straight edge rose slowly, disclosing flaming space, and the dramatic figures of the two island churches, exulting and undying martyrs in the midst of flames.

It is a place of fine weather, and this is a book of fine weather, a book written in Spring. I will not remember the winter and the rain. It was the Spring that brought Sarah Brown to Mitten Island, and the Spring that first showed her magic. It was the Spring that awoke her on her first morning in the House of Living Alone.

She awoke because it was so beautiful outside, and because there was a beautiful day coming. You could see the day secretly making preparations behind a shining mist. She heard a sound of breathless singing, and the whipping of stirred grass in the garden, the sound of some one unbearably happy, dancing. Now there is hardly anything but magic abroad before seven o'clock in the morning. Only the disciples of magic like getting their feet wet, and being furiously happy on an empty stomach.

Sarah Brown went to her window. The newborn trembling slants of smoke went up from the houses of the island. There was a sky of that quiet design which suffices half a day unchanged. A garden of quite a good many yards lay behind the house; it contained no potatoes or anything useful, only long, very green grass, and a may tree, and a witch dancing. The extraordinary music to which she was dancing was partly the braying of a neighbouring donkey, and partly her own erratic singing. She danced, as you may imagine, in a very far from grown-up way, rather like a baby that has thought of a new funny way of annoying its Nana; and she sang, too, like a child that inadvertently bursts into loud tuneless song, because it is morning and yet too early to get up. A little wandering of the voice, a little wandering of the feet.... The may tree in the middle of the garden seemed to be her partner. A small blot moved up and down the chequered trunk of the tree, and that was the shadow of a grey squirrel, watching the dancing. The squirrel wore the same fur as the two-and-a-half-guinea young lady wears, and sometimes it looked with a tilted head at the witch, and sometimes it buried its face in its hands and sat for a while shaken with secret laughter. There was certainly something more funny than beautiful about the witch's dancing. She laughed herself most of the time. She was wearing a mackintosh, which was in itself rather funny, but her feet were bare.

A voice broke in: "Good for you, cully."

It was Sarah Brown's fellow-lodger leaning from her window.

The squirrel rippled higher up the may tree.

The pleasure of the thing broke like an eggshell. Sarah Brown turned back towards her bed. It was too early to get up. It was too late to go to sleep again. Eunice, her hot-water bottle, she knew, lay cold as a serpent to shock her feet if she returned. Besides, the Dog David was asleep on the middle of the counterpane, and she was too good a mother to wake him. There are a good many things to do when you find yourself awake too early. It is said that some people sit up and darn their stockings, but I refer now to ordinary people, not to angels. Utterly resourceless people find themselves reduced to reading the penny stamps on yesterday's letters. There is a good deal of food for thought on a penny stamp, but nothing really uplifting. Some people I know employ this morning leisure in scrubbing their consciences clean, thus thriftily making room for the sins of the coming day. But Sarah Brown's conscience was dreadfully receptive, almost magnetic; little sins like smuts lay always deep upon it. There were a few regrettable seconds in every minute she lived, I think, though she never enjoyed the compensations attached to a really considerable sin. Anyway her conscience would have been a case for pumice-stone, and when she was happy she always tried to forget it. Yet she was not without a good many very small and unessential resources for sleepless moments. Often she wrote vague comments on matters with which she was not familiar, in an exercise-book, always eventually mislaid. She would awake from dear and unspeakable dreams full of hope, and tell herself stories about herself, trying on various lives and deaths like clothes. The result was never likely enough even to laugh at.

To-day she had watched magic dancing in a mackintosh, and she was at a loss.

There was a knock upon her door, and a voice: "Hi, cocky, could you oblige me with a loan of a few 'alfpence for the milkman. I 'aven't a bean in me purse."

"Nor have I," said Sarah Brown, opening the door. "But I can pawn—"

"Ow, come awf it, Cuffbut," said the fellow-lodger. "This is a respectable 'ouse, more or less, and you ain't goin' out to pawn nothink in your py-jams. I'll owe it to the milkman again. Not but what I 'adn't p'raps better pay 'im after all. I got me money paid yesterday, on'y I 'ad thought to put it away for Elbert."

"Are you Peony, the other lodger?"

"Thet's right, dearie."

Peony was not in her first youth, in fact she was comfortably into her second. Her voice was so beautiful that it almost made one shy, but her choice of language, tending as it did in the other direction, reassured one. She had fine eyes of an absolute grey, and dark hair parted in the middle and drawn down so as to make a triangle of a face which, left to itself, would have been square. Her teeth spoilt her; the gaps among them looked like the front row of the stalls during the first scene of a revue, or the last scene of a play by Shakspere. On the whole, she looked like the duckling of the story, serenely conscious of a secret swanhood. She showed unnatural energy even in repose, and lived as though she had a taxi waiting at the door.

"Who's Elbert?" asked Sarah Brown, and then wished she had not asked, for even without Peony's flush she should have guessed.

"'Arf a mo, kiddie, till I get rid of the milkman. Come an' sit on the stairs, an' I'll tell you a tale. I like no end tellin' this tale."

Harold the Broomstick was desultorily sweeping the stairs. He worked harder when first conscious of being watched, but seeing that they intended to stay there, on the top step, he made this the excuse to disappear indolently, leaving little heaps of dust on several of the lower steps.

"I come across Elbert first when I was about eight an' twenty," said Peony, when Sarah Brown, in rather a loud dressing-gown, had taken her seat on the stairs beside her. "Elbert was the ideel kid, an' me—nothing to speak of. Nothin' more than a lump o' mud, I use to say. All my life, if you'll believe me, cully, I've lived in mud—an' kep' me eye on the moon, so to say. I worked in a factory all day, makin' mud, as it were, for muddy Jews, an' every Saturday night I took 'ome twelve shillin's-worth o' mud to keep meself alive in a city o' mud until the Saturday after. But o' nights there was the moon, or else the stars, or else the sunset, an' anyway all the air between to look at. I 'ad a back room, 'igh up, and o' nights I use to sit an' breave there, an' look at the sky. Believe me, dearie, I was mad about breavin'—it was me only recreation, so to say. By Gawd, it's a fair wonder 'ow the sky an' the air keeps on above the mud, and 'ow we looks at it, an' breaves it, an' never pays no rent for it, when all's said an' done. There ain't never a penny put in the slot for the moonlight, when you come to think of it, yet still it all goes on. Well, in those days, I never spoke to a soul, an' 'ated everybody, an' I got very queer, queerer nor many as is locked up in Claybury this minute. I got to thinkin' as 'ow there was a debt 'anging over us all, some'ow the sky seemed like a sort of upper floor to all our 'ouses, with the stars an' the moon for windows, an' it seemed like as if there did oughter be some rent to pay, though the Landlord was a reel gent and never pressed for it. There might be people 'oo lived among flowers in the sunlight, an', so to say, rented the parlour floor, but not me. I 'ad the upper floor, an' breaved the light o' the moon. As for flowers—bless you, I'd never 'ardly seen a flower stuck proper to the ground until a year ago. Well, dearie, I use to make believe as 'ow we'd all get a charnce, all to ourselves, to pay what we owed. Some people, I thought, runs away from the debt, an' some pays it in bad money, but, I ses to meself, if ever my charnce come, I'll pay it the very best I can. Lawd, 'ow I 'ated everybody in those days. It seemed like people was all rotten, an' as if all the churches an' all the cherities was the rottenest of all the lot. Well, then, dearie, Elbert blew in. You know what kids is mostly like in the Brown Borough, but Elbert—'e never was. Straight legs 'e 'ad, an' never a chilblain nor a sore, an' a small up-lookin' face, an' yallery 'air—what you could see of it, for of course I always made 'im keep it nicely cropped to the pink. You never see sich a clean boy, you never see 'im but what 'e seemed to 'ave sponged 'is collar that minute, an' the little seat to 'is breeks always patched in the right colour, an' all. Yet 'e wasn't one of them choir-boy kinds, 'e could 'ave 'is little game with the best of 'em, an' often kicked up no end of a row when we was playin' pretendin' games of a wet Sunday. 'E 'ad one little game 'e loved best of all—not marbles, it wasn't, nor peg-tops—but there, I won't tell you what it was, for you'd laugh like the gal at the shop did when I spoke of it. I don't often get talkin', but I'd 'ad a nip of brandy at the time. Laugh fit to bust, she did—'avin' 'ad a nip of the same 'erself—an' as't if Elbert wasn't blind as well, an' if 'e wore any clothes besides wings.... The funny thing was thet Elbert did 'ave bad sight, it always seemed odd to me thet with 'is weak eyes 'e should choose to play the little game 'e did. I use to take 'im to the 'Eath of a summer Sunday, an' 'e use to stand on them little ridges below the Spaniards Road, with 'is eyes shut against the sun, never botherin' to take no aim. I can see 'im now, a-pulling of the string of 'is bow—it 'ad an 'igh note, like the beginnin' of a bit o' music—an' then awf 'e'd go like a rebbit, to see where the arrer fell. It was always a marvel to me 'e didn't put somebody's eye out, but I didn't mind—I 'ated everybody. 'E didn't live with me, 'e just came in an' out. 'E never tol' me 'is name was Elbert—I just called 'im thet, the prettiest name I knew. 'E never tol' me 'oo 'is people were; I shouldn't think they could 'ave bin Brown Borough people, for Elbert seemed to 'ave bin about a lot, seen mountains an' oceans an' sichlike, an' come acrost a lot of furriners—even Germans. 'E talked a lot about people—as good as a novelette 'is stories was, but bloody 'igh-flavoured. Children knows a lot in the Brown Borough. 'Ow 'e'd noticed the things 'e 'ad with them blindish eyes of 'is, I don't know. I got to count on that boy no end. Fair drunk with satisfaction, I use to feel. Call me a fool if you like, cully, but it was three or four year before I got the idee that there was anythink funny about Elbert. It was when it begun to look as if the War 'ad come to stop, an' one couldn't look at any boy without countin' up to see 'ow long 'e 'ad before the Army copped 'im. An' then I calc'lated that Elbert should be rising fourteen now, an' I saw then thet 'e 'adn't grown an inch since I first see 'im, nor 'e hadn't changed 'is ways, but still 'e run about laughin', playin' 'is little kiddy-game, with 'is face to the sun. An' then I remembered 'ow often 'e'd tol' me things thet seemed too 'istorical for sich as 'im to come by honest, tales about blokes in 'istory—nanecdotes 'e'd use to pass acrost about Admiral Nelson, or Queen Bess—she use to make 'im chuckle, she did—an' a chap called Shilly or Shally, 'oo was drownded. An' I got struck all of an 'eap, to think 'e was some sort of an everlasting boy, an' p'raps 'e was a devil, I thought, an' p'raps I'd sold me soul without knowin' it. I never took much stock of me soul, but I always 'ad that debt o' mine in me mind, an' I wanted to pay it clean. For them London mists agin the sky in the Spring, an' for the moonlight, an' for the sky just before a thunderstorm—all them things seemed to 'ave come out of the same box, like, an' I didn't like feelin' as 'ow they was all jest charity.... 'Owever, I got this idee about Elbert, an' I didn't sleep a wink thet night, an' couldn't enjoy me starlight. In the mornin' 'e come as usual, with 'is pretty blind smile, an' I ses to 'im: 'Elbert,' I ses, 'You ain't a crool boy, are you? You wouldn't do anythink to 'urt me?' Lookin' at 'im, I couldn't believe it. ''Urt you?' 'e ses quite 'appily; 'an' why wouldn't I 'urt you? I'd as lief send you to the Devil as not,' 'e ses. Well, cocky, I don't mind tellin' you I lost me 'ead at that. I run awiy—run awiy from my Elbert—Oh, Gosh! I bin an' give up me bits o' sticks to a neighbour, an' got a place, an' went into service. I sneaked out one night, when Elbert 'ad gone 'ome. I got a place up Kilburn way, an ol' couple, retired from the pawnbrokin' line. The ol' man 'ad softening in 'is brain, an' said one thing all the blessed time, murmurin' like a bee. The ol' woman never spoke, never did no work, lef' it all to me. She was always a-readin' of 'er postcard album, shiftin' the cards about—she 'ad thousands, besides one 'ole book full of seaside comics. A beautiful collection. Well, I was dishin' up the tea one night in the kitchen, an' I 'eard a laugh—Elbert's laugh, like three little bells—an' there was Elbert lookin' in at the window. I run after 'im—there wasn't nobody there. When I come back the tripe was burnt an' I lef' it on the fire an' run away, thet minute. They owed me wages, but I didn't stop for nothink. I was frightened. I got a place afterwards up Islington, three ol' sisters, kep' a fancy shop, fought with each other every minute of their lives. I 'adn't bin there two days before Elbert walked in, jest as laughin' an' lovin' as ever. I see then it was no use, good or bad 'e'd got me. I let 'im sit in my kitchen, an' give 'im some sugar-bread. An' one of the ol' cat-sisters come in. ''Oo's this?' she ses. 'A young friend o' mine,' I ses. 'You're a liar,' she ses, 'I seed from the first minute as you wasn't no respectable gal,' she ses, 'an' now per'aps me sisters'll believe me. So out I 'ad to go, an' I wasn't sorry. It seemed like there wasn't nothink in the world mattered but Elbert, like as if damnation was worth while. 'Ow, Elbert,' I ses, 'I'd go to the Devil for you, an' smile all the way.' 'E laughed an' laughed. 'Come on,' 'e ses, 'to-day's an 'oliday.' Though it wasn't, it was a Tuesday in August. 'Come on,' 'e ses, 'get yer best 'at on,' an' 'e gives me a yaller rose, for me button-'ole. A year ago come August, thet was. I follered Elbert at a run all up the City Road, an' near the Angel we took a taxi. 'Tell 'im Euston Station,' ses Elbert, an' so I did. You know the 'uge top o' thet station from the 'ill by the Angel—well, kid, I tell you I saw a reel mountain for the first time, when I saw thet. It was the 'eat mist, an' a sort o' pink light made a reel 'ighland landscape out of it. I paid the taxi-man over 'alf of all the money I 'ad, an' we went to the ticket-awfice. 'Elbert,' I ses, 'where shell we book to,' I ses, like that, though I 'adn't 'ardly a bloody oat in me purse. 'Take a platform ticket,' 'e ses, an' so I did. But 'e run on to the platform without no ticket, an' begun dancin' up an' down among the people like a mad thing, but nobody seemed to mind 'im. I set down on a seat to watch 'im. I thought: 'Blimey,' I thought, 'if I ain't under thet blinkin' mountain now, an' all these people,' I ses, 'is the Little People they tell of, that lives inside 'ills, an' on'y comes out under the moon.' I remembered thet moonlight debt o' mine, an' I thought—'I'm done with the mud now, I'm comin' alive now,' I ses, 'and this'll be my charnce.' Presently Elbert come back to me, an' 'e was draggin' a soldier by the 'and. 'This is a magic man,' ses Elbert, 'come back from livin' under the sky. Can't you feel the magic?' 'e ses.

"Well, dearie, take it 'ow you will, thet's 'ow I met my Sherrie. A magic man 'e was, for 'e 'ad my ticket taken, an' never seemed surprised. Ten days leave 'e 'ad, an' we spent it at an inn in a village on a moor, jest a mile out o' sound of the sea. The moor an' the sea, touchin' each other. ... Oh Gawd!... The sea was like my sky at night come nearer—come near enough to know better, like. In between the moor an' the sea there was the beach—it looked like a blessed boundary road between two countries, an' it led away to where you couldn't see nothing more except a little white town, sort of built 'igh upon a mist, more like a star.... Oh Gawd!...

"Anyway, Cuffbut, thet was me charnce, an' thet's 'ow I come to know 'ow my debt was goin' to be paid. Sherrie understood all thet. 'E was a magic man, 'e was. At least, 'e was mostly magic, but some of 'im was nothin' but a fool when all's said an' done—like any other man. I couldn't 'ave done with an all-magic bloke. Ow, 'e was a fool.... All the things 'e might 'ave bin able to do, like polishin' 'is equipment, or findin' 'is clean socks, 'e use to forever be askin' me to do. I loved doin' it. But all the things 'e couldn't do at all, like drawin' me likeness, or cuttin' out a blouse for me, 'e was forever tryin' to do."

She spoke of Sherrie as a naturalist would speak of a new animal, gradually finding out the pretty and amusing ways of the creature.

"I called 'im Sherrie because thet's what 'e called me. A French word it was, 'e ses, meaning 'dearie,' as it were. 'E was a reel gent, was Sherrie. I as't 'im once why 'e took up with a woman like me, instead of with a reel young lady. 'E ses as 'ow 'e'd never met before anybody 'oo seed themselves from outside an' yet was fairly honest. I know what 'e meant, for I was always more two people than one, an' I watch meself sometimes as if I was a play. I wouldn't be tellin' you this story, else. Well, dearie, Elbert was always in an' out, an' always a-hollerin' an' a-laughin' an' a-playin' 'is game. 'E stayed with us all them ten days, an' 'e come with me to Victoria, to see Sherrie off to France. It's Sherrie's allotted money what I fetch every week. But I won't touch it, I puts it away for Elbert. I don't want to owe nothin' to nobody, for I'm payin' sich a big debt. Elbert, when 'e comes back to me, 'e's going to be my payment to the world, an' it's got to be good money. For Elbert left me after Sherrie went. 'E said as 'ow 'e was going 'ome, an' as 'ow 'e would come back to me in the Spring, an' stay with me always. It wasn't like partin', e' ses, 'im an' me could never do thet. I know what 'e meant, now...."

"And what about Sherrie?" asked Sarah Brown.

"Oh, Sherrie, 'e never writes to me. But 'e promised too to come back in the Spring, an' so 'e will, for there ain't no Boche bullet that can 'it a magic man."

"It's springtime now," said Sarah Brown.

"It's springtime now," repeated Peony. "Ow, it's wonderful, seems like as if I was gettin' too much given me, so as I can never repay. But I'm keepin' count, I'm not forgettin'. It ain't long now before I'll pay my debt. Come the middle o' May...."



CHAPTER IV

THE FORBIDDEN SANDWICH

While Sarah Brown's unenviable leisure was spent in acting as slave to committees, she had at the same time a half-time profession which, when she was well enough to follow it, brought twenty shillings a week to her pocket. She was in the habit of sitting every morning in a small office, collecting evidence from charitable spies about the Naughty Poor, and, after wrapping the evidence in mysterious ciphers, writing it down very beautifully upon little cards, so that the next spy might have the benefit of all his forerunners' experience. Sarah Brown never thought about the theory of this work, because the different coloured inks and the beautiful writing pleased her so.

There are people to whom a ream of virgin paper is an inspiration, who find the first sharpening of a pencil the most lovable of all labours, who see something almost holy in the dedication of green and red penholders to their appropriate inks, in whose ears and before whose eyes the alphabet is like a poem or a prayer. Touch on stationery and you touched an insane spot in Sarah Brown's mind. Her dream of a perfect old age was staged in a stationer's shop in a quiet brown street; there she would spend twilit days in stroking thick blotting-paper, in drawing dogs—all looking one way—with new pen-nibs, in giving advice in a hushed voice to connoisseur customers, who should come to buy a diary or a book-plate or a fountain-pen with the same reverence as they now show who come to buy old wine.

Therefore Sarah Brown's hand had found ideal employment on a charity register. As for her mind, it usually shut its eye during office hours. Her Dog David liked the work too, as the hearth-rug was a comfortable one, and Charity, though it may suffer long in other directions, is rather particular about its firing.

On the Monday after her change of home, Sarah Brown found that the glory had gone out of the varied inks, and even a new consignment of index-cards, exquisitely unspotted from the world, failed to arouse her enthusiasm. This was partly because the first name in the index that she looked up was that of Watkins, Thelma Bennett, single, machinist. The ciphers informed the initiated that Watkins had called on the War Association, to ask for Help and Advice, See Full Report. Sarah Brown felt sad and clumsy, and made two blots, one in green on the Watkins card, and the other in ordinary Stephens-colour on the card of one Tonk, chocolate-box-maker, single, to whom a certain charity was obstinately giving a half-pint of milk daily, regardless of the fact that last month she had received a shilling's-worth of groceries from the Parish.

The air of that office rang with the name of Tonk that morning. Hardly had the industrious Sarah Brown finished turning the blot upon her card into the silhouette of a dromedary by a few ingenious strokes of the pen, when the lady representing the obstinate charity came in, her lips shaped to the word Tonk.

"Tonk," she said. "Late of Mud Street. She has changed her address. I am the Guild of Happy Hearts. She still comes to fetch her half-pint of milk daily, and only yesterday I learnt from a neighbour that she had left Mud Street three weeks ago. It really is disgraceful the way these poor people conceal important facts from us. Have you her new address?"

"Our last address for Tonk was 12 Mud Street," answered Sarah Brown coldly. "But we have already notified you three times that the woman is not entitled to milk from the Happy Hearts, as she has been having parish relief, as well as an allotment."

"Tonk is—hm—hm," said the Happy Heart delicately in an undertone, so that the blushing masculine ear of the Dog David might be spared. "After Baby Week, you know, we feel bound to help all hm—hm women as far as we can, regardless of other considerations—"

"Really you oughtn't to. Tonk is posing as a single chocolate-box-maker." Sarah Brown was rapidly becoming exasperated with everybody concerned, but not least with the evidently camouflaging Tonk.

"She has a soldier at the Front," said the Happy Heart. "I am sorry to say that she will not promise to marry him, even if he does come home. But even so—"

Sarah Brown wrote down on Miss Tonk's card the small purple cipher that stood for hm—hm. "I will make enquiries about her address," she said.

But that was not the last of Tonk. Presently the red face of the Relieving Officer loomed over the index.

"In the case of Plummett—" he began loudly.

"In the case of Tonk—" interrupted Sarah Brown, to whom, in her present mood, Plummett could only have been a last straw. She hated the Relieving Officer unjustly, because he knew she was deaf and raised his voice, with the best intentions, to such a degree that the case papers on the index were occasionally blown away. "We have already notified you three times that Tonk is having a half-pint of milk daily from the Happy Hearts, as well as an allotment from a soldier."

"We stopped the groceries," roared the Relieving Officer. "But in the case of Plummett—"

"In the case of Tonk—" persisted Sarah Brown. "She has moved from Mud Street, can you tell me her last address?"

"She is living in a sort of private charitable institution, somewhere on the outskirts of the district—Mitten Island, I fancy. I don't know the exact address, because we have stopped the groceries, she paying no rent now. In the case of Plummett, I thought you might be interested to know that she got a month this morning for assaulting the Sanitary Inspector—pulling his nose, I hear. She told the magistrate it struck her as being a useless nose if it didn't notice anything wrong with her drains. The children came into the House this morning."

"What is Tonk's Christian name?" asked Sarah Brown, who had been a changed woman since Mitten Island was mentioned.

"I forget. Some flower name, I think. Probably Lily or Ivy. In the case of M'Clubbin, the woman is said to have fallen through a hole in the floor of the room she and her three children slept in. She was admitted into the Infirmary last night, and her furniture will be sold to pay her rent—"

"It begins with P," said Sarah Brown. "P. Tonk, unmarried wife, of Mitten Island...."

The Relieving Officer went away, for it was dinner-time. Sarah Brown absently unwrapped the little dinner which she had brought hanging by a thin string from a strangled finger. Mustard sandwiches with just a flavouring of ham, and a painfully orthodox 1918-model bun, made of stubble. Sarah Brown almost always forgot the necessity of food until she was irrevocably in the 'bus on her way to work. But this morning, as she had taken her seat with David in the bouncing ferry-boat, there had been a panting rustling noise behind her, and Harold the Broomstick had swept a little packet of sandwiches into her lap. He had disappeared before she had been able to do more than turn over in her mind the question whether or no broomsticks ever expect to be tipped.

Now I could not say with certainty whether the witch, in making up this packet of sandwiches, had included the contents of one of her own little packets of magic. Sarah Brown would have been very susceptible to such a drug; her mind was always on the brink of innocent intoxication. Perhaps she was only half a woman, so that half a joy could make her heart reel and sing, and half a sorrow break it. She was defenceless against impressions, and too many impressions make the heart very tired. Therefore, I think, she was a predestined victim of magic, and it seems unlikely that the witch should have missed such an opportunity to dispense spells.

After the first bite at the first sandwich, Sarah Brown was conscious of a Joke somewhere. This feeling in itself was akin to delirium, for there are no two facts so remote as a Joke and a Charity Society. The office table confronted Sarah Brown, and she wondered that she could ever have seen it as anything but a butt. She wondered how she had been able to sit daily in front of that stout and earnest index without poking it in the ribs and making a fool of it. The office clock, alone among clocks, had never played a practical joke. The sad fire below it, conscious of a Mission, was overloaded with coal and responsibility.

The second bite, ten minutes later, caused Sarah Brown to be tired and distrustful of a room that had no smile. Her eyes turned to seek the hidden Joke beyond the limits of that lamentable room. There was a spring-coloured tree in the school-ground opposite, and above the tree a rough blue and silver sky contradicted all the doctrines preached in offices. There was in the wind something of the old raw simplicity and mirth that always haunts the sea, and penetrates inland only on rare spring days. The high white clouds crossed the sky like galleons, like old stories out of the innocent Eden-like past of the sea, before she learnt the ways of steam and secret killing. Old names of ships came to Sarah Brown's mind ... Castle-of-Comfort ... Cloud-i'-the-Sun....

"I am doing wrong," said Sarah Brown. She took a third bite.

And then she felt the spirit of the Naughty Poor in the room; there was laughter, as of the registered, in the ears of the Registrar. It is not really permissible for the Naughty Poor to invade offices which exist to do them good. The way of charity lies through suspicion, but the suspicion of course must be all on one side. We have to judge the criminal unheard; if we called him as a witness in his case we might become sentimental. The Charity Society may be imagined as keeping two lists of crimes, a short one for Registrars and Workers, and a very long one for the registered. High on the list of crimes possible to Registrars and Workers is Sentimentality. It is sentimental to feel personal affection for a Case, or to give a child of the Naughty Poor a penny without full enquiry, or to say "A-goo" to a grey pensive baby eating dirt on the pavement, or to acknowledge the right of a Case to ask questions sometimes instead of answering them, or to disapprove of spying and tale-bearing, or to believe any statement made by any one without an assured income, or to quote any part of the New Testament, or in fact to confuse in any way the ideas of charity and love. Christ, who, by the way, unfortunately omitted to join any reputable philanthropic society, commanded seekers of salvation to be poor and to despise themselves. But this was sentimental, and the Charity Society decrees that only the prosperous and the self-respectful shall deserve a hearing.

"I am sentimental," said Sarah Brown to her Dog David in a broken voice. She turned again to her enchanted sandwich.

There was increased laughter in the air, and through it she heard the hoarse and happy shouting of the sparrows in the spring-coloured tree opposite. Sparrows are the ideal Naughty Poor, the begging friars, the gypsies of the air, they claim alms as a right and as a seal of friendship; with their mouths full of your crumbs they share with you their innocent and vulgar wit, they give you in return no I.O.U., and no particulars for your case-paper. When they have got from you all that you will give, they wink and giggle and shake the dust of your window-sill from off their feet.

Sarah Brown opened the office window, and the air of the office began at once to dance with life and the noise of children and birds. She thought perhaps these were magic noises, for she heard them so clearly. She broke her second sandwich upon the window-sill, and the sparrows crossed the street and stood on the area railing in a row below her, all speaking at once in an effort to convey to her the fact that a retreat on her part would be tactful.

The sparrow obviously buys all his clothes ready-made, probably at Jumble Sales, and he always seems to choose clothes made for a stouter bird. There is no reason why he should never look chic; he has a slimmer figure than the bullfinch, for instance, who always manages to look so well-tailored. It is just arrogance, pure Londonism, on the part of the sparrow, just that impudent socialistic spirit that makes it so difficult for us to reform the Naughty Poor.

Sarah Brown retreated one step. "I'm not going farther away. Either you eat that sandwich with me looking on, or you leave it."

The sparrows whispered together for a moment, saying to each other, "You go first." They obviously knew that it was a charity window-sill, and were afraid Sarah Brown might intend to rebuke them for not shutting their beaks while chewing, or for neglecting to put any crumbs into the Savings Bank. But after a minute one sparrow moistened his beak and came.... He ate, they all ate, and did not seek to escape as the door of the office opened and the witch came in. She went straight to the window and picked up from among the stooping sparrows a piece of the broken sandwich, and ate it. The Dog David was making sure that there was no surviving crumb on the floor to tell the tale of his mother's sentimental weakness. Almost instantly, therefore, that sandwich was but a memory, a fading taste in about twenty beaks and two mouths. But still the window stood open, and the air danced, and the white reflections of the ship-like clouds lay on the oilcloth floor.

Sarah Brown in the meanwhile, disregarding the witch, had returned to the index, and had taken from its drawer a notification form. In the space given for Name of Case she had written in her irreproachable printing hand:

"CHARITY, Cautionary Case, 12 Pan Street, Brown Borough. With reference to the above case, I have to report that it seems unsatisfactory. There are indeed grave suspicions that the above name is only an alias, the address being also probably false, for the genuine Charity's place of origin is said to be the home rather than the office. The present registrar is at a loss to identify with certainty this case. It would seem to be one of the Habits that haunt the world, collecting Kudos under assumed names...."

"It puzzles me," said the witch, looking out of the window, "why one never sees two birds collide. If there were as many witches in the air as there are birds, I bet you twopence there would be constant accidents. Do you think they have any sort of a rule of the road, or do they indicate with their beaks—"

"Witch," said Sarah Brown, "I have got to say something."

"Oh, have you?" said the witch, a little disappointed at being interrupted. "Oh, well, I can sympathise, I know what that feels like. Get on and say it."

The Dog David, who was really a good and attentive son to Sarah Brown, came and laid his chin, with an exaggerated look of interest, on her knee-cap.

"Is it any use," said Sarah Brown, "fighting against the Habits in the world, there are so many. Who set these strange and senseless deceivers at large? Religion which has forgotten ecstasy.... Law which has forgotten justice.... Charity which has forgotten love.... Surely magic has suffered at the stake for saner ideals than these?"

"Why, of course," said the witch impatiently. "Magic generally suffered because it was so sane. I thought everybody knew that."

"All habits. All habits," chanted Sarah Brown. "What is this Charity, this clinking of money between strangers, and when did Charity cease to be a comforting and secret thing between one friend and another? Does Love make her voice heard through a committee, does Love employ an almoner to convey her message to her neighbour?"

"Not that I know of," sighed the witch. "Sarah Brown, how long do you want me to keep quiet, while you say things that everybody surely knows?"

But Sarah Brown went on. "The real Love knows her neighbour face to face, and laughs with him and weeps with him, and eats and drinks with him, so that at last, when his black day dawns, she may share with him, not what she can spare, but all that she has."

The Dog David grunted a little, by way of rather dubious applause. Sarah Brown, with her own voice printed loud and stark upon the retina of her hearing, felt a little abashed. But presently she added in a whisper: "Listen. I am a spy. I am a lover of specially recommended neighbours only. I am here to help to give the black cloud Tyranny a rather dirty silver lining. I am the False Steward, in the interest of the Superfluously Comfortable. My Masters sit upon the King's Highway, taking toll in bitterness and humiliation from every traveller along that road. For surely comfort is every man's heritage, surely the happy years should come to every man—not doled out, not meanly dependent on his moral orthodoxy, but as his right. The fat philanthropist is a debtor, but he behaves like a creditor; he distributes obligations with his gold, yet he has no right to the gold he gives. He makes his brother beg upon his knees for the life and the health and the dear opportunity that should have been that brother's birthright."

"You are possessed, dear Sarah Brown," said the witch. "Don't be frightened, it will soon pass off. I knew a girl who had an attack very much like this; while she was under its influence she made up a psalm pretty nearly as good as one of David's. Her mother was much alarmed about her. But she recovered quite quickly, except that she left her job as typist in a mind-improving institute and went to sea as a stewardess."

Sarah Brown talked on, louder and louder. "Too long I have been a servant in the house of this stranger, this greedy Charity; too long have I sat—a silly proxy for the Too-Fortunate—in this narrow stiff-backed judgement-seat from ten till three daily. There is Love and April outside the window, there is too much wind and laughter outside to allow of the forming of Habits. I have seen Love and the Spring only through the glass of a charity office window, the rude voices of children and sparrows and other inheritors of opportunity have been dulled for me by grey panes. The white ships ... Castle-of-Comfort ... Cloud-i'-the-Sun have sailed into port from the open sky without a cargo for me...."

"Good God!" said Sarah Brown, pushing David from her. "What has happened to me? I have become sentimental."

The room seemed to her wild imagination to be full of the spirits of parsons and social workers with flaming swords, pointing at the door.

"Well, that's the end of that job," said the witch. "I'll tell you what, let's go and sit on the Swing-leg Seat on the Heath. The air there and the look of Harrow church steeple'll do you good."

"I am damned. I am a Cautionary Case," cried Sarah Brown, and she slunk behind the witch through the frowning gate of her Eden of fair inks and smooth white surfaces. She had shared with David the remains of her Sandwich of Knowledge; she had left on the table her puny paper defiance. David, except that he had required but little temptation, had played Adam's part very creditably in the affair. For him Eden had been a soft warm place, and he was anxious to blame somebody—the woman for choice—for the loss of his comfort. He followed her out into the cold, to become, as you shall hear, like Adam, a tiller of the soil.



CHAPTER V

AN AIR RAID SEEN FROM BELOW

Magic is a disconcerting travelling companion. While seldom actually conspicuous, it seems to have a mysterious and varying effect on the surrounding public. I have met travellers by Tube who tell of strange doings in those regions, when the conductor of one compartment fell suddenly in love with the conductress of the next, and they ran to each other and met in the middle of the car. As nobody opened the gates or rang the bells, the bewildered train stood for hours at Mornington Crescent before any member of the watching public could find the heart to interrupt the pretty scene. It is patent that a magic person must have been the more or less deliberate cause of this episode. Then again, there is the story of the 'bus that went mad, just as it was leaving its burrow at Dalston. It got the idea that the kindly public was its enemy. You should have seen the astonishment of Liverpool Street and the Bank as it rushed by them. Old ladies about to ask it whether it went to Clapham—its label said it was bound for Barnes—stood aghast, and their questions died on their lips. Policemen put up their hands against it,—it ran over them. It even learned the trick of avoiding the nimble business man by a cunning little skid just as he thought he had caught it. You will hardly believe me, but that 'bus ran seven times round Trafalgar Square, until the lions' tails twisted for giddiness, and Nelson reeled where he stood. I don't know where it went to that day, certainly not to Barnes, but late in the evening it burst into another 'bus's burrow at Tooting, its sides heaving, its tyres worn to the quick, its windows streaming with perspiration, and a great bruise on its forehead where a chance bomb had struck it. I believe the poor thing had to be put out of its misery in the end. And what was the reason of all this? It was found that a wizard, called Innocent, of Stoke Newington, had been asleep on the top all the time, having forgotten to alight the night before, on his return from the City.

Sarah Brown, on the night of Lady Arabel's supper party, was unaware of the risk she ran in entering a public conveyance in company with a witch. But she was spared to a merciful extent, for nothing happened on any of the 'buses they boarded, except that, as they crossed the Canal, a cloud of sea-gulls swooped and swirled into the 'bus, resting awhile on the passengers' willing shoulders before disappearing again. Also the passengers on the Baker Street stretch sang part-songs, all the way down to Selfridge's. The conductor turned out to have rather a pleasing tenor voice.

The witch and Sarah Brown knocked at the Higgins' door five minutes before supper-time. Lady Arabel herself opened it.

"My dears, isn't it too dretful. All our servants are gone. It's an extraordinary thing, they never can stand Rrchud and his ways."

The tactful Sarah Brown nudged the witch. "Better not stay," she murmured.

"Of course we'll stay," replied the witch loudly. "I'm horribly hungry, and there's sure to be some supper."

"Certainly there is," added Lady Arabel. "I cooked it myself. Do you know, I've never seen a cookery book before, and the little pictures of animals with the names of joints written all over them shocked me dretfully. I feel I could have a too deliciously intimate conversation with a bullock now."

The house of Higgins had an enormous hall to which a large number of high windows gave the impression of a squint. I should think two small Zeppelins could have danced a minuet under its dome. Sarah Brown and the witch put on their cathedral look at once, by mistake, and propping their chins upon their umbrellas gazed reverently upward.

"Too dretful, a house of this size without servants," said Lady Arabel. "The fourth footman was the last to go. He said even the Army would be better than this. He liked spooks, he said, at second hand, but not otherwise. Too funny how people take dear Rrchud seriously. I'm glad to say the orchestra has stayed with us. Come into Rrchud's study, won't you, while I just go and help the first violin to dish up the soup."

Sarah Brown and the witch were left in a small room that opened on to the great hall. It was furnished rather like a lodging-house parlour. There was a thermometer elaborately disguised as a model of the Eddystone Lighthouse on the mantelpiece, flanked on each side by a china boot in pink, with real bootlaces, and a pig looking out of the top of each. There were pictures on the walls, mostly representing young ladies, more or less obviously in love, supported by rustic properties. I have noticed that the girl's first love is the monopoly of the Victorian painter, whereas the boy's is that of the novelist, but I do not know the reason of this.

There was a slight clap of thunder and Richard entered. He would have been very obviously a wizard even without the thunder, and seemed much less innocent about his magic than the witch. He had pale hair, a pale face, and eyes that did not open wide without a certain effort on the part of the brows.

"You are despising my ornaments," he said to Sarah Brown. "I admire them awfully. I don't like really clever art. Do you know, it makes me sneeze."

Directly he spoke, one saw that he was making the usual effort of magic to appear real. Witches and wizards lead difficult lives because they have no ancestry working within them to prompt them in the little details. Whenever you see a person being unusually grown-up, suspect them of magic. You can always notice witches and wizards, for instance, after eight o'clock at night, pretending that they are not proud of sitting up late. It is all nonsense about witches being night birds; they often fly about at night, indeed, but only because they are like permanent children gloriously escaped for ever from their Nanas.

"This picture," added Richard, "seems to me very beautiful." The picture might have cost a shilling originally, framed, or it might have been attached to a calendar once. It was a landscape so thick in colouring and so lightless that it failed to give an outdoor impression at all. There was a river and waterfall like well-combed hair in the middle, and a dozen leaden mountains lying about with—apparently—pocket-handkerchiefs on their tops, and a dropsical-looking stag drinking. "I can't imagine," insisted Richard, "that there could be a more beautiful picture than that, but perhaps it appeals to me specially because father and mother and I so often talk about the place together—the place like that, near to the mountain where I was born. That was in the Rockies, you know, and just below our mountain I am sure there was a canyon like that—I dream of it—with milky-green water running under and over and round the most extraordinary shapes of ice, and cactuses like green hedgehogs in the crevices of the rocks, and great untidy pine-trees clinging to an ounce of earth on an inch of flat surface. And the rocks are a most splendid rose-red, and lie in steep layers, and break out into shapes that are so deliberate, they look as if they must mean something. Indeed they do...."

A stave played by a 'cello called them to supper, and, as they returned to the hall, a burst of earnest music from the whole orchestra partially drowned the clap of thunder that again marked Richard's passage through the door. Sarah Brown felt sure that Lady Arabel arranged this on purpose. The wizard's mother obviously had great difficulty in not noticing the phenomena connected with her son, and she wore a striving smile and a look of glassy and well-bred unconsciousness whenever anything magic happened.

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